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It isn't fair. I'm supposed to be helping get ready for the harvest festival with all the other kids (not that I'm exactly Miss Popular, but I thought maybe this time I could do things differently and not have everyone hate me afterwards. Not like the Festival of the Moon when I had to punch out Bureous because he said that stuff to Mala. (And although the other kids said they understood, still, they all treated me weird for days after that), but instead I'm stuck here, taking care of some five-winters-old brat who's visiting the inn. I swear it's punishment for what I did to Lyceus last week, even though Mom told me that cleaning the barn was enough.
"Xena! Get down here -- now! They're leaving."
"In a second!" shouted Xena, her mother's commanding voice having little effect on the strong-willed teenager.
"I said now. I meant now. That means now!"
"Hades," swore Xena, hastily hiding her diary beneath her mattress. "All right already! I'm coming."
Taking the stairs two at a time, the thirteen-winters-old girl jumped the last five steps landing
lightly on her feet. Sullenly, she sauntered into the tavern where the visitors stood talking to Cyrene while their five-winters-old daughter played with a set of blocks. It was early, long before customers would fill the bar. Xena sighed, the weight of the known world on her shoulders.
"Here she is," Cyrene said brightly. "Xena, these nice people have a table to set up at the festival, so they need to leave their daughter here for a bit. I told them you were delighted at the chance to watch her while they're busy."
"Yeah, delighted," said Xena with a saccharine smile, sarcasm dripping from her voice. Cyrene pinched her daughter's arm, the action hidden from her guests' view, but Xena kept her smile in place, pushing the small stab of pain deep down. She had always been good at hiding what she felt and it drove her mother crazy.
"Well that's just wonderful! I can't tell you how much we appreciate this, Cyrene," said the woman with a genuine smile.
"Not at all. She loves doing this sort of thing. Why Xena is a natural with children."
A thousand scenarios for revenge flashed through the teen's mind as she stood quietly by her mother's side. She was already several inches taller than her mom and didn't look like she would stop growing soon. It had been quite a summer. Breasts had exploded from her chest garnering her undo attention from the local boys. Hair grew in the most bizarre places and once a month she had to deal with the infernal Wound of Artemis. Being a female sucked, she had decided.
"I promised the gang I'd help with decorations this afternoon. How long will I need to watch the kid?" asked Xena, sullenly glaring at the child who sported large green eyes and a splash of blonde hair.
"Oh not long, Sweetie," said the woman, already on her way out the door. "Just for a few candlemarks."
"Muh-theeeerrr!" whined Xena once the couple had closed the door behind them. "What am I supposed to do with her for candlemarks!!!"
"You'll think of something. Just stick close to home. With this many strangers in town for the festival it isn't safe to wander."
"Oh yeah, right," scoffed Xena. "Like some warlord is gonna say 'Ah perfect! A little blonde kid! Now I can rule the world.'"
"You have no idea how a warlord thinks," admonished Cyrene. "Now get to it. I have a lot of work to do to get ready for the traffic of a festival day. I don't want to have to worry about you or that little girl."
"Yeah, of course not," said Xena beneath her breath as her mother slipped into the back. "Why should you worry about me? You never have before." Ever since her father had disappeared, Xena had found herself more and more independent. Cyrene simply didn't have the time to run a tavern and keep a close eye on three children. So Xena had taken the responsibility of watching out for both herself and Lyceus, while Toris helped their mother with the business.
"If Lyceus were here I could make him watch you," Xena said as she approached the happy child. "But that weasel is off with Uncle Kortheer, probably having the time of his life. Boys get all the fun, don't they?" The girl looked up at Xena, her eyes shining. "Yeah, so, um... what's your name, kid?"
"Ella, huh? Weird name."
"S'not weird! Really it's Gabrielle, but Mommy calls me Ella. It's a nice name."
"Whatever. Okay, Gabrielle, let's--"
"I don't do nicknames, okay?" said Xena, deciding to torture the kid in harmless ways to get out her frustration. Besides, she rather liked the name Gabrielle. It suited the girl. "Now, let's figure out what to do with you for a couple hours."
"Tell me a story."
"Huh? What story?"
"Any story! Tell me a hero story."
"I don't know any hero stories."
"Sure you do! Everyone knows hero stories!"
"Not me. C'mon, let's go see how the decorations are coming."
"Your mom said to stay here."
"Yeah? Well, I'm your boss, got it? And you don't question me. What I say goes," said Xena, one eyebrow raised and her most fierce expression on her face.
"You don't scare me," said Gabrielle, looking frightened.
Xena relented, realizing that she was acting out her frustrations on a little kid. "Yeah, well, good. I'm not really trying to scare you. I just want to see how my friends are doing."
"Okay," said Gabrielle, standing up and dusting off her dress.
"C'mon," said Xena motioning the child through the front door. Gabrielle smiled at the teenager and reached up to take her hand.
"Awww geez," Xena muttered, relenting as she took the little girl's hand in hers and walked her out the door.
The kid is driving me nuts. She's so curious about everything. It's her first trip outside of Poteidaia and she thinks every stupid thing that's different is interesting. Man, she'd drive me insane if I had to spend more than one day with her. As it is, I can barely keep an eye on her. I was trying to talk to Maphius about the dance decorations and I hear this huge crash and there she is, covered in flour. Seems she got into the kitchen stores, saw a bug or something and was trying to catch it as a 'present' for me. Like I want a bug! Anyway, I figured I'd better take her home before she wrecked anything else.
I can't figure it out but she's decided I'm like some kind of hero. She just stares at me with those big eyes and thinks everything I do is amazing. The stupidest stuff and she thinks it's all so cool. Okay, so I sorta like that. But still, it's not enough to make up for the fact that everyone else is working on the hall for tonight's dance and I'm stuck babysitting.
Now what? Xena asked herself as she put away her diary. "You're supposed to be napping."
The young girl was lying on Xena's bed, not the least bit sleepy, pointing at Xena's bedroom wall. "Look!"
"Look at what, Gabrielle?"
"You got a sword!" the child said, gesturing emphatically to the sword mounted behind the bed.
"Yeah? What of it?"
"Is it a real sword?"
"It's real. But don't touch it. Swords are dangerous."
"Do you get to touch it?"
"Of course! But I'm older. It's different."
"'Kay..." Gabrielle pouted, staring at the weapon.
Sighing, Xena said, "Tell you what. We'll go find you a nice stick and you can pretend it's a sword, okay?"
"Okay!" Bounding off the bed, the little blonde beamed in the direction of her hero. "You're really pretty," she said, out of the blue.
Xena laughed. "You think? Ah, what would you know."
"I know. You're pretty. I bet you're the prettiest girl in Amphipolis, huh?"
"You don't even know her!" said Xena, exasperated, yet oddly pleased by the compliment.
"Do so! She was at the place where the flour was. She's not near so pretty as you."
"Yeah, well, she's sure more popular," muttered Xena. Then, at the worshipful gaze of her newest fan, she said, "C'mon, let's go get you a fighting stick." Tucking her diary into her pocket, Xena stood up.
"Neato!" Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hand and yanked her toward the door. The teenager shook her head, smiling, and allowed herself to be pulled along. Hard to beat that enthusiasm, she decided.
Man, that kid loves that stupid stick. I mean, it's just a stick, but she's been playing with it forever. I tried to show her how to use it like a sword, but she keeps whipping it around like it's a staff or something. Oh well, she'd probably put out her eye otherwise. She was kind of awkward when she tried to thrust and parry and stuff.
"Careful!" said Xena, looking up from her diary and spotting Gabrielle banging away at a tree trunk with her stick. "You don't want to get bark chips in your eyes or something."
Immediately, Gabrielle pulled away from the tree. "I'm sorry, Xena," she said. She looked like she was about to cry.
"Oh for-- look, you didn't do anything wrong. I just want you to be careful, that's all."
"What do you mean, how come?" asked Xena, exasperated.
Gabrielle inched closer to the teenager, her glistening eyes fixed on the older girl's face. "How come? You don't care 'bout me..."
"What makes you say that?"
"Cuz you won't tell me stories and you act like you don't want me around, that's how come."
"C'mere," said Xena, motioning the girl closer. Gabrielle came within arms' length and Xena pulled her into her lap. "Look, I'm sorry if I made you feel bad. It's just that I've really been looking forward to today and I hadn't expected to have to babysit. I kinda wanted to hang out with my friends."
"I'm sorry, Xena..." said Gabrielle, sniffing loudly.
The teen looked into the little girl's face and saw abject sorrow there. "Awww, c'mon, I said that's what I had planned. Doesn't mean I'm not having fun with you. And sure doesn't mean I don't like you. For a little kid, you're pretty cool."
"For real?" asked Gabrielle, light pouring from her eyes.
"Yeah. I mean, other than messing up the flour you've been pretty good."
"When I get old like you, will I be pretty too?"
Xena leaned back and seriously assessed the young girl's features. "Well... you won't look like me, that's for sure. We're very different. But I don't think you should worry. You're cute now, so you'll probably look fine when you get older." Twisting suddenly, Gabrielle lunged into a deep hug, surprising the teen with the strength in her small arms. "Hey!" said Xena, laughing. "Cut it out, huh? It's no big deal."
Gabrielle relaxed her grip but remained snuggled against her babysitter. "You make me feel safe," she said.
"Safe from what?"
"From monsters and warlords and stuff. I bet you could kill them all with your sword. I bet you're that good. I bet you're like a hero or something, right?"
"Hardly. I'm just a kid. Kids aren't heroes."
"What do you wanna be when you grow up?"
"I don't know. Maybe a warrior or a healer or something. How about you?"
"A Hestian Virgin. They have pretty dresses."
Laughing, Xena said, "Okay, that's one reason, all right. But I think you should be a bard."
"How come?" asked Gabrielle, pulling away so she could look into the teen's bright blue eyes.
"You like stories so much. And heroes and junk. Bards love that kind of thing."
"A bard...? Huh," said the child, an almost adult expression of contemplation on her features. "Can bards be Hestian Virgins too?"
"I dunno. But bards can wear pretty dresses. No reason why not."
Brightening, the child grinned. "Okay! That's what I'll be then."
"Good. Glad to have that settled. Shouldn't leave those decisions until too late," quipped Xena with a lopsided grin. "Hey, you tired?" she asked as the child snuggled back into the teen's arms. Xena was very glad no one was in the small forest glade, watching her. Too much mush, she decided.
"Nah ah," whispered Gabrielle, as her eyes closed.
"Right," chuckled Xena, pulling out her diary.
I never really thought about having kids. Always figured they were a big pain. Mom says it often enough. But just between you and me, this Gabrielle kid is kinda sweet. Talky. And too curious. And she says silly things, but still...
Awww geez, I'm talking a lot of nonsense, now. There's no place for someone like Gabrielle in my life. Not the life I want. Adventures, that's for me. Just me and Lyceus and our swords. We're gonna escape Amphipolis and just travel the known world, hanging out with Kings and other warriors. And I'm gonna have jewels and stuff and give them to my mother so she can stop running the tavern and just sit in a big house ordering around lots of slaves. (She always says she doesn't need slaves, cuz she has us. Ha. Ha.).
Mom keeps telling me I'm silly for saying things like that. She says I should worry about who I'm gonna marry and that's it. That's a woman's lot. Well, that and I'm supposed to learn to cook a whole lot better than I do. I suck at that. It's so unfair. Why should I worry about cooking -- something I suck at -- when I'm so good with a sword? Seems to me I should concentrate on stuff I do good, not stuff I'm supposed to do good just cuz I'm a girl.
"Well, well, well... what have we here?" said a gruff voice just behind Xena's shoulder.
Quickly, the teen slid from Gabrielle's sleeping form and hopped to her feet, the child's fighting stick in her hands. "Who are you?" she asked, glaring at the lone man. He was disgusting -- covered with grime, his clothes stained and the stench of stale liquor and unwashed male hanging on him like a noxious cloud.
"I'm the man of your dreams, Hot Stuff."
Xena knew she looked older than thirteen. People were always surprised when they found out her age. It was all that growth over the summer. Once again, she hated the fact that she was too tall, had too much chest and wasn't normal like all the other girls her age. But somehow she had the feeling that her age wouldn't matter at all to a guy like this. Her mom had been right -- she should have stayed close to home. "Get out of here," she said coldly, pushing away her fear and trying to act as tough as the warriors who passed through her mother's tavern. It was all attitude, she had decided at an early age. Act tough and people will see you as tough.
The man laughed. "Ooooh, a feisty one, huh? Good, I like it rough." Before Xena could respond, he spotted Gabrielle, who was just blinking open her eyes. "You gonna let your daughter watch, or do you wanna slip over into the woods a bit? Not that I mind, but some folks is sensitive about that kinda thing."
"You're disgusting," said Xena. "And I'm warning you for the last time -- get out of here or I'll make you wish you'd never found us."
"Xena? I'm scared," said Gabrielle, grabbing onto the teenager's leg.
"Shhh, it's okay, Gabrielle. Everything is going to be fine. This man was just leaving," she said, stroking the child's hair.
The man walked up to Xena and stared at her, eye to eye. He was only about an inch or two taller and the teenager was already mentally figuring out how to use his strength against him. She had spent her youth conning lessons out of the warriors who passed through Amphipolis. Discovering at an early age that she had a natural aptitude for the fighting arts, she had soaked up every piece of knowledge she could, using her younger brother as a sparring partner.
"Let me put it this way, Girlie. You give me what I want and I spare the kid. You even think about trying to fight me and she becomes my target. Got it?"
Gabrielle's grip tightened, tears flowing freely. "All right," Xena said with a feral smile, surprisingly menacing in a face so young. "Now you've got me mad. You're not going to like me mad." With eye-blurring speed, she brought the stick up to his groin, connecting with a resounding thud. As he bent over she elbowed his nose then slammed the stick onto his head, breaking the wood in two with the fierceness of the blow. The man fell to the ground in a groaning heap. "C'mon, Gabrielle," said Xena, urgently, gathering the child in her arms. She ran from the glade as quickly as she could with her awkward burden, overjoyed when she burst through the trees onto the streets of Amphipolis.
She's finally asleep. Took three stories and I had to make up half of them because I never paid attention to all that god stuff, but she closed her eyes at last. I wasn't sure what to do about the man, so I went to Thomasus, the smith, and told him there was a highwayman in the woods. He came back and said no one was there. I guess the guy ran away or something. Thomasus said that most likely he wouldn't be bothering anyone around here for awhile, cuz there was blood in the clearing. I suppose it was from his nose. I cracked him pretty good.
I'm mostly worried about Gabrielle. She's just a little kid. I don't like the idea of her seeing that crap. Such an innocent little thing.
"We're home!" wafted Cyrene's voice.
Xena bolted from her room, leaping down the stairs with a finger over her lips. "Shhh! I just got her to sleep!"
Gabrielle's mother had followed Cyrene into the tavern and smiled at Xena. "How was she? Did she behave? She didn't make you tell her any stories, did she?"
"A couple. But I didn't mind. She's a good kid," said Xena, her eyes downcast.
"You didn't have any trouble, did you?" asked Cyrene, examining her daughter's expression suspiciously.
Innocently, Xena met her Mom's eyes. "Of course not."
"Sorry you couldn't be with your friends, Dear," said her mom, her eyes softening.
"No biggie. Gabrielle and I went down there to check on stuff and it was all pretty boring anyway."
"I heard some highwayman attacked a woman and her daughter in the woods outside of town," said Gabrielle's mother.
"You're kidding? What happened?" asked Cyrene, the gossip lighting her eyes.
"Your smithy went out and bloodied his nose. Sent him running with his tail between his legs."
"Did you hear anything about this, Xena? I saw you talking to Thomasus earlier," observed Cyrene.
"Nah, I was talking about armor and junk."
"You and your swords and armor. What's going to become of you?"
"I dunno. Maybe I'll be a hero, like Achilles," said Xena, embarrassed.
"Well if so, Gabrielle will want to hear all about it. She's absolutely obsessed with tales of heroes," said the child's mother, laughing indulgently.
"Yeah, well, maybe I will tell her some day," said Xena, backing away from the two women. While they continued to gossip, Xena slowly walked back up the stairs to her small room. She sat on the edge of her bed, looking down at the sweet-faced blonde child as she slept. "Hey, kid, your mom is here," she whispered gently.
Gabrielle opened her eyes, yawning. It took a moment for her to focus but when she saw Xena she grinned. "Hi, Xena."
"Hi. Your mom is downstairs. You don't have to hang around me anymore, lucky you."
The girl sat up, rubbing her eyes then smiled. She hugged Xena, saying, "I liked hanging around with you. You're a hero. You beat up the bad man and everything."
"Let's not tell anyone about that, okay? We were sorta not supposed to be out in the woods." At Gabrielle's confused expression, Xena said, "Not that you should lie. Just don't, you know, tell anyone unless they ask you. Okay? It'll be our secret."
"A secret? Okay!"
"Good. Thanks, Gabrielle."
"I like how you say my name."
Xena smiled crookedly and picked up the child, carrying her weight easily. "Let's get you back to your mom."
"Will I ever see you again, Xena?"
"I dunno. Maybe. Maybe I'll come to hear you when you're a famous bard."
"And I'll tell stories about Xena, the Warrior Hero."
"It's a deal," said Xena, not quite understanding why the trust of this small child hit her heart in such a deep place.