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Xena was quiet but Gabrielle jabbered away as they collected their belongings and packed for the road. Her mind was preoccupied with thoughts of her mother and this sudden summons home. She couldn't wipe away the feeling of dread and apprehension that enveloped her. It had to be something serious to actually send Toris with the message. Perhaps she trusted no one else. Xena believed Toris to be the last person expected to hunt her down and deliver a message. She and her older brother had never been close even as children. Though she and her mother had made amends following her long years as a warlord, she was still uncomfortable around her brother. She knew he felt the same way about her. She often got the feeling he would be much more comfortable if she had never returned to Amphipolis. Until now she saw no reason to explore the rift that had grown between them, and yet, it puzzled her.
"Hey are you listening to me?" Xena snapped her attention back to Gabrielle.
"I'm sorry, you were saying something?" Xena asked.
"Yeah, I was, but I guess you were preoccupied." Seeing Xena's discomfort Gabrielle moved to her and lightly touched her arm. "You want to talk about it?"
"I was just thinking about some things that I hadn't thought about in a long time, I am also worried about mother," Xena answered.
"Well that's understandable. Cryptic messages make me crazy; I'm sure it must be really bothering you," Gabrielle commented.
"You know, Gab, maybe I would like to talk to you about what's bothering me. Maybe you can help me figure some things out." Gabrielle, pleasantly pleased with this new side of Xena, thought `Perhaps those walls were weakening.' Her musings were interrupted by Xena. "Let's finish packing, and we can talk once we get on the road. Great Zeus knows we will have plenty of time." The two completed their task and carried their belongings outside. There Eponin waited with Argo already saddled. Ephiny handed them some food she ordered packed for their journey.
Gabrielle and Ephiny exchanged hugs, and Eponin and Xena grasped each other's forearms in their familiar warrior gesture. Xena noticed Eponin had stitched her crystal to the outside of her warrior amulet she wore at her waist. After their good-byes, Xena fastened Gab's staff to the saddle, mounted and effortlessly swung Gabrielle up behind her. As they trotted off down the road, their Amazon friends waved until they were out of sight. Then Xena spurred Argo into a loping gallop.
After a candlemark of silence, Xena pulled Argo up to a walk and turned her head to catch a glimpse of Gabrielle. "Are you still with me back there?" She inquired. Gabrielle seemed unusually quiet and Xena's concern rose so she asked, "Is something wrong, Gab?"
"No, I was just thinking, and besides it's not easy to talk when Argo is galloping," Gabrielle replied.
"I know. I'm sorry I didn't even give you an option, but I am anxious to reach Amphipolis as soon as possible," Xena said.
"No, don't apologize, Xena, I understand, it's all right." Gabby squeezed Xena and rested her head on her back.
Xena smiled feeling her bard tighten her hold and wished for a few fleeting moments she could stop and prove her love for her right then and there. Shaking her mind free of such distracting thoughts she asked, "You said you were thinking; want to share with an old ex-warlord what you were thinking about?"
Gabrielle smiled briefly at the comment and said, "Well, first I was thinking how wonderful I feel right now with you. And then I was thinking about how beautiful these last two days have been. I was thinking about how much I love you and how I'm afraid this is all too good to be true." Gabrielle stopped suddenly and Xena, feeling Gabrielle body against her tense up, was sure her bard fought back tears.
"You know, Gab, I was thinking the exact same thing as we galloped down the road." Xena reassured, "But I promise, I'm not going to let anything come between us." Secretly she knew that was a promise she might not be able to keep forever because she understood better than most how evil and hard the world really was. She just hoped she could protect Gabrielle from most of it. She knew her bard was tougher than she looked; after all Gab had dragged her broken body all the way up a mountain even with a severe wound to her own thigh. Yes, Gabrielle was gentle and kind and sweet, but she was also tough and determined and was becoming quite good with her staff. She could take care of herself, most of the time. "Gab, Argo is well rested from our stay with the Amazons, so if it's all right with you, I'm going to pick up the pace." Gabrielle nodded in Xena's back, and Xena spurred Argo on.
When the sun was high overhead, Xena reined Argo off the trail and found a grassy glade with a clear stream passing through it. Xena eased Gabrielle to the ground and then swung down from the saddle. She grabbed the cloth food bag and pulled the staff from the saddle and handed the items to Gab. "If you'll fix lunch, I'll take a look around and make sure we are safe here," Xena said and as she turned reminded Gabrielle, "Keep your staff with you until I get back. I'll only be gone a bit." The bard nodded and stretched, glad to finally be on solid ground. Xena disappeared into the trees.
Gabrielle selected some flat bread, goat cheese and a couple of pears from their food supply and spread their meal out on a large, flattened boulder by the stream. At a noise behind her, Gabrielle swung around and dropped into her practiced defensive stance, her staff in her hands. Xena's voice met her, "Good reflexes, Gabrielle." Xena was pleased at Gabrielle's response; it made her feel more at ease knowing Gabrielle had remembered her sparring lessons.
Gabrielle grinned at the compliment and said, "Thanks, let's eat; I'm starved." During the course of the meal, Gabrielle finally worked up the nerve to ask Xena about their discussion early that morning. "Remember when you said there were things you were thinking about that you had not thought about in a long time? You want to talk about them now?"
Xena smiled that crooked smile Gab knew so well, "Maybe," and she popped a chunk of cheese in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully.
"Hey, that's all right, if you don't want to talk, I understand," Gabrielle said as she reached for one of the pears and wiped it absently on her skirt.
Xena quickly replied, " No, I want to talk, but I don't know where to begin...and don't tell me to start in the beginning," they both grinned, "you've already used that advice. It's Toris; our relationship puzzles me, and I can't put my finger on it. It's like he really doesn't care for me, not that I can blame him, but it's as if he never liked me even when we were young."
Gabrielle nodded, but she really didn't understand. She and her sister, Lila, loved each other, sure they had their fights, and sometimes they didn't like each other, but they always loved each other. "Why do you think Toris didn't like you when you were younger?" she asked.
"I don't know. He is three summers older than me, and Lyceus was but a summer younger than me. Lyceus and I were so close; we shared everything. Toris was always so distant. He and I were different in every way. As I got older, I often thought he missed our father a great deal. Lyceus wasn't even born when Atrius left, and I was so young I hardly remember him. I guess Lyceus and I were the lucky ones." Xena thought to herself about Solon and hoped he considered himself lucky too. "It's almost like we are not even related."
Gabrielle listened thoughtfully to Xena's dilemma and laid her head on Xena's shoulder, "You know Xena, I've heard it said that people seldom grow up with the members of their true family in the same house. Maybe that's just the way it is. Look at you and me. I consider myself closer to you than anyone else in the world. You are my family now."
Xena looked down at Gabrielle and grinned slyly, with a raised eyebrow she commented, "After the last couple of days, I hope you consider yourself closer to me than anyone else."
Gabby punched Xena in the shoulder and feigned a frown, "You know what I mean, warrior!"
Xena laughed and nodded her head, "I guess you're right, but I don't know. It's like there's a piece of the puzzle missing."
"Maybe you should talk to Toris. He can probably answer some of your questions."
"Yeah, right. I'd get better conversation out of Argo," Xena growled.
Gabrielle grinned mischievously, "I thought you said Toris and you were nothing alike?" Thinking to herself she had probably heard more words from Xena in the last three days than in the last two years they’d been together.
Xena laughed, pulled Gabrielle to her feet and kissed her lips lightly and said, "Come on let's have a swim."
"I thought we were in a hurry," Gabrielle protested.
"We've got time for a quick swim. I don't know how you feel, but I intend to take advantage of every moment I have with you alone between here and Amphipolis." At that, Gabby's eyes lit up. "Besides Argo's so well rested, she can easily make up any lost time."
With that last comment in mind, Gabby's enthusiasm dampened. The thought of hanging on for dear life while Argo galloped all the way to Amphipolis was not such a tantalizing idea. She'd be too tired and stiff to enjoy Xena's company. Her thoughts were rudely interrupted by a spray of cool water hitting her in the face and Xena's whoops and laughter. She was already floating on her back and watching Gabrielle's reaction at the water in her face.
The bard yelled at her in mock anger, "Oh you, wait till I get my hands on you!"
"I can't wait!" Xena bantered back.
The remainder of the journey was uneventful as the two lovers fell into an easy routine, relishing and relaxing in each other's company. Gabrielle rode in front at Xena’s insistence so that she could hold her more securely. She pushed Argo hard but rested them for two candlemarks during mid-day. Both evenings they made camp before dusk. The rest periods were filled with easy conversation, tender looks, gentle kisses, and warm touches. The evenings were spent in passionate embraces as the two explored the boundlessness of their love. When they were greeted by Cyrene as they rode up to the inn in Amphipolis, she recognized immediately the character of their new relationship.
Cyrene's warm embrace and a smile greeted the two women as they dismounted Argo. "Welcome home daughters," Cyrene said as she grabbed Gabrielle and hugged her tightly lingering for a moment as if wishing to silently communicate with her through touch. Gab stepped out of the embrace and subtly questioned Cyrene with her eyes. Cyrene brushed her lips against Gab's cheek and looked into her eyes and smiled. Turning to Xena she was caught in the warrior's strong embrace, and she hugged her daughter intensely.
Xena, unable to contain her burning curiosity asked, "Mother, tell me why you sent for us."
Cyrene smiled indulgently and said, "Xena, my dear, you have just arrived. I am sure you are both hungry, and look at how tired and sweaty poor Argo is. It is not so urgent that it cannot wait another candlemark or two. Take Argo to the stables, and Gabrielle and I will take your things inside."
Acquiescing, Xena retrieved their gear, handed it to Gabrielle along with her staff, and watched as the two women entered the inn. As she was about to turn to the stables, a man stepped out of the shadows and spoke in a familiar voice. Knowing he had stood there all along, Xena turned to look upon her brother Toris.
Xena nodded and replied, "Toris."
Toris strode forward and stood before his sister. His slightly shorter and stocky build contrasted sharply to her tall, powerful physique in the shadows of twilight. "You have had a long, arduous journey," Toris said. "You must be tired; let me take care of Argo for you." He rubbed a farm-strong hand down the muscular neck of the war-horse. "You should go on inside with Mother and Gabrielle. Let me do this for you."
Recognizing Toris' attempt at an uncharacteristic overture, Xena gave him one of her dazzling smiles reserved for only the times she was truly touched. "Thanks, Toris, you are right; it has been a long ride as you well know." Toris nodded his head. "Toris, can you tell me why Mother sent for me?" Xena questioned.
Toris took the reins from Xena's hands, shook his head and said, "I had better let her tell you." Turning to Argo, "Come on girl." he lead the horse towards the barn. Xena watched him go, turned, and walked into the inn. Thinking of the smile Xena had flashed him, Toris shook his head and whisper to himself, "No wonder they all loved you."
Cyrene stopped Gabrielle with a hand on her arm. The young woman looked at her as Cyrene said, "Gabrielle, before Xena comes in, I would like a few moments to talk with you."
Although Cyrene's voice did not belie any animosity, apprehension sat in the pit of Gabrielle’s stomach. Drawing upon her reserves she disguised it when she spoke. "Of course, Cyrene, what is it you need to speak with me about?" But before Cyrene could answer, Xena strolled into the inn.
"Xena, I thought you would be with Argo for a while." Cyrene, surprised at Xena's sudden appearance, wasn't sure if her voice revealed her guilt of wanting to speak to Gabrielle alone.
Picking up on the feelings in the room Xena quickly informed her mother and Gabrielle that Toris was taking care of Argo. She was going to take the gear up stairs and get out of her armor. Glancing at Gabrielle with a slightly raised eyebrow, Xena grabbed the gear and ascended the steps to the second floor as the two women watched her exit.
Gabrielle picked up Cyrene's hand and asked her, "Cyrene, what did you want to talk to me about?"
Cyrene squeezed the small hand and said, "Gabrielle, there is so much I want to tell you, but most of all I want to thank you for what you have done for Xena and for me. I am glad that you two love each other. You have my blessing." Gabrielle's eyes widened and she started to speak, but Cyrene silenced her. "Xena lost more than Lyceus twelve years ago when Cortese overran Amphipolis. She lost a large piece of her soul and most of her heart." Looking off to a sad and distant place, Cyrene continued. "I know now they were bound to each other, not just as brother and sister, but as something only the gods can understand." Redirecting her gaze on Gabrielle she said, "I was so grieved by the loss of my child, I was unaware of Xena's grief, and I let her slip away. I lost more that just three children that day; I lost my way." Casting her eyes down in shame Cyrene painfully continued, "Over time, I laid all the guilt at Xena's feet simply because it was easier to blame someone who was not here than face the truth." Searching Gabrielle's eyes for understanding and forgiveness Cyrene continued, "In some ways when Xena left, it made sense to blame her...she ran away, therefore, she must be guilty. When word eventually filtered back after three years that she had become a murdering warlord, it reaffirmed my beliefs, and I cut her from my heart." Cyrene's eyes filled with tears, "My heart had been so hardened to her over the years that when she did return two years ago, I felt nothing. I would have let them kill her right here in this inn had it not been for you. I gave her to the mob, but I was in the storage room crying, listening to my brave daughter as she looked death in the face and refused to even raise her fists to defend herself." Then Cyrene smiled through her tears, "And then you leaped out of the crowd and stood between her and the mob putting yourself in grave danger to protect her. When I heard your words, `she has changed,' I so wanted to believe you; my heart ached." Cyrene's hand squeezed Gabrielle's firmly. "For the first time in years I felt something for my daughter; I only wanted to rush into the room and grab her and hold her and rock her in my arms." Tears streaked the faces of the two women standing in the hall and of the one listening silently at the top of the stairs. "Before I could bring myself to leave the store room, you had rescued Xena from the hands of death, and you were both gone." Cyrene smiled at Gabrielle with sincere love and said, "You have filled the void in Xena's heart. You have given her a reason to live again. You have taught her to love again. I am proud to call you a daughter of my heart." She pulled Gabrielle into a heartfelt embrace, and the two women cried openly in each other's arms.
Xena silently crept back to the bedroom, shut the door, lay on the bed, and wept softly into the pillows. Sometime later she rose, splashed water in her face from the basin by the side of the bed, and left the room slamming the door to alert her mother and Gabrielle of her approach.
When Xena walked into the kitchen, Gabrielle and Cyrene were seated side-by-side deep in a discussion on the best recipes for nut bread. Gabrielle and Cyrene both looked up at Xena, and Gabrielle rose with concern as she looked into Xena's eyes. She knew immediately that Xena had been crying, but Xena's look and little smile told her they would talk about it later. Instead of saying anything, Gabrielle moved into her lover's arms and placed a little kiss on Xena's cheek much to Xena's surprise. She had arrived in the middle of that private conversation and had not heard Cyrene's blessing.
Cyrene noted Xena stiffen at Gabrielle's touch and spoke standing, "I think you and Gabrielle need to have a little talk while I attend to some things. When I return, we will eat."
"What was that all about?" Xena asked Gabrielle incredulously. "Don't tell me you have enchanted my mother too."
"Well, not exactly. When you were upstairs, Cyrene talked to me, and she told me she knew about us, and she was happy for us." Xena's look made Gabrielle burst out in laughter. "What's the matter, Xena, afraid you have lost that warrior ability to hide your emotions?"
"I'm starting to wonder," Xena answered.
"Well don't worry, believe me you haven't lost a thing," Gabrielle chimed. "You just haven't had to use it recently, so relax."
Xena smiled down at the beautiful young woman gazing up into her eyes and hugged her in a warm embrace commenting, "Well, this certainly makes things a little easier at least."
"It certainly does," Gabrielle agreed, and the two reluctantly pulled away from each other.
Xena furrowed her brow and asked, "Did Cyrene happen to mention why she sent for us?"
"No, but everything seems to be fine here. You don't suppose she called us here just to talk to us about, well you know," Gabrielle speculated.
"I don't think so," Xena said thoughtfully. "Mother knew nothing of our relationship until the moment she saw us ride up together. I don't know how she does it, but I could see in her eyes she knew."
Gabby chuckled, "It must be a family trait."
"Yeah, I guess so," Xena frowned and said. "There must be another reason why she sent Toris for us. Toris knows, but he said he would let Mother explain."
Later that evening after they had eaten a very satisfying meal and all the dishes and pots had been cleaned away, Cyrene told Xena and Gabrielle to get some rest. Tomorrow she would show them the reason she had sent for them much to Xena's silent consternation.
Cyrene knew that Xena was upset with her for not revealing the information this evening, but she also knew there was nothing Xena could do this late. There was absolutely no reason to unduly upset the new lovers. At that thought Cyrene smiled and mused, "New lovers, how had she known that bit of information?" Gabrielle and Xena had visited just three moons ago; they were certainly not lovers then. But more than that; it was the glow on Gabrielle cheeks and the energy exuding from Xena. The same energy she had seen and felt in her untamed daughter before, so long ago. The memory of which brought forth a tear shed for that other child of her heart whose ghost she had purged from her soul and her mind. For remembering was too painful, but now the ghost was back. What should she do? What would Xena do? My poor Gabrielle.’
"You're angry," Gabrielle said as she sat cross-legged on the bed and watched Xena sitting in a chair across the room examining the blade of her sword.
"No, Gabrielle, I'm not mad," Xena replied dryly.
"Then come to bed," Gabrielle pleaded, "you've looked at that blade for nearly a candlemark now."
"In a moment," she mumbled completely engrossed in the sword as if the silver blade glinting in the candle light would reveal the mystery Cyrene was withholding.
The bard looked disappointedly in the direction of her lover then a gleam danced in her eyes. "Oh, Xena, wouldn't you like to feel what it's like to make love in your mother's house." Xena grunted. Gabrielle completely frustrated cried, "Gods be damned! I'll wager if we were in Poteidaia, wild horses couldn't keep you out of my bed."
Xena looked up amused and propped her sword against her chair. "Now that's what I'd call a challenge since Lila sleeps in a bed right next to yours!"
Gabrielle's annoyance changed to mirth at the thought and she suggested, "We can pretend we are in Poteidaia." With that Xena leaped into the bed next to Gabrielle and with one arm brought the bard down over backwards next to her.
Wild giggles erupted from the room next to hers. Cyrene smiled knowing she had made the right decision in withholding the information from Xena. Tomorrow would be here soon enough.
Xena rose early the next morning and dressed quietly so as not to disturb her dreaming bard. Before she left their room, she stood over the bed gazing down at the young woman who had so thoroughly captured and tamed her raging heart. She moved a wayward lock of golden hair from Gabrielle's face and gently brushed her lips across her temple. She then turned and quietly left the room. Gabrielle smiled and stretched as the door closed.
Xena only intended to go check on Argo, but hearing voices in the kitchen decided to say good morning to Cyrene first. As she walked into the kitchen, she was greeted by the sight of both Cyrene and Toris. Before Cyrene could speak, Toris touched her arm, pleadingly, "Mother, please I wish you would reconsider."
"Toris, I'm sorry. I know how you feel, but Xena must be told."
"Told what?" Xena interjected. "Mother, what is this all about?"
Startled by her appearance the two looked in her direction. "Where is Gabrielle?" Cyrene asked ignoring Xena's question.
"She's upstairs asleep. Why?" Xena replied.
Toris stepped forward, "Mother, if you are going through with this, Gabrielle should be here. She has a right to know; it will involve her too."
Xena was almost at her wit's end, "Toris, what in Hades' name is going on here?"
"Tell her, Mother." Anguish played across Cyrene's face, and Toris turned adamantly to
Xena. "Xena, promise me you will not tear out of here without first thinking this through."
Becoming increasingly frustrated at this entire domestic scene Xena demanded, "How can I make a promise to you, Toris, when I have no idea what we are talking about?"
Toris replied, "Xena, have I ever asked you to promise me anything before?"
Xena studied this stranger's face, who was her brother, looking for a clue to his motives. She could find none. Looking away she considered his plea; it was true he had never asked anything of her, ever. She grudgingly agreed, "All right, Toris, you have my word." The three were so involved in their little drama they did not hear Gabrielle come down the steps, nor did they see her standing in the doorway.
Cyrene handed Xena a crumpled parchment she had concealed among the folds of her skirt and stepped back. Xena took the parchment and looked from her mother to Toris and then down at her trembling hand holding the parchment. A feeling of dread gripped her as she unfolded the sheepskin and sank slowly to a chair. Her eyes moved across the page. She was quiet for a moment, and then she asked in a strangely calm voice, "When did you receive this, Mother?"
Imitating Xena's calmness Cyrene replied, "Seven days ago."
Xena looked at the parchment, read it through again then stood on shaky knees gripping the table.
"Xena, we need to talk about this," Toris began, but Xena cut him off curtly.
"Not now, Toris. I'll keep my promise. You don't have to worry." She turned to stalk out of the room only to be drawn up short at Gabrielle standing in the doorway. Xena announced, "I'm going for a ride." and she strode past Gabrielle.
"Xena?" Hearing the plea in Gabrielle's voice, Xena's heart skipped, but the tears burned hot in her eyes. She was torn between assuring Gabrielle and escaping the pain that was slashing her soul. She turned and brushed Gabrielle's face with the back of her fingers and rasped the words with a throaty voice, "Don't worry." Then she turned and rushed out of the inn.
Gabrielle started to follow her, but Toris grabbed her by the arm and said, "Let her go, she always keeps her promise. She'll be back."
Gabrielle swung around looked at him and said, "What's going on, Toris?" Toris dropped her arm and looked at his mother.
Cyrene intervened, opening her arms to Gabrielle she said, "Come, sit. I'll get you something to eat, and Toris and I will try to explain." Toris looked incredibly pained that he would have to help explain things.
Xena bridled Argo through blurry tears and swung upon the war-horse's bare back. She spurred the large horse into a full gallop clinging to the pounding animal beneath her with only her legs and her left hand which was twisted in the golden mane holding her to the racing equine. Hot tears blinded her and poured down her cheeks as she urged the horse on, stretching Argo to her limits. After at least a candlemark of hard riding, Xena allowed Argo to slow to a trot and then to a plodding walk as she lay forward along the powerful neck of her beast. She slowly relinquished all power to struggle within her body. Eventually the horse came to a stop and munched on clover, as Xena listlessly slipped slowly to the ground. She came to rest on her back in soft clover, eyes looking skyward. The white feathery clouds in the sky and the smell of fresh clover sparked a powerful memory, and she relived it in her mind...
It had been a magical year, spring time, Lyceus had just turned fourteen; she was fifteen, and Chloe would be fifteen in the winter. They were close. Closer than any three people had ever been. They did everything together. It was late afternoon, and the sun was warm upon them. They had been playing hide and seek, she and Chloe had lost Lyceus, and they were hiding in a field of very tall clover, sweet and cool and soft. They were giggling and raising their heads, peeking over the clover looking for Lyceus. Lying on their backs, they imagined animals and fierce gods forming in the movements of the clouds. Then Chloe spoke, "I love you, Xena. And I love Lyceus too. I am going to marry him, you know, so that I can have you both." With that she raised herself on her elbow and looked down into Xena's sky-blue eyes and kissed her deeply. Xena returned the kiss, and hidden there in tall clover in the middle of a field the two young friends became lovers.
Xena closed her eyes to the memory and squeezed forth tears she believed had long since gone to desert at the memory of her Chloe. Her beautiful Chloe. Her and Lyceus' beautiful Chloe; the three shared everything, and life was so perfect. When thinking of Lyceus sometimes, it was terrifying when she could not bring to mind what Lyceus looked like, she would think she would go mad trying to force her memory to recall his every feature. It was like that now. Xena strained at the memory, pushing and probing, suddenly it was so very important to remember exactly what Chloe had looked like. Tall, not so tall as herself but right above her chin; willowy, slender yet muscular and shapely. Her hair, a rich brown with soft waves, fell to her shoulders. Her face, her beautiful angular face, boyish, with perfect white teeth and full, yet, not too full lips. Freckles, dark brown freckles which everyone loved, sprinkled across her nose dappling her cheeks like so many stars in the heavens. And her eyes, dark and luminous, tiny flecks of black obsidian dancing upon gray slate. For three years they loved and cherished each other and then Cortese. Lyceus dead and Chloe gone, given up for dead, and then news, sold into slavery. Her beautiful Chloe, a slave. Lyceus, forever dead. And she, a deadly warlord. Rampaging eastward to rescue her Chloe, only to find she did not want to be rescued. Great abysmal emptiness.
Cyrene sat Gabrielle down at the table, and Toris sat across from her. Cyrene handed Gabrielle the letter and told her to read it; then they would explain everything.
My Dearest Cyrene, true mother of my heart, I hope this finds you well. My children and I are well for now, but my husband died last spring and all is not good here. I fear for my son. He is the only heir to the throne, and attempts have been made on his life and mine as well. I care not for the throne, only for the lives of my children. If I could, I would return this moment to Amphipolis; a place I vowed twelve years ago I would never step foot in again. Had I known then what I know now, I would still be living there perhaps even in your home. I saw Lyceus die, and I saw Toris drag Xena's body from the field, lifeless and covered in blood. I believed her dead, thus, died our beautiful dreams and my reason for living. I turned and ran blindly into the arms of the slavers, but I cared not. Three years later I learned the truth when Xena and her army came raging out of the west. I met her and turned her away with my deception. I told her I was happy. I could not bear the thought seeing her slain by the forces my father-in-law commanded. I was with child and my husband was a good man. My life was not so horrible, but it has never been as sweet as it was with Xena and Lyceus. Word of her strength and power reaches us sometimes, and they are fearful of her here. I do not want to endanger her life, but please tell her I need her.
Your Loving Daughter, Chloe
Gabrielle finished reading the letter and looked at Toris and Cyrene, "Where does this Chloe live?" she asked.
Toris answered, "She lives in Sinope."
Gabrielle was incredulous, "Sinope! I've heard of that ancient city. The Amazons tell stories of its founding. It was named for one of their greatest queens, Sinova. That's a long way from here isn't it?"
"It's two hundred leagues." Toris continued, "It would take well over a moon to get there by horse."
"By horse?" Gabrielle did not like the sounds of that. "What other way is there to get there?"
Toris explained, "The best way to reach the city of Sinope is by sea. Across the Aegean through the Hellespont and across the Propontis to Byzantium, from there through the Bosporus into the Pontis Euxinus, another one hundred leagues and you are there."
Gabrielle listened intently, but with each new sea or strait she imagined herself becoming sicker and sicker until she was sure she was going to lose the meal she had just eaten.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?" Toris asked.
"Uh," pulled from her much too vivid imaginings, Gabrielle recovered, "Oh, yeah, sure, I was just thinking."
Toris directed his attention to his mother, "I've got things I need to attend to, Mother. When Xena returns, would you tell her I would like to talk to her?" Cyrene nodded, and Toris rose to leave.
Gabrielle followed Toris outside and asked, "Toris, do you have any idea where Xena rode off to?"
Toris studied her face carefully and smiled, "You are just as stubborn as she is, aren't you?"
Gab gave him a little grin and replied, "Well, you know how she is; you got to be stubborn when you are dealing with Xena."
Toris nodded and pointed a finger toward the east, "You see that road; take it for about a league, you'll see an ancient oak. Turn due north into a great field of clover. I don't know where she rode to, but that is where she will end up. You won't be able to see her; just look for the horse."
"Thanks, Toris," Gabrielle said as she skipped backwards and waved to Toris. Then she turned and ran back into the inn. "Cyrene, I'm going to look for Xena. I just wanted to let you know where I am going," she called breathlessly as she found Cyrene in the kitchen.
Cyrene stood up and went to Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, are you all right?"
Understanding instantly the reason for the question, Gabrielle replied, "Cyrene, I know Xena has a past and she gets moody, but she always does the right thing, and I know her heart is good. Chloe is an old friend who needs help. I wouldn't expect Xena to do anything else but help her. I just wish she wasn't so far away." Gabrielle knew she was speaking these word not just for Cyrene but for herself as well. If she heard them enough, perhaps she would believe them.
"Gabrielle, Chloe wasn't just an old friend," Cyrene said. "She and Xena had something very special much like you and Xena now. I don't think I can explain to you how it was with Lyceus, Chloe and Xena." Gabrielle's brows furrowed as she listened to Cyrene. "Remember when I told you I didn't lose just three children on the battlefield that day? I didn't lose Toris; he came back to me. Chloe was the third child, not of my womb but of my heart." Cyrene paused and searched Gabrielle’s face for understanding. Then she said, "Xena was dealt a double blow that day. A piece of her soul died with Lyceus, but her heart was owned by Chloe. I think Xena could have gone on without Lyceus, but when Chloe was not found, Xena's heart was lost with her."
Gabrielle responded, "Then you think Xena will bring Chloe back and pick up where they left off? You don't think there will be room in Xena's heart for me?" Gabrielle eyes began to tear up and Cyrene enveloped her in her arms.
"I'm not saying that, my sweet Gabrielle. You have filled the void in her heart and soul. Never forget that. You brought her back from the brink of death. Don't give her up that easily, and don't give up on her. Just remember she is going to be blinded by the past. You must make her see the present. And you, my dear, are the present. I know how my daughter can be when she gets something in her head; make her see the truth not what she wants the truth to be." Cyrene released Gabrielle and wiped away a tear with her thumb, "Now go find her and bring her home, or she will stay out all night!" Gabrielle smiled and squeezed Cyrene's hand.
The warrior heard the quiet approach of boots brushing against the tall clover and realized she was without weapons. She hadn't even bothered to put on her armor or slip her boot knife into its sheath. For a fleeting moment she didn't care but then a flash of Gabrielle and Chloe seared her mind. She decided she would play dead until the villain fell on her. Through her eyelids she saw the shadow fall across her face. She was about to spring alive with lethal intensity when she heard a soft, familiar voice.
"Xena, are you all right?" Gabrielle demanded as she dropped to her side, grabbed her wrist, and searched for a pulse.
Xena opened one eye against the brightness of the sky and stared into Gabrielle's face.
"Yes, Gabrielle," she said. "I'm all right; I was just lying here thinking. How did you find me?"
"Toris told me."
"Oh he did, did he! Xena exclaimed instantly angered. "And how did he know I would be here?"
"I don't know. He said he didn't know where you would ride to, but you would end up here," Gabrielle said.
"The little spy," Xena growled.
Gabrielle sat back and reasoned, "Xena, I don't think he's a spy; he told me I wouldn't see you. Just look for the horse. You don't have to be that crafty to spot a horse in the middle of a field. I knew once I saw Argo, you wouldn't be far away."
Xena frowned thinking to herself Gabrielle was right, but she was still annoyed with Toris.
"Xena, I know you're not injured, but are you all right...I mean with Chloe and everything?" Gabrielle asked unsure she wanted to hear the answer.
Xena sighed and said, "I don't know, Gab; my life has been one disaster after another and this letter today really sent me reeling." Looking into Gabrielle's eyes, she realized she was ignoring her bard’s feelings. It was evident she had a pretty good idea how much Chloe had meant to her. She squeezed Gabrielle's hand and smiled her crooked smile and said, "You are the only constant in my life, and I love you no matter what happens. Do you believe me?" the bard nodded through her tears but did not trust herself to speak. "Come here," Xena said as she pulled Gabrielle down next to her and held her.
The two remained like this for quite some time until Gabrielle broke the silence. "Do you think that maybe sometime you can tell me about your life with Chloe?"
"Well, I don't think I can do it justice," Xena grinned, "not like you would, my little bard, but I'll try. For now I think we had better be getting back." Xena thought it better not to make Gabrielle ride Argo without a saddle, so the two of them walked back to the inn with Argo in tow who every now and then stretched her neck out and stole a nibble of grass here and a tasty morsel there.
Xena was worried about Gabrielle until she started talking. "You know, Xena, I could have thumped you good with my staff when I sneaked up on you back there in that tall clover. You didn't have any of your weapons or even your armor. That was really dumb you know. How many times have you got mad at me for that same thing? I could have been a murderer or something. You should know better than to go off by yourself without any weapons. Where is your saddle? Don't you know you shouldn't ride Argo without your saddle? How are you suppose to stay on a galloping horse without your saddle, and Argo is so tall, what if you had fallen off? Answer me that. Which reminds me, you never tell anyone where you're going or when you are getting back. Now that's dumb. What if something were to happen to you? How would I know where to come looking for you?"
Rolling her eyes, Xena finally interjected dryly, "You could always ask Toris."
Looking at Xena out of the corners of her eyes Gabrielle said, "You know Xena; I kind of like Toris. Maybe you should try to get to know him better."
"Gabrielle, who do you not like?" Xena asked.
"Well there's Ares, and there's Bacchus, and there's Callisto, I don't care for her at all; and then there's Velaska, and let's see, Draco, and .."
"All right, you've made your point," Xena interrupted. "Toris does not fall into the category of evil god, rabid murderer, or rampaging warlord. Maybe I will try to get to know him better." Gabrielle chuckled and Xena wrapped her arm around the little bard's shoulders as they walked back toward the inn. "And, Gabrielle, you were right about my weapons and saddle and all that other stuff too. I'll try to work on those things."
As they approached the inn, Xena spied Toris heading into the barn, "Gab, I'm going to take care of Argo and speak to Toris; tell Mother we are home." Xena led Argo to an empty stall, removed her bridle and slipped a halter over her head and secured the rope to a ring by the trough. She then checked Argo’s water and filled her oats bin. Reaching for Argo's brush which Toris had left on her saddle, Xena began methodically brushing the horse down as Toris climbed out of the loft and joined her leaning with one leg propped on the fence.
"She is the best piece of horse flesh I've ever seen," he commented looking over the golden horse in front of him.
Xena spoke emotionlessly, "The best in Thessaly."
Toris nodded knowing his sister always swore Thessaly had the best horses in Greece. "Xena, I don't want you to go to Sinope. I want you to walk away from this, and never look back," Toris said evenly.
"I'm sorry Toris, I can't do that," Xena answered as she brushed Argo without looking at him.
Staring at the motions of the brush, Toris forced the issue, "For once I want you to think of someone else, Xena."
Xena ceased brushing her horse, turned to face Toris and said, "I am thinking of someone else, Toris. I'm thinking of Chloe and her children."
"Are you, Xena?" Toris asked looking her squarely in the eye, "I was hoping you might consider Mother and Gabrielle."
Xena snarled and turned back to Argo growling, "Leave Gabrielle out of this; she is none of your business."
His anger rising, Toris pushed away from the fence, "And I can't do that, Xena, because whether you like this or not, Gabrielle is a part of this. Let it go, Xena, that was a lifetime ago; it's past, you are different, I'm different, and I am sure Chloe's bound to be different. You can't resurrect the past; Lyceus is dead. And even if by some miracle you are successful in bringing her back to Amphipolis, what will be the price? Every time you look at her you'll see what was, you'll see Lyceus, but it won't really be him; it will just be his ghost haunting us all again."
Stopping once again and pinning him with her blue eyes Xena said, "Look, you don't understand how close we were...you don't know what she meant to Lyceus and me."
Raising his hands in an honest question Toris asked, "And what does Gabrielle mean to you now?"
"How can you stand there and ask me to let Chloe go, and what does Gabrielle have to do with this?" Xena demanded.
"What's going to happen to Gabrielle if you're killed or if you decide you are still in love with Chloe?" Toris looked away for a moment and then back at her with tears in his eyes and said, "Because it's the best thing for all of us. She is already dead, please don't bring her back and make us go through that again." Toris blinked hard and regained control of his emotions but not before Xena read his face.
She dropped her hands to her sides and turned to face her brother really for the first time. "You were in love with her too!" she said incredulously, and then the pieces started to fall into place.
"Yes, but it was always you and Lyceus with her. She loved you both as though you were one person. How I hated that! I could never compete with the two of you together. It was as though you were one; light and dark, day and night combined into perfection. And the three of you together would have made the gods envious. You loved each other so much and so completely. But that was over twelve years ago; that existence is no more."
"But she would have never been in the place she's in right now if not for me," Xena appealed.
"Xena, it wasn't just your decision; we all fought Cortese."
"No! You followed me into battle; I laid out the plans; I gave the orders; it was my fault."
"No, Xena, I didn't follow your orders because of you. I fought Cortese because I thought it was the right thing to do. You see that was the difference between you and me and between Lyceus and me. You fought because you believed you would be victorious. Lyceus fought because he believed together you two were invincible. I didn't fight because of some misplaced, ill conceived idealism. I fought because I believed it was the right thing to do. So don't stand there and tell me everything was your fault. What were we suppose to do, roll over and let Cortese take us without even trying to stop him? What choice did we have?" Toris stopped for a moment to calm his anger.
After a few tense moments Toris continued more calmly. "If you want to win every battle you fight, you must learn to choose your battles carefully and accept the fact there are some battles not worth fighting. You see, Xena, even as a little child you always had to win. When you allied yourself with Lyceus, you almost always won, but with the three of you together you always believed you had won even when you didn't. But you never backed down, you never walked away; look what it got you, Xena, ten years of self-imposed imprisonment with all your nightmares visiting you every night. Like Prometheus' vulture, they ripped at your very soul. Now you're unbound, but you still stand and fight that vulture; walk away, let it go. Look how much you have to lose if you go ahead with this plan."
Xena turned and walked over to a bench and plopped down, but Toris wasn't through. "Gabrielle is not Lyceus; will she be willing to share you? And if not, what then?"
Xena flinched at the picture Toris painted, "You know, Xena, you haven't changed." At those words she looked up angrily. "You are just like you were when you were five; no matter what you had, you always wanted more, and when you got that, you were still not satisfied. You were always searching, wanting. You could never understand that what you needed was right there in that house," Toris pointed towards the inn. "Just as it is there now; you never looked inside yourself to find your happiness."
Xena was silent; how could she argue. She knew he spoke the truth. Her mind drifted to Gabrielle, but the vision was shattered with Toris' next onslaught of words. "I envied you, and hated you, and loved you, and was proud of you at the same time" Xena looked into his eyes and felt a thousand emotions. "You could climb a tree faster and higher than any boy five years older than you." At this she laughed. "You could always ride like the wind, but you refused to ride the pony, and you would always throw a fit until everyone relented and let you ride Phobos. Most grown men couldn't even get near him, but you had him jumping stone fences before you were four." She remembered the black stallion.
"You never got hurt; you were like a cat. You always landed on your feet," Toris added.
Xena interrupted, "Oh, I remember getting hurt occasionally, like the time I fell out of that tree and broke my arm when I was eight summers old."
"Yeah, you fell out of the tree because Lyceus was showing off and had climbed above you and slipped and fell on top of you knocking you from the limb you were standing on. You probably wouldn't have even been hurt, but he landed right on your arm. You didn't even cry; you were more concerned for Lyceus. When the healer came to set your arm, you were angry because you were forced to drink some tea for the pain. You kept saying it didn't hurt, but it was completely black and blue."
"Yeah I remember. A fortnight later I threw off the splint and went out to play," Xena said
"Mother was horrified that evening, and she dragged you off kicking and screaming to the healer. The healer examined your arm and said the bone was completely healed. It was evident to everyone that you had been blessed by the gods." At that Xena winced, but inside she knew she was different. "Mother thought it was because you were born in the moon favored by Artemis, and she had taken you to the temple right after you were born to be blessed because your birth was effortless for her." Xena remembered some of the stories they bantered around and had told her in her childhood, but most of them she had chosen to ignore.
"How you worried Mother especially when you would hop on that stallion and ride like the wind." He paused. "I see you still do that." She shot him a wicked grin, and he continued, "Do you know how you scared her when you started staying gone for days at a time? That was after you had mastered the sword. You'd sling that thing across your back and take off. I don't think you were much more than ten the first time. Once you were gone for an entire moon; I think it was your seventeenth summer. That was the only time Chloe and Lyceus worried about you. They were both haunted by nightmares, and by the time you returned, they looked almost as bad as you. And then you went straight to the healer upon your arrival not even letting Mother know you were home safe." Xena remembered the incident vividly; that was the first time she thought she was really going to die. "When you did return home, you threw yourself into bed mumbling about something you had eaten and slept for three days straight. Lyceus and Chloe refused to move from your side. At night Chloe would crawl under the covers and hold you, and Lyceus sprawled in the chair next to your bed with his long legs stretched out on the bed. On the fourth morning you rose, announced you were starving; the three of you ate like horses and immediately went for a swim. No amount of threats or coercion could make you talk about what happened to you."
"You may have been born of Cyrene, but you were not her daughter." Xena did not want to hear this, but she was fascinated by her brother's verbose revelations. She did not interrupt him. Evidently her initial observations were correct...they were nothing alike. "You belonged to the earth, the sky, the moon. Did you ever wonder why no matter what you did, you excelled?" he asked.
"I think you exaggerate, Toris. As a matter of fact you and Gab need to get together and swap stories," Xena said lightly hoping to change the mood.
"Seriously, you only watched Uncle Theo practice with his bow for a candlemark. When he handed you the bow, you were eight, the bow was almost as tall as you, you pulled the string to its full extension effortlessly and hit the target dead center. Uncle Theo roared and grabbed you and tossed you into the air. He handed you another arrow and mumbled something about beginner's luck, but as I watched, I knew better. Your second attempt split the first arrow down the center. After splitting three more, Uncle gave you the bow as a gift."
"I wasn't that good," Xena said defensively. She felt her discomfort rise as she realized why she and Toris had never hit it off. Had she been him, she wouldn't have liked herself either.
Toris shook his head and said, "Yes, you were that good, Xena, and I was proud of you, but you frightened me. It was as though all the adults around you were blind. You were so passionate and powerful but dark and brooding at the same time. I feared what would happen if you ever lost control."
Xena saw her chance and asked, "Is that why you refused to get close to me?"
Toris paused and frowned before he replied, "I think so; at first I was afraid if I got too close...I don't know how to say it, but the gods know I have thought about it enough. I don't believe I ever managed to place feelings into words. Xena, you were so seductive...everyone fell under your power. I think I was afraid I would lose myself in you, and if anything happened to you, where would I be? Look at Mother; you don't know how she suffered all those years you were gone. I think I knew the price of loving you, and I've always been careful, perhaps too careful. I just wasn't willing to pay the price." Xena was becoming more uncomfortable with the turn of the conversation. "Look at Gabrielle. What price does she pay for loving you? What price will she pay if you try to rescue Chloe?"
Xena dropped her head and said, "I have to do this, Toris."
"I know, Xena," Toris said calmly.
At his comment, she raised her head and looked him in the eye questioningly. His face was devoid of emotion, and Xena took a chance and said, "I need your help, Toris."
He was surprised she admitted to this but concealed his reaction. "I'll help in any way I can, Xena. What do you want me to do?" he asked.
"I need you to help me deliver a message and find transportation to Sinope," she answered.
"All right, but I need something from you too," Toris replied. Xena looked at him curiously. "Let Gabrielle know all the reasons you must go to Sinope. And another thing, you know how dangerous the lands to the east are, you've been there. Tell her everything, Xena. And above all else, be careful with her heart. We don't want another Chloe. I don't think you could survive that."
Gabrielle met Xena and Toris as they were coming out of the stables and informed them that the evening meal was ready. Gabrielle searched Xena's face for any evidence of what might have transpired in the barn between her and Toris, but as usual the warrior walls were intact and no fissures were evident. The two did not seem unusually tense, therefore, Gabrielle assumed things went relatively well between them.
As they entered the inn, Cyrene went to her daughter, hugged her, and murmured in her ear, "Are you all right?" Xena nodded and Cyrene whispered, "Good." and turned to the others and declared, "Let's all sit down and eat; I know Gabrielle is hungry after that long walk, and you should be too, Xena." She ladled soup into everyone's bowls and piled her children's plates high.
As the evening progressed, the polite talk eventually turned to the problem facing Xena. Xena informed everyone at the table that she was formulating a plan, and for the moment, the funding was the only thing that was holding her back.
Cyrene looked up from her pensive contemplation and interrupted Xena. "Xena, I know you are going take on this dangerous trek regardless of all our wishes. Since we cannot dissuade you, we must assure you are afforded the best chance of success. I cannot lose my daughter again after having you back in my life. I have the dinars you will need."
Xena spoke resolutely, "Mother, I can't take your money. Things are too hard for you now as it is."
Toris had been silently observing the interchange and interrupted, "Xena, I have about three hundred dinars saved that I want you to take."
Xena was completely taken aback by her brother's offer. "Toris, I don't know what to say...I can't take your life savings," Working hard to control her emotions she added, "...but thank you."
Cyrene stood and took her daughter's hand in hers, "Come with me." turning to Gabrielle and Toris, she motioned with her head for them to follow. Cyrene escorted her children into the storage room behind the kitchen. Pointing, Cyrene said, "Toris, you and Xena move that barrel." The two siblings exchanged glances but obeyed their mother's command. Together they tilted the heavy barrel and walked it along the wall. When they were out of the way, Cyrene dug in the soft soil on which the barrel had stood until she snagged the links of a heavy chain. She pulled the chain until it was taut and then handed it to Toris. "It is attached to a hinged plank door; pull it towards you." Toris exerted all his strength dislodging a large square of soil about a hand's breadth deep. Seeing the outline before him, he dropped to his knees, and using his hands, he moved most of the soil from the plank trap door. He then tugged the door open revealing a small subcellar. Cyrene stepped forward and peered into the hidden cache and spoke quietly, "There's your financing, Xena, the thousand dinars you sent me every year while you were gone." Dropping her voice she added, "Blood money. I could not use it until now." At the bottom of the pit hiding in the shadows were twenty bags of Greek coins that Xena had sent to Cyrene during her warlord days.
Gabrielle looked quickly up at Xena and observed Xena's eyes cloud over as she formulated a response. Finally she spoke, "I can't use this, Mother. It's tainted."
Cyrene spun around and grabbed her tall daughter by the upper arms squeezing her nails into her flesh and spoke adamantly. "It was blood money that took Chloe from us; let it bring her back. I don't want it polluting my home any longer. Let it be put to some good use." Xena stared deeply into her mother's eyes oblivious of the nails that cut into her skin drawing blood. She shook her head. Cyrene released her arms and threw her fists into Xena's chest pounding with all her might. Then she broke down into violent sobs. Xena clasped her mother to her breast and held her securely in her arms as tears fell down her own cheeks. "Take it please, Xena," Cyrene implored, "take it please, it may help bring you back home to me, please, Xena, please, please..." her voice trailed off into uncontrollable sobs.
Xena held her mother, caressed her hair, and spoke softly, "Ssshhh, Momma, all right Momma, I'll take it, ssshhh, it's all right, it's all right. I'll come back, I promise." She continued to croon to her mother as if comforting a small child. Finally she looked at Toris and Gabrielle with her tear filled eyes and motioned for them to leave. They nodded and quietly left the room as Xena maneuvered her mother to a step-stool. She gently sat her down and dropped to her knees in front of her. Xena’s voice cracked as she said, "Oh Momma, I am so sorry. I'm so sorry for all the pain I put you through. Please Momma forgive me." She wiped the tears away from her mother's cheeks relieved to see a sad little smile on her mother's face.
Smiling through her tears, Cyrene reminisced, "You haven't called me momma since you were twelve," she chuckled, "by then you only used that term when you were buttering me up for something," Cyrene wiped her face with her apron and continued, "not that you often asked for permission for anything. You usually acted first and stoically faced the consequences later."
Reflecting on her conversation with Toris earlier that afternoon, Xena flinched as his words returned to haunt her, `Do you know what you put her through?' "Will I ever be able to make it up to you for all the sorrow and worry and grief I have caused you my entire life?" Xena asked as she thought, `Toris is right, loving me has too great a price.'
As if reading her daughter's thoughts, Cyrene reprimanded her, "Oh, Xena, please don't say that; that sounds like your brother talking. Toris sees things in black and white, and I love him, but he is not always right when it comes to matters of the heart. The joy you brought me far outweighed the worry you caused. I love you so much because of who you are not because of what you have or have not done. Your spirit brought me such great joy when you were a child; I thank the gods every day of my life for giving you to me. Even when you are not here, I swear I feel your presence comforting me; something that I missed sorely for those long ten years when you had lost your way. Now that you have come back to me, I know that my life would be empty and lonely without you. That is why I have such trepidation about this journey you’re planning."
Xena smiled into her mother's eyes and then kneeling next to her rested her head in her mother's lap. "Don't worry, Mother, I promise you, I will return and everything will be all right, I swear it." Cyrene absently ran her fingers through her child's straight, raven hair. One of many traits Xena possessed that was very different from her siblings. Cyrene frowned at the thought and shook the haunting memory from her mind.
Having regained her composure and dried her eyes, Cyrene questioned Xena about her plans. "Do you intend to take Gabrielle with you when you travel to Sinope?"
"That will be up to Gabrielle, but I'm sure she will refuse to be left behind," Xena answered.
Cyrene nodded knowingly and continued to speak, "Xena, have you spoken to Gabrielle about Chloe yet?"
Xena raised her head from her mother's lap and said, "Not yet, Mother, but I will soon."
"Don't put it off; she already knows a great deal, and she is one very special young woman." Xena looked up at her mother expecting an explanation. "She told me she knew you would try to rescue Chloe. Gabrielle has a great deal of faith in you, Xena. She said you have always done the right thing since she has known you, and she expects nothing less from you." Cyrene looked into her daughter's eyes and sighed, "I am glad she will be with you, but I want you to be very careful. What good will come of this if you are able to bring home my lost daughter, only to lose the other?" Xena stood and reached her hand down to her mother.
Xena felt a twinge of fear at her mother's comment; an evil thought she wished she had not been privy to, not that she believed in curses, she just preferred that such thoughts remained unspoken. Changing the course of the conversation, Xena asked, "Mother are you better now?"
Standing with the assistance of her daughter Cyrene said, "Xena, I won't be really better until I see your returning shadow grace my front door. But for now I’m all right. We had better get back to Gabrielle and Toris; I'm sure they are uncomfortable waiting on us."
Rather sarcastically, Xena noted, "I'm sure they found plenty of things to talk about."
"I suppose you are right," Cyrene smiled, "Gabrielle can certainly tell a good story." Xena grunted as nightmare visions of Gabrielle telling Toris of Helios and Toris relating stories of bones healing overnight flashed through her mind.
As they entered the kitchen, they were greeted by the vision of Gabrielle, eyes wide and exclaiming, "Really, Toris?" and the grinning Toris nodding his head.
Gabrielle's snapping eyes danced with delight as she explained, "Xena, Toris was just telling me about the time you were knocked out of the tree by Lyceus."
Xena rolled her eyes and pinned Toris with her stare as she replied, "Oh he did, did he? Well, you know Toris always did exaggerate." Toris only smiled back sheepishly realizing too late Xena was quite uncomfortable with her uniqueness.
Later that night as the two prepared for bed, Xena's pensiveness made Gabrielle uneasy, She kept glancing at her warrior out of the corners of her eyes searching for an opening to lighten the dark mood that had engulfed her dearest friend and lover. Finding none, she climbed under the covers and leaned against the headboard propping a pillow behind her.
Developing a plan that involved a two hundred league voyage through pirate-ravaged seas, across harsh, unfamiliar terrain infested with marauding gangs of outlaws and ruffians, and then stealing into a heavily guarded fortress and abducting Chloe and her children, and then spiriting them and Gabrielle safely back across land and sea seemed easy compared to what she had to do tonight. Xena crossed the room and stood in front of the wash basin and leaned over it resting both hands on either side of the alabaster bowl decorated with a ring of tiny olive branches. Xena darkly explored possible ways to explain to Gabrielle all the things she needed to tell her. As she examined each approach and each scenario in her head, she became more and more frustrated. How could she possibly find the words to explain everything to Gabrielle without hurting her? How could she tell Gabrielle how she felt about Chloe and still assure Gabrielle that nothing had changed between the two of them? But hadn't it changed? The moment Cyrene placed that letter in her hand, it seemed everything changed. In frustration Xena slammed her fists down on the small wash basin. The wood cracked and splintered throwing to the floor the bowl which shattered spraying its contents across the floor.
Cyrene's head jerked up as she heard the loud crash in the room next door to hers. She moved to check if everything was all right, but she lay back down remembering her Xena was no longer the willful child who in a fit of anger could frighten even the gods and destroy the contents of a room in a heart beat. She shook her head and smiled remembering with two boys and Xena in the house there was never much use assigning sentimental value to fragile belongings.
Gabrielle, startled by the unexpected and violent reaction of the dark and powerful woman cried out, "Xena!" As if slapped in the face by the sound of her name and the fear with which it was uttered, Xena spun around quickly and approached the bed her brow furrowed in concern. She froze suddenly when she realized Gabrielle had misread her intentions and cringed as if she was about to be hit. Xena had not experienced that reaction in a while and remembered the satisfaction it use to give her when she sought power over people. Now seeing Gabrielle’s fear horrified her. She hated herself all the more for her inability to communicate even with the one person who knew her better than anyone else in the world.
Intentionally relaxing her features and speaking softly, Xena knelt beside her lover and caressed her cheek, "Gabrielle, my gods, I am so sorry. I would never lay a hand on you in anger." Xena also realized she was hurt by her bard's reaction. Did Gabrielle not trust her? She wondered if it was because she had not found the courage to talk to her about Chloe.
Gabrielle silently peered into Xena's blue eyes. What did she hope to find there? Unspoken words of assurance of their bond of love? Perhaps, she feared, a gentle hint that Xena was going to leave her for the one she had loved in your youth.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Xena's pleading voice, "Gabrielle, please say something. I didn't mean to frighten you. I love you."
Gabrielle melted into tears and leaned into Xena's greeting embrace, "Oh, Xena I am so afraid, not of you, but of losing you. I love you so much, I don't know what to do or what to say."
Xena sat on the bed, pulled Gabrielle deeper into her embrace and said, "It's all right. Gabrielle, a wise woman once told me the hardest things we have to say come from the heart." Gabrielle smiled through her tears at her own words coming from Xena's lips. "I am sorry I have not talked with you about everything yet. That is why I let my frustrations out on Mother's poor table and bowl. I just couldn't find the words to tell you how I felt in such away you would understand everything. I guess I’m afraid if I said something wrong, you won't want to be with me anymore, but at the same time, I am also fearful you might try to stop me from helping Chloe. I am afraid you’ll hate me for still loving her. How can I reconcile my love for you and my love for her? How can I possibly ask you to understand?" Gabrielle extricated herself from Xena's embrace and moved so that she could look at her.
"Xena, loving you is the easiest thing I have ever done." Xena's left eyebrow shot up at this and Gabrielle smiled and continued. "I will never stop loving you. I know you loved Chloe. I know you must help her, but I also need to know you love me. When you become silent and don't confide in me, my wild imagination takes over." Xena snorted softly. "I imagine the most horrible things."
"Gabrielle, I do love you more than life itself, believe me." She took Gabrielle's hand in hers and squeezed it as she looked probingly into the bard’s eyes. "You must believe me, and never forget it. I am going to try to tell you about Chloe, but you must promise me that you will keep reminding yourself that I love you." Gabrielle nodded. Xena sighed and began her story.
Xena talked long into the night. She spoke of her life with Lyceus and Chloe. She struggled to express her feelings and explain the magical relationship they had. She charged through the clover field and acknowledged the love and the passion the two shared. She spoke lovingly of the three years they had together. And she cried as she relived the battle resulting in Lyceus' death and Chloe's abduction. Gabrielle cried when Xena related how she had given up the will to live and fight and how she had lain across Lyceus' body drenched in his blood as it mingled with hers from the superficial wounds she had received. For the first time, she remembered it was Toris who rolled her over onto her back as the battle swarmed around them. It was Toris who yelled at her to get up, but she was powerless, so he dragged her by her armor from the field and hoisted her over his shoulder and carried her away the final moments as Cortese's soldiers cut down their defending forces. Much later, it was Toris who removed her battle attire, bathed her feverish body and tended her wounds as she lay among the wounded remnants of her army, hidden in a cave deep in the wilds of Thrace. It was Toris who searched vainly for Chloe and who told Xena she was gone. When she was finished, Xena sat unmoving and exhausted, but her mind actively replayed again the final moments after Lyceus' death to be sure her memory was correct. All those years she had repressed the memories of Toris' actions because she hated him for dragging her away from certain death. He had denied her Lyceus' company in the Elysian Fields. But look at what he had given her. She quietly looked up into Gabrielle's tear stained face, and thought, `I need to thank him.'
Gabrielle finally broke the silence which had engulfed the two lovers as they lay in each other's arms later that night. "Xena what are you going to do?" This was it; she could no longer wait for Xena to tell her what she had planned. She wanted to go with Xena, but she knew that Xena would probably force her to stay behind, if not here then with Ephiny or in Poteidaia.
"Tomorrow Toris and I will try to exchange some of the dinars for gold," Xena said. Then we will locate a ship and secure passage to Byzantium. I also need to make some other arrangements. It will be a very busy day."
With apprehension in her voice, Gabrielle finally asked, "What would you like me to do to help?"
Xena said, "Before we discuss this, I need to tell you some things." Gabrielle braced herself for Xena’s words. "By horse it will take almost two moons if all goes well."
Gabrielle interrupted her, "And by sea less than one moon."
Xena raised her eyebrow and said, "Let me guess, Toris?" Xena felt the movement of a nod and heard a quiet yes escape Gab's lips. "I thought so; well anyway, we both know how well you travel by sea, but it is my only option. I don't have to tell you how miserable you would be, nor do I need remind you how very dangerous this whole thing is. Of course, I know that does not matter to you. The lands to the east are strange and foreign. The language is different, and the customs are bizarre. I've been there before, and if I had a choice, I would not go there again." Knowing Xena was the master of understatement, Gabrielle shivered at that comment, and her spirit sunk even lower. Xena had no intentions of letting her go. It was hopeless. "With all the adversity that we would face," Xena continued, "I can't possibly ask you to go with me." Gabrielle thought to herself, `I knew it.' "However, it is your decision." Gabrielle, so lost in her rising depression, did not completely catch the last statement.
"What did you say?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena said, "I said I cannot ask you to go."
"No, I heard that. What did you say after that?" Gabrielle persisted, hardly daring to hope she had heard right.
"I said it would have to be your decision," Xena repeated her comment.
Gabrielle rolled on her side facing Xena and propped herself up on her elbow and studied Xena's face. "My decision?"
Avoiding her eyes, Xena simply replied, "Uh huh."
Gabrielle threw herself on Xena and whooped, "Oh, Xena, thank you, I love you, I love you, I love you." Xena grabbed her little bard and they laughed out loud wrapped in each other's arms until Xena flipped her lover onto her back pinning her arms above her head and sitting astride her hips.
"Does this mean you are going with me?" she asked teasingly. Gabrielle giggled and nodded and then looked into her eyes longingly. Xena, her voice heavy with passion, whispered a demand, "Tell me a story, bard." then she lowered her lips to Gabrielle's shoulders and placed tiny kisses in the hollow of her bard's collarbone.
And Gabrielle began, "A long time ago in a king..."
At the unexpected burst of laughter and the muffled ‘I love You's’ emanating through the wall, Cyrene rolled over and smiled knowing now she could sleep peacefully for at least the remainder of this night.