My Lord: By the Fates
Disclaimer: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices
Background: This is a Conqueror story. It follows the events of My Lord and My Lord: Solstice.
Acknowledgements: My gratitude to Cath for her edits, comments and timely response. She always raises the quality of my work.
Comments: Comments always encouraged and appreciated.
Subtext: This story portrays a loving relationship between two women. If you are under 18 or if it is illegal for you to read this text please do not continue.
The following is a list and brief description (with spoilers) of charters found in My Lord (ML) and My Lord: Solstice.
Xena of Amphipolis, Conqueror of Greece
Gabrielle of Poteidaia
The Conqueror's Family (ML)
Cyrene: Mother of Xena
Lyceus: Deceased brother of Xena
Toris: Disgraced brother
Gabrielle's Family (ML)
The Conqueror's Household (ML)
Dalius: The Healer
Lacia: Twelve-year old slave (Solstice)
Landis: Male servant
Leah: Slave / Gabrielle's roommate
Mansel: Male servant
Pathas: Male servant
Targon: The Administrator
The Generals & Their Armies
Xena, the Conqueror
Corinth and selected assignments
Western Port Cities
Anton: Senior Guard took Gabrielle to kitchen after Xena killed Gaugan (ML)
Brogan: Escorted Gabrielle when she was taken into custody by Osric. (ML)
Cantus: Gabrielle mentioned that she stitched a wound (ML)
Endres: Gabrielle stitched a cut (ML)
Geldpac: Seasoned warrior (ML)
Hamish: Escorted Gabrielle when she was taken into custody by Osric . (ML)
Samuel: A Queen's Guardsman (Solstice)
Sentas (Lieut): Brash seasoned officer (ML)
Stephen (Captain): Royal Guardsman (ML)
Talas: Traitor, killed by Xena (ML)
Tavis (Lieut): Seasoned officer (ML)
Trevor: Royal Guardsman assigned Gabrielle's security. (ML)
Xanthus: Guard palace gates (ML)
Curan: Tried to rape Gabrielle. She killed him. (ML)
Inis: Gabrielle's lover during Gabrielle's estrangement from Xena (ML)
Lieut. Osric: Took Gabrielle into custody for killing a soldier. Later killed. Killer assumed to be Inis. (ML)
Persi: Repair the Conqueror's armor. (ML)
Leaders of Other Nations
Bevan: Xena conqueror him to win Corinth & Greece (ML)
Caesar - Rome (ML)
Lao Ma - Chin (ML)
Okal - Persia (ML)
Draco: Warlord - took Gabrielle into slavery (ML)
Halan: Leader of Eastern raiders (ML)
Leyan: Corrupt leader of the Persian Army (ML)
Montavous: Greek accomplice of Halan (ML)
Lords & Their Families
Castan: Mentioned as meeting with other Lords at beginning of My Lord.
Stasis: Mentioned as meeting with other Lords at beginning of My Lord.
Vacaou: Sent assassins to kill Xena after she defeated Caesar. Xena killed him to reclaim her throne. (ML)
House of Gaugan (ML)
Ridel: Gaugan's son
Broan: Story requestor (Solstice)
Calph: Peacemaker at inn (Solstice)
Sastro: Wood carver (Solstice)
Clotho (maiden): spun wool when person born
Lachesis (mature women - mother): Measure out the length of their lives on a string
Atropos (crone): Cut the string, determining when their lives end.
Sitting underneath a large yew tree, the young bard wrote of her life in a recently begun journal. The journal of bound blank parchment lay on her lap. She held a quill in her hand. Beside her rested a set of quills, an inkpot and a finely stitched leather traveling case to safely secure her belongings. All were a belated Solstice gift. The case had been made by her lover's own hands. It bore the Conqueror's seal, which mirrored the medallion the bard wore around her neck and the ring that dressed her left hand.
The sun was setting. The horizon seemed in flames while the sky above her revealed the brightest stars in the coming twilight. Soon she would move to the nearby cave where camp had been set.
By its very simplicity the day had been extraordinary. In the hazy light of dawn she and her Lord rode side-by-side out of the palace gates over the cobblestone streets through the just-waking city of Corinth. It was only after they left the center of government behind them that Gabrielle observed the transformation of the Conqueror of Greece to Xena of Amphipolis.
Xena's relaxed, playful nature was a priceless gift to Gabrielle -- one hard to come by within the public realm of their lives, but which showed itself in their private suite. She was certain that this getaway would give her the opportunity to bring forth her free-spirited partner. Refocusing upon the parchment the bard dipped her quill into the inkpot as her thoughts took form.
We traveled the day in quiet companionship taking the narrow country roads south. I hadn't asked Xena where she was leading me, trusting that it would be a good place.
We entered the valley after traversing a thick grove of apple trees. Xena plucked two of the fruit as we passed, sharing her harvest with me. The apples were tart and crisp. We rambled into a meadow, a sea of blanched gold, tall winter grass. Xena pointed to a cliff at the other side. We claimed a cave for the night. It was obvious that Xena knew this place. The cave she chose had a fire-ring and a small pool of water large enough for us to bathe in.
Before taking her bow to hunt, Xena kissed me and thanked me. I didn't have to ask what for. The root of the answer glistened in her eyes. Today I feel I am the older and she the younger, so light is her nature. The change in her has been remarkable. I am happy I played a role in bringing her to this time…
Gabrielle heard raised voices in the Royal chamber. She observed from the bedroom threshold Xena standing behind her desk. Jared stood across from her. They were two defiant warriors in vehement disagreement.
Xena slammed the flat of her hand down. "Since when do I have to ask your permission to leave the city?"
"It isn't that you want to leave, it's how," Jared argued.
"I can take care of myself."
"Gabrielle will be at risk."
Gabrielle was surprised to learn she was the subject of the argument.
"She can take of herself. You said so yourself a hundred times."
For the third time that morning Jared tried to change his Sovereign's decision. "All I ask is that you take an escort."
"Then what is the point?" Xena was infuriated "When did I become a prisoner of Greece?"
Jared had had enough of Xena's recklessness. "Go ahead and put yourself in danger, but not the lass."
Xena stilled, biting her tongue not to spew her anger, an anger that rose from the hurt caused by Jared's barefaced distinction of concern for Gabrielle over her.
"Jared." Gabrielle's soft voice interrupted. "It seems as if my life is being debated and no one has had the courtesy of consulting me."
The General settled. "I didn't realize you were…"
"Happens when tempers flare," Gabrielle interjected. "Prudence is pushed away by the strongest passions."
Xena turned away. Gabrielle's gaze followed. She felt the radiating darkness surrounding her partner.
"I'm sorry," Jared apologized.
Gabrielle reached out and touched his arm as she passed him and approached Xena. "Though my Lord and I both value your judgment the right to make our decisions is never forfeited when we seek your counsel." She paused and turned to her self-appointed guardian. "Choosing to go against your recommendation does not equate to choosing to go against you."
Jared never had a defense against Gabrielle's gentle persuasion. "I realize that."
"Would you excuse us?"
Jared glanced over to Xena's turned back. He reconciled himself to the limits of his influence. The decision remained with the two women he valued above all others. He left the suite with little hope that his advice would be followed.
Gabrielle waited to hear the final click of the closed door. She stayed a few paces from her partner. "Xena?"
She received no answer though Xena's rhythmic opening and closing of her right fist spoke volumes.
Xena stilled. Her voice was hoarse. "I wouldn't put you in danger."
"I know," Gabrielle affirmed without hesitation.
"I'm being selfish."
Gabrielle stepped forward. "I doubt that. Exactly what were you and Jared arguing about?"
Xena kept her eyes forward, looking out through the open balcony to a Greece she knew to be far different than Corinth. "I told him I wanted to take advantage of the warm spell and go on a short trip… just you and me."
"In all the time we've known each other we have never been completely alone, have we?"
"To have you all to myself…" Gabrielle smiled. "I like the idea."
Xena repeated Jared's arguments. "The weather might change. You're only now better."
"You can build a fire and cut all the wood we need. That, a heavy blanket and you beside me will keep me warm."
"There have been reports of local raiders."
"Pity for them if they challenge us. With your sword and my staff they will know more hurt than they can manage."
Xena turned to Gabrielle. "You want this? You're not just saying ‘yes’ because I do?"
Gabrielle stepped forward. "There would be nothing wrong if, to see you happy, I said ‘yes.’ I must admit I want this respite, too. Take me away from Corinth, Xena. Take me to a quiet place that I need only share with you, where the night sky shelters us and where we can quench our thirst in a clear stream."
"Jared does not like it."
"He is almost as protective of me as you are. Leave Jared and Targon to me. They can manage Greece for a handful of days." Gabrielle was decisive. "When do you want to leave?"
"I'll be ready."
Xena closed her eyes. Gabrielle watched as Xena stepped inward. A smile came to the warrior as if she found what she was seeking. Xena opened her eyes and reached out taking Gabrielle's hand. The connection was not enough for her. She embraced Gabrielle, radiating a profound joy that the young Queen had yet to completely understand.
Xena spoke tenderly, "I promise you, you won't regret this."
Gabrielle raised her eyes to see Xena standing by the cave entrance. Xena held up her catch of two large rabbits. Gabrielle waved. Xena mirrored the gesture before entering the cave. The bard returned to her writing. Soon she heard Xena's familiar footsteps.
Xena knelt beside her. "Hey."
Gabrielle smiled a warm welcome. "Hi. Looks like you had good luck."
"I have them roasting."
"You cook, too!" Gabrielle quipped.
"I can put meat on a spit. Don't know if that counts as cooking."
"Depends if the rabbits end up burnt on the outside and raw on the inside."
Xena gave her lover a wary look. "Maybe you should go look."
"Oh, please…" Gabrielle made a move to rise.
Xena laughed. "I'm kidding."
Gabrielle showed her doubt.
Gabrielle leaned back. "I'm not worried. Makia was generous in filling our saddlebags. We won't starve."
Surprising the bard, Xena stole a kiss. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her lover's neck, pulling her close. They fell to a place where cares are abandoned and pleasure has dominion. Gently Xena released Gabrielle.
The younger woman observed, "You are brash, My Lord."
"I meant no offense."
Xena's smile was brilliant. "A request then."
Gabrielle was mock sober. "I grant you a royal audience."
Xena caressed Gabrielle's cheek. "Be my bard tonight."
"You shall have me tell you a story?"
"Or two or three."
Gabrielle echoed happily. "Or two or three."
Xena patted Gabrielle's leg with undisguised concern. "How are you feeling?"
"Good. I'm not half as stiff as I thought I would be." She covered Xena's hand with her own. "How about you?"
"Great. It's been a good day."
Gabrielle voiced a lesson learned early in her observation of her Lord. "You really are very easy to please."
"What more do I need?" Xena was guileless. "What more could anyone ask for?"
Once again Gabrielle was struck by her lover’s easy mood. She looked up. "It should be a clear night."
"We can watch the stars from the cave mouth."
Gabrielle was pleased. "I'd like that."
"I'm going to check on the rabbits." Xena bounced onto her feet and jogged back to the cave.
Gabrielle watched intently. She could not recall ever seeing Xena happier. She sent a prayer to whatever Gods were listening. 'If I could, I'd give her the freedom she knows only in her dreams and in the rare precious days like today.'
Xena was laughing wholeheartedly as Gabrielle completed a story regarding the amorous affection of a dull-minded donkey for a goat. "Did you hear that story or make it up?"
"Does it matter?" Gabrielle smiled.
"I just wondered if I know either the goat or the donkey."
Gabrielle kissed Xena on the cheek. "Love can come unexpectedly."
"I've learned anything is possible." Xena quieted. "When you came to Corinth, my life was turned upside down."
"Do you have regrets?" Gabrielle had yet to take complete measures of the impact she had upon Xena. Only with time would her solitary lover reveal herself.
Xena was contrite. "I sent you away… I know I hurt you when I did."
Gabrielle had not expected the sharp shift in Xena's humor. "I understand why you did."
Xena averted her eyes.
"Xena." Gabrielle gently reached out and turned Xena's chin toward her. "There were things that changed me while I lived in the east garrison… I needed that time away from… Corinth. If I hadn't gone away I wouldn't be as sure of who I am."
"You've forgiven me?"
"There is nothing to forgive. I've learned that there are reasons for the things you do. I trust you… I trust that you will always do what you believe is best." Gabrielle tried to lighten mood. "Look, I trusted you to take me away from Corinth and I have been well rewarded with this day." She kissed Xena gently. "It has been a good day, Xena, and I am hoping you will give me a good night."
Xena had come to know life only within a world that included Gabrielle. She could trace back her days since Gabrielle entered her household and still she could not account for how she had come to this place and time. Xena was grateful for her life. She was grateful for having the means to give herself to Gabrielle without qualification. Her reward was an invisible bond that melded their life forces into one. It gave Xena a sense of wholeness that healed much of the brokenness she carried within her since Cortese attacked Amphipolis. She could feel the ever-strengthening bond when she found herself yearning for it and concentrated. She could also feel their bond during moments such as this, when no effort was necessary, when it was as much a part of them as life itself. The momentary turmoil of the past brought forth to the present receded and Xena reclaimed her peace. She offered Gabrielle a tender smile. "Gabrielle, we will give each other a good night."
At one time, Lord Judais prided himself on his rugged good looks. Time had marked him. A generation older than his Sovereign, his handsome features brought a measure of comfort. And yet, to his chagrin, he could not deny that though equal to the Conqueror in height, he carried a good two stones of weight more than her. They walked side-by-side across the palace courtyard, keeping an easy pace and equally easy conversation.
Having taken a morning ride, Gabrielle guided Geld, her unremarkably named gelding toward the stables. From the rear she recognized Xena, but not her lover's companion. She decided to satisfy her curiosity and bid the two a good day. She trotted Geld forward, well aware that Xena would hear Geld's advance, and with uncanny accuracy identify both the equine and his rider.
Gabrielle called out brightly. "My Lord."
Xena paused and turned, a smile unconsciously present. She stepped forward meeting Gabrielle at the courtyard center. As she walked, Xena kept an observant, appreciative gaze upon her partner. Once again, she was impressed with Gabrielle's masterful horsemanship. Xena would have confidently wagered that the most gifted oracle in the realm could not have foreseen the day when the younger woman would hold herself so naturally in a saddle. Gabrielle's intelligence, never in doubt, had become her dedicated mentor's greatest challenge. Xena took great effort to engage Gabrielle's insatiable hunger for knowledge and skills beyond her already formidable talents as a bard and healer. Xena correlated Gabrielle's blossoming to her acceptance, that improbable as it might seem, she was the Queen of Greece. Xena called out to her lover, "Hello."
Gabrielle leaned forward against the saddle horn. "May I have the pleasure of your company at mid-day meal?"
"I think that can be arranged." Xena looked a glance and waved Judais to her. "Gabrielle, you haven't met Lord Judais."
Judais bowed. "Your Majesty, it is a pleasure to finally meet you."
There was something familiar about the man that Gabrielle could not immediately place. She felt an inexplicable discomfort in his presence. "Good day to you, Sir. Will you be in Corinth long?"
"A fortnight and then I must return to Serdica."
Gabrielle's blood ran cold. She maintained a pleasant countenance as she continued to query. "Is that home?"
The noble was pleased with the Queen's attentiveness. It confirmed her good name. "Yes. My family has extensive holdings."
Gabrielle had heard enough. The warmth of her voice was displaced by a cool inflection. "I bid you a safe journey." She sat up, her posture rigid.
Judais stepped forward. "But, Your Majesty, I was hoping to see you at Court."
Xena was puzzled by the change in Gabrielle. She interjected. "Our Queen attends Court sparingly."
"Tis a pity." Judais directed a warm invitation to both. "Would you consider sharing a private meal in my chamber while I am in residence in the palace?"
Gabrielle was quick and curt in her response. "For myself, that will not be possible. I cannot speak for our Sovereign."
Xena's was bewildered and concerned by Gabrielle's rejection of Judais' gracious invitation. It was not like the bard to withhold hospitality. "We will see what my schedule will allow." Xena would seek further understanding when alone with Gabrielle.
Gabrielle solicited an end to the interview. "If you will excuse me, I'm expected elsewhere."
"Your Majesty." Judais accepted the Queen's dismissal with no animosity, but like his Sovereign he felt a tension that had no apparent warrant.
Xena stepped up for a private word. She placed her hand on Gabrielle's leg. "I love you."
Gabrielle took Xena's hand and squeezed it reassuringly. "I will wait for you."
Xena nodded and stepped away. She watched Gabrielle ride to the stables. As she did, she felt a vague unease. She did not like the feeling.
Judais took the liberty to approach the Conqueror. "I hope I did not offend Queen Gabrielle."
Xena placed a hand on the noble's shoulder. She would not have him blame himself. "I am not in a position to give you an explanation. But, be assured, you did nothing wrong."
Xena and Makia arrived in the Royal suite jointly, their paths having crossed within the long palace corridors. Stepping aside, the Conqueror allowed Makia to enter before her. She peered over the cook's shoulder.
"Smells good." She whispered in the elder's ear. "I know that blend of spices. Our Queen favors them in her cooking. By whose hand was this meal made?"
Makia was forceful in her reply. "I do not tell you who to allow into your Court. So, don't go thinking you need to know who has been in my kitchen."
Xena chuckled. "Cook, what have I done to deserve your cat claws?"
"Don't be smart. You will spoil Gab… the Queen's heart's desire." Makia place the covered dishes on the dining table.
Xena rested her hand gently on Makia's arm. "I will be good."
"Be grateful," the elder advised sincerely.
Xena grew serious. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't thank the Fates for her."
Makia studied her Sovereign. Truth had been spoken. She took up her tray and gave Xena a genuine smile. "Very well. Now don't touch a thing or I shall take my wooden spoon to you."
"Yes, Ma'am." Xena made a show of raising her hands.
Gabrielle entered from the bedroom. "There you are." She took note of her lover's feigned deference. "What's this?"
Xena quipped. "In this household I seem to rule nothing."
Makia shook her head. She wished the Conqueror's self-deprecating humor was not limited to the confines of the Royal suite and brought forward only in the Queen's presence or within the context of discussing the Queen. She observed the gentle exchange of regard between the two royals, and suddenly felt like an intruder. She bowed slightly. "Enjoy your meal, My Lady."
"And what of I, Makia?" Xena solicited.
Standing at the open door, the cook addressed the Conqueror. "Your Majesty, given your company, I have no doubt that you will enjoy your meal. Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said for My Lady."
The cook departed in the wake of Xena's laughter.
Xena directed her jest toward her young Queen. "You have corrupted my staff, no one more than cook."
Assured of her position, Gabrielle approached, taking the Conqueror into a warm embrace. "It is only Makia and she knows how to keep a secret."
"What secret?" Xena challenged, lowering her voice to an intimidating growl.
Gabrielle looked up to the gentle, open countenance of the warrior. "I must be mistaken, My Lord."
"No, you're not. But, I don't blame you for the taint upon my reputation. It has been my mother's doing. She and Makia have traded too many stories. Cook now sees me as a rampageous child in need of a firm hand."
"We need to visit Cyrene sometime soon," Gabrielle threatened slyly.
"For more stories, no doubt."
Gabrielle laughed. "Are you hungry?"
"Come then." With that said, Gabrielle took Xena's hand and guided her to the table.
They ate enjoying the very intimate quality of their privately shared company. Gabrielle had prepared a meal of venison stew, an assortment of cut vegetables sprinkled with oil and vinegar, rich brown rye bread, and fruit as a dessert.
Sipping her tea, Gabrielle followed Xena's telling of Judais' visit, a courtesy to the recently positioned noble.
"How did you come to know Lord Judais?"
Xena continued her casual speech. "He was with my campaign to win the northern provinces. Judais knew the land better than I did. Made a difference."
"So, he returned to Serdica after you won Greece?" Gabrielle asked though she knew otherwise.
"No. Life was hard on him. He lost his wife and son to raiders. His daughter was of age and fell in love with a good man from the east. After they joined they moved to be closer to his family in Byzantium. Judais couldn't bear being away from his daughter and followed, placing his holdings in trust with his brother. Byzantium has been in drought for the past two years. Judais decided to return to Serdica to vouchsafe his daughter and her family."
Gabrielle was thoughtful. She now understood why she had never known the noble. "Did Judais travel alone to Corinth?"
"His younger brother Tassos and two nephews, Stavros and Tracate are with him."
Gabrielle looked into her tea mug, concentrating on the placid liquid, willing herself to project a calmness she did not feel. Xena watched Gabrielle. For the second time in the day, she found her partner's tense spirit disquieting.
Gabrielle turned a distant gaze to Xena. "Are they all staying a fortnight?"
"Depends on when Jared returns."
"Jared?" Gabrielle could not imagine the General's role. He usually kept an arm's length from regional politics.
Xena grimaced. "Stavros and Tracate are looking to ingratiate themselves into my favor by proving their military prowess. They are seeking commissions into the 2nd Army."
"What does General Dymas say?" Gabrielle knew, like Jared, the balance of Greece's generals did not suffer political appointments well.
"He's leery. The nephews are not his favorites. Dymas abides by my philosophy of keeping the enemy within one's sight. They might not be the enemy but they could be trouble."
"What do you think?" Gabrielle found herself in the exceptional position of knowing more about the subjects than Xena, and thus being able to assess the warrior's judgment.
Xena took a bite of venison. Gabrielle patiently waited for the Conqueror to explore her thoughts and make a determination.
The warrior nodded, then answered. "I respect Judais. From what I'm told his nephews are nothing more than well-clothed brutes. Still, under the right circumstances they could be of some use to me."
Gabrielle was somewhat surprised. "You haven't met them?"
"No. If Jared thinks they are worth the bother, I'll give them an audience."
"So, the commissions are Jared's decision?"
"If he feels strongly, one way or the other, I won't go against him."
Gabrielle's ire seeped out. "You don't allow brutes into the Guard. Why would you consider then as officers in your army?"
Xena captured and held Gabrielle's challenging gaze. She responded firmly, but without malice. "You know better than most that my standards differ between the Royal Guard and the regular army."
Gabrielle observed. "It's a convenient time to enter the military. We're at peace. There isn't much chance that they will have to prove themselves in battle."
Gabrielle fell silent.
Xena placed her hand over her Queen's. "A lesson in military politics. Is this why you invited me to dine with you?"
Gabrielle felt Xena's warmth radiate through her. It was warmth that promised safety, more so love. She chose to reveal her newly laid plan, one composed in response to Judais and his family's presence in Corinth. She bitterly regretted the consequences of it. "Would you mind terribly if I go to Megara for a while?"
The request was unexpected. Xena noted the singular, there was no invitation implied. Her hand gently tightened over the bard's. "Gabrielle, what's wrong?"
Gabrielle was not dishonest in her answer. However, she failed to reveal the whole truth. "I'm still a peasant girl from Poteidaia. Sometimes I want a quieter, simpler life than what I have here. Is that wrong of me?"
"Of course not." Xena could not fault Gabrielle for seeking a reprieve from the endless demands of her position. "When do you want to leave?"
Shyly, Gabrielle asked. "Is the day after tomorrow too soon?"
"No, not at all." Xena was conciliatory. "I will miss you."
Gabrielle took note, and reached for a good in her actions. "Maybe you could come to me after you finish this business with Judais?"
Though heartened, Xena sought assurance. "Do you want me to?"
"Yes, very much."
Xena was relieved. Whatever troubled Gabrielle did not reflect upon her. "Have you plans for this afternoon?"
"Nothing that can't wait."
Xena got to her feet and went to the door. She opened it and spoke a few words to Samuel. She returned extending her hand to Gabrielle. Gabrielle took it and stood. Xena lifted Gabrielle into her arms and carried her to their bedroom. She closed the door with her foot. Her eyes fell to her partner, resting small within her grasp, eyes closed. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle opened her eyes; a faraway look had taken residence.
Xena would not assume. "By the fireplace or our bed?"
Always given the choice, always holding the power to decide when they would make love, Gabrielle gave Xena her answer by raising herself up and giving her lover a kiss. Gabrielle's heart was breaking. She needed Xena's touch. She needed to feel the gentle warmth, the salve upon wounds that opened and bled at unexpected moments, wounds that Xena had come to sense with astonishing accuracy.
Xena allowed the kiss to touch her deeply. By its tentativeness she knew that Gabrielle needed their gentlest lovemaking. Xena had no clue of what had provoked the cut. She had no power to ward off the hurt. Once inflicted, she did have the power to alleviate a fraction of the pain.
The Conqueror worked quietly at her desk. Only the sound of the crackling fire disturbed the evening silence. She found Gabrielle's absence easier to bear if she kept focused on trade agreements and other reading during this time of day normally reserved for her partner.
She responded to a knock on her chamber door. "Come."
Jared entered. "My Liege."
Xena was genuinely happy to see the General. "Jared."
She came round her desk and embraced him, giving him a robust pat on the back. "Good to see you. How was your trip?"
Jared was in excellent spirits. "Good. Kasen sends his regards to both you and Gabrielle."
"So, the eastern garrison is still standing."
"Yes," Jared smiled wryly, "And they have petitioned for a royal visit. They miss their Queen."
"Not I?" Xena smirked in good humor. "They had Gabrielle all to themselves for nine moons. It spoiled them rotten."
"Not that we haven't been spoiled having her here." Still early in the evening, he looked toward the bedroom chamber. "Where is the lass?"
Jared did not hide his disappointment. "Doing what?"
"A rest." Xena tenaciously held to the prospect of an imminent reunion with the bard, one Jared's arrival would expedite. "I will join her after we're done with Judais."
"Judais is here?" Jared knew the noble well.
"He's looking for a favor. Two of his nephews are asking for commissions to the 2nd Army."
"I don't know them, do I?"
Xena leaned against her desk, stretching out her legs comfortably. "No, I don't think you do - Stavros and Tracate."
"Tracate?" A shadow crossed the General’s countenance
Xena took note. "You do know him?"
Jared hesitated; projecting a doubt he did not feel, seeking not to betray a confidence. "If he's the same man…"
"What?" Xena's unconsciously tightened her grip upon her desk.
The General was resolute. "I don't want him anywhere near our armies."
"Why?" The Conqueror's senses sharpened.
"It's personal." Jared sought to close the Conqueror's query, all too aware of his limited ability to deceive her.
"Jared." The Conqueror's penetrating gaze proved her dissatisfaction. She would be equal to Jared's attempt to cloak a truth.
Jared chose to rely upon their friendship. "Xena, I don't ask you for much. I'm asking now. I don't want Tracate in Corinth and I damn well don't want to give him a commission."
All in the room stilled. Though Xena trusted Jared with her life, it was still difficult for her to knowingly consign herself to ignorance especially when the circumstances could impact the realm. Given Jared's disposition, she doubted a command would serve her. If Jared had been willing to speak, he would already have done so. "Very well, my friend. I trust you have a good reason."
Jared sighed in relief. "I do."
Megara was a retreat Xena inherited when she defeated Bevan for Corinth. Situated on the shores of the Myrtoum Sea, it was a brief ride or walk to the village proper. Cliff walls, well suited for sentry, strategically bracketed the site. The compound was comprised of four structures. Inland from the central courtyard stood a thirty-stall stable, a barn and the soldiers’ quarters. The beach house stood alone by the seashore. It had a large central room for entertaining, a smaller meeting room to one side commandeered by the Conqueror for transacting the government of Greece, a kitchen that Makia would find no fault in, three bedrooms and smaller, adjacent servants’ quarters.
Having left Argo in the trusted hands of a Queen's Guardsman, Xena walked past the courtyard toward the sea. The Guardsman directed her to the beach. At the crest of sand stood Samuel.
The Guardsman saluted the Conqueror. "My Liege."
"Good day, Sam. Where is our Queen?"
Samuel pointed toward the south stretch of coast. "There, by the cove."
Xena peered down the distance, seeing the small form of her lover. Her ready smile broadened. "Tell Trevor I'm here."
"Yes, My Liege." Samuel went off to find the Captain, assured the Queen was in safe hands.
Gabrielle rested on a blanket, her back against a large boulder. Megara was idyllic. Xena had brought her to the secluded beach house after their joining. It was rarely used by the Conqueror. Gabrielle's high hopes for a private holiday had been abruptly interrupted by state affairs. Xena remained at her desk with Targon and Jared as Gabrielle strolled the beach alone. Xena apologized and promised a return during a quieter time, when Gabrielle could have her undivided attention. That time had not come.
Gabrielle suspected that Megara could be special to Xena, if only the Fates allowed it. Megara was a haven far from the city and yet more than a transitory camp. The Queen's relaxed protocol was in place. She negotiated her security with Trevor. She granted sufficient concessions, allowing strategic postings of watch throughout the area while she enjoyed her privacy. Though Gabrielle missed Xena, her days passed well. Megara offered her an escape from the scrutiny of Corinth, giving her the necessary solitude to regain her waning composure. Their separation was a price she was willing to pay. She knew the reason for it, a reason she chose not to confess to the Sovereign. Gabrielle was certain that the telling would do more harm than good.
As well as she managed her separation there was one aspect of her relationship with Xena that Megara could not compensate for. As the seasons passed she had found that she had developed an intangible link to her partner. She never spoke to Xena of the feeling that they were inexplicably bonded. Never was the bond stronger than when they made love. And yet it was a bond not dependent on their most passionate expressions. It came to her when she lay in Xena's arms as they ended their days sitting quietly together. It was an invisible thread that wove itself around their held hands as they walked. Gabrielle had come to sense Xena's approach from a distance. She could sense a shift in Xena's emotion, no matter how nuanced, though she could never be certain of the cause behind the effect. She had grown confident in naming what she sensed and using her ability to keep her recondite lover within reach.
Gabrielle felt a tug in her heart. She looked back toward the beach house, noting a figure walking toward her. Contrasted to Samuel's lumbering gait, the approaching figure was far more graceful. The sun made it difficult for Gabrielle to discern. She saw a glint of light reflect off the hip. She focused on the object. The glint repeated. She guessed the cause of such an effect to be Xena's chakram. But ultimately, it was not the glint of light that moved Gabrielle. It was a sensation she had grown to trust.
Gabrielle got to her feet and began to walk toward the figure. Her step quickened as she noted the figure's long, flowing hair taken up by the wind. She spoke Xena's name aloud, making the moment she had been waiting for all the more real to her. Finally able to see Xena's face, Gabrielle laughed and broke free of all reservation, running toward her majestic target.
Xena kept a measured step, savoring the anticipation of having Gabrielle once again in her arms. Gabrielle had left Corinth distracted, if not depressed. Xena had tried to check her expectations so not to be disappointed if Gabrielle's welcome was less than warm. In the moment she failed to harness her optimism.
A smile came to the warrior as Gabrielle broke into a run. It would indeed seem she was welcomed. Gabrielle flung herself upon Xena. The impact, coupled by the loose sand below their feet, propelled them both to the ground. Xena landed on her back, the wind knocked out of her. Recovering from the jolt, Gabrielle enthusiastically hugged her lover.
Taking a breath, Xena laughed. "Gabrielle, you have literally taken my breath away."
Gabrielle propped herself up. She beamed. "Would you have it any other way, My Lord?"
"No, My Queen, I wouldn't." Xena rolled them both over. "Let me have a look at you. You've gotten sun."
Gabrielle's insecurities found voice. "Am I too tanned?"
"You are beautiful."
Gabrielle's smile returned. "I've missed you."
Xena was pleased. "Then you have no objection if we stay a fortnight more?"
"Do you mean it?" Gabrielle dared to hope.
Xena raised her hand swearing. "By my honor. Jared keeps Corinth for us both."
"Xena!" Gabrielle kissed the warrior in delight.
Xena was infused with the younger woman's jubilance. "I take that as a ‘yes.’"
"I love you." Gabrielle declared freely, her happiness sweet.
They returned to the beach house hand in hand. Beside Samuel stood Trevor. He exchanged greetings with the Royals.
At the beach house door, Xena paused. "One moment." She released Gabrielle's hand. Taking a few steps toward the shore, she summoned Trevor with her hand.
The Guardsman trotted to the Conqueror. "Yes, My Liege."
"I noted the Queen's security, she drives a hard bargain, does she not?"
"Negotiations are never easy."
"Let it be known among the Queen's Guard that it will be by her protocol that I stay here. I shall not reproach the man who calls her by her given name."
"Yes, My Liege."
"And Trevor, we are not to be disturbed."
The Captain nodded.
Xena turned back to the beach house.
Trevor stepped forward. "My Liege."
Xena waited for him.
"The Queen's safety has never been compromised."
She gave him her gentle regard. "I know that." She placed her hand on the Guardsman’s arm. "Gabrielle is to be as comfortable as she can be while we are here. I want her happy."
The Captain took advantage of the more liberal protocol. "By your presence, her happiness is assured."
"Thank you. I plan to stay a fortnight. Pray the Fates are kind and we have no interruptions."
At her lover's approach, Gabrielle reached out. Xena took her hand. Together they walked into the house and to their bedroom. Xena's saddlebags lay on a small table. Gabrielle's few things were neatly visible.
On a writing table Xena counted three closed scrolls beside one open. She inquired. "Have you been writing?"
Gabrielle released Xena and walked to the table closing the open scroll. "I've had time to work on a few stories."
"I'm glad to hear it." Xena felt the scratch of sand on her neck. She referred to her overcoat. "I'm going to take this off. You won't yell if I litter the floor with beach?"
Gabrielle smiled. "What right have I since I threw you on it?"
"You heard no complaints from me," Xena quipped, removing her coat. She wore a simple, loose tan blouse underneath. She stretched, achieving relief from tight shoulder muscles. As expected, sand fell to the floor beside her feet. She placed her coat over a chair. "Better."
Gabrielle felt a long-sheltered shyness. "Xena."
Busy opening her saddlebag, Xena murmured a hum in recognition.
Gabrielle continued. "I was afraid you wouldn't come…"
This statement caught Xena's attention. She gave Gabrielle her full regard.
The bard traced a scroll with her fingertip. Her journal, it held her most recent thoughts. She searched her memory for words now concealed in the rolled parchment. "The reason I wanted to leave Corinth…" Her conviction to keep her secret weakened. She hesitated; taking a deep breath she gathered her courage. "It's been wonderful here, but being away from you has been hard."
Xena avowed. "I came as soon as I could." She attempted to lighten the mood. "Jared was a little miffed not to see you."
"Why?" Gabrielle wondered.
Xena removed a scroll from a saddlebag. She offered it to her partner. "He wanted to give you this himself. The east garrison has petitioned for a visit from their Queen."
Gabrielle took the scroll and read it. Her smile returned. "I have friends there."
"You most certainly do. You have a friend here as well."
Gabrielle looked up. "I know."
Xena waited, hoping Gabrielle would offer an invitation into her rarely shared, troubled world. Xena wanted to help the younger woman battle her demons, if only Gabrielle allowed it. The silence began to weigh heavy. Xena chose to break the impasse. "There are still a few candlemarks of light remaining. What shall we do with them?"
Gabrielle silently thanked her lover for the obvious reprieve. "I would be happy not to leave our bedroom."
Their lovemaking began tenderly and grew in passion. They satisfied their mutual need to give and receive pleasure. Xena lay with Gabrielle resting against her shoulder.
She shared a recent revelation. "I had forgotten what it is to sleep alone. I find I prefer your company."
Gabrielle spoke sleepily. "That is good, My Lord."
For a moment Xena felt she had stepped back in time, to when she and Gabrielle were first intimate. Gabrielle seemed much younger and far less complex to her then. With time, Gabrielle became freer in showing her vulnerability and her own darkness. Xena came to understand that Gabrielle had a depth beyond her reach. She would be given hints of the underlying currents, never knowing with certainty the true nature and cause behind the ebbs and flows of Gabrielle's emotion. The moments of darkness were always veiled.
Refusal of Judais' invitation was only one example of Xena's frustrated insights. Xena remembered how Gabrielle had been introduced to Lord Ayers’ daughter, Melissa, and his granddaughter, Helena. The young child was three summers old, a delight of energy who reached out for Gabrielle. Melissa tried to coax her child to say the Queen's name. The child struggled, finally settling on the name 'Bri'." She repeated it again and again, pleased with the sound of it. Xena had never thought to call Gabrielle by any name other than her given name. She found she liked 'Bri' for Gabrielle. 'Bri' reminded Xena of Gabrielle at ease, like the ocean breeze that accompanied them throughout this day. But the name was not to Gabrielle's liking. She stepped away from the child, dropping her open arms as if heavy weights were shackled to her wrists.
"My Lord." Gabrielle spoke in her sleep.
Xena held her closer. "I'm here."
Xena smiled. How life changes with understanding. Only Gabrielle addressed her as her Lord. She remembered the days when she heard the title as a bitter testament of all that separated them. The day came when Gabrielle told a story of her youth. The story was one that confessed how deeply her love resonated in the words, 'My Lord,' harking back to dreams of love and belonging. The story was a gift to Xena. To Xena's regret, the gift of Gabrielle's personal history was rarely given.
Gabrielle spoke the title in love, in playful banter, and as now, in her dreams as she clung to Xena's sleep shirt. Xena placed her hand over Gabrielle's tight fist. It would not take long for Gabrielle's hand to relax, to trust the added tactile connection between them, to open and release the tension within tightened sinew.
Xena planted her fishing pole into the sand. She walked to where Gabrielle sat writing. She was content to rest beside her partner.
The bard put her quill and scroll aside. "I like you like this."
"Like what?" Xena turned onto her side.
"You're not the Conqueror. I don't even think you're my Lord." Gabrielle reached and touched Xena's hair. "You, I think, are the Xena of Amphipolis I would have known before Cortese."
Xena took Gabrielle's palm and kissed it. "This is a far different life than Corinth."
Gabrielle pursued a question that often hovered in the back of her mind. "If you could, what kind of life would you choose for yourself?"
Xena looked out to the sea. Her countenance changed, reminding Gabrielle of how her partner gradually slipped into silence sitting before a burning fire in the privacy of their suite. "Knowing what I know now… I wouldn't need much. I'd live in a village no larger than Amphipolis with a river to fish and a lake to swim. Good hunting and trapping… I'd breed and train horses."
Xena entered and allowed herself to be absorbed by her dream. Her yearning was salient. It broke Gabrielle's heart to see. Xena asked for so little though she owned Greece.
"I must send you away more often." Gabrielle was resolute.
Startled from her reverie, Xena turned to Gabrielle, hurt and confused by the unexpected declaration. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle noted her partner's tumult. She clarified, "To fish and hunt, to get away from Corinth."
Xena cast her eyes down to the sand. "I was never meant to have a quiet life. It wasn't a choice."
"Xena." Gabrielle waited patiently for the warrior to mind her call.
Xena gathered her private sorrow, bracing herself, before raising her gaze to the young bard.
Gabrielle was gentle. "I accept that ruling Greece is your destiny. Being Sovereign doesn't mean you have to deprive yourself of happiness."
"I haven't." Xena offered a muted smile, "I have you."
Gabrielle was not assuaged. "I know you love me. I feel your love to my very bone. But, I know that there are times you need what I can't give you."
Xena protested. "I have more than I deserve."
"When you gave me your vow of fidelity…" Gabrielle raised her hand. "…When you placed this ring on my finger you gave me more than I thought I had a right to ask of you. There is so little I have given you in return."
"Don't." Xena repeated in a pained whisper, "Don't say what we both know is not true. You are my Queen. I'm not alone anymore." Xena took Gabrielle's hand in her own. "You can't imagine how alone I felt before you. If the Fates gave me you in recompense for the price of safeguarding Greece, I am happy with the bargain."
"I want to give you more." Gabrielle felt an incomprehensible desperation that defied logic, like a thirst that could only be quenched by offering her overflowing cup to someone equally parched.
"Gabrielle, hear me well." Xena paused, using silence to accentuate the import of the statement that followed. "There are few that I love, fewer still that I trust. You are true to me. That is everything."
Gabrielle bowed her head. She began to cry. She released her hand from Xena's and covered her face, unable to bear her frustration.
Xena moved closer. "Gabrielle, why tears?"
She shook her head in response.
Whatever part of Xena may have been held in abeyance broke free. "I love you. You move me in ways that there are no words for. Gabrielle, I have yet to understand… I doubt that I ever will understand this sweet pain that I can no longer live without."
Xena's declaration silenced Gabrielle. Xena described what Gabrielle understood to be the sweet pain of an overwhelming love.
Gabrielle reached out and embraced Xena. "I'm sorry. This has been a wonderful day."
"How shall it end?" Xena teased, hoping to amuse the serious bard.
Gabrielle spoke through her quieting tears. "How would you have it end?"
"The Queen's Guard is impatient for your company." Xena release Gabrielle to see her better. "I dare say their royal bard has promised to entertain on this night."
"Plans can be changed." Gabrielle's eyes glistened with an unspoken enticement.
"No," Xena checked her own desire for Gabrielle's company. "I would not think of having their sister disappoint. Afterwards, with your permission, I shall love you from night to morning to night again."
Gabrielle smiled. "I shall welcome you to my bed and love you in return."
Xena traced Gabrielle's lips with her fingertips. "We may yet give Aphrodite reason to blush."
Argo and Geld raced down an open stretch of beach, their respective mistresses intent on their contest. Argo and Xena easily reached the finish line first. Xena trotted Argo back to Gabrielle and Geld, stopping aside of the beaten team.
Xena petted Geld. "I hate to say it boy, but your Queen's horsemanship out-strives your abilities."
Gabrielle was skeptical. "Are you trying to ease my loss by placing the responsibility on Geld?"
Xena continued to stroke the gelding. "I have never been anything but forthright in regards to your abilities."
Gabrielle was thoughtful, slowly accepting Xena's observation. Unable to completely embrace the compliment she redirected the conversation. "I am not ready to give Geld up."
"There is no reason why you should. You know each other well."
Geld bobbed his head in agreement.
Gabrielle laughed. "We have a consensus."
"Argo hasn't had her say." Xena signaled the mare with a press of her heels. Argo pranced in place. "There," Xena laughed, "it's unanimous." She stood up in her stirrups, stretching. "It is a good day!"
"Happy?" Gabrielle never tired of hearing Xena say she was so.
"Yes! I was smart to leave the distasteful business of Stavros and Tracate to Jared."
Gabrielle had purposely chosen not to raise the subject. It was now a topic of conversation and she pursued it.
"What was decided?" Gabrielle coaxed Geld to an easy walk.
Xena kept pace with Argo. "Jared was against Tracate. He wouldn't tell me why - a personal reason. I told Judais I would not grant the commissions. I left it for him and Jared to break the news to the men."
Gabrielle silently blessed Jared. "How did Judais react?"
"He was disappointed for his nephews. In all, he took the decision well." Xena chose to pursue a topic of greater interest. "I think Judais was more disappointed that you did not accept his invitation to dine. I tried to lessen the blow by sharing a private meal with him."
Gabrielle shifted in her saddle, keeping her eyes forward.
Xena continued. "Judais has always struck me as a good man. He is devoted to his family. He's disciplined and fair in managing his affairs."
Gabrielle looked askance. She spoke sternly. "Are you trying to convince me of his goodness?"
Xena felt Gabrielle's challenge. A cool guise had overtaken her partner. Information was being withheld. That she was certain of. Her gentle response was equally uncompromising. "I am trying to understand your failure to show him hospitality."
Chastised, Gabrielle faltered in her resolve. "You didn't speak of it at the time?"
"Because you seemed upset," Xena confessed. "I did not want to disturb you further."
"And now…" Gabrielle's defenses rose anew.
Xena reined Argo to a halt. She waited for Gabrielle to hold Geld. Only then did she speak. "It's not like you to be so abrupt…"
Gabrielle felt a suffocating contraction of her world. "You're so sure I'm in the wrong."
"I'm not talking about right or wrong."
"Did you ever stop to think that I might not want to have a meal with Judais or any other noble for that matter? I've had my fill of their arrogance and corruption."
Though a number of nobles deserved Gabrielle's assessment, not all did. Xena could easily list the men Gabrielle was fond of. She mentally set the list aside and kept her focus on the one man that had triggered their argument. "Judais is not like that. If you had given him a chance…"
Gabrielle struggled to keep her anger in check. She had limited success. "The fact that you like him doesn't mean I have to."
Xena continued calmly, trying her best to diffuse Gabrielle's passion without retreating from her objective. "You spoke to him for only a moment."
"Am I not free to make my own judgments?" Gabrielle demanded.
"Of course you are."
"Then give me the respect I deserve by honoring my judgments."
Xena held her response for a few heartbeats. She spoke deliberately. "I do respect you."
Gabrielle retorted, "As long as I agree with you."
Xena tasted Gabrielle's caustic venom. She would not be detracted. "That is not true. From the first day we met I have listened to your opinions and given them great weight."
"But you reserve the right to decide if and when to heed me." Gabrielle pointed to Xena as she continued in her accusation. "You have always set the terms of engagement."
"You are not being fair."
Gabrielle's hand closed into a fist. "I am!"
Xena chose silence as her response. She would have Gabrielle reflect on their exchange.
Gabrielle trembled with emotion. Her gaze shifted from Xena to her fist. She dropped her hand to her saddle in shame. It would have been easier for her if Xena had countered her accusations, as she rightly could. Gabrielle looked up; her voice was cold and distant. "Embrace Judais. Just don't expect me to."
"So be it." Xena withdrew from the confrontation. She knew they hit an impasse and that she needed to continue to exercise her patience. "Gabrielle, if there is anything I can do to prevent your hurt, I wish to know it."
Gabrielle could no longer withstand Xena's conciliatory approach. The most fragile part of her neared breaking. She took shelter from the truth by denouncing Xena's entreaty. "My hurt? You think this is about … I'm sorry if what I feel causes you any inconvenience or embarrassment."
"Xena, you are a powerful woman capable of many things, but one thing you cannot do is wash me clean like a new born babe, to always be happy because I've not been touched by violence. If that is who you want beside you, you will need to look elsewhere for a partner." Gabrielle pulled Geld's reins sharply and drove him back to the beach house.
Xena held an anxious Argo in her stance. Dismayed by Gabrielle's fervent reaction, she struggled with her own emotions. She dismounted. Feet planted firmly in the sand, she watched Gabrielle and Geld wane from sight.
Gabrielle's accusation lodged itself in Xena's heart. She wanted Gabrielle free from the tortures that marked her still. That did not equate to wanting Gabrielle to be someone she was not, to strip away her history, to ask her to deny or pretend that she had known nothing of the cruelties of warlord and slaver.
Xena had wanted what was deemed rightfully hers to ask - the truth. When given Gabrielle's truth, she had a chance to place a salve on the younger woman's wounds, wounds that had the power of taking Gabrielle from her, wounds that caused Gabrielle to withdraw from her. Xena now thought herself arrogant. She had no right to Gabrielle. Gabrielle was a freewoman. Even if she were still a slave, Xena had no right to Gabrielle's soul. And yet, she longed to reach Gabrielle's soul, a soul at times generously open and at other times forbidding. Xena knew Gabrielle's soul only in part, she knew least its brokenness, a brokenness resulting from the violence inflicted by those who took no pity upon the young and innocent.
There was a dark truth resident in Xena's heart. Her own hands were bloodstained. She and her army were first indiscriminate subjugators of the peasantry. Only when she watched the village of Cirra burn did she change the tone of her command. Bloodshed continued, but not without reason. She could never return innocence to the violated, she could never heal the scorched flesh of the maimed, and she could never instill life to those cut down by her sword.
As the village of Cirra burned in front of her eyes, as her ears were assaulted by the cries of the dying, she faced in the reflection of the hot blue flames who she had become and hated herself for it. Though the fire that swept the village was unintended, it was by her men's actions that it had ignited. It was because of the peasants' fear of her that they refused to leave burning shelters and seek safety within the village courtyard. Amidst the fire, her unheeded pleas to the villagers to trust her with their lives resulted in a holocaust. The darkest vengeance for Cortese could never justify the destruction of Cirra. Xena had proof that she was equal to those she most despised. That truth had taken her to a secluded patch of woods where she kneeled down and leaned against her sword ready to take her own life and meet Hades' judgment to Tartarus. All value of her life had long been defiled by her violence.
In the patch of woods, with the point of her cold bronze blade against her skin, she remembered a moment in her life that promised a destiny unlike her current existence. She had a choice. She could help rebuild with the strength of her arms, she could help ease the pain with her knowledge of healing and she could, by her will, do all in her power to safeguard the lives of the few Cirrian survivors and of the people of Greece.
Her destiny brought her now to a secluded beach in Megara, with the mirror image of the consequences of her most horrid acts reflected in the haunted eyes of her lover. Xena led Argo in a track away from Gabrielle. She sought her solitude, deep in regret.
Gabrielle rode Geld hard, past the beach house, to the cove. She pulled him to a halt and dismounted. She turned on her feet looking back. There was no trace of Xena. "Oh, Gods!" she sobbed. She hated what she had done. She did not know how to undo the harm.
The compound had quieted after evening meal. All noticed the Conqueror's absence, though no one spoke of it. Trevor observed Gabrielle's sullenness and conjectured that the Royals had fallen into a disagreement. He ordered the sentries to report any sign of the Conqueror or Argo.
Samuel stood at the crest of the beach, near the pathway to the beach house. Samuel was a big man. He was thoughtful and when not in battle slow in movement, leading those who did not know him to think him simple or worse, stupid. His mind was methodical and precise in its determination. When first given the assignment to guard the slave Gabrielle, many thought it an indication of the lesser his skills were valued. They thought this though they would not have made an equal judgment of Trevor.
The Conqueror had become aware of the fact that Samuel had taken a liking to the young slave. That liking, his steadfast loyalty to the Conqueror and his fighting skills, convinced the Conqueror that Samuel was a good choice for what she judged a prestigious position, though she knew it was not received in kind by all her Guardsmen.
Time proved the Conqueror's judgment correct and vindicated Samuel in the eyes of his brothers. He was a member of the select Queen's Guard. It did not escape those who cared, that Samuel was a great beneficiary of the Queen's protocol, enjoying a personal relationship with Gabrielle that was the envy of those who loved her. Their intimacy had grown gradually, always dictated by the younger woman. She was his 'little sis'; an endearment once accidentally voiced, causing Gabrielle delight at the hearing of it. So much so, she would not accept Samuel's apology for the liberty.
Gabrielle went to Samuel. "Any sign of the Conqueror?"
"I'm sorry, no." Samuel noted Gabrielle's dolefulness. He offered, "I can go search for her."
"No." Gabrielle gratefully placed her hand on the Guardsman's arm. "She won't want to be found."
They stood quietly in companionship, listening to the sounds of the sea, the surging wind and the gulls flying overhead.
Gabrielle felt the loneliness of her error. She sought a confessor. "Sam…"
"Yes?" The Guardsman's reserve scythed a space for Gabrielle to trespass, if she so chose.
"I was…" Gabrielle struggled with her shame. "I hurt her. She didn't deserve it."
Samuel cast his eyes down to the formidable, yet fragile young woman. Knowing the depth of Gabrielle's love for the Conqueror, he found her admission difficult to accept. "You?"
"Yes Sam, me," she affirmed.
The Guardsman, true to his nature, did not immediately speak. He considered the woman before him and the Sovereign he had served for many years. "I don't think there is anything you could do that the Conqueror wouldn't forgive."
"You're wrong." Gabrielle could not minimize the force of her angry words. "There are certain lines no one can cross."
Samuel was steadfast in his resolve. "I don't believe you are capable of crossing those lines."
Gabrielle looked out toward the void. "Sometimes, I'm not so sure."
"She'll come home to you." Samuel placed his hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Do you know how I know?"
"Tell me." Gabrielle was in want of his reassurance.
Samuel spoke with confidence. "We men of the Guard are privy to the Conqueror's secret. She will do anything for those she loves. The Conqueror allows us to openly be your brothers. We are also hers. We just do not say it. We would die for the Conqueror because she would die for us. We love her because she loves us. We all know that there is no one she loves more than you. I think our Conqueror stopped living before she met you. And now, I don't think she can breathe without you. Maybe she could, but she wouldn't want to. She'll come home to you, because for her there is no longer a choice."
Gabrielle desperately needed to believe Samuel. She hugged him; her tears fell freely. Samuel held Gabrielle until her weeping subsided. He offered her a gentle smile. "You should rest."
Feeling her exhaustion, Gabrielle did not protest. She nodded.
Samuel escorted Gabrielle back to the beach house with a promise to summon her if there was any news of Xena's whereabouts.
She entered the beach house, sheltered from the elements, alone, painfully exposed to her fears.
It was late night when Trevor knocked on Gabrielle's bedroom door. She had fallen asleep finding alternating comfort in her dreams and disquiet in her nightmares. She opened the door both hopeful and dreadful of what she would learn. She did not wait for Trevor to speak. "Tell me she's all right."
"We spotted a fire ring. It could be Xena. Sam is saddling Geld for you. He's packing a couple extra blankets in case you choose not to return until morning."
"I'll get my boots."
"And your cloak. There is a chill in the air."
Gabrielle sat on a chair as she put on her boots. "Trevor, no argument about an escort?"
The Guardsman conceded. "I know better."
Gabrielle finished tying her laces. She grabbed hold of her cloak. Trevor accompanied her to where Samuel and Geld waited. Gabrielle mounted Geld.
Samuel held a torch. He instructed. "If all is well, raise the torch over your head twice like this." He demonstrated the signal. "We'll answer your signal. He pointed to the watch post up on a jutting cliff. If you need help keep repeating the signal. We'll mirror you to let you know we're coming for you."
Gabrielle took the torch from him. "Thank you."
Samuel and Trevor watched Gabrielle ride away. Samuel wished the best for his charge. "Captain, I hope the Conqueror receives Gabrielle well."
Trevor understood that with the Conqueror, a rent of trust, even one with Gabrielle, left nothing certain. "Me too, Sam. Let's go to the watch. We'll wait together for Gabrielle's signal."
With caution Gabrielle drew near to the fire. She knew better than to think her approach would go undetected. She wanted to give Xena plenty of time to set herself ready.
Xena stood by the fire; her sword remained in its sheath. Gabrielle stayed Geld. Xena persisted in a silent wait.
Gabrielle accepted that it would be for her to speak first. "I'm sorry."
The wind wafted through the torch causing a fluttering sound that melded with the sonance of the seawaters lapping the shore.
"Is that all you have to say to me?" Xena questioned remotely.
Gabrielle swung her leg over Geld's neck and slid off the saddle, carefully holding the torch with her far hand. "Tell me what I must do to make things right between us and I will do it."
Xena beheld Gabrielle as the complicated woman she was. Xena knew what she wanted. She knew it was not yet possible. She would not ask Gabrielle to bare her soul. She would not ask Gabrielle to trust her with the demons that continued to haunt her. She would not ask Gabrielle to share knowledge that would help Xena cope with the unwarranted outbursts, though understood to be misdirected, no less devastating to absorb.
Xena knew how inconceivable the thought of sharing one’s nightmares could be. Gabrielle's nightmares were founded on actions unjustifiably executed against her. Xena's nightmares were fueled by her own actions, forever regretted. The difference between them was that in their private nightmares she was the perpetrator and Gabrielle was the victim. When Gabrielle lashed out, she expressed an anger righteous in its make-up. Though it was not by Xena's hand that Gabrielle was harmed, Xena could not set aside the truth that there were many in the world that had reason to feel an equal rage against her as Gabrielle felt against others. Xena began to turn away.
"Xena, please," Gabrielle pleaded.
"There is nothing more to be done. I accept your apology." Now that she received Gabrielle's atonement Xena felt she did not deserve it. It was obscene to have Gabrielle ask for forgiveness. The scales of justice were terribly unbalanced.
"Will you come back with me?"
Knowing that the younger woman sheltered herself away from reach, Xena felt too vulnerable to consent to Gabrielle's company. She had difficulty meeting Gabrielle's eye. "I am not ready."
Gabrielle would wrench a place for herself in Xena's camp. "May I stay?"
"Go back." Xena's direction was dully precise. "Your brothers will be concerned for you."
"Not if I signal all's well." Gabrielle raised the torch.
"Go back, Gabrielle!" the Conqueror demanded.
Gabrielle waited, hoping Xena would offer a sign that would contradict the command, giving her reason to stay. Xena stood unmoved, her face a mask, beyond reading. By Gabrielle's thoughtless words, the Conqueror had been called forth to Megara to insulate Xena's tender soul, a soul that had budded open during the preceding days.
Disheartened, Gabrielle took Geld's reins and began her walk back to the beach house. She felt desolate and could blame no one but herself.
Xena watched Gabrielle's retreat into the darkness, the light of the torch becoming ever smaller with the increasing distance. For a moment she dared look up to the cliff watch, confirming two torch lights still present, sign that Gabrielle was observed, her safety assured. Xena returned her sight upon Gabrielle's torch. She could not break free from it, her eyes fixed upon it. She measured that the flame held steady, getting neither smaller nor larger. Xena waited thinking Gabrielle might be mounting Geld for the remainder of her return. She felt a tug in her heart. With it a growing fear for Gabrielle's well-being. Instinctively, Xena began to walk toward the light. Her walk became a jog, and then a run. She heard Gabrielle's sobs before she saw the younger woman's despairing figure barely holding the torch.
Xena called to her.
Gabrielle turned, stepping forward until Xena came into the circle of light. Upon seeing the Sovereign, Gabrielle fell to her knees. Head low, she beseeched, "My Lord, please forgive me."
Gabrielle's supplication was more than Xena could bear. It shocked her. She moved quickly, meeting Gabrielle upon the earth, taking the torch from her hand and embedding it into the sand upright with one hand as she encircled Gabrielle with her free arm.
Gabrielle cleaved to the Sovereign, her tears unchecked. "Don't send me away. I can't lose you again."
"Gabrielle." Xena held her lover close. Gabrielle's words brought back a pledge Xena had sworn, never to leave Gabrielle behind, always to give her the choice to be by Xena's side. A promise made to temper Gabrielle's fear of being sent away as she had been once before. "I'm here. I'm yours."
Hearing Xena's assurances, Gabrielle clung all the tighter. With gentle words and a steadfast embrace Xena slowly calmed Gabrielle, until the younger woman was silent and her embrace relaxed from its anxious hold.
Xena gently requested. "Tell me, what is the all's well signal?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath as she struggled to compose herself. "Two overhead strokes."
"A moment then?"
Xena stood, torch in hand. She completed the signal and waited. It was quickly answered. She replaced the torch in the sand and enfolded Gabrielle into her arms. "Shall we get Argo and my things and go back to the house?"
Again, Gabrielle nodded.
Gabrielle placed her hands on Xena's forearms, keeping the warrior in place. "Xena."
"Yes?" Xena was tender in her regard.
"You've asked me how I could love you. How can you love me when…" Gabrielle faltered. She bowed her head again.
With her fingertips, Xena raised Gabrielle's chin until their eyes met. She spoke softly, "Because you are true. Sometimes it is a difficult truth I cannot completely understand, but I do trust it. Even when there is pain, it brings us closer, it gives me a chance to see you more completely. Gabrielle, I love you for letting me touch your life, even in its darker moments… especially in its darker moments."
"How much of my darkness can you withstand?"
"All that you dare show me." Xena confessed her heart's desire.
Gabrielle felt the manacles of shame that bound her truth away from those who sought it. "Xena, I can't share all…"
"I know." She understood that there is only so much of one's darkness that can be shared without facing an ugliness that thwarts life completely.
Gabrielle woke alone. She called for Xena. Silence was her answer. She scanned the room. Xena's things were in their place. They and the memory of falling asleep in Xena's embrace returned a quickened heartbeat to its normal pace.
It was late morning. She washed and dressed. Out by the beach, Trevor informed her that Xena was fishing at the cove. Gabrielle walked the distance feeling an unresolved fragility from the previous evening.
Xena stood between two large fishing poles firmly staked into the sand. Her vision, cast out to the sea, shifted to acknowledge Gabrielle's progress. She offered a smile allaying Gabrielle's doubts.
Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's back. Standing on her toes she gave the warrior a kiss upon the cheek. She stepped forward toward the waters. A memory of she and her sister Lila playing in the shallow sea waters gently claimed her. Gabrielle had a story in mind, one she needed to tell.
"I remember the day I first saw the ocean. I was twelve summers old. My father had packed our family into our wagon. We were going on a holiday. Where was a secret. I remember smelling the sea and tasting the salt upon my tongue before ever seeing the Aegean. The water was endless. I never imagined it could be so beautiful. During that holiday, my father was generous in a way he never had been before or after. Lila and I were given permission to explore the beach freely as long as we promised never to go further than our knees into the water. It was the only rule we had. Lila and I roamed about collecting different treasures that drifted to shore. The seashells, in all shapes and sizes, were priceless to us.
"One morning having woken early, I walked alone on the beach. The sea birds kept me company as I watched the sunrise. At its most brilliant, I stopped and sat; staring at the horizon seeing hues of color I had no names for. I was in awe of the world. Whoever painted the sky knew beauty. It brought tears to my eyes.
"The life I knew seemed so dull in comparison. It broke my heart to go back to Poteidaia. The prospect of returning to a place I didn't feel I belonged in, nearly drove me to run away. At that age where would I have gone?" Gabrielle turned to Xena. "I didn't have the courage to brave the world alone.
"When I was a slave I was beaten because I fought for a better life. A part of me wouldn't be mastered. I chose the lash over being… I fought not to lose sense of who I was. My father had shown me beauty and I refused to completely surrender myself to the ugliness that was overtaking me. I felt most comfortable… safe, when I was alone or in the company of the few fellow slaves who showed me kindness.
"Xena, when you first brought me here… I wanted to tell you. But for those rare dark moments which I fear will always come to me unexpectedly," Gabrielle paused and opened her arms wide, "this is my life now. I shall never be able to thank you enough."
Xena had listened attentively. She was given a glimpse of Gabrielle's demons. More so she witnessed Gabrielle reclaim a joy; transient, yet precious for the hope it gave her. Xena went to her. Gabrielle met her in an embrace.
Moved deeply Xena whispered. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia, you break my heart as you make it whole."
"Are we right again?" Gabrielle dared to solicit still needed reassurance.
They separated gently. Gabrielle rested her forehead on Xena's chest. "I wish we didn't have to leave."
Xena tightened her embrace. "We have three more days. And, we shall return often, I promise."
"I shall hold you to your promise, My Lord."
"That is the Queen's right."
Gabrielle claimed Xena's tunic in a tightened fist. "The magic here is that there are no Sovereigns or Queens."
Xena understood the magic of Megara as a unique suspension from the Gods’ interference. "I say the Fates have left us to our own devices. If only the rest of our days were as free."
Xena stood alone in the turret. Megara was a memory she visited often during the two passing moons. Issues of state had once again intruded upon her peace. The dispatches from General Dymas documented raids against small villages in the northern regions. The violence had no reason to it. Little was taken. The acts of men against men and women were cruel and meant to humiliate. Lord Judais shared the most disturbing intelligence. He suspected that Tracate was leading the insurgence. Xena kept this latter information to herself and answered Judais with instructions to keep silent until she arrived. She feared she would rue the day she left Jared to deal with Tracate while she traveled to Gabrielle in Megara.
If Tracate was indeed leading the raids to provoke her, he would get his wish and entertain a personal audience with the Conqueror. The question that gnawed at her was, "Why?" Had a commission been so important to Tracate? What was it about Tracate that Jared abhorred? One way to get the answers to her questions was to have the two men face each other. Under the circumstances, a confrontation with Jared, the General of the Royal Guard, would be no surprise to Tracate. The same could not be said for Jared, or at least that was what Xena thought. It was Jared's reaction she was most uncertain of and equally wanting to observe.
"Xena." Gabrielle interrupted the warrior's thoughts.
"It's a still night." Xena kept her eyes forward.
"Would you rather I leave you to your privacy?"
Xena turned to Gabrielle. "I've been distant, haven't I?"
"Yes." Gabrielle had felt the growing estrangement. "I understand…"
Xena interrupted, "Don't be so understanding. I wouldn't argue too much if you set your claim upon me." With that said she reached out invitingly.
Gabrielle accepted the invitation and entered into Xena's embrace. Xena held Gabrielle silently; stillness overcame her, a momentary respite, a slight wisp of peace edged into her soul, a soul imbued with a wracking torture.
Gabrielle listened to Xena's heartbeat. It was steady and strong, and yet she felt there was something left unsaid between them. "You're worried."
"I'm confused. I pride myself in knowing how raiders and warlords think. What is happening in the north doesn't make sense to me."
"Has Dymas disappointed you?"
"I don't think I could have done much better."
"This reminds me of the eastern raiders."
"I see it differently." Xena had considered the far-reaching ramifications of northern discontent. "They wanted Greece and Persia to go to war leaving them to ransack both sides of the borders. They were seeking the spoils of war. Whoever is leading this northern band is staying clearly within Greece. The people's discontent is being fueled, I say manipulated. This could escalate to a civil conflict. The people complain that they are taxed yet receive no protection from the realm. They may come to believe that they would do better on their own."
"A break from Greece?"
"It's suicide. Even if I allowed it, which I won't, Caesar would annex the land for Rome the moment I turned my back."
"Whoever is leading this must either be with Caesar or a fool." Gabrielle concluded
A few moments of silence passed between them before Xena spoke in a hush. "What makes a man or woman believe they deserve the right to rule others… I look at myself and how wrong… Who is to say someone can't step in and do better?"
Gabrielle leaned back. "You can't be serious to think whoever is leading the northern raids will be better for Greece than you?"
"No, but there are others who oppose me. Even you…" Xena turned her gaze back toward the night. "How many times have we disagreed? We will continue to disagree."
Gabrielle recognized the haunted look upon Xena. "You allow an open forum in Court. I know I don't attend often, but there isn't a day you don't talk to me about the decisions you've made. I know you don't share your thoughts with me just to train me on issues of state. You do it because you are open to challenge. There have been times you've tempered your judgment or changed your strategy because of something that was said to you in Court or that I have said to you privately. Xena, you are not a despot. I don't think I could love you if you were."
Xena cringed at Gabrielle's final declaration.
Gabrielle continued to search for her answer. "Xena, what troubles you?"
"Not a year…" Xena's vented her frustrations. "…Not one year has Greece known peace under my rule. The people in the villages, the men under my command… their lives are claimed by the sword. For what?"
"The battles are not of your making." Gabrielle found great merit in Xena's governance. "You fight to defend."
Xena leaned against the turret parapet. "Don't you ever wonder why Ares chose me?"
Gabrielle offered her keen insight. "Because you are everything he could dream of having. You're intelligent, strong, unbelievably skilled, willful and beautiful. And, you harbor an uncontrollable rage and inconsolable guilt."
Xena shifted her gaze to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle was tender. "Loving you hasn't stopped me from seeing you for who you are."
Again, Xena looked away into the night. She knew Gabrielle did not see her completely. She was unwilling to lay ruin to Gabrielle's illusion.
Gabrielle stepped to Xena's side. "Has Ares come to you?"
Xena shook her head. She whispered, "No."
"Do you want him to?"
Xena closed her eyes, silently damning the question. She answered sternly. "No."
Gabrielle observed. "Your nightmares have worsened."
Xena looked at her hands. Gabrielle did not see the stain of blood she could never erase from her mind's eye. "There is something I need to do. I'm going to send Jared ahead to the north garrison. I'll meet him on the road. You can travel with Jared or wait here for our return."
"I can't come with you?" Her exclusion troubled Gabrielle.
Xena would not negotiate. "I need a few days."
Gabrielle considered if in traveling alone Xena sought a release of her darker side, a release that would not touch her. Such a possibility harkened back to a promise made early in their shared life. It was a promise rarely acknowledged for the revelation of its discharge had the power to hurt them both. She set the possibility aside. If Xena acted such it was best for her not to know. She had to rely on Xena's discretion. "Meet me in Megara. We'll travel north together."
"Megara?" Xena wondered if they were of one mind.
"We can spend a day or two alone. Traveling only with my Guard we will be able to easily make up the distance."
Xena did not have to be convinced. She wanted Megara. "Very well."
Gabrielle felt she had overstayed her welcome. She placed her hand on Xena's arm. "I'll wait for you."
Xena nodded. The meaning behind Gabrielle's words was manifold. Gabrielle would wait on this night in their bed, she would wait in Megara, and if necessary, she would wait until Xena found her way back from her encroaching darkness.
Gabrielle kissed Xena on the cheek before returning alone to their suite. She sensed that on this night she would sleep alone. She did.
Xena traveled to the Temple of the Moirae. She entered, a pack over her shoulder. Situated in an alcove, a half-dozen candles burned to their base stood dormant. Xena removed her pack and withdrew a large candle placing it among the others. From her belt she took a flint, striking it at the candlewick until it ignited. A tear fell down her cheek. Her words were spoken with love. "In memory of my brother Lyceus."
Her eyes fell upon the altar, recalling a memory from years past. She steeled her heart. At her birth, Clotho had spun the wool of her life string. Lachesis continued to draw the string. When, she wondered, would Atropos grant relief and make the cut that would end her life? By the Fates she knew her life. On this day, there was no joy in it.
It was a cool morning. Dressed in her cloak, Gabrielle stood near the palace gates as the Royal Guard marched on their journey north.
Jared rode to her. "Lass."
She stepped up to his stallion. "Jared. Safe journey."
"I expect to see you and Xena before we reach Phillippopolis."
Gabrielle shared a contingency. "We shall send word if we are delayed in Amphipolis."
Jared was nonplused. "Amphipolis? I did not know you planned to visit Cyrene."
Gabrielle thought the visit to Xena's mother obvious. "I assumed Xena would want to take advantage of being near."
Jared was sober. "No lass, not now."
"Why not?" Gabrielle's confusion was genuine.
"It's too close to the day of Lyceus' death. Cyrene and Xena mourn alone. It is too painful for them to be together. Every year at this time I pray that Xena will stay among us. Every year she disappears to where I do not know. As you have learned lass, it is best to let her go to shed her private tears."
Gabrielle nodded. The cause of Xena's darkened mood explained, it pained her that her partner grieved alone.
Jared consoled. "Don't worry. She always comes back better than she left."
A sentry's signal announced the Conqueror's arrival. Word quickly reached Gabrielle. She left her writing desk and stood on the beach house porch. She was determined to ask nothing of Xena. Her only desire was to allay the grief that had taken Xena away from her.
Xena rode directly to the house, bypassing the stables. She dismounted Argo. She approached, her fatigue clearly etched on her face. She paused at the porch lower step, offering a gentle greeting to her partner. "Hello."
Gabrielle measured the warrior. Xena was covered with dust and perspiration, the remnants of the road. "How are you?"
"Well." She hoped that in their bed she could find more than the fitful, haunted sleep of the past few days. "A bit tired."
Gabrielle reached out her hand. "Come then."
Xena took Gabrielle's hand and allowed herself to be guided to their bedroom. Upon crossing the threshold, Xena released Gabrielle and proceeded to disarm herself, placing her sword scabbard and chakram on a nearby table.
Gabrielle retrieved a clean sleep shirt.
Xena took the offered garment. "Thank you." She felt her loneliness profoundly. She wanted Gabrielle but could not broach the space of cautious regard.
Well practiced in caring for the warrior, Gabrielle knew it was not for her to set the terms of their reunion. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Xena bared her need nakedly. "Be here when I wake."
"Shall I lie with you?"
A moment of aching silence passed before Xena answered. "Please."
Gabrielle went to the clothes cabinet and removed her own sleep shirt. The two women changed dress in silence. Xena stepped to the window looking out to the sea.
Gabrielle sat on the edge of their bed. "Xena, come to bed."
Xena turned and went to Gabrielle. "Last night I dreamt of you waiting here for me. Such sweet dreams never came true for me until you entered my life."
Gabrielle took Xena's hands. "I'll hold you safe. I promise I'll fight anyone or anything that tries to make you doubt our life together."
Xena confessed for a second time. "Gabrielle, I'm tired."
"I know love. Come sleep. I'll be here when you wake."
Xena took to their bed. Gabrielle covered them both with a blanket. She lay beside her lover gently embracing the exhausted warrior.
Xena closed her eyes. "I missed this."
Gabrielle held tight, grateful to have Xena back in her arms.
It was mid-day when the Royals and their escort arrived at the northern garrison. Jared, Dymas and Judais stood together in front of the Conqueror's quarters. The Royals dismounted. The Conqueror offered a terse greeting to the men as the Queen stood two paces behind her.
Wasting no time the Conqueror directed herself to Judais. "Come, let's talk."
The two walked privately, leaving Jared and Dymas to stand dumb. Gabrielle silently observed the brief exchange. It was clear that the two generals were surprised by and did not approve of their dismissal. She did not comment. She would patiently wait for Xena to brief her.
"Have you learned anything new?" the Conqueror inquired.
Judais kept pace with the Sovereign. "I'm ashamed to confirm that Tracate leads the men."
"You're sure?" The Conqueror paused; satisfied their conversation was secure.
Judais explained. "Yes. He came to me. He knows I have access to you. He wants a meeting."
"What on earth would that accomplish?"
"I dare say he wants the mantle of Ares' Chosen."
"What!" Though she had denounced Ares', the Conqueror continued to live with the residual affect of their alliance.
"By beating you, he would win the favor of the God of War."
The Conqueror could not fathom Tracate's arrogance. "Tracate actually believes he can beat me in combat?"
"No, I don't believe he's that much of a fool."
"A contest of wits and will," Judais surmised. "I think he believes that if he gets you to concede to his demands he will gain a measure of Ares' admiration. He is out to satisfy his emerging ego."
The Conqueror vented her anger. She spat her words. "He's a short-sighted, greedy bastard. He won't be satisfied. Few are."
Xena took control of her temper. This was not, and to her dismay it would not be, the last time she was challenged because of the unworthy ambition of a man. She regretted what had to be done. "Judais, I'm going to have to kill him."
The noble foresaw the inevitable. "He has given you no choice. My allegiance has always been with your Majesty."
Xena decided it was time to mine for other motives. "What history does Tracate have with Jared?"
Judais was confused by the question. "General Jared and Tracate? Other than Jared's conveyance of your refusal of Tracate's commission, none that I know."
Xena was not satisfied. "There is something. This is not just about Tracate's idiotic campaign to prove himself to Ares. Jared refused Tracate's commission citing personal reasons."
"Did he? Your Majesty, I honestly don't know what could be behind the refusal. I was with the General when we informed my nephews of your decision. It was the first time they had met. The General was very matter-of-fact. There was no obvious hostility."
Judais' assessment did not alter Xena's strategy. "Set up the meeting for tomorrow. Say nothing to my camp. This mystery will be solved, and I shall be the one to dictate how."
The noble conceded willingly to the Conqueror's command. "As you wish, Your Majesty."
Gabrielle spent the balance of the day inspecting the ancillary services of the army. After evening meal she granted a request for a story. Sitting with the men around a fire ring, the master storyteller weaved tales of adventure, courage and honor. Gabrielle knew her audience well. Each day they moved closer to battle. They needed to believe in each other and in themselves. Her heroes were ordinary men and women fighting a just cause. The smallest victory was of equal merit to bold strokes of genius. Though the Conqueror was never mentioned, great leaders were. The men believed the finest warrior in Greece, if not the known world led them. Gabrielle gave them reason to be confident.
The Conqueror had purposely remained in the background. The focus was on the young Queen, not only as a bard, but also as a leader. The Queen's storytelling had matured. She understood military strategy. She instructed as she entertained. The men would interrupt with questions and she was ready with answers.
The Guardsmen were unique. They did not fight for spoils. They fought for glory and for the greater good. The Conqueror listened as the Queen spoke of the greater good. It was to be found in the lives of the peasantry, the men and women who worked incessantly to keep shelter over their heads, food on their tables, and clothes on their backs.
Xena scanned Gabrielle's attentive audience. How many would die within the fortnight? How many would live with injury and pain? She was determined not to let her pride cost these men their lives. Tracate was taunting her. She was the target. She cursed the Fates and Tracate as their instrument. The price of her legacy was never only hers to pay. If she failed to forestall a battle, her legacy would once again claim the lives of good people.
Gabrielle had kept close watch on Xena. The complex woman changed in times of war. In times of war Xena manifested the Conqueror's presence, a bearing that made powerful men tremble. War also brought the Conqueror to her most savage self. Maintaining her equilibrium, her humanity, was a constant struggle. War also changed how Xena related to Gabrielle. For Gabrielle, the challenge of war was first and foremost to maintain her bond with Xena. Away from war Gabrielle could forget that she was the intimate of Ares' Chosen. In the face of war she could not. To be of any service to Xena, Gabrielle could not allow herself to be repulsed by the Conqueror's actions. She had to hold to her knowledge of the other aspects of the warrior. There was the woman who sought, standing in the palace turret high above the Corinth streets, the peace of night while she mourned war's casualties even before they were realized. There was also the woman who spent quiet days at Megara, fishing, walking the beach, dreaming of a life of simple pleasures, her armor and weapons stored away out of sight.
Ending her storytelling early, Gabrielle walked to where Xena stood. Wordlessly she took the Sovereign's hand and they walked to their tent. Soon they were both lying in their bed, Gabrielle resting against her lover's shoulder waiting to be told what the morrow would bring.
Xena had debated throughout the evening how best to confront Tracate. She made her decision as she listened to Gabrielle. "Tomorrow there will be a meeting with the leader of the outlaws."
Gabrielle's curiosity peaked. "You know who it is?"
Xena was very much the succinct Conqueror. "Tracate."
Gabrielle recoiled, sitting up. "What?"
Xena turned to her partner. "The fool is trying to prove himself to Ares at the expense of Greece. He will be stopped. Tomorrow, you and Jared will ride with me."
Her inclusion took Gabrielle by surprise. "I? But why?"
Xena covered Gabrielle's hand with her own. "It's time you witness field negotiations. It will be good learning. Gabrielle, you are the Queen and our armies need to see that you are with them."
Gabrielle tried to harness her rising panic. "What does Jared think of Tracate?"
"I haven't told him."
Gabrielle now understood that Jared had not been given the opportunity to prevent her misfortune. "It's not like you to keep something this important from Jared."
Xena openly expressed her displeasure. "It's not like Jared to keep things from me."
Gabrielle paused. Her thoughts whirled about her. She focused, as Xena had taught her, finding a place to stand within the eye of the storm. She calmed. "What do you suspect?"
"There is something being kept from me." Xena ran her fingers through her hair. "I don't know what."
Gabrielle knew better than to argue with Xena's instincts. "Is this meeting the only way to avoid a battle?"
"It's what he's been wanting all along - an audience with the Conqueror."
Gabrielle offered a knowledgeable warning. "Xena, you must be careful. You don't know what he's capable of."
"But I do." Xena assured. She was all too familiar with the egos that drive men and, to her chagrin, women to Ares. "He's no different than any other unscrupulous warlord vying for a kingdom of his own. I will play him to learn as much as I can and then I will give him a choice to either put down his weapons or die."
Gabrielle fell silent. Internally her shame debated her fear. She had limited success in convincing herself that with the grace of the Gods both she and Xena would survive their meeting with Tracate unscathed.
Xena took note of her partner's grave demeanor. "Gabrielle…"
The young Queen deflected Xena's concern. "What do you think he'll do?"
"There is nothing I've heard about Tracate that gives me hope that we will settle without a sword."
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle's sympathy extended to an event she refused to believe was inevitable, an event that Xena could not foresee.
Xena beckoned, extending her hand in invitation. "Come, let's try to get some sleep."
Gabrielle held close to her Lord. She dreaded that the morrow would not be a good day.
The Conqueror strategically dispersed four units of men to detect and counter any possible ambushes. Riding Argo, she approached the center of the field. Jared, Gabrielle, Trevor, Dymas and Judais comprised a second line. The armies of Greece followed, an imposing vision of military strength.
Tracate approached followed by six of his men. His less formidable forces stood in formation behind him.
The Conqueror and Tracate faced off on their mounts.
The Conqueror spoke dully, keen not to grant Tracate a reason to be proud. "So, you are Tracate."
Tracate maintained a respectful countenance. "Yes, Your Majesty."
"Courtesy?" The Conqueror smirked. "That is unexpected."
Tracate made claim to his dignity. "I am no barbarian."
The Conqueror measured the man. Tracate presented himself as a professional soldier, well-groomed and well-weaponed. "You have caused havoc in this province. That does not bode well if your intention was to make a good impression."
"I sought an honorable means of being of service to you, but you turned me down without even granting me an audience to argue my case."
The Conqueror accounted for her actions. "Word of you was not to my satisfaction."
"Lies!" Tracate countered. "I have never acted against you or Greece."
"Until now," the Conqueror corrected.
"Only to prove my value to you. I and my men will stand down on your command given two conditions."
"And they are?"
Tracate leaned forward in his saddle. "Full amnesty for our recent excursions and to become the core of a new army of Greece."
"You no longer want to be stationed with General Dymas and the northern garrison?" The Conqueror's suspicions heightened.
"I don't believe that would be wise. There is now bad blood between us." Tracate sat back straight, his pride evident. "My men have beaten them well."
The Conqueror inquired reasonably. "How many men do you have?"
"Only a fledging army," the Conqueror assessed.
"Skilled and determined." Tracate argued.
"I would say ambitious."
Tracate smiled knowingly. "A quality I have admired in you, Your Majesty."
The Conqueror allowed for a few moments of silence. She noticeably steeled. "Your uncle does not support you." Having Judais with her emphasized the point.
Tracate snapped. "He is a fool bound to old ways."
Again, the Conqueror held her tongue, allowing heartbeats to pass without interruption. She smiled with a devilish gleam. "You offer me new ways?"
Encouraged, Tracate blatantly presented his plan. "I can be just the beginning. We can build the armies of Greece to conqueror the nations of the world."
The Conqueror took note of Tracate's use of 'we'. "I have my generals."
"Who are happy to sit idle." Tracate nodded toward Jared. "You need new, young blood."
The Conqueror looked over her shoulder silently affirming Tracate's reference. "You are not shy in expressing your opinions."
"I say…" Tracate paused, distracted. He stared at Gabrielle. He shifted his perception imagining her with long blond hair. He knew her well. He laughed. "Well, well. Bri. You have come up in the world. I almost didn't recognize you."
Gabrielle remained still, her appeal to the Gods for mercy denied.
Jared was sharp. "Shut up, Tracate."
"General, is she yours?" Tracate taunted. "Bri's a pretty thing when cleaned up. I pray she's warmer in your bed than she was in mine."
Xena stared at the man in complete disbelief. That he referred to Gabrielle as Bri - a nickname Gabrielle disliked, and given Gabrielle's countenance, proved that the exchange was not one of mistaken identity. Xena looked over to Gabrielle. Gabrielle dropped her head.
Xena directed her question to Tracate. "You know this woman?"
"Know her?" Tracate laughed derisively. "She was my slave. A disappointment from the first. Willful bitch. I have broken mad horses more easily than her."
"What is the name of our Queen?" Xena demanded.
Tracate was confused by the question. He answered it assuredly. "Lady Gabrielle." He stopped. He knew the Conqueror had taken a former slave as her Queen. He never thought Bri to be the same woman.
Xena removed her sword from its scabbard. She heard movement behind her. She did not mind it, determined to gut the pig in front of her.
"No." Gabrielle placed her hands on Xena's sword arm.
A defiant Xena turned to Gabrielle.
Tracate moved his hand toward his sword.
Jared warned. "Tracate, don't even think about it."
Xena spoke sharply. "He raped you!"
Gabrielle responded gently. "I was his slave. Under the law he had the right. Xena, when his time comes Hades will give him a just sentence. Killing him here will do me no good."
Xena's rage churned. She turned to Tracate. She glared. "Get out of my sight."
Tracate felt the full force of the Conqueror's fury. He reined his horse. Trevor, Dymas and Judais witnessed the exchange, quickly assessing the acute danger confronting their companions. For Judais the revelation shamed him deeply.
Xena watched Tracate leaving, tasting the bile of hatred she refused to swallow. She jerked her sword arm free from Gabrielle's hold. She signaled Argo forward. Standing a good ten paces away from the others she recalled recent events. Many, but not all of her questions had been answered. Xena turned Argo about. Her gaze found and held Jared. She accused with undisguised menace. "You knew."
Jared spoke plainly. "Yes, My Liege."
Gabrielle interjected fearful for the General's life. "I swore Jared to silence."
Xena's gaze traveled from Jared to Gabrielle. In one quick burst Xena pulled away and galloped back to the military line.
Gabrielle watched Xena draw back to the army. Argo sped, carrying her mistress through the line of soldiers unimpeded. Overwhelmed, Gabrielle's body trembled uncontrollably. "Oh, Gods."
Jared guided his stallion to stand beside his ward. He placed his hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. He offered no words of assurance. As much as he wished Xena would see reason, his confidence wavered. On this day, fortune had not smiled on either him or Gabrielle.
Xena rode to camp, released Argo's reins to a groom and entered her tent leaving orders she was not to be disturbed. Driven by her darkest nature, she was not thinking. She did not want to think. There was murder in her heart, a desire for vengeance against Tracate. There was also the profound wound carried by one who believed she had been betrayed. She had given Jared and Gabrielle every opportunity to be truthful. They had yet to learn that withholding the truth was equal to a lie. They had yet to learn that the truth would not be denied. She wanted nothing to do with the two. They compromised her position. She felt the humiliation that often accompanies the breach of a trust.
Jared and Gabrielle led the army back to camp, each in their own thoughts, both addressing the consequences of their respective choices, both coming to the painful conclusion that their relationships with Xena were forever altered. To what extent neither knew.
Jared had no regrets. He still believed honoring Gabrielle's request was for the best. Gabrielle, in turn, felt she should have sacrificed her privacy the moment that keeping it placed Xena at a disadvantage. Upon first hearing Tracate's name spoken, she had an obligation to warn Xena that her history with the man could be used against them both. Gabrielle doubted that an apology would be enough to reconcile the breach of trust. She had to prepare herself for any outcome short of physical violence. She had no fear of Xena's hand. She did fear that Xena would banish her from Corinth.
Immediately after their arrival at camp, Jared and Gabrielle were informed of the Conqueror's orders. Their wait was not done; the wronged party would dictate the wait.
Xena reacted tempestuously to a rap against her tent entrance. "What is it?"
Jared entered. He found Xena sitting alone in a chair, radiating tension. He addressed the Conqueror formally. "My Liege, Stephen's unit hasn't returned. I've sent two search parties for him."
"Damn the Gods!" Xena had had enough of the day. She stood up, her mounting frustration finding no relief. "Anything else?" She dared the General.
Jared accepted the dare and broached the personal. "Xena, at the time I learned Tracate's name, he was no threat to Greece."
Xena would now have answers to her lingering questions. "How long have you known?"
"A couple moons after you brought Gabrielle back to Corinth from the east garrison."
The timing surprised her. "How did you come to know it?"
Jared went back to the days when he stood helpless witness to what seemed an incomprehensible rupture between Xena and the younger woman Xena had grown to love deeply. "When Gabrielle refused to accept your proposal to be openly with you I suspected that her expected presence at Court had influenced her decision. I took it upon myself to learn all I could about her transfer to Corinth. In the process I confirmed that two members of Court had dealings with slavers. They had… contact… with Gabrielle while she waited to be sold. She could not face them. She did not want them killed. So, I arranged for them to be escorted out of the realm. I learned more than their names. I also learned the name of her original owner in Serdica. I gave Gabrielle my word that you would never be told."
Xena's anger eased. "And when Judais asked for Tracate's commission?"
"You will have no officer who owns slaves or rapes women. Tracate was not an acceptable candidate. Gabrielle's name did not need to be disclosed."
"If you had to do it again, would you have kept the truth from me?"
Jared had no doubt. "Yes."
Xena felt a renewal of her injury. "You choose your ward over your Sovereign."
"I love you both." Jared stepped forward. "I did what I thought was best."
Xena turned aside. "I will not hold your allegiance to Gabrielle against you. But neither will I forget that your allegiance stands between us. This is not the first time you have chosen her over me and I am certain it will not be the last." She faced him. "Enough has been said. Go now and keep me informed of our search for Stephen."
Jared accepted his charge. He had taken the first step toward earning Xena's confidence. It would take time to be welcomed back without qualification.
Gabrielle and Trevor walked away from the meal tent. Trevor's attempt to have the Queen eat was futile. She picked at her food taking no more than a few bites. The men in the tent did not ask for a story. Though both Trevor and Dymas, as witnesses to the day's events refused to tell what happened between the Conqueror and Tracate, it was obvious that the confrontation had not gone as the Conqueror would have liked and that for reasons beyond their ability to speculate, a consequence of the confrontation was that the Conqueror had refused the Queen.
"Lady Gabrielle!" Judais walked to her. "A private word, Your Majesty?"
Though he had never harmed her, Gabrielle was tempted to deny his request. Instead she assured Trevor. "It's all right."
Trevor stepped away.
Judais was determined to ease the Queen's suffering by placing the responsibility for the past where it rightfully belonged. "I am ashamed that Tracate is of my kin. I know there is nothing I can do to right the wrong you suffered by him. My militia is at the Conqueror's command. We will send him to Tartarus."
Gabrielle appreciated Judais' gesture, misdirected as it was. "You have served the Conqueror's needs, not mine."
Sincerely, Judais requested. "Name what I can do for you."
"I know better than to ask you to free your slaves. I do ask that you guarantee their well-being."
The noble was relieved that he met her expectations. "You ask nothing more than I already provide."
Gabrielle believed him. "Then consider following the Conqueror's example and free your slaves after a set period of indenture. Are you not rich enough, Sir?"
Judais considered her request. He was rich enough to fund more than one lifetime. "Is five years a fair expectation?"
Gabrielle pressed. "The Conqueror has set three years in her household with an opportunity to remain as a servant at a living wage."
"Four years then. Upon my homecoming, a good third of my slaves will know their freedom."
Gabrielle offered the noble a gentle smile. "They will thank you."
Judais would not be thanked. "They will be told to thank their Queen."
Night fell, forcing Gabrielle to make a decision. She had taken temporary shelter in the infirmary. She could choose to make a bed for herself in the back of the large tent or return to the Royal quarters. Jared had come to her after his interview with Xena. He was optimistic that his wounded friendship with the warrior would mend with time. He encouraged Gabrielle to seek Xena out.
Knowing Xena, Gabrielle anticipated a severe meeting. Jared's offense was honoring Gabrielle's request. Xena respected anyone who placed himself in peril to protect her partner. Seen in such a light Jared's actions were noble.
Gabrielle had been the instigator of the deception. She had withheld a truth. She remembered the day, fearful she was pregnant with Inis' child, she readied herself to leave Corinth. Xena made only one request of her. She asked for the truth. Gabrielle braved her fears and shared the truth. Her life was forever changed. On that day, secrecy set aside, she was able to accept Xena's proposal. She would be Xena's Queen.
Gabrielle entered the royal tent. Xena sat sitting up on their bed of furs, the space surrounding her lit by an oil lamp.
"Xena," Gabrielle called to her.
Xena raised and held her gaze upon the younger woman.
Gabrielle chose to return to their beginning. "You never asked me who I had been sold to. There had to be a reason."
The warrior spoke gravely. "You're right. It was the same reason I didn't want to know about Inis. When I touch you I don't want them in my mind - whether lover or rapist." She got to her feet and walked to her desk. There she raised a decanter of wine and poured a generous portion of the liquid in a goblet. She drank from the cup. It was not her first drink that night. She turned to Gabrielle. Her passions rose as she spoke. "If I had a choice between living with the image of you with them and having Greece in peace or not knowing and having Greece in a civil war, I would have stopped the war. I would not have imperiled the lives of Grecian soldiers, or sacrificed the farms and shops of the Grecian people that have been decimated by Tracate's raiders."
The magnitude of her error further humbled Gabrielle. "I'm sorry."
Xena found no merit in Gabrielle's atonement. "Don't tell me you're sorry. You can't begin to right this wrong."
Gabrielle knew she was at a disadvantage. She had to find a way to cut through the effect of the intoxicating wine. "I thought of you."
"You did not!" Xena slammed the cup down, spilling what contents remained. "You thought only of yourself. You can never truly be my Queen. I have tried time and time again to see you to the throne. At each opportunity I have given you to claim your station, you have left me and Greece to wallow in your self-pity. This time you took Jared down with you. You corrupted the only man I trusted with my life, and with the good of Greece."
Stunned, Gabrielle accepted that on this night she had no chance of reaching Xena. She went to the tent exit. Stopping, feeling the injustice of Xena's accusation, she turned around. "You give me too much credit. This fight would have happened whether Tracate had been given his commission or not. I know him, Xena. By rejecting him, his tactics became more obvious. He didn't get his chance to infiltrate your army and turn them against you."
Xena was not placated. "He wouldn't have lived through his first words of treason."
Gabrielle retorted. "If he approached a Guardsman, yes. I'm not so sure with the army."
Xena leaned forward on her desk. "So, you did me a favor and I should be grateful."
"No." Gabrielle shook her head. She would not go so far as claim she acted for the greater good.
Xena charged. "You never lie, Gabrielle. But, you never tell me the whole truth. Your silences are lies."
"I didn't want him dead!" Gabrielle's own anger flared.
It was that assertion that demarked Gabrielle from Xena. Xena wanted Tracate dead. She wanted him to know how it felt to be scourged as he had scourged Gabrielle. Xena wanted to personally inflict the lash on his body as recompense. She wanted him to wear scars comparable to Gabrielle's. Xena could not honor Gabrielle's request. What Gabrielle called vengeance, Xena called justice. There was no changing the world if there were no consequences for wrongs committed, especially wrongs that could not be undone, wrongs that haunted a gentle woman's dreamscape causing her to push away her lover in the middle of the night, fearful that who lay beside her was intent on committing a heinous crime against her. Xena had despised Tracate long before she knew his name. She hated him because by his acts against Gabrielle, Xena knew her own crimes with an unbearable intimacy. She could not face herself. She could not face Gabrielle.
"You are not my Queen!" Xena's declaration came with measured precision. "You haven't the courage. Go cower away in a past that should have no hold upon you. You betrayed me. You betrayed Greece." Xena flung the cup to the ground. "Get out!"
Gabrielle backed out of the tent, stumbling as she did. Nearby at different stations, hidden in the shadows stood Samuel, Trevor and Jared. Gabrielle walked to the center of the quiet camp. She looked up to the stars. She shared the stars often with Xena, the same woman who on this night would have nothing to do with her. Gabrielle questioned whether Xena was right. Did she cower in her past? Did she lack the courage to lead Greece? Had her actions been an unforgivable betrayal, the cause of which was a shame that could never be rooted out of her soul, leaving her always a risk to the realm?
Xena had assured Gabrielle that participating in the government of Greece, specifically Court, was never required of her. The truth was that she did participate through her influence upon Xena. It was not the decisions Gabrielle shied from; it was Court.
She was still the peasant from Poteidaia taken against her will and stripped of her dignity. She was at home privately with Xena, and less privately with the Guardsmen and the palace household. She was at home with the villagers she visited and cared for as a healer or entertained as a bard. She was never at home as Queen to nobles or visiting dignitaries.
Xena was patient with her and would have remained patient with her if she had not breached Xena's one uncompromising expectation - to always be truthful. Gabrielle searched her soul. She understood her transgression and she understood what drove her to it. She needed to determine if she could become what Xena ultimately asked of her - to be Queen of Greece.
The morning came without word of Stephen and his men's whereabouts. Seeking an outlet for her frustrations, Xena joined the Guardsmen's’ sparring matches. She began with hand-to-hand combat. After pummeling the best fighters, she shifted to the sword. The thrashings continued. Guardsmen watching pitied their brothers. None walked away without cuts or contusions.
Gabrielle, staff in hand, entered the circle. Attentively, she watched the contest of skills. Against the Conqueror there was no match. The fate of her opponents was foreordained. Samuel stood by Gabrielle. She placed her hand on his arm, a sign for him to stay his place. Gabrielle stepped forward into the field of engagement. Her brothers recognized the unspoken challenge she posed to her partner.
Xena caught sight of Gabrielle standing in wait. She raised her sword, a signal to a grateful Guardsman that she was done making sport of him. Xena sheathed her sword, walked to the weapons master and retrieved a staff. She balanced the staff in her hands, satisfied with its well-distributed weight.
As Gabrielle stepped further into the center, Samuel retreated in search of Jared and Trevor. Gabrielle presented her staff. Xena approached, maintaining a handful of paces between them. She welcomed the opportunity to teach a lesson. She presented her staff and nodded.
Gabrielle studied the warrior who she knew well. Xena had honed Gabrielle's weapons skills. In the process Gabrielle learned Xena's strengths and weaknesses. The younger woman moved to the left, seeking a reasonable opportunity for a first strike. For a moment her thoughts drifted to the previous night. It had been long and lonely, replete in self-crimination. She could not bear another night like it. On this day she sought resolution. She was willing to risk her life to achieve closure, whether that closure brought her back to Xena or left her exiled.
From Gabrielle's first blow, the sparring match was not familiar in tone. There was no rhythmic warm-up. Xena's strikes embodied the full extent of her power. Soon Gabrielle found herself breathing rapidly, her heart pounding from the exertion. There was no shared banter. They fought without the sound of human voice. Each meeting of staff resounded with the sharp cracks of wood against wood, no less loud than a hammer against an anvil. The men that surrounded them were uneasy spectators.
Xena wore no taunting grin, made no sarcastic gestures. She took no pleasure in the confrontation. She was angry. She focused on the exchange, restraining her emotions by her will.
The sparring continued as three men joined the circle. Of the three Jared knew the combatants best. Each woman demonstrated unerring skill. He was impressed by Gabrielle's stamina, though it did not compare with the Conqueror's. Gabrielle was weakening. He judged it would not be long before the Conqueror would take the offensive. As the thought crossed his mind, Xena charged Gabrielle with relentless stokes, seizing the advantage. Gabrielle deflected the blows, aware that failure could end her life. She saw the fire in Xena's eyes; felt the warrior's singular determination to overpower her. Xena forced Gabrielle to her knees. Gabrielle consciously presented herself to Xena's mercy by shifting her staff in an uncharacteristic angle, leaving her upper-body exposed. Xena held her staff at shoulder height aiming a lethal blow.
Trevor jerked forward anxiously. "The Conqueror will kill Gabrielle!" he cried as Jared restrained him.
"No she won't." Jared warned, "But if you interfere, she will kill you."
Trevor restlessly held his position.
Gabrielle kept her staff lowered, not in surrender, but in trust that the Conqueror's wrath would not physically wound her.
Aware that she was presenting a blow that would kill Gabrielle, aware that Gabrielle took no action to protect herself, Xena's suspended her rage. Gabrielle was submitting to Xena's justice before a congregation of her brothers. Xena dropped her staff in a violent stroke. She stood over Gabrielle. They were not done. Closure to their confrontation would not come as easily as a blow. Xena knelt on one knee beside Gabrielle. Her bearing did not betray the fact that she trembled to her core. She whispered so no one other than Gabrielle could hear her. "Would you have me kill you?"
Gabrielle responded in an equal whisper. "No, My Lord."
Gabrielle's use of her endearment impressed itself upon Xena. Xena felt everything that the endearment meant to Gabrielle and to her. "What would you have me do?"
Gabrielle cast her eyes down. "Forgive me."
Xena continued to speak in a measured, almost inaudible tone. "Nothing will change if I do. The day will come when we will face each other again. Once, I can forgive, and I have. This is the second time you have withheld the truth from me. I have no confidence that there won't be a third. Why should I expose myself to your failing once again?"
Gabrielle looked up, her gaze upon Xena's profile. "My Lord, I have no more secrets."
Xena turned her eyes to Gabrielle. "How can I know that to be true?"
Gabrielle held to their connection. "I swear it."
"And what happens when you are left to face your past again?"
Gabrielle bowed her head. Her voice quaked. "I will place Greece before all else."
There was no more to say. The lesson had been taught. "So be it." Xena stood up and walked away.
Jared followed her, waiting until they were well past the other Guardsmen. He reached out and placed his hand on Xena's arm as he spoke her name.
Xena stopped. "Jared, not now!"
Jared demanded. "What passed between you and Gabrielle?"
Once again Xena felt Jared's allegiance was not with her. "A confession and an oath."
"Do you stand by her?"
Xena was rueful. "What life would I have without Gabrielle?" She swung her arm free and continued to walk away.
It was after evening meal when Jared entered the Conqueror's tent. Xena sat at her desk. She looked at him, waiting.
"Tracate staked Stephen in the field for the scavengers to pick apart."
Xena had prepared herself for the loss of Stephen. Notwithstanding, the confirmation of his death grieved her. She nodded dispassionately. Xena had exercised her greatest patience. She had been determined to wait for Tracate's next move. She suspected a calculated raid. In fact, she invited such a raid by not reinforcing her defenses. He did not take the bait. Instead, he chose to provoke her at a distance. She had doubled the search for Stephen. There was no sign of him, his men or their horses in the surrounding environs or in Tracate's camp. With Stephen's capture confirmed; she reasoned that Tracate had hidden the men and horses either in tents or nearby caverns. Whether he realized it or not, by his own making she was now Tracate's worst nightmare.
Jared made his intentions known. "I will go out tonight and bring him back. He deserves a proper funeral."
"No." Xena forbade. "It's suicide."
The general was not deterred. "He's staked like a battered scarecrow. I'm willing to take the risk."
"No," Xena repeated, her voice low, uncompromising.
"There's no moon," Jared reasoned.
Xena slammed her fist upon her desk. "I said, 'no'! We act when I say so. I will not risk any men to bring in a corpse. Get some sleep, old man."
Jared bit down his desire to verbally retaliate for the offense. He turned and walked away without saying a further word.
Late that evening, Gabrielle entered the Conqueror's tent uncertain of her welcome. Xena sat up on their bed of furs. She met Gabrielle's gaze silently. Gabrielle waited for a sign, for any hint of what Xena would accept from her. Xena's constant assertion became Gabrielle's guide. Though still feeling the sting of Xena's censure, she was Xena's Queen. The Queen's place was beside the Sovereign.
Gabrielle removed her belt and knife sheathe. She approached and sat down on their bed, her back at a right angle to Xena. She removed her boots, setting them to the side.
Xena was mindful of Gabrielle, of the care the younger woman took in her return. What was most important to Xena was that Gabrielle had returned to her. Xena spoke intimately. "I've made mistakes that have cost men their lives. A true leader cannot become paralyzed in fear of death or any other kind of loss. I have taught you military strategy. I can't teach you to place yourself last. Ultimately, that is what you must do."
"As you have done?"
"As I said, I've made mistakes."
Gabrielle sought Xena's compassion. "Xena, have you ever lied to save someone pain?"
"I've lied for every reason under the sun."
Gabrielle turned to her. "Have you lied to me?"
Xena recalled a particular attempt at deception. "I told you I didn't love you to try to save your life. It didn't matter, you didn't believe me."
"Not that night." Gabrielle recalled a wounded Xena denying any love for her. Gabrielle confessed. "I had second thoughts after you sent me away from you." She relived the anguish of their separation in Amphipolis, pushing herself through the pain. "Have there been any more lies between us?"
"Yes." The warrior's gaze fell. "A lie of omission."
Gabrielle did not expect the admission. "What haven't you told me?"
Xena had no choice. The Fates were cruel, teaching her a lesson at the expense of what minor semblance of peace Gabrielle could have in the limited knowledge of her sister's death. Xena looked directly into Gabrielle's eyes. Her voice was as gentle as her words were harsh. "Lila and the other women who Draco separated from you were mistreated. Lila did not die from a fever; she died at the hands of Draco's men. Their bodies were left in a field without a proper burial."
Gabrielle held to Xena's gaze, desperately needing an anchor to the grace in her life separate and beyond the described horror now forming in her mind's eye. She had taken solace in the fact that Lila journeyed to Elysia without the torment, however brief, of being violated. Silent tears fell down Gabrielle's cheeks. Her throat constricted, making it difficult to speak. "Anything else?"
"No," Xena answered in keeping with her code.
"You know what it means to be merciful."
Xena reached out and took Gabrielle's hand. "I also regret that I know what it means to be so proud that I become deaf to a lie that came from a greater truth weighing heavily in the heart."
Gabrielle was determined. "Xena, I will prove you wrong. I may not have been in the past, but from this day forward I am, without reservation, your Queen."
Xena removed her hand. "As you say, Gabrielle." The validity of Gabrielle's statement would not be proven on this night. Xena knew that only time and circumstance had the power to transform such an oath to reality.
Gabrielle noted that Xena offered her no unconditional affirmation. The days had taken their toll. Gabrielle's exhaustion was acute. She reached for a nearby blanket, covering herself as she lay down. Xena remained in an upright position, observing her partner. Though they were physically near, Xena knew only the ache of their separation.
Xena could not save Lila from the humiliation of the casting aside of her befouled body, like nothing more than a meat carcass. She could however save Stephen from such a humiliation and prevent Gabrielle from seeing done to a friend what Xena had described being done to the Poteidaians.
Xena walked to the fire ring around which a number of Guardsmen had congregated. She tapped Sentas and Tavis on the shoulder. Both men followed her discreetly to the stables.
Xena began to gather Argo's tack. "Saddle up. We have a job to do."
Tavis guessed. "Stephen, My Liege?"
They traveled on the west side of the field through a thick grove of trees. Riding Argo, Xena led Evvaios, Jared's black stallion. His dark coat made him ideal for the stealth mission. They stopped at a rise, in line to where Stephen had been staked.
Xena dismounted. "Stay here and watch my back."
Xena led the stallion forward through the brush down an embankment. She wrapped Evvaios' reins on a branch, patting the animal on his neck, gathering her will as she offered him a calming touch. She crawled toward Stephen; relieved that the watch was a mere three men positioned a good twenty paces from Stephen's body. Her only light was the few rays that traveled from the watch torches, barely enough to see her hand in front of her face. She reached her staked Captain. With her dagger she cut the bindings at his ankles. She slipped up the front of his body. She heard a moan. Xena was stunned to find Stephen alive. She took his chin in her hand and raised his head. His eyes were closed. For a moment her grief surged within her, constricting her throat and welling tears within her eyes. She had lost much to Tracate. She kissed Stephen on the forehead, tasting the dirt and dried blood upon his flesh. "I'm taking you home."
She positioned herself to brace the fall of his body as she cut the remaining bindings that held his arms in place. He fell forward over onto her shoulder. Xena stilled, hearing one of Tracate's men approach. She took Stephen’s hands in her own and repositioned him back on the stake, pressing her body against him. The watch guard walked past, no more than ten paces behind the stake. It was her luck that he walked east; he would not impede their return to the awaiting Guardsmen. Xena reached out with her senses. Satisfied that they could escape undetected, she allowed Stephen to fall over her shoulder. She carried him low toward the span of trees. Reaching the vegetation, she swung him gently over Evvaios and led the steed back up the embankment where Sentas and Tavis where waiting.
Xena handed Evvaios’ reins to Sentas. "He's alive. Take him back." She gazed back to Tracate’s camp. "There is something I have to do."
Sentas offered. "Can I help?"
"No, it's better if I go alone. I won't be long. If you're not quick I'll beat you back."
The wily Guardsman considered the Conqueror's mount. "What about Argo?"
Xena would not risk the mare. "Take her."
The Guardsmen traveled back to the camp as Xena made her way toward Tracate's headquarters. Tracate's tent was easy to identify. His banner flew from the center pole. Xena waited patiently for an opportunity to infiltrate further and claim her quarry. A careful cut of a seam allowed Xena to slip into Tracate's tent. He was sleeping. A quick jab against a nerve point on his neck stole his voice, a fact he soon learned as he woke from the shock of the assault.
Xena pinned Tracate down, backhanding him across the face. The hit dazed the condemned man.
Xena menaced. "Gabrielle, your Queen, is a far better person than either one of us deserve. She would have you live -- a request I may have honored if you hadn't tortured and killed my men. Did you use the lash against my Captain? I know you like the lash. I can feel the scars that still mark Gabrielle's back, scars your lash left on her. You and I know about the lash. It can cut as deep as the bone. Tracate, I don't have a lash. I do have a knife. Do you think the pain is as great with a knife? What say we find out, eh?"
Tracate struggled. Xena hit him again dulling his resistance. "I'll tell you what. All you have to do is ask me to stop and I will."
Xena placed the dagger tip against Tracate's chest and began to cut.
His mouth opened, his scream arrested. The only sound between them was of blade through flesh.
"What?" Xena tormented, "did you want to say something to me? No? Well then, let's continue, shall we?"
The sun rose above the horizon. Trevor had waited patiently. The time had come to leave an observation post and go the Royals' tent. He entered, finding Gabrielle asleep. He knelt beside her, gently placing his hand on her shoulder as he quietly called her name.
Gabrielle awoke. She recognized the Guardsman. "Trevor." She looked for Xena. "What's happened?"
Trevor projected a composure he did not feel. "The Conqueror requested that I wake you. She, Sentas and Tavis retrieved Stephen last night. He was barely alive. Darlius thinks Stephen's got a chance to pull through."
The news was good. Gabrielle's heart questioned why Xena had not come to her with it. "Where's Xena?"
"She left camp. She briefed Jared before leaving. You will need to speak to him."
Gabrielle reached for a boot. "Where is he?"
Trevor retrieved Gabrielle's second boot and offered it to her. "At the edge of the battlefield. I'll take you to him."
Jared, Tavis and four other Guardsmen stood staring out to the field. Gabrielle came to stand by the General. She peered toward where Stephen had been staked. There was another man strapped to the poles."
Gabrielle asked. "Jared, do you know who that is?"
Jared's tone was remote. "Tracate."
Gabrielle was stunned.
The General turned to his ward. "I don't know how Xena did it. Sentas and Tavis came back with Stephen. They thought she would soon follow behind them. Xena came back three candlemarks later. She said to wait and watch. Tracate's guards don't know that it's him."
"Is he alive?"
"No." Tavis responded. "I took a closer look. He's not a pretty sight."
Gabrielle understood. Xena had succumbed to her darkest passions. "Jared, where's Xena?"
"I don't know, lass. My orders are to disperse Tracate's militia, make sure Judais is well situated and then return to Corinth."
Gabrielle studied Jared closely. "What are you not telling me?"
Jared signaled to his fellow Guardsmen with a jerk of his head. They stepped back giving the General and their Queen privacy.
"Lass, Xena was in a dark place. It's been a long time since I've seen her that way. It used to be that she… I don't know how…" Jared was vexed. "I don't know what she'll do."
Gabrielle lamented. "She couldn't come to me…"
Jared gentled, consoling. "She will when she's ready."
"How long has she been gone?"
"I'm going to find her."
All nearby heard Jared's objection. "You can't, lass!"
The Queen was unimpressed. "Jared, your orders don't apply to me."
General and Queen, friend to friend, faced one another.
Jared accepted the inevitable. In relenting he tried to achieve an advantage. "You will take an escort."
"No," Gabrielle insisted, "I won't."
"Do you know what you're asking me to do?"
"I'm asking you to trust me. Remember, I've been trained by the best. It's time I put to use what I've learned."
"You can't go!" Jared bellowed. "I forbid it!"
Gabrielle's anger rose. "Forbid it? I am your Queen. Even if I wasn't, I am a freewoman. You have no right to hold me against my will."
"What?" Gabrielle snapped.
Jared tasted defeat. "You will not find her," he proclaimed sadly.
"I have to try." Gabrielle placed her hand on Jared's arm. "I give you my word, I will return to Corinth within one cycle of the moon with or without Xena."
Jared offered the young woman, his Queen, a wounded smile. "Very well. Get your things. I'll have your mount readied."
Gabrielle embraced him and thanked him before running to her tent.
Trevor stepped up. "I'll keep an eye on her."
"No," Jared ordered.
"General, you don't really mean to let Gabrielle go without an escort?"
"I do." His gazed rested on her path. "Haven't you figured out yet that they share something beyond our understanding? There are times when we have no choice but to leave them be. This is one of those times."
Huddled in a crevice deep within a cave, Xena rocked back and forth like a wounded animal. Her mind was a murky swamp, dark and heavy, her limbs felt as if they were entwined in ancient roots, preventing movement. She trembled. It was not enough to kill Tracate. There was nothing she could do that would come near justice. She had lost track of the days. She hit the back of her head against the cave wall. If she could lose consciousness she might gain relief.
Three days into her search Gabrielle caught sight of Argo grazing. She scanned the countryside. A tall cliff jutted at one end of the valley. She was confident she would find one or more caves within the cliff walls. To her dismay the cliff housed an extensive network of caverns. Torch in hand, she explored the caves, seeking the smell of a fire, or a sound that would indicate a human presence.
Systematically she combed through cave after cave accompanied by the scurry of little animals and the fluttering of bats resentful of her torch. She returned to the open, the valley before her was fertile and promising of new life. The sun shone brightly and the gentle breeze refreshed. Life went on in spite of private tragedies. She learned that lesson long ago. The world would not reflect her sorrow on cue. With time she came to understand that until the very end of a life, there was always the possibility of an unforeseen renewal, a change that ceased the shedding of tears, mending a broken spirit.
The cavern system was complex. Gabrielle needed to be more efficient. She walked the outskirts of each remaining cave seeking a more definitive sign of human trespass. At the far end she found what she was seeking - vague footprints. She entered a narrow-mouthed cave. Inside, the space was remarkably large, dry-walled with a sandy foundation. She could hear the sound of water in the far back beyond the reach of her torchlight. It was an ideal shelter.
A few paces within lay Xena's gear. Gabrielle raised her torch for greater visibility. She spotted an unlit torch embedded high in the rock wall. She lit it and turned. Opposite her lay Xena.
Gabrielle had never seen her partner in such a state of dishevelment. The warrior was either unconscious or asleep, Gabrielle could not tell which. Gabrielle went to her. Another torch was embedded in the rock over Xena's head. Gabrielle lit the torch then positioned her own torch a few paces away. As a result the cavern was completely revealed to her.
Gabrielle knelt beside Xena, placing her hand on her partner's forehead and cheek, checking for fever. Xena was cold. Gabrielle went to the warrior's provisions, securing a blanket with which she covered Xena. Xena's lack of response compounded Gabrielle’s concern. Gabrielle was accustomed to the warrior's awareness of every movement and sound, no matter how minor.
She spoke Xena's name, trying to wake her. Disappointed, she examined Xena further. She followed a trail of blood from the side to the back of Xena's head. Jared had made no mention of Xena having been injured. Her current wound must have come after she left camp. "Xena, what have you done to yourself?" Gabrielle continued to minister to the warrior. After doing all she could, she carried Geld's tack and her own provisions into the cavern, preparing for a long stay.
Gabrielle was completing the task of washing away the worst of the dirt that covered Xena, when the warrior stirred. Gabrielle moved closer. She refreshed the cool compress that rested on Xena's forehead. Xena's eyes opened, blinking as they adjusted to the foreign light.
Gabrielle welcomed her. "Hey."
"Gabrielle." Xena spoke hoarsely. She found Gabrielle's presence difficult to comprehend.
"Be still. You hurt yourself." Gabrielle retrieved a skin. "Here, drink some water."
Xena opened her mouth, taking in the cool liquid.
Gabrielle withdrew the skin. "More?"
"No… thank you." Xena silently studied Gabrielle.
Gabrielle caressed her lover's cheek. "Why did you leave?"
"I promised you…" Xena failed to complete her thought.
"What?" Gabrielle implored.
"I promised you that I would never hurt you. I didn't trust myself."
The admission cut deeply. "Are you so angry with me?"
Xena shook her bandaged head slightly. "No… My battle lust was too strong. With what happened between us I didn't want you to have to face saying yes to me for the wrong reasons. I promised you a long time ago I would find another way."
Gabrielle knew Xena was right. She would have been compelled to consent for fear of irreparably damaging their fragile bond. "I love you."
Xena regretted her fall into darkness. "Today, I am not your Lord."
"Today, you are my Lord more than ever." Gabrielle took her Sovereign's hand. "Xena, how are you?"
"I've starved and thirsted the worst of it out of me."
"It?" Gabrielle questioned.
A few heartbeats passed before Xena broke the silence. "I killed Tracate."
"I know." Gabrielle sat poised.
"I could have killed every man in his band with my bare hands. I don't think there's a word for that kind of murder."
"What can I do?"
Xena set her own needs aside. "You won't go back to Jared if I ask you to, will you?"
"No, I won't," Gabrielle stated firmly.
Xena closed her eyes feeling a wave of yearning; soon it would change in form to a pulsating burn of blood traveling through her veins. She opened her eyes. She still did not trust herself with Gabrielle. "Stay at a distance. Please."
"All right." Gabrielle neared to kiss her.
"No… Don't Gabrielle." Xena pleaded. "I can't bear it."
Gabrielle understood the paradox. Xena would not have her, not because she did not want her, but because she did. What followed was an evening of Xena's nightmares. Gabrielle could not console her Lord without breaking her promise.
What Gabrielle struggled to grasp was why in the throng of Xena's emotional fever, her outlet was violence or sex. Between them, the sex had never been violent. It had been intense, ceaseless, an extraordinary exchange. Xena longed to control everything between them and yet, Gabrielle no longer felt that in such moments Xena truly physically dominated her. Xena kept her promise, met conditions of engagement that did not temper the physical exchange, but did define the emotional. The effect of being with Xena was to absorb the stronger woman's energy and release it through her own response.
A mutuality of need had grown. Gabrielle had come to need being with Xena when Xena most needed to be with her. What they shared defined their bond. It set Gabrielle apart. No one else who touched Xena's heart experienced this most intimate part of the warrior. Gabrielle was ready to risk an untethered lover, though she measured the risk minor. She did not believe Xena would or could go beyond what Gabrielle was capable of accepting and giving.
Xena's nightmares subsided. She slipped into a restless sleep. As night approached, Gabrielle laid her bedroll an arm's length from the warrior. It was surely not as far as Xena intended in her instruction. Gabrielle refused to grant a greater separation. With time, her own fatigue pulled her into Morpheus' realm.
Xena awoke. It was near dawn. A torch burned at the far side of the cavern emitting a diffused light. The hot coals in the fire ring glowed. Gabrielle lay facing her with an arm extended toward her. Xena wondered if the younger woman's reach occurred in her subconscious sleep. Xena took Gabrielle's hand. The soft, warm sensation of Gabrielle's touch reassured her. Xena found reason to smile. The discordant energies within her were dissipating, allowing the intimacy without triggering stronger feelings in need of harnessing. She surrendered to sleep; keeping a hold on the mainstay to life that Gabrielle had become to her.
Spoon in hand, Gabrielle offered to feed Xena a rich broth left over from the previous night. The Conqueror emerged refusing to tolerate such service.
Gabrielle cajoled. "During Solstice I didn't have to be unconscious to let you care for me."
"You didn't let me." Xena countered.
"I could still have refused to heed you."
Xena recalled the fearful winter days when she fought Gabrielle, demanding that the younger woman hold to life. "Why didn't you?"
The reason was obvious to Gabrielle. "Because I love you, and I trust you. Xena, I have to believe that you always act with my best interest in mind."
Xena confessed. "I didn't call upon the Gods."
Gabrielle was surprised that she would even mention the immortals. "You thought to?"
"Yes. I couldn't do it." Xena rued. "I knew you wouldn't accept being beholden to Ares."
Gabrielle placed the bowl of broth aside. "I wouldn't have been the one who would have owed him a favor." She touched Xena's hand. "I don't want to lose you to Ares."
"You're still afraid I'll go back to him," Xena observed darkly.
"Not as afraid as you are." Gabrielle easily hit the mark to Xena's self-doubts.
"What I did to Tracate…"
Gabrielle tried to save Xena the confession. "Tavis said it wasn't pretty."
"I don't believe that dark part of you belongs to Ares. Although, it is a part of you he does try to take advantage of."
Xena leaned her head back. She felt drained of all her strength. "That's not reassuring."
"I won't pretend what you did to Tracate was because of your love for me," Gabrielle reminded. "I asked you not to kill him."
Gabrielle offered a severe mercy. "Whether because of how Tracate treated me or what he did to Stephen, you were driven by your hatred and thirst for vengeance."
Xena had no response to the truth.
Gabrielle tightened her hold on Xena's hand. "Don't you think I have those feelings? There isn't a person born who has had a taste of life who hasn't felt the desire to pay back others for what they've done to them or the people they love. The difference between you and most people is that you are willing and able to act on your darkness. It is your very strength of will and body that brings you to do the things you do. But Xena, I have long learned that you are not indiscriminate in your actions. You live by your code, and though I don't always agree with your code, I have come to understand it."
Xena presented her own assessment. "You will never completely accept my choices."
Gabrielle was gentle. "I don't have to."
They were interrupted by the sound of thunder.
Xena was relieved to have a reason to redirect their conversation. "It's going to rain."
"That's all right. You're not strong enough to travel. If you won't accept the broth, will you eat the stew I'm making? You've starved yourself enough."
"So speaks my healer." A weak jest.
"Yes." Gabrielle smiled.
"You won't object if I stand out in the rain and wash up?"
"You will do no such thing!"
"Gabrielle, I'm filthy." Xena looked down at herself.
Gabrielle offered an alternative. "You may not remember, but I washed you when you were healing in Amphipolis."
"No." Xena was defiant. "I'll do it myself."
Gabrielle was unmoved. "First, give me a reason why you won't accept my help."
Gabrielle observed Xena's countenance change. There was a break in the older woman's playful spirit that Gabrielle did not understand. Xena turned her head away. "Very well."
Gabrielle found no pleasure in her victory. She wished for a means to retract their exchange. Instead she resolved to complete the task as unobtrusively as she could. She went to the fire ring and stoked it, setting water to heat as she began to prepare vegetables and a skinned rabbit for a hearty stew.
The water warmed, Gabrielle filled a bowl. Before returning to Xena, she set the stew to cook. Wordlessly, she covered Xena's hand with her own. Xena turned her gaze to her.
"It will be easier if we take this off." Gabrielle indicated Xena's short coat.
With Gabrielle's help, Xena sat up. Gabrielle helped remove the coat.
"And the blouse," She whispered as if to keep a secret between them.
Xena raised her arms allowing Gabrielle to remove the garment. Gabrielle held Xena in place and gently washed her back. The effort done, she covered Xena with a blanket and helped her lay back down. Gabrielle continued to wash, starting with Xena's forehead. Xena closed her eyes, mentally removing herself as much as she could from the helplessness she felt.
As Gabrielle washed Xena's torso, she noted a tear fall from the warrior's eye. "Am I hurting you?"
Xena whispered, "No."
"I brought one of your sleep shirts with me. Do you think you could change into it while I check on the stew."
Xena nodded in the affirmative.
Gabrielle went to her saddlebag and retrieved the sleep shirt, placing it over Xena's hand. "Take your time."
Gabrielle sat purposely with her back to Xena as she continued to prepare their meal. She could hear Xena struggling to change. She understood the warrior needed to regain a semblance of control and self-reliance. Gabrielle did not return to Xena until sufficient stillness marked the task of dressing complete.
She carried a bowl of stew to partner's side. Xena was pale and Gabrielle suspected that the warrior had drained herself of all her physical reserves. She decided to try for a second time to feed Xena, prepared to relinquish custody of the spoon upon the warrior’s first protest. Xena did not protest. She opened her mouth and accepted the nourishment without comment.
Words failed the bard. She thought it best to continue in silence. The bowl emptied, Gabrielle offered more. Xena declined with a shake of her head. Gabrielle went back to the fire ring and refilled the water bowl. She returned and washed Xena's legs and feet. With the task done she tucked the blanket around her partner. "Anything else I can do for you?"
"I think I'll try to get a little more sleep."
"I'll be here." Gabrielle promised.
"Gabrielle." Xena reached out. "Thank you."
Gabrielle took her hand. "Get some sleep."
Xena closed her eyes. The comforting sensation of their held hands was force enough to counter her harshest dreams.
Xena convalesced for another two days. The mere presence of Gabrielle helped stay her most troubling thoughts and allowed her to regather herself. Xena pondered the events that led them to the caves: the revelation of Tracate's place in Gabrielle's history, the betrayal she felt in Gabrielle's conscious withholding of the truth, Gabrielle's willingness to nakedly trust that Xena would not harm her, the unbearable reality a severance of their bond had caused her. Xena felt she owed an unpaid debt to Gabrielle. The younger woman had opened the Conqueror's life to a love she never imagined she could feel, let alone deserve. She knew of only one significant request Gabrielle had made of her that she refused to grant. It was time to give Gabrielle the impossible. If Xena failed, she would be able to go on with her life knowing that she had tried to be the Sovereign Gabrielle wanted her to be.
Xena walked to where Gabrielle sat writing. She stood over the bard. Gabrielle placed her scroll and quill aside and reached up, offering Xena her hand. Xena accepted the invitation and knelt beside her partner. She bowed her head down in thought before raising her gaze up anew. Gabrielle was engrossed in her.
Xena measured her words. "I sometimes wonder if I know you at all. You have rarely spoken of your life before Draco and you have never spoken of the years of slavery before coming to my household. I told myself I had no right to ask you. You are a freewoman, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, and you have the right to your privacy. It is true I did not want to know about the men that touched you before we met. I tell you now; I will listen to whatever you wish to share with me. You have no reason to feel ashamed. The shame is mine. I never felt it more than when you said that Tracate had the right, under the law, to rape you. I am the Sovereign of Greece. The law was mine. I am equally responsible for what harm he and all the others did to you."
Gabrielle thought she knew how important having Xena's complete commitment against slavery meant to her. She did not. She was left at a loss. "You changed the law."
"Not soon enough."
"I don't blame you," Gabrielle vouched.
Xena was gentle in her insistence. "Gabrielle, we have argued this point time and time again. You have begged for my compassion and my courage. I have failed you and Greece. I will not fail you again."
Gabrielle suspected a bold gesture. "What are you going to do?"
Xena was absolute. "There will be no slavery in Greece."
Though Gabrielle had waited years to hear Xena say those very words, she could not help but warn her Lord of the consequences of complete emancipation of the slaves standing on Grecian soil. "The nobles will rebel."
"Not all of them."
"The vassal states, what about them?"
"I don't know." Xena admitted, "I can't fight wars both within and outside our borders."
Gabrielle was deeply touched by Xena's decision. She had been taught and understood the lesson of placing demands cautiously upon their allies. She accepted a more tempered approach than a mandate. "Then Greece will be held up as an example for other nations to emulate."
"Is that enough?" After all their arguments, Xena was surprised Gabrielle did not seize her prize.
"To do more would make you the Conqueror of Nations, not just Greece."
Xena flinched at the title. "I don't want war. I don't want to conquer nations."
Gabrielle smiled knowingly. "You’d rather find a small village where you can lead a quiet life, fishing and hunting, training horses, maybe even farming."
"I could do without the farming," Xena amended lightly.
Gabrielle turned serious. "If you do this you'll be a target for assassination."
"I'm always a target for assassins."
Though it was true that Xena was never completely safe, the extent of the danger she faced often differed in degree. On many occasions, the degree of risk depended upon circumstances within her control. Gabrielle had tried in the past and she would do so again in the present to minimize the risk Xena took upon herself. In this instance the reason behind the risk was compelling. "Xena, I don't want you to die because of me."
Xena sobered with the bitter truth. "You may not be able to have both me and a free Greece."
Such a clear-sighted vision of the future gave Gabrielle pause. "Is the decision mine to make?"
Xena granted. "By the Fates' design and your word."
Gabrielle looked within herself. She questioned her values, who or what she was willing to sacrifice to uphold those values. "I need time to think."
"Very well." Xena took to her feet and walked out into the night.
Gabrielle followed her with her gaze.
Gabrielle's response should not have surprised Xena. A rightful Queen would not allow her heart to lead her realm to ruin. The insight affirmed that their roles had changed. Remarkably, Xena was not troubled by the fact.
The Royals traveled to their military camp. Nine days had passed, too soon for Jared to accomplish his assignment. The Conqueror had received a briefing as they passed an outlying guard post. Tracate's army, shocked at finding their leader butchered, fell into disarray. All but a few insurgents had dispersed. General Jared dispatched Guardsmen to local villages to prevent any retaliatory looting. Greece had suffered a few wounded. The six men of Stephen's unit were found dead. Their bodies marked by Tracate's brutal torture.
The more Xena heard, the less regret she felt for taking Tracate's life. Gabrielle listened, weighing the facts. She came to a troubling conclusion. Though she wished death had not been invited to the battlefield she reconciled herself that the extent of death's touch had been far less given Xena's use of Tracate as an example of what future lay in store for his men. Had Xena acted differently, the engagement of forces promised to be far bloodier. The brutality of Tracate's death had served a purpose.
The two partners had yet to find their way home to one another. Though Xena allowed Gabrielle to care for her, though they were able to give and receive a touch, such gestures were carefully and briefly shared. They slept with their bedrolls separated by an arm's length, neither braving to cross the chasm of caution Xena had set for them.
Gabrielle missed Xena. Still, she kept to her promise. She checked her actions in an attempt not to disappoint her partner again.
They rode side-by-side. Informed of their pending arrival, Jared waited for the Royals outside of the headquarters tent.
The Conqueror dismounted, ambivalent in her feelings for Jared. "How goes it, General?"
Jared reflected the Conqueror's formality. "I've ordered Dymas to keep up the patrols until the region stabilizes. Some of Tracate's men are taking their frustrations out on the local villages. We have given proper funerals to our dead and ensured Tracate's dead don't foul the countryside.
"How is Stephen?"
"Healing well." Jared was pleased to add, "He asked to see you."
The Conqueror nodded. "I will be in my quarters." She removed her saddlebag and reached out to Gabrielle, an uncommon public gesture noted by all. Gabrielle dismounted. They walked hand-in-hand to their tent.
Xena held the tent canvas inviting Gabrielle to proceed. Upon entering they found all was as they left it, including their bed, the furs forming one uninterrupted resting place. Xena placed her saddlebag down.
Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand. "Xena, I'm going to visit Stephen. Will you join me?"
Stephen quieted at the sight of Gabrielle and Xena. The Royals were briefly greeting the other injured men within the infirmary.
Gabrielle released Xena and went to the Captain's bed, sitting carefully upon its edge. "Stephen, you gave us a fright."
Stephen's gaze traveled from Gabrielle and held to Xena. "My Liege."
Xena stepped forward. "How are you feeling, Captain?"
Stephen swallowed his rising emotion. "I did not expect you to come for me."
"You are a Captain of my Guard." Xena stated the obvious as if it was explanation enough.
Though it was couched in a stoic absolutism of honor, Stephen could sense Xena's affection and commitment.
"You're welcome." Xena smiled. "You must get better, Stephen. I need you. And, you know I don't like being disappointed."
Though unintended, Gabrielle felt the thrust of an accusation.
"Yes, My Liege." Stephen relaxed into a new sense of well-being.
"We've just returned." Xena explained, "I need to get on with the business of the realm, but I shall return for a visit soon."
"I look forward to it."
"I will leave you to our Queen. I have learned again - first hand - that she is a more than capable healer. Take care, Stephen. She will coddle you beyond patience."
Stephen laughed for the first time since being taken captive. He looked to Gabrielle. "I'm a patient man."
Gabrielle took his hand. "I'm sure you're a far easier patient than my Lord."
Xena admonished in jest. "He's a Guardsman."
Gabrielle turned to Xena brightly. "As such, he is my brother."
"Then I will leave you two siblings to get reacquainted." Xena bowed with an exaggerated gesture, never compromising her regal presence. She left the infirmary feeling better than she had when she entered.
Gabrielle watched Xena as she left. There was reason to be hopeful.
Gabrielle found Jared alone and bid him to join her for a walk. She gave him a brief account of her days since leaving the camp. She said little regarding the condition in which she found Xena nor of the damage their relationship had suffered.
Jared was not satisfied with the account. He paused. "Gabrielle, tell me the truth. How is she?"
Gabrielle had always trusted Jared. She welcomed whatever insight he could give her. "I've never seen her this way before."
The General assured. "Now that there is no war in our immediate future she'll be better."
"Ares Chosen…" Gabrielle wished the thought had not entered her mind. As much as she wanted to she could not divorce Xena from the God of War.
"No more, Gabrielle. You must see it in her. She has done everything in her power to build peace. Tracate broke the calm. She hated him for it. That is why she showed him no mercy."
Gabrielle would not perpetuate the half-truth. "That wasn't the only reason."
"No lass, it wasn't. Take note, she didn't kill the rest of them. There was a day she would have and felt no remorse for the slaughter."
"But what killing Tracate did to her… Jared, it was ugly."
"I imagine it was." Jared placed his hand on Gabrielle's arm. "You have never loved Xena blindly. The fact that you are willing and able to see her for who she is gives me hope that with time she will grab hold and master her darkness. Until then we who care for her most must try our best to stop her from losing control of herself. And when she does, we must be with her to help her come back to us whole."
Gabrielle fell silent. They continued to walk. Deep in thought she concluded that it was true, Xena's passions led her to extremes. Not all were negative. Xena risked her life for Stephen. Her loyalty could not be compromised.
Gabrielle paused. "Jared, what do you think would happen if Greece outlawed slavery?"
Jared was confused by the question. "Xena is working towards that goal."
"I know." Gabrielle asked her heaviest question. "But, what if she decided that it was best to end slavery all in one stroke?"
Gabrielle left Jared. She sought out Xena. She was told the Conqueror was with the horses. Inside a roped corral stood Xena and Argo. Xena was giving the mare a vigorous grooming.
"Her coat is shinning."
Xena had sensed her partner's approach. She turned, recognizing Gabrielle. "She deserves it."
Gabrielle went to Argo and stroked her cheek. "She took good care of you."
"I sometimes wonder why she doesn't just run off." Xena patted the mare. "Hey, girl?"
"She's a good judge of character," Gabrielle offered.
"You think?" Xena was in good spirits.
"Yes. I also think she can sense when something is wrong and she's all the more careful with you during those times."
"For my sake it’s a good trait for her to have."
Gabrielle confessed. "I'm not sure I'm as good at it as she is… I am learning to trust my instincts."
Xena was well aware that the conversation had been turning toward them. "I think you're here for a reason. What do your instincts tell you now?"
Gabrielle was ready with her answer. "You would take the risk of sacrificing Greece, of losing everything you've built to end slavery."
"Yes," Xena affirmed.
"Xena, what has happened to you? You would never have considered changing your strategy if it wasn't for me."
"Doing the right thing is not without a price."
"There is more than one way to achieve a goal." Gabrielle pleaded for a different, immediate future. "I don't want Greece in a civil war; I don't want to see Jared or Stephen or any of the men of the Guard dead because I became impatient with the world. One way or another there is a price to be paid. With one the stability of the realm is threatened and good soldiers are placed in harms way. With the other there is peace and close monitoring of how slaves are treated. I see a Greece where there is a forceful but voluntary campaign for change, with the weight of the law imposing those changes, balancing the hardships felt on both sides."
"Do you?" Xena was intrigued.
"Yes, I do." Gabrielle continued to share her mitigated vision for Greece. "Xena, it's time the Queen of Greece faced each slave-owning noble in Court. It's also time that no slaves serve the Conqueror. All will be considered servants who have fulfilled their indenture to the realm. It's time nobles begin to understand that not only will commissions be withheld to slave owners, so too will any favors in the hands of the Sovereign to grant. The slave-owning nobles will not be hurt by the realm. Neither will they gain from it."
Xena placed a subtle challenge before Gabrielle. "Will this be by the Queen's command?"
Gabrielle took up the challenge. "Yes."
"When we return to Corinth, Targon will work with you to draft the decree. It will bear your signature. Let there be no doubt that when we speak of the guiding hands of Greece, they are no longer mine alone."
"Thank you." Gabrielle's gratitude was heartfelt.
Xena had received the first incontrovertible sign that Greece had her Queen. "No Gabrielle, do not thank me. This is your doing."
With the issue of slavery settled between them, Gabrielle found herself at a loss. "Shall you be long with Argo?"
"I'm almost done."
"I'm going to tell a few stories to the wounded tonight."
Xena correctly interpreted the unspoken invitation. "I'll be by later."
Gabrielle nodded. She was disinclined to leave. Having no reason to stay she walked away wishing she had felt free to embrace Xena.
Xena entered the infirmary. Gabrielle was well into her storytelling. The Sovereign remained in the back. In addition to the wounded and the healers, a number of Guardsmen visiting their brothers were given the pleasure of listening to the master bard.
Afterwards the Royals walked to their tent enveloped in an easy silence. Wordlessly they changed into their sleep shifts. Xena willed herself to return to their bed without disturbing its make up. Taking the cue from Xena, Gabrielle was relieved with their sleep arrangement. She lay on her side next to Xena with little space separating them. Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's arm, closing her eyes to the sensation of their touch, feeling their bond affirmed.
Xena turned her head to observe the younger woman. The furrow in Gabrielle's brow relaxed and a subtle peace slowly came to her. Xena knew her own heart; she felt her heart's wound find solace in the moment. She needed to trust her will to place her love for Gabrielle above all else. She needed to trust that the physical expression of her love would honor Gabrielle. The younger woman deserved to experience a loving touch. Xena had come to understand that by their lovemaking Gabrielle could transcend the harshest memories written on her body. The memories written on Gabrielle’s body withdrew from Xena's mind's eye. She felt she could once again touch Gabrielle without inflicting harm.
Gabrielle opened her eyes. Xena's intensity invited her. Xena, the Conqueror, was not with her. Nor was Xena, her Lord. Xena of Amphipolis lay beside her, a woman who loved and needed love, a courageous woman, a woman stirred by doubts in the quiet of the night, who rarely reflected the same doubts in the light of day as she stood before those who looked to her for leadership and hope.
In seeing Xena, Gabrielle left herself behind; her own fears and enduring shame fell away. The newly accepted cloak of Queen had no place in their bed. Ironically, it was because she accepted the cloak that she could discard it as inconsequential. If she had not worn the cloak, the question of it would have stayed her in her place, uncertain if she had a right or the stature to claim Xena as her equal.
Gabrielle gradually leaned forward, instilled with the certainty of her desire. Xena held her position unable to suppress her deepest need to return to Gabrielle. Gabrielle kissed Xena tentatively. Xena’s reception was hesitant. Gabrielle refused to restrain herself any longer. She pulled Xena closer to her. She felt the full extent of her love for Xena. Overwhelmed, she wanted Xena complete. On this night, she guided their tender lovemaking to a mutually passionate expression of their love.
Xena woke early. Gabrielle's naked body blanketed her. The easy abandonment of Gabrielle's reserve was a joy to Xena. It marked their return to each other. Such intimacy was impossible when they were in conflict with one another.
Though Xena did not want to dwell on the pain of the previous fortnight, she did weigh a new lesson. The indescribable bond she felt with Gabrielle had been sundered by her anger. The fact that she had the power to end their link troubled her. The knowledge laid a new responsibility upon her.
Gabrielle stretched her body as she pulled herself free from sleep's hold.
Xena kissed Gabrielle on the forehead. "Good morning."
"Good morning." Gabrielle felt remarkably limber. Her hand swept across the landscape of Xena's body enjoying how the muscles underneath reacted to her touch. "How do you feel?"
What mattered to Xena was not how she felt. What mattered was what she felt. "I love you, Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
Xena's profession took Gabrielle by surprise. She broke into tears.
"Hey." Xena gathered Gabrielle into her arms.
"I'm sorry…" Gabrielle struggled to speak. "I was so scared I'd never hear you say those words to me again."
"There are good days in our future."
Gabrielle looked up incredulously. "Have you spoken to an oracle?"
"No, love." Xena wiped Gabrielle's tears with her thumb. "The days shall be good because I will do everything in my power to make it so."
Xena returned to the camp after touring a nearby village ransacked by Tracate's men.
Gabrielle met her. "Hi, how did it go?"
Xena dismounted Argo and handed her reins to a Guardsman. "Good." She walked with Gabrielle, placing her arm around the smaller woman's back. "The rebuilding is about done. I've arranged for their food stores to be replenished. We were able to give them everything they needed."
"They were disappointed not to see you. I told them I would try to convince you to ride to their inn for an evening meal."
"And tell a story or two?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena laughed. "And that, too."
"I'd love to. But first, I need your help with Stephen."
"What’s wrong?" Xena paused.
Gabrielle explained. "His spirit is under a dark cloud and he’s pushing everyone away."
Gabrielle was perplexed. "Especially me. Darlius said Stephen is physically well enough to walk, but he refuses."
The Conqueror entered the infirmary, staff in hand. She went directly to Stephen's cot. "Get up, Captain."
"My Liege?" Stephen was jarred by the command.
"I said, 'get up.' I'm told you need to begin to exercise."
Stephen looked to Darlius, who had approached. "I'm in pain, My Liege."
"I don't doubt that you are." The Conqueror insisted, "You must work through the pain."
Stephen remained impassive.
The Conqueror questioned. "Will you make me repeat my order a third time?"
Stephen slowly raised himself. A hand was thrust in front of his face. He looked up to the Conqueror, a glint of compassion in her eyes. He took Xena's arm in a warrior's grasp and allowed her to pull him up to his feet. They stood nose to nose. She reached to a chair, retrieving his cloak and then promptly wrapped it around him.
She handed him the staff. "Compliments of your Queen. You are to personally return it to her when you can walk without it."
Stephen took it. Tears welled in his eyes.
Xena gave him a moment to compose himself before she brusquely ordered, "Let's go."
Stephen snapped out of his reverie.
Xena offered him her arm to lean on. He hesitated.
"Take it before I change my mind."
He realized two things. First, he did need the Conqueror's help and second, there was only honor to be seen by her side. He took hold of her as they walked outside the tent.
It had been a beautiful day, now nearing a close. His fellow Guardsmen greeted Stephen as they walked.
Xena remained silent until they reached a clearing. She spoke gently. "The people of Chin believe that if you save a life, you are responsible for it."
"Then I am only one among a nation that are bound to you."
"No." Xena corrected him. "You are one of a few. There were reasons not to fetch you. None could stand against the simple truth that I did not want you to be desecrated."
"My Liege." Stephen fought the surge of his emotion.
Xena made a request. "My name is Xena."
Stephen had never taken the liberty of calling the Conqueror by her given name. He paused, understanding that by doing so their relationship would be forever changed. He chose, on this occasion, to pursue a query long harbored, never spoken. "Xena, may I ask you a question?"
"When I first came to the Guard, I felt… I felt you may have found me pleasurable to your eye."
Xena would not deny the obvious. "I did."
"Why didn't you… You took men to my left and to my right to your bed."
"Where are they now, Stephen?" As distasteful as revisiting her past was to her, Xena needed to be honest. "Dead, or foot soldiers, never to become officers. You are more than a handsome man. You are a fine warrior. You are intelligent, honorable and you are a leader. I respect you in a way I could never have if I had taken you to my bed. You were not meant to be used by me solely for my pleasure."
Stephen's conscious refused the compliment. "I’m not sure I deserve your confidence in me."
Xena was sure they neared the root of her Captain's problem. "What makes you say that?"
"In Tracate’s camp… I was afraid."
"You had every reason to be."
Finding it difficult to face Xena, Stephen turned aside. "Tracate interrogated me himself. He asked for our military strategy. I told him the truth. I did not know your plans."
Xena was grateful. "But you forgot to tell him that you know me almost as well as Jared and could have been of some use to him."
"Yes." The insight brought Stephen little relief.
Xena waited sensing there was more to his story.
"He then asked about you and the Queen. I could tell that he wanted to know if he could use the Queen against you."
"What did you tell him?" Xena's curiosity peaked.
"I lied, saying that you could easily discard our Queen for another. Your history of bedmates is notorious." Stephen paused looking back to Xena. "I said that naming Gabrielle as your Queen was a lark to anger the nobles."
"Did he believe you?" With Tracate dead, the answer to the question did not materially matter to Xena. She was, however, always eager to learn her opponent's thinking.
"I would wager that he did. Tracate did not have a high regard for our Queen. He sullied her name." Stephen swallowed. "It was hard to hear and not defend her honor, as I am sworn to do."
Xena came to him. "You have also sworn to safeguard Gabrielle’s life. You did the right thing."
The Captain's remorse owned him. "Then why does it feel wrong?"
Xena understood better than anyone else could. "Because you love her."
"Gabrielle's was not the only name I dishonored." Stephen's eyes held Xena's.
"I hate to say that there was more truth than lies in what you told Tracate. You were even right to say that the nobles were angered when I named Gabrielle Queen."
Stephen defended his Sovereign. "You did not do it as a lark."
"No, I didn’t."
"Xena, I am sorry." Though he believed Xena did not expect it, Stephen felt a need to apologize.
"You have nothing to apologize for." She placed her hand on his arm. "I'm glad you told me. It makes my decision to bring you in from the field all the more right."
"Thank you." After a moment Stephen continued to walk. "My Liege, will there be peace?"
Xena noted the shift in address. "A few things will change when we return to Corinth. It will be by your Queen’s decree. I expect some discontent, but no rebellion."
"And Caesar? He is expanding the Roman Empire."
"What he is doing under the sword, Greece is accomplishing by compact. We are in the stronger position. Caesar will try to cross our borders again, that is his nature. Until he does, we will enjoy our prosperity." Xena watched the last hint of the sun set in the west. "Ready to turn back?"
Stephen felt greater comfort addressing Xena formally as he petitioned. "My Liege, I’d rather our Queen not know of our conversation."
Xena would protect Stephen's waning pride. "May I say you will once again welcome your sister’s visits?"
Stephen smiled broadly. "Very much so."
"Good. Let's get going. I promised Gabrielle a meal at a local inn."
The Royals' return to Corinth was uneventful. In the days following their arrival Xena and Targon guided Gabrielle through the effort of writing the decree that would, bearing her name, alter slavery in the palace. The decree promised to have far-reaching effect. Gabrielle's first test of upholding the decree would come in Court.
In Court, a healthy contingent of Guardsmen lined the walls. The chamber was crowded.
"By order of Gabrielle, Queen of Greece." Targon finished reading the decree.
The men and women in Court were still. As Targon read, Xena studied the faces of the attending nobles. She waited to see who would be the first to speak. There were a few candidates. Lord Haldis and Lord Comkeas had large slave holdings. She thought neither would bring the first challenge. They would let a lesser man than themselves chart the course of their response.
"This is outrageous." Lord Thanos stood up directing his comment to the Conqueror.
The noble was a lazy lout who maintained an extensive merchant network valuable to the realm. It was only for that reason that Xena tolerated the man. The Conqueror remained silent. This was the Queen's decree and it was for her to answer all comments.
"What statute specifically do you find grievous Lord Thanos?" the Queen inquired calmly.
Thanos did not expect to be addressed by Gabrielle. He looked to Xena. Xena held his gaze, daring him to continue.
"All of it!" he exclaimed.
Gabrielle maintained her composure. "What concern is it of yours that the palace will no longer employ slave labor?"
"It sets a precedent." Thanos felt the danger of it.
"One you are encouraged to follow," Gabrielle affirmed.
Thanos spat. "By sanction."
"The palace takes nothing from you."
"And gives nothing!"
The noble's ingratitude reminded Gabrielle why she disliked Court. "The realm has peace. We have trade agreements that allow you to prosper. Is that nothing?"
Lord Aysel rose. He cordially addressed the Queen. "Your Majesty, with all due respect, withholding commissions and other incentives is not the best means to accomplish your goals."
Gabrielle turned to the congenial Lord. "Do you not reward those you transact business with, who by their actions advance your priorities?"
"I do," Aysel admitted.
"Why then should I be different?"
Xena smiled upon hearing Gabrielle use the word 'I'. The Queen had made her claim to the power of the throne.
Thanos was indignant. "You? Who are you to tell us what our priorities should be?"
Trevor, a hand on his dagger, whispered to Jared, "If he insults Gabrielle I’ll kill him on the spot."
"Our daggers will have a race to his heart," Jared ventured.
Gabrielle was firm. "I am your Queen. Do you contest my right to the throne?"
Thanos was not suicidal. "To do so is to oppose the Conqueror."
Gabrielle refused to use Xena as her source of authority. "I am my own woman. Do you challenge me?"
Stephen spoke under his breath. "Do it fool. I look forward to seeing you crushed under Gabrielle’s staff."
"No." Thanos took a step back.
"No, what?" Gabrielle was intent on teaching the noble manners.
Thanos nearly swallowed his tongue. "No, Your Majesty."
"And you, Lord Aysel," Gabrielle redirected, "do you challenge the Queen’s rule?"
Aysel bowed. "No, Your Majesty."
Gabrielle stepped forward. "Anyone else?" She waited.
"Yes!" Lord Haldis marched to the Queen.
Xena’s expectations had been realized.
"What have you to say, Lord Haldis?" Gabrielle's voice carried across the room.
"We all know what you are and I for one refuse to continue this charade."
Xena steeled. She did not expect such an unabashed insult in her presence.
Haldis continued, "Seducing the Conqueror earns you no merit. You are not the Queen of my Greece. Choose your weapon and say your final prayer to the gods, Gabrielle."
Anticipating a confrontation, Gabrielle was dressed in a tunic and leggings. Resolute, she named her preferred weapon. "Staffs."
"Easy enough." The noble looked forward to ending the farce by beating the woman bloody.
Though Haldis was a strong man, Gabrielle had observed in Court contests that his skills did not measure to either Xena's or the best Guardsmen she was accustomed to sparring with. She was confident in her ability to win the match. She walked to where Trevor kept her staff in safekeeping. She spoke decisively to her security chief. "Do nothing." She looked to Jared and Stephen. "If you don’t yet trust my skills, trust Xena’s belief in my skills."
Stephen stepped forward. "Gabrielle, look around." Stephen’s eyes scanned the room. "Your brothers, every last one of us, stand by you. If we have any regret it is that upon your victory we know you will show Haldis mercy he does not deserve."
Gabrielle turned to Jared.
"Lass, give Haldis a whack upside the head for me and I will have no complaints."
Gabrielle smiled. She spoke to the three men. "If you were my own flesh and blood I could not love you more."
Trevor responded. "Then I ask a favor."
"What shall it be?"
"A story tonight at the Guardsmen’s mess hall. You can tell the tale of your victory to those of your brothers unfortunate enough not to be here."
Gabrielle put her hand on Trevor’s arm. "You shall have it."
Xena sat in the back of the Guardsmen’s mess hall. As the evening progressed, royal protocol was relaxed. Gabrielle was with her brothers in every way. She wove her stories. They laughed with her, called to her by her birth name, kidded with kindred love.
Jared joined Xena at her table, a mug of cold mead in his hand. "It’s been a good day."
Xena smiled freely. "Today Greece has her true Queen."
"The lass could not have done it without your help."
"I’ve never been prouder of her." Xena beamed.
"Nor, I," Jared echoed.
Xena's gaze lingered on Gabrielle. "This is Elysia on earth, Jared."
"Hard fought for, Xena."
"It took the right woman," she answered.
Jared was well aware that Xena did not speak of herself.
Trevor was summoned to the Conqueror's private sparring chamber. He walked the narrow corridors to the secluded space, a walk he had taken many times, years before as beneficiary of the Conqueror's mentoring.
Upon entering the large, sparse space he found himself in the lone company of the Conqueror. She was dressed in her favorite gambeson and black leather pants, her scabbard strapped to her back. Xena held her swore upright, balancing it on its point as her hands rested on the top of the pommel.
Trevor addressed the Conqueror. "My Liege."
Xena measured the young Guardsman. She approved. He had matured in the passing years. His body had filled out, erasing the awkward all arms and legs appearance that once marked him. He had also matured in mind and heart. Mentored by both Jared and Stephen, Trevor would soon realize his full potential and walk in their ranks as an equal. "Close the door, Trevor."
He did so.
"Trevor, do you love your Queen?"
The question took Trevor off guard. By the Conqueror’s posture he felt no threat. Only an honest answer would be accepted.
"Yes, My Liege."
"After yesterday, Gabrielle’s rightful place on the throne can no longer be in doubt. She has become a target in a way she has never been before. I cannot always be by her side to protect her or to be her champion." Xena took up her sword and walked to the Guardsman. "Trevor, I trust you with Gabrielle’s life. There is no greater trust I can give. Will you be Gabrielle’s champion in my absence?"
Trevor held himself proudly. "Nothing would give me more honor."
"No one, especially Gabrielle, can know of this until the day comes when it is made necessary." Xena held Trevor's eyes. By look alone she conveyed the full importance of secrecy. "Do you understand?"
"She will find it difficult to accept."
"Yes, she will." The ramifications of Xena's choice went beyond Gabrielle. "So too will Jared." She reached into a pocket at the breast of her gambeson. "That is why I want you to carry this message to Gabrielle with you at all times."
Xena handed a folded and sealed parchment to the Guardsman. Trevor accepted the message, feeling the weight of it to him and to Gabrielle.
Xena instructed. "Give it to your Queen when the time comes."
Trevor placed the message into a leather belt pouch hanging from his belt. He would not pretend the exchange was a mere exercise. It was imperative that he act as if the break of every day brought what was an inconceivable, hateful fate to Gabrielle, the day when the Queen would seek and not find the Conqueror at her side as her champion.
Xena offered. "What say you to some sparing?"
Trevor supposed aloud. "I shall have regular lessons."
"Yes. We will spar here every other day until you take me down."
The prospect of defeating the Conqueror staggered Trevor's mind. "Will that day ever come?"
Xena smiled. "Anything is possible."
"As life continues to teach me, My Liege." Trevor thought back to his first encounter with the Conqueror. From that day forward he felt her protection. He had benefited from her consideration never reaching a reasonable conclusion as to why she chose him to mentor.
Xena sparred with Trevor until he neared exhaustion. She excused him and walked to one of the two large openings in the stone walls. Her gaze fixed to the view outside.
Trevor paused as he opened the chamber door to exit. "My Liege."
Xena turned to him.
"You did not ask me if I love you." Trevor paused regaining his fleeting voice. "I do."
Xena was distant. "Prove it by seeing that no harm comes to our Queen."
Trevor swore. "I will, My Liege."
Xena wondered when the boy who reminded her of Lyceus had become a man. She called his name and waited to have his complete attention. "Thank you."
Trevor saluted his Sovereign and exited.
A cycle of the moon had passed with minimal repercussions from the slavery decree. Most household members chose to stay as waged servants. The nobles were comforted by the fact that there was no outright trespass on their human chattel property rights.
At her desk, with Jared standing across from her, Xena made her feelings known. "It is Gabrielle’s decision."
"What is?" Gabrielle entered the meeting chamber from the bedroom.
"Go on!" Xena cajoled.
Jared falsely brooded. "Kasen has accused me of not delivering the eastern garrison’s petition requesting a Queen’s visit."
"Xena?" It did not escape Gabrielle that the two before her had failed miserably to hide their mirthful dispositions.
Xena eschewed the issue. "It is up to you. They ask for their Queen. I am only their Sovereign."
Gabrielle made her own petition. "Will you join me?"
"I don’t know. I would hate to intrude on your reunion."
Gabrielle tempted. "If we stop in Megara?"
"I could be coaxed," Xena responded playfully.
Gabrielle spoke to the General. "Jared, send word to Kasen that the Third Army’s petition will be granted. I travel to the east with their Sovereign."
Xena protested. "I have not been coaxed."
"You will be," Gabrielle assured, "the moment Jared leaves us alone."
Xena set a test. "Jared, here is your chance to evince your loyalty. Stay and play interference for me or leave me to the mercy of our Queen."
Jared looked to both women in turn. Bemused, he bowed to Gabrielle. "I shall send word to Kasen to expect a royal visit."
He left with Xena’s laugher resounding throughout the chamber.
Gabrielle rested against Xena. They shared the cove with the seagulls.
Xena felt a peace that came to her only in Megara. She tightened her hold upon the woman who brought her that peace. "We are making a habit of lounging," Xena observed lightheartedly.
Gabrielle leaned her head back silently soliciting a kiss. "The nobles now have their proof that I have distracted you from the throne."
Xena gave her young Queen a light kiss. "And you should be ashamed of yourself for it."
"I cannot bring myself to it." Gabrielle smiled.
"Then I shall exact a price." Xena kissed Gabrielle a second time, freeing all the reins to her passion.
Upon separating, a breathless Gabrielle confessed. "As much as I am looking forward to visiting the garrison, I wish we could stay here a few days longer."
Xena felt an equal longing. "We can always stop back during our return to Corinth."
"You spoil me."
Xena smiled broadly. "Oh yes, I am selfless in thinking of it."
Gabrielle stroked Xena's hair. With each stroke she grew more serious in countenance. Xena noted the change. She debated whether to pursue her observation. She chose to remain silent. Gabrielle slid down to rest her ear against Xena's heart. They held gently to one another.
Gabrielle's thoughts went back to memories rarely visited. "Xena."
"Before Draco, I was betrothed to a boy named Perdicas."
Xena was surprised. Her eyes rested upon Gabrielle as she wondered why Gabrielle chose this moment to tell her of Perdicas.
Gabrielle continued. "Our parents arranged the marriage. Perdicas and I had grown up together. We were good friends. Everyone took it for granted that we would marry, everyone except me.
"I cared for Perdicas. He was gentle and he tried to accept me for who I was. I had no doubt of his love for me. I have no doubt that had we married it would have been an empty life. There is no comparing what I felt for him… or Inis, with what I feel for you."
"I don't understand how you've come to love me." It was a truth that warred within Xena. "It cannot be easy."
Gabrielle sat up. "No, you're wrong. It is easy to love you."
"Your life with me has never been easy."
Gabrielle acknowledged. "What is difficult, at times, is being your Queen."
"Which was my doing."
Gabrielle accepted responsibility for her life. "Only with my consent."
Xena reconciled herself to Gabrielle's truth. "That is a fair statement."
Gabrielle sat back on her heels. She scanned the land and the sea. Megara had become the haven she wished for. It was a place that gave her the rare sense of security to pursue the most difficult questions.
"Xena, you loved before me."
Again, Gabrielle voiced the unexpected. Xena decided that on this day it would be best not to try to anticipate the bard. She resigned herself to follow wherever her partner chose to lead her.
"Yes, I did. Like you I have learned there are different depths of love. Gabrielle, now that I know what it is to love you, I shall not be satisfied with less. I would rather be alone."
"But Xena, if something happened to me I wouldn't want you to live on by yourself."`
Xena quipped uncomfortably. "So, I am to go off and find another bedmate?"
Gabrielle spoke lightly. "After a respectable mourning period, of course."
Her composure compromised; there was a sharp edge to Xena's reply. "I am not serious."
"I am." Gabrielle sobered.
Xena countered. "Nothing will happen to you."
"I am more vulnerable than you are." Gabrielle needed to confront a probable destiny.
Xena repeated, enunciating every word. "Nothing… will… happen… to… you."
Gabrielle felt the strain in her partner. She took Xena's hand. "I'm sorry."
Xena's gaze dropped to their joined hands, taking solace in the fact that they were well and together. She looked up, finding Gabrielle waiting. "Don't be sorry. We both know the Fates are not always kind to us." She paused. Gabrielle's youth struck her. "Gabrielle, you must also live by your words. If something were to happen to me, you must go on. Know that you have my blessing to love again. Love with your whole heart."
Gabrielle did not bear the thought easily. She leaned forward returning to Xena's embrace, placing her ear once again over Xena's heart, seeking assurance that the life she held most dear remained vibrant.
Concerned, Xena spoke Gabrielle's name.
"Will you be mine, tonight?"
The question unsettled Gabrielle. She could feel the tenor of Xena's mood. There was no powerful spirit seeking release. From their first days, it was that spirit which took care in requesting permission when it sought physical union with her. Here, Gabrielle felt a far different emotion pulse between them. She knew it as a profound sorrow, rarely acknowledged, though never far from the surface. It was Xena's sorrow not her own, a sorrow Gabrielle had longed to soothe, never knowing how to knit the wound that provoked it.
She raised and kissed Xena's hand. "Yes."
Xena, Jared, Stephen and the Queen's Guard sat around a fire ring burning on the beach. Well-placed torches lit the space. Trevor and Samuel sang an old warrior's song while the others listened and spoke among themselves.
Stephen quietly exercised his right hand by squeezing a round wood dowel. Xena watched him, noting the grim look on his face as he flexed his arm in a sweeping motion, mimicking a sword stroke. She got to her feet and went to him, sitting to his left.
She requested softly. "Let me see."
Stephen offered his arm. Xena removed the dowel from his grip and gently rolled up his sleeve. The scars, evidence of Tracate's torture, were red and bulged up from the surface of his arm. She traced the most pronounced with her fingertips. What Tracate had done to Stephen was unforgivable. Firmly in her thought was the image of her retribution. She had inflicted a greater savagery.
Stephen’s eyes rested upon Xena's countenance. He saw the woman and not the warrior. He felt his love for her. It was a love that could never be spoken. Xena took for granted the Guardsmen's love for Gabrielle. It was apparent in every man, only the nature of it varied. The love for Gabrielle ranged from that of a father to a brother to a wishful lover. Stephen could easily name the nature of the love felt by every man sitting in their circle.
The Sovereign was different. She first earned the Guardsmen’s loyalty by her knowledge and skill, and by her impeccable integrity. She might be brutal, but she was also true. She set the terms of engagement and held to them. He could not recall the Conqueror ever going against her word.
Her beauty caused many men to pause. Before Gabrielle, the Conqueror's beauty was as cold as stone, at times menacing. She was a challenge fools tried to scale. They all fell soundly to the dirt, scuffed at best, dead at worst.
The entrance of Gabrielle into the Conqueror's life caused a gradual revelation. With each moon, Stephen saw more hints of the woman underneath the armor, behind the sword.
Xena placed her palm over Stephen's arm completing a gentle stroke. "You will have your strength back. You need a little more time."
"I know I should be grateful to be alive, and I am. It's hard. I feel I've lost a part of myself."
"Because you're not as strong?" Xena questioned.
"Look at Jared." Xena's eyes traveled to the General. "The old man has managed well. He knows he will never be as strong and as agile as he once was."
"I'm still young." Stephen grieved.
"And that is why I'm certain that if you continue to work hard you will heal completely."
Stephen could not rebuff Xena's sincerity.
Gabrielle stood at the perimeter of the circle, having come from the beach house. She observed Xena's care of the Captain. Her own mission would wait.
Xena released Stephen's arm and placed her hand on his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze before entering a solitary bearing as her thoughts were seduced by the brilliant play of the fire. A few moments passed before her senses felt a tug, causing her to look up. Her gaze met Gabrielle's. Xena's heart stilled, their morning conversation painfully remembered.
"My Lord." Gabrielle extended her hand.
The Guardsmen fell silent. They had never witnessed Gabrielle so publicly summon the Conqueror to her. In spite of the Conqueror's devotion to her Queen, there was an air of caution. Xena’s eyes narrowed. A number of heartbeats passed before she wordlessly walked to Gabrielle, took her hand and allowed herself to be led into the beach house and up the stairs to their bedroom.
Gabrielle closed the door behind them. They stood near each other. Gabrielle placed her hands on the ties that held Xena's blouse closed. "I remember the first night we were together. You were so careful and gentle with me. You placed my hands on your clothes encouraging me to help you undress, giving me a sense of being very much a part of what was happening between us. My hands trembled. I didn't know what to expect. As much as I wanted to be with you, I was frightened. My hands still tremble. Now, because I do know what to expect from you." Gabrielle looked up. "Xena, you are beautiful to me. You are more beautiful than any woman or man I have ever known." She slipped her hand inside Xena's blouse touching her skin, then leaned forward and kissed Xena's chest over her heart.
Xena stepped back, her hands holding Gabrielle at arm's length. She felt a surge of her sorrow. Tears threatened. The day had taken her by surprise and refused to relinquish its hold on her. She grasped at her anger, but it was not in her. This was one of those moments in her life completely defined by her love for Gabrielle. She would not fight her truth. She wondered why she felt she had to. Looking into Gabrielle's concerned eyes, the answer came to her. She feared the day she would lose Gabrielle. The happiness of Megara was too perfect to last. The Fates might bless Gabrielle. Xena had no faith that they would bless her.
Gabrielle whispered Xena's name.
Xena accepted her life. She would embrace Gabrielle until the Fates chose a different path for them. She leaned against the wall, sliding down to Gabrielle's height. Her body quaked.
Gabrielle could feel Xena's power underneath her fingertips. She gave her permission. "Xena, I'm yours tonight."
Xena avowed. "Gabrielle, I shall die of my love for you."
Xena's declaration conveyed a profound truth. There was a part of the Conqueror that was dying. Xena was slowly laying the coarsest part of herself to rest. The pain of the death was in not knowing who she was becoming.
Xena and Gabrielle rode side by side. Jared, Stephen and the Queen's Guard followed. The royals could hear the men argue.
Trevor was emphatic. "I say she will."
Stephen observed. "They will be lucky for it."
"Don't be so sure," Jared countered.
Xena turned to Gabrielle. "What is going on back there?"
Gabrielle observed. "Whatever it is they seem to be having a good time."
"I would like to be in on the joke."
"Maybe you are in the joke," Gabrielle teased.
Jared rode forward followed by the other two Guardsmen. "Your Majesty."
Xena did not respond, knowing by the title used that Jared spoke to Gabrielle and not to her.
Gabrielle could sense something was amiss. She played along. "Yes, General."
"Will you answer a question?"
"If I can."
"Isn't it true that because this is a Queen's visit that you will complete the inspection of the garrison?"
Gabrielle glanced at Xena. The Conqueror waited for her Queen to answer. Gabrielle answered nobly. "Yes, it is."
Jared called out. "You've heard it men. Now let’s fall back and finish our business in private."
The men held their mounts in place giving Xena and Gabrielle a comfortable lead.
Gabrielle could not help but ask, "What business?"
Xena thought the exchange funny. "I say a wager."
"The inspection. They do it all the time."
"They don't expect me to break an arm, do they?" Gabrielle was suspicious.
Xena objected, "When have I broken an arm?"
"I didn't say you did. Although more than one man found his way to the infirmary after your inspections."
"Sparring lessons often lead to a nick or bruise."
Gabrielle was incredulous. "You always seem to offer a lesson in response to a disappointment."
"To show my congenial spirit."
Gabrielle laughed. "So, to display my disappointment am I to teach a lesson by staff or short sword?"
Xena was thoughtful. "I don't think there is a man in the garrison who would consent."
"I have sparred with them."
"When they were your teachers and you were their student. If you confront a garrison soldier, he will be expected to not only defend himself, but also to prove his worth in true combat. I know them. They would take your sword before risking hurting you. If you expect a soldier to return in kind and he fails, the probability is great that you will seriously wound or kill him."
"The staff?" Gabrielle queried considering her only other practical alternative.
"Gabrielle, do not lead by my example. Find your own way. Be true to yourself."
The lesson was one Xena had impressed upon Gabrielle on a number of occasions. It was not that Gabrielle disagreed with her mentor. Her difficulty lay in the fact that she had no one to model herself after. Warriors surrounded her and it was their way she had learned and knew best. Xena could encourage her to find her way. Xena could not tell Gabrielle what that way was meant to be.
Gabrielle's openness made Xena feel Megara was still with them. "Yes."
"When we arrive, will we still be under the Queen's protocol?"
"On this journey I am your guest. It is for you to decide."
"I am beginning to believe that you like my protocol," Gabrielle quipped.
"The men obviously prefer it to mine," Xena remarked.
"Does that bother you?"
"As long as your safety is ensured and they demonstrate proper respect, I have no quarrel with you or them." Xena's tone shifted, carrying a warmth reserved only for her Queen. "Gabrielle, your protocol carries a touch of Megara. How can I fault it?"
Gabrielle was pleased. "Megara has enchanted you."
"I owned Megara longer than Corinth. The enchantment was not in the place until you stepped upon its soil and made it your own."
"Is Megara mine?"
"Everything that was once mine alone is now equally yours. If you wish Megara solely in your name, I shall have Targon transfer the deed."
"No, My Lord. I would not want Megara if I could not share it with you."
The laughter behind them interrupted.
Xena smiled. "Expectations are high for the Queen's inspection. There shall be fun in it if only to watch the wagers won and lost."
"Tonight you will give me a lesson. I shall surprise my brothers."
Xena chuckled. "Tomorrow shall be a good day."
The royal entourage arrived at the eastern garrison at mid-day. General Kasen met them. Gabrielle dismounted and went to him, taking the General in a warm embrace. Kasen was moved by the Queen's affection.
Gabrielle whispered in his ear. "I've missed you."
They broke their embrace.
Kasen held his former healer at arm's length. "Let me look at you. I heard you were ill during Solstice. Are you recovered well?"
"Yes. Xena wouldn't have it any other way."
"She is wise."
"How are you?"
"Good. Better now that you are here."
Gabrielle turned toward Xena with false solemnity. "I hope you don't mind that I invited our Sovereign to join me?"
Kasen offered Xena his arm. "My Liege."
Xena completed the warrior's greeting. "Good to see you, General."
He spoke to both the women. "Your quarters are ready." He then turned to Jared. "You can bunk in the stables."
Jared groused. "Is this the gratitude I get for escorting our Queen?"
"It took you long enough," Kasen rejoined.
Gabrielle played good-humored interference. "Don't blame Jared."
Kasen complained. "Where is the fun in that?"
Jared smiled wickedly. "Speaking of fun, the garrison shall have a complete Queen's inspection."
Kasen directed himself to Gabrielle. "At your pleasure, Your Majesty."
Jared continued his campaign. "What's wrong with now?"
Gabrielle was a willing pawn in their hijinks. "Call the garrison to inspection, General. I shall be ready to begin in a half candlemark."
Kasen was confident. "By your command."
Gabrielle inspected the line of men in full uniform and gear. She was impressed. All was mended and polished. The men were clean, their beards trimmed. It was obvious that Kasen had been meticulous in preparation for the Sovereign's scrutiny. Her eye could never be as thorough as the Conqueror's. Still, Gabrielle's eye was sharp, having been tutored on the finer points of military presentation the evening before.
Xena, Stephen, Jared and Trevor lagged a good number of paces behind the Queen.
Xena whispered to Stephen. "What did you wager?"
Stephen spoke as a coconspirator. "The infirmary."
Xena thought for a moment. "Do you know the healer?"
"No, but I know our Queen's care."
Xena indulged her curiosity. "What say Trevor?"
"He was certain all would be well. Kasen would not allow the Queen to be disappointed."
"I say you are right. If there is fault found it will be in the infirmary. Gabrielle's standards match Dalius’ and I know no healer more careful than he."
Stephen was happy to tempt the Sovereign. "You still have time to wager. Sam holds the money."
Xena declined. "No, I have an advantage. It wouldn't be fair."
The line of soldiers closest to the Queen laughed.
Stephen observed. "She seems to be enjoying the effort."
"Not the kind of reception my inspections receive."
"They do look in good shape," Stephen granted.
"With the Queen it is a matter of love more than pride."
Stephen wanted to add his own observation regarding love and pride, but did not know how to phrase his words. He remained silent as Gabrielle concluded with the military formation. They moved to the infirmary.
The Queen's escort remained outside of the infirmary while Gabrielle and Kasen entered. Nearly a candlemark had passed.
Trevor paced. "What do you think is taking so long?"
Pleased, Stephen smiled. "Come on, Trevor. You have received more than one stitch from our Queen."
Trevor swore. "Damn it to Tartarus, I've lost the bet."
"I say Jared has lost. You still have a chance in the kitchens."
"It's past meal time. She will be inspecting by tasting." Trevor brooded.
The men laughed, while Xena remained silent.
Trevor realized the liberty he had taken. His mood tempered. "My Liege, I meant no disrespect."
"Queen's protocol, Trevor." Xena was amused. "Anyway, I only heard the truth spoken."
Xena and Stephen walked back to the garrison after completing a private sparring session. Xena was determined to help the Captain regain his strength and confidence. It had been a good match, leaving them both satisfied.
Three army men sat having an early evening meal. A man's voice captured the Conqueror's interest.
"I say she has become nothing more than the Queen's lap dog."
"Hold your tongue, Giles," a fellow soldier rebutted. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"I can see with my own eyes," the first soldier scolded, his hubris unchecked.
"You weren't here when Gabrielle was our healer. You don't know her or the Conqueror."
"And you do?"
"I know enough. Tell him, Thad." The soldier turned to their companion.
Thad concurred. "Hiero is right. The Conqueror is no less than she was when she took Greece."
Giles compounded his insults. "I say a half blind, one-armed old man could beat her."
Having heard enough the Conqueror stepped out from the forest path. "Strong words, soldier."
The three men jumped to attention.
The Conqueror unsheathed her sword. "You shall have your chance to prove yourself, that is if you haven't had second thoughts."
Giles turned to his fellows. They stood silent. As a matter of pride, Giles accepted the challenge. A large man, well-skilled, he presented his sword with bravado.
The Conqueror waited for Giles to attempt the first strike, giving the soldier a final chance to retreat with an apology and save his life.
Impatient, Giles swung his blade at the Conqueror's body. By that act he sealed his fate. His life was forfeited. The Conqueror kept a defensive posture, deflecting Giles’ every attempt to gain an advantage. Soon, other men approached the duel. Word of the contest reached Gabrielle. She ran through what had become a human mass of engrossed watchers. The men opened a path for their Queen. She took a step forward, ahead of the line.
Stephen held his position opposite Gabrielle. Thad and Hiero each stayed in their respective positions, thus the four points of a compass were marked. At center the Conqueror and Giles battled.
Giles was a moderate challenge. He did not have the Conqueror's stamina. As the conflict continued he became more and more desperate to make an inroad. Perspiration dripped down his face, blinding him. He wiped his brow nervously.
The Conqueror was content with the demonstration. She prolonged Giles’ humiliation, maximizing the number of soldiers who would witness the price of arrogance and disrespect.
A half-candlemark had passed since the Conqueror heard the soldier's incendiary words. Giles had barely the strength to raise his sword. Each strike of swords only confirmed his weakening state. This did not escape Gabrielle's observance.
Exhausted, Giles stepped back, his lungs heaved for breath. The Conqueror paused, ensuring that he could maintain a reasonable stance before she stepped forward. Giles' arrogance had been chipped away by his fear. He threw his sword down.
The Conqueror was impassive. "Pick it up."
Giles’ words were unrepentant, a salted surrender. "You've won."
Unmoved, the Conqueror pointed with her sword. "Take your sword and die like a man."
Giles bitterly confessed. "I don't want to die."
"Too late." The Conqueror affirmed the man's sentence.
Gabrielle stepped forward. "I won't have murder."
Giles looked to the Queen with undisguised relief.
The Conqueror's gaze remained fixed upon the condemned. "One last time, soldier. Pick up your sword."
Gabrielle had second thoughts of renewing her objection. She never interfered with military discipline.
Giles turned to the Conqueror, unwilling to yield to her demands. "No."
The Conqueror was absolute. "Soldiers of Greece live and die by their word as well as their sword. I heard your word. Time remains for your sword."
Hearing no further protest from the Queen, Giles understood that she was either unwilling or unable to save him. He sprang forward, taking up his sword, attacking the Conqueror indiscriminately. The Conqueror deflected Giles’ strokes and thrust her sword into his body. Giles quivered like a speared fish, dropping his weapon, both of his hands met at the Conqueror's blade. The Conqueror pulled her sword free. The disgraced soldier fell dead to the ground.
The Conqueror's gaze traveled from the dead man to Hiero, Stephen, Thad and finally to Gabrielle. The latter's disfavor was evident. She walked past Stephen, avoiding the crowd.
Gabrielle followed, sidestepping Giles' body.
Stephen placed his hand on Gabrielle's arm as she reached him. "Don't," he advised.
Gabrielle paused. "Why did she do it?"
"A point of honor."
"Stephen?" Gabrielle sought further explanation.
Stephen did his best to account for the Conqueror's actions. "The moment Giles raised his sword against the Conqueror one thing was certain. Either he or the Conqueror would die. He deserved his death. No soldier will judge the Conqueror wrong. Gabrielle, by our code this was not murder. Giles was a coward given more than one chance to die an honorable death."
Once again in Gabrielle's life with Xena, honor and death went hand in hand. On this one subject, they had failed to resolve their differences. Xena was unapologetic when a man's life was forfeited in response to a breach of honor. Gabrielle expected Xena would be equally unapologetic for Giles' death. Before facing one another they both needed time to settle the day's events in their minds and hearts.
Gabrielle requested. "Follow Xena and make sure she's all right."
Stephen promised. "I'll bring her back to you by nightfall."
Gabrielle turned to Hiero and Thad, signally them to come to her. They approached silently.
Gabrielle directed her question to the more familiar Hiero. "What happened here?"
Hiero glanced to Thad and then back to Gabrielle. "Giles insulted the Conqueror."
Thad echoed. "It was a grave insult and he showed no remorse for it."
"Will you tell me what it was?"
Hiero was visibly uncomfortable. "I would rather not."
Gabrielle was frustrated by Hiero's evasion. "You will leave me to ask the Conqueror?"
"Gabrielle, why must you ask? Let her be. It isn't as if the Conqueror enjoyed killing Giles"
Gabrielle observed. "You still speak to me as a friend."
Uncertain, Hiero stammered. "I…"
"No, Hiero. It's all right. I prefer it." She placed her hand on his arm. "Thank you."
Stephen followed Xena to the stables where she was busy saddling Argo. He motioned for a young groom to leave him and the Conqueror alone. Stephen debated whether words or actions would serve him best. He chose the latter, and retrieved his mount's tack.
Xena paused and gave Stephen a hard look. "Captain?"
Stephen was not intimidated. "I made a promise to our Queen."
"And what makes you think I'll consent?"
"Because she loves you."
Xena mulled over Stephen's answer. "I won't wait for you."
"I didn't expect you would." Stephen went back to his task.
They rode to where the forest ended and the landscape opened to rolling hills. Xena held Argo in her stance, scanning the land. Greece was a beautiful country.
She had not said a word to Stephen after leaving the stables. Gabrielle's surrogate remained near and silent. That Gabrielle had sent him to her assured Xena that upon returning to the garrison all would be well. She and Gabrielle would undoubtedly discuss Giles’ death. The pain in having a loss of life, even a sorry one as Giles, would be upon Gabrielle. It would be for Xena to once again confront the profound differences between them. What left her humbled was knowing how important it was to her to be welcomed back into Gabrielle's arms in spite of the display of her violent ethic.
Their reunion would come later. For now, she and Argo were going to ride. Xena turned to Stephen. "A race then, Captain?" She smiled, the greatest tension having left her.
"As you like." Stephen returned the smile.
"Let's enjoy what is left of the day and then go back and petition our Queen for an evening of stories."
Stephen relaxed. "It’s a fine plan."
They galloped their horses across the hills. The power, the freedom, the sheer joy of the exercise owned them both.
They began their return to the garrison in congenial spirits. Their trail took them back into the forest for what promised to be another candlemark of easy riding.
Xena sensed danger closing in. The two perfectly timed missiles cut through the air from diametrically opposing directions. She shifted, extending her hands, one in each direction, catching both. She did not have sufficient time to prevent a third arrow from piercing her back. She cried out as she fell off Argo, dropping the arrows, their arrest now meaningless. Using a hand to brace herself she managed to stay on her knees. The jolt of the impact was agonizing. Keeping her senses, she reached for her chakram. With a quick flick the weapon killing one assailant. Stephen took down the second with a precise throw of his dagger. The third assailant ran off through the trees.
Stephen dismounted, throwing himself to the ground beside Xena. He supported her body, trying to cause no further harm. "My Liege."
Xena coughed blood. "Pull it out."
"Xena…" Stephen hesitated.
Xena commanded. "Do it!"
Stephen looked at her back. The arrow was deep. "I can't. I'll kill you if I do. You need a healer."
Xena was dismayed. The harrowing pain made her question why the arrow had not broken through. She felt the arrowhead just below her frontal skin. She collapsed to the side. Stephen guided her down to the earth.
"Xena, please hold to life. I will bring help."
"Gabrielle…" Her first concern was for her partner. "I don't want Gabrielle to see me like this."
Stephen was not of a mind to lie. "There is no choice. She won't be left behind."
Xena’s eyes closed. Stephen went to his horse and untied his cloak. Carefully, he covered Xena. He paused beside her, not wanting to leave her alone, helpless. His heart broke. Never had he seen her so vulnerable. He kissed her upon the cheek.
"Know this. You are more loved than you can ever imagine. Gabrielle is not the only one who needs you to live."
Without further delay he mounted his steed and road toward the east garrison.
Gabrielle sat waiting in the Royal quarters for Xena's return. She replayed the scene between Xena and Giles in her mind. None of the men faulted the Conqueror's execution of the insolent soldier. Given Xena's skills the outcome was never in doubt. What Gabrielle struggled to accept was that the confrontation had been a just execution under the warrior code and not a murder.
Giles was a stranger to Gabrielle. He obviously had no idea of Xena's skills or foolishly overestimated his own. Thad's words gave her reason to wonder what grave insult Giles had placed before Xena. Thad said Giles showed no remorse. That meant Xena had given him a chance to recant.
Gabrielle reconsidered the appropriateness of her limited interference. She felt she was right to have gone no further in her objection. She stated she would have no murder. There was no murder. She needed to trust Xena even as she disagreed with her. She needed to trust that a warrior's justice had been served.
Gabrielle felt a sudden press in her heart. She looked about for the cause. A fearful sorrow engulfed her. Gabrielle’s closest experience of a similar sensation came to her in the most quiet, intimate moments she shared with Xena after their lovemaking. In those moments she possessed a rare sensitivity to Xena's mourning. It was proof of her entry to the deepest crevices of her partner's soul, a place where the warrior privately grieved.
At the opposite side of the garrison, Stephen rode at full gallop, stopping in front of the infirmary. After summoning the healer he searched for Jared. Finding him and Kasen in the mess hall he succinctly recounted the ambush. Jared ordered Stephen to mobilize the Queen's Guard. Kasen readied two companies to complete a full sweep of the area.
Gabrielle stepped outside. Samuel was posted at the door. They stood silently. Gabrielle waited. She was sure there was something, what she did not know, that would soon shatter the calm.
It was not long before Gabrielle observed heightened activity within the garrison. "What is it, Sam?"
"Don't know. Right before you came out Stephen rode in like he was being chased by a swarm of Bacchae."
"Was Xena with him?"
"I didn't see her. He rode quick across." Samuel pointed, illustrating Stephen's path.
Gabrielle caught sight of Jared. She walked toward him. Samuel followed a step behind.
Jared marked Gabrielle's approach. He redirected his course to meet her. Experience had taught him to be direct. "Lass, Xena has been hurt."
Gabrielle reined in her panic. "Where is she?"
"A half-candlemark ride. Stephen was with her when they were ambushed."
Gabrielle was sharp. "He left her behind!"
"He would have risked her life if he had tried to move her."
Gabrielle had no patience. "Jared, tell me!"
"She took an arrow through the back, close to her heart."
Gabrielle imagined the grave wound. She quieted as understanding took hold of her. "Who did it?"
"We don't know. Xena and Stephen killed two crossbow men. We will see what we can find out after we get her back here safe and sound." Jared placed his hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'm having Geld saddled for you."
"I'll get my weapons." Gabrielle stepped away. Unable to cope with the possibilities that faced her she erased all from her mind focusing on what had to be done.
Stephen reached the clearing first. Confused, he looked in every direction.
Jared was abrupt. "Where to, man?"
"Here." Stephen was dismayed. "I left her here."
Gabrielle questioned. "Where Stephen?"
He pointed to where he last saw Xena. "There."
Gabrielle dismounted and walked to the place. She knelt on one knee and examined the fallen leaves. Her fingertips touched fresh blood.
Trevor who had searched east called out. "General! One of the dead men."
Another Guardsman echoed from the west. "The other's here."
Jared dismounted and squatted down beside Gabrielle. "They may have come back for her."
"Ransom?" Gabrielle hoped.
"More like bounty. They'd be paid whether she was dead or alive."
"We will look for her." Gabrielle's was a hesitant statement, as the shock of the moment began to overwhelm her.
"Of course," Jared affirmed.
"Jared," Gabrielle turned her gaze to her friend, "the wound. No one could live…"
Jared felt helpless, as he too understood Xena's fate.
Gabrielle was determined. "She will have a proper funeral. If they desecrate her body…"
"It won't happen. We will find her."
Trevor had led his mount back to Stephen.
Stephen was at a loss. "I don't understand. It doesn't look like anything's been disturbed. It's all as I left it."
Gabrielle and Jared led a contingent west to follow the still fresh trail of the third assailant. Others were dispatched to both the north and south to ensure that there were no others involved. Kasen traveled back to the garrison implementing a higher security, sending dispatches to the other garrisons and to Corinth.
The Conqueror's injury and disappearance were to be held in confidence by the military echelon. The only exception was Targon. Kasen also organized supply teams to provide for the essential needs for the various search parties.
As the candlemarks passed Gabrielle's mind quieted. She focused within. Gabrielle searched for the spirit of Xena that stirred in her. She was frightened that she felt Xena more as a memory than a true presence. The contrast was compelling. It was not how she felt Xena in the clearing, when her fingertips had touched Xena's blood on the forest floor. Gabrielle could not deny that the strength of their connection weakened the farther she rode away from where Xena had fallen.
Gabrielle sat underneath a tree as the men created a circle around a fire ring. Her eyes rested on the horizon, the sun was setting, painting the sky with the beauty of colors she once described to Xena. A figure approached breaking her trance. She looked up to see Stephen.
The Captain was at his most gracious. "May I join you?"
He knelt upon one knee. "Gabrielle, may I speak freely?"
"We have searched for five days. We lost what we believed was the third man's trail after our third day in chase. How much longer shall we pursue Xena's ghost?"
Gabrielle's anger rose. It did not go unnoticed.
Stephen braved her discontent. "I keep going back to the clearing where she took the arrow. You must have noticed how nothing was disturbed. If Xena had been dragged away or even carried away, the ground would have marked it. I swear to you she was unconscious when I left her. She did not leave by her own strength. Even if she did, even if someone took her, we would have caught up with them by now."
"You want me to believe she just disappeared?"
"She is Ares' Chosen."
Gabrielle truly hated all references that linked Xena with Ares.
Stephen continued his argument. "Ares was once very close to Xena. He must have known that you would never allow her to be memorialized in honor to the God of War. Ares may have chosen to lay her to rest somewhere only he would be privy to."
A tear fell down Gabrielle's cheek. "So, I am to forget her?"
"There is no forgetting Xena. But, we can begin to mourn her."
Gabrielle looked down to her hands in thought.
Stephen wanted to ease Gabrielle's sorrow. "She loved you and she knew you loved her."
Gabrielle wished she could believe him. She looked back up to the Guardsman. "The last time I saw her… Giles."
"No, Gabrielle, rest your doubts," Stephen vouched. "When we were riding, Xena had decided to ask you for an evening of storytelling. She wouldn't have said that to me if she didn't believe you would welcome her."
New tears marked Gabrielle.
Stephen continued. "After she was wounded… yours was the only name she spoke."
Gabrielle wiped her face with her sleeve. "You believe we shall never find her."
"No Queen's Guard, given their loyalty, would dare broach Xena's death with you. They wait for Jared. It is his place to do so. But, I know the old man. His love for Xena is unbounded. So too is his love for you. He can't let go unless he is led to her grave and places a farewell kiss upon her."
"And you?" Gabrielle wondered what brought Stephen to her.
"My oath was to the Sovereign."
Stephen's use of the past tense did not go unnoticed. He had been bound to Xena and only to Xena. Gabrielle always knew it was a truth they shared. "Stephen, I…."
The Captain steeled. He would champion a practical response. "Cyrene must be told before word reaches her by other sources. Gabrielle, Greece needs a Sovereign."
Gabrielle's head snapped up. "I will never… Xena owned the title Sovereign."
"Then be what Xena wanted for you and for Greece. Be our Queen."
Gabrielle's gaze captured the sunset behind Stephen. The beauty of the world continued even in the light of Xena's death.
"Stephen, I ask a promise."
"If I can give it, you shall have it."
She reached out taking his hand. "Be true to yourself, and in turn be true to me. I shall need counsel in the seasons to come."
The Captain was honored. He rewarded Gabrielle with his pledge. "I give you my promise and my sword. My oath is now yours."
Gabrielle smiled. "I watched Xena with you. Do you know how much she cared for you?"
Stephen felt free to acknowledge his heartbreak, whether Gabrielle understood him or not. "She chose you and only you. When the days are difficult, and they will be, hold fast and take strength from her memory."
"I will tell you a secret. I cannot think of one day after first meeting the Conqueror of Greece that I didn't feel my fear, if only for a moment. I persevered through the worst of times because I thought of her and held the hope and later knew the fact that she would protect me. Even when our relationship was most difficult, even when she sent me away and I lived in the east, that feeling didn't go away."
"I've lost her to Hades. May he escort her to Elysia."
"Do you have orders for me, Your Majesty."
Gabrielle struggled to compose herself. "Tomorrow we ride to Amphipolis. And then we will return to Corinth. Stephen, give me a moment and then send Jared to me."
"By your command." Stephen saluted Gabrielle, a gesture he had never offered her before. He stood up and returned to the circle of men.
Gabrielle rode ahead of the Queen's Guard through Amphipolis. Jared and Trevor followed in line, behind them Stephen and Samuel. The third army was stationed a discrete distance away.
Cyrene stepped onto the inn porch. That Xena was not with the group was not an immediate cause for concern. Gabrielle was known to travel independently. What was unusual was the stoic mien of the Guardsmen. They were always more relaxed in Gabrielle's lone company.
Gabrielle dismounted. Trevor rode forward and reached out for Geld's reins. Gabrielle placed them in his hands. He could not measure Gabrielle. Her face was a mask, devoid of emotion.
Cyrene's eyes fixed upon her daughter's partner. She felt a rising dread.
Gabrielle approached, pausing at the foot of the inn steps. "Cyrene."
Gabrielle's warmth was absent. Cyrene sought and found Jared. His jaw was clenched tight, his posture unnaturally erect. He seemed aged since Solstice. Cyrene understood. "How?" she asked.
"An assassin’s arrow," Gabrielle explained.
"Where is she?" Cyrene's voice trailed to a whisper.
"We believe her body was taken to claim a bounty."
What hope Cyrene harbored rose furiously to the surface. "You didn't see her die?"
"Stephen was with her." Gabrielle denied her grief, unable to afford losing her composure. "The arrow was near her heart. When we returned to where he left her she was gone."
Cyrene was determined. "She could be alive."
Gabrielle was equally determined to squelch Cyrene's fruitless optimism. "We searched the province. There have been no demands for ransom."
"I know my daughter."
Gabrielle took the first step of the porch. "Cyrene, I loved Xena more than my own life. I swear to you, as Stephen described it, no one could have survived her wound."
Cyrene retreated. "Get out! And, take your good-for-nothing general and soldiers."
Gabrielle begged, "Cyrene, please."
"No! Don't come back unless you bring my daughter to me." Cyrene turned her back and reentered the inn.
Gabrielle watched helplessly. She took a deep breath to steady her quaking emotions before facing her escort. Resolved to lead as Xena taught her, she retrieved Geld's reins, mounted and led the contingent out of the village proper.
Summoned by the Queen, Targon followed Samuel's instructions and entered the Royal chamber unannounced. The Queen sat in her chair near the dormant fire. He was struck by the juxtaposition of the empty chair directly across from her, testament of the Conqueror's absence. He found it difficult to accept that his mistress of many years had been killed. As much as he respected the Conqueror, he never expected to mourn the loss of her so deeply. The knowledge of this put him to shame. He was ashamed that he recognized her greatness only after she crossed to the other side.
In an attempt to cleanse the heaviness within his chest, Targon took a breath and released it purposely. He approached the withdrawn Queen. "Your Majesty, how may I be of service?"
Gabrielle stood and turned to the administrator. "Targon, there has been something I have long wanted to ask you. I have withheld my question because I didn't want to place you in a position of having to choose between me and the Conqueror."
Targon stood mute, unable to anticipate the Queen's query.
Gabrielle held the back of her chair, seeking to steady herself. What strength of conviction she felt was quickly escaping her. "I suspect that you were commissioned to seek out information regarding my sister Lila's fate."
A wave of darkness touched Targon's heart. "Yes, Your Majesty."
"Was there a written record of Draco's assault on Poteidaia?"
"Yes, I personally delivered the scroll to the Conqueror."
"What became of it?"
"I do not know. The Conqueror never returned it to me. I doubt she would have placed it in the palace archives herself."
Gabrielle was determined to learn what she could. "Did she ever speak of it?"
Troubled by the Queen's questions Targon tried to close their conversation. "Your Majesty, I am pledged never to discuss the scroll."
"It's all right, Targon." Gabrielle tried to assuage the administrator's moral tumult. "The Conqueror told me the truth. I know Lila died after being raped by Draco's men."
"Your Majesty, I'm sorry." Targon wondered how much more grief the young Queen could bear.
Gabrielle restated her question. "Did Xena ever speak of the scroll?"
"No. As I said, I was sworn to secrecy. The Conqueror wanted to save you from the truth."
"Did you read the scroll?"
"Yes." Targon hated to confess.
"Tell me what you remember."
"Please," the administrator pleaded, "what good will it do?"
Gabrielle decided to be more specific. "Targon, where did my sister die?"
The administrator paused, gathering his composure. He had the knowledge to answer the question. "On the outskirts of Poteidaia. A small auxiliary force camped near an open field bordered by a grove of olive trees on one side and a river across the way."
"I know the place." Gabrielle saw it clearly in her mind's eye.
"It was there that the young women were taken."
"How long before she died?"
Targon searched his memory. "The report speculated no more than five days. The auxiliary left Poteidaia soon after Draco's main camp had pulled up stakes."
Though her purpose and method were not severe, Gabrielle exercised all the lessons Xena taught her about interrogations. "There was no one left to bury her or the others?"
"No. Like your parents, those who were not enslaved were killed."
"How then can anyone be sure that she was among the dead?"
Targon's responses now came without forethought, his moral doubt dormant. "A merchant who knew your village well was the first to come to it after Draco had left. It was he who notified authorities at the next village of what he had seen. He said there were too many dead for him to care for. He wrote down the names of those he recognized. He knew your family. It was said that his grief drove him half-mad. By the time the neighboring villages came to help, there was little that they could do. Your parents died in their homestead. Their bodies had not been touched. Fear of disease caused the people to light two great pyres, one in the village and one in the field."
"They burned what the scavengers left of the dead." Gabrielle continued her haunting speculation. "It must have been an ugly sight."
Targon's heart broke at the brutality painted by the young woman. He lost all sense of formality. "Gabrielle, why torture yourself?"
"You forget, I have seen war. I know what happens to the fallen left exposed to the elements. I don't need to use my imagination."
The administrator tried to console. "It is difficult when the fallen is someone you love."
"Yes, it is." Gabrielle was passionless. "And now I must live with the fact that I could not give Xena her wish to be buried beside her brother. I don't know what her assassins did with her body. No one will be able to convince me that she was treated any better than my sister."
Targon grieved silently.
Gabrielle turned to Xena's empty chair. "Targon, I have a request. When I die, I wish to be placed in Xena's family crypt in Amphipolis. I won't be with her, but I will be close to those she loved."
Gabrielle did not receive a response. She pursued Targon's oath. "Promise me."
Targon found voice sufficient to protest. "You are young."
"Royals tend to die young," Gabrielle observed.
Beaten, the administrator swore. "I promise."
"Thank you." Gabrielle offered her sincere gratitude. "Please, leave me now."
Targon bowed respectfully. "Good night, Your Majesty."
Gabrielle waited until the administrator left the suite. She looked around her. The space was barren of Xena's presence. The once ever-present pulsating energy of the Sovereign had subsided to nothing. Gabrielle desperately needed a sense of her partner. Contrary to Stephen's contention, though she accepted her place on the throne, Gabrielle had not yet begun to mourn Xena. Gabrielle's thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door.
Trevor stepped in. "Will you see me?"
Gabrielle feigned an unfelt interest. "Of course. What is it, Trevor?"
The Guardsman closed the door behind him and walked to the fireplace where Gabrielle waited. "I have a message for you." His hand went to his leather pouch. He took out from safekeeping the parchment bearing the Conqueror's seal. "I need to explain."
Trevor attempted to modulate his voice, maintaining both a soldier's professionalism and a friend's compassion. "The Conqueror called me to a private conference the morning after the slavery decree was announced in Court. She was concerned for your safety." Trevor extended his hand, offering Gabrielle the parchment. "She gave me this message to deliver to you if the day came when she was not present to be your champion."
Gabrielle reached out, accepting the message. Her gaze dropped to her hands as she ran her fingertips over the Conqueror's seal. She spoke without looking up. "Thank you."
Trevor observed a pall of pain fall upon Gabrielle. "If there is anything I can do?"
Gabrielle whispered. "I'd like to be alone."
"I will tell Sam that you are not to be disturbed." Trevor waited for a heartbeat. Gabrielle was no longer aware of him. He turned away unhappily.
Gabrielle heard the door close. She broke the seal. The message was comprised of two small pieces of parchment.
This message should have been delivered to you by Trevor's hand. If you consent, Trevor will act, in my absence, as your champion. Though you are capable, he is more so. If you prefer a different champion, call to him to honor you by pledging his sword. The decision is yours as Queen.
If there is no reason to expect my return, continue reading.
Gabrielle found a reason to smile. In spite of what the message conveyed, Xena's dry, direct words were very much in concert with her no-nonsense view of the world. One must do with what one is given, accepting and moving on. Gabrielle continued to the second parchment.
Gabrielle of Poteidaia,
You have been my bard, my healer, my Queen and most of all my love. The thought that I may one day not be with you is both inconceivable and a harsh reminder of how little the Fates can be anticipated. I never expected that they would give me someone to help me touch again the place in my heart that knows both how to give and to receive love - that is the greatest gift, among many, you are to me.
Though there have been difficult moments between us, I would not change any of them. As time passed I realized that in you I also have a friend, someone who sees me beyond love's spell and still finds merit in me. I hope, as a friend, I have never disappointed you.
I don't know what manner of person or thing took me from life. Be assured I did not welcome the loss. Hades has reason to send me to either Elysia or Tartarus. Wherever I am sent, know that I take Megara with me.
We once spoke of life without the other. My words to you stand. I do not want you to be alone. You are greatly loved by many. Open your heart anew and accept happiness. If you allow me one final indulgence, as your Lord, I command it.
I shall always love you,
Gabrielle reread Xena's farewell for a second time. A lone tear fell down her cheek. She walked out the back entrance and up the stairs to the turret. She stood waiting for the sun to set and darkness to rule the sky, revealing the glistening stars that had kept Xena company during her loneliest, as well as her most peaceful, nights.
Gabrielle imagined Xena standing at the turret's perimeter, deep in thought. She remembered how Xena would turn to her. In their first encounters at the turret, the Conqueror kept her distance. Even after they had come together Xena continued to stay in her place, apart. She would invite Gabrielle to her. She would never claim her.
There was little Xena asked of her. Other than Gabrielle's honesty, the most significant expectation was spoken only after Gabrielle consented to be Queen and to be publicly joined to the Sovereign. It was only then, in times of pride, and to Gabrielle's regret, in times of disappointment, that Xena made her uncompromising statement. Xena's unequivocal declaration resounded in Gabrielle's heart, "You are Queen." Unspoken in the heat of anger was Xena's more dear, personal statement, "You are my Queen." And yet, even when drowning in her greatest doubts, Gabrielle always felt a hint of the latter declaration when the former was spoken.
By her words Xena repeatedly offered Gabrielle the choice to either accept or to reject the responsibilities of the throne. Each time Gabrielle was confronted with an underlying decision, to claim her equality, to stand equal to her partner, to be a true partner in the face of adversity. Each time Gabrielle took up the challenge, fighting to be a Queen true to her beliefs. As a result she and Xena had their disagreements. Gabrielle marveled how, contrary to her fear that the disagreements would tear them apart, with sufficient time to heal, their disagreements inevitably knitted them closer together.
And now, after all her labors, she stood alone in the turret, she sat alone before the fireplace, she ate alone at their table, she slept alone in their bed and she ruled Greece alone. Gabrielle remembered Xena's simple observation the first time they met in the turret. "It's a beautiful night." It was as beautiful then as now. Gabrielle's defenses weakened. With Xena's farewell still in her hand, her pain broke through. Tears surfaced and she found it impossible to stay them. She had cried sparingly during the days in which she traveled from the east garrison to Amphipolis to Corinth. Her tears had been few as she purposely clamped down her sorrow. On this beautiful night her tears were not gentle, her tears were unrelenting in their sharpness. Her hand formed a fist, violently gripping the parchment message, as she wrapped her arms around herself helplessly, her pain seemed too great for any human to withstand. She leaned against the wall and slid down to the floor sobbing. On this beautiful night Gabrielle grieved her Lord.
The throbbing ache in her chest was dull; the acute pain of her wound a distant memory. Her head rested on a comfortable pillow. A warm blanket covered her. The last thing Xena remembered was sending Stephen away, an arrow firmly embedded deep in her body. That she was alive was surprising. She could not imagine Tartarus to be so gentle and were she in Elysia, even the muted pain would have been quieted.
Xena opened her eyes. She found herself in a room awash in light. The white walls enhanced the effect. This was not an earthly place, she was certain of it, adding to her confusion.
"How are you feeling?" A woman’s voice shattered the silence.
Xena turned to her side. A stylishly woman lounged on a chaise across the room from her. The woman was a beauty, with long flowing blond hair, a lithe figure and cream completion. Xena took a quick inventory of her well-being. She concluded. "I’ll live."
"You won’t without my help," the woman informed the warrior
Xena was taken aback. "I don’t know you."
"You know my brother." The woman indulged her whimsy. "Quite intimately."
Xena reconsidered her surroundings. She may very well be on Mount Olympus. If so, she was in the presence of a Goddess; her brother was thus a God. "Ares."
"Who else?" The Goddess laughed in good humor.
The Goddess smiled.
The warrior was confused. She could think of no reason for the Goddess of Love to favor her. "Why?"
"Why did I save your life?" She waved her hand to emphasize the slightness of her reason. "A wager."
Xena had trouble keeping calm, as her indignation spiked. "What kind of wager?"
Aphrodite dismissed Xena's question. "You don’t need to know the particulars. Just be happy you’re not facing Hades. My uncle hasn’t been in a good mood lately."
Xena sat up. "Am I free to go?"
"You’re not completely healed," the Goddess warned. "So lay back and take it easy."
"I have somewhere I have to be."
Aphrodite was losing her patience. "Oh, that’s right, Ares’ Chosen is the Conqueror of Greece."
"I am not Ares’ Chosen," Xena objected.
"Oh, yes you are." Aphrodite countered knowingly. "You have no say in the matter. My brother wants you. You can’t change that. What you can do is not accept his invitations and lately that is exactly what you’ve done."
Xena was still trying to make sense of events. "Is this," she indicated her surroundings, "because I’ve rejected him?"
"If it was up to him…" Aphrodite paused and thought better than to speculate. "Well, you would have to ask him. But, your condition is not just up to Ares."
"Who else cares?" Until this day Xena never encountered a God other than Ares.
"Actually, I do," Aphrodite confessed.
Again, Xena asked, "Why?"
The Goddess had no intention of explaining herself to the warrior. "I have my reasons."
Xena stood up defiantly.
"Sit down, Xena, before you hurt yourself." Aphrodite pointed to Xena’s chest.
Xena looked down. Underneath her sleep shirt, a wound new to her seeped a drop of blood. "How did I get this?"
"I couldn’t pull the arrow out without killing you, so I pushed it through."
Aphrodite's cavalier attitude left Xena at a loss. It also made her angry. "You’re a God, why not just make it disappear?"
"I had my reasons for that too."
"Are you going to share?"
"Patience, Xena. You’ve been healing slowly." Aphrodite stood up, prepared to tap Xena back into her bed, if necessary. "What are a few more candlemarks?"
Not knowing how much time had passed left Xena disconcerted. "How long have I been here?"
"A moon," Aphrodite informed her.
Xena sat down by her own accord. "A moon," she repeated.
Seeing the warrior's perplexed countenance moved the Goddess to gentle her tone. "The arrow nicked your heart. Ares had his own idea of what we should do with you. It took some time for us to strike a bargain."
Xena's defenses had been greatly weakened. She was near pleading. "Will you get to the point and tell me what you want from me?"
Finding that Ares' Chosen had been appropriately humbled, Aphrodite gave her instructions. "You will walk back to Corinth. Not ride Xena, walk. You will tell no one who you are. When you arrive in Corinth you will offer Gabrielle the throne."
Xena was truly baffled. "She is Queen."
Aphrodite continued to lay her plan before the warrior. "You will offer Gabrielle Greece to rule alone. You must make the offer three times. The first two times you can ask her privately. The third time you must ask her either while Court is in session or in the presence of your generals."
"But why?" Xena asked the question that the Goddess repeatedly refused to answer.
"By the time you get to Corinth, you won’t have to ask. You will know why."
Xena considered what was being asked of her. No options had been offered. She knew she could refuse. She needed to know if that was a viable alternative. "What if I refuse?"
"You will die. Your heart will bleed as a warning that you are running out of time." Aphrodite offered a compassionate alternative. "Xena, you don’t have to do this. You can simply choose to accept your death."
Xena was not done with her questions. "After I do what you want, what happens?"
"Nothing. You will be healed and you will go on with your life."
"What kind of life will I have?"
"I don’t know." Aphrodite spoke honestly. "From what I've observed of you, I think it will be the life of your choosing."
Xena put her hands together in thought. "This doesn’t make sense."
"That’s because you think the wager has only to do with you. There is more at stake here than what happens to Xena of Amphipolis."
Xena asked the obvious. "Does this have to do with Gabrielle?"
Enough had been said. Aphrodite was ready to move on to more sensual entertainment. "You know everything you need to know. Call for me when you decide."
Xena would have no delays. "There’s no decision to make. I’ll do as you ask."
"Good. Now lie back and rest."
"I’m ready to go now." The warrior balked.
"You’re ready when I say you are," Aphrodite insisted.
Xena stood up again.
"Woman!" The exasperated Goddess had reached the limit of her patience. "You’re going to bleed all over the floor."
Xena again looked down at her wound. The trickle of blood became a steady stream. She felt a growing fatigue. "How much longer?"
"A day, a fortnight, a moon… It’s hard to tell."
Stymied, Xena laid her heart naked before the Goddess. "Aphrodite, how is Gabrielle?"
Aphrodite was sympathetic. "You know her better than anyone. How do you think she is?"
Xena sat by the far corner of the village inn. In front of her rested a half eaten stew, a few remaining slices of a small loaf of bread and a freshly topped mug of mead. She listened intently to a conversation between four men sitting at a nearby table. One, Zeki, a merchant just returned from Corinth, was sharing news. A local man, Tertius showed a particular interest in current affairs, peppering Zeki with questions. The third man Damian had little good to say about anyone or anything and the fourth had been so quiet, Xena had not caught his name.
Tertius changed the subject from the market prices. "What do they say of the Queen?"
Zeki took another swallow of his drink, his throat dry from all his talking. "I hear different things."
"What might they be?"
"I heard that the nobles test her and that she stands up against them. The Royal Guard and army are with her."
Tertius observed. "She needs them now that she doesn't have the Conqueror."
Damian had his own question. "What of the rumor that she had the Conqueror killed?"
Zeki had heard the same rumor. "I don't believe it. It is said that two Persians were killed along with the Conqueror."
Damian rationalized. "If they were Persians Greece would be at war. No, I say look to the Queen. She's taken a lover, hasn't she?"
Tertius was surprised by Damian's accusation. "Where did you hear that?"
"It's common knowledge," Damian stated.
"Not to me, Tertius retorted.
"Nor I," Zeki added, not wanting to sully the Queen's reputation.
Damian defended his accusation. "Kiral spoke of it."
"Kiral!" Tertius spat the name. "He has an axe to grind. The Queen's against slavery and he's got connections with the trade."
"How do you think the Queen keeps the Guard and army?" Damian continued. "An invitation to her bed is one way of winning their loyalty."
"So she would bed every man?" Zeki spoke this as a challenge.
"The officers," Damian responded.
"That was the Conqueror's way, not the Queen's," Zeki observed.
Damian was unrelenting. "How do you think the Queen became Queen?"
Tertius had enough of the exchange. "Zeki, what else have you heard?"
"Not much. The northern and eastern provinces are on alert. Who knows what Rome and Persia will do?"
Damian had a word on this as well. "It is not as if Greece has suddenly become weak. We will defend our borders."
Zeki was thoughtful. "Whatever folk say about the Conqueror, you've got to give her credit. She did keep our enemies at bay."
Tertius freely praised. "She did more than that. I'd be the first to admit that I doubted her. Who would believe that Ares' Chosen would rule so well? She proved me wrong. I will miss her."
"Give the Queen a chance," Zeki petitioned.
"I don't doubt she is true," Tertius confessed, "but, tell me, Zeki, is she strong enough?"
"I don't know. She was taught to rule by the Conqueror herself. That has to count for something."
The conversation continued. Xena had heard similar talk. There were two consistent camps, those determined to cast Gabrielle in the light of opportunistic treachery and the other, more common, held Gabrielle in sincere regard and had concerns for both her and Greece.
Xena trekked the back roads and journeyed through fields and forest in her effort to remain anonymous. Nearing the village of Larissa she spied an elder woman struggling with the pulley of her well.
Xena called to her. "Can I help you?"
The woman halted her effort. She assessed Xena thoroughly. "Ya might be able to. The dang thing is older than I am."
"That must be old," Xena quipped as she approached.
"Watch your tongue, missy."
Xena smiled broadly. She liked the elder's spirit. "Let me take a look."
The elder watched as Xena examined the pulley from all angles, garnering an understanding of its mechanism. The wooden gears were out of alignment. It would take a strong force, rightly positioned, to shift them back into place. The task was simple enough.
"There. Let's give it a try." Xena rolled the pulley easily, dropping the bucket on its hook and rope into the well water. She then rolled the pulley in the opposite direction retrieving the bucket.
With the bucket in hand, Xena motioned toward a small cot. "That your place?"
"Yes. Not much, but I don't need much."
"I'll carry this for you."
The elder was grateful. "Thank you." She led the way.
"I could have sworn you were going to argue with me," Xena remarked.
"I'm proud, not stupid," the elder retorted. Her tone shifted, carrying her curiosity. "You're not from around these parts."
"No ma'am, I'm passing through."
Xena quieted. "Corinth."
The elder observed. "You don't seem so sure."
"I've been gone some time. People change."
The elder did not hesitate to guess. "So, is home a place or a person?"
Xena admitted. "It's become a person."
"Why did you leave?" The old woman was genuinely interested.
"It wasn't my choice," Xena explained, "I got hurt."
"You seem to have healed well enough."
They reached the door. The woman paused. "Have you eaten?"
The warrior attempted to deflect the veiled invitation. "I've plenty in my pack."
"That is not what I asked you, young lady," the elder scolded. "When was your last meal?"
Reluctantly, Xena admitted. "This morning."
"So, a warm vegetable stew and fresh bread would do you good, wouldn't it?"
"Yes, it would, but I still have a long walk ahead of me."
"And you will walk farther and faster if you don't starve yourself. Come in and share a meal with a grateful old woman. My name is Orisa and I give fair hospitality."
Xena did not have the heart to deny the request. "Are you a good cook?" she asked playfully.
"Getting picky, are you? I won't poison you. That's all I'll promise." The elder saw a shadow of doubt cast over Xena. "I won't hurt you." She whispered her oath, finding it odd that someone who could easily do her harm would think an old woman a danger.
Xena raised the bucket. "Lead on."
Orisa kept a clean, though modest household. The home served her well. A few mementoes scattered about hinted of a life that once included a husband and children. Xena did not pry.
Orisa served Xena a second helping of stew.
Xena was grateful for the flavorful meal. "Thank you."
"I can offer you a bed for the night."
Xena tried to graciously decline. "I can't accept your hospitality."
"And why not?" the elder queried.
Xena remained silent. Her thoughts turned to Gabrielle.
Orisa argued. "I give no charity. There are plenty of chores in need of doing. You can earn your keep if that is what your pride calls for."
Xena was jerked away from her reverie. "You misunderstand me."
Xena looked out the window. There was still plenty of light for her to continue her travel. She scanned the place and noted that it was in some disrepair. She reasoned that the elder could use an able hand. She quickly identified a number of tasks she would be able to accomplish in the remainder of the day. "What needs to be done?"
"You can start by mending the fence."
"Do you have a name?" Orisa finally asked.
Xena's eyes were sad. "I don't want to lie to you. I also can't give you my name."
"Secrets are a burden, aren't they, child?"
"I'll get to work." Xena stood and left the cot. On her plate she left the second helping of her meal untouched.
Night had fallen. Xena sat on the floor beside the fireplace mending a leather harness. Orisa sat across from her in a comfortable chair.
The elder observed. "You are good with a needle. You are a carpenter and you fix well pulleys. I’d say you have many skills."
Xena smiled. "So I'm told."
"Who taught you?"
"I've known my share of tradesmen and artisans. I've never grown tired of learning."
"That is a good way to be. Life is always teaching new lessons."
Xena put down her work, her keen eye upon the elder. "How do you know what the lesson is suppose to be?"
"It's not always clear, is it?" Orisa recalled the countless times when life presented her with the unthinkable, and still she survived.
"No," Xena concurred.
Orisa thought for an answer that might serve the younger woman. "If you can place your own needs aside, you have a better chance of knowing what is right."
Xena's eyes dropped to her hands. "Even if you have to give up…" She fell silent; unable to accept what she suspected was her destiny.
"…The only happiness you have ever known."
Orisa saw Xena's sorrow rise to the surface. "I'm sorry."
Xena looked up to the elder. "I just want it over with. I want to know one way or another."
"Your answer is waiting for you in Corinth?"
"Come morning you will be on your way." Feeling selfish, Orisa apologized. "I shouldn't have kept you. I am a foolish, old woman."
"No, Orisa." Xena offered a balm to the elder's remorse. "I needed the rest, as well as the conversation. You've done me favor."
Orisa leaned forward and touched Xena's cheek. "You are a good girl."
Life seemed so simple under Orisa's roof. Xena envied her.
Staff in hand, Xena dressed in a simple tunic and black cloak, the hood of which she wore over her head, walked past the gates of Corinth through the city streets toward the palace. Finally having arrived in the city, Xena pondered what Aphrodite had counseled - by this time she would know why she had walked the distance from Mount Olympus.
In her travels, presenting herself as a woman on a journey, opportunities rose to provide assistance to others through simple acts. In the course of her journey she was the beneficiary of generous hospitality from those who had little for themselves. As great as her desire to return to Gabrielle, greater was the immediate need to stay in a place and help an unfortunate. She felt Gabrielle would approve.
Though as Sovereign, Xena had made a positive impact upon the people of Greece - a fact spoken on many occasions by those unaware that they were in the Conqueror's presence - the sense of satisfaction of her broad strokes of governance could not compete with the small cares she relieved with her knowledge and her hands.
The time apart caused Gabrielle to be Queen as she had never been before. From all accounts, Gabrielle was managing well. News of Court was that volatile exchanges were the norm between Gabrielle and the nobles.
Xena tried not to dwell on the rumor of the Queen's trysts. Even though her presumed death was a recent event, Gabrielle was not held to a specific rule. She was free to decide if and how to mourn. Gabrielle's was a tender heart and her need for comfort could have taken her into another's arms. Xena would not fault Gabrielle when in fact she encouraged the younger woman to live on without her, taking a new love.
There was Aphrodite's final instruction - to offer the throne to Gabrielle three times. The wager between Goddess and God was difficult to decipher. Ares, given his own arrogance as a touchstone, surely believed that she would never surrender the throne. He did not understand how welcomed the prospect was to her, contingent on a capable successor. He did not understand that though Xena would never supplicate herself to him, she would bow her head to someone as excellent as Gabrielle. Aphrodite said she had her reasons for the wager. She may have taken the wager simply to gall her brother. No matter the motives Xena was left to wonder who was being tested, she or Gabrielle?
A Guardsman, posted at the palace gates, called out to her. "Hey there. Identify yourself."
Xena paused. She walked directly to the man. Raising a hand to her hood, she pushed back enough of the cloth to reveal her face. She spoke softly. "Xanthus, have you forgotten me so soon?"
The Guardsman was stunned to see her. "My Liege, we thought you dead."
"There was good reason to believe so." She put a reassuring hand on his arm. "Tell me, what goes on in the palace?"
"At this time," he looked up to the sky, "Queen Gabrielle is in Court. I shall send advance word."
"No," Xena gently objected, "I will announce myself. Keep my arrival to yourself."
Xanthus' obedience to the Sovereign had not been compromised by her absence. "As you wish, My Liege."
Xena continued to the courtyard, maintaining her anonymity. She entered the palace taking a rarely used route. At the entrance of the Court chamber she revealed herself to the standing Guardsman, silently placing a finger to her lips. He nodded in comprehension.
Lord Thanos was speaking. "How many times will we argue the point?"
Gabrielle stood in front of the throne, looking down at the noble from her elevated position. "You Sir, keep to the argument. I am prepared to move on."
"I have had enough of this!" Thanos took a menacing step forward. "I challenge your right to rule Greece."
From the opposite direction, Trevor matched Thanos in response. Gabrielle placed her palm up to stay his approach. "There will be no challenge."
Thanos was flabbergasted. "You will not defend the throne? Have you no honor?"
Gabrielle spoke with conviction. "I am not the Sovereign. I could never have built Greece as she had. Nor can I defend Greece by my lone sword. My honor is not dependent on defending every challenge foolishly placed before me. I’ve done it once. I won’t do it again.
"Lord Thanos, I am not Greece as the Sovereign was Greece. I am, however, your Queen. Sir, I do not stand alone. I stand with the Royal Guard, the armies, and the people of Greece. I will not let one," Gabrielle paused to scan the room, "or more of you destroy Greece with your petty jealousies and greed."
The Lord blistered. "Do you really think you can withstand our forces?"
"I see no one standing beside you, but even if there were, my answer would still be yes." Gabrielle turned her gaze to the Royal Guardsmen positioned throughout the chamber. "If there is a Guardsman present who in clear conscious cannot follow me as his Queen, let him now throw down his sword. There will be no retribution for his honesty."
The room quieted. Scrutiny lay upon each Guardsman. None moved a muscle. Xena was proud.
"You will regret your decision." Thanos spat his disgust for the unflinching Guard.
"Lord Thanos, I know my allies. Right now they wonder why I allow a man like you, who speaks treason, live. Court has always been a place where the Sovereign sought truth. Truth is come by grudgingly in this place. I will honor her legacy and continue the practice of not silencing Court's open forum. But, I warn you, if you raise your voice against the realm outside of these walls with the intent to incite a riot, I will bring you back to this very spot and justice will be served."
The noble reddened. "You dare threaten me?"
"I give you an honest assessment of your future as I see it." Gabrielle was clear on where the responsibility lay. "Whether it comes to be is for you, not I, to decide."
"I say again, you are not my Queen." Stymied, Thanos exercised a different tactic. "The Sovereign is surely turning over in her grave at the ruin to which you lead Greece."
Thanos' reference to Xena struck a chord, which only increased Gabrielle's determination. "And I say to you once again, Greece will defend its borders and assist its allies. Greece will not seek expansion."
"To march on Persia is a defensive move," Thanos argued.
"To march on Persia is an invasion predicated on nothing more than speculation." The Queen's retort loudly echoed against the walls.
"You put the eastern border at risk."
"General Kasen thinks otherwise, and so do I."
"And you know the General well, don't you?" Thanos' implication was obvious to all.
Gabrielle did not take the bait. "I know that your land holdings are in the south safely ensconced away from any war that might be declared. You stand to gain much in the war trade and have little to lose."
His motives publicly contended, Thanos made a gesture to prove his sincerity. "I will send a contingent of my militia."
Gabrielle invited. "Will you and your sons ride with me?"
The noble was silenced. He had no intention of risking his life or the lives of his sons.
Lord Ayles was listening with great interest. "Lord Thanos, my lands are near the eastern borders. I have much to lose if Persia invades. I stand with our Queen."
"And Lord Thanos, my holdings are as north as yours are south," called Lord Judais. "I will not sanction a war because of a few raiders of Persian decent. There are other ways to deal with such hoodlums."
Thanos was furious. "Will no one see reason? Will not one of you defend the death of our Sovereign?"
Still hooded, Xena stepped forward through the crowd of nobles and ladies until she broke free of them to the open space before the throne. Centered in the chamber ten paces from Gabrielle, she stopped. She raised her hand and dropped her hood to rest on her shoulders. The reaction was immediate. Gabrielle near fell to her knees at the sight of her. The chamber buzzed with astonishment.
"It seems not Lord Thanos." Xena calmly scanned the room. Court quieted as Xena's gaze touched the men and women. Satisfied with her assessment she leaned on her staff. "And now the lesson has been taught. No woman or man is greater than a nation. No matter how loved or reviled, avenging one human being blindly is not the way of Greece."
Xena turned her gaze back to Gabrielle. She took a step closer to the one person that gave her reason to journey back to Corinth. "I'm told our Queen has not had the opportunity to mourn me, and that is well and good. Her tears would have been wasted. I have also been told our Queen sought and found consolation privately. That too, if true, is well and good. Life must go on."
Gabrielle stood uncertain. She knew of the rumors that cast a shadow over her reputation. She had chosen not to answer them, believing that to do so would only extend their life. Now she listened to Xena repeat a tempered version of the rumors that portrayed her as a woman without sorrow, who set aside the dead without a second thought. Coming from her Lord, though spoken without malice, the allusion to political intrigue and casual bedmates made her want to retch. Her grief had been displaced in the commotion. Her composure disintegrating, she searched within Xena’s guarded eyes for a negation of her belief in the rumors, for a hint that Xena spoke them only to discard them. Silent, Gabrielle waited for an invitation.
Having set her private life in public order Xena chose to address her own needs. "Now, if you would excuse me, I have had a long journey and could use a bath and a meal." Her gentle gaze touched Gabrielle. "I request a quiet candlemark before I am called to respond to visitors at my door."
With that said, Xena turned and walked out of the Court chamber. The crowd opened to her allowing an unimpeded exit.
Trevor spoke cautiously to Jared. "She cannot believe the lies that Gabrielle danced upon her grave."
Jared was struggling to recover from the revelation that Xena lived. "We don't know what Xena has heard or has been led to believe."
Word of the Conqueror's return reached the kitchens within the few heartbeats it took a servant to run down the stairs after the Conqueror had left Court. The head cook sat down upon hearing the news. After taking a brief moment to compose herself, she returned to her feet and began to fulfill her most pressing task, to bring her Sovereign a meal.
Makia entered the Royal suite to the familiar sight of the Conqueror standing at the balcony.
Xena recognized her loyal servant with a muted smile. "Makia, have you come to see for yourself that I have risen from the grave?"
"Your Majesty, I am happy to see you well."
"It is good to see you, too." Xena went to the cook. "What have you brought me?"
Makia lifted the tray invitingly. She waited silently as Xena made an inspection.
"Some of my favorites." Xena welcomed the small show of a homecoming. "Thank you."
Makia observed a physical changed in Xena. "You have lost weight."
Xena looked down her body. "A little. I'm better than I was."
Makia placed the tray on the dining room table and began to set the meal.
Xena waited for the cook to finish her task. There were things she needed to know. Not without some trepidation did she pursue answers to her questions. "Makia, how has our Queen been?"
The cook felt her own loneliness. "She has been distant. I have had almost as much reason to miss her as I have had to miss you."
Xena recalled a familiar image of Gabrielle and Makia together. "No time spent cutting vegetables and gossiping in the kitchen?"
"Such easy pleasures are no longer a part of palace life."
"I see." Xena took up a mug of tea. "It is unfortunate, but not unexpected that with my absence our Queen would have to spend more of her time on matters of the realm."
Makia held her tongue. She felt Gabrielle secluded herself for other reasons.
Xena continued to another point of concern. "Have you heard of my mother?"
The cook spoke sadly. "She sent the Queen away from Amphipolis."
"But, why?" Xena was surprised. Her mother's affection for Gabrielle had always been openly expressed.
"She was angry that you were not brought home to her. I believe she blamed General Jared more than our Queen, but it was Queen Gabrielle that came to her with the news and so it was she who received your mother's anger."
"I shall send word to her." Xena was thoughtful. "There was nothing our Queen could have done for me. My mother is wrong to blame her."
Makia found comfort in the Sovereign's declaration. Having heard that she did not immediately welcome Gabrielle to their suite had given the cook pause. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Xena turned to more practical considerations. "Do you know what the Queen did with my clothes?"
"They were placed in storage."
"Would you have them returned?" Xena looked down at her herself. "I could use a clean change."
Makia was happy to be of service. "I will bring a set of clothes to you immediately." She took up the meal tray and proceeded to leave.
Xena called out. "And my white robe, please."
The cook stood at the door. "Of course… Your Majesty, it is good to have you home."
Xena nodded. She sensed her reunions would not be easy. In spite of Makia's warm welcome, her unease was still with her.
Gabrielle took Xena's request for privacy to be directed specifically toward her. She dismissed Court and her Guardsmen, choosing to wait the additional mandated candlemark of separation within the emptied meeting chamber. She had held her grief close to her heart, the tear in her soul not for public display. She continued in her seclusion. She could not explain herself. She did not want to try. The one person she needed kept her at bay. Her desire to disregard Xena’s request was held in check by her own fear. Xena’s return brought forth many questions, not only about the past, but also about the future.
Gabrielle walked the palace corridors hearing only her footsteps. The palace had fallen into a nervous hush. She paused at the door to the Royal suite debating whether she should knock as a guest or enter as one who belonged in the private space. She chose to enter their rooms unannounced.
Freshly bathed, Xena was dressed in her robe, sitting near the fireplace. She stood up from her chair at the sound of Gabrielle's entrance. "Hello."
Gabrielle restrained all desire to throw herself into Xena's arms. "Xena..."
Xena took control of the conversation. "How are you, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle paused at the formality of address. "I'm well, and you?"
"All mended." She looked down at the hidden wound. "I did not notice Stephen in Court. Did he describe my wound to you?"
"He did," Gabrielle answered calmly, responding to Xena's equally calm countenance. When she chose, Xena always had the ability to set the tone of their encounters.
Xena proceeded with her practiced explanation. "It took time for me to wake up. More time for me to heal."
"Where were you?" Gabrielle studied her partner, searching for hints of constancy and of change.
"A secluded temple, out of sight. My caretakers would not let me send word to you."
The fact that there were those who knew Xena lived and who kept the knowledge from her was reprehensible to Gabrielle. "But, why not?"
"A test. My injury was taken to be the perfect opportunity for a wager."
Gabrielle's heated response came within a heartbeat. "Who would play games with our lives?"
"The Gods. When I was finally strong enough to be more trouble than I'm worth, consent was given to release me under the condition I walk back to Corinth in disguise." Xena looked down to her bare feet. "I wore out my boots."
"Xena…" Gabrielle stepped forward.
Xena stopped her with her words. "I was surprised by what I learned, walking from village to village, doing a day’s honest work here and there to earn my meals and a bed. There were people who sincerely regretted my death. They had no doubts that you would lead justly. They did wonder if you would survive the inevitable attempts to usurp your power. Some countered that you had the loyalty of the Guard and most of the generals. It was a well-known fact that a number of the senior officers had affection for you." Xena offered her sincerest compliment. "You've done well, Gabrielle. You exceeded even my high estimation of you."
Gabrielle lost all patience with Xena's civility. "Damn you! How can you stand there and calmly behave as if the past three moons have not been torture."
Gabrielle's passions threatened Xena's control. "I died to you. I don't know what my coming back means for you… for us."
Gabrielle shouted. "You are my Lord! What do you think it means?"
Xena had neither the strength nor reason to keep Gabrielle at a distance. "There is nothing I want more in the world than to hold you. It's all I've wanted since I felt the arrow cut through me."
Gabrielle needed no further invitation. She ran into Xena's arms. "I love you."
Xena stirred from a deep sleep. Gabrielle sat at her bedside. She took Xena's hand and waited until her partner opened her eyes to her. "Hi."
"Hi." Xena had nearly collapsed after Gabrielle fell into her arms. It did not take long for Gabrielle to assess Xena's weakened state and put her to bed. "How long have I been asleep?"
"About three candlemarks. Jared is impatient to see you."
"He will have to wait a little longer." Xena sat up. "You and I have a few things we need to talk about."
Gabrielle was eager to get reacquainted. "Where do you want to start?"
Xena was determined to meet Aphrodite's demands without delay, not only to appease the Goddess but also to appease her own curiosity. "The rule of Greece. It has been yours alone for these past moons. How do you feel about leading Greece?"
Gabrielle did not expect the inquiry. "I did what I had to do."
Xena held Gabrielle's hand tenderly. "Is it your destiny to wear the diadem?"
"My destiny?" Gabrielle was confused.
"I have traveled the countryside. Greece is now yours, not mine. Life should move forward, not retreat."
"Xena, what are you saying?"
Xena continued calmly. "Haven't you considered that this may be your time?"
Gabrielle grasped the essence of Xena's question. She was stunned. "Are you offering me the throne?"
Giving Gabrielle time to compose herself, Xena allowed a moment to pass before answering. "Yes."
Gabrielle sought out the mighty Conqueror. She was nowhere to be found. Gabrielle's piercing gaze caused Xena to avert her eyes. Gabrielle mined all she knew. The woman before her was the woman of Megara changed by events Gabrielle had no knowledge of. Gabrielle came to a fearful conclusion. "Xena." Gabrielle waited for Xena to heed her call. "You want to leave Corinth."
Xena refused to answer. "Gabrielle, do you want the throne, to rule Greece as you envision it should be ruled?"
By Xena's account, Gabrielle knew the Gods had interfered in their lives. She now wondered if they were still at their game. "Is this a test?"
"Not of my making," Xena answered vaguely. "Although, how you answer will surely test your resolve."
Gabrielle was determined to make her claim. "I want you. My destiny is to be with you."
To Xena's surprise she felt no relief. "Then we stay in Corinth, together."
"Gabrielle, you are the only one I would entrust Greece to."
"What sense is there to this?" Gabrielle felt she walked a maze unable to anticipate the next turn. "Xena, we ruled together before you were hurt. What has happened to change our future?"
Xena was solemn. "I touched a world I had long forgotten and it has seduced me. I will forget soon enough and all will be as it had been."
Gabrielle felt an inconsolable hurt. "Did you forget me so easily?"
"No, Gabrielle. I carry you inside me, here." Xena placed her hand over her own heart. "I offer you not only Greece. You could be free to… You do not need the Lord you once found in me. People come and go in a life. They play their role and move on having nothing more to give."
"Are you saying you have nothing to give me?"
"I am saying you owe me nothing."
Gabrielle's worst fears rose. "Do you love me?"
Xena paused. They had reached the only truth that invariably mattered to them both. "Yes."
"That is all I have ever wanted from you."
Xena knew better. "You have asked me for things that I have not given you."
"And I am still here." Gabrielle would not be turned away easily. "Your love has been mine. We do disagree but that does not mean we should part. That does not change what you are to me."
Gabrielle opened the Royal chamber door to Jared. "Come in."
Jared inquired. "How is she?"
"A little too magnanimous for her own good." Gabrielle turned to Xena who stood at the bedroom threshold. "I'll be back in a little while."
Jared's eyes followed Gabrielle's departure before seeking Xena out. It was rare for Jared to see Xena dressed so simply. Her white robe flowed gently over her body. The image was of an ordinary, though strikingly beautiful woman. He saw how fragile and vulnerable she could be, truly was. Her normal clothes shielded her, conveying an impression diametrically opposed to the woman who now dominated his thoughts, his fear of once again losing her renewed.
"Hello Jared." Xena welcomed her friend.
Jared stepped forward. "How are you?"
"Well. Gabrielle tells me Cyrene gave you a tongue-lashing. I'm sorry for it."
Jared stopped in the center of the room. It was his very need to prove Xena real that made him cautious. "I expected nothing less from her."
"It doesn't make her right."
Jared's remorse weighed heavy. "I'm sorry I failed you. The forest should have been secured."
Xena laughed gently. "From a bunch of raiders who probably didn't realize who they had in their sights? You can't stop everyone from finding a haven in the woods. I must say that they were good. Even I can't stop a bevy of arrows. Only two hands here." Xena took a tentative step forward. "You never caught the third man?"
Again, Jared felt his failure deeply. "No."
"Pitiful man has to live with the disappointment." Xena tried to lighten the mood. "He will have no bragging rights to having killed the Conqueror."
"You are all right then?" Jared remained doubtful.
"I'm fine, Jared," Xena assured.
"Stephen was certain the wound was lethal."
"It would have if the Gods hadn't intervened."
"So it is true."
"Yes." Xena was sober. "There is no honor in being made a pawn of the Gods. At least I was rewarded with an opportunity to come home."
Jared had hoped Ares' attempts to claim Xena's soul had ceased for good. "Are you not done with them?"
"The question is whether they are done with me. Being Ares' Chosen has its downside."
Jared stood uncertain. Xena could see how he struggled. She wondered if it would be so difficult for him to welcome Gabrielle back. Would he hesitate to opening his arms to her and claiming an embrace? She could not remember the last time she had held the man easily. He was dear to her. She wanted to sweep aside all formalities, all carefulness. "Jared, what is it?"
He had difficulty speaking. "Xena, it's good to have you back."
Xena stepped up, quickly closing the distance between them. She took Jared in an embrace. He held her close. Having her in his arms broke his composure. Jared cried.
Xena closed her eyes surrendering herself to the older man, taking comfort in his viselike grip. She wished he would never let her go, that she would always know the sense of safety and care she felt in his fatherly arms. She felt how his breath deepened in response to his emotions, and how the release of his breath betrayed his tears. "Old man, don't you cry on me."
He laughed. "Comes with age."
Still holding Jared tightly, Xena quipped, "I won't blame you then." She released him. "Oh well, this is good practice. I expect a bucket full of tears when I see Mother."
The General wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "Will you send word to her?"
"I already have with a promise to send myself as soon as I take measure of Corinth. The Lords have been restless."
"They did not welcome how decidedly Gabrielle claimed succession."
"They better get use to her." Xena shared Aphrodite's forced lesson. "The countryside is buzzing favorably. Greece approves of its young Queen."
Jared championed his ward. "She has stayed true to your course."
Xena had a different insight. Gabrielle had not chosen to simply follow in her footsteps. "Gabrielle has accelerated change. I applaud her. Making a move before anyone can catch their breath is not a bad strategy, especially when she is strengthening the rights of the people and checking the abuses of the gentry."
"Will you reverse her?"
"Not I." Xena allayed Jared's obvious concern. "My return will be inconsequential to Gabrielle's policies."
The General approved. "She will be pleased to hear it."
"Jared," Xena slapped him in the arm, "it goes without saying."
Stephen entered the Royal suite having been summoned by the Conqueror. He dreaded this first interview as much as he longed to see Xena alive and well. Xena sat at her desk reading. Stephen approached in a steady step. "My Liege."
Xena looked up to the man before her. She smiled. She stood, taking into her hands a folded cloth that rested near the scroll. She walked around her desk. "This cloak belongs to you." Xena offered Stephen the garment. "Thank you for the use of it."
Stephen took the cloak. "You're welcome."
Xena gently embraced the Captain, maintaining her hold until she felt him relax in her arms. She kissed him on the cheek before stepping back. She spoke tenderly. "Sometimes secrets slip from the tongue when death is imminent."
Xena continued, keeping her hands on his arms. "I am grateful for your love, though I have not the same love to offer you in return."
Stephen's dread rose. "Will you send me away?"
Xena did not want to lose him. He was important to her and he proved his importance to Gabrielle. "Only upon your request."
Stephen staked his place. "I belong here in Corinth."
"Very well, Captain." Xena released Stephen and stepped back to her desk chair. "Tell me. What proof was there that the Persians ordered my assassination?"
"None. The two men we killed were dressed like any other bandits. One had a knife with a Persian design carved on its handle."
"They may have just been trying to rob us?" Xena speculated.
"I think so. They didn’t realize who you were."
"One thing I have learned is that my identity is not universally known. I walked from Mount Olympus to Corinth. True, I purposely stayed away from major centers. Still, not one person knew who I was. Would you be surprised if I told you that in my anonymity I only felt a sense of relief?"
"No." Stephen was pleased to so quickly return to their more intimate discussions. "I’ve been with you in Megara. You are different when you don’t have to be the Sovereign of Greece."
"But, I am the Sovereign," Xena mused. "Like the past few moons, Megara will always be a temporary respite. My world is one of discriminating arrows shot by hatred and greed. Unfortunately for me, many hit their mark, and I am it."
Amphipolis was visible as the Conqueror and her contingent rode over the rolling hillside. Xena reined Argo to a pause. Gabrielle held Geld in place. Xena surveyed the land. To the west stood the forest where Gabrielle had found her wounded and Cyrene had driven a wagon to retrieve her.
In her life Xena had suffered many more wounds than she wished to remember. The last two neared lethal. Unlike her years in conquest, Cyrene had not been spared the knowledge of Xena's injuries. Argo, sensing her mistress' unease, pranced impatiently.
Xena turned to her partner. "Gabrielle, I'm going to go ahead."
"We'll be along." Gabrielle understood the desire for a private reunion.
Xena rode to the inn, dismounted, securing Argo's reins on the hitching post. The inn was empty. It was that quiet time between meal services. Xena took long strides to the kitchen. Her bearing changed as she passed through the door. She was no longer the Conqueror. She was the innkeeper's daughter
Xena's was subdued as she spoke. "Mother."
Cyrene sat at the kitchen table peeling potatoes. "Xena!" She stood and hurried to embrace her child.
Mother and daughter held to one another. Xena had longed for her mother's comfort. How much so she only realized at the sight of her.
Cyrene broke gently away. She examined her daughter closely. "You're well?"
"All healed." Xena pronounced herself fit.
Cyrene's tears fell unabated, her relief unbounded.
Xena felt her own tears. "Mother, please don't cry."
"Gabrielle told me you were dead. I didn't want to believe her and then I got your message. I didn't know what to think."
Xena led her mother to the table where they could both sit. "Gabrielle had every reason to believe what she did."
"How long are you staying?"
"I'm in no rush to leave."
Cyrene looked beyond Xena to the kitchen door. "Did you come alone?"
"There are six of us. Gabrielle and the others will be here soon. I've got two companies of men in the region."
Cyrene's brow tensed. "Do you expect trouble?"
Xena squeezed her mother's hand. "I'm just being careful."
"Good. It's about time. Now, sit down and tell me everything."
Xena lay sleeping in bed. Gabrielle, restless, stood by the open window looking up to the semi-cloud covered night sky. Being in Amphipolis, a village only somewhat larger than her own home of Poteidaia, brought a painful reminder of all she had lost.
Gabrielle enjoyed watching Xena with Cyrene. Cyrene had the ability to reach the vulnerable child within the warrior. Though Xena physically towered over her mother, in Cyrene's embrace Xena seemed far smaller.
Gabrielle would never know her mother's embrace again. She would never enjoy the intimate adolescent banter with her sister. She even found herself missing her father's stern presence at the head of the dinner table. Her current life had come with a price. Try as she might, she could never forget the road that brought her to Corinth.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of a skirmish outside their door.
Xena awoke with a start. "What in Tartarus?"
A man cried out.
"That's Sam!" Gabrielle shouted as she reached for her short sword.
Xena warned. "Gabrielle! Wait!"
Gabrielle stepped to the side of the door and opened it, keeping a low defensive posture. She saw Samuel, with a gash across his thigh, fighting off a man. Gabrielle hit Samuel's assailant with the flat of her blade. He fell to the floor. Gabrielle stomped on the man's wrist, forcing him to break his sword grip. Shifting her own sword into both her hands, she prepared for a downward thrust into the man's chest.
Samuel shouted. "Don't do it!"
Gabrielle paused and looked at her guard.
Samuel pleaded his case. "He's a drunken fool. He doesn't deserve to die."
Gabrielle turned her attention back to Samuel's assailant. The man was terrified for his life.
Gabrielle demanded. "What complaint do you have with the throne of Greece?"
The man supplicated himself. "None, Your Majesty. I wagered my friends that I could take your Guardsman."
"It's my fault. I didn't take him seriously and he took me by surprise."
Gabrielle relaxed her stance a degree. "What is your name?"
"Hear me Gyward. The Guardsmen are my sworn brothers. Anyone who challenges one of my brothers, challenges me. My brothers have killed men for hurting me less than how you have hurt Samuel. I would have killed you if Samuel didn't plead for your life. The Fates have been kinder to you than you deserve. Now get out of my sight."
"Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you. Thank you." The drunk raised himself up and ran down the hall.
Gabrielle placed her sword upon the floor and went to Samuel. In response to the commotion, Trevor ran up the stairs into the corridor. He caught Gyward by the throat.
Xena called out. "Let him go."
Gabrielle examined Samuel's wound. "Sam, let me take a look."
Samuel had little concern for his well-being. "Are you and the Conqueror all right?"
"We're fine, Sam. The cut is not too deep. I'll have to clean it before stitching you up."
Samuel took notice. "Not a good place for a scar. The ladies won't see it."
Gabrielle smiled at the old joke she shared with the Guardsmen who came to her for stitches. "You are not one of my ugly brothers needing to impress. Once you get a lady to see it, you'll have all the more reason to brag."
Samuel chuckled and jerked in pain. "Little sis, not fair to make me laugh."
"Then I shall be all seriousness with you."
"That would hurt more. I'd rather you be yourself."
Gabrielle looked up to Trevor. "Would you ask Cyrene if there is a room for Sam? I don't want him sleeping in the stables tonight."
Trevor quipped to Samuel. "To take a wound just so you can sleep in a bed is extreme, even for you Sam."
Gabrielle continued her instructions. "I'll need warm water and our healer's kit."
"I'll get right to it." Trevor went to make the necessary arrangements.
Xena stood at the threshold of their room. She had been a fascinated spectator as the confrontation unfolded.
The following morning Gabrielle stepped outside onto the inn's porch to where Cyrene stood. Together they watched Xena ride away.
Gabrielle had not been informed of Xena's plans. "Cyrene, where is Xena going?"
"To her brother's crypt."
Gabrielle dwelled on the fact that Xena had never taken her to where Lyceus was laid to rest.
Cyrene turned to her. "Gabrielle, does Xena still have her dreams?"
"They come and go."
The elder placed a hand on Gabrielle's arm. "I'm sorry I treated you badly when you were last here."
"You were right to believe Xena was alive."
Cyrene felt a need to justify her harsh behavior. "Mothers need someone to blame when they lose a child."
Gabrielle avowed. "Xena is my responsibility. I live for her." There was someone who needed to make amends with Cyrene more than she did. "Jared feels the same way."
"I owe him an apology."
"A kind word from you would mean a great deal to him."
Cyrene agreed that her fellow villager deserved peace. "Where is he?"
"The stables, along with the rest of the Guard," Gabrielle explained. "We are traveling under the Conqueror's protocol. They won't come into the inn without an invitation."
"So that explains the difference." Cyrene wanted to learn more. "Who decides whether you travel under the Conqueror's or the Queen's protocol?"
"It's decided by the reason we travel. This visit was Xena's decision."
"And when you both agree to travel together?"
Gabrielle smiled. "That usually means Megara. Megara is always under the Queen's protocol. Xena wouldn't have it any other way."
"Does she dream in Megara?" Cyrene was pensive.
Gabrielle was happy to report. "No, she sleeps soundly."
"So Megara is her Elysia." Cyrene stepped forward resting her hands on the porch rails. "Gabrielle, you do know she never expects to see the real Elysia."
"I know that is what she believes." Gabrielle placed her arm around Cyrene. "I don't know that it's true."
Xena entered her family's crypt. At center lay Lyceus' sarcophagus. She went to it, resting her hands lovingly upon it. The injury of losing her brother was deep and far from healed. A sudden surge of pain caused Xena's knees to buckle. She cried out feeling the sharp cut of her arrow wound pierce her chest. Her fists came together in the space between her breasts as her body folded into itself. A few tears stained her face as she concentrated, focusing all her energies on regaining control of her ragged breath. With the passing of time, her pain eased and her breathing calmed.
Aphrodite's message was clear. It was time for her to repeat her offer to Gabrielle. Xena spoke aloud. "Today Aphrodite. You have my word."
Xena got to her feet, leaning on Lyceus' sarcophagus for support. "Little brother, I wish I knew what game the Gods are playing. I didn't think they could hurt me more than taking you from me. Now they and the Fates mean to separate me from Gabrielle. Have I been so wrong for her? Or is it that I won Greece for Gabrielle and it is now her time." Xena smiled appreciatively. "Last night there was such fury in her. She would have done whatever she needed to do to protect Sam… and me. She didn't lose control. As much as she meant her threat, she didn't lose touch with her compassion. She's become the Queen I hoped her to be."
Xena heard an approach. She waited comfortably sensing Gabrielle's presence. Gabrielle reached the final step to the lower chamber entrance and turned into the room. Xena's gentle gaze welcomed her.
Gabrielle advanced closer. "Hi. Cyrene told me you would be here. I hope you don't mind."
"It's all right. I've said my hellos."
Gabrielle nodded to the sarcophagus. "Lyceus?"
"Yes." Xena's hand caressed the wood.
"You two shared good memories."
Xena recalled wistfully. "We did. He knew me before… before I became the Conqueror, when swordplay was just that - play. No blood was shed. We always got back up after we fell down. It was a child's world. You can never reclaim your innocence after it's taken away from you."
"No you can't." Gabrielle was introspective. "I think that's why hurting a child is unforgivable."
Xena smiled appreciatively. "You would change the world."
"If I could."
"You can, at least as far as Greece has influence."
Gabrielle suffered her limits. "You've taught me to be prudent."
"And you ruled wisely when I was thought dead." Xena gathered her courage. Broaching the subject of the throne promised her nothing but a life that might have no value in the living of it. "Gabrielle, the throne, what keeps you from it?"
Gabrielle had considered the subject closed. "Xena, I have the throne with you."
"It isn't the same," Xena maintained. "You publicly defer to me."
"And privately, I present my case and make my influence felt," Gabrielle rejoined. "That is the way it should be."
"Why?" Xena challenged.
"Because Greece was and shall always be yours first."
"You're right." Xena stepped forward trying to physically contradict what her spoken words promised - a separation. "Even if I give Greece to you, as long as I am in Corinth, all will look to me for the final word. That means that you will never be respected, as you deserve to be. The only solution is for me to leave Corinth."
Gabrielle was adamant. "I don't care what others think and I don't care about the throne."
"You do care." Xena presented her case. "I have watched you carefully. Compassion beats in your heart. Leading Greece gives you the power to stop those who rob children of their innocence and their lives. It gives you the power to address wrongs you would not otherwise be able to change."
"Xena, why are we speaking of this again?" the younger woman demanded.
"Because your loyalty to me should not blind you to the greater good."
"Loyalty?" Gabrielle gentled. "Xena, I love you."
"There is more to life than the pleasure of our bedroom." Xena swept aside all regard for their connection.
Gabrielle was shocked to be so demeaned. "I should slap you."
"I would accept it willingly. I do deserve your anger." Xena remained diligent to Aphrodite's demand. "I have not been straightforward with you. I offer you the throne behind no guise. It is mine to give. It is yours to receive."
"I refuse your offer." Gabrielle's anger was keen.
"As you wish." Xena turned away, unable to tolerate the pain in Gabrielle's eyes. She resigned herself to the damage done. She could only hope Gabrielle would forgive her for the futile exercise, they as puppets of the Gods, had been required to complete.
Gabrielle stepped to an arm's length from her maddening partner. "Now tell me one thing, Xena."
Xena breathed uneasily. "Yes?"
"Who has dominion over your heart?"
Xena turned back to Gabrielle. She confessed freely. "No one has claim to it but you."
Gabrielle believed her. Gabrielle also had begun to believe that Xena felt and rejected what she also felt but chose to embrace. "Is it so unbearable? Must you break us in two instead of allowing us to become the one we are becoming? I know you feel it as I do. I am not afraid to speak of it. Are you so afraid of the pain of loss that you would preempt a deeper sorrow by separating from me now? I know how it feels to lose my sister and my parents. The memory of losing them has never made me want to stop loving you. You died to me and I barely survived. I shall willingly live through the loss of you again if in recompense I have you back in my life for just a moment. Xena, I am no coward. I am also not so easily broken free from where I know I belong."
Gabrielle's revelation that she too felt their bond was minor reparation from the Fates for the torment they imposed. Xena spoke tenderly. "That is your final word."
"What more do you need to hear from me?" Gabrielle implored.
"I've heard enough."
"Good." Gabrielle felt strained. "Please don't ask me again." She needed a respite to balm her heart's newly endured injuries. "I'm taking Geld for a ride. I'll be back by nightfall."
Xena bit her tongue. She had said far more than Gabrielle had wanted to hear. She also knew that contrary to Gabrielle's wishes, they would speak of the throne one more time. She privately cursed the Gods. Left alone, she turned her thoughts again to the memory of Lyceus, "Ly, if it weren't for Mother, I think life would be more merciful for everyone if I simply accepted my death."
Gabrielle rode a fair distance before resting near a small brook. Geld grazed nearby grateful for the refreshing cool waters and plentiful grass.
From the first time Gabrielle had set eyes upon the Conqueror of Greece, she found herself fascinated with the woman who took it upon herself to bring a semblance of order to the realm. Soon they met. The impression made by her Lord in their first meeting formed Gabrielle's resolve to learn what she could about the formidable Sovereign. Through observation and their initial limited interaction Gabrielle came to appreciate how complex Xena truly was. In loving Xena and in winning Xena's love, Gabrielle developed a thorough, yet incomplete understanding of the warrior. She doubted she would ever know Xena so well as to not to be surprised by her. All that she knew of Xena did not prepare Gabrielle for recent events. The uncertainty of Xena's behavior coupled with Gabrielle's resurfacing memories of Lila and her parents were overwhelming the young Queen.
During the course of the evening Xena sat alone at a far table, a half-drunk mug of mead cupped in her hand. The Guardsmen, a small group of villagers and Gabrielle sat together enjoying each other's company.
Cyrene went to her daughter intent on coaxing her child to be more social. "Why are you here? Everyone is having a good time by the hearth."
Xena thought it best to forewarn her at times fervid mother of the storm that was foreordained by the Fates. "I'm giving Gabrielle some space."
"Why? What happened?" Cyrene had noticed the lack of affection exchanged by the couple since Gabrielle's return prior to evening meal.
"I offered her the throne." Xena spoke plainly.
Cyrene was confused. "What do you mean you offered her the throne?"
"To rule Greece as lone sovereign." Xena kept a dispassionate mien.
Cyrene sat down across from her perplexing progeny. "Why?"
"Mother, it's Gabrielle's time."
"She didn't accept, did she?" Cyrene was certain Gabrielle's priorities lay elsewhere.
Xena took a swallow of the mead. "No, she didn't."
Proud of the younger woman in the other corner of the room, Cyrene's passions rose. "Gabrielle loves you."
"She wouldn't be alone." Xena nodded to the group of men who surrounded the young Queen. "There are many who love her."
"You don't approve?" Xena wondered if her mother's loyalties mirrored Jared's.
Uncertain, Cyrene probed to understand this new enigma that seemed to arrest her daughter's heart. "What would you do?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe settle down to a small homestead. Try not to draw too much attention to myself."
"You're serious." The realization that her daughter would willingly give up the rule of a realm she had fought so hard to lead cast Xena in a new light.
"Yes, I am."
"And what about Gabrielle?" Cyrene would not allow Xena to execute her plan blind to the consequences. "Are you just going to set her aside?"
Xena was silent.
Cyrene voiced the unthinkable. "You don't love Gabrielle?"
Xena snapped. "I never said that!"
"There was a time you denied loving her."
Xena was firm. "I love Gabrielle."
"You are not done with this, are you?"
"No," Xena confirmed, "I will ask her again." Xena reached out across the table. Her mother held her hands in her lap beyond Xena's reach. "Mother, I wanted you to hear this from me. I don't want you to blame Gabrielle. She has done nothing wrong."
Cyrene reached out and took her daughter's hand. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Though her heart was breaking, one doubt had been eased. She had her mother's love in spite of the fact there was no understanding her actions. Xena smiled sadly. "I love you, Mother."
Xena quietly made her way to their room. Gabrielle watched the lone, tall figure from the corner of her eye. They had exchanged few words during the evening hours. Soon they would have their privacy. Gabrielle wished they were back in Megara, or at the very least in their suite in Corinth. In times when Xena withdrew from her, Gabrielle could always go to the quiet warrior and claim an embrace. Cradled in Xena's arms, the shared silence and physical contact knitted their bond anew.
The inn was bustling. It would not settle until late in the evening. And though Cyrene offered them her best room, it did not give them a sense of complete separation from the encroaching world.
Gabrielle entered their room. A burning candle provided sufficient light to see Xena sleeping soundly. Gabrielle changed into a sleep shift. The healer in her smelled the metallic scent of blood. She followed the scent to Xena's blood stained blouse hidden in their gear.
Upon entering their bed Gabrielle gently laid her head against Xena's shoulder, as was her custom. She placed her hand through Xena's sleep shirt, resting it over Xena's heart. Xena's flesh was smooth. There was no hint of a wound to explain Xena's loss of blood. Gabrielle chose not to disturb Xena’s sleep. She chose to wait until morning to learn whether Xena would volunteer an explanation. Given Xena's purposeful concealment of her garment, Gabrielle doubted such an explanation would be forthcoming.
Xena stood alone in the palace turret. It was a dark, still, clear night. The stars owned the heavens. Nearly a moon had passed since she and Gabrielle returned from Amphipolis. Xena had chosen to tempt the Fates. She had yet to broach the subject of the throne with Gabrielle. To date, Xena had not felt the hand of retribution. She wondered how long she would remain so lucky.
She recalled waking in Amphipolis the morning after visiting Lyceus' crypt. Gabrielle slept beside her. The younger woman's body lay freely over her. Xena chose to hold close to Gabrielle's warmth and love, afraid that upon waking Gabrielle would withdraw from her, retreating back into her anger.
Upon waking there was no anger. Gabrielle did not mention their discussion. She was, however, careful with Xena. As the days progressed the tension between them seemed to relax. The balance of their visit with Cyrene had been uneventful. It was on their journey back to Corinth that Xena noted a change in Gabrielle's sleep habits. She was not sleeping and when she did she slept fitfully. In the most recent handful of days Gabrielle had been haunted by terrible nightmares. Gabrielle's anguished cries haunted Xena.
Gabrielle refused to discuss the dreams. She ate sparingly, causing her to lose weight. She isolated herself more and more from the company of others. Desperate, Xena spoke to Makia revisiting Gabrielle's behavior during the moons Xena had been thought dead. Makia confessed that Gabrielle's current state was far more worrisome than how the Queen had been in her grieving of Xena. The difference being in her grief Gabrielle seemed to escape to sleep hoping Morpheus would grant her the memory of Xena. Now, Morpheus was not being so kind. Sleep was an enemy.
Xena had taken to calling Gabrielle to her in their suite, before the fireplace, after mid-day meal. Gabrielle would rest cradled in her arms. For a candlemark or two, awash in sunlight, Gabrielle seemed to find a respite from the worst of living. Xena could feel how tightly Gabrielle held her shirt, how completely Gabrielle seemed to bury herself into Xena's embrace. Those candlemarks were the closest she was able to physically be with Gabrielle, other than when they lay in bed to sleep. They had not made love since arriving in Amphipolis. Gabrielle was far too remote and fragile.
Xena looked out into the night feeling her helplessness bitterly. She did not know what to do and she feared Aphrodite would renew her demand when Gabrielle was too vulnerable to withstand the blow of Xena's offer of the throne, taking it as proof that Xena refused to stand by her in difficult times.
Seeking out Xena, Gabrielle walked up the stairs to the turret. There she silently observed her partner. Xena leaned against the turret ledge deep in thought. Gabrielle could easily guess that she was the cause of Xena's introspection. Gabrielle hated how troubled Xena had become. She knew neither she nor Xena could continue on as they were much longer.
Gabrielle called Xena's name. She waited for Xena to turn to her. "I want to go to Poteidaia."
Xena now understood. She had wondered when, if ever, Gabrielle would choose to revisit the place where her living nightmare had begun. Xena remained silent, uncertain, though she had anticipated this moment in her mind countless times.
Gabrielle took a step forward. "Xena?"
Xena spoke gently. "When do you want to leave?"
Gabrielle would take nothing for granted. "Will you come with me?"
"Of course." Xena held Gabrielle's gaze, willing her strength to the younger woman.
"We leave as soon as you are able."
Xena did not care if leaving Corinth put Greece at risk. She would not delay. "Tomorrow."
"Thank you." Gabrielle nodded, her task complete. She turned and walked away.
Xena shifted her gaze back to the night stars. Might there be mercy to be had? She could only hope.
"My Lord." Gabrielle's shattered voice broke the silence.
Xena found Gabrielle standing once again at the turret threshold.
"I'm so sorry," Gabrielle continued, a tear falling down her cheek.
Xena immediately took Gabrielle into an embrace. Her own emotions strangled her voice. She took a breath to calm herself. "Don't. I love you, Gabrielle."
"Don't let go of me, Xena."
"I won't. I promise." Xena knew the day might soon come to test her oath. She cared not. She gave Gabrielle what her partner needed from her, the Fates be damned.
Gabrielle entered her nightmare completely. She held a mounting unease. The travel, though under Queen's protocol, was ominously silent of human voices. Gabrielle refused all invitations to entertain with her stories. She withdrew further into herself, keeping everyone at a distance. She was equally silent with Xena. She slept huddled into a ball and discouraged being touched.
Where Xena quickly adjusted, though it pained her, Jared continued in his attempts to comfort. Refused, he privately expressed his frustrations. He knew that on more than one occasion Gabrielle had confided to him when she felt too vulnerable to approach Xena. This was the first time they were both left outside of Gabrielle's distress and he did not bear it well. Trevor remained steadfast. He had learned to share Gabrielle's silence without expectation of being included; he knew how to be with her offering unobtrusive support. During their travel it was Trevor Gabrielle felt most comfortable with. They traveled in twos and threes. By the fourth day, Gabrielle and Trevor led, with Xena, Jared and Stephen second in line. The balance of the Guardsmen completed the third through sixth lines.
The road eased to a sharp curve. The skeletal remains of a village pillaged long ago stood in charred color. They rode slowly. Xena moved up to ride at Gabrielle's left. Gabrielle's face was stone. Xena could not recall ever seeing such a hard countenance upon her partner. They continued through town until they reached a homestead still standing, though by appearance one would wager a strong wind could bring it down.
Gabrielle dismounted, giving Geld's reins to Trevor. She opened the gate, walking into the courtyard. Standing before her childhood home Gabrielle paused. To step inside would take her to the morning of her enslavement. She remembered how she and Lila had left together to go to market, her mother, Hecuba calling after them to return home in time for evening meal. Her mother had worn a dull gray dress brightened by a rich blue apron.
Gabrielle turned toward the path that led to the river. She walked the path until she reach the clearing where she and the other village girls had been herded to the protest of the unarmed village men. Before Draco's men arrived in the village, the girls had congregated, warmly greeting one another, ready to share gossip, some speaking of their young men, she rarely raising the name of Perdicas. The sword and the whip had silenced the gaggle of girls. Gabrielle now stepped on the soil that had drunk her blood, spilled from a blow to her face, leaving her painfully bruised. Lila had stood behind Gabrielle as the older sister used her body as a shield against the violence, a shield too weak to protect her younger sibling.
From Targon she learned where Lila had been taken. From his spare description she easily located the field. She knew the place well. She was compelled to see it in more than her mind's eye. Gabrielle returned to the homestead, forcefully checking her building emotion. Keeping her gaze level except as she reached for Geld's reins. She mounted and rode at a clip.
Xena extended her hand, holding Trevor in place. "Give her some space."
"Do you know where she's going?" Trevor asked, Gabrielle's well-being his primary concern.
"I think so. It won't be far." Xena turned to the Guardsmen. "General, I want you, Stephen, Trevor and Samuel with me. The rest will set up camp here." Argo was impatiently stepping in place underneath her. "Let's go."
Gabrielle rode over a ridge. Though it was a clear day and the air was crisp, fragrant with wild flowers, Gabrielle imagined the fragile, soft corpses left for scavengers to pick and tear, Lilia's being one of them. And that was to their blessed relief after being raped by Draco's men. Here lay unmarked her sister's grave. A gentle flowing field that hid the truth of man's brutality to man, and worse, to those weaker and less skilled in violence and war.
She had not allowed herself to think of Lila for many a moon. On this day, a fortnight after Lila's birthday, Gabrielle fell to her knees and cried, mourning her sister, emptying herself of her grief.
On the ridge, Xena and their contingent stood at attention. Their mounts felt the solemnity of the moment as all eyes bore witness to their grieving Queen.
Trevor lamented. "Why isn't it raining? The Gods should be weeping on this day."
Xena kept her eyes upon Gabrielle. "It was the Gods who made this day. They weep for no one."
A woman appeared to Xena's eyes alone. The woman was familiar. She spoke to Xena words only Xena could hear. Xena's gaze shifted from the vision to Gabrielle. Feeling Xena's anxiety, Argo became skittish, prancing back and forth.
Stephen watched a look of horror come over Xena. "My Liege, what is it?"
"Stay here!" Xena rode down to Gabrielle.
Xena dismounted and knelt on one knee before her Queen. "Gabrielle."
Gabrielle cursed through her tears. "Draco and all like him should burn in Tartarus through eternity."
"We will." Xena lifted the veil she had kept between them.
Gabrielle's eyes cleared. "Not you, never like this."
Xena was steadfast in her confession. "Like this. My men. My responsibility."
Comprehension burned in Gabrielle's heart. "You tell me this now?" Gabrielle stood up.
"You would have had nothing to do with me if you had known the truth."
"The truth…" Gabrielle was incensed by Xena’s hypocrisy.
"I wanted you…"
"Was there so little challenge in raping me that you chose to seduce me into loving you?"
"I didn’t… There would have been no love if you knew how one and the same Draco and I and our men were… that I was what you hated more than anything else in the world."
"My body wasn’t enough. You wanted by soul, too." Gabrielle stepped back. "You are worse than Draco. You are a monster clothed as a woman of honor."
Xena fixed her gaze upon Gabrielle. She would accept Gabrielle's condemnation. Gabrielle could not be any more severe than Xena deserved.
"Have you nothing to say?" Gabrielle demanded a response.
Xena shook her head negatively.
"Damn you!" Gabrielle mounted Geld and road away.
Xena stood up and signaled to Jared and the others to follow the Queen. Alone in the field, Xena fell to her knees, her spirit broken. By the Fates and Gods she had come to this place and time. It was the life of her choosing as Aphrodite prophesied. She could stay silent and accept death, or she could complete her task and offer Gabrielle Greece for a third and final time. She was sure Gabrielle would now accept. She would take Greece away from the monster of Amphipolis and rule with the integrity and honor Xena could only pretend to.
Xena was certain that the Fates and Gods worked in concert to transfer Greece to its rightful Queen. Xena's wound reappeared and began to bleed. She cried out as a sharp pain cut into her chest, pain deeper than any she had ever felt before. The time was near. Soon her ordeal would come to an end.
Gabrielle rode blindly. Her escort followed at a distance, keeping her in sight. Gabrielle lost all sense of time. Exhausted, she reined Geld to a stop, turning the steed back to face the approaching Guardsmen. She wiped her eyes dry as she waited. With each moment her anger against the men increased.
The men halted their mounts. They formed a line before their Queen. Gabrielle regarded each one, allowing her searing gaze to touch them. She tried to reconcile the men she loved and trusted with her new knowledge.
She spoke with a commanding voice. "I have thought of you as my friends, my brothers. All this time you have kept the worst of lies from me."
The men were taken aback by Gabrielle's accusation.
Stephen was the first to speak. He set aside all formalities. "We have been true to you, Gabrielle."
"I can't believe that none of you knew Xena's history…" Gabrielle faltered.
Stephen probed. "Gabrielle, what history of the Conqueror's do you believe we have kept from you?"
"She said neither she nor her armies raped." Gabrielle tasted a bitter residue in her mouth.
Stephen, Trevor and Sam were dumbstruck. They looked to Jared. The General knew Xena's history better than the three combined.
Jared recalled the referenced incident. He shifted in his saddle as his mind searched for a beginning to the story. "Xena had taken a small company of men across the Creticum Sea to Crete. She had the goal of completing a scouting expedition to size up a new pirate by the name of Hadacios, who had his stronghold near the island's southeast shore not far from Hierapytna. She found him to be no threat to her. Hadacios offered his hospitality. Xena allowed her men a two-day respite while she rode ahead to Kydonia to secure ship passage back to the mainland where I waited with the rest of her army.
"While in Kydonia word reached Xena that Greek raiders were pillaging a nearby village. Fearful that they were her men, she rode to the village. By the time Xena arrived it was too late to be of any good. Her men had broken every rule she set down, including her ban against violating women.
"The men had had enough of Xena's campaign for the greater good. They longed for the days before Cirra changed her. Thinking to create a new alliance with Hadacios, they faced Xena, ready to kill her. Not one traitor lived.
"Xena turned all her valuables and those of her men over to the surviving villagers. It couldn't come close to paying them back for what was done to them."
Stephen spoke up. "I know that story. Surely Gabrielle, you can't hold Xena responsible."
Gabrielle had listened. What she learned restored her faith in the woman she loved. "No Stephen, I don't. Xena did not tell me the circumstances, only that her men were the doers and she was responsible. It's your code that condemns her, not mine. A leader is responsible for the actions of those she leads. Am I not right?"
Stephen fell silent.
Trevor offered hopefully. "We will wait for the Conqueror to join us."
Stephen understood the Conqueror better than Trevor. "She may choose not to."
The men waited for Gabrielle's decision.
Gabrielle knew Stephen to be right. "We will go back."
They returned to the field, finding it vacant. Stephen and Jared made independent sweeps of the area while Trevor and Samuel did the same in Gabrielle's company.
Night had fallen without any discovery of their target. Trevor had delayed as long as he felt prudent. He approached Gabrielle. "Your Majesty, Jared and Stephen will be waiting for us at camp."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I can't."
Samuel maneuvered his stallion close to Gabrielle. With a nod he made the rare gesture to his superior asking for privacy. Trevor complied. Samuel spoke low, outside Trevor's hearing. "You told me once that the Conqueror could not be found unless she wanted to be. Were there harsh words, little sis?"
Tears welled into Gabrielle's eyes. "Unforgivable words, Sam."
"That has not been so in the past."
"I crossed the line, Sam. I'm afraid she won't come back to me."
"Let us go home to Corinth and wait for her. She will not abandon Greece."
Gabrielle knew she had no other true choice. "All right, Sam."
In the fortnight that passed since her return to Corinth, Gabrielle was kept informed of Xena's whereabouts through receipt of brief dispatches the Conqueror sent to Targon.
The administrator was kept busy making arrangements for a significant council of lords and representatives from vassal nations. Xena had yet to reveal her intentions. Gabrielle spent day and night trying to piece together into a sensible whole the incomprehensible puzzle of recent events. The pieces all revolved around Xena: Xena's injury, her disappearance and reappearance, her desire for a different life, her offer of the throne to Gabrielle, her mysterious bleeding kept secret, and her misguided confession.
Targon entered the Royal chambers. "Your Majesty."
"The Conqueror requests your presence at Court in two candlemarks."
Gabrielle turned to the administrator. "Xena is here?"
"She arrived with General Regan less than a candlemark ago."
Gabrielle entered the Court chamber. To her left stood the generals of Greece, also present were all the visiting dignitaries and lords. At the front of the room situated side-by-side were the royal thrones. She walked forward with a confidence she did not feel. The room quieted as she passed, appropriate gestures of honor given by all. She took the three steps up to her chair and sat uncertain.
Within a few heartbeats the Conqueror entered from the same main entrance. She was dressed in her preferred black leather slacks, a white blouse and a short black traveling coat. In one hand she carried her sword and scabbard, in the other, her chakram. She walked boldly to Gabrielle.
The Queen stood. "My Lord."
Xena paused before Gabrielle. Her gaze held Gabrielle's cautious countenance. Xena's expression was determined. There was neither defiance nor malice.
Xena spoke, a hint of gentleness in her voice. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia. My Queen. The time for a warlord turned self-made sovereign has passed. The time is now for a ruler who offers wisdom, compassion and a strong and just guiding hand. My time is done. Your time has only now begun. I offer you Greece." Xena knelt upon one knee, placing her sword and chakram at Gabrielle's feet.
The room was stunned. Jared took a step forward then stopped himself. Stephen had kept a close watch upon the Conqueror. His gazed continued to trace her every move. Trevor and Samuel each increased their surveillance of the audience. This was a moment of history in the making. It left many unguarded, revealing their nature in a manner rarely allowed. Such insight was invaluable.
Gabrielle's eyes followed Xena. She noted a bandage patch underneath Xena's open neck blouse; a slow seeping stain of crimson blood marked it.
Xena returned to her feet. "You are the rightful Queen, placed upon the throne by the Fates' decree."
Gabrielle's initial reserve eased. Xena's mention of the Fates gave her pause. Coupled with the renewed open wound, she suspected contributing forces that she hoped with time she would come to understand. For now she would do what must be done. She would release Xena from the throne. Gabrielle spoke only to Xena. "Then by the Fates I accept the rule of Greece. May Greece fulfill your vision of peace and prosperity."
Xena felt her wound heal, her weakness replaced by strength. Aphrodite had been appeased. The third and final offer of the throne had been given. Xena was sure the outcome was what the Gods wanted. Gabrielle accepted. It was now Xena’s time to leave Corinth, to separate herself from a woman whose love she had never been worthy of. By the Fates decree and by her own volition, the burden of a decision made long ago was Xena’s alone to carry. She bowed to the Queen and turned. With her next step her heart felt a different wound. She felt in the severing of her bond to Gabrielle both heart and soul broken without hope of healing.
Samuel signaled for a fellow Guardsman to stand his post. He took a rear corridor, making a quick pace toward the stables. As he suspected, a groomsman held Argo for the approaching Conqueror. Samuel broke into a run, reaching the Conqueror as she mounted her steed. He stood in front of the animal.
Xena was impatient to leave. "Sam, get out of my way!"
Samuel held his place. "I have a message from Queen Gabrielle. She ask that you send word to her once you are settled."
Xena's words were sharply spoken. She needed to get beyond the city gates before she lost her tenuous composure. "Am I to account to her every move I make?"
"I do believe… " Samuel chose his words carefully. "I think she wishes to know that you are safe."
"Tell her..." Xena's emotions quieted. She reconsidered. "I will send word, Sam. Give me time."
Samuel swallowed his own grief. "Safe travels."
"Thank you, Sam. Take care of her."
"By my honor." Samuel placed his fist over his heart.
There were no words to express Xena's gratitude for the Guardsman's loyalty. She signaled Argo and rode through the palace gates, gathering speed as she traveled the Corinth streets for what she believed would be the last time in her life.
A physically imposing Ethiopian waited at the palace gates. He glared at Xanthus as they both waited for instructions from the palace. Targon approached followed by the Guardsman that had been sent to summon the administrator
The Ethiopian did not wait to be addressed. He demanded of the administrator. "Are you Targon?"
"That is my name." Targon remained calm in the face of the brute.
"She told me you were a little man, nothing of a weasel your looks might lead me to believe and that I should trust you."
Targon did not appreciate the Ethiopian's backhanded compliment. "Who sent you?"
The man dropped his voice. "Xena." He raised his hand. "This scroll has her seal. I told your man here that I was charged to deliver it directly to the Queen and that is what I mean to do."
The administrator had reason to remain civil. "Hold up the scroll so I can see the seal."
He did. Targon recognized the Conqueror's insignia.
The Ethiopian glanced over to Xanthus with a self-satisfied smile.
Targon escorted the messenger to the Royal suite. Not liking the looks of the Ethiopian, Samuel followed from his exterior post.
The young Queen stood at her desk. "I am Queen Gabrielle. May I have your name, Sir?"
The man smiled. "I knew by the look Xena had on her face when she talked about you that you were worth the effort. You don't disappoint, Your Majesty. My name is Jabari."
Gabrielle gave no clue as too how deeply Jabari’s words touched her. "I am told you have something to give me."
Jabari handed the scroll to the Queen.
Gabrielle spoke quietly. "Does she expect a reply?"
"No, Your Majesty. I am on my way to the south coast to catch a ship home. This was meant to be a one-way excursion."
"I see." Gabrielle masked her disappointment. "Will you accept my hospitality? I can offer you a room and meals, and some coin to make your trip easier."
Jabari was gracious. "I'll take the room and meals. You owe me no payment. I was happy to help an old friend."
Gabrielle walked round the desk and offered her arm. "Thank you, Jabari."
The Ethiopian grasped the Queen's arm. "You’re welcome, Your Majesty."
Gabrielle directed her words to the administrator. "Targon, please show Jabari to his room."
"Yes, Your Majesty." Targon led Jabari out of the chamber with the wave of his hand. "This way, Sir."
The messenger followed, happy to have his task complete.
Gabrielle turned her gaze to her Guardsman. "Sam, I don't want to be disturbed."
Samuel bowed slightly and followed the other two men out of the suite.
Gabrielle sat by the fireplace. She rested the scroll on her lap. Nearly two moon cycles had passed since Xena left Corinth. Having word from Xena was a surprise to her. She reined her greatest hope of one day learning of the true cause of their separation. She took a deep breath and with a quick stroke of a hand broke the seal. She unrolled the scroll. The message was brief.
My Queen -
As you requested I am informing you of my station. For now, I am making Scupi home. Whether I stay depends on how the locals react to having me in their vicinity.
I am sorry for the way our life together ended. I am all that you said I am. I will live with the bitter truth for the rest of my life.
I wish for you happiness and a majestic reign.
Your loyal subject,
Trevor stood before the Queen. He had word an Ethiopian had delivered a message from the Conqueror. Gabrielle had now confirmed the same, sharing the less personal message with her security chief.
"Trevor, do you have any idea why Xena may have chosen Scupi?"
"The Conquered is well liked in the former Macedonian provinces. The warlords were vicious. She freed many from an unjust tyranny."
"I didn't think I would hear from her. Her message stated that she was fulfilling my request. I made no such request."
Trevor would have preferred to remain silent. Given his position and their friendship he had no choice but to explain. "It was Sam's doing. He went to her in your name. He told Xena you wished to know where she chose to settle."
"Did he?" Gabrielle's did not take long to make her request. She stood up. "Send Sam to me."
Trevor defended his brother Guardsman. "Sam meant no harm."
Gabrielle insisted. "Trevor, please do as I say."
Samuel waited in front of the Queen's desk. Gabrielle's raised her gaze from Xena's scroll. "As you know, I received a message from Xena. Trevor tells me you took it upon yourself to speak to her on my behalf. I calculate that for you to have reached her before she left would mean that you abandoned your security post."
Samuel owned his actions prepared to accept the consequences. "I did."
"You are sworn to act always in my best interest." Gabrielle raised the scroll. "By my judgment your intentions were good, so too the outcome. Thank you, Sam."
Samuel relaxed. "Is she well?"
"I believe so. She is in Scupi."
"I remember it as a fine place. You should consider touring."
"Sam, there are reasons for the choices Xena has made. We must let her be."
"Maybe in a few moons you will reconsider."
It was not like Samuel to be insistent. Gabrielle wondered what brought him to it. "Are you certain she would welcome the visit?"
"I don't know all the reasons why the Conqueror left Corinth. It is true that in the field near Poteidaia you hurt her. It is also true that in Megara you had words and she went off on her own. You went to her and all was well again."
The simple truth behind Samuel's bluntness pained Gabrielle. "I suspect there are reasons Sam that have nothing to do with me. If I had been enough for Xena she would still be here."
Samuel observed the obvious. "She did send the message. She did tell you where you could find her."
Gabrielle was not ready to embrace Samuel's optimism. Her loneliness was not great enough to preclude her better judgment. "For now, Sam, let's not speak of Scupi."
Xena leaned on the corral fence watching Gregory ride. "Keep your hands up." The young adolescent boy did so. "There you go, that's better."
Xena sensed the observance. She also sensed no imminent danger. What she felt was a familiar presence. She did not trust her sensibilities. Her longing for Gabrielle had misguided her more times than she could count. She did not even trust the familiar sound of lightweight footsteps approaching from the rear.
Gabrielle stood by the fence, an arm's length from Xena. She climbed up one rung to better watch the boy practice his riding.
Xena turned to Gabrielle. Dare she speak and risk breaking the spell? "Hello."
"He rides well," Gabrielle observed.
"Yes, he does." Xena called out to the child. "Gregory, come here."
Gregory slowed the mare and guided her to Xena.
Xena patted the mare. "Good girl."
The mare reacted to Gabrielle's outstretched hand.
Xena began to believe in the illusion. "Gregory, I want you to meet Gabrielle."
The boy's eyes widened. "Queen Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Yes."
"My Lady." The boy blushed, failing to gather his composure.
Xena gently persuaded. "Gregory, why don't you brush down Ismet? I'll check up on you in a little while."
Gregory dismounted and led Ismet into the stables.
Gabrielle was taken by how relaxed the boy was with Xena, calling her by her birth name.
Xena looked over her shoulder. She caught sight of Trevor. "Traveling through?"
The nonchalant nature of their meeting caused Gabrielle to think the moment too charmed to be anything but a dream. "I wanted to see you. I hope you don't mind."
"You're always welcome."
Gabrielle wanted to believe Xena. "You look well."
"I am." Her time in Scupi had been physically renewing. Xena assessed Gabrielle. She judged her to be in good health. "How are you?"
"Hungry, actually," Gabrielle quipped.
Xena smiled. "I think I can do something about that. Come on."
They walked side by side. Gabrielle relayed a message "Cyrene sends her love."
Xena had not seen her mother since she traveled through Amphipolis after leaving Corinth. "When did you see her?"
"It's been eight days."
"How is she?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Complaining that her muscles ache with the growing cold. She said she feels a bad winter coming."
Xena looked up to the sky. "Hard to tell what to expect."
Xena's modest homestead consisted of a barn, stable, a woodshed and a cabin, all in good repair. They walked across a courtyard from the stable to the cabin. The cabin had a generous exterior porch. Tall-back benches were positioned on each side of the door. Xena took the two steps up and opened the door. She invited Gabrielle, "Go ahead."
Gabrielle entered. The cabin had a comfortable living space. Two large chairs were situated by a stone hearth. A dining table with four chairs dominated. Against one wall stood a low cabinet with silver plates and goblets resting on top of it. The wooden floors had a scattering of high quality woven rugs of green, gold and black patterns. The handcrafted furniture was of a simple, yet elegant design.
Gabrielle made her way to a small, efficient kitchen area. The hanging wall cabinets for storage, the sink with outside drainage and the well pump impressed her. She drifted from one room to the next finding a private bath area with a second smaller hearth, a large caldron hanging over a metal support for heating water, a large tub, and a tall table with washbasin and shining metal mirror.
Xena remained a step behind enjoying the obvious pleasure Gabrielle was having in her exploration. Gabrielle proceeded to Xena's den. A number of scrolls, a couple of quills and an ink pot lay on a large desk reminiscent of Xena's desk in Corinth. On the walls hung maps of the known world, of Greece and to Gabrielle's surprise a detail of Corinth, the palace prominently illustrated. On a side table lay navigational instruments. Gabrielle touched them lightly, remembering the days spent under Xena's tutoring learning how to use similar tools.
The final room was Xena' bedroom. Furnished with a large bed, a bedside table, a clothes cabinet, and a small round table with two chairs, the room, like the rest of the cabin, reflected Xena's restrained aesthetic eye. A sea blue quilted comforter with a crisscross pattern of gold thread awash in light entering from two windows glistened, reminding Gabrielle of the Megara cove waters.
Gabrielle felt at home. She set aside the sense of loss the thought instilled. "Xena, this is lovely."
"I don't need much. The cabin is far easier to keep warm than the palace." Xena walked to the kitchen. "I have mutton, bread and fruit."
"That sounds wonderful."
"It's not Makia's cooking," Xena cautioned.
"It doesn't have to be." Gabrielle stood by a window looking back to the stables. "How many horses are you working with?"
Xena began to slice a roasted leg of mutton. "Four, plus I'm stabling two more."
Gabrielle remembered Xena's ideal. "How's the fishing?"
"There's always plenty. I'll be checking my traps soon."
Gabrielle turned to her love. "This is the life you wanted."
Xena met Gabrielle's gaze. "It came with a price." Xena looked back down, taking up again her task of slicing the meat. "How is Corinth?"
"Quiet. For now the discontented are holding their tongues."
"Better if they bit them off." Xena's words were sharper than her knife. "The rumors are rampant."
"What have you heard?" Gabrielle was curious.
"The gossip isn't worth repeating." Xena paused raising her knife with a glimmer in her eye. "But do tell, did you truly cut Lord Thanos' manhood from him in order to settle, once and for all, a disagreement between the two of you?"
Gabrielle laughed heartily. "You've got to be kidding?"
"Hardly, they say you made him a eunuch."
Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. "That would be too good for him."
Xena set the dining table for both of them. She held a chair for Gabrielle. Gabrielle sat down, her eyes following Xena. Xena never failed in her courtesy.
Xena sat beside Gabrielle. She served the younger woman portions of the meat, handing her the plate. "How's the old man?"
Gabrielle placed the plate down. "He misses you. Jared doesn't understand how you could have left the throne."
"He feels I betrayed him."
Gabrielle knew Jared thought differently. She reached for a small loaf of bread, averting her eyes from Xena's view. "He's always been very protective of me."
Xena paused in thought. She translated the implicit to an uncompromising declaration. "So, he believes I've betrayed you?"
"I told him you were true to me." Gabrielle's sympathies were nakedly apparent.
Xena spread out her arms; her hurt erupted. "Tell him I've fallen to the filthiest debauchery he can imagine."
Gabrielle protested. "Xena…"
"He could never believe in me the way he believes in you," Xena rued. "He has his reasons not to."
"Come to Corinth. See him."
Xena was quick to respond. "No! I can't go back."
Gabrielle looked down to her plate of food, picking a morsel of mutton as she struggled to maintain her fragile composure.
Xena lowered her voice to a near whisper. "Gabrielle, by returning I would undermine your authority. You've worked too hard these past six moons to have others see you as a leader in your own right."
Gabrielle looked up, seeking a reason to hope. "Someday?"
"I don't pretend to know what the future will bring." Xena did not want to promise what she felt impossible; neither did she wish to break Gabrielle's heart.
Gabrielle observed. "You wear my ring."
Xena looked down to her hand. "Yes." Her jaw tightened. She chose not to comment that Gabrielle did not wear her ring.
Gabrielle pursued. "It still means something to you?"
Xena would not lie. "It means everything to me."
The mystery that haunted Gabrielle continued. Though taunted by contradictions, she was determined to take up the Fates' dare and continue her effort to unravel the few clues left her. A knock on the door interrupted.
"Come," Xena called.
Trevor entered. "Excuse me." He directed his words to Gabrielle. "It's getting late. What are your orders?"
Gabrielle searched Xena's eyes for an invitation. The gaze met was neutral. "See if there are rooms in the inn for us. We will stay the night."
"Yes, Your Majesty." Having secured his instructions, Trevor went his way.
"Maybe you would like to come by the inn later," Gabrielle suggested. "With the innkeeper’s permission, I'll be telling a few tales."
"I don't think Damian will deny his Queen's request." Xena offered a tender smile. "It has been a long time since I've heard a good story."
"That's because you were living a life others told stories about."
Gabrielle noted the change. She reasoned the cause. Gabrielle assured. "Not I, Xena. I've kept my promise."
They fell into an uncomfortable silence.
"If you're done eating there's someone I'd like you to meet." Xena's renewed smile offered a respite from their shared tension.
Happy for a diversion, Gabrielle agreed. "Sure."
Xena guided Gabrielle to the stables. Gregory was finishing putting his brushes away as they entered.
"You all done?" Xena ruffled the boy's hair.
"Yes, Xena. Do you need anything else?"
"Not here." She spoke in a conspiratorial tone. "You might want to spread the word that our Queen will be storytelling at the inn tonight."
Gregory turned to the young Queen. "They say you are a wonderful bard, My Lady."
Gabrielle smiled. "The first story will be for you, Gregory."
The boy's enthusiasm was arrested. "My mama doesn't let me go into the inn."
Gabrielle placed her hand on Gregory's shoulder. "Tell her I will tell my first story for the children and then they will be excused to return to their homes."
"Yes, My Lady, I will." The boy ran out happily.
"You've made his day." Xena enjoyed the sight of the boy and young Queen. There was something very right about their exchange. She walked further into the stable patting Argo as she went to a pure white stallion. "His name is Spirit."
The animal was stunning. "Xena, he's magnificent."
"Watch it, Argo is already more than a little jealous." Xena called to her mare. "Hey girl?"
Gabrielle cupped Spirit's cheek. He moved into her touch.
"He likes you."
"How old is he?"
"Four. I got him for a song. He was too much for his owner to handle. It will be a while before I trust him not to throw a rider."
Gabrielle admired and somewhat envied Xena. "You've made a good life for yourself here."
Xena leaned against a bale of hay. "The villagers are the salt of the earth. They've haven't asked anything from me except to be a good neighbor."
Gabrielle sought an answer to a question both she and Cyrene held. "Why didn't you go back to Amphipolis? Your mother would be happy to have you."
"There are too many memories I’d rather not face every day of my life. Here there are times when I'm treated just like anybody else. There is peace in it. The feeling doesn't last long, but it's worth having if only for a heartbeat."
Gabrielle's fear that their union was less to Xena found voice. "You were never really at peace in Corinth, were you?"
Xena remembered the fleeting instances of her quieted soul. "I had my moments. You were often a part of them."
Gabrielle dared to challenge. "Xena, I've been wondering if you didn't turn the tables on me."
"What do you mean?" Xena straightened her back ready for a long-awaited confrontation.
"Lies of omission." Gabrielle boldly made the accusation.
Xena was unaffected. "I do not know every thought you've had nor every feeling you've felt. There is a part of a person that must remain unshared. It's a way of not losing ourselves. Gabrielle, you have my word, I've told you everything I could tell you without forfeiting my life."
"I believe you." Gabrielle considered her suspicions confirmed. Xena was keeping the complete truth from her. Whatever the truth was, Gabrielle had come to believe that Xena withheld it so to save herself. "I should get going and settle at the inn. Will I see you tonight?"
"I'll be there," Xena promised.
Gabrielle walked to the stable entrance. She paused and looked back. She had intended to offer Xena her friendship, to counter a statement Xena had made to her early in their relationship. Xena professed that Gabrielle had never been just her friend, could never be just her friend. Gabrielle found that her conviction had crumbled in Xena's presence. To offer friendship would perpetuate a lie for both of them. She shared Xena's truth. Xena could never be just a friend to her. Xena was and would always be much more. She noted she had the warrior's eye. "Xena, Jared told me about what your men did to the village in Crete. He also told me you killed every one of them."
Gabrielle waited for a response. Xena remained silent. The press of guilt imprisoned her soul.
"Until tonight, My Lord." Gabrielle left the stable having set to mend one harm done.
Gabrielle's storytelling was a great success. The villagers flocked to see their Queen and were treated to a master bard.
Sitting in a secluded corner at the back of the inn was the former Sovereign of Greece, the woman who had elevated Gabrielle from slave to Queen. Xena took pride in the young woman before her who charmed and mesmerized, who stood with dignity and command. It was true that Gabrielle received the best tutelage, from Darlius her knowledge of healing, from Targon, her knowledge of the intricacies of government, from Jared the finer points of military strategy and from her brothers in the Guard she learned to protect herself. Building on the broad foundation, Xena offered her own training. Through it all, Gabrielle distilled what she was taught. She questioned, she challenged, she debated until she made all of the knowledge her own. She was remarkable. Gabrielle humbled Xena. Xena felt for the first time in her life vindicated. She had done the right thing. By returning to Corinth from Mt. Olympus she had transferred power not as a result of an assassination or a military coup, but as a rightful acknowledgement that Gabrielle was the future of Greece.
It was late. Gabrielle finished her last tale for the evening. Villagers came forward to speak with the woman who they respectfully bowed to as their Queen.
With the crowd thinned, Xena approached and waited for Gabrielle to acknowledge her. Having accepted the praise of a local woman Gabrielle turned to Xena. The others around them fell silent.
Xena spoke warmly. "Your Majesty, it was a fine evening. I bid you a good night."
"Thank you." Gabrielle ceased calling Xena publicly by her birth name. The informality juxtaposed to Xena's formality felt inappropriate. In turn, to return with a formal address would displace both of them to a time now past. "Good night."
Xena gave Gabrielle a minor bow before leaving the inn. Gabrielle watched. With the sound of each footstep Gabrielle's heart bore inward causing an intolerable ache.
Reaching the top of her porch steps, Xena turned her gaze back into the night where the sound of someone running toward her originated. Gabrielle stopped at the foot of the steps. She paused to catch her breath. Xena waited. Gabrielle defied reason and dared the Fates to intervene. She mounted the steps and claimed Xena's lips in a passionate kiss. The familiar warmth of the bard overwhelmed Xena's restraint. She followed freely Gabrielle's physical call.
They separated. Gabrielle's heart knew no shame. "Be mine tonight, Xena. I beg you."
Xena did not need to search for reasons to deny Gabrielle. There were many. Nonetheless, her answer was driven by a promise long ago made and never broken. Wordlessly, she lifted Gabrielle into her arms and carried her into the cabin.
Gabrielle slept cradled in Xena's embrace. Xena's eyes beheld the necklace Gabrielle wore. Hung on a silver chain about her neck were the Conqueror's medallion and Xena's ring. They fell over Gabrielle's heart.
Their lovemaking had been unhurried. Xena paused as she removed Gabrielle's blouse. It was then that she first saw the necklace and ring. She took the ring in her hand. For a moment they both stilled. Xena closed her hand into a fist and leaned forward to kiss Gabrielle. Met willingly, Xena released the ring and their lovemaking continued in a silence interrupted only by the involuntary sounds of their pleasure.
Xena understood why Gabrielle had removed the ring from her finger. Challenged to establish her authority, she needed to step from under Xena's shadow.
They had both been careful with public displays of their affection for one another, especially in Court. Since Xena's return to Corinth after her injury their public behavior was always nothing less than cordial. To all attentive observers their relationship had changed, devoid of animosity but also of the deep passion that radiated between them. A quick removal of the powerful symbol of their bond was a necessary step to give notice that their break had been complete.
Gabrielle woke gently to the day. She had learned to once again sleep alone in her bed. She found herself in the familiar.
"Good morning," Xena greeted in a mellow voice, long trained not to jolt Gabrielle from her dreams.
Gabrielle opened her eyes. Xena knelt beside the bed, a mug of steaming tea in her hand.
"Good morning." Gabrielle took in the room illuminated by rays of light entering through the open shutters. "Is it late?"
"Not too late."
"I should tell Trevor where I am."
"He knows." Xena smiled. "Sam is posted guard a discrete distance away."
Gabrielle did not hesitate in making her petition. "Xena, may I stay a second day?"
Given their shared night, there was no sane argument for pretending that Gabrielle's request did not reflect her own desire. Xena reached out and offered Gabrielle the mug of tea. "I was planning on working with Spirit. I could use your help."
Gabrielle took the mug happily. "I'd like that."
A few clouds traveled across the afternoon sky witness to the cool comfortable winds that cut across the earth's surface. Xena watched Gabrielle ride Spirit within the confines of the corral. The young horsewoman took an immediate liking to the stallion that lived up to his name. He bobbed and jostled trying to claim his dominion over the woman that was far smaller in stature than his mistress. Gabrielle was all seriousness, as well. Xena wagered that by the end of the day there would be a hint of play between them, replacing the current contest of wills.
Trevor approached the corral. "My …"
Xena kept her eyes upon Gabrielle and the young stallion. "My name is Xena."
Trevor's intent remained. He modified his method. "You are missed in Corinth."
Xena continued to observe Gabrielle. "Our Queen has done well."
"Yes, she has."
Xena gave Trevor her momentary regard. "You have done an admirable job in keeping her safe."
"The Guard is bound to her." Trevor affirmed a relationship begun by a slave and maintained through her rise to power.
As bright as Trevor might be, he had no understanding of how blatantly apparent his love for Gabrielle was to those who knew him and knew her. Xena had long reconciled herself on Trevor's devotion to her lover. She could not fault him. Xena relaxed her speech. "How are you, Trevor?"
"Good, My… Xena." The Guardsman felt the change within the Conqueror.
"Have you found a worthy sparring partner?"
"Two of your students: Stephen and the Queen." He was pleased to report.
Xena had wondered if and how Gabrielle would choose to keep her fighting skills. "Is Gabrielle shy with you?"
"Only with the short sword. Many times, at my expense, she has proven herself a master with the staff."
"Humility is a good thing." Xena smiled, knowing the feel of Gabrielle's staff more times than she wished to count.
Trevor was not too subtle in his observation. "I have been surprised by the humility I have found in others."
Embarrassed by the remark, Xena altered the course of the conversation. "You leave tomorrow."
The Guardsman inquired with an air of encouragement. "Is there a chance that you will join us?"
Xena spoke plainly. "No, my place is here."
"I don't understand why you left." Like many in the royal circle, Trevor wanted to understand.
Xena could not explain living; she could only chose to live. "I am not one to argue with the Fates."
"Gabrielle… the Queen mentioned that your life was saved by the Gods," Trevor speculated, following a reasoning shared by many in Corinth. "Is it that you owe them a debt?"
"The debt is paid," Xena confessed.
"So, you are free and Scupi is your choice?"
Xena turned to Trevor. "I am free and it is my choice that brings me to Scupi."
"A riddle?" Trevor was perplexed.
"A truth," Xena affirmed.
The Guardsman was not convinced. "I would have wagered that free, your choice would be to share your life with the Queen."
"The wager should be phrased differently." As was her proclivity, Xena instructed the younger man. "Free, I will choose what is in the Queen's best interest."
"She loves you, Xena." He opened his soul. "No one has hope to win her love. We all know who she holds in her heart."
Xena placed her hand on Trevor's shoulder. "Sometimes, to love is not enough. The lesson is to do what must be done for the greater good, for a destiny that reaches beyond one or two people. Sometimes one must act in keeping with the destiny of a nation as great as Greece."
"A nation cannot be great if it does not value the lone soul," Trevor countered.
Xena smiled in appreciation. Focused solely on the individual, Trevor's ethic had yet to conform to the greater good. "It is when the lone souls look to the nation's interest that the nation becomes great."
"I will not agree with you, if after all the words are said, you and the Queen remain apart."
"Aphrodite will bless you while Ares cuts you down." Xena patted Trevor's shoulder and then turned back to Gabrielle and Spirit.
Trevor was not done. "Only if the Fates allow my life string to be severed. This one time, by my life, I say they would side with the Goddess of Love and not her brother War."
Xena knew better than to believe it was so. "The Fates are not as romantic as you wish them to be."
"They are women." Trevor volunteered his best argument.
Xena chuckled quietly, enjoying the joke. "So, they are."
The two women spent the day together. It was a day unlike any they had shared in the past. Neither government nor war interfered. They were not on the road away from their imposing home, Corinth. They were not in their shared haven, Megara. On this day home was redefined as Xena's homestead.
Gabrielle apprised Xena of the key events in Corinth. Xena made a point not to offer suggestions. She limited herself to questions that in their own way led Gabrielle to new thoughts. It struck Xena how their roles had reversed.
During the evening hour they rested outside on the cabin porch. Xena leaned against the porch rail facing Gabrielle who sat on one of the benches across from her.
Gabrielle smiled. "Don't move. The sun is setting behind you. It's beautiful. You're beautiful."
Xena was tempted to turn to see what Gabrielle saw. "It's been a good day."
"Yes, it has." Gabrielle tucked her legs underneath her. "I realized today that I never imagined my life. When I was growing up I had my stories. I had fantastic dreams; none were close to what could be real. All I knew was that I didn't want to stay in Poteidaia."
Xena had imagined Gabrielle in a different life. "You were going to be a traveling bard."
"I don't know if I would have been brave enough to go on my own." Gabrielle confessed a truth that she visited many times.
"Jared and I were once trying to imagine what kind of child you were. He said you must have been a feisty tyke."
Gabrielle was curious if Xena would be more accurate in her assessment. "What did you say?"
"I wanted to believe he was right."
"But you thought differently?"
Xena considered the young, sometimes easily wounded woman. "From what you've told me your father didn't encourage you. I think you carried a heavy sadness long before Draco."
"You’re right." Gabrielle was thoughtful. "When I was a slave, I wanted nothing more than to be free. There are different kinds of freedom. There have been times when we've been together that you've brought out the kid in me. That part of me was never free to show herself when I was growing up."
Xena smiled. "I like the little girl in you. I saw it last night when you were storytelling to the children."
"I noticed how they were looking back to you with their wide-eyes." Gabrielle equally enjoyed watching Xena with the village youth.
The warrior sobered. "They don't know better. They don't know who I am."
The bard shared her own insight. "I think you're wrong. I think they see you for who you really are."
Xena turned and looked out into the horizon. "You're right, it is a beautiful sky."
Gabrielle went to Xena, placing her hand on the taller woman's lower back, as had been her custom.
Xena looked a glance. "Gabrielle, I am not your Lord."
Gabrielle gently turned Xena toward her. She spoke only when sure she had the warrior's regard. "Xena, I reserve the right to be the judge of whether your are or are not my Lord."
"I am destined to disappoint you."
"Not when the truth is known."
Xena's soul was in turmoil. "By the Fates Gabrielle we stand where we do. There is a reason for it. What I can be to you, what I can give you, must come from the hinterlands of Greece, never Corinth."
"I shall not argue with you. Tonight, as we stand in the hinterlands, you have given me a wonderful day. Will you give me tonight?"
Xena took Gabrielle's hands in her own, kissing them. "Tonight, I am yours."
The following morning Gabrielle readied to leave. Her hand rested on the door handle. She mused, "Outside this door I am the Queen of Greece."
Xena stood a few paces away. The ache of seeing Gabrielle off caused her to raise her guard, keeping her most volatile emotions at bay. "As well as within," Xena observed.
Gabrielle felt a profound disappointment. "Say that is not true."
"But, it is..." Xena was humbled by how gracefully Gabrielle carried herself as Queen.
Gabrielle begged the question. "Is that why you agreed to be with me?"
Realizing she had been misunderstood, Xena stepped forward. "No, Gabrielle. I wanted you as much, if not more than you wanted me. It has been good to share this time with you."
As Xena had taken great pains never to assume, Gabrielle did the same. "May I see you again?"
"Yes." Xena arrested her impulse to take the younger woman into her arms.
Gabrielle placed her necklace within her blouse, hidden once again from public view. She stepped outside followed by Xena. Trevor and the balance of her escort waited on horseback.
Gabrielle mounted Geld. She held Xena's unwavering gaze. "Be well, Xena."
"Stay safe, Your Majesty." Xena stood upon her porch keeping watch until all disappeared from sight.
Gabrielle led the party. Trevor remained a horse length behind her, granting Gabrielle the privacy he sensed she needed. More than once he observed the Queen wipe her eyes with her sleeve.
"I never thought you would fall so low as to become another woman's whore." Ares' voice shattered the silence.
Xena did not offer any sign of recognition. The God of War reached out to her.
Xena wrenched her arm away. "Don't touch me." Her rage was full force. She spat, "Son of Zeus! I thought…"
"You thought what?" Ares was curious.
"Nothing. My mistake." Xena wanted to give the God no reason to stay.
"You are making mistakes all over the place. When are you going to stop?"
"I have stopped. I've taken myself outside of the arena of politics and war, or haven't you noticed?"
"I've noticed. It is such a waste." Ares leaned against a porch support. "Xena, you don't belong here in a backwoods village playing with horses." He voiced an old enticement. "You were destined to rule the world."
"Don't!" Xena pointed at the God, her body trembled. "You shall never have me back."
The God of War's anger rose. He pointed toward the road. "You give yourself to that slave pretending to be a Queen?"
Xena smiled. "You can't stand it, can you?" She stood face to face with him. "Hear me, Ares. I will never turn her away from my bed. My decision may not speak of your godhood, but it does speak of the man you pretend to be."
Offense taken, Ares colored red. "Fine! What I haven't forgotten… What hasn't changed, Xena, is that you are a warrior. You will come back to me. It is only a matter of time."
"I will see Hades first!" Xena vowed.
He threatened. "We will see. I am not done with you." With a flash, the God disappeared.
Xena turned her gaze back to the road. Ares' appearance was all she needed to keep her in Scupi and not ride after Gabrielle.
General Kasen pointed on the map as he spoke. "Our scouts tell us Caesar is marching three legions. Two disembarked from a fleet of ships near Odessus. The third comes from the north. They mean to converge in Novae."
"We need to provide a proper homecoming for his Black Sea forces," Dymas observed.
"How? We haven't time to march either our 4th or 5th Armies to reinforce our position." Kasen turned his gaze to the Queen.
Gabrielle was decisive. "I wouldn't do it even if we could. Caesar has shown his colors before. I will not leave Greece vulnerable to another Roman crossing over the Ionium Sea."
Dymas' command, the 2nd Army garrisoned in the north was at risk. "Who is to say Caesar doesn't have more troops coming? They can overtake our north like a swarm of locusts."
"He is approaching from the east and not the west," Gabrielle observed.
"He must think his last route an unlucky one," Jared quipped, remembering Greece's previous engagement with Rome.
"I wonder what Oracle spoke to him this time?" Kasen's lack of reverence for diviners equaled his hatred for Caesar.
Stephen spoke from the back. "The one who told him that Xena lives is Scupi."
Jared bristled. "Captain, do you have a point?"
Stephen stepped forward. "Xena knows Caesar better than anyone in the known world. She would be valuable to Greece in this war."
It was Dymas who voiced the pride shared by the Generals. "You forget we have all fought against Rome. Together, we have defeated Caesar. Together we will do so again."
Stephen was insistent. "True, Rome was defeated by many swords. It is also true that all swords raised against Rome were led by one strategist." Stephen turned to Gabrielle. "With all due respect, my Queen, though you have been taught by the best, you are not the best."
"Stephen!" Jared was outraged by the Guardsman’s presumption.
"Hold General!" Gabrielle commanded. She directed her far more gentle words towards the Captain. "Stephen, will you go to my tent and wait for me?"
The Captain ignored the angry men. "Yes, your Majesty."
"Thank you." Gabrielle returned her gaze to the map. "Let's get back to work."
Gabrielle entered her tent. Stephen waited by her desk.
"You made no friends this morning."
Stephen was conciliatory. "I meant no offence."
"I know that." Gabrielle placed her hand on Stephen's arm as she passed him to her desk. "Like you, they are proud warriors."
"I am not too proud to seek help when I need it."
Gabrielle sat down. Her eyes rested for a moment on a scroll she had carried with her from Corinth before returning her gaze to the brash Guardsman. "Stephen, I won't call Xena to war. She deserves peace."
"What peace will she have when Caesar rules Greece? He will hunt her down and make an example of her." The Captain placed his hands upon the desk as a brace and leaned forward. "Gabrielle, you asked me to remain true to myself and thus to you. I cannot stay and fight a fight that will lead to the unnecessary slaughter of good men."
"You feel so strongly?"
Stephen stood tall. "I do."
Gabrielle offered her support. "Then I accept your resignation from my service. Go with a clear conscience."
"My brothers will think me a coward." Stephen felt the price of his convictions. "Know I do not mean to desert you or them."
"I would have judged you harshly if you remained silent." Gabrielle got to her feet. "Leave our brothers to me. I will remind them that courage is best shown when one is willing to stand against the many. Not always with a sword in hand."
"The Generals… There is no treachery. As long as you live they will have Greece's best interest in mind. So, for the sake of Greece, stay well my Queen. You are what binds the armies into a force to be reckoned with."
"But ours is still a force you believe will fall in defeat." Gabrielle solicited a final counsel.
Stephen was unequivocal in his assessment. "Unless the Fates show their favor, Greece will fall."
Stephen left Gabrielle alone. The Queen took in hand a scroll bearing Xena's seal. The message had been delivered a fortnight after her return to Corinth. Upon reading the gentle message Gabrielle resolved to return to Scupi within a moon's cycle. It had now been near three since their parting. With a looming war she had no hope of an imminent reunion. If Stephen was right, death might claim her soon. The possibility of death deepened Gabrielle's loneliness for Xena. She opened the scroll and took comfort in the juxtaposition of Xena's bold, strong strokes of the quill and the tender emotion they conveyed.
I hope this finds you well.
Your visit to Scupi made quite an impression. Gregory has asked when he and the other children might expect a return visit from the Royal bard and Spirit has never been the same under my hand, leading me to believe he claims a different mistress. I cannot blame either boy or stallion.
As for me, I beg your pardon for failing to thank you for your visit. The time we spent together shall be forever cherished. I now see sunsets from my porch through your eyes and appreciate the beauty of the nameless colors of the painted sky all the more.
Xena caught sight of Stephen riding toward the homestead. A bolt of panic struck her. She closed her eyes and reached out with her senses. Everything she felt assured her Gabrielle was well. She calmed and waited for the Captain to reach her.
"Stephen, it is good to see you."
Stephen dismounted and offered his arm in greeting. "Xena, I wish I could have come under better circumstances."
Xena clasped his arm. "What brings you?"
"Caesar threatens to march on Greece. It is only a matter of time."
The name of Caesar reopened a deep wound. "Where is Gabrielle?"
"Crossing the Haemus Mountains to intercept Rome."
Xena was confused. "She sent you?"
"Then why are you here?" Xena's anger rose against the man before her. "Why aren't you with her?"
"Greece needs you." Stephen stated his purpose.
"Gabrielle would send for me if that was true," Xena judged.
"You're wrong," Stephen countered. "She will not call you to war."
"Gabrielle said that?"
Xena paced. "There are reasons..."
Stephen's passions rose. "Xena, I don't know what keeps you in Scupi. Whatever it is, does the reason mean more to you then Greece? Does it mean more to you than Gabrielle?"
Xena paused, her mien altered to that of the Conqueror. "How many legions does Caesar have?"
"The scouts counted three. There could be more."
"Who are his Generals?"
"Only Brutus rides with him."
"What Generals stand by our Queen?"
"Jared, of course. Kasen and Dymas. Paulos and Regan are kept at their garrisons to protect against a naval assault."
Xena was optimistic. "Greece is strong. She is in good hands."
The Captain was uncompromising. "Not the best."
"Good enough, I say."
Stephen presented his final argument. "Gabrielle insists on leading the 1st Army. Rome will target her."
Xena quieted. Gabrielle was doing everything Xena had taught her to do. To win the respect of her men she must be willing to lead them in battle, to place herself first against mortar, arrow and sword.
Stephen continued, making the most of his advantage. "Xena, if Gabrielle falls, so too will Greece. Jared isn't strong enough. He can forge an alliance with Kasen, but the other generals are ambitious and will be pursuing their own interest. Caesar will hammer one wedge after another and the schism he will create will be impossible to repair.
"Will you see everything you fought for disappear to the wind like so much dust? You were meant to leave a legacy that supplants Cirra."
Xena steeled, her eyes bore into the Guardsman. "A strong argument Stephen, where do you come by it?"
"It is mine alone." Stephen gentled. "Xena, will you forfeit your life if you once again raise your sword?"
Xena was familiar with the rumors. "If you are asking me if the Gods will strike me down, I take no greater risk than I always have."
Stephen went to his saddle and retrieved Xena's sword and chakram. "These are yours."
Xena hesitated at the sight of her weapons. She stepped up and took them, feeling their familiar weight in her hands. "So they are."
Xena and Stephen scouted the Roman camp. They observed a great deal of activity. Xena directed Stephen to stay near the camp and learn as much as he could. She would scout further north tracking two recently departing Roman legions led by Caesar.
In three days time she returned, signaling Stephen with her hawk's call. He offered her his arm. She took it in a hardy greeting.
"Xena, I was beginning to wonder if you had decided to take the Romans on your own."
"Not yet." The warrior smirked. "What goes on here?"
"Brutus has kept the camp on alert. There is no sign of battle preparations. There has been an exchange of messages between Rome and Greece." Stephen solicited Xena's intelligence. "What have you learned?"
"Caesar marches north at a good clip. I don't know for certain, but I heard a number of Centurions discussing Pompei. He may be challenging Caesar for Rome."
"Nothing like the snake eating its own tail. It's good news for Greece."
Xena agreed. "If it's true, the timing couldn't be better. Brutus is a competent general. Even with his dwindling forces he could be a risk to the realm."
Stephen yielded to Xena. "Do we return to camp?"
Xena was not ready to announce herself. "No, we can be of better use out here. We stay and watch."
Gabrielle rode to the center of the field with Jared and Trevor by her side. Greece stood in formation upon the hillcrest. The Royal Guardsmen were riveted to their Queen ready to respond to any sign of Roman treachery.
Brutus waited upon his mount with two Centurion officers as his escort. The Roman General addressed the young sovereign. "Queen Gabrielle."
Gabrielle responded with equal respect. "General Brutus, thank you for agreeing to this meeting."
"I welcome the opportunity to avoid unnecessary bloodshed."
Gabrielle maintained a civil tongue. "Were that true Rome would not threaten an incursion onto Greek soil."
"As I feared, our presence has been misunderstood." Brutus raised his hand in a conciliatory gesture. "Rome has much to offer the region."
Gabrielle recalled. "Rome has marched upon Greece before, never with an altruistic motive."
Brutus lowered his hand, resting it on the pommel of his saddle. "Why dwell on history?"
Gabrielle could not believe the audacity of the Roman. "History is an excellent teacher."
"That is true. I assure you Rome has learned from its previous engagements with Greece. Times have changed."
"How so, Brutus?" Gabrielle purposely used an informal address.
Brutus responded in kind. "Gabrielle, you now lead Greece. The animosity between Caesar and Xena is no longer a factor."
Gabrielle would not allow Roman rewriting of history. "Xena offered Caesar peace."
"Caesar never felt he could trust the Conqueror."
"I won't be so bold to say I am cut from the same cloth as the Conqueror. However, it is no secret that I have been mentored by Xena and am Xena's chosen successor. What makes Caesar believe I see Rome any differently than the Conqueror?"
Brutus leaned forward. "Your reputation precedes you. Gabrielle of Greece is not quick to war."
"No, I am not. However, my values do not preclude war as a viable alternative." Gabrielle placed her hand on her sword. "I will go to war to protect the realm. Let not Rome underestimate me. I guarantee the consequence of doing so will be dire."
Brutus waved his hand. "So then your sword is not for pageantry alone?"
"No, Sir. In my hands my sword is as deadly as that of any Guardsman."
What doubts Brutus had regarding the Queen were allayed. He was convinced he had a formidable opponent in his sights. "Have you a proposal for Rome?"
Gabrielle decided to take control of the conversation. "Leave Greece. If Rome meant to test me, consider my word enough to persuade you of the folly of the challenge. The Greek Guardsmen will cut the hearts out of every Roman Centurion that dares step foot on Greek soil uninvited.
"Caesar will not be pleased."
Gabrielle was stern. "My hospitality has its limits. Caesar will never be welcomed in Corinth."
The sweetness in Brutus's words disappeared. "Is that your final word?"
"Yes," Gabrielle pronounced.
Brutus nodded. "I will convey your message to Caesar. It is unfortunate. I had hoped for better." He signaled to the Centurions. "Let's go."
Without warning the Centurion to his left drew his dagger and aimed at the Queen. As he did, an arrow cut across the field past the first Centurion and Brutus and through the offending Centurion's throat. The Centurion dropped the dagger, falling dead off his horse. The second Centurion had no chance to react. Within a breath he felt an arrow pierce his skull causing instant death.
Trevor and Jared drew their swords.
Brutus raised his hands. "Wait!"
Gabrielle had her own dagger in her hand, a far more effective weapon than her sword given the distance that separated her from the Roman.
Brutus swore. "I didn't order an assassination!"
"Hold your weapons!" Gabrielle commanded. She studied Brutus carefully. He was visibly shaken. She did not judge him so fine an actor to pretend his innocence so convincingly. "Brutus, be grateful the soldiers of Greece are more disciplined than Rome's, otherwise you would be lying dead beside your Centurions."
Brutus declared. "I am an honorable man. This is not my way."
Gabrielle lost all patience. "But it is Caesar's, is it not!"
The Roman stayed mute.
"It must be hard to give your allegiance to a man who deceives his own generals."
Brutus defended his sovereign. "This is not Caesar's doing."
Gabrielle pointed to the dead man with her dagger. "Do you really think that Centurion acted on his own accord? Are acts of insubordination how commissions are earned in the Roman Army?"
Chastised, Brutus ceased his protest. "I cannot answer for the dead."
"Then carry a message to the living." Gabrielle placed her dagger back in its sheath. "Tell Caesar that Greece will judge anything less than a complete withdrawal an act of war and will respond accordingly. You have until daybreak."
The terms caused Brutus pause. He sought a delay. "Caesar may wish more time to consider."
Gabrielle was staunch. "Daybreak Brutus. Convince Caesar or die."
Brutus clenched his jaw. He looked at the deceitful Centurion. "Let him be food for the vultures. He deserves no better." He raised his gaze to Gabrielle. "My second man deserves a proper burial."
"Honor your dead by ending this immoral bloodshed." Gabrielle watched as Brutus rode back to the Roman line. For a moment she closed her eyes. She felt Xena's presence nearby. She turned her gaze in the direction of the arrows. There was plenty of brush to camouflage her protector.
Jared and Trevor also scanned the area. There was no sign of woman or man, yet they knew better.
Hidden, Stephen whispered to the equally concealed Xena. "No fair. How did you know it would be the one on the left?"
"Don't complain." Xena momentarily broke her fix upon Gabrielle. "You got the second." Her voice carried her mirth. "Made for a good show, didn't it?"
Xena and Stephen entered the Queen's camp. Xena led Spirit beside her. She dismounted, giving Argo's reins to Stephen as she continued on with the white stallion. Stephen followed, remaining on horseback.
Under an open tent Gabrielle and her generals were discussing the latest turn of events. Gabrielle's eye caught sight of Spirit. She walked away from the discussion, drawn to where Xena stood waiting.
Xena bowed. "Your Majesty, I've brought your new mount."
Unflinching, Gabrielle went with the pretense. "So soon? Is he ready to ride?"
The warrior smiled. "He does best when Argo is beside him."
Gabrielle returned the smile. "That would mean that you must stay until he feels comfortable in my hands."
Xena agreed. "I believe it would be best."
The Generals stepped out of the tent. Given Gabrielle's anonymous saviors, none were surprised to see Stephen and Xena. Although they might not shout it from the ramparts, the Generals were relieved to see them both.
Gabrielle's gaze shifted over to Stephen. She greeted him warmly. "Captain."
Stephen dismounted and offered his Queen a modest bow. "Your Majesty."
Gabrielle addressed the Guardsman. "You have traveled far. Why don't you rest? We can speak later."
Stephen and Xena exchanged glances. Stephen answered the Queen. "Your Majesty, I am ready to brief you at your first convenience."
Having observed their obvious concern, Gabrielle directed, "Let's step into my tent." She clarified her invitation to include both travelers. "Xena, please join us."
Gabrielle kissed Xena upon entering the privacy of the tent. "Thank you for saving my life."
Xena protested in a low growl, "Gabrielle."
The Queen turned to her Captain. "You don't mind, do you Stephen?"
Stephen approved of the show of affection. "Not at all."
Xena quipped. "Why would he? He expects the same show of gratitude."
Gabrielle broke free from the warrior and took Stephen into an embrace. Kissing him upon the cheek she whispered, "Thank you for bringing her to me."
Stephen held his Queen gently. "You're welcome."
Gabrielle turned to Xena. "What have you learned?"
Xena counseled. "Attack and the battle is yours."
The advice surprised her. "But we are outnumbered."
Stephen corrected. "No, we are not. Caesar has pulled back two legions."
Gabrielle could not fathom the reason. Caesar had the advantage. "Why?"
Xena paced. "We don't know for sure. We were hoping you could tell us."
Gabrielle accounted for Greece's allies. "It's too soon for Lao Ma to create a second front from the north and Persia is no immediate threat. King Okal has agreed to protect the east but will not enter Greece."
Stephen offered, "Then we may be right to believe Pompei is trying to take advantage of Caesar's engagement of Greece. He is our second front. The question is whether killing you was Caesar's idea or Brutus'. It would have obviously derailed Greece from taking the battle into its own hands."
"I don't believe Brutus sanctioned the Centurion's attempt on my life." Gabrielle was cautious. "It could be a trap."
Stephen assured, forgoing all formalities. "Gabrielle, we know what we saw."
Gabrielle considered. Her remaining questions were not strategic. They were for Xena alone. "Stephen, will you excuse us?"
Stephen took no offense. "Of course." He exited the tent giving the two women the privacy they needed.
Gabrielle chose to be direct, setting aside any thought of weighing her words. "Xena, why did you come?"
Xena answered without forethought. "Because Stephen asked me to."
The answer did not satisfy. "Not good enough. Try again."
Xena was unequivocal in her resolve. "Caesar shall not have Greece."
Though she was not surprised by Xena's declaration, Gabrielle was admittedly disappointed. "Hate is stronger than love."
Xena framed her motivation differently. Her voice softened. "I love Greece more than I hate Caesar."
Gabrielle wondered aloud, "Have you rethought your place in Greece?"
Xena chose to stifle the younger woman's misplaced hope. "Nothing has changed."
From the day she visited Xena in Scupi Gabrielle had privately questioned whether that was true. She decided to seek out and expose the one perplexing outward sign she was aware of. She walked to Xena untying the warrior’s blouse. Xena stood still allowing the disrobement without protest. Gabrielle revealed Xena's unblemished flesh where there once was a deep wound.
She placed her hand over Xena’s heart. "Everything has changed."
The warrior was unconvinced. "You make it seem so simple."
Gabrielle voiced a long suppressed conjecture. "Ares must have been furious to see you walk away from Corinth. It couldn't have been his choice."
"I don't belong to Ares." Xena was uncomfortably close to fulfilling the God of War's desire of having her return to the battlefield. She wanted no reminders of his presence in her life.
"You don't belong to any one person or God." Gabrielle reconciled herself to Xena's truth.
Xena felt differently. She belonged to Gabrielle. Closing the ties of her blouse, she stepped away. She wanted to explain herself to Gabrielle. She could not. She had been living a life that defied comprehension. So different than how she had once experienced her fate. She had once been sure of her destiny to rule Greece. No more.
Gabrielle’s entrance into her life tempered her. She learned that the greater good was achievable by relaxing her iron fist. She learned that she could bend without breaking. She learned love made her stronger, not weaker. Gabrielle’s love for her and her love for Gabrielle had never been in her vision of possibilities.
The Gods’ wager caused Xena to conclude that her purposed was not to lead Greece but to prepare Greece for its rightful ruler. Xena never forgot Aphrodite’s correction. There was more at stake in the wager than what happened to her. She believed that her destiny was to raise Gabrielle out of slavery and onto the throne. If the Gods chose to place Gabrielle on the throne using Aphrodite as their messenger and she has their instrument, then Xena would comply. Any argument contrary was silenced by the Fates. They had shown her the consequences of her actions. Though she believed she could never atone for the harm she had done, she could orchestrate events to give meaning to the bitterest truth of her life. She could no longer claim Greece in good conscious. What she said to Gabrielle when she abdicated echoed a truth that beat powerfully in her heart. The time for a warlord turned self-made sovereign had passed.
What she could not reconcile was why Gabrielle had to suffer their estrangement. Why did Gabrielle still love her when there was nothing more for Xena to give her?
She also had difficulty ascertaining Ares’ role. She could not believe the wager was mere folly. Ares had tried countless times to entice her back into the darkness of war. If his goal was to separate her from Gabrielle in order to reclaim her, he failed miserably. Just the opposite, she left Corinth and set her sword down. Ares’ one appearance in Scupi caused Xena to conclude that if he had not encouraged, he surely celebrated the Roman offensive.
What was she to do in the face of capacious Gods? She acted to realize the best possible outcomes and to eliminate the worst. She gave Gabrielle Greece and she denied Ares. But now the Fates brought her back to the fringe of a battle. She had returned to engage the Romans in order to safeguard Gabrielle and Greece. She no longer knew what to believe. She was no longer sure of her place, whether Scupi or Corinth. Uncertain, she decided to err on the side of caution. Were she to take a risk and be wrong, falling on her sword would be her only mercy.
"Xena…" Gabrielle gently interrupted the warrior’s thoughts.
Xena turned back to her Queen. She was explicit in her plan. "Gabrielle, I will return to Scupi after Caesar is defeated."
"Why not try…" Gabrielle attempted to argue her point.
"Gabrielle, hear me." Xena interrupted severely. "I will return to Scupi, not Corinth."
Gabrielle realized that she had overstepped her bounds. She stepped back regretfully. "I'm sorry."
Gabrielle followed Xena's path to an incline where the rock jutted toward the sky. Xena sat against the cliff watching the sun scorch the horizon with its heat. Gabrielle missed the simplest exchanges between them. Throughout the preparations for battle and the engagement of Rome, Xena was guarded and maintained a respectful formality. Gabrielle understood that Xena's public persona was intended to affirm Gabrielle's sovereignty. She had difficulty understanding the distance that remained in their few private exchanges. Time now was Gabrielle's enemy.
Xena and Stephen were right to counsel an immediate offensive. The seven days of battle were hard fought, resulting in a decisive victory for Greece. Gabrielle relived the one defining moment in this final day of conflict. In the field, a Roman soldier had broken through Greece's line. Upon reaching her, he stripped her off Spirit. Trevor, Samuel and Xena all converged toward her assailant. Gabrielle fought the Centurion's assault with her short sword. It was Xena's dagger that hit the Roman in the back of the neck just as Gabrielle thrust her sword through him. Samuel grabbed the standing dead man and flung him aside as Trevor helped Gabrielle back to her feet.
Xena stood stone still waiting until Gabrielle's gaze met hers. Gabrielle's assuring nod set Xena free to return to the battle. The moment in time was brief and yet it reaffirmed their bond. Men fought all about Gabrielle, but she knew the world to encompass only herself and Xena.
Gabrielle did not measure the risk of rejection. She followed her heart and took a step back in time when the woman before her was the Conqueror and her Lord. Gabrielle approached confidently taking her place sitting in between Xena's legs, leaning against the warmth of the warrior's body. Xena silently enfolded Gabrielle with her arms. Nothing was said by either woman as they watched the sun set.
The glimmer of stars, their light claiming a place in the sky, reminded Gabrielle of the evenings she had spent with Xena in the palace turret. It had been a place where she braved many of their difficult conversations.
"Yes." Xena's voice was a tender invitation.
"It is I who reach out for you. It is I who entwine my hand with yours. It is I Xena, who invite you to our bed. Until this moment you have not received me well. I don't know what test the Gods have put you through. All I know is that you have been here with me in body, but not in heart. You taught me not to be afraid of the truth. I am left to ask you for the truth; whatever hurt it may bring me… and you. If your feelings for me have changed, if I am no longer a comfort to you, please tell me."
Xena felt the painful ache of her curse. "You don't understand."
Gabrielle turned to the warrior. "I want to."
Xena could see the earnestness of Gabrielle's conviction. She debated how much she should say, could say without forfeiting what she valued most in life. "Two season's after Lyceus' death, I went to the Temple of the Moirae to light a candle in his memory. The Fates greeted me. Lachesis spoke for the three. She said that my life could take one of three roads. I suspect each had their own opinion of what they would do with me.
"I could become the Destroyer of Nations. Or, I could have the same life but have it touched by a son of Zeus and finally, I could become the Conqueror of Greece. Lachesis said that the Fates would choose my destiny if I did not make the choice for myself.
"I wanted to know more and said so. They gave me one question with the caveat that I not ask about my own life. I asked what choice would be best for Greece. The answer was to become the Conqueror. And so I chose to become who I am. Before granting my request Lachesis foretold that a day would come when I would learn how my choice affected the life of another. I would carry that knowledge to the end of my days. I already carried the burden of Lyceus' death. I thought there could be nothing more terrible.
"Just as I was near my triumph of winning Corinth, a young woman, an insane warrior named Callisto began to raid villages under my banner. She was destroying everything I worked for. I rode alone and confronted her. She told me that her family had died in the raid I led against Cirra."
"I know of Cirra." Gabrielle tried to save Xena the confession.
"How can you know Cirra?" Xena felt the full force of her sorrow. "I don't think anyone can know Cirra unless they witnessed it. Few are alive who remember." Xena leaned her head back, closing her eyes. "Cirra was part of my darkest days. I remembered it too well."
Gabrielle interjected. "Your dreams?"
Xena did not answer immediately. The haunting images and sounds of the village claimed her. She wondered, as she had done often, if she had seen the younger Callisto in the horrific chaos. She opened her eyes to Gabrielle. "I offered Callisto a second chance. She wouldn't take it. I killed her in combat. There hasn't been a day since that I haven't thought of her, of the harm I did, the waste of it all. My legacy of destruction isn't limited to those who died. I've been a curse to many who lived on."
Gabrielle wondered. "Do you believe you should have chosen differently?"
"I cannot ignore the fact that my decision had unforeseen consequences, innocents were hurt."
"If you have known about Callisto for all these years, why did you make your decision now?"
Xena came as close to the truth as she dared. "I didn't leave Corinth just because of Callisto's memory. I can no longer be a pretender to the throne. My dishonorable actions nullified all rights I might have once convinced myself I had earned. The means taken is as important as the ends. Just because I won the war for Greece doesn't prove that it was an honorable war to wage."
Gabrielle took Xena's hand. "You freed many."
"And killed many who didn't deserve to die," Xena confessed.
"You still haven't answered my question." Gabrielle wrapped her hands around Xena's. "Why now?"
Xena looked gratefully to who held her. "I believe Greece is in noble hands."
"There would be no Greece without you." Gabrielle did not speak of the realm. "Haven't the past few days proven that to you?"
The warrior was steadfast. "Greece still owns my sword. I will return if called."
Gabrielle's heart broke. "There is still life in you to be Ares' Chosen, to be a warrior?"
"That may be the most honest way of seeing me," Xena acknowledged.
"I have tried not to see you that way."
Xena raised their hands and kissed Gabrielle's lovingly. "I know, and I am grateful for it."
Once again, Gabrielle found herself forced to accept their divergent views and the resulting separation their disagreement caused them. "Will you see me to Corinth?"
Xena acquiesced. "If that is your wish."
Gabrielle straightened up. "You must want to be with me. It is the only way we have ever been together."
Xena considered. "Don't ask me to cross the city gates. I won't deny you, but I swear to you it won't do either of us any good for me to return."
"I won't." Gabrielle gave her word. "You decide when we part. I promise I will let you go."
Xena released their hands. She reached behind Gabrielle's head, guiding the younger woman to her. She kissed Gabrielle with unrestrained passion. Gabrielle equaled Xena in emotion, releasing her own long checked desire.
Xena stood at the hillcrest looking down to the battlefield as the dead were being disposed of. It was a harsh witness she insisted upon. Never would war mean anything less than the loss of life and the destruction of souls. She knew too many leaders who sent their command to battle without placing their own life in the line of fire. She measured them nothing less than cowards, the scourge of humanity. Their decisions to go to war were far too easily made. They failed to understand the price paid for embracing Ares as an ally.
Jared walked up behind her. "Stephen was right to bring you here."
"This victory was not mine," Xena rightfully assessed. "It was Pompei who won the battle for Greece."
Jared did not allow her to derail his compliment. "Gabrielle is not the only one you inspire. There are others who have missed you."
Xena closed her eyes for a brief moment. His admission cut through her doubt. On this day she felt she had Jared's approval. She turned her gaze to him. "I've missed you, too."
Jared inquired. "Where now, Xena?"
"I will ride with Gabrielle. We will separate before Corinth."
The man was disappointed. "You still refuse the throne."
Xena responded by rote. "It is not mine to accept."
Jared broached a sensitive subject. "Gabrielle tells me you have remained faithful to her." His intention was not to question his young ward's assertion.
Xena felt a sting. "Jared, the love you have for us does not give you the right to judge us or to interfere in the decisions we make between us."
Jared rejected her reprimand. "I give you no promise. I will continue to do what I believe is best for both of you. I've earned the right."
"Say you?" Xena challenged.
"That's right." Jared affirmed.
Xena shook her head in an irrepressible appreciation. "The world is changing. First Stephen. Now you. Being with the two of you is worse than being home with my mother."
Once his work in the north was completed Jared hoped to take a longer route home to Corinth. "Am I welcomed in Scupi?"
Xena smiled. "Anytime, old man. I'll put you to work."
"Tis fair." The former villager was more than willing to earn his keep.
"You keep yourself safe," Xena counseled. "I don't want to be called back to save your sorry hide for the umpteenth time."
"You will come if called?"
"I will not deny Gabrielle. Though she does not believe it, she owns me heart and soul."
The Queen's guardian knew how to remedy Gabrielle's doubt. "The only way you can prove that truth is to stand with her."
Xena's brow narrowed. "You don't ever quit, do you?"
Jared offered a second alternative. "Then tell her you love her."
Xena nodded. "That I can do, but I don't know how well it serves either of us."
"Your love has always served Gabrielle well."
Xena could not have received a finer compliment. "Come, let's walk." She began back to camp.
For a time they walked in silence. Feeling his own doubts, Jared sought to commend himself. "You know, I couldn’t change even if I wanted to."
"You and old dogs," Xena agreed heartedly.
Gabrielle and Xena traveled with the Queen's Guard. To Samuel and others it was as if they stepped back in time. As each day passed the ease between the Queen and Xena grew. Xena continued to defer to Gabrielle, never giving a command. Their public demonstrations of affection were slight. It was the undeniable unspoken exchanges that brought back memories of traveling under the Queen's protocol with the Conqueror.
A few days after the core of the Roman army had been sent to Hades, Stephen led the 1st Army ahead to Corinth. Jared, in command of the Royal Guard remained in the north reinforcing Dymas and the 2nd Army. He would return to Corinth only after he was satisfied that there would be no renewed threat.
The Queen's Guard traveled with Kasen and the 3rd Army as an escort, bidding them farewell at a crossroad to the eastern garrison. Their route continued south taking them over the Axious River near Pella. Gabrielle respected Xena's wish not to take a detour to Amphipolis. Xena couched her request by saying she did not want her mother to see her with any royal forces, avoiding a misunderstanding regarding her re-association with the realm. What Xena failed to share was her desire to see Gabrielle safely ensconced in the palace. She would visit with her mother on her way home to Scupi after she and Gabrielle parted ways.
They took a coastal route avoiding the Pendus Mountains. Xena had thought often of Ares during the days of battle and travel. She feared her error in provoking him. She feared his misguided attempts to win her back. She had taken a risk in returning to war. She had given Ares an opportunity to reenter her soul with a vengeance. When Gabrielle was pulled off Spirit, Xena's greatest nightmare was before her eyes. Only by a well-thrown dagger hitting its mark had her nightmare been suspended.
Greece's victory tempered Xena's resolve. She began to reconsider the uncompromising nature of her self-imposed exile. She began to consider the possibility of seeing Gabrielle more often. Xena was not ready to trespass the streets of Corinth, she was, however, contemplating nearby havens they could share. Megara was prominent in her reverie.
The travelers set camp a full day's ride from Corinth. Xena had taken advantage of a nearby stream to wash. A flash of light and the reappearance of the not-too-pleased Goddess of Love interrupted her.
"You are the most frustrating mortal I have ever met."
Xena was bewildered. She answered truthfully and somewhat impatiently. "Aphrodite, I did what you wanted."
"You think? Well, I'm not done with you yet." Aphrodite waved her hand.
Xena felt a sharp pain in her chest. The pain brought Xena to her knees. She labored for breath. "What have you done?"
"Let's try again, shall we?" The Goddess stood before the warrior. "New rules. Your heart will bleed whenever you withhold the truth from Gabrielle." Her voice was heavy with sarcasm. "It shouldn't be a problem being truthful. We both know how much you value honesty."
"I told her the truth," Xena protested.
Aphrodite bent down. She was eye to eye with Xena. "Not the whole truth."
"You can't do this." Xena could barely withstand the pain.
The Goddess was indifferent. "I just did."
"You promised," Xena pleaded.
"And I kept my promise. You don't have to offer the throne to Gabrielle ever again."
"Why are you doing this?"
Aphrodite stood up. "Because I don't like losing to Ares. I shall win our bet."
The pain eased. "Aphrodite, what do you want from me?"
"I can't tell you. If I do, I forfeit the wager. You will have to figure it out all by yourself." Aphrodite reproached the woman at her feet. "Xena, I don’t understand how you can be so brilliant and yet so blind."
Xena looked down. Her wound had not reappeared. She wondered how long she had before the visible mark of the Gods showed. She looked up. Aphrodite vanished before her eyes. A tear fell down her cheek. Whatever reprieve she thought she had been given had ended.
Gabrielle lay in Xena's arms. That this was their final morning together touched them both. Corinth was near. Gabrielle could have chosen to push on to the city by traveling through the previous evening. She purposely chose to stop early and claim one more night with a far quieter Xena. With their farewell near, she could not bring herself to breach the peace of silence.
Xena took note of Gabrielle's wakefulness. She spoke softly. "I will be leaving for Scupi today."
Gabrielle whispered. "You haven't changed your mind?"
"We have spoken..."
Gabrielle interrupted, chastising herself for pressing. "Of course. You've told me everything."
Xena felt what was comparable to a sharp dagger cutting her chest. Underneath her sleep shirt she felt drops of blood seeping from her skin. Her pain intensified. She struggled to remain still. Perspiration strained to the surface, her body weeping salt and blood. Gabrielle sensed a change in her.
She raised herself up on her elbow. She inquired cautiously. "Have you something more to say to me?"
Xena begged. "Let me go."
Gabrielle returned again to the memory of the critical moment in both their lives when she thought herself pregnant with Inis' child, how she had said those very words to Xena. Xena had agreed to let her go. Before she did, she asked Gabrielle the one question that, answered truthfully, changed both their lives - 'Why?' Gabrielle was spent. She had asked the question and been given an answer that brought no comfort. She was left with a promise she had no wish to honor.
"Xena, do you…" Gabrielle could not complete the question. She saw that Xena wore her ring. As long as Xena wore the ring, Gabrielle had proof that she was loved. For all Xena said to her, love held no consequence. Their love shaped their destiny; it was simply not a destiny she would have chosen for either of them. There was nothing more for Gabrielle to do. "May I still come and visit?"
Xena smiled sadly. "Yes."
Gabrielle, Xena and the Queen's Guard traveled west to Corinth. Xena felt herself getting weaker. She doubted she would have the strength to return to Scupi. She would need to find a quiet, secluded place to die. They neared a crossroad.
She broke the silence that had dominated their morning travel. "My Queen."
Gabrielle's gaze traveled from Xena to the road ahead. She understood. Gabrielle turned back in her saddle and motioned to Trevor. He halted the line and waited as Gabrielle and Xena continued to ride forward. Reaching her departure point Xena guided Argo north. Gabrielle reined Spirit to stand south so their steeds stood side by side, leaving their riders to face one another.
Xena struggled to find the right words to bid this, their final farewell. "Gabrielle…"
Gabrielle wanted to ease the warrior's undeniable regret for what Gabrielle believed was a separation beyond both their controls. "Xena, you owe me nothing. I owe you everything. Live life as you must. I won't love you less for it."
Xena paused. She wanted to give Gabrielle happiness. She knew that such a gift was beyond her means. Throughout their life together, there was one constant Gabrielle longed for above all else. Xena had withheld her words of love in the beginning of their life together and had spoken them sparingly since Poteidaia. She wanted to erase all doubt from Gabrielle's heart.
"Gabrielle." Xena reached out and covered the younger woman's hand with her own. "I love you. I have always loved you. I wish I had been better in proving my love to you."
Gabrielle's tender heart was deeply moved. "Xena, you don't have to prove your love to me." She looked south. "That road leads to Megara. Someday, I hope we can return to the beach house together."
"It's a wonderful dream," Xena mused.
Gabrielle was crestfallen. "Must it be a dream?"
Seeing her future clearly, Xena hated giving false hope. "Let the Fates decide."
Gabrielle was determined to defy any obstacle that stood between them, no matter how formidable. "Why? Why can't we decide for ourselves?"
Xena was heartened by Gabrielle's passionate retort. "You're right. I have not seen Megara for the last time."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you." Her soul was soothed. She stood in her stirrups and leaned over to Xena, giving the warrior a gentle kiss. "I love you."
Xena smiled. "Keep an eye on the old man for me."
"You too." Gabrielle spoke her deepest desire. "We will see each other soon."
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand. She leaned back, pausing for a heartbeat, memorizing her Queen's brilliant beauty before charging Argo down the road to Scupi. Upon rounding a bend she pulled Argo aside, out of sight. There she waited until all the Guardsmen had passed. She then changed her direction south to Megara.
Throughout the balance of her journey Gabrielle felt an unrelenting pull towards the direction from whence she came. She never experienced her separations from Xena easily. As strong as her convictions, as truthful as her words, releasing Xena to return to Scupi was painfully difficult; she left a part of herself with the warrior.
She continued in her belief that Xena's insistence on forfeiting the throne had more to do with the acts of Gods than Xena's heart. Though Xena's wound had healed, the cause of it remained. Xena did not deny Gabrielle's assertions that Ares played a role in the decisions the warrior made. Xena simply refused to elaborate on the nature of his influence. If Gabrielle did not believe Xena's life thread was held in the balance of all the intrigue they endured she would have demanded an explanation from the warrior and if still refused taken it upon herself to search for the answer.
The pull to turn back was agonizing. Gabrielle closed her eyes; her connection to Xena brought her near tears. She sought relief - a compromise to help her transition to her life in Corinth. She turned to her Security Chief riding beside her. "Trevor, could we make Megara tonight?"
The Guardsman calculated the distance. "I say, yes."
Her decision was immediate. "I want only you and Sam. The rest of my Guard should go ahead to Corinth. I'll send instructions to Targon."
Trevor did not like the idea. "It would be better if you keep your Guard, all except one to carry the message."
Gabrielle insisted. "Let them rest from war with their families. I'll limit my selfishness to only you and Sam. If you’d rather return to Corinth name your replacement."
"I know I speak for Sam when I say that when given a choice we reserve for ourselves the honor to serve you."
Gabrielle was sincerely grateful. "Thank you."
It was late evening when the party of three rode into Megara. Reaching the beach house, Gabrielle dismounted and untied her saddlebag, taking it in hand. She gave Spirit's reins to Trevor. Trevor and Samuel rode to the stables as Gabrielle entered the house. She struck a flint, lighting a candle. She proceeded to light a number of tapers.
Trevor ran out of the stables, halting in the middle of the courtyard. The house had been dark before their arrival. He scanned the grounds. Knowing whom he searched for, he ran round the building toward the beach. It did not take him long to see the fire. The fire ring lay at the cove. He turned and ran back, using the rear house entrance.
Trevor burst into the main room surprising Gabrielle. "Xena is here."
Taken aback, Gabrielle demanded. "Where?"
"The cove, I saw her fire."
Gabrielle was not easily convinced. "How do you know its Xena's?"
Trevor had all the evidence he needed. "Argo is in the stables."
Xena sat up against a large boulder, her eyes closed. She did not react to Gabrielle's approach. By the light of her torch, Gabrielle could see the wet crimson stain of blood covering Xena's chest. She planted the torch into the sand and knelt down. "Xena..."
Weakly, Xena opened her eyes. "Gabrielle."
"You're bleeding." Gabrielle's hands hovered over the warrior. The injury looked awful. "Let me help you."
"No." Xena saw no reason to stay the inevitable. "This is Aphrodite's handiwork."
The association of the Goddess with such a bloody wound was baffling. "Aphrodite? Why would she hurt you?"
"Don't blame her." Xena checked any accusation. "She saved my life when I first took the arrow. I've been on borrowed time ever since," Xena quipped weakly. "She gives hard terms. At least with you I have a chance in the negotiations. With Aphrodite it's take it or leave it." The warrior hardened. "I'm done doing her bidding."
At a loss, Gabrielle begged for an explanation. "What does she want from you?"
"Not from me really." Xena took satisfaction in her insight. "I figured it out. She and Ares made a dirty little bet. It's one thing to play with my life, it's another to…" Xena drifted.
"To what? Xena what must you do?" Gabrielle offered herself. "Can I do it for you?"
Xena smiled ruefully. "I have to give Aphrodite credit. She told me from the start what this was all about. I was too angry to hear her. I let my pride get in the way."
Gabrielle grabbed Xena's shirt. "Xena, I'm begging you. Tell me!"
Dismayed, Xena looked down. "Gabrielle, you have my blood on your hands. You should go wash."
"I am not leaving you."
Xena fell into her own thoughts. "I wonder who is going to be more upset, Aphrodite or Ares?"
Gabrielle raged. "Xena, don't leave me. Fight!"
"Don't you see that this is the only way for me… for you." Xena felt a marvelous peace in her decision.
"You do me no favor!" Gabrielle remonstrated.
Xena's eyes closed as she drifted toward unconsciousness.
"Xena! Don't… Don't you leave me!" Desperate, Gabrielle called out. "Aphrodite! Listen to me! I'll do anything! Please, let Xena live! I'll give you my life for hers."
A flash of light came forth from the night sky striking the two women.
Xena lay in bed. Gabrielle sat in a chair with a view of the surf and the morning sun to her right, and of Xena to her left. Aphrodite materialized beside Xena's bed. Gabrielle sat up unafraid. She guessed the identity of her visitor.
"I can see what Ares sees in her. Gabrielle, I'm actually starting to like your warrior." Aphrodite gently caressed Xena's face. "Where is the monster now?"
Gabrielle was vehement. "She is not a monster!"
Aphrodite turned easily toward the Queen. "Those were your words, not mine."
"I'm ashamed I said them."
"Xena has always seen a part of herself as a monster." The Goddess observed. "She marveled at the fact that you seemed incapable of forsaking her completely. She feared something would cause you to change. Unfortunately, her fears were justified."
Gabrielle stood up. "Aphrodite, that's in the past. We made amends."
"There is something you don't know, a fact Xena would rather take to the grave than tell you."
Gabrielle turned her gaze to the sleeping warrior. "Is it so terrible?"
"No." Aphrodite assured. "But, in this particular case Xena won't see the forest for the trees." The Goddess took measure of the young Queen. "Will you hear it?"
"Tell me." Gabrielle was unafraid of anything that helped her to better understand the events in their life.
Aphrodite decided to lead Gabrielle carefully. "Let me ask you a question first."
"What would you do if the Fates came to you and said that they would take you back in time to the day Draco raided Poteidaia, except that on this new day Draco would not succeed and you and your family would survive unharmed?"
Gabrielle sat down in her chair. The thought of going back was stunning. Her eyes held the Goddess.
Aphrodite continued. "Now, since you were not taken as a slave you would never have entered the Conqueror's household, been trained as a healer by Dalius, or become the Queen of Greece, a Queen who altered the slavery laws to such an extent that the future promises a free Greece."
Gabrielle remained silent.
"There is more for you to think about. If you accepted the Fates’ offer, the day would come when you would witness Xena of Amphipolis crucified in a Roman prison on Mount Amaro. On that day Lachesis would come to you and tell you that Xena's death was a result of your choice, it could have been avoided had you chosen differently.
"How do you balance the scales, Gabrielle? The lives of your family saved against all the lives that the Conqueror and the Queen of Greece have helped. How do you weigh your experience of slavery against Xena's death by crucifixion?"
Gabrielle was stymied. "I can't choose."
"So, you would let the Fates decide?" Aphrodite touched the warrior's face gently. "Xena didn't. She chose the path they promised would be best for Greece. Xena learned to live with her choice, believing Callisto's memory to be her prescribed torment. Callisto didn't carry the Fates’ message." Aphrodite now turned and captured Gabrielle's complete regard. "You see Gabrielle, Xena didn't tell you the whole truth. The day you returned to Poteidaia, while you were grieving your sister, Lachesis came to Xena and told her that you would not have been taken into slavery had she chosen differently."
Gabrielle looked over to Xena, sharing the warrior's anguish.
"Of course Lachesis didn't tell her what your life would have been, only what it wasn't."
Gabrielle had trouble fathoming the implications of what she had been told. "Which choice was the better?"
Aphrodite would not grant Gabrielle an answer. "I can't pretend to judge which life would have been best for you. I told Xena her heart would bleed if she withheld the truth. I was sure she would confess. I was wrong. Xena would rather die than have you hate her."
"I don't hate her." Gabrielle got to her feet and stood at the foot of the bed. "She didn't have anything to do with my being taken as a slave. And even if she did… I honestly don't know what I would have chosen for myself." Gabrielle knew one fact to be true. "Aphrodite, I don't want Xena to die on a cross."
The Goddess smiled approvingly. "Xena will wake soon. She will be as strong as ever. When she does wake, tell her that the wager was about the Chosen and I won. I'm not feeling too much brotherly love because of it. Lucky for me, I don't care what Ares thinks."
"Does this mean Xena is no longer Ares' Chosen?" Gabrielle hoped.
"There is no one more stubborn than Ares. He'll keep waiting for her." Aphrodite stood up and touched Gabrielle's cheek. "Ares has his Chosen and I have mine. It's nice knowing love is stronger than hate."
Gabrielle was appreciative. "Your Chosen is lucky."
Aphrodite smiled. "I'm happy you think so. I'll be keeping an eye on both of you." The Goddess laughed wickedly. "Don't let that stop you from getting reacquainted."
Xena woke with Gabrielle sleeping beside her. The young Queen lay in the familiar posture against Xena's shoulder, her hand gripping Xena's sleep shirt. Xena covered Gabrielle's hand with her own, feeling the hold relax under her palm. She looked outside. The sun was beyond the visible horizon, it was past mid-day.
She recalled the night, the cove and Gabrielle. She was certain she would die. Why she was safe in their bed was a mystery. Gabrielle's words to Aphrodite came to Xena, with it a surge of fear of what Gabrielle may have bartered to save her life. She closed her eyes and allowed the feeling of Gabrielle's touch, the smell of Gabrielle's unique sweet scent, and the steady rhythm of Gabrielle's breathing console her. Xena doubted Elysia could be gentler to the soul than the very moment she now lived.
Gabrielle stirred. Xena waited as the younger woman slowly released herself from Morpheus' hold.
"Hello." Xena greeted her partner.
"Xena." Gabrielle propped herself up on her elbow. "How are you feeling?"
Xena had not thought much of it. "Good. Gabrielle what happened in the cove?"
"You fell unconscious. Trevor and Sam brought you here."
With her hand Xena examined her chest. "The wound is healed."
"Aphrodite healed you." Gabrielle confirmed. "She was here this morning. She told me everything."
"Did she?" Xena was wary.
Gabrielle cut to the quick. "She told me that because you chose the greater good for Greece, I was taken into slavery."
Xena was silent. Her regret enclosed her heart and pressed painfully.
Gabrielle spoke their truth. "Calisto is not your greatest burden, I am."
"The day that I watched you mourn Lila in Poteidaia… How could I tell you what I had done to you?"
Gabrielle set in motion her argument. "Did Lachesis tell you what my life would have been if you had made a different choice?"
"Then how can you judge? I survived my slavery. I have you. Xena, you made me Queen of Greece."
Xena was not assuaged. "That day you were neither my love nor the Queen of Greece. You were and are a woman grieving a life stolen from you, a sister and parents killed."
"So you meant to make amends by leaving me?" By her very voice, Gabrielle conveyed the incredulousness of the thought.
"I made a choice," Xena affirmed.
"Aphrodite asked me, knowing what my life has been, if I would have chosen not to be taken by Draco."
Xena now questioned what she once believed obvious. "What did you say?"
"I told her I would have left it to the Fates. I wouldn't have been as brave as you." Gabrielle took the warrior's hand. "Xena, I thought more about it after she left. Aphrodite didn't tell me anything specific about what my other life would have been like, but she did tell me one fact about yours, about how you would have died. Xena, I would readily accept my years as a slave if at the end, I found myself here with you."
Gabrielle continued to persuade. "Xena, you didn't make your choice so you could own Greece. You did what was best for Greece. What of all the lives changed for the better? Who is to say mine is not one of those? Xena, you did not sentence me to Tracate's abuse. What you did do, once I entered your household, was keep me safe. You have cared for me in every way imaginable, and if I am not mistaken, you have loved me and you love me still."
"You're not mistaken."
Gabrielle smiled. "Aphrodite asked me to give you a message. She said the wager was about the Chosen and she won. Ares is not pleased."
"She won?" Xena was more confused than ever.
"Then it's over."
"Between you and her, I believe so, but not between you and me." Gabrielle was deliberate in her words. "Xena, I have come to understand, in part, the sacrifice you've made for Greece. You have every right… you deserve a life of your choosing. Xena, you gave me Greece and I am grateful. I give you my oath I shall wear the diadem and do all I can to make you proud you chose me."
"I am proud of you…" Xena would not have Gabrielle think differently.
"Xena, please let me finish… If Scupi is to be your home, I request permission to stay in your life and to visit you as often as Greece allows. I will accept the arrangement and be content." Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand over Xena's heart. "I would prefer to return Greece to you and share its governance. I want you to be my Lord as only you can be. Together we can move beyond the past. I have faith that together we have the power to vouchsafe our happiness."
Xena shook her head in admiration. "You are magnificent. The Gods should bow down at your feet."
"I ask nothing from the Gods." Gabrielle beseeched. "I want you to accept my hand and be with me. With you my life has its greatest meaning and my fears are kept at bay. Without you life is a trial. Xena, my choice has not changed. I have and will always choose you."
Xena placed her hand over Gabrielle's. She leaned forward and kissed Gabrielle tenderly. "There is no choice for me, I am yours."
Comments always welcomed & appreciated. Mayt_fanfiction@sbcglobal.net
Return to AUSXIP - The Bard's Corner
Return to AUSXIP Main Page