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Disclaimer: There is a bit of violence toward the end, if you skip those few lines it won't harm the story line. If you see subtext, you found it yourself. I didn't put it there intentionally. The characters belong to Universal Pictures, except for Dacares who was born of imagination and necessity.
The warrior rode slowly into the busy village. She had been on the road for how long? Had the moon been full three times since her son's body was committed to flame and she severed her soul from its only source of light? Had it been that long? It still numbed her being to remember -- to think back on that nightmare. Only the hate, only the anger, only the cold empty darkness was able to comfort the hollow ache that was once her heart. She had traveled alone keeping to lesser known trails, mountain passes and secluded caves. The hate, the anger, the pain ate away at what was left of her resolve and without her beacon of light to fight off her darkness she slowly slipped back toward the evil that was once her only way of life.
She stared ahead unaware of the people or the activities around her. She did not see them staring at her, nor did she care. She did not notice that this village was unlike any other she had ever pillaged or visited. This village was more like a huge farm with all of the people working toward the same goal. It seemed more like a large family, yet the people by their appearance were not all of the same lineage. Some were fair skinned and slight of build, while others were dark and well muscled. Some bore the mark of the pharaohs, others the sign of the Celts, and still more bore a striking resemblance to the people of Chin. Yet all worked together side by side as though they had been born into the same family.
A few days ago a young boy had timidly approached the warrior in a crowded tavern and quickly slid a folded piece of parchment across the table to her. She stared at it for a moment then at the grubby child who delivered it. He smiled proudly then turned and disappeared into the crowd. For a moment she fingered the item turning it over in her hand while finishing her drink. She considered leaving it on the table and walking away but something made her unroll the small piece of smudged skin. The message was short, definite and cryptic. It said simply in bold black letters -- COME.
She rose and walked out of the tavern. The boy had joined two men at the end of the street. It seemed they were waiting for her. She mounted her horse. They turned and walked toward the setting sun. She followed. And so it went. The three scouts stayed at all times 500 paces ahead of her. They made no contact. She made no attempt to catch up. They made no conversation. She had nothing to say. Was it mere curiosity that forced her to follow or was it perhaps because there was nothing else?
An hour ago the strange trio disappeared into this peculiar village and she had followed them with no regard for her safety or theirs. Yet she felt no threat here. Perhaps because since that day, she felt nothing.
Her horse stopped in front of a large two-story dwelling in the center of the village. The animal whickered impatiently. The warrior drew a deep breath and for the first time lifted her head to gaze at her present surroundings. She slid off her horse, threw the reins over the hitching post and turned to see if her guides were anywhere to be found. Behind her the large double doors of the house slowly opened and out stepped a stout middle aged woman. Her gray streaked hair was pulled back off her round face and she wore a white apron over a pale blue ankle length skirt. She wiped her hands on the apron and smiled as the young boy who had delivered the parchment stepped from behind her. She took his face in her hands and kissed his forehead. The boy turned, waved at the warrior and ran to join a group of children who seemed to be waiting for him at the end of the stone walkway that ran along the front of the house. The woman stepped to the side of the door and swept her arm toward the inside beckoning the warrior to enter. The warrior complied.
Inside the house was clean and comfortable. It smelled of fresh bread and wild flowers. The table was set with small cakes and cold cider. A fire crackled in the hearth and a large gray and white striped cat slept soundly on a small rug in front of it. Trinkets and treasures from all parts of Greece and not of Greece decorated the room. The warrior recognized these and wondered how such a woman could come to own them.
"Sit, warrior." The woman invited warmly. "I have been expecting you."
The warrior stood. "Oh?" She asked without interest.
"Yes." The woman pulled out a chair and motioned again for the warrior to sit. "It is time."
"Time?" The warrior repeated still standing.
"Yes," the woman repeated patiently. "Please sit. There is much to discuss."
The warrior moved slowly toward the chair and finally lowered herself into it. She sat back and folded her arms across her chest. "Do I know you?" She cocked her head and narrowed her cold blue eyes to almost slits.
"No, not really. I am Dacares. I know you." The woman sat herself across the table from the warrior. "And I know your friend."
For a moment the warrior was silent, remembering the feeling of having a friend then remembering the pain of losing her. "I have no 'friends'." She growled.
"Hmmm." The woman nodded as she poured the cold cider into the two cups on the table. "Like I said warrior there is much to discuss. It was the same with her."
"She was here!" The warrior exclaimed rising quickly.
The woman did not react. "She was. She is." She sipped the cider. "I have a story to tell. 'You' need to listen." She set the cup on the table and stared directly into the warrior's crackling gaze.
"There is nothing you can say that I care to hear." She said slowly through her teeth. "That part of my life is over." She turned to leave.
"That is your choice warrior, as is and was every other choice in your life. You've made many mistakes, many poor choices. Suit yourself. You can do what ever you wish, and you will. I only ask that you listen before you make your choice." The woman did not rise and made no attempt to stop the warrior.
The warrior stood still, her back to the quiet woman at the table. She turned the woman's words over in her head then returned to her seat. "I'm listening." She said in barely more than a whisper.
"I do know you and your friend warrior and I know your pain. I come from the village of Poteidia. I have known your friend since her birth. In fact I was there. You see we come from the same line. My grandmother and her grandmother were sisters. I was 15 summers old that year. She came into the world during the coldest part of winter. Her mother was ill after and her father had so much to do to keep the family alive. I was the oldest of four and the only girl, my mother sent me to help my cousin's wife and care for his newborn daughter. Later, when I was no longer needed I made excuses to go there and soon I was spending more time with his family than with my own. We became very close. Two years later a second daughter was born to my cousin's wife. I spent so much time with those two." For a moment Dacares paused and smiled remembering. "I taught them both to read and to write, something most little girls weren't obligated to do. My father was a peddler and he always brought home so many stories from his travels. I would share them with the girls. Then when Gabrielle was 10 winters old and Lila had just turned 8, I was forced to make a decision. I had been promised to a young man from another village, we had put off our wedding for so long because he loved another. I knew he could never be happy with me so we made a plan. We planned a picnic and told the others it was to plan our marriage ceremony. We went to the river. We ate our last meal together then threw the remnants of that meal into the water. It had been a rainy season and the river was higher and stronger than usual. We made it look like we decided to go for a swim. Our families would think we had drowned. We both walked away from Poteidia that day, never to return." She stopped and took a long drink.
"That's it?" The warrior asked sarcastically.
"No, warrior. Because it wasn't long after I crossed your path, or what was left of it."
Xena raised an eyebrow as Dacares continued. "I traveled west for a while, but it was not easy for a woman alone on the road. People seemed to get the wrong idea. I found what work I could in small towns but still there were places that the only thing a woman had to sell was what the gods gave her. I fought that until starvation threatened to end my live anyway. Out of desperation I sold my body to whatever soldier, marauder, or warrior could hand over the dinars." She turned her head in shame, then shook off the feeling and continued. "There were so many, I don't even remember their faces. But the inevitable happened and my son came into the world. I could no longer 'sell' my wares and care for a child, besides that kind of man is not looking for a family. So I moved on. I wandered into a village that had been pillaged by some heartless army and my heart went out to the misery of those people. I stayed to help. I had some background in the art of healing, from my grandmother and I put that to use. The people were grateful and shared what little they had with me and my son. I learned that it was the Warrior Princess who had leveled the town, leaving the women, the elderly and the young to piece their lives back together. All but three of the village men had been slaughtered." This time it was Xena who looked away with shame. "I had heard of the great and feared Destroyer of Nations, but up until that time I had never seen nor imaged the destruction she, you, had wrought upon humanity. Thatís when I began to follow you, Xena." The warrior tilted her chin and looked side long at the woman in confusion, questioning her statement without words.
Dacares laughed. "I followed your army picking up the pieces and helping the victims to put their lives back together. Oh, I'm sure that not every plundered village was your handiwork, but most of them were. From there my son and I traveled across Greece and beyond, always helping the down trodden and living off their generosity. I heard a few years ago, that you had changed, that you traveled with a young bard and wielded the sword of justice rather than the sword of destruction. After all that time I ended up here, just a little too old to be traipsing around the world. Now they come to me. The tired, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the helpless and the hopeless somehow find their way here to this village. Some I heal. Some I comfort. Some I can only bury. Some get well. Some leave. Some stay. Those that do stay become part of the village. We help each other, support each other and help those that need it. I don't know how they find me, perhaps it is the fates that send them here. Maybe they hear stories from those that move on. But under the last full moon my son and his friends found Gabrielle on the riverbank. They brought her to me. She was..." Dacares stopped and looked to see if the warrior was interested, satisfied she continued. "She was as she is now. I thought that she was sent to me because I was the only one who could help her, I was wrong. She told me the entire story, Xena. Everything. Britannia, Khrafstar, Caesar, Dahok, Hope, Min Tien and you -- she left out no detail. She has no reason to hide anything. She came here for one reason and that is to die."
"Why are you telling me this?" Xena asked looking into her cup, then taking a slow drink of the cider.
"Because, warrior, you have confused anger with hate. She has confused guilt with destruction. You have both suffered a great tragedy and need each other now more that you ever have. Yet you both let this tear apart the best of love -- true friendship. You are the only one who can understand her pain, and she yours but still you part company and suffer alone. You both know that healing will only come from each other. Only you can end her pain, only she can end yours." Dacares waited for a response.
Xena stood slowly and walked toward the door then stopped. "Where is she?"
"Answer me first, warrior. Will you end her pain? One way or the other, will you end it?"
"She won't suffer. Now, where is she!" Xena demanded turning to face the stout stubborn woman behind her.
"Come." Dacares turned toward the stairs.
Xena entered the small room at the very end of the hallway. She blinked a few times until her eyes adjusted to the darkness. It was strange for the room to be so dim at the height of the day. For a moment she thought Dacares had taken her to the wrong room or played some trick on her until she felt a familiar presence. Something lost, something she never thought to feel again. She crossed the room slowly without bumping the smallest piece of furniture. She roughly yanked the thick covering from the window allowing sunlight and fresh air into the stuffy room. The small figure curled up on the bed did not react. Xena cringed at the sight of the person before her. The girl seemed smaller, thinner, and older. Her hair was matted and lifeless, dark circles loomed beneath her dull eyes. Her cheeks were hollow, her ribs, and backbone were pronounced by her lack of weight. Her breathing was shallow. Whatever was left of her once vibrant self was nowhere to be found in that small room. Even her clothing was unkempt and disheveled. The warrior reached behind her and drew her sword. The weapon leaving its sheath produced a ring that reverberated in the room. She dropped the weapon to the floor. It hit with a loud clang. The girl did not react.
The warrior moved to the bed and sat next to the still form. She reached out and gently moved the stray hair from the girl's face. She bent closer and looked into lifeless green eyes that did not look back but away into some unknown blank space. "Gabrielle." She spoke softly. "Gabrielle?" She took the girl by the shoulders and brought her into a sitting position. Still there was no reaction. "Gabrielle," she gently patted the girl's cheek. "Come on, Gabrielle...I'm here...see." She took the girl's face in her hands and held it up. "See?" But the girls gaze remained blank and distant. The warrior's patience was waning. "Gabrielle! Knock it off!" She shook her by the shoulders, hard. The girl's head snapped back and forth, but the expression did not change. "Gabrielle I was so angry, so hurt. I said things I never meant. I was wrong. WE need to fix this!" The warrior bent to look into the girl's eyes. She shook her again. "Damn it, Gabrielle look at me! Look at me, I said!" Another hard shake and the girl let out a small gasp. "Damn you, Gabrielle. I won't lose you too! NOW, LOOK AT ME!!" The warrior's patience was exhausted, she struck the girl across the face leaving a bright red handprint on her pale cheek. A second backhanded strike left a similar mark on the opposite side of her face. Immediately, the warrior regretted her action and pulled the girl close, stoking her hair and kissing the top of her head. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." She whispered quickly through tears she could no longer hold back. She rocked back and forth gently, motherly. "Don't do this Gabrielle, please come back. I need you. I...I love you. You made me promise never to die on you again, don't I get the same promise? Hmmm?" She held the girl close, still rocking and rested her cheek on top of the girl's head giving in to the emotion that had been trying to overtake her. Slowly a pair of thin arms wrapped around the warrior's waist and tried to squeeze back. It was a weak attempt, but enough for the shaken warrior to become aware of the girl's presence. She felt the small form in her arms begin to shiver and felt warm tears fall on her arm. "Xena." Her voice was small and feeble. "Shhh, shhh." The warrior soothed the bard. "Not now. I'm here. Everything will be all right. We'll make it all right." Xena squeezed her eyes shut and smiled with relief, knowing there would be so much to set right. But for now they would just be together, comfort each other and heal. She continued to smooth the girl's tangled hair and kissed her head again. "Shhh, shhh"
Much later Dacares entered the small room. The full bright moon cast a silver glow through the small window. Dacares moved toward the bed and pulled a blanket over the two sleeping forms. The warrior rested against the large pillow, the bard was asleep on her shoulder. The warrior's arm was protectively over the bard's shoulders, the bard held tight to the warrior's hand -- an anchor of safety in a sea of anguish. 'Perhaps the most rest either have gotten in a long time.' Dacares smiled. "Sleep well, my little ones, for now the real work begins."