Mediations

by

Mayt

 

Mayt@aol.com  

 

 

Part Two

 

Gabrielle heard an approach.  She had fallen asleep.  The lodge was dark.  How long had she been unaware?  Her hand took hold of her knife prying it from the dirt.  Held in hand she focused on its weight and balance.  It was her only means to debilitate the aggressor.  She felt weak.  Her head fell back.  Her breath was shallow.  The wetness surrounding her wound had traveled down her tunic.  With the blood loss went her strength.

 

The voices were muted.  There were at least two.  And then came the motion.  The entrance leather cover was flung aside.  With this came a minor light.  Her head fell forward.  She did not have the power to hold it erect.  She was attentive to the shuffle of feet moving towards her.  She looked ahead.  Before her were vague outlines of legs and feet.   She felt a body coming closer.  She raised the knife and cried out.  A hand grabbed her wrist halting the thrust.

 

Ariel knelt before her queen.  “Gabrielle, it’s all right.  You’re safe now.”

 

Gabrielle dropped the knife and fell into Ariel’s arms.  Ariel held Gabrielle guardedly.  She felt a rising panic.  How close was death?  She shouted.  “Damia, help me!  Jamine run ahead and tell Malina we are bringing Gabrielle.”  Ariel quickly examined her queen.  “An arrow wound to the shoulder.”  Ariel looked down at her own hand.  It was covered with Gabrielle’s blood.  “She’s lost a lot of blood”

 

Jamine heard the second assessment just as she set at a run towards the village.  The Captain of the Guards was tall and lanky.  She moved like a doe over the forest floor alarmed by the image of Gabrielle’s blood soaked body.  Her vision was split between what she was facing ahead of her and what she just left behind.  To counter the disorientation she was feeling she focused on her breath.  Her lungs expanded and contracted.  Each breath giving her the means to close the distance to their healer.

 

Damia came to Ariel’s assistance.  “Who would have done this?”

 

“I don’t know.  Whoever it was will see the end of my sword.”

 

 

 

Tovi came to Ariel who was standing outside of Gabrielle’s lodge.  “I want to see her.”

 

Ariel was dispassionate.  “You will.”

 

Tovi insisted.  “When?”

 

Ariel’s patience thinned.  “When I say so.”

 

“That’s not good enough.”

 

The Northern queen’s fury surfaced.  “Someone just tried to kill my queen.”

 

Tovi pressed.  “Our Queen.”

 

Ariel’s accusation was unforgiving.  “Right!  The queen you have tried to use to your own advantage.”

 

The truth was bitter.  “I never imagined something like this would happen.”

 

“Of course not.”

 

Tovi looked beyond Ariel to the queen’s quarters.  “Ariel, she is my queen too.  And she was also becoming my friend.”  Tovi reined in her fear.  She lowered her voice and turned her gaze back to Ariel whose own eyes were fixed upon the dirt.  “How is she?”

 

The uninterrupted heart beats only measured a false calm.  Ariel exploded.  She thrust her arm against the void.  Her anger was keen but it had no target.  “I don’t know!”  She froze in place.  Only her rapid breath betrayed her.  She felt crazed.  She knew this feeling.  It came to her in the heat of battle.  But here she had no one to fight.  She wanted to match swords with the assailant.  The Fates did not oblige her.  Not yet.  Instead Tovi stood beside her.  Tovi was struggling as well.  They should help one another.  Ariel knew this.  It was just so hard to be so helpless.  When she spoke, what carried across the narrowing distance, was her feeling of defeat.  “By the time I got her back here her blood covered my own clothes.”

 

The two women stood before each other silently.  It was a painfully grave moment.  Tovi needed to know more.  “Did she say anything.”

 

Ariel’s hadn’t the strength to disguise her despair.  “Nothing.”

 

 

 

Gabrielle felt the soft warmth of the blanket over her body.  A feather pillow lay underneath her head.  The pain in her shoulder had eased.  Her mouth was dry.  She felt a human touch.  “Xena?”

 

“I’m sorry my Queen but I am not Xena.  Do you wish me to send for her?”

 

Gabrielle opened her eyes.  An elder stood over her.  The woman’s hair was silver with age.  But her blue eyes were as bright and clear as a child’s.  “How bad is it?”

 

The elder covered Gabrielle’s hand with her own.  “You lost a great deal of blood.  You will need to rest to regain your strength.  If there is no infection I will grant you leave from your sick bed in a handful of days.”

 

“Who found me?”

 

“Ariel, Damia and Jamine had sought you out.”

 

“How long have I been asleep?”

 

“It is well past midnight.”  The elder’s voice conveyed a thoughtful concern.  “My Queen, should I send for Xena?”

 

“No, not yet.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“I want to talk to Ariel first.”

 

“She has been impatient to see you.”

 

“Please call her.”

 

“Not yet my Queen.  You need to drink liquids and I must change your dressing.  If you do not fight me I will allow you your visitors.”

 

“Who is queen here?”

 

“You alone.  As your healer my responsibility is to care for you in spite of your better judgment.”

 

“Your name?”

 

“Malina.”

 

“I will add your name to the great healers whose services I have had the misfortune to need.”

 

“I am honored.”

 

 

 

Tovi and Ariel stood before their queen.  Ariel had finished her report describing how Gabrielle had been found.  Without invitation Ariel had exonerated Tovi by noting that she had been within Ariel’s eye view during most of the evening.  Gabrielle took notice of the apparent attention the Northern queen was bestowing upon the Southern queen.  There was no hint that distrust was Ariel’s motivation.  There was in fact a resonating connection between the two.  Gabrielle could only hope that the distress of the moment did not taint the emerging bond.

 

Gabrielle needed to ask.  “And Seda?

 

Ariel was indignant.  “I can’t imagine the old crone could still pull a bow.”

 

Tovi’s responded with a formal petition.  “Ariel, Seda is our priestess and though you disagree with her faith she still deserves to be treated with respect.”

 

Ariel would have none of Tovi’s correction.  She spit her words.  “The same respect she showed our altar.”

 

Tovi held firm.  She would not suffer her dignity for this inconsiderate exchange.  “It was an unfortunate demonstration.  As Seda’s queen I have given you my apology.”

 

Ariel felt the notice of both women.  Gabrielle had remained silent as the two argued out their frustrations.  Ariel knew she was the instigator and thus it was for her to close the subject.  She turned away from Tovi’s gaze and walked toward the door.  “You owe me no apology.  Seda’s attitude is of no consequence.  There will be no breach between us.”

 

Tovi felt free to defend her kinswoman.  She spoke to Gabrielle.  “It was not Seda.”

 

Pivoting her body Ariel turned.  “One of her followers then?”

 

Gabrielle was weary.  She would soon need to rest.  “Tovi will speak to Seda.”

 

Tovi understood she was being dismissed.  She bowed to her queen.  As she raised her eyes she caught Ariel’s gaze.  Tovi was uncertain of what she saw in the Northern queen.  It was obvious that Ariel was not ready to leave Gabrielle’s company. 

 

Gabrielle waited for Tovi’s departure.  “Ariel, tell me.  Can you be certain of any of your tribe members?”

 

“Yes, my Queen.  I for one.  Damia and Jamine who were with me when we found you.  We were together from the moment you left us at the mid-day meal.”

 

“Any others?”

 

“You said the attack came when the sun had traveled three-quarters toward the horizon.”

 

Gabrielle nodded.

 

“I’m sure the three of us could name the women near by.  Do you want a census?”

 

“There could have been more than one conspiring against my life but my senses tells me that there was only one in the wood.  The more women that can vouch for their presence the better.  I want you, Damia and Jamine to discretely speak to the tribeswomen.  They are not to think they are being questioned.  Let them know the time of the attempt on my life and try to learn where they were and who they were with.  Compare your findings.  I want to know all the women who were alone or whose companion did not vouch her story.  Ariel, if it takes days to complete this task without stirring bad feelings it will be well worth it.”

 

“I understand.”

 

 

 

Gabrielle slept fitfully.  The pain in her shoulder was not the primary cause.  She needed to decide whether to summon Xena.  She awoke with the morning dove.  Soon afterwards she reached for a scroll and pen.  Would that a muse would whisper in her ear as she completed her task.

 

Tovi came to Gabrielle immediately after receiving her summons.  “My Queen.”

 

Gabrielle was sitting up in her bed.  Tovi perceived no improvement in her queen’s complexion.  She feared that it had worsened throughout the night.  In the light of day Gabrielle was pale and worn.  However, the strength in her voice gave reassurance.  “Tovi, I need to ask a favor.”

 

“Anything.”

 

Gabrielle marked Tovi’s lack of hesitation.  She believed she could indeed ask anything of the young queen.  Gabrielle took the scroll from her bedside.  “I want you to deliver this scroll to Xena.  Wait for a response and return immediately.”

 

Tovi swallowed her disappointment.  “I would be honored to be your messenger.”

 

The anointed messenger’s pout was transparent.  Gabrielle would have smiled if she didn’t fear giving offense.  She needed to explain.  “I have my reasons for asking you.  I need someone I trust to deliver this message.  I don’t expect Xena to take my words easily.  I’m also concerned about how your tribe will react to my attempted assassination.  I believe it will be reassuring to your people to see that you are well.  I need you to keep the calm.  And, I’m counting on you to travel quickly.”

 

Tovi felt a rising shame.  She underestimated Gabrielle.  Her queen had commissioned her with a sacred trust.  She took the scroll in hand.  “It will be done.”

 

“Thank you.”  Gabrielle’s voice was throaty.  Tovi measured her queen.  She regretted her flawed plan.  In the hours of the night she had tried to justify her actions by arguing that Gabrielle had been aware of her intentions.  Still, she felt Ariel was fair to accuse her of duplicity.  She had used both Ariel and Gabrielle and could find no solace in arguing that the means justified the anticipated end.  An end that was unraveling as doubt and fear touched the heart of the Northern village.

 

Not knowing what the morrow would bring Tovi was compelled to speak.  “My Queen.”

 

Gabrielle wondered what remained unsaid.  “Yes?”

 

Tovi matched the queen’s gaze and then looked away.  “I’m sorry.”

 

Gabrielle nodded.  “I know.  Now go, and travel with an easy heart.”

 

Tovi felt a profound relief.  She wanted to thank Gabrielle for her generosity but she also felt any more words would intrude.  Redeemed by the queen’s grace Tovi bowed and left. 

 

 

 

Beloved-

 

I give you my word that I am well.  I took an assassin’s arrow in my shoulder.  The wound is near to the one I suffered from the Persians.  No poison this time.

I beg you to stay in the south.  If you come to me the passions of both tribes will only rise.  Now more than ever there must be calm.

I hope to return to you by the crescent moon.  The wound I need healed is not of the flesh.  I feel this betrayal in my soul.  Whoever tried to take my life is against everything the sisterhood stands for.  It is not easy for me to forgive.

 

Always,

 

                                                Gabrielle

 

Xena continue to hold the scroll.  Her eyes returned to the words, “I am well…There must be calm…betrayal…forgive.”  And then the last, “Gabrielle.”  She raised her eyes.  Cici stood impatiently.  Xena knew Gabrielle was right.  She had to stay as a calming influence.  She was certain Gabrielle knew it would take all the control she was capable of to do so. 

 

Xena looked to Tovi who remained impassioned during the silence.  “Gabrielle said her wound…”

 

Cici cried out.  “Wound.  Gabrielle’s hurt?”

 

Xena was non-pulsed.  She spoke deliberately.  “Gabrielle took an arrow in her shoulder.”  Xena returned her focus to the messenger.  “Tovi, tell me the truth.  How is she?”

 

Tovi responded with a reassuring composure.  “She suffered blood loss.  Enough to weaken her.  Melina, our healer, dressed the wound and has given her herbs to fight infection.  Our queen is strong.”  Tovi’s last statement was stated with a gentle smile.  “And stubborn.”

 

Xena concurred.  “Yes, she is both.”

 

Cici interrupted.  “When do we leave?”

 

Xena’s impatience had grown fine.  “We don’t.  We wait.”

 

Cici would not be deterred.  “Xena, someone tried to kill Gabrielle!”

 

Tovi defended her people.  “Xena, you know the depth of our allegiance to Gabrielle.  Whoever harmed her is not of our tribe.”

 

“Not in sisterhood, Tovi.  But the assassin may still be standing beside you as an Amazon.  What were your instructions?”

 

“To return immediately.”

 

“How long have you traveled.”

 

“Three days.”

 

“You did well.  Rest here tonight.  See me before you leave in the morning.”

 

Tovi knew that before Xena she was not a queen but a subject.  There was no place for ego or pride.  “Of course.”

 

Xena turned and began to walk away.  Her heart was consuming all space in her chest.  She found it hard to breathe.

 

Cici watched Xena’s departure in disgust.  “What kind of love does Xena claim to have for Gabrielle?”

 

Tovi remembering her promise to her queen suppressed her anger.

 

 

 

Tovi sought out Karis at the cross bridge construction site.  She caught sight of her premier engineer standing off the trail where she could view the bridge in its totality.  Karis surveyed the day’s work and planned what needed be done next.  She would share her thoughts with Xena at morning meal.  She had learned a few new techniques from the Warrior Princess.  She took pride in knowing that she was able to teach Xena a few of her own construction innovations.  The finesse exhibited by the two had one common element, nuance.  It was a matter of looking to the minute detail, as well as to consider all the elements that would impact the bridge’s utility from anticipated use to the affects of heat and cold, and dry and wet weather.  Karis was more than satisfied with their progress.  Xena, and to a lesser extent she begrudgingly admitted, Cici, were both valuable assets.  Karis also enjoyed the prospect of Tovi’s return.  She valued Tovi’s regard above all others.  Securing Tovi’s assessment of her projects was always an unspoken motivation.  Tovi was Karis’ sole family and she had never lost the deep-rooted need to hear that she had done well.

 

“You’ve made great progress.”

 

Startled, Karis turned sharply drawing her knife, not having had time to absorb the meaning of the spoken words and the identity of the speaker.  Before her, stood Tovi.  Karis challenged, “I could have killed you.”

 

For the first time in many days Tovi felt light at heart.  “Last time I give you a complement.”

 

Karis struggled with what seemed a ghost.  “What are you doing here?”

 

Reminded of her mission Tovi renewed her seriousness, “Playing messenger between Gabrielle and Xena.  I return to the north tomorrow.”

 

Karis allowed herself a gentle gibe.  “Messenger?  Does this reflect the esteem Gabrielle holds for our queen or did you simply seek an excuse to come back to friendly grounds?”

 

“Gabrielle took an arrow to the shoulder by an unknown assassin.”

 

“What!”

 

“She is healing well.  She had good reason to send me back with a scroll.”

 

“Have you seen Xena?”

 

“Yes, she is hard to read.  Gabrielle has asked her to stay here.”

 

“I don’t think she’ll do it.”

 

“She will.  She said as much.”

 

“I’m surprised.”  As Karis regained her composure she judged Tovi’s state of health.  To say Tovi looked ragged would have been generous.  Her fatigue was clear to any eye that could see.  “You look tired.  How long have you traveled?”

 

“Three days.”

 

“You couldn’t have gotten any sleep.”

 

“A little.”

 

“Have you eaten?”

 

“I rather sleep.”

 

“Then lets get back to the village.”

 

“Karis, I’m worried.  We need to make sure no one from our tribe shot the arrow.”

 

“You don’t really think…”

 

Tovi interjected.  “No, I don’t but I must prove it.  Anyway, Xena will demand an accounting.  It’s better if I offer than wait for her to make the demand.”

 

“You’re right.  She won’t expect anything less.  If only so she feels she is being useful.”

 

“Come, let’s walk.  Tell me.  How have you gotten along with the Warrior Princess?”

 

“Good.  She is a gifted engineer.  I wonder if there is a limit to her knowledge.  And, no one works harder.”  Karis chuckled.  “Xena has little patience for fools.  Cici found herself taking the brunt of Xena’s ire more than once.”

 

“Cici?  What did she do?”

 

“No surprises.  She wagged her acid tongue and would wait for no one.  Not an acceptable ethic, especially for the work we’re doing.  It’s hard to see what Ariel finds attractive in the miserable snipe.”

 

“I don’t presume to know what goes on behind closed doors.”

 

“Well, I have a healthy imagination and I don’t hesitate to guess.  They did keep separate quarters while Ariel was here.  I don’t think royal discretion or an inordinate modesty would have kept them apart.”

 

“Enough, before you make me blush.”

 

“Since when have you been so bashful?”

 

Tovi preferred to change the topic.  “Any other news?”

 

Karis lovingly put her arm around Tovi’s shoulder.  “No, my Queen.  You can rest assure that your people have gotten along fine without you.”

 

 

 

The three stood before the queen.  Jamine spoke her frustration.  “It doesn’t make sense.  The few that were alone haven’t the skills to shoot a bow.”

 

“Maybe that is why I’m still alive.”

 

Damia objected.  “The arrow was too close to your heart to make light of your assassin’s skills.”

 

Gabrielle was touched by Damia’s passion.  “The hunting party?”

 

Jamine reported.  “They were hunting on the east plateau and were within sight of each other.”

 

Damia interjected.  “Unless the lies are many I don’t know what to think?”

 

Gabrielle looked to Ariel who had remained silent during the exchange.  “My Queen, what if it was not one of our tribeswomen?  What if by killing you on our lands we were meant to bear the shame of your death?  I would not wish to face justice at the end of Xena’s sword were she in such unimaginable grief.”  The young warrior took a step forward.  “I do not say this to lessen our responsibility.  Our guards failed to keep a safe perimeter.”

 

“I understand.”  Gabrielle had had the same thought.  For now she would not echo it.  The question was then what woman in the Southern tribe had been away from the community for at least three to four days?

 

Xena entered her quarters.  The night’s murmurs did not soothe her.  For days she had been haunted and today she learned why.  She had not spoken her concern to anyone.  Instead she tried to use the work on the bridge as a means to placate her presentiment.  She did not want to be where she stood.  She did not want the separation for another moment.

 

Gabrielle closed her eyes.  She felt Xena envelop her in an embrace.

 

“My Queen?”  Jamine interrupted Gabrielle’s reverie.

 

Gabrielle opened her eyes.  “It’s late.  We’ll talk in the morning.”

 

Damia and Jamine nodded ascent and exited.  Ariel stayed. 

 

Gabrielle waited for the remaining warrior to leave.  When it became apparent Ariel would be a lingering companion Gabrielle voiced a curious, “Yes?” to break the silence.

 

“Many are quick to anger.  Our inquiries were taken as accusations.  Some of my sisters feel you do not trust them.”  Ariel paused to gather her quickening thoughts.  “There is a sense of betrayal.”

 

It was difficult for Gabrielle to hear this admonition.  She felt a growing disappointment in the young queen.  She had given direction to take care, to be reserve in their investigations.  “Next time you disagree with my instructions, speak-up.”

 

Ariel shook her head as if to break free of a bridle.  “I did not disagree then and I don’t disagree now.  I just thought you should know.”

 

Gabrielle felt Ariel was abdicating her responsibility.  Whether she was doing it consciously or simply out of ignorance was a question that needed to be posed.  “Ariel, there are many leaders here.  You, Tovi, Seda and Isra are recognized by title and position but you are not the only ones.  Those who have earned the respect of their sisters can change the direction of the foul wind that courses through the woods.  Don’t ignore them.  Don’t underestimate their power.  As queen you must do all you can to manage their impact.”

 

Ariel shifted her weight.  “Are you saying one of them shot the arrow?”

 

It seemed to Gabrielle as if Ariel could not hear her.  “What I’m saying is that my wound is the least of my worries.  What was suppose to be a friendly visit can erupt into a breach within and among the tribes.  It doesn’t matter how certain you may be of Tovi.  A queen must have a tribe willing to follow her.”

 

A growing sense of desperation entered the young warrior “You are the final arbitrator.  You are the queen of north and south combined and you are the one with the wound.”

 

Gabrielle could see that as far as Ariel was concern it was for her to resolve the conflict.  “I am not so arrogant to believe that my voice alone will still these rising passions.”

 

“I am confident you will.”

 

Feeling faint Gabrielle took hold of a nearby chair. Gabrielle met Ariel’s gaze.  “I might if I make it through the night.  Call the healer.”

 

Ariel gave an anxious bow and left.  Gabrielle closed her eyes once again.  Xena’s name slipped from her lips.

 

Xena, lying back on her pallet concentrated on the bard.  In her mind’s eye she held her in an embrace both firm and tender.

 

Gabrielle felt the pressure and the safety that came with it.  She moved to her pallet and lay down.  She fell asleep in Xena’s arms.

 

Malina found Gabrielle asleep.  She dismissed Ariel who had accompanied her and then turned to her patient.  The healer’s touch woke the queen.

 

Malina censured.  “You promised not to over exert yourself.”

 

Gabrielle responded with whatever remaining humor she embodied.  “I never left the room.”

 

The healer registered an appropriate dose of skepticism.  “Indeed.”

 

Gabrielle smiled.  “Don’t scold me.  It’s been a tough day.”

 

Malina continued in her jovial mood as she placed a fresh salve on Gabrielle’s wound.  “The privilege of your position.”

 

The queen sighed.  “Thank you.”

 

Malina deflected her patient’s gratitude.  “I am only practicing my arts.”

 

But Gabrielle would not be denied.  “And giving me a reason to smile.”

 

The healer placed her palm on Gabrielle’s forehead.  “Oh, what joy is there in life without a smile.  And yours can break a heart.”  Malina swept Gabrielle’s hair to the side as if her queen was a mire child.

 

Gabrielle was enjoying the diversion.  This was all the care she needed - to be taken away from the intrigue.  “Melina, are you flirting with me?”

 

The healer burst out in unrestrained laughter.  “This old crone?  You flatter me.”

 

The queen’s own laughter joined in a jubilant melody.  “No, it is you who flatter me.”

 

With her aged but capable hands Malina ensured that Gabrielle was well blanketed.  “Get some rest.  You have no objection if I forbid you further visitors until morning?”

 

Gabrielle was ready to surrender to sleep.  “None, whatsoever.”

 

“Good.  I will enjoy putting Ariel in their place.”  The healer took in the queen’s questioning gaze.  She answered the unspoken question.  “Wisdom has not impressed herself upon my young queen.  It is often only with the searing touch of life that one learns.”

 

Gabrielle understood more than she wanted to admit.  “Good night, Melina.”

 

“Sleep well, My queen.”  Malina walked out into the coolness of the night.  Ariel and Damia stood in wait.  With the wave of her hand for emphasis, the healer made her instruction known, “No more!”

 

Ariel would not be put off.  “I just want to see her.”

 

Malina’s temper rose quickly.  “Have you not done enough to sap her strength.”

 

Feeling accused Ariel demanded an explanation.  “What did she say.”

 

Melina was more than willing to chastise the young pup.  “Nothing.  She allowed me to care for her without protest.  Gabrielle is a queen.  She is my queen.  You would do well to listen and observe her instead of badgering her into her sick bed.”

 

Damia was relieved to not be in the line of verbal fire.  Where it not for the presence of the two Ariel would have whimpered like the very pup Melina thought her to be.  Ariel’s dignity was sustained in the ensuing silence.  The healer walked on.  Out of sight of the two Malina allowed herself the luxury of a wicked smile

 

 

 

Ariel waited until mid-morning before visiting Gabrielle.  “How are you feeling?”

 

“Better.”

 

“Anything I can do for you?”

 

“Stay and keep me company.”  Gabrielle motioned to a chair situated by her bed.

 

Ariel took her place.  “You must miss Xena.  I’m no substitute.”

 

“No, you’re more talkative.”  They shared a smile.  Gabrielle continued lightheartedly.  “Must be hard to get a word in with Cici.”

 

Ariel’s demeanor dampened.  Her eyes went to her locked hands resting on her lap.  “I don’t know.”

 

The queen realized her error.  “I was joking.”

 

“I know.”  Ariel looked up to Gabrielle.  “She can be overwhelming.  Sometimes I find it hard to breathe when she’s beside me.  It’s not wrong to want time away, is it?”

 

“No, I soon learned that Xena needed to be by herself.  Once I stopped worrying whether I had gotten on her nerves or offended her in some way and just accepted that that was the way she was it became easier.”

 

“I can’t imagine…”

 

“Oh, you didn’t know me when I was younger.  I never stopped talking.  I had so many questions.  I commented on everything.  In our travels everything was so new to me.”

 

“How did Xena stand it?”

 

Gabrielle smiles more to herself than to her visitor.  “It wasn’t all torture.”  A truth entered her memory and she grew serious.  “I took Xena away from her darkness not that I understood it at the time.  Funny, she always noticed when I got quiet.  It would be her turn to be fearful that something was wrong.”

 

“Xena, fearful?  Was there something wrong?”

 

“Not always.”  The queen laughed, “There were times I even got tired of my own voice.”

 

Ariel shook her head and grinned, acknowledging the queen’s self-depreciating way of easing the tension.  “She’s changed.”  Ariel’s seriousness renewed itself.  The young warrior sighed.  “Cici.  I don’t really understand why.”

 

“You haven’t known each other very long.  Are you sure she’s change or are you just seeing her for who she is?”

 

“How long did it take you to know Xena?”

 

“I wonder if I’ll ever completely know Xena.  We had been friends long enough to share both joyful and difficult times.”

 

Ariel did not veil her doubt.  “Friends?”

 

“Ariel, Xena and I were first friends.  It took years for us to realize and then admit to each other that we were soul mates.  And longer still for us to become lovers.  My way is with Xena.  She is my life."

 

The Northern queen was intrigued.  “Does she understand?”

 

“Oh yes.  And it’s because she understands that I’m certain she will wait for my return.”

 

“I’m not so sure.  There are wagers of when we will see her next.”

 

Gabrielle could not fault the mischief.  “And what was yours?”

 

“If it takes Tovi five days to reach Xena I say Xena will be at your side in another three.”

 

“You’re wrong on both counts.  If will take Tovi no more than four days and if Xena chose to she would take two horses and be here in two days.”

 

“Will you wager?”

 

“No, I have an unfair advantage.”

 

Ariel leaned back in her chair.  Her focus once again went to her hands.  Gabrielle observed the volatility of Ariel’s mood.  It flickered like a flame in a swirling wind.  “What is it?”

 

“I can’t pretend to understand what you and Xena share.  I do know Cici and I don’t have it.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“I don’t want to tell her.”

 

Gabrielle wondered aloud.  “Are you sure she doesn’t already sense it?”

 

 

 

The two queens walked side-by-side.  Gabrielle leaned on Ariel’s offered arm for support.  Malina had given Gabrielle permission to get some exercise.  She did not delay in taking advantage of the beautiful day.

 

Ariel felt a growing intimacy with her queen.  Much of the original formality that imbued their words had been set aside.  “It is told that you knew Ephiny.”

 

Gabrielle smiled at the remembrance of her great friend.  “Yes, from my first days with the Amazons.”

 

“Was she as brave as they say?”

 

“Yes, but more importantly Ephiny was a wise and fair leader.”

 

Ariel wished to confirm.  “She was your friend.”

 

“I loved her.”  The sentiment slipped easily to the surface for it was a truth that death did not diminish.  Gabrielle noticed that her companion had grown silent.  “What is it Ariel?”

 

Ariel hesitated.  “I fear being misunderstood.”

 

“Don’t fear the truth.”

 

“Though I am the queen of my tribe when you are with us, I am equal to your regent am I not?” 

 

Gabrielle would not argue with the analogy.

 

Ariel continued.  “As Ephiny was.”

 

Gabrielle stopped and fixed her gaze upon the young warrior queen.  “Ephiny was a queen in her own right.”

 

Ariel struggled for her courage.  “For me to be your regent you must trust me.  You must trust me with your life.  You must trust that I will not betray you.  That I will do whatever must be done to see your orders are carried out.”  Ariel’s confidence grew with each word.  “I believe you hold me in such trust.  I believe that with time…”  Ariel faltered. 

 

Gabrielle tried to help.  “With time…”

 

“My Queen.  During this time we have spent together I’ve watched you.  You have a discerning mind, a brave and gentle heart, and a joyful smile.  I hope that we can become friends.  I know I am not Ephiny but my regard for you is sincere.”

 

“I see.”

 

“Do you?”

 

Gabrielle turned and took Ariel’s arm once again and renewed their walk.  “Ephiny didn’t like me at first.  She heard Terreis give me her right of caste.  Still, it was hard for her to understand how I, a complete stranger could enter the Amazon nation and suddenly become a princess.  In spite of her doubts or maybe because of them, Ephiny began to mentor me.  Her first lesson was how to use a staff.  That was easy compared to the lessons I needed to learn to become a rightful queen.  Both Xena and Ephiny kept close to me as I faced the challenges of leadership.  I still have Xena.  And in my heart I will always have Ephiny.  She still speaks to me.  I haven’t lost her.  You never lose a true friend.”  The two continued to walk in silence.  After a few steps Gabrielle mused.  “I’ve often wondered why it can be so hard to tell a friend you love them.  You share your hopes and dreams, your disappointments and sorrows, you trust them with your life but you never say ‘I love you’.  At the same time there might be someone in your life who does not touch your heart and you allow them to believe the intimacy you share is greater than it really is.”

 

Ariel considered her queen’s words.  “The reason is the same.  Rejection is painful to receive and to give.”

 

“But if it weren’t for your honesty I wouldn’t know that I can lean on more than just your arm.  I wouldn’t know that you are my regent for the Northern tribe.”

 

“My Queen.”

 

“It’s time you start calling me Gabrielle.  We won’t worry about protocol.”

 

“As you wish.”

 

Gabrielle noted the continuity of Ariel’s formal address.  She stopped her progress once again.  “Ariel, if we are to be friends you must see me as the woman I am, separate from my place as queen.  You must feel free to take me aside and speak frankly whether you agree or disagree with me.”

 

Ariel offered.  “Will you accept my words now?”

 

Gabrielle assured, “Yes.”

 

“I thought about our meeting last night.  You will not find your assassin here.”

 

“I agree.”

 

Ariel was pleased.  She shared her conclusion with assurance.  “It was a follower of Artemis.”

 

Gabrielle again noted the quick shift in Ariel’s tone.  Suddenly, the Northern queen seemed so sure of herself.  “Maybe.  Or it could have nothing to do with the reason for my visit.  Xena and I have a knack for attracting danger.”

 

The gentle correction did not diminish Ariel’s confidence.  “With our renewed security I can guarantee your safety.”

 

‘Were there any guarantees in this precarious life?’ Gabrielle wondered.  Her response took a slightly different tone.  “There is more to life than safety.”

 

“When do we leave?”

 

Gabrielle smiled approvingly.  “I should be strong enough to travel in a day.  We won’t leave until I can defend myself.”

 

“Xena would approve.”

 

“I’m not sure she wouldn’t forgive an imprudent act if it brought me back to her a day earlier.”

 

 

 

“Xena, I’m ready to leave.”

 

Xena had not slept.  She hated the moment.  “Tovi, please give this to Gabrielle and travel safely.”

 

Tovi took the offered scroll in hand.  “You won’t come?”

 

“No.”  Xena spoke softly holding in a temper that had no patience with such a question.  Tovi did not conceal her smile well.  Xena spied it and demanded, “Why are you smiling.”

 

Tovi realize the discourtesy of her behavior.  “I just won a wager.”  Xena’s gaze could have killed.  Tovi attempted to abate the danger.  “I meant no disrespect.  I said you would honor Gabrielle’s wishes and wait for her.”

 

Xena steadied her desire to slap the fools who thought her pain was worthy of a wager.  “Very well.”

 

“Xena, I know it’s hard but I believe my queen is wise in what she has asked of you.”

 

The warrior had enough.  “Tovi you know nothing of what I feel.  If I had gone it would have been a reflection of my weakness not Gabrielle’s.  In these things she has always been the stronger.  It takes both wisdom and strength to lead.  Many know what should be done, few can stand alone and do it.”

 

“Gabrielle is not alone, she has you.”

 

“Your wrong.  As long as she remains your queen she is alone.  Even I can’t take away her burden.  Now go and keep her safe.”

 

“With my life.”  Tovi felt her foolish error deeply.  She wished she could have somehow taken back the last few moments and started anew.  Impossible, she did the only thing she could do.  She pledged her life to protect her queen.

 

 

 

Tovi heard the contingent before she saw them.  Jamine led.  Her queen and Ariel road parallel to one another.  Damia trailed.  Tovi’s first emotion was a two-fold relief.  To see her queen strong enough to travel and to find friends on her journey.  She guided her mare back on the path in ready sight of her new traveling companions. 

 

Jamine turned to Gabrielle.  “It’s Tovi.”

 

Ariel spoke the most comforting thought.  “She’ll have a message from Xena.”

 

Tovi was cheerful  “It’s a good day.  I didn’t expect to see you return so soon.”

 

Jamine spoke with a lingering edge of criticism.  “Our queen’s work for now is done in the north.”

 

Tovi was cautious.  “Is it?  So you’ve made progress.  I knew our differences weren’t so great.”

 

Ariel spoke softly to Gabrielle.  “Is Tovi na´ve or simply optimistic?”

 

Gabrielle did not appreciate the tone.  “Were her optimism infectious I would make sure you spent more time with her.”

 

Ariel was stricken by the quip.  There was truth in Gabrielle’s not too subtle joke.”

 

Tovi maneuvered her mare to Gabrielle’s side.  “I hope you’re feeling better.”

 

“Good enough to travel.”  Gabrielle was impatient with the courtesies.  “Did you find Xena well.”

 

Tovi spoke honestly.  “She was distressed to learn of your injury.  She asked that I give you this.”  Tovi reached into her saddlebag and retrieved a scroll.

 

Ariel and Tovi exchanged knowing glances.  It was Ariel who offered Gabrielle relief  “It would be a good time to rest the horses.”

 

Tovi concurred.  “Yes, I could use a rest as well.”

 

Gabrielle’s gaze encompassed both.  “Thank you my friends.  I won’t be long.”  The queen swung her leg over her saddle and dismounted by holding the saddle horn with her good arm as she gently slid her body down.  Ariel held the reins of Gabrielle’s mount as her queen walked away, seeking a modicum of solitude.  Her escorts silently watched her.

 

Gabrielle walked until she came to a small clearing.  A large stone provided a place to rest.  She broke the wax seal and unrolled the scroll. 

 

My love-

 

            I am at a loss for words.  Last night I reached out for you and felt your wound.  It pained me more that I was not with you.  I will stay as you ask but know that it is my place to be with you.  Your are my first light.  All comes from you.

 

                                                Always,

 

                                                Xena

 

Gabrielle shed a single tear.  She whispered.  “And you are my light.”

 

 

Tovi was unwavering in keeping her injured queen within her sight.  It wasn’t long before Gabrielle returned to the contingent and without word secured Xena’s scroll in her saddlebag.  Everyone followed their queen’s lead and mounted.  Their pace was steady.  Tovi knew her remaining three traveling companions matched her interest.  A number of suggestions to moderate their effort were forwarded but Gabrielle was determined to ride as far as the horses could endure which all knew was less than what their queen would endure given the opportunity.  During the remaining day’s travel, the queen’s unyielding resoluteness was conveyed by her steadfast silence.

 

With dusk upon them, they made camp and ate a diet of bread, fruit and cheese.  Gabrielle’s fatigue was great.  She laid her bedroll at the perimeter of the camp and fell quickly into a deep sleep.  Xena’s scroll rested near her hand.  Jamine was on watch.  Damia rested for second watch.  Ariel and Tovi sat quietly by the fire.

 

Tovi spoke softly.  “I’m afraid for Gabrielle.”

 

Ariel attempted to reassure.  “She’s stronger than you may think.”

 

“I heed Malina’s caution.  Gabrielle is mortal.  I don’t think my concern is any more than Xena’s and she knows Gabrielle better than anyone of us could hope to.”

 

“When did you speak to Malina?”

 

“Before I left.  I stopped by her lodge.  I was hoping to secure a promise that our queen would be waiting for me upon my return.  Malina pledged her best skills would be devoted to making Gabrielle well but in the same breath she said that the goddess takes a soul when she is ready and Gabrielle was as mortal as any other Amazon.”

 

Tasting Malina’s bitter reproach anew, Ariel desired to redirect the conversation.  “How did she react?  Xena?”

 

“True to legend.  Stoic.  She told me to see her before I left and then she walked away to be alone.  There are no queens as far as Xena is concerned.”

 

“None except Gabrielle.”

 

“No, I disagree.  In Xena’s eyes Gabrielle is not a queen.  There is no distance between them.”

 

Ariel accentuated her next questions with the rhythm of her voice.  “Can you imagine dying on the cross side by side?  What kind of bond holds them?”

 

Tovi maintained a modest tone.  “The kind the poets can only dream about.”

 

Ariel did not hide her awe.  “To know such love.  Or a love that would simply near it.”

 

Tovi was thoughtful.  “When I think of the Warrior Princess and the Bard of Poteidaia, I have hope that anything is possible.  When the distance seems the greatest there may be an unknown bridge that will make the crossing possible.”

 

“I wonder, what has made their bridge possible?”

 

“I don’t know.  Whatever it is, it’s theirs alone.  The world will always be on the outside of the life they share.”

 

Ariel took note of Tovi’s gentle heart.  “You are a romantic.”

 

The Southern queen affirmed.  “Yes, I am.”

 

Ariel attempted to confirm what she believed to be a fact.  “But you are alone.”

 

Tovi answered the question true to Ariel’s terms. “Yes.”

 

“I’ve wondered about that too.  Why?  You could have any partner you want.”

 

Tovi allowed a subdued smile.  “I’ve had a few follies but nothing true.  I rather be alone than feel the loneliness of being with a woman who is not my mate in heart and soul.”

 

Ariel was somewhat dismissive.  “You ask for everything.”

 

Tovi refused to compromise.  “Anything less is nothing.”

 

The Northern queen thus concluded.  “Then I have nothing with Cici.”

 

Tovi was taken by surprise.  Ariel looked away into the fire.  They fell silent.  The quick flicker of her truth had subdued Ariel’s bravado.  A truth had escaped her and leaped into the space situated between her and Tovi.  She didn’t know why but she wanted Tovi to understand.  She needed Tovi to understand.  “I shared the same truth with Gabrielle before we left my village.  When you stand witness to a love shared as Gabrielle and Xena share theirs, the lies pale in contrast and you.”  Ariel stopped.  She was being too objective.  Her words were lifeless.  “I, its I who cannot deny the lies.  I’m grateful that I haven’t taken Cici to my bed.  I think that’s one reason she’s become desperate with me.  As if bedding each other would fill the emptiness.”  Ariel paused.  Her discomfort was acute.  “This has become a mournful conversation.  With good travel we will be at your village by the morrow’s evening meal.  There will be at least on joyful reunion to take heart in.”

 

Tovi was sincere.  “I’m sorry.”

 

“Don’t be.  The pity is when one doesn‘t even see the lie.”  Ariel took Tovi in.  She enjoyed the company of this philosopher queen.  This thought led to another.  “I almost forgot.  I have something for you.”  Ariel got up and went to her things.  She returned with a satchel.  “You left your scrolls.”

 

Tovi took them in hand.  “I wanted to travel lightly.”

 

Ariel quipped.  “I’m sure your mount appreciated the lesser weight.”  She then spoke seriously.  “I didn’t know if or when you would have reason to return to the north.”

 

Tovi inquired.  “Did you ever think I left the scrolls as an excuse to return to your village?”

 

Ariel stumbled.  “I thought you said you wanted to travel light.”

 

The Southern queen was enjoying herself.  “Couldn’t I have more than one reason?”

 

“Tovi, you don’t need a pretense to visit us.”

 

Here, Tovi took advantage to broach a painful subject.  “In spite of my manipulation of you and Gabrielle?”

 

Ariel considered the woman before her.  In her own mind she had swept aside the weight of their previous confrontation.  “I apologize.  I spoke harshly.”

 

“No.  You spoke the truth.  It was the truth that was harsh.  I tried to tell myself that because Gabrielle understood what I was doing, I hadn’t really manipulated her.”

 

“She knew?”

 

“From our first private meeting.”

 

“What did she say?”

 

“It was more how she said what she said.”

 

Ariel smiled.  “I know.  She does have her way.”  Ariel sat down beside Tovi.  “Gabrielle is my queen.  I don’t want to but it seems as if I keep disappointing her.”

 

“She has a forgiving heart.”

 

“Yes, she does.”

 

“I hope she will be as generous with me.”

 

“Why?  What did you do?”

 

“I behaved badly with Xena.”

 

“You don’t seem the worst for it.”

 

“I smiled when I learned she would not return with me.  She demanded an explanation.  I mentioned the wager.”

 

“Tovi, you didn’t.”

 

“I know.  I should tell Gabrielle.”

 

“I don’t envy you.”

 

“Grant me your pity.”  Tovi weighed the scrolls in her hands.  Her voice dripped with irony.  “And I aspire to obtain wisdom.”

 

 

 

The north meadow has always been Gabrielle’s favorite respite.  The landscape of this small piece of earth is as familiar to Xena as the space traveled from Gabrielle’s neck to her lower spine.  Lying together naked Xena has traveled that landscape with awe and passion.  Gabrielle’s beauty is her simplicity of curved flesh, supporting bone and connecting muscle.  The brook cutting across the meadow, the clusters of trees holding up the heavens, the tall dry grasses sweeping back and worth with the wind connecting all the modes of life that live within, between, underneath and above them.  Gabrielle said she could stand among the grasses and hear the poetry of the world composed for her ears alone.  Gabrielle had confessed that she has known no greater peace than their time alone sleeping under the great tree with the stars and moon as their light.

 

Xena stood among the grasses.  They reached up to her forearm.  Soon they would be harvested.  She felt the grasses brush against her skin, the sensation a stroke, a tacit gesture of the grace of life.  Eyes closed and self stilled she felt Gabrielle’s presence.  She felt the wound further healed and less painful to movement or touch, she felt Gabrielle’s touch of comfort, promise of return.

 

Gabrielle stood under the great oak.  The sun at the horizon would soon be lost to her until the dawn.  She found the figure of Xena in the center of the meadow.  The five had traveled hard to reach the village before nightfall.  Gabrielle did not need to be told Xena’s whereabouts.  She knew.  She knew that there was a greater intimacy here in the meadow than in the queen’s quarters.

 

Xena’s emotions threaten to break her asunder.  After knowing such a love there was little sweetness in life without its source.  She felt Gabrielle so close.  The feeling was a torturous gift.  She surrendered to it.  She allowed it to consume her.

 

The touch upon her forearm felt so real, the familiar weight of Gabrielle’s gentle hand.  The gesture that called Xena’s attention to the bard, safely pressed not to startle or cause an instinctive violent reaction.  She heard the whisper of her name coaxing her free from her reverie.  She turned very much in a dream state.

 

Gabrielle took great care in her approach.  “Xena?”

 

The warrior felt the loss of touch as she turned.  The touch renewed once her motion stilled but with an added pressure.  Against her own desire, for she would stay in his safe, gentle dream state, she honored the beckoning voice and opened her eyes.  The dream was now made flesh.  Stunned Xena hesitated.  Dream was now flesh.  She stepped forward fearful to touch where there might be a wound.  Her hand hovered inches of Gabrielle’s form.

 

“Where were you?”

 

Xena confessed.  “With you.”

 

“I’m here now.  Hold me.”

 

Xena gently took Gabrielle in her arms.  “I don’t want to hurt you.”

 

“Xena, I’ve been wanting nothing but you.  Please hold me.  I need to feel you.  Don’t let me go.”

 

Permission granted Xena embraced Gabrielle completely.  Gabrielle sighed Xena’s name in relief.

 

“I sent Tovi back to you.”

 

“We met her on the path.  Ariel, Damia and Jamine were my escorts.”

 

Xena pulled back.  “They should have been with you.”  Xena explored Gabrielle’s wound.  “This wouldn’t have happened.”

 

“Don’t you mean you should have been with me?  Xena, you may have caught the arrow if you had been with me but nothing is to say the assassin wouldn’t have just waited for a time when I was alone.”

 

Uncomfortable with the truth, Xena chose to mine a different vein.  “What have you learned?”

 

“Everything tells me that it wasn’t a member of the Northern tribe.  The only way it could have been is if there was a great conspiracy and if that is true I’m sure I would be dead by now.  It was either a member of this village or an old enemy.  Xena, I find it hard to believe that a stranger to the Amazons could have infiltrated our defenses undetected.”

 

“I don’t know.  Even our hunting parties haven’t been gone for more than three days.  It would take longer than that to travel back and forth from the villages.  We can check again but I don’t think there is anyone who couldn’t account for themselves.”

 

Gabrielle admitted.  “I can’t help but think about Yakut and how she mistakenly tried to harness Alti’s powers.

 

Xena countered.  “The Southern village doesn’t have the same traditions.  Of the Olympian gods only Aphrodite, Aries and Celeste have survived…”

 

“Aries wouldn’t do anything.  Not after everything we’ve been through.  Xena, there are other powers in this world.  Powers we don’t know about.”

 

“I can imagine.”

 

Gabrielle was feeling her fatigue.  “Xena, I am tired.”

 

Xena’s concern for Gabrielle heightened.  “Let’s get back.”

 

“I’d rather stay here tonight.”

 

“Another time, Gabrielle.  The queen’s quarters is the healthiest place for you to rest.  I promise you we will sleep under the oak one night soon.”

 

Gabrielle took Xena in completely.  From her first recognition of Gabrielle’s return to the discussion of her wound there had been an abrupt shift in her demeanor.  Gabrielle hoped Xena would soften anew but she did not.  Watching her from afar Gabrielle sensed Xena’s mystical self had been allowed full reign.  Ironically, once in Xena’s arms Gabrielle felt the warrior had distanced herself.

 

Xena felt a rising discomfort in Gabrielle’s scrutiny.  “What is it?”

 

“Stop it.”  It was a muted plea.  “It’s only you and me here.”

 

Xena locked her gaze to Gabrielle’s.  Their eyes would speak where words failed them.  Xena turned grimly taking a few steps away from her beloved.  Gabrielle knew to wait.  This was not the first time an injury to Gabrielle caused Xena to withdraw.  Xena looked to the heavens.  She knew better than to expect an intervention.  She took a deep breath and turned back to the bard.

 

Her speech was measured and stern.  “Don’t ever ask me again to stay away from you when you’re hurt.  You wouldn’t have stayed away if it was me.”

 

Gabrielle did not have to consider long to conclude that Xena spoke the truth.  The earth around her could have been consumed by fire but she would have battled through it to get to Xena.  She realized that the separation was far more difficult for her partner than it had been for her.  “I promise.”

 

Xena felt vindicated.  She nodded and spoke one word. “Good.” By it she affirmed that Gabrielle would never place her in such an untenable position again. 

 

Gabrielle felt the press of her heart within her breast.  The magnitude of her mistake was reflected in Xena’s obvious struggle to maintain her crumbling fašade.  It was wrenching to witness the impact of her decision.  “Forgive me.”

 

Forgiveness?  Was it necessary?  Xena’s stand clarified.  She understood that commingled with her concern was anger.  Not the obvious anger towards Gabrielle’s assailant but anger towards Gabrielle.  Gabrielle may not have been able to prevent the arrow but…

 

“Xena…”  Gabrielle’s weak cry for help interrupted Xena’s thoughts.  Gabrielle’s leg’s buckled.  Xena called Gabrielle’s name as she surged and caught her bard at mid-fall.  She cradled her in arms.

 

Gabrielle looked up to her.  “I’m so tired.”

 

“You’re home now.”

 

 

 

Tovi was not the only one who could hear Cici’s rants.  Her verbal abuse against Ariel was brutal.  Cici demanded to know who had stolen Ariel’s affections from her.  ‘As if larceny could claim ones affections’, thought Tovi.  Whatever Ariel was saying in her defense it did not penetrate the night.  Like Karis before, Tovi was left to wonder how Ariel could have considered Cici a potential partner. 

 

Ariel stood in the center of her quarters as Cici circled the room with mounting rage.  Cici charged, “You haven’t given me a chance!”

 

Ariel responded mildly, “I know what I feel and what I don’t feel.”

 

Cici stopped her pacing and approached Ariel.  Her manner was a desperate seduction.  “I know the art of love.  Ariel, I will excite your passions.  You have not known a woman like me.  You can’t imagine what I can do to you.”

 

The words “to you” left Ariel cold.  She felt like an object used for the pleasure and ego of another.  She dreamed of not being ‘done to’ but ‘being with’ another.  “Cici, I’ve tried to explain.”

 

“You’ll throw me aside?”

 

“I just don’t feel…”

 

“What is it that you want?  Ever since Gabrielle and Xena returned you have been moody.  Tell me, how close are you to our queen?  Did you keep each other warm during your travels?”

 

“Shut up!  Say what you will of me but don’t speak of our queen.”

 

Tovi heard approaching footsteps.  She glanced towards the north meadow path.  Xena stepped out from the shadows with Gabrielle in her arms.  Tovi moved quickly.  So too Damia and Jamine who were at the opposite side of the courtyard.

 

Tovi’s question preceded her.  “Is Gabrielle all right?”

 

Xena whispered.  “She’s just tired.”

 

Cici’s voice carried.  “I’m sure Xena would want to know.”

 

Xena requested an explanation.  “What’s going on?”

 

Damia and Jamine joined them.  Jamine inquired, “Gabrielle?”

 

Tovi preferred to answer the latter question.  “She’s asleep.”

 

Cici slammed the lodge door closed and walked into the night.  She took in the scene of Xena with Gabrielle surrounded by the queen’s escorts.  Without a word she entered the stable.

 

In a low but unrelenting voice Xena demanded.  “Someone tell me what just happened.”

 

The escorts’ discomfort was tangible.  Damia and Jamine both looked to Tovi for relief.  Xena’s eyes followed.

 

Tovi met the unspoken challenge.  “Ariel has severed her ties with Cici.  Cici accused Ariel of dishonoring herself with our queen.”

 

Xena looked down to the woman she held in her arms and placed a kiss on her forehead.  The brief silence was broken by Cici riding her mount from the stable, across the courtyard and beyond the village gate.

 

Damia judged.  “Cici’s a fool.”

 

Jamine added.  “It may be best for her to put some distance between herself and…”  Jamine’s eyes carried to Xena.  Xena’s poised expression solicited a blush.

 

Xena requested, “Tovi, can you help me.”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Let’s go.”  Xena took a couple of steps and then held and turned.  “Damia, Jamine.  The hardest thing in life for me to accept is that I can’t protect Gabrielle from all harms.  I know you did your best.  Thank you.”

 

The two escorts had expected Xena’s ire not gratitude.  They bowed to her in unison.  Xena posed a question to Tovi as they walked.  “Did the whole village hear?”

 

“Hard not to.”

 

“Tell Ariel to come to Gabrielle in the morning.”

 

Tovi opened the door to the queen’s quarters.

 

Xena paused at the threshold.  “And tell her all will be well even though she might not think so right now.”

 

“Yes, Xena.”

 

Xena entered.  Tovi gently closed the door behind her.

 

Xena placed Gabrielle on the pallet and proceeded to undress her.  The queen had missed the ugly scene.  Telling her in the morning was not going to be pleasant.  Xena was certain Gabrielle would feel more disappointment than anger toward Cici.  The question was whether any discipline would be expected for the show of disrespect.  Gabrielle’s compassion for the young warrior suffering from unrequited love would be considerable.  There was a time before they confessed their love that they harbored a similar pain.

 

 

 

Tovi stood outside the queen’s quarters for a heartbeat.  Xena betrayed nothing in regard to Cici’s outburst.  Her only concern was Gabrielle.  As it should be.

 

Ariel left her quarters.  Tovi caught sight of her and followed, quickening her step to close the distance between them.  Ariel stopped and turned just as Tovi reached her. 

 

Her words were biting.  “What do you want!”

 

Tovi’s momentum came to a halt.  “I have a message from Xena.  You’re to see Gabrielle in the morning.”

 

Ariel’s bitterness seeped through her pours.  “Damn the Fates!”

 

Tovi tried to comfort.  “She wasn’t angry.”

 

Ariel preoccupation with her own concerns made her deaf and blind to the balm that stood before her.  “Am I suppose to be grateful?”

 

Tovi took a step back.  She didn’t like what she saw in Ariel and what she was feeling because of it.  She turned and walked away.  Her obligation met. 

 

Ariel watched Tovi’s retreat.  What had she just done?  Who had she allowed herself to become?  She regretted her venom and wished to retract the wound inflicted.  But, it was too late.  Words spoken will not be forgotten.  She felt her burden doubly, first, Cici’s shameful accusation of the queen and now her own failure to treat a tribal sister with respect.  Her gaze traveled to the queen's lodge.  What reception awaited her in the morning?  Tovi said Xena was not angry.  Why then a call to counsel?  Was it Gabrielle who would take her to task?

 

 

 

Gabrielle stirred.  Xena turned to her beloved.  Damia was right.  Cici was a fool to think she could challenge Ariel’s fidelity by naming the queen as an illicit accomplice.  Xena whispered in Gabrielle’s ear.  “I love you.”

 

Gabrielle opened her eyes.  “Tell me again.”

 

Xena was happy to comply.  “I love you more than life itself.”  She kissed Gabrielle gently on the lips.  “How are your feeling?”

 

“Better.  It was a hard ride.”

 

“You’re forgiven.”

 

Gabrielle searched Xena’s blue eyes.  They were not soulful but bright.  The bard felt the gift of grace.  “Thank you.”

 

“Gabrielle, something happened last night that the queen is going to have to handle.”

 

“Can’t it wait?  I don’t want to be the queen right now.”

 

“Ariel will be coming to see you.  She let Cici know that she didn’t have any affection for her.  Cici didn’t take it well and accused Ariel of being with you.  She was loud enough for everyone to hear.”

 

“Everyone?”

 

“The village.”

 

“The little fool.”

 

“That seems to be the consensus.”

 

“You’re not jealous?”

 

“I know who you call for in your dreams.”

 

“Yes, you do don’t you.”  Gabrielle placed her hand around Xena’s neck and raised herself to steal a kiss.  There was no theft.  Xena surrendered herself willingly.  Gabrielle jerked as a bolt of pain traveled through her shoulder.

 

Xena laid her back on the pallet.  “You need to rest.”

 

With a sigh, “I’m fine.”  Wanting to deflect the focus away from her injury, “I am afraid Ariel won’t be able to look me in the eye.”

 

Xena was cognizant of Gabrielle’s strategy to redirect the conversation.  She chose not to challenge the effort.  “Probably not.  I’m sure you’ll find a way to make her feel at ease.  What are you going to do about Cici?”

 

“I’ll let her come to me.”

 

“She’s proud.”

 

“And I’m patient.”

 

 

 

They heard a knock at their door.  Xena called out.  Ariel entered.

 

“Tovi said you wanted to see me.”

 

Xena announced.  “Well, I’ve got things to do.”  She turned to Gabrielle and smiled.  “Mid-day meal at the meadow?”

 

Gabrielle returned the smile.  “I’ll pack a basket.”

 

Xena grabbed her pack.  Passing Ariel while she moved towards the door she placed her hand on the young warrior’s shoulder.  “You did the right thing.”

 

Ariel watched Xena depart.  She hesitated in returning her gaze to her queen.

 

Gabrielle sat in a chair.  “I hear you had a tough night.”

 

“Everyone heard.”

 

“Everyone but me.”

 

Ariel was incredulous.  “Where were you?”

 

“Didn’t Tovi tell you?  I took ill.”

 

Ariel’s discomfort mounted.  “I’m ashamed to say I didn’t give her a chance.”

 

Gabrielle perceived Ariel’s anxiety.  “Ari, are you all right?”

 

“I don’t want to be here.”

 

“You’re free to leave.”

 

Ariel shook her head.  “No, I didn’t mean it that way.  How could I’ve been so wrong about Cici?”

 

“Loneliness can drive you into the wrong woman’s arms.  Ariel, you are gifted.  You need an equally gifted partner.  But more importantly you need to make peace with yourself.”

 

Ariel’s distress turned to anger.  “No disrespect my Queen but it is easy to say such words when you have found your soul mate and have her love.”

 

“As much as Xena was with me in spirit I was still alone in the sweat lodge with an arrow in my shoulder and the fear of my enemy beating in my heart.  Soul mates never stop being themselves.  As I waited for death’s approach I recollected and accepted the consequences of my life.  It’s not the first time I’ve done it and I don’t expect it will be the last.  No one can take that burden from me.”

 

Properly chastised Ariel retracted her attitude and showed a sincere humility.  “Yes, my Queen.”

 

“Ari, I just want you to know that Cici’s accusations mean nothing to me.  And I’m certain they will mean nothing to this tribe.”

 

“She was wrong to say it.  It’s a matter of honor.”

 

“Cici can’t take away my honor or yours.  Have you seen her today?”

 

“She hasn’t returned.  I suspect she’s riding to the north.”

 

“What harm can she do?”

 

Ariel pride reared forward.  “No one will believe her if that’s what you’re asking?”

 

The queen had had enough of Ariel’s attitude.  With a sharp and impatient tone she demonstrated her capacity to be brusque.  “Tensions between the tribes must be calmed.  I don’t want Cici to sabotage what I know you and Tovi can create together.”

 

Once again, Ariel felt the reprimand.  “I will send Jamine.  Cici won’t challenge her.  If she does Jamine won’t hesitate to put Cici under guard.”

 

“I would like to avoid that if we can.”

 

“It will be Cici’s decision to make.”

 

Gabrielle wanted to soften the outcome of their exchange.  “Ari, I plan to get some rest and enjoy the day.  Why don’t you do the same?  Tomorrow I will want to speak to both you and Tovi about the future I imagine for you and your tribes.”

 

 

 

Tovi sat leaning against a tree as she played her flute.  The melody was gentle.  From it her soul sought renewal.  The past half-moon cycle had been difficult.  Chaos had free reign, from Seda’s outburst, to the attempt upon Gabrielle’s life, to Ariel.  What of Ariel?  She embodied her namesake –a Lioness of God- were she of the desert tribe of Tovi’s mother.  Then again what is in a name.  Her own, Tovi –beloved- impressed upon her the irony of life, beloved who has no love.  She continued to play, her eyelids closed.  She invited the mysteries.  In the ever so brief moment when a breath is taken and music ceases she heard the approaching footsteps.  She would not be alone.  She opened her eyes slightly.  Before her the muscular legs of an Amazon of the north.  Her gaze traveled to the side from an arm to a hand holding a basket.  Tovi removed the flute from her lips and gave her full attention to the uninvited guess.  She thought she should be more surprised to see Ariel.  In silence Tovi waited for this Lioness of God to speak.  Humor entered her heart as a thought crossed her mind.  The Lioness may not be as fearless as one has been led to believe.

 

“I didn’t know you played.”

 

Tovi examined her flute wordlessly.

 

Ariel continued politely in an effort to win Tovi’s favor.  “The song was beautiful.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“Yours?  The song?”

 

“My mother’s.  She taught it to me when I was a child.”

 

“It’s a wonderful legacy to have.”

 

Tovi thought this was the Ari that intrigued her.  “Yes, it is.”

 

Ariel lifted the basket.  “I got the idea from Gabrielle and Xena.  They’re having mid-day meal at the north meadow.  I’m sorry about last night.  It was wrong of me…”

 

Tovi interrupted.  “I understand.  Say no more about it.”

 

“Gabrielle suggested I enjoy the day.  I thought we could share a meal and may be take some time to get to know each other better.  It would be helpful for our tribes.”

 

Tovi pointed to the basket with her flute.  “So this is for the good of tribal relations?”

 

“No, it’s my way of apologizing to a new friend.”

 

 

 

It was a brilliant day.  Gabrielle relished this moment as paradise on earth.  Xena resting after a full meal laid her head upon Gabrielle’s lap.  Gabrielle gazed beyond their place underneath the grand arbor toward the tall grasses, measuring each breath, relaxing every muscle with intention. 

 

“I love your smile.”

 

Gabrielle regarded the sentiment with a deep, enduring pleasure.  It coursed through her without resistance.  She turned her attention to the speaker.  There was mischief in her heart.  “Malina said it had the power to break hearts.”

 

“Did she?  This is the healer?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Xena’s curiosity was not feigned.  “Is she beautiful?”

 

“Very.  And she has a soothing touch.”

 

With that last phrase Xena fell at ease.  She knew the game had begun.  “Did you flirt with her?”

 

Gabrielle shook her head.  “Actually, I accused her of flirting with me.”

 

“Oh?”  Maybe the game wasn’t a game but a truth.

 

“Yes, my love.  She laughed at the thought of it.”

 

The warrior was vexed.  She felt an insult had been laid before her beloved.  “Why?  I would flirt with you.”

 

Gabrielle knew that Xena had been hooked and chuckled.  “She could be my grandmother.”

 

The warrior was quick.  “So!  You haven’t been shy about being with an older woman.”

 

Gabrielle affectionately stroked Xena’s forehead.  “Remind me.  Why do I love you?”

 

Xena cocked her head up and stole a kiss.  “Because I’m your soul mate and you have no choice.”  She returned to her rightful place.

 

“I had a suspicion that there was another pair of soul mates among us.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Tovi and Ariel.”

 

“That would be an alliance.”  Xena took Gabrielle’s hand and intertwined it with her own.  “Is that why Ariel ended things with Cici?”

 

“I don’t think so.  Anyway, I no longer see the two standing together.  There is a reason why they remain apart.”

 

“Not everyone is as dull-witted as we were.”

 

“Thank you!”

 

“Come on.  Aphrodite was at her wit’s end with us.”

 

“She did say as much.  Whatever it might be, I don’t think Tovi and Ari have seen their truth.”

 

“Are you planning to help them along?”

 

“Oh, no!  I’ve got my hands full just dealing with the mediations.”

 

“You’ve spent more time with our two young queens.  What do you think of them?”

 

“Malina said Ari hasn’t been touched by sorrow.  At least not the kind that molds a queen.”

 

“You think she’s right?”

 

“Yes.  Ari lets her emotions rule her to the point of losing sight of what needs to be done and why it needs to be done.”

 

“How about Tovi?”

 

“I like her.  She has the potential to be a formidable leader.  I do think she needs to loosen up a bit.”

 

Xena could argue that last observation.  “Did you hear about the wager?”

 

“About you coming north?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Ari told me.”

 

“Seems Tovi won.  She made the mistake of not masking her triumph when I gave her the scroll.”

 

“The wager must have been between the two of them.”

 

“I would say.  Looks like Ariel is a corrupting influence.”

 

“Not the kind I would object to.”

 

“I felt a bit different about it at the time.”

 

“I’m sure you did.  Remember, Tovi is still young.”

 

“Well, this old lady is going to take a nap.”

 

Xena closed her eyes.  Gabrielle could hear the warrior drifting into a sound sleep.  Gabrielle’s hand rested over Xena’s heart.  Xena’s hand lay over Gabrielle’s.  Life could be perfect in its absolute simplicity.

 

The motion was as quick as a lightening strike.  Xena caught the arrow a hand length from Gabrielle’s throat.  Without break in course she guided Gabrielle flat onto the earth and covered her with her own body.  Gabrielle could see the arrow still in Xena’s hand.

 

Xena growled.  “The coward.”

 

Gabrielle’s retort carried her irreverent humor.  “Xena, we’re the one’s on our belies.  Can you see anything?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

Gabrielle remained silent.  She knew Xena’s senses would scour the area. 

 

“Where is she?”

 

“She?  You sure?”

 

“Don’t know.”  Xena rolled onto her knee and took Gabrielle by the shoulders.  “Are you all right.”

 

Gabrielle placed her palm upon Xena’s cheek.  “Yes, thank you.”  With her other hand she indicated the arrow.  “May I see it?”

 

 “Yea, sure.”  Xena continued to scan the landscape.  “We better get back.  I want to have a talk with the perimeter guards.”

 

 

Comments: Always encouraged and appreciated.  Mayt@aol.com

 

 

Continued - Part 3

 

 

 


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