My Lord – Solstice
Revision Statement: In revising My Lord I have tried to add more narrative to improve the character development. If the editorial quality is not up to my usual standard, the reason is because my editor, Cath, did not review the changes. Thus, direct all criticism my way.
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. This series continues with My Lord: By The Fates
Acknowledgements: My gratitude to Cath for her edits, comments and timely response.
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.
Xena of Amphipolis, Conqueror of Greece
Gabrielle of Poteidaia
The Conqueror's Family
Cyrene: Mother of Xena
Lyceus: Deceased brother of Xena
Toris: Disgraced brother
The Conqueror's Household
Dalius: The Healer
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
Brogan: Escorted Gabrielle when she was taken into custody by Osric.
Cantus: Gabrielle mentioned that she stitched a wound
Endres: Gabrielle stitched a cut
Geldpac: Seasoned warrior
Hamish: Escorted Gabrielle when she was taken into custody by Osric .
Sentas (Lieut): Brash seasoned officer
Stephen (Captain): Royal Guardsman
Talas: Traitor, killed by Xena
Tavis (Lieut): Seasoned officer
Trevor: Royal Guardsman assigned Gabrielle's security.
Xanthus: Guard palace gates
Curan: Tried to rape Gabrielle. She killed him.
Inis: Gabrielle's lover during Gabrielle's estrangement from Xena
Lieut. Osric: Took Gabrielle into custody for killing a soldier. Later killed. Killer assumed to be Inis.
Persi: Repair the Conqueror's armor.
Leaders of Other Nations
Bevan: Xena conqueror him to win Corinth & Greece
Caesar - Rome
Lao Ma - Chin
Okal - Persia
Draco: Warlord - took Gabrielle into slavery
Halan: Leader of Eastern raiders
Leyan: Corrupt leader of the Persian Army
Montavous: Greek accomplice of Halan
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.
House of Gaugan
Ridel: Gaugan's son
The pounding of two steeds' hooves on the hard, wet ground beat a steady rhythm. The Conqueror rode Argo at a relentless pace, her hands gripping the reins tightly. The night was cold and wet, but the numbness she felt had nothing to do with the weather. The sight of Corinth before her heightened her apprehension. On his stallion, Jared kept abreast. He dared not lose focus, for surely he would be left behind. They had quit their hunting camp two days early, the moment Darlius' message was received. They had ridden throughout the night after leaving orders for the balance of the hunting party to follow in the morning.
Notified of the Conqueror's arrival, Darlius stood at the palace entrance. His impatience was now tempered by the prospect of completing a joyless task.
The Conqueror dismounted in one quick motion. Without thought of Argo's care, she scanned the grounds. Seeing Darlius, she immediately went to him.
Darlius bowed slightly. "Your Majesty."
The Conqueror was in no mood for formalities. "Where is she?"
"Your suite. The Queen is sleeping."
"How long has she been ill?"
"What!" The Conqueror's words were sharp. "Why did you wait five days before sending for me?"
Darlius projected an unfelt calm. He defended himself as best as he could. "Queen Gabrielle did not want to worry you needlessly."
The Conqueror walked down the palace corridor towards the Royal suite. "What changed?"
"The Queen is an able healer. She came to understand the nature of her illness. She is frightened, Your Majesty."
The Conqueror paused. Her eyes were riveted upon Darlius. She trusted Gabrielle's skill as a healer. And yet, she hoped the elder healer would temper the diagnosis. "Has she reason to be?"
Here was the moment Darlius dreaded. He hated losing a patient to Death. He feared that by Solstice not only would he lose a patient, but, given that the patient was Gabrielle, he would also be losing a woman he considered a colleague, a friend, and his Queen. He spoke dolefully. "Yes, Your Majesty."
The Conqueror observed the genuine sorrow etched upon Darlius' countenance. It confirmed the sincerity of his words. She bolted to the Royal suite leaving the healer to wait for Jared.
Trevor stood at the entrance of the Conqueror's suite speaking to the senior Guardsman on duty. He was seeking an update on the Queen's condition. Trevor heard the Conqueror's distinctive boot steps before recognizing her form approaching at a run down the corridor. Wordlessly, he opened the chamber door. He closed the door after the Conqueror entered the suite. Without being told he knew his place. He would remain at the station, in wait for the Conqueror's orders.
The Conqueror cut across the main chamber to the Royal bedroom. She slowed only as she passed the fireplace and neared the foot of the bed she shared with Gabrielle. Gabrielle lay still. Her breathing was shallow, emitting a rasp as air traveled in and out of her lungs.
The Conqueror dismissed Darlius' assistant with the wave of her hand. She knelt beside the bed, thoroughly examining the young woman. She touched Gabrielle's forehead; fever was evident. She leaned her ear against Gabrielle's chest. There was fluid in her lungs.
Gabrielle moaned. Her eyes fluttered.
"I'm here. Rest now." Xena comforted.
Gabrielle opened her eyes. Her voice was a whisper. "Xena." The effort of speaking left her breathless.
Xena offered a worried smile. "I'm going to thrash Darlius. He made me believe you were really ill."
Gabrielle lifted her hand. Xena took it and kissed its palm. The two women silently held their shared gaze. Xena read a profound sadness in Gabrielle's dulled eyes. In so doing, she felt a rise in her own fear. Nonetheless, when she spoke her voice was steady and firm. "You will not leave me."
"I'm sorry…" Gabrielle apologized weakly.
"No!" Xena growled as her body involuntarily trembled. "I promised I would be back in time for Solstice. You promised me a private dance."
Gabrielle closed her eyes.
"Gabrielle." The Conqueror demanded, "Look…at…me."
Gabrielle opened her eyes, cautioned by the harsh tone of the Conqueror, a tone rarely directed toward her.
"I am your Sovereign. I command you to fight. I command you to live."
Gabrielle could not only see, but also feel the Conqueror's extraordinary will. She nodded in silent acquiescence.
The Conqueror was not appeased. "What say you?" She placed her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Gabrielle!"
Wretchedly, Gabrielle responded. "Yes, My Lord."
A tear etched down the Conqueror's cheek. She ignored it. "Now listen to me. We have to get you to clear your lungs. I'm going to brew a tea for you to drink. It will help you to cough."
Gabrielle protested. "No more…I can't…Too tired."
The Conqueror was dispassionate. "I won't argue with you. You will do as I say."
Xena released Gabrielle and exited to the main chamber where Darlius and Jared waited. She stood at her desk and began to write on a piece of parchment. She directed her comments to Darlius. "There are herbs I need." Darlius approached as she continued to write. Finished, Xena handed the parchment to the healer. "Bring them to me."
Darlius could not bear to see Gabrielle suffer any longer. She had labored valiantly to stay alive until Xena returned, and now deserved to meet Death in peace. "Your Majesty. Queen Gabrielle has fought her illness with all her strength. She has no more to give."
The Conqueror glared at Darlius. "You would let her give up?"
"No, Your Majesty. It is just," Darlius prayed for the right words, "the Queen needs your kindness."
The Conqueror stepped around from her desk to confront the elder. "Don't tell me how to behave with my Queen. I will save her life in spite of her willingness to welcome Death to her bedside. If she hates me for it, so be it."
Jared intervened. "Darlius. Get the herbs."
Darlius defiantly held his position, responding to Jared without diverting his gaze from his mistress. He spoke acridly before turning away from Xena. "Yes, General."
Xena watched the healer exit the chamber. She felt her acute rage with equal measures of pride and gratitude. Only for Gabrielle did members of her immediate household, and soldiers in her army, risk their lives by willingly opposing her.
"How is the lass?" Jared's patience was at its end. He wanted Xena's assessment, trusting her healing skills and her knowledge of Gabrielle, above all others.
"Not good." Xena stepped away.
"Anything I can do?"
Xena glanced over to the bedroom. "I must stay with her."
Jared placed a comforting hand on Xena's arm. "I'll take care of things."
"Thank you." Xena began to walk back to Gabrielle.
Jared called to her.
She gave him her consideration.
Jared knew how it felt to be subjected to Xena's unrelenting will. Fearful for his ward's emotional well being he hoped to temper the Conqueror. "Must you be hard on her?"
Xena granted that Jared was ever Gabrielle's guardian. Whether Gabrielle was a slave, servant, freewoman or his Queen, that would never change. "Have you ever seen Gabrielle angry? Really angry?"
Jared was thoughtful. He was surprised by his answer. "No, I can't say I have."
Xena smiled relishing the memory of Gabrielle at her most combative, so different from the state the young woman currently suffered. "She digs in her heels. She's brash and stubborn. Jared, she's tired. If she is going to live, I need to tap into her anger. Other than her love, there is nothing she is capable of feeling more."
Jared's concern shifted to the seemingly irrepressible woman before him. He knew that her heart had no defense against Gabrielle's love. "Will you be all right?"
Unconsciously, Xena shook her head as she answered. "I don't have a choice, do I?"
Jared foresaw the burden Xena willingly took upon herself. "Let me help you with Gabrielle."
Xena stiffened. "No. This is personal. It's between her and me, and no one else."
Xena observed Gabrielle's sleeping form. Gabrielle was her Queen, strong, yet at times such as now, fragile. Like her, Gabrielle found an inner strength when threatened. The depth of her resolve was never deeper than when Xena needed her. Xena would tap into Gabrielle's uncompromising commitment to her.
"I need you to drink this." Xena began the process of shutting down her emotions, countering the familiar selfless stirrings that guided her when in Gabrielle's presence.
Xena raised Gabrielle to an upright position. She held a mug of tea to Gabrielle's lips. Gabrielle took hold of the mug with one hand. She winced at the bitter taste.
"Good." Xena encouraged the effort. She placed the half empty mug on the bedside table. "Now cough."
"Xena, I can't." Gabrielle begged.
Xena refused to hear. "Take the deepest breath you can and cough."
Gabrielle leaned back in surrender.
"Let's try this another way." Xena leaned Gabrielle forward, pushing away the pillow from behind her, taking a place between Gabrielle and the headboard. Xena wrapped her arms around the younger woman. She could feel the contours of Gabrielle's ribs. Gabrielle had lost considerable weight. "Cough."
Gabrielle made a half-hearted attempt. The result was inaudible.
Gabrielle laid still.
Xena closed her eyes. In the silence of the moment she gave complete dominion to that part of her that was the Conqueror. Opening her eyes she leaned down and whispered into Gabrielle's ear. "You lied to me. You do not love me. I did not think you would be so cruel to summon me to you just so I could watch you die. You mock me, Gabrielle. I am not your Lord. If I were, you would not give up. You would spend your last breath, no matter how painful, to save yourself, because we both know that only with you by my side will I be redeemed."
"No." Gabrielle cried softly, her heart breaking. She longed for Xena's gentleness, not her abuse.
"Yes!" The Conqueror hissed. "Where is your mercy, your compassion? You will be party to Greece's ruin with no greater excuse than that your ribs hurt. How little you are, Gabrielle. How pathetic."
Gabrielle struggled with what strength she had. "No!" A spasmodic coughing took hold of her. In spite of the pain, she coughed, expectorating the suffocating phlegm into a pan the Conqueror retrieved from a side table and placed before her.
Wordlessly, the Conqueror continued to support Gabrielle. Gabrielle kept up her effort until she was spent. She leaned her head back fearful Xena would once again berate her. She was met by silence as Xena placed the pan on the night table, quickly noting the blood-streaked sputum. She shifted her arms from Gabrielle's ribs and enfolded the exhausted woman completely.
Xena waited until she was certain Gabrielle was fast asleep. She kissed Gabrielle upon the cheek then closed her own eyes. Her thoughts wandered to a memory, the last time Gabrielle's anger had been piqued. It had been a moon prior to her hunting trip...
Targon stood before the Conqueror, giving her his obligatory morning briefing. "I have purchased three new slaves. A strong young man named Andrew who will be apprenticing in the smithy and a seamstress, forty-two seasons old, by the name of Reva."
Xena waited a heartbeat for an accounting of the third slave. Targon uncharacteristically looked down at his feet. "You said three. I didn't know I needed a third?"
Targon cast a glance at the unmoved Conqueror. "Her name is Lacia."
Xena limited her household to essential service. Targon had knowingly breached her rule and she was curious what this slave offered that was so valuable to cause the administrator to risk his position. "What are her skills?"
Targon proposed a position. Given the slave he had few options. "She can be trained to help Makia in the kitchens."
"I thought we were fully staffed?" Xena pushed back her chair and raised a leg up against the desk.
"We are, Your Majesty." Targon learned early in his palace career to speak only the truth to his mistress. He did not try to deceive.
"What are you not telling me, Targon? Speak up before I cut your tongue out and you won't have a choice but to be silent." Xena's tone did not equal the sharpness of her words.
Targon prayed to the gods that the Conqueror would appreciate his motives. "She is twelve seasons old. I did not like who had bid on her."
Xena waited for the unspoken name.
Targon had no choice but to oblige. "Abneg."
Xena knew him. "He buys for the bordellos."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
Xena stood up. "You thought I would approve?"
Targon wished he felt as sure in the presence of the Conqueror as he had when he made the bid. "I would not have purchased her otherwise."
Xena and Targon heard Gabrielle enter from the Royal bedroom.
Targon bowed to Gabrielle. "Your Majesty."
Gabrielle's voice was cold. "Buying slaves, Targon?"
Targon felt at a loss. It was not like Gabrielle to speak severely.
Xena saved him the need to respond. "For the household."
Gabrielle remained silent.
Xena went to her administrator and placed her hand on his back, offering tacit support. "You are excused. I shall speak to the new slaves later today."
Targon was grateful. "Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you."
Xena waited until Targon had exited. She advised Gabrielle. "Don't be angry with him."
Gabrielle's words were crisp. "I'm not. He was only following your orders."
Xena refused to retreat from Gabrielle's storm. "So, you're angry at me?"
Gabrielle showed no tenderness. "One day you will be better than a mistress of slaves."
Xena felt the verbal slap. Her anger was only partially checked. "Did you believe that because I love you Greece's slaves would be emancipated?"
Gabrielle was truculent. "What must the world think, Greece having a former slave as her Queen? Could the Conqueror fall any lower?"
Xena knew she could not temper Gabrielle's advocacy against slavery. In truth, she did not want to. "Gabrielle, I know what you want from me. I haven't the power to give you a free Greece. Not yet."
Though Gabrielle understood the competing interests that drove Xena to exercise a conservative approach, she did not stomach the ultimate outcome. "When will Greece be a land of the free? When it is politically reasonable and economically feasible? There will always be arguments against ending slavery."
"Please." Xena pleaded as she would to no other.
Gabrielle was not assuaged. "No, Xena. No! As long as there is just one slave in Greece, I am not your Queen. Woman, man or child, it doesn't matter. I am one with them."
This underlying current of disagreement had slowly risen between them after they joined. It always left a distasteful residue; one Xena could not wash away with mead or wine, though she tried. "I have been good to my slaves. You granted that very fact when you first came to me."
"Under your ownership." Gabrielle demanded. "Say it! You treated me well when you owned me."
Xena had no defense, but the truth. She acted honorably. "I explained to you then why I couldn't outlaw slavery."
Gabrielle's tone calmed. "Yes, you did. I accepted your explanation. I didn't know you then. I didn't understand where Greece stood in the world. Now, I know both you and Greece. You have the power to free the slaves. Greece can stand as a free nation." Gabrielle challenged. "Redeem the slaves!"
"Empty the treasury?" Xena waved her hand across the room.
"If that is what it will take, yes." Gabrielle had set aside all reason. She knew she was being irrational.
Xena stepped forward. "I cannot save every slave in Greece."
"You should try." A tear fell down Gabrielle's cheek. "They are no less worthy of your compassion than I am."
"I'm doing my best. It takes time. Under law, the next generation of Grecian born will be free from slavery no matter their ancestry."
"And what happens till then? Unless you bring them into your household, all who were born into or were taken into slavery before you became Sovereign will remain in slavery until the day they die. Until they die, Xena."
"I'm sorry." Xena reached out for Gabrielle.
Gabrielle stepped back. "So am I."
Xena tried to ally her partner's frustration. "Gabrielle, you are not just my Queen. The fact that you fight for the less fortunate makes you essential to Greece. You have already helped make changes for the better."
"It's not enough!" Gabrielle countered.
"It never is." Xena sighed, disheartened by the confrontation. "Believe me. I know."
Gabrielle felt her brokenness anew. "How can you stand it?"
Xena felt the burden of her office daily. She stayed in Corinth for the greater good though at times the good seemed to get loss in the mire of politics and diplomacy. "My only other choice is to walk away and I can't do that. I refuse to give up. There isn't a day that goes by…there isn't a day I don't think of you and what was done to you. I hate it. I hate the fact that it is happening to other girls like you and I can't stop it short of declaring war against the nobles and the slave traders and facing a complete halt of international trade. Change takes diplomacy and diplomacy takes time."
Gabrielle sensed Xena's sincerity. It did not lessen the pain she felt. "Twelve seasons old, Xena."
Xena offered a small victory. "Makia will see to Lacia. Lacia will have an education. She will be protected in a way that she would not have been if Targon had left her to be claimed by someone else. And, she will have a gentle Queen to ensure her welfare."
Gabrielle's voice trembled as she pointed out the window. "I will never forget."
Xena was left speechless. She knew Gabrielle's reference. Outside the window, at the far end of Corinth, stood the slave market, a place of active commerce, a symbol of what Gabrielle despised.
Without another word spoken, Gabrielle turned away from Xena and left the room.
A Guardsman entered Court. He approached the Conqueror without hesitation, interrupting a noble presenting his case in a land dispute.
Xena took note. "What is it?"
The Guardsman announced confident the importance of his task outweighed those of the proceedings. "My Liege, a message from the Queen."
Xena stood up from her throne and accepted the proffered parchment. She turned her back on the Court and read the note.
I have decided to tour the local villages with Darlius to deliver medicines. We expect to return in five days.
Xena reined all desire to pursue Gabrielle. They had spoken of such a trip, but nothing had been decided. Any doubts Xena may have had regarding Gabrielle's anger were set aside. Xena folded the parchment and placed it in her inside coat pocket. She returned to the business of Court, apparently unaffected by what she had read.
Xena stood at her balcony. The morning sun cast a brilliant light against the land. At a distance, she could see the harvested fields. It had been a good year. There would be plenty for the winter. Greece was at peace and prospering. She took no solace in knowing the good, her thoughts heavy upon a problem she could not solve.
Jared entered the Royal chamber. "My Liege."
Xena gave no indication of having heard him. He stepped closer, standing two paces behind her. "Xena?"
Xena grieved. "Jared, I'm afraid I'm losing Gabrielle."
Jared was aware of the reasons behind Gabrielle's abrupt departure. "The lass needs time. She will come back to you, Xena."
Xena turned to him. "I should have known this would happen. I can't simply issue an edict and do away with slavery in Greece."
In Jared's opinion the Conqueror had not been complacent. He credited her. "You have already passed laws that protect slaves from mistreatment."
Lacia's circumstance was proof of the questionable effectiveness of Grecian law. Xena observed. "And still girls twelve seasons old are auctioned to bordellos."
"To work as servants, not whores." Jared defended.
"That is the law." Xena saw the world with Gabrielle's eyes. "Who is to say that the children are protected from the filth of the world?"
"We can step up our surveillance." Jared offered. "We will ensure the children are not touched."
Xena turned toward the balcony seeking in her mind's eye the woman that gave her life meaning. "Whether twelve seasons old, or sixteen and of age, it is still a moral crime. Gabrielle was taken at sixteen. How can I say I love her and still allow girls like her to suffer? How can she love me knowing that slavery continues in my realm?"
Jared went to Xena's side. "Don't blame yourself for not being able to change the world overnight. You have done great things for the people of Greece. Each day that passes you move closer to a creating a just nation." Jared placed his hand on Xena's shoulder. "Why don't you go to her?"
Xena kept her eyes forward. "I rule all in Greece, but one. Even when Gabrielle was my slave she had the choice whether to be with me or not. I shall not break my promise to her. I will not compel her to address me. I wait for her as I have always waited for her."
Jared took measure of Gabrielle's influence. "What will you say to the lass when she returns?"
Xena's gaze met Jared sadly. "What can I say? If I must choose between her love and Greece, I choose Greece."
Jared was somewhat surprised by Xena's steadfast commitment to the realm. He knew his ward and was optimistic. "She will understand. You won't have to choose."
Xena resigned herself. "I hope you are right. If not, may I know Tartarus, because the pain of it will be no match for what I will feel in life."
There were two more villages to their tour. As dusk fell, Trevor sent a Guardsman ahead to secure lodgings in the next inn. At the very least, the Queen and Darlius would have accommodations. At best, by Gabrielle's insistence, all would be fed a hot meal and sleep in a warm, dry bed.
Like Trevor, the Guardsmen chosen to escort the Queen were exceptional warriors. Unlike Trevor, they were also well-educated medics. The order to accompany the Queen, though unexpected, was welcomed by the half-dozen men. The men took pride in their skills. Having reason to care for others outside the arena of war was gratifying. To do so at the request of their Queen increased the honor.
Traveling with the Queen brought additional benefits. Gabrielle was more apt to ensure their comfort, whereas the Conqueror preferred a rugged camp. Beyond the Conqueror's keen ear, they enjoyed the relaxed protocol Gabrielle insisted upon. She reminded the Guardsmen that she held the status of their sister, and she would be damned if she had her brothers treat her differently than their kin. What Gabrielle did not understand was that to many of the Guardsmen she was their only sense of family.
Throughout the tour, Trevor stayed by Gabrielle's side, never imposing. As her primary escort, he was always ready to meet her needs. It meant he did little. Gabrielle asked for no significant favors.
Riding beside her, Trevor looked askance at Gabrielle. He had known the Queen since she came to Corinth as a slave. He admired the young woman. Her insight to the nature of men was sharp and intelligent. He marveled at how much she had matured. She did so without delimiting her compassion.
Trevor noted that Gabrielle had been in a pensive mood when they left Corinth. When she was called to action, the mood slipped away. When they returned to the road Gabrielle's pensive mood returned. She was, once again, lost in her own thoughts.
Each visit commenced with a flurry of activity. There were meetings with village leaders and healers followed by an assessment of the village's capability to handle illnesses and injuries. Medicinal stores were restocked. Darlius visited the gravest patients in company with the local healer, while Gabrielle and the medics served those suffering less severe afflictions.
During the evening hours Gabrielle held Court at the village inn. It was a different kind of Court than known at the palace. Gabrielle engaged the patrons and members of her traveling party with her storytelling. The Guardsmen, who had the honor of sharing their meal with her, now drank their mead sparingly, never jeopardizing Gabrielle's security while they too, listened to the masterful bard. She kept to lighthearted tales, allowing the laughter of the moment to sweep away the fatigue of the previous three days.
Gabrielle had completed telling a farce, one that was not too kind to the gods, when a young man, goaded by his tablemates, stood up.
"Your Majesty." He spoke nervously.
Gabrielle gave the gentle looking man an inviting smile. As hard as she tried, no villager would call her solely by her first name. The best she could hope for was to be addressed as 'Lady Gabrielle'. She acknowledged him. "Yes, Sir."
The man blushed at being addressed with such respect. His courage grew the weight of a barley grain, making for a total of two, still hardly enough to get him to raise his voice. "Would you take a request for a story?"
"If I know it." Gabrielle encouraged.
The man spilled his words. "Would you tell us how a slave became the Queen of Greece?"
Gabrielle blanched upon hearing the question. Trevor stood up with his hand on the pommel of his sword. Within a heartbeat all the Guardsmen joined him.
At the sight of them, the young man attempted to step back, but instead fell over his bench seat onto the floor. A second man, older, stood up extending his hands in a gesture begging for calm. He called out, "Your Majesty, he meant no harm."
Gabrielle signaled Trevor to be seated. He did so reluctantly. The balance of the Guardsmen followed in like manner.
The older peasant looked down at his stupid friend and offered him a hand. "Get up, Broan."
Broan did as he was told, taking his seat. In deeply felt embarrassment, the patrons fell silent.
The older peasant took a breath before speaking. "Your Majesty. Broan here spends his time hard at work in the fields." The man placed a reassuring hand on his mortified companion. "He has never been good with words."
Broan shyly raised his gaze to the Queen and nodded. Gabrielle could see that what the older peasant said was true.
The man continued. "I believe I can speak for the village when I say we admire and respect you. You have shown your love for the people of Greece and we are grateful for it."
Gabrielle nodded. The tension in the room eased.
"We have heard stories about the Conqueror. The stories make us feel we know her, if only a little. We wish to hear stories about you, our Queen, as well. Your Majesty, some of us served as slaves in the Conqueror's household, as you did. We were treated well and freed at the end of our indenture. We can only assume that you were given the same consideration. But, knowing what we know of the Conqueror, it does not explain your ascent to the throne. I suspect it is a very special story. It is a story we would like to hear."
Gabrielle felt a press in her heart. She could not put words to what she was feeling at that moment. It was both a painful and sweet feeling. "What is your name, Sir?"
"Calphatous, Your Majesty, but my friends call me Calph."
"Calph. Now that I understand Broan's question, I will try to answer it. I am a woman who has lived three very different lives. Until I was sixteen, I was very much like any peasant girl growing up in a small village with my parents and my younger sister. Then the day came that the warlord Draco and his men raided our valley. My parents were killed. My sister and I were taken as slaves. My sister died soon thereafter." Gabrielle paused. She had never shared her story so nakedly. The shame she carried with her unexpectedly found momentary relief. "I was sold to an unkind master. That was the true beginning of my second life. Five years later, when he grew tired of me, I was taken to Corinth to be sold at the slave market. It was there that my third life began.
"I was purchased by the Conqueror's administrator to work in her household." Gabrielle gestured toward the table of men before her. "The Guardsmen at this table know, in part, the story of my third life because they share it with me. You must forgive them if they are overly protective of me." Gabrielle smiled at Trevor, who met her gaze with pride. "You see, when I was a slave they adopted me. I am their sister and they are proud brothers who have sworn to defend my honor and my life with their swords.
"A part of my story is as unknown to them as it is to you. I cannot share the story of my life with the Conqueror. Though I am proud of my love for our Sovereign, I remain silent because our Sovereign values her privacy, and I honor her request never to include her in my storytelling. As a bard and as her Queen, I hope the day will come when she will release me from that promise. There is nothing I want more than to have Greece know her as I do."
Broan trusted his unsteady legs and returned to his feet. Calph glowered at him in disbelief.
Broan blurted. "Your Majesty."
Gabrielle was kind. "Yes, Broan."
Broan canvassed the room before addressing his Queen. His voice steadied. "Would you tell the Conqueror that we wish her well?"
The peasants in the room nodded and murmured agreement. A few slapped their hands on their tables in assent.
Gabrielle beamed. "I will. She will be pleased to hear it."
"Thank you, Your Majesty." Broan began to sit down.
Gabrielle called his name, which caused him to shoot straight back up. "Yes, Your Majesty."
"I'm still taking requests. Have you a different story you would like me to tell?"
Broan gave her a sheepish grin. "Anything with a fool in it, so I won't feel so alone."
The inn erupted in laughter.
Gabrielle gave Broan his story before retiring to her room. In her room she opened the shuttered window allowing the cool evening air to refresh her. She looked up into the night. She could see a few stars glitter through the clouds. The moon was a shapely crescent. She wished she were standing in the palace turret with Xena by her side. She missed Xena. She longed for Xena's gentle touch and the easy conversation they shared as they lay in bed, sealing the day's end in an embrace.
This evening had provided an unexpected glimpse into the hearts of the people of Greece. She had shared her stories with men and women who had known the life of slavery and who like her had obtained their freedom because of the Conqueror's benevolence. What Gabrielle saw in Calph's eyes was a sound dignity that transcended whatever abuse he suffered. She wondered if she would ever feel an equal dignity. Her hope was renewed. Until this evening she did not believe regaining such dignity was possible.
Gabrielle rode her chestnut gelding beside Darlius' wagon through the palace gates. At a distance stood the Conqueror in wait. It had been six days since Gabrielle's departure. The autumn illnesses in the villages were more serious than expected. Although Gabrielle had been heartened by the good she and her party had done, she regretted the circumstances that had motivated her leaving Corinth. She dismounted, giving her reins to a groom before making her way to Xena.
"Gabrielle." Xena offered a guarded greeting.
Gabrielle paused an arm's length from her lover. "My Lord."
Hearing the title that had become a private endearment eased Xena's worry. "How are you?"
"Well, thank you. It was a difficult, but rewarding trip. We found many to be ill."
Xena confronted her lingering fear by asking her next question. "Have you any future plans?"
"I will work with Darlius to schedule his assistants to visit the villages throughout the winter. I would also like to send word to your Generals and have them dispatch regular reports regarding the health of your armies and the local villages."
Xena was heartened more by what was not said than what was said. "That is a fine idea. It shall be done."
Gabrielle was grateful. "Thank you."
Xena offered her first smile. "It's good to have you back."
Gabrielle mirrored Xena's smile. "It's good to be home."
Xena stepped forward. Needing the reassuring intimacy of touch, she placed her hand gently on Gabrielle's arm. "Have you eaten?"
"No." Gabrielle recounted. "It was getting late and I didn't want to stop."
Xena was pleased she had made arrangements for a meal. "Makia will be sending dinner to us shortly."
Gabrielle covered Xena's hand with her own. "I would like to help Darlius settle in before joining you."
Xena nodded in approval. "Don't be too long."
"I won't." Gabrielle slowly broke away and headed back to the center of the courtyard where the men continued to unpack.
Xena watched Gabrielle for a moment feeling a renewed confidence. She returned to the Royal suite, removing her chakram and sword, before setting herself in front of the fireplace. Her confidence waned in spite of Gabrielle's warm greeting.
Gabrielle entered. She removed her cloak and stood for a moment, watching Xena in silent repose.
Xena sensed Gabrielle's observance. As much as she wanted to grant Gabrielle her request, she was committed to staying to her strategy of a gradual, methodical campaign to undo slavery. Xena chose to take measure of their breach. "Gabrielle, it is too soon to end slavery. Greece is not ready."
Gabrielle stepped forward. She paused a handful of paces behind Xena. "I don't mean to bargain with you. However, I do have a request."
"Name it." Xena's voice carried a cautious cadence.
"We are nearing Solstice. You have always been generous in your gift giving. I ask that you gift me the right to free one slave each year at winter Solstice. I ask for nothing more."
Xena thought for a moment. "If I say no?"
Gabrielle was sincere in her response. "I will be disappointed. But, your decision will not change the fact that you are and will always be my Lord."
Xena leaned forward in her chair. "It will not do. What if you wish to grant freedom to a joined woman or man? How will they manage? You cannot ask one to leave a husband or wife in slavery, let alone any children they may have. The Queen's Solstice List of Freedom will include the names of a woman or man, and her or his immediate family. The Queen of Greece will be known for keeping families together, not breaking them apart." Xena turned in her chair to face Gabrielle. "Do you agree?"
Gabrielle's approval was heartfelt. "I do."
"Very well." Xena sat back in her chair relieved that an agreement had been struck. It was one she could easily support for it was in keeping with Gabrielle's generosity.
Xena felt Gabrielle's hand on her arm. The Queen knelt beside her. "Thank you."
"If I could…"
"I know." Gabrielle assured.
Gabrielle stirred in Xena's arms, drawing Xena from her reverie back into the present moment. Xena debated whether to wake Gabrielle. She decided to wait until Gabrielle woke on her own accord. She gently disengaged herself. Resetting the pillows, Xena lay the younger woman down upon them.
Makia entered the Royal chamber with a tray of food.
Having heard the intrusion, Xena went to investigate.
Makia greeted the Conqueror. "Your Majesty."
"Makia, what brings you here?"
"You must eat. I am not one to invite Queen Gabrielle's ire by letting you become thin."
"I see." Xena smiled.
The cook was earnest. "Your Majesty, how is the Queen?"
Xena gestured toward the bedroom. "Come with me."
Makia placed the tray down on the dining table and allowed Xena to guide her to the Royal bedroom. Makia stood at Gabrielle's bedside. She looked over to the Conqueror. Having received a nod in consent, she sat down upon the bed, taking Gabrielle's hand, noting that it was clammy.
The cook spoke softly. "I remember when she first came to my kitchen. The stories she told. How she won over the staff. There was a part of her I did not understand then. I still don't."
Xena walked over to Makia, remaining at her side. "Still waters, Makia."
"Yes, Your Majesty. In some ways the Queen has changed, but not in the most important. She has never forgotten from whence she came."
"Would you blame me if I said that there are times I wish she could forget?"
"No, Your Majesty. I would not." Makia reached and gently displaced a few locks of Gabrielle's hair, setting them aside on her forehead. "She will get better?"
"I don't know. Your broth has helped her, but she is still very weak."
"The Queen has a strong heart."
"Yes, she does."
Makia turned to the Conqueror. "She loves you so."
Xena did not expect such a personal statement from the aged servant. There was no reason to shy from her truth. "And I love her."
"If there is anything I can do for you or Queen Gabrielle..."
Once again Xena had proof of the affection Gabrielle garnered. "I won't hesitate to ask."
Makia had a charge as ambassador for her peers. "The household is concerned for the Queen. What should I tell them?"
Xena prescribed with unwavering poise. "Tell them the truth."
Makia could not suppress her tears.
Xena placed a consoling hand upon the cook's shoulder. "I know you, Makia. The only reason you are crying is because Gabrielle has not been down to the kitchen to listen to your gossip and to help you cut vegetables. You are the greatest of the many selfish lot in my household who solicit her regard."
Makia laughed lightly. "Indeed, you are right."
"Well, we will get Gabrielle healthy so she can return to her task of keeping you company. In the mean time you must settle for Lacia."
Makia's emotions settled. "The child has been asking to see the Queen."
"It isn't a good time." Xena advised. "Tell her she will be one of the first to be invited once her Queen is stronger."
Makia got to her feet. "Thank you, Your Majesty."
"Gabrielle loves you, Makia. Don't think I don't know that."
Makia spoke simply to her mistress, seeing in her not a powerful Sovereign, but a woman distressed. "Try to eat something. You will need your strength to care for her."
"Very well." Xena offered the cook a gentle smile. "And, tell Lacia that I will try to stop by later to say hello."
"She will welcome the visit." Makia bowed and left the room. She would share what she learned with her fellow servants and the slaves. The Queen was seriously ill. She was also receiving the best care. Makia took solace in the Sovereign's devotion to Gabrielle. She prayed Death would take note and reconsider approaching the lone anchor in the Conqueror's life.
Xena considered how Gabrielle, once she accepted her position as Queen, had subtly changed the atmosphere within the palace. The palace household had breathed a communal sigh of relief. Servants and slaves alike were confident that the Queen had the means to protect them.
Xena knew that the quality of the life she gave her household had not substantially changed. The difference was that the household placed their trust in Gabrielle. With few exceptions, it was a trust she could not claim to equal. There always remained an underlying fear that Xena might lose control in a fit of anger, warranted or not. To her chagrin she had to confess the assessment had merit. As a recent exchange regarding the Solstice celebration proved, even Gabrielle bore the burden of her temper.
They had finished eating dinner in their suite. Gabrielle walked, cup of wine in hand, toward the fireplace. Xena smiled.
Gabrielle caught sight of her. "What is it?"
"I will be the envy of every man and woman at the Solstice banquet."
Gabrielle smiled. "Will you?"
Xena envisioned. "With you in my arms as we dance the first dance, yes, I think I will."
Gabrielle was nonplused. "Dance? We have never danced together."
Xena got up from her chair. "There is always a first time for everything."
"Xena, I can't." Gabrielle was adamant.
Gabrielle's objection was not a complete surprise. It did not squelch Xena's jovial spirit. "You know how to dance, don't you?"
"A peasant girl's dancing, not the kind of dancing I've seen in Court."
"I will teach you." Xena offered generously.
Gabrielle's mood darkened. "Please don't ask me to dance in Court."
Xena could see the rise in Gabrielle's insecurities. Gabrielle continued to avoid Court. She consented to appear only when not doing so would be a breach in civic protocol or royal hospitality.
Xena hated the way Gabrielle shrunk away, embodying her diminished self-worth. Her posture reflected all the harm done to her, all the wounds that would never completely heal. This moment echoed a different conversation in which they, by the grace of the Fates, had been able to reach a truce. The Conqueror was uncompromising, her words commanding. "You are my Queen!"
Injured, Gabrielle turned away from a request that had become a demand, from a lover who spoke as a Sovereign, knowing that Xena's expectation would be received as an honor by any one else. She walked to the balcony nursing an unbearable ache in her heart.
They stood, each in their own private torment. Her eyes fixed upon Gabrielle's vulnerable form, Xena's anger waned. The Gabrielle she saw was the young woman few knew. Xena's greatest desire was to place a salve upon the wounds she imagined still existed unseen upon Gabrielle's gracious body and soul.
Xena took measure of her Queen. A woman who far surpassed her in heart and integrity, who in spite of the denigrating realities of her slavery, persevered, who did not hate, who sought the good in life, who could forgive great wrongs, who gave more than anyone, who gave more to Xena than Xena had a right to ask for.
Xena approached Gabrielle, pausing to stand upon the raised steps leading to the balcony. She spoke tenderly. "Gabrielle, you are my Queen, not because I command it but because you gave your consent. You are the Queen of Greece because the Fates knew this was where you belong. It is your destiny to rule Greece beside me. I know you have paid a high price in life. The last thing I want to do is cause you any more pain. I will love you no less if you never dance with me. I don't care if you never step into Court again." Xena reached out and took Gabrielle's hand into her own. "Please believe me when I tell you nothing makes me prouder than to show Greece, than to show the world that you chose me. It isn't you who belong to me. It is I who belong to you."
Gabrielle turned. With a muted cry she embraced Xena. Gabrielle cried freely, seeking a solace that only Xena could give her.
Xena held her close. She waited patiently for Gabrielle to calm. As the younger woman's breathing steadied, Xena whispered in her ear. "If not in Court, will you dance with me here?"
Gabrielle pulled back. Xena offered her a handkerchief from her pocket. Gabrielle took it and wiped her face of its tears. Solemn, her gaze drifted toward the fireplace. She was cold and longed for its heat. "We haven't any music."
Xena shifted to stand once again directly before Gabrielle, striving to kindly convince Gabrielle to heed her. "Trust me?" It was a question Xena posed to Gabrielle the first time she saved Gabrielle's life.
Gabrielle felt the warmth she sought. By it, she was emboldened. "I do."
"Come with me." Xena took Gabrielle's hand and guided the hesitant woman to the center of their chamber. She released Gabrielle's hand. "Stand here." Xena tenderly positioned her partner.
Gabrielle did as told.
"Good." Xena offered a reassuring smile. She presented herself to Gabrielle, bowing.
Gabrielle gave a minor curtsey as she had observed many women do in Court.
"My Lady." Xena extended her hand.
"My Lord." Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's.
Xena began to hum a tune. It was only after their joining that Gabrielle learned of Xena's splendid voice. A gift from the gods, Xena shared sparingly. Gabrielle smiled. With a nod of her head, Xena signaled for Gabrielle to follow her lead. Gabrielle complied, her first royal dance lesson had begun.
Jared was summoned to the palace gates. He wondered what his lieutenant thought of him, given his incredulous response to the news that a woman claiming to be the Conqueror's mother was being held for his questioning. No joke or ruse, sitting proudly on a wagon, reins in hand, sat Cyrene of Amphilpolis. The sight of the handsome woman brought a smile to Jared. He never believed she would travel to Corinth.
Jared called out to her.
Cyrene was relieved to see the General’s familiar face. She was also anxious for news. "Jared, how is Gabrielle?"
Jared now understood why she had come. "Not well. How did you know?"
"Gabrielle sent for me. Weren't you told?"
Cyrene sought news of her daughter. "Is Xena back?"
"Yes." Jared was pleased to confirm. "We were traveling together. We arrived yesterday." Jared offered Cyrene his hand, assisting her from the wagon. "I'll take you to their suite."
Cyrene stepped down from the wagon. It took a moment for her legs to steady themselves. She looked about in unconcealed awe. "So, this is my daughter's palace."
Guided by Jared, Cyrene entered the main chamber of the Conqueror’s suite. Xena stepped in from the bedroom.
Cyrene beckoned her daughter.
Xena was stunned. She took Cyrene into a warm embrace. "Mother, what are you doing here?"
"I received a message from Gabrielle."
Xena looked over Cyrene’s shoulder to Jared. "Did you know?"
Jared confessed. "I’m as surprised as you are."
Cyrene canvassed the room. The cause for her troubling summons was her primary concern. "May I see her?"
"Of course. This way." Xena led Cyrene to Gabrielle. She stood by Jared at a distance from the bed.
Jared spoke softly to her. "How is she?"
Xena was relieved to offer some hope. "Better."
Cyrene stood by Gabrielle’s bedside. She liked the young woman, though she did not know her well. She remembered their first encounter when the brave healer and storyteller, in an attempt to save Xena's life, had sought Cyrene out in Amphilpolis. She remembered how at the end of the ordeal Xena had sent Gabrielle away, to both her daughter's and the newly freewoman's heartbreak.
Xena and Gabrielle had visited Amphipolis soon after their joining, staying for five days. The visit was quite different from Cyrene's first encounter with Gabrielle. Gabrielle had become Xena’s Queen, radiating a tranquil confidence that did not infringe upon Xena's public authority, but did hint at a privately exercised equality. There was no doubt in Cyrene’s heart that Gabrielle was an extraordinary creature. She had to be to live with Xena, the Conqueror of Greece.
What Cyrene now saw was a very sick woman. Gabrielle’s lively spirit and physical strength were quieted. Cyrene silently prayed that Jared’s favorite lass would live to continue to be a tempering influence upon her daughter.
Cyrene voiced her concern. "Xena, she’s so pale."
"She just fell asleep a little while ago. It may be some time before she reawakens."
Cyrene turned toward Xena. "How are you, daughter?"
Xena continued to sweep aside all concerns directed toward her. "I’m not the one you have to worry about."
"Why don’t you go out and get some fresh air. I will sit with Gabrielle until you return." Cyrene knew her daughter too well not to sense Xena's fatigue and worry.
Xena protested. "I’m fine."
Cyrene directed her next words to the General. "Do your job, Jared."
Jared did his best. "Xena, I think that’s your mother's subtle way of saying that I should convince you to take her advice."
"You wish." Xena jibed.
Under Cyrene's scrutiny Jared was emboldened to persuade. "Did you not say that you were going to visit Lacia? I’m sure she was disappointed when you didn’t go to the kitchens yesterday."
"Playing on my sympathies, Jared?" Xena bantered.
"I can’t. We all know you have none." Jared smiled and took Xena's arm. "Come on. Take a short break. I’m certain Gabrielle would want you to."
"That’s low, old man." Xena accused.
"Am I right?" Jared celebrated his triumph with a chuckle.
Xena spoke to her mother. "I will be back within a candlemark. If you need anything, ask the Guardsman at the door. He will have orders to follow your instructions."
Cyrene's was a self-reliant woman. "Thank you, but I don’t think that will be necessary."
Xena nodded and stepped out with Jared.
Jared quipped. "Like mother, like daughter."
"What say you?" Xena challenged.
"You are both exasperating. Two more independent women have not been born."
"You're wrong, Jared." Xena glanced back to Gabrielle. "For one of us, that is no longer true."
Gabrielle awoke to the sound of the fire. The crackle and bursts of it soothed her. The sounds took her to evenings shared with Xena near the hearth. She opened her eyes, surprised by who she saw. Gabrielle spoke hoarsely. "Cyrene, you came."
Cyrene shifted from the chair she had placed near the bed and sat on the bed itself. She took hold of Gabrielle's hand. "Of course I came. How are you, child?"
Gabrielle looked about. "Where's Xena?"
"I sent her away with Jared. I thought she could use a break. And, I was hoping to have a private word with you."
"Xena is angry," Gabrielle remarked.
Cyrene had not sensed it. "Is she?"
"She needs you to get well." Cyrene guessed the cause.
Gabrielle's attempt to speak resulted in a fit of coughing.
Cyrene waited for Gabrielle to settle. She mused. "This isn't the way I imagined spending Solstice."
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle apologized weakly, taking responsibility for disrupting the elder's life.
"Don't be." Cyrene smiled with a hint of amusement. "I'm in Corinth, my Xena's Corinth. I still find it hard to believe that my child is the Conqueror of Greece. I think I stayed away so I could pretend that she was still the stubborn, impetuous girl who only wanted to be left to explore the countryside with her baby brother by her side."
Gabrielle smiled at the image of Xena as a child. "When Xena was little, how did you celebrate Solstice?"
The memory came easily to Cyrene. "The children would wait for me to stop serving at the inn. We would sit by the fireplace. Toris by me. Lyceus by Xena. She would usually sit quietly, staring in the fire, seeing what I know not. Lyceus would undo her with a tickle or an innocent word, leaving Xena to smile that smile of hers. You know it, the one that can light up the night."
Gabrielle nodded. "I know it. I would give anything to see her smile again."
Cyrene squeezed Gabrielle's hand. "She will smile for you, Gabrielle. I promise."
Xena sat beside the bedroom fireplace. Cyrene walked behind her resting her hand on Xena's shoulder, giving it a light press. She then sat on Gabrielle's chair, opposite Xena. Xena was disconcerted, having someone other than Gabrielle sit across from her. She suppressed her desire to ask Cyrene to remove herself. They sat quietly for a time.
Cyrene broke the silence. "Gabrielle did not send for me so that I could take care of her. She is in the best hands possible. She summoned me so I could try to care for you. But daughter, I feel helpless."
Xena responded warmly. "Mother, I'm glad you came. And you're wrong. Having you here means a great deal to Gabrielle. You, Jared, Makia, and I are all the family she has."
"I pray to the gods that she will be well."
Xena was acerbic. "They are not apt to listen."
"So speaks Ares' Chosen." Cyrene immediately regretted having spoken.
Xena flinched. Hurt and angry, she closed her fist over the chair arm and turned her gaze back to the fire. She wondered what she had done to deserve her mother's temper.
Cyrene was contrite. "Xena, I'm sorry. I just wish you could use your knowledge of the gods to help Gabrielle."
Xena averted meeting Cyrene's gaze. "There are some things, Mother, that you cannot understand."
"You're right." There was an unapologetic sharpness to Cyrene. "I cannot understand why such a kind soul as Gabrielle is fighting for her life. How much more must she suffer?"
Xena felt an accusation thrust forward, whether intended by her mother or simply the making of her own conscience. Xena chose not to respond. She would rely on the power of silence to end the unpleasant exchange.
A half-candlemark later Xena left Cyrene and walked up to the turret seeking her privacy. It was on a different night, under the same countless array of stars that she heard Gabrielle's concerned voice…
"Xena. What is it?"
Xena responded without turning around. "Sometimes I wonder if I made a mistake letting you so close to me. Ares' Chosen isn't meant to know love."
Gabrielle stood beside Xena. "That's why you're not Ares' Chosen anymore."
"Tell him that." The warrior's anger was evident.
Gabrielle was resolute. "I will."
Xena marveled. "You would."
"Has he come to you?"
"Yes." Xena affirmed.
Gabrielle harbored the fear that the God of War would one day interfere in their lives. "Why?"
"He's bored. He wants war and our peace treaties are running counter to his plans. Our alliances are even giving Caesar second thoughts about invading."
"What did you tell Ares?"
"Nothing." Xena was short in her telling, wanting to forget her exchange with the God.
Gabrielle was skeptical. "He didn't demand an answer?"
"He's a God. He's immortal." Xena despised Ares' arrogance. "He said he would wait."
"Wait for what?"
Xena could not look Gabrielle in the eye. "For me to go back to him."
"But you won't, will you?" Gabrielle emphasized her last words, voicing a statement not to be contradicted.
The warrior's self-condemnation bordered on surrender. "What does it matter if I walk into Tartarus today or a year from now?"
The earth stilled. Xena was unsettled by the silence. She turned to Gabrielle. Gabrielle's stricken face reflected both sorrow and anger.
Gabrielle was terse. "Don't ever speak that way to me again. You will not know Tartarus. You will be in Elysia with me."
Though regretting her thoughtlessness, Xena could not alter her perception. "Gabrielle, there are things I've done that cannot be forgiven."
Gabrielle would not set aside her hope. "How can you be so certain?"
Xena looked away into the dark of night.
Gabrielle softened her voice. "It matters, Xena. It matters to me whether you live or die. It matters to me whether we share eternity in Tartarus or Elysia."
Xena turned abruptly toward Gabrielle. "You will not be with me in Tartarus!"
The formidable young Queen showed herself. "If it is my choice to make, I will be with you. We will know Elysia if you stay your course. Don't be Ares' Chosen. Be mine."
"It's a complicated world, Gabrielle." Xena tempered. "We don't know what the future will bring. Some sacrifices are worth making."
"If done for the right reason. If done for the greater good."
Xena stepped away toward the turret ledge.
Gabrielle made a long harbored though unspoken request. "Xena. The day may come when you will be tempted to call Ares for help. Don't. Whatever the price, it won't be worth it."
"Even if it means losing Greece?"
"Yes." Gabrielle was sure.
Given who she believed Gabrielle to be, her partner's declaration was unfathomable to the warrior. "You would see the downfall of people you say you love?"
"There is no one I love more than you." Gabrielle formed her next argument. "Would you give me to Ares?"
Xena was furious at the thought of it. "Of course not!"
"Then I refuse to give you to him. I would chose death before allowing the Fates to put you back into his hands."
Gabrielle's voice rose. "I am your Queen. Isn't that what you have told me? Isn't that what you want from me? Xena, don't come to me tonight unless I have your vow that you belong to me and not to Ares."
Gabrielle turned away.
Stunned by Gabrielle's vehemence, Xena silently watched her lover's departure.
Gabrielle had placed only a few conditions on their joining. The most unwavering, Xena could not harm her, and now an added demand; Xena could not harm herself. A child could learn the rules of Gabrielle's love. In truth, an innocent child would not have to. Children are born with such love. Life taints it. Gabrielle was fighting for Xena's soul, fighting for its complete return to a pure state, washed of the blood Xena had spilled in the name of conquest. No matter now stained Xena's soul had become, could again become, Gabrielle staked everything she believed, in the possibility that time and just deeds would redeem Xena in the eyes of Hades. Xena knew that Gabrielle longed for her to transcend the past and forgive herself. Though Hades might one day consent to have her enter Elysia, a hope Xena had privately embraced, unable to discount Gabrielle's fervent contention, Xena knew she would never forget or forgive her most heinous acts against humanity.
Xena returned from the turret to find Gabrielle asleep in their bed. She stood silently observing the younger woman, ostensibly at peace. Xena could not meet Gabrielle's demand; she could not enter their bed making the tacit promise never to call on Ares.
Gabrielle lay still, listening, waiting for Xena to come to her. To her disappointment, she heard the sound of boot steps leaving the bedroom toward the main chamber.
A candlemark passed. Xena sat at her chair by the fireplace watching the flames lick the ether in their indiscriminate dance. Gabrielle entered the chamber, making her way to Xena. Without hesitation she took her place on Xena's lap, seeking out the succor of touch, as she often had done when words failed her. Xena's heart felt the balm offered. She held Gabrielle close.
Gabrielle spoke gently. "You've never spoken about Ares before."
Xena's voice was equally intimate. "When I think that I was once his Chosen, it makes me want to retch."
"You have warred to save Greece."
"I have warred for the sake of warring." Xena's eyes remained fixed to the fire.
"What's done is done." Gabrielle tried to grant Xena a grace she could not grant herself, to transcend her history.
"I can never right the past."
"No, you can't." Gabrielle affirmed. "That does not mean that you can't do better. You have today. You have the future."
To respond affirmatively would equal an oath that she would never fail Gabrielle's faith in her. Xena remained silent.
"Come to bed." Gabrielle coaxed.
"I can't promise…" Xena hesitated in accepting the invitation. She would not be misunderstood.
Gabrielle rescinded her demand. "I trust you. I trust that you will do the right thing no matter what the Fates place before you. Come, be with me."
Xena gave Gabrielle her full regard. She posed an ever-tormenting question. "How can you love me?"
Gabrielle professed, "How can I not?"
Xena held Gabrielle's words close to her heart, with what had become a tenuous hope that Gabrielle's profession of love would not become an echo belonging only to the past.
For the following two days Xena personally cared for Gabrielle. Four times a day, upon waking, midday, evening, and prior to sleeping, Xena would close the bedroom door, exiling the few visitors Gabrielle was allowed. Gabrielle would drink the medicinal tea Xena offered her. She would then do her best to cough up the infection in her lungs. They spoke sparingly during each course of treatment.
As much as Gabrielle wished to be freed from Xena's demands, she felt having Xena hold her throughout the painful process just compensation. Gabrielle's initial requests for a reprieve only hardened Xena toward her. As a result, Gabrielle voiced no further opposition.
Gabrielle succumbed to her fatigue and fell asleep in Xena's embrace. Xena's resolve was affirmed as she held Gabrielle in her arms with the knowledge that after each course Gabrielle breathed a little easier.
It was mid-morning when the weight of Xena sitting beside her awakened Gabrielle from a restless sleep. Gabrielle waited silently, uncertain of what Xena would ask of her.
Xena was stoic in her prescription. "I think it's time you have a proper bath."
Relieved, Gabrielle nodded in agreement.
"Very well, then. Let's have you in the bath before the water gets cold." Xena stood up and pulled away the bed covers. She leaned over and lifted Gabrielle into her arms. Xena tried not to dwell on how light Gabrielle felt.
Xena helped Gabrielle step into the bath. She quietly bathed Gabrielle as the younger woman watched her silently.
Xena set the wash towel aside. "Done. Stay in the water a bit longer. The heat and moist air will do you good."
Gabrielle nodded. Not knowing what to say she grazed Xena's arm with her hand.
Xena was outwardly unaffected, though within, her heart broke. She longed to be tender, but she was intent on keeping the Conqueror in command until Gabrielle was well. She stood and walked over to an alcove. The window was shuttered, sealing the room from the frigid elements. With no view to cast her eyes upon, she looked down to her boots in thought.
Gabrielle solicited an answer to the question that had haunted her since her Lord's return. "Xena. You didn't mean what you said, did you?"
Xena stared at Gabrielle. It took a moment for her to decipher the question. Understanding what was asked, she felt she had awakened from a nightmare. That Gabrielle had her doubts, suspecting Xena's honorable motives in spite of her questionable methods, meant the warrior had not become a monster in the eyes of her beloved.
Xena went to the bath and placed her hand in the tepid water. She offered Gabrielle her hand. "Let's get you back into bed."
Disappointed, Gabrielle passively stepped out of the tub. Xena dried her with a large towel and helped her on with her robe. Gabrielle continued to search Xena's face, trying to capture a hint of the warrior's gentler concern.
Xena raised Gabrielle into her arms. Gabrielle thought to protest, but chose to hold her tongue. Xena looked down at Gabrielle, restraining all desire to kiss her. Instead she pressed Gabrielle close as she carried the younger woman to their bed.
Having Gabrielle well blanketed, Xena turned toward the fire.
Gabrielle sought to breach their silence. She shyly called Xena's name.
The Conqueror gave Gabrielle a stern look. Gabrielle's courage failed. The Conqueror waited for a few heartbeats. Impatient, she demanded. "What do you ask of me?"
Gabrielle turned her head away. She would ask nothing.
Xena stepped on, eager to increase the space between them.
"My Lord." The words escaped from Gabrielle's lips in dire desperation.
The title spoke of much more than love. The title resided deep in Gabrielle's heart, reflecting the young woman's trust and need. Xena had done everything in her power to heal Gabrielle. What Xena had given was not enough. What Gabrielle needed was Xena's love affirmed, not disguised or turned aside, but given simply, freely, openly and honestly. Gabrielle wanted her Lord and all that personage promised.
Xena bent down and removed her boots, flinging them off, one at a time, with a quick stroke of her hand. She lay upon their bed taking Gabrielle into her arms. Gabrielle clung to her. Xena spoke as if confiding a secret that only they shared. "I love you."
Xena stood near the fireplace dressed in black trousers tucked into black leather boots that rose to just below her knees. Her high collared blouse was the color of milk cream. The blouse had full sleeves with ties at both wrists and at the neckline. She began to work the maddening lacing on one wrist.
"Let me." Gabrielle called out to her.
Xena turned to her partner, who sat nearby, a quilt draped over her, as protection from the cold. Gabrielle reached out persuading Xena to accept her help. Though perfectly capable of dressing herself, the warrior could not deny Gabrielle the opportunity to feel she was of some use to her. The Conqueror knelt before her Queen and silently watched as Gabrielle tightened the lacing before tying it off.
"There." Pleased with her effort Gabrielle made a request. "Now the other."
Xena offered her second arm. Gabrielle completed her self-assigned task with care. She chose to speak, keeping her gaze lowered. "When I'm well…" Her voice drifted as her conviction faltered.
"Yes?" Xena encouraged, seeking evidence of both Gabrielle's physical and spiritual recovery.
"Nothing." Gabrielle did not want to risk agitating her Lord.
"Tell me." Xena encouraged.
Gabrielle continued to avoid Xena's probing gaze. "I'd like to go for a ride outside of the palace, just the two of us."
"I would think you've had enough of me by now." A wry remark.
Gabrielle was surprised by the absence of an immediate rebuff. She took Xena's hand. "I've missed you."
Xena used her free hand to gently raise Gabrielle's chin. "You shall have me." She leaned forward and kissed Gabrielle tenderly on the lips.
Their kiss came to an easy end. Gabrielle laid her hand on Xena's shoulder; feeling the soft, smooth cloth underneath her fingertips. She shyly met Xena's gaze. "You are beautiful."
Xena smiled. "In your eyes."
Gabrielle leaned back with a slight shake of her head. "We both know better. You will have the admiration of all the women and men at the banquet."
"Don't worry, without you present, Jared will take his post and protect me from unwanted advances."
Gabrielle, faced with the truth of her life, felt for a fleeting moment, lost. She believed who she saw before her to be a mere illusion. The Conqueror, the Sovereign of Greece could not be kneeling before her, could not love her. A wave of grief and terror caused her to release a woeful cry as she reached out to embrace the specter that had inhabited her waking dreams.
"Hey." Xena, troubled by Gabrielle's sudden passion, enfolded the younger woman in her arms. She could feel Gabrielle's desperate hold. "I love you." Xena whispered. She stroked Gabrielle's back, trying to soothe as she waited for a response. None was forthcoming. Xena tried again, "I don't have to go. Our guests will understand."
The tactile sensation of Xena's body comforted Gabrielle. The effect was magnified by Xena's simple words. Gabrielle exhaled deeply, cleansing the fear from the innermost chambers of her being. She settled in her chair, better to see Xena. "No, I'll be fine."
Xena was not convinced. She placed her hand on Gabrielle's check. The warmth she felt was from the momentary flush of emotion, and not the fever that had dogged Gabrielle throughout the passing days and nights.
Trying to amuse, Gabrielle relied on a more common tactic. "I could go with you."
Missing the humor of the suggestion, Xena struggled to answer. She spoke in a measured voice. "Do you know how precious you are to me? I will not consent to anything that might cause you harm. In a few more days you will have your way about the palace and soon thereafter I will take you on a ride outside the city gates. Until then, you must stay warm and rest."
Gabrielle could see the toll the days of her illness had taken upon the warrior. It was time to move on. "Let me see you with your covert coat."
"Am I to model for you?" Xena was willing to amuse her young lover who asked so little of her.
"Yes, please." Gabrielle cheered.
"All right, then!" Xena exclaimed happily as she got to her feet and donned, with an exaggerated gesture, her short, black wool coat.
The coat fit Xena perfectly. The dye was as black as tar, broken only by two white embroidered interwoven spheres on each shoulder, each reminiscent of the Conqueror's chakram.
Gabrielle approved. "I like."
"Good." Xena declared. "Because I'm yours and only yours, and I would hate to disappoint you."
"Is it time?" Gabrielle looked to the door.
"Yes." Xena regretted their separation, short, as it would be.
"A kiss?" Gabrielle raised her hands invitingly.
Xena bent down and gave Gabrielle a light kiss. "Don't wait up for me."
"Good night, then."
Xena walked over to the door. She looked back, feeling a joy that had eluded her from the moment she received Darlius' message of Gabrielle's ill health. She could not leave. Not yet. She returned to Gabrielle kneeling before her once again. "Listen to me. I have never been more frightened in my life than the moment I arrived back in the palace and saw you lying in bed, fighting for a breath."
Gabrielle touched Xena's cheek. She tried to console, whispering Xena's name.
Xena was determined in her confession. "I commanded you to be with me even though I knew I had no power over you. I'm grateful to you for choosing to honor me. Now that I have you back completely, I beg you, Gabrielle, never doubt your place in my life. Never doubt that you are my Queen."
Gabrielle, dressed in a warm, golden robe, and Samuel, her assigned Guardsman, walked down the palace corridor together.
Having seen them, Trevor approached. "Your Majesty, I did not expect to see you up."
The young Queen inquired. "Trevor, I thought the banquet would be over by now."
"There are only a few guests remaining."
"Walk with me?"
Trevor directed his order to the Guardsman. "You're dismissed."
"Yes sir." Samuel addressed Gabrielle, "Good night, Your Majesty."
Gabrielle bid him a warm farewell. "Goodnight, Sam."
Gabrielle and Trevor walked toward the banquet entrance.
Trevor had harbored his own fear for the life of the Queen. "How are you feeling, Your Majesty?"
Gabrielle gently chided. "I thought we had an agreement?"
Trevor smiled. "How are you, Gabrielle?"
"That's better." Gabrielle returned his smile. "This time was far more serious than my last bout with this sickness. I'm glad the worst seems to be over."
"Then the Conqueror had reason to be concerned."
"Yes, she did. I can't complain about her over protectiveness."
Trevor warned. "She will not be pleased to see you walking the halls."
"Oh, don't be so sure." Gabrielle felt confident. "It is Solstice after all."
Trevor wondered how the Royals celebrated. "Will you exchange gifts?"
"Because of my illness, I didn't have the chance to get my Lord a gift." Under the circumstances Gabrielle was certain Xena would find a material gift inconsequential. "I think that's the last thing on the Conqueror's mind right now."
They turned into the banquet hall.
Gabrielle placed a hand on the Guardsman's arm. "Trevor, I need to ask a favor."
Trevor was willing. "Anything."
Xena leaned against the Conqueror's table. Jared, Stephen and two other Guardsmen stood with her. The festive mood lingered as they enjoyed each other's company.
Jared placed a hand on Xena's shoulder, earning her attention. He nodded toward the entrance. "You have an unexpected guest."
Xena turned her gaze. She saw Gabrielle speaking to Trevor. Trevor went off leaving the Queen alone. Gabrielle lifted her eyes and met Xena's.
Xena cursed. "Must I tie her to the bedpost?"
Jared quipped. "The lass would still find her way loose."
"No doubt she would." Xena felt a reprimand rising.
Gabrielle approached, stopping at the heart of the room, choosing to wait for Xena.
Stephen offered. "My Liege, I believe our Queen is waiting for you."
"Do you, Captain?" Xena's humor was as fine as a silk thread. "I think you men are enjoying our Queen's presence a little too much."
Stephen was unconcerned by the Conqueror's reproach. "We are pleased to see her well, My Liege."
"Roaming about the palace will not bring her any closer to health." Xena disapproved.
Jared suggested with an undisguised smile. "Then I recommend that you don't keep her waiting any longer."
Xena smacked the General in the gut only to have Jared laugh at her half-hearted assault. As the Conqueror walked toward the Queen, the musicians began to play.
Xena stopped at the sound of the music. "What the …" She glared at them. Trevor stood interference.
Gabrielle smiled as Xena continued her approach. Before Xena could say a word, Gabrielle curtseyed, "My Lord. I promised you a Solstice dance."
Xena paused, pleasantly surprised. "Indeed, you did." She smiled and offered Gabrielle her hand.
Jared slapped Stephen in the arm. "Go see if Cyrene and Makia are still gossiping in the kitchen. They will want to see this."
Makia and Cyrene entered the banquet hall followed by Stephen. The three approached the Guardsmen. All admired the dancers.
Makia sighed. "Lovely."
Cyrene turned to the General. "Jared, are they always this happy?"
"When the Fates are kind, yes, they are."
Cyrene was thoughtful. "Xena is not the Conqueror I thought her to be."
Makia shared what was obvious to all who lived in the palace. "Gabrielle has helped temper the Conqueror's darkest moods."
Jared added. "By her own word, that is the gift the lass is to Xena."
"Xena said that?" Cyrene still struggled to reconcile all facets of her daughter; the child she was, the Conqueror, the Sovereign and foremost the Queen's devoted partner.
"Cyrene, Xena loves Gabrielle."
"I don't doubt that she does. I fear what will happen to her if she was ever to lose Gabrielle."
Makia was optimistic. "I don't believe she would go back to her old ways."
Cyrene turned to the General. "Jared, what do you believe?"
Jared perceived Cyrene's need to be reassured. The General spoke truthfully. "Xena has not changed as much as some people may think. What has changed is that we all now see her through Gabrielle's eyes. The lass has helped Greece see Xena for the good and righteous ruler she is. Xena has done what she has had to do to protect Greece. She will continue to rule Greece, paying the high price it demands of her. Were she to lose Gabrielle, I believe Xena would continue to rule Greece because both she and Gabrielle understand that it is Xena's destiny to do so."
Stephen wondered. "And if Gabrielle were to lose the Conqueror?"
"She is our Queen." Jared affirmed, "Greece will be in good hands."
"But will she want to rule?" Stephen asked with a hushed sincerity.
Jared answered. "On that day, if not sooner, our Queen will come to understand and accept what the Fates have given her."
The song ended. The musicians waited for a sign whether to continue playing. Gabrielle paused somewhat short of breath. Xena was exhilarated. She stepped forward and picked Gabrielle up off her feet, cradling the smaller woman in her arms.
Gabrielle protested. "Xena!"
"Humor me." Xena stole a kiss.
Gabrielle laughed. "All right. If you insist."
"I do. Time for bed?"
Carrying Gabrielle away, Xena's care was only for her. Without looking back to the men she called out. "Jared, tell Targon I am not to be disturbed come morning."
"Yes, My Liege." Jared answered robustly.
Having not seen Cyrene or Makia, Xena shouted. "Happy Solstice, Gentlemen."
Stephen responded gladly. "As well to you and our Queen, My Liege."
Xena laid Gabrielle upright in bed.
Gabrielle requested. "Stay."
Xena sat down beside her.
Gabrielle took Xena's arm and untied the wrist lacing.
Xena observed blithely. "You dress me. You undress me."
Gabrielle smiled as she continued her effort. "Seems only right to me."
Xena bid tenderly. "Happy Solstice, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle raised her eyes from her task. "Happy Solstice, Xena." She regretted, "I haven't a present for you."
"Nor I you. That leaves us only with each other. It is more than I could have wished for."
Gabrielle's smile broadened. "You are a romantic, My Lord."
"Because you inspire me." Xena wooed.
Xena decided it was time to fulfill a promise. "Though not from me, you do have a present. Wait here." Xena left the bedroom and secured a small package wrapped in parchment from her desk. She returned to her place at Gabrielle's bedside. "For you."
Gabrielle took the simple package. "Who?"
"An old weathered man named Sastro came to see me yesterday."
"I know him. He lives in one of the villages Darlius and I visited."
"Indeed. The villagers commissioned him to make a gift befitting the Queen of Greece as an expression of their gratitude for the care you brought to them. I think you will like it."
Gabrielle unwrapped the parchment to find a hand carved comb. It had intricate designs of flowers and birds traveling down a vine. "It's beautiful."
"Even though the carver was a modest man of few words, it did not take much coaxing to get him to tell me about your visit. I am very proud of you."
Gabrielle met Xena's gaze. "I don't think he told you everything."
Xena cocked her head in curiosity. "What do you mean?"
"It wasn't only in Sastro's village. It was in all of them. The people came to me and told me how grateful they were to have you as their Sovereign. In the years you have ruled, their lives have improved multifold. I knew that from my time at the east garrison. I'm sorry I placed that truth in the back of my mind. I'm sorry I've only spoken to you about what still waits to be done."
Xena refused Gabrielle's apology. "You have every right to ask for the things you do."
Gabrielle words were heartfelt. "You know I love you, don't you?"
Xena felt, without reservation, that Gabrielle's love was true. "Yes."
"Know too that I am proud of you, and that I am proud to be your Queen." Gabrielle placed the comb into Xena's hand. "You deserve this comb more than I do."
Xena stroked the comb with her fingertips. "It has been quite a Solstice, and it isn't morning yet. What say you to sleep and a lazy waking?"
Gabrielle teased. "I say I’d rather have a not so lazy waking."
Xena laughed. "You are getting better." She got to her feet and quickly changed into her sleep shirt. She lay beside Gabrielle, enveloping the smaller woman with her body. Soon they drifted to sleep, hopeful that the morrow would bring them, always in the presence of the other, love, peace and health.
Comments always encouraged and appreciated. Mayt_fanfiction@sbcglobal.net
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