Published Date: January 2007
Disclaimer: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices
Background: This is a Conqueror story. It follows the events of My Lord, My Lord: Solstice, My Lord: By the Fates, My Lord: Megara and My Lord: The Chosen's Promise.
Beta Reader: No beta reader this time, so I beg patience if grammatical & spellings errors are found.
Comments: Comments always encouraged and appreciated.
Subtext: This story portrays a loving relationship between two women. If you are under 18 or if it is illegal for you to read this text please do not continue.
Xena of Amphipolis, Conqueror of Greece
Gabrielle of Poteidaia
The Conqueror's Family (ML)
Cyrene: Mother of Xena
Lyceus: Deceased brother of Xena
Solan: Son (Megara)
Toris: Disgraced brother
Gabrielle's Family (ML)
The Conqueror's Household (ML)
Ben: Servant - burned (Megara)
Dalius: The healer
Danis: Lower servant - fire (Megara)
Lacia: Twelve-year old slave (Solstice)
Landis: Male servant
Leah: Slave / Gabrielle's roommate
Mansel: Male servant
Pathas: Male servant
Stephanie: Middle aged cook
Targon: The Administrator
Terrell: Old servant began fire (Megara)
Voger: Groom (Megara)
Perdicas: Gabrielle's betrothed (By the Fates)
The Generals & Their Armies
Xena, the Conqueror
Corinth and selected assignments
Western Port Cities
Alem: Bull of a man (Megara)
Anton: Senior Guard took Gabrielle to kitchen after Xena killed Gaugan (ML)
Brogan: Escorted Gabrielle when she was taken into custody by Osric. Reward was new saddle. (ML)
Cantus: Gabrielle mentioned that she stitched a wound (ML)
Endres: Gabrielle stitched a cut (ML)
Geldpac: Seasoned warrior (ML)
Hamish: Escorted Gabrielle when she was taken into custody by Osric. (ML)
Joél (The Medallion)
Mason: Young Guardsman (Megara)
Samuel: A Queen's Guardsman (Solstice)
Sentas (Lieut): Brash seasoned officer (ML)
Stephen: Royal Guardsman (ML)
Talas: Traitor, killed by Xena (ML)
Tavis (Lieut): Seasoned officer (ML)
Trevor: Royal Guardsman assigned Gabrielle's security. (ML)
Xanthus: Guard palace gates (ML)
Curan: Tried to rape Gabrielle. She killed him. (ML)
Blacos: Suggested for promotion (Megara)
Frome: Suggested for promotion (Megara)
Giles: Insults the Conqueror (By the Fates)
Hiero: Witness to Giles actions (By the Fates)
Inis: Gabrielle's lover during Gabrielle's estrangement from Xena (ML)
Lieut. Osric: Took Gabrielle into custody for killing a soldier. Later killed. Killer assumed to be Inis. (ML)
Persi: Repair the Conqueror's armor. (ML)
Sonas: Suggested for promotion (Megara)
Thad: Witness to Giles actions (By the Fates)
Leaders of Other Nations & their Ambassadors
Acade: Ambassador from Persia (Megara)
Bevan: Xena conqueror him to win Corinth & Greece (ML)
Caesar - Rome (ML)
Lao Ma - Chin (ML)
Okal - Persia (ML)
Callisto: Cirra (By the Fates)
Dagnine: Warlord, former lieutenant in Xena's army. Kidnapped Solan. (The Chosen's Promise)
Draco: Warlord - took Gabrielle into slavery (ML)
Halan: Leader of Eastern raiders (ML)
Leyan: Corrupt leader of the Persian Army (ML) Montavous: Greek accomplice of Halan (ML)
Casta (The Chosen's Promise)
Jabari: Ethiopian messenger (By the Fates)
Franco: Pensioner warned Stephen of Thanos (Megara)
Lords & Their Families
Ayssel: Eastern Lands (By the Fates)
Castan: Mentioned as meeting with other Lords at beginning of My Lord.
Haldis: Challenges Gabrielle (By the Fates)
Stasis: Mentioned as meeting with other Lords at beginning of My Lord.
Vacaou: Sent assassins to kill Xena after she defeated Caesar. Xena killed him to reclaim her throne. (ML)
House of Gaugan (My Lord)
Ridel: Gaugan's son
House of Judais
Judais: Northern Lands (By the Fates)
Clair: Servant (The Chosen's Promise)
Harlan: Clair's son (The Chosen's Promise)
Stavros: Nephew of Judais (By the Fates)
Tassos: Brother of Judais (By the Fates)
Tracate: Nephew of Judais (By the Fates)
House of Thanos
Thanos: Southern Lands (By the Fates)
Cofeus: Bavavos' chief guard (Megara)
Brijan: Guard (Megara)
Etan: Bavavos' Guard (Megara)
Katrina: Servant of Bavavos (Megara)
Kover: Guard (Megara)
Podios: Administrator (Megara)
Broan: Story requestor (Solstice)
Calph: Peacemaker at inn (Solstice)
Casta: Took care of Gabrielle it Ithome (The Chosen's Promise)
Damian: Negative villager (By the Fates)
Kiral: Referred to by Damian - slave connections (By the Fates)
Notios: Requested story from Gabrielle (Megara)
Sastro: Wood carver (Solstice)
Tertius: Villager positive toward Conqueror (By the Fates)
Tess: Barmaid (Megara)
Zeki: Merchant loyal to Gabrielle (By the Fates)
Clotho (maiden): Spun wool when person born
Lachesis (mature women - mother): Measure out the length of their lives on a string
Atropos (crone): Cut the string, determining when their lives end.
The Greek Gods
Aphrodite - Goddess of Love
Ares - God of War
Dionysus - God of Fertility, Wine & Drama
Eileithyia - Goddess of Childbirth
Mnemosyne - Titan Goddess of Memory
Hades - God of the Afterlife
Zeus - Most powerful God
Kaleipus, Leader of the Centaurs
Tansorious, one of Kaleipus' lieutenants
Athens: A significant city/state in the Conqueror's realm (Athens)
Corinth: The Conqueror's Grecian capital. (ML)
Civello: Northern Grecian territory (The Medallion)
Ithome in Thessaly: Where Gabrielle was sent by Ares after losing her memory (The Chosen's Promise)
Megara: Xena & Gabrielle's retreat (By the Fates)
Scupi: Where Xena retired to (By the Fates)
Patras: Where Xena would have been taken for transport to Rome (Megara)
Messene: Location of Thanos' fortress (Megara)
Greece was not a kingdom of one terrain and weather. Greece was a land of recent volcanic activity, a hot and dry terrain equal in elevation to the sea. Greece was also the rich soils of the central valleys, home to farms and vineyards. And, Greece was the mountain ranges scattered throughout the realm, suitable for sheep and goat herding.
The Royals had traveled far from Corinth to the northern most point of the Pindus Mountain Range. It was less than a fortnight to Solstice. The mountains were white with a deep blanket of snow. Crossing was possible by a few well-traveled roads, where the snow was packed firmly, and thus capable of supporting the weight of horse and rider.
The mountains of Greece could be a lonely place, dangerous to the wayfarer unaccustomed to the merciless elements, the cold, brittle winds and precipitation. The mountains of Greece could also be magnificent in their towering beauty. Remarkable for their jutting rock formations, the mountains captured the eye with their variant tones of color and texture, inspiring awe. The felt exhilaration of being in the midst of the foreboding mountain shadows could not be separated from the terrain's intrinsic danger. The shear physical exertion required to reach a mountain's pinnacle taught a priceless lesson that few had both the will and the stamina to learn. Those mortals who walked the treacherous paths, facing their fear of death, were rewarded by a spiritual renewal that could not be explained to one who never knew what it was to live on the edge of civilization, away from shelter, food and warmth guaranteed. Such knowledge was reserved for those rare souls who welcomed each day as a challenge to not only survive, but also to thrive.
Were Gabrielle of Poteidaia alone, she would have felt a far greater vulnerability as she journeyed through the isolated mountain valley. She had the knowledge and skills; she was sufficiently self-reliant to cross the landscape purposely, exercising caution and patience in equal measure to guarantee a safe passage. However, Gabrielle was not alone. Given her companion, the finest outdoorswoman she knew, she felt her well being vouchsafed. Gabrielle's companion, the woman who earned the honorific of her Lord, demonstrated time and time again an insight to the natural world that enabled her to forecast weather, find or create shelter and forage for, trap, hook or otherwise kill sufficient food to sustain them both.
In their years together Gabrielle had never shared such a dauntingly cold environment with her Lord. Her Lord had been more than equal to the demands of their travels. In truth her Lord took obvious pleasure in their endeavor.
"Cold! Cold! Cold!" Gabrielle jumped up and down on her toes in a failed attempt to generate some heat. There was no relief to her shivering caused by the persistent wind that pierced her finest handcrafted furs and leathers. She felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around and immediately found herself in her Lord's embrace.
"Maybe I can help," said Xena.
The warrior's warm breath tickled Gabrielle's ear. "Oh, this is good." Gabrielle buried herself against Xena's fur coat. "This is Elysia."
"It will be for me as well if you consent to be my bard tonight."
"Find us a warm cave and I'll tell you all the stories I know."
"There won't be a cave for us tonight."
Gabrielle looked up to her partner. "I thought you said there were plenty of caves in this area?"
"There are. There is also an inn two candlemarks further down the trail. I know the proprietor. He'll give us a comfortable bed and excellent food."
"Do Stephen and my Guard know about the inn?"
"They are probably two… three days behind our trail."
"Xena, it's not like you to enter a village unescorted."
Xena spoke seductively. "Other than Roco, the innkeeper, and his son, no one will know us. Gabrielle, a hot bath, a feather mattress, a good stew with fresh bread."
Gabrielle noted a rare mischievous glimmer in Xena's eyes. "Are we being expected?"
Found out, Xena chuckled. "I may have sent a messenger before we left Oescus." She noted the steam rising from the snout of a kettle resting on a nearby fire, "Water is boiling."
"I'm not moving," declared Gabrielle amicably.
"I thought you wanted some tea?"
"I'm fine right where I am."
"What if I want tea?"
"You have many skills. You'll think of something."
Xena's bright eyes reflected her enchantment. Her protest carried a familiar blend of mirth and exasperation. "Gabrielle…"
"My Lord." Gabrielle met and held Xena's mesmerizing gaze. She no longer felt the cold. Her senses were bound to her partner and the warmth that traveled through their intimate connection.
"Very well." Xena shook her head good-naturedly and hugged Gabrielle tighter. "We shall stay here until we freeze in place and the birds take us for statutes and settle on our shoulders and heads, singing their songs to our deaf ears." Xena looked up to the nearby tall pine trees. "Though if I was a bird I think I'd choose the protection of a tree to set my nest."
"They're fools. There is no safer place than to be held in your arms."
"But I would be holding you, not them. As much as I wish them well, keeping you safe will always be my first priority."
"Then I guess I should released you."
"Oh no, you set a challenge and I never back down from a challenge."
"What!" cried Gabrielle as Xena raised her up, cradling the younger woman in her arms. "Xena!"
Xena stepped closer to the fire. She knelt on one knee, still holding Gabrielle close. Using a stick, she raised the kettle off the fire onto a stone. Two cups readied with herbs were stationed on the ground. With gloved hand, she poured hot water into both cups. "Now, what to do as we wait for the tea to steep?"
Gabrielle leaned forward and whispered into her partner's ear. "I love you." She then separated just enough to passionately kiss the warrior.
Having finished their tea, the Royals stowed their possession in their respective saddlebags. As Xena checked Argo's tack, a cold wet missile expertly aimed at the back of her exposed neck hit her. She turned sharply to see Gabrielle packing a second snowball. Xena paused and considered her options. She chose not to mimic Gabrielle's chosen weaponry. Instead, she charged the bard.
Seeing Xena's surge toward her Gabrielle backed up. Xena was upon her as Gabrielle's second footstep breached the snow. The warrior took her partner by the waist and drove her down. Heedless of the cold wet snow Gabrielle laughed. She thought nothing of her precarious position.
Xena growled. "You think snow down my neck is funny?"
Gabrielle nodded as she continued her laughter, adoring Xena's childlike expression.
"I am a dangerous warrior!"
Gabrielle smiled. "Not to me."
"No." Xena took a handful of snow. Gabrielle reached out, grasping Xena's wrist. She pleaded with a bright voice. "No! Please..." Their gazes met and held. A surge of emotion burst through their inexplicable yet true bond. Captivated, Xena turned her palm allowing the snow to fall to the ground. After a moment pause she began to pull away. Gabrielle repeated in a hush, "No." The meaning far different, an intimate plea that Xena honored by arresting her motion.
Their connection mastered Xena. She took hold of Gabrielle and rolled their bodies so that she lay on the snow and the bard rested upon her. She closed her eyes as she felt Gabrielle touch her cheek against her own. Xena allowed herself to be engulfed by the bard's brilliant essence.
They lay together oblivious of their surroundings and of the passing time. They traveled to a dimension of existence beyond their mortal senses, seeking out and caressing each other's souls. Xena felt Gabrielle release her embrace. She opened her eyes to the bard. Gabrielle offered her a shy smile, one reminiscent of how the bard, still a servant in her household in the early days of their clandestine relationship, would welcome Xena in the mornings after they had shared the previous night in tender lovemaking. Xena mirrored the smile in spite of the pain that accompanied the calming of their connection. "Hello."
With her gloved hand, Gabrielle cupped Xena's cheek. "Thank you."
Though she too felt an overwhelming gratitude, Xena felt that to attempt to express her feelings in spoken words would impoverish the moment. She trusted silence. She trusted Gabrielle to understand her silence.
After a moment Gabrielle looked up. "It's getting late. We better get going if we are going to reach the inn by nightfall."
"Hard to do with you pinning me to the ground, my bard."
"Oh, please!" scoffed Gabrielle playfully. She got to her feet and offered Xena her hand, which the warrior immediately accepted.
Once back on sure footing, the warrior led her partner back to their horses.
The Pindus Mountains were home to scattered villages that prospered during the warmer moons, as herders and subsistence farmers labored to build up the necessary stores to keep themselves fed through the winter moons.
The mountain people enjoyed the protection of the realm and equally appreciated being left to live their lives with minimal intervention from Corinth. The residents of the autonomously govern district had a proud nature and received any political intrusion as a threat to their hard earned freedom.
Only a decade before, the men that form the core of the community were rebels against Rome. They had leveraged the difficult terrain, building a stronghold impervious to a marching army. Those very same rebels found the district well suited to their gentler ambitions of finding someone to love and to raise a family. Thus, the mountain became the place where they staked their future.
Outsiders were common as detours from a main trade route brought merchants to rest and imbibe in potent mead and ale, and a more limited supply of wine cut by the clear mountain spring waters. Strangers were thus cautiously welcomed; more so for the coin they carried in their pockets than any altruistic motives the residents might harbor. All this the Conqueror understood as she guided Gabrielle to the village of Civello.
The Royals rode into the village. Though dressed modestly, their steeds were too distinctive not to be noticed. Xena kept her sword and chakram under the cover of her cloak. Only their staves and bows were visible.
The village was situated on the cusp of the mountain range, protected from the harshest weather. Gabrielle admired the well-kept homes, tradesmen shops, inn and stables. A boy no more than twelve winters old stood outside the Ram's Head Inn entrance. He stepped forward, his gaze fixed upon her and Xena. The boy turned and ran into the inn. Within moments a man exited with the boy at his side. He was a large man, tall and broad shouldered, much like Samuel, though roughly a decade older. He wrapped his arm easily over the boy's shoulder. A missing upper tooth did not lessen his bright smile. The man walked down the inn steps to meet them.
"Right on time. I shouldn't be surprised," said the man to Xena.
Xena dismounted and offered the man her arm in greeting. "Roco, how are you?"
"Never better. You remember my boy, Stalan?"
Xena put her hands on her hips and said brightly, "You've grown two hands since I last saw you. How are you Stalan?"
"Very good, your Majesty."
"Oh no, Stalan, not on this trip. I'm just a traveler passing through, keeping company with the best of friends." Xena walked to Spirit's side and raised her hands up to Gabrielle. The Queen dismounted easily into Xena's embrace. For a moment their connection surged. Xena paused; sure her partner had shared the sensation. Gathering her wits, the warrior stepped aside. "Roco, Stalan, you haven't met the finest bard in Greece."
Roco offered Gabrielle his arm. "I've waited a long time for this day. It's an honor to meet the woman who stole my warrior friend's heart."
Gabrielle smiled as she grasped Roco's arm. "I'm told your hospitality is unsurpassed. I see that as always my Lord's words are true." She shifted her gaze to Stalan. "You have a handsome son."
"Favors his mother. She was as beautiful as you."
Gabrielle offered her hand to the boy. Stalan greeted Gabrielle shyly asking, "What should I call you?"
"When we are alone you may call me Gabrielle." She looked to Xena. "Until my Guard arrives we prefer our names not be known."
"Father told me." Stalan glanced over to his father.
Roco proudly patted his son on the back. "Xena, I have our best room ready for you."
"Thank you, Roco. We'll stable our horses and then come in."
Stalan eagerly offered, "I'll do it."
"It's the lad's chore." His father confirmed.
"Well, it wouldn't be right to take your chores from you, now would it?" said Xena.
The boy smiled. He reached out his hand. Xena offered Argo's reins. Spirit stepped back in protest as Gabrielle tried to do the same.
"Hey boy." Gabrielle's soft voice soothed the unusually resistant stallion. She stroked his cheek. "It's all right. I won't be far away."
Spirit bobbed his head unhappily. Gabrielle tried again. "Come now. Stalan will take good care of you."
Stalan spoke up. "I'm good at brushing."
"You see." Gabrielle continued to use her voice and hand to soothe Spirit. The stallion calmed sufficiently enough to give his mistress the confidence to hand his reins to Stalan. This time Spirit accepted the transfer docilely. Gabrielle rewarded him with a pat on his neck. "Good boy. I'll be by in the morning." She quickly lifted her saddlebags from Spirits back as Xena took possession of her own from Argo's tack.
Roco guided his guests inside the inn. "Come this way."
Gabrielle entered followed by Xena. She said, "It's not like Spirit to be so stubborn."
"This is a new place to him and he needs to be reassured you'll return to him. I know how he feels."
Understanding the cause and depth of need reflected in Xena's casual statement Gabrielle wrapped her arm around her Lord. Gabrielle found the inn large and well kept. The scents of fresh bread and venison roast wafted through the space. Gabrielle senses reassured her that their stay would be a pleasant one.
Roco led them up the stairs to the far end of the corridor. "This is my best and quietest room." He opened the door.
Gabrielle stepped inside followed by Xena and the innkeeper. It was indeed an excellent room comprised of a large bed centered against the far wall, a round table with two chairs near the entrance, a desk and chair placed against the outer wall under a shuttered window, and a large stone fireplace with a wide hearth and a scattering of furs and pillows before it.
"That door," Roco pointed to a door to the right of the hearth, "leads to the common bath. Don't be shy to latch the outer door to keep your privacy when you bathe. The other guests have been told that whoever stays in this room has first rights. There be plenty of hot water over the coals."
"This is wonderful," said Gabrielle.
"Good to hear. I'll leave you two to get comfortable. Let me know if you want your dinner in your room. I'll have a girl bring it up to you."
Xena placed her saddlebags over a table chair. "Thank you, Roco. I'll let you know what we decide."
"We serve late. An inn in these here parts gets travelers at all times of the night." Roco closed the door behind him.
Gabrielle placed her saddlebags beside the bed. She faced Xena. "My Lord."
Xena smiled. "You like it here?"
Once again Gabrielle felt their connection stir. She waited to see if Xena would betray feeling the same sensation.
Xena approached Gabrielle, pausing before her. She glanced at the healthy fire. "We shouldn't have to worry about the cold tonight."
Gabrielle leaned up and kissed her partner lightly on the lips. Stepping back she turned her gaze to the bed. "Or hard ground."
Gabrielle took Xena's hand. "Or this afternoon?"
Xena waited for no further invitation. She lifted Gabrielle into her arms and laid her down gently on the bed. Lying beside Gabrielle Xena swept a wisp of her partner's hair from her brow. The two women stilled in silent appreciation of each other and the safety of their shared company. A delicious lovemaking ensued.
Sitting in front of the fireplace, Xena failed in her attempt to silence her thoughts. Her quiet moments with Gabrielle had never been sweeter. Their private exchanges were both similar to yet different from those they shared prior to Ithome. Having the indelible knowledge of how profoundly she mourned the loss of her partner, Xena lived with a heightened awareness of her need for the bard. She had no doubt that she had been changed by the events surrounding Gabrielle's residence in Ithome. To what extent she was still in the process of discovering.
Xena was left humbled by the fact that she had no power to prevent the loss of Gabrielle, and that, in spite of her actions to secure her partner's return, ultimately, all she could do was wait, feeling her helplessness as she had never previously known. Events had proven that for all her intelligence, physical strength and political power she could not safeguard Gabrielle from the influence of the Gods.
And there was no denying that the Gods were a threat. Upon confirming Gabrielle's standing as Aphrodite's Chosen, Xena expected her partner to benefit from her divine benefactress. In retrospect, Xena judged herself naïve. No Chosen of the Gods was free from the machinations of the Olympians. If anything, they were more apt to become pawns, playthings in the immortals' games.
Xena had never questioned Gabrielle's blatant defiance of Ares though she knew the danger of it. She admittedly took pride in her partner's combative nature, her commitment to protect her Lord at all costs. Gabrielle, by Zeus' decree, was now freed from Ares' intrigues. Whether another God or mortal might go against Gabrielle in retaliation for an act perpetrated by Aphrodite was too great of an unknown to dwell upon. Her fear for Gabrielle, if jointly harbored, was never voiced by the bard.
Finishing an entry in her journal, Gabrielle closed the codex and set her quill to the side. She saw in Xena, a quiet, solitary spirit. She left the desk and knelt behind her partner, wrapping her arms around the warrior as she rested her chin on Xena's shoulder. Xena's thick wool tunic felt soft against Gabrielle's skin. She hesitated to broach the subject that had dominated her thoughts.
Their unexpected union had overwhelmed Gabrielle. The lingering waves of sensation that marked their connection were unlike any she had felt before. Gabrielle knew in her soul that she was vulnerable whenever in Xena's presence. She feared that by speaking honestly of Xena's power over her, Xena would question Gabrielle's willingness to share her most intimate self. Stronger than Gabrielle's fear was her need to know whether Xena shared her experience.
"About this afternoon… what happened between us. It took me by surprise."
"Took you by surprise?" Having heard hesitation in Gabrielle's voice, Xena replied cautiously.
"We haven't shared many of those moments, but when we have I've always felt my feelings slowly build up inside me and I've always felt…"
"What?" Receiving no answer, Xena turned her body around. "Felt what, Gabrielle?"
With Xena's motion, Gabrielle released her embrace. She sat back on her heals and looked down, knowing there was no easy way to say the truth. "I always felt I had control… that I chose sharing myself with you."
After a moment of heavy silence between them, Xena asked, "And you didn't feel you had a choice this time?"
Gabrielle kept her gaze focused on her hands, which rested upon her lap. "Our connection came so quickly… it was so strong."
"Like a powerful wave that would not be denied?" said Xena in a low whisper.
Xena reached out to her partner. "Gabrielle." She waited for the bard to heed her call and raise her eyes. What she saw was a rare shyness. In response, she spoke tenderly. "I felt the same way. It was as if I was drowning. I was frightened even though the sensations were nothing less than bliss."
"Xena, what's happening to us?"
"I don't know." Xena took her partner's hand. "Gabrielle, I believe we can stop if we choose."
"No!" Gabrielle was vehement in her protest. "No, Xena! I don't want that. Don't ask me to…"
"I'm not." Xena held Gabrielle's gaze with unflinching certainty. "I won't ever ask you for that. I don't ever want to go back to Ithome."
Upon mention of Ithome Gabrielle's expression shifted to one of pained recognition.
"Gabrielle, maybe it was me. This afternoon I looked into your eyes and saw… I saw how much you're mine, not because I will it but because you give yourself freely." For a moment Xena's gazed shifted unseeingly toward the shuttered window. "This trip… I was looking forward to having you with me, knowing that we would have time to ourselves out here away from everything and everyone that defines us as Sovereign and Queen. I have not been disappointed." She returned her attention to Gabrielle. "On the contrary."
"This time with you has been wonderful," echoed Gabrielle.
"Love, you own my heart and rule my soul. And, I cannot think of a greater joy than the joy I feel when I surrender to you. Our union has always felt… I believed you wanted me as much as I wanted you. If I alone am the cause." Troubled, Xena fell silent. She searched her heart, her motives and came to a conclusion. "I would never knowingly force you… I don't want you to be frightened…"
"It's not like that for me." Gabrielle assured, "I've never been frightened."
Xena's voice trembled as she said, "I need you."
"I think you weren't alone in your need."
Xena was visibly heartened. "You did want me then?"
"Yes!" Gabrielle exclaimed. She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "I've come to understand myself… my life… better. I have loved you from my first days in Corinth. Though you were not my friend, neither were you just my Sovereign. Falling in love with you was as frightening as it was wonderful." Gabrielle took hold of Xena's hand. "Xena, I wasn't frightened of you. It didn't take long for me to understand that all the hurt I had felt in the past would not begin to approach the pain I would feel if I lost you. Time proved me right. I did lose you and I survived, but barely so. Ithome taught me a priceless lesson. No matter the circumstances of my life, I am bound to you. I want to be bound to you."
"As I am bound to you." Xena reassuringly squeezed Gabrielle's hand.
Gabrielle smiled. "This has been a fine getaway. I have never felt more at peace. I've never trusted the world more. Maybe now the Fates will be merciful to both of us." Gabrielle weighed her next statement. She did not want to hurt Xena. "I feel… I feel it is safe to love you without reservation. I thought that is how I have loved you all along. But, now I'm not so sure. Maybe it is only now that I have completely given myself to you. Xena, no matter how overwhelming the feelings we share may become, there can be no other way for me."
"Are you sure? I'm so dark. The light I have to offer is pitiful in comparison to your own."
Gabrielle raised a hand to Xena's cheek. "Forgive me, my Lord, if I disagree."
Xena felt the consuming power of their connection. She leaned into Gabrielle's touch and closed her eyes. Within a moment she felt Gabrielle's embrace.
The following morning Xena entered the inn kitchen. She found the proprietor butchering a slab of bacon. "Good morning, Roco."
"Aye, Xena. Sleep well, I hope."
"Will you have breakfast downstairs or up in your room?"
"Gabrielle will be down in a moment."
"Roca, a favor?"
"What can I do for you?"
"Do you have a couple of pairs of snow shoes I can borrow?"
"Sure do. You and Gabrielle going out?"
"The sky is clear. I say our good weather will hold another day."
Roco looked out the window. "Aye it does look it. Where ye plan to trek?"
"I thought the south trail, by the ridge that overlooks the valley."
"It's a pretty place, but it can be dangerous. Don't go too close to the edge. Hard to tell where the overhang ends. You be floating on nothing more than a shelf of snow."
"I won't take any chances."
"Got a reason to live a long life, don't ya?"
Xena smiled. "I do."
"I feel the same way every time I see my boy. Adventure can't come close to giving my life the same meaning."
"Reason to stay away from the sword?"
"Aye. The men in the village and I are of one of the same mind. We will fight a good fight to save our lives and those of our families and friends. Lucky for us we found a place to settle where the taste of blood never leaves our memories not because we miss it, but because we never want to know it again."
"Count yourself a lucky man, Roco."
"I do, Xena. I wish you could have the same peace."
"If only all the world were as wise as the men of Civello," mused Xena. Her thoughts drifted to a rarely indulged vision of a world she had never been able to create for herself and for Greece. Seeing Roco's quiet regard she shook her head and snapped the vision from her mind. "Don't worry about me, Roco. I have Gabrielle and I find my peace in her."
"She must have a gentle soul."
"The gentlest I've known."
"You look happy."
"Hard not to be in a place like this. That's why I wanted to bring Gabrielle here. Even in our retreat in Megara her Guard always surrounds us. I knew I could come here without our soldiers and be safe. This is the first time in our lives together that we have been among people and not been surrounded by swords."
"You're traveling without yours?" asked Roco incredulously.
"I'm trying to keep my sword and chakrum out of sight."
"All right then. For a moment there I feared you lost your common sense."
"What does that say about the world, Roco?"
"It's never going to be Elysia, Xena. And we'd be fools to think otherwise."
"Maybe, but that doesn't mean we can't carve out a small space in the world and do our damnedest to create our own Elysia."
"By the Gods! The Conqueror is a romantic!"
Xena laughed lightly. "Tell my secret and I'll have your head."
Gabrielle entered the kitchen. "What secret?" she asked, having obviously overhead part of their conversation.
Xena embraced Gabrielle. "Nothing you don't already know, my love." She kissed her partner.
Upon separation, Gabrielle wore a brilliant smile reflecting her delight over Xena's open show of affection. She placed her hand over Xena's heart. She turned her gaze to the innkeeper. "Good morning, Roco."
"Morning to you. So, I hear you're going to get some fresh air."
Gabrielle looked up to Xena. "How long will we be gone?"
"We should be back in time for a late mid-day meal."
Xena and Gabrielle walked a path. Glistening blue-white ice covered a small pond to Gabrielle's right. She paused and bent down, placing her hand on the ice. Looking through the ice Gabrielle said, "I wonder how it feels… to have a different world so close and yet impossible to touch."
Xena crouched beside her looking first to the pond and then to her partner. "Is there such a world in your life?"
Gabrielle placed her gloved hand on Xena's cheek. "This time alone with you… We've never had this before… not being Sovereign and Queen to the people. I could be the village healer and you… you could work with horses and your leather smithing. No diplomats, no trade agreements... no wars. We could take care of each other, not Greece."
Xena took Gabrielle's hand and folded it into her own. "Is that what you want?"
Gabrielle searched Xena's eyes seeing an equal yearning for a simple life. She was heartbroken. "We can't. Greece would fracture. Who we are will follow us wherever we go."
Xena refused to so easily dismiss the possibility. "Gabrielle there is a vast world beyond Greece. Two people can disappear in it and never be known for their past. It is possible."
"Do you think we can escape our destinies?"
"Who is to say what that destiny is? Not even the Gods know what the Fates' have in store for us."
"The Fates know."
"I wonder how much of the future they really do see."
"More than the Oracle in Delphi."
"That's not hard to believe," said the skeptical warrior.
"Would you want to know the future? Where our lives will take us?"
"No, I am done with trying to control chaos. I was told I could do best for Greece if I chose the path I now walk. It was the destiny I chose because I owed a debt that needed to be repaid. I did the best I could. I walked through each day with an empty heart believing my destiny was set. And then I met you. I no longer presume to know tomorrow."
Gabrielle stood up. She looked out to the horizon. "How do I know where I belong?" Gabrielle turned to Xena as the warrior stood up. "Will I continue to be a part of your destiny?"
"By the Gods I lost you. By your will you came back to me. Your place is whatever you make it. I can only tell you that I will no longer deny that you are the source of my very being."
"I don't want to lose you."
"Why do you think you will?"
"How many times have we come close? Our lives…"
"Ours Gabrielle." Xena stepped closer, tolerating no distance between them. "We choose. If you want to leave Corinth, we will. It won't change our path. It will be our path." Xena noted the sadness that had overtaken Gabrielle. "What love?"
Gabrielle took Xena's hand, understanding that her partner's hand would forever hold a sword no matter where they called home. There was no escaping violence if violence was part of their world. She believed the violence that touched them was not contingent on their identities as rulers. It was contingent on Xena's identity as Ares' Chosen. "Let's walk."
"Gabrielle, please do not hide yourself from me."
Gabrielle looked out once again toward the horizon. "We have a marvelous life. Sometimes I wonder why I've been given you. I am no more worthy than any other man or woman that walks the earth. It is hard to accept the blessing. Being grateful doesn't seem enough."
Xena kept her gaze upon Gabrielle. "Gratitude is more than many feel. So many… those that have wealth or power or beauty or an artist's talent come to feel entitled and make a point of telling others that there is a separation between them and those less fortunate. You have all those things, paid a high price for them and have remained humble. It is one reason why I love you."
Gabrielle raised their held hands and kissed Xena's. "Walk with me, my Lord. Our future awaits us."
The inn was bustling with patrons. The wait staff of three worked hard to keep pace with their orders. Gabrielle watched what was to her the extraordinary simplicity of activity with great pleasure. The evening reminded her of Niko's. She always enjoyed her time with Xena at the Corinth tavern. Although, however informal the atmosphere, she was still the Queen. All present were aware of Gabrielle's plain clothes Guard, as well as, the Conqueror's nearby presence.
On this night her identity as Queen as well as a bard was unknown. She wished she could tell a few stories. She wondered if she stood before an audience only as an iterant bard if the reception would be any different.
Xena kept a close eye on her thoughtful partner. She leaned over and spoke into Gabrielle's ear. "Everything all right?"
Gabrielle turned to her. "I was just thinking."
"If Roco would mind having a bard tell some stories."
"He asked me if you would."
"Did he?" asked Gabrielle, pleased.
"What did you tell him?"
"I said that I would ask you after your Guard arrived. I'm not comfortable having the village know who we are."
Gabrielle was unsuccessful in hiding her disappointment.
"Gabrielle, it's only a couple more days."
"I know. It's just… would they think the same of me if they didn't know me as Queen."
"Gabrielle, once you begin your stories, everyone forgets they're hearing their Queen. You become the bard from Poteidaia and that is how they judge you. There is no undeserved politeness."
"I'll never know."
"Is it so important to you?"
"I won't risk our safety to stoke my pride."
Xena saw Roco pass near. She called out to him.
The proprietor stepped up to their table. "What can I do for you?"
"I thought you would like to know how lucky you are."
"My friend here is a bard and she was wondering if you would mind if she told a story or two."
Roco grinned broadly. "Really? Don't know… I don't want folk here to lose their appetites. Are ye any good, lass?"
Xena spoke for her modest partner. "We were in Corinth and she heard tales told by the Queen herself."
A man sitting at a nearby table, that apparently overhead the conversation, rested an arm upon the back of his chair and chimed in. "Roco, man, let the lass tell a tale. Can't think it do any harm."
"If she's no good it's on your head, Mica."
Mica was undeterred. "Lass, did the Queen tell about the battle with Rome. A friend of mind heard her at Niko's in Corinth and said it was the damnedest thing… the Conqueror doing some mighty feats."
Gabrielle looked over to Xena. Xena continued to speak for her. "My friend here tells the story well."
Roco was decided. "Then it's settled. We'll have entertainment tonight."
Xena took and gently squeezed Gabrielle's hand. "They're waiting for you, my bard."
Gabrielle leaned forward, embraced her partner and whispered, "Thank you."
"Go! Go!" Xena half-heartedly protested. "Make your sentimental scene up front, not here."
Wearing a wide grin, Gabrielle released the warrior and stood up.
"Come this way." Roco guided her with his hand.
She took a final glance over to Xena. What she saw was nothing less than unconditional love, with an equal measure of pride.
Having watched the bard follow Roco, Mica spoke to the unassuming warrior. "She seems shy for a bard."
"Sometimes she is."
"She's good, you say. I won't be owing Roco an apology will I?"
"She's good," assured Xena as she raised her cup of mead to her lips and took a healthy swallow. She felt a deep satisfaction in giving Gabrielle what she desired.
Roco shouted over the crowd, seeking their attention. He announced Gabrielle simply as "a bard", then placed a stool down for her and stepped away to listen.
Gabrielle sat upon the stool. She took measure of her audience. Their faces may be new, their names unknown, but their hearts were familiar. She knew these men and women. They were hard working villagers, merchants and other travelers. She would stir their imaginations, bringing forth a spectrum of emotion. By her words they would journey back together to recent history, to a time when the realm was threatened by the forces of Rome.
Gabrielle had told the story only once before. On that previous night, like this night, Xena sat in the back of the room, a constant companion. Unlike that previous night, on this night anonymity was theirs. Gabrielle had asked for this moment. She relished the chance to weave the tale where politics, memory and an intimate love converged. She found and for a moment held Xena's gaze with her own, seeking and feeling their intangible connection, through it conveying her gratitude. With the room fallen silent, Gabrielle took a calming breath and then began to tell the story of the Conqueror and her Queen.
As always, Gabrielle quickly won over her audience. She deftly outlined the Conqueror's military strategy certain that the former fighting men would appreciate Xena's cunning. Reaching the conclusion, she was greeted with overwhelming applause. Seeing Xena subtle nod in approval, the bard felt free to mingle with the patrons as she weaved her way back towards their table. In no time, Gabrielle was detoured to the bar when a village leader offered to buy her a drink, which she gratefully accepted.
Having handed a freshly poured cup of mead to Gabrielle, the older gentleman said, "That was a mighty fine story. Can't think the Queen doing much better."
Gabrielle found the praise sweet and quite funny. "Thank you."
"You're not from these parts are you?"
"No, I'm from the south."
"Easier winters there but too blasted hot in the summer if ye ask me. I take the coolness of these mountains."
A younger man approached. "Callan."
"Gustan," responded Callan invitingly. "Have ye met the bard here?"
"Watch out, Miss. Callan is a charmer."
"Hey now." Callan protested affably. "I know beauty and talent and we got both here in this gal."
Gustan's bright smile froze as his eyes found and held to the medallion Gabrielle wore on a chain around her neck. He scoured the room with his eyes until he fixed upon the tall dark woman warrior sitting in a corner of the inn. He tore his sight from her. Equally confused as he was fearful he looked down to Gabrielle's hands. Finding in her ring a confirmation he would have preferred not be present.
Callan continued to keep up the good-natured conversation he shared with the bard. He placed his hand on her shoulder as he laughed.
"Don't man!" cried Gustan in horror.
Callan looked over to the younger man. "What's wrong, boy?"
Behind the bard Gustan could see the warrior stand and approach. He turned to Gabrielle, panic owning him. "Please, he means no harm."
Callan's frustration was evident. "What in Hades' name are you talking about? I'm being nice." He looked to the bard. "Have I offended you?"
Xena stood directly behind Gabrielle.
Gustan was terrified. He fell to one knee. "Your Majesty, I beg your pardon."
Callan stared down to his young friend. "Your… Majesty? " He turned. By the look on his face one would think he saw his death in Xena. "By the Gods." He stepped back.
Gabrielle knelt down to Gustan. 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 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."
Gustan accepted Gabrielle's hand and rose to his feet. "You are most gracious, your Majesty."
Gabrielle turned to Callan. "How can I not be when given such hospitality."
Callan found his tongue. "I'm sorry if I…"
"You owe me no apology. You were generous with your praise."
"I spoke the truth." Callan exclaimed boldly. Indicative of his emerging courage he raised a steady gaze to the Sovereign. "Conqueror, I say the Queen is a fine bard."
Xena smile. "I've always thought so." Xena noted the silence that had overtaken the room. They had been heard. "Excuse me." She stepped to the front of the room. The patrons remained still, their expressions ranged from fear to curiosity. Xena sensed no malice. "Good evening. It seems as if the secret my companion and I had hoped to keep has slipped through our hands. As a Greek citizen who knows the goodness of its people, I ask a favor of all of you. For the sake of the safety of our Queen, it would be best if when you go to your homes tonight you speak only of the bard and the warrior that loves her and is sworn to protect her."
A man stood up. "Warrior!"
Xena acknowledged him warmly. "Yes?"
"Might it be possible for the bard to give a second performance tomorrow night?"
Looking across the room to the bard, Xena deferred to her partner. Gabrielle answered, "I'd like that."
"It seems there shall be another night of storytelling." The warrior conveyed an uncommon casualness. "Invite your friends. And when the Queen's Guard arrives you may tell those same friends how you knew that the Queen had been their bard." Xena wore a whimsical smile that many in the crowd immediately reflected. With the tension in the room eased, she returned to Gabrielle.
Later in the evening the Royals walked to their room. Xena listened as Gabrielle recounted a conversation she shared with one of the village shopkeepers. Xena could not recall ever seeing Gabrielle in brighter spirits. It took little time after the revelation of their identities for the villagers to continue their evening as if nothing extraordinary had occurred. A few of the more outgoing villagers found reason to share a word with them. The mood was such that Xena felt a camaraderie similar to that which she had once shared with the people of Amphipolis, prior to Cortese.
Xena woke alone in bed. She scanned the room. She watched Gabrielle standing by the window, peering out into the night through a slightly opened shutter. The strong winds could be heard over the rooftop. Snow, carried on the wind penetrated their safe haven. Gabrielle closed the shutter and walked to the fireplace sitting down upon the scattered furs. Her movements conveyed a subdued spirit.
Wrapping a blanket around her, Xena slip out of bed. Gabrielle shifted her gaze to Xena, who paused before her and asked, "Couldn't sleep?"
"The storm seems to be getting worse."
In their shared silence, Xena listened to the whistling winds. "You're worried."
"Stephen and my Guard…"
Xena sat beside her partner. "They're seasoned soldiers and well provisioned for this weather. Their route, like ours, has plenty of caves for them to wait the storm out."
"You think they'll be all right?"
"I'm sure of it. The only thing that will come from the storm in addition to the fresh carpet of snow is the prospect that we'll have a couple more days to ourselves. As much as I don't wish our men the weather, I have to admit I like the idea of having you all to myself."
"Oh, yes." Xena smiled.
"You haven't gotten bored with me?"
Xena looked around the room. Her mien shifted to tender introspection. "When I was a little girl, Lyceus and I spent all of our time together. My mother was busy with the inn and Toris ignored us and played with the other village boys. There was never a moment that Lyceus and I were bored. There was always a new path to explore, a swimming hole to splash in, and when we grew tired of our ramblings we would just sit together. We shared our wonder of the life around us.
"I took our time together for granted. I assumed we would always have each other. That even when we grew older we would live nearby one another and that I could go to him and spend time, sharing the same simple joys of having in him not only a brother but also a friend.
"When he died… I couldn't imagine ever having someone in my life who would be that kind of friend to me." Xena paused and looked to Gabrielle. "Do you remember those first moons when you served me?"
"I looked forward to seeing you every morning and sharing our few words. The pleasure of it was far more than you might think. Do you know what made me want you in my life, what led me to trust you and hope that you might give me a little of what I had lost?"
The question of why Xena chose her had never been answered. Gabrielle's hushed voice did not betray her rising anticipation. "No."
"Remember the day you asked me what brought me happiness and encouraged me to go out on a hunt?"
"Yes, I do."
"I feared you might be with my enemies and that the hunt was a ruse meant to lead me outside the walls of Corinth to my death. I confessed to Jared my suspicions only as the day drew to a close and we returned to the palace. I knew on that day that my life was forever changed. I felt… happy and I wanted to share my modest happiness with you. So, I invited you to share a meal with me and made my long withheld request that you be my bard."
The memory of that evening was dear to Gabrielle. She confessed, "It was a wonderful night for me too."
Xena sobered. "It was only two days later that I came back from field drills to learn that you had fallen ill. I lost Lyceus. I had just begun to see in you… the Gods be damned I wasn't going to lose you, too."
Gabrielle recalled those early days in Corinth, how keeping her safely within the royal residence the Conqueror had personally nursed her, a mere slave. "I knew I loved you the first time you spoke my name. I felt… at that moment I believed without reservation that you saw in me more than a slave. Your touch had been so gentle. Still, I didn't know how to be with you. I had known only violence. I never could have imagined the tenderness you gave me."
"I never felt more unworthy than I did the moment you pulled away from me." Xena glanced away, her face tense, as she recalled Gabrielle's rejection. She continued to speak in a dull cadence. "Though I did not approach you as my slave, having a slave deny me, her Sovereign, knowing that I could break you in half or worse." Xena returned her gaze to Gabrielle. "I had tried to show my better self to you. I was not good enough. I had proof of how sorry a human being I had become."
"Xena…" Gabrielle's voice carried her heartbreak.
"Gabrielle, what else could I believe? I know who I am. I know the atrocities I will ultimately be held accountable for."
"Tell me you do not see such judgment in me." Gabrielle implored.
"No." Xena offered a wistful smile. "Even when you disagree with me, I only see your wish to be with me in Elysia."
Consoled, Gabrielle now sought out her partner's touch. She went to Xena's welcoming arms. "In the meantime we share Elysia here on earth."
Two uneventful days with irregular snows had passed. As their day near close, the Royals lay in bed, enjoying the comfort of one another's company.
Gabrielle's thoughts dwelled upon those in route to Civello. She raised herself up, sitting beside her partner. "Xena, am I being foolish to be worried about my men?"
"No, I thought they would have been here by now," said Xena as she shifted her body so to rest her back against the bed's headboard.
"Maybe we should go look for them."
"I'd rather not see you out in the cold more than you have to be. Dark comes quickly and this has never been a good time of year for you."
"Xena, I'm feeling fine." Gabrielle would not be coddled. She was resolute. "This is a healthy place. I've seen nothing more than a few sniffles."
Xena fell silent. Gabrielle's thoughts drifted to their first shared Solstice as Sovereign and Queen. Gabrielle, terribly ill, neared death. She would never forget Xena's fear for her. She understood Xena's silence was a reflection of that fear in tension with the warrior's promise never to leave Gabrielle in a place contrary to her wishes. "Would you search for them without me?"
"I like none of my choices. Do nothing. Go alone. Take you with me."
"If I choose for you?"
"You have already told me what you want me to do."
Gabrielle could see the effort Xena made not to decree a plan, but instead to seek a mutual decision. She loved Xena for treating her as an equal, for not disappointing her in the face of what was to the warrior an unacceptable request. She decided to grant her partner relief. "I can stay here. This is a safe place."
"There is no safe place," said Xena with a hint of bitterness.
"I disagree." Gabrielle rested against Xena. Silence ensued.
Gabrielle patience was rewarded when Xena spoke softly in her ear. "You go nowhere without your staff."
Gabrielle wore an unseen smile. "And my boot dagger, I promise."
Having woken alone, Xena dressed and walked down the inn stairs to the dining hall. A number of patrons sat dispersed among the many tables and benches. Gabrielle sat alone at a table near the kitchen entrance, a tray placed before her. Xena approached.
Gabrielle turned her head, smiling upon seeing the warrior. "I was going to bring you breakfast."
Xena straddled the bench and sat facing the bard. "No need now." She reached for a bread roll.
"Roco is bringing some meats." Gabrielle took possession of a chuck of cheese and offered it to her partner.
Xena took the morsel between her teeth. She smiled, chewing the tangy feta. "I need to get an early start."
"How far do you plan to go?"
"With the limited daylight this time of year, I can only afford to travel to mid-day."
"Come back to me," said Gabrielle as she placed her hand gently on Xena's thigh.
"Yes, your Majesty." Xena playfully bowed her head.
Gabrielle raised her hand to Xena's cheek and tenderly guided her partner to meet her eyes. "No, Xena. Come back to me, Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
Xena sobered as she was unexpectedly struck with a fearful thought, one that found purchase in the notable deepening of intimacy in their relationship as they traveled alone. A thought which she voiced uncensored, "Will you welcome Xena of Amphilpolis or the Conqueror?"
"I will welcome you, completely."
Xena offered a promise meant to reassure and to lesson the tension in her own breast. "I will not go far or be long."
Xena leaned forward and kissed Gabrielle. "Promise."
Roco entered carrying a plate. "What is this! Warrior, take care. I need no jealous rivals in my inn. Many a fellow fell in love with your bard last night."
Gabrielle blushed and rested her forehead against Xena's shoulder. Xena whispered in Gabrielle's ear. "You know, it's true. And, that was before they knew you were their Queen." Gabrielle shook her head. Xena laughed heartedly and turned her attention to the innkeeper. "It does not matter, Roco. What counts is who the bard loves."
Roco placed the plate he held on the table. "Then you haven no worries. A blind man can see her heart is yours." It was now Xena who became flushed. "Ho! The warrior is blushing," teased Roco.
Xena altered her expression to a stern mien.
Gabrielle pulled free. She took note of the slight pink on her partner's cheeks. "Roco, you are fearless."
"No, Gabrielle. My friend here showed her true colors to me a long time ago. My eyes do not see the Conqueror so many fear."
"I am feared for good reason," growled Xena.
"Try to intimidate someone who cares, Xena. Yer wasting your breath with me."
"I'm done being abused." Xena stood up.
Roco winked at Gabrielle. "You know I always wanted to be a bard. Maybe I'll tell Gabrielle here some stories and she can measure my talent."
"Don't listen to any more of Roco lies," said Xena irritably.
"I am an honest man!" Roco brightly defended his honor.
Xena took possession of a slice of bread and laid a generous helping of cheese and roast upon it. She then grabbed two apples with her free hand. "This will do until I return."
"I love you." Gabrielle raised a hand to Xena's arm.
"Sweet," observed Roco wearing a wide grin.
"Shut up!" snapped the warrior, her dignity unaccustomed to the bald public ribbing.
"Too sweet!" The unrepentant innkeeper began to laugh.
"By the Gods…" Xena walked away.
Gabrielle stood up. "My Lord." Her worried voice carried across the room.
The warrior paused and looked back. Seeing Gabrielle's obvious concern, she retraced her steps until she stood before her partner. She spoke intimately. "I love you." She then turned a severe gaze to Roco and raised her voice. "And I don't give a damn who knows it!"
Waiting to once again have Xena's attention, a smiling Gabrielle did not hide her pleasure. "You are such a romantic."
"Aaargh!" Xena turned and walked away with Roco's guffaw resounding in her ear.
Gabrielle crossed her arms as she faced Roco, giving him a chastising look. "That was not nice."
"You'll get no apology from me. From the day I met my Trina, I've been waiting to give your fearsome warrior a dose of her own medicine."
Gabrielle relaxed her stance. "You knew Xena then?"
"If it weren't for Xena I would have never proposed to my wife and come to live here and have a son."
"Tell me the story." Gabrielle eagerly returned to her seat.
Roco sat down. "I was a soldier in her renegade army. This was before Cirra." Roco paused, his demeanor quickly altered, as if jolted far from the familiar. He was uncharacteristically grave as he cautiously asked. "You know of Cirra?"
"After Caesar… and before the horror of Cirra changed Xena's path to the greater good, she took her first step to becoming a noble Sovereign. So, I'm talking about a harder Xena with a heart colder than ice. Her men would swear that not one drop of humanity flowed through her veins. She surrounded herself with three types of people. Soldiers who would fight beside her, slaves that would do her bidding and …"
"It's all right, Roco. I know who she was."
"The third were those she used. Some she paid with coin. Some with favors." Roco cleared his throat. "She was unsentimental about love. No man or woman had a chance to mean anything to her. Being the way she was she laughed at anyone who showed anything more than a passing fancy for their bedmate.
"Xena took four of us to scout ahead of her army. We came upon what seemed from afar to be a prosperous village. Before riding in we dressed ourselves as peasants and stored our weapons out of sight. I set my eyes on Trina. She was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. Her Pa and older brothers were smiths. She, her Ma and younger sister cared for a few milk cows and some sheep. I met her at the village well. When one of our men reported that the inn had no rooms she was kind enough to invite all of us to dine with her family and sleep in their barn.
"Their house was modest in size so we ate outside on the porch. Xena was not blind to Trina's beauty. By rule Trina was hers to seduce. None of her men would have thought to interfere.
"Xena sees people. She knows how they think and no matter how cold her own heart she could always see inside the hearts of others. She saw mine and she saw Trina's. We stayed five days making ourselves useful helping Trina's family and learning more about the village.
"When it came to take our leave I did no more than wish Trina well. I had not taken her hand or stolen a kiss. I wanted to but I knew we would come back and take everything from her, and her family and friends. I had no right to hurt her more by having her think good of me.
"We rode back the way we came and met the rest of the men. We shared what we learned with Xena's lieutenants. The village was indeed prosperous. We would have a good day in the taking of their valuables and selling their youngest and most beautiful as slaves.
"Xena came to me the night before we were going to attack. She knelt on one knee beside me. She said I had been quiet, too quiet, and she wanted to know why. She didn't fool me. She knew. She always knows."
Gabrielle did not argue with Roco though her life proved him wrong. Xena could not see completely into the hearts and souls of others. Prior to Tracate's re-entrance into her life, Gabrielle had succeeded in keeping certain truths from Xena. Even now, Gabrielle continued to maintain Xena at a distance. If Gabrielle had her way, Xena would never have intimate knowledge of Gabrielle's blackest thoughts and feelings. "What did you tell her?"
"The truth. I never lied to her. I learned early in my days with Xena that if she asked a direct question you gave an honest answer. To do anything less… well, you must know she has no tolerance for deceptions."
"I do. So, you told her how you felt?"
Roco grasped his hands together. "I asked her permission not to ride the next day. I would forfeit my share of the take. She wanted to know why. I said I wouldn't be able to face Trina or her family."
"What did she do?"
"Nothing, really. She didn't say a word. Just stood up and walked away. I took it as a refusal. I counted myself lucky not to be dead. She didn't suffer fools and at that moment I was sure she thought me worthless to her.
"The next morning we rode out. She motioned me to ride by her side. I was now sure I had lost her trust. She always kept her eye on the men she thought might be a threat to her. The army lined up at the top of a hill that overlooked the village. We just stood there with our mounts. The foot soldiers held their swords clearly in sight. The villagers stopped in their tracks and then scurried about like frightened rabbits. At the time Xena rode a black stallion. My mount was a rust gelding with a clean white patch on his chest. They were easy to recognize from a distance. Trina walked out of her Pa's house to the well and just stood looking out to us. Her sister tried to coax her to safety, but she pushed the younger girl away. My heart was breaking. By the Gods I betrayed her trust. And then…" Roco took a breath in an attempt to calm his surging emotions. "Xena did the damnedest thing. She told me to follow her ahead. When our horses were far from ear shot of the other men, she stopped her mount and said, 'Do you think you could love her?' I hadn't a word for her so I just nodded. After a moment she said, 'Then go to her and lift up your sword only to protect her from the likes of me.' I was dumbfounded and said nothing. 'Promise me, Roco!' she said. So, I gave her my vow and that was the end of it. I rode down to Trina and Xena rode her army away to pilfer another village."
The two companions sat in silence, deep in their own thoughts. Gabrielle was the first to speak. "You're right, Roco. You saw a glimpse of my Lord on that day. The woman who sent you to Trina is the woman I fell in love with."
Gabrielle walked to the village silversmith's small shop. She recalled seeing him in the tavern during her storytelling. The craftsman immediately recognized his Queen. "Your Maj…"
Gabrielle placed two fingers to her lips.
Obviously understanding, the distinguished looking man, who reminded Gabrielle of Jared, held his eyes steady upon her. "Bard, what can I do for you?"
Gabrielle smiled, relishing her new given identity. "Do you take commissions?"
She pulled her medallion clear from her blouse. "Here…"
Gabrielle spent half the morning meeting and commiserating with the village shopkeepers and tradesmen. Surrounded by a breathtaking landscape, she longed to explore beyond the village perimeter. She entered the stables intent on grooming Spirit. Spirit butted his head against her. The stallion seemed as restless as she felt. "Doesn't seem fair, does it boy?" Spirit stamped the ground with a front hoof, seemingly in agreement. Gabrielle made a decision that would please them both. "What say you to a ride?"
Gabrielle rode the countryside, taking a well-traveled path. From a distance she saw a young boy on foot. She rode toward him. Upon reaching the boy she offered a warm greeting. "Good morning."
The young boy was distracted. "Morning… Miss, are you going by way of town?"
"I'm just out for a ride. I plan to return to the inn in a candlemark or so. Why do you ask?"
"My Pa sent me for the healer."
"Is he sick?"
"My Ma is having a baby. My Pa… he was awfully worried."
"How far is your homestead?"
"I've been walking a half candlemark."
Gabrielle reached out. "Take my hand."
"You taking me to town?" asked the boy hopefully.
"No. We're going back to your homestead."
He stepped back. "I can't Miss. It's my Ma…"
"I'm a healer," said Gabrielle reassuringly. "I know how to help her."
"But my Pa said…"
"I swear to you I can help your mother. Please, show me the way. We don't have the time to go to town and back. I won't disappoint you."
"You don't look like a healer."
"I never travel without my kit. If I show it to you, will you believe me?"
The boy looked back toward the direction he came. He turned anew to Gabrielle with a determined look on his face. "I believe you."
"Good." Gabrielle sighed in relief. "Now, take my hand. We're riding to your Ma and Pa together."
The boy did as told. He settled his body behind Gabrielle.
She took his hand and guided his arm around her waist. "What's your name?"
"My name is Gabrielle."
"Like the Queen's?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Yes, like the Queen's." She placed her hand over the boy's. "Now, Adam, hold on tight to me." She felt his strong arm across her waist as Spirit shifted from his stance to a walk and then to a canter.
Reaching the modest homestead, Gabrielle offered Adam her hand, helping him dismount. She then quickly dismounted, strapped Spirit's reins to a hitching post, retrieved her saddlebag and walked behind the boy as he entered his home.
Adam called out for his father. Gabrielle waited with him in the cabin's main room.
"Adam. Boy, you've made good time," said the boy's father has he entered from an adjoining room. The man was visibly surprised to see Gabrielle. He directed his question to her. "Who are you?"
"I met Adam on the road. He told me about your wife. I'm a healer…"
Impatiently, the man interrupted her. "You don't look old enough to be birthing babies, let alone knowing how to guide them into the world."
"I haven't had a child, but I've been mentored by the best mid-wife in the east and I've brought my share of babies into the world."
His suspicion remained. "Have you?" Both turn their gazes toward the bedroom as they hear a woman's cry of pain.
"Please let me help your wife. In the mean time you can send your son to town. He can ride my horse."
Adam's father walked to the cabin entrance and stepped out to the porch. "That don't look like a healer's mount."
"He was a gift," said Gabrielle, feeling her genuine pride in Spirit soar.
"From someone you cared for?"
"Birthing a baby?"
"Mending a sword wound."
The man turned to his son. "Adam."
"Yes, Pa," said the boy as he went to his father.
"Take the healer's horse to the barn and give him oats and water."
Adam smiled, as there was no apparent disapproval of his decision to bring Gabrielle to the homestead. His father gave him a loving pat on the shoulder as Adam walked out the door. "He's a good boy. We've wanted to give him a little brother or sister for many years now. My Lista has had two miscarriages."
"We're so close…"
"If she's at the end of her term there is no reason to believe that the baby isn't well."
He took a calming breath. "Come with me and I'll introduce you."
Xena returned to the village. Roco called to her as she reached the stairs. Xena paused, then walked to meet the approaching innkeeper. Sensing the proprietor's anxiety she asked, "What is it, Roco?"
"Gabrielle took her stallion for a ride. She has not returned."
"How long has it been?"
"Four candlemarks, maybe more."
Xena closed her eyes and focused. She felt Gabrielle's vital life essence undisturbed. "What is there to the west?"
Roco was visibly startled by the exact nature of her query. "To the west? There is a road. It goes to the backcountry. There's farms scattered about. Little else."
"Do me a favor." She offered him her waterskin. "Fill this with hot tea and give me another with wine and wrap some bread and cheese. I'll be in the barn saddling my horse."
Xena road Argo hard. She felt a surge of elation pulse through her connection with Gabrielle. She voiced her thoughts. "Love, this better be good."
Reaching a homestead Xena dismounted Argo and walked the grounds, her keen eyes surveyed and assessed all that she saw. Seeing no sign of Gabrielle or Spirit she carefully opened the barn door. The stallion stood unharmed. She guided Argo to the cabin, hitched his reins to a post and then walked up the porch stairs and knocked on the door. A man roughly thirty summers old opened the door. She noted that he was weaponless and had well worn hands. She deduced that he tilled the soil for a living.
"Yes?" asked the man.
"I'm looking for the bard that owns the white stallion in your barn."
The man stepped back and turned to Gabrielle who was cradling a baby in her arms. "Bard? I thought you were a healer?"
Xena stepped in. "She's that too." She was enchanted and relieved at the sight of her partner. "Hello."
Gabrielle smiled. "I thought you might come looking for me."
Xena peered into the swaddled baby. "Who is this?"
"Well, well, Tansia, you are a pretty little girl." The baby fussed. "Ah, she may be hungry."
"I think you're right. I'll take her to her mother."
Xena watched Gabrielle, feeling a wave of contentment course through her. She turned to the man. "Congratulations."
He beamed. "Thank you. I thank the Gods for your friend."
"Gabrielle is a talented young woman."
"Gabrielle…" The man looked back toward the bedroom. "That's her name?"
"Yes, Pa. She told me before we rode here," said Adam.
Xena now saw that there was a young boy standing near the hearth fire.
The boy's father's mien changed as he shifted his gaze from his son back to Xena. Recognition struck. "No, she can't be… that would mean you are…"
Xena offered him her hand. "Xena of Amphipolis."
"Conqueror," said the man with wonder.
Xena heard the boy repeat his father's declaration in an awed whisper. "Today I prefer if you call me by my given name."
"I am Bursten. There be my son, Adam. Welcome to my home." He grasped Xena's arm in greeting.
Xena offered him an open smile, one rarely shared with strangers. "I have a wineskin. What say we toast your family, Bursten?"
"I would be honored."
"Good. Tell my Queen I'll be right back." Xena exited through the front door.
Bursten entered the bedroom. His wife was nursing their hungry baby. Tired, her gaze traveled to her husband. Gabrielle looked over his shoulder. "Where is…"
"Xena went to get a wineskin so we can drink a toast to our new girl."
"Xena…" Stunned, his wife turned toward the healer.
"Yes, wife. We have had the honor of having our daughter brought into the world by Gabrielle, Queen of Greece."
Lista turned to her Queen. "You said nothing."
Gabrielle smiled warmly. "We were both a little busy. Anyway, when I'm a healer or a bard, I'm not the Queen."
Bursten stepped closer. "With all due respect, your Majesty, but by your actions today you have proven yourself to be nothing less than a queen worthy of our admiration."
"Thank you, Bursten." Gabrielle heard the front door open. "If you excuse me, I need to give my Lord a proper welcome."
Gabrielle entered the main room. Without missing a step she went to and embraced Xena. Feeling the warrior's strong arms enfold her Gabrielle sighed. "I love you."
Xena placed her lips near Gabrielle's ear and softly said, "You gave me a bit of a scare, my bard."
"Only a bit. I could feel you were well and I swear I felt your happiness the moment the baby was born."
"I wouldn't be surprised." Gabrielle released her partner and stepped back. "How was your day?"
"Did you see my Guard?"
"I did. They were below the ridge. We exchanged messages with arrows. Stephen wrote that they are well, though looking forward to proper shelter. From what I can tell the eastern pass is open. They should join us in two more days."
Gabrielle renewed her embrace. "Two more days with you alone. It's a hard life."
"For you, yes. Bard and healer, you are earning your living." Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "I, on the other hand, have been quite lazy."
The Royals rode their steeds back to the inn under the light of the moon, which shone brightly in the cloudless sky. Xena could feel through their bond Gabrielle's lingering joy. She relished the easy day and once again indulged the dream of sharing such a simple life with her partner. Xena's reverie was interrupted by Gabrielle's gentle voice. "Where were you?"
Xena turned to her. "Just thinking… It was a good day."
"Yes, it was."
Xena returned her gaze to the road. "Solstice is only a few days away. What say you to staying at the inn through the holiday?"
"I know our Guard will appreciate the rest."
"And you? What will make you happy?"
Gabrielle smiled. "My Lord, I've never been happier. I want for nothing."
"We stay then?"
"I'll tell Roco."
Gabrielle's thoughts lay upon a practical concern. "The inn isn't large enough, even doubling up I doubt he'll have enough room for all the men."
"They can draw lots. They'll enjoy the game of it," said Xena on a casual note.
"Not if they are the poor souls left out in the cold." Here was a long-standing difference between the two women. Gabrielle always strove to offer her Guard comfort in travel, while Xena considered comfort an unnecessary luxury. Gabrielle's eye's brightened as alternative accommodations came to mind. "I have another idea. Some of the villagers might have spare rooms. I'm sure they'd welcome the chance to put some extra coin in their pockets."
"I don't know…" Xena's bias toward caution stirred. "These people don't trust outside authority."
"They've welcomed us and kept our secret," argued Gabrielle gently.
"True." Xena had been the one to attest to Civello's safety. She would not be a hypocrite and grant the Royal Guard less than she allowed for herself. "Roco can pass the word. We'll see if there are any takers. If not, the men will do fine in the stables."
"I wager all of them will have a warm bed on Solstice eve," said Gabrielle decidedly.
"No wager, my bard. I know your skills in persuasion too well to bet against you."
"If I swear not to solicit rooms?"
Xena cast a knowing glance at her partner. "Tell me, what tale of charity will you tell in the inn to move the villagers to open their homes to our men?"
Gabrielle laughed. "I didn't think of that. It would be worth the try."
"I wager on your success, never your failure."
"Do you believe in me so?"
"Must you ask?" said Xena with unexpected vehemence.
Gabrielle took measure of the warrior's passionate response, seeking an honest reply. "No, though I admit I sometimes still find your faith in me hard to accept."
Xena halted Argo. "Gabrielle, the day I lose my faith in you is the day I lose my faith in life itself."
Gabrielle reined Spirit. From their bond she felt a jolt of anxiety. Taken unawares, she spoke Xena's name in a hush.
The warrior looked down to her hands, entwined in Argo's reins they rested motionless on her saddle horn. Contradicting Xena's quietude, Gabrielle felt a second tremor of anxiety. Proof once again of her heightened sensitivity to Xena's emotions. She guided Spirit around to Argo's side so that she faced her partner. She reached out and placed her hand over Xena's. "My Lord?"
Xena swallowed, obviously trying to master her internal tumult. Her posture remained unchanged. "Damn…" Her curse was self-directed. "Don't know what's wrong with me."
"I feel what you feel." To Gabrielle's disappointment her consolatory gesture seemed only to cause Xena to further withdraw. Silence settled between them. Gabrielle exercised her greatest patience.
"Sorry…" said the warrior hoarsely.
"Don't be." Gabrielle tightened her grip. She felt her partner's unnerving distress ebb, uncertain if she felt sorrow or fear, or a combination of the two.
Xena raised her head shyly meeting Gabrielle's gaze. "We should keep moving."
Gabrielle searched the warrior's hesitant eyes. "I have a request."
Xena nodded silently.
"I want a quiet night in our room tonight, sharing a roast dinner and some fine wine. And, I want to give you my gentlest touch."
Xena raised Gabrielle's hand to her lips and kissed it. "As you wish, my bard."
Xena held Gabrielle as the bard slept. They had shared all that Gabrielle had desired: a quiet dinner, fine wine and tender lovemaking. Xena felt a resurgence of the unexpected vulnerability that had taken hold of her the previous day and as a result a storm raged within her soul.
The ever-increasing depth of their bond was disconcerting. As much as Xena longed for union, her need frightened her. She wondered if the taunt unrelenting bond was unique to place and time. Whether by returning to Corinth, draped once again with the mantle of Sovereign and Queen they would forfeit what was an unfolding, seemingly fathomless intimacy. She debated whether to try to reassert her autonomy. As she did she wondered whether Gabrielle would not only feel the change but also trace its source to Xena's doubts.
Answers to a number of her questions would come with time. For now, she was certain of one fact. Gabrielle was weathering the state of their relationship far better than she was. Resting her gaze upon her partner, Xena was humbled. Gabrielle was experiencing a rare, undisturbed peace. Xena did not want to disrupt her partner's priceless tranquility. She resolved to set her reservations aside. This moment in their lives was too singular, too precious not to relish. What the Fates decree could not be changed by her worry.
The following days passed without incident. Gabrielle entertained villagers and travelers with her tales, taking particular pleasure in knowing that to many in the audience she was simply an itinerate bard seeking to earn her room and board at Roco's inn.
Xena and Roco took advantage of the improved weather spending the daylight candlemarks checking traps and seeking out the always-illusive stags within the mountainous region. As the days passed, what to Gabrielle was Xena's inexplicit gravity slipped away, replaced with a bright and mischievous disposition that caused the bard to tread carefully, though joyfully, beside her partner.
Gabrielle sat at one of the inn tables writing while in the kitchen Xena helped Roco butcher a doe that was the unfortunate victim of Xena's keen aim of a bow.
"Innkeeper! Have you food and spirits for a weary lot?"
Gabrielle smiled upon hearing the familiar, boisterous voice. Glancing from her parchment she saw her dear brother. "Stephen!" Gabrielle rose to her feet and ran to him, garnering a hearty embrace upon her arrival.
"Whoa! This is a fine reception," exclaimed the Major.
Roco and Xena entered the main room. At the same moment Stephen and Gabrielle found themselves surrounded by the Queen's Guard. They included Samuel, Trevor, Alem, Sentas and Tavis. Keeping her head resting against Stephen, Gabrielle surveyed her brothers. "Are you all well?"
"As well as can be sleeping sandwiched between Sam and Sentas," said Tavis. "What a man will do to stay warm." The Guardsman shrugged with a decidedly distasteful look upon his face that earned everyone's laughter.
"We should be angry with you," said Stephen. "Running off with the Conqueror. Leaving us to worry."
"Oh no you don't!" Gabrielle said happily as she took a step back. "My Lord told me you knew her intentions."
"I wager you did not put up a struggle."
Gabrielle went to Xena, wrapping her arm around the Sovereign's waist. "Do you blame me?"
"Gabrielle, we cannot answer that question. To say no might be misinterpreted as a disrespectful reflection of the nature of our regard for our Liege and to say yes could very well be mistaken as a criticism of your judgment."
Xena enjoyed the exchange. She saw in Roco an obvious bewilderment. "What is it, man?" she asked softly yet, directly.
"Huh? Nothing…" After a brief pause, Roco found his wits. "These be the men you been waiting on?"
Stephen answered. "There is a score of us. And with the Conqueror's permission we would like to settle our horses."
"The stables are behind the inn. Roco has five rooms for you here and we have arranged five more among the villagers. You will double up. The villagers are good people but there will be no dereliction of your security protocol."
"Yes, my Liege."
Alem stepped forward. "Gabrielle, can we get a story tonight. I'm tired of listening to Trevor and Sam's singing."
"But, I've missed their songs," said Gabrielle as she suppressed her urge to smile.
"Ha!" shouted Trevor triumphantly.
"By the gods," lamented Alem.
Gabrielle laugher owned the room. "Alem, you will have your story. The Guardsman smiled broadly, surveying his fellows with undisguised pride.
"Come on, men." Stephen directed. "The sooner we unpack the sooner we'll have our midday meal."
"Roco, will you ready food for my brothers?" asked Gabrielle.
"Your…" Again, the innkeeper bafflement remained undisguised. "Yes, of course. I'll get to it." Roco exited to the kitchen as the Guardsmen followed the Major out of the inn.
Xena chuckled as her gaze traced the innkeeper's departure. "Roco is a confused man."
"But why?" asked Gabrielle truly surprised by the Roco's lost composure.
"Have you no idea how foreign your brother's playfulness is compared to the discipline I demanded during Roco's days with me?"
"We are not at war. Anyway, they always speak with the greatest respect. Even Stephen will not call you by your given name in front of the other men."
"And the way they speak to you, their Queen?"
"I have always been their sister first and that will never change."
"The warlord Roco knew me to be would not have tolerated any informality toward her lover let alone her consort."
Gabrielle set aside Xena's allusion to past lovers. "You enjoy it. I know you do."
"You'll have no argument from me." The warrior embraced Gabrielle lovingly.
Upon separation, Gabrielle looked pensively up to Xena. "Why did you change?"
Xena caressed Gabrielle's cheek. "Gabrielle, without a moment's thought those men will give up their lives to save yours. They will do so not because you are their Queen, but because you are their beloved sister. They hold such a love for you that they show it without embarrassment. Their love keeps you safe. It also makes them stronger because they share one woman in their lives - you. I share you with them without jealously because they are an asset in keeping my promise to never let harm come to you."
Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's heart. "They love you, too."
"I know. That I know is a secret better kept between us."
"I cannot give you a satisfactory answer. My instincts tell me to keep my men at a distance. I trust my instincts."
"Maybe your instincts are too grounded in the past."
"I have seen much change in my life. And yet, with all the change I've seen human nature remains constant. We all have the capacity to do one another harm. Love has the power to keep us to virtuous motives. Love can distill, but cannot completely purify our souls. As a result, with few exceptions such as you, Jared and Stephen, I remain careful."
"Very well." Knowing how difficult it was for Xena to trust, Gabrielle would not argue further. She would however, state a truth with pointed affection. "But love, please remember that you can count on our men just as much as I do. They will not disappoint you."
Xena kissed Gabrielle lightly. "I should get back to helping Roco. The men will have venison steaks."
Gabrielle was not to be separated from her partner. "Let's go. I'll help with preparing the vegetables."
"I say the men will bypass the meat for steamed squash," said Xena drolly. She laughed as she felt Gabrielle's quick slap upon her backside.
Solstice Eve Gabrielle decided to keep her promise to visit Lista and her family. At the break of dawn, she rode with an escort of five: Stephen, Samuel, Trevor, Alem and Tavis, carrying gifts of a wool baby blanket and an exquisitely carved rattle. Upon arriving, the men commiserated with Bursten as they worked with him, completing tasks around the homestead. Gabrielle, in turn, ensured that mother and new daughter were well.
Their visit complete Gabrielle and the Guardsmen rode casually back to the village. Periodic wolf howls caused a rising skittishness in their mounts. The sounds first heard as they traveled to the homestead now seemed closer and more ominous.
"Major, them wolves are close," called out Alem.
"I say you're right," answered Stephen.
Gabrielle sought to measure the danger she sensed more from the Guardsmen's countenance than the immediate environment. "Stephen?"
"Game is sparse this time of year. Hungry enough an animal won't think twice about its safety when food is near," he answered.
The contingent continued on the narrowing path through a thick stand of trees. The travelers shared a pronounced caution as the sounds of the wolves increased in frequency and in volume. A surge of growling and wounded yelping caused the procession to pause.
Stephen stood up on his stirrups to better scan the surrounding woods. "Men, keep a close eye."
"They're fighting among themselves," Tavis observed aloud.
"I don't like it," said Alem.
"Nor I," agreed Stephen, as he sat back on his saddle. "Keep moving."
Gabrielle led with Stephen beside her. The savage brawl quieted. Within moments, a bloodied wolf leaped out of the forest in front of the horses. The wolf seemed at first disorientated, then he focused on Gabrielle's majestic stallion. It snapped at Spirit. Spirit stood up boldly on his hind legs using his forelegs to protect himself. Gabrielle pressed her legs against the steed and raised herself up on the saddle, maintaining her balance as best as she could. Gabrielle both heard and felt movement around her without comprehending what actions the others were taking on her behalf.
The wolf lunged, clawing Spirit's breast. The stricken stallion bolted to the left. Gabrielle did not fight him, honoring Spirit's fear. She crouched low in the saddle avoiding tree branches, satisfied in leaving their assailant behind. In one terrible motion, Spirit's momentum was forcefully halted. He fell pitilessly to the ground. Gabrielle was thrown from the saddle a few paces away from were Spirit laid. Unharmed, she raised herself up.
"By the Gods." To her horror she saw the cause of Spirit's fall. His right hind leg had been caught in a trap. Worse yet, the wolf had followed and now approached, its hair upraised on its back, its teeth bared, saliva dripping from its mouth.
Gabrielle's hand went instinctively to her boot dagger. Taking the hilt firmly in hand she dove forward. On her knees she placed herself between the stallion and the wolf. "Damn you!" she shouted at the wolf as angry tears fell down her cheek.
Unimpressed, the wolf held its place before her. Gabrielle's muscles tightened, readying for a new attack. The wolf paused and turned its head to the left, its ears raised attuned to the surroundings. A dagger pierced his torso. The wolf fell back, its pelt crimson with blood. A second dagger struck the wolf's neck.
Gabrielle turned to see Stephen standing beside his black stallion. Behind him riding toward them came the other Guardsmen. Without further delay Gabrielle stowed her dagger back into her boot and went to Spirit.
The stallion, in obvious pain, fought the chained trap, which was held to the ground by a deeply embedded metal stake. "Whoa boy." She struggled to grasp his head. Succeeding, she held Spirit close against her, as she attempted to calm him.
Stephen ran to them. "Gabrielle, hold him still. I'll release the trap."
Gabrielle's gaze was fixed upon Spirit's fearful eyes. She soothed him with her gentle voice. Stroking his cheek with her hand. She heard Stephen giving the Guardsmen orders. Within moments Trevor was on his knees beside her.
He gently touched her arm. "Be careful. Spirit may react badly when he's released from the trap."
He won't hurt me," said Gabrielle.
"An animal in pain will forget himself." Trevor's counsel was interrupted by Stephen's abrupt commands.
Gabrielle kept her eyes lowered to the stallion as she listened to the Major. "Hold him still! Son of a bacchae, this trap is rusted… Sam, take one side. I'll take the other… Tavis, raise his leg when I say." Footsteps in the snow followed voiceless moments. Again, Stephen voiced rose over all other sounds. "Sam… Do it!"
The creak of the opening trap was followed by Spirit's impatient thrashing. "Hold him down! Damn it!" shouted Stephen.
Gabrielle felt Trevor shift away from her as she tightened her grip upon Spirit's neck. "Stay boy, don't fight us." The stallion responded by easing his struggle. "Good boy." Gabrielle continued her efforts, not feeling the cold or wet of the snow she lay upon.
"Gabrielle," called Stephen gently.
She looked toward him. She could not see Spirit's injury from where she was. "Stephen, is he going to be all right?"
The Major met her gaze. "I need to bandage his leg. He was running so fast when he stepped in the trap… I don't know what other damage he may have done to himself. Let's see if he can stand and walk."
Stephen got to his feet and walked to Gabrielle. He took Spirit's reins. "Okay, boy. Come on now…"
Gabrielle shifted away to safety as in one quick motion Spirit stood. He kept his wounded leg raised, limiting the weight it bore.
Stephen stroked Spirit's cheek reassuringly then handed the reins to his mistress. "Gabrielle, walk him,"
She did, leading Spirit gingerly. The stallion moved deliberately, neighing with each injured hoof fall. After a few steps, clearly aware of Spirit's pain, Gabrielle looked beseechingly back to Stephen.
The Major answered her silent plea. "Let's get back to the village. I want the Conqueror to take a look at him."
Xena rode Argo at full gallop driven by a relentless pulsating sorrow. The source of her sorrow was Gabrielle, conveyed through their bond. During the span of a quarter-candlemark, Xena had felt a shift from vague foreboding to sharp panic followed by anger and heartbreak. Xena surmised that Gabrielle was physically well. What she did not know was the subject of Gabrielle's emotion. Given the company that Gabrielle kept, how dear she held her brothers; Xena feared a terrible injury had befallen one of them. That Stephen was among Gabrielle's escort compounded Xena's anxiety.
From a distance she saw the mounted Guardsmen. That Gabrielle was not immediately in sight alarmed her. Meeting the contingent, Xena spied Gabrielle and Stephen on foot at the center of what she understood to be a protective configuration. Xena's gaze traveled to Spirit. His breast was crimson with blood. She reined in her anxious emotions and silently dismounted. The Guardsmen shifted their horses opening a path for the Conqueror. Xena's pace was brisk as she sought confirmation of Gabrielle's well being.
Seeing her Lord, Gabrielle dropped Spirits reins and ran to her, falling into Xena's embrace. The warrior enfolded her partner in her arms. "Hey." Gabrielle began to cry quietly. Xena reassured, "I'm here." She looked up, catching Stephen's worried gaze. She directed her question to him. "What happened?"
"A mad wolf got chased away from his pack. He attacked Spirit. Spirit tried to get away. He stepped into a trap"
Xena visually inspected the stallion. She noted the bandaged leg. "How bad is he hurt?"
Stephen's dire countenance conveyed more than his words. "The trap's teeth went deep and he was at a full gallop when it happened." He glanced to Gabrielle. "I told our Queen you would be a better judge than I."
Xena understood far more than the women in her arms that there was little hope for healing. It was neither the time nor place for Spirit's raw truth. She spoke tenderly to Gabrielle. "Let me take a look at him and then we'll go back to town."
Gabrielle nodded in response.
Reluctantly releasing Gabrielle, Xena went to assess Spirit's leg. She knelt down and began undoing the bandage. Stephen crouched beside her. She asked him. "The wolf. What happened to him?"
"He's in Tartarus."
"Did he hurt anyone other than Spirit?"
"I didn't give him the chance."
With a quick glance Xena confirmed that Gabrielle remained at a distanced. She lowered her voice so only Stephen could hear. "Make sure you clean the blade well. He was diseased."
"Those marks on his chest are from the wolf's claws?"
"Then probably not. It usually takes a bite." Having exposed Spirit's leg completely, Xena reacted to the wound. "Damn," she hissed.
"Xena, his leg…"
"I know." Xena raised her gaze to Stephen. "I'll tell Gabrielle later."
Spirit was placed in the largest stall in Roco's stables. After sending Gabrielle to their room to wash and rest, Xena privately tended to his wounds. She then groomed him, offering what little comfort she could. She saw no future for the stallion other than a quick and merciful death. Her heart broke. She would end the stallion's life, not trusting another to cause him the least pain possible.
Her affection for Spirit was bound to her love for Gabrielle. She remembered seeing the young impetuous colt and sensing that Gabrielle's gentle hand could calm him as Gabrielle calmed her. Spirit also represented a time in her life in which she lived completely removed from the demands of being Sovereign. Scupli, much like Civello gave her a taste of a life she could visit but never claim for herself. She mourned the unavoidable death of the stallion and the shattering of the idyllic days shared with Gabrielle in Civello. They would return to Corinth, the lingering joy of their respite subdued by the sorrow of their loss.
Xena set the grooming brush aside and stood before the stallion, scratching his cheek gently. Spirit was undeniably a bold and beautiful equine. Of Gabrielle's possessions, he alone earned both her affection and pride. Equal to Gabrielle's fine horsemanship, Xena also credited Spirit as the inspiration for Gabrielle's regal posture when she rode the stallion.
Xena remembered how Bursten had confessed to her, that he knew the Gods blessed anyone who owned a horse like Spirit. It was in seeing Spirit that he had reason to trust the young woman who claimed to be a healer. Despite her feelings toward the Gods, Xena had not dismissed the comment. Bursten had also offered an easy complement, granting that Xena was an excellent judge of horseflesh, as he correctly assumed that she had given Spirit to Gabrielle.
Xena's thoughts were interrupted by Gabrielle's entrance to the stable. She walked to the stall, standing on the first rung, better to see. "How is he? Will he take long to heal?" she asked hopefully.
Xena found and held Gabrielle's gaze. She meant to convey a truth that would not be breached by argument or pleading. "Gabrielle, his leg is too far gone. The tendons…"
Gabrielle struggled to maintain her composure. She glanced down to his damaged leg. "He's young. He'll heal."
Xena used all her will to steady her voice. "If he hadn't been running so fast… He can't bear weight on his leg without pain."
Gabrielle jumped down from the rung and entered the stall. Spirit turned his head to her. She welcomed him. After a few thoughtful moments she said, "Boy, you'll going out to pasture."
Xena placed a comforting hand upon her partner's shoulder. "Gabrielle, that is not his fate."
Gabrielle looked up. "What do you mean?"
"He'll be killed by the first predator that crosses paths with him."
"We'll keep him in the stables," said Gabrielle tensely.
"What kind of life would that be for him? It would be cruel."
Gabrielle shook her head as she came to understand Spirit's fate. "No."
"Gabrielle, I'll make sure he feels little pain."
"No!" she raged. "I will not let you kill him!"
Xena shifted her hand to her partner's arm. "Gabrielle, please..."
"No, Xena!" Gabrielle slapped Xena's hand aside. "You have no right. He's mine."
Xena was unmoved. "Listen to reason. Gabrielle, Spirit means a great deal to me, too. I'm thinking of what's best for him."
"If it was Argo would you kill her so easily?" asked Gabrielle scornfully. "I know you, Xena. You would do everything in your power to save Argo. You would leave nothing untried. You would exercise your infinite patience to be sure. It's been three candlemarks and you're ready with your sword. I hate this!"
"He's suffering. You're a healer. You know that sometimes the greatest gift you can give is to encourage someone to cross over."
"I have never rushed woman, man or child to Hades."
"Name his fate, Gabrielle. Do we stable him up against nature or set him free to be ripped apart by another wolf?"
"Save him as you have saved me."
"I can't. I swear I wish I could."
Silence fell between the two women. Gabrielle stepped back and then walked to the stable entrance. She paused and asked dejectedly. "Will you feed him to the dogs?"
Xena winced. She had expected Gabrielle's anger. Understanding its source did not lesson the pain it caused. "He shall have a pyre. He will wait for you in Elysia."
"You're determined to do this," asked Gabrielle sternly.
"Is there anything I can say or do to stop you?"
Xena looked down. After a moment she raised her gaze to Gabrielle. "Will I lose your love?"
Gabrielle saw a profound truth. Xena's fear of losing her love was rarely so nakedly revealed. Gabrielle knew she could stop Xena by the mere hint that she would withdraw her love. Never had either of them leveraged their love to forestall an act sincerely executed for the greater good, especially one rooted in mercy. Gabrielle's heart broke, as Spirit's fate was unequivocally determined in their shared silence. "I've lost my tolerance for diplomatic visits. I return to Corinth in the morning." Her voice trembled as she said, "Wait at least until I'm beyond the precinct to strike your sword."
Xena remained silent. There was nothing left to say. She watched Gabrielle leave the stable then turned her gaze back to Spirit. A lone tear fell down her cheek.
It was well past nightfall when Stephen returned to the stable. He found Xena sitting on a hay bail resting her back against a stable wall. "It's late."
"I'll keep him company tonight," responded Xena softly.
Stephen stood before the Conqueror. He saw only his friend. "Xena, Gabrielle is hurting. She will not hold this against you."
"She has never asked anything for herself. For others, yes, but not for herself."
"We both know Spirit's chance of healing are slim."
"You think there is a chance?" Xena posed uncertainly.
Stephen turned and walked to Spirit's stall, reaching out to the stallion, stroking his mane. "He has to want to get well."
Xena's voice traveled sharply across the room. "I won't break Gabrielle's heart a second time."
Stephen kept his eyes upon the magnificent steed. "We can work with him here. Gabrielle doesn't need to know."
Stephen returned his attention to Xena. "It's your fault I know almost as much about horses as you do."
The hint of animation in their banter intensified as Xena quipped, "If you stay you'll miss the pleasure of planning your wedding with Tess."
Stephen smiled sheepishly. "It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make."
The following morning Stephen stood at the stable door watching the Queen's Guard prepare to leave. A mount with modest tack was secured for Gabrielle. She insisted that Spirit's tack be burned on the pyre with him. Gabrielle stepped out of the inn. She exchanged a few words with Samuel. Stephen chose then to enter the stable.
At the foot of the inn Gabrielle watched as Xena exited the stable with Stephen remaining a short distance from his Sovereign. Her Lord paused, standing feet firmly planted, hands held behind her back. Between them it was a familiar stance that conveyed Xena's uncertainty. To those who did not know her, the Conqueror was a stoic image. And yet to Gabrielle, Xena embodied an anxiety that she could sense without their bond. Their gazes met.
Gabrielle knew that by her decision to return to Corinth they would be separated for at least a moon's time. She walked across the courtyard to her partner. The tension permeating through Xena eased slightly. Xena walked to meet Gabrielle. Stopping short, she left three paces separating them. Gabrielle continued, breaching the distance. She embraced her Lord. Xena enfolded her partner protectively.
Gabrielle whispered. "Nothing you choose to do will ever stop me from loving you."
"I love you," said Xena hoarsely.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, memorizing the moment. She understood that her pain was not hers alone. She gently released her Lord. She raised her hand to Xena's cheek. "Cover his eyes before… I don't want him to remember you with a sword in your hands."
"Finish Greece's negotiations. I'll wait for you in Corinth."
"I won't make you wait long."
Gabrielle kissed Xena lightly. "I love you."
Xena walked Gabrielle back to the inn and bid her and the Queen's escort farewell. She watched until they disappeared from sight. She then entered the inn, seeking the privacy of her room. Climbing the stairs in twos, Xena felt relief wash over her. With it came a wave of exhaustion. She had slept badly in the stables.
She entered her room and sat on the bedside removing her boots. She slid back onto the bed, leaning against the headboard. Her thoughts were with Gabrielle. Her stay in Civello and her travels north would not be the same without her partner. She scanned the room, noting how bare it seemed without Gabrielle's possessions. It was then that she saw an open scroll on the desktop. Knowing that Gabrielle would not have indiscriminately left her writing to the sight of strangers, Xena jumped to her feet and impatiently crossed the room.
She picked up the scroll and read.
My Lord -
I missed you last night. I would have welcomed you if you had come to me. Know that I do not blame you. I do understand that you act with mercy, not callousness.
During our life together you have given me many gifts. I have valued Spirit as one of the greatest reflections of your love. I confess that you and he touch my heart in similar ways. His beauty, strength and noble carriage mark his magnificence and yet, I love him equally for his playful temperament and his affection given in response to my own.
When I have been troubled Spirit has been my tolerant companion, carrying me away, if only for a brief moment in time, to a place where I could be alone with my thoughts, where I could be free.
I am and will always be Gabrielle of Poteidaia first and Queen second. With Spirit by my side I felt more Queen than slave, servant or peasant. He was born to serve royalty - never did I imagine he would fulfill his destiny as my mount.
I shall wait for you. Upon your return, I ask that we not speak of our mutual loss. I will reclaim Geld who has served me well in the past. I also ask that you not try to replace Spirit. I want no more gallant stallions.
Finally, I beg your forgiveness for my harsh words. I was angry with the Fates, not you.
Travel safely. Come home to me as soon as you can.
I love you.
Xena rolled the scroll and returned to her bed. She rested with the scroll in her hand, a necessary anchor in her life.
That evening Stephen shared Solstice dinner with Xena. After their dinner concluded he reached into his belt pouch. "I have something for you. Gabrielle asked that I give you these tonight. He presented Xena with a folded parchment with the Queen's seal and a small cloth bundle tied with a simple string. He waited for Xena to take possession of the gifts before standing up and grabbing their mugs. "I'll get us fresh drinks."
Xena briefly followed Stephen's departure with her eyes before turning her attention to the parchment and bundle. She carefully broke the Queen's seal. The message was brief.
I wanted you to have a part of me with you always.
Xena unfolded the cloth with reverence, revealing an oval silver medallion hanging on a silver chain. Engraved on the medallion was Gabrielle's seal, the combination of quill, staff and laurel, originally designed by her Guard to dress the Queen's banner. Xena set the cloth aside. She raised the medallion to her lips and kissed it. She then secured the medallion's chain around her neck. Their twin rings spoke of their union, of their promises to one another. The medallion spoke only of Gabrielle, the woman who in freedom chose to be with her.
Xena ached for her partner. She closed her eyes and focused on Gabrielle, releasing the love she felt to the invisible ether, hoping her strength of feeling would bridge the distance Gabrielle had traveled that day, reaching and consoling her partner.
Gabrielle slept soundly as Xena stood at their palace bedroom threshold. Negotiations had been far more tedious than expected. Nearly two moons had passed since they parted in Civello. Their exchange of correspondence was warm and loving. Still, Xena hesitated to reenter her life with Gabrielle.
She stepped back and crossed the main chamber of their suite to the bath. The fire was cold and thus the water tepid. She welcomed the chance to be rid of the dirt and sweat of her journey.
Washed, she donned her robe, which conveniently hung on a wall hook. Gabrielle, Xena observed, had maintained the artifacts of an uninterrupted, shared life. She took comfort in the fact.
Having toweled her hair she walked to the balcony. I gentle breeze swept through her long tresses. Soon they would be dry and she would be ready for bed. The moon was only a sliver in the sky. The stars shone bright. She heard the intermittent sounds of Guardsmen walking their rounds.
Xena lost track of time as she resettled her thoughts upon the men and women who made life in Corinth so different from the natural world she had traveled. She wished to enter a village such as Civello or Scupli, as a stranger welcomed for her skills and industry, creating a quiet life where the sword and chakrum had no reason for existence.
In such a village she would have met Gabrielle, fallen in love and known the day to day joys and sorrows that had nothing to do with the world stage. Such a dream had touched her in Civello and she was certain she saw the same dream reflected in Gabrielle's eyes as her partner told her stories and served as mid-wife.
In revisiting their brief time in Civello Xena also saw something in Gabrielle she still did not understand. Gabrielle had only to consent and they would have left Greece, bequeathing governance to Jared. Gabrielle's sense of duty kept her on the throne, a seat of authority she had reluctantly accepted. The source of Gabrielle's sense of duty was beyond Xena's well thought through logic.
Xena entered the bedroom, soundlessly approaching Gabrielle's side of the bed. She knelt on one knee, placing her hand over Gabrielle's. She whispered her partner's name. Gabrielle stirred from sleep. Xena repeated her tender call.
Gabrielle opened her eyes to Xena. "My Lord," she said in a low throaty whisper.
Xena smiled. "I'm here."
"I've missed you so."
"I love you."
Gabrielle closed her eyes. She wore a muted smile. "You will come home to me."
Xena understood Gabrielle was still hovering between sleep and wakefulness. "I have, love." She leaned forward and kissed Gabriele tenderly on the lips. She felt Gabrielle's hand touch her cheek as Gabrielle returned the kiss with rising ardency.
The kissed ended and Xena drew back slightly.
"Xena!" Gabrielle raised herself up and took her lover enthusiastically into her arms.
Gabrielle's embrace was a sweet, much needed assurance. "It is good to know that even in your dreams you love me," Xena quipped wholeheartedly.
"In my dreams. In every waking moment." Gabrielle released her. "Did you just arrive?"
"I took the time to clean-up for you. I wanted to make a good impression."
"You are and always have been beautiful to me no matter how much road dust you wear."
"That's reassuring," chuckled Xena.
Gabrielle glanced down. "My Lord…" She tentatively touched the medallion she gifted Xena for Solstice. "You wear it."
"I shall never take it off."
Gabrielle was pleased. "So, you like it?"
"Very much. I carry you with me always. If ever you doubt what you are to me … that you are not only my love," Xena took Gabrielle's ringed hand into her own, " but also my Queen, you need only to look to the medallion."
"I did not mean the medallion as my claim on you," said Gabrielle apologetically.
"Why not," Xena countered, "when I have sworn myself to you as I have done no other." Xena looked blindly away for a moment, before returning her intense gaze back to Gabrielle. "I need you to be my Queen."
"Very well, my Lord." Gabrielle kissed Xena. "Come to bed. You must be tired."
Xena disrobed, gladly accepting Gabrielle's invitation. Lying on her side she found pleasure in simply shifting wisps of hair from Gabrielle's forehead. Seeing a further invitation in Gabrielle's bright emerald eyes, Xena kissed her partner. What followed was a night of delicious lovemaking.
Hearing someone enter the Royal suite, Xena glanced out the balcony. Seeing the morning light she assumed breakfast was being served. Given that the household staff knew of her return she set a private wager that her chief cook had delivered the meal. Xena gently slipped from Gabrielle's embrace and donned her robe. She stepped out of the bedroom to the main chamber pleased to see Makia. She retied her robe, an unconscious habit, and approached the dining table. "Good morning, Makia."
The cook looked up from her task and smiled. "Good morning, Your Majesty. I hope you are well."
"Very. And you? How have these past moons treated you?"
"I have no complaints. Is the Queen still asleep?"
"Yes. I woke her upon my arrival. It was some time before we fell asleep."
"I imagine it was a pleasant homecoming for you."
"Yes, our Queen made it so."
The cook nodded in response. She stilled all motion as if thinking to speak and then returned to setting the meal. Xena stood silently and observed. She found the cook's gestures arrested. She believed there was indeed something the cook had left unsaid. "Makia, is something wrong?"
The cook looked up seemingly confused by the question. "No, Your Majesty."
"Makia…" said Xena in a low timbre, a hint of warning conveyed.
The cook took a step forward, holding herself straight with renewed confidence. "The Queen seemed worried. She did not confide in me."
Xena gentled her voice. "She speaks to you of me." There was no question, only a statement of fact. Xena could see Makia's uncertainty. The cook was well aware that there had been a time not too long in the distant past when the Conqueror would have never tolerated a servant having knowledge of her intimate life. "It's all right. It is not good for our Queen to feel alone in the world. She needs friends she can trust."
"Thank you, Your Majesty. But, I've always felt that our Queen keeps a part of herself sheltered from the light of day."
"That part of her that is mine?" probed Xena. She wondered how well the cook understood her partner, and this was a rare, non-confrontational opportunity to find out.
"She freely expresses her love for you. She always does so with great joy." Makia held Xena's gaze with obvious compassion. "I think she still fears losing your love. And, I think her fear has more to do with the harm done to her by others than with the life you have given her in Corinth."
"You are perceptive," said Xena as she offered a muted nod in agreement.
"Then she has no reason to fear the loss of your love?"
The question jolted Xena from a place of relative internal peace. "You are bold this morning, Makia."
The cook lowered her eyes. "I beg your pardon, Your Majesty."
"You know she lost Spirit?"
"Sam told me what happened. Our Queen will not speak of his injury and death."
"By my hand."
"Her Guard has been constant in their support of your decision."
"They are horsemen."
"And the Queen is a capable horsewoman."
"She has lost so much in her young life. She speaks of none of it. Not even to me."
"Do you share your losses with her?"
"Yes." Xena turned her gaze toward the bedroom threshold. "As our years together have passed I've come to accept that as much as our Queen selflessly gives of herself, there is a part of her that as you said, she keeps sheltered from the light of day."
"I'm sorry, Your Majesty."
Xena returned her attention to the cook. "Not a word of this to Gabrielle."
"No, Your Majesty."
Xena went to the table and set a mug of tea and a plate with bread, meat and soft cheese on a tray. "Let me take her breakfast. She deserves a gentle awakening."
The cook watched as the Conqueror picked up the tray and walked toward the bedroom. "Your Majesty?"
Xena looked to the cook. "Yes, Makia?"
"Gabrielle was never a slave to you, was she?"
Two thoughts entered Xena's mind. This was the first time since Gabrielle's ascendancy to the throne that they referred to Gabrielle by her given name to each other. The second was that Makia's boldness reminded her of Gabrielle upon their first true conversation in the infirmary. She found no reason to be offended by the direct, personal inquiry. She answered softly. "No, not really."
"She was a slave to others. If she wasn't to you, it was you who made the difference, not her."
Xena shook her head. "Makia, my life is not Tartarus on earth because of her. I was… I am not unselfish. In loving Gabrielle I am the most selfish beast that walks the earth."
"I was never blessed with a child," said the cook unexpectedly. "I confess I resented by barrenness. When Gabrielle came into the household I did not want to care for her. Accepting my love for her… having her love in return. I think I understand how you feel because I feel the same way."
Here was an ironic lesson. Gabrielle was a catalyst who brought people together even in the context of speaking of how Gabrielle kept herself from others. Xena understood that just as she had to come to accept Gabrielle's unwarranted love as a contradiction of all she once believed true - that she was not meant to have love, so too did Makia need to accept Gabrielle's presence as the daughter the cook believed she had been deprived of. There was nothing more to be said between them except to acknowledge the cook as a valued member of her household. "Thank you for breakfast, Makia."
"You are most welcomed, Your Majesty."
Xena rested the meal tray on a table near Gabrielle's bedside. She stood over Gabrielle observing the younger woman as she slept. Gabrielle seemed at peace. Gabrielle's peace was Xena's greatest desire. Having returned to Corinth Xena was determined to do her best to tenderly coax Gabrielle's fears to a secure, reassured niche in her partner's heart. For in her heart they lingered and would do so until Gabrielle's death. Like the scars on Gabrielle's back, so deep did Xena measure Gabrielle's heart wounds she no longer expected their complete healing, though she held fast to the hope that one day such healing would still take place.
Gabrielle stirred, reaching out toward Xena's bedside. Xena sat on the bed and whispered, "I'm here."
Gabrielle rested on her back and opened her eyes. She smiled. "Last night wasn't a dream."
Xena mirrored her partner's smile. "If it was I shared it with you." Xena gestured toward the table. "I brought a sampling of Makia's generous breakfast for us."
"She knew you were here?" asked Gabriele as she sat up against the bed headboard.
"My comings and goings have always been of interest to the household."
"I remember… Mornings not seeing you always felt incomplete. They still do."
"Our mornings…" Xena felt the sadness that accompanied her confession to Makia. "It was hard to love you from a distance. You could be so forthright with me and yet you remained a mystery. I wanted so much to understand you. I came to believe that you would reveal yourself only to the one soul who would earn your trust and love. And, I knew I could never be that soul."
Gabrielle extended her hand and cupped Xena's cheek. "You were wrong."
Xena took hold of Gabrielle's hand and kissed it. She had been doubly wrong. She was wrong to believe she could not have Gabrielle's trust and love. She was also wrong to believe that in having Gabrielle's trust and love, Gabrielle would no longer be a mystery to her. She exiled the memory of her conversation with Makia to the far recesses of her mind. "Our mornings are not so different now, are they? A private word shared with no other."
"I never imagined having you bring me breakfast," said Gabrielle lightly.
Xena offered Gabrielle a mug of tea and a slice of rich rye bread, which she had spread soft cheese upon. "There is freedom for both of us to indulge our whims when we are beyond observing eyes."
Gabrielle bit into the bread. "Oh, this is good. You should indulge your whims more often, my Lord."
"Then let me steal you away for the day. No matters of State for the Queen of Greece."
Gabrielle was clearly pleased by the prospect. "But not just yet. This Queen is no hurry to leave her bed, and she hopes that if her Lord consents she won't be in want of company."
Xena reached out and wiped a few crumbs from Gabrielle's face. "How could I refuse such an offer? Give me a moment to get word to Targon." She got to her feet and walked to the bedroom threshold, pausing and glancing back at Gabrielle who was selecting a slice of meat from the tray. She set aside all thoughts and feelings other than the peace and joy Gabrielle's presence gave her.
With Xena's return Gabrielle's days and nights passed quickly. She worked closely with Targon on the finer details of Stephen and Tess's wedding. In Stephen's absence she consulted Jared and Xena to ensure a Guardsman's honor would be in the forefront of the ceremony.
Tess was adjusting relatively well to the city. Better, Gabrielle thought, that she had. As expected, daughters of Court Lords were disappointed with Stephen's choice of Tess. Gabrielle suspected that a number of them harbored hope that the Major would tire of the former barmaid and pick a more socially suitable bride.
Targon had taken a sincere liking to Tess. Given that neither Gabrielle nor Xena had required Tess's personal services to any great degree, and with the Royals' blessing, the pretense of her employment was soon discarded and Targon engaged her as his assistant. The Administrator demonstrated great patience as he taught Tess palace and Court protocols, not only for the purposes of her work, but also for her expanded role upon becoming wife to the Major.
Though Makia also welcomed Tess into the household, Gabrielle suspected that the Chief Cook preferred to personally serve the Royal couple, especially when meeting Gabrielle's few special requests.
Stephen's extended absence had been perplexing to Gabrielle. Xena's insistence that he was needed to ensure implementation of the trade agreements in the north seemed excessive. Someone of lesser skills could have met the needs of the realm. One day when Gabrielle wondered aloud if Stephen had chosen purposely to stay away from the wedding preparations, she witnessed a glint of amusement in Xena's eyes. Only then did she cease questioning the decision. Gabrielle loved Stephen too much to scold him. With the wedding data approaching he would have no choice but to return to Corinth where he was greatly missed.
Learning that Stephen had returned to Corinth, Xena wasted no time seeking him out. The Major was in the stables speaking to Voger, the Chief Groom. "Stephen!" called Xena.
"My Liege." The Major turned to her.
"Get over here!" They embraced robustly, patting each other on the back. "Gods, it's good to see you. It's been Tartarus explaining to Gabrielle why I kept you in the north."
"It's good to be home."
"You must stop at the palace and see your sister. Of course, only after you enjoy a proper homecoming with Tess."
"How is Tess?"
"Misses you. She is also nervous about the wedding plans though I can't see why. Targon was taken the project on with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. I've assured Tess that Targon arranged my joining and that all will be well. When he puts his mind to a task no one can beat him in thoroughness."
"You say Targon is arranging the wedding? I thought it would be a simple affair."
"Simpler than my own, of course."
"But, Xena..." said Stephen in a low voice so that his informality would not to be heard by Voger.
"Don't worry. Gabrielle won't let things get out of hand. Now, tell me. What news have you?"
"Spirit was strong enough to move to Sculpi. He stays at your homestead. Voger will see to him for the next moon."
Xena looked over Stephen's shoulder to where the groom patiently stood. "Voger." She waved him to her. "You understand word of the true nature of your assignment cannot be shared with anyone?"
The groom approached. "Your secret is safe with me, Your Majesty."
"You must work Spirit slowly."
"He won't have a choice," said Stephen.
"Why not?" Xena asked. Her concern heightened. "Is Spirit so lame?"
"On the contrary. He doesn't tolerate any man. It took a fortnight to get him to trust me."
"Then the wolf and the trap damaged more than his leg."
"It's not uncommon, Your Majesty," offered Voger.
"I think my sister would have an easier time with him." Stephen named Spirit's only true mistress.
"I'm sure you're right," said Xena. "Unfortunately, it's too soon to tell her."
"I agree. Even with plenty of rest points along the way, he was clearly hurting by the time we arrived in Scupli." Stephen was interrupted by small animals cries. He looked over to Voger. "What's that?"
"My bitch's puppies."
"I didn't know she had them." Xena had long admired Voger's fine hound. "Let's take a look."
"This way, Your Majesty. She had a good litter."
The threesome walked to the corner of the stable. There a large black female shorthair dog lay with her puppies, each claiming a teat except for one left without.
"Too good, it seems." Stephen placed a finger upon the lonely runt who had been pushed aside by his stronger siblings. "Poor guy."
"You are your sister's brother," quipped Xena as she peered over Stephen's shoulder.
"Thank you," said Stephen as he looked back up to her with a brilliant smile.
Xena laughed. "Give him here." Stephen complied. The puppy tried to suckle Xena's finger. "There is still strength in him."
Stephen got to his feet. "A little extra care could save him."
"He is no Queen's stallion."
"No, but he could be the Queen's playmate." Stephen challenged his Sovereign and friend. "Say she wouldn't like him. Or is it that the Queen's current playmate tolerates no competition?"
Xena's head snapped up. "Stephen, take care. I would hate to make Tess a widow even before she is a bride."
"My Liege, I am certain my sister misses Spirit."
"She does. She asked that I not replace him. A puppy is a whole different animal." Xena asked Voger. "He had a good sire, didn't he?"
"The best, Your Majesty. A strong and brave hound. Very intelligent."
She turned her gaze back upon the pup. "Does a runt like you deserve the Queen's favor." The puppy whined in response. "Very well. Voger let's see if we can get some goat's milk into this little fellow."
Samuel sat on the outside steps of the Guardsmen's mess hall. Stephen exited after evening meal. Seeing his friend he sat down beside him. "You've been quiet Sam. More than usual."
"I've got a few things on my mind."
"I hear from the others that all has been well since the Conqueror's return."
"I had a chance to say hello to Gabrielle. She wouldn't stop teasing me about the wedding."
"She's happy for you." Samuel glanced over to the Major. "We all are."
"Your day will come."
"Maybe…" said Samuel as he shifted his gaze to his clenched hands, which he held before him.
Stephen's initial suspicions of Samuel's worry lay with Gabrielle. She had always been the ruddy Guardsman's first concern. Given how well the Major found Gabrielle, Samuel's disquietude had no easily deciphered cause. Stephen decided not to inquire further. Samuel's reticence exceeded that of all the Guardsmen and as his brother Stephen had learned to respect Samuel's right to keep his own company.
"Stephen, what medallion does the Conqueror wear?" asked Samuel after a quarter candlemark had passed.
Stephen was surprised by the inquiry. The answer seemed obvious. "Gabrielle's."
"Gabrielle gave it to me to give the Conqueror on Solstice."
"When did she give it to you?"
"The night before you left Civello."
"Before she went up to their rooms?"
"Something I said to Gabrielle…" Samuel leaned back on his elbows. "I told her she was wrong to blame the Conqueror for taking Spirit down."
"She was hurting. She needed time."
"No, you don't understand. I spoke to her the morning we left, when we stood outside of the inn. I thought she would leave the Conqueror without saying farewell."
"She wouldn't have."
"I see that now."
"What did Gabrielle say to you?"
"Nothing… She turned away from me and walked to the stables."
"Well, you saw the same as I did. She held no grudge."
"I owe her an apology."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Sam, it often seems to Gabrielle that no one thinks of the Conqueror's feelings, especially when there is a problem between the two of them. That is why Gabrielle has me always at the Conqueror's right hand."
"You see the Conqueror differently than most."
"What a fraud you are, Sam. If you didn't see the Conqueror as I do you wouldn't have given a damn whether Gabrielle bid her good-bye or not."
"I'll never forget how the Conqueror cried in Jared's arms when she believed Gabrielle was taken from her," said Samuel, visibly moved by the recollection. "And how she looked when she laid eyes on Gabrielle again in Ithome and Gabrielle did not know her."
"Sam. She does not reserve her heart only for Gabrielle." Stephen placed his hand on Samuel's shoulder. "The Conqueror cared for you in Ithome. She didn't do it because she didn't want to lose a soldier. She did it because she didn't want to lose you."
"Look. All is right between them. That's what we hope for, isn't it?" Samuel nodded. Stephen continued, "And all is well between you and Gabrielle, right?"
"Yes," sighed Samuel.
"Come on, man. There is no reason to brood like a mother hen. These are rare times. We're meant to enjoy them. Sweet wine and sweeter women. What say you?"
Stephen's mood was infectiously reflected in Samuel's smile. "Does not seem fair that I get the sweet wine and you get the sweet woman."
Stephen slapped Samuel on the back. "I'll buy the first round of drinks. You can toast Dionysus while I toast Aphrodite."
A moon after Stephen's return, Gabrielle had herself announced before entering his dressing chamber. She smiled at the sight of Stephen surrounded by his honor guard of Tavis, Sentas, Samuel, Alem and Trevor. Jared would be the sixth. "I have the most handsome brother."
"Thank you," said Sentas playfully.
That earned him a cuff against his shoulder from Tavis. "Can't let Stephen have his day, can you?" the Guardsman chided his brother.
"What?" protested Sentas. "He's going to march himself into the ballroom and have every woman swooning. The gods only know how many broken hearts are among them. Our sister here is the only one I trust to keep her head."
"The only woman?" asked Alem with a knowing smirk.
Sentas was thoughtful for a moment. "Oh," he said sheepishly. "Well that goes without saying."
Gabrielle joined the men in laughter. "My Lord will surely admire and be proud of how well the groom has chosen to present himself to his bride."
"The groom… the bride… How sweet," quipped Sentas.
"You know, old man, your jealously is getting right tiresome," said Tavis.
"Jealously?" Sentas pointed to the grinning Stephen with mock contempt. "Of him?"
"By evening's end, Tess will be his and you will go back to your bed alone." Tavis was obviously enjoying the opportunity of ribbing his closest friend.
"I wager I won't," said Sentas, stamping his foot like a put upon child.
"Whoever takes your coin won't be half the woman Tess is," said Samuel joining the banter with relish.
"Gabrielle!" Sentas demanded his due. "Will you not defend your brother's honor?"
Gabrielle maintained an even temperament. "Which brother? I have never interfered among you and I know better than to begin today."
"Since when do you look to our little sister to fight your battles? For shame," cracked Alem.
"I'll wait outside." A blushing Sentas announced.
"I better see to his bruised ego," said Tavis as he followed Sentas out of the room.
"Come men," said Trevor. "Given the size of Sentas' ego it will take all of us to make him right again."
The remaining honor guard left leaving Gabrielle alone with Stephen. She appreciated their thoughtfulness in giving them a private moment. She stepped closer to Stephen and touched his jacket, raising her gaze to him. "You know I love you."
Stephen tenderly held Gabrielle's gaze with his own. "I do."
"Tess is a good woman and she loves you."
"I love her," he said with heartfelt emotion.
"Yes, you do." Gabrielle smiled. "Be gentle with her. She carries hidden fragileness."
"As you do."
Gabrielle would not deny the observation. Stephen's gift was his ability to see woman for who they are. "My years with Xena have taught me that all that I cherish can be taken from me in the blink of an eye. The cause of loss has not always been on the grand scale of politics and war. Many have been very intimate, at times arising from the simplest misunderstanding or a truth withheld. Those loses are the most painful because they could have been prevented. Sometimes they have seemed insurmountable. I have found that if you truly love one another you can find your way through those moments. To have a true union you must have the courage to be honest no matter the consequences. If you are as true to Tess as you have been to me you shall be rewarded with the finest love that life has to offer."
"I would not be here… I would not have Tess if it wasn't for you… and Xena. I don't know how to thank you," said Stephen with noble sincerity.
"Be happy. It is what I have always wanted for you. Stephen, my heart belongs to all my brothers. Still, there are a few that are special to me, none more than you. You have given me so much even when you had every reason to resent me."
"Please let me finish. Xena loves you. You know this." He nodded. "She blesses you and Tess. You only need to say the word and you will be given an estate to share with Tess and to raise a family. You don't have to live by the sword. She will feel the loss of you. She trusts few and in terms of Greece, were harm to come to her or me, only Jared stands before you as our successor."
"I do not aspire to the throne."
"That is one reason why we trust Greece to you."
"It doesn't matter. Nothing shall happen to you or Xena."
Gabrielle had not intended the conversation to turn toward the serious realities of the realm. She willed herself to brighten her voice. "I will not argue with you. This is a day for celebration."
"I am not ready to leave Corinth." Stephen's tense mien and words clearly conveyed his unwillingness to leave the subject.
"If the time comes, don't hesitate." Gabrielle was equally unwilling to yield her conviction to offer Stephen a less perilous future. "Promise me, you will not sacrifice your happiness for the sake of loyalty."
"Gabrielle, you of all people know I cannot make that promise."
"I never sacrificed my happiness for her, Stephen. She is my happiness."
"Do you think I could ever be happy knowing that I did not stand beside you when you needed my help?"
"I've asked too much of you."
"This time, yes you have."
"Very well." Gabrielle raised herself up on her toes and kissed Stephen on the cheek.
Separating, Stephen smiled. The tension between them slipped away. "By the way, you look beautiful."
Gabrielle curtseyed. "Thank you."
"I am a lucky man. To have Xena, then you and now Tess enter my life." He glanced over to the door. "Gabrielle, were you frightened on the day you joined?"
"How could I not have been?"
"How did you get through it?"
"I kept my eyes on Xena. She was the only one that mattered. Stephen, she was frightened too, though I think for different reasons. She feared… She still fears that by bringing me into her world harm will come to me. She also fears that she will disappoint me."
"And what did you fear?"
"That what many suspected was true, that I was unworthy to be her Queen."
Stephen did not hide his surprise. "You questioned that you belonged with Xena?"
"Belonged with her? No, never. My place is by her side - as her slave, servant or as a freewoman. But, to be more than her lover… to be her Queen meant that I would share her burden of keeping Greece safe and whole. And privately, it has meant that I have come to have an influence over her that I do not even think she imagined possible. I surely didn't. Stephen, when I took my vow there was one truth I knew above all others. From that day forward I forfeited any possibility of ever leaving her."
Stephen took Gabrielle's face between his hands and kissed her forehead. "You know the same is true for her. She is yours alone."
A single tear fell from Gabrielle's eye. "If you don't already have such a bond with Tess, it will, with time, come. That, I think, is the lesson my years with Xena have taught me. Stephen, for your bond to knit itself strong, you must open yourself up, share your strengths and weaknesses, share the beautiful and though it may break your heart, you must be willing to share what you find to be your ugliness. With Tess you will become stronger and you will heal wounds you didn't realize you carried inside you."
"I know. I've seen that miracle between you and Xena. It is why I've always known you belonged together."
The Conqueror entered the small drawing room adjacent to the palace ballroom. She knocked on the side of the door announcing herself to Tess and Makia. "May I come in?"
Makia paused in making final adjustments to Tess's wedding dress. "Good afternoon, Your Majesty."
The Conqueror smiled appreciatively. "Makia, will you excuse us for a moment?"
"Of course, your Majesty."
The Conqueror waited until Makia exited before commenting with gentle humor, "There is a very nervous groom readying to take his vows. I would laugh at him if I did not know how deeply he feels his love for you." She stepped further into the room. "Tess, I want you to know that there are few I love more than Stephen. I may not be as obvious as our Queen in expressing my feelings, but I am indeed very happy for the both you."
"Thank you," said a reserved Tess.
"I wonder if there is anything I can do for you?" Tess's demeanor did not go unnoticed.
"You and Queen Gabrielle have been very generous. I can't imagine my wanting for anything," said Tess.
There was something about Tess's restrained manner that left Xena uneasy. "There are those in the world who are never satisfied."
"What I want most only the gods can grant."
"And what is that?"
"I wish to give Stephen a child."
"I hope you are granted your wish. Stephen will be a fine husband. It also goes without question that he will be an honorable father to his children."
"A hope a child…" The bride failed to complete her thought.
"I am not reason enough for him to lay down his sword."
Xena now understood that Tess held her accountable for Stephen's military career. "I will do whatever is in my power to protect Stephen. And, because you are his bride I will protect you and if you are so blessed, your children. Stephen knows he only needs to ask and I will grant him lands that will afford him a generous income."
"He has told me. But, he will not leave you."
"Do you doubt his love for you?"
Tess shook her head. "No."
"Do you resent his love for me?" Tess looked down. Xena had her answer. She lowered her voice to a gentle timbre. "Tess, I will not repeat this conversation to anyone. You have every right to feel what you do. I suggest you keep your thoughts to yourself. Do not ask Stephen to choose between us. He is a man of honor. You may not realize it but it is that part of Stephen that makes him the man you love. Don't take your vow thinking you will change him." Tess did not respond. Xena was disheartened. She turned and walked toward the door.
"Will you see him die in the name of honor?" Tess's accusatory voice halted Xena.
Xena turned back to Tess, her gaze sharp with simmering anger. "Yes! I told you once that you must be brave to love a warrior. The question before you is not whether he will be true to you. The question is whether you are woman enough to stand by his side."
"I do not have Gabrielle's courage."
"Who do you think Gabrielle is? She is a peasant girl from Poteidaia. A former slave whose defiance earned her one scourging and another. For all the years we have been together she has trembled in my arms, her sleep haunted by gods only knows what nightmares that she still cannot speak of. Do you think her heart stone? Do you think she isn't frightened of the violent world that surrounds her? Don't you think both she and I would have a life far from Corinth if we could have it without sacrificing the well-being of Greece?"
"I'm sorry, Your Majesty," said Tess humbly.
"Damn it, Tess! Don't apologize to me. Right this moment I am not your Sovereign. We are two women speaking of one man."
"How long will I have Stephen before he goes off to war?"
"I don't know. There is no dearth of ambitious men in want of power and riches. They bring war to Greece and when they do I beat them down."
"You will have Stephen with you when the next war comes?"
"Given a choice I will always choose to have Stephen with me."
"You are no better than me. You won't release him from his duty."
"Duty comes from the heart not from a Sovereign's command." Xena struggled to rein her surging emotions. "However, as Sovereign I can stop your marriage."
The declaration left Tess stunned. "You… wouldn't."
"You're right. What I think of you is beside the point. Stephen is his own man."
Visibly relieved, Tess asked, "Is it so wrong to want him safe? To have a dream of growing old with him and our children?"
Xena calmed. "No… it's not wrong. Tess, it may still be your fate. But if it isn't, live for the moment. Live for the love you can share now. Live for the happiness you give each other. Have the courage to live without your sights set to a day that may never come."
"Is that what you do?"
"Yes. I don't know tomorrow and given my past Elysia is beyond my reach. Today is all I have. It is all I will ever have."
A heavy silence overtook the two women. Having nothing more to say, Xena gave Tess a minor bow as she wordlessly excused herself.
"Your Majesty, may I ask you for a wedding present?"
Xena paused. Given the contentious nature of their conversation she did not trust Tess. She would make no premature promise. "You may ask."
"I rather have you instead of the Temple Priest perform our ceremony. And if she consents, I ask that our Queen stand beside you. I want to always remember your example of love and sacrifice when I think of this day."
Xena pondered the definition of courage. To act though one is frightened. To overcome one's fear. She would swear she stood in courage's company. "Very well. I will make the arrangements."
Tess steadfastly held Xena's gaze. "Thank you."
Xena and Gabrielle walked hand-in-hand down the palace corridor leading to their suite. Alem discreetly followed the Royals. Stephen and Tess's joining banquet was a great success.
Gabrielle looked over to Xena. "Dinar for your thoughts."
"We're an old married couple compared to Stephen and Tess and yet, it seems as if I just gave you my vow and felt the wonder of having you in my life."
Gabrielle released Xena's hand and wrapped her arm around Xena's waist, drawing her Lord closer to her. "It sometimes feels like a lifetime ago. We were still so new to each other."
"We had known each other over two years."
"Nine moons spent apart…"
Gabrielle paused. "They served me… I think they served us both well. When you - the Conqueror of Greece - came to me and apologized for sending me away… when you confessed your regret, I knew then, without doubt, that I belonged to you."
"It was an easy confession. You deserved no less from me."
Gabrielle laughed gently. "I can't believe I kissed you in front of the garrison."
Xena led Gabrielle forward. "You did. And, it was a fine kiss." Upon reaching their suite, Xena greeted a new young soldier that had been promoted to the Royal Guard. "Good evening, Joél."
"My Liege." Joél responded warmly then made a minor bow to Gabrielle. "Your Majesty." He opened the door.
"Alem will relieve you," said Xena. "Go enjoy the celebration. Many of your brothers are still at the banquet."
"Thank you, My Liege. Good night."
The Royals wished both Guardsmen a pleasant night as they entered their suite. "It's going to feel good getting out of this dress," said Gabrielle as she started to unfasten her garment.
"Please do." Xena replied as she admired her lover. Earning a slap from the beguiling younger woman, Xena complained. "What did I say to deserve that?"
"I'll make it up to you when I come back." Gabrielle scampered into the bedroom.
Xena, in turn, entered the bath chamber to wash up and changed into her robe. She then chose a place on the furs in front of the fireplace, appreciating the fire's warmth, allowing the flames to mesmerized her. Soon Gabrielle, dressed in a simple front tied night shift, joined Xena. She lay comfortably across from her. "Yes?" asked Xena drolly.
"It was a fine kiss," said Gabrielle, returning to their previous conversation. Xena smiled. Encouraged, Gabrielle moved closer, sitting on her heals before her Lord. She leaned forward and kissed the warrior deeply, relishing their physical intimacy.
Gabrielle lowered Xena's robe below her right shoulder. She was always struck by how the nearly invincible Conqueror would be transformed to a very mortal woman by the change of her clothes. It was a transformation Gabrielle first witnessed when serving Xena as her slave. She recalled that Xena had returned from traveling to the west. Given the order to serve the Conqueror's breakfast at mid-morning, Gabrielle saw Xena for the first time dressed in her white robe. Having just bathed, Xena's skin glistened with moisture and her hair fell freely down to her shoulders. That morning Gabrielle had been enchanted by Xena's rare easy attitude. She appreciated Xena's beauty without understanding why she experienced a change in her perspective.
During their first intimacy, the newness of the experience and Gabrielle's own physical self-consciousness was overwhelming. The evening came when their patient foreplay took place in the light of many candles instead of the more accustomed darkness of night. Gabrielle had done a similar undressing of her Lord, shifting Xena's robe just enough to bare the woman's shoulder and the uppermost region of her breast. The sight of Xena's fragileness had caused Gabrielle to paused then as she did now. With each passing season, as their intimacies dwelled deeper into their interior fortresses, revealing vulnerabilities never before so openly shared, Gabrielle came to understand the power she held over her lover. The power she referred to when speaking to Stephen earlier in the day. The implicit had been discussed only on a few rare occasions and even then, Xena's words were veiled as a need of one lover for another, though the need was far greater, so great that a dependency had formed. Gabrielle was nothing less to Xena than the sun, bringing light and warm to the warrior's darkest internal chambers. All this Gabrielle knew and cherished.
Gabrielle held close to her heart one regrettable truth, that in spite of all that she had given Xena, she had not reciprocated equally. Gabrielle believed that she was being selfless in withholding from Xena what Xena so generously gave to her. She thanked the gods that Xena remained unaware that she continued, no matter her statements otherwise, to censor from Xena the complete nature of her essence.
At Civello, their profound bond had intensified beyond any previously shared union. Gabrielle's hesitancy, her questioning of their bond's development was fueled by the possibility that she would lose control and Xena would have unlimited access to Gabrielle's darkness, a darkness blacker than night, a darkness Gabrielle imagined the greatest damned by Hades experienced. Knowing Xena's darkness had not convinced Gabrielle that she should give Xena a clear view and understanding of her self beyond a carefully delimited internal landscape.
Xena remained still. Sensing an unexpected hesitancy in her partner Gabrielle leaned back. "Xena?"
"I've missed you," said Xena in a hush.
Gabrielle was confused. "But…"
Xena glanced down uncomfortably.
Gabrielle's heart told her to reach out to her partner, and so she did, gently placing her hand over the warrior's. "My Lord?"
Xena squeezed her hand and then raised her gaze. Gabrielle surrendered herself to the warrior's gaze, seeking to identify and understand the emotions behind it. She saw in her partner's eyes an intense love that was shackled by an equally powerful doubt. She was uncertain of what Xena needed from her. By her very presence Gabrielle was offering Xena a night of tender lovemaking. It was obvious Xena needed more from her. Gabrielle suspected that Stephen and Tess's wedding had caused Xena's heart to tremble. As Xena had earlier expressed, the act of giving her vow affirmed the wonder she felt in having Gabrielle in her life.
Their life together was wondrous. They shared their intelligent minds, their humor and playfulness, their tenderest emotions and their physical desire. Of all that held them together there was only one greater sharing than their physical intimacy. She realized it had indeed been moons since they had experienced the ultimate union of their spiritual essence - not since she left Xena in Civello.
Though the moons that had passed after Xena's return to Corinth had been peaceful and passionate, they did not re-ignite the overwhelming emotions that had owned them as they traveled to and stayed at the mountain haven. Gabrielle looked into her own heart. Their precious gift required the two of them to be realized. It was obvious that Xena desired her and yet, hesitated to make an overt request. Gabrielle was aware of the reasons for her reluctance. She had not thought further to Xena's.
The answer came quickly. In light of Spirit's injury, their parting had been difficult. It was Gabrielle's request not to speak of Spirit. Thus, there had been no means for Xena to gauge the depth of Gabrielle's hurt and consequent healing. Xena might question whether Gabrielle had truly accepted Spirit's death as the Fates' decree. Xena might hold to the harsher belief that Gabrielle blamed her for not saving the stallion. Xena's guilt for taking the steed's life might cause her to believe herself unworthy of their gift. Gabrielle took responsibility for the effect her silence seemingly had upon her partner.
"I've missed you, too," she said as she slowly entered into Xena's welcoming embrace. She closed her eyes and concentrated, seeking her essence, which resided beyond her heart, in her soul. Willing all emotions secured within her accessible depths to rise up, free of constraints. She came to a familiar place, a long dark corridor where she never felt fear, where she could trespass only to its mid-point before held back by an unseen force. This was a place of mutuality. She waited, liberating her longing for Xena, calling forth for her partner by silent thought. She sensed, more than saw Xena approach. She heard Xena sigh her name. A whisper. Whether Xena had spoken in this place or in her physical voice Gabrielle could not say. More confident, Gabrielle stepped forward, whatever barriers that had held her back were now gone or retreated sufficiently to give her greater access. She reached out her hand, seeking her partner through the infinite darkness, expecting Xena to appear and take hold of her. Xena did appear, but as a ghostly outline. Gabrielle stood still. Her eyes held fast to the specter. Slowly the blackness altered to gray and then her partner's strikingly beautiful body shone with an ever-brightening internal light. Xena reached out, her fingertips grazed Gabrielle's. Gabrielle exercised all her patience until she felt Xena take her hand. The sensation that followed was one of sweet annihilation as the two women became one without losing themselves. Words such as love and passion proved woefully deficient in describing their union.
Xena walked down the palace corridor holding her adopted puppy. He had grown to be a strong little beast; thriving on the extra care she and Voger had given him. The pup, she decided, was now worthy to be presented to a Queen. Xena greeted Samuel as she reached the Royal suite door.
"My Liege." Referring to the puppy the Guardsman said, "I haven't seen him before,".
"Because you don't know how to keep secrets from your sister." Xena bantered. She patted the puppy's rump. "What do you think? Nearly two moons old. I thought I'd let him introduce himself. Open the door just a bit."
Samuel cracked the door open enough for the puppy to enter. Xena knelt down and looked inside the suite. Gabrielle sat at her desk writing. Xena whispered to the puppy with the full force of the Conqueror's charisma. "Now, listen up. I've done all I can for you. The rest is up to you." She set the puppy into the suite. He sat down gazing back at her. "Go on… Go to Gabrielle. You'll like her far better than me."
The puppy remained unmoved. "My Liege, maybe he'll follow you in," suggested Samuel.
"I should have let him starve to death." Xena reached into the suite and took the pup by the scruff of the neck and gave him over to the Guardsman. "Give me time to greet my Queen, then let him in."
The puppy licked Samuel's face. He smiled. "By your command."
"Sam, take that smile off your face. This is serious business," scolded Xena.
"Yes, my Liege," said Samuel, obviously struggling to maintain a formal cast.
Xena entered the suite and walked directly to Gabrielle. "Hey."
She looked up from her writing, obviously pleased to see her partner. "Hi."
"How's the story coming?"
Self conscious of Samuel's observance, Xena kissed Gabrielle lightly. "I'm going to wash up before dinner." She stepped into the bath chamber and then discreetly watched from the entrance as Samuel placed the pup inside.
Xena smiled as the pup took in his surroundings, sniffing the air, momentarily looking back at the now closed door before padding forward into the living chamber. With each step Xena's keen ears hear the click of nails upon stone. She was somewhat surprised Gabrielle had yet to sense him.
The puppy caught sight of Gabrielle. He sat back on his haunches and watched her, tilting his head with curiosity. He opened his mouth. Xena prepared herself for the puppy's bark but instead observed a wide soundless yawn. The puppy looked down to eye level, where he could see Gabrielle's booted feet. He raised himself up and approached. Xena observed the hunter in the pup, as he paused and leaned down, his head still, his eyes fixed upon a quarry Xena could not readily identify. Gabrielle shifted her feet. In response the puppy pounced upon her boot.
"What the…" Gabrielle jumped up, knocking her chair down. The puppy was undeterred continuing his attack, taking hold of a bootlace and pulling with all this might.
Seeing the puppy, Gabrielle started to laugh. She kept her feet firmly on the ground in defiance of the puppy's tug. She turned to the bath chamber. "Xena!"
Xena leaned happily against the door jam. "Yes?"
"Who is this?" Gabrielle picked up the gregarious puppy.
"He must have followed me home."
"So, he's yours?"
"What would I want with a runt like him?" scoffed Xena. "I have servants to raise and train my hunting hounds."
"Runt? How do you know he's a runt?"
"Just an expression."
The puppy whined, his eyes attentive upon his caretaker. "He seems to want you," said Gabrielle as she placed the puppy down. He ran fearlessly to the Conqueror. Upon reaching her, he sought her affection through both voice and act. Gabrielle laughed at the sight of him pawing the warrior's leg. "He's adorable."
Xena picked up the puppy and returned him into Gabrielle's arms. "He's yours if you want him."
"Does he have a name?"
"You can't call him that. He's no scrub."
"You name him then," said Xena indifferently.
"He's as dark as you are," observed Gabrielle.
"So…" The warrior crossed her arms; her demeanor meant as a fair warning that her partner's whimsy, at her expense, would not be tolerated.
Gabrielle remained unaffected. "He must have a name that is suitable for a royal hound."
"The Queen's hound." Xena corrected in a low stern voice.
Gabrielle tickled the puppy's belly giving him great pleasure. "Honor."
"That is not a hound's name!"
"He's mine. I can name him how I please."
"Because it is an honor to have him as a gift from you and like you I believe he will be honorable with me."
"He's a hound, Gabrielle."
"Hounds are known to be loyal, to protect their mistress, to be true in following commands - all marks of an honorable virtue."
"Give him to me." Xena took possession of the puppy, holding him at arms length. "Until he proves himself to me I will call him what he is - runt."
"Yes, my Lord." Gabrielle smiled happily.
Xena offered a scowl in return. "I better tell Makia she has another mouth to feed. I can hear her curses and banging of pots now. Feeding a hound…"
"Not when you tell her he's the Queen's hound."
"Sam!" shouted Xena.
Samuel opened the door. He smiled upon seeing Xena and the puppy. "Yes, my Liege?"
"Tell Makia to serve an extra plate of meat."
"By your command," said the still grinning Guardsman.
"Sam, what did I tell you about showing proper respect?"
Samuel glanced at the beaming Gabrielle. "My apologies, my Liege." He stepped back and closed the door.
"Gods!" an exasperated Xena declared. Just then the puppy licked her face. Gabrielle's laughter followed. Xena turned to her. "What?"
"I love you, you fraud."
Xena held the puppy close against her shoulder. She offered him a heartfelt smile. She was certain that this little runt of a hound would become a fine addition to their household.
The doors to the Royal suite burst open. Gabrielle, sat at her desk writing as Honor rested at her feet. She looked up. What she saw caused her to shutter in horror. She stood up. Xena stepped forward. She was drenched in blood. By her long bold strides Gabrielle concluded that little or none of the blood was the warrior's. Still walking towards Gabrielle, Xena unbuckled her belt, took it in hand with the sword and sheath it held and slammed them to the floor. She then unhooked her chakram and flung it to the side, skidding on the stone floor. Honor frighteningly scurried to a far corner of the room.
Gabrielle had felt Xena's upset candlemarks before and then experienced the clarity of their connection weakened to an awareness of Xena's life essence without any defining understanding of its state. Gabrielle's unease had caused her to debate whether to set out for Athens in the morning. Xena had traveled to the city-state for a diplomatic meeting and was expected to return to Corinth any day. Seeing her partner's raging presence answered two of Gabrielle's questions. Her partner was physically unharmed and it was her anger that effectively silenced their connection.
Without a word Xena walked pass Gabrielle to the bathing chamber and slammed the door shut. Gabrielle took a step toward the closed door then paused. She decided it was best to give her volatile partner the time alone she obviously sought. She also decided to seek out further information.
Exiting the suite, Gabrielle found Samuel at guard. He cast a cautious look to Gabrielle. "Sam, if my Lord asks for me tell her I'll be back in a moment."
"Is she all right?" asked the Guardsman.
"I don't think so. I need to find out why."
Gabrielle walked the corridor. Upon turning the corner she found Stephen speaking to Jared. She paused and waited. Jared caught sight of her and motioned to Stephen. The Major walked alone to his Queen. He was visibly shaken.
"Stephen, what happened?" asked Gabrielle, her concern now included him as well.
"Gabrielle…" Stephen took a calming breath and then continued. "We were returning from Athens when we came to the village of Glazier. A woman stopped us on the road and told us that brigands had taken the people of the village by force and were pillaging anything they could find.
"We rode in full force. Xena was angry but not more than I'm accustomed to seeing her. She challenged the leader to throw down his arms and save his life and the life of his men. The man was an arrogant bastard and refused. Xena dismounted and unsheathed her sword. He took a child, a girl of no more than ten summers and used her as a shield.
"Xena kept her sword extended. One of the village horses reared. When Xena turned to look the brigand pushed the girl forward into Xena's sword. Gabrielle, it was awful. The girl was cut through, her eyes large in shock. Xena stood still not knowing what to do. Any movement would cause the girl more harm.
"The brigand laughed thinking what he had done funny. I don't think there was anyway to save the girl's life. I think Xena knew that too. She placed her hand on the girl's shoulder and slowly removed her sword. The girl's blood was now everywhere and she collapsed into Xena's arms. Xena placed the girl carefully on the ground and with her hands closed the girl's eyes."
Gabrielle struggled to keep her composure. She could be no help to Xena otherwise. "Stephen, what did Xena do to the brigand?"
"It's been a long time since I've seen her…" Stephen's abhorrence was reflected on his face. "She was… brutal. Though we fought beside her she really did not need us. She killed just about every one of them. Gabrielle, she… she did not kill them quickly. She purposely cut their limbs and sliced them across the body; deep, awful wounds. She let them lie on the ground crying, wringing in pain, praying Hades to take them. Tartarus couldn't have been worse for them.
Gabrielle closed her eyes wishing to sweep the gruesome scene from her mind. Failing, she refocused upon Stephen. "What then?"
"Xena carried the dead girl to her parent's home. Not a word was spoken as her mother and father led the way. What could anyone say? Xena then gave orders for a few men to stay and dispose of the brigands' bodies. The rest of us mounted our horses and rode on with her leading the way… Gabrielle, I dare say what I saw in her was as bad as she must have been when she killed Tracate."
"Xena's sword killed a young, innocent girl. Stephen, what she feels is a thousand times worse than what she felt when she killed Tracate. She will carry the guilt for the rest of her life."
"It wasn't her fault. All who were there know it for a fact."
"She will say she should have dropped her sword or done any number of other things to have prevented the girl's death. I would feel the same. Wouldn't you?" After a moment's silence Gabrielle turned toward from where she came. "I need to get back to her."
Stephen reached out and took his sister's arm. "Gabrielle, be careful with her."
Gabrielle paused. "Stephen, I know Xena. I know what she needs from me."
The Major was insistent. "She massacred a score of men in revenge. You wouldn't have done that. Nor would have I."
"Stephen, have you forgotten what she is? She is Ares' Chosen."
"And you are Aphrodite's. That does not mean you should sacrifice your life for Xena's love."
Gabrielle pulled her arm free from Stephen's hold. "I'm sure Tess is waiting for you. Don't make her wait any longer."
Gabrielle embraced Stephen and kissed him on the cheek. She stepped back holding her gaze steadily to her brother's. She spoke with a grave, wise voice. "There are some things that I share with Xena that I will never be able to explain to you. Trust me when I tell you that I am not putting myself in danger by going to her."
"I worry about you both," said Stephen somewhat appeased.
"I know and I love you because you do. I'll be fine." Without a further word, Gabrielle walked back to her suite.
Upon entering the Royal chambers, Gabrielle found Xena standing on the balcony dressed in her robe. She was a lone, still figure. Her hair was wet. The blood Xena had on her skin had been washed away.
Gabrielle stepped onto the balcony. She walked to Xena's side taking possession of the warrior's trembling sword hand with her own. "I found Stephen. He told me everything."
"May they all burn in Tartarus."
"I'm sure the girl is in Elysia. She is no longer in pain."
"Maybe not, but you cannot say the same about her parents."
Xena looked out into the night. Time passed with neither speaking. Feeling she had overstayed her welcome, Gabrielle raised Xena's hand and kissed it before stepping back into their suite. She heard Xena call her name with a long forgotten darkness that if heard by anyone else would have been received as menacing. Gabrielle paused. She saw what she expected. Xena's most feral gaze, her battle-lust radiating from her. "My Lord."
Xena walked to her and without hesitating took Gabrielle in her arms and placed a hungry, near violent kiss upon her lips.
Having woken with the night still heavy around her, Gabrielle left Xena soundly sleeping in their bed and walked up to the turret. The warrior had been consumed by her battle lust. Xena's sexual need for Gabrielle had never been more overwhelming. Gabrielle had been driven to the fine line that divided a consensual encounter and abusive violation, if not of the body then in mind. Xena's relentless domination carried Gabrielle to a state of singular physical response. She was taken to an animalistic realm where the instinctual had dominion. Gabrielle could never find the words to describe the difference between their most ardent lovemaking and such raw sex. She understood that what she felt had less to do with the body and more to do with the spirit: Xena's in her need to control and hers in her desire to calm the explosive warrior.
Xena's need was not rooted in sex. It was driven by an urgent desire to exercise power, to control. Their encounter differed in an extraordinary way. Throughout the night Gabrielle was in the presence of the Conqueror, sensing her hatred of the world, a world where men threw children upon a sword blade. The Conqueror in Xena despised chaos. She hated a world that was, by design, out of her control.
Gabrielle gave of herself willingly and with an open heart. In the absence of violence, giving herself to Xena was no sacrifice. As forceful and intense as Xena was there was no hint of violence in their bed. That Xena never intended to hurt her was conveyed by how the warrior, spent and ready to sleep, protectively wrapped her body around Gabrielle. It was at that moment, when Xena was at her gentlest, that reaffirmed the reason for Gabrielle's giving.
With the Conqueror's kinetic energy depleted, Gabrielle believed that Xena could now begin to heal. The girl's death would surely haunt the warrior. Gabrielle wanted Xena to believe that she was not responsible. She wanted Xena to accept that there was no stain of blood on her hands. Words were important, but for Xena physical intimacy often made a greater incursion upon her psyche. Physical intimacy could be a force of stability and it was in that force that Gabrielle's power resided.
Gabrielle felt a rising loneliness. She stood alone as Xena's partner. Here was an aspect of their relationship that could not be spoken of. She doubted that those closest to her, to them both, could understand their dynamic. Gabrielle's loneliness was compounded by the fact that she could not speak to Xena of the impact their sex had upon her. The tension between Ares' and Aphrodite's Chosens was ever present when lovemaking became sex. When lovemaking Aphrodite rejoiced. When sex, Gabrielle imagined Ares' thrusting his fist in the air victoriously.
Gabrielle wondered if Stephen was right to say that Xena's temperament equaled that which ruled her after she killed Tracate. In that instance Xena did not trust herself to be with Gabrielle. By her admission Xena's battle lust had been strong, but that had not been the warrior's motivation to leave camp, to not find release in Gabrielle's arms. Xena had feared then, given a tear in their relationship due to Gabrielle's withholding of Tracate's identity as her former slave owner and abuser, that Gabrielle would consent to be with her in order to savage their relationship.
Xena no longer questioned Gabrielle's consent as she had done early in their relationship. A glance or word from the warrior followed by Gabrielle's simple utterance of her endearment, 'My Lord', was all that was necessary.
Gabrielle questioned her own response to Xena's feral power. She found Xena's power intoxicating and she was left to wonder what that truth meant in terms of the woman she had become. She reminded herself that power was not violence and to be so completely possessed was not equal to being abused.
Xena stood over the turret threshold. After observing Gabrielle's still form for a few moments she quietly stepped forward until they stood an arm's length apart. Xena leaned against the turret ledge, her hands clasped, her eyes directed out to the night.
Gabrielle glanced to her. Xena's profile was visible by the moonlight. Gabrielle's sense of Xena's need for further sexual release was confirmed by the obvious tension in the warrior's body. Gabrielle could also see Xena's struggle not to make a request of her.
Gabrielle went to Xena and nudged herself between the warrior and the turret wall. They shared a silent understanding of what was between them. Gabrielle placed her palm on Xena's cheek and said in a hush, "It's all right."
Xena kissed her, its gentleness unlike the warrior's intense trembling body. Xena slid her hand down, sweeping aside Gabrielle's robe and touching the younger woman intimately. Gabrielle winced reflexively, enough that Xena noticed. The warrior removed her hand, separately herself to better see Gabrielle. The two women matched gazes. After a moment Gabrielle leaned forward seeking another kiss. Xena took Gabrielle's arms in her hands and held her at a distance. "Gabrielle?"
"I'm sore," she confessed.
"I hurt you?" said Xena as she came to understand Gabrielle's physical state and her willingness to continue to give of herself in spite of it. "I hurt you and you said nothing!"
"Love, we were so… intense… I didn't feel…"
Xena released Gabrielle and started to walk toward the turret exit.
"My Lord," said Gabrielle trying to penetrate Xena's anger.
The warrior turned around. "I am not your Lord!" she said and then renewed her departure.
Gabrielle ran and placed herself as an obstacle to Xena's withdrawal. "Where are you going?"
"Gabrielle, stand aside!"
"Don't… Please don't… You need me."
"What I need any whore can give me," spat Xena.
Wounded deeply, Gabrielle asked, "Is that all I am to you?"
Xena cast her eyes down remorsefully. "No."
"You promised me…"
Xena's head snapped up. "I promised never to hurt you. Which promise do I keep? I am not capable of keeping them all." Xena studied her partner, waiting for an answer that would not come. Decided, she said, "You once asked me to be discreet. I will be."
Finding Xena's solution untenable, Gabrielle grabbed the warrior's shirt. "Xena, don't go. I'm yours love." Gabrielle's plea fell on deaf ears. Her voice rose along with her desperation. "Do you hear me? I'm yours."
Xena forcefully released herself from Gabrielle's hold. "I will not hurt you!"
"You don't think you're hurting me by going to someone else?"
"No Gabrielle! To Tartarus with your romantic notions. You said it yourself. You didn't come to me a naïve innocent. You knew damn well what I am capable of. I am a murderer and a ravager. You cannot change me." Xena steeled her heart at the sight of Gabrielle's silent tears. "You said there was nothing I could do to stop you from loving me. On this night we will both find out if you spoke the truth." Xena walked away, giving Gabrielle no opportunity to respond.
Dressed in black leggings, a crimson tunic and black hooded cape, Xena rode to Sicyon, a prosperous village accustomed to hosting merchants. Prior to reaching the village she stashed her sword and chakram and most of her coin in a once often-used grotto. She limited her weapons to a short sword strapped to Argo's tack and a half dozen well-situated daggers on her body. Her battle lust was only temporarily mollified by the exhilaration of the gallop ride.
Wearing her hood over her head, Xena was a sleek, imposing presence as she handed Argo's reins to the village bordello's stable hand. She walked the few steps to the whorehouse entrance. It had been years since she had found sexual release in this establishment. Her visits had ended when she gave her vow to Gabrielle. On this day she had to choose which vow to break, her fidelity or her commitment never to hurt her partner. In her current mindset, the decision had been remarkably easy.
As she reached for the door she noted that she still wore her joining ring. She removed and pocketed the symbol. She had never revealed her identity and had more reason than ever to maintain her anonymity. If the women remembered her, they would remember only the very generous merchant with an insatiable appetite who was capable of tiring more than one whore in the course of the night.
Entering, Xena found little had changed. She recognized a number of the women; one, Clare, had been a favorite.
Synia, the madam approached. "Well, well, I thought you died or married yourself off."
The woman's words were too close to the truth for Xena's comfort. She shut away all of her heart that was Gabrielle's and focused on the carnal yearnings that had driven her to this place. "Synia, it has been a long time."
"You've missed us. I can tell." She took Xena's arm and directed her toward the primary salon. "What's your pleasure, Athia?"
"Clare, if no one has claimed her for the night," said Xena decisively.
"The whole night?" Synia laughed. "You haven't changed. If only all my customers had the stamina you have." She signaled to the blond woman, still fresh in appearance though she had spent the decade after her sixteenth birthday granting favors to paying customers."
"Clare, you remember Lord Athia?"
Xena sharply corrected. "I am no ones Lord."
Unchastened Synia tapped Xena on the chest. "Oh, but with the look of you, you should be." She then guided Clare closer to her wealthy customer. "I'll leave you two to catch up on old times."
Xena turned her gaze to the beauty, her night's prize. "Hello Clare. How have you been?"
"Good Athia. How many years has it been? Three? Four?" said Clare a note of wistfulness in her voice.
"Have you been away from Greece?"
"To be honest, my life took me into someone else's arms."
"You loved her?"
Xena wondered how Clare knew her love was for another woman. She nodded.
"But she has disappointed you and now you come back to me so I will give you what she won't"
"No Clare, it was I who disappointed her and I've come to you because I have not made you the promise I made her."
"I see," said Clare, maintaining her professional reserve. "You are not one to play upon a woman's romantic notions are you Athia?"
"Is it a complement that I chose you to return to?"
Clare glanced at her fellow whores. "And you had many to choose from, didn't you?"
Again, Xena nodded.
Clare stepped up and placed her skilled hands on Xena's waist as she raised herself up, taking Xena's lips into a gentle, exploratory kiss, reacquainting herself with the intense woman who had given her countless candlemarks of pleasure. Clare released the kiss. "I have a confession to make. In all our times together I never thought I earned the coin you gave me. I always wanted to be with you."
Xena studied Clare's gentle gray eyes. For a brief moment her heart went out to the younger woman. She believed what Clare said to be true and not the wily words of a whore who knew how best to please her client. Xena swallowed the truth. She had never felt much more for Clare other than appreciation for her ability to physically please her. She would not grant the woman her obvious dream of being taken away from her life where sex is sold for the right price. Instead of the harsh truthful response, Xena chose to continue to seek out what first brought her across the threshold. She steeled herself; her momentary gentleness was overwhelmed by a conscious release of the tethers that held back her darker yearnings. Her lust forged to the forefront.
The effect was immediate. Wordlessly Clare tentatively took Xena's hand. She paused as she raised her eyes meeting Xena's. Imperceptivity, Xena gestured with a tip of her head in approval. Clare led Xena up the stairs to her room, the finest in the establishment.
Xena cast a critical eye across the accommodations. Ensuring her security would remain uncompromised; she took hold of a chair and lodged it against the door.
Clare said, "Old habits die hard."
"Some never die at all."
Clare opened her robe, displaying her unadorned body.
Xena removed her belt and placed in on the chair. Her tunic draped her body. She stepped forward until she stood before Clare. "You're not afraid of me, are you?"
"Why should I be? You've never harmed me."
"Nothing I haven't grown accustomed to. It's not worth the worry."
Speaking seductively, yet sincerely. "Because I like what you do to me." Clare put her hands on Xena's muscular arms. "I like your strength. I like knowing that you can hurt me and don't."
"You like the danger?"
"I like the safety."
"Safety?" Xena raised her hands. "With these on you?"
"Clare turned Xena's left hand and kissed the palm. "Oh, yes." She met Xena's eyes. Thoughtfully she asked, "Would you rather I said otherwise. I can if you want. I'll say…"
"No, I want the truth."
"I've missed you. Your power… No one I've ever been with can overwhelm me the way you do without being a brute."
"And you like that?"
"Don't you?" Xena was silent. Clare said knowingly. "You don't, do you? You don't let anyone close enough to touch your heart."
"So much for the truth… Athia, I will always be a whore to you. And you will always be unattainable to me."
Xena took hold of Clare and stepped them both toward the bed. Within a breath, Clare found herself lying on the mattress with Xena over her. Xena damned being so easily profiled. She growled, "You don't know me."
"I want to. I've always wanted…" whispered Clare.
Xena kissed her. The animal desire in her took complete control. She was done with the foreplay of words. With her hand she tugged Clare's robe down from her shoulder, exposing the soft smooth flesh. Clare responded by wrapping a leg around Xena's own, maximizing the extent of their physical union. Xena ravished Clare with her kisses and her hands.
For a moment Xena broke away, a feral gleam in her eye. Clare smiled. She raised her hand and with her fingertips traced Xena's cheek down to her set chin. She continued to trace a path with a lone fingertip down Xena's neck to her chain, following the chain to the medallion that hung from it. She was intrigued by the jewelry. "This is new."
Xena looked down. Seeing Gabrielle's seal shot a jolt of shame through her defenses. "Don't… touch… that."
Clare tried to mollify Xena's menace. "It doesn't look that valuable. I won't steal it, Athia."
Xena closed her eyes. She had denied her bond to Gabrielle. It was the only way she could seek sexual release in this place, at this time. She had convinced herself she was justified. No harm done. No harm…. But now she heard echoes of Gabrielle's plea not to leave her. Clarity seared her every nerve. She could not deny the consequences of breaking her vow of fidelity.
Xena lifted herself up and away from Clare. She got out of bed, feeling a rising self-directed rage. She grabbed her cape and removed a small coin filled purse from an inside pocket, throwing it on the bed. She stared at her belt for a frozen moment before grabbing it and flinging the chair aside.
"Athia, what have I done?" Clare's question went unanswered. Nonplused, Clare cried out, "Stay. I'll make it up to you. Tell me what to do."
Xena donned the belt with shaking hands. "Clare, only one person in my life has the right to touch my medallion and that's the person that gave it to me."
Clare got out of bed and stood before Xena. "Take it off. Keep it out of sight. You'll forget all about it. I'll help you forget."
"You don't understand." Xena pitied the whore. More so she felt her desperate need for Gabrielle, a need that transcended the physical. Gabrielle gave her life meaning. Her eyes gentled, as she confessed, "I don't want to forget."
Clare reached out for Xena. "Athia, you're trembling."
It was true. Xena's body was radiating the warring emotions within her. She stepped away before Clare's touch reached her. "I have to leave."
Gabrielle sat with Lord Ayers and Jared in a Court antechamber where military affairs could be discreetly discussed. Eastern border infractions by hungry Persian peasants had caused tensions in the region. Where Greece had taken action to ensure that its citizens would not starve due to poor crops, Persia left its people to manage on their own.
Ayers reported, "Our regional stores are enough to keep our people fed, but not the hungry Persians across the border."
"There is only so much we can do." Jared counseled, "If we start feeding the Persians there will be no end to it."
"General Jared is right. I think King Okal is counting on your humanitarianism to relieve him of his obligation to his people."
Samuel entered. "Excuse me, you Majesty."
Gabrielle turned her attention to the Guardsman. "Yes, Sam?"
"The Conqueror has returned and asked that you be told."
Gabrielle did not betray her churning emotions. "Do you know where she is now?"
"Thank you, Sam."
The Guardsman exited. Gabrielle returned her focus to the problem at hand. "Jared, I think Kasen should make a diplomatic trip to Persia. We need to convince King Okal to help feed his people before Greece takes their incursions as an act of war."
"Gabrielle, isn't that harsh?"
"From me, yes. Not from the Conqueror."
"I'm sure Okal thought you might convince the Conqueror to take a less confrontational approach," said Ayers.
"Okal is wrong to think my compassion will overrule my common sense. These raids are a threat to our security. He needs to understand that we have done all we can to keep our citizens civil. He needs to do the same."
Gabrielle completed her calendar of meetings without interruption. Two candlemarks passes before she entered the Royal suite. Xena stood by their desk. She faced Gabrielle, her hands held behind her.
Gabrielle broached half the distance that separated them then paused. Their bond was weak.
Xena spoke first. "I'm sorry."
"You did what you had to do," said Gabrielle remotely.
"I tried, Gabrielle, but I couldn't."
Gabrielle took Xena's statement to be a confession of her infidelity.
Receiving no response the visibly disheartened warrior continued. "It's not over. I need… a need a safe place until… once it passes."
Gabrielle crossed the remaining distance. Xena looked down, unable to meet Gabrielle's piercing gaze. Gabrielle placed a hand on Xena's waist, another over her heart. She felt Xena's rapid heartbeat and trembling body. She could not deny how Xena struggled with her nature. She understood that Xena was seeking to safeguard others from her temper. "Have you slept?"
Xena shook her head. "Can't."
"What can I do for you?"
"I'll stay in your old room. I don't want anyone else to see me like this."
"He… can't… help me."
Gabrielle studied her partner closely. She searched her heart. The healer in her objectively diagnosed that Xena was under the influence of a fever, one that continued to burn out of control. In spite of this Gabrielle held Xena accountable for how she chose to respond to the fever. Xena's response was still in her control, both in her choice to leave Gabrielle as well as her choice to return. Xena's departure had been a great blow to Gabrielle's confidence. Her return was an equal affirmation of Gabrielle's unique role in Xena's life. Gabrielle did not doubt the sincerity of Xena's contrition, and thus chose not to judge her further. To do so would be to fault Xena for being the woman she had always honestly presented herself to be.
Gabrielle had a decision to make. Xena's physical and mental state was testament that whomever Xena had been with had not been capable of lessening the warrior's acute emotions. Gabrielle was convinced that she could. "I can help you."
"No, I say," said Xena edgily. "Gabrielle, I don't deserve you, especially now."
Gabrielle placed her fingertips over Xena's lips. "Lets get you to bed."
Gabrielle took Xena's hand and led her through their bedroom, opening the door to the concealed corridor. Wordlessly they walked to the brass wall ring, which Gabrielle pulled, triggering a pulley that pivoted a stone entrance causing it to shift open. Xena released Gabrielle's hand. Gabrielle stepped aside leaving Xena an unobstructed path to the bed. The warrior took to the bed, resting on her side, her back to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle interpreted Xena's body language as a request for solitude. Removing a blanket from an armoire, Gabrielle laid it over Xena. The warrior remained motionless, except for her labored breathing. Gabrielle leaned down and whispered, "I love you." Receiving no response, she left the room, keeping the entrance open, better to hear Xena if she cried out in her sleep. Experience taught Gabrielle that at times such as these, Xena's sleep would most likely be the stomping grounds of the warrior's worst nightmares.
Gabrielle left the room and walked to their bedroom entrance. She could not distance herself any further from Xena. She sat down on the cold stone floor, leaning her back against the corridor wall. She closed her eyes, looking inside herself, seeking her intangible connection. It was faint, sufficient to confirm Xena's life essence, but no more. Gabrielle remained in her contemplative state as time passed unmeasured.
Gabrielle felt Honor as the puppy rested his head on her lap. She opened her eyes. "Hey boy." The pup scaled Gabrielle's body affectionately. Gabrielle embraced him, relishing his playfulness. She turned her gaze toward the small room. "She doesn't like hurting people. Especially me."
Xena's affinity to animals had been an early clue to her gentle heart. Even when hunting Xena took the necessary steps to limit her prey's suffering. Gabrielle stood up, still holding Honor. She walked within two paces of the small room's entrance. She knelt down, placed Honor on the floor and whispered to him. "Go to Xena, Honor. Go on."
The puppy became excited upon hearing Xena's name. He danced between Gabrielle and the room entrance. Gabrielle pointed as she continued to encourage him to enter the room and find his second mistress. A final pat on his rump got him to the threshold. He sniffed the air and then disappeared inside.
Gabrielle sat back and waited. Once again closing her eyes, seeking Xena's essence. After a few moments she heard Honor whine. She assumed he had found his playmate and now sought her attention. Honor's whining and periodic scampering continued unabated. Gabrielle prayed that Xena would open her heart to him as she did when she first chose to save the runt's life.
Honor's whining was replaced by silence, then a happy yelping, a familiar reaction when receiving Xena's affection. Gabrielle smiled. It was hard for Gabrielle to determine whether she felt a trace of warmth in her connection with Xena or if she was being influence by the external cues of Xena's acceptance of the pup. Soon, the room once again became silent.
After a candlemark Gabrielle stood up and looked inside. There she spied Xena sleeping with Honor by her side. Gabrielle pulled the brass ring sealing them both safely within the room.
The following morning Gabrielle carried a tray of food to Xena. Upon entering she found Xena sitting up in bed with Honor on her lap. The puppy was quietly accepting Xena's gentle petting. Gabrielle was optimistic. "Good morning. I thought you might be hungry."
"If not me, then our little beast here," said Xena, as she looked down to the pup.
"How are you feeling?"
Xena's mien changed from open to guarded. "I'm where I need to be."
"I'll take care of Court today," offered Gabrielle as a conciliatory gesture.
Xena focused on her interest, not acknowledging Gabrielle's sincere efforts. "Anything happen while I was gone that I need to know about?"
"I met with Jared and Ayers on the problems we are having at the Eastern borders. I sent Kasten to speak to Okal."
"What motivation are you giving Okal?"
Xena looked down to and flexed her sword hand. "Very well."
"Gabrielle, I'd like to be alone," said the warrior, cutting her partner's words short.
"If you need anything…"
Again, Xena spoke impatiently. "I'm Conqueror of Greece. If I am in need or want of anything I take it." Gabrielle looked down dispirited. "Thank you for bringing my breakfast." Xena's dismissal carried no hint warmth.
Gabrielle turned and walked the lonely corridor back to their suite.
With each passing day Gabrielle faced a mounting disappointment. Xena kept to the small room. She ventured out of her self-imposed prison to work with the army and to ride Argo. She left all governing to Gabrielle. Xena also chose to take most of her meals at the Guardsmen's mess. Otherwise, she prepared a tray from Makia's dinner setting and took it to her room where she dined and continued to sleep. She neither spoke of love nor demonstrated any physical affection toward Gabrielle.
A fortnight after Xena's return Gabrielle entered the Royal sparring chamber with Honor at her side. Within Xena drilled with her long sword. The warrior's strength, agility, and control inspired awe. The demonstrated skills were deadly. Their ultimate goal did not diminish the beauty of the choreography.
Seeing Gabrielle, Xena stopped her exercise, placing her sword on its tip before her. She was drenched with perspiration. She looked over to Gabrielle and said self-deprecatingly, "Killing brought me here. It's ironic that I try to find peace with a sword in my hand."
"It's not the only way." Gabrielle reminded her.
"No, it's not. But, it is the only outlet I am willing to avail my self of." Honor trotted to Xena and jumped up to her, placing his paws on her legs. Xena stepped back, causing the pup to fall down on all fours. "Gabrielle, call your hound to you!" demanded the warrior.
"He is as much yours as mine."
"So, I can split him in two without consequence as long as I leave one half for you?"
"Are you so determined to kill my love?"
"Why not? I've killed all else."
"You are not strong enough to break me. You never have been," said Gabrielle defiantly.
"So speaks Aphrodite's Chosen."
"Take up your staff and we'll see if you are able to beat the hatred I feel for this Gods forsaken world out of my heart." Xena reached to where Gabrielle's staff lay against the wall and flung it over to her partner.
Reflexively, Gabrielle caught the staff. She then dropped it on the floor. "I can't… I can't take the hate and anger from you. I can only love you. All of you, even the parts that you despise in yourself."
"What do you know about looking in the mirror and seeing only the worst of humankind in the reflection? To taste bile and know it is yours. To wear the stench of death and know your sword spattered it onto your skin. I have nothing! I have nothing of beauty or compassion within me to offer you. By my very touch I defile all that is good and pure."
"Xena, you are acting as if our years together never happened. I have known of… damn, I have witnessed worse in you. Do you think that when I was new to your household I didn't hear the stories of how you took men and women to your bed at night, having allowed them to think that they would win their lives if not their freedom by pleasuring you, only to execute them at daybreak, staking their heads on pikes? With an unheralded dagger throw you killed Ridel because he dared to break your household rule of not touching your slaves, and while all the Guardsmen and banquet staff watched you cut his father open because of the man's grief driven revote against you. You showed no mercy to Talas for his foolish treachery, and you tortured Tracate beyond human recognition. The girl's death was not your fault. You did not fling her on your sword."
"And what after? How do you justify my vengeance upon all the brigands? Did they all deserve to be cut to pieces and left to die?"
"No. I don't believe they deserved to die that way. You have always granted a soldier's pardon, holding only the leader responsible. I truly wish that you had done so on that day. But, I cannot begin to imagine how you felt seeing the girl on your sword. I will not judge you. What you feel now, the torment that haunts you is price enough."
"Gabrielle, has being with me changed you so much that you have lost your moral compass? You who would counsel understanding, compassion and mercy set my actions aside as nothing. Has hurting you become acceptable? Or do you simply choose to forget the harm done to you? Is that your answer?"
"Xena, what do you expect from me? Must I damn you to make us right? You leave me no avenue for healing."
Xena walked to the open arch and stared out to the countryside. "I hurt inside," she said sorrowfully.
The resurfacing of Xena's deeply felt humanity is what Gabrielle had waited for. "I know, love. I don't need our bond to share your pain."
"I'm tired. I'm tired of failing you. I'm tired of failing myself."
"You have not failed me." Gabrielle went to the open arch and stood across from the warrior. "Xena, I wish I could say I have always lived up to my ideals but we both know that I haven't. We have been able to forgive each other and yet, we can't seem to forgive yourselves for our transgressions." Gabrielle restrained her desire to reach out to her guilt-ridden partner. After being given no indication that Xena welcomed her continued companionship she asked, "Do you want to be alone?" Xena answered with a nod of her head. "Xena, please don't shut me out any longer. I miss you. I miss my Lord." Reluctantly, Gabrielle called Honor to her and walked toward the exit.
Xena called her name, causing Gabrielle to pause and turn her gaze back toward the warrior. Xena confessed cautiously, "I would like to dine with you tonight."
Gabrielle offered her a muted smile. "I will wait for you."
The Royals shared a quiet dinner and then sat in front of the fireplace where Gabrielle fulfilled Xena's request for a story. Gabrielle recited a comedy intent on keeping to a lite mood. At evening's end Gabrielle watched without comment as Xena excused herself and retired to the small room.
The following morning, Gabrielle entered the main chamber of the Royal suite from her bedroom. She found Xena sitting at her desk with Targon standing before her. She was pleasantly surprised at the sign of what she presumed was Xena's renewed interest in the business of the realm. "Good morning, Targon."
The administrator turned to her. "Good morning, Your Majesty."
"Targon has a message from Kasen for you," said Xena, offering Gabrielle a scroll.
Gabrielle took the scroll in hand and read it. "Kasen is reminding me that it has been more than a year since the garrison has had a Queen's inspection."
"He is right on schedule. Kasen's request has become as regular as the turn of the seasons. Will you go?"
"I would like to. Will you come with me?" asked Gabrielle, with undisguised hopefulness.
Xena knew that to travel with Gabrielle would mean to share a tent, shattering the division of their intimate space. "Take Jared with you. He would enjoy seeing Kasen. I'll keep Corinth."
Gabrielle accepted Xena's suggestion without betraying her disappointment. "Targon, please send a message to General Kasen."
"I'll do so immediately, Your Majesty."
"Thank you. Now if you both will excuse me, I need to tell Trevor to ready my Guard." Gabrielle exited the chamber.
Xena followed Gabrielle with her gaze. In spite of the fact that she would miss her, Xena did not regret her decision.
Gabrielle and her Guard traveled to the Eastern Garrison. Throughout their journey they made brief stops at the larger villages on their path. During those visits Gabrielle spoke to the healers and assess the villages' medicinal stores, when necessary adding to the stock from supplies they carried.
The contingent had spent the late afternoon in Sicyon. Given that the large village had a comfortable inn that served excellent food Gabrielle and Jared agreed that they would stay the night. Gabrielle made the innkeeper a happy woman when she consented to tell a few tales after dinner.
Her storytelling a success, Gabrielle spent a leisurely candlemark speaking to villagers. Not a moment passed that she was not under the keen protective scrutiny of her Guard. As the evening was drawing to a close, Alem discreetly approached Gabrielle's table and informed her that there was a young woman who asked to speak her.
"Why doesn't she come to me?" asked Gabrielle.
"Her name is Clare. She's from the bordello. She doesn't want to cause you any embarrassment."
"Where is she?"
The Guardsmen pointed. "There, at the corner table."
Gabrielle went to her.
The young whore stood up and greeted her Queen deferentially. "Your Majesty."
"Clare." Gabrielle offered her hand, which the woman shyly accepted. "How may I help you?"
"I have a question. I'm looking for someone and I think you might know her."
"What is her name?"
Gabrielle searched her memory. "I don't recall the name. Where is Athia from?"
"I don't know. I really don't know much about her."
"Why do you think I would?"
"I asked one of your soldiers about your banner. He said that it bears the Queen's seal of staff, quill and laurel."
"Is it true that no one but you can use the seal or grant the seal to someone else?"
"Athia wore a silver medallion with your seal. Are there many who wear it?"
Gabrielle knew of only one person. She realized she was in a position to learn the facts of Xena's infidelity. Seeing the woman that replaced her in Xena's arms standing before her, Gabrielle felt remarkably calm. "When is the last time you saw Athia?"
"It's been more than a fortnight. She came to me. It had been nearly four years since I'd seen her. I've always… I've always loved her. I thought she…" Clare left her thought incomplete.
Gabrielle gestured toward Clare's chair. "Please lets sit down."
"Thank you." Once they were both seated Clare said, "I hoped you would understand."
"Because of the Conqueror?"
"Yes… Years ago, Athia would arrive at the village once every season or so and stay for days. As time passed she came to favor me over the other girls. She needed… I could give her what she needed. She wasn't one to hurt me and she was generous with her coin. Then one day she came to me and when we were together she was different. She didn't have the fierceness that was always a part of her. She was so gentle. I thought she was with me because she wanted me in another way. Afterwards, she never came back. I thought I did something wrong. For the life of me I did not know what. When she came back this past fortnight… I realized that the last time we were together she had wanted someone else. Someone she couldn't have. From what Athia said to me I think she had gone back to the woman she loved and found a way to be with her."
"So you do know her?" asked Clare eagerly.
"Yes, I think I do."
"When Athia came back this past fortnight, she was the same woman she was when we first met. Or, at least I thought she was."
"What makes you think otherwise?"
"We were… together, and I noticed her medallion. She never wore jewelry before. When I mentioned it she pulled away from me. She left me. I never had a chance to… She said the only one allowed to touch the medallion was the person who gave it to her."
Gabrielle looked down to her hands, focusing upon her joining ring. Xena's confession - I tried…but, I couldn't - took a completely different meaning. Gabrielle now had an explanation for Xena's unchecked battle lust. Xena had not experienced the further sexual relief she had sought.
"Your Majesty, did you give her the medallion?"
Clare's question interrupted Gabrielle's thoughts. She looked up to the beautiful whore. "Yes, I did."
"What did she do to earn it?"
"She saved my life. She gave my life meaning." Gabrielle continued, voicing the wonder she felt. "She has loved me with all her heart and soul. I thought it only right to give her a medallion since I wear hers."
"You wear hers?" Clare looked to Gabrielle's neck where the Conqueror's medallion hung. "The Conqueror?"
"Yes." Gabrielle affirmed proudly.
Nonplused, Clare stuttered helplessly. "I… I don't… Your Majesty… I'm sorry."
"You owe me no apology."
Obviously mortified, Clare began to stand. "Please forgive me… I should go."
Gabrielle reached out and took the whore's hand. "Clare, I'm glad to know my Lord had someone gentle to care for her." Clare gazed down to their held hands. "Please stay," said Gabrielle with undeniable sincerity.
Clare calmed and returned to her seat. She took a steadying breath, then met and held Gabrielle's unflinching gaze, sensing a shared understanding that could not be expressed in words. She chose to return Gabrielle's generosity. "It is easier knowing that she left me for you. I think she loves you more than life itself."
Gabrielle smiled appreciatively. "I love her equally."
"I will keep her secret," said Clare gravely.
"If I can do anything for you, do not hesitate to ask."
"As I said Athia had always been generous with me. One day I may leave my life. Knowing the truth, now I may have reason to. You have done me a favor. I just wish she could know that I am happy for her."
"Do you want to send a message to her…"
"I cannot ask that of you," said Clare vehemently.
"I do not need to carry it. You could write her a letter."
"I do not know how to write."
"I can arrange for a confidential scribe and have the message discretely delivered."
"Why would you do that for me?" said Clare incredulously.
Clare had renewed Gabrielle's waning confidence. She felt her offer only of trifle value compared with what she had been given. "Because I know what it is to love her."
"No, your Majesty. Thank you, but no. She has been yours all these years. What happened between us this past fortnight just proved that she is still yours."
Gabrielle stood. "Clare. I know my Lord well. The fact that she returned to you meant that she trusted you. She doesn't trust easily. You must be a very special woman."
"Your Majesty, I respectfully disagree. Meeting her needs in the way I did is not love nor is it trust… Love is when she set aside her needs and left me to return to you. And, trust? I never knew her. I only thought I did."
Gabrielle's stay at the Eastern Garrison was a joyful reunion. Her affection for Kasen and many of the men was rooted in her nine moons spent as the garrison's healer. She spent numerous candlemarks in fine leisurely conversation. Kasen and Jared's brotherly and cantankerous relationship afforded plenty of humorous exchanges as they bantered in competitive one-upsmanship. Other than a brief message acknowledging her safe arrival no messages were exchanged with Corinth.
Gabrielle sat on a bench outside of her quarters. Night had fallen. Her gaze lingered upon the brilliant constellations. Samuel stood at a distance, across the garrison street.
Jared walked to Samuel's station. "Sam."
The Guardsman responded amicably. "General."
Jared glanced toward Gabrielle. "How is she?"
Samuel thought for a moment before answering. "She hasn't said anything to me."
"Have you asked her what's wrong?"
"Straight out? No, Sir. I can tell you it's more than her usual wishing the Conqueror was with her."
"You sure about that?"
"She was like this before we left Corinth."
"The Conqueror has had a difficult time… what happened to the girl."
"Aye. Those days she went away afterwards… Gabrielle didn't seem angry. I think she was afraid for the Conqueror. And when the Conqueror returned… I don't know… Something's changed between them."
"That's what puzzles me. They've been through much worse."
"General, one thing I've learned is that there is no way I can truly understand what's between them."
"Except that they'll die without the other."
Samuel nodded. "That's what scares me. It's as if a little of Gabrielle has been dying every day that passes and there's nothing anyone of us can do about it."
"I don't know about that," said Jared. "Being an old man has its privileges. One of them is butting my nose in where it don't belong."
"That's not a good idea!" Samuel snapped uncharacteristically. Seeing Jared's displeasure at his remark, Samuel reverted to his customary amiability. "General, being here has been good for Gabrielle. We are returning to Corinth soon enough. I say wait till then to talk to her. Who knows what kind of homecoming the Conqueror gives her."
The General seemed appeased. "All right, Sam. But, promise me. You'll call on me if there is something you think I can do."
"I won't think twice, General."
The men bid each other farewell. Under Samuel's concerned watch, Jared walked over to Gabrielle and exchanged brief pleasantries before he continued down the street.
Xena stood on the bedroom balcony looking up at the stars. Yearning for Gabrielle, she closed her eyes and opened her heart. She felt a trace of Gabrielle's essence. It's faintness broke her heart. She took responsibility for their estrangement, knowing that it was her doing alone. Candlemarks passed without relief.
Having eschewed dinner, Xena found herself hungry. She took the concealed corridor and stairs to the kitchens. Pausing upon entering, she cast her eyes down to the center of the floor, as she remembered the first of a series of encounters that forever changed her life.
"Your Majesty?" Makia had entered the kitchen. The surprise in seeing her Sovereign carried in her voice.
Xena spoke without diverting her gaze. "It was here that I first spoke to Gabrielle. It was General Paulos who had first noticed her at the banquet and brought her to my attention. She was so nervous as she served wine to the guests. When I came down here… when she saw me standing in front of her she scurried up to her feet from her floor washing frightened I would find fault with her. She referred to me as her Lord. It would be another two years before she told me what she meant by it. To be her Lord she hoped beyond reason that I would protect her. She had been so terribly hurt and still she believed kindness could be found in this world."
"You gave her that kindness, Your Majesty," said Makia gently.
"And in return she believed in me. She believed I had a soul worth saving."
Silence fell between the two women. The Conqueror gave no clue of her intentions. The cook asked, "Your Majesty, is there anything I can do for you?"
The Sovereign glanced over to the cook. "No, Makia. Thank you. Go back to bed."
The cook remained unmoved. "You Majesty, forgive me… but, you must know that she is waiting for you to return to her."
Xena wondered how much Gabrielle's confidant knew versus how much she inferred from recent events. It did not matter. Makia's consult was valuable. "I want to go to her," the Sovereign confessed.
"You are the Conqueror. What keeps you from her?" boldly asked the cook.
"What indeed, Makia." Was the answer given. And, with that answer, Xena made a decision.
At daybreak, Xena fetched Stephen informing him that they would ride to the Eastern Garrison. Stephen asked no questions, simply packing his things and bidding Tess a passionate farewell as Xena waited patiently.
Mid-day, on their third day of travel, the two friends rested their horses. Xena sat against a tree, seeking shade from the hot sun. She held her medallion and its chain in her hand.
"What are you thinking?" asked Stephen as he sat down beside her.
"When Gabrielle first arrived in Corinth, she sought two things she deserved and for which no one should have to beg for: freedom and safety."
"Her heart needed more - to belong," said Stephen knowingly. "I think she found the Guard easier to be with than the household servants and slaves. I think that's why her medallion meant so much to her. Who would have dreamed before she arrived that we would want her as much as she wanted us? We became family."
"Her brothers." Xena said warmly, "She loves you so."
Stephen indulged himself in the intimate conversation. "May I ask, who was Gabrielle first to you?"
Xena laughed lightly. "One moment I thought her a child, another a spy and then a heartbeat later a young woman of extraordinary courage." Xena returned her gaze to her medallion. "Gabrielle was my bard, telling me stories, coaxing a smile from me, taking me away from my violent world, giving me brief respites in the Elysia she wove with her words. I will always think of her first and foremost as the storyteller who saw human nature with remarkable clarity, who looked beyond the darkness seeking goodness where no one else would dare."
"Is that when you grew to love her?"
"No. I loved her before the stories. We shared evenings up on the turret. We admired the stars in silence. From time to time we talked. During the best moments we were not Sovereign and slave. We were two women with more questions about life and each other than there were answers to be gotten. I tried not to love her but I couldn't help myself. I wanted to love her."
"I think now that I have Tess I've begun to understand how you felt. It's the simple things that mean everything to me. Sleeping beside her. Seeing her standing at the window quietly in thought. I wonder if she's happy and I know that there is nothing I want more than for her to be happy."
Xena did not have to imagine such a moment. She lived it with Gabrielle. She continued the description, as she knew it. "And then she sees you and smiles and you know that she wishes the same for you."
"Yes," said Stephen as he glanced down to this wedding ring. "And, I feel grateful in a way I can never put into words."
"So you do the next best thing and embrace her hoping she will understand what was left unspoken."
"Is that what you are hoping for when you see Gabrielle?" asked Stephen, his tone very serious.
Xena was taken unawares. "Stephen?"
"Xena, why didn't you travel with Gabrielle?"
The blunt question deserved an honest answer. Xena wrestled with the truth. "I still felt my fever. There was a time I happily drowned in my battle lust. Now… there is no part of me more ugly."
"Gabrielle doesn't judge you so, does she?"
"She loves me. It's true love is blind."
"No one sees you more clearly," countered Stephen forcefully. "Xena, what happened between you? I thought all was well after Ithome."
"Who say differently?" asked Xena defensively.
"I do. Gabrielle has never shied away from you after a battle. She has always made a point of finding you and caring for you afterwards. What happened… Gabrielle would not have turned away from you."
"I…" Xena could not confess that she left Gabrielle for a whore. "I made a mistake."
"At Gabrielle's expense."
Xena nodded. "I don't want to hurt her… again."
Stephen did not hide his surprise. He looked down to his hands. "I didn't think you would..." he said softly.
Xena hated seeing Stephen's disillusionment. "She would not say. Not even to me."
Stephen looked up, obviously confused. "I don't understand. You didn't know you had hurt her?"
"The harm was unintentional. I only learned what I had done when… when I touched her and saw she was in pain."
Stephen's animation returned. "Does Gabrielle hesitate with you?"
"So, she has forgiven you?"
"She said there was nothing to forgive."
"But you won't forgive yourself. Isn't Gabrielle the best judge?"
"Not this time. Sometimes I'm more beast than woman. It's hard to live with myself."
Beginning to understand, Stephen asked, "Because of the death of the girl and what happened afterwards?" Xena offered no answer. Instead, diverting her gaze toward the distant horizon. Stephen confessed, "I admit it wasn't easy to watch you."
Xena looked down to her medallion holding hands. "So, I disappointed you, too."
"Your anger has saved my life. I cannot condemn it."
Xena found and held Stephen's compassionate gaze with her own piercing eyes. "You accept me, just like that?"
"I believe there comes a point in time when one person sees another for who they are and makes a choice either to accept them or walk away. Xena, you are Ares' Chosen. Neither Gabrielle nor I can change that fact. Gabrielle calls Ares' Chosen her Lord. I call Ares' Chosen my friend. It's that simple."
Shaken to her core, Xena looked away, composing herself. "Well Stephen, Ares' Chosen's blood is boiling. It's time, my friend, to ride."
The day had arrived for Gabrielle to return to Corinth. After a heartfelt farewell to Kasen, she and her Guard took to the southeast road that paralleled the Grecian/Persian border. Gabrielle wished to visit a number of villages that had suffered from the Persian peasant raids. On their second day of travel they were ambush by brigands. The Queen's Guard was taken by surprise, but only for the heartbeat that it took for Trevor to call out his commands. A third of the men created a protective formation around Gabrielle as the brigands, both on horseback and on foot, surged forward. The Guardsmen summarily dispatched a handful of the footmen to Hades. Due to the Guardsmen's engagement, a second line of mounted brigands was able to press closer to Gabrielle's protective perimeter. Gabrielle released her staff from its harness and readied for the in-coming fight. A large, powerful brigand with a long sword had Samuel engaged and was getting the better of the Guardsman. None of Samuel's brothers were in the position to help him. Gabrielle road Geld forward and slammed Samuel's opponent in the chest with her staff. A second, nearby brigand rode near and swung his sword at her, cutting Gabrielle in the arm. The pain caused Gabrielle to fall back onto her saddle. Geld, well experienced in battle, reared, spacing him and Gabrielle from the immediate threat. The Guardsmen's superior skills ultimately overpowered their attackers who unceremoniously retreated into the woods.
Seeing that Gabrielle had been wound Jared dismounted and went to her. "Lass." He reached up. Gabrielle accepted his assistance in dismounting. "Are you all right?"
Gabrielle placed her hand over her wounded arm. She then removed it and turned her palm up. It was blood soaked. "Damn."
"Sit down." Jared guided Gabrielle to sit on the ground as he knelt on one knee beside her.
Trevor called out. "Alem! Come here with your kit!"
Samuel stood over Gabrielle and Jared, silently watching. Gabrielle met his troubled gaze. "Sam, I'm going to be fine."
"They were targeting you," said Trevor.
"I know. They can't be so blind not to see either my banner or your insignias."
Trevor kept to his security role. "We have a long road to travel and we don't know how many there are."
"We'll just have to be careful," said Gabrielle.
"We can turn back to the garrison and get a 3rd Army escort," counseled Trevor.
"No." Gabrielle saw no advantage in turning back. "They were Persians. Going back to the garrison keeps us near the border. The further we travel into Greece the lesser chance they'll follow. They need to get back to their homes and families."
Jared interjected, "Gabrielle, these men were not looking for food. You are their prize."
"A Queen's ransom. I know." Gabrielle directed her question to Trevor. "Were any of our men hurt?"
"Nothing but cuts and bruises," he reported.
"Thought so." Gabrielle smiled. "We can hold our own. For now, we'll double the night watch. We'll travel only with daylight and use advance scouts whenever we near potential ambush points." She returned her gaze to Jared. "Let's decide our response strategy tonight."
"There is nothing to decide," said Samuel angrily. "We'll do what we did this time, create a perimeter around you and kill any man that tries to cross it. And next time I will hold you in the center if I have to."
Samuel had never before spoken to Gabrielle with such vehemence. Gabrielle responded with an equal measure of assurance. "Sam, I'm capable of protecting myself. I am not going to stand back helplessly."
Samuel exploded, "Look what happened to you!"
Trevor tried to calm the Guardsman. "Sam…"
"No! I don't care if you bring down the wrath of all the Gods in Olympus against me. I will not keep quiet."
"You took a sword for me in Ithome," said Gabrielle calmly. "Haven't I the right to return the favor?"
"No, you don't. If my being in your Guard makes you more vulnerable then I'll resign my commission."
Alem entered the foursome. The rest of the Guard approached, standing at a respectful distance. There was no doubt that many, if not all, felt equally as Samuel.
"We'll talk later," said Gabrielle to Samuel. The Guardsman walked away. Gabrielle followed his withdrawal with her gaze, and then turned to Alem. "I expect only the best stitch work, my brother."
"No scar to boast about?" asked the trained medic.
"I'd rather not."
Alem smiled. "Then you will have a fine stitch. Only the best for my sister."
Gabrielle and her Guard traveled a candlemark further before reaching a defensible position. With daylight waning Jared and Trevor counseled that they could not do much better for camp. Gabrielle agreed, without mentioning her own fatigue, caused she believed by her considerable loss of blood.
After their meal Gabrielle went to Samuel who sat alone sharpening his sword. Upon seeing him, she smiled, thinking of her Lord, who often times would complete the same task in thoughtful solitude. "Sam."
The Guardsman stilled his strokes and looked over to her.
There friendship was such that they required no formalities with one another. Gabrielle spoke immediately to the issue that divided them. "I was afraid, Sam. For you. For all my brothers. For my Lord, if I were to leave her again, especially so soon after Ithome. I was afraid for myself because I love all of you and I don't want to leave you."
"Let us protect you," said Samuel decisively.
"I do. Remember when I was first arrived in Corinth. I asked my Lord to be taught to defend myself. My brothers took turns to teach me. Staff, sword, dagger and bow. The world has always been a dangerous place for me. It hasn't mattered whether I was a girl in Poteadaia, a slave, freewoman or Queen. The world will always be a dangerous place. I'm grateful that most of the time I don't have to rely only on my skills. Having you and my brothers, having my Lord beside me grants me the greatest protection anyone could wish for. If I get hurt, it's because the Fates will have it no other way.
"Sam, I loved Spirit. When my Lord told me not to stable him or corral him for life she spoke a truth I hated but could not deny because it was not only Spirit's truth, it was also hers and mine. I cannot live without my freedom. I cannot live a suffocating life just like Spirit could not live restrained. Don't ask me to stand and watch anyone I love get hurt when I know I could stop or at least try to stop the harm. Don't ask me to live wrapped in lamb's wool away from the cuts and bruises of living. And please, don't ask me to choose between my love for you and my love for life."
Samuel looked down to his sword. He took his time in thought before returning his gaze to Gabrielle. "I will not lose you."
From her years of loving her Lord who was a warrior first and foremost, Gabrielle had come to understand the meaning behind Samuel's words. "You did not fail me today. You have never failed me."
Gabrielle's declaration seemed to have made an impact upon Samuel for he sighed then gestured with this hand toward Gabrielle's wound. "We will have Hades to pay when the Conqueror sees your bandage."
Gabrielle glanced over to her arm. "I don't know. Maybe if Alem tied a pretty bow and we pretend I was gift-wrapped for her she might think twice before thrashing all of you."
"I guess it is both good news and bad news that we will arrive in Corinth before you are completely healed. Then again, knowing the Conqueror she will surely meet us on the road with the whole First Army riding at her back."
"If she felt what I felt, yes," said Gabrielle pensively.
"If?" Samuel was clearly not expecting the qualifier.
"We have been going through a difficult time," explained Gabrielle shyly.
"Because of Ithome?"
"No. Something happened. Like you she cannot tolerate to see me hurt. And like you she blames herself instead of accepting that I make my choices and am determined to live by the consequences."
"Trevor needs to be told that the Conqueror may not know the danger we are in," said Samuel.
Although Gabrielle realized that others vaguely recognized, without completely understanding, her unique bond with Xena, she did not expect that it would make any significant difference in Trevor's military leadership. "Why would he expect her?"
"Because we all do. What you and the Conqueror share gives the Queen's Guard the benefit of having the greatest warrior of our time never very far away from vouchsafing your life, which also means our lives."
"Then it may be that I have failed you today."
"Never," said Samuel absolutely.
Not one to contradict Samuel, Gabrielle smiled. She chose to sit beside her brother. The Guardsman shifted his sword aside making a space for her. Comfortably situated, Gabrielle wondered aloud, "Sam, tell me how did we get to this day?"
"I don't know, little sis, but I can tell you that there is no place where I rather be."
Gabrielle leaned against Samuel's shoulder. "I'm glad you're here, Sam."
The Guardsman reached out for a blanket and wrapped it around Gabrielle. "Try to get some sleep. Tomorrow promises to be an uncertain day."
Gabrielle closed her eyes feeling the pulsating pain from her wound and a rising fever. She knew she needed to rest if she was to maintain any bit of her dwindling strength. In the comfort of Samuel's nearness, sleep came to her gently.
Xena lay on her bedroll having bid Stephen a good night's sleep. She was satisfied with their progress. She felt restless; the prospect of seeing Gabrielle stirred the hopeful anticipation of once again holding the gentle bard in her arms.
Returning to their beginnings had helped Xena place the events of the recent moons in perspective. Their lives were fated to be difficult. External forces would inevitably continue to challenge them as individuals and as a couple. The worst of times made, in counterpoint, a casual uneventful day precious. Those same terrible times had not destroyed, but actually deepened their bond. Their blissful union was still theirs to embrace or to deny.
Xena closed her eyes and traveled inside her, searching for Gabrielle's essence, that minute aspect of the bard's soul that Xena accepted as a gift and swore to forever hold in safekeeping. She moved through the darkness fearlessly confident that no harm would come to her. She saw a shimmering light. The light rose up like a firefly in the night. Xena smiled, happy to see Gabrielle's spirit so bright and free. Her eyes fixed upon the light as it hovered over a constellation. She understood that by following the constellation's brightest star she would reach the Eastern Garrison. Her smile widened.
The light unexpectedly shifted, changing its position southeast. Xena continued to track its movement until it paused, hovering once again, suggesting a new direction. Xena waited patiently to see if the light would move a second time. She reached up her hand beckoning the light to come to her. It did not. It remained in its new position.
Xena woke. Her dream lingered in her memory. Dawn had broken over the horizon. The stars were hidden in the sunlight. She stood up and closed her eyes seeking Gabrielle's essence, certain she would not be denied. She felt a familiar tug. The direction was not toward the Eastern Garrison. Like her dream, the direction was east, in line with her current longitude.
She opened her eyes to the brilliant hues of the sunrise. She picked up the blanket she used as a pillow and flung it over to Stephen who lay sound asleep.
"Hey!" The startled Major called out. "Xena, what is it? What's wrong?" He looked about the camp seeing no reason for the abrupt wake-up.
"Nothing's wrong," said Xena drolly.
"And you shot this in my face because?"
"I like you?" Xena smiled mischievously.
Stephen saw a rare playful brilliance in Xena's eyes. "What is it I don't know?"
"I say your sister has left the garrison and is on her way home and if we travel quickly we will meet her on the road today."
"And you know this how?"
"The way I've always known such things about Gabrielle."
Stephen smiled broadly. "That's damn good news, Xena."
She reached out her hand. "Come on. No time to waste."
Stephen accepted Xena's hand and allowed her to pull him up to his feet. "Look at that sunrise," he said appreciatively. "I say it's going to be a good day."
Xena slapped him on the back happily. "Then let's go out and greet it."
It was near mid-afternoon when Xena and Stephen rode their horses through a ravine. To one side were high cliffs, to the other a shallow river. Xena had been feeling a heighten awareness of Gabrielle's essence and with it a mounting impatience. As they neared a bend Argo, not immune to Xena's radiating anxiousness, stepped high. Stephen rode alertly, a silent attentive companion.
Trevor kept a close eye on Gabrielle. Her hands tightened on her reins, the muscle in her arms taunt. Geld bobbed his head whinnying. "Gabrielle, what is it?" asked the Captain.
Gabrielle shook her head obviously tolerating no intrusions upon her thoughts. She held Geld back. Trevor raised his hand halting the Guard. Samuel and Jared rode up to Gabrielle's left. They waited. All eyes directed toward the road ahead.
Xena and Stephen turned the bend. Gabrielle smiled and said to Samuel, "I was wrong to doubt her, Sam." She dismounted handing Geld's reins to Trevor.
Relieved, but still struggling with her smothering emotion Xena mirrored Gabrielle's action, giving Argo's reins to Stephen. She noted that Gabrielle walked deliberately. She also marked the bandage on Gabrielle's arm. Meeting on the open expanse they remained an arm's length apart. "You're hurt," said Xena.
"I'll be all right."
Xena glanced over Gabrielle's shoulder to the Queen's Guard. "What happened?"
"Persian brigands attacked us. I think they thought having me in their hands would improve their chances against you and Kasen. We took exception to their plans."
"Anyone else hurt?"
"No. My Guard blames themselves that I got cut."
"Are they right to?"
"What does your heart tell you?"
"My heart has been very confused. I don't trust it."
"I understand. I wish I knew how to help you."
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry I've kept you away from me. There was nothing you could do for me. I needed time to place the darkness inside of me away where it could do no harm."
"Xena, you have never harmed me. In you I have always seen no one less than my Lord."
Xena chose neither to accept nor decline Gabrielle's complement. "We should get moving." She glanced up to the cliffs. "We are vulnerable to attack."
"That is not my first concern."
Xena returned her gaze to Gabrielle. "What is?"
"How does a woman who loves you more than life itself find herself once again in your arms?"
Xena's resolve to tread carefully back to Gabrielle shattered. She opened her arms. Gabrielle flung herself into Xena's embrace. Xena closed her eyes finding solace and a rising sense of their connection. She whispered, "Gabrielle, I can't lose you."
The following day they began their travels late. Xena tarried under the pretext that she and Stephen had gone with little sleep as they journeyed to reach Gabrielle. When, in fact, it was Xena's concern for Gabrielle's health that caused her to keep her bard in bed until mid-morning. Gabrielle had not put forth much of a protest enjoying the physical comfort Xena offered.
It was near noon when the sounds emanating from a nearby village caused the contingent to ride at full gallup into what was a raid against the villagers by the same band of brigands that had assaulted Gabrielle and her Guard.
All dismounted and fought hard, pushing the brigands back against the village hall.
Xena identified the brigand giving orders and engaged him with her sword. Wanting no further blood on her hands she held her sword forward, and then took one step back, her menace radiating from her. "Had enough!" she shouted. In response, Gabrielle and the other Guardsmen carefully stepped away from their fights, creating a line with Xena.
The lead brigand held his place. "Damn you! You have no right to interfere."
"No right? This is Greece and I'm the Conqueror. I have every right to protect my realm"
"Borders mean nothing to me. Persians starve while Grecians feed their bellies full. It ain't right."
"I've asked King Okal to feed his people."
"Why does a difference of ten furlongs mean I am at Okal's mercy and not yours?"
"Right now you and your friends are at my mercy. Don't make me kill you. Drop your arms and I'll have you escorted back across the border."
"To starve? I'd rather die like a man then go mad watching my family and friends die of hunger."
"I'm giving you one last chance. Drop your weapons."
A second brigand called out. "Bonan, don't listen to her. She's a butcher."
"Go back home! Be with your families. Take them honorably to lands that can sustain you," countered Xena.
Gabrielle stepped forward. "My Lord will not break her word."
Bonan gazed over to the young Queen, her sincerity undeniable. "Have I your word, Queen?"
"Yes, though my word is no truer than my Lord's."
Bonan lowered his sword. "You'll return our weapons at the border?"
"If you give me your vow never to step on Grecian soil without a letter of passport," said Xena.
"No!" The second brigand took hold of Tavis, placing a dagger at his throat. "You will give us coin to buy food."
"If you spill even one drop of his blood, I will cut you all down without mercy," thundered Xena.
Bonan ordered his fellow brigand, "Kentan, let the man go."
"Kentan is right!" a third brigand yelled. "This is our chance to bring home more than scraps of food."
Tavis took advantage of the distraction and elbowed Kentan in the gut. The brigand's knife inadvertently cut Trevor's neck. Sentas surged forward pulling Tavis from harms way as Xena raised her sword to administer a deathblow.
Gabrielle flung herself against Xena, placing her hands on the warrior's wrists. Their eyes met. Xena's unbridled rage traveled through their connection with unprecedented force. Gabrielle saw and felt hatred and for a moment doubted her immunity from such a destructive power.
The brigands stood paralyzed as the scene unfolded. The Guardsmen surrounded the Royals ensuring their safety.
Xena snapped her arms free; a look of horror had overtaken the warrior. Re-gathering her sense of space and time she stepped back from Gabrielle. Gabrielle struggled to stay on her feet, refusing to yield to the darkness that engulfed her.
Xena turned to the brigands. "Are you ready to die?" Her barbaric countenance placed the fear of Tartarus in every man.
Without hesitation Bonan threw his sword down. "We have your word you would give us safe passage."
"That was before your man's pathetic attempt at extortion."
"We have the Queen's word!" cried Bonan in desperation.
"Weapons down. Now!" shouted Xena impatiently. The other brigands did as told; Kentan was the last to comply. She ordered the Guardsmen., "Take their weapons and tie them up."
Uncertain of his fate, Bonan begged. "You promised!"
Xena walked away. Trevor took charge, directing the Guardsmen to bind the brigands.
Jared went to Gabrielle. "Lass…"
Gabrielle beseeched him. "Help me, Jared."
The General lifted Gabrielle into his arms and carried her to a secluded place where she could receive care.
After ascertaining that there was little he could do for Gabrielle other than to ensure her privacy, Jared ordered camp to be set. They would stay the night. His hope was that Xena and Gabrielle would settle the fate of the brigands without further retribution. As far as he was concerned, the drought had triggered enough bloodshed.
At dusk, Jared returned to Gabrielle. Though the Royal tent had been raised, she remained where he left her. A plate of uneaten dinner rested beside her. Samuel sat nearby. "Sam, I need a moment."
Wordlessly, Samuel stood up and walked beyond hearing distance, never losing sight of Gabrielle.
Jared crouched beside her, noting the young woman's ashen complexion. "Xena has returned. She is in your tent."
"How does she bear it, Jared?" said Gabrielle dispiritedly. "What she feels… I never imagined how overwhelming… I don't understand how she can be so gentle with me when she harbors such ugliness inside her."
"I think today Xena had one of her greatest nightmares come true. Though you thought differently you have never completely understood her nature. Now you've felt the part of her she has always tried to keep away from you. She has feared this day, sure that if you knew her without censor you could not love her." Jared paused for a moment, searching his ward's eyes for reassurance. Seeing only confusion and sorrow, he asked, "Gabrielle, was she right to fear this day?"
Gabrielle's tears slipped down her cheek. She reached out to the General. He took her into his arms as the younger woman cried. A quarter-candlemark passed before Gabrielle calmed. She confessed. "Jared, I don't know what to say to her."
"The truth, lass. She won't accept anything less."
"I wonder if she would have let me in her life if she knew this would happen between us? Our bond has always been a way to touch our love for one another. It was never… I'm just now starting to see why she has hesitated. I think she knew that the closer we became the greater the possibility that I would feel her as I did today. I think she had come to realize that she wasn't strong enough to keep herself from me."
"Obviously, today she failed."
"I've done this to her."
"Exposed her. She is never more vulnerable than when she's with me."
"Lass, that's always been true."
"Not like this."
"Maybe not." Jared released his ward and held her at arm's length. "Gabrielle, of the two of you, you may very well be the stronger. I know there are parts of you that you've never shared with Xena. She has always respected your wish to keep the past in the past."
"What are you saying?"
"She no longer has a choice. You do. Reliving your scarring after Ithome she shared your physical pain. She could imagine what you felt in your heart, but I don't believe she truly knows for certain. Just like you did not know her heart until today."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Jared, you don't know what you're asking."
"I think I do." The General took a kerchief from his belt and dabbed Gabrielle's tears away.
"Why must I tell her?"
"Lass, the reason for sharing your truth is obvious enough."
Xena woke up in a cold sweat. She turned in her bed of furs searching for Gabrielle, only to find herself alone. She had fallen asleep waiting for her partner to join her, having not dared approach Gabrielle, willing herself to give her partner time to recover from their devastating union. Xena closed her eyes gingerly seeking out Gabrielle's essence. She needed the warmth and light of her partner more than ever. What she sensed terrified her.
Xena exploded out from her tent. Trevor stood guard. He tensed in readiness, not knowing the threat but trusting Xena's instincts.
Xena scanned the camp. "Where…?" She spotted Gabrielle asleep leaning against a log, a blanket over her. Xena set aside her disappointment in Gabrielle's decision not to come to her side and focused only on the disturbing darkness that pulsed through their connection.
Samuel slept a few paces away from Gabrielle; his hand clenched the hilt of his sword. He woke upon hearing Xena's approach. He shifted toward Gabrielle protectively. He pulled back his momentum upon recognizing the Conqueror.
Xena knelt beside a half conscious Gabrielle. The bard was drenched in perspiration. "Gabrielle…"
Gabrielle opened her eyes. She spoke weakly. "Xena…"
Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle's forehead. "You're burning up."
"I'm sorry. I was so wrong."
"I thought… all this time I thought I was saving you from… I didn't want you to blame yourself for what happened to me."
"You've done nothing wrong."
"It's I who've kept you away. I hated him so much. I didn't want you to feel my hatred."
Xena assumed Gabrielle's was referencing the brigand. "Gabrielle, please. We'll talk about this later."
"No, I've waited too long. Xena, what you feel… I knew those feelings long before I met you. We aren't as different as you think."
Xena kissed Gabrielle's forehead. "We are. You forgive. You don't look for vengeance. You have never crossed that line. I have. I still do."
Gabrielle took Xena's shirt in her fist. "I love you. Please believe me. I've never questioned the rightness of our love."
"I believe you." Xena turned to Samuel as Gabrielle closed her eyes "Sam, did you know she was with fever."
"No, my Liege. She was upset. That be true but when I lay the blanket over her there was no sign of sickness."
Xena pulled the blanket down. Her gaze held to Gabrielle's wounded arm. "Get some light, Sam." Sam went to retrieve a torch as Xena raised Gabrielle's sleeve and undid the bandage. He returned and stood over the Royals. "Closer Sam." Samuel shifted the torch over Gabrielle's shoulder. Xena whispered, "Oh gods, no." Her inspection had revealed a terrible discoloration of Gabrielle's arm. "Trevor, I need hot water and bandages and a healer's kit." Xena raised Gabrielle into her arms and carried her back to their tent.
Alem soon arrived with medical supplies. Xena made an incision into the swollen flesh, releasing the putrid puss of infection. Gangrene had settled into the arm.
Alem was sufficiently versed in the healing arts to ascertain the dire nature of Gabrielle's condition. "My Liege," he said softly. "Should a message be sent to Dalius? He can bring the medicines we don't have here."
Xena continued to minister to Gabrielle's arm. "Good idea, Alem. Have Jared send a messenger tonight."
The Guardsman left the tent without delay.
"Gabrielle…" She opened her eyes. Xena explained, "Your cut is badly infected. The infection is traveling…" Xena hesitated. "There may be no way to stop it unless I…"
Gabrielle turned her head toward her arm. She closed her eyes upon seeing the damage. "No."
"Gabrielle, you're a healer." Xena pleaded, "You know I have no choice."
"No, Xena. I will not lose my arm."
"Love, please. You've done this for others. I can't lose you."
"You will not do that to me!"
"Damn you! You promised not to leave me easily. You can't give up."
"Sam?" Gabrielle looked about the tent. "Where's Sam?"
Xena yelled. "Sam! In here!"
The Guardsman entered. Xena stood aside. Gabrielle's brother went to her, going down on one knee. "Hey."
"Sam… Give me your promise."
"Don't let them take my arm."
Stunned to silence he glanced back to Xena. "My Liege?"
"No!" Gabrielle cried. "Look at me, Sam. Promise me."
"Little sis, if it will save your life."
"It won't. It's too late. Swear Sam. Swear!"
Samuel turned his gaze once again to the Conqueror. Xena cast her eyes down. He took Gabrielle's hand. "I promise, but you must make me an equal promise."
"You will convince the Conqueror to stop at Megara on the way back to Corinth so we can all have a rest and see our wounds heal. And so we can send for Tess and have her cook us a good roast and you can tell your stories to all your brothers."
"Sam, I can't promise that."
"No one walked the earth stronger than you. If you will it you will keep the promise."
"I'm tired, Sam."
"I know you are. You've got to live, little sis. It's the only way to make things right between you and the Conqueror."
"I told her, Sam. It's all right now."
"No, you're wrong. You've asked her, as you have asked me, to stand and watch you die. I cannot help you. She can."
"You are hard on me, Sam."
"I am sworn to you and because I am I will not watch you taint your soul by asking the unforgivable."
"You will not forgive me?"
"I cannot help but forgive you. Will the Conqueror? How can you know Elysia with such a death as this?"
"I think my Lord is right. The only Elysia we will know is Megara. Hades will grant me nothing less than torment when he separates her from me."
"Then you have more reason to get well and return to Megara."
"Megara has slipped away from me."
"If you are lost your brothers and your Lord will help you find your way."
"I've been so lonely, Sam."
"I thought I was doing right."
"It is not always easy to know the right thing to do. Today the right thing to do is to honor my wishes."
Gabrielle soon fell into a fitful sleep. Xena left Alem by her side. She marched to where the prisoners were held. "Tavis, where are their weapons?"
"Stockpiled by the far trees, my Liege."
Without a further word, Xena walked to the cache. She knelt on one knee and inspected one sword after another, lifting the blades to her nose, guiding a finger over their edges and tasting any remnant, be it blood or not. She felt a presence at her side. She glanced up to Jared.
The General guessed. "Poison?"
"That explains Gabrielle's wound."
Xena picked up an infected dagger and stood up. She scanned the camp until she caught sight of the Persians' leader.
Jared followed her gaze. "Xena, Gabrielle wouldn't want you to torture him."
Xena said nothing. Her actions would be a sufficient answer. She walked toward the prisoners. Tavis stepped aside.
"You!" Xena pointed to the leader. "Bonan, that's your name, isn't it?"
"It is," answered the brigand as he stood up.
"Very well, Bonan. The General here doesn't think I should use this poisoned dagger to cut you. He is of the opinion that the Queen would not want me to revenge her injury by bestowing a similar wound upon you. What say you? What kind of death do you want? Do I stab you in the heart with one quick stroke or do I cut your arm and watch your body rot piece by piece?"
Bonan looked down to the dagger with fearful awareness. He turned to a countryman. "Nadav, what's she talking about? What poison does your blade hold?"
"None, Bonan…none. Where would I be getting poison?" the brigand answered.
Bonan turned around to the other men. "Which of you uses poison on his blade?"
The men remained still; a couple fearfully shook their heads. The Persian turned back to the Conqueror. "If there be poison on the blade it wasn't our doing."
Xena searched for Kentan. "You!" She pointed the dagger at him. "Stand up!" He did as told. "My men told me that you were the one that cut the Queen. Will you take a cut on the arm. Cut for cut?"
"Not if it be poisoned. No Conqueror. I do not deserve that."
"Very well." Xena fulfilled the alternative. The dagger struck Kentan through the heart. He looked down in shock and then fell to the ground.
Samuel intercepted Xena and Jared as they returned to the Royal tent. "My Liege," he called out, as he jogged to them. "My Liege, I know I cannot stop you from doing what is best for my sister. Will I be breaking my promise to her or is she right? Is there no hope?"
Xena could not remember Samuel ever speaking of Gabrielle with such a brother's blatant right.
Jared answered the Guardsman without committing Xena to any particular action. "Sam, the sword that cut Gabrielle had a powerful poison."
The Guardsman's was stunned. Xena believed, by the look of Samuel, that Jared's information was a decisive stroke, one that would put to rest whatever remaining hope Gabrielle's beloved brother harbored for his sister's recovery. He stepped aside.
Xena walked on into the Royal tent. Within a heartbeat Alem exited. He joined the men just as Stephen approached. "What news?" asked the medic.
Jared informed him and Stephen of the poison.
Alem reached for his sword. "Let's send those sons of Bacchae to Hades."
"The Conqueror killed the one that cut Gabrielle," said Jared.
"And the rest?" asked Alem, clearly unappeased.
"Do you think Gabrielle would want their blood spilled?" snapped Jared.
Appropriately chastised, Alem looked down shamefully. "No, Sir."
"That's right!" said Jared, his anger fueled by grief.
Stephen placed his hand on Alem shoulder. "Go see if Tavis needs any help with the prisoners." He then turned to Samuel and gently ordered him back to his post outside of the Royal tent. The Guardsmen did as told without comment. Stephen directed his next comment to the General. "What now?"
"We wait," he said.
"Jared, Greece is yours." The General looked to Stephen with undisguised rancor. Stephen held his gaze confidently. "Xena will follow Gabrielle in death. You know this. After Gabrielle disappeared, the only thing that forestalled Xena from taking her life was Ares' revelation that Gabrielle was alive and living in Ithome."
"Why say this to me."
"Because you must be ready. You must have the Generals and the Lords standing by your side, otherwise Caesar or Okal or some treacherous bugger will rise up in arms and try to usurp the throne, destroying Greece in the process."
"Ask me if I care," said the General.
"You care as much as I do. Damn it, Gabrielle is dying and there is not a thing you or I can do about it. What we can do is honor her by not letting everything she sacrificed go for nothing." Jared stepped away in thought. Stephen gave him a moment before renewing his campaign. "Old man, I know you love Gabrielle. I know you love them both. This… this is not our time to be with them. They need no one but each other."
Jared wiped his eyes with his sleeve before turning back to Stephen. "Come with me, Major. We have work to do."
Athena appeared in the Royal tent. Gabrielle slept on a comfortable pallet that had been secured from the village. Xena slept upright in a nearby chair. The Goddess leaned down and kissed Gabrielle on the lips and then whispered in her ear. "Listen to me my sister's Chosen. The day will come when you will be given the opportunity to serve a purpose in both your patron's and my name. On that day you will act not compelled by the Gods but by your free will. I trust that you will not disappoint me. My purpose for you is honorable. For now let your soul return to a peaceful state. Contrary to your worst fears you have done nothing to deserve less. You are beautiful, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Queen of Greece." Athena sighed, "If your heart was not already bound to another, I would love you." She placed her hand over Gabrielle's wounded arm taking the poison from it and all that had traveled through the young woman's body.
Ares appeared. "Well, well, now isn't this an intimate moment. Wouldn't it be better if she was conscious?"
"I thought Zeus told you to leave Gabrielle alone."
"Have I touched her? Dad didn't say I couldn't watch his favorite… what exactly are you doing, anyway?"
Athena returned her regard to the mortal. "She's a formidable young leader. With the right guidance she could do great things."
"With the right guidance? Hey, how about giving credit where credit is due," said Ares with characteristic aplomb.
"Who? You?" asked Athena incredulously.
"Xena is my Chosen."
"Gabrielle is not."
"Who do you think taught her to be Queen?"
"Gabrielle is Aphrodite's Chosen. Don't under estimate the power of her influence."
"Speaking of don'ts… I don't think our sister is going to like your aspirations for her girl."
"Gabrielle is ill and I'm healing her. Aphrodite will have no quarrel with me."
"Be careful, Athena. Remember, Xena and Gabrielle are bound in a way that is beyond the Gods' abilities to explain. Aphrodite and I both have a stake in what you do to Gabrielle." With his warning conveyed, and an undeserved sense of self-satisfaction, the god disappeared.
Just as soon as Athena placed a hand on Gabrielle's forehead, Aphrodite appeared. The two Goddesses stood on opposite sides of Gabrielle's bed in silence. Athena chose to break the tension. "Ares wasted no time, did he?" Sensing the extent of Aphrodite's disapproval, Athena announced, "She will live."
"Why are you here?" asked Aphrodite accusatorially.
"To save your Chosen," replied Athena dispassionately. "No gratitude, sister?"
"At what price, Athena?"
"You don't trust me?" Athena wore a mask of false hurt.
Unconvinced Aphrodite pressed. "Your word, Athena!"
Athena's cast changed giving the impression that she might indeed be ready to speak the truth. "The Fates are weaving Gabrielle's life. They gave me forewarning that were she to die tonight the possibility of a particular future would be no more."
"If she lives Athens will continue to have a Queen to safeguard the city. I have reason to protect my city. If doing so is to your benefit there is no expectation for gratitude. I admit I am acting selfishly."
Aphrodite lovingly caressed Gabrielle's face with her hand. "It isn't like the Fates to interfere."
"In the past Xena was an exception. The Fates gave her a choice. Today, they gave me a choice."
Aphrodite raised her gaze. "There are no guarantees."
"No, there aren't. But, history tends to repeat. Athens has been under threat in the past. If it is threatened in the future, I'll feel better knowing Gabrielle is ruling."
"I do not want a great victory to crush the best of her heart. I would rather she die in peace," said the Goddess of Love with genuine affection for her Chosen.
"This isn't her time."
Aphrodite turned toward Xena. "I agree, it's best if it's not."
At daybreak Xena awoke and went to Gabrielle. Placing her hand on the younger woman's forehead. The fever had lessoned. Fearfully, she unwrapped Gabrielle's bandage. To her surprise the visible infection had lessened. She inspected the arm more closely. Some of the chalk pallid had been replaced with a healthy tint of color.
"My Lord," whispered Gabrielle hoarsely.
Gabrielle's dull eyes held to Xena's. "For how long?"
"I will not leave you until you are well."
"We will talk."
"Our bond. You regret it, don't you?"
"When we shared only our love it was a gift. Now that we share the ugliness, I can't but think it a curse."
"What we shared was not so terrible."
"How can you say that?"
Gabrielle echoed Xena's previous observation. "I am not an innocent. I didn't… I've never wanted you to see how deeply I felt my hatred for those who hurt me. I've always kept that part of me away from you. I was right to do so."
"I do not speak of you. Your emotions have never been a burden to me. You are wrong to compare us. You are not me."
Gabrielle reached out and touched Xena's medallion. She closed her eyes and concentrated with what little strength she had. She went back to the day Tracate first raped her. She touched her fear, her shame and disgust, her unfathomable hatred of the man. She opened the door that had shut away the horror and felt it completely as she had felt it when it first happened, as she felt it again as she strove to regain her memories in Serdica.
Xena felt the hint of her connection with Gabrielle. She closed her eyes returning to the familiar meeting place of their souls. There she saw a light. It was different, neither warm nor inviting. It infused her being with dark minacious pulsating bile that poisoned any sense of well being she harbored. Gabrielle stood before her in the corridor they had mutually trespassed in their search for one another.
Gabrielle's modest white tunic had been torn to shreds. Her face was bruised as if repeatedly struck. Blood seeped from her nose and right ear. Blood too flowed from between her legs, creating a small crimson pool at her feet. The truth of Gabrielle's rape had never been so terribly clear to Xena. Gabrielle took a step toward her and then another. Each movement was labored and the pain caused by the effort was apparent by how Gabrielle grimaced. The attempt was too difficult causing Gabrielle to fall to her knees. Her arms wrapped around her body, tears staining her face, commingling with the blood they touched. Gabrielle opened her mouth as to speak. The gesture did not interrupt their shared silence. But, still Xena heard a young woman's cries, her begging that her assailant stop his brutalization of her.
"No!" Xena whispered in anguish. She began to cry. Her will snapped as easily as a dry twig. She bowed her head and leaned toward Gabrielle who weakly took Xena into an embrace. Xena sobbed uncontrollably. There were no words Gabrielle could offer to soothe. She consoled by her steadfast embrace, silently shedding her own tears. "No!" the warrior howled suddenly.
Samuel entered the tent. Quickly scanning the space he saw the Conqueror's distress. Assuming Gabrielle had died he held his place. He was shocked to see Gabrielle's hand move, offering comfort to the Conqueror. Confused, he retreated out of the tent, determined that the Royals would experience no further incursion on their privacy. He found himself facing Jared, Stephen and Trevor. The other Guardsmen, roused from their tents congregated. "Go back to sleep," he said.
"Gabrielle?" asked Trevor.
"She lives." Samuel said nothing more.
With time Gabrielle was able to coax Xena to lie beside her. She knew there had been no other way for their reconciliation. For Xena to understand Gabrielle she needed to confront her greatest torment, one the warrior refused to concede to the Fates, taking responsibility solely upon her self.
Gabrielle wished she could say that her revelation made her feel better, that a burden had been released or eased. But that would have been untrue. She harbored a new fear. How would Xena live with Gabrielle's ugly truth? Still fatigued, Gabrielle fell asleep with no insight to their future. She prayed theirs was still a future to be shared with one another.
Gabrielle awoke. Beside her Xena shivered, she had fallen into a feverish state, as if she had taken on Gabrielle's infection.
Dalius sat in a nearby chair. He stood up and spoke softly. "How are you?"
Surprised to see the healer Gabrielle asked, "Dalius, when did you arrive?"
"Yesterday. You and the Conqueror have been both asleep for three days. Now, answer me. How do you feel?"
"Better." She turned her gaze to Xena. "My Lord?"
"I came in about a half candlemark ago. You were sleeping well but the Conqueror was agitated. I thought it better to continue to wait."
Gabrielle's gaze returned to Xena. "I did this to her."
"Gabrielle, you know as well as I do that a wound such as yours will not inflect another person."
"Dalius, remember when my Lord had the mysterious scars on her back."
"By your connection?"
"Yes. Now she knows not only what I felt on my body, she knows what I felt in my soul."
"Did she choose this?"
"From the beginning, she said she would hear all I was willing to tell her and asked no more from me. I no longer withheld myself from her. Here you see the consequences of my honesty."
Dalius placed his hand over Gabrielle's. "Such knowledge would be difficult for anyone who loves you."
"No one but her blames themselves for what was done to me."
"Why blame herself?"
"As Conqueror she did not have to wait for my urging to do away with slavery."
"Tracate had harmed you before she took control of Greece," said the healer practically.
"I did not say she was right to believe as she does."
"I'm sorry. I was not aware."
"She has devoted her life to me, given me everything I have asked of her. It's not enough for her. It will never be enough. Dalius, I can't help but wonder if she would have had a better life if she had never known me."
"No, Gabrielle. Don't forget who the Conqueror was when you first came to Corinth. No one wishes for the return of that ill-tempered Sovereign. If she is in pain it is because her heart is more open."
Xena edged towards a conscious state. Gathering an intuitive sense of her surroundings she felt no threat. She focused inward her, her muscles ached and weighed heavy. She felt a deep-rooted fatigue.
Hearing Gabrielle's gentle voice, Xena opened her eyes, finding Gabrielle lying beside her. "Gabrielle, what happened?" she asked hoarsely.
"You were struck by a fever. It's been nearly four days."
"Four days!" The magnitude of her incapacitation was astounding to Xena.
"Dalius is here." Gabrielle cocked her head toward the healer.
Xena turned to her side. The healer sat nearby on a crate. "Dalius, what say you?"
"Good evening, Your Majesty. I have examined the Queen's injury. She has healed remarkably well given the report I received from Alem. I have informed our Queen that she will, in all probability, experience weakness for some time as the poison slowly leaves her body. And, in regards to your health, I must rely on your own assessment. How do you feel?"
Xena sat up. "Stiff but good." she said as she stretched and twisted her body.
"No fever or headache?" asked Dalius.
"Can you tolerate food?"
"More than tolerate. I'm famished."
"That is a good sign. Shall I order a plate for you?"
"Yes, thank you." After Dalius left the room, Xena turned to Gabrielle. "Is it true? Are you better?"
"Yes, I'm going to be fine. I've been awake since morning."
"I shared your illness?"
"I'm not so sure it had the same cause."
"You think it was just a coincidence? That my falling with a fever was independent of our bond?"
"I didn't say that either."
Xena searched her memory. "I remember…" Recognition dawned upon her and she believed she understood what Gabrielle was subtly trying to tell her. She hardened her heart. "Do you think what you shared with me in anyway compared with my darkness?"
"I felt like it did."
"Not to me," said Xena sternly. "What you experienced was done to you and you had every right to feel what you felt… what you still feel. The hurt. The rage. No one with a drop of human blood would feel otherwise." Referencing Gabrielle, Xena's countenance gentled. "I do wish you didn't feel the shame. There is nothing for you to be ashamed of. Not like me. Shame is my constant companion. And even so, it has never been forceful enough to change me. I am still a butcher. If it had not been for your intervention more than the brigand that cut you would be dead."
"He's dead?" asked Gabrielle dreadfully.
"His blade carried a film of poison. The harm done to you was premeditated."
"It doesn't make sense. They wanted to ransom me. Why have me dead before sending word to Kasen?"
"They may have just wanted to immobilize you, making you an easier target."
"The brigand confessed?" asked Gabrielle, her diction deliberate.
"None of them were stupid enough to admit to their tactics. And yet, when I offered a cut for a cut using a brigand's blade, I was refused. Were he innocent the brigand would have welcomed the bargain. Instead he took a dagger to the heart." Gabrielle's disappointment was apparent by both her mien and her silence. Xena concluded, "Once again I have proven that you and I are not cast from the same mold. I am Ares' Chosen." Xena stood up, her erect posture a defiant testament of her stature as the God of War's favorite.
In a soft voice Gabrielle placed her greatest weapon before Xena. "I love you."
Xena was not immune to Gabrielle's love. She never would be. Still, she refused to surrender her position. "I will never again give my darkness to you. If that means that I sacrifice our bond, so be it."
Beseechingly, Gabrielle reached out her hand. "Xena, please don't take that away from us."
Resisting, Xena folded her arms before her. "You say you love me. We had love before we had our bond. Love must be enough."
Gabrielle dropped her hand. "Was it enough in Ithome? You were desperate to feel our connection again."
The truth resonated between them. Feeling lightheaded from her lingering fatigue, Xena sat down on the crate Dalius had vacated. She admitted, "I wanted to be recognized by you, to have your love."
"And to feel us as one." Gabrielle impressed. Then she challenged, "Don't deny it!"
"That was then. This is now."
"In Civello our bond overwhelmed us in a wonderful way. You were not so afraid that you chose to squelch its power. Why it comes to us when it does has a reason. We do not have to understand our bond to accept it."
"You're right. There is no understanding what we share. And the only way to control it to keep ourselves from such closeness."
Stricken, Gabrielle cried, "Do you know what you are saying to me?"
"I do." Coolly Xena responded.
"What will become of us?"
"We go home."
"No." said Gabrielle, an angry edge in her declaration. "Not right away. I made a promise. Megara awaits us."
"Xena, I see how you are. For whatever reason, you are not much stronger than I am."
Xena stood up in a pointless attempt to contradict the obvious evidence. "Were is Dalius? I am starving." She walked to the tent entrance.
"Xena, please don't leave me."
Gabrielle's muted plea reined the warrior to a stop. Xena met Gabrielle's gaze. There were promises given from years past that still dictated her actions. "I will tell Jared your plans then return for my meal."
"Thank you." Gabrielle's relief was tangible. "Would you also ask Sam to see me?"
Xena exited the Royal tent. Samuel stood at guard. "Sam, go see your sister."
"My Liege, is everything all right?"
"I think there is some business between you two that needs settling." Xena walked on, not giving Samuel a chance to respond.
The Guardsman entered the tent and went to the foot of Gabrielle's pallet.
"Sam." She greeted him warmly.
"The Conqueror said you wanted to see me."
"Sam, you asked for a promise and I want you to know that I will keep it. We travel to Megara and we are sending for Tess. You will have your roast meal followed by my storytelling."
"You almost died," said Samuel in a tone that echoed Xena's defiance only a moment before.
"I know." Gabrielle knowledge of a warrior's heart served her well as she commanded, "And, don't you dare go back to blaming yourself."
Samuel would clearly not be dictated to on the subject. "Is there anything else?"
"Yes, there is. I owe you an apology. I'm sorry I placed you in-between my Lord and me. It was wrong of me."
"I had only one choice."
Gabrielle knew that for Samuel she would always come first. "Sam, I am not always right."
"You were both wrong this time. You lived and you didn't have to lose your arm to do so."
"You were the one in the right. I did fight off the infection, though I say I had some help from my Lord, Alem and Dalius."
"Are you still tired of life, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle glanced pensively at the tent exit. "Yes, I am. You said I could count on you and my other brothers to help me find my way. I need you, Sam. I don't want to lose you, too."
Samuel had followed Gabrielle's gaze to the tent exit. He seemed to be deliberating Gabrielle's last statement. One could hazard to guess that like Gabrielle, the woman who had recently left the tent was not far from his thoughts. He turned his gaze back to Gabrielle. "Where would I go? What would I do if I didn't have you and my life with the Guard?"
Gabrielle offered her wish for all her brothers. "Find a love. Live a quiet happy life."
"That's not for me."
"Are we all right, Sam?"
Samuel nodded. "Yes, little sis, we are."
Xena returned to the Royal tent as promised. Though she slept beside Gabrielle, she did not gather her partner into her arms, as was her custom. Gabrielle slept with her hand resting upon Xena's arm, a minimal gesture of connection.
The following morning Gabrielle insisted on beginning their two-day journey to Megara. A heated argument ensued. Xena called for Dalius to provide his objective opinion. Though skeptical, Dalius gave his conditional consent for Gabrielle to travel, obtaining a promise from his Queen to inform both him and the Conqueror if she tired.
Dalius' escort delivered a number of dispatches from Corinth. One was from Voger. Xena shared the groom's news with Stephen. She then ordered the Guardsmen divided into two equal units. Stephen took command of one unit, their charge to escort the Persians to the border then meet the others in Megara. What Stephen did not share with his men was that they had an errand to run for the Conqueror and thus, a number of them would ride with him to Scupi while Sentas lead the larger contingent of Guardsmen and brigands east.
The Queen's escort rode without incident to Megara. Their mood was uncharacteristically sober. Xena kept a constant eye on Gabrielle throughout the day. It was obvious to her that Gabrielle was growing weaker with each passing candlemark. Yet, her stubborn beloved refused to consent to pitching camp prior to dusk.
Gabrielle took to bed immediately after eating a light evening meal. With Dalius' blessing Xena delivered a tray of food and decanter of wine to their tent. Gabrielle was sitting up against Geld's saddle as she rested on their bed of furs. Xena placed the tray beside her.
"What's this?" asked Gabrielle as she gestured toward the tray.
"The dinner you didn't eat," said Xena offhandedly.
"Xena, I'm fine."
"No you're not. Dalius agrees with me. Do I need him to come in here and give you his prescription personally?"
"No." Knowing she was not going to win this battle, Gabrielle sought a painless truce. "There's enough food here for half my Guard."
"Just try to eat," coaxed Xena gently.
"I'm tired," said Gabrielle as she leaned back against the saddle.
"Tell me something I don't know."
"I've missed you."
Gabrielle's subtle statement spoke to their intimate life. By Xena's own declaration, a severance of their bond was not equated to a severing of their love and their lovemaking.
Xena longed to return to their tender physical explorations of one another as well as their more passionate expressions of desire. Her troubled heart needed to close the chapter of her aborted infidelity. She desperately wanted to lock her memory of Clare away in a remote chamber in her mind and she believed by being with Gabrielle she could accomplish such an exile. In spite of her longing, she did not trust herself to completely loosen her self-imposed constraints.
"I've missed you, too."
"When I'm better…" said Gabrielle timidly.
"Yes." Xena took her partner's hand reassuringly. "Yes, Gabrielle. When we are in Megara and you are stronger." Xena waited. She saw what she hoped for. Gabrielle eyes brightened as she smiled shyly. "Now," said the warrior, "what say you to some cheese and a cup of wine?"
"Thank you." said Gabrielle as she accepted the cup Xena offered her.
Waking alone after their first night at the beach house, Gabrielle's thoughts were not far from Xena. Gabrielle donned her robe and stepped out onto the back porch. Xena sat on the porch steps. "Xe…"
The warrior turned and faced her. "Gabrielle, what are you doing out of bed?"
"I didn't know where you were."
"I'm here. I promised you I'd stay close."
Gabrielle gestured toward a number of scrolls lying beside her partner. "News from Corinth?"
Xena looked down. She picked up a scroll and handed it to Gabrielle. "News from a Prince of the Centaurs."
"Solan?" Gabrielle sat beside her partner and read the scroll as Xena cast her gaze to the horizon. Having finished the letter she concluded, "He sounds good."
"He does, doesn't he?"
Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's leg. "Are you all right?"
"I'm good." Xena covered Gabrielle's hand with her own. "It really doesn't take much to be happy. I have you, I know my son and mother are well and I have trusted friends. What more could anyone ask for?"
Gabrielle leaned forward giving her Lord a kiss. Xena responded warmly. Wanting to maintain their physical connection, Gabrielle raised her hand to Xena's cheek as their kiss ended. "My Lord..."
Xena searched her partner's eyes. "Gabrielle, are you sure?"
"Trust me. I need you."
Xena set the thought of further words aside and kissed Gabrielle. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, enabling the warrior to easily lift the younger woman up, cradled in her arms. She carried Gabrielle into the bedroom and laid her on the bed. Taking her place beside Gabrielle, Xena's uncensored tender passions for the younger woman rose to the surface. Gabrielle reacted to what she saw in Xena by reaching up and touching the warrior's medallion. Their gazes met and held. Xena felt Gabrielle's essence and the familiar tug she understood to be her partner's silent call to her. She purposely grew deaf to what she feared equaled a Siren's song in its power to unhinge her self-control. She broke the spell by kissing Gabrielle, relishing the taste of her. Xena relied on her powerful charisma to seduce Gabrielle to a physical union that was meant to compensate for her forfeiture of their otherworldly bond. Xena sensed no resistance from Gabrielle. On the contrary, the two women shared an afternoon of ardent lovemaking.
The following morning Gabrielle walked the beach alone. She was troubled. Her thoughts dwelled upon the intimate nature of her relationship with Xena. The warrior's tender lovemaking was exquisite. Xena's consideration of Gabrielle's well being had never been greater. But, Gabrielle felt a loss. Gabrielle missed her partner's fire. With it came a sense of need, a physical hunger that Gabrielle always took great joy in sating. She could only hope that with time and constant nuanced assurances, Xena would once again allow her passions to surface unchecked.
Gabrielle considered the more painful loss of their intangible bond. There was a moment early in their bed that Gabrielle felt a surge in their connection. She opened her heart to it, welcoming it, only to be disappointed, to feel the possibility of experiencing the unique affinity torn away. She knew that it was Xena's unwillingness to meet her on their unearthly plane that kept her from feeling the unique bliss of wholeness that infused her life with a profound, unchallengeable meaning.
In admitting she was tired to Samuel, Gabrielle had stripped her soul bare. Though, having Xena's love, her heart was complete, her soul longed for more. She questioned whether she was being selfish. She had lived her life without the enriching connection prior to Corinth and knew only small fleeting moments of it until after she and Xena formally joined. Had Gabrielle no knowledge of the connection, the world offered her the makings of a happy life. That she learned in Ithome.
Ithome taught her another lesson. One she learned through observing Xena's quiet agony as Gabrielle's memory loss cost Xena both Gabrielle's love and their bond. In retrospect, Xena's willingness to live without their bond cast the warrior in the noblest light. What was difficult for Gabrielle to accept was that in Ithome Xena's acceptance was based on the belief that there was no alternative. In the present Xena's acceptance of their mutual loss was an outcome of her conscious denial of their bond. Xena discounted Gabrielle's consent. And that left Gabrielle with a final question. She wondered what price Xena paid for sharing her darkness.
"There she is!" shouted Trevor.
Gabrielle looked to her left. A handful of Guardsmen approach their sister, each carrying a staff. "What's this?" she asked.
"It's time for staff practice," said Alem.
"Not today," said Gabrielle gently, wishing not to disappoint them.
The Guardsmen's gazes turned uniformly to Sentas who would speak for them. "Are we not your brothers, Gabrielle?"
"Yes, of course you are."
"Then I think you should trust that we know what is best for you. Watch carefully." Sentas gave a signal. Tavis extended a staff. Trevor took hold. Sentas ran a handful of quick strides ultimately placing a foot on the held staff. Whereby the men raised the staff giving him the necessary height to leap high over Gabrielle's head.
She watched his acrobatics in amazement. Sentas tucked his legs and did a half turn then extended his legs and landed on his feet prepared to engage his staff. He wore an amused grin.
Gabrielle laughed, "How long have you practiced?"
Sentas looked to his brothers. "A moon."
"Aye." Tavis agreed. "You should have seen how many times our dear brother landed on this puny head."
Gabrielle was infected by the boyish pleasure of her companions. "Teach me."
The Royals returned to their custom of spending quiet candlemarks secluded among the rock formations of the cove. Gabrielle lay against Xena in silent thought. She caught sight of an approaching figure. "Is that Stephen?"
"I think it is," said Xena brightly.
"Tess will be relieved to see him."
Xena released Gabrielle and stood. "I need a private moment." Xena saw a questioning look upon Gabrielle's face and chose not to respond to it. She walked away. Upon reaching Stephen she offered him her arm in greeting. "How was your journey?"
Stephen took Xena's arm and smiled. "The brigands were no problem. I wish I could say the same about Spirit. I swear Xena, he knows he's going to see Gabrielle."
"So, he traveled well?"
"Lived up to his name."
"Did you ride him?"
"I wish. In Sculpi he let me saddle and exercise him in the corral, but that was all. At least I got farther with him than the grooms. He's still very temperamental and I think he'll keep being that way until Gabrielle has a go at him."
Xena looked back towards the woman in question. "I want to check him out for myself, just to be sure."
"I've been looking forward to this day for a long time."
"Me too, my friend. Let's go."
After Xena's thorough inspection of Spirit's healed leg, she and Stephen guided the stallion to the beach. The steed jostled his reins impatiently. Xena release him. "Go to her, boy."
Gabrielle heard the whinnying of a horse in the distance. Turning her sight toward the beach house she saw what she took to be a ghost. The white stallion was as magnificent as he was the first day she saw him. He pranced by the shoreline making a show of himself by raising himself up on his hind legs and kicking his forelegs into the air. In spite of the fact that she knew Spirit was in Elysia, Gabrielle stood up enchanted by the vision she had set to the back of her mind, too painful to visit. The vision did not fade away out of sight, disappointing her. Instead, the vision approached, his playfulness unchecked, his apparent enthusiasm growing with each step he took. Beyond him Gabrielle saw Xena and Stephen walking in her direction. She felt a surge of hope. As much as Spirit's presence was a mad desire promising heartbreak, she found she wanted to believe in his return. Gabrielle stepped towards the stallion until she was two paces from him. He calmed, bowed his head and waited. Gabrielle knew the gesture well. It was an act of deference he showed no other person. She reached out her hand. "Hey boy."
Spirit raised his head maintaining a proud bearing and stepped into Gabrielle's touch. She could not help but smile as he gently nudged her. "Let me see you." She patted him on the cheek before inspecting his injured leg. Upon Gabrielle's touch, Spirit raised his hoof and stomped on the ground as if to reassure her of his tendon's well knitted healing. Tears welled in Gabrielle's eyes. She stood. Spirit immediately turned to her. Gabrielle buried her face against his neck finding further comfort.
Standing nearby Xena said, "Now you know what Stephen's been doing all these moons."
Gabrielle transferred her affection from the stallion to her brother. Stephen held her in a tender embrace.
He spoke to Xena. "She's crying. I'm glad Tess has taught me not to be afraid of tears."
Gabrielle slapped him playfully.
He quipped happily. "I think she's forgiven me for not telling her. What do you think, my Liege?"
"I say you're right."
Gabrielle released him. "Thank you."
"I didn't do it alone. Voger led the other grooms in keeping Spirit to his rehabilitation and when ever I had doubts I asked your Lord for guidance."
Gabrielle reached out and took Xena's hand. "Thank you."
Xena spoke cautiously. "Gabrielle, Spirit has had nothing heavier than a saddle on him. He's been recalcitrant on having anyone ride him. You must be careful with him."
"I don't care if I never ride him again. Just to see him this way is good enough for me."
Spirit whinnied making a ruckus.
"Oh, but I'm not sure that's what he wants," said Xena. "I wager he will accept nothing less than returning to his role as the Queen's mount."
"Would it be all right?" asked Gabrielle expectantly.
"No time better." Stephen offered Gabrielle his cupped hands to life her up to the unsaddled stallion.
"Hey boy, are you ready for a ride?" said Gabrielle returning her attention to Spirit. Without further delay she mounted him. With reins in hand Gabrielle led the stallion in a steady walk and then a trot.
Stephen turned to Xena who wore a recently rare smile. "It's good to see you smile."
"It's good to see Gabrielle happy."
"She needs more than Spirit."
"Are you once again her Lord?"
"As much of her Lord there is in me to give. Yes."
"And what of her Lord that you cannot or will not give?"
Xena's countenance grew stern. "Stephen, you near a line even you have no right to cross."
"You've given me my answer, Xena. And I am sorry for both you and Gabrielle."
Xena's patience snapped. Her retort was sharp and quick. "Stephen, don't tell me you do not withhold a part of yourself, no matter how small, from Tess. That part of you may be the most significant piece of your being. That you cannot bring yourself to share it is proof. I am no different except that I now know that under the right circumstances Gabrielle can have access to me without censor. Tell me you would be so gods be damn cavalier if Tess had that power over you."
After a silent thoughtful moment Stephen looked down uncomfortably. "I'm sorry. This can't be easy for you."
"It's not. Either way, whatever I chose, Gabrielle and I both lose." Disheartened, Xena walked away.
The evening was festive, celebrating the safe return of the Guard and Spirit's rehabilitation. Tess prepared an excellent meal and Gabrielle told a few short funny tales. The evening came to a close near midnight as the Royals, hand-in-hand, retired to their bedroom.
Xena awoke feeling an encroaching sadness. She reached out for Gabrielle only to find that she lay alone. She called Gabrielle's name softly as she sat up. The bedroom was illuminated by moonlight. The door to the porch was open. Xena swung her feet out of the bed and sat on its edge. Concentrating she felt Gabrielle nearby. Relief washed over her even though she understood it was Gabrielle's sadness that she felt.
Dressed in her night shift, Xena stood and walked to the door. She spied Gabriele sitting on the top porch step leaning her back against the porch railing. She stepped outside and wordlessly took her place behind the obliging younger woman, wrapping her arms around her. Gabrielle shifted leaning easily against the warrior, her ear resting over Xena's heart. For a few moments only the sound of the sea was heard.
"Couldn't sleep?" asked the warrior.
"Just thinking," said Gabrielle.
Xena waited for Gabrielle to share her thoughts further. Xena marked time as she listened to the night sounds. The constant sensation of sorrow became too great for Xena to ignore. "Want to talk about it?"
"So much has happened and I don't want to… we are much better with each other aren't we?"
"Yes, we are."
"Here in Megara… we can tell each other anything."
"Is there something you need to tell me?"
"I misunderstood you when you came back to Corinth after you left because… after the young girl was killed. When you came back you said you tried but couldn't. I thought you meant you couldn't be faithful to me. I know that you were."
Puzzled by Gabrielle's certitude Xena asked, "How could you know what I did when I left you?"
"On our journey to the Eastern Garrison we stopped at Sicyon. The innkeeper was a nice woman. As a favor to her I told a few stories. In all it was a pleasant evening. Afterwards a woman asked to speak to me privately. She wanted to know about my banner. She wondered if I knew a woman who wore a medallion bearing the same staff, quill and laurel design. She didn't know that she was looking for you."
Xena closed her eyes as she felt her painful shame. "Clare?"
Xena removed her arms from Gabrielle. Gabrielle remained as she was. Xena opened her eyes and looked up to the night sky. At a complete lost she would pray if she knew what to pray for. An extended silence followed. Xena knew Gabrielle's method of storytelling. The bard never continued a story until she was confident her audience was ready to hear it. Xena suspected Gabrielle's story was not yet done. "What did you tell Clare?"
"The truth." Gabrielle chose her words carefully. "That who she knew as Athia was my Lord."
"Oh Gods." Xena began to push Gabrielle away. The young woman tightened her hold in response. Xena pleaded. "Please, let me go."
"Did you know she loved you?"
"Did you, Xena?" Gabrielle gently pressed for an answer. "Did you?"
"She didn't say but I believe she would have been with you without your coin."
"You kept your relationship unchanged so you could always walk away with a sense of honor. You paid her because you did not love her."
Xena growled. "Stop this!"
Gabrielle responded with equal vehemence. "You did nothing wrong!"
"How can you say that? I left you and went to Clare."
"Did you lie with her?"
"Because you are not who you thought you were. You've changed." Gabrielle softened her voice. "Xena, you've changed just as I have. What must I say or do to have you accept that I felt no harm done me, and I speak of not only Clare."
Xena felt as if her heart was being shredded. "Gabrielle, please…"
"Love, our passion is sometimes so intense that our pleasure lies on the cutting edge of pain. When it is, we have willingly consented to be taken to that place. I would have it no other way"
"I beg you, release me," said Xena her composure crumbling.
"No, I won't." said Gabrielle defiantly. "I claim you. You are mine. I will not share you because there is not a part of you that does not belong in my life."
Xena grabbed Gabrielle's wrist in an attempt to secure her freedom. Meeting Gabrielle's gaze, she could no longer bear her exposure. With tears streaming down her face she bowed her head.
Gabrielle gathered Xena in her arms. "I don't expect you to share your darkness with me. That one time was more accident than anything else. You are safe from prying eyes, including my own. You have a right to your privacy. You deny me nothing in doing so."
Gabrielle had searched her own heart and come to understand how wrong she had been in her response to Xena's withdrawal. "You were right to say what I shared with you of Tracate's violence did not compare with the touch of your hidden soul. You were right; I am not Ares' Chosen. I will never carry Ares' in my soul as you do, though I know that I, like everyone born, has reason to know Ares' intimately at one time or another in their life.
"I hated Bavavos and Cofeus." Gabrielle referred to the men under Lord Thanos who kidnapped, tortured and tried to ransom Xena to Caesar. "After we intercepted the convoy and secured your safety… after we had taken you to the inn and I had cleaned and stitched your wounds, I would have cut them down with my own hand if I hadn't needed them for Thanos' trial. By the time Thanos was convicted you were well enough to decide both men's fate and I would not take that decision from you. I did not chose to share that dark part of my soul with you for the same reason you hated to unwillingly share your darkness with me."
Xena's memories returned to the events inextricably linked to city of Messene. She remembered a brief discussion between her and Gabrielle in Corinth prior to imposing her justice upon Bavavos. She separated herself from Gabrielle, raising her gaze to her partner's, more able to withstand her scrutiny. "But, you counseled mercy."
"I am Aphrodite's Chosen," said Gabrielle, as if it was explanation enough.
And for Xena it was. Gabrielle's capacity for love and compassion was extraordinary. There were countless times in their shared life that Xena felt the privilege of being the beneficiary of Gabrielle's finer virtues. "What will you have me do?"
"I ask nothing of you." Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's heart. "I only wish for your wounds to heal."
The following morning Xena awoke feeling remarkably refreshed, so different from the prior day. She joined Gabrielle on an extended horseback ride. To her relief Spirit managed well, challenging Gabrielle from time to time. His mistress granted the stallion greater latitude than was her custom as she basked in the warm sun and the pleasure of knowing that her steed was as feisty as ever. The Royals swam in the sea afterwards, washing away the perspiration and sand of the day. During late afternoon Xena visited with Stephen while Gabrielle and Tess prepared the evening meal.
Lying in bed together as the day closed, Xena relished Gabrielle's brighten disposition. Xena had her own reason to be of better mood. No longer having Clare a secret lifted a great burden from her conscious.
Xena accepted that she and Gabrielle viewed and judged the world differently. No matter how accepting Gabrielle was of Xena, the warrior knew deep within her heart that she would never be Gabrielle's ideal of a Sovereign of Greece nor would she be Gabrielle's ideal partner in life. Still, she wanted to be both. By the Fates, Xena governed the realm and loved Aphrodite's Chosen. She renewed her resolve to reap what she sowed and like Gabrielle, accept the grace that is life. With such thoughts gently on her mind, Xena slipped into a peaceful sleep.
Morning came with the sounds of the seabirds and the ever-present sea. And, with Gabrielle's sweet kiss upon Xena's lips.
"That's a fine waking," said Xena, as she opened her eyes and reached up, guiding a wisp of Gabrielle's hair to the side.
"Good morning." Gabrielle's smiled brilliantly. "Sleep well?"
"Yes." Xena stretched her body, feeling the pleasure of releasing the tension within her body. "Oh, that feels good."
"Tess and I are going to the village to shop today. Do you have any special requests?"
"None. Between the two of you, you rival Makia's cooking, though you cannot tell Makia that."
"And break her heart? Never!" said Gabrielle playfully.
Xena felt an overwhelming need for Gabrielle, one that was rooted in the purity of her love for the bard. She reached up and caressed the younger woman's cheek. "I love you."
Gabrielle stilled, holding to Xena's gaze, recognizing the warrior's sensual desire for what it was. "My Lord?" she posed a question firmly embedded in their intimate code.
"Yes Gabrielle." Xena affirmed. "Please…"
Gabrielle leaned forward, meeting Xena in a kiss. The kiss quickly grew in fervor. Xena took hold of Gabrielle and guided her so she lay on her back. She began to explore Gabrielle with an intensity that she had for moons forcefully subdued. Gabrielle responded by fully abandoning herself to her lover.
Xena sat on the bedroom porch steps tooling a piece of leather. Gabrielle, having returned from the village, walked through the bedroom in search of her Lord. Finding her, Gabrielle knelt behind Xena, wrapping her arms around her. "Found you."
"I didn't realize you lost me," said Xena, turning and receiving a light kiss as an added welcome.
"We ran into Bella at the market." Gabrielle referenced the village innkeeper. "She told me that she was having music and dancing tonight at the inn. She thought we might like to come."
"We? I think she's more interested in having a particular bard at her inn than a sword-wheeling warrior. You are far more popular among the people. "
"It won't be Niko's but it should still be a good crowd. Will you come?"
"Oh, yes. Someone must keep the carousers at a safe distance from you."
"I think instead of wheeling your sword you could simply dance with me."
"If I recall correctly you like to dance."
"I do. But, I never thought of it as a strategy to keep you safe."
"I will be in your arms. Is there a safer place?"
"It is where you belong, that much I will say."
"Good!" Gabrielle gave Xena a hug and then stood up. "I'll tell Trevor."
"Hey! You don't have to leave just right now, do you?" Xena protested their separation with a visible pout.
Gabrielle laughed. "Oh, my Lord. If others saw your face at this very moment your reputation would be forever changed."
"I don't care, if its keeps you here with me," said Xena sheepishly.
"Grant me a moment to run my errand, my Lord, and I will return and handsomely reward your patience."
"Get going," said Xena with a wave of her hand. "My price rises with each passing heartbeat."
"You have just given me reason to tarry," said Gabrielle as she turned and sauntered into the house.
Knowing happiness, a smiling Xena returned to her leatherwork.
Xena stood looking up at the stars from the palace turret. It had been a moon since she and Gabrielle had returned to Corinth from Megara. Their stay in Megara was everything Gabrielle had hoped for. In Megara Xena's heart wounds healed. And, as they grew closer a vibrant joy reentered their lives.
Corinth did little to challenge their joy. Matters of State were manageable. With a new crop soon to be harvested on both the Grecian and Persian sides of the Eastern border, Xena expected an end to the brigand raids. What was most important to Xena was to see Gabrielle happy and there was no doubt of the bard's renewed optimism.
Gabrielle increased time spent with her brothers. To Xena's dismay the Guardsmen had decided to teach their sister a set of difficult acrobatic moves. Xena's initial objections to having 'a royal circus within the palace walls' were mollified when she witnessed Gabrielle's obvious pleasure in developing her new skills. Xena granted that Gabrielle's agility and aptitude for tumbling and vaulting minimized the risk of injury.
Their intangible bond was ever-present. They returned to a familiar state of being in which, with sustained focus, either could sense the other's presence and identify hints of emotion. What had not returned to Xena and Gabrielle was the remarkable experience of soul binding union. Xena bemoaned how an experience once nothing less than blissful had become a terribly painful exchange for the both of them.
Xena had been stunned when Gabrielle, in her feverish state, confessed to Samuel of feeling lost and lonely. She took responsibility for contributing to Gabrielle's loneliness. Still, she realized that Gabrielle's emotions had a far more profound cause than their recent problems. Gabrielle's past separated her from others. This truth gave greater import to Gabrielle's courageous unveiling of her memories of rape. Those shared memories changed them both. It did so in a similar fashion as Xena's inadvertent sharing of her darkness. Neither dwelled on the fact. They simply understood and accepted that there individual isolations had been breached, one by choice, the other by accident.
What was unexpected was that the primary emotion, hidden in the murky darkness of their souls, was shame. Xena's shame was rooted in what she measured to be her fathomless capacity for hatred and vengeance. The origin of Gabrielle's shame was diametrically different, a result of being stripped of all dignity as she stood helpless in the grasp of her abusers. The causes of their shame did not compare. The outcomes were equally debilitating.
Xena cast her gaze over the city, marking the hospice that was a reflection of Gabrielle's humanistic values, of the stables that housed Argo and Spirit and was indicative of their love to ride boldly over the countryside. She scanned closer to the Guardsmen's barracks where men close to both of them slept and to the modest home Stephen shared with Tess. Corinth was their home. It may not be Scupi, Civello or
Megara, but Corinth was their beginning and Xena believed Corinth would ultimately be the location of their end.
She took one last glance up to the stars, feeling the wonder of life at its simplest, before walking down the turret steps into their bedroom. There she found Gabrielle reading while sitting on a bed of furs in front of the fireplace. Honor lay sleeping comfortably beside his mistress. Wordlessly, Xena joined them.
Gabrielle raised her gaze from the scroll. "Would you like some company?"
"Come." Said Xena, reaching her hand out to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle set her scroll aside and entered Xena's warm embrace. She rested her hand over Xena's heart. Only the sounds of the fire breached their silence.
Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head, a gesture from their first days of intimacy. She closed her eyes caring nothing for the world beyond the current place and time and the woman that gifted her with a priceless sense of peace.
Once, such a moment was the epitome of what they could give each other. That was no longer true. Gabrielle had not mentioned the loss of their Elysian bond since the days before they arrived in Megara. Xena was grateful that Gabrielle no longer challenged her decision not to cross the intimate terrain that led to the junction where their souls met. And yet, at that moment, Xena wanted nothing more than to seek out Gabrielle's essence.
Xena traveled inward, trusting that her own inner light would guide her to the place she wanted to be. She walked mindfully through the dark corridors seeking their meeting place. The distance seemed longer than she remembered. Doubt entered her heart. Xena felt a rising fear that she may, having turned away from their union, forfeited all rights to return to this greatest of intimate planes.
Setting her pride aside Xena called out for Gabrielle. There was no sound. Her tongue silenced in this hallowed place. Undeterred, certain that Gabrielle could hear her if she chose to, Xena called for Gabrielle again. That was the lesson learned. They must be speaker and listener together. One without the other was mute and deaf.
At a distance Xena saw movement. Hopeful, she journeyed further. There, before her, stood Gabrielle. She wore a simple white tunic. For a moment Xena's heart chilled. The tunic was very much like the tunic Gabrielle had worn during their last meeting on this plane. It was however whole, not torn. Neither was it soiled nor bloodstained. Xena held her place. Mirroring Xena, so too did Gabrielle.
At any moment, Xena reminded herself, Gabrielle's nightmare could overtake them. Xena realized the truth was hers as well. At any moment her hatred could take command of both of them. They were at risk.
Gabrielle continued to wait for her. Keeping her promise, Gabrielle was obviously not going to ask more from Xena than Xena could give. The image of Gabrielle offered an unspoken message more real to Xena than the palace library's collection of scrolls. Xena understood that Gabrielle's presence at the crossroads was nothing less than a declaration, proof of the bard's willingness to take the risk. Xena had only to decide for herself. She looked over her shoulder. There was nothing preventing her from leaving.
She looked again to Gabrielle. She was certain that if she walked away Gabrielle would know how close they had come to reaching one another and that the failure of courage was Xena's and no one else's. A warrior's pride was not enough to stop her retreat. A warrior's heart was, a heart that knew how it felt to love and be loved, a heart that knew peace when once it only knew torment.
Xena heard Gabrielle's resonating demand in her inner ear. 'I claim you. You are mine. I will not share you because there is not a part of you that does not belong in my life'. Gabrielle had changed the terms of their engagement. She would no longer consent to Xena's discreet use of another woman or man to pacify her battle lust. Gabrielle's claim was not expressed as an ultimatum requiring Xena to deprive herself of relief. Gabrielle had placed herself before Xena as rightfully the means to Xena's relief.
Time had allowed Xena the opportunity to place past events into a tempered perspective. The horror she had initially felt in learning that their lovemaking had left Gabrielle tender to touch had eased. Xena granted that Gabrielle had on rare occasions irritated Xena's genitalia during their lovemaking. The warrior had consistently deemed the discomfort inconsequential. There was no reason to believe that Gabrielle's experience was any different. More importantly, no matter in what light Xena cast their lovemaking; it had no similarity to Gabrielle's violent rape. Xena had come to understand that she did Gabrielle a disservice by comparing one to the other.
'I claim you. You are mine.' Gabrielle's stance was quite different than when Xena had returned to Corinth from Civello. Xena recalled how Gabrielle had apologetically reacted when Xena referenced the gift of the medallion as a symbol of Gabrielle's queenship over the warrior.
In fact, Gabrielle was Xena's Queen, because Xena needed her to be. Xena needed Gabrielle to claim her because only with Gabrielle by her side did Xena believe she would have any chance at achieving redemption.
Xena stepped forward. With each step she took, so did Gabrielle. They met pausing before one another.
"Thank you," said Xena.
"For what?" asked Gabrielle.
"Where else would I be?"
Xena reached out and took Gabrielle's hand with her own. "I can't lose you."
"You never will."
"Have I your promise?"
Xena guided Gabrielle's hand over her heart. The moment the bard's hand rested upon Xena their emotions erupted. Overwhelmed, both women fell to their knees without breaking their physical connection. Incapable of withstanding the fierce force of their essences they rested their heads upon the other's shoulder. Xena moaned, as the exquisite agony owned her, rendering her helpless in the face of her rupturing boundaries. What she felt was deeper than love. It was possible because of their unswayable trust. There was no fear of annihilation in spite of their extraordinary mutual vulnerability. Xena felt mercy, as she had never known it before, the granter Gabrielle in the name of all those the warrior had harmed. Xena began to cry, her tears driven by a sorrow soothed, by the relief of pain only moments before enduringly knitted to her soul.
Xena opened her eyes finding that her head lay upon Gabrielle's lap. She did not question how she had come to be in Gabrielle's gentle embrace.
Gabrielle bent her head down until her lips were at Xena's ear. "Thank you," she whispered.
Exhausted, Xena's answer was to close her eyes and drift back to sleep, knowing that Gabrielle would keep her safe.
Xena secured her fishing pole into a breach between two boulders skirting the river. The river was running a bit rough because of rains the night before and she doubted she would have much success. Fishing was, she thought to herself, much like life's pleasures. Not like necessities. Often times meaning came from the trying, without regard to the results. Lucky for her Makia insisted that the Royals take a well packed picnic basket on their day long excursion
Ares appeared standing to her left. "Happy?" asked the God of War.
"Yes, as a matter of fact I am," said Xena feigning boredom. It had been a long time since Ares had found reason to speak to her. His visits were never welcomed.
"I don't think so. I can feel you blood boiling all the way over here." Xena walked past him. Ares followed, setting himself beside his Chosen, keeping in pace with her. "You can't deny who you are. Why do you keep on trying to turn away from the truth?"
"The truth?" Xena paused and faced Ares. "I saw the truth in Gabrielle's eyes. I felt it through our bond. She knows me. Every bit of me. The worst horrors and you know what? She still loves me. I don't have to be afraid anymore."
"And you don't have to deny yourself either, Xena. Gabrielle has proven she'll stand by you. Now is the time to expand Greece. Take the north and march towards Rome."
Xena chuckled. "You don't get it, do you? What I am is meant to protect Greece from war, not drench the land in blood."
"The Gods are not done with you and Gabrielle."
"If they only were," spat Xena.
"You think you are so smart," said Ares derisively. "You don't know anything. If it wasn't for my sister Gabrielle would be draped with a shroud. Miraculous healings don't happen without a price. The day will come when Gabrielle will have to pay her debt. That day you will want me and unless you offer me your soul complete and unconditionally, you will know Tartarus on earth."
Xena knew Ares well enough to believe him. There was no bluff in his words. "You will never get my soul."
"I had it once!"
"No, you didn't. Once given, it is never returned. My soul is bound to Gabrielle."
"One day I will remind you that you said that and you will know how wrong you are," said Ares cryptically. He then unceremoniously disappeared.
Xena stood confused and fearful. Gabrielle's healing had been remarkable. Xena's knowledge of the healing arts told her Gabrielle would not live to see another day. And yet she did. Xena felt a tug in her heart and turned, looking back toward where they had laid their blankets and released their mounts to graze. Gabrielle approached. Xena suspected Gabrielle had, through their bond, felt her distress.
Xena touched her medallion. "There are times Gabrielle that I wish…" Xena arrested the thought. She would not give Ares the easy victory. She did not stand alone. Her medallion and her ring told her otherwise. Knowing that she belonged to Gabrielle, Xena chose to live her life fearlessly in the face of the audacious Gods and Fates.
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Next: My Lord: Athens (Look for it in December 2007)
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