Secrets But Not Lies

by McJude

The tiny, curly-haired blonde girl crawled on her hands and knees down the row of beans.  She was carefully watching for bees, worms and other monsters that she knew lurked in the garden protecting the vegetables from the big giants who would come to pick them, put them in their baskets and take them home for dinner.  She would have to be careful.  Monsters were scary.  She, however, was quick, "like a bunny" her mother would always say.  Today, she could get her basket filled with enough beans for her family's supper without having the feared denizens detect her presence; tomorrow, she wasn't so sure.

The tall, beautiful mother shook her head when she saw her daughter.  "Why can't you just pick a basket of beans and not bring home half of the dirt in the garden on your clothes and your knees?  Don't give me that "monsters" story again, Penelope, just give me the beans.  I'll wash them and you snap them."

Penelope carefully removed the ends of the beans with her chubby fingers and waited in anticipation to watch what her mother would do next.  Other people's mothers merely broke the beans into short pieces and cooked them with smoked pork until they fell apart on your plate. Her mother on the other hand carefully lined the beans up on a slab of wood and with one of her father's sharpest hunting knives sliced each bean twice lengthwise resulting in pieces of bean that cooked in just a few minutes and stayed bright green.  Just watching her mother carefully as the knife flew through the beans, she considered that perhaps her mother hand not learned her knife skills attacking vegetables.

"Why do you cut the beans like that?" she asked.

"Your father likes them that way."

Penelope had watched her father eat at other people's houses.  He would eat raw pork liver or stew so old that it smelled rotten and eat them both with gusto.  Her uncle Hercules told stories about how her father ate roasted rabbit three meals a day for two months.  Why in the world would her father care which way her mother sliced green beans for cooking?

She watched as her mother walked from the well back to the house, stopping to pick a few flowers in the garden.  Their garden was even prettier than the one at Hercules's mother's house; at least she thought so.  Her mother had flowers that bloomed earlier in the spring and could dry the summer flowers so they lasted all year long.  Her mother was good at doing things, all sorts of things, except fitting in with the other women in the village.

Iolaus glanced up at the sun and noticed that it would be setting soon.  He had taken advantage of the long hours of summer daylight to finish the decorations on one of his now famous urns and to turn another on the wheel.  Now with night approaching he would have to use the remaining light to wet down the clay so that he could continue in the morning.  He hoped to finish five or six more pieces before he fired the entire batch.  It took some work to keep the pottery from drying out and cracking, but saved on firewood.  If he was very careful he could save enough to purchase some more pigments and glazes so that the next batch would be even more beautiful. 

He never imagined he would become a potter.  He had been a soldier, a farmer, a blacksmith, and an adventurer, but now he was married and had a family to support.  It was only by accident he discovered that he had the physical attributes that were helpful in making pottery: strong back and legs coupled with small hands.  Care and patience helped, too.  He had found something that he liked to do; and with attention to detail, he had found that he could earn a good living for his family.

"Need some help with that?"  Iolaus turned to see his friend Hercules approaching his studio.  It was hard to imagine when you looked at this man with his contorted right arm and stooped back that he had once been the strongest man in all of Greece.  Together they would work to forge, making the tools and weapons.  He remembered that last knife they had made together, probably their finest work.  They had both been lonely widowers then.  He'd lost that knife when he went off with Xena, and never had the spirit to try to make another without Hercules's help.

"Sure, can you bring a pail of water up from the creek?  I need to wet the clay down for tomorrow's work."

"Guess that means fishing is out of the question."

"Sorry, Herc, I'd love to but if all goes well, I will have fifteen pieces of greenware ready be fired at the end of the week.  That will turn a nice profit at the next agora."

"Right."  He knew it was difficult for Hercules to picture him worrying about sales and profits.  Hercules rarely worked, but then, living with his mother, he had few needs or expenses.  Every once in a while someone would hire him to chop wood or haul straw or some other job that could be done by a one-armed strong man -- a strong man with only memories of his life before the injury that had taken his spirit along with his arm. 

"Hey, why don't you take Penelope, she's always fun company?"

"When, Iolaus, are you and Xena going to give me a nephew to teach to fish.  Penelope is fun alright, but she giggles too much and scares away the fish."

Iolaus shook his head.  He couldn't tell his best friend that the chances he and Xena had of producing the desired nephew became smaller and smaller as the time between their lovemaking had gotten longer and longer.  The wonderfully passionate woman who had lured him away from his home and his best friend no longer seemed to be interested.  He often wondered if there was another man, someone who held her heart, for she certainly wasn't sharing it with him.

"Uncle Hercules, doesn't that cloud look like a lion to you?"  Penelope had long given up fishing and was content to lie on the grass looking at the sky.  "A big scary lion."

Hercules looked up at the sky and saw white clouds that perhaps reminded him of sheep.  Any lions existed only in the mind of creative seven-year-olds.  "How do you know about lions anyway, young lady?" he asked.

"Dad tells me about them.  They are big cats.  Really big cats.  The boy lions have this long hair around their faces.  I can't remember what he called it, but he said my hair looks like that when I get up in the morning. . . sometimes."

Hercules laughed.  Penelope's hair looked like it hadn't seen a comb or a brush in weeks.  Somehow he couldn't imagine Xena trying to get the twigs and mud out of a little girl's hair.  Iolaus would try, but Xena would just walk away and tend her garden or work on her sewing.  Maybe when we get home today Alcmeme could braid your hair.  I think it would look very lovely braided."

"Are there really hydras in those caves?  Tell me a story about a hydra."

Xena carefully ran her fingers over the soft deer skin her husband had tanned for her.  She held it to her body and considered how it would look as a skirt.  It definitely would have a nice drape to it, but it would be short.  She didn't really care what the women in the village would say about it, but took a second to contemplate its effect on her husband. 

"I think it would look rather stunning."  She recognized the speaker as much from the chill that ran up her spine as from his voice.

"Why should I care what you think it would look like, Ares?"  She turned to face the tall dark man dressed in black leather.

"Just wish it were black.  Just wish you would wear it leading one of my armies."

"It isn't.  I can't.  I won't.  Why in the fuck are you here anyway?"

"Now, now, watch your language, Xena.  Who knows what little ears might hear?"  An evil grin grew on his face, causing small lines to show under his dark brown eyes.  "Oh yes, I forgot.  Little ears are off fishing with Uncle Hercules.  My poor gimpy brother.  Leaving mom at home all alone while daddy toils at his . . . shall I say ceramics?"  He spit out the last word as if he were saying "horse manure."

She tried to ignore him.  Concentrate on the leather.  Iolaus needed a new vest.  She could cut it into thin strips and weave it into a vest.  It would be soft, sturdy, unlikely to tear. . . the deerskin would highlight his blonde hair . . . she felt Ares's breath on the back of her neck, gathering up her hair and blowing softly.  She knew what was coming next and stepped away.

"What's the matter, Xena.  You always liked it before."

"I'm married." 

"And when was the last time you let your husband touch you?  Can't remember can you?  I don't call that a very devoted wife; so it's certainly not a strong enough argument to make me stop."

"STOP.  I'm not interested."

"In sex or in me.  Would you stop me if I were my sister Athena?"

"Of course, what do you think I . . ."

"I know what you were, Xena.  I made you.  I know what you should be.  It's just this housewife standing before me that I don't recognize.  Where did I go wrong?"

"So you admit you can make a mistake, that's something for a god.  But you didn't make this one Ares, I did.  I messed up terribly, and I am the one who has to live with it.  Go away!"

"Don't say that too often or I might really believe you, Xena."  He said as he disappeared into a puff of blue smoke.

"Uncle Hercules."  Penelope had awoken from her nap by the side of the lake.  Hercules had caught enough fish while he was sleeping to provide dinner for both families tonight. 

"So you are awake, princess.  It's time for us to head for home."

She stretched and brushed the grass off her clothes.  "I had this dream, Uncle Hercules.  Do I have a brother?  A brother who is a centaur?"

"Of course not, Penelope, it was a dream.  A silly dream.  But that is the reason that we dream, so that we can think the thoughts that would be too silly to think when we are awake.  It's like thinking about the gods."  He swung the string of fish over his shoulder and grabbed the little girl with his good arm.

"I don't think the gods are silly, I think they are pretty scary.  I don't know why Mom and Dad don't go to the temples like everyone else in the village.  That scares me, too.  What if the gods come after them for ignoring them?"

"You're far to young to worry about things like that Penelope."  He placed his big hand on her messy curls and messed them some more.  He wondered where she got her ideas.  The two walked quietly until her house was in sight, then she ran on ahead anxious to tell her mother about the fish.  Someday soon, someone was going to have to talk to Penelope about the gods, he just wished it would be one of her parents; it would not be an easy job for an uncle.

He remembered it as if it were yesterday.  He was sitting on the unfinished wall outside his mother's house, staring off in the distance and feeling sorry that he would never complete the project for which he previously had never seemed to have the time.  He had the time now, but he couldn't lift the rocks.  He wondered what had happened to Iolaus and if he would ever come back.  It had been almost a year since the warrior wearing the necklace that he had recognized as belonging to Xena had attacked him in his barn.  Even though he had managed to defeat him, an arrant slash had hit his upper right arm, severing the muscle.  Alcmeme had stopped the blood, but the strength was gone from that arm.  He could use it to balance or to stabilize, but for most other things it was totally useless.  The same way he felt that afternoon.

He had started to believe that his best friend was probably dead, like the warrior who had injured him.  He had always wondered what plan Xena had for Iolaus when they left to lead an army against a warlord whose name he had never heard.  The attack in the barn had made it even more apparent; Iolaus was bait; Xena had wanted him to follow them.  Only he couldn't.  He didn't.

Iolaus rode up smiling with one of those big grins of his, announcing that everything was right in the world.  From the look of the now pregnant Xena, he probably thought it was.  He would never know of the plan his friend suspected his wife to have concocted; his life would go on in a new direction.

Hercules spent the next few weeks listening to his friend's stories.  How Xena had taken him to an army encampment.  The soldiers there were not the rag tag group he suspected but an army returning from a victorious campaign from the east.  He was amazed that the woman who had brought him to the camp was respected as their leader, and even more amazed when each night he was welcomed into her hot tub and then into her bed.  The group continued preparing, making ready for a battle, and waiting for something they were sure was going to happen; but it never did.  Eventually the men became restless, rode off in little groups and robbed, sacked and burned.  Xena lost interest.  She seemed to be looking for something bigger.  He was never sure what it was.

"Daddy, do I have a brother?"  Iolaus had just gotten home and his daughter had crawled on his lap.

"No, honey.  I had a son once, but he died.  That was a long time ago, long before I met your mommy."

"Why did your son die?  Wasn't he my brother?  Tell me about my brother?"

"He was your half-brother, honey. Half-brothers and half-sisters have the same father but different mothers, or the other way around."

"So if Mommy had a son he would be my half-brother, too."

"Mommy doesn't have a son, only you, Honey." 

"My half-brother, why did he die?"

"Sometimes children get sick and die."

"Am I going to get sick and die?"

"Not if you eat your green beans." 

He held the squirmy child in his arms, watching her mind work inside her head.  He wished he could tell what she was thinking, anticipate her next question, so that he could be working on the answer.  It was getting difficult.  Penelope was getting smarter ever day.  Soon she would start with the hard questions.  The ones he had never been able to answer, even to himself.

Xena sat at the table watching the fire burn into embers while the rest of the family slept.  She knew he was there; she could feel his breath.  He would often come and watch her, not revealing himself, yet she would know he was there.  She had always known when he was there. 

"You're pregnant, again."  She remembered those words he had greeted her with almost eight years ago as if they were yesterday.  "I cut you some slack the last time.  Really shouldn't have, but I still felt sorry for you because your legs had been broken.  Gave you credit for the fact you hid it so well from your men, but Xena, I can't let you do this again."

"How do you know?  I'm not even sure myself?"

"I know, believe me, Xena, I know."  He pulled her hair off her neck and quietly kissed the nape.  "I had hoped the next child would be mine.  You know that, Xena, a gift to me for helping with your conquests.  It's not going to be is it, is it?  It's going to be a little house in Thebes with Hercules for a neighbor."

"You're the God of War, you can make me not-pregnant.  No one has to know."

"No, Xena.  Not this time.  If you had asked the last time maybe, but once bitten. . . "  His sharp teeth may have broken the skin on her neck.  She rubbed her hand, but there was no sign of blood.  "What a wonderful life you are going to have now, Xena, and you could have ruled the world."

She was good at hiding her emotions.  She wanted to scream, she wanted to cry but instead she bit her lip and stared at him.  "He's a good man, Ares.  I'm not sure I could have killed him.  Hercules, yes, but not him.  Why didn't Hercules come after him anyway?  You said he would come.  What happened?"

"Your bait was a little too good.  Before he died, he managed to severely injure my brother.  He didn't kill the man, but he did a good job of killing the hero.  I hope you can live with it, Xena, because you are going to have to, being married to his best friend."

Thus the God of War partially removed himself from her life.  The Warrior Princess ceased to exist.  Her men scattered.  She married Iolaus and returned to his home with him.  She knew Ares was still around, and once and a while he would stop by for a chat, but she was no longer his.  She wondered what other parts of her future she had exchanged for the dirty little blonde girl sleeping so peacefully in her bed.

"Mommy, when you were a little girl like me, what did you want to be when you grew up?"  Xena was unprepared for another of Penelope's questions.  Today, forced inside by a drizzling rain, she knew it would not be possible to dodge questions with active games or avoid answers by picking flowers.

"Well, let's see honey, I wanted to be a mommy.  I wanted to have a cute little blonde daughter who never shuts up and keeps me guessing.  I wanted a handsome husband who makes pretty dishes for all the people in the village.  I wanted to be happy, like I am now."

"Then why do you talk to him at night?  You tell us we are not supposed to talk about the gods, not supposed to pray, and yet I hear you talking to him."

"Talking to whom, Honey?"

"I hear you talking to Ares."

"Oh, no Penelope, you must be mistaken.  I'm sure I was just talking to Daddy.  I don't talk to Ares.  There are no gods, so how could I talk to them?"

"Mom!" Penelope thrust out her chin and stomped on the dirt floor.  "Don't lie to me like that.  You tell me not to lie.  I'm seven now, too old for the lies that you tell to babies.  I know you talk to Ares, but if you don't want to talk about it, tell me that.  Don't lie!"  She stormed off into the rain.  Xena sat with her head in her hands and began to cry. 

"Uncle Hercules, will you tell me about the gods?"  She sat on his lap, cuddled against him.  Only a few minutes before Hercules had found the small child, wet and shivering, huddled on the threshold of his house.  A warm fire, a cup of hot water with honey (she had wanted wine but not gotten it) and a rough wool blanket had helped bring blood back into her body.  It was only then that he had noticed the devious smile, as if she had pulled one off on her mother, again.

"There's not much to tell.  At one time a lot of people believed in the gods, but they were just stories.  People made them up.  Some people still like those stories, but we, your dad, mother and I, no longer believe in them.  We make our own lives, Penelope; the gods have no power over us."

"What about Grandma Alcmeme?  Does she believe in the gods?"

"Well you know, she's old.  She's from a time. . .  Hercules could feel the glare of his mother's eyes on the back of his head.  Alcmeme did not like the fact that Iolaus and Xena had decided to raise their child without the gods, and that Hercules was going along with them.  It was part of an agreement they made to help hide her from a lot of things that were difficult for adults and impossible for children to understand.  How could he tell her that his father was a god, or that his stepmother, also a god, had killed his wife and children.  It was easier for a little child not to believe.

He continued to rock her in his arms, hoping against hope that she would fall asleep. 

"If my mom doesn't believe in Gods, why does she talk to Ares at night?"  The big blue eyes were much too wide.

"That my little one, you'll have to ask your mother."

"I did, and that's why I ran off.  She lied to me.  You're lying to me, too.  Why does everyone lie to me?"

"Shush, go to sleep.  When you wake up I'll tell you a story about the Mother of All Monsters."

"No you won't you'll lie to me, again."

Iolaus had already left for work when Hercules returned his daughter to his house the next morning.  It was probably better.  What he had to say to his friend was better not said with Xena around, so he walked into town to talk with him at his shop.

"You've got to talk to your daughter.  She's asking too many questions.  She knows we are lying to her."

"My daughter never shuts up."

"And where does she get that pleasant little personality trait?"

"What's she up to now, and thanks by the way for offering to take her yesterday.  Xena and I had a great night.  I feel like a new man, if you know what I mean."  A smile beamed on his friend's face.

Hercules was unsure if he should tell him that his daughter had really run away, and that his wife was probably using sex as an excuse not to bring up the subject that her daughter had heard her talking to Ares.  Yet, Iolaus looked as happy as he could remember for a long time, so he said nothing about either. 

"No problem, that's what friends are for.  She's a sweet little kid, but asks way too many questions. She knows we are lying to her.  Alcmeme doesn't like me lying to her about the gods either."

"I guess I could take her to a temple.  Maybe Aphrodite or Athena, she probably would get a kick out of talking to the priests and the acolytes."

That sounded a little dangerous to Hercules.  "Boy, Iolaus, I don't envy you, every step you take with that girl is fraught with danger."  But he did envy his friend, he too once had a beautiful daughter, and he would give anything to be able to help her solve even unsolvable problems.  Maybe if he were lucky, after last night, Iolaus might have a son, too.

"Mom, there's a bard coming to town.  She is going to tell stories.  Please can we go, please, please."  Penelope seemed to have forgotten the all of the issues of yesterday and had a complete new set for today.

"We'll have to check with your father, find out if this bard is suitable for children.  Some of them tell some pretty nasty stories, for grown-ups."

"I like scary stories.  Uncle Herc tells them to me all the time.  I'm almost grown up."

Xena shook her head, she wondered what sort of stories Hercules was telling her daughter.  Despite Iolaus's reassurance that his injuries had only been physical, she always wondered if the man's mind was also affected.  Surely you could not go from being a hero to being a town beast- of-burden without some mental problems, but then she had gone from warrior princess to housewife without much effect. 

"We'll ask you father when he gets back.  And no stories about the gods, young lady.  Only comedies for you."

"I hate comedies, they're all about animals that talk.  That is stupid mother.  Stupid."

"You'd better watch who you are calling stupid.  You are coming this close to getting your mouth washed out with soap.  And no more running away, you hear me."

The bard had arrived in a donkey cart and had spread colorful patchwork quilts on the ground upon which the villagers could sit and listen to her stories.  She smiled as Xena and her blonde daughter walked over.  The bard's hair was even lighter than Penelope's, stick straight, and very fine.  She was very thin, more from lack of nourishment than excess activity, but she had a nice smile.

"Hello, my name is Xena, and this is my daughter Penelope.  She just had to come over and meet you.  I wanted to check as to when you are going to be telling children's stories."

"Well, actually, I wasn't planning on doing a children's session today, but as I am all set up, I could tell your daughter a story right now.  You don't have to stay. I assure you that out in the open I am not going to snatch her away.  I can tell her a few stories while you do your marketing."

"That would be most kind. I only have one request.  Please don't tell her any stories about the Greek gods."

The bard wrinkled her face.  That request had just cut out two-thirds of the stories in her repertoire. 

"War stories OK?"

"Sure, she likes gore."  The bard was unsure about the smile the woman had flashed her.  It was troubled and disturbing. 

"I want to hear about monsters, Mommy."  Penelope called as Xena walked away.  She flopped on her stomach on one of the quilts and looked up at the bard.  This was going to be fun.

"Monsters are good, Penelope.  I'll tell you a story about monsters."

"And you'll tell me stories about gods, too.  Especially Ares."

"But your mother said."

"I don't care what my mother said.  It can be our secret."

The bard was unsure.  She really didn't know a lot of Ares stories, and those she knew were probably too adult for such a little girl.  "I know some Hercules stories, how about them?"

Penelope kept her mouth shut.  She knew the bard would not share her stories if she knew that Hercules were her uncle.  For once in her short life she was content to lie back and listen.

"Run along, Penelope," Xena said to her daughter when she returned to the bard's story circle.  "Your father has some lunch for you back at the shop, I'll be back in a minute or two."

Penelope was happy to go.  She had lots of questions for her father after the stories the bard had told her.  She was sure that the storyteller had no idea that the stories she told were about her own father.  She really wanted to hear his side of the stories about fighting the Amazons, the Minator, and the She-Demon. 

"So what do I owe you.  Penelope can sometimes be a handful."

"She was very well behaved; she just listened."

"Didn't bombard you with endless questions?"

"Not at all."

"Well she certainly is different with strangers than with her family."

"It was fun, good practice.  By the way, where are you from?  I keep thinking I may have met you somewhere in the past."

"I'm from a long way away, Thrace, and I have been around.  I also have been told that I look like a lot of other women, so it probably wasn't me."

"You just look so familiar, yet so -- shall I put it, different than I remember you."

"I wouldn't worry about it, by the time you remember and realize it wasn't me, you'll be on to another village."  Xena handed the bard two small golden coins.  It was more than Gabrielle expected to earn the entire visit to this small village.  She rolled them around in her hands and wondered how this woman had so much money to spend on her daughter.  That wasn't for her to question or to judge.

"Mom, there are centaurs in the village.  They are looking for Uncle Hercules."  Penelope was exhausted as she ran into the house.  Xena tried to look past her dirty face and torn dress and listen to what her daughter had to say.  "They have kids with them, too.  Centaur kids and regular kids.  Did you know centaurs had regular kids?"

"These centaurs, what did they look like."

"Mom, you know what a centaur looks like.  Half-horse, half man.  Big strong men.  The kids are like part pony and part boy, just like in the stories."

"I know what a centaur looks like, but did any of these centaurs have any distinguishing marks?"

"One had a big white spot on his flank, and another had three white socks. . ."  The look on her mother's face indicated that she was not interested in the horse aspects of these men.  "One of them had long hair and a patch over his eye.  They said they were going to Hercules's house.  Can I go?  I'd love to play with the centaur children."

"I don't think so, honey.  I am sure the children didn't come to play.  I need you to help me pick bugs in the garden today.  I'll even let you squash them, if you like."

Penelope was torn.  Playing with centaurs.  Riding on their backs.  Chasing after them.  Laughing at them when they did gross things like pooping in the yard. That was her idea of big time fun.  But then squashing garden bugs gave you a sense of power.  Bug guts were all yellow and yucky.  You could put the yellow on your arms and it would look like bruises.  Playing with bugs was fun, too. 

"OK, I'll do the bugs first."  She thought the centaurs would be most impressed with a girl who had bruises on her arms and legs and maybe blood.

The lead centaur, Calliopus, grasped Hercules's arm in a warrior's greeting.

"I've always wanted to meet you Hercules.  I have heard your stories told for years.  You were the greatest of warriors."

"I think 'WERE' is the key word in that sentence.  My life has changed.  I'm just a crippled old widower living with my mother."

"I think you are selling yourself short.  A hero always has a place in our society, even when he can no longer fight."

"Perhaps it is different with centaurs."  He lowered his head and looked down.  "What brings you to Thebes?"

"I'm looking for a woman, one that I heard might be living in your village."

"There are lots of women living in our village, why not go there and take a look?  Or tell me what woman you are looking for, perhaps I know her?"

"I am looking for a warrior woman, I know her as Xena, she may have another name."

Hercules knew he had to tread lightly.  He couldn't let on that he knew Xena very well, that she was the wife of his best friend, until he was sure why the centaur wanted to find her.  Xena had made no real effort to hide herself from outsiders, so it was probably all right.  He just didn't want to be the one responsible for revealing her presence, if it were not.  She had a past, a violent past, and you could not be sure who were her past friends or past enemies.

A centaur youth, a boy with long almost white hair, and a scruffy girl ran up to Hercules and the centaur. 

"She's hurt.  Someone beat her up.  She says she thinks it was Ares," the boy said excitedly.

"What happened, Penelope, did you fall?"  He didn't want to be a part of her lie, but figured he might make it just a bit easier for her to change her story to something that wasn't so fanciful.

"She told me that Ares, the God of War, came to her on the path.  When she wouldn't give him her lunch, he beat her up.  Look at her arms.  Look at the blood."

"I see it, Solan, why don't you and Gregor go look by the path and see if you can figure out which way Ares might have gone.  I'll help Hercules take care of Penelope," the centaur said.  The two boys ran off excitedly, it wasn't every day they got to look for the God of War.

"OK, Penelope, I know it's not blood.  Looks a lot like berry juice and bugs guts to me. What gives?"  Hercules asked the girl.

"I just wanted them to be grossed out.  Wanted them to play with me.  Show them how tough I was for a girl."

"But why did you have to bring Ares into this?"

She pouted and stuck out her chin.  "I don't know.  Just for fun I guess?  I don't know." 

"Now, go, wash your arms, wash your face while you're at it, too." Herc instructed her.  "And Penelope, it probably isn't a good thing to involve Ares in your stories."

"Why not, he's just made up, we know that."  She gave him that look that let him know that she knew that she was right about the existence of Ares and he was lying to her.  He had to be careful with this one.  He watched emotionless as she skipped off to the well and drew a bucket of water.

"Remember the woman you asked about, Xena." Herc said softly turning to his visitor. "That's her daughter."

The centaur looked at the girl and smiled.  "That blonde boy, he's her son."

Hercules had been educated by a centaur, had them for friends, fought many a battle with them side-by-side against common foes, but it was always different to just stand and have a conversation with them.  First of all he wasn't used to having to look up to talk to many people.  He found their size intimidating.  He would also sometimes get the feeling, as they swished away flies with their tails or relieved themselves without a thought, that he was really talking to horse.  Still, he knew the Calliopus had a long story to tell, which he had to know, before he sent him on to talk to Xena and Iolaus. 

It took the better part of an hour for the centaur to relate the situation where he came to be the guardian of Xena's child.  He had always expected her to come back for him, but she never had.  He couldn't understand, when he heard that she was no longer a warrior, why she had not come to retrieve her child.  Perhaps the fact that she had a daughter not long after that was part of the answer, but he still wondered why she wanted that child and not the wonderful boy he had raised as his son.

"Why are you looking for her now?"

"War is coming to the world of the centaurs again.  I want to give her a choice, fight with us, or take her son and mine and protect them, the way I protected them for the last 10 years."

"I feel bad that I cannot offer my services, you know I would be the first to help you, if I thought I could be any help at all."

"I had heard of your injuries, Hercules, believe me, I did not come to make you feel inadequate, I came because I knew you would tell me the whereabouts of Xena."

"She lives down this road, over the hill, but perhaps you should also talk to her husband, Iolaus.  A braver man you will never find.  He is definitely someone who can give you the help you need."

Penelope walked along the path, kicking a stone.  The boys had gone off to do some boy thing, not interested in her at all when they learned that the bruises she was so proud of had washed off with well water.  It was a stupid idea anyway, who wanted to play with boys or boy centaurs?

"Why did you make up a story about me, Penelope?"  She heard a man's voice behind her on the path. 

"Who? What?  My parents told me never to talk to strangers."  She looked straight ahead and continued walking.  He walked along next to her, slowing his pace to match hers.  He was so very big, bigger even than her Uncle Hercules.

"But you know who I am don't you.  I am not a stranger, Penelope.  I know your mother and your father and your Uncle Hercules very well."

"I know, you're Ares.  I've seen you with my mother.  It's just that. . .  you're not supposed to exist.  I'm not supposed to believe in you."

He picked her up and hoisted her on his huge shoulders.  They ran across the meadow, spun around, and fell to the ground laughing.  He tickled her armpits and made her laugh. 

"Now do you believe in me?  Tell me you believe me or I won't stop tickling."

He wasn't mean and scary as she had pictured Ares to be.  He was silly and goofy like some of her friends big brothers.  He did that tickling brushing thing with his beard on her face, not like yucky kissing, but make you laugh stuff.  He was pretty funny, and pretty handsome, and he smelled good, too.

"I believe in you.  I just can't tell my mother."

"OK, it will be our secret."

"Can I tell my friend, Gabrielle?"  She knew she couldn't keep this a secret, she had to tell someone, yet she knew Hercules wasn't a good person to tell either.  The storyteller with whom she had spent yesterday afternoon seemed like a safe adult to tell.

"Who?"  Ares had this strange look on his face.  He tried to smile, but she was afraid he was angry or maybe just puzzled.

"Gabrielle.  She's a storyteller.  My mother let me stay with her yesterday.  She told me stories about Hercules.  I can't believe they are true. "

"No, Penelope, let's keep it our secret.  Just our secret."  He disappeared in a blue flash.  She thought that that was pretty cool, but still considered that she would probably be better off telling someone. Maybe she would tell Alcmeme who she knew believed in the gods.

Penelope watched as her mother stirred the stew that she was making for dinner.  She wasn't real fond of stew, but knew her father loved it.  She thought it was a little funny that her mother stewed rabbits and carrots together -- the rabbits ate the carrots and she ate both.  She wondered if bears ate rabbit, people, and carrot stew.  That was funny, as long as she wasn't the one being eaten. 

"What are you thinking about, Pen, I can tell it is naughty from the look on your face."

"Rabbits and carrots, and stew, and stuff like that.  I don't know, Mom, just thought it was funny."

"Well, why don't you see if you can be funny and get the table set for dinner, OK."  She reached down and hugged her daughter.  She never thought that her child would have so much of her father's humor and so little of her rage.  Fate had been kind.

"Mom, why don't we talk the stew over to Dad's shop.  Then if we see that story telling lady on the way, we can give her some, too.  She was awful skinny, I think she could use some good food."

"That's a good thought, but I am not sure we have enough."

"How much could she eat, Mom, probably no more than me.  I'd give up some of mine for her, she's really nice."

Xena poured some more water in the pot, one thing about stew was that you could always make it go further. 

Penelope ran ahead of her mother, and when she saw the storyteller surrounded by a group of people sitting on the quilts, she ran even faster.  She wanted to duck right in and grab a front row seat. She didn't care how gory the story was; she wanted to hear it.  She was just about to run through the circle of seated people when she noticed sitting cross-legged in the very front row was the man she had met this afternoon, Ares the God of War.  She could see him.  She knew her mother would see him.  She wondered if the other people could see him.

He saw her and gave a little smile.  Slowly he moved his finger to his lips, to tell her to be quiet.  She figured her mother would suspect something if she went over and sat near him, so she quietly sat next to a woman she knew from the village and smiled up at her.  "My mom is coming, it's alright."

Gabrielle was telling this exciting story about gods and fighting and blood.  Penelope hung on her every sentence.  She knew it was only a matter of time before her mother came and pulled her away as it was not a story for a child to hear.  Despite her best imploring look, her mother would not allow her to stay.  Hiding himself from Xena, Ares could not help but smile as he watched the child go off.  Xena had gotten what she deserved, and he hadn't had anything to do with it.  It was going to be fun to watch.

Ares, too, noticed that the storyteller looked underfed and lonely.  Who knew what else could be obtained for the cost of a nice meal?  As the crowd walked past, dropping coins in her cup, he walked over and introduced himself.

"Like the god or like the ram?"  She smiled at him.

"What?"  His mind wasn't ready for that question.

"Just a stupid question I am sure you get all the time.  Really doesn't matter unless I have to write it down."  He smiled.  The quick wit of her stories carried over to her conversations.

"I'll help you carry your quilts back to the inn, and I was wondering if you would join me for dinner." 

"This is a great town.  I don't know why I haven't come here before.  Everyone is so friendly."  Gabrielle knew she had more than enough money in her cup for dinner and a room; yet if a friendly, handsome man offered to buy dinner, she was not one to refuse. 

"Did you see that little girl that came in and joined use for a while?"

"Yes, I met her mother yesterday, she hired me for some private stories.  Honestly, I think she was sneaking off to meet someone and wanted to get rid of her daughter for a while."

Ares felt the smoke rising in his head, Xena hadn't slipped off to meet with him; he wondered who she might be seeing now. 

"Her husband's a potter in the village.  Nice man."  Ares told her.

"At least that explains where she got the gold coin to play me.  I had thought she was a single mother."

"Are you single?"


"And a mother."

"Not anymore.  I had a husband once and a daughter.  They both died."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to touch on a sensitive area."

"That's OK. People always ask.  There aren't too many single women bards around.  I'm pretty unique."

"That you are."

"I grew up in a small town, things were pretty boring there.  I decided I wanted to see the world, I haven't, but I've seen a lot of Greece.  That is a start."

Ares sat and listened to the bard talk and weighed his options.  One was to do what he always did and end up spending the night with an attractive woman next to him in bed. The other was to formulate a plan, which might take some time, and maybe have one more chance to win Xena back.  He just wasn't sure.  Usually he went for the direct approach, what was best for the moment; but if there was a chance. . . .  He poured another glass of wine and listened as she told him some story about a battle that he knew was completely wrong, because he was there.

Penelope was glad her parents had stayed and eaten their stew in the village square.  She had hoped that another storytelling ring would form, but when it didn't she was equally happy when Hercules, the centaurs and children showed up and ran over to join them.  The boys still ignored her, but Hercules hoisted her up on the Calliopus's back and she felt like she was queen of the world.

Hercules had managed to convince the centaur that asking for Xena's or Iolaus's help and telling her that the boy traveling with her was her son were two separate issues.  He knew that if Xena had not gone to get her son when she married Iolaus, who would have certainly understood and welcomed the son into his family, she may have had a good reason for it.  He was also fairly sure that she would recognize the child as hers and do what ever she thought was right regarding his acknowledgement.  He mulled it over and did not think about how strange it was that he was suddenly trusting a woman he had always deemed untrustworthy.  Suddenly taking her side, or at least giving her the benefit of the doubt.

"Where do you stay overnight in the village?"  Penelope asked the centaur.

"We're staying in a stable on the edge of town.  We're just to big to stay in the inn."

'And too smelly,' Penelope thought.  "Does the boy stay with you?"

"Of course, he's one of us.  He's used to sleeping on straw."

"Is he your son?" she asked.

"No, he came to live with us as a baby."

Penelope had a million more questions, but her Hercules shushed her and suggested that they walk home.  She was angry.  She wanted to hear more -- either from the storyteller or from the centaurs.

Gabrielle was most surprised when the handsome man who had bought her dinner took his leave quietly explaining that he was staying with friends outside the village.  He gave her a warm smile and a hug, and told her he would see her in morning.  He also suggested that she might consider doing a story telling session for the children, especially since there were centaur children visiting the village and he was sure that they never got to hear storytellers.  She thought it was a wonderful idea, and grabbed his hand, almost asking him to stay.

His plan was in motion.  On his way out of town he stopped at the stable where the centaurs were staying and told them about the story-session the next day especially for children.  He made sure that they knew that their children were invited, too.

Then he waited for Penelope and Iolaus to go to bed and appeared to the still awake Xena.

"I just came to tell you that Gabrielle is doing a story session just for children, tomorrow.  I am sure your daughter will want to be there."

"I saw you with her, we had brought her dinner, but you beat us to the punch.  What is this a new kinder, gentler Ares?"

He looked down at his shoes.  "She looked hungry, and down on her luck.  Thought she might like a man buying her dinner with no ulterior motive for once."

"She looks like she can hold her own with the "ulterior motives," Ares."

"If I were looking for someone to warm my bed, I certainly wouldn't pick that skinny blonde woman.  You know my type, Xena."

"Well, this type is tall, dark and married, Ares.  You had your chance.  You blew it."

"I'd be careful how you use the word blow, Xena.  Your husband might hear."

"The past is the past.  We don't talk about our old lives."

"You married a fine man, a very understanding man.  I wonder what he would say if he knew about ... how old is he now Xena, about ten right?"

"Don't you talk about him.  I've tried to forget him.  I love my son, but I can't have him.  I just can't face the pain."

"Sometimes pain is pleasurable, Xena, think about it."

He disappeared in a blue flash.  He wasn't sure what was going to happen tomorrow, he would just have to sit back and watch it play out.

The centaur children and the boy who traveled with them sat off to the side.  Other village children had also heard about the story telling session and crowded onto the quilts.  Penelope was content to sit with the centaurs, leaning her head against Gregor's fury back. 

Gabrielle had an assortment of fables involving talking animals and moral lessons which Penelope chose to ignore, making up stories to tell herself about the centaurs and their adventures.  She didn't care if they weren't true; they were exciting.  Finally the stories progressed to those about giants, monsters and heroes which did a much better job of capturing her attention.  She only wished Gabrielle would tell a story about the gods, especially Ares.

"I sing of Hercules, the mighty hero Hercules, and his labors, his deeds, his mighty quests."  Gabrielle continued.

Penelope heard some of the older village kids snigger.  They knew Hercules.  He never seemed mighty to them.  She didn't like the other children laughing at her friend.  She tried to picture her Uncle that way -- big, strong, and handsome.  That would have been wonderful.  He would have been like Ares. 

"And Hercules came face-to-face with his half-brother, the God of War Ares."

What?  Penelope didn't know that Ares and Hercules were "half-brothers."  How could he tell her that he didn't believe in Gods? She tried to work out the relationship.  She knew Hercules's mother Alcmeme.  Was Alcmeme Ares's mother?  Or was Hercules's father a GOD?  She had to find out.  She knew her mother wouldn't tell her, but wondered if she could trick someone into giving her the answer.

Gabrielle finished and the children scattered.  Penelope debated going to talk to her father immediately about what she had heard or going to play with the centaur children.  She could always find out about Hercules and Ares tomorrow, so the new kids won out.  She ran off to the woods outside of town and for the next few hours was content to think about running, chasing and avoiding getting caught.

Xena helped Gabrielle gather her quilts up again and stow then in her room.  It was a lot of work for one woman to do, often three times a day, especially for the few denars she would collect for events like the children's stories. 

"You should consider getting a tent.  You wouldn't have to carry in your quilts in and out, you'd be covered in the rain, and you could even stay there overnight, cutting down on expenses."  Xena suggested.

"What, and give up this luxury."  Gabrielle laughed at the sparse room in which she was staying. She bounced her hand on the meager cot and dust from the straw mattress flew into the air.

Xena laughed too, and she caught this gleam in the eyes of the bard, a look she hadn't seen in a long, long time.  In the past such looks usually came with an undertone of fear; she had been the warrior princess.  Admiration, true; but also fear.  There was no fear in Gabrielle's eyes, only a soft desire.  It was as if she had looked into her soul and seen something that no one had sensed in years, but something that had always been there.

She wanted to say things like, "I'm married, I'm a mother," but knew that none of them mattered to the bard.  "I want you" was stronger.  She grabbed the small woman in her arms and kissed her deeply, and found the kiss returned with more passion than she could have imagined.

"You. . ." Gabrielle's eyes asked the question that her lips couldn't ask.

"I've had women lovers, in the past."

"But you're married, with a child."

"What can I say, I do men, too.  And I'm not real careful.  I keep getting caught."

"Caught?  With a daughter like yours, I'd say you won the prize."

Xena made a face.  Maybe she was right.  She did have a wonderful husband and a daughter that she loved and admired for her independence, curiosity and intelligence.  Gabrielle had seen her world and analyzed in a way she could never have done, with dispassion and objectivity, and come to another conclusion.

"Maybe in another time, if I hadn't been so lucky."  The words tripped off Xena's lips.  "It would have been nice."

"I'm sure it would have."  Gabrielle hugged her again, pressing her body against Xena and realizing that it was a hug of friendship.  For the second time in less than a day, she had a friend where there could have been a lover.  Aphrodite must be in a strange mood this week.

The tall dark man slowly walked through Iolaus's shop stopping to inspect several platters, urns and bowls.  Iolaus had never seen him in the village before, but from the look of his fine leather clothing, the man was not your usual traveler.  Perhaps he was a buyer from Athens interested in taking his work to a larger market.  He looked vaguely familiar though, like someone he might have known in his youth.

"Interesting stuff.  Not what you usually expect to see in a small town like this.  Who was your teacher? He must have been from Athens?"  The man had a wide smile, perhaps too wide to be genuine.

"I don't know. The designs just come to me, as if someone else is guiding my hands.  No one ever taught me to do this; I just woke up one day and discovered I could do it.  I spend a lot of time on each piece, wanting it to be more than a household vessel."

"Perhaps they are the product of a muse. . or a god. . speaking through you."

Iolaus shook his head.  "Gods stopped talking to me a long time ago."

"What did you do to piss them off?"

Iolaus thought that was a strange comment.  The man had a lot of nerve to ask him a question like that, especially using that tone of voice and those words.  It was none of his business what he had done to make the gods angry. 

"Let's say we had a disagreement over style and let it go at that."

"Well certainly not regarding the style of your pottery.  I can't imagine a god who would argue with that."

It was getting too close and too personal.  He wanted to tell and to show the man that the argument was over his fighting style.  But the man was about Hercules's size and in good physical shape.  Besides, only a fool would fight in a pottery shop, especially if it was your pottery. 

"If you like it, why don't you buy some of it.  I don't spend all this time on my work for admiration alone."

"I understand.  I am actually looking for a gift.  Something useful for a woman who travels a lot, so it has to be small."

"An small oil lamp, or an incense burner perhaps."

"I think an incense burner sounds perfect." 

Ares had carefully selected one incense burner from the assortment Iolaus showed him.  It had the moon and the stars on it.  It would impress a woman, especially a bard. As he was counting out the small copper coins to pay half what he would pay for a similar piece in Athens, the girl he knew as Penelope came bounding into the shop.  He hoped she wouldn't say anything to cause her father to recognize him.  She carefully ignored him, giving credence that while she had inherited her father's energy; she had also inherited her mother's stealth.  He thanked Iolaus and returned to the field where Gabrielle had gathered another group of villagers for an afternoon story session.

Ares did not notice when he sat down that he had chosen a seat right next to his brother, Hercules.  He had often wondered about the state of his brother's memory and intelligence, whether they had withered like his arm.  He wondered if Hercules would even recognize him in the form that he now used to reveal himself to mortals.  He sat and stared at his brother's arm and wondered if Hercules could feel his glance and what he would say to him if he were recognized.

"It is you."  Hercules turned and spoke very softly.  "I wondered if you actually were around, please tell me you didn't attack Penelope yesterday."

"What do you think, brother?  Do I look like the kind who would molest little girls?"

"Do you really want me to answer that, here?"

"Actually, I would like to talk to you in private.  Why don't we take a walk down by the river?"

"I was going to suggest the same thing myself, and not to talk about Penelope?


The two men rose and walked away without attracting so much as a glance from the villagers who were entranced by the story Gabrielle was telling.  Ares wondered if she would realize that she appeared to have charmed the villagers much more today than she usually did with her stories.  Ares smiled and blew her a kiss, which of course, she did not see; for right now he had assumed a form that only Hercules could see.

"I'm not going to mince words, Ares.  I'm not going to say, 'good to see you' or 'how are my other family members' or even 'what the hell are you doing in Thebes?'  I honestly don't care.  I have one request to make of you my brother." 

"And that is?"  Ares's smile had become a sneer.

"Heal me." 

"Excuse me?"

"I asked you to heal me.  I know you can.  You have that power.  You can restore my arm, straighten my back, make me able to fight again."

"And pray tell me why I would even consider doing such a thing?"

"So I can go fight with the centaurs.  They need me."

"And why would I want to do that?"

"Hell, heal me Ares, and I might even take Iolaus with me.  You'd like that, wouldn't you? It would give you a chance to be alone here with your precious Xena."

"Wow, you got me there, Hercules.  I never saw that one coming."

"You heal me, restore my strength, and I will leave tomorrow.  I will ask Iolaus to come with me, but I can't guarantee he will, but my guess is he's as tired of painting pots and vases as I am of fishing. Bu that is a chance you have to take."

"And if I don't."

"When Xena hears the centaurs' story, she will probably go and fight with the centaurs.  She hasn't fought in a long time, she might get hurt."

"And you have, lefty?"

Hercules cringed. 

"Who would you rather have dead, me or her?  Seems you might be better off if I am not successful."

"Now that strikes a chord with me, bro.  A good deed for all."  He ran his hand along Hercules arm and felt the tissues come together under the skin.  He felt the blood flow and re-prime the muscles.  "How does that feel?"

"I can't believe it.  I never thought I'd say this, but thanks, Ares."

Hercules walked away toward Iolaus's shop, pumping his arm and his shoulder into the air.  Regardless of how much he now owed his brother, he was not going to die as a way of saying thanks.

"Honestly, I should say 'no'.  I was seen with you last night, people around here might start to talk." Gabrielle told Ares when he again asked her to join him again for dinner.

"And what would you like them to say about us?  It can be arranged you know."  He smiled at her sweetly, as if he were actually growing fond of this small blonde woman.

"I guess, when I leave tomorrow, I won't really care what they say.  So why not?  But let me treat you to some wine."

"Absolutely not.  I know we are just friends, I don't have to have you spend your money to show it.  What do you think I am?  Unless of course, you are trying to buy my favor and get me drunk." 

She laughed.  Both of their eyes twinkled as if they were enjoying the fact that neither of them could figure what the other was up to.

They ate too much, talked too long and drank way too much.  She was lonely.  Despite the fact that she spent her days surrounded by people, she didn't like the fact that she spent her nights alone.

"I don't know how to ask this," she gazed up at him as if looking for a muse.

"I can't believe you are at a loss for words, Gabrielle."

"It's just that there isn't a proper way to ask something improper. You told me earlier that I shouldn't care what the people of this village think about us. .  or me.  Please come back with me to my room tonight and spend the night with me."

The look on his face was incredulous.  It had been a long time since a woman had propositioned him; usually they were looking for a favor and a goodly portion of his power.

"You don't even know who I am.  I could be dangerous."

"You are a nice man who has spent two evenings listening to my boring stories.  I think if you were dangerous you would have tried something by now, and if you were dangerous, I wouldn't have to ask you to come back to my room."  She reached out and took his large hand in hers.  "Am I right?"

He muttered something she couldn't understand.  "Are you sure?"

"It is so long since I have been with anyone.  You wouldn't believe what I considered doing just this morning.  I kissed this woman in the village.  Yes, kissed her like that.  I think she wanted me.  And she was married, with a child.  Do you think I am crazy, or just desperate?"

He wanted to say something like "go ahead and let me watch;" but he stroked her arm and said something about everyone getting lonely and loneliness leading to desperate things and taking love and comfort where you could find them. He continued to talk as much as she usually did as he paid the bill and went with her to her room.

He kissed her softly on the forehead, then the eyelids and finally found her mouth.  She was hungry for whatever he wanted to give her, but he decided what she needed the most from him was for him to take his time.  He was going to be gentle and loving, not because he did not want her, but because she needed him.  She had had a rough life; she didn't need rough sex.

He carefully removed her dress and undergarments and lay beside her on the bed fully clothed.  He was torn, wishing he could use his powers to produce oils and feathers and flowers and ribbons and all the other accoutrements that he knew she would enjoy. Then he remembered the incense burner he had purchased for her.  He got up, removed it from his pack, lit a small ball of fragrance, and returned to the bed.  As a god he could give her so much more, but if she knew he was a god, it would break the spell.

"I'm sorry you're not Xena." He heard himself think.  He tried to erase the memories of the larger, darker, more passionate woman who was not in his bed tonight.  He inhaled deeply letting the incense go deep within his lungs.  He kissed her on her neck and down her chest.  He concentrated on the parts of her body that most men choose to ignore, the insides of her elbows, her waistline, and the line delineating her upper thigh.  He couldn't remember a time when he had tried to be as gentle as he was tonight.  He could feel her ribs through her white skin and could almost sense the food she had eaten that evening in her stomach.  He took time to know her body, finally connecting to her breasts, her navel and the blonde down that covered her sex. 

He tried to concentrate on her loneliness and her pleasure.  He knew that, if she had considered having sex with Xena, his fingers and tongue might be the right tools to bring her to orgasm.  Still fully clothed, he spread her legs and continued to move the kisses lower and deeper.

"I'm not asking you to be Xena," she moaned.  "I'm not a virgin.  You can take all of me."

He was surprised at her comments. 

"Did I do something you didn't like?"  He raised himself to see the look on her face.  "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you."

"You didn't hurt me, but I feel I am using you.  Making you do something you don't want to do, because you want to be nice to me, because you feel sorry for me."

"Believe me, Gabrielle, I would not make love to you just because I felt sorry for you.  I can produce a string of witnesses that lined up would reach all the way to Cornith to swear to that.  I am making love to you because that is what I want to do."

"Because I am lonely."

"No, because you are intelligent, stimulating and beautiful.  Because I care for you."

As he spoke to her he unfastened his trousers, freeing his penis.  If this was what she wanted, he would gladly oblige.  That was the kind of god he was, even if she didn't know it.

He knew she was aroused, moist and yet worried about his size.  She said it had been a while.  His fingers spread the way, made her ready, and even then she shuddered when he entered her.  He was gentle in his stroke, keeping his fingers on her clit and touching it softly, as he moved within her.  He placed his other hand under her and pulled her up to him, raising her around his penis rather than pushing into her.  He didn't realize he could be so gentle; he didn't realize that she could feel so good.

"I'm glad I'm not Xena.  I would have had to be content with just kissing and sucking and fingers.  This is so much better," he thought.  He felt her moving faster and more rhythmically around him.  He removed his hand from her now throbbing clit and grabbed her butt with both hands and flipped her over on top of him.  She was free to orchestrate her own movements, guide her own passion.  He had not seen such a look of pleasure on a woman's face in a very, very long time. 

He remembered the very young Xena.  She often had a look like that on her face.  But he was never sure whether it came from the pleasure that he was giving her or from her own pleasure in knowing that she was fucking the God of War.

He could hold back no longer, he knew he was about to cum.  He realized that as a god it wouldn't make much difference.  His recovery time was a matter of minutes, seconds really.  But he also realized that Gabrielle would sense, if he did that, that he was not just a man.  There was something about tonight; he wanted to have her love him as a man and not a god.

He carefully rolled her back on the bed and once more he began the journey down her body with his mouth slowly moving lower.  If he didn't know better, he would have sworn that she was purring like a cat.  It wasn't often he tasted his own sperm.  He knew it tasted different than that of mortal men, sweeter and stronger at the same time.  He was glad that she had not offered to go down on him. His sperm had magical powers and was used to bind warriors to his service.  He did not want to bind Gabrielle.  He liked her free.

He was not sure she was awake or even conscious when she finally came in his mouth.  He had sensed the tension and loneliness going from her body as she continued to melt under the warmth of his breath.  She was like a piece of hard candy, covered in chocolate with a small pearl of cream in the very center that you had to slowly suck to realize the flavor hidden within.  If you chewed and swallowed you would miss the essence.  He knew the flavor tonight; it was Gabrielle.

He crawled up and took her in his arms and slept beside her.  Tomorrow they would rise before the village and bathe in the stream.  As pleasant as the night had been, he did not want her scent there to remind him when he did what he planned to do tomorrow.  When he went to Xena.

"You're going where?  To do what?"  Xena growled at her husband as he scurried around the house finding his sword in a trunk and stuffing necessary travel and fighting items into his pack. 

"I'm going with Hercules to fight with the centaurs.  And I'll need my knife, too, the one you use to cut the green beans." 

"Take me with you.  I can fight better than that one armed Hercules."

"It's not your fight.  You are my wife.  You are not a warrior any more."

"It is my fight a lot more than it is yours.  I will always be a warrior."

"What?  Why?"

"That blonde-haired boy, Solan, the one who travels with the centaurs.  He is my son.  I am his mother, I was his mother before I was your wife."

"You abandoned your son.  Should I take that as a sign that you will abandon me, too?  I'm old enough to remember you Xena, not like a baby, I'll remember you when you are gone."

"I left my son with the centaurs to protect him.  It was something I had to do."

"Like the way you had to take me to lead your army. The way you had to take me from Hercules."  Xena didn't seem to be listening at all.  Her mind seemed to be in another battle in another war.

"I am a warrior, Iolaus.  I swore my allegiance to Ares -- my complete allegiance the same all true warriors do, on my knees, with his seed."  She waited for a reaction.  None came. "I doubt if you or Hercules ever did that; yet you still call yourself warriors.  Am I the only true warrior in the bunch of us?"

"I don't think Hercules did, but. . ."  He shook his head when he realized that now she knew a secret he had vowed never to tell.  He had made the same secret pledge to Ares as a young man; he couldn't even share that with Hercules.

"You understand what I am saying then.  Please let me come, too.  You can always use another warrior." 

Iolaus nodded his head.  He understood all too well.  "What about Penelope?  Someone has to care for her."  He knew appealing to her maternal instinct was pointless, but necessary.

"I think she could stay with Alcmeme."

"She's too spirited.  Alcmeme can't handle her."

"Maybe we could get that bard, Gabrielle, to come and stay here with her for a few days.  How long do you think it will be?"

"I don't think this will be a long war -- maybe it won't happen at all.  Hercules says he wants to talk to both sides -- get them to settle their differences."

"And why would anyone listen to a weakling like Hercules?"

"He's healed, got his strength back."


"He told me Ares cured him.  He made some deal with him."

"Ares cured him.  I don't believe it.  Why would Ares cure his brother who he has always hated?"

"I'm not sure Xena. I tried to work it through all night. I couldn't sleep at all.  All I could come up with was that he wanted Hercules and me to go fight with the centaurs, leaving you here alone to try to get one more chance; but if you come with us, what you said you want to do, that's not going to happen.  I think the God of War screwed up."

Iolaus watched the look on Xena's face which had been beaming, change back to one of puzzlement.  She realized what he had just done.  It wasn't every day that he got to outwit both his wife and the God of War with one act.

"Better find your sword and your leathers.  I will go and ask Gabrielle if she would mind not moving on today and come and stay with Penelope."

Ares had helped Gabrielle roll and tie her quilts, placing the incense burner safely inside the thickest one.  The morning had been soft and moist and they had enjoyed their naked romp in the dawn, so much so that after washing he had made love to her again on the bank of the river, with flowers and birds songs for embellishment.  He felt a sadness as he helped her load her donkey cart.  He was in no hurry to visit Xena, even though he was certain she would be alone.

He was impressed by the warrior Iolaus who rode up to the inn.  He looked like the man who had fought for years at Hercules's side and not like some craftsman.  His hair was wild and his eyes blazing.  God, he remembered the night Iolaus had sworn his allegiance, even though he was sure that Iolaus had been too drunk to ever remember it.  War made strange bedfellows.  He wondered if the small man had ever sworn allegiance to his brother, Hercules, in the same personal way.

"Gabrielle, I know you were going to move on today, but I have a big favor to ask you."  Iolaus said.

"Xena and I have to leave town for a few days.  I'm not sure exactly how long, and I hate to ask you, but you and Penelope seem to get along so well.  I was wondering if you could stay with her, I can pay you what you would make in the next village.  Perhaps you could even do some more shows here."

"I really can't Iolaus.  My next stop, two days away, is a huge festival.  If I miss it, I lose as much as I usually make in a month.  I can't ask you to pay me that, but I have to go."

"It's a war we are trying to avoid.  I need to go.  I have to protect the centaurs."

Gabrielle glanced over at Ares who had taken a seat beside her on the donkey cart.  He knew his face had dropped when Iolaus had said that Xena was going with him. Yet, if Gabrielle were staying, maybe they could spend some more time together.  This wasn't what he had planned.

"Maybe, I don't know if you would consider this, but perhaps I could take Penelope with me.  She loves to hear my stories, and it would be fun to have someone to travel with me.  I'm going to be looping back around here by fall, and I could drop her off then.  I know when I was her age I would have done anything to see the world."

"That is a wonderful idea, Gabrielle.  I know you would take very good care of her, and I know that she would really enjoy it.  I'll go home and get her stuff ready.  I'm sure Xena will think it is a wonderful idea." 

Iolaus rode off quickly.  Ares scratched his head and wondered how such a carefully worked out plan could fall apart so completely, and why for once in his life he wasn't angry at all when that happened. 

"Have I made a terrible mistake?"  Gabrielle asked Ares who was still wearing a shocked look on his face.  "You look as if. . . I think I can handle her, she behaves well when she is with me."

"Sorry, Gabrielle, I wasn't thinking about that at all.  I was thinking about her mother, Iolaus's wife, going off to fight in battle.  That is going to be the rough part for Penelope to understand."

"She always struck me as a warrior, as brave as she was beautiful.  It will be hard to replace a mother like that."  She paused and continued to watch his face. "I guess I was just projecting my own nervousness onto your expression, sorry.  I always wondered what my life as a bard would have been like if my child had lived."

"I am sure it will be fine," his words still belied his expression for his thoughts were nowhere near the small cart parked outside of town or the blonde bard staring at him, trying to read the selfsame thoughts.  His mind moved rapidly, if he went with Gabrielle, spent some time with Xena's daughter, perhaps he could . . . at the least he would see Xena again in the fall when he returned Penelope to her family.  In the meantime, the bard wasn't half-bad for a midnight plaything.  "You know Gabrielle, I was thinking.  Perhaps I could travel with you for a while.  If you need to take care of Penelope it wouldn't hurt to have someone help with the setup and take-down of your story circle.  I'm free for a while.  I could join you for the rest of the summer."

"That is too much to ask, you must have something you have to do the next few months."

"What I was planning to do will be in good hands, I think it would be fun.  I'll go get my stuff, you go get Penelope and swing back and pick me up.  Alright?"

"Sure.  I must say 'Thank you in advance.' And not just for coming with me to care for Penelope."

Ares smiled.  Perhaps the child would be the key.

"Say good-bye to Uncle Hercules for me, Mom and Dad.  Tell him I am so very, very glad his arm is better.  Take good care of Solan and the centaur children, too.  And don't get hurt or killed or anything."

"We'll try.  Now you be good and listen to Gabrielle.  And don't talk all the time.  Listen to her you might learn something.  Maybe someday you can be a story-teller, too."

Penelope hugged her parents one more time and kissed her father on the lips with a big smile.  She threw a small bag containing some clothes, a blanket, and a few other personal things on to the back of the cart and jumped on the seat next to Gabrielle.  She continued to wave frantically as the cart traveled down the road to the village, yet with each increase in separation the excitement regarding the trip grew for her.

"We have to stop back in town and pick someone up, Penelope."  Gabrielle said to her.  "I have a friend coming with us.  His name is Ares, and I think you will like him."

Penelope smiled, this was getting better and better.

The first stop on the trio's itinerary was a harvest festival in a larger town than Penelope had ever seen before.  The streets were paved with stones and red flowers grew in boxes on the front of the white houses.  Penelope's eyes took in everything from the castle high on the hill overlooking the city to the wide expanse of green lawn outside the gates where the various merchants were setting up their wares.  She wondered why her father had never come here to sell his pottery; it would have been fun.

She walked through the grounds with Ares, stopping at booths and talking to the merchants.  He bought a scarf of multicolored silk for her and one for Gabrielle, too.  They talked to men who made knives and arrowheads who spoke to Ares with a sense of awe.  Pretty women with flashing dark eyes wearing very few clothes would stop and try to engage him in transactions, as if she wasn't there.  Sometimes she would run ahead and get samples of candies and nuts, but he always managed to convince them that he wasn't interested and would join her shortly.  Eventually they would end up back at the story circle where she would sit quietly next to him and listen to Gabrielle tell stories -- often about the gods.

"She doesn't know, does she?"  Penelope confronted Ares after Gabrielle had just told a story about the God of War's involvement in an historic battle.  She had watched the man's face wrinkle as Gabrielle had elaborated on the gore of the fighting.  Usually she loved to hear about people getting their arms and heads cut off, but this seemed to bother Ares.  There was something more that was bothering him, and she was pretty certain what it was.

"No she doesn't, Penelope.  She thinks I am just a man.  We're going to have to keep this our secret.  I can't disappear and appear.  I can't throw fireballs.  As far as Gabrielle is concerned, I am just a guy named Ares."

Penelope wasn't sure.  She had a hard time telling the difference between a secret and a lie.  "You've got to give me something to get me to keep that secret, Ares."

"I've already given you a scarf, more candy than I bet your mother ever has let you eat in one day, and a nice room in the inn."

"Where I'll have to sleep on a mat on the floor."

"I'm sleeping on a mat on the floor, too, Penelope."

"Like fun.  As soon as I am asleep you will be in the bed with Gabrielle.  Do you think I didn't know that was a lie, too?"

"OK, little miss I-know-everything, here's what I'll do.  You keep the secret about me being a god and I will tell you something that only a god would know."

"What's that?"

"The war with the centaurs, the one your father, mother and Hercules went to fight in.  It's not going to happen.  I know you've been worrying about that.  Right?"

"Right, I don't want them to die."

"Well they're not.  They're not even going to have to fight. The enemy is going to sputter and delay.  Hercules is going to work with the centaurs and build up their defenses.  Your father and mother are going to go to the enemy and propose a deal.  At first they are not going to accept it, so your family will keep working getting ready for war, but before the first blood is shed the other side will give in.  No one will be hurt at all.  Your parents will come away as heroes to the centaur nation.  What do you think of that?"

"It would be great to hear Gabrielle tell stories about my parents as heroes, but how can you be so sure."

"Penelope, I AM the God of War.  That's what I do."

Three months later.

The time had gone by rapidly.  Ares, Gabrielle and Penelope had traveled to a new village every few days and had been met with rave reviews everywhere.  Because Ares insisted on paying for the rooms wherever they went, Gabrielle now had more money than she could possibly ever imagine.  Her goal in life had gone from buying a tent as Xena had suggested to possibly buying a small house where she could live and write plays.  She found herself making plans for a life about which she had never been able to dream.

Any trepidation she might have had about traveling with Penelope had been unfounded.  The child had been a joy, even if at times she seemed to have assumed the role as Ares's shadow.  About the only times that the two were not together was when she would join Gabrielle for baths in the stream outside the village and at night when she would always fall asleep quickly on her mat on the floor and stay asleep soundly until morning.  The first few nights as Gabrielle fell asleep in Ares's arms, she had to avoid further touches on his part for fear that they would wake the child.  It didn't take more than a few days to realize that nothing seemed to wake Penelope but the morning rooster, and they took advantage of the soft bed in the inn to relax after the long days of storytelling. 

Gabrielle found those plans she had been making for the future expanding to include a man, not just any man, but this man, and a child or children.

They had one more stop, the wine festival at Daphne, before they would swing back around to Thebes and return Penelope to Iolaus and Xena, who he knew would have just returned from the successful peace negotiations.  Tonight Penelope had insisted that she could stay in the inn alone so that he and Gabrielle could enjoy the food and drink of the festival.  She was as strong and independent as her mother was and at an even younger age. But as much as he loved her spirit, Ares vowed that he would never have her pledge her allegiance to him as a warrior.  She like Gabrielle would carry the spirit of peace.

A full harvest moon had risen in the sky.  Ares took that as a good sign, but then he always believed the full moon was a good sign. Things could have been different.  He thought about the plan had had concocted to separate Xena from her husband, a man he knew she had never loved, and convince her to return to him.  A false threat of war, the visiting centaurs expressing the need for a hero, and the healing of his brother had all gone exactly as he had planned.  But something had changed things.  Gabrielle had cast a spell of storytelling magic over the town.  She had rebuked Xena's advances.  She had done something to him that he would never have thought possible.  She had made him want her as much as he had wanted Xena. 

"Ares, you seem lost in thought.  Wish I could read what you are thinking the way Penelope seems to be able to do."  Gabrielle stared into his dark eyes.

"She does have a knack for that doesn't she.  Sometimes I think she is an adult hiding in a child's body."

"I've thought about that ever since I met her.  She has a spirit I can't seem to associate with a small child.  Do you think she might be a goddess?"

"Highly doubt it.  She has two very mortal parents."

"What if her father was Hercules?  He's supposed to be half god."

"Never thought of that.  Don't think so.  She looks too much and acts too much like Iolaus."

"That is true."

"Do you ever think about what your daughter would be like if she had lived?  How old would she be?"

"Almost five."

Ares did some math in his head.

"But you said your husband died . . ."

"I know, I never said he was my child's father.  I didn't want you to get the idea that I slept around, and I'd stopped when I met you.  I gave men up when I found out I was pregnant."

"Well this man is for sure glad that you changed your mind.  It has been a great summer traveling with you.  I've passed bards, slipped them a coin or two, in the past, but I never paid any attention to what they did . . . how they lived . . . how they brought joy to communities . . .how they spread information.  If all bards are like you, I am duly impressed by them."

"I'm not sure they are.  Some just do it for the coins, or the drinks, I do it for . . . "

"For what? Gabrielle?"

"I was going to say that up until this summer I did it to avoid loneliness.  But know I know that that isn't the reason.  I do it because I want to share the love I have for the stories I tell with the world.  That's a good thing, because I'm not going to be alone much anymore."

"Gabrielle, you have to take Penelope back to her parents." 

"I'm not talking about Penelope, and I'm not asking you to stay with me Ares, please don't take what I am going to tell you as asking you to do that in any way."  She paused, and waited as if expecting some reaction from Ares.  He was too dumbstruck to respond, as he considered. . .

"I think I am pregnant again.  That's why I won't be alone. I didn't ask my daughter's father to take me back when I learned I was pregnant the last time, and I am not asking you to stay.  I can do it alone again. It is going to be harder with you though, because I care for you."

He grabbed her and hugged her tightly.  There were tears in his eyes, tears of joy, something he never remembered crying.

"Oh, Gabrielle.  I was so sad thinking about having to give Penelope back. I knew I was going to miss her so much.  Now we are going to have our own daughter.  Do you think we should go and wake up Penelope and tell her?"

"What?  No. . . you silly man.  She'll find out later."

"Like in the morning."

"Like when we have the baby, or when I start to show, and starts asking questions. She doesn't need to know now."

"I don't know, Gabrielle, I have a hard time keeping secrets from Penelope."

"From a sever-year-old."

"Almost eight.  As I said, she is something special."

Penelope awoke and noticed that Ares was alone in the bed he shared with Gabrielle.  She jumped up and climbed in, snuggling herself in his arms.  He muttered and held her tightly.  She really liked sleeping this close to this big bear of a man, but this morning she sensed that they needed to talk.

"Where's Gabrielle?"

"She had to go to the bathroom.  She'll be back soon."

"She had to go throw-up.  I think she is pregnant."

"What?  How do you know?"

"I know.  I know that when you are little people sometimes forget that you are around. If you listen carefully you can find out all sorts of things.  I heard Gabrielle muttering to herself about it.  Didn't realize that I could hear her.  She was worried that you would be mad.  You're not, are you?"

"No, Penelope."  He leaned over and kissed her forehead.  "I'm really excited.  I hope we have a little girl just like you."

"And when are you going to tell her?"

"She knows she is pregnant."

"I'm not taking about THAT.  You know what I am talking about.  She has no idea WHO you are other than some nice man named Ares.  I don't think she makes a connection to the God of War at all.  Sometimes I wonder about Gabrielle."

"That's because she has a good heart, Penelope.  She doesn't see it because she doesn't even think to look.  She's not a warrior; she sees me as a man, her lover and soon to be her husband."

"You're getting married. Can I come to the wedding," the childlike half of her beamed.  Then she realized that Ares might not be going to tell Gabrielle, not now -- not ever.  "You have to tell her, she'll understand.  If you really love her, you have to tell her and see how she reacts. We can have secrets, but not lies.

"Who made you so wise, little one?" 

She smiled and her whole face lit up.  Ares made her feel so special.

Ares had insisted that he buy them both new flowing white dresses for the special occasion.  Gabrielle had protested arguing that both of them would soon outgrow the dresses and that a white dress for Penelope was totally impractical.  Ares had won, of course, and the two of them went out in search of flowers to adorn their hair and perfumes to wear on their bodies.

"I don't know why are we getting married at a temple of the God of War."  Gabrielle commented.  Penelope bit her lower lip to keep from laughing.  "Any of the gods in the pantheon can bless our wedding."

"Don't you think it is iron. . . silly... Gabrielle, that Ares has the same name as the God of War and is nothing like him," Penelope said.

"Lots of mother's name their children after gods.  I imagine his mother wanted him to be a warrior.  I am thankful that he didn't.  I like him the way he is."

"And how is that?"  Ares had walked up behind her and encircled her in with his arms.  "I have to be thankful that I have the two most beautiful women in Daphne at my wedding.  I couldn't have ever dreamed of anything else."

Penelope made a face.  Then she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror. She hadn't looked in a long time.  Her hair, which her uncle Hercules had often compared to Medusa the gorgon, had  relaxed under Gabrielle's daily brushings and now circled her head in a mass of curls held back by a ring of flowers.  She did look beautiful, almost a beautiful as Gabrielle.

"I have a carriage with two black horses to take us to the temple.  Are you ready to go?"

Penelope had never seen such a fine carriage or such beautiful horses.  They looked like fire could come from their noses when they breathed and like they could outrun the wind or the coming of night.  He helped them both into the carriage and instructed the driver to take them to the Ares temple.

She walked behind the couple as they climbed the black stairs to the temple.  An acolyte opened the door and let them enter.  Penelope had never been in a temple before. So this was what it was like.  This is where gods lived.  She carefully watched, listened and smelled.  She noticed row after row of offerings: money, candles, food, and other things, that had been left in tribute to Ares.  She had always wondered where Ares got the money he spent on Gabrielle and her.  Her father had worked long hours at the wheel and the kiln to pay their family's expenses. Now she knew that secret, too.  The acolyte appeared openly surprised to see Ares, but Gabrielle didn't seem to notice that either.

Ares had not slipped into the temple unnoticed.  Several of the priests, Ares maidens and other acolytes had joined them at the altar.  They all stood in silence as he knelt with the small blonde woman and extracted a golden necklace from his vest.  The head priest looked at the couple and asked, "Do you want me to officiate, or do you wish to do it yourself?"

Gabrielle seemed shocked when Ares shook his head.  It was obvious that he hadn't told her.  It was clear, even to an almost-eight-year-old, that Gabrielle was going to find herself married to a god, the God of War, without making the conscious decision to do so.  Penelope wanted to scream.  An acolyte noticed her unease and moved behind her.  "Tell her." She muttered.  The acolyte grabbed her shoulder.  "Tell her, or I will."  Her voice was louder.  A hand clasped tightly over her mouth and began to direct her toward the door.  "Please, if you love her, Ares, you will tell her," she shouted into the hand even though no one could hear.  Tears ran down her face, as she was placed on the step and the huge wooden door closed behind her.

Gabrielle had barely noticed what was happening.  She was still staring at the face of the man she was about to marry.  Here in the temple of the God of War, the kindest man she had ever met was going to become her husband.  She did notice that his face grew concerned when he heard voices and the door opening.

"I have to talk to you, Gabrielle.  As much as I want to marry you right now, right here, I can't.  There is something I have to tell you."

"I know, or at least let's say, I think I may just have figured it out."

"If you have, it might be a little easier, Gabrielle.  Let's go out into the sun, and we'll share what we know.  I am truly sorry."  He leaned over and put his hand on her shoulder, drew her to him, and kissed her.  She fit under his arm as they walked out into the sunshine.

"I'm going to tell her, Penelope.  Thanks for stopping me."  He put his hand on the head of the girl sitting on the temple steps and tousled her hair.

It wasn't enough to tell her that he was actually the God of War, which she had pretty much figured out just that morning.  It was mostly the expressions on the faces of those in the temple that had made her suspect, but when she looked back on their summer together, there were other clues which she now kicked herself for not noticing.  He had to tell her about Hercules, Iolaus and Xena.  Especially Xena.  He had to tell her that once he had loved that woman so much that he would have done almost anything to get her back, including sending her husband off to war.  Why, he had even healed his brother, Hercules, as a last ditch, futile attempt to get another chance.

"I could see why you were attracted to Xena, I as attracted to her, too.  I know I've told you that it was almost just a flip of the coin whether I spent that day in bed with her or the night in bed with you.  No one in the village would have noticed two women slipping off for a few hours together.  No one would have suspected.  No one would have guessed."

"I'm better than she would have been.  Was then, still am now.  I love you, and I can give you a baby."  He had a look of pride on his face she had never seen before.

"And I can give you something she could never give you.  I will swear to be your friend, your lover, your wife and the mother to your child, or I certainly hope, children.  I will swear to care for you, to honor you, to respect you, but I will never swear to be your warrior.  When I get down on my knees and suck your seed, it will be to give you pleasure and not to give me strength to win in  battle. I will never ask for that from you Ares, and in return. . .

"In return Gabrielle, I will give you the world."

They had been home less than a week and already Xena was wondering when and if Gabrielle would ever return their daughter to them. Had it been a mistake to trust the bard? Iolaus had assured her that it was just a month past the autumnal equinox and that Gabrielle would probably be back any day. Itinerate bards had their own schedules, and they should consider themselves fortunate to have a few days together at home in peace.  Penelope would be home soon, and the questions would start again.

They would have a lot to explain to Penelope.  Xena had told Solan that she was his mother. She tried as best as she could to explain why she had not come back, but it was difficult considering she really wasn't sure why she had not gone to get him when she married Iolaus.  The feeling of total defeat she felt as a warrior when your troops deserted you did not translate to words you could tell a ten-year-old boy.  He took it hard at first.  She finally realized that much of his anger was really fear that now he would be taken from his centaur family.  A deal was negotiated.  Most of the year Solan would live and study with the centaurs, but he would spend summers with Xena and her family.

Xena tried to occupy herself with domestic tasks like drying grapes and apples in the sun.  She prepared the garden for winter and saved the seeds for next year's planting.  It had been an interesting experience, spending the summer making peace not war.  She had worked with her husband and Hercules as part of a team, solving problems and softening differences. Where she had ended up wasn't so bad after all.  If only her daughter would get back. She kept her eyes pealed on the road for an approaching donkey cart.

It was not a donkey cart but a fine carriage pulled by two black horses that she saw that afternoon.  Her first thought was that it was just another attempt by Ares to come and take her back.  She certainly wasn't going to go, not now.

She was totally amazed when the driver dismounted, opened the door and assisted Penelope, who immediately ran to her side and hugged her, a somewhat more nourished looking Gabrielle, and finally a tall, dark. . . no it was Ares himself... from the carriage.  What was Ares doing with her daughter and Gabrielle?

"Mom, it's so good to be back.  I missed you so much.  We did lots of fun things, and traveled all over Greece.  But I missed you, and Dad, and Uncle Herc.  I am so glad to be back."  Xena almost wanted to tell her daughter to move back and give her air; but then she realized how excited her daughter had to be to be home.  She realized that her daughter would rather spend her time with her mother and father than with a bard or a god.

Ares stood watching with his arm around Gabrielle's shoulder.  She was wearing a white dress similar to the one that Penelope was wearing, a dress that flowed over her body, revealing... Gods she was pregnant.  Xena looked down at her own body, and realized that Ares had to be thinking the same thing about her.

There was a great deal of hugging and kissing and feasting and drinking and celebrating and finally sleeping. Iolaus finally connected the man who had purchased the incense burner from his store to the god to whom he had sworn allegiance to in his youth and realized a god could take many, many forms. Even Hercules had joined in the festivities when he learned that his brother the god had gotten married.  Old enemies were now friends, brought together by the joy of family.

Iolaus insisted that Ares and Gabrielle sleep in their bed and that the three of them could spend the night in Penelope's room.  He had carried his daughter to the bedroom and unexplainably fallen asleep beside her.  Xena banked the fire and prepared to join him when she realized that Ares was there, standing close to her.  Not the man who was now married to Gabrielle, but the god who had haunted her for years.

"Boy, I didn't think that two people could mess things up as much as we did Xena.  This isn't the way it was supposed to turn out."

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

"Well, since you asked, I'll have to be honest and say I think it was a good thing.  I could tell you what was supposed to happen, but you would think it was very bad theatre.  Written and produced by people who didn't know their asses from a hole in the ground."

"That's a pretty rough analogy."

"It was a pretty rough ending.  This one is much better."

"You know Iolaus and I are going to have a baby, too, and Solan will come to live with us every summer"

"I take it you are not going to ask me to make you unpregnant this time?"

"No, I'm actually excited.  What about you?"

"More than excited.  I love her Xena."


"You and I, I didn't realize it, but we could never be.  I should have known when I made you a warrior.  That was not what I needed. I needed someone different.  I needed a pure soul.  I needed her. 

"When I was a youth, as part of my training, my father gave me a game board that had been cut into pieces.  My job was to put the pieces back together in the form of a square.  I knew it could be done, because it was together when he dumped it on the table.  I worked on it for weeks and months, trying to get the pieces to fit.  One day, I got them together and took them to my father.  He had the scroll with the answer.  We looked at it, turned it around, and looked at it from each and every side.  We realized that I had put it together yet another way.  He laughed and said I might be a powerful god after all.  I never realized what he meant until a few weeks ago."

"Lost me there, Ares."

"I kept trying to put OUR lives together -- you and me -- but it didn't work.  Every time I tried to mix you and Iolaus and Hercules and me together there were holes in the center and a few pieces sticking out on the side.  I knew there had to be an answer, but I couldn't figure it out.  We kept fighting and sputtering and fuming. . . And then I realized.  The hole in the middle was for Gabrielle and the piece sticking out the side was Penelope."

"But you know, I was attracted to Gabrielle, too.  We kissed one day, I wondered if she were my true soul mate."

"I said Xena, there is more than one answer to this puzzle.  That might have been the way it was SUPPOSED to work out.  However, this time, this LIFE . .  THIS is the solution that will work out."

He drew her to him and placed his hand on her stomach.  "It's going to be a boy.  Hercules will have someone to take fishing, because Penelope will outgrow that soon.  Don't make her spend her time babysitting.  She won't like that.  She has a lot of her mother in her, and she might rebel. And please stop telling her lies.  She knows the truth, even when you try to fool her."

"You're not going to try to get her to. . ."

"No Xena, there is one thing that I can assure you.  Penelope will never be a warrior.  I will never ask for or take her allegiance."  He paused again.  "And, if you ever find out how she got so wise at such a young age, let me know.  OK." 

"So this is good bye."

"Hell no.  I'll make sure we'll stop by so that our children will get to know each other.  I have to watch Penelope grow up.  I really like her."

"What are you going to do about . .  . your job?"

"The same thing you and Hercules just did, learn to negotiate.  People don't need help to make war, but they really could use some godly guidance trying to make peace.  I'll try."

Penelope opened her eyes in the darkness and tried to hear what was going on in the other room.  She could no longer hear their secrets.  She snuggled her father's arms; he smelled like ale and made those funny snoring sounds that men made when they slept.  It had been an exciting summer, but now she was home with her family.  Everything seemed to have worked out so well.  Uncle Hercules was strong again.  Her mother and father were happy and she was going to have a new brother or sister.  She had seen a lot of places and learned to tell stories and write scrolls.  Gabrielle was married to a god who was rich and handsome and loved her very much.  The centaurs didn't go to war, and her brother would come and visit next summer. Best of all they all were friends.  Everything seemed wonderful, unless of course you were a bug in the garden, because she was home!  A big giant, who was the best friend of the God of War, was coming to squash them tomorrow.

If you made it to the end, thanks for reading.  If you think it is just a little too romantic, remember PRINCE CHARMING was another role played by Kevin Smith.

The End