THE QUEEN & THE GODDESS : PART FOUR
Brunnhilda walks the beach scanning the sand as she goes. She turns back to look inland. Along the dunes she can see where higher tides have washed out the tall sandy hills than form the edge of the trees. Black hard pan and rock is revealed. She looks further down the beach ahead and sees a massive cluster of bleached-white petrified wood. She looks back down the beach. Her horse grazes on tall sea oats. Several yards past where the animal eats is the remains of a small boat ( no doubt once a companion to a larger ship). The break in the dune. The petrified tree. The boat wreck. They are all as Gabrielle said they would be. She had been somewhat amazed that her friend could remember the exact location. Down to yards and feet from these landmarks.
“ What I saw on the beach is not easily forgotten Bru,” she had said. “ Every inch of that place was burned into my memory..”
Brunnhilda walks to the break in the dune. She stands exactly where the rocks and hard pan first touch the sand. She steps off nine paces towards the petrified tree. Then turns to face the sea. She counts the steps as she walks towards the water. One. Two. Three. Four . Five… When she reaches twenty two she stops as water washes over her feet. Four more paces. She’ll have to dig through the mud for it. She walks off the last paces then stops. The water is up to her shins. She bends down and begins to dig through the mud with the small trowel she brought along.
It’s not long before the tool hits something. She carefully probes the mud with her hand. She grasps something solid and pulls up a rock. “ Damn it!” she curses and tosses it aside. She digs deeper but finds nothing else. Could Gabrielle be wrong? She shakes her head. She has just misjudged by a foot or two. She shifts over a foot or so and begins to dig anew. Several inches down the trowel hits something. She plunges her hand into the mud and pulls up a bone. She stares at what appears to be the long bone of an arm. She is shocked a little to feel the bone vibrating in her hand. And instead of being white as it should be , it is seems to gleam as if made of some precious metal. She knows she has found the spot. She wonders which one of them this belongs to.
It is dusk when she finally finds the object of her search. The number of gleaming bones found has been staggering. But at last she hears the metal of her trowel strike metal. Carefully she reaches into the mud and wraps her hand around it. She tries to pull it out but is unsuccessful. She reaches in with another hand and grasps it. Then she heaves back with all her strength and it comes free of the mud. Held in her hands is a long handled hammer. It’s haft is wrapped in a continuous strip of leather that she can find neither beginning nor end to. Its enormous head and pick gleams as though it has not spent the last three years buried. Mud slides from it like water and it seems to glow in the diminishing sunlight. The weapon is huge but has almost no weight. She twirls it as if were made of glass or wood. She stares for a moment at the blackish stain on its wicked pointed pick side.
“Blood,” she says.
She stares down at the bones she has uncovered. As if they refuse to be moved by something so trivial as the tide the bones remain where she has laid each one and have not moved an inch. She slips the hammer into a leather sling she quickly made on her way here. Then she replaces the bones in their resting place. She kneels by the place and offers up a prayer to Odin and Baldur that he who died on this spot knows peace. She touches the hammer. “ This will be your memorial. Gabrielle and I will make sure that you are not forgotten. Your wife was her friend. She has left to find you. I hope that you are together and that you are at peace. ”
Brunnhilda races back to her horse and kicks the animal into a gallop.
Gabrielle awakens to find the first red tint of dawn coloring the horizon. She crawls out of her bed and is a little perturbed by the fact that she was apparently exhausted after last night and slept in her leathers. She finds a basin of water already brimming with cold , clear water. She splashes some on her face and uses handfuls of it to rinse through her hair. There is no sign of Brunnhilda as she glances about the queen’s hut. “ Please Ephiny , let her have found it.” She wonders at the number of times she has used her friend’s name as a prayer the last few days and how quickly she has taken to the Amazonian worship of ancestors. But of all her sisters , past and present, she remembers Ephiny the most fondly. Small wonder she invokes her name in this manner. “ How I could use your guidance now, sister.”
She straps the belt with Terrias’s …her sword on it to her waist then hangs the chakrum on the opposite hip. She picks up the queen’s mask and is settling it on her head when Tara enters the hut with a perplexed look on her face. Gabrielle sees that she is not wearing a sling for her injured arm. She stares at the limp appendage and glares at Tara.
But before she can be scolded by her queen the warrior points to the door through which she has just come. “Gabri …my queen…” she fumbles for words. “ There is someone…an old woman outside. She says she wishes to speak with you. She says to say that you are old friends.”
Gabrielle moves towards the door but pauses as she gets to the threshold . “ Go to Lunara. That arm needs to be tended to. Don’t argue Tara,” She holds up a hand to cut off the other woman as she opens her mouth to protest. “Just go. Please.”
Tara nods and follows her queen outside. Gabrielle is not entirely surprised to see the old , bent crone from Artemis’s temple leaning on her staff in the yard before the hut. She glances from side to side observing the places where trees have been cut down to open up more space in the village and to use to make preparations for Velasca’s imminent attack. If Gabrielle is correct and this woman is somehow connected to Velasca then she prays the crone doesn’t see that they are readying for the goddess’s return. Again Gabrielle’s eyes are drawn to the top of the woman’s staff. She obviously needs the thing to support her frail frame but she is unnerved by the fact that a black cloth is covering whatever sits atop it. As she glares at the woman’s drawn face she recalls what she had said yesterday as Gabriele had heard the screams of dying Amazons. Those would be the screams of your subjects, Queen Gabrielle.
“What do you want , old woman?” she shouts with barely contained rage.
The old woman winces as if she has been offended. “ You manners have suffered over the years,” she announces in a loud and boisterous voice that belays her advancing years. It bothers Gabrielle and Tara both that they seem to hear the voice coming from all around them and not just from the woman herself. Every Amazon in the village also turns as if seeking the origin of the voice. “ But I should’ve expected no less considering your tenure with the warrior princess.”
Gabrielle scrutinizes the woman in an attempt to discern her identity. It gnaws at her that she cannot figure out who she is. Or how she relates to Velasca.
“ I hear that she is gone. And that she died badly. Very appropriate.” A mocking smile crosses her lips.
Gabrielle grabs the chakrum without thinking but Tara's hand is on her shoulder before she can draw the weapon. She draws some calm and strength from the hand of her sister. “ What do you want?” she asks again.
The old woman’s body trembles in a way that tell all who are watching that she is chuckling. “ She will return tomorrow!” she announces. There is a momentary shudder of fear that seems to run through every Amazon in sight.
<good. I can feel the fear.> She agrees with the voice. The fear in them is most pleasant. But she soon sees that the fear is gone. The steely look in Gabrielle’s eyes speaks of defiance and determination.
“ Did you release her?” Gabrielle asks. If this woman has indeed released Velasca, then who is she that she can perform such a deed.
The old woman pays the question no heed. She points to the east. “ When the dawning sun climbs above the trees the Goddess of the Amazons will come to reap her retribution.”
“ She is not our goddess!” a voice calls out. A young warrior with ebony black hair stares at the old woman. She steps into the yard before the queen’s hut. She places the point of her spear into the ground and shouts, “ We have no goddess to guide us anymore. We follow our ancestors. She looks skyward. “And our queen.” She turns to meet Gabrielle’s eyes. “ Velasca is not a goddess. She is a murderer. And when she comes she will face Amazon justice.”
Every Amazon in the village cries out in agreement. The old woman scowls at the warrior’s words. Gabrielle stares with pride at her. “ Who is she?” she asks Tara.
“ Harrika,” Tara replies. “ Her sister, Miloa, was one of the two Velasca burned alive.”
Gabrielle nods as she tries to remember if the woman had been with them at Helicon. She turns her attention back to the old woman. “ Did you release her?” she asks once more.
“ You have until then to prepare yourselves for the end. By dusk tomorrow the Amazons will be extinct,” the old woman sneers.
An older warrior with white hair growls at the back of her throat and takes a step towards the crone.
“ No!” Gabrielle shouts seeing the warrior’s intent. “ Let her leave. I’ll not see any of my sisters stain their hands with the blood of this coward.”
“What?” the old woman says with such spite that she sprays spit as she speaks. “What did you call me you little bitch!”
“ You come here to taunt us while cowering under the auspices of a goddess,” Gabrielle informs her. “ I do not see anything wrong with telling you the truth. I don’t know who you are. But I know that you are a craven coward.”
“ You will pay for that insult with your life Gabrielle,” the old woman rails at the queen pointing a misshapen finger at her. “ You will pay for all that you and Xena did to me!”
“ Get out of my village,” Gabrielle commands. “ Now!”
The old woman leers at all the eyes leveled on her. She trembles with rage and a hate that screams to be released.
<calm yourself. you won’t live to see you revenge or regain what they have taken from you if your heart bursts from anger where you stand.>
She sees the wisdom in the voice and nods. “ Think what you want. But after sunset tomorrow I will take great delight in feeding your eyes to the crows Gabrielle.” She grips her staff tightly and walks slowly from the village.
“I’d say that was not what she expected to hear,” Tara says removing her hand from Gabrielle’s shoulder.
My people will not die. I will fulfill the prophecy. I will lead them into a new dawn. She repeats the words to herself like a mantra. Praying each time that she isn’t saying them in vain but knowing that she may be doing just that.
She watches as the old woman disappears into the trees. “ I refuse to let her words have any meaning. I have dispelled the fear. We will fight. We will survive.” She turns and places her hand on the taller woman’s uninjured shoulder. This woman gave her strength and resolve just moments ago when she needed it most “There is one duty I have yet to perform since becoming queen, Tara. Quite foolish of me really.” She draws her sword.
Tara looks from the blade to the face of her queen. Her eyes widen as she realizes what is about to happen.
“Sisters!” Gabrielle calls out. All eyes turn to the porch of the queen’s hut on which she and Tara stand. “ There is a task as queen I must perform and to which you must all bear witness.” The attention of the village is on the two women. “ Kneel,” she says to Tara. The warrior drops to one knee. Gabrielle lays the sword upon Tara’s shoulder. “Tara! Daughter of Patriess! Warrior! Amazon! Friend! You are from this day forth my right hand! From this moment to the end you will stand by my side as I rule! Rise! Queen’s champion!” As Tara rises a cheer erupts from all those present. Gabrielle stares into the eyes of her friend and champion and wishes with all her heart that Tara will serve that position for more than one day. “Now go have that shoulder tended to, my champion. And tell Varia and Calida that I will be speaking with them soon.”
“ Yes , my queen,” Tara says with a bow before she walks towards the healer’s hut.
Gabrielle watches her walk away then spots a rider approaching. “ Bru,” she whispers as the blond woman reigns in the horse and jumps down. She hands the reins to a girl then runs towards Gabrielle.
As Brunnhilda gets closer Gabrielle sees that she holds up a cloth wrapped bundle. Gabrielle sighs with relief. It’s not much. she thinks. But it may give us a chance. She tries to hide her apprehension.
“Right where you said it would be,” Brunnhilda states. She sees the look on Gabrielle’s face. “ What is it?”
“The old woman. She came again. She said Velasca would return at dawn tomorrow and that by the time the sun set we’ll all be dead.”
Brunnhilda looks at the bundle she holds. “ But…”
“ It may help but only if the rest of my plan works. And I must be honest and say it will probably not work.”
“ Gabrielle…I…but we can’t just…”
“ I intend to fight tomorrow. But I am certain I will die tomorrow as well. Take that inside, will you. I have to talk with Varia.”
“ Gabrielle…” Brunnhilda starts but she is cut off.
“ Just get some rest Bru. You had a long ride. I’ll be back soon.”
Brunnhilda watches Gabrielle go and her heart begins to sink. She seems like a woman going to the gallows. She walks inside and lays the bundle on the bed’s sideboard. She pulls back the cloth and stares at the hammer. “ It has to work,” she says. “ Odin. Please it has to work. I can’t lose her.”
Tara , her arm in a sling , is leaving the healer’s hut as Gabrielle arrives. “ I’ll get them to work on the canopy right away.”
“ That’s going to take the longest amount of time,” Gabrielle relies. “ You’ll have to work through the night to finish it.”
“ I will,” Tara states. “ And we found enough shields I think. And Neesa has finished digging the first pit. She…”
Gabrielle grabs her champion’s arm. “ You get some sleep. Get the others to work in shifts. Make sure everyone rests , gets food and…” she searches for the right words. “ And make sure they all spend time together. Be with their families.”
“ What about you?” Tara asks.
“ It’s funny to think that most of my blood kin are dead except my sister and my niece. But I feel at home here, now. More so than I ever have except…” she trails off.
“ Xena is missed by us all Gabrielle,” Tara finishes her queen’s thought for her.
Gabrielle nods. “Better get back to work,” she says.
Tara salutes and walks away into the courtyard.
As Gabrielle enters she nearly runs into Lunara as the healer leaves her hut. “ Sorry my que…I mean…Gabrielle,” she apologizes.
Gabrielle passes her gaze over the hut and finds Varia and Calida lying in bed with their arms wrapped around one another. They are sleeping peacefully and she hates that she must wake them.
“ I’ll leave you with them,” Lunara says .
“ No. I need to speak to all three of you,” Gabrielle says .
Judging by the look on her queen’s face , Lunara knows she is not going to like what Gabrielle has to say.
Gabrielle places a hand on Varia’s shoulder. The dark haired Amazon shudders as she wakes up. “ Oh . Gabrielle. Sorry. I was…dreaming.”
Her voice awakens Calida. “ What is it?” she asks sitting up with Varia.
“ Velasca will return tomorrow,” Gabrielle informs them. “ She intends to kill us all. But I won’t allow it.”
Varia smiles to see her friend so strong in the face of such opposition. “ We will not go down without a fight,” she says despite the fact that she will be unable to participate in the battle.
“Seventy leagues to the north are the lands of lord Belach, son of Borias,” Gabrielle says as she walks nervously about the room. Lunara shakes her head knowing what Gabrielle is about to say and knowing that no one will agree to it. “ You will be safe there. I’ll choose two others to accompany you and you’ll leave after nightfall.”
“ No!” Calida shouts.
“ I said I won’t allow us to die,” Gabrielle says turning her eyes on the three women. “ You three and the other two will carry on our history and our legacy.”
“ You can’t ask this of us,” Lunara objects.
“ I have to,” Gabrielle says . “ I did not accept my destiny as queen just to preside over our extinction.”
“ Gabrielle,” Varia says. She tries to sit up but the pain drives her back down again. She places her hand on Calida’s shoulder and the other woman helps her sit up in the bed. “ Velasca broke my body. But my spirit is whole. I will not let you do this. You cannot blame yourself for this. And sending us away will not dissuade your conscience. Especially since you have no reason to feel this way.”
“ She’s right my queen,” Calida agrees. “ We are warriors. We will fight. As you will fight. Velasca thinks she can break our spirits but she has failed. You proved that yesterday. We stand together.”
Gabrielle stares at the two women and cannot help but feel pride to be their queen.
“ While we cannot be at your side , trust that our hearts are with you each and every second.,” Lunara says laying a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder.
She represses a tear and smiles broadly. “ I don’t know what to say.” Gabrielle kneels beside the bed Varia and Calida lay on. “ Thank you. You’ve given me hope and strength. I wish I’d been so strong as you before.”
Both women smile. “ You are,” they say in unison.
Gabrielle nods her thanks then walks outside. Lunara follows her. “ You must’ve realized they would say no,” she tells her queen.
“ I had hoped to spare them any more pain,” Gabrielle sighs.
“ It would’ve hurt them more to not be here.”
“ I should’ve known that.”
“ Still you doubt yourself?”
“ We as a people may cease to exist tomorrow. How can I not?”
“ By believing in yourself and in the prophecy. I would think it might do your heart proud to know that you were chosen by Apollo.”
Gabrielle balks at those words. The words of the prophecy run through her mind once more. “ That doesn’t matter to me.”
“It doesn’t ?” Lunara says shocked. “ Are you saying you don’t …”
“ I believe in the prophecy Lunara. I just choose to look at it a different way. I wasn’t chosen by Apollo. I was chosen by Terrias.” She walks from the healer’s hut back to her own.
“ And she chose well,” Lunara says.
Gabrielle looks down at the shallow pit being dug a few yards in front of the queen’s hut. She looks up at the canopy of ropes strung across several trees. Amazons skitter across the ropes securing them for tomorrow. Glancing around , she sees more of her sisters hauling huge sections of chopped tree trunks up towards the canopy. Her champion supervises dozens of Amazons moving crates and barrels to rest next to the buildings around the perimeter of the village square.
Tara sees her queen observing her and walks over to speak with her. “ The canopy will be complete in a few hours Gabrielle,” she reports. “ Every bow, cross bow and spear is being placed in position.” She looks at the shallow pit. “ Are you sure that will be deep enough? “ she asks as a mere child climbs out pulling a shovel with her.
“ It is done my queen,” the girl says.
“ Thank you Neesa,” Gabrielle says. “ You should go to sleep now.”
The girl bows then walks quickly to where her mother waits before their hut.
“ It will suffice,” Gabrielle answers her champion. “ You should get some rest too.” The moon light shines down and it feels to Gabrielle like it is soaking into her skin. Before Tara can protest she holds up a hand. “ I need you to be strong tomorrow. We all need our strength. Go. Rest. Spend some time with your loved ones.”
Tara looks in Gabrielle’s eyes and can see the weariness there that mirrors her own. “I will but only on the condition that you will as well.”
Gabrielle smiles. “ I will.”
“ Good night then my queen,” Tara says as she walks away.
“ Tara,” Gabrielle calls her friend’s attention again. Tara turns back and awaits what she has to say. “Do you … have anyone?”
Tara smiles and simply nods in response. Then she winks at Gabrielle and walks away. Gabrielle is confused by the woman’s actions. She is mildly startled when Brunnhilda speaks.
“ I’m going to be in that?” she mutters pointing to the pit.
Gabrielle can feel the valkyrie’s presence behind her. “ Yes,” she says. “ Just remember to wait for my signal.”
“ Right,” Brunnhilda responds.
Gabrielle trembles at the thought of the danger she will be putting her loved ones through and what it will mean if she fails. She feels the fear threatening to overwhelm her. She cannot give into it. Not after what she said to them yesterday. She will not let this fear rule her. With all her will she presses it down inside herself. Into that part of her soul that she feels is darkest. That part of her that she released in the Roman fort when she saw Xena fall. The part of her that wanted Gurkhan dead. It is that part of her that she fears most. A part of her she doesn’t want anyone to see. Pure, blind rage. She’s kept it hidden for a long time. She knew it was there but she didn’t want to give in to it. Didn’t want Xena to see it. She wonders how much longer she can keep it suppressed. She ponders at the irony of a seething hatred that might put Xena to shame.
“ Gabrielle,” Brunnhilda says.
She can feel that the woman has moved closer to her.
“ Are you …all right?” Brunnhilda hesitates to ask.
“ No.” Gabrielle finds that she has no wish to lie to her companion. “ It’s strange. I so want to win. To preserve my people. To see them enter the new dawn I’m prophesied to lead them into.”
“ What’s wrong with that?”
“ That’s not what I mean. You see somewhere in my heart I think I want to die.”
“ What? Why?” Brunnhilda feels herself shaking at the prospect of what Gabrielle is saying. “ Are you really so afraid of your destiny?”
“ No. It’s just that.” Gabrielle breathes deeply letting the next words flow out and hoping they don’t hurt as much as she thinks they will. “ She’s waiting for me. In the next lifetime. If I die tomorrow it means I’ll be able to see Xena that much sooner.”
Brunnhilda feels as though she has been hit. This young warrior bard is easily the most complicated individual she has ever met. To hear that she has less meaning to Gabrielle than the dead warrior princess saps her will. She feels exhausted suddenly. As though she has run for days. She stands back, for a moment considering just walking away from Gabrielle. She sees the slump in the bard’s shoulders. Sees the slow rhythm of her breathing. Knows that the Amazon queen is on the verge of crying. How, she wonders, can someone so strong see herself as being so weak?
“ Xena wouldn’t want you to think that way,” she tells Gabrielle. “ She would want you to do everything in your power to live. She wouldn’t want her soul mate wishing for death. And neither do I.” Brunnhilda decides to let her feelings out. She steps so close to Gabrielle that her chest rests against the queen’s back then she wraps her arms around the blonde.
Gabrielle gasps at the words spoken and the arms encircling her. Her body trembles at the touch of the Norse warrior. She has been trying to hide her feelings for Brunnhilda for some time. Feeling that to give into them would be betraying Xena somehow. She remembers how Brunnhilda had said those years ago that she loved her.
“ I know I can never take Xena’s place, Gabrielle,” Brunnhilda says. She ignores the looks they draw from nearby Amazons. “ I know I can never occupy that place in your heart that was hers alone. I just want you to know that what I said before is true and from my heart. I love you.”
The warmth of the woman holding her brings a peace to Gabrielle she feels she has lacked for a long time. When she had held Hope in her arms and finally asked the forgiveness of her daughter she knew she hadn’t deserved , she had felt peace. But that was different. That had been an unburdening of a guilt she had carried since Britannia. The peace flowing through her as she stands in Brunnhilda’s embrace is something else. The peace of love and companionship. And possibly something more. She lays her head back on the woman’s shoulder then places her hands over the ones encircling her.
“ Bru,” Gabrielle says. “ You…” she trails off trying to put her feelings into words. Deep inside she has wanted this for some time. Now that it is here she is fumbling for words like a child. Xena’s death left a void in her that she has been unwilling to try and fill again. She thought she had no desire to love anyone like that again. And while she had shared Sexton’s bed, she had not felt anything for him. Her time with him was simply a physical release that she knew in the back of her mind was a pointless gratification that she would loathe in time. She had wanted to deny love after Xena’s passing. Thinking that to give in to loving anyone else would be to betray her soul mate. But Brunnhilda is right. Xena would not want that for her. She would want Gabrielle to be happy and to know that kind of love again.
She turns in Brunnhilda’s embrace so that they are facing one another mere inches apart. She places one hand on the Norse woman’s cheek and can feel the heat as she blushes from the touch. “ Xena does occupy my heart. But as Eli taught me so long ago…” she leans up closer to Brunnhilda and whispers, “Love is infinite. And there is room in my heart for you as well. I love you , Bru.”
Tara smiles from where she watches the two blondes on the porch of the queen’s hut . She thanks her ancestors that on what may be the last night for the Amazons that their queen will be safe and loved in the embrace of another.