Disclaimer: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices
Background: This story has minor references to events in Silences, Silences II and The Chamber and builds on characters introduced and events that occurred in Mediations. It is strongly recommended that Mediations be read prior to proceeding with Natural Causes.
Acknowledgements: My gratitude to Cath for her extensive edits/comments and to Tana for her beta review.
Comments: Always encouraged and appreciated.
Subtext: This story portrays a loving relationship between two women. If you are under 18 or if it is illegal for you to read this text please do not continue.
Their campsite was situated off the ocean shoreline where the tall grasses were roused to a gentle dance by the constant breeze and where a few trees provided shade from the sun. They had chosen a cove, an isolated stretch of land bounded by tall, jagged rock formations. There was a peace to be found here, a peace they had longed for. The night was quiet except for the murmur of the seawaters. The tide ebbed, the moon waxed, the world was balanced between competing energies. Their fire burned low, small red embers glowed in the bed of ash that only a few candlemarks before were solid timbers of driftwood. At the side laid their provisions, enough fresh water and food to keep them for a few more turns of dawn to dusk. They had spent the evening sitting silently, watching the brilliant sunset beyond the Aegean horizon. the fair one lying within the embrace of the dark one. Their hands intertwined, a common gesture, affirming their joining, their shared lives. They took to their bedrolls soon after sunset. The fair one, fatigued beyond measure, allowed the respite to seduce the tension from her muscle, leaving her with a delicious lack of ambition. The dark one welcomed the change in her beloved. Witness to a now too rare ease within Gabrielle, the dark one, Xena, encouraged Gabrielle's laziness, suppressing any affectionate accusation of sloth, fearing it would be taken seriously. They slept together beneath one lone blanket. The night warmth required no more for comfort.
Xena stirred. Gabrielle was firmly, tenderly within her embrace. She took solace in knowing that Gabrielle had slept soundly throughout the passing candlemarks. There was truth in Gabrielle's claimed weariness. Xena stroked wisps of blond, sun-bleached hair from Gabrielle's forehead. She leaned forward and placed a tender kiss upon the exposed flesh. There were many kisses throughout the years given in such a manner, a private expression of affection that sought no acknowledgment. It was enough that Xena felt and was able to express her feelings as she did. She closed her eyes and allowed sleep to take hold of her once again. They were safe.
Gabrielle's mind began to flicker, sounds entered her consciousness, her muscle and bone ached, and a healthy hunger would abide no further delay. Counter to preference, she awoke. Her eyes rested upon her companion, who had remained by her side, in vigil. She spoke a low, throaty greeting. "Hi."
Xena smiled. "Hi. How are you feeling?"
"You slept through the night."
"Not enough, I guess. Anyway, why would I want to move?" Gabrielle reached up and swept Xena's long tresses aside. "I love you."
Xena remained silent.
Gabrielle studied her soul mate. Xena's composure had altered abruptly, an earnestness had taken dominion. "Hey?"
"You know, don't you, that you are my life." Though Xena's words were softly spoken, their intensity pierced through all that had the power to separate them, reaching the very heart of Gabrielle's being.
Such words from Xena had become less rare. With time the warrior's private expressions of love found an easier path to voice. Never would Gabrielle take the words for granted. They affirmed their bond, a bond that had exacted a high price from both of them. "Make me yours."
A smile emerged through Xena's ardent countenance. "With pleasure, my bard."
Their lovemaking was particularly delicate, each reached release with an interior quake of body and heart. Gabrielle fell asleep once again. Xena chose not to disturb her. It wasn't until mid-morning that they entered the waters for a swim. The balance of the day continued with no specific course of action other than to enjoy the countless pleasures of their intimate union.
"Don't be so proud of yourself." Gabrielle chastised.
"I haven't said a word." Xena gave a fraudulent rebuttal.
"How about that smile?"
Xena placed a kiss upon Gabrielle's palm. "Shouldn't I smile after having the pleasure of making love to you?"
"That's not the smile I see."
"Can I help it if you weren't as tired as you thought you were?"
"You were determined to convince me. I swear warrior, your kisses have a power that washes over me and makes me ."
Xena completed the thought with a tame laugh. "Less tired."
Gabrielle shared the laughter. "I don't know why I love you."
"There." Xena placed her finger on Gabrielle's lips. "It's your smile that I live for."
Xena propped herself up on her elbow and looked over to her partner. "We've been living a quiet life since leaving the Amazons."
"Are you bored? We can try harder to find some trouble."
"No. Not at all. The slower pace has been nice." Xena caressed Gabrielle' cheek with her hand.
"I think about Tovi. And of you." Xena's hand traveled down to Gabrielle's scarred shoulder. "I'd like things to stay as they are, if just for a little while longer. Just you and me. That's if you don't get fed up with having only me around."
Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's. "It's hard to believe that it has been six moons since Tovi's death. I wonder how Karis is doing?"
"Is it time for Queen Gabrielle to go back to visit her tribe?"
"Not just yet. Right now I want only you."
Xena leaned down and took Gabrielle's lips with her own. The kisses were tender. Xena asked for nothing more. She raised her lips away and moved toward Gabrielle's ear. She whispered. "I love you, my bard."
Gabrielle caressed the back of Xena's head as the latter lay beside her, a familiar position welcoming an approaching sleep. Gabrielle kissed Xena's cheek and returned to look at the night sky. Unlike the previous night that was clear, this night sky was cloud covered. Without the stars and moon in sight the world seemed to her more limited and uncertain. She turned again to bring Xena into her gaze. For Gabrielle, lying beside Xena, provoked an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. She was grateful for the life they shared. At moments such as this, Gabrielle knew no greater peace, no greater happiness.
Traveling on horseback, they kept a moderate pace. Gabrielle's fatigue had not lessened in the passing days. She expected the renewed activity of being on the road would restore her stamina. Xena had only encouraged Gabrielle to rest, attempting to allay her concerns. Xena reassured Gabrielle that her need for rest was warranted given the lingering effect of her wound. It was, in fact, Gabrielle's growing fatigue that had motivated their respite. Gabrielle stroked her shoulder, pierced by a Roman arrow. Her thoughts returned to the six cycles of the moon that had passed since the assassination attempt. Gabrielle had never taken so long to recover from an injury. It gave her reason to pause.
They were setting up their camp for the night. Gabrielle gathered wood for the fire while Xena hunted. Upon her return, Xena was surprised to find that Gabrielle had only partially completed her usual tasks. Xena called out Gabrielle's name seeking a sign that all was well. Gabrielle heard the call and responded. She approached with an armful of wood. Without warning, her legs buckled and she fell to the ground. Gabrielle beckoned Xena to her. Xena followed the sound of Gabrielle's voice, quickly reaching the fallen bard.
"Hey, did you trip?"
"Xena, there is something wrong with me."
Without hesitation, Xena took Gabrielle into her arms and carried her back to camp. Gabrielle held close to the warrior. She attempted to check her fear. She could no longer stay in denial. Her health was deteriorating. Until this moment, she rationalized that to share her concerns with Xena was an unwarranted burden upon the warrior. But now, cradled in Xena's arms, there was no escaping a confession. Experience taught her that not to speak her truth would cause more harm than good.
Xena carefully helped Gabrielle rest against a tree. "Tell me."
Gabrielle looked away trying to make sense of what she felt. "I feel like all my strength has been taken out of me. My legs just gave way for no reason."
Xena employed her knowledge as a healer, seeking clues to help her care for Gabrielle. "Your vision?"
"Any ringing in your ears?"
"No. Xena, it's not like before. It's not like when I had a concussion. It's my whole body. This is different."
Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle's forehead. "You're a little warm. I'll finish up setting camp. We can stay here until you get stronger. It might just take a couple of days for this to run its course. Okay?"
"I'm not in a position to argue." Gabrielle reconsidered. There was more she needed to share. "Xena. I'm not sure if a couple of days rest is going to help."
"What do you mean?"
"I've felt this weakness building for a while now. We just took time to rest and it didn't help."
"Gabrielle, I don't know." Xena's practice of the healing arts was developed in the arena of war. As years passed, she learned about the more subtle illnesses that did not come from the end of a bronze sword. She could no longer deny that she, too, had a growing concern for Gabrielle's health. Nothing she observed was familiar. She did not know what was sapping Gabrielle of her life force. "We could go to Sparta and have a healer take a look at you."
"Xena, you're a fine healer. I trust you."
"Then trust me when I say we need to have someone else take a look at you."
Gabrielle needed to confirm what she already knew. "You're worried."
In order not to alarm, Xena chose to redirect their focus to the limits of her own skills as a healer. "Gabrielle, I won't let my pride get in the way of finding out what's wrong with you."
Gabrielle consented. "All right. We'll go to Sparta."
Xena was relieved. "Thank you."
"For being ill?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena placed a reassuring hand upon the bard's arm. "For telling me. It doesn't seem so long ago that you tried to keep your wounds from me."
"What do you think?" Xena was impatient for the healer's diagnosis.
Locrea, the healer, had mined her memory trying to place the vaguely familiar symptoms. "It has been many years since I have seen an illness like this; many more in someone so young. If I am right, your friend will only get weaker. She will have days of strength but they will be less frequent. The day will come when lifting her head from her pillow will feel like an impossible effort."
"What can be done?" Xena readied herself for what promised to be a difficult trial.
"Nothing, but to be her friend. Make her last days comfortable."
The healer's guidance confused the warrior. "Last days? What are you saying?"
Locrea spoke in a measured voice. "Your friend may live another three to six moons."
Xena rebelled. "This is insane! You're an old fool."
Locrea tried to reason. "Xena, you have a reputation as a fine healer. Why did you come to me?"
The question begged the truth. Xena confessed. "Because I don't know what to do. In the passing moon I suspected something was wrong. I've tried everything I know. I've placed herbs in Gabrielle's tea without her knowing and nothing has helped her regain her strength. I can't just stand by and watch."
The healer offered her sincere condolences. "I am sorry. I wish I could help."
Competing thoughts stymied the warrior. One thought persevered. She questioned. "Have you told her?"
Locrea explained her method. "The herb I gave her helped her drift into sleep. I wanted to speak to you first."
Xena instructed. "Don't tell her."
Locrea sought reassurance. "You will speak to her?"
Xena swept the expectation aside. "Not yet."
The healer was blunt. "You must. If you don't, I will."
Xena would not tolerate being told what she must or must not do. "I'll kill you first."
"No you won't." Gabrielle stepped out from the adjacent room. "You two could wake up the dead. Lucky for me I'm not dead yet."
Xena and Gabrielle matched defiant gazes.
Locrea was relieved that Gabrielle had learned the truth although she would have preferred if the conveyance of it had been more merciful. "I'll leave you two to talk. I'll be in the next room if you need me."
Gabrielle broke the silence. "Xena, I'm having a hard time traveling even at an easy pace. I don't have the strength to defend myself. I'm a liability to you. Take me to the Amazons. If I'm dying "
Xena interrupted. "We don't know that."
Gabrielle's voice dropped to a whisper. "Take me to my tribe."
Xena reasoned. "Malina is an excellent healer."
Gabrielle proposed. "The Southern village is closer. Karis can send a messenger to the North and bring her to me."
The warrior tempered her passion. "All right. We'll see how you feel in the morning."
The bard would not be delayed. "No. We leave now. I can't wait until I feel stronger."
Gabrielle and Xena entered Amazon lands. Soon they would reach the village. They had been traveling in relative silence. Each in deep thought. Each resting their hope on Malina's healing arts. The greater hope rested in Xena's breast. Gabrielle carried the illness and felt its siege against her body. She imagined herself an icicle, similar to the ones she saw not long ago as she and Xena passed across a mountain ridge. The icicles hung over a precipice. Each day they slowly lost a bit of themselves, melting as spring approached. Each day another droplet of their essence fell from their core. Gabrielle knew the day would come when she, like those crystal formations of captured moisture, would no longer be able to maintain her hold, and what was left of her would fall and shatter, leaving nothing behind, but the memory of her existence, safeguarded by those who had known her. She felt this truth viscerally.
Gabrielle felt she still had time. Looking to Xena, she knew the time had not yet come to coax Xena to deliver her from her promise, the promise Gabrielle made never to leave Xena again. More than the loss of her life, Gabrielle mourned the loss of her life with Xena. It wasn't death that was unbearable. It was the separation. She had died with Xena and experienced that brief moment when their souls waited to be called to Paradise by the angels - the silent waiting in companionship, the lifting of each up by the angels within sight of one another. It was but a moment, too brief to measure. It was bliss. There was no fear, no pain, only awe. She wondered if she would find herself on that very landscape or if she would cross to a different land. The other side was as changeable as the geography on earth. She didn't understand why this was true, she only knew what experience taught her. She wondered if it was her bond to Xena that kept her from the Amazon resting-place. Xena, not an Amazon, had no claim to walk in those lands. Gabrielle had made her wishes known to Xena, and long before she had spoken them, she had held the conviction in her heart, that she belonged to Xena and would lie with her in death. Upon their resurrection Gabrielle had come to know the truth. They would remain together through eternity. So, she wondered, if that was the answer. She had chosen. It was her choice to follow Xena's destiny to the other side, because Xena could not follow hers.
She wondered if Xena understood this. She sincerely doubted it. Xena took each new challenge as it came. She was astute in deciphering what was happening around her. She was brilliant in response. But did Xena perceive this nuance in their destinies or did she simply take it as a given, as the fate of soul mates? It didn't matter. Now that Gabrielle believed she understood, she took comfort in the knowledge that when Xena swore that even in death she would always be with her, it was Gabrielle who ultimately chose to make that declaration true. Xena did have a choice. It was one she made a long time ago when she accepted Gabrielle as a traveling companion. The consequence of Xena's choice was that Gabrielle had the power to ensure that, as it was in their beginning, it would be at their end. Though Gabrielle would die, she would wait on Xena's path for Xena to rejoin her. She would wait, with no regret, for their eternity to continue.
Xena pulled Argo's reins. "Hold girl."
Gabrielle kept her mount beside the warrior. The two waited in silence.
The Amazon warriors appeared from the treetops. The familiar sight never ceased to take Gabrielle's breath away. There was a magnificence to these women, who donned masks hiding their identity to strangers, while proclaiming their birthright to friends.
Raising her mask, Jamine stepped forward. "Welcome, Queen Gabrielle." She turned her attention to the Queen's extraordinary companion. "Xena."
Xena dismounted. Gabrielle did the same but with a slower, more deliberate motion. She handed her reins to Xena. Jamine followed protocol and waited for the Queen's response.
Gabrielle stepped forward and offered her arm. "Jamine. It's good to see you. How are things?"
Jamine took Gabrielle's arm proudly. "Uneventful, which we are all grateful for. And for you? Any new adventures we can hope recounted by the Bard of Poteidaia?"
Gabrielle looked over to Xena. Their time together during the past four moons was not material for this bard's tales. "I'm sorry to disappoint you but we've had a quiet time of it."
"That is our loss."
"Would you send a messenger to Queen Karis? I would like to speak to her as soon as possible."
Jamine called to a young handsome warrior. "Ciara."
Ciara stepped to Jamine's side. Jamine made the introductions. "Queen Gabrielle, have you met Ciara?"
Gabrielle smiled. "I believe we had an occasion to spar with staffs."
Ciara bowed respectfully. "Yes, my Queen. You offered a fine lesson. I would hope to enjoy an equal privilege during your stay."
Gabrielle remembered their encounter well. "We will see, Ciara. If I recall correctly, you almost took me off my feet."
"Yes. But it was I who ultimately kissed the dirt."
Gabrielle laughed. " A poor kiss indeed. I hope it wasn't your first kiss."
Ciara grinned. "No my Queen. Nor my last."
Gabrielle liked the young warrior. She returned to a more tempered tone. "Ciara. Please convey my greetings to Queen Karis."
Ciara understood her task. "I shall. With your permission."
Gabrielle granted her leave. "Of course."
Jamine placed her hand on Ciara's shoulder. "Report to me upon our arrival."
"Yes, Captain." Ciara turned and made a dash through the woods.
Jamine invited. "Shall we?" She motioned to two warriors. They stepped forward and took the reins from Xena. The warriors trailed at the rear with the horses. Two other warriors led. The remaining three were directed by Jamine to stay at their post. Jamine, Gabrielle and Xena walked quietly at the center of the grouping. Protocol could now be relaxed.
"How is Karis?" It was Xena who had established the closer bond with the new, young, Amazon queen. And so Xena had asked.
Jamine spoke softly. "She continues to deeply mourn the loss of Tovi. Damia and I have tried to offer our friendship, but Karis shares little."
Xena continued. "I see you have stayed in the South as her Captain."
"By Karis' request. The gesture of sharing positions of leadership has not gone unnoticed. It has helped our transition to one tribe."
Gabrielle redirected the inquiries. "How is Seda?"
"Her passions have quieted. Isra has made a great effort to give the elder time to consider the sacredness of the Goddess. I believe Seda is finally seeing the merit in our traditions."
Gabrielle was relieved. "Good. It was what Tovi wanted."
Jamine confirmed. "It is good. I have only recently come to understand Tovi's wisdom. She knew far more than one would have expected from someone so young."
Xena considered a less pleasant subject. "Any word of Ariel and Cici?"
Xena sought one final assurance. "And the Romans?"
"We keep close watch at all our borders. They have not been seen anywhere in the province." Jamine looked to Gabrielle. "I believe your recent enjoyment of a quiet life will continue without interruption. As Isra has told us, the Amazons are enjoying the blessing of peace. We are to hold the fragile sliver of light preciously in our hands, for if it comes to believe we do not cherish it, it may choose to flee and leave us once again in darkness."
Gabrielle took hold of Xena's hand. She needed to feel their connection. She needed Xena's strength. They walked the remaining candlemark in silence.
Upon entering the village courtyard, Xena sensed Gabrielle pause. Jamine continued unaware.
The voice, heard only by one, was weak. "Xena. I can't. I've tried, but I can't go on."
Without a word Xena lifted Gabrielle into her arms. She called out. "Jamine. Is Malina in the village?"
Jamine turned. She was startled by what she saw. "No, Xena. Malina is in the North village, but her apprentice Julian resides here."
Xena directed. "Lead me to her."
Julian was working at her bench preparing herbs for drying. The harsh sound of her door being abruptly opened jolted her from her calm. She recognized Xena as the warrior entered with Queen Gabrielle in her arms. Xena paused, scanned the room and then proceeded to lay Gabrielle on one of the two available pallets. Gabrielle felt her head fall upon a pillow. The ability to simply rest was a great gift. She turned to Xena. "Not the Queen's entrance I wanted."
Xena's stoic character was absent. She whispered a lover's plea. "Be still."
Julian came to their side. "My Queen, what ails you?"
Xena turned her attention to the entrance. "Jamine. See that no one but Karis enters." Dutifully, Jamine stepped out and closed the door. Xena returned her gaze to Gabrielle as she reached out and stroked the bard's cheek. "Hey."
Julian waited patiently, though her question had not been answered. Xena spoke without diverting her eyes. "Julian. Trust me when I say we need Malina's talents."
The young healer wished it were not so. Knowing the formidable skills Xena possessed as a healer, Julian trusted the validity of the request. "I will see to it." Julian exited the hut. She found Jamine at guard with the young warrior, Ciara, beside her. The other warriors stood a half dozen paces from them, waiting with obvious concern. "Captain. I must summon Malina to Queen Gabrielle."
Jamine was disheartened. "It's serious?"
Julian spoke candidly. "This is Xena's request. I do not question it."
Ciara volunteered. "Send me."
Jamine scrutinized the young warrior. "Take a companion. Queen Tovi proved the road to the North could be traveled in three days. See if you can do as well. Malina will require a slower pace. Be patient with her. Other than Xena, no one will want Queen Gabrielle well more than her."
"Yes, Captain." Ciara called out to her friend Lael. The two young warriors proceeded to the village stores for provisions.
Julian inquired. "Has Queen Karis been summoned?"
Jamine affirmed. "Yes. She should be here soon."
Julian turned to the door. "I feel like an intruder."
Jamine understood. "Do what you can. Believe me, Xena does not mince words. If she wants privacy she will ask for it."
Julian considered the Captain's counsel. She also considered the tenderness the Warrior Princess offered the Queen. In a few brief moments Julian felt she witnessed a profound intimacy shared by the two women, an intimacy well beyond her personal experience.
The young healer returned to the Queen's bedside. Gabrielle gave Julian her unwavering regard. Julian took Gabrielle's notice as permission to speak. "My Queen, Ciara and Lael leave for the North to summon Malina, and Queen Karis will be at your side soon."
Gabrielle could see that fear and uncertainty had taken hold of the young healer. "Thank you." She turned to her partner. "Xena. I want to sit up."
Xena spoke Gabrielle's name as only she could. It conveyed her disapproval.
Gabrielle was not deterred. "Xena. Just being off my feet has made me feel better. Please don't fight me."
Xena raised her gaze to Julian. "Do you have some extra pillows?"
Julian was happy to assist. "In the back. I will get them."
Xena sat beside Gabrielle. Gabrielle reached up. Xena took Gabrielle into her embrace and lifted her to a sitting position. She whispered, "I love you." She had not spoken those three words since Sparta.
Gabrielle rested her head on Xena's shoulder. "And I love you."
Julian returned with two pillows. She stepped carefully, placing the pillows at Gabrielle's back. Xena leaned forward resting Gabrielle upon them. "Better?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Yes. Thank you."
Karis' delight in learning of Gabrielle and Xena's arrival was quickly arrested by the news of Gabrielle's collapse. Walking across the courtyard, she felt a rising trepidation as she neared the healer's hut. She hated the hut with a passion. She lost Tovi to death in that hut. During the past six moons she had cause to enter the space only twice, each time to visit an injured warrior, a gesture expected of the Queen.
Karis inquired of her Captain. "Jamine. Any word from Julian?"
Jamine reported. "Xena has requested Malina. I have sent Ciara and Lael to the North."
Karis pressed. "That is well and good, but what has Julian to say about Gabrielle's condition?"
Jamine responded flatly. "Nothing.
Karis' impatience surfaced. "Tell me what happened."
Jamine was confused by the Queen's prolonged interview. She maintained her composure and expanded her report as requested. "All seemed well as we walked to the village from the eastern border. Upon Xena's call I turned to see Queen Gabrielle in her arms. That is all I know."
Karis considered the door separating her from the woman she looked upon as her Queen. She foresaw that a painful truth waited for her on the other side. Karis reluctantly entered the hut.
At the sight of Karis, Xena stood, offering her arm in welcome. "Karis, it's good to see you."
Karis took the warrior's arm. "Xena, my friend. I have missed you." She turned a fearful gaze toward Gabrielle.
Gabrielle smiled. "Karis."
For a moment, seeing Gabrielle sitting up and smiling lifted Karis' spirits. "Gabrielle. How are you?"
Xena choreographed the encounter. "Karis, please sit down."
Karis' heart was quickly burdened by the tone of Xena's invitation. Julian placed a chair near Gabrielle's pallet. Karis sat across from the Queen. Xena stood two paces to the left of Karis. Julian did the same on the right. Though not discussed, Xena knew it was Gabrielle's place to speak.
Gabrielle debated how best to recount recent events. Her concern was not only for Karis, but for Xena, more so the latter. She chose to share what she believed to be true even though Xena disagreed with her conclusion. "Karis, in the past moon I have grown weak. At first I thought it was the lingering effect of my wound from the Roman arrow. Xena and I rested. I felt better, but I also did very little. When we renewed our travels I quickly found myself getting weaker again. Xena has tried all the healing arts she knows, without effect. We went to Sparta to see a respected healer. The healer has seen similar illnesses, though she admitted that it was rare, especially in one as young as I am." Gabrielle paused hoping to let the story lead Karis toward what would now be its conclusion. "Karis, she told us that I would die in three to six moons."
Karis was stunned. She leaned back in her chair. Julian had followed Gabrielle's words carefully. She caught herself from crying aloud, her training as a healer coming to the forefront, managing her conduct.
Karis denied what she heard. "This can't be."
Gabrielle chose to give Xena her due and temper the veracity of her own words. "Xena doesn't believe the healer and that is one reason why we have returned. I have asked for Malina's care."
Karis seized the hope and spoke with fervor. "And you shall have it."
Gabrielle continued. "Karis. I have one other request."
"If Malina cannot help me, I wish to live my last days in this village. I request lodging and the opportunity to contribute to the tribe as best as I can. After my death, Xena will take me to Amphipolis to be buried in her family crypt."
Shaken by the request, Karis sought an escape. "I will have lodgings appropriate for a Queen prepared."
Gabrielle checked herself from voicing a protest. She perceived in Karis a need to bestow the honor upon her. Gabrielle humbly accepted. "Thank you."
Karis spoke as Queen. "It will be at least seven days before we can expect Malina. Julian will do all she can to make you comfortable. Though young she is skillful in her arts. Malina has taught her well and she has been an attentive student." Karis stood up. "Allow me to take my leave and make the necessary arrangements." Gabrielle nodded. Karis walked past Xena. The two warriors exchanged a painful recognition of each other's grief. The grief Karis still held within and the grief Xena was fighting to keep at bay. Karis paused at the door. She turned back to Gabrielle. "What will you have me tell your people?"
Again, Gabrielle was taken aback by Karis' recognition of her royal status. Her answer was unequivocal. "The truth."
Without a further word, Karis left the room.
Gabrielle caught Julian's notice. "Julian. I need to speak to Xena."
Julian gave the Queen a slight bow. "I will wait outside."
Xena returned to her place beside Gabrielle. Gabrielle rested her hand on Xena's arm. "Xena. I want to walk to our lodge once it's made ready." Gabrielle placed her fingers on Xena's lips to stay a response. "I can't do it without your arm and a staff."
Xena suppressed her protest and acquiesced. She took Gabrielle's fingers from her lips and cradled them delicately. Her words were soft spoken. "All right. I'll go to the armory." Xena wasn't ready to leave her partner. "Is there anything else I can get you?"
Gabrielle smiled. "I have you."
Shaking her head with self-depreciation Xena responded with her own smile. "Yes, you do." The warrior took to her feet. Her gaze, fixed upon Gabrielle, struggled to release itself from its cherished subject.
Gabrielle extended an invitation to speak. "What is it?"
"Remember, Malina has not yet spoken."
Gabrielle promised. "I will accept her judgment."
Xena nodded, satisfied. "I'll be right back."
Gabrielle watched Xena depart. Gabrielle wondered if Xena would be able to accept Malina's findings as readily as she was determined to.
During the passing candlemarks Xena and Gabrielle remained within the healer's hut. Julian, who had assisted in the arrangements, reentered the hut. "My Queen. Your quarters have been made ready." The healer stepped outside. She did not release the door, but waited. She noted that to the west the setting sun washed the pastel blue sky with streaks of amber and copper.
Gabrielle walked out supporting herself, as she had imagined, holding a staff in one hand and Xena's arm in the other. The Queen and Warrior walked unhurriedly across the courtyard to a lodge of generous proportions prepared for their comfort. Many of the tribe were at evening meal. Strategically positioned guards observed the movement of the two legends. Jamine had made her orders clear. The guards were to ensure the Queen's safety without intruding on her privacy.
Julian remained where she stood and observed the progress of the women toward their new home. As a healer she was dissatisfied with the limits placed upon her. And yet, she knew as a healer that she needed to respect her patient's wishes.
Karis had called a meeting of the tribal council to convey Gabrielle's request. Other than individual expressions of dismay in learning of the Queen's ill health, there was no discussion of merit. Gabrielle's request was granted by unanimous consent.
The Queen's lodge had been furnished with the finest the tribe could offer. Food and drink for evening meal rested on a table. Another table stored ink, quills and blank scrolls.
Gabrielle entered, taking in the generosity of her people. She sighed. "They thought of everything."
Upon closing the door, Xena gathered Gabrielle into her arms and carried her to the large bed.
Gabrielle protested. "Xena, I could have walked the last few steps."
"In these four walls we are protected from the tribe's eyes and their judgments."
"I don't want to run away from the truth."
"Gabrielle, here we have our own truth, a truth that others can't understand. I'm going to do everything in my power to protect it."
The dining lodge hummed with the manifold voices of inquiry, speculation and concern. Queen Gabrielle's periodic residence with the Amazons was rarely at moments of peace. Many, upon learning of her arrival, hoped that she would be able to enjoy her time with them, for the times had indeed changed. A cautious circumstantial peace had entered their realm. The Romans, struggling to stabilize discontent in their expansive empire, weighed the conquering of Amazon lands a lesser priority. The combining of the Northern and Southern tribes had improved the quality of life for both. It was an exciting time of new friendships and exchanges, teachers of one village, mentored students of the other. Services of artisans and warriors alike were rendered for the benefit of all.
The sorrow of Queen Tovi's death had only begun to subside among the original residents of the Southern tribe. It was a grief the Northern Amazons could not completely appreciate. As Amazons sat side-by-side, whatever differences remained between them had become inconsequential. The respect and affection held for Queen Gabrielle prevailed. By her wisdom and courage, Queen Gabrielle had proven her commitment to the welfare of all the Amazons. Though she had long ago transferred her Queen's mask to a successor, no one questioned that with only a word, she had the power to reclaim the throne. Six moons prior, both Queen Tovi and Queen Ariel had, without question, acknowledged this truth, and acted accordingly.
The measure of four Queens lingered over the conversations. Queen Karis had demonstrated her competency and growing leadership. She held neither the philosophical perception of Queen Tovi nor the raw, volatile, passions of Queen Ariel. Like Queen Gabrielle, Queen Karis had not sought the throne. Many suspected that their present Queen would have lived contentedly as Queen Tovi's regent. For Karis the death of Queen Tovi was not only a loss of a love, it was the catalyst for her accession to the throne, a position that pressed against her spirit. She stood in contrast to Queen Gabrielle, who in her youth chose to relinquish her throne in order to follow the warrior Xena. A decision that ultimately lead to their joining. Unlike Queen Gabrielle, Queen Karis accepted the Queen's mask as a destiny not to be questioned.
For all the words spoken during the meal, for all the retelling of stories in solemn remembrance and joyful celebration, for all the tears and the laughter, there was still a wanting under the dining lodge roof. It was represented by two empty chairs that were left in wait for Queen Gabrielle and her consort, if by chance they chose to share a public meal.
Julian joined a number of Northern Amazons who by need or choice had moved to the South. Julian's move was motivated by a sense of obligation. The Southern village was in need of a healer. As Malina's sole apprentice, the Tribal Council requested that Julian take permanent residence in the South. Julian missed the North for a number of reasons, none greater than that dearth of contact with her teacher. In turn, she was compensated by having a greater opportunity to practice her arts.
Julian approached the ill-fated Queen's lodge carrying a tray with two mugs of hot tea. Rasha, a former resident of the Northern village, was standing guard. "Good morning, healer."
"Good morning." Julian raised the tray to Rasha's attention. "Will you please knock on the door for me?"
The guard shifted her weight uneasily. "Are you certain you want to disturb them?"
The door opened to the surprise of the two women. Xena stepped out. Her eyes traveled from Rasha to Julian. She nodded toward the latter. "What's this?"
Julian responded. "Tea for you and Queen Gabrielle."
Xena deliberated upon the young healer's gesture. "That's thoughtful of you, Julian. Thank you. Why don't you take them in." She then approached Rasha. "Where can I find Jamine at this time of day?"
Relieved from the decision of disturbing the lodge occupants, Rasha answered with enthusiasm. "She left a half-candlemark ago to inspect the borders. Jamine usually starts with the north perimeter and moves eastward."
Xena returned her attention to the young healer. "Julian, would you please tell Gabrielle I'll be gone most of the morning."
Julian nodded assent. Rasha took hold of the opened door as Xena released it. The warrior made her way toward the stables. As Julian was about to enter the lodge she heard her name called. She turned her attention back to Xena who waited for the young healer's notice. "Julian, I'm leaving Gabrielle in your care."
Julian felt the compliment bestowed and the responsibility inherent in it. She was determined not to disappoint. Rasha knocked upon the door. Julian paused for a breath and then entered. The dimly lit lodge caused Julian to wait as her eyes adjusted. Gabrielle lay on her side in bed, a blanket covered most of her from sight. Julian approached and placed the tray on the bedside table. The Queen stirred. "Good morning."
Julian spoke gently. "Good morning. I've brought you tea."
Gabrielle sat up. "Thank you."
Julian informed. "Xena will be gone "
Gabrielle interrupted, saving the healer the effort. "I heard."
"You were awake?"
"Xena and I have been up for a while." Gabrielle reached for one of the two mugs of tea.
Julian corrected. "Yours is the other mug."
Gabrielle questioned. "There's a difference?"
Julian attempted to assuage any unspoken concerns. "A special blend." Uncertain, she evoked a more trusted authority to justify her actions. "I'm sure Malina would approve."
Gabrielle altered her reach and took the second mug in hand. She sipped the tea. It was sweet to the taste.
Julian queried shyly. "How do you feel?"
"Better. The trip from Sparta took a lot out of me."
"It could not have been easy to hear the healer's words."
"I don't know. I wasn't really surprised. I knew I was sick and I knew Xena couldn't help me. Maybe it just hasn't hit me yet."
Julian continued. "And, if I may ask, how is Xena?"
Gabrielle looked toward the door. "Torn. Part of her refuses to believe that I'm very ill and the other part wants to take care of my every need in order to save my strength. I wish I could help her more."
Julian observed. "You may be so concerned for Xena and your tribe that you haven't allowed the depth of your illness to touch your soul."
Gabrielle studied Julian's hazel eyes. They were clear and intelligent. A patient could easily come to believe that Julian held the secrets of a few mysteries behind those eyes. The healer averted them shyly, uncomfortable with the Queen's scrutiny, no matter how gently intended. "Tell me, Julian. What would you, as a healer, say to me?"
Julian had not expected the consultation. "With all due respect, I haven't been given an opportunity to examine you."
Gabrielle put down her tea. "You're right." Gabrielle's was a sincere solicitation. "Examine me now and tell me what you think."
"As you wish, my Queen." Julian went to the basin standing upon a small, tall table to wash her hands. Taking the time to recall her very thoughts the evening before when she contemplated what she, as a healer, would do for her Queen. Julian took care to respect her Queen's modesty as she examined Gabrielle. She asked a series of questions and explored her body for clues to her ailment. After completing the examination she returned to the basin to once again wash her hands. She turned to her Queen and spoke the regretful truth. "I do not know what to tell you."
Gabrielle silently observed Julian as she practiced her arts. The young healer was a hand taller with a slight, yet strong frame that moved one moment with confidence and the next, with a fragile shyness. Her hair, a reddish brown, cut at the shoulder, reminded Gabrielle of the few Celtic women she had met while in Britannia. There was something else that Gabrielle sensed though she had no tangible proof. Julian seemed self-contained, more than the objective distance required for her profession.
Gabrielle had given Julian what she knew the young healer wanted. She had no expectations and was actually pleased that Julian had not pretended to know more than she did. "Well then, I guess we'll both have to wait for Malina."
Julian nodded, feeling that her Queen understood her limitations better than she did. "I do have a suggestion."
With the nod of her head Gabrielle continued to offer the young healer the ability to fulfill her charge.
"Some exercise should do you good. Just enough to keep your muscles limber."
Gabrielle approved. "I agree. The first place I'm going is the hot springs. I want to get the road dust off my skin."
Julian offered. "If I may be of any assistance. I can offer you an arm to lean on."
Gabrielle was not prepared to take any other than Xena's arm. "I should be fine with my staff. I'll let you know." Gabrielle paused and waited for Julian to take her leave. The young healer hesitated. Gabrielle excused Julian with a note of gratitude. "Thank you again for the tea."
Understanding the Queen's intent, Julian left without further word.
Gabrielle spent the day casually exploring the village, getting reacquainted with its residents. She noted a hesitation concealed in a formality many seemed to retreat to. She had enjoyed some success in piercing the veil of fear and placing others in a state of comfort.
Upon her return, Xena watched Gabrielle from a distance. She took great pride in Gabrielle, the Queen. She noted that the true, noble presence of the Queen was one with her compassion, a compassion grounded in her strength of character. It was this unbounded compassion that garnered, above all else, the love of her people.
After sharing evening meal at a common table in the dining lodge, Gabrielle and Xena walked hand in hand toward their lodge. Gabrielle continued to use her staff. Not because she needed it, feeling well rested, but because she anticipated that soon she would need it. She wanted the tribe to become accustomed to the sight of her with her staff always in hand. When the time came that she would lose her strength, the change in appearance would be less severe.
The sky was clear, the stars countless and the moon neared three quarters, casting a comfortable light upon the earth. Gabrielle paused and rested her eyes toward the path to the North meadow. "Xena, how about a walk to the meadow?"
Xena looked about. "Just a minute." She approached one of the sentries, whispered a few words and returned, offering Gabrielle her arm.
"Should I ask?"
"Just making sure we have our privacy."
"What are Jamine's orders?"
"You're never to be out of their sight. I just modified the order with an exception."
"So, I'm never to be out of their sight except when you're with me."
Xena smiled. "You are a wise Queen."
Leaving the cover of the tree-lined path for the open meadow gave Gabrielle a sweeping sensation of freedom, the openness, the tall grasses, the stream jutting through the expanse. How she treasured this space. She felt she rested in the palm of Isra's Goddess. Between her and Xena, it had been home to expressions of joy and sorrow; it had known their lovemaking, their difficult and easy conversations, and their silences, those moments when simply being with each other sufficed. It was here more than anywhere else that Gabrielle could find Xena and where Gabrielle could find herself.
Gabrielle leaned toward Xena placing her hand on the warrior's shoulder. Xena met Gabrielle in a kiss. Though Xena released Gabrielle, Gabrielle continued to seek the warrior. As much as the warrior wanted the bard, she refused to allow herself to be seduced. "No, Gabrielle."
They had not made love since leaving for Sparta. The mutual acknowledgment of Gabrielle's ill health coupled with her fatigue dampened their physical intimacy. Xena exercised caution. Gabrielle had been too tired to translate her emotional hunger, physically. The tension that came with their confrontation in Sparta had lessened. Though their disagreement continued, the ease of their bond returned. There had been an unspoken truce between them. Malina would be the arbiter of a discord rooted in the unknown.
With rest, Gabrielle's longing for Xena's touch had resurfaced. Gabrielle searched Xena's eyes. She had felt Xena's desire within their kiss. Gabrielle was certain Xena's retreat was not caused by a lack of wanting. "Xena. You must trust me."
Xena countered. "Gabrielle. You need to rest."
Gabrielle protested. "I have rested. Malina will not return for at least another six days. Are we going to deny each other until then? And what if she confirms my illness? Will that mean that you will never touch me again?"
"I'm not arguing with you." Xena took a step away.
"Malina should see me as who I am. That means the woman who is with you in every way."
Xena lost her fragile control. "Damn it, Gabrielle! I said, 'No'. I refuse to be with you."
They stood in a wretched silence. A veil fell over Xena's face. Gabrielle visibly trembled. She felt a fusion of anger and disappointment. Her heart broke with the weight of her emotions. She turned from Xena and made her way back to the village.
Left alone, Xena cried out swinging her arms as if she held her sword her in hand and there was an enemy in her midst - if she only had someone or something to fight, if she could only exact a lethal price to her tormentor.
Gabrielle's heart pounded in her breast. She stopped and leaned against her staff. Her fatigue was not physical. She saw the future vividly. It included an untenable threat - the annihilation of Xena's spirit. Gabrielle wasn't ready to return to the village nor did she feel strong enough to return to Xena. She stepped off the main path to a smaller track and walked a dozen paces to a fallen tree where she could rest. Gabrielle wondered how many noble deaths come from a desperation to save the soul of someone left behind. Julian was right to believe Gabrielle had yet to allow death an audience. From the moment Xena threatened the healer in Sparta, Gabrielle's fears took shape and form outside herself. Xena had never been one to deny the truth. She would fight the truth, if the truth were an injustice unimpeded. She would fight to create a new truth. Gabrielle witnessed this in terms of her own life and death. Gabrielle's nearness to death always brought the desperate side of Xena to the forefront. Xena knew what it was to lose Gabrielle to death, singular and in companionship. Always, there was an enemy. Xena fought. At the worst of times, Xena hated. Who would Xena hate now?
Gabrielle heard footsteps upon the path. She saw Xena's sure-footed shadow pass by in haste. There was no time to call out.
Xena entered the village. Her eyes searched out Gabrielle. Given her pace, Xena was certain she would have over taken the bard on the path. Xena approached a sentry whose name she did not know. "Have you seen Gabrielle?"
The sentry stuttered. "I had orders not to follow the Queen."
Xena's impatience rose. "I know. So, you haven't seen her?"
"Not since you left for the North meadow."
Xena spun and stared back into the ever-darkening path. Gabrielle was somewhere within that darkness.
The sentry offered. "Do you want a search party?"
Xena walked away without granting a response. She reentered the path in an uneasy jog looking in every direction, listening to every sound. She called out Gabrielle's name rhythmically, allowing sufficient silence for a response.
Gabrielle heard the familiar voice. She sensed the fear it carried. "Xena. I'm here."
Xena heard Gabrielle's call and stopped. "Gabrielle. Where?"
Gabrielle instructed. "Forward then to your right."
Xena stepped slowly, her vision penetrating through the forest brush. The minor trail revealed itself. She saw the trace of a figure sitting down with staff in hand. Were it not for Gabrielle's shorter hair, Xena stood before the young peasant girl she had first met years gone by, the innocent, seeking a life outside of Poteidaia. Xena approached. "Are you all right?"
Gabrielle's reply rose from the darkness. "Yes."
"Why did you stop?"
Gabrielle remained silent. She was fighting herself. Her desire to be strong confronted her profound need for her beloved. "Xena. I'm frightened. I feel I'm losing you."
Xena took another step forward. "You're not losing me."
Gabrielle could not suppress her despair. "Ever since we left the seashore "
Xena echoed reassuringly. "Gabrielle. You're not losing me. I just want you to get well."
Gabrielle was not convinced. "It's more than that."
Xena remained in her stance, a few paces away. Neither could see the other. They struggled to compensate for what they could not see by listening, concentrating on every nuance, in word and tone. Xena's words conveyed her growing distress. "I don't want to hurt you."
Gabrielle heard Xena's confession. It was not the first time Xena fought Gabrielle's destiny, a destiny Gabrielle accepted freely. Whatever the consequences, Gabrielle had long accepted that her place would always be by the warrior's side.
Gabrielle stood up and walked toward Xena. Her advance continued until she had taken Xena into her embrace. Xena took a breath in upon contact. As she exhaled she enfolded the bard into her arms.
Malina rode into the village on her tall gray mare. Ciara and Lael followed a length behind. A sentry summoned Karis.
Julian found Gabrielle watching the children playing kick ball. A young girl no older than six turns of the seasons chose to beckon the Queen to their game by kicking the ball to her. Gabrielle extended her leg arresting the ball's progress. She rolled it under her foot and placed it before her. Then she gently tapped it, returning the ball to the youngsters who formed a half circle in anticipation.
Julian regretted interrupting Gabrielle's pleasure. "My Queen. Malina has arrived."
Gabrielle turned to the young healer. "They are fun to watch."
"It is a special day when a Queen spends time with the children."
"I hope I'm not just a Queen to them. I play one mean game of kick ball."
Karis left the council chambers to greet Malina. Malina bowed respectfully to Karis. "Queen Karis."
"It's good to see you healer."
Malina turned her attention to her approaching patient. Gabrielle opened her arms. Malina stepped into a warm embrace. They held each other close, as old friends are apt to do. Malina stepped back to study the Queen. "Where is your Warrior?"
Gabrielle smiled brightly. "Fishing."
"A good occupation for her." Malina turned and offered her reins to Lael who, with Ciara, had dismounted and silently waited further instructions. Malina spoke to Karis. "My Queen. You should know that these two young warriors did an admirable job in finding me and bringing me here."
Karis responded coolly. "I wouldn't expect anything less of them."
Gabrielle could not let Karis' dismissal stand. She countered its impact by offering a sincere expression of her gratitude. "Ciara. Lael. Thank you both."
Lael and Ciara bowed to Gabrielle feeling Gabrielle's compliment to the fullest.
Malina took Gabrielle by the arm. "Come. We must talk." Gabrielle and Malina walked toward Malina's quarters, which stood adjacent to the healer's hut.
Karis watched with an incomprehensible disdain.
The young warriors stayed their place. Karis returned to the council lodge without further word.
Lael expressed her ire. "What is wrong with the Queen?"
Ciara solicited insight from Julian. "Healer. Can you solve this puzzle?"
Julian was equally at a loss. "I wish I could, but I have never been able to understand Queen Karis."
Lael offered her hand to Ciara. "I'll take your reins. Go see to that arm. Julian, more than Ciara's pride has been wounded. She had a frightening encounter with a tree branch."
Ciara gave Lael her horse's reins. "Dont worry about my pride. I didn't ride for Karis. I rode for Gabrielle."
Lael affirmed as she guided the horses away. "We both did. Gabrielle is a Queen worth a warrior's life."
Julian took note of the gash in Ciara's upper right arm. "You're hurt."
"It's just a scratch."
"That can lead to an infection. Let me clean and dress it."
Ciara studied the healer. When she spoke, she wore a beguiling smile. "As you wish, healer."
Uneasy with Ciara's attention, Julian stepped ahead, leading the other to her hut. She tried to return to the ordinary conversations that transpire between strangers. "How was your journey?"
Ciara's demeanor altered as she glimpsed Gabrielle entering Malina's lodge. She chose a more immediate concern over pleasantries. "How is Gabrielle?"
Julian answered as best as she could. "Queen Gabrielle is stronger than when she arrived. But, she is not as strong as many of us have known her to be." Julian continued to walk. Her heart ached. She had yet to confess her truth to anyone. The thoughts in her heart slipped off her tongue. "I don't know how to help her."
Ciara shared her own frustration. "Malina wouldn't say a word."
Julian defended her mentor. "How could she?"
Ciara's shifted to another disappointment. "I can't believe Xena is fishing."
Again, Julian felt compelled to advocate for another. "No one knew when you would arrive. It was Queen Gabrielle who placed a pole in Xena's hand and sent her off with Jamine for the day. They were given orders not to return until they caught sufficient fish to feed the village."
Ciara quipped. "Even for them that will take the better part of the day."
"I believe that was Queen Gabrielle's intention." Julian considered the bond shared between Gabrielle and Xena. "I cannot imagine "
Ciara sought completion of the young healer's thoughts. "What can't you imagine?"
"I believe they do not deny their differences. It is what makes their love so strong."
Ciara mused. "The Warrior and the Bard."
Julian shared her own perspective. "That is how they began, but Queen Gabrielle is also a fine warrior and a noble Queen."
The young warrior shared her curiosity. "I wonder how Xena has changed? If she has changed?"
Julian stated a known fact. "She was once the Conqueror of Nations."
"True. They say she left that path before she met Gabrielle."
Again, Julian's words were few. "She is devoted to the Queen."
Ciara shared a kindred admiration for the Queen. "I would say with good reason."
Malina's questions were gently spoken. "Has village life helped?"
Gabrielle sat back in her chair. "To be honest, no. I'm not any stronger today than I was when we arrived."
"You have kept active?"
Gabrielle defended herself. "I can't lie in bed all day."
Malina supported the Queen's actions. "Nor should you. Have you done anything that has sapped your strength?"
Gabrielle found the questions intrusive. "Yes."
"What?" The healer probed.
Gabrielle offered one factor. "The hot springs. But bathing in warm waters has always made me feel that way."
"I'm not surprised. Anything else?" Malina could tell that Gabrielle was hesitating. "My Queen. You must not withhold the truth from me if I am to help you."
"When Xena and I " The Queen blushed.
Malina smiled at Gabrielle's obvious modesty. "I see. Is this the price one pays for loving a warrior such as Xena?"
Gabrielle looked up to her healer intently. "Malina. I'm the one who has insisted. Xena has been afraid that being together would harm me."
Malina reached out and placed her hand on Gabrielle's cheek. "Have you found solace in her embrace?"
"Yes. I need her now more than ever. It's hard to explain."
The healer understood what remained unspoken. "She makes you feel alive. What is there to explain?"
Gabrielle did not want to surrender her greatest source of comfort. "Do you see any reason why we can't "
"Let me examine you more completely before I give you my answer."
Ciara sat on a pallet, her feet firmly planted on the floor. Julian sat beside her. The young healer dipped a cloth in a basin of water and used it to clean Ciara's cut. Being still, Ciara began to feel the effect of her sleepless travels.
Julian admired the warrior. Ciara had a bold beauty, like a mountain cat in the wild, sleek and agile, unlike the more sturdy, solid frame of Lael. "You look tired."
Ciara rubbed her eyes. The usually bright deep brown orbs were dulled. "I am. It was all I could do to keep up with Lael."
"She is very capable." Julian spoke with obvious approval. "Lael works hard at developing her skills."
"Are all Northern Amazons so dedicated?"
Ciara acknowledged. "I've learned a great deal just by watching her."
"She is a good friend to have." Julian wanted to encourage the young warrior to seek a friendship.
Ciara studied the healer. "So, you two are friends?"
"Yes." Julian was oblivious to Ciara's growing unease. "We have known each other since we were young girls."
"You don't " The young warrior's nerve failed her.
"I don't?" Julian looked over to Ciara seeking completion of the aborted thought.
Ciara nodded over to her wound. "Are you about done with that?"
"I need to bandage your arm."
Ciara fell silent. She spoke again after a moment's consideration. "Do you like being a healer?"
Julian considered her vocation simply. "I want to be helpful."
"There are other ways."
"This is my way." The healer did not hesitate in her conviction. Julian's ignorance of the ways of life and death, health and illness, tempered her sense of self. Her next words conveyed a sincere humility. "I still have much I need to learn."
Ciara observed. "You don't talk about your healing work."
Julian attempted to remedy the misinformed impression. "Malina and I discuss healing all the time."
The young warrior continued to try to find a common ground. "What do you talk to your friends about?"
Julian mused. "What do any friends talk about?. Their days. Their past. Their dreams for the future."
Ciara was truly engaged. "And what are your dreams?"
"I only have one. To live the life I'm meant to live."
Ciara was intrigued. "What life would that be?"
"I don't know." Julian felt her truth deeply.
"You remind me of Queen Tovi."
Julian measured Ciara with her eyes. "Shall I consider that a compliment?"
Ciara smiled, leaning closer to the healer. "I meant it as one."
Julian's felt a renewed embarrassment. She retreated into her profession, tying the bandage with a practiced detachment. "I can give you a salve to help lesson the scar."
Ciara stood up. "There is no one in my life who would notice. Anyway, warriors like scars."
Julian smiled up to her. "Even when the battle was with a tree branch?"
She countered in good humor. "Hey, I walked away. It didn't."
Julian had her tongue firmly in her cheek. "Have a good day, warrior."
Ciara bid a warm farewell. "Thank you, healer."
Gabrielle rested in an upright position on a pallet with Malina sitting at her side. Gabrielle swept aside a tear. "I guess I was still hoping."
Malina took Gabrielle by the hand. "There is still hope. As I said, we can try different medicines to see if they help."
"Julian's tea has taken some of the ache away."
"It hasn't stopped your deterioration. That is what we must seek to do."
"That is what you just said you don't know how to do."
They heard a knock on the door. Malina invited. "Come in."
Xena entered. She could see the trace of Gabrielle's tears. The Warrior steeled herself before speaking in a low, sure tone. "So, it's true."
Malina stood up. There would be no deceit. "I have heard of illnesses such as Gabrielle's. No one has survived past a turn of the seasons."
Xena needed confirmation from the healer. "There is nothing you can do?"
Malina promised. "I will try Xena, but more for comfort than for cure."
Xena turned her attention to Gabrielle. 'More for comfort than for cure.' By Malina's words Xena knew two things. Malina believed Gabrielle would die and it could be a painful death.
Malina was at a loss. She observed the two women. They were paralyzed. There were no words between them. A constant gaze held one to the other.
Gabrielle observed a tear fall from Xena's eye. It was the only sign that life still pulsed within her. Gabrielle spoke Xena's name to break the severe spell that had overtaken the Warrior. Xena was unmoved.
Malina excused herself. "I need to see to Julian." The healer walked abreast of Xena and placed her hand on the Warrior's arm. "I'm sorry." Xena took in the elder's compassionate countenance, said nothing, and returned her regard to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle waited for Malina's departure to be complete before she raised herself from the pallet. She remained an arm's length from the warrior. She struggled with her words. Gabrielle wanted to comfort. She didn't, however, want to give opportunity for false hope. "We have time."
Xena jerked her head slightly at the full extent of Gabrielle's meaning. Gabrielle continued. "Xena. Nothing has changed. I want to continue as we planned. To live here through my days."
Xena's stare intensified. She stepped back. If it had been anyone other than Gabrielle speaking Xena would have beaten them to an inch of their life. Xena could not fathom how Gabrielle could dare to be so casual. "Malina tells me you're dying and you say nothing has changed?"
"Xena. You knew. We both knew back in Sparta."
"No." Xena stepped forward. What she judged to be Gabrielle's callousness enraged her.
Gabrielle felt the danger acutely, but remained poised as Xena stood over her. Gabrielle again spoke Xena's name. This time her voice was but a hush.
Xena took Gabrielle's arms in her hands. Gabrielle fought within herself to counter any reflexive response. Disregarding Xena's viselike grip, she kept her eyes intent on Xena's own. She could see Xena's emotions sweep over the warrior, a discord of sorrow, rage and hatred. Gabrielle searched for evidence of love. She needed to believe that Xena's love was at the core of all the emotions that now claimed her. Love exacted this overwhelming price.
Gabrielle's tears came in spite of her effort to suppress them. She tried to reach through Xena's passions. Gabrielle's words were a soft-spoken plea. "Xena. I didn't choose this I don't want to leave you."
Xena was braced for everything but that incomprehensible, indefensible truth. She blamed Gabrielle. There was no one else to hold responsible. The fault lay with the one who embodied the disease, in the one who was dying, in the one who was leaving the other. The fault lay with Gabrielle.
Gabrielle felt Xena's grip lighten. She observed Xena's countenance retreat inward.
Xena lost sight of the woman she desperately held to. The images in her mind's eye went to the past - to years shared in love, years where time and time again a young woman stood by her side, fought for and with her, claimed their joined lives as her way, who did not hesitate to express her love, who stated with sincere confidence that they would be together for eternity.
Xena could forgive Gabrielle for sacrificing her life to save her; for choosing to die with her, but she did not know if she could forgive Gabrielle for succumbing to death's call without a fight. Again, there rose the passionate conviction that if Gabrielle chose to, if this remarkable woman really wanted to, she could persevere, she could beat this assault upon her well being and their life together.
Xena returned to the present. Her vision refocused on the woman who silently shed tears as she waited for a response. Xena had no words. What possible words could explain what she felt, how the injustice of their truth was breaking her like a steed tethered helplessly until it lost all spirit?
Xena released Gabrielle and fell to her knees. Her sorrow broke through the tenuous dam she had built within her, a dam she had been building from the moment she began to understand the nature of Gabrielle's illness, a dam intended to stay every disappointment, every scrap of hope discarded.
Gabrielle took hold of Xena, resting the warrior against her. She held Xena until the warrior had, for the moment, no further tears to shed.
Gabrielle sat up in bed, her legs tugged close to her. Through a window she had a view of the night sky, of the moon and stars. Over and above them lay heaven, Paradise, briefly known. She turned her regard to Xena who slept soundly. The warrior was spent. Gabrielle was grateful for Xena's tears. She was grateful that in spite of her illness she was able to console her beloved in her grief. Malina had not returned to her quarters until they had left.. The wise healer must have known that she and Xena could not afford an interruption. They had reached a critical crossroads and needed time and privacy to find their way. Gabrielle knew that this day would not be the last of shared grief. It was only the beginning of a new journey they were destined to walk together.
Xena stirred. "Hey."
Gabrielle smiled. She whispered. "Go back to sleep."
"If you come back to me."
Gabrielle chose to do more than that. She leaned over and took Xena's lips in a gentle kiss. She returned for a second, more passionate union, extending her body to lie side by side with the warrior. Xena responded ardently. The warrior felt a compelling need to take full possession of the bard. She pulled Gabrielle to her. Gabrielle willingly allowed herself to be taken. Xena turned Gabrielle onto her back. The warrior leaned her body gently over the bard. She stroked Gabrielle's cheek with the back of her hand. Gabrielle reached her arm up over Xena's shoulder. Gabrielle spoke the familiar words that granted Xena permission. "Xena. Make me yours. "
Xena's lovemaking was intense. She coaxed Gabrielle's strength from its dormancy. Gabrielle responded with fervor. She wanted to be with Xena completely. She willed herself to match Xena's every caress, every stroke, every demonstration of physicality.
Gabrielle stood at the back of the schoolroom watching the children learn their lessons. She relished their youthful exuberance, their curiosity, their respect for the instructor. She marveled at the intent looks about their faces as they attempted to solve a problem or answer a question. As a youth in Poteidaia Gabrielle and her sister, Lila,, had been schooled by her mother. She was lucky that her mother encouraged her learning even in the face of her father's disdain. Here, all the young girls in the tribe were being taught to be self-reliant, to thrive as one of their tribe and. if necessary, as one among the various peoples of the Aegean.
Gabrielle felt a tender embrace from behind her. Xena's lips touched Gabrielle's ear as she spoke softly not to disturb the children's lesson. "Hi."
Gabrielle covered Xena's arm with her own and leaned back in response.
Xena queried. "Telling stories?"
"The children enjoy them."
"So do their mothers and older sisters. Jamine told me that the village sentries have come up with a signal they relay down to the practice field, so that the young warriors can take a break and come sit outside the schoolroom to listen to you."
"I've noticed." Gabrielle turned around and placed her hand over Xena's heart. "Thank you for last night."
Xena covered Gabrielle's hand with her own. "We will have more nights like last night many more."
Gabrielle felt a tug on her skirt. She looked down to discover the same sandy hair girl that had kicked the ball to her the day before. Gabrielle raised her sight over to the front of the room, confirming that the children had been dismissed. She returned her attention to the child. "Hello there."
The little girl tugged again.
Gabrielle knelt down on one knee using her staff for balance. "Do you want to tell me something?"
The little girl opened her arms and took Gabrielle into a complete embrace. She whispered to Gabrielle. Gabrielle's heart felt a press as she heard the girl's request. She knew she hadn't the strength to fulfill her wish. Gabrielle gently released the child. "I wish I could. You know, Xena can throw you up in the air and catch you." Gabrielle offered more than the child had hoped for.
The little girl lifted her gaze up to the tall, imposing warrior.
Xena bent down to the child. "Would you like that?"
The child looked back to Gabrielle, who nodded in encouragement. The child spoke with confidence. "Yes, please."
"Okay." Xena swept the child off her feet and tossed her up. The girl squealed in delight. The rest of the children watched, both surprised and envious of the attention being granted the little one.
Gabrielle used her staff to pull herself up to an upright position. She reached out and mussed the hair of the child who was now cradled in Xena's embrace. "I don't know your name."
The girl smiled having loss all her reserve. "Tana."
"Well Tana, it's good to meet you. I'm Gabrielle and this is Xena."
Tana turned her attention to the warrior who held her so securely. "Again," she petitioned.
Xena laughed. "Again!" She cast Tana high. The child could have touched the ceiling if she had reached for it. She fell again into Xena's sturdy arms.
Tana giggled. "Let me go. Let me go. I want to tell Mama."
Xena put the child down. Tana ran out of the schoolroom into the courtyard seeking her mother. Gabrielle and Xena could hear her call out. "Mama! Mama! I was flying. Xena made me fly."
Gabrielle took Xena by the hand. "You just made a little girl very happy."
Xena had enjoyed the moment immensely. "You keep telling her stories and I'll keep making her fly."
Gabrielle walked with the healer. "Malina. When will you be leaving?"
"I didn't know I was."
"The North village needs you."
"I will send Julian."
"Can you do anymore for me than she can?"
"I trust her."
Malina spoke her thoughts aloud. "I can give Julian instructions. She can send me updates of your condition through our couriers."
"Then it's settled."
"The North shall have my services for now, but I will return to you my Queen. You cannot get rid of me so easily."
"Malina. I do have one concern."
"Even with Xena's help, caring for me may be hard on Julian. She's young."
"I'm certain it will be. She isn't alone. She has friends. I will encourage her to call upon me when it becomes most difficult." Malina observed Gabrielle's cast sadden. "My Queen?"
"I don't want to be a burden.
"She is honored by your trust in her and in her skills."
"Don't." Karis was abrupt in her direction.
Julian had bowed upon entering the council room. She looked up in confusion. "My Queen?"
"No formalities when we are alone." Karis stepped forward. "Please."
Julian maintained a cautionary distance. "As you prefer."
Karis stood with both feet planted on the ground and her hands held behind her back. "How is Gabrielle?"
The healer debated whether a response would betray Gabrielle's confidence. She chose to speak in generalities. To share observances that would be clear to any eye. "She was fatigued by her outing."
"Why does she insist?"
Julian answered the rhetorical question. "Because she is determined to live."
Karis had not expected a response. She really didn't want to be engaged in a conversation. Karis sought only information. Her displeasure resounded in her definitive statement. "She will fall into an early grave."
Julian was not deterred. "Isn't that her truth? Should she not be able to barter what days remain in order to keep her happiness?"
"What kind of healer are you?" Appalled, Karis shifted in a sharp motion toward her chair.
Julian stepped forward. "How well do you know her? If you had Gabrielle's best interest at heart you would know that the only defeat death has the power to claim upon her is the break of her spirit."
"I am responsible for every member of this tribe. Gabrielle is in my care."
"And Malina's and mine, and the tribe complete. We are all responsible for her care."
"I am Queen."
Julian was adamant. "Gabrielle has no Queen, but I am her healer."
"I am her friend."
Julian asserted herself more strongly. "Then be a friend and put her first above your own grief."
Karis did not restrain her anger. "How dare you! You know nothing of my grief!"
Julian bowed her head. "No, I cannot imagine the loss of a Queen who has earned your regard and love."
Karis considered the young healer. At a loss, the Queen took to her chair. "It was only as Tovi slipped to the other side that . I cannot measure my grief with Xena's. I have told myself countless times that I should be grateful that Tovi and I never joined. I don't think I would have been able to bear her loss if we had."
Julian responded in kindness. "I am not so certain. I am young and inexperienced in love, but I have seen many shades of pain in body and soul. I would never presume to compare one to another. Nor would I compare love. And, the grief of the loss of a love."
Karis looked up to the heavens, beyond the sight of the shelter's roof. "Sometimes I wonder why we love at all?"
Julian felt witness to Karis' singular, defining grief. "Do you so regret your love for Queen Tovi? Do you believe Xena regrets her love for Queen Gabrielle?"
Karis returned her gaze to Julian. "No."
"Malina tells me that the depth of our grief equals the depth of our love. When we are young we are too much like young lions to concern ourselves with the inevitable. It is when we learn the difficult truth and persevere that we become one who stands tall within the pride. I have watched you from afar. I have thought you Karis as one who has stood tall in her grief."
"You now know the truth, Julian. I am not the lioness you thought me to be."
Julian wished to relieve the Queen of her self-directed censure. "Facing a second grief so soon would be a trial for anyone, no matter how stout at heart."
Karis confessed. "I keep asking myself, how will Xena bear it?"
The young healer had an unerring confidence in Xena. "As she has done before. This will not be her first mourning."
The Queen felt the warrior's defeat. "But, I believe it will be her last."
"They will find their way together." Julian understood her role. "It is for us to stand by them as they do."
Julian had outlined the course of treatments she would be giving Gabrielle to mitigate the effects of her illness. Gabrielle agreed to cooperate. Much of what Julian discussed Gabrielle had heard from Malina prior to the sage healer's departure. Gabrielle sat across from Julian in the healer's quarters. Julian noted that the Queen was preoccupied. "You seem troubled. Is there anything else I can do?"
"It's not what you think." Gabrielle looked over to the young healer. "Karis is getting more and more distant."
Julian had observed the same. "She may believe she can stay her love for you, and so too the depth of pain she will feel in mourning you."
Gabrielle was seeking an assurance. "I haven't offended her, then?"
"No my Queen." Julian was earnest. "Karis has kept a careful, though distant watch. I assure you Karis' heart is aggrieved. For many, it seems wrong to seek consolation from the very one who is ill. I know that the pretenses of life are stripped away in the two greatest crossings, in giving birth and in death. Both are surrenders in their own right. As a healer I have witnessed how they challenge and change the one experiencing the crossing as well as those who care for them."
"I wish I could reach Karis." Gabrielle did not hide her mounting frustration.
Julian told what might one day be the making of a legend. "It is said Queen Karis holds the spirit of a great bird in her breast. That she once knew how to glide carefree among the currents and to soar or descend boldly cutting through the ether. I have tried to touch that spirit. I have been unsuccessful. I fear her spirit has burned to ash along with the remains of Queen Tovi."
"You're wrong. Xena and I spent two moons with Karis after Tovi's death. Her spirit is intact. She must feel safe before she grants it flight again."
"Then we will not soon witness its return. Her spirit is protectively secured. Karis is no less than a citadel under siege."
Gabrielle stood at the perimeter of the practice field observing the young warriors being put through their practice drills by Jamine and Xena. The time had come for a contest with staffs.
Jamine stepped to Gabrielle's side. "Maybe you could offer these pups a lesson or two."
"Jamine. I haven't the strength to go against the weakest girl."
"But, you still have your keen eye and mind. They mistakenly believe that strength and agility will guarantee a victory. We both know that at your best, you can out do a man with three times your strength."
Lael was taking on challenger after challenger, defeating them with ease. Gabrielle watched intently. She knew exactly how she would counter Lael's rhythmic strokes.
Encourage by Jamine, Ciara approached Gabrielle. "My Queen."
"Lael is good, isn't she?"
"It would seem so."
"I have never bested her."
"Watch her, Ciara." Ciara cast her gaze over to the on-going contest. Gabrielle taught. "See how she plants her feet. She weighs forward. If an opponent swung low and made her jump, her balance wouldn't be so sure."
Ciara doubted. "I've tried that without success."
"There is something to be said for persistence. I would go low and stay low. Lael 'll attack. I would alternate a defensive posture with an offensive one. I'd try to lift her off her feet and plant my staff at her chest as she falls."
Ciara was now intrigued. "You have seen this move?"
"I've done that move with fighters more skillful that Lael."
Ciara smiled. "And you have lived to see this day."
The two watched Lael disable her latest victim. Lael looked about until she caught sight of Ciara. The former always enjoyed sparing with the latter. It was a good bout resulting in the inevitable victory. Lael raised her staff to Ciara summoning her. Ciara walked forward. Upon reaching Lael she raised her staff, mirroring Lael's gesture.
Lael challenged. "Let's give Queen Gabrielle a good match."
Ciara replied with a cautious smile. "As you wish, my friend."
Their encounter followed a familiar form. Lael's confidence grew. Ciara worked hard not to give Lael any hint of Gabrielle's strategy. At what she felt was the opportune time, Ciara fell to a knee in response to one of Lael's moderate blows. Ciara swung low and as she expected Lael leaped over the staff with ease and quickly countered. Ciara remained low camouflaging the sureness of her position. Lael, sensing a conquest, struck again. Ciara took the blow and with a fluid sweep of her staff cut against Lael's calves. Lael jumped landing slightly off balance. Ciara maintained an uninterrupted motion of her staff moving it around her back and forward completing a full circular rotation. The staff hit Lael again from behind her knees causing her legs to give and her body to fall backwards. Ciara jumped to her feet and pressed her staff at Lael's exposed neck. Lael was stunned by the impact of the fall, her breath escaping her, and the awareness that Ciara stood over her with a broad grin on her face.
Ciara inquired. "What say you, my friend?"
Lael regained her breath and with it, the ability to speak. "I think this triumph is not yours alone."
Ciara confirmed. "At least give me credit for seeking and listening to only the best teacher." Ciara withdrew her staff and reached out to Lael with her free hand.
Lael took Ciara's hand and pulled herself to her feet. "I will congratulate Xena."
Ciara corrected. "You would be wrong to do it. The credit goes to Queen Gabrielle."
Lael wasn't surprised to learn that it was the more diminutive warrior who learned the strategy that would topple her. The two young friends approached the Queen. Xena joined the grouping.
Gabrielle expressed her appreciation. "A match well fought."
Lael responded respectfully. "Ciara informs me it was the better match because of your counsel." Lael's pride had been wounded and she did not hide it well. "I hope, my Queen, you choose to share your knowledge with more than this pitiful excuse of a warrior." Lael nodded toward Ciara.
Gabrielle considered Lael's words and chose an appropriate retort. "If Ciara is a pitiful excuse of a warrior, tell me Lael, how should I measure you who she beat so soundly?"
Amused Ciara and Xena waited for Lael's answer.
Lael knew she had been bested once again. "I am, my Queen, your humble servant. One who just this moment has learned the lesson to take greater care with her words when it is pride that stands behind them."
Gabrielle approved. "Well said, Lael."
Ever the taskmaster, Xena interrupted the exchange. "You two better get going to the archery field."
Lael could not help solicit the Queen once more. "Have you lessons to teach with a bow?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Trust me, venison welcome seeing me in the wood. My shooting usually guarantees them a long and healthy life."
"I have now learned a second lesson. With humility comes honesty." Lael offered a small bow. "With your permission, my Queen."
Gabrielle took Xena's hand as the two young warriors moved on. Xena felt a great pride in the august Queen of these young Amazons. "Coming to the archery field?"
Gabrielle considered the offer. Her fatigue settled all thought of remaining. "I think I'll lie down for a while."
Xena hid her disappointment. "I'll see you later."
Jamine ran up to the departing Queen, calling out her name. Gabrielle paused and waited for the Captain of the Guard. Jamine placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Thank you for coming. You know you've captured their hearts."
Gabrielle smiled and nodded. She thought to herself that hearts captured would soon be broken by her death.
Jamine trotted over to Xena. They both watched the slowly, departing Gabrielle. Jamine made a request. "Xena. Can we talk?"
"There has been something bothering me for quite a while, but it's only been today, watching Gabrielle, that I've been able to figure it out."
Jamine had gained Xena's interest. "What's that?"
"Karis. She doesn't know how to be a Queen. Not the way Gabrielle has proven a Queen can should be."
Xena defended. "It's unfair to compare Karis to Gabrielle."
Jamine reported. "Xena. Do you realize that the tribe thinks of Gabrielle more as their Queen than Karis?"
Xena knew the implications of Jamine's statement could be far reaching. "Gabrielle hasn't done anything to claim the throne."
Jamine insisted. "That's not the point. Karis keeps her distance. She doesn't show any appreciation. She doesn't teach or even encourage. Even ill we see more of Gabrielle than we do of Karis."
Once again, Xena attempted to defend the overwhelmed Karis. "May be that's because Karis is busy being Queen."
"Xena. I know you are fond of Karis. I'm telling you this because I'm hoping you might speak to her. Or may be Gabrielle could. I trust you will know best who Karis will listen to."
"We'll see." Xena made no commitment.
Dissatisfied, Jamine continued her campaign. "Xena. I know I'm from the North and have known Karis only a short time. But believe me when I tell you that my feelings are shared by both the Northern and Southern Amazons."
Xena acquiesced. "I'll talk to Gabrielle."
Jamine was hopeful. "Thank you, my friend."
Xena stepped softly into the lodge. As she suspected, Gabrielle was asleep. It was maddening to see the bard at peace and yet know the physical and emotional turmoil she struggled with. Xena sat back in a tall chair, silently keeping vigil. Inexplicably their lives had taken an air of normalcy. They rose each morning grateful for the day. They had quickly adjusted to the routine of village life. Where once the idea of living a communal life had stirred Xena's greatest impatience, she now felt a profound gratitude for having such a life for Gabrielle.
Earlier that morning, for just a moment, Xena had forgotten their truth. Watching Queen Gabrielle observing the young warriors, knowing that they all set their goals higher because of the Queen's attentive gaze, had given Xena a gentle joy. The joy slipped away as Gabrielle left her for the lodge. She reminded herself that it really wasn't a choice. It was a necessity for Gabrielle to rest.
Xena mulled Jamine's words. Xena acknowledged that Karis had grown distant - far more distant in the passing moons. Xena's own concerns had lessened her attentiveness to Karis' reticence. She had not given it much weight, but now, with Jamine's request, Xena could no longer ignore it.
As the drops of melting wax hit the base plates resting underneath the lodge candles, Xena's mind quieted. No conscious thought claimed her. Her eyes asked for nothing but the uninterrupted vision of Gabrielle. How many times had Xena taken the same posture, holding Gabrielle in her gaze, enveloped in awe?.
Gabrielle opened her eyes to the muted candlelight. The ache in her body had subsided. She wondered how long she had slept. She raised herself upon her elbow.
Xena stood and approached her. "Hey."
"What time is it?"
Xena smiled. "Evening meal is about to be served. Your timing is impeccable."
Gabrielle assessed herself. "I am hungry."
"Good." Xena sat beside Gabrielle. "Before we go eat there is something we need to talk about."
"Is something wrong?"
"Jamine talked to me after you left. She said that the tribe thinks of you more as their Queen than they do Karis. I think shes right. Karis has done everything she needed to do to politically unify the tribes, but at the same time shes kept herself at a distance."
Gabrielle looked away considering the implications. Xena continued. "Has Karis talked to you at all?"
Gabrielle returned her gaze to Xena. "Karis doesnt want to be around me. She doesnt want to be around anything or anyone that has to do with me."
Xena had not expected Gabrielles stark assessment. "How can you say that?"
"Xena. I understand why. She just lost Tovi."
"Are you sure? Karis may just be preoccupied."
"I saw how she spoke to Ciara and Lael when they returned with Malina. She couldnt give them the smallest compliment, not even after Malina praised them."
"And of course you did."
"They rode hard for me. They deserved my gratitude."
"You did the right thing. But, it only widened the chasm of how you and Karis are seen by the tribe."
"Have you talked to Karis?"
"Ive had my mind on other things."
Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand on Xenas cheek. "My love."
Xena took Gabrielles hand and placed a gentle kiss upon its palm. "Ive been spending my time with Jamine."
"Its comfortable being with Jamine."
"You dont have to see Karis grief."
"If she comes to me, I wont turn her away."
"Maybe you should go to her."
Xenas impatience rose. "And say what? I think youre shutting Gabrielle out because shes "
Gabrielle completed the thought. "Dying."
Xena stood up. "Lets go eat."
Gabrielle took a hard look at the warrior. She was not in the mood to deal with Xena's denial. To Gabrielle's chagrin the word 'coward' came to mind. "Go ahead without me. It'll be good practice for when I'm gone."
Xena was stunned by the seeming casualness of Gabrielle's verbal brutality. Xena was uncertain of what she had done to deserve it. An admonishment to continue the argument, maybe, but not this. She turned to the door, stopping at the threshold. Xena struggled to harness the emotions that she continually wrestled to a draw - never allowing them to consume her, but never being able to neutralize their threat to her. Her back to Gabrielle, she spoke with a fragile conviction. "Gabrielle. All I want is to share your life. I will have the rest of my days to mourn your death."
Gabrielle struck her pity down. Xena's unwillingness to look her in the eye only confirmed her incessant fears. She knew Xena waited for her reply. It came with a resolute tone. "My death is now my life. You can't separate one from the other. I don't want to dwell on it, but I also don't want to deny it."
Xena didn't want to kiss death. She didn't want to embrace or make love to death. She refused to eat with or reside with death. She did not see death in Gabrielle's eyes, even when those eyes were dulled by illness. Xena smacked the door open and walked on, alone, not to the food lodge, but to the stables.
Argo was the benefactor of Xena and Gabrielle's estrangement. She received a thorough, rigorous grooming from her mistress. Xena focused on her task, allowing the concerns of her life to momentarily recede into the back of her mind. Satisfied with her work, she stored the brushes in the stable tack room, taking an apple from a nearby basket as she returned once more to Argo. Argo took the offered apple eagerly. "Hey girl. At least I know you won't leave me as long as I keep on giving you apples." The mare nuzzled the warrior. "She's dying, girl. Our bard is dying." The words came. The impossible words conveying a destiny Xena had once seen cheated. She knew what it was to lose Gabrielle to death. Xena survived the loss, but only just. Her mind had slipped to the edges of sanity. Her soul drove her to seek out, at all costs, its mate. There had been no opportunity for farewells.
When death came again, they faced it together. They had been given a moment in time to speak their hearts. She remembered, as they waited in the Roman prison, entreating Gabrielle not to cry. She remembered confessing her regrets. She remembered how Gabrielle assured the warrior that her way was the way of friendship. Inferred was that her way was the way of a particular friendship. Gabrielle's way meant that she would always choose to stand beside Xena even as they approached the agony of crucifixion.
In the present hour, Gabrielle's death did not carry the same sharp cutting loss as the fall into Dahak's domain seared into Xena's heart. Death made itself known through the gradual lessening of form. Gabrielle's body thinned. Her well-defined muscles melded to a more fluid figure, one reminiscent of the young Poteidaian peasant girl Xena remembered Gabrielle to be. Though physically able and determined, young Gabrielle was no match for Gabrielle, the skilled, tactical, stalwart warrior. Though the heart that beat in the breast was one and the same, the depth of knowledge gained through the experience of life beside the Warrior Princess chiseled Gabrielle to a formidable woman, a woman who in every respect was Xena's equal.
There was never a discounting of Gabrielle. Her patience, her skill with words, her ability to see people at their emotional core had always been, never stopped being, her most valued contribution to the greater good. However, in these passing days, Xena continued to contest what she believed to be her partner's resolve to die without a fight. Xena's emotions, tenuously held in check, burned like a flame in the night. During the calm, nocturnal stillness, her emotions held steady and true. But with a gust of a word or image that equated Gabrielle to forthcoming loss, her emotions shifted wildly, as ungovernable thoughts swayed all semblance of peace, replacing repose with the bitter desire for a confrontation, demanding that allegations be given their due, answered with more than resolute surrender.
Xena gave Argo one more affectionate stroke. "It's time I go home." Xena walked to the food lodge and made a quick inquiry whether Gabrielle had been seen. Assured the Queen had yet to visit for evening meal, Xena requested a tray for two.
Gabrielle leaned against the bed backboard, drawing her legs up close. She chastised herself for being so hard on Xena. Xena's departure left Gabrielle doubting her resolve to have Xena approach Karis. Gabrielle realized she was setting another burden upon the warrior's shoulders. And yet, it was her hope, that in helping Karis, Xena would be able to help herself. Xena was not one to share her vulnerabilities. It took years of constancy before the warrior could trust Gabrielle sufficiently to bare her deepest sorrows and fears. The woman who Gabrielle shared her life with was not the same Xena she had first met. That Xena was racked with relentless nightmares and the fear of again crossing the line and returning to her Destroyer of Nations persona. That Xena had long been set aside. The worst of Xena's darkness had been infused with a new light. Once dependent on Gabrielle's light to steady her, Xena had come to shelter a light of her own. Xena's light had returned like the accumulated flickering lights of fireflies captured and contained so that the total effect was a continuous illumination. Time tested, Gabrielle knew Xena's light could survive the loss of her. Though Xena's passions were great, and her capacity for rage remained unaltered, she had found her way, the way of the warrior and with her way came a sliver of peace. Not that she did not harbor a profound regret. Not that she would ever accept complete redemption. Not that she considered her actions for the greater good sufficient atonement for her own crimes against humanity. Gabrielle knew that Xena trusted few with her heart. Ephiny and Cyrene's passing were great losses. Eve's faith took her to far off lands. Old friends had long died. Xena had spoken of Karis warmly upon their first meeting. Xena never hesitated in consoling Karis upon the loss of Tovi. The initial connection between the two warriors had been constructed under the rule of Tovi and the transition to the rule of Karis. Karis could be the friend to help Xena, if only Xena allowed it, if only Karis was strong enough to withstand, so near to her own loss, the experience of observing a grief so vividly felt by another. In mourning her death, Gabrielle felt Xena and Karis could forge a valuable and sustaining friendship.
Xena entered the lodge balancing the food tray with one hand. Gabrielle looked up from her scroll. At the sight of the warrior an immediate sense of relief washed over her. Their eyes met. Xena was cautiously optimistic that Gabrielle welcomed her return. She offered a muted smile and then focused on the task of arranging their meal of stew, bread, fruit, cheese and cider upon the table.
Gabrielle got to her feet. Her staff was in reach. Though feeling weaker than usual, Gabrielle calculated that the span to cross was minimal and a chair awaited her at her destination. She left the staff at rest and walked over to Xena. Xena continued her task, eyes focused down. The warrior heard the approaching bard.
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's arm just as the warrior reached out to her with a cup of cider.
Xena looked up to the bard. "I'll speak to Karis in the morning." Xena offered again. "Cider?"
Gabrielle took the offered cup. "Thank you."
Karis sat alone at the council table reading the latest reports from the Northern village. Xena entered the council chambers. The warrior's patience had been strained. She spent half the morning waiting for Karis to complete her more public duties. Still, her approach was open and inviting. "How about taking a break?"
Karis looked up. "Xena. Ive got a bit of work to do." The Queen motioned to the scrolls before her.
Xena was not in the mood to be put off. This task was hard enough. "Karis. I'm sure there is nothing there that can't wait a half-candlemark."
Karis was rigid. "I'm sorry, Xena. But, my duties come first."
"This isn't a social call. When can we talk?"
"How about after mid-day meal?"
"Fine. Meet me at the school."
Karis felt a rising irritation. Xena directed. Xena did not request. There was no recognition of Karis' status as Queen.
The children were playing kick ball, taking advantage of their recess. Their youthful vigor was intoxicating. Gabrielle stood near by. She had promised to tell them a story. Gabrielle's storytelling provided an easy and much appreciated transition before serious lessons were once again taken up.
Xena came and stood beside her. "Hi."
Gabrielle reached out and took the warrior's hand.
Xena bent down and spoke softly. "You know, Jamine has been formally petitioned to modify all future drill schedules so that they don't overlap with the quote 'opportunities to learn tactical and moral lessons from the Honorable Queen Gabrielle' unquote. The petition also said that to continue to have scheduling conflicts could be judged as disrespectful to the Queen."
Gabrielle smiled. "I notice no one has asked me my opinion on this controversy. What has Jamine decided?"
"Considering she enjoys the Bard from Poteidaia as much as any of her young warriors, I think you can count on having an extremely well-guarded schoolroom."
"Can you at least have them standing at ease. I don't want the children thinking we're under siege."
Xena bowed formally. "As you wish."
Gabrielle slapped Xena in the midriff. "Stop that." Their gazes matched and intimate, knowing smiles were shared.
Without diverting her eyes Xena announced. "We have a visitor."
Gabrielle turned to see little Tana shifting from foot to foot. "We need a player."
Gabrielle glanced over to Xena. Xena gave her an incredulous 'don't even think it' look.
Tana resolved the question. "Not Xena. She's too big."
Gabrielle laughed at the innocent's reasoning. "Am I the right size?"
Tana nodded her head affirmatively.
Unlike the previous evening, Gabrielle was feeling quite strong. She gave her staff to Xena. "Will you hold this for me?"
Xena held her tongue. She would offer no cautions no matter how deeply she felt them. Xena reminded herself that Gabrielle was just playing a children's game.
The boisterous laughter lifted the hearts of all that stood by and watched the Queen with the children. Xena's worry lessened, sufficiently so that she too could enjoy watching the play. An appreciative smile crossed her countenance and remained gently in place. She could see that Gabrielle was playing with restraint, taking care not to overtax herself. Even with this awareness, to Xena, Gabrielle seemed so terribly young, blending effortlessly into this world owned by innocence.
Karis moved to Xena's side. "Is Gabrielle crazy?"
Xena turned to Karis resenting the interruption. "She knows what she's doing."
"Just because you don't care doesn't mean I'm going to allow this to continue." Karis took a step forward.
Xena would have no one steal this moment of joy from Gabrielle. She took Karis by the arm and pressed tightly to make her point. "Let her be."
Karis' tone was equal parts plea and charge. "She's too weak!"
Xena closed the argument. "Gabrielle is a Queen."
"Watch out!" A child's cry caught the attention of the two.
Gabrielle's legs had become entangled with that of one of the older children, Mara. They both fell to the dirt. Gabrielle sat up as Mara got to her feet. The Queen, slightly short of breath, offered Mara a compliment. "You are swift of foot."
Mara shared her admiration. "You are pretty good, too!"
Gabrielle felt the child's sincerity. "Thank you."
The child offered the Queen her hand in assistance. Gabrielle felt she needed more leverage to raise herself. She looked over to where Xena stood and called out her name, reaching her hand out. Xena understood the gesture and tossed the staff to Gabrielle. Gabrielle caught it easily. She stationed the staff firmly on the ground, accepted Mara's offered hand and quickly stood to an upright stance.
Xena turned to Karis. "Come on."
As Xena and Karis walked on, Karis could not help but glance over her shoulder, taking one last look at Gabrielle.
Xena scolded. "She's fine."
Karis countered. "She fell."
"And she got up."
"What do you want to talk about?"
"I'm surprised you care so much about Gabrielle. You haven't said more than two words to her since we arrived."
"It's been a busy time."
"Gabrielle is your friend." Xena halted her step to make a point. "Who did you go to for comfort when Tovi died?"
Karis blanched. Xena continued to walk on, toward the cross bridge over the south ravine. Upon reaching it she surveyed the construction effort she shared with Karis and a handful of Amazons. "We did good work here."
Karis allowed memory to transport her to a time, six and half moons ago. "It was a different world then."
"Yes, it was."
"What I would give to go back to it."
Xena wanted to understand the young Queen. "What would you do differently?"
"I would freeze time." Karis turned to Xena. "Wouldn't you?"
Xena spoke with unmitigated certainty. "No."
Karis was unconvinced. "Even if it meant Gabrielle would be well?"
"We have our destinies to live." Xena hated the reality of this fact. "It isn't for me to change Gabrielle's."
"Destiny be damned!" Karis had been sure that Xena would understand her. Xena's words left Karis at a loss.
Xena tried to calm the volatile warrior. "Karis. You can't stop living."
Karis challenged. "Who's living now? The best of me died with Tovi."
"I thought that way once, when I believed Gabrielle had died." Xena traveled back to her darkest days without the bard. "A part of me neared madness. I knew I would do everything in my power to see her again."
"I'm familiar with Gabrielle's scroll." Karis was dismissive.
Xena held her temper in check. She tried again to reach through Karis' grief. "I never shared the whole story with Gabrielle. She wrote the scroll based on what Yakut told her more than on anything I might have said."
"What didn't you tell her?"
"What was impossible to put into words. Feelings I hoped she knew or could imagine because there was a time I had died to her, leaving her to mourn me."
Karis wasn't listening. "So, you're here to tell me to stop mourning Tovi."
"No. I know that if you loved Tovi the way I love Gabrielle, that a part of you will never stop mourning her. I knew Gabrielle wanted me to go on living. She had worked so hard and for so long to open my heart that burying myself with her would have been a betrayal of her love."
Karis was indifferent. "Makes it easy to watch her die and move on to your next bed mate."
Xena held her rage. Her eyes, blue ice, glared at the misguided Queen. "I won't do you the favor of killing you right here, where you stand. If you want to take the coward's way out of your grief, you will have to throw yourself on your sword or into that ravine."
Karis felt a chill take hold of her body. She fought its effect with a searing vengeance. "Look who's calling me a coward. You stand there and do nothing. Absolutely nothing to save Gabrielle. She's wasting away before your eyes and you let her make one bad decision after another. She's closer to the grave because you refuse to confront her."
"Don't place your guilt upon my shoulders."
"What have I to do with Gabrielle's death?" Karis demanded.
Xena was stern. "I'm not talking about Gabrielle."
"I didn't even know that Tovi went out against the Romans alone. It was you, Ariel and Gabrielle who met in council. It was Gabrielle," Karis spat out the next as an epithet, "our Queen, who had the power to stop Tovi with a word. All it would have taken was a word."
"Tovi was a Queen in her own right. She volunteered for the mission. She decided to risk her life for her tribe. That included you."
Karis incrimination of Tovi found voice, but then faltered. "If she had been thinking of me ."
Xena demanded. "What? If Tovi had been thinking of you she wouldn't have gone or maybe she would have asked you to come with her?"
"Either would have been fine by me."
Xena laid the truth before Karis. "But she didn't, did she?"
In the moment, Karis hated Xena, and she attacked what Xena valued most. "She chose her death. She chose to leave me behind. Gabrielle is no different."
"So, you think Gabrielle is choosing her death?"
"There are no Gods claiming her."
Karis erratic logic would have been amusing to Xena, were it not so sad. "And "
"It is by her own cause."
"You really think that people bring illness, even death upon themselves? If that were true, your grief would have killed you moons ago."
"Damn you!" Karis reached out and flat palmed her hand against Xena's shoulder. "I would pray to Artemis or Athena, but you brought on their deaths. You and your child brought on the Twilight. You killed my Gods and left me no one to beg for Tovi's life. I watched her life slip away from me and all I could do was selfishly hold her hand, and rest a kiss on her lips, and beg her to stay with me. But, no, she didn't stay. She was just like Gabrielle. So certain she was going to die that she refused to fight. She refused to claim life and instead walked willingly into Death's open arms."
"You blame the Twilight?"
"I blame you." Karis accused.
Xena recounted Karis' nonsensical reasoning. "So far you've blamed Tovi, Gabrielle and me for everything under the sun and stars. Is there anyone you've left out? I want to know. Who else is responsible for your grief?"
Karis reached out her hand and pointed to the warrior. "Stay away from me, Xena. Upon Gabrielle's death, I want you out of this village." The Queen turned and walked away.
Xena stood in silent observance. She felt she had just ridden on the crest of a tsunami. Karis' accusations echoed in Xena's mind. She could set aside the words against Tovi. Young Queen Tovi, who sought answers beyond the bounds of reason, who Gabrielle warmly referred to as the Philosopher Queen, had been thoughtful and courageous. Xena had only admiration for Tovi, who lived and died by her convictions.
Karis' denouncement of Gabrielle, was, in part, easily discarded. It hadn't been for Gabrielle to stop Tovi's effort to signal the Roman advance. Were it not for Gabrielle's injury she would have gone herself. That Gabrielle made herself ill and welcomed death was unfathomable. Gabrielles reverence for life was incontestable. Even in her greatest despair, taking young Hope's life with her own hand, Gabrielle chose not to follow her daughter to the other side. It was Karis' other words that disturbed Xena, for no reason more than they neared her own irrational brooding. There was Gabrielle's acquiescing to death: the failure to fight. Gabrielle did not choose death but neither had Xena seen evidence that she was fighting it. Try as she might, Xena could not understand Gabrielle's way.
And finally, painfully, there were the words Xena could not deflect. They were the words that cut deepest to her core - Karis' charges against herself. Xena would not deny that she had chosen not to challenge, but to respect, Gabrielle's decisions. Gabrielle had every right to seek grace in her approaching death. What Xena could not rationalize away was the veracity of the one closing indictment placed at her feet. Xena had done nothing to save Gabrielle.
Xena sensed the approach. Concentrating she identified the sound of Gabrielle placing her staff rhythmically before her as she walked the dirt path. Sitting high on a flat that jutted out from the rock wall, Xena soon had a clear view of the bard. Near the bridge, Gabrielle scanned the area. Seeing no hint of the warrior she closed her eyes. She felt the breeze pass through her hair and the sun upon her face. She felt the solid ground beneath her. She heard the bird song, the rustle of a small animal in the brush, and a pebble falling from above. She opened her eyes and searched in the direction of the pebble's origin. There the warrior's silhouette came into view. Gabrielle waved her hand. Xena waved in kind and then made her way down the rock wall.
Gabrielle was happy to meet Xena on the horizontal plane of the earth. She reached up and offered a gentle kiss. "I missed you."
Xena welcomed having the bard near. "I thought you would still be with the children."
"It was a short story. How did it go?"
Xena veiled her passion, the timbre of her voice muted. "It didn't."
Gabrielle sensed the extent of the breach. "That bad?"
Xena relented to the truth. "Worse. I think that at least for a while, we both need to keep our distance from Karis."
"Does she want me to leave?"
"Don't even think it." The warrior was adamant.
"But Xena, she is the Queen of this tribe."
Xena would not have Gabrielle separated from her people. "First. She didn't ask you to leave. And second, just because she is Queen doesn't mean, that when it comes to you, she speaks for the tribe."
Gabrielle conceded. "I know they are fond of me."
"That isn't the word I would use." Xena could not imagine a leader who had earned a greater love and respect from those who she led.
Gabrielle turned away. She had hoped for a positive resolution. She didn't want to cause dissension among the tribe. More personally, she wanted Karis back in her life as a friend.
Xena tried to reason. "Gabrielle. If we leave now, the tribe will blame Karis. That will only make things worse. The tribe's internal allegiances are still fragile. They might not survive this kind of breach. It strikes at their heart. We can't let Tovi's death end up to be for nothing."
Gabrielle wondered about her own death. What would it be for? What value could be assigned to such a pedestrian ending? She shook off the self-pity and returned her thoughts to Xena. Gabrielle had seen Xena's concern when she chose to play with the children. She saw Xena's concern heightened when she fell. Now, Gabrielle saw a different intensity within the warrior. Whatever exchange she had with Karis, it did not leave Xena untouched. Gabrielle knew by Xena's decision to seek solitude that the warrior needed time to absorb whatever had transpired. The lack of offered detail only confirmed Gabrielle's assessment that more lay behind the silence.
"You're right. Even without Karis' sponsorship, I can still help the tribe." Gabrielle went to Xena and offered her hand. Xena took it, relieved that the subject was adjourned. Gabrielle requested, "Walk with me."
The two walked back toward the village. Gabrielle led them to their lodge. With the door closed and her hand firmly held in Xena's, she whispered, "Please, make me yours."
Xena was somewhat surprised by Gabrielle's mid-day desire. This was not physically the strongest time of day for her. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle's answer was a kiss, a tender kiss that slowly deepened, coaxing Xena's passions to the surface. Xena would not question Gabrielle a second time.
Continued - Part 2 (Conclusion)
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