A Fear of Daylight

by

Mayt@aolcom

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: There are a number of references to events that took place in Silences and Silences 2. I have assumed the reader is familiar with those two stories.

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.

The storyÖ

Gabrielle walked from the creek, a towel over her head another wrapped around her body. "Xena, hurry before you catch a chill."

"Gabrielle, not everyone needs the sun beating down on their body to stay warm."

Gabrielle turned to wait for the warrior who was dressed in similar towel garments. "I love you." Xena came and took Gabrielleís hand placing a light kiss upon her palm.

"Come on. Iíll throw some more wood on the fire while you get dressed." Xena took swift steps towards their camp.

"Xena."

Xena stopped and turned. "Yes."

"I really do love you." Gabrielleís smile was radiant. They remained a half dozen paces from one another.

"Donít tempt me. Weíll never eat." Xena turned again to walk away. Gabrielle would not make it easy. She called out the warriorís name once again. Xena gave the bard a sidelong, knowing glance. "Yes, my bard, I love you too." The reticent warrior moved on, archiving this memory with all the many others the bard had gifted her.

Pleased, Gabrielle watched Xenaís modest retreat.

* * *

Lying side by side with the firelight to illume, Gabrielle held Xenaís hand. It was a larger, courser hand than her own and yet it was capable of giving comfort, conveying passion, and by resting simply in her own promising a shield against harm.

"Someday I may want my hand back."

"I donít think so."

"But if I do?"

"Its yours I would never keep it against your will."

Xena watched as Gabrielle intertwined their hands. "Iím sorry."

Gabrielle turned to Xena. "What in Gaiaís name for?"

"Itís still hard for me sometimes. I know I should tell you more often."

"You show me every day."

"I donít say the words. I know you need the words."

"I need you, Xena."

"And I need you." Gabrielle studied Xenaís pensive expression as the warrior tentatively traced Gabrielleís face with her fingers. "I love you, my bard."

Gabrielle smiled the same radiant smile of the early evening. Xena leaned forward and claimed the bardís lips. The wind raised briskly carrying the coldness of the night to their bed. Xena wrapped the blankets closely to them. "I think we should stay in an inn at the next village. A warm bed and fireplace would be nice right now."

"Iím perfectly happy where I am."

"Trust me. I can make you happier."

* * *

Xena sat in a large broad back chair near the fireplace. She had started the fire to counter the cold of the early evening. Gabrielle was lying, fully clothed, on the bed asleep. She had intended to close her eyes for a moment. It had now been over two candlemarks.

Xena hadnít the heart to disturb the bard. There were still times when her partner would withhold the extent of her fatigue from the warrior. Xena had gotten a tray of food for the two. She had eaten a good half candlemark before. Xena had changed into her shift, with the anticipation of a quiet, private evening with Gabrielle. In the stillness of the room she reconciled herself that this evening she would need to be content with her own company. In truth she was happy to have the uncommon knowledge of being warm and safe and being able to say the same of Gabrielle. She turned to observe the bard once again. Xena knew it was a crime that she still did not express her love more freely.

* * *

Gabrielle awoke abruptly jolted by an image in her sleep. Her eyes opened. Her hand reached out for Xena but found only emptiness. The sound of the crackling fire drew her vision to the middle of the room. There she spied Xena sitting quietly. Gabrielle took soundless, deep breaths to calm her racing heart. Gathering her thoughts she struggled to identify the terror that still held her. She took a blanket in hand and wrapped it around herself as she got up and went to the warrior.

Xena heard the rustle of bedcovers. She turned to see Gabrielle approach her. The bard consciously still distant with lingering sleep took her place in Xenaís arms resting her head against Xenaís shoulder.

"I didnít think you would be up till morning."

Gabrielle only shifted in an attempt to do the impossible, that being to get even closer to her partner.

"Hey, are you hungry? Thereís plenty still on a plate."

Gabrielleís voice trembled. "Hold me."

Xena surveyed the woman in her embrace. Something was not right. A sense of unease filled the room. "Are you okay?"

Gabrielle nodded. Xena remained unconvinced. She held the bard for a good candlemark trying to give whatever comfort she could, hoping Gabrielle would speak to what had brought her into Xenaís arms. Growing tired herself Xena whispered in Gabrielleís ear. The bard though still had not fallen back to sleep.

"Itís getting late. How about we go to bed?

Gabrielleís voice was low and fearful. "No."

Xena was now certain that Morpheus has given Gabrielle a fright. There could be no other explanation. The bard had been very happy with the prospect of staying at the inn.

"Gabrielle?"

" Donít let go."

"I wonít. I promise."

Xena lifted the bard and carried her to their bed, setting her on the bedside. The bardís need would not allow there to be any distance between them. Xena slowly undressed Gabrielle keeping her secure in her embrace. To reach Gabrielleís shift Xena had to stretch to the bedside table. She felt Gabrielleís hands extend themselves to her keeping their bond intact. Having dressed Gabrielle in her shift, Xena guided her to rest.

* * *

Gabrielle seeing the dagger thrown lunged to cover Xena crying out Xenaís name in warning. Xena turned. The daggerís projectile was straight towards Xenaís own heart. Gabrielle was now positioned to take the blade in her back. Xena instinctively stepped forward into a violent embrace with the bard. She clasped her hands behind Gabrielleís back catching the dagger by its hilt, a fraction from Gabrielleís flesh. With one hand she rotated the dagger and redirected it back into the senderís throat.

Xena quickly scanned the room ensuring their safety. The tavern patrons slowly began to raise themselves to their feet assessing the damage of furniture and the death toll of three.

Her heart had quickened no more so than due to Gabrielleís final act. Xena took the bard forcefully by the arms, failing to check her anger. Her demanding eyes were matched by a low, stiletto voice. "Gabrielle, what did you think you were doing?"

Gabrielle matched Xenaís gaze but said nothing. She desperately wanted to be held in a gentle embrace but Xenaís anger was a force that allowed for no comfort, only the challenge.

The tavern owner approached the warrior cautiously. "Are you and your friend all right?"

Xenaís gaze was fixed upon Gabrielle. "Yes." The word was her mean to transcend the emotions she found impossible to define.

"Would you like to go to your room? Iíll have my girl bring a tray of food. No charge."

Xena turned to the man. "Yes, thank you." Her hands still held Gabrielle in a viselike grip. She would not allow the woman to separate from her touch, her custody. Xena heard her partnerís fearful voice speak her name. Her eyes returned to the subject of her hold. "Come on Gabrielle. Letís go upstairs." Only then did she release the bard. With her hand against Gabrielleís back, Xena guided the young woman to their room, ever alert, still shaken.

The tavern owner stood in regard of the two women who had just saved his life from the hands of thieves. Their lives had never been threaten. They could have just waited as the events unfolded. Instead, with precision, they stepped forward as all the other patrons, some who he would call friends, cowered in their seats. Why the gods had blessed him with their presence he did not know. In the morning he would go to the temple and give due offering in gratitude. Tonight and for the remainder of their stay, he would ensure their comfort. It was all that he could give in return.

* * *

Gabrielle entered their chamber. Uncertain she silently took to the large chair by the fireplace. A fire was burning. She longed for its warmth. Her body was numbed. Shock had begun to gradually overcome her defenses. Gabrielle heard Xena behind her. The warrior was pacing. She stopped. Gabrielle guessed Xena stood directly behind her chair. After two, three heartbeats Xenaís stepped without further hesitation to the door. The abrupt sound of its opening betrayed the contained rage of the warrior as she quitted the room.

* * *

Xena left the tavern and walked out to the village perimeter. She clung to her promise to Gabrielle. She accepted their life and its associated dangers. She accepted that together they would continue to help those in need. Theirís was a partnership. All was shared. Xena knew that without the promise she would have lost Gabrielle. There was no going back on her word. But, as the heavens have stars, Gabrielle would always be her responsibility. The thought of losing her; to have Gabrielle give her own life up so Xena would live was unbearable. It was not the first time Gabrielle had made that choice and Xena knew that if circumstances presented themselves it would not be the last.

Her rage, and it was rage that cut easily over the line of mere manageable anger, had no clear target. Towards herself for a near failure; towards the thieves who lost their miserable lives in pursuit of unearned dinars; to the gods that made a world weighed, she believed more to the darkness than to the light; towards Gabrielle, the one person who didnít deserve it. Xena sometimes wished the bard did not love her so completely. Of course she recognized the great irony in that thought. Xena knew well that it was because of the extraordinary nature of Gabrielleís love that the bard remained with the warrior. Now, it was time to return to the bard. It was time to forgive Gabrielle for loving her. Xena shook her head. She would never understand what she did to earn this bittersweet burden.

* * *

The tavern keeper came to her as she had reached the innís lower stairs. "Xena, would you like your meal now?"

Xena was puzzled by the offer. "I thought you were going to bring up a tray."

"My girl did. But there was no answer at the door. She thought it best not to disturb you."

Xena looked up towards their room. "No, Iím fine. But thank you for the offer."

"How about in the morning? I can offer you tea, rolls, cheese and fruit. You must let me show my gratitude."

"You owe us nothing. We were happy to help."

"Please, let me do something."

Xena placed her hand on the stout manís shoulder. "Iíll accept your hospitality. Just wait for me to come down for the tray. My friend doesnít like to be disturbed in the mornings."

"Good. Iíll have it at the ready. Sleep well."

Impatiently, Xena took the steps in two. Contrary to her hope of finding Gabrielle asleep, Xena, to her dismay recognized through the darkness of the room Gabrielleís silhouette. She was sitting in the chair as Xena had left her. Gabrielleís vision was fixed to the dying flames within the fireplace. She dared not raise her eyes to the warrior. Xena felt her anger inexplicably rising again. She walked to a table near their bed and began to undress. Gabrielle could hear Xena remove her armor and her leathers. The next sounds were the raising of the bedís blanket and the creak of the bed as it held Xenaís weight.

"Come to bed." Xenaís voice pierced the silence. It was neither request nor command. Gabrielleís hands held firm to the chair arms. The paralyses of fear strengthen. She closed her eyes trying to find a corridor to free her, to find the ability of motion that had eluded her. The sounds of the fire brought some comfort. She had relied on the fire during Xenaís absence. The sounds stood between her and complete detachment. She struggled without success in the passing candlemarks to define her fear, her uncertainty.

Xena waited for Gabrielle to join her. With her keen eyesight fixed upon the bard she kept vigil. Her anger diminished as she took account of Gabrielle. Gabrielle had not moved. Her stillness was disconcerting. It was difficult to note her breath. Troubled, Xena could not bear to merely stand watch.

Gabrielle felt a hand placed upon her own. "Gabrielle, come to bed." It was clearly Xenaís desire.

Gabrielle turned her gaze to meet Xenaís. Xena rested on one knee before her. Xena felt her own rising fear for she could judge neither what Gabrielle was feeling nor what she was thinking. "Gabrielle, please come to bed."

Gabrielle shyly reached for the warrior with her free hand. Xena moved forward to take Gabrielle completely into her embrace. "Hey, Iím here."

Gabrielle hid her face in the crook of Xenaís neck. Her arms held Xena close. Her body trembled. Xena recalled the familiar, troubling sensation from their first intimate joining. All of the warriorís remaining anger was transformed to concern. "Tell me."

Gabrielle remaining silent tightened her embrace.

"All right. Weíll talk in the morning."

For the second in as many nights Xena lifted a fearful Gabrielle into her arms carried her to bed, undressed her and held her until they both fell to sleep.

* * *

The sensation of the gentle caress and kisses awoke her. Xenaís lips responded to Gabrielleís soft hungry mouth. Aware of the bardís act of seduction Xena raised her hands and pulled Gabrielle from her. Her eyes searched Gabrielleís own for a hint of what was driving the bard in the night. But the shade in her green eyes divulged nothing.

"Gabrielle?"

The bardís voice was a whisper, near a cry of sorrow. "Xena, make love to me. Please Xena, I need you. Be with me."

Xena raised herself turning Gabrielle unto her back. The warrior stroked the bardís hair. She moved her hand down to caress her partnerís cheek. The softness always surprised her. No words could carry the breath and depth of her heart. Though she had many questions, this was not the time. Gabrielle needed her touch and she wanted to reassure herself that the bard was hers. The rest could wait until morning.

Xenaís lovemaking was tender. She carried Gabrielle forward with care. The bardís response though passionate still held tentativeness, a fragileness that made Xena all the more Gabrielleís protector. At the moment of release Gabrielle called Xenaís name and with tears falling uncontrollably she turned her body to her side, folding into herself. Xena moved by the bardís profound vulnerability, matched her body to the bardís and held her as she wept. The now all too familiar trembling returned.

* * *

Gabrielleís hand reached for the warrior. The bed was empty. Her body reacted. She trembled. She took hold of the bedcovers trying to find warmth where there was only the coldness of a grave.

"Good morning."

Gabrielle raised her eyes to Xena who offered her a mug of tea. Disorientated for a moment Gabrielle simply stared at her partner.

"Gabrielle? Are you all right?"

Focusing her thoughts, Gabrielle raised herself up. Taking the tea from Xena. "Thank you. Iím fine."

Xena was skeptical but chose not to pursue her concern. "The tavern keeper is very grateful for last night. Heís offered us free room and board for as long as we like. I thought we might stay another night or two. What do you think?"

Gabrielle scanned the room. It had become both prison and sanctuary to her during the previous night. She didnít know if staying with the memories was wise. She also didnít want to disappoint the warrior. With decisions such as these she would always chose for Xena. "We can stay."

"Iíll let him know. Now, about yesterday."

"Xena, I rather not talk about it."

"Tell me one thing? Did you know? Did you see the dagger in your dreams?"

"Iím not that good of an oracle. No, it was all a surprise to me."

"You sure?"

"Yes. Why do you ask?"

"I donít know. You had me worried."

Gabrielle slipped her tea silently. Xena watched her for a moment before retrieving the breakfast tray. She rested the tray on the bed between them. Gabrielle knew she needed to eat but she wasnít hungry. She lifted a small piece of cheese to her mouth. Xena rested her hand on the bardís leg keeping their physical connection without imposing herself. The moment was familiar in posture and yet felt alien to the warrior. "So, what do you want to do today?" Xena was determined to give Gabrielle a pleasant day even if it included exploring the marketplace. She did not expect Gabrielleís response. "I want to go to the temple."

* * *

Xena remained outside as Gabrielle, staff in hand, entered the temple. It was still early enough in the day that there were no others present in worship. Gabrielle stood a few paces from the altar. She knelt, keeping her staff before her. Bowing her head she closed her eyes. She concentrated on her breath seeking to calm herself and to find her voice.

"Artemis, if you hear me please help me. Iím so frightened"

The emotion fear is elemental. Why the wave of fear had taken her so completely was beyond Gabrielleís discernment. Gabrielle placed the staff down horizontal to the altar. The weapon could not mitigate her helplessness. She remained motionless for half a candlemark. She found no solace. As a tear fell from her eye she felt a gentle hand sweep it aside. Opening her eyes she found that Artemis was the owner of the gesture.

"My chosen one."

"Artemis."

The resonance of the goddessí voice was soothing. "Do you fear death?"

"No."

"Then you must fear life."

Gabrielle looked down. She was at a loss.

Artemis continued to question. "And what is it life can present you that you cannot tolerate? You have known pain in your young life. You know you have the strength to endure and thrive."

Gabrielle spoke the only word her in heart. "Xena."

"What of the warrior?"

"I canít bear the thought of being without her."

"You have lost her in the past."

"Yes, but that was before."

"Before your joining?"

"Yes."

"It may have been better if you had remained chaste as I myself have chosen. Why come to me? Aphrodite is the goddess of love."

"I have Xenaís love. Aphrodite can no longer help me. I am an Amazon. You are my goddess."

"Am I? Gabrielle, I know your voice well. I have heard it cry out in anger, pain and confusion. I have also heard its compassionate tenor when you have given comfort. I know your off-key song of joy and the mesmerizing cadence in your storytelling. I have never heard humility in the presence of the divine. You have shown me the respect but little of the honor and deference of one held in reverence. When silenced in your injury not once did you call upon me? You are a self assured mortal."

"When I was hurt I knew what I faced. Itís what I donít know that scares me."

"Tell me my chosen one. When have you known anything other than that the sun will rise and set, and that the darkness of the night will shine with the moon and stars?

Gabrielle held the goddess with her gaze not knowing how to respond.

"Hear me well. I am not looking for your supplication. Insincerity would only anger me. There are those who like serpents are intent on renewing themselves by shedding their skin. That is not you. Though you have shown me regard that is all you deem me worthy of. Xena is your goddess. Take care she is but a mortal. Placing the whole of your life in her hands will guarantee you nothing. It is clear you fear the unknown. Xena cannot, no matter how you cleave to her, be your oracle and protectress. She is the shrine, her body the altar you have chosen to sacrifice yourself upon. Having made that choice you must live with the consequences."

Standing at the templeís portal, it was obvious to Xena that Gabrielle was in an attitude of prayer. That Gabrielle had been troubled was clear. That she sought solace from the gods was somewhat of a surprise. Xenaís indifference towards most and contempt for the remainder of the gods had evolved after too many years of experiencing and observing the end results of their actions. It had only been in a rare desperate occasion that she found herself seeking their intervention. Gabrielleís heart was more tempered. Xena could only hope that she would find the answer among these marble walls. Satisfied of Gabrielleís safety, the warrior returned to the exterior steps to wait.

It was another half candlemark before Gabrielle stepped into the courtyard. She placed her hand on Xenaís shoulder as she sat beside the warrior. Xena turned to the bard searching for the light in her eyes. It was still dim. Gabrielle took Xenaís face in her hand. "I love you."

Somehow those words had lost their power to reassure. Xena took Gabrielleís hand and studied it. She then enfolded it in her own. "Iím here for you, you know that donít you?"

Gabrielle knew that Artemis was right. Her faith in life was in the warriorís hands. "Yes. I know."

* * *

They stayed in the inn for two more nights. Gabrielle chose not to play the role of the bard. With room and board freely provided she felt no compelling reason to take the risk of a bar fight. Xena did not argue. She enjoyed the idea of having the evenings free. Xena noted that contrary to Gabrielleís customary desire to interact with others she had been making choices that left her alone with the warrior. There was no trip to the marketplace. Meals were taken in their room. The days passed quickly and the tension within the bard seemed to lessen.

* * *

Xena and Gabrielle walked side by side, Xena holding Argoís reins. A group of peasant men and women were ahead of them.

Gabrielle looked to Xena. "What do you think?"

"Donít know." Xena called to an elderly man sitting nearby. "Hey, whatís going on?"

The elderly man looked up to the two travelers. "No battle for you to fight warrior."

Xena felt an immediate distaste for the man. Gabrielle spoke. "Is there something wrong?"

The man softened. "A child, a little girl of three summers has wandered off. Theyíre planning a search."

Gabrielle turned to Xena. Xena looked to her partner. "Weíll help."

* * *

They had been searching for more than a candlemark. The little girl, Cali, and her parents had been traveling to visit relatives. They had stopped for a mid-day meal. With the father tending their mare and the mother preparing the food they each had assumed the other was care taking the child when in fact neither knew her whereabouts.

The search party of Caliís parents and other good travelers were walking the forest floor in a line separated by twenty paces. Gabrielleís place was at the end of the right side of the line. Xena was the nearest searcher to her. The sun broke through the treetops. Under different circumstances it would have been a peaceful image. Gabrielle noted that the forest could have the quality of a beautiful haven or of an ominous threat. Sometimes its qualities were simply defined by the state of mind of whoever took to travel its domain. Even in the night, the forest could effuse an atmosphere of comfort or unrelenting loneliness. She had known both. Usually the comfort was bound to Xena and the loneliness to the absence of the warrior.

Gabrielle could hear the various voices of men and women calling out Caliís name. Caliís mother, Eliaís voice was all too recognizable. There was no concealing the womenís fear. Xena and Gabrielle were acutely familiar with the pain that accompanied the loss of a child. The loss of Solan nearly destroyed both of them. The loss of Hope would always weigh heavily on Gabrielleís soul. Children, no matter the actions of Hope, were to Gabrielle the innocents, dependent on the best adults could give them. Unfortunately, the children were often disappointed if not by their caretakers than by other adults who should but refuse to bear an equal concern for a childís well being. It was one aspect of the Amazons that Gabrielle cherished. Every woman in the village valued the children. Love was not bound by blood.

From the corner of her eye Gabrielle saw a patch of yellow. Yellow was the color of the childís dress. Gabrielle altered her path towards the color. Crouched within a small space between two large boulders the child laid asleep. Gabrielle called out to Xena that she had found the girl. Gabrielle knelt down to Cali and gently woke her.

"Cali, Cali wake up."

The little girl opened her eyes and pulled back, her eyes wide and her mouth open but emitting no sound.

"Its okay. My name is Gabrielle and Iím a friend of your parents. They have been looking for you. They are coming right now to get you."

Cali looked up, over Gabrielleís shoulder. Gabrielle could hear the voices as the news was called down the line. Gabrielle dared not approach any closer. The childís distrust was palpable. Caliís motherís voice calling out the childís name broke through all the sounds. Gabrielle kept her eyes upon the child. She could hear footsteps quickly making their way over the fallen branches and leaves.

Cali relaxed and called out, "Moma", then she lifted herself up and ran passed the bard. Gabrielleís eyes followed the childís path directly into her motherís arms. The bard smiled to herself as mother and child held each other. Xena came to Gabrielle and offered the bard her hand. Gabrielle took it and stood up.

"Xena, we did good today."

Xena turned to mother and child. "Yes, yes we did."

* * *

With dusk soon to fall they decided to make camp beside a nearby stream. Sitting by the fire, each with a mug of tea in hand, they had drifted into a comfortable silence. Xenaís head jerked to the side. She placed her hand on Gabrielleís thigh. Putting down her mug she reached for her sword.

"Xena. Gabrielle. Itís Thamen. May I approach."

Thamen was Caliís father. Xena called out her permission.

Thamen was a handsome young man. Xena liked him. Unlike the old man on the road Thamen had welcomed the offer of help, never questioning their sincerity.

He carried a small bundle in his arms. "I hope Iím not disturbing you."

Gabrielle smiled and motioned with her hand. "Not at all. Would you like to join us."

"No thank you. After today I donít want to be too far away from Elia and Cali. Elia thought you might enjoy some fruit bread. She is a rather good cook." He handed the bundle to Xena. Xena in turn gave it to Gabrielle. The bard opened the cloth to reveal a warm pan loaf. It smelled delicious.

Xena spoke first. "Thamen there was no need but please thank Elia. Tell her itís a fine gift."

Thamen smiled broadly. "I will do that. Xena. Gabrielle. Again, we canít thank you enough for helping us find Cali. May the gods shine on you both."

Xena never knew how to respond to a blessing. Gabrielle filled the silence. "Be safe."

"The same to you." Thamen turned and left the two to their shared solitude.

Gabrielle covered the bread and placed it aside. She leaned her head against Xenaís shoulder. "The gods shined on his family today."

"Oh, I wouldnít necessary say so." Xena gently countered.

"What do you mean?"

"Well they look at it like they got their daughter back. I just wonder why she had to get lost in the first place. People seem to forget that to overcome a bad thing means that the bad thing had to exist. No one seems to question that."

"Itís the balance of life. Good and evil."

"But why Gabrielle? Why must there be an Ares? Why must war exist? Why did Cortese attack Amphipolis? Why did slavers take you? I will not look to the gods for anything worth having."

"I think youíre being a bit harsh. I think we may owe Aphrodite a debt."

"Do you?"

"Weíre together arenít we?"

"And you would give Aphrodite the credit? I have always gone by your telling of two souls finding their other halves. No, the love Aphrodite plays with is not our kind of love."

Gabrielleís heart was taken by the warriorís unexpected words. "Xena, what kind of love is our love?"

Xena reached out and brushed errant stands of Gabrielleís hair aside. "It is a true love. We fought hard for it. And because it did not come easy it will never be taken for granted. It is part of every beat of my heart and every breath I take. That Gabrielle is what our love is to me."

Gabrielle traced Xenaís lips with her fingers. "Xena, donít ever again question telling me that you love me."

* * *

Gabrielle awoke with an overriding sense of peril. The ominous nature of the forest reigned. The fear that she had been able to arrest reasserted its command of her. She looked to Xena sleeping beside her. Xena could not resolve her distress.

Though they traveled the day without incident Gabrielle could not escape the fear. It grew in the daylight. It promised to incarnate around each bend, behind every tree. Every stranger met on the road held the potential of a threat first and foremost. This was not the familiar world of Gabrielleís welcoming perspective.

They set camp. Xena noted the relative silence of the bard. She suspected that the shadow that had touched Gabrielleís spirit had returned.

After they had completed their meal, Gabrielle got up and placed a hand on Xenaís shoulder. "Iíll be back in a little while." Xena turned and watched Gabrielle retreat into the woods. She would have to trust the bard.

Artemis stood before Gabrielle. "You come to me in the cloak of the night. Why are you hiding? Where does your shame lie?

Gabrielle sought counsel. Instead she continued to be questioned. "I donít think Xena would understand."

Artemis considered her chosen queen with frustration. She turned and walked a few paces, stopped and returned her gaze to Gabrielle. It was clear to Artemis that Gabrielleís struggle had not lessened. Her queen remained on her knees. Though Artemis appreciated the gesture, she was rather uncomfortable seeing Gabrielle in that posture. In Gabrielle it was a sign of weakness instead of what the goddess preferred, strength. "She has little use for the gods. Why should Xena stand between us? She is well aware that you are my chosen queen. Gabrielle, if Xena loves you she will not ask you to forfeit any part of your soul."

Gabrielle spoke for the first time that night with a grain of assurance. "She completes my soul."

"That may well be but she will never be the whole of your soul. Understand this. I do not doubt you. You have given the leadership of my tribe to Ephiny and you are right that it is Ephinyís time as regent. But that will not always be. In the past, in times of need, you have led the Amazons. Hear me Gabrielle. I will call upon you as leader again. That you share your life with Xena causes me no discomfort. I have no reason to be a jealous god. You have proven your allegiance and your strength when standing alone. Leaders must be strong enough to embrace their aloneness. It is only then that they are free to follow the right path and make the right choices. The warrior knows this better than most. You have yet to take our previous words to heart. Xena is not divine. She can never, she should never be a goddess to you. She is no more, no less than your equal. Love, no matter how strong cannot make the mortal immortal. Consider this. We will speak again."

Gabrielle called out Artemisí name to no avail. The goddess was gone.

* * *

Gabrielle returned to camp. She found Xena, needle in hand repairing the frail threads of a leather satchel. The warrior looked up acknowledging Gabrielleís return. Though she had been concerned with the bardís absence Xena said nothing. Gabrielle went to her partner and held her from behind. Whispering in Xenaís ear, "You know I love you."

Xena stopped her work and leaned back into the bardís embrace. "I have no reason to doubt you."

To this Gabrielle began to tremble. The sensation radiated through to Xena. Xena put down her work and turned to take Gabrielle into her arms. Gabrielle kept the distance.

"Gabrielle, what is it?"

Gabrielleís eyes explored the warrior. She wondered if she could indeed live without Xena. Breath, eat, sustain her corporal body, yes. But live, truly, completely live - heart, mind and spirit engaged that she doubted. Artemis was wrong. Xena was not a goddess to her but Xena and her life had converged, merged their hearts beat in unison. In Xenaís own words Gabrielle was facing a surrendered. Like Xena it was not a surrender of one partner to the other. The implications were far greater. Where Xena had known the consequences of the surrender Gabrielle realized she had not. She still did not.

"Gabrielle?" Xena gently pressed Gabrielleís arm. The sensation lifted the bard from her reverie. Gabrielle moved forward and kissed the warrior. Where her spirit was confused, stymied, her body cut through answering a deep call. Once again she yearned for their physical bond and she demanded it from Xena with an intoxicating passion.

Making love to Xena was a bridge for Gabrielle. Recently it had become her only bridge to the warrior, one that did not rely on words. The language of touch, of physical response was her one weapon against the fear. She stripped herself of hesitation, of caution, of self-imposed restraint and allowed the complete articulation of pain to merge with that of pleasure. In making love to Xena she felt what was both lost and found in their union, in their dense history. She knew this only in the deepest crevices of her psyche. It manifested itself in the tears that accompanied her final release as Xena held her in her arms.

As much as Xena welcomed Gabrielleís physical overtures they could not orchestrate her serenity. Xena was troubled by the bardís pattern of retreat and advance. No matter how much the warrior wanted an explanation she would not deny her bard. Xenaís own needs were great and she was not prepared to reject the comfort, the temporary solace of their intimate joining.

They lied in each otherís arms completely spent. Their lovemaking traveled to the instinctual feral satiation of need, of hunger. The bites, the force of stroke, the intensity crossed their passionate standards. Gabrielle opened her eyes to the light of dawn. She carefully slipped from Xenaís embrace. The energy, the indescribable forces within her surged. She wrapped a spare blanket around her naked body and walked with stealth steps to a nearby lake. Upon reaching the shore she dove into the calm cold waters. The frigidness challenged her flesh. She rose breaking the surface, her lungs demanding a fresh breath. She began a journey across the length of the lake. It took a good third of a candlemark to complete. Upon reaching the far shore she flipped her body and continued her strokes without interruption intent on returning to where she first began.

Her focus was to each stroke, to each breath with occasional confirmation of direction. Another third candlemark and she reached her target. Unsatisfied she chose to continue back to the far shore. The chill of the waters escaped her consciousness. The sound of her break against the surface became a melody playing against her ear. Maintaining the rhythm of sound confirmed the undeterred rhythm of her body. Reaching the far shore for a second time she refused to admit defeat though what she was fighting she did not know. All she knew, all she felt was that this self-defined contest against herself had not yet found an acceptable conclusion. So, she went on.

Nearing the quarter length of the span of the lake Gabrielle felt a sharp, exacting cramp take her left leg. She stopped, reflexively she reached with both hands to the offending calf and massaged it, entering a near fetal position. The depth of the waters was easily over her. She needed to reach the nearest shore. The massage brought only minor relief. She straightened her body as best she could, using her arms to keep her head and shoulders above the waters that would willingly consign her to death. Keying on a boulder as the nearest landmark she began to swim to safety.

Gabrielle sighed with relief upon feeling the earth underneath her strong leg. Half crawling, half-hopping to the shore she pulled herself completely out of the waters. The chill of the water was equaled by the chill of the air. A chill she had not merited upon her waking. A physical shivering overtook her body. Somehow she took comfort in knowing her body was reacting to the physical cold. This was somehow better than the symptomatic trembling, the physical loss of control she had been experiencing as a result of her fear.

She continued to massage her cramped leg as her lungs demanded heavy deep breaths. Her heartbeat began to settle. Looking across the expanse of the lake she knew Xena lay resting on the other side. If only the distance between them could be breached by the strokes of a swimmer.

How was she going to explain her actions to Xena when she herself didnít know why she took to the water. She had seen Xena countless times, restless, take Argo for a ride or disappear and return immersed in perspiration. For their years together Xena had addressed her tension, her anxiety physically. The bard had relied on her scrolls. This was one of the few times the bard had failed to find a means to an answer by taking quill to parchment. Was this then what Xena felt? Where was the relief? Other than being physically drained Gabrielle felt no different. Yes, different. Defeated. She looked across the lake with trepidation. She was naked, cold and nursing the cramp and yet she needed to return to camp.

Now the risk was clear where before, acting without thought there was none. What if she experienced another cramp? What if she stayed and Xena awoke to find her missing? Feeling sufficient return of her strength she stood and tested her legs. She walked into the lake feeling the penetrating coldness to the bone. Thigh high she dove in and began her journey. She kept a steady pace. Her focus returned to stroke and breath with an additional consideration to her leg.

Gabrielle reached the shoreline. She wrapped herself with her blanket. She sat down upon the grass her chin resting upon her knees, which she tucked closely to her body. Her mind began to settle to a long sought calm as she gazed out to the lake. The calm was soon broken by the sound of an approach through the brush. Xena reached her, though short of breath her voice embodied her anger. "What in Tartarus do you think you were doing?"

Gabrielle looked up recognizing in Xena a depth of anger that accompanies an unimaginable threat when it is first beheld. "Xena, Iím all right."

"What were you doing swimming out to the middle of the lake?"

Relieved that Xena was not privy to the extent of her swim, Gabrielle tried to minimize her folly. "Xena, it wasnít that far."

"With the cold you could of cramped and drowned."

Xena was too close to the truth. "It didnít happen."

Xenaís frustration had reached the breaking point. She went to her knees before Gabrielle. "What is going on with you. Iíve tried to be patient but this is the last straw."

Gabrielle tried to console the distraught warrior. "Xena, I went for a swim. Please donít make more out of this thanÖ"

Xena could not help but interrupt. "You went for a swim?"

Gabrielle needed to end the confrontation. "Xena, Iím cold."

Exasperated, Xena sat back upon her heels. "Go then. Warm up. The fire is still burning."

Gabrielle raised herself up and returned to their camp. She dressed into her shift and took to her bedroll. The shivering of her body subsided as she drifted into sleep.

Xena remained standing near the shoreline. The waters were calm. A light breeze traveled through the branches. She felt as if she stood in the eye of a storm, the calmness an illusion. She felt the danger to her core but she didnít know the source or its intent. Without that knowledge she couldnít prepare to do battle. What was more disconcerting was that all the turmoil seemed embodied within Gabrielle. She wondered if this was how Gabrielle felt when she, herself was tortured by her dreams and memories. The bard had found ways to reach into her soul and temper the emotional war she engaged in. Still, the root of Xenaís torment was clearly her acts as a warlord. What had taken dominion over Gabrielle she did not know, and why now?

* * *

Xena returned to camp after steadying herself. She found Gabrielle asleep. The warrior was afraid. She couldnít find a way to help the bard. There was no reassurance that she was not the cause. Yet, if she was a contributor she did not know how she might have done so. Xena had given Gabrielle her promise. No matter what their travels would bring she would stand by the bard.

Xena laid down beside Gabrielle. With her arm she pulled Gabrielle close to her. Gabrielle stirred and covered Xenaís hand with her own. The warrior leaned to the bardís ear and whispered. "Are you warm enough?"

Gabrielle nodded.

"Its time you talk to me. No matter what you say to me it canít be any worst than your silence. I promise Iíll listen. I promise Iíll still be with you after all is said and done."

"How do you know?"

Xena did not expect the question. "I know Gabrielle. If I didnít my life with you would have no meaning."

"But Xena, how do you know? Where does your faith come from?"

Xena raised herself upon her elbow. "Gabrielle, look at me."

Gabrielle turned onto her back. She met Xenaís gaze. It was intent, curious, gentle.

Xena spoke mindfully. "Iíve placed my faith in you. I always have and I always will. Even when I left you I still carried you inside of me."

"But Iím not perfect. Iíve hurt you in the past. Solan."

Xena placed her fingers upon Gabrielleís lips to silence her. "Yes, because of your faith and your love for your child."

"Xena. Chin. I betrayed you to Ming Tíien."

Xena could not understand why Gabrielleís was so insistent on finding fault with herself that she would go years in their past to leverage her argument. Xena took a calming breath. "Youíre right. Youíve hurt me but I donít understand why you need to bring back the past. I thought we had gone well beyond those times."

Gabrielle continued. "You still have faith in me?"

"Yes. Always."

"You need nothing else?"

"Gabrielle. I donít understand what youíre asking me?"

"The gods. You donít need the gods?"

Xenaís tone was acerbic. "For what?"

"To understand life."

"Gabrielle, we have our lives. We live them and someday we will die and go to the other side."

"And itís enough for you to know that."

"It has to be. It isnít as if we have a choice. I know I can never make up for the harm Iíve done. I know the consequences of my darkness will always be with me but you taught me that there is so much more. I donít need the gods when youíve shown me the goodness of life."

Gabrielle turned her head away from Xena. The truth struck the warrior. It was a firm, clear realization. She reached her hand to Gabrielleís chin, whispering the bardís name as she guided Gabrielle back to her. "Iím not enough for you. You need something more."

"Xena, please donít."

Xena probed without challenging. "Thatís it, isnít it?"

Gabrielle raised herself up. Xena took the bard by the waist restraining her retreat. "Donít run away from me."

Struggling to free herself, Gabrielle pleaded. "Xena, please let me go."

Xena relinquished her hold. Gabrielle got to her feet and stepped forward a few paces. She had no where to go. She paced back and forth as her emotions surged. Turning vehemently, near tears she spoke. "By the gods Xena I love you. I love you with all my being. These past few moons since we joined Iíve become one with you in a way I never could have imagined. But at the same time Iíve never felt soÖ"

Xena held still. "Gabrielle. What? What are your feeling?"

"Xena, Iím frighten. I fear the daylight. Itís only at night when I sleep in your arms that it goes away. Iíve prayed to Artemis to help me but all she tells me is to trust life. Iím suppose to accept whatever happens. Why canít one of the gods promise me that everything will be all right? That I wonít lose you." Gabrielle bent over in sorrow.

Xena knew her place. She went to Gabrielle and took her into her arms. "Iím here. Iím not going anywhere."

"I rather die than lose you."

"I know. I know thatís why you were willing to take the dagger. Gabrielle, listen to me. I learned when I thought you had died that you had given me a light of my own and that to honor you, to honor my love for you I needed to live on and do what I believed you would have wanted me to do, to make you proud of me. That goes both ways. If anything should happen to me I want you to go on, live your life, find your happiness."

"Without you. No." Gabrielle raised her fist against Xenaís shoulder.

"Yes, if that is what the fates decree."

* * *

Only a few moons before Gabrielle had been so sure of what she wanted from life. She wanted Xena, knowing that their time could be limited. She wanted to travel even though life with the Amazons would have been safer. She wanted to live accepting that both joys and sorrows would come.

The sun had risen three candlemarks over the horizon. Her eyes considered the span of distance that she swam. It seemed so long ago that her body broke through the calm surface, that she drove her body to a task for no apparent reason. She did feel calmer. She had slept soundly. There was no lingering after affect of undefined dreams. Gabrielle wished she could trust the calmness to remain.

Somehow she had taken a path of unexpected consequences. Placed before her were a series of questions. She had answers for none of them. What did she believe? What did life mean to her with and without Xena? Who was she with and without Xena? Should there be a difference? Could she face life having known bliss and aware of it eminent demise?

* * *

After setting up camp Gabrielle drifted away. Xena couldnít fight this. It would be wrong to try. Still, being left behind was a torment. She decided to take a walk. She climbed a cliff over looking the valley. She fought her confusion. She didnít want to compete with the gods for Gabrielle. She couldnít and she knew it. Her sorrow took voice in song. Standing on the edge of a precipice she softy sang a lament.

Looking to the night sky Xena considered the moon. How each night it altered from a full, complete illumination to a sphere of total darkness. But there was always promise that by its very nature the journey to darkness would be reversed and with patience the light would return cutting first a crescent then a half spear until it reclaimed the whole to its light.

Xena felt she was losing Gabrielle. Like the phases of the moon she felt Gabrielle was being consumed by darkness. She felt Gabrielleís course towards the gods was indicative of the bardís desperation. As much as Xena wished she could believe the light would return her faith was fragile. It had little to sustain it.

Returning to camp Gabrielle found it empty. She knew she had no right to make claim to Xena given that it was she that first sought solitude. Gabrielle went to her satchel and removed a blank scroll. With the passing evenings she had repeated the same act of opening the scroll believing she would write. She had yet to find the words. No ritual would release them. She suspected the words would continue their elusiveness until she found her courage. The truth demands courage. Her quill demanded truth.

A blank scroll had so often been a plane of freedom. Its nothingness was a promise of endless possibilities reflective of the future she imagined for herself and Xena, together. A blank scroll had also become home to the re-telling of events in their lives. She wove a moral, her own perspective. In her state of confusion she lost her certainty, the confidence and assurance required to tell a story.

In the aftermath of her injuries, in having Xena walk away and return, in the clarity of seeing the construct of her life as one that took its cue from both comedy and tragedy, Gabrielle could no longer find easy comfort in the endless possibilities for she was mindful that they embodied both joy and sorrow.

Gabrielle continued to embrace the night. In the night, in the pitch of black, there were no limits. Looking to the flames of the campfire, the dynamic light danced with an unpredictable rhythm. The daylight had its limits. Its realm was thus confined. In the darkness she would have her freedom.

This was not Xenaís darkness of ill choices, destruction and terror. It was the darkness of the womb. It was the returning to a world that did not require eyes for one to see, where she would be linked to its sustainer, nourished, protected, allowed to grow at her own pace. In the womb her mother had been her god.

She was asking for the impossible and she knew it. There was no one god or congregation of gods who could or would grant her return. From the moment of birth to the moment of death there is separation, aloneness. Joining to her soul mate, to Xena, did not change this truth.

She rolled and secured the scroll returning it to the satchel. The words were not yet hers. The echo in her inner ear carried the timbre of Xena, of Artemis, of her mother. The voice she needed to hear was her own, singular, visceral, authentic.

* * *

Xena returned to their camp. Her mood had worsened instead of improved. "How long have you been back?"

Gabrielle took heed of Xenaís tone. "Just a little while."

"What was it this time?"

Gabrielle braced herself. "What do you mean?"

"I was just wondering if youíre growing tired of my company?"

"Xena, Iíve just been taking short walks."

"Gabrielle, youíre walking all day. I would have guessed that your evening routine was geared more towards swimming."

"Xena, are you still angry about this morning?"

No Gabrielle, this is not about you going for a swim. This is about you finding excuses to leave camp to secretly fall to your knees to pray to who knows what gods."

Gabrielle became defensive. "You spied on me."

"I didnít have to to figure it out."

"Fine. I want my privacy when I pray is that so wrong?"

"Why didnít you tell me?"

"With your reverence for the gods I didnít think you would understand."

"When have I ever disrespected your wish to visit a temple? When have I ever belittled your spiritual beliefs?"

Gabrielleís defiance lessened. She spoke shyly. "Never."

Xena approached the bard. "Gabrielle, listen to me. I love you." Xena placed her hands on Gabrielleís arms for emphasis. "Damn it. I love you. I may not always understand or agree with you but that doesnít mean that you must hide yourself from me."

Gabrielle felt a rising shame. Xenaís ardent gaze spoke the truth. This struggle was not with the warrior. She needed to look within. She felt the integrity of all her unspoken arguments unravel.

* * *

It was mid-day. Xena rode Argo. Gabrielle walked by her side. They had spoken little. The cloud-covered sky cast a pale to their travel. They both kept alert to the threatening weather. A bolt of lighting caught their eyes. Wordlessly Xena offered her arm to the bard. Gabrielle accepted it and allowed herself to be lifted up behind Xena onto Argo.

Xena directed the mare forward as the companions searched for shelter. A candlemark had passed. The sky was now ominously dark overwhelmed by storm clouds. Xena raised her arm pointing to her left. "Over there. Looks like a cave." Gabrielle affirmed and Argo was redirected.

There were a series of caves. Xena dismounted then assisted Gabrielle to her feet. After a quick scout the warrior chose the largest of the caves for themselves. She stabled Argo in a smaller cave a few paces from their own shelter. Xena was satisfied. They beat what she believed would be a fierce storm. After camp was established Xena took refuge with Argo spending more time than necessary in the task of grooming the mare. The warrior had regretted her challenge of the bard. This evening she wanted to do better.

Having eaten their evening meal each took a separate place, alone with her own thoughts. Brilliant flashes of lighting and accompanying sounds of thunder drew Gabrielleís attention. She put down her quill and unwritten scroll and walked to the caveís opening.

She had always been awed by the power on earth. On this night the storm exemplified the uncertain destructive force of life. It mirrored her own nature. Too much energy, harnessed, desperately in need of release. The potential for damage frightening, demanding caution. She watched as a bolt of lighting hit a nearby tree. The impact was stunning. She stepped back reflexively as a large branch, the casualty, cracked and fell until it caught in the branches below it.

The image came unexpectantly. She was on the battlefield. Xena fought a few paces from her. Gabrielle heard the approaching missile. She looked up calculating its path. She knew neither she nor Xena had time to withdraw to safety. Turning, her eyes rested upon the warrior. The bard whispered Xenaís name as a plea, as a prayer, as a farewell. The flash upon impact blinded her as her body was driven into the air.

This was Gabrielleís first conscious recollection of the fateful moment of injury six moons prior. She now realized that it was the image that had taken her to the realm of terror while she slept at the inn.

She called out to the warrior. "Xena, Iíll be back. I wonít go far." She was gone before Xena could protest.

Gabrielle stood in one of the smaller adjacent caves. Artemis sat across from her. "I realize that in the light of the day life can be frightening. The gods can be capricious but remember not everything, in truth little of what happens is a result of our direct intervention. Most of the time life is simply life. To live you must learn to accept what life gives you and what it will ultimately take from you."

Gabrielle spoke quietly. "Each day we are together it becomes harder and harder. I want to bury myself inside her, feel her enfold herself around me. I donít want her to ever let go."

"Before you joined you told Xena you would take each day as it came."

"I didnít know."

"Didnít know what?"

"I didnít know how much more there could be between us."

Artemisí caution was pointed. "To bury yourself inside Xena is a form of death. I donít recommend it."

Gabrielle remained silent.

"Chosen one. Would Xena choose this for you? Would she have you relinquish your essence, all that makes you unique? It would defeat the very reason for your union. Had you not stood alone, had you at times not challenged Xena, her darkness would assuredly have caused more harm to the innocent. You seem intent on forfeiting what she values most."

"She was angry that I almost took the dagger in her place."

"And how have you felt, brave one, when she has placed herself in harmís way to save you? Xenaís anger is anchored in her love for you and like you she harbors her greatest fear as far from its sourceís eye as she can manage. But, be it that you are both the source of her greatest fear and of her greatest love, she has found the strength to endure the demands of your bond."

* * *

Gabrielle returned to the larger cave. She remained standing at its threshold watching and listening to the threat of a storm that had yet to break. She was not surprised by the storm. She had watched it gather its strength as dark cloud upon dark cloud entered into a formation reminiscent of regiments of soldiers preparing an assault arrogantly aware of their overwhelming power, unconcerned of whether their presence acted as a warning to those they would face and ultimately conquer with their force. To the traveler, the mere appearance of the storm drew an instinctive reflex towards caution, the risk of exposure not to be minimized.

In her own mind she held her own storm. In place of the darken clouds she held fears and thoughts that had gathered their own momentum, challenging her resolve. Gabrielleís glance to Xena provoked a thought to slip into her consciousness. Would Xena remain with her if she broke as the storm, if the beauty Xena saw within her was replaced by a darkness so dense that her light would be snuff out with little hope of being rekindled?

Gabrielleís light to Xenaís darkness was their balance. Had Xenaís darkness begun to transverse itself into her? Gabrielle shook her head trying to discard the thought. That would be an accusation. It was too hard. She couldnít, wouldnít place the cause of her inner tempest upon the warrior. No, if anything Xena had been her mainstay. Gabrielle had found her only relief in Xenaís embrace.

Xena had revealed herself to be a complex landscape. To know her one must observe her in the day as well as the night. The sun and moon accentuate different terrain that often veer from expectations. Her mountains, her valleys, linking them the flows of a river that carry the pulsating constancy of her code. Her light and her darkness, knowing Xena is not sure.

As much as she has written about the warrior, she has never been able to solve the enigma. Only one word defines Xena and that is her name Ė Xena. It is reason why at times Gabrielle left dearth of imagination will return to the two syllables that embody the womanís essence.

In the beginning Xena had not been real to the bard. To date, for many, Xena continued to be a fiction, a myth. Gabrielle knew that she was one of the few who enjoyed the privilege of seeing the woman stripped of the myth. Gabrielle accepted the fact that she alone stood in Xenaís most intimate circle. Xena, like herself, was surrounded by a series of ever widening circles. Each ring representing a varied level of intimacy. For Gabrielle, Xena, Ephiny, her friends, her family, the memory of Perdicus, each held court in a different ring. The closest to the center was reserved for the warrior. She wondered where she had placed the gods, if at all.

Similar widening circles could also mark the ever-expanding knowledge of life. Adding to the expanse was not necessarily welcomed. Though each brought learning the lessons were often intricate in form and severe in effect.

This world, the world she now inhabited, existed before she met Xena but because the world was outside the farthest most circle of her experience it had held no real meaning. She had dreamt of it but her dreams only supposed that the personality of these romanticized realms were constant no matter how far from her home she traveled. Gabrielle was naive to believe this and she now knew it. Reality crushed the innocent fantasy of the young girl from Poteidaia.

Gabrielle longed to reveal herself like an open scroll and give Xena the opportunity to see the bard for who she had become. Events had slowly caused Gabrielle to close herself to Xena as well as to others. Reopening her private chambers was not as easy as she thought it would be. As each day passed she felt the weight of her deception. She felt her integrity slip away in the false image she perpetuated. She felt she projected a faÁade, a distinct visual twin, one who knew far less of the world, one who still carried an innocence that had long been replaced within her genuine self by awareness and raw comprehension, one that had died a gradual death that neither she nor Xena had acknowledged or mourned.

Xenaís eyes had been drawn to Gabrielle. She longed to go to her but was not sure how best to approach. The light of the storm came and went. Each burst presented Gabrielle in silhouette. Xena was jarred from her reverie by the sound of the torrent finally released.

Gabrielle felt Xena behind her. The bard reached back and found Xenaís arm. She took possession and brought it forward around her waist. Xena freely wrapped her other arm around her partner. Gabrielle knew her fear was distancing her from the very one she wanted to be with. They stood silently for half a candlemark allowing the physical closeness to begin to heal their wounds. Gabrielle always felt a heighten intimacy in the night. This was from the beginning. Their joining magnified the effect.

"Xena, about the swim, I didnít mean to frighten you."

Xena tightened her hold. "I know."

Taking Xenaís hand to her lips and placing a kiss on the inside of its palm Gabrielle continued to diminish the distance between them. "I donít know but I think I had a taste of how you sometimes feel when you need to get away."

Xena was uncertain of Gabrielleís reference. "What do you mean?"

Gabrielle turned to face the warrior. "When you ride Argo or when you practice your drills. I felt as if I was going to jump out of my skin if I didnít find a release. I just went to the lake and began to swim. Once I started I didnít want to stop. I forgot everything. It was just my body and the water and the need to keep moving forward. Do you understand?"

Xena regarded the bard. She understood all too well. "Itís not like you."

Gabrielleís voice sharpened in frustration. "It was, is me. Right now."

Xena searched the bardís eyes. She beheld the unrelenting emotion so near the surface. "Why Gabrielle, whatís happened?"

The sounds of thunder distracted them. Gabrielle looked out into the darkness. Her tone eased. "I have a storm inside me. Maybe I just have to let it run its course."

Xena was not so sure. "I donít know Gabrielle. Chances are itíll keep coming back."

Gabrielle observed. "I wonder. Maybe if I understood what makes a storm out there I could then understand why I have a storm in here." She motioned to her heart with her hand.

Xena gently disagreed. "There is no comparison."

"Are we so different from the gods?"

"The gods?" Xena was once again taken aback by the reference to the gods. "Gabrielle. Yes, you are very different. What motivates the gods is nothing you should emulate."

"Artemis said that most of what happens in life has nothing to do with the gods."

"Listen to her."

"Now you tell me to listen to the gods."

Xena interrupted. "Not the gods. Just Artemis. Just this time."

"Xena, what is it that you do believe in?"

"Gabrielle, it doesnít matter if I believe in the gods or not. Nothing will change."

"You must believe. Youíve seen them."

"I donít question that Ares and his wars and Aphrodite and her version of love exist. I donít question the existence of Zeus and his powers, but even with all his powers Zeus admits he canít keep the other gods under control. All you have to do is look at Hera and Iíve proven my point. I admit the mysteries exist but that doesnít mean Iím getting down on my knees to them. It wonít make a difference."

"So, youíre telling me youíve never prayed?"

"Gabrielle."

"Tell me." Gabrielle could not help but go back to her memories. She knew the answer.

"When I couldnít help you Iíve prayed for you and when I believed you died I prayed to you."

Gabrielle was unsettled by Xenaís last statement. "Iím not a god Xena."

"You donít have to be. It was my way of holding on to you."

Gabrielle chose this moment for a long held confession. "After Perdicasí death I know you prayed to the gods to help me. I never thanked you."

Xena was unprepared for Gabrielleís acknowledgement. The warrior had been unaware of being observed. Xena felt exposed. Even though she had just admitted she had found reason to pray for Gabrielle, it felt different knowing Gabrielle had witnessed this very private act. Uncertain of how to respond, the warrior took the bard into an embrace.

* * *

With the aftermath of the storm travel was difficult. The road was muddy, strewn with tree branches and brush. The sky had not cleared and another break threaten. They chose to stay at the next village. Gabrielle knew their purses could use a few extra dinars. Unless she spoke up Xena would expect her to barter for a room or at the very least arrange for an opportunity to play the bard.

Xena stopped and looked up at the weathered sign. "The Sage. Letís see if it lives up to its name." Xena entered the inn first scanning every corner, intimidating all sets of eyes that dared to meet her own.

Gabrielle chose to preempt the warrior. "Iím parched. Iím going to get something to drink. Why donít you see to our room." With that said the bard moved forward to the tavern counter leaving Xena to manage the innkeeper. Too weary to make comment Xena watched Gabrielle quit from her side.

The tavern was somewhat crowded. With a mug of cider in her hand Gabrielle looked for a place to sit. There were a few empty chairs at a table currently occupied by an old woman. It seemed a safe choice.

"May I join you?"

The woman raised her eyes to the bard. They were as dark as the night. Looking into those eyes Gabrielle suspected a tranquility that she could only envy. Did such a way of being come with age, she wondered.

The woman spoke in a gentle voice. It carried an uncommon warmth. "Your name child?"

"Gabrielle."

"Gabrielle." The woman spoke her name as if she were exploring its secrets. "Well then. It is a fine day is it not, Gabrielle?"

The woman elicited a feeling of uncertainty in the bard. And yet she also felt a strong attraction. "If you like storms."

"They are just a reminder to us mere mortals to respect the forces of nature. It is good for us not to forget how little we really are. Too many become proud in self importance donít you think?"

Without realizing it Gabrielle smiled. The woman went on. "Oh, I am being a bad host. Please sit down. Join me."

Gabrielle took a seat directly across from the woman. She felt embolden. "What is your name?"

The old woman shook her head. "I donít have one that I can remember. "They," She motioned towards the patrons with one of her fragile arms, "They call me Sage."

"Sage? Is this your inn?"

The woman laughed. "No, but Tanger, the owner says I act as if it is. Iím just a poor old crone. I earn my dinars by helping others."

"Youíre a healer?"

"Only with words my dear. An old woman like myself has seen much. Wisdom is the ability to see and to remember so when you see something again you canÖ"

"Hello." The two looked up to see Xena standing before them.

Gabrielle spoke first. "Xena." She then turned her attention to Sage. "Sage this is Xena. Xena, Sage."

Sage looked the warrior up and down. "My, you are a formidable looking warrior. What they say about your skills might just be true."

Xena raised an eyebrow and turned her focus to Gabrielle. "I got us a room for the night. The innkeeper said youíre welcomed to tell your stories."

Gabrielle could not help but ask. "Did he take some convincing?

Xena smiled. "Not at all."

Sage spoke up. "Tanger is a good businessman. He knows the value of a bard. That is if you entertain and not drive his patrons to Morpheus.

Xena rejoined the old woman. "Gabrielle is the best."

Sage took a good look at the bard. "In my time Iíve heard them all. It takes more than words to tell a story. It takes heart to be good. The finest give you their soul."

Gabrielle whispered. "Their soul?"

Sage continued. "Yes. It is a rare form of generosity to leave yourself that naked in front of a bunch of strangers. It takes more than a gift from Athena. Tell me Gabrielle, are you that good?"

"I donít know," was Gabrielleís truthful answer.

"Well then, some day you may find your way."

Xenaís had enough of the conversation. "Who said she hasnít"

Sage knew the edge in Xenaís voice warned that she, as recipient of the warriorís remark had better exercise considerable tact or find herself, old woman or not, at the end of an unkind heave out into the night air. "Warrior, take no offense. If your friend here gave her soul she would know it. Itís simply a rare form of honesty."

Sage had not improved herself with the last remark. "I donít know anyone truer than Gabrielle."

The bard needed to intervene. "Xena, itís all right."

Xena turned her attention back to Gabrielle. "Are you ready to go up to our room?"

Gabrielle hesitated. She wanted to continue her conversation with Sage. The crone met Gabrielleís eyes. With a smile she reached out and patted the bardís hand. "Iíll be here later tonight to hear your stories."

Instead of reassurance, Gabrielle felt her fear rise. A commitment had been made. Tonight she would perform.

* * *

Closing the door to their room Xena could not hold back any longer. "I donít like her."

Gabrielle could not agree. "There is something about her."

"She was criticizing you without ever having heard you."

"No she wasnít. With someone like her praise would mean a great deal."

"How can you say that? Sheís just a stranger."

"Xena, even if you are right. What harm has she done?"

"The way youíve been you donít need to hear that stuff from her."

Gabrielle expression became impassive. Though Xenaís tone was not critical her words left Gabrielle cold. She wanted to hear no references to her recent behavior. Xena noted the silence. It was not a good sign. The warrior decided to try to breach the distance that she felt beginning to push itself in between them. "Iím going to wash up. Join me?"

Gabrielle wanted to be alone. "You go without me."

Xena knew that she had failed in this exchange. A gracious withdrawal may be the best tactic. "I wonít be long." Xena took a change of clothes and left the room for the common bath down the hall.

* * *

They walked down the stairs together. Xena had the distinct sense that Gabrielle had been purposely delaying. As with everything else that had been uncharacteristic Xena had no explanation of why. In unison they paused upon entering the main tavern. As was custom they would part Gabrielle moving to the front, Xena to the rear.

To the warriorís chagrin the room was complete with patrons. The ideal seat was at the table where Sage held a lonely court. Xena could always stand but it promised to be a long night. She chose comfort. If Sage became unbearable she could always excuse herself. Xena also felt she should take an advantage and get to know this crone who had beguiled Gabrielle with so few words.

Standing before Sage, Xena stated the obvious. "Full house."

Sage had followed the movements of both Gabrielle and Xena with interest. Prior to separating Xena had taken Gabrielleís hand in her own. It was a veiled gesture. The crone was sure that it weighed heavily with meaning. Gabrielle simply turned her eyes to meet the warriorís. Each movement between them carried the familiarity of ritual. Defining their union, for Sage was sure that theirs was an intimate bond, conveying a note of care, in total a final private moment in a public place before they disengaged. All done, all necessary even though the distance between them was only from one end of the room to the other. Each to play a role, Gabrielle the bard, Xena the protector.

"Gabrielleís reputation precedes her. I told you Tanger is a good man business man."

"I told you its well deserved." Xena motioned to the empty chair.

Sage smiled to herself. Xena would not even make a verbal request to join her. "Yes, of course. Your always welcomed at my table Xena."

Xena sat down and measured the strengths and weaknesses that the position offered. It would do.

Sage leaned forward. "Tell me. Do you ever tire of her tales? You must hear them time and time again. Maybe not. Iím told her stories of you are her finest and it must be flattering to hear your name spoken in an heroic way by a fine bard."

Xena held her tongue as she deliberated. She could not detect whether the old woman spoke with candor or with guile. There was nothing seemingly wrong with what Sage said. Still, the warrior sensed a deception. Xena was certain Sage knew more about her and Gabrielle than their brief acquaintance or the village gossip could have provided. Xena finally spoke. "I prefer when Gabrielle leaves me out of her stories."

As Sage was about to respond Gabrielleís voice cut across the room and all conversations ended.

Gabrielle could see Sage sitting beside Xena. She did not know how, but she knew that Sage would be able to detect any want of authenticity in her stories. Gabrielle felt as if she was being tested, judged. She had her strategy set. She wouldnít speak of Xena. Xena was her point of vulnerability. Her repertoire included enough stories of Hercules, Ulysses and other heroes to fill the candlemarks until dawn. She would share her heart but not her soul with these strangers. Sage would detect the difference but again, for reasons Gabrielle could not fathom, she knew Sage would use her discretion in commentary.

Gabrielle had captured the attention of the patrons early. New comers were quickly silenced. Gabrielle judiciously allowed sufficient time between her stories for drinks and food to be served. Tanger had his profit to make. It also gave her audience opportunity to show their appreciation and to coax another story from her by dropping a few coins into her purse.

She sat on a stool and surveyed the room during a break. How many nights had she spent taking others through journeys and adventures? She gave them the thrill of battle without having to forfeit their own safety. She gave them adventure promising the successful completion of a quest. She gave them a world of chaos that returned to order, a world of tyranny where righteousness prevailed. She gave them loss and despair, always ending with the ultimate triumph of love and hope.

In this time and space she played god. She created a world; she dictated a reality. She had the power to reach inside her audience and trigger emotions Ė from courage to fear, mirth to sorrow. By the end of the night the world she portrayed though a challenge was ultimately just and good. Those who joined her on the journey often found themselves at its end emotionally spent but satisfied.

Gabrielle worked hard to shape her stories, choosing the right words, measuring the impact of pauses, the turn of her own expressions. All designed to convey a very intentional meaning. As Artemis observed her voice was an instrument. When she lost her voice it had been much more than the loss of a gift. It had been the loss of her power, a power that revealed itself not only when she was in performance but simply in her daily life. This was, this is the power of her voice.

By the gods it struck her that she was trying to give them what she herself longed for, a good life, a good world. Why did she never consider this before? She too could spend her life in taverns listening to bards being taken to a world of the fantastic, reassured that all was well. But as a bard she knew that what she and other bards offered was an illusion and what she longed for had to be real. To live in an illusion was to forfeit her life. She would be living in a dream shaped and colored by another. It would truly be an inauthentic life.

As true as she may be in the telling, the choices she made in what stories to spin were intentional to entertain. And to entertain there had to be happy endings. Even when she included a touch of the tragic those turns rendered lessons of merit and purpose. She took all that life presented and edited it to give consequence. There were so many stories she chose not to tell. Stories that would break the heart and offer no promise for healing, stories void of reason or moral, stories that had shaped her. Was it generosity or self-interest this desire not to break the spell?

Some stories were far too private. She looked over to Xena. There were stories that she could not voice because of what they would say of Xena. They had never spoken of the content of Gabrielleís Warrior Princess stories. There was simply an understanding, an expectation that though Gabrielle was free to weave a tale of adventure, there was a history of the Warrior Princess before and after their meeting that would remain unspoken.

As she continued to observe Sage and Xena another realization dawned. The stories that came after their meeting were hers too. The silencing of those stories did not only impact Xena they impacted Gabrielle as well. Gabrielle could not share her most personal stories in a public forum. Those stories of the soul, as Sage would say, because even if she was willing to do so there was not a one that did not also reflect upon Xena. The stories existed but they remain part of her private collection of scrolls. All in safe keeping with the Amazons. None to be shared.

Was it enough to write what no one would read? To stand before and share her heart but not her soul. Is this the bard, the woman she wanted to be? Was she an accomplice to her own erasure? What if she chose to tell a story that she knew would cause Xena pain to hear? What if?

 

* * *

The evening was at a close. Gabrielle began to make her way through the remaining appreciate crowd towards Xena and Sageís table.

Sage turned to the warrior. There was an underlying disingenuous tone in her words. "Well Xena, you got your wish this night. Not one tale of your adventures. I must admit Iím disappointed. I had looked forward to hearing of the warrior princess."

Xena looked at the crone with growing distrust. Damn the woman. Xena had noted the absence. She could not recall ever a night of such lengthy storytelling where Gabrielle had not spoken her name. She knew that the tension between them earlier in the evening could not have been the cause. Gabrielle had squeezed her hand as they separated at the tavern entrance. The bond between them held. The exclusion was another atypical conduct on Gabrielleís part. One for Xena to consider along side all the others as she tried to make sense of what had been happening to the bard.

"So, how did I do?"

Tangerís voice bellowed. "You did great! You must stay another night. The word will spread and tomorrow the crowd will be even better." The three turned their attention to the innkeeper who was in high spirits. Indeed, he had made a healthy profit.

Xena had hoped to leave in the morning. She wanted as much distance as possible between Gabrielle and Sage. "Tanger, its been a good night for all of us. Count your dinars and be happy with what you have."

"Now Xena, Iím not asking just for myself." He turned his attention directly to the bard. "Gabrielle, think of all the people that will be disappointed when they hear you had come and gone without giving them a chance to listen to your stories. Itís not as if there are a great many travelling entertainers in these parts."

Gabrielle wanted to stay but her motives were selfish. She wanted time with Sage. She wanted to hear a private critique of her performance. To stay she would have to coax Xena. It was time to barter. "My purse is full Tanger."

Xena smiled at what she believed would be a refusal. The smile left her with Gabrielleís next words. "What do I have to gain if I stay?"

Tanger knew he was at a disadvantage. "Iíll move you and Xena to my best room. Of course you wonít owe me for any of your lodging or your meals and drinks."

Gabrielle remained silent.

Tanger waited a few heartbeats and then crumbled into a plea. "Oh, donít ask me to split the profits. Your purse will be double its size as it is. Iíll have this tavern bursting. Iíll get the word out I promise and we will both do well."

Gabrielle smiled. She never asked for a split of the profits but it was reassuring to have someone think it could have been a point of negotiations. The bard turned her attention to the warrior and in speaking Xenaís name asked the question.

Xena could find no reason to refuse an extension of their stay. In spite of her better judgement she nodded affirmatively.

Tanger clapped his hands. "Great. This is great news." He looked about. He was a happy man. "Drinks. You mugs are empty. Let me get your fresh drinks."

Gabrielle watched Tanger take his leave. She sat down across from Xena. Sage was to her left.

Sage laughed a small laugh. "You Gabrielle have a way with you. Tanger is usually not so easily broken. Free drink or not I am a tired old woman in need of sleep. It is time I go to my warm home and comfortable bed."

Gabrielle was disappointed. "I will see you tomorrow?"

"Oh child, Iím always about."

"Good."

Xena and Gabrielle silently watched as Sage got up and left. Gabrielle then turned her attention completely to the warrior. She reached out and placed her hand over her partnerís. "Thank you."

* * *

Xena woke to the familiar sensation of having Gabrielleís body wrapped over her own. Xena physically ached for Gabrielle. There was so much in the warriorís heart that she found difficult, if not impossible to articulate. It was only in making love to the bard that Xena felt she neared sharing herself completely. The warrior longed more to give than to take. Xena wanted Gabrielle to feel that she could trust the warrior with the truth whatever the truth may be. In seeing Gabrielle with Sage, Xena felt inadequate. Though she accepted that she could not be all things to the bard she always hoped that the bard would keep her as a confidant. Xena feared that role would shift to the old crone.

"I love you."

Xenaís reverie was interrupted by Gabrielleís tender voice. Xena responded by giving the bard a kiss on the forehead.

Gabrielle raised herself up on her elbow. "You can do better than that canít you?"

Xena smiled. The light in Gabrielleís eyes was returning.

Gabrielle waited impatiently to be taken. Xena remained unmoved.

"Xena?"

Xena was certain. There had yet to be a poet to put the depth of her emotions into words. She went to the bard and pledged her love using her own language. The bard understood what she could.

It was mid-day and they had yet to leave their bed except to retrieve a breakfast tray. They laid each in the otherís arms, physically if not emotionally content. They heard a tentative knock at their door. Xena called out. It was Tanger. After dressing in their robes, Xena opened the door to the innkeeper.

"Iím sorry but there is a young man, Daniel. Heís a good man, a farmer. His wife has gone into labor and the village mid-wife is gone and is not expected back for a few more days. Xena, they say you are a gifted healer."

"Where is he?"

"Downstairs."

"Tell him Iíll be down in a few minutes."

Gabrielle called out. "Iíll go with you."

Tanger countered. "You canít go. Iíve got a tavern full of people expecting you tonight. Birthing a baby may take hours, days. I need you here."

"Tanger, the stories can wait."

Tanger turned to the warrior. "Xena, tell her you can do without her just this one time. Please."

"Tanger, go be useful and saddle up my horse."

"Xena."

"I wonít ask a second time."

"All right. Iím going."

Xena closed the door and went to Gabrielle. "Heís wrong you know. I rather not do without you but under the circumstances maybe its better that I do. I can make better time on Argo if I ride by myself. And there is no reason to disappoint the people coming to hear you tonight."

"Are you sure?"

"As long as youíre comfortable without me."

"Tanger is big enough to keep the peace. Iíll be fine. You better get dressed."

Standing outside of the tavern door Gabrielle bid Xena farewell. Returning back into the main room she spied Sage sitting at what Gabrielle realized was Sageís designated table. The fates had given the bard the opportunity she hoped for, a private meeting with the crone.

Sage smiled as Gabrielle approached her. "So, the warrior is a healer too. Is there anything she doesnít do well?"

"She has many skills."

"Ah, but a bet she isnít a bard."

"You would be surprised. Xena has her own way with words. May I join you?"

"Of course."

Gabrielle took a seat across from the old woman. "I wanted to ask you more about the bardís youíve heard. The ones you say give their soul."

"Yes. But they have been few."

"You said it was a rare form of generosity."

"I did. Gabrielle bards tell stories of the gods and heroes. That is well and good but it keeps the audience an armís length away. There are none in this village that believe they could become a god. Well, there may be but they are delusional and in need of care. A few may dream of being heroic but what true chance do they have of fighting monsters and warlords and still staying alive? A demigod like Hercules and a warrior like Xena are, as you must know, rare."

"But when I tell stories of the good they do shouldnít that inspire others to do good?"

"The battles they fight are beyond the imagination of these people. They havenít traveled and seen what you have seen. It takes time and experience to open yourself to the possibilities. Donít you agree?"

"Yes, I can see your point. One reason I first started traveling with Xena was because my home, Poteidaia was just too small for me."

"Well child remember this. You are not the average villager. If you measure them by your own merit you will be overestimating them."

"I think youíre wrong to say that. Its insulting."

"Not at all. These are good people. They work hard. They are smart in their own ways. But they would be out of their element. That is why bards are so appealing. They take these people into another world of being. One that is and will always be foreign to them."

"Then what am I to do that is different?"

"You go on and keep telling stories of gods and heroes. The morals are good for us to hear and we all deserve a little entertainment now and again. But Gabrielle, tell them other stories, stories about mortals much like themselves. Child, have you ever told a story about yourself?"

"Iíve been with Xena."

"No, no, no. Those stories are of Xena. You may have watched. You may have battled beside her but I am told you tell those stories seeing Xena first and only. Iím asking if you ever tell stories about Gabrielle of Poteidaia?"

"No, but what does it matter you said Iím not like the villagers."

"You are much more like them than Xena. It may be the choice of story that will make the difference."

"What story of mine would they want to hear?"

"Gabrielle, I do not know you to answer that question. It must be a story of what it is to be human. Facing uncertainty as best as one can. The private mistakes and triumphs. Those battles are closer to the people of this village. I know you are young. But the bard from Poteidaia is said to have faced many trials since she has traveled with the Warrior Princess. Because of your silence no one knows the truth. To give your soul you must give your own truth."

* * *

Xena rode into the village tired and at peace. Her task of helping a healthy daughter into the arms of two fine new parents complete. It had been an unexpected and joyful use of her talents as a healer. It was far more satisfying to put her knowledge to work for something other than repairing the wounds of war. She was feeling more confident in the homecoming. Gabrielleís vacillation between soul mate and stranger had lessened. Xena was sensing that the bard was coming back to her. The warriorís patience was being rewarded.

After stabling Argo Xena went to the inn entrance. Gabrielleís voice met her as she approached. The bard was in performance. Xena paused to listen. Which story had Gabrielle chosen this evening? Like the previous night Xena did not hear her name. And yet, the description of the landscape was familiar. Was it Britannia? Xena decided not to disrupt the telling. She walked to the rear entrance and quietly entered. The room was still but for the muted gestures of the gifted bard. Gabrielle had readily won them all. Her demeanor was sober. What was this story? Slowly Xena recognized the events. Gabrielle had changed the names and a sufficient number of descriptive details to camouflage their identities. The story of Hope continued. Her conception, her birth, the separation of mother and child, their reunion, the betrayal that resulted in another childís death, a motherís decision to kill her daughter. Gabrielleís spoke in a hush tone. Her rationed words captured the depth of the tragedy. Xena noted the glistening reflection of a tear falling from the bardís eye. It was matched by Xenaís own. Gabrielle continued. Two women standing before the funeral pyre of their respective child, the confirmation of the breach between the once inseparable companions. The end.

All were silent, stunned, no one more than Xena. Sage felt vindicated. This was the difference between giving the soul and not just the heart. One had to live it to understand it. One had to witness it to know that it had happened. One patron, a man sitting close to the front, raised his hands and clapped breaking the spell that had hovered over the room. He was joined by another and then another until the tavern roared with approval. Without detection Xena turned and left as she had come.

Gabrielle had lost track of time. Tanger had ushered the last of the patrons out. Never had so many come to her afterwards not to praise but to share a fragment of their own stories with her. A number asked if the two women in her tale had ever met again. She mused that yes they had but that was another story. Privately she considered how it was a story she hoped would never end Ė not in life, not on the other side.

Sage had left Gabrielle with only two words, "Well done." The crone walked out of the tavern knowing that she too had done her job well. Contrary to the thinking of disbelievers, there was value in her wisdom.

Gabrielleís enemy was her fear. It had worked in silence. Gabrielle was determined to break its hold. If she allowed the silence to continue it would consume her. She knew she had to give the fear voice, she had to embrace it in order to overcome it.

* * *

She felt Solan close. Though he came to her heart with each passing day Xena rarely mentioned his name to Gabrielle knowing the pain and regret that it had the capacity to elicit. In not speaking of Solan they did not speak of Hope. They did not speak of Hope because it raised the memory of Solan. Pain played against pain. Silence built upon silence.

Xena could not but be aware of the impact Hope had made upon Gabrielle. In hearing the bard tell the story Xena heard and saw more than anyone else. The lone tear was shed when she told of the mother finding her son dead. Gabrielle had been trembling when she spoke of the girl childís death by her motherís hands. The nuance in her voice and in her gestures throughout the performance revealed the bardís struggle to maintain control of her emotions as she focused on the essence of the hearts and souls of the two women facing and responding to the incomprehensible events.

Xena wasnít sure what she was feeling. There was no anger. She felt sorrow. Not for the loss of her son, no telling of his story could compound that pain. The sorrow came with the revelation that the quality of her life with the bard had been less than what it could have been. For the past candlemark she had been an anonymous witness to a part of Gabrielle that had been in hiding. Gabrielle had kept herself from the warrior. To Gabrielle it may have been an exercise in discretion. To Xena it was a terrible concord she had implicitly consented to. The responsibility was shared.

Gabrielle was Xenaís beloved. When the warrior looked upon the bard she felt the strength of their bond in the underlying tenderness that mastered her. A desire to hold in heart and in hand. For all their passion Xena cherished how Gabrielle would place a single kiss upon her palm or intertwine their hands until where one began and the other ended could not be surmised. It was the bardís simplest gifts that meant everything to the warrior. It was now clear that Gabrielle had erroneously tried to give Xena an unattainable peace of mind at the cost of denying her own self. This would end.

* * *

In thought, Xena had walked a good distance. She needed to return to the bard. She did not want news of the birth of the child to precede her arrival. If it did, she knew her absence would worry Gabrielle.

Between the moonlight shining through the window and the fire light Xena could easily see her way as she entered their room. Gabrielle was lying in bed asleep. Xena smiled to herself. Every return to the bard was a homecoming. The warrior quickly removed her armor and leathers and changed into a clean shift. She gently raised the blankets and rested beside the bard taking her in an embrace.

Gabrielle leaned into the warrior. Her voice was more alert than Xena would have expected at this time of night. "How did it go?"

"A daughter."

"Healthy?"

Xena shared her pleasure. "All ten fingers and all ten toes just where theyíre suppose to be."

"And the mother?"

"Happy and the father proud."

Gabrielle caressed Xenaís arm. "I missed you tonight."

Xena chose a temperate approach. "How was the crowd?"

"Generous." For Gabrielle that word spoke more than just the count of dinars.

"Tanger must be happy."

"Weíre welcomed back anytime."

"Iím not surprised." Xena suspected a decision had been made. "Does this mean weíre leaving tomorrow?"

"If thatís all right with you?"

Xena felt a sense of relief. "The weather should be good."

Gabrielleís voice was tentative. "Xena?"

"Iím still here."

"Are you too tired to talk?"

Xena was grateful she had given herself the time to ready for what she believed would be forthcoming. "No. Iím fine. What is it?"

Gabrielle turned to the warrior. "I did something different tonight. You have every right to be upset with me."

Xena spoke with measure. "Iím listening."

"Xena, understand that I had no choice to include you in the story."

"What story?"

"I changed the names and some other facts but it was still the story of Hope."

Xena went directly to the heart. "That means Solan."

"I didnít use his name."

The warrior chose to help Gabrielle by guiding the conversation. "Why tell the story?"

"Iíve never told any about my life. I wanted to try."

"AndÖ"

"Xena. It was the hardest performance Iíve ever done. It hurt to relive all that had happened. But afterwards people came up to me and talked to me in a way they never had before. They gave me bits and pieces of their own lives. I canít imagine what it would have been like if they had known that I was speaking about myself."

"So Sage was right. You could do better."

Gabrielle sat up to have a better view of the warrior. "At what price? I want to respect your privacy but so much of our lives are intertwined. Xena, part of me was relieved that you werenít at the tavern. I donít know if I could have done it with you there. I donít want to hurt you."

Xena raised herself onto her elbow and took Gabrielleís hand into her own. "Did you tell the truth?"

"Yes."

"You want or is it that you need to tell stories you donít believe I want to hear let alone have anyone else hear."

Gabrielle spoke hesitantly. "We rarely speak of Solan. We never speak of Hope. And there are other stories. Xena, we donít talk about the painful moments in our life together."

"And you want to?"

"I need to. I canít live through the things weíve lived through and just wake up the next day and go on as if it all makes sense to me. Writing has always been my way of coping. But you are not a part of that. I donít want to lose you and I think sometimes I am losing you because you donít know me, because I donít tell you what Iím thinking and feeling about those hard times."

"I have never asked you to hid your truth. Gabrielle, you are my love. I want all of you in my life not just the part of you that you think I find comfortable. Iím willing to hear all your stories. You can tell them to me in the privacy of our room or you can stand in front of a tavern full of people. Either way I want to hear them. And if its too hard for you to say the words to me give me your scrolls and I promise you I will read them."

"Youíre sure about this?"

"With time it will get easier. For the both of us."

"I love you."

Xena remained silent. Her look to the bard grew intense. Gabrielleís concern rose. "Xena, are we all right?"

Xenaís response was heartfelt. "I donít want to lose you. Promise me you wonít close me out anymore?"

Gabrielle reassured. "I promise."

"Good. Letís try to get some sleep."

Gabrielle rested against Xenaís shoulder. Her hand reached out until it laid over the warriorís heart. Xena strengthened her embrace. "I love you, my bard."

* * *

"Artemis. If you hear me I want to thank you for your help."

"Chosen one. I see you are no longer on your knees to me." The goddess raised her hand to interrupt Gabrielleís explanation. "I like you better this way. The strength of a queen need not be hidden."

"I am feeling better."

"Tell me. What do you know now that you did not know before?"

"You mean other than the sun will rise and set and that the darkness of the night will shine with the moons and the stars?"

Artemis smiled. "Yes."

"For Xena and myself I donít know that we will have the sun, moon or stars. They can be taken from us at any moment. I will never be completely prepared for the day that I will lose Xena or that she will lose me. Knowing this I will no longer run away from the truth that someday it will happen."

"Very well. And have you learned anything else?"

"I need to trust Xena with my truth. No matter how painful it may be for both of us. If I donít we will lose each other even as we stand beside one another."

"I have no doubt that you and the warrior will thrive. Aphrodite would approve."

"Artemis, may I ask you one question?"

"You may. But it is a godís prerogative to choose not to answer."

"Did you send Sage to me?"

Artemis raised her hand and gestured to a place behind the queen. "No Gabrielle, I did not. She came to you by her own accord. You need to look elsewhere for your answer. Be well chosen one."

Gabrielle watched as the goddess disappeared. She then redirected her eyes to the place Artemis had indicated. There she found Sage. The crone smiled. The smile changed and so did the flesh. Aphrodite stood before the bard.

Gabrielle was amused. "Aphrodite?"

"You know for a bard you should be perfectly aware that I am more than just the goddess of love. Next time Xena insinuates that I donít understand what you two share I expect you to speak up a little stronger in my defense. Agreed?"

"Agreed."

"Good."

"Aphrodite, thank you."

"Your welcome. Gabrielle, I know I told you to trust Xena with the truth. But, I wouldnít blame you if you held back a little on this Sage thing. The fact is Iím not sure she would believe you."

Gabrielle smiled. "Iím having a hard time believing it myself."

"Take care of yourself and keep telling your stories."

* * *

Gabrielle had been gone too long for Xenaís comfort. The warrior scouted the perimeter of their camp looking for the bard. She found Gabrielle near a clearing. She was leaning on her staff looking out to the vast valley below. Xena waited and observed. Satisfied that Gabrielle was safe Xena turned to return to their camp.

"Xena. Please stay." Gabrielle had sensed her.

Xena walked up to the bard. Gabrielle placed her arm around Xena and leaned close against the warrior.

"You were gone for quite a while."

"Its peaceful here." Gabrielle looked up to her partner. "Thank you for worrying. I know youíve been doing a lot of that lately."

"As long as youíre all right."

"Iím good Xena. Really."

"You didnít say much all day."

"This valley is so beautiful. I know that behind its beauty there is a constant cycle of life and death. Itís all held in balance not that I understand how or why. Xena, when I stop and really see life or even a small part of it, like this valley, I feel as if I belong, as if I am a part of it. If the gods are listening I hope they forgive me for saying that at times like this I donít feel I need to know them. I look out at the valley and feel connected. I donít need more to be complete. Iím starting to understand that this is what we are made of and made for. Being alive. Living good honest lives. At our best opening our hearts to all of our emotions. Doing this even though there are no guarantees. Even though what we cherish will be taken away from us with a reason beyond our understanding.

Xena quipped. "So, we make the best with what we got for as long as we got it."

Gabrielle tightened her embrace. "Yes my love, I couldnít have said it better."

THE END


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