Middle-aged Gabrielle and Xena weathered knowing each other too well in “Two Breaths of Wind,” but must suffer through the opposite after a stormy voyage forces them to drift apart. For ma soeur.
Gabrielle lay in the grass, gazing at the night sky – something she’d loved as long as she could remember. Nothing had seemed so simple, so awesome and beautiful. So reassuring as those brilliant points of light piercing the darkest dark. She’d never imagined it different. That beneath the limitless expanse prowled fear and uncertainty. Forces powerful enough to block or alter her view. Ageless natural wonders – not to mention heaven, earth and Tartarus – all blending into a singular mortal. Of course, that all preceded life with Xena on the road. After, she came to appreciate the night sky even more.
How long had it been? A year? Even once they’d settled down, they’d never let this much time pass without camping somewhere. Any excuse would do. She hadn’t looked for one since losing Xena. Wouldn’t be out here now, if not for Singer. “We’d set sail when I saw this woman sitting on the dock,” he’d said. “Her back was turned. But something …. Can’t be sure. My gut says you oughtta check it out.” And so she’d cast off her mourning, packed for travel and set off by herself. But no longer feeling so alone.
“There,” she murmured, pointing at a particularly bright constellation. “A fish? As if. See the stars in the middle? Those are the eyes and mouth. The way others cascade on either side like hair? The swirls beneath could be your old armor. Fine. See whatever you want. Doesn’t change I know you’re out there.” She blew a kiss to the sky. “Uh huh. Worth risking hundreds of mosquitoes big as eagles.”
Parthae bustled with the usual activity of a modest port town. If Xena had truly made it this far, Gabrielle preferred not to dwell on why her partner hadn’t returned home. Still, she decided it best to proceed with caution. She chose the tavern to initiate her inquiries. It was relatively quiet, with a few early morning customers. She seated herself at the bar. The woman behind it raised a brow before coming to take her order.
“What’ll it be?”
“Huh. Would’ve figured you more the tea variety.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Do you serve it?”
“Not often. For you, sure.”
“Then tea it is. With a touch of port.” Gabrielle snorted. “I’ve had quite a journey. I could use the … kick.”
“Gotcha.” The barkeep fixed the drink. “What else can I do for you?”
“What else? You mean food?”
“I mean information.” The barkeep winked. “Been doin’ this a long time. Can size folks up pretty quick. Figure you’re lookin’ for somethin’. Or someone.”
“My. Right again.” Gabrielle studied the woman. She felt comfortable with what she saw. “An old friend. She was lost in a storm. I heard she might have made it here. Probably a year or so ago. Mature. Tall. Dark hair. Blue eyes.”
“Striking in her way? But not one of those frou-frou types?”
Gabrielle’s breath caught. “You’ve seen her?”
“Sounds like the latest councilor. Don’t remember her name, though. Hard keepin’ up with all the folks I meet. She’s more a mystery than most.”
“Don’t know the whole story, but it kinda fits that storm you mentioned. Seems she came in all banged up. Not sure from where. Yalanya’d be your best bet. The local healer. Took real good care of the woman. Recovered enough to be active in town. Folks urged her to get on the council. From what I hear, she’s a damn sight better’n most of those numb sculls runnin’ things.”
Gabrielle definitely felt heartened, despite the questions remaining. “This councilor. Do you know where I can find her?”
“I’d try the meetin’ hall. Heh, practically lives there. You know, listenin’ to folks’ gripes, helping `em with their problems.” The woman grinned. “Kinda like my job. `Cept I get paid.” She snickered and held up a jug. “Plus, I don’t have to sound wise all on my own.”
Gabrielle laughed. “Well, you’d get my vote ….”
“You’ve been a big help, Maggie.” Gabrielle sipped her laced tea and put a large tip on the bar. “Think I’ll visit your meeting hall.”
About a dozen people sat near the front of the council chamber, in a semicircle around three chairs. A dark-haired woman perched on the middle chair, listening to one of the men on either side of her. Gabrielle pressed against the wall just outside the entrance. Though she couldn’t hear everything well, she surmised the talker had a bone to pick with the other man. The woman nodded, then indicated the second man should speak. After he’d done so, she addressed those gathered. They conversed. Eventually all but two held up their hands.
Everyone stood. The men shook hands and left. The others gathered at a refreshment table. Gabrielle took a deep breath and entered. She steeled herself against rushing forward, waited patiently behind the dark-haired woman. Finally the woman sensed someone. When she turned, something flickered in her eyes. She smiled – a genuine, welcoming smile that nearly broke Gabrielle’s heart.
“Well, hello there.”
“Are you here for the dispute session? I’m sorry, but we’re done for today.”
Gabrielle swallowed. “Um, no. I came …. Are you the new councilor?”
“Why, yes, I am. You’re new too? For some reason you seem … familiar.”
“I … just arrived. I’d heard you … might be able to help me.”
“Oh? One of our merchants? We’ve warned them about that. Taking advantage of visitors.”
“No, no. My treatment has been fine.” Gabrielle searched the blue eyes in vain for recognition. “It’s more … a personal issue.”
“Hmm. Not sure what I can do, but I’m willing to listen. Perhaps in the morning? We can meet here. I have nothing else scheduled, if privacy is a concern.”
“Thank you. I appreciate your kindness.” Gabrielle extended her hand. “They described you, but I’m afraid I didn’t get your name.”
“Ah, now that I can fix. I’m known as Gabrielle.”
Yalanya’s protective instincts kicked in as soon as she noticed the blond stranger hovering outside the council chamber, staring with obviously deep interest at the woman Yalanya had nursed back from the brink of death. Even a talented healer such as herself couldn’t predict sudden changes in cases like that. She wanted to be near if any took place. Whatever the blonde’s intent, Yalanya meant to find out before any damage might be done.
“Excuse me,” she said, coming up beside the stranger, who exited the council chamber as if in a haze. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
The blonde blinked. “Sorry? Met?”
“You seem to know our councilor there. I’ve met most of her acquaintances. I don’t recall you.”
The stranger took in Yalanya’s garb, the pouches at her waist. “Are you the healer?”
“Not just the healer. Her healer. Yalanya. And you would be?”
The stranger snorted softly. “That’s hard to say. Confused? Not quite feeling … myself. Someone who might benefit from talking with you further. As to my name …. It’s a bit … complicated. Perhaps it would be simplest if you called me … Lila.”
Gabrielle hung around the meeting hall after agreeing to meet Yalanya for supper at the inn. She watched a man and teen-aged girl enter, laughingly drag the dark-haired woman away from the others and out the door. The three strolled arm-in-arm to one of the few homes on the shop-filled street and disappeared inside.
Gabrielle walked slowly back to the inn and got a room. She unpacked, her fingers lingering on a long linen shift, an oval hair brooch, the chakram – possessions Xena had decided not to take on what was supposed to be a routine trip. Gabrielle would press them to her chest when she needed more tangible comfort to substitute for the body she missed so much.
She dropped into a chair, absently gazing at the items on the bed. Eventually fatigue tugged at her eyelids. She nibbled on fruit she’d brought up before lying on the bed with the mementoes of a past she’d wanted to hold on to. Embracing the reality they no longer comforted her more than the present. However this journey ended, she couldn’t ask for a better beginning. Her soulmate was alive.
“Hope you like mutton,” Yalanya said when Gabrielle joined her at a table in back. “That’s the best you’ll get here.”
“Um, yes, I do.”
“Good. Already ordered it for you.” Yalanya’s mouth quirked. “A habit of mine.”
“Anticipating others’ needs?” Gabrielle smiled. “I imagine that helps, being a healer.”
“Mm. Depends. If they want to be told. Or like what they hear.” Yalanya snorted. “Differing opinions on my …‘bedside manner.’”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Occupational hazard, huh?”
“Families. Friends. Everybody thinks they’re the healer at some point. ‘Try this. Worked wonders for my grandma.’ ‘Try that. I heard it’s the best.’ As if any of it would be news to somebody who deals with healing every day.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle relaxed back in her chair, expression neutral. “I can see how that might be a problem for you.”
Yalanya shrugged. “Like you said – comes with the job.” She relaxed back, expression equally neutral. “What about you?”
“Your … ‘confusion.’ You more the listening type? Or telling.”
Gabrielle chewed her lip. She could well understand differing opinions about the healer’s approach. Smiling wryly, she answered, “Both?”
“Fair enough. It involves the councilor, right? Gabrielle?”
“Have to be careful about that, you know. Her being my patient. Especially with strangers.”
“Of course. Whatever you’re comfortable revealing.” The corner of Gabrielle’s mouth quirked. “Or asking.”
“How long have you known her?”
Gabrielle briefly closed her eyes. The healer could almost feel the waves of memories crashing against the fluttering lids.
“Longer than I’ve known myself?”
The healer nodded and folded her hands on the table. “What happened?”
Gabrielle explained they’d taken a short sea trip about a year ago to visit friends. They’d experienced a series of storms. As their badly damaged passenger boat finally limped in, the heavens suddenly opened to another torrential rain. People scrambled into life rafts. She’d gotten into one, her friend right behind at first, but not when the raft hit the water. Showers of wood and metal obscured her view. Something struck her. She regained consciousness on the shore. Her friend missing from those pulled to safety, not among the bodies retrieved later from around or in the nearly sunken ship.
“Ladies? Ready for your order?”
“Oh, hi.” Gabrielle straightened, relieved to drift from the emotions threatening to engulf her. “Yes. I’m famished.” She smiled at Maggie. “I’ve heard good things about the mutton.”
Yalanya moved her hands to make way for the dishes. “Kind of late for you, isn’t it?”
“Kinda.” Maggie began setting the table. “Substitute duty. S’okay though,” she said, winking at Gabrielle. “Told her good things about our healer too. Glad the two of you hooked up.”
Yalanya rolled her eyes. “Maggie’s our best communications device. A waste of her talents here.”
“Pffft. Folks from everywhere? Stories about everything? Connections to make?” Maggie raised a brow at the healer. “I’d pit this any day against your pallet. Half the folks lyin’ there can’t talk. The other half afraid to.” She brought her empty tray to her ear, pretending to listen it. “Uh huh, uh huh. Finished and ready for another round. Where else you gonna find that in a few minutes, maybe 50 times a day?”
“My mistake.” The healer pursed her lips. “Your … talents … belong here all right.”
“Yup.” Maggie grinned, unfazed. “Need anything else, you know where to reach me.” She strolled off to fill her next order. Her customers smiled at each other bemusedly.
“She’s how you found me?”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle glanced appreciatively in Maggie’s direction. “I wouldn’t’ve known where to start otherwise.”
The healer snorted. “She likes to dish up more than food, that’s for sure.”
The two enjoyed their meals, also fortifying themselves for further conversation. When Maggie came over to clear the plates, Yalanya surprised her by ordering a flask of port. “I don’t usually partake,” the healer explained to Gabrielle. “Figured you might like some.” Gabrielle said she would. She smiled to herself when Yalanya ended up pouring a mug for herself as well.
“Suppose it’s my turn, eh?”
Gabrielle held the healer’s eyes. “It’s what I came for, yes.”
The healer delivered a rather clinical account of “Gabrielle’s” condition when she was brought in by a couple of sailors – in and out of consciousness, skin nearly blue, lungs badly congested. Several injuries, the most serious to her head. Exceptional recuperation physically. Regaining her apparently acute senses but not her identity. Surprisingly calm when awake. Thrashing violently many a night during sleep. Finally responding well to a blend of herbs and nurturing relationships.
“I saw her go home with a man and girl.”
“Jacobeus and his daughter. Lost his wife a few years ago. Has a dry goods store. Offered his spare room for Gabrielle. She minds his house. Someone to watch over Myla when he goes on purchasing trips.”
“They seem …close.”
“He’s a good man. Myla took to her right off. They’re more open minded than most. Supportive of her … unusual nature.”
“Mm. Quite capable domestically. On the other hand, likes going with Jacobeus when he hunts and fishes. Expert at both.” She chuckled. “His horse got free one day. We look up, and there she is – riding the animal bareback like it was the most natural thing in the world. Some of the wives and husbands clucked. Jacobeus paid them no mind. Said it was like having the best of both worlds – man’s and woman’s.”
“Are they ….” Gabrielle swallowed. “I mean, living under the same roof ….”
“Are they a couple?” The healer cocked her head. “Jacobeus may be modern in his way, but … traditional … in his morals. He appreciates her as a helpmate. A good friend. Whatever comfort they bring each other, she’s not his wife. Not yet anyway.”
“Not … yet?”
Yalanya swirled the wine in her mug before taking a drink. “We’ve talked in confidence. About his … intentions. It’s no secret he cares for her. Most of us do. She’s kind hearted, even tempered. Generous of herself, her skills, with even the most demanding of children or crankiest elders. People accept there’s much we don’t know about her. That she doesn’t know about herself. That it makes her vulnerable. Maybe us too. Most aren’t inclined to worry about it. Or take advantage. It’s safe to say Jacobeus respects her unique circumstances the same as most others.”
“She’s fortunate, landing somewhere as welcoming.”
“I’d like to think so. We feel the same about her.”
Gabrielle took a long swig of her wine, desperate to slow the pounding in her chest. To warm the blood in her hands before they started shaking. “Her memory. Is the loss … indefinite?”
The healer had expected this question of course. Was prepared to give her usual response for those with some relationship to a patient – honest about any concerns, emphasizing the positive. Yet the words refused to come out as planned. Her eyes unable to meet with characteristic confidence the green ones across from her. She too took a long swig of wine.
“It’s … complicated. Considerations beyond the physical.”
“Excuse me? I don’t …. Other considerations?”
“I deal with the whole person.” Yalanya straightened, surer now of her footing. “The head affects everything. Not just movement, but thought and recollection. Emotions. Amnesia from a blow is usually short term. If prolonged, it’s often the result of additional …trauma.”
“From the accident?”
“Associated in some way at the time, possibly.” The healer rubbed her chin, gazing at Gabrielle. “Or with an earlier event.”
Gabrielle imagined a twig snapping, the barely audible breathing of someone sneaking up behind. If she’d been in a forest, she might’ve raised her staff in a defensive stance. “Interesting theory.” She rested her elbows on the table, chin on her fists. “You believe that’s the case with … Gabrielle?”
Yalanya blinked. Whoever Lila was, whatever her closeness to Gabrielle, she was someone not easily intimidated or discouraged. Someone to be reckoned with. “I’d rather not say. If you don’t mind. At least, not until I’ve examined all the factors. Seems I may have missed some.” She narrowed her eyes. “You, for one.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I can appreciate your position. Your thoroughness. Your willingness to share this much.” Without warning, she flexed her shoulders and rolled her head. “Mmmm. Sorry. Afraid my journey’s catching up to me,” she said, secretly enjoying the healer’s stunned expression. “You’ve been a big help.” She took several coins from her money pouch and laid them on the table. “Please, at least let me pay for your meal.”
“Just to my room. Unless ….” Gabrielle paused in scooting her chair back. “There’s something else?”
“Um … no. Not at the moment.” Yalanya forced a smile. “I’m available, of course, should you wish further consultation.”
“Thank you.” Gabrielle stood. “Me too.”
“What about ….” Yalanya quickly got to her feet. “Your appointment tomorrow with Gabrielle.” She smirked at the surprised response. “Like I said, I … watch over her. I’d like to be there.”
“Um, I hadn’t …. It’s been so long. I looked forward to – .”
“It’s an imposition, I know. It’s just ….” The healer blew out a resigned breath. “Took a lot getting her to where she is. Her state is still more … delicate … than might appear. Your visit could mean a breakthrough. Or, frankly, a setback. Either way, I need to see … observe … her reaction. Perhaps revise her treatment accordingly.”
Gabrielle gazed at Yalanya a long moment. “Meet me here after breakfast. We’ll go together. If anyone should accompany me, I guess it’s you.” She acknowledged the healer’s relieved smile and left for her room.
Yalanya watched this new stranger walk away. Getting into other people’s heads was important to her calling. As was being vigilant about her personal motives. She prided herself on objectivity, on the ability to separate her needs from those of her patients. This latest conversation hadn’t proceeded as she was accustomed. Why hadn’t she asked more questions? Why didn’t Lila?
What had Lila said? She’d known Gabrielle longer than she’d known herself? Yalanya didn’t doubt the conviction in that statement or the possibility of its truth. Indeed, it made her wonder, would Gabrielle say the same about Lila. If so, could it be Lila felt she already knew the answers to the dark-haired mystery woman’s true self? That it mattered more than who a wounded, lost soul had become in Yalanya’s hands?
Startled, Yalanya looked up to see Maggie standing there. “Um …. I was just ….”
“Doin’ your ‘diagnosis’ thing?” Maggie chuckled. “Like I said, here’s as good a place as any.” She winked. “Want a refill on your port? Might help grease the old wheels.”
Yalanya pursed her lips. “Not every job’s that simple.” She huffed, “If it’ll make yours better, sure.”
“Thatta girl.” Maggie poured the drink and sashayed off.
The healer stared absently at her mug, continuing to ponder why it seemed she and Lila had thus far satisfied themselves with an incomplete picture of a situation they obviously cared about. Admitting to herself the possibility they both preferred preserving the Gabrielle they thought they knew, rather than risk the reality of who she might turn out to be.
Xena turned from setting up chairs in the council chamber. “Oh. Yalanya. Good morning. Thought you might be – .”
“Your appointment? She’s here.” The healer beckoned to someone behind her. “Lila?”
Xena smiled at the second woman. “Hello. ‘Lila,’ is it? I’ll be with you in a moment. Yalanya, can we talk later? Lila wanted to discuss a personal matter.”
“I know. We met yesterday. Turns out I can be of assistance as well.”
“Is that so?” Xena checked with the stranger and received a confirming nod. She winked. “Gotta be careful our healer doesn’t overextend herself. Left up to her, there’d be little she couldn’t ‘assist’ with.” Ignoring Yalanya’s scowl, Xena gestured toward a small table. “Fruit and cheese first?”
The three chatted about the weather and how their visitor was finding her stay in town. Xena led the way to a sofa. She brought over a chair for herself. “Everyone comfortable?” She leaned forward expectantly, arms resting on her thighs. “So. Who would like to begin?”
Yalanya glanced at the blonde beside her, took a deep breath and stated, “Lila knows you from before the accident.” She snorted wryly at the others’ expressions. “I know. I find that best sometimes – hitting the target quick. Less muss and fuss.”
“I … I thought I recognized you from somewhere. The same home village perhaps?”
“I’m from Poteidaia. Not that far from yours.” Gabrielle suddenly felt like the star-struck schoolgirl rescued all those years ago. She coaxed her voice to say evenly, “Amphipolis.”
“Am …phipolis.” Xena chewed her lip, trying to picture this place.
“You left when rather young. To … travel. You returned some years later. That’s when we met. And became friends.”
“Friends?” Xena stared at the stranger, a wisp of placement just out of reach. “I …. Sorry,” she said, rubbing her forehead. “It’s been so hard …. So long since I’ve tried remembering.”
In a flash of decades-old habit, Gabrielle had scooted forward to take Xena’s hand. “S’okay. Don’t hurt your brain,” she teased. “We have all the time in the world.”
Xena gazed into the green eyes. A little unnerved by the intimate touch, but also unaccountably comforted. “We were … close?”
Gabrielle patted Xena’s knee and sat back. “Very.” A calming breath enabled her to appreciate a connection had been felt, if not spoken.
Yalanya sensed it too. “Lila’s right. No need to rush. It’s enough knowing there’s finally someone from your past. Tell me, how do you feel about that?”
Xena glanced between the two women. She ducked her head. “Scared?” She grinned uncertainly, not wanting to disappoint. “All this time ….” She stared at the hands in her lap, rocking as she sorted through her emotions. “I’ve felt … lost. Missing something important. But then I found you,” she said, smiling at Yalanya. “Jacobeus and Myla. So many others who’ve been like … family. It’s … solid, you know?” Her face puckered in the apologetic way Gabrielle knew so well. “If I let that go …. The other …. I can’t fathom it yet. Like standing on a cliff and jumping to somewhere I can’t see.”
Yalanya lifted her patient’s chin. “Do you want to try?”
Xena’s eyes closed. She saw the usual darkness where everything before Parthae should have been. Except now a tiny light pierced through, making it less an abyss, more like the night sky that somehow grounded her, secured her in its promise of endless tomorrows. She couldn’t deny its pull, her attraction to the stranger who’d appeared like a star to guide her way. She opened her eyes.
“Yes. I believe I do.”
They’d agreed Gabrielle and Yalanya would meet after lunch to determine how best to proceed. Gabrielle parted the beaded curtain to the healer’s shop to reveal her seated on a mat in a meditative pose. Artifacts lined the shelves along with vials and baskets of herbs. Small rugs, wall hangings and other objects also reflected the influence of India, Egypt and other lands from around the world.
“You expected snake oil and magic tricks?” Yalanya had caught the look of impressed surprise on her visitor’s face. “I’ve dabbled in the healing arts of many cultures. Not so lucky to travel. Lucky ships brought the knowledge to me.” She started to rise.
“Please. Don’t get up on my account.” Gabrielle lowered herself to a mat across from Yalanya. “I have fond memories of sitting like this.”
“Ah, another one lucky enough to travel?” Yalanya cocked her head. “Gabrielle often meditates in a similar position.”
Gabrielle’s jaw dropped. “She does?”
“Reminds me of yoga postures I’ve studied. You find that odd? Her meditating? I assumed that last trip together wasn’t your first.”
“True, we had many.” Gabrielle snorted. “I must’ve missed her fondness for yoga.”
“Mm. Perhaps you’re more familiar with her other side?”
“Her … other … side?”
“Her energy. Restlessness. Apparent interest in the martial arts.”
Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Yes. I am aware of that.”
“She has an interesting exercise regimen. Sometimes involving sticks. Quite curious about various weapons. I’ve seen her examining them at the market. Sometimes holding them. Wielding them with natural ability. An affinity even. Strange, considering the woman we’ve come to know. As if she was once a warrior.”
“Yes,” Gabrielle acknowledged. “I am aware of that as well.”
“It might help explain some of her fever dreams and nightmares. Terrifying images. Not all about battles though.” The healer paused. “Many rather … personal.”
Once again Gabrielle caught a hint of disapproval. And accusation. She leaned forward – casually, but with the confidence of someone accustomed to the consequences of curiosity. “Please, go on.”
Yalanya took measure of the woman so close, yet still too distant to read. “The tragic loss of her child, for one. Of others she cared about. Guilt for her role. The loss of her innocence and trust.” Her jaw clenched. “Anguish over the betrayal of those she relied on.”
Gabrielle nodded. “She grew up much too soon. Held on to youthful excesses and poor judgment too long. Paid a dear, dear price.”
“Her feelings for Jacobeus and Myla? I thought it perhaps connected to past trials. A substitute for her daughter. A healthy relationship with a father figure for the child.”
“Her … daughter?”
Yalanya’s eyes hardened. “Her deliriums suggested … unnatural … circumstances surrounding the child’s conception.”
“Yes. It was unusual but not a bad – .”
“The joy of a child does not erase the trauma of force.”
“Force? No, no, it wasn’t like that. Not like rape or anything. More ….” Gabrielle stared at the stone-faced healer, long suppressed images flooding her brain. She slowly shook her head, stunned comprehension finally dawning. “Her daughter was a … miracle … child, but is alive and well. She’d earlier born a son, the usual way. He … died.”
“Other than that it’s true?”
Gabrielle took a deep breath. “She did go through much of what you describe. Except the experiences you speak of weren’t exactly hers. They’re mine. Her real name is Xena. I’m Gabrielle.”
Xena bustled about – wiping the already spotless furniture, rearranging flowers for the umpteenth time, once again checking to see if the stew hanging above the fire hadn’t suddenly cooled. She prided herself on her homemaking skills. This evening they served as an outlet for her nervous energy, as yesterday she’d learned she might discover another person inside.
For starters, the name she’d called out while ill wasn’t hers, but belonged to the friend who’d come to find her. Though she still preferred it, she’d begun to practice mouthing her real name. “Xena.” She’d asked Jacobeus and Myla to use it as well. “I know it feels strange,” she’d told them in preparation for the visitors they’d soon receive. “I honestly don’t know yet what it means. How all this may affect the future. But if I am to reclaim some of my past, my roots, I want you to be a part of it.”
The reaction she’d received wasn’t unexpected. Shock. Resistance. Fear. Anger. In the beginning they’d all understood this day might come. Were vigilant about overstepping their defined roles – hers as housekeeper and guardian. Tempered their emotional investment in an arrangement that might be undone by the next visitor riding in or ship that docked. As the months passed, their simple routines and exchanges expanded. Dependability, warmth, discipline, and laughter became the norm. A sense of permanence more deserving of their focus than the uncertainty they once resigned themselves to accepting.
“We don’t care who you were,” Jacobeus had stated. “It was a new beginning. For all of us. Are we to throw what we’ve made out the window? Hold it as worth less than a stranger’s words about the past? A past you can’t remember? Or don’t even want to?”
“What we have is important,” she’d assured. “Yalanya hasn’t told me much beyond my name. Meeting you comes first. Don’t you want them to see for themselves? Before we decide what’s next?”
She’d eventually extracted begrudging promises to act gracious and as natural as possible. They’d embraced and set about losing themselves in their usual tasks. Whatever happened, they were loved, and nothing was worth forgetting that.
“They’re coming.” Myla had found every excuse to pass by the front window. Her feigned casualness dissolved into uninviting puckered lips – until she turned to see a raised brow. Huffing, she straightened her dress, plastered a smile on her face and opened the door.
Gabrielle retired to her room. Her conversation with Yalanya had been minimal and noncommittal. What could she say? Her reluctance to acquiesce to the healer’s conditions had been well founded? That she felt manipulated by what was obviously the desired effect? The love for her soulmate stood on its head, turned inside out, entwined with accidental bonds?
She climbed on the bed and let her head plop against the wall, the chakram near her hand as usual. Never had it seemed so foreign. She’d tried to picture the owner’s signature weapon in the context of the home she’d just left, held by the dark-haired hostess who’d welcomed her. Instead, she’d watched a woman perfectly at ease with domestic life, obviously adored by the man and girl she shared it with. Knowing nods. Unspoken requests. Tasks performed by rote without question. Spontaneous chuckles at private jokes. As natural as long-time companions making camp.
She’d caught Xena watching her as well. Smiling when Gabrielle smiled at an anecdote related to Jacobeus or Myla. Brow creasing if Gabrielle didn’t exhibit appreciation. Striving to respond to “Xena” or call her guest “Gabrielle” without stammering. Gabrielle hadn’t felt such an outsider since that time she’d first returned to Poteidaia after following Xena. Her skin crawled at how … settled … her partner had become. In a new life. A new persona. A peacemaker exchanging pleasantries as if an everyday occurrence – a side Xena hadn’t exhibited quite like this before.
On the upside, she hadn’t detected indications Xena would change her mind about uncovering the past. She’d obviously told the others of her intention and hoped for their blessings. Whatever their reservations, they’d put them aside out of respect for the woman who’d made their house a home. Gabrielle could well imagine herself in Xena’s place – grateful for what she had, curious about what might be missing.
She could also imagine herself in Xena’s shoes all those years ago, warning a naïve village girl about the risks of abandoning certainty for the unknown. The world-weary ex-warlord’s previous life now erased and filled in with someone else’s lines. Herself influencing what got retraced, omitted or added. A heavy responsibility that left her conflicted. She did feel certain about one thing though – Tartarus would freeze over before she abdicated that responsibility to Yalanya.
“Please, make yourself comfortable. Gab … uh, Xena will join us later. She had some council business she’d promised to take care of. I’m sure you understand.”
“Yes. I’m the chief councilor of our village. Something she wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Too much ‘yammering with blowhards,’ as she’d put it.”
“Ah. Another … borrowed … swatch from your life.” Yalanya put a steaming pot on the table. She sat across from Gabrielle and filled their cups. “Only tea,” she said dryly. “I trust we won’t need anything stronger this time.”
“Ha. When Xena’s involved? Never hurts to be prepared.”
Yalanya sat back, rubbing her chin. “Kind of flattering in its way.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Someone patterning themselves after you like that. Especially someone as different as you’ve described the ‘real’ Xena.”
“Perhaps.” Gabrielle ran a finger around the top of her cup. “We’ve influenced each other a lot. Mostly me trying to be like her.” She snorted softly. “Of course, I was in my right mind. Not sure she’ll stay in counselor mode once she’s regained hers.” She sipped her tea. “As to reliving my bad times …. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Especially her.”
“Since she had so many of her own?”
“She’ll always carry the weight of her early days. Fortunately she stopped focusing on the bad. Learned to channel the guilt. Transform it into a positive force.” Gabrielle sighed. “Maybe she wasn’t as successful, when it came to me. The bad things she blamed herself for.”
“But you said she experienced many of those herself, right? Tragic births. Feeling abandoned by those she loved?”
“Well, yes, but that’s not what’s haunted her, according to you. It’s been my – .”
“Yes.” Yalanya leaned forward. “She’s had a clean slate here. For herself. In the eyes of those who’ve come to know her. Even if they once heard of some ‘destroyer of nations,’ they don’t see that in her. They see the girl you described as tagging along with her. The woman at whose side Xena came to appreciate compassion and faith. Service to others.”
Gabrielle cocked her head. “If you’re back to that flattery thing, of course I’d be pleased to leave such an impression. But she wasn’t a blank slate when we met. I was drawn by the good I saw from the start. As to the other …. I love all of her, Yalanya. I don’t want to lose any of who she is.”
The healer leaned back. “So you don’t question what we’re considering. Restoring her memories.”
“Why would I?”
“It’s not … selfish? Depriving her of the peace she’s found? The fresh start? Clean and fulfilling relationships? Can you be sure this is about what’s best for her and not you?”
Gabrielle folded her hands on the table. “Xena is much more than whatever she is to Parthae or even our village. I could tell you in all honesty the world is better off with her ‘whole.’ Thing is, I’m as much a part of her as she is of me. We’ve worked long and hard – together – to be who we are. There was a time I worried about being selfish. Both of us did. Not anymore. You can’t separate what’s best for one of us from the other. I’ve no doubt she’d say the same. If she had the choice.”
“Choice?! Pffft. Aren’t you counting on the opposite? That ‘soulmate’ thing you talked about? Like fate or destiny? Wouldn’t that compel her to choose what you want, once she remembered?”
“No more so than her situation now.” Gabrielle crossed her arms. “Xena would walk through fire, rather than a soothing waterfall, if that seemed the right thing to do. She’s never given in to fantasies, no matter how painful the alternatives. Whoever she believes herself to be, however happy, it’s not real unless she makes it so.” She swallowed. “Assuming the chance to have choices is still an option.”
Yalanya fiddled with her cup. “Why do you say that?”
Gabrielle slumped back in her chair. “The … soulmate thing? She’s had amnesia before. Been out of her mind. Even worse. Our connection always survived. At least some vestige of recognition.” She blinked back tears. “This … familiarity … she senses …. Something’s different. Whatever happened to her …. Even if I tell her the truth ….”
“Other forces were involved before. Not just injuries. This time ….” Gabrielle swallowed. “I have to face the possibility that maybe, on some level, she’s already made a choice. Whatever the reason, it could be … permanent.”
Yalanya steadied herself, continuing to gaze at the other woman as if her own heartbeat hadn’t quickened. She realized how much she’d hoped for such an admission from this whirlwind who’d blown in to reshape the sand they’d so carefully fashioned to their own liking. How much easier it would be to maintain if Gabrielle doubted her role in the outcome. And had no idea of the extent to which everything depended on the healer’s hands.
“Excuse me a moment.”
Yalanya got up, taking the teapot with her. She refreshed it with water from a kettle heating in the fireplace. She set the pot on the table. Instead of rejoining Gabrielle, she stood surveying the room – adornments, the varied trappings of her calling. Finally took a deep breath and selected a couple of items from the shelves. Put them on the table and resumed her seat.
“The head injury was bad, but nothing I hadn’t encountered before. The nightmares did puzzle me. Their depth and violence. Her anguish. Mixed in with that were rambles about a storm. She would cry out, ‘I saved so many, but not her.’ I figured ‘her’ was the child she lost.” Yalanya nodded at Gabrielle’s gasp. “Yes, no doubt she meant you. At any rate, I had sufficient evidence to suggest an emotional aspect to the persistent memory loss.”
Yalanya fingered the vial and jar she’d brought to the table. “I gave her herbs to elevate her mood. Help block the terrible visions. She improved considerably. Soon progressed to the woman you see. Apparently content and not so concerned about who she was before.”
Gabrielle’s mouth had gone dry. She moistened her lips. “She’s still taking them? The herbs?”
“Yes. I can’t be sure of their affect on her overall ability to recall the past.” The healer shrugged. “It seemed best at the time, given the results. I’d have to be very careful about weaning her.” She raised her chin. “I’m not as certain about what might be ‘best’ for her anymore. But I agree she deserves the chance, if you’re right she could reclaim something better.”
Xena noticed the change as soon as she left her house. Yalanya had come by earlier to tell her today they would explore the wisdom and potential success of addressing her memory loss. Apparently word had spread. Neighbors she passed on her way to “work” responded a little differently. She entered the council hall to discover it unusually filled for the routine maintenance matter on the agenda. After its resolution, several people remained seated.
When she descended the councilor platform, individuals finally began walking up to her. She prepared to greet them in her customarily warm fashion, as the one who dispensed advice or eased burdens. But the first who approached her didn’t accept her hand. Instead, they embraced her, thanked her for her service. Some expressed hope they could seek her counsel later, others disappointment they hadn’t done so sooner. When the line that had formed in front of her ended, she’d heard dozens of reasons why she could never be replaced.
Eventually she stood by herself among a few quietly talking stragglers. Moved beyond words. Stunned her simple way of motivating herself each morning could mean so much to someone else. That beyond duty, an attentive ear or willingness to fill in where needed, she’d left a mark on the hearts of the town that had adopted her. Belonged in a space uniquely hers. Necessary. Not an accidental spill to step over, clean up or pretend wasn’t there.
If anyone had asked, she couldn’t’ve said when the transition occurred. In truth, she hadn’t thought about it. Too focused on one step at a time. Each footprint establishing she’d been somewhere. Cumulatively, clues how far she’d come. Assurance that, back with what she’d left behind, began a trail leading up to where she was. A direction. However happenstance or circuitous, it was her choice. To keep going. To help others along the way. To have faith in what lay ahead. And now a sign from Parthae that her path had been right, worthwhile, after all. And maybe a warning? That she shouldn’t stray? Shouldn’t breach the choices she’d become accustomed to – which, though limited, had kept her sane?
She stuck her hand in her smock pocket and pulled out a small vial of the medicine prescribed to keep her on an even keel. In light of recent events, Yalanya had given her a little extra. The healer had anticipated correctly. Xena shuddered at vague recollections of death and sadness. It had been such a relief to be rid of them. She held up the vial. If she shook it, the bits of herb settled in brown liquid would swirl throughout, like she pictured her brain at the moment. But hadn’t she secretly wanted that sometimes? Imagined passion disturbing the serenity that often left her cold? Hair whipping her face on a wild ride through the canyon. White-knuckled grip on a fishing pole or one of those weapons that drew her interest. Desire for someone so strong her touch would be like a brand.
“Oh, my,” she murmured. “Where did that come from?” She glanced around, relieved no one seemed to have read her mind, at the same time reminded of the good life she’d contemplated disturbing. “One foot in front of the other. It’s worked so far.” She took a deep breath, waved at the stragglers and headed purposefully for whatever awaited her at Yalanya’s.
“How are you feeling? You look a little … flushed.”
“Oh?” Xena touched her cheek. “I … um ….” She glanced shyly at Gabrielle before answering Yalanya. “Kind of anxious, I guess.”
“Understandable.” Yalanya gestured toward a cot across from two chairs, one occupied by Gabrielle. “You take the herbs I gave you?”
“Herbs?” Remembering, Xena felt the vial she’d unconsciously put back in her pocket. “Um, no. You think -.”
“It’s all right. I decided to start decreasing the dosage anyway. See how it goes.”
“You mean ….” Xena sat on the edge of the cot. “The nightmares. They may come back.”
“We should prepare for that, yes.” Yalanya took her seat. “And hopefully the gradual return of your memories.” At Xena’s frown she added, “The herbs blocked those as well.”
“I see. I thought ….” Xena’s jaw tightened. She took a deep breath. “I trust you did what you thought best. It helps to know I have a choice.”
Gabrielle leaned forward. “You seem so content. This isn’t what you’d choose?”
Xena snorted softly. “It seems I’m someone who makes the best of what she’s dealt. I tried not to worry about cards I didn’t see. Or didn’t expect to. Now that I might ….” She held Yalanya’s eyes. “I’m not afraid. I have the feeling I’m also someone who prefers playing the full deck. All cards on the table.”
Gabrielle grinned. “Yes. From my experience, that’s true on both counts.”
Yalanya perceived a shift in relationships. As if the other women had instantaneously progressed beyond polite introductions to the comfort level of friends permitted to interfere in each other’s lives. And while Xena might respect Yalanya’s role as keeper of the present, she now regarded Gabrielle as the key to unlocking not just her past, but her future. The healer found herself unusually conflicted about that.
“Be that as it may, we must still proceed with caution.” Yalanya raised a brow. “Avoid throwing cards in the air, so to speak. Trying to catch and discern them all at once, as they float past your head.”
“Unless you had help.” Gabrielle raised a brow. “Someone to sort them with you? With knowledge of their value. Which made the stronger hand?”
Yalanya caught Xena’s quick, admiring grin, like a schoolgirl tickled her teacher had been bested by another student. She raised her chin. “Yes. I’ll do my best. With your assistance, of course.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Of course.”
“I believe Xena should stay here for awhile. It’ll make it easier for me to monitor her … condition. Be close by if needed. My personal quarters are through there,” she said, pointing to a door opposite the entrance.
“But what about Jacobeus and Myla? I can’t simply – .”
“I discussed this possibility with them. We arranged for Ursula to take over your duties at the house. Jacobeus has no plans for travel at the moment. When time permits, you can visit with them. Even continue limited counseling if you like.” The healer rose. “I’ll confirm that with them now. Get a few of your things.”
“Um, and me?” Gabrielle glanced between Yalanya and Xena. “Should I – .”
“You can begin filling Xena in. What you know of her childhood. That shouldn’t present any difficulties while I’m gone.”
Gabrielle relaxed. “I’d like that. And when you return, I’ll stop by the inn. Come back when – ”
“Good. We’ll work out a schedule for your –.”
“That other cot will be fine.”
Gabrielle went over to test the softness of a cot pushed against the other wall. “Not quite as comfortable as the bed at the inn, but I’m used to roughing it.”
Yalanya stared at Gabrielle, then at Xena, who regarded the other women with bemused curiosity. “You propose to … to sleep here?”
“As you said, easier to monitor. Be close if needed.” Gabrielle smoothed her hand across the cot’s slightly lumpy surface. “There’s little I haven’t been through with Xena. Or that she hasn’t been through with me.” The eyes she raised to Yalanya were congenial but firm. “She doesn’t realize yet who I am either. She will when she learns who she is. At the moment she awakes to that, I intend to be at her side, just like I promised all those years ago.” She smiled wryly at her soulmate. “And even then the poor thing had no idea what that might mean.”
The next few days went smoothly enough. Xena spent time with Jacobeus and Myla, attended a council session and facilitated negotiations between some merchants. The decrease in herbs hadn’t yet freed her memories much, but people who interacted with her noticed gradual changes in personality. Less patience, mind wandering during discussions when she usually weighed the smallest detail, more urges to be outside and active. Only one person welcomed such behaviors as a positive sign – the blond stranger who hadn’t been content to leave well enough alone.
For her part, Xena perceived herself no more focused or energized than usual – not conscious how much her “up” moods related to Gabrielle. She looked forward to their talks with great anticipation. The two sitting cross-legged on mats for hours. Xena hunched forward, hanging on to every word. Asking questions, demanding evidence, often laughing incredulously, sometimes frowning with dismay. They didn’t mind Yalanya observing, which she frequently did, despite feeling like an intruder in her own home.
Evenings were rather short and quiet. Yalanya prescribed early bedtime for Xena, aided by a potion for deep, restful sleep. The healer would chat awhile with Gabrielle before retiring to her private quarters. Occasionally consulted the concealed peephole. Its purpose was discrete confirmation of her patients’ well being. In this case, she had little doubt in that regard. Gabrielle generally stayed on her side of the room writing in her journal. She didn’t touch Xena physically, but her eyes seemed to cover the long, still form like a silk sheet.
One morning, Xena woke later than usual. She sat up slowly and rubbed her temples.
“You okay?” Gabrielle knelt beside Xena’s cot, immediately joined by Yalanya.
“Mmmm.” Xena forced a grin. “Maybe too much wine? Not enough leafy green vegetables?”
The healer examined Xena’s eyes. “Any dreams last night?”
“Some. Not too bad, I think.” Xena pressed the top of her head. “But now ….”
“What? Tell me.”
“I …. I don’t know. Flashes of … people. Villages. Horses. Colors fluttering in the wind.” Xena’s face scrunched as if in pain. “Ohhhhh.”
“Xena?” Gabrielle grasped her partner’s arms.
“Voices. So many voices. I can’t …. I can’t ….” Xena’s head drooped. She murmured something and slumped, Gabrielle and Yalanya quickly grasping her shoulders and easing her down on the cot. She lay still.
“Yalanya?” Gabrielle anxiously caressed Xena’s cheek. “What’s happening? Will she be all right?”
The healer poured water into a bowl, immersed a swatch of cloth and set them on a stand by Xena’s cot. “I need space,” she said, nudging Gabrielle aside. She felt the pulse at Xena’s throat. Wrung out the cloth and placed it on her brow.
“H-how is she?” Gabrielle shifted to the end of the cot and steeled herself against moving closer. Whatever her personal feelings, she decided to defer to the healer. For now.
Yalanya dragged a chair over.
“I’m not sure,” she acknowledged.
“Never experienced this before.”
“Never …. What are you saying?”
“The mix of herbs. The duration.” Yalanya sighed. “Didn’t give much thought to weaning her from them. Time came when I figured there’d be no need.”
Gabrielle didn’t probe. She had a pretty good idea of the answer. And that hearing it might make her utter words not particularly helpful to the situation. “Have you any ideas now? Something to bring her out of … this?”
It took a moment for the healer to realize she’d been asked a question. That she who was used to offering solutions had none in mind. She made herself get up. To do something. Anything …. Incense. That was always a good start. “Don’t want to risk giving her medication right now,” she said, picking up a lighted candle. She walked around the room, which soon filled with soothing scents. “Atmosphere is important. She needs to know she’s safe. Even unconscious her senses can pick up signals to reassure her.”
Gabrielle watched Yalanya pull the curtains together and re-wet the cloth on Xena’s forehead. “Anything I can do?”
Yalanya sensed the other woman on the verge of doing something anyway. She positioned her chair at the head of the cot and gestured for Gabrielle to sit on one side. “Light massage should help,” she said, slipping her hands under Xena’s neck. “Start with her fingers, up to her shoulder.”
Gabrielle did as instructed. She smiled, as much for the comfort of being in touch with her soulmate, as for the relaxation she felt in the body within her grasp.
It was noon. Yalanya had gone to take care of errands. Gabrielle rotated her head and stretched, her butt reminding her how long she’d kept vigil without a break. She got up to check on Xena. Though she lay in the same position, facial twitches and movement beneath her eyelids suggested her previous peace somewhat disturbed. Gabrielle hovered beside the cot wondering what images might be the cause. Scenes from romps through meadows? Riding like the wind? Fighting?
“Mind if I come in?”
Gabrielle whirled to see a slim figure holding open the beaded curtain at the entrance. “Myla. Hi. Sorry, I didn’t hear you.”
“Um, yeah. Got other things on your mind, huh?”
Gabrielle noted Myla’s gaze linger on the body on the cot. “You too?”
“I … uh ….” Myla ducked her head. “Yeah. Guess so.”
“Come.” Gabrielle held out her hand. She put her arm around the girl’s waist as the two stood beside the cot. “She’s been … like that … all morning. Not necessarily a bad thing,” she quickly assured. She brushed Xena’s cheek. “A lot going on inside. She’ll have to deal with the outside soon enough.”
“I’d hoped …. I wanted to ….” Myla sighed. “Everything’s happening so fast!”
“Fast?” Gabrielle realized what to her seemed like forever must feel like a breakneck roll downhill for Myla. She gave the girl a squeeze. “Miss her, huh?”
Myla nodded. “I was alone a lot. Like a … a chore to people Pa left me with. Nobody to talk to. You know, about … girl … stuff. She’s …was …the only one who really listened. Treated me like I had sense.”
Gabrielle pulled Myla in for a hug. In truth, she needed one too. She, if anyone, could sympathize with the loss Myla felt. She pulled back. “Hungry? I am. Yalanya made soup,” she said, walking to the fireplace. “Smells good. Join me? Xena isn’t particularly good company right now,” she teased, trying to lighten the mood.
Myla stared at Gabrielle. Finally a smile tugged at her lips. “You’re funny too, huh? Xena made me laugh a lot.” She glanced between her savior and the stranger who threatened to come between them, surprised at somehow feeling closer to both. “Sure, I’ll have some with you.”
The two ate where they could keep an eye on Xena. Myla shared tales about the silent third party in the room. Both stiffened at hearing a soft moan, relaxing when quiet followed.
“Can I ask you something?” Myla carefully placed her nearly empty bowl on the floor. “It’s kind of … hard.”
“Mm. Hard to ask? Or for me to answer?”
“Um …. Maybe both?”
Gabrielle set her bowl down and got comfortable. “It’s okay. I’m used to it. There’s not much about Xena that’s easy. Not the one I know anyway.”
“Really?” Myla looked a bit skeptical. “How come?”
Gabrielle chuckled. For all the hostility her soulmate had evoked during her tumultuous lifetime, she’d inspired a good deal of loyalty as well. It pleased her to see it in Myla. She raised her hands defensively. “Don’t get me wrong. She’s lovable in her own way. I just had to get through a pretty tough shell to enjoy it. And lots of layers. Some of them not so nice.”
“You mean, in her old life? Yalanya says she was once a warrior. Maybe the best.” Myla shook her head. “I can’t see it. The talent, maybe. But hurting people?” She shuddered. “Killing?”
“You’re lucky. Experiencing the Xena who might have been.” Gabrielle gazed into the distance. “There was this one time she was ‘pure.’ Free of what made her capable of great harm, eventually caused great guilt. It struck me she had all that when we met. Without it, wouldn’t have become a great hero. The flawed, endlessly fascinating and determined woman I followed into a new life.”
Myla pondered this information. “The nightmares Yalanya mentioned. They weren’t about harm to her? But suffering she caused others?”
“She did a lot of bad things when she was younger. Her victims haunted her many a night when we began traveling together. Part of her atonement is never forgetting them. But their spirits changed for her. Less a weight chaining her to her past. More an inspiration to do better in the days ahead.” Gabrielle studied her soulmate. “It seems a new face popped up this time around. A reminder far more enduring than any ghost.” Her jaw clenched. “Me.”
“You?! But I thought ….” Myla glanced between the two supposed friends. “Just yesterday she told me about your talks. How you said you supported each other. Saved people across the world. You’re saying she hurt you too?”
“And I, her. We had our rough patches. Rougher than most could even imagine.”
“She won’t remember that? If Yalanya’s treatment works? You’re not afraid, when she wakes up ….”
“I’ll be the nightmare those herbs protected her from?” Gabrielle shrugged. “The thought occurred to me.”
Myla’s face scrunched in disbelief. “You’d do that? Put her through those … those rough patches all over again?” She jumped up and stood as if on guard by Xena’s cot. “See, that’s why this is wrong. She’s been happy here. Just the way she is. We haven’t hurt her. She’s been nothing but good for us.” She folded her arms across her chest. “You claim you’re such good friends? Then why not leave her where she’s better off?”
Gabrielle rubbed her forehead. “You were right. This is hard. I doubt you’ll understand.”
Myla pursed her lips. “Try me.”
“We’re more than friends, Myla. We’re joined. Way beyond vows or duty. Even the many years of faithfulness. We owe each other everything. Have given each other our all.”
“Yeah, Yalanya says you think it’s destiny or fate or something.” Myla lifted her chin. “What about her showing up here? What if it that wasn’t an accident either? You say she was a great hero, right? Maybe she was supposed to be with us too.”
Gabrielle stroked her throat. These people sure knew how to push the right buttons. “I can’t argue with that. Xena believes things happen precisely as they should.”
“So what if she hasn’t finished her mission here? Would it hurt if she stayed? Until we knew for sure? You’ve had her for years. Couldn’t you share her a little longer?”
“I’ve always shared her with the world. Even lost her to it before.” Gabrielle walked over and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Our life is full of complications, Myla. Full of people who get sucked in at nobody’s fault. I’m sorry for Parthae, that you’re upset how this is working out. But Xena and I belong together. For me, it’s just that simple.” With compassion in her eyes, she added, “And that final.”
As the day wore on, Xena drifted in and out of consciousness. She managed to take in water and a few spoonfuls of soup. Otherwise her brief moments of awareness were consumed with headaches contorting her face in pain. She became agitated, thrashing around on the cot, frequently changing positions, spending her moments of stillness moaning softly, curled in a ball.
Yalanya paced in indecision. She’d wanted to lace Xena’s nourishment with calming herbs, but couldn’t predict the consequences. It might be too early to tamper with what could be the surfacing of memory, too late to stop the process.
“I’ve got it.”
The healer watched Gabrielle finally take matters into her own hands – pushing her cot against Xena’s. “W-what are you going to do?”
“What I’ve wanted to from the beginning.” Gabrielle stretched out fully clothed. “Xena? It’s me. I need you to focus.” She gently tugged Xena towards her, quietly urging her not to resist. Xena went rigid for a moment, then allowed herself to roll next to Gabrielle.
“I’m going to hold you, okay?” As Gabrielle slowly slid an arm beneath Xena, the warrior’s brow creased and fists clenched. “You’re safe,” she soothed, caressing the lines on her partner’s forehead, stroking the tense biceps. Xena gradually relaxed. Gabrielle lay her head on Xena’s chest. “There. All better?” Xena rested her chin on the blond hair. “Good. Now sleep. In the morning you’ll feel like new.”
Yalanya had seen many an unexplained occurrence in her day. She liked to credit her intuition and natural gifts for the numerous recoveries she’d supervised. Who knew whether she’d primed this patient for the improvement she’d just witnessed? Or whether it would last? What it could lead to? All she could say for certain was that the women seemed to fit each other like her butt in that worn old cushion of her favorite chair. Just as different, yet – in their case at least – two halves of a whole.
The healer opened a drawer in her cupboard. It contained a strange dagger with two handles that curved like wings. She’d found it wedged inside the waistband of the torn clothes on the battered body sailors brought to her. She showed it to her recuperating patient, hoping this one remaining personal item might serve as a link to her past. The woman exhibited the same puzzlement as Yalanya about its purpose or why she’d have it.
Now, as she gazed at the knife, Yalanya realized it had become an important memento for her. The intriguing first clue to a mystery woman whose nightmares suggested she’d led an uncommon life. Gradually she came not to care so much whether the patient she tended might be different from the person who’d evolved before their very eyes. She found the current version fascinating enough. A keen intellect that rejected easy answers. Confidence to go against the grain. A gift for understanding the philosophies and practices of the healing arts.
Finally she had someone she could talk to on a level that matched her own, whom she could learn from as well as shape. Someone much too talented for the confines of Jacobeus’ house or even the council chambers. Instead, the healer harbored a dream of mentoring “Gabrielle,” the two of them working side by side. She’d meant to begin laying the groundwork for her plan when the real Gabrielle showed up. Her brain continued holding on to the possibility even then. Tonight her heart acknowledged an alternate vision. And that she would not be in it.
She straightened and closed the drawer. “I’ll leave you to it, then. See what the morning brings.” She extinguished the candles in the room before heading for her quarters. “Good night.”
“Mmmm.” Xena stirred. “G’night, Gabrielle.”
Something was different. Very different. Years of waking up to mysteries had taught her to play possum. Let other senses besides sight clue her in. She was inside, that was clear. The quiet not unusual to an early riser such as herself. But the bed was. And, most surprising, someone held her. That hadn’t happened in quite awhile. She wouldn’t let it. Yet fine hair tickled her chin. Curiously, she recognized the scent. Another dream? Why so real? Maybe Yalanya experimenting with new herbs? Well, she could try pinching herself. Or opening her eyes.
Green eyes gazed up at her. She recognized them too. If she was dreaming, this part she knew from memory. Her heart began to race. She rolled away. She needed distance to take it all in.
The green eyes showed concern. Apprehension. A plea for reassurance. “Gabrielle?”
“You … you know me? Who I am? In your heart?”
“I saw you. Last night, I think. Somewhere …. I’m not …. A lot was going on.”
Gabrielle’s breath caught. She sat up. “You were having nightmares. Is that … Is that where you saw me?”
“Ah.” Gabrielle closed her eyes, picturing the images Yalanya had described – distorted memories that could now be associated with the rightful source. She swallowed. “Well, you’re remembering. That’s what’s important.” She smiled. “You got used to me before. We’ll give it time.” She noted Xena didn’t move, but continued to stare as if at some apparition. “Should I leave you alone for awhile? I’d understand – .”
“Leave?” Xena brought her fists to her chest. “In my nightmare I was trapped. Fighting desperately to get out. I saw you. On the other side. Trying to reach me. And now …. You’re here? It’s too much ….” Tears slid down her cheek. “Too much like a dream come true.”
“Oh, Xena.” Gabrielle scooted over to embrace her partner. “It’s been my dream too. I’m really, truly, actually – not to mention inevitably and always – here.”
Xena spent the rest of the day adjusting to a state split between two worlds. She remembered her life up to the storm that had swept away both her consciousness and Gabrielle. Remembered the awful vacuum in her mind where she’d also lost herself. Somehow summoning the will to survive the physical pain. To create the fabric of a new self from material deep within, from patterns supplied by others who saw in her a friend, homemaker, member of the community.
She appreciated deeply Parthae’s acceptance, their nurture and esteem. Felt a particular bond with Myla and Jacobeus. Respect and gratitude toward Yalanya. The preciousness of being a child again – everything fresh, clean, wondrous. Protectors to chase bad dreams away and draw out the good. She of all people cherished the chance to be so open and innocent again – possibilities magnified even more by talents and wisdom already developed as an adult. And yet, all that paled – might as well have been ancient history – in comparison to everything before that storm, which she now remembered like yesterday.
“That’s all you brought? My chakram I can understand. But a nightshirt? Hair brooch? You planned on burying me or somethin’?”
Gabrielle pursed her lips. The contents of her bags lay strewn across her bed at the inn. Xena had pawed through them, obviously expecting a wardrobe suitable to her life a year ago. “They were more for me. I didn’t know what I’d find. Certainly not you in an apron. A … character in some play neither of us would’ve written.”
“Yeah, well, I’m me now.”
“Yes, that part’s abundantly clear.”
Xena glowered at the peasant dress she wore. “Gotta get some better duds before we head out. You come by wagon or ride Largo?”
“Good.” Xena snickered. “In case you had to bring my body back, eh?”
“I still might.”
Xena knew that tone. Amazing how fast she could plummet from miracle to mistake. She eased down on the bed, fingers drumming her crossed arms. “What? I miss something already?”
“It’s been a day since your … recovery. Most of it with me. Way you’ve been prowling around, one could get the impression you might bolt away from here in your shift if you have to.”
“So? I’d think you’d want that. Seeing as how you went to all this trouble to take me home.” Xena raised a brow. “Presumably alive, if not dead.”
“I saw the relationships, Xena. They’re genuine. Some deeper than you think. Of course I’m relieved they won’t hold you back. But I can’t support your dismissing them either.”
Xena sucked in her cheeks. “You think it won’t be as sticky? They won’t miss me as much? If we hang around awhile? I say, faster you pull out a thorn, less the pain. The quicker the healing.”
“You weren’t a thorn.” Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. “Not to them anyway. I suspect you know that.”
Xena let out a long breath. “Yeah. I do.” She leaned forward, all earnestness. “I’m not trying to avoid the mushy stuff. Truly. How do I tell them they’re not my first choice? Make them understand it’s not rejection of everything they gave me? Maybe I could’ve as ‘Gabrielle,’ but it’s not my thing as Xena.”
“I’m not suggesting we stay long. Or that you be anybody but your blunt self.” Gabrielle sat next to Xena. “Is it too hard spending a little more time with them? Share how you made each other’s lives richer? Thank them for making you a part of theirs?”
Xena sighed. “I guess not. But I don’t want them ignoring you. They mustn’t forget you’re a part of mine.”
“That’s fair.” Gabrielle gave Xena a hug. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
A few days later, Partheans packed the meeting hall where Myla had organized a farewell party. Between the generosity of merchants and housewives’ creativity, the place overflowed with spirits of all kinds, sustenance to sate body and soul. The guest of honor had made peace in her way with as many as possible – some privately, others in various groupings. They smiled cordially as they passed her table. However, except for Gabrielle, none occupied the other chairs.
“This is weird.”
Gabrielle observed those milling about. Had tuned into snatches of conversation. Many recounted experiences with their departing councilor and friend. Much of it involved wistful recollections of the woman they’d known – “such a pleasant disposition,” “so open and attentive,” “able to charm a rock into crumbling,” “a good influence on young women.” Occasionally they glanced or gestured Xena’s way – like acknowledging a reference point, but without quite the same enthusiasm.
“They’re talking about you, but not to you. As if you’re not here.”
“Maybe `cause she’s already gone?”
“She? She who? I meant – .”
“I know.” Xena chuckled. “My ‘new’ personality didn’t go over so well. They were courteous enough. Coulda been a stranger who’d popped up where somebody else was supposed to be.”
“Oh, come on. You’re not that different.”
“This, from the soulmate who considered murder two minutes after the ‘real’ me showed up?”
Gabrielle scowled at her insufferable partner. “That’s different.”
“Why? We have more history? You think a few more days of this me would’ve brought `em around? ” Xena snickered. “Told ya we shoulda hotfooted it out. I admit, I expected a few tears at least. But add in a bit of hostility like yours ….” She surveyed the room with a mixture of affection and wry satisfaction. “Feels like old times.”
Gabrielle muttered to herself. True, appreciating “real” Xena had its challenges. On the other hand, she took a dimmer view than her partner of anybody else’s reservations. “If you ask me, it’s a bit insulting.” She pointed her chin to where Myla was giving directions to servers replenishing the food trays.
“A few days ago that girl was begging me not to take you away. Professing how lost she’d be without you. She sure looks confident now. Sending you off like she’s done this all her life. No big deal. And what about those councilors over there, huddled with sailor types. Probably the most they’ve bothered showing interest in some drifters’ concerns. Something else I bet they learned from you.”
“This is the thanks they give? Acting like the person responsible simply vanished?”
“So you see the problem. Whew. For a moment there – .”
“It’s thanks enough.”
“The ‘real’ me? No nonsense, problem-solver me?”
“Yessss.” Gabrielle raised a brow. “I’m acquainted with her.”
“Seems I brought that out in them. They’d tell me about the hole I’d leave. How maybe they’d have to fill it. I’d nod. Say, ‘Mmhm.’” Xena chuckled. “Kinda like a third party to the conversation. Cleaner in a way. No messy emotions at saying goodbye to me, seeing as how I wasn’t really who they’d miss.” She leaned back and clasped her hands behind her head. “Their ‘Gabrielle’ had already left, but I got to see the fruits of her stay here. Her little chickadees all grown up. Able to stand on their own.”
Gabrielle stared at her partner. “You’re really okay with this? No regrets?”
“Eh, I’ll miss `em. Maybe wonder how they’re doing. That won’t top the best part.” Xena winked. “No guilt either.”
The stars displayed their brilliance against the darkening sky. In the light of a full moon, two earthbound forms lying side by side completed the setting of a perfect night.
“The constellation over there? That’s where I saw you.”
“Seriously? You figure I’d grown fins and a – .”
“The clusters on either side formed your hair. Those three were your mouth. Open at the time.” Gabrielle let a beat pass. “Closed now.”
“Hmm? Mm. Mmhm.”
“Good answer. Moving on …. I especially liked the eyes. Twinkling at me. Convincing me you were alive. That it was worth whatever it took.” Gabrielle sighed contentedly. “Gods how I’ve missed this.”
“Huh. Not that long ago to me. You know, when we camped out just before our trip?”
Gabrielle rolled to face Xena. “Really? You never felt – .”
“Sure. Didn’t know exactly what. It was like …. Crossing a high bridge? Once you leave firm ground, you forget how it feels? But if you don’t look down, focus on moving ahead, you’ll feel it again.” Xena pulled Gabrielle in. “After I recognized you – reached you – I remembered how it felt. Everything between is like that bridge. A part of the journey. But not nearly as memorable as planting my feet on the other side. Does that make sense?”
“I think so. The time in Parthae was more a … gap? In our life? You couldn’t remember what you left behind, so you didn’t miss it. And don’t miss it now because – in your mind – it’s only a few steps from where you were?”
“Works for me. You?”
“Better than explanations for other … adventures.”
“Heh. Comes with being legends.”
“Xena?” Gabrielle toyed with a lock of her partner’s hair.
“Uh oh. I sense an attack of nostalgia for sensitive chatting.”
“You sense correctly. Another good sign, I might add.” Gabrielle got comfortable in her favorite position – bard cheek to warrior bosom. “I’d like to return to a topic you mentioned before we left Parthae.”
“Oh goody. And that would be?”
“Guilt?! I told you – .”
“Not about them. Guilt about …me.”
“You?! Talk about gaps. What in Tartarus – .”
“Your nightmares. From Yalanya’s account, they were about my bad experiences. Ones you blamed yourself for. How you sort of … became me? I wonder if it was a way to … punish yourself. You know, relive some of what I went through. Because we were together.” Gabrielle squeezed Xena’s waist. “I won’t be mad. Surprised, yes. But if you’re still harboring guilt about me …. Maybe that ‘bridge’ needs revisiting? Led to old issues that need clearing up?”
“Gabrielle, even in my right mind, self-analysis isn’t my strong suit. But I do know it wasn’t about guilt.”
“Then what else?”
Xena gazed at the sky, pondering Gabrielle’s question. Her eyes drifted to the fish-shaped constellation that supposedly resembled her. She snorted softly, recalling the recent period when, as far as she knew, she could’ve been compared to an apple on a stick.
“If I couldn’t be who I was ….” Xena shrugged. “Somehow I had a picture of who I’d rather be instead. How best to honor her. Maybe not just who she was? But how she got that way?”
“Huh.” Gabrielle absently stroked Xena’s arm. “Duplicating the good parts when you were awake? Reliving the bad in your nightmares?”
“Too simple for ya?” Xena smirked. “What can I say? I’m an easy kinda gal.” She kissed her partner’s forehead. “Seems I had you inside all along. My ‘mystery’ compass.”
Gabrielle snickered. “So even Yalanya’s herbs couldn’t kick me out.”
“Hmmm. Do I detect a little – .”
“In your dreams. Not the first of your fans I’ve endured, you know. Oh, which reminds me ….” Gabrielle reached for her bag and took something out. “She gave me a present for you.”
“My breast dagger?!”
“Uh huh. The only thing
of worth that survived. I almost let
Yalanya keep it.”
“She insisted, but the way she held it …. You’d think I was taking one of her arms.”
Gabrielle put the dagger away. “I’m grateful she cared for you so well. Cared enough to let you go. A bridge that got us here.” She snorted. “Now we’ve crossed it, let’s leave it there, shall we?”
Xena chuckled, relieved to skip past that particular chat. “Okey dokey, my wonderful – if slightly green – compass.”
“As in ‘innocent,’ right? I trust you didn’t mean ‘tarnished.’ Certainly not ‘jealous.’”
Xena winced, reminded playing Gabrielle wasn’t quite the same as the real thing. “`Green’ as in verdant? Full of life?”
“Oooo, impressive. Being me must’ve rubbed off on you.”
“But of course.” Xena chewed her lip, reminded she could get in some good licks playing herself too. “Gabrielle?” She sat up and rubbed her temples. “I ….” She looked around, panic creeping into her eyes. “Did Yalanya give you herbs? To ward off any relapse?”
“Relapse?” Gabrielle bolted upright. “Why? Something wrong?”
“Parthae. I could be sliding back. To the ‘other’ me. How good I felt. Useful. Appreciated for my compassion. A peacemaker. I … I’m losing the sense again of …. Ohhhhh.” Xena clutched her head.
“Xena! There are no herbs! Fight it! Focus on who you are now. On me. On the things I love about you.”
“You say I had a temper. Could be impatient and stubborn and irritating. How could you love such a person?” Xena hung her head. “Maybe that’s why I lost myself? To become someone better?”
“Stop it!” Gabrielle grabbed Xena’s shoulders. “You’re strong. Decisive. Honest. You do care about people. That’s who you really are and just as important.”
“What about the fishing? Cutting those council meetings? Sneaking off when ….” Xena’s voice trailed off at Gabrielle’s expression.
“I forgot ‘insufferable.’” Gabrielle whacked a broad shoulder. “I can’t believe you did that! All that guff about liking being me.”
“It’s true. I did.” Laughing, Xena pulled Gabrielle to her, partly to prevent any further blows. “Can I help it if my other half won out? Once a Warrior Princess, always a Warrior Princess?” She tweaked her partner’s nose. “At least this proves it.”
“Be more careful what I wish for? Uh huh. Shoulda gone with the fish.”
“Too late now. Yiyiyiyi!” Xena pushed Gabrielle down and began tickling her. “She’s ba-a-a-ack!”
Return to the Academy