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 makes a minor reference to my other stories in regards to how Xena and Gabrielle's relationship grew to complete intimacy. If you have any questions on the development of their relationship you will find my answers in Silences and Silences II. It is not necessary for you to read those stories prior to The Chamber. The triggering event in The Chamber occurs before Looking Death in the Eye.
Comments: Always appreciated, the good and the not-so-good.
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.
Part 1 - The Chamber
The space was black. She ran her hand on the edge of the pallet measuring its length and width. She began to reach beyond the edge in search of the floor. Instinct made her pull up. She did not know what lay below and for now she would exercise her patience and hope that the coming day would cut the darkness with light.
She heard nothing other than her own movement. She held still. Only her heartbeat and breath broke through. She held herself close. She tried to remember how she came to be in this darkness. It was an ambush. She, Xena and a small contingent from her tribe had been on return from a successful hunting trip. Getting away had been her gift to Xena. It had been idyllic. The warrior and the bard. The Queen and her champion. The lovers. It had been night. They had been asleep. Gabrielle reached out into the darkness longing for her partner in life and in death. Emptiness met her.
Her head ached. She touched her temple feeling the remnants of dry blood and torn skin. The wound was fresh. She did not remember the blow that had caused it. It must have been what had driven her into unconsciousness. In her stillness she was acutely aware of her body. She felt no other cuts or bruises. Only this one wound had touched her flesh. Her yearning for Xena hinted at a far deeper violation.
How much time had passed was difficult to measure. Now she heard sounds, footsteps rattling metal, and muted voices. There was an approach. She calculated three or four in total. She turned her head to the left attentive to the sound of keys to a door. The heavy door was violently thrust open. She knew it was all a matter of effect, the posturing of the intimidator against whom he or she attempted to intimidate. With torches in hand three figures entered the room. The flames blinded her and she raised her hand to mitigate the unrelenting light. She felt the heat near her but took care not too pull back too quickly. Her focus was purposeful, simply to maintain control of her actions and reactions, avoiding any suggestion of weakness before her enemy.
The leader was in a conceited mood. A big burly man his ugliness came more from unkempt than from physical deformity. "So, you are awake. Good."
"Who are you?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes slightly diverted.
Draxis paused. The prisoner was asking questions with the demeanor of expecting an answer. He did not like this. Still, he chose to respond. He shifted his stance in self-satisfaction. "My name is Draxis. Remember it. If you don't others will. I've changed the course of history."
"How have you done that?"
"Xena is dead."
Gabrielle was non-pulsed. No matter how much it hurt she would not turn away from this man. "You're not the first to think he killed Xena."
Draxis laughed. "You're right. You know Amazon, I've heard stories about you two. All of Greece and Rome will know that I did what Caesar failed to do. I put the Warrior Princess into a grave she'll never rise from. She is buried under the dirt. The worms have her now. You can visit her after the ransom is paid."
Gabrielle betrayed no emotion. She would not break under Draxis's boasting posture.
Disappointed in Gabrielle's impassive response Draxis struggled to hide his bruised ego, "Well, you don't seem to mind too much. Just proves not to trust a legend. The dead, the sooner forgotten the better. You Amazon would be right to be more concerned about your own hide. We will both find out what kind of Queen your tribe thinks of you. My ransom demand is a heavy tax not any man would be worth let a alone a woman."
"My tribe is under orders never to negotiate for my life."
"Well that might be true but Amazons are always nothing less than pitiful, sentimental women. They will negotiate. You are the Queen of a bunch of fools and you are the biggest fool of all to think they wouldn't try to save you."
Gabrielle knew that her people would try to save her. Amazons simply don't pay ransoms. They kill those who would do them harm.
Draxis turned to the jailers. "You have your orders."
A gruff voice called out, "Yes sir."
Draxis began to walk towards the chamber entrance. It was then with the three torches in the hands of the three different men standing at different corners of the room that Gabrielle could take measure of the space that held her. It was relatively large, of stone masonry, a chamber pot in one corner, a chair in another. Draxis paused and turned back to Gabrielle. "We will both see how good you withstand my hospitality." Draxis and the second torch bearer walked out. The third stood silently. The gruff voice called back, "Malcolm get moving boy." The third, Malcolm took hesitant steps towards the door. The silhouette of the man or was he indeed a boy, was all that Gabrielle could see. He turned to her for a moment and then silently exited sealing the heavy chamber door. Within a few moments a shutter above her was opened. Gabrielle could see the high ceilings, the bar window, the fragmented gleaming of the sun. She waited in watch until a shadow passed and she felt unobserved. It was then, in privacy that she fell to her knees. Gabrielle gazed up to the light. The Amazon Queen's tears were unrelenting. She put her hands to her mouth trying to muffle the sounds of her sobs. Her jailers would get no satisfaction in her pain.
Her tears dry, she felt the darkness press against her. She needed the light. She knew a tool no one could take away from her. She focused her eyes on the void of black before her. "I sing a song of Xena..."
Part 2 - The Nightmare
The sound of distress woke the youth. She raised her head. Her vision cut across the embers of a now spent fire to the warrior lying on the other side. Xena's mind, arrested by Morpheus, was transported to the land of the cursed. The youth was uncertain, confused. The invincible warrior lay haunted. She had witnessed Xena's vulnerability when as a daughter she stood before her mother searching for forgiveness. Having reconciled with Cyrene was not enough. Gabrielle sat up and observed Xena. She debated whether she should intercede.
The youth's hand tentatively touched the warrior. Her voice, a mere whisper, spoken from lips that were but a breath from Xena's ear. Gabrielle repeated Xena's name again and again to no avail. The youth had taken note of the warrior's arms and hands. She knew their strength and she knew she needed to exercise great care if she was to avoid being harmed.
Tears fell from Xena's eyes. The warrior jumbled words, pleas for forgiveness, expressions of denial. The youth decided to alter her approach. She took Xena's arm in her hand applying pressure as she called out the warrior's name.
Xena's body jerked forward, her held arm swung to release the youth's hold. Gabrielle was taken by the momentum and flung back. She called out in self-defense. "Xena don't! It's me!"
The warrior turned her gaze upon the youth. Gabrielle felt the depth of cruelty they held. The youth spoke to explain before judgment was pronounced. "You were dreaming, having a nightmare."
"And you tried to wake me up?" The warrior's voice was harsh and punishing to the gentle youth.
Gabrielle betrayed her fear as she struggled, stammering one lonely word. "Yes."
The youth's fear penetrated Xena's defenses. "Don't."
"I could have killed you."
"You wouldn't harm me."
The warrior considered the youth's earnestness and innocence. With the break of the moment she was able to gather control of her unbridled energies. "I wouldn't know it was you. Just by reflex I could have hurt you.
"I was careful."
"You shouldn't wake me unless it's absolutely necessary."
Xena regressed back into herself. "You'll have to get use to them. I have them often enough."
"What haunt's you Xena?"
The youth had gone too far. Xena's voice was exacting. "Go back to bed."
Gabrielle was near responding but the coldness in the Xena's voice chilled her. She moved back to her bedroll. Not another word was spoken.
With the sun cutting over the horizon Xena stood in observation of the youth. What was she to do with the girl? There were things Gabrielle needed to learn if she was going to survive. Xena had allowed her access that few others in her life had ever known. Xena was grateful that Gabrielle was not her enemy. The youth could have easily placed a dagger in the warrior's heart during the night. As a warlord Xena had no conscious to be haunted. Now, the sins of the past bore heavily on her soul and with it came an uneasy vulnerability.
How she envied the youth. The time will come when Gabrielle will be challenged not by the warrior but by life itself. Xena wondered if goodness could prevail in the world. Maybe the youth would show her a new world, one that the warrior believed beyond her reach. "What haunts you Xena?" Xena could not imagine ever speaking the truth. The truth would drive anyone away, especially this innocent. It was difficult to reason but Xena knew that for the time being she welcomed the unexpected companionship. It was a minor breach to her profound aloneness.
Xena knew she had been harsh. She hoped the bowl of fresh berries she had picked would be sufficient recompense and ease the tension between them. She would let the youth sleep till mid-day if necessary. Unlike their previous mornings there would be no disturbing Gabrielle. Xena could only hope that her gesture would be understood for what was left unsaid.
Gabrielle had slept fitfully after being directed back to her bedroll. She was surprised to find the sun's rays strong against her eyes. Neither Xena nor Argo was in camp. For a moment she feared the warrior had abandoned her. She released a sigh of relief after a quick review of her surroundings found that Xena's bedroll and other belongings were all placed in ready to be packed. The fire had smothering embers with a mug rooted beside its perimeter. Adjacent to the mug rested a plate covered with a cloth. The youth reached and lifted the cloth from the plate to find a bowl of fresh berries, with cheese and bread on each side. She raised a berry to her lips and bit down to taste its sweet, fresh juice. She spoke to herself, "Apology accepted." Breakfast was a joy. It could only have been improved were she in the warrior's company.
In the solitude of the prison Gabrielle raised her voice. "Xena can you hear me? Are you standing beside Michael and the other archangels? A bowl of berries and hot tea; I was certain of the tenderness in your heart on that morning. I learned to look to your actions more than your words. I learned to expect that your temper would get the best of you but to wait, that with time you would show me your compassion. You came to me within a candlemark. I thanked you for breakfast. You shrugged and began packing our things onto Argo. Did you know that I saw the scratches on the back of your hand? Scratches from the berry bush. Did you know that it was in that moment, that moment of seeing the scratches on your hands that I began to love you?"
The night came and with it Gabrielle could see the light of one, two, three stars piercing through the frame of the ceiling window. Not enough stars to create an image other than a shape with three uneven sides. Enough to remember the nights spent under the canopy of countless singular lights. Where was the moon? She missed the moon. Was it a crescent or full? Maybe on this night it was new and in darkness as well.
"Damn it boy, we have our orders." The gruff voice shattered the silence. It was followed by the banging closure of the shutters. Complete darkness returned and with it the return of silence.
Lack of light, lack of sound, for now Gabrielle found them bearable but she wondered how long it would continue. There were no candlemarks to note. There was no measurement of time other than her heartbeat and breathing. Her hunger provided an additional clue. As the pain of her wound lessened her hunger increased. She would wait to see if lack of food would also be a burden. If she were lucky the guards would follow at least one routine.
Part 4-The Fever
Xena slowly undressed Gabrielle. Doing so was uncomfortable. The youth had never revealed her complete form to the warrior. Xena had no choice. She needed to cool the bard and the river was her best option. She wrapped Gabrielle in a blanket and raised her into her arms. At the river's edge she removed the blanket and laid it against the grass. Xena waded into the water waist high and gently lowered Gabrielle to the current. The youth's body jerked reflexively to the cold. Xena held her all the tighter.
Xena spoke gently into Gabrielle's ear, "Trust me Gabrielle, this will help break the fever."
Gabrielle pleaded weakly. "Xena, please I'm cold."
"Just a little while longer. I promise I'll never hurt you." To soothe the youth Xena began to sing to her. The song had no words. It was a melody belonging to the songbirds. The youth curled her body closer to her caretaker. Surrender was achieved not by force but by compassion. Xena felt her heart open as she watched Gabrielle's long blond hair move with the waters. She examined the scar less form. It mirrored a deceiving perfection. The innocent was not so innocent. Gabrielle knew what it was to be taken by slavers. Gabrielle had in their very brief acquaintance seen bloodshed no girl should know. Xena felt her first hint of mourning for a life that was changing under her guard. They were changes Xena could not prevent and in some ways was provoking. Xena considered her actions nothing less than a crime by consent. One she fought by trying to turn away the youth. And yet, this youth had a stubborn streak that would not comply to the warrior's harsh sweeps of argument. Gabrielle stood firm, adamant that she belonged beside the warrior in her travels. Xena took note that Gabrielle's breathing had slowed and deepen in labor. The youth could not withstand much more of the cold waters.
Gabrielle slept in Xena's arms. Xena felt the youth's fragile body shiver. It had been a very long time. In truth Xena could not remember when she had last held someone so dearly with the sole intention to comfort, no manipulation, no sexual conquest.
The warrior held the bard through the remaining light and throughout the night. Xena felt words she could not find herself to speak to the youth. Instead of words the warrior placed a kiss upon her patient's forehead. It was a private gesture. If only her lips could carry her strength to the weakened youth and bring Gabrielle back to health.
By the following mid-day, Gabrielle's fever broke and the youth's eyes opened to the warmth of the sun. The warrior remained cool and stoic completing tasks about the camp. Gabrielle later took note of her nakedness. A faint memory of the river and a warrior's song lingered. As bold as the bard could be she did not broach the subject of her care with the warrior. The body remembers where the mind remains uncertain. Gabrielle closed her eyes and remembered the strong embrace and a gentle kiss. In her heart she knew it was true. The warrior that now fed her broth without betraying any hint of great concern had been otherwise just the night before. What had been created between them in the passing season was still too new to be avowed. For now, their connection would be felt but not spoken of. Gabrielle knew that to speak would be too great a risk. Here was her first lesson in silence.
Part 5 - The Forgotten Day
As was their habit, the youth and the warrior laid across from the other with the fire burning in between. Xena watched Gabrielle's turned back. She could both hear her cry and see her body stir with each muffled sob. Xena could no longer witness the youth's sorrow without expressing her concern. The warrior's voice carried gently across the fire. "Gabrielle, what is it?"
Gabrielle felt exposed. She took a breath trying to withstand the flood of tears that threaten to consume what little of her composure remained. "Nothing...I'm being silly."
The warrior would have the mystery solved. "Tell me."
"Xena, go to sleep."
"Its kind of hard with all those tears. Gabrielle, please, maybe I can help."
"Give me a chance. You were quiet all day. Aren't you feeling well?"
"I'm fine." The youth's embarrassment was shifting to impatience.
"Is it something I've done?"
"Is it something I didn't do?"
The youth would not lie to the warrior so she remained silent.
"There. What was it?"
"Xena, you didn't know."
A confession would take further coaxing.
"Gabrielle, I'm losing my patience."
"It's my birthday."
Xena looked to the shy youth, so different from her talkative self. Xena could imagine the celebrations Gabrielle had known in her past. Suddenly the warrior felt quite inadequate.
"You miss your sister and parents."
Gabrielle's voice drifted with the breeze to a distant place. "My mother would bake me a cake."
Xena knew that was beyond her skills. The warrior rose to her feet. "Come on."
Following the command Gabrielle sat up. "Where? Now?"
"Yes, now. Its still your birthday isn't it?"
"No buts. Come on."
Xena took two candles from her saddlebag giving one to Gabrielle. She then walked to the fire and lit her own candle. Candle in hand she went to the youth and lit Gabrielle's. "Follow me." Xena led Gabrielle up a narrow trail. Even with the candles seeing their way was difficult.
"Xena, my birthday is not so important that we should risk getting ourselves killed."
Xena's smile was hidden from the youth. "We're almost there."
Gabrielle's protest was half-hearted. "Familiar words."
"Always true?" Xena's challenged.
Admitting defeat, "Yes, but..."
Xena interrupted. "This way." The warrior jumped up a steep ridge. She turned back to the youth reaching down taking her hand and pulling her up to the flat rock. "So, what do you think?"
Gabrielle looked about. They were surrounded by darkness. Above and to each horizon, the sky glistened with constellations. The youth was awestruck. She stated the obvious. "Its different from up here."
Xena was satisfied. "That it is."
Gabrielle remained silent. Xena hoped there was a positive reason for it. "Was it worth the walk?"
"Yes." The youth's voice carried a hint of sadness.
The warrior felt her own disappointment. "I know it's not a real gift."
Gabrielle protested. She placed her hand upon the warrior's arm. " Xena. >From now on when I look up at the stars I'll remember tonight. I'll remember that you thought enough of me to take me here."
Xena studied her companion. The youth was sincere. The warrior continued to be amazed by the value Gabrielle placed on the simplest things. Xena had given the youth nothing but a pleasant memory and yet to Gabrielle it was as rich as a priceless jewel.
Part 6 - Gruff Voice Introduced
"Hey Queen!" A fist banged the door. "Wake up." More pounding. Gabrielle could hear the glee in his voice. "Here's your food." The guard opened a small hatch located at the base of the chamber door. "See it Queen? Get it before the rats smell it and shuffle their way through. We don't want any rats in your cell, do we?"
Gabrielle's eyes adjusted to the sliver of light. She spied the plate of food and began to make her way to it. The guard showed no patience. "Come on Queen. Pick up the food or I'll take it back!"
Gabrielle reached down for the plate.
"Good!" The guard slammed the hatch closed leaving Gabrielle once again in the dark.
She leaned again the wall. She wasn't sure if the slop was worth eating but her hunger had grown and she knew she needed to maintain her strength. She used her fingers to grasp the larger pieces of stew. Cautiously she placed the meat upon her tongue. It was salty. Surprisingly it didn't turn her stomach. She explored the plate with her hand looking for what she believed was a piece of bread. She found it and tore a bite. It was fresh. She ate quickly taking in every drop of stew. She slowly slipped her body down to the floor. She did not release her hold of the plate. Not yet. It was something solid. It ensured that she would see light, even if only for a moment.
Part 7 - The Stitch
"But I can't."
"Gabrielle, I rather not bleed all over the place and as skilled as I may be I cannot reach my shoulder blade."
"We can't find a healer?"
"Where? We're a good day's ride from the nearest town. I've seen you stitch. There is nothing to it."
"Xena, that's mending clothing. This is different. We're talking about your flesh."
"Don't I know that? Come on Gabrielle. I trust you." Gabrielle entered the first stitch.
Xena cried out in pain. Gabrielle dropped the needle and stepped back.
"By the gods Xena, I'm sorry."
Xena chuckled. "I was just kidding."
Looking over her shoulder, "It was a joke. I just wanted you to ease up."
"Xena, that wasn't funny."
Still smiling to herself away from Gabrielle's line of vision. "Yea, you're right. I'm sorry. Heck, I should be more careful. You still got the needle."
"I'm not doing it."
"Oh yes you are. You have to get use to these kinds of things if you're going to travel with me."
"And hurt you."
"Gabrielle, for pity's sake. You didn't hurt me. Look, I promise I'll sit still. I won't say a word."
Xena took a calming breath. The poor youth was a mess. She would find a way to make up for her less than thoughtful behavior. "Gabrielle?"
"Pick up the needle." Xena felt a light tug from the wound. "Is it in your hand?"
"Good. Now do just one stitch. Focus on the wound and forget that it's me."
Xena felt the stitch. The bard's efforts were delicate and gentle. After the prick of three stitches Xena felt a different sensation. One drop and then another on her shoulder. She looked up to the cloud covered sky. Thinking out loud, "Don't tell me it's starting to rain. What next?" She then noted that there was no rain falling around her. The warrior turned her head and looked over to Gabrielle intent upon her task unable to restrain the flow of tears. Xena remained silent and returned her gaze to her own weathered hands. The prick of stitch after stitch continued. And then she felt nothing.
Gabrielle spoke softly, "I'm done."
Xena felt a sense of relief more for the youth than for herself. "Just tie off the thread. Use my knife to trim it."
Gabrielle did as instructed. "I'll put a bandage on it."
Xena turned and took Gabrielle's hand. Gabrielle tried to hide her face. Xena murmured. "Thank you."
"I'm such a baby. I know I have to do better if you're going to let me stay with you."
Xena protested. "Hey. I've never...you're not going anywhere."
Gabrielle spoke dejectedly, "For now."
"Gabrielle, look at me."
The youth raised her eyes to the warrior.
"We wouldn't be traveling together if I didn't want you with me. Do you believe me?"
The bard nodded affirmatively. Xena stood up and cupped Gabrielle's face with her hands. "Good." The warrior's earnestness was tempered by her inviting smile.
The sound of the door hardware turning caught Gabrielle's attention. The guard entered with a torch in hand. No different than all the times before, the light of the flames was blinding. She raised her arm over her eyes.
"I'm sorry, I won't be long." It was the younger guard, Malcolm. His voice was gentle, carrying a tone of sincere concern.
"Where is the other guard?"
"Ogden? Nursing a knife wound. I hear he said the wrong thing to the wrong man while drinking in a tavern."
"You're name is Malcolm?"
"Yes. They tell me you are an Amazon Queen."
Gabrielle did not answer. She was not in the mood to be ridiculed.
"I mean no disrespect but it would be easier if I knew your name. Ogden didn't know it either."
Gabrielle suspected the guard's motives. She felt if she kept the threat of manipulation in the forefront of her mind then she could afford to take a risk. "Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle. It has a good sound to it. Ga-bri-elle. Tell me, does anyone call you Gabby?"
Gabrielle was pensive. "My sister Lila and a friend of mine, Joxer."
Malcolm began the task of inspecting the cell. He was methodical in completing his task. "I had a sister. She died of the fever."
"It's been a while now. Oh, she was such a pest when we were growing up. Always wanting to be with me. She was younger...Were you the younger or older?"
"Then you know how it can be."
"Yes, I remember."
Malcolm approached and paused before her. Gabrielle looked up puzzled. "What is it?"
"I need to ask you to move. I need to inspect the pallet."
Gabrielle stood up and walked to a far corner. She watched as he removed the blankets and mattress. He checked the cord and wood joints. He was thorough. He carefully returned the pallet to the state he found it. "There, I'm done."
Gabrielle wanted to thank him but she knew there was no reason to. He had ensured she had done nothing that would hint at an escape. Malcolm returned to the door and began to unlock it. He stopped and turned to the prisoner.
"Gabrielle. I'm under strict rules of what I can or cannot do for you. If you ask and I have no rule for or against I'll be willing to consider your request."
His words were met with silence. He began his exit.
"Is the sun out?"
"No Gabrielle, its night."
Gabrielle's eyes were fixed onto the flame as it engulfed the shadow that was Malcolm. Silent tears began to fall down her cheek.
The warrior and the youth were walking side by side. Xena held Argo's reigns in her hand.
"Play?" The warrior's tone was incredulous.
"Yes, play." Gabrielle answered.
"I don't play," Xena stated in her most resolute voice.
"Why not?" the youth probed.
"Warriors don't play."
Gabrielle's frustration surfaced. "Who made up that rule?"
"Can we change the subject?" Xena was in no mood for a debate.
The youth was unrelenting. "No. Why must you always be so serious? The only time I really see you smile is when you're in the middle of a good fight."
"That's a lie!" Xena would not accept Gabrielle's portrayal of her.
The youth stopped and leaned against her staff. "All right. Then when do you smile?"
Xena held her step. "I smile all the time."
"Name one time you smiled in the past week?"
"Gabrielle." The warrior continued down the road.
"No, really Xena name one time." The youth called out as she followed the warrior.
The warrior knew what brought her joy. Being with the youth brought a constant smile but she admittedly kept those smiles from Gabrielle's sight. Her answer had to be more benign. Xena called back to Gabrielle. "When I was fishing."
"Yes, fishing." Xena's words were petulant.
Gabrielle sighed. "Okay. I believe you."
"Oh, thank you!" Xena had had enough. It was time to engage in the skirmish of words.
"Fishing is close to playing," Gabrielle rationalized.
The warrior could not believe the youth's determination. "What do you mean close to playing? What meets your standard of playing? Is there a precise definition?"
"As a matter of fact," Gabrielle responded with emphasis, "Yes, there is."
Xena spoke to Argo. "This should be good."
"Playing is freedom."
"Yes, freedom. No expectations. No rules. No beginning or end. Just fun."
Xena calmly asked, "Do games count?"
Xena spoke with a deceitful innocence, "Games have rules." She glanced at the youth trying with all her might to suppress all visible signs of her enjoyment of what she measured to be a minor triumph. By Gabrielle's reaction Xena knew she had hit her mark.
The youth accused the warrior. "You are just trying to be difficult."
Xena smiled. "No. Well yes, but if you want me to play you're going to have to explain it to me."
"You want me to teach you how to play?"
"Since you seem to be an expert on the subject."
"Yes, later. You can't force play."
Xena stroked Argo. "Gee seemed like that's where we were going with this. Gabrielle says Xena play!"
Pointing to a nearby creek. "I'm going to fill my water skin."
Xena couldn't help herself. "I was only..."
Gabrielle called back raising her staff in warning. "Don't say it Warrior!"
The warrior felt free to laugh gently. This moment was testament to the joy that touched her life each and every day. She looked to her steed. "Argo, do you think she will ever understand?"
It was evening and the travelers sat across from one another. The campfire burned between them. Gabrielle's pensive expression caught Xena's attention.
The warrior's tender voice carried the question. "What is it, Gabrielle?"
The question jarred Gabrielle from her thoughts. She looked up to Xena and cocked her head to the side uncertain.
"You seem far away."
Gabrielle spoke without forethought to censor her words. "I was thinking of you. I was trying to imagine you as a child. Someday I hope you'll tell me..." The youth drifted into silence.
"Tell you what?"
"Nothing special. You must have some stories to tell. Happy stories?"
A look of sadness crossed over Xena's countenance but then a memory came to her and she smiled her magnificent smile. The smile Gabrielle yearned to see more often during their early years together. In that moment Gabrielle suspected Xena had gone back to another place, another time.
"It was always Lyceus and me. Mother said that from the day he was born we were inseparable. When we were of an age that Mother would trust us to our own devices we would explore the forest. I would get such a kick at watching Lyceus as he discovered new things. A bird's nest that had fallen; different flowers, the fun of chasing rabbits, sitting still which mind you was almost impossible for him, so we could hope for a glimpse of a deer. I showed him how to climb trees and we started learning our sword plays with whittled branches. The day came that we begged Mother to let us stay out overnight. Mother gave her approval after she chose a campsite for us not too far from the inn. We had a canvas for a tent, food Mother prepared for us, flint for a fire and our fishing poles. It was a clear night. We laid on our bedrolls. The moon was full. It was summer. The night was warm with a light breeze that traveled through the treetops. We were both so very small but we had each other. When the night sounds of the hoot owl or the crickets and gods know what animal moving about began to rise up around us, I could feel Lyceus move closer to me. I was his big sister and even though I was starting to feel my own fear I knew I couldn't let him know it, at least not just then. With time Lyceus fell asleep and I followed. In the morning he woke me up all excited. I could see it in his eyes. He was so proud of himself having made it through the night without running home to Mother. And I know he was grateful to have me. I never got around to telling him that I too was afraid and that I needed him just as much as he needed me."
The sadness returned and Gabrielle knew Xena was once again mourning her brother's death. The youth saw that the woman of Amphipolis was never completely lost. Xena cared for her each and every day as she cared for Lyceus. Few words were spoken. In truth, Gabrielle knew that anyone who was in Xena's care knew what he or she meant to the warrior. There was no way Lyceus would not have understood the love of his sister.
The warrior returned from her reverie. "Yes."
"Tomorrow can we take some time and go swimming? I could use the break."
They fell into an uncomfortable silence. Gabrielle felt their conversation remained unfinished. She also felt that she had intruded enough for one day and would not press further.
"It's good." Xena paused with uncharacteristic uncertainty. It lingered in her concluding thought. "You should get some rest."
"I will soon. I just want to write for a while. Gabrielle knew then that there were unspoken words in the warrior's hesitation. She could only hope that the day would come when Xena wouldn't hesitate and would share her thoughts more freely.
The next morning instead of going directly to the lakeshore that Gabrielle had spied the day before, Xena told the youth that they would travel another four candlemarks before stopping. There was a different lake the warrior wanted to show her. Xena promised Gabrielle they would camp early and rest. They traveled off the main road up through a well-hidden mountain pass.
The lake was not very large. Steep cliffs surrounded it. At the east end a natural cove was carved into the stone. At the north end from the zenith of the cliff a waterfall fed a small pool which then emptied into the main body of water. The two stood silently, side-by-side. Gabrielle reached out and took Xena's hand. The youth felt Xena had given her a gift and she wanted to thank her.
The warrior spoke first, raising her hand. "Do you see those bubbles over there by the hanging willow?"
"There is a hot spring underneath. The water is always warm and it's not too deep."
The youth mused. "It seems almost a crime to disturb the pool."
"It would be a greater crime not to accept the small pleasures life gives us."
"Sometimes they come when you lease expect them."
Xena looked at the youth intently. "Yes, they do."
The springs kept the pool warm but Gabrielle longed to swim and took to the lake. Its waters were cool, refreshing. Gabrielle knew she only had to return to the pool to regain greater warmth. Xena didn't join her. Gabrielle pulled up and waded looking about. Xena kept a distant, comfortable vigil. Gabrielle waved. Her reward Xena's smile. Gabrielle dove down exploring the blue, green world where motion seemed subdued and sounds muted. Her eyes were attracted to a variety of stones resting on the lakebed. Gabrielle picked up those that were brightest, no bigger than an Athenian coin and returned to the surface. She dove a number of times before her efforts produced two final selections, a blue and a green stone. Neither sapphire nor emerald they were a poor girl's jewels. Gabrielle swam back to Xena. Upon reaching the pool her feet found firm footing as she walked up to the warrior. The warmth Gabrielle felt had little to do with the spring waters.
"Xena, give me you hand."
Gabrielle watched as Xena weighed whether the youth was up to mischief or not. Xena either chose to take a risk or simply to humor the youth before her. The warrior reached out her hand. Onto it Gabrielle placed the two stones.
Xena held them thoughtfully. With a smile she questioned. "So, is this your treasure?"
As was so often the case during their early times Gabrielle spoke without hesitation. "I've had my treasure for sometime now." The words slipped freely in the moment. Gabrielle could feel a blush. Still, she went on. "I wish I could give you a sapphire to match the color of her eyes."
Xena's gaze was steadfast. "Gabrielle. I've had sapphires. None meant anything to me. These stones I'll keep. I mean if they're for me to have?"
Gabrielle nodded as her shyness caught her.
"Thank you." Again, there was silence but this time Gabrielle felt as if it followed what was complete, or at least what was as complete as could be between them.
"Hey, did you see any fish down there? It's almost time to get us fed."
"A few were dancing about."
"Dancing. Well, lets go dance with the fishes." Xena stood up and placed the stones upon her shift that lay dry on the embankment. She returned to Gabrielle and took her by the hand. "You know Gabrielle, you are the one who deserves to have jewels." The warrior's eyes turned to the stones. "Some day I'll find an emerald that will do you justice." Again, Xena drifted into a thoughtful silence. Gabrielle hesitated in disturbing the stillness.
The warrior's expression awakened. "Come on. Let's play."
And play they did. Gabrielle realized that day how much they did play. Few chores were chores. Xena brought a sense of adventure to many of their daily tasks.
Part 10 - Smells
The Queen's chamber was clean. Draxis was intent on breaking her mind and spirit but he would not risk her physical health. No, there would be no pestilence for the Amazon Queen. The floor was wood, the walls stone and mortar on all four sides, the door black metal. There was a scent of musk. Gabrielle went down and lay on the floor. Her hands swept gently feeling the grain. She breathed in the smell of the wood. It was sweet.
And then there was the small opening above. She knew Draxis was toying with her. The openings and closings did not coincide with the passing of day and night. Draxis was on a campaign to disorient her, to make her question everything, breaking away the very foundation of life, crumbling her reality.
She accepted that as long as she was in this chamber she would never know how many days and nights she spent in captivity. She remembered Xena telling her how easy it could be to break a man, to apply torture without rhyme or reason. The time will come when the man will express genuine gratitude to his tormentors for the slightest show of humanity, a sip of water, a touch that did not inflict plain. Gabrielle held to the knowledge. She would never allow herself to be thankful for food, water, or light.
Part 11 - The Wench
Gabrielle had finished her story. The tavern patrons applauded. Two men were sitting at a table near Xena. One had too much drink, the other twice that. The bolstering and commentary of the latter, a big, brawly fellow had been harmless enough. Now, with another tankard of mead his tone shifted. "She's not a half bad looking wench, you think?"
The smaller one looked up at the bard and concluded. "I can see it."
The bolster announced, "After she's done with her stories I'll have her in my bed."
His friend laughed, "Ha! You say."
"And why not? Who here would stop me?"
"Eric, she may not want you."
"As if I care. I saw no man with her. Any wench travelling the countryside is calling out for company."
A new voice cut across the table. "Excuse me boys." Xena leaned in carefully. "I couldn't help but hear your conversation. I just want you," she turned her eyes directly to Eric intent on piercing his alcoholic daze, "to know that that" pointing up to Gabrielle "bard up there is my friend. I know her well and she won't be looking for company tonight."
"She won't?" Eric questioned out of the haze of drink.
"No, she won't." Xena affirmed.
"Well." Eric responded to himself more than to anyone else. After a pause he seemed to waken. With it came a new wave of belligerence. He slammed his fist to the table. Shaking his head he declared, "No, I say. I'll have her." The man proceeded to stand up. He was eye to eye with the warrior.
Xena's tone was stern. "You don't want to do this."
Eric eyed Xena up and down. A salacious grin emerged. "You know this bard?"
"Yes, I know her."
Eric laughed. "Tell me, are you man enough for her?"
These were the wrong words to speak. No one, but no one, sober or drunk would be allowed to infer what he had just, in his disgusting way, spoken. With the back of her hand Xena cleared the smile from the man's face. Stunned he stumbled back.
Xena took a step forward. "Look, you can call me anything you want. I've heard them all. But she," again pointing at Gabrielle, "she if off limits."
Eric's response was unfortunate. "You mean your whore has sensitive feelings?"
Xena had been trying not to over react, not to cause too great of a scene to compete with the bard's performance. Truly, she had been, but the line drawn had been crossed and she felt she had no choice. She may not kill him but a bone or two would be broken by the time she was done with him.
"Xena?" The bard's voice confirmed Xena's failure to maintain a subtle presence.
The warrior spoke without removing her eyes from Eric. "Yes Gabrielle."
"I haven't broken my promise. Eric here and I are going for a short walk to discuss proper decorum when speaking of ladies. Aren't we Eric?" With that stated she took the drunkard by the back of the neck and escorted him out through the back door.
Gabrielle followed only to the threshold. She paused and listened, wincing upon hearing the impact and resulting groans. One. Two. Three. The last was a finisher. The bard stepped back and waited for Xena's return. "Did he learn his lesson?"
"Not sure. He was kind of slow on the up take. Come on, you got stories to tell."
Gabrielle, lying on the pallet, smiled with the memory. How Xena tried to protect her during their first years, as if there was any way of saving her from the harshness of life.
Part 12 - The Drunkard
Xena awoke with a foul dry taste in her mouth. It had been an Amazon celebration all right and she had had her time of it. The warrior was lying on a pallet in the Queen's Hut. There was no sign of Gabrielle. The warrior stretched. Oh, she had drunk too much wine. Her memory was vague, a fog heavy and unrelenting. She could use some tea. The sun was bright. She could see its rays cut across the dull interior. Yes, tea would be good.
Xena walked toward the common dining hut. Ephiny stood outside with Eponin. They both watched Xena's approach with heighten interest. Ephiny spoke first, "Xena, before you go in there."
Xena had little patience. "Ephiny, can't it wait?"
Ephiny was persistent. "Xena, what do you remember about last night?"
It was the Regent's tone that concerned the warrior. "Not much, why?"
Ephiny turned to her Amazon sister. "Eponin, would you excuse us?"
With relief, Eponin took her leave.
Ephiny spoke softly. "Xena, I could not hear the words exchanged but something was said between you and Gabrielle that left my Queen shaken."
Xena was sincere. "I don't remember." After a moment's thought, "Is Gabrielle inside?"
"Yes, and she hasn't said a word to anyone. It's not like Gabrielle to be so quiet."
With a mug of tea in hand Xena stood across from Gabrielle. "May I join you?"
Gabrielle's eyes were distant. "Yes." The silence between them was uneasy. Gabrielle spoke with no heart. "How did you sleep?"
Xena welcomed a reason to speak. "Good. You were up early?"
There was no response. Xena's discomfort increased. She decided to be straightforward with the youth. "Gabrielle, I confess I don't remember much of last night. Did I do anything I shouldn't have?"
Gabrielle's response was subdued. "You were fine."
"I got drunk." Xena stated the obvious.
"So did half of the Amazon nation."
"You don't like it when I drink."
Trying to deflect the conversation Gabrielle offered Xena a note of tolerance. "Xena, it's not as if you drink all the time."
Xena would not be deterred. "But..."
Gabrielle confessed. "It's hard. I never know if you're going to be the sweet, silly Xena or the angry, harsh warrior."
"Which one was I last night?"
Gabrielle hesitated. "Both."
Xena knew her friend all to well. Gabrielle's pain had risen to the surface. "I hurt you."
"You didn't touch me." Gabrielle defended.
Xena's words were tender. "There is more than one way to cause pain. What did I say?"
The youth's mettle had been sparked. "You said I was but a child."
Gabrielle immediately felt a wave of disappointment crash through her. Xena didn't understand. "That was all."
Xena took in the youth and spoke the truth. "Gabrielle, you are young."
The young woman held herself with dignity. "I am a Queen."
"A young Queen."
Gabrielle's next words carried the sharpness of her anger. "Ephiny gives me more respect."
Xena was taken aback. "I was disrespectful?"
The Queen was discouraged. "Never mind."
Xena wondered if her words to the youth had been playful or harsh. She could not have imagined Gabrielle's reaction to be so acute if she had made a statement in folly or jest. But, if stated harshly, there had to have been a context to justify. Xena found it difficult to accept that she would have spoken in anyway to hurt her companion. She had grown to love the youth as a dear friend, as more than a friend though she would never speak to that emotion. She rue that she had drunk so much that her memory escaped her.
Xena broke the silence. "Gabrielle, am I welcomed by the Amazon nation?"
Gabrielle's confusion was evident. "What do you mean Xena?"
"Am I a part of the Amazon nation?"
"You always deny being an Amazon."
Xena was persistent. "Do you consider me a friend to the Amazons?"
"Yes, of course."
"Am I the Queen's champion?"
Xena stood up. Gabrielle knew in her heart that between the two of them Xena was the more regal. The warrior carried a hard-earned nobility. Gabrielle was Xena's apprentice, her ward, and each day Gabrielle learned a new lesson in leadership from Xena. The warrior took her sword from her scabbard and held it horizontally with her two hands. The gesture was one of grace. The weapon seemed to float in the air. The warrior looked to the Queen until their eyes met. She then bowed her head slightly as she raised the weapon to her lips, kissing its hilt. The warrior, the mentor, the friend, holding the sword knelt before the Queen.
Xena spoke with a clear, splendid voice, strong and generous. "Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons. My Queen. I pledge my sword to defend your majesty before all that would do you and your nation harm. If ever I betray this pledge, if ever I do you harm, I grant you leave to take my life with this sword. Without your faith in me my life has no value."
Gabrielle was stunned by the pronouncement. For Xena to publicly supplicate herself had been unimaginable prior to this very moment. There was no doubt of Xena's sincerely. This was not an act to appease a pouting youth. This was clearly a demonstration of respect and admiration. As wounded as Gabrielle had felt the night before, she was hearten this morning. She was at a loss for words but she also knew that as Queen she could not sweep away the responsibility of responding given that many had stopped their tasks to witness Xena's profound gesture.
The Queen raised her hand and placed it on her champion's shoulder. The youth spoke the first word with it carried the emotion of her heart. The remainder of the statement was once again the Queen's. "Xena, I am honored by your pledge and I accept you as my champion. I am certain that you will never give me cause to doubt you."
Again, Xena bowed her head slightly. "My Queen." She returned to her feet, sheathed her sword, turned and took her leave without a further word. Members of the tribe stood back giving the Queen's champion a clear path. There was not one, including Ephiny, who was not moved in spirit by what had just transpired. It spoke as much about their Queen as it did of the warrior.
Xena knew that she had declared her love for the bard, her bard, in the only acceptable way she knew how. Though Gabrielle was far too innocent to understand it was apparent in how Ephiny briefly placed her hand on Xena's arm just as the warrior left the dining hall that the Regent recognized the nature and depth of Xena's commitment. Xena did not regret what she had done. She felt a sense of relief.
Ephiny went to Gabrielle later in the day. It was the Regent's goal to break through her Queen's silence. They walked the northern meadow.
"Will you tell me now what Xena said to you last night?"
Gabrielle felt embarrassed. "It was nothing. As I look back it seems so trivial compared to what Xena did this morning."
"I commented on how Jesa and Tamara seemed so happy since their joining. Xena said it was the light of a young love. I said I hoped to someday have such a love. She laughed at me and called me but a child. She said that I could not know true love. Ephiny, it was not only the words. It was how sharply she spoke them. As if I had cut her and she was determined to draw blood in revenge."
"How can she think so little of me one night and the next morning pledge her life to me?
The Regent could clearly see what motivated the warrior's assault. Unfortunately, she knew it was not for her to explain the truth to her Queen. Gabrielle's hope for love was a cruel cut to the warrior who loved the young Queen but could never hope for the love to be returned. Drunk, Xena must have tasted love as acrid bile and she spit it out in distaste. In the morning light, with a clear mind and a devoted heart she could do nothing less than to offer her life in restitution.
"Xena would fall on her sword before she would knowingly hurt you." Ephiny paused and took Gabrielle by the arm. "You know this don't you?"
Looking into Ephiny's eyes Gabrielle knew it was the truth. For the second time in the day Xena's place in her life was confirmed.
"I know." What Gabrielle did not know was how it happened. Something had changed between the two of them. What had been subtle, nebulous was now tangible, weighty though equally unspoken.
It would not be until evening that the Queen and her champion would be alone together. For the balance of the day there had been a shyness between them. Gabrielle entered the Queen's hut. Xena was sitting on her pallet sharpening her sword. The Queen breathed a sigh and then took her place beside the warrior.
Without missing a stroke. "Yes."
"Promise me?" Gabrielle stopped uncertain of how to make her request. Xena stopped her work and granted her complete attention to the youth. Gabrielle's discomfort was always a concern to the warrior.
Gabrielle's voice betrayed her vulnerability. "Promise me that you'll never..."
Xena tried to help. "Never what, Gabrielle?"
"I know that when I'm out there I'm the Queen and that you must treat me as a Queen..."
"It's what you want, isn't it?"
"Yes." Gabrielle struggled to find the words. "Xena, as much as I need your respect out there I need you more as my friend in here. Please promise me that I will never be your Queen in the privacy of our..."
Gabrielle could not say the last word, "home". Xena knew the word, the unspoken word and sensed the danger of it. "I meant every word I said to you this morning. I am proud to let anyone and everyone see and hear me pledge my sword to you."
"You are my friend."
Seeking assurance Gabrielle asked. "And being my champion won't change that."
"It hasn't yet. It never will." Xena placed her sword and sharpening stone aside. She went down to one knee before the youth. "Gabrielle, listen to me. You are young. That is not a judgment. It is a truth. You have me." The warrior paused to steady her emotions. "And you have Ephiny to give you counsel and protection. There is nothing wrong with that. You will grow and learn and with each passing season you will need us less and less until your wisdom will be great enough to carry you through the most difficult times. Don't be in a hurry to grow up. There is a time and place for everything. Give yourself time and forgive me if I ever say or do anything that diminishes you. You are wise beyond your years. Your compassion humbles me. I will be your friend for as long as you will have me and I will feel privileged and grateful for it."
A chill overtook the prisoner. It would be years before she and Xena would look back to that day with a clear understanding of what had come to pass between them. Gabrielle had to admit that she had been young and yet, to this day she wonders how different her life might had been if either she or Xena had confessed their love to the other early in their friendship. Looking back, Gabrielle was also keenly aware that had Xena taken her to her bed during that time she may never have grown to stand in her own light.
Part 13 - Voices
Blind in the darkness, deaf in the silence. "I sing a song." She spoke weakly. Was she making the sound or was it her imagination. Gabrielle raised her hand up, in the course of the motion she made a fist. It was the fist that came down against the pallet. She both heard and felt the impact. Draxis could not rob her of all her senses. The blandest bread had taste. The chamber carried its own scent. She could physically feel warm and cold alike. She heard the sounds of her motion and on occasion the sounds of life on the other side of rock and mortar. It was in the night that the sounds no longer lingered upward to the chamber nor did the light of neither the sun, nor tonight the moon and stars give her relief.
A force hit the chamber door. Gabrielle jumped out of the pallet. She squatted down her body alert, tense. She waited. Then she heard the laughter. "You son of a Bacchae."
"Well, pay attention fool or I'll fling you against another wall. You are a pitiful example of a soldier. Come. I'll buy you a drink to soothe your bruised ego."
The two shuffled out. They were gone. The silence returned. Gabrielle wondered what life is it when you find yourself welcoming the sounds of your jailers?
Part 14 - Mother and Daughter
They had returned to Amphipolis to visit Xena's mother. Cyrene had few guests at the inn so she offered her daughters separate rooms. Gabrielle looked to Xena hoping she would say something that would keep them together throughout the night but she did not.
For Gabrielle, it felt odd sleeping beyond Xena's reach not being able to look up to find her. Gabrielle awoke in the middle of the night and searched for the warrior. It took a number of heartbeats for her to realize where she was and why Xena was not with her. Gabrielle went downstairs intent on a glass of milk. In truth she didn't want to be alone, feel so alone. She stopped by Xena's closed door. She wanted to go in, to be with her companion, but didn't know how to explain.
Gabrielle heard voices in the kitchen. Cyrene sat at the table intent upon her daughter's tall but uneasy figure.
"Daughter, was it a nightmare?"
"No mother. I have them less often now."
Gabrielle could tell Cyrene held her silence hoping Xena would volunteer a word or two.
"How long will you brood?"
"I'm not brooding."
"Tell me." Cyrene's voice carried a mother's compassion.
Gabrielle now knew where those two words Xena so often spoke in her attempts to reach the bard came from. They were Cyrene's words. A door a mother opens to a child and a friend to a friend.
"I don't think you'll understand."
"Give me a chance to try."
Gabrielle too wondered and hoped that Xena would find the words. Gabrielle knew she shouldn't be listening but that didn't move her from her place of hiding.
Gabrielle caught her breath. Cyrene tenderly held her daughter with her eyes. Xena continued. "I wish you hadn't offered us separate rooms."
"You could have turned me down?"
"How could I have explained it?"
"Is there something to explain?"
"Yea, that the big bad kick ass Warrior Princess doesn't like to sleep alone."
The bard couldn't help but smile at Xena's self-assessment.
"No, I don't. I'm so use to hearing Gabrielle's breathing. I can sense her near by. Now that we place our bedrolls side by side, sometimes I wake and find her cuddled close to me."
Gabrielle felt a blush. Her physical closeness to Xena was not a fact she wanted shared.
Xena clarified. "Gabrielle cuddles. I just don't push her away. I've gotten use to her. Life on the road can be cold."
"So you let her close so you can stay warm. That's practical. If staying warm is your concern you shouldn't have any problem tonight, the inn is more than warm enough."
Cyrene was having a fine time toying with her daughter. Gabrielle knew then that Xena would always be her mother's child. The great warrior was no match for the women who watched her take her first step.
"Not that kind of warmth. Like I said, I'm use to hearing her breathing. I feel the warmth of having another human being, of having Gabrielle with me. I'm lonely without her."
Cyrene spoke with false seriousness. "Well, it's a good thing to know."
"What good does it do me?" Xena was indeed brooding.
Her mother's smile was broad. "Well, I now know never to offer you separate rooms."
Xena's dignity was on the edge of a precipice. "You're laughing at me!"
"No daughter. It does me good to see this side of you. I'm glad you trust me with the truth. Maybe now you can tell Gabrielle."
The warrior responded in a low, decisive tone. "No."
Cyrene could not help but challenge. "But why not?"
Xena's voice altered carrying an appeal for understanding. "Why shouldn't Gabrielle have the best? I won't take away what little comfort the road offers her."
"So you will do with sleepless nights." Cyrene queried.
"Yes." Xena was determined.
Gabrielle had heard enough. She went upstairs and entered Xena's room claiming a place on her bed. The sheets smelled of the warrior. It was a fine, familiar scent and Gabrielle knew it too was part of what she was missing. Her restlessness was all of what was not - not what was. She soon fell asleep.
Gabrielle felt the blanket pass over her. She stirred. She heard Xena's voice. "Its okay Gabrielle. Go back to sleep."
She spoke through her sleep. "I missed you. Is it all right if I stay?"
Gabrielle felt Xena enter the bed beside her and take her into an embrace. "Of course you can stay. I'll tell Mother we won't be needing the extra room any longer."
"You're welcome, my bard."
Gabrielle remembered that night as being the last that they took separate rooms. She remembered not only because she learned that Xena had begun to consider her a part of her life but also because it was the first time Xena spoke the words, "my bard."
Part 15 - Laughter
Gabrielle couldn't stop. Every time she looked up to Xena the laughter overwhelmed her. The warrior held her best smile and shook her head in disbelief.
"Stop it, Gabrielle."
"Be nice. Give him a chance." The warrior's eyes looked up to the peasant acknowledging his sincerity. "Maybe he's just warming up." Her gaze returned to the bard. "You're being cruel."
"Cruel! Oh no, not me. Have you been listening? He's the one who is being cruel. He is murdering that song! At least I think it's a song. These people definitely need our help!"
Xena looked about the tavern. From the face of one patron to another, their expressions blank, stunned in equal disbelief. "Doesn't he get it?"
Gabrielle took short breaths trying to compose myself. "I don't think so or he would stop." For some reason Gabrielle found the evening all so funny and reveled in the absurdity of the peasant's performance. "Wait, wait, listen." Gabrielle called out. They paused for a moment as he attempted to reach a few high notes. His voice cracked as if it were sun baked clay near a parched riverbed. "Xena, I grant you I can't sing worth a darn but at least I know it."
Xena finally conceded, "He is awful, isn't he?"
"Maybe you should perform an act of mercy and put all of us out of our misery. A quick flick of your chakram should do it."
Xena gave the bard a priceless glare. Gabrielle protested. "Oh, don't give me that look. I was only joking." The warrior's head flinched. "What?" Gabrielle asked.
Exhaling a breath of relief, "It over. The song is over."
"By the gods."
Gabrielle suspected that Xena saw a mischievous gleam enter her eye because the warrior became quite intent. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle began to applaud. "Encore. More. More."
The bard was having a good time. "What?"
"If you don't stop he'll sing another and the villagers will try to beat you for encouraging him. We don't need a bar fight."
"I'm just trying to show some charity. The poor man..."
"To Tarturus with the man. Get up there and tell a story."
"I thought we agreed this night we would let someone else do the entertaining?"
"That was assuming that there was someone in this village with talent."
"Why me? You can sing sweeter than any woman I've ever heard."
"I sing for myself."
"Exactly. It's him or you. Save us all and sing for yourself, Warrior."
Xena dropped her head. "Oh no."
"Oh yes!" Gabrielle gleefully exclaimed. "Another song." Lowering her voice to mock seriousness. "He is a mournful poet, isn't he? Even the lyrics are pitiful."
The bard watched the warrior with an evil delight. Xena's struggle to hold her patience was monumental. Gabrielle had seen her companion strike another with less provocation. The bard continued to laugh as quietly as she could.
"That does it!" Xena stood up from her chair and motioned toward the peasant.
"Xena, don't kill him!"
Xena glared. Gabrielle laughed all the more. The bard watched the warrior walk up to the make shift tavern stage and pull the peasant to the side whispering in his ear. The patrons watched with curiosity if not foreboding. Was there to be an execution for the crime of desecrating a muse? Gabrielle could only imagine what threat Xena placed before the pathetic fellow. The imagining brought her further tears of laughter. To her surprise Xena not only stayed on the stage but stepped up to its center. Her physical presence alone commanded everyone's attention.
"I have a song I'd like to sing and Delvin here has been kind enough to grant me the stage." Delvin stood off on the side of the stage. Blushing, he gave Xena a half bow in gratitude for her courtesy and maybe for sparing his life.
This, Gabrielle thought, was truly a rare event. It was difficult enough to coax Xena to sing to her in the privacy of a wood, let alone in public.
Xena's song was a song Gabrielle had never heard before. It was a song of longing, a song of a woman in search for the light of her soul, having lost it. Her soul resided in what she fearfully believed to be an impenetrable darkness. It was a song of a woman who found a light in the embrace of a youth unnamed, a youth who with open heart consented to share her life with the lost woman. Together they created a home. At the song's conclusion the woman's longing was tempered if only because she belonged with, belonged to the youth. Unbeknownst to her the light she had been seeking was love. A love to give. A love to receive.
Xena's voice swept across the tavern and garnered the regard of all. The room was motionless but for the waves caused by her song. Those within the room were not fearful of the Warrior Princess nor did they defer in the presence of an artist. These people were not the pretentious, the sophisticated, the connoisseurs. They were hard working, day-to-day living peasants and merchants. Xena captured their hearts. They heard in her song the Xena Gabrielle had grown to cherish. It was a rare gift Xena was giving. Gabrielle knew the gift was meant for her. The others were inconsequential benefactors.
Gabrielle's tears of laughter had become tears of love. How Gabrielle loved Xena. Words of love had passed between them during their years together. A chaste love, of depth and breath immeasurable. Gabrielle for one held another love that in that time remained unspoken. It was Gabrielle's passion Xena touched, oh so tenderly. Whenever moved by her unrequited love the pain evoked was acute, bittersweet. Gabrielle so loved Xena and believed she could, would never have the warrior. Gabrielle's tears, few as they were, continued to fall.
Xena's song ended. The resulting silence was complete. Gabrielle heard nothing more. She felt a press upon her chest. The bard spied the tavern's side entrance and took her leave. Gabrielle needed desperately to regain her equilibrium. Gabrielle needed to return to Xena as a friend with no other expectation. She needed distance from Xena to find her way back to the warrior. Gabrielle stood against a porch pillar claiming its stability in place of her own unsteadiness.
"Gabrielle, are you all right?"
The bard sensed Xena behind her. She didn't trust her ability to speak. She nodded affirmatively. She heard the warrior take a step forward. Releasing herself from the pillar she did the same. She needed the distance. Did Xena understand that the bard was dangerously on the edge of a confession?
Xena remained silent but it was a silence she could not sustain for long. "I didn't mean to make you cry."
Gabrielle heard the regret in Xena's voice. Gabrielle knew how causing her harm was one of Xena's greatest fears. Persistent in her care the warrior took another step forward. This time Gabrielle allowed Xena to close the distance. The bard shivered upon feeling Xena's hand gently rest upon her shoulder.
Gabrielle looked up. It was a clear, moonless night. The stars were countless. "Xena, it's a beautiful night. There are so many stars tonight."
"Yes, there are." Xena knew Gabrielle needed to speak in her own way.
"I believe the stars are always there. It's just that the sun's light makes it impossible for their smaller lights to be seen."
"I think you're right about that." The warrior encouraged the bard to continue, which she did.
"Being able to see the starlight is important. Its like those parts of ourselves we keep far away from others but that have their time to shine when the most visible part of ourselves is set aside."
Xena stepped up and stood by Gabrielle's side. Her voice rueful, "Like when a warrior sings a song?"
"I sometimes wish I could see those small lights more often."
"I know." Xena pulled Gabrielle close to her and placed a kiss upon her head.
Part 16 - The Confrontation
Gabrielle heard Malcolm call out. "No Ogden, you can't do this."
The gruff shouted back, "Boy, stay out of my way."
They both were nearing. "Draxis forbids it."
"So what!" Gabrielle recognized the slur in the older guard's voice. He had been drinking. "Draxis isn't a god. He can't tell me what I can or can't have."
"Ogden, Draxis will kill us both. He promised the Amazon Regent that the Queen wouldn't be harmed."
"And how boy is Draxis going to find out? No one will know but you and me. Boy, women are good for only one thing."
"You don't believe that. I know you don't believe that."
"You don't know nothing."
"You're drunk. Wait until you sober up and then tell me what you would do."
"Go to Tartarus!"
"Ogden, I'll kill you if you take one more step forward." Gabrielle heard the sound of a sword unsheathed.
"Kill me?" The guard laughed boldly. "You wouldn't stand a chance."
"Maybe not but my blood will be on your hands."
All grew quiet.
Ogden broke the standstill. "You choose that whore over me?"
"No, I choose my life over yours."
"You selfish pup."
"Yea old man that's what I am."
"You want her for yourself, don't ya?"
"Whatever you say."
"Well, I say I'm thirsty."
"I know where we can get some mead."
"Do you boy? Then why are we standing here for? Take me to it."
"That way old man."
Odgen laughed again but this time the menace had disappeared. "Call me old man again and I'll have to teach you some painful lessons pup."
"I'm always willing to learn."
The sound of their departure followed. Gabrielle had found herself standing by the chamber door. Her body gravitated to the entrance as the conversation between the two men continued. She exhaled a breath releasing the tension.
She would have fought Odgen with her very life. Given another barrel of mead and no Malcolm she may still have to sometime in the future. Her life had taken so many turns. She had fought so many fights. Odgen's threat was minor compared to her worst fears.
17 - Grief
It had been two moon cycles since their odyssey in Illusia. Xena would leave camp under the pretense of scouting the perimeter. Gabrielle noticed Xena had been taking more time than custom dictated. On this night she chose to search out her absent companion. Gabrielle found Xena standing, deep in thought, her eyes fixed to the horizon. Gabrielle retreated unnoticed.
Xena's departures grew to a constant habit. At times Gabrielle would seek Xena out, torn between her desire to be with Xena and her respect for Xena's privacy. Gabrielle maintained her distance, a lonely observer. She more than anyone knew how the loss of Solan had devastated Xena. Given her own role in the tragedy Gabrielle felt no right to raise her concern. She also doubted that Xena would want her at her side during these times of solitude. In her heart Gabrielle feared Xena needed the distance from her; that her companionship was far more painful than Xena was willing to admit.
Another cycle of the moon had passed. Xena's departures became ever more difficult for Gabrielle to bear. The guilt of Hope's murder of Solan grew where given Solan's own forgiveness it had briefly been tempered. On one cool night with the sky clear and the moon near full Gabrielle went to Xena. She stood a few paces from the warrior waiting to be recognized but Xena made no gesture towards her. Was it trust, indifference or disdain? Gabrielle could not measure Xena's temperament with any confidence. The warrior's face was pale. Her stance seemed fragile. By the gods Gabrielle knew she acted selfishly. She went to the women before her and placed her hand in the other's. Gabrielle looked up to Xena and then followed her unwavering gaze to the horizon. Xena had been fixed upon the sunset. The death of day came with a promise of light and life, if only for a set number of candlemarks, in the morning.
As once was her habit Gabrielle found myself leaning her body against the warrior. Xena withstood the weight without motion. Side by side in silence time passed. Finally, Xena looked down to the bard as if Gabrielle was an apparition she was now seeing for the first time. Without a word Xena guided Gabrielle back to camp. Only upon arriving did Xena release the bard's hand.
The next day they were at a new place, creating a new camp. During their meal Xena grew silent. Gabrielle respected the warrior's detachment sure Xena would repeat her pattern. Xena stood and scanned their surroundings. Her eyes ended a brief inspection resting upon the bard. Xena reached out to her. Gabrielle took the warrior's hand. Xena's offered smile was sad. Silently Xena guided Gabrielle to a clearing where they watched the sunset, a fire of brilliant colors slowly extinguished by the darkness of the night.
Gabrielle turned to Xena. Tears had fallen in their shared silence. The bard's words came without forethought. They came directly from the heart. "I'm sorry."
Xena embraced the bard. Gabrielle held her tightly. The risk of losing Xena was real to her no matter how certain Xena had spoken previous words of forgiveness. Xena whispered in Gabrielle's ear, "I know."
18 - The Gift
Xena and Gabrielle had chosen to visit Cyrene. The warrior's mother always welcomed their stays. Gabrielle enjoyed the acceptance Cyrene bestowed upon her. Her only regret was that her own mother did not give her the same unconditional love.
It was just past harvest. Amphipolis had quieted. The inn had few guests. Gabrielle woke to the warmth of the sun's rays. Visits to Cyrene always allowed for lazy awakenings. Gabrielle knew she would find Xena with her mother in the kitchen. The private time between them was one she encouraged. The bard smiled knowing how they both benefited by the arrangement.
She turned her head to the table beside her bed. Resting on top of it where three scrolls tied with a red ribbon, a quill and a small earthen jar. She sat up and reached for the jar. Opening it she found it full with ink.
Gabrielle walked downstairs. Xena was, as she knew she would be, sitting at the kitchen table watching her mother kneeling the day's bread before her.
"Good morning Cyrene."
"Good morning young lady." Cyrene smiled at the woman who had stolen her daughter's heart.
Gabrielle reached out to Xena. "Take my hand."
Cyrene watched intently. She knew of the gift. She also knew that though genuine, her daughter was clumsy in her attempt to show the young bard her affection.
Xena took Gabrielle's hand and followed her outside. They walked a short distance to a grove of trees. Gabrielle stopped and stood before her friend. "Thank you, it's a fine gift."
Xena felt self-conscious. She released Gabrielle's hand and walked a few paces away. "It's nothing."
"I just thought they would come in handy."
"Scrolls have never been a necessity."
"For you they have."
"But not for you."
"You're happiest when you are writing."
Gabrielle knew Xena's statement could not hold. "No, that's not true. Writing isn't everything to me."
The bard approached the warrior. Why was it so difficult for them?
Xena's discomfort grew. She needed to divert the bard. "Mother plans on baking you a cake."
"Why, its not my birthday? Xena, why today?"
Xena smiled. "It's been three years."
"By the gods, you remembered."
"How could I forget?"
The bard reached up and placed a kiss on Xena's cheek. "Thank you."
Xena felt her shyness. "You're welcomed."
Gabrielle felt an overwhelming optimism. "What now?"
"What do you mean?"
"Today, tomorrow. What comes next?"
Countering Gabrielle's expectations, Xena's answer was somber. "I don't know. I do know that you changed my life and that I don't ever want to lose you....your friendship"
This was one of those rare times when Gabrielle was left lost for words. "Xena."
The warrior felt compelled to ask the question that echoed all her fears. "Gabrielle. Are you happy?"
The bard did not expect this conversation. "Happy? When it's just you and me and we aren't taking on the world, yes, I'm happy."
Xena knew she received only half an answer. "And when we take on the world?
Gabrielle spoke strongly. "I'm proud to stand beside you."
Still, Xena felt she had not been given a complete answer. "No regrets?"
"Xena, we all have our regrets. I accept my life. I believe I am living it as it was meant to be."
A small smile came to the warrior. "You've grown up."
Gabrielle mirrored Xena's grin. "After three years I would hoped you'd noticed."
It was now for Gabrielle to ask the question. "How about you. Any regrets?"
Xena's heart ached. The young innocent had been chiseled into a strong, beautiful, mature young woman. There were times she missed the innocent. And yet, she celebrated Gabrielle's growth. "A few. There were some things I wish you hadn't experienced."
"They've made me who I am. I've learned from the pain as much as from the joy in our lives."
"I love you, Gabrielle." The unedited words rose from Xena's heart. It was not the first time still it was far from a daily occurrence. For Xena they spoke of far more than friendship. She felt naked in her confession. It needed to be tempered. "You are my best friend."
Gabrielle went back to her thought. 'Why was it so difficult for them?' She did not have the answer. "I love you too." Now it was her turn to ease the tension. "I could use some tea and breakfast. Come with me?"
Part 19 - The Rooms
Their lives continued. They finally confessed their love for one another and their relationship grew ever closer, ever richer. They did not stop learning. There were so many mysteries to plumb. The greatest ones resided within themselves, within each other.
The tavern was bustling with activity. Food and drink flowed freely. Gabrielle went to the warrior who was speaking to two men about the local fishing. She placed a hand on Xena's arm. Xena turned her attention to her partner. "Is everything all right?"
"I'm going up to our rooms. It's been a long day."
"Do you want me to come with you?"
"No, stay. You're having a good time. Good night." Gabrielle was visibly tired.
Xena watched the bard as she walked away. Something in the warrior made her call out. "I'll be there in a while."
A number of candlemarks had passed before Xena entered their room. Gabrielle was asleep in the bed, taking residence in its very center. Xena knew Gabrielle's reasoning although she never confirmed by query. Better not to make what might be an unconscious act apparent. Xena knew she could never enter a bed on either side without Gabrielle feeling her presence. The moment the bard felt her partner her body would gravitate to the warrior, it did not matter how deep in sleep she might be. Xena quietly undressed and joined her.
True to form the bard stirred. "Xena?"
Silence took over the room.
"Thank you for giving me time with the others."
"I can't be everything to you. Time apart can be good."
"Maybe. But not too long."
Xena stroked the bard's hair. Gabrielle held the warrior close. Xena felt a wave of doubt. "You might forget you love me."
"No, that I could never forget."
"Do you want time apart?"
To this Gabrielle raised her head. She needed to see Xena's eyes. There was no glimmer of mischief. The warrior was serious. "No, why do you ask?"
"Yes, you do know."
"You've proven you can be happy without me."
"Maybe I can but that doesn't mean I want to be." Gabrielle needed to lighten the conversation. She placed her hand over her lover's. "Doesn't it mean more knowing that though I could be free of you I choose to be with you?"
Xena was silent.
"By the gods warrior, sometimes you drive me insane. After all we have gone through you still must beg the question. I love you with my heart and soul. You belong to me and I will never give you up. You have the power to leave me but you do not have the power to drive me away from you."
"Are you sure? I can go on until dawn if that is what it will take to convince you."
Now the mischief in the warrior's voice gave rise. "There are other ways to convince me."
Gabrielle moved closer, her lips were but an inch from Xena's. "Will a kiss do it?
"It's a good place to start."
Part 20 - Jewels
It was not too long afterward that Xena came to Gabrielle and placed a cloth in her hand.
Xena remained silent. Gabrielle's eyes traveled from the warrior to the cloth. A string held the small bundle together.
Xena took Gabrielle's other hand and placed it over the bundle. Knowing that no further explanation would be forthcoming Gabrielle undid the string. In unfolding the cloth she found a silver bracelet of fine detail. It had the impressions of sword and staff. At its center where two stones of equal size, side by side, an emerald and a sapphire. She whispered Xena's name. Gabrielle looked up to her love. She knew that Xena was uncertain. Gabrielle leaned into the warrior and placed a gentle kiss upon her lips. Xena accepted the gesture in silence.
Gabrielle held the cloth and bracelet in one hand and reached out her other. Understanding, Xena took the bracelet and placed it on Gabrielle's bare wrist. It held both their gazes. It was Xena's tender words that breached the silence. "A long, long time ago you gave me two stones, a green and a blue, as a gift. Do you remember?"
"I always said you were the one who deserved the jewels. I'm just sorry it took so long for me to give you this. Gabrielle, my bard, you are my destiny."
Part 21- Trusting Malcolm
The voices signaled an approach.
It was Ogden, "Boy, I think you have a crush on her." Ogden laughed boldly. "All right then she's all yours. The less work I have to do the better."
The chamber door opened. Malcolm entered carefully. He raised the torch towards the pallet. Gabrielle was not there. He swept the room with the flame. "Gabrielle?"
"I'm here." Gabrielle was sitting on the one chair in the northwest corner of the room. Her voice was subdued.
"Are you alright?"
Gabrielle did not respond.
Malcolm continued to probe. "Is there something wrong with the pallet?" The guard stepped closer to the prisoner. "Have you done anything to it that I should know about?"
There was a trace of despair in Gabrielle's bearing. "No, you can inspect it if you like."
"I'll take your word."
"Because you are a woman of honor. Why the chair?"
"I miss my love when I lie down. I long to feel her beside me." Gabrielle's words were an unexpected confession to the both of them.
Malcolm's discomfort increased, "Oh." He looked toward the empty bed. "Draxis said Xena is dead."
Gabrielle looked at the young man. He didn't mean to be cruel. She knew this. He turned to her and caught her eyes. The sorrow had turned to anger. He needed to make amends quickly, "I'm sorry." He took a breath in an attempt to regain his composure. "I have something for you." He reached into his shirt removing two tall thin candles. "I know they are not much but some light to eat by should be good.... Yes?"
Gabrielle was skeptical. "How am I to light them."
"I'll use the torch on one. I can't let you have a flint. Even these candles are against Draxis' orders."
"Why are you doing this?"
Malcolm hesitated. "Don't know. I don't agree with all of Draxis' tactics."
"Then why be with him?"
"Oh he's a competent warlord. I've heard of worst. Xena wasn't always the most noble warrior."
"No she wasn't."
"Would you have been with her during those years? Would you have made allowances if you were certain that in her heart there was some good?"
Gabrielle would not answer. She knew that in their years together there were times when she had not agreed with Xena's choices. Never did their disagreement result in an unrepairable rupture in their relationship. "Is that why you're with Draxis. Does he have a good side?"
"If you mine deep enough, yes I think he does. He hasn't killed you and he has forbidden any guard from violating..." Malcolm paused in embarrassment.
"From raping me. So, I should be grateful that Draxis has only deprived me of light, sound and human contact."
"You have me." Again, Malcolm paused, self conscious of the role he had taken upon himself.
"Malcolm, what do you want from me?"
"Nothing. Gabrielle I don't want anything from you. I should go." Pointing to the plate of food, "The food isn't that bad. I ate the same myself." Gabrielle was unresponsive. He flamed one candle with his torch. "Don't let the candle wax spill over the plate. Ogden can't see it. He would report me to Draxis. Ogden'll protect his hide at all costs." Malcolm felt the futility of his effort. He resigned himself to Gabrielle's distrust. He walked to the chamber door. There was one more thing he had to say to the Queen. He turned to her. "Gabrielle, there is something you can do for me. Hold on to your hope. I hear the negotiations with your tribe are going slow but sure. Draxis and your Regent will come to terms and you will have your freedom." With that said Malcolm left the chamber. Gabrielle watched the flickering candle. It had been a great gift. A part of her regretted not thanking the guard.
Part 22 - A Constant Thought
They came to the Amazon village for a visit. Gabrielle requested an afternoon in the north meadow. She stood among the tall grasses enjoying the tickle of them against her skin. Xena sat on a large boulder near the brook intently watching the bard, the Queen. The warrior was certain that there was something on the Gabrielle's mind and she longed to know it. "What?"
Gabrielle looked to the warrior. A smile came to her. "Nothing."
Xena would not be deterred. "Oh no, its something."
"Okay, it's something but its nothing new."
"An old thought."
"More like a constant thought."
"Yea, it never goes away."
"So are you going to tell me?"
"Because right now it's too much fun watching you fidget."
Xena spoke with a clear pout, "Fine."
"I love you."
"Yea, so what's new?"
"I told you it was a constant thought."
"That I love you."
"That was it?"
The bard smiled, "That was it."
Xena bolted toward Gabrielle. The bard had no time to react. Xena raised the bard upon her shoulder. Gabrielle screamed Xena's name in a half-hearted protest. Xena began to walk through the meadow carrying the lightweight with gusto.
"Xena, where are you taking me?"
Slapping Gabrielle on her behind, "Think Gabrielle. It may not be a constant thought but when I have it, it brings constant pleasure."
"Warrior, put me down!"
Xena heaved Gabrielle to her feet and held her close. Gabrielle was laughing and Xena smiled broadly. "Yes, my bard?"
"By the gods, Xena." Gabrielle paused to take a breath. "I am the happiest woman alive."
"One of the two happiest, my love."
What followed was more than a kiss.
Part 23 - Sisters
Lila approached Gabrielle. The Amazon looked up and smiled.
"Gabby, there's something wrong between you and Xena, isn't there?"
Gabrielle was surprised by the question. "What makes you think so?"
"She's not here with you."
"I asked Xena not to come."
Lila kneeled down beside her sister. "Why?"
Gabrielle was taken by what was Lila's obvious concern. The older sister reached out to the younger placing her hand over Lila's own. "Because I had a decision to make and depending on what I decide Xena being here may not be a good idea."
"I don't understand."
"I know you don't. You can't unless I...Lila, my decision affects you too."
There was a hint of fear in Lila's question, "How?"
"I'll be asking you." Gabrielle paused to take a breath. She needed to focus her thoughts. "I am asking you to honor my wish to..."
Lila's alarm was palpable. "To what? Gabrielle, you're frightening me."
"If anything ever happens to me, I want to be laid to rest beside Xena."
"Gabby, nothing is going to happen to you."
Gabrielle turned her eyes to the horizon. The memory of Alti impressed upon her, the image of her crucifixion was too vivid to ignore. Gabrielle spoke to the void. "Trust me Lila. My life with Xena..." Again, she could not find the words. She turned to her sister and gazed directly into the hesitant eyes. "I need to make sure Mom and Father and you don't bring me back to Poteidia."
Lila looked down at her hands. She feared for Gabrielle but it was still a distant fear. She could no longer deny the reality that Gabrielle had been hurt in the past and could be easily hurt in the future. The fear had choked her humor from her.
Gabrielle continued. "If Xena lives beyond me she will decide for me. If she doesn't, take me to Amphipolis, her mother, Cyrene will know what to do.
A surge of anger rose up in Lila. "This is wrong Gabrielle. We are your family."
Gabrielle pressed Lila's arm. "Yes you are. The fact that I love Xena doesn't mean I love you or Mom or Father any less."
Lila contended, "I've never understood why you've stayed with her. In the beginning I could see you wanting to get away but now, you don't need her. You can go where ever you like and do whatever you want to do."
Gabrielle gently pleaded. "Lila, don't you see that is exactly what I am doing. I'm free to choose and I've chosen to be with Xena."
"You're throwing away your life. You can find another love after Perdicus. You don't have to keep denying yourself love and happiness."
Gabrielle sighed. She knew this was the time. "Lila, you know about my life with the Amazons?"
"You've heard that many of the Amazons choose to love one another?"
The question was met with silence. Gabrielle went on. "That is how I love Xena. Lila, she is my love, my partner and I will not be without her, ever."
Lila challenged her sister. "She's beguiled you."
Gabrielle smiled. "Actually, some would say it happened the other way around."
Lila sat silently. Gabrielle exercised her greatest patience. The younger sister broke the silence. Her tone had softened. "How long?"
Gabrielle's response was cautious. "How long have we loved one another?"
Lila nodded affirmatively.
Gabrielle smiled. "I loved her from the beginning. That it grew to what we now share took time, years. I can't remember not loving Xena. Lila, promise me you will honor my wishes. Promise me you will stand up to Father for me. I know Mom will be hurt but she will agree."
Lila's next words were more statement than question. "You're not going to tell them?"
"That's what I still need to decide."
Lila was determined to persuade her worldly sister. "You know Father refuses to tolerate Xena anywhere near Poteidaia. If he knew... Gabby, he would disown you. It's not worth the price. I will not lose you completely. You must be able to visit."
"No Gabby. I know this. I may not know much about the world outside Poteidaia but I do know about this village. Father will make you an outcast. He may love you but he is proud. You must trust me. If I swear to lay you to rest beside Xena will you not tell Father?"
Gabrielle relented. "If you believe it is for the best?"
Lila was definite. "I do."
"Then it's settled."
Lila reached and place her hand upon Gabrielle's cheek. "By the gods, you and Xena."
Lila now spoke shyly. "Does she treat you well?"
"Lila, she loves me. You have no idea what it means to have Xena's love. There is nothing stronger."
Lila countered. "Oh yes there is. It took you to open her heart."
Gabrielle remained silent, stunned by her sister's immediate appreciation for the love she held for the warrior.
"Where is she?"
"Near by waiting for me."
"Go to her."
"Lila, I can stay a little longer."
"Gabby, tell me you don't want to."
Gabrielle mused. "I miss her."
"Go. I'll explain to Mom and Father that you were called away and couldn't wait for their return."
Gabrielle argued half-heartedly. "Leaving isn't going to help."
Lila smiled. "Neither does staying. Gabby, you never belonged to us. We've never been able to hold your spirit. Why pretend now?"
Gabrielle took Lila into her arms. "I love you."
"You will always be my wayward sister. Tell Xena she's lucky to have you and that next time you're in Poteidaia I'll expect to see her."
Releasing her younger sister, Gabrielle laughed, "I will."
Gabrielle reached camp carrying a torch to light her way. Xena was standing posed for a confrontation, her sword held before her. Gabrielle called out. "Xena, it's me."
Upon hearing the long missed sound of Gabrielle's voice Xena placed her sword down. The torchlight was blinding. Light and shadowed figure approached. Gabrielle threw the torch down into the fire. Xena was concerned. Gabrielle wasn't expected for at least two more days. The bard, the Amazon, the youth no more came gently into the warrior's arms. Gabrielle looked up and brought her lips to Xena's for a hungry kiss.
Upon release, Gabrielle spoke first. "Lila sends her love. She expects you to visit next time."
Xena was somewhat surprised by the invitation. "Does she?"
"Xena, she promised to honor my wishes."
"And your parents?"
"I didn't tell them, but Lila knows everything."
"Everything. If she has to she will stand beside you against my parents."
Xena felt the bard's waist underneath her hands. She longed to hold her lover close. The warrior hadn't slept well during their brief separation. But first she must attend to Gabrielle's needs. "You must be tired."
"Come to bed." Xena turned, still holding one of Gabrielle's hands.
"Xena?" Gabrielle took Xena's hand into both of her own. The foretelling of their death promised that their hands would know the violation of a crucifixion, of nails driven through flesh.
Xena watched silently. She knew the pensive look that washed over Gabrielle. She had seen it too many times. She knew the cause of it. The warrior stepped to Gabrielle, raising her chin with her free hand. "Come to bed. I want...I need to hold you in my arms. I need to feel you beside me, to hear your heartbeat and take in your warmth."
Gabrielle held Xena's gaze with her own. "Take me."
Xena raised Gabrielle into her arms and carried the bard to their bedroll. This would not just be a night of lovemaking. It would be a time for the two to journey into their respective hearts and minds within the stillness of the night. It would be a time for their spirits to touch. It would be the hour when their souls would join reaffirming the reason for their shared lives.
Part 24 - Odgen Revisited
The guard rested on a chair beside the prisoner who sat up upon the pallet. "Ogden isn't so bad. He's an old dog, barks a lot but not much left of his bit."
"You like him." Gabrielle confirmed Malcolm's assessment of the older guard.
"Yes I do. He's crude, but I don't pretend to be much better."
"What does he look like? I couldn't tell the one time he came into the cell."
"All I could see was the flame of the torch. The first time I really felt I saw you was the day you brought me candles to see by."
Malcolm looked to the candles that illuminated the cell. He took solace in the knowledge that their conversation was some comfort to the Queen. "I didn't realize they made such a difference."
Gabrielle's response was true. "They do."
Regaining his focus, "Well Ogden...he's a little taller and a little wider than me."
Gabrielle smiled, "Only a little."
Malcolm laughed. "Maybe more. He's got a beard. Keep's it trim. He was considered handsome in his day. He has a wife and three children, two boys and a girl. He's a good father when his temper is in check. Don't know if he loses his temper with them. Don't think so, it's the drink more than anything else that gets him in trouble. I like him sober. He's reminds me of one of my uncles. He cares. Wants to make sure I stay alive with all the raft we're assigned to keep an eye on."
"Thank you." Gabrielle responded with false anger.
"You know I didn't mean you."
The Queen smiled. "I know." After a comfortable pause, "So, Ogden is harmless."
Malcolm grew serious. "No, I wouldn't say that. He knows how to use a sword. He's good. The other men respect him. In his younger days they feared him. I don't think he wants to hurt you. I listen to him talk about his daughter. Hurting you would be too close to home. You know what I mean? When men become fathers - or at least some men - well, they become fathers."
Gabrielle remembered Xena speaking of Borias. She also knew that though she and her father had their differences there was no doubt that he wanted what be believed was the best for her. "You think of him as a good man."
"Gabrielle, don't get me wrong. He's sworn his allegiance to Draxis. He is a man of honor. He's loyal. He'll cut you down if you give him reason. If you do what he says you've got a good chance of leaving here alive and unharmed."
Gabrielle reached out and touched the guard's arm. "What about you Malcolm? Have you sworn your allegiance to Draxis."
"I'm my own man."
Gabrielle looked at the man who sometimes seemed so much the boy. "Are you?"
Malcolm was insistent. "Yes, I am."
"What does that mean to you?"
Malcolm studied the young Queen intently. "It means I'll follow Draxis as long as I believe its right for me."
"And when it's not right?"
"What would it take?
"I hope I never have to find out."
Part 25 - The Prayer
One and one does not always equal two. Sometimes it equals one as two searching souls find each other and join, entwining, becoming companions in life, embracing life, intentional in their actions, expanding their perceptions, imagining dreams they could never have conceived in their aloneness.
In the darkness of the chamber Gabrielle went down to her knees and prayed to the elusive soul she called her love. "I've lost you to Paradise my love but not completely. You will always be a part of me. No one can give as you gave and simply disappear. My heart is still able to love. To forfeit it would be to betray you, to betray what we became in union. You never forgot who you were. You never left your way once you discovered it. You never asked me to be anyone other than who I was in the moment. We were so different and yet at our core we were driven to see the common good realized. I know you are with me. I feel you with me."
One and one does not always equal two. Two joined are still not one. They were a paradox no one but they could discern.
Part 26 - The Fire
"My Queen, the stables are on fire.
Gabrielle and Ephiny ran out of the Counsel chambers. The stable doors were open. The sound of the fire blended with the cries of women driving the frightened horses through the flames. Argo ran clear of danger. A child's, girl's voice called out Xena's name.
Gabrielle spoke a loud, "Xena?" Gabrielle started to move forward. Ephiny took hold of her. Gabrielle pulled away. "Xena is in there."
Ephiny held firm. "You can't go in there. It's an inferno."
"Ephiny, let go of me."
Epinon ran out of the stable. Ephiny called out to her. "What happened?"
"Xena and I were coming back from the practice field when we noticed the fire. We released the horses." The sound of the stable walls buckling caught their attention. Epinon turned to look.
Gabrielle shouted over the noise, "I heard a child's cry."
"Its Juna. She was in the loft. Xena went to her."
Ephiny called out and pointed. "There, thanks be to Artemis."
Xena came out with Juna in her arms. The three Amazons approached. Gabrielle noted that Xena, who had placed the child of seven upon her feet was intent on the distraught youth who was pointing to the burning building. Xena raised the child and placed her in her mother's arms. To Gabrielle's disbelief Xena reentered the stables.
The Queen cried, "Xena! No!"
Upon reaching Juna and her mother, Tari, Ephiny demanded an explanation. "Why did Xena go back in?"
Tari answered truthfully. "I don't know. She gave me Juna and turned away without a word."
Juna pointed to the flames. "Mora! Mora!"
Gabrielle took hold of Epinon. "Was there another child?"
Tari was stunned. "Oh no!"
Ephiny demanded. "What is it?"
Tari held Juna tightly. "Mora is Juna's doll."
Ephiny feared. "Xena went back for a doll?"
Epinon looked back to the flames. "She could not have known."
As Gabrielle ran to the stable doors the building's roof collapsed. The force drove Gabrielle to the ground. She picked herself up. She spoke Xena's name as a desperate prayer.
Epinon went as close to the flaming timbers as she dared. The heat was unbearable. A fire brigade had started working hard to contain the blaze. Another group did their best to capture the horses and take them to the far end of the village away from the confusion.
Ephiny caught Gabrielle and restrained her, refusing to heed her Queen's pleas for release. The Queen fell to her knees, her Regent beside her. "Gabrielle, she's gone." Ephiny spoke softly.
Gabrielle stopped and looked to Ephiny. Ephiny affirmed her own words with a nod of her head. Gabrielle turned her eyes back to the fire. Xena's funeral pyre was within her sight. It was not suppose to end this way. Not now, not without warning. Xena was to be buried beside her brother, Lyceus.
Epinon was waved over by Solari and three other Amazons working the fire at the far end. As she walked the span she noted that the number of women working had expanded. Their work was furious as if they hadF a target in mind. With that thought Epinon's quicken steps became a full run.
"Sol, did you find her?"
Solari pointed to a smothering frame where the efforts were focused. Epinon saw the figure. It moved before her eyes. "She can't have survived this."
"Its Xena, Ep and she's alive."
"We can't let Gabrielle see her like this. I'll do what I can to get Gabrielle back to her hut. Get Simina down here with a litter. The rest of you get to her as quick as you can. I don't care if you burn your hands and feet in the trying." The last statement wasn't necessary. The work was done quickly but carefully as the risk of causing smothering timbers to fall upon the warrior was ever present.
Epinon walked back to Ephiny and her Queen. Ephiny looked up at the composed Captain of the Guards. The Regent was about to speak but held her tongue at the shake of Epinon's head. Epinon knelt down beside Gabrielle. "My Queen. You should go to your hut. I will bring you news as soon as I have it."
Without motion Gabrielle stated what Epinon already knew but had hoped would be otherwise. "I won't leave Xena."
Epinon looked to Ephiny for assistance. "Gabrielle, let us take care of you."
Gabrielle's voice was pointed. "I'm not the one who needs care."
Epinon took Gabrielle's arm and gave it a gentle coax. "My Queen."
Gabrielle's fury was quick. "Don't touch me. I will not leave Xena."
Ephiny spoke to calm. "We will stay here until we know Xena's fate."
Epinon looked down defeated. She reached and placed her hand into Gabrielle's. A rare gesture on her part. "My Queen." To this Gabrielle met Epinon's gaze. "We found Xena. She is barely alive." Gabrielle flinched to her feet. Epinon matched her movement still holding her Queen's hand. "I beg you to wait for us to move her to the healer's hut. The fire showed no mercy."
Gabrielle turned to the congregation of workers at the far end. She broke free of Epinon and ran in that direction. Epinon and Ephiny matched her every step. Upon reaching the corner Gabrielle scanned the area. "Epinon, where is she?"
Epinon raised her hand and pointed to the beam that held back the fallen roof. "Underneath, my Queen."
Gabrielle followed the line and then saw the faint glimmer of bronze and the black burnt leather and skin that moved in breath. Ephiny had followed the same line and seen the same sight. She prayed, "May the gods give her peace."
To this Gabrielle screamed, "No! She's alive and she will live. Ephiny, she will live."
Ephiny took the Queen, her friend, into her arms and held her as Gabrielle collapsed in anguish.
Simina and the stretcher-bearers approached. Simina surveyed the site and began giving instruction to the workers with the goal of preventing both their injury and further injury to the warrior. Simina went to her Queen. "You will go to the Queen's hut and wait. I will call for you."
"Simina." Gabrielle's voice begged for what she did not know.
"My Queen, you must trust my judgment."
Gabrielle took in the old crone. Few had earned Gabrielle's trust as Simina had. The Queen walked away with the sounds of burning embers, broken timbers, and women working haunting each of her steps.
The final boards of debris were removed. Simina walked to the barely recognizable form. Xena was alive, her breath shallow. She was, thank Artemis, unconscious. She was lifted on to the stretcher with care. The smell of burnt flesh overcame one woman. Solari swept her aside, taking her place. Xena was gently taken to the Healer's hut. Simina dismissed everyone but her apprentice, Riena. "We will strip her carefully and wash the wounds. Then we will place a cloth over her on supports so that it will not touch her. We must determine how much flesh has been spared."
Riena asked the obvious question. "Will she live?"
Simina looked keenly to the warrior. "No, but that is not for you to repeat. Am I understood?"
Riena watched Simina work with care. "Riena, get the scissors. You will need to cut the damaged hair. Save as much as you can."
The work continued. Simina's primary goal was not to save Xena's life. It could not be done. She knew the limitations of her healing arts. She hoped to keep Xena as comfortable as possible until death took her by the hand. This would mean keeping the warrior in sleep by administering steady doses of her most potent medicines. As Simina worked on Xena her thoughts rested too on the Queen. Simina knew that the bond shared between the Queen and her champion was of a depth that exceeded any she had ever witnessed. The Queen was in many ways very much the child when they first met. The Queen grew to womanhood beside the warrior. The warrior always taking care not to overshadow the youth, encouraging her to find her own way, to secure her own identity and gifts. And though the Queen was very much her own self, her love for the warrior had been the one constant in her life. Simina was not sure how the Queen would survive this loss. The next few days could destroy the best of her.
Their work complete it was time to report to the Queen. Simina washed her hands. She looked to Riena. "I will return with our Queen. Upon our arrival you shall leave with out a word. The Queen's privacy will be our guard just as much as Xena's care. Yes?"
"Yes Simina, I won't betray my Queen or Xena."
"Good. Riena, pray to Artemis that you never..." The crone looked to her aged hands. The healer's sorrow was deep. She had lost her partner a long time ago. It was a loss that still haunted her, even with the blessing of having time to say farewell. Though her love knew pain it neared not what Xena would endure in her first moment of consciousness - if she awakens.
Simina went to the Queen's hut. Gabrielle stood before her. The Queen had regained her composure. How could she be so strong? Her capacity was extraordinary. Simina believed her Queen's strength was forged by the hammer strokes of interminable sorrows. Here may be the most brutal.
"My Queen. Xena lives but barely. I have done all that I can do to make her comfortable. She may never waken. If she does the pain will be the worst imaginable on earth and it will be my duty to give her draughts to place her back in sleep. If the gods are merciful you will have only a matter of minutes between her waking and the draught taking effect to speak to her. I do not know how many times Xena may waken. I must counsel you to speak your farewells without delay for you may not be given a second opportunity.
Gabrielle turned away. What else had she, could she have expected. She returned her attention to the healer. "Simina, you have always served me honestly. You have always spoken the truth where others would hesitate. Thank you."
Simina bowed. "My Queen."
"May I see her now?"
"Yes, my Queen."
Gabrielle entered the Healer's hut in the company of Simina. Ephiny remained outside. Upon seeing her Queen, Riena left the premises as was her instruction. Gabrielle stood over Xena looking down at the warrior's body. The majority of the damage was out of sight. Her face had been burned on one side, as well as both her visible shoulders. Looking down to the edge Gabrielle could see that Xena's arms and hands had not been spared. Gabrielle kneeled beside the warrior. She was unsure of what she was allowed to do. Turning, the Queen's eyes begged the question to the healer.
"Only where she is not burned."
Gabrielle nodded and returned her gaze to the warrior. She leaned over to Xena's ear. She could not help but smell the burnt flesh mingled with the oils placed on the less damaged skin. Simina took a number of steps back granting her Queen as much privacy as possible without leaving the room.
"Xena, my love. I'm here. I'm with you. You're not alone." Gabrielle looked to the face she still found to be the most beautiful she had known. She gently stroked Xena's undamaged cheek. "By the gods you are beautiful." Gabrielle did not measure the passing of time. Simina waited patiently. There is no rushing when one is mourning.
Xena's breathing became more labored. Gabrielle looked to the healer.
The healer explained. "I am certain that in breathing the smoke and heat she has burned her lungs. Her breathing will worsen."
"I won't leave her."
"We will prepare a place for you to rest."
The candlemarks passed. Gabrielle kept vigil noting each fought for breath taken and exhaled by the warrior.
"Gabrielle." Xena coughed trying to clear her lungs of its film of death.
"I'm here." Gabrielle moved over to Xena's line of vision. "Hi."
"Yes. We lost the stable."
"The little girl."
"No, I couldn't fine her."
Gabrielle had difficulty meeting Xena's gaze.
"She died." Xena asserted. "You can tell me."
"Xena, there was no child. Mora was Juna's doll."
Xena spoke with great difficulty. "Doll?"
"Yes. No lives were lost. You have my word."
"Me?" Xena cast her eyes down.
"You're badly burned."
Tears filled Xena's eyes.
"Xena, Simina is doing all she can for you."
"The pain, Gabrielle. I don't know if..."
"Simina has a draught for you. It will put you to sleep. We will use it until the pain lessons."
Xena watched Gabrielle knowing she was dying and that her love was unprepared to say good bye. "I love you, my bard."
"I love you Xena."
"This will make quite a story. Who would have thought that the Warrior Princess would fall because of a doll?"
"You believed a child was in danger."
"Gabrielle, the pain."
"I'll get Simina." Gabrielle summoned the healer.
Simina entered the room going first to her medicine. She took a vial in hand. "Warrior, be honest with me. Can you bear the pain?"
"I'll welcome sleep if you can give it to me."
"Have you and the Queen spoken?"
Xena looked intently into the healer's eyes. "Will I wake again?"
"I don't know."
"A moment then."
Simina slipped back. Gabrielle stepped forward and knelt beside the warrior.
"Did you hear her?"
"Yes, but you'll be alright."
Wincing, Xena struggled with her words. "I'm not so sure."
"Xena, take the draught. You don't need to bear the pain."
"I must be a sight?"
"Will you say good-bye to me?
A familiar, small crooked smile took form upon Xena's lips. "You're the stubborn one, not me. All right." Xena struggled for a breath. She settled upon Gabrielle's gaze. "A kiss?"
Gabrielle leaned forward and gently touched the warrior's lips with her own. She then leaned back on her heals allowing Simina the necessary space to administer the draught.
"Your word. You shall always tell me the truth."
"Xena, you are my patient and no one, not even the Queen will prevent me from treating you with the dignity you deserve. You have my word. I will answer any question you pose in truth."
"Good. We understand each other. Now give me the draught before a scream."
Xena cried out in pain. At first without consciousness and then clearly in awareness of all the raw nerves exposed to heat. Simina had persuaded the Queen to go to her bath and to share a meal with the village counsel and the healer was glad for it.
"Simina, the pain."
"Xena, I cannot do much more for you. Stronger doses will kill you."
"Then kill me." Xena's voice though weak was decisive.
Simina excused the warrior's words. "You are out of your mind."
Xena would have none of it. "Tell me I am not dying!"
The healer spoke the truth. "I cannot."
The warrior probed. "Gabrielle won't accept it?"
Simina spoke slowly with measure. "My Queen is hopeful."
The pain swept across the warrior. Xena closed her eyes. Never had she known such physical torment. "Kill me."
Simina longed to touch her patient. It had always been her means to connect, to soothe. But the burns gave her little choice but to remain physically distant. She confessed to herself more than to Xena. "I am sworn to save lives."
There was no pity in Xena's argument. "You would show more mercy to a dog."
Given that there was no logic to defend her position Simina relied on the noble Amazon tradition. "Xena, you are the Queen's consort and champion." The words rang hollow, dishonest, cowardly.
"That Xena no longer exist." She begged weakly what little strength she had gone. "Let me die."
"I will do what I can to temper the pain but I will not harm you." Why was there no comfort in the murmur of a lonely heart? There was no lonelier than the healer's.
"You and I both know there is nothing to temper the pain of my wounds. You harm me by forcing me to live."
"I take no action. I will not intercede with the will of the gods."
Here the warrior's anger rose and with it her voice. "The gods." Xena closed her eyes and leaned her head back. "They torture me even now."
"You do not know what your are asking of me."
Xena tried to bargain. "Leave the drought. I will find a way to put it to my lips. It will be my choice."
The warrior was desperate. "If your Queen agrees?"
Simina gazed at the warrior stunned. She found words momentarily lost. "You would ask her?"
Xena could bear the argument no more. "Simina, give me the drought your conscious allows and if and when I wake I will decide what I will ask of Gabrielle."
The healer brought the drought to Xena's lips. "Sleep Warrior." Xena drank with difficulty. Simina waited and when she was sure Xena slept she voiced her prayer. "May the gods grant you your wish without my intercession."
"Why didn't you send for me?"
"My Queen, her waking was brief and painful. She asked for a draught and I gave it to her. She fell to sleep immediately. Would you have me prolong her pain?"
"No, of course not." Gabrielle struggled to focus her thoughts. "How great was her pain."
"She found it difficult to bear."
Gabrielle knew Xena's tolerance for pain was great. "Don't ask me again to leave her."
"No, my Queen."
The pain broke the spell that had held Xena to a temporary relief. Movement worsen her torment. Her eyes remained closed. Her voice was rough, "Healer."
Xena heard Gabrielle's voice call out Simina's name and then the healer speak her common address, "Warrior?"
Gabrielle questioned, "What does she mean?"
Xena cursed. "Healer, I've seen hell and I will see you there."
Gabrielle's confusion heightened. "Xena?"
Simina placed a vial with the draught to Xena's lips. She commanded. "Drink."
"A drop of water to a roaring fire will not release your guilt." Xena spoke with no compassion. Her intent was cruel in its disregard for Simina's own heart.
Gabrielle silently listened, her attention moving from one to the other, trying to decipher what was transpiring between the patient and her healer.
Simina was insistent. "Drink and take your torment to Morpheus." The healer's own harsh tone betrayed its root of pain - the pain one feels when drowning in helplessness.
Xena allowed the liquid to travel down her raw throat. She welcomed anything that took her beyond the unrelenting brutality of the fire's handprint upon her flesh.
Gabrielle remained by Xena's side until the warrior drifted into unconsciousness. The Queen went to the healer who had wordlessly removed herself to the adjoining room. "She wants to die." Gabrielle held the conclusion in her heart.
"Yes, my Queen." Simina's sorrow was undeniable.
Gabrielle spoke with a soft and assured voice. "She wants your help to die."
"Yes, my Queen."
"You refuse her." Gabrielle needed to confirm the root of the conflict between Xena and her healer.
"It is not for me to end a life."
The Queen's compassion for Simina went hand in hand with her loyalty to Xena. "And she curses you for it."
The healer spoke with conviction. "I do not fear a mortal's wrath."
"Do you fear Artemis?" Gabrielle knew her methods were ethically suspect.
Simina betrayed her astonishment. "You would have me do what Xena asks?"
"From the day I met Xena she has worked to relieve the pain and suffering of others. She suffered her burns trying to save the life of a child she believed to be in danger. Is her reward a slow, painful death as those who love her watch?"
Simina paused in thought and looked to her medicines. "You ask me to kill."
Gabrielle needed a compromise. "I ask you to prepare the draught. With Artemis' blessing I will be the one to honor Xena's request."
"Only with her blessing?"
Simina looked toward the room that held Xena. Her strength had been stolen by the flames and what remained was dark and torn, no longer the humanity of a proud warrior. "Very well."
"No." The goddess spoke simply. There was no pleasure in her decision.
"You would have her suffer. She was burned trying to save a child of your tribe."
"You will never forgive yourself."
"How I feel doesn't matter."
"It does. You are my chosen."
"Gabrielle, listen carefully to my words. I wish Xena no harm. I am grateful for all that she has done for the Amazons. I have also not forgotten her betrayal to my northern tribe. Mortals are imperfect. They do good. They also do harm. From one individual to the other there is no promise of balance or equity although in totality the balance is maintained and justice is realized. The Fates' prescriptions are more than even I can comprehend. I will not interfere. This is Xena's destiny. You must accept it just as I have."
These were not words of comfort. They were words fitting for the dawn of an argument. Gabrielle would not hesitate challenging any of the gods even if her life was suspended precariously before them. "You have? You don't love her."
Artemis maintained a cool composure. "Maybe not, but she is an admirable woman."
Gabrielle took a step forward. "Would your decision be different if it was me?"
The god maintained her position. "I will not speculate. We are speaking of Xena."
It was difficult for Gabrielle to suppress her emotion. "Who lays in agony..."
Artemis' tone was resolute. "As the Fates have decreed."
Gabrielle turned away from Artemis, the goddess of the Amazons had been her one hope, and began to take her leave of the temple. Simina and Tari stood waiting. The healer reached out and placed her hand upon Gabrielle's arm. "My Queen?"
"Artemis refused me." Gabrielle raised her eyes to meet Simina's.
Tari stepped back. Gabrielle turned to the mother of Juna. She was incapable of defining her emotions. "Tari, why are you here?"
Tari remained silent casting her eyes to the ground. Gabrielle heeded Tari's distress. In the moment the Queen's capacity for compassion expanded more so than even she would ever have suspected possible. Gabrielle's approached Juna's mother for that is how she saw Tari. The mother of the child who sent Xena into an inferno looking for a doll. How heavy must Tari's sorrow be? How alone must she feel? Who is comforting her? The Queen's voice soften. "Tari, what brings you to me?"
The woman faltered. "I should not have come."
"Tari, I am your Queen. I also want to be your friend."
Tari looked up into the sincerity of Gabrielle's eyes. "Its Juna. I cannot console her. She blames herself for..."
Gabrielle knew no child should bear the weight of such guilt. "Do you wish me to speak to her?"
"All know the bond between you and your consort is great. If Xena is not able to forgive her it would be then for you to do so."
"There is nothing to forgive. Take me to Juna."
"Thank you my Queen."
Gabrielle turned to Simina. "I will return to Xena as soon as I can."
Simina bowed slightly. Upon finding herself alone she entered the temple.
Tari's hut was considerably smaller than the Queen's quarters, still it had three rooms, the common and one each for mother and child. Upon entering the common Tari motioned Gabrielle towards Juna's smaller quarters. Prior to entering Gabrielle requested, "I would like to be alone with her." Tari nodded in acquiescence.
The child sat by a window looking out into a deserted courtyard. Gabrielle felt the child's aloneness permeate throughout the room. Her heart broke for both of them. They each suffered an incomprehensible loss. The crueler, she knew, was the child's for her innocence was forever forfeited. She would never look into the flames of a fire with the same anticipation and appreciation of its warmth and light. The destructive force of Prometheus's gift will haunt and torment. If the gods are merciful the worst will subside but only with time.
The child spoke maintaining her gaze upon the emptiness before her. "I'm sorry."
Gabrielle went and sat beside her. "I know you meant no harm."
The child cried out. "Xena hates me!"
The Queen's reply was certain and gentle. "No she doesn't"
Juna turned to her Queen. "You've talked to her?"
"Yes. She wanted to know that you were well."
"Of all in the village I know Xena cares for the children, including you, above all others."
Juna spoke candidly. "That's not true. Xena loves you best."
Gabrielle smiled. "I'll tell you a secret. I was still in some ways a child when I first met Xena. I think that's why she liked having me around."
"You're not a child any more."
"No, I'm not. In my years with her I've learned there are no limits to Xena's love."
Juna's shyness resurfaced. "Is Xena going to live?"
Gabrielle could lie to herself but she could not lie to the child. The Queen's hand rose to stroke the child's auburn hair. "Juna, I don't think she will."
Juna's spirit broke. Her tears came quickly. Gabrielle held her, consoling both herself and the child for their eminent loss.
Gabrielle entered the healer's hut. Xena slept soundly.
To Riena, "Where is Simina?"
"She just left my Queen. She said she needed to be alone with her thoughts and would return shortly."
"I want to be with Xena."
"I will be in the next room if you need me."
Gabrielle went to Xena and knelt beside her. She stroked the warrior's shone hair. Xena's body flinched as if under the torment of a nightmare. "My love, let go, stop fighting. There is nothing left for you to atone for." Gabrielle leaned over and gently kissed the warrior's lips. The taste was bitter. A remnant of the warrior's body's struggle to release the ash within. "You're wrong to say Simina will meet you in Hell. We know about Paradise. Wait for me there and if its not meant to be then remember we will be together again. One life has never been enough for either of us. Our love is our destiny."
Simina rushed into the infirmary. Gabrielle looked up to the healer.
"Simina, what is it?"
Simina remained silent as she attempted to regain her composure. Her eyes traveled from her Queen to the warrior and back.
"I wanted to be here to meet you. How is the child?"
"It will take time for her to grieve."
"Yes, it is difficult to accept what cannot be understood." Simina looked away to her medicines. "My Queen, of what you've asked of me."
"Simina, we won't speak of it again. I didn't expect Artemis' refusal. I will honor your right to follow your conscious. We will keep Xena in sleep until her soul is released."
The healer was anguished. "My Queen, I gave Xena the draught."
Somina struggled looking down and away trying to justify her act. "I could not refuse the warrior. She awoke. The pain was driving her to madness."
Gabrielle knew the responsibility was too much for Simina to bear. "Why didn't...I wanted to be with her."
"Artemis' argument did not bear upon me."
The Queen realized her healer's loyalty had no bounds. A thought, a stunning thought took hold of her. Gabrielle looked to Xena and with her fingers traced the contours of the warrior's lips.
"Tell me, was it difficult for her to drink?"
Simina responded returning to her core self, the place where the wisdom of her art resided. "The drought is bitter to the taste but Xena managed well."
"Gabrielle smiled. "Bitter? Does it take much of a dose?"
The healer welcomed the opportunity to explain that she had been thoughtful in calling death to Xena. "No my Queen. It's a potent drug and only a few drops are necessary. The effect takes some time. Xena's breathing has already slowed. Soon, it will simply stop. I feared you would not return to be with her so I searched for you."
Gabrielle's gaze did not leave the warrior. "I stopped at my hut. There was something I needed to have." The Queen turned to the healer, "Simina, you have shown mercy. No matter what happens understand you have my gratitude."
The healer took solace in the words of the grieving woman. "Yes, my Queen."
"I would like to be alone with her."
"As you wish."
Gabrielle watched Simina leave the room. She raised her finger to her lips, tasting again the bitterness of the draught. She knew that her first taste of the draught was an accident. The Fates continued their impossible twists and turns. She would do nothing to counter the poison's effect. Artemis will not be able to judge her. It was not that Gabrielle chose death. Death chose her and she consented. As precious as she found life to be she would accept her fate without argument. Once again her destiny was inextricably linked with Xena's. She returned her gaze to the fallen warrior. "Soon my love. We will be together soon."
The Queen and her champion were laid side by side in the Queen's hut. Simina sat despondently in a corner. It was she that found them. Gabrielle had joined Xena on the pallet. In her hand she held a silver bracelet with an emerald and a sapphire stone. Simina remembered the Queen's last words to her. In retrospect she was certain that her Queen knew of her pending death. The healer blamed herself. If she hadn't given Xena the lethal draught her Queen would still be alive.
"Healer, what have you done?"
Simina looked up. Artemis stood before her. The crone fell to her knees. "I gave Xena the draught with your approval."
"I blame you for this."
Simina remained silent.
The god demanded. "Have you nothing to say?"
Simina shook her head.
"How did my chosen one get the draught?"
The healer felt her profound vulnerability had little to do with the god before it. It was not that she feared for her physical wellbeing. She felt her soul on the edge of a precipice. Positioned by her own act of mercy. "I do not know. I left none in the hut."
"I was watching her closely. She came, kissed Xena and bid her to accept death."
Simina looked up. "Forgive me, but how did the Queen kiss the warrior?"
Artemis was impatient. "How do you think?
"There may have been poison on Xena's lips. The Queen would not have known."
Artemis looked from the healer to the two bodies laying at rest. "I will speak to Athena."
Simina sat in the hut waiting for a sign from Artemis. She had directed the Queen's guards not to let anyone in. The memorial service would wait. The funeral pyres would not burn. The candlemarks passed through to the darkness of the night. She woke to the sensation of a hand resting on her thigh and to the gentle voice of her Queen calling her name. She met Gabrielle's emerald eyes, her Queen knelt before her. "Good morning."
Simina looked up to see the warrior completely healed, her hand on the Queen's shoulder.
"I don't know how you did it but thank you for bringing us back."
"I did nothing. Artemis was angry with me. She said she would speak to Athena."
Gabrielle looked up to Xena. "I should go to the temple and thank them both."
Xena nodded her approval. Gabrielle stood up and faced the warrior. She placed her hands on Xena's arms feeling their strength and health. With her other hand she stroke Xena's long black hair.
The warrior was gentle with her words. "Gabrielle, go to the temple. I will be here when you return." With a smile, "Simina and I have a few things to talk about. Don't we healer?"
Simina maintained her gaze, "Yes, we do Warrior."
Part 27 - The Challenge
"No." Gabrielle was emphatic.
"What do you mean no?" Xena could not believe they were having this conversation.
"This is my fight."
"Gabrielle, Xena is your champion." Vaela, Gabrielle's royal guard, spoke up.
The Queen knew her power. "Only if I call upon her." Looking to Xena, "Please understand."
Vaela continue her efforts to persuade. "Gabrielle, for the good of the tribe our strongest warrior should fight to defend your throne."
"Vaela, its time the Queen defended the throne."
Xena interjected. "Your serious."
The Queen spoke. "I've never been more serious."
To this Xena left the counsel room. That Anais had chosen to challenge the Queen was not remarkable. The young Amazon warrior was cocky. She needed, just like a few others that had dared in the past, to be given a reality check. It was always Xena's role to do so. That Gabrielle insisted on fighting Anais had been a stunning, unexpected turn. It was not a fight the warrior would choose to witness.
Gabrielle entered the Queen's hut in search of Xena. She found the warrior packing her saddlebag. "What are you doing?"
Xena kept to her task without looking to her partner. "You don't expect me to stand by and watch you get killed?"
"How many times have I stood witness to your battles? I never turned away from you."
"This is different."
"Because you are my champion? Because the great Xena, Warrior Princess can be called to protect the Amazon nation."
Xena secured her saddlebag and turned to look to her love. "Don't mock me Gabrielle. Its obvious you don't think you need me."
"This has nothing to do with you. It has to do with what kind of Queen I demand myself to be. Would you question the Queen's decision if Ephiny was in my place?"
"Ephiny was a seasoned warrior."
"I thought you had begun to see me for who I have become but its obvious that I was wrong."
"You do what you must."
Xena placed her saddlebag over her shoulder and began to take her leave. Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand upon Xena's arm. The lover's voice was a plea. "Xena, if this is my last night don't have me spend it alone."
"I'm sure anyone of your subjects would be happy to keep you company."
The words were sharp and cruel. Gabrielle dropped her hand. Xena moved forward to the door. 'If it were Gabrielle's last night'. Without turning Xena spoke, "For the last time call me to be your champion." She waited, her muscles tense, her heart in despair.
The Queen's voice was decisive. "No."
Xena bowed her head in defeat. They both knew that she would not leave. Gabrielle approached and carefully took hold of the saddlebag. Xena released her grip of it allowing Gabrielle to remove it from her shoulder and place it on the floor. Gabrielle returned to the warrior resting her head against the small of Xena's back.
"If I thought she was a true threat to me you would be my champion. But she is just a kid and I'll take care of her easily. You know my skills. You know I'm telling the truth."
Xena spoke in fact, "You are a warrior in your own right."
"Yes I am."
"I'm not proud that I helped you become a warrior, to know what it is to kill."
"I won't kill Anais. I fight to not kill. Just like you I kill when I must."
"Just like me." There was bitterness in Xena's words.
"The Way of the Warrior is honorable. So is my way. You know that."
Xena conceded. "I do."
"Stand by me tomorrow."
Xena turned to face Gabrielle. "Make it quick."
Gabrielle placed her hand upon the warrior's cheek. "I promise I will."
Xena took Gabrielle's palm and placed a kiss upon it. "So be it."
Part 28 - Malcolm's Word
Malcolm called out. "Who's there?" The corridor was dark.
"No harm will come to you."
It was a woman's voice. Malcolm peered towards its direction. "Who are you?"
The woman stepped out from the shadows. Malcolm considered the imposing figure. She was tall with raven hair, high chiseled cheekbones, and a bronze complexion. She bore the remnants of injuries. One bandage on her left upper arm and a number of visible stitches on her forehead.
"I am my Regent's messenger. I have been told that you are one of my Queen's guards."
"If you are here to kill me..."
The Amazon interrupted. "I told you no harm will come to you." The messenger took a breath to calm her rapid heartbeat. "Draxis has stated that my Queen has not been harmed. Is this true?"
Malcolm looked to his left and then to his right.
The messenger tried to assuage the guard's suspicions. "I came alone. I just want to know if Gabri..." The messenger caught her word. "Is my Queen well?"
Malcolm was relieved that he could speak the truth although he knew that embedded within it was a lie of omission. "Yes. She hasn't been harmed."
The messenger kept steady her gaze. "Tell me, is Draxis an honorable man?"
"I believe so, Amazon."
"Good. I better return to the negotiations."
Malcolm called out. "Wait."
The messenger welcomed an opportunity to continue the conversation. "Yes."
"You will pay the ransom."
The messenger heard the guard's words more as a statement, maybe even a plea than a question. Her response was measured. "We are following our Queen's command."
"Gabrielle said you were under orders not to pay ransom."
The messenger noted the familiar reference. "Did she?"
"Yes. She doesn't seem to be afraid of death."
The Amazon's response was curt. "She isn't."
"How can that be?" The guard seemed truly perplexed.
The warrior spoke thoughtfully. "Because she has known death intimately."
Malcolm was not satisfied. "What do you mean?"
The messenger feigned impatience. "I'm not a bard. Guard take care not to harm my Queen. Whomever harms such a pure soul will know no peace."
The guard reared. "You can't intimidate me."
The messenger's calm reflected Malcolm's anger. "I don't have to. I simply speak the truth."
Malcolm's spirit splintered. His tone softened. "Amazon, did you know Xena?"
The messenger's interest was arrested. "Yes, I did. Why do you ask?"
"Gabrielle. Your Queen loved her didn't she?"
"And what of Xena? Did she love the Queen?"
The messenger struggled to maintain her composure. "It is said that there has never been a greater love."
"I wonder..." The guard's drifted.
"What?" The messenger was determined to continue.
There was fear in Malcolm's voice. "If the Queen will choose to live without her."
The messenger stepped forward. Her voice betrayed a sense of urgency. "What do you mean?"
"I don't know. She is strong but I suspect she is also lost."
"She has a daughter."
This surprised Malcolm. Gabrielle had not spoken of a daughter in the fragments of the stories he had heard her speak. "Does she? What is her name?"
"That is Xena's child."
"Eve is Gabrielle's daughter just as much as she is...was Xena's. Eve hold's our Queen's right of caste."
"I hope their bond is strong enough to keep Gabrielle in life."
The messenger was now certain that this guard offered a possibility. "What is your name?"
The guard held for a moment and then chose to respond. "Malcolm."
"Well Malcolm. I don't know what will happen with our negotiations. I can tell you that our Regent will not betray my Queen. If Gabrielle is prepared to die for her tribe then it is not for us to change her destiny."
"If Xena was alive..."
"But she's not, is she?"
"Draxis will lose his patience soon enough."
"As I said, we of her tribe will honor our Queen. We will not disobey her."
Malcolm's conclusion was bound in the anger that rises from fear. "So she will die!"
The messenger posed a challenge. "Would you stop her murder or are you the one who will carry out the command?"
"Malcolm took a step back as if he had been struck. "I won't kill her."
"Then you may join her in death. I know of no warlord worth a grain of salt that would tolerate insubordination."
"I am a guard not an executioner."
"Even if someone else carries out the order you are complicit. Don't lie to yourself you are my Queen's executioner whether you strike the blow or not."
Malcolm cried out. "Pay the ransom!"
The messenger called out an alternative. "Help me set her free."
"What?" The guard could not believe the Amazon's audacity.
"We can work together. I promise you no blood will be shed."
Malcolm tried to resist his own conscious. "I am not a traitor!"
"Malcolm, you must decide whether you will be Gabrielle's executioner or Draxis traitorous guard. If you help us I guarantee you safe passage with enough coins under your belt to have a fair life."
"If you would pay me why don't you pay Draxis."
"The Amazon nation will not reward evil."
"Go to Tartarus!"
The messenger spoke with her heart. "Until my Queen is free I am living in Tartarus. It can't get any worst than this. If you decide to help get word to our Regent through one our warriors."
Malcolm turned and walked way. Xena watched the young guard. She would wait to see if he returned as an ally.
Malcolm had been successful in bringing a steady supply of candles to Gabrielle. He had hoped that the addition of light would lessen her isolation. He feared the deepening of her depression. Gabrielle had grown quieter. She seemed to live in a world outside of the cell. He would hear her at times storytelling in the darkness. If she was close enough to the door he could follow the epic. He had been struck by the young woman's gentle beauty, by her status of Amazon Queen, her reputation as a capable warrior and as an insightful strategist and negotiator. It was only later that he realized that Gabrielle was also the celebrated Bard of Poteidaia. Her stories, at least the ones he heard were all about Xena, the Warrior Princess, the Queen's champion and consort. If but half of Gabrielle's stories were faithful both she and Xena were truly extraordinary women.
Gabrielle looked neither to the candlelight and food nor to Malcolm and the torch. Malcolm had tried to begin a conversation but Gabrielle would have none of it. He went to the Queen and knelt down before her on one knee. "Gabrielle, I'm told Xena had a child. That you gave her your right of caste."
"Isn't she worth living for?"
Gabrielle looked at Malcolm. "You have no idea of what I am thinking or feeling."
"No, I can only imagine." To this the guard raised himself and walked out of the chamber. Gabrielle followed his shadow as she had done so many times before. She spoke aloud to herself, "You don't know."
Part 29 - Not the Queen's Daughter
Xena went to their hut. No guards were posted. Eve was not to be found. The warrior stepped out, her eyes scanning the courtyard. A fear began to rise up through her spine. The maternal protectress took one step after another. Each stride broad, confronting a feared threat. She called to the Captain of the Guards, Vaela, standing outside the Council room, "Have you seen my daughter?"
"No Xena, I have not."
"Where is the Queen?"
"She and the council members are in the dining hall for their mid-day meal."
"Xena turned abruptly then stopped and returned her glance to Vaela. "Was the baby mentioned?"
Xena's steps were quick. She heard a child. She was certain it was Eve. The baby's cry came from the healer's hut. Fearing Eve's injury or illness Xena showed no restraint or courtesy. She entered Simina's quarters slashing the cloth that covered the threshold. To her relief she found Eve on Simina's lap. The healer placed her finger in the babe's mouth. "Xena, is something wrong?"
"Why is Eve here?"
"The babe is teething as you well know. My Queen suggested I temper her discomfort."
To each side of the healer stood two of the royal guards. Xena directed her words to them. "Why was I not informed?"
Cadin, the senior, spoke first. "Xena, I went to the Queen for guidance. It was she who sent us to Simina."
"The Queen? You come to me. Do you understand me? Eve is not the Queen's daughter. This child is my child."
Cadin's discomfort visibly increased. Her eyes turned. Xena chose to follow the guard's gaze. There stood the Queen. Beside her stood Vaela. Gabrielle looked from Cadin to Eve and finally to Xena. The Queen spoke, "Xena, I didn't want to disturb your drills. It won't happen again. I'm sorry."
A shadow had over taken Gabrielle. Her eyes were dull and distant. She turned and left the hut followed by Vaela.
How could Xena explain her reaction? It was her fear. Eve's life had been in jeopardy since conception. No mother's fear could be more justified. Simina was never one to shy away from confrontation. Her demeanor spoke volumes. Her words were few as she directed the guards to wait outside. "Take your child."
Xena reached out and lifted Eve from Simina's arms. She embraced this innocent life. Breathing in the sweet smell of her body, allowing the softness of Eve's touch to own her.
"No one Xena will ever take your daughter's love from you. As great as your love for her may be I know it has not lessen your love for my Queen. Know that Eve can love others and still claim you above all others and beyond what your heart could ever imagine possible. And remember, words, especially those driven by fear are capable of causing injury far deeper and more sustainable than any sword."
The healer's words were true. Xena knew this and her soul ached to restore Gabrielle's favor. "Simina, would you care for Eve until I return?"
"Of course Warrior."
Xena smiled. Simina's use of the term "Warrior" had become an endearment. Xena knew that Simina recognized and approved of what must be done. The mother placed a kiss on her daughter's cheek before allowing a separation. "This may take time."
"As much time as she needs I will willingly give."
Xena knew the "she" was both Eve and the Queen. Xena found Vaela once again outside the Council chamber. "Is the Queen here?"
"No Xena. She dismissed me and began to walk towards the north meadow." Xena was silent as she considered whether to breech Gabrielle's solitude. Vaela's voice interrupted her thoughts. "Xena, I am certain that my Queen would lay down her life for your child."
Xena had no doubt. Gabrielle had proven Vaela's words true time and again. "I know Vaela."
"She loves Eve as her own."
"Yes, she does."
Vaela spoke more as a question than a challenge. "But to you my Queen could never be an equal parent."
"You're wrong Vaela. Gabrielle is just as responsible for bringing Eve into the world as I am."
"Would that she could believe you thought it so."
"If by my own words she doesn't, I will make sure she does by day's end."
"It takes courage to admit one's error."
"Maybe. But I think this time it will take humility to right a wrong."
"You would know best."
"The northern meadow?"
Presenting a minor bow, "The northern meadow."
The north meadow was Gabrielle's favorite. It was encircled by a stance of tall trees. The grasses grew high. They bent with the breeze, sweeping like an ocean wave. A small brook cut across bringing fresh waters from the mountains. With it came the music of the minor currents traveling over stone.
Together Gabrielle and Xena had spent more than one evening here under the stars. During harvest, when the moon was bright and large, Gabrielle felt she could simply reach up and touch the orb and take in the wisdom of the ages. This was not a safe night. She did not lie beside Xena. It was mid-day. The heat of the sun radiated upon her exposed shoulders and up from the earth through her legs.
The Queen held her emotions until reaching the small parcel of land beside the great tree that always sheltered them. She leaned forward against the arbor bracing herself with her hands, feeling its strength, sensing the life within its sap pulsating like the blood in her own veins. It was here among the life worn that she released all self-imposed constraints and allowed her tears to surface. Her sorrow caught within her throat. Within her mind echoed Xena's declaration. "Eve is not the Queen's daughter." It was true in blood but only in blood. Gabrielle could do nothing, say nothing as counter force. She crumbled physically and emotionally in a way she had not know since her crucifixion.
>From the moment of her resurrection she owned her strength and fought forcibly. She protected Xena and the promise of a child. And when Eve was born the promise became flesh and blood. Blue crystal eyes, soft bold hands, a voice that obstinately could mimic her mother's battle cry. By all that was life she loved the warrior and the child. It may have been wrong to wish Eve was also a part of her but she would stand in self-deceit if she confessed otherwise. It was her heart's desire. Xena had now unequivocally drawn the line. "Eve is not the Queen's daughter."
Gabrielle descended to her knees, back arched forward in submission, a weight heavy upon her. She continued to cry. The loss was double edged. Not only was Eve placed an arm's length away from her love but so too the warrior. Their bond had been altered. She no longer stood beside Xena as an equal partner in life. The child had taken her place. There was no capacity in the bard to lay anger. She could not condemn a mother's love. She knew that love all too well. She had sworn her life to protect Eve. She was intent of ensuring that Eve would not have a constant uphill battle for her happiness. The tragedies of Hope and Solan would not be repeated.
Her body turned and she leaned against the massive wood holding herself, feeling the longing of the human heart travel from the deepest recesses of her soul to the surface. The circle of her life which had included Xena and Eve had constricted, placing the two outside the most intimate, leaving her in an aloneness that threaten to take her breath away. What she deemed her life reason, the ability to act upon her love knowing with her very essence that her love was welcomed, needed, wanted, all this had been challenged
Xena heard Gabrielle before she placed her underneath the arbor. Xena's regret threaten to consume her. Her's were brutal words for the bard to hear. She had hoped for grace, that Gabrielle's pain would not be so profound, but the warrior knew better. Gabrielle's nature was such that she could never completely detach from feeling life's harshness.
The warrior stood a distance. For a moment she felt the coward. She didn't trust herself to speak the right words. She would follow Gabrielle's greatest lesson to her. Xena would allow her heart to lead her.
Queen, bard, warrior in her own right, it did not matter. Gabrielle was a woman in pain. She did not sense her companion as only she could. She did not until the warrior's hand gently took her wrist and guided her arm down to reveal her sheltered face. She felt Xena's pull as she was taken into an embrace. Xena knelt before her bard. She spoke first with her touch. Gabrielle's tears continued. The bard's sorrow was rooted in her humanity. There was no shame in her fragileness. Once again, she spoke an apology, "I'm sorry."
Xena's voice carried her regret. "Don't be. You did nothing wrong. I was frightened. I trust Eve with you. It's hard for me to trust others."
"I know your love for Eve comes first."
Xena felt her anger driving through her. "No. Don't ever say that. Gabrielle, look at me." Xena separated herself from Gabrielle. "Look at me."
Gabrielle shyly complied.
"I love you. For all our years together you have been the center of my life. That hasn't changed. It won't ever change. Do you hear me?"
"No, I won't lose you. Not again. I won't."
"Eve is our daughter. Ours! When she holds us she holds us together, not separately, not apart. When I think of her I think of her in your arms, in the center of my life. Both of you, together."
Gabrielle reached out and caressed Xena's cheek. Xena raised her hand and placed it on Gabrielle's forearm. "Gabrielle, don't ever think of yourself as anyone less than my love."
Part 30 - Waiting
As she hoped Malcolm had agreed to help orchestrate Gabrielle's release. They would move quickly. All preparations needed to be completed before his next shift. Gabrielle would not know of their coming. Xena knew she needed to be patient for the span of a few more candlemarks. Gabrielle's freedom took far longer to secure than the warrior had hoped. It took time for her to heal from the cliff fall. One of Draxis' men had given her a blow to the head from the rear as she fought three others. Her fall had caused a small avalanche of rock and earth leaving Draxis to believe that she had been buried alive. To allay his fear Draxis had his men investigate the scene. They found no sign of her. And so he left with Gabrielle as his prize. The Amazon tribe members wounded but alive were far more diligent. They found the warrior and dug her out.
It took time for Xena to study Draxis's defenses. They were dense. To her frustration the warlord was smart and well armed. She knew she needed to be able to guarantee Gabrielle's safety from within as she infiltrated the prison. Malcolm was her means of access. The boy didn't know what the Warrior Princess nor the Regent looked like. Xena intentionally posed as one of the Queen's warriors. If Malcolm betrayed the Amazons, Draxis' defenses would be all the greater if the fact that she was alive had been known. Going to Malcolm had been a risk but Xena needed to hear the guard's voice, observe his body language before committing to her strategy. It became obvious to Xena that the young guard had grown to care for her partner. Her appeal to his heart garnered the necessary response. Malcolm had taken upon himself the burden of traitor among Draxis' men. The youth would soon earn her gratitude and her friendship.
The guard's concern for Gabrielle had shaken the warrior. Gabrielle had been free all her life, if not physically, she could still find escape through her imagination. Xena took solace that Gabrielle was using her gift for storytelling to hold to her hope. How great Gabrielle's spirit had been wounded would not be known until they were reunited.
For Xena the separation had been almost more than she could withstand. She pushed her body beyond its healing. Simina had argued but as always the healer ultimately supported the warrior. Xena orchestrated every word spoken or in correspondence. Draxis' arrogant desire to present himself as her slayer was used to the tribe's advantage. They feigned disarray and begged time to place their governance in order. They extended negotiations allowing Draxis to believe that he held the advantage by acquiescing to his demand that all meetings take place in his quarters. The scouting had been thorough though time consuming.
Always Xena remained in the shadows, at a distance, an illusive specter. She could never get close enough to see the bard. Reports were that the Amazon Queen was kept in a chamber, nothing less than a prison within the center of Draxis' fortress. The corridors to reach Gabrielle were designed as an intricate labyrinth. Malcolm provided the key to both reaching and opening Gabrielle's chamber door.
The warrior ached for the bard. She missed everything; her presence, her wisdom, her compassion, all radiating from her voice, her laughter, her smile, her touch. She missed her lingering scent after sharing hours of passion. She missed her uncompromising humanity. What Xena did not miss because it long took residence in her heart was Gabrielle's love. No separation would ever take that from the warrior.
Part 31 - The Future
Gabrielle opened her eyes to the relentless darkness. It had not been that long ago that she and Xena were saved by Artemis. In the beginning of her life with the warrior it was her optimism that took her to the next day. Upon the cross she died, Xena beside her. She experienced Paradise and she tasted Hell. Both she and Xena returned to live again.
Her life changed after her revival. It was difficult to quantify. It was an awareness that she could not express in words. She looked to Xena knowing the warrior was everything to her. Though knowing this she knew more. She knew that there were promises between them and those promises were greater than life itself. In Paradise she knew she had to fight Xena's corrupted soul. She knew Xena, the Xena she loved would have taken oblivion over causing more harm. She knew that Eve centered around another promise. The child's life was of greater import than either or both their lives combined. In the darkness she knew the death in wait upon Xena's lips the night after the fire was no longer acceptable. Where she once only looked to Xena now she was compelled to see Eve. Eve was the future and Gabrielle had an obligation to fight for the right to stand beside Eve, to be her mother, friend, mentor and Queen. Knowing that the child's soul had known great tragedy in a previous life, it was for Gabrielle to temper the curse of losing her mother as a babe.
Malcolm had given her a timeline. She had been in the chamber one and a half cycles of the moon. Her people would care for her daughter. That Eve was her daughter with the death of Xena had been declared and recorded by the governing council. So too the right of caste. Her Regent was negotiating for her life and it was her duty to live for her daughter above all others.
How many times had she lost the warrior? Each a test of her resolve to live, to go on, to honor the legacy of their shared life together. There were too many memories to choose only the tears. The greatest the day of Eve's birth, the indescribable joy of a second chance. The loss of Solan would never be erased. Eve was a gift of absolution, an opportunity for two lives to dedicate themselves to preserve the innocence of a child.
How Gabrielle mourned Xena, equally how she yearned to hold their child in her hands. Gabrielle closed her eyes and concentrated on the child. The tiny hands, the wide eyes taking in everything, the spontaneous smile, the cry of wonder. She could hear Eve. She could see the child, never very far from the warrior, her mother, Gabrielle's love. Gabrielle held to these remembrances. Draxis could claim Xena's death but he would not claim he broke the Amazon Queen.
The cell door opened with a violent breach of the latch. A flame approached. Gabrielle had to shield her eyes. It wasn't Malcolm. The gate was quick and abrupt. She wondered if she had lost her ally with the changing of the guard. The intruder was not alone. The sound of multiple footsteps was difficult to quantify.
"The voice was all too familiar. It echoed within the walls. The reverberation pierced her skin and her very bones trembled.
"I'm here. Have they hurt you?"
Malcolm spoke up. "You're Xena?"
Xena responded holding her gaze upon Gabrielle. "Yes."
"I gave you my word."
Xena turned her attention to the complicit guard and then returned it to her bard. "Gabrielle?"
"Xena, I'm alright."
"Let's get you out of here."
Gabrielle needed to know. "Draxis?"
"Alive if he is smart enough to give us our leave. Not like that fool old guard."
Gabrielle looked up to Malcolm. "Ogden is dead?"
Malcolm answered. "Yes. He was going to call the alarm."
Xena interrupted. "Let's not let Malcolm's good work go for nothing. Gabrielle, we have to go. We can talk later."
"Malcolm. You killed Ogden?"
"I had no choice."
Xena's impatience had peaked. She took Gabrielle in her arms and carried her away to safety.
Gabrielle called back to the guard, "I'm sorry."
Part 32 - Resolutions
Gabrielle stood in the privacy of the Queen's hut. Xena sat watching her partner. Malcolm was now a fugitive. Xena fulfilled her promised to him. He was given sufficient funds to begin a new life far from the warlord. He had left the province with a contingent of Amazon warriors for protection immediately after all escaped Draxis' stronghold.
Gabrielle went to the crib and stroked the baby's emerging hair. Eve's hands were miraculously small and yet strong as she gripped Gabrielle's finger. Gabrielle smiled. This innocent child promised the twilight of the gods. Neither Xena nor she knew why or how this would happen, only that they lived so the child could live, so the child could know the greatest love. This is why Gabrielle held on. She held on for her family, her home. She went to Xena and rested her head against the warrior's lap. The warrior stroked her partner's short blond hair.
"I love you, Xena."
"And I love you." Xena had noted long ago that the bard said fewer words in her maturity. It was not for Gabrielle to fill all silences with questions and observations. Gabrielle had seen and experienced so much that her eyes were taken less by the extraordinary. Better said, the wonder in life was found in the ordinary. Though the extraordinary touched their lives, it was not something they sought out. The youth of the past wanted adventure. The woman of the present wanted peace. Xena knew peace could not be had with the scorn of the gods against them. Still, somehow moments like this could be shared. They surely came without the blessings of the gods. "How are your eyes?"
"Adjusting. The colors, the faces of people even those some would call ugly have their own grace. You know this when it's taken away from you and you yearn to have it back."
"I missed you my bard."
"We will never end." Gabrielle raised her head and gazed upon the sapphire eyes that pierced through her, touching her soul.
Gabrielle meant much more than their love. More than Eve, who would be their legacy in flesh and blood. For Gabrielle their story was testament to all whose lives they touched and who had touched them. Their legacy was every act of charity, every defense of the weak, poor or oppressed. They found their strength in each other, that is true. But their reason went beyond the other to the greater good. Their lives had both a public and a private realm. As a prisoner Gabrielle had focused on the private, the personal. Her love for Xena was the source of her passion for life. However, now both free, they would go on. They would reenter the public landscape and continue their quest to give where others can't or won't. Soon, they would renew the journey towards their destinies.
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