"The Things of Youth"
Brigid DoyleDisclaimer - No spoilers here, just some fun. No violence, but our characters are put in a bit of jeopardy. All characters herein belong to MCA/Universal. No subtext here - just plain old love for fellow man and woman, cuz that's a reality too. There is a little bit of 'almost passion', but nothing graphic. So, take what you will from the words below.
"Get out of my way, crone...can't you walk any faster...why don't you just get off the road and let people pass!!..." Gabrielle growled at an old woman pushing a cart full of straw. The woman smiled sweetly and tried to move to let Gabrielle pass. "Here, let me help..." Gabrielle sneered knocking the woman aside and overturning the cart. Then with a laugh, tossed her hair back and moved quickly ahead down the road without looking back.
"Gabrielle!" Xena called sharply as she helped the woman retrieve her wares and set right her cart. "Gabrielle, come back here!!...GABRIELLE!" Xena's voice was more of a command than a request, but Gabrielle did not comply. She smiled back over her shoulder, wiggled her fingers in a little wave, rounded the bend and was out of sight. After making sure the woman was unhurt and able to get along, Xena followed. Her deliberate pace betrayed her anger.
Gabrielle entered the small village a few minutes ahead of Xena. As she crossed the square, she took an apple from a blind man's cart clinking the side of his cup with a pebble. "Thank you, friend" the man said.
"Don't mention it" Gabrielle giggled as she tossed a second apple at a stray dog sniffing for scraps nearby. The dog let out a yelp and ran away. Xena entered the square as the dog, with tail between its legs, ran from it. Not wanting to make matters worse she kept her distance from Gabrielle, watching as she created mischief every step of her way across the market place. A pile of fish mysteriously slid from a cart as Gabrielle walked by, eggs smashed to the ground, a peddler's tent simply collapsed and a flock of chickens suddenly escaped from their crate and flocked into the center of the square with several children chasing after them. It was almost a comedic chain reaction as Gabrielle, who made no effort to hide her participation in the chaos, made a steady course for the village tavern. Xena strode behind doing her best to right the wrongs caused by her young friend. Her temper flared.
Gabrielle had been acting strangely all day and things were getting worse. Xena tethered Argo to a post outside the tavern and entered. The place was full, standing room only, but then again this was the only tavern on the road for the next two or three days and it seemed that everyone was on their way to Athens for what promised to be a thrilling sports event. Gabrielle had talked about it until Xena's head throbbed. She had better things to do than to watch glistening athletes competing in the Athenian sun. Still, Gabrielle persisted and Xena gave in. Now, she was not so sure it was a good idea.
"Hey, Herc!!" Xena heard Gabrielle's voice over the clamor of the crowd and made her way toward it. In the far corner of the tavern sat Hercules and Iolaus, also trying to remain inconspicuous. "Hercules!! A god on earth...what in Hades are you doing in a hovel like this..." Xena's temper flared as she followed that voice, making her way through the throng of travelers that were too drunk or perhaps just too tired to pay any attention to the ill mannered girl babbling near the fireplace. Only the kitchen maids seemed to be listening, as they whispered to each other and shook their heads. Hercules, ever the gentleman, remained calm.
"Why, Gabrielle, nice to see you too. Please sit down" he answered as he pulled her into the seat next to him.
"Can I get you something to drink..." Iolaus asked dreamy eyed.
"Sure, I can use a drink!" Gabrielle answered almost comical in her effort to appear rugged. Iolaus rose to grant her wish, clumsily knocking over the chair as he did so.
"Still as graceful as I remember, Iolaus." Xena remarked as she walked up behind him. Iolaus stumbled over the fallen chair and several other patrons as he tried to make his way to the bar. "A drink for you also, Xena?" he called back. Xena righted the overturned chair and sat down.
Hercules looked down at the table and shook his head laughing. "How are you Xena?" and in a whisper, "What's wrong with your friend?" Xena raised her eyebrows and shook her head. "I'm not sure, but I intend to find out. Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle was not paying attention. She was watching the men a few tables away engrossed in arm wrestling. "Hey, how 'bout it Herc? I bet you could get in on that action and we could make a few dinars in the process. With these pecs, you could wrestle both arms at once. Take on everyone in the room." Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Hercules upper arm and batted her eyes.
"No, no thank you, Gabrielle. I think I'll sit this one out." Hercules replied, gently pulling his arm through hers.
"Don't tell me the son of Zeus is a sissy?!" Gabrielle exclaimed in a tone that did bring the attention of several nearby customers.
"Gabrielle, that's enough!" Xena ordered with almost parental authority, slamming a fist on the tabletop.
"You're not my mother!! And I am not a child!! So, I would appreciate it if you would mind your own business!" Gabrielle retorted with a sneer.
Before Xena could answer, Iolaus returned with four large mugs. He had made it through the crowd without spilling too much, but there were several wet blotches on his shirt. "Let's have a toast...to old friends" he exclaimed as he set the mugs on the table.
Luckily that seemed to temporarily diffuse the situation. All four took a mug from Iolaus and clicked them together over the center of the table, then took a long drink.
"WHAT IS THIS?!!" demanded Gabrielle slamming the mug back down on the table. It's contents splashed into the air then back into the cup. This time she was loud enough to stop the din in the room and all eyes turned to the four companions at the corner table. "CIDER, CIDER!! You give me cider!! Get me a real drink!! Bartend! Bartend! Bring me an ale!! Make it a double!"
Xena rose with a look on her face that alarmed even the mighty Hercules. He too rose, trying to be the peacemaker. Gabrielle tilted her head slightly and stared defiantly at Xena with a "what are you gonna do about it" attitude. Xena boiled. "No problem, no problem..." Hercules said quietly as he took Xena's arm. "Here's your drink now." A young man hurried over to the table and placed a second mug in front of Gabrielle, then scurried off before he could be questioned. Gabrielle grabbed the mug and took a hearty slug. She smashed the mug back on the table and wiped the froth from her lip with her wrist. Although her face was in a terrible grimace, she pretended to enjoy her drink. Slowly the noise returned and the crowd resumed interest in their own matters leaving the foursome to theirs.
Xena froze as someone tapped her shoulder. Surely, she thought, it would be the owner asking them to take their business elsewhere. Her mind spun with various explanations as she turned to face, Salmoneus. "What are you doing here? I thought we left you in Thebes."
"Yes, well... I uh...I...I, I, um..." Salmoneus stammered.
"What is it?" Xena was beyond exasperation.
"I needed to tell you two things..."
"Can, we, ah, can we speak privately?"
Hercules and Iolaus laughed at their friend's annoyance. "Will, you..." Xena gestured toward Gabrielle.
"Sure, sure take your time. We'll be fine." Hercules assured her as she rose to follow Salmoneus. Again the men laughed goodheartedly at her plight.
Xena followed Salmoneus across the room to a small open area. Although they were repeatedly bumped by the other patrons, they did have a bit of privacy. Everyone was too involved in their own worries to be concerned with these two.
"Out with it Sal!" Xena demanded as soon as Salmoneus turned to face her.
"Well, I don't know quite how to put this, Princess..."
"Just tell me" Xena said through her teeth," before I shake it out of you." Xena had positioned herself so that she could talk with this little pest while keeping an eye on Gabrielle.
"Well, I don't want to upset you..."
"It's a little late for that!" Xena clenched her fists to keep from throttling Salmoneus.
"That's it!" Xena stepped toward Salmoneus. Immediately his hands came up defensively.
"Okay, okay. That aromatic oil I sold to Gabrielle a few days ago...."
"W...it seems to have a tiny, little, minute, effect on those who use it..." Salmoneus squeaked as he stepped backward in an effort to escape.
Xena's eyes narrowed and she stepped forward at the same pace and grabbed Salmoneus by the collar, "What kind of tiny, little, minute, effect would that be?"
"It seems," Salmoneus wheezed, "it seems to bring out the worst in people, you know rudeness, insolence, arrogance...you know what I mean." Xena's grip tightened and Salmoneus' voice weakened. She glanced over at the table where Gabrielle continued to taunt Hercules about his strength and reputation. So that's what's wrong with her, she realized. She looked back at Salmoneus who was beginning to turn blue. She loosened her grip and he fell backward into a very large woman. "Pardon, me" he croaked. Xena quickly grabbed him back.
"And what exactly can we do to reverse this tiny, little, minute effect?"
"I, I, I..." Xena couldn't help it she shook the little man in spite of herself. He grabbed her wrists. "Wait, wait there may be a way..." he babbled as he steadied himself. He put his hands to his head in order to stop it from wobbling. "But, it's pretty drastic...."
Before Xena could grab him again he backed away. "Now, now most of the young men and women I have known to use this scent have irked people so badly that they were run though," Xena moved closer "but," he raised a finger in front of her. "But, there were these brothers, at least I think they were brothers, yes three of them...." Xena caught his arm and squeezed. "Ayee, The youngest brother used the scent and started acting pretty much like your friend there." Salmoneus was speaking very fast and standing on tiptoe. "The older brothers just couldn't take anymore, so they throttled him good. I mean he only lost two teeth and broke an arm...or two...but the next day he was back to his jovial self. And after only a few months, well, he is almost as good as new." Xena breathed hard and stared into Salmoneus eyes.
"And this is the only way?"
"Uh, huh" Salmoneus answered nodding rapidly.
Xena released him and he slumped to the floor. More to herself than to Salmoneus as she glanced once more at the boisterous version of her friend, she said, "For as much as she deserves a good thrashing right now, I can't do that to Gabrielle. I'd kill her...or worse." Then to him. "She isn't a criminal or some hard hearted warlord."
"No," Salmoneus agreed, "she is more like a very imprudent, naughty child."
Xena looked at Salmoneus for several seconds. "What?" he worried.
"You're right. And how does a very rude and naughty child learn a lesson?"
Salmoneus shrugged his shoulders. "I really don't have any experience in that area. I've never been a parent. I have been a child, but certainly not spoiled or rude, well maybe a little but certainly not..." Salmoneus was speaking to himself. Xena was already making her way back to Hercules, Iolaus and Gabrielle.
"So, Herc what have you and your little friend, been up to since we parted company?" Gabrielle was asking as Xena got within earshot. Iolaus had switched the mugs in front of Gabrielle as she conversed with Hercules. Now she once again held the mug of cider and Iolaus had finished the mug of ale. "Oh, well, if your are too embarrassed to share your stories with me, that's okay. Cuz me and Xena have had plenty of adventures of our own."
"Gabrielle, I think it is time we were on our way. We want to get an room for the night so we can get an early start tomorrow." Xena said as she approached the table.
"That sounds like a great idea." Hercules agreed.
Gabrielle giggled. "Sounds good to me too, big boy. But I think I want to stay here and finish my drink. You go along. Me and the big guy here will get a room of our own." Hercules lowered his head and stifled a laugh at her bravado. Xena, now seething with anger, made her way around the table. Gabrielle raised the mug to her lips and took a giant gulp. "FFFTTTHHH! CIDER, AGAIN! Who switched my drink?!" Gabrielle demanded to know as Hercules and Iolaus were sprayed with the cider she spat. "I TOLD YOU I WANTED ALE!" and with that dumped the remaining cider over Iolaus' head. This seemed to amuse her. She burst into laughter, still demanding more ale.
"Gabrielle, let's go!" Xena stepped behind her as the tavern owner started toward the group. She pulled the chair from the table turning Gabrielle to look her in the eye. Gabrielle still laughing, shook her head and reached for another mug on the table. "That's all, Gabrielle. You_are_finished!" Xena insisted as she caught Gabrielle by her left ear. "OW!" Gabrielle shrieked as she rose to her feet. She squeezed her eyes shut and grits her teeth demanding to be set free. "OW ouch Xena ow let go."
"Party's over, little one. Thank you for a lovely evening Hercules...Iolaus." Xena said as she dragged a struggling Gabrielle toward the back door of the tavern. Hercules and Iolaus watched in bafflement. Xena passed the large fireplace as she made her way to the door. A scullery maid sat stirring a large pot over an open fire. Several wooden stirring paddles were hung on the hearth, as she passed Xena snatched one with her free hand. "You don't mind if I borrow this, do you?" she politely asked the maid. The young girl simply shook her head. She had seen many things in this tavern, but this was certainly the strangest.
Hercules and Iolaus, joined by Salmoneus, watched as Xena and a still struggling, protesting Gabrielle disappeared out the back door. Iolaus looked from Hercules to Salmoneus and shook his head, "You don't think she's going to...no....she wouldn't. Would she?" Hercules expression was one of 'I'm not so sure'.
"I don't know what she wouldn't or what you're not sure of, but I do know whatever she is going to do has a lot to do with curing a rude, impudent child." Salmoneus remarked solemnly as Hercules and Iolaus realized he was standing between them.
"Weren't you on your way out?" Iolaus asked as he sat back down. The tavern owner retreated and everyone seemed to go back to business.
"Well, no, not exactly. There was one other thing I needed to discuss with the Warrior Princess. But, I guess you'll do."
"We're honored" Iolaus mockingly replied.
Salmoneus invited himself to the table and finished Xena's ale. Hercules sat down and shook his head. "What is the problem, Salmoneus? I am sure you had something to do with this. Although I am not sure how or why."
Salalmonius cleared his throat and glanced around the room.
A few minutes later Xena and Gabrielle re-entered the tavern through the back door. Xena was still holding on to a very subdued Gabrielle, but now by her upper arm. She pulled away, Xena pulled back. She lifted the stirring paddle to return it to the scullery maid. Gabrielle stopped pulling and stood at attention. "Thank you," Xena smiled at maid, "I think this was just what we needed." The girl took it with the same look as before.
Xena and Gabrielle moved toward the table. Gabrielle was no longer loud or boisterous. Her demeanor was reserved and contrite. She kept her eyes to the floor and her arms crossed over her chest. "I think it is time we called it a day." Xena announced again as she tugged Gabrielle toward the front door. "Hercules, Iolaus nice seeing you again. Perhaps we will meet in Athens. Salmoneus...hopefully you will be travelling a different path than I."
Hercules and Iolaus rose to bid farewell but were stopped by the tumultuous entrance of four rather large men through the front door. The men, travel worn and dusty, surly but not soldiers or warriors, seemed to be looking for a fight. "Oh, oh" Salmoneus groaned as he slid behind Hercules.
"Now what?" Xena and Hercules sighed in unison as the men pushed and butted their way across the room.
From behind Hercules Salmoneus piped, "remember that other 'thing' I want to mention? Well, thems that."
"Great! What next Salmoneus, the plague?!" Iolaus stated with disgust.
"More of your special aromatic?" Xena asked as she continued moving slowly toward the front door with Hercules, Iolaus and Salmoneus now following. Off of Iolaus' look she explained, "later!"
As the four thugs made their way through the center of the room, picking fights with anyone in their way, the five companions made their way along a side wall toward the front entrance. Just as the thugs reached the bar, Xena and company reached the exit. The four men engaged in conversation with the young boy who had been delivering ale to customers. The boy pointed toward the table where Hercules and Iolaus had been sitting and shrugged his shoulders. One of the men picked up the boy and shook him. The tavern owner intervened and soon a fight broke out.
Outside, Xena released Gabrielle and mounted Argo. She turned to reach for Gabrielle's hand to help her mount also. Gabrielle turned away, only to be caught by Hercules who lifted her effortlessly onto Argo, behind Xena. "Sorry, little friend, but think it's time we all left." From inside the sounds of fighting became louder and more aggressive. One patron came flying out the door and landed a few inches from Hercules feet. Hercules reached down and helped the man up. "Are you alright?"
"Sure" the young man answered brushing himself off and then headed back into the fracas. Hercules shook his head and laughed as Iolaus and Salmoneus came around the side of the tavern leading two more horses.
"I thought this mode of transportation might be more advantageous." Salmoneus announced happily. Hercules mounted without reservation. Iolaus mounted the second animal. "Hey! You can't leave me here. They'll kill me!" With a lot of hesitation Iolaus reached down and helped him up behind himself and they galloped full speed out of town. The four men charged out of the tavern and caught a glimpse of the riders as they rounded the corner of the town gate. "That's him!" one of them cried and all four ran after the riders.
Far from town, Hercules and Iolaus were riding ahead of Xena and Gabrielle who had, become remarkably silent after their escape. Salmoneus explained the effect of his exotic perfume and thereby the reason for Gabrielle's bizarre behavior. He also explained the only known cure and thereby the reason for Xena's questionable application of corporal force to correct it.
"That's why these guys are after you?" Iolaus asked.
"Well, yes and no. You see they wanted the scent to attract...ummmm...lady friends...but, they became so obnoxious it seems none of the ladies wanted them around. Anyway, they think it's my fault, so..."
"So, they're after you."
"Something like that."
"But if a good cuffing is the antidote, and they were involved in that battle at the tavern, shouldn't they be...cured?"
"I would say yes, but these guys know that. They don't get involved in the fights. They just cause them. While everyone is fighting they take what they can. From what I understand, it's quite profitable."
"But, Salmoneus," Hercules interrupted, "if they're not after you because you sold them the perfume, er, scent...then?"
"Oh, ha, ha" Salmoneus laughed, "You thought, no, no they're after me because they want the scent, all of it. But, I got rid of it, all of it."
"You, got rid of something that would have brought you a profit?" Iolaus asked in shock.
"Well, not on purpose," Salmoneus replied downheartedly, "in my haste to escape, I knocked over the cart and broke every last bottle."
Hercules and Iolaus could not help breaking into hearty laughter.
Xena and Gabrielle rode silently behind. Xena thought about the drastic measure she was forced to take and wondered if she could have made another choice. She was angry with herself for second-guessing. Gabrielle held on tightly but remained silent. She was uncomfortable and wished she could get off and be alone. She dared not ask. She could sense Xena's mood and knew better.
Iolaus and Hercules laughter stopped as they rode over the crest of the hill. In the valley below was a large estate, apparently deserted. Xena caught up and stopped next to them. "Well, we've got to stop somewhere." Iolaus remarked. "Salmoneus and I will ride on ahead and check things out." And before Salmoneus could object, Iolaus urged his horse forward toward the structure below.
"Looks safe enough." Hercules observed when they were out of earshot. "But let's let Iolaus have his fun with Salmoneus."
Xena nodded without comment and pressed on a few paces behind Hercules.
The estate was large. It consisted of a main house, stable, storage house and a few other small buildings probably meant for servants. It was surrounded with a three-foot wall covered with ivy. Apparently, the occupants were either not expecting any trouble or they were very trusting since the estate was far from the village and quite isolated. The courtyard was filled with various animals, goats, chickens, ducks, and cats. Although no one seemed to be caring for them, they were seemingly well fed and healthy.
Hercules and Xena rode into the courtyard and dismounted. Gabrielle slid off of Argo and stood in much the same fashion as she had before she was dragged from the tavern, eyes to the ground, arms folded across her chest. Hercules and Xena led their mounts toward the stable where Salmoneus and Iolaus had already settled their steed. The two scouts were waiting inside. Iolaus took the reigns of the horses and handed them to Salmoneus. "Give them some of that hay and a cool drink." he said as he did so. "This place is great, Hercules. No one around and it looks like there hasn't been for a long time."
"What do you think, Xena?" Hercules asked.
"It'll do." Xena replied flatly, casting a quick glance in Gabrielle's direction. Gabrielle had been quiet and reserved. No more crazy behavior, but no normal Gabrielle behavior either. Gabrielle was many things, quiet was not usually one of them. She remained where she had dismounted, stoically kicking at the pebbles in the courtyard without looking in the direction of the stable.
"Gabrielle!" Hercules called to her and motioned for her to come over. She cast a side-glance in his direction and walked slowly toward the others.
The five companions stood in the doorway of the stable. "We'll stay here for the night. I don't think we have to worry about those brawlers from the tavern, not tonight anyway. They were on foot and we had a good head start. We'll get a good night's rest and part company at first light." Xena again nodded without comment. "Xena and I will take care of the horses. Gabrielle, you can check out the house. And Salmoneus, since it is because of you we are in this predicament, you can help Iolaus find something for us to eat before we bed down for the night."
"Me?, me hunt, scavenge, me?" Salmoneus protested.
"Ya, you!" Iolaus replied as he pulled him by the sleeve toward the forest beyond the house. "How are you at rabbit hunting?"
Salmoneus and Iolaus continued on with Salmoneus protesting all the way. Gabrielle hesitated, seemingly waiting for something.
"Something wrong, Gabrielle?" Hercules asked as Xena moved off to tend to Argo.
Gabrielle noticed Xena moving away. Shook her head without looking at Hercules and quickly moved off toward the house. Hercules watched as she entered the back door and turned back to Xena. "You need to talk to her," he said.
"Say out of it Hercules." Xena snarled without looking at him.
"Look, it may be none of my business, but you can't let this thing go. You need to talk, believe me I know how you feel."
Xena gritted her teeth and finished with Argo before turning around. "And how would you know how I feel?" She demanded. "You don't know how I feel. I'm not even sure how I feel."
"Oh, I think I have some idea." Hercules replied as he finished with his horse and walked closer to Xena. "I was a father, you know, and discipline is not an easy task."
"I've commanded armies. I understand discipline." Xena barked defensively.
"Yes, yes you have." Hercules remained calm, "but military discipline is not the same thing. As a commander you discipline to keep order, to hold your command over the troops. As a parent, you discipline because you want what's best for your child. A warrior doles out discipline without a thought, a parent disciplines with her or his heart."
"Gabrielle is not a child, and I am not a parent!"
"No, but today she acted like child, a very obnoxious child, and you responded in kind. You responded because you care about her and how she effects others and how others see her. In essence, a parent does the same. The hardest thing a parent does is discipline his, or her, children. It isn't easy on either of them."
"I've disciplined hundreds of soldiers! I know discipline!" Xena exclaimed still defensive.
"I'm sure. But, even the mighty Xena can't say that what you're feeling now is the same thing you felt when you doled out discipline to your warriors. It was easy then. You knew exactly what you wanted and what you would do to those who defied you. You did it without thought and without remorse. That isn't the way you feel now, is it?"
Xena stared into Hercules eyes then looked quickly away. She knew he was right.
"I didn't think so. That churning feeling in your stomach, that ache in your heart... You're wondering if maybe you were too harsh. If maybe, it was the right thing to do. If maybe, she'll forgive you, if you can forgive yourself. If things will be the way they were." All the while Hercules was speaking Xena was walking away, trying to shut out his words, his truth. She stopped now in the doorway, the setting sun silhouetting her warrior frame. Hercules shook his head as he watched her.
After a long pause, and without turning back she stated in a low matter of fact voice, "You're right" and started toward the house to find Gabrielle. Hercules smiled after her.
Xena entered the house through the same door Gabrielle had used a while before. She found herself in a kitchen. Dust covered everything. It looked as though whoever left did so without taking anything. Dishes, pots, utensils were still in the room. Except for the dust it looked as though the house was being used daily. From the kitchen she passed into a large living area complete with a fireplace and long dining table. Surely someone of major importance had resided here in the past. Just beyond the living area she found a set of stairs and in the dust recognized Gabrielle's footprints. She followed them to the second floor and down a short corridor. They stopped at a large wooden door. Xena pushed it open. Inside was what seemed to be the chamber of the lady of the manor. Gabrielle was standing on the balcony watching the setting sun. Unlike Xena, she did not hear the approach of someone behind her.
"Gabrielle," Xena said softly, but still startled her.
"Yes, I was just..." Gabrielle began then stopped. She started to turn, then changed her mind and continued to watch the sun set. She shifted from one foot to the other and picked at the vines growing over the balcony. "I mean, the place looks safe enough and there is plenty of room for all of us. We can sleep here. There is another room across the hall, the men can use that. It is larger than this one and has two large beds. They're a little dusty, but it beats sleeping on the ground. The kitchen seems a little dusty too, but..."
"Gabrielle" again Xena spoke in a soft tone. It was a relief to hear Gabrielle rattle on, even if it was also annoying. "We need to talk."
"with a couple sweeps of a broom we can use it, a lot of bugs, but no mice or rats, I guess it's because of all the cats..." Gabrielle continued speaking over Xena's words.
"Gabrielle, we need to talk." Xena again stated, with slightly more authority.
Gabrielle stopped and put her head down. She did not turn to face Xena. "I know." she replied barely above a whisper.
Xena took a few steps closer but stayed behind her, respecting their need for the physical distance between them. "Look, Gabrielle, about earlier, I just wanted to say."
"I know. I acted terribly. I can't believe it myself. I don't know what came over me. I knew it was wrong, but it was...it was...fun. I was actually having fun being so, so, bad. I've always been headstrong, Xena, but never bad. I admit I thought about it, but I never did it. Today it was like, all those thoughts just took over, I'm so ashamed." Gabrielle confessed without raising her head.
"Gabrielle, it wasn't your fault. It was some kind of potion, or spell that concoction you bought from Salmoneus put on you. You couldn't help yourself. But, I ..."
"Hercules. How can I ever face him or anyone again? I made fool of myself."
"No. Hercules, the others they understand. Gabrielle, I'm sorry..."
"You don't need to apologize to me. I was horrible, why if I ever acted that way in Potadeia I would have gotten much worse, why my father would have...I don't even want to think about what he would have done. I don't blame you if you're still mad..." Gabrielle turned to face Xena. "I'm the one who needs to apologize...to you...to Hercules...to Iolaus..."
Before any more apologies could be counted, Hercules knocked, then opened the door. "Sorry to interrupt, ladies, but Salmoneus and Iolaus are back with a meal fit for a king, or a queen... And Salmoneus is hungry, so if you want any supper this evening..."
"Coming." Xena replied looking over her shoulder at Hercules and motioning for him to go on ahead. He nodded, winked and withdrew. "Coming?" Xena turned to Gabrielle.
Iolaus paced back and forth across the dining hall. Salmoneus sat at the table drooling and whining about the wait. Hercules stood at the hearth, now roaring with fire to cook the two rabbits turning on the spit. Xena and Gabrielle entered the hall. Hercules moved to greet them and Iolaus stopped pacing to admire the Gabrielle he now recognized as herself.
"Happy you decided to join us." Hercules said as he offered his arm to Xena. Normally, she would scoff at such a proposal, but tonight she accepted and allowed him to lead her to a seat at the table. He pulled out a chair and she let him seat her. Iolaus mirrored Hercules' actions with Gabrielle. At first she seemed to withdraw, then took a deep breath and followed Xena's actions. She stopped in front of Hercules. "I just wanted to say, that I...I.... I...um," unlike before the son of Zeus now intimidated her.
Hercules came to the rescue. "That you are starving and can't wait to enjoy this feast."
He finished for her, took her face in his hands and quickly kissed the top of her head in a fatherly fashion.
"Yeah, that's what I wanted to say...thanks," she answered as Iolaus led her to a chair. He waited for her to sit and pushed the chair into the table. Gabrielle grimaced and squirmed a bit in her seat.
"Oh, oh, I'm sorry, I forgot, I should have..." Iolaus fell over himself with apologies.
"Don't worry about it, Iolaus, it's a sore subject." Her comment was unexpected and the entire group paused and looked at each other then back to her. Gabrielle broke the silence as she started to laugh and the others followed suit.
A while later, both rabbits had been picked clean and most of the other bowls on the table were also empty. Iolaus left the table and returned with one last dish, covered by a cloth. "I found these in the courtyard, Xena said they were your favorite." He uncovered a bowl full of ripe persimmons and set it in front of Gabrielle. Her eyes grew wide and she licked her lips in anticipation. "Not a bad one in the bunch. Try one! Try two! Try as many as you like."
Gabrielle did not wait to be asked again. She took a handful of the little fruits and bit into one of them, savoring the taste and smiling in appreciation. "Mmmmmmmmm" was her only comment.
Iolaus passed the bowl around the table and each person helped themselves to the sweet fruits. Except for Salmoneus who claimed the fruit would make his face swell like a puffer fish and that he would suffer from a terrible rash for days. When the bowl was empty, and everyone was full, the travelers decided it was time to turn in. Salmoneus led the group upstairs and staggered into the first bedchamber. Iolaus and Gabrielle followed hand in hand engaged in quiet conversation broken only by occasional giggles and laughter. Hercules and Xena brought up the rear, walking side by side. Xena smiled, knowing that Gabrielle was going to be all right after all and glad that she was enjoying her time with Iolaus. Rarely did either of them get to relax and just enjoy themselves. At the door to their chamber, Iolaus stopped and kissed Gabrielle on the cheek. She hugged him and backed into her room. He tilted his head, sighed and practically floated into his. Xena and Hercules smiled at their exchange, then they looked into each other's eyes. They moved closer to each other. Hercules put his arms around Xena's waist. "I guess we should say goodnight, too." he said quietly as he gently pulled her toward him. Xena let him. She needed to be close to him, wanted to be. They looked into each other's eyes for a moment before he drew her close enough to kiss. Theirs was a long and passionate kiss, unlike that of their friends. They parted slowly, inch by inch until only their hands touched. Each hoped the other would not let go. Each hoped the other would suggest they spend the night together. But, slowly they parted and retreated to their own rooms.
When Xena entered the room, Gabrielle was already lying on the huge bed, her hands behind her head staring up at the ceiling. Xena began to remove her armor. She sat at the edge of the bed and placed her sword and chakrum within reach, just in case. She lay back on to the unfamiliar feel of the soft pillow and blanket and closed her eyes, still thinking of Hercules.
"You know," Gabrielle's voice broke the silence, "I've been thinking. This was probably some important guy's place. Maybe a lord or a baron. No, no....I know a prince... Yes! a prince in exile. No, a prince who left his country to be with his true love. The woman of his dreams. He chose her over his country, much to his parents dismay...but"
Gabrielle rambled on with her story, enjoying every bit of the imaginary history of the manor house. Xena started to tell her to be quiet, but for a change she was happy to listen to the ramblings and drifted off to sleep listening to the bard's lilting voice.
Xena awoke as the first rays of daylight crossed her face. She felt more rested than she had in, she wasn't sure how long. It seemed as though she slept more soundly than she could remember. "Must be getting rusty," she though as she threw her legs over the side of the bed. "Funny," she thought, "I don't remember the bed being this high." She pushed herself forward until her feet touched the floor, then stood up. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and looked down to see what was tickling her leg. What she saw panicked her. She ran her hands over her flattened chest and square body. Her well-toned warrior body had been replaced by, by, by what? Her undergarment hung on her body as if it were two or three sizes too big. "What's going on!" she demanded to know and then wondered whose voice she heard. It was familiar, yet foreign. She looked at her arms and legs. The strength replaced by, "the body of a girl!" again that foreign familiar voice. Shrill and excited. She crossed the room and scattered the items strewn on the tables and chests until she found what she needed. An old mirror, cracked and missing pieces, but it would do. She pulled it to her face and was shocked at what looked back. Instinctively she turned to look behind her half expecting to see the strange, yet familiar child standing there. She looked back into the mirror at the face she had not seen for many years. Her features were soft and innocent. Her hair a few shades lighter, only her piercing blue eyes remained the same. "I'm twelve-years-old," she said to herself. "I'm a child." and the mirror dropped to the ground.
Across the hall, Hercules woke to his own surprise. Iolaus also found himself much younger than he had been the night before. The, now, two boys woke and looked at each other demanding to know "Who are you?" "Where did you come from?" and "What's going on?" But, Iolaus and Hercules had known each other since boyhood and took only a few minutes to recognize their former selves. They too, had once again become twelve-year-olds. Iolaus' head was now covered with golden locks of curls and his voice quite high pitched. Both of which gave him more of a girlish appearance. Hercules, even at twelve showed the promise of strength. Already muscular and at least a head taller than Iolaus, he was a true picture of a young god. "Oh, not again" Iolaus moaned. "I can't do this again! I hated this look the first time I had to wear it, ohhhhhhh." he moaned louder as he buried his head in his pillow.
"Get over it, Iolaus," Hercules smirked, "we've got bigger problems.
"What could be worse than this." Iolaus whined, muffled by the fact that his face was still buried in the bedclothes.
"Well, for one," Hercules observed, "since we have lost about 100 pounds in addition to about 20 years...our clothing is a little, well loose fitting. To say the least." Hercules was standing across the room. He had stood up and his clothing literally dropped to the floor. The clothing of a full-grown demi-god, especially one of perfect physical prawns, was no fit for a boy. "Gimme yours!" Hercules cried as he crossed the room toward Iolaus.
"Give you my what?" Iolaus replied still in emotional agony, but raising his head to look toward Hercules.
"I'm not giving you my clothes! What'll I do! No way."
"Come on, Iolaus. They're not going to do you any good, they'll fall right off."
"Are you saying that my full grown clothes are gonna fit your half grown body? Iolaus clearly was insulted.
"Probably not," Hercules agreed, "but they'll fit me better than you and somebody has to go check on the others"
"Then, I'll go!" Iolaus announced as he jumped to the floor and started to run toward the door. He only went a few feet before tripping over the trousers that had fallen to his ankles and become a mass of tangles. Iolaus landed head over heels and turned to find Hercules staring down at him.
"I'm sure you'll make a great impression. Now, please can I have your hand-me-downs"
Iolaus shook his head and kicked the clothes to Hercules. He remembered how much he hated it when Hercules was right. It took him a long time to get over that the first time they were boys.
Hercules did the best he could with Iolaus' cast offs. They were about two sizes too large, but better than what he had started with earlier. He pulled a piece of the curtain to make a belt and used it to hold up the pants, but gave up on the shirt which fit more like a dress. Shoes were a different story, even a half-grown semi-god could not fit into a full-grown man's boots. Iolaus smiled with delight. "See, I told you they wouldn't fit!" he smirked.
Hercules just laughed. "I've gone barefoot before. And that's better than what you've got bared" Iolaus grabbed a cover from the bed and wrapped it around himself, toga style. Hercules laughed even harder. "Now you look like you work for Salmoneus!" Iolaus just shook his head and grimaced back. "I'll go check on Xena and Gabrielle, you wake up Salmoneus and see how old he is." As he opened the door, Hercules looked back over his shoulder and remarked "Oh, ya and see if you can't find something else to wear!" He laughed again and exited the room. He guessed the crash he heard was something Iolaus had thrown at him as he left.
Meanwhile, Xena had also solved her apparel problem with the use of several pieces of torn cloth and rope. A fold here and a tie there, helped to create a suitable outfit from the tunic she wore under her armor. It was uncomfortable but better than the alternative. She turned quickly, ready for a fight when she heard the door creak open. There was something familiar about the boy standing before her and something inside, something still quite grown up stirred with recognition.
"You too?" they asked each other in unison.
Hercules crossed the room. Xena moved to meet him. They looked at each other with an approval that each hoped the other would not notice.
"Any ideas?" Hercules asked, not able to keep his eyes off Xena.
"Hera?" Xena suggested, feeling strangely self-conscious and wishing she had created a more conservative costume. That was a feeling so long forgotten, she wasn't sure where it had come from. It was uncomfortable and she shook it off.
"No. Hera's not one for practical jokes, she plays for keeps. If it were Hera, she'd have turned us into mice or beetles and given the cats a hearty meal. No, this is more Aphrodite's style, but we've never had any ill will toward each other. Anyway she's off on some quest somewhere, last I remember. No, I don't think this is the work of anyone from Mount Olympus." Hercules, too, felt a sense of self-consciousness or embarrassment at what he was thinking but the thought of his father's family and their many misdeeds, gave him something else to think of, for the moment.
"Then, what...more of Salmoneus' poison perfume?" Xena suggested.
Hercules shook his head, "From what I understand, that stuff brought out the worst in people, not the youth. But, why don't we go find our dear friend and ask him?" Hercules said grabbing Xena's arm and heading toward the door. A strange mewing sound stopped them in midstride. They turned to face each other.
"Please tell me that was a cat." Xena wished out loud.
"I've heard that sound before...Xena, where is Gabrielle?" Hercules asked as he turned and looked back at the bed.
"She's...she's...she probably woke up and...and...took a walk." Xena tried to convince herself more than her companion.
Hercules arched his eyebrows and gave Xena a sideways glance. Xena knew Gabrielle never woke before her and if by some chance she did, she would have been so excited she would have waked the entire house, animals and all. Xena had been so busy trying to figure out the situation and clothing herself she simply didn't think to wake Gabrielle. Gabrielle could sleep through anything and who knew how long she went on with her story the night before. Xena had drifted off right after Gabrielle had decided that the King had called the Prince back to their kingdom after his grandson was born. Hercules started moving toward the bed. "NO! No, no, wait." Xena cried. Hercules jumped at her order. "I mean, you better let me look. Under the circumstances with the clothing thing...well she is a...that is she never...well she will be embarrassed if you...a...um...a...find her."
Hercules was unaccustomed to this behavior from Xena. He thought for a moment then looked at Xena's makeshift dress and remembered Iolaus' problem. "Uh-huh, ya...you've got a point." He nodded and allowed Xena to go ahead.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called in a hushed voice. "Gabrielle? You okay...Gabrielle? Come on Gabrielle, wake up, you know you're probably not going to believe this. Gabrielle?" Xena continued speaking in gentle tones as she gently patted the bedclothes and tugged some of them away. She dropped those behind her. She and Hercules looked there when they heard a soft thud. Gabrielle's skirt and blouse were tangled in the cover Xena had dropped. "Gabrielle!" Xena suddenly had a very bad feeling. She slowly lifted the last of the bed covers. From across the room Hercules saw the shock in her eyes. He hurried to her side and found himself with the same startled look.
On the bed before them was a tiny baby, no more than a few months old. "Gabrielle?" Xena gasped when she finally found her voice. "Gabrielle, is that you?"
Hercules shook his head in mock disgust. "Come on Xena, you really don't expect her to answer you do you? Anyway it has to be Gabrielle. Who else could it be? She was the only other one in here, wasn't she?"
Without thinking Xena landed a punch in Hercules midsection. Hercules let out a short "oof" and grasped his belly. Although Xena had diminished in size, she had not in strength.
"Now, what am I gonna do? I don't know anything about babies." Xena let out a long breath and stood back with her hands on her hips. Before Hercules could respond a loud crash and a lot of shouting coming from the hall startled them.
Hercules moved toward the door and was practically knocked over by Salmoneus as he burst into the room tugging the young Iolaus by the ear. "You ruffian! you little thief!" Salmoneus was shouting as he entered. "Where did you come from? How did you get in here? And just what did you think you were doing going through my things?!" Salmoneus fired accusations without giving Iolaus a chance to answer. Even if he did, Iolaus couldn't do anything except hold on to the sheet he still had wrapped around himself and repeatedly utter "ouch!, ow!, let go! ow!"
"Hercules! Xena!" Salmoneus shouted over Iolaus' protesting, not taking his eyes off the struggling youngster. "Can you believe this little rapscallion was going through my bag. Little thief." Salmoneus emphasized his last comment with a hard tug on Iolaus ear.
"Let him go!" Hercules commanded with all the 12-year-old authority he could muster.
Salmoneus dropped Iolaus, more as a matter of shock than of obedience. "More of you! I'm surrounded. I knew this place was dangerous! Hercules! Xena! Where are you..." Salmoneus whined.
"We're right here, Salmoneus. Stop your sniveling, I don't think I can't stand much more of it." Xena solemnly told him, in a tone that left no denial of her identity.
"Xena." Salmoneus replied in unbelief.
"Yeah, and let me introduce you to Hercules." Xena scowled and returned to stand next to the bed.
Iolaus walked toward Hercules and Xena, holding his sheet-toga with one hand and rubbing his ear with the other. "I tried to explain. He just wouldn't listen, just went on and on about me going through his bag. What did you think I was after?" Iolaus carried on.
"Well...I...how...what..." Salmoneus stammered.
"Exactly." Hercules agreed.
"Hey," Iolaus perked up, "how come you're not a kid?"
Salmoneus patted himself and felt his beard. "I'm not am I? No, no I'm not. Why am I not? Why are you? Oh, this must be a dream. I knew I shouldn't have had that last helping of..."
"Enough, already!!" Xena had a very low tolerance for Salmoneus' hysterics. "What difference does it make? We have enough to worry about without listening to you rant and rave."
Hercules put his hand on Xena's arm. "I think we all need to calm down. We can't solve this problem if we aren't thinking straight. Besides, we're kids again. You know, footloose, fancy free we shouldn't have a care in the world."
"Maybe you don't have a care in the world, but I'm not the child of Zeus..." Xena was hot, she pulled away from Hercules ready for a long argument.
Iolaus had moved to the balcony. He was still rubbing his ear as he looked out over the horizon. "Oh, oh...Like we don't have enough problems."
Hercules went to see what Iolaus was staring at with such intensity. "Great," was his only comment. The four men who had been looking for Salmoneus in the tavern were not far away. Xena, suddenly without a victim for her tirade, also went to see what the problem was.
"Come on!" Hercules said to Xena as he headed for the door. "I have an idea. We have to work fast." Xena wasted no time in following him.
"Wait, what about us?" Iolaus dejectedly inquired. "And, where's Gabrielle?" He realized she was visibly absent.
Hercules and Xena froze for an instant realizing the plight of the very, very young Gabrielle. She was most at risk in this situation. Salmoneus was still a grown up, not quite the one either would chose as a babysitter, but he was all they had at the moment. Besides, Iolaus would be there to help.
Hercules took control and without explaining called back, "Salmoneus stay here and take care of Gabrielle. And while you're at it find something for Iolaus to wear. Let us handle this!"
Before Salmoneus or Iolaus could protest, Xena and Hercules disappeared through the door.
For a few seconds Salmoneus and Iolaus stood where they were. Iolaus looked around the room, "Well...how are we supposed to 'take care of Gabrielle' when she isn't even here?"
"She has to be. Maybe, she's hiding. Gabrielle! Gabby, come out, come out!" Salmoneus crooned as she looked around the room.
Iolaus rolled his eyes. He walked around the room looking under tables and behind furniture. "You know it is possible that Gabrielle is a little younger than we are. She is just a kid anyway. What do you figure, I guess me and Hercules are about twelve, thirteen at the most. Xena's probably the same age. That would probably make Gabrielle about six, well maybe five, maybe a little younger..." Salmoneus went to the bed and lifted the covers revealing the infant. Iolaus noticed his perplexed expression. "What, you think younger?"
"Oooooh yeah," Salmoneus said pointing to his find, "a whole lot younger."
Iolaus approached timidly, not knowing what to expect. His expression matched that of Salmoneus when he finally was close enough to see.
"I just told Xena yesterday...I don't know anything about being a parent." Salmoneus stated. Iolaus just stared.
Hercules and Xena ran to the courtyard of the manor. It did not take long for Hercules to find the tools he needed. He handed Xena a hoe and pointed to a garden near the wall. Then he grabbed a spade and began to dig in the soft ground. The farm animals that had been in the garden yesterday were still there. Xena looked at him with much confusion. "What am I supposed to do with this?" she asked shaking her head.
"Just be a little girl and follow my lead." he replied as the four thugs entered the garden gate. "Good morning!" Hercules cried jovially. "Is there some way my sister and I can help you travelers."
Xena picked up on the plan immediately, "Yes, you look quite tired. Perhaps a cup of cool water, some bread or cheese."
The first man through the gate pushed her aside, the second one grabbed her arms from behind and held her tightly. The third strode over to Hercules. He grabbed the shovel from the young boy and threw it across the yard. "Where are your parents?" he demanded. From inside the house came the wails of the infant Gabrielle. Hercules feigned fear, "Please sirs, don't hurt my sister. My mother has just given birth and my fa..." The brute did not allow him to finish, he tossed him to the ground and delivered a hard kick to his midsection. Xena grimaced, Hercules pretended to be in pain and drew himself into a tight ball. The men laughed and turned to the young Xena. She saw Hercules give a quick wink. She began to wiggle in an attempt to escape. She'd seen the look on the men's faces before and she knew that it did not matter that she was only a child. It wasn't a fight they were looking for.
Their momentary trance was suddenly broken by the wail of the not so complacent baby. She squirmed and tried to fit most of her fist into her mouth.
"What's the matter with her?" Salmoneus panicked. "What should we do?" his voice became shrill.
Iolaus had grown up in a house full of children, babies were no threat. "Looks to me like she's hungry." he said matter of factly.
Salmoneus covered his chest with both hands, "Well, don't look at me, I'm no wet nurse!"
"Don't be ridiculous, Salmoneus! Just pick her up and...and...cuddle her or something, until I can get some milk from one of those goats outside." Iolaus began moving away.
"Wait! You can't leave me here with her, she's...so...small," Salmoneus clumsily tried several methods of picking up the now hysterical infant. Iolaus shook his head and stopped. He marched back to the bed.
"It doesn't matter what you do now, she's hungry. She won't stop till we feed her. But, it might help if she knew we were trying. So, try!" Iolaus wrapped a blanket around and picked up the fussy baby with no hesitation and thrust her into Salmoneus arms. He held her out in front of him, bobbing her up and down and making silly shushing noises. Gabrielle wailed even louder. "Not, like that! Put her closer to you. She won't bite. She probably doesn't even have any teeth." Slowly, Salmoneus drew the infant to his chest and tried to comfort her. It helped a little, but not much. He continued to rock her gently and began to nervously pace across the room.
"Now, I'll be right back. You'll be fine."
Salmoneus was proud of himself as Gabrielle's wailing slowly wound down to a soft whimper. "Wait a minute," he called after Iolaus, "I think I can solve your wardrobe problem."
Xena looked for an opening, an opportunity to defend herself. She felt just as strong as she did the day before, but she also knew that since she was about 2 sizes smaller chances were she did not have the body mass to inflict too much damage on four large men. She would not, however, go down without a fight. Hercules on the other hand, although the size of a twelve year old, already had the strength of at least three grown men. After all, when full grown he had the strength of ten. He wasted no time in getting to his feet after the thugs had placed their attention on Xena. Both of the young warriors, however, were stopped in their tracks when they spied Iolaus exiting the house. He was clad in one of Salmoneus wild colored togas. It had been cut, or ripped to fit properly. The men caught sight of him a few seconds later, mistaking the young boy for another maiden. This was the opening Xena needed. She used the leverage she had by being against the large man's body to push her self back and kick the man in front of her. The placement of her kick brought the thug to his knees, grasping his male parts and gasping for breath. Hercules saw his opportunity and grabbed the third tough by the arm, spinning him around to face his opponent. The brute taken off guard had no time to defend himself and with one quick punch Hercules knocked him unconscious. Iolaus, who had come out to retrieve a bit of goat milk, jumped into the fray without looking back. He leaped onto the wall and ran along it jumping onto the back of the guy Xena had knocked backward making her kick. The surprise attack from both directions set this thug off balance and with the weight of Iolaus on his back he fell forward slamming his head into the wall. He hit the ground with an oopf and lay very still. Iolaus went head over heels across the yard, righting himself with a quick flip. This left one barbarian to defeat. The man looked around the yard at his fallen comrades and then at the three children surrounding him, all perched for battle. He let out a loud laugh that turned into a yell and went after them. Their motion was precision in action. As Xena dodged, Hercules struck. As Hercules struck, Iolaus taunted. As Iolaus taunted, Xena kicked. They ran circles around the man, using his anger and fury to have him defeat himself. The children giggled and teased, as the man grew more and more exhausted, finally he collapsed with a thud on top of one of the other already fallen brutes. The three young brawlers looked to each other with satisfaction.
"Nice...outfit...Iolaus..." Xena mused between breaths.
While Hercules and Xena dragged the four men into one of the small sheds, Iolaus completed his original mission. Gabrielle could be heard wailing and he knew Salmoneus would be frantic. Hercules remarked that if Salmoneus was right the men would wake up from their battle-induced stupor and return to their homes without any more trouble. Iolaus also retrieved a water bag from Xena's pack that had been left near Argo. By the time Xena and Hercules returned to the room, Iolaus had filled the bag with the milk and showed Salmoneus how to be sure Gabrielle got enough to satisfy her hunger without choking. Salmoneus was sitting in a large chair still feeding the baby when they entered the room.
"You look so...natural," Hercules remarked.
"This isn't as bad as I thought it would be," Salmoneus smiled at his accomplishment.
"Yeah, well don't get too comfortable," Xena grumbled. "We don't intend to stay this way. And if this situation was in any way brought on by anything you did or had or..."
Gabrielle began to cry. Not the hysterical cry of a hungry baby, but the hurt pitiful cry of a frightened baby. "Now, look what you've done," Salmoneus cooed. "Shhh, sweetie, it's okay. Don't you pay any attention to them, shhhhh." He rocked her a little then shifted her position, putting her upright over his shoulder and patting her back.
"Ah, I wouldn't do that if I were you..." Hercules laughed with the fatherly experience.
Before Salmoneus could ask why, he had an answer. "Ugh," Salmoneus groaned as he felt a warm sensation over his shoulder and down the front of his colorful toga. Iolaus turned and stifled a laugh. Salmoneus began to turn green. Xena just shook her head.
"Give her to me, before you drop her," she demanded as she took the baby from him. "Now, go get me some water and rags so I can clean her. I need something for a diaper also." Salmoneus was already out the door, one hand to his mouth the other to his stomach. Even, serious Xena had to laugh.
Iolaus and Hercules went off to see what was taking Salmoneus so long. Xena gave up waiting for him and found what was necessary to take care of the baby's needs. Gabrielle was fed, content, and clean. Xena now sat in the large chair, cradling the baby in her arms. The baby cooed quietly. "I don't know if you understand me and I know you can't answer, but don't you worry, Gabrielle. We'll find a way out of this one and you'll have a great story to tell. Well, I guess maybe I'll have to tell you the story so you can tell it." The infant grasped Xena's finger in her tiny hand and stared at the face that was speaking softly to her. "You know you were hard enough to keep track of before, well at least now you'll have to stay put when I tell you to." Xena smiled at the infant remembering for an instant her own infant son and the brief time she had spent with him. She had left him with the centaurs to protect his life. Would she have to do the same with this baby? "No." she thought, "I can start all over again, too. No one will know who I am. Who would suspect a young girl with an infant could be the once feared mighty Xena?" Then to the baby, "Don't worry I won't make the same mistake twice. I won't leave you. Maybe it won't be so bad growing up again. I can take you home to my mother...on second thought, that might not be a good idea, I've already shocked her enough for one lifetime."
Gabrielle had fallen asleep. Xena placed her on the bed, then suddenly thought better. She searched the room, found a small box, and placed the sleeping baby in it. "Can't have you falling off there, can we?" She smiled and set out to find the others.
Salmoneus, who had composed himself and changed into a new even more wildly colored toga, was seated at the large table in the dining hall. Scrolls were scattered across the table and around most of the room. Xena raised an eyebrow as she entered the room. "This is no time to be catching up on your reading, boys"
Hercules looked up from the scrolled he was reviewing. "I think we might have something here..." he looked back to the scroll.
Iolaus was also reading. "This guy was obsessed, totally obsessed."
Salmoneus rose with excitement, "Here it is, here it is!" Hercules and Iolaus dropped their scrolls and leaned over to see what Salmoneus had found. It seemed none of them had noticed Xena.
She cleared her throat loudly. "You guys want to tell me what you're looking for"
"An answer, of course" Salmoneus replied without looking up. "And I think I found it!"
Xena still in the dark slammed both hands down on the table top, getting everyone's attention. Hercules explained. "It seems the guy who built this place was a little nervous about getting old. He wanted eternal youth. From what we found, he seems to be some kind of alchemist."
"Yeah, and he tried all these potions and concoctions to reverse his aging." Iolaus continued. "He was about to give up when he found the answer growing right outside in his yard. The persimmon tree! Can you believe it, that tree is charmed somehow and it's fruit - when eaten - that reverses the aging process."
"Great, and we just happened to have persimmons last night. Then why isn't Salmoneus affected?" Xena inquired with interest. She picked up the scroll closest to her.
"I didn't eat any. Hives." Salmoneus replied. "And Gabrielle, well, the fact that she is already young and that she loves the little fruits, well you see what happens."
"And does it say anywhere in these scrolls, how we reverse the reverse?" Xena asked.
"The guy kept great records, considering..." Salmoneus continued. "Here, here it says that at first he just wanted to be a young man. He enjoyed it so much that he kept eating until he was a mere child, probably about eight from the looks of this writing."
"And then?" Xena was getting very impatient.
"Well, it seems that he started to miss some of the adult things he was used to," Iolaus smirked, "like his wife. So, he went to see some old hag that lived not too far away for a way to put things back the way it was."
Salmoneus held the scroll with the final answer, "and she told him that he would have to reach the hot springs of Agathara before the sun set four times. If he bathed in the hot spring before sunset on the fourth day, he could reverse the process. If not he would remain a child forever. But, if he did make it he could never return to the manor."
"So...did he make it?" Xena asked looking at each of them in turn.
All three exchanged glances and began to sift through the scrolls again. "So you don't know if it worked...do you?" Xena stated flatly as she dropped the scroll she had been holding.
Hercules recognized Xena's attitude. She was hiding her fears and emotions under her anger. Children were vulnerable they had little control over their lives or the world around them. These were feelings Xena could not and did not want to have to deal with, not again. She turned from them and walked slowly outside. She was crying, like a silly little girl and she certainly did not want the boys to see her. She remembered a time, long ago, when Toris would laugh and chide her for crying. She hated it then and she knew it would be no different now. Hercules followed her outside.
She kept her back to him wiping away the tears as fast as they rolled down her cheeks.
"We really don't have anything to lose, Xena. I mean we can't get any younger. If it works we will be back to our old selves again and be no worse for wear." He put his arm around her shoulders and pointed to the snow-covered peak in the distance. "I'm sure we can make it. We'll all help each other."
Xena sniffed back a sob. "What will I do, Hercules? I can't do this again. How can I take care of myself, let alone an infant? What if something happens to her? What if something happens to me and there is no one to take care of her? I can't just leave her?"
"All the more reason we need to try. Come on," he urged her "we can start getting things ready. We'll need food and some heavier clothing. This place was abandoned in such a hurry, we can probably find most of what we need right here."
Xena was still apprehensive. Hercules tried another angle. "Xena, I've never known you to walk away from a fight...Is that what you're going to do, stand here and cry?! Give up?" Hercules' voice became more boyish ridicule than adult consolation. "This is a different kind of battle, Xena. You'll have to fight time and nature, instead of swords and spears on a battlefield... What's the matter, Xena...you afraid?" With than, he knew he had her.
"I'm not afraid of anything!!!" Xena barked. "And I can do anything you can do! Fight anything or anyone you can!!" She found herself using the same defense she had used all those years ago. Her tears stopped as her temper flared. She wiped both eyes and turned to face Hercules, fists clenched and held in front of her.
He grabbed them both and smiled. "I knew that it'd snap you out of it. Now lets get started. Iolaus! Salmoneus!" Hercules called inside as he let go of Xena and headed for the stable. "Coming?" he called to Xena as he walked away. Xena knew she had been had, she laughed and followed Hercules.
A few hours later the group had gathered as many provisions as they could from the old manor. They had optimistically packed all of their adult gear with the hope that they would need it again soon. Luckily they had three good steeds that could bear all of their diminished weight in addition to the supplies they had to carry. By noon the strange band of travelers was on their way toward the snowy mountain peaks in the distance. Hercules and Xena led them mounted on Argo, who, at first, had been a little apprehensive eyeing Xena with some doubt. She spoke to the animal quietly and Argo seemed to understand. Iolaus followed on the second horse, perched on top of most of the supplies. Salmoneus brought up the rear trying to manage the horse, hold on to the infant Gabrielle whom he had been told with pointed warning 'not to drop, or else', and to lead the goat they had brought along for the baby's need. Salmoneus had objected to leaving so late in the day, pointing out that they would not get very far before they would have to make camp for the night and that the soft beds in the manor were so much more comfortable than the rocks in the forest beyond. The youngsters paid him no heed and continued on their quest.
By dusk they had entered the dense wood. The thick canopy blocked out what little light the full moon could provide. The group found a small clearing and set up camp. Salmoneus had drifted off to sleep and the group spoke in whispers above his snores. The care of the infant had fallen to Iolaus who was doing quite a good job. She had been fed, changed, and rocked to sleep. He held her close as they sat in front of the fire.
"First sunset." He commented. "Do you think we'll make it in time?"
"We should get some sleep, so we can start at first light." Hercules replied.
"I'll take first watch." He and Xena offered at the same time.
Since Iolaus knew neither of them would give in he decided not to wait. He found a soft spot in the blankets thrown on the ground and lay Gabrielle there. Then he lay next to her and fell asleep listening to the argument between the young heroes.
Salmoneus was rousted out of a sound sleep before dawn by the wail of the hungry infant. "Ohhhhhh," he moaned as he stumbled around the camp in search of the noise. In doing so he fell over or stepped on everything in his path. By the time he composed himself Iolaus, who had also been awakened was seeing to the early morning feeding.
"Does she have to do that?" Salmoneus asked with a sleepy yawn.
"Eat?" Iolaus asked.
"No, cry..." Salmoneus corrected plopping down next to Iolaus. "Where are..."
"Don't know." Iolaus answered before he could finish the question. "They were gone when I woke up. If they haven't knocked each other out, they're probably looking for breakfast or..." A rustling in the brush stopped Iolaus. "Herc?" When no answer came back he handed the baby to Salmoneus and reached for Gabrielle's war staff that was the only weapon close by. He took a defensive stance.
"Alright, whoever you are...come out of there...come out, before I come in after you..." The rustling became more aggressive. "Hercules, if that's you, this isn't funny."
Iolaus was thrown off guard, backing up and falling over the bedding behind him. He sat on the ground looking up at the three intruders that hand entered camp. Their feet and legs were those of an animal, perhaps a goat or a deer. At the waist they began to take human form, having a chest and arms like any man, but their heads were large and animal like. They were heavily bearded and thick heavy dark hair covered most of their faces. On the forehead of each were two small horns. Each held a long pointed spear. They were threatening in their appearance alone. "Satyrs" Iolaus whispered.
Salmoneus held Gabrielle closer to his chest and tried to skirt backward by pushing the ground with his feet. The satyrs said nothing. They moved slowly around the camp, inspecting everything. They overturned pans and packs, ignoring both people who stared at them in awe. They moved to the horses tethered to the trees close by. The horses whinnied anxiously, but the Satyrs moved past them to the goat that was tied there also. They had what they were looking for, they untied the goat and started back toward the woods. Iolaus jumped to his feet. "Hey, wait a minute...What do you think you're doing? That's our goat!"
"Let them alone" Salmoneus scolded. "If that's all they want, let them have the animal."
Too late, the last Satyr turned on the boy. Iolaus prepared for a fight, he lifted the staff in front of him. The Satyr quickly disarmed the boy and grabbed him by the collar lifting him off the ground and bringing him close to his face. The Satyr sniffed at the boy twice then held him out in front of him. Iolaus choked "Phew, you need a bath." The Satyr was not amused, the look on his face was pure evil. Iolaus squirmed in vain. Salmoneus closed his eyes and squeezed Gabrielle a little to tightly. Gabrielle began to wail, again. The Satyr loosened his grip on Iolaus and turned toward the sound. He sniffed the air and dropped Iolaus to the ground. Quickly, he moved toward the scent. Salmoneus tried desperately to get away. The Satyr grabbed for the baby and Salmoneus shifted her from side to side. Gabrielle's wails became louder and more frantic.
"Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi" the call ripped through the air as the young Xena charged into camp and back flipped herself into a position between the Satyr and the defenseless Salmoneus. He breathed a sigh of relief. Hercules attacked from the opposite side throwing his full weight at the beast and catching him off guard. The Satyr fell to the ground landing at Xena's feet. She jumped on to his massive chest and thrust her sword at his neck. She stopped with the point resting just under his chin. The Satyr squirmed, but Hercules and Iolaus jumped on him also, pinning him to the ground. Xena grasped the hilt of her sword with both hands and leaned back to use her full weight to inflict the fatal blow. "No! Hercules shouted. "No, Xena don't." Xena stopped and turned to look at Hercules lying across the goat-like legs of the intruder. "Why not?" she sneered.
"He doesn't understand. He doesn't know what he's doing. He can't help it, he's just being what he is." Hercules tried to explain.
Xena looked into the eyes of her captive. For a moment she saw all of the eyes of the people she had killed, then only the Satyrs eyes looked back in fear. She relaxed her grip and stepped off the animal's chest. Hercules and Iolaus rolled off his legs and the man-beast stood up. For a moment he stood in front of them, then turned and ran into the woods. Hercules moved to help Salmoneus to his feet. Xena threw the sword aside and took the howling baby from him. "Sh, sh." she crooned as she tried unsuccessfully to calm the infant.
"Well, you better get used to that! Those things took the goat. Where were you anyway?"
Xena turned away, still trying to comfort the crying baby. Hercules replied, "We were...looking for a way through this brush...and we..."
"Uh huh, got a little side tracked did you. You know you're both a little young for that kind of stuff." Iolaus chided them. "Is that all you can think of..." His voice trailed off as the rustling in the brush returned. It was much more defined this time, as if a whole heard of Satyrs were approaching. "Great," he sighed "reinforcements!"
Xena, with Gabrielle still in her arms, could not be of any help. She turned to hand her to Salmoneus, but he had ducked into the brush behind them. Hercules put himself between the oncoming threat and the girls. Iolaus rushed to his side, grabbing Xena's sword as he did so. Four, five, six...ten Satyrs exited the woods and stood facing the children but did not attack. They parted in order to allow a crippled, black veiled hag into the center of the camp. Xena held the infant close trying to protect her from the onslaught. Hercules and Iolaus prepared to defend themselves and the others. From the brush behind them Salmoneus let out a short shriek. The hag held up a worn battle staff and the Satyrs remained at attention.
"Hercules, son of Zeus." she spoke in a low gravelly voice. Hercules relaxed, interested. "You have spared my son. As your father showed us mercy so long ago, you do the same now."
"How do you know who I am? I'm not even myself." Hercules replied.
"I have seen much in my many years and although the fates have allowed some of your years to fall away, I still know your heart. And those with whom you travel. Xena, mighty warrior, killer of thousands who now strives to right her evil deeds and find forgiveness within herself." Xena stepped forward and stood next to Hercules. She too was perplexed by this strange old woman. "Iolaus, friend of Hercules who shares his trials and adventure. The whining shyster in the obtrusive colors hiding in the wood behind you, Salmoneus. It is your misdeed that has led all of you to my land." The crone walked toward Xena, pointing a crooked skeletal finger at Gabrielle. Xena pulled her closer and turned away. "Yes, yes and the little one, the innocent drawn into to all of this chaos by her loyalty to a friend..."
"Enough!" Xena cried. "What is it you want? Just get it over with and we will be on our way. We don't want anything from your precious wood, in fact we were just leaving."
The hag laughed, which turned into a cackle. "There is nothing we need from you. You have sealed your own fate by eating from the forbidden tree."
"You know about the tree?" Hercules asked.
"I do. It is because of that tree that I am cursed to wander this wood with my afflicted children." She waved her staff behind her and the Satyrs shifted their stance from foot to cloven foot. "Come" she said, " I will reveal the story to you." She turned and motioned for them to follow. Just to be sure they did not hesitate the Satyrs moved closer and urged them on. One Satyr reached into the brush, pulled out and dragged Salmoneus behind the group into the wood beyond.
A few yards from the camp the group entered a small village. Grotesquely misshapen inhabitants, mostly more Satyrs, populated it. They were led to the largest structure and taken inside. There they were made comfortable with food and a place to rest. The hag sat down and began her story. It began when she fell in love with a young man who was a student of alchemy. They led a wonderful life together and built a fine manor. As they grew older her husband feared the fact that one would die and leave the other. She revealed the fact that she was a sorceress and cast a spell on the tree that grew in their garden. The fruit of the tree would ensure eternal youth. The group recognized the setting of the story as the manor they had borrowed two days earlier. When the fates found out what she had done, they cursed the sorceress and her children. They turned her into an aged woman and damned her to live eternally as a crone. Her children were all turned to farm animals. Once there she begged Zeus to take pity on her and the children and asked to be forgiven for her brazen act. Zeus, probably feeling generous on this particular day, granted her favor. He agreed to give her children half of their humanity back, but they would retain half of their animal appearance to remind her not to tempt fate again. In addition he created the hot spring which would return her to her youth. He then gave her the choice to use the spring or stay with her children. The choice was simple. She and her family had lived in these woods ever since effectively guarding the hot springs above. In turn Hercules told their story to the crone, even though he suspected she already knew what had happened.
"You do not have proper clothing to climb the mountain. We shall provide this." As the hag made this statement the Satyrs carried skins and heavy boots into the room and laid them before the group. They also provided food and several goat skin bags containing what the hag described as the perfect nourishment for infants who could not suckle. "This will repay Zeus for kindness to me so many years ago."
"Was the man we read about your husband." Iolaus asked between bites of a surprisingly delicious cake he was eating.
"No," she replied. "My husband was not as lucky as I. He paid with his life."
"Do you know what happened to that guy?"
"He did travel to the spring," she continued "he had become very young. He was warned of the heat of the springs, but he did not heed those warnings. The heat, the steam the churning water pulled his boy's body under and he perished." She finished with no emotion.
Iolaus swallowed hard. "How young was this boy?"
"Little more than a babe. Just walking. His wife, in her anguish threw herself from the cliff. There have been no others since. Our time here is through. You must leave, your time grows short." Once again the Satyrs encouraged the group to move on and within the hour they were travelling on horseback toward the snow-capped mountain.
By nightfall they had reached the snow covered land and found a small cave to use until morning. The wind moaned outside and the snow blew in swirling circles outside the entrance. A fire burned brightly illuminating and warming the small cave. Iolaus and Salmoneus had made quick use of the many skins the Satyrs had given them. They were fast asleep, snoring and tugging a large covering back and forth. Xena sat near the entrance watching the snow fall outside. Hercules approached carrying the baby. He rocked her gently and remembered his own daughter. He kissed her head and hugged her a little. "Something wrong, Xena? You don't have to worry. We should be at the springs by mid-day, long before the end of the fourth day. By this time tomorrow we'll be our old selves again."
Xena tossed the rock she had been fiddling with out into the snow, it landed without sound. "Will we?" she wondered out loud, "all of us?"
"Sure, all of us. Why not?" Hercules sat next to Xena his back to the entrance to protect Gabrielle from the chilly draft. He pulled the skin around himself and the baby. Xena looked at them both and smiled. "I'm sure you were a great father. I'm sorry you..."
Hercules stopped her, "Don't Xena, it was a long time ago. I'd rather not discuss it, not now anyway." Xena nodded. "But why did you ask if all of us would be changed. Do you know something?"
"No, that's just it, I don't know. You heard what that old witch said, that guy from the manor, or that boy or whatever he was killed by the same spring we hope to be saved by. How do we know it won't do the same to us? And I'm sure we can't put her in that scalding water." Xena motioned to Gabrielle who had fallen asleep in Hercules arms. "How can I help myself and not help my friend? It isn't fair to leave her in this condition. She will be in danger if I keep her with me, yet I can't..."
Hercules stopped her, "There has to be a way to help Gabrielle, too. If.... if we can't bring her back then we'll stay together and raise her the normal way. Together we can protect her."
"From mortals," Xena reminded him.
Hercules remembered his family and the wrath of Hera. He realized that he would not be any better at protecting the infant than Xena would be.
Xena was tired. Tired from the journey, tired from trying to solve this problem, she gave into her child's feelings and rested her head on Hercules shoulder. In turn he rested his cheek against her head. They said little more that night, but fell asleep together side by side. Hercules slept with the infant on his chest his arm cradling Xena who rested on his shoulder her arm across the baby.
Hercules was right; by mid day the group had reached the spring. In the midst of an arctic climate this was a tropical paradise. The steam from the spring created a strange mist that covered the entire valley. Palm trees and tropical flowers grew everywhere within a hundred-yard radius of the water. The water ran crystal clear from the side of the mountain. The group had set up camp near the water's edge and now stood at the bank. Salmoneus held the infant and watched as the trio discussed their options.
"Well, here we are..." Iolaus stated. "Now what, do we just dive in and come up grown up?"
"I don't think it matters," Hercules returned bending down to test the water. "It's a little hotter than I like my bath, but it's not too bad. I think we can take it."
Xena turned to Salmoneus. "If anything happens, I mean if we don't, I mean if we..." She smoothed her finger along the baby's cheek. "You promise me you'll take care of her and you won't put her in the water." Salmoneus nodded. "Promise!" she demanded.
"I promise." he returned. "You take her back to Potadeia and find her sister, Lila. You explain what happened and tell her, tell her I'm sorry..." Xena turned away fast, wiping the tears from her eye as she did. No use letting the boys see she was filling up again. "Let's get this over with." She said with purpose as she pulled her tunic over her head and quickly dived into the pool. Salmoneus closed his eyes and turned away, quite surprised and extremely embarrassed by her lack of modesty. Hercules and Iolaus removed their clothing and dived in behind her. Salmoneus counted three splashes before he turned around. The water was calm and there was no sign of anyone about to surface. He raced to the water's edge, frantically searching for his three friends.
The water began to churn into what looked like a full boil. "Oh no, they're boiling. Oh, I can't watch." He turned away. Gabrielle began to whimper. Suddenly there were screams, children's voices screaming in agony he thought. He closed his eyes tightly and resisted the urge to look. The screams became louder and deeper, the voices became familiar and the sound turned to screams of excitement, of jubilation. Now he did turn and saw the full-grown forms of Iolaus, Hercules and Xena splashing in the clear blue waters. They were exuberant. They waved to him on shore and he waved back. He picked up one of Gabrielle's tiny hands and waved for her too.
A few minutes later the trio was back in their own clothing, still patting each other on the back and congratulating themselves on their success. Salmoneus joined in the celebration also. Even baby Gabrielle cooed and kicked with excitement. Her infantile sounds brought the group back to a more serious mood. "What are we going to do with you?" Xena said looking down at her.
"You know, I've been thinking," Salmoneus said. The others gave him a frustrated look. "No, listen really. I know that water's too hot for the little one here, but we've got all this snow! We could use some of it to cool the water in that little cove and put her in...."
For a few minutes, no one answered. The group looked at Salmoneus in a kind of awe. Then everyone seemed to move at once. Iolaus ran for the snow, carrying back armfuls. Xena grabbed Gabrielle from the ground and raced toward the small stream of spring water that spilled over a rock face to the right of their camp. Hercules moved some of the rocks creating a small dam and keeping the hot water in a small bath. Salmoneus was pushed aside in the rush. Iolaus dumped the snow into the hot water. It hissed as it slowly melted. Hercules tested the water with his elbow and nodded to Xena. She began to lower the baby into the water and stopped. "Maybe, you guys should wait over there." She motioned back to the camp with her head. "If this works, she won't be dressed for an audience. It could be a little embarrassing." The men agreed, backing off toward the camp as Xena lowered the infant into the water and gently trickled it over her head in an almost baptismal action.
Iolaus paced back and forth across the camp, continually looking toward the stream. "Maybe we should check on them. It's been a while. Longer than we took."
Hercules trying to remain calm replied, "Well she's a lot younger and the water is a lot cooler. It might take a while."
"Here she comes!" announced Salmoneus, who had been keeping an eye on the path to the stream.
Xena slowly walked into the camp, her expression grim. Gabrielle was nowhere in sight. She stopped. The men's expressions were enough to ask 'well?' Xena stepped slightly to the right and a small child wrapped in the Satyr's animal skins stepped from behind her. The child was no more than six-years-old. Her blonde curls fell in wisps across her shoulders, her round cherubic face and deep blue eyes unmistakably familiar. "She doesn't remember anything." Xena remarked. She reached down and took Gabrielle's hand leading her into the camp past the men who at that point were speechless.
By dusk little Gabrielle had inherited one of Salmoneus' togas. Hercules used some rope and a few pieces of scrap to tie it up and make it look somewhat presentable. Gabrielle took a while to remember everyone's names and took to calling Salmoneus, Moanies, much to his dismay. She was what anyone would think a child Gabrielle would be, smiling and active bouncing from place to place looking and trying out every new experience she could get into. And questions, she never ceased asking questions. Why did Xena have a sword? Why was Moanies wearing a dress? Why was the snow cold, the water hot? Within an hour Xena was exasperated. Gabrielle chased rabbits and butterflies into the large field and ran barefoot into the snow beyond. She smiled sweetly at Xena's instructions to stay away from, don't touch, sit down, slow down, stop that, be careful, come here, not in your mouth, and on and on. Then she did exactly as she pleased, still smiling. She seemed to have endless energy and it took the sheer will of all the adults combined to get her bedded down for the night. Hercules tried every story he knew, she still asked for more. Iolaus pointed out and named every star above, she asked for more. Salmoneus suggested finding some herbs and making a tea that might encourage sleep. He was quickly denounced. Xena took charge. Gabrielle had risen from the bed of furs for the umpteenth time, but before she could ask any question Xena took her small body and laid it back down with a firm but gentle hand.
"Gabrielle, you are beginning to make me very angry and you don't want to do that, do you?" she asked softly. "It is time to sleep. Everyone is tired. Now, you are going to lie still and close your eyes..." Gabrielle lay still while Xena tucked the furs around her. She closed one eye and peeked at Xena through the other. "Both eyes." Xena ordered jovially. She sat on the ground next to the child gently stroking her blond hair from her face. "That's better," she comforted as Gabrielle began to relax. Xena began to hum softly and then to quietly sing a lullaby she remembered from a childhood so long ago. The men held their breath and hoped this last ditch effort would work. Gabrielle reached a small hand out from under the furs and grasped Xena's hand as she eased into a deep sleep. Everyone let out a very soft sigh of relief.
Xena sat next to her until she was absolutely sure she was asleep. She moved a few feet away and made a bed for herself. In the early hours before dawn Xena was awakened by a strange sound. She rose quickly in the dark and scanned the campsite. Next to her, Gabrielle was softy crying. For a moment Xena froze, she was not accustomed to being the one to offer comfort. Then she gave in to a greater feeling. This was Gabrielle. After all, Gabrielle had stuck by her side even when she was trapped in Callisto's body. Gabrielle that had batted her with a pitchfork in order to save her from killing the population of a small village. Gabrielle who had freed the Titans then risked her life to put that error right. Gabrielle who almost crossed to the Elysian Fields in that Thessaleian temple. Xena reached out and put her hand on the child's shoulder. Gabrielle rolled over and looked at Xena, still sobbing. "Sh, shhh," Xena comforted moving the blonde curls from her tear stained cheeks. "What's wrong, come on you can tell me?"
Gabrielle wiped her eyes and sniffled. She reached her small chubby arms out to Xena. Xena swallowed hard not sure what to do next. She took the child into her arms. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's neck and buried her face there. She continued to sob. Xena patted her back and rocked back and forth in an almost instinctive maternal action. "I don't know where my mommy is?" She began to cry again. "Why doesn't she come for me? Who's going to take care of me?" Her cries became more pathetic and Xena's heart was touched.
"Don't worry," she whispered as she held Gabrielle to her. "Don't worry about anything, you're safe with me." Xena looked away for a moment, she knew that was untrue. The most dangerous place for this child would be with her. Yet, at the same time there would be no other place for her. "I won't let anything happen to you." Xena promised
Gabrielle buried her face in Xena's shoulder and sobbed. Through her tears she asked, "Will you be my mommy?"
"No, but I will be your very best friend and I will take very good care of you." Xena continued to comfort her until she fell back to sleep in her arms. Xena did not sleep the rest of the night.
When the sun woke everyone the next morning, Gabrielle was her happy self once more. She danced in the sunshine, chasing a small yellow butterfly. Today was the fourth day, if Gabrielle was not restored to her own age by sundown, she would stay as she was forever. Xena stood staring across the steaming pond. Gabrielle had tricked Iolaus and Salmoneus into a game of hide and seek. She seemed to very good at it, Salmoneus and Iolaus had been hiding for quite some time and Gabrielle was making no attempt to look for them. Instead she had collected a bouquet of violets which she timidly presented to Xena. She smiled shyly and ran back to her play. Hercules joined Xena. His silence was deafening.
"She won't be safe with me." Xena said breaking the silent reverie. "She'll be even more of a target. At least, before, she could defend herself. "
Hercules just stared.
"Anyway, I don't know how to take care of a child. I don't know what to teach her. It isn't fair that she can't remember her family, her sister, Perdicus, her life..." Xena's anger began to rise, masking the true emotion she felt. Fear. Pure and simple, an emotion she could not handle.
"Xena, don't be afraid. You can teach her more than anyone can. And she can teach you." Hercules reassured her. "She is a beautiful child. A special child. I'm sure you will manage."
Salmoneus and Iolaus wandered into camp, looking slightly bewildered. "Well, I don't know how the game is played," Salmoneus was arguing. "I thought she was supposed to look for us."
"That's the way I remember it." Iolaus shook his head.
"Where's Gabrielle?" Hercules asked looking in the direction the child had been running.
"She's right...well she was just..." Salmoneus looked in the opposite direction. "Well, I thought I saw..."
Xena tensed immediately, visually searching the scene, "You were supposed to be watching her!"
"We were...well it was a little hard when she...I thought she was with you!" Iolaus' sounded panic stricken. "She couldn't go far. Gabrielle!" he called as he ran toward the field where they had been playing.
Hercules and Salmoneus joined the search also heading in separate directions and calling Gabrielle's name.
"Come on Gabrielle, the game's over. You win. We give up." Salmoneus called.
"Gabrielle you are the best hider!" Iolaus tried the same strategy.
Xena took a more direct approach. "Gabrielle, no more. This is not funny. Gabrielle! Answer me!!"
"There!" Hercules pointed to the rock face above them. Gabrielle stood on the precipice, her form outlined in the mid day sun. She lifted her arm and waved to the adults below.
"Gabrielle! Stay very still!" Xena called as she ran toward her. Gabrielle was much too close to the edge. Hercules and Iolaus also made for the large rock. Gabrielle, frightened by the reaction of the others, stepped back. Xena stopped and held out her arms to stop Hercules and Iolaus. "Gabrielle, sweetie, it's okay. I'm not really angry. Just... stay... right... where you are." Xena tried to remain calm as she practically tiptoed toward the child.
Flashes of memory spun through Gabrielle's head. She had seen this woman before. She had seen this look. She saw Xena fighting, killing, hurting. These memories combined with real childhood memories became intertwined and confusing. In her fear, she continued to back away from the approaching warrior. Nothing Xena said could calm her. Panic struck and she turned to run. "NO!" all of the others screamed. It was too late. Down Gabrielle fell from the side of the cliff. Down into the steaming water below. Her screams barely audible over the sound of the falling water. Without thinking, Xena dived from the same cliff, hitting the water seconds after Gabrielle.
Hercules and Iolaus followed suit from their position farther down the hill. All three surfaced together frantically scanning the water for a sign of the fallen child. Hercules submerged again and came up empty handed. Iolaus dived under and came up a few yards away also without Gabrielle. They looked at each other and shook their heads. A long gasping sound got their attention. Gabrielle had surfaced closest to Hercules. She thrashed in the hot water. Between chokes, she screamed for help. Hercules swam toward her, but not fast enough. She was gone before he got to where she had been. Xena was not far behind. She dove beneath the surface, with Hercules following. They submerged together. It seemed they had been around and around the deep pond. Iolaus tried again and came to the surface with Gabrielle in tow. He was exhausted and could not yell to them. Salmoneus, who had been pacing nervously on the shore, jumped up and down and waved frantically. Hercules looked in the direction of the shore and caught sight of his desperate dance. He looked in the direction Salmoneus was pointing in time to see Iolaus sink below the surface. He began swimming toward him. Xena was also beginning to be overcome by the heat of the water and the exhaustion of the search, but she pressed on following Hercules.
Hercules reached down under the water and grabbed Iolaus collar. He dragged him up and out into the air. "I got her!" Iolaus gasped. He had not let go of Gabrielle. Hercules strength was enough to hold up both of them until Xena could help. Salmoneus still paced and jumped on the shore trying to seem what was happening. "Get a blanket!" Hercules called to him. "Hurry!"
Iolaus had caught his breath and felt he had enough energy to swim the few yards to shore. Xena swam ahead reaching shore first. She grabbed the blanket from Salmoneus and ran back into the shallows meeting Hercules as he was able to stand. She threw the cover over Gabrielle and turned to reach out a hand to Iolaus. He was again out of breath. She helped him to the shore. Hercules carried the full-grown Gabrielle to the grass and laid her down. He knelt at her side and put his face close to hers. "I don't think she is breathing!" He turned her over and pressed against her back twice. Nothing. Xena and Iolaus both sat in the grass trying to catch their own breath. Salmoneus knelt at Gabrielle's head. He grabbed her arms and pulled them up and over her head. Hercules pressed against her back again. She coughed a little, then let loose a mouthful of water and coughed a lot. Between coughs she gasped for precious air. Hercules turned her back and helped her to sit up. Salmoneus quickly covered her with another blanket. Everyone smiled, except Gabrielle who was visibly confused. Xena moved closer and put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. Gabrielle still coughing, looked from face to face wondering what was going on. She pulled the blanket tighter around her wondering why she was the only one without clothing. Xena laughed, relieved that the nightmare was over.
Three days later the group entered the city of Athens. Gabrielle had no memory of the events after using the perfume she had bought from Salmoneus. Xena and the others had told her that she had been knocked unconscious in her fall from the cliff. They decided that parts of the real story might be a bit too embarrassing, after all she had been bathed and dressed by three men for the past four days. This made sense, except she couldn't figure out why if it were her head that was injured then why was it so uncomfortable to do any kind of sitting. As they entered the city that morning they were greeted by a group of small children who presented them with bouquets of flowers. Gabrielle was touched. She watched as the children frolicked in the merriment of the celebration. She smiled.
"Don't you wish that you could just be a kid again?" she mused.
The others stopped and looked at her with frustration. "What? What did I say? Come on guys!" Hercules, Iolaus, Xena and Salmoneus just walked away shaking their heads.
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