The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by MCA Pictures and used here without permission.
The opening lines of this story are taken from lyrics of the song "Ghost" by the Indigo Girls. They, too, are used without permission. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this story.
This story contains the expression of love between two women. Hopefully, you know if you should or shouldn't be reading it. This story also contains what probably amounts to a virtual river of tears. Don't be alarmed if you notice them dripping from your computer screen.
Feedback regarding this story is welcome at Danae121@aol.com.
NOTE: This story takes place immediately following the events of "Destiny." It was inspired by Renee O'Connor's very moving and talented portrayal of grief in "Destiny" and "The Quest."
For the first time, Gabrielle noticed the teardrops which dotted the parchment she'd been reading. She intentionally banged her head against the stable wall. "'Nice arms?!'" She said aloud. She hit herself in the forehead with her palm. "'Nice arms' was all you could say?!" She glanced up at Xena's horse. "Argo... why didn't I tell her how I felt?"
Gabrielle felt herself becoming giddy with pain. 'I am in the perfect state of mind to write a masterpiece of tragedy!' She chuckled darkly as she ran her fingers over the scroll. 'Oh yeah! I could write circles around Euripides right now!'
Then a thought occurred to her. She could write! Writing had always been a way to escape... her vice when all else failed to settle her. Maybe, she could write it ALL down!... everything! Xena's life, Xena's anguish, Xena's bravery. Maybe writing was the drug she needed!
She threw open a saddlebag and dug for her pen. She found it, as well as her jar of ink. Her fingers quickly uncorked the ink, and she dunked the pen. She poised it above the parchment. She hedged as new tears burned her eyes.
How?! How could she put it into words?! She could never capture her
thoughts for Xena on parchment. ...One thought in a hundred, maybe. She
dropped the pen. Not even writing was a potent enough drug right now.
Nicklio stuck his head inside the stable door. He saw the bard slouched woefully against the wall. "Gabrielle, come here!"
She looked up at him with hollow eyes.
"Come here, now!"
Something in his voice pulled her up. She trod over to him. "What?"
"Come with me. We're going to walk. You need fresh air."
Gabrielle started to argue with him, but he took her firmly by the arm and guided her to a snow-covered path. She jerked her arm away but continued walking with him. She didn't notice that it had stopped snowing. She didn't notice that the temperature had risen a few degrees. She didn't notice anything but the piercing pain in her soul.
"How's your leg?" the healer questioned.
The bard had almost forgotten the knife wound. "It hurts a little..." She kicked a rock which stuck up through the snow on the path, and it flew through the air. She shrank again from a torturous memory. "The pain in my leg is nothing compared to the hurt in my heart. It feels like it has been speared... over and over... and it won't stop bleeding."
Nicklio stopped walking. "Gabrielle, I am very sorry."
The bard exhaled a sob and gave him a look of distress. "I'm all alone now." One steaming tear trickled down her cheek. "I just... I wish I could make sense out of this... you know? Why did she leave?"
Nicklio shook his head sympathetically. He put his hand on her shoulder. "Xena was an amazing woman."
Gabrielle took a deep breath. Suddenly curious, she asked, "Did you know Xena well?"
"Not well. I only know what M'Lila told me." He extended his arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and started them both walking again.
"M'Lila..." Gabrielle mouthed the name, trying to remember why she should recognize it. "Oh, yeah... the spices..."
"Yes," Nicklio smiled.
"Tell me about her. What does she have to do with Xena?"
The healer's eyes widened. "You ask a question that has many answers."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle tried not to let her impatience resurface.
"Gabrielle, sit down there, and I will tell you." He pointed to a large boulder near the road. The bard did as he said. He leaned against a tree and began.
He told Gabrielle the story of how Xena and M'Lila met and became friends on the warrior's ship. He explained how the young Egyptian taught Xena to fight, apply the 'pinch,' take advantage of her opponents with acrobatics, use a staff and sword. He told her what he knew of their relationship... how, despite the language barrier, they had become connected during those months they sailed aimlessly in circles, waiting for Caesar.
Gabrielle cried openly when he described how M'Lila rescued Xena's crippled, barely-living body from a cross and brought her to him on Mt. Nestos. "Do you want me to continue?" he asked upon seeing the streaks on her face.
Gabrielle nodded and wiped her nose on the sleeve of her parka.
Nicklio explained how M'Lila sacrificed herself to save Xena's life when Caesar's men attacked. And, he tried to relate the hours that followed M'Lila's death... how Xena had held the girl... how she finally laid M'Lila's head down gently on the pallet, looked up at him, but right through him, and strode out of the hut. "I didn't see Xena again until you brought her here last night," he said sullenly.
The bard's eyes were large and her mouth hung open. She blinked and looked through the trees. She saw a deer nosing around in the snow not far from them. Watching the doe, without really seeing it, she sat silently for a long time.
"And, Xena said it was just years of practice..." she finally muttered to herself.
"Nothing." Puzzled, she cocked her head. "So, who taught M'Lila how to fight like that?
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open again. "Artemis?... the goddess?!"
"No other would dare take that name."
"When? How? Why?"
The healer raised his eyebrows and chuckled. "Again, a question with many answers. Is this a habit of yours?"
The bard smiled in spite of herself. "Just tell me."
"M'Lila was born in the land of the pharaohs. When she was ten winters old, she and many women and children from her village were abducted by slavers. She was sold to a cruel landowner who lived near the sea in Gaul. Her life there was unending misery. Even as a child, M'Lila was full of fight and determination, and she tried repeatedly to help those who suffered with her. By the time she was twelve, she had seen her mother and sisters killed at the hand of her master. And, one year later, of the thirty women and children who had been sold with her, only M'Lila remained alive." Nicklio had been staring at the ground as he spoke. He looked up and noticed the deer had ventured closer to them.
Gabrielle listened intently.
"One day, M'Lila's master beat her badly...
"You worthless little bitch!" The big, brawny Gaul back-handed M'Lila to the ground and spit on her. "My men can't seem to whip you into obedience, but I will!" He kicked her hard in the back. "I'm sick and tired of your rebellion, always inciting the others to try to escape." He dragged her up by her hair. As he reared back to hit her, M'Lila rammed her fist into his jaw. Surprised, her master stared at her. "That's for my mother and sisters," she hissed. Because she caught him off guard, she was able to hit him again. "And, that's for all the women and children you've killed. May you rot in Tartarus!" Enraged, her master threw her down and began pounding her head. Just as M'Lila was about to lose consciousness, she heard a loud voice. "Get away from her, you mortal bastard scum!" The next thing M'Lila knew, the man was lying next to her on the ground...
"...dead, from an arrow shot straight through his temples." Nicklio adjusted his headband.
"An arrow," Gabrielle breathed. "Artemis?"
"Yes, the warrior goddess... protector of women and children."
The bard asked Nicklio to go on.
"Artemis brought M'Lila here, to Mt. Nestos."
"Mt. Nestos has always been favored by her and her brother, Apollo. They come here often."
Gabrielle glanced around. Besides Nicklio, she only saw the doe, which stopped nibbling and looked up at her with large, deep eyes.
"Was it here that Artemis taught M'Lila how to fight?"
"Yes. The goddess asked a family in the village to care for the girl. M'Lila stayed with them almost four winters. During that time, Artemis was here frequently. Hardly a full moon passed that she didn't come to be with M'Lila. She taught her... and M'Lila practiced the skills she learned... she became a strong warrior."
Gabrielle grinned. "Maybe it WAS the practice..." she mumbled. She raised a hand. "Wait, so Artemis did this... because?"
Nicklio was quiet for a few minutes. Then, he looked directly at the bard. "Artemis asked M'Lila to help her fight for goodness... help defend those who couldn't help themselves... such as women and children. She told M'Lila she had chosen her to become the first great, mortal, female warrior."
"Are you saying that since M'Lila taught Xena how to fight, Xena was also chosen by Artemis?!"
"I cannot say. If that was the intention, M'Lila never confided it to me. However, I do know that Artemis guided M'Lila's travels when she left Mt. Nestos."
"What do you mean?"
"As I said, M'Lila spent four winters here. Then she decided to return to Gaul to try to free others who were enslaved there. She made several trips over the next years and helped many escape. She was on her way back from one of those trips when she was caught stowing away on Xena's ship." Nicklio dug a hole in the snow with the toe of his boot. Gabrielle noticed the sadness on his face. "After each trip, M'Lila would come to the mountain to be with her family. Each time she did, Artemis would come to her and provide counsel for her next journey."
"But it doesn't make any sense. If M'Lila was her chosen, why didn't Artemis save her from being killed?"
"I have no answer for that." Nicklio pursed his lips. "Artemis came to Mt. Nestos the night M'Lila died... just after Xena departed. She stormed into my hut like a cyclone. When she saw M'Lila's body, she lifted me off my feet and demanded to know what happened. When I told her that M'Lila had forfeited herself for Xena, a solitary tear fell from her eyes. She caught it in her hand as it dropped from her cheek.
Gabrielle gaped. "What did she do then?"
"She went to M'Lila's body. She smoothed her hair and kissed her. I heard her say she'd see her soon in Elysium. Then asked me where Xena was. I told her how Xena had acted... how she just left. Artemis seemed very worried, and before she disappeared, she said, 'I've got to get to her before Ares does.' Then she was gone. I haven't seen the goddess since that night."
The bard was still for a long time. "That was an amazing story." She smiled at Nicklio. "You told it very well."
The healer lowered his eyes.
"I'm a bard, you know..." She rose and touched Nicklio's sleeve. "M'Lila should be remembered... her story should be told. May I record it in my scrolls?"
The healer blinked away his tears and nodded. He put his arm around Gabrielle again as they headed back to his hut.
Apollo materialized in the woods next to the deer. He cleared his throat. The doe perked her ears toward him and then transformed itself into Artemis. They stood watching Gabrielle and Nicklio walk away.
"I'm beginning to understand why Xena is so smitten by this young woman," Artemis stated.
"Hmm... If nothing else, she has an incredibly strong heart. Not many could withstand this much pain." Apollo turned to his sister. "It goes against everything I stand for to continue to let her suffer so dreadfully. Her grief is unfathomable. It is too great a price to pay."
The compassion in the goddess's eyes was apparent. "You can't put a price on what's at stake here, Apollo. It's priceless. If there were any other way..." She bowed her head. "Look, Gabrielle's lifeline is still holding onto Xena's. And... you gave your word."
"Yes..." he exhaled a perturbed sigh. "So, how did M'Lila fare?"
"As well as I expected. Xena is already working on a plan to get to the ambrosia. She is extremely clever... but, then, she was taught by the best."
"Don't break your arm patting yourself on the back, lovely sister. You can't take all the credit for Xena's abilities."
"I admit that. But, I provided the foundation for her to build upon. ...And, I like to think I'm an occasional source of inspiration for her continuing improvement."
"Don't bet on it, Artemis. It is a well known fact on Olympus that the warrior has little veneration for the gods."
The goddess didn't reply.
"Artemis, how much longer is this 'plan' going to take? I gave you my word, but I'll sooner break it than let this girl go insane from torment."
"It won't be much longer, Apollo. Tomorrow Gabrielle will start back down the mountain."
"I find it hard to believe she even made it UP the mountain in her condition. Artemis, I've been watching this lass... and I, too, am starting to see why Xena... why anyone... would be affected by her."
The goddess flinched with surprise.
Apollo's eyebrows rose. "Are you sure you've chosen the right woman to succeed M'Lila? Maybe it's that girl you should be grooming. She has not yet developed all the skills you require of a warrior, but a brilliant, unwavering light shines in her soul. ...Her wisdom and morality are unmatched." He raised his chin. "You're aware of my prophetic abilities as the god of light and excellence... Take it from me, Artemis, your champion mortal warrior may be right there in front of you." He gave her a knowing smile and disappeared.
Artemis pulled an arrow out of her quiver and inspected it absently.
"Glad to know you think so, brother... I'm planning to get two for
the price of one. After all, Gabrielle IS my Amazon Princess."
Gabrielle sat outside Nicklio's hut. Daylight was beginning to fade. Nicklio was inside fixing their supper.
His words crashed around in her mind, and she tried to fit the pieces of his story into the puzzle that was Xena's life. Her own life had become a part of this labyrinth now. Here she sat, all alone on a mountain so far from Potidaea... so far from the life she lived when she met the Warrior Princess.
Why was it never easy?! Always, just when she thought she understood Xena, something like this would come to light, and she'd have to rethink the entire riddle. Why hadn't Xena told her about M'Lila? Could it be they weren't as close as Gabrielle thought they were? 'I could spend the rest of my life trying to figure this out,' she mused. 'But none of it would matter, if I could just have the answer to one thing...' She leaned her head back and gazed upward. "Why did you just leave me?! Why didn't you fight to live?! It's not fair!"
Feeling her innards knotting, the bard took several deep breaths. The air was getting colder, and it hurt her lungs. Still, she continued to inhale, hoping the cold would numb her insides.
'Fair.' The idea remained glued in her head. What wasn't fair? It wasn't fair that Xena left her here to suffer alone? Gabrielle stood up. A thought slammed into her consciousness. What was Xena going through right now? Never mind why Xena left. Wouldn't she be going through this harrowing grief too?! The bard turned and looked at Nicklio's hut, as if she could see Xena's body through the wall. All at once, she pulsed with the absolute knowledge that the warrior was feeling this same pain of separation.
True, they may not have had time to share EVERYTHING with each other. Xena had her reasons for not telling her about M'Lila... she probably would have told her in time. But, they had been remarkably close! Gabrielle felt utterly united with Xena... and, her gut assured her Xena felt likewise. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine how Xena might be dealing with this dolor. It was somehow oddly comforting to know that, even now, they were sharing another experience... albeit a supremely wretched experience.
Overwhelmed by the need to touch Xena, Gabrielle hurried into the hut and walked to the pallet. Startled, Nicklio stood up from his cooking. After the slightest delay, she pulled back the blanket. Immediately, she put it back over Xena's face. Her hand gripped the pallet to steady herself. Tears threatened, but she gulped them down. She wasn't ready to do this. It was one thing to picture Xena in mourning in the underworld. It was quite another thing to look at her lifeless face and realize that she was in the underworld to stay. Her mind could not accept it. Searing pain enveloped her entire being.
"Are you okay, Gabrielle?" Nicklio stepped close to her.
"I don't think so," she breathed.
Gabrielle forced herself to eat the supper Nicklio had prepared. She wasn't at all hungry, but she wanted strength for tomorrow's journey. She figured she could make it to the Strimon River by sundown and half-way to Amphipolis the next day.
Her plate empty, she pushed it away. "Nicklio, do you know a place near the Strimon where I can find shelter if we run into foul weather?"
The healer thought for a moment. "There are many caves in that area, large enough for Argo and the litter. I also know of an inn. It is in the last village before the river. It is run by friends of mine. They would be good to you."
Gabrielle nodded. "I'll keep that in mind. Thank you."
Nicklio finished eating and rose. "Gabrielle, would you like to bathe?"
The bard blinked at him with surprise. She looked down at herself. It had been three days since she'd been able to wash. Her clothes were a mess. Dried blood and dirt covered them. It hadn't occurred to her how filthy she was... her mind had been too crowded with thoughts of Xena to think about something as trivial as soap and water. Though she didn't have the energy to, she knew she had to take care of herself. "Is there somewhere I can wash?"
"There are bath huts in the village if you don't mind the hike. Or, I have a small tub which I will fill for you. I have water heating." He gestured toward two large pots suspended over the fire.
"Here will be fine. I don't need to go all the way into the village.
May I wash my clothes too?
"Yes, of course." Nicklio went to the back of the hut and grabbed hold of a metal tub. He dragged it close to the fire. Grunting, he lifted the pots and dumped the water into the tub. He uncovered a barrel of water that was against the wall near the hearth and used a bucket to fill the pots again. After hanging them over the flames, he tossed more logs in the fire. Then, he moved to open a trunk. He withdrew a long, wool robe and a thick towel. "Here," he said as he handed them to Gabrielle. "Remove your clothes and put this on. The water will be hot soon. I'll be back to pour it into the tub for you. I'm going to feed the horses now." With that, he snatched a parka and was out the door.
Gabrielle looked at the steam coming from the tub. Ordinarily, she would have sighed in anticipation of the warm water on her body. Tonight, bathing was a dreaded chore. She unlaced her boots, pulled them off, and undressed. The air in the hut was cool; she felt goosebumps rise on her skin. She stepped closer to the fire as she wrapped the robe around her.
Nicklio returned presently and transferred the heated water from the pots into the tub. "It's not a lot of water, but it should do." He stooped to pick up her clothes.
"No, you don't have to wash those, Nicklio. I can do it."
"I'll take care of it. You get in now before the water cools." He strode back outside.
Gabrielle shrugged the robe from her shoulders and carefully stepped into the tub. It was just wide enough for her to squat down with her knees against her breasts. She winced when the water came into contact with the cut on her leg. The water covered all of her, except her shoulders. She ran her hands over her limbs. She wasn't going to be able to wash thoroughly in this small space, but at least most of the grime would rinse off. There was no way she could wash her back. She suddenly slapped the water angrily. Another thing Xena wasn't around to do anymore!
Reaching over the side of the tub, she grabbed the bucket Nicklio had used. She dunked it and poured the water over her head. She did this three more times. The water ran down her face, along with her tears. She tried to tolerate the memory of Xena's hands washing her hair, washing her back, washing behind her ears. She remembered how sometimes the warrior would message her neck and shoulders. Xena's hands were so strong, but gentle.
There were days when one of them had been injured or ill, and they had to help wash the other's entire body... like the time Xena was recovering from a sword wound in her abdomen. A healer had instructed Xena to lie completely flat for two days so the wound would close. When Gabrielle bathed her, she noticed the look on the warrior's face as she lie still watching the bard move a sponge over her stomach, tenderly cleaning the cut. And, she had seen the warrior's expression when she brought the sponge to her hip bone, over her groin, and then between her thighs. The vulnerability in Xena's eyes had almost moved Gabrielle to tears.
Gabrielle sat motionless in the tub. Until this minute, she had never realized the true measure of trust, caring, and intimacy that existed between them. She could hear her tears hitting the water as they rolled off her cheeks.
Still wearing the thick robe Nicklio had given her, Gabrielle leaned on a pillow against the wall. Nicklio had laundered her clothes, and they hung drying near the fire. He had urged her to try to sleep, but she was afraid of another nightmare. She watched the flames with weary eyes. Tomorrow night, she'd have to make camp on her own. She hoped she could snare a rabbit for her supper. Or, maybe she could trouble Nicklio for enough food to see her through to Amphipolis. Then again, she could stay in the inn he'd mentioned. She'd enjoyed the few times Xena had agreed to sleep at an inn.
She recoiled upon being invaded by more memories. She and Xena had stayed at an inn when they went to the festival in Philippi. They so seldom slept anywhere but under the stars. Therefore, the night at Philippi stuck out in her mind... for more reasons than one.
They had arrived at Philippi late in the afternoon. The bard was very excited. To Xena, it seemed like she was bouncing off the walls of their room at the inn.
"Gabrielle, calm down. Come and help me here." She held one of their pouches out. "Unpack what we need from this. Then, I'll take it downstairs and secure it with Argo's saddle."
"Xena!... how long will that take?! I was hoping we could catch a couple of performances before dinner." She couldn't wait to go to the city center to watch the theatrical acts. Many famous dance and drama troupes were in town to compete for the coveted annual Philippian Prize. She sorted through the items in the bag and handed it back to the warrior.
"It won't take long, Gabrielle. I'll be right back." The warrior bounded out the door and down the stairs.
Gabrielle perused the room... small fireplace with a rug in front of it, plenty of wood, two chairs, a bench, table with water basin and pitcher, one full-sized bed. The bard was glad for that. She had liked sleeping next to Xena the night before. She had concluded that the warrior's body was at least a few degrees warmer than her own... or perhaps it was her own body which had become heated.
She walked to a pair of slatted doors behind which she could see light. She suspected they opened to a overhanging window. She pulled them apart and was thrilled to find a small balcony. She stepped out and took in the view. Their room was on the third floor at the back of an inn which adjoined several others. She could look down into the balconies of the rooms below and to the sides of hers. They were all empty. 'No doubt, everyone ELSE is at the festival!' she pouted. Behind the string of inns was an expansive field. 'At least, there'll be no city sounds to keep us awake tonight,' she thought.
She could see the stables not far from the inn. She looked for Xena. No sign of her. "What's taking her so long?"
She started to go back into the room, but movement caught her eye. Two floors below, on a balcony of the adjoining inn, two women stepped outside. Looking as if they'd just bathed, they wore robes, and their hair was wet. They were both tall, tanned, and lean. One of them had straight, shoulder-length, brown hair. The other's was the color of corn silk, and it curled down past her shoulder blades.
The dark-haired woman leaned forward on the ledge of the balcony and tipped her head back into the sun luxuriously. The other woman stepped behind her and put her arms around her waist. The brunette turned her face and received a long, soft kiss from her companion.
Gabrielle blinked and jerked her head in surprise. Then she grinned. 'I thought they looked like Amazons!' The bard's eyes wandered over the walls of inn where the women were staying. She was looking for the name of the inn. Then she remembered this was the rear of the building... there wouldn't be any signs hanging back here. She looked into the balcony beside hers which extended from the same establishment. Her eyes were drawn to a design which had been burned into the wooden bench that sat against the wall. It was a labrys.
She trained her eyes on the women again. She knew, from the time she'd spent with the Amazons, what the labrys represented. It confirmed what was going on down there between those two gorgeous females.
She turned her body again to retreat into the room, but she couldn't tear her eyes away from the amorous display below. The dark-haired woman had taken her lover's hand and slid it through the opening in her robe. The blonde, meanwhile, removed chestnut hair from a long neck and began placing sensual kisses on the skin. The first woman moved her fingers back into the blonde's hair.
Xena stepped through the still open door of their room and saw Gabrielle on the balcony. She could tell the bard was watching something with rapt attention. The warrior walked quietly out to where she was standing. Gabrielle didn't hear her approach.
Following Gabrielle's gaze, Xena did a double-take when she saw the women. Her eyes widened, and she snapped her head back to Gabrielle... then back to the Amazons... to Gabrielle... and again to the women. The blonde was now moving a hand up her lover's muscled thigh. Her hand disappeared under the robe, and the brunette let out an audible moan. Xena looked at the bard again. Gabrielle's face didn't hold any particular expression, but she gawked intently. Xena caught her breath. Gabrielle might be able to stand here and watch this without her legs giving out, but she definitely could not. She frowned at the bard, then grinned, and finally raised an eyebrow. "Indulging in voyeurism now, Gabrielle, or are you conducting research for one of your stories?"
Gabrielle twisted around. "Xena!! I... um... I was just... er..." Her face beet-red, she swallowed and dropped her eyes.
Xena gave her a small smile. "It's okay, Gabrielle. After all, love is love." She walked back into their room.
The bard took a deep breath and followed her.
"So, you ready to go?" Xena asked without turning around. Gabrielle didn't answer. The warrior looked at her. She was staring at the bed. "Gabrielle, you alright?"
The bard's head rose. "Yeah, I'm good." She flashed an embarrassed smile and raised her eyebrows. "Let's go!" She walked slowly past Xena toward the door. "You know, Xena, I'm hungry all of a sudden. Maybe we could eat first and then watch the shows."
"Sure, Gabrielle, fine." Xena's eyes were wide as she pushed the bard out the door.
Nicklio laid a blanket over Gabrielle's legs. She had been sleeping about four hours. He could see that she wasn't sleeping well, but any rest she could get was crucial at this point. She had woken twice already from bad dreams. Each time, she had struggled to stay awake, but her fatigue got the better of her.
The healer could not comprehend why Apollo had denied this young woman
his comfort. Gabrielle could not withstand much more of this agony. She
already looked sick. Nicklio tried to think of a potion which would at
least strengthen her body. He looked at the beams in the roof. The gods
must be playing their games again. "What's going on Apollo,"
Gabrielle was not in the room when Nicklio awoke. Her clothes were no longer hanging by the fire. He rubbed his eyes and stood up. He heard voices outside the hut. It sounded like Tyrus. He splashed water on his face and headed toward the door. When he opened it, he saw the bard sitting on a bench with Tyrus, talking quietly. She was holding his hand. He heard her telling Tyrus how Xena had changed her evil ways. The healer's mouth fell ajar. Where did she find the strength to comfort the old man?! How did she know this is what Tyrus needed to hear so he could give up his bitter resentment.
Nicklio's eyes traveled to Tyrus's horse and wagon. On the wagon was a sarcophagus and two of Tyrus's sons. The healer inhaled sharply at the sight of the sarcophagus. It was an exact replica of M'Lila's. He walked out into the snow.
Tyrus stood up and gripped his arm in a greeting. "You'll have to help us carry it inside."
Nicklio nodded and headed toward the wagon. Two men on each side, they strained to lift the casket and lugged it into the hut. They lowered it not far from the pallet where Xena's body rested. Nicklio followed them outside.
Gabrielle still sat on the bench. Nicklio kneeled beside her. "Gabrielle, you must say goodbye now. Tyrus will seal Xena's body in the sarcophagus so that you can take her to Amphipolis."
The bard didn't move.
"Okay!!" Glaring at him, she stood, walked into the hut, and slammed the door. She kicked it and then bowed her head against it. Summoning every ounce of courage she had, she turned and compelled her feet toward Xena's body.
The bard looked into the empty sarcophagus and then at the blanket covering her best friend. She gritted her teeth and fell to her knees. "I can't do this!" she said aloud. Her breath coming in short gasps, she clenched her fists and tried to calm herself. With total concentration, she forced herself to stand and go to the pallet. She took a deep breath and whipped the blanket from Xena's face. She inhaled a quaking breath and swallowed hard.
Stretching a shaky hand toward Xena's cheek, her fingers traced the warrior's features. Tears welled as she realized she'd never again look into those unbelievably blue eyes. Brushing the dark, shiny hair back from her face, she whispered, "Those bangs were always getting in your eyes." She ran two fingers along Xena's strong jaw and recalled the countless times she'd protruded it in defiance. With her other hand she brushed her thumb over Xena's left eyebrow. The warrior was forever raising that eyebrow at her. Gabrielle leaned over and kissed it gently. She kept her face close to Xena's. How could she bare never to behold this beautiful face again?!
She pressed her palm fully against Xena's cheek and brought her other hand to the opposite cheek.
Stifling a sob, she laid tender kisses on her forehead, eyes, and cheeks. Why in Tartarus hadn't she shown Xena more affection when she had the chance?! How many times did she have an impulse to kiss Xena's cheek?... to hug her?... to...
Now sobbing uncontrollably, she pulled the stiff corpse into her arms. She held it very tightly as she kissed the forehead and caressed the shoulders. Finally, she eased the body back onto the pallet. She took the face in her hands again. "Xena, I can't say goodbye."
Nicklio's voice at the door caught her attention. She kept looking at Xena's face.
"Gabrielle, it's time."
Gabrielle knit her brow and more tears poured down her face. She put her fingers lightly on Xena's lips and then removed them so she could place her own lips there. She pressed them on Xena's mouth for several seconds. Her tears fell on the warrior's face. She finally withdrew and stepped back from the body. Nicklio took her shoulders and made her move farther away.
Tyrus and his sons positioned themselves so they could lift Xena's body into the sarcophagus. Upon Tyrus's signal, they all lifted and slowly moved her over and down into the box.
The bard couldn't watch. She squirmed away from Nicklio and rushed outside.
"Gabrielle..." Tyrus put a tentative hand on her shoulder.
She wiped her eyes and turned from leaning against Argo. She gazed up at the old man. "I can't possibly have any tears left."
He squeezed her shoulder with understanding. "It will take a while for my boys to hitch the litter to Argo." He took her arm. "Come, I want to show you something."
The bard let him lead her around a bend through the woods. They hadn't been walking long when they came to a small, stone structure not far from the trail.
"This is M'Lila's tomb," Tyrus said with a somber voice.
"Oh..." Gabrielle breathed reverently. "May I go inside?"
Tyrus nodded and stepped in front of her to open the door. He ducked his head and followed her inside.
The room was lit by large candles. In the center of the room was a sarcophagus which appeared to be precisely like Xena's. Gabrielle scrunched her face at this but didn't question Tyrus. Canvassing the room again, she saw a table. She stepped over to it. On top were several garments and weapons.
She looked over her shoulder. "May I?" Tyrus nodded gravely. Her hands ran over a staff, a whip, and a pair of boots. She picked up the corner of a thick cloak and rubbed the fabric between her fingers. She noticed another item of clothing and carefully pulled it from under the cloak. She gaped when she spread it out. It was a thin bodice. On it was a design very similar to Xena's breastplate. Her hand nudged a leather armband.. she picked it up. Her head shot back toward Tyrus. "Just like..."
"Astonishing," Gabrielle exclaimed as she scrutinized the items again. She spun around to look at the casket again. "So that's why you built them alike."
The man nodded again.
The bard walked to the sarcophagus. One tear fell as she realized what a significant part of Xena's past lay before her. She put one hand gently on the edge of the wood. Something on the top glistened. She peered closer. Inlaid randomly on the metal were several tiny diamonds. She was sure she hadn't seen any jewels on Xena's sarcophagus. She gave Tyrus a quizzical glance.
"I am not responsible for those," he stated.
Gabrielle cocked her head and frowned. "What do you mean?"
"We don't know for sure who laid those diamonds. They weren't there when we brought the sarcophagus here. But, several days afterwards, my wife came to tend the candles, and she noticed them."
"You don't know who put them there?"
"Not with certainty. But, we believe they are tears."
"Tears?" the bard was befuddled.
"The tears of a goddess... which became diamond when they fell on the casket."
Gabrielle directed her eyes at the gems again. "Artemis..." she whispered in awe.
The bard stepped backwards from the center of the room. She touched the sleeve of Tyrus's coat. "It was kind of you to share this with me."
"You helped me to understand. I hope this did the same for you."
"It did... thank you. I mean that."
Tyrus put his hand on the door to exit.
"Wait." Gabrielle bit her bottom lip. "May I light a candle?"
The old man's chin quivered slightly as he gave his permission.
Gabrielle picked a candle out of a box near the door. She tipped the
wick to the flame of the largest candle which burned at the head of the
sarcophagus. She held it up close to her face and placed her other hand
on the casket. "M'Lila, I light this candle for Xena. She would've
wanted to do it herself." Tears brimmed in both Tyrus's and Gabrielle's
eyes. "She'll tell you so when you meet her in Elysium."
Argo snorted when Gabrielle yanked on his reins. She looked back over her shoulder once more and waved again to Nicklio and Tyrus. In a way, she was sorry to leave them. They had been the conduits for her new perception of the Warrior Princess. Despite the grief that would inevitably be linked with her memory of this mountain, she would always remember the extraordinary story of M'Lila and what she meant to Xena.
"Come on, Girl." She tugged the horse into motion. Nicklio had saddled Argo and filled her bags with provisions. The extra weight of the sarcophagus on the litter didn't seem to phase the mare. Gabrielle was surprised Argo had walked away with her so willingly. Didn't she wonder where Xena was? Maybe Argo knew she pulled her owner's body behind her.
It was a good day for traveling, even down a snow-covered mountain. Maybe they'd make better time than she'd anticipated. The bard took in the scenery. Icicles dripped from the bare trees, snow covered the evergreens like thick blankets, melted snow ran over rocks toward the stream ahead of them. She squinted her eyes at the bright sky. Even though the trees partially blocked her view, she decided the sky seemed bigger from up here.
They'd been walking for a while when she felt her stomach rumble. She'd had no breakfast, and it was past lunch time. "Woah, Argo." The horse came to a halt. Gabrielle undid one of the pouches and found some bread and cheese. Carrying the food to the litter, she sat down on the end of it and began eating. She felt very tired already, but she blamed it on lack of food rather than the very little sleep she'd had during the past four days.
As she chewed, she become aware of a deer standing in the path ahead of Argo. She thought it strange that the horse hadn't huffed at the animal. The doe looked remarkably like the one she'd seen yesterday while she was talking with Nicklio. It looked at her with the same huge, penetrating eyes. Gabrielle shrugged off the coincidence. She had the longing to comment about it to Xena. Oh, but she couldn't do that anymore. The reminder thundered down on her like a sledgehammer.
She glanced at the casket and then hung her head. Everything was so different now. Everything was somehow suspended. She felt terribly frustrated by the impulses which had become habitual, such as pulling enough food for two from their bag, handing the reins to Xena when she tired of holding them, looking to the warrior for an encouraging smile when she needed one. Gabrielle leaned her head back and looked up. Xena's absence, like the whole sky, covered everything.
Xena had become an extension of her... And, now that part had been amputated... like an arm... just lopped off. How could she go on without it? It was like learning how to live all over again. And, this helix of grief was making her dizzy. How many times would she be astounded by the vast crater Xena left in her soul? How many times would the severity of Xena's absence surprise her and cause her to say, 'I never fully recognized my loss until this moment.' It was like the same arm being cut off over and over. It was like witnessing Xena's death again and again. She remembered the saying, 'the coward dies many times.' "So does a loved one," she said aloud. She thought of Prometheus... the vulture found a fresh liver to tear every day... just as grief reopened her wounds every hour.
The evening sun was nearing the horizon. It reflected in Gabrielle's eyes. She held Argo's reins as the horse drank from the river. She felt so alone she could hardly endure it. "They say people can die from a broken heart, Argo... I think that's what is happening to me." The horse bumped her nose into the bard. "Okay, Girl... I'll take her to Amphipolis, and THEN I'll die."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes at herself. She knew she wasn't thinking straight. She knew she had to let go of Xena or else she would drive herself over the edge. Xena wouldn't want that. The warrior would want her to go on with her life. But, Xena WAS her life! The bard balled her fists. "Argggg! Xena! Why can't you just come back?!"
Argo neighed and poked her nose at Gabrielle again. The bard sighed. "We need to find shelter, don't we?" She led the mare along the riverbank. They'd made it to the Strimon on schedule. Nicklio said there were caves near the river. She spotted an opening in the rocks not far ahead. When they reached it, she tied the horse to tree. "You wait here, Girl. I'll check it out." Gripping her staff firmly, she stepped cautiously into the darkness. She let out a shout to gauge the size of the cave. There was not much of an echo. She ducked back outside.
"It's too dark to tell, Argo. I need a torch." She rummaged inside a saddlebag for a skin of oil and a rag. After ripping the rag into strips, she poured oil over them and scouted around the surrounding area for a log. When she found one, she wrapped its end with the strips of material. Two stones clashed together sparked a flame to the oily strips. Holding the torch high, she stepped again into the cave. The grotto appeared to be the perfect size... enough room for Argo to drag the litter in and still turn around. There wasn't evidence that it was being used as a home by animals, and no human tracks either. 'This will do,' she thought.
Gabrielle made speedy work of setting up camp. First, she led Argo into
the cave, unhitched the litter, and led the horse back outside, where she
tied her to a tree. Having gathered wood, she started a small fire, and
unrolled her blankets. She went back into the night to feed Argo. A feedbag
was attached to the bridle and his saddle removed. Her foot caught on a
rock as she carried the heavy saddle into the cave, and she fell to one
knee. Stumbling to her feet, she lugged it inside and dropped it hard,
more due to weakness than frustration. "Sorry," she winced. Xena
wouldn't have liked that one bit. She made a promise to herself to oil
the saddle in the morning.
The bard sat on her blanket. She should eat, but she didn't feel like it. Her thoughts were soon consumed by her loneliness. "I miss you so much," she murmured, staring at the casket. "I'd give anything to have you back."
"Anything, Gabrielle??" The warrior's eyes sparkled.
"Yes, I'd give anything, Xena! Please, just say you will!!"
"The performance is sold out, Gabrielle."
"But, you said you know the stage owner. You could get us in!"
"Hmmm... maybe." Xena pretended to be interested in the trinkets a street vendor held out to her.
The bard stepped in between the man and the warrior. "Xena! This is the final competition! They choose the winner of the Philippian Prize tonight! You know how much I'd love to see the finalists perform." Her eyes begged like a puppy's.
Xena couldn't deny her any longer. She grinned. "Okay, Gabrielle, I'll see what I can do."
Gabrielle threw her arms around the warrior's neck. "Yeah! Oh, thank you!!"
Before Xena wished she would, Gabrielle let go and looked up at her expectantly. "Well? What, are you waiting for the Pleiades to rise?! Come on?! She grabbed Xena's hand and dragged her toward the city center.
When they arrived at the theater, Xena said, "Alright, Gabrielle, you wait right here." Both hands on top of the bard's shoulders, she pushed down, as if to plant her in the ground. She stepped up to a security guard at a side entrance. Her stare made him cower away. She ducked inside.
Gabrielle fidgeted and watched the door anxiously for a few minutes. At last, the warrior stuck her head out. "Come on." The bard jumped into the air and did a little skip. Then, she ran through the door Xena held open for her. Xena rolled her eyes and chuckled. It was so easy to please her.
Waiting for her eyes to adjust to the shadows behind the stage, Gabrielle took Xena's arm so she wouldn't stumble. "You got us seats, Xena?!"
"Well, not exactly." The warrior could see a worried expression cross the bard's face.
"I'm afraid all the seats really are sold, Gabrielle. But, my friend told me we could watch the performances from there." She pointed to the side of the stage, just behind the outer curtains.
Gabrielle gripped her arm tighter. "Xena, we get to watch from backstage?!... mingle with the players?!... talk to the musicians?!... see how it's all put together?!... This is fabulous!! She caught Xena off guard with another hug.
"I'm glad you're happy, Gabrielle."
"Happy?! I'm ecstatic! I haven't been this close to a live performance since I was in Athens. I love the feeling just before the curtain rises... sensing the adrenaline rushing through the performers... Someday, Xena, I hope one of my stories will be played before an audience as large as the one out there tonight."
"There's no doubt in my mind that many of your stories will be, Gabrielle."
The bard's eyes shined at the possibility.
A hush gradually fell over the performance hall. "They must be ready to begin," Xena remarked. She led Gabrielle to the side of the stage. Although they had to stand back out of the way of the performers who lined up to go on, their view was good. Xena stood behind Gabrielle to give her the better perspective. They both jumped when loud music suddenly blared from the musicians' pit. Dozens of costumed dancers leaped gracefully onto the stage and began a synchronized dance. Gabrielle twisted around and beamed at Xena with delight.
Over the next hour, they watched three of the four performances which were being considered for the Philippian Prize. So far, they had enjoyed a bacchaean dance number, a soloist's rendition of 'Artemis's Theme,' and a unique interpretation of 'Lysistrata.' In between productions, Gabrielle roamed the area backstage, talking with anyone who could spare the time. As the crowd quieted for the last show, she slipped in front of Xena again. "Did you miss me?" she asked playfully.
"You may never know how much," Xena replied with a lilt in her voice.
Gabrielle's grin turned to puzzlement as she noticed something behind Xena. When the warrior turned to see what it was, her lips parted in surprise. Walking toward them were the two Amazons they'd seen from their balcony earlier in the day. Six other Amazons walked in pairs behind them. They strode past Gabrielle and Xena out onto the stage. They all assumed dance positions and waited for the curtain to rise.
Gabrielle groped for Xena's hand as she continued to stare at the two familiar figures. She leaned back and whispered, "Xena! No wonder those two women weren't out attending the performances this afternoon... They ARE a performance!"
"We can certainly attest to that," Xena said sarcastically into her ear.
Gabrielle's face flushed and she shot Xena a look over her shoulder.
The eight stunning Amazons presented a beautifully choreographed dance which seemed to hold the attention of everyone in the building. Mesmerized by the sight, the bard started when one of the dancers sprang through the air and landed very close to the side of the stage. Gabrielle backed up against Xena when the woman gave her an alluring smile. The dancer winked before she spun around and bounded back into another dancer's arms. Xena tried to keep a grin from her lips as she peaked down to see the bard's reaction. Again, like on the balcony, her face was almost expressionless.
Xena bowed her head to Gabrielle's. "She has no idea what she just got away with."
"What do you mean?" the bard inquired without taking her eyes from the stage.
"Flirting with the Amazon Princess is strictly forbidden!"
Gabrielle jabbed a teasing elbow in Xena's ribs.
Xena restrained herself from wrapping her arms around the adorable bard.
Xena worked on starting a fire in their room when they returned to the inn. They had stayed late at the festival. Gabrielle stepped in from the balcony. She had already washed and was now wearing a shift. "The sky is so clear tonight!" She stepped toward the fireplace. "Xena, you need any help?"
"No, I've got it." She blew on the kindling as it started to catch.
Gabrielle sat down on the rug in front of the hearth. "Thank you for getting us into the theater, Xena."
The bard dropped her head and looked at Xena through her bangs. "Okay, so what do you want?"
"Huh?" The warrior gently laid a log on top of the growing flames.
"I owe you. What is it you'd like?"
Xena gave her a confused glance. "What are you saying?'"
"I told you I'd give anything if you'd get us into the theater, and you did. So, I owe you... anything."
Xena moved from the fire and fell back off her haunches onto the rug.
"Gabrielle... you don't owe me anything."
"No, no, I want to pay up. What's your price?"
"Forget it, Gabrielle. It's not an issue."
The bard touched Xena's arm. "Xena! Really, what can I do to repay you?"
"Get off it, Gabrielle, You don't have to do anything."
"No, I'm not going to 'get off it,' Xena! You've done so many wonderful things for me, but you never ask anything. You're always giving, giving, giving, but I never get a turn. I want to do something, Xena. Now, you tell me!" Gabrielle's eyes blazed.
Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "Okay, Gabrielle..."
The bard waited eagerly.
"I want you to write a story."
"A story?! What about?!"
"A story about a woman... a woman who is unceasingly kind, unselfish, cheerful, determined, generous, full of humor, loyal, sensitive, wise, trusting, and has a profoundly expressive touch."
Gabrielle creased her eyebrows. "Who's that?!"
"You, Gabrielle!!" Xena looked straight into her eyes and smiled. "That's what I want... for once, a story about you. It would more than pay me back. In fact, it would be priceless."
"Xena! Don't be silly. Now, tell me what I can really do."
"For Gaia's sake, Xena. That's ridiculous! Now, come on... what?"
Xena rolled her eyes and pushed herself up. She walked to the bed, sat down, and began to undress.
Gabrielle jumped up and sat on the other side of the bed. "You're not going to answer me, are you?"
"I did, Gabrielle." Xena walked over to the water basin and rinsed her face.
Gabrielle pursed her lips and flopped down on the bed.
The warrior pulled her shift over her head and washed herself. She donned a clean shift, stepped back to the bed, and pulled down the blanket on her side. She scooted onto the mattress and tugged the blanket over her. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the bard still pouting at the ceiling. "Good night, Gabrielle," she said pleasantly.
"Hmmh," was Gabrielle's only reply.
Xena was just dozing off when she felt the bards fingertips on her arm. "Xena?"
"Huh?" She squinted up at the shadow leaning over her.
"... a profoundly expressive touch?!"
Xena grinned and pulled the strawberry-blonde head to her shoulder. With her other hand, she gently drew Gabrielle's arm partially over her own waist. She caressed the top of the hand for a moment and then laced her fingers through the bard's. "Nice touch, Gabrielle."
A sudden gust of wind outside the cave startled the bard. She hoped a storm wasn't brewing. She smeared her tears on a bare arm and wondered... Why couldn't Xena come back? She'd come back before! Her head ached, and she began to feel delusional. Then, a notion entered Gabrielle's consciousness which made her look at the sarcophagus in a completely different light.
It was for her own sake that she wanted the warrior to return. She didn't want to be without her. She was thinking of herself, when she should be thinking of Xena. Maybe Xena was better off now. She had been so tormented and guilt-ridden while she was alive. At times, Gabrielle wondered if the warrior would ever let herself find peace. Perhaps she could find it in the underworld. Besides, if Xena came back, she'd have to go through death all over again!
The bard chided herself. She claimed to love the woman so deeply, but here she sat wanting to bring her back to more suffering... 'What kind of love is that?!' she screamed at herself. 'It's your own fault anyway! If you'd only told her! You've got to let her go!'
She grabbed her blanket and spread it over her legs. She lay back and
felt her tears run rivers down the sides of her face. "But, I can't
let go. Forgive me, Xena. It may drive me insane, but I can't let you go."
She listened to the thunder. After a long while, she fell asleep.
"Nice to see you again so soon, Artemis." Clothos smiled broadly at the goddess.
Apollo appeared next to his sister.
"Oh, hello, Apollo." Clothos turned back to her work.
Artemis and her brother stood behind the Fates once again.
"Is there a problem, Artemis? What brings you here?" The god swung his white robe over his shoulder and straightened his laurel.
"Just a little concerned." Artemis looked apprehensively at Xena's lifeline.
Apollo hunched over to peer at the cord. "Gabrielle's thread is loosening... the warrior's line is starting to fall free. What happened?"
The goddess's face was impatient. "The bard is in a 'it's all my fault, she's better off in the underworld' haze. She's trying to convince herself to let go..." She pointed to the slacking lines. "You see the result."
"I told you... her heart is as pure as new-fallen snow. I'm not surprised she wants to do what she thinks is best for Xena."
"But, she almost made it!... She withstood so much grief. She only has to hold on a little longer!"
"Artemis, you can't fault her. The agony is too severe... the price too costly. She fears for her own sanity. She has to give in."
The warrior goddess looked at him sadly. The disappointment in her radiant eyes touched Apollo. He put his arm around her. "There, there... You never know... It's not over yet. After all, her thread is still wound around Xena's... at least slightly. Shall we see what's going on now?" He waved his hand, and they both saw an image of Gabrielle and Iolaus standing next to Xena's sarcophagus.
"She's gone. She just left me! How could she do that?! She just left. I really want to hate her for it."
Gabrielle's pain was obvious to Iolaus. "No, no you don't."
"But, I miss her. There are so many things that I wish I could tell her. Why didn't I when I had the chance?"
"We always think we have plenty of time. We know people are going to leave us, but we never face up to it." Iolaus leaned his forehead against Gabrielle's. "What would you have told her?"
"I would've told her how empty my life was before she came... all the lessons I learned... and that I love her."
"Gabrielle, you just told her." The warrior took the bard in his arms again.
Iolaus's words rang in her ears. She felt a surge of realization. She had failed to tell Xena how much she loved her while she was still alive. But, she could tell her now, and perhaps Xena would still hear!... Maybe it would give her the will to come back! How many times had Xena told her to be strong?! She could be strong! She could fight this pain! She could hold on!... If there was any chance that Xena could come back, she WOULD hold on!! 'Focus, Gabrielle, focus!' She gripped Iolaus's shoulders and concentrated on a thought. 'I love you, Xena... I LOVE YOU!... I won't let you go!' She took a deep breath and smiled at Iolaus. "I'M GONNA BE OKAY."
Artemis, Apollo, and the Fates all jerked their heads toward the sudden movement in the threads. Slowly, Gabrielle's lifeline started to snake itself around Xena's again. With building intensity, it finally clamped around the warrior's thread so firmly the entire braid vibrated from beginning to end. Artemis gasped and leaned forward to see that the cut in Xena's line was virtually imperceptible.
"Well!..." Apollo's eyes relaxed to their normal size.
Atropos and Lachesis swapped irked glances. Clothos suppressed a smile.
"That's it, Apollo!" Artemis clenched her fist with a sense of victory. "Gabrielle has endured the grief. She bore it! This grief is not going to kill her... or drive her mad. She's okay... and, she's still holding on! Gabrielle's cord is so taught now... Xena surely has the time she needs. Apollo, the price has been paid!"
Apollo chuckled warmly. "I must admit, Artemis, more than one payment has been made for Xena. M'Lila paid her price in full... Now, Gabrielle has done the same. I guess we ought to try to get our dinars' worth out of this warrior." He smoothed the hair from his sister's face and said sincerely, "I hope she makes it back."
"Thank you, Apollo." Artemis turned to go.
"Hey! Where are you off to so quickly?"
"Gotta go, brother. Time to celebrate!"
M'Lila sucked in her breath and regained her composure. Artemis had surprised her.
The goddess removed her lips from the back of the Egyptian's neck and turned her around. "She did it, M'Lila! Gods bless her, she held on! Xena will make it back now. I know she will."
M'Lila smiled genuinely. "Xena will carry on your legacy among mortals, Artemis. She will go back and fight for goodness. It is her destiny."
"And, what do you think of the bard's destiny?" the goddess asked as she nuzzled M'Lila's earlobe.
"Gabrielle's destiny is entwined with Xena's. They are good for each other, Artemis. The chemistry between them is powerful. Together they will make a dynamic difference for you." She drew the immortal closer against her.
Artemis breathed in her lover's fragrance, then hesitated. She drew her head back and raised an eyebrow. "Chemistry?"
M'Lila brushed her lips on the goddess's. "NICE chemistry."
NOTE: No sidekick's heart was broken during the writing of this story.
Eight gorgeous Amazon dancers won the Philippian Prize for their performance
of "The Dance of Unquenched Desire," and the Best New Artist
Trophy was awarded to a young orator from Lesbos for her recital of "Dreams
and Swords and Subtext."