A Remembrance Of Still Waters

By Mike

(mrbacim@btinternet.com)

Disclaimer: Neither of our heroines, dead or alive, belongs to me in any shape or form. They remain the property of the folks at Renpic and Universal/MCA who kindly shared them with us for 6 years. Hopefully they’ll be generous enough to do the same again at some time in the future. Oh please oh please.

Warnings: The following assumes a loving relationship between two women and if that turns up the heat too much, then this particular kitchen isn’t for you. It isn’t explicit, however.

It also features mild allusions to, but no direct descriptions of, sexual violence; brief scenes of violent confrontation; and much of the other angsty stuff of the saga’s major storylines, including the potential tragedies of childbirth and relationships with children. I believe this serves a purpose, and I’ve tried not to make it either gratuitous or overly circumspect, since I think that would be dishonest. Please be careful if these things may upset you.

Note: This follows on from my two previous efforts, ‘When Xena Died,’ and ‘Who Would I Be, Without You?’ being a further piece of post-FIN fiction containing spoilers. I’m calling this (ongoing?) piece of work my ‘Am I Really Who I Am?’ series, since it continues to deal with themes of identity - just like the show itself, I guess. Or perhaps I’m just being pretentious and enjoying it. J

Dedication: For Kathy, who taught me most of what I know about stillness and calm.

 

 

 

Memories.

Moments in time that can become like old friends, bringing warmth and solace, to be revisited when we need them; or made into bitter enemies, filling us with hurt and confusion, and fought with so as to be kept at bay. Memories, fading from view.

I remember our words on that day so clearly. I remember them because they foretold who both of us would become. And I can still hear the fear in me, even after so many years have passed.

‘Xena—I could have killed someone. I mean—I was capable of it.

And Xena’s attempt to comfort me. ‘We’re all capable of it. The point is, you didn’t cross that line.’

I was insistent in my questioning. ‘But I got close enough to peek over. And what I saw scared me’

Xena paused, and then gestured to the lake by which we sat. ‘See how calm the surface of the water is. That was me once. And then-‘ She threw a stone picked up from the cool earth into it’s centre. ‘The water ripples and churns; that’s what I became.’

It was my turn to reassure. ‘But if we sit here long enough it will go back to being still again. It will go back to being calm."

And now Xena was more resigned to her doubts even than I had been. ‘But the stone’s still under there. It’s now part of the lake. It might look as it did before, but it’s forever changed.’

I looked out onto the lake, and I wondered if what she said could be true. Would the past live through us and determine the present? Or would we take the present and fashion it into the future that we chose for ourselves?

‘Let’s go.’ Xena stood, and we left the calmness of the water behind us. And beneath its surface, the stone lay unmoved and forgotten.

 

 

 

The sun of late afternoon was waning into the cool of early evening, and Xena was by my side as we stepped onto dry land for the first time in days. The last stage of our journey had been exhausting, and I had worked hard with the crew to bring us to our destination. Alexandria. Perhaps I should have been thrilled to be there again. But then, our last visit generated few happy memories in me. Everything changes. Everything remains the same.

My heart was restless. The last few weeks had been like a dream, a time to rest and exchange promises, to try the familiar and the unfamiliar in the wake of our journey to Higuchi. But now the time was approaching when I would learn if I was truly Xena’s heir, or if I was a pretender to the power of the chakram and everything that went with it. We were returning to the world to find our places within it. And so it began again.

 

 

 

The evening wore on, but the streets of the city were still alive with people, and it seemed an unpleasant contrast to the relative solitude of our return journey from the East. I wandered down thoroughfares bustling with street traders and people going about their busy lives, and felt a little overwhelmed by the noise and urgency of the crowds.

Xena walked beside me, unseen to everyone but me; and yet despite the mob that swirled around us, no-one ever invaded the space that she occupied, as though they could sense the presence in their midst. Or perhaps they were just intimidated by the sight of a blonde would-be warrior princess packing two large shoulder bags and a lot of exotic weaponry. I smiled inwardly. If only it was to be that easy.

I spoke quietly to Xena. ‘I want to get out of this. Let’s find a place to spend the night.’

She gestured to a side street. ‘Then we should head for somewhere a little more out of the way.’ We turned into the smaller byway and I felt a huge sense of relief at the speed with which the crowds dispersed. Within minutes we were almost alone.

There were taverns to be found at regular intervals, but I rejected the first several that we passed because of their filthy exteriors. Eventually Xena’s mocking glances made me accept her suggestion of an only slightly cleaner-looking establishment, and she feigned relief. ‘At last. I was beginning to feel quite exhausted.’ Since I happened to know that was totally untrue, I gave her a sustained glare in response, but she only formed her lips into that ironic little smile that she has. And then the exasperation melted, and as had happened so many times in the last few weeks, I was filled with a sense of wonder at how completely she remained my Xena, my lover, my reason for living.

We went inside and I sat at one of the few vacant tables, situated in a corner of the large barroom. I drew a lot of stares, my blonde hair and fair skin being a rarity even amongst travellers in the land of the pharaohs. It was nothing new, and I ignored the frank curiosity of the slightly drunken men who leered at me from every direction. A serving woman emerged from the kitchens in company of an older man, and while he took his place behind the bar, she walked towards us to take my order.

At first I did not see her clearly in the semi-light, but as she drew nearer, she turned her face to me and I realised that she was little more than a girl, certainly no older than her late teens. On her left cheek was a large mass of whitened scar tissue, and I saw that it stretched down past her neck and onto her upper body. She wore simple, almost colourless, loose clothing that hid her figure from the eyes of other people.

Xena’s voice was grim. ‘Burns. Bad ones, too. Looks like it was a long time ago.’ She shook her head. ‘It’s a miracle that she lived.’

By now the young woman had drawn level with me. ‘Good evening to you, my lady. What can I bring you?’ She sounded tired, withdrawn, and her face was almost expressionless.

I felt a tug of guilt for the way in which I had been staring at her, and offered her a smile. ‘Hot food, a small mug of wine, and a large jug of water to wash it all down with, if you can.’

She did not return the smile, remained apathetically businesslike. ‘We have a good lamb stew, and freshly baked bread, if that would suit you.’ ‘It would suit me fine. And we - that is, I need a room for the night. Can you help me?’

She nodded without energy. ‘We have no other travellers staying here at present. I’ll tell my father and make somewhere ready for you.’ She turned to go, and then for a moment I saw in her a brief flash of interest as her eyes lit upon my possessions piled on the floor beside the table. She looked back at me as though she wanted to say something more, but seemed to think better of it, and moved away.

Xena shook her head. ‘There goes someone with a very heavy burden to bear.’

I looked at her, turning from the other patrons in the tavern and speaking in a low voice to obscure the fact that I appeared to be talking to myself. ‘What do you mean?’

‘The scars. The fear she carries. And then there’s the baby.’

‘Baby? You mean she’s---’ I took another look at her retreating figure, and realised that the loose clothing served a purpose. ‘She hides it well. I wouldn’t have realised if you hadn’t told me.’

Xena shrugged. ‘I didn’t see it myself. I felt the child’s presence, touched it’s spirit.’ She considered for a moment. ‘Due in a little over two moons.’

I digested the news of my lover’s new skill. I supposed it only made sense. ‘Then I hope that means she has a better future to look forward to than the past that she’s survived.’

 

 

 

The food and drink were delivered as promised, and proved to be more sustaining and better prepared than I had expected. As I sat drinking mug after mug of water to replace the fluids lost in the heat of the day just past, we talked of the future.

‘Perhaps we could stay here awhile. There are libraries in the city I didn’t get chance to visit when we were here last.’

Xena was less easily pleased. ‘Gizeh. We should visit the burial places of the kings.’

‘You, playing the tourist?’

She pursed her lips at me. ‘No, me following through on the talk we heard in the ports that we’ve visited about unrest amongst the locals and the problems that’s going to cause with their Roman overlords.’

‘Why Gizeh?’

‘Because it represents the glory of Egypt’s past, and as such has become a focus for dissidents. So we’ll start there.’

I feigned annoyance. ‘Don’t I get a say in this? You told me that since I became keeper of the legacy, I made the decisions about where we go and what we do.’

Understanding that I was in truth loving the feeling of being once again on a mission together and not at that moment caring who took the lead, Xena gave my question all of the consideration that it deserved. ‘I lied.’

To take any perceived sting out of her words, she leaned over and kissed me lightly on the cheek. The gesture wasn’t needed, but that didn’t mean I liked it any the less. I grinned. ‘Well, just this once I’ll follow your suggestion. But you remember who wears the chakram in this relationship, alright?’

She grimaced. ‘Only if you remember to be careful. You’re a known enemy of Rome. People may not expect you to be travelling alone, but if news of my death reaches here, that advantage will be lost to you. So keep the chakram hidden for now.’

‘That’s why it’s in the bag, Xena.’ I surreptitiously took hold of her hand as it rested on the table, a hand that only I could see. ‘And don’t worry. I’ll be fine.’

She wasn’t smiling. ‘Gabrielle------’

She was interrupted by a commotion from another corner of the room, and I turned away from Xena and towards the noise. The serving girl was in the grip of one of the patrons of the bar, and two of his friends were looking on, seeming to enjoy the show. As I watched, he pulled her to him and made as if to kiss her, but she turned her face from him, and tried to pull away.

His words were loud and venomous. ‘Ungrateful bitch. You should be pleased when any man shows interest in that ugly face of yours.’ There was laughter from the table at which he sat. Encouraged, he continued with his game. ‘So you don’t want my hands on you? Perhaps the tender caresses of the fire were more to your liking? I’ve a mind to tear those rags from you so that we can all see just how much of you it claimed for it’s own.’

‘Leave her alone!’ The barman’s voice was frantic. Her father, I assumed.

The assailant was unimpressed. ‘Shut up, old man.’ He twisted the girl’s arm and she cried out in pain.

I stood up, glanced briefly at my sais atop my pack. Xena looked at me questioningly, and I knew she was right. I didn’t need them. I stepped forward, clear of the tables, and made sure my words carried across the room. ‘She’s not interested.’

My aim was to focus attention on me and away from the serving girl. I succeeded. The man stared at me, open-mouthed. I decided to push things a little further. ‘But then, I don’t imagine that any woman would be interested in a man with the manners of a pig. Not to mention the looks.’

The man was shaking with anger. He let go of his victim and stood up. ‘If I wanted your opinion of my manners, I’d ask for it, you underdressed foreign whore.’

I raised my eyebrows. ‘And if I wanted your opinion of my clothing, I’d beat it out of you, you sack of dung.’

That did it. He lurched at me, covering the yards between us in seconds, but he was taken completely unawares when I side-stepped and then shoulder-blocked him into the nearest table. He landed hard against the wooden furniture, and I stood over him with arms relaxed at my sides. He rose to his knees, shaking his head, and then made an untidy lunge with a knife that had suddenly appeared in his right hand. I took a half-step back, and kicked out at the hand, taking the blade out of his grasp. And then I moved in close and slapped him hard across the face with my open palm.

He gave a look that showed more stupefaction than hurt, and with a roar, made to grab me in a bear hug. I was tiring of defensive manoeuvres. This time my boot landed in his stomach, and he went down heavily, choking for breath. I was moving in again to administer the final touches when a voice spoke out from behind me.

‘Don’t.’

At first I didn’t recognise the source, because the word carried so much feeling, so much hurt and despair, that nothing else registered. It was the cry of someone who had used that same word in many situations, had implored that others hear her and spare her their abuses. The cry of someone who was resigned to being ignored, never listened to, unable to make others leave her alone. It was spoken quietly, but in a way that penetrated the noise of the inn.

I turned to look at the serving girl, saw the terror on her face. And I realised that she was as scared of me as of the man who had attacked her.

There was a quaver in her voice. ‘Please don’t hurt him any more.’

I was completely taken aback, started to speak, then stopped myself. When I found my tongue again, I could only respond lamely and without understanding. ‘I won’t.’

Trying to maintain some kind of command of the situation, I gestured to the table at which the man had been sitting. ‘Take your friend out of here.’

The barkeeper had stepped forward, placing his arms around the serving girl’s shoulders. His words carried savage pleasure. ‘And tell Melchis not to come back! None of you are welcome here any more.’

The two men who had been drinking with the beaten man stood, and moving cautiously towards their stricken friend, unceremoniously picked him off the floor and carried him out of the inn. The door closed noisily behind them.

The barkeeper looked at me with an expression of profoundest relief. ‘I’m grateful to you, my lady. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know what to do. If there’s anything I can do to repay you ------’

I gave a half-smile. ‘You could show me to my room. It’s been a long day.’

He gave a short bow. ‘Of course, my lady. My daughter will take you.’ He turned to the semi-full barroom. ‘I’m closing for the night. My apologies, but you can blame those animals, not me.’ A chorus of disgruntled voices erupted, but people slowly began to move to the door.

I moved back to my table. Xena nodded at me easily. ‘Nice moves.’

I whispered my response. ‘She didn’t think so.’ Hearing the heaviness of my words, Xena made no reply.

 

 

 

The room was small and plain, but much preferable to the cramped cabin that I had inhabited recently, and I realised how tired I actually was. Xena wasted no time and occupied the comfortable-looking bed mat that took up most of the available space. I turned to the serving girl with a few coins in my hand. ‘Will this cover the bill so far?’

‘Yes, lady. It’s more than enough. I’ll return anything owed to you before you leave.’ She made as if to go.

I had to know more, wanted her to speak. ‘You should know by now that I’m no lady. Please, call me Gabrielle.’

But she remained as closed to me as before. ‘As you wish, lady Gabrielle.’

‘Gabrielle will do just fine. And your name is?’

‘Kenzia, daughter of Sobek.’

‘Sobek is the man who keeps bar downstairs?’

‘Yes.’

It wasn’t working. I resigned myself to getting no answers, and threw my heavy packs down at the far side of the room, preparatory to wishing her a good night.

I saw her eyes move to my possessions, and felt the same hesitant curiosity within her that I had noted earlier that evening. I spoke as gently as I was able. ‘Kenzia, was there something you wanted to ask me?’

There was momentarily more energy about her, but she still struggled to meet my gaze. ‘I - it’s your weapons, my lady. Does - does every woman carry them where you come from?’

I smiled. ‘No. I’m not unique, but neither am I a very typical example of the women of Greece. In fact, some people might go so far as to say I’m a bit of a rebel.’ There was a derisory sound from Xena, stifled almost as soon as it began.

Kenzia seemed more than a little surprised. ‘Then how do you do it? I mean, if other people disapprove of what you do, how do you survive?’

The simple intensity of her words hit home, and I realised that my attempts at levity showed no respect for the seriousness of her questions. ‘Because I’m not alone.’ I looked across to Xena, whose previously relaxed posture had amended itself into an attitude of paying full attention to our exchange. ‘Because I found a friend who showed me that it wasn’t a sin to want to walk a path different to the one that had been decided upon for you by other people. And by being with her, I met others who had chosen to do the same, and so I never looked back.’ I felt the need to explain myself a little more. ‘Kenzia, did you ever hear of the Amazons?’

Her eyes lit up, and she was abruptly much more animated than before. ‘Yes. Women from lands far away, strong and free and able to live as they wished. I always thought that was such a wonderful story. ’

A smile reached my eyes, but I kept it from the rest of my face. ‘It’s not a story. I belong to the Amazon sisterhood.’

She was frankly amazed. ‘You can’t mean it?’ The possible insult that her words implied struck her, and she stammered an apology. ‘I’m sorry, my lady, I meant no offence---------’

I put a hand on her shoulder. ‘And I took none. I’m a stranger, so why should you believe me? But the legends are true. I’m proof of it.’ I squeezed her arm. ‘But I will take offence if you keep on calling me my lady.’ I made sure that she saw the twinkle in my eyes. ‘Amazons hate that, you know.’

For a moment her doubts seemed to vanish, and then she smiled with me, a real smile from which her fears were finally banished. ‘As you wish ---- Gabrielle.’

I moved towards her, took hold of her hand slowly. ‘Kenzia, you asked me about myself, and I told you a secret of mine. I have no right to ask for anything in return, but------’. I struggled with the intrusiveness of the question, decided to simply go ahead and ask. ‘That man earlier - Melchis, your father called him? Why did you stop me from punishing him for what he’d done to you?’

Her eyes became haunted again. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’

‘Try me.’ I hesitated. ‘I did something wrong, something that scared you. I want you to tell me what it was, so I won’t make the same mistake again.’

She shook her head. ‘If you speak the truth, if you really are an Amazon, you could never understand.’ I heard the regret in her voice, regret not just for her inability to trust me, but for all the times in her past when that same fear had overpowered her. ‘I must go.’

Xena took a belated hand in the conversation. ‘Ask her about the baby, Gabrielle.’

I shot her a concerned look. She nodded. ‘Please.’

Kenzia was in the act of closing the door on her way out, and I simply blurted out the words, horribly unclear what I was doing, as though I was not only intruding on some private grief but working hard to make it worse. And yet maybe we could help. ‘Kenzia - you’re pregnant, aren’t you?’

A shadow descended over her face as she turned to look back at me. Her body trembled and she sagged visibly. ‘How did you know?’

I waved the question aside. ‘I just did. What’s wrong?’ She said nothing, stood there as if waiting for something.

Her passivity worried me. I tried again. ‘Didn’t you want the child?

There was a dull resignation in her tone. ‘I’m not married.’

I shrugged. ‘Well, that’s no shame.’

‘Maybe not where you come from.’ And then she moved back and began to pull the door to. I made an abortive attempt to hold the door open, realised that I had forced enough from her, and let her go.

I slumped down to the mat. ‘What good were we to her? All we did was make her feel worse.’

Xena leaned over and kissed me softly. ‘I don’t know. Maybe something changed for her, maybe not. Being able to sort through the wreckage of other people’s lives and find a way to bring them into the light isn’t a skill I’ve ever possessed.’

I shook my head. ‘You know that’s not true. You’re one of the most empathic people I’ve ever met. You just hate to admit it.’

There was a little shake of laughter from within Xena. ‘Yeah, right.’

I let it go, knowing that in death Xena was no more disposed to reveal the depth of her heart than she had been in life. Except where I was concerned, and perhaps a very few others. ‘This isn’t the first night back amongst people that I’d imagined.’

She touched my face lightly. ‘No? Maybe you were expecting to be killing gods and saving the world?’ I smiled weakly. ‘Something like that.’

Wordlessly, Xena encouraged me to lie down on the bed mat and began to remove my boots. For a moment I wanted to laugh at the atypically servile gesture, but I’d fallen asleep before she had completed her work. I dreamed of a tendril of fire that dragged it’s prey screaming towards it, bringing her closer and closer to being consumed in the furnace of it’s unquenchable lust for victims.

 

 

 

Before Xena, I inhabited a world that lacked many of the harsher things of life - there was death, but it was the kind that held purpose or meaning, the slaughter of an animal for the table, the passing of someone loved but who had died surrounded by those who had made their existence a happy one. Then I followed my dark warrior over new horizons, and saw pain and suffering without purpose, without mitigation, saw war and wholesale killing, the wanton destruction of life on a scale I had never imagined could be so. And I feared how this would change me.

Memories.

I see myself cowering in Xena’s arms, wanting her to take away the pain. ‘Xena?’

She tries to lend me her strength, but I can sense her own devastation. ‘I’m here, Gabrielle.’

A shudder runs through me. ‘It hurts inside.’

‘What?’

I feel the waters of the lake ripple and churn, see the stone sinking into its translucent grasp. ‘Everything’s changed. Everything.’

And I wait for the stillness to return, and for the stone to be buried in the depths of the years to come.

 

 

 

 

Xena was shaking me, none too gently. ‘Gabrielle! Wake up. There’s trouble.’

I came to quickly, reached over to where I had left my sais and the chakram. Xena’s hand stopped me, her apparent ability to see in the dark meaning that she had caught me before I had found my weapons. ‘Not that kind of trouble. Downstairs, quickly.’

Pulling on my boots, I left the room and moved to the head of the staircase. Beneath me I saw Sobek covering himself with a cloak, and making ready to leave the tavern.

I called out to him. ‘What’s wrong?’

He started at the unexpected sound. ‘Your pardon, my lady. I didn’t mean to wake you. It’s my daughter.’

I continued down the stairs. ‘Kenzia? What about her?’

There was a note of panic in his words. ‘She’s gone. I went up to her room to talk to her, and she wasn’t there.’

Xena spoke rapidly. ‘Keep him talking. I’ll find the girl, and come back for you.’ When I looked towards her, she had vanished.

I did as she had suggested. ‘Where could she be, Sobek?’

He shook his head. ‘I don’t know.’ His voice cracked. ‘She’s all I’ve got, my lady.’

‘She’s your only child?’

There was a desperate sadness in him. ‘She isn’t really my child. Her father was my business partner for many years, but both he and Kenzia’s mother died nearly fifteen summers ago in the fire that left her so badly scarred. My own wife had died trying to give us a child, and I took her in, tried to take care of her.’ He bowed his head. ‘You saw earlier how I’ve failed her in that.’

He tried to collect himself. ‘I must find her. Please excuse me.’ I was about to try and dissuade him when I heard Xena’s voice from behind me. ‘Come with me, quickly. And Gabrielle - it’s bad.’

I tried to ignore the dread that welled up in me, directed myself instead to calming Sobek. ‘Listen, I’ll go and look for her. You stay here in case she returns.’ And I moved briskly outside before he could argue with me.

Xena guided me further into the maze of streets, and I followed at a rapid pace. Minutes passed, and I was beginning to tire when she turned into a narrow alley and with a thrill of horror I saw Kenzia lying bundled against the stone wall of a building, hidden in shadow. In the dim light I could not even see if she was conscious, but there was something disturbing about the awkward position in which her body lay.

I couldn’t hide my shock. ‘What could she have been doing here?’

‘I don’t know.’ Xena gave a grim appraisal of the situation. ‘She’s been badly beaten. They did a very thorough job of it, but stopped short of breaking any bones. Her breathing’s very shallow.’

‘By the gods! And the baby?’

‘That’s the worst of it. I think she’s gone into labour.’

I felt a surge of despair, pushed it down and tried to be as focused as I was able. ‘Then we’ll have to act fast. Can I move her?’

Xena was brief and to the point. ‘You can’t leave her here.’

I looked around, then it came to me. ‘That last turning. There was a cart outside a tavern.’ Even before the words were out, I was running back in the direction I had come. There was no-one in sight of the handcart, but I didn’t wait to ask for permission. I began pulling the small wagon towards where Kenzia lay, and fortunately it was lighter than I might have guessed.

Getting her onto the cart seemed an impossibility. She wasn’t heavy, but I was scared that any careless handling would make her injuries worse. Eventually I was helped by the fact that she seemed to be returning to semi-consciousness, and with persuasion I was able to assist her into standing. At last I managed to lay her down and began the much slower return journey to Sobek’s inn. I sweated with the strain of being a beast of burden, and tried to make steady progress whilst Xena kept a close watch on the badly injured young woman.

When the nightmare journey was over I rapped on the door of the inn and was answered almost immediately. Sobek recognised me and was about to ask me a question when he spied Kenzia and let out a cry. He moved towards her and would have picked her up in his arms if I hadn’t stopped him. ‘Sobek, no! She’s hurt. We have to take care in moving her. Quickly, clear one of the tables inside and cover it with linen.’’ He looked at me wildly. ‘Trust me. I’ve seen the inside of a lot of hospitals in my time, believe me.’ I didn’t mention that most of them had been on battlefields.

With abrupt resolve, he disappeared indoors, and I checked Kenzia’s breathing and the racing of her heart. She was covered in a sheen of heavy perspiration, and involuntary moans escaped her lips. She seemed largely unaware of what was happening to her.

Sobek returned and with infinite care we lifted Kenzia under her arms and stumbled into the inn. We placed her on the edge of the table he had prepared, and between us gently eased her back. Xena had been watching intently throughout. There was real urgency in her voice. ‘She’ll live if we can end the labour as quickly as possible, take the strain off her body.’ She placed a hand on Kenzia’s swollen abdomen. ‘And the child won’t last much longer if we don’t remove it soon anyway.’

I turned to Sobek. He looked terror-stricken. ‘Get me boiled water from the kitchens. And there’s a knife in my pack. Fetch it now.’ He ran from the room, glad to have something to do.

I looked at Xena. ‘Can her baby live if it’s born so much ahead of it’s time?’

‘I don’t know. I’ve heard of children surviving an early labour, although it’s rare. But there’s no choice. They’ll both die if we don’t do something.’

I felt completely helpless. ‘‘I don’t know what to do.’

Xena’s voice soothed me. ‘I’ll show you.’ I heard Sobek returning. ‘But you’ll have to tell him what’s happening.’

I knew there wasn’t time to waste. ‘Sobek, did you know that Kenzia is pregnant?’

He stared at me open-mouthed. ‘You must be mistaken!’

I fixed him with my gaze. ‘I’m not mistaken. And the baby’s coming now, even though it’s early. We have to use the Roman method to remove the child from her womb or they could both die.’ I breathed in deeply. ‘But there are no guarantees. It’s bad, very bad. Do you understand?’

He placed his hands in front of his face and a keening sound came from deep within him. I spoke gently but firmly. ‘Sobek?’

He sounded almost like a child. ‘You can save her?’

‘I can try.’

‘Then do it.’

I nodded. ‘I’ll start. But you’ll have to fetch a midwife to help.’

He made an effort to pull himself back to the moment. ‘A midwife. Yes. Of course.’ And with a last frantic glance at his daughter, he made for the door.

Kenzia had passed again into unconsciousness. Xena pulled aside the young woman’s clothing, pointed towards an area of the exposed stomach. ‘Pressure point. Should take away most of the feeling.’ I felt for the right place, looked for Xena’s approval, and at her sign, tapped hard into the nerve centre. ‘Good. Now sterilise your knife in the fire.’ I moved over to the centre of the room briefly, brought two large candleholders into a position that allowed me to see better, and began running the blade through the busy flames.

I swallowed deeply. ‘Ready.’ Xena traced an arc across Kenzia’s lower abdomen, and I followed her fingers with the knife, making a deep incision that immediately started to bleed. Xena’s words calmed me. ‘That’s normal. You’re doing fine. Now you have to reach inside and find the baby’s head.’ I heard the strain begin to come through in the increasing tightness of her words. ‘And hurry. The child’s almost gone.’

I forced down the rising anxiety, and dipping my hands into one of the bowls of water on the next table, I moved forward, delicately placing my fingers against the cut I had made, and stretching them inside Kenzia. A few inches only, and they began to meet resistance. ‘I can’t----’ I caught myself, realising again that Xena couldn’t do this for me, tried to steady my jangling nerves. I felt around once more, found what seemed to be the child’s head. ‘I think I’ve got it-----’ The excitement built up in me. I would do this. I had to.

‘Gabrielle.’ Abruptly Xena sounded distant, almost shockingly neutral, and I wondered why. Looking up at her, it took some moments for me to register that she held a tiny baby in her arms, sleeping peacefully. I began to say something, totally confused. And then I understood. My shoulders slumped.

‘No.’ The word was only a whisper.

Xena was rocking the child back and forth. ‘A boy. She would have had a son.’ I could hear the distant memories that stirred within her.

The sense of failure swamped me. Tears stung at my eyes. ‘There has to be something I can do. If I can still deliver him, can’t I breathe air into him, bring him back?’ I began to shake, looked frantically at Kenzia. ‘Xena?’

I felt her touch upon me, drawing my hand from Kenzia’s stomach. ‘It’s too late. His spirit’s already passed from here.’ And when I turned back to her, the baby she had cradled had disappeared from sight. Xena leaned over and kissed my forehead.. ‘It was too soon, Gabrielle. There was nothing anyone could have done. I didn’t understand it at first, but he was fading so rapidly because his lungs weren’t fully developed. When his mother stopped breathing for him, he slipped away.’

Her fingers brushed against my face, catching the few tears that I had let fall. ‘He didn’t suffer, but he was very tired. He can rest now.’ But the words didn’t bring me the comfort that she intended.

She paused, then continued softly. ‘He still has to be birthed, Gabrielle. Or we’ll lose Kenzia as well.’ I nodded heavily, fought back the guilt, and began to follow her instructions to me.

 

 

 

By the time Sobek returned accompanied by an unfamiliar woman of roughly his own age, there was a small lifeless bundle lying wrapped in a blanket on the table next to Kenzia. The midwife took in the situation immediately, made little clucking noises, and began to empty the small shoulder bag that carried the tools of her trade. She lifted Kenzia’s clothing, hiding her from Sobek’s view with her own body, and took a look at the incision I had made. She selected a needle and thread, nodding approvingly. ‘You made a good cut.’ And then she began to work on the wound, so intent on the problem at hand that she ignored everyone and everything else.

Sobek was staring at the wrappings that contained the remains of the child. Until only minutes before, he had not even suspected its existence. Now he would never come to know the boy.

I felt empty inside. ‘I’m sorry. I couldn’t save him.’

He glanced over at me briefly. ‘Kenzia will live?’

‘She’s weak, and she’s lost a lot of blood. She’ll hurt for a long time, but she should recover if she’s looked after.’

His voice was firm. ‘Then you have nothing to be sorry for. You saved one life. I’m sure you did everything you could to save both.’ He turned to me. ‘Go to sleep, my lady. You did me great service tonight. Now rest.’

Part of me wanted to argue with him, to stay longer. But there was a stronger urge in me to be alone with Xena, and I knew I was exhausted. I touched him briefly on the arm, took a final look at Kenzia and her child, and walked away.

 

 

 

Xena held me in her strong embrace as I lay on the bed mat, wallowing in the misery of the night’s events. I said nothing, but she understood me perhaps better than I understood myself.

‘Sobek was right. You did everything you could.’

I shook my head. ‘I didn’t save Kenzia’s child.’

‘I told you, no-one could have saved him. It wasn’t meant to be.’

I looked up, needing an answer from her. ‘What happens to him? He was never born, but he died. Is life really so cruel?’

‘I don’t really understand. Death hasn’t given me answers to every question, and I’m still too much part of this world to know everything that lies beyond it. But I don’t believe his soul is lost. Perhaps he has other lives to live.’

I felt the sadness choking me. ‘But Kenzia and Sobek will never know him.’

Xena gave me a brief smile. ‘Or maybe they will. You and I know that souls that are bound together always find each other in time.’

I was going to say something more, but I stopped myself. I wanted to believe her, because it was better than the alternative, and I didn’t want to consider that. Gradually I fell into a shallow and dreamless sleep.

 

 

 

Despite all the tragedy through which Xena and I have lived, there have always been moments of happiness to heal our pain. It has been hard, but I know that there has been balance; and that we have much more cause for joy in each other than for regret.

Except perhaps in one thing.

Neither Xena nor I ever sought out motherhood, but fate brought us three children, and with each there was a great cost to be endured. Xena tried to give Solan a life that she could not provide for him herself, to protect him from what she was. But my mistakes killed her good intentions, and his innocence was extinguished by our mistrust of each other. The instrument of his dying was my own child, forced upon me; but a burden I accepted, if not gladly, because I wanted to make her into something more than she was when she sprang forth from the darkness of her sire. But I never had the opportunity to discover if this could be, and her separation from me left no choice but to acknowledge the evil that had grown within her, forcing me to try time and again to remove her from the world that she wanted to destroy.

And then there was Eve. A girl who was to be the offspring of the good in both of us, and our only surviving child. But for twenty-five long winters we were deprived of her, and although our love for her never dwindled, she had outgrown us before we had come to know her. The bond remains, but the lost years can never be regained.

Memories.

Xena’s despair, her certainty that the fault is hers alone. ‘I can’t believe that it’s my daughter we’re tracking - that it’s Eve who’s doing these terrible things.’

And my heart breaks, because we may have lost Eve just like I lost Hope. ‘Xena, this isn’t the Eve that you would have raised. Ares did this.’

The despair becomes anger. ‘Ares might have opened the door, but Eve had to walk through. I know her rage. It’s in Eve’s blood, Gabrielle. I made her who she was. I was her.’

And I grasp at the knowledge that there may still be a chance. ‘Then there’s hope. Because you changed.’

And so it came to be.

Eve. Where are you now? I need to tell you about how your mother died, how proud you would have been of her. I pray the day will come when that reunion takes place, and we can be together again, a family as we were meant to be.

And now I see another family torn apart. I failed you, Kenzia, because I was not there to protect you. But I will find who did this to you, and I will make them pay. If I cannot do even that, then the chakram is wasted in my hands.

 

 

 

It was almost noon when I arose with an aching body and heart. But I knew what had to come next. Xena knew, too.

‘Be careful, Gabrielle.’

I almost snapped at her. ‘You think I can’t handle this? I can hardly call the watch, can I? As you were so quick to point out, I’m not very welcome here in Alexandria. It wouldn’t be very clever to advertise my presence too readily.’

She shook her head. ‘Sometimes anger can overcome good sense.’

I glared at her. ‘That’s a strange thing for you to say.’

‘On the contrary, I know better than just about anyone who’s ever lived how dangerous rage can be.’

My temper evaporated. ‘I’m sorry.’

She gave me a crooked smile. ‘Forget it. Like I said, I know a little about what anger makes us do.’ She reached over and kissed me. ‘Come on, then.’

I moved to my possessions, piled in the corner. ‘Just a moment.’ I placed the sais in my belt, and hung the chakram next to them. Xena looked at me briefly, then nodded. I stepped through the doorway and went in search of Sobek and Kenzia.

 

 

Sobek was downstairs, sitting by himself at one of the many tables of the empty barroom. He glanced up at me as I approached.

I tried to sound positive. ‘How is she?’

He looked as though he hadn’t slept all night, and I could hear the mixture of relief and despair in him. ‘The midwife was just here again. She says that she’s doing as well as can be expected.’ He rubbed at his tired eyes. ‘She won’t talk to me, my lady. She won’t tell me who did this. Or who fathered the child. She won’t say anything.’

I wanted to be calm, but the anger was still present in me. ‘With your permission, I’ll try to find out what happened and make sure that justice is done.’

He nodded. ‘You can talk to her. But try not to upset her any more than you have to. She’s suffered enough.’

‘Thank you.’ I turned to walk back up the staircase.

‘My lady?’ I looked in his direction again. ‘What will you do if you find them? Whoever it was that injured my daughter?’

I was silent for a moment. Then the words came to me. ‘I’ll make them suffer.’

 

 

 

Kenzia was lying on her simple bed, dressed only in a shift and covered with linen. The door to her room was open, and I made sure that she was awake before I entered; although in truth, I don’t know that I would have waited to talk to her had she been sleeping. Xena stood in the doorway, arms folded, as I went in.

I sat down next to her, careful not to jar the tortured body. Most of the exposed flesh I could see was dark with contusions, and only her face looked even remotely free from bruises. I reached over and took her hand gingerly, and she tried to smile at me. ‘My father says that you saved my life last night.’

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing. She continued, the pain she was feeling evident in the strain of her words. ‘Thank you, Gabrielle. For being my guardian.’

My whole body tensed with shame. ‘I’m afraid I did a very poor job of that, Kenzia.’ I averted my eyes from her as the guilt overtook me. ‘I didn’t protect you or your baby.’

The gratitude I heard in her only made me feel worse. ‘What matters is that you did what you could.’ She hesitated. ‘So few people in my life have cared enough to even try.’

I couldn’t bear the way this was going, and forced the conversation somewhere else. ‘You have to tell me who did this. So I can stop them from hurting you again.’

She shook her head slowly, wincing with the hurt that it must have caused. ‘I told you yesterday. You wouldn’t understand.’

At first I didn’t fully comprehend her meaning, but then I thought back to what we had been talking of when she had first said this to me; and the terrible truth of what she was telling me now penetrated me like a knife. ‘You mean it was the father of your baby that gave you this beating?’

I saw the guardedness return to her eyes. ‘It doesn’t matter, Gabrielle.’

The momentary surprise had been supplanted again by my anger. ‘Yes, it does! Tell me who it was, Kenzia! You can’t let them get away with this.’

She closed her eyes, and turned her head away from me. I heard Xena’s much calmer voice from behind me. ‘You’re scaring her, Gabrielle.’ It brought me back to myself, thank the gods. I breathed deeply, and tried again. ‘Kenzia, I’m sorry, I’m truly sorry. But a man who can do this is dangerous. He could hurt other people, too. You have to let me try and stop him. You have to.’

There was a long silence. I wanted to plead with her again, but I didn’t trust myself, managed to hold back the words. When she finally spoke, her tears were flowing freely. ‘I thought he loved me. He told me he did, when he first came to me. Said that he’d look after me. And I almost believed him. One day my father was away on business and he came here, found me alone. He----’ She stopped once more.

I lowered my voice. ‘He raped you?’

‘He was rough with me, but he was the only man who’d ever ---- who’d ever desired me, and I didn’t know how to stop him.’ She swallowed. ‘That day wasn’t the only time. It went on like that for weeks. Then I discovered I was going to have his child. When I told him he went mad, said it couldn’t be his.’ She shuddered at the memories. ‘I asked him if he’d marry me, but he laughed at me. After that, he took every chance he could to humiliate me, to make me look small in front of other people. And I was terrified to go near him, to pay him any attention or be seen with him, in case he told anyone that I was pregnant.’ Her chest shook with the force of her grief.

And then it all made sense. Horrible, twisted sense. I breathed out the name. ‘Melchis.’

Kenzia nodded slowly. ‘I went to see him late last night, to plead with him to keep my secret a little while longer, because I was afraid that he’d take pleasure in punishing me after what you did to him. I knew I couldn’t hide the truth forever, but I just didn’t know how to tell my father, knew he’d be ashamed of me.’

I clasped her hand tighter. ‘You’re wrong. Your father loves you. He would have understood.’ I was reeling with the shock of it all, and I struggled to focus. ‘I would have understood, too. Why didn’t you trust me?’

For a moment she sounded like a little girl admitting to some childish wrong. ‘Because you’re an Amazon. You wouldn’t have let something like this happen to you.’ She became almost inaudible. ‘I’m not like you. I’m weak. You said that you walk your own path. I’ve always walked the path that others have chosen for me.’

I experienced a sickening flashback to my words of last night. To this young woman, it must have sounded like boasting, complacency of the worst kind. Xena seemed to know where my thoughts were going. ‘Don’t, Gabrielle. You’re not responsible for what happened. Look at her. She’s been so damaged by her life that she doesn’t think that she deserves anything other than being hurt, doesn’t believe she’s worth more than that.’ And then even she sounded tired. ‘Sobek’s loved her all of her life, but that wasn’t enough to undo what she’s suffered. Do you really think you could have come along and changed all that in one day?’ I felt her arm across my shoulders, wanted to enfold myself within her embrace, but I couldn’t. There was still too much to be done.

I gathered myself, began to stroke Kenzia’s hair with my free hand. ‘Was Melchis alone last night when he did this?’

She was again the resigned young woman she had been when I first met her. ‘No. I met him in the alleyway outside Asteriades’ tavern. Nofret and Goram were with him, the two men who carried him out of here last night. They’d all been drinking, perhaps trying to forget what you did to him. He made a point of telling them about my child, said I was a slut available for their use if they wanted me. They laughed, but then he hit me, and he seemed to go wild, struck me again and again. He wouldn’t stop, and I begged them to help. But I think they were afraid of him, didn’t dare try to make him leave me alone Then I lost consciousness.’

I felt the pulse in my forehead hammering harder and harder. When my words came, my voice was thick with feeling. ‘Where can I find them?’

‘I don’t know for sure. He’s often at Asteriades’ place, because it hardly ever closes. Women aren’t allowed in there.’ I heard the fear return to her. ‘What are you going to do?’

I let go of her hand, and clenched my fists involuntarily. ‘What I should have done last night.’ I tried to smile at her, but it didn’t happen. ‘I’ll be back later. You rest now.’

Xena moved through the doorway ahead of me, and I followed her. I turned back at the sound of Kenzia’s question. ‘Why are you doing this for me, Gabrielle?’ The lack of understanding in her words wrenched at me. ‘I mean, you were just passing through here. I’m nothing to you, a total stranger. Why did you get involved?’

I looked first at Xena, and then at Kenzia. ‘Because it’s what we do.’ And then I had nothing left to offer, and I left her to ponder the meaning of what I had said.

 

 

When in India Xena discovered at last that her Way was the one intended for her, that to fight and even to kill when necessary was neither good nor bad in and of itself, was made one or the other by the intent of the warrior, and that her intent had become pure in the years since she had left behind her darker self. Although at that time I wrongly believed that my own way was one of peace, nevertheless I envied her because she had been given a certainty that could have taken from her all the doubts that she harboured.

Memories.

Xena looking unhappy, believing that something has come to an end. ‘I’m sorry I took you so far from your truth.’

And I answer her, so hopeful that I have found the peace of mind that had eluded me, and so na´ve. ‘Don’t be sorry. Xena - do you think I could have understood the power of selfless love if it weren’t for our friendship?’

But Xena does not hear me, sure that our life together is over. ‘I think maybe you should travel with Eli for a while.’

In my mind I see the waters of the lake ripple and churn, and I know that this is a sacrifice I cannot make, will not consider. I make the waters still with the power of my self-deception. ‘No. You and I stay together.’

‘Gabrielle, we’re headed in separate directions.’

I shake my head, adamant about that one thing even in the midst of my folly. ‘All rivers run to the sea. We’ll end up in the same place, I’m sure of it.’

And in that, at least, I was right. Now I possess the chakram, and must find whether my intent is pure. Or whether I am only an impostor who chases someone else’s dreams.

 

 

 

Sobek directed me to Asteriades’ tavern, and I deflected his questions, leaving directly. When we reached our destination, I realised that the alleyway to which Kenzia had referred was the place where we had found her the previous night. Xena’s eyes narrowed. ‘They just let her lie where she fell.’ I nodded, tight-lipped.

Her voice softened. ‘What are you going to do, Gabrielle?’

I stared at her. ‘What would you do?’

But she only shook her head. ‘Does it matter?’

‘No, I don’t suppose it does. It’s my call.’

She kept her words as neutral as possible. ‘Yes, it is. Just remember that you’re trying not to draw attention to yourself.’

But I was no longer listening. Instead I opened the heavy door of the tavern, making as much noise as I could. It had the effect I was looking for. The barroom was full, only semi-lit even in the height of the early afternoon, but every eye in the place was turned towards me.

A tall man carrying a tray moved to intercept me. Too young to be the owner, I thought. Just hired muscle. ‘No women are allowed in here. Get out.’

Time to show everyone that I meant business. I moved up close to the man, pushed my face into his. ‘I go where I choose. And right now I choose to be here. I’m looking for Melchis and his friends.’

He backed up a little involuntarily, gave a quick reply, working at keeping his voice as steady as he could. ‘Melchis isn’t here.’

I gave him a long stare. There was something about the speed of his response that I didn’t like, as though he was looking to avoid something. Maybe he saw what was coming.

I smiled wolfishly at him. ‘I’ll remember you said that.’ And I brushed past him, moving further into the bar. I scanned the crowd again, and this time I found what I was looking for. Nofret and Goram, rising from a table in the corner, both looking distinctly unhappy. And still seated at the table was Melchis. I moved towards them. ‘Gentlemen.’

The barman was persistent, and moving closer to me, laid a hand on my arm. ‘I told you I wanted you to leave.’

I pulled myself free, stiff-armed him into the nearest table, and he went sprawling. ‘And I told you I didn’t care.’

The sudden violence changed the atmosphere in the room instantaneously, the ease with which I’d taken him down working in my favour. Melchis seemed frozen to the spot, and I wondered if he was too drunk to realise what was happening. I glanced at the contents of the table. No more than half-a-dozen empty flagons between three of them. They hadn’t had time to get that drunk. Good. I wanted them to be sober enough to feel this.

I deliberately ignored Melchis, moved my gaze between his companions. They were edging away from him, as though they hoped to escape being contaminated by his presence. But it was too late for that. I drew the chakram from my belt, and launched it in an arc to my left. It missed one of them by inches, ricocheted of the wall behind him and across to the wall square to it before impacting again and missing the other man by the same narrow margin. As it returned to my hand I held it upright and stared harshly at them both. ‘You aren’t going anywhere. Try to escape and I’ll kill you.’ And I knew that I meant it.

I returned the chakram to my belt. The man to the right of me began babbling. ‘I didn’t do anything!’

I nodded at him. ‘That’s right. You didn’t. You just let it happen.’ I walked up to him, stood only inches away. ‘What’s your name?’

He stammered out the word. ‘Goram.’ He was obviously terrified, but inwardly I felt only disgust for him. A big man, but as soon as there was a show of force, he collapsed in on himself. I didn’t try to keep the cold fury from my voice. ‘Yesterday you laughed at a friend of mine. You laughed at her because of the way she looked, because she was afraid and because she couldn’t stop your animal of a friend from manhandling her. Well, I want to hear you laugh now.’

He looked at me as though I was insane. Perhaps I was, a little. ‘What ---‘

‘Come on, I’ll help you. Think of her. Think hard about that scarred body, the simple clothes, the terrified look on her face. Now laugh.’ Then my anger went from cold to white-hot, and I hit him on the jaw, felt the bone break as I put all my weight behind the blow. ‘Let me hear you laugh!’ He fell backwards, overturning chairs, and lay there moaning.

I didn’t waste any more time on him, turned to his partner. Nofret, I supposed. His face had blanched, but he hadn’t dared move. I strode towards him purposefully. A man I’d never seen before was standing in my path, not deliberately but because he was unlucky enough to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. I didn’t care. I pushed him hard to one side. ‘Get out of my way!’ And advanced towards Nofret. He was looking wildly about, trying to find a means of escape that wasn’t there. ‘And you. You thought it was pretty funny, too, didn’t you?’ He shook his head from side to side, wordlessly. ‘You’re lying to me, Nofret. I don’t like that. Now you tell me all about it, you tell me what the joke was, because for some reason, I just didn’t seem to get it. Tell me now.’ And I slammed my open hand up into his face heel first, shattering his nose. Blood poured forth, and he would have fallen if I hadn’t reached out and grasped him by the neck. ‘Nothing to say? Well, have it your way.’ I let go of him, and he sagged to the floor, gasping.

I turned to my right, saw Melchis still sitting at the table as though transfixed. He wasn’t even looking at me, was staring down at the floor as if he could make me go away by pretending I wasn’t there. I stood over him, felt my anger still growing in intensity. ‘Get up.’

He didn’t move. ‘I said get up!’ I grasped a handful of his clothing, pulled him to his feet with a strength I hadn’t known that I possessed. He was quaking with fear. ‘Why did you do it, Melchis? Why did you do any of it?’ I took hold of his hair, forced his face upwards until he was looking at me.

He seemed incapable of making sense. ‘I ---I didn’t mean------’

I talked over him. ‘What? You didn’t mean to lie to her? You didn’t mean it when you used her? You didn’t mean it when you beat her almost to death?’ I shook him like a rat in the grasp of a hungry predator. ‘Come on, tell me how you didn’t want to hurt her, didn’t want to humiliate her. Really, I want to hear it. I want to hear it all.’ Then the bitterness and the rage and the guilt welled up in me, and I spewed out the bile of my failure, began hitting him. Not just the one blow that had been good enough for his friends, but many. I struck him in the solar plexus, taking the breath from him. I lifted a knee to his stomach, felt the ribs separate. I dashed his head back into the wall behind him, kicked down hard on a kneecap, stabbed the flat of my hand into the side of his throat. ‘Bastard!’ I screamed at him until my lungs hurt. ‘Bastard!’ I realised he was unconscious, held upright only by me. And still I didn’t stop.

Out of the corner of an eye, I saw Xena standing to one side, arms loosely folded. She had a studiously blank expression on her face, said nothing, told me nothing by her posture. But somehow she still managed to say everything I needed to hear.

Abruptly I came back to myself, and stopped the frenzied attack. With perverse care, I let Melchis slide to the floor, still holding Xena’s gaze. She nodded at me.

An older man, overweight and unkempt, walked out of the silent mass of onlookers. Asteriades, perhaps. He bent down to Melchis, made a quick study of him. Then he turned and looked up at me. ‘Whatever this man did, you should have taken him to the magistrate.’

I shook my head. ‘It wasn’t that simple.’

He sounded more than a little drunk, but he was brave as well. He had to be, to stand up to me after what he’d just seen. ‘It’s always that simple. You could have killed him.’

Absurdly, I felt the need to laugh. But I didn’t. Words seemed more appropriate than laughter, but my self-control didn’t extend to being able to keep the tremor out of my voice. ‘If I’d wanted to kill him, he’d be dead.’

 

 

 

I needed so much to believe that I had found my answer, and that the conflict endlessly waged within me was over. I wanted to believe that the suffering and the violence that I saw could be overcome without taking up the sword. But when the moment came, I found that the hardest thing of all was to do nothing. And so I did what my heart told me I must do, even though it meant giving up the dream forever.

Memories.

Xena looks at me, crippled in body but allowing her guilt to cripple her in spirit even more greatly. ‘I made you leave the way of love. It was my fault.’

I feel a sense of calm. ‘I had a choice - to do nothing or save my friend. I chose the way of friendship’

Xena’s pain is obstinate in it’s ascendancy. ‘I’m sorry for all the times I didn’t treat you right.’

I wonder at the change that has occurred in me that day, and the waters of the lake appear in my mind’s eye. But to my surprise, they are still, and peaceful. ‘Xena - you brought out the best in me. Before I met you - no-one saw me for who I was. I felt invisible. But you saw all the things that I could be. You saved me, Xena.’

The decision was made. And this time there was no way back.

 

 

Asteriades sent someone to call the magistrate, but paid little attention to me when I left. As I returned to Sobek’s tavern, I held my silence, a prisoner of my thoughts and feelings. I knew that Xena wanted to say something, but she respected my needs.

Sobek had chosen not to open for business that day, and so when we arrived back at the tavern, the barroom was empty except for him, as he tried to busy himself with a myriad of small tasks. I decided to be blunt with him. ‘Sobek, I have to leave. What I just did will focus a lot of attention in my direction, and that’s something I can’t afford. If the magistrate or the watch come asking you about me, you can be completely honest with them. I was a stranger, you don’t know where I came from and where I was going, and everything that I did, I did without your knowledge or your approval.’

He looked both saddened and confused. ‘I don’t understand, lady Gabrielle.’

‘I’m sorry. It’s best that you don’t know too much. All I can tell you is that I have enemies in Alexandria, and I may have just alerted them to the fact that I’m here. There’s nothing for you to fear. Melchis won’t be bothering you again.’ I grimaced. ‘It’ll be quite a while before he’s back on his feet, in any event. You can tell him next time you see him that you’re both under my protection, and that I’ll be back when he least expects it.’

Sobek nodded, perhaps still not fully sure of what I was saying, but knowing that there was no time for more questions. ‘You have my gratitude for everything you’ve done. This last day and night have seen my world torn apart, but at the end of it both Kenzia and I are alive.’ He was still for a moment. ‘I don’t know what all this means, why it happened. I just know that without you she wouldn’t have survived, and without her, neither could I. May the gods watch over you, wherever you go.’

I answered him tiredly, and with little grace. ‘Thank you. I’ll get my things and say goodbye to Kenzia, if you’ll allow it.’ Xena was already moving upstairs.

He nodded. ‘Of course, my lady.’

 

 

 

Kenzia still looked tired, but she was awake and seemed much more energised when we entered her room. Xena took up a position near the window, able to command a view of the street. I dropped my packs to the floor, came and sat by Kenzia and tried to smile. She took my hand, and kissed it lightly. ‘You’re safe. Thank the gods.’

I joined my hands around her fingers, held her as tightly as I could without hurting her. ‘You thought I might get into trouble?’

‘I was afraid that even you couldn’t take on a whole tavern.’

I shrugged my shoulders. ‘I didn’t have to. Melchis didn’t have as many friends as he may have thought.’

There was a quaver in her voice. ‘What did you do to him?’

‘Maybe a lot less than he deserved.’

I felt the relief in her, saw her visibly relax. ‘You didn’t kill him?’

‘No.’

She breathed out slowly. ‘I’m glad.’

Doubt swept through me. ‘Why?’

‘I’ve been thinking. About why people like him do what they do.’ She looked away from me. ‘He used me because he could. He hurt me because I’m weak. Because he saw he was stronger than me, and that I couldn’t stop him.’ She turned back to me, looked almost apologetic. ‘You’re stronger than them. I saw that yesterday. They couldn’t stop you. If you’d killed him---------’

I spoke with a dull understanding of her meaning. ‘You think it would have made me like him.’

She nodded. ‘I didn’t want you to let your anger make you do something like that. Hurt him just for the pleasure of it.’

If only she had known. ‘I’m not the hero you think I am, Kenzia.’

She stared at me, shaking her head in wonder. ‘Of course you are.’

I knew that it would take too long to explain; that maybe she would never understand, so I let it go. ‘We have to leave now. I’m sorry, but you’ll be safe.’ I hesitated. ‘Kenzia - I’ll make a pact with you. I’ll try very hard to see myself through your eyes and be the person you think I am; and you try and see yourself through my eyes, and believe that you’re as deserving of being loved as I think you are.’ I struggled to find the right words. ‘You were wrong. Melchis did what he did because he’s weak. You’re stronger now than he’ll ever be, because you don’t take all the hurt that’s been visited on you and use it as a weapon, a reason to do the same kind of damage to others.’ I reached over and lightly caressed the scarring on her cheek. ‘Listen. Scars can be a mark of pain and of past suffering. But they can also be a sign of what we’ve been strong enough to survive.’ I glanced over at Xena, who was dividing her attention between the street and our conversation, and I managed a smile that was answered by both her and Kenzia. ‘I have a friend who’s a great healer, amongst her many other skills. She once told me that scar tissue was harder than the skin that it replaced, more able to withstand hurts than ordinary flesh. It’s strange, but it’s true. Perhaps our wounds can be made into part of who we are, and make us stronger than we were before.’

I saw her digesting it. ‘I’ll try to believe it, Gabrielle.’

On a whim, I reached into one of my packs, withdrew a small cloth and unwrapped it carefully. Within its folds were some keepsakes given to me by my fellow Amazons as a token of their friendship and our surviving the bloody campaign against Bellerophon. I selected a bracelet with the symbols of my own tribe, and held it out to Kenzia. ‘Keep this safe for me. It’s a sign of my sisterhood with the women to whom I’ve sworn a life debt, even though they’re far away from me now, and it means that I’ll always be drawn back to them. And it also means that I owe you the same debt, and that we’ll meet again.’

She took it from me, her hand trembling. ‘Then you’ll come back?’

I leaned over, and hugged her gently to me. ‘I promise.’

Xena’s words brought me back to the moment. ‘The watch are here, Gabrielle.’

I gave Kenzia a final kiss on the forehead. ‘The roof it is, then.’ She looked at me, puzzled. ‘It doesn’t matter. We’ll be seeing you, Kenzia.’

She was still bemused. ‘That’s not the first time you said ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. What does that mean?’

I stood up, and grinned at her. ‘It means that when people are drawn together, nothing can ever really keep them apart. Until we meet again, sister..’ And I lifted my packs to my shoulders and started from the room.

 

 

Night was falling, and I was arguing enthusiastically. ‘How do we know the watch were there to talk to me? Or even if they were, that they’d recognise me?’

Xena was her usual matter-of-fact self. ‘We don’t. But there was no point in taking chances, and so long as doubts remained about your identity, Kenzia and Sobek were safer with us gone. I’m sure you could have escaped, but it would have made life difficult for them if you’d had to fight your way out of the tavern.’ She shrugged. ‘Even that might be expecting the worst, but you and I became too well known to take the risk that someone could connect what just happened with the problems we’ve made for the Roman hierarchy over the years. Particularly if they hear about the shiny gold disc this mysterious woman used as a weapon.’

I wasn’t convinced. ‘Surely that’s not likely. It was decades ago that we were here.’

Xena smiled ruefully. ‘The empire is full of people whom we’ve offended in our dealings with Rome. And our unusually youthful good looks are a matter of common knowledge now. It was time to leave for Gizeh before word got around..’

I let it go, but the hours of walking the back streets of Alexandria, stocking up on provisions as we made our way to the outside of the city, did not improve my mood. And when we finally made camp some miles from the outer walls, I was aggrieved when I realised that Xena wouldn’t be helping me. Levelling the ground, building a fire, unpacking, cooking - all were down to me. Xena sat on a convenient boulder and smiled sweetly. ‘Anything I can do to help?’

I glared at her. ‘Apparently not. Death doesn’t recognise a fair division of labour, does it?’

She nodded sagely. ‘Indeed.’ And left it at that.

I completed my tasks and ate in silence, in truth relieved to be alone with Xena, this time with no sailors or crowds to disturb us. It had been a long time since it was just the two of us under the stars together. I liked it, tried to indulge the good feeling.

But I was hiding from myself and Xena knew it. ‘Want to talk about it?’

I nodded resignedly. ‘I guess. Where do I start?’

Xena considered for a moment, then quietly challenged me. ‘How about you tell me what it feels like to be the owner of the chakram?

I was totally unsure of myself. ‘I don’t know. I saw you do that hundreds of times. Walk into a situation and somehow paralyse everyone, dominate them by sheer force of will. I didn’t know what I was doing today, but it happened again.’

‘Yes, it did. You looked as though you could do anything, and like no-one could have stopped you.’

I felt the anxiety rising in me. ‘And I couldn’t stop myself.’

Xena waited for a moment before continuing. ‘Then why did you??’

I looked at her quickly, knowing what she meant, but not wanting to think about it. ‘That’s no mystery. I gave Melchis a taste of what he could expect if he didn’t leave Kenzia alone, and left it at that. Maybe he deserved to die, and perhaps that’s the punishment he’ll receive from the authorities. But killing him wasn’t necessary.’

This time, Xena said nothing, but her look was both eloquent and concerned for me. Suddenly I felt tired, and there was a lurching in my heart that carried through into my voice. ‘I wanted to kill him. But the violence in me - that wasn’t about justice, it went beyond him and even what he did to Kenzia and her baby. It was fury at everything I’ve seen, all the hurt I’ve lived through. And it was so seductive. Like a voice telling me that by killing him, I could make all that hurt go away.’ I stared at the ground. ‘When I looked at you and I stopped, it wasn’t out of mercy, or concern for him. It was fear for me, fear of losing myself. But I came so close to it.’

‘But you didn’t do it. You went near the edge, and then you came back.’

I sighed. ‘Because you brought me back. Just by reminding me that you were there, and that I wasn’t alone.’

‘Or maybe I reminded you that once you surrender to that kind of violence, it changes you.’

The words stirred something in me. ‘Yes. It wasn’t even about the act of killing. I’ve done it before, and I’ll probably have to again. It was because for a moment there I took pleasure in hurting him.’ My voice broke. ‘And I knew that if I’d killed him, I would have enjoyed it.’ The tears started to fall again silently, and the events of times gone by came back to me in a torrent of doubt and fear, and I saw the surface of the lake ripple and boil into great waves of foam. ‘I’ve come close to that kind of violence before, but it was different today because I knew I could do anything I wanted, that no-one could get in my way.’ The anxiety burned away at me. ‘Have the years changed me that much? Is that what I’ve become?’

Xena didn’t share in my panic. ‘You gave in to the anger for a while, but you stopped before it was too late. You’re not like me, Gabrielle. You’ve always killed for a reason, not just because you could. And despite the power that you hold, you didn’t surrender to that temptation today.’

‘But I almost did.’ I looked down at the chakram hanging from my waist. ‘And Kenzia thinks I’m a hero.’

Xena smiled. ‘You are.’

‘I don’t think so. I’ll never be the hero you were.’

She put her arms lightly around me and drew me to her, until our faces were almost touching; and when she spoke her words filled me with the warmth of her spirit, reminded me why I needed her, how her love kept me safe. ‘Gabrielle, I was never a hero. A long time ago I gave in to that voice that you heard today, made myself into the thing that you fear you’ll become, and I hid in the darkness for years. When I met you, I was lost, could only see myself as I once was, believed that there was no future in which I could be anything else.’ She was silent for a moment, but when she continued, I felt the waters of my life become still again, because I knew there was nothing to fear, that if we were there to watch over each other, the darkness would always be dispelled by the light of what we shared. ‘All that I became, all that I did, was because I wanted to be someone who was worthy of the love you offered me. I never succeeded, never could have deserved the gift that you are; but you loved me anyway. And because you did, everything changed. Everything.’

There were so many things I wanted to say, so much love I wanted to give to her at that moment. But instead, I asked for the only thing that really mattered. ‘Stay with me, Xena.’

She kissed my lips softly. ‘Always.’

 

 

There was a time when I believed that to know freedom meant knowing everything that Xena did, being able to do what she could with the same confidence and single-mindedness that made her into the hero she was. And there also came a time when I began to despise the skills that she possessed, and the matters of war that she had taught me, and then I cast my staff into the great river of India, sending it floating towards the seas as if by losing it I could also lose the pain of the contradictions that assailed me in the life that I had chosen.

When I once more took up arms, I did so because I placed my love for Xena above my desire for understanding, because I knew I could never find peace of mind if I allowed Xena to be harmed by my refusal to bloody my hands . And so Gabrielle the disciple became Gabrielle the soldier, no longer only a poet and a healer, but also a killer and a destroyer of evil, and I understood that life is always contradictions, and that even the simplest of it’s mysteries contains paradoxes that must be lived with and accepted.

Xena told me that she had taken me far from my truth. But she was wrong. I never knew what my truth was until I met her, and I never would have discovered it without her loving me. When I took up the sword, I knew that I would never fully be able to surrender it again, and that I had lost something; but I have no reason to regret my decision, because it was the final sacrifice I had to make to be with Xena fully, to share her life and her burdens; and not to have done so would have been to lose both her and myself.

The waters of the lake ripple and churn; they become still and calm again. The cycle repeats itself, and so do our lives. Memories. They remind us only of who we were, tell us nothing of who we may become, and sometimes they lie to us and show us a past that never was. The only certainty I have now is that wherever my path will take me, Xena will be at my side; but I am content, because I know that this is the only certainty that I will ever truly need.

 

 

 

 

(Friendly criticism sent to mrbacim@btinternet.com is always welcome J . Many thanks for your company).

 


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