Vineyard by the Sea
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 story builds on characters introduced and events that occurred in Mediations and Natural Causes. It is strongly recommended that Mediations and Natural Causes be read prior to proceeding with Vineyard by the Sea.
Acknowledgements: My gratitude to Cath for her extensive edits/comments and to Tana for her faithful encouragement and beta review.
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.
Two young Amazons led a foursome traveling on horseback. Ciara was dressed in warrior leathers, black and cut short. The color complemented her dark hair and well tanned body. Her preferred weapon, the crossbow, hung from her saddle easily within reach. On her belt she wore a pearl-handled dagger used both for general utility and for defense. At her side rode Julian dressed in a long white tunic. The healer's halcyon spirit took in the sounds and scents of the forest with a knowledgeable appreciation of the power breaking forth from the rich soil to the surface in the form of vegetation - the herbs and the shoots that marked roots necessary for the practice of her art.
Following the leads were two more women. Their intelligent and compassionate Queen was, remarkably, only a few seasons older that her tribeswomen. Gabrielle's frame bordered between fragility and strength. It was difficult to determine which impression was truer. She smiled over to her partner, her champion, a warrior who lived a life of the sword. In her youth and early adulthood, Xena used the weapon to decimate half the known world, garnering the title Destroyer of Nations. For six years, only a brief span of time longer than her friendship with the woman who would become her partner, she turned her sword to a different purpose, to protect the good from those who would do them harm. Her fight was a fight for justice.
The moon was bright at three quarters full. The clear sky shimmered with the dust of the cosmos. It was near midnight when they passed the first Amazon outpost, quietly signaling an "all's well" as they covered the final half-candlemark of trail which at its end opened to the village center.
Xena dismounted Argo, her golden battle-trained mare, and walked beside Gabrielle's young white stallion, Gavan.
"Hey boy." She stroked the stallion's neck reassuringly.
The warrior looked up, not to the Queen, but to the woman who would always be 'her bard.'
"He might be a keeper." She reached up inviting the woman, younger by a decade, into her arms.
Gabrielle swung her leg over Gavan's neck and allowed herself to slip from the saddle into the warrior's warm embrace. Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment feeling her legs steady themselves.
"You all right?" She heard the warrior whisper at her ear.
She nodded as their arms remained clasped, her lone support. She looked up to her partner's concerned eyes. Gabrielle knew Xena's sharp study captured every nuance before her. There was no reason to hide her fatigue. "Long day." She reached up and placed two fingers upon Xena's lips anticipating a minor chastisement. "I know."
Malina, the elder healer approached. "What news?"
Ciara and Julian had dismounted and stood together. They turned to the Queen. Gabrielle answered, maintaining her gaze upon Xena. "I should be well soon."
Malina smiled and clapped her hands together in delight. "That is good news."
Gabrielle's hand shifted to cup Xena's cheek. A silent promise made. She sighed, regretting any distraction. "How is Karis?"
"Recovering well." Jamine, the Captain of the Guard answered as she made her way toward the Queen. "I have orders to wake her upon your return."
"Let me." Gabrielle offered.
Xena reached over to Gavan removing Gabrielle's staff from his saddle's bindings. She waited for Gabrielle to decide whether to take it in hand. The bard spoke softly, "I'm feeling stronger."
There was no protest in Xena's response. "I'll stable the horses."
Gabrielle watched as Xena, with staff in hand, guided the horses. Ciara accompanied her leading the other two steeds. She felt Julian's caring eyes upon her. She looked over to the young healer. "I'll see you in the morning."
Julian nodded. "Yes, my Queen."
The healer waited.
"Have you forgotten my name?"
Malina and Jamine watched the exchange with quiet interest. The healer was visibly at a loss. Gabrielle smiled in an attempt to relieve the young Amazon's confusion. "I don't want my renewed health to change our friendship. That isn't a price I'm willing to pay without a fight, and I swear I'm still a formidable opponent with my staff, not to mention my sais."
"It's a challenge I’d rather not accept." Julian paused for a heartbeat. "Gabrielle."
The Queen smiled. "Good."
"I'll be sleeping far easier and you had a great deal to do with that. Thank you."
Malina joined Julian. The two healers, teacher and student, retreated to their adjacent quarters. Jamine silently escorted Gabrielle across the courtyard to Queen Karis' residence.
"Jamine, how has it been these past few days?"
"Quiet." Jamine was wary.
"Xena told me that both you and Karis left the village searching for her."
The Captain's dread was realized. "Yes."
"I don't know if I should thank you or take up my staff and try to knock some sense into you."
"You seem to be in the mood for posing challenges." Jamine risked a minor chuckle hoping to lighten the Queen's mood.
"Don't underestimate me, Jamine."
Gabrielle's sternness sobered the Captain. "No, that I won't do."
"You should know that there is no finding Xena when she doesn't want to be found. You put the village at risk by leaving."
"I tried to convince Karis to stay and let me and another warrior carry out the search."
They continue to walk in silence.
"Gabrielle, Karis is our Queen. What would you have had me do?"
"Stubborn Amazon Queens seem to be the rule around here."
"I won't argue with you, your Majesty."
Gabrielle laughed lightly. She turned to the Captain with a renewed seriousness. "It sounds as if you two are getting along better."
"I've made the effort. So has she."
"I don't know how much longer Xena and I will be staying. I would feel much better if Karis felt she could count on your sword."
"She has it." Jamine affirmed.
Her respect for Karis had grown but it did not near the esteem in which she held Gabrielle. This very moment reaffirmed her commitment to the Queen at her side. In a world where power was a constant catalyst for intrigue and war, Gabrielle generously offered both covert and overt assistance to Karis. Gabrielle had done her best not to undermine Karis' authority and all had taken notice. Though in the many moons since Gabrielle's arrival there were numerous opportunities to take the throne, Gabrielle showed no such inclination. Some suspected Gabrielle's hesitancy was a consequence of her illness. Speculation had emerged that with the return of Gabrielle's health, a challenge to the throne was inevitable. Jamine had advised Xena that the tribe was Gabrielle's if she would have it. Xena was clear that Gabrielle had no aspiration for power. Jamine reasoned it was Gabrielle's humility that made her a great leader.
As they neared their destination Jamine motioned to the standing guard who held open the entrance door and offered her torch to the Captain. "My Queen."
Not expecting the formality, Gabrielle paused with a rising sense of unease. "It's good to see you well."
Relieved, Gabrielle smiled. "It is good, isn't it?" She turned and entered Karis' quarters, standing aside as Jamine lit two large candles, one at Karis' desk and the second near a bedside table. The Captain silently stepped out. Gabrielle waited until the door closed before scanning the room. Young Queen Karis lay on her pallet in a deep sleep. A few bruises and scratches were visible on her arms and face. Gabrielle knelt on one knee beside the bed. She placed her hand over Karis' shoulder and softly called her name, coaxing her from sleep.
Karis' eyes fluttered open, adjusting to the candlelight. Her vision cleared. The sight of her friend rewarded her effort. Gabrielle smiled upon recognition. "Hi."
"My Queen." Karis tried to sit up. Wincing, she rejected the notion, unable to tolerate the pain brought forth by her broken ribs.
"Hey, settle down. Xena told me what happened."
"I should have known better than to go after her."
Gabrielle reached over and moved a chair closer to the bed and then sat down. "I'm glad you realize your mistake. It wasn't for you to interfere. Xena and I handle our problems our own way."
Karis felt the censure.
Gabrielle tempered the reproach, placing her hand on Karis' arm. "I do appreciate the fact you cared enough to try."
"Did you see the healer?"
"Yes. Good news."
Karis smiled. "You will stay until you are completely recovered." It was more a request than a question.
"Yes. I won't put Xena at risk."
"Nor she you, I would think."
Gabrielle laughed easily. "I might as well avoid the fight. I know this time it'll be one I'll lose."
"She doesn't bend when it comes to keeping you safe."
"No. She doesn't."
Gabrielle decided to broach a difficult subject too long held at bay. "There have been a few times when she thought she had lost me to death. The first time was about a year into our friendship. We were in Thessaly. I had been injured in the war. I was gone only for a brief time. I came back into her arms. Queen Ephiny was with us. It was the same day her son, Xenon, was born. The second time she was certain I had died and searched me out in the Amazon resting place."
"She crossed to the other side?"
"Spiritually, yes." Gabrielle paused seeking to collect her thoughts. "She was determined to speak to me. It had been a difficult time for us and there was too much left unsaid. Somehow, we found each other. It isn't often that you get a second chance." Gabrielle paused pensively. "The price you pay for the second chance is knowing that someday you're going to experience the loss again, and even though you've gone through it before it doesn't change how deeply you feel the pain. The fact that we are closer today than we ever have been only makes it harder. I asked her to speak to you because I was selfish. I thought that in helping you she could come to terms with my death. A part of her was angry at me. She expected me to fight my illness more."
"What more could she have expected from you? I never believed you had lost hope."
"I couldn't deny my illness because, if I did, too much would have been left undone. I fought it with my every breath. I accepted help from our healers and my escort but I didn't make a point of sharing everything I was going through with others. There were times when I couldn't even let Xena in. It was my fight." Gabrielle leaned forward, "Karis. I'm your friend and so is Xena. We both know what it feels like to lose a love. You can come to either one of us. I know Tovi's death is still with you."
"I see her in you."
"I know. That's why it may be easier for you to speak to Xena. Don't sell her short."
Karis closed her eyes. She thought for a moment before returning her regard to Gabrielle. "How could you forgive her for leaving you?"
Gabrielle sighed. "Xena didn't leave me. She was trying to save me. And when she came back she honored my request to live our days here. She isn't…we are not use to sharing each other with other people. It wasn't an easy request."
"Then, why did you come to us?"
"Because it would be safe and Xena wouldn't have to be alone. I wanted to give Xena the choice of stepping away if taking care of me became too difficult. I wanted her by my side because she wanted to be with me not because she felt she had to be. I also did it because I wanted to be here for my own sake. I knew I had friends here."
"I let you down." Karis' remorse arose anew.
"One thing I've learned during my years with Xena is how important it is to accept people for who they are and not get in the their way as they become who they are meant to become. It's hard. Sometimes it's painful to watch destiny take its course. Tovi died so young. She put her people before her own needs." Gabrielle knew that Tovi was always more an Amazon than she could hope to be because her first priority would always be Xena and not her tribe. "She loved you. You know that don't you?"
Karis did not answer.
"Karis. I hope the day will come when you forgive her for choosing the survival of the Amazons over her own life."
"You wouldn't have chosen death."
"You're wrong. A few years ago that's exactly what I did. I made a decision in the moment and the consequences were so quick that Xena and I didn't have a chance to say good-bye."
"She forgave you?"
"There was nothing to forgive. She knew I followed my heart. I had just as much right to give up my life for her as she had to give up her life for me. Tell me. Would you have gone in Tovi's place?"
Gabrielle leaned back against the chair easing the tension. "I should have… I wish we had spoken sooner."
"Gabrielle. If you had died, do you think Xena could have brought herself to love again?"
The bard's gaze shifted to the candle burning on the desk. To her, the flickering flame conveyed the notion of eternity, how something like fire can be and then not be and yet, always the potential for a renewal is sustained. Her understanding filtered her thoughts separating, removing the insecurities that lay at her most youthful core. She knew her bond to the warrior was unique and that in her heart no one could ever fill the void losing Xena would create in her. She turned her attention back to Karis.
"Could Xena love again? I hope so. She loved before she met me. It may have been a different kind of love but it was still love. I wouldn't want her be alone." Gabrielle then answered the question that remained unspoken. "I don't think Tovi would want you to be alone."
"I haven't the heart."
"I know. Give yourself time."
Karis felt the weight of the conversation. She chose to ease its force. "Have Ciara and Julian come to their senses?"
Gabrielle smiled broadly. "I think they've come to an understanding."
"Good. I expect Julian will be a good influence on Ciara."
"Oh, I think it goes both ways. Your young healer is not as serious as she used to be."
"Healer and warrior. Could there be a more unexpected match?"
"At one time some would have said a bard and a warrior."
"True. But we know better. A joining between North and South will make for one heck of a celebration. If and when that day comes I hope to see you and Xena here.
"Wouldn't miss it for the world. But I think we're getting ahead of ourselves. Theirs is still a young love." Gabrielle turned her gaze toward the door, seeing in her mind's eye her waiting partner. "I should let you get some sleep and Xena is going to start wondering what happened to me."
"Thank you for coming to see me."
Gabrielle stood up and reached out to Karis, taking her hand. "Sleep well." Then she made her way to the door. As she reached it she heard Karis call her name. Gabrielle turned and waited.
Karis looked at her with open affection. "You are and will always be my Queen."
Gabrielle had no words to respond. She held Karis' gaze and all it offered her, taking in the fact that she earned the respect and loyalty of her tribe, a respect epitomized by Karis' willing acquiescence to her authority, an authority that before Karis had been equally acknowledged by Tovi and Ariel. Gabrielle offered Karis a small nod before exiting.
Having finished her work in the stables Xena walked back to her quarters, Gabrielle's staff firmly in hand. She felt her senses tugging her toward the left. She looked over seeing the bard crossing the span of distance from Karis' hut. Xena continued on her course knowing that both she and the bard would meet at their common destination. Arriving first at their residence, Xena stood quietly, leaning on the staff. There was something to the way Gabrielle walked that caused her concern. She could not tell if it was simply the bard's confessed fatigue or a more disturbing depression of her spirit. Xena offered Gabrielle a gentle smile,
"Hi." Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand upon Xena's waist.
Xena lifted her hand to Gabrielle's cheek. "Everything all right?"
Gabrielle leaned her face into Xena's warmth. "Yes, my love. I'm sure."
"Healing. She's in better spirits."
Xena turned and opened the door, holding it open for the bard. "Good."
Gabrielle entered and took in the familiar surroundings. Candles had been lit and a tray of food and decanter of water rested on the table. "You arrange this?"
"No." Xena did not withhold her approval. "Your tribe doesn't need to be asked to make you comfortable."
"My tribe." Gabrielle exhaled wistfully. She approached her partner and began to remove the clasps of Xena's armor. Xena watched her earnestly as they shared the silence. Her task complete, Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's heart. "There."
Xena lifted the armor off her shoulders and placed it over the chair back. Gabrielle then began to remove Xena's gauntlets. "It's been a long time since I've done this."
"Yes, it has."
"I remember when I first started helping you with your armor. It was a way of getting closer to you. There was so little I could do for you. I wanted to take care of you but I didn't have much to offer."
The bard looked up.
"Tell me." The warrior coaxed.
Gabrielle stepped away and retrieved one of Xena's sleep shirts. "Here you go." Xena chose not to pursue the unspoken conversation. She removed her leathers, trading them with Gabrielle for the shirt. Gabrielle folded the leathers and put them away.
Xena stepped forward. "Your turn."
She unbuckled Gabrielle's belt, sweeping it out of the supporting belt loops and placing it on the desk. She then lifted Gabrielle's tunic over the bard's head. For a moment she paused, shyly observing Gabrielle's body as the bard turned her back to the warrior to retrieve her own nightshirt from the clothes cabinet. Xena noted that Gabrielle's body carried more weight. It would be only a matter of time before her partner's physique returned to its healthy vibrancy.
"Karis is hoping we stay on for a while." Gabrielle donned on her sleep shirt then made her way toward Xena. "You've been very patient. I don't think I've ever thanked you."
Xena cocked her head to the side. "You're welcome."
"I've missed you." The bard wrapped her arms around the warrior. "I've missed your touch."
"Gabrielle." There was a cautionary tone in Xena's voice.
"I won't break, Xena."
Xena tenderly embraced Gabrielle. "We've had a long day. It's late."
Gabrielle stepped back and looked up to Xena's tentative expression. She did not hide her disappointment well as she averted her eyes. Xena took the bard's hands with her own. She waited for Gabrielle to look back up to her. "I love you. Right now all I want to do is lie in bed with you beside me knowing that when I wake you'll still be with me."
Xena swept Gabrielle up into her arms. Gabrielle welcomed the familiar cradle Xena created of her self for the bard's comfort. Xena laid Gabrielle down on the bed then vaulted over her, stretching her own body to its full length as she lay on her side.
Tracing Xena's lips with her fingertips, the bard restrained her desire for the warrior, a desire heightened in intensity given their physical closeness. "I have a request."
Xena kissed Gabrielle's fingertips. "If I can."
"I know I need to get stronger. Once I am, I want to leave here. I want us to get back to our lives. Just you and me."
Xena grinned. "I think we can manage, together."
Gabrielle dropped her hand and shook her head slightly as she reconsidered. "Nothing."
"It must be something."
"I miss Ephiny."
Gabrielle's recollection of Ephiny took Xena by surprise. "I do, too. Especially, when we're here. You haven't mentioned Eph in a while."
"Before… even though Eph was in principle my regent, we all knew that in the beginning she was more deserving of being Queen than I was."
"That's not true."
"I grew into my role of Queen."
"So did Eph. She had the advantage of being an Amazon all her life. This life was new to you. And, you were young."
"I see Karis struggle. She looks to me for guidance and for once I feel I've earned her trust. But, Xena…. I'm not sure I want the responsibility."
"You've been through a great deal, love. Give yourself time."
"That's what I said to Karis." Gabrielle intertwined her hand with Xena's. "Who wouldn't want to be Queen of the Amazons?"
"Only someone who understands what it means to be a good queen. We both know it's not without sacrifice."
"You're right. I am tired. But, it isn't just today. Is it wrong to want a quieter life, to leave death behind me if only for a little while?"
Xena tightened her hold of Gabrielle's hand. "Remember the cove we stayed at before we went to Sparta?"
"How about if we settle down there for a while? South of the cove there is a nearby village we could go to for supplies. It has a nice inn. So when you're in the mood you can tell your stories."
Gabrielle's courage to dream faltered. "You sure?"
"Gabrielle. I don't have to think twice about having you to myself. It's a quiet time. We can come back if they need you."
"You've never stopped me."
"Leading the Amazons is part of your destiny. It is a part of you now."
"You're saying I shouldn't walk away?"
"I'm saying that you would be wrong to deny who you are."
"Who am I, Xena?"
Xena lifted Gabrielle's hand and placed a kiss upon her palm. "You are the girl from Poteidaia who followed her heart and became an accomplished bard, a Queen of the Amazons, and a beautiful, intelligent, compassionate woman."
Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to reconcile Xena's words with her own fragile self-image. She opened her eyes. She raised her free hand to Xena. The warrior turned her face into the trembling touch. Gabrielle lifted herself into Xena's embrace, a small cry escaping her.
"Hey. I'm here. I've got you." Xena kissed Gabrielle upon the cheek.
Gabrielle held on tightly allowing herself to feel the warmth of their connection. Being in Xena's arms was to be enclosed in love, to feel safe, to come back to a home, to a certainty that she feared was slipping away from her. She drew in a deep breath, taking in the tangy scent of leather, perspiration and spice that was Xena. She could hear Xena's strong heartbeat and feel Xena's chest rise and fall with each breath she took. Gabrielle surrendered her mind and allowed her senses to speak to her, to convey the base truth of her life. Gabrielle leaned back in a gentle separation. She placed her hand over Xena's heart. "You forgot the most important… " She raised her eyes to the warrior. " Xena, I'm yours body, heart, and soul."
Xena spoke Gabrielle's name as only she could, as a prayer. The truth assaulted all of Xena's best intentions. Gabrielle's illness had dictated caution. She had learned the heartbreaking lesson of trying to take Gabrielle beyond her physical limits. And yet, before her lay the woman who owned her body, heart, and soul, wanting nothing more than to take a step from the pain and regret of the past and to begin to live again without fear and restrictions. Xena was determined to honor a private oath to not ask more of Gabrielle than the bard could give or withstand. It was apparent that though still weak, Gabrielle welcomed a loss of strength in barter for Xena's touch. The temptation was overwhelming the warrior. She steeled herself, life was an unknown, anything could happen, but that was not cause to turn her back from the promise of a future with Gabrielle. Xena was not prepared to contribute to Gabrielle's downfall, no matter the reason, no matter how much the bard invited her to play a part in the damning act.
"And I am yours." She kissed Gabrielle on the forehead. "Let's get some sleep." She leaned back resting her head on a pillow. "Come here." She invited the bard into her arms. Gabrielle's sadness was eased by the return to Xena's embrace. She wrapped her arm around Xena, taking a fistful of the warrior's shirt as an anchor. The two lovers slowly fell into a deep sleep, each present in the dreams of the other.
"Come." The warrior's voice was crisp in its command.
An uncharacteristically timid Lael entered.
"Lael, when did you get back?" Gabrielle welcomed the young warrior brightly.
Lael expelled a breath in relief. "We just returned."
"How was trade?"
"Good. I intercepted a runner on his way here." She pulled a scroll from her a satchel that hung over her shoulder, handing it to the Queen.
"Thank you." Gabrielle examined the seal. She was pleasantly surprised. Looking up she realized that Lael had made no move to leave. "Yes?"
"I was wondering if the time has come for…" Here Lael paused and glanced at Xena before returning her attention to Gabrielle. "…my staff lesson."
Gabrielle smiled. "I think I'm up to it if you are."
Lael mirrored her Queen's smile. "That's good news. Yes. Would tomorrow morning be too soon?"
"After breakfast." Gabrielle affirmed.
"Yes. Good. Thank you. It's good to be home, my Queen." And with that Lael left with a noticeable bounce in her step.
Xena laughed. "You are going to take it easy on her tomorrow, aren't you?"
A tinge of sobriety carried in Gabrielle's response. "I'm not sure I deserve your confidence."
"I've been watching you with the others."
"But, you won't spar with me."
Xena quipped. "You take Lael down and I'll spar with you."
"That's all the motivation I need." Gabrielle felt a wicked joy rise from her core. It was far easier to believe in herself when she could readily see Xena's confidence in her. She raised the scroll in her hand. "This is from Eve."
Xena stood up, a mother's irrational anxiety churned inside her. Gabrielle saw the change in the warrior. "I'm sure everything is all right." She quickly opened the scroll.
I have heard that the fair-haired Amazon Queen of Greece has fallen gravely ill. I fear that they speak of you. I am traveling to Amazon lands. I plan to stay at the nearest village to the north until an escort can be arranged.
I look forward to seeing you. You are in my prayers.
Please give Mother my love.
"It's all right." Gabrielle handed the scroll to Xena.
With a wash of relief Xena took the scroll and read it. "It'll be good to see her. She'll be happy to learn you're well."
"How far out do you think she is?"
"She's probably traveling on foot so I'd say six to eight days. Lael may know where the runner came from. It would give us a better idea."
"I hate having her worry for nothing."
"I can ride out and meet her. I'm all the escort she needs."
"I could go with you." Gabrielle observed Xena's body stiffen. "Then again, it might be good for both of you to have some quality time together."
Xena offered Gabrielle a muted smile. "I won't argue with any reason that keeps you here."
Gabrielle decided to throw caution to the wind. "How about if I meet you at the north ridge in five days? I'll still be on Amazon land."
Xena studied the bard, taking careful measure of the changes she had seen in the passing half-moon since they returned from Thebes. "Will you take an escort?"
"Might as well. Ciara and Lael will track me if I don't."
"That's because they're very smart…for Amazons."
"Hey! Remember who you're talking to."
"Yes, your Majesty." Xena took Gabrielle into her arms and kissed her, allowing herself a gentle exploration of the bard, feeling Gabrielle's passionate response. It was getting harder for Xena to keep herself from allowing their intimacy. With Gabrielle's returning health Xena questioned whether they had waited long enough. She reluctantly separated herself from Gabrielle. "You will always be my bard."
"I love you." Gabrielle's husky voice pierced into Xena's resolve.
Xena studied Gabrielle's gentle green eyes searching for a reason to rein in her desire. What she saw was a lively spirit, filled with the mirth and humor once squelched by her illness. Xena leaned down to the bard offering another kiss, this one playful, giving then rescinding a promise of more. Gabrielle responded, wanting the more that had been withdrawn, uncertain of the warrior's intent. Her body honored Xena's retreat. Gabrielle paused at separation. She said nothing. Equal measure of hope and fear of disappointment divided her. The warrior's previous rebuffs were consistently gentle. She was compensated with tender physical affection. They slept in each other's arms. They held hands as they walked together. Hugs and subdued kisses were easily shared. But, there remained a passion Xena held at bay. Gabrielle refused to demand from Xena what Xena was uncomfortable giving.
Xena's manner stilled. "Gabrielle, I…"
Before the bard could comfort the warrior she found herself taken in a passionate kiss. She breathed in from the suddenness and power emanating from the contact then relaxed for a moment before giving her passion consent to free expression. Gabrielle claimed Xena with all her strength. She found that her arms were around the warrior and she pulled Xena closer. She could feel the rising tension in her partner as Xena's muscles tightened underneath her touch.
The warrior raised Gabrielle up, cradling the bard in her arms, never giving up the kiss. Gabrielle felt Xena's hunger for her and she wanted nothing more than to give herself over. She felt the soft, cool fabric of their bed linens upon her flesh as Xena draped her body over the bard. The warrior pulled back for a moment. Gabrielle took in Xena's feral gaze. It had been so long since she had seen this quality in the warrior, one that others feared but which she knew offered her an avenue into Xena's soul that no one else had been given. Gabrielle had in that one moment the ability to crush the warrior by denying her. She knew Xena would never take her if she were unwilling. She also knew that in their physical intimacy their bond possessed them, carried them into each other's heart in a way words failed to do.
Xena waited for permission, Gabrielle's ardent eyes insufficient to ease Xena's caution. The intensity was overwhelming. Here would be Gabrielle's surrender, not only to Xena but to herself. Her voice carried a conviction that left no room for doubt.
"Xena, I'm yours."
Xena studied the bard for one final instant, searching for any clue that would mark an error, confirm her desire as selfish, cause her to clamp down and break away. What she saw was her Gabrielle and what she felt was a clear understanding that she was exactly where she was meant to be. She knew that in accepting Gabrielle as the greatest gift in her life, she in turn had become a gift to Gabrielle.
Xena's voice was low in tone but equally strong as Gabrielle's. She spoke the bard's name as she took Gabrielle's lips with her own in a gentle kiss. She then whispered in the bard's ear. "You are everything to me." She placed a kiss upon the bard's cheek and began an unhurried exploration, one of rediscovery, one that filled her with the warmth of reunion with the best that she could be. She loved Gabrielle selflessly and found a joy she feared she would never again know. She loved the bard tenderly, passionately and then she offered her own body to the bard to taste and tease and bring to a climax that carried her into a state of being, whole and healed.
Xena awoke with the breaking dawn. She listened as the nocturnal sounds faded to be replaced by the sounds of village life. The one constant was Gabrielle's steady breathing beside her ear. Xena relished the strength she heard, a strength that had given her unbounded pleasure through touch and bite and murmurs of the heart voiced simply by the bard. Whatever fear Xena harbored of doing Gabrielle harm was swept away.
Xena rued that come the morning she would leave. It did not matter that the separation promised to be for only a few days. The warrior was torn. She knew all she had to do was say the word and the bard would join her. There were good reasons for Gabrielle to stay. She still needed to rest. By her own admission the trip to Thebes had drained her reserves. Patience would be rewarded as it already had been. There was no cause to gamble when they were so close to Gabrielle's complete recovery.
Xena took solace in the proffered compensation for their separation. She would see Eve a few days sooner and they would be able to enjoy the private days of travel back to the village. It was an opportunity to continue to build upon their nascent mother/daughter relationship.
Xena felt the bard stir. "Good morning."
"A good dream?"
Gabrielle lifted her head. "A very good dream." She gently kissed the warrior. "Thank you."
"You don't have to…"
Gabrielle placed her head down, laying it once again over Xena's heart. "Xena. Promise you'll…"
"I promise. I have to be more careful traveling with Eve. It'll be like our first year together before you learned to use the staff."
"I was useless."
"You were never useless."
Gabrielle looked up. "In a fight?"
"You watched my back."
"I still do."
"If last night is any indication of your stamina, Lael doesn't have a chance against you today."
Xena released a complete laugh. "I love you!"
Resting against Xena, Gabrielle felt Xena's laughter carry throughout the warrior's body. She relished it and held to the warrior savoring the shared moment of joy.
Xena could not see the bard's smile. She noted that Gabrielle had grown still and silent. "Hey, you all right?"
The bard tugged on Xena's nightshirt. "Thank you," she whispered.
Gabrielle finished saddling Gavan as Karis stood near the stallion's stall. "I hope Eve recognizes the honor of having a Queen's escort."
"That isn't who I am to her."
"She must care a great deal for you to return to Greece."
Gabrielle mused. "She was born into my hands." Gabrielle guided Gavan out of the stables as Karis walked beside her.
"Tell her that I appreciate the fact that she did not assume her welcome."
"Had the Fates been kinder she may have been an Amazon Queen in her own right."
Gabrielle mounted Gavan. "That wasn't meant to be."
Karis offered her arm to her Queen. "Travel safely."
"We will. I don't know how long it will take Xena to reach us. If it's more than seven days I'll send either Ciara or Lael back. Don't concern yourself until after the tenth day."
"Gabrielle." Julian approached. "Here." She handed the Queen a small leather pouch filled with medicinal tea. "Just in case."
Gabrielle secured the pouch to her saddlebag. "Thank you. Soon, Julian, you're going to have to find a hobby to pass the time you'll have not caring for me."
"Don't worry. I've volunteered to keep Julian occupied." Ciara approached leading her mare.
Gabrielle laughed. "Have you?"
Julian turned into Ciara's awaiting arms. The young warrior whispered into the healer's ear. "You're beautiful when you blush."
The young healer was terse. "Take care of our Queen."
"I will." Ciara sobered. "You're not angry with me, are you?"
Julian answered with a light kiss. "Be safe." She pulled away and began her walk back to her quarters.
Ciara watched then turned to Gabrielle. Gabrielle answered the unspoken question. "It took me some time to get accustomed to having my private life put on public display."
Ciara mounted. "I didn't mean to embarrass her."
"I'm sure deep down she's smiling."
Lael rode up beside the two. "My Queen, are you sure you want such a thick headed warrior riding beside you?"
"Well, it'll give you, an opportunity to share all the wisdom you've gleamed from your own experience. I'm assuming you are more proficient in love than you are with a staff."
Ciara laughed. "Thank you, my Queen."
Gabrielle responded to Lael's hurt look. "Lael, I don't pretend I have all the answers."
Lael felt the effect of the offered balm. "From what I can tell you've done quite well."
"That's only for Xena to say." Gabrielle stood up in her stirrups, shifting her weight from side to side, settling herself one last time. "Let's get going. We have three good days of traveling ahead of us."
As the sun hung overhead on their third day of travel, Gabrielle began to feel an intensification of what had begun the night before as a muted anxiety. Its origin she knew to be her connection with Xena. She hoped to reach the north ridge by dusk. In her mind there was only a small possibility that Xena and Eve would be waiting for them. It was the not knowing that was hard. In spite of the fact Gabrielle felt certain that Xena was not in crisis, she would have felt better standing by the warrior's side. It was where she belonged.
Gabrielle wrote by firelight, comforted by Lael and Ciara's easy conversation in the background. She smiled at the two young warriors who would freely risk their lives to keep her safe. They granted her the privacy she needed. With the passing moons the young warriors and Julian had become as much a part of her daily life as Xena. She could never repay the debt she felt she owed them. Never had their care and their trust been more important to her than during Xena's absences. She would miss them, as she believed they would miss her.
The impact was immediate. Gabrielle jerked, dropping her quill. Her scroll rolled off her lap and onto her sleeping fur. She scanned her surroundings, for what she wasn't sure.
Lael had observed the change in her Queen. "Gabrielle. Are you all right?"
Gabrielle stood up and walked to the edge of the ridge overhang where the sun was setting into the horizon. She pleaded in a fragile voice, "Xena."
Lael and Ciara got to their feet uncertain of what had disturbed their Queen. Ciara called out to Gabrielle, unwilling to move closer, seeing how precariously Gabrielle stood at the edge. "My Queen."
Gabrielle turned to the young warriors. She was pale. Her body trembled. She looked from Ciara to Lael.
Ciara dared to take a step forward extending her arm. "Please, take my hand."
Gabrielle was more apt to step back blindly over the precipice. Her connection with Xena had readily been with her. What she now experienced as the loss of her connection to Xena was like none she ever felt before. There had been no warning, no precursor to danger. There was no residual sense of life. It was a dissection of souls, soul from soul. It catapulted her into a black void. What had been a part of her life from the first moment her eyes met Xena's - the completeness of her soul - was gone and she was left broken.
There was movement in the woods. Ciara feared turning her gaze away from her Queen. Then she saw the change, a different confusion flushed Gabrielle's face. Gabrielle stepped forward into the center of the clearing, before her stood Argo with Xena stoically sitting on her saddle.
Lael observed the warrior. Xena's gaze was hard and cold. Her body was stiff. Any hint of her humanity, her warmth, her capacity to love was stifled. She knew the Queen saw this as well. Gabrielle approached cautiously as the warrior dismounted.
"Stay where you are, Gabrielle." Xena's voice was devoid of all emotion.
"Xena?" Gabrielle paused.
"I won't be going back with you." Xena explained keeping a steady, unrelenting stare upon the Queen.
"She's fine. I've sent her back to Indus."
"We said all we had to say to each other."
Gabrielle took another step toward Xena.
Xena reacted with a low warning. "Gabrielle. Stop." The warrior balanced her weight equally over her firmly planted feet. Gabrielle never saw her look more formidable. "I came here only because I didn't want you to search for me. I figured after everything we've been through you deserved at least that from me."
Gabrielle felt a weakness pulse through her veins. She fought its effect in order to remain standing. "What are you saying?"
"It's over. Don't you feel it?"
"No, Xena. There is something doing this to you, to us."
"You're wrong. I wish you were right. It's not the Furies, or a god or a drug. We… our connection has always been about us, you and me. The power of it has always been ours to accept or …."
"Don't." Gabrielle demanded. "Don't tell me this is your choice."
Gabrielle searched Xena's eyes. She could not see the lie she desperately searched for. "Why?"
"I was willing to wait… But now that you're healthy…" Xena stopped, letting Gabrielle complete the unspoken thoughts.
"You were waiting for me to die?" Gabrielle received neither confirmation nor denial. "Xena." Gabrielle continued forward. She was now two arm lengths away from the warrior.
Xena turned her back to the bard, placing her hand on Argo's saddle horn. She could feel the younger woman take that one last necessary step to reach her. "I said, No!" Xena turned back to Gabrielle and backhanded the bard brutally across the face. The moment of contact was devastating. Gabrielle fell back.
Ciara and Lael drew their weapons.
Xena's eyes quickened to them as she unsheathed her sword. "This is between me and Gabrielle. Don't make me kill you."
Gabrielle picked herself up to one knee and waved her arm holding the two young warriors in their place. The Queen's nose was bloodied. A red welt had formed on her upper right cheek and across her eye. The latter started to close with swelling.
Xena took a hard look at Gabrielle. Gabrielle was obviously dazed. She tried to stand up but slumped down again to her knee. The warrior was unflinching. Gentle, confused eyes held her. What lay behind them was more than Xena could bear. The warrior sheathed her sword and mounted Argo.
To the left of the clearing entered a man Xena's age, dark and handsome, riding a black stallion. Xena tensed. He scanned the scene with obvious pleasure.
"Well then, it is true Xena. You do have to beat off your admirers. Such a shame. This one is pretty… or at least she was." He laughed with abandon. Pleased with himself he captured Gabrielle's gaze with his own. "I don't blame you for wanting her. She is the best bedmate I've ever had." He laughed again.
Xena did not hide her impatience. "We're done here."
"If you insist."
"Very well." He gave Xena a stern look. There was no genuine acquiescence on his part.
Xena led Argo back into the woods, followed by the man on the stallion.
Gabrielle watched until all displaced branches and leaves stilled. She sensed the young warriors. She choked her command. "Stay where you are."
Lael protested. "My Queen."
Gabrielle huddled her body, trying to fight off the shock moving through her.
Lael continued. "Please, let us help you."
Ciara did not wait to be invited. She stepped over to her pack and removed a span of cloth. She grabbed a water skin as she returned to Gabrielle, kneeling beside her. The young warrior wet the cloth and gently removed the dirt from her Queen's face. She did not purposely touch Gabrielle's tears although a few were washed away as she completed her task.
Gabrielle allowed the care, keeping her eyes fixed to the ground. Ciara studied Gabrielle's face. Never had she seen the Queen so bereaved. Gabrielle felt her cloak being laid over her shoulders. Lael stepped back exchanging an anguished look with Ciara. Ciara stood up and motioned to Lael. They stepped away and sat silently by the fire.
The two warriors kept a silent watch over their Queen. Gabrielle leaned back against a nearby tree and closed her eyes. With time her breathing steadied as she fell into a fitful sleep. Lael broke the silence.
"Ciara, what are we to do?"
Ciara leaned forward. "I wish Julian was here." She missed the young healer who had forged the closest friendship of the three with Gabrielle. "We'll do whatever Gabrielle asks of us."
Lael challenged. "No. I refuse to be so blind."
Ciara silently questioned Lael.
Lael defended herself. "You saw how close she got to the cliff‘s edge ."
"You think Gabrielle will throw herself off?"
"Aren't you afraid for her?"
"She just fought for her life against an illness that brings death to most who are stricken. She won't just give up her life."
"She fought death because she had Xena to live for. By the Goddess, I don't need to tell you that."
Ciara's certainty wavered. "I know."
"Why? How could Xena walk away?"
"She said it was her choice."
"It doesn't make sense. Not after everything they've shared."
Lael knew there was no simple explanation for what they had witnessed and that there was little value in endless speculation. "I'll take first watch. Get some sleep."
"Is that necessary?" Ciara continued to deny the severity of the moment.
"If you had been in Gabrielle's place, what would be the right thing for me to do?"
Ciara yielded. "Don't be a martyr. Wake me up when you get tired."
The sun broke over the horizon, casting a haunting ruddiness to the ridge. Ciara had allowed herself to close her eyes while she relied on her hearing to warn her of any movement beyond the campsite. For the passing candlemarks the rustle of nightlife kept her company. She heard Gabrielle stir.
Gabrielle opened her eyes to a slight slit allowing enough light to gauge the time of day. Her headache had subsided. The pain pulsated through her cheek and eye. She touched her face wishing the nightmare were over. The warmth of a fever told her otherwise. She looked over to the young warriors. Lael slept on her bedroll. Beside her Ciara was propped up against a large boulder. She could tell Ciara was awake by the steady movement of her fingers drumming against her thigh. What Gabrielle needed might cause a breach between her and her caretakers, one she was not sure she had the strength to withstand. She hoped they would understand. She raised herself to her feet and walked over to Gavan. She began to saddle him. She felt herself observed and turned to Ciara's watchful gaze. They held each other in sight for a moment before Gabrielle resumed her task.
Ciara continued her watch not knowing what to say. She chose not to help Gabrielle for a multitude of reasons. She wasn't sure Gabrielle's departure was the right thing to do. She was uncertain whether Gabrielle would accept her assistance. Gabrielle's need for privacy was never more apparent. And finally, Ciara knew that by moving she might awaken Lael and Ciara would wager that Lael's assent to Gabrielle's departure would not come easily.
It was only when Gabrielle walked near the fire pit to retrieve her saddlebag that Lael opened her eyes. She sat upright in one anxious motion only to have Ciara steady her with a hand over her arm.
"What…" Lael sought an explanation.
"Be still, my friend."
Lael watched Gabrielle fasten the saddlebag onto Gavan's back. The meaning of the act struck her. "I'm not…"
Ciara tightened her grip on Lael's arm, bruising the flesh. She spoke softly. "Remember who she is."
Lael glared at Ciara.
Ciara continued. "How many times did she go off by herself, keeping us at a distance. And we stayed away, didn't we? We stayed away not because she is our Queen but because she is our friend. Be her friend now, Lael. Don't make this any harder for her than it has to be."
Ciara felt the tension under her hand ease. Lael cursed. "I hate this."
"We have no choice."
"Karis will have our hides."
"You know where I've staked my loyalty. I'll tell Karis I didn't try to stop Gabrielle from leaving while I was on watch. It's the truth."
"No. We stand together."
They heard Gabrielle mount. The young warriors stood up in a silent, respectful regard of their Queen.
Gabrielle guided Gavan to where they stood. "Thank you."
Lael stepped forward. "Any message for Queen Karis?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment. "Tell Karis that it is her time and that I am confident that she will lead the Amazon nation with compassion and honor."
Lael nodded, her concern clearly etched on her face. Gabrielle looked to Ciara. She seemed equally agitated. "Farewell, my friends." With that said, Gabrielle guided Gavan toward the southern trail and rode off at a canter.
Lael felt Ciara's hand on her shoulder. "Where will she go?"
"I don't know."
"She might follow, Xena."
End of Part One
Continued - Part Two
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