CN's Tales of Romance

 

|Home|What's New|Book Orders|Egroups|Contact Info|


 Changes of Heart Pt. iI


Disclaimers: These characters arenít mine. They belong to Mr. Tapert and Co. Iím just borrowing them to vent. Itís not a happy tale and it involves two women who once loved each other deeply. If either of these facts disturb you donít read this tale. Also it contains spoilers for the last few eps of season five.

This tale is set after "Motherhood" up until season six


ASTONISHMENT

Itís a gloriously sunny day; not that one could tell by the dim in here.

Gabrielle sat at the bar in the dark tavern, her back to the barkeep and her eyes watching the patrons around her. Perhaps itís an unwritten rule in every drinking establishment that they have poor lighting and even poorer clientele. She was on the verge of taking a sip of her ale when she noticed a woman approaching her on the left with a crooked grin. She looked like a walking tree, as tall as Xena but not nearly as beautiful. A small scar ran down the right side of her cheek and her broad shoulders were protected by armor that looked like it hadnít seen polish in about three years. Oh boy Gabrielle sighed nervously to herself as the woman got closer and the smile got wider.

"Gotta name?" the woman asked cocking her head waiting for a reply.

"Yep."

A few seconds passed and Gabrielle added no more. Get a clue Adonis wannabe. The woman released a chuckle at Gabrielleís Ďhard to getí demeanor. "Why donít I buy you a drink? It will loosen you up Iím sure," she replied, running her fingertips down the bards arm.

"No thanks," Gabrielle said finally making eye contact. "I have one already. See?" the bard replied, showing her mug of ale before taking another sip.

Gabrielle didnít notice but a cloaked woman at the far end of the bar was taking the scene in with a great bit of interest but said nothing.

The admirer was starting to lose her patience however and her finger trail became a firm grasp on the bardís arm.

"Donít go acting like youíre too good for me missy or Iíll show you just how well suited I am for you." With that the woman tried to nuzzle against Gabrielleís ear but the bard reared back and hit her square in the forehead knocking the intruder a good four feet back.

"I donít want any trouble," Gabrielle announced. Damn it my head hurts. How in the hell does Xena do it so easy? Right. Sheís hard headed. Shake it off. Shake it off. "Iím not looking for a one night stand or happily ever after. Iím looking for . . . me. Thank you for the offer but Iím not interested."

The woman cracked her neck and menaced closer to Gabrielle. "Well thatís not good enough," she said getting closer.

Gabrielle held her ground, keeping an eye on the intruder but also staying aware of her surroundings. Stay focused Gabrielle. Even breaths. Be bold. The advice of Xena came to her mind - 60 percent of any battle is between the ears, the other is just muscle. Who ever can psyche the other will always be the winner. Gabrielle threw a cocky grin on her face, although at the moment she felt anything but confident. "Do I have to kill you? How about if I just beat the stuffing out of you instead?"

"Ooooo a gambling woman eh?" the admirer taunted.

Hey, thatís not a bad idea. "Yeah Iím a gambling woman. What do you say? Do you feel like youíre in a winning mood? Iíve got a proposition for you if you do," Gabrielle offered in a lusty tone, taking a step closer in challenge, teasing her, taunting her.

The admirer grinned. Knew she was just playing hard to get. "What do you have in mind beautiful?"

"Money," Gabrielle proclaimed with a wide grin. "Winner take all to the warrior left standing. How much do you have on you?"

"20 dinars," the woman answered.

"I can meet that bet," Gabrielle answered confidently. "So pick your weapon and your conditions."

"Oh no," the woman laughed heartily. "Iíll battle you but itís not your money I want when I win."

Oh lord. Could she leer and drool any more? How disgusting!. . . Okay. Think Gabrielle. Could you really go through with this if you lost? No you couldnít but that doesnít mean that youíre going to lose. Sure sheís big but you knocked her back with one headbutt. She obviously doesnít have your speed either. The bardís grin widened, "Okay," she replied confidently. "Iíll take that bet. 20 dinars vs. my . . . ahem . . . virtue," she teased with a wink. "Show me the money and weíll get it underway," Gabrielle instructed.

"I got it," the woman said defensively.

"Okay," Gabrielle said staying as cool as the Ganges. "Show it to me then."

"Well itís upstairs," the woman grunted, motion her head toward the rooms upstairs.

"Itís upstairs? I thought you said you had it?" Gabrielle toyed. All part of the game. All part of the game. "Anyway, doesnít matter where itís at right now. Later it will be in my hands so Iíll wait for you to get it," Gabrielle counted with a grin. "Unless of course youíre not a warrior of your word," she added in challenge.

That put the woman in motion. She stomped up the stairs and Gabrielle casually went back to her drink as all eyes on the tavern were on her. "Ahh . . . this is good ale," she told the barkeep in a friendly tone.

The cloaked figure came behind the bard and whispered, "Sheís gotta glass jaw. Go for the face."

Gabrielle recognized the voice but couldnít quite place it. She tried to turn to see who was giving her instructions but the clang of change purse next to her got her attention.

"You can count it if you like," the woman said.

"Thanks," Gabrielle answered. "Donít mind if I do."

Just as the woman said 20 shinny dinars were in the bag. Casually the bard tossed it back to her. "Shall we?" she asked with a grand gesture toward the door.

At this point the entire tavern had come to a stop Ė no one was eating, speaking or even moving for that matter. As the intruder made her way out Gabrielle followed close behind. Before they could clear the door, the tables began to rise spot by spot, following the women outside. THIS they had to see.

They walked outside, toward a weapons hut located adjacent to the tavern. "Mind if we try out a few weapons," the woman called over to the shopkeeper.

"No, be my guest," he said hoping to make a sale. He did start to wonder however if that was the intention when the bar patrons all followed behind them.

The woman then turned back to Gabrielle. "Since weíre going to be getting to know each other much better after this little duel perhaps we should be on a first name basis. Iím Gailes," she introduced gallantly.

I can play along. "Pleasure to meet your acquaintance . . . And Iím sure thatís all it will be . . . an acquaintance . . . With that aside letís get down to business. I made the challenge so you pick the weapons."

The woman could tell this little blonde was a queen at being evasive. After all this trouble, she STILL didnít have her name. Gailes noticed the sais on Gabrielleís boots so she opted for a more Ďtraditionalí and Ďold schoolí weapon, something she was sure the young woman would be unfamiliar with.

"Fighting staffs," she said firmly, taking one in her hand.

Gabrielle gave the largest of grins and went over to collect her weapon. She walked back into the street to meet her challenger but asked for a small moment to Ďget acquaintedí with the weapon.

"Take your time," Gailes answered, certain she had made the right choice. Her smile crept away more and more with each drill she watched the bard preformed, getting faster and faster as the weapon settled into her hands as if it were an extension of her body.

"By the way," the bard told her, coming to a stop. "My name is Gabrielle of Potiedaia."

"The amazon bard who travels with the warrior princess?" the woman asked, a sudden quake coming to her voice.

Is she starting to sweat? "Yep thatís the one . . . well at least I USED to travel with Xena but Iím on my own now . . . I must confess itís been a few years since I seriously picked up one of these," she said with all the confidence in the world. "But Iím sure Iíll get back into my groove. The staff was one of the first weapons I mastered incidentally. . .Good choice," she mocked. Gabrielle watched the woman give a hard swallow but say nothing. "Anytime youíre ready," she told Gailes.

Gailes took a deep breath to steady herself before taking an uncertain step toward Gabrielle. Thatís all the bard needed. She opened up with a yell deep from her diaphragm and rushed Gailes with blow after blow. Gailes tried for a sweep but Gabrielle on pure instinct jumped and avoided it. She chuckled loudly. "Not bad but you did it wrong," the bard teased.

Without adding more Gabrielle made two strikes and one sweep that promptly took Gailes on her backside. Gabrielle moved to give her a chance to stand and grinned down at her. "Thatís the proper way to sweep," the bard remarked egotistically.

The folks who gathered to watch the battle began to chuckle, especially the cloaked figure. Gailes confident facade began to unravel but instead of backing down, just the opposite occurred. She got angry. And when she got angrier she was unable to even strike Gabrielle, let alone do any damage. She got sloppy. At one point Gabrielle tried the turn and pivot move the amazons had shown her years before but as times past she nearly knocked herself in the head. Enough of getting fancy bard. Take her down. And with that, Gabrielle saw her opening and took it.

With Gailes trying to regain control of the staff, Gabrielle let loose and whacked her clean across the face. The warrior dropped the staff and wobbled back on her heels. A second later she fell backward, the force so great that the impact lifted the warriorís legs off the ground before they came crashing back to the dusty main street. She was out cold.

A cheer went around the crowd and the spectators began to throw their own dinars at Gabrielleís feet.

What?! Why are you-?! "Whatís going on?" she asked taking one of the on-lookers by the sleeve.

"Weíve waiting years to see someone put Gailes in her place," a man chuckled. "Congratulates sweetie. Youíre one helluva fighter," he chuckled. "Here," he added putting five dinars in her hand. "This is well worth it."

Group by group, the villagers made their way back to the tavern. Since a bet was a bet Gabrielle snatched Gailes change purse that was on her waist and filled the bag with the rest of the dinars sheíd earned from the townspeople. After she was finished she looked back at the unconscious woman. Gabrielle took 10 dinars from her pouch and closed them in the womanís hand.

"You might need an ale later to nurse that jaw," Gabrielle teased, although the woman couldnít hear a word. The bard wasnít about to leave her Ďpennilessí. Sheíd put up a good fight.

Gabrielle picked up the staff and gave it a few light tosses feeling the weight. The shopkeeper looked at her and grinned. Gabrielle returned the gesture and asked, "How much?"

"For you," he smiled, "Five dinars."

"Sold," the bard answered and handed over the coins. Thatís when Gabrielle noticed the reflection of the cloaked figure behind her in a shield that hung outside. Before the informant could move away Gabrielle went over to her.

"Your turn and pivot is off," the unknown figure told her.

Who are you? "Yeah," Gabrielle said slowly, trying to find out who the figure was behind the cloak, not quiet able to see. That voice - I know that voice. "Seems the problem lies with my-."

"Footing," the two said in harmony.

The cloak hood came down to reveal a woman with salt and pepper hair, perhaps in her early 50ís, maybe late 40ís. "After all these years I figured youíd have mastered that by now. But I can see you still nearly chuck yourself in the head," she laughed.

"It canít be . . . Is it really you?"

"Yes, Gabrielle itís me . . . But first things first, whatís your secret? How did you manage to stay so young?"

Sweet Aphrodite, the bard thought as her jaw fell and she gathered the woman into a tight embrace.

EXPLANATIONS

Xena grinned when she spotted Hercules in the distance putting the finishing touches on a stone retaining wall that surrounded a small house. Xena climbed aboard Argo and called down to Eve, "Iím going ahead. See you when you get down there."

She took Argo into a full gallop, kicking dusty behind her on the trail.

Hercules looked up when her heard the hoofs approaching. Is that Xena? No she canít look that young . . .Well Iíll be. It is Xena. He gave a smile and chuckled as she approached and he hopped the fence with ease to meet her. Xena reeled Argo in when she was close enough and leapt from the mare, jogging over to see her friend.

They both laughed as they embraced and Herc gave her a playful twirl in the air, gently putting her down.

"Whereís Gabrielle?" He asked with a smile. But soon his smile began to fade realizing that perhaps Gabrielle was no longer on the earthly plain.

"We decided to go our separate ways . . . well she decided that but weíll discuss that later," Xena gave a nervous chuckle. He looked as old as when he had battled Zeus for Eveís life and not a day older. "Anyway, youíre looking as young as ever," she commented on his appearance.

"You should talk," he said pulling her arms up and away from her body giving her an appraising eye. "Did you find the Tree of Fietus too?"

Xena smiled. Ah ha. "So you do know where the tree is? Any mortal that eats the fruit is said to become immortal? Looks like itís true ummm?"

Herc smiled and dug his toe in the dirt a moment. "I didnít want to do it but Iolaus convinced me otherwise."

"Damn right I did. The world needs the big guy around," they heard a voice behind them add. Iolaus, it appears didnít eat the fruit. His hair was thinning and graying. The laughlines around his lips and eyes were more prominent but he still appeared very dashing with the same mischievous sparkle in his blue eyes. He offered his arm to Xena in greeting. "How have you been Xena? Forgive me for saying it but the last we heard . . . you were dead."

"We were in a way I suppose," Xena said before silently cursing herself for using the word Ďweí. We? Sheís not here anymore. When are you gonna realize that? "Gabrielle and I, I mean, we . . .". Why the hell am I stumbling all over this? Just spit it out already! "Ares froze us accidentally when he thought we died but we managed to escape and come back. Some. . .things . . . happened and she decided to go out on her own."

Xenaís voice cracked and Hercís eyebrows crunched in examination. "Actually I heard part of the story already. My sister told me. Are you okay?"

Sister? Ahh - Dite. . . Xena chewed on her lip to push down the tears that threatened to come forth with Hercís question.

"Yeah, Iím doing okay," she sighed. "Itís been about two months now since she left. Iíve been so busy with dealing with Ares being a mortal and getting to know Eve that I havenít had much time to really consider things with Gabrielle. . . I mean I think of her all the time but I just havenít thought about it . . . Does that make any sense?" she asked exasperated at trying to explain to the men who stood silently watching her.

"Well do you mean that you miss her?You just havenít had time to realize that itís over. .for good?"

"Yeah," Xena smiled bitter-sweetly. "Gabrielle was always good with words like that." The smile was only brief as she began to hear Hercís words sink in deeper . . . Itís over. For good. . . She shook her head to rid herself of the thoughts. The sooner she could get Ares out of her life the better. She pointed up the path to Ares and Eve who were now almost within earshot.

"Anyway, Iíve got ex-god trouble and thought you could lend a hand," she chuckled.

With that Herc looked up the path and he saw Ares and a young woman walking toward them. "Whoís the girl?" Herc asked, nodding toward her.

"Thatís our daughter . . . Eve."

You did it again - using words like Ďourí as if Gabrielle is standing right here. Xena took an unsteady breath. Come on and get a grip here. Why are you acting so mushy now? Pull it together warrior. Xena wiped her eyes with her fingertips to guard against any tears that might escape. She didnít think being near Herc would have this kind of effect on her - the overwhelming urge to Ďspill her gutsí as it were. At the moment she couldnít even lock eyes with the demi-god for fear of losing what control she had over her tear ducts.

"Ares gave up his godhood to save Eveís life . . . and Gabrielle. . . I donít want to make him a god again but life as a mortal is just too painful for ME with him around," she joked. "And itís tough for him too I guess. Will you help? . . . Make him immortal, I mean? Obviously you have the answer to immortality," she teasingly prodded.

Finally Xena looked up to see the beam on Hercís face as he watched Eve come down the path. "Sheís a beautiful girl Xena."

"Yes she is," Xena answered. "Does that mean youíll help us?"

"Help Ares?" Herc chuckled.

Xena simply nodded.

"No," Herc answered. "But Iíll help you. And who knows since he did something unselfish for ONCE in his life . . . perhaps he could change too . . . but Iím not holding my breath," the demi-god winked.

"Eve," Xena called out, pulling her closer. "Iíd like you to met Hercules and his partner Iolaus."

"Nice to meet you sounds like an understatement," Eve said offering her forearm.

Herc took her gently by the hand and gave a light kiss to her knuckles instead. "Itís my pleasure," he grinned warmly. He escorted her over to Iolaus who still stood behind the wall where they shook hands.

"Come in everyone," Iolaus instructed. "Yes . . . even you Ares," he teased.

Ares rolled his eyes but joined the group passing through the gate, making their way to the house.

"So this is the kinda pad heroes have when they retire huh?" Xena said giving the home an appraising eye. "Not bad," she grinned. "Kinda reminds me of Gabrielleís hut at the amazon village."

"Yeah but thereís no naked woman running around in the front window," Iolaus teased as they walked inside which earned him a jab from his buddy. "Have a seat. Supperís almost done," he said pointing to the dinning table.

Xena noticed a limp as Iolaus went to the stew pot. "Hurt your leg Iolaus?" Xena asked.

"Nahh, just old war wounds catching up to me. It comes and goes and today itís flaring up. Come on and grab some spoons and bowls. There should be enough for everyone."

As Xena and Eve went to the kitchen area, Herc and Ares spent the time just looking at each other, neither one willing to lose in the staring contest.

"What?!" Ares finally asked irritated.

"I could kick your fanny allllllll over the place right now," Herc chuckled.

"Well why donít you give it a shot tough guy," Ares taunted.

Xena could hear their voices behind her, beginning to rise. She didnít even bother to turn around to face them. "Canít you two give it a rest?" she sighed.

"I take it they donít get along too well," Eve whispered to Xena.

"Like Greek Fire and water," Iolaus said whispering into the conversation.

"I HEARD that," Herc called into the kitchen.

"Well itís not like itís untrue," Iolaus said bringing a bowl for Herc too as he sat down at the table.

Xena had two bowls and she slid one over to Ares. "Donít argue. Just eat. That will keep your mouth busy for awhile."

"He started it," Ares rebutted pointing his spoon at his half-brother.

"Well if Daddy were around you could go back and cry to him. But since heís not shut up and eat," Xena warned.

Herc could tell by the snap in her voice that Xena had about all she could take of the former god of war.

"Iím sorry," Herc apologized to the group, hoping it would give Xena a respite he felt she very much needed.. "I promise Ares, no more arguing. Agreed?" Herc offered his hand in truce.

Ares pushed Hercís hand away, along with the bowl. "Iíll be outside if you need me," he told Xena.

Herc shrugged his shoulders and settled himself down to eat. "Well so much for trying," he replied before putting a spoonful of stew in his mouth. Xena and Eve ate in silence until Xena complimented Iolaus on the food, a comment that Eve quickly echoed with a thanks.

"Donít mention it," he grinned. "Itís just nice to see you again Xena. We havenít see our old friends in ages," Iolaus added before turning to Herc. "How longís it been since we seen Autolycus?" he asked. "At least a year I think."

Herc nodded, "Yeah around last summer."

"You mean the King of Thieves is still around?" Xena smiled warmly. "Whatís he doing?"

"Well he DID about 15 years in prison after getting caught in a diamond mind," Herc grinned. "But he paid his debt to society and decided to take up woodworking."

Woodworking? Xena couldnít hold back the laugh at the thought. "Youíre pulling my leg arenít you?"

"No," Iolaus said shaking his head. "That sofa over there was a house warming present he made for us when we built this place. Heís really creative and heís got a knack for that kinda stuff. Heís actually making a better living doing that than stealing."

"Eh, who thought Autolycus had other skills," Xena said checking it out from across the room.

Everyone took a moment to go back to their stew. Autolycus is still alive. I wonder now about mother. And Lila! Lila is probably still alive. Damn it! We should have gone to Potiedaia. Maybe thatís where Gabrielleís gone too. Maybe we should-

"You okay?" Herc asked.

Xena realized Herc had been talking to her but she got so caught up in her mind she didnít hear him. "Iím sorry," she grinned bashfully. "I didnít catch that."

"Yeah you seem pretty distracted. Are you finished eating? Would you like some more?" the demi-god asked.

"Oh no, Iím fine. Thank you both. It was very good," Xena remarked.

"Youíre welcome," Herc answered. "Now letís go out back. Iíll show you the pond we made. Iolaus . . . maybe you can show Eve some of those scrolls weíve got?"

"Do you like scrolls?" Iolaus asked, the young woman.

"Are you kidding?! I love them - especially the oneís my mom wrote- I mean Gabrielle."

"Actually, I have a couple of Gabbyís scrolls," he winked.

"You do?" Eve and Xena both asked in harmony.

"She didnít say sheíd given any away . . . but then again I never asked," Xena replied guiltily.

The room fell quiet, not sure of what to add at the moment. The tone of Ďregretí hung in the air a few more seconds until Herc spoke up. "Well, weíll be back later. Come on Xena," Herc said wrapping his arm around Xenaís shoulder and leading her out the back door.

"So are you ready to tell me what happened?" Herc asked.

"About what?" Xena said evasively. Herc didnít reply. He just gave her a Ďlookí that spoke volumes. No getting around it with him. "Iím not sure. I mean I know why I just . . . Oh damn it." Xena broke down into sobs.

She wasnít sure how long it lasted but when she calmed her breathing enough to speak again she noticed that Hercís shirt was slightly wet.

"Iím sorry. I donít know why I did that," Xena chuckled nervous.

"Because youíre sad . . . youíre confused . . . and if I know you, you havenít taken time to grieve yet. Youíve been babysitting Ares because of some unspoken debt you feel you owe him for saving your family and as a result . . . youíve avoided dealing with your breakup with Gabrielle."

Xena gave a genuine chuckle of amusement for the first time since her arrival. "Youíre good," she smiled. "I guess thatís exactly whatís going on."

Herc took Xena by the hand as they walked toward the waterís edge. They stood there for a moment and just looked out at the water and the small rippling when a fish would jump now and then. "Are you going to look for her?" he asked quietly. "Or have you given up on getting her back?"

Xena sighed and consider the question. Yes. No. Maybe. "I havenít decided," she answered. "I figured that if she wants to see me then sheíll come to me."

"What if sheís thinking the same thing?" Herc asked. "What if sheís waiting for you? Someone has to make the first step. You said itís been what? Two months?"

"Yeah."

"Are you ready to see her?"

"Iím not sure," Xena answered honestly. "I took Gabrielle for granted in many ways but . . ."

"But what?" Herc asked sincerely.

"But she let me down too . . . No . . . she spent some time examining who she was and I didnít see us having a future. She always did though . . . I was scared of her . . . and me."

"Scared? Of what?"

"Of losing her, of loving her . . . I mean she was on a path of non-violence. With our life itís not the safest path to be on and I worried that I might not be able to help her. And then later . . . when she realized that the warrior life was what she was truly destined for instead of supporting that I . . . I got scared again. My brother was a warrior and I lost him. Then a time came and I lost myself. I was worried that Gabrielle might die. I was worried that I might lose her to the darkness of war someday - just like my soul had been lost . . . I didnít say anything though. I just . . . shut her out.

Sheíd make comments about how much she loved Eve and how we could build a future together and instead of loving her like I should have . . . like I wanted to . . . I turned away because I was scarred to get TOO close. I could give this woman my sword and my body . . . but I couldnít give her my heart. And when I reacted and struck her with my chakram . . . that was it for her. Sheíd had enough and left . . . and the sad part is I donít blame her. And the really sad part is what I feared most. . . losing her . . . came true in the end anyway."

Herc was speechless. Heíd never heard Xena be so Ďwordyí; so open. He wondered if Gabrielle had heard all these thoughts Xena just expressed to him.

"But thatís my story," she grinned for show. "If I could take it all back I would. If I could show her how much I love her and trust her I would. But it doesnít look like thatís meant to be. Iím sure sheíll move on. Sheíll fall in love. Sheíll find someone who sees how wonderful and special she is. . . that person could have been me if I hadnít been so proud or so cowardly . . . perhaps both."

Sheís gone. Sheís really gone now.

Xena started to cry hysterically at that point. She never took the time since Gabrielle left that night on the beach to really cry. Her time was spent training Ares on being human or telling the Ďhappyí stories about Gabrielle to Eve. It kept the darkness of it all at bay. But now. Now that she had time to think about it. Emotions she didnít have time for before hit her full force - the devastating feeling of loss and dread and on a certain level anger.

How could see just leave? After five years just walk away.

Xena pulled away from Hercís embrace and she found herself starting to pace. Okay. Enough is enough. Quit feeling sorry for yourself Xena. . . Iím gonna find that damn tree. Iím gonna lay out all the cards for Eve about Gabrielle and I from now on, even the ugly ones. Then with Ares out of my hair and Eve knowing the whole truth . . .

Xena wiped her eyes and looked at Herc. "I need your help," she told him.

"You got it Xena. You know that. What do you want?" he asked noticing a shift in her mood to one of gloom to one of determination.

"Iím gonna find that tree. Will you help?" she asked him.

"Consider me there," he smiled.

"Good," she grinned confidently. "Because after that . . . Iím gonna find my bard."

 

SIDEKICKS

"Gabrielle! Behind you!!"

Without looking back the amazon queen raised her staff behind her head blocking the sword strikes of the two men that worked their way behind her. With cat like reflexes she spun around taking one man out with a quick strike and then the other. As both men lay scattered across the ground unmoving she was finally able to rejoin her partner.

"Good work," Gabrielle smiled. "Come on," she said as she motioned her traveling partner toward a young woman who was curled up on the ground, timidly watching the action.

"Are you okay?" the bard asked.

"Yes . . . thanks to you," the young woman answered. She finally had the chance to look up and when she did she found herself getting lost in the green eyes that shined down upon her. Great Aphrodite, sheís beautiful.

"No thanks needed," Gabrielle replied with a comforting grin. "Did you know these men?" she asked pointing behind her to the four men that lay unconscious on the ground.

"No theyíre not from my village. Iíve never seen them before," the young lady replied. Aside from a little dirt and some scraps the lady was quite beautiful Ė dark, flowing brown hair and eyes to match. "I was doing the laundry and they came out of nowhere."

Gabrielle dusted the woman off a bit and stood up offering her arm. "Well letís get you home. Whereís your washings?" the bard asked.

"Over there," she pointed meekly, still a bit shaken by the events of the day.

"Could you-."

"Iím all over it," Gabrielleís new partner replied, before starting toward the bank to get the womanís belongings. "Iíll tie the men up and catch up in a bit."

Gabrielle gave a nod and turned back to the young woman. "Letís get you back to the village and notify the sheriff," Gabrielle said starting to walk down the path.

The young woman couldnít take her eyes off the bard and she tripped on a rock in the road. Gabrielle helped her catch her balance and couldnít help notice the sense of awe transpiring in the young womanís eyes. There was a time when you were in awe yourself Gabrielle so tread lightly here, she warned herself.

"Are you sure youíre okay?" Gabrielle asked.

Donít blush now. Sheíll think youíre just some stupid kid, the young woman berated herself silently. "Yes Iím fine. I guess I just never saw a real amazon before . . . I mean you are an amazon arenít you?"

Gabrielle grinned. "Last time I checked yes I was still an amazon," she teased. "My name is Gabrielle."

"Gabrielle, the amazon bard?! Is that Xena?!" the young woman asked excitedly, looking back over her shoulder to the woman just putting the finishing knots on the attackers.

"Yes Iím the amazons bard." I guess my reputation DOES proceeds me at this point. "And no thatís not Xena. Thatís Eponin Ė sheís an old friend of mine thatís been traveling with me for the past moon now."

"Oh . . ." Come on! Come on! Think of something witty or clever. Youíre a poet for gaiaís sake. It was obvious the young woman didnít know what to add so Gabrielle picked up the conversation.

"And whatís your name?"

"Iím August," she answered. Yeah that will really wow her. "Iím a writer too. Not stories. Just poetry. My folks think itís a silly waste of time but someday Iím going to be famous - like you!"

"Iím not famous," Gabrielle chuckled.

"Are you kidding?" the girl said excitedly, the pace of her speech quickening. "Every traveling bard that comes through our town has at least one story of the Warrior Princess and the Amazon Bard. I know lots of the tales about your journeys. Would you like to hear one?! How about Cecrops? Or Baccus? I could tell you one if you like. I said I write poetry but I know I could do a good story too if you want."

Oh boy. Did I sound this over anxious when Xena road into town? Yep. You probably did. No wonder Xena was always so quiet. I did all the talking, Gabrielle chuckled out loud and the girl gave her an inqusiative look. Gabrielle shook her head to clear her mind of the memory and to let the girl know it wasnít her jabberjaw that was making her grin. "No thatís okay," Gabrielle told her. "Iím sure youíre a great storyteller. Letís just get you back home safe okay?"

The rest of the way Gabrielle learned practically everything about the young girlís life. She was non-stop and very open about everything. The more Gabrielle listened the more it sounded like an echo of years ago. But soon they were at the girls home where she was met by her parents and her brother.

"Please stay for the evening at least," her mother insisted. "A hot meal and a warm bed are the least we can offer you for saving August."

Eponin and Gabrielle looked at each other and nodded in agreement to each other before taking the offer. Later that night after dinner Augustís father offered to give Gabrielle one of their horses but Gabrielle solidly refused. Dinner and shelter for the evening was more than generous enough. Augustís father relented but made the bard promise if she ever needed anything that their door was always open. That was an offer Gabrielle could accept in good faith.

As Eponin and Gabrielle walked around the village after supper they noticed August trying to follow close behind but also trying to be inconspicuous. Eponin couldnít help but take note of the smile that played on the bard lips.

"You seem awfully happy this evening."

Gabrielle looked around the town and then back to Eponin. "This little place reminds me of my hometown. Itís funny. When I was Augustís age I could wait to leave it but looking back now . . . it was a peaceful place. Quiet. Sometimes I miss it."

"Looking to settle down my queen," Eponin teased.

"Far from it," Gabrielle chuckled. "Poteidaia is a nice place to visit but I donít think I could ever live there again. Kinda like you and the amazon village. You miss it . . . but then again you donít. Do you understand?"

Eponin considered the question. "Yeah . . . but I left because of love," Eponin countered. "After Ephiny and I broke up . . . I couldnít sit by and let Solari build the life I hoped to share with Ephiny. It was too hard . . . I left because of love."

"I left Poteidaia because of love too," Gabrielle winked. "Although the circimstances were different . . . the end result seems to be the same though huh? Abandonment." I traveled the world with Xena and came full circle and what do I have to show -- numberous notches of kills on my swords and once more, a staff in my hand.

Eponin noticed Gabrielleís mind at work and she could tell it wasnít anything good. Gods how I wish I could make that ache go away thatís in her eyes, her soul. "At least weíre not alone," Eponin countered optimistically.

"I get the feeling in this village weíll never be alone," Gabrielle teased pitching a thumb over her shoulder toward their Ďshadowí who quickly turned to act like she was looking at some scarfs.

"You know what I meant," Eponin pushed. "Weíve got each other now. Itís been a long time since I had anyone I could relate too. I make a pretty good sidekick even though Iím almost 50 summers old."

"Partner," Gabrielle corrected. "Iíll never have a sidekick . . . ever."

Eponin gave an agreeable nod and let the conversation be. So what did the hero do to you Gabrielle? Whatís happened that the word Ďsidekickí brings such pain to your eyes? Gabrielle had opened up and told her of some of the facts that drove sidekick and hero apart. She was sure there were many more tales to be told and she was confident that in time Gabrielle would confide them to her.

Weeks before she was delighted that Gabrielle had recognized her. It HAD been a long time since she had a real friend to relate to. The years she spent away from the amazon village consisted mostly of traveling from place to place doing odd jobs here and there. Then suddenly she was there . . . And as gorgeous as ever. Eponin felt herself admiring her traveling partner a little too close and looked for another destraction. She soon found it when she turned around to see August move a few stalls closer.

"What are you going to do about her?" Eponin teased, nodding toward the young woman. "Sheís been bitten by the love bug you know," she smirked.

Gabrielle chuckled. "Believe it or not I remember what thatís like . . . hero worship I mean. I had Xena so high on a pedastal youíd never think she could fall," Gabrielle answered with a grin. "It seems like another lifetime some days."

"You gonna set her straight?" Eponin asked.

"Whatís to set straight? Nothing wrong with admiration," Gabrielle countered.

Thatís good to know for future reference. "Thatís true," Eponin answered outloud. "But still . . ."

Gabrielle put down the bottle of wine she was looking at and faced Eponin. "I gotta tell her huh?"

Eponin shurgged her shoulders. "Itís your call . . . your admirer," she teased.

"Thanks," Gabrielle answered sarcastically before giving a sigh. "Why donít you head back to the barn for the night while I have a sensative chat, okay?"

Eponin gave a hearty chuckle. "Sensative chat?" she grinned. "I like the sound of that . . . Okay, Iíll catch you later . . . PARTNER."

Gabrielle saw her young admirer taking a sudden interest in some horseshoes when the duo had turned around. "August!" she yelled over toward her. When the girl looked up Gabrielle waved her over.

"Did you need something Gabrielle?" the girl asked excitedly, nearly tripping over herself willing to help as she passed Epinon.

Gabrielle did her best to hold back a smile. "Youíve been following me around for some time now. Is there something you want to ask me? Something you need from me?"

You bet there is the young woman thought lecherously. "Youíve done so much I really couldnít ask for more," she replied instead.

"Care to tell me why youíre following me around?" Gabrielle asked without malice. The bard saw Augustís cheek grow crimson and her suspcious were confirmed. "Look August," Gabrielle began, "Youíre a very beautiful young girl and we have a lot in common. I can see you admire me-."

"You really think Iím beautiful?!" the village girl replied hopeful.

Oh no now youíve done it. "Yes August but let me explain. Youíve got a family and life here and come sunrise Iíll be leaving and-."

"Then take me with you! I can cook for you and clean for you. I sharpen my fatherís sword all the time so I can even do that. Please say you will. Iím not meant for this town Gabrielle. Iím not the little girl my parents wanted me to be. Iím meant for bigger and better things."

What?! Oh great. I should have let Eponin do this. "I canít," Gabrielle replied. Why canít you? Xena did. Oh shut up you donít know what youíre talking about. Youíre not up to babysitting a starry eyed kid. You could do it you know. You could be a mentor to her. . . Just great. Iím arguing with myself and losing. I think my mind IS going. "August," Gabrielle said holding her temples trying to regroup. "You donít understand what youíre asking."

"Yes I do. I want to be a poet. I want to go to Athens. I canít be a poet here. If I want to be someone - ANYONE - who leaves a mark it wonít be in this little town. I mean look at you! You did it didnít you?! I could do it too if the right opportunity comes along and like it or not YOUíRE that opportunity . . . So Iím begging . . . Please . . . Take me with you. You canít leave me here in-."

"Potiedaia," Gabrielle mustered with a far off look in her eyes completing the girlís sentence.

"No. Geddeus . . . Potiedaia is at least 10 towns away," August answered somewhat confused.

"Huh?" Gabrielle asked reflexively before coming back to the present conversation, pushing the one from years back further into her memory. "Anyway August, the answer has to be no. Iím sorry."

Gabrielle started to walk away but she heard Augustís voice behind her. that stopped her in her tracks.

"Havenít you ever dreamed?"

That stopped Gabrielle from taking another step away.

Dreams. Yes I did have dreams and despite the pain, the suffering most of my dreams came true . . . except for Ďhappily ever afterí . . . and the reason they did was because of Xena. She believed in me when no one else did. I was never the proper young lady and if I had stayed in that little town I would have been dead years before . . . perhaps not physically but spiritually. You gotta do it. You gotta say yes.

"Okay," Gabrielle sighed before turning to face the girl. "But you have to tell your parents youíre leaving. No sneaking out. Understood? I made some mistakes when I left home and I donít want to see you repeat them. Got it?"

August stood slack jawed but quickly recovered. "I got it! No problem. Weíll go right now and Iíll let them know that Iím going to Athens with you! This is so great! I canít believe it! Maybe while weíre on the road you can give me some bard tips and we could-."

"Your parents have yet to agree," Gabrielle pointed out. "If they say no then I say no."

"Of course, of course. But I doubt they would say no. If I leave then father doesnít have to pay the dowery for me to marry Erereous - heís a nice guy but very dull and boring . . . Hey! You know what?! Maybe at night I can read my poems to you? Would you like that? Iíve got one that Iíve been working on for the last month!"

Ohhhh boy was all Gabrielleís mind could repeat.

 

CONFESSIONS

"Mother? . . . Are you crying?"

She had been crying but Xena didnít turn around to face Eve who was whispering from her bedroll. "Iím okay. Just get some sleep. Weíve got a big climb tomorrow. Youíll need your strength."

Within moments Xena felt her daughterís hand upon her shoulder as the young woman took a seat next to her on the boulder looking out over the valley they traveled through earlier that day. The Tree of Fietus, which only bared the special fruit once every ten years, would be in bloom this season. Many people tried to attain it and met their demise in the process. If the mountain didnít kill them the wild animals of the area did. The odds were against them but what else was new.

"Itís a beautiful view from up here," Eve commented. "But I donít think itís the majestic scenery that has you so teary eyed."

Xena smiled. "No, I canít say Iíve been one whoís moved by nature."

"Then what does move you?"

"Gabrielle."

There was no pause between question and answer. Xena knew it immediately, instinctively. Xena loved her daughter dearly but nothing, absolutely nothing compared to Gabrielle. Itís true I CAN live without Gabrielle but itís not a life worth living at this point.

"Sheís got a wonderful way of looking at life," Xena offered. "She sees beauty and meaning in everything - even a broken down ex-warlord. I always loved your mom but lately, with her gone, I realize just how much. I can see that I took her for granted in many ways. And I pray that Eli finds someway from the heavens to bring her back to me. Even if I never have her as my partner again, I just wish I have the chance to tell her how much she means and how much she changed my life for the better."

"After we get Ares out of the way, weíll search," Eve responded. "Weíll find her again, Iím sure."

"Iím not sure if she wants to be found Evie. Thatís the problem. I did so many terrible things to her over the years. I let my anger do things I swore Iíd never do. I blamed her for Solanís death. I asked her to choose me over Hope. I shut her out at times when she needed reassurance and all because I was scared. I even hit her with my chakram while her back was turned. Some brave warrior that makes me huh? I donít blame her one bit for leaving. In fact Iím surprised she stayed as long as she did."

"Mother," Eve began, "You said yourself that Gabrielle doesnít blame you for those things and sheís found forgiveness."

"Sheís forgiven me yes . . . but I havenít forgiven myself. Iím not sure Iíll ever find that. Eve . . . I told you that I was a terrible person for many years but the worst things Iíve ever done have been to Gabrielle . . . I know now that I will never . . . ever . . . harm her again. But I donít even know how to convince her. Hell, I donít even know if sheís okay. Iím on top of a mountain, helping a man I canít stand to be around when I should be at her side."

"You will be at her side again mother," Eve answered. "I have no doubt in that. Just be brave when you see her. Tell her all the things you never told her while she was here. Thatís the first step . . . well, after ditching Ares that is," she whispered conspiratorially. "You canít really expect to work on things with Gabrielle as long as Aresís in the background. Youíre doing things the right way. Get Ares out on his own so you can focus on Gabrielle . . . I have faith that things will work out."

"Always the optimist," Xena grinned. "Your momís that way too with many things."

Xena looked over to Eve and she watched as the young woman sat cross-legged, her elbow on her knee and her chin on her fist, deep in thought, looking at the valley below them. I havenít realized it but Gabrielle does the same thing when sheís pondering something.

"What is it?" Eve asked facing her mother after feeling she was being scrutinized.

And those eyes! My god those green eyes! I have blue. Callisto had brown. The green of those eyes. Could it be? Is it really possible? But how?

"Mother tell me whatís wrong?!"

Xena held a finger up for Eve to hold on for a moment. She darted over to Ares bedroll and tore the blanket away. He woke with a start as Xena grabbed him by his leather vest.

"Hey! What the-."

"I want answers and I want them now," Xena began, giving him a shake for good measure.

"Well good morning to you too sweetheart," Ares retorted.

At this time Herc woke up with all the commotion. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah as soon as Ares answers a few questions. Such as whose Eveís mother?" Xena said pushing him back to the ground.

"You are," Ares answered. "Is this is a trick question?"

"Who else?" she pressed.

"Callisto. At least that what Iíve heard," he replied.

"Okay . . . Now who else? Come on Ares. Iíve been watching Eve for weeks now and the more and more I see, the more thereís someone else thatís not being figured in here. Tell it to me straight. Whatís the real story here? Why were you trying to talk Gabrielle out of leaving Eve and me? You of all people would love to see her go . . . so why the change of heart? Hmm?"

Ares looked to Xena and then Eve standing behind her.

"Youíre not supposed to know," Ares muttered.

"Wrong answer," Xena replied, pulling Ares to his feet. He oofed and ouched until they stood toe to toe. "I want the truth or youíll be dead before you ever see that tree," Xena pressed as she poked him in the chest with a pointed finger.

Ares looked to Eve and then Xena and then back to Eve again.

"Eve is Gabrielleís daughter too - flesh and blood."

I knew it! That son of bitch knew the whole time and never said a word. But how . . .

"Who gave the helping hand Ares? You? Your sister Dite?"

"I did," Ares answered. "But it wasnít help. Call it serendipity. I didnít know Calli gave you the little twerp when I did the meld."

Serendipity? Meld? . . . Mavican!

"When you put Gabrielle and I in one body then-."

"Part of Gabrielle became part of Eve," Ares finished. "Her love of scrolls, her blue-green eyes, her bad temper," he chuckled. "Boy does that bard of yours have a temper when pushed Xena. Worse than you or Callisto. Sometimes worse than the two of you put together . . . Eveís that way too whether she admits it or not," he smirked.

"Wow," Herc mutter in amazement from his bedroll.

"You said it," Eve reiterated. "So I actually have three mothers?" she asked Ares who answered with a nod. "This is incredible . . . So Gabrielle IS my mom . . .Weíve got to find her mother! Weíve got to let her know," Eve said to Xena taking a step closer.

"Well first things first. Tomorrow we get that damn fruit and you my dear ex-god of war will kindly get the hell outta our lives. You got that?" Xena said continuing to poke him in the chest with the end of every sentence.

"Yeah I got it," Ares answered without argument. "Now that the family tree is all in order do you mind if we get some rest?"

He didnít wait for a reply. He crawled back under his bedroll and covered up. Herc followed suit.

"Come on," Xena said tugging her daughter to their bedrolls. "Letís at least TRY to get some sleep."

Eve agreed and they snuggled into the bedroll, getting situated for some shuteye. Eve cleared her throat a bit and asked, "Do I really have momís eyes?"

"Yes," she heard three voices answer. "Now go to sleep," Ares mumbled gruffly.

Xena and Eve gave a chuckle. "Heís awful grumpy since heís lost his godhood isnít he?" Eve teased.

"I heard that," Ares said.

"Ares," Hercules piped in. "Shut up and go to sleep."

"I think everyone should shut up at this point . . . Starting now," Xena ordered.

Eve lay next to her mother and watched her. Xenaís eyes were closed and she was beginning to breathe deep. My mother . . . the hero. And if you donít find her . . . I know I will.

"I love you mother," Eve whispered.

"I love you too Evie."

Continue to Part III