Dinner's on the table -- that rabbit stew smells delicious, I think I've done good this time -- and I'm about to go out and call her when there's a knock on the door.
"Gabrielle, would you go and get that wretched little brat of yours!" Lyssia bellows, her face red as beets. "She's beating up on my boy! She's a menace! And keep your mutt away from me, too!"
Arrow barks furiously, tugging at her collar as I restrain her. Knowing Lyssia's boy, I think he was probably asking for it, but I bite my tongue and follow her to the playground. I can hear the commotion from a distance; a small crowd has gathered, kids and grown-ups, and some of the kids are cheering, "A-ri! A-ri!"
There she is, her newly laundered frock a complete mess (why do I even bother?), her black hair flying wildly (yet another ribbon lost), her little face grimy and streaked with sweat and rigid with intense determination -- pummeling the Tartarus out of a boy who seems to be about twice her size but isn't doing a very good job of parrying her kicks and punches.
I elbow my way through the crowd, run up to the combatants and grab her.
"Ari! What do you think you're doing?"
She turns to me with a defiant glare. Her hapless opponent picks himself up and runs to Lyssia, whimpering and rubbing at his eyes.
"Aunt Gabby, Nicos is mean! He was picking on the little kids again! He pulled Cori's hair and he broke her dolly -- and then he beat up on Cletus and took away his candy and ..."
I suppress a chuckle. Not even seven yet, and already fighting injustice. I wonder where she gets that from.
"Ariana," I say, squatting down next to her and holding her shoulders in a tight grip while she struggles a bit. "That doesn't mean you should fight." I feel like such a hypocrite.
When I stand up, Lyssia gets in my face again. "She's a little demon! You know what she did when I tried to pry her off my boy? Look at that!" She holds up her fleshy arm and I see the tiny bite mark. "That child is begging for a good spanking!"
Fortunately, I have a lot of experience staring down taller people. "Lyssia, why don't you mind your own business. For starters -- tell your boy to pick on kids his own size."
As she curses under her breath, I turn away, gently but firmly pushing Ari along.
"Come on, Ari. Dinner's ready." She stops resisting and I take her little hand in mine; she draws in her breath sharply, and I notice that her knuckles are scraped and bleeding a little.
Dammit, I shouldn't feel proud but I do.
By the time I'm done scrubbing her clean, getting her into another dress, combing her hair and putting ointment on her cuts and scrapes, the stew needs to be warmed up again.
It's just the two of us today; Virgil is off visiting his mother and sister, and he has taken our boy Philip with him. As much as I love them, there is something so special about these times alone with Ari, I almost feel guilty about it.
"Alright, sweetie. Eat up and drink your milk. You want to grow up to be strong, don't you?"
She nods. "Just like my mommy and daddy?"
For a second, I catch my breath until the lump in my throat goes away. "Yes, darling, just like your mommy and daddy."
Gods, she looks like her mother. Those slightly angular, beautifully sculpted features, those cheekbones, the proud mouth -- the way she smiles -- the way her lips stiffen when she's angry. Except that her eyes are not blue but a deep, rich brown, almost black; they can be soft as velvet or piercing as steel. Just like her father's. Sometimes when I look into her eyes, I get such vivid memories of him looking at me -- and a lot of those are memories I don't especially like.
She puts the cup down and earnestly wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.
"I saw my daddy."
My spoon clatters to the floor. When I can speak again, it's almost in a whisper. "Where?"
She stares at me with those eyes. "Last night, when I was dreaming."
I let out my breath.
"Ari, what did your daddy look like?"
Her face goes all dreamy. "He's really big and tall... bigger than Uncle Virgil... even bigger than Cori's daddy. And he's got black hair and a mustache and a beard and he's dressed all in black and he's got a big sword ... with sparkly things on the handle... oh and he's got an earring in one ear, that was funny -- I thought only mommies wore earrings..."
I touch her shoulder. "That's all right, honey." She couldn't possibly remember; last time she saw him, she was barely one year old. And, back then, he didn't even look like that... except once, on that last day.
"How do you know it was your daddy? Did he tell you?"
She smiles and shakes her head vigorously, giving me a sly look as she feeds bits of stew to Arrow under the table; I've often told her not to do that, but I've got other things on my mind right now.
"No, Aunt Gabby. I just knew. I liked him a lot."
"What happened in your dream?"
"Well, Arrow and I were running through a field and playing fetch and then I heard someone say, 'Ari!' and I turned around and there he was. I wasn't scared of him at all, you know. He was nice. I asked him if he wanted to play fetch with Arrow and we did."
I sigh. He got into her dream, of course; I know he can do that, now that he's a god again. Xena told me he got into her dream once, a very long time ago; she didn't say much about what happened in that dream, but I have a pretty good idea.
Damn it all to Tartarus, Ares. You don't have to sneak into her dreams. You can come here anytime you want.
"And then what? Did he say anything?"
She scrunches up her little face, staring at the ceiling, trying to remember.
"Well, he got down on his knees and did like this" -- she pressed her hands to my cheeks -- "and then he said, 'You look just like her.' And he kissed me, right here." She points to the top of her head.
I get up abruptly, almost knocking over my plate.
"Just a minute, sweetie, I have to get something from the kitchen."
I don't like to let her see me cry.
Like some of the best things in life, Ari was an accident.
It happened after Ares was driven mad by the Furies -- he was mortal then -- and Xena figured out a way to get them out of him and destroy them. As part of her plan, she had to fight him and let him almost kill her, and let both him and the Furies believe she was dead.
When it was all over and Xena was done examining the bruises from their boxing match, she stood up and said she had to go and talk to him.
"He really loves you, you know," I said all of a sudden.
She gave me a sharp look. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just what I said. He loves you. I don't think I ever really bought it until now, Xena, not even when he gave up his godhood to save us. I thought he had to be up to something, like he always was."
"Oh Xena, you should have seen him when he thought you were dead."
She looked down. "Gabrielle... maybe he's always loved me in some twisted way. But so what?" She must have been reading my mind because she added, "Well, all right, I'm -- attracted to him. And now that he's mortal, I even kind of like him. But he's still bad for me and I'm going to tell him exactly that." And off she went.
I wasn't all that surprised when a few hours passed and she hadn't returned.
It was Eve who finally blurted out, "What is she doing?"
I chuckled in spite of myself. "Come on, Eve. You're not her mother and neither am I."
She looked so miserable that I was sorry I said it. It had to be tough -- to have a mother who looked only a few years older than herself, and to know that at this moment, her former lover was almost without a doubt making love to her mother. I almost asked if she still had feelings for Ares but then I thought better of it.
Xena came back at dawn. There was enough daylight for me to notice a couple of new purplish marks on her in addition to the ones from that prizefight of the day before -- one on the neck, one right above her breastplate.
I couldn't repress a smirk. "That must have been some chat you had with Ares."
"Don't start with me, Gabrielle." Her face was inscrutable. "Come on, let's wake Eve and start packing."
"What's the rush?"
"I want to get out of here before he wakes up."
"Are you sure about that?"
She looked away and didn't answer.
We were in the saddle, getting ready to leave, when Xena tensed up all of a sudden. I glanced in the direction where she was looking -- and sure enough, there he was coming toward us.
"Xena. What's going on?"
"What does it look like?" she shrugged, sounding deliberately casual. "We're leaving."
"If you really want to know -- Amphipolis."
"I'll go with you."
"I don't recall inviting you."
His face hardened into a scowl. "I see. You were just going to fuck me and leave me." (Eve gasped slightly and he darted a mocking glance her way.)
"Ares..." she sighed. "I'll send you flowers."
"Dammit, don't make fun of me!" He was furious, and for a moment, if it weren't for his slightly disheveled appearance -- he had clearly dressed in a hurry -- I could have sworn I was looking at the God of War once again. "Can we talk? Alone?"
She shook her head, avoiding his eyes. "Ares, there's nothing to talk about. Please don't start acting like I robbed you of your chastity. Gabrielle, Eve -- come on."
She slammed her boots into the sides of the new Argo, so hard that I winced. Just as she started forward, Ares grabbed the bridle and the animal snorted wildly, jerking her head and rolling her eyes.
"Xena ... drop it."
She sighed and, just for a moment, the mask did drop. "Go on ahead," she said, addressing Eve and me but looking at no one in particular. "I'll catch up."
I lingered for a moment.
"I wanted to thank you for saving my life."
"I didn't do it for you," he spat out.
"Well... thanks anyway."
As Eve and I rode off at a slow trot, I glanced back occasionally. Xena had dismounted and now stood facing Ares. The expression on his face softened and he took her hands in his; she smiled, and then laughed rather affectionately at something he said. Finally she pressed her lips to his, very briefly, and got back in the saddle. He stood there, following her with his eyes; there was longing in them but also a kind of strange serenity. Then he straightened up, arms at his sides, and threw his head back -- and I realized that, out of sheer reflex, he was trying to disappear. Thousand years of habit couldn't be easy to overcome. Suddenly, I was struck by the magnitude of what he had given up: not only his powers but eternity. It would be, I thought, like losing the use of both legs and learning that I had only two days to live. Whoever could have imagined that I would feel sorry for Ares?
We rode for a few minutes until Xena finally broke the silence.
"I guess I didn't handle that too well."
I smiled. "Well, you were being a real bitch there for a while." She glanced at me with a wry little chuckle. "What did you talk about just now? If you don't mind my asking."
Eve gave her mother an uncomfortable look, then kicked her horse and rode faster, settling back into a slower trot when she was out of earshot; Xena followed her with a worried look. I sighed. Over the years, we had grown so used to this easy intimacy, to being able to talk about anything, that it felt odd to have someone else around.
"I told him that we had to have that one night and I'm glad we had it, but that's all it could ever be."
"And what did he say?"
"He asked if there was any chance of us being together, like one in a thousand or something."
"I said, more like one in a billion."
"And he said, So you're saying there is a chance?" She laughed and shook her head. "Classic Ares."
"If that's how you feel, then why -- "
"Oh, Gabrielle... you know I didn't plan for it to happen. Just got caught up in the moment."
For some reason, I suddenly felt mischievous. "So how is he?"
It wasn't often that I was able to give Xena a shock. "Gabrielle!"
"Come on," I giggled. "I want details!"
"Well, you're not going to get them."
I glanced at her and saw the grin on her face.
"That good, huh?"
She sputtered, and then we both burst out laughing. When our mirth had subsided, we rode for a few more minutes in a companionable silence until I spoke up again.
"Are you sure you don't want to be with him?"
Xena reached over suddenly and gripped my shoulder so hard that I cried out -- more in surprise than in pain. "Hey!"
She fixed me with a chilly glare, all traces of merriment gone from her eyes. "Gabrielle, give it a rest, okay? I really don't want to talk about this anymore."
"I just needed to get him out of my system."
Well, wasn't that an ironic thing to say. As it turned out, something of him stayed in her and put down roots and grew, until, about six weeks later, there was no longer any doubt.
"Xena? Are you feeling all right?"
She hadn't come out of her room all day since she got back from seeing the midwife and hearing the final confirmation of what she already knew. The curtains drawn, she lay on her bed in the dark, staring into the ceiling.
"Your mother's worried about you."
"Gods ... does she know?"
"No, I thought you should be the one to tell her."
"Damn, Gabrielle." She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and sat hunched over, her forehead resting on her hands. "Damn. Damn."
I sat down next to her and reached out hesitantly to stroke her hair.
"Xena, I know you like to keep to yourself when you're having a bad time, but please, talk to me."
"What's there to talk about? I just can't believe I could have been so stupid. To get knocked up - - and by Ares..."
I gradually worked up the nerve to say it.
"Xena, I think you need to let him know."
She whirled around.
"What are you talking about?" Even in the dark, I could see the corner of her mouth go up in a bitter sneer. "Let him know? So he can what, make an honest woman of me? Mrs. God of War?"
"Xena, he's no longer -- "
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Mrs. Ex-God of War. How pathetic is that."
"All I'm saying is -- "
"Oh, we'd have a wonderful life together, I'm sure!" she sniffed, her eyes glittering. "All those lovely conversations we could have reminiscing about our courtship... 'Oh, Ares, remember how you had me framed for murder... you really know your way to a girl's heart! And -- and -- when you pretended to be my father to goad me into attacking people -- that was so clever! Not to mention when you got the Furies to drive me insane... '"
"If that's all you see in him, why did you sleep with him?"
She sighed and stared at her bare feet. "Well, okay, that's not all I see in him. But those things are there, all that and a lot more. I could put it behind me for a night, there's no way I can put it behind me for the rest of my life. And to have his baby -- Gabrielle ... only a few months ago he was threatening to have my daughter killed if I didn't give him a child."
She got up and paced back and forth in a room that was much too small for it.
"You're going to tell me that after that, he gave up everything for me and asked for nothing in return..."
"I didn't say anything, Xena."
"And that changes things, but it doesn't change everything." She stopped and turned up the lamp, making me squint and cover my eyes. "Gabrielle, I can't go through with this. I have to get rid of it."
I jumped up and grabbed her hands.
"Xena, look at me. I'll stand by you no matter what you decide to do, but... This may be your last chance to actually see your child grow up, be there to raise it -- " I knew my words would sting terribly, like ripping bandages off wounds that had never quite healed; but I had to say it. I didn't want her to have more losses to regret. "And it's your mother's last chance to see her grandchild grow up. Think about it. Please think about it."
For a second she looked like she could have gladly slugged me and strangled Ares; but then her eyes grew soft and moist, and a few stray tears trickled down her cheeks as she pressed my hand to her face.
"So when are you going to tell Ares?"
Cyrene, quite old and frail by now but still, in her own quiet way, just as tough as her warrior daughter, had taken the news in stride. Even the father's identity, I think, didn't shock her that much. Of course, she had seen them together in Ares's temple back then -- and even though it was all just a setup (one that made me feel a little queasy when I thought about it now), she had probably never quite bought Xena's protestations of immunity to the masculine charms of the War God. In any case, her excitement about another grandchild clearly swept aside all other concerns.
"Oh, not you too, Mom," Xena sighed, poking listlessly at her food. "You of all people. What a lovely gift to you that would be ... a son-in-law who wanted to have you killed."
"Well," Cyrene smiled, with an irrepressible twinkle in her still-young eyes, "it's true, that usually doesn't start until at least a month after the wedding."
"Mom!" Xena laughed helplessly.
"Xena." Cyrene reached out and put her wizened hand on top of her daughter's. "Whatever you do, do it for the right reasons. I don't pretend to even begin to understand this thing between you and Ares, and he's certainly not everything I'd want in a son-in-law. But you know, there are a lot of things I don't understand about your life. You have to admit, compared to the way you had Eve, this is pretty normal. And Xena... maybe, after what you told me he did for you, he has ... well, a right to be involved in this too."
Xena bristled and opened her mouth, no doubt to make some kind of sarcastic remark about what rights Ares did and didn't have; then she shook her head, pushed away her half-full plate and rose from the table.
"I'm tired, Mom. I'm going to get some sleep."
A few days later, at dusk, the two of us sat on the porch, sipping lemonade and watching the last colors fading from the sky -- tender blue with wispy patches of creamy white and pink. We had been reading a letter from Eve, who was on the road spreading the message of Eli; it was mostly about her mission, with a rather formal inquiry about her mother's health.
"Eve is having a hard time dealing with this," Xena said thoughtfully.
Fireflies, flickering green, danced in the air in front of us.
"Don't you see, Gabrielle, this makes it even more complicated. If Ares were to hang around as some sort of father figure..."
"You mean as the father."
"Whatever." Her cheek twitched a little. "Eve would have a -- a -- a -- well, stepfather, for all intents and purposes -- who used to be her" -- her voice trailed off.
"Eve is a big girl."
Xena glanced at me sideways and took another sip of lemonade.
"I can't believe this. You actually want me to be with him."
"Maybe I'm just playing devil's advocate."
"Aha," she grinned. "So you do concede that he's the devil."
At least she was teasing, not snapping at me. I chuckled, and there was a long silence. Xena had picked up a twig and was tracing intricate patterns in the dust.
"Anyway," she said finally, her eyes still down, "I don't even know where he is now. I mean, it's not like the old days when all I had to do was yell 'Ares!' and he would pop in with that stupid grin and some supposedly witty remark like 'You rang, madam?'"
"Ow. That hurt," said a deep, smooth voice that could only belong to one man.
There he was, on a splendid black horse, in all his glory -- except that his hair had grown out and looked a bit shaggy. Xena spluttered and spit out her lemonade.
"Ares." She got up, shaking off her dress. "What are you doing here?"
"Well, hello to you too." He started to dismount. "Oh, I just wanted to pay you a visit and see if you'd give me an update on those odds... you know, that one-in-a-billion thing... you think it might be down to one in a million this week?"
Her abrupt delivery of this news, made as matter-of-factly as if she had announced that she had just painted her house, startled me more than his arrival. As for Ares, his foot missed the stirrup and he tumbled most ungracefully off the horse, landing on his behind. He sat up and gaped at Xena, much too stunned to take umbrage at our laughter.
He scrambled to his feet with a grunt, dusted himself off and came up to her.
"That's what I said."
"You're going to have a baby."
Xena smirked. "Wow, you've actually figured out how that works. Brilliant."
He cupped her face and began to plant quick, small kisses on her forehead, her eyes, her nose, the corners of her lips before finally claiming her mouth.
"Xena " his voice was thick and low. "This is it, this is our second chance "
Then he slid down to his knees, his tanned, muscular arms encircling her hips, and nuzzled her belly. Xena gasped a little and leaned forward, digging her hands into his shoulders. Whatever her opinion of Ares, there was little doubt about her body's response to him.
"Better go inside before you get arrested for public indecency," I said.
He rose and hoisted her up, wrapping her legs around his waist. As he pushed the door open, he turned his head in my direction, flashed me one of his killer smiles and said, "Take care of my horse, will you."
My irritation bubbled up, and I wanted to slap myself for taking his side earlier. Arrogant bastard, I thought -- he barely got here and he's already manhandling her on the porch of her mother's house and ordering me about.
"It wouldn't hurt you to say 'please, '" I snapped.
He didn't turn around. "Of course it would."
I have no idea whether they discussed his moving in, or he just did. If Cyrene had any objections, she hid them well. Ares, on his part, treated her with a comically exaggerated gallantry -- such as telling her at virtually every meal that her cooking was the true food of the gods -- that made Xena roll her eyes, and that was probably meant to cover up some actual embarrassment about that little business with the Furies.
The one issue on which Cyrene was adamant was keeping his identity secret; she definitely did not want the neighbors or the customers at her tavern to know that the new member of her household not only wasn't married to her daughter but was also a former god. He grudgingly agreed to give up his leathers for something less conspicuous, and was somewhat appeased when it turned out that the town barber was able to give him the exact same cut that he sported in his final days as God of War. When it came to a name change, though, he drew a line in the sand, rejecting every suggestion as utterly unsuitable. We finally settled on telling people his name was Aristos so that "Ares" could be a plausible nickname. There were some rumors but nothing anyone could pin down.
Eve visited a couple of times. Xena had warned Ares that if he made one "Say hello to Daddy" joke, he'd quickly learn that the hazards of mortality include broken bones; so, during her brief stays, he made himself scarce, pursuing his new hobby of teaching combat skills to some of the locals.
Rather to my amazement, he invited me over to show my moves with the staff and the sais, and I felt a twinge of pride as I realized that a year ago -- no, I had to remind myself, twenty-six years ago -- when he complimented me on my new prowess as a warrior, he wasn't just manipulating me to get to Xena. (Mostly, to be sure, but not just.) He actually asked me again, and there might have been a third time if I hadn't knocked him down on his ass in front of his students.
He still sniped at me, but I had learned not to take it personally and, occasionally, to respond in kind. When we were on our way to that first training session and he told me to keep in mind that it wasn't a good idea to stick daggers in his chest anymore, I gave him my sweetest smile and said that, on the contrary, now it was finally a good idea. Ares grinned broadly, gave me a slap on the back that almost knocked the wind out of me, and replied, "Oh, very good, little girl! Ten more years and you may be able to hold up your end of the conversation."
Things weren't going nearly as well between him and Xena. Except in one department, of course; there was many a night when I wished dearly for thicker walls. In daytime, though, the tension often got palpably dark and heavy, like the air before a storm. She would get distant and moody, he would get clingy and sulk when she gave him the cold shoulder. Her insistence on an almost daily swordplay drill, even with her growing belly, was probably meant less to keep up her skills than to blow off steam; and in her case, I sometimes did worry that she would forget it was no longer all right to drive a blade straight through his gut.
Despite this outlet, the tension boiled over once in a while, and she'd rip into him over the kinds of little things that inevitably come up when living under one roof. Listening to the Warrior Princess berate the former Olympian because he had polished off the leftover apple pie she had saved for herself could have been sublimely ridiculous if it hadn't been so uncomfortable, especially when the trifles led them to rehash far bigger and worse things from the past. Finally, when she brought up his alliance with Dahak and he snapped back, "All because you just couldn't bring yourself to trust me," it was my turn to lose it. Surprising myself, I shrieked, "That's enough!", smashed a plate and ran from the kitchen shaking. Behind me, I heard Ares grunt, "Nice going there, Xena," and Xena snarl, "Oh yeah, like you care!"
Outside the house, she caught up with me and enveloped me in a hug.
"Gabrielle... I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that -- I know it brings back all sorts of -- "
"How in Tartarus do you get from apple pie to Dahak?" I asked, wiping away tears.
"He's a self-centered bastard, that's how."
"Don't you think you're ... umm .. losing perspective?"
"Oh, Gabrielle, I don't know anymore. I feel like I don't have any choice about his being in my life and -- I hate that." She gently stroked my damp cheek. "And now he's driving a wedge between you and me, just like he always tried to do."
"Xena, this time I don't think he's doing it on purpose." She didn't answer. "Well, if that's how you feel, tell him to leave."
Her arms tightened around me. "Just bear with me a little, Gabrielle. We'll work it out."
I wondered if she meant her and me, or her and him; she probably didn't know herself.
About half an hour later when I came back from my walk and poked my head in the kitchen, they were still there but they didn't notice me, with their eyes closed. Xena's head was thrown back a little; Ares stood behind her, his cheek pressed to hers, one hand stroking the swell of her belly and the other lightly kneading her shoulder. She sighed contentedly and looked like she was about to purr.
And so it went, good days and bad ones. I didn't like being too sympathetic to Ares; it felt odd, given our history -- and besides, I was quite sure that he hadn't lost his manipulative streak with his godhood and would play the sympathy card like a master. Yet sometimes I couldn't help it. Once, passing by the window, I caught sight of Xena sitting on the porch lost in thought, when he sat down next to her, put his hand on her now-distended stomach, and said softly, "Our child, Xena."
She raised her head, her profile chiseled against the evening sky. Her mouth tightened.
"And you didn't even have to blackmail me for it."
Her voice was like the crack of a whip. I couldn't see his face but I saw his shoulders flinch a little, and heard the catch in his throat when he asked, "Xena... does it still... sicken you... to be having my child?"
She said nothing and he sat silently, fingering the dagger-shaped pendant he always wore around his neck. Then he rose abruptly, and for a moment I felt absolutely certain that he was going to leave. Maybe it's really for the best, I thought as I tiptoed sheepishly away from the window.
He didn't leave, but later that evening he went down to the tavern and decided to try the mortal trick of drowning his problems in wine -- though the next day, he remembered that he didn't like the aftereffects.
As I handed him the towel when he was done pouring cold water over his head, he suddenly asked, "Do you think she hates me?"
I darted a surprised look at Ares, not at all sure I liked the idea of being his confidant.
"No," I said. "She's just -- she doesn't know how to deal with all this and so she ends up -- trying to hurt you on purpose."
He toweled off and I couldn't help thinking how gorgeous he was standing there in the sun, shirtless, his muscles playing, the water trickling down his furry chest. I looked away, blushing a little.
"Ares, you did bring a lot of this on yourself, you know. You can't really blame her, considering what you did."
He snorted. "Which one of my evil deeds are we talking about now?"
I could have said "all of them," but maybe the sympathy card had worked. "You told the gods about Eve because Xena wouldn't agree to that baby deal of yours."
"They would have found out anyway."
"But not from you."
He bit his lip. "You seem to forget that I had a very good reason to want Eve dead."
"The Twilight," I whispered. It felt surreal, talking about the Twilight of the Gods with this man who had been one of them -- and who was now standing in the sunlit courtyard of a small-town house, slipping into a brown linen shirt and looking a little haggard after a night of drinking.
"Damn right, the Twilight. You know I have this funny thing about self-preservation." He smirked bitterly. "For me to keep Eve alive meant going against -- everything I was. Don't you get it? And I still offered her to do that."
"If she let you have your way with her."
He grimaced. "It wasn't just about me having my way with her, as you so charmingly put it. Or even about procreating. Guess what, I wouldn't have had much trouble finding volunteers for that." To my dismay, he caught me blushing again and his eyes twinkled with mockery. "It was about being with her."
"Ares..." I sighed. "That wasn't the way to go about it."
"Maybe I just didn't know how to deal with it," he growled. "And I ended up trying to hurt her on purpose. Okay?" Then, his face relaxed; he ran his hand through his damp hair, tucked the pendant under his shirt, and threw the wet towel at me. "Come on. You were going to give me some sort of herbal thing for the headache."
I followed him back into the house. Either he had done a brilliant job of messing with my head, or maybe he had a point.
Xena reclined on the pillows, her face pale, drenched in sweat, and yet somehow radiant even with the eyes closed. I touched her shoulder, and she opened her eyes and gave me a faint smile.
"Here you are," I said softly, laying the baby down on her breast -- a baby girl, all cleaned up, with soft brown fuzz on her head and beautiful, deep brown eyes. "Your daughter."
She cradled the infant in her arms, smiling, as though listening to some divine music that only she could hear. Then she turned her head toward Ares. He was kneeling by the bed, and I suddenly realized that I had seen that look on his face before: on Olympus, when she came up to him right after he had given up his godhood to heal Eve and me -- and to save Xena. He was waiting for what she would say or do next, looking so nervous, so completely ... I rummaged for a word and then realized what a funny word it was to apply to the God of War: defenseless.
She handed him the child, and I thought his lips quivered a little. He nestled the baby in the crook of an arm, stroking her silken skin, running the tip of one finger over her face, her chest, her arm, her tiny hand; she was quite a big baby really, and yet she looked absurdly, preciously small in those powerful arms of his. Mentally, I conjured up the image of the dark god we knew and loved to hate -- the metal-studded leathers, the magnificent gauntlets, the grand sword at his side. I didn't know whether to cry or giggle.
Xena reached out, put her hand over his and breathed, "Ares... Our child..."
He looked at her, his lips parted, and his face glowed with such quiet joy that tears did spring to my eyes. Cyrene tugged on my sleeve, but before she could usher Eve and me out, I heard Xena say in a barely audible voice, "I love you"; I also heard a sound that was something in between a gasp and a choked sob, and couldn't help stealing a backward glance to see him with his face buried in her hair, his shoulders shaking as she stroked the back of his head.
"You know, Gabrielle," Xena observed one morning as she sat in the courtyard breast-feeding Ariana (the name was her pick) and basking in the sun, "it's nice to do this without being chased around by paranoid gods and assassins with poisoned swords and what not."
"It is?" I chuckled, munching on an apple. "I would have thought you'd miss the excitement."
"Oh, I'm sure I will eventually." She patted Ariana's dark curls. "Or maybe this one will provide all the excitement I'll need for a while." She began to hum a lullaby, then suddenly stopped and added, "Some things never change, of course. I still have Ares getting on my nerves."
I shot her a quick look, but she was smiling.
"It's all right," she said in response to my unspoken question. "We're fine. It's all behind us. I'm not sure how or why... maybe just because, whatever has happened between us, it couldn't have been all bad because ... we created this." She bent down to brush her lips against Ari's forehead.
I shook my head. "Ares as a doting daddy. I still can't quite believe it. You know, sometimes I think that any minute now I'm going to wake up and see Ares, God of War laughing in my face and saying, 'Well! How did you like this game, little girl? Huh?'"
"Gods, Gabrielle." She shivered. "Don't even joke like that." Xena glanced at me with a spark of mischief in her eyes. "You know, I just might tell him about this idea of yours. He can get into his leathers and sneak up on you while you're sleeping and give you a nasty surprise."
"Xena!" I almost choked on the apple. "Just let him try and I promise you I'll find some really nasty way to find out if he can bleed or not."
Ares as a doting daddy... He made a show of protesting utter ignorance of, and indifference to, all things having to do with babies; but it was obvious that he adored his daughter. Watching them, I sometimes wondered how many other children he had fathered all over the known world, and how many of them he had actually seen, let alone rocked to sleep on his chest.
He was still Ares, of course. When Xena finally felt confident enough to try on her warrior outfit again and five-month-old Ari quickly made a grab for the chakram on her belt, I waited for the inevitable "That's my girl," and he didn't fail to deliver. He clapped and laughed and bounced her so high in the air that Cyrene and I, though not Xena, gave him nervous looks.
"Ari, love, that's mommy's favorite toy," he guffawed, putting Ariana down on his knee while she squirmed and squealed with pure delight. "You can't have it until you're -- what, Xena? When do little girls get started on chakrams -- four, five?"
"Seven and not a day sooner," Xena shot back, arching her neck and looking herself over rather critically. "Can't we start with something simple like the staff?"
"She doesn't have to be a warrior, you know," Cyrene chimed in.
"Certainly not." He chuckled as the child gurgled in his lap, tugging on his finger with her chubby little hands. "I'd be perfectly happy if she became a, a -- help me out here, girls. What else do people do?"
"How about a teacher," I ventured.
"Yeah! A teacher. Terrific. Of course, you would have to do some detective work to find out who her real father is."
They were about as happy as two very headstrong people could ever be living together; but they were also getting restless. More and more often, Xena accompanied Ares to the combat training sessions, but it wasn't much of an outlet. Truth be told, I, too, missed our old life on the road in some ways.
For Ariana's first birthday, we got a dog, a beautiful thing with silky black fur and amber eyes. Ares, surprising us yet again, took to her even more than Ari did. Xena ribbed him once about having found someone to worship him -- to which he retorted, "My dear, all I need to do is walk past Gabrielle with my shirt off," momentarily leaving me flushed and feeling like a schoolgirl. With his usual dark humor, or perhaps to show how completely over his past he was, he half- seriously proposed naming the pup Discord ("A perfect name for a bitch in black"). He probably knew that Xena would veto this morbid idea, considering the rather grisly demise the real Discord had met at her hands -- not that long ago, really, even though it now seemed like another life. We eventually agreed on "Arrow."
It was shortly afterwards that we heard from Varia, the new leader of the Amazons. My presence was wanted at an emergency meeting of the high council, with an invitation for Xena to appear as well. It was nice of them to remember occasionally that I was a member of the royal line, but this was clearly more than a formality. I said I would go alone. Xena, however, was clearly mulling it over. After putting Ariana to bed, she came knocking on my door.
"I'm coming with you, Gabrielle. It sounds like they really need help."
"And you need some action."
With a wry little smile, Xena sat down on my bed. "Well, all right. I am getting a little stir-crazy."
"What about Ari?"
"Mom can take care of her for a few weeks. Besides ... she's got her daddy."
"You think he'll stay here when we may get a chance to kick some ass? What do you plan to do, Xena, tie him down?"
She chuckled huskily. "My, my, Gabrielle -- I didn't know you were so kinky."
"Xena..." I rolled my eyes. "You scare me sometimes. You're beginning to sound more and more like him."
Ares, sure enough, wouldn't hear of staying behind. The "girls only" argument didn't wash; he informed Xena that in the old days many Amazon tribes considered him their honorary husband, and she could do little except playfully cuff him upside the head and ask it he intended to do the honors. Nor was it any use reminding Ares that during his last contact with Varia's Amazons, his army was laying waste to their forests and villages. And when Xena deadpanned, "Well, nice to see that you're so excited about a chance to serve the greater good," he kissed the palm of her hand and purred, "Ooh, I love it when you talk dirty."
So Xena sent word to Eve, asking her to come home for a couple of months and help out with Ari, and we got ready to leave.
That morning, Ares came downstairs in full uniform; even the silver earring was back for a return engagement. All of a sudden, it was hard to believe that he had ever looked any different. Ari, who was sitting on her mother's knee and tracing the pattern of gold on her breastplate with deep concentration, took a look at him and stared intently, knitting her little brow and even puckering her mouth as if about to cry -- then beamed suddenly and clapped her hands as she broke out in bubbly laughter.
"She loves it!" Ares exclaimed, lifting her up. "Who's my girl? Huh? See, Ari, this is what daddy looks like when he doesn't have to blend in among foolish mortals with no sense of style."
Xena had to tease him, of course, telling him he was getting too fat for those pants; but as she looked at him, there was something special about the twinkle in her eye and the way her lips parted in just a hint of a sensuous smile. It suddenly occurred to me that while Xena loved the mortal Ares in a way she could not have loved -- or let herself love -- Ares the god, what drew her to him had a great deal to do with the deadly splendor of the God of War. Even living side by side with them, I thought, I would never truly understand this relationship. Of course, neither would they.
Xena came up to Ares and leaned against his shoulder, stroking Ari's hair and kissing her glowing face. "Mommy has to go to work, baby," she whispered. "I'll see you soon. I miss you already." Ares let her take the girl from him and then gathered them both into his arms, and they stood in silence for a while -- two warriors dressed to kill, and the child they had brought into the world -- until Ari began to squirm and coo, and Ares looked down at her and gave her a light pop on the nose.
"All right," he said. "Now, don't be a good little girl, okay?"
The Amazons, indeed, had bad news: they had attracted the attention of Alaric, the Dacian prince who was terrorizing the outskirts of the Roman Empire. Alaric had taken a liking to women warriors, which was not the custom of his land, and his idea of recruitment was to raid Amazon villages, kidnap the women, and give them the choice of either serving in his army or servicing his men. The scattered Amazon tribes were too weak to take him on in open warfare. Alaric had over a thousand Amazons in captivity, and one escapee had brought back terrible tales of what had happened to those of whom he'd chosen to make an example.
When Xena and I returned from the council meeting and briefed Ares, he frowned.
"Alaric... There's a blast from the past," he said thoughtfully, sprawled on the rugs in our tent.
"You've had dealings with him?" Xena asked.
"Yeah, it was -- " he propped himself up on his elbow, shot a nervous glance at her and fidgeted a little, and I wondered with a shock whether Alaric actually scared him.
"Well, what?" Xena pressed.
"It was -- " he cleared his throat -- "five years ago when he had a run-in with the Roman Army and got his tail whipped."
So that's why he was nervous talking about it to Xena; at the time, of course, the Roman Army would have been led by Livia -- the former and future Eve -- with Ares as her mentor, and more. Glancing at Xena, I knew that she got it too, but she let it pass.
"Would he know you face to face?"
"And I would imagine he's pretty pissed off at you."
"Well," he chuckled, "I'd be, if I were him."
Xena got up and paced around the tent.
"So if he gets his hands on you now that you're mortal..."
"I'm sure it'll be exceptionally nasty."
She stopped. "You shouldn't go, then."
"Are you kidding? And miss a chance to fight with you? Besides," he drawled, "I've got my woman to protect me."
Xena chuckled bitterly. "Ares, we have Amazons to rescue. The last thing I need is to have to rescue you as well."
"Your confidence in me just blows me away."
"Look," I interrupted, "I don't think either of you should be going. Xena, this one sounds really dangerous."
She fixed me with a glare. "And your point is -- ?"
"My point is that you have a young child," I snapped.
"Gabrielle." Xena sat down next to me on a pillow, reached out and took my hands. "Some of the Amazons who were kidnapped have young children too."
"Xena, that doesn't mean you have to do this. Varia and I will go -- we'll manage..."
"No, Gabrielle." She was silent for a few moments, struggling with something. "We have to clean up the mess we helped make."
"What are you talking about? Who's 'we'?"
"Ares and I, in this case."
He sat up abruptly. "Excuse me?"
She turned to him, her gaze heavy. "Ares... the main reason the Amazons can't stand up to this maniac is because a few years ago, they were devastated by raids led by -- my daughter... whom you goaded on ... and I stopped them from seeking justice because I had to protect Eve. And then, you and your army did some more damage when you were looking for ambrosia... and that only happened because you'd given up your godhood for me."
He rolled his eyes. "How does this work, Xena?"
"How does what work?"
"The guilt complex. If you didn't do anything, you still have to figure out some way that it's your fault."
"There were other things... I killed Cyane..." she swallowed hard. "I killed Artemis, their patron goddess..."
He looked down, the corner of his mouth twitching a little.
"Xena," I spoke up. "I don't think anyone, mortal or god, has done more for the Amazons than you have. Please, let Varia and me handle this."
"Artemis wasn't doing much to protect them anyway," Ares said grimly. "She had her favorites but she didn't give a damn anymore about what happened to the Amazon nation. Anyway -- you did what you had to do."
"And now, I have to do this," she replied in a tone of absolute finality.
He got up, came up behind her and put his arms around her waist.
"Xena... I'm not going to pretend that I understand this atonement business. But... remember something I said to you once, when I was still a god?"
Xena jerked her head upward. "Are you sure it's something you want me to remember?"
"I told you I'd give up my immortality if I could spend the rest of my life fighting side by side with you." His voice was low as he flattened his palm against her collarbone and began rubbing her neck in a slow circular motion. I averted my eyes. "And you said something like, 'I fight against scum like you.'"
I heard her soft chuckle. "Oh yeah, that was back when I had my head on straight."
"And I said, 'Then I'll fight with you...'"
"... 'a fight is a fight no matter which side you're on,'" she finished, almost in a whisper.
"You do remember! Xena... whatever you're fighting for or against ... my place is with you."
Her breathing quickened. I got up and said I had to go and talk to Varia; I don't know if they heard me or not.
"So you want to fight for me."
The man before us was as tall as Ares, and quite imposing -- with slightly reddish blond hair cascading down his shoulders and setting off the deep black of his fur mantle, and a rich beard that came down to his chest. His features were surprisingly fine for a barbarian chieftain, marred only by a ragged, raised purple scar that ran down his left cheek, from the corner of a pale gray eye to the thin mouth.
"We have heard that the abilities of women on the battlefield impress you, my lord Alaric," said Xena.
This was the plan: Xena and I would get into Alaric's camp and work from the inside -- find out where the captive Amazons were kept and how they could be freed -- while Ares and Varia would provide reinforcement and distraction at key moments. The arrangement did not appeal to Ares much, but he had no answer when Xena pointed out that of the four of us, she and I were the only two that neither Alaric nor any of his lieutenants had seen. And now we stood in the throne room in the castle of the Dacian prince.
Alaric came down the steps of his throne, a hand resting on the handle of his sword, simple steel with an ornamental pattern carved into it.
"You have done well fighting my men," he said, looking us over and clearly appraising more than our fighting abilities. "Leandra and -- Medora, is it?"
"Yes, my lord."
"I have one more test for you." He gestured to someone in the back of the room, and some of the officers who stood on both sides of the rugged throne room craned their necks. Four soldiers came in dragging a woman in Amazon garb with manacled hands and feet. I suppressed a gasp; she looked vaguely familiar, and it was likely that she had seen us around Varia's camp. Would she, however inadvertently, give us away?
"This is one of my trophies," Alaric said with a sneer, "from the lands of the Amazons. They are famous, I'm told, for their prowess with weaponry." He gestured, and the woman's manacles were removed. "You," he nodded toward Xena, "will fight her and finish her off -- if you win. And you, Amazon... maybe you need more of an incentive to entertain me. Let's see..." He stroked his beard. "If you win, you are free to leave."
The young woman's eyes flashed as one of the soldiers handed her a sword. I glanced at Xena; if she let herself lose, surely Alaric would get suspicious.
"Very well, my lord Alaric." Xena's face was inscrutable.
Alaric mounted the steps of his throne, sat down and gave the signal.
The whirlwind of leaps, kicks, and wild swings had already raged for a few minutes, and both women were already bleeding from a few nicks when I saw Xena's sword fly from her hand and clatter to the floor. Before the Amazon could make a move, though, Xena tackled her, knocking her down and gripping her right wrist. They rolled over each other like wrestlers, panting, grunting, growling, a tangle of arms and legs and hair; pinned down for a moment, Xena finally threw her opponent off with a ferocious effort, then slid across the floor and picked up her sword.
Alaric watched, resting his chin on his fist; his face looked impassive, except for the slight flare of the thin nostrils. The combat went on until it was the Amazon who lost her sword and went down hard, and Xena's arm went up.
"Do it," Alaric commanded in a quiet voice that would clearly brook no objections.
I held my breath as Xena's sword came down.
In the next second, the prone Amazon kicked Xena's legs out from under her, spun around to get her weapon, and it was Xena who found herself on the floor with the tip of a sword at her throat and a foot planted on her chest.
It had to be planned, I thought, wondering if Alaric would catch on.
"That's enough," he ordered, clapping his hands once. The Amazon stepped aside, breathing heavily and casting suspicious sideways glances at him, her hand still convulsively clutching the sword.
"You may get up, Leandra," Alaric said. "You are good -- excellent -- but you need to watch for surprises when you think you've won. And you, Amazon -- I hate to lose the chance to have a warrior of such quality in my army, but I am a man of my word; you're free to go. Euric," he motioned to one of his officers, "take her down to the stables and give her a horse."
As the Amazon was led away, Alaric shifted his eyes back to us.
"I like your style," he said thoughtfully. "We march in a month. In the meantime, you'll have your quarters here in the castle, with my command. And I've got a job for you. Those Amazons are a stubborn lot; see if you can persuade some of them that fighting for me has its benefits. Of course, refusing to fight for me has its price, but they already know that."
It was working perfectly.
As we walked down the dank corridor, I looked around to make sure no one else was within earshot, and asked Xena what that had been all about.
She chuckled slightly. "I've met Arsinoe at Varia's camp. Smart girl. All I had to do was say a few words to her."
It dawned on me. "While you were wrestling -- !"
"So when you lost your sword and grappled with her, that was on purpose... Of course -- you had to show Alaric that you were loyal -- ready to kill her. Good job."
"Good for Arsinoe, too."
We came out into the courtyard just as Arsinoe rode out of the stables on a roan horse. For just a second, her eyes met mine, and then she headed toward the castle gate, raised open to let her through.
At the same moment that my mind registered a low whistle, Arsinoe sagged forward in the saddle and then crumpled like a rag doll as the horse bucked and neighed in fright. The Amazon lay face down in the dust, a plumed arrow protruding between her shoulder blades. Xena's fingers tightened on mine.
Two soldiers came up to Arsinoe's body, picked her up by the arms and dragged her off, while a third led away the startled animal. I looked up; Alaric stood on a battlement of the castle, bow in hand, mouth twisted sardonically.
"I told her she was free to leave!" he called out, catching my stare. "I never promised she'd make it past the gate alive."
However much Arsinoe's fate haunted us, we knew that there was nothing we could have done differently. If it was any comfort, we seemed close to our goal. The Amazons were being held in two barracks on opposite sides of the camp. Under the guise of trying to brainwash them into joining Alaric, we got a few opportunities to talk to them alone, prepare the escape plan, and smuggle in some instruments for cutting their chains.
The perfect occasion presented itself two weeks after we arrived. Alaric had a big celebration planned for the anniversary of one of his victories; orders had been given to roll out barrels of wine, mead and beer for all the men -- which would surely make our task a lot easier. A few days ahead of time, Xena managed to sneak out and alert Ares and Varia; they would take one barrack, Xena and I the other.
That evening, we had to attend Alaric's feast in the castle and behave so as to give no suspicion while drinking as little as possible. We were the only women there. Such celebrations were for warriors only; the ladies, including the prince's wife Clothilda, whom we had seen once -- a gaunt, weary-looking woman whose russet tresses already showed streaks of gray even though she wasn't that old -- stayed in their quarters. The festivities went on late, but they were finally over; a couple of hours before dawn, everything went quiet except for two or three drunken soldiers singing themselves hoarse in the camp.
The guards outside the Amazons' barrack were easy to handle.
"All right -- come on, we're ready," Xena whispered once we were inside.
"So are we," said a male voice.
Flashes of torchlight suddenly exploded the darkness -- and, instead of the captive Amazons, we were facing a barrack full of Alaric's soldiers, sober, armed, and fully prepared for battle.
We managed to fight our way to the doors only to see more soldiers outside, throngs of them. Alaric came at a gallop, his fur mantle and his locks flying behind him; he reined in his horse a few feet away from us, kicking up clouds of dust in the flickering light of the torches. I saw Xena's hand go toward the chakram on her belt -- and saw her lurch as a glistening blade jutted out of the back of her neck. An instant later she lay at my feet, her lips moving as she tried to say something, reaching out toward me. I dropped my staff and was just able to take her hand before the darkness closed in. I heard a scream, and dimly knew it was my own.
When I opened my eyes again, it was dark, and I was lying on something cold and hard. I sat up; my head was splitting, and my wrists felt heavy and sore. Lifting my hands, I heard a clanging sound and realized I was manacled -- my feet, too. As my eyes got used to the near-darkness, I saw metal bars; I was in a dungeon, with a small window outside the cell the only source of light.
Then I remembered, and couldn't breathe. Xena was dead.
For a long time, I screamed and rattled the bars of my cage; either no one heard me, or no one paid attention. My throat was sore from the screaming; I found a jug of water in one corner of the cell, and took a few painful gulps. I wept too, curled up on a pallet of damp straw by the wall. Her voice echoed in my head: Even in death, Gabrielle, I shall never leave you. And now she had left me, or I had left her. A part of me hoped that there was still some way to bring her back again. But how many times could one mortal be allowed to cheat death? Our world was different now; the gods were gone with their ambrosia, Eli was gone too, and the archangels who had given her the power to slay gods seemed to have lost all interest in her after she'd done their dirty work for them.
The thought of Eli led me, in a most unpleasant connection, to think of Ares. What had become of him and Varia? Suddenly I found myself hoping that he was dead too; better that than to learn that the woman for whom he had quite literally given up the world was gone, and to fall into the clutches of an old foe as vicious as Alaric.
Then, finally, there was a noise -- clanging doors, stamping feet. A few of Alaric's soldiers were coming down the narrow passageway toward my cell, two of them dragging a man who seemed unconscious, his head hanging limply. I knew who it was, of course.
"You got company, bitch."
The door of the cell was opened and Ares was flung inside, with no more consideration than one would show an animal carcass.
When they left, I crawled over to him -- I didn't think I could stand up -- and tried to get a look at his injuries; my eyes were getting used to the semi-darkness. Ares had not gone down without a fight. There was a ragged gash over his badly bruised left eye, and a puncture wound in the left thigh, probably from an arrow; examining him further, I saw that his right hand was bleeding and mangled. Like me, he was in chains.
I wondered if I should pull him over to the straw pallet, but it was much too small for his frame, and hardly likely to make him more comfortable. Finally, I sank down on the floor next to him trying not think -- above all, not to think of what I would have to tell him when he regained consciousness.
The hoarse whisper made me open my eyes with a start.
"Ares. It's Gabrielle."
He opened his right eye -- the left one was swollen shut -- and licked his lips, caked with dried blood.
"Let me get you some water."
I held his head up while he took a few sips.
"Where is she?"
"Oh Ares..." My throat clenched and I couldn't say a word.
"What? What is it?" He struggled to sit up, groaning when he inadvertently leaned on his injured hand.
"Ares... I think she's dead."
"You think? What do you mean?" With his left hand, he grabbed my shoulder and shook me. "What happened to her?"
I started sobbing.
"Dammit, Gabrielle, what happened?"
"I, I, I..." -- my teeth were chattering -- "I saw her get run through with a sword ... through her neck... and she fell and..."
I couldn't say another word.
When I dared to look at him again, he was silent, his fingers touching the dagger-shaped pendant. I suddenly wondered if he had a stash of poison in there.
Before he could say anything, there was a clatter again, then many footsteps, and torchlight. I looked up and found myself staring at Alaric, with five or six soldiers standing behind him.
"Well, well, well. The guest of honor."
He motioned to his men; the door of the cell was opened, and two soldiers dragged Ares out and pushed him down on his knees in front of the Dacian prince.
"Fancy meeting like this, Ares. Look at me when I'm talking to you." He took his sword out of the scabbard and pushed the tip of the blade against Ares's throat, forcing him to lift his head. I was grateful that I couldn't see his face; seeing the glee on Alaric's face was bad enough.
"Just think," Alaric continued, "last time we met, your little girlfriend, the Bitch of Rome, left me a souvenir." His left hand went up to his face, touching the scar. "But right now you don't look so hot yourself. And pretty soon you'll look a lot worse." He paused, savoring his words. "I started hearing all these rumors a couple of years ago -- Ares, the God of War, is now a mere mortal. Didn't think it could be true. Guess I was wrong, eh? You know something, without those powers, you're not even much of a warrior."
I kept waiting for Ares to make a sarcastic remark and for Alaric to wreak more havoc on him; but either he was too crushed by the news I had given him to defend himself even verbally, or he had decided to bear all of the taunts in silence.
"So." Alaric began pacing back and forth. "These two broads show up at my castle wanting to fight in my army. Great. And then..." he started laughing. "Guess what -- this old advisor of mine, generally pretty useless but I keep him around because he was one of my father's favorite generals -- he tells me that the tall dark one is Xena, Warrior Princess, the one who vanished nearly thirty years ago and then showed up again looking not a day older. So I'm thinking: what's Xena doing in my camp calling herself Leandra? Then I find out Xena has a girlfriend who's some kind of Amazon princess, and it all falls into place." He turned to me. "Nice of you to walk so obligingly into my trap! True, my men are disappointed that they didn't get all the booze I promised last night -- but they'll get plenty when we have the real celebration. And you'll make such a good bonus."
He paused again. In the silence, I heard Ares's ragged breathing.
"Well, little did I know I was in for an even more special treat. Ares, in person. And mortal." With a tinny laugh, the prince extended his hand toward the prisoner's face, and Ares flinched back with a harsh gasp; Alaric had obviously jabbed at the cut over his eye, to remind the fallen god just how vulnerable he was. "Say, I hear Xena used to be your special favorite. Well, I think this will interest you."
He motioned to his men again, and they pulled Ares up to his feet and shoved him toward the small window.
The sound I heard was like the howl of an animal.
Oh gods, I thought. She is still alive and they are doing something to her...
"And you take a look too," Alaric said calmly, turning to me.
Two soldiers dragged me out of the cell; I was too dazed to resist, trying to prepare myself for whatever it was I would see outside that window.
What I saw was her face, quite dead -- so white, so frozen that it looked more like a statue than the real thing. A statue of which only the head remained, mounted on top of a pole.
I opened my mouth to scream but my voice was paralyzed.
The sickening smell of burning flesh hit my nostrils, and I saw the small fire nearby in which, I realized, the rest of her body was being consumed. Violent spasms ripped through my stomach and throat; I would have thrown up if I had eaten anything recently.
Ares was slumped against the hands of the soldiers who held him, his head hanging down, breathing in strange, shallow rasps; I thought he might have passed out again -- but just then, he suddenly stirred, lifted his head and looked straight at Alaric.
"When this is over," he said in a hoarse but steady voice, "I'm going to destroy you and all of yours... I'll destroy your castle... your soldiers... your spawn... and I'm going to skin you alive."
For a second, Alaric seemed slightly taken aback by this threat, and by the intensity in his prisoner's one good eye; then, the familiar mockery returned to his face.
"Very impressive. You can still talk the talk, Ares, but I don't see much action. In fact, right now, you couldn't even hold a sword, could you." He reached over and squeezed Ares's injured hand; Ares drew in his breath sharply, ground his teeth, and then, a few agonizing seconds later, cried out. "Ain't mortality a bitch? Well, that's just a taste of things to come."
He waved, indicating that we should be taken back to the cell, and started to leave but then turned around again. "You know, I hear your girlfriend over there killed the Olympian gods. So ... if she took out the gods and I took her out, that puts me pretty high up in the food chain, right? And now I get to take out another god -- an ex-god, to be sure, but still... feels pretty good."
As the footsteps and the torches faded away, I turned to Ares, who lay face down on the floor where Alaric's soldiers had dumped him. Every breath he took sounded like a stifled groan. I couldn't think of anything better to say than, "Are you in a lot of pain?"
He turned his head and actually attempted something like a sarcastic snort. "No, I'm faking it." Then he added, almost inaudibly, "But that's not the worst "
"Ares..." I felt the tears coming on again. "She -- she didn't suffer -- it was quick. And ... she died like a true warrior, doing what she wanted to do..."
"Gabrielle, stop babbling." He groaned. "Help me sit up."
With my assistance, he dragged himself over to the wall and leaned against it. Then he reached for the pendant again and struggled to pull its top off with just his left hand.
So he does have poison there, I thought. Was there any earthly reason for me to stop him?
I swallowed hard. "Do you have -- enough for two?"
His lips twitched into something that vaguely resembled a smile. "Gabrielle, I didn't know you were so ambitious."
I blinked uncomprehendingly. "What -- ?"
Wincing, he poured out the contents of the hollowed-out pendant onto his right palm. The familiar crimson shimmer made me gasp.
"Ares, it's -- "
"How did you -- "
"From my sister." He saw my questioning look. "I don't have that many sisters left. Your pal, Aphrodite."
"Almost two years ago... it was just before I came over to Amphipolis looking for..." his voice trailed off.
This time my tears flowed freely. "You had ambrosia all this time -- and you stayed mortal to be with her... Oh, Ares..."
"And if I hadn't, I could have saved her now," he snapped, a savage note creeping into his voice. "Dammit, Gabrielle, I don't need your sniveling. Now ... better close your eyes."
Even with my eyelids shut, the flash of light was searing. Then I heard a clang -- Ares's chains falling to the floor.
I knew what I would see when I opened my eyes again, but it still made me dizzy. He stood before me with no trace of injury, not one rip in his leathers, the sword back on his belt. There was another flash of blue light as two bolts of energy shattered the steel bars. Ares looked at his hands and muttered, "Still works."
He turned to me, snapped my manacles with a single touch of a finger, and said, "Hang on."
There was a whirl of light and sparks, and the next instant we were in an inner courtyard of the castle -- the one, I realized immediately, where Alaric had mounted that grotesque display of his latest trophy. Ares raised his hand, and when I dared to look up, the -- the thing at the top of the pole was gone.
The soldiers who sat around the yard, about twenty of them, drinking and laughing it up, didn't immediately realize they had company; not that it would have made much of a difference.
"Hey!" shouted one man, leaping to his feet.
Ares came toward them slowly, his hand resting on the handle of his still-sheathed sword. I didn't think they knew that they were facing the God of War, and yet there was fear in their faces as they yelled "Stay back!", pointing spears, swords and crossbows at him. When he was just an arm's length away, a tall, broad-shouldered soldier finally shot him in the chest with a crossbow. Then, the shooter's eyes bulged and his lips blanched and trembled. Ares's left hand came down on the man's shoulder while the right hand gripped his throat and jerked upward. A scarlet geyser jetted up, and something dark and round flew through the air, landing a few feet away from me. It took me a few seconds to realize what I had just seen; my hand closed over my mouth and my knees buckled.
When I mustered the courage to look at Ares again, I didn't see him -- only a black tornado sweeping through the yard, mowing down the terrified men as they tried to run. In a minute or two, it was finished.
I remembered something, got up gingerly and walked to the fire, which had burned out with only a few embers still glowing.
"What are you doing?"
"Her ashes... I want to -- "
He handed me a black leather pouch which, I was sure, had appeared out of nowhere. Kneeling down, I scooped up a few handfuls of ashes -- all that remained of the woman we had both loved -- and then tied the pouch to my belt.
Ares was breathing hard; the sword in his hand was dripping, and there was blood smeared on his face where he must have wiped his hand.
"What are you going to do now?" I asked, forcing my voice to stay level.
He grunted. "What do you think? Go see an old friend and have a chat about the food chain."
"Ares, wait! The Amazons -- "
Ares scowled. "What about the Amazons?"
"Ares, we have to get them out, it's the reason we came here -- if we don't get them out, then it will all have been for nothing -- "
"And if we do get them out, then everything's peachy and it was all worth it? Her life for theirs?"
I backed up and almost stumbled into the remnants of the fire. The cold fury in his eyes forced back a memory I'd done my best to suppress since we'd gotten all friendly: how Ares murdered Eli and, afterwards, nearly lopped my head off when I challenged him.
"Ares... please... it's what she would have wanted..."
He grimaced a little and closed his eyes for a second.
The Amazons had been moved to a large enclosure outside Alaric's camp; we found Varia there too, alive and not too badly hurt. Incongruously, the thought flashed through my mind that it was nice to have a god on one's side after all. Within minutes, the men guarding the prisoners were dead, and the women were out of their chains.
"Happy now?" Ares wasn't looking at me. "They can go back to the camp, get some horses, and be on their way."
"What about the soldiers?"
"There won't be any soldiers."
"Ares..." I opened my mouth, and suddenly realized that trying to talk Ares out of killing every one of Alaric's soldiers that he could get his hands on would be pushing it too far.
He turned. The muscles of his face were rigid; it obviously took him a supreme effort to control his rage as he waited to give it full vent.
"Gabrielle, for the next couple of hours, I'd advise you to stay out of my way. Find someplace safe and wait for me. I'll do what I have to and then -- I'll take you home."
"How will you know where to..." His mocking, bitter look answered my question.
The War God vanished in a flash.
The caravan of Amazons was headed home, and the remnants of Alaric's army were running for their lives. Something made me wander back toward the castle. There were dead and dying bodies everywhere, some horribly charred, some slashed and practically cut to pieces. It looked like a battlefield, but there had been no battle here, no clash of two armies, only a killing spree by one vengeful god.
A hand clutched at my ankle, almost making me jump. Looking down, I saw a man lying on his back, his face a greenish gray, his lips trying to move, his eyes nearly out of his sockets. His stomach had been sliced open. My insides churning, I grabbed a sword that lay nearby and put him out of his misery.
I took a few more steps and stopped. A memory flooded my mind -- Xena, so pale and lovely with her damp raven hair strewn on the white pillow of her bed, and Ares kneeling by her side, their newborn child nestled in the crook of his arm; Xena reaching out to put her hand on top of his and whispering, "Our child"; the quiet bliss that lit up his face. I threw my head back and howled at the sky, maddeningly bright and blue when it should have been red.
Ares was in the castle now, I could tell; smoke was billowing from some of the windows, and people were fleeing in mortal panic. Getting inside would be no easy feat. I didn't even know for sure why I wanted to get in, running the risk of getting trampled in a human stampede -- and getting Ares mad by explicitly disregarding his instructions. At this moment, I wasn't sure which scared me more.
I finally managed to get inside the castle gate and through the doors.
Inside, it was pretty much what I expected. Stone floors slippery with blood; charred cavities in some of the walls and pillars where Ares's fireballs had hit; smoldering tapestries and pelts; men and women dashing madly up and down the hallways; more bodies of course, sprawled or lying in twisted heaps; more things that, with all my experience of battles, still made me look away and shudder.
As I approached the throne room, one sound amidst the cacophony was getting closer and closer: the most bloodcurdling, inhuman screams I had ever heard. I had to stop and lean on a pillar. I'm going to skin you alive... A new wave of sickness came over me with the realization that Ares had not been speaking metaphorically.
The last thing I wanted to do was go in and see if my guess was correct; besides, it wasn't a guess, I just knew with absolute certainty. I wanted to get away from that shrill sound, and my legs felt as if they were filled with jelly. But something else nagged at the back of my mind ... something else Ares had said...
"Destroy your castle... your soldiers... your spawn..."
My eyes fell on a young woman servant who was huddled in a corner shivering, her hands over her ears, her eyes shut, too paralyzed with terror to run. Forcing myself to move my feet, I came up to her and grabbed her shoulders. She shrieked and huddled tighter, as if trying to disappear into the wall.
"It's all right. Look at me. I'm not going to hurt you!"
She stared at me wild-eyed, gulping for air.
"It's all right, you'll be all right. Tell me something ... where are Alaric's children?"
Now, I had a purpose. I ran through the corridors and up the stairs, jumping over broken furniture, fallen statues and fallen bodies; I didn't feel dazed, tired or hungry anymore. I ran as if trying to win a race -- which, in a way, I was.
Finally, I reached the doors and pushed. They were locked or barricaded from the inside. I pushed again, and heard a woman's piercing scream.
"Let me in!" I shouted.
"Are the children in there? Alaric's children?"
The silence told me what I needed to know.
"Are they all right?"
After a pause, the woman -- I thought it was Clothilda -- asked in a more normal tone, "Who are you?"
"I'm here to help. Please open the door."
"No!" the hysteria in her voice rose once more.
"Listen to me. The children are in terrible danger and you won't keep it out with a locked door or with barricades. You have to let me in, it's your only chance." Silence. "Please! There isn't much time."
I heard the screech of some heavy object being moved away from the doors, and the click of the locks being opened. A servant ushered me in and re-locked the door; several women were going to start moving a massive mahogany chest back into place. I shook my head. "This won't help you."
"What is going on?"
Clothilda sat on a couch, trembling and very pale. I looked around me. Even the women's and children's quarters in Alaric's castle had a rugged look, with a fireplace hewn of rough gray stone and a huge brown bearskin spread on the floor in front of it. Playing on the bearskin were three young children -- twin boys, about two years old, and a girl of three or four. Another girl, old enough to be in fear of her life, was clinging to her mother. The oldest boy, ten or eleven, with a striking resemblance to Alaric, stood in front of Clothilda facing me, his little hand clutching the handle of a useless dagger at his belt; he obviously felt compelled to act as the man of the house in his father's absence.
"Who's storming the castle?" Clothilda asked in a quavering voice.
I shook my head. "The castle isn't being stormed, Clothilda. It's -- much worse than that. It's not an enemy army. Your husband has -- done something to anger a god."
"A god?" she whispered.
"Ares, the God of War."
Clothilda reflected for a moment -- she didn't seem too shocked that her husband would be the target of a god's ire -- and then asked in a hushed, flat voice, "Is he dead?"
"Yes," I said. At least I hoped that by now he was.
The older boy's lips trembled, and his face tightened as he tried to fight tears. Clothilda nodded quietly; she didn't seem too heartbroken. Then her eyes drifted to the three children crawling around on the bearskin. Ashen-faced, she looked up at me.
"Clothilda." I tried to keep my voice steady. "I think Ares will try to -- harm your children. You can't get away from him, you can't stop him by barricading the doors. He's a god. But there's a chance that I may be able to stop him."
"Who are you?"
"I'm his friend." The moment the words came out, I knew how absurd it sounded, and indeed Clothilda looked at me as though wondering if she had let a madwoman into her quarters. But what was I to Ares really, and he to me? I didn't have time to ponder these questions because, just then, I heard the swish of air behind me and saw the flash of light. Clothilda screamed and collapsed in a dead faint. I turned around.
In the years that Ares had been our worst enemy, I thought I'd seen him at his most fiendish -- manipulative, coldly arrogant and cruel. But never, not in my most chilling nightmare, could I have imagined anything like the War God in full battle mode. He looked as though he had just stepped out of a vat of blood. The brown of his eyes was suffused with a red glow, his teeth bared in a snarl. I wondered how I could have ever considered him fully human.
The room seemed to be spinning. I'm not sure how I managed to stay on my feet, take a few deep breaths, and open my mouth to say, "Ares."
The glowing eyes flickered toward me. "Gabrielle. I told you to stay out of my way."
"I won't let you do this."
He gave a short laugh that sounded more like a bark. "You won't let me?"
I came up to him and forced myself to put my hands on his, fighting the nausea as I felt the blood coating my skin and saw the bits of brain matter stuck to his vest. He glanced down as if some annoying insect had landed on his hands, and pushed me off with a flick of a wrist.
"Ares, you have avenged her many times over."
"But still not enough."
"I know you, Ares." My voice was cracking. "I know you can be better than this."
"You know me?" His mouth curled up in a sneer. "I am the God of War, Gabrielle."
"This is not a battlefield, Ares, this isn't war -- these are children. What have they done?"
His eyes narrowed. "They chose their father very badly."
"Ares, please... think of your -- "
Before I could say "daughter," my jaw was gripped as though in an iron vise; I thought he was going to crush it.
"Do you want to die too?" I closed my eyes. "I'll take that as a no. Shut up and get out of my way."
He released me; I staggered back and took a look around. Clothilda was still unconscious; her maids were hiding in the corners and behind the sparse furniture. The girl had rushed over to her younger siblings and wrapped her arms around them. Alaric's eldest son was still glued to the same spot; all attempts at bravery forgotten, he was blubbering, a trickle running down his leg and gathering into a puddle at his feet.
Ares raised his hand.
The only thing I could think of was to spin around and kick, the same way I had done back in Amphipolis when he wanted me to show my moves to his students. It didn't knock him down, now that he had all his powers; but it did take him by surprise and make him lose his balance, enough to send the fireball crashing into a wall. Before he could grab me, I pushed the terrified boy toward the other children and stood in front of them, spreading out my arms. I must have looked like a cat trying to stare down a tiger, but none of those watching us would have been in a mood to appreciate the humor.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you," he said through clenched teeth.
"Fine. Kill me. I'd rather die than see you do this." I had a sudden thought. "Xena would rather have died than see you do this."
His roar almost burst my eardrums, and I felt his hand close around my neck. That's it, I thought; he's going to rip my head off.
I waited for everything to go dark, but instead, light flashed and whirled around me, and then the pressure was gone from my throat. I slumped down, feeling something soft under my knees, and stayed like that with my eyes closed -- I'm not sure for how long -- trying to regain my breath. I could smell grass and wildflowers, and hear the chirping of birds and cicadas. Maybe I'm dead and in the Elysian Fields. When I opened my eyes, I was looking at trees and a riverbank.
"Where are we?" My voice came out as a croak.
"About a mile from Amphipolis."
Ares was sitting down on the grass, clutching his head, slight shudders running through his body. He looked at me and his eyes were human again, and raw with pain.
"Are you hurt?"
I glanced at the bloodstains. "No, it's from -- " I jerked my head toward him.
I thought I saw him wince. He closed his eyes and stiffened; in the next instant, he was completely clean, not a speck of blood anywhere.
I removed the leather pouch from my belt, took off my boots, and waded into the river. The cold water felt good, the chill jolting me back to reality. Once the water was up to my neck, I took my top off and scrubbed hard before putting it back on, then did the same with the skirt, and ducked under the water, immersing myself completely. When I got out, dripping and shivering, Ares was holding the pouch. He opened the hollowed-out dagger pendant that had earlier held his ticket back to godhood and dipped it into the ashes, filling it to the brim; then he put the top back on and closed his fingers around the ornament, sealing it shut with hair-thin currents of blue light.
He looked at me and held up his hand, his palm flat; waves of pleasant heat rolled over me, and in a minute I was dry.
He nodded, staring off into the distance.
"By the way, your Amazons are all right."
"Thank you... again."
There were tiny tear drops glittering in the corners of his eyes. I thought that if I so much as touched his shoulder, the wall would break down and he would sob and wail as desperately as he had all that time ago, when he carried her out of the frozen pond and laid her body down on the snow. I wasn't quite sure if I wanted to hold him or to turn around and run from him without looking back.
He got up.
"Can you walk from here to town, or do you want me to take you?"
"What about you?"
A barely visible spasm ran across his face. "There's nothing for me there."
"Ares..." I reached toward him and he stepped back. "What about Ari?"
"You can take care of her." He wasn't looking at me. "If there is anything she needs ... just call for me."
"She needs her father."
He shook his head.
"Her father was a mortal man who isn't here anymore."
I did walk back to town, steeling myself for the next task of breaking the news to Cyrene and Eve. Under the circumstances, it was actually a relief to learn that Cyrene had died two nights earlier, passing away peacefully in her sleep. As for Eve, I wasn't sure if the fact that she and Xena had never really had much of a chance to be mother and daughter lessened or worsened her anguish. We had never been very good at talking to each other. She did volunteer to stay and help me with Ari, but I encouraged her to return to her mission; I thought it would be best.
Shortly afterwards, Virgil came by. He had visited us several times since Xena and I had first returned to Amphipolis, but it was only now that we truly grew close as we grieved together -- for Joxer, his beloved father and my dear friend, and for Xena, the one special person in my life, who had inspired him through his father's tales before he had ever met her. Then he came back again, and again, and in a few months we were married. Together, we ran Cyrene's tavern, held poetry readings, and raised Ariana -- who was joined by our own baby boy, Philip, two years later.
Ari knew that her mother had "gone to another place," as we had told her, and would not return. Something in me rebelled against telling her that her father was gone forever; he'll be back, I told myself. The best I could come up with was that he was away at war, in distant lands. Then I began to worry that my ploy would backfire; she would start wondering why Daddy never wrote or sent her any presents, and finally feel abandoned.
Time went on, and he still wasn't back. The temple of Ares in Amphipolis, deserted for a while, did reopen about a few months after he had regained his godhood; then, a messenger came to see me one day and said that I was to receive a monthly pension from the temple, on the orders of Lord Ares himself, for services I had rendered him as a warrior. I accepted. As far as I could tell, however, none of the priests knew anything about Ares's daughter, and I certainly wanted to keep it that way. A few times, I thought of going to the temple and requesting his presence. But I never did.
And so here we are, finishing our meal. We don't talk about her dream anymore. I ask about things at school, and tell her that next month Uncle Virgil and I are going to the Grand Festival of Bards in Corinth and she'd better behave if she wants to come along. She wants to know if she can have another cookie, and I tell her all right, if she promises to go straight to bed afterwards.
Arrow sits up suddenly and starts barking. I go to the door and look outside; there's nobody there, but she's still restless, yelping and wagging her tail.
"What's gotten into you, girl?"
"Aunt Gabby?" says Ari. "There's somebody here."
"No, sweetie, I just looked, there's nobody."
"Not out there," she explains impatiently. "In here. You know how you can feel sometimes when somebody's staring at you, out in the street? Well, it's like that, I just feel it. It's like a tingly thing."
All of a sudden the room feels very cold. For some reason, she's not scared -- as though being watched by an unseen presence were the most ordinary thing in the world.
"Ari." I get up, trying to stop my voice from shaking. "It's getting late and I need to start cleaning up here. Can you take your cookie and go to your room and finish it there? That's a good girl."
"I don't want to be a good girl," she says gravely, but goes to her room anyway, pulling Arrow by the collar.
I'm left alone, staring at the spot where Arrow looked when she started barking.
I feel ridiculous.
"Ares, please show yourself. I know you're here." Of course, I reflect, maybe he's already gone. "Please, please. Talk to me."
Much later, I am sitting at the kitchen table alone. Arrow sleeps by the stove, her paws twitching a bit. I've tucked Ari into bed and told her a story, the one she likes so much about the Amazons and the Centaurs. Now I'm staring at a blank scroll, and thinking.
I've told many tales about Xena, the Warrior Princess who did much evil and then changed her life and did much good -- and changed my life, too. I've written about some amazing feats she performed and some remarkable adventures we shared. But I have never told what may be the greatest story of all: how the fearsome god who wanted to lure her back to the darkness loved her so much that he was willing to follow her into the light; how, after trying to thwart her quest for redemption, he found at least a brief redemption (however heartily he would have scoffed at the word) in his love for her. It is widely known that the God of War turned mortal several years ago when many gods died, and that he later regained his place on Olympus; but there are only three people alive -- Eve, Virgil, and I -- who know how or why.
I've wanted to tell this story, though I don't think he would be pleased. I'm also not sure I can bear to tell it, at least not yet.
Putting the scroll away, I go upstairs. I should check on Ari and make sure she's not reading by candlelight again.
I push the door open. And then, in the moonlight, I see him -- sitting on her bed, his hand touching her hair. She is fast asleep.
Our eyes meet; I open my mouth and he puts a finger to his lips.
There's nothing I can do to keep him from vanishing in shards of light and wisps of smoke. But he doesn't. He rises and walks toward me, follows me out into the hallway and shuts the door behind him.
We walk downstairs, still in silence. I catch myself thinking that he hasn't aged at all, and then wonder if I've lost my marbles.
He sits down, crossing his legs. Arrow wakes up and bounds toward him. Can she remember him? You never know with dogs. She's jumping up and down, tail wagging in ecstasy, paws all over his chest. He scratches her ears, smiling a half-smile, and says, "Hello, Discord."
No, no, no, I'm not going to start crying, that's a sure way to scare him off. I'll try to talk to him his way.
"Long time, no see." I try to sound as flippant as possible.
"Can't say the same about you," he chuckles.
I swallow. "You -- watch me?"
"Occasionally." He sees me blush and adds, "Not that way," which makes me blush even more.
He's looking at me expectantly.
"I have a good life." Why am I sounding defensive all of a sudden?
He sighs. "You could have been a great warrior, Gabrielle."
"I still spend time with the Amazons every year." His eyelids flicker; I shouldn't have brought up the Amazons. "And I write stories and poems about -- warriors." Mostly one warrior, but I'm not ready to say her name yet. "I'm giving the opening recitation at the Grand Festival in Corinth next month."
He nods, still waiting.
"So how are things with you?"
An absurd question, of course. He shrugs. "War goes on, you know." There's an awkward pause, and finally he asks, "What did you want to talk to me about?"
My next words come a total surprise to me. "I miss you, Ares." I've actually startled him; his eyebrows go up, but there's no witty rejoinder. Then I take the plunge. "Ari misses you."
He rubs his beard quietly. "She's a beautiful child."
"Ares, you should be a part of her life."
He cocks his head at me.
"And how exactly do you see this? I take her fishing at the river like all the other daddies, and go to the father-daughter dance at the town square? You want me to come over for dinner every Tuesday and Thursday? Want me to take her to Olympus on weekends and say 'Look, honey, this is where Daddy lives?' Want me to take her to work with me so she can see what I do?"
"You could come for dinner every Tuesday and Thursday."
He chuckles and shakes his head. Then he says, "Her birthday's a week from now. I have a present for her."
I feel a wild surge of joy at his words. He holds his hand up, and there's a golden shimmer in the air, forming a shape and solidifying. Suddenly, my knees feel so weak that I have to sit down. Xena's chakram. I was so sure it had been lost forever, somewhere in -- that place.
"It should be hers now."
"When do little girls get started on chakrams -- five, six?" "Seven and not a day sooner "
A troubling thought occurs to me and I blurt out, "Ares you're not planning to groom her to be some kind of special warrior or anything like that, are you?"
His laugh is almost merry. "You still believe I'm always up to something." But he's not answering yes or no, and I'm getting a little worried. Then he says, seriously, "Gabrielle, I think Ariana will be a special warrior. But it will be her choice. I promise. I won't interfere."
I take the chakram and slowly run my hand over it, thinking of the last time I saw it, and now I can't stop the tears from welling up.
"You know," he says, in an almost casual tone, "I did want to just -- live out the rest of my days with her."
"Yes, I know." I put my hand over his, and he doesn't move it away.
"For taking care of Ari?"
I look up and find myself mesmerized, as always, by that stare.
"You were right," he says. "And very brave."
He pats Arrow on the head and gets up.
"Ares, don't go yet." He's waiting. "You should kiss your daughter" -- I almost say "good-bye," but then catch myself -- "goodnight."
After what seems like an eternity, he turns around and goes up the stairs.
I follow him and linger in the hallway, but he leaves the door ajar and I can see. She's lying on her stomach, her breathing even and peaceful. He sits down, put his hands on her slender shoulders and gently lifts her up a little, turning her over; she mumbles and her eyelids flutter half-open, but she doesn't wake up. He runs his fingers lightly over her face, bends down and kisses her. I imagine how cool and velvety her cheek must feel under his lips, like a freshly picked peach. When he comes out, that warm, incandescent joy I saw in his eyes so long ago is back for just a second.
He stands still, and I know he's about to vanish.
"See you later, Ares."
I think I see him nod, ever so slightly, before he dissolves in a swirl of blue light.
I briefly consider going into Ari's bedroom and tucking her in, but then I know that I don't want to disturb this moment for her, even though she knows nothing about it. I come down to the kitchen and pour myself some herbal tea. Amazingly, I have a feeling I'm going to sleep well tonight.
Perhaps tomorrow, I'll wonder if it was all a dream. But no -- there, on the table, is Xena's chakram. I pick it up, turn it over. In my mind, I hear her voice as she nursed her daughter: Whatever has happened between us, it couldn't have been all bad because we created this.
Some day, I will tell this story.