PART FOUR: CORINTH
Ten days passed. Within the time span Gabrielle was escorted by a half-dozen First Army soldiers to Corinth and placed within a private cell in the bowels of the palace dungeon. She was given access to scrolls from the palace library and blank parchment, quill and ink, as well as any personal items from the Royal suite that did not constitute a weapon. Other than a change of clothes she asked for nothing. Her days and nights were spent sitting on her pallet, immersed in her memories.
The light of dusk entered Gabrielle’s cell. The beauty of the gentle light was not lost to her. Unexpectedly, a flash of light overwhelmed the room. Gabrielle once again had proof of the fragileness of even the simplest pleasure. As the blinding affect of the light receded she saw Aphrodite standing before her. Gabrielle spoke the Goddesses’ name with uncharacteristic reserve. In turn, Aphrodite presented herself sans her usual flair. “You are prideful, Gabrielle. Why didn’t you call for my help?”
“What do you know?” asked Gabrielle, realizing for the first time that Aphrodite had not been complicit in her downfall.
“Not enough, I think. I know Athena was watching you closely while you were in Athens. I know you arrived in the city as a Queen and left disgraced in shackles. It must be quite a story, one worthy of a bard with your talent.”
Gabrielle could see that the Goddess was waiting for an explanation. “I can’t tell it,” she said.
“I made a promise.”
“To whom? Athena? Gabrielle, you are my Chosen, not Athena’s.” said Aphrodite angrily. She took a step forward. “Tell me this. Is it true you were unfaithful to Xena?”
“Yes,” answered Gabrielle, fighting an impulse to divert her eyes.
“Why?” Aphrodite did not hide her disappointment. Receiving no answer she continued. “Did you make another promise or do you simply have no defense for your actions?” Again, Gabrielle offered no response. Aphrodite paced from one end of the prison cell to the other and back again. She paused and returned her attention to her Chosen. “Xena intends to try you in Court tomorrow. What will you say to her?”
“I don’t know.”
“Treason is punishable by death. Do you expect me to stand aside and let her execute you?”
Gabrielle stood up desperately. “You can’t interfere.”
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t.”
“Xena has the right to judge me.”
“And sentence you?”
“Yes. And if she chooses she also has the right to execute my sentence.”
“Listen to yourself, Gabrielle. Do you have any idea what Xena will suffer if she hurts you in any way?”
Gabrielle remained steadfast. “She must be free to decide.”
“To what end? I don’t know your motives. I am certain if I did I would not like them.”
“Aphrodite, these past years the world has tousled Xena and I about like ships in a raging storm. We have held to each other and gotten through the worst together. That is the only way this nightmare can come to an end. We must be left to face one another without the influence of the Gods.”
“That sounds romantic and being the God of Love you would think I would applaud it but Gabrielle you forget one undeniable fact. You have blatantly betrayed the Conqueror. Name one man or woman she has not executed after they were proven guilty of treason.” Gabrielle turned away from the Goddess. “Gabrielle, if Xena spares you, which I highly doubt she will, there will be no end to your suffering.”
Gabrielle was unimpressed by Aphrodite’s warning. “My life ended when Athena came to me.”
“So, she did have a hand in this,” said Aphrodite, her outrage untethered.
Gabrielle turned to the Goddess and pleaded, “Aphrodite, don’t interfere with Athena.”
Aphrodite would not be mollified. “Gabrielle, I say this again. You are my Chosen. Mine! First Ares toys with you. Now Athena. My siblings show me no respect. I am tired of it. It will stop.”
Gabrielle feared that the history so recently changed could once again be altered undermining all that she accomplished in Athens. “Aphrodite, promise me you will let me deal with Xena and Athena in my own way.”
The impertinence of Gabrielle’s request tried the Goddess’s patience. “Do you realize you are asking a God for a promise?”
“I am your Chosen. That must count for something,” said Gabrielle unfazed.
“Indeed it does. I will do what you ask as a favor to you. But, I warn you Gabrielle, Hades will hear my complaint if you die by Xena’s hand.”
Gabrielle wondered what point there was in Aphrodite threatening her with Tartarus when she was certain her fate had already determined it as her destiny. “I understand.”
“Gabrielle, I thought in picking a slave as my Chosen times would be less complicated. You have proven me wrong.”
Gabrielle heard in Aphrodite’s voice the reassuring presence of the Goddess’s exasperated affection. She could not help but smile. “Thank you.”
“I will be nearby,” said Aphrodite as she placed her hand gently on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Don’t be too brave to call for me.”
When the time came for Gabrielle to face the Conqueror’s judgment, it was Alem who escorted her to Court. He said as few words as necessary as they walked side by side. Upon reaching Court’s closed doorway, he silently shackled his Queen’s wrists and ankles.
The Guardsman gave a signal to two of his brothers who stood guard. They opened Court’s heavy wooden doors to reveal the fully occupied chamber. Xena sat on her throne. The Queen’s chair remained in place to her right. Jared stood to the left. Guardsmen lined the walls poised at attention. The Generals and Lords of Greece, and their wives were present.
For a moment Gabrielle remembered her triumphant introduction to Court. The present moment could not have been more different. She glanced toward Alem then began her brief journey to her judgment. With each step she could see her Sovereign more clearly. Whom she saw was the Conqueror. The Conqueror took to her feet, maintaining a bold physical bearing.
As Gabrielle walked her chains struck against one another and scraped the floor, the oppressive sound echoed throughout the silent hall. She paused in front of the raised floor. She did not demur under her partner’s scrutiny.
The Conqueror’s harsh voice broke the silence. “Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Queen of Greece you are charged with treason. How do you plea?”
Gabrielle held herself nobly. “Guilty.” She withheld her endearment. She felt unworthy to address Xena as her Lord.
“You have no defense?” asked the Conqueror.
“No, I do not.”
“There was no coercion?”
“No spell cast or drug administered?”
“I exercised my free will.”
The Conqueror placed her hand tightly upon the pommel of her sword. What only Gabrielle and Jared could see was that Xena had done so to counter its trembling. Gabrielle held Xena’s gaze, recognizing in her partner an unbearable distress. “Why?” asked Xena in an achingly low voice.
Gabrielle wished she could offer a reason that would allow Xena to acquit her. “I did what my destiny decreed.”
A shadow crossed Xena’s mien. “Destiny?” she said severely. “Destiny is nothing but what we must do because of all that we are, because of all that we wish to become. You say it was your destiny to betray Greece as if your path made betrayal inevitable, as if Greece deserved your distain. Have I, your Sovereign, so unforgivably harmed you?”
The press against Gabrielle’s heart was intolerable. Jared had told her that she would need to publicly exonerate the Conqueror of wrong doing. Their exchange was far more than that. She was made to bear witness that all that Xena had given her in her unbounded generosity, none more cherished than Xena’s gentleness, was believed to be discarded as worthless. “No… no harm has come to me by your hand.”
“Had you such strong objection to my policies that toppling the realm was your only recourse?”
“You are a fair and noble sovereign,” said Gabrielle, contradicting her written declaration against the realm.
“Did you act…” Xena hesitated. The tension in the room was electric as all waited for the Conqueror’s next question. “Were you motivated by your heart?”
Gabrielle dropped her gaze to the floor and remained silent.
“Don’t hide in silence,” said Xena, her voice strengthening. “Speak the truth.”
Gabrielle looked up to the woman that owned her not as chattel, the woman who had proven herself to be a rightful complement to her soul, the woman that she had willingly surrendered herself to; union being the only way for Gabrielle to know completeness. “In all that I have done I have followed my heart.”
Xena turned her back to Gabrielle. The crush of Gabrielle’s confession could not have been more brutal. Xena’s gaze was fixed upon her left hand, her ring. A tear traveled down her cheek. She wiped the tear away, steeled her self and returned her gaze to Gabrielle. “You are dead to me.” She glanced dispassionately to Jared, seeing him physically shudder. She gave no command, knowing that to ask him to execute the law in her absence, to execute Gabrielle, would break him. She walked silently toward the side exit.
Lord Judais stepped forward. “Your Majesty.”
The respected Lord continued his solicitation. “I beg your pardon. I ask for clarification. What sentence have you pronounced?”
Xena scanned the room. She had heard in Judais’ question a veiled request for mercy, a sentiment that seemed to reflect the wishes of other valued members of Court. She could spare Gabrielle’s life without damaging her standing as Sovereign. Xena decreed in a clear and commanding voice, “Banishment from Greece with safe passage to our borders.” She spoke to Jared. “General, see to it.”
Gabrielle stepped forward. The sounds of her chains caused all to cast their eyes toward her. “I…”
“What!” Xena demanded.
“I ask for a soldier’s pardon for Sam and Trevor,” said Gabrielle, mining all that she was that had made her an august Queen. “They followed their Queen’s orders believing my actions honorable and in the best interest of Greece.”
“They are not stupid men,” said Xena bitterly. “They will hang on a cross as a lesson to all who break their sworn allegiance to the Royal Guard.”
“As I have sworn my allegiance,” said Gabrielle careless of her own life as she sought to save those of her men.
Like a panther pouncing on its prey, Xena leaped the stairs to Gabrielle and ripped off the medallion that hung on younger woman’s neck. “No more!”
Shaken, Gabrielle reverted to her last recourse. She fell to her knees. “My Lord, I beg you to show those who love you compassion.”
“Love me?” said Xena bitterly.
“Sam and Trevor have proven themselves in their service to you.”
“No, you’re wrong. They have always been in service to you, Gabrielle.”
“The years before I arrived in Corinth. Those years should not be forgotten.”
“If I could only forget…” Xena’s thoughts touched upon the recent past, when lost memories were reclaimed at an excruciating price. She had not forgotten the lesson learned in Ithome. She had not forgotten the extraordinary journey Gabrielle had taken in order to return to her self and then to Xena. Memories of Ithome as well as other places and times shared with Gabrielle coupled with the present moment left Xena confused and heightened her suffering all the more. Without a further word, she stepped away and exited the chamber.
Jared gave Alem instructions. The Guardsman motioned Gabrielle toward the main entrance. She walked the length of the Court Hall keeping her eyes forward, wanting to avoid meeting the gaze of those lords, such as Judais and Ayers, whom she most respected and considered friends.
Upon exiting the hall, Alem removed Gabrielle’s shackles. “You’ll stay in your cell until Makia can get your things without disturbing the Conqueror.”
“Who will escort me from Greece?”
“The General will decide. There will be no dearth of volunteers. I shall be one of them.”
“How can my brothers still want to help me?”
“Gabrielle, I know few things in life. One of them is that you love the Conqueror and as you confessed, you followed your heart. I don’t know why you can’t tell me why you did what you did. I have to believe that your silence now and your actions in Athens are all for the greater good.”
In the face of injustice, Gabrielle was not consoled. “Sam and Trevor… they don’t deserve to die because of me.”
“I spoke to Trevor. He knew the risk he was taking. He doesn’t blame you. Gabrielle, Trevor and Sam won’t suffer long. Their brothers will make sure of that.”
As night fell, Jared entered the Royal Suite unannounced. Xena sat at her desk. She looked up from the scroll she had just completed writing and said, “What is it, Jared?”
“I have no volunteers to crucify Sam and Trevor.”
Xena leaned back in her chair. “And in turn the Queen’s Guard has stepped forward to escort Gabrielle to the border. Am I right, General?”
“Yes, you are.”
Xena stood and walked to the balcony. Jared followed her, keeping a distance of a half-dozen paces. “What does everyone know that I don’t?” asked Xena. She turned to her friend. “I gave Gabrielle every chance to explain herself. She told me nothing.”
“She followed her heart,” said Jared, his love for his ward undisguised.
“I had come to believe that her heart led to me.”
“I don’t doubt that it does.”
“To be cuckolded?” said Xena sorrowfully. “You merit love differently than I do.”
“Xena, I don’t understand why Gabrielle left you any better than you do. When I look in her eyes I see her sadness and regret. What I do not see is doubt. I wager my life that there is an unspoken reason why she hurt you.”
Xena returned to her desk. She placed her fingertips on a blank piece of parchment. “I shall have a message ready by the morrow. Take it and a handful of trusted Guardsmen who will not divulge Gabrielle’s whereabouts and escort her to the land of the Centaurs. Deliver her to Kailipus. He will keep her safe until she decides her future. Give her Spirit and fill her saddlebags with gold coins.”
Jared stepped to the side of the desk. “You love her still?”
“Don’t speak to me of love,” said Xena harshly. “I have enough blood on my hands. I don’t want anymore. To kill Gabrielle… I would go mad.”
“Sam and Trevor. Will you have their blood on your hands?”
“Jared, I am the Conqueror!” Xena’s declaration once would have been enough to silence any retort. She heard it as feebly as she assumed Jared had.
“To save their lives must I do as Gabrielle and kneel down and beg you?” said Jared, offering a reason for mercy. “I will do it, Xena.”
“There is no saving my soul!” she shouted to the Gods, raising her fist in the air. “This is not the life I chose! Give me an eternity in Tartarus over this heartbreak.” She could no longer contain her tears. They overwhelmed her. She felt Jared’s embrace and took hold of him. She cried, “Old man, I can’t go on.”
Jared soothed gently, “You will. You will find a way. I’ll deal with Sam and Trevor. They’ll stay in Corinth, sentenced to hard labor. With time under a program of rehabilitation I’ll bring them into the First Army. They’ll never be Guardsmen again but they will be in your service and be given a chance to atone for their actions. If I’m asked I’ll say you granted me the favor. Your standing as Conqueror will not be undermined.” Jared waited patiently. As Xena’s tears subsided he solicited concurrence. “Xena?”
She held him tighter and said hoarsely. “Do it.”
PART FIVE: CENTAUR LANDS
The Grecian winter was coming to a close. Throughout the realm bards and merchants alike recounted the tale of the last meeting, five moons prior, between the Conqueror and Queen. Questions were asked by all who heard the story. They echoed those the Conqueror laid before the Queen. The questions remained unanswered. As a result speculations were discretely voiced. Though there seemed to be a desire to believe that the Queen’s actions had a noble motivation, few found reason to criticize the Conqueror’s actions. Indeed, to many, the Conqueror had exercised an extraordinary degree of mercy.
The Conqueror managed the realm efficiently. She limited her travels and tolerated only a few diplomatic visits. News from her Roman spies indicated that Caesar’s ambitions were once again directed away from Greece and its allies. Though Roman wars continued to be waged, the bloodshed remained beyond Grecian boarders.
Those closest to the Conqueror were loyal and watchful of her well-being, doing all that they could to ease her burdens. The decree that the former Queen’s name not be spoken was universally adhered to by every man, woman and child residing in the palace.
The relative peace that had cloaked Corinth was disrupted by a dispatch from General Dymas of the Northern Garrison. Turian had been captured. The Conqueror and Jared rode north with a contingent of Guardsmen. But for the day that Dymas’ message was received; the purpose for their journey was not again broached. Arriving at the garrison, Xena requested an immediate interview with the prisoner.
Turian was housed in the stockade. The Conqueror entered. She stood outside the barred cell, her gaze dispassionately directed toward the prisoner. Jared took possession of the prison keys from one guard then motioned for all the guards and Dymas to wait outside. They complied without comment. He then unlocked the cell and pulled open the heavy door.
The Conqueror entered. Turian took to his feet. He did not wait to be addressed, speaking directly to the woman who called for his arrest. “Do you hate me because I dared raise my sword against your forces or because Gabrielle chose me over you?”
Jared brandished his sword. “You filthy liar. The lass wouldn’t have you by choice.”
“What did she say?” asked Turian of the General unflinchingly. Not receiving an answer he demanded of Xena, “What did Gabrielle say was between us?”
To hear Gabrielle’s name again caused Xena’s strongest inner discipline to quake. The effect was not outwardly apparent as she answered Turian. “She said that in Athens she followed her heart.”
Turian glanced away for a moment. He then returned his gaze back to Xena. “To whom did she follow her heart?” he asked in a low thoughtful voice.
“She did not say,” said Xena. What Xena saw in Turian was a mirror image of the awe she had felt when she had come to accept the depth of her love for Gabrielle. In Turain’s expression, she had confirmation that Turian had not coerced Gabrielle into his bed. “Why?” she asked, “did Gabrielle return to the palace after her Guards took her to safety?”
“Gabrielle did not tell you?” said Turian caught unawares. “I thought you knew.”
“Tell me now,” said Xena, exercising all her patience. The Athenian was in a position to mitigate the unbearable ignorance she had lived with since departing for Athens. She could not imagine an explanation worse than the images that haunted her sleep.
“You let her live without knowing the truth?” said Turian, the revelation obviously a surprise. “By the Gods, you do love her.”
“Why did she do it?” asked Jared for the now silent Xena.
Turian glanced over to the General. “To save Athens,” he said; his bravado no
longer at the forefront. “I had warned
her that Kartis would sacrifice the city in his war with the Conqueror.”
Jared continued the interrogation. “What reason did she have to believe you?”
“She had spent enough time with Kartis to see his true colors. Underneath his civilized facade was a man who divided the world between those gifted by the Gods with talents and breeding and thus deserving a privileged life, and everyone else destined to toil for little or no reward.”
“Why trust you?” asked Xena doubtingly.
“I would like to think that she saw me for the man that I am.”
Jared erupted, “Xena, you don’t believe this mongrel?”
Turian did not wait for her to answer as he confidently concluded, “You do believe me.”
“Whether you live or die does not hinge on whether I believe that Gabrielle went to you willingly,” said Xena. “The charge against you is treason and treason is punishable by death.”
“Then I will die with the memory of Gabrielle’s tenderness towards me as my consolation,” said Turian proudly.
Xena and her contingent traveled southeast taking a secluded path through a dense forest. Sensing that they were being watched she raised her hand, a signal to haut.
Three centaurs approached. She recognized Tansorious, one of Kaleipus’ lieutenants. “Greetings Tansorious. I, Xena, Sovereign of Greece, request permission to enter Centaur lands.”
“For what purpose?” asked the Centaur cautiously.
“To speak to Gabrielle of Poteidaia.”
“You must first speak to Kaleipus.”
“I expected no less.”
“Very well. Choose a handful of men and I shall escort you to the village.”
Xena ordered her men to set camp. She chose Jared, Tavis, Sentas, Alem and Brogan to accompany her to the village.
Tansorious sent a fellow centaur ahead to announce the visitors. The half-candlemark ride to the village was completed in silence.
Entering the village Xena spied Kaleipus in wait outside his lodge. After a few heartbeats, Solan exited the lodge and stood beside his step-father. Xena smiled, seeing how her son had grown. She judged him a healthy and handsome boy. Solan reflected her smile.
Xena dismounted and handed Argo’s reins to Jared. She stepped confidently to Kaleipus greeting him with the respect he, as leader of the Centaur Nation, deserved. “Good day to you, Kaleipus. I hope you and your young prince are well.”
Kaleipus placed a fatherly hand on his son’s shoulder. “We are well, Xena. Your visit is unexpected. What brings you to our lands?”
“I am here to right a wrong. Greece has new information regarding the Athenian rebellion against the realm. The information changes Greece’s judgment of its former queen. ”
“The Queen acted selflessly. Her motive was to save Athens from destruction.”
“There was no treason?”
“Not by her.”
Solan turned to Kaleipus. “Father, I told you…”
“Yes, Solan,” said Kaleipus patiently. “You did say the Queen would not have harmed Greece. But I and the Conqueror must rule judiciously. We must weigh the evidence and make our judgment accordingly. With what evidence Greece possessed, there is no faulting the conclusions that were reached.”
Xena bowed her head gratefully acknowledging Kaleipus’ generous explanation.
“Now, son. I must speak to the Conqueror privately.”
“Yes, father,” said Solan. He stepped up to Xena. “Will I see you later?”
“Of course.” Xena placed a hand on her son’s shoulder before qualifying her statement. “With your father’s permission.” Xena gazed beyond Solan to Kaleipus.
“You shall have plenty of time to visit,” said Kaleipus agreeably.
“I will find you,” Xena promised the boy.
Solan stood aside as Kaleipus gestured Xena toward the lodge entrance. She entered first, stepping into the heart of the large room before turning around to face the centaur. She wasted no words. “Where is she?”
Kaleipus did not take any noticeable offence in Xena’s impatient questioning. “She has a modest lodge a half-candlemark walk to the north. She stays mostly in solitude. Unfortunately, for Solan, she keeps none more than him at arm’s length. The boy is confused by her distance. I think Gabrielle sees too much of his mother in him. It cannot be easy for her.”
“May I see her now?” asked Xena persistently.
Kaleipus stepped toward a shelf where many scrolls were stored. “Xena, have you read the poets: Aeschylus and Sophocles?”
“I have. As well as Euripides,” she said, surprised by the change in subject. “Why?”
“Do you know what makes a tragedy a tragedy?” The centaur did not wait for Xena to respond. “It is when we cannot escape our destiny.”
“You’re wrong,” said Xena, not to be lectured about ones destiny. “Oedipus could have avoided his downfall if he had chosen not to marry.”
“But, he seemed right to be certain that he was safe to love Jocasta.”
“Who was his mother as prophesized.” Xena recounted the well known story.
“Gabrielle has lived a tragedy. She waits for you to make it not so.”
There was much that Xena believed Kaleipus did not know, facts that Xena refused to share. None more damning than Gabrielle’s infidelity. “I can’t change her past. What is done is done.”
“Is that how you feel when you are with Solan?”
“As much as I wish otherwise, yes. To me he will always be my son. He in turn believes his mother died in childbirth.”
“With each passing year his resemblance to you becomes more uncanny. Do you think this escapes him?”
“He has no reason to believe me his kin.
“I cannot help but notice how you look at him. You do so with a mother’s eyes.”
“I will not encourage him to think me other than a friend.” Xena feared that she was on the brink of forfeiting what little happiness her journey could offer her. “Kaleipus, do you doubt me? If you do and want me to go, only say the word and I will.”
“No, Xena,” said the centaur thoughtfully. “I won’t send you away. Stay and enjoy time with him. I know it will do Solan good to be with you.”
“If I were you I would not want me anywhere near him.”
“Then it is good that I am not you. I believe love is too strong to be so easily subsumed. Solan’s affection for you has the potential of growing to love. If he comes to love you it does not change his love for me.”
“It’s that simple?”
“Yes. And I know you know I’m right.”
“How?” asked Xena, truly curious of Kaleipus’ reasoning.
“You never have stopped loving Gabrielle. If you had she would have died on your sword and you would have felt no remorse for killing her.”
Gabrielle looked out from the un-shuttered front window of her lodge. It was early evening. The sky had quickly grown dark and ominous. Sweeping sheets of rain followed. She caught sight of a tall figure walking toward her lodge. The figure’s strides were forceful, seemingly undeterred by the weather. The figure was as a whole disarmingly familiar.
The figure stepped up the lodge’s porch and knocked on the door. Gabrielle opened the door. Xena removed her hood. “May I come in?” she asked.
Bewildered, Gabrielle stepped back, opening the door further.
Xena entered. Waiting only for Gabrielle to close the door she explained, “I just arrived. I didn’t want to delay seeing you. I’ve been to the North Garrison. I received a report from Dymas that Turian had been captured.”
“You saw Turian?” she said reactively.
“Where is he now?”
“He is no longer a threat to the realm,” said Xena coolly.
Assuming Turian’s death, Gabrielle asked, “By your hand?”
“By your command then?”
“Yes,” said Xena unrepentantly.
“Why?” Gabrielle’s accusatory voice trembled. “What did Turian do to deserve his fate?”
“To raise ones sword against the realm is treason.”
“I am alive. How does my betrayal compare?”
“The choice was mine. Would you rather have had me condemn you to death?”
Gabrielle did not answer. The fact that she would have welcomed an end to her life was not for her to share with the women who granted her mercy. Gabrielle continued her challenge. “Did you know Turian’s motives? Did you even bother asking him?”
“I did ask him. He said that neither Kartis nor I deserved the throne. He thought differently of you. Given what I saw between you two in Athens it was no surprise that he held you in high esteem.”
Xena had touched Gabrielle’s truth with subtle, yet insightful precision. It was a truth Gabrielle could not, given her promise to Athena, clarify. Her soul groaned. She held herself responsible for Turian’s death. “Is there anything else you wish to say to me?”
Dispiritedly, Xena walked to the door and reached for the handle. She spoke keeping her eyes on the wood. “During our life together I believe we had come to an understanding, a trust, that a direct question was granted an honest answer. Whether I want to hear the truth is beside the point. I need the truth, Gabrielle. Tell me now. What happened between you and Turian?”
Gabrielle considered her answer carefully. “He was an honorable man and never once harmed me.”
“Did he… how intimate were you?”
Gabrielle’s anger surged. Her answer was fueled by her unceasing helplessness in the face of the Gods’ indifference and the harsh world they created. She wondered what she had done to deserve the loss of all she held dear? Worse yet, why did she have to be the cause of Xena’s wretchedness? “If that is the reason why you killed him, you were wrong to do so. Turian did not deserve your vengeance. I lay with him by choice. It was my choice, Xena. It was I who went to him.”
Xena bowed her head. “Why?” She turned her gaze back to Gabrielle. “You have had many honorable men in you life. Did you love him?”
“No, but neither did I hate him.” Gabrielle could see in Xena an effort to make sense of the inadequate explanation.
“Was the Athenian so persuasive? Did you agree that I was beneath him… that I am unworthy of you?”
Gabrielle’s heart broke anew. Xena’s dignity had been assaulted. The visceral onslaught of Gabrielle’s intimate betrayal had wounded the warrior at her most fragile core. “I never thought that,” said Gabrielle in a hush.
“Then why did you leave me?”
Xena’s pain filled eyes were unbearable to Gabrielle. She tried to console, “I gave you my answer in Corinth. I did what I thought was best. I followed my heart and for the greater good did what I had to do.”
“You are a woman of maddening contradictions. I can’t pretend to understand you.”
“I’m sorry, Xena. I did not want to hurt you.” Gabrielle had long wanted to apologize. It brought her no relief. She could only hope that somehow her remorse would help Xena heal.
“You have my apology as well,” said Xena. “I was too hurt and angry to listen to you or the reports I received regarding what took place in Athens before and after your public renunciation of my rule. In our life together I gave you certain promises that though at times I have rued, I have always honored. By your word, in Athens you followed your heart. As I stand here before you I know that as incomplete as I find your statements to be that to be able to move on with my life I must accept them as sufficient. I must believe that you made the right choice for Athens, if not for either you or me. One question that remains between us is whether I have and will continue to follow my heart.”
Though standing too far apart to touch, Gabrielle instinctively reached out for her partner. “Xena, I cannot be the reason for your ruin.”
“I have tried...” Xena took a calming breath. “I must believe that I have been right in my actions. Gabrielle, Turain corroborated your assertion that you acted to save Athens. Prior to leaving the Northern Garrison I sent word to Corinth clearing your name of all charges levied against you. I have also directed Targon to scribe the necessary documents to endow you with an estate and sufficient income to ensure your well-being.”
Gabrielle was stunned. She struggled to make sense of the sea change in Xena and as a consequence in her own life. She reacted to the most unwarranted outcome. “I have never asked for wealth.”
“What would you ask of me?”
Gabrielle labored to think clearly. This was her one chance to redeem those who were pitilessly victimized in Athens. “I am grateful for your pardon. I know I have no right to ask, but…Trevor and Sam.”
“My message to Corinth included orders to reinstate them into the Royal Guard.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
Xena reached into her leather pouch and removed Gabrielle’s medallion. “Give me your hand.” Seeing what Xena held, Gabrielle complied. Xena placed the medallion upon Gabrielle’s open palm. “If you choose to wear your medallion you are recommitting yourself to your brothers. Many of your former Guard traveled with me. I am certain they will welcome a visit from you. As for me, I won’t interfere in your life again. Good bye, Gabrielle.” Xena bowed and then, without further delay, she exited the lodge.
From her window Gabrielle watched Xena’s departure until the warrior disappeared into the forest. She then sat down trembling, overwhelmed by a fathomless sense of loss. She felt the cool metal of her medallion in her hand. Though she treasured its return, what cut deeply was that she received no invitation back into Xena’s life. “Aphrodite,” she prayed, “please help me understand why we must suffer so.”
A knock on the door resounded in the room. Gabrielle’s pulse quickened. Would her prayer be so quickly answered? Despite Xena’s farewell Gabrielle’s heart swelled with hope. “Xena?” Gabrielle ran and opened the door. She was shocked by who she saw.
“May I come in?” asked Turian.
He smiled. “Very much so.” Gabrielle embraced him. He enfolded her in his strong, tender arms. “I’m getting you all wet,” said the rain soaked man.
Gabrielle released him and stepped back. “Come in.”
Gabrielle guided Turian to a chair. “Would you like something to drink or eat?”
“No, thank you. I’ve been well treated.” He motioned with his hand. “Sit down, Gabrielle. I want to talk to you.”
She moved a chair beside him and sat down. Turian took her hand. “How are you?” he asked tenderly.
“It’s been hard,” she said having no desire to be less than truthful.
“I tried to find you. No one knew where you had been banished. The Conqueror brought me here.”
“She did not harm you?”
“She stood between me and General Jared. Given the chance he would have cut my heart out. I still find it hard to believe that the Conqueror has let me live. I didn’t think I was that persuasive,” said Turian with uncontained gladness. He raised and kissed Gabrielle’s hand. “Gabrielle, I have some gold and the Conqueror has returned my lands to my possession. Come back to Greece with me.”
The events of the past candlemark had become too much for Gabrielle. She leaned back feeling an intolerable conflict of her loyalties. “Turian, I don’t want you to misunderstand me. If the circumstances in Athens had been different I would not have been with you.”
“You cannot tell me what we shared was a lie,” said Turian soberly.
“We were tender with one another, and yes, you gave me comfort and pleasure. I did my best to keep my feelings for the Conqueror from our bed.”
“It says something that you could.”
“It proves that I am well practiced in shutting my heart away.”
Turian released Gabrielle’s hand. “Do you love the Conqueror?”
“I never stopped loving her,” said Gabrielle in a manner not to be contradicted.
“What did she say to you? What promises has she made?”
“None that would make a difference between you and me.”
“Tell me, Gabrielle,” insisted Turian.
“She has cleared my name of all charges of treason and is ensuring that I have an income. She has also reinstated Trevor and Sam into the Royal Guard.”
“That is all?”
“She gave me this.” Gabrielle revealed her medallion.
Turian glanced down to the familiar metal. “What does it mean to you?”
“It is not like my ring. Its meaning goes back to my days as a servant. I was a sister to the Guardsmen. She has returned the honor to me.”
“Does this mean that you will return to Corinth?”
“For now, my life is here.”
“I don’t understand. Why stay with the Centaurs? There is a world waiting for you.”
“I was never a prisoner here. The Conqueror sent me to Kaleipus because he is a friend to us both.”
“What could possibly keep you here?”
“I have had a safe place to heal from the losses I experienced in Athens and in Corinth. I needed time to think and to decide what I wished to do with my life. Within a couple of moons after arriving I came to the conclusion that it would be better if I did not travel. I’m more physically fragile than you may realize. It was the right decision.”
“But if you were once weak you are now strong,” said Turian persuasively. “I see your strength. There must have been another reason for staying.”
Gabrielle looked out her window to the forest from which Xena appeared and returned to. “I stayed because I had not loss hope of seeing the Conqueror once again.”
“Because by staying she would know where to find you?”
“I did not think she would seek me out. She has other reasons for coming here. The realm’s relationship with the Centaurs is unique and requires her personal attention from time to time.”
“I ask you again. Come home to Greece with me. I promise you Gabrielle I will do all in my power to give you a good life.”
“Thank you, but no. Leave me knowing that you gave me the gift of yourself and though it was short lived I will be forever grateful.”
“You cannot love me?” said Turian disappointedly.
“Not in the way you wish me to. Though I respect you I also disagree with you. The Conqueror is a great Sovereign and deserves your support. The fact that we sit here together is proof of her justice and integrity.”
“Gabrielle, she has walked away from you!” said Turian with renewed verve.
“I am hers even if she no longer claims me.”
“You are destined to a lonely life, longing for someone who will not have you.”
“There is no other way for me.”
Turian glanced over to the door. “Two Guardsmen wait for me outside. I will be escorted off Centaur lands a free man. I should be happy. Instead, I feel cheated.”
“I am sorry if I have hurt you.” Gabrielle had now offered her second sorely desired apology. Again, doing so brought no comfort.
Turian looked back to Gabrielle. “You have done me no wrong. Nor, I admit, has the Conqueror. I had a dream but it was dwarfed by Kartis’ civilized savagery and the Conqueror’s more thoughtful vision. Where does a man go after such failure?”
“The best men learn from their failures never to repeat them. They become wiser,” said Gabrielle offering a balm she could not accept for herself.
“Is there hope for me?” asked Turian with a touch of wit.
“Yes, I think so,” said Gabrielle grateful for the shift in tone.
“I shall always remember you with affection, Gabrielle. If ever I can help you, please summon me to you.”
“Thank you.” Gabrielle stood and took hold of Turian’s hand. “Let me walk you out.” Turian allowed Gabrielle to lead him to the door. Standing at the door she said, “I cannot regret placing my faith in you. You are a good man.”
Turian cupped Gabrielle’s cheek with his hand. “You deserve happiness, Gabrielle.” He leaned down and gently kissed her on the lips. “Farewell.”
“Good bye, Turian. Be safe.”
He hesitated one more moment. Regret permeated the ether. He opened the door and exited the lodge, walking in the direction of the waiting Guardsmen.
Gabrielle closed the door. Leaning against it, her body glided to the floor. Tears fell down her cheek. She cried unceasingly, as sorrows recently buried returned to haunt her.
From a distance Xena, Tavis and Sentas had observed Gabrielle and Turian’s reunion. Xena had left the Guardsmen to safeguard Turian’s departure from the Centaur’s lands. Whether he left alone or with Gabrielle she would learn soon enough. She traveled up a hill to where a stone shelf offered cover from the elements. There she looked out to the horizon. The rain had subsided and the sun had begun to set. The sunset reminded her of Scupi.
Time passed unmarked. She heard approaching footsteps. Jared stood beside her and without a word spoken watched the sky as its hues changed until the heavens seemed aflame.
Xena kept her eyes forward. “Say it, Jared. Whatever it is just say it.”
“I was wondering how you found the lass?”
“Athens has made her hard.” Xena turned her gaze to Jared. “I imagine she was just as hard before she entered my household. She has gone back to that part of herself. The part that she has always kept separate from the world.”
“It doesn’t have to be like this. If you…”
“No, old man,” said Xena more firmly. “Gabrielle chose to go to Athens against my wishes. She chose to go back to Kartis. And, she chose to enter Turian’s bed. Of all her choices the hardest one to accept is her choice not to explain herself to me. Her secrets are far too great to be set aside.”
“That is your choice,” said Jared sternly.
“It’s Gabrielle’s choice. After Tracate she made a promise. Each day that she remains silent she breaks that promise.”
“Release her from the promise. Live on without knowing.”
“I have not demanded that she tell me what she withholds from me. I will live on in this bitter world without knowing.”
“You are giving her to Turian.”
“If she loves him she will go with him. And I think by that choice I will know, at least in part, what happened in Athens.”
“And if she stays?”
“She has no reason for staying.”
“You are her reason for staying. You are her reason for living. That hasn’t changed.”
“You still sense that despite her expert detachment?” asked Xena, wanting to believe Jared.
“She wears her hardness like a shell. You have the power to pierce it.”
“No, I don’t. I never have. For all of our life together I have known the loneliness that comes with not being invited into the most remote places within her.”
“Be fair. Does Gabrielle see all of you?”
“She has seen far more of me than I have ever seen of her.” Jared ceased his argument. Xena sensed his rare willingness to support her conclusion even though it was not to Gabrielle’s advantage. It marked the inexplicableness of Gabrielle’s actions.
“What will you do?” he said.
“What can I do but wait. The future will unfold at its own pace. All any of us can do is wait to see whether the sun will rise again and if it does, live until the next sunset comes and we are given, if we are lucky, a merciful sleep.”
Xena lay sitting up on the pallet within her quarters, listening to the renewed rain. She called out permission to enter in response to a knock on the door. She was surprised to see Turian.
“I thought you would want to know that I leave alone,” said Turian. “Gabrielle loves you. I don’t think you ever doubted her. I think you doubted yourself and you shouldn’t have. I was wrong about you and I’m sorry for the harm I’ve done you.” Turian paused. Xena silently held her gaze; her piercing blue eyes had a crystalline aura to them. The Athenian’s self-assured manner escaped him. He sobered, “Conqueror, I am in your debt. I know you have no reason to trust me, but if I can ever be of service, you only have to call upon me.”
Xena nodded imperceptivity. “Safe travels, Turian.”
“Thank you. I wish you well.” He bowed respectfully and then exited.
Sitting in her quarters as the night sounds rose, Xena found little comfort in the natural respite from the blinding glare of life. She did not want to sleep. She did not want to revisit her lonely dreams. They impressed upon her the desolation she had returned to when she first learned of Gabrielle’s betrayal. Turian’s reassurance that she had Gabrielle’s love did not touch her gently. His words seared her. The contradiction of his words and Gabrielle’s deeds were irreconcilable and thus so too was Xena’s heart, which expressed a constant moan of hurt.
Aphrodite appeared at the center of her quarters. Seeing the Goddess Xena’s thoughts turned to Ares’ warning, “Why did you curse me?” she asked hoarsely.
“I have done no such thing,” said the Goddess defensively.
“Ares warned me.”
“What did my brother tell you?”
“Because you saved Gabrielle from dying from the infection caused by the knife wound on her arm, she owed you a debt. He said unless I gave my soul up to him I would know Tartarus on earth.”
“Xena, it was not I. Ares spoke of Athena. She healed Gabrielle because the Fates told her that Gabrielle was the key to saving Athens. Athena knows no limits when it comes to protecting her city.”
“Protect Athens? That doesn’t make sense. Gabrielle did Athens no favor when she entered Turian’s bed.”
“I won’t try to justify her actions with Turian.”
“Because there is no justifying them,” said Xena with renewed harshness.
“Xena, you are wrong if you judge Gabrielle without knowing her story.”
“What choice have I? She won’t say more than that she followed her heart. What does that mean? What standing do I have in her heart?”
“I’m sorry to say that I don’t know the reasons behind Gabrielle’s actions.”
“How could you not know what went on between Gabrielle and Athena?” said Xena as her frustration soared.
“As I have told you in the past, contrary to what some mortals think, no God is all powerful and all knowing. Xena, I don’t condone Athena’s interference with my Chosen’s life. I want the truth just as much as you do.” Aphrodite reached out to the warrior and said decidedly, “Now, take my hand.”
“Why?” asked Xena warily.
“We are going to the Acropolis.”
“What for?” Xena would not volunteer to be a pawn in the Gods’ games.
“There you will petition Athena for the truth.”
“Why haven’t you asked her?”
“I promised Gabrielle I would not broach the subject with my step-sister. You have no such promise to stop you from seeking the truth.”
Never had Xena known the restraining power of a promise. Promises had placed one barrier after another between her and the truth. The truth is what she wanted. She would not bypass the opportunity to have it. She took Aphrodite’s hand. After a few disorientating moments she found herself standing beside the Goddess at the foot of the stairs leading to Athena’s temple. Together they walked inside. “Call her,” Aphrodite instructed. Xena did so.
It was not long before Athena appeared. “What is this?” she said irritably.
“I think you know why we’re here,” said Aphrodite.
“I have nothing to say. Gabrielle made her choice knowing the consequences.”
“What choice? What consequences?” Xena stepped forward undeterred by the fact she faced a God. “What lies did you spin?”
Obviously offended, Athena responded sharply. “I am not the spinner of destinies. Atropos did me the favor of showing Gabrielle how one decision would alter history. It was her decision to make. Gabrielle should count herself lucky. Few are granted such insight.”
“What was the choice?” demanded Xena.
“To see all the people of Athens killed or not.”
“What power on earth would have done such a thing? Not even Caesar is that bloodthirsty.”
“My army?” Xena took a step back as if slapped. Confused, she asked, “Why would I destroy Athens?”
“You didn’t. Your army did.”
“Against my command?” said Xena outraged.
“Gabrielle caused Kartis great embarrassment among the Athenian Lords when she fled the palace. His revenge was to grant one of his associates access to her with every intention of seeing her raped and killed. Gabrielle first choice was to take her own life before one more man could add his name to the list of unworthy men that have had their harsh hands upon her. Either way she would be dead because you and your army were too far from Athens to save her. Arriving in Athens, seeing Gabrielle and what she had done, you took your own life to join her on the other side. Upon learning of your deaths, the rage of the Conqueror’s army was unleashed. Innocent men, women and children of Athens were taken to Hades by a wildfire that engulfed the city.”
“That’s a lie! My men would have never taken revenge against innocents.”
“Grief can drive men to do the unthinkable. Cirra was nothing compared to the atrocities my city suffered.” Athena’s statement silenced all protest within Xena.
Aphrodite asked, “When Gabrielle chose to accept Kartis’ proposition, what did she know would happen?”
“Gabrielle knew that she would be alive when Xena reached her. Athens would survive and at least for now, so too would Xena.”
Many of the puzzle pieces that composed a clear picture of the events that took place in Athens were now in Xena’s possession. There was one missing piece that Xena was unwilling to pursue any further. She met and held Athena’s gaze. “Aphrodite told me you saved Gabrielle’s life. Is her debt to you paid?”
“There was never a debt,” said the Goddess. “If she had gone against Athens I would have not felt betrayed though I would have been disappointed.” Athena turned to her step-sister and said, “I must admit, Aphrodite, you were right in choosing Gabrielle. She is a remarkable young woman.” After a moment of shared silence, in which Xena and Aphrodite seemed preoccupied in their own thoughts, Athena asked, “Now, are we done here?”
Aphrodite deferred to her companion. “Xena?”
“Did Gabrielle know I would spare her life?” asked Xena, wanting to better understand her own role in what had transpired.
“No,” said Athena. “The life string Atropos showed her did not foresee the future that would be if she chose differently. Anything else?”
“Athena, in the future stay away from Gabrielle,” cautioned Aphrodite. “My Chosen is not meant to be your puppet.”
“She was no more my puppet than she has been yours. Xena, although I am not the Goddess of Love, I counsel you to go and find Gabrielle. Facing an impossible situation she sacrificed your love for the greater good.”
“Don’t you dare counsel me,” said Xena spitefully. “I could have killed Gabrielle.”
Aphrodite placed her hand on Xena’s arm, subtly but forcefully restraining her. “Remember, Gabrielle is my Chosen. In spite of what she asked of me, I would never have allowed you to hurt her. It took all my patience to let her face you in Court.”
“She insisted on suffering your justice. I was honestly surprised by the mercy you showed her. Given how much she is suffering now I don’t know if you have done her a favor.”
Xena turned and walked out of the temple, followed by Aphrodite. What Xena had learned took her near her breaking point. “Please take me back.”
“Will you go to Gabrielle?” asked Aphrodite.
“Xena, hasn’t she suffered enough?”
“We both have.”
“Athens had nothing to do with you. Athens was about Kartis.”
“Maybe in the beginning, but Athens is now also about Turian,” said Xena impatiently. “Take me back, Aphrodite.”
“Xena, Ares was right about one thing. If you give him your soul your suffering will end. You hurt because you love. The hurt will end if you embrace your darkness. I would hate to see you give up the best of yourself. You deserve better and so does Gabrielle.”
“I have another love in Centaur lands and right now that is who I want to be with.”
Understanding, Aphrodite acquiesced. “Very well.” With a gesture of her hand she returned Xena to her quarters, leaving the warrior with her own thoughts.
The following morning Xena sought out Kaleipus, securing a private word with him in his quarters. Xena’s discomfort was obvious to the centaur. He spoke as soon as the door was closed. “What is it?”
“My men were members of the Queen’s Guard. They have a unique bond with Gabrielle.”
“I think it would do them and Gabrielle good to spend a few days together – have a proper farewell.”
“You and your men are welcomed to stay as long as you like,” said the centaur.
“They will be freer with Gabrielle if I wasn’t here.”
“I trust your General. If you rather return to Corinth…”
“I prefer a hunting trip with you and Solan.”
“A hunting trip? Where?”
“You decide. You can also decide the composition of the hunting party.”
“How many of your men should I count on?”
“Then it will be a party of three,” said Kaleipus. “When would you like to leave?”
“As soon as possible.”
“Give me a couple of candlemarks to get ready.”
“Shouldn’t you ask Solan first?” asked Xena, not wanting to cause her son any discontent.
“I will,” said Kaleipus smiling. “But, it won’t change a thing. I have no doubt what answer he will give me. Xena, the boy wants to get to know you. As far as he is concerned, having a few days with you to himself will be Elysia.”
“Thank you, Kaleipus.” Xena exited the lodge and walked to her quarters to prepare for the hunt. She was hopeful she might know a sliver of peace in the company of the centaur and her son, both of whom had nothing to do with the political maze that is Greece.
Kaliepus sent a message to Gabrielle, discreetly informing her of the hunting trip. He instructed her to go to Tansorious if she was in want of anything.
Mid-afternoon the following day Gabrielle sat on her porch steps, her eyes fixed upon the entrance to the forest path that led to the centaur village. She had Xena’s blessing to speak to the Guardsmen – her brothers. She missed the men who had always offered her a safe haven, who taught her martial skills, who played games with her, who listened attentively to her stories and who accepted her care revealing their otherwise shielded hurts and fears.
She wondered if they would come to her, or if they would assume nothing, respect her privacy and wait for her to make a gesture of reconciliation. In her hand she held the vitally symbolic medallion of the Royal Guard. Taken from her - a damning disgrace - and returned to her - a restored honor. Upon seeing it the Guardsmen would have no question of Xena’s endorsement of a reunion between sister and brothers. Gabrielle had only to wear it.
The thought of doing so gave her pause. She must believe she deserved the Honor of the Medallion. She knew she had acted honorably. What caused her to hesitate was her inability to exonerate herself completely. Xena took her and Turian’s word that what was done had to be done to save Athens. Xena did so on a faith necessitated by the warrior’s fragile soul’s need to keep her encroaching darkness at bay. Her brothers did not have an equal motivation to believe her. Gabrielle weighed the risk of rejection with the reward of acceptance.
Dressed in a simple rust colored tunic, with staff in hand, Gabrielle approached the Conqueror’s camp.
Tavis caught sight of Gabrielle first and went to her. “I’ve been waiting for you to show up,” he said nonchalantly. He gestured toward her staff. “I haven’t had a sparring challenge since you left.”
“Hello Tavis,” said Gabrielle shyly.
“Gabrielle, how are you?”
“I’ve missed you.” Her trembling voice carried her equally trembling emotion.
“I see you wear your medallion. Will you be coming back to us?”
Gabrielle raised her hand to her mouth as her emotions surge. She could not suppress her tears. Tavis took the younger woman into his arms. “Hush, you know your brothers have no defense against your tears. We shall break down and cry and the Conqueror will call us all puppies until the next full moon.”
Gabrielle tightened her hold of the man, needing his gentle reassurance.
“Tavis, what kind of boorish thing did you say to our sister now?” Sentas stood beside the two. He held out a handkerchief for Gabrielle. Still leaning against Tavis she turned her head to her most playful brother. “He said nothing wrong.”
“I’m amazed. You know, Gabrielle, I would have no objection to taking Tavis’ place if you had the mind to indulge a second brother.”
Tavis turned and placed himself between Sentas and Gabrielle. “She’s mine. I saw her first.”
“Guardsmen share or have you forgotten our code?”
“Your kerchief first.” Tavis took possession of it and then released Gabrielle. He gently dabbed her tears from her face before surrendering the fabric to her. “There.”
Sentas pushed Tavis away. “Step aside, I’ve waited long enough.” He transferred Gabrielle’s staff from her hand to Tavis and then took her in his arms and whirled her around. Gabrielle cried out in delight.
“Put her down before you make her dizzy,” shouted Alem as the balance of the Queen’s Guard approached.
Sentas did so, keeping a firm grip upon Gabrielle until he was sure she was on sure footing. The men, each in their own way, welcomed her.
The hunting party of centaur, warrior and boy traveled the highland path toward an overlook of the valley where Kaleipus suggested they camp for the night. Solan was dejected having missed a doe, his arrow clipping a low hanging tree branch. He walked ahead keeping his own company.
Xena and Kaleipus exchanged a look of understanding. “He wanted to impress you with his hunting skills,” said the centaur.
“Probably won’t do any good to tell him I’ve missed my share of game when I was his age,” said Xena her heart aching for her son’s disappointment.
“Especially when it isn’t the truth,” quipped Kaleipus.
“You give me too much credit. Or maybe not enough. I’ve worked hard to develop and maintain my skills.”
“He’s a serious boy. Not that he doesn’t have a good time with his friends. There is just a part of him that seems more comfortable alone or with adults.”
“When I was growing up in Amphilpolis I had my brother Lyceus. He was my best friend. My only friend, really. I didn’t have much in common with the rest of the village kids. I could run faster, ride a horse better, release an arrow and throw a knife on target.”
“Who taught you?”
“I’d ask whomever was good at what I wanted to learn. And if there wasn’t anyone I taught myself. There would be that first time I did something right. Teach a horse a trick, kill my first stag. Gods, there isn’t a better feeling than that.”
“And when you failed?”
Xena’s gaze rested gently upon her son. “I felt like Solan feels now. Angry with myself. Angry at the world. I used that anger to work harder, longer, until I got good enough.”
“Maybe tonight he’ll accept a lesson from you.”
“We’ll see. It’s better to wait to be asked.”
“I’m not sure his pride will let him ask you.”
“Then he is not his mother’s son.”
After a dinner of roasted rabbit Xena rested against a tree near the fire. Her thoughts drifted back in time when Gabrielle was alone on the practice range with her bow.
By the position of the arrows, Gabrielle’s aim was consistently a hand length from the heart of the target in every direction.
Xena admired her partner’s form. Gabrielle was deliberate in her aim. Her brothers had taught her well. Xena observed Gabrielle’s technique looking for opportunities for improvement.
Gabrielle sighed as one more arrow missed its mark. She retrieved the bolts. As she turned away from the target she saw Xena. She raised her hand in greeting.
Xena approached. “How goes practice?”
“You’ve hit the target each time,” observed Xena generously.
“It’s not good enough.”
“I wouldn’t expect better aim from my Guard.”
“You do expect better from yourself.”
“Point taken,” said Xena as she nodded in agreement. “I was thinking of taking Argo for a ride by the river. Want to join me?”
Gabrielle glanced over to the target. Her stubborn determination painted across her face. “No, thanks.”
“All right. I will be back for evening meal.” Xena walked away, understanding all too well how Gabrielle felt.
“Xena!” called Gabrielle. The warrior turned back. “Could you watch me?” asked the young queen. “If you have any suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them.”
“Go ahead.” Xena gestured with her hand.
Gabrielle smiled, encouraged. She shot two bolts with no improvement.
Xena stepped around Gabrielle until she stood at her partner’s back. “May I?” Her breath gently swept near Gabrielle’s ear. Gabrielle glanced over to Xena giving silent consent. Xena adjusted Gabrielle’s cocked arm. “It will be easier to steady your aim if you keep your arm closer to your body.”
Xena stepped back. Gabrielle took aim and shot a bolt. It hit at the perimeter of the inner target, cutting the distance of her miss by half. Xena smiled both at the improvement and the determined look upon her partner’s face as Gabrielle pulled another bolt from her quill. She took aim and shot again. The miss equaled the one before.
Gabrielle stared at the target thoughtfully. “Xena.” She glanced over to her partner. “Thank you.”
“I will see you at dinner?”asked the warrior.
“Yes, I’ll be there.”
“Xena?” The boy’s voice brought the warrior back to the present. Solan stood before her with his bow in hand.
“Tomorrow, could you give me a lesson with my bow?”
Xena smiled. “Sure.”
“Could you look at it now? I’m not sure I’ve got the tension right.”
Xena reached out her hand. “Give it here.”
The boy handed her the bow and then sat beside her.
“This is a nice weapon,” said Xena, admiring the fine carving of the wood.
“Kaleipus made it for me,” replied Solan proudly.
Xena glanced over to the centaur who watched them attentively. He offered her an approving smile. The balance of the evening, boy and warrior spoke about bows and hunting, wood carving and leather-smithing. It was the finest evening Xena had known in recent memory.
Gabrielle worked in her herb garden by the light of the morning sun. In the two days that had passed she had broken her self-imposed isolation and shared parts of her days and all of her evenings with her brothers. Their time together had eased her feelings of estrangement.
Jared had made a special effort to see her and talk to her privately. Though he was gentle with her, she sensed an undercurrent of anger within him. It was obvious that there was no going back to her life before Athens. Too much had changed. Though disappointments might be explained, even accepted and forgiven, emotions once felt still lingered in memory.
Gabrielle wished for a time in the future when she could speak to the other valued friends left behind without a word of farewell: Stephen, Makia, Dalius, and Targon, as well as a few of her most supportive Lords: Judias and Ayers. She was confident her exoneration would be welcomed news. She reasoned that explanations given might sweep aside all judgment except for one, the same that she could not blind herself to in Jared’s eyes; the one that had broken her bond with Xena – Turian.
“Are those herbs for healing or cooking?”
Gabrielle heard a gentle, familiar male voice. She looked up to see Trevor. She smiled. “Both.”
The Guardsman pointed to the insignia sewed on his shirt. “I have my commission.”
“I see, Captain.”
“Are you still my sister?”
“Good.” He crouched down. “Can you use some help? I wouldn’t mind putting in an honest days work especially if I don’t need to draw my sword to do it.”
“Trevor, can you forgive me?”
“There is nothing to forgive,” said Trevor as he took Gabrielle’s hand in his own. “Gabrielle, I don’t know if I will ever be able to equal your strength and generosity. To risk losing our love to save a city of strangers… I’m too selfish. I would not have sacrificed you for all the people in Greece.”
“A long time ago my Lord told me that for me to be her Queen I had to place the realm before all that I cherished. I thought I knew what she asked of me. It wasn’t until Athens that I truly understood.”
“Athens was a hard time. I left the city questioning much that I was once sure of. Still, I had my faith in you… and in the Conqueror. I told myself somehow the world would set itself right again. And look, here I am with you and we are both in good health and free citizens. And…” Trevor’s voice choked with emotion. Gabrielle raised her fingertips to his cheek. He continued to speak. “And, I am still your brother and love you.”
Gabrielle embraced him. “It’s all right… I love you, too.”
With time the two re-gathered their composure. Gabrielle offered Trevor cool water to quench his thirst. He accepted and they retired to the porch of her lodge. The following candlemark was spent in comfortable companionship.
Gabrielle noted that it neared time to begin preparing her evening meal. “Would you like to stay for dinner?” she asked Trevor.
“And have you all to myself?” The Captain smiled. “I would, but my brothers would never forgive me. Come to our camp.”
Gabrielle broached one subject they had both avoided. “Sam? Is he with you?”
Trevor grew serious. “We rode together. Gabrielle, he is an angry man.”
“Then I should stay away.”
“That would be a mistake. You need to face him. For both your sakes.”
Trevor escorted Gabrielle to the Guardsmen’s camp. Her presence was expected and thus there was no extraordinary fanfare. Gabrielle joined the cooks, choosing to help prepare the meal. The shared light-hearted sibling comradery eased the tension in her chest.
As dinner was being served, Gabrielle caught sight of Samuel standing silently at a distance. As she walked toward him, the nearby Guardsmen opened a path for her. She stopped a few paces from the Guardsman who had given so much to protect her. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“You could have trusted me with the truth,” said Samuel showing no tenderness.
“No, I couldn’t. I gave an oath that I would not share what I learned.”
“Would you do the same given a second chance?” asked Samuel seemingly unmoved.
“Yes, except I would not have let you come with me.”
Samuel turned and walked away.
“Sam… please…” called Gabrielle after him. She watched him disappeared into the forest.
She felt a presence beside her. “Join your brothers, Gabrielle,” said Alem.
“I’ve lost Sam, haven’t I?” she said sadly.
“I wish I could say he will come back to you, but I can’t. Some wounds don’t heal.” Alem placed his arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder and guided her to the fire ring.
Xena and Kaleipus indulged Solan, extending their hunt by two days in hopes that he would achieve a kill worth boasting about. Their patience was rewarded when Solan’s arrow pierced the heart of a moderately size boar. Both adults liberally commented on the beast’s ferocity, a disproportionate assessment the boy took at face value, his pride bucked up in equal measure by their praise for his tenacity.
In preparation for the evening roast Xena took Solan on a different hunt, one for natural herbs to tenderize and flavor the meat. Her son was a willing and quick student, learning the names and uses of the herbs shown to him. She impressed upon him that both man and woman needed the knowledge to be able to feed themselves as well as, in the case of medical herbs, care for themselves.
Solan mentioned Gabrielle’s name in context of a healer. It was the first time since Xena’s arrival that Gabrielle’s name had been spoken between them. Xena concurred that Gabrielle was a highly knowledgeable and skilled healer. She added that what made Gabrielle most effective was her intuitiveness and compassion in the face of pain. As the warrior and boy walked back to camp, Xena’s observation of her former partner was in the forefront of her mind.
After their evening meal was completed, Kaleipus announced that in the morning they would begin the journey back to the village. Given the distance travelled, it would be a two day trek. Solan expressed a desire to transport the whole boar back. After thoughtful discussion he reluctantly agreed that only the hide, tucks and butchered meat would be carried.
Solan bid his companions a good night before taking to his bed roll.
Kaleipus chuckled. “I don’t have to think hard to trace this boy’s pride to his parents.”
“Any boy would want to show off,” said Xena knowingly.
“He will have glorious dreams tonight.”
“It was a good day.”
“It was a good four days. I’m glad you thought of this hunt. You will need to return more often and continue mentoring our young prince.”
“I don’t know if I should,” said Xena solemnly.
“Isn’t it obvious. Look at how Gabrielle has suffered because of me. If word regarding my affection for Solan reached my enemies… Kaleipus, not only Solan but you and your entire village would be at risk.”
“We are already at risk. There is no love lost between centaurs and humans. Xena, the only thing that is obvious to me is that Solan feels the inexplicable bond a boy feels for his mother, for you. He just doesn’t know how to express his heart in words.”
“Kaleipus, you can’t know how proud I am of him. He is beautiful in his innocence. I don’t want to rob him of his childhood as I was robbed. Believe me, if I could have him by my side without breaching our agreement, I would.”
“I shall not back down from this argument, Xena. As leader of the centaurs I expect Greece to work harder to maintain its diplomatic ties to my nation. You will return to our lands to negotiate a trade compact and you will return on an annual basis for no less than a fortnight to renegotiate the compact for the upcoming year. I will accept no envoys… no excuses. Have I made myself clear?”
Xena shook her head and smiled. “Perfectly.”
“Shall you meet my demands?”
“I don’t seem to have a choice.”
“Good,” said Kaleipus grinning. “You can tell Solan in the morning.”
The hunting party of three returned to the village after evening meal. Xena bid Solan and Kaleipus a good night. She stowed her pack and bow in her quarters and then walked casually to the Guardsmen’s camp. As she neared the fire ring she heard Gabrielle’s voice and paused. Still hidden within the forest she debated whether to interrupt the gathering. Standing in the night’s stillness she felt a sudden and unexpected sensation. The feeling once constant elicited a sob. She felt Gabrielle’s essence.
Xena closed her eyes and concentrated, feeling the intimate warmth that she knew was inextricably linked to the bard. She did not want the sensation to end. Having gone without its comfort for moons, she had begun to believe it a cruel turn of her imagination. As much as she did not want to cause the connection’s end Xena felt a desperate need to be nearer to its source. She stealthy approached the camp’s perimeter, well positioned to observe Gabrielle. The bard smiled easily in the company of her brothers, in the warm embrace of friendship.
Gabrielle turned her eyes toward her, keenly in wait. Xena wondered if Gabrielle had sensed her as she had sensed the bard. She stepped forward, clearly in sight of all. “It’s good that I am a friendly visitor or all of you would have been for a rude awakening.”
“We trust the centaur guards to give us a fair warning, my Liege,” said Trevor, standing.
“Sit down, Captain. I am not here to interrupt,” said Xena casually, choosing not to acknowledge Trevor’s presence as out of the ordinary. “I can see all has been well during my absence. I bid you good-night.”
Brogan stood up. “My Liege, will you answer a question before you leave?”
“If I can, Brogan,” said Xena affably.
“Will you wager on Stephen’s child? Boy or girl?”
Gabrielle’s gaze moved from Brogan to Xena as she asked with a hint of excitement. “Tess is with child?”
“Brogan, you’ve spoiled your brother’s surprise.” Xena’s gentle gaze held Gabrielle’s. “Yes, Tess is expecting. Stephen is beside himself.”
“I say happy and I think a little frightened as well. Though Dalius is gentle with her, I believe she would prefer you as her mid-wife.”
“A new life,” Gabrielle sighed.
“Yes, and whether boy or girl, the child will have the best of parents and a cadre of uncles.”
“As well as two aunts. Is that not right, my Liege?” asked Alem.
“Yes, Alem. Stephen and Tess’s child will learn of the world through the stories of the finest bard in Greece and have the protection of the realm’s Sovereign.”
Xena’s tacit inclusion of her in the child’s life caused Gabrielle to glance down as she felt an overwhelming wave of emotion.
“My Liege,” Brogan pressed. “You still have not said, boy or girl?”
“A girl.” said Gabrielle softy.
Xena spoke in an intimately equal voice. “A girl? Do you think?”
“Tess told me it’s what Stephen wants.”
“Then may Eileithyia grant them both a healthy girl,” said Xena in a rare blessing.
Tavis laughed and called out to Sentas, “Pay up!”
“What’s this?” asked Xena.
“We wagered on what you would wager.”
Xena shook her head and chuckled.
Gabrielle playfully said, “You always said your men would wager on anything.”
“Oh no, these are not my men they are your brothers.”
“And proud we are of our sister,” affirmed Alem.
The men uniformly voiced their agreement.
“Gabrielle?” Young Mason’s voice broke through the din. “Would you tell us a story? A short one?”
Hamish slapped him in the gut. “Short not! An epic with fighting and intrigue.”
“And to please Alem’s sentimental heart add a love story,” said Sentas.
Gabrielle looked to Xena with questioning eyes. The warrior responded by sitting among the Guardsmen, directly across from Gabrielle. “It has been a long time since I’ve heard a story,” she said.
Having the assurance she needed, still keeping eye contact with Xena, Gabrielle began the story of the Trojan War, focusing on the love between Hector and Andromache.
Xena scanned the men as they each settled themselves to comfortably listen. She knew by Trevor’s presence that Samuel was also in camp. He was however conspicuously absent from the gathering. She surmised that the reunion of sister and brothers had not been as completely successful as she had hoped.
Having finished the story and received her brother’s praise and gratitude, Gabrielle stood and observed the lateness of the evening.
“I’ll walk you back,” said Xena, preempting any other offers to escort Gabrielle to her lodge. The warrior energetically jumped to her feet and took hold of a nearby torch. She silently walked toward the trailhead, waiting patiently until Gabrielle bid her brothers a good night.
The two women took to the forest path in amicable silence. Having walked beyond hearing distance of the Guardsmen, Gabrielle asked, “How was the hunting trip?”
“A success. Solan downed his first boar.”
“He must have been exited.”
“That’s an understatement,” said Xena laughing easily.
Gabrielle smiled, obviously enjoying Xena’s lightheartedness. “Did you enjoy the trip?”
“It was good to spend time away from the usual concerns of living. I think Kaleipus felt the same.”
“How did you find Solan?”
“He’s growing up to be quite a young man. He’s sensitive. He feels deeply. Kaleipus and I spoke of you. He feels you have purposely kept your distance from Solan. I hope you don’t hold him accountable for my actions.”
Gabrielle stopped and turned to her partner. “Xena, no… I don’t… You have been more than fair to me.”
“Then why have you kept Solan at a distance? He has only wanted your friendship.”
“Kaleipus must have told you I’ve been living a very private life.”
“Solan is my son,” said Xena firmly. Clearly, she expected Gabrielle to grant the boy special consideration.
“Yes,” said Gabrielle with a full heart. “I see you in him. It’s been hard to be reminded of all I’ve lost.” Gabrielle began to walk again.
Appeased, Xena continued to keep pace. “I see Trevor sat beside you. Is all well with you two?”
“Yes. He has forgiven me. He has been more generous than I believe I deserve.”
“What of Sam?”
“He’s angry. He has every right to be. I tried to apologize. He won’t hear it.”
“Is there anything I can do?
“No… thank you. I’m grateful you’ve given me a chance to be with the men.”
“Don’t thank me. I was selfish. I could see that knowing the truth they needed to see you again. They needed you to know that they were still your brothers.”
“They see my actions through your eyes. You could have rejected Turian’s explanation and killed him. No one would have blamed you. No one would have known the truth.”
“Gabrielle, you are the only one who does know the truth,” said Xena, not willing to pretend otherwise.
“Is that why you came to me? Are you still seeking a confession?”
Xena paused and turned to Gabrielle. She spoke in a low intimate voice, one that had the power to pierce through Gabrielle’s greatest defenses. “I know more now than before I arrived. I am certain I do not know everything that happened in Athens and why, and I accept that I never will. Gabrielle, we have shared a bond beyond my imagination. It was once my sole reason for living. I believed having known it I could never live without it. Time has proven me wrong. Given no choice I have continued on. My life is not what it was with you, but it is a life worth living. I shall know a kernel of contentment if we can be at peace with one another.”
“Peace is illusive,” said Gabrielle dejectedly.
“Do you regret our life together?” asked Xena, bracing herself for the worst possible response.
“No, Xena, I don’t.”
Xena’s heart sighed. “Neither do I. Maybe some day we can be friends again.”
“I think we still are friends,” said Gabrielle quietly.
Xena smiled and then resumed walking. “Kaliepus has asked that I stay one more day. There will be a feast tomorrow in honor of Greece.”
“Do you return to Corinth?”
“Yes. Tess is due soon. I promised Stephen I would stay near just in case Dalius needs help delivering the baby.”
“You are the finest healer in Greece. Tess will be happy to have you with her.”
“I don’t know about that. She cannot forget that Stephen once loved me. Unless there are complications I think it best that I not be a part of the birth.”
“Does Stephen know how Tess feels?”
“No, and I don’t want him to know. I told Tess to love him and enjoy her time with him. It is foolish to worry about tomorrows.”
“When did you tell her that?”
“On their wedding day. When I went to see her before the ceremony. I had no idea she resented me so.”
“You never said anything.”
“I cannot change her heart. Anyway, it was a day of celebration. I did not want to spoil the pleasure of seeing your most honorable brother wed.”
“If I give you a message for Stephen…” said Gabrielle shyly.
“I will see he gets it. I’m sure he will welcome word from you.”
They reached the end of the path. They left the forest and crossed the open space to Gabrielle’s lodge. Xena paused as Gabrielle walked up to the first step of the porch stairs. The bard turned to her and said, “Thank you for the escort.”
“Your welcome. Good night, Gabrielle.”
“Xena…” Gabrielle hesitated for a moment. Seeing how Xena cocked her head to the side, a silent inquiry she continued her thought. “I have missed you.”
Gabrielle’s simple declaration harkened to another life now beyond Xena’s reach. She searched Gabrielle’s bright emerald eyes, seeing a sincerity that left her at a loss. She heard Jared’s challenge in her inner ear. Could she return to Gabrielle, trusting the bard, seeking no further explanations for Turian? Xena’s feelings edged to the surface, emotion trumped reason. She felt the limits of love in a way she had never felt before. “I have missed you, too,” said Xena evenly, unable to surrender blindly to Gabrielle. After a heavy silence Xena gave Gabrielle a minor bow. “Sleep well.” She then turned and walked back into the forest.
Gabrielle had observed a subtle retreat in Xena’s demeanor. What optimism Gabrielle would have normally felt in hearing Xena’s response was restrained by the warrior’s obvious struggle to speak with conviction. Gabrielle entered her lodge and slipped into bed fully clothed.
Gabrielle awoke abruptly a few candlemarks later. Her heart was racing and she was wet with perspiration. Disorientated, she held her head in her hands as she tried to focus her fragmented thoughts. Her nightmare rose up from her subconscious mind. She could hear echoes of two clashing voices: Xena’s warm consideration of Stephen’s future child and her… “Oh, Gods!” she cried, getting out of bed, wishing to leave behind the memory of her own voice. She paced the lodge. It seemed as if above her the roof wept and to each side of her the walls groaned. Unable to withstand the haunting she rushed out of the lodge and ran into the forest. Her choice of path was deliberate, towards the evidence of a fragile hope that was mercilessly aborted.
Soon after Gabrielle awoke from her nightmare Aphrodite appeared in Xena’s quarters. The warrior was, reading by candlelight. She had not expected the Goddess to visit her so soon. “Aphrodite, what brings you?”
Aphrodite paced across the room as she spoke. “When Athena saved Gabrielle’s life I told her I rather see Gabrielle die in peace than have the best of her heart crushed. Athena did not listen. All she cared about was saving her precious city. So, Gabrielle lived and I have had to stand witness to the slow death of my Chosen.” She paused and turned to Xena. “I was ready to blame you. I knew you had the power to destroy Gabrielle, but I got to give you credit. Your love for her guided every decision you made, no matter how painful. Deep inside you there was no letting go of the vestige of faith you had in her.”
The Goddess was without her usual brassiness. In its place there was a troubled heaviness of spirit. Because of it Xena did not discount Aphrodite’s concern for Gabrielle, though she did not understand why it was so dire. For the moment she set aside the Goddess’s praise. “We both know that if I had lost all faith in Gabrielle I would lose myself in madness.”
“Did you know that the Gods can not make mortals act against their will? We can try to influence them, guide them, even manipulate them but at the end what a mortal does is still dependent on who they are. The weak, self-serving and the compassionate are easy to twist and turn to our benefit but not the strong. The strong stand against us and often times act against a God’s interest just to spite us. You, Xena, are a powerful woman and I have learned that I must be direct with you.”
Xena sensed no hint of the impertinence that she had come to expect from the Gods. Aphrodite’s unexpected humility frightened her. “Aphrodite, what do you ask of me?”
“Your bond with Gabrielle is not of the Gods making. However, the impetus of seeking it out and sustaining it is driven by your love for one another. Right now, at this moment, you have a chance to experience your bond. Do what it is you do to have it. Do it now!”
“Why?” asked Xena. She knew to be cautious of her bond with Gabrielle. Though its loss was a great blow to her she had not forgotten that the bond was no longer limited to bringing forth mutual bliss. It was also a conduit for darkness.
“Because you must,” said Aphrodite earnestly.
The Goddess impressed Xena though not sufficiently enough to convince her to comply. “How do you know it’s possible? Since Athens Gabrielle’s essence has been a distant memory to me,” said Xena even though she had felt Gabrielle’s essence only a few candlemarks before.
“Xena, I have watched over you and Gabrielle these past years. I know that there are at least two ways in which you consummate your bond. One is by mutual desire. The other by an unexpected fusion when one of you has lost control of your emotions.”
“That only happened once and Gabrielle took hold of me at the time.”
“Try Xena,” Aphrodite genuinely petitioned. “That is what I ask of you. Please try.”
Xena understood that Aphrodite’s request meant that Gabrielle was currently in an emotionally vulnerable state. She answered the Goddess by closing her eyes and traveling inward. Soon she stood at the periphery of her and Gabrielle’s meeting place. Across the way was a pulsating light. Its rhythm mimicked a heartbeat. Xena walked toward it. She reached out her hand feeling a sorrow that was not her own. She cupped the light with her palm. Upon touching it a cruel force drove her down to her knees. She cried out in agony, the pain torturous. Her hand jerked away from the light as if burned by a hot coal, yet it remained unmarked. She opened her eyes to Aphrodite. She needed no explanation, no guidance.
She stood and then closed her eyes again. Instead of traveling inward she reached out with her essence seeking her soul mate. Having an immediate unquestionable sense of direction she opened her eyes, grabbed her cloak and left her quarters. The darkness of night and the rain limited her vision. She ran from the village into the forest following the intangible thread that bound her to Gabrielle.
She reached Gabrielle’s lodge. Stopping before it Xena sensed it was empty. She felt pulled to the west. She journeyed another quarter-candlemark. A sound distinct from the rainfall caused her to stop. To her right she saw Gabrielle huddled against a tree trunk sobbing. Xena went to Gabrielle, falling to her knees, keeping an arms length between them. She spoke Gabrielle’s name with a commanding voice.
“Can’t… bear… the … pain,” Gabrielle cried, looking blindly into the night.
“Gabrielle, what’s hurting you?” Not receiving an answer, Xena visually scanned Gabrielle for physical injuries. She noted how Gabrielle’s right hand reached out away from her body. It was then that Xena noticed what seemed to her like a small grave marker only a few hands distance away. “A grave, Gabrielle?”
“My child’s,” Gabrielle managed to say as her tears quieted.
Xena was stunned by the revelation. The strategic, the logical Conqueror who she was followed a thread of events to arrive at a conclusion. “You miscarried?” she asked, seeking confirmation of her conjecture.
“Yes… nearly a moon ago,” said Gabrielle wretchedly.
Xena removed her cloak and laid it over Gabrielle. She was at a lost for words and relied on her actions to speak for her. She assumed the child was also Turian’s. She concluded that Gabrielle had wanted the child. The bard’s sorrow would not be so great otherwise. Xena remained physically distant. “I’m sorry.”
“I was punished,” said Gabrielle weakly.
Xena did not think the Gods would interfere as judge, jury or executioner of mortal crimes and transgression separate and apart from their ambitions, which is how she deemed Gabrielle’s infidelity. And no matter how Xena belittled the Gods she knew none to be such an unredeemable monster that she or he would hold a child responsible for its parent’s actions – that distinction she left for humanity. “No, Gabrielle,” she said categorically. “The Gods have no right to stand in judgment of you and even if they do, none would harm an innocent child.”
“Why then?” asked Gabrielle as she turned her gaze to Xena. “Why was my child taken from me?”
“I don’t know.” Xena glanced toward the grave. “Your child was also Turian’s. Does he know?” Gabrielle looked down and shook her head. “Will you tell him?” Xena waited patiently hoping for an answer. Receiving none she warned, “Gabrielle, a secret as deep as a lost child will haunt you for the rest of your life.”
“Leave me, Xena,” said Gabrielle with renewed vigor.
“I am here for a reason.”
“What reason!” demanded Gabrielle.
“Because, there is something you need to know.” Xena paused to see if Gabrielle would willingly listen. The bard calmed sufficiently for Xena to begin her confession. “When we were last in Megara, Ares came to see me. He warned me that a day of reckoning would come when you would be approached by his sister and asked to pay a debt. He told me that you were healed from your knife wound for just that purposed. I assumed by his sister he meant Aphrodite. I was wrong.”
“Athena?” said Gabrielle in understanding.
“Yes. Aphrodite and I spoke to Athena before I left for the hunting trip. I know Athena took you to the Fates. I know that you would have taken your own life and I would have done the same to be with you. Gabrielle, I also know my men would have taken vengeance and wrought a holocaust on the city.”
“Our army, Xena. Including my Guard.”
“Gabrielle, I’m sorry. I saw no reason to tell you about Ares’ warning. He promised me that when events unfolded I would know Tartarus on earth if I didn’t give up my soul to him. I didn’t know when or how you would be approached. I believed Aphrodite loved you, so I couldn’t imagine that she would hurt you. I believed the price that had to be paid was mine alone. I kept silent because I didn’t want you living in fear for me. I was wrong about that, too. If you had known…”
“Nothing would have changed,” said Gabrielle in a hush.
“You can’t know that.”
“But I do,” replied Gabrielle more forcefully. “I would have gone back to Kartis. I would have signed the declaration. And, to save their lives I would have convinced Trevor and Sam to stand by me. At the end, the only thing that mattered was that I remain alive until you arrived in the city.”
Xena waited for Gabrielle to speak of Turian. Gabrielle’s silence once again pressed painfully against Xena’s spirit. The warrior’s soul was relentlessly tethered to a splintered life. “If I had killed you, it would have been equal to giving my soul to Ares, not that I thought that way at the time. I did know Tartarus on earth because I still loved you.”
“Xena, there is no going back,” said Gabrielle sorrowfully, the obvious a damning fact.
Though Xena wished differently she agreed, “No, there isn’t. But, there is the present and what little future the Fates grant us. You have another choice to make, Gabrielle. You should speak to Turian. There is a life he can offer you, one that you deserve, one that is beyond my means.”
“Are you are giving me your blessing to follow Turian?” asked Gabrielle, her confusion evident.
“You are no longer bound to me, but if my approval means anything to you, then yes, I give it without reservation.”
“I do not love him.”
“Nor do you hate him.” Xena echoed Gabrielle’s previous declaration. “There can be much that is good between love and hate.” Gabrielle glanced down visibly struggling with the moment. Xena recalled a conversation between them in response to Lord Thanos’ request for an heir to the throne. “Gabrielle, I once told you that if the day came that having a child was important to you, I would stand by you. That has not changed. There can be a child in your life and from that child can rise not only healing but also great love.”
“I don’t think there can be a child.” Gabrielle matched and held Xena’s gentle gaze. “The midwife I apprenticed with taught me that the worst that men do to women can damage them inside and cause them never to conceive or if they do, never to carry a child to birth. I know what I endured. It wasn’t a fact I had to face until now.”
“That may be true,” said Xena, mining her own healing knowledge. “You must have the desire and the courage to try. And if you cannot bear a child remember that like I, Turian was not seeking a child from you. There can be more between two people. Much more. We both know that.”
“At a price.”
“Nothing so wonderful comes without a price,” said Xena genuinely.
Never had Gabrielle been given such a succinct affirmation of her life with Xena and at the same time never had a door to a new life been more open to her. All that Xena said and did affirmed that the warrior assumed their permanent separation. With all the hurt between them, Gabrielle was left to question whether Xena’s motives were altruistic toward her or simply a means to ending her own insufferable pain “If I choose to speak to Turian, what then?”
“To stay with him?” Embolden without cause beyond her own heart’s desire Gabrielle asked, “Have I the choice to return to Corinth?”
“You are welcomed, if you so choose,” said Xena sincerely yet devoid of inviting warmth.
“Xena, how would I return?”
“You would return as has always been the Queen’s custom, proudly crossing the city streets mounted upon Spirit.”
If Gabrielle hoped for a further mention of love, one that did not reside in the past, she did not receive it. Without such reassurance, her decision would have to be made independently. She stood up and handed Xena her cloak. “I will give you an answer by nightfall tomorrow. Until then I wish to be alone.”
Xena took possession of her cloak. “I will let your brothers know not to visit you.”
Gabrielle walked toward her lodge, oblivious of the rain.
The following evening a feast was served in the Centaur village courtyard under a clear sky filled with named and unnamed constellations. Xena sat on a blanket beside Solan. Within sight of all the men she uncharacteristically deftly drew him to rest against her. He in turn silently, gratefully slipped into the safe haven Xena offered him. Together they enjoyed the excellent meal of roast boar, tubers, and vegetables accompanied by plates of fine bread, cheeses and fruit. Barrels of mead were tapped to toast the alliance between Centaur and Grecian.
Gabrielle’s absence was not openly commented up. From Jared, Xena learned that the Guardsmen were confused by their sister’s renewed distance. Respecting Gabrielle’s privacy Xena did not offer an explanation for her former partner’s actions.
Late in the evening Gabrielle entered the village courtyard carrying her staff. She remained at a distance. Seeing her, Xena excused herself from Solan and weaved her way around the revelers. “Gabrielle.”
“I will ride with you to Turian’s estate and speak to him,” said Gabrielle decidedly.
“Very well.” Xena gestured toward the gathering. “Will you join us now?”
“No, thank you. I need to pack.”
“Would you like some help?”
“I’m only packing for the trip. Not to move permanently,” said Gabrielle willfully.
Feeling her hope for Gabrielle’s return slip away Xena exercised her extraordinary self-control. “So, you plan to return and continue to make this your home?”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Gabrielle met and held Xena’s gaze. “There was a time that home was not a place.”
Xena understood and chose not to directly respond to Gabrielle’s reference to their relationship. “Arrangements can be made if you later choose to leave the Centaurs.”
“And no matter what I choose you will see to the arrangements, won’t you?” asked Gabrielle, the intention of her edgy tone impossible to ascertain.
“If it is true that we are still friends then allow me to be a friend to you,” said Xena cautiously.
Gabrielle failed to hold at bay the harsh impress of disappointment. She had no just reason to advocate for Xena’s favor. It had become obvious to her that the hint of warmth between them during the previous evening’s storytelling had chilled. “Good night, Xena. I will be ready at daybreak.”
“Until then, Gabrielle.” Xena watched Gabrielle retreat into the night. She held a vague vision of a gentler place beyond the distance, one in which she was no longer completely alone, once that place was exemplified by Megara. Now, it was an elusive mist in the ether.
PART SIX: THE RETURN
Side-by-side on their mounts Xena and Gabrielle led the men who had once composed the Queen’s Royal Guard through central Greece. None but the two women knew their destination. Jared and the balance of Royal Guard had returned directly to Corinth.
On the crest of a hill Xena signaled for the Guard to wait as the women continued forward toward a wealthy Grecian’s estate. Sufficiently removed from the others Xena reined Argo to a halt. Gabrielle did the same with Spirit.
Xena turned to Gabrielle. “It’s getting late. We’ll set camp near the spring we just passed.”
Gabrielle’s vision remained fixed upon the distant estate that could, if the Fates decreed, become her home. “I will send a messenger if I chose not to return.”
“I’ll wait for word from you.”
“How long do I have?” asked Gabrielle as she shifted her gaze to Xena.
“As long as you need,” replied Xena as she continued to conduct herself with reserve.
Gabrielle knew she could ask Xena if she wanted a final separation, if her offer of friendship was driven more by loyalty than any remnant of love, if returning to Corinth was simply an impossible dream. She knew if she asked, Xena would answer her truthfully. She also knew that she did not want to speak to Turian without harboring the possibility of a life with Xena. Gabrielle said nothing more. With a flick of his reins she cantered Spirit down the hill.
She dismounted upon reaching the gates of the estate. From there she walked Spirit. A door from the main building opened and out stepped Turian. He was dressed in a green tunic and sandals. He jogged to her waving a male servant away. He stopped a pace from her. “Gabrielle.”
“Have you changed your mind?”
“May we speak privately?”
“Of course. Where are my manners?” He called out to the servant, “Cal, please take care of our guest’s stallion.”
The servant approached reaching out for Spirit’s bridle. The stead reared. Gabrielle calmed him with word and touch. She addressed herself to Cal. “I’m sorry, he doesn’t take well to strangers. He’ll be fine at the hitching post. If you could bring him some water…”
“I shall see to it,” said the servant before running to the stables.
Gabrielle led Spirit to the post, tied his reins and gave him a final soothing touch.
Turian motioned toward his home. “Gabrielle, please come this way.”
Gabrielle walked to the manor’s entrance. Turian followed closely behind. Before entering he looked out to the hillside. “You rode with the Conqueror?”
“Yes, she offered to escort me here.”
The two entered the manor. Its interior was simply yet elegantly furnished. Gabrielle found it quite beautiful.
Turian guided Gabrielle to a chair within a small sitting room. “Would you like some refreshments?” he asked, as he remained standing.
“No, thank you.”
“What brings you to me, Gabrielle?”
“I told you one reason I stayed with the Centaurs was because my health was fragile. I did not tell you the reason for my fragileness. Within a moon after arriving at the village I realized I was with child. Your child. I miscarried four moons after leaving Athens.”
“A child…” Turian sat down on a large chair across from Gabrielle. “I never thought… in all my years my seed never brought forth life. I came to believe I couldn’t.” He looked over to Gabrielle. “Did you want the child?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle smiled sadly. “I thought after all that was taken from me the Gods had given me a gift in recompense. But it wasn’t meant to be.”
“I’m sorry I failed you.”
“You did not.” Gabrielle knelt before Turian, taking his hand. “My womb may be too damaged to nurture a child. I have always wondered why I did not become pregnant by the men who took me against my will. We cannot know the reason for the conception just as we cannot know the reason for the miscarriage.”
Turian’s eyes brightened. “That may be so. However, we now have evidence that together we might be able to give each other what we cannot have apart.” He covered Gabrielle’s hands with his own. “Gabrielle, I asked you to be with me before I knew this. I ask again. I promise you love and care and if you so choose I will sacrifice to the Gods every day until we are given a child. I have a good life, but I have never met a woman I have felt in sympathy with as I have felt with you. I know I can love you. I want to love you.”
“But, I do not love you,” said Gabrielle wanting to do no harm.
“You cannot deny that you have feelings for me.”
“I do care for you, yes.”
“Gabrielle, I know there are limits to what a man can ask for from life. If only I have the affection you have shown me in the past I will be very happy and grateful.”
Gabrielle raised their joined hands and kissed Turian’s. She kept her gaze lowered. She could love him, but her love would be of a different nature than her love for Xena. To say yes to him, to send a messenger to Xena meant sealing all access to a part of her heart that she gave to her Lord years before.
She raised her gaze. “I don’t want to hurt you. I came here because the Conqueror insisted I keep no secrets from you.”
“She was right to send you to me.”
Gabrielle considered the gentle man. Her choice between Turian and Xena was not one among equals. Turian assured companionship with the hope that with time her affection for him would grow to love. Xena’s offer of friendship was burdened by the memory of a magnificent love lost. To choose Xena was to risk the painful destruction of what gentle feelings they still shared.
“In the beginning of our relationship the Conqueror did not speak of love. Whenever we faced a crossroad she withheld the words and in their place she acted selflessly toward me. She sent me away when she feared our association would cost me my life. Later she bore a wound from Aphrodite, surrendered Greece to me, and welcomed death instead of having me know that a fateful decision she had made indirectly caused my slavery. When I lost my memory she consented, as you have, to live with less than the love she knew I was capable of giving her. In Athens she safeguarded my life and later in Corinth she set aside her honor and granted me freedom.
“I think she brought me to you because she wanted me to know that you could love me in spite of the loss of our child. I want to believe that she brought me to you as an act of love, not of abandonment. I need to believe that she waits for my return.”
“And if she isn’t waiting? If you are wrong Gabrielle, what then?”
“Turian, if you care for me you will wish me right.”
“Because she is your happiness?”
Turian leaned back. “Then may you be right. May the Conqueror be waiting for you on the hillside with open arms.”
“Don’t be,” said Turian sincerely. “Will you accept my hospitality and stay and dine with me?”
“Good.” Turian stood and then guided Gabrielle to her feet. “Let us share a pleasant evening before the Fates touch us again.”
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