~ X Partners ~
DISCLAIMER: Same as usual, Xena Warrior Princess is the property of MCA Universal and Ren Pics. I am just borrowing a little bit.
SUBTEXT: You'll just have to figure that out for yourself. <g
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: To my pal Kamouraskan who not only encouraged me with this but inspired me too. Oh yeah, and thanks for finding it amongst your debris, you definitely need a better system.
SPECIAL NOTES: Chantal, thanks. You really encouragement and make me smile. Oh, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! And do my darling Claire, please pay careful attention to the concise manner of this section. No meandering of thought, no inane chatter, no ludicrous statements. This my dear is how the sane write (remember I'm a professional and know these things), so take note will you? And Claire, I broke my binoculars falling out the tree outside your bedroom window, would you replace them or invite me in?
FEEDBACK: Yes please. BlindzonElyzon@aol.com
The start of my new job gave me way too much time on my hands (its a long story) but because of this, I was able to write this little story. I had just read Lariel's Bumboot story so the tavern scene was stuck in my head.
And the idea of being replaced seemed to be something I wanted to write about, so with that...here it is.
"How about another here!" The words were said more as a demand than a question to the tavern-tender serving behind the counter.
"That’s your fourth one, don’t you think you should go easy with this stuff?" The look on the old guys face was a mix of shocked surprise and most definitely disapproval, as he looked me straight in the eyes and shook his head slightly.
"Yeah, yeah, I’ve already got a mother, so give me another cider already."
Grumbling to himself, the tavern owner reached for my mug and filled it with a very practiced move. Before placing it back in front of me, he said, "I don’t want any trouble from you, so this is your last one."
I just shook my head in agreement and said nothing.
This tavern was just like all the others scattered around the countryside. Not much more than a hovel, it had its broken down accessories consisting of neatened tables and chairs, obviously that had gone through a few brawls in its time. The counter, behind which the tavern owner stood, was built like a fortress, serving a couple of functions. One, it couldn’t be picked up and thrown in a fight, and two, it provided a good hiding place for the squirrelly looking owner during the said brawl.
Little light permeated the dank atmosphere, most likely to keep its patrons from scaring one another with their grisly appearance and drunken stupor. Everybody looks better in the dark and with some ale in them. Over in the corner, snoring loudly with mouth open and some drool dribbling down his chin was the obligatory town drunkard. The above theory didn’t apply to him however; he looked like something you’d want to scrape off your boot, no matter what the lighting was.
I’d been sitting here for a while, nursing my cider and wondering how in Tartar us I’d sunk so low, when some fool came and plunked himself down next to me at the counter. It was obvious he had already had a few before even walking in the door, but his toothless smile and familiarity with the owner, got him what he wanted and with no comments.
Taking a huge swig of his ale and downing the mug, he erupted with a lip smacking belch and a grin of satisfaction. It wasn’t till he had ordered another that he finally noticed me sitting there next to him.
"Hey, don’t I know you?" the strain of thinking evident in his expression.
I’d heard that before and wasn’t much in the mood for friendly conversation, so I replied, "Nah, I just got one of those faces…"
Recognition and memory must have hit at the same time, because he nearly fell off his chair backing away as he spoke, "Yeah, you ride with her don’t you?" He turned to the tavern owner and said, "Do you know who this is?"
The old guy stopped whatever he had been doing and gave me the once over. He shrugged and said, "Haven’t a clue."
Mouth slightly agape, or maybe it was the lack of teeth that made it looks that way, the guy exclaimed, "That’s Xena’s sidekick!"
The tavern owner looked at me with suspect and replied to the astonished dolt like I couldn’t hear them talking, "You’re crazy", he squinted a little more and inspected me closer, "it can’t be."
"But it is I tell you, it is Xena’s sidekick" his head shaking so vigorously that he had to steady himself by holding onto the counter next to him.
"Fellahs, I’m sitting right here, I can hear you" I tried my best to keep the annoyance out of my voice but I was sick of people doing that, talking about me as if I weren’t there.
With that, they both just stood there, staring at me. Finally the owner asked, "So, are you Xena’s sidekick?"
Gods, I was tired of this question. I let out a long sigh and quietly replied, "I used to be."
"Told you!" the dolt was rather proud of himself and his questionable cognitive abilities. He celebrated his cerebral victory by gulping down another mug of ale.
The tavern owner ignored the gloating of his patron and inquired, "By the gods, how’d you end up here?"
I’d been down this path before and learned a long time ago that everybody likes a good story and will pay to hear one. I thumped my mug on the counter top, indicating a refill was needed to loosen my lips, and when the owner filled it without hesitation, I knew I had him for at least a couple more.
Taking a long slow swig of my cider, I began, "I’ve been replaced."
The oaf was still standing, but at decided to make himself more comfortable for the tale he was about to hear. He resumed sitting next to me, curiosity getting the best of his fear.
I continued slowly, drawing them in, "Have you ever been with somebody that you just knew that you were made for each other? That even though you have different backgrounds, different personalities, and even with all those differences…you know you just fit?"
I looked over at the owner; he was nodding his head slowly with a look of understanding. Glancing at the guy next to me, he just stared back at me stupidly and said, "Nope" and let loose another belch.
I turned my attention back to the tavern owner and continued. "That’s how it was for me and Xena, we fit."
"So what happened?" the owner asked.
It was then I knew I had them. This is where my light complexion played in my favor and feigning illness, wasn’t too hard to do. "I’d really like to share my adventures with you fellahs, but it’s been a while since I’ve eaten and I’m feeling too weak to begin such a long story." I slumped on my stool for effect.
It wasn’t but a quarter candle mark before I was all set up at a table with a large steaming plate of pork and potatoes and another mug of cider to wash it all down. Paying my compliments to the cook, I received a second helping without asking and downed that with in no time. A generous portion of cherries jubilee was then provided and by the time I had finished, other customers had drifted in and gotten word as to who I was.
I noted the tavern owner’s expression, one of knowing greed. He was more than aware his investment in feeding me would be reimbursed tenfold by the expectant gathering crowd. So I waited for his signal as to when to begin my story. It was the least I could do.
About a candle mark later, the tavern was busting at the seams. Word had spread fast in this little village and since its inhabitants lived mundane lives, they were wanting for vicarious adventure. It was then the tavern owner made his way through the crowd of customers, a smile evident on his face at the profits being made this night.
He stopped to stand by my side and loudly cleared his throat to gain the attention of all present. A hush fell over the onlookers, the eager anticipation was almost tangible.
The tavern owner allowed for a dramatic pause before speaking, "We are fortunate to have in our midst one who has traveled with and fought by the side of a legend. We have all heard the rumors and myths about the Destroyer of Nations" the crowd gasped collectively at the mere mention of the name, "now hear Xena’s long time partner tell you all about the mighty warrior princess."
With that, all eyes were turned upon me.
If ever there was a cue, that surely was it and I was quite impressed by the owner’s natural flair for drama. I bowed my head in his direction in deference to his skills and quietly began my well-rehearsed tale. Knowing that my hushed tone would only draw the eager crowd further into my words with their straining need to hear.
"It was a very long time ago that I first laid eyes on the most magnificent woman I was ever to meet in my life."
I said the words deliberately and with just a hint of anguish from the recollection. I stared wistfully beyond the crowd’s entranced gaze to further emphasize my forlorn memory. Pausing briefly, as if to collect myself, I took in a long, slow breath and continued.
"My own home village was not much larger than yours and despite our peaceful ways, we were always under threat of warlords and even worse…" I stopped as if the words were too difficult to speak, "slave traders."
Murmuring filled the room as each villager identified with these possible threats and understanding of my fear. I waited for the crowd to fully take in the meaning of my words and allowed each person to experience their own fearful emotion. As expected, the crowd came closer together to one another, as if in seeking comfort from the others around them.
I allowed the whispers to subside before going on, " Our village had nothing to offer of value, except the people themselves." I looked into the eyes of those before me, making myself one of them, "just like you good, hard working folks."
The people in the room were appreciative of my complimentary words, putting them in a place of honor. I received grateful nods and smiles in gratitude and I repaid them in kind. This was going well.
"Our village had been attacked in the early morning, as the sun came up. I’ll not forget how the earth trembled from the approaching pounding hooves as the traders rode into our village. It took little effort or time for these…barbarians to drag the sleeping occupants of our homes into the streets."
I hesitated to go on, mostly for effect and partly so I could indicate to the tavern owner my need for more cider. He impatiently motioned to one of his tavern maids to bring over another mug so that I would continue. Hurriedly, she passed through the crowd and so as not to have to suffer through any more delays, she had brought with her a mug in each hand. I smiled gratefully at her and observed the embarrassed flush on her rosy cheeks as I did it.
I sipped at my cider and continued, "Those animals had divided us, men from women, and did so with savage threats of harm befalling the weaker among us, our children."
An audible gasp escaped the lips of all-present. Mothers reached for their children, clutching them close, as if to protect them from the repeated threats of my account. Even the children seemed to grasp what fate may befall their counterparts and held onto their mothers within the encircling arms.
"It was then that she appeared as if from nowhere. When I laid eyes on her, I knew immediately that this woman would be the one…" my voice cracked with the tightness of my throat. My mere memory of seeing her for the first time, never failed to elicit my emotion of awe and…more. I have yet to this day, despite all the times I have shared this moment, been able to control my physical response to that emotional and most knowing second in my life.
"These slave traders had found more than they expected on that day. Xena’s skills as a warrior, even then, were legendary, so the traders were cautious in their attack. I must tell you all that the smile that crossed her lips just before she began fighting them off caused me to be afraid and I was only a spectator innocent. It was almost maniacal with intent, so I cannot imagine the depths of terror that had to shake these men to their very being. Then Xena sounded her attack with a battle cry that no man still living could ever forget. The traders were no match and fell as she made the impossible, possible." "I watched as this mighty warrior engaged our captors with a strength and grace befitting a goddess. The intensity of her azure eyes gleamed with excitement as she dealt with each of her foes with ease and agility. I found myself captivated by her almost artistic movement, the knowing confidence in her demeanor, and her sheer beauty. I felt as though I had been blind all my life and just the mere act of looking at this exotic, dark woman allowed me to see for the very first time, she most definitely was something to behold."
The fear that had shone in the eyes before me only mere minutes ago was now replaced by sentimentality and hope. Sentimental for my pleasure I once lived, and hope that such a hero existed and maybe still does. Approving excited sounds came from the midst as this group of villagers felt championed as well.
I continued, displaying almost what could be considered haughty pride, but I knew the simple folks present would interpret it as sweet victory. "What thugs weren’t killed almost instantaneously by Xena, ran for their lives like the cowards they truly were."
Tasting that victory as well, the villagers let loose with cheers and laughter. I could hear the thumps of approval as some slapped the backs of their comrades in a congratulatory manner. Mothers freed their children, kissing them lovingly, and smiling reassured. Mugs of ale were consumed quickly as the occupants of the tavern toasted their counterparts with their good fortune.
Not missing a beat or such an opportunity, the tavern owner signaled to the serving girls to fill the emptied mugs. He then turned his attention to me, "If you continue to please my customers, and me, I may see fit to share some of the profits being made here tonight." I found his exaggerated wink to be most amusing, but kept a humbled expression affix to my face and only nodded my understanding.
I allowed the celebration to continue until the serving maids had made their rounds twice. By then the ale would begin to take its needed effects on its consumers and prepare them for what I next planned to disclose. I was also no fool, having caught the glimpses in my direction by the girl who had brought me my cider. The possibilities of the evening were shaping up nicely.
The members of the room began to settle down and one by one, rapt attention was fixed on me once again.
"Yes, that was a day I will never forget, and despite its frightening beginnings, I am actually grateful it occurred for it was the start of the many adventures that awaited me. But first, I had to convince Xena to take me with her, not an easy task as you may have guessed. Xena was known for her many skills but none of them in conversation. Most people would turn to mute stone, but my being in her awe inspiring presence and by nature a bit of a chatter box, well, lets just say the floodgates of my words were opened."
Wonderment at either my bravery for wanting to talk with the infamous Xena or my foolishness for making such an attempt, elicited uneasy shifting in chairs and low murmurs of disapproval.
I held up my hands in a reassuring gesture and continued. "I know, I know, you are probably thinking why would I do such a fool thing and even more, how’d I live through such an encounter. As much to my surprise, and general relief, she didn’t kill me where I stood, instead, she seemed amused by me. Looking back, I wonder why she didn’t find me more annoying than anything else, but the only thing I can conclude is, probably not many had it in them to speak to her directly, much less go on as I did, and my young innocence was a novelty."
Most seemed to accept this explanation as reasonable but continued to shake their heads in disbelief at my naiveté. Almost everyone that is, I caught the young serving maid gazing admiringly at me for my perceived bravery. This time, she allowed her eyes to linger and hold contact with mine and I was able to detect that there was something more in them than just admiration. Holding her gaze, I smiled warmly and as if what she had been thinking had been spoken, she again blushed and moved behind the crowd and out of sight.
Maybe hospitality from this village would make itself known in many ways. It had been a while, longer than I would care to admit even to myself, but maybe the Fates have decided to be generous tonight.
Remembering my more present purpose, I refocused my attention upon the anticipating and more visible group watching me.
"Xena, despite what she had done for my village, was not exactly a wanted influence or welcomed guest. The crushing defeat of the slave traders was quickly forgotten and replaced with fearful notions, and the men of our village decided she would have to leave. I was young and looked at Xena through adoring eyes, She represented everything I wanted to be, brave, strong, confident, someone that commanded respect. The reaction by the other villagers, the ingratitude and their fear, infuriated me. How could the people I lived with and knew so well, be so closed minded and ungrateful. They became cowards in my youthful eyes."
With just a hint of annoyance in my voice, I further fanned the flame that I knew I had ignited in those before me.
"I ask you, how can a group of people be so Dull-witted as those I grew up with? I do not mean to offend your sensibilities with my disappointment in their limited thinking and deplorable behavior, my simple remembrance of the vents still to this day irk me. Could they not see Xena was the best thing to happen to our village? Could they not understand she was everything they weren’t??"
I could see I was almost there by the expressions cast on their faces. What had been admiration was replaced with confusion, and now insult. To make my final point.
"I think Xena was merely misunderstood. But not by me, I knew how much better my life would be with her and that I had to get out of that little pathetic village if I wanted to do something with my life. She was my way out."
The nodding of approval had begun when I spoke of the villagers wanting Xena to leave. Those in the room had agreed this to be the wisest course of action, just as I expected they would and when I expressed my condemnation and referred to their counterparts as cowards, anger irritated further by ale, permitted the annoyed villagers loosened tongues to speak their objections. One by one they called out at me angrily.
"You are a fool!"
"Of course they did the right thing, you can’t trust a woman like that!"
"She was Ares chosen, and only bloodshed could satisfy her!"
As each cried out, the others around him would shout in agreement. The meek inhabitants of this small village had stirred their anger into fury. Feeding off the energy and mood of the room, the villagers began to jump to their feet, pound the furniture before them, push whatever was nearest to them aside and most often it was another infuriated villager. The gathering was in the initial stages of being an unruly mob.
The once pleased tavern owner, was now red faced and angered but for a wholly different reason. His greedy delight in the profits being made had him contentedly listening to me and watching his ale be consumed. But now, he knew all was in jeopardy of being lost if the crowd turned ugly, they surely would destroy his establishment.
I was able to surmise all this from the look he directed at me. Confusion, betrayal, and loathing all flashed across his face and clearly was meant for me to see, for he looked me straight in the eyes and mouthed the word, "Why?"
Then he turned his attention to where it was needed most. He began calling out to his patrons and friends, "Let us be reasonable…calm down…remember there are children present!"
The tavern owner’s words seemed to have little effect, not breaking through the ears already turned deaf to reason. The indignant group had incited their emotions into what was believed to be justified behavior. It was now that I knew I would have made my point, so I intervened.
Reaching for the smallest child near me, I scooped her up and held her reassuringly in my arms. The child, no more than four seasons old, was obviously frightened by the enraged noises and behaviors of the adults around her. I held her close and quietly whispered soothing tones in her ear.
It was the mother who first became aware that I was holding her child. Gasping, she instantly forgot what it was she was ready to fight for, instead her focus became clear.
"Don’t hurt my child!"
The mother’s shrill panicked scream cut through the crowd like a dagger. Rapt attention was first drawn to the woman whose hands were clasped in front of her in a pleading gesture. Then following her intense stare, the gathering became aware of her concern. All movement had stopped and silence fell over the room as if the villagers were holding their collective breaths.
I stood there holding this small child lovingly in my arms, but that was not how it was perceived. I could tell by her breathing that she had fallen asleep, her face resting into the nape of my neck; almost tickling me with her soft exhales. Her body once tense with fear and confusion now lay loose and relaxed against me, arms and legs hanging limp.
The once fuming gathering was now astonished to see the child in my arms. Unable to see her face, they were unsure how to interpret what was so evident in front of them. They could not distinguish if the child was in danger of harm for they no longer knew my intent. Thoughts hazed over by ale and anger, were slow to comprehend, so I helped them along.
Again speaking softly, I began, "You are good people who would do anything to protect your families from harm. Sometimes, your wanting to keep your way of life safe, minds can become closed to what is different or not completely understood. Fear of these things can often lead to righteous indignation."
I looked about the room, catching the eyes of each person there; knowing what I said to them was being heard.
"As I told you my story, I had your respect and admiration all because you perceived me to be like you. You determined by my words, that I must have the same values because I have a similar life as you. I was not viewed as a threat and therefore accepted because I was one of you."
Bewilderment was still mingled in each of their faces. Emotions that had run so furious were being subdued by the softness of my tone, the vision, of this small child nestled in my arms, and understanding and reason returning to once hate filled minds.
I spoke only now to the mother but loud enough for all to hear, "Why is it you thought I was trying to harm your daughter?"
The woman could not speak and stood their hands still clasped but lowered and her head slowly shaking. She had no answer for me. Her eyes making their silent plea to not harm her child.
I continued speaking to her alone, "You would do whatever it takes to keep your family safe, wouldn’t you?"
The woman then showed her strength, standing taller and with no fear, replied, "Yes."
I smile at her response. "As would I" and I stepped closer to the wondering mother. Kissing the child’s head lightly, I handed her back to the relieved woman.
"As did Xena" I said this for all to hear and looked about the room at each one.
"Xena was a child once, not much different than this sweet girl who witnessed your rage only moments ago. This child was afraid, but no one here took notice for you all were too caught up in defending your beliefs and protecting your ways. That too has a place but not at the expense of others."
"Xena had a mother and two brothers she loved dearly. Her own village was under attack by warlords and instead of succumbing to their enslavement, she fought back so that all might have a better life. She wanted to protect not only her family but also her friends and people that lived in her village. In doing so, she lost the person who she loved most dearly in her life, her brother."
"I know you all know the pain of loss, but what of abandonment?"
I glanced around the room, pain showing in my eyes.
"This small child, only for the briefest of seconds felt the abandonment of her family and those she knew" I gestured to the still sleeping girl, "she sought reassurance and could not find it from the people she knew best, but was willing to take it from a complete stranger. One who comforted her, said the right things to her, made promises that allowed her to feel better. Why wouldn’t you trust that person if the ones you knew turned their backs?"
The heaviness of the truth of my words pressed down on the conscience of those gathered. Slowly, one by one, heads bowed and people returned to their chairs.
"In no way do I excuse Xena’s actions and what she became as Destroyer of Nations, nor does she, but I can say I do understand how a person so innocent could end up in such a state. Look at yourselves…" I gestured for each to view their neighbor. Hesitantly they did so.
"Only moments ago, you were willing to fight me, wanted to bestow harm on me, and for what? Because I disagreed with the similar beliefs of my home village that you hold. Is that enough reason to fight someone, for the mere questioning of something different in values? I don’t think so, but that is my personal belief isn’t it? Maybe being different is only threatening because we make it to be."
I took in a long deep breath and looked about me to those pensive and now, maybe even, comprehending individuals. I walked back to my chair and sat down, not saying another word.
Gradually, the villagers began to gather their things and leave the darkened tavern. Families left in clusters, holding on to one another. Friends would make brief eye contact, nod, and depart. Each person was caught in their own thoughts, mulling over the events of the night and the meaning behind the story.
Eventually all were gone, except the still sleeping town drunkard who had not moved since my arrival, the tavern owner, and the young server who lingered by the doorway glancing in my direction.
I waited unmoving for the tavern owner to speak, which he did.
"I’m not sure if I should hate you or be indebted to you for what you did here tonight."
He sat there, rubbing his graying head, relief evident in his posture. I continued to sit quietly watching him.
"You have given all of us," he paused thinking, "me, a lot to think about and how our lives could be different. Maybe they will be."
And with that, he pushed back his chair, walked over to his tavern counter and reached behind the fort-like structure. He turned back in my direction but hesitated momentarily, and again reached in back of the counter. Walking over to me, he placed in front of me a handful of dinars and simply said, "Thank you."
I nodded in response Looking in his eyes, I saw that my words had found their mark and at least with this one person, had made a difference.
I collected the coins, reached out my arm and grasped his in gratitude. Without another word spoken, I left his small establishment.
Waiting for me only a few paces from the doorway, was the tavern maid who nervously rung her hands as I approached her. Before I had the chance to speak, she spluttered out, "Please, may I go with you? There is so much I can learn from you and I could be of great help to you…"
I held up my hand, placing them to her lips to stop the familiar babbling plead.
Smiling at her, understanding her determination, knowing what she sought, I said, "My life is not an easy one, it is not all adventure as you may think. You would be better off staying here with your family where it is safer for one as young as you."
I could see the disappointment growing in her expression, the rejection she was beginning to feel. I continued.
"I will be leaving at first light from the north side of the village. If you just happened to be there and follow me, how can I stop you, right?"
The girl’s hope returned immediately and was filled with excitement. Leaning in close, she kissed me on the cheek, and then ran in the direction of what have been her home. Stopping suddenly, she turned back to me with hands on hips, and asked, "I don’t even know your name, what is it?"
I had to laugh, letting out a deep roar. Here was a girl wanting to follow me to the ends of the Earth and just now, she wanted to know my name. She waited patiently for me to stop and a little embarrassed.
Catching my breath, I told her, "it’s Peter."
Seeming satisfied she began to leave again, when another question caught up with her. "How come you’re not with Xena anymore?"
Looking directly into her eyes I said, "Guess I wasn’t her type."
I turned to the north end of town to get some sleep that night, well at least try again. Thinking to myself for the innumerable time and muttering, "if only I were a blond…and, oh yeah, a woman, things could have been different." Shrugging and sighing at the same time I returned to my empty camp. I then smiled wryly, "Tonight its empty, tomorrow is another day."