Disclaimer: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices
Background: This story has minor references to events in Silences, Silences II and The Chamber and builds on characters introduced and events that occurred in Mediations. It is strongly recommended that Mediations be read prior to proceeding with Natural Causes.
Acknowledgements: My gratitude to Cath for her extensive edits/comments and to Tana for her beta review.
Comments: Always encouraged and appreciated.
Subtext: This story portrays a loving relationship between two women. If you are under 18 or if it is illegal for you to read this text please do not continue.
Their campsite was situated off the ocean shoreline where the tall grasses were roused to a gentle dance by the constant breeze and where a few trees provided shade from the sun. They had chosen a cove, an isolated stretch of land bounded by tall, jagged rock formations. There was a peace to be found here, a peace they had longed for. The night was quiet except for the murmur of the seawaters. The tide ebbed, the moon waxed, the world was balanced between competing energies. Their fire burned low, small red embers glowed in the bed of ash that only a few candlemarks before were solid timbers of driftwood. At the side laid their provisions, enough fresh water and food to keep them for a few more turns of dawn to dusk. They had spent the evening sitting silently, watching the brilliant sunset beyond the Aegean horizon. the fair one lying within the embrace of the dark one. Their hands intertwined, a common gesture, affirming their joining, their shared lives. They took to their bedrolls soon after sunset. The fair one, fatigued beyond measure, allowed the respite to seduce the tension from her muscle, leaving her with a delicious lack of ambition. The dark one welcomed the change in her beloved. Witness to a now too rare ease within Gabrielle, the dark one, Xena, encouraged Gabrielle's laziness, suppressing any affectionate accusation of sloth, fearing it would be taken seriously. They slept together beneath one lone blanket. The night warmth required no more for comfort.
Xena stirred. Gabrielle was firmly, tenderly within her embrace. She took solace in knowing that Gabrielle had slept soundly throughout the passing candlemarks. There was truth in Gabrielle's claimed weariness. Xena stroked wisps of blond, sun-bleached hair from Gabrielle's forehead. She leaned forward and placed a tender kiss upon the exposed flesh. There were many kisses throughout the years given in such a manner, a private expression of affection that sought no acknowledgment. It was enough that Xena felt and was able to express her feelings as she did. She closed her eyes and allowed sleep to take hold of her once again. They were safe.
Gabrielle's mind began to flicker, sounds entered her consciousness, her muscle and bone ached, and a healthy hunger would abide no further delay. Counter to preference, she awoke. Her eyes rested upon her companion, who had remained by her side, in vigil. She spoke a low, throaty greeting. "Hi."
Xena smiled. "Hi. How are you feeling?"
"You slept through the night."
"Not enough, I guess. Anyway, why would I want to move?" Gabrielle reached up and swept Xena's long tresses aside. "I love you."
Xena remained silent.
Gabrielle studied her soul mate. Xena's composure had altered abruptly, an earnestness had taken dominion. "Hey?"
"You know, don't you, that you are my life." Though Xena's words were softly spoken, their intensity pierced through all that had the power to separate them, reaching the very heart of Gabrielle's being.
Such words from Xena had become less rare. With time the warrior's private expressions of love found an easier path to voice. Never would Gabrielle take the words for granted. They affirmed their bond, a bond that had exacted a high price from both of them. "Make me yours."
A smile emerged through Xena's ardent countenance. "With pleasure, my bard."
Their lovemaking was particularly delicate, each reached release with an interior quake of body and heart. Gabrielle fell asleep once again. Xena chose not to disturb her. It wasn't until mid-morning that they entered the waters for a swim. The balance of the day continued with no specific course of action other than to enjoy the countless pleasures of their intimate union.
"Don't be so proud of yourself." Gabrielle chastised.
"I haven't said a word." Xena gave a fraudulent rebuttal.
"How about that smile?"
Xena placed a kiss upon Gabrielle's palm. "Shouldn't I smile after having the pleasure of making love to you?"
"That's not the smile I see."
"Can I help it if you weren't as tired as you thought you were?"
"You were determined to convince me. I swear warrior, your kisses have a power that washes over me and makes me ."
Xena completed the thought with a tame laugh. "Less tired."
Gabrielle shared the laughter. "I don't know why I love you."
"There." Xena placed her finger on Gabrielle's lips. "It's your smile that I live for."
Xena propped herself up on her elbow and looked over to her partner. "We've been living a quiet life since leaving the Amazons."
"Are you bored? We can try harder to find some trouble."
"No. Not at all. The slower pace has been nice." Xena caressed Gabrielle' cheek with her hand.
"I think about Tovi. And of you." Xena's hand traveled down to Gabrielle's scarred shoulder. "I'd like things to stay as they are, if just for a little while longer. Just you and me. That's if you don't get fed up with having only me around."
Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's. "It's hard to believe that it has been six moons since Tovi's death. I wonder how Karis is doing?"
"Is it time for Queen Gabrielle to go back to visit her tribe?"
"Not just yet. Right now I want only you."
Xena leaned down and took Gabrielle's lips with her own. The kisses were tender. Xena asked for nothing more. She raised her lips away and moved toward Gabrielle's ear. She whispered. "I love you, my bard."
Gabrielle caressed the back of Xena's head as the latter lay beside her, a familiar position welcoming an approaching sleep. Gabrielle kissed Xena's cheek and returned to look at the night sky. Unlike the previous night that was clear, this night sky was cloud covered. Without the stars and moon in sight the world seemed to her more limited and uncertain. She turned again to bring Xena into her gaze. For Gabrielle, lying beside Xena, provoked an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. She was grateful for the life they shared. At moments such as this, Gabrielle knew no greater peace, no greater happiness.
Traveling on horseback, they kept a moderate pace. Gabrielle's fatigue had not lessened in the passing days. She expected the renewed activity of being on the road would restore her stamina. Xena had only encouraged Gabrielle to rest, attempting to allay her concerns. Xena reassured Gabrielle that her need for rest was warranted given the lingering effect of her wound. It was, in fact, Gabrielle's growing fatigue that had motivated their respite. Gabrielle stroked her shoulder, pierced by a Roman arrow. Her thoughts returned to the six cycles of the moon that had passed since the assassination attempt. Gabrielle had never taken so long to recover from an injury. It gave her reason to pause.
They were setting up their camp for the night. Gabrielle gathered wood for the fire while Xena hunted. Upon her return, Xena was surprised to find that Gabrielle had only partially completed her usual tasks. Xena called out Gabrielle's name seeking a sign that all was well. Gabrielle heard the call and responded. She approached with an armful of wood. Without warning, her legs buckled and she fell to the ground. Gabrielle beckoned Xena to her. Xena followed the sound of Gabrielle's voice, quickly reaching the fallen bard.
"Hey, did you trip?"
"Xena, there is something wrong with me."
Without hesitation, Xena took Gabrielle into her arms and carried her back to camp. Gabrielle held close to the warrior. She attempted to check her fear. She could no longer stay in denial. Her health was deteriorating. Until this moment, she rationalized that to share her concerns with Xena was an unwarranted burden upon the warrior. But now, cradled in Xena's arms, there was no escaping a confession. Experience taught her that not to speak her truth would cause more harm than good.
Xena carefully helped Gabrielle rest against a tree. "Tell me."
Gabrielle looked away trying to make sense of what she felt. "I feel like all my strength has been taken out of me. My legs just gave way for no reason."
Xena employed her knowledge as a healer, seeking clues to help her care for Gabrielle. "Your vision?"
"Any ringing in your ears?"
"No. Xena, it's not like before. It's not like when I had a concussion. It's my whole body. This is different."
Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle's forehead. "You're a little warm. I'll finish up setting camp. We can stay here until you get stronger. It might just take a couple of days for this to run its course. Okay?"
"I'm not in a position to argue." Gabrielle reconsidered. There was more she needed to share. "Xena. I'm not sure if a couple of days rest is going to help."
"What do you mean?"
"I've felt this weakness building for a while now. We just took time to rest and it didn't help."
"Gabrielle, I don't know." Xena's practice of the healing arts was developed in the arena of war. As years passed, she learned about the more subtle illnesses that did not come from the end of a bronze sword. She could no longer deny that she, too, had a growing concern for Gabrielle's health. Nothing she observed was familiar. She did not know what was sapping Gabrielle of her life force. "We could go to Sparta and have a healer take a look at you."
"Xena, you're a fine healer. I trust you."
"Then trust me when I say we need to have someone else take a look at you."
Gabrielle needed to confirm what she already knew. "You're worried."
In order not to alarm, Xena chose to redirect their focus to the limits of her own skills as a healer. "Gabrielle, I won't let my pride get in the way of finding out what's wrong with you."
Gabrielle consented. "All right. We'll go to Sparta."
Xena was relieved. "Thank you."
"For being ill?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena placed a reassuring hand upon the bard's arm. "For telling me. It doesn't seem so long ago that you tried to keep your wounds from me."
"What do you think?" Xena was impatient for the healer's diagnosis.
Locrea, the healer, had mined her memory trying to place the vaguely familiar symptoms. "It has been many years since I have seen an illness like this; many more in someone so young. If I am right, your friend will only get weaker. She will have days of strength but they will be less frequent. The day will come when lifting her head from her pillow will feel like an impossible effort."
"What can be done?" Xena readied herself for what promised to be a difficult trial.
"Nothing, but to be her friend. Make her last days comfortable."
The healer's guidance confused the warrior. "Last days? What are you saying?"
Locrea spoke in a measured voice. "Your friend may live another three to six moons."
"This is insane! You're an old fool."
"Xena, you have a reputation as a fine healer. Why did you come to me?"
The question begged the truth. Xena confessed. "Because I don't know what to do. In the passing moon I suspected something was wrong. I've tried everything I know. I've placed herbs in Gabrielle's tea without her knowing and nothing has helped her regain her strength. I can't just stand by and watch."
"I am sorry. I wish I could help."
Competing thoughts stymied the warrior. One thought persevered. She questioned. "Have you told her?"
"The herb I gave her helped her drift into sleep. I wanted to speak to you first."
"Don't tell her."
"You will speak to her?"
Xena swept the expectation aside. "Not yet."
The healer was blunt. "You must. If you don't, I will."
Xena would not tolerate being told what she must or must not do. "I'll kill you first."
"No you won't." Gabrielle stepped out from the adjacent room. "You two could wake up the dead. Lucky for me I'm not dead yet."
Xena and Gabrielle matched defiant gazes.
Locrea was relieved that Gabrielle had learned the truth although she would have preferred if the conveyance of it had been more merciful. "I'll leave you two to talk. I'll be in the next room if you need me."
Gabrielle broke the silence. "Xena, I'm having a hard time traveling even at an easy pace. I don't have the strength to defend myself. I'm a liability to you. Take me to the Amazons. If I'm dying "
Xena interrupted. "We don't know that."
Gabrielle's voice dropped to a whisper. "Take me to my tribe."
Xena reasoned. "Malina is an excellent healer."
"The Southern village is closer. Karis can send a messenger to the North and bring her to me."
"All right. We'll see how you feel in the morning."
The bard would not be delayed. "No. We leave now. I can't wait until I feel stronger."
Gabrielle and Xena entered Amazon lands. Soon they would reach the village. They had been traveling in relative silence. Each in deep thought. Each resting their hope on Malina's healing arts. The greater hope rested in Xena's breast. Gabrielle carried the illness and felt its siege against her body. She imagined herself an icicle, similar to the ones she saw not long ago as she and Xena passed across a mountain ridge. The icicles hung over a precipice. Each day they slowly lost a bit of themselves, melting as spring approached. Each day another droplet of their essence fell from their core. Gabrielle knew the day would come when she, like those crystal formations of captured moisture, would no longer be able to maintain her hold, and what was left of her would fall and shatter, leaving nothing behind, but the memory of her existence, safeguarded by those who had known her. She felt this truth viscerally.
Gabrielle felt she still had time. Looking to Xena, she knew the time had not yet come to coax Xena to deliver her from her promise, the promise Gabrielle made never to leave Xena again. More than the loss of her life, Gabrielle mourned the loss of her life with Xena. It wasn't death that was unbearable. It was the separation. She had died with Xena and experienced that brief moment when their souls waited to be called to Paradise by the angels - the silent waiting in companionship, the lifting of each up by the angels within sight of one another. It was but a moment, too brief to measure. It was bliss. There was no fear, no pain, only awe. She wondered if she would find herself on that very landscape or if she would cross to a different land. The other side was as changeable as the geography on earth. She didn't understand why this was true, she only knew what experience taught her. She wondered if it was her bond to Xena that kept her from the Amazon resting-place. Xena, not an Amazon, had no claim to walk in those lands. Gabrielle had made her wishes known to Xena, and long before she had spoken them, she had held the conviction in her heart, that she belonged to Xena and would lie with her in death. Upon their resurrection Gabrielle had come to know the truth. They would remain together through eternity. So, she wondered, if that was the answer. She had chosen. It was her choice to follow Xena's destiny to the other side, because Xena could not follow hers.
She wondered if Xena understood this. She sincerely doubted it. Xena took each new challenge as it came. She was astute in deciphering what was happening around her. She was brilliant in response. But did Xena perceive this nuance in their destinies or did she simply take it as a given, as the fate of soul mates? It didn't matter. Now that Gabrielle believed she understood, she took comfort in the knowledge that when Xena swore that even in death she would always be with her, it was Gabrielle who ultimately chose to make that declaration true. Xena did have a choice. It was one she made a long time ago when she accepted Gabrielle as a traveling companion. The consequence of Xena's choice was that Gabrielle had the power to ensure that, as it was in their beginning, it would be at their end. Though Gabrielle would die, she would wait on Xena's path for Xena to rejoin her. She would wait, with no regret, for their eternity to continue.
Xena pulled Argo's reins. "Hold girl."
Gabrielle kept her mount beside the warrior. The two waited in silence.
The Amazon warriors appeared from the treetops. The familiar sight never ceased to take Gabrielle's breath away. There was a magnificence to these women, who donned masks hiding their identity to strangers, while proclaiming their birthright to friends.
Raising her mask, Jamine stepped forward. "Welcome, Queen Gabrielle." She turned her attention to the Queen's extraordinary companion. "Xena."
Xena dismounted. Gabrielle did the same but with a slower, more deliberate motion. She handed her reins to Xena. Jamine followed protocol and waited for the Queen's response.
Gabrielle stepped forward and offered her arm. "Jamine. It's good to see you. How are things?"
Jamine took Gabrielle's arm proudly. "Uneventful, which we are all grateful for. And for you? Any new adventures we can hope recounted by the Bard of Poteidaia?"
Gabrielle looked over to Xena. Their time together during the past four moons was not material for this bard's tales. "I'm sorry to disappoint you but we've had a quiet time of it."
"That is our loss."
"Would you send a messenger to Queen Karis? I would like to speak to her as soon as possible."
Jamine called to a young handsome warrior. "Ciara."
Ciara stepped to Jamine's side. Jamine made the introductions. "Queen Gabrielle, have you met Ciara?"
Gabrielle smiled. "I believe we had an occasion to spar with staffs."
Ciara bowed respectfully. "Yes, my Queen. You offered a fine lesson. I would hope to enjoy an equal privilege during your stay."
Gabrielle remembered their encounter well. "We will see, Ciara. If I recall correctly, you almost took me off my feet."
"Yes. But it was I who ultimately kissed the dirt."
Gabrielle laughed. " A poor kiss indeed. I hope it wasn't your first kiss."
Ciara grinned. "No my Queen. Nor my last."
Gabrielle liked the young warrior. She returned to a more tempered tone. "Ciara. Please convey my greetings to Queen Karis."
Ciara understood her task. "I shall. With your permission."
Gabrielle granted her leave. "Of course."
Jamine placed her hand on Ciara's shoulder. "Report to me upon our arrival."
"Yes, Captain." Ciara turned and made a dash through the woods.
Jamine invited. "Shall we?" She motioned to two warriors. They stepped forward and took the reins from Xena. The warriors trailed at the rear with the horses. Two other warriors led. The remaining three were directed by Jamine to stay at their post. Jamine, Gabrielle and Xena walked quietly at the center of the grouping. Protocol could now be relaxed.
"How is Karis?" It was Xena who had established the closer bond with the new, young, Amazon queen. And so Xena had asked.
Jamine spoke softly. "She continues to deeply mourn the loss of Tovi. Damia and I have tried to offer our friendship, but Karis shares little."
Xena continued. "I see you have stayed in the South as her Captain."
"By Karis' request. The gesture of sharing positions of leadership has not gone unnoticed. It has helped our transition to one tribe."
Gabrielle redirected the inquiries. "How is Seda?"
"Her passions have quieted. Isra has made a great effort to give the elder time to consider the sacredness of the Goddess. I believe Seda is finally seeing the merit in our traditions."
Gabrielle was relieved. "Good. It was what Tovi wanted."
Jamine confirmed. "It is good. I have only recently come to understand Tovi's wisdom. She knew far more than one would have expected from someone so young."
Xena considered a less pleasant subject. "Any word of Ariel and Cici?"
Xena sought one final assurance. "And the Romans?"
"We keep close watch at all our borders. They have not been seen anywhere in the province." Jamine looked to Gabrielle. "I believe your recent enjoyment of a quiet life will continue without interruption. As Isra has told us, the Amazons are enjoying the blessing of peace. We are to hold the fragile sliver of light preciously in our hands, for if it comes to believe we do not cherish it, it may choose to flee and leave us once again in darkness."
Gabrielle took hold of Xena's hand. She needed to feel their connection. She needed Xena's strength. They walked the remaining candlemark in silence.
Upon entering the village courtyard, Xena sensed Gabrielle pause. Jamine continued unaware.
The voice, heard only by one, was weak. "Xena. I can't. I've tried, but I can't go on."
Without a word Xena lifted Gabrielle into her arms. She called out. "Jamine. Is Malina in the village?"
Jamine turned. She was startled by what she saw. "No, Xena. Malina is in the North village, but her apprentice Julian resides here."
Xena directed. "Lead me to her."
Julian was working at her bench preparing herbs for drying. The harsh sound of her door being abruptly opened jolted her from her calm. She recognized Xena as the warrior entered with Queen Gabrielle in her arms. Xena paused, scanned the room and then proceeded to lay Gabrielle on one of the two available pallets. Gabrielle felt her head fall upon a pillow. The ability to simply rest was a great gift. She turned to Xena. "Not the Queen's entrance I wanted."
Xena's stoic character was absent. She whispered a lover's plea. "Be still."
Julian came to their side. "My Queen, what ails you?"
Xena turned her attention to the entrance. "Jamine. See that no one but Karis enters." Dutifully, Jamine stepped out and closed the door. Xena returned her gaze to Gabrielle as she reached out and stroked the bard's cheek. "Hey."
Julian waited patiently, though her question had not been answered. Xena spoke without diverting her eyes. "Julian. Trust me when I say we need Malina's talents."
The young healer wished it were not so. Knowing the formidable skills Xena possessed as a healer, Julian trusted the validity of the request. "I will see to it." Julian exited the hut. She found Jamine at guard with the young warrior, Ciara, beside her. The other warriors stood a half dozen paces from them, waiting with obvious concern. "Captain. I must summon Malina to Queen Gabrielle."
Jamine was disheartened. "It's serious?"
Julian spoke candidly. "This is Xena's request. I do not question it."
Ciara volunteered. "Send me."
Jamine scrutinized the young warrior. "Take a companion. Queen Tovi proved the road to the North could be traveled in three days. See if you can do as well. Malina will require a slower pace. Be patient with her. Other than Xena, no one will want Queen Gabrielle well more than her."
"Yes, Captain." Ciara called out to her friend Lael. The two young warriors proceeded to the village stores for provisions.
Julian inquired. "Has Queen Karis been summoned?"
Jamine affirmed. "Yes. She should be here soon."
Julian turned to the door. "I feel like an intruder."
Jamine understood. "Do what you can. Believe me, Xena does not mince words. If she wants privacy she will ask for it."
Julian considered the Captain's counsel. She also considered the tenderness the Warrior Princess offered the Queen. In a few brief moments Julian felt she witnessed a profound intimacy shared by the two women, an intimacy well beyond her personal experience.
The young healer returned to the Queen's bedside. Gabrielle gave Julian her unwavering regard. Julian took Gabrielle's notice as permission to speak. "My Queen, Ciara and Lael leave for the North to summon Malina, and Queen Karis will be at your side soon."
Gabrielle could see that fear and uncertainty had taken hold of the young healer. "Thank you." She turned to her partner. "Xena. I want to sit up."
Xena spoke Gabrielle's name as only she could. It conveyed her disapproval.
Gabrielle was not deterred. "Xena. Just being off my feet has made me feel better. Please don't fight me."
Xena raised her gaze to Julian. "Do you have some extra pillows?"
Julian was happy to assist. "In the back. I will get them."
Xena sat beside Gabrielle. Gabrielle reached up. Xena took Gabrielle into her embrace and lifted her to a sitting position. She whispered, "I love you." She had not spoken those three words since Sparta.
Gabrielle rested her head on Xena's shoulder. "And I love you."
Julian returned with two pillows. She stepped carefully, placing the pillows at Gabrielle's back. Xena leaned forward resting Gabrielle upon them. "Better?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Yes. Thank you."
Karis' delight in learning of Gabrielle and Xena's arrival was quickly arrested by the news of Gabrielle's collapse. Walking across the courtyard, she felt a rising trepidation as she neared the healer's hut. She hated the hut with a passion. She lost Tovi to death in that hut. During the past six moons she had cause to enter the space only twice, each time to visit an injured warrior, a gesture expected of the Queen.
Karis inquired of her Captain. "Jamine. Any word from Julian?"
Jamine reported. "Xena has requested Malina. I have sent Ciara and Lael to the North."
Karis pressed. "That is well and good, but what has Julian to say about Gabrielle's condition?"
Jamine responded flatly. "Nothing."
Karis' impatience surfaced. "Tell me what happened."
Jamine was confused by the Queen's prolonged interview. She maintained her composure and expanded her report as requested. "All seemed well as we walked to the village from the eastern border. Upon Xena's call I turned to see Queen Gabrielle in her arms. That is all I know."
Karis considered the door separating her from the woman she looked upon as her Queen. She foresaw that a painful truth waited for her on the other side. Karis reluctantly entered the hut.
At the sight of Karis, Xena stood, offering her arm in welcome. "Karis, it's good to see you."
Karis took the warrior's arm. "Xena, my friend. I have missed you." She turned a fearful gaze toward Gabrielle.
Gabrielle smiled. "Karis."
For a moment, seeing Gabrielle sitting up and smiling lifted Karis' spirits. "Gabrielle. How are you?"
Xena choreographed the encounter. "Karis, please sit down."
Karis' heart was quickly burdened by the tone of Xena's invitation. Julian placed a chair near Gabrielle's pallet. Karis sat across from the Queen. Xena stood two paces to the left of Karis. Julian did the same on the right. Though not discussed, Xena knew it was Gabrielle's place to speak.
Gabrielle debated how best to recount recent events. Her concern was not only for Karis, but for Xena, more so the latter. She chose to share what she believed to be true even though Xena disagreed with her conclusion. "Karis, in the past moon I have grown weak. At first I thought it was the lingering effect of my wound from the Roman arrow. Xena and I rested. I felt better, but I also did very little. When we renewed our travels I quickly found myself getting weaker again. Xena has tried all the healing arts she knows, without effect. We went to Sparta to see a respected healer. The healer has seen similar illnesses, though she admitted that it was rare, especially in one as young as I am." Gabrielle paused hoping to let the story lead Karis toward what would now be its conclusion. "Karis, she told us that I would die in three to six moons."
Karis was stunned. She leaned back in her chair. Julian had followed Gabrielle's words carefully. She caught herself from crying aloud, her training as a healer coming to the forefront, managing her conduct.
Karis denied what she heard. "This can't be."
Gabrielle chose to give Xena her due and temper the veracity of her own words. "Xena doesn't believe the healer and that is one reason why we have returned. I have asked for Malina's care."
Karis seized the hope and spoke with fervor. "And you shall have it."
Gabrielle continued. "Karis. I have one other request."
"If Malina cannot help me, I wish to live my last days in this village. I request lodging and the opportunity to contribute to the tribe as best as I can. After my death, Xena will take me to Amphipolis to be buried in her family crypt."
Shaken by the request, Karis sought an escape. "I will have lodgings appropriate for a Queen prepared."
Gabrielle checked herself from voicing a protest. She perceived in Karis a need to bestow the honor upon her. Gabrielle humbly accepted. "Thank you."
Karis spoke as Queen. "It will be at least seven days before we can expect Malina. Julian will do all she can to make you comfortable. Though young she is skillful in her arts. Malina has taught her well and she has been an attentive student." Karis stood up. "Allow me to take my leave and make the necessary arrangements." Gabrielle nodded. Karis walked past Xena. The two warriors exchanged a painful recognition of each other's grief. The grief Karis still held within and the grief Xena was fighting to keep at bay. Karis paused at the door. She turned back to Gabrielle. "What will you have me tell your people?"
Again, Gabrielle was taken aback by Karis' recognition of her royal status. Her answer was unequivocal. "The truth."
Without a further word, Karis left the room.
Gabrielle caught Julian's notice. "Julian. I need to speak to Xena."
Julian gave the Queen a slight bow. "I will wait outside."
Xena returned to her place beside Gabrielle. Gabrielle rested her hand on Xena's arm. "Xena. I want to walk to our lodge once it's made ready." Gabrielle placed her fingers on Xena's lips to stay a response. "I can't do it without your arm and a staff."
Xena suppressed her protest and acquiesced. She took Gabrielle's fingers from her lips and cradled them delicately. Her words were soft spoken. "All right. I'll go to the armory." Xena wasn't ready to leave her partner. "Is there anything else I can get you?"
Gabrielle smiled. "I have you."
Shaking her head with self-depreciation Xena responded with her own smile. "Yes, you do." The warrior took to her feet. Her gaze, fixed upon Gabrielle, struggled to release itself from its cherished subject.
Gabrielle extended an invitation to speak. "What is it?"
"Remember, Malina has not yet spoken."
Gabrielle promised. "I will accept her judgment."
Xena nodded, satisfied. "I'll be right back."
Gabrielle watched Xena depart. Gabrielle wondered if Xena would be able to accept Malina's findings as readily as she was determined to.
During the passing candlemarks Xena and Gabrielle remained within the healer's hut. Julian, who had assisted in the arrangements, reentered the hut. "My Queen. Your quarters have been made ready." The healer stepped outside. She did not release the door, but waited. She noted that to the west the setting sun washed the pastel blue sky with streaks of amber and copper.
Gabrielle walked out supporting herself, as she had imagined, holding a staff in one hand and Xena's arm in the other. The Queen and Warrior walked unhurriedly across the courtyard to a lodge of generous proportions prepared for their comfort. Many of the tribe were at evening meal. Strategically positioned guards observed the movement of the two legends. Jamine had made her orders clear. The guards were to ensure the Queen's safety without intruding on her privacy.
Julian remained where she stood and observed the progress of the women toward their new home. As a healer she was dissatisfied with the limits placed upon her. And yet, she knew as a healer that she needed to respect her patient's wishes.
Karis had called a meeting of the tribal council to convey Gabrielle's request. Other than individual expressions of dismay in learning of the Queen's ill health, there was no discussion of merit. Gabrielle's request was granted by unanimous consent.
The Queen's lodge had been furnished with the finest the tribe could offer. Food and drink for evening meal rested on a table. Another table stored ink, quills and blank scrolls.
Gabrielle entered, taking in the generosity of her people. She sighed. "They thought of everything."
Upon closing the door, Xena gathered Gabrielle into her arms and carried her to the large bed.
Gabrielle protested. "Xena, I could have walked the last few steps."
"In these four walls we are protected from the tribe's eyes and their judgments."
"I don't want to run away from the truth."
"Gabrielle, here we have our own truth, a truth that others can't understand. I'm going to do everything in my power to protect it."
The dining lodge hummed with the manifold voices of inquiry, speculation and concern. Queen Gabrielle's periodic residence with the Amazons was rarely at moments of peace. Many, upon learning of her arrival, hoped that she would be able to enjoy her time with them, for the times had indeed changed. A cautious circumstantial peace had entered their realm. The Romans, struggling to stabilize discontent in their expansive empire, weighed the conquering of Amazon lands a lesser priority. The combining of the Northern and Southern tribes had improved the quality of life for both. It was an exciting time of new friendships and exchanges, teachers of one village, mentored students of the other. Services of artisans and warriors alike were rendered for the benefit of all.
The sorrow of Queen Tovi's death had only begun to subside among the original residents of the Southern tribe. It was a grief the Northern Amazons could not completely appreciate. As Amazons sat side-by-side, whatever differences remained between them had become inconsequential. The respect and affection held for Queen Gabrielle prevailed. By her wisdom and courage, Queen Gabrielle had proven her commitment to the welfare of all the Amazons. Though she had long ago transferred her Queen's mask to a successor, no one questioned that with only a word, she had the power to reclaim the throne. Six moons prior, both Queen Tovi and Queen Ariel had, without question, acknowledged this truth, and acted accordingly.
The measure of four Queens lingered over the conversations. Queen Karis had demonstrated her competency and growing leadership. She held neither the philosophical perception of Queen Tovi nor the raw, volatile, passions of Queen Ariel. Like Queen Gabrielle, Queen Karis had not sought the throne. Many suspected that their present Queen would have lived contentedly as Queen Tovi's regent. For Karis the death of Queen Tovi was not only a loss of a love, it was the catalyst for her accession to the throne, a position that pressed against her spirit. She stood in contrast to Queen Gabrielle, who in her youth chose to relinquish her throne in order to follow the warrior Xena. A decision that ultimately lead to their joining. Unlike Queen Gabrielle, Queen Karis accepted the Queen's mask as a destiny not to be questioned.
For all the words spoken during the meal, for all the retelling of stories in solemn remembrance and joyful celebration, for all the tears and the laughter, there was still a wanting under the dining lodge roof. It was represented by two empty chairs that were left in wait for Queen Gabrielle and her consort, if by chance they chose to share a public meal.
Julian joined a number of Northern Amazons who by need or choice had moved to the South. Julian's move was motivated by a sense of obligation. The Southern village was in need of a healer. As Malina's sole apprentice, the Tribal Council requested that Julian take permanent residence in the South. Julian missed the North for a number of reasons, none greater than that dearth of contact with her teacher. In turn, she was compensated by having a greater opportunity to practice her arts.
Julian approached the ill-fated Queen's lodge carrying a tray with two mugs of hot tea. Rasha, a former resident of the Northern village, was standing guard. "Good morning, healer."
"Good morning." Julian raised the tray to Rasha's attention. "Will you please knock on the door for me?"
The guard shifted her weight uneasily. "Are you certain you want to disturb them?"
The door opened to the surprise of the two women. Xena stepped out. Her eyes traveled from Rasha to Julian. She nodded toward the latter. "What's this?"
Julian responded. "Tea for you and Queen Gabrielle."
Xena deliberated upon the young healer's gesture. "That's thoughtful of you, Julian. Thank you. Why don't you take them in." She then approached Rasha. "Where can I find Jamine at this time of day?"
Relieved from the decision of disturbing the lodge occupants, Rasha answered with enthusiasm. "She left a half-candlemark ago to inspect the borders. Jamine usually starts with the north perimeter and moves eastward."
Xena returned her attention to the young healer. "Julian, would you please tell Gabrielle I'll be gone most of the morning."
Julian nodded assent. Rasha took hold of the opened door as Xena released it. The warrior made her way toward the stables. As Julian was about to enter the lodge she heard her name called. She turned her attention back to Xena who waited for the young healer's notice. "Julian, I'm leaving Gabrielle in your care."
Julian felt the compliment bestowed and the responsibility inherent in it. She was determined not to disappoint. Rasha knocked upon the door. Julian paused for a breath and then entered. The dimly lit lodge caused Julian to wait as her eyes adjusted. Gabrielle lay on her side in bed, a blanket covered most of her from sight. Julian approached and placed the tray on the bedside table. The Queen stirred. "Good morning."
Julian spoke gently. "Good morning. I've brought you tea."
Gabrielle sat up. "Thank you."
Julian informed. "Xena will be gone "
Gabrielle interrupted, saving the healer the effort. "I heard."
"You were awake?"
"Xena and I have been up for a while." Gabrielle reached for one of the two mugs of tea.
Julian corrected. "Yours is the other mug."
Gabrielle questioned. "There's a difference?"
Julian attempted to assuage any unspoken concerns. "A special blend." Uncertain, she evoked a more trusted authority to justify her actions. "I'm sure Malina would approve."
Gabrielle altered her reach and took the second mug in hand. She sipped the tea. It was sweet to the taste.
Julian queried shyly. "How do you feel?"
"Better. The trip from Sparta took a lot out of me."
"It could not have been easy to hear the healer's words."
"I don't know. I wasn't really surprised. I knew I was sick and I knew Xena couldn't help me. Maybe it just hasn't hit me yet."
Julian continued. "And, if I may ask, how is Xena?"
Gabrielle looked toward the door. "Torn. Part of her refuses to believe that I'm very ill and the other part wants to take care of my every need in order to save my strength. I wish I could help her more."
Julian observed. "You may be so concerned for Xena and your tribe that you haven't allowed the depth of your illness to touch your soul."
Gabrielle studied Julian's hazel eyes. They were clear and intelligent. A patient could easily come to believe that Julian held the secrets of a few mysteries behind those eyes. The healer averted them shyly, uncomfortable with the Queen's scrutiny, no matter how gently intended. "Tell me, Julian. What would you, as a healer, say to me?"
Julian had not expected the consultation. "With all due respect, I haven't been given an opportunity to examine you."
Gabrielle put down her tea. "You're right." Gabrielle's was a sincere solicitation. "Examine me now and tell me what you think."
"As you wish, my Queen." Julian went to the basin standing upon a small, tall table to wash her hands. Taking the time to recall her very thoughts the evening before when she contemplated what she, as a healer, would do for her Queen. Julian took care to respect her Queen's modesty as she examined Gabrielle. She asked a series of questions and explored her body for clues to her ailment. After completing the examination she returned to the basin to once again wash her hands. She turned to her Queen and spoke the regretful truth. "I do not know what to tell you."
Gabrielle silently observed Julian as she practiced her arts. The young healer was a hand taller with a slight, yet strong frame that moved one moment with confidence and the next, with a fragile shyness. Her hair, a reddish brown, cut at the shoulder, reminded Gabrielle of the few Celtic women she had met while in Britannia. There was something else that Gabrielle sensed though she had no tangible proof. Julian seemed self-contained, more than the objective distance required for her profession.
Gabrielle had given Julian what she knew the young healer wanted. She had no expectations and was actually pleased that Julian had not pretended to know more than she did. "Well then, I guess we'll both have to wait for Malina."
Julian nodded, feeling that her Queen understood her limitations better than she did. "I do have a suggestion."
With the nod of her head Gabrielle continued to offer the young healer the ability to fulfill her charge.
"Some exercise should do you good. Just enough to keep your muscles limber."
Gabrielle approved. "I agree. The first place I'm going is the hot springs. I want to get the road dust off my skin."
Julian offered. "If I may be of any assistance. I can offer you an arm to lean on."
Gabrielle was not prepared to take any other than Xena's arm. "I should be fine with my staff. I'll let you know." Gabrielle paused and waited for Julian to take her leave. The young healer hesitated. Gabrielle excused Julian with a note of gratitude. "Thank you again for the tea."
Understanding the Queen's intent, Julian left without further word.
Gabrielle spent the day casually exploring the village, getting reacquainted with its residents. She noted a hesitation concealed in a formality many seemed to retreat to. She had enjoyed some success in piercing the veil of fear and placing others in a state of comfort.
Upon her return, Xena watched Gabrielle from a distance. She took great pride in Gabrielle, the Queen. She noted that the true, noble presence of the Queen was one with her compassion, a compassion grounded in her strength of character. It was this unbounded compassion that garnered, above all else, the love of her people.
After sharing evening meal at a common table in the dining lodge, Gabrielle and Xena walked hand in hand toward their lodge. Gabrielle continued to use her staff. Not because she needed it, feeling well rested, but because she anticipated that soon she would need it. She wanted the tribe to become accustomed to the sight of her with her staff always in hand. When the time came that she would lose her strength, the change in appearance would be less severe.
The sky was clear, the stars countless and the moon neared three quarters, casting a comfortable light upon the earth. Gabrielle paused and rested her eyes toward the path to the North meadow. "Xena, how about a walk to the meadow?"
Xena looked about. "Just a minute." She approached one of the sentries, whispered a few words and returned, offering Gabrielle her arm.
"Should I ask?"
"Just making sure we have our privacy."
"What are Jamine's orders?"
"You're never to be out of their sight. I just modified the order with an exception."
"So, I'm never to be out of their sight except when you're with me."
Xena smiled. "You are a wise Queen."
Leaving the cover of the tree-lined path for the open meadow gave Gabrielle a sweeping sensation of freedom, the openness, the tall grasses, the stream jutting through the expanse. How she treasured this space. She felt she rested in the palm of Isra's Goddess. Between her and Xena, it had been home to expressions of joy and sorrow; it had known their lovemaking, their difficult and easy conversations, and their silences, those moments when simply being with each other sufficed. It was here more than anywhere else that Gabrielle could find Xena and where Gabrielle could find herself.
Gabrielle leaned toward Xena placing her hand on the warrior's shoulder. Xena met Gabrielle in a kiss. Though Xena released Gabrielle, Gabrielle continued to seek the warrior. As much as the warrior wanted the bard, she refused to allow herself to be seduced. "No, Gabrielle."
They had not made love since leaving for Sparta. The mutual acknowledgment of Gabrielle's ill health coupled with her fatigue dampened their physical intimacy. Xena exercised caution. Gabrielle had been too tired to translate her emotional hunger, physically. The tension that came with their confrontation in Sparta had lessened. Though their disagreement continued, the ease of their bond returned. There had been an unspoken truce between them. Malina would be the arbiter of a discord rooted in the unknown.
With rest, Gabrielle's longing for Xena's touch had resurfaced. Gabrielle searched Xena's eyes. She had felt Xena's desire within their kiss. Gabrielle was certain Xena's retreat was not caused by a lack of wanting. "Xena. You must trust me."
Xena countered. "Gabrielle. You need to rest."
Gabrielle protested. "I have rested. Malina will not return for at least another six days. Are we going to deny each other until then? And what if she confirms my illness? Will that mean that you will never touch me again?"
"I'm not arguing with you." Xena took a step away.
"Malina should see me as who I am. That means the woman who is with you in every way."
Xena lost her fragile control. "Damn it, Gabrielle! I said, 'No'. I refuse to be with you."
They stood in a wretched silence. A veil fell over Xena's face. Gabrielle visibly trembled. She felt a fusion of anger and disappointment. Her heart broke with the weight of her emotions. She turned from Xena and made her way back to the village.
Left alone, Xena cried out swinging her arms as if she held her sword her in hand and there was an enemy in her midst - if she only had someone or something to fight, if she could only exact a lethal price to her tormentor.
Gabrielle's heart pounded in her breast. She stopped and leaned against her staff. Her fatigue was not physical. She saw the future vividly. It included an untenable threat - the annihilation of Xena's spirit. Gabrielle wasn't ready to return to the village nor did she feel strong enough to return to Xena. She stepped off the main path to a smaller track and walked a dozen paces to a fallen tree where she could rest. Gabrielle wondered how many noble deaths come from a desperation to save the soul of someone left behind. Julian was right to believe Gabrielle had yet to allow death an audience. From the moment Xena threatened the healer in Sparta, Gabrielle's fears took shape and form outside herself. Xena had never been one to deny the truth. She would fight the truth, if the truth were an injustice unimpeded. She would fight to create a new truth. Gabrielle witnessed this in terms of her own life and death. Gabrielle's nearness to death always brought the desperate side of Xena to the forefront. Xena knew what it was to lose Gabrielle to death, singular and in companionship. Always, there was an enemy. Xena fought. At the worst of times, Xena hated. Who would Xena hate now?
Gabrielle heard footsteps upon the path. She saw Xena's sure-footed shadow pass by in haste. There was no time to call out.
Xena entered the village. Her eyes searched out Gabrielle. Given her pace, Xena was certain she would have over taken the bard on the path. Xena approached a sentry whose name she did not know. "Have you seen Gabrielle?"
The sentry stuttered. "I had orders not to follow the Queen."
Xena's impatience rose. "I know. So, you haven't seen her?"
"Not since you left for the North meadow."
Xena spun and stared back into the ever-darkening path. Gabrielle was somewhere within that darkness.
The sentry offered. "Do you want a search party?"
Xena walked away without granting a response. She reentered the path in an uneasy jog looking in every direction, listening to every sound. She called out Gabrielle's name rhythmically, allowing sufficient silence for a response.
Gabrielle heard the familiar voice. She sensed the fear it carried. "Xena. I'm here."
Xena heard Gabrielle's call and stopped. "Gabrielle. Where?"
Gabrielle instructed. "Forward then to your right."
Xena stepped slowly, her vision penetrating through the forest brush. The minor trail revealed itself. She saw the trace of a figure sitting down with staff in hand. Were it not for Gabrielle's shorter hair, Xena stood before the young peasant girl she had first met years gone by, the innocent, seeking a life outside of Poteidaia. Xena approached. "Are you all right?"
Gabrielle's reply rose from the darkness. "Yes."
"Why did you stop?"
Gabrielle remained silent. She was fighting herself. Her desire to be strong confronted her profound need for her beloved. "Xena. I'm frightened. I feel I'm losing you."
Xena took another step forward. "You're not losing me."
Gabrielle could not suppress her despair. "Ever since we left the seashore "
Xena echoed reassuringly. "Gabrielle. You're not losing me. I just want you to get well."
Gabrielle was not convinced. "It's more than that."
Xena remained in her stance, a few paces away. Neither could see the other. They struggled to compensate for what they could not see by listening, concentrating on every nuance, in word and tone. Xena's words conveyed her growing distress. "I don't want to hurt you."
Gabrielle heard Xena's confession. It was not the first time Xena fought Gabrielle's destiny, a destiny Gabrielle accepted freely. Whatever the consequences, Gabrielle had long accepted that her place would always be by the warrior's side.
Gabrielle stood up and walked toward Xena. Her advance continued until she had taken Xena into her embrace. Xena took a breath in upon contact. As she exhaled she enfolded the bard into her arms.
Malina rode into the village on her tall gray mare. Ciara and Lael followed a length behind. A sentry summoned Karis.
Julian found Gabrielle watching the children playing kick ball. A young girl no older than six turns of the seasons chose to beckon the Queen to their game by kicking the ball to her. Gabrielle extended her leg arresting the ball's progress. She rolled it under her foot and placed it before her. Then she gently tapped it, returning the ball to the youngsters who formed a half circle in anticipation.
Julian regretted interrupting Gabrielle's pleasure. "My Queen. Malina has arrived."
Gabrielle turned to the young healer. "They are fun to watch."
"It is a special day when a Queen spends time with the children."
"I hope I'm not just a Queen to them. I play one mean game of kick ball."
Karis left the council chambers to greet Malina. Malina bowed respectfully to Karis. "Queen Karis."
"It's good to see you healer."
Malina turned her attention to her approaching patient. Gabrielle opened her arms. Malina stepped into a warm embrace. They held each other close, as old friends are apt to do. Malina stepped back to study the Queen. "Where is your Warrior?"
Gabrielle smiled brightly. "Fishing."
"A good occupation for her." Malina turned and offered her reins to Lael who, with Ciara, had dismounted and silently waited further instructions. Malina spoke to Karis. "My Queen. You should know that these two young warriors did an admirable job in finding me and bringing me here."
Karis responded coolly. "I wouldn't expect anything less of them."
Gabrielle could not let Karis' dismissal stand. She countered its impact by offering a sincere expression of her gratitude. "Ciara. Lael. Thank you both."
Lael and Ciara bowed to Gabrielle feeling Gabrielle's compliment to the fullest.
Malina took Gabrielle by the arm. "Come. We must talk." Gabrielle and Malina walked toward Malina's quarters, which stood adjacent to the healer's hut.
Karis watched with an incomprehensible disdain.
The young warriors stayed their place. Karis returned to the council lodge without further word.
Lael expressed her ire. "What is wrong with the Queen?"
Ciara solicited insight from Julian. "Healer. Can you solve this puzzle?"
Julian was equally at a loss. "I wish I could, but I have never been able to understand Queen Karis."
Lael offered her hand to Ciara. "I'll take your reins. Go see to that arm. Julian, more than Ciara's pride has been wounded. She had a frightening encounter with a tree branch."
Ciara gave Lael her horse's reins. "Dont worry about my pride. I didn't ride for Karis. I rode for Gabrielle."
Lael affirmed as she guided the horses away. "We both did. Gabrielle is a Queen worth a warrior's life."
Julian took note of the gash in Ciara's upper right arm. "You're hurt."
"It's just a scratch."
"That can lead to an infection. Let me clean and dress it."
Ciara studied the healer. When she spoke, she wore a beguiling smile. "As you wish, healer."
Uneasy with Ciara's attention, Julian stepped ahead, leading the other to her hut. She tried to return to the ordinary conversations that transpire between strangers. "How was your journey?"
Ciara's demeanor altered as she glimpsed Gabrielle entering Malina's lodge. She chose a more immediate concern over pleasantries. "How is Gabrielle?"
Julian answered as best as she could. "Queen Gabrielle is stronger than when she arrived. But, she is not as strong as many of us have known her to be." Julian continued to walk. Her heart ached. She had yet to confess her truth to anyone. The thoughts in her heart slipped off her tongue. "I don't know how to help her."
Ciara shared her own frustration. "Malina wouldn't say a word."
Julian defended her mentor. "How could she?"
Ciara's shifted to another disappointment. "I can't believe Xena is fishing."
Again, Julian felt compelled to advocate for another. "No one knew when you would arrive. It was Queen Gabrielle who placed a pole in Xena's hand and sent her off with Jamine for the day. They were given orders not to return until they caught sufficient fish to feed the village."
Ciara quipped. "Even for them that will take the better part of the day."
"I believe that was Queen Gabrielle's intention." Julian considered the bond shared between Gabrielle and Xena. "I cannot imagine "
"What can't you imagine?"
"I believe they do not deny their differences. It is what makes their love so strong."
Ciara mused. "The Warrior and the Bard."
"That is how they began, but Queen Gabrielle is also a fine warrior and a noble Queen."
"I wonder how Xena has changed? If she has changed?"
"She was once the Conqueror of Nations."
"True. They say she left that path before she met Gabrielle."
Again, Julian's words were few. "She is devoted to the Queen."
Ciara shared a kindred admiration for the Queen. "I would say with good reason."
Malina's questions were gently spoken. "Has village life helped?"
Gabrielle sat back in her chair. "To be honest, no. I'm not any stronger today than I was when we arrived."
"You have kept active?"
Gabrielle defended herself. "I can't lie in bed all day."
"Nor should you. Have you done anything that has sapped your strength?"
Gabrielle found the questions intrusive. "Yes."
"What?" The healer probed.
Gabrielle offered one factor. "The hot springs. But bathing in warm waters has always made me feel that way."
"I'm not surprised. Anything else?" Malina could tell that Gabrielle was hesitating. "My Queen. You must not withhold the truth from me if I am to help you."
"When Xena and I " The Queen blushed.
Malina smiled at Gabrielle's obvious modesty. "I see. Is this the price one pays for loving a warrior such as Xena?"
Gabrielle looked up to her healer intently. "Malina. I'm the one who has insisted. Xena has been afraid that being together would harm me."
Malina reached out and placed her hand on Gabrielle's cheek. "Have you found solace in her embrace?"
"Yes. I need her now more than ever. It's hard to explain."
"She makes you feel alive. What is there to explain?"
Gabrielle did not want to surrender her greatest source of comfort. "Do you see any reason why we can't "
"Let me examine you more completely before I give you my answer."
Ciara sat on a pallet, her feet firmly planted on the floor. Julian sat beside her. The young healer dipped a cloth in a basin of water and used it to clean Ciara's cut. Being still, Ciara began to feel the effect of her sleepless travels.
Julian admired the warrior. Ciara had a bold beauty, like a mountain cat in the wild, sleek and agile, unlike the more sturdy, solid frame of Lael. "You look tired."
Ciara rubbed her eyes. The usually bright deep brown orbs were dulled. "I am. It was all I could do to keep up with Lael."
"She is very capable." Julian spoke with obvious approval. "Lael works hard at developing her skills."
"Are all Northern Amazons so dedicated?"
Ciara acknowledged. "I've learned a great deal just by watching her."
"She is a good friend to have." Julian wanted to encourage the young warrior to seek a friendship.
Ciara studied the healer. "So, you two are friends?"
"Yes." Julian was oblivious to Ciara's growing unease. "We have known each other since we were young girls."
"You don't " The young warrior's nerve failed her.
"I don't?" Julian looked over to Ciara seeking completion of the aborted thought.
Ciara nodded over to her wound. "Are you about done with that?"
"I need to bandage your arm."
Ciara fell silent. She spoke again after a moment's consideration. "Do you like being a healer?"
Julian considered her vocation simply. "I want to be helpful."
"There are other ways."
"This is my way." The healer did not hesitate in her conviction. Julian's ignorance of the ways of life and death, health and illness, tempered her sense of self. Her next words conveyed a sincere humility. "I still have much I need to learn."
Ciara observed. "You don't talk about your healing work."
"Malina and I discuss healing all the time."
The young warrior continued to try to find a common ground. "What do you talk to your friends about?"
"What do any friends talk about?. Their days. Their past. Their dreams for the future."
"And what are your dreams?"
"I only have one. To live the life I'm meant to live."
Ciara was intrigued. "What life would that be?"
"I don't know." Julian felt her truth deeply.
"You remind me of Queen Tovi."
Julian measured Ciara with her eyes. "Shall I consider that a compliment?"
Ciara smiled, leaning closer to the healer. "I meant it as one."
Julian's felt a renewed embarrassment. She retreated into her profession, tying the bandage with a practiced detachment. "I can give you a salve to help lesson the scar."
Ciara stood up. "There is no one in my life who would notice. Anyway, warriors like scars."
Julian smiled up to her. "Even when the battle was with a tree branch?"
The young warrior countered in good humor. "Hey, I walked away. It didn't."
Julian had her tongue firmly in her cheek. "Have a good day, warrior."
Ciara bid a warm farewell. "Thank you, healer."
Gabrielle rested in an upright position on a pallet with Malina sitting at her side. Gabrielle swept aside a tear. "I guess I was still hoping."
Malina took Gabrielle by the hand. "There is still hope. As I said, we can try different medicines to see if they help."
"Julian's tea has taken some of the ache away."
"It hasn't stopped your deterioration. That is what we must seek to do."
"That is what you just said you don't know how to do."
They heard a knock on the door. Malina invited. "Come in."
Xena entered. She could see the trace of Gabrielle's tears. The Warrior steeled herself before speaking in a low, sure tone. "So, it's true."
Malina stood up. There would be no deceit. "I have heard of illnesses such as Gabrielle's. No one has survived past a turn of the seasons."
Xena needed confirmation from the healer. "There is nothing you can do?"
"I will try Xena, but more for comfort than for cure."
Xena turned her attention to Gabrielle. 'More for comfort than for cure.' By Malina's words Xena knew two things. Malina believed Gabrielle would die and it could be a painful death.
Malina was at a loss. She observed the two women. They were paralyzed. There were no words between them. A constant gaze held one to the other.
Gabrielle observed a tear fall from Xena's eye. It was the only sign that life still pulsed within her. Gabrielle spoke Xena's name to break the severe spell that had overtaken the Warrior. Xena was unmoved.
Malina excused herself. "I need to see to Julian." The healer walked abreast of Xena and placed her hand on the Warrior's arm. "I'm sorry." Xena took in the elder's compassionate countenance, said nothing, and returned her regard to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle waited for Malina's departure to be complete before she raised herself from the pallet. She remained an arm's length from the warrior. She struggled with her words. Gabrielle wanted to comfort. She didn't, however, want to give opportunity for false hope. "We have time."
Xena jerked her head slightly at the full extent of Gabrielle's meaning. Gabrielle continued. "Xena. Nothing has changed. I want to continue as we planned. To live here through my days."
Xena's stare intensified. She stepped back. If it had been anyone other than Gabrielle speaking Xena would have beaten them to an inch of their life. Xena could not fathom how Gabrielle could dare to be so casual. "Malina tells me you're dying and you say nothing has changed?"
"Xena. You knew. We both knew back in Sparta."
"No." Xena stepped forward. What she judged to be Gabrielle's callousness enraged her.
Gabrielle felt the danger acutely, but remained poised as Xena stood over her. Gabrielle again spoke Xena's name. This time her voice was but a hush.
Xena took Gabrielle's arms in her hands. Gabrielle fought within herself to counter any reflexive response. Disregarding Xena's viselike grip, she kept her eyes intent on Xena's own. She could see Xena's emotions sweep over the warrior, a discord of sorrow, rage and hatred. Gabrielle searched for evidence of love. She needed to believe that Xena's love was at the core of all the emotions that now claimed her. Love exacted this overwhelming price.
Gabrielle's tears came in spite of her effort to suppress them. She tried to reach through Xena's passions. Gabrielle's words were a soft-spoken plea. "Xena. I didn't choose this I don't want to leave you."
Xena was braced for everything but that incomprehensible, indefensible truth. She blamed Gabrielle. There was no one else to hold responsible. The fault lay with the one who embodied the disease, in the one who was dying, in the one who was leaving the other. The fault lay with Gabrielle.
Gabrielle felt Xena's grip lighten. She observed Xena's countenance retreat inward.
Xena lost sight of the woman she desperately held to. The images in her mind's eye went to the past - to years shared in love, years where time and time again a young woman stood by her side, fought for and with her, claimed their joined lives as her way, who did not hesitate to express her love, who stated with sincere confidence that they would be together for eternity.
Xena could forgive Gabrielle for sacrificing her life to save her; for choosing to die with her, but she did not know if she could forgive Gabrielle for succumbing to death's call without a fight. Again, there rose the passionate conviction that if Gabrielle chose to, if this remarkable woman really wanted to, she could persevere, she could beat this assault upon her well being and their life together.
Xena returned to the present. Her vision refocused on the woman who silently shed tears as she waited for a response. Xena had no words. What possible words could explain what she felt, how the injustice of their truth was breaking her like a steed tethered helplessly until it lost all spirit?
Xena released Gabrielle and fell to her knees. Her sorrow broke through the tenuous dam she had built within her, a dam she had been building from the moment she began to understand the nature of Gabrielle's illness, a dam intended to stay every disappointment, every scrap of hope discarded.
Gabrielle took hold of Xena, resting the warrior against her. She held Xena until the warrior had, for the moment, no further tears to shed.
Gabrielle sat up in bed, her legs tugged close to her. Through a window she had a view of the night sky, of the moon and stars. Over and above them lay heaven, Paradise, briefly known. She turned her regard to Xena who slept soundly. The warrior was spent. Gabrielle was grateful for Xena's tears. She was grateful that in spite of her illness she was able to console her beloved in her grief. Malina had not returned to her quarters until they had left. The wise healer must have known that she and Xena could not afford an interruption. They had reached a critical crossroads and needed time and privacy to find their way. Gabrielle knew that this day would not be the last of shared grief. It was only the beginning of a new journey they were destined to walk together.
Xena stirred. "Hey."
Gabrielle smiled. She whispered. "Go back to sleep."
"If you come back to me."
Gabrielle chose to do more than that. She leaned over and took Xena's lips in a gentle kiss. She returned for a second, more passionate union, extending her body to lie side by side with the warrior. Xena responded ardently. The warrior felt a compelling need to take full possession of the bard. She pulled Gabrielle to her. Gabrielle willingly allowed herself to be taken. Xena turned Gabrielle onto her back. The warrior leaned her body gently over the bard. She stroked Gabrielle's cheek with the back of her hand. Gabrielle reached her arm up over Xena's shoulder. Gabrielle spoke the familiar words that granted Xena permission. "Xena. Make me yours. "
Xena's lovemaking was intense. She coaxed Gabrielle's strength from its dormancy. Gabrielle responded with fervor. She wanted to be with Xena completely. She willed herself to match Xena's every caress, every stroke, every demonstration of physicality.
Gabrielle stood at the back of the schoolroom watching the children learn their lessons. She relished their youthful exuberance, their curiosity, their respect for the instructor. She marveled at the intent looks about their faces as they attempted to solve a problem or answer a question. As a youth in Poteidaia Gabrielle and her sister, Lila, had been schooled by her mother. She was lucky that her mother encouraged her learning even in the face of her father's disdain. Here, all the young girls in the tribe were being taught to be self-reliant, to thrive as one of their tribe and. if necessary, as one among the various peoples of the Aegean.
Gabrielle felt a tender embrace from behind her. Xena's lips touched Gabrielle's ear as she spoke softly not to disturb the children's lesson. "Hi."
Gabrielle covered Xena's arm with her own and leaned back in response.
Xena queried. "Telling stories?"
"The children enjoy them."
"So do their mothers and older sisters. Jamine told me that the village sentries have come up with a signal they relay down to the practice field, so that the young warriors can take a break and come sit outside the schoolroom to listen to you."
"I've noticed." Gabrielle turned around and placed her hand over Xena's heart. "Thank you for last night."
Xena covered Gabrielle's hand with her own. "We will have more nights like last night many more."
Gabrielle felt a tug on her skirt. She looked down to discover the same sandy hair girl that had kicked the ball to her the day before. Gabrielle raised her sight over to the front of the room, confirming that the children had been dismissed. She returned her attention to the child. "Hello there."
The little girl tugged again.
Gabrielle knelt down on one knee using her staff for balance. "Do you want to tell me something?"
The little girl opened her arms and took Gabrielle into a complete embrace. She whispered to Gabrielle. Gabrielle's heart felt a press as she heard the girl's request. She knew she hadn't the strength to fulfill her wish. Gabrielle gently released the child. "I wish I could. You know, Xena can throw you up in the air and catch you." Gabrielle offered more than the child had hoped for.
The little girl lifted her gaze up to the tall, imposing warrior.
Xena bent down to the child. "Would you like that?"
The child looked back to Gabrielle, who nodded in encouragement. The child spoke with confidence. "Yes, please."
"Okay." Xena swept the child off her feet and tossed her up. The girl squealed in delight. The rest of the children watched, both surprised and envious of the attention being granted the little one.
Gabrielle used her staff to pull herself up to an upright position. She reached out and mussed the hair of the child who was now cradled in Xena's embrace. "I don't know your name."
The girl smiled having loss all her reserve. "Tana."
"Well Tana, it's good to meet you. I'm Gabrielle and this is Xena."
Tana turned her attention to the warrior who held her so securely. "Again," she petitioned.
Xena laughed. "Again!" She cast Tana high. The child could have touched the ceiling if she had reached for it. She fell again into Xena's sturdy arms.
Tana giggled. "Let me go. Let me go. I want to tell Mama."
Xena put the child down. Tana ran out of the schoolroom into the courtyard seeking her mother. Gabrielle and Xena could hear her call out. "Mama! Mama! I was flying. Xena made me fly."
Gabrielle took Xena by the hand. "You just made a little girl very happy."
Xena had enjoyed the moment immensely. "You keep telling her stories and I'll keep making her fly."
Gabrielle walked with the healer. "Malina. When will you be leaving?"
"I didn't know I was."
"The North village needs you."
"I will send Julian."
"Can you do anymore for me than she can?"
"I trust her."
Malina considered what would need to be done. "I can give Julian instructions. She can send me updates of your condition through our couriers."
"Then it's settled."
"The North shall have my services for now, but I will return to you my Queen. You cannot get rid of me so easily."
Gabrielle paused. "Malina. I do have one concern."
"Even with Xena's help, caring for me may be hard on Julian. She's young."
"I'm certain it will be. She isn't alone. She has friends. I will encourage her to call upon me when it becomes most difficult." Malina observed Gabrielle's cast sadden. "My Queen?"
"I don't want to be a burden.
"She is honored by your trust in her and in her skills."
"Don't." Karis was abrupt in her direction.
Julian had bowed upon entering the council room. She looked up in confusion. "My Queen?"
"No formalities when we are alone." Karis stepped forward. "Please."
Julian maintained a cautionary distance. "As you prefer."
Karis stood with both feet planted on the ground and her hands held behind her back. "How is Gabrielle?"
The healer debated whether a response would betray Gabrielle's confidence. She chose to speak in generalities. To share observances that would be clear to any eye. "She was fatigued by her outing."
"Why does she insist?"
Julian answered the rhetorical question. "Because she is determined to live."
Karis had not expected a response. She really didn't want to be engaged in a conversation. Karis sought only information. Her displeasure resounded in her definitive statement. "She will fall into an early grave."
Julian was not deterred. "Isn't that her truth? Should she not be able to barter what days remain in order to keep her happiness?"
"What kind of healer are you?" Appalled, Karis shifted in a sharp motion toward her chair.
Julian stepped forward. "How well do you know her? If you had Gabrielle's best interest at heart you would know that the only defeat death has the power to claim upon her is the break of her spirit."
"I am responsible for every member of this tribe. Gabrielle is in my care."
"And Malina's and mine, and the tribe complete. We are all responsible for her care."
"I am Queen."
Julian was adamant. "Gabrielle has no Queen, but I am her healer."
"I am her friend."
Julian asserted herself more strongly. "Then be a friend and put her first above your own grief."
Karis did not restrain her anger. "How dare you! You know nothing of my grief!"
Julian bowed her head. "No, I cannot imagine the loss of a Queen who has earned your regard and love."
Karis considered the young healer. At a loss, the Queen took to her chair. "It was only as Tovi slipped to the other side that . I cannot measure my grief with Xena's. I have told myself countless times that I should be grateful that Tovi and I never joined. I don't think I would have been able to bear her loss if we had."
Julian responded in kindness. "I am not so certain. I am young and inexperienced in love, but I have seen many shades of pain in body and soul. I would never presume to compare one to another. Nor would I compare love. And, the grief of the loss of a love."
Karis looked up to the heavens, beyond the sight of the shelter's roof. "Sometimes I wonder why we love at all?"
Julian felt witness to Karis' singular, defining grief. "Do you so regret your love for Queen Tovi? Do you believe Xena regrets her love for Queen Gabrielle?"
Karis returned her gaze to Julian. "No."
"Malina tells me that the depth of our grief equals the depth of our love. When we are young we are too much like young lions to concern ourselves with the inevitable. It is when we learn the difficult truth and persevere that we become one who stands tall within the pride. I have watched you from afar. I have thought you Karis as one who has stood tall in her grief."
"You now know the truth, Julian. I am not the lioness you think me to be."
"Facing a second grief so soon would be a trial for anyone, no matter how stout at heart."
Karis confessed. "I keep asking myself, how will Xena bear it?"
The young healer had an unerring confidence in Xena. "As she has done before. This will not be her first mourning."
The Queen felt the warrior's defeat. "But, I believe it will be her last."
"They will find their way together. It is for us to stand by them as they do."
Julian had outlined the course of treatments she would be giving Gabrielle to mitigate the effects of her illness. Gabrielle agreed to cooperate. Much of what Julian discussed Gabrielle had heard from Malina prior to the sage healer's departure. Gabrielle sat across from Julian in the healer's quarters. Julian noted that the Queen was preoccupied. "You seem troubled. Is there anything else I can do?"
"It's not what you think." Gabrielle looked over to the young healer. "Karis is getting more and more distant."
Julian had observed the same. "She may believe she can stay her love for you, and so too the depth of pain she will feel in mourning you."
Gabrielle was seeking an assurance. "I haven't offended her, then?"
"No my Queen." Julian was earnest. "Karis has kept a careful, though distant watch. I assure you Karis' heart is aggrieved. For many, it seems wrong to seek consolation from the very one who is ill. I know that the pretenses of life are stripped away in the two greatest crossings, in giving birth and in death. Both are surrenders in their own right. As a healer I have witnessed how they challenge and change the one experiencing the crossing as well as those who care for them."
"I wish I could reach Karis."
"It is said Queen Karis holds the spirit of a great bird in her breast. That she once knew how to glide carefree among the currents and to soar or descend boldly cutting through the ether. I have tried to touch that spirit. I have been unsuccessful. I fear her spirit has burned to ash along with the remains of Queen Tovi."
Gabrielle would not accept Julian's assessment. "You're wrong. Xena and I spent two moons with Karis after Tovi's death. Her spirit is intact. She must feel safe before she grants it flight again."
"Then we will not soon witness its return. Her spirit is protectively secured. Karis is no less than a citadel under siege."
Gabrielle stood at the perimeter of the practice field observing the young warriors being put through their practice drills by Jamine and Xena. The time had come for a contest with staffs.
Jamine stepped to Gabrielle's side. "Maybe you could offer these pups a lesson or two."
"Jamine. I haven't the strength to go against the weakest girl."
"But, you still have your keen eye and mind. They mistakenly believe that strength and agility will guarantee a victory. We both know that at your best, you can out do a man with three times your strength."
Lael was taking on challenger after challenger, defeating them with ease. Gabrielle watched intently. She knew exactly how she would counter Lael's rhythmic strokes.
Encourage by Jamine, Ciara approached Gabrielle. "My Queen."
"Lael is good, isn't she?"
"It would seem so."
"I have never bested her."
"Watch her, Ciara." Ciara cast her gaze over to the on-going contest. Gabrielle taught. "See how she plants her feet. She weighs forward. If an opponent swung low and made her jump, her balance wouldn't be so sure."
Ciara doubted. "I've tried that without success."
"There is something to be said for persistence. I would go low and stay low. Lael 'll attack. I would alternate a defensive posture with an offensive one. I'd try to lift her off her feet and plant my staff at her chest as she falls."
Ciara was now intrigued. "You have seen this move?"
"I've done that move with fighters more skillful that Lael."
Ciara smiled. "And you have lived to see this day."
The two watched Lael disable her latest victim. Lael looked about until she caught sight of Ciara. The former always enjoyed sparing with the latter. It was a good bout resulting in the inevitable victory. Lael raised her staff to Ciara summoning her. Ciara walked forward. Upon reaching Lael she raised her staff, mirroring Lael's gesture.
Lael challenged. "Let's give Queen Gabrielle a good match."
Ciara replied with a cautious smile. "As you wish, my friend."
Their encounter followed a familiar form. Lael's confidence grew. Ciara worked hard not to give Lael any hint of Gabrielle's strategy. At what she felt was the opportune time, Ciara fell to a knee in response to one of Lael's moderate blows. Ciara swung low and as she expected Lael leaped over the staff with ease and quickly countered. Ciara remained low camouflaging the sureness of her position. Lael, sensing a conquest, struck again. Ciara took the blow and with a fluid sweep of her staff cut against Lael's calves. Lael jumped landing slightly off balance. Ciara maintained an uninterrupted motion of her staff moving it around her back and forward completing a full circular rotation. The staff hit Lael again from behind her knees causing her legs to give and her body to fall backwards. Ciara jumped to her feet and pressed her staff at Lael's exposed neck. Lael was stunned by the impact of the fall, her breath escaping her, and the awareness that Ciara stood over her with a broad grin on her face.
Ciara inquired. "What say you, my friend?"
Lael regained her breath and with it, the ability to speak. "I think this triumph is not yours alone."
Ciara confirmed. "At least give me credit for seeking and listening to only the best teacher." Ciara withdrew her staff and reached out to Lael with her free hand.
Lael took Ciara's hand and pulled herself to her feet. "I will congratulate Xena."
Ciara corrected. "You would be wrong to do it. The credit goes to Queen Gabrielle."
Lael wasn't surprised to learn that it was the more diminutive warrior who learned the strategy that would topple her. The two young friends approached the Queen. Xena joined the grouping.
Gabrielle expressed her appreciation. "A match well fought."
Lael responded respectfully. "Ciara informs me it was the better match because of your counsel." Lael's pride had been wounded and she did not hide it well. "I hope, my Queen, you choose to share your knowledge with more than this pitiful excuse of a warrior." Lael nodded toward Ciara.
Gabrielle considered Lael's words and chose an appropriate retort. "If Ciara is a pitiful excuse of a warrior, tell me Lael, how should I measure you who she beat so soundly?"
Amused Ciara and Xena waited for Lael's answer.
Lael knew she had been bested once again. "I am, my Queen, your humble servant. One who just this moment has learned the lesson to take greater care with her words when it is pride that stands behind them."
Gabrielle approved. "Well said, Lael."
Ever the taskmaster, Xena interrupted the exchange. "You two better get going to the archery field."
Lael could not help solicit the Queen once more. "Have you lessons to teach with a bow?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Trust me, venison welcome seeing me in the wood. My shooting usually guarantees them a long and healthy life."
"I have now learned a second lesson. With humility comes honesty." Lael offered a small bow. "With your permission, my Queen."
Gabrielle took Xena's hand as the two young warriors moved on. Xena felt a great pride in the august Queen of these young Amazons. "Coming to the archery field?"
Gabrielle considered the offer. Her fatigue settled all thought of remaining. "I think I'll lie down for a while."
Xena hid her disappointment. "I'll see you later."
Jamine ran up to the departing Queen, calling out her name. Gabrielle paused and waited for the Captain of the Guard. Jamine placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Thank you for coming. You know you've captured their hearts."
Gabrielle smiled and nodded. She thought to herself that hearts captured would soon be broken by her death.
Jamine trotted over to Xena. They both watched the slowly, departing Gabrielle. Jamine made a request. "Xena. Can we talk?"
"There has been something bothering me for quite a while, but it's only been today, watching Gabrielle, that I've been able to figure it out."
Jamine had gained Xena's interest. "What's that?"
"Karis. She doesn't know how to be a Queen. Not the way Gabrielle has proven a Queen can should be."
Xena defended. "It's unfair to compare Karis to Gabrielle."
Jamine reported. "Xena. Do you realize that the tribe thinks of Gabrielle more as their Queen than Karis?"
Xena knew the implications of Jamine's statement could be far reaching. "Gabrielle hasn't done anything to claim the throne."
Jamine insisted. "That's not the point. Karis keeps her distance. She doesn't show any appreciation. She doesn't teach or even encourage. Even ill we see more of Gabrielle than we do of Karis."
Once again, Xena attempted to defend the overwhelmed Karis. "May be that's because Karis is busy being Queen."
"Xena. I know you are fond of Karis. I'm telling you this because I'm hoping you might speak to her. Or may be Gabrielle could. I trust you will know best who Karis will listen to."
"We'll see." Xena made no commitment.
Dissatisfied, Jamine continued her campaign. "Xena. I know I'm from the North and have known Karis only a short time. But believe me when I tell you that my feelings are shared by both the Northern and Southern Amazons."
Xena acquiesced. "I'll talk to Gabrielle."
Jamine was hopeful. "Thank you, my friend."
Xena stepped softly into the lodge. As she suspected, Gabrielle was asleep. It was maddening to see the bard at peace and yet know the physical and emotional turmoil she struggled with. Xena sat back in a tall chair, silently keeping vigil. Inexplicably their lives had taken an air of normalcy. They rose each morning grateful for the day. They had quickly adjusted to the routine of village life. Where once the idea of living a communal life had stirred Xena's greatest impatience, she now felt a profound gratitude for having such a life for Gabrielle.
Earlier that morning, for just a moment, Xena had forgotten their truth. Watching Queen Gabrielle observing the young warriors, knowing that they all set their goals higher because of the Queen's attentive gaze, had given Xena a gentle joy. The joy slipped away as Gabrielle left her for the lodge. She reminded herself that it really wasn't a choice. It was a necessity for Gabrielle to rest.
Xena mulled Jamine's words. Xena acknowledged that Karis had grown distant - far more distant in the passing moons. Xena's own concerns had lessened her attentiveness to Karis' reticence. She had not given it much weight, but now, with Jamine's request, Xena could no longer ignore it.
As the drops of melting wax hit the base plates resting underneath the lodge candles, Xena's mind quieted. No conscious thought claimed her. Her eyes asked for nothing but the uninterrupted vision of Gabrielle. How many times had Xena taken the same posture, holding Gabrielle in her gaze, enveloped in awe?
Gabrielle opened her eyes to the muted candlelight. The ache in her body had subsided. She wondered how long she had slept. She raised herself upon her elbow.
Xena stood and approached her. "Hey."
"What time is it?"
Xena smiled. "Evening meal is about to be served. Your timing is impeccable."
"I am hungry."
"Good." Xena sat beside Gabrielle. "Before we go eat there is something we need to talk about."
"Is something wrong?"
"Jamine talked to me after you left. She said that the tribe thinks of you more as their Queen than they do Karis. I think shes right. Karis has done everything she needed to do to politically unify the tribes, but at the same time shes kept herself at a distance."
Gabrielle looked away considering the implications. Xena continued. "Has Karis talked to you at all?"
Gabrielle returned her gaze to Xena. "Karis doesnt want to be around me. She doesnt want to be around anything or anyone that has to do with me."
Xena had not expected Gabrielles stark assessment. "How can you say that?"
"Xena. I understand why. She just lost Tovi."
"Are you sure? Karis may just be preoccupied."
"I saw how she spoke to Ciara and Lael when they returned with Malina. She couldnt give them the smallest compliment, not even after Malina praised them."
"And of course you did."
"They rode hard for me. They deserved my gratitude."
"You did the right thing. But, it only widened the chasm of how you and Karis are seen by the tribe."
"Have you talked to Karis?"
"Ive had my mind on other things."
Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand on Xenas cheek. "My love."
Xena took Gabrielles hand and placed a gentle kiss upon its palm. "Ive been spending my time with Jamine."
"Its comfortable being with Jamine."
"You dont have to see Karis grief."
"If she comes to me, I wont turn her away."
"Maybe you should go to her."
Xenas impatience rose. "And say what? I think youre shutting Gabrielle out because shes "
Gabrielle completed the thought. "Dying."
Xena stood up. "Lets go eat."
Gabrielle took a hard look at the warrior. She was not in the mood to deal with Xena's denial. To Gabrielle's chagrin the word 'coward' came to mind. "Go ahead without me. It'll be good practice for when I'm gone."
Xena was stunned by the seeming casualness of Gabrielle's verbal brutality. Xena was uncertain of what she had done to deserve it. An admonishment to continue the argument, maybe, but not this. She turned to the door, stopping at the threshold. Xena struggled to harness the emotions that she continually wrestled to a draw - never allowing them to consume her, but never being able to neutralize their threat to her. Her back to Gabrielle, she spoke with a fragile conviction. "Gabrielle. All I want is to share your life. I will have the rest of my days to mourn your death."
Gabrielle struck her pity down. Xena's unwillingness to look her in the eye only confirmed her incessant fears. She knew Xena waited for her reply. It came with a resolute tone. "My death is now my life. You can't separate one from the other. I don't want to dwell on it, but I also don't want to deny it."
Xena didn't want to kiss death. She didn't want to embrace or make love to death. She refused to eat with or reside with death. She did not see death in Gabrielle's eyes, even when those eyes were dulled by illness. Xena smacked the door open and walked on, alone, not to the food lodge, but to the stables.
Argo was the benefactor of Xena and Gabrielle's estrangement. She received a thorough, rigorous grooming from her mistress. Xena focused on her task, allowing the concerns of her life to momentarily recede into the back of her mind. Satisfied with her work, she stored the brushes in the stable tack room, taking an apple from a nearby basket as she returned once more to Argo. Argo took the offered apple eagerly. "Hey girl. At least I know you won't leave me as long as I keep on giving you apples." The mare nuzzled the warrior. "She's dying, girl. Our bard is dying." The words came. The impossible words conveying a destiny Xena had once seen cheated. She knew what it was to lose Gabrielle to death. Xena survived the loss, but only just. Her mind had slipped to the edges of sanity. Her soul drove her to seek out, at all costs, its mate. There had been no opportunity for farewells.
When death came again, they faced it together. They had been given a moment in time to speak their hearts. She remembered, as they waited in the Roman prison, entreating Gabrielle not to cry. She remembered confessing her regrets. She remembered how Gabrielle assured the warrior that her way was the way of friendship. Inferred was that her way was the way of a particular friendship. Gabrielle's way meant that she would always choose to stand beside Xena even as they approached the agony of crucifixion.
In the present hour, Gabrielle's death did not carry the same sharp cutting loss as the fall into Dahak's domain seared into Xena's heart. Death made itself known through the gradual lessening of form. Gabrielle's body thinned. Her well-defined muscles melded to a more fluid figure, one reminiscent of the young Poteidaian peasant girl Xena remembered Gabrielle to be. Though physically able and determined, young Gabrielle was no match for Gabrielle, the skilled, tactical, stalwart warrior. Though the heart that beat in the breast was one and the same, the depth of knowledge gained through the experience of life beside the Warrior Princess chiseled Gabrielle to a formidable woman, a woman who in every respect was Xena's equal.
There was never a discounting of Gabrielle. Her patience, her skill with words, her ability to see people at their emotional core had always been, never stopped being, her most valued contribution to the greater good. However, in these passing days, Xena continued to contest what she believed to be her partner's resolve to die without a fight. Xena's emotions, tenuously held in check, burned like a flame in the night. During the calm, nocturnal stillness, her emotions held steady and true. But with a gust of a word or image that equated Gabrielle to forthcoming loss, her emotions shifted wildly, as ungovernable thoughts swayed all semblance of peace, replacing repose with the bitter desire for a confrontation, demanding that allegations be given their due, answered with more than resolute surrender.
Xena gave Argo one more affectionate stroke. "It's time I go home." Xena walked to the food lodge and made a quick inquiry whether Gabrielle had been seen. Assured the Queen had yet to visit for evening meal, Xena requested a tray for two.
Gabrielle leaned against the bed backboard, drawing her legs up close. She chastised herself for being so hard on Xena. Xena's departure left Gabrielle doubting her resolve to have Xena approach Karis. Gabrielle realized she was setting another burden upon the warrior's shoulders. And yet, it was her hope, that in helping Karis, Xena would be able to help herself. Xena was not one to share her vulnerabilities. It took years of constancy before the warrior could trust Gabrielle sufficiently to bare her deepest sorrows and fears. The woman who Gabrielle shared her life with was not the same Xena she had first met. That Xena was racked with relentless nightmares and the fear of again crossing the line and returning to her Destroyer of Nations persona. That Xena had long been set aside. The worst of Xena's darkness had been infused with a new light. Once dependent on Gabrielle's light to steady her, Xena had come to shelter a light of her own. Xena's light had returned like the accumulated flickering lights of fireflies captured and contained so that the total effect was a continuous illumination. Time tested, Gabrielle knew Xena's light could survive the loss of her. Though Xena's passions were great, and her capacity for rage remained unaltered, she had found her way, the way of the warrior and with her way came a sliver of peace. Not that she did not harbor a profound regret. Not that she would ever accept complete redemption. Not that she considered her actions for the greater good sufficient atonement for her own crimes against humanity. Gabrielle knew that Xena trusted few with her heart. Ephiny and Cyrene's passing were great losses. Eve's faith took her to far off lands. Old friends had long died. Xena had spoken of Karis warmly upon their first meeting. Xena never hesitated in consoling Karis upon the loss of Tovi. The initial connection between the two warriors had been constructed under the rule of Tovi and the transition to the rule of Karis. Karis could be the friend to help Xena, if only Xena allowed it, if only Karis was strong enough to withstand, so near to her own loss, the experience of observing a grief so vividly felt by another. In mourning her death, Gabrielle felt Xena and Karis could forge a valuable and sustaining friendship.
Xena entered the lodge balancing the food tray with one hand. Gabrielle looked up from her scroll. At the sight of the warrior an immediate sense of relief washed over her. Their eyes met. Xena was cautiously optimistic that Gabrielle welcomed her return. She offered a muted smile and then focused on the task of arranging their meal of stew, bread, fruit, cheese and cider upon the table.
Gabrielle got to her feet. Her staff was in reach. Though feeling weaker than usual, Gabrielle calculated that the span to cross was minimal and a chair awaited her at her destination. She left the staff at rest and walked over to Xena. Xena continued her task, eyes focused down. The warrior heard the approaching bard.
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's arm just as the warrior reached out to her with a cup of cider.
Xena looked up to the bard. "I'll speak to Karis in the morning." Xena offered again. "Cider?"
Gabrielle took the offered cup. "Thank you."
Karis sat alone at the council table reading the latest reports from the Northern village. Xena entered the council chambers. The warrior's patience had been strained. She spent half the morning waiting for Karis to complete her more public duties. Still, her approach was open and inviting. "How about taking a break?"
Karis looked up. "Xena. Ive got a bit of work to do." The Queen motioned to the scrolls before her.
Xena was not in the mood to be put off. This task was hard enough. "Karis. I'm sure there is nothing there that can't wait a half-candlemark."
Karis was rigid. "I'm sorry, Xena. But, my duties come first."
"This isn't a social call. When can we talk?"
"How about after mid-day meal?"
"Fine. Meet me at the school."
Karis felt a rising irritation. Xena directed. Xena did not request. There was no recognition of Karis' status as Queen.
The children were playing kick ball, taking advantage of their recess. Their youthful vigor was intoxicating. Gabrielle stood near by. She had promised to tell them a story. Gabrielle's storytelling provided an easy and much appreciated transition before serious lessons were once again taken up.
Xena came and stood beside her. "Hi."
Gabrielle reached out and took the warrior's hand.
Xena bent down and spoke softly. "You know, Jamine has been formally petitioned to modify all future drill schedules so that they don't overlap with the quote 'opportunities to learn tactical and moral lessons from the Honorable Queen Gabrielle' unquote. The petition also said that to continue to have scheduling conflicts could be judged as disrespectful to the Queen."
Gabrielle smiled. "I notice no one has asked me my opinion on this controversy. What has Jamine decided?"
"Considering she enjoys the Bard from Poteidaia as much as any of her young warriors, I think you can count on having an extremely well-guarded schoolroom."
"Can you at least have them standing at ease. I don't want the children thinking we're under siege."
Xena bowed formally. "As you wish."
Gabrielle slapped Xena in the midriff. "Stop that." Their gazes matched and intimate, knowing smiles were shared.
Without diverting her eyes Xena announced. "We have a visitor."
Gabrielle turned to see little Tana shifting from foot to foot. "We need a player."
Gabrielle glanced over to Xena. Xena gave her an incredulous 'don't even think it' look.
Tana resolved the question. "Not Xena. She's too big."
Gabrielle laughed at the innocent's reasoning. "Am I the right size?"
Tana nodded her head affirmatively.
Unlike the previous evening, Gabrielle was feeling quite strong. She gave her staff to Xena. "Will you hold this for me?"
Xena held her tongue. She would offer no cautions no matter how deeply she felt them. Xena reminded herself that Gabrielle was just playing a children's game.
The boisterous laughter lifted the hearts of all that stood by and watched the Queen with the children. Xena's worry lessened, sufficiently so that she too could enjoy watching the play. An appreciative smile crossed her countenance and remained gently in place. She could see that Gabrielle was playing with restraint, taking care not to overtax herself. Even with this awareness, to Xena, Gabrielle seemed so terribly young, blending effortlessly into this world owned by innocence.
Karis moved to Xena's side. "Is Gabrielle crazy?"
Xena turned to Karis resenting the interruption. "She knows what she's doing."
"Just because you don't care doesn't mean I'm going to allow this to continue." Karis took a step forward.
Xena would have no one steal this moment of joy from Gabrielle. She took Karis by the arm and pressed tightly to make her point. "Let her be."
Karis' tone was equal parts plea and charge. "She's too weak!"
Xena closed the argument. "Gabrielle is a Queen."
"Watch out!" A child's cry caught the attention of the two.
Gabrielle's legs had become entangled with that of one of the older children, Mara. They both fell to the dirt. Gabrielle sat up as Mara got to her feet. The Queen, slightly short of breath, offered Mara a compliment. "You are swift of foot."
Mara shared her admiration. "You are pretty good, too!"
Gabrielle felt the child's sincerity. "Thank you."
The child offered the Queen her hand in assistance. Gabrielle felt she needed more leverage to raise herself. She looked over to where Xena stood and called out her name, reaching her hand out. Xena understood the gesture and tossed the staff to Gabrielle. Gabrielle caught it easily. She stationed the staff firmly on the ground, accepted Mara's offered hand and quickly stood to an upright stance.
Xena turned to Karis. "Come on."
As Xena and Karis walked on, Karis could not help but glance over her shoulder, taking one last look at Gabrielle.
Xena scolded. "She's fine."
Karis countered. "She fell."
"And she got up."
"What do you want to talk about?"
"I'm surprised you care so much about Gabrielle. You haven't said more than two words to her since we arrived."
"It's been a busy time."
"Gabrielle is your friend." Xena halted her step to make a point. "Who did you go to for comfort when Tovi died?"
Karis blanched. Xena continued to walk on, toward the cross bridge over the south ravine. Upon reaching it she surveyed the construction effort she shared with Karis and a handful of Amazons. "We did good work here."
Karis allowed memory to transport her to a time, six and half moons ago. "It was a different world then."
"Yes, it was."
"What I would give to go back to it."
Xena wanted to understand the young Queen. "What would you do differently?"
"I would freeze time." Karis turned to Xena. "Wouldn't you?"
Xena spoke with unmitigated certainty. "No."
Karis was unconvinced. "Even if it meant Gabrielle would be well?"
"We have our destinies to live." Xena hated the reality of this fact. "It isn't for me to change Gabrielle's."
"Destiny be damned!" Karis had been sure that Xena would understand her. Xena's words left Karis at a loss.
Xena tried to calm the volatile warrior. "Karis. You can't stop living."
Karis challenged. "Who's living now? The best of me died with Tovi."
"I thought that way once, when I believed Gabrielle had died." Xena traveled back to her darkest days without the bard. "A part of me neared madness. I knew I would do everything in my power to see her again."
"I'm familiar with Gabrielle's scroll." Karis was dismissive.
Xena held her temper in check. She tried again to reach through Karis' grief. "I never shared the whole story with Gabrielle. She wrote the scroll based on what Yakut told her more than on anything I might have said."
"What didn't you tell her?"
"What was impossible to put into words. Feelings I hoped she knew or could imagine because there was a time I had died to her, leaving her to mourn me."
Karis wasn't listening. "So, you're here to tell me to stop mourning Tovi."
"No. I know that if you loved Tovi the way I love Gabrielle, that a part of you will never stop mourning her. I knew Gabrielle wanted me to go on living. She had worked so hard and for so long to open my heart that burying myself with her would have been a betrayal of her love."
Karis was indifferent. "Makes it easy to watch her die and move on to your next bed mate."
Xena held her rage. Her eyes, blue ice, glared at the misguided Queen. "I won't do you the favor of killing you right here, where you stand. If you want to take the coward's way out of your grief, you will have to throw yourself on your sword or into that ravine."
Karis felt a chill take hold of her body. She fought its effect with a searing vengeance. "Look who's calling me a coward. You stand there and do nothing. Absolutely nothing to save Gabrielle. She's wasting away before your eyes and you let her make one bad decision after another. She's closer to the grave because you refuse to confront her."
"Don't place your guilt upon my shoulders."
"What have I to do with Gabrielle's death?" Karis demanded.
Xena was stern. "I'm not talking about Gabrielle."
"I didn't even know that Tovi went out against the Romans alone. It was you, Ariel and Gabrielle who met in council. It was Gabrielle," Karis spat out the next as an epithet, "our Queen, who had the power to stop Tovi with a word. All it would have taken was a word."
"Tovi was a Queen in her own right. She volunteered for the mission. She decided to risk her life for her tribe. That included you."
Karis incrimination of Tovi found voice, but then faltered. "If she had been thinking of me ."
Xena demanded. "What? If Tovi had been thinking of you she wouldn't have gone or maybe she would have asked you to come with her?"
"Either would have been fine by me."
Xena laid the truth before Karis. "But she didn't, did she?"
In the moment, Karis hated Xena, and she attacked what Xena valued most. "She chose her death. She chose to leave me behind. Gabrielle is no different."
"So, you think Gabrielle is choosing her death?"
"There are no Gods claiming her."
Karis erratic logic would have been amusing to Xena, were it not so sad. "And "
"It is by her own cause."
"You really think that people bring illness, even death upon themselves? If that were true, your grief would have killed you moons ago."
"Damn you!" Karis reached out and flat palmed her hand against Xena's shoulder. "I would pray to Artemis or Athena, but you brought on their deaths. You and your child brought on the Twilight. You killed my Gods and left me no one to beg for Tovi's life. I watched her life slip away from me and all I could do was selfishly hold her hand, and rest a kiss on her lips, and beg her to stay with me. But, no, she didn't stay. She was just like Gabrielle. So certain she was going to die that she refused to fight. She refused to claim life and instead walked willingly into Death's open arms."
"You blame the Twilight?"
"I blame you." Karis accused.
Xena recounted Karis' nonsensical reasoning. "So far you've blamed Tovi, Gabrielle and me for everything under the sun and stars. Is there anyone you've left out? I want to know. Who else is responsible for your grief?"
Karis reached out her hand and pointed to the warrior. "Stay away from me, Xena. Upon Gabrielle's death, I want you out of this village." The Queen turned and walked away.
Xena stood in silent observance. She felt she had just ridden on the crest of a tsunami. Karis' accusations echoed in Xena's mind. She could set aside the words against Tovi. Young Queen Tovi, who sought answers beyond the bounds of reason, who Gabrielle warmly referred to as the Philosopher Queen, had been thoughtful and courageous. Xena had only admiration for Tovi, who lived and died by her convictions.
Karis' denouncement of Gabrielle, was, in part, easily discarded. It hadn't been for Gabrielle to stop Tovi's effort to signal the Roman advance. Were it not for Gabrielle's injury she would have gone herself. That Gabrielle made herself ill and welcomed death was unfathomable. Gabrielles reverence for life was incontestable. Even in her greatest despair, taking young Hope's life with her own hand, Gabrielle chose not to follow her daughter to the other side. It was Karis' other words that disturbed Xena, for no reason more than they neared her own irrational brooding. There was Gabrielle's acquiescing to death: the failure to fight. Gabrielle did not choose death but neither had Xena seen evidence that she was fighting it. Try as she might, Xena could not understand Gabrielle's way.
And finally, painfully, there were the words Xena could not deflect. They were the words that cut deepest to her core - Karis' charges against herself. Xena would not deny that she had chosen not to challenge, but to respect, Gabrielle's decisions. Gabrielle had every right to seek grace in her approaching death. What Xena could not rationalize away was the veracity of the one closing indictment placed at her feet. Xena had done nothing to save Gabrielle.
Xena sensed the approach. Concentrating she identified the sound of Gabrielle placing her staff rhythmically before her as she walked the dirt path. Sitting high on a flat that jutted out from the rock wall, Xena soon had a clear view of the bard. Near the bridge, Gabrielle scanned the area. Seeing no hint of the warrior she closed her eyes. She felt the breeze pass through her hair and the sun upon her face. She felt the solid ground beneath her. She heard the bird song, the rustle of a small animal in the brush, and a pebble falling from above. She opened her eyes and searched in the direction of the pebble's origin. There the warrior's silhouette came into view. Gabrielle waved her hand. Xena waved in kind and then made her way down the rock wall.
Gabrielle was happy to meet Xena on the horizontal plane of the earth. She reached up and offered a gentle kiss. "I missed you."
Xena welcomed having the bard near. "I thought you would still be with the children."
"It was a short story. How did it go?"
Xena veiled her passion, the timbre of her voice muted. "It didn't."
"Worse. I think that at least for a while, we both need to keep our distance from Karis."
"Does she want me to leave?"
"Don't even think it." The warrior was adamant.
"But Xena, she is the Queen of this tribe."
Xena would not have Gabrielle separated from her people. "First. She didn't ask you to leave. And second, just because she is Queen doesn't mean, that when it comes to you, she speaks for the tribe."
Gabrielle conceded. "I know they are fond of me."
"That isn't the word I would use." Xena could not imagine a leader who had earned a greater love and respect from those who she led.
Gabrielle turned away. She had hoped for a positive resolution. She didn't want to cause dissension among the tribe. More personally, she wanted Karis back in her life as a friend.
Xena tried to reason. "Gabrielle. If we leave now, the tribe will blame Karis. That will only make things worse. The tribe's internal allegiances are still fragile. They might not survive this kind of breach. It strikes at their heart. We can't let Tovi's death end up to be for nothing."
Gabrielle wondered about her own death. What would it be for? What value could be assigned to such a pedestrian ending? She shook off the self-pity and returned her thoughts to Xena. Gabrielle had seen Xena's concern when she chose to play with the children. She saw Xena's concern heightened when she fell. Now, Gabrielle saw a different intensity within the warrior. Whatever exchange she had with Karis, it did not leave Xena untouched. Gabrielle knew by Xena's decision to seek solitude that the warrior needed time to absorb whatever had transpired. The lack of offered detail only confirmed Gabrielle's assessment that more lay behind the silence.
"You're right. Even without Karis' sponsorship, I can still help the tribe." Gabrielle went to Xena and offered her hand. Xena took it, relieved that the subject was adjourned. Gabrielle requested, "Walk with me."
The two walked back toward the village. Gabrielle led them to their lodge. With the door closed and her hand firmly held in Xena's, she whispered, "Please, make me yours."
Xena was somewhat surprised by Gabrielle's mid-day desire. This was not physically the strongest time of day for her. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle's answer was a kiss, a tender kiss that slowly deepened, coaxing Xena's passions to the surface. Xena would not question Gabrielle a second time.
The days and nights passed with little incident. Xena continued to work with Jamine and her young warriors. She consented to joint hunting parties that took her away from the village for no more than a night. She continued to keep close to Gabrielle, close enough that Gabrielle felt Xena always within her reach.
Council members sought Gabrielle's advice. She took care to listen carefully, to ask probing questions to help lead them to their own conclusions. She avoided offering her own definitive opinion. To do so could have been interpreted as a challenge of Karis' leadership. Gabrielle continued to spend time with the children. Her presence was a pleasure to the youths and a welcomed relief to the instructors.
Karis' absence when not completing her official functions increased. The Queen's retreat, further into her own self-fashioned prison, did not go without notice.
The rain fell steadily. Xena encouraged Argo forward. Xena was taking a risk traveling ahead of the hunting party, alone. She had felt a deep longing for Gabrielle, that try as she might, she could not set aside. Gabrielle would have her hide if she knew that Xena was on the trail. It was Xena's intent to slip into their bed undetected. There was nothing she wanted more than to simply lay beside the bard, sharing her warmth and touch.
Xena entered the village with a rising sense of urgency. She quickly stabled Argo, drying her coat, feeding her fresh oats and promising a thorough brushing come the morn. Xena marched across the village courtyard with her saddlebags over her shoulder. She noted that Ciara and Lael stood sentry duty. She opened the lodge door as if she were entering a warlord's den. There was no sound to disturb the occupant. Xena looked toward their bed. Her head cocked in disbelief. She did not see the familiar shape of Gabrielle underneath the blanket. She dropped her saddlebags unceremoniously upon the floor and struck a flint and lit a candle. A quick scan of the room offered no hint of the bard, or of her staff. Xena bolted out of the lodge to the two sentries who immediately perceived that something was wrong.
Xena demanded. "Where's Gabrielle?"
Ciara responded with her own question. "She's not in your lodge?"
"No. She's not!" Xena's eyes drilled into the two young warriors. "Which one of you is assigned to Gabrielle?"
Ciara confirmed. "I am."
"When did you last see her?"
"I didn't. I relieved Rasha. I assumed Gabrielle was in the lodge. I swear Xena, I never left my post."
Xena took a step forward. Ciara instinctively stepped back. She knew her life was not worth a dinar if Xena believed she had shirked her duties. Xena ordered. "Get Rasha. Now!"
Ciara ran, grateful for the temporary reprieve.
Xena turned on Lael. "Is this how you stand guard?"
Lael responded freely. "Xena. We "
"Ciara and I would give our lives to spare Gabrielle any harm."
Xena considered Lael, who could not disguise her own unease. Xena remembered that it was Lael and Ciara who had ridden north to bring Malina to Gabrielle. She had no doubt that they held Gabrielle in high esteem and she knew that Gabrielle reciprocated a more tempered appreciation of the young warriors. Xena captured Lael's attention and spoke simply. "I know." And so the two waited for Ciara and Rasha to join them.
Ciara dashed across the courtyard. Without waiting to be queried, she shared what she had learned. "Gabrielle accepted an invitation to stay with Isra. Rasha forgot to tell me that Gabrielle went ahead right before I had arrived to relieve her."
Xena questioned. "Where is Rasha?"
Ciara responded with intermittent breaths. "At this moment, I think she fears for her life."
Xena eyed the young warrior closely. There was no amusement intended. "She should." Xena walked pass Ciara.
Ciara called out Xena's name. Xena turned. "What!"
Ciara struggled to calm her voice. "What are your orders?"
Xena's voice softened just a hint. "Stay here."
The two young warriors watched as Xena made her way to Isra's quarters. It was Lael who spoke first. "I've never seen Xena afraid before."
Ciara echoed. "Neither have I."
Lael decided. "We should tell Jamine what happened."
Ciara agreed, to a point. "In the morning. There is nothing she can do now."
Lael quipped, feeling a rising, amused relief. "May be stop Rasha from fleeing the village before daybreak."
Ciara smiled. "I'll tell you one thing. Rasha will never forget to convey a message again."
The kiss summoned Gabrielle from her sleep. She heard the familiar voice. "You'll let just about anyone kiss you."
"I have no shame." Gabrielle mused in her half-sleep. She opened her eyes to the warrior and whispered. "You're back early."
Xena stroked the wisps of hair from Gabrielle's forehead. "Let me take you home."
Gabrielle reached up and placed her arms around Xena's neck. Xena lifted her in one fluid motion. "Comfortable?"
Gabrielle held her blanket in place. She rested her head against Xena's shoulder. "Very."
Xena opened the lodge door with her foot. Gabrielle looked back a moment in hesitation. "Isra might worry if she finds me gone."
"We'll let Ciara know to tell Isra of your midnight abduction."
Gabrielle noted the gentle rain. She thought of making a joke of it but decided better. There was something in Xena's manner that eluded a tender response from the bard. "I'm in your hands, warrior."
Xena looked intently at the bard. Her heart was breaking. Gabrielle recognized the unspoken pain. She traced Xena's lips with her fingertips. "Xena. There is no place Id rather be. There is no safer place I've ever known."
Xena felt her tears rising. She desperately needed the camouflage of the rain. "Hold tight otherwise you'll get as wet as a drowned rat."
"That's what I get for kissing the first woman to come to my bed tonight."
Xena countered with a rising smile. "I'm the only one who would dare."
Walking to the North meadow, Gabrielle began to feel a new, unaccustomed heaviness in her legs and arms. The accompanying ache went beyond muscle and bone. It was deeper than she had ever previously experienced. She longed for the soothing effect of Julian's teas. Gabrielle stopped to rest. She debated whether to continue or to return to the village. She had tried to ask little of life. All she wanted was to spend time in the meadow. On this day, she accepted that her modest desire was not going to be realized. She leaned on her staff trying to gather her vanishing strength. Once again she would need to adjust, she would need to do less, rest more. Her pain intensified. She looked down the path setting a goal of reaching the first bend. She began to walk deliberately, using her staff to maintain her fragile balance. Upon her third step her legs failed her. She fell to the ground with no opportunity to brace herself.
Ciara and Lael watched from a distance. Lael jerked forward. Ciara took her by the arm. "Wait."
"For what?" Lael demanded.
"We have to be sure."
Gabrielle's arms felt like dead weight. "Damn it." She tried to raise herself up but fell once again to the dry dirt.
Lael turned to her companion. "Seen enough?"
Gabrielle huddled in a fetal position. There was nothing else she could do. The two sentries reached her within a matter of heartbeats. Ciara went to her knees beside the fallen monarch. "My Queen."
Lael stood over the two. "I'll get Xena."
Gabrielle protested. "No! Get Julian. Tell her to bring her tea."
Lael exchanged glances with Ciara. Ciara cautioned. "Xena will string us up."
Gabrielle would not relent. "Who is the Queen here?" Silence ensued. "I need your help. Please do as I say."
Ciara turned to Lael. "Take the perimeter path. There will be less chance that you'll be seen."
"I'll be back with Julian."
Ciara raised Gabrielle's head and placed it upon her lap. "You'll be fine."
Gabrielle confessed. "I never expected to be so grateful to be shadowed."
Ciara stayed her desire to hold the Queen closer. "You knew?"
"I don't want to disappoint you, but you and Lael have a few things to learn about keeping quiet."
The young warrior smiled. "Maybe you will choose to teach us."
"Rest, my Queen. It will be some time before Lael will be able to return with the healer."
"Her name is Julian. I've noticed you always call her healer."
"A sign of respect. As I call you my Queen."
Gabrielle was not satisfied. "Yes, but I've heard you say my name to Lael and others"
Ciara felt exposed. "You've heard?"
"You'll be surprised by what I can hear. I've had the best teacher."
"I beg you to rest."
"When you answer my question."
"I feel the distance of formality is best."
Gabrielle pursued her suspicions. "Are you in love with her?"
Ciara did not choose to answer. Instead, she offered an observation. "Julian has come to our village from the North. Beyond acting as our healer, Julian has little to do with Southern villagers."
"She is shy, away from her home and many of her friends."
Ciara insisted. "My Queen. I will now hold you to your promise."
Gabrielle felt herself drifting into a mist. "Fine. We will finish this discussion on another day."
Julian and Lael found Gabrielle sleeping in Ciara's arms. Julian bent down to them and spoke softly to Ciara. "How is she?"
"She went to sleep soon after Lael left."
"What complaints did she give?"
Ciara bristled. "None. Gabrielle does not complain. Did you bring your tea?"
Julian removed a water skin from her shoulder. "My Queen." She stroked Gabrielle's forehead. "My Queen. It's Julian."
Gabrielle opened her eyes to the young healer. "Hi."
Julian smiled. "How do you feel?"
"A heavy weight and some pain."
"Drink this." Julian guided a stream of liquid into Gabrielle's mouth. "It will take time to have an effect. We will let you rest here for a while."
Lael carried a blanket under her arm. She draped it over the Queen.
Gabrielle appreciated the warmth. "Thank you."
Gabrielle slept while her three caretakers sat silently in wait.
Julian's unwavering gaze held Gabrielle, who lay before her in a restless sleep. Pain elicited an occasional involuntary groan from the Queen. Each utterance caused Julian to feel a heightened sense of inadequacy. Malina had reassured her that, as a healer, Julian could only hope to bring Gabrielle comfort. The evidence of Gabrielle's pain proved to Julian that administering even a tolerable comfort was beyond her skills. Ciara was right, Gabrielle never complained. She only reported her state of being in concise terms. Gabrielle's tolerance of pain was high. The Queen tried to forego Julian's strongest powders, asking for them only in the worst of times. All of this transpired privately. Julian was certain that even Xena was kept unawares of the extent of Gabrielle's suffering. What other reason could there have been for not calling the warrior to the Queen's side? Julian had found her dreams haunted by Gabrielle. She was failing her Queen. Julian felt her tears rise. She rose to her feet and walked beyond the bend.
"Are you all right?" Julian did not respond. Ciara tried again. "Healer?"
Julian could no longer deny her truth. "I'm no healer. Gabrielle lies there and I can't help her."
Ciara shared her own observation. "The tea has eased her pain."
Julian turned to the young warrior. "It's not enough!"
"We all have our limits. I can only run so fast, climb so high, shoot an arrow a fixed distance. You can't heal everyone. Gabrielle is grateful for what you can do." In frustration Ciara evoked a respected authority. "Malina must feel the same way you do."
"I am not Malina." Julian scanned their surroundings. At that moment Julian longed for her mentor. "You don't see Malina here, do you?"
Ciara reached out and placed her hand over the healer's arm. "Julian. The light of dawn always follows the darkness that comes with dusk. Life will go on."
"And the Goddess gives us life only to later claim its return. Is this the best wisdom you have to offer?"
Ciara understood the limits of her words. Still, she felt Julian's belittlement deeply. She felt Julian had unmercifully laid her inadequate attempt to console naked before them. From the hurt rose her anger. With her anger was a deep desire to reach Julian. To let her know that she didn't have to stand alone. The young warrior stepped up to the healer and took her forcefully into a kiss. Julian raised her hand in defense. The hand remained pressed between their bodies unheeded. Ciara released Julian. Their eyes met and held. Ciara was stunned by her own actions. There had been no forethought. She regretted the violation. Julian's gaze carried shock and anger and wonder. Ciara looked down in shame. Julian studied the warrior and for a moment her passions subsided. She understood Ciara. She was however, not ready to acknowledge the young warrior. Julian chose to say nothing. The healer walked back to where Lael and Gabrielle rested.
Upon waking, Gabrielle felt certain that the worst of this particular spell had passed. She opened her eyes to her three attentive companions. Beyond them she could see the setting sun. "Let's get back."
"Do you feel strong enough?" Ciara asked.
Gabrielle and Julian exchanged glances. Julian got up to her feet and extended a helping hand to the Queen. Gabrielle was grateful for Julian's willingness to follow her lead. "When we get closer to the village, I'll need you to be less conspicuous."
Ciara quipped. "Lael and I will return to being our less than stealth-like selves."
"Ciara. Lael. I'm not getting any better. I don't want to go through this with different sentries having to learn what to do for me. You have proven yourselves to be capable and worthy of my trust. If you have no objection, I would like to ask Jamine if you two could be permanently assigned to keep watch over me."
Ciara and Lael exchanged glances. Lael spoke for both of them, offering the Queen a slight bow. "We would be honored."
"Good. After the arrangements are made, you won't have to work so hard in keeping out of sight."
Gabrielle looked up from her scroll. "I dont want to know, do I?"
Xenas inspected her state of dishevelment. "Im a mess, arent I?" She stepped forward.
Gabrielle warned. "Oh no. Stay where you are, warrior."
Xena charmed with her brightest smile. "Actually, I was hoping we could get up-front and personal."
"I wont turn you down without a fair hearing."
"Thats because youre judicious."
"Flattering me doesnt get you any cleaner."
"No, but the hot springs will. What ya say? You. Me. And a guard posted down the path to guarantee our privacy."
Gabrielle was indifferent. "Im clean. Whats the point of my joining you?"
Xena tempted with a cool, throaty timbre and a staccato delivery of her words. "You can wash my back, and other hard to reach places. It would be your good deed for the day."
The bard adopted her best bored tone. "Ive met my quota." Her attention returned to her scroll.
It was hard for Xena to know if Gabrielle was just teasing or if she was trying to find a gentle way of letting her know that she did not have the strength to join her. She relented. "If I come back clean will you join me for evening meal?"
Gabrielle looked up and held the warrior in a steadfast gaze.
Xena sought the thoughts that lay behind Gabrielle's sea green eyes. "What?"
"You dont really think Im going to pass up your invitation, do you?"
Xena smiled broadly, relief coursing through her veins. "Dont know what I was thinking."
The warm spring waters bubbled up from the lower depths of the pool. Gabrielle laid her head back, the balance of her body immersed in the waters. She felt the warmth penetrate her skin and release all tension from her muscles.
Xena swam to her with a sea sponge in hand. "Do the honors?"
"Let's see behind those ears."
Xena turned her back to Gabrielle. Gabrielle washed Xena, enjoying this particular intimacy. It reminded her of their early days together when touch shared was more foreign than familiar. Helping one another in their baths had a purported utilitarian purpose. Touch in the course of bathing required no further justification. It became a covert means of bridging the distance between them until they discovered that they held a mutual desire for new forms of intimate union. Gabrielle padded Xena on the back. "All done."
Xena questioned. "You sure?" You might have missed something."
Gabrielle leaned forward pressing her body against the warrior. She whispered in Xena's ear. "I think you're clean enough to get up-front and personal with."
Gabrielle's cool breath caused a shiver to travel down Xena's spine. The warrior turned to face the bard. "You've convinced me."
Gabrielle teased. "Something I said?"
"More how you said it."
"I'll remember that."
Xena kissed the bard. "I'll be back in a few minutes. I'm going to the lake to cool down."
"That wasn't exactly what I had in mind." Gabrielle offered a mock pout.
"Don't worry. I have every confidence in your skills to warm me up all over again."
"I thought you were the woman with many skills?"
Xena stole a final kiss before pulling herself out of the pool. She shouted back as she walked away. "Don't you know, you were always the one with the most important skills."
Gabrielle felt complete in moments such as this, when she felt she could still offer Xena a modicum of happiness. Her heartbeat had quickened in pace. She assumed it was the warrior's unique effect on her. As Xena hastened off, Gabrielle realized that she wasn't able to catch her breath. She closed her eyes and shook her head trying to focus, trying to regain control of her disobedient body. She realized that it was dangerous for her to remain in the pool. She tried to call out to Xena but her voice escaped her. She reached to grab hold of the side of the pool but her body was overtaken by the same weightiness that had driven her to the ground a few days before. A fog moved over her mind claiming her capacity to think. Her lips mouthed the name of her beloved before she lost total consciousness.
Refreshed by the cooler lake waters, Xena sauntered back to the hot spring pool. All was quiet. She could not sense Gabrielle. She knew that Gabrielle would not have left the area without her. Xena called out Gabrielle's name as she broke into a run. Her eyes fixed upon her greatest fear: Gabrielle lying face down in the water. Xena jumped in and pulled the bard up and in one great effort raised her to solid ground. Xena drew herself out of the pool and quickly worked to revive the bard. Ear to Gabrielle's heart detected a faint beat. Xena cocked Gabrielle's head back, took a deep breath and tried to coax air into Gabrielle's lungs. "Breathe, Gabrielle. Breathe." She pressed repeatedly against Gabrielle's chest, demanding Gabrielle's heartbeat match her rhythm. Back Xena went to Gabrielle's still warm lips, breathing for Gabrielle with all the power her own formidable lungs could offer.
Gabrielle coughed up the waters swallowed. Her convulsing body shifted to its side.
"Yes. Damn it! Come back to me."
Gabrielle laid in the safety of her bed. Blankets covered her. Their weight, though not inordinate, kept her still. She could hear Julian's gentle voice. "The heat of the hot springs must have overcome her."
Xena's anger, sourced by her fear, was not to be mollified. "Tell me something I don't know."
"I don't think there is anything I can tell you that you don't already know. Gabrielle will have to be more careful of how long she stays in the warm waters."
Xena gazed over at the still bard. Julian longed for the right words to reach the warrior. "Xena, there was no way of knowing the springs would affect Gabrielle the way they did."
"I left her alone."
"For a matter of minutes."
Xena was severe. "If it had been one of Gabrielle's guards that had left her, I would have the guard at the end of my sword right now."
Julian knew Gabrielle was the only one with the power to reach Xena. "Gabrielle will probably sleep through the night. Why don't you let me have a tray of food brought to you? I'm sure she would welcome having you by her when she wakens."
"Where else would I be?"
Julian steeled herself. "A tray?"
Xena could not completely deny the healer's insistent show of compassion. "Fine. Thank you."
Gabrielle awoke to the warrior lying by her side. "Hi."
Xena had not slept. "Hi. You gave me a scare."
"I didn't feel it coming."
"Must have been the heat of the springs."
"That's what Julian said."
"Have you slept?" Gabrielle studied the warrior's weary eyes. "No. You haven't slept at all, have you?"
"I had more important things to do."
Gabrielle knew better than to chastise the warrior. Xena did no more for her than Gabrielle would have done for Xena. "Sleep now. With me."
Xena laid back on their bed. Gabrielle turned her body to the warrior, resting her head upon Xena's shoulder. Gabrielle surrendered to sleep once again. Xena, momentarily satisfied of Gabrielle's well being, reluctantly did the same.
The morning sun cut through the shutters, illuminating their bed with ribbons of light. Gabrielle awoke before Xena. She lifted her head and allowed her eyes to rest upon the warrior. She placed her hand on the warrior's powerful arm. "I love you."
Xena stirred. "Yes, you do."
"Good morning." Gabrielle leaned forward and gave Xena a kiss. The warrior's passions, arrested from the previous day's near tragedy, were spurred. She responded to Gabrielle's overture with a deep hunger, one that would not be easily sated.
Gabrielle tried to attend to Xena's needs. She tried to heed and obey Xena's familiar, subtle gestures that beckoned her to the most intensely, intimate state of body and soul she could know. She wanted to give of herself. She wanted to serve Xena in the warrior's bed, but as Xena's lovemaking intensified, Gabrielle felt overwhelmed. It was a different drowning. Her rapid heartbeat signaled the danger that nearly robbed her of life the day before. Her breaths shortened. She felt like she was in a foot race with a great steed, a race she could not quit without causing irreparable harm. Her heart was about to burst in certain defeat. She was bereft of all her strength. She could no longer withstand her body's physical betrayal. She struggled to pull away, her lips inched from the warrior's capture. "Xena. I can't." Gabrielle begged again, tears beginning to fall down her cheek. Breathing had become an impossible effort. She gasped. "Xena. Please stop."
So intent was she in taking the bard, that the warrior did not immediately grasp what Gabrielle was asking of her. She felt the bard collapse in her embrace. Xena pulled Gabrielle away, holding her at length. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle labored to regain her physical composure. Stunned, Xena's mind and heart triggered her usually dormant reserve of unwarranted guilt.
Wordlessly, Gabrielle pulled herself to Xena and rested in the warrior's embrace. Within the cut of a half-candlemark she felt her strength return.. She hesitated, uncertain of how to breach the silence. "Xena?"
The warrior responded with a kiss upon Gabrielle's forehead.
Gabrielle chose to proceed gently. "It doesn't matter."
"It does matter." Xena faintly countered.
Gabrielle leaned to her side. Her eyes sought those of her beloved. "Not to me. Not now." Gabrielle paused. "Xena. Can you love me? Can you make love to me even if I can't be the same woman to you I've been in the past? Can you love me even if I don't cry out your name but just whisper it?"
Xena turned to Gabrielle. She begged, "Don't."
"I'll understand if you can't. If it hurts too much to be with me."
Xena took Gabrielle's cheek in her hand. "I miss you."
"It shouldn't be so important to me."
"I know you love me."
"I never told you. I've love your strength as much as I've love your gentleness."
Gabrielle smiled. "You're my warrior. I know what it is to love someone who is strong."
Xena quietly pleaded. "Don't go."
It was as if Xena did not hear the bard. "Gabrielle. Please don't leave me."
Gabrielle could not deny her helplessness. "I can't stop this."
Xena buried her head in the crook of Gabrielle's neck. The bard held her fragile warrior, stroking the back of her head, allowing the silence to envelop them. For that one brief moment it was Gabrielle who was the stronger.
Ciara and Gabrielle walked back to the Queen's lodge. Lael had beaten Ciara in staffs once again. Ciara was seeking a counter strategy. Gabrielle enjoyed working with Ciara, choreographing a response to Lael's offensive tactics. Keeping Lael guessing on the practice field was a challenge for both mentor and student.
Gabrielle suggested. "Why don't you take a break? I'll be resting for a few candlemarks."
Ciara shook her head. "Can't."
"You know, Xena isn't as frightening as you might think?"
"To you alone, my Queen."
Gabrielle could not help but smile. "At least get something to eat. You'll have a clear sight line."
Ciara looked over to the meal lodge and followed the sight line back to Gabrielle. "A good tactic, my Queen."
Gabrielle raised her staff. "Say 'my Queen' one more time, and I'll smack you."
Ciara offered a full bow. "Yes, my friend."
Gabrielle teased. "I knew it. I told Xena you could be taught."
Ciara laughed and turned toward the meal lodge. She had a taste for a mug of cider.
Gabrielle entered her lodge. The sight of Xena packing her saddlebags took Gabrielle by surprise. To her knowledge, a hunting party had not been scheduled. "Going somewhere?"
Xena felt caught in an unpardonable act. "I need to try " Xena drifted into a painful silence.
Gabrielle inquired with an edge of fear in her voice. "Try what?"
Xena's throat was dry. "To find a cure for you."
"Xena. Its been moons. Weve gone through this."
"Things have changed."
Gabrielles voice intensified. "Nothing has changed."
Xena stood erect, offering Gabrielle her unflinching gaze. "Youre dying."
Xenas admission took Gabrielles breath away. It was the first time Xena had spoken those words so simply, without hesitation, without seeking a diversion from the heartbreak they conveyed. It was the first time, to Gabrielle, that Xena completely acknowledged the truth. Gabrielle understood it wasnt for her to fight Xenas decision. She understood that for Xena to be able to live on without her, she needed to feel that she had done everything in her power to save the bard.
Gabrielle yielded. "If you must."
"Ill be back. I promise."
Within herself, Gabrielle started to retreat. She elicited a second vow. "Travel safely."
"I will." Xena's voice was low, confident, yet somewhat unnatural.
Without a further word, Gabrielle turned to quit the lodge. Disconcerted by Gabrielle's abrupt effort to take her leave, Xena gently called out the bards name.
Gabrielle paused, keeping her eyes on the door, her back to the warrior. She refused complete consent. "I wont say good-bye."
Xena found her rising self-accusations intolerable. She stepped up to the bard, standing only a breath away, unable to reach out and touch Gabrielle, fearful of rejection. "Please understand. I have to do this. If there was another way "
Gabrielle turned. Once again, she resolved to press her own need down. Xena was her strength. It was Xena lying beside her in the black of night that kept her fears at bay. Gabrielle didnt want to die alone. She placed her hand over Xenas heart. The bard had no words. She looked up to the warrior. If this was to be their final parting
Taking Gabrielles hand into her own, Xena spoke from the depths of her soul. "I will always love you."
Gabrielle rested momentarily against Xenas strength. The warrior's heart beat strongly. The bard kept a grieved sigh hidden from Xenas sight. By sheer will, Gabrielle restored her composure, and stepped back, disengaging their embrace.
Xena entreated. "Wait for me."
Gabrielle didnt want to make a promise she knew she had no power to keep. She reached up and placed a kiss upon Xena's lips before turning away and quitting the lodge.
The lodge door closed leaving Xena alone . The warrior had imagined a different parting. She had not expected her soul to be left destitute.
Ciara was surprised to see Gabrielle exit her lodge so soon. Devoid of any sign to join the Queen, Ciara trailed Gabrielle, allowing sufficient distance to honor the Queen's privacy, without compromising her safety. Gabrielle reached the North meadow trailhead. She raised her hand up. Ciara understood and waited. Contrary to expectation, Gabrielle did not continue. Ciara could see that the Queen lost her footing. Recovering, Gabrielle leaned heavily upon her staff.
Though she knew she was breaking their agreed protocol, Ciara approached. She stopped a few paces from Gabrielle. Ciara tried to reason away her rising sense of alarm. She did not veil her concern. "Gabrielle. Are you all right?"
Gabrielle spoke, her voice hollow. "She's leaving the village. She's determined to find a cure."
For a moment Ciara thought Gabrielle was speaking of Julian. Ciara looked back, retracing their path. The pitiless truth shook her to the core. Only one person other than Gabrielle would have had reason to be in the lodge. Only the thought of losing Xena could have dispirited Gabrielle with such unprecedented force. Ciara would have hated the warrior if she didn't understand the warrior's code to never submit to an unproved defeat. Xena would fight Gabrielle's death until death made its final, unequivocal claim. Now that Xena had made her decision, Ciara was left to wonder why the delay had been so great. Why had Xena waited until Gabrielle's end seemed to loom over the nearest horizon?
Gabrielle entered her lodge feeling a loneliness that she could no longer defend against. For moons, she dedicated herself to creating a life in the village that was deceptively normal in appearance. With a few close caretakers, she was able to hide her growing disability from the tribe. Julian kept measures of Gabrielle's body size and strength. A marked string reflected her progressive loss of mass. Gabrielle's stamina, assessed by her ability to lift weights, continued to proportionately lessen. All examinations were privately accomplished, concealed behind the healer's door. Gabrielle and Julian never discussed the outcomes to any great extent. The purpose of these objective measures was to relieve Gabrielle from the burden of relying on her own, at times, vague feelings of strength and weakness. Julian offered Gabrielle incontrovertible facts of what was a gradual degeneration. They were facts that tempered Gabrielle's optimism.
They were facts that she never chose to share with Xena. Now, Gabrielle was left to wonder if she should have shared the knowledge. She wondered whether she was wrong in taking such great care to save her strength for the candlemarks she spent with the warrior. She wondered whether Xena would have been emotionally better prepared for Gabrielle's most recent physical falter. Countering that train of thought, she wondered whether the knowledge would have simply compelled Xena to leave, in her quest for a miracle, all the sooner.
Xena was not one to be deceived nor was she prone to self-deception. Gabrielle had walked a fine line, challenging, tempering, but not completely nullifying, Xena's own gainsaying. This had been an extraordinary time between them, one of arrested hope. The insidious threat of death had not prevented a daily celebration of their bond. Gabrielle lived for those shy, quiet, unexpected moments of celebration. Gabrielle lay upon her pallet questioning whether the great lengths she took to maintain a life with Xena, a life that felt the least possible impact of truth's hand, had been what she had told herself they were, an act of mercy. Lying upon her pallet, Gabrielle questioned whether all that she had done, had in fact, been her selfish means of coping, of finding reason for going on each and every damning day of her life. Without Xena at her side, Gabrielle wondered if there was any argument that could justify continuing the accursed contest.
Jamine and Karis were speaking outside of the Council Chambers. Ciara approached. Awaiting acknowledgment, she remained a few paces removed.
Karis looked over to the young warrior who had earned Gabrielle's regard. Karis' voice conveyed her impatience. "Is there something we can do for you?"
Ciara did not appreciate the Queen's tone. "I want to know if there will be any change in my orders."
Jamine was puzzled by the inquiry. " Why would there be a change in your orders?"
Ciara responded respectfully to her Captain. "Because of Xena "
Jamine and Karis exchanged uncertain glances. Ciara realized her error in assuming they knew. The young warrior continued. "Xena's gone. I thought she would have told you."
Karis insisted. "Xena would never leave Gabrielle."
Ciara responded firmly. "Queen Gabrielle is the one who told me."
"When?" Karis demanded.
"About two candlemarks ago."
Karis' did not hide her anger. "Why didn't you tell me before this?"
Ciaras self control was nearing its limit. She had no mind to suffer Karis' unwarranted abuse. She chose her words carefully. Ciara named her sovereign. "I have my orders never to leave my Queen unattended. I waited for Lael to relieve me." Pausing for a heartbeat, a petulant Ciara chose to set her better judgment aside. She directed her next words directly at Karis. "Why don't you ask Xena why she didn't tell you?"
Jamine saw the rising danger. "Ciara, hold your tongue!"
Ciara spat her next words. "It's not like Queen Karis cares."
Karis stepped up and slapped Ciara across the face. Ciara's head snapped back but her legs held steady. Ciara's hand went to her dagger, sheath at her belt. Jamine quickly forced her body between the two Amazons. She placed her hand over Ciara's, keeping the dagger firmly in place.
Over Jamine's shoulder, Ciara held Karis in a harsh glare. Her rage carried in each spoken word. "I promised Queen Gabrielle I would serve her until her death. And I will. When the time comes for Xena to take my Queen to Amphipolis to be placed in her crypt, I will leave this village and I won't return until a new Queen worthy of my respect takes the throne."
Understanding her young warrior's anger all too well, Jamine spoke firmly but low. "Ciara. You know your orders."
Ciara turned to her Captain. She pushed away and walked back to Gabrielle's lodge.
Karis was furious. "Captain. Is this how you keep discipline among our warriors?"
Jamine considered the Queen. "Karis. Don't even think of challenging me. And, you better think twice about raising a hand to one of our warriors. You do it again and I'll leave you alone to deal with the consequences."
Karis would not capitulate. "Is this the loyalty I'm to expect from you?"
"Right now I'm not so sure you are a Queen deserving my loyalty. Do with that what you will." Jamine did not wait to be dismissed.
Karis walked back into the empty Council Chamber. The shelter provided no sense of safety or belonging. She bent down, holding herself up with her hands upon her knees. She was slowly losing her tribe. She knew she had no one to blame but herself.
Ciara abruptly entered the healer's hut making Julian start. The young warrior cried out, "There are no Gods!"
Julian's fear heightened. "What's wrong?"
"Xena has left the village seeking a cure for Gabrielle. And I almost pulled my dagger against Karis."
Julian breathed out Ciara's name.
"I understand that she is still grieving for Queen Tovi, but that is no excuse for shutting out Gabrielle and Xena, and then blaming me because I'm better informed than she is."
Julian's alarm subsided. Her greatest fear, a further decline in Gabrielle's health, was not an immediate issue. Still, there was reason to be concerned. "Karis blamed you?"
"She's been against me and Lael ever since we returned with Malina."
"Gabrielle is fond of both of you. Karis can't help but see that."
"And we should apologize because we have earned Gabrielle's favor?"
"Of course not. But try to understand. I am sure Karis misses Gabrielle's friendship."
"And whose fault is that? All Karis has to do is go to Gabrielle. It was Karis who pulled away. By keeping her distance, Gabrielle is just honoring Karis' unspoken wishes."
"I don't want to be right. I want to see Gabrielle smile again. Julian, I can't describe how she looked." Ciara sat down. Her unrestrained energies depleted, her deepening sorrow apparent. "Defeated. I'm afraid with Xena gone our Queen has given up."
Julian went to Ciara, bending down on one knee before her. "You have to prepare yourself for her death."
Ciaras words came slowly. "I know." Her next question was but a hush. "How much time?"
Julian was sincere. "I don't know."
"Is she much weaker?"
Julian wanted to reassure, but she knew it was not her place, nor would reassurance reflect the truth. "I must keep our Queen's confidence."
Ciara looked down.
Julian rested a consoling hand upon Ciara's arm. Ciara gazed up. Having Julian so close, Ciara felt a lingering regret "I'm sorry about the kiss."
Julian understood. She had always understood. "It is hard. This helplessness we feel."
Ciara tasted the bitterness. "Yes, it is."
Lael stood guard outside of Gabrielle's lodge. Ciara came to relieve her of her shift. "How is she?"
Lael looked at the undisturbed door. "I'm worried. She hasn't come out yet."
Ciara looked up to the sun, measuring the passing morning. "Tell Julian."
Julian approached alongside Lael. She briefly met Ciara's gaze before stepping forward and knocking on the lodge door. "My Queen. It's Julian."
Gabrielle's voice traveled across the wood. "Come in, Julian."
Julian found her Queen sitting up in bed, an opened scroll on her lap, a quill in hand. "How are you feeling?"
Gabrielle saw no reason to conceal the consequences of Xena's departure. "You know?"
Having spent significant time together, patient and healer had come to speak an abridged language. "Yes."
"I miss her. She's been gone less than a day and I miss her as if the ages have passed." Gabrielle looked down to her scroll. "I haven't been writing much. I didn't know how to tell my story. The days have come and gone so gracefully. I've learned that we have the capacity to adjust to almost anything."
"Not everyone has your strength."
Gabrielle gestured for Julian to sit down and join her. "I'm not as strong as you think. You don't know my doubts. How many tears I've cried privately. You don't know how much I've relied on Xena, you, Ciara and Lael. How much I need you."
Julian was deeply touched. "I have done so little for you while you have taught me so much. I know Ciara and Lael feel the same."
"It's going to get harder."
Gabrielle returned her gaze to the scroll. "I have a reason to write, now. If Xena doesn't return in time."
Julian interjected. "She will."
Gabrielle continued. "If Xena doesn't return in time, I want her to have my journal. You know, there are things I still haven't told her, memories of my childhood, my thoughts and feelings, especially those during our first years together. Julian, you'll make sure she gets them?"
"Thank you." Gabrielle began to roll the scroll. "I had a dream last night. I walked to the North meadow without my staff. I had gained back some of the weight I lost. It was a beautiful day, the sky was the clearest blue. A gentle breeze kept running though my hair. I felt no pain as I stood at the edge of the tall grasses. Instead of fatigue, I felt the strength of my heartbeat. I was happy because I was no longer afraid. All of this was over."
Julian offered. "Your Elysian Fields."
"Are you afraid?"
Gabrielle did not hesitate with the truth. "Yes. But not as much as I was last night." She swung her legs over and down to the floor. "Have you eaten?"
Gabrielle invited. "Have tea with me while I breakfast?"
Julian welcomed the opportunity. "I have a suggestion."
The healer nodded over to the door. "There are two young warriors standing outside worried about you."
Gabrielle smiled. "Do you think they might be hungry?"
"I'm sure of it."
Xena was relentless in her travels. She sought healers in every hamlet, every town, every city she passed. At each turn she shared Gabrielle's story. Again and again, she repeated the perplexing symptoms. Again and again, she lied. She told the healers there was no diagnosis. That no one could recall a similar instance of one so young falling into such distress. Xena refused to help any healer come to the same conclusion. Many shrugged, saying that they too were confounded. Others offered treatments Malina and Julian had dispensed without positive result. Some acknowledged caring for, or learning of, someone who had such an ailment that resulted in the patient crossing over to the other side. One dared to offer poison to release the young bard from pain. Xena's anger toward that particular healer was not because she offered a unique compassion but because Xena feared that such compassion would in time be required. And then the day came when Xena walked the streets of Thebes and was directed to the healer Biana.
"Tell me more about this young woman."
"She has always been strong in spirit and in body. She has never failed to heal from an injury."
"Injury? Has she been seriously hurt?"
"Yes, a few times."
The healer looked Xena up and down. "So, she is a warrior like you."
Xena would not echo that description. Gabrielle was far more than a warrior. "She is an Amazon Queen."
Biana paused and turned away. "An Amazon Queen." The healer raised a decanter and considered its contents. She then returned her attention to her visitor. "The Amazons have a tradition of excellent healers. Why come to me?"
"Because they can't help her."
The healer spoke deliberately. "Must be difficult to watch someone you care for die at the hands of incompetence."
Xena flinched. "I didn't say the Amazon healers were incompetent."
"If you thought otherwise you would not be away from your friend in her time of need. You would have trusted that the healers knew their arts."
Biana's words cut as precisely as a surgeon's incision. Xena felt the need to defend herself. "I don't expect one healer to have seen everything or know everything about the ill."
"Well, you are right in your thinking. We are constantly learning. Unfortunately, for your friend, we have not learned enough to save her."
"So, you don't know what's wrong with her."
Biana corrected. "Oh, but I do. Her illness is quite cruel."
The healer's words frightened the warrior. "What do you mean?"
"It takes away the strength of the strongest. And then, it pulls back and allows its victim to believe that she is getting better. When passion in life is renewed, the heart fails, usually in sleep. Your friend will die with a restored confidence in her life, and that is good. But those around her, in this case her tribe, will bear the terrible shock of losing their Queen just as they begin to believe in her recovery. I pity them. It would be far more kind to let them know that death will call when least expected."
"You're sure of this?"
Biana nodded affirmatively. "Yes."
Xena mulled over Biana's words. The healer seemed so certain. More so than anyone Xena had met. Xena looked away. She yearned for Gabrielle. She yearned to see the bard once again.
The healer's words interrupted Xena's thoughts. "You may not wish my advice, but I will give it anyway. This is no time to be away from your friend. You have tried to help her and I am sure she is grateful for your effort. But now, if she cares for you at all, I am certain that she will want you with her."
Ciara watched the young healer approach. As the days passed, Ciara began to feel an ever-growing comfort with Julian. "Good morning, healer."
Julian smiled brightly. "Good morning, warrior. Is Gabrielle ready?"
Ciara bantered. "The honor of waking her is all yours." Ciara noted an immediate change in Julian's countenance. "Did you have plans?"
Julian hesitated. "Gabrielle was going to eat early. We were going to take the children to search for herbs." The healer stepped to the door and listened for a moment. Hearing nothing she knocked on the door. "My Queen?"
Ciara watched with growing concern. They no longer used the title Queen with Gabrielle unless in the company of others, or in jest. Julian knocked on the door again. She called out Gabrielle's name. There was no response.
Julian entered the lodge. Gabrielle lay on the floor, a sheet partially covering her naked body. Her bodily fluids had escaped her. Julian moved quickly and covered the Queen, protecting her modesty. She felt for Gabrielle's pulse. It was weak. She bent down over Gabrielle's mouth. Her breaths were shallow. Julian looked up to Ciara who stood a couple of paces away. "Go and get warm water and towels. Knock when you return and don't say a word to anyone."
Ciara's gaze held Julian. Julian regretted that she could not afford the time to comfort the troubled warrior. "Ciara. Please, go now."
Ciara turned away and left the lodge.
Julian got to her feet. She took the wash basin and towel that rested on a corner table in hand, and returned to Gabrielle's side. The young healer gently began the task of washing the Queen.
Ciara knocked on the door. Julian came and retrieved the water and towels. Ciara offered. "Julian. I want to help."
Julian had her plans made. "I do need you. Please get Lael and then wait out here. It won't be much longer." Again, Ciara left without an unnecessary word. Julian continued the task of washing her Queen. She wrapped Gabrielle with a clean sheet. Then she bundled the dirty cloths and went to the door. Outside a solemn Ciara and Lael waited. Julian put the bundle down. "Come in."
The young warriors entered, each holding down a retch from the smell, an effect Julian no longer experienced given her years of caring for the infirm. Gabrielle rested on the floor. Julian directed. "Lift her carefully to the bed."
Lael led the task taking Gabrielle into her arms. Ciara stood near as a precaution. Lael placed the unexpectedly lightweight Queen upon the bed. Lael stepped aside as Julian covered Gabrielle with a blanket. Julian was impressed by Lael's delicate touch. She whispered to Ciara. "Open the shutters." Ciara did as asked.
Mesmerized, Lael stood over her Queen. "She's so small. I didn't realize how small she's gotten."
Julian turned to Gabrielle's two devoted guardians. "You must know this is the beginning of the end."
A tear fell down Lael's cheek. "What can we do?"
The healer knew protecting Gabrielle's privacy was foremost. "Say nothing until she awakens and I can speak to her."
Ciara sought confirmation. "She will wake up?"
"I believe so." The healer walked to Gabrielle's bedside and stood beside Lael. "There is one more thing you can do."
Lael answered. "Anything."
"The towels need to be laundered. It will be hard to explain "
Lael required no further direction. "Ciara and I will clean them ourselves."
Ciara turned toward the door. Lael followed in step. In silence they withdrew. Julian could not have been prouder of the two young warriors.
Three candlemarks passed before Gabrielle awoke. Julian was at her side. "My Queen."
Gabrielle recognized Julian's concern. She closed her eyes trying to coax a memory to her consciousness. She looked down at her covered body. The odor of her uncontrolled fluids lingered. The realization struck her quick and hard. "Oh, no." She looked away in shame.
Julian spoke with great tenderness. "I promise you, your dignity is no less now that it was before your illness."
Gabrielle's opened her eyes. She looked out the window feeling alienated from the beauty in life. Her voice was low and throaty. "Not including my mother, Xena is the only one who has ever taken care of me like this."
"I am your healer."
Gabrielle refused to meet Julian's gaze. Julian had seen plenty of proud warriors fight their infirmities, but it was never like this. Their wounds were received in battle or in a hunt. There could still be some pride taken. Here it was Gabrielle's own body that turned against her. Gabrielle was becoming physically less than. As Malina had warned, it was no God, no warlord, no Caesar. It was simply the nature of Gabrielle - death by natural causes. Gabrielle had no power over her physical nature. Gabrielle did, however, have the choice of how she would live and die, both in spirit and heart. It was Julian's responsibility not only to care for Gabrielle physically, but also to help her keep true to her remarkable soul.
"Gabrielle. Please don't shut me out. Not now. Not after I have grown to care for you as a friend."
Gabrielle bit her lip. "Who found me?"
"I and Ciara."
"Anyone else know?"
"Lael lifted you unto to the bed after I took care of you."
"You washed me?"
"I did." Julian chose to prepare Gabrielle to face her present truth. "It will not be the last time."
Gabrielle closed her eyes again trying to stay the humiliation.
Placing her hand upon Gabrielle's shoulder the healer attempted to give a tempered comfort. "There are things we can do."
"You have no idea." Gabrielle's voice drifted into a void.
"I realize I crossed into an intimacy that is painful to share with anyone, even Xena. I can only ask you to trust me. I hope I have earned your trust."
Gabrielle turned to the young healer. She could not deny Julian. "You have my trust, Julian. It's just death is close, isn't it?"
Julian waited for the Council to disperse. She approached Karis who remained at her chair. Karis looked over to the healer.
Julian spoke devoid of emotion. "It's time."
Karis stood up. "Gabrielle has asked to see me?"
The healer spoke honestly. "No."
Karis sat down again. "Then why come to me?"
Julian took a long hard look at Karis. Her frustration and disappointment had no measure. She turned and walked back to the true Queen of the Amazons.
Lael entered with a tray. Resting on it, a bowl of soup and a mug of tea. Gabrielle watched the capable young warrior serve her dinner. Their eyes met as Lael placed the tray upon the bed table. Gabrielle rued having Lael serve her. "Never thought you, a warrior, would become a nursemaid."
Lael offered the mug of tea to her Queen. "Drink this."
Gabrielle took the mug with both hands.
Lael stood upright. "May I ask you something?"
"Why haven't you mentored me in the use of the staff?"
Gabrielle did not expect the question. "Because you never asked."
"That never stopped you from giving Xena advice."
"I should be more careful of what I write in my scrolls." Gabrielle smiled. "Did you ever think that giving Ciara a fighting chance with you was a way for me to teach both of you at the same time?"
"So, I would become a better fighter?"
"No. To learn humility and become a better person."
"Is that a lesson you taught Xena?"
"It's a lesson she taught me."
Lael studied the Queen. She doubted whether Xena had indeed been the teacher, but she chose not to challenge the veracity of the statement. "There is something else."
"I don't know if this is the right time to say this, but I will miss you."
Gabrielle knew then, how fond she had become of the guard. "Promise me one thing?"
Lael's throat had constricted with the press of emotion. With no voice to offer, she simply nodded.
"Remember my life and not my death."
Lael swallowed. "I'm sorry but I can't promise you that. I've learned too much these past few moons to set the lessons aside. When am I to say your life ended and your death began? Haven't your life and death been one?"
"I've tried to keep them one."
Karis listened carefully to the conversations in the meal lodge. Gabrielle had been missed by the children. She had not been seen the whole of the day. Ciara and Lael were seen away from their post together. Julian was ensconced in Gabrielle's quarters. All was contrary to what the tribal members had learned to expect. Speculations rose. Some voices cautioned the others not to overreact, that they would surely be informed if Gabrielle were in dire health. One argued that Gabrielle could not cross over until Xena returned. The speaker was Rasha. She was absolute. "Xena would never allow it." Heads nodded. They wanted to believe that the warrior could hold the bard, the Queen, the young, passionate woman she loved, to life, simply by her will, no matter how much distance separated them. Karis could see that the admiration Gabrielle received had been earned, not by extraordinary, but by simple deeds. The stories recounted were of the bard's tales, embraces given, smiles shared, lessons taught, and always, her attentive recognition of the value of each human spirit she encountered.
Karis walked across the courtyard to Gabrielle's lodge. Ciara stood her post. Karis would have preferred to see Lael. Karis stopped an arm's length from the young warrior. "Is Gabrielle seeing guests?"
Ciara reached out with her hand and knocked on the door. She then held the door open. Karis felt Ciara's disdain as she passed through the threshold.
Gabrielle was sitting up in her bed. Julian sat in a chair nearby. The two looked over to the visiting Queen. Gabrielle was more than a little surprised. Julian was hopeful. The healer stood up and offered her chair to Karis. Karis took a few steps forward, her hands held firmly behind her. She could not bring herself any closer. Julian excused herself and left the lodge. Karis watched the healer take her leave. She then turned her attention back to Gabrielle, who had remained silently attentive.
"How are you feeling?"
Though not unkind, Gabrielle was in no frame of mind for insincere courtesies. "What can I do for you, Karis?"
"I just came to see how you were feeling."
"After all this time?" Gabrielle queried.
"Word is that you are not well."
"Karis, I haven't been well since I arrived." Gabrielle attempted to temper her words. "I'm sorry, but with time so short, I must be candid."
"I don't blame you for being angry." Karis stood steady.
"I'm not angry. I understand why you've kept your distance. Or, at least I believe I do."
Karis took a step forward. "When I heard that you and Xena had returned, for a moment, just a moment, I had hoped that you would choose to stay and be our Queen. I had the hope that I could step down and be your regent."
Gabrielle was firm. "I'm not Tovi."
"I know. But, like Tovi, you are fair in appearance, you value the written word, you are wise beyond your years, and you will always be my Queen. Serving you would have taken me closer to the past I shared with her. Instead, like her, you came back to die."
"Karis. You must live in the moment and keep your dreams for the future alive. Whatever may come from them."
Karis concluded. "Death is what comes."
Gabrielle had come to weigh that truth every day of her life. "Inevitably. Yes. But there can be so much life before death claims you."
Karis chose to seek information regarding a more immediate and certain event. "What happened today?"
"I lost consciousness." Gabrielle raised her hand and pointed. "I fell down there, on the floor, and I soiled myself."
Karis' eyes had followed Gabrielle's hand. She could imagine the fallen Queen. "I'm sorry."
"I don't want your pity." Gabrielle entreated. "All I wanted was your friendship."
Karis returned her gaze to the Queen. She took another step forward. "You have it. If it isn't too late."
"Why now, Karis?"
"I want to help you in any way I can. And, I need your help. You're the only one who can."
Gabrielle would not turn Karis away. "To do what?"
"To be a Queen." Karis was earnest. "Gabrielle, I'm losing the tribe."
Gabrielle allayed Karis' fear with the harshest truth between them. "Soon, you won't have to worry about competing with me. Not that I was trying to take the tribe from you."
"I know. That made it all the worse. It is one thing to lose a rivalry. It is another to know that you are so insignificant that no one ever considered you worthy."
Gabrielle refused to accept Karis' self-assessment. "How can you say that? You've done so much to bring the North and South together."
"I didn't do it. Tovi did. In life she found reason for them to form an alliance. And her death moved the disparate forces so deeply, they couldn't help but try to realize her dream."
"Karis, it's time you walk out from the shadows. Tovi's. Mine. No one placed you there. No one can take you from under it. No one, but you."
Karis exited Gabrielle's lodge. Ciara stood with her eyes fixed ahead. The Queen spoke Ciara's name, calling her attention. Ciara turned her hard gaze toward Karis.
Karis spoke mildly. "I haven't been a good friend to Queen Gabrielle. I understand and admire your loyalty to her. I hope you reconsider your decision to leave the tribe. I will never be able to replace Gabrielle. Maybe with time and advisors as bold as you, who are willing to challenge me, I will become a Queen deserving of the throne." Karis paused, giving Ciara time to consider her words. She noticed a momentary softening of the young warrior's harsh mask.
Ciara tone was benign. "I am willing to reconsider my decision."
Karis nodded, pleased with the progress made, minor as it was. She took a few steps forward before she stopped and returned her regard back to Ciara. "And Ciara, if you ever again put your hand to your dagger against me, I will personally make sure it is the last thing you ever do with that hand. Do we understand each other?"
Ciara was resolute. "If ever the day comes, I will be ready for the consequences."
Karis was impressed, though she would not show it.
Julian stood on the edge of the practice field. Ciara sparred with staffs against Rasha. Ciara demonstrated a far more sophisticated technique than her opponent, the result, a swift victory. Having completed her drills, Ciara approached the healer. "Hello."
Ciara observed. "I've never seen you here before."
"Yesterday was a difficult day. I wanted to see if you were all right."
Ciara looked back from whence she came. "A good round with Rasha helped."
Julian longed for a more substantial connection with the young warrior. "I thought you might want to talk."
Ciara smiled in amused appreciation. "Always the healer."
Julian felt discounted, at best, belittled, at worse. They walked in silence back toward the village courtyard. It was now Ciara who wondered how the other was able to cope with the demands placed upon her. "Julian. How are you?"
Julian deflected the query. "I've sent a message to Malina with today's courier. I've asked her to come."
Ciara understood that Julian had given her an answer, veiled as it was. She also understood the significance of calling for the sage healer. The young warrior kept her eyes forward. "I remember the first time I spoke to Gabrielle when she and Xena returned. She knew then of her illness, but she still had the heart to joke with me. I felt so proud that she would take the time. She made it so easy to talk to her." Ciara paused and turned to Julian. "Julian. I've grown to love her. She is young and beautiful and she's also so wise and compassionate. Gabrielle is my Queen. I didn't feel this way about Queen Tovi and I definitely don't feel it for Karis." Ciara could see Julian's intent consideration. Ciara turned away and renewed her walk. Julian kept pace. After a few moments, Ciara reflected further. "When Gabrielle dies I will not only lose my Queen. I will also lose a friend. I never expected I would be a friend to my Queen."
Ciara fell back into a sober silence. Julian felt her unrelenting pain rise. She sought her own solace. "The first time I saw Gabrielle upon her return, she was in Xena's arms. She was completely focused on Xena. It was so intimate. I felt I didn't belong. I didn't think I could ever be included in her world."
Ciara had judged the healer far more confident in her ways. Ciara reassured. "You are, you know in Gabrielle's world."
Julian voice drifted with the wind. "Yes. I know."
Ciara continued to struggle to find a way to console. "Does it hurt, terribly?"
Whether Ciara's question referenced Gabrielle's illness or Julian's heart, Julian was uncertain. It mattered not. The answer was the same. Julian affirmed. "Yes. It does."
Ciara put her arm around Julian's shoulder and gently pulled her close as they continued their walk.
Within a handful of days, Gabrielle enjoyed a sufficient return of strength to join the tribe for meals. The evening was warm, the fruit on her plate sweet and the conversation lively. Jamine, Julian and Lael sat across the table. Karis sat at Gabrielle's left, Ciara at her right. Gabrielle felt Karis' hand on her arm. The press, though gentle, earned her immediate regard. Karis' countenance had grown serious. Karis leaned over, speaking softly. "Xena." She then looked out across the room to the courtyard.
Gabrielle followed Karis' gaze. The warrior approached, walking with Argo by her side. Gabrielle had imagined the sight of Xena countless times each and every day. Xena resided in her dreams. Xena had always been with her, so much so that Gabrielle rarely found reason to invoke her name. She understood that the tribe had its own reasons for not speaking of the warrior in her company - a fear of raising the pain that accompanied separation and, in some mistaken minds, estrangement. All the subtleties of coping with Xena's departure were no longer necessary. The warrior had returned.
Gabrielle stood up and walked decidedly to meet her partner. The members of her table had noted the exchange between Karis and Gabrielle. They all had followed the Queens' eyes. Ciara got up and stepped ahead to open the door for Gabrielle. She then approached Xena and wordlessly reached out her hand. Xena gave the young warrior Argo's reins. Ciara led the mare to the stables. Julian followed a few paces behind Gabrielle. She stood at the meal lodge entrance and observed from a respectful distance.
Xena studied the bard, staff in hand, standing before her. At least, what was left of the bard. Gabrielle had lost considerable weight. She wore a loose, rust color shift, cut the length of her usual skirt. It covered three-quarters of her diminutive arms. The shift was tied with a black leather thong resting across Gabrielle's indistinct waist. Undoubtedly her clothes no longer fit. Gabrielle's appearance had never been more fragile, her pallor more ghostlike. The shift hid, in part, the bard's physical decline. In spite of this, Xena with her knowledge of every curve, every nuance of Gabrielle's body, could quickly assess the woman. There was no means of deceiving Xena; not that Gabrielle was trying to deceive anyone. Her change of dress, though in its own right attractive, was a necessity.
Xena stepped forward to meet the bard. She was at a loss for words. Time away was for naught. She had nothing to offer Gabrielle in reparation. Any censure for her folly was justified.
Gabrielle waited, giving Xena time to see her as she now was. Gabrielle knew the change would jar anyone who had not experienced it as a continuous witness. Gabrielle also knew that Xena had found no cure. The warrior was muted in aspect. The bard opened her arms in welcome. It was a reception Xena longed for. She stepped forward and took Gabrielle into her arms. "I'm sorry."
Gabrielle whispered. "Don't be. You've come back to me. That's all I care about."
A collective sigh of relief was released by the observers. Julian stepped back into the meal lodge. She prayed her services would not be needed in the immediate future. As if taking their cue from the young healer, the other occupants of the meal lodge returned their attention to their table mates. The two observed, walked to their lodge, hand in hand.
Gabrielle walked to the bed and sat on the edge, setting her staff aside. Xena scanned the space. Nothing had tangibly changed. She followed Gabrielle's path, choosing to sit in the tall back chair set beside the bed, directly across from where the bard waited.
Xena spoke trying to maintain some semblance of control. "How are you?"
Gabrielle looked down at her body. It spoke volumes. Still, Gabrielle knew there was more to be shared. "The pain is manageable. When it gets really bad Julian gives me a powder and I sleep through it. I've lost my appetite." Gabrielle smiled. "I never thought that would happen." She returned to a more serious tone. "I'm easily tired, so I don't get around too much anymore. Otherwise, I'm doing good."
Xena looked down to her hands. Gabrielle reached over and placed her own hand over them. "I'm telling you the truth. I am doing good. Every day I have had to face letting go of something new. I've learned to let others do for me. I don't fight it as much as I used to. I'm not as angry as I once was."
Xena looked up and met Gabrielle's gaze. "Angry? You never showed it."
"I figured you were angry enough for the both of us."
Xena leaned back against the chair. "I've done everything wrong."
Gabrielle was emphatic. "No. No, you haven't. I needed time. I wasn't ready. I wanted our life together to go on unchanged for as long as possible. You gave me that until neither one of us could keep denying the truth."
They fell into a difficult silence. Gabrielle knew there was a way to narrow the distance between them. "Xena. I've had a long day. Lie with me, until I fall asleep."
Xena's actions spoke for her. She reached up to undo the clasps that held her armor.
Gabrielle stood up. "Let me."
Xena's eyes followed the fragile bard. The warrior got to her feet. This was a familiar routine. Gabrielle had not lost her skill to efficiently assist Xena. Freed of her armor, Xena stripped away her leathers and changed into a night shift.
Gabrielle loosened her belt. "Xena. Help me."
Xena approached Gabrielle. She gently raised the shift up, over Gabrielle's body. The bard stood naked before her. The warrior's heart broke at the sight of Gabrielle. Her once full body was emaciated. Xena took Gabrielle's night shift in hand. Gabrielle raised her arms, signaling Xena to continue the effort to dress her. They exchanged a painful recognition of the brevity of the future they were to share.
Gabrielle took first to the bed. Xena completed the task of putting their things away and then joined Gabrielle, laying by her side. The warrior's hand went to the wisps of hair that fell over Gabrielle's forehead, combing them aside with her fingertips. Gabrielle smiled at the re-experience of this, the simplest of intimacies.
"Xena, when you thought I died you went to the Amazon Land of the Dead. You never told me why."
Xena held the memories of that time close to her. "I wanted to see you one more time. There were things I didn't get a chance to tell you."
"You didn't know if you would be able to return, did you?"
"I didn't care." Xena was adamant.
Gabrielle continued. "Have you told me everything?"
The warrior felt her limits. "I'll never be able to tell you everything."
Gabrielle understood that it was not a matter of Xena withholding her truth, but of simply not having the words. Still, she wanted to encourage Xena to try to find those elusive words. "Have you told me enough, so that you won't have regrets?"
Xena attempted to withdraw her hand. Her eyes averted from the bard's. Gabrielle claimed Xena's hand with her own and kissed the palm. Xena felt completely at a loss. She sought Gabrielle's touch. She moved closer taking Gabrielle into a tender embrace. Gabrielle could feel Xena's strength. She yearned for Xena's vulnerability. Gabrielle whispered in Xena's ear. "It's time you start letting go of me."
Xena shook her head in protest. She voiced a dispirited "No."
Gabrielle tried to grant Xena a mercy the warrior continued to deny herself. "Xena. I will always be strong enough to hold your tears."
Xena tightened her embrace.
"Do I have to beg you?" Gabrielle felt the rise and fall of Xena's breath. "Please don't hide your heart from me."
Xena choked. "I failed you."
"No. You haven't failed me."
"I can't help you."
Gabrielle assured. "Yes you can. You can help me die."
Xena jerked up. Gabrielle pressed Xena back with what strength she had. A tear fell from Gabrielle's eye. "I've been doing good with Ciara, Lael and Julian's help. Karis has come around. I'm still a queen. I've been able to help in small ways. I want to keep on helping my tribe. I've always been stronger when I've known you're by my side. They don't just look to me. Now that you've returned, they will look to you as well."
Xena promised. "I won't say a word."
Gabrielle guided. "That won't be good enough. You must speak my truth. Many years ago, before our joining, you pledged your sword to me. I was too young then to understand. I now know what it means, how terrible your burden. My love, you are the Queen's Champion. We are fighting a very different kind of fight. I must cross over to the other side without losing my dignity. Even as my body weakens, my spirit needs to grow stronger. It will be my final legacy to the Amazons."
Gabrielle pulled slightly back. She kissed Xena tenderly. Xena wanted the bard desperately, but knew she could not take her. This was one night when the invitation to make Gabrielle hers would not be offered. Their passionate, at times feral, lovemaking resided in the past. Gabrielle's far gentler, more delicate physicality called to the warrior. Xena felt it pierce her remaining defenses. The bard prevailed. Xena's tears found expression. Gabrielle's own tears melded with them.
Julian, Ciara and Lael decided to continue their care of Gabrielle without interruption. They would wait for either Gabrielle or Xena to change their orders. Until then, with or without Xena, Gabrielle was their ward and it was a responsibility and privilege none was prepared to give up.
Xena left the lodge seeking breakfast. Lael stood guard outside. Xena sought an easy beginning. "Still here?"
Lael responded in kind. "Where else would I be?"
Xena placed her hand on the young warrior's arm. "Thank you."
Lael spoke warmly. "It's good to have you back."
"How has she been, really?"
"Gabrielle is remarkable. She has weathered the worst storms admirably."
Xena inquired in an even voice. "So, there have been storms."
"Julian has summoned Malina. She is expected in a few days."
Xena looked back toward the door.
Lael tried to explain. "It was because of a particularly difficult day. Gabrielle has gotten stronger since then. It has been a great relief. Even though we don't know how long this better turn will last, we intend to enjoy it while we can."
Xena pressed the memory of Biana down. "I see."
Gabrielle looked down at the empty bowl of soup. Her gaze met Julian's, who sat across from her in the meal lodge. Julian wore a bright smile. Gabrielle looked back down at the empty bowl. "I was hungry."
Julian confirmed. "I would say so."
Gabrielle tapped the bowl with her spoon. "I could eat another bowl."
Julian teased. "You think?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah, I think I could."
"Well then, let me get it for you."
"No. I'll get it." Gabrielle looked over to the serving table. "Maybe some bread, too."
The days passed. Xena returned to her duties with Jamine. The warrior tried to adjust to the changes in Gabrielle. Gabrielle insisted that, for now, Xena maintain a routine that did not revolve around the bard's illness. Xena wanted to make up for the time spent away, but Gabrielle refused to reconsider. There was nothing to atone for.
Julian held the marked string before Gabrielle's eyes so she could see the evidence for herself. A knock was heard at the door. Malina entered. The sage healer's eyes traveled first to the Queen. It was not Gabrielle's gaunt physique that garnered Malina's greatest concern. It was the look of utter confusion, a look shared by Julian.
Malina had been anxious during the whole of her journey back to the South. Julian's message reached her at a far outpost where she was caring for a new mother who had struck a fever. She could not leave until her patient stabilized. She sent a message back promising to return as soon as she could. Fifteen days had passed since Julian had called for her. Malina's worry found no immediate relief. "What is it?"
Gabrielle looked to Julian to explain.
Julian did her best. "I've taken great care to measure. As time passed we wanted to be certain."
Malina's impatience rose to the surface. "Yes. And "
"Since I sent for you, Gabrielle has gained mass."
This was hard for Malina to imagine, given Gabrielle's appearance. "What else has changed?"
Gabrielle spoke softly. "I've gotten my appetite back. I'm eating more. The pain isn't as deep and doesn't come as often."
Malina probed. "And your strength?"
Julian walked over to the weights she had had Gabrielle try to lift. "We stopped measuring." Julian took the lightest weight and walked over and offered it to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle reached out with both her hands. Julian placed the weight carefully in Gabrielle's open palms. Gabrielle's arms were taken down to her lap by the weight. Gabrielle focused all her might on what would have once been an incidental task. With considerable effort she raised the weight to chest height. It was more than she could have done a half-moon before. She lowered the weight back to rest upon her lap. Julian knelt upon one knee before Gabrielle, placing her hand upon the weight. Gabrielle met the healer's eyes. Each held unspoken hope.
Gabrielle whispered. "Could it be?"
"I fear saying yes, only to disappoint you later." Julian took the weight back.
"Julian is right. A temporary remission should not be taken as a promise of health." Malina tempered the atmosphere.
Gabrielle placed her hand on Julian's cheek. "Then we will wait. Julian, we have never shared our measures with anyone. Now is not the time to start."
"Well, I now wonder what all the fuss was about getting me here?" Malina quipped.
Gabrielle and Julian turned to the sage, sharing a smile.
A moon had passed since Malina's return. Gabrielles health continued to improve. Still wearing loose shifts, her weight gain, like her original weight loss was hidden from sight. Her color improved. She began to take longer walks, often waiting for Julian to accompany her instead of Ciara or Lael.
Standing at the edge of the North meadow with Julian by her side, Gabrielle recalled her dream of health. "Julian. I wonder if my dream is coming true. My Elysian Fields might be right here."
Julian remained silent.
Gabrielle looked over to the cautious healer. "I know. You don't want me to be disappointed. When can I afford to hope? When will the time come when we can tell others? "
"Ciara and Lael have mentioned that you are looking better. We are closest to you and have seen more of your illness and now of your returning health. But, I can't imagine that the other tribe members haven't noticed as well. Has Xena said anything to you?"
"Not a word."
"She must see it."
"There was a time she didn't want to see the illness. Now, I don't think she can see anything but." Gabrielle felt the hard, smooth surface of her staff underneath her hand. "Maybe when I no longer feel I need my staff."
"It's hard to imagine you without your staff."
Gabrielle smiled. "There was a time, early in my years with Xena, that I and my staff were inseparable. Having it always with me again has reminded me of those years."
"Were they good years?"
"Yes and no. Some of my more difficult memories come from that time. I don't ever want to make the mistake of becoming so nostalgic for the past that I stop living in the present, no matter how hard the present might be."
"The past is relative, isn't it? The day of your birth is in the past. So is yesterday."
"Let's wait another half-moon. If I continue to get better, I'll talk to Xena."
Julian had two others in mind. "Ciara and Lael?"
Gabrielle consented. "After I talk to Xena."
Daybreak cut rays of light across their bed. Gabrielle had awakened early. She chose to remain in Xena's protective embrace. The days had passed without incident. She continued to increase the amount of solid foods she was eating. She had just the day before met with Julian to measure her body size and her strength. The measures and the regression of her pain were reassuring. They consulted with Malina. The sage healer could not argue with the facts. For six weeks Gabrielle had experienced steady improvement. They agreed that Gabrielle would speak to Xena.
Xena felt the kiss. It began tenderly, coaxing the warrior to open to further exploration. It felt a dream to her and she did not contest it. She willingly allowed herself to be taken. The kiss traveled to her cheek and down to her neck. Xena pushed back her head inviting further exploration. Vulnerably exposed she invited the kiss to return. The kiss once again found her lips. A hand combed through her hair. It moved forward resting its thumb upon her cheekbone, palm and fingertip slipping underneath her jaw. It offered a soft caress. She felt a weight upon her chest. Her hands moved up taking hold of her seducer. She felt the shift. Another hand took hold of her palm and guided it up to where the shift, its laces having been untied, opened to flesh; warm, soft, substantial flesh. Xena knew that sensation. It was more than familiar. It was a sensation more vivid than her own body. It was Gabrielle. The dream was not a dream. Xena wrenched herself free in panic. She held Gabrielle at arm's length.
"Xena. It's all right."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to "
"Gabrielle!" Xena pulled away further, sitting up in the bed.
Gabrielle shifted to sit at Xena's side. Gabrielle's initial concern was compounded by the unexpected violence of Xena's response. It had seemed at first as if the warrior was going to be an easy conquest. "Xena. I've been feeling better."
Xena shook her head trying to make sense of what was happening. "What do you think you were doing?"
Gabrielle sought to lighten the moment with an easy response. "Seducing you?"
"Now?" The warrior's anger was unchecked.
Gabrielle tried to calm. "Julian and Malina agree that I have gotten stronger."
"So, they gave you a prescription to have sex and you decided that I should have the honors?"
Gabrielle thought she had been prepared for any possible reaction Xena might have to her physical renewal. She wasn't. "I thought you would want me."
Xena escaped the confines of the bed. On her feet she paced. "Do you expect me to just be here in any way you may want me, when you want me? Don't I have a say in this?"
"Of course. I was wrong. I shouldn't have come to you in your sleep. It's just you've always enjoyed being awakened that way."
"That was in the past. That was before " Xena stopped herself. She was completely off balance. She knew she couldn't explain herself to Gabrielle without revealing her conversation with Biana, without confessing that Gabrielle's renewal was a cruel trick, and that the bard was still destined to die an early death. "I've got to get out of here." Xena picked up her leathers, boots and weapons and left the lodge with a forceful thrust of their door.
Ciara was taken by surprise as Xena stormed out and walked toward the hot springs. The young warrior was tempted to see if Gabrielle was all right, but decided to remain neutral. Gabrielle sat in stunned silence.
Gabrielle said nothing regarding her health to Ciara as they went about their day. Gabrielle spent time at the school. She had renewed her storytelling to the delight of the children. As the sun began to set and Lael came to relieve Ciara, Gabrielle chose to make inquiries. Lael had not seen Xena. Gabrielle looked from one young warrior to the other. She had trusted them with her life during all the passing moons. She had no reason not to continue to set an expectation of extraordinary discretion upon their shoulders.
"I told Xena something this morning. She became upset."
Lael promised. "You can trust us to keep your privacy."
"I know. It's time I tell you." Gabrielle shook her head and laughed gently. "This is good news and I'm scared to say it aloud." She raised her eyes taking in Ciara and Lael for a moment, renewing her connection with each. "I'm getting better. Malina and Julian agree. We don't understand it, but then we didn't understand my illness either."
Lael spoke first. "You have been looking better."
Ciara chimed. "You have been eating better, gaining weight, and you have been able to do more without getting over tired."
"Julian told me you had noticed the difference." Gabrielle wondered if her two guardians were taking visual measure all along. It only seemed right given warriors are taught to consider every nuance, both in a battle and in a hunt.
Ciara queried. "Why did Xena become upset?"
Gabrielle confessed. "I'm not sure."
Lael scanned the surroundings. "Xena won't be found, unless she wants to be."
Ciara looked to her Queen. "She may want to be found."
Lael completed the thought. "The North meadow."
Gabrielle could see the trailhead where the meadow began. She stopped and turned to Ciara and Lael. "Please wait here and make sure no one else comes this way." She raised her staff and offered it to Ciara. Ciara took it. Gabrielle assured. "Don't worry if I don't come back right away. If Xena is there, this may take some time."
Ciara nodded in agreement. Lael encouraged. "Whatever time you need."
At the meadow's perimeter, Gabrielle could see a figure underneath the great oak. As she approached, she realized Xena was not in her armor nor in her leathers, but only in her shift. Troubled, Gabrielle continued her advance. Gabrielle stayed a handful of paces from the warrior. Xena leaned against the tree as she hugged her legs close to her. Xena had folded her leathers and placed them at her side. Her armor rested on the leathers. At their head Xena's sword pierced the ground standing erect. Her chakram hung on the sword's hilt. Xena had literally stripped herself of all protection. Gabrielle searched Xena's eyes for an explanation. She remained uncertain and thus spoke Xena's name as a question.
Xena's voice was devoid of any emotion. "I spoke to many healers. In Thebes, a healer, Biana, remembered an illness like yours. She said the people of the young woman's village had celebrated the return of the woman's health. But it was only a matter of time before she died. It was as if she was given one last breath, deep and rich, to enjoy before she had no breath at all. The healer said it was a cruel shock for all who loved the woman. The woman never knew what was to come." Xena looked up to Gabrielle. "I didn't tell you because I heard so many different things from different healers. There was no reason to give it any weight. But now I gave you my word that I would hide nothing from you. I don't know what to believe. I don't know if you are getting better. I don't know if the healer is an oracle of your fate."
Gabrielle felt as if she had the wind knocked out of her. She wished she had her staff. She feared she would stagger if she tried to walk. "We will have to wait and see."
Xena's hands trembled. The stress of knowing Biana's diagnosis and having to be silent had taken a great toll upon her. All the time she traveled, her desperation had no outlet. Again and again she was disappointed. No matter how much she tried to temper her expectations she couldn't help but hope. She came home to Gabrielle to let her go -- to walk with her through this last journey. And just as Xena was ready to surrender the bard to the other side, the bard started to come back. Gabrielle's renewal had not gone unnoticed. Each night as they lay side by side, Xena placed her hand over Gabrielle. She could feel less bone as the days passed. She observed by glance, as Gabrielle changed from her night shift to her day shift, the fact that the bard was more substantial. Everything that was meant to give her hope for Gabrielle's recovery ate like a worm in her heart. The pain was deepening and there was nothing she could do to end it. She wondered when the slow death would end. Not Gabrielle's death but her own, for she felt she was dying along with Gabrielle. She hated feeling as she did. She did not wish Gabrielle's death, but it was only Gabrielle's death that promised the end of her torture. This was a truth that could never be admitted.
Gabrielle began to understand why Xena was so troubled. She didn't know if she had the power to ease the warrior's torment, but she wanted to try. "Xena, come back with me."
Xena kept hearing her own words revive Gabrielle's death sentence. Hearing those words was worse than what the Furies had ever done to her.
Needing to be with Xena, Gabrielle mined for her strength and found a sufficient store so that she walked to the warrior and knelt beside her. "My love, please." The bard reached out her hand to the warrior.
Xena pulled away. "No! To hold you so you can die in my arms. To stay awake every moment of the night, listening to each breath you take, afraid it will be your last." Xena got to her feet. "Dying on the cross was easier than this."
Gabrielle pleaded. "What can I do?"
Xena looked at the Gabrielle incredulously. "Nothing. We have always lived by the truth. You can't change the truth." Xena walked away down to the heart of the meadow where the grasses grew tall and the waters flowed with endless promise.
Gabrielle entered Malina's hut. Malina reacted reflexively to the upset in Gabrielle's eyes. "My Queen, are you ill?"
"No. I'm angry."
"What has happened?"
Gabrielle recounted what had transpired between her and Xena.
Malina tried to console. "Xena's news could not be easy to hear."
"Malina, I don't believe it. Two moons ago I would have, but not now. I'm getting stronger." Gabrielle felt her growing strength course through her veins. "Have you ever cared for someone who died only after they seemed to get stronger?"
"No, my Queen. Not as I have witnessed in you."
"This Biana Xena spoke to might be the best healer in Thebes, but she has caused more harm than good."
"Biana? Is that the healer's name?"
Malina turned to her memories. "By the Goddess."
"Do you know her?"
"I cannot imagine anyone could be so cruel to weave such a deception, but it is possible." Malina paused to gather her thoughts. "It has been a generation. Biana holds a blood grudge against the Amazons. Her daughter, Berit, had been ill-treated by her father. She found sanctuary among our people. When Biana came seeking her return, Berit refused. The seasons turned three times. Berit had become an excellent huntress. She was one in a hunting party that was taken unawares by a flash flood. She and a companion were washed away. They nearly drowned. Though saved from the waters, Berit was struck with a fever. Word was sent to Biana. Berit died before Biana reached her bedside. Biana cursed us and promised that one day she would have her revenge."
Gabrielle absorbed the story of Biana and Berit in silence. She turned her gaze away; she wrapped her arms about her as she did. Biana's motives were suspect. All that Biana had told Xena was now in question. Gabrielle's trust in her health could no longer be discounted. With the story of Biana and Berit, Gabrielle had a means to reach out to Xena. She could give Xena a new truth.
As if abruptly awaken from a spell, Gabrielle ran out of Malina's hut where Ciara and Lael stood wait. "Ciara, go to Xena and ask her to come to me."
Ciara advised. "Gabrielle, we watched Xena return from the North meadow. She mounted Argo and rode west."
Gabrielle considered. She directed the two. "Find Karis and ask her to come see me."
Ciara and Lael took different avenues in search of the Queen.
Karis entered Malina's hut. She took in the scene of Gabrielle, Julian and Malina. Gabrielle was sitting in a chair. Malina sat opposite of her in the chair's twin. Julian stood at Gabrielle's side.
Malina stood up and gestured toward her chair. "Please sit down, my Queen."
Karis accepted the invitation, anticipating the terrible pain of an approaching loss renewed. She would not be able to divert her gaze from the source.
Gabrielle waited for Karis to offer her complete attention. "We believe Xena was deceived by a healer. The only healer who claimed she knew what ailed me. Xena was led to believe that not only would I die, but that before I did, it would seem as if I regained my strength."
Karis was stunned. "But why?"
Malina interjected. "A blood grudge a generation in the Northern tribe's past."
Gabrielle waited a moment for Karis to take in the information. "I need to learn the truth. With your permission I wish to take Julian and Ciara with me. Ciara told me Xena rode out of the village." Gabrielle paused and then spoke carefully. "She was upset and I'm not sure when she will return. When she does, tell her our suspicions, and that I have left for Thebes and will return as soon as I can."
Karis was eager to help. "Of course."
"I would prefer if no one knew of this until I return. I have gotten stronger. It was admitting this to Xena that caused her to tell me about the healer. False hope or false despair, either can be very painful."
Karis nodded. "I understand. When will you leave?"
Gabrielle turned to Julian. "As soon as we can pack our mounts. I hope you ride well, Julian."
Julian spoke simply. "I am an Amazon."
Karis summoned her Captain of the Guard. Tension between them had eased but Karis' memory of Jamine's support of Ciara, to her detriment, remained. After briefing Jamine, Karis proposed to track Xena through the western mountain corridor. Jamine would follow the alternate route through the valley. Lael would remain in the village in case Xena returned.
Jamine protested. "I agree that we should find Xena, but you should be the one to stay. Let Lael take the valley and I'll take the mountain route."
Karis understood that as Queen she owed Jamine no explanation. Gabrielle taught her that being Queen, however, does not mean explanation can't be offered. Karis never shied away from danger, and she didn't plan to start now. More importantly, she felt that if she was to ever again to claim herself a friend to Gabrielle and Xena, she needed to prove worthy of their friendship. She offered the Captain a look of unflinching determination. "Jamine. I must do this. I owe them both more than I can ever repay."
Jamine would not argue the point. "Very well. If after two days we don't see sign of Xena's trail, which will be difficult enough, we return to the village. Agreed?"
Karis and Jamine split at the crossroads.
The Captain offered a parting caution. "Take care, Karis. The sky is threatening a storm."
"Two days, Jamine. With or without Xena."
"Until then, my Queen."
Karis rode on. She felt she might have finally found a hint to her path. It was the first time Jamine had referred to her as Queen since their confrontation.
The clouds gathered, dark and all encompassing. A light rain began. There was no sign of Xena's trail. Night was falling. A heavy rainfall would make footing treacherous. Karis knew of a hunting shack two candlemarks up the trail. She planned to make camp there and move on in the morning.
The rain continued throughout the night. Gabrielle couldn't sleep. She got up from her bed. The three had taken a room at a roadside inn. Her two companions slept soundly. From the room's window she watched the rainfall. There was no knowing when Xena would return to the village. That she would return was certain. Gabrielle had rarely seen Xena so upset. In the past, during their most difficult moments, Xena would seek time apart. Xena would ride Argo to Argo's limit. The steed was loyal and gave her equestrian heart to her mistress without argument. The question was whether Xena would return in a handful of candlemarks or days. Under the circumstances it was hard for Gabrielle to guess. If Xena's return came quickly, Gabrielle would not be surprised to see the warrior approaching the inn in the middle of the night. If Xena needed more time, then Gabrielle knew that she might very well not see the warrior until she returned from Thebes.
Xena had ridden down the valley path allowing Argo free rein. As the rain grew in strength, she doubled back and crossed over to the North meadow. There she relived her words with Gabrielle. She tried to make sense of her own volatile emotions. Gabrielle's physical seduction frightened the warrior. She did not trust that the outcome would be any different than their last lovemaking.
Xena unburdening herself by sharing Biana's diagnosis, selfish as it felt, did not have the devastating effect on the bard that Xena feared. Gabrielle was resilient. Of the two, she had demonstrated a greater strength, a deeper faith. Sitting astride Argo, looking over the North meadow, Xena realized for the first time, that for moons Gabrielle had been the one who sustained them. Xena had grown to trust Gabrielle's intuition as much as her own. Looking over the North meadow, Xena wanted to believe that Biana had been mistaken, that Gabrielle, Malina and Julian were in the right. Looking over the North meadow, the one place, above all others, which symbolized the beauty and grace of the life she shared with Gabrielle, Xena reopened the gates to hope and reclaimed her courage. She returned to the village prepared to risk the grief inherent in loving the bard as life and not death.
Lael had been nursing a mug of tea in the meal lodge. She caught sight of Xena as the warrior rode back into the village. Xena dismounted and led Argo into the stables. Lael ran through the relentless rain to the stable. She forced herself to approach Xena with greater patience than she felt.
Xena had Argo's saddle in hand. "Lael."
The young warrior spoke with measure. "Xena. I have a message for you from Gabrielle."
Xena was intent. "She's not here?"
"She, Julian and Ciara are traveling to Thebes. Gabrielle is seeking the healer Biana."
Xena placed Argo's saddle down. "Do you know why?"
"Malina is better informed. I was told that Biana had a troubled history with the Northern tribe. A generation ago she blamed the Amazons for the death of her daughter to the fever. What Biana told you about Gabrielle may have been an act of revenge."
"What?" Xena turned away in thought. After a few moments she returned her attention to Lael. "When did they leave?"
"About a candlemark after you left."
"If I leave now and travel all night I can catch up with them by morning."
Lael felt a rising discomfort. "There is something else. Karis and Jamine rode west seeking your trail. Karis is taking the mountain route and Jamine the valley."
Xena stood in complete disbelief at the stupidity of trying to track her. "Damn it!"
"They agreed to return if in two days they didn't find your trail."
"Well they won't find it. So they'll be back."
"Should we send a search party?"
"They are the best warriors in the village. You won't catch up with them. Anyway, in this weather you'll get yourself killed trying."
"So we wait?"
Xena was torn. She wanted to follow Gabrielle's route. But, leaving the village without Karis or Jamine didn't set well with her. "I can't believe Gabrielle sent Karis to search for me."
"She doesn't know. It was Karis' decision."
Xena now knew she had to stay. "Lael, your Queen and Captain have great hearts, but they are also fools."
Ciara and Julian were in the stables, packing their horses. Ciara looked over to Julian. "If it's true?"
Julian considered. "Then there is a good chance that she will recover completely."
Ciara dwelled upon the bittersweet prospect, "And leave."
"I wish they would stay."
"It's not the life they've chosen for themselves."
Ciara was hopeful. "Someday they may want to settle down."
Julian took her horse's reins and began to lead the mare out of the stables. "I think if they do they will choose a private life."
Ciara tied her saddlebag. "I can understand wanting to be alone."
Julian paused and waited for Ciara. "Do you?"
Ciara looked over to the young healer. "Village life can be hard. There is always so much happening."
Julian argued the benefits. "We help each other."
"Yes. You heal. I hunt. We have cooks, seamstresses, potters, a blacksmith, teachers for the children. What opportunity is there for love?"
Ciara's question took Julian by surprise. "How can you say that? There are many who are happily joined."
The young warrior, having found her courage, continued. "Have you Do you want love?"
Julian fell silent. A new discomfort permeated the room. Ciara refocused, choosing to check the saddle's girth.
Julian's faint voice traveled across the room. "Have you decided whether you will be leaving the tribe?"
Ciara spoke matter-of-factly. "Karis and I have made our peace."
Julian was not so sure. "From what you told me she threatened to cut your hand off if you ever raised your dagger to her."
"Of course. What else would you expect from a warrior Queen?"
Julian continued to be baffled by the warrior code that was so much a part of Amazon life. "You consider her your Queen?"
Ciara was willing to grant Karis a qualified station. "She isn't Gabrielle, but yes, she's the Queen of the Amazons, and I am an Amazon, so that makes her my Queen."
Julian needed a less cryptic answer. "You will stay?"
Ciara was not ready to make a decision. "Id rather be off alone than live in a village where I would be close to my love and not be able to share my life with her. So, it depends on her answer."
"I didn't realize." For a second time, Julian was surprised by Ciara's words. More so, she was shaken by the loss of a possibility she had privately kept close to her heart. She turned forward having difficulty meeting Ciara's gaze. "Is she another warrior?"
Ciara was relieved that Julian had broken away. It would make the truth easier to confess. "No. She's a healer."
Julian turned back to Ciara with a questioning cast.
Ciara did not want to cause Julian any further discomfort. "Julian, if it isn't in your heart to love me, just tell me, and I promise I will never mention it again."
Ciara's sincerity touched Julian deeply. The healer's courage waned and she fell into a state of disquietude. Ciara studied Julian. Julian averted her eyes. Caring for Gabrielle, Julian had not been in the frame of mind to seriously consider what might be. In that regard, Ciara was right. For a healer, village life can press the opportunity for love away. The young healer had felt her indifference for Ciara grow to fondness. And in this moment, when her breath was suspended, she knew that her fondness had grown to love.
Disappointment filled the young warrior. She had resolved not to press Julian any further. "I see."
Ciara's words recalled Julian from her thoughts. Julian raised her eyes to Ciara and spoke decidedly. "You're wrong. You don't see."
Gabrielle opened the stable door. "Hey, you two. We have a long ride ahead of us. I thought you got lost in here."
Awash in relief, Julian smiled. She spoke so only Ciara would hear. "No. I think we just found each other."
Ciara grasped the meaning of Julian's response. It evoked a brilliant grin from the young warrior. "Healer, have I ever told you that you have a wonderful way with words?"
With the break of dawn, a muted light shone through the forest treetops. Karis guided her stallion up the steep incline. The footing was loose and, after a near fall, Karis dismounted and led her horse. She knew not to take unwarranted risks, especially while traveling alone. She also knew she had little chance of finding any sign of Xena's trail. Karis never met a more skilled warrior. Even if Xena were careless, the rain would have washed away the most obvious signs. Still, Karis was determined to try.
It was late in the day and Karis wanted to forge the short, narrow mountain passage before the haze of dawn made further progress difficult. There was no warning. Mud and rock from above, loosened by the rain, fell, gaining momentum and debris in its descent. Karis released her stallion's reins and hugged the cliff wall. A rock hit her in the head. She was thrown forward and down. Rock and mud battered her body. Her stallion had taken a beating as well. The steed carefully backed away until it reached the passage entrance. He found firm footing and turned away, making his way down the mountain.
Rasha pounded on the lodge door.
Xena called out. "Enter!"
Rasha was breathless. "Xena. Karis' horse has been found. It's been hurt. There is no sign of Karis."
Xena took hold of her weaponry and followed Rasha to the stables. After studying the stallion's wounds, Xena sent a search party to find Jamine and redirect her up the mountain. She then mounted Argo to track Karis. She named Rasha to follow with a party of four more warriors. Lael was left as senior guard to manage the tribe's security.
Gabrielle directed the young warrior. "Ciara, stay close, but out of sight."
Ciara promised. "If you or our fair healer calls out, I will be at your side.
Gabrielle looked over at the fair healer with an assuring smile. "Julian. Ready?"
Gabrielle sensed Julian's hesitancy and took hold of her arm. "Guide me to the Biana's hut. Remember, I am the invalid and you are my healer. There is truth in both."
"I hope we prove you to be wrong on one account."
"So do I."
Julian knocked on Biana's door and stepped back in wait. An elderly woman opened the door. She was Malina's age. Her hair was white. Her back bent in a slight stoop, she used a cane to support her brittle bones. The woman, dressed in a gray gown, took measure of Julian. "Yes?"
Julian spoke with a deceptive confidence. "Were looking for Biana, the healer."
Biana nodded. "You've found her. What can I do for you?"
Julian turned and gestured toward Gabrielle. "It's my friend." Gabrielle sat against the porch rail, leaning on her staff. "I know some things of the healing arts, but I cannot seem to help her. I am told you are very skilled."
Biana looked over to the young healer's companion. The woman seemed to Biana not to be wanting of health. "What's wrong with her?"
Julian proceeded to describe the all too familiar symptoms. "She has fallen very weak. Her body is pained in muscle and bone. There was a time when she could hardly lift herself from her pallet."
Biana observed. "Doesn't seem so now."
Julian explained. "She has been getting stronger."
"Then why worry? You must be doing something right."
"So I thought, but then I spoke with traveling merchants who do business with the Amazons. They said that the Amazons are in great grief. Their Queen has been stricken in the like and the Amazons believe she should soon die, though she too has gotten stronger."
Biana stepped out and went to Gabrielle. "Let me look at you child."
Gabrielle sensed the old woman's compassion. She looked up to her allowing an unhindered examination. Biana leaned forward. "Your eyes are clear." The healer placed her palm upon Gabrielle's forehead. "No fever." She then leaned her cane upon the rail and offered both her hands to her patient. "Take my hands and squeeze with all your might." Gabrielle did as directed without holding back any of her strength. Biana reacted accordingly. "My girl, you are indeed strong. Let me look at your hands." Gabrielle released Biana and offered her hands, palm up. Biana studied them rubbing her thumbs upon their heart. "You are not afraid of hard work." Biana patted Gabrielle's palms approvingly.
Gabrielle spoke gently for she felt this old healer had a soul that was not all darkness. "They are softer than they use to be. I haven't labored much these past few moons."
Biana smiled. "You will soon become reacquainted with the more difficult labors. It is the price you will pay for your health."
Julian stepped toward the two. "Then she will become well?"
Biana affirmed. "She is well. You, child, must rebuild your strength by doing a little more with each day. Soon you will once again take your youth for granted, as the young tend to do."
Julian continued to probe, as an apprentice healer is apt to do. "So, she hasn't the illness of the Amazon Queen?"
Biana was cryptic. "The fear of their Queen's death is a curse the Amazons will bear like a rabbit trying to escape hounds nipping at its heels, never knowing safety or peace."
Gabrielle looked into the dark healer's eyes. "That is a cruel fate no one should deserve."
The healer pronounced. "The rabbit will never forget the hounds, nor the Amazons "
Gabrielle interrupted. "The Amazons will never forget the healer who played a deceitful oracle intent on punishing them for a loss sustained long ago; the loss of a daughter, first to their tribe and then to death. A daughter the healer believed died because she was separated from the superior healing arts the healer possessed."
Biana took possession of her cane and stepped back in alarm. "Who are you?"
Gabrielle stood up. "I am the rabbit who has come to face the hound."
Julian made the formal introduction. "Biana, this is Queen Gabrielle."
Biana turned bitterly to the young healer. "And what is your name?"
Julian did not waver. "I spoke no deceit. My name is Julian. I am a healer among the Amazons."
With defiance in her heart, Biana looked to the Amazon Queen. "What have you to say to me now?"
Gabrielle spoke with sincere humility. "I am sorry for the loss of your daughter. I know there is never a day you don't think of her."
Biana challenged. "How would you know this?"
Gabrielle's shared a difficult sorrow. "Because I lost my daughter, and every day since her death I have lived with the regret that I couldn't save her from the darkness of life."
Biana could see, even with her dulled eyes, that the young Queen knew what she spoke of. "My daughter went to the promised safety of the Amazons. But it was not enough to grant her a long life."
Gabrielle tried to console. "I am told she was much loved by her sisters. Her time with the Amazons was happy."
Biana walked away. "A happiness I could not give her."
Gabrielle was not done with the healer. "Biana, I ask one thing from you." Biana paused and turned back to the Queen. Gabrielle continued. "Know that as you intended, your deception has caused a great grief. But the grief has been borne by a woman who is not an Amazon. The woman who came to you, Xena, is my companion. She has spent each day since she left you grieving the death you foretold - my death. She did not deserve such a bitter torture. You betrayed her. You betrayed the custom of hospitality. There was no blood revenge between you. As Queen, I will consider this matter closed, and I will ask Xena to do so as well. But, I must have your oath that you will never again act against the Amazons. Without such an oath, I cannot guarantee your safety anywhere in Greece."
Biana questioned. "The warrior woman would begrudge a grieving mother?"
Gabrielle was gentle, yet unyielding. "Xena knows what it is to love and lose a child. She will grant you the leniency I have offered. She is a woman of honor and lives by her own code. That is why she will accept your oath. Do not challenge her. I assure you, if you do, she will exact a great price from you."
The healer understood her debt. "Very well. I give you my oath. I will never again act against the Amazons."
"Good." Gabrielle turned to Julian. "Let's go home."
Biana watched the two women take their leave. Her heart begged her to speak. "Queen Gabrielle." Gabrielle paused and turned her gaze back to the healer. Biana tried to apologize. "You were no one to me. Understand, I condemned a stranger to a stranger."
Gabrielle paused in thought and then responded. "That may be so. But we are no longer strangers, are we, Biana?"
Biana echoed. "No, we are not."
Gabrielle chose to ask Biana a lingering question. "Healer, how did you know I would get better?"
Biana answered truthfully. "I didn't. Either way, I had my revenge. Your companion would wait for a renewal that didn't come, or she would doubt the renewal when it did."
Gabrielle wondered. "Have you seen others who have gotten better?"
Biana nodded. "Yes. But only those who had a reason to fight for life when there was no life left to fight for. It is a rare virtue."
Gabrielle understood the complement. "Farewell healer."
"Travel safely, Amazons."
Gabrielle smiled at the old woman. She hoped the bitterness Biana harbored would surrender to forgiveness and that the mourning mother would ultimately find some semblance of peace. Gabrielle looked to the young Julian with pride. She reached for Julian's supportive arm. "You did well."
Julian was honored. "Thank you." They proceeded to walk back to Ciara. After a few steps Julian paused and turned to Gabrielle. "What you did. How you dealt with Biana. No disrespect to Karis, but Gabrielle, you will always be my Queen."
Gabrielle was moved by Julian's heartfelt compliment. She smiled. "And you, Julian, will always be my healer."
Ciara had waited for the two women to near before leaving her place of hiding. She was anxious for news. "What have you learned?"
Julian turned to Gabrielle, following the protocol of having the Queen respond. Gabrielle smiled. "All is well, Ciara."
Ciara's smile was broad and easy. "The Amazons will have a reason to feast."
Gabrielle shook her head. "In all the years that have passed, one thing has not changed. Amazons will find any reason to feast."
Ciara protested with a wry grin. "My Queen, shouldn't the lifting of a great sorrow be cause for a celebration?"
Gabrielle considered the young warrior and the implication of her question. She knew her life was never her own when she lived among the Amazons. During all her years as princess and then Queen, the responsibility of her position had made difficult claims upon her. Ciara just reminded Gabrielle, that as much as she gave, she received.
Xena's frustration was high. She wanted to move on to Thebes, and that she could not do until Karis was found. Xena could not determine whether Karis fell off her mount during or after the horse was hurt. Whichever, Karis had no reason to leave the trail. Xena reached the mountain pass. She dismounted and commanded Argo to stay her place. Xena walked the narrow ledge keeping an attentive eye to that which lay above her as well as ahead of her. Turning a bend. she spied Karis, partially buried in mud and stone. Xena quickly, but carefully made her way to the fallen warrior. She worked hard to unearth Karis' unconscious body. Xena examined Karis for injuries. She found evidence of a couple broken ribs and a broken arm, in addition to a head wound. Xena lifted Karis over her shoulder and carried her back to where Argo waited. Argo fell to her front knees. Xena placed Karis in the saddle. With Argo back on her feet, Xena mounted the steed and directed her down the mountain path.
They were still a day's ride from the village. Gabrielle led. Ciara and Julian followed. Another two candlemarks and they would reach a roadside inn and let a room for the night. Gabrielle heard the rider before she caught glimpse of her. Xena rode in at full gallop. When she saw the traveling party she pulled Argo's reins, halting the mare's progress. Xena had Gabrielle in her sight. She felt a rush of emotion that could not find a singular definition. She felt relief, fear, sorrow and, above all else, love. Xena dismounted and walked Argo forward.
The onrush of the warrior caused the three to hold in wait. Gabrielle was steadfast as she watched Xena approach. Ciara rode beside Gabrielle. The bard, decided, dismounted and handed her reins to Ciara. Gabrielle walked to meet Xena, never releasing her from her gaze. They stopped an arm's length from one another.
Gabrielle smiled. "What took you so long?"
Xena could not believe the bard's ease. "I had to pull Karis from under a mountain."
Gabrielle's countenance altered to concern.
Xena tempered the news. "Don't worry. She's going to be fine."
Gabrielle considered the warrior. "And you?"
"Aren't I supposed to ask you that question?"
Gabrielle insisted. "I asked first."
Xena stepped forward. "I love you. I will always love you. If you breathe your last breath as the beautiful, young woman that you are, or if you breathe you last breath when we are two old grayed women, I want to be there for you, holding you, caring for you, reminding you that you are the best thing in my life."
Xena sighed an absolute "Yes."
Gabrielle revealed. "Biana lied. We can't be completely sure, but Xena, I swear to you, I'm getting better, and I'm going to keep on getting better."
Xena smiled. "Does that mean you've got your appetite back?"
Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed the warrior. "With a vengeance."
Well aware that they were being watched, Xena withheld her deepest emotion. She embraced the bard. "We'll finish this discussion later."
Ciara and Julian each felt a new modesty. Gabrielle and Xena had chosen to take a private room leaving the two to themselves. Night had fallen. Their room was lit by a few flickering candles. Julian sat up in her bed. Ciara turned her back to the healer as she changed into her night shift. Julian purposely looked away. Dressed, Ciara sat at the edge of her bed. She looked across the room to the wall that separated them from their companions. "I envy them."
Julian turned her gaze toward the young warrior. "They deserve a little happiness after everything they've gone through."
Ciara longed to claim her happiness. "Julian."
Ciara spoke shyly. "May I sleep beside you?"
Julian was left in wonder by the simple request. Wonder, because she had not expected the woman who seized her in an abrupt, impulsive kiss, to hesitate. Julian realized that Ciara had been surprising her all along, more so by her sensitive regard than her bold audacity. There was more to the woman who waited for her than she imagined. Julian's reply was tender. "I wish you would."
Julian's invitation gave Ciara pause. Julian shifted in her bed, making room for Ciara. Ciara got to her feet. The distance between them once seemed insurmountable, now it was a matter of a few steps. Ciara walked to Julian's bedside. She steadied herself. "I know I act a bit cocky, but I've never been with a woman."
Julian offered Ciara her hand. "Come to bed, warrior."
Ciara found her courage in Julian's eyes. She turned to the candles and blew them out with a full breath and then slipped into the bed beside the young healer. The moonlight provided a muted illumination. Julian rested her head against Ciara's shoulder. "Am I too heavy?"
Ciara whispered. "No. You feel good."
"So do you, Ciara."
Ciara was not accustomed to hearing Julian speak her name. Much of their conversation was void of such direct recognition. She remembered Gabrielle asking her why she always called Julian, healer. Ciara understood how personal Julian's name was to her. It cut across well-defined roles to a landscape far more intimate and intimidating. For Ciara, to speak Julian's name was to open her heart to Julian's mystery, to seek to know Julian to the full extent Julian would allow. "Goodnight, Julian."
Julian raised herself up and kissed Ciara gently upon the lips. Her eyes met Ciara's recognizing both desire and hesitation. She offered a fragile smile before setting herself once again against Ciara. "Good night."
"They've fallen in love." Gabrielle turned to Xena. "I've been watching it happen."
"A healer and a warrior." Xena considered aloud. "I think its a good match."
"So do I."
Xena sat in a chair resting her eyes on the bard. Gabrielle noted the warrior's silence. Though silence was more a part of Xena than speech, the silence drew Gabrielle to question, "Are you all right?"
"Yes." Xena's one word reply was genuine.
Gabrielle reached out and placed her fingertips on Xena's chin raising it up to her. She bent down and placed a kiss upon Xena's lips. She allowed herself to linger in the warmth and softness of Xena before she released the warrior. She held her gaze upon the woman whose love had always outweighed all the hardships endured.
It was now Xena who saw more in her partner's emerald eyes than she could fathom. "What is it?"
"I don't know what I'm feeling." Gabrielle stepped away and began to undress. Naked, she examined her body. She was physically becoming the woman she had been before her illness. At the same time, she knew she could never again go back, just as she could never go back before any moment in her life. Lessons taught, subtle and definite, gentle and grievous, enduring lessons have chiseled her out of once unrealized potential. Every time she felt she had plumbed the depths of her endurance, she was tested to go further. Each time, she found a reserve, and she survived, even thrived. How she did, she did not know, nor would she attempt to guess. This was one of the greatest mysteries of her life. She covered herself with her night shift and returned to Xena, claiming Xena's lap as her resting-place.
Xena welcomed the bard into her arms. This easy intimacy had, at times, slipped away from them. The illness made them careful with one another. They took such great care, their trust in life wavered so, that they did not give breath to what was most precious to them - the moments of grace, moments as simple and profound as the one now shared.
Gabrielle claimed Xena's hand with her own. She intertwined their fingers. Gabrielle felt her heart break open. She felt the moons, days, nights, candlemarks, moments that had come to pass since they left the seashore. She felt the overwhelming fears and joys, doubts and certainties. Gabrielle began to cry. Her quiet tears were only the beginning. Her emotion coursed through her, consuming her. Gabrielle's tears turned to sobs. Her body trembled. She felt the safety of Xena's embrace, as the warrior enfolded her fully. Gabrielle cried freely, as she had not done since Tovi's death. She cried until her tears were spent. Tended by Xena, Gabrielle drifted into sleep.
Xena raised Gabrielle up and took her to bed. The warrior lay beside the bard with a great sense of relief. Gabrielle had been so terribly strong throughout their ordeal. Gabrielle's release refigured the warrior and bard to rightful balance. Xena offered the shelter Gabrielle needed.
There was a knock on the door. Ciara awoke. Julian still rested comfortably in her arms. The knock repeated. Julian stirred. Ciara gingerly got out of bed to answer the unwelcomed intruder. She found Xena on the other side. "Sorry if I woke you."
"It's all right. Is something wrong?"
"I just wanted to let you know that we won't be leaving until after mid-day meal. I've made the arrangements with the innkeeper. So you two can just take it easy."
Xena had a second thought before leaving. She spoke in a hush. Her eyes marked the undisturbed bed. "Ciara, next time you can leave the bed making for the maid."
Ciara blushed; realizing what Xena had seen and concluded.
Xena turned around with a broad grin. Gabrielle was right. The young warrior and healer had fallen in love.
Xena returned to her room and stripped herself of her leathers before joining the bard in their bed. Lying side by side she held close to Gabrielle as the other slept.
Another candlemark passed before Gabrielle began to rise up from her dreams. She felt Xena's light embrace. She placed her hand over Xena's. "Hold me."
"I'm here." Xena pressed Gabrielle gently against her. "I love you, my bard."
Gabrielle's thoughts went back to the previous night. She recalled her endless tears and Xena's constancy. "I love you, Xena."
"How are you feeling?"
Gabrielle had rarely felt so fragile. "I need time."
Xena murmured. "We both do. Rest now."
Gabrielle closed her eyes gratefully.
Xena, Ciara and Julian sat at the table having a late morning meal. Xena had just recounted the events that led to Karis' injury.
Ciara questioned. "I wonder why Lael didn't try to stop them from following you? She knew you wouldn't be found."
Xena looked the young warrior in the eye. "Do you think you could have changed their minds?"
"No," Ciara conceded.
"Lael knows when to fight her battles. She did what she had to. She stayed and waited for me to return."
Julian appreciated the minor rebuff given at Ciara's expense. Such lessons promised to keep Ciara safe in the future. Knowing how Ciara wished to please Xena, Julian offered a gentle consolation by placing her hand over the young warrior's. Ciara's chastisement was noticeably tempered by Julian's first public demonstration of affection.
Gabrielle walked down the stairs to the inn's dining hall. She caught sight of the three just as Julian took hold of Ciara. Gabrielle didn't know if she would ever find the words to express what she felt. As poetic and heroic as the Greek language could be, neither poem nor epic could capture the essence of this moment in her life. She awoke to an empty bed and there was no fear. She looked out to the rising sun and felt one with its extraordinary power and beauty. She raised herself up, once again able to trust that her body would serve her. Her spirit was no longer trapped in death's husk.
Gabrielle offered a bright greeting. "Good morning."
The three looked up with welcoming smiles.
Gabrielle sat beside Xena. "Did you leave any food for me?"
Xena quipped. "We warned the innkeeper to expect an army. She should have enough in the kitchen to feed you."
Gabrielle raised her hand to Xena's cheek and guided the warrior to her. Gabrielle's offered kiss endured far longer than their usual public custom. Ciara and Julian witnessed the demonstration with their own gladness. Xena could not help but ask. "What did I do to deserve that?"
Gabrielle didn't have the words. She simply smiled. She then turned her attention to the plate of food before her. She took a slice of bread in one hand and a knife dipped in honey with the other and began to breakfast.
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