Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
Well, you wouldve thought that by now I would have learned to stop trying to outsmart myself, and everyone else, for that matter, right? After all, the last time, trying to rid Ares of the Furies, it nearly cost me my life but for Gabrielle bringing me back. And the time before that, well, I dont know if Ill ever get over those 25 years just being gone. Taking with them our friends. Our family.
We miss them all, and I dont think weve yet begun to fully feel just how much.
But my latest little trick, putting on the Rheingold ring in a last-ditch attempt to ward off Grinhilda and Odin, well, I knew that I was taking a terrible risk. Wasnt the Grindel monster Id created proof enough of that?
Had I really been willing to risk losing what I valued most? Had I even stopped to think what she might have had to say about that?
In the desperate heat of the moment, with Gabrielle spirited off to who knew where, I did take that chance, didnt I?
And look what happened.
Another year, gone; one very long breath of air, released.
And the whole of my life leading to that moment, the light that was my life with Gabrielle, became nothing but a murky, shadowed dream.
But we found each other once again, and I suppose I have the loyal Beowulf to thank for that, and Brunhilda, too. Now, it is this last year that was as if a dream to me, and memories of the life and the love that we shared have come flooding back, to stand at last in sharp relief against my minds eye.
But the time that cannot be restored.
Time lost to each other.
Time that has put distance once again between my daughter and me.
Weve been traveling for some days now since leaving Valhalla, riding through the dark, wintered forests of the Northland. I half-heartedly tried to convince Gabrielle to consider taking a ship, part way, at least. But she refused, and I dont blame her, really. Our last trip to Africa, so long ago, now, was hard on her. And though she did not voice it, I believe she prefers to keep the soundness of solid earth and of certainty, beneath her feet for the time being. Maybe when we get farther south, closer to home, shell be ready to change her mind.
Weve moved quickly, keeping to main roads and paths where we could find them, tarrying little in the villages and hamlets weve passed through along the way. Shes sensed my eagerness to move on, to swiftly put this ghostly dream behind us both.
It is a sign of the warrior shes become that she was able to track me this far, trailing me for weeks until she at last arrived in the cold lands where the name of Xena to this day casts a chill into the hearts of the bravest of men. It was not my wish that she follow me here, to these dark, mystical lands where the stark evidence of the woman I once was is still so painfully plain to see.
I left her a note, that was all, begging her not to follow me, telling her that I did not have the right to have her risk her life again on my account. I told myself it was easier that way, although I am ashamed to admit now that it was fear that drove me to leave her in the middle of the night, without a word.
A fear of hearing her protests, knowing I would then refuse her nothing.
A fear of losing her again, because of something that was ultimately my responsibility.
And, worse by far, the fear of her learning still another terrible truth about my past, and seeing the heroic image of myself once again diminished in her eyes.
But Gabrielle did follow me, and I suppose that there really had been no doubt that she would.
Id have done the same.
We have made camp for the evening in a small glade by a frozen creek. She sits by the fire, the light casting a golden glow to her skin. A fur is drawn tightly around her shoulders, shielding her from the cold. A scroll case and quill are nearby, but I know she hasnt done much writing lately. I havent mentioned to her that Ive noticed this. When shes ready to write again, she will.
"Do you think Odin will let Grinhilda restore honor and pride to the Valkyries?" She doesnt look at me. Instead, she keeps her eyes focused on the dancing flames, deep in thought.
"I dont see why not," I say, returning my attention to the blade and whetstone in my hands. "He wins in the end, if he does."
"Yeah, but its been a long time," she sighs.
And then, another question.
"Do you think hell ever be able to let love back into his heart?"
I think about that for a moment.
I ruined him for love, he as much as told me that. But maybe, with the temptation of the ring removed, and with the patience of a reborn Grinhilda, it could happen. "Its hard to tell with these gods," I say, trying to make light of it. "I suppose he thinks he can live without love."
I feel her eyes resting upon me and readily, willingly, I lift my gaze to her.
And I wonder.
Does she know how effortlessly I can tell her every thought, her every wish, her every dream, simply by losing myself in them, fully, completely? "But other people have thought they could live without love before," I tell her what I know she needs to hear, "and been wrong."
I smile, if only to reassure her of that one incontrovertible fact.
The corner of her mouth curves up in a faint grin, and I am pleased to see her relax somewhat, leaning back now against the saddle that is propped up behind her. A dry piece of wood pops in the fire, sending a shower of sparks into the night sky. I pull my own cloak more tightly around my shoulders, wishing not for the first time that we were already back home to whatever home is left to us. But that does not concern me overly much. As long as Gabrielle is with me, things will work out.
"Yes?" I take comfort in the sure sound of the stone scraping over my sword. It calms me, steadies me at the end of the day, as nothing else ever could.
"Do you like my hair long this way?"
A pause. "But didnt you like it, when it was shorter?"
"Of course I did. Either way, youre just as beautiful to me, Gabrielle," and I say this easily, matter-of-factly, because it is the truth.
Something I havent always had the easiest time with.
I can tell without looking, by the silence across the fire, by the whisper of an ache in my gut, that something is wrong. I put the blade and whetstone down, and give Gabrielle my full attention. She is sitting there, the tension plain in her small form, her fingers lightly running through the flaxen threads of her hair.
"Gabrielle, what is it?" I crunch my way over the hard, cold ground, closing the distance between us.
"Its just its silly," she says, blinking away the moistness in her eyes.
I settle myself next to her. "Tell me."
She takes in a deep breath. "If you like it longer, Ill keep it that way."
"But," she hurriedly continues, as though she might lose her nerve, "it reminds me reminds me of all that time when we were apart. When I couldnt get to you and, and" Her face falls, stricken.
"Ssh," I say, thumbing away a tear. And then I pull her into my arms, allowing us both to feel the closeness, the intimacy that is our lifes blood. "Ill take care of it. Itll be like it never happened," I tell her, although we both know that isnt entirely true.
"You mean youll cut it for me?" She lifts her head from my chest and regards me curiously, and with some hesitancy, too.
"Hey, I did it once," I remind her, a smile playing on my lips. I reach for my chakram, intent upon chasing this one nightmare away from her before the fire burns low. "Or have you forgotten I have many skills!"
In the cold, in the winter, its easy to say everything looks the same within the dead, barren landscape. There is the gray flatness of the sky, the bare, tired limbs of aged oaks and pines, and the meadows reduced to dried husks, blotted with occasional patches of snow. It all appears the same and yet it is different. My soldiers mind cannot help but call up the living memory of every turn in the path, of every slope of a hill or line of a ridge, testing myself. I have been this way before, I am sure of it, and yet it all seems so long ago, and indeed it was. A lifetime ago now, in more ways than one.
Its not that we go looking for trouble, we dont. Rather, as Gabrielle as observed many times, trouble seems to find us.
Sadly, we know the signs well, and weve seen and heard such things more times than we care to recall: the smoke rising in the distance, the far-away screams, the agonized cries that are suddenly silenced.
We catch each others eye, and then we are off, driving our horses up and over the next rise, and down into a small village splayed out in haphazard fashion before us in a fashion common to many of the Northland settlements. Farmstead homes, about ten or eleven of them, face each other along a central road, with a longhouse in the middle. The homes have roofs thatched with birch-bark and sod, and walls that bow outwards like an upside down ship. Several of them are in flames, with thick black smoke pouring from their low openings.
Behind the farmsteads rests a patchwork quilt of plowed under fields; in summers past, no doubt they would have borne wheat and barley, cabbage and flax. As we sweep down into the village, I can see more women than men, more aged people than young children, all running about, the stark look of a terror that I am so familiar with, plain on their faces. These people cant have had much, and yet what little they had was being laid siege to by a rabble band of miscreants.
With no words necessary, Gabrielle and I leap from our mounts and lapse into our familiar roles: protecting the innocents while driving off the aggressors. I am always aware of where she is in battle, and she of me; it is one of the hallmarks of our successful partnership. There she is now, behind me, driving the hilt of her sais into the head of a youthful brigand who thought to press an imagined advantage upon me.
We make quick headway; these bandits are only slightly better equipped than the poor villagers they decided to prey upon. I see an elderly man huddled against the base of a tree, clutching a small basket to himself; no doubt containing all his possessions in this earthly world, rescued from the flames. A fleeing raider peels off from his fellows and strikes out for him, figuring to have his little detour to this village at least count for something. But I get between the old man and the raider, taking him down with the flat of my blade, even as I feel a crushing blow to the back of my head.
"Xena!" I hear Gabrielle cry out, and I cluck at the worry in her voice.
This hit is like thousands of others I have taken and it will do me no real harm, but even so I unwillingly drop down to one knee, planting my sword into the ground to steady myself. I blink away the stars crowding my vision as I sense Gabrielle move in front of me, shielding me from the last of the departing raiders. She didnt have to do that, really. I would have been fine on my own.
And just where in Hades did that attack come from, anyway? I had everything covered. I know I did!
"Xena are you okay?" Gabrielle backs up to my side, one eye on me and the other on the retreating figures of the bandits. "Youre bleeding."
"Thats right, Xena!" I hear a thin, querulous voice behind me, rising in anger. "Xena, the Dark Valkyrie! Spill her blood!"
"What?" Gabrielle moves to help me to my feet but I wave her off. "What are you talking about?" she demands, confronting the old man Id been trying to protect.
"Gabrielle," I say softly, but she doesnt listen to me. Perhaps she doesnt want to hear the truth that I might tell her.
"She destroyed us once!" the old man cries, shaking a fist at me. Hes rapidly drawing the attention of the rest of the villagers. They are bruised and bloodied, in a state of shock, probably, but some of them hear his words, and I can see the fear in their eyes, a hint of recognition on their faces. "We cant give her the chance again!"
He bends down next to his discarded basket, and I see him take a rock up into his gnarled hand. It is then I notice the presence of a fairly good-sized stone on the ground next to me, and I realize that the old buzzard must still have some life left in that withered arm of his.
"What are you talking about?" Gabrielle strides up next to the man, and effortlessly relieves him of his would-be weapon. "Xena just saved your people your village. She risked her life!"
I inwardly smile at Gabrielles defense of my honor. A defense misplaced, however, for as I Iook about me now I begin to recognize the signs of the familiar.
The placement of this village, nestled in a gentle hollow.
The stand of trees just outside the farmsteads, near the iced-over stream that meanders its way to the south; the water bending where it meets trees like a crooked finger, accusing.
"Shes a demon, I say! A demon!" The spittle flies from his mouth and his eyes bulge open wide, and for a moment I am afraid that the old man might drive himself insensate. Ive seen it happen before, and many never recover.
"Easy, there, Gorm! That Xena is dead by now. She must be!" A heavyset man approaches, his shoulders thick and broad, bespeaking of years of hard labor, despite the limp that slows his walk. A limp which, as I recall, he owed to not getting himself out of the way in time to avoid a horses trampling hooves.
He always was so bull-headed. But my will was stronger, and in the end that probably saved him.
"No! Its her! Cant you see it?" The old man protests, shaking. I swear I would be dead where I stand if his venomous look could kill.
"Its been years, Gorm," Harald soothes the old man. "These young people thought enough to help us today." Harald eyes me carefully, the sky-blueness of his gaze cutting me to the quick. I do not deserve this intervention. "Lets leave it at that, shall we?" He nods towards where a middle-aged woman is helping a younger man with a gash in his leg. "Im sure Winifred could use your assistance."
With a last, cursed glare in my direction, Gorm totters off, sputtering to himself.
Harald folds his arms across his chest and releases a sharp burst of air that unsettles his beard. Once it was full and brown, like his hair; now, it is streaked with highlights of silver. "Xena," he says at last, looking me squarely in the eye for we match each other in height, "I never thought Id be glad to see you again in these parts." He hesitates, his gaze probing. Searching. "Im still not sure if I am or not."
In a chilling rush, I feel the memory of it all come spilling back; the intoxicating taste of battle for battles sake, the blood, and the death. I feel sick.
"Xena, whats going on?"
I feel Gabrielles hand on my arm, and that touch centers me, makes me whole. There is nothing more I fear to tell her. Nothing else I can say that will drive her away. I know this now.
"Ive been here before, Gabrielle," I explain, seeing the green of her eyes widen in surprise. "A long time ago."
"Welcome to Gammelgaard, young lady," Haralds deep voice rumbles next to me. "Whats left of it."
We sit around a low table in Haralds farmstead, eating coarse barley bread and a heavy, thick bowl of soup. An acrid peat fire burns in the hearth, chasing away the chill with some concession to the comfort of our noses.
After helping the rest of the villagers restore some semblance of order to their battered homes, after tending to their wounds, Harald invited Gabrielle and me to share the night-meal with him and his good wife, Winifred.
At first I wasnt willing, but Gabrielle pressed, claiming she still had to see to the bump on my head which by then had seemed to take on monstrous proportions in her eyes. And I was worried, too, at what sort of a reception I might receive from Harald and Winifred, but his offer seemed to hold no malice, and I also knew that Gabrielle would not rest until she had the answers she sought to the score of unspoken questions I could see her struggling with.
"Xena," Gabrielle begins, now that the last of the night-meal is done, "how do you know this place? What happened the last time you were in Gammelgaard?"
I see the expression on her face. So open. So caring. She knows this is hard for me, knows that perhaps there will be something more to forgive. She, who has already forgiven me of so so much.
I turn to Harald. In the weathered features of the farmer he has become, I can see a hint of the brave, foolish warrior he once was. He will wait for my lead.
"Tell her," I brusquely nod.
And so he does.
He tells her of the time long ago when Xena, the Dark Valkyrie, came passing through the prosperous town of Gammelgaard. She was Odins most favored, they all knew that, surpassing even Grinhilda in the Valhalla pantheon. How glorious she was, in her shining armor, on her enchanted horse! What words of passion and inspiration she spoke, inciting all the men of the village to take up arms and follow her, fighting for fightings sake, for the greater honor and glory of Odin!
"All of the men able to lift an axe or carry a bow followed her," Harald explains, his gaze shifting from Gabrielle to me. "The best of what Gammelgaard had to offer. Our future. Our hope. They were only too willing to die in Odins name, knowing their place in the afterlife, in Valhalla, was assured."
"What happened?" Gabrielle fears the answer, I can tell. But she needs to hear it.
"Not a one of them ever returned," I say quietly.
A light wind teases the thatched roof. Inside, there is nothing but the sodden burning of the peat, and the faint scuffling of Winifreds feet upon the stamped earthen floor as she quietly clears the table.
"I cant say as I blame them." Harald says at last, breaking the silence. He reaches for a cup of mead. "After all, I fell under your spell too, Xena. If it hadnt been for this damn leg," he groans at an ache that is still all too real to him, these 36 years later, "Id have gone, too. So I thank you for refusing me, then."
"What about Gorm?" Gabrielles voice is a hoarse whisper.
"He was the village healer," I answer her, and then I add the rest of it. "I told him Id have no use for a healer, where we were going."
"Gorm never quite recovered from the shock of it all," Harald says, his sad blue eyes catching the light of the fire. "Many of us didnt. But we had to try and find a way to survive. I learned some of his healing arts, and became headman of Gammelgaard, such as it is," he dismissively waves his hand in the air. "It hasnt been easy. As youve seen, weve been easy prey for any bandit or warlord who happens this way, and the coughing sickness has taken its toll too, during some hard winters."
"I am so so sorry," my Gabrielle tells him, although this is not her shame to bear. "But Xenas changed since then. You saw that earlier."
Harald sighs, and the corners of his eyes crinkle just a bit. Enough for me to know that he will do me no harm, despite however much I might deserve it. "We heard some stories. Some, too fantastic to be believed. But," he leans forward, "the Xena I remember would have had us all dead by now, if that was what she intended." He shrugged. "And she never would have helped us today."
"If I could change it all, what I did to you and your people," I say tightly, "I would."
"But you cant Xena," Harald says, his voice tired. Knowing. "You cant."
There has been no invitation to stay the night, and we are spared dealing with that awkward moment by a pounding on Haralds door. Our welcome here is just about at an end.
It is a young Finn, sent to collect Harald by the village midwife. It seems that Gudrid, his spouse, is having a hard time of it with her firstborn. Shes been suffering the pains since early morning, long before the bandits attack. And while that raid certainly cant have helped matters any, the fact that Gudrid has endured this long with still no appearance of the baby is not a good sign.
"I can help," I hear myself saying, sensing immediately by the hardness that now shapes Finns features, that Gorms ramblings have found their way to him.
"Well be fine with our own healer," Finn says, thrusting out his hairless chin and puffing up his chest. But I see the nervousness in his eyes as he casts a sideways glance to Harald.
Haralds eyes meet mine. So piercing. So blue. I wonder what he must think of me. Of the person Ive become. Hes trying to understand, I can see that. But in the end, he is Gammelgaards headman and healer. And it is to the people of his village where his responsibility must lie. Almost imperceptibly, he nods his head. "Well be on our way then. Good-bye." He looks from me to Gabrielle. "Thank you for your company."
"Thank you," Gabrielle answers for us. My bard. My peacemaker. My salvation.
We dont range too far from Gammelgaard, I dont see the point in it at this hour. And so we build a small fire on the far side of the frozen stream, tucking our bedrolls close to the heat of the flames. The air is clear this night, and the dark, velvety sky above twinkles with thousands of stars. Their brightness gazes down upon us. Watching. Waiting. Infinitely patient. Time is on their side. They have been here before us, and they will be here still, long after we are gone from this earth.
Gabrielle hasnt said much. What can she say, really? Its all out there now, a tired old story dragged into the light, moldering, a shadow of what once was.
Harald is right I cant change the past. Thanks to Gabrielle, Ive carved out a path for myself where I believe its possible to go on. To do good. But how can I ever fully repent? How can I ever give back when so much was taken?
Gods help me, I didnt even remember it at first. It was like so many other villages that were but fleeting conquests on my chosen way to greater glory.
To ultimate power.
I didnt recognize Gorm; barely knew it was Harald until I heard his voice. As I stare down the storied violence of my past, the senseless, pointless battle that took away Gammelgaards finest takes place in barely the blink of an eye. It was one of so many, you see.
Weve just started to settle down when I hear the pounding of hooves approach, traveling on the path from Gammelgaard. Preferring to take no chances, not where Gabrielle is concerned, I reach for my sword and throw my cloak from my shoulders.
A sweaty horse pulls up just outside the circle of firelight, the steam rising from the animals body into the cold night air. And it is Finn in the saddle, with a pine bow and quiver of arrows on his back. His face is flushed, and there is a wild, frantic look to his eyes. He knows that in seconds he could be dead, if I were of a mind to challenge him. Despite that worry, there is another fear, a greater one, which in the end gives him courage.
"Help us please," he gasps. "Gudrid the baby!"
I look to Gabrielle. She is already gathering our things, handing me my cloak. I turn to Finn, sheathing my sword. There will be no battle this night, not one for soldiers, anyway.
"Ill do my best."
I enter the tiny farmstead of Finn and Gudrid. It is filled to overflowing with those who have designs on helping, including the village midwife, two of Gudrids sisters, Gorm, and Harald. There are several children too, hovering about the skirts of their mothers, along with two hunting dogs. The place is entirely too crowded, and I shoo them away, leaving only Finn, Harald, and the midwife. I know Gabrielle will do what she can to soothe the jangled nerves of the rest.
"I made Finn see reason," Harald gruffly mutters to me, stepping aside. And it is soon apparent to me why he did. Gudrid is on her pallet, her clothes and bedding soaked through with perspiration. Her face is drawn and pale, too pale, and I can see shes been bleeding heavily. It is all she can do to look at me through bloodshot, pain-dulled eyes. She groans, and lets her head fall back onto her pillow.
I quickly begin to examine her, feeling for the baby, gauging its position.
"That babys a stubborn one," the florid-faced midwife says. "And poor Gudrid she wont push no more. Shes got nothin left, ya see. Its like shes given up!"
"Aaaah!" As if on cue, Gudrid cries out, her hands twisting against the bed coverings. With that contraction I feel the baby move, faintly.
The skin of her belly is rigid, drawn tight as a drum, and I can feel that if the small Gudrid were even twice her current size, this child could not pass in the normal way. "How long has the baby been in this position?" I demand, knowing I will have to act quickly.
"A candlemark," the midwife says, poking her tongue through a space in her teeth, thinking. "Maybe two."
"Put some more water on to boil," I tell Harald, and then I move to speak to Gudrid. I clasp her hand in my own, ignoring the clamminess of her skin. "Gudrid," I say, knowing that Finn has drawn up next to me, and is listening. "This baby cant be born the usual way. He or shes stuck, you see."
"Oh gods no!" Gudrid sobs. Her breathing becomes shallower, panicked, and I see Finns hand move to tenderly push strands of damp hair out of her eyes.
"What can we do?" he says, and I feel for him. I feel his pain for his wife, and for his unborn child. I know how it is with the ones you love. How you would do anything to spare them from all that would hurt them, taking it on yourself, if you could.
"Our only choice is for me to take the baby," I calmly say, reaching for my dagger. Silently, I curse the lamplight for highlighting the sharpness of its blade. If we have a scene now, it will only make things worse.
I hear Finns sharp intake of breath.
"Ive done this before," I quickly assure them, knowing that Finn and Gudrid have no reason to trust me. "Its our only chance. Otherwise ." I leave the horror of that alternative unspoken.
"Do it," Gudrid whispers, blinking away the perspiration that stings her eyes. Her hand slips out of mine and she looks at me. There are a thousand questions on her lips, but there is no time. She knows that. "Save my baby," she says at last, as another contraction seizes her.
I purse my lips and nod.
We understand one another.
It is nearly dawn in Gammelgaard, and I find it odd to think that it has been over 35 years since I last saw the sun rise over this eastern hillside, felt its faintly warming rays seep their way into this gentle hollow. A hollow I destroyed, in matter of fact if not in spirit. I never thought I would return here again, never thought Id live this long to see it to see the consequences of what my bloodlust wrought here.
Its not that the idea of consequence, of responsibility for my actions is foreign to me. Gods know, its something I have to live with every day, and there was a time, before I met Gabrielle, when I didnt think I could. But you have to move on, you have to, and just try to do better.
The sound of a babys cry is the dearest thing in the world to me.
So full of promise.
Baby Thyra, daughter of Finn and Gudrid, will have a better life than her parents had. People like Harald will see to that. People who believe that Gammelgaard will survive to thrive again one day, to become that which it once was, so many years ago.
I leave the little hut, squinting at the dawning sun. Gabrielle is there, sitting outside the longhouse, next to a small fire. Alone. Her eyes lift to me, questioning, and I go to her. Self-consciously, I wipe away the last of the blood from my hands, knowing I will never really be free of it.
"Xena!" Gabrielle rises to her feet, a faint breeze ruffling her newly shortened hair. "I heard the baby cry"
"Its a girl," I say, feeling tired, so tired. My age, plus the odd 25 years or so, must at last be catching up to me. "Thyra."
"Oh, Xena!" Gabrielle cries, and to my surprise I see that she is nearly weeping in relief. "I knew you could do it!" And once again I marvel at the capacity of this woman to guard my heart. She, the keeper of my soul.
I start to move towards the stable and Gabrielle falls into step beside me, wrapping an arm around my waist. All I want to do is simply lean into her, let her bear my weight as I know she would willingly do, but I must be strong. For just a little while longer.
"This is just so wonderful," my bard enthuses. "See how everything works out?" She cocks her head at me. "You were able to give something back, Xena. After all this time."
We are at the stable now, and I open the door, hearing the animals within begin to stir.
A new day.
A brand new day.
"Hows Gudrid?" Gabrielle asks, as I knew she eventually would.
I stand still then, knowing that the past is past, and that I cant change a thing. But gods, how I wish I could.
"Shes dead, Gabrielle."
It has been a very long day, and we have ridden hard. We are far from Gammelgaard, as far from it as I could hope to get in one days journey. Gabrielle has not complained. Its as if she senses the urgency I feel to put distance between that place and myself; a past I can never completely outrun.
We set up our camp together as we have a thousand times before, and maybe its because my head still hurts, although I would never tell Gabrielle that, or maybe its because of the bone-deep tiredness that threatens to swamp me, but I seem to feel the cold more strongly tonight, than on other nights here in the Northland. Oh, how I long for the warm, cleansing skies of Thrace!
Gabrielle has managed to fashion a delicious stew from the contents of our saddlebags, and I eat it in deference to her, not because I really have an appetite I dont. But I take comfort in this simple meal, and in the familiarity of our habits. How she tidies up the cook-fire, before turning to her scrolls. How I move to sharpen my sword, although I have not drawn it in anger this day.
I keep my head down, focused on my blade, but over the pops and crackles of the fire, I can hear the faint tracing of Gabrielles quill as it travels across her parchment. Something has obviously moved her to begin writing again, and frankly Im not sure I want to know what that something is.
"Xena?" she says, and I force my hands to stop their mindless, steadying task. Im not sure Im ready to have this conversation. Not yet.
Her quill is poised at the tip of her mouth. "Do you ever get the idea that there are things out there things bigger than us, that we just dont understand?"
"The gods play their games, I know that much," I tell her, and I rest an elbow on my knee. "But I also feel I know all I need to know, Gabrielle. About the important things. About the things that really matter. You, for instance." I pause and I dip my head, powerless to stop the blush that creeps up my face. "Us."
She puts her quill and parchment down and, gathering her cloak about her neck, she slowly walks to my side. "Im proud of you, Xena," she says, and I close my eyes as I feel her hand begin to comb through my hair. "Of the person you were today, and yesterday, and the day before that. Dont ever doubt that, okay?"
"Okay," I say meekly, quietly, relishing this moment as she absolves me as best she can. As I forgive myself, as much as I am able. I swallow, hard. "I am who I am, Gabrielle. I cant fight it. I cant escape from it, no matter how hard I try."
I am still seated, and Gabrielle chooses to move in front of me now, sidling between my legs. My sword and the whetstone clatter from my hands.
"You heard what Harald said," she says, tilting up my chin and forcing me to meet her penetrating gaze. "You cant change the past. You know that Xena. We both know that." Her hand slides up to caress my cheek. "All you can do is acknowledge it, and you have. And then move on, as best you can. Its a part of who you are, Xena. Dont forget that." My bard is so wise. "Maybe," she bites her lip, "if things had been different then, youd be a different person today. Who knows?"
"See," I tell her, feeling my body respond to her touch, "thats one of the things I dont worry about anymore. All I want to be," I say, and I am surprised at how close I am to completely losing my composure, "is the kind of person you can love."
She is silent for a moment, and then she draws me to her, lifting me up and into her arms. "You already are," she breathes, sending a shiver of delight, of desire, coursing through me.
This is the one thing. The only thing that matters to me now, and forever. The constancy that I rely upon. All else, everything else, pales in comparison.
Her hands work their way inside my cloak, stroking, soothing, healing. My lips find hers and she unconditionally welcomes me home, to that place where I belong. I guide her to the fire, seeing the flames reflected in her eyes, and a passion, too, that mirrors my own.
Dont ever leave me again, shed cried when at last she found me here in the Northland. And though I could not answer her then, so overwhelmed was I just to feel her embrace once more when I never thought I would, I didnt have to.
She already knew.
She is my beginning and my end, and my everything in-between.
Nothing I have ever been, or ever could be, will change that.
What is just is.
And after all, who am I to question such things?
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