The two queens had just finished their meal. Ariel sat across from Tovi. "Tell me, how did you come to the tribe?"
Tovi had felt a gradual comfort forming between them. She knew the question Ariel asked was a common one. Her story, however, had never been one she took pleasure in sharing. It had been sometime since she had reason to. Tovi spoke without betraying her discomfort. "Our ancestors were desert nomads. Alliances were made and broken with the latest sweep of the winds. When I was nine years of age a member of another tribe accused one of our tribesmen of thievery. The conflict escalated out of control. Suspecting an assault, the women and children were sent off to a safe haven. After the battle we returned to find most of the men killed. Those dead included both Karis father as well as my own. The survivors, what there were of them, were terribly maimed. My mother wanted no more to do with the world. I sometimes think she was half-mad during the moons that followed. We wandered from place to place. And finally, we entered Amazon lands. She, Karis and I were taken in and cared for. Karis and I were surrounded by the love and teachings afforded to all Amazon girls. With time my mother found reason in life again. She came to love Alexis, our queen. Alexis had become our protector. She adopted me as her own and when I came of age she gave me her Right of Cast."
Ariel was intrigued. "And Karis?"
"Her mother died in childbirth years before she lost her father. The baby, a boy, didnt live beyond two moons. In our home tribe we were inseparable. With my mothers fragile state of mind it was thought that Karis would do better with a different guardian. Jerica, a fine artisan, adopted her. Though we had different mothers, among the Amazons Karis and I were nothing less than sisters. She holds my Right of Caste." Tovi took solace in knowing that the pain of her lost did not cut as deep as it once had. She felt permission had been granted for reciprocation. "And you, Ariel. How did you join the Northern tribe?"
Ariel spoke with indifference. "My mother was raped. She became an outcast in her village. She heard she could find refuge with the Amazons. They welcomed her. After I was born she left without a word. The only mother I knew was just one of the many Amazons. I was raised to be a warrior. With time I came to the notice of Queen Carha. Upon her deathbed she granted me her Right of Caste. It was not completely unexpected."
Tovi was unprepared for the disconnect between Ariels demeanor and her story. Tovi spoke thoughtfully. "We have been shaped by our truth."
Ariel corrected. "I didnt learn my truth until I was fifteen years old. It pained my mother to tell me. I think she feared Id love her less. The truth is I loved her more."
"Do you think of your birth mother?"
"I wonder if she was really raped or if she had just been with a man and come to be with a child. If she had been raped I cant imagine going back. Ill never known."
Tovi was at a loss. Succession had always been important to her. She chose to redirect their words towards the easier subject. "Have you granted your Right of Caste."
Ariel was dismissive. "I dont intend to die anytime soon."
"Nor do I, but it eases the transition."
There was an edge to Ariels response. "I have no one to give it too. There is no Karis in my life."
Tovi continued to explore the possibilities. "Damia or Jamine?"
Ariel was emphatic. "No one, Tovi."
Tovi felt Ariels insistence pierce her. Were it tangible it would have drawn blood. Tovi found it ironic that she who felt very much alone still had a deeper connection in Karis to call her own than Ariel, who in turn seemed to be surrounded by the women of her tribe. Again, Tovi sought safer ground.
"You know I spend my time seeking and reading scrolls. Where do you find your pleasure?"
Ariel welcomed the diversion. "It doesnt take much. As long as Im outdoors and doing something useful. I was raised to be a warrior." Tovi noted the repetition of Ariels identification as a warrior. Ariel continued. "I enjoy my skills and my strength. Today is a good example. Spending the day, hiking, exploring the lands. You seem to be enjoying yourself."
"Yes, but more for the company Im keeping."
"Thats good to hear."
Ariel and Tovi exchanged shy, appreciative glances. Ariel chose to retreat from a rising unease and speak to the future. "Gabrielle told me she had a vision for our tribes. I wonder if she imagines an alliance." Ariel paused for emphasis, "Or maybe more."
Tovi took notice. "More?"
Ariel offered her own speculation. "Shared governance."
Tovi said nothing.
Ariel hunted for a response. "Have you any thoughts?"
"It is more reason for my tribe to consider the goddess. It would be easier if we worshipped side by side although an alliance still could be done even if we didnt."
"How would you see the leadership?"
"As it is now. A council with equal representation from both tribes until we stop thinking of each other as north and south. One queen."
Ariel echoed. "Yes, one queen." She spoke with a light heart. "I wouldnt want to face you in a royal challenge."
Tovi reverted to a measured disposition. "Nor I you."
It was difficult to assess the motivation behind Ariels words. "You were raised to be queen."
Tovi offered a reasonable counter-argument. "Only in my later youth. You have been an Amazon since birth."
Ariel wanted to break through Tovis formality. "We are being very polite."
Tovi rose to the challenge. Her voice was far more tender than her words. "Tell me, Ariel. Was this outing for the purpose of sealing a friendship or was it more, should I say, political?"
"A friendship between two queens cannot be without the political."
"Do you even like me?" Tovi spoke with a deep disappointment.
Ariel was taken aback. "What kind of question is that?"
Tovi remained resolute. "A fair one."
"You are magnificent."
Silence. Between the two queens there was only silence. Neither would later be able to attest to whether one or a hundred heartbeats had passed before Ariel spoke anew. "I didnt mean to say that."
"Is it that you think me less than magnificent or that you didnt want me to know how you felt?" The Southern queen had found her wit.
"I do not think less of you," was Ariels reply.
Tovi struggled. "Ariel ."
Ariel interrupted. "You owe me no response."
Tovi confessed. "You confuse me. I dont know how you will be with me from one moment to the next."
"I remember over hearing my mother describe me once as volatile."
Tovi smiled. "Only once."
Ariel shared the smile. "She hoped that with time I would mellow like a pungent herb."
Tovi allowed herself to laugh. "The time has not yet passed."
"Im glad you are having fun with me."
"How else shall I cope?"
Ariel grew serious. It was time for her to explain. "I proposed an alliance not because I wish to be queen of our tribes but because I would do better to be your regent. As you have witnessed, my temperament is of a warrior not of a queen."
Tovi was curious. "If ruling is not your choice why not relinquish your place as queen. Gabrielle has not shied away from claiming a life outside of the tribe."
"Because I want to stay, not leave. Having me present would bring no comfort to the ruling queen unless the reason for the transfer of power was exceptional. And, because as I have just admitted, I have no one in my tribe that I feel comfortable granting my Right of Caste."
"Is it not for your kinswomen to choose among them a new leader?"
"As queen I will not abdicate the responsibility to name my successor."
"So, you would be my regent."
"If you would have me. I would work to earn Karis trust as well."
"I assume you have not spoken to anyone regarding this."
"I am honored by your confidence in me."
"Just dont let me down."
As time approached for evening meal Ariel and Tovi returned to the village. Ariel had reason to hope. She felt her life had been dictated by a combination of the expectations placed before her and her own driven desire to succeed. Unfortunately, she allowed her success to be in terms written by others and not by herself. When the Right of Caste was bestowed upon her it was not unexpected but it was also not necessarily wanted. Just because she had the ability to be queen did not mean that she fit the throne. Her sensibilities made her impatient with the demands of her position. With tribal life calm she delegated many of her responsibilities to the tribal council. Such strategies did not counter the growing suffocation she felt. She now knew that she might secure her freedom without having to suffer a graceless abdication
Damia had waited patiently at the village gate. She was feeling the outcast. And still she felt the blessing of the Goddess that she was in the dining hall among many tribal members when the second attempt upon Gabrielles life was made. If only Ariel had been with her. Suspicion against the Northern tribe would have been mitigated. Damia knew Aris plan to offer restitution to Tovi. As innocent as the gesture was meant, Damia had enjoyed her not too subtle intonation of Aris quick shifting sympathies away from Cici. Whatever humor once felt had been choked by the seriousness of the days events. It was lucky for the guards that Gabrielle was not hurt and that she had the power to calm Xenas passions with a gentle touch of the hand. That was all that it took to ease Xenas relentless questioning as she neared swatting the guards. Her gaze alone was brutally directed to those assigned to protect. The assailant had demonstrated patience and constancy let alone exceptional skill. There was no reason not to expect another attempt.
Once again it was difficult to inventory the whereabouts of all the villagers. Damia prayed to the goddess, May Ari and Tovi vouch for each others innocence. Among her peers Tovis loyalty was beyond approach. In there own village Ari garnered equal admiration but here in the south she was a stranger.
Damia announced the sighting. "Here they come." It was with a sense of relief. She walked forward to meet them.
Ariel was in high spirits. "What is it my friend? Did you think we had gotten lost?"
Damias reply was sobering. "There has been a second attempt on our queens life. Xena caught the arrow before it could pierce Gabrielles throat. Gabrielle is waiting for both of you in her quarters."
Ariel felt numb. "Could you take this?" Damia took the offered basket in hand as the two warriors went to their queen.
Tovi matched Ariels hurried gate. This was a time that demanded composure. She did not trust Ariel to be up to the task. She hoped Gabrielle would provide the much needed guidance.
Ariel followed Tovi into the lodge.
They found their queen sitting up on her pallet. She wore an engaging smile. "I hope you had a good day."
Ariel could not fathom her queens composure. It permeated the environs and invited others to equal her poise. "Better than your own."
"Not necessarily. Where were you?"
Tovi answered. "The west plateau and then we hiked to the waterfall."
"Did you see any strangers?"
Ariel replied, "No one."
Gabrielle continued to probe. "Any friends?"
Tovi assured. "No, my Queen."
Gabrielle proceeded to get up. "I want to show you something." She went to her writing table where the latest arrow against her life impotently rested. "Im lucky Xena has great reflexes." She handed the arrow to Ariel.
Ariel studied the arrow. "I dont know what Im suppose to see."
"Compare it to the one that hit my shoulder. Tovi?"
Tovi took the arrow in hand. "My Queen?"
"Look closer. Feel its weight." The queen was now a teacher.
Tovi spoke her thoughts. "The shaft is fashioned of a different wood. This one is from our arbors. The other "
Gabrielle provided her own conclusion. "An excellent counterfeit. But it is still Roman not Greek."
Ariel was stunned. "Roman?"
Gabrielle explained. "Its an old trick. I remember when the warlord Krykus had princess Terreis killed using counterfeit arrows. It was his plan to get the Amazons to believe that the Centaurs were responsible for Terreis death."
Tovi completed the history lesson. "Xena and Ephiny infiltrated Krykus camp to prove the truth and to stop you from executing Phantes, the son of Tyldus."
"He had been accused of Terreis murder after being caught on Amazon lands. Terreis gave me her Right of Caste. It was my responsibility to avenge her."
Ariel was impatient. "Thats all fine but we are not talking about the Centaurs and the Amazons. You said Roman."
After Ephinys death there was a great battle between the forces of Julius Caesar and Pompy. Xena led the Amazons in battle."
Tovi continued to share her knowledge. "Xena beheaded Pompy."
Gabrielle affirmed. "Yes. Rome has never forgotten."
Tovi was puzzled. "But Livia?"
"Xenas own daughter. No one before, no one since has dared to challenge the Amazons on their own lands. But where a legion would fail, a well plotted fiction could create a civil war weakening the Amazons enough to give the Romans confidence to invade."
Tovi dissented. "Our ritual disagreement is beyond the bounds of the Romans."
"I doubt they care why I was summoned. If they suspected that the Northern and Southern tribes were in disagreement they could have seen an opportunity. What better advantage than to kill me in the midst of a mediation and have one tribe accuse the other of betrayal?"
Ariels temper began to rise. The target was not whom Gabrielle would have expected. "I dont understand. Why didnt you tell us you knew the arrow was Roman!"
Gabrielle held her emotion in check. "Because it never crossed my mind. Not until this second attempt on my life."
Tovi was succinct. "Two different assassins."
Gabrielle confirmed. "The first Roman. The second an opportunistic Amazon. One that knew she would not be accused because she was five days ride, standing beside Xena when I took the arrow in my shoulder."
Gabrielles gaze fixed on Ariel. Tovis followed. Ariel could not withstand the truth in the presence of her queen nor her counterpart. She turned away and left the lodge, her rage consuming her.
Alone with Gabrielle, Tovi shared her fear. "Im afraid of what shell do to Cici."
Gabrielle vouched. "She wont have a chance. Xena is already on Cicis trail."
Tovi felt a rising dread. "Xena wont kill her?"
"No. She will bring her back to stand trial."
"What will you do?"
"The only thing I can do. Found guilty Ill banish her from the sisterhood."
"It is a far more merciful fate than what Ari would grant her."
"Anything more would be avenging hurt pride. There is no justice or honor in that. I think more of Ari."
"Her admiration for you is great." Gabrielle surveyed Tovi. Tovi continued. "As great as my own. May I have my leave to go to her?"
"Yes, of course." Gabrielle called to Tovi just as the latter stood at the lodge door. "Tovi, I trust your judgment. Do what you must to keep Ari from doing something foolish. And dont hesitate to call for help if you need it."
Tovi gave a half bow. "Yes, my Queen."
Gabrielle welcomed the cessation of activity. So much had happen in the past few candlemarks. The contentment she shared with Xena under the arbor seemed long past. She returned to the arrow. Tovi had restored its placement on the desk. Gabrielle considered the fateful day, so many years ago, when she first entered Amazon lands in the company of Xena. She remembered the rain of blue winged arrows falling from the sky. She remembered the one arrow that pierced Terreis side. How she, Gabrielle, had flung her body over Terreis trying to protect the fallen Amazon from further harm as a second wave of arrows cut through the forest canopy. She remembered how Terreis had said that only an Amazon would have done such a thing for another Amazon. And with her dying breath how Terreis had bestowed her Right of Caste to the young bard.
Gabrielles life would never be the same. The act that garnered her the Right of Caste had not been a demonstration of bravery. She had acted indiscriminately. She acted without the prerequisite forethought of the intrepid. Her defense of Terreis reflected her deeply embedded reverence for life. In the following years, her position as queen did test the courage others had assumed she possessed. As a leader every decision she made, not in the heat of the moment, but weighed knowingly, taxed her courage. None more so than the decisions where the consequence of failure included the death of self and of others. The risk of her own death had always been easier to accept than the risk of her sisters lives. Her Amazon sisters had become a profound part of her life, Melosa, Ephiny, Yakut, Amarice and so many others. All gone. A new generation of Amazons stood before her. Ariel and Tovi were young queens, vulnerable because of their inexperience. Malinas words haunted her. Ariel had not known wisdoms searing touch. Why must the most important lessons be learned through pain? What pain will come to pass for both Ariel and Tovi? Would the pain reflect her own? Love found and murdered. Children born and killed. Sacrifice for a love. Intrigue at the court of Rome. The strategies of military offenses resulting in massacre. How much pain is enough? How many times must the difficult decision be posed without mercy and answered with mercy slipping through her clutches?
It seemed the Fates would not have her relinquish her position. Twenty-five years in sleep did not displace her authority. She was of royal lineage. The aspiring Bard of Poteidaia who naively accepted Terreis Right of Caste seemed a ghost in the mist. Fodder for the making of a legend. Not of Xena but of Queen Gabrielle.
She had her journey and reconciled herself to her Way. The reconciliation did not lessen her struggle. It could be so hard at times to simply be herself embodying all the contradictions chiseled into her form by lifes unrelenting demands. Upon the cross she felt the gradual loss of her life. She was forewarned and accepted her death. It was still a painful death. Not solely for her own loss but because Xena had laid upon her lap defenseless. Xena, who insisted on placing upon herself the inconsolable belief that she was responsible for leading Gabrielle to her death. Xena could not cheat their destiny. The Fates brought them together in the prison cell. The only consolation was that neither died alone.
For a few brief moments she and Xena had found their peace as the angels lifted them towards Paradise. But even in heaven there was no safety to be found. Redemption in forgiveness was her lesson. The result, the shattering of a deep-seated hatred for Callisto. And yet, with time the hatred for Callisto was replaced by an equal hatred for Gurkon, the slayer of her parents and brother-in-law, and abductor of her niece. She took no solace in knowing that he met his death. Where his soul had traveled she did not know. Her prayer was that the fire of everlasting justice had consumed him. There was thus reason to hope. For even with her loss of innocence, she still held to the belief that justice was not a fabrication used to assure those harmed that their suffering was not without meaning.
How would her life been different if the arrow had not hit its mark, if Terreis had lived. If ? Now there were new arrows and new offenses, the Romans and a renegade Amazon. Gabrielle held the arrow in her hand. She felt its weight. It did not hint to the course of history one arrow could cut.
Tovi found Ariel in her lodge. The Northern Queen was preparing her satchel. "Where are you going?"
Ariel continued to pack resenting the need to justify herself. "To find Cici."
Tovi challenged. "To kill her?"
Ariel sustained her preparations She owed Tovi no further explanation.
Tovi recited their law. "The Amazon code of justice demands that Cici be tried."
Ariel was defiant. "If she unsheathes her sword I have the right to defend myself."
"Ariel, we both know you can easily cloak your intention to kill her. You have the choice to do everything in your power to overtake her and bring her back."
"Dont lecture me!"
"I cannot " Tovi caught and held her intended words.
"What? You cannot what!"
"I cannot respect you as an Amazon and as a queen if you take Cicis life in revenge for your hurt pride."
"She tried to kill Gabrielle."
"It is Gabrielles right to impose justice."
"Gabrielle will never execute Cici. We know she lives by her own code."
"A code we would be right to uphold."
"A code of weakness."
"Do you really see her as weak? After all she has done for our nation? It takes more wisdom and strength of character to foster peace than war."
Ariel violently heaved her pack against the wall. "Damn her to eternal suffering!"
"Who Ariel? Cici or our queen?"
"Why did you come to me?"
"Because I care too much for you to stand aside and watch the best of you be destroyed by your own passions."
"They will be the death of you if not in life then in spirit."
"You self-righteous "
"Be careful Ari! You abuse me again and I wont be as forgiving as I have been in the past."
The maelstrom could be heard by those in the courtyard. Damia, in her uncertainty retrieved Gabrielle. Gabrielle remained a half-dozen paces outside of Aris lodge. Damia stood at Gabrielles right, Karis on her left.
Ari took the back of a chair, raised it and with all her might hurled it against the back wall. Its trajectory did not approached Tovi. Karis jerked at the impact. Gabrielle restrained Karis by taking hold of her arm.
Tovi withstood Ariels rage in silence. She suspected there was more to Aris outburst than Cicis treason.
Ariel was desperate. "A moon ago my village was safe guarded and at peace. In a moons cycle we have had our beliefs challenged by a crazed priestess who refuses to face the death of her God. Gabrielle has returned to us only to have my tribe fail to keep her from harm. The Romans fashioned a conspiracy to create a civil war. Cici who I held in confidence shames me and then attempts to better the Romans in killing our queen. And then you! You come into my life and " Ariel faltered. What could she say to Tovi? At a lost Ariel stood mute reeling in her own turmoil.
Tovi urged. "I what?"
Ariel steeled her heart. "You stand before me with your cold reason. You with your philosophy and history lessons. Ill take my passion over your measured, lifeless logic."
Tovi would not consent to bear any further insult. She responded with the cold measured temperament that Ariel so hated. "Xena has gone to retrieve Cici. Gabrielle will have Cici stand trial and face banishment. Shall I tell our queen that you will remain here as her regent, as is her wish, or shall I tell her that you have discarded your responsibilities to her and to your people to pursue your own interest?"
"You heard nothing that I have said!"
"I have heard everything. Have you heard your queen? Have you heard me?"
Nonplused, Tovi insisted. "What should I tell Gabrielle?"
"Tell her Ill stay!"
"Your word, Ariel!"
"My word as an Amazon!"
Tovi exited the lodge. She was disconcerted by the gathering of Gabrielle, Damia and Karis. She noted Karis agitation. Gabrielle stepped forward and stood at Tovis side. Her concern was apparent. "Are you all right?"
Tovi did not have the presence of mind to lie. "No, Im not. Shes breaking my heart."
"Give her time."
"To do more harm?"
"Tovi, who else does Ari have in her life who can understand what it means to lead a tribe?"
"You, my Queen."
"My time here is limited. Ari knows this."
"And my life is in the south, hers in the north."
"The distance from south to north can be shorten if you want it to."
"It would take an extraordinary bridge."
Gabrielle was uncertain of Tovis meaning. "Bridge?"
"Kin to the bridge you and Xena needed to build to reach one another."
Gabrielle smiled. She appreciated the image. "It is possible."
"Ari and I are not you and Xena."
"That is why, if I understand you, you must build your own bridge."
"I feel our time to begin is running short."
"I say you have already begun."
"Well, at least I have Aris word that she will not give chase to Cici."
Gabrielle was relieved. "Good."
"Gabrielle, do you have any objection if I take some time for myself."
Gabrielle noted that this was the first time Tovi had called her by her first name. "Come to me by mid-morning."
"Tovi, I dont need to remind you that there is a price to being a leader."
Tovi realized the full extent of Gabrielles understanding. "Why must it be so high?"
"I dont know, it just is."
Tovi nodded and walked down the remote west rim path. Gabrielle measured the Southern Queen. The young leader carried a heavy burden. Gabrielle regretted that she could only allay a small fraction of it.
Xena continued her search. She knew she needed to be careful. Both Cici and Jamine had crossed the trail. If Jamines judgment was in error and Xena followed her path both would fail in their mission. She wondered if Cici suspected her fugitive status. If not, she might not travel as hard nor be as careful to mask her whereabouts. Young Argo pulled up. She was ever as sensitive to her environment as her mother was. Xena sat tall in her saddle and listened. Soldiers, as many as a legion approached from the distant northwest. They were not an immediate threat but that gave Xena little comfort. She knew their object was genocide. She also knew her path and the Romans would intersect. She needed to scout their numbers and armament. The approaching terrain was rugged. She encouraged Argo forward. The mare needed to take care not to slip. Patience was in order. They made good progress for the next two candlemarks.
Xena caught a glimpse of movement to her left. She dismounted choosing to investigate on foot. There were two horses in complete pack. She recognized them as Cicis and Jamines. The two Amazons stood at the mountainside carefully out of sight. Xena approached them. It did not take much thought to guess what had caught their attention. Xena took Cici unawares and slammed her against a tree.
Jamine cried out, "Xena! What are you doing."
"Cici, why dont you tell Jamine why Im here."
Cici struggled with little success.
Xena threatened, "Dont give me any more reason to hurt you."
With Xenas arm across her throat it was difficult to speak but Cici tried all the same. "I dont know what youre talking about."
"Do you take Gabrielle for a fool? It wasnt long before she figured it out."
Jamine stepped up. "Figured out what?"
"Oh nothing. Just that Cici tried to take her life by shooting an arrow across the north meadow while she and I enjoyed what we thought was a private meal. Isnt that right Cici?"
Cici said nothing.
Xena turned her attention to Jamine. "Tell me Jamine. How long did it take you to find Cici? I would guess not very because she left after and not before you did."
Jamines gut churned. "I had trouble finding Cicis trail. I was surprised when she joined me last night."
Xena returned her focus back onto the writhing coward. "Im impressed Cici. You traveled swiftly."
Cici pleaded. "Dont kill me. I never meant to hurt Gabrielle. Just scare her. I knew you would catch the arrow."
"Dont lie to me."
"Im not. I swear."
"As if your oath is worth anything. Dont worry. Gabrielle insists that you face an Amazon trial. Shell banish you so you can live a long pathetic life."
Both shocked by Cicis disclosure and relieved that she would not witness an immediate execution, Jamine raised what she felt was a more pressing issue. "Xena, the Romans."
Xena nodded. She gazed directly into Cicis pale eyes. "Heres the deal Cici. Im going to release you and you are not." Xena impressed, "Do you hear me? You are not going to try to escape, because if you do I will kill you. I wont have any qualms going to Gabrielle and telling her why. Am I understood?"
Cici mumbled, "Yes."
Xena was not satisfied. "I cant hear you?"
Cici restated. "Yes."
"Good." Xena stepped back and moved toward the vista. "A legion."
Jamine offered. "We guess they are heading toward the Southern tribe."
Xena confirmed. "Coming through the valley will take them a couple extra days."
Cici spoke with care. "Let me ride to my tribe and bring back ours warriors. Our Southern sisters will need our help."
Both Xena and Jamine stared at the traitor. Cici felt their close examination. "You can trust me."
Xena turned away in thought. In her heart it was hard not to offer the foolish young woman an opportunity to redeem herself. But Xena never lived simply by her heart. She needed to weigh the risk and that meant exercising her reason. If Cici went to the north, Xena could send Jamine back to the south. Both tribes would be warned and directed to meet and join forces. Cici was right, the Southern tribe might not survive without help. And if their tribe was decimated it wouldnt be long before the Romans went after the Northern tribe. She returned her attention to Cici. "You know if the south falls so will the north."
"You also know that doing this wont make things right between you and Gabrielle."
"She already spared my life. I owe her."
Xena sent Cici and Jamine off. She would stay and scout the legion. She chose what she believed would be strategic location for their warriors to combine forces. Time was also their enemy. Moving on horseback was an Amazon advantage. If they drove hard they could get in position to oppose this latest threat.
The dining hall was busy with morning meal. Gabrielle entered, secured a mug of tea and proceeded with her mission. Ariel sat alone at a back table with her own half-drunk mug of tea. She sensed the breach in her solitude. She looked up to see the queen. She looked back down wordlessly. Without invitation Gabrielle sat down across the defiant Amazon that had, throughout the previous night, preoccupied her thoughts.
"I was outside your lodge last night."
Ariel raised her eyes. They were difficult for Gabrielle to read. Did they offer a challenge or were they simply drowning in fear?
"You have every right to feel overwhelmed but you do not have the right to lash out at others. Tovi hasnt harmed you. She has only tried to be your friend."
Ariel was incredulous. "You defend Tovi? She was playing us like pieces on a game board."
"She was trying to help her tribe. I knew exactly what I was doing when I traveled with you to the north."
"So Tovi said."
"Did she ever lie to you?"
"Has she ever accused you unfairly or raised her hand to you "
Ariel defended herself. "I have never "
Gabrielle countered. "No? What were you throwing last night?"
"Not at her! Did she say "
"She said nothing! She was at a loss and I couldnt help her." Gabrielle arrested her own sympathies. She did not want a battle of words or emotions. "Ariel, Im going to say something to you. Ill say it only once. You pretend to be a queen."
The offense was taken. "Pretend!"
Gabrielle would not waver. "Pretend. You have no idea of what it takes to lead."
"And youre going to tell me."
"Yes, if youd only listen. A queen sets aside her own needs and wants. Her thoughts are only for her people. She restrains her emotions, works with what ever she has in hand and does the best that she can. To do so she has to set aside her ego. She speaks the truth. The only thing she wont sacrifice is her integrity. Tovi is a queen. She has always had her people in mind. She neither believes in the worship of Artemis or the Goddess but she knew she had to give her tribe a tradition to carry them into the future. She set aside her own questions. She went beyond her own doubts. She went to you in an effort to give her people hope. When I asked her to be my messenger she did not say she was a queen and above the task. She did as I asked. She took the time to reflect on what was needed and she did it. Every time you have faced a challenge you have allowed your temper free reign and gone for your sword. Ive had enough of it. You can be so much more. Im not the only one who has seen this in you. Im not the only one who has tried to help you."
"Are you done helping me?"
"Dont worry. You wont have to throw me out of this hall like you threw Tovi out of your lodge. I dont think either one of us will ever come to you again, uninvited.
Gabrielle got up and moved to a table where Damia and Karis were seated. She sat beside Karis, across from Damia, facing away from Ariel. Gabrielle needed to collect her thoughts. There was no conversation among the women. Many in the hall had been quietly observing what from afar had been taken to be a confrontation of great wills. Neither Gabrielles nor Ariels voice had carried. Thus the observers were left to their own speculations.
Damias glanced over Gabrielles shoulder. She was moved by what she saw. She asked shyly, "My Queen, what did you say to Ariel?"
Gabrielle had not expected the breach in protocol. "Why do you ask?"
Damia spoke frankly. "I havent see her cry openly since we were children."
Gabrielle turned to the sight that had garnered the interest of everyone in the room. The Northern Queen covered her face with her hands as she fought to restrain her tears. Gabrielle returned her attention to Damia. "Let her be. The battle she is fighting is within herself and we cant help her."
Tovi sat watching the waters fall from the cliff to the lower pool. What is it about a waterfall that captivates people so? She had never known anyone to be indifferent to the combined power and splendor of the scene. There are so few universal truths. One she would swear to is the power of beauty.
"Its been a while since weve come here together. I hope you dont mind the company?"
Tovi looked up to her unexpected companion. "Karis, what brings you here?"
"Ive been waiting for you to come to me. Youve been more determined than usual to stand alone."
"Im sure you have your reasons."
"Join me now."
Karis next words were stated with sincerity. "I hope Gabrielle has been a valuable confidant."
"We havent really spoken much. She just seems to understand."
"With you thats a necessary skill."
Tovi smiled. "You are a good friend."
Karis felt free to pursue what she felt to be her duty. "Do you love her?"
Tovi was stunned. "Gabrielle?"
"No fool, Ariel."
"Then you do love her."
"Lets say I feel a temptation to pursue her."
"But you are fighting your heart."
"I dont seem to have the faith it takes to love."
"What does faith have to do with it?"
"There must be reason to believe in a tomorrow."
"No there doesnt. You have to believe in today." Karis reached and took Tovis hand into her own. "I love you, Tovi. Your happiness means everything to me. When we were girls we ran through the forest together, learned to swim together. We grew. We learned to fight together. We witnessed each take a life in defense and tried to soothe the anguish felt by it. We have stood side by side and mourned those we loved. I have never needed a promise of tomorrow to love you or the life Ive been given."
Tovi covered Karis hand with her own. "Ive been looking for wisdom in the wrong places."
Karis gently released Tovis hand and sat back. "Wisdom shows herself in many different ways. I saw sight of her just this morning."
Karis had Tovis interest. "Did you?"
"Yes, Gabrielle spoke to Ariel during morning meal. Their table was too far from my own to hear what was said. But I still had eyes to see."
"And what did you see?"
"I saw Ariels expression change from a cold detachment to a fiery anger. After Gabrielle left her, the Northern Queens composure broke as her tears overtook her. Gabrielle joined my table. When Damia noted Ariels tears Gabrielle advised us to leave her alone. She said Ariels battle was her own to fight. I wonder Tovi, what has touched the Amazons spirit?"
Ironically, Tovi found reason to find hope in Ariels anguish. "Thank you."
Karis relief was bittersweet. It required a small act of indulgence. "A swim before we return? We may not have a promise of tomorrow but we still have today."
Tovi and Karis returned to the village their hair still wet from the waters. Gabrielle caught sight of the slightly disheveled two-some and waited for them in the courtyard.
Tovi wore what seemed to Gabrielle to be a rare, yet splendid smile. Tovi greeted her queen. "Hello."
Gabrielle was pleased by what she saw. "How are you feeling?"
"Better. And you my Queen?"
Gabrielle had no reason to be less than honest. "Not as strong as Id like."
"Any word from Xena?"
Tovi glanced at Karis and then back to Gabrielle. She directed her words to the latter. "Can we speak, privately." The last word was spoken with a hushed emphasis.
"Walk me back to my quarters."
Tovi posed a question to her companion. "Karis, evening meal?"
Karis was sheepish. "I dont know what to do with all the attention."
Tovi grinned appreciating the connection they shared. "Later, friend."
Gabrielle and Tovi walked together. Gabrielle observed, "I havent seen you spend much time with others."
Tovi acknowledged. "I know it seems that way sometimes. With Karis in my life I know Ill never be completely lost. She comes and finds me."
Gabrielle carefully explored. "Have you been lost?"
Tovi confessed. "Its been difficult lately. How can I lead others when I dont know where I stand, let alone where Im going?"
"Have you these doubts?"
"Yes. Im lucky to have Xena. I look at her and I remember why I do the things I do."
Tovis next statement matched Ariels to Gabrielle not long before, but the tone was far different. Tovi simply shared what was an obvious observation. "She is your soulmate."
"She is also my friend. Just as Karis is your friend."
"True. But Karis can only help me so far. I have to journey the rest of the distance by myself."
"That will never change. Its no different with me and Xena."
Tovis response was equal question as it was statement. "Because I am queen."
Gabrielle paused. She wanted to give emphasis to her next words. "No, it has nothing to do with being a queen. It has to do with being alive. Im sure Karis has her struggles just as Xena has hers." The thought of Xenas internal strife never escaped Gabrielle. It was one of her greatest concerns and yet greatest sources of pride. Xena had gone through so much. Gabrielle felt privileged to witness Xenas self rise above her darkness. Though Xena was at an unrivaled place of peace Gabrielle was all too aware that the warriors past would never be a benign influence.
"Karis lives in the moment. She is as free to life as a hawk. I see her riding the currents with ease, adjusting her wings to soar or to glide depending on her hearts desire."
"A free spirit."
"Very. I look at her and envy her freedom. I look at Isra and even Seda and envy their faith. I look at you, my Queen, and I envy your love for Xena because I know it defines you. Im not saying its easy for any of you. Its just that you have .something."
"Tovi, you are right to say that Xena is the most important part of my life but she is not everything. I still consider myself a passable bard and queen. Maybe your something is your questions. Maybe the fact that you have the soul of a philosopher is what defines you."
Tovi allowed a tinge of self-pity to surface. "What good is it?"
Gabrielle felt the young queens sense of isolation. "I think you enrich the lives of others by being who you are. You dont take things for granted; you challenge assumptions; you look to as many sides of a question as you can so that no perspective remains unexamined. A philosopher queen unafraid to take up the sword is a great gift to your tribe. Tovi, yours is not an unexamined life."
"Youve read Plato."
Gabrielle smiled at the learned youth. "Plato also wrote the feeling of wonder is the mark of the philosopher, for all philosophy has its origins in wonder. You take joy in learning and in sharing what youve learned."
"If that is what is mine it still feels so insignificant. It is hard to hold on to. I dont have a way to share it like Isra and Seda share their faith."
"Yes you do. You do it every day. Just like Karis shares her freedom. It doesnt escape notice. The difference is that Karis doesnt hesitate. You may be surprised to find there are kindred souls among you, equally shy, waiting for an opportunity to discuss ideas instead of fishing."
Tovi laughs, "Fishing?"
Gabrielle gives a gentle threat. "Dont tell Xena I said that."
Tovi is still laughing. "No, I dont think I will."
The two reach Gabrielles lodge. Tovi had not broached the subject that lingered in her mind. "Gabrielle, may I ask you a question."
"You have been to the other side. What does it mean to you?"
Gabrielle was taken by surprise. "Mean to me? Tovi, I have seen differences depending on what god or gods rule the world Ive entered. All I can tell you is that we go on. We dont just end. I dont know if its because those we love and who love us, who are still alive, keep us in their hearts and that is what keeps our souls or if we really are endless, separate from those we touch. Ive experienced a life promised in future times but I really havent made sense of it. I dont know what my life or my death mean. I just accept that both life and death are mine to experience."
Tovi peered intently into her queens eyes. She saw Gabrielles sincerity as well as her confusion. Tovi suddenly realized that for Gabrielle, to experience death was not necessarily to know it, or at least to be able to articulate it. That was a confounding thought.
Gabrielle felt inadequate to the task of advising Tovi. She knew she should have been prepared for anything from the young philosopher. With no one, not even Xena, had she discussed her experience of death in detail.
The two stood silently grappling with their own thoughts. Tovi smiled. "Are you sure, my Queen, that others will welcome my questions?"
The tension broken Gabrielle returned the smile. "Maybe talking about fishing isnt so bad after all."
Jamine reached the Southern village the following mid-day. She immediately briefed Gabrielle, Tovi and Ariel of what she encountered. Tovi mobilized her warriors. Within two candlemarks they were on their way towards the designated meeting point. Traveling through the night they arrived at dawn. Xena sat near a campfire sipping a mug of tea. She wondered about this life of hers. The moments of peace were too few and far between. She was determined to grant herself and Gabrielle a respite. After this battle was over they would find a place to rest. Gabrielle would heal from her wound and they would share themselves with no other. She didnt care if she was thought selfish. She had shared Gabrielle with the tribes for far longer than either expected. She felt she had a right to some happiness. And if she couldnt justify a break for her own sake she knew she could always justify it for Gabrielles. Xena stood up as the Southern contingent approached under Gabrielle and Tovis lead with Ariel, Damia and Jamine one row behind. Protocol was followed even in these dire times. As much as Gabrielle longed for an intimate reunion she knew all show of affection would wait. Xena was never more in her military persona. After respectfully acknowledging the queens she took command. Orders were given. In a brief private moment she encouraged Gabrielle to get some rest. Though Gabrielle did seem better, Xena knew the ride would have depleted her strength.
The greatest difficulty was waiting, not for the Romans, their presence was assured. It was waiting for the Northern tribe. Gabrielle had agreed with Xenas judgment. She would have done the same. She felt Cici was more a misguided youth than a perpetrator of treason.
It wasnt until nightfall that the Northern tribe, lead by Cici, arrived. Many expelled private sighs of relief. Their numbers and weaponry were easily doubled.
Gabrielle was surprised to see Malina. She immediately approached the healer calling out her name.
Malina was pleased to see Gabrielle in good health. "My Queen."
"I did not expect you."
"In war, a healers skills are as vital as a good archer."
"Unfortunately, you right. It must have been a hard travel."
"Oh, dont discount these old bones too quickly. I am after all an Amazon."
"Yes, my friend, you are."
"Tell me how has Seda been since I left."
"She has been better. Without an audience from the south to witness her tantrums she has both listened and heard what Isra has tried to teach her. It will be hard for her to change. At our age it always seems to take a little longer to see the world with new eyes. But I think she will see the wisdom of letting go of Artemis."
"That is good news for both her and her people."
"Young Queen Tovi did well in her scheme."
"Im sure she would welcome a good word from you."
"I will be happy to speak to her after I prepare to care for the wounded."
Gabrielle pointed to Malinas right. "We have set up a triage center over there."
"Very well. I will unload my supplies and join them. I hope our work will be little."
"So do I."
Gabriel walked on. She stopped and stood against a tree not far from Xena. She watched the warrior sharpen her sword. It was a routine image in her life. The meaning she found in the image had changed during the years. At first she was in awe of the Warrior Princess. She saw power and skill. The romantic notion slipped away as time after time Xena was forced to maim and kill. There was no reason behind the blood except to protect the innocent. At times to protect her, the young bard that traveled with the warrior telling tales, earning the necessary dinars to buy food and pay for lodgings. And then they traveled to Indus where Xena came to understand and accept her Way, the Way of the Warrior. It was a confusing time. Gabrielle attempted to embrace the Way of Love and for a number of cycles of the moon she walked that path with some success. It did not last. Because of the corrupt alliance between Callisto and Caesar, Gabrielles Way, not the Way of Love but the Way of Friendship was defined. It was defined by a very different image of Xena. It was the image of a helpless Xena about to meet her death at the end of a Roman sword. Gabrielles Way begins and ends with Xena. Nothing else matters. Xenas temporary loss of self and Xenas pregnancy both reinforced Gabrielles Way to do whatever it takes to protect her beloved. And now the Romans have returned and another battle is promised. Gabrielle bore a wound that prevented her from lifting both her sais in defense. It was unbearable for Gabrielle to stand aside. Her place was with Xena. It was her Way.
Sensing her partner, Xena looked up. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle came forward and sat beside Xena. Xena patiently waited for the bard. Gabrielle placed her hand over her beloveds. "I love you."
Xena felt Gabrielles distress. "And, I love you."
"I should be going with you."
Xena regretted what she knew she needed to say. "Weve had this discussion. You would be a liability."
"I will come back to you."
"Thats not a promise you can make."
"I promise Ill be careful."
Gabrielle looked down to their intertwined hands. "I belong with you."
"Youre always with me."
Gabrielle was silent.
Xena sheathed her sword and took to her feet. "Come with me."
Gabrielle allowed Xena to guide her. They went to where their bedrolls laid unopened. Xena took them both up with her free hand and continued to guide Gabrielle away from camp. She paused at a natural retreat bounded by large boulders. Wordlessly Xena released Gabrielles hand and opened their bedrolls side by side. A raised hand invited Gabrielle to join her upon what would be their bed for the night. Gabrielle lay down upon her back. Xena leaned over her. Gabrielle opened her lips as if to speak but said nothing. She raised her hand to Xenas mouth and traced her lips with her fingertips. The gesture drew Xena to Gabrielles own lips in a gentle kiss.
At the break of the kiss Gabrielle spoke freely. "Xena, are you afraid?"
"Only of losing you." Xenas eyes involuntarily went to Gabrielles healing scar. She cupped the wounded shoulder gently with her hand. Then moved with care to kiss the injury.
Gabrielle turned and watched, knowing that if Xena could she would have taken the wound upon herself. She kissed Xenas cheek. Xena turned to claim Gabrielles lips once again.
"This is the price we pay for our love."
Xena drew herself up in order to hold Gabrielle completely within her sight. She searched Gabrielles eyes for further understanding.
Gabrielle confessed. "I couldnt be so frightened if I didnt love you."
"When it comes to my love for you, I surrendered to the Fates a long time ago."
Xena returned to Gabrielle for another kiss. With brief kisses she traveled to the crook of Gabrielles neck, down to her breasts, undoing Gabrielles straps, removing her garment. She continued to explore her beloved to the hard belly and the soft folds over her hips. She released Gabrielles skirt exposing Gabrielle in complete nakedness. Xena took a blanket and covered her lover. She then sat up and quickly removed her own clothes as Gabrielle held close to her. Xena lay beside Gabrielle. She took note of a lone tear falling from the bards eye. The warrior gently stopped its journey with her thumb.
Gabrielle spoke with regret. "Xena, my wound. I havent the "
Xena smiled. "I know. I just need to feel all of you beside me."
"Let me hear your heart."
Xena rolled onto her back lifting Gabrielle onto her in one complete motion. Gabrielle rested upon her partner, her ear to Xenas breast. Gabrielles spirit was soothed by Xenas heartbeat. Xenas by the weight and the rise and fall of Gabrielles every breath. Sleep came slowly as they suffered the bittersweet pleasure of their intimacy.
A winded Ariel came to Tovi. "Have you seen Gabrielle and Xena?"
Tovi had just concluded overseeing the latest preparations. "Leave them be."
Ariel persisted. "I have the updated Roman count Xena asked for."
Tovi swept the urgency aside. "It can wait until morning."
Ariel would not be put off. She demanded. "Tovi, where are they?"
Tovi relented. She had tried to respect her queens privacy. "I saw Xena lead Gabrielle away from camp. Xena had their bedrolls under her arm."
Ariels surging impatience was mollified. "I see." She wanted to say more. Looking away to what might have been the path taken by her queen and Xena, she reflected, "You were right when you said they share a life separate from the rest of us."
"As it should be." Tovi understood Ariel was attempting to atone once again for her terseness. She would have hoped that Ariel would temper herself in these difficult times. "Its getting late. We better get some rest."
Ariel was not ready to close the night. "Tovi. After this is over "
Tovi interrupted. She wasnt confident enough to look to the promise of a tomorrow. "Lets wait until then."
Tovi turned and began to walk to her bedroll situated on the far end of perimeter. A placement meant to secure her solitude.
Ariel called to her. "No! I dont want to wait!"
Tovi checked her departure and turned to face the woman she once believed to be her destiny.
Ariel stepped forward. "There is something between us. I know in my heart we are meant to be great friends." With each word Ariels tone softened. "Maybe even more. Havent you felt it?" The Northern Queen meekly stood before her Southern counterpart. "If Im a fool tell me. I wont speak of it again."
Tovis felt pity for both herself and Ariel. She met Ariel where the latter stood. She searched the eyes, and thus the soul, of the woman so profoundly self-exposed before her. "You are not a fool." Tovi leaned forward and delicately placed a kiss on Aris cheek. "We shall be friends." She returned to her stance. She willed herself to turn and walk away without further word or gesture.
Ariel stood stunned. We shall be friends. That was not what she had
expected. Her pride had taken a blow. Who was Tovi to discard her affections so
easily? Was she to beg for the Southern Queens love?
Tovi found that her bedroll no longer laid in solitude. Upon a second sat Karis. Tovi went to Karis and placed a hand on her shoulder, a common recognition between them. The queen lay on her bedroll, her back to the soil, her eyes enjoying a limitless view of the stars.
Karis turned to Tovi. "I hope you dont mind but I didnt want to be alone tonight."
Tovi remembered, "We use to sleep side-by-side when we were girls."
"I miss those times."
"It takes a war to bring us back to our roots."
Karis wanted so much to give Tovi some comfort. "Tovi, is there anything I can do."
Tovi turned to Karis. "Youre here. What more can I ask for?"
Xena had called a council to discuss their tactics. Ariel had confirmed the counts. They were outnumbered by five-fold. To counter the Roman offensive they needed to use the terrain to their advantage. The Greek landscape had consistently provided one advantage to those who called the high country home, the mountain pass. Using the combined archers of both tribes they could cut away at the legion. But to do so, they needed to pin the Romans to a limited space with no opportunity for escape. The east pass made a jagged bend, ideal for an ambush. The best camouflage and the most precarious boulders were on their side of the ravine. The problem was that the best line of sight was on the opposite side. Xena needed to maximize the number of warrior at ready to fight. She also needed a swift Amazon to traverse the ravine and signal the legions approach. She asked for volunteers. Ariel and Tovi exchanged glances in a heavy silence. The Northern warrior hesitated. The Southern philosopher knew what had to be done. "Ill go alone."
Xena advised Tovi. "I dont think thats wise."
Tovi countered. "Xena, you said yourself you need all our archers and I am swiftest when I travel alone."
Xena was not convinced. "The Romans could have scouts."
"Their armor will weigh them down. If there are too many to fight, I will just outrun them."
Gabrielle chimed. "Dont be a hero."
Tovi smiled. "My Queen there is no reason to concern yourself. In all the scrolls Ive read, I have never been tempted to emulate the hero."
Gabrielle could not help to ask. "That would include my scrolls as well?"
Tovi relished the opportunity to concede, "In your scrolls I admired the bard above all others."
Gabrielle shared Tovis smile.
Xena acquiesced. "All right then. You better get going. Shoot an arrow into the sky. If you can afford the exposure, flame the arrow so we have a better chance of seeing it."
Tovi pledged. "Ill do my best."
Xena nodded. Tovi took her leave. Gabrielle watched silently. She was right in her assessment of Tovi. The Southern Queen knew what it is to place her people above all else, including her own life. Gabrielle also noted Ariels silence. She knew that at their next private moment Xena would have some choice words regarding the Northern Queen.
Tovi found an isolated niche with a clear view of the ravine. She prepared three arrows for flight. She rolled the flints in her hand. Their power to spark was of equal importance to her ability to see and her skill as an archer. Success is rarely a function of only one person or one talent. For the Southern and Northern tribes to survive they would have to coordinate their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. They had to be creative and yet meticulous. She could only hope that on this day the Fates had chosen the survival of the Amazons over the unquenchable conquering of the Romans.
The legion had come into sight. Tovi waited patiently. The signal would not fly until they were only a step from the bend. She looked down to the flints in her hand. She scrapped them. The sparks flew to the dry grass on the head of the first arrow. She scrapped again. More sparks fanned by her soft breath were rewarded with a flame. She transferred the flame to the second arrow. Then she shot the first across the ravine hoping it would remain undetected. She repeated the task. Flame to third arrow. Shoot the second. And finally, she shot the third.
Tovi heard the male voice. She was not ready to run. She needed to make sure the scouts did not call for a withdrawal of the legion. The Roman soldier faced her. No words were spoken. Their blades crossed again and again. The soldier was a large man. By brute force alone he pushed Tovi back. She tripped against a stone and lost her balance. He had his quarry. His blade cut into her side. She cried out, impaled. He pulled his blade out from the embrace of her flesh. Tovi fell to the ground. She lost consciousness within a heartbeat.
Tovi felt the searing pain of her wound. She had never known a serious injury. It was difficult to discern whether she was near death or if the acute pain was life claiming her, demanding her consciousness, stubbornly preventing her from drifting to oblivion. She now understood why Gabrielle could not answer her query. There were no words to describe this moment. Accompanying the pain was a heighten awareness of each breath taken. Every motion was acute. Life itself seemed torn between the price of continuance and the seductiveness of resignation to what now seemed so certain, her death. She felt the cool earth underneath her. Flesh to grass and granular soil mitigated by a film of her blood. She felt the coolness of death enter her veins. She felt it from within radiating out not the more familiar cold from without penetrating in. The philosophers she read had not prepared her for this. Nothing had prepared her for this death. She suspected that were she to fall asleep she would never again waken in the world as she knew it. For a moment she allowed herself an ironic muse. Were she to live, the world would still not be as she knew it. Deaths approach had changed her. How quickly the sweep of a shadow can alter ones vision. Her immediate destiny was hers alone to experience. There was no one to help her cheat death and grant her more time. She had only one regret. She had failed herself and her beloved. For too many years she had been a coward and now she would die without even a kiss to soothe her during her final journey. Ariel was a poor substitute for Karis. And yet, the flawed Northern Queen perceived a truth that eluded Tovi. In speaking of love Ariel was right, "The lies pale in contrast" and "The pity is when one doesnt even see the lie."
Karis squad had been directed into the mid-range of the cliff. The tactical position had given her and her archers an unobstructed line to the legion. Their arrows had consistently hit their targets. It was a brutal but necessary assault. She soon stopped her mental count of fallen soldiers. The loss of life was too disheartening even when she reminded herself that they were her enemy. Her first act upon returning to camp was to search out Tovi. No one had seen her. One kinswoman said she heard that Tovi had gone out alone. Karis was livid. She spied Ariel surrounded by members of her tribe.
Karis broke through the circle. Upon reaching Ariel she demanded, "Where is Tovi?"
Ariel had difficulty responding. "She gave the signal. We expected her back by now."
"Who was with her?"
"She went alone." Ariel justified, "It was her choice."
Gabrielle witnessed the commotion and entered the space.
Karis rage was pronounced. "It is far easier to stay the perimeter Ariel, isnt it!"
Gabrielle interceded. "Karis, well find Tovi."
Ariel pleaded. "Ill help."
Karis threatened. "I dont want to see the sight of you."
Gabrielle shared Karis frustration but she knew war did not allow the luxury of a confrontation between desperate souls. Tovi was her primary concern. Gabrielle pulled Karis by the upper arm, "Lets go." She turned to Ariel. "This battle is not over. Your squad should report to Xena for further instructions. Tell her Ive taken Karis squad to search for Tovi."
Ariel felt the press of failure in the midst of what should have been a victory. The members of her squad remained silent. The pride they had felt had been crushed by the realization that the Southern tribe may have just experienced the greatest singular loss possible.
The squad traveled in stealth. Tovis delay forewarned a confrontation with Romans. Gabrielle saw them first. She went to one knee and signaled for the others to do the same. Karis counted four. Gabrielle confirmed with the nod of the head. She motioned for Karis to take four warriors to the flank. Gabrielle would take the balance of two forward. Let the Romans think her outnumbered. She held her position until Karis had sufficient time to disperse her warriors. Ready, Gabrielle stood up in full view. An Amazon stood on either side of her. Even with her injury she felt the physical sensation of not only her own power but also the power shared as one among her sisters. She was proud to be an Amazon and a defender of the Amazon way.
The Roman lieutenant wore a wry smile. "How many of you whores do we have to kill before you surrender to Caesar?" The lieutenant jerked forward and released an abbreviated cough. The daggers blade had hit its mark, the exposed flesh of the Romans neck. He had been too arrogant to wear a helmet and paid the price for it. He reached up with his hand, more reflex than conscious thought. The three remaining soldiers turned seeking the enemy. Karis led the attack. Gabrielle held her own with one strong arm and the assistance of her sisters. The outcome must be death. A swift death administered without mercy. They did not have the convenience of taking prisoners. The last Roman fell to Karis sword. She had been unrelenting. Gabrielle would have never guessed the engineer, Tovis beloved free spirit, could be so fierce. Then again, she knew her own capacity for killing had been mined to its greatest depth when Xenas life was threatened.
Karis stood over the soldier, his blood coated her blade. Karis felt a consuming hatred. Her fear revolved around the loss of one life, not this casualty of war, nor her own.
Gabrielle stepped to Karis side. She spoke gently. "Karis, we need to move forward."
Karis was despondent. "Tovi is dead."
Gabrielle was not ready to admit the loss. "You dont know that."
Karis pointed to the soldiers girdle. "I gave Tovi that scarf."
Gabrielles gaze went to the colorful cloth. She bent down and removed it from the Romans belt. She took Karis hand and opened the palm. She then placed the scarf in it and closed Karis hand to a secure fist. "When we find Tovi, and we will. You can give it back to her."
Karis looked down to the scarf. Though in her hand, it seemed removed from her senses.
Gabrielle urged, "Ready."
Karis placed the scarf in behind her belt. "Ready."
The Amazons broke into an extended line remaining within each others sight. There was now no reason to believe that Tovi wasnt injured. They needed to cover as much territory as possible. Karis remained at Gabrielles right. Gabrielle kept a close eye on the Amazon. War had the ability to strip ones emotional defenses. The soul is never more exposed. Karis was living a nightmare. One Gabrielle had experienced more than once; one that never failed to move her closer to her self. The whistle came from Gabrielles left. The squad converged upon the source. Tovi lay in a pool of blood. An errant voice confirmed that the queen was still alive. Gabrielle fell to her knees on one side of Tovi. Karis did the same on the other.
Gabrielle instructed. "Turn her gently." They rolled Tovi toward Karis. Gabrielle commanded three of the warriors to fashion a litter. She worked to stop the flow of Tovis blood. The wound was deep and wide. Though she doubted whether Xena' skills could save the young queen she was determined to give Tovi the chance to receive the healers efforts.
Karis spoke in a whisper. "Tovi, open your eyes."
The muted voices had broken through Tovis consciousness. She felt the pressure of the warm hands upon her body as they moved her. Karis repeated her plea. Tovi heard the familiar voice and willed herself to comply.
Karis congratulated Tovis effort. "Thats my girl."
Tovi held Karis in her gaze. "Take my hand."
Karis pressed Tovis hand, which was already in her grasp, tighter. "Ive got you."
"There were four Romans."
"We know. Dont worry."
"They might come back."
Karis took Tovis scarf from her belt and showed it to her. "They wont come back."
Karis spoke with vengeance. "It was seen. The Romans have taken great losses. They will think again before challenging our nation."
Tovi held a different fear. "Karis, I see the hatred in your eyes. Take care or it will consume you."
Karis cried softly. "Tovi "
Gabrielle signaled for all to step back. She pulled herself up, her hands folded before her. She was humbled by the intimacy she was witnessing.
Tovi insisted. "I love your free spirit. Where is it now? Dont let the Romans kill what is the best of you."
"You have always been the best of me. How many times have I told you I loved you hoping you would see my truth?"
Tovi confessed. "I was afraid of losing you as my sister."
Karis response was tender. "Fool."
"Arent I though?"
"Grant me a kiss and I vow my silence."
Karis leaned down and gently brushed her lips against Tovis. Tovi still had the strength to respond. Karis returned to Tovi lips a second time. They shared a deeper, more complete union.
The funeral pyres were built side by side. The Northern tribe had been spared. The Southern tribe lost three warriors. Under the circumstances it was both a small and an inconsolable price to pay for victory. Victory secured their freedom. It secured the right to continue a cherished way of life. Tovi knew freedom did not come to those who would step aside and passively surrender to the unmerciful forces of the Romans. The Amazons did not seek out more land or riches; they did not conquer intent on eliminating a way of life they deemed less worthy than their own. They only fought for their lives and their culture, a culture that grew richer with each generation. Amazons would continue. They would recount their stories. This battle and the alliance it forged between the tribes was historic. As a result the north would be govern by a different queen. Before abdicating Ariel had bargained a waiver from the disgrace of an Amazon trial for Cici. Cici accepted immediate banishment. Ariel accompanied her in a self-imposed exile. Though Ariel had not and would not be accused of wrong doing, in her heart she harbored a truth. It was a truth she saw reflected in the eyes of Gabrielle, Xena and Karis. Ariel knew she could have done more right. Her motivations more than her inaction was the root of her shame.
Karis stood with Gabrielle at her side. The new queen of the combined tribes had difficulty maintaining her composure. She held a torch in her hand. Stepping forward she lit the first and then the second pyre, bidding farewell to her sisters. She walked on and stood at the head of the third pyre. She did not understand. She simply did not understand why Tovi died in her arms. She pleaded with Xena to use her skills as a healer. Xena tried but it was apparent that even the Warrior Princess had her limits. Karis begged the goddess to save her beloved. She offered up a bargain, her life for Tovis. And still, Tovis breaths grew more shallow as she fought to remain conscious. Tovi asked only one thing. She wanted to be left alone with Karis. Once alone, Tovi struggled with words of remembrance of times shared as little girls and young women. From Tovis eyes came tears of both joy and sorrow. Karis wiped them dry with a cloth and tenderly begged Tovi to stop, to gather her strength for the dawn. Tovi continued as if there would be no dawn. For her there wasnt. She died in the night.
The tribe heard Karis defiant cry demanding Tovis life be returned to her. All heard Karis wound and the sound cut them and they cried their own tears. Tears were shed privately in the middle of the night as Karis muffled weeping diminished; a signal of her anguish, one without hope for a reprieve. Leaving only silence. The silence of death.
Gabrielle watched Karis with care. She did not know how much pain the young queen could bear. Gabrielle had been lying beside Xena in their bed when she heard Karis first cry. Gabrielle sat up, immediately joined by Xena. They looked into each others eyes wordlessly sharing a shattering sorrow. Xena took hold of Gabrielle and guided her back down into their bed. Gabrielle did not withhold her tears. She would miss the young philosopher queen. Tovi exemplified the best of the Amazons, the best of a tradition of strong, wise leaders. May Ephiny welcome young Tovi to the other side and grant her a place of honor.
Karis eyes traveled over Tovis carefully bound body. If she flamed the pyre she was sending Tovis soul to the heavens. Tovi would no longer be with her. Tovi had always been with her. Karis knew no life without Tovi. Life was now foreign to her. Karis free spirit, the spirit Tovi so loved was possible only because Tovi remained on the ground extending her arm for Karis to return to her from her latest flight. Karis could no longer soar or simply glide among the currents exploring the worlds mysteries. She had lost the promise of a safe haven. She had lost her home. She had lost Tovi. Karis flamed the pyre and within her self she too burned to ash.
Gabrielle and Xena remained with the Southern tribe for another two moons. Karis did not ask much of them. She mourned privately. She mourned in both Gabrielles and Xenas comforting embrace. She shared stories of the young girl destined to become a philosopher queen and her equally young friend, sister, partner. As Karis stories unfolded Gabrielles understanding and appreciation of Tovi grew richer. The momentary joy Gabrielle witnessed the day Tovi and Karis returned from their swim was actually Tovi in her youth. Her innocence survived hardship and loss. Her desire for life was never undermined. Gabrielle saw a little of herself in Tovi. She was uncertain of how to carry their truth. The Fates had marked them but did not abandon them. They were surrounded by the love necessary to go on. Tovi had Karis. Gabrielle had Xena. The tragedy was that with the loss of Tovi, it was now Karis who felt the mark of the Fates, and that for Karis, it did feel as if she had been abandoned.
Gabrielle walked to the Northern meadow as the sun began to set on the horizon. She remembered telling Xena that she had traveled the road of faith before, a road she was not yet done with. And she remembered how Xena foresaw that the road would offer her another chance to learn. What had she learned that she didnt already know? She knew of youth torn from its innocence. She knew of love and its power to heal and renew. She knew that life makes demands of us that we could have never imagined. And in the list of demands is the resiliency to survive the inevitable loss of those most dear. She knew that in fighting for ones life one must reconcile oneself to ones death. The greatest of paradoxes. Or is it irony? As the sun set the sky hues of blue were streamed with red and yellow and a hint of purple. So beautiful this death of day. So terribly beautiful. Yes, Gabrielle knew she had traveled the road of faith before. She felt she had returned to the same place, stood beneath the same stars just starting to appear, watching the same muted, disappearing sun. What was different was her vision. She felt she was at a different plateau, a different height. No better no worst, just different. She saw things differently. And contrary to much of her adult learning, she did not capture this new vision through Xenas eyes. The vision before and now is uniquely hers. She felt comforted by this as well as profoundly alone.
Gabrielle heard a rustle behind her.
Xena approached with two bedrolls underneath her arm and a basket hanging from the other. "Were going to have a clear night for watching the stars."
Gabrielle smiled. What more meaning must there be in life than what she felt that very moment?
Comments: Always encouraged and appreciated. Mayt@aol.com
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