An Act of Love: Fidelity’s Poem
This short story is the beginning (Part One) of the final installment of the My Lord series – An Act of Love. To truly appreciate the events of this story, a reader will need to be familiar with the premise of the My Lord (Conqueror) stories, specifically My Lord: Athens. Please refer to My Lord: Athens for a character listing.
Gabrielle ran down the palace corridor. She skated around a corner barely missing Stephanie, who jumped back in surprise. "Whoa! Sorry…" said Gabrielle breathlessly.
"Your Majesty. Is there something wrong?" asked the servant.
"Nothing to worry about," said Gabrielle brightly as she looked over her shoulder. "My Lord is seeking me out."
"And you don’t want to be found?"
Gabrielle wore a wicked grin. "Not until I’m sure she’s regained her sense of humor."
"I think it’s best if I don’t ask why she is in ill-humor."
"Maybe Makia will hide me," Gabrielle thought aloud, weighing her options.
"And have the kitchens turned inside out?" said Stephanie in the lighthearted spirit of the moment.
Gabrielle hugged the palace wall and peeked around the corner. "Oh Gods, here she comes."
"Should I misdirect the Conqueror?" offered Stephanie conspiratorially.
Gabrielle placed an appreciative hand on Stephanie’s arm. "Oh, if you only could. What’s best is that you stand aside."
"Gabrielle!" Xena’s call echoed throughout the palace.
Stephanie stepped out in full view of the Queen’s pursuer. She said softly to Gabrielle, "Your Majesty, the Conqueror is…"
"All wet," said Gabrielle completing the servant’s observation with undisguised pleasure. "Yes, I know." She laughed as she ran toward the Royal suite.
Xena stepped boldly through the palace searching out the perpetrator of a deliciously well executed practical joke. She was intent on having a proper revenge, though at the moment she had no idea what form it would take. The very fact Gabrielle had exercised her pixyish nature was a boon to Xena’s disposition. It had been a hard road back from Athens. As the joke proved, they had somehow returned completely to each other, to the effect that the palace had slowly been transformed from a sober place to one where wit and whimsy were common. It was infectious, this joy and Xena hoped it would never slip from them again.
Xena neared Stephanie. "She went to our suite, didn’t she, Stephanie?"
"Who, your Majesty?" asked the servant innocently.
Xena burst out laughing. "It’s all right. We are only playing a game of cat and mouse."
"I’ve never known a cat that liked to get wet, your Majesty."
Xena looked down at her body. "I must be a sight."
"It is a new look for you," said Stephanie biting her lip.
Xena put her hands on her hips. "Tell me, as the Conqueror am I more intimidating like this?"
Stephanie smiled; intimidated was obviously not what she felt. "Your hair is quite mad."
"I’m glad I’m nowhere near a mirror." Xena glanced in the direction of Gabrielle’s felt essence. "I shouldn’t tarry. The Gods only know what our Queen is up to."
"Have a pleasant evening, your Majesty."
"Oh, you can count on it."
Xena proceeded toward the Royal suite. Her water soaked boots squishing with each step, leaving a wet trail. Xena turned and walked backwards. "Stephanie! I am counting on you to tell Makia that the ruining of her clean floors was not my fault."
"Should I say it was the Queen’s?" she asked helpfully.
"Absolutely! It is not only the truth but Makia will be far more forgiving." Xena turned again and entered a steady jog in search of her partner.
Hamish entered into the corridor. Xena called out his name.
"My Liege," answered the Guardsman. His expression upon seeing her shifted from incredulousness to knowing understanding.
Enjoying but choosing not to acknowledge the Guardsman’s reaction Xena continued her march to her suite. Not missing a step she directed Hamish, "Tell Trevor to place a guard at my door with orders to kill whoever dare disturb your Sovereign and Queen with the exception of Makia delivering our meal"
Hamish smiled. "Any instructions for Makia?"
"Yes. She should be generous with the wine… and the sweets."
"As you command," said Hamish robustly as he saluted.
"Good man!" Xena relished the encounter. A few moments later she entered the Royal suite and called out Gabrielle’s name.
Gabrielle stepped out from the bath. She had a towel draped over one arm and Xena’s robe draped over the other. "My Lord."
"Oh no!" Xena pointed at Gabrielle accusatorily. "You don’t get off so easily."
"I don’t know what you mean," said Gabrielle, her innocent expression a mirror image of Stephanie’s.
"I could hear you laughing," cited Xena.
"From the horse trough?" asked Gabrielle, well aware of her partner’s superb hearing.
"Yes, from the horse trough which I would not have tripped into if it wasn’t for you."
"I was nowhere near you. It seemed Coal had nudged you," said Gabrielle referring to the colt she had been training.
"Nudged? I would not call his head butt a nudge."
"I thought him only playing."
"And your whistle had nothing to do with his playfulness?" said Xena unwilling to cease arguing her case and ending their banter.
"I whistled to call him to me," responded Gabrielle, sharing the well known fact of her training of the colt.
"It wasn’t your usual whistle."
"I didn’t realize I have a particular whistle."
"I wonder…" Gabrielle cocked her head as her gaze tracked the full length of her Lord.
"What?" asked Xena amused by Gabrielle’s blatant admiration.
"If I whistle will you come to me?"
"I am no two year old colt!" barked Xena in mock outrage.
"No, my Lord, that you are not," said Gabrielle cheerfully. "A filly…"
"Gabrielle..." growled the warrior.
The younger woman took a step forward. "I think you should get out of your wet clothes."
"Really? That is a novel thought," said Xena crossing her arms. "I think you should help me as an act of contrition."
"An act of contrition? That would require me to confess to having been complicit in your fall."
"And that would not do, would it?" Xena opened her arms, as much a gesture of surrender as invitation. "Then do it as an act of love."
Gabrielle’s emerald eyes glistened. She stepped down the first two of the three steps to the living chamber floor. Xena approached, pausing before Gabrielle. After a moment in which they shared a smile, Xena bowed her head as she began to undo her tunic belt. A gentle whistle caused her to look up. "I am here, Gabrielle. There is no need to call me to you."
"You are beautiful," said the bard appreciatively.
"Ha! Stephanie said my hair is a fright."
"I can understand why." That earned Gabrielle a scathing look from her partner. Gabrielle did not hesitate to raise the towel she was holding and dry the offending hair. Her task complete she assessed the results. "Better."
Xena shook her head and chuckled. "By the way, except for our dinner I’ve ordered that we not be disturbed. I hope you don’t mind."
"We are to have an evening to ourselves?"
"Yes, if you can bear having only my company."
"I don’t mind at all." Gabrielle altered her voice to a tender caress. "Undress love, before you catch cold."
"Speaks the woman who orchestrated my state."
"If I did, look where it has gotten us. Is your state truly so terrible?"
"You are incorrigible," said Xena as she undressed.
Gabrielle waited patiently. With feigned regret she surrendered the towel to the naked Xena earning another chuckle from the warrior. After Xena dried herself, Gabrielle helped the warrior don her robe.
Xena tied the robe closed. "I say I am now ready for the evening. I don’t think it’s worth the effort dressing further. What say you, my bard?"
Gabrielle leaned forward placing her arms around Xena’s neck, drawing the taller woman close. "I don’t know why we bothered with your robe." They met in a mutual kiss. Soon thereafter Gabrielle found herself being carried into the bedroom.
Laid upon their bed, Gabrielle raised her hand over Xena’s heart. It was a gesture constant in their life together, one of love, of trust, of protection and of invitation. Xena took Gabrielle’s hand in her own and kissed its palm. Another constant gesture, one of acceptance, which given the events of Athens was a grace Gabrielle would never take for granted. As night blanketed Corinth, Gabrielle found herself blissfully immersed in her partner’s tender passions.
Targon entered the Royal suite followed by Joél. The young Guardsman carried an intricately carved wooden box. They were accompanied by a man of Chin descent dressed in a military uniform.
Xena took immediate notice and rose from her desk chair. Gabrielle was sitting by the fireplace with Honor sleeping on the floor beside her. It was Xena’s anxious essence that caused Gabrielle to stand and position herself beside her Lord.
"What’s this, Targon?" asked the Sovereign.
"Your Majesty, allow me to present Zan Quan of Lao Ma’s Imperial Guard.
Xena welcomed the soldier in the language of Chin.
Zan Quan bowed respectfully. He spoke in Chin. "I bring greetings from La Mao." He handed Xena a scroll. "The Empress of Chin humbly petitions your Majesty’s assistance in determining the nature of an amulet I have brought for your inspection."
"What is so special about this amulet?" asked Xena continuing to speak in Chin. She handed the scroll to Gabrielle assuming that it, like all other correspondence from Lao Ma, would be written in Greek.
"It is said to have great powers, whether for good or evil is unknown. The finest scholars of Chin have been unable to read its markings. The Empress hopes you and your scholars will be more skilled in unraveling its mystery."
Xena stepped behind Gabrielle to better read the scroll now held open by her partner. All that Zan Quan had said was repeated. There was more. Lao Ma speculated that the amulet might have Coptic origins. She closed with a passionate warning not to touch the amulet until its powers were understood.
Xena instructed Joél to set the box on a nearby table. She inquisitively kept her gaze upon the box until he rested it in place. She then turned her attention back to Zan Quan. "What are your orders?"
"I am to stay in Corinth for a fortnight and then to return to Chin with whatever knowledge you share with me," said Zan Quan.
"Are you to take the amulet back to Chin?"
"The Empress said the decision was yours to make."
"Very well. My Administrator will see to your comfort. He will also provide a daily report of our progress."
"Thank you," said Zan Quan as be humbly bowed.
Targon, who was well versed in the Chin language proceeded to guide Zan Quan out of the suite. Joél followed.
Left alone Xena quickly recounted her exchange with Zan Quan to Gabrielle.
"A fortnight. That isn’t very much time," said Gabrielle.
"Either we have information about the amulet or we don’t. If we don’t, Lao Ma knows it will take more than a fortnight to research." Xena walked to the table and stood before the carved box.
Gabrielle did not need their connection to sense her partner’s uneasiness. She placed a comforting hand on Xena’s arm. Xena kept her gaze fixed upon the box. "There was a time when I searched the known world for anything I could use to help me conquer Greece. Lao Ma is living proof that there are powers on earth you can’t completely understand. You must just accept them for what they are."
"What troubles you?" asked Gabrielle as Xena’s anxiousness seemed to bleed from the warrior.
"Lao Ma taught me how to empty myself of all thought in order to tap the very essence of existence and then to focus that essence as a powerful force against my enemies."
"The Way?" said Gabrielle having had discussed Lao Ma’s unique abilities with Xena prior to her introduction to the Chin Empress.
"Yes. She taught me enough that I could use the power defensively, never offensively. She said that Ares’ Chosen could not be trusted to use the Way for only the Greater Good. I resented her for limiting my power. Then the day came when I proved her right. I betrayed a trust with a tribal leader from the Northern Steppes. His army was moving aggressively against Chin. I took an advantage during a battle that ultimately saved Chin from a bloody defeat. It was then that Lao Ma and I brokered our truce. She swore allegiance to Greece. I swore never to invade Chin.
"Lao Ma had no reason to trust me. I had proven a promise meant nothing to me. What I didn’t realize until later was that I lost the powers Lao Ma had taught me. When I asked her why she said that by betraying the tribal leader I had lost my integrity and that someone without integrity, without honor, was not deserving of the Way."
"From the first day I met you, you’ve always been an honest ruler," said Gabrielle genuinely.
"I took Lao Ma’s lesson to heart. I did terrible things after I left Chin. One thing I’ve never done again is break a trust."
Gabrielle was well aware that their conversation now touched the rare subject of Xena’s past conquests prior to Cirra, prior to Xena’s commitment to defeating oppressive warlords and unifying Greece with the goal of maintaining peace in the realm and safeguarding it from foreign invasion. "That time in your life… You must have difficult memories."
"That’s not what’s bothering me. Why did Lao Ma send something to me with powers she didn’t understand? She’s a practical woman. It’s not like her to take such a risk."
"She must see that you’ve changed."
"I’m still Ares’ Chosen."
"You don’t repeat your mistakes."
"No, I just find new ways of…"
"Xena, don’t!" said Gabrielle forcefully. "Lao Ma sent you the amulet for a reason. That’s a fact you can’t deny."
Xena fell into a sober silence. Gabrielle fixed her defiant gaze upon her lover. After an extended moment Xena glanced over to her partner, shook her head and said sheepishly, "Self pity isn’t very attractive, is it?"
"No, it isn’t," said Gabrielle gentling.
Xena returned her gaze to the box. "There’s something else I don’t understand. Where did the amulet come from? And why does Lao Ma believe it might have magical powers?" Xena placed her hands on opposite sides of the box and opened it. Inside the box rested an oval shaped amulet a third of a hand in length. It composition seemed like onyx. It had faint markings on its face. "Well, it doesn’t look like much, but I’ve learned not to judge solely by appearance."
A knock on the door garnered the attention of both Royals. Alem entered. "My Liege, you are expected in Court."
"Damn, just as the day was getting interesting," said Xena, her voice resonated with her disappointment.
"I can go if you rather stay here," offered Gabrielle.
"Oh, that’s a tempting offer," said Xena. "What price will you exact from me?"
"Promise you’ll be careful."
"There is no need to ask that of me. I have too much to lose."
"Promise me still," insisted Gabrielle.
"I promise," said Xena easily.
Gabrielle kissed her on the cheek. "I love you." She turned to Alem. "Come on," she said to the Guardsman. "It’s my turn to keep peace among the Lords."
"Maybe we should bring Honor to growl when arguments grow tedious," quipped Alem.
Gabrielle smiled. "Good idea." She called the hound to her. "Come on, boy. We’re going to have some fun." He obeyed enthusiastically. Gabrielle left the suite appreciative of the sound of Xena’s muted laughter.
After Court Gabrielle returned to the Royal suite. She found Xena where she had left her, standing in front of the opened box. "Have you been frozen in place?" she asked.
"Hardly." Xena reached for the amulet. Gabrielle’s hand intercepted hers and held tightly. Xena turned to her partner. "Gabrielle?"
"Xena, you promised. Please don’t tempt the fates. Lao Ma’s warning must be heeded."
"I wasn’t going to touch it. I just wanted to see if I could feel any force radiate from it."
"That is still too close for my comfort."
"Very well." Xena withdrew her hand. "We shall break its secret another way."
"What do you think of it?"
"The box it is carried in is from Chin. I’ve been able to translate the writings. They are nothing more than warnings. The amulet itself is Coptic. Lao Ma was right about that. The scrolls in the Chin libraries don’t cross far enough west to be of use to her. Maybe our library will be more forthcoming. And if not, I will see that the Academy archives are researched. For now I’m having a half-dozen drawings of the amulet made. One is being sent to Udell. He or someone in his scholarly circle may recognize it and know its legend."
"Legend? So, you don’t think it’s dangerous?"
"Despite everything I said about Lao Ma, she is the exception, not the rule. In my travels I’ve found that legends about magical weapons have too often been given life by overly imaginative bards." Xena paused and added warmly, "Present company excluded."
"Good for you," said Gabrielle with a smile.
Xena continued. "When people learn about an event that seems so fantastic that no ordinary explanation suffices they tend to elaborate what facts are known and assign causes to an other-worldly power. Taking a cynics point of view is always best when trying to figure out if you’re facing something truly magical or just a riddle no one has been able to answer or an incident that came to pass due to nothing more than coincidence."
"Exactly. What is perplexing when looked upon straightforwardly is often crystal clear in hindsight."
"That presumes experience."
"And experiment. You are an accomplished healer. You know that healers did not wake up one morning knowing what herbs to use to cure illnesses. Healers before you tried different herbs and combinations of herbs until they found the right ones to resolve an ailment. They shared what they learned from master to apprentice; those who could wrote down what they learned for future generations."
"And you see the magical in the same way."
"Yes, but knowledge of the magical is more difficult to decipher. It remains among the shamans of the world. They don’t give up their secrets easily. To do so is to give up their power."
"Promise me you will not experiment with this amulet."
"The amulet will remain secure in its box and will not be touched unless I have solid evidence of its purpose and how to safely use it for the Greater Good."
"You don’t have to thank me, Gabrielle. Nothing is more precious to me than our peace. I will not risk it to satisfy my curiosity."
Gabrielle sat with Dalius on the infirmary porch having mid-day meal. A very attractive woman walked before them. Though the day was warm, she wore a cloak, with the hood raised.
Gabrielle turned to the healer. "Dalius, that young woman that just passed by seems familiar."
"Should be, it was Selina." Dalius referred to Niko’s nineteen year old daughter.
Gabrielle tracked the young woman’s trail. She assumed Selina had come from the palace. She now walked across the courtyard toward the palace gates. "Do you know what brings her to the palace?"
"I don’t have to guess," Dalius laughed easily. "She has a crush on one of the Guardsmen."
"Really… Which of my brothers has won her favor?"
"That I do not know. But, the girl told Xanthus that she was close to concluding her effort in the palace."
"She has taken up a romantic campaign," Gabrielle mused. "I have always liked Selina."
"There is much to like. She is gentle, beautiful and a fine musician. Have you heard her play the lyre?"
"Yes, I have. She is talented. She would be a fine choice for an honorable heart."
"And from your brothers there are many to choose from. I wonder if soon you will be asked to give your blessing to a union."
"That won’t be necessary."
"I didn’t say it was. Your approval means I great to the men."
"Selina hides herself under her cloak. Why be shy about her visits?"
"Who knows? Petty jealousies are always motivation to be discreet. Few city girls have won a Guardsman’s love."
"So, it isn’t that my brothers are in competition?"
"We haven’t had an unexplained knife wound in moons," said Dalius dryly.
Gabrielle laughed. "Let’s hope we seen none in the near future."
A handful of days later, in the mid-afternoon, Gabrielle searched out Xena within the palace environs. Inquiries to Stephen and Trevor were met with uncommon hesitancy. Neither knew of her Lord’s whereabouts.
Gabrielle walked toward an anti-chamber reserved for diplomatic and strategic meetings. Given the relative quiet in the realm she doubted finding Xena there but after a candlemark of disappointment her remaining options were few.
Selina stepped out of the private meeting chamber. Following her was an attentive Xena. From her partner’s essence Gabrielle felt an undercurrent of mild anxiety. Suddenly feeling uncertain, Gabrielle stepped into an alcove, hidden from view. From there she could hear the soft spoken voices.
"Selina, I know you’re not comfortable with our secrecy," said Xena. "I promise you; soon all will know the reason for our trysts."
"I fear the Queen suspects."
"She has no reason to. I have scheduled our meetings keeping her itinerary in mind. I have also sworn all my closest confidants to silence."
"When she learns the truth…"
"She will understand that I have exercised discretion more so then deception. The Queen gave me leave to follow my heart. You cannot doubt my motivation."
Xena took the younger woman’s hand. "Selina, if life has taught me anything it is that happiness is too fragile and fleeting not to grant it to oneself and those one loves. Hesitation is a waste."
"When will you come to my father’s tavern?"
"In less than a fortnight. I gave you my word and with the Queen’s cooperation I shall keep it. All that has transpired between us will not be for naught. We shall have our moment in the public eye and when we do no apologies will be necessary."
"I hope you are right."
"Trust me." Xena’s expression turned worrisome. She shifted her gaze in the direction where Gabrielle stood hidden.
"Is something wrong?" asked Selina.
"Just a feeling… I’ll escort you to the courtyard, then I must see to a personal matter."
The two walked in the opposite direction of Gabrielle toward the palace courtyard entrance.
Gabrielle leaned against the cold stone wall of the palace. Her thoughts drifted back to a Royal camp outside of Turian’s estate. Gabrielle had just informed Xena of her desire to return to Corinth as her Queen.
"Xena, in public affairs I am Queen. What do you expect of me privately?"
"We have spoken of friendship. I expect no more from you."
"Is that all that we are to be to each other when we have had so much more?"
"I don’t know what is possible between us," said Xena honestly. "I look at you and I am at a lost. That is my truth, Gabrielle."
"Xena, promise me that if the day comes when you feel less lost, when you have even a hint of what you wish for yourself that you won’t hesitate to tell me. I will not keep you from your happiness." Gabrielle did not speak optimistically. She was prepared to be sent away or subjected to the lesser indignity of being discreetly replaced in Xena’s intimate life.
"I have grown accustomed to sleeping alone. After Athens my battle lust had no hold on me. I felt no fever. Such desire has left me and not returned."
"I still ask the promise."
"You have it," said Xena.
Gabrielle raised her hand and wiped her face clean of a few fallen tears. She needed to think, to clear her mind of the contradicting images of the heartbreak of Athens and until the present moment the blissful renewal of her intimate life with Xena.
She took an indirect route to the stables, one that would circumvent Xena’s path. Reaching the stables she saddled Spirit, dismissing Voger’s question regarding an escort. She knew it would not be long before the groom informed Trevor.
Gabrielle chose the hidden entrance at the far side of the courtyard to exit the palace. She rode Spirit in a full gallop across the hillside, allowing the task of maintaining her balance on the forceful steed to own her thoughts. Reaching a stand of trees she slowed Spirit to a walk. She immediately felt Xena’s essence.
Gabrielle stood up in her stirrups and looked back toward the palace. She saw in the distance an approaching horse and rider. By their bond she knew it was her Lord. Gabrielle sat back in her saddle and took a deep breath, trying to compose her frayed emotions.
Upon reaching Gabrielle, Xena brought Argo to a halt. The two women and their mounts faced one another. "Gabrielle…" said Xena cautiously.
"My Lord," said Gabrielle betraying no distress.
"I felt…" Xena was obviously confused. "Are you all right?"
Gabrielle knew that she could not hide fundamental truths from Xena. And, she was bound to her oath to always be truthful. "I grieve a disappointment… my memories… I had an unexpected recollection."
"A difficult memory?" posed Xena thoughtfully.
"Would you rather be alone?"
"I… I don’t want to talk about it."
"We don’t have to. I can just ride beside you."
"You do care for me?" asked Gabrielle, her heart overruling her dispassionate intentions.
"Whatever the memory, know that I am here for you," said Xena tenderly.
"Then stay with me," said Gabrielle as she reined Spirit to a walk.
Xena silently guided Argo to join them.
The following days were difficult for both Royals. Gabrielle maintained her emotional distance. If Gabrielle was haunted by a disappointment from the past there was no satisfactory manner for Xena to isolate the subject. The bard’s life had too many painful episodes to speculate on one lone source. Xena was determined to honor Gabrielle’s request not to speak of the subject. She thus resigned herself to a waiting posture.
Gabrielle entered the Royal suite. Xena petted Honor as they rested in front of the fireplace on a bed of furs. "There you are," she warmly greeted Gabrielle. "Makia brought dinner a half-candlemark ago."
"You should have started without me," said Gabrielle dully.
"I think not. I feel as if I’ve spent the day with everyone in Corinth but you."
"I’m not hungry." Gabrielle walked toward the bedroom.
"Gabrielle?" Xena stood. "What’s wrong?"
"I’m fine. Just a little tired."
"We are expected at Niko’s tonight. Would you rather not go?"
"I don’t want to disappoint…"
"It’s all right." Xena walked to the suite entrance. "Alem!"
The Guardsman opened the door and stepped inside. "My Liege."
"Alem, send word to Trevor and to Niko that there will be no bard’s visit tonight."
"No, my Lord. That isn’t necessary," said Gabrielle.
Xena turned to her. "Gabrielle, if you are tired..."
"We haven’t been to Niko’s in moons." She directed her next statement to the Guardsman. "Alem, there is no change in plans."
Alem glanced to Xena. She nodded in assent. He stepped back into the corridor and closed the door. Xena met Gabrielle’s gaze. The warrior’s concern was etched on her face.
"Xena, there is a story that needs to be told tonight. I shall not rest until I share its conclusion."
"It is a new story?"
"I think it is not a happy one."
"Not for all the characters, no."
"It is much like life then," mused Xena.
"I’m sorry to say it is."
"I will listen closely because it is in those stories that lessons are most often learned."
"I’m going to change my clothes. We can then eat before leaving."
Xena nodded. She hoped that by telling her story Gabrielle might find a foothold to her elusive sense of peace. "Very well."
Niko’s was bustling with patrons. As always, word of a special night had been shared with the tavern owner’s friends and best customers. Plain clothed Guardsmen ensured no weapons entered the establishment and that order was kept as generous mugs of mead and wine were served.
The Royals sat at their usual table, somewhat secluded from the crowd. Gabrielle’s mood remained subdued. Commenting on a number of the patrons’ more humorous eccentricities Xena had tried valiantly, but with little success, to bring a lighthearted spirit to their conversation.
As it neared time for the evening’s entertainment Xena turned her gaze toward the bar and smiled. Gabrielle followed Xena’s line of sight to Selina. Through their bond Gabrielle could feel a sudden heighten excitement take over the warrior as well as an uncensored admiration for the young woman. Gabrielle tried to close her heart as she faced her rival. Her fear harbored after Athens was at the forefront. To look upon the woman who she believed was replacing her in Xena’s sympathies was far too painful. The bard looked away, focusing on her mug of mead.
"Gabrielle." Xena gentle voice cut through the tavern din. Gabrielle looked up. "There is someone I need to speak to. I shouldn’t be long."
Gabrielle could not veil her sadness. "All right. I’ll wait for you."
Xena paused upon hearing the latter phrase. Reassuringly, she covered Gabrielle’s hand with her own. "Are you sure there is nothing wrong?"
"I’m fine. Go on."
Xena made no move to leave her chair. "I don’t believe you."
"I’m just thinking about the stories I’m going to tell."
"Are you sure you must tell that sad story?"
"Sometimes the stories choose me. I don’t choose the stories."
Xena was obviously dissatisfied with Gabrielle’s answer. "We are going to talk tonight, my bard."
"I think after tonight there will be nothing left unsaid."
Xena seemed lost for words. She squeezed Gabrielle’s hand and then stood up. "You once made a request of me. I have yet to grant it. I think it is time I did."
"What request?" asked Gabrielle, thinking she was hearing a precursor to Xena’s confession of infidelity.
"That you will soon learn and I hope that if the quality of my execution is wanting that your disappointment is tempered by my sincere desire to live up to your expectations of me."
Gabrielle had no answer. After a moment Xena turned away. Gabrielle watched her partner weave through the crowd to Selina. Upon the meeting of the two women Gabrielle looked away toward the front of the tavern.
There Niko stood up on a makeshift stage. He raised his hands and called out for quiet. With most of the tavern patrons offering him their attention he said, "As you know we expect to be entertained tonight by the fine bard from Poteidaia." The crowd applauded in anticipation. "Hold your horses. Before she steps up here we have another performer. It’s her first time on stage and I expect you to give this singer of songs from Amphipolis the same respect you would our bard. She will be accompanied on the lyre by my own daughter, Selina."
Gabrielle’s heart skipped at hearing Niko’s announcement. Her gaze jumped from Niko to Xena and Selina as the two women walked up to the small stage, the latter carrying a previously unseen lyre. The audience was momentarily stunned silent and then a few of the braver patrons clapped. Quickly a roar of approval resounded through the tavern as all realized that their Sovereign would entertainment them with song.
"Thank you," said Xena. "My partner in life – I think you know who she is – once asked me to recite a poem to her. Tonight I grant her the wish, though I do it in song and not verse."
Gabrielle smiled as a vivid memory crossed her mind. The place was their chambers. The time was a few days before her planned medicinal tour to regional villages - a tour that was supplanted by her diplomatic trip to Athens.
Within the Royal suite Gabrielle sat at her desk. Xena entered from the bedroom dressed in rust pantaloons tucked into tall black leather boots and a black tunic held close to her body with a black leather belt. She glanced toward the balcony. "Promises to be a good day. Hopefully the weather will hold for your trip." Seeing her partner, Gabrielle smiled brilliantly. The smile seemed to have nothing to do with Xena’s weather forecast. "What?" asked Xena.
"You are beautiful," said Gabrielle appreciatively.
"You are complementary this morning. I wonder if you seek a favor," said Xena with an amused glint in her eyes.
For a moment Gabrielle was thoughtful. A devilish grin appeared upon her. "You have never recited a poem to me."
"Ho! A poem? I say not," protested the warrior.
"Well then, I must reconcile myself to going without."
"Can I make it up to you some other way?"
"I will think of something."
Gabrielle never had the opportunity to make a claim. Her thoughts were brought to the present by Xena’s melodious voice. Her partner had chosen to recite a lover’s poem by Homer to the music of a ballad. Gabrielle listened intently. She could not recall the last time she heard Xena sing. Surely it had been prior to Athens.
As the days preceding the evening proved, Athens continued to mark Gabrielle. Athens caused Gabrielle to take measure of all that she was and all that she could be to her partner. In her worst nightmares Athens still held the power to provoke Gabrielle’s fear of the inevitable loss of her life with Xena, not due to the Fates further weavings, but due to a just retribution for her broken vows of fealty and fidelity.
Despite Xena’s assurances, Gabrielle’s fear remained just beneath the surface of the bard’s consciousness. Xena had herald a new era, a time of mutual healing, where compassion and patience would be rewarded by the cure of wounds once believed to be inconsolable. Xena was determined not to allow Athens and its aftermath to hold them hostage. Forgiveness was possible. More so, forgiveness was vital if their lives were to be worth living.
Gabrielle felt she had once again misjudged her partner. Once again she had lost faith that Xena’s heart would persevere and hold to her love for Gabrielle. Gabrielle felt a new humility, a bone deep understanding that she must honor her beloved by renewing her faith in Xena’s unbounded love. In Megara Gabrielle had been driven to recite a new vow of joining. On this night in Niko’s she embraced without qualification the fact that Xena’s acceptance of her vow and placement of her joining ring back on the bard’s finger was cause to shatter all conceivable doubts.
Xena sang a second song, a lively folksong that had the audience clapping in rhythm. At its conclusion she announced there would be no more and gestured toward Selina to step forward. She took the musician’s hand. The two bowed as the audience applauded in appreciation. Xena then released Selina’s hand and jumped down from the stage.
Gabrielle stood up and walked impatiently toward her lover. The weight of her guilt and shame had been lifted from her. Her heart was alight with an indescribable joy. Without hint of her intention she embraced Xena and kissed her passionately. Xena surrendered to the kiss as the audience’s waning applause surged in celebration of their Sovereign’s and Queen’s union.
The kiss ended. Xena scanned the rowdy crowd before returning her attention back to her partner. "I say we have made a spectacle of ourselves."
"I don’t care," said Gabrielle merrily.
Xena could not only see but she could also feel Gabrielle’s soaring spirit as their bond owned her completely. "Nor do I," she said happily. "But, I think I must step aside. Your audience awaits you, my bard."
"Will you be mine tonight?" asked Gabrielle, offering an intimacy that had been sorely missed by the both of them.
"Must you ask?"
Gabrielle cupped Xena’s cheek with her hand. "I love you, Xena of Amphipolis, singer of songs."
Xena smiled brightly. She repeated her own vow with a slight variation. "I am yours, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, bard of tales. I am and shall always be yours and yours alone."
Comments always welcomed: Mayt_Fanfiction@sbcglobal.net
Expect the (complete) final story of this series, My Lord: An Act of Love in December 2008.
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