Golden Time of Day
by Portia Richardson
The loving relationship between two women is explored. Umm...there is also some of that sex between two women stuff. (NC-17, but not hardcore). Gabrielle/other female.
This is a post "Friend In Need" story, so it focuses on Gabrielle, her life without Xena, and her continuing quest for spiritual enlightenment. Season 4's India episodes create an important background to the story.
Hurt/anger--there is some sadness throughout, dealing with life without Xena. This story also contains the death of a main character.
I'd like to thank my beta reader, Mary who not only proofed this for me, but also encouraged me along the way.
This story is dedicated to Kevin Smith. "Xena, life is eternalit has no beginning and no end. The loving friends we meet on our journey return to us time after time. We never die because we were never really born."Gabrielle in "Deja Vu All Over Again."
"Gabrielle! Gabrielle! Here's to the Battling Bard!" The crowd could be heard long before they turned the corner onto the main road of the small village. Voices rang out in relief and happiness. "Gabrielle! Gabrielle!"
The tavern keeper stood at the door of her establishment wringing her hands nervously. Standing on her tiptoes, she stretched her body in hopes of getting the first glance at the woman who had saved their town. A few moments later, the noisy crowd appeared, several men were in front leading the cheer.
"Hip-hip hooray! Cheers to the Battling Bard!" They cried.
"Hooray!" The crowd of women, men and children responded.
"Here they come! Here they come!" The bar wench called out. At first, she didn't see Gabrielle, but as she focused on the throng, she saw a small, blonde being carried on the shoulders of two men as people reached out to touch her and shake her hand.
"Please. Really, this is unnecessary. I was glad to help. Put me down, please." She beseeched the crowd with a smile.
The bar owner turned on her heels and ran inside. "They're coming. Is everything ready for the feast?"
"Aye. We've done all that needs to be."
The woman turned back to the door and clapped her hands. At that command, several other barmaids and attendants entered from the kitchen. "Straighten up. Look presentable. This is the Battling Bard of Poteidaia. If it weren't for her, none of us would be here today. She was triumphant. Come, come. Let's get in line. Next to me, next to me." The woman beamed while pulling one young man beside her. "Remember a curtsey or a bow is what she deserves. Let's not disappoint the warrior."
Just then, the tavern door swung open and the dozens of men and women crossed the threshold.
"Poot her down. You'll break the lass's skool." One of the men cried, just before Gabrielle's head made contact with the upper frame of the door.
"Thank you." Gabrielle smiled shyly as she got her land legs back. Feeling a bit wobbly and over-stimulated, she was glad for the hand that reached out to her, taking her arm and guiding her to a chair.
As the candlemarks melted away, Gabrielle had retold the story of her victory over cruel bandits more times than she could count. Her throat was raw and her eyes had taken on a droopy, red-rimmed look. Deceiving and fighting an army of crazy marauders for two days had been grueling, leaving her tired and longing for a hot meal and warm bed, but the battle was followed by this endless display of good wishes. She could barely keep her head raised and no longer made a pretense of attentiveness.
The clinking of two mugs together and the booming voice of one of the celebrants caused Gabrielle's head to jerk from its lowered position to an alert one. She looked around, momentarily confused and wondering how long she had been asleep.
"H'lo. Everyone. Listen up, will ya. She might fight the good fight, but she sure can't party, eh?" The gathering turned to look at the guest of honor whose body was gently swaying in her seat in an effort to stay focused. People laughed, but the man calmed them again. "We have all thanked her individually. She is well aware of what she's done for us. We owe her our lives, but let's give the lass some breathin' room and a much needed rest.
After a bit more praise, Gabrielle's remaining energy was used to stand awkwardly and ascend the staircase leading to her room. She had made herself at home in this small room, using it as her headquarters in the town for the past quarter moon. There wasn't much to the space, but she didn't need much. After all of these seasons, she still only carried the urn, her scroll bag and Argo's old saddlebag. She was a smart packer and she kept the barest of necessities on her person. Toiletries were always purchased or given to her in the various towns she visited; the same for food, though she kept some small, but filling snacks in her pack. She had two changes of clothing and the few times she had to wear something more formal to meet with royalty or as a disguise during a mission, those items had been given to her. Xena would be proud.
The short blonde-haired woman made her way to the small table that held a bowl and a pitcher filled with warm water. As she poured the pitcher's contents into the bowl, she looked at her reflection in the mirror hanging on the wall in front of her.
Each season has come and gone six times now? Has it really been six springs? She asked herself. The reality was that Gabrielle knew quite well that it had been that long. The anniversary of Xena's death was just a day or two away. That date was engrained in her mind forever.
Six springs since the ghastly events in Japathe same amount of time she had known Xena was now how long she had been without her. The first few seasons were the hardest of her life. Losing Xena was worse than losing Hope, falling into a fiery pit, or all of the times daggers were held to her throat. There was simply nothing in the world that could compare to the pain of not having the warrior walking beside her.
When she had returned from Japa, she immediately sought out Ares. The God of War didn't care for her, but he did love Xena and if anyone could perform a miracle, she thought he might be the one. Nothing worked. It was hopeless. Xena could only walk with her when the bard's thoughts commanded the warrior by her side. And sometimes having Xena so close, but not quite there was too much for Gabrielle's heart.
As she bathed, she examined the few nicks she had received during her last fight. Her creamy skin was a bit tan from the sun, but there were quite a few red and pink welts and scars from past wounds. Today, she sported a new seven-inch wound that began at her upper thigh and moved down the outside of her leg. That guy should never have gotten a blade on me. And I have no excuse. I just lost focus. That's happening more and more. Maybe that guy downstairs is right. I need some breathing room. She thought.
Gabrielle finally understood one of her last conversations with Xena. The Warrior Princess had been fighting first for bad, then good for close to fifteen winters. One evening, just before being summoned to Japa, Gabrielle was planning their next adventure, when Xena asked if she might be ready to give the fighting a rest. The warrior was willing to retire from the violent and nomadic life they led. If only they had had that discussion a few moons earlier or even days, things could have turned out differently.
Gabrielle, now completely nude, moved to the pallet that had been made for her. It consisted of several animal skin rugs and thickly sewn cloth. She opened a small clay jar and poked her fingers in, removing a shiny salve. Gingerly, she rubbed the salve onto her wounds. A few of them stung and she gritted her teeth to suppress the cry she wanted to release. She wondered how Xena managed to have little or no reaction to the ointment on her wounds or for that matter, injuries much worse.
Breathing room, she thought again. She was just so tired and it was becoming harder and harder to be 'the girl with the chakram.' The strength and skills, Xena possessed weren't as defined in Gabrielle, but what she lacked in power, she made up for in finesse plus she continued to use her secret weaponthe gift of talking her way out of situations. She won her battles and had never been badly injured, but times were changing. These bandits seemed tougher, stronger, and faster, but she knew that wasn't true. She was simply slowing down. Her desire to help others was still strong, but maybe it was time to hang up the chakram, put down the sword, and deposit her old sais in a box somewhere.
Crawling into bed, she could still hear the din of the party below. Occasionally, she could make out her name and cheers for the "Battling Bard." Time certainly had a way of changing views and preconceived notions about a person. Once, she had been seen as a young woman who had to prove her abilities, Xena's second tier substitute, and a wannabe warrior, too slight to do much harm. She closed her eyes and remembered the disappointment of the people who had requested Xena's assistance in Egypt seasons ago. When Gabrielle showed up explaining that Xena had been tragically killed and she was there to help, she had practically been thrown on to a well-lit pyre. Somehow she was able to convince the legal counsel to the royal family that she had been trained well and could solve their problems.
It had taken a few victories under her belt, but soon, Gabrielle came to own the moniker of Battling Bard. The hero worship that Xena contended with was now part of Gabrielle's lifeyoung women wanted to follow her. Through stories, Gabrielle warned the naïve women--life on the road was hard and complicated. It wasn't a romantic life and always unending. Someone always needed help.
During the party she had received two urgent parchments appealing to her sense of justice. Tonight, one request came from the Thrace region of Greece. She hadn't been back there since she and Xena had returned Sarah to Lila. Going to Thrace would be almost like going full circle--mere miles from Poteidaia. She contemplated how it might be returning to the area where she had once begged an outlaw to take her with her, to teach her everything, to show her how to be a warrior. Gabrielle wondered what would be the pointnothing was as it once was. Everyone she had ever known was dead. She had no attachments, no encumbrances. Lila had died over four winters ago. Sarah, Lila's daughter had married and moved to Rome. And Eve, Xena's daughter, her daughter was traveling on a different path, preaching the word of Eli.
She had lived more seasons in the land of Celts, in western Gaul, and in villages of Rheinland than she had in her home of Greece. Her language skills were excellent. Like Xena, she could converse with nearly everyone she met. And in all of those strange and different lands, she had studied peace while making a career of fighting warlords, marauders, bandits, and lawless highwaymen. Her knowledge of various beliefs and spirituality was unsurpassed. She had spoken with philosophers and teachers about the gods of each land; the unexplained stone circles that the Celts considered sacred; the one God of the Israelites who was omnipotent, loving, and to be feared.
Her travels didn't take her to Asia, however. Not that she hadn't been invited numerous times, she had. Once as an Amazon representative, she had been asked to visit Chin as part of a diplomatic party. She had refused. It had been such a long time ago, but her betrayal of Xena and the guilt over those actions still haunted her. She couldn't bring herself to be in a land where she stood out and the reminders of Xena's lover, Lao Ma were apparent in the symbols, the texts and the faith of the people. Likewise, she had refused to enter Japa again. Gabrielle still cursed the place. When she thought of that land, she often burst into tears, whispering Xena's name over and over. It was so unfair. Xena having to stay dead was wrong and everyone involved knew it. The blonde woman found herself sobbing in grief again. Six springs had not eased her troubled heart. Only Xena understood the path they were on. They had experienced so much of the bizarre, outrageous, and horrific together.
She'd never find anyone who could comprehend the suffering she had endured or the elation of finding and holding your soulmate in loving arms. Gabrielle missed Xena's touch. The longing she felt for her was so massive she couldn't put into words, so she stopped trying. Recalling how their relationship had changed after their visit to India sent a shiver of sadness mixed with desire up her spine. The first time they made love after their experience with Naiyima, Xena was different. She had practically tried to consume Gabrielle, her need so strong, so robust, and positively intense. Gabrielle had thought Xena needed that closeness initially to come to terms with what Naiyima had shown themtheir future selves, Arminestra and Shakti, but the force of her hunger never subsided. Xena, through demonstration rather than explanation, had advanced the way they expressed their love. After India, there continued to be incredible physical release when they made love, but there was so much more. Gabrielle actually felt something akin to exaltation and when she questioned Xena, the warrior had acknowledged the same spiritual connection. Xena had said she felt purified in Gabrielle's arms, healed and whole. The dark-haired beauty and the equally beautiful blonde had been so in tune with each other's passion. Reaching new heights in their lovemaking, moving as one, climaxing together with earth-shattering force, ebbing and flowing throughout the night, they had offered their bodies to the other repeatedly. There had been a distance after Eve's birth, but they had found their way back and the exhilaration of being together was just as powerful and profound.
As she thought of Xena and the way the warrior had expressed her need, Gabrielle's hands moved to her breasts. Gently, she massaged them, feeling a warmth grow over her. While one hand continued to palm and tweak her nipple, watching it tighten and harden, the other hand glided down her body and between her legs with familiar ease. Just thinking of Xena still made her wet and ready for her warrior. After spreading that moisture over her fingers, Gabrielle placed two of them on either side of her clitoris. Gently massaging the area, she tried to replicate the caress of Xena's tongue. She thought of how Xena would whimper and moan into her womanhood as she loved Gabrielle with her mouth; how the warrior, after a time, would slide two fingers into Gabrielle's depths and fill, then drain her over and over. Gabrielle felt herself rising to meet Xena's touch, her touch and not long after, she cried out Xena's name.
As usual, this act of battlelust or release or loneliness left her empty and wanting. There was no joy in self-love but there also was no yearning for anyone else in her life. Her only solace was in her spiritual studies. There had to be a reason for this torture, the heartache that she suffered, and the pain of being left utterly alone in the world. She would find it somewhere in someone's teachings.
As she turned onto her stomach, she thought about that second parchment. It had been intriguing, yet puzzling. She had read it quickly and her immediate thought was to reject the offer outright, but something kept pulling at her. Bracing her body with her hands, she lifted and turned to sit up on the pallet. The yellowish-brown parchment had been placed beside her on a small table. She picked it up, squinting at the words in an effort to decipher them.
Frozen ice falls
Breaking the heart
Freeing the spirit
Night winds blow
The mind stills
And all that is
And all that is
Your presence is greatly needed here."
The parchment was signed Dharmesh and a carefully painted yin/yang symbol was placed beside his name. She looked at the symbol and recalled how she had once found inner peace in a false paradise. There had been danger in Aidan's palatial bliss, but she had also discovered so much about herself and Xena. She fondly recalled the massage Xena had given her as she lay across a bed made in the same yin/yang design. The warrior's hands trembled, but Gabrielle hadn't known why. She'd learn of Xena's torment over violent thoughts that were eating away at her much later. To her, Xena's hands were simply warm and tender seeming to both relax and arouse all of her senses and emotions. India had been scary, but the closeness that the two women experienced had never been greater, their connection stronger than their earthly bodies.
The message on the parchment was intriguing and her interest was piqued. She would stop in Thrace, find a replacement who could help the troubled land, then she would board a ship to India.
* * * * *
INDIA - FIVE SUMMERS LATER
She was known merely by her name. Her days of irritating blonde and sidekick, Amazon and Amazon Queen, Xena's friend and Xena's lover, Bard of Poteidaia and Battling Bard were long forgotten.
When she first arrived in India, she had been asked to free the people from a vicious ruler in a small province. The villagers had heard tales about an evil entity called Indrajit and how she and another woman had fought him. They had been surprised to see Gabrielle, a woman barely in her thirties sitting at the table, acknowledging and correcting the tale of Indrajit. The superstitious townspeople were easily convinced that Gabrielle had to have some supernatural powers to have aged so slowly. What had happened with Indrajit and Eli was about thirty springs in the past. If she could control aging, surely she could bring down this terror that lurked over their town. Some people claimed she could cut off the flow of blood to a person's brain, but apparently it was only rumor, for no one had ever seen it. She was a woman of mystery. Things she said and did often seemed impossible, but she was kind, so the initial wariness was short-lived and people came to love her. Although a skilled warrior, Gabrielle had decided to lay down her weapons and any special abilities, but she did offer her skills in strategy.
Over the seasons, she trained various people of love and armies of peace. They learned how to protect themselves and others under her guidance. This job paid well, but she asked for littleenough dinars to put food on her table and a warm place to lay her head. Slowly, she spent less time with the armies and more time in reflection.
It had all become so clear. She knew that she had been right all along. Her first teacher, Eli had reminded her of her original path, but she hadn't been ready to embrace it, then. Now she was immersed in the essence of who she was, why she existed, and the belief in loving all things.
One thing she had held dear all of her adult life was something that Xena had said to her about three seasons after they had met. Xena, in a soft, heartwrenching voice had informed Gabrielle that she appreciated her beliefs and admired them. "You understand hate, but you've never given in to it." They had been in a number of scrapes, had seen a great deal of anger and hatred, cared for bloodied and bruised soldiers, and villagers who had been so beaten down that they could barely stand, yet Gabrielle still believed in the innate goodness of people; that hatred and bigotry would cease, one person at a time. When Xena had spoken those words, Gabrielle was pleased that Xena had accepted this conviction though it was different from the warrior's. Over time, however, Gabrielle had moved further and further away from what had once been the deepest part of her core beliefs. She had fought long and hard in the name of peace and justice, but there had been times when she was up against a foe and all she had wanted was to inflict a bit of pain, end his cycle of hatred by way of blunt instrument or the chakram's sharp edge. She had somehow moved far off course, becoming a different person, losing the one she had once been. Now, in India, she seemed open to discovering her true self and embracing her old beliefs.
The last three summers had been spent in private study with her teacher. Gabrielle finally learned to grieve. Candlemarks were spent in thought and silence, not in strangled tears over something and someone she no longer had. Her most enlightened moment came one evening close to thirty-six moons earlier when she realized the yin and yang of giving love. As she poured over the writings of a spiritual master, it came to her--to give yourself over to love was to accept that you would feel grief for that attachment. To love completely included being hurt and saddened over the loss of that love. But, you should also experience the joy that the love had produced and equal to that, happiness in the knowledge that the loved one would return in a spiritually higher form.
A day or so after this revelation, Gabrielle had walked through a battlefield, healing whomever she could. There wasn't much she could do for the men left on the fieldthey were either dead or dying. One man's eyes turned toward Gabrielle watching her as she ministered to a barely breathing soldier. She felt eyes on her and shifted her head to take in any possible danger. Green eyes landed on the dark brown ones of the man. He was struggling for every breath, but then he slightly smiled and a moment later his body went limp. Gabrielle smiled, too, not at the death of a soldier, but at the knowledge of what awaited him. He was fortunate to find death and welcome her so easily. Crossing over and returning would go smoothly for him, she presumed.
And she could, to a degree, feel joy about Xena. From their experience in India winters earlier, Gabrielle knew that each of them would be reborn, but she had forgotten the importance of this; it hadn't mattered. Now, instead of feeling lonely and alone, she could feel happiness that Xena would move up the karmic ladder and into another life.
* * * * *
On this particular spring morning, Gabrielle began the long trek from her village to a distant temple to meet with her teacher. Dressed in her normal attire, a saffron colored sari that was wrapped intricately around her body in a way that discreetly covered the large tattoo on her back, she carried a bundle of freshly cut jasmine in her arms. Her teacher loved the flower and it was a gift Gabrielle always brought with her on her daily visits. Gabrielle had been studying with this woman for a full three summers and now when she smelled the fragrant flower in the air, she always thought of Ratha, her mysterious and brilliant teacher. She admired Ratha and over the many moons had learned a great deal from her about meditation, prayer, and love of nature. But the greatest gift from teacher to student had been one of patience. Gabrielle had always considered herself thoughtful; as a warrior she had taken action after much deliberation, but Ratha had introduced a whole new level of patience. Gabrielle would leave her home just after dawn and arrive at the temple just before the sun was highest in the sky for her scheduled lessons. Once there, her teacher often would make her wait for several more candlemarks. When they'd finally meet, her teacher might ask, "On your walk, Gabrielle, were you mindful of your steps?" Before getting the chance to respond, her teacher would glide out of the room with a casual stride and not reappear. Or she might wonder if on the walk, Gabrielle had decided on a topic of discussion for that meeting. When she would respond affirmatively, the teacher would shake her head and ask why she hadn't been one with her steps, with her breathing? Why she had not been 'in the moment' during her walk? Why had she allowed her mind to wander? Again, her teacher would exit the room, always collecting her bundle of jasmine before leaving.
The teacher's behavior would have enraged Xena, and Gabrielle, though patient, had wanted to give the teacher 'a piece of her mind' those first days. It's insulting and everyone's time is valuable; doesn't she realize the rigors of the long, uphill climb to the temple; isn't she aware of the distance I must travel to arrive on time; and why is there no appreciation or response to the flowers I bring for her daily? It shows a lack of respect and...
As time passed, Gabrielle understood the lessons and those brief sentences, comments, and questions were as important a lesson as spending an entire morning and afternoon with the teacher.
So as she walked, she did not wonder if the flowers were fragrant enough or if her teacher would give her a real audience. On this day, she practiced her breathing and remained mindful of it. Occasionally, she would bend and breathe deep the scent of the flowers. The blonde was a bit taken aback that she felt an odd tingling at this fragrance that reminded her of her beautiful, but enigmatic instructor. She chose not to concentrate on that feeling, but savor her walk.
When she arrived at the temple, she removed her walking shoes at the front gate and made her way across the plush grasses to the open-air porch, then beyond that to the opened door. Inside the large room, there were small round pillows scattered about. Gabrielle picked one from the stack and placed it on the floor. In front of the pillow, she set the flowers and then she knelt on the pillow. She was cognizant only of her breathing and was surprised at the feeling of fingers caressing her cheek.
"Good morning, Ratha." Gabrielle blinked and looked at her teacher's warm face. Neither woman had been comfortable calling each other teacher and student for they were close in age, Ratha being a season or two younger.
Ratha's long brown hair was tied in one loose braid resting on her back. She was dressed in a robe the color of a just ripe peach. Her smooth dark skin was a wonderful contrast against her clothing. The only items on Ratha's long, slender feet were four silver toe rings, two on each foot. Each band consisted of a pattern of woven lines, a braid that created the circle of the ring.
"Gabrielle," the woman spoke softly, her voice like a whisper in the wind. Her fingers lingered on her student's cheek, then drifted down to gather the flowers.
"It's good to see you as always."
Ratha smiled gently. It was a smile that held something else, something that Gabrielle couldn't quite decipher. "These are lovely." She held the flowers to her nose and breathed in. "They smell like passion."
Gabrielle's eyes went to Ratha's and she gazed at her questioningly. There was a vibrant and lively energy bouncing between them though the women were virtually still, each on meditation pillows, one kneeling, one sitting in the lotus position. Gabrielle had first noticed her changing feelings several moons ago. The blonde, in a rare moment of clumsiness had tripped over a large pillow in this very room. Ratha had caught her by the elbow before she could go tumbling onto her face. The Indian woman had only smiled as Gabrielle's face tinted a rosy pink. She blushed not at the embarrassment of tripping, but the warmth of Ratha's hand touching her body.
Gabrielle recalled the first time she had felt a similar force. Xena had grabbed the hilt of a whip from a slave trader, stopping him from beating the villagers of Poteidaia. That was over eleven autumns ago for herover thirty autumns for everyone else. (Xena and Gabrielle had spent twenty-five of them asleep in Ares' cave.) The warrior and Gabrielle's eyes met and at that moment, Gabrielle not only knew she wanted to spend some time talking to the dark, angry woman, but that her life would be empty if she let her go.
As Gabrielle knelt, she wondered how to respond to a statement that was rather innocuous but had aroused her a great deal. Even the way, Ratha had said the word 'passion' had caused Gabrielle's stomach to flip anxiously.
Her teacher returned the gaze as she placed the flowers beside her pillow. Ratha's outstretched arms reached for Gabrielle and she took her student's hands in hers. "I am very pleased today. Today, like yesterday was beautiful and as each moment passes I think I find more beauty. Right now, I cannot think of a moment more beautiful. What about you, Gabrielle?"
She wondered if Ratha found her sweaty palms beautiful. Why she was perspiring was beyond her grasp and why her heart began to pound at Ratha's touch left her blinking nervously. Her mind raced back to her feelings over the past few moons. More and more often she had found herself thinking and wondering about how Ratha spent her time when they were away from each other and how her caring teacher interact with others? She would awaken suddenly, haunted by Ratha's darkly intense eyes. Was the moment beautiful? Oh, yes. But it was also confusing.
"May I kiss you?" Ratha asked sweetly.
"Kiss me?" Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat.
"Was that a request or a question?"
Chuckling, Ratha asked for more clarification. "Was that a question or a statement?"
"You want to kiss me?"
"Very much. If I might, my beloved."
Her teacher had called her pet names many times over the course of her lessons. She had referred to Gabrielle as 'my innocent,' 'my precious gem,' 'little flower,' 'golden one,' 'my star,' and lately, 'my beloved.' However, she had never asked to kiss her. Gabrielle was dumbfounded.
"Uh...I...uh...well..." she stammered, glancing down at their entwined hands. Ratha held her hands so delicately, but Gabrielle felt bound to her.
"Just tell me what you're feeling without processing it." Ratha's dark eyes danced with amusement as she watched the befuddled former warrior.
"It's...Kiss me? I guess I didn't expect that."
Now it was Ratha who was confused. "You had expectations?"
"No...no, none at all. What I mean...?" Gabrielle's voice trailed off. She didn't know what she meant, but suddenly the hands that held hers felt warmer and the tingling she had felt earlier in the day when she smelled the jasmine was back.
"Yes, what do you mean?"
"I would like for you to kiss me, I think." Her lips had not touched another's in more seasons than she could count. She didn't need to count. Her lips had not touched another's since that ill-fated day on Mt. Fuji when she tried to return Xena's strength to the fallen warrior.
"Don't think, feel."
Gabrielle's entire body trembled in anticipation and puzzlement, but Ratha simple held onto her hands and leaned forward, pressing her lips against Gabrielle's and gently pushing past the obstacle of the closed lips to enter her mouth. The kiss lingered and when Gabrielle pulled away in a rush of feeling, she was breathless.
"I imagined your lips to taste so sweet." Ratha's gaze was again mysterious. "I'd like to kiss you again and again. May I?"
Panting, Gabrielle stared at her teacher. "I don't... I think this is... Perhaps we shouldn't."
"Ah, you received little enjoyment?" Ratha queried.
"No, I did. I think... " She stopped, then looked into Ratha's eyes, a shy smile appearing on her face. "I shouldn't think, right?"
Ratha didn't answer, but pulled Gabrielle to her, bending the rather flexible woman onto her lap. Ratha bent and kissed her again.
It was Ratha who pulled away this time after the lengthy kiss. She kept Gabrielle's head on her lap, the blonde staring up into the soulful, dark eyes. "Such passion in your kisses."
Gabrielle blinked and just as she was about to sit up, Ratha returned to Gabrielle's lips and dizzied her with more kisses that left her on fire.
Cradling Gabrielle's head with one hand, her other slowly moved against her torso like ocean waves, gently pressing against her, then retreating. Gabrielle responded, her body speaking for her mind, moaning into Ratha's mouth. The sound of her hoarse desire awakened something long buried in her, yet that sound also roused emotions she didn't want to feel. "Stop."
Ratha lifted her head, yet continued to support Gabrielle. "Yes, my golden one?"
Gabrielle slowly sat up, bringing her legs forward and out of the awkward bend she had been held in. "I..." she started, sitting up and crossing her legs to face Ratha. "I'm very confused."
"What confuses you? Your feelings or your thoughts?"
"Tell me about your feelings." Ratha asked patiently.
"Do you want to make love to me?"
"With you," she corrected. "Yes, very much so."
"Why is that Gabrielle?"
"You're...you're my teacher."
Ratha took Gabrielle's hands and gently rubbed her thumbs over the meaty part of her hand, the pad just below and beside Gabrielle's thumbs and forefingers. "You are not a novitiate Gabrielle, and I find myself learning as much from you as perhaps you learn from me. I take a great deal of enjoyment from our lessons, listening to you, and watching you. I would like to enjoy more of you." She smiled.
The smile was captivating and Gabrielle felt the heat rise on the back of her neck, knowing full well that a blush was moving up and across her face. "But..."
"There's more than the teacher-student issue?" Ratha would be patient while Gabrielle struggled with her thoughts. The beautiful Indian teacher believed that if Gabrielle went only on feeling, there would not be need for this discussion. In most circumstances, Gabrielle had learned to let go of her thoughts and empty her mind of conflicting messages, but when it came to physical intimacy, Gabrielle had caged and hidden her thoughts successfully, never allowing them to see the light of day, thus never having to own and work through them.
Gabrielle lowered her head and whispered, "I've told you about Xena, right?"
"Oh, many times. I would have loved to have known her. Perhaps another time." Ratha eluded to what she believed in mostreincarnation.
"And I explained that we were lovers and soulmates?" Gabrielle stared at Ratha, her heart skipping a beat as she looked into her eyes.
"Yes, Gabrielle. That was quite clear."
"Well, I would feel funny being with someone else. I mean, Xena and I were so connected, we completely balanced each other, her darkness was calmed with me at her side and I was less of an innocent around her. Xena made me see reality and not the dream of how I wanted things to be. Even our lovemaking styles balanced each other. She loved to consume me and I loved touching her gently, long kisses and tender caresses. I remember she called her style 'Greek Fire' and mine the 'Wings of Bliss.' Sometimes, I needed to take her without question and I would. On those occasions, she would love me so gently that her hot tears would fall onto my body as she touched me. I could tame her and she could make it safe for me to lose myself."
She went on, "A lot of things happened to us." The blonde woman bit the inside of her lower lip as she tried to explain. "We survived situations we shouldn't have, we moved beyond our doubts to a place of total trust; we welcomed our differences and came to understand them. Before I could put into words that she was my soulmate, I knew it. I felt it. How can I share my body with someone else? No matter how much my body may want it, I don't think I can."
"There is the rub, Gabrielle. Did you hear what you said? 'I don't think I can.' But you feel you could."
"Ratha, she was my soulmate," Gabrielle cried.
"Tell me, what is your definition of soulmate?" Ratha's tone had taken on a familiar one and Gabrielle felt more comfortable. The Indian teacher's hands had released their burning touch on Gabrielle's skin and now rested patiently on her own thighs.
"A soulmate. A soulmate is someone with whom you have an inexplicable bond, someone you believe you've known forever and whom you will know again. A soulmate is someone whose feelings you put parallel to your own and with whom you have an...almost ethereal compatibility." Gabrielle grinned. She was happy with her definition and it explained what she and Xena had together.
"That's lovely. And what I like about your definition is that it is based on feelings, not thoughts. You feel that you are in a soulmate relationship with Xena, not because you have been told that or because you have to put a name to it, but because that is what it is."
"Yes, yes. That's exactly it."
"Hmm?" Ratha closed her eyes and Gabrielle took the opportunity to really look at Ratha. She found that she was and had been for some time, very attracted to her. The Indian woman's arms were muscular and Gabrielle wondered if she had been a farmer or laborer prior to her life at the temple. She knew she hadn't been a warrior because Ratha appeared to know nothing of a warrior's life and had only rudimentary knowledge of weapons. Her hands were soft, though, so maybe she hadn't farmed. She might have been some kind of nurse and carried patients and supplies. Gabrielle stopped processing these thoughts, becoming aware of her rambling mind and reining it in. Taking a deep breath she waited for Ratha to speak.
"It has been eleven springs since Xena's mortal death? Eleven springs--forty-four seasons you have gone without physical touch, without the love of a woman or man?" Ratha asked.
"Woman." Gabrielle clarified. "I mean, I wouldn't have been with a man, my desire is for women. Was...I mean was for women." That blush reappeared.
"Of course, women." Ratha confirmed, then added, "In your definition of soulmate, you did not mention the sexual bond. Now, you and Xena were lovers in this life, but is there a possibility that in another life you will not be? I recall you telling me of an experience in the future where your reincarnated self was younger and Xena's reincarnated self was more of a mother figure."
"Right. Arminestra, Xena's future self was a woman in her sixties. Shakti, my future self was a warrior in his thirties, maybe."
"And we cannot begin to guess what other lives are in store for the two of you. Your future self could be Xena's future self's mother or the two of you could be siblings, or maybe Xena's future self could be father to your son. In the future, both of you could be of the same sex, yet prefer to share intimacies with people of the opposite sex."
"Yes. From what I have studied almost anything is possible."
"And I would assume that some of your future circumstances would preclude you from being physically intimate with each other." Ratha commented and waited for Gabrielle's nod before continuing. "As mother, you would not share intimate, physical pleasures with your child."
"Of course, not."
"And if you were siblings?"
"I...I would certainly hope not." Gabrielle answered indignantly.
"Gabrielle, please. I am not criticizing you, I am simply trying to understand."
"I'm sorry, Ratha."
"I am not offended." Ratha informed, then continued. "In these future lives, you will be physically intimate with someone other than your soulmate--your spouse, of course to create your child. You might make love to a friend and not question if you are betraying your soulmate because intimacy with Xena's future self in that life would be taboo to say the least."
"I believe I know where you're headed."
Ratha touched Gabrielle's cheek as she had when she first knelt in front of her. The former battling bard closed her eyes and breathed in Ratha's unique scent of exotic rich spices and the soft hint of flowers. Her body throbbed with the need to know this woman. Slowly, Gabrielle's head turned and her lips made contact with the palm of Ratha's hand. Neither woman said anything as Gabrielle's mind swirled in chaos, cluttered with new thoughts of desire and old thoughts of the love she once had and didn't want to let go.
"Gabrielle, I have to ask. What are you afraid of? Why will you not free your body from your mind? I would like nothing more today than to cover you in kisses and make love with you. You are a very desirable woman and I sense so much desire within you."
Gabrielle took steady, calming breaths as she continued to lean her lips into Ratha's hand. "You smell of jasmine."
"Yes, I do."
"I..." Gabrielle had not arrived at the temple with passionate release on her mind or an expectation of sharing long, romantic intimacies with this woman, but somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew that she had wanted Ratha for a long, long time.
Ratha lowered her hand and stood. The blonde woman remained sitting cross-legged on the pillow. "Come." Ratha's outstretched arm reached for her and Gabrielle placed her hand delicately in her teacher's. Standing next to each other, they breathed the same air and stared into each other's eyes. All of this talk of lovemaking and desire had Gabrielle weak and ready to submit to anything Ratha wished. Everything made sense. She had been so filled with grief even after she thought she had worked through it that she had forgotten about her own human needs; she had been so lonely for Xena's touch that she had rejected all overtures from others.
"Kiss me." Gabrielle said huskily.
Ratha hesitated, then looked toward the window, staring out into the late afternoon sky. "It is late. I will see you tomorrow morning?"
Taking a step back, Gabrielle stared at Ratha who at that moment was the picture of serenity. A raised eyebrow was Ratha's only response to the unasked question, before she bent, picked up the flowers and lifted them to her nose. "Ah, so fragrant. So absolutely perfect."
Ratha turned her back to Gabrielle and departed.
* * * * *
The next day, Gabrielle awoke before dawn. She had had a fitful sleep, dreaming of both Ratha and Xena.
Walking to the temple with her arms full of jasmine still hanging from their vines, she had encountered an ever-changing roadchanges no one else could see. Her mind wandered and tripped over her thoughts. She struggled to maintain focus as she meandered down a luscious path where the ripe fruit of desire grew untended and wild, then a fork in the road led to an edge of a precipice where she considered a climatic resolution to the longing she felt controlled her. Next, she happened upon an overflowing river that flooded the road. She watched as the waves lapped delicately and sensuously at her feet and higher. Later, it was a dry and stifling road she treaded. Dust flew into her face, smelling old and forgotten, but up ahead a geyser sprayed saving water. When she reached the natural fountain, she sipped from it, then gulped madly, becoming bruised by its force, yet entering its center for the sweetest of the water.
Please try to stay focused, Gabrielle. She told herself.
Finally, she reached the temple, but instead of following her usual routine, Gabrielle sat on the rickety wooden bench outside the temple gates. Taking deep breaths, she cleared her mind of Ratha's eyes and body, moved her thoughts from Xena's warm mouth, the feel of Xena's arms around her and the touch of her loving strokes that had once sent her spiraling into near unconsciousness. She sat taking deep breaths until her mind no longer wandered and her thoughts were of nothing.
It had been candlemarks and Ratha wasn't sure if she had asked too much of Gabrielle. In the three summers they had worked together, Gabrielle had never missed a set appointment. Although she seldom ventured out, Ratha needed to be certain that Gabrielle was well. Crossing the courtyard, she passed the newly blossoming flowers, taking note of their beauty. She felt the individual blades of grass against her feet, and paid attention to the vines growing haphazardly on the picket gate that separated the temple from the outside world. Slowly, she opened the gate and turned left, ready to trace Gabrielle's footsteps, willing to walk into Gabrielle's town barefoot, if necessary. Her teacher was surprised to find Gabrielle sitting on the bench, her chest barely rising with her breaths. Ratha took a seat next to her and observed that Gabrielle was so deep in meditation that she hadn't responded to the creak of the bench or the weight of someone sharing it with her. Ratha began her meditation exercises, too.
"Did you come to find me?" Gabrielle asked softly, her voice a bit shaky from having been silent all morning and well into the afternoon.
"Yes. But you are here." Ratha's eyes opened and she turned to face her student.
"May I kiss you?" Gabrielle's voice quavered, though this time from anticipation and a bit of fear.
"I have waited. Please, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle closed the distance between them and it was the blonde who embraced the dark woman. Holding the back of Ratha's head, she pressed into her. Experiencing the sensation of kissing her without the thoughts of what it meant clouding her mind was incredibly pleasurable.
"I want you, Ratha." Gabrielle clung to her, so certain of how she wanted to proceed.
Standing, Gabrielle took Ratha's hand, helping her rise, then walked beside her into the temple, leaving the bundle of flowers on the bench.
* * * * *
"My delicate flower, my lotus. Gabrielle, you are truly beautiful." Ratha lightly tickled Gabrielle's bare side with her fingers, working her way up and down her torso as she stared into her eyes. The two women mirrored each other's positions on the pallet. Resting on their side, a crooked arm acting as a head support, their cheek and chin resting in their hand. Though, near in age, the differences were pronounced. One woman had skin the color of the sun's rays and the other, the color of dark, rich soil; one's back was without ornamentation while the other had an elaborate drawing in permanent tattoo ink of a coiled dragon, its expression both angry and protective; one had short-cropped blonde hair, a style she had maintained long after her fighting days had ended, while the other's long black braid had been lovingly unknotted and left to hang pleasingly down her back and against her waist.
"I find you positively stunning." Gabrielle sighed.
"I am only one of nature's creatures. All of nature is stunning and beautiful, isn't it?"
"Yes, especially this moment." Making love with Ratha had been fulfilling, enlightening, passionate, and completely satisfying. The two women had connected on many levels and Gabrielle felt that she had reached inside Ratha's soul and held it in her hands when she had been inside her; she felt as if she had once again come to understand the meaning of life on her tongue when she tasted this woman.
"Nothing can compare to this moment. Oh, wait, this moment can. Uh, another one. Hmm. I just had another remarkable moment. And another and another and another and another...." She grinned while continuing her gentle stroking.
"Funny, I've never seen this playful side of you." Gabrielle commented.
"I show you all of me, all of the time. I have never hidden anything. Could it be that you chose not to see this?"
All of Gabrielle's senses were alive. The room smelled of sandalwood incense and their love. At some point, Ratha had lit dozens of candles that now illuminated the room with a soft, romantic glow. Gabrielle leaned into Ratha and kissed her passionately, then raised her head to hold this woman's soul in her eyes.
"Another magnificent moment," Ratha remarked.
They laughed and as they quieted, Gabrielle said, "You are very special to me."
"Because you unchained me, untied me in many ways."
"I did not free you, you freed yourself, Gabrielle. Perhaps I only pointed the Way, maybe left some breadcrumbs for you to follow."
That comment reminded Gabrielle of the naan bread beside the pallet. She turned and hungrily grabbed the large, flat round bread, breaking it off into two pieces for each of them. When she turned back to Ratha, the dark-haired woman's mouth was open, waiting for the morsel. Gabrielle pushed Ratha's piece into her mouth and smiled when the dark-skinned woman began to nibble on Gabrielle's fingers. When Ratha pulled two of the digits into her mouth and began to suck on them earnestly, Gabrielle's head tilted back in pleasure. "Ooooh."
Ratha opened her mouth just enough to mutter, "You are so sweet. You taste like a honey pastry."
"I believe you taste yourself on my fingers." Gabrielle chortled.
She said before swirling her tongue around Gabrielle's finger. "Ah, so you are correct. But you taste like honey, too. In a few days I will go to see the beekeeper and learn all about making honey."
"Huh? Gabrielle was distracted by Ratha's warm mouth. "A few days?"
Popping the finger out of her mouth, Ratha explained, "I cannot leave your side just now. I cannot get enough, my fairy, my sprite."
"Fairy and sprite?"
"Like the stories you told me of the Celts. The fairies and sprites come to them and make magic and wishes come true. You are my fairy, making my wishes a reality."
Ratha pulled Gabrielle down, placing soft kisses on her lips and cheeks. Pulling back, emerald eyes gazed curiously into Ratha's. Nuzzling against her neck, Ratha tried to put Gabrielle at ease. "I am not asking for anything, Gabrielle. I am honored to accept this gift you offer and I pray that you will do the same. You are a treasure."
"So are you, Ratha. So are you.
Gabrielle straddled her Indian lover's body and slowly began to undulate her hips, while watching Ratha's dark eyes simmer in desire. She bent and kissed her deeply, moaning again at the sensations coming alive in her mouth and between her legs. Gabrielle's eyes closed as she lost herself in the feeling. Pulling away from Ratha, Gabrielle lowered her head to Ratha's breast, sucking it into her mouth. Her lips lingered on the erect nipple, kissing it in worship, then taking it fully into her mouth. Ratha moaned as she held Gabrielle's head there, requesting a stronger touch. Gabrielle barely heard the Indian woman whisper in between shallow breaths, "When we are not in study, let us make love, Gabrielle. And when we are not sharing pleasures, I will be with the bees trying to duplicate your nectar.
* * * * *
Gabrielle and Ratha had been living as a couple for over three autumns. The blonde woman had moved from her small rented hut in the tiny village in the valley, to the temple on the hill. The women had found a glorious way to explore and express their sensuality with each other and made love often. The first summer through the next spring they were together, Gabrielle still attended lessons and received instruction from Ratha, but it had become much more informal.
Over the seasons, Ratha made it a point to include Gabrielle as a teacher in her other lessons. Spiritually minded men and women made journeys to the temple to learn more from these two women who were considered masters. Gabrielle, always the bard had long ago begun writing their theories, teachings, and words of inspiration on scrolls to share with others. While Ratha worked with her bees and sold the delicious honey to townspeople, Gabrielle set to words her feelings on the meaning of life and its mysteries.
In the evening, in bed, Gabrielle would ask Ratha if she had captured their feelings on parchment. Sometimes she would rewrite, but usually Ratha would smile, pleased beyond measure that Gabrielle could see so clearly into both their hearts. Before long, the parchment would be set aside and Ratha would pull a honeycomb from a clay pot and messily drip that day's product into Gabrielle's awaiting, opened mouth. This fun would soon turn into something more emotional and poignant. Early on, when they first became lovers, they took joy and amusement in each other's bodies, but soon that changed. It happened naturally. Their lovemaking had always been intense and the closer they grew, the more their lovemaking embodied their spiritual beliefs, their passion for life and each other, and a desire to reach not only physical ecstasy, but also spiritual exaltation. Gabrielle became prolific on this subject, writing numerous scrolls about physical intimacy and the many levels of pleasure and joy accessible to someone who gives into the moment completely.
* * * * *
Ratha, Gabrielle, and the other teachers at the temple had prepared for a group of visiting monks. These monks had traveled throughout India talking to religious leaders, obtaining new information about how others viewed and practiced their faith. Both women were well respected and their work had reached the far corners of the country through Gabrielle's scrolls that had been painstakingly reproduced by students throughout the provinces.
The reception that evening had been small and informative, but very quiet. It seemed these visiting monks were able to communicate quite effectively without verbalizing. Throughout the event, Ratha would smile at Gabrielle, knowing how difficult it was for her partner not to talk.
That night, as they disrobed for bed, Ratha asked about a particular incident during the 'festivities,' if they could be called that. "Gabrielle, did you know tonight your color changed to a pink the color of the carnations growing in front?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Umm. That doesn't surprise me. I bet I know when. One of the monks propositioned me?"
"What kind of proposition?" Ratha asked interested, but without jealousy.
Cocking her head to the side, Gabrielle considered the description of the proposal. "Hmm..." Slowly, she unwrapped her sari. "He took my hand and placed it on his...member. His erect member."
Ratha's eyes enlarged, her pupils almost lost in the bright whites. "What? He..."
"Well, I pulled away, of course. He thought I didn't understand his request."
"How could he possibly think that?"
"The monk spoke!" Gabrielle laughed.
"Dare I ask?" Ratha smiled. "Tell me." She sounded like a teenager hearing about how her best friend got 'felt up' by an eager boy.
"He said, and this is verbatim, Ratha.... I want to plunge my god inside of you and let you squeeze the life out of it."
"You are not serious?" Ratha looked flabbergasted.
Sliding into bed, Gabrielle watched as Ratha finished undressing. "I most certainly am. He apparently has read our scrolls, but their meaning has escaped him."
"When we talk about the god and goddess within, it's not a name we use for our private parts." Ratha's naked frame joined Gabrielle's. "Why that was just vulgar."
"I turned him down." Gabrielle paused. "Do you think I did the right thing?" The blonde grinned and embraced her lover.
"Yes, I don't believe you'd find much fulfillment with him." Ratha tenderly touched Gabrielle's cheek and smiled at her with all the love she felt for her Greek partner.
"Umm, Ratha..." Gabrielle started as she pulled away from her.
The Indian woman sat up, taking notice of the tension in Gabrielle's voice. Just that utterance and her name, let Ratha know that something was either troubling Gabrielle or that her lover had a sensitive matter on her mind. "What is it, Gabrielle?"
Seeing the concern staring back at her, Gabrielle hastily sat up, too. "We...we received another proposition tonight."
Ratha nodded, waiting for Gabrielle to continue. The blonde played nervously with her fingers, wringing her hands in a gesture that was well known to her partner. Finally, Ratha grabbed Gabrielle's hands and held them tightly, calming both the fingers and her lover's racing heart.
"Nothing like the first--something quite intriguing. One of the monks would like us to join them on their tour and conclude at their monastery. There is a school, an ashram and she believes that we could be very helpful to the students. The ashram only trains women in math, science, and faith. She would like for us to meet with students, talk with them about our meditation, sacred lovemaking, all that we've been writing about. She feels that since I have a background a bit different from others, I might talk about the Path of the Warrior in a world of peace. I feel it's a good opportunity, but I explained I couldn't speak for you."
Ratha nodded, this time in consideration of the offer.
"It would take us quite a way from here, but it would give us a chance to meet new people...women who aren't able to travel here. It sounds like something...Well, I..."
"Gabrielle, you want to go and you know I will never leave here." Ratha stated.
The blonde head lowered, but Ratha, using a delicate finger on Gabrielle's chin, lifting her head and looked into the green eyes that had warmed her, gazed at her with deep longing, sparkled with amusement, and melted her soul for many, many seasons.
"Long ago, I told you I would accept what gifts you offered--that I would be honored. I hope I have never made you feel obligated or bound."
"No," Gabrielle whispered.
"Do you believe distance will keep us apart?" Ratha asked rhetorically. Both were learned women on the subject of their place in the universe. "We will still share the same stars. I will always pray for your well-being. In meditation, in my stillness, whether you are here or hundreds of miles away, I will always surrender to you as I surrender to all that is. This is my truth. Gabrielle, it is not your nature to sit in the same place. Remember our trip to the valley a while ago? You were helping me deliver some of the honey?"
"Yes, I remember, Ratha."
"We stopped in the town square and there was a company of traveling performers with monkeys and elephants."
Gabrielle's eyes brightened at the memory. "As I recall, you said I reminded you of them. Didn't you call me a monkey-elephant?"
"No, love. I said you are an elephant-monkey. In a way, that captures your dueling personalities. You are loyal, methodical and cautious, moving with strong, sure steps. That is how you are when you examine life. But then you are ready to act, jumping in, lending a hand, and making things happen around you, sometimes rash, but always passionate. That is how you are when you live life. You are the methodical elephant and the swift monkey."
"And Gabrielle, your daily drills have not gone unnoticed." Ratha had never asked and Gabrielle never explained. Everyday, Gabrielle opened a long wooden box where she kept her sais. She quickly wiped them down with a cloth, and walked out into the courtyard where she performed complicated arm and wrist movements for a full candlemark.
"They're only exercises, not drills. I...I used to enjoy spending time working with my sais. I could just as easily pick up candles or twigs or..." Gabrielle muttered behind her fingers that covered her mouth.
"But you do not. Just yesterday, as we prepared for the visitors, you took time for drills with your sais."
"It's an exercise, a dance," Gabrielle implored.
Ratha knew that she was pushing her lover, but she seemed to understand Gabrielle well and wanted her partner to open her inner eye, to see the person she truly was. "You have lived here and before in the village below as the elephant. Your monkey nature needs sustenance, too. You must not ignore that."
"But what about what we've built here?"
"Nothing will change and all will change. That is the way of life. You must follow your heart and not forsake your dreams."
"My dreams? What do you mean? I have no wish to leave, Ratha."
Ratha leaned back against the wall that was also the headboard of their pallet. She pulled Gabrielle to her and the former bard snuggled in, resting lightly on Ratha's chest. "Gabrielle, did you know you talk in your sleep?"
Gabrielle looked up at Ratha. "I do? Still? Xena used to..." She paused and sighed. "I'm sorry."
Ratha rivaled Gabrielle with her own sigh. "Gabrielle, I have asked you not to deny what you had with Xena. As your teacher, I am telling you--all that you were and all that you've experienced are vital to the person you are now. It molds and forms you, so you cannot and must not pretend it never existed."
"I would never deny, Xena. She still holds a powerful place in my heart and soul. I just never want to make you uncomfortable."
"I feel ill at ease when you hide from me. Please do not do that..."
Gabrielle interrupted. "I don't hide from you, Ratha."
"Your dreams declare otherwise."
"What are you talking about?"
"Lately, more and more often, you speak of Xena in your dreams." Ratha looked down and saw the alarm on Gabrielle's face. Her lips had thinned as her eyes widened.
"You have said nothing to hurt or offend me, Gabrielle. You only spoke in dreams what your voice wouldn't allow while awake. But it was not of romance and passion you spoke, but your different paths. Still, you are processing what it is to be a warrior and protect those who will not help themselves while living a life of peace, where you are one with all other creatures great and small. From what I have gathered, you and Xena had this discussion more than once."
"Yes, we did." Relief was now the expression Gabrielle wore. She still had erotic dreams of Xena and had accepted the warrior's continuing presence in her life. She had not wanted Ratha to be privy to that, however. It would have been painful for the Indian woman who had given herself so freely to her. Gabrielle loved Ratha the best she could and that's all both women could ask.
"Almost twenty winters ago, Eli, a prophet of peace..."
"I know of Eli."
"Right. Of course. Sorry."
Ratha patted her arm, gesturing for her to continue. "Eli allowed himself to be killed at the hands of our Greek God of War, Ares. I tried to come to his aid. I was willing to die to protect. Not once, not twice, but three times I stepped in, confronting Ares myself. I tried to reason with both Eli and Ares. I begged Eli to retreat, to seek refuge and I pleaded with Ares to stand down. Neither god nor man would budge. Eli had such an influence on me. I believed in his Way of Love even though I seemed incapable of putting it to practice. So, when he told me to walk away, to let fate take its course, I gave in. I probably could have held Ares off until Xena arrived, but I turned my back. Before I could take a good breath, Ares had run him through. Eli was one of my closest friends, my first real spiritual mentor, the answer to so many people's prayers, and I turned my back because he asked me to." Tears leaked from Gabrielle's eyes, falling sideways down her cheek and onto Ratha's chest. The blonde wiped her cheeks roughly with her clenched hand.
"You know now that it was the right thing to do, not necessarily for you, but for Eli."
"Xena didn't see it that way. I was distraught, in incredible despair." Gabrielle sniffed. "When Xena arrived I was cradling him in my arms and she just wouldn't stop accusing me. She kept asking me why I didn't fight and when I tried to explain, she didn't want to hear it. She was a warrior and felt that I should have behaved in a like fashion. I recall, so vividly, like it was yesterday, how I shouted at her. I said, 'so Ares is right! The world belongs to warriors."
"There is room for all of us. I doubt that we can live in a world without conflict, but the idea of such a world is something we can all hope to attain." Ratha tried to comfort.
"I've never told you this, Ratha. It's with great shame that I admit it. Ares asked me to join him that day--the day he killed my friend, and I said yes."
For the first time in their relationship, Ratha was stunned. "Uh...you joined with the God of War?"
"No, but I considered it. It had been a while since Xena had been that disappointed in me. My world just caved in. I wasn't thinking straight and I was feeling numb. Suddenly, I thought she and Ares have such conviction about waging warmaybe they're right. Maybe I'm wrong."
"You were not wrong."
"I never joined him, but I lived a warrior's life for many winters. I fought in the name of peace. I carried a banner of unity into battle yet killed and injured many to protect the innocent. I never possessed that conviction, though. I had to escape it, so I came here. I believe there is something fundamentally wrong with picking up a weapon to take a life. But I am forced to ask myself over and over if Xena was rightwarriors are needed to protect those who cannot or will not protect themselves. I've never been able to reconcile these notions."
"That is why you must leave. You need to find your golden time of day when you can look at the setting sun and know that you completed your day as the person you truly are, come to terms with her, and love her fully. This is part of that journey. You can teach about war having lived it, you can teach peace having known it, and you can share what you know of love having given it and received it from two."
"Leave you? That would be...hard."
"You've done much harder in your life, my lotus."
Gabrielle stretched to kiss Ratha's lips. "Thank you."
* * * * *
The journey to the monastery had taken several moons due to the various stops along the way. Gabrielle met with other scholars, worshippers, and spiritually enlightened teachers.
The days were rich with conversation--the normally silent monks trying to make Gabrielle comfortable. They would have discussions that went well into the night about god as a higher being and as god inside each person. The masters disagreed, at times shouting their concepts in hopes of being heard, and often weeping when they accepted a new idea that made sense.
Though rich, there were difficult days when Gabrielle found it hard to even meditate, her thoughts returning to Ratha and her home on the hill. She missed the way they prayed together, their conversations, both heated and gentle, and the way they made love. But Gabrielle missed the small things, too--surprising Ratha as she took care of the bees and getting a taste of the sweet honey as a reward or sitting cross-legged on the floor weaving a flower garland for Ratha to wear around her neck. The odd thing was that Ratha never entered her dreams. She commanded attention during her waking hours, but at night, under the stars or under a ceiling, Gabrielle's dreams were as they always had been, of Xena.
Just as they entered the village very near the monastery, one of the monks rode his horse alongside Gabrielle's. She turned pleasantly in her saddle to address the person, but a mask came down over her face when she saw who sat beside her.
"Pariket? What's up?" She asked in a friendly tone, hiding any irritation she was feeling.
"I recently read one of your scrolls. Just this afternoon."
"Yes?" Gabrielle wished he'd cut to the chase. This was the monk who had placed her hand on his rigid penis.
"I really like the way you describe touching Ratha's breastthe softness, the firmness. It aroused me a great deal and then when you wrote about how the two of you would embrace so that your heartbeat could be felt in her chest and hers in yours, I kept thinking about how your nipples and hers must be touching, too and they were probably hard, right?"
"Pariket, you are totally missing the purpose of what has been written. Ratha and I were not writing to arouse whomever might read them..."
"You've got to be kidding." He interrupted excitedly. "I was so turned on. How could I not be? When we had to resume riding, it was distressing. Imagine, having to direct a horse while trying to take care of my need on its back." He looked down at his lap. "You know what I mean? My saddle is still stained."
Gabrielle was using every meditation and yoga technique she could think of to calm the anger about to burst from her. He is merely an extension of yourself, Gabrielle. You can't be angry. He is a part of you. You have to accept him. In with love, out with hate. She repeated this mantra in her head. Just then another horse rode up beside her.
"Gabrielle, see just above the ridge? That is our monastery." Niti spoke happily as she motioned toward the horizon with her head. "It's good to see something familiar." She leaned forward. "Hello, Pariket."
The man smirked and turned his horse guiding him to the back of the caravan of monks.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you." Gabrielle said seriously.
"I will not apologize for him. That isn't my place. Only he can take responsibility for his actions. I will say I'm sorry that my plan was a failure," she said as they continued riding forward.
"Your plan? I guess it wasn't to drive me insane because otherwise it would have been hugely successful. What is wrong with that guy? He's a monk?" Gabrielle shook her head.
"He has not learned how to channel his sexual desires. Because of this, he is acting inappropriately. We believed that this pilgrimage to various holy sights would act as a salve, giving him relief and comfort. It has made it worse. He wasn't always like this. He was devout in all words and deeds, but the winters of celibacy have had a perverse effect on him. Celibacy makes some of us stronger, others, it does not."
"I don't adhere to the celibacy theory. I don't believe it was particularly good for me, but I can only speak for myself. I need that closeness when I feel bonded to someone. It hasn't happened often in my life, but when that connection exists, I am empty without that aspect of expression. Finding a physical connection with someone and giving myself over to her has always been healing and cleansing and an important aspect of who I am. For some, I would guess that celibacy centers them, gives them focus."
"We are a celibate order." Niti reiterated to avoid misunderstanding later.
"I understand and will certainly live as all of you." Gabrielle had no interest in finding another mate. She had been blessed to find a soulmate in Xena and a compassionate and passionate bond with Ratha. She doubted it would come along again.
As they headed toward the ridge, Gabrielle had a vague since of having been to the village before. She nodded to herself, thinking that perhaps she had traveled through this town on her way to the place that had become her home.
"I don't want to stick my nose where it doesn't belong and please tell me if I'm out of line, but I don't think Pariket should be teaching young students. It can be a dangerous situation with a teacher who is so out of control with his emotions and physical needs."
"Thank you, Gabrielle. That decision has been made. He will be transcribing scrolls for our library. From the various temples and monasteries we've visited, we should have enough work to keep him busy until this passes."
"It may not pass." Gabrielle said definitively. They continued riding for a while, then as an afterthought, the blonde made a request. "Could you make sure he doesn't get a chance to transcribe any of mine?"
* * * * *
Leading her down a narrow and insufficiently lit corridor, Niti showed Gabrielle to her room. She would live alone, but the other monks and masters would be nearby in the dormitory style structure. As she opened the door, Niti warned, "It's small. We focus on a bare existence herea pallet, a bowl and pitcher to wash and here," she pointed to a small cutout in the wall where there was a latch indicating a door, "Here is a pot for your toilet needs."
"Thank you Niti. I'm sure I'll find the room pleasant."
"Pleasant is probably not the word, but it is all we have to offer. On the bright side, you will have a student to take care of your needsperhaps bathing your back, massaging your body and feet, emptying your pot."
"That will hardly be necessary." Gabrielle objected.
"Ah, but Gabrielle, they need to learn humility. How better than to wait on others? This room also has a small chest for your belongings. Those who have lived here for many seasons have no such belongings, but I imagine you have your parchments, scrolls, and quills. I guess your saddlebags can be placed in that corner over there." She directed with a tilt of her head. "And that...uh...that...urn.... You could put that on top of the chest. If you want it close by."
"Yes, I do. Thank you."
"I will return for you in a candlemark. I'll let you get settled, then take you to our dining room where you will have your evening meal."
"Niti. I am looking forward to this experience and meeting your students and helping if I can."
"You are a welcome addition." She looked up at Gabrielle with a smile.
* * * * *
The monkey mind that Ratha claimed needed unleashing was still securely locked away, a summer after entering the monastery. Nothing much happened there, but prayer. Even her young students were always agreeable, not asking for clarification, not arguing a point, but accepting of everything they were told. It was frustrating and Gabrielle often tried to force the issue, delving deeper into the abstract to further dialogue.
Niti and Gabrielle would often walk in the garden and even venture down the backside of the mountain to visit the small, peaceful town below.
One day Gabrielle asked why they always took the back trail and Niti explained. "The people in the village below are loving. They have sent some of their daughters to the monastery. We often trade back and forthour herbs and spices for their cloth and wood. Since we sit up on the mountain, we control the flow of water into the village as well. With the help of the townspeople we built a dam a while ago to prevent further flooding, now, two of our monks open and close that dam as needed, managing the flow of it for them."
"Is the valley on the other side uninhabited?"
"By no means, no. The people there are hard and cold, thinking only of themselves and taking all that nature provides as theirs alone. They vilify us because of the dam, but other reasons as well. Without their help, we built a second dam to protect them from flooding. They insisted that we were trying to slowly kill them by rechanneling the water away from them. Gabrielle, they had lost hundreds of people during the last flood. We couldn't stand by and do nothing." Niti shook her head as she recalled the incident. "In the night, some of their people came up and destroyed the dam. Not two moons later, another torrential rain came, pouring great rivers of water down the mountain. Frankly, I was surprised that our other dam held, but it did. Those townspeople only had to deal with days of nonstop rain, but on the other side..."
"Did more die?"
"The whole village was practically decimated--all but those who fled either up the mountain or around it. When it was all over, those who had sought refuge stayed in their new homessome of the spiritual leaders here were once from below. Only a few survived below and they were convinced that we had cursed them, had told the gods to be angry with them. We didn't know any of this until they sent a messenger telling us to never venture down their side of the mountain for if we did, we would be killed."
"And so you don't go. You're being held hostage up here?"
"Gabrielle, we go down this side. It really hasn't been a problem."
"Has there been flooding since then?"
"No." Niti paused. "Do you think they're right? That as long as we stay out of their lives than they will prosper?"
"Of course not. They've been lucky is all. Eventually, they will confront you again if they feel so strongly. You have to prepare for that."
"Yes, our older students, the novitiates who have been on retreat have all expressed interest in trying to work with the villagers. Their hearts are pure and hopeful. These students sing of peace, but peace is something you can't force on another. They must want it. I am afraid that those villagers lack the commitment it would take to come to a peaceful and neighborly resolution."
"I would have to agree with your novitiates, Niti. We have to end the cycle of hate, but preaching to those who already believe won't end it. We have to be down there, allowing them to see that we are all the same, really."
"Perhaps, this is a project you can tackle with the students upon their return. The monastery knows that we must change to have longevity. We are more than a haven for the lost, we are a dream for the future. Many of our monks and masters won't have your eagerness, Gabrielle, but you're persuasive. I bet you can change minds."
* * * * *
It was a day of excitement for the young students. Some of them were only toddlers when the older novitiates left the monastery for their retreat that had lasted twenty-four moons. The older students had lived in a cave several provinces away, getting closer to nature, to their god, developing their own ways that would carry them through their lives. A few of the children who could recall those who were away, happily told stories about their much older friends and wondered how different they'd be after their pilgrimage to the Mystic Mountains.
Gabrielle couldn't remember the last time she had heard so much activity. She had definitely never heard it here. The masters allowed the children to run freely and for the first time, Gabrielle saw these small people behave in a child-like manner she didn't know they possessed. She found herself laughing with them, asking questions about the older students and slipping into the high spirits of the day.
In the kitchen, a feast was being prepared, another occurrence not only unusual for the monastery, but before today non-existent. Baked bread, curried vegetables, and fried potatoes wafted throughout the buildings and unfortunately for a hungry Gabrielle, the fragrances were inescapable.
She sat in the courtyard watching the children play happily. She felt a touch of melancholy as she thought of her daughter, Hope and how she had not played this way, despite Gabrielle's prayers for her to be good and not like her father, Dahak. She thought of Eve and how she and Xena had missed this time in their daughter's life. Eve had gone from innocent baby to cruel and violent adult in the time it took for them to awaken from a napa nap of twenty-five winters. Stay focused, stay focused. Live in the here and now, stay in the moment. Gabrielle reminded herself. Sometimes, it was so hard for her rambling mind. She wondered if it was easier for a person to stay in the moment when their lives had consisted of no more than prayer, meditation, and meal time. Here, at this monastery, talking was often considered an event. Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle paid attention to the children at play in front of her. They were making a game of screaming one of the novitiates name and making the others describe her. It was a good way to learn some things about the students who would be receiving instruction from her beginning tomorrow.
Suddenly, with a speed she had not witnessed since the last time she and Xena had spent a lazy afternoon in the woods racing from one end to another, a fellow teacher ran into the courtyard, his robe flapping in the wind behind him. "By the gods above, our novitiates are in a struggle below. They were making their way back up here, when they were ambushed by villagers." The teacher was out of breath and he clutched his hand over his heart as he explained the situation.
By this time, Gabrielle was up and moving forward, just as Niti entered the courtyard, too. "Gabrielle, what shall we do?"
The blonde turned to look at the sea of dark-haired children and ran over to a spindly girl with long legs and arms. "Do you know where my room is?"
"Go there. On the floor, beside my pallet there is a box. Bring the box to me. Hurry!" She patted the girl on the rear and then moved toward Niti. "It's okay. We'll go deal with this. Niti, you need to gather some of the stronger monks and teachers. We might need all the help we can get."
Niti paused, unsure what to do. "Gabrielle, I can't ask any of these people to fight if that's what you're suggesting."
Gabrielle stared at her for a moment, equally unsure how to respond. Just then the young girl came running back carrying the large wooden box. "Teacher?" She said handing it to her.
"Thank you." She smiled warmly at the girl, then stared at Niti. "Will you come with me?"
"I don't believe I will be of much help."
"Do you want the novitiates to die?"
"Death is not the end, Gabrielle."
The blonde sighed. "But it might not be their time." Gabrielle opened the box and lifted her sais. She gave them a twirl, getting used to the feel of them in her hand. "I guess there's no time like the present to push the cause of peace." She spoke flatly as she quickly ran the remaining length of the courtyard, into the front building, through the great hall, and down the mountain.
It took three-quarters of a candlemark to get most of the way down the mountain. She stopped on a ledge to regroup. It had been a while, but Gabrielle knew not to ride or run in to any potentially violent situation without a plan. So far, she didn't have one. Shivering, not from cold, but the knowledge that she carried her sais and that she might use them, she considered her options. If only I had brought Xena's chakram with me to India. I could just break off any weapons from several feet away, not actually do any harm, but stop them. Gabrielle thought about how she had buried the chakram along with all of the scrolls that chronicled her adventures and travels with the warrior. Those things now sat in a cave in Thrace where someday, perhaps they would be discovered. She wracked her brain trying to remember similar situations from her past alone and with Xena. Gabrielle shook her head in annoyance. Without a plan, Gabrielle stood and continued down the overgrown path leading to the village. Just as she was stepping off the mountain and into the village itself, Gabrielle looked hastily around. She saw several buildings with open terraces and balconies. She closed her eyes trying to envision how she would proceed.
"Your monkey needs sustenance, too. You jump into things, ready to lend a hand, ready for action. Follow your monkey nature, Gabrielle. Don't think, be." Ratha's voice was carried with the wind.
Cautiously, she moved around the perimeter trying to locate the novitiates and scope out the area. Footsteps fell softly around the corner from where she stood and it sounded like three, maybe four people were moving her way. Gabrielle, without thinking leapt onto the terrace a good ten feet above her. She looked down in amazement, then smirked when she saw four armed soldiers patrolling the area. They looked down at the footprints she had left, then searched to see where she might have gone. Finally one of them looked up, just as Gabrielle jumped back to avoid detection. Stealthily, she moved across the terrace, hugging the wall with her back, eyes darting left and right, sais held in the ready. In the town square, she saw a group of women who obviously did not belong in that village. They were heavily clothed in red saris and veils. Their feet were covered in animal skin boots, heavy-soled for walking. They were also bound together, one after another by a thick rope tied around each young woman's neck. Just as she was about to whistle for their attention, she reached an open window and heard two men talking.
"Look, why not kill them now?"
"Because no one has come down from that mountain to get them. What is the point of a kill if it goes unnoticed?"
"Yes, but it might be noticed by their gods, too."
"Ah, don't tell me you believe in that foolishness! Do you think their gods are punishing us? No, they're not. Those people up there, they want us dead. They withheld water from us and then flooded the entire village when we asked for relief. And they lied. Telling everyone that we had destroyed that dam. The dam that should never have been built."
The first man quieted and there were long moments without speech. Finally, he said, "You know, we did destroy that dam. Don't you remember, we were told to..."
Gabrielle heard a chair scrape against the floor, then fall to the ground. Next, she heard one of the men rasping for breath. "Stop. Lemme go."
"Then you shut up. Shut up! It doesn't matter how the dam was destroyed. Those people are no good and have to be stopped. It's best to stop them while they're young, keep them from years of lie-telling, pretending to be holy. We made a good capture. They're just the right age, ripe for us. We'll take them, then kill them. Let's go."
Surprisingly she heard both men laughing, pleased with their mutual decision to rape, defile, and murder. "I don't think so," she whispered to herself.
Before the men could make their way from their second story room to the town square, Gabrielle had leapt again. This time her direction was downward and into the heart of the square. "Hi." Gabrielle smiled at them. "I'm one of your new teachers. This isn't exactly how I expected to meet each of you, but we've got a little trouble." She slit the ropes quickly with her sais, just as the four soldiers entered the square from the left and another four from the right. "Run. Scatter. Move quickly."
"Hey, stop them!" One of the soldiers yelled to all of the others.
They seemed to be paralyzed into inaction, however. The armed men stood and watched as Gabrielle slowly circled them, her sari slipping a bit in the back, revealing her dragon tattoo. The soldiers finally moved, stepping back and away from the blonde. It wasn't quite the response she had anticipated, but she was pleased to see them turning away. That could not be said for the two men who rushed the square and tackled her. Gabrielle fell to the ground and one of the novitiates, a tall big-boned, dark-skinned girl, perhaps fifteen summers hesitated, looking back to check on her teacher. Gabrielle's eyes met hers and she screamed, "Run. By the gods, run!" The novitiate turned to comply, but two soldiers grabbed her arms and held her back. She struggled to get away, but the more she fought, the harder their fingers dug into her arms. She cried out and that seemed to give Gabrielle the strength she needed against her own attackers. Arching her back and propelling her body upward and forward, she went from being flat on her back to her feet, carrying the two men who clung to her with her. With a great push, she was able to knock one to the ground and immediately twirled and circled the other while holding her sais. "I don't want to hurt you," she said.
"Then put the weapons down, woman."
"Let the girls, go. They only want to make their way to the mountain."
"They'll never get there." He said lunging for her. Before he could make contact, Gabrielle took off running. When you can't talk your way out of it, Gabrielle, run. She heard Xena say to her. The blonde ran as quickly as she could in the sari, down one alley and up another. She ran in circles, finally returning to the square. Quickly, she looked back to see if the men were following. When she saw that they were, she turned to run forward again. She froze in her tracks. In front of her she noticed a spear hanging out from a broken ruin of a pillar, looking permanent and sturdy. Xena put that there. Gabrielle remembered. When we were attacked while coming to the rescue of Naiyima, Xena put that there. She heard the footfalls of all the soldiers plus the two men and once again, she leapt a distance she didn't think possible, stretching her arms in an attempt to grab hold of the length of the spear. She did, just as they rounded the corner. Hoping to build up momentum quickly, Gabrielle pushed herself forward, making fast even circles on the spear's handle, her legs straight out, ready to connect with each man's head as he appeared. It was over within moments.
When she dropped back to the ground, she saw five novitiates making slow work of untying their friend who had been recaptured. She walked over and again sliced the rope with her sais, smiling up at the novitiate who looked at her warmly.
"Are all of you okay?"
"Yes," they said in unison. "Thank you."
"All right, then. Let's head back. I'm sure that everyone is worried at the monastery."
As Gabrielle led them back up the mountain she found out each young woman's name and learned about their experiences in the cave. They had spent two springs there and not only did they feel pure and revitalized, they believed they had answers to save the world. Gabrielle was pleased to hear that youth still held out hope for love to conquer all. It would make her teaching them very enjoyable.
"Why were you taking this route back up to your home?"
"We believe that we must start now in our message of peace. Why go up the mountain to come back down when we can show that we aren't fearful and want to have peace between us? Going up the other side would have sent a message, if only to us that the villagers can't be trusted and we have something to hide." The tall girl whom she had rescued twice explained.
"Our hearts are open and so are our minds."
Each novitiate spoke with enthusiasm and as one voice. Though they spoke different words, the meaning was the samethere must be peace.
* * * * *
The lively debate Gabrielle had sought her first few seasons at the monastery was now an everyday occurrence. Her class of older students, fresh from their retreat had opinions about everything and they relished thought-provoking assignments. The young women were very much like Elijians except they seemed to understand that not everyone could be a pacifist. They questioned Gabrielle about her years of fighting and what had she hoped for as an outcome. The blonde teacher stayed away from discussion of her life with Xena, never mentioning the warrior and their seasons together. That was private and emotional, and a deep discussion could make Gabrielle feel raw. It was not how she wanted her students to see her.
"Teacher, if I want to find peaceful solutions to conflicts and I choose never to raise a weapon, but the person who disagrees with me settles problems with violence, what do I do? Do I ask someone to fight on my behalf? If I worry that my karma will be altered and harmed if I am violent, then how can I ask another to take on that violence?"
"I understand your question, Ashakiran. There is no clear answer." Gabrielle began answering her favorite student, the young, brave woman who tried to help her in the square when they first met. "At least, I haven't found one. Having been forthcoming with you about my past as a warrior, I can tell you that I struggled with just this subject. But would you like to know when I found it most challenging?"
"Yes," her class of six students responded simultaneously.
"Seldom when I was a warrior. Then, I believed I was doing the right thing. I believed my fighting was for a right and worthy cause. I carried a sword and another weapon along with the sais you have seen me with. I went into battle knowing what I had to do and feeling secure in my belief that it was right. My doubts and worries came when I wouldn't pick up a weapon. I worried when I first attempted living the life of a pacifist and needed others to protect me. If I couldn't kill because I found it morally reprehensible, then how could I allow someone to kill to save me?"
"Yes, yes. It is as if you placed more value on your self and your karma. You were selfish." Ashakiran's eyes lit up.
It was a bold move to call the teacher 'selfish,' but it was accurate. It seemed the student had a key to what was in Gabrielle's mind and had chosen this day to unlock the door. Hearing the words spoken took Gabrielle by surprise. She had never articulated her feelings quite this way, but Ashakiran was right. She had felt selfish and judgmental.
The blonde nodded her head finally. "It was selfish, but not in the way you would suspect. The selfishness came from believing my path was the only and correct path instead of it being the correct path for me. There is the Path of the Warrior. All of our gods speak to it and is it not as legitimate a Path as one of Peace? One must follow their nature. Above all else, we must do that. There are warriors in this world and they serve an important function, especially to those who will not take up weapons. This is a discussion to be continued tomorrow, however." Gabrielle stood from her kneeling position and stretched out her legs. "I will see four of you for yoga this afternoon and all of you at our evening meal."
* * * * *
Classes progressed quickly that season. The six students in her 'war' class challenged her as much as she did them. After class, she found herself spending more and more time with these six, talking about her experiences as a warrior in Egypt, the land of the Celts, Gaul, and on Norse soil. All of the students were interested, curious, open to learning, but Ashakiran hung on Gabrielle's every word and Gabrielle responded to her with maternal love.
One evening at mealtime, Gabrielle watched quietly, listening to the light steps of the students as they served, the clanging of spoons against clay bowls, and the slurping of soup by everyone sitting at the table.
Since the return of the older novitiates, these women had taken over many of the roles of the younger girls, especially those who helped serve the monks. Tonight was no exception--the older students moved around the table, politely pouring tea and offering soup.
Gabrielle, from her seasons with Xena and those alone, had learned to 'read' peopletheir body language said a great deal and she believed she could detect moods and auras. Gabrielle noticed that Ashakiran was very subdued as she served. Her eyes would flash with a hint of happiness the few times that Gabrielle made eye contact with her, but then she seemed to hide away. The blonde also took note of others at the table with special attention to how each person interacted with Pariket. The adults ignored him while the female students tried to avoid him.
Gabrielle had recently been made aware that Ashakiran had been given the duty of serving Pariket both at mealtime and as his personal assistant in his room. She was surprised to hear it, aware that Niti and all others at the monastery knew of Pariket's lack of self-control and his ongoing objectification of women.
Sitting next to Niti, Gabrielle had the spiritual leader's undivided attention. She whispered, "Niti, why do you have Ashakiran serving Pariket? I worry that she might be placed in an uncomfortable situation."
Niti had just started eating her soup. Although it was not a requirement, Niti had become accustomed to taking all of her meals with the group in silence. However, since Gabrielle's arrival, it wasn't unusual to indulge the foreign woman in mild banter and frequent deep discussion. Taking a spoonful of the hearty soup, she savored it, then set the spoon on the table before answering. "There are few here, including myself better equipped to deal with Pariket. Ashakiran commands respect without asking and she is by far our best student. She stands out in everything she does. I would think that she would best know how to handle him. Pariket wouldn't dare approach her with an unseemly proposition."
Gabrielle didn't believe that. Pariket had no boundaries. "You know, I can certainly fend for myself, I don't need a student helping me bathe or massaging me or bringing me food. If I can do it, all of us can. I believe that Pariket uses these chores to his advantage. He isn't a stupid man and knows just how far to go before being called on his behavior." Gabrielle, though speaking with Niti, stared across the table at Pariket who was busily eyeing each novitiate who came in and departed the room.
"What have you heard, Gabrielle?"
"Nothing. It's just a feeling and I'm concerned. Ashakiran sits in two of my classes. In meditation, she excels, falling into a meditative state easily, in fact, much more easily than I. I've watched her just to make sure she hasn't dozed off and I am in awe at how she has regulated her breathing. Her chest barely rises and falls. In my 'war' class, she is amazing. She understands nuances of negotiation and how they could be used to ward off a battle between conflicting parties. Lately, however, there has been a distance as if she were somewhere else. I've asked her about it and she says it's nothing. I would be horrified to learn that she is suffering some form of abuse right under our noses."
"What do you suggest?" Niti asked, hoping to end the conversation quickly and get back to her meal.
"That Pariket take care of himself."
"That would hardly be fair, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle turned and stared at Niti in disbelief. The spiritual head of this monastery had told her when she first arrived that the students serving monks and masters was to teach humility. It sounded more like involuntary servitude. "Unfair to whom?" Gabrielle countered.
"To Pariket, of course and to Ashakiran who is certainly getting a lesson in humility."
"Niti, humility is one thing, putting a young woman in harm's way is quite another." Gabrielle continued to speak softly, but her ire was up and she felt her face warming and knew it was growing pink. Her fair complexion often gave her feelings away in this land.
The short and stocky, Indian woman heaved a deep sigh. "I see. Well, we'll just have to do something that will please all concerned parties."
"Might I suggest that I serve Pariket. I could use a refresher in humility." Gabrielle smiled.
"That would not be a good idea." Niti didn't like to be second-guessed and Gabrielle always seemed to do just that. Niti knew she would have to work on her own ego. She wanted her teachers and monks to have an equal voice at the monastery, but she preferred those voices be in agreement with hers. "We will work something out."
Niti turned back to her supper, picking up her spoon and enjoying the moment.
* * * * *
"Please come in." Gabrielle responded to the soft knock on her door.
She was both happy and surprised to see Ashakiran standing at the opened door. "May I enter or is this a bad time?"
Gabrielle uncrossed her legs and slowly stretched them out before standing. "Not a bad time at all. What can I do for you?"
Ashakiran moved toward the small latched door in the wall where Gabrielle kept her toilet pot. "I've been assigned to assist you as needed. I thought I might follow my usual schedule, so I'm here to empty your pot and then assist you with any other needs."
"Uh...you're not helping Pariket any longer?" Gabrielle was astounded that Niti would have moved so quickly on this issue. She had only spoken with her two evenings ago. Now, she wondered what lucky student had to endure Pariket's advances.
"No. I believe I have you to thank for that, teacher. I've done something right." Ashakiran smiled widely. Ashakiran spoke effortlessly to her teacher, interacting with her not with submission as most of the other students did. She wasn't passive, nor was she particularly assertive. The student seemed to simply be comfortable in her voice and sharing her thoughts with her teacher.
"Was it horrible?"
Ashakiran disengaged the latch. "No, not horrible. Just irritating, I guess." After a moment's thought, she added, "It made me stronger." Lifting the pot from its place, Ashakiran started to turn, but Gabrielle placed a hand on hers. An unknown emotion swept over the blonde. It was jarring and both Gabrielle and her student felt it. Gabrielle blinked several times to clear her head and Ashakiran gasped softly.
"Uh...uh...uh. I take care of that myself. Don't bother." She took several steps backward.
"Really, Ashakiran, it's been done already."
Standing awkwardly at the small door, Ashakiran finally returned the pot and closed the small wooden opening. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"No, my needs have all been met. Especially now that I know you're no longer under his domain. I hate to say anything negative about another human being, but I believe that something must be done about his actions and behavior.
"He is much worse than our spiritual leader realizes. He is quite ill."
"Did he ever hurt you?"
"No. I believe that he is frightened of me."
"Frightened? Why? What have you done?" Gabrielle grinned conspiratorially.
"I did nothing. He's just afraid of me. Each day he comes up with some new and crude thing to do. My first day in his service, I knocked as I did with you, teacher. He told me to enter and I walked in to find him on his back, stretched out on his pallet, completely nude. He was erect and wanted me to 'assist' him. I walked over to the pallet..."
"No, please. You didn't touch him? You are not his body slave. He..."
Ashakiran stopped Gabrielle's raging. "Please, teacher. Let me explain. I walked over to his pallet and knelt before him so that we were face to face. I stared at him for the longest time, looking deep into his eyes to discover why. I saw nothing, but felt something. He has an illness. I am not sure what he suffers from, but he is not well."
"I know and I find it utterly disgusting. You should know Ashakiran that he is not singling you out, but has done this to others. Niti must do something about it."
"I agree. But I also feel love and worry for him. I believe he needs a healer. I feel it might be something in his brain, something that perhaps herbs could manage. I'm just relieved to be away from him."
"So each day he would offer himself up to you?"
"Each day there was something, let me put it that way, and it always involved his penis. Many days, he would just demand that I sit in the only chair in the room and be his audience while he gave himself pleasure. Teacher, his pallet is covered with evidence of his arousal..."
Gabrielle couldn't remember being so repulsed.
"Yet he was unable to reach his peak with me staring into his eyes. He would finally tell me to leave. Regrettably, the entire exercise would be repeated the next day."
"Why didn't you report it?"
Ashakiran shook her head and stared at the floor. "I didn't believe that anyone would help me. He is a monk, after all."
"You could have come to me. Why didn't you? Certainly, you know by now that I will stand up for all my students. I love each and every one of you. You are like daughters to me."
"I don't know why, then. I'm sorry if I let you down." She continued to find points of interest on the floor.
Gabrielle moved from her safe corner to go to the young woman and embrace her. As she hugged her, her mind was a whirlpool of scenes from her past. It was a strange feeling and normally only happened during the beginning stages of meditation. Perhaps, it was because she had comforted Xena so many times in this way. Xena had never wanted to disappoint Gabrielle, but many times she felt she had and would apologize. "You did nothing wrong and you most definitely didn't let me down." As soon as it didn't appear awkward, Gabrielle stepped back again. "How have you dealt with this?"
"Meditation, remembering that he is a creature of god as I am. It is ironic that our monk's name means something directly opposite of the man he has become."
"Hmm?" Gabrielle watched Ashakiran with curiosity.
"Pariket means 'one who is against desire,' or maybe something like 'one who does not give in to desire.' There is a purpose for everything, including the names we possess. In this land, many people believe that it is your name that shapes you and when a child is given a name, its meaning is not taken lightly. It saddens me that he has strayed so far from not only his name, but his faith."
Gabrielle was in awe of the confident woman. Probably only sixteen winters old, Ashakiran seemed far wiser than any of the monks or darshams she had known thus far.
"If there is nothing else, teacher?" Ashakiran waited patiently for Gabrielle's response.
"No, nothing. Thank you for stopping in and I will see you in class in the morning." She said while walking Ashakiran to the door.
As the student stepped into the hall, curiosity bested Gabrielle and she asked, "About the naming? What does Ashakiran mean?" Gabrielle guessed that it would be representative of her strong, intelligent personality or maybe something denoting her goodness.
The young student turned and smiled at the blonde woman. "Ashakiran means 'Ray of Hope,' teacher."
Stunned, Gabrielle fell back, supported by the doorframe, her daughter, Hope's face smiling placidly at her in her mind's eye. Ashakiran was nothing like Hope. In every action, in every spoken word the novitiate personified goodness. She recalled that this had been her one wish for her daughter. 'Be good.'
* * * * *
Soon her students began pestering her about the people who lived below. The relationship the monastery had with the villagers on one side of the mountain was harmonious, but on the other, nothing short of open hostility from the foot of the mountain. After spending candlemarks each evening with the students, they had come up with a plan that might be feasibleif they could get Niti to agree.
The plan involved the six novitiates and Gabrielle taking a big stepa big, frightening step. Niti was against it as predicted, but Gabrielle pushed and pushed. Discussions were heated between the two women and Niti finally couldn't hold back.
"Do you want to run this monastery? Is that it?" Niti asked in exasperation. " I have known these girls all of their lives. Their parents have put their trust in me, trusted me with their prize possession. I cannot and will not allow you, a stranger, a foreigner to come in here, usurp my position and put them in danger. I absolutely will not have it." Niti fumed as she paced her large, private bedroom. Gabrielle knelt on a pillow listening. She had dealt with warlords and royalty who held similar beliefsthat they could control others' minds and force their will on their people. She expected this from heads of armies and kings and queens, but hearing someone as supposedly devout as Niti demanding submission infuriated the woman.
"Niti, I am not saying that there isn't an element of danger. I, of all people, understand the risks when confronting hostile forces. I do believe that the students have a plan of attack, for wont of a better word, for peace. What good is it to pray for peace, yet refuse to work toward it where we can?
"No." Niti said with finality.
The Greek woman wasn't one to give up so easily, though. "These students will leave here eventually, replaced by others. When you send them out to complete their life's journeys, what do you hope for them?"
"I have no expectations."
"Not that they will perhaps teach others about prayer, meditation, the goddess within each of them; explain to children and adults the care they must take today in preparation for their karma and future selves? You don't have those expectations at all?" Gabrielle's voice was gentle, trying to find common ground with the leader.
"Well, yes. I would hope that they continue on with their studies. I would hope that they share what they've already learned with others." Niti plopped down into one of the four cushy chairs in the room.
"What if part of the experience they share is a success story about finding peace between parties when there had been none? Wouldn't that speak so much more to the power of their beliefs, your beliefs?"
"Gabrielle, I don't know if you debate well or if you just wear me down, but I seem to give in to you at every turn. I'm not much of a leader with you around."
"I would say that a good leader is one who is a good listener. I think you've done an admirable job here tonight." Gabrielle, always being the diplomat only complimented Niti on her willingness to sit with her and examine the issues this evening. Overall, Niti chose not to listen and often turned a blind eye as well.
Niti waved her off, hearing the comment exactly as it was meant. "Okay, go ahead. Tell me all about this big plan to bring peace to the land below."
"Great." Gabrielle grinned and quickly stood to pitch the idea with both excitement and wisdom. "First, a messenger will be sent down with a letter of introduction of sorts..."
* * * * *
As her personal aide, Ashakiran spent more time with Gabrielle than anyone. The young student treasured those private sessions where Gabrielle would speak candidly and the younger woman felt she didn't have to be cautious with her questions. Gabrielle had liked the student from the very beginning. They had a true bond and it seemed to grow stronger when Gabrielle learned the meaning of her name. Even before Xena died, Gabrielle had wanted to believe that somehow, Hope with her god-like qualities had survived their encounter in Poteidaia. Xena was convinced that the world was rid of Hope, but Gabrielle wasn't so sure nor did she want to believe it. Hope had survived infancy when she had been abandoned, then a poisoning by her mother, and a fall into a flaming pit, why wouldn't she make it through a simple, mortal stabbing? To cope with all that she had done to her daughter, she had to believe that Hope would persevere and live a normal human lifefall in love, settle down, have a mortal child who would carry a part of her grandmother within her. Now, she couldn't help but wonder if perhaps Ashakiran was the reincarnated embodiment of her daughter. This young Indian novitiate had quickly become the daughter Gabrielle had always dreamed of. All of the things she would have wanted to share with Hope, she now shared with the woman who was the "ray of Hope." Gabrielle believed that now she had the opportunity to be the parent she should have been long ago.
The feeling of connection was mutual and Ashakiran often touched Gabrielle in an easy familiar way when they were alone. Their relationship had grown to a point where Gabrielle used a shortened and friendlier name when addressing her--Kiran.
Ashakiran had made a habit of visiting Gabrielle just before everyone retired for the night. She made sure that Gabrielle had enough water for the night, that the room was sufficiently warm, and any other chores she could conjure up as a potential problem were handled. Gabrielle saw these gestures for what they were and liked the idea that the woman thought of her as a mentor and looked to her for guidance. This night was no exception.
"So things look very good for us to begin, Kiran. Our spiritual leader was most helpful."
Ashakiran grunted softly.
"Problem?" Gabrielle looked up from the parchment she was working on.
"Umm, no. Pardon me, teacher." Ashakiran said as she emptied clean water into the dry bowl on Gabrielle's table.
"Kiran, I think I have been in your company long enough to sense when you have something on your mind."
The student turned to look at her. "It's just...I know you had to push our leader to get this far. It seems so futile sometimes with her. She doesn't want to be with the people, she doesn't want to stand with them. All she cares about is sheltering herself off from the world and losing herself in her thoughts. Even in study, she gives so little of herself, while you give us everything. I don't know...sometimes I feel that we are an imposition, some irritating grain of sand under her toe she must deal with."
Gabrielle stared at the younger woman. "She loves you as do I? She has a different way of going about things, Kiran, but that doesn't make it wrong or flawed. Her nature is perhaps more cautious than yours or mine, but it is filled with caring and devotion."
"I'm sorry. I was out of line."
"You were only out of line if you believed you were speaking an untruth. If this is how you feel, that is not wrong, but I would say possibly her actions are misinterpreted by you."
Ashakiran tested the water. "It's hot now, but don't wait long to bathe." She turned around and looked down at her teacher. "Teacher, may I ask you a question?"
"Of course, Kiran."
The young Indian woman stared at the hard-packed clay floor, too embarrassed to make eye contact with her teacher. "Long ago, when I was first returning to the monastery and you heard that the other novitiates and I had been kidnapped below, what did you do?"
"You know what I did. I came down to rescue you." Gabrielle stared in the direction of her student, but her eyes rested only on the top of the woman's lowered head.
"Where was our spiritual leader?" Ashakiran whispered, knowing the answer and not really wanting to hear it.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and expelled it slowly. Her mouth twisted and she bit the inside of her lower lip before answering. "Our leader stayed here at the monastery to serve and protect those inside." She stood and walked to her student. Sneaking a peak under the long hair that covered her face, Gabrielle smiled. "Kiran?" She spoke softly. "Kiran?" Kiran's teacher placed a hand on her student's chin and raised her head to see those dark brown eyes. As she waited for Kiran's reply, disjointed images of Hope and Xena snuck into her mind. She saw the warrior fight off Hope to protect her. Blinking, Gabrielle returned to her present reality and watched Ashakiran intently.
Ashakiran wanted to drop the subject, but these were thoughts in her mind and they troubled her. She had tried to dismiss them through meditation or rationalize as she thought her teacher did, but she couldn't. She said, "I do not mean to be rude, teacher, nor contradict you, but could it be that you are misinterpreting her actions?"
Gabrielle chose not to answer.
Finally, Ashakiran looked into her teacher's warm green eyes and for a moment forgot what they were discussing. It was obvious that Gabrielle was engaged in a private challenge, wanting to discuss this openly, but realizing her place in the teacher-student relationship. "I'm sorry again. I don't mean to make you ill at ease. I seem to do that. It's just that I so desperately want to walk with the people in the valley, and throughout the provinces. I want to be a part of life, not run from it. I can't imagine doing otherwise. I left the cave seasons ago with such plans and it has taken this long to even begin. We could have been so much further along, if the masters and leaders weren't such cowards...
Ashakiran gasped when she heard the words that had come out of her mouth. "By the gods, that was uncalled for. Shall I find our leader and apologize? Perhaps I need to spend some time in prayer. Please..." she muttered, "forgive me." Ashakiran moved to the door in two long strides. "Goodnight, teacher."
The novitiate was gone before Gabrielle could acknowledge that she knew what it was to be eager. Gabrielle couldn't fault her there, but Ashakiran would have to learn patience, to temper her words and rein in the negative thoughts. Niti was merely and extension of her as all things and people were. It was a lesson that was taking Gabrielle a lifetime to process.
* * * * *
The celebrations had lasted for days. The six students had been accepted in the village as young women willing and able to give of their time and energies to help the small town. Throwing themselves into the work, the novitiates spent several moons tending fields, making shoes and sandals for those who couldn't afford to cover their feet, cooking meals for the infirmed, and even singing beautifully harmonic songs of piety and happiness in their faith.
Now, several seasons later, the townspeople could no longer remember the feud and those who did, failed to recall the reason for it. With the help of the six women, several men returned to the mountaintop to rebuild the dam. Things had worked out wonderfully and there was peace in the land.
Niti, the reluctant leader would have a legacya concrete example of what was taught at her monastery.
* * * * *
One night, Ashakiran knocked at Gabrielle's door and waited for admittance.
"I've brought you a clean sari, teacher," she said, gesturing with her head at the long length of fabric hanging over her arm.
"Thank you, Kiran. Come in."
As the younger woman walked into the room, Gabrielle lifted the cloth from her arm and raised it to her nose. "Ooh, it smells so good and feels really soft."
"I washed it in spices to give it a sweet fragrance and herbs to make it feel like silk."
"That was a lot of trouble and certainly not necessary."
"How could I not, teacher? I wanted the cloth that covers your heart to be treated as a treasure."
Gabrielle blushed and placed the sari over her chair.
"Do you require any more assistance this evening, teacher?" Ashakiran surreptitiously glanced at the latched toilet door.
"No, all's well."
"Then, may I ask a question?"
"You never have to ask," Gabrielle said as she sat on her pallet.
"In class, when you spoke of using a sword, I wondered what caused you to carry weapons? Had you no parents to protect you?"
"I wasn't a child when I picked up weapons, Kiran. It was a decision I made after seeing that the world could be cruel and sometimes people needed help."
"But why you? Others must have seen that those people needed help. How did you know you had to be the one?"
"I can't answer that except to say that I believed it without reservation."
"Then why didn't you work for peace like we did below? Why did you choose to fight for justice."
"It seemed the best decision for me at the time."
"Then what changed? Why not stay on that path? Why are you here and before at your other temple?"
"Something was missing. There was an emptiness and I believed that insight into my spiritual being might be a clue to that void." Speaking with Ashakiran was like thinking. It took absolutely no effort and she could be honest about her doubts.
Ashakiran took a seat on the floor between Gabrielle's legs and placed Gabrielle's foot in her lap. She applied pressure points and gentle massage while continuing the discussion. "Has the void been filled?"
Sighing both in pure pleasure at the wonderful massage and in consideration of the question, Gabrielle spent a moment organizing her feelings. "Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, I feel that I've found peace, but other times, that void seems positively gigantic."
"What can you do?" Ashakiran used her thumb to press on each toe.
"Nothing." Gabrielle looked down at her novitiate. "That feels so good, Kiran." Stretching her neck, Gabrielle tilted her head left and right before going on. "There is nothing to do. If I have learned nothing else from my own studies, I have learned that you can't force change. I must tend to my nature and be alert while on this journey."
Ashakiran shook her head nervously.
"What is it?"
"Uh, it's nothing. I just had this odd feeling that we had spoken about this before."
"We've talked about similar things many times."
"No, it was more. Like I was in this position and you were speaking to me about your journey. It was strange, teacher. Please, though, go on." She said as she started on the other foot.
Why Gabrielle didn't tell Ashakiran that at that same moment she had experienced the same sense of having had this conversation was a simple enough answer. The young woman had enough to study, as did shewhy add to that burden when an explanation for it was not forthcoming? It was funny, she only experienced these hazy moments with Ashakiran and they were always transitory and convoluted.
"Uh...should a teacher really speak to her student of these doubts, Kiran?"
"Yes, it's helpful. You are so wise and have studied so many cultures and their faiths, yet you still question. That helps me to feel less fearful of my uncertainties and to see that there is no answer that is always correct."
"I had a wonderful teacher here in India. She's not far from here as the crow flies, but about a moon's ride on horse. She told me once that the only thing we can be sure of is change; that there are no right or wrong answers because every question has multiple parts, thus requiring multiple answers. She is very wise and saw me as a challenge, I'm sure."
"She was not just your teacher, but your lover, too." Ashakiran stated.
Gabrielle blushed at the recollection and the warm hand that now hugged her foot gently. "Yes, she was."
"I was in the library and read some of your scrolls." Ashakiran rushed, "All of us have read them. Is that okay?"
Ashakiran continued with the foot rub, long after that foot had been thoroughly massaged, but both women were reluctant to break contact. The blonde woman reached down and ran her fingers through Kiran's hair, stroking it delicately, enjoying the way the soft, baby-like tendrils fell between her fingers. "Of course it is, my daughter. The scrolls are meant to be read and shared."
"They're so personal, so intimate, though." Kiran's head lolled back, leaning against Gabrielle's leg. Her body warmed at her teacher's touch and her heart thudded in her chest.
"Exactly. I feel no embarrassment. It is like the teaching of any subject. You want to share what you know and what you've learned with others. What greater act to share than the most physically intimate one we experience."
Ashakiran felt herself getting lost in Gabrielle's touch and sat up, moved from where she sat at Gabrielle's feet by pushing herself a few feet away and leaning against the cold stone wall. "So they're true. You've experienced that kind of love."
"Yes, I have been blessed."
"With your teacher."
"Yes, and before her with another."
"And you loved both women?"
"Kiran, you cannot experience a spiritual moment of that magnitude without giving of yourself fully and loving that person completely. It simply can't happen. That's why love must be part of the act for spiritual enlightenment. We can perform the act as we see with the couplings of tigers or elephants, but it is a means to an endto procreate, to satisfy a hunger, to release stress. That is sex in the simplest of forms. What I have experienced and written of is sex in the purest form. The depth of emotion is not even touched upon in text, it is difficult to put it in to words."
Gabrielle would be attempting to teach and explain this form of lovemaking and passion in the next set of classes Ashakiran would be attending. The six novitiates were older and it was time spiritual lovemaking was included in their vast wealth of knowledge.
Ashakiran nodded. "I understand. I hope some day to experience it."
"Your faith will lead you there, I'm certain. It may take a while to find the person best suited to you."
"Teacher, I'm seventeen summers. I don't know how long I can wait." Ashakiran said dramatically.
Not wanting to laugh, Gabrielle lightly covered her mouth with her hand to hide her smile. It was the first time she had seen Ashakiran behave like the teen she was, instead of the reasoned and mature soul she projected.
"I remember what it's like to feel so...well, that way."
Gabrielle glanced at her unobtrusively. She was tall and strong, but with womanly curves. Her lips were full and darker than her skin, her cheekbones high and defined. She could easily be described as beautiful and Gabrielle guessed that one or two of Kiran's peers had already noticed.
Gabrielle also felt a warmth blanket her room. She was aroused, but not by Kiran's presence or the foot massage, but it was the remembrances of her lovers that coursed through her veins. "It's getting late, my daughter." Gabrielle stood and showed her to the door.
"May your mind encircle the universe and join with it as you sleep, teacher."
"You, too. Goodnight."
Gabrielle closed the door and rested against it. Her thoughts turned to Xena and those early days when she felt much like Kiran. She had been spending all of her time with Xena, just as her student did now. Her hero worship had turned into a desire that she could barely suppress. As soon as Xena would leave the campsite, she would hug the warrior's bedroll to her body, trying to capture all of Xena's essence, hoping her fragrance would reach into her every pore and fill her. While Xena had cleaned and sharpened her chakram, Gabrielle had stared, mesmerized at Xena's long, tapered fingers and imagined them touching her face, her thigh, sliding inside of her. There were times when the young girl from Poteidaia could scarcely tolerate sitting across from her at meals. Every time she had caught a glimpse of Xena's pink tongue, her stomach would flip and eyes close with longing. On their travels, while Xena sat on Argo, Gabrielle would walk behind them, watching the warrior's every gesture, each flip of her hair as she tossed it over her shoulder. If Xena chose to walk beside her, Gabrielle would find a reason to touch hera game of tag, a kick on the butt, or a pinch, anything at all for a physical connection. It was virtually impossible for her to think of anything besides being 'with' Xena. She had yearned for her, prayed to Aphrodite to give Xena to her, confidentially talked with her Amazon sisters about how to love a woman just in the hopes that one day she'd get her chance with the warrior. She felt so out of control and so completely in love.
The teacher made her way to her pallet and unwrapped her evening sari and climbed under the blankets. Her mind flashed back to how her every need had been fulfilled by Xena in those early days, but she had yet to learn how deep her emotions ran with her. As they became used to each other, they had experimented sexually, trying various positions, using phalluses and other toys for pleasure. The two women had played games and took on roles as the mood hit them. They had been a fun-loving couple. But after their trip to India lovemaking became so much more. They could still have fun, but each encounter was layered and complex. It was like the bottle of wine they had once shared in Athensit started off as just a drink of the grape, but with each sip, they tasted how full-bodied it was, how rich. They tasted the grape, but they could also detect the type of soil the grape had grown in, and the barrels the drink had aged in. That was their lovemaking.
The women would join repeatedly throughout the night, holding off for candlemarks until their climaxes pounded through them, leaving them clutching each other's shoulders, panting into the other's neck, crying out in loving release. Xena had told her bard that she had experienced strange dreams after their dealings with Alti in the future. In these dreams, Arminestra, Xena's future self would come to the warrior and talk to her about divine love. Xena could scarcely understand it, but Arminestra had been patient. She explained to the warrior the importance of the act of making love to a person you fully loved. Xena would go to Gabrielle and try to show her what she had learned of spiritual love as it was expressed in a deeply physical way, explaining the visions she was having of Arminestra, and these odd dreamlike lessons. Gabrielle had become Xena's willing student and eventually, her equally enthralled and interested partner in the pursuit of ultimate expression.
The blonde would never have guessed that she'd find another partner so compatible. Ratha was like the temple where she livedopen, available, physically sturdy and strong, spiritual, emotional, a retreat to lose oneself, a haven. Her lovemaking was playful, romantic, and far-reaching. Ratha could delay for long candlemarks, never giving in, encouraging Gabrielle to follow her on that path. The two women made love with tenderness and devotion. Gabrielle felt spiritually enlightened when she rested her head on Ratha's thigh, watching the darker woman's flower twitch and pulsate in release. Gabrielle would stare at the hardened bud of Ratha's womanhood and wait for her lover's request. "Gabrielle, could you love me with your mouth again? Will you give your tongue to me once more?" The blonde always obliged, offering all of herself while accepting all of Ratha.
Gabrielle turned on her pallet and looked out of the window at the stars in the sky. I love you, Ratha. I surrender to you as I surrender to the universe, she said to herself as she drifted off to sleep, not noticing the universe surrender to her as well.
* * * * *
Gabrielle still saw Ashakiran in the evenings and looked forward to their long and stimulating conversations. There were times when a lull in their talks would cause Gabrielle to look up to see the young woman staring with soulful, loving eyes. The moment their eyes met, Ashakiran would turn away embarrassed. Throughout the day, however, Ashakiran had made herself scarce. Since completing her course work with Gabrielle she stayed busy with what she believed was her calling. The young Indian woman had been spending more and more time in the village below with people she had met during her work down there. Gabrielle's former student had so much hope for the future and was determined to keep the peace and cultivate its growth. Soon, she would leave the monastery and discover other worlds. Gabrielle wondered if she would be like her, going from country to country, learning new languages, meeting new people, as she spread the Way of Peace. She prayed that Ashakiran wouldn't lose her way, that the idealism the younger woman presently had would remain strong and the doubts that plagued her teacher would not be misgivings her student would inherit.
Gabrielle was emptying her pot in the bushes nearby when she looked up and saw Ashakiran in the window. The candlelight was enough to illuminate the room where the young woman stood and Gabrielle found herself staring into the opened window. Pariket entered Gabrielle's field of vision and it looked like he was advancing on the young woman. The blonde watched in dismay as Ashakiran put her arms around him and slowly lowered him onto the floor. Gabrielle's eyes narrowed in disbelief. She was certain that she heard Pariket moan in what sounded like pleasure. Gabrielle was aware of her feelings, but she was uncertain what they were--outrage, anger, betrayal, fear, a bit of everything. She could barely understand her feelings, processing them was next to impossible.
Returning to her room, Gabrielle was unable to get the image of Ashakiran and Pariket out of her mind. She tossed and turned on her pallet. She lit a candle and attempted to write, but she was blocked. She was sure that Pariket had used his influence as a monk to force himself on Kiran. But the young woman hadn't looked unwilling, either. What would possess Kiran to stoop to such a level? She wondered.
Gabrielle tried sitting quite still on the floor and meditating, but her mind bounced from thought to thought until she finally gave up. She would have to go to Pariket's room. If Ashakiran was in trouble or about to make a huge mistake, Gabrielle needed to be there to offer guidance. Just before dashing out, she grabbed a parchment. She could use the excuse of discussing an academic matter with one of the monks if she were seen entering the men's dormitory. She left her quarters and made her way down the hall, the winding staircase, and into the men's dorm. Each step she took seemed to make her angrier. She was furious with Ashakiran for putting herself in this situation after Gabrielle had made a point of getting her away from the perverted monk. At his room, she leaned in so that her ear pressed against the wooden door, listening for any hint to what was happening inside. She heard muffled voices and what she thought were sighs and moans coming from Pariket. Standing fully erect and red-faced, Gabrielle was just about to bang on the door when it opened. She stared slack-jawed at Ashakiran as Pariket finished his comment to the young woman.
"Ashakiran, I can't tell you how much better I feel. You really know how to take care of me."
Gabrielle was stunned into silence when she heard Pariket's voice.
Ashakiran looked at Gabrielle, raising an eyebrow in question while answering the monk. "It was an honor to take care of you, master. I hope that it will be enough. It is important that you be able to function. I believe that this issue has been something you've had to struggle with for some time. If I was able to alleviate some of that stress, then I feel you have paid me a great honor." Gabrielle could sense the warm smile on Kiran's face as her former student talked to Pariket.
"I think now I can concentrate on my work in the library without distraction. Thank you again," he said as he stepped past Gabrielle. "Did you need to see me, my friend?" He spoke to the blonde teacher with real sincerity and not a trace of predator in his voice. His speech was slow and low, almost lethargic, and he possessed none of the edginess he had in the recent past.
"No. I was actually looking for our student, here." Gabrielle breathed heavily through her nose, trying to appear composed. She couldn't even look at the man.
Gabrielle's stomach was turning. She could almost taste the bile churning in her gut as she listened to Pariket. He certainly sounded like a man who was recently satisfied--content and calm. It sickened her to think that Ashakiran would allow herself to be objectified and abused by this man.
"Teacher?" Ashakiran acknowledged Gabrielle's presence, giving her all of her attention.
"Good evening. I was....I was just..." She looked down at the scroll. "...working on something and..." Gabrielle was nervous and dropped the scroll onto the floor. Ashakiran bent to pick it up, just as Gabrielle reached to retrieve it. The women locked eyes--one looking for an explanation for the nervousness, one in search of a sign of abuse, mistreatment, or confusion. Neither got answers from emerald eyes or dark brown ones, but once again, when their hands touched, Ashakiran's head popped back as if she had been punched and Gabrielle's eyes closed as memories of her past came flooding back. It only lasted a moment or two and then the two carried on as before.
"I was on my way to see you, teacher. May I still?"
"Uh...yeah, yes. Of course."
* * * * *
Gabrielle didn't speak one word on the way back. Ashakiran sensed something was wrong, but she didn't know what, so she remained quiet, too. When they arrived at Gabrielle's room, Ashakiran was surprised to find her quarters in such disarray. Gabrielle didn't seem to notice or care.
As soon as the door closed, she cornered the student as if she were a naughty child who had stayed out past her curfew. "What were you doing with him?" Gabrielle demanded.
"Pariket, of course."
"I had just assisted him with something." Ashakiran was pinned against the wall, staring down into Gabrielle's red face. She could see tiny beads of perspiration above Gabrielle's upper lip.
The teacher stared up into her student's eyes. She knew that her feelings were visceral and perhaps exaggerated, but she was unable to control the burst of rage. "What was he talking about? Why was he thanking you and why did you say it was an honor to take care of him? What did you do for him?"
Gabrielle's words were biting and angry. Ashakiran couldn't understand the cause for this reaction and stood open-mouthed for a few long moments trying to comprehend what was happening. The fact that she wasn't answering seemed to enrage Gabrielle all the more.
"Are you going to just stand there? Don't you have an answer or are you that ashamed of what you did?"
"Ashamed? Teacher, I have nothing to be ashamed of. One of my teachers needed help and I did what I could to help him. I told you that he was sick."
"Yes, you told me. And we all know what he's been sick with. Just how did you help him and don't lie to me, Kiran because I saw you through the window?"
Defeatedly, Ashakiran's eyes lowered and she moved forward slightly. When she did, Gabrielle moved away from her and watched as the student dropped to Gabrielle's pallet and sat, her head in her hands. "I would never lie to you, teacher. Never." She looked up and whispered. "I would never do that."
Gabrielle was still livid, but she felt herself soften at her student's despair. "What happened?" Gabrielle responded in kind.
"I met a healer and alchemist in the village below. I told him about master's problem and he gave me some herbs. I have been ministering to him for nearly a quarter of a moon and each day I've watched him get better. He is a different man as long as he drinks the tea I've concocted and uses a poultice of herbs and oil on his head, right at the temple, nightly. I have been there to help him. I knew he was in pain and I couldn't stand here and do nothing. I believed I had found an answer, so I did what I thought was right." Ashakiran sniffed and for the first time, Gabrielle watched the strong, young woman cry.
The blonde went to her, sitting beside her. She put her arm around her shoulder, then lowered it to her back and rubbed her back slowly, in tender circles. "I am so sorry. I was very worried. I didn't want anything to happen to you and I overreacted when I saw the two of you together. I am so sorry. Please don't cry, Kiran."
"No, I hurt you." Gabrielle spoke very softly as if she were comforting a young child. "I love you and worry. I should never have approached you in such a way. It's not my proudest moment."
Instead of being a comfort to Ashakiran, her words seemed to cause an adverse reaction. Ashakiran sobbed.
"What is it, sweetheart? What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked tenderly.
"I thought I was doing the right thing." Ashakiran sniffed.
"You did. You absolutely did."
"But I made you so mad. I didn't want to do that."
"You didn't make me angry, I made me angry. You have nothing to do with that."
"I love you, teacher."
"I love you, too, my daughter."
Ashakiran turned and embraced her with all the weight of the world. Again, images raced between them, neither of them understanding. Instead of pulling away, Ashakiran's grasp grew stronger. Gabrielle was just able to breathe, but the next words, simply took her breath away.
"I want you to teach me everything you know. I want to be just like you. I love you and want to be with you. " Ashakiran muttered into Gabrielle's hair as they hugged.
How those words sounded so familiar. She had said practically those words to Xena when they first met and she meant them. But Ashakiran added more and she knew that the young woman felt strongly about all of her statements.
Pulling away, Gabrielle looked at the woman. "Kiran, you will have experiences and will undoubtedly surpass me in every way. Already, you are so far beyond where I was at your age. You're strong, brave, intelligent, open-minded, and open-hearted."
"I love you. I want to be with you." Ashakiran's eyes were desperate with both longing and love.
"That's impossible. You are a child of seventeen. I'm your teacher."
"But...but...you were with your teacher. You were lovers with your teacher."
"Kiran, my heart belongs to someone else. I will always love you. You are my daughter and my friend. I hope that we can always learn from each other and will always be a part of the other's life." Gabrielle smiled at her as she took her hand and waited patiently as the ever-present images from seasons past subsided. Finally, she said, "I can't imagine going through my life without our conversations and debates." Gabrielle, still holding Kiran's hand pressed it to her chest. "You are such a part of me."
"I see us together in the way you've written about love in your scrolls. I see that in my mind. Don't you?" Ashakiran was no longer sobbing, but tears ran freely down her cheeks, lingering on her chin until they dropped onto her clothing.
"You will find someone to love you that way, dear. I promise. I know that to be true. With a heart like yours, you will find her."
The two women sat and held hands well into the night. Both seemed to find comfort in this small expression of intimacy.
* * * * *
Gabrielle remembered what she had told Niti on their journey to the monastery many springs ago. She had explained that she needed a physical connection. It was a part of her nature that could not be denied. Gabrielle realized that she had put part of her life on hold when she had come here to teach. She left Ratha, but there hadn't been any closure, just a loving goodbye until they'd meet again. Gabrielle didn't want to wait for her next life, she wanted to be with Ratha now. Talking to her via the stars in the sky was no longer enough. She wanted to pray with her, stand beside her when they made naan, sit under a tree and watch Ratha charm the active bees into making a little extra honey. She craved the feel of her long black hair as she ran her fingers through it while washing it in the stream. Gabrielle's mouth longed to explore Ratha's, reclaim the home nestled between her legs, feel Ratha's fingers inside of her, pushing her to the top and leaving her there for candlemarks until her fingers sent her over to a place called bliss. She wanted to hear the soft purr of Ratha's excitement, the long groans of happiness and the pleasurable moans of joy whispered in her ears. Gabrielle could think of no better tribute than for Ratha to hear Gabrielle say her name again and again as the blonde yielded to her touch. She needed to go home to her.
* * * * *
"Gabrielle? Please come quick. I need your assistance."
Gabrielle had been giving the youngest of the students a tour of the monastery garden, pointing out various plants and explaining their medicinal uses. She was quite surprised to see Niti in the gardens and even more shocked to see her running frantically toward her.
"What is it? What's happened?" Gabrielle responded with the same concern on Niti's face.
"It is Ashakiran. She's been hurt. Badly."
A thousand horrible situations crossed Gabrielle's mind in the few seconds it took her to breathe and ask where the young woman could be found. Ashakiran was broken-hearted at Gabrielle's rejection and that was evident every time the two made eye contact. The situation seemed to encourage Kiran's spiritual growth, however. She focused on her meditation and suddenly started writing scroll after scroll about the levels of lovespiritual love, community love, romantic love, and the love of self. Gabrielle had discovered the scrolls in the library and Ashakiran was unaware that she had read them. The younger woman was wise well beyond her years and although she had yet to experience romantic love, she understood the joy in it.
"She's at the very top of the mountain, on a ledge. We don't know how we're going to get to her."
"What? What's she doing up there?"
"Meditating. It is an old, but common practice. To prove oneself worthy of the goddess' love and to show your commitment to your faith, a group of followers will spend the night in the elements, naked. No one ever does this alone. It's ill-advised."
"Naked? By the gods, we're all bundled and in boots every season and we're barely beyond midpoint. It must be freezing up there."
"It is, but if your commitment is true, then you won't have a problem."
"I don't believe that. That is no way to show your commitment to your faith. The whole thing is ill-advised!"
Gabrielle's students, sensing that they had lost their teacher had moved on to something else in the garden.
"The novitiates in her class tell me that she has also been fasting for five days. She's weak and isn't responding when they call to her."
"I need some rope, some spikes for the ice, a couple of blankets. I'm going to change, then I'll go get her."
"Do you want helpers? Some of her friends could come with you."
Gabrielle looked at Niti. Once again, the spiritual leader offered others up to do a job she should. All of the students were her responsibility, but she had failed them time after time. She had failed Ashakiran especially. She shook her head, then Gabrielle ran back to her room and changed into something suitable for her long climb.
* * * * *
It wouldn't be long now. She could just make out a lone woman sitting cross-legged on the ledge about a hundred paces west of the precipice she had just climbed. It would take another quarter of a candlemark to make her way out there. What was Kiran thinking, Gabrielle wondered. She also wondered in what condition the student would be in once she rescued her. Gabrielle doubted they could safely make it back to the monastery.
"Kiran!" Gabrielle shouted above the wind. "Kiran! Can you hear me?"
There was no response as Gabrielle slowly made her way across. "Kiran! Kiran! Say something."
As she reached her, she saw that Ashakiran's eyes were opened, but they were lifeless. By the gods, I hope I'm not too late. Gabrielle thought. Quickly, she removed the bedroll that had been fastened to her back. It contained two blankets. Unfurling them, she draped them over the naked student. "Kiran! Kiran! Wake up! Kiran!" Gabrielle moved in front of her, careful to stay away from the very edge of the flat surface.
Rubbing her hands over Kiran's upper arms, she tried to warm her body. Gabrielle was reminded of the time she and Xena had been crucified by Caesar and Brutus. It was a day as cold as this one. Somehow the bard and warrior had escaped an inescapable death. Gabrielle prayed that the case would be the same here, but there was no Eli to bring the young woman back. Ashakiran looked thin, her fast probably being much longer than five days and her skin was a deathly gray. She took Ashakiran's hands and blew onto them, trying to warm them with her breath. "Kiran, come on. I know you're still there. You're still with me. C'mon. Do this for me?"
Gabrielle moved around her, rubbing Kiran's naked body through the blanket. It took some effort, but Gabrielle was finally able to uncross Kiran's legs. Once she had, she continued the task of warming her up. She rubbed up and down her legs, continuing to plead with her to come back. Gabrielle worked her way down to her feet and rubbed the toes of one foot, trying to bring back some life. She blew again on the foot, but Kiran's haunting eyes remain fixed, looking out onto nothingness. Gabrielle moved to the other foot and began the same task. Her breath caught in her throat, when she looked down and saw a birthmarka circle and under that circle a cross. This way, no matter where we are, you'll know me. Xena had said as she made the marking on her foot after their first joint encounter with Alti. In Gabrielle's mind, the circle had represented Xena's chakram and the cross, the vision (that would become a reality) of their death under Caesar's orders.
All movement stopped as Gabrielle stared at the birthmark. It was more than similar to what Xena had done; it was exactly what she had placed on her foot. She couldn't recall a time when she had noticed Kiran's foot. She knew that she would have remembered this marking. Gabrielle flashed back to the day Xena had placed it there. Gabrielle had just received an unwanted haircut and the short style was one that she kept over these many seasons. They had met their future selves that dayArminestra and Shakti, the mother of Peace and her protector. Xena had made a mark so that in the future the bard would always be able to find her.
Gabrielle looked at the freezing cold seventeen winters old student sitting there naked, starving, saddened, and close to death. She plopped down beside her and pulled the blanket around her shoulders, too.
"I don't know how to help you, Kiran. Tell me what do I need to do?"
Ashakiran was frozen in her spot, in a trance, but alive.
"We've got to get off this mountain. You need help. You have so much life ahead of you. Why do you doubt your commitment? Why did you have to do this to prove that you're worthy? Everyone knows you are. Please, Kiran. The world needs you."
Gabrielle stared at the naked foot peeking beyond the blanket. She looked at her friend, and said softly, "Arminestra? Arminestra? Please."
The blonde was more relieved than shocked when the young woman sitting next to her took a deep, choking breath. Immediately, she started to cough and Gabrielle pulled her to her and patted her gently on the back. "It's okay. I'm here. It's okay, Arminestra."
It was getting colder, but both women incredibly began to warm. It took a while, but soon they were able to speak.
"Why did you do this? Come out here by yourself?" Gabrielle couldn't understand any of this. It was foolish beyond measure, yet she knew Kiran must have an explanation.
"I wanted to be closer to the goddess." Ashakiran stared ahead, but then turned to her teacher. "You are a goddess to me. I kept thinking you could love me as I love you, then as I meditated, I realized that I was missing the point entirely. My thoughts were blocking my view. I see that you love someone else and I don't hold a place in your heart."
"That's not true. I mean, yes, I love Ratha and I love the woman I shared a life with prior to Ratha, but you already hold a place in my heart, daughter. I loved you the moment our eyes met in the square, when you didn't flee, but stopped to make sure I was all right. When I looked into your dark eyes and saw your brave and pure nature, I loved you. I know you feel that bond, too."
"But I feel more. I feel like you're the other half of my soul. And I feel an emptiness I've never experienced because you don't sense the same." Kiran's voice was soft and small causing Gabrielle to strain to hear her above the roar of the wind.
"What makes you say that? I feel the power of our relationship."
"Do you think I'm the other half of your soul?"
Gabrielle wanted to be truthful, but how could she explain the things she knew about the young woman who sat beside her? Gabrielle could hardly fathom the truth of this momentthat she was sitting next to Xena again or at least Xena's reincarnated self. All of these many, many winters and springs she had longed for just this, to have the warrior beside her again, to reach out and touch her soulmate's hand. Now, all of those odd, muddled visions she experienced whenever she made physical contact with Ashakiran were clear; those peculiar images of having done or been with Ashakiran in a situation before were tiny revelations about their past together. "Yes."
"Then we can be together... as lovers?" Ashakiran asked hopefully.
"No. No, we can't. Just like you, I will be leaving the monastery soon. I have another life and someone I am destined to be with. That doesn't mean that I won't always want to know what is going on in your life; that I won't always keep you in my prayers. Please know that wherever you are, whenever you need me, I will be there for you to protect you and care for you and love you. You can always find refuge with me. Always. We are bonded."
"You've taught me so much. Whatever I've learned, I've learned from you. You've brought out the best in me, teacher.
"It's high time you called me Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle." She tried the name out, letting it roll off her tongue a few times, savoring the name of the woman she loved. "Gabrielle. That is a beautiful name."
They sat quietly, neither shivering nor taking note of the whirling wind and frigid temperatures. "Are you cold, Gabrielle?"
"No, not at all." Gabrielle felt unexpectedly warm and comforted. She tossed the blanket from around her shoulders and began untying her boots. "Quite warm, in fact."
The two women sat naked side by side on the overhang of the mountain, feeling the love they would share for numerous eternities.
Ashakiran turned to face her soulmate. "How did you know my given name?"
"I don't know. It was something I knew." Gabrielle answered, choosing to withhold what knowledge she possessed, while wondering if she would ever speak this truth.
"I have not been Arminestra since I arrived at the monastery when I was four winters old. Our leader named us on our first day and I have been Ashakiran for as long as I can remember. It was strange hearing you say my name, but it also felt very right."
"Yes, it did." Gabrielle stared at her foot and Arminestra unconsciously tucked it under her leg. "Kiran, I never noticed that birthmark on your foot before. You're barefoot during yoga and meditation." Gabrielle wondered curiously.
"I...I know it is vain, teach...Gabrielle. It is just such a large and odd looking mark and I don't want to call attention to myself." She lowered her eyes in shame. "I made a powder to match my skin that I brush over it everyday to hide it."
Gabrielle nodded, but added, "Never hide who you are. It is a gift to all when we see the real you."
Ashakiran smiled and returned her foot to the original position.
Slowly the sun began its descent and Gabrielle was reminded of the last sunset she and Xena had shared. When she turned from the sun, Xena was gone and would forever live only in her thoughts. Today, she turned and looked at Arminestra and knew of the great things in store for the novitiate. Arminestra would become the "Mother of Peace," revered by many, hated passionately by a few. Her life would be in danger as she spread her message and she would eventually meet and welcome her protector, Shakti. Shakti, Gabrielle's future self would honor and love Arminestra as his guiding force and mission. He would fight for her.
"The sun is setting. We should begin our climb down. I want you to wrap up because I guarantee you're going to feel the cold on the way back."
"All right, Gabrielle. But can we watch the sun a bit longer?"
As they watched, Gabrielle chuckled softly.
"What is it?"
"I was just thinking about this most perfect moment and I believe that void I have always felt, that emptiness is gone. I feel at peace. My lover and teacher told me that I would have to seek my golden time of day and I believe I have encountered it."
"Golden time of day?"
"This time--as the sun is setting and it takes on this lovely form." She jutted her chin forward pointing at the setting sun. "But more than that, it's the time in your life when you find who you are and when you feel at your very core all the love you've been looking for. As you said earlier, it feels very right."
* * * * *
Gabrielle had been riding for weeks. At night, she camped out under the stars as she had done during her seasons as a sidekick and warrior. She welcomed the blanket of darkness and found that she could still herself to the point of hearing a cricket hop onto and off of a fallen leaf on the mossy ground.
As she rode through her old village, her heart began to race, thinking of Ratha and whether her friend, lover, and teacher would welcome her back. She had sent a messenger with a letter telling Ratha she was leaving the monastery. However, her eagerness would put her at the temple gates long before the messenger would arrive.
The blonde reined in her horse, guiding it to a halt. She jumped off and took the reins in her hands, walking beside the horse, steadying her heart and relaxing her active mind. The temple on the hill wasn't the difficult climb she had remembered, probably the past few seasons of ascending the mountain had strengthened her endurance.
Just as she was approaching the temple, she closed her eyes for a moment or two. When she opened them, Ratha stood at the gate. Beautiful and sensual, the Indian woman stood before Gabrielle and her horse. She smiled broadly at Gabrielle who seemed taken aback to find her standing there. Ratha's hair was unbraided and hung far below her shoulders, looking like silk and shining in the high sun. Her eyes were vibrant and youthful as she stared at her friend. Dressed in a yellow band of clothing, that covered little, Gabrielle found the whole affect very pleasing to her eyes. In her hands, Ratha held a garland of chrysanthemum that she held up for Gabrielle in greeting.
"Beloved, you've returned."
Gabrielle couldn't keep the grin off her face. "It is so good to see you."
Gabrielle let the horse's reins drop beside the animal and ran into Ratha's arms, accepting the garland around her neck as she clung to her.
When they pulled away, Gabrielle asked, "So how long ago did the messenger get here? I was sure I'd beat him."
"Messenger? There has been no messenger."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Then how did you know to expect me?"
"It has been so cold here and I desperately craved your presence to warm me. Perhaps it was my yearning that encouraged your return. Did you hear me call to you?" Ratha beamed.
"Every night. And did you hear my response?"
"Throughout those nights, my lotus," she said in a low timbre.
"I have so much to tell you."
* * * * *
The sun had been bright in the afternoon sky when Gabrielle had arrived at the temple. Now, it had been replaced with a glowing full moon that cast a pleasant illumination on the balmy Indian night. She and Ratha were seated in a secluded garden as they had been all day. Flowers that had been opened and drawing in the sun were closed for the night. Only Ratha's bees seemed to still have energy and Gabrielle could hear their surprisingly pleasant buzzing from where she sat. The blonde had been talking nonstop about the monastery, the masters, the villages below, and her dear novitiates whom she had educated in the art of war, the headiness of deep meditation, the mental clarity of yoga, and the pleasures of physical and spiritual passion. Her voice was tired and a hoarseness had claimed it candlemarks earlier, but she had continued.
"I'm exhausted, but there is one more thing I have to tell you. Something you need to know and..." Gabrielle paused, recognizing her own procrastination. She had been putting this off all day. "And I wish I had a way of knowing how you might react to it."
Ratha's eyebrow raised in humor. "You will have that answer, once you tell me."
"Yeah, right. " Gabrielle smiled weakly. "It's the young woman, Kiran. The one I took under my wing, so to speak..."
Gabrielle reached out for Ratha's arm and entwined it with her own, holding her hand as if it were a precious stone. Ratha turned and stared into the green eyes she adored, then rested her head on Gabrielle's shoulder. Looking out onto the garden, she said, "I want to hear everything."
"It wouldn't surprise me if you could guess this." Gabrielle suggested, continuing to be evasive.
"I probably could guess and I believe I would be correct, but I want to hear it from you and I want to know how you feel about it. That is very important to me and if you are having problems articulating this, please know I would consider this tale and your honesty a gift to me. I know you are fond of gift giving."
Gabrielle lowered her eyes, staring at their handsdark and light, so much like Xena and the Gabrielle of winters ago, but so different. Dark and light, one who had known only peaceful ways and the other who had seen and participated in her share of war, yin and yang, two personalities balancing each other so well. There hands fit so nicely together.
"Kiran's full name is Ashakiran. It means 'ray of Hope.' I felt a closeness to her from the very moment I met her, but of course, didn't know why. There was a special, wonderful bond instantly. When I learned the meaning of her name, my mind raced with theoriesI see that look in your eyes Ratha, without looking at you. I realize that was my first mistake, letting my mind race. Well, I let it and had convinced myself that Kiran was the reincarnation of my daughter, Hope. I felt lucky that I would get the chance I hadn't had before to be a parent, even if it was by proxy. I could mold her, help and steer her in the right direction, be open with her and provide Kiran with the skills needed to understand herself, her calling, and her faith. These last few springs, I loved her unconditionally. But just after I decided to leave the monastery, not too long ago, in fact, I discovered that Kiran was not the reincarnation of my daughter, Hope. No, not at all..."
The tears that gathered at the bottom edges of Gabrielle's eyes finally spilled over and fell freely as the blonde explained everything to Ratha. When she finished, she sniffed and the corner of her upper lip turned up in a forced smile. "So, was it what you thought?"
"Nothing is ever as one thinks." Ratha answered elusively, baffling Gabrielle.
The blonde woman's throat was parched and felt raw, but she had to go on. Her biggest fear was that Ratha would be hurt and confused. "I want you to know that I came back here without any doubts in my heart."
"Gabrielle, she is still your soulmate. Though in a different body with different experiences, you are still meant to be together."
"Yes, but as you say, the relationship between soulmates is complicated and might not include all aspects of one's needs or desires. I told Kiran she will always have a place in my heart and I do want to keep in contact with her. I'd even like for her to visit us here, have a home here if she likes. That is, if there is an 'us'--if this is something you want as well."
"Have you told Kiran what you know? What you've seen?" Ratha remained noncommittal, not giving Gabrielle the answer she had sought.
"No. And I won't. She deserves to live a life without this hanging over her. Xena and I were put into a situation where we came face to face with our future selves. That shouldn't have happened. It doesn't happen to most people. Usually, we just go through our lives, feeling these odd connections here and there, feeling like we've done something or said something before in exactly the same context, but those things are fleeting and inexplicable. Xena and I shouldn't have seen what we did. I shouldn't know these things. I would never burden Kiran with this, too."
"So you do feel burdened? Not at peace? I have watched you struggle for so long. I do not think it wise for you to commit to something only out of some sense of obligation or loyalty to me."
"It pleases me...greatly... to be here. I came back because I need you in my lifenot just sharing the sky and sun with you, but physically in my life to hold and cherish. I really need you."
"And are you at peace?"
"Yes. Ratha..." Gabrielle bit her lower lip. "It's not been easy for me. Xena and I had promised each other that we would see it out together, that we would meet on the other side, but she was brutally and heartlessly pulled from my life. I had been alone, traveling throughout the world trying to find out why and I kept coming up empty. When I was a young girl, it was so cut and dried--good girls went to the Elysian Fields and bad girls went to Tartarus. I would dream of my afterlife in the Fieldsplaying endless games with my friends, having all the nutbread I could eat, never having to do chores." Gabrielle sniffed lightly, suppressing a laugh at her innocence.
"With your imagination, I am sure that your fantasy of the Fields was enough to keep you a good girl." Ratha tightened her grip on the paler hand.
"Yes, I wanted to be certain I got in. My parents didn't have too many problems with me. I would wonder just how bad a bad girl would have to be to end up in Tartarus. These were places I understood from our stories, from the things people talked about. I would see my parents place coins in the hands of dead relatives for Charon to make the crossing over a bit more pleasant. I believed these things with all my young heart."
"And those stories have a value. Even now, they have shaped you in some way."
"Yes, those stories and other things." Gabrielle hesitated, thinking about her distant past. "Later, when I was with Xena, I met gods and goddessesfrom Ares and Aphrodite to Odin, and even Kali and I believed in them. Then we died on a pair of crosses and we went to places called 'heaven' and 'hell.' Heaven was more spiritual than Elysia, but it was glorious and hell was darker and more frightening than anything I'd heard about Tartarus. I was there and believed in those places, too." Gabrielle thought about how this sounded. "I guess I was impressionable like Xena always said."
"Perhaps, you were merely searching for meaning."
Gabrielle nodded. "Not too long after those experiences, Xena was given the power to kill gods and in order to save her child, she killed a lot of them, including Hades. It struck me that if Hades was dead what would happen to the Elysian Fields and Tartarus? If those places no longer existed, would my loved ones be able to hear my thoughts? Would I hear them? I wondered when we died, what would become of us? I couldn't stop thinking of this. And, in heaven, we met an Archangel named Michael who was as close to god as any form could be, but he was manipulative. He was supposed to be untainted and pure, but he wasn't. We weren't too accepting of heaven and hell suddenly. From our visit to India, we knew and had witnessed reincarnation, too. This, I was convinced of and didn't question. Naiyima, the darsham didn't have to tell me, for I always knewXena and I were like lines of the mehndi, separate, but forever entwined and that we had already shared lives and would again. But Xena died and my world changed. I became unsure of everything. Would I find her again? Could she hear me? Where was she? Would we ever meet again?"
"That must have been a difficult time for you." Ratha felt Gabrielle's pain and uncertainty.
"I don't think I ever shared this with you..."
"What?" Ratha loved Gabrielle deeply and wanted to know everything about her.
"I had traveled north and was living with the Norse people. I had once felt safe there and thought it might be a place to start again. I had arranged for a room and was unpacking my few belongings. I picked up Xena's sleeping shift, lifting it to my nose, just to capture her scent again. It was a nightly ritual since she had been taken from me. That night, I sniffed the shift and it didn't smell of her. I was like a madwoman, moving my hands across the shift, pressing my nose to spot after spot. Her scent had to be there. I needed it to be there." Gabrielle relayed the desperation of that time in her voice. "I had never washed it, kept it away from all of my other things. I shouldn't have lost her scent, but somehow, I had. I was frantic. All night long I held onto that piece of cloth, sniffing, sniffing. It was like it suddenly was all over, like I had just imagined it."
"My life. Xena." She said simply. "It was as if she never existed except in my head. All I had left were these thingsa shift, the chakram, the sword, the saddlebags, and my scrolls where I had detailed our lives together. There were times I actually believed that I was just an inventive writer, like it hadn't happened. I spent days reading those scrolls and when I finished, I thought it was all too far-fetched to be believed."
"Gabrielle." Ratha's heart was breaking along with the blonde's.
"I can't describe the loneliness I felt. Ratha, I wanted to die."
Ratha wept softly as Gabrielle continued. "But I pulled it together because someone knocked on my door pleading for help and that was my job. That's when I knew it had all been true. I was a warrior; I had loved a warrior; we had gone on adventures. After that though, I couldn't bear to have Xena's ghost close to me. I knew she wasn't mocking me, but it hurt. It hurt so much. I retreated into myself and stayed there until I moved to India."
Ratha sat patiently waiting for Gabrielle to continue.
"Maybe if I hadn't experienced all that I did, I wouldn't have felt such confusion. If I had just lived a quiet life of a farmer's wife, I would have felt certainty in my life and faith."
"That would have been a sad alternative for me. I doubt the Greek farmer's wife would have found her way here."
"No, not likely."
Sometime later, Ratha asked the question that had been demanding attention, no matter how she tried to unclutter her mind. "Gabrielle, if you had not learned Kiran's real identity, would you still feel peace or did you need this information to move on?"
"I had decided to come back before I learned that Kiran is really Arminestra. Knowing the truth didn't change my mind. I still wanted and needed to return to you."
"Is that an answer to my question?"
"You've told me that there are many answers to a question. I don't know if that's an answer, but it is definitely a result. I wanted to come home." Gabrielle turned and faced Ratha. Using both hands, she held the Indian woman's face between her hands. "I wanted to get back here to you."
That night after a long, hot bath, Gabrielle reclined in the bed that she and Ratha had shared. Ratha fed her raw vegetables, flatbread and a bowl of lentil soup. Before long, Gabrielle fell into a deep sleep, exhausted from her travels, drained after her day's worth of talking, and calmed by the sweet smell of cinnamon incense.
Ratha placed the dishes outside their room and returned to the bed, climbing in behind the sleeping blonde and wrapped her arm around her protectively.
It was just before dawn when Gabrielle slowly moaned in her sleep and without a moment's hesitation, Ratha pulled her closer. Gabrielle snuggled in and moaned a second time. Lightly as if she were responding in a dream, she whispered, "I love you..." She sighed. "Ratha."
* * * * *
At first, they had been tentative with each other. Neither woman seemed prepared to make the first move. Ratha would not take on the role of teacher nor would she behave as a clinging lover. She would wait for Gabrielle. Gabrielle was afraid to push after her long absence and her muddled thoughts about the two women she loved. She didn't want to act inappropriately or insensitively.
It had been four days since Gabrielle's return and already, the two women were getting back into their routine. They started each morning with meditation and prayer, asking and answering questions about their personal discoveries; at mid-morning, they would sit in the garden and munch on apples, oranges, and drink a strong lemon and mint tea. Ratha would go off and work with her bees while Gabrielle wrote or practiced her drills (something she finally admitted was more than a mere dance to her). Just as the sun was moving past its highest point, the women would come together for a candlemark's long session of yoga. Both women were flexible and would enjoy pushing themselves to add more and more complicated positions to their practice. Once yoga ended, Gabrielle would bathe while Ratha finished up with the bees, pouring honey into clay vessels to sell to the nearby villagers. In the evening, the women would meditate again, allowing it to take its natural course. Sometimes meditation would last less than a candlemark, other times, it would go on long after the candle had melted away and they sat in darkness. At the end of the day, Ratha would take a long and fragrant bath. After, she'd join Gabrielle in bed and the blonde would breathe in deeply the mingled scents that were both pleasing and intoxicating.
On this fifth day, Ratha walked to the small stream that ran behind the grounds of the temple. Gabrielle was bathing and the blonde's beauty took her by surprise. The Indian woman stood paces from her and watched her in silence. It was her sigh that caused Gabrielle to look up.
"You are just splendid." The moment was exquisite. Gabrielle's radiant skin competed with the sun for the most dazzling golden hues.
"Then it has paid to be away. You find beauty in this plain body."
"Gabrielle, I believe you are fishing for compliments." Ratha moved closer and squatted beside her in the grass, lightly running her fingers through Gabrielle's damp hair.
"Uh-uh." Gabrielle denied, but her blush gave her away.
"May I help you bathe?"
Gabrielle quickly moved aside to make room in the natural cutout of a pond. She stared up at her as the darker woman stood and unwrapped her sari, showing off her delectably strong, yet soft body. Instantly, she felt her heart quicken at the sight. Ratha slid into the water, taking Gabrielle's hand for support and guidance. "Oooh, nice and warm."
Gabrielle nodded, unable to speak as her eyes surreptitiously devoured the body before her. The blonde, from her seasons of having traveled with Xena and having lived with the Amazons at different times, was well aware of the body changes a woman made during a moon's entire cycle. She could tell by just her small, furtive glances that Ratha was close to her bleeding time. Her breasts looked heavy and full. Her nipples usually pressed against her areolas, becoming part of the disk without any protrusion, but at this time of the moon, they were erect and extended. Gabrielle could feel a strong twitch of arousal beginning between her own legs. Ratha had entered the water quickly, but Gabrielle had seen the tuft of dark hair at the apex of Ratha's legs. She was reminded of Ratha's mouth-watering smell and the feel of that soft, black hair when she parted her, opening her flower to savor her scent and taste her. She licked her lips in response to her thoughts.
This expression wasn't new to Ratha. She had seen Gabrielle's eyelids hood over like this many times, had seen the blonde take a big swallow of breath, had watched as her chest heaved in anticipation, and observed her wildly beating heart lift her breasts under Ratha's gaze. Ratha smiled and edged behind Gabrielle.
Picking up the sea sponge, she gently scrubbed Gabrielle's back in easy circular motions.
"I ached to see this fierce dragon." Ratha commented on Gabrielle's tattoo. "And the woman who wore it."
Gabrielle sighed, loving the gentle touch of hands that knew her so well. "You like my dragon?"
"So much so that...Look?" Ratha stood to her full height in the stream and turned so that her butt was just above the water.
Gabrielle turned and looked down. On Ratha's cheek, there was a tattoo about a fourth the size of Gabrielle's, but it was identical in every other way.
"It was to remind me of you, I did not stop to think that I would not be able to see it."
Gabrielle pulled her close so that the Indian's back pressed against Gabrielle's chest and abdomen. The blonde slid her hand down to caress the tattoo on Ratha's cheek. "Nice."
It didn't take long for the nervousness to vanish. This time Gabrielle searched the water for the sponge and picked it up and began lovingly bathing Ratha.
Gabrielle experienced Ratha's body fully. As she washed her, Gabrielle moved around her, circling the Indian woman in an innocent yet titillating way, breathing in her essence, letting Ratha hear her soft breaths; allowing her to feel them against her neck, beside her ear, at her shoulder, near her breasts. Facing her, Gabrielle stared into the woman's face, feeling the power of home in her presence. "Your lips are so full, soft, inviting. Kissing you is something I missed terribly."
"Kiss me now, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle pulled Ratha to her. Ratha expected a mighty, lingering kiss, but Gabrielle barely grazed her lips at first contact. Second contact let Ratha know that they were at the beginning. The third touch of lips to lips came with a promise of passion as Gabrielle's fervor exploded in Ratha's mouth, making both of them weak-kneed.
Slowly, they made it out of the pond and onto the grassy border of the garden. The two women sat facing each other with Ratha sitting in Gabrielle's lap. Their bodies were in full contactRatha's heart pounding against the right side of Gabrielle's chest, while Gabrielle's beat to the same rhythm against the right side of Ratha's.
"Touch me everywhere, my love. Know me completely."
"Yes." Gabrielle answered breathlessly.
It had been so long since they had last been together this way that it would have been easy to slip into a quick quenching of desire. Instead, Ratha and Gabrielle fell into a playfulness that seemed to relax and welcome each woman back into the other's life and arms.
Ratha remembered all of Gabrielle's ticklish spots and soon had the blonde trembling with laughter and begging her to stop. Meanwhile, the brown-eyed woman was struggling with her own control as Gabrielle gently nipped at her, tickling Ratha's skin with her teeth. Before long, both women were rolling on the soft, plush grass, pretending to flee from the other's grasp, but failing miserably.
"Oh, no you don't." Gabrielle giggled. "Get back here."
Ratha had rolled about five paces from Gabrielle and every time Gabrielle reached out to her, Ratha would scamper away, sometimes continuing her roll, sometimes crawling. "No, you cannot catch me."
"When I do, you'll be sorry." Gabrielle threatened with a smile and leer as she tried to pull her into her arms again.
Teasing, Ratha asked, "What will you do to me?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" Gabrielle nodded as if she had just concocted a plan.
"Perhaps we can work something out."
"Give?" Gabrielle asked reasonably.
"You can take anything you want, Gabrielle. I willingly submit to you." Ratha's response was seductive.
"Hmm. Do you now?" Gabrielle was crawling, too, a few strides behind her. Just as she reached out to grab Ratha's leg, it slipped from her hand and Ratha crawled quickly away.
"Yes, my love. I am yours for the taking." She turned her head to look at Gabrielle and laughed.
"If I catch you?"
"Visualize it, Gabrielle."
"Umm. Yes, teacher. I see it now." Gabrielle smiled as she closed her eyes. Ratha, caught off guard by her partner's apparent total immersion in the exercise watched with interest. In a move very much like a tiger's, Gabrielle's arm stretched out quickly and accurately, her hand encircling Ratha's ankle. "It worked." Gabrielle laughed.
"Sneaky as a snake."
Gabrielle's tongue darted in and out of her mouth doing a poor imitation of a snake after its prey. "Yes, I'm a snake." Gabrielle cackled.
Ratha laughed, rolling onto her back and stared into Gabrielle's green eyes. Hovering over her, Gabrielle smiled at her victory, but a moment later, her breath caught in her throat when she saw that behind Ratha's lighthearted actions lurked a woman bursting with hunger. And that hunger was reflected in Gabrielle's eyes. The Indian woman flipped the bard over and now rested on top of her.
"Look at you..." Ratha spoke huskily, overjoyed that her lover had returned.
Gabrielle pulled her down and they shared a long, romantic kiss to make up for the seasons they'd been apart.
"Goddess," was the only word Ratha could speak.
"Goddess." Gabrielle replied in total agreement.
Ratha moved down Gabrielle's body, slowly feeling her way from neck to chest, to breasts, past her waist, around her hips and down her legs. As Ratha moved up after a short, but arousing foot massage, Gabrielle spread her legs without thought. It felt so good to be this close to Ratha again, to have her so close to her need, to allow the woman to see her treasure that she entrusted only to her gaze, her hands, her mouth. "Please, love."
Ratha bent into her as Gabrielle rested her feet on the upper part of Ratha's back. Picking up one of the many jasmine flowers that had fallen onto the grass, Ratha gently crushed it letting the petals float onto Gabrielle's womanhood. It was a particularly juicy flower and the nectar from its base, burst through as Ratha squeezed it, letting it flow and mingle with Gabrielle's own wetness. The smell of jasmine permeated both of their nostrils and Gabrielle moaned loudly thinking about the time Ratha had said the flower smelled of passion.
Ratha opened Gabrielle in much the same way the woman opened any other flower when designing a garland. Her fingers moved with delicacy and precision, spreading her open, moving along the thick folds, slowly grazing the thinner petals, massaging them between her finger and thumb, sliding a finger to the place where the nectar gathered and spreading it throughout. "Oh, oh, yes." Gabrielle said, loving Ratha's small fingers against her. "Ummm.
The Indian woman bent further and began licking both Gabrielle and the jasmine nectar. She rolled her tongue over the intricate folds, kissing and nipping at her, sliding her tongue up and down the length of Gabrielle swollen pink lips. The blonde was lost in a state of sensory overload. She could smell the jasmine hanging from the vines and on the ground around her body. The strong scent of sandalwood and cinnamon lingered on their bodies from the soap they had used in the pond. The fragrance of freshly tended grass filled her nostrils, too. Ratha's expert tongue danced against her in a movement so primal--earthly, yet heavenly. Long black hair tickled Gabrielle's thighs and she reached out to run her fingers through the softness of it. She loved Ratha's hair--thick, yet silky. And inside, her emotions welled threatening to pour from her.
Now, Ratha's tongue was making smaller and smaller circles as it drew closer to Gabrielle's hardened center. Gabrielle felt herself surrendering to the intimate touch. "Umm, Ratha." Her hand fell from Ratha's hair and reached out to hold the dark hand that hugged her thigh. Pulling the hand from its position, Gabrielle brought it up her body to rest on her aching breast. She pushed Ratha's hand into the full flesh and with her hand over her lover's, she helped her knead it. Ratha groaned when she felt the pebbly flesh of Gabrielle's tight nipple. She groaned right into Gabrielle's center and that sound pushed Gabrielle further into the overpowering passion she felt for the woman. It was all Gabrielle could do to stay in the moment. She felt outside of herself while she pressed Ratha's hand down further, pushing and squeezing, rubbing and caressing her breast. "Oh, Ratha. Feels good." Suddenly as if she were noticing it for the first time, Ratha sucked Gabrielle's clitoris into her mouth and sucked on it with patience and care, extracting emotions from Gabrielle that the blonde had cordoned off during her time at the monastery. Now those emotions flowed and it was difficult work holding back. But holding back she would. Gabrielle didn't want to climax no matter how passion-filled the result would be. She wanted to linger right at this spot, never edging off the cliff, holding off that final surge of energy until she and Ratha had entered a spiritual place together.
Pushing away from her talented lover, she moved Ratha's hand away from her breast. "Not yet. I'm not ready. Please hold me. Let me tell you how happy I am to be back here in your arms and in your temple."
"Our temple." Ratha said, moving up Gabrielle's body so that they could rest side-by-side and cheek-to-cheek. "Our temple." She repeated while squeezing the blonde triangle between Gabrielle's legs. "Our temple," she whispered once more as she took Gabrielle's hand and did the same to the area covered by her triangle of black hair.
Gabrielle took advantage of her current spot and slipped her forefinger between Ratha's folds. Her stomach flipped over when she felt the thick, viscous fluid that had dampened her wiry hairs, her folds, and her inner thighs. "Umm, honey. I like this."
"I love you," one or both of them said before losing themselves to private thoughts. The two women simply stared at each other for many, many moments. No verbalizations were necessary, nothing demanded or requested from either woman. They lay next to each other savoring the moments of their lives that brought them to this point and lingering in the present moment that gave them such happiness.
The morning dew and perspiration clung to the women who had been locked in a lover's embrace throughout the previous day and into the night. They had both sent the other over the edge twice, but mostly they had been riding the ardent waves of desire for candlemarks. Each woman moved in the waves, careful not to let the other slip into the depth of orgasm.
The pleasure was almost blinding, deafening, and uncontrolled, yet they did controlbreathing, resting, and speaking lovingly to one another. Their positions had changed many times. Sometimes Ratha hovered over Gabrielle, barely allowing their bodies to touch, yet Gabrielle's skin was goosefleshed with the magical touch. Later, Gabrielle sat in front of her, as the two looked out into the darkness. Ratha whispered requests into her ear. "Your breasts call to me. I so want to hold them, feel you harden against my hand. Would that please you?" Gabrielle reached back and pulled Ratha's arms, wrapping them around her. She placed her hands over Ratha's and moved them to fulfill Ratha's need as well as her own. Not long after, Ratha whispered, "I smell your desire. May I?" She slid her hand to Gabrielle's thigh and waited for a response. When Gabrielle arched her back, tilting her head back to kiss Ratha, the Indian woman slid her fingers between the Greek woman's folds. Long past the black of midnight, the women were back in their initial positions, Ratha sitting in Gabrielle's lap. Slowly, Gabrielle slid down into the cool grass and as she did, she moved Ratha up her body until her beautiful flower with its dark pink petals was a breath away from Gabrielle's mouth.
Now, at the birth of another dawn, they lay beside each other, each with one leg bent to provide access. Gabrielle's fingers were buried deep inside her lover. The two spots where the goddess made herself most known to the blonde received attention--inside, Gabrielle massaged her fingers over the rough area that had a bit more thickness and on the outside, Gabrielle's wet thumb slid over the other gift from the goddess, Ratha's hard center of desire. Ratha's womanhood held and enclosed Gabrielle tightly, barely allowing for the thrusts that had increased in the last few moments. The Indian woman grunted in ecstasy, seeing flashes of light and a glowing aura of bliss surround her again. Gabrielle's green eyes poured into Ratha's dark ones. The orbs never moving from each other.
"Ugh. Oh, goddess. Oh, Gabrielle. Yes, Gabrielle. Sweet elation." Ratha cried.
Ratha's fingers were actively seeking out all of Gabrielle's pleasure zones, too. Gabrielle pushed against those fingers, feeling the rapture building again. She could feel Ratha's hard nipples pressing insistently against her, her clitoris swollen and throbbing against her thumb. "Yes, Ratha. Yes."
"You feel so good. Goddess! Yes." Ratha's body pushed hard against Gabrielle's and she let out a strangled scream.
"Take...me... with you, Ratha." Gabrielle whispered, following the request with a low groan."
Ratha's fingers slid in and out of Gabrielle, while her thumb stroked her engorged clitoris. Gabrielle jerked. "Yes, oh, Ratha. Yes. Yes." She cried out surrendering with Ratha.
As the two women came down from their climaxes, their fingers remained inside of each other, relishing the contractions of their muscles, enjoying the stickiness of their lovemaking. Finally, Gabrielle pushed away, leaving her fingers inside her partner. She moved to her knees and scooted down, gingerly crawling to Ratha's legs. She looked at the Indian woman as she lifted one creamy leg, then the other over one of Ratha's legs. Ratha opened her legs up fully, spreading herself open. Gabrielle's head lowered and she slowly began licking her soft, aroused petals. "You are so beautiful." She muttered. "All of life's secret's are here. This is sacred to me."
Ratha moaned under Gabrielle's attention. The blonde's heart felt like a clay pot or vessel filled to capacity with love and desire. As Ratha's hips thrust forward and her hands gripped Gabrielle's hair, pushing her deeper into her center, Gabrielle felt the vessel empty and pour into Ratha. Just as the Indian woman came close to toppling over that edge, Gabrielle surrounded Ratha's clitoris with her lips while filling her with her fingers. Ratha's body froze and Gabrielle's womanhood throbbed and pulsed in response. Both women lay together in perfect harmony--drained, emptied, but somehow complete and finally sated.
Much later that day, Ratha sat up, recalling something she had wished to mention to Gabrielle. "While I was alone, working yesterday, I was contemplating reincarnation."
"Umm. Go on."
"I came out to find you to tell you about it. When you were bathing."
"Umm. Yes." Gabrielle smiled lazily.
"I was thinking about how you and Xena had gone into the future and met your future selves, but you didn't meet the future selves of the others whom you had loved. You didn't see your daughter, Hope's future embodiment, or your friends..." Ratha paused as she tried to recall the names. "Autolycus or Iolaus. You didn't see the future lives of your parents and Xena didn't see her mother or her son...Solon, isn't it? All of those souls you've cared about and others were absent in your travel into the future."
Gabrielle sat up, too and nodded. "Right. What are you getting at?" Green eyes turned toward Ratha, very interested in where she was taking this caravan of thought.
Ratha giggled, almost embarrassed to say, but she did. "Maybe I'm one of them. Maybe Niti is the shell that holds one of their souls. Or how about the other novitiates you had trained? Could each of them be carrying the soul of your friends and family? You know that Kiran is really Arminestra and Arminestra is Xena's future self, but you know nothing about the rest of us. We're all bonded to you in some way. As lovers, friends, and admittedly, some of us, like Pariket and even Niti are perhaps, thorns in your side, but the bond is unmistakable. Maybe, it is our karma that you and I are sitting here today and that we have shared lives together before and will again."
"Probably. I hadn't thought of it. " Gabrielle agreed.
"It is a moot point, is it not? We will never have that knowledge."
"No, we won't, but I am certain that you are right. It wouldn't alter the reason I am here, though. In this life, at this moment, this is exactly where I want to be." Gabrielle pulled Ratha to her and hugged her tightly.
"Gabrielle, life is eternal. It has no beginning and no end. The loving friends we meet on our journey return to us time after time." Ratha spoke softly in Gabrielle's ear.
"We never die because we were never really born." Gabrielle whispered in reply.
Ratha pushed back and looked at her golden one. "You must write that down. I belief we have discovered meaning."
"I will," Gabrielle promised. "But first let me hold you a while."
* * * * *
Far too many winters and springs had passed to count.
It wasn't as often as Gabrielle had wished, but occasionally, Kiran, who had reclaimed her birth name, Arminestra would visit the temple, too. As Gabrielle had predicted, she had far surpassed her mentor, carrying herself as if she glided on air, a serene and loving expression always on her face, a smile for the lonely, and a helping hand for the ill. Ratha and Arminestra became fast friends and confidantes. This pleased Gabrielle a great deal for no two women were more important to her. Arminestra was her soulmate, but the sexual chemistry she had possessed with Xena was not present. She and Ratha had formed a loving union that she respected beyond measure.
Each visit would find Arminestra asking her mentors questions about things she had observed during her travels. Gabrielle, being the one who had the most experience with the outside world shared her thoughts and offered advice on dealing with hostile forces, warmongers, and dangerous men and women. Arminestra relayed stories of a group gathering a following throughout the sub-continent. The small band of warlords were raising towns, pillaging, destroying lives and Arminestra felt that she had to go. Gabrielle and Ratha encouraged her, but reminded her of the perils in the world and begged her to not put her life in jeopardy. They knew the latter request never reached her. Arminestra was the kind of woman who would deal with any menace head on. She wouldn't resort to violence, but she would face her enemy and stand up for her beliefs. By example, she felt others would stand with her. Always, the youngest of the three women would end these talks by simply stating, "there must be peace."
Several summers earlier, Arminestra arrived at the temple with another womana master of yoga with a playful nature. The woman, Deepti seemed to bring out a more carefree Arminestra. Gabrielle's former student would hang on Deepti's words and grace her with a radiant grin in response to a comment. At first, Gabrielle found it unsettling, but later, she was happy for Arminestra. They were a good match and Arminestra seemed calmed by her. The blonde hoped the relationship would last, especially witnessing just how devoted Deepti was to Arminestra. It took only a few visits before all four women were comfortable together, sharing ideas, hopes for the future, and remaining students of life.
Arminestra had been Gabrielle's student and what she had learned from her teacher and from her teacher's partner about love was shared with Deepti. Late in the night and well into the wee of morning, Ratha and Gabrielle could hear the two women coming together again and again in physical and spiritual ecstasy. Their tender words of desire and groans of delight echoed throughout the temple. The first time Gabrielle had heard the sounds of their pleasure, her stomach tightened in sorrow. Arminestra's vocalizations were so much like Xena's--the way she cried out, her intonations, and groans were Xena's; her requests for a particular touch, Gabrielle had heard before coming from her long dead blue-eyed, raven-haired lover. Over time, Gabrielle was able to put those thoughts aside and would simply be inspired to connect with Ratha that way. The next morning, the four women would share hot tea and warm glances.
When Arminestra and Deepti visited the temple, they also offered their skills to women who had joined the temple as students. For over fifteen winters, Ratha and Gabrielle had trained hundreds of women, young and old in the ancient ways of goddess worship through meditation, exercise, and rituals, taught the concepts of sacred lovemaking, and ways to express true love.
With each new group of women entering the temple, there would be an uprising by the men who had followed them, intent on preventing their education. The men would come with torches and loud voices, some with spears and others with daggers. They would attempt to cajole their wives and lovers with promises of a better life at home and when that failed, they would threaten them. The temple became not only a place to strive for enlightenment, but a shelter from abuse. Gabrielle and Ratha were forced to rebuild significant sections of the temple destroyed by purposefully set fires on several occasions. It was not unusual for them to be pelted by rocks and pebbles when they opened the temple gates to receive the women. Gabrielle, like Ratha would take the peaceful approach, talking to the men, and offering them food and water after their long journey. But sometimes, the men would go too far and when the violence escalated, Gabrielle would run for her sais, give them a twirl and jump into the fray. (Gabrielle had come to terms with the duality of her nature and was at peace with it. She was nurturing, caring, loving, joyous, and open, yet she was a warrior when she had to be, able to embrace her darkness when she needed to. She was yin and yang, elephant and monkey. She would do what was necessary to protect those who could not take up arms.) Eventually, the men would retreat, beaten back by one lone woman.
Ratha and Gabrielle could set the change of seasons by the bloodshed and brutality at the temple. It only happened when they received new students at the turn of the seasons. The last attack had proven to be especially hostile. It was fortunate that Ratha and Gabrielle had opened the temple to would-be warriorsstrong women who would protect those who walked a different path. When the violence broke out, the warriors in training surrounded the temple, taking down many men. Some of these warriors' lives ended on the grounds and for Gabrielle, it was reminiscent of the fights she had participated in with the Amazonsagainst the Centaurs, against Pompey and Caesar, and the defining Gabrielle battle against Artemis' son, Bellerophon. This time, she had led these young women into battle against their own men, giving them a talk of encouragement for fighting for their beliefs. It had been a difficult night for her and Ratha tried to soothe Gabrielle's breaking heart, but the Indian woman just had no idea what Gabrielle was going through.
Xena's words from long ago came back to her. Xena having lived a warrior's life knew how Gabrielle felt. She recalled two of their conversations after the big battle between Artemis' son and the Amazons. So many of the warriors had been killed and it had been Gabrielle who had led them. Gabrielle had told Xena she had done what she had to do, attempting to take the edge off of how she really felt. Gabrielle, I can see that you're in pain. Xena had said. Xena, don't...don't say that. Don't try to make me feel better about this. Half of my tribe lies dead on the beach. Now, I have to be as cold and ruthless as I can be. I'll do whatever I have to do to keep these women alive. Gabrielle felt that way again. Here at the temple, it felt exactly the same. She had won this fight, too, yet she felt a greater sense of loss. War's tough on us all, Gabrielle. Xena had commented. Gabrielle was living a new life, but it was picturing Xena's blue eyes, staring at her with love and sincerity that gave her solace that night.
There had been no recent conflicts since no new students had entered the program and life continued at the temple as usual until one morning. The day had started off no different from others, but not too many candlemarks later, there was tension in the air. It was tangible and eerie. The wind had picked up and the sky had gone from a pale, metallic gray to black by noon. Gabrielle had pleaded with Ratha not to go on her daily trip to the village, but Ratha insisted. There were items she needed for the temple and the only way they could afford them was to barter with her delicious honey,
A group of men had surrounded Ratha as she was departing the temple to the village. Her cart was filled with pots of cinnamon and lemon flavored honey. The men overturned the cart, breaking the vessels and pots by throwing them at the peaceful woman's head and body. Gabrielle heard a scream over the howling wind and ran to the balcony to find the cause of such a bone-chilling cry. She saw her lover drenched in honey. Her long black hair was matted and the brown liquid dripped from her chin, nose, and arms. Her sari was plastered to her skin by the gooey sweet. The men taunted and yelled at her, calling Ratha vile names. With each pot they flung at her, there would be another curse, another epithet. "Whore!"
"Sinner against the gods."
"She drugs this honey and feeds it to our women. They are under her spell."
Gabrielle had seen what was going on below and was already on the way to take care of it. She could hear the name calling as she ran through the temple, retrieving her sais, quickly grabbing a few of her students who were on the Path of the Warrior. In actuality, very little time had passed, but for Gabrielle, reaching Ratha's side took forever.
Her arms held the sais with comfortable ease, exacting blows with precision. The warriors beside her used their swords to assist while Arminestra who was visiting the temple managed to slip into the melee, pull Ratha out, and sequester her inside the temple.
When it was over, the few men left standing, retreated with the usual vow to return with reinforcements. This time, only two warriors were hurtone of the new students had a broken arm the result of a man twisting it until it snapped and Gabrielle was left with a severe sword wound to the belly where one of the men had run her through.
Once inside the temple, healers carried Gabrielle into one of the three rooms reserved to treat injuries. While they tried to make her comfortable, Ratha with her hair still matted and face glossy with honey whispered quickly to Arminestra. The younger woman nodded, then ran from the room. A group of students chanted over Gabrielle. Ratha walked to the pallet and sat down beside her, holding her hand, staring into the face she loved so much. With immense effort, Gabrielle opened her eyes for the first time in a candlemark. Green eyes pierced Ratha's brown ones and the former bard, whispered in such hushed tones that it sounded only like breathing.
"What? What, my beloved?"
"Not the first time you've been covered in honey, hmm?" Gabrielle attempted a sexy laugh, but her inability to take in oxygen and the pain of her still bleeding wound caused it to sound strained and faint.
Ratha shook her head, the barest of smiles crossing her face before tears rolled down her cheeks. "N...no." She wailed.
After taking a few shallow breaths, Gabrielle struggled to continue. "Ratha?" She waited until she had her lover's gaze again. "You... took such care with me...sometimes being hurt in the process. I'm sorry if I ever hurt you. I always loved you." She said haltingly, laboring to voice her feelings.
"I know. I know." Ratha squeezed her hand with all the emotion she had felt for her over the seasons.
A tall, dark-skinned woman loomed in the doorway, staring at the scene of her mentor and friend with an enormous expression of anguish in her eyes. Gabrielle's eyes slowly moved across the room, away from Ratha to behold Arminestra. Ratha turned and looked, following Gabrielle's eyes. She beckoned Arminestra forward.
The younger of the three women moved beside the bed with colossal effort. "Teacher." She sniffed while giving Ratha the black urn containing Xena's ashes. Ratha gently took her hand and guided it into Gabrielle's.
"Stay on your path, daughter."
As they spoke, Ratha, with tenderness and reverence placed the urn beside Gabrielle, so that her arm rested upon it. The blonde gave Ratha's hand a squeeze in acknowledgment before her lover stood to speak with one of the healers.
"Gabrielle, don't leave me. Please don't go, not yet. I need you."
Gabrielle's eyelids fluttered and it was a chore to maintain focus. "You have to spread peace. That is who you are. You are gifted."
Arminestra stood and began pacing the small room. "I don't care. You're all that matters. If I'm so gifted, I'll stay here and help you to get better. I will pray over you." She stared out of the window, watching as the wind blew leaves across the courtyard. "I can ride for another healer, one skilled in this type of injury. My responsibility is to you, teacher..." She turned to face a very weakened Gabrielle. "...mother."
"No, you are the Mother of Peace. Please, Arminestra. Be strong now."
Her long legs carried her back to Gabrielle's side in two steps. She knelt beside her, taking her hand. "I love you. You are the other half of my soul. I still feel that." She rested her head on their joined hands unable to speak. Finally, she sighed and looked into Gabrielle's eyes again. "What happens to me without my other half?" Warm, heavy tears made twin trails on both sides of her face as she clutched her mentor's hand.
"We will meet again. We are forever entwined, daughter."
"Don't leave me. Don't you leave me. Don't die." Arminestra begged, hoping that she could pray away the inevitable.
"We never die."
Ratha knelt on the other side of the bed, grasping Gabrielle's other hand. Gabrielle turned to look at the woman whom she had shared a life and bed with for most of her seasons.
"Ratha, we are like lines of the mehndi, too."
Sparing a glance at both women, the farm girl from Poteidaia, the tagalong, the sidekick, the Amazon Princess, the Amazon Queen, the Battling Bard, the student and teacher, the lover and partner of Xena and Ratha, the surrogate mother of Arminestra, the soulmate quietly slipped away.
* * * * *
There had been no midwife to call. Ajay and Pavarti had been traveling on foot, moving from their small village to a larger city to await the birth of their first child. Pavarti's water had broken and it was all Ajay could do to get her off the road and into a sheltering forest. She was now squatting beside a tree, her sari pulled up high on her hips. The young Indian woman had never experienced such pain and she looked at her sweet, young husband for support and to calm her fears. Ajay was close to fainting, though. When she screamed out again, he seemed to come out of his daze. This scream was more shrill and elongated than the ones that had come previously. He squatted in front of her with a look of worry. "Push, love. Keep pushing."
Another scream, then a sudden quiet as the baby's crown appeared.
"By the gods, the baby's coming!"
"I know that!" She yelled in irritation, while panting and pushing. He reached between her legs and began to gently pull as she pushed.
"Here it comes. Here it comes. Almost there."
With one final push, the baby entered the world and Ajay and Pavarti cried over the cute, alert boy. Pavarti fell back, panting in relief and joy.
When Ajay had finished the work of a new father, using his dagger to cut the cord and tying a small, careful knot, he placed his newborn on his wife's chest and then lay beside her. "You did great." He said, then kissed her forehead. "He is beautiful."
Ajay bent to whisper to his baby boy, then looked up into his wife's teary eyes.
"What did you say to him?" His wife asked curiously.
"To always remember that he's safe because love would be his guide."
His words caused a new flow of tears to leak from Pavarti's eyes. Ajay was a sensitive man and now she was doubly blessed with this handsome son. She smiled at the two men in her life and Ajay returned the gaze with the love of a dozen husbands and fathers.
"And we're agreed on the name?" he asked.
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