On their mounts with Turian’s estate before them Xena met and held Gabrielle’s gaze. Gabrielle’s eyes reflected volumes of emotion to her former partner. Xena was sure Gabrielle had left much unspoken - as she had. It was only after Turian led Gabrielle inside his home that Xena directed her men to set camp. Afterward she walked back to the hilltop and sat down against a tree keeping watch for any sign of Gabrielle or a messenger.
It was late in the evening when Xena saw movement in Turian’s courtyard in the form of light from two torches. She stood up and walked to the hillcrest. Spirit with his distinctive white coat was visible among a number of indecipherable shadows. After a few moments one shadow mounted the stallion. Horse with rider trotted away from the estate and up the hill.
* * *
Gabrielle saw a figure ahead. She reined Spirit to a walk. Xena of Amphipolis in the guise of the Conqueror waited standing tall, her hands held behind her back. Gabrielle knew this deep feeling woman’s most common response to hurt was anger, often self-directed for allowing any vulnerability to external forces. At other times Xena’s anger was directed against the Gods and Fates who seemingly had the ability to arbitrarily control events in her life. How many times, Gabrielle thought to herself, had Xena held her current stance in wait for her? How many times had they faltered and found themselves at a loss with one another. In the past they had been able to breach what threatened to be an insurmountable silence through touch or more profoundly through their intangible connection. In such ways healing had come and their relationship deepened. This time Gabrielle could not avail herself of either touch or their illusive bond. She had to return to their beginning, when well chosen words between a slave and her mistress established a subtle, nuanced conversation that revealed far more than either could openly express without compromising their respective roles in destiny’s dance.
Gabrielle brought Spirit to a halt. They remained a few paces from the warrior. “You waited for me,” said Gabrielle choosing her words carefully, bringing forth the best of the past to the present.
“Yes,” said Xena hoarsely.
“Xena, I want to go home… to Corinth.”
Xena closed her eyes for a moment and by that gesture Gabrielle’s kernel of faith that they might have a future together was firmly planted. Xena glanced toward camp. “Our tent is ready.”
Again, well-chosen words spoke volumes. Gabrielle dismounted and walked to her partner. “I will be Queen of Greece and I will do everything in my power to heal the wounds I caused the realm by my actions in Athens.”
“Your actions have been explained,” said Xena quietly. “The people of Greece are indebted to you. If an apology is to be spoken it is to you, not from you.”
“I hope we will never be less than friends to one another.”
“So be it,” said Xena sounding very much like the Sovereign issuing a decree.
“Xena, of your bed…” Gabrielle dared to broach the intimate subject.
“Gabrielle, though we shall sleep under one tent we shall lay in separate beds.”
For the two days they had traveled to Turian’s estate, they had slept in separate tents. Gabrielle understood their shared quarters was a symbolic gesture elevating Gabrielle once again to the stature of Queen. There was more Gabrielle wished to say but it was obvious that Xena was not prepared to discuss the subject further. An uncomfortable silence fell between them.
Xena gestured toward camp. “Come, I’ll walk with you. I’m sure your brothers have been as concerned about you as I have been.”
Gabrielle restrained all desire to reach out to Xena. “Thank you for caring.”
“That I care for you will never change. Come now. It’s getting late.”
Once Xena would have offered her hand to Gabrielle or Gabrielle would have deftly taken Xena’s hand into her own. But such times were now in the past as the two women walked side-by-side, together yet apart.
After sharing a few brief words with their men, Gabrielle entered the Royal tent. Xena lingered calling Alem to her. Standing at a distance from the others, Xena asked the Guardsman, “Alem, do you still consider yourself a member of the Queen’s Guard?”
“I do, my Liege.”
“Then go see to the Queen’s security.”
“The Queen, my Liege?”
“By my invitation, the Queen has chosen to return to Corinth.”
“That is good news,” said the Guardsman not hiding a smile. After a heartbeat he asked soberly, “But, what of Sam? Have you changed his detail?”
“I presume things are not well between brother and sister.”
“Not well at all, my Liege.”
I will not interfere and force them together.”
“Someone must intercede.”
“Let it be the brotherhood. Gabrielle of Poteidaia, a mere indentured servant was given an honor by the Royal Guard. It is for the Guard to decide whether the honor is still hers. The Honor of the Medallion has nothing to do with the Queen. Do you understand me, Alem?”
“Aye, I do, my Liege. I will speak to the others. I tell you from what I have seen only Sam doubts her.”
“Don’t be too hard on him. We do not know what passed between them.”
“But, I do. Trevor has shared the story. Sam was hard with our sister. I think the truth may have hurt him more than the lie. He cannot rest knowing that she sacrificed herself and would do so again were the situation the same.”
“He faults her for the very reason he loves her.”
“She never gave up so much willingly.”
“You’re wrong, Alem. She has given up far more for me. Still, Athens is not a reason for your sister to lose Sam.”
“Is there anything I or her brothers can do?”
“Love her.” Xena placed a hand on the Guardsman’s shoulder. “Make sure she knows that the Honor of the Medallion is still hers.”
Xena sought out Trevor. He confirmed that Samuel did not welcome any mention of Gabrielle. As a result she gave Trevor leave to offer Samuel as well as all the men previously assigned to the Queen’s Guard the choice of remaining or leaving the direct responsibility of Gabrielle’s care.
Gabrielle unpacked a sleep shirt from her saddlebag. The interior of the large tent was arranged as it always had been except their generous bed of furs was split and laid apart. She longed for Xena’s touch. She remembered how she had held Xena in their bed the night before she left Corinth for Athens. Had she known then what they would face apart she would have acted to bring forth their bond, creating a moment of bliss they could have held dear in their hearts even as their lives were torn asunder. Gabrielle knew that it was unreasonable to expect that Xena would set aside her infidelity. To do so publicly was not equal to doing so privately. Gabrielle’s thoughts were interrupted when Xena entered the tent.
Xena noted which bed of furs Gabrielle was nearest to and took the other, sitting down and removing her boots. “Gabrielle, I’ve taken the liberty of asking Alem to serve as your personal guard. If you prefer another man please let Trevor know.”
“Did Sam ask to be reassigned?”
“He wouldn’t. But, I think the change will be in keeping with his current temperament. Do you disagree?”
“No, you’re right. I don’t think he wants to be part of my Guard. He may not be the only one.”
“Gabrielle, Trevor’s love for you resonates among the men. Your brothers are by your side. You’re wrong to think otherwise.”
Gabrielle closed the buckles on her saddlebag. “How many days until we reach Corinth?”
“Three if we travel long days, four if we take an easier pace. Do you have a preference?”
“Then you should try to get some sleep. We will start early.”
“Xena, how do I… I’m not sure how to be with the men and when we arrive in Corinth there is the household and Court.”
“I am sending messengers at daybreak. By the time we arrive in Corinth pronouncements will have been issued throughout Greece and to all our allies of your rightful return to the throne. Your return is in keeping with your exoneration. Athens shall not burden you unless you choose to carry it around your neck like a milestone.”
“You make my return seem so easy.”
“Politically it is. Personally, I expect you will experience difficult moments, even with those who were not quick to fault you. You are Queen of Greece and made a terrible sacrifice to save the people of Athens. Corinthians, all Grecians will have Athens to point to as proof of your love for the people. In you they will see the nobility of a leader who understood her obligation to put duty before her own safety.”
“That won’t be the whole truth and you and my men know it.”
“It is the truth that matters to those who look to you as their Queen. The other truth is private and there it will remain.”
“But that’s unfair to you.”
“Let me be the judge of that.”
Gabrielle felt her interior fabric tearing. Her life would have been far easier if she remained isolated with the Centaurs or if she had taken residence in Turian’s estate. In making her decision she had considered only her private life. Returning to Corinth and a public life suddenly felt far more daunting than her first introduction to Court. She was left to wonder how blindly she had acted. She looked to the woman who was the reason for her return realizing that she did not have a complete understanding of their terms of engagement. “Xena, in public affairs I am Queen. What do you expect of me privately?”
“We have spoken of friendship. I expect no more from you.”
“Is that all that we are to be to each other when we have had so much more?”
“I don’t know what is possible between us,” said Xena honestly. “I look at you and I am at a lost. That is my truth, Gabrielle.”
“Xena, promise me that if the day comes when you feel less lost, when you have even a hint of what you wish for yourself that you won’t hesitate to tell me. I will not keep you from your happiness.” Gabrielle did not speak optimistically. She was prepared to be sent away or subjected to the lesser indignity of being discreetly replaced in Xena’s intimate life.
“I have grown accustomed to sleeping alone. After Athens my battle lust had no hold on me. I felt no fever. Such desire has left me and not returned.”
Gabrielle had no expectation regarding Xena’s conduct after their separation. She would not have been surprised or critical had Xena taken others to her bed. That Gabrielle’s betrayal had stilled a sexual tempest was a stunning revelation.
Gabrielle had no rival and none loomed on the horizon. What comfort she took from that knowledge was insufficient to offset the lonely left by Xena’s withdrawal. Gabrielle feared she would never again know the warrior’s intimate touch. “I still ask the promise,” she said.
“You have it.”
“I want you to know that you have my promise of fidelity. By my word, never again…”
“Gabrielle, enough said.” Xena briskly interrupted, her agitation radiating from her still, tense carriage.
Gabrielle looked down in shame. She turned and lay upon her bed, covering herself with a fur. She heard Xena extinguish the candles within the tent. Lying in the pitch black of night Xena said in a far gentler voice, “Sleep well, Gabrielle.”
“Good night, Xena.” Gabrielle said barely having the composure to speak. She turned to her side, holding herself close as she cried silent tears.
The following morning Xena awoke early. She sat up in her bed and spent time watching Gabrielle sleep. Having the bard beside her had brought her joy in the past. The distance that now separated them made for a bittersweet indulgence, one Xena was still grateful to take advantage of. The moment subsumed the memory of listening to Gabrielle’s muffled crying as their evening drew to a close.
Xena dressed and went to the mess area for breakfast, securing a mug of tea and a serving of bread and cheese. Entering the tent she stood for a moment taking in Gabrielle’s presence, a return she never thought possible, a return that caused her a constant undercurrent of pain in light of all the uncertainty that marked their lives together.
She knelt on one knee and placed the mug and plate down. She called Gabrielle’s name as she had always done when waking the bard, patient and intent on making only the gentlest incursion on the bard’s dreams. Gabrielle stirred and opened her eyes. “Good morning,” said Xena. “I brought you breakfast.”
Gabrielle raised herself up on an elbow and glanced at the offering. “Thank you.”
“Gabrielle, it is true that I am lost. It is also true that I rather be lost with you than without you here with me.”
“If there is anything I can do…”
“I will let you know as best as I can. Now, you better get dressed. There is little time to waste if we are to reach Corinth in three days.” With that said Xena stood and began to pack.
The moment shared harkened to their beginning when much that was said and done was understated, when Gabrielle had to measure the Conqueror’s intent more by deed than by word, a time when Gabrielle had to trust the Conqueror’s heart to be true, absent of a clear and present declaration of love.
The Royals traveled the following two days with their mounts side-by-side. Few words were exchanged by the women even though their sense of comfort with one another had improved.
The Queen’s Guard followed directly behind them. To Xena’s relief and not her surprise, only Samuel expressed a desire to accept a new detail.
It was mid-morning and the contingent had made excellent progress on their journey back to Corinth. Gabrielle looked ahead on the familiar road. An impossible thought came to her. Despite the improbability of a positive reception she turned to her Lord and asked, “Xena, isn’t the crossroad to Megara around the bend?”
“It is,” said Xena having a similar recognition of their location.
“Could we…” Gabrielle’s courage faltered.
Xena did not need to see more than the momentary animation in her partner to deduce her unspoken request. “Gabrielle, I’ve been gone from Corinth far too long. Given the announcement of your return to the throne I think it best if you make an appearance in the city and in Court. I ask just for a fortnight of your time in Corinth and then you can take your Guard to Megara.”
Gabrielle’s mood sobered when Xena gave no indication of joining her at their seaside home. “Do you have much to keep you in Corinth?”
“I am of no mind to travel again anytime soon. And yes, I expect Targon has plenty of business for me to review and act upon. We will need to brief you on current events.”
“What of Rome?”
“Caesar will not rest until he has me as entertainment for the Roman forum or back on a cross. Our spies say the Roman Senate is growing impatient with his more audacious aspirations. Let Roman politics keep him at bay. It will do the world good.”
“Was Brutus ever found in Greece?”
“No. He has been seen in the Senate and to my knowledge has never publicly admitted to a mission to Athens. I’m sure Caesar does not want to admit that he failed to recruit a viable traitor in Kartis.”
“He would do better to keep peace with Greece. I don’t understand why he doesn’t just stop his scheming.”
“Because it’s personal, Gabrielle. He knows that I can never trust him again so, he in turn, cannot trust me.”
The consequence of a betrayal, Gabrielle thought. She quieted knowing how Xena’s history with Caesar bode badly for their reconciliation. Though Gabrielle’s betrayal was not for conquest, her infidelity marked her as a woman who breached a sacred trust.
The Royals entered Corinth as Xena had described, together on their respective mounts of the Conqueror’s golden warhorse and the Queen’s breathtakingly white stallion, followed by the Royal Guardsmen.
Xena was attentive to Gabrielle who held herself stiffly, her eyes fixed forward. The city residents reacted in a number of different ways upon seeing the Queen. Some stood silent; others called out to family and friends to leave their dwellings. Many men bowed and women curtseyed respectfully, a few boldly raised their voices in greeting.
Gabrielle seemed no more comfortable as they reached the palace gates where the familiar Xanthus stood lead guard. “My Liege.” The Guardsman greeted his Sovereign before he turned to Gabrielle and warmly said, “Your Majesty. Welcome home.”
Xena waited a moment to see if Gabrielle would respond to the Guardsman. She did not. Xena filled the silence by asking Xanthus how things were in the palace.
“Tis been quiet except your hound hasn’t stopped whining and searching for you,” said the Guardsman as he smiled. “Voger will be happy to have an end to it.”
“How are Stephen and Tess?”
“Tess is showing the baby more each day and Stephen’s smile only grows wider.”
“That’s good news. Thank you.”
Xena signaled forward and directed Argo into the palace courtyard. Gabrielle continued silently by her side.
Targon waited at the center of the courtyard. Xena smiled. In the brief distance between Xanthus and Targon she realized she was happy to be home. She dismounted with a surge of kenetic energy and then turned, as always had been her practice, to guide Gabrielle down from Spirit.
Gabrielle looked confusingly to Xena’s outstretched hands before dismounting into her partner’s embrace. “Thank you,” she said quietly.
“You’re welcome,” said Xena easily. She faced her Administrator. “Targon! How are you?”
“Well, your Majesty. Thank you. I bid you both welcome home,” he said glancing congenially toward Gabrielle.
“I’m sure you have a bit of work waiting for me.”
“Nothing I consider urgent.”
From the stables Xena heard barking. Voger approached with an impatient Honor demanding release from his leash. “Voger! Let him go!” commanded Xena.
The groom immediately complied. Xena knelt on one knee in wait. The hound ran to his mistress finding himself happily in her embrace. Xena relished the hound’s physical affection.
Honor looked over Xena’s shoulder and barked twice. Xena turned and matched his gaze upon Gabrielle. She said gently into his ear, “Yes boy. She’s come back.” The hound whined. “Go on,” said Xena encouragingly.
Honor scampered over to Gabrielle. She extended her hand shyly. The hound would have no sedate welcome. He leaped up setting his front paws on her chest. Gabrielle went down onto her knees, taking the hound with her and then began to pet him with the rigor he demanded. Gabrielle smiled, seemingly losing herself in the moment.
Xena returned to her feet and watched with satisfaction. “He is still an overgrown pup.”
“Yes, he is,” said Gabrielle affectionately.
“My Queen, if you excuse me. I need to start addressing the business of Greece.”
“Will I see you for dinner?” asked Gabrielle uncertainly.
“I will give Makia instructions for both of us.” Xena offered Gabrielle what she knew was an incomplete answer. Now back in the palace she longed for time alone, time to make sense of her conflicting emotions. She felt an undeniable tenderness toward her partner. And yet, the wounds of Athens were deep and far from healed.
Watching Xena walk into the palace, Gabrielle continued to pet Honor, taking comfort from his unconditional love.
“I never thought I would be jealous of that hound.” Gabrielle heard her dearest brother’s familiar voice. She looked up and saw a beaming Stephen. “Welcome home, Gabrielle,” said the Major opening his arms to her.
Gabrielle did not hesitate. She released Honor, stood and embraced Stephen. “I’ve missed you,” she said.
“Did you? Were your other brothers negligent in your care?” said Stephen teasingly.
“No, they have been wonderful.”
“How did you find Trevor and Sam?”
Gabrielle pulled away to better see Stephen. “Trevor has been steadfast in his belief in me. Sam…” Gabrielle’s voice faltered.
“But not so Sam.” Stephen completed the painful statement.
Gabrielle re-entered Stephen’s embrace. He held her securely and said with a brother’s tender affection, “You are where you belong.”
“I don’t know that I am,” said Gabrielle, her confidence waning.
“I noticed your Lord was in bright spirits.”
“Only as we arrived in the city, otherwise she has been distant and sober.”
“You and I both know how deeply Xena feels. Give her time. Having you here in Corinth will help.”
“I wanted to stop at Megara. She gave me leave to go in a fortnight.” Gabrielle released the Major. “Stephen, she did not offer to join me. Corinth will not heal us. Only Megara can.”
“Gabrielle, Megara is just another name for your heart. That is where the best of Xena lives.”
“No more, Stephen.”
“You are wrong to doubt her.”
“No, you are wrong to underestimate how deeply my betrayal has hurt her. Don’t let your love for us both blind you to the truth.”
“I do not want to argue with you.” Stephen cupped Gabrielle’s cheek. “Hear me, my sister. You cannot give up hope.”
Gabrielle smiled. “How can I when I’m to become an aunt?”
“Xena told you!” said Stephen outraged.
“Which Guardsman gave you my news. I’ll give him muck duty for six months.”
“Don’t be angry. The men were wagering on whether you would have a boy or a girl.” A gleam entered Gabrielle’s eyes. “Xena wagered you would have a daughter.”
“Did she? Did others take the wager?”
“Your brothers seem to think Tess will bear a boy with his father’s brave heart.”
“I say your Lord is far wiser than all the Guardsmen in Greece combined.”
“So, you say your child will be a girl.”
“I don’t know. I will love girl or boy alike.” Stephen grinned widely. “Though to have a little girl… it would be sweet.”
“Time will tell.”
“Yes! Moons and moons to wait. How terrible it is to make a man wait for his progeny.”
“The moons will give you and Tess time to adjust.”
“Speaks the wise mid-wife.”
“Stephen, Tess needs you more now than ever. Never let her doubt your love for her.”
“Gabrielle, she is my life. She knows that.”
“Pregnancy makes women think odd thoughts. You will be patient with her, won’t you?”
“I will. And, if you think I am disappointing her, I give you leave to boot me across the courtyard until I gather my senses again.”
“Don’t think I won’t.”
Stephen laughed. “Come I will walk with you.”
Gabrielle and Stephen, each carrying a saddlebag entered the Royal suite.
“Here is fine.” Gabrielle referred to the saddlebag, pointing to a nearby chair. She sensed something had changed and remarked accordingly.
“Xena moved to the far east wing after she returned from Athens,” said Stephen.
The following morning Gabrielle received a note from Xena requesting that she attend Court. Dressed in a modest pale green dress, Gabrielle waited on the balcony for the allotted time. A knock on the door announced her escort, which she presumed to be a contingent from the Queen’s Guard.
Xena entered and greeted Gabrielle warmly, “Good morning.”
“Good morning, my Lord,” said Gabrielle, the endearment spoken without forethought.
Xena paused thoughtfully and then raised her arms. The blouse she wore was a favorite requiring assistance to tie the cuffs around the warrior’s wrists. “Would you?”
Gabrielle smiled and went to her partner. Having the left cuff nearly tied, she said, “I remember the first time I did this for you.”
“Your first Solstice Eve as Queen,” recalled Xena.
“Yes.” Gabrielle began the task of tying the right cuff. “You fought for my life. As ill as I was you wouldn’t let me give up.”
“I was selfish.”
Gabrielle glanced up. “You always speak of your generosity as selfishness.”
“Gabrielle, when I awoke this morning the first thought that came to my mind was that I would see you today. I felt happy knowing that it was true and not just a dream that would not survive the light of day.”
“Gabrielle, let us have a good day. Such a day waits our claim. I will do my best to make it so. I ask the same of you.”
Gabrielle refocused on Xena’s second cuff, making the tie snug. “You are ready for Court, my Lord.”
“Are you?” said Xena
“Very well, my Queen,” said the Sovereign, offering Gabrielle her hand.
Together they exited the Royal Suite. Waiting for them were the Guardsmen, Trevor, Tavis, Sentas and Alem, and Honor who excitedly darted from one mistress to the other.
Xena bent down to the hound and sternly called him “runt.” He immediately sobered and waited in place. Without a further word Xena escorted Gabrielle through the palace. Honor walked quietly by Xena’s side, his nails clicking on the stone floor. The sound blended with that of the Guardsmen’s boot steps.
Gabrielle felt there had been a change; the tone of living had suddenly grown quite serious. Approaching Court she wondered whether she and Xena would have a good day.
Brogan and Hamish stood at the Court Hall entrance. Their presence was unusual. Lower ranked Guardsmen were commonly assigned the post. In perfect synchronicity they opened the large wooden doors. Gabrielle braced herself. She could never have anticipated what awaited her. Guardsmen formed in two lines a path from the hall entrance to the Royal thrones. The formation was rare, used only for the most prestigious state events. Trevor called out. The men unsheathed their swords, raised and crossed them.
“My Lord,” whispered Gabrielle as she turned to Xena.
“In your honor, Gabrielle,” said Xena quietly.
“I don’t deserve this.” Gabrielle’s considered her acceptance of the public honor morally untenable, yet did not know how to extract herself from the moment.
“Do not confuse me with Greece. Greece awaits its Queen.” Xena glanced forward. “Do not keep the realm waiting any longer.”
“As you wish, my Lord.” Gabrielle continued forward in Xena’s company, never more confused of her standing in the Conqueror’s life.
The Court session was remarkable for the unexceptional dialogue that took place between the Sovereign and the Generals and Lords who reported on matters of state. Gabrielle accepted salutations modestly. She was heartened to see that all the Generals of Greece had traveled from their respective garrisons for the occasion of her return.
With the last issue on Targon’s agenda addressed, Xena stood up and announced that all were invited to a banquet in the Great Hall later in the evening. She then offered her hand to Gabrielle. Accepting silently, Gabrielle walked beside her Lord, presenting a harmonious image that could not have been further from the truth.
Gabrielle spied Lord Judais, paused and called him by name. The elder Lord approached. She extended her hand which he took gently in his own. “Your Majesty,” said Judias as he offered a minor bow.
Wordlessly Gabrielle went up on her toes and kissed him on the cheek. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”
“The pleasure is mine, your Majesty.”
“Would you and your family be free to dine at our table tonight?”
“It would be an honor. I know my grandchild will enjoy seeing you again especially if you grant her a story.”
“You can tell her that she will have two if she likes.”
“That is fine.”
Judais looked over to Xena. “Your Majesty, it is good to have you back in Corinth.”
Xena smiled wryly. “There is only so much scampering about the countryside I can do Judais. Sooner or later, Targon expects me back to conduct business.”
The Lord mirrored Xena’s smile. “We can never completely escape our responsibilities, can we?”
“No. No matter where we go we carry the burden of our destiny. Until tonight, Judais.”
“I look forward to it, you Majesty.”
Xena offered her arm to Gabrielle. The Queen placed her hand upon it, allowing Xena to escort her out of the chamber. They exited the Court Hall and walked toward the Royal Suite. Gabrielle glanced toward Xena and said, “I hope you don’t mind my inviting Judais for dinner.”
“I think I understand why you did.”
“Did he save my life?”
“No, but he did save me from having to fabricate a reason to spare you. It was obvious that no one in Court wanted you crucified. Banishment was enough.”
Xena paused. “Gabrielle, may I ask a favor of you?”
“Anything,” said Gabrielle welcoming any opportunity to return Xena’s generosity.
“No more apologies. I do not want to live in the past. Though I can and have forgiven you, I am powerless to absolve you of whatever guilt or regret you feel. Only you can cleanse your soul. Do not place the burden at my feet again.”
Not knowing how to respond Gabrielle bit her lip and began to walk again. Upon reaching the Royal Suite, Joél who stood guard, opened the door for them.
Xena paused and lowered her arm, separating herself from Gabrielle. “I shall return to escort you to dinner.”
Gabrielle thought of releasing Xena from what seemed more duty than pleasure. To have declined Xena’s escort was however, to reject her hospitality. “Until tonight, my Lord,” she said before entering the lonely suite.
Gabrielle thought herself right to think of Xena’s actions in light of Grecian hospitality. All care was given to ensure Gabrielle’s physical well being. Words spoken were limited to only the necessary. There was no intrusion upon her privacy. There were no explicit expectations placed upon her except one. Xena had stated her terms. There would be no reference to Gabrielle’s betrayal.
That they kept separate quarters within the palace contrary to past practice was a constant reminder of their wounded union. There would be no effort to veil their personal difficulties by one of them keeping residence in Gabrielle’s former room accessible to their suite through the hidden causeway.
Standing in front of the fireplace beside Xena’s empty chair, Gabrielle would have welcomed her old quarters. It was devoid of artifacts that referenced Xena or their shared life. Gabrielle placed her hand on the back of Xena’s chair. Countless times as slave, freewoman, and Queen, Gabrielle had observed the warrior sitting in the chair in deep contemplation. Each time Gabrielle felt there was a part of Xena beyond her reach. Only in their mystical union had Gabrielle come to breach Xena’s domain of silence. There her heart was touched by Xena’s love. There too her heart trembled in the face of Xena’s darkness.
The absence of Xena’s rage more than the absence of her love perplexed Gabrielle. She understood why Xena’s fragile wounded soul sought to protect itself from further harm. She did not understand why Xena’s honor and pride had yet to demand its right to be avenged.
The next day Makia entered the Conqueror’s suite, carrying her Sovereign’s breakfast tray. “Good morning, your Majesty.”
Xena welcomed her attentive cook with a smile. She placed the scroll she was reading aside and leaned back in her chair. “Good morning, Makia. What treat have you brought me today?”
The cook smiled wryly. “I don’t know what you mean, your Majesty. My kitchen has only its usual fare.”
“Then my memory must be waning because I don’t recall having such a display of tarts on my breakfast tray as I had yesterday.”
“You lost weight during your travels. I am only doing my job of encouraging you to remain fit.”
Xena laughed. “Very well. Who am I to argue with your years of experience? Makia, how have you found our Queen?”
Makia’s easy manner was subsumed by a sober mien. “I have not seen the Queen, your Majesty.”
Surprised, Xena asked, “Who is serving her?”
“Stephanie, your Majesty.” Makia averted her eyes from Xena’s piercing gaze by looking down to the floor.
“Makia, all in the household staff look to you. Targon may be the Administrator but how his directions are received and carried out reflects your commitment to the realm – to me and to your Queen. I know that your choice to serve me has been an implicit affirmation of my actions and in turn your choice not to serve the Queen is an equally implicit criticism or worst condemnation of her.”
“I have only two hands and limited time to carry out my duties, you Majesty. The Queen has not complained.”
“No, she wouldn’t.” Xena stood up. “Our Queen… our Gabrielle nobly carries a great burden under a cloak of silence. Because I respect her privacy I will not share with you what I know. I will tell you that I see in her the yearning for comfort she would have once reached out to her mother for. That is how deep her wound travels. As much as I love her I cannot help her. You can. She needs you, Makia.”
“I did not want to offend you, your Majesty.” The cook was obviously at a loss.
“By choosing between us?” Xena was not convinced. “Why do you think I welcomed Gabrielle back into my life? Do you still see me so immune to hurt when it comes to affairs of the heart that political expediency or some other callous motivation moved me?”
Makia stepped forward. “She broke your heart and I am honestly confused by her return to Corinth,” she said candidly.
“Then go to Gabrielle, Makia. Talk to her. More importantly listen to her.”
“Your Majesty, are you saying that Gabrielle did nothing for which she must be forgiven?”
Xena took a moment to consider her answer. Her response was spoken with uncommon frankness. “She transgressed against me and only me and I have forgiven her. No one beyond our union has a right to judge her.”
The Guardsman’s self-distancing from Gabrielle was common knowledge. To date Xena had neither condoned nor criticized Samuel. Though she did not discount his feelings she judged Trevor’s behavior commendable while Samuel’s unfortunate though not completely unjustified. “Yes.”
“If you excuse me, your Majesty, I have work in the kitchen waiting my attention.”
“Good day, Makia.” The cook picked up her serving tray and walked to the door. Xena called to her, causing the cook to pause and return her attention to her Sovereign. Xena stood feet planted, her hands behind her back, the image of the staunch ruler that she was. “In all our years together I have never told you…” Xena swallowed as she felt her throat constrict with emotion. “I love you, Makia. Know that you mean a great deal to me.”
Makia was taken completely unawares. Speechless, she bowed to Xena and left the room.
Xena saw and understood the impact her profession had upon her beloved cook. She walked to her breakfast serving and smiled seeing the generous portion of cranberry sweetbread left for her.
The cook walked blindly down the palace corridor, her heart aching. Never did she imagine that the Conqueror would express her love so openly. The Conqueror’s request that she go to Gabrielle was more staggering still. Makia wiped her tear welled eyes with the sleeve of her dress as she continued toward the Royal suite.
Gabrielle sat by the fireplace sipping a mug of tea. She heard a knock on the door. Alem stepped into the suite and announced Makia. Gabrielle stood, holding her tea mug with her two hands. Makia entered. Gabrielle sighed silently at the sight of the cook. She had debated going to the kitchens in search of her just as she had debated going to the infirmary seeking out Dalius. In both cases she reframed from acting, fearing rejection.
“Good morning, your Majesty,” said Makia. “I came to ensure your satisfaction with Stephanie’s service.”
“She serves me well. Thank you for asking,” said Gabrielle softly.
“You haven’t touched your breakfast,” observed Makia. “Have you lost your taste for my cooking?”
“I was hoping I wouldn’t be eating alone.”
“The Conqueror had her meal served in her suite.”
“I see,” said Gabrielle failing to hide her disappointment. “How do you find my Lord?”
“She is concerned about your well-being.”
“You may report to her that I am well.”
“How can I when I am sworn never to deceive the Conqueror,” asked the cook with characteristic aplomb.
Taken by surprised, Gabrielle asked, “What do you know, Makia?”
“I spoke to a few of your Guardsmen. They told me what they knew about Athens and the time the Conqueror spent on Centaur lands. They said the Conqueror spared Turian’s life and that on your journey back to Corinth you stopped at his estate. They were puzzled…”
“There was something I failed to tell Turian when we spoke at the Centaur village.”
“It must have been important.”
“Did the Conqueror know?”
“She insisted. She thought it best for me.”
“Was she right?”
Makia’s endearment pierced Gabrielle’s defenses. Tears broke free and fell down her cheek. “It is hard to live knowing that I miscarried.”
“Turian’s child?” said Makia in a dumbfounded whisper. “Why, Gabrielle? Why were you with him?”
“I believed I lost my Lord… I didn’t want to die alone, without any sense of love or warmth in my life.”
“Couldn’t you have explained yourself to the Conqueror?”
“Makia, I betrayed her so publicly. I proclaimed her a monster to be hunted and cut-down… I couldn’t live with her hating me.”
“But you were wrong. She spared you.”
“She says she loves me, but she keeps her distance. I am still alone.”
Makia stepped to an arm’s length from Gabrielle. “You were with Turian willingly and for a time you carried his child. That bonds you to him in a way the Conqueror will never share with you. The Conqueror may be giving you the time you need to mourn your child. Although she has never had a child, I think she still has the sensibilities of a woman and can appreciate your natural grief.”
Gabrielle turned away. Makia was wrong. Xena knew the heartbreak of losing a child, if not to death at least to a life she could never share.
Gabrielle felt Makia’s hand on her shoulder.
“Gabrielle, must I remind you that the Conqueror has always waited for you to go to her. She waits for you to invite her back into your life.”
“You are wrong, Makia. I am no longer welcomed in her intimate life.”
“You told me the Conqueror has never felt she deserved you. Still, when you were the healer for the Eastern Garrison she presented herself to you resulting in your return to Corinth and your ascension to the throne. Her love gave her the courage to risk your rejection. You must be as brave as she.”
“I tell you I can’t.”
Makia stepped to Gabrielle’s side. “Maybe not today, but the day will come.”
Gabrielle reached out for the cook. Makia took her hand willingly. “Makia, I have missed you so…” said Gabrielle through her tears.
The cook needed to hear nothing more. She embraced Gabrielle who cried freely in her arms.
Five days passed. With Stephen’s and Makia’s encouragement, Gabrielle gradually returned to her palace routine, reacquainting herself with the garrison infirmary and the city hospice and visiting the kitchens where work continued uninterrupted in her presence, as a casual atmosphere prevailed.
Each morning after breakfast Xena and Targon met with Gabrielle in the Royal Suite to address concerns of the realm. Otherwise, the Royals had no other prescribed interaction. When their paths crossed within the palace, their exchanges were cordial. At all times Xena remained circumspect.
Driven by loneliness, Gabrielle walked across the palace courtyard to the stables. There Voger stood outside the main corral watching Xena work with a colt. The colt was as black as Spirit was white. Were it not for Xena’s love for Argo, Gabrielle could see her partner claiming the colt as her own once he reached maturity. She paused beside the groom.
“Damn it to Hades,” muttered Xena in frustration as the colt darted away from her halter holding hand.
“He’s a bit skittish,” observed Gabrielle.
“The Conqueror has tried for nearly a candlemark to get that halter on the colt. He won’t have anything to do with it.”
Gabrielle returned her attention to Xena. The image of her Lord sharing the corral with the lively colt recalled the days that preceded her departure to Athens. Though much had happened since then – this particular moment felt very familiar and reassuring. “Have you tried?” she asked.
“By the Gods I have. He treats me worse than the Conqueror.” Voger grinned. “Now, maybe if someone closer to his size.” The groom called out to Xena. “Your Majesty, maybe our Queen will have more success. She can look that little hellion eye to eye.”
Xena turned to the two observers. She crossed her arms. “Why not? The Queen tamed me.”
Xena’s easy response was unexpected. Delighted, Gabrielle called out, “I’ll be right back.” She then disappeared into the stables. After a few moments she returned with a bunch of carrots in her hand. She kept two and gave the rest to Voger. Then she climbed over the fence.
“So you will seduce him,” Xena said amused.
Xena’s comment caught Gabrielle by surprise. She hesitated as she felt a surge of remorse. Her worst fear, that Xena harbored an undercurrent of unexpressed resentment stymied her.
“Your Majesty, isn’t the Queen simply using a technique you’ve used on many colts and fillies,” said Voger good-heartedly.
Xena looked over Gabrielle’s shoulder and called back to the groom, “Voger, you are no help to me.”
“I beg your pardon, your Majesty. It is not as if a wager has been placed in the Queen’s favor.”
“You sure about that?”
“Who would I wager with, your Majesty? I stand here alone.”
“I think you will take pleasure in seeing the Queen succeed where I have failed.”
“Your Majesty that is not true, although I admit my want for the Queen’s success is selfish. I will be relieved to get that colt under control.”
Xena laughed. “You have become an expert in appeasing me, Voger. Don’t think I don’t know it.” She plainly offered Gabrielle the halter. “The challenge is yours, my Queen.”
Having had an opportunity to recompose herself Gabrielle accepted the halter. “Thank you, my Lord. I shall not disappoint you.”
She stepped toward the center of the corral as Xena and Voger perched themselves on top of the fence to watch.
Gabrielle stood her ground patiently waiting for the colt to calm his errant pacing. She stashed one carrot in the pocket of her pantaloon. The second she held in her left hand. She wove her hand through the halter so that it hung on her wrist. She extended her hand slightly and once again took a waiting posture.
The colt kept his gaze upon the young woman. A quarter-candlemark passed with neither moving. Finally, the colt stomped his front hoof to the ground. Gabrielle did nothing. The colt repeated the gesture once, twice, a third time in what Gabrielle took to be a youth’s protest of her impertinence, a demand to be recognized.
“He’s hers,” she heard Xena whisper to Voger. And as if to prove the Conqueror right, the colt took a full step forward. Gabrielle remained statuesque. Finally, the colt whinnied and bolted forward, stopping boldly in front of Gabrielle’s still body. Bobbing his head up and down, he then leaned his forehead against her chest, pushing her back a half-step. Gabrielle could not help but laugh gently.
“You are so bad,” she said melodiously.
The colt shifted his gaze to the carrot and proceeded to take a bite.
“That’s right. You like it don’t you?” Gabrielle moved her right hand slowly to his cheek. She stroked him lightly. He raised his head to her. Voger was right to say they would be eye to eye. At that moment for Gabrielle there was only the colt and she believed that for the colt there was only her.
Another quarter-candlemark of deliberate, choreographed gestures and the offering and acceptance of the second carrot resulted in Gabrielle placing the halter upon the colt. Having succeeded, her smile wide, she turned to Xena and Voger.
“Well done, your Majesty,” congratulated the groom.
Xena slapped him across the shoulder. “As if there was any doubt.” She glanced up to the noon day sun. “Gabrielle, we’re ready to have our meal in the Guardsmen mess. Will you join us?”
Gabrielle could not have asked for a better reward. “I’d love to.”
“Good.” Xena jumped down from the fence and turned to Voger. “You coming or will those carrots be your meal?”
“Let the colt have the carrots. I’ll take Makia’s cooking.”
“Smart man.” Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder as her partner came to her side. “Come, I’m famished.”
The three-some walked through the courtyard, side-by-side in carefree companionship.
The next two days Gabrielle spent the latter part of her mornings with Xena and Voger working with the young horses. Gabrielle took responsibility for Coal, the black colt whom she named. Having a shared task seemed to help both her and Xena be comfortably together. They were not focused on one another. The colts and fillies were both sources of frustration and admiration as they were carefully won over to their training.
Each midday meal that followed the work sessions were shared in the Guardsmen mess. There too, the Royals were not left to themselves but entered a circle of boisterous brothers who kept the conversation full of amusing stories and more than one offer for an inconsequential wager.
Gabrielle’s evening continued to be spent alone. Near midnight, unable to sleep she walked the flight of stairs to the turret. The sky was clear, the stars were never brighter. She closed her eyes breathing in the crisp cool night air and sighed. “It is a beautiful night.” Gabrielle heard Xena’s tender words and for a moment imagined them a dream. She opened her eyes and turned. Xena stepped forward from the shadows.
“I did not…” Gabrielle arrested her thought. She did not sense Xena. That fact broke her heart. “It is a beautiful night,” she echoed.
Xena stood beside her and looked out to Corinth. “The city is quiet. There is reason to hope that Greece will sustain its peace.”
“You have done well to make it so.”
“I don’t know about that. Sometimes it seems the good comes more from luck than effort. Still, I have to try.”
“You will have your reward, Xena.”
“I deserve no rewards, Gabrielle. Maybe Hades will grant me a small niche in Tarturus that won’t be too terrible.”
Gabrielle wondered privately if that too was the best she could hope for. Like Xena, believing she did not deserve the best of the afterlife, she had come to consider her mortal life her only means of knowing the happiness that Elysia once promised. Given Athens and all the moons that followed, having Elysia on earth again seemed improbable. And yet, the means to Elysia on earth stood within her reach.
Gabrielle believed she and Xena needed to travel to the one place that had the power to heal the worst wounds inflicted by the Fates. She dared to name it. “Xena, a fortnight has passed. Have you any objection to my traveling to Megara?”
“Megara?” repeated Xena pensively, glancing at Gabrielle before returning her gaze to the night. “Your homecoming has been a success. A respite in Megara should cause no concern.”
“Then you give me leave to travel?”
Xena addressed Gabrielle directly. “Gabrielle, it is not for me to grant you permission. I asked a favor of you to bypass Megara and I am grateful that you chose to do so. What anxiety existed within the city has been calmed. At this moment, there is nothing more for you to do. The weather is good. You should enjoy a pleasant retreat.”
Gabrielle looked down unable to keep her gaze upon her lost love. Her unhappiness did not go unnoticed. “What is it, Gabrielle?” asked Xena. Receiving no answer, Xena pleaded gently, “Please tell me. If there is something I can do…”
“I wish you would be my Lord again,” said Gabrielle painfully.
“Haven’t I?” asked Xena defensively. “I’ve invited you back to Corinth, seen to your acceptance by your Guard and by Court, given you your privacy and respected your freedom. When you first came to think of me as your Lord what more did I do for you that I do not do for you now?”
Embarrassed by her neediness, Gabrielle stepped away. “I’m sorry; it was unfair of me…”
“What more, Gabrielle?” demanded Xena.
“You loved me.”
“I do love you,” said Xena unequivocally.
Despite the words of love Gabrielle felt an unnavigable distance between them. The moment was terribly different yet reminiscent of their early days together when Xena made all effort to demonstrate her love through tender touch while withholding any spoken profession of the depth of her feeling. Now, Gabrielle was given the profession without physical affection.
Incapable of arguing for what had value only if freely given, Gabrielle conceded, “We are changed.”
Xena studied her and then bowed her head. “Yes, we are.”
To Gabrielle’s eyes, her crestfallen partner was, as always, a woman of integrity. Xena would not pretend to be more or less than who she was. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed,” said Gabrielle. Not long ago she would have reached out and taken Xena’s hand. She would have asked Xena to lie beside her and hold her until she drifted to sleep. And if her sleep was peaceful it was because of the constant protective embrace Xena afforded her.
Xena raised her gaze and silently observed Gabrielle’s departure.
Xena entered the palace courtyard surprise by what she did not see. There was no activity among the Queen’s Guard to prepare for a journey. She sought and found Trevor, who was standing talking to two other men near the stables.
Trevor heeded her call and went to her. “Yes, my Liege.”
“Trevor, why are you not readying for Megara?”
“I’ve received no such orders, my Liege.”
“Where is the Queen?”
“She rode Spirit to the river.”
Xena turned her gaze toward the concealed passage used to reach the open land that surrounded Corinth. “Some things will never change.”
“My Liege, may I add that my sister was in a quiet mood.”
Xena stood in thought for a moment. “Tell Makia to pack a picnic for two and bring it to me here. I’ll be saddling Argo.”
“Yes, my Liege.”
Mounted on Argo, Xena approached the site where she and Gabrielle were accustomed to having a respite away from Corinth. As expected she saw Spirit grazing peacefully and Gabrielle leaning against the oak tree that provided shade from the sun. She dismounted and untied a saddlebag and wineskin. She encouraged Argo to join Spirit then walked to Gabrielle. As she approached she saw Gabrielle shade her eyes with her hands.
She felt a tinge of melancholy. Knowing that it was not her own, it was one of the few unsought sensing of their connection that she had had since Gabrielle’s betrayal. She both welcomed it and was confused by it. Not showing its effect she greeted Gabrielle. “I hope you don’t mind. I brought lunch, hoping you would share it with me.”
“I’d like that.”
“Good.” Xena glanced toward the river. The sun glistened off the water. “I haven’t been here in some time.”
“It’s peaceful,” said Gabrielle wistfully.
Xena sat down beside her. “I think it is what we make it or at least it offers the possibility of what we hope to have.”
“What do you hope for?”
“The peace you spoke of. The beauty I see. Feeling I belong in a place like this.” Xena felt again Gabrielle’s essence. Melancholy was still very much a part of her partner. “And what do you hope for, Gabrielle?”
“Not to be alone.”
Xena cupped Gabrielle’s cheek with her hand. Their connection coursed through their touch and for a brief moment Xena closed her eyes. She was tempted to call forth their bond more strongly, yet feared what she would feel; what of her own feelings would be revealed. She opened her eyes and lowered her hand.
Gabrielle had her eyes closed, apparently having shared the sense of connection. Xena saw how Gabrielle’s expression changed from concentration to disorientation. Gabrielle opened her eyes. Xena found Gabrielle’s questioning gaze difficult and looked away toward the river.
For Gabrielle the sense of their bond had been unexpected and had given her the gentlest moment of bliss she had known in what seemed a lifetime. Its brevity and unexpected break left a void experienced as physical pain that she understood could only find relief through Xena.
She had respected Xena’s set boundaries, never challenging the distance Xena insisted upon since Athens. But Gabrielle’s pain was large and she believed it was a pain Xena felt equally. She reached out and placed her hand over Xena’s wanting to give and admittedly to receive comfort through touch.
Uncertain, Gabrielle hesitated in addressing her partner. Forgoing calling Xena by name or more intimately – her Lord – she mined her heart and spoke the truth Xena always demanded from her. “I have missed you… I know that to have our bond you must trust me unconditionally and that by my actions I have forfeited your trust.” Gabrielle faltered, as Xena remained unmoved. She gathered her courage and continued. “Xena, I give thanks every day for you… I realize I’m being selfish. I just need to be sure that you know that I want you to be my Lord in every way. I know what is possible between us…” Every word Gabrielle spoke damned her; every reference to their loss was her undoing. She was her own prosecutor. She fell silent, as Xena gave no indication of having heard her.
Upon feeling Gabrielle’s touch Xena focused on the sensation, so light and so profoundly powerful, it cut through her defenses. The moment recalled a time when they were newly discovering one another, learning what would and would not be accepted by the other. She listened to Gabrielle weighing each word and the accompanying emotion that carried in the bard’s voice. Having silence once again, she held Gabrielle’s hand more firmly as she closed her eyes and concentrated all that she was in traveling inward.
Gabrielle felt Xena’s hand respond and found comfort and further courage in Xena’s touch. She felt her partner’s essence and closed her eyes seeking it in the intimate plane that was reserved only for the two of them. She found herself walking through a familiar corridor, though it was darker than she remembered it. The distance walked was far. Ahead, to her relief, she saw a torch suspended in the air. She was drawn to it. From a few paces away she could see Xena sitting in an alcove. Her hands wrapped around a raised knee, her gaze directed toward a window frame hanging independently in the ether.
Gabrielle was able to see what Xena saw.
The place was the Conqueror’s suite. Gabrielle, a few years in the past sat on a chair near the fireplace, a scroll rested on her lap, her eyes focused on nothing in particular.
Xena entered, immediately garnering Gabrielle’s attention. “Hello,” said the Sovereign easily. She was in an obvious good-humor. “How was your day?”
“Good,” said Gabrielle with little animation.
Xena went to Gabrielle and kissed her gently on the lips before sprawling herself in her chair. “If I recall correctly, Targon gave you lessons today.”
“You do not sound very enthusiastic. I’m surprised. I’ve always thought Targon a capable instructor.”
“He is,” said Gabrielle unconvincingly.
Xena sat up in her chair and leaned forward. “The truth, Gabrielle.”
“It’s not Targon. It’s just that there is so much I have to learn.”
“You will be Queen of Greece. You must learn geography, expand your language skills and come to understand foreign customs…”
“And protocols for every possible occasion.”
Xena chuckled. “Yes, and that too.” She reached out and took Gabrielle’s hand. She sobered as she said,“I know you rather be a bard and a healer. I’m taking you away from what you value most.”
“That’s not true, Xena. It’s just that our joining is in six days and I know I won’t be
”Do you think I learned to be a proper Sovereign overnight? Ask Targon how many lessons in protocol he taught me. Poor man thought I would cut off his head; I was so impatient with him. Gabrielle, I have not forgotten my early days. I wager you will learn faster than I did and soon prove yourself a formidable presence among people of all walks of life.”
“Xena, a Queen… I am not the type of person people will accept easily on the throne.”
“How many times will we have this discussion?”said Xena with a hint of impatience.
“I’m sorry. I wish there was a talisman that could simply transform me to a Queen.”
“But there is.” Xena stood up and went to the fireplace mantle. She opened a small wooden box. “I wasn’t going to show you this until our joining day, but it may be better if you take measure of it now.” Xena knelt on one knee beside Gabrielle. “May I have your hand?” Gabrielle complied. Xena turned Gabrielle’s open palm up then placed a ring upon it. “I wear the signet that marks me as the Conqueror and the Sovereign of Greece. As my equal you shall wear the same signet. By accepting this ring you not only accept the duty and rights of Queen you also grant me the honor of being your consort and champion. If ever I lose your sympathy, you need only to remove your ring and I will know your intentions toward me have changed.”
“Xena, that will never happen.”
“Gabrielle, you are young, nearly a decade younger than I am. Your heart is true and that is one reason I love you. I could never forgive myself if I kept you in a loveless union.”
“You speak of divorce even before our joining. Why?”
“Because we have already been divorced once. Granted, it was my misguided doing. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? You must understand that you always have a choice. Each day you wear the ring you renew your vow to me as I renew my vow to you. We both know that sometimes speaking the truth is painful. That is why we have symbols to speak for us. The medallion was the Guardsmen way of speaking of love – something many of them do clumsily. This ring is your key to me. Wear it and I know my heart is safe. Remove it from your hand and I will understand you have reservations towards me and that I must be careful with you.”
“There is much to this ring.”
“Yes, there is. I admit after our joining it will be my wish to never see it from your hand.”
The memory faded. In succession Gabrielle relived two further memories related to her ring. First, when Gabrielle, as sole ruler of Greece, came to Scupli to visit Xena. During their first night of lovemaking in Xena’s homestead…
Xena paused as she removed Gabrielle's blouse. Xena's eyes beheld the necklace Gabrielle wore. Hung on a silver chain about her neck were the Conqueror's medallion and Gabrielle’s joining ring. Xena took the ring in her hand. For a moment they both stilled. Xena closed her hand into a fist and leaned forward to kiss Gabrielle. Met willingly, Xena released the ring and their lovemaking continued.
That memory was replaced with Xena and Gabrielle in Crivello when Gabrielle’s identity was revealed because she wore her medallion and her ring.
Gabrielle knelt to the villager Gustan who upon recognizing her had fallen to his knees in deference. She whispered, “Please, no one kneels to me. I am a simple woman living an extraordinary life.”
The young man raised his eyes to those of his compassionate Queen. “We didn’t know.”
Gabrielle looked up for a moment, first to Callan, a village leader and then to her partner. “My Lord and I had hoped to spend a few quiet days before my Guard arrived. It seems we were wrong to think we wouldn’t be known here.”
“Your medallion and ring are hard not to see.”
Gabrielle stood up and offered her hand to the villager as she said sheepishly, “Wearing them is second nature to me. I forgot they could betray my identity.”
The past faded to the present. Darkness fell on the other side of the window. Xena turned her gaze toward Gabrielle. In the silence, through the power of their bond Gabrielle came to understand what she had to do. “Xena, please don’t ask that of me.” Xena looked back to the window in wait. Gabrielle began to feel their bond severing. She knew to have any hope of maintaining their connection she could not withhold the truth from Xena. Her memories were projected for Xena to observe, the first her meeting with the Fates…
“Tell her.” Athena demanded of the Atropos.
Atropos stared at the Goddess, obviously not one to be dictated to. She then gentled her expression as she said to Gabrielle, “Kartis will kill you unless…”
“Unless what?” asked Gabrielle as she glanced between the Fate and the Goddess.
The crone’s pity was evident. “Unless he believes that you have chosen him over the Conqueror or you seduce a champion among the Athenians to stop him.”
This was followed by her confrontation with Kartis as she said to him…
“I know just as you do that by forcing my seemingly voluntary public declaration of an alliance that I can never return to Corinth. The Conqueror will cut me down without a second thought.”
“You could plead your case with the Conqueror. She is said to love you, or was I right that you are a carnal convenience to her.”
“You do not know the Conqueror as I do. She values her honor above all else.”
Gabrielle’s memory leaped forward. She explained herself to Turian…
“I knew before I returned to the palace that I was forfeiting my life. Still, it’s hard…”
“Why did you come back?”
“For the greater good...”
Followed by the moment when in her suite…
Gabrielle looked back to Turian. She gazed down to her left hand and felt her loss of Xena’s love, knowing nothing that Turian offered her could be as wondrous. She removed her ring, placing it in the pocket of her dress, then silently returned to him.
Turian looked up to her. “Gabrielle, what is it?”
She reached out her hand to him. He took it and after a moment stood up. She leaned forward and gently kissed him. The kiss ended.
“You don’t have to do this,” said Turian.
Turian kissed Gabrielle. He brought her closer to him with a firm yet tender embrace. Turian released her raising his hand to her cheek. “I swear I will be good to you.” As a tear fell down her cheek Gabrielle renewed their kiss.
At daybreak Gabrielle and Turian lay in bed. ..
“I don’t want to hurt you,” said Gabrielle.
“You won’t. Tell me. What is your heart’s desire?”
“I want no harm to come to the Conqueror. I want her to beat back Kartis and stop Rome from entering Greece.”
Later in Turian’s rooms, Turian observed…
“Gabrielle, I notice you no longer wear your ring.”
“I am not worthy of it.”
“You are being too harsh with yourself.”
“You do not understand the meaning of the ring.”
“So your naked hand is not a sign that your heart has changed.”
“The Conqueror’s Queen’s heart has always been constant. It is that she died the moment I removed the ring.”
“Then who are you that stand before me?
“If we survive this battle of wits and swords I want to be with you. I want to take you to a safe place…”
“Turian, I will not leave Athens alive.”
“Have you lost hope?”
“The moment I decided to return to the palace I knew my fate. The question of my death has only been on what day and by whose hands. You have saved me from Kartis. You cannot save me from the Conqueror.”
“Do you want to be saved from the Conqueror’s wrath?”
“What I want no longer matters. I made my decision and I shall see it
through to the end.”
Within their intimate plane, head bowed, tears fell down Gabrielle’s cheek. Xena stood beside her and untied a small rust color leather pouch Gabrielle had always worn since Xena banished her from Athens. Xena opened the pouch and removed Gabrielle’s ring. She offered the ring to Gabrielle.
Back in the common world Gabrielle opened her eyes breaking their connection. Matching Xena’s attentive gaze she felt her unrelenting shame. She tried to release her hand from Xena’s hold, but Xena was constant. “Please let me go,” she pleaded, jerking her hand free.
“Are you not mine?” asked Xena.
“I didn’t want you to see me with…”
“Turian? I saw nothing I haven’t already imagined. The truth is what I imagined was far more painful.” Xena glanced down to Gabrielle’s belt. There she saw the same rust colored leather pouch she saw within their intimate plane. “It was you who removed your ring from your hand. It is not for me to return it to its place.”
“How can I? Xena, I can’t. Not after what I’ve done.”
“Then it is you who keeps me away.”
“Please, don’t say that.”
“Gabrielle, Atropos told you that to stop Kartis you would need to seduce a champion among the Athenians.”
“Xena, I betrayed you.” Gabrielle experienced a moment of astringent lucidity, of seeing her heart and soul cleansed of layer upon layer of justification. It was a terrible clarity in which she found herself no longer able to deny the root cause of her greatest offense. Her truth was felt as an acute unrelenting ache in her heart. “You now know the truth. I didn’t have to be with Turian to save Athens.” She reached out her hand; her courage failing her she let it fall near Xena’s, unable to touch the warrior. “I’ve been able to endure my life because of your love. In Athens… I believed I had lost you. I believed I would meet death by your sword. Honor before love. That has always been your rule. I knew what I had done to you. I hated myself for choosing Athens over you. You were with me every moment. Every breath I took hurt because by simply living I continued to condemn you. I had nothing to sustain me. I wanted… I needed someone to tell me I wasn’t terrible. That in spite of what I had done there would still be love for me. What Turian gave me was just enough to keep me alive. Still, I can’t pretend… it’s wrong for me to let you believe that I didn’t have a choice. I did.”
“Gabrielle, you must forgive yourself!”
“You haven’t forgiven your past!”
“Do you compare Cirra where countless lives were lost to seeking comfort from Turian when you believed you sacrificed all love in your life for a noble cause, doing so for reasons that no one other than Athena and the Fates understood?”
Xena took a kerchief from her pocket and gently wiped Gabrielle’s tears. “It seems, my bard, that you lied to me. More terrible you lied to yourself. In Athens you fulfilled your duty and that is quite a different thing than following your heart. I have seen how you placed your heart far from those intent on hurting you.” Xena cupped Gabrielle’s cheek with her hand. “Yes, you broke your vow. I forgive you. Do you hear me? You are forgiven for all your transgressions. All of them, Gabrielle.”
“Gabrielle, what more is there to say?”
“I lost my faith in you?”
“Honor above all including love. I have never said otherwise. You were right to believe I would avenge my honor because until the moment I stood in front of you with my sword in hand I believed that in the defense of my honor I was capable of anything. Anything, Gabrielle. But, once again you have proven me wrong. My love for you is impervious to my darkness. It is powerful enough to withstand the unimaginable. That was a lesson we both learned in Athens. And though I would have preferred not to have been given the lesson, I am grateful to know that I hold one untouchable, pure element in my soul, and I am more grateful still to know that element is inseparable from you.”
Gabrielle took a step back separating herself from Xena’s touch. “Xena, try as hard as you might you cannot make me right. Nothing can make me right and whole again.” She stood and walked away, whistling to Spirit who answered her call.
Xena followed Gabrielle, taking her by the arm. “Is this then our fate? An arrested love imprisoned by inconsolable guilt? Don’t you want to return to me?”
“Damn you! I want you more than life itself. I cannot see my way to you.”
“You and your brothers are renewing your love. It takes time. It takes patience. We are no different. Gabrielle. I do not pretend I have made my peace with you. I can only say I am closer to it than I was while we were at the Centaur village. Each day I spend with you my pain eases and my heart opens. Gabrielle, I cannot come back to you without your help. I surely cannot come back to you if you shut me out or push me away.”
“Xena, I’m not blind to your hurt.”
“Nor am I to yours. There is more than hurt in life. Have we not shared more than one smile since returning to Corinth?”
“There are more awaiting us. They will come unbided.”
“I don’t know what I’m to do. How do we begin?”
“We have begun. For now, come back to the river and share Makia’s food with me. Let me be your bard. I have some fine stories of your brothers’ escapades while you were gone.” Xena released Gabrielle’s arm and offered the younger woman her hand. “Please, Gabrielle…” Gabrielle took Xena’s hand and allowed the warrior to guide her back to the tree. There, Xena fulfilled her promise telling lighthearted stories of the Guardsmen and sharing a fine meal.
Makia entered the Conqueror’s suite. Seeing the Conqueror reading at her desk and Gabrielle lying asleep on a nearby chase lounge she quietly set the meal and then approached the Conqueror’s desk. “Your Majesty, I brought enough for both you and the Queen,” she said in a hush.
“The household continues to be expert in knowing the comings and goings of their mistresses.”
“I went to the Queen’s suite and found it empty.”
“Yes, I reassigned Stephanie to other duties and have taken up the task of serving the Queen.”
“I am glad to hear it.”
Makia looked over Xena’s shoulder to where Gabrielle slept. “Will she find peace?”
“It is hard to forgive oneself.”
“You do understand her.”
“Who better? There are things I’ve done that I will never forget or forgive myself for. With Gabrielle’s love I have learned to live with them and still know happiness. I can only wish the same for her.”
“Having your love, there is reason to hopeful.”
“Thank you, Makia.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you or our Queen?”
“Not right now. Good night, Makia.”
“Good night, your Majesty.”
Xena waited until Makia left before turning her attention to Gabrielle. Xena had coaxed the emotionally exhausted Gabrielle to sleep, promising not to leave her partner alone. She knew she could do no more for Gabrielle than she had done on this day. She had shattered the secrets between them and offered her forgiveness. It was now for Gabrielle to come to terms with her guilt.
Xena sat on the side of the lounge and gently called Gabrielle to wakefulness. Upon seeing Gabrielle open her eyes, she smiled and greeted her. “Hello. Makia brought us dinner.”
“Hi.” Gabrielle raised her hand to Xena’s cheek.
Xena took possession of Gabrielle’s hand and placed a kiss upon its palm. “Come, before it gets cold.”
Gabrielle was grateful for what little touch Xena gave her, asking for no more. During their meal Xena continued her storytelling, keeping Gabrielle engaged with news from across the realm. The evening was a pleasant one for both women.
Xena ascended the rampart stairs in twos reaching the top still keeping to a steady breath. Surrounded by the darkness of night she walked upon the wooden planks toward a Guardsman’s torch not far in the distance. There stood Samuel. Reaching him she paused and leaned against the rampart wall. After a glance to his Sovereign Samuel returned his gaze to his occupation of watch. Xena had the northeastern perimeter of Corinth in her sight. She had yet to be able to look, without pain in the direction of Athens. She breached the silence. “When your sister left me in Ithome to find herself, I assigned you to the night watch because I thought it would be better for you. I knew you missed her and did not need any reminder of her absence.” Xena shifted her gaze to the Guardsman. “I spoke to Trevor. He told me that even before my offer for reassignment was made you requested the night watch and recommended Alem as your sister’s personal guard.”
“Alem likes the detail.”
“One you once reserved for yourself.” Xena waited for a response. She was disappointed to receive none. “Sam, I will not tell you to love her. A human heart cannot be dictated to. I have tried not to interfere. I know Gabrielle doubts her worthiness of being your sister. Nothing I can say will convince her otherwise. Tell me, Sam. What did she do that is beyond your forgiveness?”
“She betrayed Greece.”
“I have explained that she returned to Kartis convinced that not to would have had grave consequences to the people of Athens.”
“Her betrayal went further.”
“Because she left you without a word?”
“Because she let Kartis use you to convince the Athenians that the Royal Guard stood by her?”
“I gave my consent.”
“Not happily, I’ve been told. What then, Sam?”
“What she did to you.”
“Turian?” said Xena hating to discuss what she deemed a private affair. “It is hard for me to accept the fact that Gabrielle was so sure I would kill her that she took comfort where she could find it. She was not only certain she had lost me she was also sure she lost her brothers’ love. Sam, she was alone in the world and found in Turian a refuge from Tartarus on earth.”
The Guardsman remained silent. Xena turned and looked back to the palace. “In those palace walls and outside of them, too, I’ve been indiscriminate and calculating in the use of my body. I whored myself as I lusted for power and conquest. My motivations were corrupt. Gabrielle’s reason for being with Turian was as imperfect as it was human, a consequence of her vulnerability and tender heart. Why can you serve me, I who am far more flawed, and not your sister?”
“I’ve had only one sister and she died young.”
“Tell me, if your sister had lived and disappointed you as Gabrielle has, would you have turned your back on her too? Does anyone who fails to live up to your moral standard lose their place in your heart?” Xena observed Samuel steel himself. “You have disappointed me, Sam. You have abandoned Gabrielle just when she needs you most.”
“Do you have new orders for me, my Liege?” asked the defiant Guardsman.
“I have instructed Trevor that within reason to honor any request for a change in your assignment. You and Trevor unjustly suffered because you honored Gabrielle and stood by her. Knowing the truth of all that took place in Athens I feel I owe you both an apology and a debt. I am sorry for stripping you of your honor. If you are in want of anything please don’t hesitate to ask. I promise I will give your petitions fair consideration.”
Samuel turned to Xena. “My Liege, may I ask you a question?”
“What is it Sam?” said Xena, hopeful that the Guardsman might still bend from his rigid anger.
“Why didn’t you kill Gabrielle?”
Xena did not have to think twice in answering. “So I could have this day.”
“But, you didn’t know the truth when you spared her.”
“There is a truth that I have come to know through Gabrielle that is beyond understanding and that I cannot live without. It is a truth that has bored itself into my heart and will not abandon me no matter how grave my life becomes. You might think it love but you would be wrong. It is goodness. Gabrielle is my hope that there is more to life than hatred and violence … that redemption is possible. Good night, Sam.”
Xena left the Guardsman to his own thoughts.
As days passed Xena and Gabrielle slowly grew to spend more time together. Gabrielle’s assistance with the colts and fillies was now expected. In addition to mid-day meals, evening meals were often shared. They rode together outside the city limits every handful of days. Xena visited Gabrielle at the city hospice from time to time. By word they were growing more intimate. Still, to Gabrielle’s heartbreak they rarely touched.
It was late in the afternoon. Gabrielle, finished with assisting in the infirmary, decided to seek out Xena. She walked across the courtyard. To her left, toward the armory, she heard an escalating chaotic cacophony of barks and growls. Concerned, she ran quickly toward the uproar. Turning a corner she stopped abruptly, terrified.
Honor and his brother and sister hounds had surrounded Xena who lay on her back weaponless. The hounds alternatively lunged toward the seemingly wounded warrior who did little to fight back her attackers. Gabrielle grabbed a staff among many stacked against the armory and ran forward. She raised the staff ready to strike a death blow on one and all of the hounds.
“No, your Majesty!” Voger cried out.
Gabrielle had not initially seen the groom. He sprinted from the side of the armory in an attempt to intercept her. Bewildered, Gabrielle halted all motion.
Xena sat up. She took hold of the nearest hound and turned him around, playfully slapping him on the rump. The rest of the hounds halted their now obvious play and alternatively looked from their human playmate to Gabrielle. Xena shifted her attention to her partner. “Gabrielle they’re just harmless pups,” she said laughing. “Did you think Voger thought so little of me he would stand aside as I was being ripped apart?”
Breathless and angry, Gabrielle slammed the staff down and walked away. Xena jumped to her feet. She followed Gabrielle, reaching out and placing a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “Gabrielle…”
Gabrielle swung around fiercely. “For your life I’d give anything! Anything!” She pushed Xena back vehemently.
Xena recovered her balance and took Gabrielle by the wrists, forcefully stilling her, and said tersely, “And what shall you give for our life together? Will we ever know again whimsy and joy?” Not waiting for an answer she thrust Gabrielle’s arms down and walked away.
Gabrielle stood stunned. “Xena…” she whispered helplessly.
Gabrielle realized that in the nearly two moons since her return merriment was not part of their private lives. Only in the company of others did laughter rise up and rule the moment; so different than the beginning of their relationship when Gabrielle, through her stories, took Xena away from the harsh realities of ruling the realm; so different than when they were at their best, when whimsy and joy would own them both, as they bantered and played with one another.
Two days passed without the Royals meeting. The separation was Xena’s choice as she renewed her reclusive tendencies.
Jared and Xena walked through the palace grounds. Laughter caught both their attentions. “The lass is telling tales outside the Guardsmen’s mess,” explained Jared.
“Jared, did you choose this path by chance or design?” asked Xena suspiciously.
“Maybe we can find a hitching post to lean against and listen to Gabrielle’s storytelling,” said Jared. The General seemed to sense Xena’s uncertainty. “Why shy, Xena?”
“Why indeed, Jared,” she replied. They walked to the gathering. Gabrielle sat on the mess stairs surrounded by men who sat and stood wherever space allowed. Xena stayed in the back of the gathering, leaning against a porch post. Jared remained at her side.
After a while Gabrielle looked in their direction. Upon seeing them her speech was momentarily arrested. She quickly recovered and continued her story. Completing the tale Gabrielle chose for her next story a minor comedy to lighten the heart of her most dear listener. It was the first story Gabrielle had ever told Xena. Recognizing the story and the time it spoke to Xena looked down as she attempted to rein in her waning composure. She felt Jared’s hand on her arm and raised her gaze to her concerned friend. “It’s all right, old man. Just a good memory.”
“Not one that deserves tears then?” said the General, raising his hand to her cheek and arresting a falling tear.
Xena surprised Jared by embracing him and kissing him on the cheek. “There is reason to hope, Jared.”
“I’m glad. Now, my Liege, I beg you let me hear the story,” said Jared lightly.
Xena smiled and released him. “A request I grant happily.”
Gabrielle observed much of the exchange between Xena and Jared. When her story ended Xena slapped Jared on the back and walked away alone. Jared’s bright smile told Gabrielle all she needed to know.
Tavis and Senta entered the infirmary, each holding a staff. Seeing the Guardsmen, Dalius asked, “What can I do for you men?”
“Nothing healer,” said Sentas. “We are here to petition our sister to join us for staff practice.”
Dalius called out to Gabrielle who had just finished changing an injured soldier’s bandage. “Your Majesty, it seem as if these capable Guardsmen are in need of a challenge only your can provide.”
Sentas turned his staff like a windmill. “Join us, Gabrielle.”
“Stop that!” chided Dalius. “This is not a play area for your amusement. You could hurt someone.”
“At least they wouldn’t be in want of a healer,” said Sentas.
“Gabrielle, I’m tired of listening to my braggart brother,” said Tavis. “Will you do me the honor of trashing him? Not only I, but my fellow brothers, and I think Dalius as well, will thank you.”
Amused, Gabrielle approached the men. “Sentas, have you forgotten the virtue of humility?”
“Gabrielle, would you expect me to allow a brother to beat me to appease his wounded ego? There is no honor in that.”
“No, there isn’t. We are bound to fight our best fight.”
“Right you are.” Sentas turned to his best friend. “Did you hear that, Tavis?”
“I did,” said Tavis. “And am glad for it because it means my sister will show you no mercy.”
Gabrielle addressed Dalius, “Can you spare me for a candlemark?”
“Of course. And if you have no objection, I would like to join you.”
“Ha!” said Tavis.” “Sentas, I was right. Dalius wants to see you whipped.”
Dalius bowed humbly to Gabrielle. “I volunteer only as a precaution that I might give assistance were there an inadvertent injury.”
Gabrielle chose not to point out to the healer that he had never previously demonstrated a similar concern for the staff sparring Guardsmen. “Very well.”
“Come my brother!” said Tavis to Sentas. “Let us not tarry. I have waited too long for this day.”
The Guardsmen led the others out of the infirmary.
“Dalius, you do not need to fear for my welfare,” said Gabrielle discreetly.
Dalius smiled. “It is not you who I fear will be injured.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “How terrible has Sentas been?”
“Insufferable. The only one other than you that can humble him is the Conqueror and I have not seen her spar with staff for some time.”
Xena, Stephen and Jared were meeting in Xena’s suite discussing the latest dispatch from their spies in Rome when Trevor knocked on the door and entered. “My Liege, I beg your pardon. I thought you would want to know that Sentas has placed a challenge before the Queen. The weapons staffs.
Jared laughed. “The fool. Has he forgotten how many times the lass has taken him down?”
“He has practiced some new moves,” said Stephen. “My Liege, I would welcome the opportunity to observe and learn.”
“Ho!” said Xena. “Here we are reviewing our covert plans against Rome and you would set our work aside to see what we all know will be your sister’s triumph over Sentas.”
“I shamelessly confess that right now witnessing the sparring match does means more to me than the security of Greece.”
Xena shifted her gaze from Stephen to Trevor and lastly to Jared. Each man wore an uncensored grin. “Well, at least we are all in agreement. Let’s go!”
The foursome walked across the palace courtyard to where a contingent of Guardsmen formed a circle. Xena paused next to Alem. “How goes it, soldier?”
“The Queen and Sentas are just warming up, my Liege.”
“Are there wagers?”
“None. No one will bet against our sister.”
“Pitty,” said Xena as she placed her hand on Alem’s shoulder and smiled.
A loud crack of staffs marked the beginning of the contest. All eyes turned to the center of the circle. To Xena there was little suspense. Gabrielle’s agility and strength, coupled with her uncanny ability to anticipate Sentas offensive strokes gave her a clear advantage. A quick low sweep by Gabrielle against the back of Sentas’ legs fell him. Gabrielle jumped forward placing a booted foot against his chest and her staff against his throat. She demanded his surrender. Sentas yielded by slapping the ground twice. The Guardsmen roared in approval as Gabrielle offered Sentas her hand. He took it and jumped to his feet.
More than one taunting jibe was spoken against Sentas. “I don’t see any of you stepping forward,” he called out.
“That’s because we’re not as stupid as you,” said Brogan. “We all know only our Liege can match Gabrielle.”
“Then let our Liege take the challenge.” Sentas offered his staff to Xena.
Xena’s stern gaze spoke volumes. The Guardsman had overstepped his bounds. Understanding his breach of decorum Sentas pulled back the staff close to his body. “My Liege, I’m…”
“Give me the staff, Sentas,” said Xena stridently, reaching out her hand.
“Yes, my Liege.” Sentas stepped forward and place the staff within Xena’s reach. She seized it out of his hand and stepped into the circle.
“My Queen,” said Xena with a minor bow. “Will you tolerate a second match?”
“I am in need of the exercise,” said Gabrielle. Occupied accepting congratulations from a number of the Guardsmen she had not noticed the exchange been Xena and Sentas.
“Obviously, Sentas gave you little.”
Xena’s comment at Sentas’ expense was greeted with low snickers and broad smiles.
Xena raised her staff. Gabrielle did the same. They tapped their crossed staffs lightly marking the beginning of the match. They began somewhat tentatively. They had not sparred for seven moons and though they knew each other well, they took their time reacquainting themselves with the unique rhythms of their opponent. Gabrielle tried her signature backward sweep. Unlike Sentas, Xena was able to leap Gabrielle’s staff and without a break in motion responded with a mighty offensive stroke intent on taking Gabrielle to her knees. Gabrielle tumbled backward rolling completely over, stopping her momentum in a squat position. Xena’s momentum took the warrior to a 90 degree angle away from Gabrielle. Having an opening, Gabrielle drove against Xena’s body, her staff held firmly in her two hands before her. The impact leveled the warrior to the ground. Gabrielle rolled and landed on her back. She release the staff and flipped her body, retaking hold of the weapon she extended her hands until the staff crossed Xena’s throat. She pressed down sufficiently to make her position known without causing harm.
Stunned by the shear creativity of Gabriele’s acrobatics Xena lay still. From behind she heard an elated Sentas boast, “I taught her that.” Though she could have lifted the staff away and continued the fight, Xena decided otherwise. She slapped the ground signally her surrender. Gabrielle lifted her staff away. Xena than smacked her staff aside and jumped to her feet, turning toward Sentas. “Did you, Lieutenant?” asked Xena as she strove forward. Her anger feigned.
“My Lord!” called Gabrielle as she moved to intervene.
Gabrielle’s use of her endearment was more powerful than any weapon the young woman had mastered. Xena’s outward fury was temporarily contained. “What say you, my Queen?” asked Xena with a wink only Gabrielle could see.
Gabrielle paused. Understanding the joke she smiled as she explained, “Sentas may have taught me to tumble but I claim credit for choosing when and how to use it for sparring.”
Xena turned back in all seriousness to Sentas. “Is that true?”
“Yes, my Liege,” he responded cautiously.
Xena laughed wholeheartedly. “I am vexed you did not warn me of your sister’s ingenuity.”
All the Guardsmen relaxed as Sentas said, “Until this very moment I did not know she would use the tumble in such a manner.”
“The fault is mine for not heeding my own counsel.” Xena glanced appreciatively toward Gabrielle. “From the first day I met Gabrielle of Poteidaia I knew she was not to be underestimated.”
“Nor are you, my Liege. I think that is why you and my sister are a fine match.”
Xena cuffed Sentas on his shoulder and then turned to her partner. “In more ways than sparring, Lieutenant.”
Gabrielle smiled brilliantly. “I agree.”
Stephen and Tess were granted their own cottage within the palace grounds. The comfortable household offered a sense of privacy that could not be enjoyed in the palace’s imposing walls. It was mid-afternoon when Tess entered labor. She had messages sent to Stephen and Dalius. Dalius notified the Conqueror and Queen. News of Tess’s condition quickly passed among the Guardsmen. The brothers continued their work with a heightened sensitivity to forthcoming news.
Gabrielle joined Tess and Dalius in Stephen and Tess’s bedroom. Stephen, Xena and Jared waited in the cottage’s front sitting room. All understood that Xena would not be called to assist in the birth unless Tess and/or the baby’s life were in danger.
The candlemarks passed slowly and night fell. The longer the wait the quieter the occupants of the sitting room became. Given Tess’s more frequent cries Xena deduced that her contractions were quickening and the baby’s birth would come soon.
Her heart felt for Stephen as he stared blindly ahead, his hands clasped before him. She wondered if he was praying for his family and if he was, whether he received comfort from the effort. As deep in thought as he seemed, she could see how Stephen flinched with each of Tess’s intensifying cries.
And then all sounds stopped. Stephen stood up nervously. Xena and Jared mirrored him and waited. The next sound heard was of a baby crying. Xena smiled in relief. Jared gave a small nervous laugh. Stephen remained silent, his eyes fixed upon the bedroom door.
The door opened and Gabrielle stepped out holding the baby. She smiled as Stephen approached her. “Stephen, you have a daughter.”
“A daughter,” he said as tears began to fall down his face. “Is she all right? Is Tess all right?”
“Your daughter is perfect and Tess is tired and wants to see you.”
Stephen looked over Gabrielle’s shoulder to his wife who lay quietly in bed while Dalius hovered at the foot of the bed. The baby gurgled, causing Stephen to look down to her. “By the Gods, she’s as beautiful as her mother.”
“Do you want to hold her?” said Gabrielle encouragingly.
“Yes.” Stephen extended his hands, taking his daughter into his arms. He laughed happily and turned to Xena and Jared. The two went to the Major, congratulating him and making a fuss over the baby.
“I told you, you had nothing to worry about,” said Xena. She glanced over to Gabrielle. “Tess had the best care.”
Stephen looked back to Gabrielle. “Thank you.” Then he returned his attention to Xena. “Thank you for staying by my side all these moons. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
Xena placed a hand on Stephen’s shoulder. “Go see to Tess.”
Stephen glanced down to his child as if he could not believe she was indeed real. He then carried the infant into the bedroom.
“All is truly well, Gabrielle?” asked Jared softly.
“Yes, Jared. They are both quite well.”
“I’ll go share the news. There are wagers to be settled,” he exclaimed robustly and took his leave.
Left alone with Gabrielle, Xena said, “We will need to think of a proper gift for a little girl.”
“Is it time to give her parents an estate?” asked Gabrielle. The intention was one they had discussed in the past.
“Yes, I think it is. The way Stephen is feeling right now; there is a good chance he won’t protest too loud or too long.”
“Tess will be grateful. It will give her and the baby the security that she has longed for.”
“One that normally does not come with marrying a soldier in the Conqueror’s army,” said Xena with a hint of discontent. “I’ll have Targon draft the deed. Give my best wishes to Tess.”
“You won’t stay?”
“Let Tess have her family beside her. That is what she wants.”
Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand on Xena’s arm. “Xena, she will welcome you.”
“Who is to say that on this day I welcome her?”
Gabrielle never expected Xena’s terse response. She chose to say nothing more. Xena stepped away and crossed the room, exiting without looking back.
Gabrielle knew that the discord between Xena and Tess was of Tess’s making. Xena was not one to forget a challenge of her honor. That Tess challenged Xena regarding her affection for Stephen had been bitterly received. She had hoped that Tess’s jealously of Xena had been checked on her wedding day. Obviously, Xena thought differently.
Gabrielle suspected that Tess had no appreciation for the amount of stress Xena could have placed on Stephen by simply keeping his duties constant, causing the Major to have to choose between his wife and his career. And yet, despite Tess’s ungratefulness, Xena had done everything in her power to support the marriage. She had, with the exception of the march on Athens, kept Stephen in Corinth. Stephen had yet to complain and with the new baby Gabrielle doubted the Major would be seeking a field assignment anytime in the near future.
Dalius came to Gabrielle’s side, interrupting her thoughts. “Gabrielle, I will stay with Tess. It’s late. You should get some rest.”
Gabrielle welcomed the relief. “All right. Goodnight, Dalius.”
She left the cottage and walked toward the palace. It was a cloud-covered night with little light. Lamps hanging on street poles lit her path. She passed the Guardsmen’s mess hall, hearing familiar voices including Jared’s and Trevor’s as an impromptu celebration in honor of Stephen’s child had begun.
She surrendered to her sorrow. Throughout Tess’s childbirth Gabrielle had denied her emotions. Alone, she remembered the lonely loss of her own child. It had been late in the evening when she began to feel cramping. After brewing and drinking a medicinal tea she had laid in bed hoping the pain would subside. As time passed and her cramps intensified she realized that not only might she lose her child, if her bleeding was great she might also lose her life. Too isolated from the Centaur village to call for help she remained huddled in bed crying silent tears. By morning her bed was red with her own blood and the remains of her fetus, which was just less than the length of her hand. My mid-morning she had sufficient strength to care for herself.
From a side street Samuel crossed Gabrielle’s path. He seemed as surprised to see her, as she was to see him. After a moment’s hesitation Gabrielle found her voice. “Hello, Sam.”
“Your Majesty,” said the Guardsman.
Samuel’s formality set the tone of their encounter. Gabrielle rued the additional reminder of the losses she suffered because of Athens. She wanted to heal and though she could not bring back her child she hoped she could mend her friendship with Samuel. “How are you?”
Samuel did not have a ready answer. He briefly glanced away before responding. “I am as you see me, your Majesty.”
A roar of men’s voices from the mess hall caused him to look in its direction. He withheld comment. Gabrielle answered his unspoken question. “Stephen and Tess have a daughter, Sam. You and your brothers are uncles.”
A pained expression crossed Samuel’s face. Samuel had not been a topic of discussion between Gabrielle and her brothers. From observation she concluded that his purposeful distancing from her had a reciprocal effect on his relationship with his fellow Guardsmen, none more than the members of the Queen’s Guard who had embraced Gabrielle’s return without reservation.
“May I be excused, your Majesty?” asked Samuel in a clipped diction.
“Yes Sam, of course.” Gabrielle did not hide her disappointment.
The Guardsman turned and walked in the opposite direction of the mess hall. Gabrielle watched the solitary man wishing he would one day find it in his heart, as Trevor had, to forgive her.
Xena lay in bed in a half-wake half-sleep state, a growing anxiety building within her. A sudden pain racked moment caused her to sit up, “Oh Gods…” she cried out, feeling an overwhelming dread. Her breathing was quick and she was drenched in her own perspiration. She scanned her bedroom seeking out the threat that seemed to loom close to her. She saw nothing out of the ordinary. She then chose to close her eyes and extend her senses. “Gabrielle…” The bard’s unmistakable essence was pulsating with an overwhelming merger of horror and sorrow. Xena ran out of her suite surprising Hamish who was standing guard. He followed her down the palace corridor.
Xena took no solace in seeing Joél guarding Gabrielle’s door. The young Guardsman turned and looked at her, obviously confused in seeing the Conqueror with Hamish not far behind. Joél’s hand went to the door handle. He hesitated. “Open it!” shouted Xena as she neared. He did so.
She entered the suite. Gabrielle’s low cries drove her to the bedroom where the bard lay distraught. Xena sat on the side of the bed and gathered Gabrielle into her arms. Gabrielle clutched Xena desperately. “I’m here.” Xena assured her. “I’m here, Gabrielle. You will get through this….”
“My Liege,” said Hamish while standing outside the bedroom, not looking in. “Is there anything you need?”
Xena glanced toward the entrance, relieved that the senior guard knew better than to further breach Gabrielle’s privacy. “Leave us.” She heard the dual footsteps of the Guardsmen as they exited the suite. Xena turned her attentions back to Gabrielle.
“I’m sorry,” said Gabrielle through her tears.
“Don’t apologize.” Xena held Gabrielle closer. “You have nothing to apologize for.”
Xena closed her eyes and willingly opened herself to Gabrielle’s pain. Aphrodite was right. There were two ways for them to reach into each other’s souls. One was by mutual consent. The other was when one of them had no control of their emotions. Though Xena did not travel to their intimate plane she sensed the source of Gabrielle’s distress. She willed herself not to turn from it, not to deny the truth. In one profound moment of insight she saw Gabrielle’s memory of lying in bed with the aftermath of her miscarriage. The scene caused Xena to shudder. “All will be well. With time, I promise you Gabrielle, all will be well.”
Gabrielle calmed, easing into a drowsy state, feeling a long lost sense of security, one she knew only in Xena’s embrace. “Thank you,” she said in a languid voice.
“Ly down,” said Xena tenderly. She felt Gabrielle tense underneath her touch. “I’ll stay with you until daybreak. You have my word.”
Gabrielle eased her hold and allowed Xena to guide her back until her head lay on her pillow. Xena held Gabrielle’s hand. “Rest now.” She saw much in Gabrielle’s gentle green eyes. There was need and gratitude and a sadness that she was only now allowing herself to acknowledge.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and soon drifted back to sleep. Only then did Xena shift to a chair she placed beside the bed. She kept an attentive vigil.
Gabrielle awoke to the sight of Xena sitting in the chair set at her bedside. Meeting Gabrielle’s gaze Xena rose and sat on the edge of the bed, tenderly taking Gabrielle’s hand. Seeing her partner’s fatigue Gabrielle graciously reassured Xena that her nightmare had passed and coaxed the warrior to return to her suite to rest. They said little more to one another. There was no need.
As much as Gabrielle longed for Xena she
equally longed for her solitude. She
sent word to Trevor that she would be spending the day in her suite. She knew the message would be conveyed to
Xena, Dalius and Makia. All honored her
implicit request not to be disturbed.
As night fell she sought the comfort of the turret. Standing at the turret’s ledge looking up to the evening stars, she took solace in their brilliant beauty. Their still peace opposed the memory of the previous night of painful chaotic dreams.
On this night Gabrielle came to conclude that the memories of Athens, Turian and her pregnancy were not unlike the memories of her slavery. She could not live having them in the forefront of her mind. They needed to be regulated to a place in her heart and her soul where they were honored as a part of her without dominating her sense of self.
She heard footsteps and turned her gaze toward the turret entrance. Xena soon appeared. The warrior remained at the threshold with her hands held behind her back. The pose was to Gabrielle’s understanding one of a woman whose tender heart demanded the protection of distance.
“Hello,” said Xena.
“Have you come to look at the stars?” asked Gabrielle invitingly.
“No,” said Xena soberly. “I have a request. Gabrielle, I am leaving for Megara and I would like you to join me.”
The request was unexpected. “I thought you promised Stephen to stay close because of the baby.”
“Until the baby was born. She is healthy and Dalius and a mid-wife are more than capable of helping Tess adjust.”
“When would you like to leave?”
“Tomorrow, if that is not too soon.”
“I’ll tell Trevor.”
“Good.” Xena glanced up to the heavens. “I gave up Solan after only two days. During the two days I had him I held him close and nursed him and felt… I felt the wonder of him. How an infant as beautiful and innocent as he was could come from my womb was a mystery to me. But, there was no denying that he had. The part of me that wanted him had to be set aside because I owed him a better life than the one I could give him. There isn’t a day I don’t think of Solan and damn myself for leaving him to Kaleipus’ care. There isn’t a day that my heart doesn’t break because of the fact that I did what I had to do because of who I was at the time. There had never been a choice… not really. That is how life is sometimes. Given our friendship I didn’t feel I had a choice but to say ‘yes’ when Stephen asked me to help deliver his child. I’ve kept my promise. Now… well it’s hard, seeing a child so new to life.”
“I know,” said Gabrielle.
“Yes, you do,” said Xena, her expression painfully open. “Sleep well, Gabrielle.”
“Good night, Xena.”
Xena turned and walked down the stairs. Gabrielle listened to each footfall until the sounds faded to nothing. She understood that Xena needed Megara to set her thoughts of the past right again in the face of the ever-changing present. And she welcomed the opportunity to do the same for herself.
It has late in the afternoon when the Royals arrived in Megara. Gabrielle carried her saddlebags into their first floor bedroom. With Xena wordlessly following her she had every reason to believe they would share a bed for the first time since Athens - that by their very presence in Megara one more milestone in their return to one another would be achieved. She did not contemplate a renewal of their lovemaking. For her it would be enough to have the comfort of Xena’s embrace as she fell asleep.
Xena paused at the bedroom threshold. Gabrielle waited, seeing her partner’s hesitation. “Xena…”
“I’ll take my things upstairs.” Xena referenced the bedroom that accommodated them prior to building the extension to the house.
“Will you join me for dinner?”
“Gabrielle… this first evening I’d like to be alone. Being here… I can’t explain.”
“You don’t have to. Maybe in the morning we can take a walk by the seashore.”
“I’d like that. I will see you at breakfast.” Xena stepped back disappearing from Gabrielle’s sight.
Gabrielle chastised herself for assuming that the breach in their intimate life could be resolved by simply changing their geography.
Dressed in her robe, Xena stood at her bedroom window looking out to the sea. The time was dusk. She and the world were hovering between the harsh light of day and the dark mystery of the night.
She thought her life with Gabrielle was equal to this moment. There was a choice to be made, a choice they both had to make, whether to set aside the harshness of life - an indisputable fact in the light of day - and embrace the mystery of the night where deeper truths reside.
She had a persistent ache in her heart. She longed for certainty in an uncertain world. She had believed that Gabrielle’s fidelity was unassailable. Proven wrong, she requested and received the truth from Gabrielle. Gabrielle did not love another nor did she lust for a physical release that Xena could not fulfill. The ironic paradox of Gabrielle’s infidelity was that it was a testament to how greatly she valued her union with Xena and how deeply she mourned the loss of that union.
Xena considered the events that followed their return to Corinth. The incident with the hounds revealed that Gabrielle’s protectiveness was as strong as ever. In her work with the colts and fillies and in the face of Xena’s strongest blows during their sparring, Gabrielle was not shy in demonstrating her competency. And yet, except for the one request for the return of ‘her Lord’ at the turret, in their intimate exchanges Gabrielle consistently acquiesced to Xena.
Gabrielle once said there was no Megara without Xena beside her. Xena agreed, Megara was nothing without them both. Megara was a place where their love thrived. It was a place where they came to heal both physically and emotionally. The power of Megara was that in this safe haven they could mine and exercise their courage and hope, inseparable from their faith in one another. Megara was where they had been willing to risk all that they were to keep their union. In returning to Megara Xena had renewed the challenge. Megara was a means to their reconciliation and only now did she believe they were both capable of attempting the task. In doing so they would risk the annihilation of their souls - the probable consequence of failure.
Xena had seen Gabrielle’s disappointment when she had left her alone in their bedroom. Absent was Gabrielle’s fire, her unassailable sense of entitlement to Xena’s affection. Without such a clear expression of Gabrielle’s desire Xena was left to trust her perceptions. She needed to trust that she was not misguidedly projecting upon Gabrielle her own desire for union.
Xena closed her eyes and reached out with her senses. She felt Gabrielle’s essence. Xena sensed a hint of sorrow, loneliness. It merged with her like emotions. They completed one another and as long as they stood apart there could be no wholeness.
By the riverside Gabrielle was wrong to say Xena could not make her right and whole again. In one way she could. It was in the same way Gabrielle had the power to touch Xena’s soul. ‘If not now in Megara, then when?’ Xena asked herself. When was she going to take the risk to love Gabrielle completely? More importantly, to trust Gabrielle without reservation. When would she present herself as Gabrielle’s Lord as Gabrielle defined the endearment –to give safe harbor, to love, to commit her life – body and soul - once again?
Xena would not stand her pain for another heartbeat more than their destinies demanded. Their destinies, in regards to one another, were theirs to define. Xena walked down the stairs to the first floor bedroom. The door was ajar. She knocked and then opened the door further. Across the room the two porch doors to the sea were open. Gabrielle stood on the porch dressed in a white nightshirt. Except for their fear there was nothing separating them. Xena did not trust words. She walked across the room and out to the porch. Reaching Gabrielle, who waited silently, she took hold of her partner’s hands and kissed them. She then raised her gaze meeting Gabrielle’s, seeing tears well in the bard’s eyes. She slowly leaned forward making her intentions obvious, giving Gabrielle a chance to withdraw if she so chose.
Gabrielle did not withdraw. Instead she met Xena in a restrained kiss. The kiss deepened, as their confidence grew so too their passion. They explored one another honoring their mutual fragileness. Xena led Gabrielle to their bed, assuming nothing, until it seemed that they had both crossed a line of caution, having abandoned all their inhibitions. Their lovemaking, first sweet and tender, grew more fervent with the passing candlemark until it reached a fierce intensity that took one then the other to climax and left them spent falling asleep in each others arms. Throughout the night not a word had been spoken.
A fortnight spent in Megara had brought the Royals to a graceful happiness. It was a happiness bound to their delicate union. Their union required a constant sensitivity to each other’s emotions. Wounds only beginning to heal were tended to by touch and deftly chosen words. Latitude was given when their wounds bled unexpectedly. They returned to trust that withholding themselves, even when motivated to spare the pain of truth, did neither good.
Gabrielle had promised her Guard a few stories after their evening meal. Xena had listened to a short sweet romance and then disappeared into the beach house leaving Gabrielle in the company of her brothers.
After telling two more tales, Gabrielle excused herself intent on seeking out her Lord. Alem went to her side. “May I walk with you?”
Gabrielle took the Guardsman’s arm and led him to the path that wove around the beach house toward the sea. “What is it, Alem?”
“Gabrielle, I know I am not Sam…”
Gabrielle paused. “Alem, you should not compare yourself to your brothers. You each have your skills and talents and I love each of you as you are.”
“A few of your brothers are closer to you.”
“I can’t deny that the Queen’s Guard is special to me. And, I won’t deny that within the Queen’s Guard I’ve come to know and count on some of you more than others.” Gabrielle began to walk again. “Sam was always with me. I felt safe with him near. I knew I could trust him.” She glanced toward Alem. “Sam was free to speak his mind. He knew that I would listen. I valued his opinion even if we didn’t agree. What we shared took time…”
“I’m sorry he chose to leave you.”
“Sam has an honorable heart and I cannot blame him for being true to it.”
“Gabrielle, I have… all of the Queen’s Guard have honorable hearts and except for Sam we all chose to remain with you. There is no greater honor than to serve you. Don’t you let Sam’s decision make you think different.”
“It’s hard, Alem. I know I failed my Lord and even though she’s forgiven me I cannot forget the hurt I caused her.”
“After Athens the Conqueror changed. She never laughed and she rarely smiled. She has been happier these past days in Megara with you than she had been all the prior moons without you. I don’t think she wants to go back and live in the past. If she sees Athens every time she looks at you, what chance has she to know happiness?”
“The past is not just Athens.”
“No, you’re right. The past is all that you have been to each other. The past is also your years as a slave and all the bloody battles that led to the Conqueror’s rise to power. The past is never all good or all bad.”
“And what of now, Alem? What are we, you and I, to do?”
“Isn’t the present what we make of it?”
Gabrielle smiled. “Alem, you are wiser than most of Greece’s renown philosophers.”
The Guardsman laughed heartedly. “I don’t think that’s saying much.”
Gabrielle leaned against Alem. “I think that you and I are going to be good friends.”
“Nothing would make me happier.”
Gabrielle scanned the seashore. “Do you see my Lord?”
“There is a fire by the cove. I say she is there.”
Gabrielle looked to the outcrop of stone and smiled. “Yes. I think she waits for me.”
“She always has,” said Alem.
Gabrielle walked down to the seashore, taking a route near the surf. The sea was calm, the sound of the waters lapping the shore familiar and comforting. She thought back to her early days with Xena. The Conqueror was an enigmatic woman. With few exceptions her darkness dominated the perceptions of those in the palace. Those exceptions, specifically Jared’s and Stephen’s gave Gabrielle reason to believe that her own perception of Xena, one that recognized an undercurrent of compassion and humor, was not her own misguided judgment.
In Crivello, Xena had confessed the pivotal day that changed their future – the day Gabrielle had disarmingly asked Xena what made her happy and encouraged her to indulge herself in order to known happiness.
As Alem reminded Gabriele, happiness did not come easily to Xena. The warrior’s spirit was heavy. Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to give Xena a lifetime, if not an eternity, of joy. To that effect, there was, however, one request she had yet to fulfill. It was a request Gabrielle could not in clear conscious fulfill alone.
Gabrielle entered the light cast by the fire. “Hello,” said Xena warmly. “How was the storytelling?”
“Good.” Gabrielle effortlessly went to her partner, sitting beside her and resting against Xena’s shoulder.
Xena placed her arm around Gabrielle holding her close. They remained in that posture for some time before Gabrielle took Xena’s hand in her own and kissed it lovingly.
“Gabrielle?” said Xena, a wondering inquiry.
“I was just remembering.” Gabrielle shifted her gaze from Xena’s hand to the sea.
“A good or bad memory?”
“The promise I made before leaving for Athens.”
“The promise of Megara?”
“Yes, and that all would be well. I never imagined my promise would be so difficult to keep.”
“We are in Megara, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle raised herself upon her knees and faced Xena. “Not completely.”
“Gabrielle, please don’t…” pleaded Xena.
“Love, listen to me,” begged Gabrielle softly.
Xena paused. Gabrielle could see Xena’s fear, her desire not to reenter the darkness they had, during their days in Megara, only just freed themselves from. Gabrielle now understood that she needed to surrender not to Xena’s love for her but to her love for Xena. She placed her hand on her concerned partner’s cheek. “You are my Lord,” she said and then leaned forward and tenderly kissed Xena, giving all that she was to the warrior. Xena’s response was hesitant. Their kiss ended uneasily.
Gabrielle leaned back on her heals. “Xena, I need your help.”
“Tell me,” she said, the tension in her body evident.
Gabrielle removed her ring from the leather pouch that hung from her belt and held it in her open palm. “I know how you feel about my ring. I can’t… I was not the first to place it on my hand. You were. When you did, you accepted my vow. I need to know that you will accept my vow again, as I give it to you today.”
Xena’s gaze went from Gabrielle eyes to the ring. After a few heartbeats she looked back up. “What vow do you give me, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle took a calming breath, bowing her head as she composed her rising emotions. She then met Xena’s gaze and said earnestly, “Xena of Amphipolis, I vow to love you, to honor you, to speak only the truth to you. I vow my fidelity.” Gabrielle paused as a tear fell down her cheek. “I vow my life to you above all else including Greece.”
“No, Gabrielle,” protested Xena. “I have never asked you to place me above Greece… just the opposite.”
“I know,” said Gabrielle. “But I cannot come back to you as Greece’s Queen first. I can only be with you if I am yours first. I need you to grant me leave from my queenship. I’m asking you to set me free from my Royal vow so that I may love you as my heart and soul demand of me. Never ask me to love you less.”
Xena raised her hand to Gabrielle’s cheek, her gaze ardent. “I accept your vow and set you free to follow your heart if ever you must choose between what is best for the realm and what is best for you.” She then took possession of Gabrielle’s ring and carefully placed it on Gabrielle’s finger.
Comments always welcomed: Mayt_Fanfiction@sbcglobal.net
Expect the final story of this series, My Lord: An Act of Love in December 2008.