My Lord: The Chosen’s Promise
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, My Lord: Solstice, My Lord: By the Fates and My Lord: Megara.
Acknowledgements: My gratitude to Cath for her edits and comments.
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.
Xena of Amphipolis, Conqueror of Greece
The Conqueror's Family (ML)
Cyrene: Mother of Xena
Lyceus: Deceased brother of Xena
Solan: Son (Megara)
Toris: Disgraced brother
The Conqueror's Household (ML)
Ben: Servant – burned (Megara)
Darlius: The Healer
Danis: Lower servant – fire (Megara)
Lacia: Twelve-year old slave (Solstice)
Landis: Male servant
Leah: Slave / Gabrielle's roommate
Mansel: Male servant
Pathas: Male servant
Stephanie: Middle aged cook
Targon: The Administrator
Terrell: Old Servant began fire (Megara)
Gabrielle of Poteidaia
Gabrielle's Family (ML)
Perdicas: Gabrielle's betrothed
(By the Fates)
The Generals & Their Armies
Xena, the Conqueror
Corinth and selected assignments
Western Port Cities
Alem: Bull of a man (Megara)
Anton: Senior Guard took Gabrielle to kitchen after Xena killed Gaugan (ML)
Brogan: Escorted Gabrielle when she was taken into custody by Osric. Reward was new saddle. (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. Reward leave to see girl. (ML)
Mason: Young Guardsman (Megara)
Samuel: A Queen's Guardsman (Solstice)
Sentas (Lieut): Brash seasoned officer (ML)
Stephen: 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)
Blacos: Suggested for promotion (Megara)
Frome: Suggested for promotion (Megara)
Giles: Insults the Conqueror (By the Fates)
Hiero: Witness to Giles actions (By the Fates)
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)
Sonas: Suggested for promotion (Megara)
Thad: Witness to Giles actions (By the Fates)
Leaders of Other Nations & their Ambassadors
Acade: Ambassador from Persia (Megara)
Bevan: Xena conqueror him to win Corinth & Greece (ML)
Caesar - Rome (ML)
Lao Ma - Chin (ML)
Okal - Persia (ML)
Callisto: Cirra (By the Fates)
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)
Jabari: Ethiopian messenger (By the Fates)
Franco: Pensioner warned Stephen of Thanos (Megara)
Lords & Their Families
Ayssel: Eastern Lands (By the Fates)
Castan: Mentioned as meeting with other Lords at beginning of My Lord.
Haldis: Challenges Gabrielle (By the Fates)
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 (My Lord)
Ridel: Gaugan's son
House of Judais (By the Fates)
Judais: Northern Lands
Stavros: Nephew of Judais
Tassos: Brother of Judais
Tracate: Nephew of Judais
House of Thanos
Thanos (By the Fates)
Cofeus: Bavavos' chief guard (Megara)
Brijan: Guard (Megara)
Etan: Bavavos’ Guard (Megara)
Katrina: Servant of Bavavos (Megara)
Kover: Guard (Megara)
Podios: Administrator (Megara)
Broan: Story requestor (Solstice)
Calph: Peacemaker at inn (Solstice)
Damian: Negative villager (By the Fates)
Kiral: Referred to by Damian - slave connections
Notios: Requested story from Gabrielle (Megara)
Sastro: Wood carver (Solstice)
Tertius: Villager positive toward Conqueror (By the Fates)
Tess: Barmaid (Megara)
Zeki: Merchant loyal to Gabrielle (By the Fates)
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.
Megara: Xena & Gabrielle’s retreat (By the Fates)
Scupi: Where Xena retired to (By the Fates)
Patras: Where Xena would have been taken for transport to Rome (Megara)
Messene: Location of Thanos’ fortress (Megara)
Gabrielle and Samuel walked side-by-side through the palace halls leading to the Royal suite. Gabrielle kept her eyes forward, inviting no word or gesture of comfort from her friend and personal guard. Samuel kept an unobtrusive watch over his Queen and little sis. He felt shackled by circumstances, despising his helplessness.
Reaching the suite Samuel opened the heavy entrance door. Gabrielle passed through, pausing for a moment to gratefully touch her companion’s arm with her hand. Samuel closed the door and stood his guard post. During the following half-candlemark of wait there was an atmosphere of restrained activity throughout the palace, enveloping the edifice in a human hush.
The sound of footsteps, quick in pace, echoed against Samuel’s sensitive ear. He felt a minor relief. The Conqueror turned the corner, coming into his sight. As the Conqueror reached a distance of no more than five paces, Samuel opened the suite door. The Conqueror slowed her progress walking the final two steps to the guard. She stood before him. She shared the concern reflected in his gentle eyes.
The Conqueror entered the suite. Samuel guided the door on its hinge to a close. Xena scanned the primary chamber. Empty, she walked to the bedroom. Under the threshold she spied Gabrielle lying in their bed.
Xena approached with a light step. Standing beside the bed she marked Gabrielle’s tear stained face. Xena went down to one knee. She kissed her partner on the cheek. She whispered, "Sleep love. The morning will be kinder to you."
Xena leaned back on her heels. How kind would the morning be? Not very. There would be a funeral pyre for young Lacia. The combined healing skills of Darlius, Gabrielle, and her own could not save the young girl. The girl’s illness came without warning. There was little to do but keep her comfortable and sit vigil as she slowly slipped into Death’s embrace.
The household staff stood witness. By fire Lacia’s soul was freed to Elysia. In a line, from left to right, stood Makia, the Queen, the Conqueror and Targon. The Conqueror turned to her administrator. "Targon, because of you Lacia enjoyed two, I dare say happy years in Corinth. Be proud of the harm you saved her from when you took it upon yourself to keep her from the bordellos."
The administrator was comforted by the Conqueror’s praise. "She was a fine child, Your Majesty."
"I will miss her." Xena felt Gabrielle’s movement. The Queen embraced her sorrowful cook. The Conqueror waited. Upon separating Gabrielle reached out to her Lord. Xena took Gabrielle’s hand. Together the Royals returned silently to their suite.
Upon entering the main chamber of their home, Gabrielle released Xena’s hand and quietly made her way to the bedroom. Xena acknowledged that Gabrielle’s need to grieve privately was no reflection upon her ability to console. She went to the bath to wash the lingering scent of ash off her skin. Afterwards, dressed in her white robe, she rested outside on the balcony, sitting on the stone parapet with a raised knee, her back lying against the palace wall. She found peace in the dark still night. Much of life was sleeping. A few of the living would not wake, taken by predators or because their tired souls chose to leave mortal existence. Lacia had wanted more time. The choice was not hers. Though the lesson itself was easy to understand, accepting the cycle of life was hard. She wondered if animals understood death, understood that it approached them, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. She wondered why humanity was given the ability to contemplate their ending.
Gabrielle stepped onto the balcony. She sought out Xena’s embrace. Lost in her own thoughts, Xena did not sense Gabrielle until the younger woman’s touch was upon her. She encircled Gabrielle with her arms. Gabrielle held close.
After innumerable beats of her heart Gabrielle spoke in a whisper. "Xena, please love me tonight."
Xena had her answer. Humanity was given the knowledge of death so that the preciousness of life would never be forgotten.
Nearly a two-candlemark ride from Corinth, in a vast open valley, the Royal Guard and all but one company of the 1st Army were mustered for field games.
Stephen stood beside the Conqueror. He spoke with a hint of concern. "My Liege, the Queen rides toward us in a gallop."
The Conqueror’s gaze swept over the horizon. Gabrielle rode Spirit with a sense of joy and anticipation. The Conqueror smiled. "So she does, Stephen."
The Conqueror’s casualness caused the Guardsman’s anxiety to ease.
The Conqueror waited as her Queen walked her white stallion through the camp.
Gabrielle greeted her Sovereign. "My Lord."
"Out for exercise, My Queen?"
"I thought it a good day for it."
The Conqueror looked to the heavens. "The sky promises fine weather for today’s field games." She walked to Spirit’s side. She noted a new addition to Gabrielle’s gear. "Your bow?"
"I hoped there would still be a place for me in the archery competition."
"A little sibling rivalry?"
"I consider the prospect more an opportunity to enjoy my brothers’ company."
"I’m certain they will welcome the chance to prove their skills before you."
"So, you approve?"
"Absolutely." Xena reached up her hands in welcome.
Gabrielle raised her leg over Spirit’s neck and slipped into her lover’s arms, keeping her hands on the warrior’s broad shoulders. She spoke intimately. "I’ve missed you."
Xena responded in kind. "I’m glad you came."
The day passed well. Gabrielle achieved fifth ranking in the archery competition winning accolades from her fellow competitors. The bow was a newly acquired skill that Gabrielle found herself unexpectedly comfortable with. Xena proved once again to be a master teacher, demonstrating the necessary patience and keen eye for nuance, guiding Gabrielle to minor adjustments in her technique that resulted in superb accuracy.
Gabrielle did not have to wait long after her arrival before Xena invited her to stay with the troops instead of returning to the palace. It was an invitation she happily accepted. The Queen sat with her brother Guardsmen during evening meal. As their bard and sister, she entertained them well. With the evening growing late she ended her storytelling, bidding them a good sleep. She went to her Lord who waited with a mug of mead in her hand and her finest Guardsmen in company. With a brief good-night to her men, Xena took her leave and accompanied Gabrielle to their quarters.
In the Royal tent Xena undressed while Gabrielle unpacked her saddlebag. Dressed in a comfortable sleep shirt, Xena lay in an array of furs, which formed their bed. Gabrielle changed her clothes. She stood observing her partner. Xena’s gaze held her with a tender regard.
Gabrielle admired her lover’s body. There were only a few faint scars upon it to remind them of Xena’s scourging in Messene. With reassuring vigor, Xena’s body had renewed in both strength and agility
Because of Messene, as improbable as it may have seemed to Gabrielle, the bond they shared had deepened, strengthened. Gabrielle cherished Xena’s professions of love during that time. She recalled the words Xena had spoken soon before the events of Messene unfolded. ‘It is not enough to say I love you.’ Gabrielle felt the truth of the sentiment. Upon speaking those words Xena embraced her and opened herself up in a sublime exchange where their souls met and became one. They had experienced those rare exchanges only by Xena’s will. Gabrielle wanted such a moment. She felt a desperate need to express her love in a manner that transcended the inadequacy of spoken language. Gabrielle wanted Xena to receive from her as she received from her partner.
Wordlessly, she joined Xena in their bed. She entered an embrace, resting her hand behind Xena’s head and holding her body still, cheek to cheek. She closed her eyes and concentrated, journeying deep within her mortal being until she touched the essence of who she was, of everything that bound her to her Lord’s love.
Xena received Gabrielle generously in her arms. She found Gabrielle’s still embrace uncommon. Somewhat concerned she reached out with her senses seeking a hint of Gabrielle’s emotions. What she felt was unbounded love, peace and gratitude. She too closed her eyes and focused, seeking Gabrielle’s spirit within the silence. Against her nature Xena allowed every protective defense to collapse. She stepped back further and further inside her inner fortress beckoning Gabrielle to travel inward to a sheltered truth, to a vulnerability shared with no one other than her partner.
Gabrielle did not hesitate to walk down an imposing shaft, following a dim light that with each step grew brighter. She saw a tendril of fire flick toward her. She took the last length of space in one stride and wove herself around the flames that granted warmth and protection.
Xena leaned her head back upon sensing the extraordinary embrace of her essence with Gabrielle’s. She surrendered. She gave nothing, received everything in a manner she had never allowed before. What she felt was not bliss. What she felt was beyond the mortal. The divine, a divine harbored within Gabrielle, touched her.
Xena awoke. Gabrielle continued to lie as she did during the evening’s end. Xena was once again surprised and humbled by the love they shared. Their union had formed gradually, cautiously. She would have vowed that she could not love more, and yet she too would swear that what Gabrielle gave her the night before took them both to a more profound union.
Gabrielle stirred. She slowly shifted onto her side. Her hand slid to rest over Xena’s heart. She struggled to find a word worthy of the moment. "Thank you."
"I’ve done nothing," Xena whispered.
"Promise me… promise me that you won’t leave me easily."
The promise was one long given; one Xena had no intention of breaking. "I will fight mortals and Gods alike to be with you. Gabrielle, as I promised you when you first came to me, whether I am with you or not is for you alone to decide. With you I have Megara. You are my Elysia."
Gabrielle had spent a second day in the valley before returning to Corinth in the company of four of her Royal Guard. Three days had passed since her departure. As scheduled, Xena, Jared and Stephen led the Royal Guard toward the palace. They were less than two candlemarks from Corinth,
Stephen stood up in his stirrups and twisted his body back and forth. "I’m going to hurt in the morning."
Xena smiled. "A massage with a strong liniment will help."
Jared quipped, "If you ask her nicely maybe Tess ‘ll do you the favor."
Stephen blushed, "We haven’t…"
Xena laughed, "You have to start somewhere."
"Fighting a war is easier than courting a woman."
"That is because you know what you are doing when you are in battle," Jared observed.
Wanting to be of service, Xena offered. "I can simply command your marriage, if that will help."
Jared goaded. "Come man! We are all waiting for the day. It promises to be grand celebration."
Stephen looked concerned. "What do you mean?"
"Don’t think you’ll elope and be welcomed back to Corinth."
"My Liege?" Stephen begged for relief.
Xena set aside her sympathy. "Don’t look at me, Stephen. Gabrielle and I had a public joining."
"A small gathering." Stephen reminded all.
"Which of your brothers are you willing to offend by not inviting them to toast you and Tess?" Jared asked.
Stephen insisted. "I have not proposed to Tess."
"You will. It is only a matter of time."
"I’ll petition Gabrielle. She will find an honorable solution."
Jared turned to the Sovereign. "I protest, Xena. How fair is it for Stephen to leverage the Queen’s favor?"
Xena smiled. "Sorry, Jared. You have lost this battle of wits. We both know Gabrielle will protect Tess from an unwanted marriage."
Stephen now laid his own protest. "Who said Tess would not want the marriage?"
"Who said she would?" Xena asked.
"So, you have spoken of marriage."
"Not about us…" Stephen fumbled his words. "When we were in Megara we spoke of our dreams for the future."
"Am I to lose you to a different life?" Xena’s tone sobered. The jesting had lost some of its fun. Still, Xena would not withhold happiness from the Major. "We shall speak further, Stephen."
Stephen shifted his stallion closer to Argo. He spoke softly. "My Liege…"
"Oh no," Xena interrupted,. "We will speak, Major. Because if it is in my power to give, you shall have your dream." Xena turned to the General. "Right, Jared?"
"Aye, Xena." Jared heartily agreed. "It will be done."
"I am not ready to leave Corinth,." Stephen argued.
"Leave?" The prospect of losing Stephen was hard for Xena.
"To live away from the sword. To work the land," he explained.
Xena added in understanding. "To raise children from harm’s way?"
"Yes, if the Gods grant us a child."
"It is a fine dream, Stephen. When you are ready, tell me. You shall have the land and the means to till it, and anything else you may need. It will be a wedding present I’m sure your sister will be happy to bestow upon you and Tess."
Stephen did not know how to express his gratitude. He fell back to the simplest expression. "Thank you."
After a heartbeat, Jared chose to the squash the somewhat solemn mood by redirecting the subject away from Stephen’s future. "Speaking of my favorite lass, she’s coming along well with the bow."
Grateful for the shift in subject, Xena observed. "She’s comfortable with targets. I don’t think she’s ready to join a hunt. Though she has the skill, her heart causes her aim to tremble at the sight of a living creature."
"Did you think it would be otherwise?"
"No, and I’m glad for it." Xena felt a sudden jolt of sorrow. She reined Argo to a halt and concentrated. The sensation strengthened.
Jared and Stephen watched in silence having witnessed similar moments in both Royals.
Xena tentatively had Argo resume her walk.
Jared was not shy. "Is it the lass?"
Xena nodded. What she felt was neither fear nor panic. She was sure Gabrielle was not threatened. She wondered what difficulty caused Gabrielle to become so sad. She speculated that Gabrielle might be at the city hospice. As a healer, Gabrielle had never reconciled herself completely to the suffering she tried to alleviate or to the sudden unexpected deaths, such as Lacia’s, that she could not prevent. Xena reasoned. "Maybe someone in the hospice is not doing well."
"Should we pick up our pace?"
Xena did not answer. She did keep Argo at a walk, reaching out with her spirit, hoping she could grant Gabrielle comfort, transcending the distance that separated them. Less than a quarter-candlemark later Xena felt a change - the sharp severance of Gabrielle’s relentless sorrow - leaving nothing but an impenetrable void. The nothingness terrified Xena. Without warning she cried out and kicked Argo, driving the mare to a full gallop.
Startled, Jared ordered Stephen. "Go! I’ll be right behind you."
Without a word, Stephen and his mount bolted in pursuit, as Jared called his orders to the next in command. Soon the General had his stallion galloping side by side with Stephen’s.
Gabrielle sat at the desk she shared with Xena. She missed her partner. She knew that as much as they missed one another, it was good for Xena to have time alone with her men. She smiled, knowing that their brief separations always ended with ardent reunions.
Gabrielle enjoyed her solitude, indulging herself in the pleasures of being a bard, with not only the ability to tell a tale, but also to write it.
Gabrielle closed her eyes as a bright flash of light engulfed the suite. Experience taught her that the source of the light was one of the Gods. She stood and waited. Her expectations were realized with the appearance of the Goddess of Love. She greeted her visitor. "Aphrodite, Hello"
Aphrodite responded warmly to the young Queen, "Gabrielle, how are you?"
"Good." Gabrielle smiled, "Very good."
"She’s well." Gabrielle was curious. "Aphrodite, what brings you here?"
"Most mortals would welcome a visit from a God."
"Depends on the God," Gabrielle said lightheartedly.
"Of course, you are always welcomed."
The Goddess’ mien altered as she spoke with uncharitable bluntness. "Gabrielle, I’ve come for your promise."
Gabrielle needed no explanation. She had given Aphrodite only one promise. Still she grappled with the magnitude of the Goddess’ claim. "My promise…"
"Your life in exchange for Xena’s."
Gabrielle sat down and looked at her hands focusing upon her joining ring, remembering the night Xena slowly bled from Aphrodite’s mortal wound. She raised her noble gaze to the Goddess. "Yes…"
"Will you come with me willingly?"
Aphrodite reached out, "Take my hand."
Gabrielle’s gaze traveled across the room. Corinth had been her home for the past four years. Her sorrow intensified with each heartbeat. Her survey ended back upon the quill lying on the desk. "Aphrodite…" Gabrielle’s voice was arrested by her emotion. She tried to speak again. "Xena… May I leave her a note?"
"What will you write?"
"I don’t have much time."
Gabrielle reached for a clean sheet of parchment and took her quill in hand, dipping it in her inkpot. As she wrote, her tears fell from her cheek to the writing surface.
Samuel heard before he saw the Conqueror running down the corridor toward his station. He had not expected the Conqueror until nightfall. The sight of her gave him reason to be concerned. He reached out for the suite door handle while his eyes remained riveted upon the dark presence. Just as Xena neared, from afar he saw two more figures turned into the corridor. The larger form he took for Jared. The spryer Stephen or Trevor. His foreboding spiked. Whatever happened had to have been of an alarming nature. He knew better than to speak. His muscles tensed, his mind sharpened, ready to act upon command.
With the Conqueror two strides away he opened the door and kept it open.
"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted.
The heart-rending call of the Conqueror echoed from the meeting chamber out to the palace.
Having heard the Conqueror’s desperate cry a second time, Samuel waited no longer. He entered the suite. The Conqueror had moved from the bedroom to the bath chamber. The Queen was absent.
The Conqueror stopped her search and turned to Samuel. "Did you hear or see anyone come in or our of here?"
Samuel stammered, "No, My Liege. The Queen had no visitors."
"Did Gabrielle say anything about where she might go?"
"No. She was in bright spirits. She said she planned to take time to write."
Jared and Stephen had entered the chamber, hearing the last exchange between the occupants.
Stephen offered, "The sparring chamber. Maybe she wanted some exercise."
Samuel thought differently. "We go together. We always go together."
Jared moved closer to Xena. What he saw in Xena he had seen only once before. His memory brought forth the death of Lyceus.
Distraught, Xena declared. "Jared, she’s gone."
The General tried to console. "We’ll find her." He turned to Stephen. "Shut the gates to the palace and to the city. We’ll do a full sweep."
"No, it won’t do any good." Xena tried to make him understand. "Old man, I can’t feel her."
Jared mined his knowledge of the bond the two lovers shared. "She may be unconscious."
"No, I’m telling you… Jared, there is always a trace."
Stephen recalled how in the Messene dungeon Gabrielle was certain Xena had survived the scourging and how Gabrielle sensed that Xena lay in the back of the covered wagon in route to Patra in spite of Xena’s unconsciousness. He looked away from the two in thought. His gaze fell upon the Royal’s desk. He fixed upon two objects that rested on a blank piece of parchment. Wordlessly, he walked to the desk and reached out, taking in hand the familiar medallion and ring.
"My Liege." He turned and presented his open palm to those in the room.
Xena’s eyes went to Stephen’s hands. She retrieved Gabrielle’s jewelry, closing her fist upon them. Her mien turned from despair to rage. She turned and stalked Samuel with murderous vengeance in her eyes. "You must have heard something!"
Seeing Xena’s free hand go to her belt dagger, Samuel backed away. Jared stepped in between the two, taking Xena in a defensive embrace. "Sam would never fail Gabrielle or you."
Xena shifted her gaze to Jared. The two warriors fixed their knowing eyes upon the other. Xena saw the hateful truth in Jared. No one present could be blamed. No one present could give her the answers she sought. No one present could give her Gabrielle.
She began to sob. Her body heaved. She felt the tear of her self, of her soul. The muted gentle presence that was always Gabrielle had simply ceased; leaving an unbearable void that with each heartbeat grew in depth and span. With each heartbeat light was further engulfed in darkness. The finality, the lack of doubt clenched and pressed her until she felt as if the Gods themselves had placed the weight of the earth upon her chest. She could not tolerate another moment of her despair. "No!"
The Conqueror’s cry shattered the composure of the men present. The cry reverberated through the palace passageways and vents, causing all who heard it to stop in step and gesture. Voices silenced as the palace reached out to listen for some manner of explanation of what tragedy had struck the household.
Xena collapsed in Jared’s arms. He guided her down to the floor as her body was wracked with convulsions. He turned to the Major unwilling to lose hope, willfully ignoring the damning evidence. He spoke softly. "Search the city and then report to me. Take Sam with you."
Both the Major and Guardsman were feeling an intruding, paralyzing shock. Their training prevailed over their personal grief. The men left the chamber to fulfill their charge, closing the door behind them.
Jared held Xena close, rocking her gently like a child. He staked his life on Xena’s instincts and on the intangible connection she shared with Gabrielle. He, more than any other, had witnessed the forming connection between his ward and the warrior, until it became truer than any form he could hold in his hand. If Xena said the connection had been severed, he would not question it. As he did not question Gabrielle when she called him to her and quietly informed him that Xena was dead after being struck by an arrow and physically disappearing. He had held Gabrielle’s gaze demanding a retraction. She did not waiver. Her answer was guileless, "She’s gone from me, Jared." He then knew it was true. Now, as he held Xena, he knew Gabrielle was no longer on the mortal plane. His tears fell silently. He felt the rising grief of losing his young lass and he felt the companion grief that what had transpired would, in all likelihood, end with the loss of Xena. The Xena that had come to be in the presence of Gabrielle would be no more. The broken spirit could have once survived by returning to hatred. He knew better. Xena would not betray Gabrielle’s legacy. What he feared was Xena’s death either by the slow withering away of her life or by a quick self-inflicted stroke of the sword.
Jared closed his eyes. He could not face the inevitable wretched consequence of living in a world that had a reason beyond comprehension. If all was Zeus, he cursed the God. The destruction of Greece could not have been more swiftly or bitterly executed. All that held the empire together in peace and prosperity was crushed by an unexpected wind. In his heart his questions held firm. ‘Why? What hubris, what blasphemy, what sin of the past, brought this curse to Corinth? Had not the Gods’ design been realized for the greater good, or was the greater good of no consequence to the Gods?’
After two days of searching, Jared entered the Royal chamber and went to Xena who sat by the dormant fireplace. Jared knelt beside her chair. He placed his hand on her arm. "There’s no sign of her." He held to an unreasonable thread of hope. "There has to be an explanation. She couldn’t just disappear from the face of the earth."
Xena’s voice was ominously void of emotion. "She wasn’t real. She was a specter that came to convince me that life was worth living, that love could conqueror hatred. She was nothing but a trick of the Gods. She reached in and captured my soul. To have her I ransomed every breath I took. All that I am was for her benefit, until there was not a part of me that existed without her. The siege complete she left, leaving nothing behind. I am nothing without her. Jared, I have no reason to continue in this pitiless world fashioned by the Gods."
"You’re wrong. Gabrielle was flesh and blood. She was beauty and compassion, but she was as mortal as you or I. Xena, honor her memory by not denying her."
"I do not deny her, Jared. Her open journal is on the desk. Her scrolls are in the cabinet. Her cloak hangs on the hook. The scent of her lingers in the rooms. No, for all the evidence that she was here, I do not deny her."
"You must live on. You owe her that."
"We made our promises. We had an understanding. I thought I understood Gabrielle’s grief. I thought I understood because Gabrielle and I had separated in the past. When I left her in Amphipolis, when I was taken to Mount Olympus, when I gave up the throne and took up residence in Scupi, each time I took Gabrielle with me. I had our memories. I had the part of her that is in me still, in my custody, safe, protected. No one, not even the Gods could wrench her from me. Now, she’s gone. She is a wraith I can reach out to but not touch. If she speaks it is to deaf ears. I cannot hear her. I do not feel her, Jared. She knew this once and swore never again to bear it. I thought I understood. I didn’t. Now I do and I am grateful that she forced me to speak to her of this day, to ready myself for it. I am free to do what I must without shame or guilt. Nothing will hold me back, old man. She waits for me and I shall not keep her waiting much longer."
"I can’t lose you, too." Jared begged. "Old men should die before the young."
"It’s too late. Death took the youngest of us all."
"Xena, will Hades guide you to Gabrielle?" Jared did not mean to be unkind with his question.
"Charon will not deny me crossing if you place a coin in my hand. A gold piece should bribe him well. On the other side of the Styx I will find my way to her."
"She will be in Elysia."
"And who is to say I will be given entrance?" Xena had never been sentimental about her afterlife. "I know my fate cannot be so gentle. If I am simply able to catch a glimpse of her across the way, whatever agony Tartarus renders, I will endure gratefully. By my honor, it will be a less painful existence than what I know now."
"Xena, think again. I beg you. Gabrielle did not leave Corinth by mortal means. You are giving the Gods a cheap triumph over you."
"I don’t care."
Reluctantly, Jared left Xena alone. He resigned himself to the fact that he could not watch her night and day. He also accepted the fact that he had no power or right to stand against her.
Night fell on the tenth day after Gabrielle’s disappearance. Xena walked up the turret stairs carrying her sheathed sword in hand. Standing at the threshold she remembered a day early in her life with Gabrielle.
Xena had been troubled. She could not remember the reason why, only that she had left her suite empty and gone up to the turret seeking a respite from her responsibilities.
Gabrielle found her; keeping silent she remained where Xena now stood. Xena sensed another presence and turned to find her young servant. For how long Gabrielle held watch Xena did not know. Xena said nothing. Their shared silence was far more powerful than any speech.
"It is a more than usually dark night." Gabrielle’s statement carried a not so hidden meaning.
The indirect inquiry surprised Xena. Though it was not the first time Gabrielle had shown interest in her well-being, Xena remained unaccustomed to such sincere concern. She wondered what Gabrielle saw in her that caused the servant to utter such a statement. "It is, but with time the clouds will pass and the light of the moon and stars will once again show themselves." Xena answered in no more than a whisper.
Gabrielle’s face altered thoughtfully as she mentally assessed Xena’s response. With a slight shift of her head she seemed to have made a decision. "I’ll wait for you."
Xena understood the statement to mean that Gabrielle would wait in the Royal suite. Gabrielle had come to Xena on her own accord, to spend the evening, if not the night. Gabrielle turned to depart.
Xena felt an unexpected surge of emotion. She allowed that she wanted Gabrielle’s company, even if it was only to hold and be held by the servant. Doubt, by custom, found voice. "Gabrielle, nothing more?"
Gabrielle was learning to decipher Xena’s short, exact mode of speech. She was being asked if she wanted something from Xena. The question saddened her. It proved how ungenerous Xena’s life had become. Xena rarely received without a caveat or an ulterior motive. That was the nature of her political and military life. Gabrielle mined her courage and spoke frankly, exposing her heart; in a manner she once feared she would never be able to do again. "You’re not alone, Xena. Unless you choose otherwise, you will never be alone again." Gabrielle had given her pledge with the thinnest of veils.
Xena debated whether to answer the servant. Her heart overruled her judgment. "I will not keep you waiting long."
Gabrielle accepted Xena’s promise as encompassing only the one evening. She could not convince herself that she deserved to expect more from her Sovereign. She had felt her loneliness in her chamber and sought relief. It would be granted if she exercised patience and restraint. Gabrielle offered Xena a muted smile, and left her Lord to her prized solitude.
It was Gabrielle’s faith in her, no matter how fine and fragile, that had become Xena’s greatest strength. It was Gabrielle’s faith that gave Xena reason to live. It now gave her reason to die.
Xena knelt and unsheathed her sword. She braced the hilt of the weapon against the stone wall, guiding the tip of the blade to her heart. The point of metal rested across Aphrodite’s wound. She closed her eyes and tried to seek Gabrielle’s essence within the void of darkness. The denial emboldened Xena’s resolve. Her hands slipped down to the center of the blade. She wrapped her fingers around the cold edges causing minor cuts upon her skin.
Furious, Ares appeared and kicked the blade from Xena’s hands. "Are you insane?"
Undeterred, Xena reached out for the blade.
Ares stomped his foot upon it. "Why must your love for the guttersnipe be an unholy madness?"
Xena, her eyes manic, looked up bitterly. "When haven’t I been on the brink?"
"I gave you your battle lust. War takes you to the extreme. Only war!"
"I don’t do anything halfway – kill or love."
"So now you’ll kill yourself for the sake of love. Don’t you find that ironic, especially since Gabrielle gave herself up for you? What gratitude are you showing her by making her sacrifice meaningless?"
If only for a moment, the revelation caused Xena to refocus upon life. "What are you talking about?"
"She chose your life over her own."
"Because you were dying. Or have your forgotten my sister’s wound in Megara?"
"That was over a year ago."
"My sister would say you should be grateful she didn’t take Gabrielle on the spot."
"I’ll find Gabrielle on the other side."
Ares spoke disdainfully. "You think Hades will let you see her?"
"I’ll find her."
"No you won’t." Ares offered more information than he would have liked. "She’s not among the dead."
Xena stood up. "Gabrielle is still alive?"
"Where is she?" Xena demanded.
A flash a light announced the presence of a second god. Aphrodite appeared. "Do tell, brother. Where have you hidden my Chosen?"
Frustrated by his sister’s intrusion, Ares struggled to regain his usual insincere geniality. "What are you doing here? And what do you mean, ‘your Chosen’?"
"You didn’t think Mnemosyne wouldn’t mention the favor she did for me? She was curious if I was pleased with the results. I can’t tell you how surprised she was to find out that I had no idea of what she was talking about. It didn’t take me long to figure out that you were involved."
"Mnemosyne has always favored you over me." Ares showed a measure of his sibling rivalry. "Can’t blame me for taking advantage of that."
"I don’t mess with your Chosen," Aphrodite said censoriously, "Don’t you go messing with mine."
"There you go again. Since when is Gabrielle your Chosen?"
"Megara. Remember, the promise she made to me. The promise you used against her."
Xena listened to the exchange with impatient interest. "Ares, bring Gabrielle back."
Ares shouted. "Don’t tell me what to do!"
Aphrodite was unimpressed. "Father is expecting you. He wants to speak to you about fair play."
"Fair play and the God of War don’t go together! What is Dad going to do to me? Send me to my temple without my sword?"
"Without a particular sword you wouldn’t be as good with the…"
Aphrodite insisted, "I want Gabrielle."
"You and Xena both. What are you going to do, draw straws?"
"Brother, I’m not going to ask you again."
The God crossed his arms with an air of self-satisfaction. "There’s one problem."
Xena threatened, "If you’ve hurt her…"
"I didn’t do anything she didn’t consent to."
"Ask my sister. She knows. I asked Mnemosyne to make your Gabrielle feel better."
Xena turned to Aphrodite. "What did Mnemosyne do?"
The Goddess’ unabashed demeanor grew less assured in light of Xena’s intensity. "She took away Gabrielle’s memories so Gabrielle wouldn’t mourn your separation."
Ares boasted, "You can’t mourn what you don’t remember."
Xena was stunned. "Gabrielle consented to forget me?"
"I didn’t tell her how I was going to take the pain away."
"Hey, that’s the gratitude I get for doing a good deed. Come on, Xena. Be honest. Haven’t you wanted Gabrielle to have a clean slate? No slavery. No rape. No memories of how you abandoned her in Amphipolis. Damn, I did you both a favor. You’ll thank me once you calm down and think about it."
Xena set aside the truth that resided in much of what Ares had said. "Where is she?"
"There’s an old woman that likes taking in stray cats. I left Gabrielle at her doorstep."
Xena surged toward the God of War. Aphrodite placed herself between the two. "Brother, if you don’t give us a straight answer I will let Xena beat you to a bloody pulp, as unloving as it might be, it will be what you deserve."
Offended, Ares shouted. "I am a God!"
"And she is Xena." Aphrodite remained steadfast. "Where is Gabrielle?"
Ares’ gaze shifted from his sister to the Conqueror. "Mark my words, Xena. You’re going to wish you listened to me."
Xena was unmoved. "Where is she, Ares?"
Ares shook his head with undisguised pity. "Ithome in Thessaly."
Xena led the Queen’s Guard and Stephen beyond the village of Ithome to a modest homestead a short distance to the east. The Ithome innkeeper had freely offered information regarding a mysterious young woman who had appeared in the precinct, her memory lost to her. A well-respected elder had taken the woman into her care.
Reaching the homestead Xena dismounted and approached alone. An elderly woman exited the modest home and descended down the porch steps.
Xena spoke kindly. "Good day, are you Casta?"
"I am." The elder looked behind Xena to her escort. She noted the banners flown by two Guardsmen. At the moment of recognition she was struck with fear. She bowed, "Your Majesty, pardon me, I didn’t realize. An old woman does not see well."
Xena reached out and touched the woman’s arm. "It’s all right. Please."
The elder straightened her body and met the Conqueror’s gentle gaze.
Xena kept a patient demeanor. "I have been told you have taken in a young woman who has lost her memory."
"I have, Your Majesty."
"Is she well?"
"As well as she can be."
"Tell me how you found her."
"She found me. She stood in front of my house. She was unhurt. She had no memory of who she was. The village healer has not been able to help her."
"What name has she been given?"
"Gentle," Xena mused. "It is appropriate."
Casta stated hopefully. "You know who she is?"
"I do," Xena confirmed. "She is Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Queen of Greece."
Casta exclaimed in surprise. "By the Gods, how can that be?"
Gabrielle exited the house and stepped onto the porch. She was dressed in a simple tan peasant dress. Her golden hair fell freely. She swept a wisp to the side in an easy gesture. "Casta, is everything all right?"
Casta looked to the Conqueror, who nodded. "Yes, Child."
Xena stepped forward, reining her desire to take Gabrielle into her arms. She addressed her partner. "Good morning."
Wary, Gabrielle looked from Casta to the tall warrior woman before her. She noted the banners and assumed the warrior to be a member of the aristocracy. "Good day." Gabrielle noted the intense nature of Xena’s countenance. She looked beyond Xena to the soldiers; all kept a constant gaze upon her. "Is something wrong?"
Xena spoke softly, "No, nothing is wrong. I was speaking to your caretaker. Would you give us a further moment of privacy?"
Gabrielle looked over to Casta with uncertain eyes.
Casta assured, "Go on. This won’t take long."
Gabrielle reentered the homestead, taking one last look over her shoulder as she disappeared through the door.
Casta observed the obvious. "She did not recognize you."
"No, she did not." Xena masked her disappointment.
Xena had given considerable thought during the trip to Ithome how best to approach Gabrielle. She set her plan in motion. "Would you do me a favor?"
"Of course, Your Majesty."
"I want to see if something familiar will help restore the Queen’s memory. I have two scrolls with her stories."
Casta confessed regrettably. "I cannot read or write."
Xena set the elder’s concern aside. "The Queen can. I want the scrolls transcribed. Take this case. It holds everything she will need to complete the task."
Casta took possession of Gabrielle’s scroll case. "What should I tell her?"
"The truth. Tell her the Conqueror requests that she transcribe the scrolls. I will be by tomorrow to see how well she is accomplishing her work."
"How am I to explain knowing that she can read and write?"
"She has not demonstrated the ability?"
"There has been no cause to."
"Call her. We will find out together."
"Very well." Casta raised her voice. "Metea! Child come out here."
Gabrielle appeared at the door.
"It’s all right." Casta waved her over. "Come here."
Gabrielle stepped to the elder’s side.
Casta handed her one of the scrolls. "Take it. Open it."
Gabrielle did as she was told. Upon seeing the script, her eyes moved from one line to another, following the beginning of the story.
Casta concluded, "You can read."
Gabrielle looked up, not thinking the skill anything less than natural. "Yes."
"Metea, this is Xena, Conqueror of Greece."
Gabrielle bowed respectfully, "Your Majesty."
Gabrielle’s failure to use her private endearment of ‘My Lord’ broke Xena’s heart.
Casta continued, "The Conqueror is traveling through and needs this and another scroll transcribed. Would you do it?"
Xena spoke up. "I would be grateful. You can name your price."
Gabrielle was at a disadvantage. "I would not know how much to ask."
Xena graciously proposed. "Then trust me to give you a fair amount of coin for the task."
"As you wish, Your Majesty."
"Thank you. I will be by mid-day tomorrow to see your progress. Good day to you both."
Casta bid the Sovereign a sincere farewell. "Good day, Your Majesty."
Xena turned and walked to Argo. She mounted the mare and took one final look toward Gabrielle before returning to village.
The Conqueror took residence in the village inn. Space was at a premium. She arranged to let an adjacent common meetinghouse as barracks for her men. She hoped the necessity of the arrangement would be brief. Her desire to bring Gabrielle home to Corinth was tempered. Seeing Gabrielle healthy was reassuring. Bittersweet was the fact that Gabrielle’s memory included her years as a slave. There was no parceling the good from the horrid. The return of Gabrielle’s memories would be painful. Xena was determined to exercise her greatest patience. Gabrielle would have all the time she needed to reclaim her life.
The following day, the Conqueror and an escort of four arrived at Casta’s modest homestead as the sun traveled past its apex. Casta met the Sovereign outside. Xena dismounted Argo. She spoke respectfully to the elder, wasting no words. "May I speak to her?"
"She is in the back room, Your Majesty."
Gabrielle’s room was small. The furnishings were limited to a chair positioned by the entrance, a bed, a tall cabinet for clothes, and a desk and second chair, the latter two placed at right angle to the window. The sun’s rays illuminated the space. Gabrielle sat at the desk, her back to Xena.
Xena announced herself. "Good day."
Gabrielle turned. Seeing the Conqueror, she stood. "Good day to you, Your Majesty."
Xena tried to keep formalities to a minimum. "Please sit down."
Gabrielle positioned her chair so it faced the Conqueror before taking her seat.
Xena asked. "How goes your work?"
"I have made fine progress in the transcription." Gabrielle was enthusiastic. "I am finding my work enjoyable. This is an engaging story."
"It was written by Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
Xena nodded. She took the nearby chair and placed it opposite Gabrielle before sitting down.
"Last night Casta spoke of the Queen." Gabrielle offered her own assessment. "She is indeed a gifted bard."
Xena marveled in hearing Gabrielle commend herself. Her partner was always too modest to completely embrace her talents without an accompanying hint of doubt or qualification. "She has a natural curiosity which serves her well. She wants to understand the world. You can understand her mind and her heart if you study her stories."
Gabrielle was curious. "What did the story of the Guardsman and the server tell you?"
"The story is true." Xena reported. "The Guardsman had once shown the Queen the same courtesy when she was a slave in my household. Though the story is meant to make us laugh at the Guardsman’s bold chivalry against a tavern of discontents, my Gabrielle celebrates his noble heart, above all else."
"At the end the Guardsman won the server’s affection. Is that true as well?"
"Yes." Xena was proud of her minor role in bringing Stephen and Tess together. "Theirs is a fine romance."
Gabrielle grew silent.
"What is it?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle spoke shyly. "I was thinking how grand it would be to have such a love."
Xena believed there could be no grander love than that which she shared with Gabrielle. "You may have known such love."
"I know nothing of my life. I have been alive for a fortnight."
"Only yesterday you realized that you could read and write. There is surely more of your self within you waiting to be rediscovered."
"I am a mystery to myself. Having no memory, meeting a stranger brings a moment of hope. I catch the other’s eye at a distance and wonder ‘what if’? What if she knows who I am? What will the past bring to the present? How will it change the future I now imagine for myself? The stranger comes closer and proves to be unable to tell me anything I do not already know. So, I keep waiting for the stranger who isn’t a stranger."
Xena edged toward the truth. "What if the stranger is afraid to tell you the truth?"
"Why would the stranger be fearful?" Gabrielle asked, feeling the dread fueled by a truth kept hidden under her garments.
"Maybe the past is painful. Maybe you would be happier not knowing."
Gabrielle believed that in all probability hers had been an unkind life. In order to have a chance of learning the truth, she chose to take a risk. She confessed. "My past is written on my body."
Knowing very well what Gabrielle alluded to, Xena pretended ignorance. "What do you mean?"
"I have scars on my back. Casta said they were made by a whip." Gabrielle placed herself at the Conqueror’s mercy. "Your Majesty, what will happen to me if I am found to be a runaway slave?"
"I doubt that is true." Xena attempted to ease Gabrielle’s obvious fear. "Were it, I would redeem you and set you free."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked; a part of her needing to believe the Conqueror spoke truthfully.
"My Queen does not suffer slavery. In that regard, as well as others, she has taught me compassion. The Fates have placed a great enough burden upon you."
"The greatest burden is not knowing the truth."
Xena placed her elbows on her thighs and leaned forward, clasping her hands before her. "So you would have the truth no matter how harsh?"
"It cannot be much harsher than my imagination."
Xena stood up and went to the desk. With her hand on Gabrielle’s back, she encouraged the younger woman to turn toward the desk. "Let me show you..." Gabrielle shifted as asked. Xena picked a recently transcribed section of the scroll and overlaid it upon the original. "Look closely to the writing. This you scribed. Compare the script with what is written in the Queen’s scroll. Do you find them alike?"
Gabrielle studied the scripts closely. She looked up bewildered. "Yes."
"As you said, the body remembers. My Queen disappeared a fortnight and a day ago. She was taken away from our home and stripped of her memory because Ares wanted to drive me back to my old ways of hatred and violence."
Gabrielle looked up to the Conqueror. "How do you know he did not kill her?"
"Because he stated as much. And, because my Queen is admired by Aphrodite and Ares would not risk his sister’s ire. When Aphrodite learned what Ares did, she petitioned Zeus to intervene."
Though Gabrielle understood what the Conqueror was intimating, a part of her continued to deny the truth of her identity. "What did Zeus do?"
"He prohibited any further interference in our lives. I was told where to find you and I have come to take you home."
Gabrielle’s gaze traveled from Xena to the scroll. She stood up and walked toward the window. She had been certain that her identity was a lowly one. She faced a far different truth, one that placed her within a world she could not begin to fathom. "I do not remember."
Xena’s tone was tender. "Gabrielle, you made a promise to Aphrodite. You offered your life for mine. Over a year ago I was dying by a wound only Aphrodite could heal. Ares came to you in the guise of his sister and claimed you based on that promise. An honorable woman, you went willingly. You grieved so deeply that Ares, again pretending to be Aphrodite, offered to take your pain away. You consented not realizing the consequences. Your consent was enough for him to ask Mnemosyne to wash away your memory. With time…"
She felt thrown at the mercy of the Conqueror in a manner that brought her no comfort. Gabrielle spoke abruptly. "What will you do with me?"
Xena was given reason to pause. She laid her plan before Gabrielle. "I want to take you home to Corinth. We can visit Megara. Familiar places and people -- friends might help you remember."
"As you wish."
Xena recognized Gabrielle’s acquiescence as far from voluntary. "Gabrielle, you have a choice. I will not compel you to come with me. Tell me what you want and I will do what I can to make it so."
"I do not know you." Gabrielle was sharp. "I do not love you."
The latter declaration cut across Xena’s heart. She placed a steadying hand upon the desk chair. She counseled, "Take time to think about what I have told you."
"How much time do I have?"
"I will come to you tomorrow morning. We will speak again."
Gabrielle had nothing more to say to the Conqueror.
Xena waited for a word of encouragement. None received she excused herself with a minor bow. She exited the homestead and called out. "Sam, you’re here." She mounted Argo and directed the mare back to the inn.
Trevor informed Samuel, "I’ll send Alem to relieve you after supper."
Gabrielle exited the homestead and silently watched the Conqueror ride away.
Samuel dismounted, tied his steed to a fencepost and walked to his young Queen. "Your Majesty."
"Please call me…." Gabrielle paused, torn between the two names she had been given - Casta’s Metea and the Xena’s Gabrielle.
Samuel gently affirmed, "Your name is Gabrielle."
Gabrielle’s gaze traveled back toward the now empty road. "It’s hard to believe."
"You will always have a Royal Guardsman assigned to you while you stay here."
"Why, Ithome is a peaceful place?"
"With your identity comes the danger of someone wanting to do you harm."
"Casta told me the Queen is well liked."
"You are." Samuel reassured. "But, the Conqueror has enemies from her past that might try to use you against her. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen."
Gabrielle was rueful. "Must be dull for you. I’m sorry."
"Not at all." Samuel smiled. "I am your personal guard. I would not want another assignment."
"You are… special to the Royal Guard. You were our bard and healer before you became Queen. You are our sister."
"Your name is Sam?"
Gabrielle tried to wrap her mind around her identity. "You protect me?"
Samuel chuckled, "As much as you let me."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because you can beat me up."
Gabrielle was incredulous. "I can’t!"
"Oh, little sis, you can."
Gabrielle was charmed by Samuel’s endearment. "You are not serious."
Samuel gentled. "By my honor, I’m telling you the truth."
"I use a sword?"
"You are capable with a short sword. You prefer the staff. You can out-spar the Conqueror."
"That’s impossible, she is said to be the greatest warrior in Greece."
"You have proven to many of us that the impossible is not necessarily so."
Gabrielle smiled. She felt an inexplicable affection for the man.
The Guardsman offered, "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"No, thank you." Gabrielle thought of the scrolls and decided to return to them. "I have some chores. I’ll be inside."
Samuel watched her as she departed. Gabrielle’s gestures, the intonation of her voice, all was familiar to him. He smiled to himself feeling optimistic that with time, all would be right again.
Casta sat near the fireplace, her aged body soothed by the warmth of the hearth. Gabrielle brought the elder a mug of tea. Casta took the mug, pressing her arthritic fingers firmly around it. She smiled. Her voice was light, "I think I should be serving you."
Gabrielle found no humor in the comment. "I am not Queen here."
Casta gently impressed Gabrielle’s identity back upon the youth. "You are Queen no matter where in Greece you might find yourself."
Gabrielle stared into the flames. "The Gods are heartless playing with the lives of mortals without thought of what harm they cause us."
Casta sipped her tea while she considered the statement. "They are Gods. We can’t begin to understand their ways." She tugged on Gabrielle’s skirt. "Take care not to blame all the Gods. It was Ares’ mischief..."
Gabrielle turned to Casta. Her voice was as sharp as a dagger’s edge, "The other Gods turned their eyes away."
Casta was discomfited by any hint of blasphemy. "By what the Conqueror said, Mnemosyne acted in good faith and it was Aphrodite who helped find you."
The mention of Aphrodite gave Gabrielle reason to pause. "What does it mean to be Aphrodite’s Chosen?"
"You have earned her regard."
"I wonder if that is a good thing. Life would seem safer beyond the interest of the Gods."
"There are noble Gods."
Gabrielle sat at Casta’s feet, leaning her head against the elder’s aged legs. The distance made it easier to speak openly. "What am I to make of the Conqueror?"
Casta placed a gentle hand upon Gabrielle’s head. "You feel nothing for her?"
"She is impressive, so tall and dark."
"She is as beautiful as I have been told. What I did not expect was her gentleness."
"She has a temper."
"Did she show it?"
"She tried not to."
"You turned her away. It could not be easy for her."
"She wants to take me back to Corinth."
"That is no surprise. Will you go?"
"I wonder if I truly have a choice."
"You have a choice," Casta offered, "Child, there is a place for you here with me for as long as you like."
Gabrielle shifted and looked up to her host. "What kind of life can I make for myself?"
"You were once a slave and are now Queen. I say you can make a good life for yourself."
"Even if I strike out on my own?"
Setting aside her desires, Casta encouraged, "Yes." The old woman had begun to hope that Gabrielle would stay at the homestead, if only for a season or two, while she decided her future. She knew better than to expect more. The younger woman had an indelible spirit that could not be harnessed without stifling its brilliance.
"I fear the Conqueror may try to convince me otherwise."
"You are strong enough to stand up to her."
"She could harm me in anger."
"I think not." Casta leaned forward and caressed Gabrielle’s chin with a trembling hand. "If she does, I’ll take my frying pan to her."
Gabrielle smiled and kissed Casta’s hand before easing back against the elder’s legs. She watched the fire as the wind rustled the closed window shutters. The world seemed very active even as she and Casta sat in stillness. After a while she breached the silence with a new question, one that had been dominating her thoughts. "Did the Queen love her?"
Casta knew Gabrielle meant the Conqueror. She also noted that Gabrielle continued to insist on referring to the Queen as a person other than herself. "That is the belief among the provinces."
"And the Conqueror loved the Queen?"
"Only the power of Aphrodite could have tamed the wildness of the Conqueror."
"What if Aphrodite used the Queen to go against Ares? Maybe Ares felt he had a right to reclaim the Conqueror. Why should… how can a mortal stand against him?"
Casta chose not to speculate. "The Conqueror’s life was not the only one changed. All of Greece has benefited from your compassion."
"Then what has happened hasn’t happened just to the Queen and the Conqueror." Gabrielle again looked up to her elder. "Do you think the Conqueror would go back to her old ways if I don’t return to Corinth with her?"
Casta regretted placing the needs of an anonymous nation above that of the vulnerable young woman before her. "Don’t you worry about that. You stick with what is best for you. Walk a straight line and Justice will befriend you."
Gabrielle remained unsettled. "They stay Necessity is stronger than Justice."
"Child, you seem to be trying to find a reason not to give the Conqueror a hearing. Why?"
Gabrielle paused trying to articulate what was driving her away from her name. She sighed, "I cannot imagine my life with her."
"You are a bard of great renown. If your mind’s eye cannot place you in the palace, consider how an unaffected, beautiful stranger might innocently walk into Corinth and earn the regard of the Conqueror. It is not so impossible, is it?"
Gabrielle left her answer unspoken. She was tempted to say she did not know if such a meeting of hearts could have occurred. The fact was that an even more improbable meeting had taken place between the Conqueror and a slave.
Gabrielle remembered how Casta had reacted when she first examined her for injuries and found the well-healed scars on her back. The elder’s fingers traced one scar on her shoulder for a hand-length before pausing at the border of her shift, not wanting to trespass further upon the modest young woman.
Gabrielle felt her shame. The scars were the only clue to her identity. She was a slave, the possibility of having been freed, remote. Casta promised to protect her. Gabrielle would need to be careful and not allow anyone to see her markings. And yet, given the warning, she had revealed the truth to the Conqueror upon their second meeting. Gabrielle was now left to wonder why she had taken so great a risk.
Xena lay in her bed. Thought modest, hers was the best room in the inn. What Xena yearned for and what the room granted was solitude. The day had brought a disappointment she could not have prepared for.
‘I do not know you. I do not love you.’ Gabrielle’s tormenting words left Xena to bitterly wonder what favor Ares could claim to have bestowed upon her? In turn, she conceded that Ares, by having Gabrielle’s memory taken from her, might have in fact graced the younger woman. Were it not for the scars on her back, Gabrielle would have no reason to suspect the horrific acts perpetuated against her.
Xena’s greatest burden rallied and demanded its due. It was Xena’s decision before the Fates that ultimately shaped Gabrielle’s destiny – to be enslaved by Draco. Through their bond, Xena had shared the terror and self-loathing that consumed Gabrielle in sleep as her psyche found itself free from conscious restraint. More times than she could count, Xena prayed for an end to those chilling nights marked by Gabrielle’s muted cries for an end to her torture. Seemingly not remembering her nightmares, Gabrielle never discussed them. Gabrielle had been constant in withholding her past from Xena and Xena would not share with Gabrielle that she, too, intimately experienced the torment. Xena would do nothing to cause Gabrielle further distress.
A decision made, Xena stood up. She called out loudly. "Aphrodite! I need to talk to you!" Her voice rose another octave. "Damn it, I know you can hear me! Aphrodite!"
The Goddess appeared in a flash of light. "Xena, calm down. I’m surprised the rafters haven’t fallen down."
Xena was resolute. She set aside all formalities and stated her demand. "Take away Gabrielle’s scars."
The Goddess was surprised by the request. "Xena, you can’t expect…"
"I can and I do. The Gods took away her memories. It’s only right that all trace evidence of what was done to her also be removed."
Aphrodite was not convinced. "If I ask Athena to heal her…"
"Listen to me!" Aphrodite insisted. "If Athena heals Gabrielle and Gabrielle remembers, the scars will return."
"Why in the name of Zeus would Gabrielle ever choose to remember? She’s made it perfectly clear that the good in her life is nothing to her. If she has turned her back on the good what chance is there that she will seek out her nightmares?" Xena’s tone shifted. She pleaded. "Aphrodite, she shouldn’t carry the burden of having to explain herself for the rest of her life. If you remove the scars she will be safer. No one will mistake her for a runaway slave and her identity, as Queen, will be vouchsafed. Give her this bit of safety. She is your Chosen."
Aphrodite did not hide her disappointment. "Xena, are you giving up on Gabrielle so easily?"
"No." Xena was adamant. "But, neither will I stand in Gabrielle’s way. If Ares has given her a better life, who am I to argue."
"A life without your love?"
"I will never stop loving Gabrielle. She will always be under my protection."
"Knowing the truth of how your life and her own are interwoven, she chose to stand by you. She should be given a second chance to make the same decision."
"Without her memories, without her scars, she will be a different woman. A different choice may serve her better."
"I am not so sure."
"Right now she is neither my Gabrielle, nor her own woman. Aphrodite, I beg you finish what your brother began. Give her the chance I have wished for her since the day I came to love her."
"Your bond… Gabrielle may never know it again."
"She cannot miss what she does not remember."
"But, you do remember."
"And it is in knowing our bond as I do that leaves me no choice but to ask this of you."
"All right, Xena. I will talk to Athena and Mnemosyne. I make no promise."
Xena was sincere in her gratitude. "Thank you."
The Goddess disappeared. Xena sat down on the edge of her bed. She gathered her internal defenses, raising the walls of her emotional fortress, long fallen to Gabrielle. She was uncertain whether she would be able to endure the days to come.
Aphrodite, Athena and Mnemosyne appeared at the foot of Gabrielle’s bed as the mortal slept.
Aphrodite acknowledged their target. "There she is."
Athena had her misgivings. "It won’t easy for her."
Aphrodite pledged. "I’ll keep an eye on her and make sure she’s all right."
"You do like this mortal."
Mnemosyne warned. "She will need your protection from Ares."
"She has it." Aphrodite smiled. "I talked to my father. Zeus gave your obstinate nephew a good spanking for interfering."
"All the more reason to be careful." The Titan Goddess of Memory’s gaze fell compassionately upon Gabrielle. "She is beautiful. It is unfortunate she has so many ugly memories."
Aphrodite assured. "She needs all of them."
"Niece, for the safety of your Chosen’s soul, she will remember only by her heart’s desire. She must want her memories." Mnemosyne waved her hand with regret. "It’s done."
"Thank you, Aunt."
Athena hesitated. "Xena will not like this."
Aphrodite had Gabrielle’s best interest in mind. "Xena is moved by her guilt. She asked that the scars be removed and you will grant that wish. She will have no reason to complain."
"We both know better."
"Athena, the choice is not Xena’s to make. Gabrielle will remember only what she wishes to remember. That is as it should be."
Athena sighed. "Very well. It’s done."
Gabrielle woke to the morning stillness. She moved from a sleep devoid of dreams to the solitude of her room. She would stay the challenges that awaited her outside her door if only for a little while longer. She turned and lay on her back. The sensation of the soft mattress against her body felt odd. She stretched her body lifting her arms to rest across her shoulders. Once again she was struck with the sense of the foreign. She slipped a hand under her sleep shift and with her fingertips traced her skin, from her neck over to her shoulder. She felt only uninterrupted smoothness, no scars. She realized that the familiar tightness of her wounded flesh was absent.
Gabrielle got out of bed and stripped off her shift. She stood before a metal mirror. Keeping her back to it she turned her head and looked. Her scars had been healed. There was no mark upon her body. She went back to the bed and took up a blanket holding it before her. Then she called out to Casta.
Casta entered Gabrielle’s room. "Child, what is it?"
Gabrielle was afraid to ask, so she simply turned her body so Casta had full view of her back.
"By the Gods!" Casta exclaimed, seeing how the young woman had been healed.
Gabrielle shifted her gaze back to the elder. "Tell me it’s true. I am not imagining my healing."
Casta stepped forward and raised a hand to Gabrielle’s flesh. Gabrielle felt the elder’s fingers upon her. "You, Child, have no wounds that I can see."
"How?" Gabrielle asked.
Casta draped the blanket over Gabrielle, covering her completely. She stood directly before the young Queen. "It is a gift. Accept it without question."
"First my memory. Now my body. Who am I?"
"You are like a newborn. You can begin anew. How many during the ages have wished to be given the second chance that has been offered to you? Gabrielle, the world awaits you."
"I don’t know…"
Casta advised. "There is no reason to hurry. Take time to decide where you belong."
Xena and Samuel rode to the homestead, Samuel to relieve Alem at guard, Xena to deliver Spirit to Gabrielle. The stallion was saddled and carried Gabrielle’s usual traveling accouterments including saddlebag, water skin and weapons.
Casta sat on the porch sewing. Alem stood nearby. Casta observed the Conqueror and Samuel. The majestic white stallion impressed her. "Alem, is that the Queen’s horse?"
"It tis, ma’am."
The stallion pranced impatiently. "He seems a handful."
"He can be in the hands of anyone other than the Queen’s."
Casta got to her feet feeling the ache in her aged joints. She entered the homestead. Within a few moments she returned with Gabrielle.
Gabrielle greeted her guard, "Good morning, Alem."
Alem addressed his Queen with the informality she requested. "Good morning, Miss." He turned toward the Conqueror. He observed her dull eyes and concluded that she continued to get little sleep.
Xena spoke first. "Good morning."
As elder, it was for Casta to answer, "Good morning, Your Majesty."
At the sight of Gabrielle, Spirit became intolerant of his reins. He bobbed his head up and down seeking release.
Xena obliged him. "Go on, boy."
Spirit approached to where Gabrielle stood on the top stairs. The young steed’s beauty and power drew her to him. Cautiously, she stepped down. Having his mistress within reach, Spirit nudged his head against her. Gabrielle laughed lightly. Finding her courage she reached out and stroked Spirit’s cheek. His obvious approval led her to offer bolder affection. Gabrielle looked up to Xena. "What’s his name?"
"I can’t accept…"
"Gabrielle, look at him. He has been miserable without you. You can deny me, but you cannot deny him."
Gabrielle turned to Casta. The old woman nodded in encouragement. Gabrielle returned her attention to the stallion. "I think we’re friends, boy."
Spirit marked his approval by stomping his front hoof.
Xena invited, "Will you ride with me?"
"It’s a beautiful morning."
Gabrielle’s eyes fell to her peasant dress. "I haven’t clothes to wear."
Xena dismounted and unclasped Gabrielle’s saddlebag. "I packed your riding clothes and boots." She handed the saddlebag to her partner. "I’ll wait for you."
For an unbeknownst reason, Xena’s words touch Gabrielle. After a moment’s hesitation she wrapped her arms around the saddlebag, "I won’t be long."
Gabrielle removed the clothes from the saddlebag onto her bed. She had a pair of tan pantaloons, a rust oversize tunic, a wide black leather belt and a black wool cape. She pressed the cloth of the latter between her fingers, feeling the thick, high quality fabric. She was struck by the simplicity and utility of the clothes.
She slipped off her dress and pulled the tunic over her head. The lower helm touched her mid-thigh. The arms fit perfectly to her wrists. She stepped into the pantaloons. They fit close, yet allowed for easy movement. Finally, she belted the tunic to her body.
The clothes felt comfortable, familiar. She opened the second side of the saddlebag and removed a pair of soft rust tanned leather boots. Turning the soles upward she noted that they showed signs of wear. Sitting on the bedside she removed her shoes and pulled a boot onto her left foot. It took no effort. She repeated the process with the right boot.
Standing up she walked around the room. Even without a glance in the mirror she knew how she looked. Gabrielle whispered, "These are mine." There was no doubt in her mind.
The front door of the homestead opened. Gabrielle stepped out. Xena’s gaze held her life partner. She spoke the young woman’s name with undisguised approval in her voice.
Gabrielle felt not only the Conqueror’s gaze, but so too Alem, Samuel and Casta’s. Given the confusion of the previous days, she felt touched by forces beyond her control. She did not like the sensation and refused to surrender to it. "Your Majesty."
Sensing Gabrielle’s reserve, Xena offered her Spirit’s reins without comment.
Gabrielle stepped down from the porch, taking the reins without meeting Xena’s eyes. She paused in front of Spirit, holding the stallion’s gaze. Spirit shifted his head seeking Gabrielle’s hand. Gabrielle indulged the animal, stroking his cheek. She thought, ‘You’re mine, too.’ Whatever doubts she harbored toward the prospect of riding the powerful stead settled to a healthy confidence. She stepped to the side, raised her foot to the well-measured stirrup and raised herself up into the saddle.
Xena mounted Argo. She addressed Casta, "We won’t be more than a candlemark."
The elder had been fascinated by the subtle change in Gabrielle. Clothes do not make a person, but they can enhance the effect of who one truly is. In the common riding clothes Gabrielle was far more present, one might say she commanded the space she occupied. And Casta observed, that like the Conqueror, Gabrielle seemed to be unaware of the impression she made. To Casta, never had there been a more unassailable sign of Gabrielle’s royalty. Casta acknowledged the Conqueror’s courtesy with a nod of the head and then turned to Gabrielle. "Be careful, Child."
Comfortably situated on the saddle, Gabrielle assured, "I will."
The two rode in silence for a half-candlemark. Xena kept close guard of Gabrielle, studying her posture and gestures. The consummate horsewoman, Gabrielle rode with nominal effort, keeping the proper tension in the reins, using her legs to signal her intent, occasionally rewarding Spirit with a pat, as was her habit.
They had cantered up a hill. Reaching the top Xena slowed Argo to a walk. Glancing toward Gabrielle Xena noted her partner’s face was flushed by the exercise. "You all right?"
"Yes." Gabrielle smiled. She walked her steed. "Spirit is milder than he first seemed."
"You two got along from the first day you met."
"Did you give him to me?"
"Yes, I did."
"For a special occasion?"
Xena thought back to their reunion in Scupi when, for a few days, she and Gabrielle shared their bittersweet love free from the external forces of Gods and politics. They had reconciled themselves to their separate destinies. Xena was not prepared to revisit Scupi with Gabrielle. Composing her answer, she chose the safety of brevity. "No, I just wanted you to have him."
Gabrielle changed the subject, seeking to augment what little information she knew about herself. "Casta said I was your slave."
That truth would never rest easily with Xena. "You served my household."
"How did we… Did you choose me?"
Xena sensed a troubling undercurrent in Gabrielle’s questions. "Targon, our administrator brought you into the palace to serve in the kitchens."
"After I was in your service…" Gabrielle paused. She chose her words judiciously. "You chose me to be with you."
"We didn’t come together like that." Xena struggled to find the words to explain their cautious, evolving union. "With time we grew close."
"I came to you willingly?"
The inference in the question caused Xena to wince. "Yes."
"Into your bed?"
"When you ready… Always by your choice."
"Did you grant me favors in return?" Gabrielle’s hand shifted to Spirit’s shoulder.
Xena suspected how the younger woman might come to characterize the terms of their relationship. As distasteful as the thoughts were Xena knew that when it became apparent that Gabrielle had earned the Conqueror’s favor many outside her inner circle had questioned the slave’s motives. History was repeating itself with an irony Xena did not welcome. The woman who had struggled so hard to convince others of her sincerity was, as a stranger to herself, questioning her own integrity. Knowing Gabrielle’s sense of honor, Xena assumed that the self-questioning could not be easy for her. "Gabrielle, you are not a woman of wiles. You asked nothing from me except kindness."
Gabrielle held Xena’s gaze with her own. "You have a reputation."
"Yes, and in all regards except one I am certain that my foul reputation reflects a just assessment of who I am. You are, you have always been the exception."
Gabrielle warred within herself. As remote the possibility seemed, a part of her believed the Conqueror. She returned to the fact that she had been a slave. Though she no longer bore the scars she had the memory of them. "You were not my first…"
Xena interrupted. "You were a slave for five years before coming to me. You were not treated well."
"But with you, I’ve been," Gabrielle spoke her last words deliberately, "well treated."
"I have made my share of mistakes. I swear I have had your best interest in heart as I made my choices."
Gabrielle returned to the intimate, trying to gauge what Xena would ask of her. "Your bed… that’s important to you."
"To both of us."
Gabrielle reined Spirit to a halt. "You want that back."
Xena held Argo in place. Her mien quieted, staunchly bent. Xena asked for what she was losing hope of ever having again. "I want my Queen complete."
"Heart, body and soul?"
"As I give mine in return."
"How can you still look to me for what I haven’t the power to give you. I’ve been touched by the Gods."
"You will find your way."
"You’re willing to wait, however long it may take?"
"Is that fair? Is that fair to either of us?"
"I can only speak for myself."
Gabrielle had never been more defiant. "What if I’m not willing to wait? What if I feel there is no reason to wait? What if I want to have my life here in Ithome and never return to Corinth with you?"
Xena spoke in a hush. "Because you do not remember?"
"Because your solicitude, though gracious, does not move me. I feel more akin to Sam than to you, and it is you I am said to love. How can that be?"
Once again, Xena recalled Ares’ words. He had given Gabrielle a new life. Xena once feared Gabrielle came to her because she was the young woman’s mistress. With time she ceased questioning the merit of their union. This second meeting was devoid of their original imbalance of power. Xena did not own Gabrielle. Gabrielle was a free woman.
Gabrielle found it difficult not to openly react to the Conqueror’s troubled demeanor. "Your Majesty, I do not wish to hurt you. Believe me when I tell you that I do not find any reason to hope that the day will come when the Fates will grant you the return of your Queen."
No matter how anticipated, Xena was crushed by the rejection. "You don’t seem to want to try. Am I so unbefitting a partner to you?"
Gabrielle held her encroaching sympathy at bay. "No, I am simply indifferent."
"The throne is yours. How can you be indifferent?"
"There is a price to be paid for the honor. I am a pauper who refuses to give up what little of myself I can call my own. Not to you. Not to anyone."
Xena steeled. Her hatred for Ares had never been greater. "Very well. We should ride back."
Gabrielle was not done. "There is a formality we must address."
"And what is that?"
"We have been joined, have we not?"
Xena voice trembled, "We are joined."
"What shall be done?"
Xena lost her composure. She responded in a sharp clip, "You tell me. By your request I shall dissolve our commitment."
For a moment Gabrielle caught a glimpse of the Conqueror both at her most dangerous and her most vulnerable. Gabrielle wondered if one went hand in hand with the other. Her resolve was tempered. "May I tell you tomorrow?"
"As you wish. Now, shall we ride back?"
Gabrielle nodded in silent acquiescence.
Stephen observed Xena leave the inn. Discretely, he followed her out into the night. Xena took to the road that lead to Casta’s homestead, then paused and walked off the road into a field. She sat on a fallen tree trunk. Stephen kept vigil for a half-candlemark before choosing to join her.
Xena heard footsteps. She turned. Recognizing the Major, she had no reason to leave her station. "Stephen."
"Xena." Stephen used her given name; theirs would be a private conversation. He sat beside her. "I thought you might like some company."
"Gabrielle and I spent countless nights sharing the moon and the stars, seeing patterns and arguing about what we saw. Sometimes we would share our thoughts; more often we simply shared the silence. Loving her came so easily… Stephen, I don’t feel her. It doesn’t matter how close I get, she could be on the other side of the world."
"I know when you were hurt Gabrielle felt you slip away from her. Have there been other times?"
"Our bond slips away from us when we are angry with one another. It’s been a long time since... We can’t stand the break and quickly find our way back to each other."
Stephen said hopefully. "With the return of her memory…"
"She demonstrates a lack of warmth toward me… I don’t understand it. Even in her first days in Corinth Gabrielle granted me a gentler consideration."
"There is so much more for her to understand. She is Queen, with a history that would give any woman reason to pause."
"She thinks I coerced her into my bed. I am just one of the many rapists she cannot remember."
"Xena, that is not true…"
"Gabrielle lives, Stephen, but she is no longer the woman who grew to love me. I will live for her even if I cannot have her. I will keep Greece with no pleasure. The meaning of my rule will be to safeguard Gabrielle from afar. If the rest of Greece benefits, so be it. But, I will not pretend I do it for the greater good. Greece means nothing to me."
"You once thought differently."
"I am beyond that place and time."
Stephen anticipated a bleak prospect. "You will leave Gabrielle?"
"What choice have I? She no longer cleaves to me."
"When Tess turned me away, you were the one who understood that she was frightened, not knowing how loving a Major in the Royal Guard would change her life. Loving a Major does not compare to the Sovereign of Greece. How overwhelming must it be for Gabrielle who has no memory of who she is?" Xena remained silent. Stephen continued. "Xena, we closest to her know that our sister loved you, not the throne. The throne will not be what brings her back to Corinth."
"As I said, Stephen, she does not show any inclination of wanting me."
"You told me Gabrielle loved you in spite of the sword, not because of it. She had to see beyond the Conqueror to Xena of Amphipolis. I think right now she sees only the Conqueror. Give her time to see you for who you are completely."
"I have little time. Tomorrow Gabrielle will tell whether she wishes our formal joining to be severed."
"I did not expect her to act so decidedly."
"It is one way to set aside her doubt. Act and be done with everything that stands in her way of a new life."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Be her brother and think of only what is best for her."
"And what about you? I gave my Queen a pledge to care for you first and foremost."
Xena smiled. She reached out and placed her hand on Stephen’s arm. "You do well, and I am grateful."
Gabrielle groomed Spirit as Samuel watched. The effort came easily to her. She seemed to know what the steed needed. "Sam, did I spend much time brushing Spirit?"
Having reestablished a bit of their enjoyable repartee, Samuel responded easily. "No, you usually leave the work for the stable hands."
"Why?" Gabrielle paused, her eyes momentarily fixed upon the brush. "I mean I enjoy caring for him, don’t I?"
"You do, but there is only so much time in a day. You oversee the care for the sick and hurt in the infirmary and the city hospice."
"Does the Conqueror groom her horse?"
"Argo? Oh yes, that she does."
"I would think she would be as equally occupied as the Queen."
"Working with horses is one of the few pleasures the Conqueror has always allowed herself."
Gabrielle was surprised by the solemn characterization. "You don’t think she takes pleasure in her life?"
"Until you came to Corinth, she had little. You have been the one to bring happiness to her."
Gabrielle continued to be uncomfortable with an identity that she believed placed her in the Conqueror’s shadow. She pointed to her gear. "In my tack… Are those my weapons?"
"I shoot a bow?"
Samuel said with obvious admiration. "It is a new skill. You are good with it."
"An archer stays distant from who they kill. Is that why?"
"No, Gabrielle. You try not to kill, but you will if you must."
"Is that why I use the staff?"
"I say it is."
"Do you think if I tried the staff I would remember?"
"There is one way of finding out. We can spar."
Gabrielle hesitated to accept the offer. "I’m not sure I’m ready."
Samuel smiled. "Don’t worry little sis. I won’t hold a grudge when you prove your skill at my expense."
Outside the barn, Gabrielle and Samuel, each holding a staff, stood in ready stance. Samuel directed. "We’ll start slow."
Gabrielle nodded in assent.
Samuel took an overhead swing at half-speed. Gabrielle blocked the stroke with ease. Samuel repeated his offensive from the opposite angle. Again Gabrielle blocked. He continued for a dozen strokes before stepping back. "You all right little sis?"
"I’m good." Gabrielle had found the defensive routine easy.
"Fine then. Now it’s your turn to return the strokes. Go as hard and fast as you can."
Gabrielle completed a tentative offensive stroke against Samuel.
"Good. Again." The Guardsman encouraged.
Gabrielle repeated the effort. She swung a second time without a break. She felt a natural rhythm compelling her to continue. So she did.
Samuel smiled approvingly. "Ready for a counter stroke, little sis?"
"Do it Sam."
The Guardsman pushed out forcing Gabrielle back a step and swung with only slightly less force than he was accustomed to using against his opponent.
The speed of Samuel’s offensive took Gabrielle by surprise. She responded instinctively, ducking. She swung her staff low against the back of the Guardsman’s legs taking him down. She jumped tall and positioned the end of her staff against Samuel’s throat. Gabrielle froze. She breathed heavily. A stern determination etched on her face.
Samuel’s eyes were fearless. He trusted Gabrielle with his life. She would not hurt him. He chuckled. "You would think that after all this time I would learn to jump over your staff."
"Yes, little sis."
Gabrielle felt a surge of love. She would not speak it. She shifted her staff away and reached out. "Take my hand."
Trevor sat on the meetinghouse porch steps. He looked up to the midday sun. The Captain waited for the Conqueror to return to Casta’s homestead. Seeing no sign that she would soon do so he decided to exercise his prerogative and relieve Samuel of his guard duties, though he knew the Guardsman would be in no hurry to leave Gabrielle’s side. Trevor stood and called out to Alem. "If anyone asks, I’ve gone to relieve Sam."
Alem was more than a little perturbed in being replaced as guard to the Queen. He cursed the Captain under his breath. Stephen, Sentas and Tavis were nearby and heard the complete exchange.
Sentas turned to Stephen. "I say a Major trumps a Captain when it comes to visiting our sister."
Stephen smiled. "I agree. And I think for the sake of caution it would do good if the Major took another two men as escort. What say you?"
Tavis patted Sentas on the back. "I knew I liked you for a reason."
Sentas pouted in good humor. "Now I’m appreciated."
The three jogged to Trevor’s side. Trevor turned his head left, then right. His unsolicited companions kept their eyes directed forward. He smiled knowing that there was safety in numbers. The Conqueror would not kill all of them for returning to Casta’s.
The men turned the final bend before reaching the homestead. "Hold!" Tavis reached out his arm staying his brothers. "Do you hear that?" The men held their positions.
"Damn it to Tartarus!" Sentas exclaimed. "Those are swords crossing." Without further delay Sentas ran forward, unsheathing his sword. In unison his fellow Guardsmen did the same.
Samuel held off three raiders. Gabrielle stood aside watching the confrontation, fearful and uncertain, her hands firmly holding her staff. Samuel had knocked one man down and cut a second across his arm. The third was a formidable swordsman, matching the Guardsman stroke for stroke.
The fallen brigand got to his feet and tackled Samuel from behind. The swordsman took his advantage and thrust his blade forward, cutting Samuel through his side.
Gabrielle watched the turn of events in horror. Seeing the swordsman pull his blade out from Samuel and ready for a final deadly stroke she shouted, "No!" She ran forward and swung her staff high, making contact with the swordsman’s head. She felt the impact as the wood cracked above the man’s ear. She did not stop there. She turned against the second man and smashed her staff across his chest. The man was forced back. He saw his sword on the ground and lunged for it. He took the weapon in hand and stepped with menace toward his adversary.
Gabrielle heard footsteps. A familiar voice called out. "Gabrielle, I’ve got him!" Stephen slammed his body against the assailant, driving them both to the ground. The clash of bronze caused Gabrielle to turned to her left. There, Trevor and Sentas engage the second brigand while Tavis kept a sword on the wounded third. Gabrielle’s thoughts returned to Samuel. She fell to his side. With her hands she ripped away his shirt. She examined his terrible wound. "Oh, Sam."
"Not good." Samuel spoke with feigned calm. He felt Gabrielle place her hand over his pierced flesh in an able attempt to slow the flow of blood.
Gabrielle could hear the scuffle behind her. She did not care. She kept her focus on Samuel. The sounds quieted.
Stephen knelt by her side. He gauged the extent of Samuel’s wound. "Damn it!"
Gabrielle spoke with familiar certainty. "Help me get Sam inside. I’m going to need healer’s supplies to help him."
Stephen raised his gaze to Sentas. "Go man. Tell the Conqueror what happened and bring back our medical kit."
Xena rushed through the homestead’s front door with a medical kit under her arm.
Casta stood at Gabrielle’s bedroom door threshold. She called out, "He’s in here."
Samuel lay on Gabrielle’s bed. To his right, Gabrielle was in the process of cleaning his wound. Stephen stood behind her, ready to fulfill any request. To Samuel’s left sat Trevor, pressing down against his brother’s broad shoulders, holding the pain-wracked (wracked?) man still.
Stephen stepped aside giving Xena space to work. She opened the medical kit on a bedside table.
Without looking away from her work, Gabrielle described the wound. "The blade went through him. I may have to cut the entry wider so I can stitch him inside."
Xena had trouble seeing beyond the blood. "What kind of blade?"
Stephen answered her, "Equal to your sword."
"Let’s see the exit."
Trevor changed his hold on Samuel and rolled him to his side. Samuel howled in agony.
Xena removed a compress. "Could be worse." She reset the compress and helped guide Samuel onto his back.
Gabrielle calmly announced her intentions. "I’ll work with the entry wound first. The damage is greater here."
In concord, Xena turned to the medical kit. "I’ll thread a needle for you."
Gabrielle looked over to the kit. "What herbs do you have?"
"Disinfectant and something to help fight a fever. We can get more from the village healer."
The compact kit was incomplete. "I need a knife."
Xena directed. "Stephen, go to Spirit’s tack. It holds Gabrielle’s dagger."
Stephen ran out to the barn at full speed. Casta barely had time to stand aside.
Xena continued her effort to thread a needle for Gabrielle. She explained, "It was designed to fit your hand."
Gabrielle glanced over to Samuel. "Hey, how are you doing?"
In a weakened state, Samuel’s pain was lessening. He spoke in short breaths, "I have… the best healers in Greece… I’m a lucky man."
Gabrielle felt unworthy of the generous Guardsman’s goodwill. "Sam, I’m sorry."
"Why? You saved my life." Samuel caught Xena’s gaze. "My Liege… your Queen knocked the sense out of the brute that did this to me… You’d be proud."
Xena smiled. "Sam, how many times now has your little sis saved your sorry ass?"
Samuel returned the smile. "If she’s my sis does that make you my sister-in-law?"
Xena laughed. "Sam, you’re half out of your mind."
"Good excuse to claim my place in the family."
Trevor quipped, "Man, you’re overstepping your bounds."
Samuel was undeterred. "What’s the worst she can do to me now?"
Xena answered lightly, "Not give you a pinch to stop the pain when we cut you a little wider."
The Guardsman frowned, "Don’t seem right to cut… just to sew up again."
"Got to do it, Sam."
"Aye… My Liege… if I don’t get through this…"
Xena was firm. "Quiet now. You’ll be fine."
Samuel was not done. "Keep her safe."
Trevor would hear no more. "That’s your job."
Samuel’s eyelids grew heavy. "Here I’m dying and you can’t stop giving me orders."
The Captain snapped, "Shut up, Sam!"
Samuel turned to Xena and Gabrielle, his breaths growing shallower. "See there…"
Gabrielle looked back down to Samuel’s wound. She felt a rising fear that she would lose the man to death. The fear triggered an equal surge of anger. Focusing on her task she retrieved a packet of herbs, sniffed it, determined it was the disinfectant she needed and sprinkled it over Samuel’s slashed flesh. She muttered to herself, "Where’s Stephen?"
Xena turned to Casta who continued her steadfast watch. "We’ll need more hot water and cloth for bandages."
The scene mesmerized the elder. Gabrielle resided within the eye of the storm. While the others exchanged words, she efficiently kept control of the blood loss as she prepared the wound for treatment. The spell broken, Casta reported, "Water’s put to boil. I’ll get my good linen for him."
As she slipped away, Stephen reentered the room.
Xena commanded, "Put it over a flame."
The Major went to a candle, quickly striking a flint. He placed the blade over the flame in a steady, rhythmic motion."
Xena watched intently. "That’s enough."
Stephen carefully handed the dagger into Gabrielle’s waiting hand.
Gabrielle looked up to Xena, not sure what she was asking. "The pinch?"
Xena leaned over to Samuel. "Ready, Sam?"
The Guardsman nodded.
With a quick motion of her right hand, Xena hit pressure points on his neck and shoulder. She waited a couple of heartbeats before speaking. "Better Sam?"
Samuel drifted to unconsciousness.
Xena touched his brow. Satisfied, she stepped back. "He’s all yours."
Gabrielle did not have the time to question what she had just witnessed. She carefully cut Samuel’s incision wider, giving her the necessary space to insert her thin fingers to the deeper crevices of his wound. She presented the dagger to Xena. Xena took it and offered Gabrielle the prepared needle. After dabbing away the fresh blood of Samuel’s wound Gabrielle began to sew. Xena set the dagger down and took up a cloth. Silently, unobtrusively, she cleared Samuel’s seeping blood away so Gabrielle could better see. The two continued their work, attuned to one another. Their effort reflected a well-practiced healing partnership developed on the field of battle.
For nearly a candlemark Trevor and Stephen kept vigil waiting for further direction. They had often witnessed the Royals work in such silent synchronicity. After supplying the promised hot water and bandages, Casta took her place at the bedroom door. Alem stood beside her as the rest of Royal Guardsmen, having left the village upon learning of the assault, took strategic positions around the homestead.
Gabrielle completed the last stitch on Samuel’s back and cut the thread with her dagger. "Okay."
Trevor helped to settle the Guardsman.
Xena knelt beside the bed. She spoke with what was to Gabrielle remarkable tenderness. "Brace yourself, my friend." She released the pressure points.
Samuel’s body jerked as fierce pain reemerged from his severed nerves. A haunting moan escaped his throat.
Trevor renewed his hold of his brother until the spastic reaction eased. He looked to Xena for reassurance.
"We wait." Xena leaned back on her heels. "Good job, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle studied her bloodstained hands, dagger in one, bone needle in the other. ‘I am a healer.’ Her thoughts began to converge with her present reality. She felt a touch as Xena took possession of the implements from her hands. Gabrielle turned toward the Conqueror. She did not know what to say. Within Xena’s eyes she saw a landscape of qualities far more profound than she expected from the powerful tyrant. Gabrielle stood up and went to the washbasin. She soaped her hands, washing them clean. She looked down to her body. Her tunic was covered with blood. Not able to bear the crimson sight and metallic smell of the blood any longer, she walked to a cabinet and removed a change of clothes and then stepped out of the room, making her way to Casta’s bedroom.
All eyes followed Gabrielle’s movements. There was an austere aura to her every gesture. She did only as much as needed to be done. She looked to no one. She was alone while in their company.
For Xena, Gabrielle had changed right before her eyes. The bright scribe enchanted by the Queen’s stories walked out of the room covered in blood. She now knew what it was to fight for her life in battle; she knew how it felt to have others want to take away her freedom, if not her life, she knew the texture and smell of blood as it flowed out of a hideous wound. What had been foreign to Gabrielle, the darkness of her past had come to the forefront transcending the objectivity that accompanies mere words. No one can understand, truly understand, unless they have had the experience.
Xena faced the consequences of wanting Gabrielle to reclaim her life in spite of the younger woman’s assertions that the life offered might not be worth having. Arguing that Gabrielle did not know what she was giving up bore no fruit. When Xena left for Scupi she would have been in bliss if she could have shared her homestead with Gabrielle. Why would Gabrielle’s deepest desires be different, to leave Corinth and all it stood for in order to live in peace?
Stephen broke the silence. "She’ll be all right."
Xena turned her gaze to the Major. She was not as confident. Xena did not have faith that the Fates would be kind. Her faith resided with Gabrielle. She decided it was time her actions reflected that faith.
Gabrielle closed the door behind her. She stripped. The blood had passed through her clothes and covered her skin with a ruddy film. She wiped the blood away with her rolled up tunic. She poured water into a basin and washed herself.
After dressing, she sat on the bed. Across from her she could see through an open window. At a distance stood one of the Guardsmen. No more than a silhouette against the setting sun, he was too far away to identify. ‘I am Queen of Greece.’ She could no longer deny the truth. Samuel lay wounded because of that truth. The Queen of Greece was a prize, a pawn, a subject of revenge, all that leaders are in a political world. She could no longer deny the truth because of what she and the Conqueror, she and Xena, had done together in an effort to save Samuel’s life. She could no longer deny the truth because through Xena’s eyes she saw the soul of the woman she was said to have loved and she understood that she could once again love that soul. ‘I was Xena’s Queen.’
There was no denying the past. What Gabrielle could not reconcile was what the past meant to her in the present. She felt terribly alone and torn. The Guardsman outside her window had expectations of her, as did Samuel, as did Xena. Gabrielle closed her eyes and beseeched the Gods for guidance. She spoke, her voice choked, "What is to become of me?"
Gabrielle heard a knock on the door. She waited as the door was opened.
Casta entered carrying a mug of tea. "I thought you could use this." The elder handed the mug to Gabrielle and then sat beside the younger woman. "What you did for the soldier was a remarkable thing."
"I don’t know if he’ll live."
"You did your best. No one can ask more of you."
"I did what I had to."
"Maybe that is how you will come back to yourself. You will do what you must do without thought. The knowledge will be waiting for the moment when you need it."
The prospect did not console Gabrielle. "How long will that take?"
"It depends if you keep running away from who you are or if you stop and accept the fact that you are the Conqueror’s Queen."
Gabrielle decided to take the first step. "Is she still with Sam?"
"She hasn’t left his side."
Gabrielle stood up. "I need to talk to her."
"You do that." Casta approved.
Gabrielle entered Samuel’s sickroom and stood at the foot of his bed. Xena sat at his bedside in a tall back chair. Stephen and Trevor remained near the door. Stephen tapped Trevor’s arm and led him by example silently out of the room.
Gabrielle turned and watched the Guardsmen leave. Left alone with Xena and their unconscious patient she approached on the opposite side of the bed. She placed her hand on Samuel’s brow. As expected it was warm. However, the fever seemed to be manageable.
Xena spoke, her collected voice giving no hint of what she was feeling. "Sam should be stable enough in a couple of days to be taken back to the inn by litter. I will arrange the transport."
"I will tell Casta."
"Gabrielle, if you choose to begin a new life, I shall provide you with an annual stipend. You do not have to choose between me and poverty."
Gabrielle was surprised by the offer. She wondered what had caused the Conqueror to cease her campaign to win a joint return to Corinth. Gabrielle found that she was disappointed. An inexplicable bitterness soured her tongue. Was she so easily set aside? Was this how the Conqueror shared her love, through her purse? Gabrielle asserted her independence. "I have the skills of a healer. I can work as a scribe and I’m told that as a bard I could earn a few coin."
"More than a few." Xena offered a muted smile. She had taken Gabrielle’s words as nothing less than the truth.
Gabrielle did not respond well. She flicked back, "I have more options than I did when we first met."
This time neither Gabrielle’s tone nor the content of her message escaped Xena’s comprehension. Xena cooled, "No more than when you accepted my promise."
Gabrielle had no means of confirming whether the Conqueror spoke the truth. She dismissed the Sovereign. "I will stay with Sam. You need not stay."
Xena stood up. There was no sense to Gabrielle’s lack of courtesy. "I’ll leave my kit here for you. I’ll have fresh supplies from the village healer brought to you in the morning."
Gabrielle nodded. At that moment she did not like herself but neither did she like the Conqueror.
"Trevor and a handful of Guardsmen will stay for as long as Sam is here. We will need to discuss what protective services you will need afterwards. I expect our discussion can wait until morning."
Gabrielle challenged the prospect of being perpetually under guard. "No man should die because of me."
"Sam didn’t get hurt because of you. He got hurt because of what you represent. You are Greece. You hold the kind of power few can imagine and fewer still know how to manage honorably. The power that is Greece is too tempting for some men not to try to take it away from you."
"I chose this?" Gabrielle swept her hand across her body until it pointed to the basin full of bloody water and soiled bandages."
"You chose me and with me comes a life that shall never be free of violence."
"A choice worth reconsidering," Gabrielle asserted.
"Never has a truer statement been spoken. To be with me or not is your decision."
"Good night, Your Majesty." Gabrielle’s farewell was devoid of warmth.
"Good night, Gabrielle." Xena walked out of the bedroom, her emotions in tatters.
The following morning Samuel stirred from a restless sleep. Gabrielle got up from her chair and went to his bedside. "Hey, be still."
"Hurts." Samuel spoke groggily.
"Drink this." Gabrielle offered him a mug of medicinal tea.
Samuel took a couple of swallows. Gabrielle then removed the mug from his lips. Samuel asked for the Conqueror.
Gabrielle advised him. "She went back to the village."
"I thought it would be best for her to get some rest. Trevor is here. He’s thinking up some especially dreadful orders to give you."
Samuel tried to shift his body. He winced. "Little sis…"
"I’m here, Sam."
Samuel affectionately held the young woman in his gaze. "It was almost worth taking the sword to see you and the Conqueror together."
Gabrielle did not welcome the comment. "You should rest…"
Samuel persisted. "You two can speak to each other without words. Just a look and you understand what no one else does. I have seen you work together. There is no beginning or end as you care for a fallen man."
"Like we cared for you?"
"I think I missed the best of what you did for me."
"Sam, I remembered what to do as a healer. That’s all."
"It was more than that." Samuel acknowledged Gabrielle’s reluctance. "Never mind. You don’t want to heed a sentimental soldier."
Samuel’s sincerity caused Gabrielle to temper her disappointment in the Conqueror. "I wish I knew more."
"You should read your journal."
Gabrielle was intrigued. "I keep a journal?"
"You write in it all the time. When we travel you always carry it with you in the leather scroll case the Conqueror gave you for Solstice."
Gabrielle had admired the finely crafted case. That it was a gift from the Conqueror was a pleasant surprise. "Sam, what did the Conqueror do when she found me missing?"
"I was outside your door. She bolted inside your suite as if she knew something was wrong. I followed. Stephen and Jared were not far behind."
"The General. You are very close to him."
"Where is he now?"
"Keeping Corinth for you and the Conqueror."
Gabrielle made note of Jared’s name for future reference. "What happened when you entered the suite?"
"I never saw the Conqueror cry like that before."
"She cried for me?"
"She fell into Jared’s arms. Somehow she knew you were lost to her."
"Sam, I don’t feel…" Gabrielle confessed with some reluctance. "I don’t love her. She knows that."
"You told her?" Samuel stared at Gabrielle in disbelief.
"Would you have me lie to her?"
"I didn’t know the Gods could rip a woman’s heart and soul out and still have her live."
Gabrielle was stunned. "How can you say that?"
"Because it’s true."
"She’s the Conqueror."
"She lives only for you."
Gabrielle countered, laying her proof before the Guardsman. "She is returning to Corinth without me."
"Did you think she’d take you against your will? That is not her way. Not with you. Gabrielle, you told me she always waited for you to come to her. Even when you were her slave she never denied you. She allowed you to be the Guardsmen’s bard and to apprentice to be a healer."
"When did she grant me my freedom?" Gabrielle saw Samuel’s hesitation to answer as confirmation that the Conqueror was not as generous has he would lead her to believe. "I see."
"No, you don’t!" Samuel responded sharply. "You risked your life to save hers. By then you were her indentured servant and had less than a year more to serve."
"Is that when we joined?"
"She sent you away. There was a challenge to the throne. If she had been defeated you might have been hurt. Taken as a slave again. She didn’t want that."
"For how long… When did she recall me to Corinth?"
Samuel shook his head. "She didn’t. The General found a place for you as a healer at the eastern garrison. The Conqueror didn’t know you were there until she visited seven moons later. You had a soldier in your life. She blessed you and went on her way. Two moons later you met again. You were no longer with the soldier. She invited you back to Corinth. You said ‘yes.’"
"To be Queen."
"No. You wouldn’t accept the throne for another three moons or so." Samuel was earnest. "Gabrielle, the Conqueror will never stop waiting for you."
Gabrielle entered the inn in Alem’s company.
Stephen rose from a common table and met her. "Good morning."
"Good morning." Gabrielle scanned the room of watchful men before looking over Stephen’s shoulder toward the stairs. "Is the Conqueror in her room?"
"Yes, she is."
"May I see her?"
"Go right up. It’s the second door to the right."
Gabrielle went to the foot of the stairs and then turned back to the Major. "Stephen, do you know the Conqueror well?"
"I believe so."
"If I ask her a question, will she answer truthfully?"
Stephen reassured without hesitation. "The Conqueror will not lie to you."
Gabrielle measured the Major with her eyes. "Will you lie to me?"
Stephen responded with conviction. "No, Gabrielle, I won’t. I am sworn to serve you. That hasn’t changed."
Gabrielle nodded accepting the veracity of the Guardsman’s statement.
"Come!" Xena called out after hearing a knock on the door.
Gabrielle entered. Xena sat on the modest bed, leaning back against the headboard. She had expected Stephen and was thus surprised to see Gabrielle. Having had no sense of her, Xena felt their estrangement all the more.
Gabrielle offered a restrained greeting. "Good morning."
Given their past encounters, Xena was wary. "What brings you here?"
"I have heard that the Conqueror’s unbounded love for the Queen was equaled only by the Queen’s love for the Conqueror. And yet when I am with you, I feel a distance that I sense is not of my making alone." Gabrielle fixed her gaze upon Xena’s. "Do you love me?"
Xena was taken aback by Gabrielle’s bald question. "I love Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Queen of Greece."
"Without my memory, I am not she, am I?"
"You are who you are."
Gabrielle asserted an alternative identity, one she was more comfortable with. "I am Gabrielle of Ithome."
Xena would not argue. She shifted the subject to a less painful concern. "How is Sam?"
"He will be able to travel soon." Gabrielle asked, "Will you leave when he is able?"
"Yes, unless you give me reason to stay."
Gabrielle looked out the window. A decision made she returned her gaze to the Conqueror. "I will accept your offer to dissolve our joining. You should not be bound to a loveless union. I want no stipend. You owe me nothing and it is best to sever all ties, no matter how remote."
Xena clamped down her love. "As you wish."
"I cannot stay in Ithome. I need to be where no one knows me as Queen. I will be safer in the anonymity of a past forgotten." Gabrielle noted Xena’s nervous swallow. "Do you agree?"
"I think that is the first thing we have agreed upon." Gabrielle went to the door. "There is one more thing. There is something you have that is mine and I would like it returned."
So constant in denying all that was hers, Xena could not imagine what Gabrielle would now claim as her own. "What is that?"
Xena did not like the request. "It will only cause you pain."
"Have you read it?"
"Then how do you know?"
"Spare yourself," Xena entreated.
"Would you choose ignorance if you were in my place?"
Xena would not. She got to her feet and went to the table where one of her saddlebags rested. She opened it and removed Gabrielle’s journals. She walked to the younger woman and presented the two codices to her.
Gabrielle was surprised to see them. "You had these all along? Why didn’t you give them to me before?"
"By your own admission your heart is not stirred by me or what I have told you about yourself."
"Until yesterday my heart had no reason to be moved. I thank the Gods Sam is brave among the timid."
"He gave me back a piece of myself. Now that I have it, I will not let go of it easily."
The familiar phrase wounded Xena for the promise it once carried. She stepped to the door and opened it. "Good day."
This is the journal of Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Queen of Greece. Beyond this first sheet of parchment are many more written after my first year with my Lord. I place the pages in one bound codex, matching the well-tooled sister codex of blank parchment given to me by my Lord.
Nearly three years have passed since I took my first step upon the harsh capital slave market grounds. By writing I attempt to find order and meaning in my recent years in residence in the city of Corinth and the eastern garrison of Greece. One day I may look back and see clearly that there was indeed reason for the turns my life has taken. Such understanding is beyond my vision.
I have learned to take one day to the next. At first I lived so in order to survive, to believe the horror of my slavery would come to an end. Now I live in the moment because I have so much to cherish.
Whatever these pages hold of the story of a slave, who became a Queen, let one certainty be conveyed. The bond I share with my Lord transcends friendship and love. My soul is knitted to that of Xena of Amphipolis, Conqueror of Greece, Sovereign of the Aegean.
I am rich with fine parchment, quills, ink and a writing board. I am sitting up on the Conqueror’s bed as she sits in her chair by the fireplace. She watches the flames and says nothing. I wish I knew what she is thinking. I wish I knew why I, her slave, am here with her as I recover from an illness. I should be in my own room. Darlius, the palace healer, can care for me there just as well.
Appearances may lead the household to think I am being taken advantage of. I cannot change what others think of me, or her. I can foreswear that the Conqueror’s intentions toward me have been honorable. She won’t hurt me.
The Conqueror told me I shall have all the supplies I need to write my stories. I would like to keep a journal. So much has happened since my days in Poteidaia. I won’t turn from my past. And yet, I do want to move on. I want to see if I can dream again.
When I first arrived in the palace the Conqueror told me that my life in her household was more mine than hers to shape. Her words were true. Though I am a slave I am more myself here then I ever was in my father’s house.
There are times when the Conqueror and I speak and the world falls away, leaving just the two of us. The moments do not last very long. Intrusions are endless. I do take pleasure knowing that for a few moments I have guided her away from the concerns of the realm.
The Conqueror has given me permission to address her by her birth name when we are alone together. I do not know if I can. She is the Conqueror, the Sovereign. She is my Lord. Can I set all that aside and claim a place, where I am Gabrielle of Poteidaia and she is Xena of Amphipolis?
Gabrielle read late into the night. Upon waking she returned to the codex. She found that she had written of her days as well as chronicling her history. By her own admission she kept her darkest days from Xena. The reasons ultimately distilled to her own desire to move beyond the past and her fear of losing the best of herself in the horror.
Days passed without the Conqueror visiting Casta’s homestead. Stephen relayed Xena’s instructions. The Queen’s Guard would vouchsafe the Queen until further notice. The village healer would assist Gabrielle in caring for Samuel.
On the evening of the third day Stephen arrived with a contingent of Guardsmen. Gabrielle assisted as Samuel was gingerly placed on a litter for transport back to the meetinghouse. Stephen was unable to answer Gabrielle’s queries regarding the Conqueror’s intentions to leave Ithome.
At daybreak Gabrielle and her escort walked to the village. Upon entering the inn, she caught sight of Xena, who sat with a number of her men in the dining area. Xena stood and approached her.
Gabrielle greeted the Conqueror. "Good morning."
Xena responded with equal courtesy. "Good morning."
Gabrielle removed two scrolls from her case. "I finished the transcriptions. These are for you."
Xena’s gaze fell uneasily upon the scrolls. "They’re your stories."
"I don’t think they are. Not anymore. One way or another they are mine to give."
Xena took the scrolls. "I’ll place them in the palace library."
"Is that where the Queen’s writings are kept?"
"Your public stories, yes. There are personal stories and poems that you keep in a cabinet within our suite. They are only for you to read."
The distinction led Gabrielle to ask, "What will you do with the private stories?
"They will stay undisturbed. I shall surrender them only to you."
"In the journal you are portrayed in different ways. You are not being as open to me as you were to your Gabrielle. Is it because I have changed or will I find as I read that you closed yourself as time passed?"
Xena was not prepared to confess the past. "I can’t answer you. You are the only one who can speak to your question."
"Then I will keep reading." Gabrielle stated her second objective in traveling to the village. "May I visit Sam?"
"Of course. I’ll walk with you."
Xena escorted Gabrielle to the village meetinghouse. Within the Guardsmen’s makeshift barracks, Gabrielle noted that the men had stored their saddlebags and bedrolls against the walls. Placed against a far corner of the large room was a pallet. Samuel lay upon it.
Xena excused herself. "I’ll let you two visit in private."
Gabrielle watched the Conqueror exit before going to Samuel. She knelt at his bedside. "Sam."
"Hey." The Guardsman smiled.
"How are you feeling?"
"It’s not been a day. I don’t heal as quick as the Conqueror."
Gabrielle smiled encouragingly. "A few more days and you’ll be on your way home."
The Guardsman was sober. "It won’t be the same without you."
Gabrielle did not know how to respond. She changed the subject. "Sam, can I ask you something?"
"I was reading the… my journal. Did I always address the Conqueror as ‘My Lord’?"
"From the beginning?"
"You always did. When with the army, in Court, whenever there is Royal protocol."
"I haven’t heard anyone else use the address."
"No one will. It is yours alone."
"It is something between the Conqueror and I?"
"I would say yes."
"So, it hearkens back to my time as a slave?"
"What does your journal tell you?"
"It doesn’t date that far back."
"Gabrielle, I don’t believe you ever said those words without respect or love."
I am certain that the feeling is not my imagination or wishful thinking. I sense Xena when she approaches beyond my sight or hearing. When beside her I feel her emotion, both joy and sorrow. I don’t know if she can feel me as I feel her. The thought that she does is frightening to me. Can she sense my sadness? Does she share my past with me? I do not want her to know my darkness. Her burden is great enough.
I have not heard of other couples sharing such an intimate knowledge of each other’s … do I dare say souls?
We made love last night. In the momentary stillness of our passionate embrace I felt engulfed by Xena’s powerful essence. I cannot believe that the sensation was mine alone to feel. Xena said little. She has always said little. Thus I have no clue. How do I ask her without frightening her? How do I confess without having her think I’ve gone mad?
Gabrielle spent every waking hour she could spare from her chores reading her journal. Her assigned Guardsmen kept her informed of Samuel’s healing. There was no discussion of the Conqueror. The third day after visiting the village Gabrielle was urgently summoned to the meetinghouse. Samuel had taken a turn for the worse and had asked for her.
Gabrielle entered the meetinghouse. A number of Guardsmen stood by Samuel’s bed. Xena sat in a chair in close watch of her patient. Upon seeing Gabrielle, Xena got to her feet. She met Gabrielle in the center of the room and spoke, with what was to Gabrielle, uncommon intimacy. "His fever spiked. The infection in his wound is overwhelming his body. I’ve given him herbs but they can only do so much."
Gabrielle’s healing knowledge echoed that what could be done had been done. "So we wait."
"Yes." Xena had slept little. Her fatigue was evident in her voice. "Go take my chair."
Gabrielle felt her heart tug, drawn toward the Conqueror. She restrained her desire to reach out and comfort the warrior. "Thank you."
Gabrielle spent the day sitting beside Samuel, holding his hand, feeling the frustration that accompanied the knowledge that there was little she could do for him. She sensed that her posture in wait was one she had often experienced.
The Guardsman opened his eyes.
Gabrielle smiled, "Hey."
"That’s me." She stood up and touched his forehead. "Your fever has broken. Would you like some water?"
"Do me good. I’m thirsty."
Alem stood nearby. He handed her a water skin. A number of the men and the Conqueror neared.
Samuel drank from the skin as Gabrielle held it for him. Sated, he said, "That be enough."
Gabrielle handed the skin back to Alem.
Looking at Gabrielle, Samuel confessed. "I’ve missed you."
Gabrielle held Samuel’s gaze with fierce compassion. "Sam, remember the first day we met?"
"I always thought it would make a good story. Shall I tell it?"
"Let’s see if we remember it the same."
"All right." Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment gathering the images. She opened her eyes aware that she had an audience surrounding her. She tried her best to focus only on her injured brother.
"In the city of Corinth, the mighty Conqueror lived in a large, stately palace. She maintained a household of servants and slaves. One day a new young slave by the name of Gabrielle was purchased to work in the kitchens and to serve.
"The Conqueror personally promised the slave that she would be safe. Not long after, a Captain of the Royal Guard echoed the Conqueror’s vow. His name was Stephen. Stephen encouraged the girl to call upon him or his brother Guardsmen if they could be of any help to her. The slave did not know what to make of the Captain. She had been badly hurt by men and found it hard to trust, fearing their motives.
"A number of the male servants found the slave to their liking. Though they would never right out force her to do something against her will, they flirted with her, pressuring her for a kiss and more. She gave them nothing. Unfortunately, that did not deter their ambitious campaign. Word was that they had a wager of who would be the first to bed the slave.
"It was mid-day and the girl was in the kitchen working alongside the chief cook. The girl cut vegetables for the stew that would be the Conqueror’s evening meal. It was a well-known fact that at that time of day the male servants would congregate in the kitchen to rest and talk, and if the cook was in a generous mood, to drink the mead she would offer up to them. On that day the male servants sat joking and drinking their round with saucy pleasure.
"A Guardsman entered the kitchen. The girl had noticed him in the past. She never had reason to speak to him. Samuel was a large man with sandy brown hair, a well-trimmed beard and hazel eyes. About thirty summers old he held himself with mature assurance. The girl learned that his brothers called him Sam. He was said to be a quiet man, some spoke of him as shy. He was also said to be a fierce and brave warrior in battle. During one recent skirmish he drove through a mass of outlaws like a wild bull, his sword slashing each and every way because at the center of the pack a fellow Guardsmen was fighting for his life. They both survived to raise a mug of ale in honor of Ares.
"Sam looked about, catching sight of the girl and the male servants. He walked directly to the girl and waited for her to raise her eyes to him. The girl had been taught to show the Guardsmen courtesy. In spite of her fear she gave him her regard and asked him if there was anything she could do for him.
"’No,’ he said. He then took out his dagger and placed the tip of it on the table, twirling it with ease. He said, ‘I just wanted to see with my own eyes that you are being treated as the Conqueror has commanded.’ Sam turned a menacing gaze to the servants who had stopped drinking and were watching him silently. Sam spoke again. ‘Captain Stephen has told me of his promise to you. It would be a shame if some ignorant fool laid a hand on you or spoke an unwelcome word and the Captain learned of it. He doesn’t like being made a cuckold.’"
The listening men burst out in laughter. Stephen blushed and turned to a silent Xena. "If Sam wasn’t sick, I’d kill him."
Xena spoke soberly to Stephen, "I think there’s a story I haven’t heard."
Stephen took in the Conqueror’s serious gaze with trepidation. "It’s not what you think."
"Oh, I think it is and I’m grateful." Xena cuffed the Major in the arm with the flat of her hand.
Trevor called out. "What happened next?"
Gabrielle had turned and scanned the room in delight. There was a familiar feeling to the gathering. She reined her laughter and answered, "One of the servants began to choke on his mead. The others were deathly still. Their eyes were on Sam’s dagger. None would help the choking man who was turning red in the face."
Samuel gathered his energy and spoke up so all would hear him. "You said, ‘I haven’t told anyone of my intercourse with the Captain.’"
The men roared. Xena could not help smiling.
Now it was Gabrielle who blushed. "I said nothing wrong."
Stephen shook his head. "I’m afraid to ask what happened next."
Gabrielle smiled in the recollection. "Makia was in pain. The effort of holding her laughter was so great. Sam looked back to me and said, ‘I believe my task is done here.’ He bowed to me and bid me farewell. From that moment on all men in the household were perfect gentlemen to me." Gabrielle turned to Samuel. "Sam, I never thanked you."
Samuel smiled, "What are brothers for?"
Gabrielle leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. "I need you. I need my brothers. So, please fight this. You must get well."
"For you I’ll do my best."
Gabrielle directed her question to Samuel while at the same time seeking Xena’s permission with her eyes. "I would like to stay here." She saw Xena nod. "If that’s all right with you?"
Trevor shouted, "Sam, you better say yes. I think there are more stories for us all if you do."
Stephen chimed mischievously, "About you Trevor, there has to be at least one."
Trevor was in good spirits for the first time since Gabrielle’s disappearance. "I’ll take my chances. What say you, Sam?"
Samuel held Gabrielle’s gaze with his gentle eyes. "Stay."
Xena sat on the outside stairs of the meetinghouse porch.
Gabrielle exited. "May I join you?"
Xena gestured invitingly with her hand. The two sat quietly as life continued on under their thoughtful observance.
Xena turned to Gabrielle. "It was as if you remembered."
"I did. He wanted me to and so I did."
"Just like that?"
"Who is to say why the Gods do what they do?"
"Do you remember other things?"
"Some." Not remembering, but wanting to, Gabrielle looked over to where the two Royal banners flew. "Is the one on the right the Queen’s banner?"
Xena followed Gabrielle’s gaze. "It is."
Gabrielle noted the staff, quill and laurel. She realized she had fulfilled all three. "It’s so light against your crest."
"It was a gift from your Guard."
"It couldn’t have been too long ago."
Xena gave Gabrielle an inquisitive glance.
Gabrielle explained. "I haven’t gotten that far in my reading."
"It was your last birthday." Xena reached into a small pouch on her belt. "Have you read about this?" Xena opened her palm. Gabrielle’s joining ring rested at its center. Xena continued to wear its twin on her left hand.
Gabrielle was not ready to claim the ring. She made a subdued request. "Keep it safe for me."
Xena closed her hand around the ring making a fist. Her mien was equally closed against Gabrielle’s sight.
"Do you have my medallion?" Gabrielle sought another symbol of her connection to Corinth.
Xena moved her hand back to the pouch, trading the ring for the medallion. She raised the silver chain that held the token letting it fall freely before her companion.
Gabrielle extended her hand; with a finger she stayed the medallion from its motion. The Conqueror’s crest mirrored Xena’s banner. The medallion was described in detail within her journal. So too was the recollection of Gabrielle’s emotions at the time of receiving it. It had been one of the proudest days of her life, affirming her relationship with the Royal Guardsmen, a relationship that sustained her during her darkest days. "May I?"
"Let me." Xena unclasped the chain. She carefully placed the chain around Gabrielle’s neck, resetting the clasp.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, feeling the medallion’s light weight against her skin. Given recent events she was beginning to sense the deep, abiding loyalty and friendship she shared with her Guard. She got to her feet and stepped closer to the banners. She felt she was coming closer to half of who those banners represented. She turned back to the elusive half. "I would hope you love me enough to want me to be whole again."
Xena was surprised by Gabrielle’s renewed mention of love. "I do."
"I’m left to wonder if you want to erase the worst of my past so that you don’t have to face the consequences of your choice before the Fates."
Xena granted that Gabrielle had indeed been reading. She did not welcome the accusation that came with Gabrielle’s expanded knowledge. It was not tempered by life’s nuances, by the truths that cannot be translated into the concreteness of language.
Gabrielle continued, "I gave up my life to Aphrodite for yours. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t love you. I want that love back, but I can’t have it if I don’t know who I am. I think Aphrodite chose me because of my past, not in spite of it. I think Aphrodite chose me because the day came that I could trust Sam and Stephen and the rest of the men who have been good to me. I think Aphrodite chose me because I trusted you even though I knew that you were capable of hurting me."
Xena countered defensively. "I never harmed…"
"No you haven’t," Gabrielle affirmed. "How naïve do you think a woman, slave to Tracate, could be about our capacity to hurt one of our own kind? Do you really think I walked into your life blindly, not knowing the risk?"
Xena had no answer.
Gabrielle continued relentlessly. "You are Ares’ Chosen. You are capable of hurting anything that breathes on this earth, including me."
"Is that what you have read?"
"And heard from others," Gabrielle confirmed. She gentled her voice. "I do not mean to be cruel. Tell me; am I wrong in saying it? Am I wrong in how I see you?"
"You have never…" Xena was heartbroken. "I thought you saw me differently."
"No, from the beginning I have seen you for who you are, and I have loved you. Wouldn’t it have been a curse upon us both if I had deceived myself… and you?"
"Why didn’t you tell me before?"
"I don’t know. My journal doesn’t tell me and I don’t remember."
Xena felt indiscriminately assailed. "This is not fair. I have no way to defend myself."
"Life has never been judged by mortals as fair. It never will be."
"All I ever wanted for you was that you be free from your nightmares. Is that so wrong?"
"I still have nightmares," Gabrielle admitted. "I’m lost and alone. I’m numb to everything, but the fear that I shall never have my heart complete."
"Who is to say that you had your heart complete before you lost your memory?"
Gabrielle’s confidence was besieged by what felt to be no less than an accusation. She had followed her instincts; she was so sure she was right in her assessment. Now she was lost as the mirror she placed before Xena was turned upon herself. Her voice dropped low. "Are you saying I never gave my heart to you?"
Xena looked down to her hands. Her hands knew Gabrielle’s care as blood had been washed from them. Her hands knew Gabrielle’s tender kisses. They had been encouraged to touch Gabrielle intimately. Gabrielle had searched her out in her darkest moments, held her promising no more than she could give, giving all that she could, which was everything she possessed. Xena knew she had Gabrielle’s love. She knew Gabrielle loved her with every bit of her heart and soul. Xena raised her eyes to her partner. Her insinuation was unwarranted and the harm it had done was evident. She was ashamed of what she had just done. "No…"
"Then what are you saying?
"Gabrielle, you’ll remember the years before Corinth."
"Please, I always wanted to free you from the pain you bore."
"Unbeknownst to Ares, he gave you your wish and I’ve rejected it. The scars on my back have been healed. I thought they would always be with me. Now that they are gone I admit to missing them. Forces are working in concert to give me reason not to remember. I don’t understand why."
Xena stood up. "I asked Aphrodite to have Athena heal you."
Gabrielle was surprised to learn that Xena had such an uncommon ability to sway the Gods. "You?"
"Why remember? Forgetting has its advantages."
"To what sacrifice? I will never have the memory of falling in love with you. I will not recall the first time you held me, how it felt when you loved me in return. My journal tells me these things. I know them, but I do not feel them."
"We can create new memories."
Gabrielle grew stern. She knew her greatest nemesis. "What did Ares say to you?"
"Nothing I haven’t thought myself."
"When you sent me away… after you were hurt near Amphipolis, did you regret loving me?"
"Even after you learned about Inis?
"And the day you told me you loved me and I led you to believe I did not return your love and would leave Corinth?"
"No. Gabrielle, why ask me…"
"When in the middle of the battlefield you learned that I kept from you the fact Tracate owned me?"
"I was angry," Xena admitted, "My anger did not destroy my love for you."
"But did you regret your love for me?"
"No, never. Never!" Xena was desperate to find a means of convincing the younger woman. "Gabrielle, my love for you is one of the few right things in my life."
Gabrielle believed her. "My journal tells me loving you is the one true joy I’ve had in my life. Everything in me tells me that I can, I will love you anew. Why shouldn’t I love you? You are willing to welcome me back as I am. But, it isn’t enough. I’m selfish. I want to know more than the facts of our past life together. I want the feelings. I will take the heartbreak to once again know the joy."
"If that is your choice." Xena relented. "Gabrielle, I can only help you so far. You spoke little of your past. I swear I do not know much of it."
Gabrielle knew by her journal Xena spoke the truth. "May I continue to ask you questions?"
"I’m going to bid Sam goodnight before returning to Casta’s. I have chores to do, and a journal I am not done reading."
That night Gabrielle sat upon a fencepost bordering the homestead. She was intent upon the stars. She sensed a presence and correctly assumed it to be Xena. Once, she would have known. She waited until Xena was plainly in sight. "It’s a beautiful night."
Xena stood beside Gabrielle, leaning against the fence.
Gabrielle asked. "Why am I the only one to address you as ‘My Lord’?"
Xena had longed to hear Gabrielle use her common address. She wondered if Gabrielle truly understood the profound importance of those two simple words. She answered unaffectedly. "It was your way from the first day we met. With time the palace household and the Guard understood that I would accept the address only from you. By an unspoken rule you have reserved the right to yourself."
"I gave you a scroll with the story that explained why I chose to address you as my Lord. My journal doesn’t tell me the story."
"When you were a girl your mother told you a tale. You were unhappy and she tried to ease your loneliness. The story your mother told was about an orphan found by a Lord. He arranged for her to live with a family on his estate. The day came when the orphan had grown to a beautiful young woman. The Lord went to her and professed his love. They were married."
"She loved the Lord?"
"Yes, she did. I didn’t know until you gave me the scroll that your address carried a hidden meaning."
Gabrielle concluded. "I loved you."
"Yes." Xena looked up to the stars. She tried with limited success to set aside the pain caused by Gabrielle’s reference of her love in the past tense. Xena returned to a previous question. "Gabrielle, as you read, I think you’ll find that I opened myself more to you, not less. I needed time. Words come easier to you than they do to me. My silence doesn’t mean I feel any less."
Xena’s was a welcomed admission. It gave Gabrielle hope. "Tell me about Jared."
"The old man?" Xena looked over to Gabrielle and smiled. "What do you want to know?"
"What do I mean to him?"
"He loves you. If the Gods would grant it, you would be his daughter."
"He’s a good man?"
"He’s the finest man I’ve ever known."
"He knew you in Amphipolis." Gabrielle stated the fact gleaned from her journal.
"From the day I was born."
"So, he knows you well."
"Yes, he does."
"Does he love you?"
Xena nodded affirmatively.
"You find being loved hard to accept, don’t you?"
"That doesn’t mean I … There was a time my mother wished me dead. I deserved every bit of her hatred. That’s the kind of person I became. Who I became was by my own free will. Looking in the mirror, seeing what I see, there can be no believing that I deserve anyone’s love."
The harsh self-assessment led to an obvious question. "You and I. How do you explain us?"
Xena’s offered a heartfelt answer. "I can’t."
Sensing Xena’s devotion, Gabrielle was puzzled. "Why did you offer me a life away from you?"
Xena was resolute. "I have no right to you. I forgot that and I’m sorry for it."
"It is a gift not an obligation."
"An obligation - is that what you think I feel?"
Xena glanced down and then away toward the deep darkness of the night.
"I think I meant my vow for eternity." Gabrielle’s gentle voice called Xena back to her. Gabrielle pointed upward. "I see a bird with its wings spread out in flight."
Xena looked up and smiled. "It’s a galley with oars and a mainstay fighting Poseidon’s tempest."
Gabrielle jumped down. "Walk with me?"
Xena paused at the familiar request.
Gabrielle noted the Sovereign’s hesitation. "Is something wrong?"
"No. Nothing’s wrong." Xena took a first step.
They walked the field of grass.
Gabrielle breached the silence. "When the slavers came to Poteidaia I offered myself up to save Lila. I had been so alone, I naively believed nothing could be worse than the feelings I had of being awkward and useless. Putting myself between Draco’s men and Lila did nothing for my sister. I think it saved my life. They kept alive those who fought the hardest. Did you know that?"
"No, I didn’t." The insight made sense to Xena. Early in her campaign she took only the strongest as her slaves. They were worth the investment of food and clothes.
"It’s so odd to read my own story and feel the joy and sorrow, to cry for myself… and for you as if I was hearing a bard’s tale and feeling for strangers. We have lost much in our lives. I lost Lila and my parents. You lost Lyceus and were disappointed by Toris."
"I still have my mother."
"I like your mother. From what I wrote she seems to have forgiven the past. She also seems to be very determined."
"Some would call her bullheaded."
Gabrielle smiled brightly.
Xena was enchanted. "What?"
"Like mother, like daughter?"
Xena smiled in turn. "Jared has said as much."
They reached the house.
"It’s late." Xena announced. "I should be getting back before Stephen comes looking for me."
Gabrielle opened her mouth as if to ask a question and then closed it silently.
Xena pursued the unspoken. "What is it?"
Gabrielle spoke shyly. "May I call you by your given name?"
"Of course." Xena was pleased.
Gabrielle spoke with affection. "Good night, Xena."
"Good night." Xena turned and walked down the path to the road.
Stepping out of the meetinghouse, Gabrielle noted that a number of the Guardsmen were playing kickball in the center courtyard. Trevor and Stephen teamed against Alem and Sentas.
Tavis set himself beside the Queen. "Sentas recruited Alem for the game. He can be quite a competitive fiend."
"Who, Sentas or Alem?"
"Do you wish to join the game?"
"It would be an uneven match."
"Not if I played as well," Gabrielle proposed.
"Ho! That would be fun. Which team do you choose?"
Gabrielle watched as Alem drove through Trevor knocking him down on his arse. She laughed lightly, "It seems as Trevor and Stephen are most in need. Let me go to them. If we lose, they won’t blame me."
Tavis offered a different perspective. "I think you just evened the odds." He jumped from the porch as he called out, "Hey! You have two more players."
The game stopped. Sentas turned to his fellow Lieutenant and made his claim. "We get Gabrielle."
"Sorry brother, you are going to have to make do with me. Gabrielle has already made her choice."
"But we were winning!"
"Exactly! When hasn’t she helped the weaker?"
Xena rode to the village after exercising Argo. She saw the scuffling figures from afar. Her keen hearing caught the exclamations of exhilaration and frustration, as well as hearty laughter. Whatever was happening, there was no cause for concern. As she approached, she identified the players, not altogether surprised to see Gabrielle among the six. She dismounted and walked Argo, wanting not to interrupt, relishing the unrestrained puckishness in Gabrielle’s voice.
The players were oblivious to Xena’s presence. The ball, kicked by Trevor passed beyond Stephen’s reach and rolled toward the Sovereign. Xena raised a foot and halted its progress. The players stood and waited, taking the opportunity to catch their breaths.
Gabrielle called, "Your Majesty, you’re welcome to join us in the game."
Xena took in the guarded mien of her soldiers. "Would not be fair, four against three."
"My Liege, I’ll welcome the rest." Stephen offered his position.
Gabrielle encouraged. "You could be my partner."
The invitation was too fine to resist. "Stephen, will you hold Argo for me?"
The Major walked forward and secured Argo’s reins from Xena’s outstretched hand. "Watch out, Sentas is as wily as ever."
Xena smiled at the challenge. "Let the game begin."
A candlemark later, the men sat upon the porch steps quenching their thirst with cold mead. Under the watchful eyes of the Guardsmen, Gabrielle and Xena walked Argo to the stables. Inside the barn, Gabrielle sat on a hay bale across from where Xena unsaddled the mare. She watched in silence, studying the woman who had, for a short period of time, shone with a playfully intense spirit.
Xena completed her task and leaned her back against Argo’s stall, her gaze holding Gabrielle in gentle regard.
Gabrielle smiled, "We were good together."
"Yes, we were."
"Sentas doesn’t like losing, does he?"
"None of the men do. Sentas can be impetuous. In a game he loosens his discipline. It’s fun to see the little boy in him come out."
Gabrielle thought to herself that it was also fun to see the little girl in Xena. "You enjoyed bringing that out in him."
Xena chuckled, "He must have been a terror when he was little."
"You have a wonderful laugh, you know."
In their years together, Xena could not recall Gabrielle ever complimenting her laughter. Although, she could always tell by Gabrielle’s reaction how much it pleased her when they shared their more whimsical moments. "So do you."
"You’ve been very serious. That is the only way I’ve known you. Now, I think maybe we have laughed together before…" Gabrielle’s voice drifted off, leaving a question.
It had taken a long time for laughter to find a way into their lives. The joyful, playful moments were for the most part Gabrielle’s doing. First, by her stories, and then later, when she felt more comfortable, by a quip, a breeze of light, dry humor that took Xena by surprise. Xena looked down, feeling the loss of that ease, accomplished only after years of slowly coming together – the priceless, pure simple joy in being with each other had slipped away.
Gabrielle’s voice drifted through Xena’s thoughts. "You can tell me. Whatever it is I want to know."
Xena raised her eyes. Gabrielle stood an arm’s length from her. She swallowed, feeling a compression in her throat as her emotions rose. "I wasn’t much help in… You were, you’ve always been the one to bring laughter into our lives. You cajoled, you would be so strong-willed, and each time you’d succeed to break though."
"It’s one of my talents, then?"
"Yes, it is."
Gabrielle stepped closer. "Why are you sad?"
Xena looked away feeling painfully exposed.
"Xena…" Gabrielle coaxed tenderly.
The warrior took a deep breath before looking back to her young companion. "I miss you."
Gabrielle saw the Xena that up to that moment had only resided in her journal. The woman the bard had fallen in love with, the gentle woman who was desperately alone and in need of a companion she could share her life with, without the mantle of the throne separating them. Gabrielle raised her hand, wanting to feel Xena’s skin, to confirm that it was as soft and warm as described by her own script. She leaned forward. Xena felt the familiar pull she had always felt toward her partner. Their lips grazed one another. Tentatively they kissed. Gabrielle felt a rising, unexpected passion unseat the compassion that had taken her to show her growing affection.
Xena felt her passion as well. She also felt a profound absence. Their bond eluded her and not having it broke Xena’s heart. A single tear fell down her cheek.
Gabrielle pulled back as she felt Xena’s body begin to tremble. She whispered, "What’s wrong?"
Xena shook her head; unable to articulate what she knew was beyond her mastery of any known language. What she felt only a poet could dare hope to describe. She grasped her hands in an attempt to regain her self-control.
Gabrielle could see Xena’s pain. For Xena, there had been no joy in their kiss. Gabrielle voiced what she knew to be true, though the reason for it was beyond her comprehension. "I’ve disappointed you."
Xena walked away toward the barn entrance.
Gabrielle felt a misery rooted in her own, now obvious failure. "I’m sorry. I haven’t considered how this might be for you. You’ve been so strong and sure. I was afraid of needing you and losing what little of my life I owned because of it. I never thought you might need me."
Xena paused and listened. "I don’t matter. I never deserved you. I never will. If you come back to Corinth, it must be for your own reasons, and no one else’s." Xena exited the barn, not giving Gabrielle an opportunity to respond.
[Journal Entry – Final Entry]
I’ve just arrived from the field games. Xena did not disappoint me. Within the first quarter candlemark she invited me to stay the night. I did well in the archery competition finishing fifth among my brothers. Striking a target causes me no pause. Striking a man… Like my other weapon skills it is never easy to accept that I may harm another. I have a responsibility to be able to defend my Lord, my brothers and myself. I cannot change the world. Peace is fleeting and the effort to prepare for the worst only impresses how precious I hold life.
Maybe it was those thoughts that moved me last night to reach out for Xena through our bond. I did not know how to ask for the rare union that has only come to pass through her agency. I have never been able to speak to her of this extraordinary expression of our bond. I think because there are no words to translate the overwhelming awe that engulfs us. I think Xena feels the same as I do.
I so longed for the convergence of our souls that I dared to seek it out independently, through my will. My spirit touched her and she did not retreat. She pulled me to her. I felt her essence as the distance between us closed. In union there was no she and I; we were one undivided.
This morning when I awoke I could only, with great humility, thank her. I know how terribly difficult it is for Xena to give of herself, to bare herself to me. She is a gift to me in every imaginable way.
How I misjudged her in the past. I still remember challenging Xena when we visited Amphipolis. It was then that I spoke of our bond for the first time, so mystified was I of her repeated offer of Greece. I thought she feared our union. Had I known that she… that we were both pawns of the Gods, I would have been more understanding. How cruel the Gods can be.
We weathered the storm. We have known both happiness and sorrow since those days. During the most painful times, our bond, our love has given us reason to continue. There is no greater joy than sharing my life with my Lord.
Casta directed Xena to the barn. She stood at the door watching Alem carry a bucket of milk from Gabrielle’s station on a small stool beside a cow. The Conqueror quipped. "Soldier’s becoming milkmaids?"
Alem turned uncertain. "My Liege."
"Why don’t you take that in to Casta."
The Guardsman did as told, eased by the Conqueror’s wink.
Not seeing the Conqueror’s gesture, Gabrielle sought to squash any repercussion against Alem. She stood up. "Are you angry?"
Xena chuckled. "No! I’m glad to see the men useful."
"Is that how the Guardsmen are in Megara?"
"Not in the same way. It is like here, a relaxed atmosphere under the Queen’s protocol. I think Megara is a respite for them almost as much as for…" "Xena cut short her thought. She promised herself not to place Gabrielle constantly in the light of their union. "I have something for you." She removed the knapsack she carried over her shoulder. "You said bits of your memory were coming back to you. That doing different things has helped." She offered the knapsack to Gabrielle. "I have here blank parchment in case you might want to write."
"I have my journal."
"Have you written in it?"
"No. It doesn’t feel right to do so."
"Then maybe using these scrolls will make writing easier for you."
"Maybe…" Gabrielle took possession of the knapsack. "You gave me scrolls when I was first ill. It was a fine gift then."
"And now, too. Thank you." Gabrielle had a new question, one independent of their relationship. "May I ask you a question?"
Xena steadied herself. "Of course."
"Did I write stories for children?"
"Yes, you did." Xena was relieved. "Why do you ask?"
"A story came to me. It’s a silly thing. Not what the Guardsmen would like. But, it would have a place among the young."
"You would be surprised Gabrielle by the stories the Guardsmen enjoy. They live hard lives, close to death more than they like. Because of that they play hard and they enjoy laughter more than most."
"As you do?" Gabrielle offered a nugget of common knowledge.
"Your first stories for me where meant, I think, to bring a little lightness to my evening."
"Very much so." Xena smiled sincerely, keeping a warm gaze upon her Queen.
Gabrielle sensed the change. "What is it?"
"I loved you for wanting to bring me joy. I loved you because you could."
"Is it so difficult?"
"I would once have sworn it was impossible. I had crossed a line that shut such a light from me. You had the courage to cross that line and bring me back. I will be forever grateful. What you call my generosity is a pauper’s gift to what you have given me… and others."
"I’ve lost that too," Gabrielle said regretfully.
"No you haven’t," Xena reassured. "Just now I could see the pleasure in Alem. And, I wager that your story, once you compose it, will also give pleasure to those to whom you choose to tell it."
"Without my memory I will never be your…" Gabrielle’s voice faded as she faltered in articulating her limitations.
Xena countered. "You are Gabrielle of Poteidaia. You’ve proven yourself to me time and time again since I arrived here."
"I do not know that to be true."
"Ask any man in your Guard. He will echo what I have seen and heard in you."
"I hope the day will come that I believe that to be true." Gabrielle stepped closer. "Xena, I must be certain that we understand each other. If I never remember the past… If I am different to you… If we lose who I was, do you still want me?"
"I accept the fact that our shared past is lost to you." Xena took a deep breath, gathering her composure, "Gabrielle, you are the woman I love. We will have the present and with faith in each other we will fulfill our destinies."
"You still wish me to return to Corinth with you?"
"In what capacity?"
"As you decree."
"As your consort then." Gabrielle ordained. "You have my vow."
Xena was uncomfortable with the prospect as presented. "You have no obligation to rest with me."
"You do not want me?" Xena once again disappointed Gabrielle. Gabrielle did not understand why Xena would take such effort to vacate their intimate union. "Have I erred and your intentions are not what I believe them to be?"
"I do want you, but only if you are willing."
"I say I am."
"How can you know? In your heart we met only a few days ago."
"Xena, if I am Gabrielle of Poteidaia as you say I am, why would it surprise you that you stir feelings in me that I cannot explain nor understand? Whether my feelings are from the past few days or the past few years is unimportant. I am resolved to accept you as a gift."
"I would take you to my marriage bed without hesitation if I was certain in doing so I acted honorably."
"Is there something you haven’t told me that I should know?"
"I withhold nothing from you."
"Then you are true to me."
Xena’s conscience nipped at her heels. "I could ask Ares to petition Mnemosyne to reinstate your memory?"
Gabrielle was vehement. "We agreed you will not owe Ares no favors."
"Why must you…"
"No! I’ve read my journal. You shall not supplicate yourself to the God of War. It goes against me to do so. You risk losing me completely if you follow a plan formed in desperation and misplaced guilt. You did nothing to cause my state."
"I denied Ares!"
"As you should!"
"We can ask Aphrodite."
"No, it will do no good. Mnemosyne is not one to return memories once taken. I am Aphrodite’s Chosen. Xena, I am certain that if it was in her power to petition Mnemosyne in my favor she would have done so."
Xena voiced her frustration. "There must be something I can do."
Gabrielle spoke tenderly. "Please don’t… It is I who owe you an apology. From what you have told me it was I who was careless in giving my consent. It was only by my consent that my memories were taken from me."
"You were grieving."
"I lost sight of what was most important to me. To stop grieving could only have meant to sacrifice your presence in my heart. I was foolish at best, a coward at worst. I know that now."
"You have always been too hard on yourself."
Ruefully, Gabrielle responded. "It’s good to have another sign that I haven’t so greatly changed."
Stephen entered the barn, interrupting the Royals.
Xena recognized his presence. "Stephen?"
"A dispatch from Corinth."
"It couldn’t wait?"
"By Jared’s orders, no."
Xena extended her hand. "Here."
Stephen placed the scroll into the Conqueror’s hand. He watched as she broke the seal and read the text. Xena’s countenance became an enigmatic mask.
Xena closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She turned to Gabrielle, her gaze remote. "I need to leave. Gabrielle, I… I don’t know when I will be able to return. For your safety, allow me to keep a contingent of the Queen’s Guard with you."
Gabrielle did not like what she heard. "Where are you going?"
"There are remote lands to the northwest where the Centaurs have a sovereign nation. They are under threat. A long time ago I gave my promise to Kaleipus, their leader. I promised to come to their aid if called. I will not break my promise."
"Of course." Somehow Gabrielle felt there was more than a promise behind the Centaur’s call. "Stephen, would you excuse us."
Stephen looked to Xena for instruction. "Wait for me at the homestead."
Gabrielle remained silent until they were alone. She placed her hand over Xena’s. "There is something terribly wrong, isn’t there?"
"I don’t know. There could be."
"Why are the Centaurs so important to you?"
"I owe Kaleipus a great debt."
Gabrielle mined the knowledge she gleaned from her journal. "I don’t recall… Have we spoken of them?"
"Xena, we’ve…" Gabrielle paused. She trusted that the truth would serve her well. "I don’t want you to go."
Xena’s tone was uncompromising. "I must."
"Then take me with you."
Gabrielle’s entreaty threw Xena back in time to a different promise - never to deny Gabrielle the right to join her in the field of battle. "You would come?"
"It is dangerous. I might have asked my Queen to wait for me."
"Would I have consented?"
Xena smiled. "Probably not."
"Xena, if only as a healer I can be of use to you."
"Gabrielle…" Xena stepped to a window and looked out to the horizon. The risk was far greater than Gabrielle could imagine. Xena searched her heart. Did she trust Gabrielle? Having her answer she turned back to the younger woman and reached out her hand. "Let’s get going. We have a long journey ahead of us."
Gabrielle took Xena’s hand. After a moment she kissed Xena on the cheek. "Thank you."
Xena and Gabrielle rode their steeds side-by-side, leading the contingent of Guardsmen as they neared Centaur lands. Xena had sent Stephen, with three men, to scout the territory. From a distance she saw that they were returning from their mission.
Stephen halted his stallion before the Royals. "My Liege."
"Stephen, any problems?"
"We met Tansorious, one of Kaleipus’ lieutenants."
"What say he?"
"Kaleipus welcomes you. He requests a private meeting. You are to bring an escort of no more than six."
"My Liege, is that wise?"
"Stephen, the Centaurs are honorable creatures. Kaleipus will not break his word"
"But others in his tribe may not be as forgiving."
"I’m sure many are not, but that does not change the fact that they will follow Kaleipus’ lead. There is a reason why I’ve been summoned. I need to find out what that reason is. A threat to the Centaurs could ultimately be a threat to Greece."
Stephen rode to the second line. He called out. "Trevor, Tavis and Sentas, we ride to the Centaur village." He then gave orders to the balance of the men to dismount and set-up a temporary camp.
Gabrielle made the count. She asked Xena. "That is only four."
Xena explained. "Stephen understands that I need you to come with me."
Gabrielle was surprised by the expectation. "Me… Why?"
"I don’t want to offend Kaleipus. To him you are Queen of Greece. This is not the time to explain our recent history."
"I don’t know the protocol."
"Be yourself. That is all you have ever needed to be Queen."
Gabrielle appreciated Xena’s obvious sincerity. She smiled. "I asked to come, didn’t I?"
"You did." Xena returned the smile.
"Serves me right."
Xena sobered. "Gabrielle, as hard as this is for you, understand that you are equal among leaders, including me. While you are present, nothing can transpire between Greece and the Centaurs, without your consent."
"Xena, I don’t ask for that power."
"I know. You have never sought the rule of Greece. But, if your journals reflect the truth, and I am certain they do, you will agree with me that you have never failed to act for Greece."
"I have always acted to safeguard you."
Xena was genuinely touched by the sentiment. "Then keep close to me. Stephen is right to fear that an errant arrow may find its way into my heart."
Gabrielle blanched. "Not again."
"I’m sorry. That was a bad joke." Xena gentled her voice. "Keep me safe, Gabrielle. I need you more than you can know."
Reaching the village proper the Grecians were met by Kaleipus. Two other Centaurs flanked him. A line of armed men and Centaurs stood in a half-circle, keeping close watch.
Xena greeted the minor Sovereign. "Kaleipus, leader of the Centaurs, I bid you greetings from Greece."
"You are welcomed, Xena, Conqueror of Greece." The Centaur turned to Gabrielle. "And to you Queen Gabrielle, I am honored that you have chosen to visit my people."
Gabrielle responded warmly. "Kaleipus, my Sovereign has spoken well of you. The honor of our meeting is mine."
Kaleipus noted how Xena keenly scanned the village. He had every intention of answering her unspoken question. "Will you join me in my quarters? We can speak privately."
Xena returned her thoughts back to the Centaur. "Of course."
The Royals followed Kaleipus into his spacious lodge. Kaleipus set all formalities aside. "Xena, Dagnine has returned."
Xena was stunned. "Dagnine? All reports were that he died by your hand."
Kaleipus brooded. "My sword did not do as good of a job as I thought."
"Damn him to Hades."
"He is here for the Ixion stone. He has threatened to kill every living Centaur if we do not give it to him."
"The bastard knows Borias hid the stone."
"He thinks after all these years we’d have found it. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell him that we haven’t been looking for the cursed stone."
Under the circumstances Xena wondered the role the Centaur had set for her. "Why am I here, Kaleipus?"
"Dagnine asked about you. What you might know. I brought us time by telling him I would bring you here. He could ask you himself." Kaleipus shifted nervously on his legs. "Xena, he hates you more than anyone alive and boasts that he shall have your head on his sword."
Xena was silent. Gabrielle listened intently, not completely understanding what was being discussed. She chose to remain silent, to listen, and to learn.
Xena considered an alternative motive. "Dagnine may be using the stone as a pretense to get me here. Maybe if he kills me he’ll forget about the stone and leave you in peace."
"I thought that, too. I’d rather not risk it. Better you stay alive. An ally like you doesn’t come easily."
The inferred compliment was unexpected. Xena asked, "Am I an ally?"
"You have kept your word for all these years. That is all the proof I need."
"Don’t think I didn’t have second thoughts."
"That you did means that you are a woman worthy of my respect."
Xena walked toward the door, her thoughts confused.
Kaleipus continued. "I’m sorry to bring you here like this."
"Don’t be." Xena touched upon the truth. "When I received your message I knew I had to come. I won’t pretend that I didn’t look forward to…" She paused, struggling to find the means to broach the most difficult subject between her and the Centaur. "Kaleipus, I noticed the village children are nowhere in sight."
"I sent them off to the caverns. It is the safest place we have. I have my best men protecting them."
"Children?" Gabrielle interjected. "How many are there?"
"Two dozen including my son, Solan." Kaleipus looked over to Xena.
So too did Gabrielle. She knew the name. She now understood why Xena could not deny the Centaur’s call for help. She would meet Xena’s son, a desire spoken of in her journal. One Xena never consented to grant her. She was humbled; understanding the trust Xena had placed in her.
Not ready to face Gabrielle, Xena spoke to Kaleipus. "I’d like to inspect your defenses and I want to send one of my men to escort the rest of my Guard here to the village. We’ll set up camp on the perimeter."
"Very well." Kaleipus took possession of his bow and quiver of arrows. "I’ll show you the way."
Xena understood that the Centaur had covertly given consent for her to meet her son. She was grateful and fearful.
In the course of her inspection, Xena climbed an embankment to take a broader view of the landscape. Kaleipus and Gabrielle stayed below. Kaleipus placed his bow before him, leaning an arm upon its apex. He watched Xena’s masterful climb with appreciation. "She is impressive."
Gabrielle agreed. "Yes, she is."
Kaleipus turned to the Queen. "You must be a remarkable young woman to have earned her love."
"It may be fairer to say that she is remarkable to allow herself to love me."
"Why do you say that?"
"Xena has known betrayal… and loss."
Kaleipus cautiously asked. "What do you know about her loss?"
"You and I are the only ones who know her greatest sacrifice."
"I see. I didn’t think she would have ever told another living soul."
"She felt she had no choice. She spoke to spare me pain."
"I don’t see what your life with the Conqueror would have to do with…"
"There was the question of an heir and whether I would bear a child. As much as I would welcome a child, I refused to lay with anyone other than my Sovereign."
"As she refuses to be with anyone other than you?"
"As she refuses to ever bear a child… again."
A disturbance interrupted the two. They looked toward Xena. She was sliding down the embankment, holding an arrow in one hand. She grabbed a tree root and arrested her descent. At a near distance was a handsome young boy holding a crossbow. He was in the process of reloading it.
Gabrielle grabbed Kaleipus’ bow and jumped high to reach the Centaur’s quiver, taking in hand two arrows. She moved quickly. As the boy aimed the crossbow upon Xena, Gabrielle took aim with her bow. She threatened. "Don’t do it!"
Xena cried out. "Gabrielle! Please… my life is not worth his."
Gabrielle kept a steady eye on her target. "Xena. I know who he is." She wondered how much the boy was like his mother. Would he call her bluff? "Solan! Drop the crossbow."
Solan argued his cause. "She had my father killed!"
"No, she didn’t."
"How would you know?"
"Because she told me she didn’t and I believe her."
Solan hesitated. "Why should I listen to you?"
"Think about it. Do you think Kaleipus would have invited the woman responsible for the death of Borias back onto Centaur lands? Your adopted father loves you too much to do that to you. Now, young prince of the Centaurs, don’t make me choose between you and my Sovereign. I will give no second thought to shooting an arrow through your heart."
Solan stared at the young woman with contempt. He let his crossbow fall. He accused the Conqueror. "She’s a liar and a murderer."
"If she was what you say she would have urged me to kill you, not save you. Solan, I have known the Conqueror long enough to know her heart."
"Who are you?" the boy demanded.
"Gabrielle, Queen of Greece."
Solan had only heard of the goodness of the Queen. Still, he held to his conviction. "You’re the Conqueror’s whore."
Gabrielle lowered her bow. "How great must your pain be to hate so blindly. Are you the young man Borias would have been proud to call his son?"
The boy was stung by the question. He stepped back looking from Gabrielle to the Conqueror. A heartsick boy’s tears fell down his cheek. He wiped his face with his sleeve before picking up his weapon and running away.
Xena released her grip and slid down until she could leverage herself back to her feet. She walked toward her protector. "Gabrielle, would you have killed him?"
Gabrielle answered with what to her was a more pressing question. "Would you have caught the second bolt or let him kill you?" Xena turned her gaze toward the path Solan had taken. After a half dozen heartbeats, certain she would not receive an answer, Gabrielle walked back toward the village.
Torn between Solan and Gabrielle, Xena stood paralyzed. She decided to follow her son, believing his need greatest. "Kaleipus, let me go to him."
Kaleipus consented. "Take care, Xena. We do not know where Dagnine might be hiding."
Solan’s path was easy to follow. Soon, Xena found the boy sitting against a boulder, his crossbow lying at his side. She slowed her pace, walking deliberately toward him. Solan looked up to her. He said nothing.
Xena spoke gently. "You can think anything you want about me. You can call me anything; chances are I’ll deserve it. That is me, not my Queen. In the future, to my Queen you will always show respect. There is no woman greater than she and I will not abide anyone denigrating her. Do you hear me?"
Solan responded softly, a hint of fear in his voice. "Yes."
"You want me dead?"
"I don’t know."
"I can stand here and give you a second chance with your crossbow, if that is what you want."
Solan stood up. He spoke sharply. "I said I don’t know what I want."
"You seemed to be so sure just a moment ago. What changed your mind?"
"The Queen… what she said. Why didn’t you let her kill me?"
"Because you are a boy who has been grievously wronged and you hold me responsible for it, not without cause."
Solan’s indignation spiked. He stepped forward. "Then you did kill my father?"
"No, I did not," Xena answered, maintaining a fragile calm. "Nor did I order his death. But, your father and I had a disagreement and I believe that if I had stood by him, he might have lived. I regret that I could not have saved him. He was a good man, who wanted to protect the Centaurs. I wanted to defeat them, to eliminate them from the realm, because I thought them a threat to my plan to own Greece."
"What changed your mind?"
"By your father I was given a gift. It changed my life. I realized how wrong I was to hate as I did and so I walked away."
"What was the gift?"
"I cannot tell you without breaking a confidence. Trust me that it was a fine and noble gift, one that I will be eternally grateful for."
"After all this time, why did you come?"
"You know why I came. Kaleipus sent for me. I made him a promise and I keep my promises."
"To protect the Centaurs?"
"Yes. And, that includes you." Xena looked toward the path that led to the caverns. "It’s starting to get dark. I should get you back with the other children."
Solan was indignant. "I should be in the village. I can help fight."
"I think it’s more important that you help protect the younger children. It can’t be easy for them to be away from their parents."
"You’re not like what I thought you would be like."
Xena was bemused. "Is that good or bad?"
Solan was grave. "Why is my life worth more than yours?"
Xena went down on one knee before her son. In him she saw his father’s nobleness. "Solan, as my Queen so rightly said, you are a prince. The Centaurs deserve a future and to have a future they will always need leaders like your stepfather who will always do what is right and good. You, Solan, are their future."
"But you lead Greece."
"My life has been tainted. Once tainted…" Xena could not complete the thought before the boy. She changed her answer. "My Queen can lead Greece without me. She has done so in the past. She can do so in the future. Greece will not be harmed by my death."
"I don’t think the Queen believes that."
"She is the exception. She is good in a rare and magnificent way. That is why I love her."
"Kaleipus said my mother was a good woman."
Xena now knew she owed the Centaur a second debt. "Then take pride in your lineage. Live up to the example both your father and mother set for you."
Solan looked down. "Sometimes I don’t know what I should do."
"My Queen has taught me to follow my heart. Doing so has served me well. I can see in your eyes that you have a good heart. I commend you to trust it."
"Will you tell the Queen I’m sorry for what I said?"
"I will." Xena stood up. "Now, are you ready to return to the caverns?"
"Come then." Xena placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder, guiding him down the path.
It was long past nightfall when Xena walked toward Gabrielle’s tent. Alem stood guard. Wordlessly, assuming Gabrielle was inside, she tapped twice on the tent before entering. She stood within, taking a moment for her eyes to adjust. Gabrielle sat on her bed of furs. Xena approached, sitting beside her Queen. As she did, Gabrielle watched silently.
Xena began. "I followed Solan. We talked. Between Kaleipus and you, he was hard pressed not to listen. I think he wants to believe me innocent of his father’s death."
For Xena’s and the boy’s sake, Gabrielle found the news good. "I’m glad."
"It wasn’t what I said to him about Borias that made a difference. It was what I said about you. I demanded that he apologize to you. I think it took him by surprise that I would defend your honor."
"They are only words from a child."
Xena observed knowingly. "And they hurt deeply, don’t they?"
"Gabrielle, I would have caught the bolt. I wouldn’t have let him kill me." Xena reached out and took Gabrielle’s hand. "I made you a promise not to leave you easily. I won’t break that promise, no matter how right I feel Solan is to be angry at me."
"Angry for the wrong reason. He doesn’t know the truth, and even if he did, with time I believe he would be grateful for the life you gave him."
"I did what I thought was right. Kaleipus deserves the credit for the young man he’s become."
Gabrielle saw more than the Centaur’s influence in the boy. "I see you in him."
Xena was uncomfortable with the truth. "I can only hope he does not mark our resemblance."
"You won’t tell him that you’re his mother, will you?"
"No, I won’t."
Gabrielle squeezed the Sovereign’s hand. "Xena, your secret is safe with me."
Xena answered with a grateful heart. "I know."
Gabrielle’s thoughts turned to their immediate threat. "Tell me about Dagnine."
"He was one of my men. After Borias and I split our army into two, I counted on Dagnine as I now count on Stephen, except that I knew I could never trust him. He was greedy and cruel. After Solan was born I promised Kaleipus I would withdraw my army if he, in return, agreed to raise the son of Borias. Dagnine had other ideas. He deserted, taking a third of my men with him. A moon later when I was long gone he attacked the Centaurs seeking the Ixion stone."
"Why did he want it?"
"For the same reason I did. It is said to harbor great powers. With it I could have conquered the known world. Borias understood the danger. He found it first and hid it. He died never revealing its location. I am forever grateful that he did not tell me. I don’t know who I would have become if I had been infected by the stone’s power."
"Solan… how did you keep your pregnancy secret?"
"I didn’t show very much and I wore layers of clothes to hide my condition. Borias understood that no one could know until the baby was born. Leading an army, you can’t show any vulnerability."
"What do you plan to do?"
"I will find and kill Dagnine. His men will be given a choice to leave or die."
The explicit execution of Dagnine made Gabrielle shudder. "You can’t let him live, can you?"
"No… he’s too dangerous to the Centaurs and to Solan."
Gabrielle looked down.
Xena was earnest. "Gabrielle, I told you that choosing to be with me was to choose to accept the violence of my life. I don’t seek it out. However, when faced with violence I have no choice but to stand against it with equal or greater force."
"Yes. It’s a lesson I learned a long time ago. It’s why I raised the bow against Solan. Xena, I wouldn’t have shot to kill him. I would have stopped him from hurting you."
Xena’s thoughts returned to that moment. She had feared for both their souls. She feared the darkness that would have touched Gabrielle if she had been the cause of a child’s death. She had feared what she would have done if Gabrielle had killed her son. "How are you?"
"I feel lost, and yet I feel I know this place."
Xena understood that Gabrielle was speaking of a landscape within herself. "You have never been comfortable in battle, though you grew to be skilled in it."
"Not like you," Gabrielle observed. "You are more than comfortable in a fight."
"This is a different kind of fight." Xena alluded to her fear. "I have never fought for my son’s life."
"No prayer will save Dagnine. I think that is how it should be."
"Then, I have your blessing?"
"You don’t need it."
"I want it."
Gabrielle reached out and cupped Xena’s cheek with her hand. "You have it, Xena. Protect Solan and the Centaurs. I will stand by you."
"Thank you, Gabrielle." Xena felt a wash of relief. She needed Gabrielle to sanction her actions. She needed to know she would not lose Gabrielle because of the hunting and killing of Dagnine. "It’s late. We should both get some rest. Tomorrow promises to be a long day."
"Good night, Xena."
Xena got to her feet. "Good night, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle lay awake. Xena dominated her thoughts. Gabrielle noted that Xena had their tents situated side-by-side. During their journey their tents had been set at opposite ends of the camp. Gabrielle assumed Xena’s original motive was to ease any concerns regarding an encroachment upon her privacy, specifically her bed. She wondered why the change, what caused Xena to lessen the distance between them. She took comfort in Xena’s close proximity.
Gabrielle heard Xena call her name. She sat up and listened intently. Again, her name was spoken. She got up from her bed and exited her tent.
Trevor stood guard seemingly unaffected. Gabrielle wondered if she been imagining Xena’s cry. Her doubts were interrupted as Xena called for her from the adjacent tent. Trevor was now noticeably uncomfortable.
Gabrielle asked. "You hear her, don’t you?"
Trevor gave a restrained response. "Yes."
"Why don’t you go to her?"
"She’s dreaming, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle asked. "I would go to her, wouldn’t I?"
Taking Gabrielle’s use of the past tense as indicative of her discomfort, Trevor offered an alternative. "I can get Stephen."
"In your journal did you write about what happened to the Conqueror in Messene?"
"You took her to Megara to heal. Before you returned to Corinth you charged Stephen with her care. You knew he was the only one of us, other than Jared, from whom she might accept such attention."
"Since Megara, has Stephen gone to her?"
"I think not. After Messene you have rarely left the Conqueror alone. When the Conqueror has been without you in Corinth, her Guard is out of earshot, not like here in the field."
"But in the field?"
"Her dreams did not come as frequently, nor do I believe them as harsh."
"Before she lost you."
Gabrielle looked toward Xena’s tent. Xena had quieted. "I think the worst of her dream is over."
"For tonight," Trevor said sympathetically.
Trevor’s compassion and loyalty had been described in her journal, so too his love for her. Gabrielle knew she stood with a friend. "We haven’t spoken much. How are you, Trevor?"
Trevor offered a tempered smile. "I’m well, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle placed her hand on his arm. "Thank you, Trevor." With that said she returned to her tent.
At daybreak, Dagnine’s forces attacked the Centaur village from both the east and north. Kaleipus led the eastern defense while Xena and her men kept the northern perimeter.
After a brief skirmish against Xena’s forces, Dagnine’s men retreated back into heavily wooded lands, causing the Guard to hold in wait. To move forward through the open tract would expose them to the unwarranted risk of random assaults. Patience was in order.
"Xena!" Kaleipus called to her.
The Conqueror recognized the Centaur’s voice. She pulled back from her waiting position to meet him. Gabrielle left the few wounded and joined the two.
"Dagnine has Solan." Kaleipus handed a message from the warlord to Xena "The attacks were only a diversion. He knows the truth."
Xena read Dagnine’s demands. She stood bewildered. "How could he have found out?"
Kaleipus speculated. "It is possible that you did not hide your pregnancy as successfully as you thought. That and the fact that Dagnine, like anyone with eyes that can see, can’t deny that the boy has your features and that he is the right age to be both your son and the son of Borias."
Xena was not appeased. She took responsibility for Solan’s capture. "Coming here was a mistake."
Kaleipus thought differently. "You had no choice. One way or another Solan was in danger."
Gabrielle asked, "What does Dagnine want?"
Xena was never more succinct. "Me."
Gabrielle took the message and read it. "You can’t go alone."
Xena answered sharply. "I won’t let him kill Solan!"
Gabrielle was equally uncompromising. "And I won’t let him kill you!"
Xena saw her Gabrielle and was grateful for her Queen’s rare, fiery temper. "Gabrielle, I can’t bring men with me. The place Dagnine has chosen to meet has too many sightlines. He’ll see them coming."
Kaleipus proposed. "There is a narrow path through the caverns. Dagnine may not know it. A few men could get through unseen."
"It’s too risky."
Gabrielle pleaded. "Xena, please…"
"No, I say!"
Kaleipus would not be easily dismissed. "Xena, he is my son. Who is to say Dagnine won’t kill Solan after he kills you?"
Xena gave no merit to the thought of her death. "He challenged me. It will only be us two. I don’t need backup."
Gabrielle insisted. "Xena, you said yourself that Dagnine isn’t an honorable man."
Kaleipus offered his own argument. "Dagnine had good reason to gamble. He was right to suspect your motives for returning. He must believe that your ties to Solan will cause you to lose focus and give him an advantage. And, as far as I can tell, he’s right."
Xena steeled. "You believe whatever you want. I know differently. When someone I love is in danger, nothing… do you hear me… nothing will stop me from bringing him or her home safe."
Gabrielle spoke carefully, choosing not to mention Lyceus by name. "Xena, you haven’t always succeeded."
Xena refused to heed the truth. "We’re wasting time here. I warn you both. Do not get in my way." Xena turned and walked to Stephen, giving the Major his orders.
Gabrielle looked to Kaleipus. "We go."
The Centaur was impressed. "Is that an order?"
Gabrielle clarified. "It’s a request, one I hope you will not refuse."
Kaleipus quipped. "Who am I to deny the Queen of Greece?"
High cliffs on three sides bordered the meeting place. Xena approached through a low grass field.
Dagnine waited, holding Solan with a sword at his throat. "So, you came, Xena." Dagnine laughed derisively. "You’ve confirmed everything I always believed about you. You are pathetic."
Xena was defiant. She ignored the insult. "I’m here, Dagnine. "Let the boy go."
Dagnine would not be dictated to. "Drop your weapons first. That includes all the daggers. Remember, I know where you keep them."
Xena thought Gabrielle right to suspect Dagnine’s honor. For Solan’s sake she could do nothing but follow the warlord’s command and hope that she could defeat him in hand combat.
Dagnine watched Xena as she meticulously disarmed herself. When she stood weaponless, he boasted. "Hey Xena, don’t you think it’s only right that the man that killed Borias would also kill his son?"
"You?" Xena’s anger was bound to her sorrow. "Why?"
"Borias was in my way! Our way! He chose the Centaurs over us."
"He was right to do so."
"I never thought I would see the day that you became a sentimental old woman, but that’s what you are. You could conquer the world and instead you play mother hen to your…"
Dagnine’s voice stilled as an arrow pierced his throat. Solan felt Dagnine relax his hold. He looked up to see the missile. He kicked his captor in the shin. Breaking free, he ran toward Xena. A second arrow hit Dagnine through the heart, sealing his fate to the hands of Hades.
Xena captured Solan in her arms; his trembling body betrayed his fear. "I’ve got you. You’re safe now." Embracing her son brought a healing she never thought possible coupled with an equal longing that she believed would never be fulfilled. She looked to her left. There stood Kaleipus and Gabrielle, each with their bow drawn. Kaleipus put his hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. She nodded and walked away. Kaleipus watched her for a moment and then across the field to Solan and Xena. We walked toward the two.
Xena held her son at arm’s length. "Let’s get you home."
Solan nodded and turned to Kaleipus. He ran the remaining distance that separated him from his stepfather and embraced him. The Centaur took the boy into his arms; his gray eyes met the approaching Conqueror’s. "It’s over."
Xena affirmed. "It is."
"Your Gabrielle has a keen eye and a steady hand."
‘Her Gabrielle.’ Xena wondered if another glimmer of Gabrielle’s true nature had shown itself. "She shot the first arrow, didn’t she?"
Kaleipus confirmed with a nod of his head.
Xena tapped on Gabrielle’s tent entrance before entering. She carried a tray of food. Gabrielle sat up on her bed of furs and blankets, her journal resting on her lap.
Xena explained. "I thought you might be hungry."
Gabrielle placed the codex to the side. "Thank you."
Xena laid the tray on the ground beside Gabrielle. "How are you?"
Gabrielle glanced over to the codex. "I know I’ve killed before… I don’t think I’ve ever killed to stop a man from speaking the truth."
Xena did not like the contrition she heard in Gabrielle’s voice. "He had Solan at sword point. What mercy do you really think he would have shown?"
Gabrielle’s focus shifted to one more vulnerable. "How is Solan?"
"He’s going to be fine. He wants to see you to thank you."
"I now understand why you’ve kept your secret."
"He’s been safe all these years. Only someone from my past like Dagnine could have guessed that Solan was my child. I hate to say it but I thank the Gods that my men from that time are all dead."
"At least now Solan will believe the truth. You didn’t order his father’s death."
Xena expressed her deeply felt gratitude. "Thank you for believing in me."
Gabrielle smiled. "He likes you, Xena. He can’t help but like you."
"I told him he can call for me if he ever needs my help."
"He knows he has a friend in the Sovereign of Greece. He’s a lucky boy."
Xena looked down. "I don’t know about that."
"Xena, you gave him life and then you ensured he was raised as a prince of the Centaurs." Seeing Xena’s downcast mien, Gabrielle realized the warrior would not be consoled. "How long are we staying?"
"The Centaurs are feasting tomorrow night. Kaleipus has invited us to stay. We’ll leave the day after." Xena did not welcome the prospect. "Now that I’ve seen Solan… I don’t know how I’m going to leave him."
"Xena… I’m sorry."
"I did the right thing. Keeping him safe will always be the right thing to do."
Gabrielle longed to comfort her partner. From her journal she understood how best to do so. "Would you like to stay with me tonight?"
A shadow crossed Xena’s countenance. She felt the merciless weight of her past. She felt unworthy of anyone’s affection. "Pity, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle was undeterred. "What I feel for you is not pity. I respect everything you’ve done here."
"You would lie with me as a show of respect?"
"Why must you…" Gabrielle halted her protest as Xena abruptly stood up and walked to the tent entrance. Gabrielle got to her feet. She pleaded. "Xena, don’t go." The warrior paused. Hopeful, Gabrielle gentled her voice. "Before we left Ithome… we were becoming closer. Why is it wrong for me to want to be with you now?"
Xena spoke, keeping her back to Gabrielle. "It has been a long time since invitations and permissions were required between us."
Gabrielle was confused. Her journal had given her a different impression. Invitations and permission were still very much a part of their lives, marking the sincere consideration they showed one another, the spoken as well as unspoken vow that they would always ensure the existence of mutual consent in whatever intimacies were shared. Gabrielle spoke of her lost self. "She would have known how to console you. I don’t."
The truth deepened Xena’s wound. Her tears remained hidden. Gabrielle no longer held the power to arrest the terrible pain Xena harbored in her heart. "Goodnight, Gabrielle."
The Royals left the land of the Centaurs after bidding a fond farewell to Kaleipus and Solan. Gabrielle could not imagine how Xena felt being with her son for the first time in thirteen years, nor how she felt leaving him. She could, however, sense the anguish and regret that was consuming the Conqueror.
Gabrielle tried her best to respect Xena’s obvious need to be left to her own thoughts. Always, Gabrielle offered the Conqueror a gentle greeting at daybreak and wished her a peaceful sleep at nightfall. She rode beside the Conqueror throughout the day, and when the Conqueror demonstrated even the slightest receptivity, Gabrielle offered easy conversation.
As the days passed, Xena seemed more aware of her surroundings. She increased her interaction with both Gabrielle and her men.
At the conclusion of their fourth day of travel, Gabrielle noted Xena’s absence during evening meal. A query to Stephen resulted in an unconcerned confirmation that the Conqueror had eschewed the communal meal and taken a walk from camp. They were in an isolated stretch of wilderness. Stephen had no reason to think there would be brigands nearby.
Gabrielle walked through the forest following Stephen’s directions. Pausing under the half-moon light she questioned the wisdom of traveling further from camp. In the stillness she heard a song sung by a rich female voice. She knew by her journal that Xena had an admirable, rarely shared singing voice. What she heard would humble any bird within the forest. She followed the music to a small clearing. The moon cast its light over the woman who sat against a tree, her hands wrapped around a raised knee, her eyes closed. Xena sang a tender shepherd’s song. The lyrics evoked a quiet meadow with a stream, a place where life was abundant under the warmth of the sun. Gabrielle stood silently and listened.
There was no melancholy in the song. Still Gabrielle found Xena’s aloneness heartbreaking. She wondered what the woman she once was would have done. Her thoughts returned to Xena’s statement that they had gone beyond invitations and permissions. She looked inside herself and was compelled to trust her intuition. With the song ended and no other begun, Gabrielle stepped forward allowing the dry twigs underfoot to announce her.
Xena silently marked the intruder. Wordlessly Gabrielle sat down beside her. Xena watched, waiting. Gabrielle raised her gaze meeting her companion’s. "I liked the song."
Xena smiled. The song was one of Gabrielle’s favorites. She chose not to make a reference to the past. She gathered the moment into her heart, finding comfort in the present. "I’m glad."
Gabrielle tentatively placed a hand on Xena’s arm. "Would you sing another for me?"
Without forethought Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder. She had put a poem of Gabrielle’s to music. She chose that poem as her song.
Gabrielle listened. She knew the lyrics from her journal. She was touched by the choice. She looked up shyly, admiring Xena’s well-defined profile.
The evening continued with hushed conversation and stargazing. With their growing comfort with one another Gabrielle found the courage to lay her head against Xena’s shoulder. It was in the surrounding warmth of Xena’s embrace that Gabrielle fell asleep. Not wanting to disturb the younger woman, Xena kissed Gabrielle on the forehead and then raised her up into her arms. She direly missed their physical closeness. She found a modicum of peace as she carried Gabrielle back to camp.
Spotting the Conqueror’s approach, Alem crossed the camp and stood between the Royals’ tents waiting to see which was chosen. Xena approached Gabrielle’s. Alem swept the entrance open. Xena laid Gabrielle upon her bed. The young woman woke as the reassuring embrace was released. "Xena…"
"I’m here. Go to sleep."
Gabrielle looked up to the shadowed face, the bright blue eyes glistening. She raised her hand to Xena’s arm, needing to keep physically bound. "I…" Gabrielle hesitated. She wanted to give a part of herself to her companion. She was not brave enough to speak her heart. "Thank you for the songs."
Xena smiled. She stroked a wisp of Gabrielle’s hair aside. "For you I will always have a song. Good night, Gabrielle."
"Good night, Xena."
[Journal Entry Revisited]
They say the dead can hear the thoughts of the living. What, my love, can I possibly say to you?
I try to be brave. I want so much for you to be proud of me. Will you be disappointed if I tell you that the throne means nothing to me? Nothing can compensate for the loss of you.
I’ve told tales of heroic deeds and romantic love. They pale when compared to the truth of my life with you.
Xena, I beg you, please wait for me. I shall face my mortal life without you to keep my promise to safeguard the realm. You must keep your promise to me. I cannot survive eternity alone.
The following morning the Conqueror walked the path from camp to a nearby hot spring. Alem stood guard at the final turn before the pool. By his presence she knew Gabrielle was bathing.
"Good morning, Alem."
"It tis, My Liege."
Xena paused. "Has she been long?"
"’Bout a quarter-candlemark."
Xena placed a hand on the Guardsman’s shoulder as she continued forward. She paused after a few steps and turned her regard back to Gabrielle’s ever-present escort. "Alem, a question?"
"Yes, My Liege?"
"Have you taken Sam’s post?"
"I gave him my promise to hold his place until he was well enough to resume his duties."
Xena nodded in approval. She continued her walk through a narrow opening in the brush, stepping into a clearing. The hot spring lay before her, surrounded by tall jagged cliff rock, creating a well-protected haven. She paused at its edge. At the far side of the pool Gabrielle rested, leaning against the bank, her eyes closed in calm contemplation. Xena would not disturb her. She watched, taking comfort in the ease of Gabrielle’s posture, the peace of undisturbed nature.
Gabrielle felt a presence. She felt watched. Her heart quickened, uncertain of whether she was at risk. She reminded herself that Alem was nearby and that the path she had taken was the only means to the pool. She steadied her nerves before opening her eyes and scanning her surroundings. At a distance stood Xena’s tall, brilliant form. Relieved, Gabrielle released her held breath. She waved before swimming toward her visitor. She used a steady motion of her hands and legs to keep her comfortably above the water. "Good morning."
Xena smiled. "Good morning to you. We’ll be leaving in a half-candlemark."
Gabrielle swam closer until her feet touched the pool floor. "Do you know any more springs like this one on the way home?"
"A few. I’ll see if we can stop near one or two of them as we travel."
Gabrielle was pleased. She waited for Xena to leave her. Realizing that her companion had no intention of turning back down the path, Gabrielle felt her nakedness and struggled to find a means of safeguarding her modesty. She finally chose to request relief. She spoke in a hesitant voice, "Xena, would you hand me my towel?"
Xena’s gaze held the younger woman as the meaning behind the request was understood. She remembered the shy young woman she fell in love with. Again, she had evidence that a part of Gabrielle remained constant in spite of her memory loss. "No need." She reached for the long linen cloth lying on a nearby rock and extended her hands, each holding one end. She closed her eyes and diverted her head, honoring Gabrielle’s request in her own fashion.
Gabrielle chose to trust Xena’s gesture. She walked out of the spring, gently taking the cloth from Xena’s hands. She draped her body. Xena remained motionless. Gabrielle realized Xena waited for a more overt sign. Gabrielle felt a surge of emotion. She was grateful for Xena’s unassuming affirmation. "It’s all right now."
Xena opened her eyes. Her gaze sought Gabrielle’s form. Never had the younger woman looked more beautiful. Her skin glistened with droplets of water. Xena smiled in appreciation. She spoke in a low, melodious timbre. "You are beautiful, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle felt the pure sincerity behind Xena’s gentle declaration. She raised her hand to the taller woman’s cheek. Xena kept still, relishing the simple affection conveyed in Gabrielle’s unsolicited gesture.
Gabrielle raised herself on her toes and kissed the warrior upon the lips. She stepped back slowly, retracting her hand. "Thank you."
Xena knew the familiar brightness in Gabrielle’s emerald eyes. She smiled as she felt herself fall into an intimate dream state.
Gabrielle found herself mesmerized by Xena’s expressive gaze. Their shared moment of silence grew to an overwhelming intensity. She demurred. "I should get dressed."
Xena was assured by Gabrielle’s timid retreat. She knew this woman. She saw her with a clarity that stripped away all convention, allowing a profound knowledge of the core soul that was harbored within and could never be completely suppressed. Xena indulged her rare optimism. "Don’t be too long." She turned away, her smile broadening. There was every reason in the world to look forward to the day.
The day’s travel was easy. Xena chose to stop early and take advantage of a large river abundant with fish. Gabrielle accompanied the warrior to the shoreline. Xena stood with her hands on her hips as she watched the fish swimming in the clear, moderately moving waters.
Gabrielle said mischievously. "I want to see you do it."
"Do what?" Xena asked, taken in by Gabrielle’s light mood.
"Fish with your hands."
Xena smiled. "I’ve never taught you. Do you want to learn?"
Gabrielle was game. "It’s a skill worth having."
"Very well." Xena took off her boots.
Gabriele followed suit. Both were wearing mid-thigh length tunics, appropriate for the effort. Xena offered her companion her hand. Gabrielle accepted and allowed Xena to lead her into the water.
"Here is good." Xena paused. "Now just stand still and let the fish come to think of you as nothing more than a standing stone."
Gabrielle did as told. Xena positioned herself directly behind the younger woman. Gabrielle felt an erotic attraction to her partner. She indulged her senses shamelessly.
"Ready?" Xena asked.
"Sure." Gabrielle’s smile was unseen by the warrior.
Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, guiding the younger woman’s hands with her own, down into the waters. "The water here is clear so this will be easier. Watch for the fish to come by your hands. Close in on it as its head passes the back of your palm. Even if it tries to escape you’ve got a good chance of grabbing the center of its body."
Gabrielle focused on the lesson. "I understand."
A trout passed by. Gabrielle made a move to catch it. Xena followed her motion with her body. The trout slipped through Gabrielle’s hands up into the air and back into the river. "Oh!" Gabrielle exclaimed.
Xena chuckled. "Good try… Try again."
Gabrielle placed her hands back into the water. Again, Xena mirrored her partner’s motion. It was upon the fourth attempt that Gabrielle held on to the fish. "Yes!" She shouted in triumph.
Equally pleased, Xena directed Gabrielle. "Throw him onto the shore. We’re not done yet. We have a small army to feed."
Gabrielle flung the trout onto the shore and then turned her body towards the warrior. In Xena she saw her mentor. Gabrielle’s journal had countless entries related to Xena’s lessons. She now felt how marvelous Xena’s unpretentious guidance could be. Gabrielle smiled brilliantly. "Thank you."
"You’re welcome." Xena relished the simple pleasure.
Gabrielle did not hesitate as she followed her heart. She kissed Xena. The warrior forgot everything as she drowned in the pleasure Gabrielle offered. They separated breathlessly.
Xena whispered. "We are standing in the middle of a river with a hungry guard waiting for their meal."
"I don’t care," Gabrielle responded.
Xena grinned. "What say we continue," she mulled her words, "this discussion later this evening?"
"Have I your promise?"
Satisfied, Gabrielle kissed Xena lightly before turning around and resuming her task of catching their dinner.
Xena took a quiet walk during the evening. They were approaching a crossroad in their journey. She knew it was time to solicit a decision from Gabrielle. Their growing closeness gave her hope that she would soon know the return of her young Queen.
Xena tapped against Gabrielle’s tent before entering.
Gabrielle was in the process of changing into her sleep shift. "A moment."
Xena waited until Gabrielle invited, "Come."
Xena entered. "I came to say good-night."
Gabrielle smiled. "It was a fine day." She sat on her bed of furs. "Sit with me for a while."
Xena joined her. "Gabrielle, tomorrow we’ll reach Ithome."
Gabrielle had anticipated her homecoming. "Xena, what becomes of us in Ithome?"
Determined to keep her promise to Gabrielle, Xena would not dictate their future. "I have no right to ask you for anything."
Gabrielle echoed. "As I do not have the right to ask you for anything."
"I have never given easily. My world is one of power bought and sold. There are no favors that do not demand reciprocation with gifts in kind. Few in my life since Cortese have given with a generous spirit. You were one of them. You still are. Gabrielle, please believe that I know only joy when I am with you, when I give to you. I shall escort you to Ithome. I would like to stay for a time longer."
Gabrielle understood that Xena was proposing only a temporary arrangement. "What of Greece?"
"Jared will tolerate another fortnight."
"What then? Xena, I don’t think a fortnight will make a difference."
"I’ll return to Corinth."
Gabrielle was confused by what she understood to be a rescinding of Xena’s invitation to join her in the capital. "Before we left Ithome you said…"
"It doesn’t matter what I said." Xena paused, steadying her volatile emotions. "I remembered a hard lesson. To see Solan living a good life… It is what I dreamed for him. He is happy, loved and safe. And now he knows that he can count the Sovereign of Greece his friend. I want the same for you. I want you to find your happiness… love… and to always think of me as your friend. You do have a friend in the Sovereign of Greece. And, friends visit one another, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle searched Xena’s eyes. Coming to a conclusion she spoke knowingly. "Have you ever been able to lie to me without my knowing the truth?"
Xena stiffened. "I do not lie to you."
"Then you are lying to yourself."
"Tell me that you don’t want me."
"I never said I didn’t"
"What torture is it to be so close to someone you love and not have her? Am I to be complicit in your undoing?"
"Do you doubt that my days with you have been happy?"
"Xena, I’ve heard you call for me in your sleep." Gabrielle glanced to their adjacent tent wall. "You have begged me to stay with you."
"I accept what the Fates have given me."
"So do I. They have given me you."
"Gabrielle, we have spoken of my love for you. What do you feel in your heart?"
"I want to be with you."
Xena was certain Gabrielle would speak of love if she felt it. "You do not love me."
Gabrielle’s response was tempered by the truth. "I think my love for you is a different love than I once offered. Love, it still is."
Xena waited for the two familiar words that assured her of her place in Gabrielle’s life. Gabrielle did not know to speak them. She did not understand their power.
Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed Xena. Xena wanted the younger woman and thus allowed what grew to a tender seduction. She swept her hand across Gabrielle’s back, feeling for the first time the uninterrupted softness, not the jagged scars of the lash. The foreignness was disconcerting.
Gabrielle lay on her back, guiding Xena to follow her. Xena broke from their kiss and hovered over her partner. She looked into Gabrielle’s ardent eyes, seeking out their connection, the very thinnest thread of their bond. She felt nothing. She closed her eyes as her loneliness consumed her, silencing her passion.
Gabrielle witnessed the change, observed Xena’s withdrawal. She asked fearfully. "What is it?"
Xena laid her cheek against Gabrielle’s keeping herself hidden from Gabrielle’s probing eyes. Her throat, constricted with sorrow, allowed for no speech.
Gabrielle closed her eyes as her hand went to the back of Xena’s head, comforting with a gentle stroke. She mined all that she knew about their intimate life. "I’m not her." She whispered into Xena’s ear. Gabrielle felt the truth of her statement, the truth Xena could not counter by word or deed. She was not Xena’s love. There was a distance that remained and it was that distance that exacted a debilitating price upon the warrior.
Gabrielle felt Xena’s body tremble. She gently took her companion in a complete embrace, not as a lover but as a friend. Xena tightened her hold as she lost control, as her tears surged in the company of her grief.
After a half-candlemark, emotionally spent, Xena fell asleep. Gabrielle looked up. She sought the power and knowledge that resided in the heavens. She whispered a prayer. "Aphrodite, tell me what I must do. Please, she can’t go on like this."
To her left came a light. A beautiful woman appeared. "Gabrielle."
Gabrielle did not recognize the Goddess. This time she knew not to trust blindly. "In the name of Zeus swear to me you are Aphrodite and not an imposter."
The Goddess would have been offended to have a mortal set a demand upon her. However, she acknowledged that Gabrielle was not just any mortal; she was her niece’s Chosen. Given the history of past deceits, the mortal had cause. "To you Gabrielle and in the name of Zeus I swear I am Mnemosyne."
"I beg your pardon," Gabrielle said respectfully, understanding she was in the presence of the one divinity that could best help her. "Please, do you know what I must do to have my bond with Xena returned to me?"
"Gabrielle, the Gods did not bestow your bond. As such, we do not have the power to take it from you."
"Our bond left us when you took my memory from me."
The Goddess concurred. "So it seems."
"Mnemosyne, please return my memories."
"I did when you were still in Ithome. The power is in you to return to yourself."
Gabrielle was confused. "I don’t understand."
"Your ability to protect yourself. Your healing skills. You remembered them because you wanted to."
"I want to remember Xena."
"You must accept what led you to her. Your love for her grew because of the emptiness she filled in you. Without knowledge of that emptiness there is no way for Xena to touch your heart."
"You remembered your first meeting of Sam because the memory was pleasant. His path to your heart is different. Memories of friendship do not require you to remember your road from Poteidaia to Serdica and then to Corinth."
"Then I wish it."
"Do you?" Mnemosyne challenged.
Gabrielle closed her eyes. Did she truly want to return to the past, to five years of slavery, torture and rape? She did not. She opened her eyes to the Goddess. "Why must Xena pay for my choice?"
"She has made her choice. She loves you."
"She loves who I was. Her tears…"
"She sleeps in your arms. She mourns who you were as she falls in love with who you are. If you do not believe me I will summon my niece to echo my words."
"Our bond may then return."
"I cannot say. It is possible."
Gabrielle turned her gaze to Xena. "We have time."
Disenchanted, the Goddess said, "My niece was wrong about you. She said in you she knew no mortal with greater courage. Memories are a gift, Gabrielle. They are never a burden to the brave. Would you be holding Xena so tenderly in your arms if you did not have the memories of the past moon? Can you even begin to imagine what you have lost after sharing four years? I greatly doubt that you are fulfilling the vow Gabrielle of Poteidaia gave Xena of Amphipolis upon their joining."
Gabrielle was stunned to silence.
Seeing how her words had affected the mortal, Mnemosyne regretted her harshness. She gentled her voice. "Gabrielle, I have done all I can for you. I trust that you will act honorably. Farewell."
Gabrielle woke alone. In seeking Xena she was informed by Stephen that the Conqueror had chosen to take Argo for an early exercise and would be meeting them on the road to Ithome. Gabrielle returned to her tent to pack. She looked to her journal for guidance.
[Journal Entry Revisited]
In the dungeon of Messene my life was forever changed. Of all that has come from Xena’s capture and torture, I can look to one good.
When we spoke in the hushed stillness of the night I confessed my wish never to again live without her by my side, to follow her to the other side without delay. I know Xena wants me to live on, to know love again. I also know that she will forgive me if I choose otherwise.
It is a choice Xena never imagined for herself. She is so sure her death will precede my own. She has done all in her power to protect me. She has taught me, instilling extraordinary finesse to my skills. She has surrounded me with an elite guard. She has trained a champion in Trevor to stand in her place. She has been my personal healer willing me to life even as I have been beyond strength to breathe.
What have I done in return? I have honored the warrior that she is and will always be. I have never and will never ask her to withdraw from a just battle. I have stitched her wounds and treated her infections and fevers. I have set her free from the throne to live a quiet life in Scupi and when she was ready, I welcomed her return. I have provoked her to reclaim her skills and the full power of her body after she was terribly scourged.
For all that we have given each other nothing comes near to our love. It is because of her love that I chose to become her Queen. And it is because of my love that Xena has ruled with a gentled hand.
Xena was right to say that it is not enough to speak words of love. Our bond closes the chasm, binds us, allows us to share with one another what words will never be able to convey.
I love her. How poor the words when I feel my heart yearn for the sight of her, the sound of her voice, the lightness of her touch.
There is no price too great to have and hold her as I do. There is no greater good than Xena. Xena is my greater good.
It is not enough to say I love her. Not for my words but for my actions shall I be judged. May the Gods have mercy upon my soul if I ever knowingly fail her again, if I am ever less to her than what I am, than what I have pledged to be.
Xena did not join the Royal Guard that day. She rode onto Casta’s land the following morning. The elder directed the Sovereign to the barn where Gabrielle was saddling Spirit.
Xena entered the barn and watched as the young Queen completed her task. "Gabrielle."
Gabrielle looked toward the barn entrance. She recognized Xena. Her voice carried her deeply harbored compassion. "You came back."
Xena stepped forward. "I’m sorry. I needed time to think. I did not know how to explain myself."
"You don’t have to. Your tears told me everything I needed to know. Xena, I am Gabrielle of Ithome. My life began here. I keep company with a ghost. She lives in the pages of her journal. Gabrielle of Poteidaia is the woman you love. She is the woman that shares… that shared an extraordinary bond with you." Gabrielle walked to Xena and placed her hand gently over the warrior’s heart. "I cannot… I will not live my life looking into your eyes seeing the emptiness in you that I cannot begin to fill. It’s too painful to pretend otherwise."
Xena was being torn apart by the familiar press of Gabrielle’s hand and the younger woman’s contrarian words. "Gabrielle, please don’t leave me."
"I’ve read her words. I know her thoughts and feelings and much of her history. But that does not mean that I can be her, though by the Gods I wish I could." Gabrielle stepped away. "I am leaving the journals for you."
Xena was defiant. "I will not read them."
"You should." Gabrielle remained at a distance. "Xena, you gave Gabrielle of Poteidaia a love and peace that she never imagined could be hers. You made her your Queen. She knew that to be your Queen was not to share the throne of Greece with you. It was much more. You gave her something exquisitely precious – yourself. She cherished that knowledge more than you can ever know."
"Don’t," Xena pleaded.
"We’ve tried. I’m grateful for knowing you as I do. I shall always love you in my poor, insignificant way."
"There is no poverty in your love."
"But there is. I have very little to give you. Before I can truly love I must know myself."
"I know who shared my shell of a body. That does not make me her. Forgive me for not being your Gabrielle."
"You are my Gabrielle. I’m begging you. Stay."
Gabrielle took hold of Spirit’s reins. "Please give Alem his new orders."
"You leave now?"
"I’ve said my farewell to Casta."
Xena was desperate. She scrapped for reason to delay. "Your brothers? Sam?"
"Casta holds messages for them."
"Where will you go?"
"I honestly don’t know." Gabrielle led Spirit from his stall out of the barn.
Xena watched in disbelief. She shook her head in an attempt to reenter the moment. She followed Gabrielle. Passing Alem she gave a curt order.
He did not hide his surprise well. The Guardsman went to Argo and removed a coined filled pouch from a saddlebag. He approached Spirit and secured the pouch on the stallion’s tack. He then stepped to the foot of the homestead’s porch steps.
Gabrielle paused. The sight of Xena broke her heart. The warrior stepped closer, obviously at a loss. Gabrielle went to Xena and embraced her one final time. She whispered. "I do love you, Xena of Amphipolis. Thank you for loving me." She pulled away and mounted Spirit. After one final, sorrowful glance, Gabrielle road off at a canter.
Xena watched silently until Gabrielle disappeared from sight. She then retreated to the barn.
Casta remained a concerned observer from her homestead’s front door. She stepped down and went to Alem.
Alem, like his brother Guardsmen, had set aside any doubt that Gabrielle would return to Corinth. The Conquer had won Gabrielle’s heart. That they all knew. Gabrielle’s departure was thus inconceivable. He did not know how he would tell Samuel. He bit his lip as tears welled in his eyes. As a warrior he never thought he would damn the God of War. On this day, he damned Ares.
Casta asked, "Will the Conqueror be all right?"
The Guardsman’s concern shifted to the woman left behind. "I can’t go to her."
"Who can?" the elder asked.
"Get him. I’ll stay and keep watch over her."
Alem’s thoughts returned to his sister. "Do you know why Gabrielle left?"
Casta handed the Guardsman a folded parchment bearing the Queen’s seal. "This is for you and your brethren." She placed a second into his raised hand. "And this one is for Sam."
Alem opened the first message. He read.
Forgive me for leaving you. My heart breaks knowing that my destiny takes me away from you and your Sovereign. Know that not only did Gabrielle of Poteidaia love you, but that I, Gabrielle of Ithome, love you as well.
When I first arrived in Corinth I knew your kindness and protection above all else. I grew to trust you. Here in Ithome, the past became the present, as I once again knew your kindness and protection. I trust you with my life and my heart.
I wish to learn more of myself and I believe the road I must travel is not back to Corinth. I cannot explain further.
Be safe and well.
Stephen entered Casta’s barn. He found Xena sitting on a bed of hay, her back against a wall, her eyes fixed upon Spirit’s stall. He went and knelt on one knee beside her. "Xena."
Xena turned her gaze to the Major. "She’s gone."
"Alem told me."
"She said she loved me, but could not be with me because what we share now is not what we shared before she lost her memory."
"Gabrielle left her Guard a note. She thinks herself as Gabrielle of Ithome. She wrote that her destiny takes her away from Corinth." Stephen laid his hand on Xena’s arm. "No one blames you."
"I could not hide the truth from her. I tried. We lost our bond and in that way she was not my Gabrielle."
"What will you do?"
Xena looked to Stephen. "Are you afraid I’ll fall on my sword?"
"Yes." Stephen answered honestly.
Xena challenged him. "Why shouldn’t I?"
Stephen offered the only answer that he believed Xena might honor. "Because Gabrielle is still alive and you told me that if only for her sake you would safeguard Greece."
"The world is a wretched place, Stephen."
"It can be," the Guardsman admitted. "Xena, who knows what the Fates have in store for you or Gabrielle?"
The veil over Xena’s sorrow fell. "Am I to keep hope a companion?"
"I don’t know. Hope unfounded will only cause you a greater torture than the one you have just endured."
"I want to go home."
"No." Xena thought only of Gabrielle. "My home is no longer a place. I will settle for Corinth. I want to see the old man."
Stephen anticipated Jared’s reaction. "He will be disappointed Gabrielle did not return with us."
"Jared, Sam, Makia… There are so many who love her. How do I tell them that she chose…" Xena faltered.
Stephen reiterated the unassailable reason for Gabrielle’s departure. "She chose to find herself. She had the right."
"I’m tempted to send a scout to follow her."
"You won’t?" Such a scheme would have Stephen’s approval.
"I made her a promise. She would always decide if and when we were together. I can think of only one promise in my life that has been harder to keep, and time has taught me I was right to do so. I believe the same here, though I hate it."
"Xena, what can I do for you?"
"You are my friend. What else is there for me to ask of you?"
Stephen stood up and offered Xena his hand. "Then come. Our journey together is not done."
Xena kept to her place. "First, a promise, Stephen. It is not for my sake but yours."
"What do you ask of me?"
"When we arrive in Corinth, go to Tess and propose marriage. Keep her waiting no longer."
It was an easy request for him to fulfill. "I will, if you give me a promise in return."
"And that would be?"
"Stand by me the day I give my vow to her."
"It will be my honor." Xena took Stephen’s hand and allowed him to raise her up.
Stephen continued to hold to Xena. "I will be a good man if I am half the life partner to Tess that you have been to Gabrielle."
"I have never given to her without wanting to."
"Especially today. Before you came I mourned her leaving with tears. After wiping the tears from my eyes I affirmed that I have trusted Gabrielle’s love as I have trusted little else in life. Her love has been my one constant these past years and it has inspired me to be the Sovereign that I am. By Gabrielle’s own words, her love is steadfast yet; her love is not enough to keep her by my side. I lived such days when my love for her was not enough to keep me by her side. I have not forgotten that I left her in Amphipolis. I left her a second time when I took residence in Scupi."
"The first time you wanted no harm to come to her. The second, you had no choice, the Gods demanded it of you."
"And this time, Ares gamesmanship has given her no choice but to seek out a woman that lives both in the past and in the present."
Stephen’s optimism surfaced. "Then you do believe Gabrielle will find herself and come back to you."
Xena did not believe she would be graced with such a future. "I do not know if she will succeed. I do know that given who she is, she must try."
From Ithome, Gabriele traveled northeast past Mt. Ossa and Mt. Olympus. She journeyed into Chalcidice moving south until she reached Poteidaia. In the intervening years since her capture, the village had been rebuilt. She walked the streets leading Spirit by his reins. Her magnificent steed was more noticed than the woman who owned him. Much of what she saw was foreign to her. But scattered buildings, specifically the inn, caught her eye and she knew them. Memories entered her consciousness. They were hers as a child, some happy, many not. She had been a lonely child and she felt a twinge of that loneliness enter her heart. She walked from the village proper to her family’s homestead. It was there that a wave of memories washed over her. Her mother and father, her sister Lila, came to life before her. Gabrielle laughed and cried as she remembered the girl of Poteidaia that still possessed her innocence.
After staying four nights at the inn and continuing to gather her memories, Gabrielle rode north until she reached Amphipolis. She knew that in this village she would be known as the Queen. Cyrene still resided and managed the inn. For those two reasons, Gabrielle chose not to trespass any closer. The village was a vague memory. It provoked no strong emotion, though given her history with Xena she had hoped it would. Gabrielle rode Spirit through the bordering forest, seeking the place she had found Xena injured. She could as well have been riding through a stand of trees on the other side of the world, for she did not know the place.
Disappointed, given the abundance of memories of Poteidaia and the dearth of memories of Amphipolis, she knew that she had one choice and that was to continue to travel northeast until she reached Serdica. She would retrace her life as she lived it.
Gabrielle rode Spirit to the gates of a fine estate. An attendant greeted her kindly. "Good day, Miss."
"What can I do for you?"
"Is Lord Judais in residence?"
"He is. Have you business with the Lord?"
"Would you ask him if he will see Gabrielle of Poteidaia?"
"Gabrielle…" The servant was taken by surprise. "Your Majesty, I’m sorry I did not recognize you."
"Don’t be." Gabrielle did her best to ease his discomfort. "I don’t claim the Queen’s title. Would you please ask Lord Judais?"
"Of course. Please follow me."
Gabrielle dismounted. The attendant offered to care for Spirit while another servant guided her to a small sitting chamber where she could take refreshment while she waited.
The chamber doors opened. Judais entered. "Your Majesty."
Gabrielle knew the man. She stood up. "Lord Judais, please call me Gabrielle."
Though theirs was always a cordial relationship, neither had ever demonstrated such informality. "How may I be of service to you?"
Gabrielle needed to gauge how extensive an explanation was required. "I must first ask if the Conqueror has confided in you regarding my station."
"The Conqueror shared that you experienced a loss of memory and chose not to return to Corinth."
"That is true. The Conqueror agreed to dissolve our union."
Judais corrected Gabrielle. "No official declaration has been made. You are still Queen."
Gabrielle paused thoughtfully. Xena had not given up on her. The knowledge brought her comfort. She focused once again upon her host. "I have a request. I ask as a fellow citizen of Greece, not your Queen."
Judais felt at a disadvantage. "What do you remember of me?"
"Little really. I know you through my journal. I admit that upon seeing you I felt I could trust you."
Judais smiled. "I’m glad you feel you can. Gabrielle, you are my friend. There is no hospitality I would deny you."
Gabrielle returned to the reason for her presence, knowing through her journal that Judais had, at the time of Tracate’s death, been granted all of his nephew’s holdings. "Tracate’s estate… Is it still in your possession?"
"I request your permission to take residence in my former quarters for a few days."
Judais knew how shabby the accommodations would be for the Queen. "They cannot be comfortable. I’ve better to offer you."
"I’m certain you do. However my old quarters will better serve my purpose."
Confused, Judais inquired. "May I ask what you wish to gain?"
"My memory. It’s hard to explain. I felt compelled to come to Serdica. I intend to touch my past as best as I can."
"As you wish." Judais willingly consented. "I closed Tracate’s lodge. I’ll have a servant attend to you…"
Gabrielle interrupted. "I prefer to be left alone. My food stores are low. I would be grateful to have provisions of bread and cheese."
The Lord was dismayed. "You are making it difficult for me to host you."
"I have one more request." Gabrielle did not want to cause Xena any further harm. "Please do not inform the Conqueror of my presence."
Judais, like the rest of Court, was not under any orders from the Sovereign to report their knowledge of the Queen. "I shall honor your privacy. I do have a request of my own."
"You shall not leave Serdica without first biding your farewell. Also, I shall have a servant visit you every three days to replenish your stores and ensure your well being."
Gabrielle found the terms easy to accept. "Very well."
"Give me a candlemark to ready. I shall escort you to the estate."
"Don’t thank me Gabrielle. What my kin did to you is a shame I shall carry through eternity. There is nothing I can do for you that will ever be enough."
The Lord and his Queen rode side-by-side through the barley fields to the valley that once demarcated Judais’ land from that of his nephew’s. Gabrielle halted Spirit. She scanned the landscape. She vividly recalled her first introduction to the estate. She turned to Judais who had been waiting patiently. "I was brought here in the back of an open wagon. Draco treated his slaves tolerably, wanting to get the best price he could for us. It wasn’t until I came here that I understood the true life of a slave."
Judais’ heart broke for the young girl Gabrielle was, as well as for the young woman she had grown to be. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Want to? No. Need to? Yes." Gabrielle offered the noble her hand. "I will say good-bye here."
Judais took Gabrielle’s hand. "Three days, Gabrielle. Then I will send my servant to you."
"Thank you, Judais."
"Be well, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle rode Spirit in a gradual walk toward the estate’s main lodge. To the left she searched for the well. It remained where she remembered, capped by a plank of wood. She dismounted and led Spirit to the stables. There she removed his tack. Carrying her saddlebags and water skin she set Spirit free to roam the pasture. She entered the lodge. It held a musty scent. She crossed the large main room and entered a corridor, which led to a small room in the far corner of the complex. The room had little light. It was furnished with a small bed, and a table with a water jar and washbasin. She opened the shutters of the lone barred window and then sat on the bed. Her eyes shifted back to the entrance. There stood Tracate’s ghost. The sight of the handsome man was hideous to her.
Unbeknownst to Gabrielle, she was not alone. Her divine patron stood invisible to her, feeling her own apprehension for the horror’s she believed her Chosen would soon willingly re-experience.
Nearly a moon had passed since Xena had returned to Corinth from Ithome. After unrelenting coaxing by Jared, she consented to a hunting party. Having little luck, she and her companions had chosen to go their separate ways, hoping to stir a deer or boar from the thick brush.
Xena felt a rising dread. She searched for a reason. She opened her senses to the danger. A brutal whip struck her back. She fell to her knees, her scream resounded through the treetops. She turned her head. There was no one behind her. There was no whip. Another blow snapped her head forward. She placed her hands on the ground, her head bowed. Another blow struck. Was she recalling Messene? By the Gods she would know!
Hearing Xena’s thoughts, Aphrodite left her watch over Gabrielle and appeared to the Conqueror. "Xena, hear me."
Xena raised her gaze to the Goddess. "Aphrodite, what is happening to me?"
"You can stop this. Just close your heart to Gabrielle."
"She is remembering?"
"This is madness! Stop her!"
"Gabrielle has the right to know who she is. This is the only way for her. Remember, she suffers no harm she has not previously endured."
Another burning stroke pierced Xena’s skin. The warrior groaned in pain.
"Xena, you don’t have to share this with her. This is not part of your life together."
"You’re wrong! I’ve lived with her pain from the first moment I touched her. I won’t close myself to her."
"Then as I warned you, you will feel what she feels."
"So be it!"
Having done all she could for the Conqueror, Aphrodite returned to Gabrielle in Serdica.
Tavis found the unconscious Conqueror lying on the ground, her back bloodied though her shirt was undisturbed. He called out for help. Quickly a litter was rigged and she was taken to the palace.
Darlius was stymied. The wounds appeared to heal and reappear before his eyes. What God or daemon was wounding the Conqueror he did not know. What he was certain of was that the Conqueror’s affliction was unnatural.
He briefed Jared privately. There was no telling how long the Conqueror would suffer.
Gabrielle felt the welcomed coolness of a cold compress on her forehead. Her eyes flickered, sensitizing themselves to the light.
"There, there. You’re going to be all right," H her caretaker said.
Gabrielle focused upon the woman’s compassionate gaze.
The woman turned her head aside. "Harlen, go tell Lord Judais that our guest has woken."
"Yes Mama," Harlen, a young boy of about twelve seasons, answered respectfully.
The woman returned her warm eyes to Gabrielle. "How are you feeling?"
"You lost a great deal of blood. Not that I could tell how you bled."
"My back?" Gabrielle offered the answer.
"I saw only your well-healed wounds."
Gabrielle had confirmation that her scars had indeed returned. "It’s hard to explain."
"Can I get you anything?"
"Do you think you can sit up?" Gabrielle nodded and did so with her caretaker’s assistance. The woman placed a couple pillows behind Gabrielle’s back. She then offered Gabrielle a cup filled with cool water.
Parched, Gabrielle drank the water completely. Done, she handed the cup back to the woman. "What is your name?"
"Clair, your Majesty."
"And Harlen is your son?"
"Yes, he’s a good boy. He’s free thanks to you."
"You were a slave?"
"I and my husband both. Lord Judais is a good man. He treated us well. Still, he did not take that final step in freeing his household until he spoke to you. I will be forever grateful."
"I think you would have done the same as I did if you had the chance."
"I think it took a very special person to change the Conqueror’s heart."
"I didn’t change her heart. She detested slavery long before I met her."
The door opened. Judais entered. He stood behind his servant. He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Clair, would you please excuse us."
Clair silently left the room. Judais took her chair beside Gabrielle’s bed. "You gave me quite a scare."
Gabrielle smiled. "You have been a constant friend to my Lord… and to me. I never told you how much I valued your friendship."
Judais did not hide his surprise. "You remember me?"
"Oh no, Judais. We are now on a first name basis. There is no going back."
The Lord smiled. "Gabrielle, what happened to you in the lodge?"
"I don’t understand everything that has happened." Gabrielle searched for a means to explain. She chose to use the Lord’s own life as an example. "Judais, is it not true that you love your daughter and would do all that you could to safeguard her?"
Judais offered the only answer that was necessary. "She is my child."
"And you have all your memories of her. Of learning that your wife was with child, of the day your daughter was born, of her first words, first steps, of her need and love for you."
"Yes." Judais said appreciatively.
Gabrielle posed a different perspective. "How different would you see her if you knew her only as the beautiful and graceful young woman she has become? You may admire her. Because you are a kind and generous man you may wish her well, but would your connection, your bond to her be the same?"
Judais admitted. "No, I would not expect so."
"By Ares I forfeited my memory. I forgot my days in Draco’s custody, my years in Tracate’s mastery. I also lost recollection of my life in Corinth with my Lord." Gabrielle paused as she recalled a great irony. "It was odd knowing that Ares gave my Lord her greatest wish. I was free of the past. But the gift carried an unforeseen price. I lost myself. In Ithome I grew to love my Lord again but it was not enough. Because of the loss of my memory I could not give her what was no longer mine to give."
"And what was that?"
"My Lord and I share a special bond."
"I have witnessed its effect though I admit I cannot say I understand it."
"It is difficult to explain. I believe what is most important to us is that we give to each other freely and completely. We both have reason not to trust. Somehow we do. And, with every day that has passed, with every challenge to our union, we have become closer."
"Why were you certain that your bond would not return?"
"I wasn’t. Though it seemed obvious to me that love was not enough. In addition to the return of my memory, Serdica has been good to me in other ways. Judais, your nephew took a great deal from me. And yet, it was in those same years that I learned the preciousness of the simplest courtesy. It was a lesson that served me well when I first met my Lord. Another, more important good is the knowledge that because of my anger I also grew strong enough to fight back. I have always thought each scar I wear on my back as a defeat. Now I see that each is also a victory. I see that he never broke my spirit as he had done others. I am grateful for the insight."
"You are a remarkable woman, Gabrielle."
"I am just a woman who is doing the best she can with the life the Fates have given her. When once cursed I am now blessed. The blessing would be not without the former curse."
"What will you do now?"
"It is time for me to go home. I pray it awaits me with open arms."
Judais took Gabrielle’s hand and reassured. "I am certain you will have a fine homecoming."
As night fell Gabrielle walked through the streets of Corinth, leading Spirit by his reins. She humbly approached the palace gates.
Xanthus stood at his post." Seeing Gabrielle the Guardsman stepped forward, uncertain of how to address his sister. He asked. "Have you come back?"
Gabrielle reached out a hand. "How are you Xanthus?"
"By the Gods you remember me."
Gabrielle smiled. "You have an unforgettably handsome face. All my brothers do."
The Guardsman laughed. He set all formality aside and heartily hugged her.
It had been a long time since Gabrielle felt the safety and warmth of such a strong embrace. She relished it. Xanthus gently released the younger woman. Gabrielle inquired, "Is my Lord in the palace?"
"She is. Shall I take you to her?"
"No. Stay your post. I want to cause as little disturbance as possible."
"Gabrielle, you are asking for the sun to wink and not be noticed. Can’t be done."
Gabrielle’s confidence grew. "Come with me then."
Xanthus called to the first Army guard positioned at the gate. "Joen, the guard is yours." He turned to his sister. "At your pleasure, Gabrielle."
The two walked side-by-side. Gabrielle’s cares went beyond Xena. "Xanthus, how is Sam?"
"He’s healed from his wound well enough. The Conqueror reassigned him to the ramparts."
"Did she?" Gabrielle measured the change a demotion.
"I think she thought it would be easier for him to not be in the palace. Your brothers have missed you, none more than he."
They continued in silence. Entering the main courtyard, Alem stood outside the mess hall. He squinted, doubting whom he saw. Confirming that Gabrielle and Xanthus approached, he opened the hall door and announced their arrival. The hall emptied. Alem reached Gabrielle first, quickly followed by his brothers. The Guardsmen created a half circle around their sister uncertain of what to expect. The line broke at midpoint. Jared stepped through.
Gabrielle smiled. How she had missed him. She handed Spirit’s reins to Xanthus.
Jared’s eyes scanned Gabrielle up and down. She looked well to him. He took two steps closer. He spoke cautiously. "Lass, how are you?"
"I’m well, Jared."
"Have you come for a visit?"
"I’ve come home. That is if you’ll have me."
Jared opened his arms. Gabrielle did not hesitate. She threw herself into his embrace. Where Xanthus’ was a hard, solid body, Jared enfolded her tenderly. Gabrielle spoke softly. "I love you."
Jared was moved to tears.
Sentas called out. "General, will you yield Gabrielle to her brothers or keep her all to yourself?"
The men laughed in relief.
Samuel’s voice rang loud. "Show respect to your elders, Sentas. Especially when they can beat you silly."
Gabrielle searched for the source of the forceful voice. A tear broke free and traveled down her cheek. Samuel was thinner than she ever remembered him to be. She stepped away from Jared’s hold. "Sam, what do you do if you’re faced with someone younger who can also beat you silly?"
"Like you little sis?"
The endearment crushed Gabrielle’s waning composure. "Yes Sam, like me."
"I’d place my life in her hands and know I’d never be disappointed."
Gabrielle stepped into her beloved brother’s arms. Taking a deep breath to steady her emotions Gabrielle whispered, "Sam, you are so thin."
"Makia’s cooking hasn’t been the same since you left."
Stephen and the Conqueror walked the court. The Major observed the gathering. "What do you think is going on?"
Xena’s gaze held to one image. "The horse…" What she saw affirmed the vague sense she had of Gabrielle’s presence. Too many times in the past moon she had felt that same vague sense and had been disappointed to find herself still alone.
Stephen recognized Spirit. "By the Gods." He turned to his Sovereign. "Xena?"
Xena was not prepared for a further disappointment. "Go see."
Stephen approached. He waited patiently as Gabrielle released Samuel.
Samuel took note of the Major. He nodded toward the man. "Look…"
Gabrielle turned to see. "Stephen." She welcomed him to her.
"Gabrielle." He took her outstretched arms, delaying an embrace. He spoke low Xena’s name and stepped aside to give the younger woman a clear view.
Gabrielle saw the Conqueror standing a short distance away. She opened her heart to her partner. Sensing a hint of anxiousness, nothing more, Gabrielle stepped forward. She recalled her words of rejection, felt the pain of them. She prayed Xena’s forgiveness would be hers. She ran into Xena’s arms and held tightly. Xena was stunned. Her body overruled her mind as she closed her protective arms around her partner.
Gabrielle felt Xena’s tender hold. She whispered, "You have always been and will always be my Lord."
Xena closed her eyes as the force of Gabrielle’s declaration crashed through her defenses. Speechless, she tightened her embrace. Gathering her composure, Xena gently eased her grasp. "Gabrielle."
The young Queen stepped back. She read confusion in her partner’s countenance. "Xena, the pain of our separation is sweetness compared to the emptiness I felt in never knowing you."
Xena entered the bath chamber carrying a large towel for Gabrielle’s use. She stilled at the sight of Gabrielle entering the bath, her back bore the all too familiar scars of the lash. Xena knew she should not be surprised to see them.
Gabrielle sensed a presence behind her. She turned her head to see. "Xena?"
"I’m here." Xena stepped forward placing the towel on a small nearby table. She sat beside the tub.
Gabrielle reached out. "I’m sorry."
"I was unkind to you."
"You were honest."
Gabrielle confessed. "I was so frightened. In the beginning I did not know what to believe."
"There’s so much I want to tell you."
Xena reassured. "I want to hear. But first let’s get you settled with a warm meal. I wager Makia will personally deliver your tray tonight."
"Makia…" Gabrielle appreciated the richness of her life. It was measured in terms of those who she loved and who loved her in return. "There are so many people I left here. What can I say to them?"
"Gabrielle, you did not know us. We were strangers to you, mere names in a story you could not claim for yourself."
"I didn’t want to claim my story… my life."
"Who would blame you?"
"I denied you time and time again."
"You are here now. That is the only thing that matters."
Gabrielle grew quiet. Her mien grew cold.
Xena would know the cause. "What is it?"
Gabrielle blinked, returning from where her thoughts had taken her. "I hate Ares."
"You have every reason to."
"I understand him."
"Were you ever so cruel?"
"To deceive as he deceived you?" Xena would not lie. "Yes. There is nothing more powerful in war than to steal an opponent’s hope."
Gabrielle protested. "I am not at war with him. At least I wasn’t when he did this to me."
"Gabrielle, knowing I was Ares’ Chosen you claimed me. You have never apologized for acting against the wishes of a God."
"You were not Ares’ Chosen when I met you."
"Wasn’t I? Be honest, wasn’t there a part of me that was still his? Did you not demand that I choose between him and you?"
"So this was punishment for my hubris?"
"Ares doesn’t need a reason to hurt someone. I grant that this time he felt justified in doing what he did. He was only claiming what he felt was his."
"It didn’t work. Not because of me, but because of you."
"You’re wrong. It was you who beat him. You are so much a part of me now that I do not exist without you."
"Xena, you went on."
"With you in my heart."
"You knew I would return?"
Still feeling the barrenness in her soul, Xena answered truthfully. "No, I didn’t."
Gabrielle understood that Ares had for a time won. He had taken Xena’s hope. She suspected Xena kept the depth of harm from her. That too was a triumph against them. Her homecoming promised to be difficult, though not for the reasons she feared. She was embraced with caution, not disdain. Painfully, the outcome was a weakening of their bond. Gabrielle raised her hand to Xena’s cheek.
For a moment the warrior closed her eyes. She offered Gabrielle a gentle smile. "The water is cooling. You should get on with your bath."
Gabrielle offered Xena a washcloth. "Scrub my back?"
Xena took the washcloth in hand. "By your command, your Majesty."
Upon hearing the suite door open, the impatient young Queen stepped out of the bath chamber into the main suite. She was dressed only with a large towel. She smiled at the sight of her cook. "Makia."
Seeing the Conqueror step behind Gabrielle, Makia restrained her greeting. "Your Majesty."
Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. Gabrielle paused and followed Xena’s movements. Xena reentered the bath chamber. After a brief absence she returned with her white robe. She stepped between Gabrielle and the faithful servant, a shield protecting her partner’s modesty. She held the robe open. Gabrielle undid the towel and donned the robe. Xena draped the garment over the smaller woman. Guiding Gabrielle gently to face her, she took hold of the cloth belt and tied it snuggly. She then rolled the overlong arms of the garment up to expose Gabrielle’s arms. "There," she announced, her self-appointed task complete.
"Thank you." Gabrielle was enchanted with Xena’s care.
"I’ve eaten." Xena spoke softly. "Go on and visit. I’ll wait on the balcony."
Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed Xena.
Xena watched as Gabrielle found herself in Makia’s maternal embrace. She walked out to the balcony giving the two women their privacy. Sitting on the ledge, her back against the palace wall, she rested, the incomprehensible murmur of voices her company. She welcomed her solitude. The quiet moments were her first opportunity to consider what Gabrielle’s unexpected return meant to her.
After finishing her meal in Makia’s company, Gabrielle bid the cook goodnight. She stood at the center of the chamber looking out to the balcony, Xena’s distinctive silhouette visible. On the surface, her homecoming had been remarkably easy. And yet, the elusiveness of their bond gave her pause. Experience taught Gabrielle that her bond with Xena was possible through their mutual recognition and desire for its existence. In the past, closing herself to their bond was a means of forestalling the sweet pain that accompanied their love. In spite of the probability that they would share their most difficult emotions without censure, Gabrielle desperately wanted to renew their unique connection.
Gabrielle chose to engage Xena in a manner that transcended words and was not, in and of itself, dependent on their exceptional shared faculty. Through touch, by the giving of her body, by accepting Xena’s body, they experienced an intimacy bound in trust over and above love.
She stepped out onto the balcony. Xena extended an arm in welcome. Gabrielle went to her, being rewarded with a complete embrace.
Xena asked. "Did you and Makia have a good visit?"
After a moment, Xena pursued one of her many questions. "What brought you back to me?"
"I went to Poteidaia. I wanted to remember, and so I did. I remembered everything including the day Draco came and destroyed the village. I then went to Amphipolis. I did not go further than the outskirts. I remembered nothing."
"You did not speak to my mother?"
"If being with you did not help me, I did not think being with Cyrene would either. I decided to retrace my life and traveled to Serdica. Judais was my host. It was there that I remembered my years in slavery." Gabrielle paused. "Did you notice my back?"
Xena offered a passionless answer. "I did."
"The wounds returned with my memory. I did not have to travel further. I remembered everything."
"So you returned."
"I stopped at Scupi. In Scupi my memories, like my life, were both difficult and joyful. The joy of being with you… I shall never regret remembering."
Having experienced Gabrielle’s pain, Xena found Gabrielle’s statement difficult to accept. She continued to pursue answers to her questions. "Why did you have to leave me to do so?"
"I knew there was a woman, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, and that I was her. What I found impossible to believe was that her life, my life, was as told in the journals. I thought no one could endure my past. I thought there was no love like ours. I thought that in those pages I was more bard than truth teller. The story was at its end marvelous beyond my imagination. I thought if you read it you would see how grand I wove a tale that was meant to honor you above all others."
"Knowing the truth, how can you honor me?"
Gabrielle leaned back to better see Xena. She saw her partner’s familiar self-incrimination. "How can I not? Have you read my journals?"
"They are not mine to read."
"I granted you permission."
"As you left my life because you felt you had no standing within it. Gabrielle of Ithome had no right to give what belonged to Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
Gabrielle’s eyes darted back and forth, taking in Xena’s sudden stern countenance. She saw the damage done, the resulting pain of her leaving. She made her claim. "I am Gabrielle of Poteidaia. It is true I have never offered my journals to you. And in equal truth, I would prefer they remain for my own eyes. But, if my word here to you is not enough, then take up my journals and read them. They speak honestly and will echo what I have said to you today, they will mirror what I have tried to be for you since the first day we met. Xena, I am yours, always freely given."
Xena saw the fierce determination of her Queen. She was heartened. "I need nothing more than your word."
Gabrielle was surprised by Xena’s conciliatory turn. "My Lord, you can be a frustrating Sovereign. Do you know that?"
Xena could not help but smile. "That is why I have you in my life. No one else is equal to me in her stubbornness."
"Say you," Gabrielle bantered.
"Who would know better?" Xena responded in kind.
Gabrielle chuckled. "I love you."
"As I love you," Xena professed as a warm light touched her heart.
Gabrielle felt the change. She felt it as more than the vague hint of her partner’s essence that had been with her since she first saw Xena in the courtyard. Her confidence surged. She would seize the moment and guide her partner closer to her. She closed the distance between them with a kiss.
The warrior welcomed the intimacy. She sensed the complete giving of herself Gabrielle offered. Their kiss grew in passion as their long withheld hunger for one another demanded to be sated. Xena shifted to her feet and raised Gabrielle into her arms. For a moment their kiss broke.
Gabrielle said breathlessly, "Xena, how I’ve missed you."
"And I you, Gabrielle."
Their lovemaking extended throughout the night as neither woman was willing to surrender to Morpheus. Each needed the other, more so as they rediscovered the familiar within one another. They carried within them the knowledge of loss and shared the companion commitment to the fragile gift of being able to give and receive love.
Gabrielle’s dream edged back into her subconscious as she felt the warm sunlight upon her naked skin. She lay against Xena, keeping a firm hold on her partner. Her slights motion resulted in Xena tensing her embrace. By this Gabrielle knew that Xena was near wakefulness. She edged her body up the warrior’s body until her lips rested near Xena’s ear. "My Lord." Xena stirred. Gabrielle leaned back on her side, waiting patiently as Xena’s eyes fluttered open.
Xena focused upon her bedmate. She spoke in a slightly hoarse voice. "Good morning."
Gabrielle smiled. "I think it is nearer to mid-day."
Xena glanced out the window. "I say you might be right."
Gabrielle took Xena’s hand in her own. Xena wore her joining ring. Gabrielle recalled Ares’ heartbreaking command that caused her to remove her medallion and ring. She had told herself that they were only symbols and that nothing could erase the underlying love and commitment each represented. No matter, the loss of both had been painful.
She had taken comfort throughout her travels away from Ithome by simply touching her medallion and thinking of Samuel, Stephen and the other men in the Queen’s Guard. She knew by her journal that the medallion had saved her life once, and could do so again. Behind the symbol was the Sovereign.
As she rested in Judais’ home, gathering her strength for the trip home to Corinth, she longed for the familiar weight of her ring upon her finger. Now, Gabrielle kissed Xena’s ring. She felt the warrior’s intense eyes upon her.
Xena wanted to offer Gabrielle her ring’s twin. In spite of their lovemaking, she felt an inexplicable doubt. She was uncertain whether Gabrielle would accept the symbol of their union.
Gabrielle raised her gaze, meeting her Lord’s. There was no need for courage. She simply followed her heart. "Xena, my ring… do you have it?"
"I do. It is in safely housed with your scrolls."
Xena had originally proposed their joining. On this day, Gabrielle chose to propose the renewal of their vows. "Xena, will you have me as your partner if life? Will you be mine as the trials of the Gods and Fates touch our lives? Can you believe once again that through my love you can know happiness?"
"I shall always love you and hold you dear, Gabrielle. Will you wear my ring?"
Gabrielle smiled. "I will."
"Then, grant me a moment."
Xena slipped out of bed, donned her robe and existed their bedchamber. Gabrielle sat up in bed and waited. After a few moments Xena returned. She went to Gabrielle, sitting beside her. She extended her hand. Gabrielle offered her own in silent acquiesce. Word for word, Xena repeated her vow as she placed the ring on Gabrielle’s finger. "I am yours, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Queen of Greece. I am and shall always be yours and yours alone."
Gabrielle felt a tear break from her eye and fall down to her cheek. She leaned forward and took Xena into a heartfelt embrace. Feeling a little more certain that she had indeed come home.
Three days had passed. Gabrielle returned to her familiar routine. On this morning she reviewed the status of the hospice with Darlius. Leaving the facility the healer inquired. "Gabrielle, may I ask you a question?"
Gabrielle noted the man’s uneasiness. "What is it Darlius?"
"How is the Conqueror feeling?"
Given Xena’s obvious good health, the question was unexpected. "Why do you ask?"
"Her recent wounds…"
Gabrielle paused, her mien changed to one of concern. "What wounds?"
The healer blanched. "I should not have spoken."
Gabrielle would not be left in ignorance. "It’s too late. You must tell me."
"It was as if she was being scourged by a ghost. Her wounds were deep and ugly. They had no source."
The reference of a ghostly scourging, so similar to her experience, could not have been coincidental. "Where was she hurt?"
"The wounds are healed. I took no note of them. What care did you give her?"
"There was little that I could do. The Conqueror was brought to me unconscious. She had been hunting. When she awoke she threw me out of her bedchamber and refused my care. She said I could not protect her from the past."
"She said that?"
Gabrielle sat down. "By the Gods."
"Do you know what hurt her?"
"Yes." Gabrielle caught Darlius’ gaze with her own. "Me."
The healer could not imagine how, let alone why, Gabrielle would harm the Sovereign. "You? But how?"
Gabrielle sought a beginning point for her explanation. "Darlius, I bear the wounds of my slavery."
"Gabrielle, I am your healer. Your scars are not a secret to me."
"Athena swept my skin free of my past. My back was as smooth and unmarked as it was the day I was born. When I remembered my past, the wounds reappeared. As they did I felt the pain."
"How many days?"
"It was that many before the Conqueror regained her sense of time and place."
"I don’t understand." Gabrielle was perplexed. "Our bond… It is not as strong as it once was. And even at its strongest we’ve never caused each other such harm. I did not suffer her scourging in Messene. What I felt then was due to my own memory of the whip."
"Are you certain?"
"Yes. I had the power to step beyond the reach of Bavavos’ lash."
"Who is to say that the Conqueror could not have done the same?"
Gabrielle asked incredulously, "And chose not to? But why?"
The healer recalled. "She seemed to understand what was being done to her."
Gabrielle was thoughtful. She knew Xena had asked Aphrodite to remove her scars. There indeed seemed to be a price for the favor. "Thank you, Darlius."
Gabrielle sought out Xena. She entered their chamber. Xena sat quietly in her chair before the fireplace. Gabrielle went to her and knelt, placing her hands on Xena’s lap. "My Lord."
Gabrielle’s posture and countenance concerned the warrior. She leaned forward. "Gabrielle, what is it?"
"I spoke to Darlius. He mentioned your recent illness."
"He shouldn’t have told you."
"He thought I knew. Why didn’t you tell me?"
"I don’t want you to blame yourself for it. The choice was mine."
"When I asked Aphrodite to remove your scars, she warned me that if ever you remembered, the scars would return. I knew that because of our bond, because of what we shared in Messene, I might come to know your truth with my very being. Knowing so, I still consented."
"Xena, I know I asked before… why did you really make the request?"
"I told you the truth. You wanted a new beginning. You feared how you would be received bearing the mark of your slavery. I wanted you to be free of the branding."
"I never wanted you to share my pain."
"I always have. You could not hide your eyes from me. They have spoken for you."
Gabrielle found the revelation painful through not difficult to understand. She kissed Xena on the cheek. "I love you."
Xena met and held Gabrielle’s gaze. She broke the spell, looking down. Gabrielle did not need their bond to sense Xena’s sorrow. She understood the cause harkened back to Xena’s decision before the Fates. Gabrielle felt an unhealthy heat radiating from her partner. She placed her hand on her partner’s face. "Xena, you have a fever."
"I’ll be fine." Xena considered her illness a minor inconvenience. It would pass soon enough.
"Look at me." Gabrielle peered closely into Xena’s glassy eyes. "Love, you need to rest."
Xena was in no mood to comply. "There are things that need to be done."
"Tell me what they are and I will take care of them."
Xena snapped. "Gabrielle, do not coddle me."
Gabrielle was uncompromising. "Do as I ask or I shall send Darlius to you."
"Damn it to Tartarus!"
"Well?" Gabrielle calmly waited.
"What will you have me do?"
Gabrielle commanded what she knew escaped Xena all the night before. "Sleep."
"Fine!" Xena stood and walked toward the bedroom. "At least I’ll be left in peace."
Gabrielle took the tantrum in stride, a familiar reaction by her worst patient. She got to her feet. "My Lord."
Xena stopped at the threshold. "What!"
The healer held firm. "Shall I wake you for evening meal?"
Xena could not hold her anger. She had before her the love of her life. "Would you ask Makia to make a light soup? I’ll have it later."
"I will." Gabrielle did not share her inner smile.
"Gabrielle…" Xena was contrite. "I’m sorry."
"It’s all right."
"No, it’s not."
Gabrielle walked to her partner and placed her hand over Xena’s heart. "Sleep well."
Xena took Gabrielle’s hand and kissed its palm before entering the bedroom.
After two candlemarks Gabrielle returned to the Royal bedchamber to sit and watch over Xena. It was another candlemark before Xena began to stir. Gabrielle shifted from her chair to sit at her partner’s bedside. She placed her hand over the warrior’s forehead as Xena opened her eyes. "How do you feel?"
Xena focused on Gabrielle, setting aside her dreams of loss and loneliness. "Better."
"You’re cooler, but you still have a fever. I have tea brewing and a pot of Makia’s broth ready to be warmed."
"I’ll have both."
"Good. You must get well for I have a favor to ask of you and we cannot travel until I’m sure no harm will come to you."
"Travel?" Xena sat up. "Where?"
Gabrielle prayed Xena would welcome the suggestion meant to help their healing. "I know I’ve just arrived. Xena, will you take me to Megara?"
Xena smiled. "I would like that as well."
Gabrielle did not hesitate. She embraced Xena, resting her ear against her Lord’s heart. "Thank you."
The Royals had arrived in Megara the night before. Gabrielle left their bedroom and walked down to the beach where Xena fished. She noted that Xena’s catch pole stood empty. "No luck?"
"Maybe if you jiggle the hook…"
"Don’t you think the sea does enough of that all by itself?"
Gabrielle extended her hand. "May I?"
"At your pleasure, Your Majesty." Xena offered the large sturdy fishing pole to her partner.
"You won’t be so smug when I get a bite."
"Ask and I shall give you a royal nip."
"Wench." Gabrielle was not accustomed to the sturdy sea fishing pole. It was far heavier than the one Xena used when lake fishing.
Xena sat down on the dry sand, enjoying the simple pleasure of watching her partner.
Not long thereafter Gabrielle felt a tug on the pole. "Xena, I think I have a fish."
"And?" The warrior asked indifferently.
Gabrielle turned to her lazy partner. "Don’t you want to pull it in?"
Xena was perfectly happy where she was. "It’s your fish."
Gabrielle looked down to the pole handle uncertain how to manage the string. "What do I do?"
"Pull it in."
"Xena!" Exasperated, Gabrielle pleaded. "Show me… Please."
Xena chuckled. She got up and stepped behind Gabrielle. "Take the string with your left hand and pull. Wrap it here." Xena indicated a cross wood attached to the pole. "That’ll keep the line steady as you tire it out."
"Depends how much it wants to live."
Dismayed, Gabrielle turned to her mentor. "Xena…"
The warrior understood. "Gabrielle, it’s all right. It’s the cycle of life. Go on. I’ll steady you." Xena wrapped her arms around the younger woman. She tried to lighten the mood. "I’m sure your brothers will appreciate the catch. Tess can pan cook it with lemon and olive oil."
"I can think of some other spices to add."
"And why not? It’s your kitchen first. Tess knows that. She’s not like Makia."
"Oh…. It’s a stubborn fish."
"If the line gets too tight give it some slack. You don’t want it to snap."
"Okay." Gabrielle was not completely focused on her task. "I’m going to tell Makia what you said about her."
"As if she doesn’t already know. The woman owns a mirror."
"Look!" Gabrielle cried. The fish jumped above the sea. "It’s beautiful. Did you see how the sun shined off its scales?"
"It isn’t half as beautiful as you."
"My Lord." Gabrielle found the unexpected compliment endearing. She turned to her partner.
Xena kissed Gabrielle gently.
The fish tugged the line and pole with it. Gabrielle exclaimed, "Whoa!"
Xena said drolly, "I think that’s the first time a kiss of mine has caused such a reaction."
"You! It was the fish."
"I’m hurt." Xena playfully pouted. "Mind the fish your Majesty or our dinner will swim away."
Gabrielle smiled brilliantly. She was happy. The mood was easy and warm. There was joy in their banter. This was the reason for their return to Megara.
During the late afternoon as the day’s heat began to ease, Xena and Stephen stood by the dining room table reviewing new maps rendered by the realm’s finest topographers. The sound of Gabrielle’s scream caused Xena to drive toward the back exit. Upon the porch she stopped. Gabrielle’s cry was followed by laughter. She rode Spirit bareback into the Myrtoum. Samuel stood at the crest of the sea enjoying his sister’s frolics.
Stephen remained beside the Conqueror. He could see the tension in her body ease, replaced not by relief but by sadness.
Xena jumped off the porch. Her boot steps upon the boardwalk announced her approach to Samuel.
He glanced to her and welcomed her with a smile. "My Liege."
"Your sister could not coax you into the water?"
"I have a better view from here."
"A dryer one, too."
"That I do," Samuel confirmed lightheartedly.
"Xena!" Gabrielle called.
"Yes, your Majesty?"
"Join me. The water is wonderful."
"You have a playmate in Spirit. I would not want to intrude," Xena quipped.
"You are still my favorite," Gabrielle called.
The stallion snorted.
Xena declared, "Look, you have hurt Spirit’s feelings."
Xena spoke softy. Not so softly that Samuel not could hear. "Only for you, Gabrielle." She proceeded to strip her tunic.
"My Liege, do you wish your privacy?"
"Yes, Sam. Give the signal." Xena swam out to the sea, consoled that she was not second to Gabrielle’s horse.
After evening meal, Stephen went to Xena, who stood at the crest of the sea looking out to the distant horizon. Standing side-by-side, nothing was said between them as the waves lapped the shore.
Xena turned to her steadfast companion. "How long will you make me wait? What is it Stephen?"
"May I speak to you as a friend?"
"Your sense of Gabrielle has not come back, has it?"
"No, not like we were before…"
"Do you know why?"
Xena turned her gaze back to the sea.
Stephen counseled. "Xena, let her back into your heart. She needs to be there. You need her there."
Xena would not argue the reason. "Stephen, I lost her not once but twice. I don’t know which was worse. To think her dead or to hear her say she wanted nothing to do with me."
"You were a stranger to her."
"So was Sam, but she loved him."
"The meaning… the power of your love is beyond that of mere mortals. Both of you have been touched by the Gods."
"Stephen, I am mortal. So too Gabrielle."
"Maybe in the flesh. Not necessarily in your souls. As fine a woman as she was, the Gabrielle of Ithome is no longer. Here in Megara resides Gabrielle of Poteidaia, my sister and your Queen. She waits for you. If you want proof of her love, look to what she endured to reclaim her memory."
"What we have is enough." Xena was unmoved.
"If it were you wouldn’t be standing here alone. If it were enough you would not have been saddened to realize that you did not know her safe this afternoon when she played in the sea. No, Xena, for you and for her, it is not enough."
Defensively, Xena justified her stance. "Gabrielle has said nothing to me."
"What can she say to you? How can she broach your distance without accusing you of not being equal to her in courage? My sister will not challenge your heart."
"So you do."
Stephen was constant in his campaign. "You told me not to keep Tess waiting. I ask you not to keep Gabrielle waiting. Doing so harms you both."
Xena steeled. "Anything else?"
"Very well." Xena walked away toward the cove.
Gabrielle had hosted her Guard with her storytelling. Xena’s absence was not uncommon and she thought little of it. The evening had grown late, after bidding a good night to the men she sought out her partner. She walked through the house to the back porch. There she saw Stephen standing at the far end of the boardwalk. Gabrielle took the path to the beach. She paused beside her brother, placing her hand on his arm as she followed his gaze to the cove where a small fire burned.
Stephen spoke in a hush. "I think she’s lost and doesn’t know how to find her way back to you."
Without a word, Gabrielle walked the sands toward her Lord. The days in Megara had been bright and joyful. Not so the nights. The nights were indicative of Xena’s lack of emotional healing. Her sleep was restless. Her dreams were haunted as she called out for Gabrielle. Gabrielle was left to whisper assurances and use her physical nearness to calm the warrior.
Having reached the cove, Gabrielle followed her custom and took her place on Xena’s lap, resting her ear against the warrior’s wounded heart. Xena enfolded her partner in a warm embrace. Gabrielle closed her eyes, gliding her hand to Xena’s, taking hold. She focused inward. She traveled beyond her heart to her soul. Her essence rose forth as a shimmering light seeking the unique wholeness that came with union to its mate, a union too long denied.
For only the second time in their lives, Gabrielle journeyed a mysterious void that required an uncommon courage to traverse. She was diligent in her search until she could move no further. To her left, to her right, ahead of her, there was an unseen barrier that denied trespass. She had the ability to turn back. She would not accept her aloneness. She would not accept defeat. She waited in her place. By sheer will she intensified her presence, a call to her partner.
Xena felt the power of Gabrielle pierce her skin, cutting through the sinew into a hollow. She felt her lover’s call. She feared her deep want of Gabrielle. She knew the grief of reaching out and being denied. To return to Gabrielle was to face the grief of her denial. It was also to risk exposing Gabrielle to the darkness of her inconsolable mourning where seeking the taste of death had been her only response.
Gabrielle continued to call to her. As hard as she tried not to, Xena found herself edging toward the light that was Gabrielle. Her grief sought an end to the silent torture that had defined living. To set aside the haunting sense of betrayal that had become her companion since Ares recounted Gabrielle’s departure, Xena’s grief required nothing less than Gabrielle’s vindicated promise.
Gabrielle felt Xena tremble underneath her fingertips. She redoubled her focus; sure she had made an inroad. She gave up her love freely, as she had always done. She reached out to Xena of Amphipolis, to the Conqueror, to Greece’s Sovereign, to her Lord.
Xena took a breath; the strain of the encounter was too much for her. She released a sob as her beloved tightened her physical hold. An overwhelming force of sorrow exploded through their connection. Had Gabrielle been standing she would have collapsed to her knees. She knew this grief. She felt it in the presence of Ares. It was this grief that had her lying on a chase drowning in her own tears. It was this wave of helplessness and desperation that caused her to respond to Ares’ query.
The God of War in guise of Aphrodite cast a shadow over her. "I did not realize you would suffer so. Shall I end your suffering?" Receiving no answer the treacherous God continued in a strained voice, carrying forth an insincere compassion, speaking a fact, knowing it would be taken as an offer he had no intention of fulfilling. "A God can change her mind."
Gabrielle cried out in agony. "Yes, please!"
The agony ended there and then.
Gabrielle now wondered how much of her grief was her own? How much was Xena’s? Tears coursed down Gabrielle’s cheeks.
The moment Xena saw the exchange between Gabrielle and the God of War, Gabrielle saw the moment in the past when the God of War kicked aside Xena’s sword, preventing the warrior from taking her own life.
In Xena’s arms, knowing she embraced her sorrow anew, knowing that Xena’s loss of her was part of her pain, made it possible for Gabrielle to endure. If she held on, if she sustained her presence through the horror, they would have a chance to once again step out from the darkness into a light powerful enough to sunder the vulgarities of mortal existence.
Samuel had followed Gabrielle through the house, keeping a discreet distance. He waited near the back porch, confident that Stephen would keep their sister safe. Time passed with no indication of the Royal’s return. He went to the Major. Silently he gazed toward the cove. Only the flickering fire and the vague silhouettes of the two women could be seen.
Samuel spoke quietly. "There is no interrupting them tonight."
Stephen agreed. "Not tonight, Sam."
"Do you think the Conqueror will let Gabrielle back into her life?"
Stephen was surprised that his intimate knowledge of the Conqueror was shared. "How do you know she hasn’t?"
"The way Gabrielle looks at her. I can tell she is still kept at arm’s length."
"I had come to believe Xena could not keep Gabrielle away from her heart. I now think I was wrong. Her will is too strong for our sister."
"No, it’s not," Samuel assuredly challenged.
Stephen turned to the man who in some ways knew Gabrielle better than any other Guardsman. "Then why does she remain outside seeking entrance?"
"Because she needs to believe that in spite of turning Xena away in Ithome, she has the right to claim her."
"In Ithome she did not know Xena."
"I say she knew Xena was her destiny. With what they share… Gabrielle was frightened she could not be the Conqueror’s Queen."
"She has always had that fear." Stephen was not satisfied. "There is more that we do not understand."
"I would not be surprised."
"Her courage puts us all to shame."
"Her strength is in her heart. Stephen… with all that was done to her… I have never understood how she can love us."
"Love us she does, Sam." Stephen placed his hand on his fellow Guardsman’s shoulder. "I have no doubt about that."
"She will touch the Conqueror’s heart," Samuel concluded, discarding any lingering doubt. "She must."
Xena walked the span of beach carrying a sleeping Gabrielle cradled in her arms. The strain caused by the emotion coursing through their bond sapped the younger woman’s energy to nil. Xena heard the sound of the sand underfoot and of the sea. More vivid was the memory of Gabrielle’s cry to Ares. She was ashamed that it was the wretchedness of her partner’s entreaty that shattered her resolve to remain at a distance. Gabrielle had not easily set their love aside. She had believed that her plea would bring her back home to Corinth. Gabrielle did not disappoint her. Gabrielle was her Queen.
The two Guardsmen observed the Conqueror approach carrying their sister. Without direction Samuel lead the foursome to the beach house. Stephen followed last. He observed the firm set of Xena’s shoulders, her bold strides. Something had changed.
Samuel opened the exterior doors to the bedroom. Stephen skirted inside and struck a flint to a candle. He used the burning taper to light a handful of candles throughout the room. Xena entered and gently laid Gabrielle upon their bed. She covered the younger woman with a blanket and then sat in a nearby chair, her gaze fixed upon her partner.
Stephen exited, so too Samuel. The latter Guardsman closed the door.
The Royals returned to Corinth after a fortnight visit to Megara. Little was said between them regarding the evening at the cove. The overwhelming nature of what they shared would not tolerate the inadequacies of language. What was important to them both was that the channel of their bond had been opened and as a result the once familiar exchange between them had been renewed.
Xena stood on the balcony of their suite looking out to the city. She closed her eyes and sought Gabrielle’s essence. She smiled as she felt her partner’s good spirits.
Xena’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of movement comparable to cloth fluttering in the wind. She opened her eyes. Aphrodite, adorn with a fine, near transparent dress, stood before her. "Aphrodite."
"Xena. How are you?"
"Well. Thank you."
"Much has happened since I last spoke to you. You did right by Gabrielle."
"I think she deserves all the credit."
The Goddess smiled. "You’re probably right. She is my Chosen after all."
"Gabrielle is in the city. I expect her soon."
"I know. I’m here to see you. I happened to be at my brother’s temple and I found this." She offered Xena a folded parchment. "I thought you should have it since it was meant for you."
"I want nothing of Ares’."
"But it isn’t Ares’, it’s yours. Gabrielle wrote this note before he took her away."
Xena took the note. She saw the Queen’s seal. She broke the seal, carefully unfolding the parchment. She recognized the familiar script.
My love –
Aphrodite has come and claimed me. I pledged my life to her and on this day I must fulfill my promise.
I have no regrets. In surrendering my life to her she gave us more time to be with one another. I know you would have chosen differently for me. Forgive me.
I shall never forget our joy, for without it I am nothing.
Xena raised her gaze to the Goddess.
Aphrodite spoke sincerely. "Believe her, Xena. I know you find her love difficult to accept. Remember, there is a reason why she is my Chosen."
Xena felt a tug within her heart. She looked out into the courtyard. In sight was Gabrielle riding Spirit into the palace gates accompanied by Darlius and a visiting Lord Judais. "How does she do it? How can she be so strong?"
Aphrodite was ready with an answer. "She has you."
Gabrielle and her companions dismounted and stood together discussing their impressions of the latest improvements in the city hospice.
Darlius quieted. "Your Majesty, the Conqueror approaches." There was something about the Sovereign’s manner that captivated all who could see her.
Gabrielle noted Xena’s determined strides. She stepped forward to greet her partner. "My Lor…"
Without a moment’s hesitation Xena embraced Gabrielle and kissed her passionately. Gabrielle was startled by the unexpected welcome. Her stiffened body relaxed and eased into the kiss. She did not care that they were in the middle of the palace courtyard or that Darlius and Judais observed.
Xena gently separated from Gabrielle, keeping a firm hold on the younger woman. Their gazes met and for the first time since Gabrielle left Corinth in hand with Ares did she see a once familiar spark alight Xena’s eyes.
Gabrielle spoke to her companions without looking away. "Excuse me gentlemen. I suspect there is a pleasant homecoming awaiting me."
Xena smiled and spoke in a low tone. "There most certainly is." Xena moved her hold down from Gabrielle’s waist, taking her hand. The Royals walked away.
Judais watched with particular satisfaction as the young Queen released the Sovereign’s hand and shifted closer, leaning her head against the taller woman. The Sovereign turned and in a fluid motion swept Gabrielle into her arms, cradling her. A few more steps and they disappeared into the palace.
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