by Mayt 

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.

Part One

The battle raged. Catapults sent their missiles into the war zone. They distinguished not between friend or foe. Xena moved with precision. Her efficient strokes took down one man after another. In the midst of the sound of striking swords she kept alert for the sounds of Gabrielle's staff making contact against the enemy. Each of the bard's blows was accompanied with the sounds of her exertion. In battle, Xena used all her senses. When her eyes could not be diverted without risk she used her hearing. At times she would smell an approaching soldier. She also learned to trust her sixth sense. She could feel the danger. It was at this moment that such a feeling came. It was a wave of foreboding and yet, she knew that they were winning. Tianus' men where in retreat, dispersed toward the north and east.

The explosions of friendly fire surrounded her. Their force threw Xena to the earth. She waited for the offensive to end. An ominous stillness took hold of the battlefield. It was interrupted by the whistle of the rising wind and an echo of a field captain shouting orders. She raised herself up and looked about. The battle had ended with this one last assault. The storm of fire, a gesture of strength and aggressive defense, was a statement to Tianus to take heed that this land would not buckle to the will of any warlord.

Xena's eyes scanned the landscape. She saw man after man follow her in raising themselves to their feet, looking to the sky for assurance that there were no more missiles waiting to take them to Tartarus. Xena's gaze rested upon the bard's still body lying twenty paces from where the warrior stood. Xena was puzzled by the distance. Gabrielle had been near, only a matter of a few paces prior to the last missiles assault. Xena took a step and then another toward the figure. She called out Gabrielle' name as she ran with speed falling to her knees upon reaching the bard. Gabrielle lay on her stomach. To the immediate eye there was no hint of a wound. Xena carefully moved her hands over Gabrielle examining her for signs of broken bones or internal bleeding. Xena was reassured by Gabrielle's strong pulse. She reached and swept Gabrielle's hair to the side. It was then that she saw the damage. Gabrielle had landed upon a jagged rock. Her throat was torn and bleeding. Xena whispered Gabrielle's name again but the bard remained motionless.

"Gabrielle, I'm going to turn you over. I need to see your wound."

And so with equal strength and gentleness Xena turned Gabrielle on her back. She cringed as the complete extent of the wound came into her sight. Gabrielle's face was severely bruised on the left side. Xena's hands gently traveled up behind the bard's ear exploring the scalp for signs of fracture. The bone was in tact. Xena felt a minor sense of relief.

Xena tried again to revive the bard with her voice and her touch. The blow had been too great. She could not will the bard from her unconscious state. Taking her knife Xena went to one of the fallen soldiers and cut strips of cloth for bandages. She carefully dressed Gabrielle's throat. A complete cleaning of the wound would have to wait until they were beyond the battlefield. Xena raised Gabrielle into her arms and carried her to the cave where they had stored their gear.

Night had fallen. The calm of the night was disturbed by Gabrielle's labored breathing. The air seemed to struggle to reach and leave her lungs. Xena stared at the fire. There was nothing more she could do. She had cleaned and dressed Gabrielle's wounds. Her concern was two fold. The head wound was severe and there was no telling when Gabrielle would regain consciousness. Secondly, was the damage to Gabrielle's throat. Xena worried whether Gabrielle would be able to take food. And yet, with the concern there was reason for hope. Gabrielle maintained a low fever. This was a good omen.

For two days Xena tended Gabrielle leaving her only to gather water and food. Her only solace was found in grooming Argo. Xena's sense of helplessness mounted. Her aloneness became acute, intolerably so.

Standing at the cave's threshold, witness to the rising sun Xena considered Gabrielle. She could only marvel at what the youth had accomplished. The growth she witnessed in the past few years was astonishing. To Xena, Gabrielle's courage exceeded her own. For all that the bard endured she somehow held true to her way. Gabrielle's capacity for love and generosity never ceased to humble Xena, especially when it was directed to the troubled warrior. Xena willed her fear to submission. There was no room for pessimism. Gabrielle would recover. There could be no other outcome. Xena would stand for nothing less.

Xena heard movement from within the cave. She turned and moved quickly to Gabrielle's side. Gabrielle felt the pain. Its sources converge in her consciousness. First was the pulsating pressure in her skull, impressed upon her with each beat of her heart. The second from her throat. It was tight and raw. She swallowed her saliva and felt the pain of muscles fighting against the natural motion. She lay in place taking inventory. Flexing with minimal effort her legs and arms reassuring herself that motion was still in her command. Eyes closed she allowed her other senses to exercise their perceptions. She felt the wool blankets resting under and over her and the hard, smooth, dry earth supporting her body. There was no pillow under her head. This may be for the better given what wounds Gabrielle had been able to diagnose. She smelled the fire and the fragrant spring air. It may have rained or was that morning dew? She ran her tongue over her teeth. The taste was stale. She must have been ill for some time. There were no lingering hints of her last meal. There were no sounds. She was enveloped by silence. No crickets, the fire she smelled did not crackle, no wind. If it were not for the ground at her fingertip's touch she would have thought herself indoors somewhere near a fireplace but not too near. This was the best she could do without opening her eyes. She hesitated. The pulsating pain in her temples promised that the light would assault what little peace she now enjoyed. She began to form more coherent thoughts. With that her world expanded beyond her corporal self to Xena. Where was Xena? It was time to break free from Morpheus' hold. Gabrielle opened her eyes. The light was muted. Slowly her vision came to focus upon her companion who kept vigil over her. Gabrielle was rewarded with the warrior's fearful smile. The bard tried to speak Xena's name but the pain in her throat sharpened. She winced in pain.

Xena had waited patiently beside Gabrielle. She noted the slight hesitant movement of each leg and arm. Xena called Gabrielle's name again and again, hoping to gently arouse the bard back to consciousness. She was rewarded with the flutter of the bard's eyes.

"That's it. Good girl."

Xena smiled in response to Gabrielle's own. Relief joined the moment of mutual recognition. Gabrielle had tried to speak but was held back by pain. Xena knew the wound went deep. It would take time and so she said in an effort to comfort the bard.

Gabrielle could see Xena's' lips move but heard nothing. The warrior had taken her hand. Gabrielle squeezed her companion's hand. She needed to confirm that she was alive and that Xena was beside her - that it was not a dream. Xena's lips continued to move. There was no breaking the silence. Gabrielle moved her hand to Xena's lips. Again, a gesture to confirm with her touch what was beyond her sense of hearing.

Gabrielle's placement of her hand upon Xena's lips made Xena pause. She looked into Gabrielle's eyes and watched the transition. The hazy gleam had turned to worry. Gabrielle's eyes looked each way, left, right, up and down taking all that was in sight but it did not seem to reassure her. There was fear in Gabrielle's eyes and Xena did not know why. Gabrielle's hand moved to Xena's cheek, cupping the warrior's face. The motion was married to a single tear that fell from Gabrielle's eye. Xena covered Gabrielle's hand with her own. With her other hand she acknowledged Gabrielle's tear. Gabrielle closed her eyes and released the strength from her arm. Xena felt this and gently laid Gabrielle's arm back down. The bard laid her head to the side and willed herself back to sleep. She was not prepared to face her truth. Maybe with sleep the deafness would pass. Maybe next time she would wake up to the sounds of life.

Another six candlemarks passed before Gabrielle once again stirred. Her first recognition was now the familiar pain. The second was the silence. The third was Xena's hand in her own. Gabrielle opened her eyes. Once again the warrior waited for her with a concerned smile. The warrior's lips moved. Gabrielle heard nothing. She gently shook her head. Xena's lips moved again. Her blue eyes sharply focused upon the bard's own. Gabrielle removed her hand from Xena's hold and moved it to her own ear. In tandem she shook her head. The warrior intently followed the motion.

Xena understood or at least she thought she did. She touched Gabrielle upon the cheek and then raised her hand to her own ear repeating Gabrielle's gesture. Xena spoke, "Can't hear?" Gabrielle nodded in response. Xena then took her other hand and reexamined Gabrielle's head wound. It had been to one side. If Gabrielle was experiencing deafness why was it to both ears and not just the one on her injured side? The bruise traveled beyond the scalp line. The tenderness was affirmed by Gabrielle's flinch at being examined. There would be swelling and that could bear upon the loss. Maybe when the swelling diminished? Relief of the pressure upon the brain could restore Gabrielle's capacity to hear. Xena returned her gaze to Gabrielle. There could be no words between them. Gabrielle could not hear Xena's and Xena could not hear Gabrielle until Gabrielle recovered her capacity to speak. Xena reached for the water skin and held it before Gabrielle's vision. Gabrielle nodded. With that Xena carefully allowed a small stream of water into Gabrielle's mouth.

The cool water tasted fresh. She had been parched since waking. Gently she swallowed. Her body rebelled and choked. Coughing to clear her throat the pain unrelenting promised no reprieve. Gabrielle felt Xena's hand upon her forehead. Again, they matched gazes. It was obvious Xena wanted her to try again. The stream of water was cut in half. Gabrielle tried to let it travel down her throat with minimal effort. The success was small but promising. Xena patiently served Gabrielle until she could take no more. Gabrielle closed her eyes and fell to a deep sleep. Xena went to the fire and began to cook a light broth. Gabrielle would, for the time being, need to build her strength without solid food.

Xena mounted Argo. She remembered seeing berries not to far from the cave. Their juices would be Gabrielle's only other nourishment. A survey of the near distant battlefield confirmed the toll of lives taken. Their participation was for the greater good. Gabrielle would not hear of remaining in the village with the healer. Her skills in battle were formidable. She handled herself well pressing the fear down, focusing on her immediate combatant. Xena could no longer keep Gabrielle from danger. The price exacted was high. Gabrielle did not forfeit her life but Xena feared Gabrielle would never hear again and thus the life she had known would be no more.

Xena was only just beginning to explore the ramifications. Gabrielle would not be able to travel with her. The road was a dangerous place. Gabrielle would be too vulnerable if she could not hear an approaching threat. Gabrielle would need to choose a home where others could ensure her safety. Xena could not see Gabrielle happy in Poteidaia. As much as her parents and sister loved her they would suffocate the bard. Gabrielle was an Amazon queen, respected and loved by her tribe. The bond shared with Ephiny was strong and sure. Gabrielle would need Ephiny's compassion during this trial. It would be days until they could travel. Once Gabrielle regained her strength, Xena knew where to take her.

Even if Gabrielle healed completely, Xena knew that she would never again consent to travel with the bard. She allowed herself to feel only a germ of guilt. A germ strong enough to tell her what she must do. She could not afford to allow her emotions to interfere with the immediate task at hand. The time will come when she will be able to afford to look within. The time will come when the fates will give her no choice but to bear the burden of what she has allowed to happen. Xena could feel herself begin to shut down. One by one she closed the doors to her soul - the doors only Gabrielle had been able to open. She changed the locks to those doors. She changed the locks because if she didn't Gabrielle would be able to reopen them. Until this moment Gabrielle had held the keys. Xena needed to forfeit a part of herself so that those keys would not be able to give Gabrielle entry.

After a half moon cycle Gabrielle was strong enough to travel. The facial bruise had begun to subside. The torn flesh upon her throat began to heal as well. She no longer wore a bandage on the wound. Gabrielle had regained her capacity to swallow without pain and had started to eat small amounts of solid food. Though she was healing her voice had not returned. Each morning she would awake hoping that she would be able to make a sound, any sound. Each morning she faced disappointment.

She and Xena began to establish a language with their hands. If Xena spoke slowly and if Gabrielle would focus on the movement of Xena's lips, Gabrielle would be able to recognize a word or two. She and Xena would share a smile as Gabrielle nodded to affirm that she understood what Xena had tried to tell her. They used Gabrielle's blank scrolls whenever they reached a point where one or the other could no longer endure the lack of understanding between them. They used the scrolls sparingly. Gabrielle knew parchment would no longer be a luxury in her life. It was now a necessity. It was the only way she could transcend the silence.

They agreed to leave for the Amazon village in the morning. Gabrielle stood at the mouth of the cave as the sun began to dawn. Her hand gently stroked her throat. The exterior damage had mended but not the interior. Xena continued to reassure her that both her hearing and her voice would return. In the beginning Gabrielle believed Xena. She believed because it was what she wanted. She believed because Xena's skills as a healer were great. And, she believed because Xena would not lie to her. They had shared dire times and never did Xena hide the truth from her. Still, with the dawn, Gabrielle could not help but question whether Xena was wrong. Did she so want Gabrielle to be well that she refused to admit to the extent of the damage as well as to her limitations as a healer?

Xena's attentiveness had never been greater. She seemed to always be aware of Gabrielle's movements. Every time Gabrielle looked up Xena's reassuring eyes would hold her. In the evenings Xena laid side by side with Gabrielle holding her protectively. The sensation of Xena's arm over her shoulder or Xena's lips upon her head replaced the always sparingly given words between them as they fell asleep.

So they would visit her tribe. Gabrielle wondered what reception she would receive. What value would the Amazons hold for a deaf, mute queen? As her eyes followed the setting sun her heart began to open. The loss, her loss took dominion and assaulted everything she believed defined her. She was a bard, a leader, a woman of words. Her ability to discern truth from deceit rested upon not only what was said but how it was said. She learned from the cadence of a voice. No one's more so than Xena's. Xena a woman of few words Gabrielle had always relied on nuance to decode the warrior's mysteries. As much as Xena tried to transcend the silence Gabrielle struggled to comprehend all that Xena was saying. It had always been more than words between them. The occasional touch; the expressive countenance, these spoke to her as well. Gabrielle could not deny that though Xena had in some ways given more generously since her injury in other ways she had given less. The stoic warrior allowed no vulnerability to show. This frightened Gabrielle. She felt a pressing weight upon her heart. Each beat more labored than the one that preceded it. She could no longer deny her injury. The impenetrable silence was unrelenting. She could write her scrolls but she could no longer perform her stories. She could no longer earn wages to fund their travels. Her sorrow kept in her silent throat began to demand its due. She trembled as tears broke through. Her eyes remained fixed upon the horizon. She would not dare look elsewhere. She didn't want Xena to see that she was losing hope. The intensity of pain in her head was far easier to bear than the pain assailing her spirit.

A warm breeze brushed her cheeks, drying her tears. She took a deep breath and looked up. The stars were beginning to make themselves known. Gabrielle knew that after this night their lives would no longer be the same. It was thus a night not to be wasted within the darkness of the cave. She wiped her face clear of all hints of her tears and returned to the cave's interior. Xena sat sharpening her sword with even strokes. Again, their eyes met and held. For the last half moon they had come to a new understanding. Diverting their eyes during difficult moments was no longer an option. To communicate they needed to truly look, to see one another. The effort was discomfiting. The eyes, poets deemed windows to the soul, created a new intimacy between them. Their glances were now always held an extra heartbeat or two. This moment was no different.

Gabrielle bent down and gathered her bedroll. She motioned Xena to do the same and then reached out her hand to the warrior. Xena did as instructed. She took Gabrielle's hand and allowed herself to be lead outside the cave to a nearby clearing. Gabrielle looked up and pointed to the stars and then turned her eyes to her companion, holding a fragile smile. Xena understood, nodded in agreement and laid her bedroll upon the ground. Gabrielle did the same with her own. They rested on their backs, side by side.

Xena wondered how many nights they had spent like this one looking to the stars, seeking images, telling stories, opening themselves to each other, her initial reserve gently lessened by the bard's compassionate nature. There would be no stories tonight. Xena struggled to find a way to share what she saw with Gabrielle. She considered parchment. It remained in the cave. If she retrieved it the moon was bright enough to read by.

Gabrielle turned toward Xena. Resting on her side, she waited for Xena to look towards her. Xena turned her head to the bard. Though the scar on Gabrielle's throat had healed well it was still difficult to be reminded of the wound. Gabrielle raised her hand to her mouth and made a gesture outward. Xena was puzzled by the gesture and shook her head saying, "I don't understand." Gabrielle repeated the gesture. Still, Xena did not comprehend what was being asked of her. Gabrielle closed her eyes in thought. After a moment she returned her gaze to Xena, made a motion for Xena to remain, got up and ran to the cave. She returned quickly with a small torn piece of parchment in her hand. Xena took it and held it up to the moonlight. Written upon it was one word, "sing". Xena turned to the bard. There was no refusing her this request. Xena motioned Gabrielle to rest upon her shoulder and placed one of Gabrielle's hands gently upon her throat. The warrior began to sing. Gabrielle could feel the motion and vibration within Xena's throat upon her fingertips. The bard closed her eyes and slowly fell asleep. Xena sang song after song, her heart breaking. She too knew that this night was an ending.

The next morning they packed their belongings and began their journey. The trip was uneventful. Xena purposely chose less traveled roads to diminish any risks. They traveled in silence making few attempts to communicate. Xena would check each passing candlemark to make sure Gabrielle had not tired. Gabrielle welcomed the exercise. She felt a growing restlessness as she convalesced. She wanted to regain her strength, stretch her idle muscles. She also wanted to be distracted from the pulsating pain within her temples.

Each night they would make camp each completing their familiar tasks. After their meal they sat separately, Gabrielle writing in a scroll, Xena grooming Argo and completing minor repairs of their belongings. This would be their final night on the road. Xena knew they would reach the Amazon village by mid-day in the morrow. Each step forward took her farther and farther inside herself. She did not allow herself to dwell on the inevitable.

Xena dreaded this night alone with Gabrielle. They had yet to broach the subject of the future. If Xena could leave under the cloak of the night, without a farewell, she would do so. Her plans were laid with the precision of a field campaign, composed with equal passionless regard for the players. Upon reaching the village she would stay long enough to assure Gabrielle's well being although there was no doubt in Xena's mind that the queen's return would be cause for celebration no matter the circumstances. Xena would leave for a life without the bard. It was a simple, clear, practical and necessary plan.

Gabrielle laid her scroll to the side. Tomorrow she would be reunited with Ephiny. She longed for her regent, her friend. The solitary days and nights had been difficult. Xena continued to provide for her every need. The warrior's regard was steadfast. It was also instilled with a foreign detachment. One Gabrielle could not interpret with any confidence. She hoped Ephiny would be able to draw out the warrior where she could not.

There were questions Gabrielle was not yet prepared to ask. She wanted to wait to reach her tribe. Xena had to have the freedom to respond without any sense of duty and that could only be if Gabrielle was safely ensconced with either her blood family or her Amazon sisters.

Gabrielle feared Xena blamed her for insisting on joining the battle. If she had stayed in the healer's quarters she would not have been harmed. Gabrielle knew too that Xena might be blaming herself for relenting and granting the bard's request. From the beginning Xena swore to keep Gabrielle from harm. It was an oath Xena could never ensure. Gabrielle had been hurt on a number of occasions both physically and in spirit. She had always been able to heal and to continue on. The question remained whether Xena would still want to be with her now that she was damaged. The thought was too painful to hold in her mind for more than a moment. Xena was a woman of honor and loyalty. She would not abandon Gabrielle. Then again, Xena might stay with her not out of friendship but out of a sense of obligation. That would be unbearable if true.

On occasion they had spoken of their love for one another. Their friendship had grown to a mutual recognition that they were soul mates. Since the injury no words of love had been shared. Gabrielle refused to burden the warrior.

It was time for bed. Xena laid on her bedroll and turned to her side facing away from Gabrielle. Gabrielle rested beside Xena. A debate tore at her resolve to wait until the morrow. There was one gesture she needed to complete if she was to have any peace. She reached out to Xena's shoulder. Xena could not ignore the sign and turned onto her back. Gabrielle was sitting up leaning over the warrior. She raised her hand motioning Xena to remain still. Her lips silently spoke the words, "Thank you." She then took Xena's hand and placed it on her own heart. Her lips again spoke silently, "I love you, Xena." There was no misunderstanding the bard. The gestures were all too clear. Xena felt each as an assault and she defensively sealed shut all the corridors to her heart. Gabrielle would not win her. The bard leaned down and gently kissed Xena upon the lips, then immediately, shyly, laid her head upon Xena' shoulder and settled to sleep.

The gods showed no mercy. Xena cursed each and every one of them as she struggled to rein in her rage. To give her Gabrielle only to cause their separation was cruel. Xena deserved to be punished for her transgressions but never did she expect that the fates would give her life meaning only to squelch it with such thoughtless abandon.

Part Two

Xena and Gabrielle walked side by side. Xena lead Argo. They had reached the outskirts of Amazon territory. Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. Having Gabrielle's attention she nodded upwards. Within a moment four masked Amazons descended from the trees. Xena and Gabrielle each made the Amazon sign of peace. Solari removed her mask. Her smile was broad.

"My queen. Welcome. We missed you." Turning to Xena Solari stated in true friendship, "We've missed you both."

Gabrielle smiled in reply and then turned to Xena. Xena met Gabrielle's eyes knowing it was her task to bear the difficult news. Solari looked from one to the other. Her observant eyes noted the reddish wound across her queen's throat. Xena broke the silence.

"Solari, Gabrielle has been injured. She can't hear nor speak. I've done my best to help her. We were hoping your healer Simina would be able to examine her."

Solari shifted her weight and turned to her queen, her friend Gabrielle. The proud warrior allowed a momentary breach in her composure. Looking down she said, "Yes, of course." She signaled a runner to announce the queen's arrival. "This way," she motioned with her hand. Gabrielle reached out and took it firmly, holding Solari's forearm with her own. Solari met her queen's eyes and saw that no pity would be tolerated. She nodded and smiled. Gabrielle's sternness melted in response, granting the Amazon a sincere smile.

Standing a few paces from Gabrielle's side, Xena observed the exchange. It was for Gabrielle to define how she would be treated. Xena's admiration grew in the span of those few heartbeats. It never ceased to amaze her how Gabrielle could shift and be the queen that she is with such seeming effortlessness. Her dignity would not be a victim of her disability. On the contrary, Gabrielle had just given a member of her tribe a lesson in nobility.

Ephiny and Simina awaited the party at the village center. The runner had conveyed the complete nature of their queen's return. Simina was a wise crone. She looked to the regent. Ephiny's concern was obvious.

"You will do the queen no good if you do not share her hope to be healed."

"Simina, how can she bear the silence. She is a bard at heart. Spinning words brings her joy."

"She has never struck me as a woman of one lone interest. And even if she is she can write her words for another to read aloud. She can learn to speak with her hands as our less fortunate youth and aged have done. And that is if the wounds remain. Who is to say Artemis won't alter the damage done and grant the queen health."

"I hope your right."

"Prepare yourself if I'm not. She will need you as her regent. More so as her friend."

Ephiny responded earnestly, "Simina, Gabrielle will always be my queen and my friend."

Simina redirected the conversation. "They approach."

Ephiny moved forward to meet the travelers. Solari and Xena waited as Gabrielle quickened her step. Gabrielle embraced Ephiny. Ephiny could feel her friend's need. The regent held the trembling queen tightly unwilling to lessen the embrace until Gabrielle could regain her composure. Gabrielle took a deep breath and then a step back to take in Ephiny's eyes. Were it not for the eyes, Xena's, Solari's, and now Ephiny's she would have fallen into despair. They conveyed a power that breached her silent isolated world. Ephiny smiled though like Solari her immediate concern was not hidden. Ephiny motioned to Simina. The woman, equal in height to her queen, but of so many more winters she ceased counting claiming the whiteness of her hair bore testament to the trials in life she had survived, looked to the injured woman who had endured her own share of misfortune. She bowed slightly and motioned her queen to the healer's hut.

Gabrielle waited within the privacy of the Simina's examining room. Simina remained outside questioning Xena, gathering as much of the details of the injury as possible. The force of a catapult missile threw her queen through the air a good fifteen paces before she landed hitting her throat and head against a stone. Simina held her tongue going no further with her inquiry although she wondered how her queen found herself in the middle of such a treacherous battle. Better to remain silent. The question would be asked but it was not her place. Observing the regent's expression she knew it would be for Ephiny to state the challenge.

Simina returned to her queen and gently probed the damaged throat and scalp. Gabrielle winced as Simina applied pressure throughout her examination. This was a good sign. The internal damage had not completed the healing process. Both in the throat and in the skull swelling could still be creating an unhealthy pressure. If true, once the healing is complete, the pressure relieved, ability to speak and hear might return.

Simina smiled at her patient. She took a piece of parchment and wrote a series of questions. Gabrielle responded by the nod of her head.

"Difficulty swallowing?"








Simina wondered why Xena had not shared that information with her.

"Does Xena know?"

"No." Gabrielle confirmed. Gabrielle reached and took the quill. She wrote, "This is between you and me." Simina nodded affirmatively. The seriousness of her queen's condition was not to be shared with anyone.

Simina documented a conservative diagnosis for Gabrielle to study. She predicted no more serious symptoms with her throat. Expressed concern regarding the pain in her head and the dizziness. Said the healing was not complete. Only time would reveal whether her physical burdens of pain and dizziness were temporary or permanent. She promised nothing in renewing Gabrielle's ability to hear or speak. Gabrielle took the cautious news thoughtfully. There was little hope for her complete recovery.

Simina lead Gabrielle to Ephiny and Xena. She discussed those parts of her findings that Gabrielle had consented to share with the two. Gabrielle looked intently between them. Ephiny seemed to relax. Xena's expression remained impassive. Xena, still holding Argo's reins motioned her intent to go to the stables. Gabrielle nodded affirmatively. Ephiny, in turn, directed Gabrielle to the Queen's hut. Simina dissatisfied followed the warrior to the stable.

Xena was intent to settle Argo, removing her tackle and grooming her. Simina watched Xena. There had to be a break in her demeanor. The warrior's control, as excellent as it may be, was not to be trusted. Xena was far too calm if she indeed cared for the queen as all in the tribe believed. Simina chose to wait no longer.

"Warrior, there is something left unspoken."

Xena turned to the respected crone. "Simina, what can I say? Gabrielle's been hurt because I allowed her to enter a battle she had no business fighting."

"You blame yourself?"

"Yes. I saw the look in Ephiny and Solari's eyes. They know the truth."

"And what does my queen say?"

"She holds herself accountable. She said it was her choice."

"Was it not her choice?"

"I have placed her in harms way time and time again. Sooner or later she was going to be seriously hurt or killed. The responsibility is mine. She is my responsibility."

"I would agree with you if we were speaking of that youth you met years ago. She is not one and the same. You must see her growth. She has wisdom beyond her years and a heart that has an extraordinary capacity for love and compassion. It is who she has become that has made her a worthy queen to the Amazons."

"And so she should stay with her tribe."

"Will you stay with her warrior?"

"I am not an Amazon."

"Find another reason."

"I am meant to travel. It's not for me to stay in one place for any length of time. Gabrielle knows that."

"So you will leave her?"

"Yes. The sooner the better is what I say."

"I was wrong. I thought you loved her. It is clear you do not."

"You've said enough healer."

Simina took in Xena's stance. As the conversation had progressed Xena had stopped her work to focus on the healer. With each exchange Xena's body had grown more rigid. She was a breath from raising her sword even though she had yet to raise her voice.

"So I have." Simina closed.

Xena entered the Queen's hut. Gabrielle was fast asleep. The travels had fatigued the bard more than she had been willing to admit. The pain in her head had returned and her stamina to resist its impact had been compromised.

Prior to falling asleep Gabrielle had laid on her bed fighting the pain while trying to focus her thoughts. She hoped that Simina's reassuring words would lift Xena's guilt. As much as Gabrielle longed to have Xena beside her she would do nothing to prevent Xena from leaving. The depth of her love for the warrior would not allow her to become a burden to her companion. Gabrielle's fear went further. Xena's battle with her dark side was fragile. The gods forbid if Xena decided to seek revenge for her injury. If renewed, would the act of vengeance ever stop?

Xena sat in a chair. Her eyes rested upon the bard. Gabrielle had her home with the Amazons. Simina was a capable healer. Gabrielle would be cared for. There was no reason for Xena to linger. The longer she waited the harder it would be. She took a scroll in hand and began to write.

Unlike most mornings Gabrielle was not alone when she awoke. Xena rested beside her. The warrior's soft shift was pleasant to Gabrielle's cheek. Xena acknowledged the bard by kissing her forehead. The gesture was one of the few familiar intimacies they shared. Gabrielle looked up to her companion. There was a tenderness in Xena reserved only for Gabrielle. Here was such a moment. Gabrielle recognized it as the gift Xena meant it to me.

In stirring Gabrielle noted the absence of pain. A second gift in a just beginning day. After giving Gabrielle some time to truly awaken Xena got up. Gabrielle followed to the point of having swung her feet over on the edge of the bed. Xena knelt down before the bard and took her hands into her own. She knew that what she was about to do might never be forgiven. She only hoped that the day would come when Gabrielle would understand how limited Xena's choices had been. Xena raised her hand to Gabrielle's face and smiled. The bard responded in kind. After a breath Xena raised herself and began to ready herself for the day.

Both dressed, Xena indicated that she was going to the stable to check on Argo and would meet Gabrielle in the main dining hall. Gabrielle left first. Simina who had made it her task to observe both her patient and her patient's companion noted Xena's path. Simina followed Gabrielle to morning meal. Locating Ephiny sitting along side Solari, Eponin and a number of council members, Simina went to the regent and whispered a few words in her ear. Ephiny looked up to Simina who simply nodded. Ephiny got up just as Gabrielle had taken her place across the table from her. Ephiny quickly announced, "There's something I have to do." And took her leave. Gabrielle watched her regent make her way out of the dining hall. She was not the only one at the table who reflected confusion. Simina walked away wordlessly.

The voices from the stables were loud and clear. The dining hall grew silent as each Amazon, in her awareness, chose to witness by attentive ear the confrontation between their regent and Xena. It was now Ephiny's voice, "By the gods Xena, don't do this."

Xena guided Argo out of the stable. Her frustration spilled over in her voice, "Ephiny you don't understand. I have no choice."

"Its true Xena, her love for you was once pure and innocent. That was before she learned who you really were. And what did she do when she found out the truth? She loved you even more. And now you honor her love by walking away from her. May the gods have mercy on your soul Xena. That is if you have a soul."

Gabrielle looked up from her meal. She could not help notice the physical stillness in the room. She looked to Solari for guidance. Solari diverted her eyes. So did Eponin. Gabrielle noted Xena had not yet joined her. She got up. Solari matched her, reaching out to take Gabrielle by the arm. Gabrielle took Solari firmly in her gaze just as she had done the day before. Solari acquiesced to her queen.

Gabrielle walked out of the dining hall. She could see the heated exchange between Ephiny and Xena. Xena had Argo by the reins. Argo carried Xena's traveling packs. Xena was leaving without a word. Xena was leaving her. Gabrielle walked toward the two. All the Amazons at the meal had gotten up and were in attendance to the troubling spectacle. Xena stopped her argument as Gabrielle entered her peripheral vision. Xena appealed to Ephiny, "Must the whole Amazon nation stand in judgement of me?" Ephiny held her tongue. "Hold her." Xena threw Argo's reins to Ephiny and walked back into the stable. Standing at center, Xena waited for Gabrielle.

Gabrielle paused in the entrance. Her eyes demanded Xena's. But Xena would only give her a shy glance, resting her gaze on her own feet. Gabrielle went to Xena, gaining momentum with each step. She felt her hands take the form of fists. Upon reaching Xena Gabrielle began to swing her fists against the warrior's armor. Xena had raised her hands to counter the force but after Gabrielle's second stroke Xena dropped her hands down and willingly took every blow Gabrielle offered. She heard Gabrielle make a guttural sound as the bard collapsed in her arms. Xena took hold of Gabrielle and guided her down to the hay-strewn floor.

With Gabrielle in her embrace Xena whispered, "I can't take you with me. Your surely would die. And I can't stay with you knowing I'm to blame. Gabrielle, my bard, you are my light. You are my love. I owe you everything. Its better that you hate me than love me. Look at what loving me has done to you."

The bard having heard none of Xena's confession but feeling the warmth and safety of the warrior's hold swung once again against Xena's breast plate. It was more a gesture of surrender than aggression. Xena looked up to find Ephiny at the stable door. "Ephiny, please take care of her. Don't fail her as I have." Xena stroked Gabrielle's hair one final time and released herself from the bard. Without further hesitation Xena walked pass Ephiny and out of the stable. She took Argo's reins from Solari, mounted the mare and rode away, never looking back.

Part 3

My dearest Gabrielle,

Forgive me for not having the courage to take my leave in person. For a long time now you and I have been home to one another. This can no longer be. You can no longer travel with me. The road would only do you more harm.

I cannot be with you knowing that I have failed you. Remember, my bard, you have given me a reason for life. I will not betray your trust in me. You have my word I will never shame you.

You are all I know of love and goodness. I will always hold you in my heart. Find someone worthy of you and allow joy to reign in your realm.


* * *

Alone in the Queen's hut Gabrielle read the scroll once again. It had been waiting for her upon her bed. Night had fallen. Though mute and deaf, an Amazon queen could still command. After considerable debate a concerned Ephiny honored Gabrielle's request for privacy.

By the gods what had Xena done by leaving her? Though the bard was not surprised by the warrior's stubborn intent to blame herself in some part for the injuries Gabrielle incurred, Gabrielle never expected the guilt to be so complete and the weight so unbearable.

They had allowed too many silences to build between them prior to the battle. No wonder the silences only expanded in scope and depth afterwards.

A life without Xena had not been foreign to her. Gabrielle had lost Xena to Hades. She had faced the loss and reconciled herself to be queen. Life without Xena was possible given no choice. Here her frustration was that Xena had made the choice without conferring with her. Gabrielle had thought they had gotten beyond the unilateral nature of their friendship.

Gabrielle would not argue that life on the road would carry greater risk, but was not that a choice she had a right to make for herself? True, Gabrielle no longer held the ability to earn their income as a bard, but never did Xena give her an opportunity to find alternative means. These counter arguments mattered little. They truly were not the issue. The truth lay at their hearts. Neither Xena nor she would commend herself to the greatest danger and that was the love that had grown between them.

Given the scroll, Gabrielle could no longer debate whether Xena returned the same measure of emotion she herself felt. One could argue the words were platonic. The one would be someone who had not shared their daily lives together. Nuance carried beyond the skills of storytelling to encompass the skills of living. Their lives had become complete with the richness of their love for one another. It was a fortune each held in her respective hands so gingerly that they refused to invest it further for greater gain afraid they would forfeit their abundance. What fools they were. Maybe if their love had been consummated the intimacy between them would have helped breech the silence.

Gabrielle would not have her Amazon warriors seek Xena out as Ephiny offered. Gabrielle was tempted but knew better. Xena had closed herself from Gabrielle. It was for Xena to choose to return and create a home with the bard or to maintain her distance.

* * *

A moon's cycle had passed. Gabrielle had no reason to believe Xena would return to her. Simina had set Gabrielle on a regime of sleep, teas and massage. Simina had no treatment for Gabrielle's wounded spirit. The head pain came and went with no apparent cause. However, she no longer felt the accompanying dizziness. Gabrielle's throat seemed well. Simina placed pressure where once the most visible wounds had marked her queen. No longer did Simina find tender flesh. The healer had Gabrielle try to make sounds without success. It was odd for the bard to speak to her own silent ears. Gabrielle began to communicate with her hands. Taught by a series of tutors. Not only the infirm learned this method of communication. So too the warriors that needed to move among their enemy undetected.

Ephiny, Solari and Epinon all watched carefully over their queen. Gabrielle would in turn watch the children or work in the orchard. Simina consented to allow Gabrielle to labor physically given the queen's promise to pace herself. It was not for Gabrielle to lie still. She needed to be able to contribute. She soon learned that there was much to be done that required little instruction and no on-going conversation.

Still, Gabrielle missed the spoken word. She missed understanding the hurled jokes within the dining hall. Where once she knew nothing but commotion, rising and ebbing waves of sound, she now focused on the faces and gestures. At times her world felt surreal.

All among her tribe were welcoming and positive. To her knowledge there had been no discussion of asking her to relinquish her position as queen. She had chosen to broach the subject writing the question to Ephiny. Ephiny stood over Gabrielle's shoulder reading. With a quick sharp stroke of her hand Ephiny took the quill from Gabrielle and wrote, "No." across Gabrielle's words, throwing the quill down for emphasis. Ephiny tempered the tension by placing her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and pressing a firm reassurance.

It was during the evening hours when Gabrielle found herself alone in the Queen's hut that her aloneness pressed against her soul. During these hours Gabrielle reckoned with all she had lost. She lost her hearing and her voice. She lost Xena's friendship and companionship. She turned to her faith in life which had been a constant source of strength. She looked about her acknowledging all that remained. For the most part the balance of her health had been restored though she could do without the headaches. She had a home among the Amazons. She was her own woman. Most importantly, she had her friendships.

Across the room in the corner stood her staff. Gabrielle had no need for it. Simina would not allow her to spar fearful of compounding an injury. Tomorrow thought Gabrielle. Tomorrow she would ask Ephiny to join her in the practice field.

* * *

Gabrielle felt alive, so alive. After obtaining the healers consent, she and Ephiny had sparred for over a candlemark. Gabrielle enjoyed the demonstration of power. Tomorrow her muscles would speak to her differently. Today, she relished the exertion. Ephiny had begun carefully. They traded blows establishing a rhythm. Ephiny enjoyed watching her queen in concentration. After half a candlemark Gabrielle's confidence grew and she challenged Ephiny. The queen's aggressiveness always surprised Ephiny. Ephiny knew no gentler soul, no one with a greater capacity for kindness and yet this same woman attacked making it known to Solari and the other warriors observing the match that their queen must always be taken seriously.

The two continued to trade blows neither getting an advantage. Gabrielle fixed her eyes upon Ephiny. Gabrielle's grin was wide and joyful. Then something happened. Ephiny did not counter. Gabrielle swung her staff low knocking Ephiny off her feet. The queen took a step forward standing over her regent.

She realized something was wrong. Ephiny seemed stunned by a cause other than Gabrielle's staff. Gabrielle looked up and met an approaching Solari. The bard couldn't read the warrior's expression. What was it? Again, Gabrielle looked down at Ephiny. Ephiny threw herself up and approached her queen. Reaching out she gently placed her hand upon Gabrielle's throat. Solari came and stood by Ephiny.

Ephiny turned to Solari and asked, "Did you hear it to?"

Solari nodded affirmatively.

Ephiny returned her gaze to Gabrielle. Slowly she spoke so Gabrielle could read her lips, "You yelled." And with a growing smile Ephiny repeated the phrase, "You yelled."

Gabrielle understood. Now she too looked at Solari for independent confirmation. Solari nodded again and smiled broadly. Gabrielle reached out and embraced her regent. She wasn't sure what she had said but it was sound. Sound that could, with practice, be shaped into words.

Though Gabrielle would have never wished for her injuries she found the task of learning to speak again intoxicating. She exhausted her tutors as she struggled in her deafness. Her phrasing was at first stilted as she took care to enunciate each word. Gabrielle's most recent triumph happened during the evening meal when she spoke a throwaway comment to Eponin. The table paused unsure if it had been their queen's words. When Gabrielle looked up sheepishly all broke into wild laughter. Ephiny cherished the sight of Gabrielle's smile. The bard had not only followed the conversation with the blending of signs and lip reading, she somehow timed her remark at just the right moment between all the breaths taken.

Gabrielle walked alone to the Queen's hut. The stars were brilliant. She paused and looked up. It had been a long time since she had slept under their canopy. Lying in bed she drifted to sleep. In sleep, in the freedom of dreams, her lips spoke the one word no tutor would teach her. The one word she carried with her every day but would not speak herself, the one word that had implicitly been banished from the Amazon vocabulary. Xena.

Part Four

Argo began to challenge Xena's unrelenting drive away from the village. The mare demanded Xena's attention. Xena looked down for the first time in a number of candlemarks. Argo's fatigue was evident. Xena loosened her grip on the reins and allowed Argo to slow to a walk. Her hand reached forward. She stroked the mare whispering her regret for being so thoughtless.

A stream ran not too far from the road. Xena dismounted and led Argo to drink. The sun glistened off the waters. Xena chose to lie down under the shade of a great tree. She considered the arbor. How much had it witnessed in its lifetime? How would it judge her if it knew who she was and what she had just done? Eyes closed Xena rested. She had not slept the night before. For the whole of the night she had been intent on the bard sleeping beside her. The gentleness, the beauty, the intelligence and yes, the humor all balanced in one who called her friend - who showed Xena love and mercy as no other.

Throughout the night Xena was free to express every thought, every emotion she held for her companion knowing she would not be heard. What would Gabrielle had thought if she had been able to take in Xena's words? Xena had done her best, writing the scroll. She did not confess everything. She could not be that honest with herself let alone with the bard. Ephiny's words entered Xena's dreamscape. The regent had been harsh with her. Xena held no ill feelings. Ephiny would not have been so bold were she not completely devoted to Gabrielle's happiness. How much Ephiny had seen and heard in the stable Xena did not now. Xena suspected Ephiny saw and heard enough to learn the truth.

How Gabrielle hit her, Xena thought. No greater pain accompanies the loss of love or a loved one. Each blow was welcomed. Each deserved. Xena could feel the pounding on her breast. If only her heart would cease beating and end her pain.

Xena's mind drifted to their final night at the cave, to Gabrielle's request for a song. How could the youth tear the warrior's resolve asunder by the merest gesture? If Xena had not been in love with Gabrielle before that night there was no doubting her love afterwards. To have lost her own voice and hearing and yet ask Xena to celebrate life in song was beyond Xena's imagination.

And finally, her mind turned to their last night on the road. How she had looked into Gabrielle's bright green eyes, as Gabrielle soundlessly spoke words of gratitude and love, sealing them with the gentlest kiss.

At Xena's very core she believed the bard was saying farewell. Though they both would deny it Xena believed they knew their lives as they knew it was over. Again, Xena felt the impact of Gabrielle's blow against her breast. Had the bard expected a new beginning jointly shared with the Amazons? Left unspoken had Gabrielle assumed their destiny to be transitioned without question? Had Gabrielle expected Xena to change just for her? Did Gabrielle believe she meant that much, meant everything to the warrior?

Xena began to sob. Her sorrow was no less than Poseidon's force against the cliffs. The brutality of emotions would give her no breath. She choked in her tears as if she were drowning in the depths of the sea. Xena awoke. Her tears continued. Here, alone, Xena would not hold back. She released all her self-imposed restraints. For the first time since she looked up in battle and saw the bard's wounded body, Xena allowed herself to feel her terror of losing Gabrielle. The guilt, regret, love and longing. Everything. Xena allowed herself to feel everything. It is in a moment such as this that the soul must make a choice to live or to die.

* * * Xena learned from the locals that Tianus had escaped capture. His army had maintained a steady march to the north. Even with Argo's speed it took her a half moon cycle to tracked the warlord to his camp. Tianus had established a strong perimeter defense. She would have him but it would take some time to find his weaknesses.

In the dark of night, the warrior entered the camp undetected. A knife against the tent opened the path she needed to reach her quarry. Tianus was sleeping. Xena struck two blows to his head. The warrior had to will herself not to kill the bastard on the spot. She carried the unconscious man over her shoulder to where the horses were corralled. She placed Tianus on a mare and quietly guided it out of camp. She smiled at the ease of it all. Not a blow struck other than to the warlord himself. It had taken her four nights of careful study to synchronize the guard movements with her own plan of attack. By the time Tianus' disappearance was discovered she would have a sufficient lead to allow his lieutenants to carry out a half-hearted unsuccessful search. Xena knew that the lieutenants would welcome a reason to divide whatever spoils were left after their recent defeat including their leader's share. Among them would be at least one or two who would wish to take command. The intrigue of determining the military heir would provide the distraction she needed.

The journey back to the local magistrate was uneventful. She took less traveled roads just in case Tianus did indeed have the loyalty of his men. Tianus was kept gagged and bound on the mare. The warlord had not impressed her. Hanging over the mare like a sack he seemed inconsequential. Still, she knew if granted his freedom he would find a way to pillage and murder. The sooner she dumped him in prison the better.

Leading the mare while she road Argo left Xena time to think. It was the one thing she preferred not to do. Gabrielle dominated her thoughts. After the tears by the stream, she focused solely on the goal of capturing Tianus. She could not help but feel the irony that Gabrielle was hurt by friendly fire. It wasn't Tianus' catapults that had done the harm. But blame was clear. If it weren't for Tianus' threat to the village, the battle would never have taken place. He would be tried for murder and theft and he would die by the hands of an executioner. This would be justice. Gabrielle would approve.

Xena missed the bard. She missed the companionship. She missed knowing someone cared about her well being. She missed the bard's stories. Xena swept the thought away as she had done every day since leaving the Amazons. The thoughts quickly touched upon the painful remembrances, the losses incurred. There was no evading them.

Xena sought out the magistrate immediately after reaching the village. Bennett was his name. He was a mid-age man who reminded the warrior of Salmoneus in look and heart. He was known for carrying out the law fairly. Bennett was surprised to see the warlord alive. Though he welcomed the chance to try Tianus in a public forum Bennett had concerns that the villagers would not allow Tianus to live through the process. Given the high probability of a riot he asked Xena to stay and help maintain order. This she consented to.

Xena knew that these passing days reflected her future. Her only means of support would be a bounty hunter's reward or a villager's generosity. In the past years, it was Gabrielle's storytelling that earned the funds to pay for staples. They had always turned away formal rewards for helping, for trying to ensure the greater good. It wouldn't be as easy now. Was it ever easy? Yes, somehow their lives had moments of ease. It was usually their times alone between the challenges life offered them. The times of enjoying their camp, swimming, fishing, simply walking from one destination to another without interruption. Those moments were possible because they were shared. Most importantly, it was because who the moments were shared with.

The trial took three days. Villager upon villager called for their right to speak against Tianus. Tianus bore the whole effort with amusement. He was confident that his men would free him. The longer the trial the greater his chances for liberty. Xena watched the outward signs of the warlord's arrogance. She wondered how he would hold up with the executioner's blade a mere stroke away from his neck.

After a short deliberation, Tianus was found guilty and sentenced to death. The execution would take place the following morning. It was only then that Xena witnessed the beads of sweat on his brow. A coward's conceit crumbles as quickly as a stale cookie.

The execution was held without incident. Xena received words of gratitude from the villagers. Bennett came to her after the crowd dispersed. He placed a generous purse in her hand. Xena stared at it, felt the weight of it without comment making Bennett uncomfortable.

"Xena. Is it not enough? If you expected more please let me know and I can see what I can do."

Xena looked up at the gentleman. "No, no. That's not it. I'm just not use to accepting rewards."

Bennett smiled. "Well, you got to eat. And you deserve a warm bed as well. Nothing comes without a price."

Xena looked into the magistrate's brown, clear eyes. "Yes, you're right about that."

* * * Xena took Bennett's idea of a warm bed to heart. She stabled Argo and took a room at a local inn. Lying in bed her mind drifted. What next? For a good two moons her focus was on Tianus. Now that the warlord was dead she had no direction. She could go home to Amphipolis. But then she would be faced with her mother's questions. Xena was not prepared to account for her actions especially not to Cyrene who she knew would not be lenient.

Xena felt the soft blankets upon her bare skin. How many nights had she shared a night at an inn with the bard? When did having Gabrielle physically close to her stop being an intrusion into her privacy and become a point of comfort? When did the nuisance become an indispensable contributor? When did the youth become a woman? When did the mirth change to desire?

Morning came too soon. Xena had slept little. She packed Argo and walked the mare by her reins down the road. Xena had no destination in mind. She would let her heart draw the map.

Part 5

"Eponin, I'm here to see Gabrielle."

Eponin looked upon Xena with mixed emotions. Ephiny had shared what she had observed between Xena and Gabrielle in the stable only with Eponin and Solari. "Xena, my orders are not to allow you to enter Amazon territory."

Xena was determined. "By Gabrielle's command?"

"By our regent's"

"And what does your queen want?"

"I would not know. Your name is not spoken."

"Eponin, I won't leave without seeing Gabrielle."

"Xena, no one knows better than I the harm you can cause me and our warriors. Don't do it. You won't win the queen's favor if you hurt her subjects."

"Then send a runner and tell her I'm here waiting to be heard."

"An interesting choice of words Xena. Alright, she will be told but you must promise to abide by her wishes."


Eponin dispatched a runner. Xena looked to the Amazon warrior uneasily.

"Ep. Tell me, is she well?"

"Xena, it is for Gabrielle to choose to answer your questions."

"Please." Xena softly pleaded.

"My queen is well. I am not so sure about my friend."

Xena understood. The queen Gabrielle and the private Gabrielle were often very different. Where the queen demonstrated calm assurance the woman struggled with the burden of leadership and the doubts inherit in making life-altering decisions for her people as well as for herself. It would be easier if she didn't care as much as she did.

* * *

Both Eponin and Xena were surprised to see Gabrielle approach. Simina walked by her side. Gabrielle fixed her gaze upon Xena. She was very much the Amazon queen in her reserve. She signed to be left alone. Eponin hesitated. Simina took Eponin's arm and motioned her away. Eponin obeyed.

Gabrielle looked directly into Xena's eyes. She signed. Simina interpreted.

"The queen said it is good to see you Xena. She hopes you are well."

Xena maintained her gaze upon Gabrielle. "I wanted to see you. I was hoping I could spend some time in the village."

"Unfortunately, you are not welcomed."

Xena's anger rose. "That's your wish."

Gabrielle could not help but notice that Xena was edged as sharply as her sword. "No Xena, it is the wish of my subjects. That is why I have come to you. I am respecting their feelings."

"What did I ever do to them?"

"Its what they believe you did to their queen."

"So, they blame me for your injuries."

"No Xena, they judge your decision to leave me when you did."

"Who are they to judge me?"

"Xena, I am not saying I agree with them. I am saying that as my sisters they find it difficult to understand your actions."

"Do you understand? That's all that matters."

"I believe I do."

"As queen you can teach them forgiveness by example."

"If I understand why you left then there is nothing to forgive and thus nothing to teach."

"Please Gabrielle. I want to speak to you privately. No interpreters."

"You will need to learn to sign."

"Teach me."

"It takes time."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"We will see. All right Xena. You may stay in the village. I will assign you tutors. We will speak once you have learned." With that stated Gabrielle looked to Simina. Simina noted and called Eponin. Simina gave Eponin instructions to escort Xena to the village. A runner was dispatched to inform the residents that the queen welcomes Xena, the Warrior Princess as a honored guest.

Gabrielle stood and watched as Eponin and Xena walked ahead. She wasn't sure what else she could have done. She knew the warrior too well. Xena would not be denied. Still, Gabrielle also knew that she had the power to set the terms. By assigning Xena to tutors Gabrielle brought herself time. She needed that time to temper her heart. In the moons that had passed she had begun to define a life for herself separate from the warrior. And yet, upon hearing that the warrior waited to speak to her, the peace she was beginning to enjoy was placed in peril. Her soul demonstrated a unique fragileness in the light of Xena.

* * *

"She can speak?" Xena responded in disbelief.

"Yes." Simina affirmed.

"When? How?"

"It took time. She does not always use her voice. Using sign is easier. I don't think she doubts she is being heard or understood. Using a voice she doe not hear is very different. She worked hard and she is getting better, braver. Now, back to you. How are your signing lessons coming along?"

"Child's play." Xena boasted.

Holding down her anger Simina glared at Xena. "It is our queen's only way."

Taken aback, Xena realized the smugness of her remark. "Simina, I meant no disrespect."

"Take care warrior. Many here do not understand why you have been allowed to return. They honor their queen by tolerating your presence. Don't make it any more difficult than it has to be for them to accept Gabrielle's command."

Xena nodded. "I better get back to my tutor."

Xena spied Ephiny as she walked toward the village center. She had yet to speak to the regent. Xena called out to her. Ephiny waited for Xena to reach her. The regent was in no mood to speak to the warrior.

"Ephiny, I want to know why you banned me from the village."

As far as Ephiny was concerned, Xena did not start their reunion well. "Xena, what right do you have to question my orders."

"If they affect me, I have every right."

"This is not a way side for you to come and go as you please. If you consider yourself a friend to the Amazons then you must accept the obligations that go with the friendship."

"Such as..."

"You don't abandon your friends when they need you most."

Xena was not prepared to be held in Ephiny's contempt. She offered a defense. "You don't know what I felt. Her injuries..."

Ephiny's patience broke. "No Xena. I do know. I heard your words though I never shared them with Gabrielle. Tell me. When you look at her what do you see? If all you see are her injuries then you are a fool. She is one of the most capable women I have ever known. By the bow of Artemis I envy her strength and wisdom. There is not one Amazon in this village who does not respect and admire her for who she is and what she has been able to do. None of us gave her our pity because she would not allow it. If we pity anyone its you. You're the one to lose. No, you're the one who forfeited the greatest gift. You forfeited the privilege to be with Gabrielle. I don't know what you're looking for now that you're back. But let me say this. No matter how strong Gabrielle seems she carries wounds far deeper than those she received in battle. I will not stand idly and watch you hurt her again. This time I will find a way to stop you."

Xena's self-control was tenuous. Her voice was measured and stern. "Are you finished."

"For now." Ephiny took her leave.

Xena called out, "Ephiny." Ephiny turned to Xena. Xena continued with all due sincerity, "Thank you."

"For what?"

"Being Gabrielle's friend."

Ephiny shook her head. "That's the last thing in the world I should be thanked for." The regent went on her way hoping for no more interruptions from the warrior.

* * *

In the passing half moon cycle Gabrielle and Xena would on occasion see each other and sign to one another. Never did Xena hear Gabrielle's voice directed to her. Their exchanges were friendly, but reserved. Xena's knowledge of sign had not grown sufficient enough for the two not to rely on an interpreter.

To be able to speak with Gabrielle alone was Xena's goal and that motivated her to learn quickly. Her studies improved significantly. A messenger came to Xena's hut. The queen requested that she join her for a private evening meal. Xena accepted. Two warriors guarded the Queen's hut. Xena wondered how she would be announced. Defensively she declared, "I'm expected."

The senior guard responded. "You may go in."

Xena entered the hut. Upon a table laid their meal of meats, cheese, fruit and bread. Gabrielle was sitting up on her bed reading a scroll. She had not yet seen Xena but quickly sensed that she was not alone. Gabrielle looked up to see the warrior standing in some discomfort. It had been the first time in more than three moons that they were alone together.

No matter how carefully Gabrielle tried to keep her emotions in check, a storm rose within her. Gabrielle placed the scroll down beside her and stood up. She walked slowly to her guest. Xena waited, uncertain of what would be the proper gesture. Gabrielle continued her approach. Two paces from the warrior she reached up and entered into an embrace holding Xena close. Xena never expected the welcome. Her arms hung down in the confusion. Only when Gabrielle gave no indication of releasing did Xena feel it safe to reciprocate. Xena's arms enveloped the bard completely. She buried her face into the crook of Gabrielle's neck.

Xena heard Gabrielle whisper, "I've missed you." The bard's voice was muted in cadence but there was no loss of emotion. Xena responded by tightening her hold. What Gabrielle could not hear she would be able to feel. The warrior was trembling. Her body spoke volumes to the bard. Gabrielle wondered if Xena would ever consent to release her. She spoke again. "Xena, I hope your hungry."

To this Xena smiled. She relaxed her embrace and took a step back. "Some things don't change."

Gabrielle had not been able to read Xena's lips. She shook her head. Xena repeated in sign. Gabrielle smiled. She motioned to their meal and took a step to the table. Xena reached out and captured one of Gabrielle's hands in her own. The bard turned to face her. Xena hesitated before speaking, "Forgive me." Xena repeated the phrase in sign. Gabrielle understood both. She responded in sign, "We have much to talk about."

Xena paused. Gabrielle would not grant her the unconditional absolution she had hoped for. Xena remembered Bennett's statement that everything had a price. She would indeed have to pay though she had no clue what would be exacted. Gabrielle tugged at Xena's hand guiding her to the table. It was time to eat and to talk.

The meal went well. At first their conversation, all spoken in sigh, with occasional reliance on a scroll, was hesitant. Once they shared so much in trust. That trust had to be rebuilt. Specifically, Xena felt the burden of giving of herself in order for Gabrielle to do the same.

Xena started cautiously. She mentioned Tianus. Gabrielle's reaction to the warlord's name was difficult for Xena to read. Xena continued sharing all that had happened after she had left the village. Gabrielle was attentive, but asked few questions. Upon learning of his death at the end of Xena's recollection Gabrielle looked down. After a number of heartbeats she raised her eyes to Xena and signed, "Thank you for seeking and finding justice."

Xena took the words in. She did not know how she was coping, where she was finding the strength to maintain her composure. This Gabrielle seated across from her seemed to have aged a decade. She carried herself with a dignity that Xena never thought would show itself so early in the youth's life. That the seed of such a magnificent woman existed within Gabrielle was never in doubt, but how quickly did it mature.

In the same moment Xena realized what was missing during the whole of the evening - Gabrielle's joy. The giddy, playfulness had been subdued.

Gabrielle stood up. It was time for the evening to end. Xena had missed the bard's physical presence. Deep within her she had hoped to gain the shared intimacy of sleeping side by side. She wanted it to be this night but was now certain of her disappointment.

Gabrielle signed, "Good night." Xena responded in kind. As much as Xena wanted to embrace the bard she knew it was not her place to do so without invitation. Xena ached with the knowledge that Gabrielle may no longer be, may never once again be, her bard. The warrior turned from Gabrielle. As she reached the door she heard Gabrielle call her name. Xena turned. Gabrielle stood in the middle of the room. Her expression was soft and open. "There is nothing for me to forgive."

Gabrielle's words were an embrace. She had given Xena a gift, lifting the weight of her guilt. How Xena loved the bard. She wanted to take Gabrielle but stilled herself. This was not the time. Much had changed. Such a time may never come between them. The warrior nodded acknowledging Gabrielle's words. She made her exit shaken. Xena stood motionless as the door closed behind her. The two guards remained silent though they observed Xena with great interest. Aware that she was the object of the guards' scrutiny Xena forced herself to take a step forward and then another, finding the prerequisite focus to return to her hut.

Gabrielle watched the door close. All was silent as it had been but now the silence registered her loneliness. She had done her best. Xena's story did not surprise her. That the warrior had demanded justice was expected. The bard was proud to learn that Xena had taken Tianus to the magistrate for trial and stayed to assist in his conviction and to witness his execution. Gabrielle's fear that Xena would return to her darkness was assuaged and with that too Gabrielle's own burden. She was assured that the consequences of her injuries were now only hers to bear.

There remained one outstanding question in Gabrielle's heart. One she knew she would soon have to face. Xena remaining in the village appeared certain until this interview could take place. Xena sought a pardon. Now that she had it in hand what now was there to keep the warrior?

* * *

A few days had passed since Xena had shared that evening with Gabrielle. The warrior felt restless. She walked to the practice field in hopes of finding a capable warrior to spar with. Xena heard the sound of staffs. A congregation of warriors stood in a circle blocking Xena's view. She recognized Solari and chose to stand beside her. Inside the circle Ephiny and Gabrielle were sparring. Both were working hard. Gabrielle's eyes were bright and intense. She wore a brilliant smile as she kept her regent on the defensive. After one seemingly endless exchange they each stepped back to assess the other. Gabrielle scanned the circle sharing her enjoyment with each and every warrior. Her eyes rested on Xena. The queen raised her hand to Ephiny and then motioned to Xena. Ephiny, as well as all the members of the circle turned to see whom their queen had challenged. Ephiny smiled as she thought, "This will be interesting." She flung her staff to Xena, "I've warmed her up for you, Xena."

Xena captured the staff in hand as mere reflex. "Ephiny, I don't think this is a good idea."

Ephiny's tone changed from light hearted to stern. "It's not for you to deny our queen."

Xena noted the watch from the circle. This was now a point of honor. Not her's but Gabrielle's. She felt grateful that the bard saw none of the exchange.

Xena took a set stance in front of Gabrielle. Gabrielle raised her staff and nodded ready. They traded blows in what was once their usual routine. Slowly establishing a rhythm until they reached full force. It was then that the match truly began. Gabrielle challenged Xena and placed the warrior on the defensive more than once. One thing had not changed between them. Xena still embodied the greater strength and stamina. As the match progressed Xena left the awareness of Gabrielle's deafness behind. She swung with all her might a combination of overhead blows; each accompanied with a chilling cry. The assault took Gabrielle to her knees. Xena had won.

The circle that had grown boisterous as the match progressed fell silent during Xena's final offensive. Standing over Gabrielle, Xena waited. Gabrielle dropped her staff in surrender.

Xena's heart was beating hard and fast. A fear took her suddenly. What had she done? Where had her anger come from? She reached out to Gabrielle with trepidation. Gabrielle took the offered forearm with her own, jumping up with a smile and a laugh. This is the joy Xena had missed. It was still very much a part of the bard. The circle relaxed and approached each congratulating them on a match well fought. Gabrielle was delighted that Xena had not played her as an invalid.

* * *

Morning broke through the window casting warm rays upon her face. Gabrielle turned over trying to steal a little more sleep. The bed creaked with her motion. The gentle sounds of the morning birds waffled into her consciousness. So too, all the other sounds of a village in its waking state. She could hear. The awareness made Gabrielle hold still. Was she dreaming? She opened her eyes. She was awake. "By the gods," she thought. "This isn't a dream." She got up and looked out the window. Sounds and images complemented one another. Gabrielle got dressed and ran out of her hut. Her two guards were startled and began to follow. Hearing them follow, Gabrielle turned and dismissed them in sign. She knocked on Simina's door. The sound of the knock was music. She paused, closed her eyes and listened. So many sounds. Simina opened the door. Surprised to see her queen she signed a greeting.

Gabrielle walked into the hut, responding with her voice. "Speak to me, Simina. With your voice." The sound of her own voice carried Gabrielle near tears.

Simina was confused. "My queen?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Yes, I am your queen and I can hear you."

Clapping her hands together Simina cried, "Artemis be praised."

Gabrielle balanced her hopes and fears. "Tell me Simina. Will it stay? Will my hearing stay or is this a trick of the gods?"

Simina's enthusiasm was now tempered by her queen's wise caution. "I do not know my queen. Only time will tell us both. Do you still feel the pain?"

Gabrielle paused in thought. "No. I haven't. Not for a while now. Simina, no one shall know. Not until you can assure me that my abilities will remain with me. I want no false hopes. No more disappointments."

"Yes, I understand. Now, please sit down and let me examine you."

* * *

For a half moon Gabrielle held her truth close to her heart. There were no more episodes of pain. Her hearing grew in keenness. She relished all the sounds. She did not need to work so hard to understand her surroundings. At the same time she needed to be careful not to visibly react to what she heard.

To her pleasure and relief she observed that all about her spoke respectfully of her. At times she had wondered if harsh words or criticism were stated beyond her ability to read lips or sign.

Xena remained in the village giving no indication that she would soon leave. Gabrielle and Xena had begun to spend more time together. Meeting in the village center and choosing to take a walk, spar in the practice field or share a meal. The comfort between them was returning.

Gabrielle valued these times. She and Simina had agreed that after her hearing remained for a full moon cycle they would announce her healed. The thought of the announcement troubled Gabrielle. She desperately wanted to know if Xena could love her in spite of her disability. Gabrielle told herself that Xena was not a woman to care less for her because of her deafness. Still, Gabrielle carried the insecurity inside of her.

The evening meal was joyful. Gabrielle sat with Ephiny on her right and Solari on her left. Across from her sat Xena and Eponin. As time had passed the bitterness many of the Amazons felt for Xena had subsided. Gabrielle ensured that all knew the story of Tianus. The Amazons privately cheered that justice had been served. No one in the village could ignore that their queen, though publicly reserved toward Xena was happier with the warrior near by.

Sated, with night falling and a warm summer breeze caressing the earth, Gabrielle decided it was time to forward a long desired invitation. She signed to Xena, "Would you like to take a walk?" Xena responded affirmatively. Gabrielle smiled and signed, "I need to get something from my hut. I'll meet you by the orchard in half a candlemark." Xena agreed. Their companions were too busy with other conversation to have noticed.

Xena's wait was brief. Gabrielle approached with a blanket underneath her arm. The moon was near full casting a strong light. They walked in silence. Gabrielle seemed to have a destination in mind so Xena followed her lead. Upon reaching the north meadow, Gabrielle pointed to the tree line. Reaching it she opened the blanket and allowed it to fall gently to the ground. She laid on the blanket and motioned to Xena to join her. Xena complied.

Gabrielle stared at the brilliant stars overhead. Upon seeing a pattern she pointed to a constellation. Xena tried to follow with her eyes.

"See the scorpion. With her sting she can harm herself as if she were the enemy."

Xena was always surprised by Gabrielle's voice. She used it sparingly. Her choice to speak instead of sign was always to impress or emphasize. This night the sound of her voice carried a casualness that hearkened back to Gabrielle before her injuries.

Xena sat up and turned to Gabrielle, taking the bard's hand into her own. Xena signed, "Am I a scorpion?"

Gabrielle, still lying on her back spoke, "Yes, sometimes I think you are."

Xena responded in sign. "Its better then that I be alone. The chance of hurting others is too great."

Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's thigh. In voice, "Even a scorpion deserves to be loved."

"I think your wrong about that." Xena answered.

"Why?" Gabrielle questioned.

"The scorpion's wounds run too deep to heal." Xena's sorrow had begun to rise.

Gabrielle paused for a breath. "Maybe your right. I know that I can no longer expect love. My wounds will not heal."

Xena's emotions shifted from her own tumult to Gabrielle's. "No Gabrielle, you above all deserve love. Your injuries do not make you any less worthy."

Gabrielle struggled to keep her voice measured. "You forget Xena. I was the one who insisted on entering the battle. By going against your better judgement I ended up hurting you just as much as I hurt myself. I'm worst than a scorpion. I didn't hurt the enemy. I hurt the one person I love more than anyone else in the world."

Xena protested. "Gabrielle."

Sitting up, Gabrielle took control of the conversation. "No, let me finish. You once asked for my forgiveness. There was nothing for me to forgive. It should have been me seeking your forgiveness. How could you not have blamed me? How could I have not deserved the fruit of my stubbornness and arrogance?"

They fell into a silence. It was Gabrielle who broke it.

"Xena, I'm asking you to forgive me. I'm also asking you not to leave, not to leave me. If you must go, I'm asking you to take me with you."

Xena stood up. Gabrielle's request was compelling - to return to the life they once enjoyed together. But at the risk of harm coming to Gabrielle once again. Xena tried to press down the probability that her bard would get hurt. It was her own conceit that led her to believe that she would be able to protect the bard. It wasn't true. Even before Tianus Gabrielle had sustained injuries. Never would Xena forget Thessali or Tripolis. Two occasions where she nearly lost the bard to Celsta's touch. Xena felt her anger. The same anger that made itself known as she had sparred with Gabrielle. She was angry because she could no longer lie to herself. Gabrielle mortality was real and Gabrielle would, given her heart, never cease to place herself in harm's way if she believed it was for the greater good. No matter how overwhelming the odds. No matter how foolish the trying.

Xena turned to Gabrielle and signed. "I can't take you with me. I won't be a party to you getting hurt ever again." That stated Xena began her return journey to the village. Gabrielle stayed behind in thought.

* * *

The next morning under orders of their queen her guards notified Gabrielle that Xena was seen entering the stables. Ephiny was with her.

Ephiny watched as Xena saddled Argo. Xena had informed Ephiny of her plans to leave. She assured Ephiny that she would never return. Ephiny's confusion and anger was mounting.

"Xena, I don't understand. This past moon I've watched you and Gabrielle get closer. Almost like before. I couldn't have been so wrong."

Xena spoke as she saddled Argo. "That's why I have to leave. I'll only hurt her if I stay."

"Its too late. She has started to rely on having you beside her. Xena, I told you once that she didn't want your pity and she doesn't. What she wants is your love. By the gods Xena isn't it in your heart to love her."

"Ephiny, you just don't get it. I love Gabrielle with all my heart. She is my soul mate. She completes me. I came back because I didn't know how I could live without her. Funny, she found her footing better than I did. By the time I came back Gabrielle had begun to build a new life without me. She's stronger than I am in so many ways."

"Then stay and be with her."

"I'm not good for her."

"She thinks otherwise."

"This is the best thing for her."

"Xena, let her choose. Only she knows what will make her happy."

"I don't want her pity."

Now Ephiny was really confused. "What?"

"Last night she tried to take the burden of her injuries upon herself. Everyone knows the truth. She stands by me out of loyalty. I don't want her to throw her life away just to prove a point. It's more than I can bear."

Gabrielle's voice carried to the warriors. "Xena."

Ephiny and Xena turned to see that Gabrielle was standing well into the stable. Xena cautioned Ephiny, "Not a word to her."

Gabrielle responded. "Its too late Xena. I heard everything."

Ephiny voiced her surprise, which equaled Xena's. "You can hear. How? When?"

"For a half moon. Simina and I decided to wait a full moon cycle before making an announcement. I didn't want false hope or disappointment."

Xena spoke in disbelief. "You can hear."

"Yes." Gabrielle took her advantage. "Ephiny, would you please leave us."

Ephiny still off balance by the revelation responded reflexively. "Of course. I'll be outside if you need me."

Gabrielle held a scroll in her hand. She raised it to Xena's eyes. "In this scroll you gave me your word that you would never shame me. You told me to find someone worthy and to allow joy to reign in my realm. I may be queen to the Amazons but my only true realm is my own life. And in my life I have had one joy. I chose first to follow you. Later, our lives changed and it wasn't that I followed but that I walked beside you as an equal, a friend, a partner, my love although I never told you. I never told you how complete my love had grown. How I could never imagine a life without you. You will shame me if you treat me like the youth I once was. You will shame me if you do not trust my heart. Xena, you will shame me if after what has happened in the past four moons you believe that I cannot decide what is best for me in life. I've decided that my place is with you. You must decide if your place is with me."

The challenge given Gabrielle waited patiently. Truly there was nothing else for her to do. Xena remained silent. She turned to Argo and placed her hands on the saddle. She held the position as a battle raged inside her. With a sense of finality Xena raised the saddle off the mare and placed it aside. She did the same with the bridle. She then stroked the mare's neck taking tacit comfort in what was a disconcerting moment.

Gabrielle watched Xena. Xena would stay. The gesture moved Gabrielle deeply but it was not enough. Gabrielle approached the subdued warrior. "Xena, how do you love me?"

Xena stopped stroking the mare. With a deep sigh she placed her forehead against the animal's neck. Xena stiffen as she felt Gabrielle's arms take her from behind. The bard rested against the small of Xena's back. The gesture both assured and frightened. Xena turned. Gabrielle loosened her embrace only enough to allow Xena to move without resistance. Xena raised a trembling hand and traced Gabrielle's cheek. The warrior bent her head down gently placing a kiss upon Gabrielle's lips. Gabrielle opened herself to her love. The passion within the young queen would no longer be denied. She pressed herself against Xena. To this Xena allowed the release of her own long held restraint.

They broke free from one another, taking a breath, reassuring themselves that each had the other. Gabrielle reached up and embraced Xena whispering in her ear, "Promise me. Promise me your love. I need to hear you say it." Xena's trembling spirit could not be steadied. She held Gabrielle close knowing that whatever life she would know in the future would be by this woman's side. The overwhelming emotion within her carried to her voice. "Gabrielle, I am yours. I promise. My love and my life is yours."

The End

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