Cyrene has sensitive chats with Xena and Gabrielle near the end of SINS OF THE PAST, after she’s forgiven her warrior daughter and before Gabrielle appears unbidden at Xena’s camp.
“Mother, forgive me, please.”
“I forgive you ... my Little One … I forgive you. I’m so happy to have you back.”
“You know I can’t stay for long.”
No, Xena never could sit still. But I think she understands that’s not all I meant. This moment, precious though it is, can’t quite make up the distance remaining between us – much greater than back when she challenged her elders as other children did not. She was always a handful, always her own person. I just never expected it to go so far. Never dreamed she would grow to shame us so. That I could ever wish her … gone.
Perhaps if I hadn’t been so busy with the inn. If she’d had a father’s stern hand. If …. Ah, Cyrene, too late for that. Water under the bridge. Be thankful she’s here. Back to reclaim her heritage, make amends. Back to the Little One I loved and raised the best I could. I am still her mother, no matter that she towers over me now and got too big for her boots. If I must let her go again, I can at least send her off this time with a good meal in her belly.
She sits there waiting for me to bring her favorite dishes, prepared by my own hands. All that dark leather, those weapons and fearful reputation, yet all I see is my little girl. She fidgets, brooding, uncomfortable as usual when something isn’t quite her way. Reminds me of the time I told her she wasn’t old enough yet to ride the mare by herself. You’d have thought I’d commanded her not to breathe. Storm clouds darkened those beautiful bright eyes, and her voice wouldn’t acknowledge my presence for two whole days.
She’s not mad this time, but it’s obvious she’s not accustomed any more to taking orders. She hasn’t spoken more than a few words to that animated girl across from her. Gabrielle. Not that the girl seems bothered. She’s managing to rehash the day’s events well enough on her own. Lucky for all of us she’s quite the talker and came out of nowhere to save my child from a stoning I gave permission for. I suppose I could return the favor by rescuing the poor thing from Xena.
“You two must be starving,” I declare jauntily, leading Anna over with a second tray. “Hope I didn’t make you wait too long.” They both glance up at me gratefully.
“Your cooking is always worth the wait, Mother,” Xena says as she helps us unload the dishes. “Gave me time to pick up some supplies I needed anyway.”
“Me too,” Gabrielle chimes in. “Not that I bought anything, seeing as how I left in kind of a hurry, which of course means I forgot a few things that I could use, including some extra dinars, though I’m not sure what to get anyhow without a little advise from Xena, who insists on being rather stubborn about ….”
She realizes we’re staring at her, except for Xena, who’s already digging into her meal like she hasn’t heard a thing. Gabrielle giggles. “Sorry, I rattle on sometimes. I meant to say that I helped Xena shop.”
“Try the stew first,” Xena abruptly “suggests” to the girl. “People come from miles around for that alone.”
Gabrielle gets the hint. She grins sheepishly at me before sampling the stew. “Mmmm, this is good.” She chews slowly, frowning thoughtfully. “There’s something a little …. Is that rosemary I taste?”
“Why, yes,” I answer, pleasantly surprised. “My customers seem to like it. Of course, all I usually have to go on is their grunts and how fast the food disappears. It’s nice to have someone notice.”
Gabrielle laughs, blushing a bit. “Another of my tendencies – noticing things, especially if it has to do with food.”
I want to follow up on that, but a slight stiffening in Xena’s posture stops me. I’m reminded she wears that dark leather, those weapons and fearful reputation for a reason, that underneath a stranger shares the body with the daughter I know.
“Well, you’ve made this old cook happy,” I say instead. I nudge Anna, who’s finding Gabrielle as inviting as I. “Come, let’s leave them to eat in peace. You girls call if you need anything else.”
Gabrielle looks a little disappointed but understanding. I return her smile and start to walk away.
“Mother?” Xena peers up at me, my child again on one of our better days when she senses I’m indulging her. “It’s delicious. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, my Little … Xena. Always. Perhaps we can talk later, before you go?”
She nods. “Yes. I’d like that.”
When Anna and I are out of earshot, I tell her to put a “closed” sign on the door. The place is already empty. I decide I want to keep it that way. I’m suddenly rather tired. It’s not every day a parent experiences such a lifetime of horror and hope on only one night’s sleep.
I see the two have finished eating. They are arguing about something. Well, more accurately, Gabrielle is arguing. Xena sits with that stony expression that means she’s spoken her last word on the subject, so will deal with what comes after when it comes. I sympathize with Gabrielle, but have a few long-stored words to say myself. She’ll have to get in line. I put some sweets on a plate and head over to them.
“I believe the only time Xena hung around the kitchen was when I baked these.” I hand them each a couple of pastries. “Be sure to check with Anna before you leave. I packed a few things for you to take on the road.” I pull up a chair and sit, smiling expectantly like we mothers do when we will not be denied.
“Thank you so much,” Gabrielle says. “I can’t remember when I’ve eaten as well. Mother’s a good cook too, but there are only so many dishes you can prepare on a farm. Have you thought about putting together a scroll with some of your recipes? Maybe letting others buy them?”
Xena and I smile at her. You can’t fault the girl for her enthusiasm. She glances from mother to daughter, finally realizing the unspoken message in our silence.
“Oh, you probably want to ….” Gabrielle stretches and gets up. “Why don’t I enjoy these outside? It’s still such a beautiful day.” She looks pointedly at Xena. “You want me to get the supplies from Anna before I go out?”
Xena draws in a long breath. “I’ll take care of it.”
Gabrielle starts to say something, but changes her mind. She bends down to hug me. “I’m so glad I got to meet you. Please come out when you and Xena are finished, so I can say a proper goodbye, okay?”
I return her embrace with genuine affection. “I will. I always wished for another daughter. I feel I have one now.”
“Oh, thank you,” she says to me softly with equally genuine affection. “I have a sister, Lila, but she’s younger. I’ve always wished I had an older one.” She turns to Xena with stubborn hope. “See you soon? I’ll be waiting outside.”
Xena smiles with gentleness I’d feared she’d lost. “If I could pick a younger sister, it would be you,” she says. She adds playfully, “Maybe a little less chatty.”
“Oh, Xena.” Gabrielle grins and stands a little taller. “I don’t know how you could be so bad, with a mother like Cyrene.”
Xena’s eyes dim a little, though she keeps smiling. “No, she doesn’t deserve the credit for that.” She glances at the pastries in Gabrielle’s hand. “Eat your desert dessert while it’s nice and fresh.” She looks up at the girl with genuine affection. “You certainly earned it. Go on. I won’t be long.”
Gabrielle hesitates, her face a patchwork of emotions, then nods and walks to the entrance. She glances back at us before closing the door.
Xena and I smile shyly at each other while she polishes off her sweets. After, she brushes her hands together and rests them folded on the table. I reach over to take the right one, pretending not to notice the barest tremor when I touch her. I study her palm, gently stroking the lines I remember and the calluses I do not.
“I used to do this when you were a baby,” I explain, continuing my examination. “Such tiny fingers. So perfect. Almost as long as Toris’. I figured you might be tall. I prayed for a daughter, did you know that?” I ask, glancing up. She shakes her head before I return to her hand.
“Yes. Sons leave you – in pursuit of themselves, their fathers, another woman. Oh, they come back, when they need mothering, but you can’t always talk to them like an adult.” I gaze at my Little One. “Daughters, you can depend on. You can dream things for them that you would want yourself.”
I sigh and pat her hand before letting it go. She surprises me by now covering mine. I feel a sting in my eyes.
“You probably don’t remember, but I carried you around on my back. I made this little sling, so you could be with me when I was working. I’d sing to you and tell you about my day. You’d gurgle or tug my hair like you understood. When you got bigger, you took on the chores Toris always managed to botch. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you, once Lyceus came along. You raised him as much as I….” My voice catches and trails off.
We bow our heads, mourning the loss of that beautiful young soul. I suppose we also would rather not see the pain in each other’s eyes, since he died following his big sister into battle. I know it wasn’t Xena’s fault, that he did what he believed in. Water under the bridge I’m not sure I’ve accepted yet though, and am pretty sure Xena hasn’t either. But I must try, if this day is to be the beginning of getting one child back, instead of missing them both.
She peers up at me. My heart nearly breaks at the fear and resignation even she can’t hide from the woman who brought her into the world.
“You never settled for second best. I was proud of that. Whatever you did, you put your whole self in it. Nobody studied harder, played harder, worked harder or tried harder than you.”
She snorts softly. “I do have many skills. Who knew what I’d end up using them for.”
We sit quietly awhile before I ask the question that’s burned me all these years. “Xena, where was I during that awful time? Did I cease to exist for you? Did you … did you hate me and everything I tried to teach you, for not wanting you to fight those men who attacked us? Resent me for – ?”
“No!” she exclaims heatedly, leaning forward. “I meant what I said about not blaming yourself. My rage blinded me to you, to all the good in me. Like a fence that kept me from seeing the consequences or any other ways. It’s as you say – somewhere along the line I decided to be the strongest, the most determined and accomplished at winning. If it meant being bad as well, then I would become the baddest of the bad.”
I lean forward to meet her. “We were lost to each other, yet here you are, my daughter again. What changed you?”
She pulls back and sits with her hands folded again. “It’s hard to say,” she sighs. “My men became as out of control as I was. They tried to kill me.”
A gasp escapes. My eyes close and my hand presses to my chest as I relive seeing my child at that warlord Draco’s mercy this very morning.
“That wasn’t the first time, as you can imagine. Hercules had the chance to kill me, but didn’t. I guess he put a hole in my fence. Suddenly all the horrible things I’d done came pouring through. It sickened me. I couldn’t figure out why I still lived.” She seems to go inside herself a moment.
“I wanted to bury it all – the past, maybe even myself. Then I came upon Gabrielle. In saving her, it seems I too was saved again.” She leans toward me once more, her eyes alive with the future I’d seen in my little girl. “Suddenly I felt a renewed sense of purpose, a reason for not dying before. Only this time I wanted to do good.”
I bestow on her a maternal grin. “And be the best at that too?”
She smiles her thanks, then chuckles at some private joke. “If I follow habit, I suppose I’ll give it as much energy as that garden you made me cultivate.”
“You remember that?” I ask, laughing. “I thought I finally had your number. You’d gotten so cocky. I kept waiting for you to storm in, admitting you weren’t as smart as you professed. When harvest time came, all I could do was endure more cockiness. Even worse, I had to listen to the neighbors tell me what a fine daughter I’d produced, who could grow vegetables as plentiful and healthy as yours turned out. I never again dared you to try something.”
“Yeah, even Gabrielle’s already discovered that.” She shakes her head, grinning. “Not that she pays me any mind. I suspect she’s worse than I am.”
“Ah, I was curious about that – how someone like her came to be with you.”
She shakes her head again. “I didn’t ask her, believe me. In fact, I pretty much threatened her to stay away. No, she followed me on her own. I meant to make sure she got home, once I finished my business here.”
I pat her arm. “I must say, your taste in friends has improved since your teens. She seems the kind of influence that could do you good – warm, open, a pure heart, and obviously brave to stand up to us the way she did. I’m glad you changed your mind.”
“Changed my mind?”
“About sending her home.”
She purses her lips. “I haven’t. What you say is exactly why I can’t have her with me. Mother, I’m a warrior. Just because I’ll be fighting for good doesn’t mean I’ll stop hurting and killing. Or that I won’t be hurt or killed myself. She doesn’t need to see that. I don’t want anything happening to her, and I can’t be worrying about her if I don’t want anything to happen to me either.”
She says this in that “last word” tone. I believe she’s making a mistake, but decide it best not to argue the point.
“Does Gabrielle know?”
“Yes,” she answers tersely. “She doesn’t accept it, but that’s how it has to be. I … I was hoping you’d help me with that.”
I sit back, shaking my head at the irony. Since returning to me, my daughter has asked only two things – that I forgive her, which I did gladly, and that I send away someone who might help that forgiveness stick, which I don’t want to do. I respond with that motherly scowl of disapproval.
“Mom, it doesn’t involve lying or anything. I have to leave without her following me. I need you to help her see why it’s for the best. She won’t listen to me. She doesn’t … know me, the way you do. All she’s seen is me saving people.” She grasps my hands entreatingly. “Please? I couldn’t bear her life on my conscience too.”
What am I to do? She knows what she’ll encounter out there better than I. How can I question her judgment on that? How could I be a party to subjecting that innocent girl to Xena’s warrior life? I have her to thank for helping me get my own daughter back. Wouldn’t her parents want the same? I am reminded once again why being Xena’s mother was never easy.
I let out a long breath. “Where will you go?”
My daughter’s expression does not have the old smugness of knowing she has won again. Indeed, the touch of sadness tells me she’s aware that she may be the loser this time.
“I’m not sure yet. I’ll probably ride out first to that spot in the woods where Lyceus and I liked camping. Maybe it’ll help me clear my head.” She smiles at me apologetically. “I have a lot to make up for. I’d best get started.”
I squeeze her hands. We stand. I go back to the kitchen for the travel food I’ve prepared. When I hand it to her, she leans down to embrace me.
“Mother, thank you so much,” she murmurs in my ear. “You don’t know what this day means.”
I pull back to memorize this warrior I carried within me before she took her first breath. “Yes, I believe I do. Please don’t be a stranger again.”
“I won’t,” she replies with tears in her eyes. Or is it the tears in mine?
She heads for the back door. I’m suddenly taken by how quietly and gracefully she moves for someone in all that leather, with all those weapons and that fearsome reputation. She turns to wave before disappearing. My warrior. My child. Seems I can’t love the one without loving the other as well.
I busy myself in the kitchen awhile, giving Xena time to make her departure. When I know I can’t put it off any longer, I take a deep breath and go open the front door. I see that the girl has gathered her few possessions.
“Gabrielle? You can come in now.”
I am nearly undone by the eagerness on her face. I turn my back on it and walk into the kitchen.
“Cyrene?” she calls out from the dining room. “Where’s Xena? Did she go upstairs?”
I force myself to sound nonchalant. “She’s gone, dear.” Even this makes me feel like a murderer.
I can’t hide any longer. I go out to her. “She said she had a lot to make up for, so better get started.”
The girl stands there, looking lost in her own skin. Finally she walks over to the table where they’d eaten. She drops down, staring at the seat across from her as though she expects Xena to be there.
“Gabrielle?” She glances at me numbly. “You can stay here tonight. Stay as long as you want. We’ll discuss the best way to get you home whenever you’re ready.”
Her lips move, but nothing comes out. Sighing, I go over to sit with her. She doesn’t have to say anything for me to recognize she doesn’t belong where she came from. I know the signs. I take one of her limp hands.
“What will you do, if you don’t go home?”
“I … don’t know,” she answers as though this hadn’t occurred to her. “I thought I’d be with Xena.”
“Didn’t she warn you that couldn’t be?”
She looks at me with the puzzlement of a child who’s been disowned. “I told her she wasn’t alone anymore. I thought she understood I wanted to learn from her, be like her. I told her of my dreams and that I couldn’t make them come true at home. How could she not believe me?”
I choose my words carefully. “Gabrielle, she did believe you. That’s why she was afraid.”
“Afraid? Xena? She’s not afraid of anything!”
“You’re wrong,” I respond, smiling at her naiveté. “She’s afraid of herself, of the harm that could come to you traveling with her.”
Her lips pucker. She straightens like a mother defending her child. “Xena wouldn’t let that happen. I know she’s done some bad things, but I have faith in her. You should’ve seen how she defended my village, and she didn’t even know us! She wanted so badly to come home. She fought for Amphipolis again, even though you all wanted to kill her. I’ve seen the love in her. I saw it at her brother’s tomb.”
This startles me, though I suppose it shouldn’t have. “She went to Lyceus’ tomb?”
“It hurt her that no one believed she was trying to change. She wanted comfort from the only person who might understand. She said she felt so alone. That’s when I realized that being her friend wasn’t just about her helping me. She needed someone too.”
I study this strange girl with a mother’s eye. No, she is not that different from my daughter. She too must have her way. Has the same stubbornness to seek it, no matter where it leads or what she must go through to get there. The same loyalty that pushed Xena to stand up for her kin. Yet also compassion to match Xena’s shame. Joy to lighten Xena’s world of death and destruction. Words to fill her well of silence. Laughter to ease her pain.
“Yes, just what my Little One needs,” I think out loud.
“I have something to say about this too, you know. I wish everyone would stop treating me like a ….” Gabrielle looks at me sharply. “What? What did you say?”
“I said maybe you are what my daughter needs. She’s probably out there now telling herself what a monster she is, that she doesn’t deserve family or friends. How can she stay strong enough to fight for the good in her, if she keeps beating herself up? If her own harsh voice is the only one she hears?”
“Yes!” Gabrielle hunches forward, encouraged. “She needs me! I promise I won’t fail her. No matter how bad things get, no matter how bad she gets, I’ll stick by her. I have to find her, don’t you see?”
I can’t help but grin. Her enthusiasm is infectious. No wonder she slipped through my daughter’s defenses. I mentally apologize to her parents for what I am about to do.
“Gabrielle, I want to trust you with something, but I’ll need your word in return.”
“You’ve got it!”
I laugh. “Gabrielle, you don’t even know what you’re agreeing to yet.”
“If it’s about Xena, it doesn’t matter.”
I nearly say what a lucky woman my daughter is.
“I believe I know where she’s gone.”
Gabrielle gasps and nearly comes across the table. “You do?”
“I know where she said she’d probably stay tonight. If I tell you, you must pretend you found her on your own.”
“I can do that!”
“If she’s not there or she refuses to let you stay, you have to come back here and let me know.”
Her face clouds. “Cyrene, nobody can stop me from following her if I want. That’s not fair.”
“I’m not asking that. I simply need to know what you’re going to do. Xena trusted me to look out for you. I can’t send you on a wild-goose chase and have you vanish without a clue as to your whereabouts.”
She ponders this. “Okay, that’s fair. I agree.” She grins at me. “So, where is she?”
I give her directions and warn her that it’s a few hours walk, much of it through the forest. The sun is already beginning to set. We both know it’s risky, especially since she isn’t familiar with the area. But this may be her best chance. I tell her to wait while I collect some blankets and other supplies for her. When I return, I discover her gone. She has left a note: “Thank you for everything. You won’t regret it. Your new daughter, Gabrielle.”
I ease myself into the seat still warm from Gabrielle’s presence. I realize my earlier weariness feels lighter. We all make mistakes. Maybe someday Xena will forgive me mine, but I don’t think Gabrielle will be one. It can’t be an accident she came into our lives, first to help Xena renew her sense of purpose, then to give me the chance to welcome my daughter back. If she finds my Little One – and I believe she will – perhaps she can help her become the woman I saw inside.
I have prayed for the Destroyer of Nations so many nights, even when I pronounced her dead. I can finally sleep knowing that she is alive, well and dedicated to being the best of the good. I am heartened that she may not have to bear her enormous task alone. Funny how daughters can surprise you sometimes, maybe more so than sons. Who would’ve thought my perfect baby girl would mean such troubled waters, that a small young runaway dreamer might make the strongest bridge?
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