The characters from the television program, “Xena Warrior Princess” are not mine.

The loving relationship between two women is explored.  Umm…there is also some of that sex between two women stuff.  (NC-17, but not hardcore).  Gabrielle/other female.

This is a post “Friend In Need” story, so it focuses on Gabrielle, her life without Xena, and her continuing quest for spiritual enlightenment.  Season 4’s India episodes create an important background to the story.

I’d like to thank my beta reader, Mary who not only proofed this for me, but also encouraged me along the way.

This story is dedicated to Kevin Smith.  “Xena, life is eternal—it has no beginning and no end.  The loving friends we meet on our journey return to us time after time.  We never die because we were never really born.”—Gabrielle in “Deja Vu All Over Again.”

GOLDEN TIME OF DAY

by

Portia Richardson

PortiaOnly@aol.com

 

“Gabrielle!  Gabrielle!  Here’s to the Battling Bard!”  The crowd could be heard long before they turned the corner onto the main road of the small village.  Voices rang out in relief and happiness.  “Gabrielle!  Gabrielle!”

The tavern keeper stood at the door of her establishment wringing her hands nervously.  Standing on her tiptoes, she stretched her body in hopes of getting the first glance at the woman who had saved their town.  A few moments later, the noisy crowd appeared, several men were in front leading the cheer.

“Hip-hip hooray!  Cheers to the Battling Bard!”  They cried.

“Hooray!”  The crowd of women, men and children responded.

“Here they come!  Here they come!”  The bar wench called out.   At first, she didn’t see Gabrielle, but as she focused on the throng, she saw a small, blonde being carried on the shoulders of two men as people reached out to touch her and shake her hand. 

“Please.  Really, this is unnecessary.  I was glad to help.  Put me down, please.”  She beseeched the crowd with a smile.

The bar owner turned on her heels and ran inside.  “They’re coming.  Is everything ready for the feast?”

“Aye.  We’ve done all that needs to be.” 

The woman turned back to the door and clapped her hands.  At that command, several other barmaids and attendants entered from the kitchen.  “Straighten up.  Look presentable.  This is the Battling Bard of Poteidaia.  If it weren’t for her, none of us would be here today.  She was triumphant.  Come, come.  Let’s get in line.  Next to me, next to me.”  The woman beamed while pulling one young man beside her.  “Remember a curtsey or a bow is what she deserves.  Let’s not disappoint the warrior.”

Just then, the tavern door swung open and the dozens of men and women crossed the threshold.

“Poot her down.  You’ll break the lass’s skool.”  One of the men cried, just before Gabrielle’s head made contact with the upper frame of the door. 

“Thank you.”  Gabrielle smiled shyly as she got her land legs back.  Feeling a bit wobbly and over-stimulated, she was glad for the hand that reached out to her, taking her arm and guiding her to a chair.

_____

As the candlemarks melted away, Gabrielle had retold the story of her victory over cruel bandits more times than she could count.  Her throat was raw and her eyes had taken on a droopy, red-rimmed look.  Deceiving and fighting an army of crazy marauders for two days had been grueling, leaving her tired and longing for a hot meal and warm bed, but the battle was followed by this endless display of good wishes.  She could barely keep her head raised and no longer made a pretense of attentiveness. 

 The clinking of two mugs together and the booming voice of one of the celebrants caused Gabrielle’s head to jerk from its lowered position to an alert one.  She looked around, momentarily confused and wondering how long she had been asleep. 

“H’lo.  Everyone.  Listen up, will ya.  She might fight the good fight, but she sure can’t party, eh?”  The gathering turned to look at the guest of honor whose body was gently swaying in her seat in an effort to stay focused.  People laughed, but the man calmed them again. “We have all thanked her individually.  She is well aware of what she’s done for us.  We owe her our lives, but let’s give the lass some breathin’ room and a much needed rest.

After a bit more praise, Gabrielle’s remaining energy was used to stand awkwardly and ascend the staircase leading to her room. She had made herself at home in this small room, using it as her headquarters in the town for the past quarter moon. There wasn’t much to the space, but she didn’t need much.  After all of these seasons, she still only carried the urn, her scroll bag and Argo’s old saddlebag.  She was a smart packer and she kept the barest of necessities on her person.  Toiletries were always purchased or given to her in the various towns she visited; the same for food, though she kept some small, but filling snacks in her pack.  She had two changes of clothing and the few times she had to wear something more formal to meet with royalty or as a disguise during a mission, those items had been given to her.  Xena would be proud. 

The short blonde-haired woman made her way to the small table that held a bowl and a pitcher filled with warm water.  As she poured the pitcher’s contents into the bowl, she looked at her reflection in the mirror hanging on the wall in front of her. 

Each season has come and gone six times now? Has it really been six springs?  She asked herself.  The reality was that Gabrielle knew quite well that it had been that long.  The anniversary of Xena’s death was just a day or two away.  That date was engrained in her mind forever.  

Six springs since the ghastly events in Japa—the same amount of time she had known Xena was now how long she had been without her.  The first few seasons were the hardest of her life. Losing Xena was worse than losing Hope, falling into a fiery pit, or all of the times daggers were held to her throat.  There was simply nothing in the world that could compare to the pain of not having the warrior walking beside her. 

When she had returned from Japa, she immediately sought out Ares.  The God of War didn’t care for her, but he did love Xena and if anyone could perform a miracle, she thought he might be the one.  Nothing worked.  It was hopeless.  Xena could only walk with her when the bard’s thoughts commanded the warrior by her side.  And sometimes having Xena so close, but not quite there was too much for Gabrielle’s heart. 

As she bathed, she examined the few nicks she had received during her last fight.  Her creamy skin was a bit tan from the sun, but there were quite a few red and pink welts and scars from past wounds.  Today, she sported a new seven-inch wound that began at her upper thigh and moved down the outside of her leg.  That guy should never have gotten a blade on me.  And I have no excuse.  I just lost focus.  That’s happening more and more.  Maybe that guy downstairs is right.  I need some breathing room.  She thought.

Gabrielle finally understood one of her last conversations with Xena. The Warrior Princess had been fighting first for bad, then good for close to fifteen winters.  One evening, just before being summoned to Japa, Gabrielle was planning their next adventure, when Xena asked if she might be ready to give the fighting a rest.  The warrior was willing to retire from the violent and nomadic life they led.  If only they had had that discussion a few moons earlier or even days, things could have turned out differently. 

Gabrielle, now completely nude, moved to the pallet that had been made for her.  It consisted of several animal skin rugs and thickly sewn cloth.  She opened a small clay jar and poked her fingers in, removing a shiny salve. Gingerly, she rubbed the salve onto her wounds.  A few of them stung and she gritted her teeth to suppress the cry she wanted to release.  She wondered how Xena managed to have little or no reaction to the ointment on her wounds or for that matter, injuries much worse.

Breathing room, she thought again.  She was just so tired and it was becoming harder and harder to be ‘the girl with the chakram.’  The strength and skills, Xena possessed weren’t as defined in Gabrielle, but what she lacked in power, she made up for in finesse plus she continued to use her secret weapon—the gift of talking her way out of situations.  She won her battles and had never been badly injured, but times were changing.  These bandits seemed tougher, stronger, and faster, but she knew that wasn’t true.  She was simply slowing down.  Her desire to help others was still strong, but maybe it was time to hang up the chakram, put down the sword, and deposit her old sais in a box somewhere. 

Crawling into bed, she could still hear the din of the party below.  Occasionally, she could make out her name and cheers for the “Battling Bard.”  Time certainly had a way of changing views and preconceived notions about a person.  Once, she had been seen as a young woman who had to prove her abilities, Xena’s second tier substitute, and a wannabe warrior, too slight to do much harm.  She closed her eyes and remembered the disappointment of the people who had requested Xena’s assistance in Egypt seasons ago.  When Gabrielle showed up explaining that Xena had been tragically killed and she was there to help, she had practically been thrown on to a well-lit pyre.  Somehow she was able to convince the legal counsel to the royal family that she had been trained well and could solve their problems. 

It had taken a few victories under her belt, but soon, Gabrielle came to own the moniker of Battling Bard.  The hero worship that Xena contended with was now part of Gabrielle’s life—young women wanted to follow her.  Through stories, Gabrielle warned the na´ve women--life on the road was hard and complicated. It wasn’t a romantic life and always unending.  Someone always needed help.

During the party she had received two urgent parchments appealing to her sense of justice.  Tonight, one request came from the Thrace region of Greece.  She hadn’t been back there since she and Xena had returned Sarah to Lila.  Going to Thrace would be almost like going full circle--mere miles from Poteidaia.  She contemplated how it might be returning to the area where she had once begged an outlaw to take her with her, to teach her everything, to show her how to be a warrior.  Gabrielle wondered what would be the point—nothing was as it once was.  Everyone she had ever known was dead.  She had no attachments, no encumbrances.  Lila had died over four winters ago.  Sarah, Lila’s daughter had married and moved to Rome.  And Eve, Xena’s daughter, her daughter was traveling on a different path, preaching the word of Eli. 

She had lived more seasons in the land of Celts, in western Gaul, and in villages of Rheinland than she had in her home of Greece.  Her language skills were excellent.  Like Xena, she could converse with nearly everyone she met.  And in all of those strange and different lands, she had studied peace while making a career of fighting warlords, marauders, bandits, and lawless highwaymen.  Her knowledge of various beliefs and spirituality was unsurpassed.  She had spoken with philosophers and teachers about the gods of each land; the unexplained stone circles that the Celts considered sacred; the one God of the Israelites who was omnipotent, loving, and to be feared. 

Her travels didn’t take her to Asia, however.  Not that she hadn’t been invited numerous times, she had.  Once as an Amazon representative, she had been asked to visit Chin as part of a diplomatic party.  She had refused.  It had been such a long time ago, but her betrayal of Xena and the guilt over those actions still haunted her.  She couldn’t bring herself to be in a land where she stood out and the reminders of Xena’s lover, Lao Ma were apparent in the symbols, the texts and the faith of the people.  Likewise, she had refused to enter Japa again.  Gabrielle still cursed the place. When she thought of that land, she often burst into tears, whispering Xena’s name over and over.  It was so unfair.  Xena having to stay dead was wrong and everyone involved knew it.  The blonde woman found herself sobbing in grief again.  Six springs had not eased her troubled heart.  Only Xena understood the path they were on.  They had experienced so much of the bizarre, outrageous, and horrific together. 

She’d never find anyone who could comprehend the suffering she had endured or the elation of finding and holding your soulmate in loving arms.  Gabrielle missed Xena’s touch.  The longing she felt for her was so massive she couldn’t put into words, so she stopped trying.  Recalling how their relationship had changed after their visit to India sent a shiver of sadness mixed with desire up her spine. The first time they made love after their experience with Naiyima, Xena was different.  She had practically tried to consume Gabrielle, her need so strong, so robust, and positively intense.  Gabrielle had thought Xena needed that closeness initially to come to terms with what Naiyima had shown them—their future selves, Arminestra and Shakti, but the force of her hunger never subsided.  Xena, through demonstration rather than explanation, had advanced the way they expressed their love.  After India, there continued to be incredible physical release when they made love, but there was so much more.  Gabrielle actually felt something akin to exaltation and when she questioned Xena, the warrior had acknowledged the same spiritual connection.   Xena had said she felt purified in Gabrielle’s arms, healed and whole. The dark-haired beauty and the equally beautiful blonde had been so in tune with each other’s passion.  Reaching new heights in their lovemaking, moving as one, climaxing together with earth-shattering force, ebbing and flowing throughout the night, they had offered their bodies to the other repeatedly.  There had been a distance after Eve’s birth, but they had found their way back and the exhilaration of being together was just as powerful and profound.

As she thought of Xena and the way the warrior had expressed her need, Gabrielle’s hands moved to her breasts.  Gently, she massaged them, feeling a warmth grow over her.  While one hand continued to palm and tweak her nipple, watching it tighten and harden, the other hand glided down her body and between her legs with familiar ease.  Just thinking of Xena still made her wet and ready for her warrior.  After spreading that moisture over her fingers, Gabrielle placed two of them on either side of her clitoris.  Gently massaging the area, she tried to replicate the caress of Xena’s tongue.  She thought of how Xena would whimper and moan into her womanhood as she loved Gabrielle with her mouth; how the warrior, after a time, would slide two fingers into Gabrielle’s depths and fill, then drain her over and over.  Gabrielle felt herself rising to meet Xena’s touch, her touch and not long after, she cried out Xena’s name.

As usual, this act of battlelust or release or loneliness left her empty and wanting.  There was no joy in self-love but there also was no yearning for anyone else in her life. Her only solace was in her spiritual studies. There had to be a reason for this torture, the heartache that she suffered, and the pain of being left utterly alone in the world.  She would find it somewhere in someone’s teachings.

As she turned onto her stomach, she thought about that second parchment.  It had been intriguing, yet puzzling.  She had read it quickly and her immediate thought was to reject the offer outright, but something kept pulling at her.  Bracing her body with her hands, she lifted and turned to sit up on the pallet.  The yellowish-brown parchment had been placed beside her on a small table.  She picked it up, squinting at the words in an effort to decipher them.

“Tears melt.

Frozen ice falls

Breaking the heart

Freeing the spirit

Night winds blow

The mind stills

Life begins

And all that is

Is

And all that is

Surrenders

Your presence is greatly needed here.”

The parchment was signed Dharmesh and a carefully painted yin/yang symbol was placed beside his name.  She looked at the symbol and recalled how she had once found inner peace in a false paradise.  There had been danger in Aidan’s palatial bliss, but she had also discovered so much about herself and Xena.  She fondly recalled the massage Xena had given her as she lay across a bed made in the same yin/yang design.  The warrior’s hands trembled, but Gabrielle hadn’t known why.   She’d learn of Xena’s torment over violent thoughts that were eating away at her much later.  To her, Xena’s hands were simply warm and tender seeming to both relax and arouse all of her senses and emotions.  India had been scary, but the closeness that the two women experienced had never been greater, their connection stronger than their earthly bodies. 

The message on the parchment was intriguing and her interest was piqued.  She would stop in Thrace, find a replacement who could help the troubled land, then she would board a ship to India.

* * * * *

INDIA – FIVE SUMMERS LATER

She was known merely by her name.  Her days of irritating blonde and sidekick, Amazon and Amazon Queen, Xena’s friend and Xena’s lover, Bard of Poteidaia and Battling Bard were long forgotten. 

When she first arrived in India, she had been asked to free the people from a vicious ruler in a small province.  The villagers had heard tales about an evil entity called Indrajit and how she and another woman had fought him.  They had been surprised to see Gabrielle, a woman barely in her thirties sitting at the table, acknowledging and correcting the tale of Indrajit.  The superstitious townspeople were easily convinced that Gabrielle had to have some supernatural powers to have aged so slowly.  What had happened with Indrajit and Eli was about thirty springs in the past.  If she could control aging, surely she could bring down this terror that lurked over their town.  Some people claimed she could cut off the flow of blood to a person’s brain, but apparently it was only rumor, for no one had ever seen it.  She was a woman of mystery.  Things she said and did often seemed impossible, but she was kind, so the initial wariness was short-lived and people came to love her.  Although a skilled warrior, Gabrielle had decided to lay down her weapons and any special abilities, but she did offer her skills in strategy. 

Over the seasons, she trained various people of love and armies of peace.  They learned how to protect themselves and others under her guidance.  This job paid well, but she asked for little—enough dinars to put food on her table and a warm place to lay her head.  Slowly, she spent less time with the armies and more time in reflection. 

It had all become so clear.  She knew that she had been right all along.  Her first teacher, Eli had reminded her of her original path, but she hadn’t been ready to embrace it, then.  Now she was immersed in the essence of who she was, why she existed, and the belief in loving all things. 

One thing she had held dear all of her adult life was something that Xena had said to her about three seasons after they had met.  Xena, in a soft, heartwrenching voice had informed Gabrielle that she appreciated her beliefs and admired them. “You understand hate, but you’ve never given in to it.”  They had been in a number of scrapes, had seen a great deal of anger and hatred, cared for bloodied and bruised soldiers, and villagers who had been so beaten down that they could barely stand, yet Gabrielle still believed in the innate goodness of people; that hatred and bigotry would cease, one person at a time.  When Xena had spoken those words, Gabrielle was pleased that Xena had accepted this conviction though it was different from the warrior’s.  Over time, however, Gabrielle had moved further and further away from what had once been the deepest part of her core beliefs.  She had fought long and hard in the name of peace and justice, but there had been times when she was up against a foe and all she had wanted was to inflict a bit of pain, end his cycle of hatred by way of blunt instrument or the chakram’s sharp edge.  She had somehow moved far off course, becoming a different person, losing the one she had once been.  Now, in India, she seemed open to discovering her true self and embracing her old beliefs.

The last three summers had been spent in private study with her teacher.   Gabrielle finally learned to grieve.  Candlemarks were spent in thought and silence, not in strangled tears over something and someone she no longer had. Her most enlightened moment came one evening close to thirty-six moons earlier when she realized the yin and yang of giving love.  As she poured over the writings of a spiritual master, it came to her--to give yourself over to love was to accept that you would feel grief for that attachment.  To love completely included being hurt and saddened over the loss of that love.  But, you should also experience the joy that the love had produced and equal to that, happiness in the knowledge that the loved one would return in a spiritually higher form.  

A day or so after this revelation, Gabrielle had walked through a battlefield, healing whomever she could. There wasn’t much she could do for the men left on the field—they were either dead or dying.  One man’s eyes turned toward Gabrielle watching her as she ministered to a barely breathing soldier.  She felt eyes on her and shifted her head to take in any possible danger.  Green eyes landed on the dark brown ones of the man.  He was struggling for every breath, but then he slightly smiled and a moment later his body went limp.  Gabrielle smiled, too, not at the death of a soldier, but at the knowledge of what awaited him.  He was fortunate to find death and welcome her so easily.  Crossing over and returning would go smoothly for him, she presumed.

And she could, to a degree, feel joy about Xena.  From their experience in India winters earlier, Gabrielle knew that each of them would be reborn, but she had forgotten the importance of this; it hadn’t mattered.  Now, instead of feeling lonely and alone, she could feel happiness that Xena would move up the karmic ladder and into another life.

* * * * *

On this particular spring morning, Gabrielle began the long trek from her village to a distant temple to meet with her teacher.  Dressed in her normal attire, a saffron colored sari that was wrapped intricately around her body in a way that discreetly covered the large tattoo on her back, she carried a bundle of freshly cut jasmine in her arms.  Her teacher loved the flower and it was a gift Gabrielle always brought with her on her daily visits.  Gabrielle had been studying with this woman for a full three summers and now when she smelled the fragrant flower in the air, she always thought of Ratha, her mysterious and brilliant teacher.  She admired Ratha and over the many moons had learned a great deal from her about meditation, prayer, and love of nature.  But the greatest gift from teacher to student had been one of patience.  Gabrielle had always considered herself thoughtful; as a warrior she had taken action after much deliberation, but Ratha had introduced a whole new level of patience.  Gabrielle would leave her home just after dawn and arrive at the temple just before the sun was highest in the sky for her scheduled lessons.  Once there, her teacher often would make her wait for several more candlemarks.  When they’d finally meet, her teacher might ask, “On your walk, Gabrielle, were you mindful of your steps?” Before getting the chance to respond, her teacher would glide out of the room with a casual stride and not reappear.  Or she might wonder if on the walk, Gabrielle had decided on a topic of discussion for that meeting.  When she would respond affirmatively, the teacher would shake her head and ask why she hadn’t been one with her steps, with her breathing?  Why she had not been ‘in the moment’ during her walk?  Why had she allowed her mind to wander?  Again, her teacher would exit the room, always collecting her bundle of jasmine before leaving. 

The teacher’s behavior would have enraged Xena, and Gabrielle, though patient, had wanted to give the teacher ‘a piece of her mind’ those first days.  It’s insulting and everyone’s time is valuable; doesn’t she realize the rigors of the long, uphill climb to the temple; isn’t she aware of the distance I must travel to arrive on time; and why is there no appreciation or response to the flowers I bring for her daily?  It shows a lack of respect and...

As time passed, Gabrielle understood the lessons and those brief sentences, comments, and questions were as important a lesson as spending an entire morning and afternoon with the teacher. 

So as she walked, she did not wonder if the flowers were fragrant enough or if her teacher would give her a real audience.  On this day, she practiced her breathing and remained mindful of it.  Occasionally, she would bend and breathe deep the scent of the flowers.  The blonde was a bit taken aback that she felt an odd tingling at this fragrance that reminded her of her beautiful, but enigmatic instructor.  She chose not to concentrate on that feeling, but savor her walk. 

When she arrived at the temple, she removed her walking shoes at the front gate and made her way across the plush grasses to the open-air porch, then beyond that to the opened door.  Inside the large room, there were small round pillows scattered about.  Gabrielle picked one from the stack and placed it on the floor.  In front of the pillow, she set the flowers and then she knelt on the pillow.  She was cognizant only of her breathing and was surprised at the feeling of fingers caressing her cheek.

“Good morning, Ratha.”  Gabrielle blinked and looked at her teacher’s warm face.  Neither woman had been comfortable calling each other teacher and student for they were close in age, Ratha being a season or two younger.

Ratha’s long brown hair was tied in one loose braid resting on her back.  She was dressed in a robe the color of a just ripe peach.  Her smooth dark skin was a wonderful contrast against her clothing.  The only items on Ratha’s long, slender feet were four silver toe rings, two on each foot.  Each band consisted of a pattern of woven lines, a braid that created the circle of the ring.

“Gabrielle,” the woman spoke softly, her voice like a whisper in the wind.  Her fingers lingered on her student’s cheek, then drifted down to gather the flowers.

“It’s good to see you as always.”

Ratha smiled gently.  It was a smile that held something else, something that Gabrielle couldn’t quite decipher.  “These are lovely.”  She held the flowers to her nose and breathed in. “They smell like passion.”

Gabrielle’s eyes went to Ratha’s and she gazed at her questioningly.  There was a vibrant and lively energy bouncing between them though the women were virtually still, each on meditation pillows, one kneeling, one sitting in the lotus position.  Gabrielle had first noticed her changing feelings several moons ago.  The blonde, in a rare moment of clumsiness had tripped over a large pillow in this very room.  Ratha had caught her by the elbow before she could go tumbling onto her face.  The Indian woman had only smiled as Gabrielle’s face tinted a rosy pink.  She blushed not at the embarrassment of tripping, but the warmth of Ratha’s hand touching her body.

Gabrielle recalled the first time she had felt a similar force. Xena had grabbed the hilt of a whip from a slave trader, stopping him from beating the villagers of Poteidaia.  That was over eleven autumns ago for her—over thirty autumns for everyone else.  (Xena and Gabrielle had  spent twenty-five of them asleep in Ares’ cave.)  The warrior and Gabrielle’s eyes met and at that moment, Gabrielle not only knew she wanted to spend some time talking to the dark, angry woman, but that her life would be empty if she let her go.

As Gabrielle knelt, she wondered how to respond to a statement that was rather innocuous but had aroused her a great deal.  Even the way, Ratha had said the word ‘passion’ had caused Gabrielle’s stomach to flip anxiously. 

Her teacher returned the gaze as she placed the flowers beside her pillow. Ratha’s outstretched arms reached for Gabrielle and she took her student’s hands in hers.  “I am very pleased today.  Today, like yesterday was beautiful and as each moment passes I think I find more beauty.  Right now, I cannot think of a moment more beautiful.  What about you, Gabrielle?”

She wondered if Ratha found her sweaty palms beautiful.  Why she was perspiring was beyond her grasp and why her heart began to pound at Ratha’s touch left her blinking nervously.  Her mind raced back to her feelings over the past few moons.  More and more often she had found herself thinking and wondering about how Ratha spent her time when they were away from each other and how her caring teacher interact with others?  She would awaken suddenly, haunted by Ratha’s darkly intense eyes.  Was the moment beautiful?  Oh, yes.  But it was also confusing. 

“May I kiss you?”  Ratha asked sweetly.

“Kiss me?” Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat.

“Was that a request or a question?”

“Question?”

Chuckling, Ratha asked for more clarification.  “Was that a question or a statement?”

“You want to kiss me?”

“Very much.  If I might, my beloved.”

Her teacher had called her pet names many times over the course of her lessons.  She had referred to Gabrielle as ‘my innocent,’ ‘my precious gem,’ ‘little flower,’ ‘golden one,’ ‘my star,’ and lately, ‘my beloved.’ However, she had never asked to kiss her.  Gabrielle was dumbfounded.

“Uh…I…uh…well…” she stammered, glancing down at their entwined hands.  Ratha held her hands so delicately, but Gabrielle felt bound to her.

“Just tell me what you’re feeling without processing it.”  Ratha’s dark eyes danced with amusement as she watched the befuddled former warrior.

“It’s…Kiss me?  I guess I didn’t expect that.”

Now it was Ratha who was confused.  “You had expectations?”

“No…no, none at all.  What I mean…?”    Gabrielle’s voice trailed off.  She didn’t know what she meant, but suddenly the hands that held hers felt warmer and the tingling she had felt earlier in the day when she smelled the jasmine was back. 

“Yes, what do you mean?”

“I would like for you to kiss me, I think.”  Her lips had not touched another’s in more seasons than she could count.  She didn’t need to count.  Her lips had not touched another’s since that ill-fated day on Mt. Fuji when she tried to return Xena’s strength to the fallen warrior.

“Don’t think, feel.”

Gabrielle’s entire body trembled in anticipation and puzzlement, but Ratha simple held onto her hands and leaned forward, pressing her lips against Gabrielle’s and gently pushing past the obstacle of the closed lips to enter her mouth.  The kiss lingered and when Gabrielle pulled away in a rush of feeling, she was breathless.

“I imagined your lips to taste so sweet.”  Ratha’s gaze was again mysterious.  “I’d like to kiss you again and again. May I?”

Panting, Gabrielle stared at her teacher.  “I don’t…  I think this is…  Perhaps we shouldn’t.”

“Ah, you received little enjoyment?”  Ratha queried.

“No, I did.  I think… “  She stopped, then looked into Ratha’s eyes, a shy smile appearing on her face.  “I shouldn’t think, right?”

Ratha didn’t answer, but pulled Gabrielle to her, bending the rather flexible woman onto her lap.  Ratha bent and kissed her again. 

It was Ratha who pulled away this time after the lengthy kiss.  She kept Gabrielle’s head on her lap, the blonde staring up into the soulful, dark eyes.  “Such passion in your kisses.”

Gabrielle blinked and just as she was about to sit up, Ratha returned to Gabrielle’s lips and dizzied her with more kisses that left her on fire.

Cradling Gabrielle’s head with one hand, her other slowly moved against her torso like ocean waves, gently pressing against her, then retreating.  Gabrielle responded, her body speaking for her mind, moaning into Ratha’s mouth.  The sound of her hoarse desire awakened something long buried in her, yet that sound also roused emotions she didn’t want to feel.  “Stop.”

Ratha lifted her head, yet continued to support Gabrielle.  “Yes, my golden one?”

Gabrielle slowly sat up, bringing her legs forward and out of the awkward bend she had been held in.  “I…” she started, sitting up and crossing her legs to face Ratha.  “I’m very confused.”

“What confuses you?  Your feelings or your thoughts?”

“Both.”

“Tell me about your feelings.”  Ratha asked patiently.

“Do you want to make love to me?”

“With you,” she corrected.  “Yes, very much so.”

“I can’t.”

“Why is that Gabrielle?”

“You’re…you’re my teacher.”

Ratha took Gabrielle’s hands and gently rubbed her thumbs over the meaty part of her hand, the pad just below and beside Gabrielle’s thumbs and forefingers.  “You are not a novitiate Gabrielle, and I find myself learning as much from you as perhaps you learn from me.  I take a great deal of enjoyment from our lessons, listening to you, and watching you.  I would like to enjoy more of you.”  She smiled.

The smile was captivating and Gabrielle felt the heat rise on the back of her neck, knowing full well that a blush was moving up and across her face.  “But…”

“There’s more than the teacher-student issue?”  Ratha would be patient while Gabrielle struggled with her thoughts.  The beautiful Indian teacher believed that if Gabrielle went only on feeling, there would not be need for this discussion.  In most circumstances, Gabrielle had learned to let go of her thoughts and empty her mind of conflicting messages, but when it came to physical intimacy, Gabrielle had caged and hidden her thoughts successfully, never allowing them to see the light of day, thus never having to own and work through them.

Gabrielle lowered her head and whispered, “I’ve told you about Xena, right?”

“Oh, many times.  I would have loved to have known her.  Perhaps another time.”  Ratha eluded to what she believed in most—reincarnation.

“And I explained that we were lovers and soulmates?”  Gabrielle stared at Ratha, her heart skipping a beat as she looked into her eyes.

“Yes, Gabrielle.  That was quite clear.”

“Well, I would feel funny being with someone else.  I mean, Xena and I were so connected, we completely balanced each other, her darkness was calmed with me at her side and I was less of an innocent around her.  Xena made me see reality and not the dream of how I wanted things to be.  Even our lovemaking styles balanced each other.  She loved to consume me and I loved touching her gently, long kisses and tender caresses.  I remember she called her style ‘Greek Fire’ and mine the ‘Wings of Bliss.’ Sometimes, I needed to take her without question and I would.  On those occasions, she would love me so gently that her hot tears would fall onto my body as she touched me.  I could tame her and she could make it safe for me to lose myself.”

She went on, “A lot of things happened to us.”  The blonde woman bit the inside of her lower lip as she tried to explain.  “We survived situations we shouldn’t have, we moved beyond our doubts to a place of total trust; we welcomed our differences and came to understand them.  Before I could put into words that she was my soulmate, I knew it.  I felt it.  How can I share my body with someone else?  No matter how much my body may want it, I don’t think I can.”

“There is the rub, Gabrielle.  Did you hear what you said?  ‘I don’t think I can.’  But you feel you could.”

“Ratha, she was my soulmate,” Gabrielle cried.

“Tell me, what is your definition of soulmate?”  Ratha’s tone had taken on a familiar one and Gabrielle felt more comfortable.  The Indian teacher’s hands had released their burning touch on Gabrielle’s skin and now rested patiently on her own thighs.

“A soulmate.  A soulmate is someone with whom you have an inexplicable bond, someone you believe you’ve known forever and whom you will know again.  A soulmate is someone whose feelings you put parallel to your own and with whom you have an…almost ethereal compatibility.”  Gabrielle grinned.  She was happy with her definition and it explained what she and Xena had together.

“That’s lovely.  And what I like about your definition is that it is based on feelings, not thoughts.  You feel that you are in a soulmate relationship with Xena, not because you have been told that or because you have to put a name to it, but because that is what it is.”

“Yes, yes.  That’s exactly it.”

“Hmm?”  Ratha closed her eyes and Gabrielle took the opportunity to really look at Ratha.  She found that she was and had been for some time, very attracted to her. The Indian woman’s arms were muscular and Gabrielle wondered if she had been a farmer or laborer prior to her life at the temple.  She knew she hadn’t been a warrior because Ratha appeared to know nothing of a warrior’s life and had only rudimentary knowledge of weapons.  Her hands were soft, though, so maybe she hadn’t farmed.   She might have been some kind of nurse and carried patients and supplies.  Gabrielle stopped processing these thoughts, becoming aware of her rambling mind and reining it in.  Taking a deep breath she waited for Ratha to speak.

“It has been eleven springs since Xena’s mortal death?  Eleven springs--forty-four seasons you have gone without physical touch, without the love of a woman or man?”  Ratha asked.

“Woman.”  Gabrielle clarified.  “I mean, I wouldn’t have been with a man, my desire is for women.  Was…I mean was for women.”  That blush reappeared.

“Of course, women.”  Ratha confirmed, then added, “In your definition of soulmate, you did not mention the sexual bond.  Now, you and Xena were lovers in this life, but is there a possibility that in another life you will not be?  I recall you telling me of an experience in the future where your reincarnated self was younger and Xena’s reincarnated self was more of a mother figure.”

“Right.  Arminestra, Xena’s future self was a woman in her sixties.  Shakti, my future self was a warrior in his thirties, maybe.”

“And we cannot begin to guess what other lives are in store for the two of you.  Your future self could be Xena’s future self’s mother or the two of you could be siblings, or maybe Xena’s future self could be father to your son.  In the future, both of you could be of the same sex, yet prefer to share intimacies with people of the opposite sex.”

“Yes.  From what I have studied almost anything is possible.”

“And I would assume that some of your future circumstances would preclude you from being physically intimate with each other.”  Ratha commented and waited for Gabrielle’s nod before continuing.  “As mother, you would not share intimate, physical pleasures with your child.”

“Of course, not.”

“And if you were siblings?”

“I…I would certainly hope not.”  Gabrielle answered indignantly.

“Gabrielle, please.  I am not criticizing you, I am simply trying to understand.”

“I’m sorry, Ratha.”

“I am not offended.”  Ratha informed, then continued.  “In these future lives, you will be physically intimate with someone other than your soulmate--your spouse, of course to create your child.  You might make love to a friend and not question if you are betraying your soulmate because intimacy with Xena’s future self in that life would be taboo to say the least.”

“I believe I know where you’re headed.”

Ratha touched Gabrielle’s cheek as she had when she first knelt in front of her.  The former battling bard closed her eyes and breathed in Ratha’s unique scent of exotic rich spices and the soft hint of flowers.  Her body throbbed with the need to know this woman.  Slowly, Gabrielle’s head turned and her lips made contact with the palm of Ratha’s hand.  Neither woman said anything as Gabrielle’s mind swirled in chaos, cluttered with new thoughts of desire and old thoughts of the love she once had and didn’t want to let go. 

“Gabrielle, I have to ask.  What are you afraid of?  Why will you not free your body from your mind?  I would like nothing more today than to cover you in kisses and make love with you.  You are a very desirable woman and I sense so much desire within you.”

Gabrielle took steady, calming breaths as she continued to lean her lips into Ratha’s hand.  “You smell of jasmine.”

“Yes, I do.”

“I…” Gabrielle had not arrived at the temple with passionate release on her mind or an expectation of sharing long, romantic intimacies with this woman, but somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew that she had wanted Ratha for a long, long time.

Ratha lowered her hand and stood.  The blonde woman remained sitting cross-legged on the pillow.  “Come.” Ratha’s outstretched arm reached for her and Gabrielle placed her hand delicately in her teacher’s.  Standing next to each other, they breathed the same air and stared into each other’s eyes.  All of this talk of lovemaking and desire had Gabrielle weak and ready to submit to anything Ratha wished.  Everything made sense.  She had been so filled with grief even after she thought she had worked through it that she had forgotten about her own human needs; she had been so lonely for Xena’s touch that she had rejected all overtures from others.

“Kiss me.”  Gabrielle said huskily.

Ratha hesitated, then looked toward the window, staring out into the late afternoon sky.  “It is late.  I will see you tomorrow morning?”

Taking a step back, Gabrielle stared at Ratha who at that moment was the picture of serenity. A raised eyebrow was Ratha’s only response to the unasked question, before she bent, picked up the flowers and lifted them to her nose.  “Ah, so fragrant.  So absolutely perfect.”

Ratha turned her back to Gabrielle and departed.

* * * * *

The next day, Gabrielle awoke before dawn.  She had had a fitful sleep, dreaming of both Ratha and Xena. 

Walking to the temple with her arms full of jasmine still hanging from their vines, she had encountered an ever-changing road—changes no one else could see.  Her mind wandered and tripped over her thoughts.  She struggled to maintain focus as she meandered down a luscious path where the ripe fruit of desire grew untended and wild, then a fork in the road led to an edge of a precipice where she considered a climatic resolution to the longing she felt controlled her.  Next, she happened upon an overflowing river that flooded the road.  She watched as the waves lapped delicately and sensuously at her feet and higher.  Later, it was a dry and stifling road she treaded.  Dust flew into her face, smelling old and forgotten, but up ahead a geyser sprayed saving water.  When she reached the natural fountain, she sipped from it, then gulped madly, becoming bruised by its force, yet entering its center for the sweetest of the water.

Please try to stay focused, Gabrielle.  She told herself.

Finally, she reached the temple, but instead of following her usual routine, Gabrielle sat on the rickety wooden bench outside the temple gates.  Taking deep breaths, she cleared her mind of Ratha’s eyes and body, moved her thoughts from Xena’s warm mouth, the feel of Xena’s arms around her and the touch of her loving strokes that had once sent her spiraling into near unconsciousness.  She sat taking deep breaths until her mind no longer wandered and her thoughts were of nothing.

It had been candlemarks and Ratha wasn’t sure if she had asked too much of Gabrielle.  In the three summers they had worked together, Gabrielle had never missed a set appointment.  Although she seldom ventured out, Ratha needed to be certain that Gabrielle was well.  Crossing the courtyard, she passed the newly blossoming flowers, taking note of their beauty.  She felt the individual blades of grass against her feet, and paid attention to the vines growing haphazardly on the picket gate that separated the temple from the outside world.  Slowly, she opened the gate and turned left, ready to trace Gabrielle’s footsteps, willing to walk into Gabrielle’s town barefoot, if necessary.  Her teacher was surprised to find Gabrielle sitting on the bench, her chest barely rising with her breaths.  Ratha took a seat next to her and observed that Gabrielle was so deep in meditation that she hadn’t responded to the creak of the bench or the weight of someone sharing it with her.  Ratha began her meditation exercises, too.

“Did you come to find me?”  Gabrielle asked softly, her voice a bit shaky from having been silent all morning and well into the afternoon.

“Yes.  But you are here.”  Ratha’s eyes opened and she turned to face her student.

“May I kiss you?”  Gabrielle’s voice quavered, though this time from anticipation and a bit of fear.

“I have waited.  Please, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle closed the distance between them and it was the blonde who embraced the dark woman.  Holding the back of Ratha’s head, she pressed into her.  Experiencing the sensation of kissing her without the thoughts of what it meant clouding her mind was incredibly pleasurable. 

“I want you, Ratha.”  Gabrielle clung to her, so certain of how she wanted to proceed.

Standing, Gabrielle took Ratha’s hand, helping her rise, then walked beside her into the temple, leaving the bundle of flowers on the bench.

* * * * *

“My delicate flower, my lotus.  Gabrielle, you are truly beautiful.”  Ratha lightly tickled Gabrielle’s bare side with her fingers, working her way up and down her torso as she stared into her eyes.  The two women mirrored each other’s positions on the pallet.  Resting on their side, a crooked arm acting as a head support, their cheek and chin resting in their hand.  Though, near in age, the differences were pronounced.  One woman had skin the color of the sun’s rays and the other, the color of dark, rich soil; one’s back was without ornamentation while the other had an elaborate drawing in permanent tattoo ink of a coiled dragon, its expression both angry and protective; one had short-cropped blonde hair, a style she had maintained long after her fighting days had ended, while the other’s long black braid had been lovingly unknotted and left to hang pleasingly down her back and against her waist.

“I find you positively stunning.”  Gabrielle sighed.

“I am only one of nature’s creatures.  All of nature is stunning and beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yes, especially this moment.”  Making love with Ratha had been fulfilling, enlightening, passionate, and completely satisfying.  The two women had connected on many levels and Gabrielle felt that she had reached inside Ratha’s soul and held it in her hands when she had been inside her; she felt as if she had once again come to understand the meaning of life on her tongue when she tasted this woman.

“Nothing can compare to this moment.  Oh, wait, this moment can.  Uh, another one.  Hmm.  I just had another remarkable moment.  And another and another and another and another….” She grinned while continuing her gentle stroking.

“Funny, I’ve never seen this playful side of you.”  Gabrielle commented.

“I show you all of me, all of the time.  I have never hidden anything.  Could it be that you chose not to see this?” 

All of Gabrielle’s senses were alive.  The room smelled of sandalwood incense and their love.  At some point, Ratha had lit dozens of candles that now illuminated the room with a soft, romantic glow.  Gabrielle leaned into Ratha and kissed her passionately, then raised her head to hold this woman’s soul in her eyes. 

“Another magnificent moment,” Ratha remarked.

They laughed and as they quieted, Gabrielle said, “You are very special to me.”

“Why?”

“Because you unchained me, untied me in many ways.”

“I did not free you, you freed yourself, Gabrielle.  Perhaps I only pointed the Way, maybe left some breadcrumbs for you to follow.”

That comment reminded Gabrielle of the naan bread beside the pallet.  She turned and hungrily grabbed the large, flat round bread, breaking it off into two pieces for each of them.  When she turned back to Ratha, the dark-haired woman’s mouth was open, waiting for the morsel.  Gabrielle pushed Ratha’s piece into her mouth and smiled when the dark-skinned woman began to nibble on Gabrielle’s fingers.  When Ratha pulled two of the digits into her mouth and began to suck on them earnestly, Gabrielle’s head tilted back in pleasure.  “Ooooh.”  

Ratha opened her mouth just enough to mutter, “You are so sweet.  You taste like a honey pastry.”

“I believe you taste yourself on my fingers.”  Gabrielle chortled.

She said before swirling her tongue around Gabrielle’s finger.  “Ah, so you are correct.  But you taste like honey, too.  In a few days I will go to see the beekeeper and learn all about making honey.” 

“Huh?  Gabrielle was distracted by Ratha’s warm mouth.  “A few days?” 

Popping the finger out of her mouth, Ratha explained, “I cannot leave your side just now.  I cannot get enough, my fairy, my sprite.”

“Fairy and sprite?”

“Like the stories you told me of the Celts.  The fairies and sprites come to them and make magic and wishes come true.  You are my fairy, making my wishes a reality.” 

Ratha pulled Gabrielle down, placing soft kisses on her lips and cheeks.  Pulling back, emerald eyes gazed curiously into Ratha’s.  Nuzzling against her neck, Ratha tried to put Gabrielle at ease. “I am not asking for anything, Gabrielle.  I am honored to accept this gift you offer and I pray that you will do the same.  You are a treasure.”

“So are you, Ratha.  So are you.

Gabrielle straddled her Indian lover’s body and slowly began to undulate her hips, while watching Ratha’s dark eyes simmer in desire.  She bent and kissed her deeply, moaning again at the sensations coming alive in her mouth and between her legs.   Gabrielle’s eyes closed as she lost herself in the feeling.  Pulling away from Ratha, Gabrielle lowered her head to Ratha’s breast, sucking it into her mouth.  Her lips lingered on the erect nipple, kissing it in worship, then taking it fully into her mouth.  Ratha moaned as she held Gabrielle’s head there, requesting a stronger touch.  Gabrielle barely heard the Indian woman whisper in between shallow breaths, “When we are not in study, let us make love, Gabrielle. And when we are not sharing pleasures, I will be with the bees trying to duplicate your nectar.

* * * * *

Gabrielle and Ratha had been living as a couple for over three autumns.  The blonde woman had moved from her small rented hut in the tiny village in the valley, to the temple on the hill.  The women had found a glorious way to explore and express their sensuality with each other and made love often.  The first summer through the next spring they were together, Gabrielle still attended lessons and received instruction from Ratha, but it had become much more informal. 

Over the seasons, Ratha made it a point to include Gabrielle as a teacher in her other lessons.  Spiritually minded men and women made journeys to the temple to learn more from these two women who were considered masters.  Gabrielle, always the bard had long ago begun writing their theories, teachings, and words of inspiration on scrolls to share with others.  While Ratha worked with her bees and sold the delicious honey to townspeople, Gabrielle set to words her feelings on the meaning of life and its mysteries. 

In the evening, in bed, Gabrielle would ask Ratha if she had captured their feelings on parchment.  Sometimes she would rewrite, but usually Ratha would smile, pleased beyond measure that Gabrielle could see so clearly into both their hearts.  Before long, the parchment would be set aside and Ratha would pull a honeycomb from a clay pot and messily drip that day’s product into Gabrielle’s awaiting, opened mouth.  This fun would soon turn into something more emotional and poignant.  Early on, when they first became lovers, they took joy and amusement in each other’s bodies, but soon that changed.  It happened naturally.  Their lovemaking had always been intense and the closer they grew, the more their lovemaking embodied their spiritual beliefs, their passion for life and each other, and a desire to reach not only physical ecstasy, but also spiritual exaltation. Gabrielle became prolific on this subject, writing numerous scrolls about physical intimacy and the many levels of pleasure and joy accessible to someone who gives into the moment completely.

* * * * *

Ratha, Gabrielle, and the other teachers at the temple had prepared for a group of visiting monks.  These monks had traveled throughout India talking to religious leaders, obtaining new information about how others viewed and practiced their faith.   Both women were well respected and their work had reached the far corners of the country through Gabrielle’s scrolls that had been painstakingly reproduced by students throughout the provinces. 

The reception that evening had been small and informative, but very quiet.  It seemed these visiting monks were able to communicate quite effectively without verbalizing.  Throughout the event, Ratha would smile at Gabrielle, knowing how difficult it was for her partner not to talk.

That night, as they disrobed for bed, Ratha asked about a particular incident during the ‘festivities,’ if they could be called that.  “Gabrielle, did you know tonight your color changed to a pink the color of the carnations growing in front?”

Gabrielle nodded.  “Umm.  That doesn’t surprise me.  I bet I know when.  One of the monks propositioned me?”

“What kind of proposition?”  Ratha asked interested, but without jealousy.

Cocking her head to the side, Gabrielle considered the description of the proposal.  “Hmm…”  Slowly, she unwrapped her sari.  “He took my hand and placed it on his…member.  His erect member.”

Ratha’s eyes enlarged, her pupils almost lost in the bright whites.  “What?  He…”

“Well, I pulled away, of course.  He thought I didn’t understand his request.”

“How could he possibly think that?”

“The monk spoke!”  Gabrielle laughed.

“Dare I ask?”  Ratha smiled.  “Tell me.”  She sounded like a teenager hearing about how her best friend got ‘felt up’ by an eager boy.

“He said, and this is verbatim, Ratha.…  I want to plunge my god inside of you and let you squeeze the life out of it.”

“You are not serious?”  Ratha looked flabbergasted.

Sliding into bed, Gabrielle watched as Ratha finished undressing. “I most certainly am.  He apparently has read our scrolls, but their meaning has escaped him.”

“When we talk about the god and goddess within, it’s not a name we use for our private parts.” Ratha’s naked frame joined Gabrielle’s.  “Why that was just vulgar.”

“I turned him down.”  Gabrielle paused.  “Do you think I did the right thing?”  The blonde grinned and embraced her lover.

“Yes, I don’t believe you’d find much fulfillment with him.”  Ratha tenderly touched Gabrielle’s cheek and smiled at her with all the love she felt for her Greek partner.

“Umm, Ratha…” Gabrielle started as she pulled away from her.

The Indian woman sat up, taking notice of the tension in Gabrielle’s voice.  Just that utterance and her name, let Ratha know that something was either troubling Gabrielle or that her lover had a sensitive matter on her mind.  “What is it, Gabrielle?”

Seeing the concern staring back at her, Gabrielle hastily sat up, too.  “We…we received another proposition tonight.”

Ratha nodded, waiting for Gabrielle to continue.  The blonde played nervously with her fingers, wringing her hands in a gesture that was well known to her partner.  Finally, Ratha grabbed Gabrielle’s hands and held them tightly, calming both the fingers and her lover’s racing heart.

“Nothing like the first--something quite intriguing.  One of the monks would like us to join them on their tour and conclude at their monastery.  There is a school, an ashram and she believes that we could be very helpful to the students.  The ashram only trains women in math, science, and faith.  She would like for us to meet with students, talk with them about our meditation, sacred lovemaking, all that we’ve been writing about.  She feels that since I have a background a bit different from others, I might talk about the Path of the Warrior in a world of peace.  I feel it’s a good opportunity, but I explained I couldn’t speak for you.”

Ratha nodded, this time in consideration of the offer.

“It would take us quite a way from here, but it would give us a chance to meet new people…women who aren’t able to travel here.  It sounds like something…Well, I…”

“Gabrielle, you want to go and you know I will never leave here.”  Ratha stated. 

The blonde head lowered, but Ratha, using a delicate finger on Gabrielle’s chin, lifting her head and looked into the green eyes that had warmed her, gazed at her with deep longing, sparkled with amusement, and melted her soul for many, many seasons.

“Long ago, I told you I would accept what gifts you offered--that I would be honored.  I hope I have never made you feel obligated or bound.”

“No,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Do you believe distance will keep us apart?”  Ratha asked rhetorically.  Both were learned women on the subject of their place in the universe.  “We will still share the same stars.  I will always pray for your well-being.  In meditation, in my stillness, whether you are here or hundreds of miles away, I will always surrender to you as I surrender to all that is.  This is my truth.  Gabrielle, it is not your nature to sit in the same place.  Remember our trip to the valley a while ago?  You were helping me deliver some of the honey?”

“Yes, I remember, Ratha.”

“We stopped in the town square and there was a company of traveling performers with monkeys and elephants.”

Gabrielle’s eyes brightened at the memory.  “As I recall, you said I reminded you of them.  Didn’t you call me a monkey-elephant?”

“No, love.  I said you are an elephant-monkey.  In a way, that captures your dueling personalities.  You are loyal, methodical and cautious, moving with strong, sure steps.  That is how you are when you examine life.  But then you are ready to act, jumping in, lending a hand, and making things happen around you, sometimes rash, but always passionate.  That is how you are when you live life.  You are the methodical elephant and the swift monkey.”

“I see. 

“And Gabrielle, your daily drills have not gone unnoticed.”  Ratha had never asked and Gabrielle never explained.  Everyday, Gabrielle opened a long wooden box where she kept her sais.  She quickly wiped them down with a cloth, and walked out into the courtyard where she performed complicated arm and wrist movements for a full candlemark.

“They’re only exercises, not drills.  I...I used to enjoy spending time working with my sais.  I could just as easily pick up candles or twigs or...” Gabrielle muttered behind her fingers that covered her mouth.

“But you do not.  Just yesterday, as we prepared for the visitors, you took time for drills with your sais.”

“It’s an exercise, a dance,” Gabrielle implored.

Ratha knew that she was pushing her lover, but she seemed to understand Gabrielle well and wanted her partner to open her inner eye, to see the person she truly was.  “You have lived here and before in the village below as the elephant.  Your monkey nature needs sustenance, too.  You must not ignore that.”

“But what about what we’ve built here?”

“Nothing will change and all will change.  That is the way of life.  You must follow your heart and not forsake your dreams.”

“My dreams?  What do you mean?  I have no wish to leave, Ratha.”

Ratha leaned back against the wall that was also the headboard of their pallet.  She pulled Gabrielle to her and the former bard snuggled in, resting lightly on Ratha’s chest.  “Gabrielle, did you know you talk in your sleep?”

Gabrielle looked up at Ratha.  “I do?  Still?  Xena used to…” She paused and sighed.  “I’m sorry.”

Ratha rivaled Gabrielle with her own sigh.  “Gabrielle, I have asked you not to deny what you had with Xena.  As your teacher, I am telling you--all that you were and all that you’ve experienced are vital to the person you are now.  It molds and forms you, so you cannot and must not pretend it never existed.”

“I would never deny, Xena.  She still holds a powerful place in my heart and soul.  I just never want to make you uncomfortable.”

“I feel ill at ease when you hide from me.  Please do not do that...”

Gabrielle interrupted.  “I don’t hide from you, Ratha.”

“Your dreams declare otherwise.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Lately, more and more often, you speak of Xena in your dreams.”  Ratha looked down and saw the alarm on Gabrielle’s face.  Her lips had thinned as her eyes widened.

“You have said nothing to hurt or offend me, Gabrielle.  You only spoke in dreams what your voice wouldn’t allow while awake.  But it was not of romance and passion you spoke, but your different paths.  Still, you are processing what it is to be a warrior and protect those who will not help themselves while living a life of peace, where you are one with all other creatures great and small.  From what I have gathered, you and Xena had this discussion more than once.”

“Yes, we did.”  Relief was now the expression Gabrielle wore.  She still had erotic dreams of Xena and had accepted the warrior’s continuing presence in her life.  She had not wanted Ratha to be privy to that, however.  It would have been painful for the Indian woman who had given herself so freely to her.  Gabrielle loved Ratha the best she could and that’s all both women could ask. 

“Almost twenty winters ago, Eli, a prophet of peace...”

“I know of Eli.”

“Right.  Of course.  Sorry.” 

Ratha patted her arm, gesturing for her to continue.  “Eli allowed himself to be killed at the hands of our Greek God of War, Ares.  I tried to come to his aid.  I was willing to die to protect.  Not once, not twice, but three times I stepped in, confronting Ares myself.  I tried to reason with both Eli and Ares.  I begged Eli to retreat, to seek refuge and I pleaded with Ares to stand down.  Neither god nor man would budge.  Eli had such an influence on me.  I believed in his Way of Love even though I seemed incapable of putting it to practice.  So, when he told me to walk away, to let fate take its course, I gave in.  I probably could have held Ares off until Xena arrived, but I turned my back.   Before I could take a good breath, Ares had run him through.  Eli was one of my closest friends, my first real spiritual mentor, the answer to so many people’s prayers, and I turned my back because he asked me to.”  Tears leaked from Gabrielle’s eyes, falling sideways down her cheek and onto Ratha’s chest.  The blonde wiped her cheeks roughly with her clenched hand.  

“You know now that it was the right thing to do, not necessarily for you, but for Eli.”

“Xena didn’t see it that way.  I was distraught, in incredible despair.”  Gabrielle sniffed.  “When Xena arrived I was cradling him in my arms and she just wouldn’t stop accusing me.  She kept asking me why I didn’t fight and when I tried to explain, she didn’t want to hear it.  She was a warrior and felt that I should have behaved in a like fashion.  I recall, so vividly, like it was yesterday, how I shouted at her.  I said, ‘so Ares is right!  The world belongs to warriors.” 

“There is room for all of us.  I doubt that we can live in a world without conflict, but the idea of such a world is something we can all hope to attain.”  Ratha tried to comfort.

“I’ve never told you this, Ratha.  It’s with great shame that I admit it.  Ares asked me to join him that day--the day he killed my friend, and I said yes.”

For the first time in their relationship, Ratha was stunned.  “Uh...you joined with the God of War?”

“No, but I considered it.  It had been a while since Xena had been that disappointed in me.  My world just caved in.  I wasn’t thinking straight and I was feeling numb.  Suddenly, I thought she and Ares have such conviction about waging war—maybe they’re right.  Maybe I’m wrong.”

“You were not wrong.”

“I never joined him, but I lived a warrior’s life for many winters.  I fought in the name of peace.  I carried a banner of unity into battle yet killed and injured many to protect the innocent.  I never possessed that conviction, though.  I had to escape it, so I came here.  I believe there is something fundamentally wrong with picking up a weapon to take a life.  But I am forced to ask myself over and over if Xena was right—warriors are needed to protect those who cannot or will not protect themselves.  I’ve never been able to reconcile these notions.”

“That is why you must leave.  You need to find your golden time of day when you can look at the setting sun and know that you completed your day as the person you truly are, come to terms with her, and love her fully.  This is part of that journey. You can teach about war having lived it, you can teach peace having known it, and you can share what you know of love having given it and received it from two.”

“Leave you?  That would be...hard.”

“You’ve done much harder in your life, my lotus.”

Gabrielle stretched to kiss Ratha’s lips.  “Thank you.”

* * * * *

The journey to the monastery had taken several moons due to the various stops along the way.  Gabrielle met with other scholars, worshippers, and spiritually enlightened teachers. 

The days were rich with conversation--the normally silent monks trying to make Gabrielle comfortable.  They would have discussions that went well into the night about god as a higher being and as god inside each person.  The masters disagreed, at times shouting their concepts in hopes of being heard, and often weeping when they accepted a new idea that made sense.

Though rich, there were difficult days when Gabrielle found it hard to even meditate, her thoughts returning to Ratha and her home on the hill.  She missed the way they prayed together, their conversations, both heated and gentle, and the way they made love.  But Gabrielle missed the small things, too--surprising Ratha as she took care of the bees and getting a taste of the sweet honey as a reward or sitting cross-legged on the floor weaving a flower garland for Ratha to wear around her neck.  The odd thing was that Ratha never entered her dreams.  She commanded attention during her waking hours, but at night, under the stars or under a ceiling, Gabrielle’s dreams were as they always had been, of Xena.

Just as they entered the village very near the monastery, one of the monks rode his horse alongside Gabrielle’s.  She turned pleasantly in her saddle to address the person, but a mask came down over her face when she saw who sat beside her.

“Pariket?  What’s up?”  She asked in a friendly tone, hiding any irritation she was feeling. 

“I recently read one of your scrolls.  Just this afternoon.”

“Yes?”  Gabrielle wished he’d cut to the chase.  This was the monk who had placed her hand on his rigid penis.

“I really like the way you describe touching Ratha’s breast—the softness, the firmness.  It aroused me a great deal and then when you wrote about how the two of you would embrace so that your heartbeat could be felt in her chest and hers in yours, I kept thinking about how your nipples and hers must be touching, too and they were probably hard, right?”

“Pariket, you are totally missing the purpose of what has been written.  Ratha and I were not writing to arouse whomever might read them...”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”  He interrupted excitedly. “I was so turned on.  How could I not be?  When we had to resume riding, it was distressing.  Imagine, having to direct a horse while trying to take care of my need on its back.”  He looked down at his lap.  “You know what I mean?  My saddle is still stained.”

Gabrielle was using every meditation and yoga technique she could think of to calm the anger about to burst from her.  He is merely an extension of yourself, Gabrielle.  You can’t be angry.  He is a part of you.  You have to accept him.  In with love, out with hate.  She repeated this mantra in her head.  Just then another horse rode up beside her.

“Gabrielle, see just above the ridge?  That is our monastery.”  Niti spoke happily as she motioned toward the horizon with her head.  “It’s good to see something familiar.”  She leaned forward.  “Hello, Pariket.”

The man smirked and turned his horse guiding him to the back of the caravan of monks.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  Gabrielle said seriously.

“I will not apologize for him.  That isn’t my place.  Only he can take responsibility for his actions.  I will say I’m sorry that my plan was a failure,” she said as they continued riding forward.

“Your plan?  I guess it wasn’t to drive me insane because otherwise it would have been hugely successful.  What is wrong with that guy?  He’s a monk?”  Gabrielle shook her head.

“He has not learned how to channel his sexual desires.  Because of this, he is acting inappropriately.  We believed that this pilgrimage to various holy sights would act as a salve, giving him relief and comfort.  It has made it worse.  He wasn’t always like this.  He was devout in all words and deeds, but the winters of celibacy have had a perverse effect on him.  Celibacy makes some of us stronger, others, it does not.”

“I don’t adhere to the celibacy theory.  I don’t believe it was particularly good for me, but I can only speak for myself.  I need that closeness when I feel bonded to someone.  It hasn’t happened often in my life, but when that connection exists, I am empty without that aspect of expression.   Finding a physical connection with someone and giving myself over to her has always been healing and cleansing and an important aspect of who I am.  For some, I would guess that celibacy centers them, gives them focus.”

“We are a celibate order.”  Niti reiterated to avoid misunderstanding later.

“I understand and will certainly live as all of you.”  Gabrielle had no interest in finding another mate.  She had been blessed to find a soulmate in Xena and a compassionate and passionate bond with Ratha.  She doubted it would come along again.

As they headed toward the ridge, Gabrielle had a vague since of having been to the village before.  She nodded to herself, thinking that perhaps she had traveled through this town on her way to the place that had become her home.

“I don’t want to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong and please tell me if I’m out of line, but I don’t think Pariket should be teaching young students.  It can be a dangerous situation with a teacher who is so out of control with his emotions and physical needs.”

“Thank you, Gabrielle.  That decision has been made.  He will be transcribing scrolls for our library.  From the various temples and monasteries we’ve visited, we should have enough work to keep him busy until this passes.”

“It may not pass.”  Gabrielle said definitively.  They continued riding for a while, then as an afterthought, the blonde made a request. “Could you make sure he doesn’t get a chance to transcribe any of mine?”

* * * * *

Leading her down a narrow and insufficiently lit corridor, Niti showed Gabrielle to her room.  She would live alone, but the other monks and masters would be nearby in the dormitory style structure.  As she opened the door, Niti warned, “It’s small.  We focus on a bare existence here—a pallet, a bowl and pitcher to wash and here,” she pointed to a small cutout in the wall where there was a latch indicating a door, “Here is a pot for your toilet needs.”

“Thank you Niti.  I’m sure I’ll find the room pleasant.”

“Pleasant is probably not the word, but it is all we have to offer.  On the bright side, you will have a student to take care of your needs—perhaps bathing your back, massaging your body and feet, emptying your pot.”

“That will hardly be necessary.”  Gabrielle objected.

“Ah, but Gabrielle, they need to learn humility.  How better than to wait on others?  This room also has a small chest for your belongings.  Those who have lived here for many seasons have no such belongings, but I imagine you have your parchments, scrolls, and quills.  I guess your saddlebags can be placed in that corner over there.”  She directed with a tilt of her head.  “And that...uh...that...urn....  You could put that on top of the chest.  If you want it close by.”

“Yes, I do.  Thank you.”

“I will return for you in a candlemark.  I’ll let you get settled, then take you to our dining room where you will have your evening meal.”

“Niti.  I am looking forward to this experience and meeting your students and helping if I can.”

“You are a welcome addition.”  She looked up at Gabrielle with a smile. 

* * * * *

The monkey mind that Ratha claimed needed unleashing was still securely locked away, a summer after entering the monastery.  Nothing much happened there, but prayer.  Even her young students were always agreeable, not asking for clarification, not arguing a point, but accepting of everything they were told.  It was frustrating and Gabrielle often tried to force the issue, delving deeper into the abstract to further dialogue. 

Niti and Gabrielle would often walk in the garden and even venture down the backside of the mountain to visit the small, peaceful town below.

One day Gabrielle asked why they always took the back trail and Niti explained.  “The people in the village below are loving.  They have sent some of their daughters to the monastery.  We often trade back and forth—our herbs and spices for their cloth and wood.  Since we sit up on the mountain, we control the flow of water into the village as well.  With the help of the townspeople we built a dam a while ago to prevent further flooding, now, two of our monks open and close that dam as needed, managing the flow of it for them.”

“Is the valley on the other side uninhabited?”

“By no means, no.  The people there are hard and cold, thinking only of themselves and taking all that nature provides as theirs alone.  They vilify us because of the dam, but other reasons as well.  Without their help, we built a second dam to protect them from flooding.  They insisted that we were trying to slowly kill them by rechanneling the water away from them.  Gabrielle, they had lost hundreds of people during the last flood.  We couldn’t stand by and do nothing.”  Niti shook her head as she recalled the incident.  “In the night, some of their people came up and destroyed the dam.  Not two moons later, another torrential rain came, pouring great rivers of water down the mountain.  Frankly, I was surprised that our other dam held, but it did.  Those townspeople only had to deal with days of nonstop rain, but on the other side...”

“Did more die?”

“The whole village was practically decimated--all but those who fled either up the mountain or around it.  When it was all over, those who had sought refuge stayed in their new homes—some of the spiritual leaders here were once from below.  Only a few survived below and they were convinced that we had cursed them, had told the gods to be angry with them.  We didn’t know any of this until they sent a messenger telling us to never venture down their side of the mountain for if we did, we would be killed.”

“And so you don’t go.  You’re being held hostage up here?”

“Gabrielle, we go down this side.  It really hasn’t been a problem.”

“Has there been flooding since then?”

”No.”  Niti paused.  “Do you think they’re right?  That as long as we stay out of their lives than they will prosper?”

“Of course not.  They’ve been lucky is all.  Eventually, they will confront you again if they feel so strongly.  You have to prepare for that.”

“Yes, our older students, the novitiates who have been on retreat have all expressed interest in trying to work with the villagers.  Their hearts are pure and hopeful.  These students sing of peace, but peace is something you can’t force on another.  They must want it.  I am afraid that those villagers lack the commitment it would take to come to a peaceful and neighborly resolution.”

“I would have to agree with your novitiates, Niti.  We have to end the cycle of hate, but preaching to those who already believe won’t end it.  We have to be down there, allowing them to see that we are all the same, really.”

“Perhaps, this is a project you can tackle with the students upon their return.  The monastery knows that we must change to have longevity.  We are more than a haven for the lost, we are a dream for the future.  Many of our monks and masters won’t have your  eagerness, Gabrielle, but you’re persuasive.  I bet you can change minds.”

* * * * *

It was a day of excitement for the young students.  Some of them were only toddlers when the older novitiates left the monastery for their retreat that had lasted twenty-four moons.  The older students had lived in a cave several provinces away, getting closer to nature, to their god, developing their own ways that would carry them through their lives.  A few of the children who could recall those who were away, happily told stories about their much older friends and wondered how different they’d be after their pilgrimage to the Mystic Mountains.

Gabrielle couldn’t remember the last time she had heard so much activity.  She had definitely never heard it here.  The masters allowed the children to run freely and for the first time, Gabrielle saw these small people behave in a child-like manner she didn’t know they possessed.  She found herself laughing with them, asking questions about the older students and slipping into the high spirits of the day.

In the kitchen, a feast was being prepared, another occurrence not only unusual for the monastery, but before today non-existent.  Baked bread, curried vegetables, and fried potatoes wafted throughout the buildings and unfortunately for a hungry Gabrielle, the fragrances were inescapable. 

She sat in the courtyard watching the children play happily.  She felt a touch of melancholy as she thought of her daughter, Hope and how she had not played this way, despite Gabrielle’s prayers for her to be good and not like her father, Dahak.  She thought of Eve and how she and Xena had missed this time in their daughter’s life.  Eve had gone from innocent baby to cruel and violent adult in the time it took for them to awaken from a nap—a nap of twenty-five winters.  Stay focused, stay focused.  Live in the here and now, stay in the moment.  Gabrielle reminded herself.  Sometimes, it was so hard for her rambling mind.  She wondered if it was easier for a person to stay in the moment when their lives had consisted of no more than prayer, meditation, and meal time.  Here, at this monastery, talking was often considered an event.  Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle paid attention to the children at play in front of her.  They were making a game of screaming one of the novitiates name and making the others describe her.  It was a good way to learn some things about the students who would be receiving instruction from her beginning tomorrow.

Suddenly, with a speed she had not witnessed since the last time she and Xena had spent a lazy afternoon in the woods racing from one end to another, a fellow teacher ran into the courtyard, his robe flapping in the wind behind him. “By the gods above, our novitiates are in a struggle below.  They were making their way back up here, when they were ambushed by villagers.”  The teacher was out of breath and he clutched his hand over his heart as he explained the situation. 

By this time, Gabrielle was up and moving forward, just as Niti entered the courtyard, too.  “Gabrielle, what shall we do?”

The blonde turned to look at the sea of dark-haired children and ran over to a spindly girl with long legs and arms.  “Do you know where my room is?”

“Yes, teacher.”

“Go there.  On the floor, beside my pallet there is a box.  Bring the box to me.  Hurry!”  She patted the girl on the rear and then moved toward Niti.  “It’s okay.  We’ll go deal with this.  Niti, you need to gather some of the stronger monks and teachers.  We might need all the help we can get.”

Niti paused, unsure what to do.  “Gabrielle, I can’t ask any of these people to fight if that’s what you’re suggesting.”

Gabrielle stared at her for a moment, equally unsure how to respond.  Just then the young girl came running back carrying the large wooden box.  “Teacher?”  She said handing it to her.

“Thank you.”  She smiled warmly at the girl, then stared at Niti.  “Will you come with me?”

“I don’t believe I will be of much help.”

“Do you want the novitiates to die?”

“Death is not the end, Gabrielle.”

The blonde sighed.  “But it might not be their time.”  Gabrielle opened the box and lifted her sais.  She gave them a twirl, getting used to the feel of them in her hand.  “I guess there’s no time like the present to push the cause of peace.”  She spoke flatly as she quickly ran the remaining length of the courtyard, into the front building, through the great hall, and down the mountain. 

It took three-quarters of a candlemark to get most of the way down the mountain.  She stopped on a ledge to regroup.  It had been a while, but Gabrielle knew not to ride or run in to any potentially violent situation without a plan.  So far, she didn’t have one.  Shivering, not from cold, but the knowledge that she carried her sais and that she might use them, she considered her options.  If only I had brought Xena’s chakram with me to India.  I could just break off any weapons from several feet away, not actually do any harm, but stop them.  Gabrielle thought about how she had buried the chakram along with all of the scrolls that chronicled her adventures and travels with the warrior.  Those things now sat in a cave in Thrace where someday, perhaps they would be discovered.  She wracked her brain trying to remember similar situations from her past alone and with Xena.  Gabrielle shook her head in annoyance. Without a plan, Gabrielle stood and continued down the overgrown path leading to the village.  Just as she was stepping off the mountain and into the village itself, Gabrielle looked hastily around.  She saw several buildings with open terraces and balconies.  She closed her eyes trying to envision how she would proceed. 

“Your monkey needs sustenance, too.  You jump into things, ready to lend a hand, ready for action.  Follow your monkey nature, Gabrielle.  Don’t think, be.”  Ratha’s voice was carried with the wind.

Cautiously, she moved around the perimeter trying to locate the novitiates and scope out the area.  Footsteps fell softly around the corner from where she stood and it sounded like three, maybe four people were moving her way.  Gabrielle, without thinking leapt onto the terrace a good ten feet above her.  She looked down in amazement, then smirked when she saw four armed soldiers patrolling the area.  They looked down at the footprints she had left, then searched to see where she might have gone.  Finally one of them looked up, just as Gabrielle jumped back to avoid detection.  Stealthily, she moved across the terrace, hugging the wall with her back, eyes darting left and right, sais held in the ready.  In the town square, she saw a group of women who obviously did not belong in that village.  They were heavily clothed in red saris and veils.  Their feet were covered in animal skin boots, heavy-soled for walking.   They were also bound together, one after another by a thick rope tied around each young woman’s neck.  Just as she was about to whistle for their attention, she reached an open window and heard two men talking.

“Look, why not kill them now?”

“Because no one has come down from that mountain to get them.  What is the point of a kill if it goes unnoticed?”

“Yes, but it might be noticed by their gods, too.”

“Ah, don’t tell me you believe in that foolishness!  Do you think their gods are punishing us?  No, they’re not.  Those people up there, they want us dead.  They withheld water from us and then flooded the entire village when we asked for relief.  And they lied.  Telling everyone that we had destroyed that dam.  The dam that should never have been built.”

The first man quieted and there were long moments without speech.  Finally, he said, “You know, we did destroy that dam.  Don’t you remember, we were told to...”

Gabrielle heard a chair scrape against the floor, then fall to the ground.  Next, she heard one of the men rasping for breath.  “Stop.  Lemme go.”

“Then you shut up.  Shut up!  It doesn’t matter how the dam was destroyed.  Those people are no good and have to be stopped.  It’s best to stop them while they’re young, keep them from years of lie-telling, pretending to be holy.   We made a good capture.  They’re just the right age, ripe for us.  We’ll take them, then kill them.  Let’s go.”

Surprisingly she heard both men laughing, pleased with their mutual decision to rape, defile, and murder.  “I don’t think so,” she whispered to herself.

Before the men could make their way from their second story room to the town square, Gabrielle had leapt again.  This time her direction was downward and into the heart of the square.  “Hi.”  Gabrielle smiled at them.  “I’m one of your new teachers.  This isn’t exactly how I expected to meet each of you, but we’ve got a little trouble.”  She slit the ropes quickly with her sais, just as the four soldiers entered the square from the left and another four from the right.  “Run.  Scatter.  Move quickly.”

“Hey, stop them!”  One of the soldiers yelled to all of the others. 

They seemed to be paralyzed into inaction, however.  The armed men stood and watched as Gabrielle slowly circled them, her sari slipping a bit in the back, revealing her dragon tattoo.  The soldiers finally moved, stepping back and away from the blonde.  It wasn’t quite the response she had anticipated, but she was pleased to see them turning away.  That could not be said for the two men who rushed the square and tackled her.  Gabrielle fell to the ground and one of the novitiates, a tall big-boned, dark-skinned girl, perhaps fifteen summers hesitated, looking back to check on her teacher.  Gabrielle’s eyes met hers and she screamed, “Run.  By the gods, run!”  The novitiate turned to comply, but two soldiers grabbed her arms and held her back.  She struggled to get away, but the more she fought, the harder their fingers dug into her arms.  She cried out and that seemed to give Gabrielle the strength she needed against her own attackers.  Arching her back and propelling her body upward and forward, she went from being flat on her back to her feet, carrying the two men who clung to her with her.  With a great push, she was able to knock one to the ground and immediately twirled and circled the other while holding her sais.  “I don’t want to hurt you,” she said.

“Then put the weapons down, woman.”

“Let the girls, go.  They only want to make their way to the mountain.”

“They’ll never get there.”  He said lunging for her.  Before he could make contact, Gabrielle took off running.  When you can’t talk your way out of it, Gabrielle, run.  She heard Xena say to her.  The blonde ran as quickly as she could in the sari, down one alley and up another.  She ran in circles, finally returning to the square.  Quickly, she looked back to see if the men were following.  When she saw that they were, she turned to run forward again.  She froze in her tracks.  In front of her she noticed a spear hanging out from a broken ruin of a pillar, looking permanent and sturdy.  Xena put that there.  Gabrielle remembered.  When we were attacked while coming to the rescue of Naiyima, Xena put that there.  She heard the footfalls of all the soldiers plus the two men and once again, she leapt a distance she didn’t think possible, stretching her arms in an attempt to grab hold of the length of the spear.  She did, just as they rounded the corner.  Hoping to build up momentum quickly, Gabrielle pushed herself forward, making fast even circles on the spear’s handle, her legs straight out, ready to connect with each man’s head as he appeared.  It was over within moments. 

When she dropped back to the ground, she saw five novitiates making slow work of untying their friend who had been recaptured.  She walked over and again sliced the rope with her sais, smiling up at the novitiate who looked at her warmly. 

“Are all of you okay?”

“Yes,” they said in unison.  “Thank you.”

“All right, then.  Let’s head back.  I’m sure that everyone is worried at the monastery.”

As Gabrielle led them back up the mountain she found out each young woman’s name and learned about their experiences in the cave.  They had spent two springs there and not only did they feel pure and revitalized, they believed they had answers to save the world.  Gabrielle was pleased to hear that youth still held out hope for love to conquer all.  It would make her teaching them very enjoyable.

“Why were you taking this route back up to your home?”

“We believe that we must start now in our message of peace.  Why go up the mountain to come back down when we can show that we aren’t fearful and want to have peace between us?  Going up the other side would have sent a message, if only to us that the villagers can’t be trusted and we have something to hide.”  The tall girl whom she had rescued twice explained.

“Our hearts are open and so are our minds.”

Each novitiate spoke with enthusiasm and as one voice.  Though they spoke different words, the meaning was the same—there must be peace.

Gabrielle smiled.

* * * * *

The lively debate Gabrielle had sought her first few seasons at the monastery was now an everyday occurrence.  Her class of older students, fresh from their retreat had opinions about everything and they relished thought-provoking assignments.  The young women were very much like Elijians except they seemed to understand that not everyone could be a pacifist.  They questioned Gabrielle about her years of fighting and what had she hoped for as an outcome.  The blonde teacher stayed away from discussion of her life with Xena, never mentioning the warrior and their seasons together.  That was private and emotional, and a deep discussion could make Gabrielle feel raw.  It was not how she wanted her students to see her.

“Teacher, if I want to find peaceful solutions to conflicts and I choose never to raise a weapon, but the person who disagrees with me settles problems with violence, what do I do?  Do I ask someone to fight on my behalf?  If I worry that my karma will be altered and harmed if I am violent, then how can I ask another to take on that violence?”

“I understand your question, Ashakiran.  There is no clear answer.”  Gabrielle began answering her favorite student, the young, brave woman who tried to help her in the square when they first met.  “At least, I haven’t found one.    Having been forthcoming with you about my past as a warrior, I can tell you that I struggled with just this subject.  But would you like to know when I found it most challenging?”

“Yes,” her class of six students responded simultaneously.

“Seldom when I was a warrior.  Then, I believed I was doing the right thing.  I believed my fighting was for a right and worthy cause.  I carried a sword and another weapon along with the sais you have seen me with.  I went into battle knowing what I had to do and feeling secure in my belief that it was right.  My doubts and worries came when I wouldn’t pick up a weapon.  I worried when I first attempted living the life of a pacifist and needed others to protect me.  If I couldn’t kill because I found it morally reprehensible, then how could I allow someone to kill to save me?”

“Yes, yes.  It is as if you placed more value on your self and your karma.  You were selfish.”  Ashakiran’s eyes lit up. 

It was a bold move to call the teacher ‘selfish,’ but it was accurate.  It seemed the student had a key to what was in Gabrielle’s mind and had chosen this day to unlock the door.   Hearing the words spoken took Gabrielle by surprise.  She had never articulated her feelings quite this way, but Ashakiran was right.  She had felt selfish and judgmental. 

The blonde nodded her head finally.  “It was selfish, but not in the way you would suspect.  The selfishness came from believing my path was the only and correct path instead of it being the correct path for me.  There is the Path of the Warrior.  All of our gods speak to it and is it not as legitimate a Path as one of Peace?  One must follow their nature.  Above all else, we must do that.  There are warriors in this world and they serve an important function, especially to those who will not take up weapons.  This is a discussion to be continued tomorrow, however.”  Gabrielle stood from her kneeling position and stretched out her legs. “I will see four of you for yoga this afternoon and all of you at our evening meal.”

* * * * *

Classes progressed quickly that season.  The six students in her ‘war’ class challenged her as much as she did them.  After class, she found herself spending more and more time with these six, talking about her experiences as a warrior in Egypt, the land of the Celts, Gaul, and on Norse soil.  All of the students were interested, curious, open to learning, but Ashakiran hung on Gabrielle’s every word and Gabrielle responded to her with maternal love. 

One evening at mealtime, Gabrielle watched quietly, listening to the light steps of the students as they served, the clanging of spoons against clay bowls, and the slurping of soup by everyone sitting at the table. 

Since the return of the older novitiates, these women had taken over many of the roles of the younger girls, especially those who helped serve the monks.  Tonight was no exception--the older students moved around the table, politely pouring tea and offering soup. 

Gabrielle, from her seasons with Xena and those alone, had learned to ‘read’ people—their body language said a great deal and she believed she could detect moods and auras. Gabrielle noticed that Ashakiran was very subdued as she served.  Her eyes would flash with a hint of happiness the few times that Gabrielle made eye contact with her, but then she seemed to hide away.  The blonde also took note of others at the table with special attention to how each person interacted with Pariket.  The adults ignored him while the female students tried to avoid him. 

Gabrielle had recently been made aware that Ashakiran had been given the duty of serving Pariket both at mealtime and as his personal assistant in his room.  She was surprised to hear it, aware that Niti and all others at the monastery knew of Pariket’s lack of self-control and his ongoing objectification of women. 

Sitting next to Niti, Gabrielle had the spiritual leader’s undivided attention.  She whispered, “Niti, why do you have Ashakiran serving Pariket?  I worry that she might be placed in an uncomfortable situation.”

Niti had just started eating her soup. Although it was not a requirement, Niti had become accustomed to taking all of her meals with the group in silence.  However, since Gabrielle’s arrival, it wasn’t unusual to indulge the foreign woman in mild banter and frequent deep discussion. Taking a spoonful of the hearty soup, she savored it, then set the spoon on the table before answering.  “There are few here, including myself better equipped to deal with Pariket.  Ashakiran commands respect without asking and she is by far our best student.  She stands out in everything she does.  I would think that she would best know how to handle him.  Pariket wouldn’t dare approach her with an unseemly proposition.”

Gabrielle didn’t believe that.  Pariket had no boundaries.  “You know, I can certainly fend for myself, I don’t need a student helping me bathe or massaging me or bringing me food.  If I can do it, all of us can.  I believe that Pariket uses these chores to his advantage.  He isn’t a stupid man and knows just how far to go before being called on his behavior.”  Gabrielle, though speaking with Niti, stared across the table at Pariket who was busily eyeing each novitiate who came in and departed the room.

“What have you heard, Gabrielle?”

“Nothing.  It’s just a feeling and I’m concerned.  Ashakiran sits in two of my classes.  In meditation, she excels, falling into a meditative state easily, in fact, much more easily than I.  I’ve watched her just to make sure she hasn’t dozed off and I am in awe at how she has regulated her breathing.  Her chest barely rises and falls.  In my ‘war’ class, she is amazing.   She understands nuances of negotiation and how they could be used to ward off a battle between conflicting parties.  Lately, however, there has been a distance as if she were somewhere else.  I’ve asked her about it and she says it’s nothing.  I would be horrified to learn that she is suffering some form of abuse right under our noses.”

“What do you suggest?”  Niti asked, hoping to end the conversation quickly and get back to her meal.

“That Pariket take care of himself.”

“That would hardly be fair, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle turned and stared at Niti in disbelief.  The spiritual head of this monastery had told her when she first arrived that the students serving monks and masters was to teach humility.  It sounded more like involuntary servitude.  “Unfair to whom?”  Gabrielle countered.

“To Pariket, of course and to Ashakiran who is certainly getting a lesson in humility.”

“Niti, humility is one thing, putting a young woman in harm’s way is quite another.”  Gabrielle continued to speak softly, but her ire was up and she felt her face warming and knew it was growing pink.  Her fair complexion often gave her feelings away in this land.

The short and stocky, Indian woman heaved a deep sigh.  “I see.  Well, we’ll just have to do something that will please all concerned parties.”

“Might I suggest that I serve Pariket.  I could use a refresher in humility.”  Gabrielle smiled.

“That would not be a good idea.”  Niti didn’t like to be second-guessed and Gabrielle always seemed to do just that.  Niti knew she would have to work on her own ego.  She wanted her teachers and monks to have an equal voice at the monastery, but she preferred those voices be in agreement with hers.  “We will work something out.” 

Niti turned back to her supper, picking up her spoon and enjoying the moment.

* * * * *

“Please come in.”  Gabrielle responded to the soft knock on her door.

She was both happy and surprised to see Ashakiran standing at the opened door.  “May I enter or is this a bad time?”

Gabrielle uncrossed her legs and slowly stretched them out before standing.  “Not a bad time at all.  What can I do for you?”

Ashakiran moved toward the small latched door in the wall where Gabrielle kept her toilet pot.  “I’ve been assigned to assist you as needed.  I thought I might follow my usual schedule, so I’m here to empty your pot and then assist you with any other needs.”

“Uh...you’re not helping Pariket any longer?”  Gabrielle was astounded that Niti would have moved so quickly on this issue.  She had only spoken with her two evenings ago.  Now, she wondered what lucky student had to endure Pariket’s advances.

“No.  I believe I have you to thank for that, teacher.  I’ve done something right.”  Ashakiran smiled widely.  Ashakiran spoke effortlessly to her teacher, interacting with her not with submission as most of the other students did.  She wasn’t passive, nor was she particularly assertive.  The student seemed to simply be comfortable in her voice and sharing her thoughts with her teacher.

 “Was it horrible?”

Ashakiran disengaged the latch.  “No, not horrible.  Just irritating, I guess.” After a moment’s thought, she added, “It made me stronger.”  Lifting the pot from its place, Ashakiran started to turn, but Gabrielle placed a hand on hers.  An unknown emotion swept over the blonde.  It was jarring and both Gabrielle and her student felt it.  Gabrielle blinked several times to clear her head and Ashakiran gasped softly.

“Uh...uh...uh.  I take care of that myself.  Don’t bother.”  She took several steps backward.

“But?”

“Really, Ashakiran, it’s been done already.”

Standing awkwardly at the small door, Ashakiran finally returned the pot and closed the small wooden opening.  “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No, my needs have all been met.  Especially now that I know you’re no longer under his domain.  I hate to say anything negative about another human being, but I believe that something must be done about his actions and behavior.

“He is much worse than our spiritual leader realizes.  He is quite ill.”

“Did he ever hurt you?”

“No.  I believe that he is frightened of me.”

“Frightened?  Why?  What have you done?”  Gabrielle grinned conspiratorially.

“I did nothing.  He’s just afraid of me.  Each day he comes up with some new and crude thing to do.  My first day in his service, I knocked as I did with you, teacher.  He told me to enter and I walked in to find him on his back, stretched out on his pallet, completely nude.  He was erect and wanted me to ‘assist’ him.  I walked over to the pallet...”

“No, please.  You didn’t touch him?  You are not his body slave.  He...” 

Ashakiran stopped Gabrielle’s raging.  “Please, teacher.  Let me explain.  I walked over to his pallet and knelt before him so that we were face to face.  I stared at him for the longest time, looking deep into his eyes to discover why.  I saw nothing, but felt something.  He has an illness.  I am not sure what he suffers from, but he is not well.”

“I know and I find it utterly disgusting.  You should know Ashakiran that he is not singling you out, but has done this to others.  Niti must do something about it.”

“I agree.  But I also feel love and worry for him.  I believe he needs a healer.  I feel it might be something in his brain, something that perhaps herbs could manage.  I’m just relieved to be away from him.”

“So each day he would offer himself up to you?”

“Each day there was something, let me put it that way, and it always involved his penis.  Many days, he would just demand that I sit in the only chair in the room and be his audience while he gave himself pleasure.  Teacher, his pallet is covered with evidence of his arousal…”

Gabrielle couldn’t remember being so repulsed.

“Yet he was unable to reach his peak with me staring into his eyes.  He would finally tell me to leave.  Regrettably, the entire exercise would be repeated the next day.” 

“Why didn’t you report it?”

Ashakiran shook her head and stared at the floor.  “I didn’t believe that anyone would help me.  He is a monk, after all.”

“You could have come to me.  Why didn’t you?  Certainly, you know by now that I will stand up for all my students.  I love each and every one of you.  You are like daughters to me.”

“I don’t know why, then.  I’m sorry if I let you down.” She continued to find points of interest on the floor.

Gabrielle moved from her safe corner to go to the young woman and embrace her.  As she hugged her, her mind was a whirlpool of scenes from her past.  It was a strange feeling and normally only happened during the beginning stages of meditation.  Perhaps, it was because she had comforted Xena so many times in this way.  Xena had never wanted to disappoint Gabrielle, but many times she felt she had and would apologize.  “You did nothing wrong and you most definitely didn’t let me down.”  As soon as it didn’t appear awkward, Gabrielle stepped back again.  “How have you dealt with this?”

“Meditation, remembering that he is a creature of god as I am. It is ironic that our monk’s name means something directly opposite of the man he has become.”

“Hmm?”  Gabrielle watched Ashakiran with curiosity.

“Pariket means ‘one who is against desire,’ or maybe something like ‘one who does not give in to desire.’  There is a purpose for everything, including the names we possess.  In this land, many people believe that it is your name that shapes you and when a child is given a name, its meaning is not taken lightly. It saddens me that he has strayed so far from not only his name, but his faith.”

Gabrielle was in awe of the confident woman.  Probably only sixteen winters old, Ashakiran seemed far wiser than any of the monks or darshams she had known thus far. 

“If there is nothing else, teacher?”  Ashakiran waited patiently for Gabrielle’s response.

“No, nothing.  Thank you for stopping in and I will see you in class in the morning.” She said while walking Ashakiran to the door. 

As the student stepped into the hall, curiosity bested Gabrielle and she asked, “About the naming?  What does Ashakiran mean?”  Gabrielle guessed that it would be representative of her strong, intelligent personality or maybe something denoting her goodness.

 The young student turned and smiled at the blonde woman.  “Ashakiran means ‘Ray of Hope,’ teacher.”

Stunned, Gabrielle fell back, supported by the doorframe, her daughter, Hope’s face smiling placidly at her in her mind’s eye.  Ashakiran was nothing like Hope.  In every action, in every spoken word the novitiate personified goodness.  She recalled that this had been her one wish for her daughter.  ‘Be good.’ 

* * * * *

Continued

 


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