This is the third and last of a series. It is strongly recommended that the two short pieces, "The Final Night" and "The Mountain Ridge" be read before reading "The Unspoken".
Charon waited without patience. The woman approached. He had seen her before. This time she walked more deliberately. She was keenly aware of the consequences of her approach to his boat. The ferryman carried souls across the river of death. This one, he thought with disgust had become a burden even before her arrival. He gave no consideration of those she had killed. No, he had delivered more than one warlord to their final destination. Xena was different. Once warlord yes, but for years now she had fought for the greater good. Hades so revered her that he took it upon himself to bring her to him.
Xena had visited this land before. The circumstances were far different. Then she came at the call of a lost love, Marcus. This time it was her own death. Hades gave her no sign whether she would rest in the Elysium Fields or be tormented in Tartarus. He had been called away, an unexpected council of the gods that could not wait. She would learn her judgement on the other side of the waters.
The greater good, he knew nothing of this. For Charon Xena was a wild cat that would not give up its lives. "Its you. Its you. Finally." Charon spat with earnest disgust. "What you have caused me to suffer, woman!"
Xena was confused. Was this a precursor of what awaited her on the other side? "What are you talking about? I've never harmed you."
"You never harmed me. You send a mute brat of a bard to torment me. Who ever heard of a bard who won't talk. Who? Tell me, who?" Pointing over Xena's right shoulder he continued his accusations, "She's been here for two days."
Stunned, Xena turned to see the spirit of Gabrielle sitting on a stone no more than ten paces from her. Gabrielle remained unmoved.
There was no reply. Triumphantly, Charon shouted, "See, see. She doesn't speak a word. I thought it was just me but its you too. She won't speak to you either."
Xena looked back to Charon. She asked him, "You do see her don't you?"
"Of course I do. I'm not blind. And I can hear myself talk so I know I'm not deaf either."
Again, Xena turned to Gabrielle. Speaking aloud to herself, "I don't understand. Gabrielle, go home to the Amazons. You don't belong here."
Gabrielle remained motionless. Xena took a step towards Gabrielle, then stopped. "No, no, no! I won't. I won't take you from where you rightfully belong."
To this Xena turned and walked forcefully back to Charon. Jumping into the boat she commanded, "Take me to the other side."
"And where are my coins." Charon rejoined.
Xena's surge of anger was quickly consumed by her own desperation. Any torment waiting her in Tartarus would pale to the specter of Gabrielle. Her voice betrayed her, "Please, take me to Tartarus."
Charon laughed loudly. He was merciless as he doubled over in his own amusement. "No one, in all my years, no one has begged me to be taken to Tartarus."
Xena, focused on Charon's glee at her expense, did not notice Gabrielle's apparition approach. Gabrielle stood near the shore. In seeing her Charon's mood quickly sobered.
"I'll take you but you have to get this one out of here."
"Shut up Charon!" Hades voice cut through the air. He stood at the caverns' threshold. "We have a problem, Xena. Your friend has refused Artemis and Artemis isn't taking it well. She is not accustomed to having an Amazon queen turn away from her. Artemis is holding you responsible."
Xena was well aware of Gabrielle's willfulness but she would have never wagered that Gabrielle would have refused Artemis. The Amazons were her people.
"What am I suppose to do?"
"Artemis has asked me to give you your life back. She believes Gabrielle will then quit this fruitless battle of wills."
"What if I don't want to go back?" Xena rebelled.
"Don't be a fool."
"What do I have to go back to?"
"You amaze me Xena. Anyone else would welcome another chance at life. You could do your good deeds. I admit it won't change a thing here when you do return."
Having endured enough Xena returned to her plea, "Take me to the other side."
"I'm impressed." Artemis appeared. "Why would one soul fight so hard to be with you when you are fighting so hard to escape her. Take the life that is offered you."
The phrase. Artemis had given Xena another possibility. "What do you mean 'be with me'? Are you saying Gabrielle will live too?"
Artemis considered her words carefully. "Only until her soul can rest."
"She can't rest now?" Xena asked.
"She refuses to rest?" Artemis replied.
Imagining Gabrielle's heart, Xena's compassion broke free. "With time. Tell her with time."
"Tell her yourself."
Sensing defeat, Xena turned to Hades. A god once an ally. "Hades, please tell Charon to take me to the other side. Why must I go back just to lose her again?"
"Because it was your request." Artemis stated with unexpected tenderness.
Hades took a step towards the embattled warrior. "Xena, the gods are answering your prayer."
Stunned, Xena challenged, "What prayer"
Nearing her, Hades explained, "The night before your crucifixion you asked the gods to forgive you. Forgiveness does not come without responsibility."
Xena was at a loss. "I don't understand."
Artemis responded. "Then I will explain it to you. I know what weighs heaviest on your heart. I also know that though you tried, you did not do all that needed to be done. And because of this Gabrielle will not rest. She is one of my queens and she belongs in my world. Gabrielle's defiance is admirable. I will be patient with her. I confess I cannot persuade her. This is the bargain, Xena. You will return to the world. You will complete what remains incomplete. Only then will death be free to touch you."
"If you know me so well you know I can't make things right without Gabrielle."
Artemis approached Gabrielle's apparition. "And that is why I will allow Gabrielle to return. But only for as long as it must be. No longer."
"How will I know when..."
Artemis turned and reached for Xena. "Give me you hand."
Xena complied. Artemis opened Xena's palm to reveal the wound left by the soldier's nail. She placed her own hand upon it. "When I heal Gabrielle's wounds you will have until the following sunrise. Do you agree?"
Xena hesitated. "I don't know."
"Then know this Xena. I will not take Gabrielle until her soul is ready to rest without you."
"Your word." Xena entreated.
"You have my word." Artemis promised.
Xena looked back across the river of death and then to Gabrielle's apparition. "And what happens to me?"
Hades spoke for this was his to determine. "You will live the balance of your life. And in death you will return here and face your judgement."
Xena jumped out of the boat and onto the shore. Returning her gaze to the young bard's image. "Where is she now?"
Artemis also fixed upon the bard, "Waiting for you."
"Then she knows of our bargain?"
Artemis turned to Xena. "It was her's to make."
Again confused, Xena questioned, "So she knows everything?"
Artemis considered Xena, debating how harsh her answer would be. She decided a simple statement of fact would suffice. "No. She doesn't know everything. That's the point, isn't it?"
Xena was feeling defensive. "I won't do anything to hurt her."
Artemis tried to reassure. "Would I make the bargain if I believed otherwise?"
Hades had listen to this exchange patiently. It was time to move on. "You two women are far too cryptic for me. Xena, do we have a bargain? Your debt is to Artemis. None of the other gods expect anything from you."
Doubtfully, Xena raised the name of one god she would never trust. "Ares?"
Hades began to take his leave. "We've taken care of Ares."
Looking down to her palm, Xena closed it to a fist. "I'll do it."
Artemis took a few paces in line with Hades then paused and returned her sight to Xena. "I must warn you Xena. I agreed to Gabrielle's demands because I consider you a woman of honor. I expect you to carry out this bargain with both courage and expediency. Do not disappoint me. If you do, no god will protect you from the consequences. I am willing to let Gabrielle's soul remain between worlds for all of eternity if that is her choice." With this statement, Artemis raised her hand to Gabrielle's image. It disappeared. "Have I made myself clear?"
In reflex, Xena took a half step forward towards Gabrielle and then pulled back. "Yes."
Artemis raised her arm in invitation. "Then I will take you to her."
* * *
The waterfall was one of their favorite places. The air was rich and sweet. The sounds of the waters music in their own right. The surrounding foliage dense, creating a haven. It was no surprise Gabrielle would wait for her here. Gabrielle rested on a large rock over looking the base pool. Her pose was similar to the apparition but unlike it her body had substance. Xena was relieved to see the apparent restoration of Gabrielle's strength. So different from the woman crucified. The woman who in death had held her gaze until she herself died. Still, Xena was determined to maintain her distance.
"Why the bargain?" Xena called out. This she could not understand. Gabrielle was proud, if not always comfortable with her status as an Amazon queen. Never did Xena expect Gabrielle to refuse her place in the after life. The young woman's gall in challenging the gods was a source of pride. A truth Xena would quell. "I never thought you would defy Artemis."
To this Gabrielle turned and jumped from the stone. Her joy was indisputable. "Xena."
Xena stood her ground. She held her hands behind her back. Her legs and body stiff. Her voice was measured. "Gabrielle."
Gabrielle had taken a number of quick steps forward but slowed her pace as she approached Xena. Something was wrong, very wrong. This was not the reception she had imagined. So sure of a different reunion she was unprepared for the moment. She paused before Xena.
"Are you angry with me?
The gods had no pity. Xena labored to contain the turmoil within her. Yes, she was angry but this was not an anger for Gabrielle to witness.
"I'm trying to understand."
Gabrielle began, "When I learned you couldn't follow me..."
Xena interrupted, her composure cold. "You always knew that Hades would take me."
In earnest, Gabrielle responded. "But shouldn't I have a choice."
"You are an Amazon." Xena stated in an academic tone.
"The Amazon nation claims you as one of its own. I am the queen. By right I can make it so." Gabrielle countered.
Dismissive, Xena responded. "Hades disagrees."
"If you can't follow me and I can't follow you then the gods have no mercy."
Xena laughed. It was cruel and she knew it. No matter how much she cared she wanted an end. "When have they shown any mercy. Go with Artemis."
"No. We are not done here. There is so much more to do."
"In this world that won't change. There will always be a wrong to right. Our time came. I thought..." Here Xena hesitated. It was difficult to maintain her flippancy given the image in her mind. "When you turned to me that last time. I was sure you accepted our deaths."
"Our deaths, yes. But death is not suppose to separate us."
Xena searched for an argument Gabrielle would accept. Her wit failed her. Truly this was not the time for it. "Nothing will change. There will come a time when we will die and Artemis and Hades will be waiting to make their claims. Nothing will be changed by this."
With renew confidence Gabrielle reasserted herself. "How do you know? Artemis admitted that there are things left undone."
"What things?" Betraying her own resolve Xena's sincerity was evident.
"I don't know. I can only feel it to be true."
"So, you propose we stay together until you figure this out?"
"Yes, and the gods agreed."
"Since when do you trust the gods." Like the break of a branch removed from its source Xena laid bare a plea. "Gabrielle, why would you wish to die again?"
"If it's the price I must pay, I'm willing to pay it."
Hearing this Xena's tone swiftly shifted to a sharp blade. "And what about me? Did you stop and think about what I may want?"
Gabrielle had marked each of Xena's shifts, from the coldness of a frigid pool to the moderate inquiry of a bird to the passion of a flame intent on destroying all within its reach. She herself was struggling with what she had bartered. Not knowing the outcome. Sensing that a price would be paid but doubting that it would weigh heavier then what faced her if she relinquished her fight. Gabrielle expected an opponent. She did not expect it to be Xena.
Gabrielle could only speak Xena's name.
"No, think Gabrielle. Think of what I felt as I watched you die. Think of the days and nights I suffered on the cross until Hades came for me. Go back even further and think about our last night together. What do you think I felt? Why are you making me come back just to lose you and my life all over again? I haven't chosen this. You have."
Gabrielle had not denied the thought of Xena's death. Gabrielle had accepted her destiny in her own way. However, her way was not Xena's. Death touched them differently. As Gabrielle looked into Xena's eyes, firmly in control in the midst of obvious pain, she began to comprehend the bitter truth of what Xena had endured. "There must be a reason. How many times have you said that to me? Why won't you believe this is for the best?"
Coldness returning to her voice Xena sought a final confirmation. "You won't go back."
Determine in her right, Gabrielle sounded an echo. "I won't. Not now. Not without you."
"But you will go back someday."
Reasserting the rules of their quest, "When all that must be is complete. Those were Artemis' own words."
"Where do we go from here?" Xena challenged.
"Where do you want to go?" Gabrielle responded in hopes of finding some common ground.
Xena would not concede any hope for reconciliation. "No. This is your making. You decide."
In waiting for Xena, Gabrielle had had the opportunity to consider where they would journey. She thought of Poteidaia, of going home. She feared her sister and parents had learned of her death. To return, knowing that death would soon visit her seemed heartless. She did not want them to mourn her again and again. And yet, this was the very burden she placed upon Xena. Xena did not look to others for solace. She had no community that welcomed her openly other than the Amazon nation. As queen it would be reasonable for Gabrielle to chose them as her destination. Xena would not question the choice. And so Gabrielle made her choice.
"The Amazons may have heard of our deaths. It would be good to go and explain."
As expected, Xena did not argue. "If that's what you want." Looking to the sky Xena measured the sun's path. "There is plenty of daylight left. We might as well get going."
Gabrielle took a private pleasure in her next words. "Argo is in the meadow waiting for us."
* * *
They walked silently, with dawn's light painting the horizon in hues of a crimson, azure and amber. It was not a comfortable silence. They set camp near a brook. The silence continued to envelop them as they completed their tasks. A fire, food withdrawn from their packs, Argo groomed, all was familiar. Gabrielle laid bread, cheese and fruit for their meal. She boiled water for tea. Xena was not hungry. Ruefully, she thought death would do that do an appetite. Xena had welcomed the return to life she enjoyed once before. But this was different. The reason was incomprehensible to her. Without knowing, Gabrielle had placed an intolerable burden upon Xena. Soon death will beckon Gabrielle. Xena will become a lone warrior. A state of being that had emboldened her in the past now tested her very desire to continue. The irony was cruel and inhumane. Xena could not blame the gods. They gave their consent but they had not created the circumstances.
Gabrielle placed her bedroll near the fire. She had Xena's in hand. "I'll take that." Abruptly, Xena took her bedroll from Gabrielle and placed it to the opposite side of the fire. Gabrielle knew she should not be surprised by the gesture. All of the day was a warning. She granted that Xena had every right to choose her bed. But she could not ignore that they had not slept distanced from one another since early in their travels.
Xena had taken care not to touch Gabrielle as she reached for her bedroll. Throughout the day she had maintained her physical distance. Her actions were thoughtful if not kind. As in battle Xena's tactics were intent on establishing a safe perimeter. She knew what she had done would not be taken well. So be it. Let her actions speak with the clarity that had eluded her words.
The time spent by the evening fire was theirs to speak their most difficult thoughts. For all that needed to be said Xena preferred delay. She had not been in the mind to consider what Artemis had given her and why? To complete what is incomplete. Why was this truth so critical to Gabrielle? Why wasn't what had been spoken enough? For now she would avoid the possibility. Her bed made she stood up and announced she was going to take a walk. Gabrielle said nothing. Her eyes watched as Xena left camp. She knew that Xena might not return until well into the night.
* * *
Gabrielle and Xena entered the Amazon village with an escort of four Amazon warriors. A runner had preceded them. Ephiny came out of her hut to greet them. Her manner was cautious as she studied each traveler in turn. Her grief for the loss of her friends had been acute. Now faced with evidence to the contrary she was not quick to accept that what she had been told had been a lie.
She turned to Gabrielle. "We heard Caesar's men had crucified you."
Gabrielle raised her palms. Her wounds Caesar's brand. "We were. Artemis interceded."
Ephiny's disbelief was tangible. Why Caesar acted as he did was explained by his hatred for Xena. Why Artemis did not simply accept Gabrielle and Xena into the land of the Amazons was a mystery. "Why?"
Gabrielle felt exposed. She wanted to speak with Ephiny but this was neither the time nor the place. As queen, she could command it however that was not her way. Gravely, Gabrielle replied, "I will explain everything. We've been traveling for more than three days. Right now we could use some food and rest."
Ephiny noted Xena's silence. Although always respectful of Gabrielle's status as queen it was unlike Xena to stand those many paces behind Gabrielle. The distance was troubling.
"Yes, of course. Your quarters are always at the ready."
To this Xena spoke her first words. They were directed to the queen. "I'll stable Argo and if you have no objection I'll make my bed there as well."
Gabrielle could no longer cloak Xena's divorce from her. Ephiny was now certain that there was something terribly wrong. Gabrielle turned calmly towards Xena though calm was diametric to what she was feeling. Instead of getting closer with the passing days as she hoped, Xena had taken very discernible steps to achieve the opposite effect.
As queen, Gabrielle answered, "If that is your wish."
Xena lead Argo to the stable as the Amazon nation silently stood witness.
* * * Xena groomed Argo. She took consolation in having this simple pleasure though the price she was paying for it was incalculable. The years had taught her many lessons. She had been forced to face truths that would have destroyed others. Though she could never escape her past she had been able to reach a place within her where the nightmares fueled by regret and guilt did not consume her. For this she relied on Gabrielle. For this she thanked Gabrielle. The prospect of continuing without her anchor frightened her. Alti's vision had been a torment. There was the brutal knowledge that Gabrielle would die because of Caesar. Caesar's only claim against Gabrielle was her bond with Xena. In Xena's logic that meant that she was responsible for Gabrielle's death. That Gabrielle accepted her fate did not ease the pain. Oddly, there was another rendering of the events that did give Xena a sense of justice. She would not live without her mainstay. Their endings were coupled.
Ephiny entered the stable. Having heard Gabrielle's telling of the events and knowing Xena's devotion to Gabrielle, Ephiny could only imagine the profound emotions Xena had endured.
Xena finished her stroke and then gave her attention to her friend. "Ephiny."
"Gabrielle explained everything."
"No. Not everything. She couldn't have." Xena turned and walked towards the stable window. Looking out to a world that gave her no constant peace.
Ephiny probed, "What do you mean?"
"Artemis knows why Gabrielle's souls will not rest."
Returning her attention to Ephiny, Xena's words were resolute. "Yes, I do."
"So, you know what has to be done."
"Yes, and I'm the one that has to do it."
Concerned for both Xena and Gabrielle, Ephiny sought more information. "Is it a difficult quest?"
Undeterred Ephiny asked whether she could help. Xena felt grateful to have a friend in Ephiny. Her loyalty to Gabrielle was certain. Her acceptance of Xena in spite of a difficult history appreciated. Xena went to Ephiny and took her arm in her own, placing her free hand upon Ephiny's shoulder.
"No, my friend, you can't. Its nothing that requires a sword or a quiver and a bow."
"I have more to offer than my fighting skills."
Smiling a gentle smile Xena attempted to soothe. "Give me time. I didn't ask for this. Well, actually the gods say I did. We're having a difference of opinion."
With great sincerity, Ephiny peered into Xena's eyes. "Gabrielle is worried about you."
Xena's smile disappeared. "If I were you I would worry about Gabrielle."
* * *
Ephiny and Gabrielle walked in the nearby woods. Ephiny considered her queen. She had changed. She no longer carried a staff. Her demeanor had been tempered, a sign of her growing maturity. Gabrielle was not the optimistic young bard she first met only a few years ago. Ephiny was uneasy. Time had separated them too long. Gabrielle had become somewhat of a stranger. It was Ephiny's hope that this time together would give them the opportunity to rebuild a bridge to each other's lives. Where to begin?
"I'm trying to understand why you defied Artemis."
Gabrielle paused. "Ephiny, I wish I could explain but I don't completely understand myself. I accepted my death. I knew it would happen and when the time came I was able to look to my life and accept everything." Gabrielle emphasized the next word, "Everything." She continued, "The last thing I saw was Xena's smile. I closed my eyes and slipped away. Artemis came to welcome me. I took comfort that I was one of her queens. I looked back and requested to wait for Xena. It was then that she told me Xena would not join me. Hades had claimed her soul. By every right she was his. When I asked permission to join Xena, Artemis denied me. I couldn't accept it, and so we bargained."
"But you said that part of your bargain is that you will join Artemis without Xena."
"Then what is the point of returning?"
Gabrielle was ardent. "When I looked back for Xena I knew. I knew Ephiny that something had been left undone. I feel the answer is just beyond my sight. If the gods are speaking to me their words are a whisper I cannot hear."
"And when you do you will die."
"Xena said the gods are saying she asked for this. She said they are having a difference of opinion. What did Xena ask for?"
Gabrielle considered this. It was not for Xena ever to ask the gods for anything. She had only heard Xena pray twice. Once to bring Gabrielle from the darkness of Perdicus' death. The other to Krishna as Xena laid near death by Indrajit's hands. Thinking further, she realized that yes, there was a third. 'May the gods forgive me' echoed in Gabrielle's mind as Xena slept upon her lap the night before their crucifixion.
More to herself than to Ephiny, Gabrielle murmured. "Xena asked the gods to forgive her. What does that have to do with this?"
Ephiny offered, "Doesn't it depend on what she was asking to be forgiven for?"
With a new sense of uncertainty Gabrielle replied, "I thought her days as a warlord."
Ephiny reached out to her friend, her queen. "Could it be something else?"
* * *
Within her quarters Gabrielle woke with Xena' name upon her lips. Instinctively, she turned to search for her companion even though she knew that as in her dream, Xena was not to be found. She had taken pride that she had not shed any tears. Her strength was being tested. This night she could not avoid confronting her own desolation. She began to doubt that Xena could be swayed. Wrapping her blanket around her, the warmth Gabrielle longed for, needed, could not be captured by the heavy wool threads that weighed upon her shoulders. Her's was an urgent need to be embraced by a human heart.
Gabrielle left her quarters and walked to the stable. Opening the door with care she spied Xena asleep on a bed of straw. The warrior was illuminated by the moonlight shining through the stable window. Gabrielle struggled with her desire to be held. She struggled with her deep loneliness. Xena's rejection of a renewed life was unexpected, more so, Xena's rejection of herself. For Xena to agree to be with Gabrielle and yet to deny, relinquish their bond was not like her. Xena was no martyr nor had she ever been so hard-hearted.
There had been many times that Gabrielle had found herself lost for words. Never able to free the complex emotions she felt. At such times she would reach out and hold Xena hoping touch would speak for her. Xena was her home, a home that no longer seemed to exist. She wanted, yearned to go home. Nothing she had said or done could break through Xena's severe emotional armor. They had not touched since their lives had been returned. The last sensation of home was their parting hands as they stood before their respective cross. That memory, the memory of their parting hands, haunted Gabrielle each night. It left her craving a singular, tangible, physical warmth. Death had not been as cold. For Gabrielle only Xena's arms enfolding her would serve her need.
Gabrielle approached Xena slowly. Standing over her Gabrielle was somewhat surprised that Xena had not woken. Was Xena so tired not to sense her presence or had Xena given up caring whether her life was endangered? Gabrielle lay down beside Xena resting her head upon Xena's breast. Xena's familiar heartbeat was her reward. It sounded steady and strong. Xena's reflexive embrace at Gabrielle's intimacy did not come. Though the strength, the security of Xena's arms remained unconfirmed they still provided a hint of hope in their failure to react, to openly cast her off. Gabrielle drifted to sleep.
The moonlight was overtaken by the sun. Xena took a deep breath. Looking down she smiled as she recognized the weight of Gabrielle resting upon her. Xena reached and gently stroked the young woman's hair. As much as any other it was a gesture that defined their union. The undeniable trust, the tenderness.
The moment of peace broke as Xena realized this was not a dream. Her heart began to grieve as she acknowledged Gabrielle's effort to be with her. By the gods the love she felt for the bard was tearing her apart. A tear escaped her composure. Xena would reclaim her space, reassert her distance but not in this gifted moment. She would cheat, given the opportunity and the opportunity had been given. She raised herself, cradling Gabrielle with her hands. She guided Gabrielle to rest by her side. Then she placed a gentle kiss upon Gabrielle's forehead and whispered, "Sleep."
It was to the sounds of village life that Gabrielle awoke. She found herself alone. She called out for Xena. Gabrielle's aloneness had never been greater. Xena's rejection was not to be denied.
Standing outside the stable door stood Ephiny. They exchanged glances. Ephiny spoke first. "Xena asked me to tell you that she went to Amphipolis to visit her mother. She would return in a few days."
Gabrielle looked to the distant hills. Xena would return. She had no doubt that the warrior would keep her word. The question was whether Xena would find her compassion in the company of Cyrene.
* * *
The inn was dark. Cyrene had dampened the candles, carrying one lone to guide her to her rooms. To her left she saw a tall shadow.
"Who is it?" Cyrene called.
"Mother." Xena responded.
"Xena, daughter why are you standing in the dark?"
"I didn't want to frighten you."
A new fear rose within Cyrene, no longer for herself but for her child. "Xena, are you hurt?"
"No mother. I'm fine. I just didn't know what you may have heard."
"Come to the light. I want to see you."
Xena took a few steps forward. Cyrene saw the solemn expression upon her daughter's face. "Mother, I need to talk to you."
Cyrene's fear intensified. "What has happened? Where is Gabrielle?"
"Gabrielle is with the Amazons. I promised to join her in a few days. I just needed to be here with you."
Cyrene's concern was not allayed. It only grew. It is not like Xena to hide in the dark or to travel without Gabrielle.
"Daughter, you know you are always welcomed. But I see you are troubled. What is it?"
"I was afraid you might had heard that Caesar's men had crucified me and Gabrielle."
Dumbfounded Cyrene asked, "Who would spread such lies?"
"Mother, I need you to stay calm." Xena paused and took a deep breath. She raised her palms. "It isn't a lie."
Cyrene's eyes were transfixed upon Xena's wounds. She walked forward taking one of Xena's hands in her own. With her other hand she raised the candle for a better view.
Cyrene's stunned voice was a mere whisper. "You cheated death."
"Gabrielle struck a bargain with Artemis."
"What kind of bargain?"
"Gabrielle would not accept that she could not join me on the other side. As an Amazon her soul belongs with Artemis. Hades claimed mine. Gabrielle felt that there was something incomplete and she told Artemis she would not rest until she saw it done."
"What must be done?"
"That's the problem. Gabrielle doesn't know but I do. I have to..." Xena's voice trailed off.
Cyrene tightened her hand over Xena's willing her to speak. "Daughter?"
"Mother, once I do Gabrielle's soul will join Artemis and I will continue to live until death touches me again."
Cyrene voiced her confusion. "I don't understand. What you must do, is it so difficult?"
Xena did not respond.
Cyrene continued, "Xena, is it wrong?"
To this Xena reached out to her mother holding her for support as she spoke from her heart. "Can it be wrong to love someone with your whole self, to breathe each breath with her's? To feel your hearts beat in rhythm? To owe her every moment of your happiness and having that fight not to lose it?"
It was clear to Cyrene that Xena's opponent was no warlord or god. "I see."
In disbelief Xena questioned Cyrene searching her mother's eyes. "Do you?"
There had been few times in her daughter's adult life that Cyrene was in the position to counsel. This would be one. What was apparent to Cyrene seemed a mystery to Xena and it was for Cyrene to gently make the obvious known to her child.
"You have never shared your feelings with Gabrielle. She died not knowing."
Xena would not accept her mother's statement. "Gabrielle knows I love her."
Cyrene challenged, "Have you told her?"
Xena was sure, "Yes!"
Taking exception Cyrene asked, "Then what remains undone?"
Pulling free from Cyrene, Xena turned her back and spoke to the darkness. "Before I met Gabrielle I had loved deeply and I lost that love. I felt my heart break. Somehow it mended. Time did heal my wounds. I've had one great fear these past few years." Xena returned her gaze to her mother. "Up on a mountain ridge I watched Gabrielle die. Mother, I watched her die!" Xena could no longer hold back her sorrow. Her body trembled as tears fell. "I can't." Cyrene went to her child. "I can't bear to lose her again."
Cyrene tried to comfort. "Daughter, my love. Don't be ashamed of what you feel. There can be no greater tribute than to be loved as you love Gabrielle. Xena, if you don't speak you will only continue to keep her distant. I know Gabrielle. I am certain that the pain she is feeling now is greater than any your love could give her even if it is a love she cannot return or completely understand. She is an Amazon queen. She is no longer the child you saved. Her devotion to you is unerring. She has followed you through the countryside content in your company. Gabrielle has never been shy to speak of you. Why do you hesitate in speaking of her? Do you doubt her?"
Xena gathered her strength. "No mother."
"Do you doubt yourself?"
Xena would not be questioned in regards to her commitment to Gabrielle. "No!"
"Xena, what greater torment is there than not to be able to express your love. Maybe the gods are doing you a favor. They saw inside your heart when it was open. Maybe they are trying to save you from an eternity of regret. If I am right, what have you to fear?"
* * *
Xena returned to the Amazon village. The mid-day sun was warm. Her time spent with her mother had heartened her but she was not sure how long she would be able to maintain her resolve. She was also unsure of her welcome. Given her behavior her absence could not have been easy for Gabrielle to bear.
Gabrielle sat upon her bed deep in thought. In the passing days she fulfilled her role as queen to the best of her ability. Ephiny took care to schedule sufficient duties to keep Gabrielle occupied but not so many that she would feel overwhelmed. Her responsibilities completed for the day Gabrielle had returned to her solitude. Her faith in life had been tested and strengthened with time. Xena was inextricably linked to that faith. Without Xena, Gabrielle struggled to maintain her will to challenge the gods.
Gabrielle knew Xena did not respond instinctively in circumstances of the heart. Such moments were not like a battle where her cunning ruled. The present task facing Xena was to face life without her common defenses in place. Defenses capable of dividing Xena from herself. Gabrielle had time to speculate reasons why Xena had turned from her. If Xena had sought forgiveness for other than her warlord past, the subject of that forgiveness could very well rest in the span of Gabrielle's knowledge. And if that were true the answer to what remained incomplete was within Gabrielle's grasp.
In the passing years Gabrielle had made a number of choices for them both, none as profound as her rebellion in death. She believed she would endure Tartarus to be with Xena if that was the final judgement. Something neither of them knew for certain. Gabrielle had endured so much in her life. She did not hesitate in her determination to withstand the anguish of the worst of the afterlife. For now she was free of her fight with the gods. She was fighting herself. She was fighting her desire to intercede. The force of her desire was harnessed by the equal power of her fidelity to Xena. To honor Xena she must do nothing to further threaten Xena's freedom to choose. There were times when Gabrielle's integrity was marred by her quick reaction without forethought. Her labor to maintain an even pace with the fates kept her in the village and not in Amphipolis.
Xena knocked on Gabrielle's door. She would make no assumptions regarding the Queen's reception.
Gabrielle was surprised by the interruption. From the day of her arrival the women had respected her evening retreat.
Xena entered. Gabrielle at a distance was both a sorrow and a relief. The immediate smile between them did not come nor did the easy approach and embrace.
Remaining in her place Gabrielle held her emotions in check. "Xena."
"I just got back. Mother sends her love."
The word love was foreign, as foreign as the words friend and companion had become. It hung in the air heavy with meaning. Gabrielle focused on the mundane.
"I hope she's well."
"Yes." Xena answered unable to ignore that they spoke with the unease of strangers. Cyrene may have been right to say the pain of their distance dwarfed any that would accompany their reunion. What followed was an awkward silence. Xena felt claustrophobic in the hut. She longed for the open air, to sleep under the stars as she had done on her return journey. The infinite stars gave her a sense of wonder. The universe was so great and yet her joy rested with only one of its creations. Xena broke through her reverie to regain her voice.
"Gabrielle, I had a thought. Its not too late to go to the north meadow. We could have our evening meal and camp for the night."
Gabrielle held her tongue as she searched for a clue from Xena's cool expression. Gabrielle would not shun an invitation from Xena. She said only what was needed. "I'll get my things."
* * *
The evening air was damp. Gabrielle needed a blanket for warmth even as the campfire burned strong. It draped loosely around her shoulders as she sat drinking her tea. Xena had been silent during their walk and throughout their meal. And yet, the silence was reminiscent of how they use to be. The distance between them seemed to narrow. Gabrielle felt Xena's hand, with all its strength and gentleness upon her shoulder. The sensation marked all that had been missing. Xena took her place beside Gabrielle. Without touching her further Xena pulled a portion of the blanket up over Gabrielle's shoulder. "Are you warm enough?"
"Yes, thank you."
Xena looked forward into the fire. The flames danced and darted. Its center was steady with it blue white heat. It was Xena's time to speak.
Gabrielle turned to her companion. Xena continued to look away. "For what?"
Embolden for a moment Xena turned and met Gabrielle's eyes. It had been too long since she had taken them in. It had been too long since she allowed herself the comfort they afforded. Without further thought Xena spoke her heart.
Gabrielle looked into the intense dark blue eyes. A quick insight pierced her lingering confusion. Whatever remained undone was between them though she was unsure of what it might be. Not trusting her own words in the fragile moment she placed her cup aside and set her hand onto Xena's arm, a common gesture that no longer promised a certain reception. Xena looked down. She acknowledged the touch by placing her own hand over Gabrielle's.
"The gods said I am the reason why...they said they have answered my prayer."
Gabrielle tried to help. "For forgiveness."
Xena nodded. "Yes. They said a responsibility comes with it. I have to make it so your soul will rest." With sudden anger Xena's voice rose, "How can they expect me to..." And then with equal suddenness she was silent.
Gabrielle tried to guide Xena. "To what?"
Xena reached for a thread to weave her thoughts. "You loved Perdicus."
Confused, Gabrielle answered simply, "Yes."
"A great love?" Xena questioned. A quiver in her voice.
Gabrielle paused before speaking, choosing her words carefully. "Xena, I loved Perdicus with all my heart but he was not my great love."
"Who then?" Xena no longer could rule her words. What was she saying?
"By the gods Xena. Is this the quest? Must I speak before I can rest? I've tried to find the words. I realize they have failed me. I have failed you."
Xena was taken in by a maelstrom. "No you haven't."
Gabrielle continued, "I was too weak. I wanted to speak but I waited too long. I hoped you would understand."
Xena tried to right Gabrielle's misconception. "I did. I do. This is not about you. It's about me."
"I don't doubt you." Gabrielle called out trying to make Xena understand.
"But do you love me?" Xena's last question struck Gabrielle fast and hard. Had Gabrielle's failure been so great that Xena would doubt her? The night's stillness dominated them both.
Gabrielle broke the silence. Her words were all she knew to offer. "I love you."
This was still not enough. Xena tried again, emphasizing each word. "No Gabrielle. Do you love me?" Xena felt the full weight of the question. It spoke to the many tones of love, with attendant commitment and promise. She continued, "As I love you. The love I gave you with my kiss." Xena looked into Gabrielle's eyes. She could not measure whether she beheld compassion or pity. Helpless, Xena took Gabrielle's hands in her own exposing the wounded palms. She bent down kissing each gently, leaving her tears upon them. Devoid of her strength her head fell to Gabrielle's breast. Gabrielle took Xena in her arms and leaned forward, her lips to Xena's ear.
"Tell me, is there an Amazon queen who would not understand what is possible between two women? Yes Xena, I love you. As Naima said, our souls are intertwined. No god will ever change that."
With her last word spoken Gabrielle felt a sensation in her hands. She turned her palms to see each coated with light. The same light touched her feet. Within moments the light disappeared and her wounds were healed.
* * *
Lying on their joined bedrolls Xena and Gabrielle slept side by side. Xena's arms were wrapped around Gabrielle. She held Gabrielle's hands in her own. Gabrielle's healed. Xena's wounded. The sun broke above the horizon. Its rays traveled through the trees and moved like a brilliant wave over the two of them. Xena awoke first. In seeing the sun she strengthened her hold upon Gabrielle. Wakened, Gabrielle released Xena's hand to raise her arm over her eyes. The sun was blinding. She spoke Xena's name.
For a second time a bright independent light began to emanate from Gabrielle's palms. It traveled the length of her arms through to her body, engulfing her. Xena held Gabrielle with all her might, burying her face into the back of Gabrielle's neck. Gabrielle called out Xena's name again. Her cry spoke of love and yearning and imminent loss. Xena snapped her head back and shouted at full strength, "Artemis! Hades! Have mercy!"
The light doubled in intensity. It moved to touch Xena and took her completely in its domain. Its brilliance exploded and released itself from the two.
Artemis and Hades stood in spirit. Artemis spoke first. "I have defied Aphrodite all my days. I will give her this one victory if your agree."
Hades looked at the two women lying upon the forest floor and smiled. "I owe Xena a great debt. Agreed."
For Artemis there was one more question to be resolved. "And when their time comes again, will they call home the Elysium Fields or the land of the Amazons?"
To this Hades proposed, "They've traveled the whole of their lives together. Why not both?"
* * * Gabrielle laid motionless in Xena's embrace. Xena's emotions were stilled. Calmness overtook her; heart, mind and soul. The quest had ended. What was incomplete was now complete, the unspoken spoken. That it was only Xena's words that could move Gabrielle to her own was a truth basked in the greatest irony. In the end, she was uncertain of who owned the words that needed to be spoken. It did not matter. All was now done.
Xena pulled back only enough to view Gabrielle's face. Her eyes were closed. The tension on her brow released in death. Gabrielle's body was still warm. Xena would hold to the warmth a little longer. The gods had given Xena a gift to be able to hold Gabrielle as her soul ascended. The memory of the cross would always be with her, but it would not be the final memory. The coldness of the mountain ridge was replaced by the warmth of their bodies in the night. She gently brushed the back of her healed hand to Gabrielle's cheek. "Rest now. You're where you belong."
Drowsy, Gabrielle took Xena's hand with her own and guided it to her lips. Upon it she placed a kiss. With her other hand Gabrielle pressed Xena closer to her and whispered. "Don't let go."
Xena was stunned. She confirmed that Gabrielle was indeed breathing in unison with her own breath. The gods had shown their mercy. Xena would not argue with their exercise of power. Not this time. A smile rose to her. Gabrielle's willfulness, her dared defiance of the gods had it so moved Artemis and Hades? Or was it their courage to risk certainty for the unknown, unexpressed truth? Xena felt humbled and grateful. She closed her eyes and joined Gabrielle in sleep knowing that they would soon wake again to continue their life together.
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