This is a continuation of a previous trilogy. Certain references will be difficult to follow if you have not read The Final Night, The Mountain Ridge and The Unspoken.
The night sky was clear. The stars her companion, the sound of the wind through the trees a serenade. Gabrielle was a half-day travel to Amphipolis. There she would have her reunion with Xena. They had decided to return to their respective homes. The recent events in their lives dictated their separation. Gabrielle needed to return to Poteidaia. She feared what her parents and sister may have learned. No message could appropriately temper the shock her death may have caused them. They both knew it would be better if Xena did not accompany her. Though she did not welcome the separation, Xena felt an equal desire to return to her mother. Having a few private days time with Cyrene would help her reconcile herself to all that had transpired. Neither felt satisfied with the brief time they had spent together after Artemis and Hades granted the return of their lives. A promise was made between them to return to the waterfall after their reunion. A respite they both yearned for. Gabrielle recalled Xena's silence as they prepared to take leave of the village. As much as was spoken between them, Gabrielle felt a void she needed to fill. But she recognized that time was necessary. Their emotions had been assaulted. They had faced death, fears of love and accompanying fears of loss. It had become clear that Xena was her home. The extraordinary home carried within, a home more lasting than the earth. Equating Xena and home did not displace her family. It did, however, separate Gabrielle's childhood from her adulthood.
As she walked down the road, away from the village, away from Xena, Gabrielle turned for a final glimpse of the warrior. She felt a renewed loss. She felt the resurfacing of her grief. She had struggled to keep her emotions in check. The night before her departure she found herself over taken by her own tears. Tears she did not allow through the whole ordeal. Xena had entered her quarters and come to her, kneeling beside her bed. She gently placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. Gabrielle, her back to Xena, continued to weep. Xena felt helpless, the feeling of helplessness that had dominated so much, too much of her recent life. Moments like these could not be addressed as a battle. They did not require the art of war. They were governed by efforts contrary to Xena's active nature. They demanded her presence, silence and patience. Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's. Her tactile voice asking Xena to stay and stay Xena did. Gabrielle's tears showed no hint of subsiding. Needing to comfort, Xena took residence on the bed lying beside Gabrielle. Would the warmth and strength of her embrace somehow break through Gabrielle's sorrow? Gabrielle turned her body to Xena. The tears continued as she laid her head upon Xena's breast. After a time she found herself apologizing for her tears. She could no longer feign a strength that stood apart from the warrior. Gabrielle's apology, Xena would not have. Xena's own heart ached. She suspected the root to Gabrielle's tears was the trying nature of their most recent separation. One imposed by Xena herself. Xena would not forget how Gabrielle came to her in the night breaching the distance Xena struggled to maintain as she tried to resolve Gabrielle's bargain with Artemis. These tears were a sign that Gabrielle had finally allowed herself to feel all that had been. Xena felt that if the tears were her own they would carry the weight of her loneliness and its equal relief, a relief that came in their renewed union.
Gabrielle raised herself to meet Xena's eyes. Her breath steadied and yet, she was overwhelmed. Xena was finally able to articulate with words the depth and breath of her love. Ironically, in this moment, words were unnecessary. Gabrielle had been physically close to Xena throughout their shared life. Touch between them had now become hesitant. Weighed with new meaning, there was a new shyness. It tempered Gabrielle's gestures but not the underlying desire that was taking form within her. Xena's compassion, her tenderness had returned. Xena had confessed a devotion that colored their lives with a new possibility. Gabrielle welcomed it. But she was also uncertain.
Only a few nights before, as she spoke her words to Xena she knew that in one sense she misspoke. It was not deception. In retrospect she knew the truth. She knew observing the union formed between Amazons was not the same as being part of such a union. She had no doubt that her soul, in this life, walked in hand with Xena's. How their bond would now manifest itself was a new journey, one promising to profoundly alter, she believed enrich their relationship. Gabrielle suspected that though she could never wish for all of the warrior's defenses to fall, this next step would take her further into the heart of the woman that she loved as she loved no other.
Alone in the night, aware that in the morrow a new path in their journey would begin Gabrielle felt the grace that life can grant a soul in the midst of trying times. Were her commitment to Xena celebrated by her family she would have truly known unbounded joy but that was not to be. Gabrielle's parents coldness toward Xena persisted. They continued to hold Xena responsible for the pain Gabrielle endured. Lila was somewhat open to Gabrielle's need to share her thoughts and feelings about Xena. Still, even Lila could not give her the unequivocal blessing Gabrielle desired. Gabrielle had not been completely honest with her family. She was sure that their intolerance would only magnify if they knew the truth of her feelings. To them, Gabrielle still blindly worshiped the warrior as a hero. They could not know how time had humanized Xena in Gabrielle's eyes. Indeed, it was the very fact that Gabrielle had grown to become Xena's equal that made their love possible.
The rejection of Xena was all the more unfair given Cyrene's embrace of Gabrielle as an addition to her daughter's life. Xena was true in relaying her mother's counsel to confess the depth of her emotion to the bard.
Gabrielle's thoughts were interrupted by the sense that she was being observed. She raised herself up and scanned the area, listening for any foreign sound, one not belonging to the natural landscape. She had no evidence but she was certain she was not alone.
He came out from the moon's shadow. "Just a traveler" he called. "I noticed your fire." He was tall, equal in height to Xena. His look was not of an obvious menace but that meant nothing. Gabrielle knew to follow her instincts and she sensed danger. She calculated her options. The darkness would provide her cover if she fled. Her hands readied as if she still carried her staff. They had nothing to clutch but ether.
Taking a number of steps further he smiled. "Are you alone?" The smile was meant to calm but Gabrielle could not. Every muscle was alert. She knew she needed to speak in order to confirm or disprove her suspicions.
"I'm on my way to Amphipolis to meet a friend."
"Ah, and where have you come from?"
"Is that your home?"
Gabrielle paused. An innocent question it reverberated within her with far greater meaning than the stranger intended. "No, it's not my home." Gathering her wits, Gabrielle knew it was time to assert herself. "What do you want?"
"Want? Nothing but some company. It gets lonely on the road."
"Where are you going?"
"No where in particular. It's a good life. I let the fate's decide for me. You should try it. Sometimes you're given a warm surprise like a fire and a beautiful lady."
"I'd rather be alone."
"I can see that. Maybe the gods think you should have someone to keep you warm at night." Whatever charm he may have had disappeared. He has not flirting.
Tersely Gabrielle made herself clear. "You better leave."
The man's expression became hard; any trace of humanity had been replaced by what Gabrielle knew to be nothing less than evil. "Or what?" he responded. He took a knife out from his belt. "You know," he continued looking at her clear in his intent, "I like a little fight in my women."
Gabrielle spoke her conviction. "I won't fight you."
"I'm disappointed." He approached Gabrielle with an egotistical confidence. This was not the first time he had taken a woman against her will. Gabrielle retreated step in step with him.
He spoke for his own pleasure. "Tell me, have you ever had a man?" He stopped and laughed. "Looking at you I'd say no at least not a real man. I'm going to enjoy teaching you."
He lunged at Gabrielle taking her by her arm and placing his knife at her throat.
"We both know you wouldn't be traveling alone unless you wanted..." Gabrielle's knee reached its target at full strength. He buckled to the ground, his hands in reflex reaching for his groin. Gabrielle turned and ran into the woods.
Getting up on all fours he cried out like a wounded animal, "You harpy. I'll have you now and I'm going to make sure you never forget me."
Gabrielle's steps were quick. She had no sense of the scratches and bruises her body suffered by her relentless impact with the brush. She tripped on an extended root and fell. She paused. 'Must think. Must think.' Her thoughts tempered her flight. It was hard to see where she was going. She needed to determine her direction. She could not afford to go round in circles. What route could she take as an outlet from the woods? She concentrated. Her senses were keenly aware. She heard footsteps approach. Gabrielle rolled for cover under a gathering of brush. She was being hunted.
The hunter ceased his taunting calls. He was focused on every sound, taking in as much as he could see which was little. He harnessed his anger intent on the bounty his discipline would reward him with. He knew that his prey was limited by the night. Though it cloaked her it also restrained her.
Fragments of thoughts began to rise to her consciousness. She said she would not fight. But she did. Is it wrong to protect herself? The way of love, at this moment, promised violation, potentially death.
The hunter continued his prowl. Gabrielle remained as still as a frightened rabbit. She considered Eli's words. No harm would come to the spirit though the flesh harmed. Could she allow herself to be raped, beaten or killed to maintain her principle of love? Other's have done it and been called martyrs. Alone, in the woods, her violation would have no comprehensible meaning. How could it be explained to others, to Xena, when she, herself did not understand?
The sound of the footsteps diminished. There was no telling where he went or whether he would return. For now she would remain under cover. The risk of being heard was too great. The chill of the night began to seep into her. Her body trembled, because of the cold or because of her fear she was not sure. Both the cold and fear seemed to coalesce into one relentless response. She had been cowed. Her body in its vulnerability folded into itself. She craved warmth, security, strength. In the moment she felt abandonment and betrayal. She labored in her mind to find her clarity, her assurance. With each passing hour an enfolding sense of failure rose from her own darkness and began to consume her consciousness. There was nothing to hold on to. Her beliefs brought no comfort, only confusion. As a result she felt herself begin to crumble. Her faith was collapsing under the weight of darkness. She looked about straining to see beyond the brush. There was no light above. Where have the stars gone? Had the moon retreated?
Could the test be so quick and so too the failure? Was she once again so wrong? Had she been a hypocrite holding to an illusion that she followed a different path than Xena knowing that her path was possible only in partnership, in union with the warrior, her protector?
Gabrielle was capable of protecting herself. The woods were a haven for the weapon she had discarded. One could be found or fashioned quickly. She knew this. She thought this. She contested the thoughts with the words and phrases that guided her since India. The thought of the weapon posed a temptation difficult to discount. Recalling the familiar her hand took hold of a fist full of earth, the sensation somewhat akin to how her hands would strongly hold her staff, feeling the hard, smooth surface that accepted her grip. She was feeling the beginning of hatred towards this man who would destroy her faith, her very soul.
In a jolt she raised her head. She may have slept. She was not sure what had been lived, what dreamed? Looking up she estimated that the sun would soon break through the horizon. Considering her route Gabrielle debated whether to parallel the road or go further into the woods. The woods would provide her greater coverage but it would take her further from Amphipolis. If someone, hunter or Xena, would seek her out she would be more difficult to find the farther she traveled from the road. Distancing herself from Xena was a risk she would have to take.
She heard the hunter approach. The footsteps were slow and weighed heavy upon the ground. If he had been searching for her all these hours he would be weary. That was to Gabrielle's advantage. She could not yet tell how well the brush covered her. She held ready. He was near.
This was no longer a sport for him. His ego had been bruised and it would not heal without her blood on his hands. He would have his way with her and then with his knife he planned to carve his name on her. The cut would be deep to ensure a scare, his legacy to her. He would never be separated from her flesh. He would stay with her forever. This was going to be his satisfaction. That it had taken him the whole of the night only added to his triumph. He knew this as he spied her. Her handsome leg was exposed. There was now enough light to see it shimmer. She was his. He smiled.
* * *
At Cyrene's tavern the men would drink and boast. This night was no different. The hunter sat among three other men drinking ale, telling stories, more lies than truths. Cyrene walked from table to table meeting the needs of her patrons. Xena entered. Cyrene looked up expecting to witness the impatient nervousness that her daughter had been displaying for the past two days as she awaited Gabrielle's arrival. Instead Cyrene took a step back. Xena's demeanor was frightening in its cold detachment. There was hatred in her daughter's eyes. She held something in her hand, hidden behind her back. Any hint of her recent vulnerability had been snuffed like a candle, only darkness remained.
Xena called out. "Who owns the chestnut horse out front."
The tavern joined Cyrene in silence. One after another turned cautiously towards the warrior. The hunter did not know Xena and with too many ales drunk he didn't particularly care except that the chestnut was his. Without looking at her he shouted, "Mind and what business is it of yours."
Xena, without hesitation, walked to the man's table and in a swift stroke flung him against the wall. She followed him and grasped his throat in her hand. With her other she raised a leather satchel. Her voice betrayed the brutality she was capable of. It pierced the hunter's foggy consciousness. "Where did you get this."
"This!" She placed the satchel directly in front of his eyes.
"I don't know. On the road. What of it?"
"You're lying. I'm going to break every bone in your body, one at a time, until you tell me the truth."
"Look I don't know who you are but I'm telling you the truth."
"Where? Where did you find it?" Xena's grip tightened.
"Let me breathe. I can't breath."
"And you won't unless you start talking."
"I was on my way from Poteidaia. She must have dropped it."
"Who? Who dropped it?"
"Whoever owned it."
"I never said it was a she."
"You can tell by looking at it that it belongs to a woman."
Xena had had enough. She let go of his throat and snapped her fingers to the arteries on this neck blocking the flow of blood.
"What have you done to me?"
"You'll be dead in seconds."
He fell to the floor. "And so will she."
Xena knelt down beside him holding him up by his shoulders.
"Is she alive?"
"By the gods the last time I saw her."
"A half-day travel near where the river crosses the road. I'll show you."
"No, but you will draw me a map." Xena snapped her fingers upon his throat and released the paralysis.
* * *
The sound of the footsteps neared. He was back. Was he real or in her dreams? Was this just a dream? A nightmare? Footsteps coming closer. The sun broke through the canopy of leaves, through the branches to the forest floor. Her skin should be warm. There should be warmth. It's cold, so very cold. The blood retained in a small pool beside her head. Her head resting on the leaves and twigs of the woods. Cold. The warmth away, gone away with her essence that now stood apart from her in the pool of blood, small as it was. She laid clutching herself as she had done as a child, as she had done in illness. She is not ill. No, she is not ill. She chose to be here lying on the leaves and twigs. This is her choice. Better to be alone. No one to be with. No one to be with her. This is better. This is the way it should be. The truth. This is the truth. It is better to be alone when you are cold feeling the blood leave you by a wound of your own making. The footsteps. This new truth came with footsteps. Carried in the black soul of a hunter. She the hunted. She remembered her own footsteps as she ran from the truth. But you can't run forever. She couldn't. She fell. Fallen.
Was there a sound beyond, more than the footsteps? Familiar. She could not place it. It had no place in here life. Only the sound of the hunter belonged to her world. Movement. She is being moved. By the hunter? No, the hunter did not touch her like this. There is no pain. There is nothing. She feels nothing. Something. A memory. Something like a memory that could have been. Had been once and now is a memory. A memory of a time before the hunt, before being hunted. Before the wound and the blood and the loss.
Xena tracked Gabrielle from Gabrielle's camp. The hunter had left enough evidence of Gabrielle behind to give Xena an assured beginning. She called out with regularity as she followed every sign of Gabrielle's path. There was no answer. Half the morning had passed. She found evidence of blood upon a tree. The position matched Gabrielle in height. The thought of the wound was placed aside. Xena could not allow the distraction.
She looked ahead. Any other day she would have found the sun's sculptural rays magnificent. They cut through the netherworld of the woods, each ray a light to guide the journeyman. Her eyes followed the rays to their final destination. Each brief journey ending in disappointment. Until this last. At its end lay Gabrielle huddled still upon the ground. Xena threw herself down to Gabrielle's side. Her hands hovered for a moment afraid to touch the stillness that portended death. She whispered Gabrielle's name but there was no response. She touched Gabrielle's arm and shoulder. There was warmth, life. She carefully examined Gabrielle for internal wounds. She had a gash upon her forehead. Xena was now certain that the blood upon the tree had been Gabrielle's. She took Gabrielle into her arms and carried her to where Argo was waiting.
* * *
Cyrene entered the room followed by Xena cradling Gabrielle. Xena placed Gabrielle gently on the bed. Once released, Gabrielle turned on her side, her back to Xena, returning to the posture Xena had found her in.
Xena spoke hopefully. "Gabrielle."
There was no response. Xena covered Gabrielle with a blanket. She turned to her mother. "She hasn't said a word. I need to know what happened to her."
"Didn't the man tell you anything?"
"I didn't have time to ask. Now I do. Take care of her mother." With that stated Xena made her way pass Cyrene.
Cyrene took Xena by the arm. "Daughter, I know what you are feeling. It will do no good to kill him. Gabrielle would not want it."
Looking back to Gabrielle Xena responded, "I'm not as sure of that as you are mother."
* * *
Xena turned to the jailer sitting by the cell door. "Leave us." The jailer got up. "Give me your keys." The jailer did as he was told and left the prison.
The hunter stepped back. He assessed the warrior, her weapon, what needed to be done to escape. He doubted he would live beyond the hour. Xena entered the cell.
"You're going to tell me everything that happened. If you lie to me or hold anything back I swear I'll cut your tongue out and feed it to the vultures along with the rest of your carcass. Do you understand me?"
"What did she say?"
Taking him against the wall. "Nothing, you bastard. She's in shock."
"I didn't hurt her."
"That's not what the men in the tavern are saying. They're saying you were boasting about the woman you had on the road. You were talking about Gabrielle."
"It's a lie. I was lying. She got the better of me. I swear. Look at the back of my head. The blood is dry but its still there."
Xena took an exploratory swat at his skull. Her fingers were marked by his dry blood. Had she caused the wound or had Gabrielle? She returned her piecing gaze upon him. Only a madman would not fear her. In turn, the fear she had the power to summon could drive a man mad.
"I swear I didn't." His fear was clearly reflected in his eyes. Fear often raises the truth even from the worst of men. Sometimes it only raises their defeated pride. "You tell me. If she was such a good fighter why did she keep running away? Why didn't she fight me in the beginning? Why the cat and mouse game? Does she like that?"
Xena pinned him harder against the wall. "A long time ago I made a promise and I will keep it. You will have your trial." She turned away and took a few steps toward the exit. She could no longer contain her rage. "But I'll make sure you never forget what you've done." Xena with knife in hand pivoted and wheeled a clear stroke against the hunter's face slicing open his cheek. He fell to his knees clutching his face, blood spilling through his hands. Xena walked out of the cell, locked the door and left the jail in silence.
* * *
Cyrene entered Gabrielle's room. She found her daughter sitting in a chair at Gabrielle's bedside. Xena looked up and met Cyrene's questioning eyes. Xena shook her head. There was a growing sense of despair. Cyrene went to the foot of Gabrielle's bed.
"Mother, when you washed her was there any sign that he..."
"You believe he's telling the truth?"
"Yes, Gabrielle fought him and won."
Xena's anger rose, "Look at her and tell me what did she win?"
"Her life." Cyrene responded with calm sincerity.
"Is this the life she fought for? What kind of life is this?
"One with the possibility to heal. She has you, does she not?"
Xena returned her eyes to Gabrielle. She struggled to understand. For Gabrielle there was no longer a good day for fighting. Gabrielle did all she could to avoid the fight. And yet, if the hunter was telling the truth, she did fight. She fought for her life. If true, Gabrielle made the right choice, the only choice, in defending herself. If true, Xena was witnessing the price, the toll exacted upon the woman who held on to the way of love as her ideal. If false, if the hunter lied, if the hunter had violated the young woman how strong was her ability to endure? There seemed no answer, no possibility for Gabrielle's soul not to have been devastated. To fight and turn from her way. Not to fight and have the worst of man take her.
Cyrene gently called to her daughter, interrupting Xena's thoughts. "Xena?"
Xena spoke, her gaze fixed upon Gabrielle. "I'm frighten for her. I've never seen her like this. She has always been able to come to me." Looking up to meet her mother's gaze, "Mother, I don't know what I can do for her."
Cyrene approached and took Xena's hand. "You must continue to be with her."
Xena's disheartenment was palpable. "It hasn't helped."
"Mother, she hasn't eaten in days. Her strength is slipping away. I can't wait much longer."
"What will you do?"
"I don't know."
Taking her leave Cyrene paused at the door. "Xena, no one knows or loves Gabrielle more than you do. Listen to your heart. It will guide you." With that she departed.
The hours passed without change. Xena would follow her heart and hope it was not selfishness that guided her actions. She gently sat upon the bed. "Gabrielle, its me. Don't be frightened." Xena slowly entered the bed lying side-by-side with the wounded, hunted woman. It hadn't been that many days before that she had done the very same thing after discovering Gabrielle in tears. "Gabrielle, I'm going to put my arm around you." Xena carefully placed her arm over Gabrielle. Gabrielle flinched. Her body stiffened. Xena could feel Gabrielle's taut muscles. "Gabrielle, I'm here. Lean back. Trust me. Lean back." Gabrielle would not. "Gabrielle, I caught the man that did this to you." Gabrielle jerked tighter. She could hear Xena. The words carried meaning. She was not completely loss. "He is in jail waiting the magistrate. He said you didn't fight him at first. He said you ran away. He said he chased you through the night and the break of day. He said it was only when he caught you again that you fought back." Xena paused waiting for a reaction. There was none. "Gabrielle, the magistrate needs to know the truth. He has to know." Xena closed her eyes focusing all her self-control. "He has to know if you were harmed in any other way." Xena would not, could not say the word 'rape'. Gabrielle did not respond. "You know I will be with you no matter what he did to you." Xena was at a loss. What else could she say? "Gabrielle, I love you. I want you to come back to me. I beg you don't let what he did to you destroy you." Gabrielle's silence was deafening.
* * *
Xena had looked to their recent past for a hint of where their future could begin anew. She carried Gabrielle in her arms away from her mother's inn to the near woods. To a stretch of land, a minor plateau, home to mesmerizing sunrises. She chose to be under the heavens, exposed to the vision of the gods she could never trust but who recently had shown their mercy. Would they do so again by raising the shadow from Gabrielle's soul? How for the two of them the night often ushered moments of hope and freedom as they spoke of the stars. And yet the same night also harbored harm. Would the night stars work their magic and touch Gabrielle's wounds and begin to mend them? And if not the stars then the sun.
Holding Gabrielle she monitored the faint murmur of the bard's life. Xena never held the image of an elder for herself. A warrior does not live long. She had accepted this reality. Death would end her journey, her efforts to atone. Her fatalism had altered as she grew closer to Gabrielle. There was one who believed in her redemption even when she herself could not. One who breached the armor and touched her soul. The touch was not fleeting like those of others. Gabrielle's touch remained and expanded with time. Healing, challenging, coaching stability and good. Life's meaning was renewed, so its wonder. The simplicity of their life was augmented by the complexity of their individual fabrics.
It was Gabrielle's choice to travel alone. They had separated numerous times in the past. It was not that Xena did not worry, she did. But ironically, her fear of contributing to Gabrielle's harm lessened the thought that Gabrielle would be harmed in Xena's absence, for reasons having no link to Xena. Was it conceit to think so or was it a matter of probability? Gabrielle had been hurt. Gabrielle had died. The greatest harm that could be done had been done so Xena thought. Holding Gabrielle she could not ignore that both the blessings and curses of the fates were inexplicable.
The fire burned. Xena rested against a great tree with Gabrielle by her side and a blanket over them for additional warmth. Gabrielle had remained silent. She had held close to Xena as they journeyed. That was the only sign, the only hope Xena could look to. Xena slept with Gabrielle turned towards her instead of against her.
* * *
Xena had taken her back to the woods, the night sky's cover of scattered light, one of her favorite mysteries overhead to comfort. In the night the memory took the thread of thought to reweave a blanket to warm and assure her. Not a blanket of wool, but one of flesh and blood. One sustained by the tender strength of the woman that held her, had been with her for the many years. Xena's intent may have been to have the stars reach Gabrielle. The touch that stirred her was more immediate, more personal, and more intimate.
She had closed herself to Xena for as long as she could tolerate. Xena's desperation to reach her could no longer be allowed to continue. There are responsibilities that come with their bond. It was time for Gabrielle to reassure Xena that she, Gabrielle, was not indeed lost to the world. And so her mind moved to the conscious and her body reasserted its power to raise itself.
* * *
Xena sensed something was wrong. She awoke sharply, jerking to the left and then to the right attuned to an undefined danger. What she saw was Gabrielle, standing her back to her, the horizon breaking with the light of dawn. Xena stood and approached. Gabrielle heard the familiar footsteps behind her. She had no fear of harm. Her fears were elsewhere.
"I didn't kill him." Gabrielle's voice was disembodied.
Xena paused, allowing the distance Gabrielle seemed to need. "No."
"Did you kill him?"
"No, he's being held for trial."
"Its only been a matter of days since I faced the sunrise knowing I would die and wanting nothing more than to live. Now I wonder if it would have been better if I had accepted death."
"No Xena. You don't know."
"What did he do to you?"
"Nothing that hasn't been done before."
Gabrielle felt the grab of her leg. The force dragged her from the brush to a clearing. The hunter said nothing. She screamed "No!" She made her choice. It was her cry to fight. She swung her free leg kicking his hand. It released. She raised herself and began to run. She felt the force of his body against her own propelling her against a tree. She hit hard. She was stunned. Blood from a head wound began to bleed down the side of her face. He took her by the shoulders and swung her around. A sharp pain originating from her left shoulder shot through her arm. She voiced the pain.
"It's taken me all night but I got you. I got you now." He threw her to the ground. Standing over her he undid his belt. He went down to her pinning her arm with his own. The pain in her shoulder released again. She closed her eyes reactively. "You will fight me now?" he taunted. "Look at me you bitch." He took her face in his other hand and pressed his fingers hard against her jaw. "Look at me." She opened her eyes to his dark stare.
Her right arm free she felt the earth with her hand searching for something, anything to hold on to. She felt the hardness of the rock. It was partially buried in the soil. She grabbed as much of it as she could and pulled it free. The rock made contact with the back of the hunter's head. He fell to his side unconscious. Gabrielle struggled to her feet and ran. She ran with no true sense of where she was going. The blood over one eye left her partially blinded. She ran falling at times, raising herself after each fall and moving forward, away from the hunter. She ran until she couldn't run any more. She fell in exhaustion. Struggling to find her breath. The fear complete within her. She crossed to unconsciousness feeling only the fear.
To Gabrielle's words Xena's heart wound cut deeper. She took a step forward.
"Don't." Gabrielle demanded.
Xena held her position.
"It's not what you think. He stalked me like an animal. I got away. It's what I did to get away. I thought I could hold to my beliefs. I did all I could to avoid the fight. I'm such a hypocrite. I can follow the way of love as long as I have you by my side to fight for me. What does that say about me?"
"No, Xena. If I had died I would at least have had my principles. I'm alive and I have nothing."
Gabrielle turned to Xena. She faced the one who meant everything to her and still she felt empty. "I don't mean to hurt you. I'm empty inside. I have nothing to give."
"What are you saying?"
"I was wrong."
"Gabrielle. Please look around you. The world is life and death. There is no living thing that would not fight for its life. You fought for your life. How can you believe its wrong to protect yourself?''
"I could have accepted my fate. No one would have been hurt by it. It's not as if I was protecting someone from harm."
"You were protecting yourself. Don't you count? And you're wrong. If you hadn't fought him off those that love you would have had to bear the consequences."
Gabrielle turned back to the daybreak. Xena walked up and took Gabrielle forcefully by the upper arms, turning Gabrielle to face her. "Am I evil?"
"Tell me. In your eyes am I evil?"
"No, you know how I feel about you."
"I thought I did but I don't know anymore. If you are condemning yourself for protecting yourself from a rapist than how do you see me? I fight. I kill."
"For the better good."
"You must hate me."
Gabrielle fell silent. Why couldn't she say the words that had defined their bond less than a fortnight ago? Xena thought to use their love to pull Gabrielle from the darkness. It was only in this moment that Xena realized the extent of the abyss. One that not only consumed Gabrielle but threatened to consume her as well. Gabrielle's silence crushed her. Xena turned, grabbed Argo's saddle and threw it upon the steed's back. She led Argo away leaving Gabrielle alone to the dawn that promised a bitter life for the both of them.
* * *
The sun had traveled from the horizon to the sky's mid-point. Lying against the base of the great tree Gabrielle felt the rays upon her skin. The warmth did not enter. She felt a lingering coldness within. She felt distanced from herself, from life. Had she done Xena a disservice by being truthful? She had accepted their differences. What was intolerable to her in her was not judged equally in Xena. Couldn't Xena see this, couldn't she accept the paradox? What Gabrielle was feeling, her own moral turmoil did not equate to a verdict against the warrior.
Gabrielle was not a prisoner of her mind. She welcomed the distance, the space to think. She wanted no one, including, especially Xena to rescue her from the darkness. This darkness was hers; she owned it and she would not trade it or discard it until she was certain that she had taken from it all it promised.
On the cross she revisited her life and somehow she had reached a place within her reconciled to all her acts, the good and the not good. In her journey she, with a clarity that had overwhelmed her, embraced the truth that her journey would not have been if the touch of evil had been removed. She learned equally from the evil as from the good. It was ironic that harm, both physical and emotional made her a stronger, hopefully a better person, a good person.
Given a renewed life she never believed she would seek out the difficult lessons. Still, she felt a greater preparedness. Or so she thought. So quickly the test. So quickly the fall. Had she been arrogant? She truly thought not. Not even now in her retreat. But hadn't life taught her that the lessons come when they come. She has no control over them. She can only attempt to respond with appropriate measure. Her retreat, is it the coward's way? No. No, she was trying to brave the truth. There was a terrible disconnect between her life and her ideal, a disconnect created by her own flaws. She was faced with what seemed to be a clear question requiring what was far from a simple choice. To change her ideal, to accept her ideal but choose not to live it or to accept her ideal and choose to live it making the profound change that it would demand of her. To remain with Xena, the ideal, the path of love would need to be modified to include the protection and accompanying violence by Xena and when necessary, the violence by her own hand.
For this choice she could not look to Xena for guidance. Gabrielle knew Xena could not have a true understanding of her turmoil. Xena is a woman of integrity. She does not shy away from her truth. The fact that Gabrielle resisted harm was difficult to accept, to forgive not because of the wound she caused the hunter but because it exposed the lie her life had become. Knowing what she knows, continuing together with Xena would make Gabrielle's ideal of complete non-violence one destined to fail again and again. Here she knew that the reason was not Xena's violence but the violence of others and her own unwillingness to stand passively. That she had done so recently was only possible because Xena was her surrogate in battle. Xena interceded. Xena took up the sword to protect, to counter the forces that would do other's harm. Xena had encouraged Gabrielle to walk with Eli but walking with Eli would not change the world. It would not lessen the threats. The hunter hunted Gabrielle for no other reason than he wanted to take her.
Gabrielle's ideal is a dream to reach for, work for but not a way that will allow her to survive. She could continue to walk with Xena in Xena's protection but she would have to accept the consequences and honor Xena's way of the warrior with an honesty that she had yet to grant. She would need to devoid her own arrogance of being on a path of a greater good than Xena. Eli's way may not be the ultimate path if it allows tyrants to destroy the dignity and livelihoods of the common people. Xena had saved her from slavers. She had saved herself from a rapist.
Now sitting against the great tree she reached out and took a fistful of soil in her hand as she had done that night, the night she fled the hunter. She had so longed for Xena to save her in body as well as in soul. She yearned for Xena's warm safe embrace but could not have it. It was not to be had. Now that it was availed to her she hesitated. She let the soil slip through her fingers.
New footsteps, lighter, somewhat hesitant. Cyrene approached Gabrielle carrying a basket with food and drink. Gabrielle looked up and for the first time in many days she smiled.
"Xena told me where to find you."
"How is she?"
Sitting beside Gabrielle, Cyrene began to unpack the food. "She's frighten."
"What do you have to apologize for."
"I wasn't...I pushed Xena away."
"You have had a terrible trial."
"I haven't handled it very well."
"And who is to judge you?"
"What troubles you child?"
"I thought I could live without violence. But it doesn't seem as if I can."
"You were right to defend yourself."
"That isn't what I mean. I mean Xena. I choose to share my life with her. It's a lie to believe that I'm not her accomplice."
"Are you shamed by her?"
"Cyrene, of course not."
"I was at one time. I did not want to admit that she, the destroyer of nations, was my daughter. She was not the child I raised. She was a stranger to me. I heard stories of what she had done, villages burned, killings. These are unbearable to a parent. And all the time I still loved her. It was a love I could not admit, not even to myself. I look at her now and I see both my child and a stranger. I know her heart is true but I also know it is tormented. She struggles with who she is and who she has been. She is close to making peace with herself and I know it is in great part because of you. I do not know what happened between you two this morning but I do know that she is closer to her darkness because of it. Gabrielle, I do not want to lose my daughter. Not again." Putting her hand upon Gabrielle's arm she spoke in earnest. "And I do not want to lose you."
"I feel like a fraud. I've added to Xena's darkness. She may be better without me."
"You know that is not true."
"How can I go to her and tell her the truth?"
"And what is the truth?"
* * *
Cyrene's tavern was empty except for Xena sitting at a table silently staring at her hands held before her, hands she felt would never be free from the bloodstain of her past. Gabrielle entered through the front door. She held her gaze upon Xena. Xena looked up slowly. Gabrielle took a step as if to reassure Xena that she was not a dream. Gabrielle was not sure how to begin.
Xena was uncertain of the question. She responded with a soft, vulnerable voice, a voice that found itself only in their private moments. "Why what?"
"Why do you stay with me?"
"Because I love you." The words were simple, clear and heartfelt.
"But I'm such a fool. I've wronged you."
Gabrielle stepped forward and stood before Xena. "I believed you with your sword were less worthy than a peacemaker."
"You've always been right about that."
"No, you're wrong. I've been wrong. The peacemaker has a reason but it is not the only one. When Naima sent us to the future, even Amenestra, the Mother of Peace had a protector. It was my soul, it was Shakti that held a sword and protected you."
"And I protect you here and now."
"Yes. But there is nothing to say that you have to bear the burden alone. I have, I can and I will protect myself."
"I've lead you away from your path."
"No you haven't. You've shown me all the patience in the world. You've walked with me as I have searched for answers to my questions. The answer was always with me but I couldn't see it. You held it in your hand and I wouldn't share it. I think it's easy to say the world is black or white, dark or light, evil or good. The hard part is to say it's both. To know that their isn't always one right answer or only one ideal way. When I first met you I wanted to fight but didn't know how. You taught me how. I fought and I learned the consequences of my actions. They were hard and painful and so I turned away from them. I left you alone to carry the burden of those same consequences as you defended me. I was wrong to put you in that position."
"So, what are going to do?"
Gabrielle sat down across from Xena. "I don't know." She placed her hands over Xena's. "Right now I need you to know that I believe you are right and good and just with or without your sword. I want to be with you if you will have me."
Xena looked into Gabrielle's eyes, exploring, judging, a small part of her self-doubt and self-loathing dying.
"Do you really know what it means for you to be with me?"
"Yes. For the first time I believe I do. I only hope I won't disappoint you."
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