No historical or legendary events of dubious authenticity were harmed in the creation of this fanfic.
I would have sworn, indeed I swore it: The hills may shift, the waters may decline, Winter may twist the stem from the twig that bore it, But never your love from me, your hand from mine. --Edna St. Vincent Millay, "To a Friend Estranged From Me"
The bard was young and healthy, but the road was long, and she was thoroughly exhausted by the time she dropped her dusty body onto a stool at the bar. The innkeeper offered a friendly smile, but said nothing as she poured a mug of ale and set it before the weary traveler. She waited until the mug was empty and she was refilling it before speaking.
The young woman looked at her in some surprise, shaking red-gold curls back over her shoulder. "How did you know?"
"Trick of the trade," the older woman replied with a wry smile. Her fair hair was streaked with grey and her face, though still comely, was lined with the badges of age and hardship. She was short, like the bard, and her body was comfortably padded into a pleasing roundness. She used a rag to wipe off the bottom of the mug before placing it back on the bar in front of the bard, whose lithe slender form seemed almost boyish in comparison.
"So," the latter said, glancing around the near-empty room as she reached for the mug. "I suppose this is the part where you tell me you've got no use for my services."
"On the contrary," the innkeeper said. "It's not too busy now, but there are already people coming in for the festival next week, and by dinnertime this place will be hopping. You're welcome to stay and try your hand... that is, if you think you're good enough to handle this crowd."
"Oh, I'm good enough," the young woman replied confidently. Leaning forward, she lowered her voice slightly. "Is it true the Queen of the Amazons herself attends this festival every year?"
"She's been known to put in an appearance," the innkeeper shrugged. The bard's eyes glowed with excitement. "Why, do you know her?"
"No," said the young bard, "but I plan to."
The innkeeper only smiled. "Well, good luck to you. It's dinner and a free bed for the night, if you can keep the customers happy. And you keep whatever they give you. Fair?"
"Fair," the bard agreed. She stuck out a hand. "I'm Anra."
"Call me Momma," the innkeeper said pleasantly, shaking the bard's hand. "Everyone does."
"Do you-" But the bard's next question was interrupted by the appearance of a young girl, no more than eleven summers in age, who burst in from the kitchen shouting "Momma!"
"Momma, Momma," she panted, "Cook says the roast will be ruined if he doesn't get his leaves of basil!"
"I sent your brother out for the basil an hour ago," the innkeep said, rolling her eyes. "He probably forgot entirely." She went to the window and yanked the shutters open.
"Perdicas!" she yelled with authority. "Bring the basil to the kitchen this instant!"
"Sorry Momma!" called a faint voice in response. The matron grunted and moved away from the window.
Meanwhile, her young daughter watched with delight as the bard Anra opened her traveling bag and produced a small lyre, which she began to tune. "Momma!" shouted the child eagerly, her eyes round as saucers. "It's a bard!"
"Yes, I noticed," the innkeep replied mildly. Smiling, she confided to the bard, "My girl here loves the stories.... especially the ones with fierce warriors in them."
"Do you know any stories about Hercules? Or Xena, the Warrior Princess?" the child asked in a voice tinged with awe.
"Well, let's see," the bard replied amiably. "I think I just might know one about both of those mighty warriors. How about the story of Prometheus? Would you like to hear that one?" Mutely, the child nodded yes. "Well, you see, the great goddess Hera had enslaved Prometheus, chaining him cruelly to an enormous rock...."
"Enough," Momma interrupted, placing a firm hand on her daughter's shoulder. "Save it for the customers later. Meanwhile, sit a while. If your throat is near as dusty as your clothing, you'll need some rest."
"Enough, I said. You can come hear the story later when the bard tells it for the customers. Right now, you have chores to do."
The little girl scowled unhappily, but she trudged dutifully off to the kitchen, casting a longing glance back over her shoulder at the bard. Her mother gave one last friendly but impersonal smile, and turned back to the bar.
True to Momma's prediction, by the time the dinner hour arrived the inn was crowded with people, merrily eating and drinking as they discussed the upcoming festival. Anra took her place at the head of the room early on, and proved more than capable of handling the crowd. Her stories and songs had them riveted, especially the innkeeper's daughter, whose eyes were bright with excitement as she circulated through the room wiping up spills and collecting empty plates.
After nearly an hour of tale-telling, the bard took a much-needed break for some food and drink. Her jaunty cap, which she had taken from her head and placed on a stool, was overflowing with dinars. She smiled cheerfully at the locals as they congratulated her, and at her young admirer when the child brought her dinner.
With the bard no longer speaking, the noise level in the room began to rise. But shortly it fell again, voices hushing as the door swung open and a tall, imposing figure walked through.
She was scarred from battle, her long thick black hair going to grey, her commanding stride slowed by the caution of aging bones, and she had long since exchanged her gleaming leather and brass for a more comfortable tunic; but she remained a fearsome sight, striking awe and admiration in the hearts of all who saw her. Her longsword and chakram gleamed prominently from a belt at her waist. As she surveyed the room coldly, her dark glare revealing nothing, the locals wondered what evildoer had wandered into their midst to attract the attention of the Warrior Princess.
"We don't want any trouble," the innkeeper called Momma announced, her powerful voice carrying through the hushed room with ease. "For food and drink you're as welcome here as any, but keep your business simple."
The young bard Anra held her breath, literally struck dumb by the audacity of this peasant woman to speak so boldly to the lethal woman of lore. But after another heartstopping moment, the warrior woman gave a short nod and claimed the nearest chair.
A small sigh of collective relief flowed through the room, and conversation resumed as the young serving-girl, prodded by her mother, carried a plate and mug to the warrior. Her eyes were rounder than the mouth of the mug as she served her hero and backed silently away. The warrior's mouth curved in a slight smirk, but she said nothing beyond "Thank you."
As the atmosphere in the room slowly returned to normal, Anra hurried over to the bar and whispered urgently to the innkeep. "Is that really Xena?"
Momma shrugged nonchalantly. "We get a lot of well-known folks around here, especially at festival time. Everyone just treats them like folks, unless there's trouble. They're just people, you know."
"I guess so." The bard glanced over her shoulder at Xena, then turned back, her voice lowering even further. "Is it true about Xena and the Amazon Queen? That they're ... you know ... *friends*?"
Momma glanced up at Anra, her expression bland. "I don't believe in gossip," she said, not coldly, but very firmly, quelling all further speculation.
As Anra struggled to regain her equilibrium, more questions forming on her tongue, the formidable warrior came up to the bar and plunked her mug down. "Innkeeper," she said. "I need a room for the night."
"I've promised the last room to the bard," the other woman replied, taking the empty mug and refilling it. "But if she doesn't mind sharing...."
"N-No," Anra managed to stammer, weakly, squirming under the measuring stare of the warrior. "I'll sleep on the floor."
"*I'll* sleep on the floor," Xena corrected. Her expression dared Anra to object. The bard merely nodded.
"Well, don't just sit around, then," Momma advised. "The public demands more entertainment."
"Oh, of course," Anra said apologetically. Watching the tall warrior with a mixture of awe and apprehension, she threaded her way back to the low table that served as a stage, and picked up her lyre.
"I, um," she stammered, and paused to clear her throat as the customers stopped talking and looked expectantly toward her. "I sing the song of Odysseus, noble and mighty king of Ithaca...."
Behind the bar, the innkeeper's face remained blank. The Warrior Princess cast an indecipherable look from bard to barkeeper, smirked slightly, and took her refilled mug back to her seat.
At long last, the crowd in the inn thinned down to a handful of serious drinkers and pre-festival celebrants, none of whom cared for more storytelling. Collecting her second hatful of dinars, Anra carefully packed her lyre away and approached the bar.
"Momma, let me give you some dinars for all the ale I drank," she said, carefully pouring the coins into the small pouch at her waist, reserving a few which she attempted to press upon her hostess. The innkeeper shook her head, raising a preventive hand.
"I told you the deal, bard. You keep the customers happy, the food and drink are free."
"But every dinar in my pouch is one not spent on your ale," Anra pointed out.
"Maybe, but every tale you tell is another round of ale they buy to lubricate their applause, so I'm just as well off."
"Just take the money," drawled a husky low voice from the corner. Rising, Xena moved over to where the two women stood arguing. "You might as well give in," she advised Momma dryly. "A bard can be impossibly persistant." Another unreadable expression crossed her features.
Momma seemed to pause for breath before replying, "Very well." If her hand trembled slightly as she took the coins from the young bard, none of the three commented on it. "My daughter will show you to the room. Lycea!"
"Yes Momma," said the young girl, looking up. She, her slightly smaller brother, and another girl of less than eight summers were clearing away the dishes from the tables, yawning frequently.
"Show the bard and the warrior to the last room. And then take your sister to bed."
"All right," the child said, yawning again. "Just this way, miladies."
Anra felt her mouth frozen shut as she followed the young girl and the famous warrior up the dark stairs. Xena's pace, though steady, was slow on the steps, so the bard had plenty of time to swallow the lump of apprehension in her throat, and to attempt to form a sentence of greeting. But no properly neutral yet respectful words came to her usually glib tongue, and so the entire climb proceeded in tense silence.
At the top of the stairs, an elderly dog spotted them and lumbered weakly to his feet, giving a weak but threatening growl.
"Hush, Ares!" the young girl admonished, nudging him gently aside as she moved down the hall.
"Roo!" the creature replied apologetically. He rubbed against Xena's leg in a friendly manner, and drooled a little on Anra's foot.
"That's a nice dog," Anra told the young girl as she opened the last door on the hallway and ushered them in.
"He's a wolf actually," the child explained earnestly.
"Really?" The bard looked again at the animal, impressed. "Well, that probably explains naming him after the God of War."
The girl smiled in answer. "Yes, Momma got him as a cub when she was younger, and she says-"
"Lycea," Xena said, interrupting. "Was that your name? Where is the washroom?"
"It's the last door at the other end of the hall, mistress," the girl replied meekly. She cast a longing look at the bard, but spoke with a forced formality. "If there's nothing you require, I'll be returning to my duties."
"Thank you," Anra said gently, ushering her out.
Left alone with the formidable warrior, the young bard felt her heart begin to pound with anxiety. Xena, however, appeared oblivious to her roommate's discomfort as she swiftly unbuckled her weapons-belt, then removed her tunic and laid it atop her small shoulder-bag.
"Um... you can have one of the blankets from the bed," Anra offered, moving to the small bed and reaching to strip off the top cover.
"No, thank you. It's a warm enough night."
"Okay," Anra assented meekly. "Um... I hope you liked my stories." When no reply seemed forthcoming, she added quickly, "I'm sorry I didn't tell any stories with you in them. I didn't want to risk offending if I got ... any ... details ... wrong." The last few words came out haltingly as the tall warrior turned and gave Anra the full attention of her bright blue eyes.
"It's all right," she said shortly. "But you're wrong about one thing. You did tell one or two stories with me in them." And with that, she lowered herself carefully to the floor, turned her back to the bard, and closed her eyes.
Her entire being burning with questions and emotions, the bard stripped off her own clothes and climbed into the bed.
In the middle of the night, Anra awoke slowly, not knowing what had roused her. Opening her eyes, she could barely make out the shadowy shape of her roommate walking silently to the door. There was a brief influx of brighter light from the torches lighting the hall; then the door closed again, and Anra, straining her ears to their limit, could hear Xena's footsteps moving down the hall.
If you were a true bard you'd get up and follow her, Anra told herself sleepily. But the bed was warm, her body ached with weariness from the long day of travel, and anyway, she didn't relish the consequences if the Warrior Princess caught someone following her. Uneasily, Anra closed her eyes again. In another moment she was once again asleep.
Anra awoke to the late-morning sun filtering through the cracks in the shutters. Excepting the bard herself, the room was empty. Blearily, she dressed, washed her face, and stumbled down the narrow stairs to the inn.
The room, when Anra staggered into it, was empty and silent. Behind the bar, the innkeeper stood entwined with Xena, sharing a slow kiss. Anra stood staring for a long moment, entranced by the tenderness evident in every line and curve of the warrior's body.
At length the kiss came to a quiet end and the two older women turned, displaying no sign of embarrassment or dismay at the bard's presence. "We're just about to open for lunch," Momma said amiably, "but there's some left of breakfast if you want it."
"Do all bards sleep so late every day?" Xena enquired without rancor. Momma smirked for a brief instant before lightly slapping the warrior's arm.
"Make yourself useful, you." She poured a steaming cup of tea and handed it to the bard, who remained speechless as she tried to decipher what was happening.
"I'm a warrior, not a waitress," the tall woman grumbled, but her tone was good-natured. She turned and began to rearrange the chairs, which had all been stacked atop the tables overnight.
Confused, sipping her tea, Anra went to the front window and peered out. "There's a whole crowd of people out there!" she gasped, recoiling as much from the bright sunshine as from the crowd.
"The lunch rush," Momma said, sounding almost injured. "Plenty of people do like my cooking, you know."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean-" the bard began, but stopped when she saw the amused look pass from Xena to the innkeeper and back. The jibe had not been aimed at her.
As soon as the doors opened, the locals and festival-going visitors swarmed in as one, and the next few minutes passed in controlled chaos. Anra lent a hand with the serving, as did Xena, to the bard's great surprise. Momma's children came tumbling in soon enough, flushed with excitement from their early-morning inspection of the festival preparations, and pitched in, in their own clumsy way.
As things were beginning to quiet down, the room filling with cheerful eating noises, Anra made her way back to the bar, where Momma was supervising her cook.
"Xena," the innkeeper began, turning from her work to the woman who sat watching her. Anra shrank back, unwilling to interrupt yet another private moment.
Xena put her hand over Momma's. "Don't say it," she said softly. "Why ruin a perfectly good reunion?"
The smaller woman's green eyes were bright and wet. "But I want to tell you how sorry I am for leaving you."
"No." Xena shook her head quickly. "I told you to do it."
"Yes, but I shouldn't have listened. I never did before." Both women smiled through tears. Anra was mesmerized.
"We both did what we had to," Xena said forcefully, though still quietly. "G-"
Just then, the door was again flung open and a pair of tall, buxom women in tribal leathers strode in.
"The Queen of the Amazons!" one of them announced imperiously. Another group of Amazons filed in, surrounding the Queen, who entered in full ceremonial garb, complete with stylized mask. The entire inn hushed.
The Queen reached up to remove her mask, shaking blonde curls free. Blue eyes wide, she cast a searching look across Xena and then over the innkeeper, before whom the warrior had instinctively taken a protective stance.
"Your Majesty," said Momma with a quiet deference, inclining her head. Xena relaxed almost imperceptibly.
"Hello, Ephiny," the tall warrior greeted. The Queen nodded.
"Xena. My lady." She looked past Xena to the innkeeper. "Will you step into the square?"
"Of course." Untying her apron from around her waist, heedless of the customers, Momma moved from behind the bar. The Amazons wheeled and headed outside. Momma followed, flanked by Xena in a distinctively military manner. Anra hurried after them, as did most of the inn's patrons.
In the village square, where preparations for the festival were almost complete, a larger crowd of Amazons was waiting. Attracted by the majestic women, a not inconsiderable crowd of festivalgoers had also gathered.
The Queen of the Amazons strode swiftly to the middle of the square and stood, gathering all eyes to her. "Amazons!" she said loudly, her expression suffused with a joyous expectation like that of a child on Solstice morn. "The long-awaited day of glory has arrived. Our rightful Queen is prepared to claim the throne!" The gathered Amazons set up a boisterous cheer.
Astonished, the bard Anra watched as the innkeeper moved forward, approaching the Queen. When they stood not more than an arm's length apart, Momma stopped. The Queen lifted the mask from her own head and held it out. Slowly, with the deliberate motions of dramatic necessity, the other woman lifted her hands and took the mask. She raised it triumphantly above her head, and lowered it to cover her face. The Amazons' second cheer thundered the earth and deafened all hearers. The two women at the center of the square embraced warmly. In another moment, Xena walked toward them, and the Queen -- the former queen, Anra slowly realized -- embraced her as well. Then Xena took the new Queen in her arms and they melted together, the rest of the village -- indeed the world -- disappearing from their view.
"You know," Momma told Anra much later, as the bard helped pack up the children's things, "you're never going to go very far as a bard if you don't learn to ask more questions."
"I wouldn't know where to start," the young bard replied self-deprecatingly. "I'm still trying to figure it all out." She looked up, frowning at the soon-to-be-former innkeeper. "Wait a minute... you keep saying things like that. Don't tell me that in addition to being the Amazon Queen, you're also a bard?"
"Well-" Momma began, but was interrupted by Anra's gasp as the truth suddenly hit her.
"By the Gods! You're the Bard Gabrielle!"
"The one who used to travel with Xena! They still speak of you at the Athens Academy!"
"Really?" The older woman smiled and blushed slightly. "Well, my time there was certainly memorable."
"But after a while you disappeared and everyone began to say you were just a myth. A girl someone made up because they thought Xena made a better story with a sidekick." Anra stared in fascination at her new friend. "What happened? Why did you leave Xena?"
"I did what I had to," Gabrielle replied solemnly. "The Amazon Nation was in danger because of me."
"I'm sorry it took so long to bring you your justice," said Xena from the doorway. Both bards looked up and smiled. "If I had known it would take nearly fifteen years...."
"It doesn't matter," Gabrielle said, her smile dazzling as Xena came into the room and wrapped strong arms around her. Anra smiled, seeing how the longlost lovers couldn't keep their hands off each other. "We're together now. Forever," Gabrielle whispered.
"Forever," Xena repeated. "Only...."
"What?" Gabrielle pulled back slightly, looking up-up-up into her love's face. "What is it?"
"Well, did you and Iolaus really have to go and have all those kids?" Xena grumbled. Gabrielle pouted.
"Oh, Xena. You'll love them, just wait and see."
"That older girl, you named her after my brother," Xena complained. "Fat lot of good that did her. She's obviously not warrior material. She wants to be a bard. Now where on earth did she get *that*?"
"Don't worry Xena. You'll have your hands full training Perdicas. That boy is a real handful." Gabrielle winked at Anra, who was definitely beginning to feel like a third wheel.
"Oh, sure. And you just had to name him that, so every time I call him I'll have to picture you on your wedding night," Xena continued to gripe. "And the little one? She wouldn't even tell me her name! She ran away from me!"
"Oh, Meg will warm up to you soon enough," Gabrielle said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
"Gabrielle! You didn't!"
Gabrielle laughed. "Iolaus wanted to name her Salmonea, but I told him to forget it."
"Good for you." Suddenly, for no reason apparent to the young bard, the mood in the room turned serious. Quietly, Anra backed out of the room.
In the hallway, she found the three children waiting, with looks of expectation and apprehension on their little faces. "Hey, don't worry, guys," Anra told them comfortingly. "Your mom is doing great. She's very happy today, you know."
"Are we gonna leave here?" the boy, Perdicas, asked querulously.
"Well, yes. I think you're going to go live in the Amazon village. You'll like it there. Hey, you're going to be a princess!" She patted little Meg on the head. The child ducked her head shyly and stuck a thumb in her mouth. "Your mom is leaving the cook in charge of the inn.... what was his name again? Solon."
"Solon," Lycea confirmed. "Momma says I can come visit him. He's teaching me all about Centaur customs."
"I think I'll be staying on here too," Anra confided. "I'm betting Solon could teach me a couple of things as well."
"Great idea," said Gabrielle enthusiastically as she and Xena emerged from the bedroom, carrying the children's belongings. "I know the inn will be in good hands. And a bard almost always comes in handy." She and Xena smirked at each other.
"Momma, can I be an Amazon Princess too?" Perdicas demanded.
"Well.... it's like this...." Gabrielle gathered up her children and herded them toward the door. Anra started to follow, but was arrested by a heavy commanding hand that fell on her shoulder.
"Listen up, bard," Xena said, summoning her most threatening tone, which sent chills of fear up and down Anra's spine. "You can do whatever you like while you're here.... with one exception." She leaned close, her big blue eyes filling Anra's vision. "You bear any children to Solon while I'm still in my prime... and I'll kill you. Got it?"
Mutely, not understanding, Anra nodded. Xena gave a satisfied grunt and released her. Turning, the Warrior Princess strode out the door in pursuit of her lifemate.
Her head spinning, Anra looked down and found the old wolf-dog by her feet. "What was *that* about?" she asked aloud.
"Roo," said the elderly wolf resignedly, seeming to shrug. He wagged his tail feebly and licked her hand before following the women out the door.
The Bard Anra shook her head and smiled happily to herself as she walked into her inn.
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