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"And so He told his disciples 'Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends'..."
Gabrielle sat at a table on the far side of the room, watching the young man as he struggled desperately to engage the attention of four rough-looking workers who wanted merely to eat their dinner in peace.
At length, the young man picked up his scrolls and headed toward the door of the inn. As he passed Gabrielle's table, his dejected looked touched her compassionate heart - not a terribly difficult thing to do.
"Excuse me, but I couldn't help overhearing the story you were telling to those men. Are you a bard? I mean, do you do this for a living?"
The young man stopped and looked at her in surprise.
"I'm sorry, I don't mean to be so bold, but, you see, I'm a bard and I thought if you had a little time, maybe we could trade a few stories. You know, expand the repertoire and all that."
"Oh, no, I'm sorry. Actually, I'm not really a bard, in the true sense of the word. I'm more a - well, I'm not sure what you would call it. You see, I've been traveling around the country telling people about something - Someone actually - so wonderful, so life-transforming. But apparently I'm failing miserably at it." He glanced over at the four men who had never once taken their faces out of their plates while he was talking. "Nobody seems to really want to hear what I have to say."
"Hmmm, " Gabrielle said thoughtfully as she looked at the men, "well, that is a pretty tough crowd. I, on the other hand, thought the story was very interesting and told in a very compelling way. Certainly worth a dinar." She reached in her pocket, took out a coin and laid it on the table in front of the young man. He laid down his scrolls, picked up the coin and studied it carefully. His face broke into a beautiful smile as he handed it back to her.
"Thank you, but, you see, I can't take money for telling this story. It's free."
"Uh-huh," she said with a somewhat skeptical look on her face. "Well, anyway, it is a good story."
"It's a great story," he replied. "In fact, it might just be the greatest story that's ever been told. My name's Timothy, by the way."
Coming from anyone else, his boast might have seemed pretentious, but, for some reason, it only made Gabrielle smile.
"I'm Gabrielle," she said as she took his outstretched hand. "Have a seat, Timothy. Do you have any other stories?"
"No, just the one. But it's got lots of interesting sub-plots to it," he replied with a grin, his good humor completely restored.
Xena had just finished wrapping Argo's swollen fetlock. "Easy, girl. Try not to put any weight on it. I didn't see that hole, either. Maybe we both need to get our eyes examined. Well, like it or not, I guess we're stuck here for a few days until you get back on your feet." She smiled to herself at the pun.
Just then, she heard shouting and scuffling coming from outside the stable door. Racing into the night, she could see two men engaged in a ferocious fight. Striding over to the fracas, she said with a loud voice,
"All right, what's this all about?"
Not getting any response, she decided to take a more involved course of action. Reaching into the middle of the fray, she caught hold of the collar of one of the men and, with a jerk, pulled him back a few steps.
In a shot, the other man, brandishing a dagger, began to charge the one Xena was holding. But before he could make contact, Xena grabbed his wrist with her other hand and held him at bay. When the first man saw that his opponent had been temporarily restrained, he began to lunge at him with a wild fury.
"We'll have none of that now," Xena said sweetly as she stomped her booted foot down hard on his instep. Howling with pain, the man grabbed his foot and hopped around awkwardly, his collar still in the vice grip of the Warrior Princess. With a quick flick of her wrist, she flipped the dagger from other man's hand and demanded again,
"What's this all about?"
"He's a toe-sucking, dog-breathed, dirty scum of a flea-bitten Hyperionite and if I had my way, I'd kill every last one of them!" one of the men spat out with a look of complete contempt.
"Oh, you think so, huh," the other replied, "you rat-faced, chicken-lipped, sorry answer for a Heliosite! You and who else!?!"
At that, the first man tried to lunge again at his opponent. With one seamless movement, Xena pulled him back, let go of both men for a split second, then with a hand behind each neck, knocked their heads together with a terrific crack. They both sank to the ground with a dull thud. Walking over to the water trough by the stable door, Xena grabbed a pail, filled it with water and proceeded to pour the contents on the faces of the prostrate men. Within seconds, they both began to cough and groan, rubbing the gigantic lumps which were already forming on their respective foreheads.
"You know, you boys ought to show just a little more tolerance," she said as she deftly hit the dagger blade with the tip of her boot, sending it upward into a perfect arc and catching the hilt in her hand.
"Oh, and you can pick this up in the morning at the inn," she waved the blade at its owner, "when you've gotten more of a handle on your better judgement, if you have any."
She stood there, hands on hips, until they both struggled to their feet. Giving each other one final vitriolic glare, they stumbled off in opposite directions.
Xena shook her head. Hyperionite; Heliosite. She knew only too well what this was all about. For years there had been a blood-feud between the two religious factions in the northern regions of the country, but she was surprised to find that it had sifted this far south. She looked down at the knife in her hand.
Without warning, a vivid scene suddenly invaded her mind. She stood there, her gaze lost in the distance, remembering...
It was years ago. Her army had just finished a destructive march through three highland villages. Looking for a place to make camp, they came across a small, shabby shrine to Helios, tended to only by an ancient priest and his ruddy-faced novice. Knowing there was nothing to be gained by bothering the site, Xena had ordered her men to pass by. But one of her lieutenants, a brash and brutal Hyperionite, insisted that she let him "cleanse" the area. With a shrug, she had nodded her consent, and then watch impassively as he slit the throats of the pleading men, threw their lifeless bodies on the wooden altar and, with savage delight, set fire to the shrine.
Xena shook her head again, harder this time, as if to dislodge the memory. She could feel the all-too-familiar hardness begin to wrap itself around her emotions as she steeled herself against the onslaught of sadness and remorse. With a rough sigh, she stuck the dagger in her belt and turned toward the inn.
When she walked in, she heard the sound of Gabrielle's laughter and the thought of having to share her table with one of Gabrielle's new found friends made her grimace. Catching sight of Xena, Gabrielle jumped up and waved her hand to get her attention. Xena gave a sick smile and waved back. With a nod of her head, she walked over to the bar and ordered a mug of ale. As she made her way to where Gabrielle was sitting, she saw the dark, curly hair of the young man with whom Gabrielle had been so animated just a minute ago. Gabrielle scooted around the table and grabbed Xena's arm, pulling her over to the bench and nearly spilling her ale.
"Xena, I want you to meet Timothy. Timothy, this is Xena. You know, who I was just telling you about."
Xena rolled her eyes slightly but took his outstretched hand. "Uh-huh. Nice to meet you," she said sullenly, leaning back against the cold stone wall.
Gabrielle stared at her for a second, started to say something but then thought better of it. Turning back to Timothy, she continued with the story she was telling. Xena drained her mug and stood up to leave.
"Listen, I'm pretty beat, so I think I'll just head up to the room."
Timothy stood up as well and effectively blocked her path, earning an irritated scowl. Unfazed, he looked at Gabrielle and then back to Xena.
"No, please. You stay and relax with your friend. I'm the one who must be going. I'm putting on a little presentation for the children tomorrow morning and want to go over my lines again tonight. Puppets, you know." He held up his hands and touched his fingers and thumbs together several times. "It's at ten o'clock at that little amphitheater by the market." He turned and smiled at Gabrielle. "I'd love it if you could come. Both of you. I could use the support."
Gabrielle returned his smile. "I'll be there." Xena merely sat back down with a thump and stared at her drink.
"Well, goodnight, then." He gathered up his scrolls and headed for the door. Gabrielle watched him leave and then turned to Xena.
"Now, that's a nice guy. He even bought me dinner, which means that I have a few extra dinars to get you a nice, hot meal." She started to get up.
"Don't bother, I'm not hungry. But if you're going to the bar, I'll take another drink." She pushed the mug toward Gabrielle.
"Okay," she said slowly, "I guess I can do that. But when I get back, we're going to have a little talk."
"Gabrielle, there's nothing to..."
Gabrielle held up her hand. "Tell me about it when I get back." With that, she headed to the bar, returning a moment later with a mug of ale for Xena and a steaming cup of tea for herself.
"All right," Gabrielle began, "what happened? When you left me to take care of Argo you were in a perfectly good mood. Then an hour later you come in here with thunderclouds for eyes. Something happened between there and here and I want to know what it was."
"It was nothing. I just had to break up a fight, that's all. A couple of drunk village idiots going at it over by the stable. I just wish people wouldn't be so - so, stupid." She leaned forward and began rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands.
Gabrielle looked intently at her friend. She knew that there was so much more going on inside of her than just breaking up a fight, and on any other occasion, she probably would have pressed the issue. But tonight, something told her to have patience, and to mix it with a little understanding and love. She reached over, put her hand on Xena's shoulder and gave a squeeze.
"Come on. Let's finish our drinks and go to bed. I'm kind of beat, myself."
Xena looked at her gratefully and nodded.
Gabrielle rolled over and squinted. Xena was sitting cross-legged on her bed, staring out the moon-lit window.
"So," Gabrielle cleared her throat, "are you ready?"
Xena looked over at her. "Sorry, didn't mean to wake you."
"Are you ready?" Gabrielle repeated her question.
"Ready for what?"
"Ready to tell me what's really going on?"
Xena stared back out the window for a long, silent moment then turned to face her friend.
"Those men tonight, whose fight I broke up, one was a Hyperionite, the other a Heliosite. They were fighting because they don't like each other's religion, and if I hadn't come between them, they probably would have killed each other."
Gabrielle propped herself up on one elbow. "Hmmm, well that's too bad. I mean, you'd think people could just try to get along and let others believe what they want without making a major deal out of it." She paused for a moment, thinking. "But, Xena, you've seen people fight each other before, for even more ridiculous reasons than that, and it hasn't affected you quite like this. What makes this so different?"
Xena lowered her head, pressing her fingers to her lips. "A long time ago I let one of my men slaughter an old Heliosite priest and his assistant. I guess it didn't bother me then because the rage I saw in his eyes matched my own. But thinking about it tonight, I don't know, I guess the past just came crashing down around me." Gabrielle could see tears glistening in Xena's eyes. "Sometimes I feel like no matter how much good I may do, it will never make up for the all the anguish and devastation I've caused so many innocent people."
Her voice caught on the last few words and tears were coming now in earnest. Gabrielle got up, walked over and sat down beside Xena, putting an arm around her shoulder. She pulled away slightly from Gabrielle's touch.
"I'm sorry. I know you're just trying to be a friend," Xena glanced over at Gabrielle and saw the faint look of hurt which had flickered across her face. She turned toward her and took her hand. "You are my friend," she said deliberately, "always know that. It's just that these are my demons and I'm the one who has to figure out how to fight them. Or how to live with them."
Gabrielle got up and sat back on her bed. "You're right. I can't help you figure that out. Nor can I tell you for sure that the good that you do now will wipe away the hurt you've caused in the past. But I do know that everyday, we, all of us, wake up and have a choice to make. And every day that I've known you, you've made the choice to help and protect and defend the innocent. You can't change the past, but you're doing everything in your power to change the future. What more can you do?"
"I don't know," Xena replied softly. "I don't know."
Gabrielle's heart hurt deeply for her friend and she wanted nothing more than to reach over and fold her into her arms, but she wisely resisted. Instead, she gave her a long, loving look, then slipped back under the blanket. The last thing she remembered was Xena's still, sad figure, bathed in moonlight.
The sun was already half way up the eastern sky when Gabrielle awoke. Giving in to a full-body stretch, she looked over at Xena's bed and was not surprised to find it empty. She dressed quickly, washed her face and went downstairs. As soon as she entered the dining area, the innkeeper yelled in her direction.
"Yer friend wants me to tell ya that she's down at the stable lookin' after her horse."
"Oh, okay. Thanks." She walked over to the bar where a basket of baked rolls was sitting. Grabbing two, she ordered a hot tea and threw a dinar on the counter. After she finished eating, she made her way over to the stable. Argo was standing patiently in her straw-covered stall, her fetlock freshly wrapped. Xena was nowhere in sight, though again, Gabrielle wasn't terribly surprised. She knew that, just like an injured animal, Xena had a propensity for going off alone to lick her emotional wounds. She'd be back when the healing process began.
Looking across the center of the village, which was already a beehive of activity, she could see the amphitheater where Timothy would be putting on his puppet show. It sat on a small hill and was open to the marketplace below. She smiled when she thought of him. So anxious he was to share his wonderful story. She knew exactly how he felt. It was thrilling to tell others of the heroic exploits of someone who was your own personal hero. Gabrielle loved telling the stories of Xena, and of Hercules, the son of Zeus, just like Timothy loved telling about Jesus, the son of his god. She'd have to ask him sometime just what monsters Jesus had slain, or quests he'd been on. She certainly had enough of those kinds of stories about Hercules.
She made her way to the marketplace and wound slowly around the various stalls, checking out the bolts of fabric at the silk vendors, trying on necklaces and studying herself carefully in the polished brass mirrors of the jewelry vendors, always ending her visits with a "just looking". Finally, she saw Timothy climbing the path to the amphitheater, a small, collapsible stage, his props, and his scrolls all delicately balanced in his arms. She began to run and almost beat him to the top.
"Hello! Looks like you've got a great day for a puppet show. Can I do anything to help?"
"Hi. Um, well yeah, actually, you can take this end and pull it out over there." He swung a side of the stage toward her and pointed with his head where he wanted it to go. Within minutes, they had assembled the wooden platform with its miniature proscenium and brightly-colored curtains. Timothy began to hang banners around the stage which were just as brightly-colored, and one by one, he could see the people down in the marketplace begin to look up and point in his direction.
"So, what stories are you going to do today?" Gabrielle asked.
"Well, let's see," he replied, digging through his scrolls, "we have the Parable of the Rich Young Ruler, the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, oh, and my own personal favorite, The Prodigal Son."
"Hmmm, that sounds like a good one. And I take it that this Jesus is the star in each of these stories?"
"Well, yes, more or less. He's at the heart of every one of them. You know, it's hard to explain, Gabrielle, but these are more than just stories that are fun to listen to or maybe a little entertaining. These stories can actually bring life to the people who hear them. Not life in the physical sense, necessarily, but life inside. The people who hear these words with open hearts not only find a good message, they also find love and forgiveness and peace, within themselves and with others." He smiled at her puzzled expression. "Like I said, it's hard to explain. I guess you just have to experience it."
"Well, I do have to admit that this whole "one god" concept sure has been turning up a lot lately. And who couldn't use some love and forgiveness and peace." She looked off into the distance and said to herself, "I can think of someone right now who needs it pretty badly."
At that moment, a group of children began to gather in front of the stage, their parents milling around behind them.
"Well, that's my cue," Timothy grinned, his face lighting up like a bonfire.
"Break a leg," Gabrielle replied as she took a seat and settled in for the show.
Within minutes, she found herself completely transported by the power and beauty of the themes which Timothy was so eloquently narrating. So much so, in fact, that she didn't notice the rumblings of the crowd which had begun to form behind her. As the final scene of The Prodigal Son was closing, Gabrielle wiped the tears from her eyes. It was so touching, this story of unconditional love, forgiveness and hope. She was beginning to understand what Timothy meant about the words bringing life to the hearts of those who truly listened.
Suddenly, the whiz of a stone being hurled ripped her from her meditation. She jumped up and looked wildly around. People were beginning to run, grabbing their children and quickly getting out of the way of a barrage of rocky missiles being thrown at the stage. Timothy stepped around from the back of the platform to see what was happening and immediately a large brick struck him hard in the chest, knocking him to the ground.
"We won't have you teaching our children a pack of lies!" came a scream from the crowd.
"Blasphemy! Blasphemy! Kill the blasphemer!" came another.
Gabrielle looked around for some kind of weapon, a stick or a branch, but could find nothing. Her one thought was to get Timothy to safety as quickly as she could, but the relentless hailstorm of rocks made it impossible. She could see him crawling toward the back wall of the amphitheater, his body taking a terrible beating.
Just when she thought he wouldn't make it, a familiar silver disk sliced through the air, effectively knocking rocks out of hands and disrupting the sinister chanting of the vicious crowd.
With an "Aiyiyiyiyiyi!!", Xena vaulted in front of the horde, snatching the chakram out of the air in mid-flight and landing with her sword blazing.
"Let's see how brave you are now! Come on, who wants to throw a rock at me?? Huh?? Come on!" Her eyes were flashing as she walked menacingly toward the crowd. It had been a long time since Gabrielle had seen such a fiery look on her beautiful features.
Incredibly, someone from the back did throw a rock, only to see it easily deflected by Xena's sword. The action seemed to bring out even more of a fierceness in her and a few good swings of the trusty blade was all it took to scatter the faceless mob.
Gabrielle rushed over to Timothy's motionless body. He groaned as she tried to turn him over. He had a nasty gash above one eye and gasped in pain as she helped him sit up.
"My side really hurts. I think maybe I have a broken rib."
At that moment, Xena walked up. "Can you breath all right?"
He nodded his head. "I can breath. It hurts, but I can breath."
"Let me take a look." She gently laid him back on the ground and pushed gingerly on his rib cage. He let out a sharp cry. "Okay. It's okay. It's not broken, just bruised. Gabrielle, go get me those curtains off the stage."
When Gabrielle returned with the curtains, Xena ripped them into wide strips and tied six or seven of them together. They then, carefully, got Timothy to his feet and Xena proceeded to tightly wrap his midsection with the material.
"This won't take away all the pain, but it should help ease it a little."
He managed a weak laugh. "Well, what is it they say? No pain, no gain?"
"I don't think that quite fits this situation," Gabrielle said as she and Xena each shouldered one of Timothy's arms and cautiously made their way into the woods behind the amphitheater.
Xena made the trip back to the village to collect all of their belongings. Marching purposefully into the inn, she captured the stares of every patron, but they all wisely gave her a wide berth and she was able to accomplish her task without incident. She hated to take Argo away from her comfortable stall, but there was nothing else for it but to bring her to the woodland camp as well.
In her absence, Gabrielle had built a more than adequate fire and when Xena returned, she put together an amazingly enjoyable meal.
Timothy was ensconced as comfortably as possible while Xena and Gabrielle shared a log in front of the crackling flames. In spite of the events of the day, a particular mellowness had settled down on them all.
"Timothy, I don't think you should feel too badly. It's not just your religion they don't like. They can't stand each other's, either." Gabrielle picked up a twig and threw it into the fire.
"Well, I can't say I'd like to do an encore performance there, but what happened today isn't so unusual. Once, while in Damascus, my mentor, Paul, had to be lowered out of the city in a basket just to escape being killed by his own people."
"Why do you do it?" Xena asked unexpectedly. "Why risk your life to tell people about something most of them don't want to hear anyway?"
"That's a good question and I have to admit, I've asked it of myself a time or two. I guess there's no easy answer. Maybe it's just that when you find something so valuable, something that has so much eternal significance, you know it would be worth even your own life to try to share it with whoever might listen." He winced as he tried to sit up a little. "You know, I don't want to die any more than anyone else, but I'm not afraid of it either. It will happen someday, and if it happens while I'm out spreading this good news, then so much the better."
Xena looked at Gabrielle and then back at Timothy.
"I'd like to hear about your good news," she said quietly.
Timothy smiled. "I'd like to tell you about it."
The embers glowed long into the night as the three of them shared their thoughts and their hearts about life and death, love, sacrifice and forgiveness. As the night wore on, Gabrielle began to notice a change in Xena's countenance. The hardness was lifting and something akin to peace was taking its place.
"Where will you go from here?" Xena asked Timothy when they reached the fork in the road.
"I'm suppose to meet my friend Silas in Phillipi sometime before winter. I guess I'll start heading that way. Who knows, maybe I'll run into a few people who will actually want to hear what I have to say - and who don't carry around big rocks."
"I wish you well," Xena said as she reached out her hand.
"And I hope you find what you're looking for," he replied as he took it.
"Maybe I have." She smiled as she pulled him into an awkward hug and released him just as suddenly. Timothy and Gabrielle watched her as she slowly led Argo down the road.
"I'm so glad we met and got to be friends. You have a special place in my heart now." Gabrielle took both of Timothy's hands in her own. "I didn't get a chance to say this before, but thank you."
"For giving my friend back a little something of what she lost a long time ago."
Timothy cocked his head.
"You know," Gabrielle replied to his unspoken question, "peace. In her heart."
"Oh. I didn't give it to her. I just maybe helped her find it. It's all part of that 'greater love' I've been telling you about."
Gabrielle smiled and nodded, grasping his hand warmly. "Be well."
With that, she turned and ran after Xena. When she reached her, she slid her arm around Xena's waist and matched her step for step. Wordlessly, Xena draped her arm across Gabrielle's shoulders, leaned down and kissed the top of her head.
Gabrielle looked up. "What's that for?"
Xena just smiled and began to hum. The melody could still be heard as they disappeared around the bend.