(aka Maytee Aspuro y Gonzales)
Author's Note: This story was promised by December 2008. I am 6 ½ years late in the delivery. For those of you who have patiently waited, I hope you find value in this final chapter of the My Lord series.
And let it be known that the completion of this story was motivated in part by an email I received not too long ago from a fan (you know who you are). That and a trip to Europe that tore me away from the distractions of my much blessed life. Your comments are always appreciated.
Finally, if you wish to read more of my work, my novels (the trilogy of Hesed , Agape and Emet ) are still available as an ebook or paperback at Bella or Amazon.
The My Lord series:
My Lord-By the Fates
My Lord-A Chosen's Promise
My Lord-The Medallion
My Lord- Athens
My Lord-An Act of Love (conclusion)
CHARACTERS (story first appeared)
Xena of Amphipolis, Conqueror of Greece
Gabrielle of Poteidaia
Athia: Xena's pseudonym (The Medallion)
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
2 nd Army
3 rd Army
4 th Army
5 th Army
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)
Bonan: Leader of Persian brigands (The Medallion)
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)
Kentan: Persian brigand who wounded Gabrielle (The Medallion)
Leyan: Corrupt leader of the Persian Army (ML)
Montavous: Greek accomplice of Halan (ML)
Nadav: Persian brigand whose dagger had poison (The Medallion)
Argo: Xena's horse
Geld: Gabrielle's horse
Honor: Hound. Gift from Xena to Gabrielle (The Medalion)
Spirit: Stallion. Gift from Xena to Gabrielle ( Megara )
Casta (The Chosen's Promise)
Jabari: Ethiopian messenger (By the Fates)
Franco: Pensioner warned Stephen of Thanos ( Megara )
Cal : Turian's servant ( Athens )
Markem: Athenian guard ( Athens )
Udell: Athenian philosopher ( Athens )
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)
Bavavos ( Megara )
Cofeus: Bavavos' chief guard ( Megara )
Brijan: Guard ( Megara )
Etan: Bavavos' Guard ( Megara )
Katrina: Servant of Bavavos ( Megara )
Kover: Guard ( Megara )
Podios: Administrator ( Megara )
The Men & Women of Athens
Kartis: Governor of Athens ( Athens )
Lord Turian: Athenian politician, new to Athens ( Athens )
Lord Eurius: Athenian landowner ( Athens )
Sarah: Daughter of Lord Eurius, Kartis' lover ( Athens )
Adam: Boy searching for healer (The Medallion)
Lista: Adam's mother (The Medallion)
Tansia: Adam's new baby sister (The Medallion)
Bursten: Adam's father (The Medallion)
Broan: Story requestor (Solstice)
Calph: Peacemaker at inn (Solstice)
Callan: Civello village leader (The Medallion)
Casta: Took care of Gabrielle it Ithome (The Chosen's Promise)
Clare: Whore (The Medallion)
Damian: Negative villager (By the Fates)
Gustan: Young villager recognized Gabrielle & Xena (The Medallion)
Kiral: Referred to by Damian - slave connections (By the Fates)
Mica – Tavern patron (The Medallion)
Notios: Requested story from Gabrielle ( Megara )
Roco: Innkeeper & form soldier w/Xena (The Medallion)
Sastro: Wood carver (Solstice)
Stalan: Innkeeper's son (The Medallion)
Synia : Whorehouse madam (The Medallion)
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.
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)
Glazier: Village where girl is killed. (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)
Sicyon : Village where bordello located (The Medallion)
Oescus – From where Xena and Gabrielle traveled to Civello (The Medallion)
Patras: Where Xena would have been taken for transport to Rome ( Megara )
Messene : Location of Thanos' fortress ( Megara )
Gabrielle ran down the palace corridor. She skated around a corner barely missing Stephanie, who jumped back in surprise. “Whoa! Sorry…” said Gabrielle breathlessly.
“Your Majesty. Is there something wrong?” asked the servant.
“Nothing to worry about,” said Gabrielle brightly as she looked over her shoulder. “My Lord is seeking me out.”
“And you don't want to be found?”
Gabrielle wore a wicked grin. “Not until I'm sure she's regained her sense of humor.”
“I think it's best if I don't ask why she is in ill-humor.”
“Maybe Makia will hide me,” Gabrielle thought aloud, weighing her options.
“And have the kitchens turned inside out?” said Stephanie in the lighthearted spirit of the moment.
Gabrielle hugged the palace wall and peeked around the corner. “Oh Gods, here she comes.”
“Should I misdirect the Conqueror?” offered Stephanie conspiratorially.
Gabrielle placed an appreciative hand on Stephanie's arm. “Oh, if you only could. What's best is that you stand aside.”
“Gabrielle!” Xena's call echoed throughout the palace.
Stephanie stepped out in full view of the Queen's pursuer. She said softly to Gabrielle, “Your Majesty, the Conqueror is…”
“All wet,” said Gabrielle completing the servant's observation with undisguised pleasure. “Yes, I know.” She laughed as she ran toward the Royal suite.
Xena stepped boldly through the palace searching out the perpetrator of a deliciously well executed practical joke. She was intent on having a proper revenge, though at the moment she had no idea what form it would take. The very fact Gabrielle had exercised her pixyish nature was a boon to Xena's disposition. It had been a hard road back from Athens . As the joke proved, they had somehow returned completely to each other, to the effect that the palace had slowly been transformed from a sober place to one where wit and whimsy were common. It was infectious, this joy and Xena hoped it would never slip away again.
Xena neared Stephanie. “She went to our suite, didn't she, Stephanie?”
“Who, your Majesty?” asked the servant innocently.
Xena burst out laughing. “It's all right. We are only playing a game of cat and mouse.”
“I've never known a cat that liked to get wet, your Majesty.”
Xena looked down at her body. “I must be a sight.”
“It is a new look for you,” said Stephanie biting her lip.
Xena put her hands on her hips. “Tell me, as the Conqueror am I more intimidating like this?”
Stephanie smiled; intimidated was obviously not what she felt. “Your hair is quite mad.”
“I'm glad I'm nowhere near a mirror.” Xena glanced in the direction of Gabrielle's felt essence. “I shouldn't tarry. The Gods only know what our Queen is up to.”
“Have a pleasant evening, your Majesty.”
“Oh, you can count on it.”
Xena proceeded toward the Royal suite. Her water soaked boots squishing with each step, leaving a wet trail. Xena turned and walked backwards. “Stephanie! I am counting on you to tell Makia that the ruining of her clean floors was not my fault.”
“Should I say it was the Queen's?” asked Stephanie helpfully.
“Absolutely! It is not only the truth but Makia will be far more forgiving.” Xena turned again and entered a steady jog in search of her partner.
Hamish entered into the corridor. Xena called out his name.
“My Liege ,” answered the Guardsman. His expression upon seeing her shifted from incredulousness to knowing understanding.
Enjoying but choosing not to acknowledge the Guardsman's reaction Xena entered a steady march to her suite. Not missing a step she directed Hamish, “Tell Trevor to place a guard at my door with orders to kill whoever dare disturb your Sovereign and Queen with the exception of Makia delivering our meal”
Hamish smiled. “Any instructions for Makia?”
“Yes. She should be generous with the wine… and the sweets.”
“As you command,” said Hamish robustly as he saluted.
“Good man!” Xena relished the encounter. A few moments later she entered the Royal suite and called out Gabrielle's name.
Gabrielle stepped out from the bath. She had a towel draped over one arm and Xena's robe draped over the other. “My Lord.”
“Oh no!” Xena pointed at Gabrielle accusatorily. “You don't get off so easily.”
“I don't know what you mean,” said Gabrielle, her innocent expression a mirror image of Stephanie's.
“I could hear you laughing,” cited Xena.
“From the horse trough?” asked Gabrielle, well aware of her partner's superb hearing.
“Yes, from the horse trough which I would not have tripped into if it wasn't for you.”
“I was nowhere near you. It seemed Coal had nudged you,” said Gabrielle referring to the colt she had been training.
“Nudged? I would not call his head butt a nudge.”
“I thought him only playing.”
“And your whistle had nothing to do with his playfulness?” said Xena unwilling to cease arguing her case and ending their banter.
“I whistled to call him to me,” responded Gabrielle, sharing the well-known fact of her training of the colt.
“It wasn't your usual whistle.”
“I didn't realize I have a particular whistle.”
“I wonder…” Gabrielle cocked her head as her gaze tracked the full length of her Lord.
“What?” asked Xena amused by Gabrielle's blatant admiration.
“If I whistle will you come to me?”
“I am no two year old colt!” barked Xena in mock outrage.
“No, my Lord, that you are not,” said Gabrielle cheerfully. “A filly…”
“Gabrielle...” growled the warrior.
The younger woman took a step forward. “I think you should get out of your wet clothes.”
“Really? That is a novel thought,” said Xena crossing her arms. “I think you should help me as an act of contrition.”
“An act of contrition? That would require me to confess to having been complicit in your fall.”
“And that would not do, would it?” Xena opened her arms, as much a gesture of surrender as invitation. “Then do it as an act of love.”
Gabrielle's emerald eyes glistened. She stepped down the first two of the three steps to the living chamber floor. Xena approached, pausing before Gabrielle. After a moment in which they shared a smile, Xena bowed her head as she began to undo her tunic belt. A gentle whistle caused her to look up. “I am here, Gabrielle. There is no need to call me to you.”
“You are beautiful,” said the bard appreciatively.
“Ha! Stephanie said my hair is a fright.”
“I can understand why.” That earned Gabrielle a scathing look from her partner. Gabrielle did not hesitate to raise the towel she was holding and dry the offending hair. Her task complete she assessed the results. “Better.”
Xena shook her head and chuckled. “By the way, except for our dinner I've ordered that we not be disturbed. I hope you don't mind.”
“We are to have an evening to ourselves?”
“Yes, if you can bear having only my company.”
“I don't mind at all.” Gabrielle altered her voice to a tender caress. “Undress love, before you catch cold.”
“Speaks the woman who orchestrated my state.”
“If I did, look where it has gotten us. Is your state truly so terrible?”
“You are incorrigible,” said Xena as she undressed.
Gabrielle waited patiently. With feigned regret she surrendered the towel to the naked Xena earning another chuckle from the warrior. After Xena dried herself, Gabrielle helped the warrior don her robe.
Xena tied the robe closed. “I say I am now ready for the evening. I don't think it's worth the effort dressing further. What say you, my bard?”
Gabrielle leaned forward placing her arms around Xena's neck, drawing the taller woman close. “I don't know why we bothered with your robe.” They met in a mutual kiss. Soon thereafter Gabrielle found herself being carried into the bedroom.
Laid upon their bed, Gabrielle raised her hand over Xena's heart. It was a gesture constant in their life together, one of love, of trust, of protection and of invitation. Xena took Gabrielle's hand in her own and kissed its palm. Another constant gesture, one of acceptance, which given the events of Athens was a grace Gabrielle would never take for granted. As night blanketed Corinth , Gabrielle found herself blissfully immersed in her partner's tender passions.
Targon entered the Royal suite followed by Joél. The young Guardsman carried an intricately carved wooden box. They were accompanied by a man of Chin descent dressed in a military uniform.
Xena took immediate notice and rose from her desk chair. Gabrielle was sitting by the fireplace with Honor sleeping on the floor beside her. It was Xena's anxious essence that caused Gabrielle to stand and position herself beside her Lord.
“What's this, Targon?” asked the Sovereign.
“Your Majesty, allow me to present Zan Quan of Lao Ma's Imperial Guard.”
Xena welcomed the soldier in the language of Chin.
Zan Quan bowed respectfully. He spoke in Chin. “I bring greetings from La Mao.” He handed Xena a scroll. “The Empress of Chin humbly petitions your Majesty's assistance in determining the nature of an amulet I have brought for your inspection.”
“What is so special about this amulet?” asked Xena continuing to speak in Chin. She handed the scroll to Gabrielle assuming that it, like all other correspondence from Lao Ma, would be written in Greek.
“It is said to have great powers, whether for good or evil is unknown. The finest scholars of Chin have been unable to read its markings. The Empress hopes you and your scholars will be more skilled in unraveling its mystery.”
Xena stepped behind Gabrielle to better read the scroll now held open by her partner. All that Zan Quan had said was repeated. There was more. Lao Ma speculated that the amulet might have Coptic origins. She closed with a passionate warning not to touch the amulet until its powers were understood.
Xena instructed Joél to set the box on a nearby table. She inquisitively kept her gaze upon the box until he rested it in place. She then turned her attention back to Zan Quan. “What are your orders?”
“I am to stay in Corinth for a fortnight and then to return to Chin with whatever knowledge you share with me,” said Zan Quan.
“Are you to take the amulet back to Chin?”
“The Empress said the decision was yours to make.”
“Very well. My Administrator will see to your comfort. He will also provide a daily report of our progress.”
“Thank you,” said Zan Quan as be humbly bowed.
Targon, who was well versed in the Chin language proceeded to guide Zan Quan out of the suite. Joél followed.
Left alone Xena quickly recounted her exchange with Zan Quan to Gabrielle.
“A fortnight. That isn't very much time,” said Gabrielle.
“Either we have information about the amulet or we don't. If we don't, Lao Ma knows it will take more than a fortnight to research.” Xena walked to the table and stood before the carved box.
Gabrielle did not need their connection to sense her partner's uneasiness. She placed a comforting hand on Xena's arm. Xena kept her gaze fixed upon the box. “There was a time when I searched the known world for anything I could use to help me conquer Greece . Lao Ma is living proof that there are powers on earth you can't completely understand. You must just accept them for what they are.”
“What troubles you?” asked Gabrielle as Xena's anxiousness seemed to bleed from the warrior.
“Lao Ma taught me how to empty myself of all thought in order to tap the very essence of existence and then to focus that essence as a powerful force against my enemies.”
“The Way?” said Gabrielle having had discussed Lao Ma's unique abilities with Xena prior to her introduction to the Chin Empress.
“Yes. She taught me enough that I could use the power defensively, never offensively. She said that Ares' Chosen could not be trusted to use the Way for only the Greater Good. I resented her for limiting my power. Then the day came when I proved her right. I betrayed a trust with a tribal leader from the Northern Steppes. His army was moving aggressively against Chin. I took an advantage during a battle that ultimately saved Chin from a bloody defeat. It was then that Lao Ma and I brokered our truce. She swore allegiance to Greece . I swore never to invade Chin.
“Lao Ma had no reason to trust me. I had proven a promise meant nothing to me. What I didn't realize until later was that I lost the powers Lao Ma had taught me. When I asked her why she said that by betraying the tribal leader I had lost my integrity and that someone without integrity, without honor, was not deserving of the Way.”
“From the first day I met you, you've always been an honest ruler,” said Gabrielle genuinely.
“I took Lao Ma's lesson to heart. I did terrible things after I left Chin. One thing I've never done again is break a trust.”
Gabrielle was well aware that their conversation now touched the rare subject of Xena's conquests prior to Cirra, prior to Xena's commitment to defeating oppressive warlords and unifying Greece with the goal of maintaining peace in the realm and safeguarding it from foreign invasion. “That time in your life… You must have difficult memories.”
“That's not what's bothering me. Why did Lao Ma send something to me with powers she didn't understand? She's a practical woman. It's not like her to take such a risk.”
“She must see that you've changed.”
“I'm still Ares' Chosen .”
“You don't repeat your mistakes.”
“No, I just find new ways of…”
“Xena, don't!” said Gabrielle forcefully. “Lao Ma sent you the amulet for a reason. That's a fact you can't deny.”
Xena fell into a sober silence. Gabrielle fixed a defiant gaze upon her lover. After an extended moment Xena glanced over to her partner, shook her head and said sheepishly, “Self pity isn't very attractive, is it?”
“No, it isn't,” said Gabrielle gentling.
Xena returned her gaze to the box. “There's something else I don't understand. Where did the amulet come from? And why does Lao Ma believe it might have magical powers?” Xena placed her hands on opposite sides of the box and opened it. Inside the box rested an oval shaped amulet a third of a hand in length. It composition seemed like onyx. It had faint markings on its face. “Well, it doesn't look like much, but I've learned not to judge solely by appearance.”
A knock on the door garnered the attention of both Royals. Alem entered. “My Liege , you are expected in Court.”
“Damn, just as the day was getting interesting,” said Xena, her voice resonated with disappointment.
“I can go if you rather stay here,” offered Gabrielle.
“Oh, that's a tempting offer,” said Xena. “What price will you exact from me?”
“Promise you'll be careful.”
“There is no need to ask that of me. I have too much to lose.”
“Promise me still,” insisted Gabrielle.
“I promise,” said Xena easily.
Gabrielle kissed her on the cheek. “I love you.” She turned to Alem. “Come on,” she said to the Guardsman. “It's my turn to keep peace among the Lords.”
“Maybe we should bring Honor to growl when arguments grow tedious,” quipped Alem.
Gabrielle smiled. “Good idea.” She called the hound to her. “Come on, boy. We're going to have some fun.” He obeyed enthusiastically. Gabrielle left the suite appreciative of the sound of Xena's muted laughter.
After Court Gabrielle returned to the Royal suite. She found Xena where she had left her, standing in front of the opened box. “Have you been frozen in place?” she asked.
“Hardly.” Xena reached for the amulet. Gabrielle's hand intercepted hers and held tightly. Xena turned to her partner. “Gabrielle?”
“Xena, you promised. Please don't tempt the fates. Lao Ma's warning must be heeded.”
“I wasn't going to touch it. I just wanted to see if I could feel any force radiate from it.”
“That is still too close for my comfort.”
“Very well.” Xena withdrew her hand. “We shall break its secret another way.”
“What do you make of it?”
“The box it is carried in is from Chin. I've been able to translate the writings. They are nothing more than warnings. The amulet itself is Coptic. Lao Ma was right about that. The scrolls in the Chin libraries don't cross far enough west to be of use to her. Maybe our library will be more forthcoming. And if not, I will see that the Academy archives are researched. For now I'm having a half-dozen drawings of the amulet made. One is being sent to Udell. He or someone in his scholarly circle may recognize it and know its legend.”
“Legend? So, you don't think it's dangerous?”
“Despite everything I said about Lao Ma, she is the exception, not the rule. In my travels I've found that legends about magical weapons have too often been given life by overly imaginative bards.” Xena paused and added warmly, “Present company excluded.”
“Good for you,” said Gabrielle with a smile.
Xena continued. “When people learn about an event that seems so fantastic that no ordinary explanation suffices they tend to elaborate what facts are known and assign causes to an other-worldly power. Taking a cynics point of view is always best when trying to determine if you're facing something truly magical or just a riddle no one has been able to answer or an incident that came to pass due to nothing more than coincidence.”
“Exactly. What is perplexing when looked upon straightforwardly is often crystal clear in hindsight.”
“That presumes experience.”
“And experiment. You are an accomplished healer. You know that healers did not wake up one morning knowing what herbs to use to cure illnesses. Healers before you tried different herbs and combinations of herbs until they found the right ones to resolve an ailment. They shared what they learned from master to apprentice; those who could wrote down what they learned for future generations.”
“And you see the magical in the same way?”
“Yes, but knowledge of the magical is more difficult to decipher. It remains among the shamans of the world. They don't give up their secrets easily. To do so is to give up their power.”
“Promise me you will not experiment with this amulet.”
“The amulet will remain secure in its box and will not be touched unless I have solid evidence of its purpose and how to safely use it for the Greater Good.”
“You don't have to thank me, Gabrielle. Nothing is more precious to me than our peace. I will not risk it to satisfy my curiosity.”
Gabrielle sat with Dalius on the infirmary porch having mid-day meal. A very attractive woman walked before them. Though the day was warm, she wore a cloak, with the hood raised.
Gabrielle turned to the healer. “Dalius, that young woman that just passed by seems familiar.”
“Should be, it was Selina.” Dalius referred to Niko's nineteen year old daughter.
Gabrielle tracked the young woman's trail. She assumed Selina had come from the palace. She now walked across the courtyard toward the palace gates. “Do you know what brings her to the palace?”
“I don't have to guess,” Dalius laughed easily. “She has a crush on one of the Guardsmen.”
“Really… Which of my brothers has won her favor?”
“That I do not know. But, the girl told Xanthus that she was close to concluding her effort in the palace.”
“She has taken up a romantic campaign,” Gabrielle mused. “I have always liked Selina.”
“There is much to like. She is gentle, beautiful and a fine musician. Have you heard her play the lyre?”
“Yes, I have. She is talented. She would be a fine choice for an honorable heart.”
“And from your brothers there are many to choose from. I wonder if soon you will be asked to give your blessing to a union.”
“That won't be necessary.”
“I didn't say it was. Your approval means I great to the men.”
“Selina hides herself under her cloak. Why be shy about her visits?”
“Who knows? Petty jealousies are always motivation to be discreet. Few city girls have won a Guardsman's love.”
“So, it isn't that my brothers are in competition?”
“We haven't had an unexplained knife wound in moons,” said Dalius dryly.
Gabrielle laughed. “Let's hope we seen none in the near future.”
A handful of days later, in the mid-afternoon, Gabrielle searched out Xena within the palace environs. Inquiries to Stephen and Trevor were met with uncommon hesitancy. Neither knew of her Lord's whereabouts.
Gabrielle walked toward an anti-chamber reserved for diplomatic and strategic meetings. Given the relative quiet in the realm she doubted finding Xena there but after a candlemark of disappointment her remaining options were few.
Selina stepped out of the private meeting chamber. Following her was an attentive Xena. From her partner's essence Gabrielle felt an undercurrent of mild anxiety. Suddenly feeling uncertain, Gabrielle stepped into an alcove, hidden from view. From there she could hear the soft spoken voices.
“Selina, I know you're not comfortable with our secrecy,” said Xena. “I promise you; soon all will know the reason for our trysts.”
“I fear the Queen suspects.”
“She has no reason to. I have scheduled our meetings keeping her itinerary in mind. I have also sworn all my closest confidants to silence.”
“When she learns the truth…”
“She will understand that I have exercised discretion more so then deception. The Queen gave me leave to follow my heart. You cannot doubt my motivation.”
Xena took the younger woman's hand. “Selina, if life has taught me anything it is that happiness is too fragile and fleeting not to grant it to oneself and those one loves. Hesitation is a waste.”
“When will you come to my father's tavern?”
“In less than a fortnight. I gave you my word and with the Queen's cooperation I shall keep it. All that has transpired between us will not be for naught. We shall have our moment in the public eye and when we do no apologies will be necessary.”
“I hope you are right.”
“Trust me.” Xena's expression turned worrisome. She shifted her gaze in the direction where Gabrielle stood hidden.
“Is something wrong?” asked Selina.
“Just a feeling… I'll escort you to the courtyard, then I must see to a personal matter.”
The two walked in the opposite direction of Gabrielle toward the palace courtyard entrance.
Gabrielle leaned against the cold stone wall of the palace. Her thoughts drifted back to a Royal camp outside of Turian's estate. Gabrielle had just informed Xena of her desire to return to Corinth as her Queen.
“Xena, in public affairs I am Queen. What do you expect of me privately?”
“We have spoken of friendship. I expect no more from you.”
“Is that all that we are to be to each other when we have had so much more?”
“I don't know what is possible between us,” said Xena honestly. “I look at you and I am at a lost. That is my truth, Gabrielle.”
“Xena, promise me that if the day comes when you feel less lost, when you have even a hint of what you wish for yourself that you won't hesitate to tell me. I will not keep you from your happiness.” Gabrielle did not speak optimistically. She was prepared to be sent away or subjected to the lesser indignity of being discreetly replaced in Xena's intimate life.
“I have grown accustomed to sleeping alone. After Athens my battle lust had no hold on me. I felt no fever. Such desire has left me and not returned.”
“I still ask the promise.”
“You have it,” said Xena.
Gabrielle raised her hand and wiped her face clean of a few fallen tears. She needed to think, to clear her mind of the contradicting images of the heartbreak of Athens and until the present moment the blissful renewal of her intimate life with Xena.
She took an indirect route to the stables, one that would circumvent Xena's path. Reaching the stables she saddled Spirit, dismissing Voger's question regarding an escort. She knew it would not be long before the groom informed Trevor.
Gabrielle chose the hidden entrance at the far side of the courtyard to exit the palace. She rode Spirit in a full gallop across the hillside, allowing the task of maintaining her balance on the forceful steed to own her thoughts. Reaching a stand of trees she slowed Spirit to a walk. She immediately felt Xena's essence.
Gabrielle stood up in her stirrups and looked back toward the palace. She saw in the distance an approaching horse and rider. By their bond she knew it was her Lord. Gabrielle sat back in her saddle and took a deep breath, trying to compose her frayed emotions.
Upon reaching Gabrielle, Xena brought Argo to a halt. The two women and their mounts faced one another. “Gabrielle…” said Xena cautiously.
“My Lord,” said Gabrielle betraying no distress.
“I felt…” Xena was obviously confused. “Are you all right?”
Gabrielle knew that she could not hide fundamental truths from Xena. And, she was bound to her oath to always be truthful. “I grieve a disappointment… my memories… I had an unexpected recollection.”
“A difficult memory?” posed Xena thoughtfully.
“Would you rather be alone?”
“I… I don't want to talk about it.”
“We don't have to. I can just ride beside you.”
“You do care for me?” asked Gabrielle, her heart overruling her dispassionate intentions.
“Whatever the memory, know that I am here for you,” said Xena tenderly.
“Then stay with me,” said Gabrielle as she reined Spirit to a walk.
Xena silently guided Argo to join them.
The following days were difficult for both Royals. Gabrielle maintained her emotional distance. If Gabrielle was haunted by a disappointment from the past there was no satisfactory manner for Xena to isolate the subject. The bard's life had too many painful episodes to speculate on one lone source. Xena was determined to honor Gabrielle's request not to speak of the subject. She thus resigned herself to a waiting posture.
Gabrielle entered the Royal suite. Xena petted Honor as they rested in front of the fireplace on a bed of furs. “There you are,” she warmly greeted Gabrielle. “Makia brought dinner a half-candlemark ago.”
“You should have started without me,” said Gabrielle dully.
“I think not. I feel as if I've spent the day with everyone in Corinth but you.”
“I'm not hungry.” Gabrielle walked toward the bedroom.
“Gabrielle?” Xena stood. “What's wrong?”
“I'm fine. Just a little tired.”
“We are expected at Niko's tonight. Would you rather not go?”
“I don't want to disappoint…”
“It's all right.” Xena walked to the suite entrance. “Alem!”
The Guardsman opened the door and stepped inside. “My Liege .”
“Alem, send word to Trevor and to Niko that there will be no bard's visit tonight.”
“No, my Lord. That isn't necessary,” said Gabrielle.
Xena turned to her. “Gabrielle, if you are tired...”
“We haven't been to Niko's in moons.” She directed her next statement to the Guardsman. “Alem, there is no change in plans.”
Alem glanced to Xena. She nodded in assent. He stepped back into the corridor and closed the door. Xena met Gabrielle's gaze. The warrior's concern was etched on her face.
“Xena, there is a story that needs to be told tonight. I shall not rest until I share its conclusion.”
“It is a new story?”
“I think it is not a happy one.”
“Not for all the characters, no.”
“It is much like life then,” mused Xena.
“I'm sorry to say it is.”
“I will listen closely because it is in those stories that lessons are most often learned.”
“I'm going to change my clothes. We can then eat before leaving.”
Xena nodded. She hoped that by telling her story Gabrielle might find a foothold to her elusive sense of peace. “Very well.”
Niko's was bustling with patrons. As always, word of a special night had been shared with the tavern owner's friends and best customers. Plain clothed Guardsmen ensured no weapons entered the establishment and that order was kept as generous mugs of mead and wine were served.
The Royals sat at their usual table, somewhat secluded from the crowd. Gabrielle's mood remained subdued. Commenting on a number of the patrons' more humorous eccentricities Xena had tried valiantly, but with little success, to bring a lighthearted spirit to their conversation.
As it neared time for the evening's entertainment Xena turned her gaze toward the bar and smiled. Gabrielle followed Xena's line of sight to Selina. Through their bond Gabrielle could feel a sudden heighten excitement take over the warrior as well as an uncensored admiration for the young woman. Gabrielle tried to close her heart as she faced her rival. Her fear harbored after Athens was at the forefront. To look upon the woman who she believed was replacing her in Xena's sympathies was far too painful. The bard looked away, focusing on her mug of mead.
“Gabrielle.” Xena's gentle voice cut through the tavern din. Gabrielle looked up. “There is someone I need to speak to. I shouldn't be long.”
Gabrielle could not veil her sadness. “All right. I'll wait for you.”
Xena paused upon hearing the latter phrase. Reassuringly, she covered Gabrielle's hand with her own. “Are you sure there is nothing wrong?”
“I'm fine. Go on.”
Xena made no move to leave her chair. “I don't believe you.”
“I'm just thinking about the stories I'm going to tell.”
“Are you sure you must tell that sad story?”
“Sometimes the stories choose me. I don't choose the stories.”
Xena was obviously dissatisfied with Gabrielle's answer. “We are going to talk tonight, my bard.”
“I think after tonight there will be nothing left unsaid.”
Xena seemed lost for words. She squeezed Gabrielle's hand and then stood up. “You once made a request of me. I have yet to grant it. I think it is time I did.”
“What request?” asked Gabrielle, thinking she was hearing a precursor to Xena's confession of infidelity.
“That you will soon learn and I hope that if the quality of my execution is wanting that your disappointment is tempered by my sincere desire to live up to your expectations of me.”
Gabrielle had no answer. After a moment Xena turned away. Gabrielle watched her partner weave through the crowd to Selina. Upon the meeting of the two women Gabrielle looked away toward the front of the tavern.
There Niko stood up on a makeshift stage. He raised his hands and called out for quiet. With most of the tavern patrons offering him their attention he said, “As you know we expect to be entertained tonight by the fine bard from Poteidaia.” The crowd applauded in anticipation. “Hold your horses. Before she steps up here we have another performer. It's her first time on stage and I expect you to give this singer of songs from Amphipolis the same respect you would our bard. She will be accompanied on the lyre by my own daughter, Selina.”
Gabrielle's heart skipped at hearing Niko's announcement. Her gaze jumped from Niko to Xena and Selina as the two women walked up to the small stage, the latter carrying a previously unseen lyre. The audience was momentarily stunned silent and then a few of the braver patrons clapped. Quickly a roar of approval resounded through the tavern as all realized that their Sovereign would entertainment them with song.
“Thank you,” said Xena. “My partner in life – I think you know who she is – once asked me to recite a poem to her. Tonight I grant her the wish, though I do it in song and not verse.”
Gabrielle smiled as a vivid memory crossed her mind. The place was their chambers. The time was a few days before her planned medicinal tour to regional villages - a tour that was supplanted by her diplomatic trip to Athens .
Within the Royal suite Gabrielle sat at her desk. Xena entered from the bedroom dressed in rust pantaloons tucked into tall black leather boots and a black tunic held close to her body with a black leather belt. She glanced toward the balcony. “Promises to be a good day. Hopefully the weather will hold for your trip.” Seeing her partner, Gabrielle smiled brilliantly. The smile seemed to have nothing to do with Xena's weather forecast. “What?” asked Xena.
“You are beautiful,” said Gabrielle appreciatively.
“You are complementary this morning. I wonder if you seek a favor,” said Xena with an amused glint in her eyes.
For a moment Gabrielle was thoughtful. A devilish grin appeared upon her. “You have never recited a poem to me.”
“Ho! A poem? I say not,” protested the warrior.
“Well then, I must reconcile myself to going without.”
“Can I make it up to you some other way?”
“I will think of something.”
Gabrielle never had the opportunity to make a claim. Her thoughts were brought to the present by Xena's melodious voice. Her partner had chosen to recite a lover's poem by Homer to the music of a ballad. Gabrielle listened intently. She could not recall the last time she heard Xena sing. Surely it had been prior to Athens .
As the days preceding the evening proved, Athens continued to mark Gabrielle. Athens caused Gabrielle to take measure of all that she was and all that she could be to her partner. In her worst nightmares Athens still held the power to provoke Gabrielle's fear of the inevitable loss of her life with Xena, not due to the Fates further weavings, but due to a just retribution for her broken vows of fealty and fidelity.
Despite Xena's assurances, Gabrielle's fear remained just beneath the surface of the bard's consciousness. Xena had herald a new era, a time of mutual healing, where compassion and patience would be rewarded by the cure of wounds once believed to be inconsolable. Xena was determined not to allow Athens and its aftermath to hold them hostage. Forgiveness was possible. More so, forgiveness was vital if their lives were to be worth living.
Gabrielle felt she had once again misjudged her partner. Once again she had lost faith that Xena's heart would persevere and hold to her love for Gabrielle. Gabrielle felt a new humility, a bone deep understanding that she must honor her beloved by renewing her faith in Xena's unbounded love. In Megara Gabrielle had been driven to recite a new vow of joining. On this night in Niko's she embraced without qualification the fact that Xena's acceptance of her vow and placement of her joining ring back on the bard's finger was cause to shatter all conceivable doubts.
Xena sang a second song, a lively folksong that had the audience clapping in rhythm. At its conclusion she announced there would be no more and gestured toward Selina to step forward. She took the musician's hand. The two bowed as the audience applauded in appreciation. Xena then released Selina's hand and jumped down from the stage.
Gabrielle stood up and walked impatiently toward her lover. The weight of her guilt and shame had been lifted from her. Her heart was alight with an indescribable joy. Without hint of her intention she embraced Xena and kissed her passionately. Xena surrendered to the kiss as the audience's waning applause surged in celebration of their Sovereign's and Queen's union.
The kiss ended. Xena scanned the rowdy crowd before returning her attention back to her partner. “I say we have made a spectacle of ourselves.”
“I don't care,” said Gabrielle merrily.
Xena could not only see but she could also feel Gabrielle's soaring spirit as their bond owned her completely. “Nor do I,” she said happily. “But, I think I must step aside. Your audience awaits you, my bard.”
“Will you be mine tonight?” asked Gabrielle, offering an intimacy that had been sorely missed by the both of them.
“Must you ask?”
Gabrielle cupped Xena's cheek with her hand. “I love you, Xena of Amphipolis, singer of songs.”
Xena smiled brightly. She repeated her own vow with a slight variation. “I am yours, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, bard of tales. I am and shall always be yours and yours alone. ”
PART TWO: TOUCH OF A SOUL
The Royals were in the midst of a war game. The Queen's Guard was charged with finding the wayward women. Xena and Gabrielle sat hidden ensconced within a space fashioned by the intersection of a large bolder and two towering trees whose protruding roots overlay the stone. Gabrielle had claimed the space in order to serve herself and Xena a mid-day meal of trail rations protected from a fine mist of rain that fell through the forest canopy. Their horses were set free to wander, the owners confident that a whistle from either Royal would bring the steeds to them.
Gabrielle had laid her cloak down on the moist ground. In turn, Xena had extended her cloak around Gabrielle's shoulders, sheltering the bard from the cool air.
Xena finished the last of an apple. Her hunger well sated she was content to remain in the comfort of their hideaway. “The day is half passed. I am somewhat disappointed in how little of a challenge this contest has been.”
“Not I,” said Gabrielle as she finished storing their belongings and repositioned herself against Xena's shoulder. “This day has brought me unexpected pleasure.”
Xena turned to her partner. “Has it? Do you take pleasure riding in the rain?”
“When alone with you, and my cloak keeps me dry, I say ‘yes' without qualification.”
“So your sympathy for your brothers' discomfort and frustration is not a factor?”
“They will survive and will learn from the exercise.”
Xena offered Gabrielle a bemused smirk. “I see. You have only their best interest in mind. That is commendable.”
Gabrielle laughed lightly. “I confess, my Lord, that I cannot separate my motivations from the fact that you enjoy these games.”
“Ah, so now I know the truth. You consented to this escapade in order to appease me.”
“I said no such thing. The truth is that I have never been more selfish. I consented to be your partner because I know no greater honor and because I belong by your side.”
Setting aside the banter Xena asked with heartfelt sincerity, “Today and every day?”
Gabrielle cupped Xena's cheek with the palm of her hand. “Yes, love.”
After a moment of shared intimate silence Xena's attention was captured by sounds emanating from the environs. Gabrielle noticed the change and asked, “What is it?”
“Our pursuers approach.”
“Shall we stay here?”
“I don't see why not,” said Xena lazily.
“With Argo and Spirit near, they cannot be far,” said Brogan.
“Pity us the more for we will not hear the end of this from the Conqueror,” replied Tavis.
“Your Guard is both deaf and blind. I am lucky to have you as my protector,” said Xena softly.
Gabrielle stilled. Xena's easy declaration of Gabrielle's role in her life took the bard by surprise. Gabrielle's spirit had prospered in step with her renewed confidence of having Xena's love. This moment spoke of a greater truth. She had Xena's trust. Xena continued to place her life in Gabrielle's hands for safekeeping. What Messene proved in the past - Gabrielle's commitment to do all that was required to ensure Xena's well-being - was not sundered by the betrayals of Athens. Despite the fact that in Athens Gabrielle heeded the Fates and acted always with Xena in the forefront in her mind, she still found it difficult to believe, that her Lord would not harbor some measure of doubt. And yet, all evidence was to the contrary.
Gabrielle embraced Xena passionately kissing the warrior. Xena responded despite the fact that they were surrounded by Guardsmen intent on flushing them out of hiding. There kiss was interrupted by a Guardsman's call to his brothers. Xena and Gabrielle held themselves frozen in place as they listened.
“Search on! Brogan. Hamish. Take the horses,” ordered Stephen.
“And leave them to walk back to camp?” protested Trevor.
“Why not?” Tavis challenged his fellow officer. “The distance is not long. They are more than able to walk back to camp.”
“No harm will be done by leaving them,” said Trevor, obviously not willing to set the disagreement aside.
“Trevor, this is a war game!” said Tavis, exasperatedly.
“What of it!” snapped the Queen's security officer.
“In war we would not hesitate to take the mounts as spoils of war and if we had no use for the steeds, kill them on the spot. I will not be the one to explain such misplaced mercy, as you advocate, to the Conqueror.”
“Enough arguing.” Stephen interrupted the two men. “You have your orders.”
The Royals could hear the sound of footsteps and muted voices as the men traveled away from them.
Then came Sentas' whispered voice, “Tavis, you made no friend in Trevor today.”
“A man cannot live life by the heart alone,” said Tavis in his defense.
“Nor by the mind either,” reminded his intrepid friend.
“Do you challenge me as well?” asked Tavis dismayed.
“No, Man. You are right. We do only what the Conqueror expects of us. It is just that Gabrielle is somewhere in these woods as well.”
“By the Gods don't you think I know that! She is as much my sister as she is yours or Trevor's. Out in these woods Gabrielle is as skilled as any Guardsman, and if harm were to come to her, who could take care of her better than the Conqueror?”
“Sometimes your manner leaves a listener cold,” said Sentas gently. “I know you well and question you when in doubt, to clear the air so we can carry on as friends. Others, they keep silent and brood.”
“Let the whelps brood. Tell me. Why didn't Trevor argue with Stephen? Why must I be held to a higher standard?”
“I cannot give you a satisfactory answer.”
“You mean you won't. Speak straight with me as the friend you claim to be.”
“Tavis, I have always been straight with you,” said Sentas with a hint of anger.
“Then say what we all know. No one would question Stephen's love for the Conqueror and Gabrielle, where they question mine.”
“You are wrong to think I or any one of your brothers questions your love. I tell you what we all do know. Stephen is in command. To argue with him in war is treason. You and Trevor are equals. Arguments are tolerated if not expected. Each of you speaks for us. There is value in that.”
“Today there are more in Trevor's camp than mine,” said Tavis dejectedly.
“I think it is fair to say that there isn't a Guardsman who doesn't stand equally in each of your camps. We are soldiers and do what we must even if it breaks our hearts to do so.”
“You do not believe I have a heart to break.”
“I know you do. I had seen your unshed tears. The difference between you and Trevor is that you are better in keeping your heart from the sight of others.”
Silence fell between the two men. Then Tavis said, “Let's go before Stephen has our hides for falling behind.”
It was only when all sounds of the Guardsmen's presence ceased that Xena spoke. “They are good, your men.”
“Our men,” said Gabrielle. “There is no price for such loyalty.”
Xena leaned back against the bolder. “We are free of their interference. How would you like to spend the afternoon?”
Gabrielle smiled and reached out taking a hold of Xena's tunic and pulling the warrior close to her. “I say we continue as we were.”
“All afternoon?” chuckled Xena.
“It wouldn't be the first time,” said a delighted Gabrielle.
“Nor if the Fates decree, will it be our last.” Happily, Xena surrendered to her partner.
Night fell. The Guardsmen returned to camp having failed to locate the Royals. They settled around the campfire waiting in various states of impatience.
“I wonder why these men are so serious in mien, my Queen.” Xena's bold declaration garnered the Guardsmen's attention. Standing at the east was their Sovereign and sister, both looking fit and tidy.
“My Liege ,” said Stephen as he stood.
Xena gestured for the men to remain as they were. “Once the rains stopped it was a rather pleasant day.”
Gabrielle took Xena's hand. Given her Lord's attention she whispered, “I think it was still raining when we enjoyed some of the day's greatest pleasures.”
Xena smiled brilliantly. “So right.”
“Are you hungry, my Liege ?” asked Alem. “Hamish made a fine stew.”
“Serve it with bread and wine cut with water from the nearby spring and I'll judge it a fine meal,” replied Xena. She led Gabrielle forward as Joél and Brogan shifted to create a space for them in the ring. Soon Hamish served each Royal a bowl of stew and a mug of wine while Sentas placed a plate of bread beside them to share. The Royals ate appreciatively answering the men's questions as the Guardsmen tried to determine how close they had been to discovering their location in the woods. Both Xena and Gabrielle were reticent about specifics, having mutually agreed not to confess hearing the Guardsmen's private conversations.
Having completed her meal, Gabrielle drew Xena's robe aside and took residence resting against the warrior's shoulder. Though they were under Queen's protocol, Gabrielle's intimate public self-placement was unusual. Xena gazed down at her partner, both sensing and seeing nothing less than contentment in the bard. She gently wrapped her robe more completely around Gabrielle and then wrapped her arm around her partner, holding her lovingly. Xena kept easy conversation with the men while Gabrielle lingered in a state of half-sleep.
With the evening drawing to a close, Xena cradled Gabrielle in her arms and carried the silent bard to their tent. Inside the tent she laid Gabrielle down on their bed of furs. She placed a kiss upon Gabrielle's forehead before taking up the task of removing the younger woman's boots. Finished, Xena removed her own boots and joined Gabrielle in bed.
Gabrielle waited for Xena, reaching out for the warrior. “It was a good day,” she said.
“It was.” Xena concurred, taking Gabrielle's hand. “Thank you for sharing it with me.”
“Xena…” Gabrielle's eyes glistened with life.
“I live for times like this. Just you and me. Leaving Corinth behind, if only for a day or two. I can think of no better reward for the trials of life.”
“Gabrielle, don't think of these days as a reward. They are your birthright.”
“We are not promised this kind of happiness. No one is.”
“Then we must continue to do as we have; claim our love and fight those who would dare try to sunder us.”
Gabrielle smiled. “Take care, my love. Continue to speak as you do and you will be taken for Aphrodite's Chosen .”
Xena kissed Gabrielle upon the cheek. “Such is your influence over me.”
Gabrielle wove her fingers in Xena's hair. “I will fight to keep us,” she said fiercely.
“Now it is you, Gabrielle, who must take care. Let no one confuse you with Ares' Chosen .”
“Aphrodite blesses those who fight for love. How else can we say with certainty that love is more powerful than hate?”
“You have proven that time and time again and I am the better for it.” Gabrielle shed a tear. Xena captured its fall with her fingertips. “Gabrielle, what is it?” asked Xena uneasily.
Gabrielle raised herself up and embraced Xena. She whispered, “You are my proof of the boundlessness of love.”
Xena and Stephen walked side by side with their steeds trailing behind them. Xena glanced toward her friend. “Stephen, how much longer are you going to make me wait? You obviously have something on your mind.”
“You are impatient, my Liege .”
“Only with snails, Major. Now, speak up”
“Tess and I have been discussing out future.”
“You're resigning your commission,” said Xena matter-of-factly.
“Stephen, Gabrielle and I gave you your estate for a reason. We both knew it was only a matter of time before you left the palace.”
“I never thought of myself as landed gentry,” said Stephen self-consciously.
“Gabrielle never thought of herself as Queen. People grow into new roles, sometimes by their own choice, at other times by necessity.”
“I don't want to disappoint you.”
“You haven't.” And as if to prove her point Xena looked to the imminent future. “Have you thought of your replacement?”
“I say the choice is between Trevor, Tavis and Sentas. I commend Tavis. He has a good mind, keeps his wits about him during the worst of times, and the men don't hesitate to follow his lead.”
“What of Trevor?” asked Xena, somewhat surprised by Stephen's recommendation.
“I may be wrong but I don't think he would want to accept the commission if offered, though out of respect to you he would not turn it down.”
Xena fell into a thoughtful silence. She paused and turned to Stephen. “Are you telling me that Trevor's preferred place will always be with Gabrielle?”
“Yes, just as mine has always been with you,” responded the Major unapologetically.
“That was a promise you made to your sister. Are you ready to speak to her?”
Stephen smiled. “She gave me her blessing yesterday.”
Xena sighed privately. She now understood Gabrielle's conciliatory words as she made her farewell that morning. “She will miss you. So will I.”
“I will only be two days ride from Corinth . I promised my sister that if summoned I would come to you without hesitation.”
“Let's hope I shall not have reason to do so.”
“Xena, I am still yours to command.”
“Stephen, you are my friend first. Now more than ever. I don't want to command you to my side. Since Tess entered your life… I've thought you've stayed as long as you have because of our friendship.”
“I owe you my life,” said Stephen ardently.
“No, Sir,” said Xena with equal emotion. “We have no debts between us. If I had the right to command anything of you it would be that you keep your family safe – no matter the cost. Lisia is under the protection of both Queen and Sovereign and Gabrielle and I take our vow to her as seriously as we would to our own child.”
“I will do what I must.”
“Good. Now can we ride back to the palace? I'm sure Gabrielle is worrying far too much about this conversation.” Xena went to Argo's side and mounted the mare. She looked down to the Major. “Stephen, what say you if I ride to the palace alone and tell your sister that I was so incensed by your abandonment that I thrashed you in hand-to-hand combat, leaving your pummeled body for the vultures to pick apart?”
“That is a gruesome image. I'm glad you took the news well.” He mounted his stallion. “Gabrielle wouldn't have believed you.”
“You're right. Tis a pity. However, I think Tess would.”
Xena smiled wickedly. “The only way to be sure is to beat me to the palace.” She pressed her knees against Argo who entered an immediate gallop. She looked over her shoulder and laughed at the sight of Stephen giving chase.
Standing on the bedroom balcony, Xena watched the sun set. Gabrielle entered the bedroom from the main chamber. “Xena?”
“Stephen told me. It's all right.”
Gabrielle went to Xena's side. “It's what we wanted for him.”
“Lord Stephen. I think it will take more doing on his part than mine to grow accustomed to the change.”
“He has Tess and Lisia to help him.”
Xena consciously set aside the subject of Stephen's family. “Stephen and I agree that Tavis is the best choice to replace him.”
“Why not Trevor?” asked Gabrielle adamantly. “Hasn't he earned the commission?”
“I have no objection, if you think it best. Speak to him, Gabrielle. Make sure he understands that I shall take no offence if he chooses to remain assigned to you.” Xena silently met and held Gabrielle's gaze, giving her partner time to reconsider her statement.
Gabrielle glanced down to her hands somewhat self-consciously. “I see now,” she said. After a few moments she raised her gaze and looked out to the city. She gently leaned against Xena wrapping her arm around the warrior's waist. The two women stood in companionable silence. After the passing of a quarter candlemark Gabrielle turned to her partner. “Xena, don't you think as Queen I deserve a soldier of a Major's rank attached to my Guard?”
Xena looked over to Gabrielle. “It is in keeping with military protocol,” she said approvingly. “A Guardsman of the rank of Major would be in command of the Queen's Guard and second in command of the Royal Guardsmen after Jared.”
“Just as Stephen has been second in command of the First Army after you.”
“Two commissions then. One to Tavis and another to Trevor?”
“I think it best,” agreed Gabrielle.
“I'll have Targon draft the citations.” Xena reached out her hand to Gabrielle. Gabrielle freely accepted the silent invitation and entered into the warrior's embrace. Xena affectionately kissed the top of the bard's head. “Now that we have Stephen's successor settled, I have a request.”
“ Megara is beckoning me.”
Gabrielle chose not to probe the reason for the retreat though she assumed Stephen's loss weighed more heavily on Xena's spirit than the warrior was willing to admit. Seeking joy required no justification. “When do we leave?”
“I shall tell Trevor.” Gabrielle leaned back and took measure of her partner. “Xena, I know it will be hard to lose Stephen.”
“Friends don't come easily to me.”
“I sometimes still miss Sam. To be fair to Alem, I had to accept that I would never be his little sis as I was Sam's . Alem and I have grown closer and I am grateful to have him in my life. It is true that sometimes when certain doors close others open.”
“So, I am to give Tavis a chance?”
“He is worthy. If not him there is Sentas, Hamish or any of the other Guardsmen whose respect you have earned. You still have Jared, Judias, Ayers and the Generals. And, you have me. You are not alone.”
Gabrielle returned from the town of Megara to the Royals' beach house. Alem and two other Guardsmen placed purchased foodstuffs in the kitchen while she sought out her Lord. She found Xena sitting on the bedroom porch steps tooling what would be a new saddlebag for Argo's tack.
Gabrielle sat down wordlessly beside her partner. Xena raised her gaze from her work. “Hello.” She wore an easy smile. “Did you get all that you needed?”
“Yes. We'll start dinner soon.”
“Your Guardsmen are distinguished peelers and cutters of vegetables.”
“Don't forget a quarter of them are fine medics,” said Gabrielle not missing a beat.
“That's always helpful given that they are also the most prolific swordsmen in the realm.”
Gabrielle leaned her head gently on Xena's shoulder. “And for a moment there I thought you were criticizing their assignments while in Megara .”
Xena lifted up her leatherwork. “Having many skills comes in handy. The fact that they can cook well enough not to poison themselves is a benefit to any military campaign.”
“We're lucky we don't have any of those on the horizon.”
Xena turned her attention back to her work. “I can't help but wonder what Ares is up to.”
“Xena, we are in Megara . Let's not speak of war.”
“You're right. What should we talk about, oh bard of mine?”
“I saw Bella.”
“I think rather our local tavern keeper sought you out.”
“She is having musicians tonight.”
“Dancing is it?”
“Actually, I suggested she ask you to sing a few songs.”
“Gabrielle…” said Xena not hiding her disapproval.
“Xena, you can't deny you were a success at Niko's.”
“If this is how you choose to reward me, I will cease my efforts to please you.”
Gabrielle raised herself up and turned to Xena. “My Lord…”
Gabrielle smiled gently. “I mentioned no songs to Bella.”
Xena continued embossing the leather. She paused and glanced toward her partner. “Do you want them?”
“Yes, always.” Gabrielle kissed Xena upon the cheek. “Privately.”
“You know you only have to ask.”
“I like it better when you surprise me.” Gabrielle placed a hand on Xena's arm. “Dancing?”
“I swear I must always be on guard for if not the Gods then a particular wench from Poteidaia is ceaseless in their shameless attempts to manipulate me… Make me grateful I've not been asked to sing in public so that a request for an evening in town is relatively measured as only a minor inconvenience.”
“It won't be the first time we've danced at Bella's.”
“Let your brothers dance with you,” said Xena dismissively. “It is another of their many skills.”
“You won't come?”
“I will. But, I reserve the right to do as I please once we arrive.”
“Thank you.” Gabrielle stood up. “Sentas just lost five dinars to Tavis,” she said impishly. Xena glowered, causing the younger woman to laugh. “I'll see to dinner.”
Bella's was a rowdy establishment with abundant drink, passable food, lively music and beautiful whores eager to please. Like Niko's the Royals presence was taken in stride. Patrons knew to keep weapons out of sight and to approach the Royals and Guardsmen with caution.
Bella was shameless in introducing her girls to the Guardsmen, offering the men a special house price for the whores comforting services. Though the men were not above indulging themselves, the Royals presence limited their behavior to harmless flirtations that would be consummated on another night.
The inn smelled of perspiration, stale mead and spiced meats. Voices ran loud and boisterous. Surrounded by her brothers, Gabrielle sat at a large table situated at one side of the tavern while Xena stood in the back discussing local issues with two village leaders.
Three musicians began playing. Tables in the front of the tavern were quickly moved to create a make shift dance floor. Male patrons chose their favorite girls and guided them to dance. If possible, the mood in the establishment grew even more high spirited with the sound of boots stomping in rhythm with the music.
“Gabrielle, are you going to let this music go to waste?” asked Sentas.
Gabrielle had hoped Xena would change her mind and ask her to dance. A glance over to her partner left her disappointed. “Sentas,” she said, “there are plenty of girls who would take your hand if offered.”
“I'm not one to spend coin to get my feet stepped on,” said the Captain.
“He is not one to spend coin on girls at all,” jibbed Hamish. “If they don't come to him freely they're not worth his time.”
“Even when they do, Sentas is far too fickle to give them a second look,” addded Brogan.
Sentas directed his comments solely to his sister. “Gabrielle, am I to be faulted for looking to the grace you possess as an example to aspire to though never may its equal be within my reach? I do not criticize our clumsy brothers mercilessly as they do me. I know not to hold them accountable for having not what the Gods gave us.”
“Ho! You are an arrogant pompous ass,” said Hamish.
Sentas stood up and offered his hand to Gabrielle. “Let my sister be my judge for she has the insight to understand me as you do not.”
Gabrielle met and held Sentas' gaze, seeing for the first time an open track to his soul that she realized had always been hidden behind his playful exuberance. He was presenting a truth to her that lay on a blade's edge: tilted one way and taste sweetness, tilted the other and taste bitter disappointment. Gabrielle saw no mirth or sport in Sentas and her heart went out to him. She doubted consent to a dance would ease his burden. By accepting his invitation she would at least not add to it. Gabrielle took Sentas' hand and allowed him to lead her to the dancing.
Alem laughed. “Hamish Sentas' entreaty has earned him Gabrielle's favor while your words have fallen like a dull thud.”
“Don't feel bad,” said Brogan. “I have been equally slighted.”
“Tavis, what say you?” asked Alem of the thoughtful Major. Receiving no response Alem called out. “Tavis, where have you gone?”
The Major snapped free of his thoughts and answered, “I'm not sure Sentas was talking about dancing.”
“Dancing was his proposition and unless my eyes are playing tricks on me dancing is what he and Gabrielle are doing.”
The Guardsmen fell silent as they watched the two dancers, keeping to their task of safeguarding Gabrielle's well-being.
After the end of a song Hamish stood, “I think Sentas has monopolized Gabrielle quite enough.”
“Sit down, Hamish,” said Tavis.
“Why should Sentas have all the fun?” complained the Guardsman.
“Because he asked Gabrielle to dance and unlike you he can dance,” said Brogan.
“Just watch,” said Hamish. I'll make you eat your words.”
Tavis got to his feet. “I gave you an order, soldier. Sit down!” said the Major humorlessly.
Hamish was taken aback. After a heavy moment of silence, he said squarely, “If you insist, Major.”
“I do,” affirmed Tavis.
Hamish returned to his seat as Tavis left the table. “Will he ever stop protecting Sentas' back?”
Brogan leaned forward so only Hamish could hear him. “Will I ever stop protecting yours?”
Startled, Hamish tracked Tavis' progress towards Sentas and Gabrielle. He smiled knowingly. “You don't say?”
Their dance was of a tempo that allowed for conversation. Sentas was an excellent dancer. And yet, he seemed distracted.
“Are you all right?” asked Gabrielle.
“Why wouldn't I be?” said Sentas with an emerging smile. “I'm here dancing with you while everyone else is made to stand back enviously and watch.”
“I'm your sister, Sentas. You could be pursuing a love of your own.”
“It is not that I am fickle. The Fates are at play and I know I cannot fight them.”
“You have a choice. How you respond when you reach a crossroad… It isn't as if your life is dictated by their weavings.”
“I know what is possible,” said Sentas with a hint of bitterness.
“If I share a grace with you and the insight to see it clearly, then I am right to tell you that you are wrong to believe that the yearning in your heart will not be answered.”
“I have waited years. What I have received in return is a fraternal love for which I am grateful.”
Gabrielle's insight confirmed she chose to speak forthrightly. “My Lord and I could not have been more separated by circumstances. When I found I loved her, like you, I could not imagine ever having my love returned. She had reason not to show her love. Your beloved may have his reasons as well.”
Obviously realizing that he had exposed the nature of his affection, Sentas stopped dancing. Gabrielle kept a steady gentle countenance, giving him time to recover his equilibrium.
“Did you tell your Lord that you loved her?” finally asked Sentas.
Sentas renewed their dance and then said, “I am not as brave as you.”
“My brother, I know you,” said Gabrielle. “No man has a braver heart.”
“For feats of risk. For battle. I keep thinking the day will come when I fall knowing death more intimately than I knew life.”
“Don't speak that way,” said Gabrielle, her upset nakedly apparent.
“I am not the first to go to war with a heavy heart.”
“I know. It frightens me to think you cross swords believing defeat will ultimately be a victory because your sorrows will be forgotten in Elysia.”
Sentas paused their dance. “Thinking differently… Is that what makes your Lord such a great fighter?”
“My Lord expects to know Tartarus and not Elysia. She fights for life because she believes what joy she may know can come only in this world. To cross to the other side is to know relentless torment.” Gabrielle stepped closer seeking her brother's comfort.
Sentas held her close. “I'm sorry…”
Gabrielle shook her head and leaned back. “No, you must hear me. As you know, my Lord's will is extraordinary. When she fights she does so imposing her will upon her enemy without taking unnecessary risks. Be like her, Sentas.”
“She has you Gabrielle and that makes all the difference in the world.”
Gabrielle saw Tavis approach and smiled.
Tavis tapped Sentas on the shoulder. “Will you yield, Captain?”
“If he doesn't, I will,” said Gabrielle lightheartedly, causing both officers to blush. Gabrielle laughed, “By the look of the two of you, you would think two men dancing together would be a cause for embarrassment.”
“Gabrielle, we are Guardsmen not peasants,” protested Tavis.
Gabrielle's smile disappeared, replaced by hurt. “I gather that is why my Lord and I found love in each other's arms.”
Tavis blanched. “Gabrielle… no, I didn't mean.”
“Yes you did,” said Sentas angrily. “Your father may be a merchant but I like our sister come from peasant stock and am proud of it.” The Captain stepped away.
Tavis watched Sentas maneuver through the crowd toward the tavern entrance. “I'm an idiot.”
“If you only were the words would not cut as deeply,” said Gabrielle.
“Gabrielle,” Tavis pleaded. “It's just...”
“I know. I tweaked your manhood. Tavis, being a man is not a matter of who you love but how you love.”
“I know there is more than one path to becoming a man. I did not join my father's trade for a reason. He wanted me to choose his path. If I had I would have been living a lie. I chose my own path.”
“But Tavis, are you truly living your path?” asked Gabrielle.
“Major,” said Xena, having come to stand by him. “Since you have chosen not to dance with your sister have you any objection if I do?”
Disconcerted Tavis answered, “No, my Liege. Of course not.” He stepped back.
“Thank you.” Xena took Gabrielle into her arms and led her into a dance. “What happened?”
“Long story,” sighed Gabrielle.
“He upset you,” tensely said Xena.
“Sentas is in love with Tavis.”
“He told you that?”
“He didn't have to.”
“It was my fault. I joked that he and Sentas could dance together and he didn't take it well.”
“They would not be the first two Guardsmen to love each other.”
“But the Guardsmen don't do so openly.”
“Military discipline, Gabrielle.”
“It's all right if they fight over a woman…”
“It's different and you know it,” said Xena well aware of the inconsistent attitudes regarding male love in Greek culture. The city populace was more tolerant of open expressions of sexual desire than those living in the rural provinces.
“I would hate to lose Sentas or Tavis,” said Gabrielle.
“If they love one another as you believe they do, they will be fine.”
“How do you know?”
Xena brought Gabrielle closer to her and whispered in her ear, “We did.”
Gabrielle surrendered to Xena's embrace. “My Lord, you are dancing with me.”
“Whether you know it or not, Gabrielle, you called to me and I can no longer deny you.”
The Royals welcomed the morning by taking a long walk on the beach. Xena felt an ominous sensation. She paused and scanned the area. Gabrielle waited by her side, sensing Xena's discomfort she looked about seeking a reason for her partner's anxiety. Xena glanced down to the sand and sighed heavily.
“Xena, what is it?” asked Gabrielle.
“It was here…” said Xena remorsefully. “It was here that Ares warned me about Athena. I didn't want to believe him though in my gut I knew he was telling the truth. I should have told you.”
“The only way you could have changed our destiny was for you to give up your soul to Ares. I will never allow that day to come.”
“You would stand up to the Gods,” said Xena smiling appreciatively.
“I would,” affirmed Gabrielle.
Xena's smile was replaced by a sober countenance. “Gabrielle, to do so would be to forfeit your life in the trying and still, you would fail.”
“We have had this discussion,” said Gabrielle unequivocally.
“We spoke of death. We are not speaking of death now.”
“Our souls are bound together. Don't you think I would feel it if you were to give up your soul to Ares? No, Xena. The loss of a soul… it is one and the same as death.”
Xena thought back to Gabrielle's dilemma in Athens. Though Gabrielle did not give up her soul, her grief caused her to suppress her bond to Xena. Having felt the awful breach in their union Xena knew better than to argue. “Let's walk.”
The Royals rested within the stone formations of the cove finding shelter from the cool sea winds. Gabrielle lay against Xena, gently in the warrior's embrace.
“Warm enough?” asked Xena.
“This is Elysia,” said Gabrielle, tightening her hold.
Xena chuckled. “Good to hear.”
Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's heart. “I've been meaning to talk to you… I'm not sure how to begin.”
“Is there something wrong?”
“No, it's just not the easiest subject.”
“We are in Megara,” said Xena, calling forth the unique power their retreat had against their greatest harbored fears.
“Yes, we are…” echoed Gabrielle grasping for the constant promise of resolution Megara offered. “I went by to see Lisia before we left. She is a happy baby. It made me think that she and little girls and boys like her are the future of Greece. I then wondered about Greece after we are no longer its leaders. Who would succeed us? Would it be a young Prince of the Centaurs?”
Xena did not immediately reply. When she spoke she did so quietly. “No, Gabrielle. I don't want Solan to have to live by the sword; to worry about who is a true friend versus a wolf in sheep's clothing.”
“But, as a Prince of the Centaurs won't he follow Kaliepus as their leader?”
“If that is what he wants. Kaliepus has let Solan know that his life is his own.”
“Can't you give him a similar choice?”
Xena looked down to Gabrielle, her voice strained. “Do you think me so wrong?”
“No, love,” said Gabrielle earnestly. “I just want to understand. History has endless stories of rulers who did all they could to ensure their children inherited their throne.”
“And many died or their children died in the trying,” said Xena firmly. “Solan has an inheritance. I have bequeathed an estate to him that will make him a moderately wealthy man. Kaliepus keeps the deed.”
“I didn't know. When…”
“I decided during my last visit.” Xena smiled. “Our hunting trip… he was eager to prove himself to me. Kaleipus believes that Solan senses that I am more to him than a friend. He is bright and honest and…” Xena's voice trembled. She looked away to the distant horizon.
“I'm sorry,” gently said Gabrielle.
“Don't be. I am proud of my son.” Xena swallowed, her emotion owning her. “It's odd to say the words aloud.”
“We don't speak of Solan often. I'm afraid you hurt when we do.”
“Sometimes. I welcome the chance. For too many years he was a lonely secret to keep.”
Gabrielle rested her ear over Xena's heart and listened to the strong beat that she knew one day, like her own, would be no more. With Solan excluded from succession to the throne Gabrielle's thoughts dwelled upon a recently considered alternative. She sat up. “Xena, if Solan is not to have Greece, I was thinking of Lisia.”
“Lisia? Gabrielle, she is only a babe,” said Xena, not hiding her surprise.
“Jared could be her Regent. And, of course, Stephen and Tess would have to consent.”
“We will make Lisia a target.”
“Whomever we name will be a target. Xena, the day for succession can come at any moment. You know I will not survive you long and I know you…” Xena placed her fingertips over Gabrielle's lips, gently silencing her, then she dropped her hand and looked down.
“Xena?” Gabrielle inquired after a few moments.
“If you remember, I told you about Solan because I didn't want you to feel compelled to bear a child, to give me an heir.”
“I gave you my answer.”
“Gabrielle, didn't Athens prove that your feelings have changed?”
“No, love. I was not seeking a child. I believed I lost you… you who are the only one to complete me. Athens…” Gabrielle faltered.
“Gabrielle…” Xena placed a comforting hand on Gabrielle's cheek.
To which Gabrielle turned her head and kissed Xena's palm. “Xena, hear me,” said Gabrielle. “Just say the word and I will invite Solan into my life. He will be no less than my own son. If Solan remains with Kaliepus I will travel with you when you visit him and I will celebrate every moment the two of you share together. I want no other heir.”
“Lisia?” probed Xena.
“She is my dearest brother's child. Naming her now will quiet speculation. In fact we are giving rule to Jared. We give him time to strengthen his relationship with our allies. No matter how or when, transition should go smoothly causing Rome and Persia to think twice about war with Greece.”
“And what of Stephen?”
“For now he'll complement Jared. He will have time to mature as a leader and build support among the Lords. Like Jared, he already has the respect of the military.”
“You've thought this all out,” said Xena appreciatively.
“We don't have to decide today. But, if Lisia is to be the next Queen of Greece we have to make sure she has a proper education.”
“Which? That of an innkeeper's or a sheep herder's daughter.”
“I haven't forgotten the lessons I had to learn. There were days you were impatient with me.”
“Not I. If anything I was frustrated with how little credit you gave yourself. You grew into your role with unimaginable grace.”
“You don't know how important it was for me not to disappoint you.”
“I know. I tried to give you the best mentors so you could learn outside of my line of sight.”
“Is that why… But, you have been my best teacher.”
“After you were confident in your basic skill and knowledge.”
“That will change from this day forward. You shall now always be my first teacher.”
Xena laughed lightly. “Love, what have you left to learn that I can teach you?”
“More than I realize sometimes,” humbly said Gabrielle.
“Gabrielle, we see the world differently and that is a good thing. I don't want you to change. I want you to continue to trust your heart… even if at times you are disappointed. Don't ever forget how you changed my life. I wanted to become a ruler you could respect. And then came the day when I wanted to be a woman you could love.” Xena met and held Gabrielle's gaze with piercing intensity. “There were times I ached for you. I didn't understand the power of what I felt, what I feel… not until the nature of our bond made itself known. There are times I am desperate for you.”
Speechless, feeling a like surge of desperation for their intimate union, Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed her partner.
Xena stood on the balcony of the Royal suite. It was a dark still night very much in keeping with Xena's mood. She and Gabrielle had returned from Megara nearly a fortnight before. Gabrielle was scheduled to leave Corinth in the morning to travel to adjacent provinces making her customary tour of villages to meet with local healers and to provide medicinal assistance. It would be their first separation since they returned to Corinth from Gabrielle's homestead in the Centaur's nation.
“I don't have to go.” Gabrielle's voice cut through Xena's thoughts.
The warrior turned to her partner. “It wouldn't do me any good to pretend that I won't miss you,” she said.
“I could send Dalius,” offered Gabrielle.
“At his age he's come to hate traveling.”
“He'll forgive me.”
“Yes, but he won't forgive me.” Xena glanced down for a moment. “I have no right to complain. All I've done since we returned from Megara is work with Targon to decipher the amulet's powers. It's my doing that we've hardly seen each other.”
“You've held me every night as I've fallen asleep,” said Gabrielle lovingly. Seeing her partner's unmitigated regret Gabrielle emphasized, “Xena, the amulet is important.”
“You are important,” responded the warrior vehemently. “The amulet is just a riddle to solve.”
“And you're enjoying the challenge,” responded Gabrielle calmly. “Don't think I haven't noticed.”
“The translations are difficult,” said Xena airing her frustration. “One word can have two or more meanings. Targon and I are working from the singular words trying to find the right combination to make sensible phrases. All I've been able to do is confirm what Lao Ma told us. The amulet is believed to be dangerous. Whether it is or not I may never know.”
“Have you lost hope of learning its secrets?” asked Gabrielle. She shifted her gaze to the amulet's box which had been moved to their desk.
“Remember when we spoke of experiments?” said Xena walking to stand beside Gabrielle.
“Yes,” said Gabrielle looking up to her partner.
“That may be the only way to learn the power of the amulet. I'll bury it where no one will find it before I take that kind of chance.”
Gabrielle embraced Xena, needing the sense of security the warrior's strength offered in an uncertain world. “What of tomorrow, my Lord?”
“Go. If I haven't figured out the confounding stone by the time you return I'll set it aside and devote myself to what truly merits my attention.”
Xena pull apart from Gabrielle and met her gaze. She spoke with an open heart. “No. You.”
“What if I don't want to leave Corinth? What if I wanted to send Dalius in my place all along?”
Xena smiled. “Then stay and I will set aside my thoughts of the amulet today.”
“You don't have to choose,” said Gabrielle. “You can have both.”
Xena understood herself well enough to know that the mystery of the amulet had the power to dominate her thoughts unceasingly. “I could. I don't want to.”
Gabrielle lay her head against Xena's chest and sighed. “I should go. I'm expected.”
“Will you be mine tonight?” asked Xena.
Gabrielle's answer was a kiss that grew in fervor sweeping both she and Xena into a world of their own making. Xena carried Gabrielle into the bedroom where their intimate evening would begin early.
Traveling through Sicyon Gabrielle and her Guardsmen had commandeered within the local inn two large tables as they partook in a mid-day meal. Being in Sicyon brought forth the bittersweet memory of meeting Clare, the whore who had once serviced Xena, not knowing she lay with Greece's Sovereign. By evening's end Clare had revealed to Gabrielle the fact that Xena had not broken her vow of fidelity after a particularly consuming wave of her battlelust. Gabrielle's Lord's commitment had been proven so true that it arrested the warrior's intense carnal nature. Prior to learning the truth Gabrielle had reconciled herself to her inability to mitigate her Lord's darkest passions. The truth altered Gabrielle's perceptions, affirming her ability to indeed influence Xena. The truth also affirmed Gabrielle's responsibility to safeguard Xena especially, when her Lord was most vulnerable.
“Gabrielle,” said Hamish, interrupting his sister's private musings. “Isn't it true General Kasen has sailed from Patra to Rhodes on his sail boat?”
“He has,” confirmed Gabrielle.
“Yes, but he stayed near the shore and moored in Cythera, Melos and Thera on the way,” said Sentas.
“You are not easily impressed, are you?” said Hamish to his fellow Guardsman.
“No, I'm not,” replied Sentas.
“This comes from a man who gets sick at sea.” Hamish's comment earned him a slap in the arm from Sentas.
“Ho! It's true,” said Brogan.
“Don't be too hard on Sentas. The sea and I don't get on well either,” said Gabrielle. “I prefer walking on the shore and admiring its beauty and power from a distance.”
Sitting beside Gabrielle was Alem. “We are lucky you are much more capable of managing the beauty and power of Corinth,” he said in a whisper, obviously alluding to the Conqueror.
Gabrielle smiled and responded in an equal whisper, “She is both and more.”
“As are you,” said the Guardsman appreciatively.
Gabrielle placed her hand affectionately over Alem's.
“What is this!” called Sentas from across the table. “Gabrielle, what secrets do you keep with my boorish brother?”
“Trust me, Sentas. What was said is no secret,” said Alem.
“Oh, no. I rather watch you agitate in your chair.”
“Oh…Gods!” Gabrielle's anguished cry stopped all conversation. All the men turned to their sister who was hunched over in pain.
“Gabrielle… what is it?” asked Alem alarmed.
“No…” said Gabrielle in an excruciating whisper.
Alem took Gabrielle into his arms. “Innkeeper!” he shouted. “We need a room for the Queen.”
The innkeeper came forward fearfully. “Tis wasn't the food. You all ate the same thing.”
“Stupid man, shut-up and take us to a free room,” seethed Alem.
“To Hades with him,” said Sentas. “Follow me.” The Guardsman took to the stairs. Alem kept in step, cradling Gabrielle protectively.
“The second door to the left,” called out the innkeeper.
Trevor sent Hamish for Alem's medical kit. He ordered all the remaining Guardsmen to establish a safe perimeter. He then scaled the stairs in twos pausing at the room's threshold. Alem had rested Gabrielle on the right side of the double bed. Sentas stood at the opposite side of the bed in watch. “Alem?” said Trevor with trepidation.
“Major, I don't know. She was fine just a moment ago.”
“Gabrielle…” Trevor gently called to her as he stepped forward.
“She can't hear you. She's lost consciousness,” said Alem. “Major, I can't help her unless I know what I'm dealing with. Right now the best we can do is keep her still and warm.”
“She will wake?” asked Trevor in a trembling voice.
“By the Gods, she must,” said Sentas with uncensored emotion.
Hamish entered the room. “I have the medical kit,” he said breathlessly. He looked to the three men. “What?” His gaze traveled to Gabrielle. She was pale, her breathing shallow. He gave voice to the shared fear, “There must be something that can be done.”
“Put the kit on the table,” said Trevor.
Hamish did as he was told. After an interminable silence he turned to Trevor. “Major, I volunteer to ride to Corinth. The Conqueror needs to be told and Dalius is the best healer in the land.”
“The Conqueror is the best healer in the land,” corrected Sentas.
“More reason to bring her here,” said Hamish.
“Go, and take Brogan,” commanded Trevor. “Your horses are well matched and damn you both to Tartarus if you don't get the Conqueror back here in time…”
“By your command.” Hamish saluted by placing his fist over his heart and left the room running.
* * *
Alem sat at Gabrielle's bedside as day turned into night and night into day. For another four days Gabrielle slipped in and out of an incoherent consciousness. Alem did all he could to get Gabrielle to drink water and broth.
Trevor entered the room. He knew better than to ask if there had been a change in Gabrielle's condition.
Alem stood up from his chair and walked to the window. “What is taking so long? Corinth is less than two days ride. Hamish and Brogan would have only stopped to rest their horses.”
“The Conqueror may have left Corinth,” said Trevor.
“It isn't her way to leave Corinth when Gabrielle is traveling.”
“I know. But, I'm running out of explanations. Nothing makes sense.”
Gabrielle stirred. Alem knelt beside her. He took hold of a cold compress from a bowl that rested on a nearby table and wiped her brow. “Hey…”
Gabrielle opened her eyes. “Alem…”
“Trevor sent for her.”
“No… you don't understand.” Gabrielle struggled to speak.
Trevor stood behind Alem. He bent down to Gabrielle. “Gabrielle, what is it?”
Gabrielle looked up to the Major. Her eyes welled with tears. “My Lord is dead.”
* * *
Night had fallen. Alem entered the inn's main dining room. A number of Guardsmen congregated around the fireplace.
“She can't know,” said young Mason.
“She does know,” responded Sentas angrily.
“None of us who have known our sister and the Conqueror for any length of time would question their ability to sense the well-being of the other,” said Alem as he drew closer to his brothers.
“How is she?” asked Trevor.
“Asleep. Joél keeps watch over her.”
“When might Gabrielle be well enough to travel?”
“That is for her to decide. What ails Gabrielle is more heartbreak than anything else. There is no draught to ease her hurt.”
“If there was, I'd take it myself!” said Sentas as he finished his mug of mead.
“Sentas, no more drink for you,” commanded Trevor.
Sentas stood up angrily.
“Think again, Guardsman,” said Trevor coolly in response to the physical challenge.
Sentas turned abruptly, knocking down the bench he was sitting on. He walked toward an inn window. There he kept his gaze upon the quiet street outside.
Trevor approached and stood beside him. “Sentas, I need you,” he said is a low voice. “Don't disappoint me.”
“I can't help but think…” said Sentas glancing briefly at the Major before turning his attention back to the quiet town street.
“There is a good chance Tavis was with the Conqueror when she died.” The Captain's voice fell to a mere whisper. “If she was killed by an assassin, he too might have been hurt.”
“There are other ways to die.”
“An accident?” Sentas turned fully toward Trevor. “We're talking about the Conqueror. She doesn't have accidents.”
“No, she doesn't,” said Trevor plainly. “But, think. What chance does an assassin have in close combat? The Conqueror isn't one to be surprised. And from a distance? The woman catches arrows, for the Gods sake. I think she was harmed by poison or the like.” Trevor now turned his sight briefly out to the night. “Man, I hope you're right that Tavis was with Xena when she died. He would have been a comfort to her.” He placed his hand on his brother's shoulder. “No Sentas, I wager that Tavis has not fallen.”
Chagrin, Sentas bowed his head. “I'm sorry, Trevor. I'm not much of a Guardsman to you, tonight.”
“Don't you think I know what Tavis means to you?” Sentas jerked his head up. He steeled, shielding all emotion from Trevor. His effort was too late to make an impression upon the Major. “Tavis may not know,” said Trevor. He glanced over his shoulder. “Nor your brothers. But, I have seen your devotion to him and understand it for what it is – a love that is deeper than a brother's affection or the closest of friendships. Sentas, you have my word, your truth stays with me. And if I'm wrong of Tavis' well-being and we must morn him, I will be here for you.”
The sound of galloping horses caused the two men to look out the window. “How many do you see?” asked Trevor to the sharp eyed Sentas.
“Two… Three,” counted Sentas. “I can't make them out yet.”
The other Guardsmen huddled behind them. As the horsemen reached the tavern Alem declared in relief, “It's about time and look who they brought with them.” Hamish and Brogan were accompanied by Tavis.
Trevor slapped Sentas on the back and went to the door. He opened it and waited for the men to enter. Tavis led the three.
“What happened to the Conqueror?” asked Trevor.
“How do you…” said Tavis surprised.
“Gabrielle,” responded Trevor impatiently.
“Where is Gabrielle? I need to speak to her.”
“Not until you tell me how the Conqueror died!” insisted Trevor, speaking for not only himself but his brothers.
“Died? She's not dead,” said Tavis, nonplussed.
“When did you last see her?” asked Trevor.
“When we left Corinth.”
Trevor turned to Tavis' escort. “Hamish. Brogan. Did you see her?”
“Yes, we both did,” answered Hamish as bewildered as the others.
“Hamish and Brogan told me Gabrielle grew deathly ill seven days ago,” said Tavis. “I believe I know why. Now, take me to her. She must be told.”
“This way. The rest of you stay here,” said Trevor, leading Tavis up the inn stairs.
A knock on Gabrielle's door was followed by its opening. Trevor and Tavis entered. Tavis saw Gabrielle sitting up in her bed. She looked weak but far better than Hamish had described her. He went immediately to her, sitting at her bedside. “Gabrielle, the Conqueror lives.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “No, Tavis. I felt her leave me.”
“May I speak to you privately?” Hearing the request Joél exited the room. Trevor remained in wait for Gabrielle's order.
“Trevor can hear anything you have to say,” said Gabrielle glancing up to the Guardsman in question. Joél closed the door.
Tavis had mirrored Gabrielle's action then returned his attention to her. “Jared calls you home to Corinth.”
“Jared. If my Lord is well…”
“The Conqueror has changed.”
“How?” asked Gabrielle. Seeing Tavis hesitate she demanded, “Damn it, Tavis, how has she changed.”
“You felt it. Gabrielle, the Conqueror has lost her soul.”
“What do you mean she has lost her soul?”
“The amulet Lao Ma sent to the Conqueror. It was as dangerous as Lao Ma feared. There was an accident and the Conqueror touched it. She was thrown to the floor and lost consciousness. When she woke she was no longer the woman you know… her darkest tendencies now rule her. She is harsh and violent in a way I have never seen her before.”
“Were you with her when she touched the amulet?”
“No, she was in your suite with Targon.”
“What happened to the amulet?”
“There is nothing left of it. It shattered into pieces and then the pieces crumbled into dust.”
Gabrielle looked thoughtfully down to her joining ring. She found it impossible to argue with Tavis. What she had felt was the severing of her soul from Xena's. The feeling was unlike past experiences when Xena neared death or closed her heart to Gabrielle. Gabrielle now understood that the pitiless pain came not from a surrender or a conscious denial. It was the pain of an involuntary violation that had for a breath of time been contested. Gabrielle looked up to Tavis. “What of Jared?”
“He has ordered all the Guardsmen to stand at ready. And, he has recalled Stephen from his estate. Only the Queen has the authority to order an appropriate response.”
“You mean Jared expects me to challenge my Lord.”
“Gabrielle, you must judge for yourself.”
“Does my Lord know you came to me?”
“Yes, but not for the reason she thinks. Jared convinced her that she needed you in Corinth in order to ensure that the Conqueror's new policies were seen as coming from both she and the Queen.”
“What new policies?”
“She wishes to mobilize the armies to begin a campaign to expand the realm.”
“She is declaring war?” asked Gabrielle incredulously.
“Yes. Her first target is Persia.”
Gabrielle's gaze shifted to Trevor. “We leave for Corinth in the morning.”
“Are you strong enough?” asked Trevor.
“I will ride from Sicyon come daybreak even if it means that you and Alem must ride at each side of me and hold me up.”
Trevor saluted her. “By your command, your Majesty.” He then left the room.
Tavis stood up. “I'm sorry.”
Gabrielle took his hand. “Tell the others. Hold nothing back. They must understand what we are facing.”
“Tavis, I expect you to uphold your private vow to me.”
“How can I?” wretchedly said Tavis.
Gabrielle tightened her hold of the Major's hand. “Because I am your Queen. Your place is with my Lord. You must safeguard her.”
“Even from you?”
“Your vow requires you to exercise your free will and act according to what you believe is best for my Lord.”
“And if I believe it is best that she not live as a soulless husk?” he asked defiantly.
Gabrielle's determined expression remained steadfast. “You have your orders, Major.”
Obviously frustrated, Tavis saluted Gabrielle and walked toward the open door. He paused at its threshold. He glanced back to his Queen. “Your Majesty, did Stephen serve under the same vow?”
“Yes, and there were times like today that he, like you, wished me to release him from it.”
“And you never did.”
“I understand him now better than I ever have before.”
“Yours can be a lonely station.”
“And there are Guardsmen who envy me. It is a terrible joke,” said Tavis. He held to Gabrielle's gaze for a moment then stepped out and closed the door behind him.
* * *
After a day's travel, the Queen's Guard set up camp. The men were subdued. The enormity of their mission weighed heavily on them.
Tavis sat alone, his back against a large boulder. Sentas approached. He bent down to one knee before the Major and observed, “It's a quiet camp.”
“Why would you expect differently?” said Tavis dully.
“Tavis, do you know what Gabrielle is going to do?”
“No,” he said, feeling isolated from his brothers as he had never had before.
Sentas continued with uncharacteristic uneasiness, “If we must choose between Gabrielle and the Conqueror…”
“Shut up, Sentas,” said Tavis sharply.
“What?” said Sentas taken aback. A bolt of his spirit flashed upon his tongue. “Do you expect us to march into Corinth blindly?”
“I've told you all I know. What more do you want from me?”
“Talk to me, Tavis,” beseeched the Captain. “There isn't a man in this camp whose loyalties aren't torn.”
“The Queen's Guard is sworn to Gabrielle,” said Tavis unequivocally.
“And who are you sworn to?” challenged Sentas, surely feeling the divide between him and his closest friend.
“I am held to the oath demanded of me when I accepted my commission.” Tavis' spoke in a manner that clearly conveyed his conviction.
“And what is the oath?”
“What do you think?” said Tavis evasively. Sentas would not be privy to the Major's oath to Gabrielle.
“If she has lost her soul she is no longer the Conqueror,” said Sentas as he placed a hand on the Major's shoulder. “Tavis, you must see that your oath to the Conqueror...”
Tavis slapped Sentas' hand aside. “Don't tell me what I must see or what I must do. Leave me alone.”
Sentas stood up. “Don't make it so that I face you in combat.”
“Captain, you are dismissed,” said Tavis, as he felt the rendering of Sentas' steadfast support. He knew it to be a senseless loss.
Sentas' grief stricken gaze held to Tavis' cold eyes. “By your command, Major.”
Entering Corinth with her Guard Gabrielle found the city streets to be remarkably dearth of activity. Though greeted by a few citizens, theirs was a wary gesture, as if uncertain of its reception. Entering the palace courtyard, Gabrielle dismounted, releasing Spirit's reins as Voger approached from the stables. From the palace entrance she spied Jared jogging toward her.
She waited for the General to reach her. “Where is she?” asked Gabrielle in a restrained voice.
“We hold her in our strongest prison cell,” answered Jared.
“Prison? What happened?”
“I saw an opportunity and took it. She swears she'll see me crucified for it but I figured sooner or later she'd have me up on a cross so I've lost nothing by it,” said Jared unapologetically.
“I will see her now.” Gabrielle stepped to Jared's side.
The General took hold of Gabrielle's arm. “No, lass.”
“Jared, let me go!” said Gabrielle angrily.
Undeterred, Jared tightened his grip. “We must speak first. There are things you need to know.”
“We had to stop her from killing Stephen.”
“With her bare hands and a smile on her face. She was so intent on killing him that she did not see the dart I held that took her down.”
“You didn't hurt her.”
“I cat nap is all she suffered.”
“Is Stephen all right?”
“A broken arm. Dalius said it will mend.”
“By the Gods…” Gabrielle reconsidered her intentions and called to Alem, “Please find Stephen and have him join me in my suite.” Her next command was directed to Jared as she began to walk across the courtyard to the palace. “Tell me everything.”
“You know just about as much as I do. That blasted amulet was cursed,” said Jared. He continued to brief Gabrielle as the two walked to the Royal suite.
* * *
Stephen entered the Royal Suite unannounced. His right arm hung on a sling. Gabrielle and Jared stood in front of the fireplace.
Seeing the former Major Gabrielle went to him. She paused keeping a two pace distance. “I'm sorry.”
Stephen extended his good arm. Gabrielle entered a careful embrace. “I'm glad you're back,” he said.
“Tell me what happened.”
Stephen shifted his gaze to the General. “Jared must have told you. Targon was with Xena when she touched the amulet.”
“Tell me what happened between you and Xena.” Gabrielle could see Stephen's reluctance. She glanced over her shoulder to the General. “Jared, will you excuse us.”
Jared looked from Gabrielle to Stephen and then back to his ward. He did not hide his hurt well. Without a word he exited the chamber.
Hearing the door closed Gabrielle returned her focus upon her dearest brother. “Stephen, I must know.”
“I came to Corinth under the pretense of making arrangements for the sale of my barley crop. I attended Court. There I could see, as Jared had warned me that Xena was not herself. As court dispersed, we spoke privately. She deflected all my concerns. In turn she said things about Tess.” He released Gabrielle and self-consciously turned away from her. “I don't think she was lying.”
“Tess is true to you,” assured Gabrielle.
“That wasn't it.” Stephen faced his sister. “Xena said Tess was jealous of her. That Tess didn't deserve me; that she was beneath me and knew it. Xena said that Tess bore Lisia to use her to keep me, wanting a husband who was more house pet than warrior.”
Gabrielle responded without hesitation. “Tess loves you and I think that it is difficult for her knowing that you once loved Xena and that to this day you are sworn to serve her, placing your life in danger for her sake.”
“Do you believe Tess is beneath me?”
“As much as I am to you… or to my Lord.”
“Have I allowed myself to become a house pet?”
“Stephen, no one who loves another wants to see them in danger. You cannot blame Tess for wanting you away from the battlefield.” Gabrielle gestured toward his injured arm. “Why did Xena hurt you?”
“I took offence and raised my hand against her. If Jared hadn't stepped forward, I would be waiting for Hades to decide my fate.” Stephen took a steadying breath. “Gabrielle, Xena has always had the capacity to be cruel. Her cruelty has always been founded upon the truth. In all the years I've known her, she has had no need to lie or weave deceptive half-truths to conquer. She has used the bitter truth to her advantage. ”
“Her truth, Stephen. Don't forget that.”
“I don't think there is a mortal who hasn't had dark thoughts; who hasn't felt jealously or envy, resentment or hatred. Those emotions twist and turn the truth to a point where it loses it veraciousness. Tess questioned Xena regarding her place in your life. Xena felt her honor challenged. She has never forgotten the insult.”
“When did this happen?” asked Stephen clearly taken unawares.
“Your wedding day,” said Gabrielle deciding that now was not the time to keep to her own counsel. “Stephen, I believe there is another reason for the schism between Xena and Tess. Tess gave you Lisia. There can never be any children from my union with Xena. I know that she regrets not being able to give me a child. You see, the truth isn't pure. What Xena said came from her anger and her regret.”
“Then we are still facing the Xena we know.”
“I have to hope that she has indeed not lost her soul and is still at her essence my Lord,” said Gabrielle resolutely. “Otherwise, there is little that we can do to bring her back from her darkness.”
“What will you do?”
“I must speak to Targon. And then, I don't know. Jared doesn't want me to go to Xena until we can cure her. He is afraid for me.”
“He is right to be,” said Stephen forcefully.
Soon after Stephen left Gabrielle, Targon entered the Royal suite. “Your Majesty,” he said with unaccustomed reserve.
Gabrielle approached the trusted aid. “Targon, how are you?” she asked.
“I have known better days,” said the Administrator. “You asked to see me.”
“Yes. I'm told you were with my Lord when she touched the amulet.”
“My Lord had been forewarned that the amulet might be dangerous. What caused her to touch it?”
“As I told General Jared, it was unintended.”
“Targon, we both know that my Lord is not apt to make that kind of error.”
“The Conqueror has a long standing relationship with the centaur Kaleipus, has she not?”
“Yes,” said Gabrielle, confused by the seemingly change in subject.
“I have never met the centaur. You have.”
“He must be an honorable creature to have earned the Conqueror's respect. Would you say they are friends?”
Gabrielle was aware of the prejudices many mortals hold against centaurs, thinking them beasts. Targon had never struck her as a biased man. Now she wondered if she misjudged him. “Yes, I would,” she answered him, adding, “Kaleipus is also my friend.”
“Kaleipus' family… he has an adopted son – Solan. Did the Conqueror know the boy?”
“Solan is considered a Prince of the Centaurs. Both my Lord and I have enjoyed his company.” Mention of Solan and Targon's anxious demeanor caused Gabrielle an uncertain fear. “Targon, why are you asking me these things?”
“I did not tell the General or Lord Stephen. I have told no one,” distractedly said Targon.
“What? What secret are you keeping?”
“It is true the Conqueror touched the amulet by accident. She had just read a message from Kaleipus. Your Majesty, in all the years I have known the Conqueror I have never seen her as I did on that day. Not even the loss of you… this was more… I haven't the words to adequately describe her anguish.”
“Do you know what the message said?”
Targon reached into his satchel and retrieved a scroll. Gabrielle took the scroll when offered, opened it and began to read. “Oh no… by the Gods, no.” She raised a trembling hand to her mouth.
“He must have been a fine boy… to have loved the Conqueror,” compassionately said Targon. “Did the Conqueror love the boy?”
Gabrielle sat down at her desk. “Yes, Targon, she did,” said Gabrielle, her fingertips grazing the parchment where the boy's name appeared.
“The Conqueror was sitting at this very desk when I gave her the scroll. She stood up abruptly upon reading the news of Solon's illness and death. By her hands she flung all that was on the desk, including the box holding the amulet, aside. The box opened and the amulet flew up in the air. It seemed that it leaped by its own accord into the Conqueror's hand. At that moment…she has no love in her now.”
Gabrielle's head snapped up. “I don't believe that,” she said emphatically.
“Your Majesty, her sorrow disappeared before my eyes, like a tide taking the best of her to the sea floor.”
“I hope you're right because that means that there is still the possibility of the tide bringing her back.”
“If the amulet had the power of the tide that might have been true. But, it was destroyed in the Conqueror's own hand.”
“Then there is still the possibility of diving down to the depths and retrieving my Lord's love.”
“Lord Stephen failed. So too the General.”
“But, you will still try?”
“Yes. First I must learn as much about the amulet as I can. Had my Lord come any closer to an answer to its power?”
“She continued to struggle with translating the Coptic text to Greek. She sent an inquiry to Udell two days before the accident. She sought his guidance regarding a particular phrase.”
“Where are my Lord's notes?”
“I placed them in your scroll cabinet.”
“Please send a message to Udell. I need to know what my Lord asked him.”
“I know her question.”
“Good. It's a place to start.”
“Your Majesty, I sent a messenger to Udell after the General imprisoned the Conqueror. I directed him to commission as many scholars as he could to assist him.”
“Thank you, Targon. Let's get to work.”
“Your Majesty, please don't take any unnecessary risks. We… Greece cannot afford to lose you as well as the Conqueror.”
“Targon, I will do whatever I must to help my Lord. That is what is necessary. If it is selfish of me then I shall answer to Hades for it.”
It was late in the evening. Gabrielle had dismissed Targon and continued to study Xena's notations and various attempts to translate the amulet's text. A swirl of wind and a bright light caused her to raise her gaze from her reading to Athena, who now stood before her. Gabrielle offered the Goddess no greeting.
“You do not welcome me, do you, Gabrielle?” asked the Goddess directly.
Gabrielle leaned back in her chair. “Athena, you are Athens to me. The memories…” Gabrielle faltered as a wash of remorse owned her.
“It is a time best forgotten.”
“I will never forget Athens,” said Gabrielle sorrowfully. “I have tried to make my peace with what the city means to me.”
“There is one thing that Athens offers you that Corinth cannot - the Athenian archives. As we speak Udell is reading a scroll with the legend of the amulet.”
“Why come to me, if he has found the text without your assistance?”
“Because I owe you a debt. The least I can do is counsel you not to let your emotions dictate your actions.”
“I denied my deepest feelings in Athens and will live with the consequences of my denial for the rest of my life.”
“That you are alive to do so is because you did set aside your self-interest. Gabrielle, can you honestly say that you have not known happiness these past moons?” Gabrielle got to her feet and walked toward the balcony. Receiving no answer, Athena observed, “I don't have to be Aphrodite to know that the love you share with Xena comes with a price.”
Gabrielle turned to the Goddess. “Will I curse the Fates for what the scroll tells me?”
“The text is vague and could be interpreted in many ways. That is why you must exercise reason above all else.”
“Can Xena's soul be saved?”
“It speaks of a sacrifice of innocence.”
“Then I cannot help her. There is no innocence in me.”
“You are wrong. You are my sister's Chosen. There must still be a place in your heart that has remained pure. In that purity innocence waits to express itself.”
“You speak of love.”
“Contrary to what you may think, it was my affection for the people of Athens and not a desire to perpetuate the city's tribute that first brought me to you. I wanted to avoid the carnage that would have gone hand-in-hand with a civil war.”
“Maybe you didn't want conflict, but Ares did.”
“My brother's lust for war should not be confused with love. He may have motivated Kartis and he does at times play Caesar like a puppet, but both Kartis and Caesar acted freely, just as you did.”
“Having the power to do so, I will exercise my free will again.”
“Freedom imprudently exercised is wasted.”
“With freedom comes responsibility. I will not demur…”
“Gabrielle,” interrupted Athena. “You should not be so determined that you lose sight of your purpose.”
“I shall free Xena's soul from the curse. That is my purpose!” said Gabrielle adamantly.
“I thought your goal would be to ensure your life with Xena. What kind of life will your Lord have without you? You must safeguard your own soul… and your life.”
Gabrielle could not argue with Athena. “I will heed your counsel.”
“Gabrielle, if I had the power to return Xena's soul to her I would. The means is beyond my power,” said the Goddess genuinely.
“Thank you, Athena,” said Gabrielle.
“Don't thank me. I was wrong to think I could influence you. As much as I would wish otherwise, you are my sister's Chosen, not mine.”
Gabrielle was surprised by the admission. She could not think of a suitable response.
“Be safe, Gabrielle,” said Athena. She then disappeared into the ether.
* * *
Two days later Targon and Udell entered the Royal suite. Gabrielle rose from her chair near the fireplace. The Administrator addressed his Queen dourly, “Your Majesty, we have identified a scroll we believe relates to the amulet.”
“Targon, tell me I have reason to hope.”
“To break the curse there must be an act of love,” he said.
“How so?” asked Gabrielle anticipating the mention of a sacrifice.
Targon turned to Udell. The philosopher said, “We are uncertain. Having debated the question ourselves we come to no one conclusion.”
“May I see the scroll?”
“Of course.” Udell walked to Gabrielle's desk and opened the scroll upon it. Gabrielle and Targon stood on each side of him. Udell pointed to a section of the text. “Here, your Majesty.”
Gabrielle read aloud.
By the amulet
Dark souls are moved further into the night
Redemption comes in sympathy
With the sacrifice of a trusting innocence
Charged to scale a distorted truth
The test of wills
Between intimate combatants
Concludes by an act of love
Whereby failure beckons death
Gabrielle raised her gaze to the Administrator. “Targon, what do you make of this?”
“Your Majesty, I am no good with riddles.”
Gabrielle was confused by Targon's reluctance to assist her. She gently challenged him, “I know for a fact that you are very good with riddles.”
“The sacrifice seems the key,” offered Udell. “It must be accomplished as an act of love.”
“One could interpret the text in that way,” responded Targon doubtingly.
“You don't,” said Gabrielle. “Why?”
“One statement is not necessarily linked to the other.”
“There is redemption…”
“For whom, your Majesty? It is not certain that the dark soul is redeemed.”
Gabrielle silently reread the excerpt.
Targon continued, “Your Majesty, the scroll speaks of a distorted truth. Be cautious that you do not infer unwarranted meaning to these scraps of words.”
“I agree with Targon that you must act prudently,” said Udell, “but I disagree with his interpretation. This is not a time for the faint at heart. Yes, there is a risk, but to release the Conqueror of her curse, isn't the risk worth taking?”
Targon blushed in anger.
“Udell, would you please excuse us,” said Gabrielle interceding.
Udell looked from his Queen to the Administrator. “Targon, I meant no disrespect.”
“We know,” said Gabrielle when it became obvious that Targon would not respond to the Athenian philosopher.
“I would not counsel you to be reckless,” said Udell trying to salvage his Queen's favor.
“You seek to cure my Lord and I am grateful,” assured Gabrielle. “I will speak to you later.”
Resigned to his dismissal, Udell bowed and left the Royal suite.
Alone with Xena's faithful servant, Gabrielle asked Targon, “Why are you determined to set this scroll aside? It may be my Lord's only hope.”
Targon walked slowly, seemingly painfully to the fireplace mantle where the Conqueror's sword rested. He raised his hand to it, but did not touch it. His misshaped body presented an awkward profile, like a crooked tree that had been torturously pruned for reasons no one could understand. “I love the Conqueror,” he said. “She gave me my dignity. I don't think I would have had a life worth living without her. But…” He turned to his Queen. “Gabrielle, I love you too. I chose you to enter the Conqueror's household. I have had the privilege of watching you grow into the extraordinary young woman that you are. I know how much you love your Lord. And, I fear you will see yourself as the sacrifice the scroll speaks of and I do not want to play any part in your death.”
Gabrielle approached Targon and took his hand. “Dear Targon,” she said tenderly.
The Administrator bowed his head. “Forgive me. I am a decrepit old man,” he said in a mortified voice.
“No, sir. You are beautiful.” Targon raised his gaze; his eyes glistened with unshed tears. Gabrielle squeezed his hand and said, “I know my Lord has always believed your integrity beyond reproach. More importantly I have been immeasurably grateful that your love for my Lord has never wavered. I could not have wished for a better man than you to stand by my side.”
“I want what is best for both of you.”
“Then help me help my Lord. Whatever the price I shall pay it and so must you.”
Targon took as deep a breath as his poor lungs allowed. He set his shoulder, fleetingly presenting a vision of indomitable strength. “I shall not disappoint you.”
Gabrielle could see Targon's affection nakedly before her. She smiled, then raised his hand and kissed it. “Thank you.”
Never had such an open physical expression of affection been shared by the two. It shattered a restraint long buried in Gabrielle's heart for the man who bid on her as she stood on the slave market stage displayed as nothing more than chattel. She released his hand and embraced him. The Administrator wrapped his weak arms around her, holding her with all the pitiful might he possessed.
* * *
It was midnight, the crescent moon shone bright in the cloudless night. Gabrielle could not sleep. She was resolved to meet with Xena come morning. Standing at the turret she mentally dissected the text associated with the amulet.
Athena and Targon were both right to counsel caution. The text did not offer a solution. The text was no better than an oracle's recitation. Only in hindsight could an interpretation be deciphered. Gabrielle tried to reflect upon each phrase without reference to her own life. She did so without success. Redemption, sympathy, truth, and love were all too powerfully woven into her soul to be objectively set aside. Failure beckons death concluded the text. It seemed fitting. Gabrielle expected nothing less. She would enter Xena's cell resolved either to achieve her mission or to die in the trying. There would be no living with failure because there was no living without Xena's soul restored. A soulless Conqueror was not her Lord, and as she terribly recalled, a life without her Lord was no life at all.
Taking in hand a burning candle she had set aside, Gabrielle walked down the turret stairs making her way through the bedroom, a desolate space without her Lord. She continued to her desk. There she lit four candles before sitting down. She opened a center drawer and removed two pieces of parchment. She closed the drawer and leaned forward to where a quill lay resting against an ink pot. She raised the quill and dipped its fine point into the dark oil based ink. All the motions were common. There would be nothing common in the letters she was ready in mind, heart and soul to write. They were letters she hoped would never be read.
SACRIFICE WITHOUT MERIT
Gabrielle secured a particular set of herbs from Dalius' apothecary early the next morning. She summoned Jared to her, meeting him in her suite. Upon his arrival she informed him she would be attending to Xena that day.
“You can't go to her!” insisted the General.
“I must,” resolutely said Gabrielle.
“She has lost her soul. There isn't anything stopping her from killing you.”
“She won't hurt me.”
“You can't know that!” Jared's anger rose to the surface. “She almost killed Stephen.”
“I am not Stephen,” said Gabrielle defiantly. “Anyway, it's my risk to take.”
“Lass, stop and think. What can you possibly do?”
“I can do what I have always done. I can love her.”
“An act of love?” asked Jared to Gabrielle's surprise. “Udell told me about the scroll,” he confessed. Jared then took advantage of Gabrielle's obvious state of confusion and argued, “Has that Gods forsaken piece of parchment persuaded you?”
Gabrielle recomposed herself. “No,” she said. “Targon is right. The scroll is too vague.”
Jared calmed. “Lass, this is not the way to make up for the past.”
“The past?” echoed Gabrielle, her mind and heart privately at battle with the inferred accusation of misplaced guilt.
“Athens,” said Jared knowingly. Gabrielle turned and began to walk away. Jared shouted her name.
Gabrielle turned back to him angrily. “Athens took a great deal from me… and Xena. I'm still impoverished by what happened. But, Athens has nothing to do with my decision.”
“Lass, don't lie to me. You have yet to forgive yourself for breaking your vow to Xena. She forgave you. You owe her no debt.”
“Jared, you're wrong to think I'm going to her because I feel guilty. Xena set me free from my vow.”
“To her?” asked Jared, stunned by the revelation.
“No, to Greece. There will never be another Athens. I will never again choose Greece over Xena.”
“Gabrielle, Xena could not have imagined this day.”
“It doesn't matter.” Gabrielle placed her hand over her heart. “Jared, Xena's soul belongs to me. I will not be robbed of it. I have to believe that the part of her that I hold within me is still mine to claim. It is the shared essence of our souls that will either save Xena or lead me to my death. Don't think me a fool. I know what I'm doing. I know the consequences of failing.”
“I say again, Xena would never ask this of you.”
“And yet, she has placed my life before hers more times than I can count. Jared, I know the truth. Xena would have fallen on her sword if Ares hadn't told her that I was alive in Ithome. And again, she would have taken her life in Athens had I chosen death over facing Kartis' appointed rapist. Do not tell me I have no right to make this choice.”
“Gabrielle, you are wrong to compare Xena's choices with the one you are so determined to make on this day. You will not be following Xena to Elysia or seeking Elysia over a fate worse than death. You will be sacrificing your life to a demon for no reason at all,” argued Jared.
“Do you think living without Xena is life for me?” his ward countered. “What kind of life can I have if I stand back and do nothing to try to raise her soul from the darkness? Whatever life it is it will not be worth living.” Gabrielle could see how her words caused the General's bluster to ebb. She gentled her voice. “Jared, how can you believe my staying away from Xena is best given what you have seen between her and I?”
“Tell me Gabrielle, how can you ask me to stand aside while you throw yourself to Tartarus?” mournfully asked Jared.
“I am in Tartarus, Jared. I can't bear it any longer. My life was Xena's long before Athens. Let it be she who decides my end. Who else should have that right?”
“No one has that right!” shouted Jared.
Gabrielle allowed silence to fall between them. Jared was trembling. She pitied him. “I know how much you love me,” she said compassionately. “I do not mean to hurt you. Please understand. My heart has never been more resolved. Did you ever truly expect otherwise?”
I tear cut across Jared's cheek. “No lass, I didn't,” he said hoarsely. “But, don't ask me to bless your scheme.”
“I ask that you honor my wishes and don't interfere.”
Jared raised a tight fist. There was no one for him to beat. In his all-consuming rage and grief he wordlessly turned and marched out of the suite.
After a moment the door opened. Alem stepped partially into the room. “Your Majesty, is everything all right?”
“Queen's protocol, Alem.”
Alem entered, allowing the door to close behind him. “Is there anything I can do for you, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle took a calming breath before she spoke. “Do you remember saying to me in Megara that my Lord has always waited for me?”
“She waits for me now. I need to go to her.”
“Gabrielle, the Conqueror is not herself. She will harm you.”
“Jared believes the same. I think she is still herself and I think I have a chance to touch her soul and heal her. Alem, hear me. I know that if I go to her I risk being harmed – more so than any one has ever harmed me. But, I must try. I have no life without my Lord.” Gabrielle stepped forward. “If I'm afraid, I'm afraid that Jared or Stephen or even you will try to stop me from doing all that I must do. If my Lord and I are interrupted from seeing our destinies through to the end there will be no second chances.” Gabrielle reached out and touched the Guardsman's arm. “Alem, I need your promise to let me die by my Lord's hands if our confrontation takes me to such a bitter end. I need you to promise to stop anyone from following me into my Lord's prison chamber.”
“Gabrielle, you want me to bless your suicide.”
“No, Alem. I want you to keep your oath to me.”
“My oath is to protect you; to see no harm comes to you.”
“The harm is done. The only question that remains is whether it can be undone. Alem, I love her. Please give me a chance to free her soul; to be with her again as I have been these past moons since our return from Megara. Xena gave me my life back first from slavery and then again after Athens. My life is hers. I sacrifice nothing.”
The Guardsman stood silent for a moment, obviously struggling with his sister's request. He studied Gabrielle's face intently then sighed and said, “Very well.”
Gabrielle embraced him. “Thank you.”
The prison cell was situated in a corner of the dungeon. It was the only cell with a solid wood door reinforced with vertical and horizontal hand width length sheets of bronze. At eye level a fist size opening with vertical bars was concealed by a sliding wood panel that rested upon grooved tracks. Guards observed the cell inhabitant and conveyed commands by sliding the panel to one side. Centered at the foot of the door was a larger rectangular opening framed by a thick bronze plate that was held in place by hinges made of the same material. The plate was fashioned to be raised opened and lowered closed. Reinforced bolts sealed the plate to the door. Through the opening food trays and slop buckets were passed.
Within the prison cell there was a pallet of generous size, a small table with wash basin and a pitcher of water, and a backless bench placed against one of the walls. The cell was reserved for dignitaries who had to be kept isolated from the general prison population less they be killed before a proper ransom was paid or if not redeemed they were executed.
This was the prison cell that housed Lord Thanos as he awaited crucifixion. It was the prison cell that housed Gabrielle after her infamous return from Athens. It was now the Conqueror's domicile.
Xena's attention was drawn to the eye view panel as it was opened “My Liege, it's Alem,” announced the Guardsman.
Xena stood up from the bed. “Come for a visit, Alem?”
“I ask that you stand back at the far corner of the cell.”
“And why should I do that?”
“Because your Queen wishes to enter and General Jared has set this protocol.”
“And you do what General Jared tells you to do,” said Xena sarcastically.
“I am following my Queen's command,” replied Alem evenly.
“If that's the case I'll do as you ask.” Xena raised her hands in a gesture of acquiesce and stepped backwards to one of the cell's far corners. She could hear Alem release the four door bolts and turn the key to the primary lock mechanism followed by the lifting of two cross beams.
The door opened sufficiently for Gabrielle to slip through. She and Xena stood silently as they listened to the accompanying sounds of Alem securing the cell door.
Gabrielle wore an emerald tunic with a tanned belt. A modest purse hung upon the belt. Sandals dressed her feet. She glanced over her shoulder as the last of the door's lock mechanisms set.
“It seems we are alone at last, Gabrielle,” said Xena cockily.
“How are you, Xena?” responded Gabrielle as she gently regarded her Lord.
“How am I? How would you be if you were kept in a jail cell against your will by a man you trusted implicitly? It would be a fair observation to say I am disappointed by the old man's behavior.”
“Don't blame Jared. I've been in Corinth for eight days.”
“Eight days!” said Xena failing to check her surprise. “And you only now choose to see me?”
“I wanted to research the amulet. I wanted to understand what happened to you so I might help you.”
“I don't need your help,” said Xena angrily. “What I needed eight days ago was for you to free me from this prison.”
“For what Gods' be damned reason do you deny me? Don't tell me that you believe Jared's asinine notion that I've lost my soul?”
“My Lord would never contemplate indiscriminately going to war,” said Gabrielle presenting her proof.
“There is nothing indiscriminate about protecting Greece. It is why I became Sovereign.”
“Persia has honored our borders…”
“A pre-emptive strike to squash their aggression,” argued Xena cutting Gabrielle short.
“What aggression?” demanded Gabrielle. “What proof do you have that you've withheld from Jared?”
Xena measured her partner. She paced to the opposite side of the cell before returning her gaze to the woman that she suspected she could no longer count as an ally. Xena had faced countless adversaries in her life. She tapped into her innate ability to persuade even the most obstinate antagonist. “Gabrielle, you have always trusted my judgment in military matters,” she said reasonably.
“You hurt Stephen. Jared said you would have killed him.”
“Stephen was arrogant and insolent. I have killed men for less.”
“Not since I entered your household. Xena, Stephen is your friend.”
“Do you want me to apologize to him? Will that get me out of here?”
“No, you won't leave this cell so easily.”
Gabrielle seemed immune to Xena's charisma. The Conqueror thus chose to take a direct approach. “What do you want from me, Gabrielle?”
“I will stay here with you until I'm sure it's safe for Greece to set you free.”
“That is no answer.”
“It is the only answer I am able to give you.”
“There must be a way that I can convince you to free me?”
Gabrielle thoughtfully looked away, a habit she acquired from Xena. The warrior waited unable to anticipate the bard's answer. Gabrielle refocused upon her partner. “Let me touch your soul.”
“We have never bargained that intimacy.”
“These are extraordinary times,” Gabrielle calmly responded
“Oh no, Gabrielle,” said Xena argumentatively. “You promised never to impose yourself upon what is my most private nature. I shall not allow you to leverage politics for the purpose of such an unprecedented and grievous violation. I am certain were the tables turned and that you would not consent to a similar exposure.”
“Then I have no choice but to judge you by your words and deeds. Xena, swear that you won't aggrieve Persia or Rome.”
“You have the gall to demand a vow from me?”
“I trust that you will not lie to me.”
“Am I to take solace in that fact?”
“Swear to me that you do not act on Ares' behalf.”
“By the Gods now I see your motivation in this affair. Jealously does not become you, Gabrielle.”
“Xena, tell me he has not touched you.”
“I am Ares' Chosen! When in our acquaintance has Ares not been with me?”
“You have always fought his influence. Now you seem to embrace him.”
“Better Ares than you and your pacific beliefs.”
“I will not give you up to him.”
“What right have you to stand in the way of my destiny?”
Gabrielle raised her left hand. “By this ring the right is mine,” she said, referring to her joining ring.
Xena pointed to the token. “Take it off and be done with this farce.”
“No, my Lord.”
“Your Lord?” said Xena derisively. “I am tired of your childish romantic fancies. They have no currency beyond the bard's tale that first brought them to your susceptible heart. Enough is enough!”
“You cannot convince me that all that we have been to each other has been without merit.”
“So speaks Aphrodite's Chosen.”
“You arrogant little wench.” Xena charged forward and drove Gabrielle against the cell wall. “I am not your Lord and I'll prove it. Your Lord would never rape you. I, on the other hand, have no qualms to take you by force.”
“No…” said Gabrielle, her voice defiant though her expression anguished.
“No? Are you passively protesting or is it that you are going to try to stop me? Tell me is Jared out there,” Xena glanced toward the door, “waiting to rescue you?”
“I give myself to you willingly.”
“You never surrendered to my violence, not even as my slave. What has become of you? Are you no more than a beaten down bitch that will do anything for her mistress?”
“I love you. I claimed you…”
“I am an animal! To love an animal is more appalling than being one.”
Gabrielle reached out and grasped Xena's hand tightening her grip. She invoked their connection as she held to a memory, determined to share it with Lord.
The time was early in their relationship after the conclusion of Greece's victorious battle against Rome. Gabrielle lay beside the Conqueror on a bed of furs within the Sovereign's tent.
Until that moment Gabrielle never feared that her lover would be other than gentle in their bed. Gabrielle knew she had erred in believing she shared the bed with Xena and thus what took place between them reflected a melding of their individual sensibilities. She was in the Conqueror's bed where all that mattered was the Conqueror's insatiable physical hunger.
The Conqueror paused, giving the young woman a moment for understanding. "Are you mine?"
Gabrielle's eyes darted back and forth; her mind struggled to be equal to the moment. As much as she feared the Conqueror's rejection, Gabrielle was unwilling to sacrifice her dignity. She spoke breathlessly. "No violence in our bed. Promise me."
The Conqueror spoke in a cool voice. "What you experience as violence, I may not. I won't take you unwillingly. Say no to me and I will stop. You have my word."
"Then yes, I am yours," said Gabrielle resolutely.
The Conqueror did not hesitate to claim Gabrielle. Her pleasure was in the taking. She brought the younger woman to climax again and again. The Conqueror took Gabrielle beyond thought.
Gabrielle was in the dominion of the instinctual. Her body responded to pure sensation. She was utterly without control. As the night progressed, her body transcended physical exhaustion, as it had never done before.
* * *
Xena awoke as she lay on her back. She turned to look over to Gabrielle. The younger woman slept in an isolated space on the bed; her body crouched inward like a wounded child. Xena's awareness of what they had shared brought an uncommon sympathy. Contemplating Gabrielle's unusual placement, Xena wondered if it was by choice. Or, had Gabrielle felt exiled
Xena needed to bridge the space and feel Gabrielle's body close to her. She turned to her side and moved her body to form a protective shell over Gabrielle. Feeling Xena's touch, Gabrielle jerked.
Xena gently placed her hand over Gabrielle's and whispered. "Rest now."
"Do you want me?"
Xena heard the words that offered to give again. She also heard the voice of surrender and not desire. She pulled Gabrielle close to her. "I want to sleep with you in my arms."
"I don't know if I can ever give myself again to you like I did last night,” said Gabrielle sorrowfully.
Xena stilled at the admission. "Did I hurt you?"
Gabrielle kept her place. "I can't bear the loneliness."
"What do you mean?"
"You weren't with me. I could have been anyone."
"You're wrong." Xena assured. "There wasn't a moment that passed between us that I didn't know it was you who was with me."
"You said nothing to me."
"I've rarely spoken when I've been with you. Words get in the way."
"In the past, your words have showed me the way. I felt lost."
Xena heard the hurt in Gabrielle's voice. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"There is so much I don't understand. You have more experience than I do. I try to learn, but some things are harder for me than others."
Confused, Xena sought to defend herself from her own self-indictment. "You gave me your consent."
Gabrielle turned to her lover. "Xena, you did nothing wrong. I didn't really know what I was consenting to."
"You could have stopped me with a word."
Gabrielle reached out and touched Xena's cheek. "Part of me didn't want to stop you."
"But part of you did," Xena affirmed.
In the state of her consuming battle lust Xena had set aside her knowledge of Gabrielle's troubled history. She would not repeat the error. "I can find my release with someone else."
Gabrielle remained silent.
Xena regretted her offer. "Have you nothing to say?"
Gabrielle acknowledged the limits of their relationship as she understood them. "I have no right to ask for your fidelity."
"Gabrielle." Xena raised her lover's hand in her own. "I will make you a promise. There will be no one else in my bed as long as you and I keep our arrangement."
“Will you expect more nights like last night from me?"
Xena would not pretend otherwise. "There will be times like last night that I will want you unceasingly. You have the right to consent or not. If you consent, I further promise there will never be violence, I will cease at your request, and I will speak your name to reassure you that I am with you and no one else."
"What if I don't consent?"
"Ever?" asked Xena troubled.
"I will find a way to cope without bedding someone else."
"What if you need the violence?"
"I won't," said Xena sincerely. She waited for a response.
On this day Gabrielle had been gifted with Xena's sworn fidelity. She would have never dared to ask for the promise. Freely given, Gabrielle received Xena's promise with a painfully overwhelming love. She begged, "Hold me."
Xena enveloped Gabrielle in her arms. "I've got you."
Gabrielle's memory shifted forward in time. She was completing the task of washing away the worst of the dirt that covered Xena as the warrior lay asleep in an isolated cave. Xena had brutally killed Tracate in retaliation for his torture of Stephen as well as for his history as Gabrielle's master during the worst of the bard's years of slavery, a fact Gabrielle had failed to divulge. Xena had ridden away from their army camp with the burden of her surging battle lust.
Xena stirred causing Gabrielle to move closer. Gabrielle refreshed the cool compress that rested on Xena's forehead. Xena's eyes opened, blinking as they adjusted to the foreign light.
Gabrielle welcomed her. "Hey."
"Gabrielle." Xena spoke hoarsely. She found Gabrielle's presence difficult to comprehend.
"Be still. You hurt yourself." Gabrielle retrieved a skin. "Here, drink some water."
Xena opened her mouth, taking in the cool liquid.
Gabrielle withdrew the skin. "More?"
"No… thank you." Xena silently studied Gabrielle.
Gabrielle caressed her lover's cheek. "Why did you leave?"
"I promised you…" Xena failed to complete her thought.
"What?" Gabrielle implored.
"I promised you that I would never hurt you. I didn't trust myself."
The admission cut Gabrielle deeply. "Are you so angry with me?"
Xena shook her bandaged head slightly. "No… My battle lust was too strong. With what happened between us I didn't want you to have to face saying yes to me for the wrong reasons. I promised you a long time ago I would find another way."
Gabrielle knew Xena was right. She would have been compelled to consent for fear of irreparably damaging their fragile bond. "I love you."
"Today, I am not your Lord," said Xena regretfully.
"Today, you are my Lord more than ever," replied Gabrielle holding her Sovereign's hand.
Finally, Gabrielle embraced a far more difficult exchange between her and Xena. Having realized that in sating her intense sexual desire she had intimately bruised Gabrielle, Xena chose to leave Gabrielle to seek sexual release with another. Xena had returned to Corinth having aborted a liaison with a whore from Sicyon – Clare. Gabrielle had inadvertently learned of Xena's actions and confessed her knowledge. She tried to reason with her Lord that there was no need for forgiveness...
“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 choose 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.”
Xena pulled her arm free from Gabrielle's grasp. “Cease your campaign!” She said as she hovered over Gabrielle menacingly.
“You won't hurt me,” said the younger woman confidently.
“Are you sure?”
“I did not walk into this cell ignorantly.”
“Really… are you saying that my intentions don't matter? That you don't care if I want to cause you harm, that I want to break my promise to you? Have you resigned yourself to such abuse in my hands?”
“Why break your promise?” asked Gabrielle dishearteningly.
“Because you broke your promise to me. I want you to know what betrayal feels like.”
Seeing within Xena's threat the remnants of the damage done by her infidelity, Gabrielle was left to repeat what she would always consider a pauper's apology. “I'm sorry.”
“You think an apology is enough?”
Xena grazed her hand up Gabrielle's thigh.
Gabrielle leaned her head back as Xena's touch triggered equal sensations of arousal and nausea. “Please, don't,” she said.
“What?” Xena stayed her hand. “You've changed your mind? You don't want my touch?”
“Not like this.”
“You won't be able to forgive me, will you? I'll destroy everything you feel for me if I taste you,” said Xena relishing the moment. Gabrielle shed silent tears. The warrior continued to try to provoke the bard's scorn. “I am not yours, Gabrielle.”
“Whatever has been done to you, you still have a soul. Your soul is mine,” said Gabrielle unyieldingly.
“I gave you my heart. Never my soul. By your own admission though you have touched my soul you have never owned it. And even if you did, what good is either my heart or soul to you? They're both black and filled with bile. There is no tenderness or mercy within me for you or anyone else.”
“I don't believe you.”
Xena moved her intrusive hand higher. “Must I continue in order to prove the point?”
“Yes,” dared Gabrielle.
Xena's gaze had never been more severe. “Gabrielle, you have never called harm to your doorstep so easily.”
“You have never harmed me even when I gave you reason to. What danger am I in when you act true to your nature?”
“So be it!” Xena kissed Gabrielle harshly. She felt no resistance. In fact Xena felt Gabrielle's arms wind around her body and pull her closer.
Xena released the kiss and placed her lips to Gabrielle's ear. She whispered with perverse delight, “Know this, Gabrielle, my touch is not your Lord's. It is your master's.” With the intent of ravishing Gabrielle, Xena lifted the younger woman up into her arms and laid her upon the bed.
The prison door's lower hatch opened and a tray of food was pushed through. The hatch closed. Xena peered through the upper door opening. She was surprised to see Stephen on the other side.
“Stephen, are you now on mess duty?”
“I'm here by choice.”
“Spying on me?” Xena glanced to Gabrielle who lay still on her side on the pallet. “Or are you checking up on your sister's well-being?”
“She's sleeping, I see.”
“Or dead.” Xena smiled wickedly. “I saw that wince, Stephen. So, you are of a different mind than Gabrielle. She is certain I will not harm her. You are not so certain, are you? By the way, how's your arm?”
“If you kill her she will know peace. You are not so merciful. You keep her alive to torture her. That is the fiend you have become.”
“You love me no more,” said Xena placing a hand over her heart, feigning hurt.
“I wish I didn't love you.”
“What a tender thought. You echo Gabrielle. Now I have two pitiful yelps in my midst. How pathetic my life has become to keep such company.”
“Damn the writer of the scroll that gave Gabrielle hope that she could cure you.”
“What are you talking about? There is nothing to cure in me.”
“Gabrielle believes that by an act of love your soul can be restored.”
“By an act of love?” Xena laughed at the absurdity. She glanced back to Gabrielle. “And so I have none other than Aphrodite's Chosen here with me. How low she has come. Tell me Stephen, what would you think if Tess allowed you to rape her?”
“By the Gods, tell me you didn't…”
“There is no rape when there is consent. So, Gabrielle said as I ripped off her tunic. If you look closely you will see I say nothing less than the truth.” Xena stepped aside giving Stephen an unobstructed view of his sister. Gabrielle's tunic lay on the floor. Gabrielle's nakedness was covered by the one lone blanket in the cell. “A tear, Stephen?” observed Xena. “You would think I was crushing your balls with my hand. Then again, that assumes you have them.”
“You cannot make me hate you,” said Stephen angrily.
“How long will you let Gabrielle demean herself in my company?” taunted Xena.
“The food is safe. Eat heartedly, Conqueror.” Stephen walked away.
“Stephen! You are too easy. Next time send a Guardsman to match wits with me. Send a man!”
* * *
Within a candlemark Gabrielle stirred. She modestly held the blanket that covered her close to her body as she laboriously sat up on the bed, leaned her head back against the wall and once again closed her eyes.
“Ah, you're awake,” said Xena from the bench where she sat. She waited a handful of heartbeats and then said cheerfully, “Have you nothing to say to me? You were so eloquent last night.” Receiving no response Xena continued, “Odd, I thought I was your prisoner but under the terms you have set, you have allowed yourself to become captive to my whims.” She clapped her hands and rubbed them together enthusiastically. “What shall we talk about or will you tell me a story?” Gabrielle opened her eyes. Xena bantered, “Have you enough stories to fill the days and nights before our natural deaths?” Gabrielle coolly met and held Xena's gaze. Xena was not deterred. “Come now, Gabrielle. You were so certain last night. Have you lost faith?” Though Xena found Gabrielle's lack of response frustrating she did not show it. “Very well. I'll lie down and let my dreams entertain me.” Lying on her back Xena extended her body across the bench like the most dangerous of panthers.
“What do you dream about?” softly said Gabrielle.
Xena was pleased to have finally earned the bard's interest. She shifted to her side, resting her head on an upraised hand. “What do I dream about? What nations I will conqueror when I get out of here? Who I will kill? What wenches I will taste in my bed?” Xena offered Gabrielle her most charismatic smile. “Did you dream last night?”
“I dreamt of the past.”
“What horrors haunted your night?”
“I dreamed of the first night you loved me.”
Not expecting Gabrielle's answer Xena sobered. “I was under a witch's spell.” She rethought her answer. “Actually, not a witch, a God. Aphrodite's mischief laid waste to my judgment. I thought I loved you when in fact it was all her doing. Placing you – her Chosen – into my household. What chance had I? Ares tried to warn me. I should have listened to him.”
Gabrielle looked down to her hands. Her ring was prominently within her vision. “He was right about me,” she said.
“Then you admit you've wronged me!” exclaimed Xena triumphantly raising herself up and planting her feet on the floor.
Gabrielle looked up. “I claimed your love falsely.”
“Then I am right! There was no love.”
“None. I wanted the throne.”
“Ha!” Xena slapped her thigh. “You play a good game. Cat and mouse. And I thought I was the cat when I was really the mouse. It is about time you told the truth. I am grateful to have it.”
“Are you?” said Gabrielle her tone shifting from contrition to collectedness.
Xena did not like what she saw in Gabrielle. Her doubts rose. “What game do you play, Gabrielle? When was the lie? Years past or just now?”
“You are certain you cannot trust me. So you might as well count everything I've said and done as stemming from a dishonorable motive. Believing that, you will be safe from my corrupting influence.”
Xena grew stern. “Set an end point to this travesty of justice before I lose all good humor.”
“I can be infinitely patient.”
Xena leaned back, her frustration evident. She turned her head to the right. A smile came to her. She stretched out her legs and crossed her arms self-satisfactorily. “Patient? Oh no, that is I not you. Of the two of us you are far more restless, as has been evinced by you solicitation of a new bed mate when still joined to me,” said Xena obviously referring to Turian. Her jibe garnered Gabrielle uncensored rue. In turn, Xena became more animated as she pointed to the bard's tunic. “Look there Gabrielle,” she said, “proof of how well we spent the night. How long will you allow your tunic to lie near my feet, at risk of being trampled… again?” The Conqueror emphasized her last word.
Gabrielle glanced over to the tunic. “I can easily retrieve it.”
“You must pass by me to fetch it. What if I prefer you naked? Will you indulge me or will you continue to wrap yourself up in that blanket like a swaddled infant?”
Gabrielle stood up from the bed and walked toward her garment. Xena raised her right leg obstructing Gabrielle's path. Gabrielle paused and released the blanket. It fell to her feet. She stood before her Lord naked.
“Is it that I shall have your blanket in exchange for your tunic?” said Xena intent on humiliating the bard.
“I shall not demean myself for you amusement.”
“Even as a slave you would not allow you degradation,” Xena mused with a note of admiration. She placed her foot down and leaned forward. “If so, why do you stand naked now? What, I am left to wonder, are you trying to prove to me? Am I to believe that you are so self-possessed that your previous modesty has no hold upon you?”
“I don't hide myself from you.”
“Do you believe your lies? Surely you must if you think you can convince me of them, too. From our first days you have hidden yourself from me. Your body has always been nothing to me when compared to your heart. Though you gave me your body, what I truly valued was...” Xena stopped herself from completing her thought; the tender sentiment had no place in her life. She refocused. “You have reluctantly granted every insight I have of you. I believe myself right that you have begrudged me such knowledge.”
“You know me as no one ever has or ever will,” said Gabrielle.
“That isn't saying much,” said Xena in sharp retort. She retrieved Gabrielle's tunic and offered it to the bard. “Take it. I grow tired of your scars.”
Gabrielle blanched at Xena's targeted injury. She cautiously accepted the tunic and turned her back exposing the worst of her scarring to the Conqueror as she donned the garment.
Seeing that Gabrielle had finished dressing, Xena said, “Breakfast is served.” As she sat down on the bench she added, “Stephen assured me that the food was not poisoned.”
Hearing Stephen's name Gabrielle glanced back to Xena in surprise. Saying nothing she sat down on the bed showing no interest in her meal.
* * *
It was near noon. Xena remained resting upon the bench leaving the bed for Gabrielle. Gabrielle sat up on the bed, hugging her knees close. The lower door panel opened. A tray of food was pushed through.
Xena sat up and looked over to the door. “By the smell of it your presence has been cause for an improvement in my rations,” she said. “Obviously Makia thinks you worthy of finer fair than I.” The warrior stood and switched the new tray with that of their breakfast. She noted that Gabrielle's porridge bowl had only been half emptied.
“You don't eat Gabrielle. Has melancholy touched you?” Gabrielle kept her eyes averted.
Xena placed a plate of roasted lamb, steamed vegetables and bread on the side table near the bed. “Tell me,” she asked, “what caused you to consent to our night? Did you think sex with you would be my salvation? Were you expecting a return of our ethereal union?” Gabrielle met Xena's gaze, her eyes well with tears. Xena laughed mockingly, “You are ridiculous.”
“You say you felt nothing last night?” asked Gabrielle quietly.
“I was disappointed.”
“I don't believe you.”
“I don't care if you do or not.”
“I felt a change in you. You gentled.”
“Because I know you. I know what your body responds to.”
“I wanted to prove to you that as soulless as I am said to be that I still can know you as no one ever has or ever will.” Xena purposely echoed Gabrielle's previous observation.
“That was your motive?” asked Gabrielle, her voice fractured.
“How else am I to secure my freedom?” Xena shifted to face the door. She raised her hands to her hips. “Stephen wants to believe the worst of me. I shall oblige him every chance I get.”
“Stephen loves you.”
Xena turned toward the bard. “You would be a martyr for a love that does not exist and even if it did, it would be of no value to me. That you are pitiful, Gabrielle, does not mean that I pity you. Your weakness disgusts me as it always has. Your insistence that love has a place in this world shall be your downfall.” Xena's steely posture did not waver. A tear fell down Gabrielle's cheek. “Will you cry now?” asked Xena contemptuously. “Do you not understand? I will not be manipulated.”
“You have never been closer to death,” said Gabrielle.
“Say you.” Xena laughed. “Tell me, shall you drive your boot dagger into my heart?”
“I pity you, Conqueror, as I did when I first met you.”
Xena could not recall Gabrielle ever calling her ‘Conqueror' other than her warning from Athens. It was the bard's use of the title more than the thought of being pitied that stirred a deep discontent within the warrior. “You have no reason to pity me now nor did you have reason to pity me then,” said Xena severely.
“You were so alone… and angry.”
“And you were intent on offering me a reprieve with your storytelling.”
“It was you who asked for a story. You wanted to laugh. I wanted…” Gabrielle faltered in completing her thought.
“What did you want, Gabrielle?” prodded Xena.
“I wanted to see you smile… and you did. You were so good to me. I had nothing I could give you in return. And I wanted to.”
“You knew what I wanted from you. It was the same thing I have wanted from every woman and man that has caught my eye. Contrary to your play of words, the truth is that the day did come when you bartered yourself to me.”
“Never. I loved you.”
“Love. Love. Love. It is a tiresome refrain in your song.”
“Our song!” cried Gabrielle.
“The song has been silenced, or at least I wish it so.”
“Do you feel the same about your love for Solan?” asked Gabrielle angrily.
“Don't speak my son's name,” demanded Xena, her right fist closed.
“Do the soulless mourn the death of a child?” Gabrielle pressed undeterred.
“What think you?”
“I believe that the day shall come when my wait on the other side will be rewarded by my Lord's presence.”
“You think I will be any less soulless in your eyes after I cross the river Styx?”
“The curse will leave you then.”
“Were I indeed cursed instead of emancipated from foolish arbitrary restraints, what makes you believe that you shall realize the end you seek?” Gabrielle did not answer. Xena smiled triumphantly. “Ah! That scroll that led you into this prison cell gave you no promise, did it?”
“I have faith,” said Gabrielle far more subdued.
“Look what good your faith has done you.”
Gabrielle glanced up through the lone cell window thoughtfully. Knowing the bard as she did, Xena waited for the forthcoming answer.
Gabrielle returned her gaze to Xena. “I ask for two more days,” she said.
“And then what?”
“If I am still without my Lord I shall leave you.”
“To rot in this dungeon?” said Xena dismissively. “That is no bargain, Gabrielle.”
“You will have Greece without my interference,” vowed the young Queen.
“You mean this?” asked Xena, sensing no subterfuge.
“Fair enough.” Xena gestured toward Gabrielle's meal. “Your food is getting cold. Eat; you'll need your strength if you are to convince me of the error of my ways.”
Gabrielle took a slice of bread in hand. “Will you eat?”
“After you.” Xena cast her hand in a sweeping motion.
“Xena, no one will poison you,” assured Gabrielle.
“Why take chances?” said Xena wearing a Cheshire cat's smile.
* * *
The sun was setting, dimming the natural light cast through the window into the cell. Xena began her nightly routine of striking a flint to light a candle and then lighting all the candles within the cell. Reaching the small table beside the bed she noted that though the cell was cool Gabrielle was perspiring. She also observed that Gabrielle continued to barely touch her food. She did not voice the concern she felt for Gabrielle. The fact that she felt concern for the bard's health was in and of itself disconcerting to Xena. Wishing to counter her feelings of empathy, she dug deep for her harsher self. “You have been quiet, Gabrielle,” she said. “How shall you transform me into your Lord if you simply sit on this bed silently?”
“This isn't the time,” answered Gabrielle meeting Xena's gaze.
“The moment you are waiting for won't come. Why wait two more days? Release me.”
“I can't. I need to be sure that what has been done can't be undone.”
Xena went down on one knee. She spoke gently. “Hear me, Gabrielle. It is true that I have been angry… at the old man, Stephen… and you. I feel I have reason to be angry. My motives misunderstood I have been unjustly treated, thrown into this cell like a common criminal. I regret that in my anger I have been harsh. I ask that you not judge me severely. Name one creature on earth that would react differently than I have when cornered by forces intent on doing it harm. Gabrielle, I am here now, Xena of Amphipolis. I am the babe who suckled at her mother's breast, the little girl who loved her younger brother Lyceus, the young woman who first felt the mark of Ares as she fought Cortese. I am the woman who carried Ares' mark to adulthood as I learned the art of war. I am the warlord who is responsible for the fall of Cirra and as a result fought tribe after tribe building an army strong, skilled and ruthless enough to conquer Greece not for profit but in search of redemption. I am the woman who owns Greece just as I once owned you. My purpose has never been to oppress what is noble. On the contrary, my purpose has been the Greater Good, to ensure the safety and well-being of those within my dominion. Is it so wrong to wish to protect Greece and to grant the people of Persia and Rome an equal protection under the law? Gabrielle, I ask you once again. Be my Queen. We are destined for greatness.”
Mesmerized Gabrielle reached out seeking her Lord's touch. Upon placing her hand upon Xena's arm a harrowing dread charged through Xena. Gabrielle retracted her hand reflexively, as if she too felt the same dread. Xena waited for Gabrielle to settle herself and then she spoke Gabrielle's name.
“No,” whispered the bard in an anguished voice as she turned away from Xena.
Certain the insincerity of her petition had been exposed Xena changed tactics. “You said you would do anything for me. Once again, you have proven the tenuousness of your word. It means little.”
“I gave my vow to my Lord.” Gabrielle glanced back to where she touched Xena's arm. She then raised her gaze, finding and holding to Xena's countenance, her own expression changing, as if she saw Xena in a new bitter light. “If it is true that you are soulless then you are not her.”
Xena's soul quaked upon hearing Gabrielle's denouement. “You are being unfair, Gabrielle,” she said.
“Say you love me,” challenged Gabrielle.
Xena could not easily dismiss Gabrielle's request and that fact compounded her interior disturbance. She raised the arm Gabrielle had touched, introspectively turning it, studying it as if it was foreign to her. “The soulless know no love,” she said in a voice reminiscent of Gabrielle's Lord's.
“Do you still love the truth?”
“What do you think?”
“I believe you do. You always have, especially in times of war.”
“Are we at war, Gabrielle?”
“Yes, I think we are, Xena.” Gabrielle looked to her left hand. Her eyes fixed upon her ring she asked, “Would my death be meaningless to you?”
It was the second time that Gabrielle had referred to her mortality. Xena had never known Gabrielle to dwell upon death other than to reserve the choice of taking her life in response to Xena's demise. Xena's instincts triggered her most cautious nature. She cloaked her concern responding indifferently. “I wouldn't say that. Were you to die your death would cause me some inconvenience. Surely, my detractors would blame me whether death came to you naturally or by the hand of another.” Seeing an emotion in Gabrielle that she could not fathom Xena asked, “Why do you speak of death?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “I am not feeling well. It has made me morose.”
“I can see that clearly enough. Call for Alem to fetch Dalius. I will not think less of you.”
“No need,” said the highly skilled healer. “I know what ails me. My illness will pass soon enough.”
“Very well. I have never had reason to argue your diagnosis and I am not about to start now.”
Feeling a resurgence of her affection for Gabrielle, Xena stood up and sat by the bench, finding she needed the distance to hold to her inner darkness.
* * *
Upon waking the following morning Xena stood and stretched her tightened muscles. The bench made a tolerable resting place though not as comfortable as the cell's bed which she continued to cede to Gabrielle. Xena glanced over to the woman who dominated her thoughts. She did not like what she saw. Gabrielle was pale. The bard's breathing was mildly labored. Whatever illness had struck the bard it had obviously worsened in severity.
Within a candlemark a guard raised the cell door's lower panel and slid a breakfast tray through. Xena clamped down on an impulse to call for Dalius. She willfully exiled her compassionate response for the ill Gabrielle to an interior wasteland within her soul.
Throughout the day Gabrielle either slept or rested. When asleep the feverish bard had been haunted by her dreams. When awake she seemed content to keep company with her own thoughts. That they spoke sparingly frustrated Xena. She wanted to spar with the bard. She wanted a battle of wits not the interminable waiting though she had been promised its end within the passing of one more day.
* * *
It was late evening. Xena sat on the floor, her back against the cell door. The door's metal rivets pressed against her body. She would have felt pain were her mind not focused on Gabrielle's profile, lit by a candle's flickering flame. Feverish, the bard's face was wet with perspiration and Xena suspected a few tears as well.
Gabrielle turned to her side. She opened her eyes to Xena. “You wait for me,” she said weakly.
“I have no choice, do I?” answered Xena, setting aside the import of the phrase in their relationship.
“No one will come by until morning. I shall have kept my promise to you. I shall be a burden to you no more.”
“Two days have not passed. Have you changed your mind then?” asked Xena. Gabrielle swallowed hard, having difficulty speaking.
Gabrielle's vulnerability stirred Xena's compassion. She stood and retrieved a mug filled with water. She offered it to the bard. “Drink this, your belabored breathing is irksome.”
Gabrielle looked down into the mug. “It holds no antidote for what ails me,” she said, then drank the offered water.
“Antidote?” asked Xena fearfully taking Gabrielle's comment literally.
“Don't worry, I carried the poison… it wasn't in the food.”
Xena was stunned. She looked incredulously to the young woman who knew as much about medicinal herbs as she did. Xena's barely checked the rage that surged from the deepest crevices of her being. She sat at the side of the bed. “Why?” she asked.
“You know why,” said Gabrielle with uncommon quietude. “I will not consent to a life without my Lord.”
“You are insane to kill yourself,” angrily said Xena.
“I have no reason to live. You do. There is a note in my pouch. It will exonerate you of any wrong doing.”
Xena reached out her hand. “Give me the letter.”
“As long as I am alive I will decide if and when you will read it.”
“You think you can stop me from taking it.”
“No, I can't. The Gods… or is it the Fates that have humbled me? I do not know. Xena… I will no longer stand between you and what Ares promised you years ago. You shall have Greece. You shall be the Destroyer of Nations. The known world will bend down to its knees before you. Why shouldn't they? I have.” Gabrielle took Xena's hand establishing a much wanted physical connection. Unlike their previous tactile link it brought no harsh sensation.
Xena remained silent for a handful of heartbeats before she said, in her most intimate voice, “You say now you came to me in fear?”
“Never. I have always come to you in love.”
Xena spoke with uncensored frankness. “There is no doubt you are Aphrodite's Chosen.”
“As there has never been any doubt that you are Ares' Chosen,” said Gabrielle. “Our end was inevitable. As they have not succumbed to the other's influence, neither have we. We part ways true to our natures. You taught me not to be afraid of the truth no matter how painful. I have no regrets. I have reconciled myself to our truth. ”
For a brief moment Xena closed her eyes and bowed her head. Her emotions threatened her composure. She knew she should remove her hand from Gabrielle's touch, but the sensation of their connection was compelling. It was familiar and sated a spiritual hunger she had no name for. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Gabrielle's shallow breathing. She opened her eyes and held to Gabrielle's weak gaze. Tears welled in the bard's eyes. Xena recognized her partner's brave front for what it was. She sensed Death near.
“I grant that you have always been a formidable presence in my life,” graciously said Xena. “Though you were misguided, I do respect you. You are in your own way a courageous warrior.”
“I have never aspired for such recognition.”
“I know, but there is no denying who you are and the gift you have been to Greece.”
“I have written a second letter. It is for my Lord. I have it with the first.” Gabrielle placed her hand over her belt purse. “If ever my Lord returns… promise me you will read it. ”
Xena felt she treaded on dangerous ground, sanctified by Gabrielle's goodness. To grant Gabrielle a promise was to admit that the woman Gabrielle knew as her Lord had once existed and could exist again. The warrior remained silent as Gabrielle slipped into sleep.
Xena glanced to where Gabrielle's hand, intertwined with her own, had grown limp. Both the image and the sensation were familiar. She stroked Gabrielle's hand with her thumb and then returned her gaze to the bard. “Why must you die to me, Gabrielle? Even without love you are still a sweet presence in my life.”
* * *
Candlemarks passed carrying Xena into the heart of the night, the still fragment of time when the soul was most open to insight. The warrior could not sleep. She left a couple candles burning, better to keep watch over Gabrielle.
Delirious, the bard spoke softly in her sleep. Curious, Xena bent down over her. Gabrielle opened her eyes and fixed her gaze upon Xena. Xena was compelled not to break their connection.
“You are my Lord,” said Gabrielle weakly. “I shall always love you.” Gabrielle reached up to touch Xena's cheek.
Xena backed away. After a few heartbeats, Gabrielle lowered her hand and closed her eyes. Xena believed it would be for the last time.
One memory after another passed before Xena's mind's eye, each the same yet different. Each memory was a different occasion of Gabrielle at her most vulnerable, of the bard's anguished request to be held, seeking intimate comfort when ill, fearful of their parting, or overwhelmed by the horrors that haunted her sleep. Other memories came to the forefront – when an embrace was playful, mischievous, and as their bond strengthened, embraces, feather light that were the prelude to achieving a union that transcended the profane reaching an unimaginable sacred state of grace.
Xena remained physically unmoved as Gabrielle visibly slipped away from life. Xena looked to her hands. She cupped them and imagined herself holding grains of sand that where falling freely through a breach she could not independently close. Finding the thought intolerable; the warrior paced in front of the door. She knew death. She had stood over countless battlefields of carnage, not shying from the aftermath of war, the horror of what swords, arrows and missiles do to the flesh. By comparison, Gabrielle's death was pointless and bloodless - nothing worse than a fever.
Despite Gabrielle's infidelity - the bard's most profound transgression against the warrior - Xena felt a desperate need to believe that Gabrielle's torturous suffering was a preamble to an eternity in Elysia, that Gabrielle would know peace and happiness in the Fields, all torment swept to an oblivion beyond memory.
Xena spoke her thoughts aloud, mining her resentment. “Tell me Gabrielle, where do you think Hades will send you, Elysia or Tartarus? Given your life I say Hades' judgment would be primary in your thoughts. Maybe Aphrodite or Athena will commend you to him and he will show you the mercy that I know he will not show me.”
Gabrielle's death imminent, Xena felt a relentless remorse. She paced again, like the caged animal she claimed herself to be. She told herself that she was not responsible for the bard's death. The bard had made her choice. Gabrielle had woven a tale with an obscenely romantic and unrealistic ending because she was too weak to live with the truth. Xena passionately hated weakness. She was repulsed by it. She stopped her pacing and turned again toward Gabrielle. “I owe you nothing! You owe me everything!” Her words rang hollow.
“By the Gods!” she cursed and renewed her pacing. There was no relief to be had. She stopped her pacing and again turned toward the bard. Silence enveloped her. Hearing no more of Gabrielle's labored breathing she went to her, bending down upon one knee. She placed her palm below Gabrielle's nostrils. She felt only a slight displacement of the bard's breath. “Soon our torment will be over.” Xena's voice broke; evidence that she was not immune to Gabrielle's gesture of surrender.
Xena retracted her hand. She rested her arm upon her raised knee. Her stance and Gabrielle's still body recalled a series of days and nights in which Xena experienced a profound, relentless fear. At the time Gabrielle was new to the palace household and had touched Xena's heart with her disarming openness and compassion. Improbably, she had won Xena's trust. Befallen with illness, Gabrielle was at risk of following other fellow infirmary patients to Death. Xena's affection for the slave drove her to set aside her well measured outward disinterest to nurse the younger woman to health.
The memory melded to a second incident of Gabrielle's illness. The terror Xena felt during those days and nights was compounded a thousand fold compared to her first nursing of the bard, for Gabrielle was no longer her slave; she had become Xena's Queen. Contrary to her accusation, Xena knew Aphrodite had cast no spell. She had willingly pledged herself to the bard and healer. She loved Gabrielle as she loved no other, with a sincere regard for Gabrielle's pure motives.
During that second severe illness, Xena had badgered Gabrielle to fight for every painful breath life granted her. Their harsh confrontation was mitigated by long spans of time when Gabrielle lay still in Xena's arms, drifting into a sleep that neither was confident Gabrielle would wake from. Xena offered nothing more than curt commands as she fought her desperate need to show Gabrielle tenderness. It was during those moments sitting up in their bed, with Gabrielle weakly clinging to her, fearful to speak less Xena rebuff her, that Xena found a modicum of peace, inseparable from the hope that Gabrielle would not leave her, taking comfort, giving comfort in their physical closeness that she was not at liberty to offer during Gabrielle's first illness.
Returning to the present moment Xena's thoughts shifted from her perspective to Gabrielle's. How, she now wondered, had Gabrielle felt to be in Xena's solicitous yet physically distant care as a slave compared to Xena's uncompromising commanding yet equally physically intimate care as Queen? Xena could still feel the painful ache of wanting to touch her slave finding minor relief by offering a touch of the hand. She equally felt how by holding Gabrielle, her quaking soul found relief.
For too many years Xena observed Gabrielle's harshest burdens from a distance. The bard had purposely and for the most part, successfully shielded Xena from her need. Gabrielle accepted the poverty that accompanied loving the Conqueror.
Xena felt an uncommon humility in Gabrielle's presence. Xena had won the battle. In the cloak of darkness, in her element of night Xena triumphed. Come daylight she would have Greece and the prospect that the nations of the world would bow down to her. Her future was to be rich with victory. Her mantle of the Conqueror would be redefined to an unimaginable universality. If only Gabrielle appreciated the majesty of Xena's vision. If only Gabrielle would have consented to join her in changing the course of history.
Xena leaned forward. Somehow, in spite of her grave health, Gabrielle's essence still shone. Xena doubted she would ever find another woman or man to stand beside her equal to Gabrielle in beauty, intelligence and compassion. Xena was certain she would never trust another as she trusted Gabrielle. She was also certain that Gabrielle's death would sever any possibility of maintaining her relationships with Jared and Stephen. Xena would no longer be able to afford the luxury of trust. She anticipated a return to her life before Gabrielle, though more separate and alone.
The sun rose above the horizon casting a ray of light through the prison cell window. Xena looked up. Soon a guard would come with their breakfast. Soon she would be freed and Gabrielle's lifeless body would be burned on a pyre. If Gabrielle was still alive Xena would wait for mid-day or evening meal. She was certain she would announce the Queen's death by end of this new day.
Her gaze returned to Gabrielle. A piercing nostalgia cut into Xena's heart tearing into the muscle. She silently berated herself for her musings. She glanced at the door. Freedom was not the imperative it had been only the day before. She stood and lingered in place, maintaining her proximity to Gabrielle instead of stepping to the door that, once opened, would give her relief from this last of many trials involving the bard.
Xena reached out to Gabrielle's belt pouch. She untied the thong that held it closed. She explored the interior. Her fingertips touched the remainder of the herbs Gabrielle used. She gripped and lifted them to her nose and sniffed. Xena knew them well. There was an antidote. She could save Gabrielle if she so chose.
Xena would not act. She would not counterman Gabrielle's decision. She knew the bard well enough. In the pouch Xena also had grazed the parchment letters. She retrieved the two sealed documents. The first was addressed to Jared. The second was addressed to “My Lord”. As Xena had argued since Gabrielle had entered the cell, she was no longer the bard's Lord and thus had no right to break the letter's seal.
Xena's desire to revisit the past intimate peace she had known with Gabrielle was relentless. Time running short, having no one to observe, to judge her, she gave herself liberty to act. She reached out and gently cupped Gabrielle's cheek. The bard was warm to the touch. Xena whispered reverently, “Gabrielle, you did not change the course of history, you only delayed what was always meant to be. You earned the admiration of all who knew you including me. For that reason, you shall not die alone.” The words spoken, Xena lifted Gabrielle up and slipped behind the younger woman. She cradled Gabrielle in her arms.
The relief Xena felt was overwhelming, as if an unknown thirst was quenched. Xena inhaled deeply taking in Gabrielle's distinct scent. Xena's senses demanded more. Touch was not enough. Sight was not enough. Sound was not enough. Scent was not enough. Involuntary tears flowed slowly down Xena's cheek. She was beyond thought. Her arms tightened her embrace. An encroaching madness demanded she do more.
Xena closed her eyes. Her helplessness unbearable she chose to give Gabrielle one more gift – the gift of her song. She sang softly a ballad she knew to be the bard's favorite. The song completed Xena turned Gabrielle so that the bard's face was in profile. Xena could not arrest her emotions. In her mind's eye came a memory of time shared with Gabrielle in Megara.
Having come from the beach house Gabrielle stood at the perimeter of the fire ring where Xena and her Guard sat. She observed Xena's care for Stephen who was still healing from Tracate's torture. Her own mission would wait.
Xena released Stephen's arm and placed her hand on his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze before entering a solitary bearing as her thoughts were seduced by the brilliant play of the fire. A few moments passed before her senses felt a tug, causing her to look up. Her gaze met Gabrielle's.
"My Lord." Gabrielle extended her hand.
The Guardsmen fell silent. They had never witnessed Gabrielle so publicly summon the Conqueror to her. In spite of the Conqueror's devotion to her Queen, there was an air of caution. Xena's eyes narrowed. A number of heartbeats passed before she wordlessly walked to Gabrielle, took her hand and allowed herself to be led into the beach house and up the stairs to their bedroom.
Gabrielle closed the door behind them. They stood near each other. Gabrielle placed her hands on the ties that held Xena's blouse closed. "I remember the first night we were together. You were so careful and gentle with me. You placed my hands on your clothes encouraging me to help you undress, giving me a sense of being very much a part of what was happening between us. My hands trembled. I didn't know what to expect. As much as I wanted to be with you, I was frightened. My hands still tremble. Now, because I do know what to expect from you." Gabrielle looked up. "Xena, you are beautiful to me. You are more beautiful than any woman or man I have ever known." She slipped her hand inside Xena's blouse touching her skin, then leaned forward and kissed Xena's chest over her heart.
Xena stepped back, her hands holding Gabrielle at arm's length. She felt a surge of her sorrow. Tears threatened. The day had taken her by surprise and refused to relinquish its hold on her. She grasped at her anger, but it was not in her. This was one of those moments in her life completely defined by her love for Gabrielle. She would not fight her truth. She wondered why she felt she had to. Looking into Gabrielle's concerned eyes, the answer came to her. She feared the day she would lose Gabrielle. The happiness of Megara was too perfect to last. The Fates might bless Gabrielle. Xena had no faith that they would bless her.
Gabrielle whispered Xena's name.
Xena accepted her life. She would embrace Gabrielle until the Fates chose a different path for them. She leaned against the wall, sliding down to Gabrielle's height. Her body quaked.
Gabrielle could feel Xena's power underneath her fingertips. She gave her permission. "Xena, I'm yours tonight."
Xena avowed. "Gabrielle, I shall die of my love for you."
Xena's declaration conveyed a profound truth. There was a part of the Conqueror that was dying. Xena was slowly laying the coarsest part of herself to rest. The pain of the death was in not knowing who she was becoming.
Xena slowly bent down to Gabrielle and pressed her lips upon her soulmate's forehead. She held the kiss, unable to bear the prospect of never again showing this most chaste gesture of affection, her most humble, selfless act of love.
Within a synchronized heartbeat of the two women the prison cell was flooded with sunlight
The cell door's lower latch snapped open and a tray of food was pushed through. Xena tore herself from her connection with Gabrielle and called out for help as she got to her feet keeping Gabrielle firmly in her embrace. “Open the Gods' be damned door before Gabrielle dies!”
“How do I know this is not a trick?”
Xena recognized Alem's voice. “I give you my word. Alem! Man, I have never lied to you!” Receiving no response, making no effort to veil her desperation, Xena cried, “I beg you! I cannot lose Gabrielle!”
“What is wrong with her?”
“She took poison. There is an antidote if you can get her to Dalius. Tell him to look in her pouch. He'll know what to do.” Xena waited. “Alem, I swear I will hand her to you and step back in the cell. I will make no move to leave. Please, if you love her.”
Xena heard the sound of the door's lock mechanisms being released and the reinforcing crossbars lifted. The door opened revealing Alem standing alone. Xena stepped forward. “Take her.”
Alem opened his arms. Xena placed Gabrielle upon them. Alem looked down to Gabrielle visibly troubled by her still form.
“Go! Damn it! Don't bother with the door. I'm not going anywhere.”
Alem looked Xena in the eye. She was exposed to him as she never had been before. Without a word he turned and quickly carried Gabrielle away.
Xena listened to the sounds of Alem's footsteps – down the corridor and then up the dungeon stairs. She heard him shout orders followed by a distant door open and then close. Silence returned thrusting Xena into the nightmarish void of life without Gabrielle. She fell to her knees and sobbed, consumed by a racking sorrow.
From the sun's position one could tell it was near dusk. Xena sat on the floor, her back against the pallet, her arms resting upon her raised up knees. She stared at the cell entrance in a vague state of shock. In the passing candlemarks she retraced the events that brought her to this place and time. Understanding all that happened with sober clarity. All that Gabrielle had told her had been the truth. She had been cursed. The curse had been lifted. The act of love had not been Gabrielle's gift to her but her gift to Gabrielle. What had transpired between them in the cell was too terrible to be forgiven. Having her soul returned to her she was tormented by the consequences of her cruelty. She knew that there was no victory only a mitigation of the destruction that could have been. She shed quiet tears as she mourned the irreversible damage she had inflicted upon her partner. She was at a loss. Not able to imagine that there was a life worth living outside the cell.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps. She wiped her face with her shirt sleeve and waited. Jared broached the cell threshold. Xena met the General's steadfast gaze.
“The lass will live. She lies in your chambers. She is weak. Dalius has prescribed bed rest until all the poison is flushed from her body.”
Xena nodded, having neither words nor voice to speak.
“She wants to see you.”
Xena shook her head. “No, Jared.”
“After everything that has happened you would deny her?”
“You don't know what happened here.”
“I can imagine.”
“No, you cannot because you refuse to see me as a monster.”
“The soulless being you were may have been a monster but you are not.”
“I am one and the same.”
“Xena, what happened is not your fault. This was done to you.”
“Leave me, Jared.”
“I will not! Gabrielle was willing to die for you. Is her reward to lose you? Is there no justice in the world?”
“Justice? When have we known there to be justice in this world? I have had plenty of opportunities to accept the fact that I am not worthy of Gabrielle and each time I have ignored my better instincts and held tightly to her. Look at what my presence in her life has done to her! Though she's not willing to stop our madness, I am. It ends… we end now.”
“What will you do? Stay here and rot away?”
“It would be best for the world if I did. For the sake of Gabrielle's privacy I cannot confess my sins… I will leave Corinth. This time I will not return.”
“Xena, I don't have to know what happened between the two of you. No one else requires an explanation. I say the lass went to Tartarus and back to save your soul and you owe her the decency of facing her and hearing her out.”
“We have nothing more to say to each other.”
“Leave me, old man! By the Gods I will kill you if you say another word.”
* * *
It was the middle of the night when Xena spied Alem standing at the threshold of the open cell door holding a candle in one hand.
“My Liege,” said the Guardsman.
“Alem, what is it?” asked Xena from the bench where she sat.
“Gabrielle… she cannot sleep. She is haunted by her dreams. She refuses to take a drought Dalius has offered. Dalius is at a loss as to what to do.”
“Sit with her.”
“Makia stays by her bedside. It makes no difference. My Liege, Gabrielle is weak. As young and strong as she is I'm afraid her heart will not be able to bear the stress of the poison.”
“What will you have me do?”
“You know the answer better than I do, my Liege.”
Xena got to her feet and paced. “How do you know I won't add to her nightmares?”
“She calls for you.” Receiving no answer from Xena, Alem continued to persuade her. “My Liege, there is nothing you can do to make yourself a prisoner in your own house. I wish I could say the same in regards to your heart.”
“Alem, you are bold.”
“I have learned from my sister that to set aside the possibility of a future regret I must speak honestly in the present. I refuse, my Liege, to stand silent as I see you and Gabrielle suffer. What kind of Guardsman would I be? I would forfeit the right to call myself my sister's brother.” Alem remained steadfast in the face of Xena's opposition. “I wait to escort you to her.”
“Then you shall wait for the passing of eternity.”
“My Liege, Gabrielle had this with her. It was meant for you.” Alem held out the letter addressed to her Lord. The seal remained unbroken.
“Does Gabrielle know you have brought this letter to me?”
“No, my Liege.”
“Then I have no right to it.”
“Are you not her Lord?”
“No, Alem. I have forfeited that honor.”
“Only Gabrielle has the right to take the honor from you. Did she?”
Xena could hear in her inner ear Gabrielle's final words, “You are my Lord. I shall always love you.”
Not receiving a denial the Guardsman said, “I didn't think so. Take the letter, my Liege, unless it is you who deny your union.”
Xena glared angrily at Alem. He continued holding the letter out to her.
Xena stepped forward and snapped the letter from his hand and broke the seal. She read.
As I write this I am afraid that you are lost to me. I felt the rending of our souls. I shared your torment as you recognized what was being done to you… to us. I felt you fight the insidious power of the amulet and loved you for keeping your word to me and not leaving me easily.
Tomorrow I will go to you intent on waging my own battle. I expect to place my life at risk as I act according to my interpretation of a scroll admittedly cryptic in its guidance.
That you are reading this letter means that I have failed to survive. It may also mean that I played a role in returning your soul to you.
Know that I gave my life without hesitation. You saved me years ago. More recently you forgave me my trespasses against our union. What I have done is first and foremost a reflection of my love for you. I will also confess that it was a meager attempt to seek my soul's redemption.
I shall wait for you as I always have. I pray that Hades will be merciful and allow our souls to meet again. If he does, I humbly petition that whether you come to love another or not, and I do wish you love, that you will still open your arms to me and embrace me. I have known no greater peace and joy than when I have been with you. You have always been my Elysia and though I am only a pauper bowing to your majesty, I selfishly wish to know such felicity if only for one more fleeting moment.
I love you,
Xena folded the letter. She looked up to the waiting Guardsman. “Let's go,” she said. Alem turned and led the way through the dungeon corridors up into the light filled halls of the palace.
Alem remained in the main chamber of the Royal Suite as Xena entered the bedroom. There Xena found Makia sitting in a chair at Gabrielle's bedside. Gabrielle slept fitfully.
“Makia, will you excuse us?”
Makia stood and approached Xena. She reached out and placed her hand on her Sovereign's arm. “Your Majesty…” Xena met Makia's compassionate gaze. “Be brave of heart,” whispered the cook.
“Did she tell you?“
“Not a word. I am not blind. For you to stay away… you must believe you do not deserve to be with her… or that she does not want you. I think you are wrong to think either true.”
“Gabrielle has always considered me her Lord. I have wondered if she truly understood how I valued being such a personage in her eyes. There have been times I have been different… I hope better because I did not want to face her as the Conqueror. I did not want to disappoint her. Makia, I was a brute to her.”
“You were not yourself.”
“I remember everything. I was not a stranger. A stranger could not have cut wounds as deep as I did… Gabrielle will now always see me as her abuser. I cannot bear having the monster I am reflected in her eyes… again.”
“Your Majesty… I'm sorry. I didn't know.”
“How could you, Makia? Gabrielle has always tried to protect others from me. The one person she refuses to save from my savagery is herself. I take solace in the fact that despite my efforts, the one person I have never conquered is Gabrielle.”
“I believe you never wanted to conqueror Gabrielle. And yet, you are wrong, your Majesty, to think you have not. You conquered Gabrielle with your love.” The cook gave her Sovereign's arm a gentle squeeze and then left the room.
Xena stood over Gabrielle. She felt she had forfeited all privileges to the bard, including touching her while she slept. To give touch uninvited was a violation. And yet, Xena knew that simply by her touch she had the power to quelled Gabrielle's nightmares. Xena raised her hand to her breast pocket where she had stored Gabrielle's letter. A touch, an embrace was what Gabrielle had asked for. Xena could not deny that her tenderness toward the bard had broken the curse. She felt the renewal of her desperate need to feel her bond to Gabrielle. She was thus compelled to act not only in response to Gabrielle's written solicitation but also to consummate what she had gone without for far too long. She knelt beside the bed and cover Gabrielle's hand with her own. The bard's fidgeting immediately quieted. Xena bowed her head humbly as she felt Gabrielle's faint essence. She kept silent vigil until Gabrielle gently slipped into a deep tranquil sleep.
Xena stood on the bedroom balcony. Gabrielle's letter dominated her thoughts. The bard's reference to her infidelity and desire to seek redemption troubled Xena. Remembering all that transpired between them in the dungeon cell only compounded Xena's concern. She had raised the events of Athens as a weapon to break the bard's spirit not once but twice. Xena searched her heart. Did the amulet collapse all barriers to her true emotions? Was the depth of her bitterness as deep and implacable as her behavior would seem to reflect? Did Gabrielle sense this in her and thus continue to carry the burden of the past as a torturous band across her soul?
The future was bleak. Though she had been freed of the amulet's curse there was no means to suppress the memories of what the amulet had wrought. Unwilling to bear the thousand deaths of a coward, Xena chose to face Gabrielle before leaving Corinth.
Gabrielle opened her eyes. She turned to her side and scanned the room. She saw a figure standing upon the balcony and recognized its silhouette as Xena's. She closed her eyes. Their bond was present. Beyond the assurance of its existence, there was no joy in it.
Gabrielle carefully got to her feet. Her legs felt weak and her balance fragile. She stepped forward slowly, relying on a nearby chair to steady her stance. Feeling more confident, Gabrielle took a deep breath, and then walked on. Finding herself seven paces from her Lord, Gabrielle called Xena's name.
Xena turned to her. Her face was a mask. “Gabrielle, you shouldn't be up.”
“Have you slept?” asked Gabrielle choosing to set aside concerns for her health.
“I'm not the one who poisoned herself.”
Xena's chastisement was too much for Gabrielle to bear. “Please don't be angry with me,” she pleaded. “I did what I thought I had to do.”
“Alem gave me your letter.”
“Did you read it?”
“I did. We must talk when you are better.”
“I'm well enough. Don't make me suffer the wait.”
Xena approached. Passing beside Gabrielle she turned the chair Makia had been sitting in around. “Rest here.” Gabrielle accepted the curt invitation and sat down. Xena walked around the chair and stood before Gabrielle, leaving three paces of separation.
“How are you?” asked Gabrielle.
“I am myself again.”
“What happened? How did you break the curse?”
“I would not have you die alone. I held you and gave you a kiss.”
Gabrielle considered the simplicity of the gestures. “Thank you.”
“Don't thank me!” said Xena angrily. She pointed toward their bedroom door. “What happened in that dungeon is cause to condemn me, not thank me.”
“Xena, you've come back to me. That is all that matters.” Xena turned away. “Tell me you wouldn't have done the same to save my soul,” said Gabrielle fervently.
“I think the power of the amulet wasn't that it destroyed my soul. I think it just brought forth what ugliness lay dormant within it.”
“You may be right. I never had the sense that you lied to me. Your anger felt true.”
“I taunted and degraded you. How can you stand being in my company?”
“I wish I could say that I hadn't given you reason to be angry at me. Turian…”
“Don't!” interrupted Xena.
“I hate that you sacrificed yourself in Athens. If I hadn't placed you on the throne…”
“Why must the fault always be yours? Xena, what happened in Athens was not your fault. You could not have stopped… it was my choice.”
“You chose to live! The Fates were clear…”
“Xena, you know the truth!”
“You did not love Turian!”
“Nor did I hate him.”
“I've forgiven you.”
“Yes… you have. But, that I did not despise Turian is still with you.”
“You're right. Forgiving you didn't erase what happened in Athens from my memory. It didn't make the injustice of life right. There is another forgiveness we have never spoken of. What tortures me day and night is the fact that you believed that I would kill you and it was that belief that drove you into Turian's arms. If I had the virtues you deserve in a partner you would have trusted me to hear your story.”
“Don't do this. Please… I will always take responsibility for my actions. I… hurt… you. Xena, it was I… who hurt you”
“It is inconceivable that you place me in a more virtuous light than you place yourself. I remember our conversation the first time we met on the turret. I asked you how you felt when telling your stories. You confessed that though not when storytelling but other times you tried not to feel. The reason you gave was that ‘ a slave loses all rights, even her right to her body.' I promised you then that as long as you were under my protection that you would not be taken against your will. By my very hand I broke that promise.”
“Xena… I consented. You did not hurt me. You were gentle.”
“That was not my intent.”
“Love, even if you were unwilling to admit it at the time, that night my Lord was with me. Xena, if you are right about the amulet, if it brought forth what lay dormant, then your tenderness for me was part of our night together.”
“What I said to you.”
“The power of the amulet made you desperate to stop me. I was breaching its hold on you.”
“Gabrielle, it was me! My thoughts! My words!”
“There were no words that night, only your touch. I have learned to trust your silence.”
“You are the only one.”
“Then tell me what you were thinking, what you felt all those hours in the cell alone with me?”
“I had many thoughts and feelings.”
“None of concern for me?” Xena looked down. Gabrielle felt she had made an inroad. “Xena, tell me now that you don't love me.”
Xena raised her gaze. She spoke achingly. “I love you as I have loved no one else.”
“As I love you, my Lord,” said Gabrielle reaching out to Xena with both her hands.
Gabrielle's call shattered all of Xena's resolve to maintain her distance. She fell to her knees in front of Gabrielle and buried her face in the bard's lap. Gabrielle held her Lord as she cried.
Days passed as Gabrielle continued to convalesce. Xena limited her interaction with the palace staff, welcoming only Dalius and Makia into their suite. Gabrielle briefly met with Jared and Stephen in a nearby conference room. The men needed assurances that Xena's rehabilitation would hold the test of time. To their displeasure, Gabrielle insisted that their meeting with the Sovereign would be on Xena's timetable, not their own.
Gabrielle sat near the fireplace, a blanket over her legs, and Honor resting by her side. She read a scroll received from Chin. Lao Ma was delicately inquiring about her and Xena's well-being. Gabrielle was not completely surprised to learn that news of Xena's touch of the amulet had reached Chin. What she did not expect was Lao Ma's insistence that she had not sent the amulet to Xena and, to put it bluntly, would never have knowingly placed such a powerful talisman anywhere within the vicinity of the Conqueror.
Xena entered from their bedroom and sat in her own chair across from Gabrielle. She leaned forward and waited until Gabrielle looked up from her reading before asking, “The scroll from Kaleipus… where is it?”
“In my scroll case,” responded Gabrielle gently. “I didn't think you would want it in the palace archives.”
“I didn't send a response.”
“I did. I wrote Kaleipus that you were ill and would contact him as soon as you were better.”
“Will you keep Greece while I travel to him?”
Gabrielle suppressed her disappointment in not being invited to join Xena. “Of course, if that is what you wish.”
“Will you take an escort?”
“No.” said Xena without hesitation.
“Xena, will you be all right?”
“I don't know.” Xena combed a hand through her hair. Sadly, she leaned back against her chair. “I've lost my son.”
Gabrielle had also experienced a loss in Solon's death. She knew all too well that it could not compare to Xena's mourning. “I will wait for you.”
Xena chose to stop in Megara on her way to the Centaurs. It was dusk as Argo carried her into the Royal compound. It seemed a far smaller and desolate place without Gabrielle and the Queen's Guard. Still, Xena welcomed the silence. Other than her own presence, there was no human displacement of space, no artificial measurement of time, no one to place an expectation upon her.
It was difficult for her to be in Corinth despite the fact that the damage done by her dark infected soul had been mitigated by Jared's brave action to imprison her. Thus, only a limited number of the palace staff and the military were aware of what had happened to Xena, of how she was ready to forsake a precious peace to war with Greece's neighbors and of how she cast aside friendships with expertly targeted venom upon her tongue.
It was never like Xena to divert her eyes from an approaching friend, stranger or foe. Her profound shame of having lost control of her darkness challenged her conviction never to turn away her gaze, to always exercise her formidable power to impress her right to be present. Walking down the palace corridors had become an unwelcomed exercise she was relieved to leave behind.
Gabrielle tried hard to convince Xena that the impact of the amulet was no different than a God's touch of madness. She was not to be held accountable now that its spell had been lifted. Xena took no solace, looking over her shoulder back to Corinth. She still could see the remnants of the damage done by her words and deeds.
As Xena stabled Argo she resolved to leave Corinth behind. Her journey had nothing to do with the amulet. Her journey was to honor her son. Xena was grateful that Solan had not been alive to learn of the Conqueror's renewed lust for war. Bitter was the fact that it was in learning of Solan's death that she had been so careless to have taken hold of the amulet. How unworthy of a response to the loss of an innocent.
Xena woke the following morning, lying in the bed she always shared with Gabrielle. She could still smell a waft of the bard's scent among the sheets. She turned and looked out the open doors to the sea. The vastness of the waters invited a cleansing she yearned for yet felt she did not deserve. Xena returned to lay on her back. She closed her eyes. She spoke Gabrielle's name as she reached within herself for her lover's intangible essence. “Know that I love you and need you, and though I do not deserve you, I will return to you because you have asked it of me.” She held still and waited, struggling with impatience, holding dear to hope. She was rewarded with a brightening of the light of Gabrielle. Xena reached out to it. The light touched her fingertips, a feather light touch. It coaxed Xena's tears to the surface. The warrior turned her body close to her and cried unceasingly for one candlemark after another.
Xena remained in Megara for three days. She experienced a modicum of healing in the silence and solitude that enveloped her like a blanket. When solitude turned to loneliness she freely reached out to Gabrielle and bathed in the sense of her partner's loving touch. She felt her fragileness. She also felt her strength. Strength sufficient to carry her forward to face Solon's grave.
Xena rode Argo to the perimeter of the Centaurian lands. She was met by two Centaur guards. Upon seeing her they did the uncommon gesture of simply bowing to her in silence. They turned and led the way to Kalipus. Xena followed. Her heart breaking anew.
Kalipus was standing within the village square speaking to a fellow Centaur when he spied Xena's approach. He broke off his conversation and walked to her. The guards stepped aside giving the two leaders their privacy.
Kalipus spoke first. “Xena. Your Queen had sent word you were ill. It is good to see you able to travel.”
Xena's emotions rose strangling her throat of voice. A tear fell down her cheek. A few moments passed before she composed herself sufficiently to speak. “Kalipus, my dear friend. I am so sorry for your son's passing. The day will come when you will be united in Elysia and the pain that I'm certain you feel now will only be a distant memory.”
“I wish the same for you, Xena.”
“How did you…. Is there a grave?”
“Solon's ashes were scattered to the winds. His spirit is free of all earthly bonds.”
“He sensed he was very ill. The brave boy that he was, he demanded to know the truth. Our healer told him there was little to be done but give him tonics to ease his pain. Upon hearing that his remaining time on earth would be brief he opened his heart to all, to me, to his friends… Solan asked me to convey a message to you. I thought it best to wait until we next would meet.”
“What was Solan's message?”
“He said he would forever be proud to be your son and that he loved you for all that you did for him.”
Xena could not bear the pain that coursed through her. She held the pummel of her saddle with both hands not to fall from Argo.
Kalipus continued, “I did not tell him, Xena. I kept my promise to you. But, when he spoke his truth, I did not deny him. I told him why you gave him up to me, why you stayed away and why you returned. Always to safeguard the boy you loved above all others. The son you were so very proud of.”
Xena bowed her head humbled by Kalipus' generosity. She took a deep breath and raised her eyes to Kalipus, “Ours was the most honorable son.”
“Yes, he was,” said Kalipus not hiding his tears. “He was a gift to us both. You gave him a chance at life. In striking our agreement, what we could not have known was that his fate was to die young.”
“Kalipus, with your permission I would like to stay in Gabrielle's homestead for a few days before returning to Corinth.”
“Yes, stay,” said the Centaur. “There is more for us to say to one another.”
“I will see you in the morning then,” said Xena.
“Do you wish an escort? I would be happy to provide hospitality.”
“Not today my friend. Tomorrow we shall break bread together and share stories of our young Solan.”
“As you wish. Sleep in peace, Xena.”
Xena simply nodded and reined Argo to a walk. She had two great loves in her life: her son and Gabrielle. Her heart stilled as she followed the trail to Gabrielle's cot. She would return to a place that harken to Gabrielle. In the quiet of the forest she understood that soon she would need to return to Gabrielle, not only because it was her greatest heart's desire, but because she knew Gabrielle was in need of her, in need of reassurance that her Lord was still hers to claim.
Makia entered the Royal suite carrying Gabrielle's evening meal. She proceeded to place the tray's contents upon the dining table. Gabrielle entered from the bedroom in a quick step. Upon seeing Makia she paused with obvious disappointment.
Makia assumed the reason. “No word from the Conqueror? Well, it's been only a fortnight. She promised you word within a moon.”
“Makia, I know what it feels like to lose my memory. What must my Lord have felt when she lost her soul?”
“Child, she has her soul back thanks to you. Give her time to come back to herself and then to you.”
“I wish I knew where she was.”
“I thought she went north to visit Kalipus?”
“Yes, but that doesn't mean she's still there.”
“Can't you sense her?”
“She dreams of you.”
“Or, it's me. I'm dreaming of her.”
“Gabrielle, the Conqueror loves you. There is nothing more important to her that having your love. Hasn't she proven this to you? She will do the impossible because of it. Gabrielle she beat a curse of the Gods. I cannot imagine any but her doing such a thing.”
“Thank you,” said Gabrielle, appreciating Makia's steadfast belief in her Lord.
“Now eat. I do not want the Conqueror to find you thin and cast one of her stern looks toward me. I'll come later for your tray.”
Gabrielle sat at the table with little hunger. There had been moments since Xena had left that she felt her Lord's essence reach out to her. It was difficult for her to trust the sensation no matter how true it seemed to her. As she raised a fork she was struck with a wave of overwhelming grief. The fork dropped from her hand making a crashing sound that fell deaf to Gabrielle's ears. Gabrielle was in another place, a place where sorrow ruled without mercy.
Xena stood upon a smooth cut of stone surrounded by jaded cliffs. A valley lay before her. Upon this summit she had come each night of her stay with the Centaurs. She watched the sunset. How the sky burned and then gradually slipped into darkness, a darkness that brought forth no sense of fear or dread, just awe and appreciation for the beauty that had been engulfed.
Her heart was with Solan. Her dire sorrow had eased, replaced by a resolute conviction to stand with appreciation to the simplest gifts of living, such as a sunrise and a sunset. She turned her head to the right. Until that moment, she attributed her ever growing sensation of Gabrielle's essence to her profound desire for her bard. Now she was not so sure.
Gabrielle approached from a lower trail. In seeing Xena she paused. For a couple of heart beats the two women gazed upon each other silently. Gabrielle stepped forward. “I'm sorry. I couldn't wait… not feeling what I was feeling.”
“I thought it would be better to be alone,” said Xena. “In truth, I've missed you.”
Gabrielle stood beside her Lord and looked over to the valley. “It's beautiful here.”
“This is where Kalipus released Solan's ashes.” Xena stepped closer to the edge. “I've questioned my life, time and time again. I've had reasons for holding the throne tightly in my fist as well as relinquishing it.” She glanced back briefly to Gabrielle. “I always needed to believe Greece would be well led, protected from its enemies. That its own would be cared for and prejudices such as those against the Centaurs would not escalate to bloodshed. As long as Solan was alive I owed him a chance to live in peace.” Xena turned to Gabrielle. “Now that he's gone let someone else safeguard Greece. It's selfish of me but I don't want to live with a sword in my hand for a moment longer than I have to. I want to train horses, work leather, be a healer, use all the skills I have toward life, not death. Gabrielle, I can't go back to Corinth – not as the Conqueror.”
“All right,” said Gabrielle.
“Just like that?” asked Xena.
“Yes. Knowing how you feel, what else should I have expected?”
Xena saw nothing in Gabrielle but her sincerity. “I can't imagine my life without you. I have no right to ask but would you give up the throne to be with me?”
“Yes,” said Gabrielle shedding tears in relief.
Xena smiled gently. “Just like that?”
Gabrielle laughed and embraced Xena.
“I love you beyond words, my bard.”
“As I love you,” said Gabrielle rejoicing that her life's dream, to live with Xena in a world beyond Corinth was soon to be realized.
The Royals spent another five days with the Centaurs enjoying Kalipus' hospitality while planning all that would need to take place in order to transition the rule of Greece. Their goal was to limit the risk of either domestic or foreign interference. They decided they needed to act quickly, taking advantage of the realm's state of peace.
Having returned to Corinth, Xena had yet to reconcile with Stephen. She insisted on taking on the task of speaking to him regarding the succession plan. Knowing Xena's intent to seek Stephen out, Gabrielle positioned herself discreetly across the square adjacent to Stephen's cottage. Stephen had maintain the modest household as his Corinth residence. Given the recent palace turmoil and his broken arm, he had yet to return to his estate to be with Tess.
Xena walked to Stephen's cottage door and knocked. She held a scroll in her hand.
Stephen opened the door. His mean hardened upon seeing Xena.
“I'm sorry,” said Xena. Hers was a heartfelt apology.
Stephen was not of the mind to accept. “I thought you approved of Tess.”
Stephen scoffed. “Don't lie to me, Xena.”
Xena realized she had made a mistake. Gabrielle should have been the messenger of their news. Wanting no conflict, having had sufficient conflict in her life for a thousand lifetimes she turned and walked away.
“Is that it!” Stephen angrily shouted. “Will you simply walk away? Damn you, is it so easy for you?”
Xena turned in anger. “I hate that I hurt you. I hate that I've hurt our friendship. I am a monster with or without a soul and I shall know Tartarus for it. What more can I say? Stephen, what more do you want from me?”
Stephen stepped forward and flung a smothering ember of an accusation. “Gabrielle doesn't deserve the pain you cause her.”
Xena responded softy. “You're right. Neither have you or Jared or anyone else I love.”
Stephen's anger deflected all mention of love. “I pray the Gods take Greece from you.”
Xena marched forward and grabbed Stephen's good hand. She placed the scroll she was holding in it. “The Gods have answered your prayers.” She walked away giving Stephen no further opportunity to respond.
Gabrielle watched the exchange hidden from view. She was torn between following Xena and going to Stephen.
Stephen opened and read the scroll. He raised his gaze toward Xena's route of departure. Gabrielle had approached unseen. She stood five paces from Stephen making sufficient sounds to ensure being heard. He t to her. “This can't be,” he said, raising the scroll.
“Xena and I discussed our decision at length. It is what we both want.”
“She is the Conqueror.”
“Once. No more,” said Gabrielle with a newly formed sense of peace.
“Why?” Stephen was obviously at a loss. “Greece is what she fought for?”
“No, Stephen,” said Gabrielle gently. “She didn't fight for land or wealth. She made war to secure peace. What I didn't understand for a very long time was that Xena's ambitions were driven by love.”
“Greece was Xena's before you came into her life.”
“Another love, Stephen. One whose name you shall never know.”
“But you do?”
Stephen calmed. More himself he sought out answers to the many questions that swirled within his mind. “This love of Xena's is no longer of consequence?”
Gabrielle quieted as she felt the loss of Solan yet again. “The soul we speak of will always be of consequence to my Lord.”
Stephen's anger spiked anew. “How can Xena still be your Lord after what she did to you?”
Gabrielle would not breach her or her Lord's privacy. Yet, she was compelled to help her brother understand. “Stephen, I am certain that there are things you share with Tess that no one standing outside your intimate union can ever truly understand. You must accept that my union with Xena is no different.”
Stephen's gaze diverted to the town square as he fell into a more measured thought. By this his anger was displaced. Sadness took residence upon his mien. “You are wrong to believe Tess and I share anything comparable to what you and Xena share. Gabrielle, Xena's judgment of Tess was not far from the truth.”
Knowing Xena's assessment of Tess, Gabrielle understood why it troubled Stephen so. His pride had taken a blow. Though she wished to comfort him, her power to do so was limited. If there was a need for resolution, it was more so between Stephen and Tess than Stephen and Xena. Gabrielle's heart led her elsewhere. “I'm sorry,” she said as she placed her hand on Stephen's arm. “Stephen, I need to find my Lord.”
“Gabrielle, this is not settled,” said Stephen raising the scroll.
Gabrielle would not be delayed any longer. “It is for you and Tess to either accept or decline.” She began to walk to Xena.
Stephen called out to her, “What will become of you?”
She glanced back to Stephen. “I believe I have a chance to share an Elysian life with my Lord. And now that I have the chance I will not let it slip away. Stephen, I ask that you keep the contents of the scroll in strictest confidence. I understand if you feel compelled to seek counsel. But, please, keep to those who can be trusted.”
“Does Jared know?”
“Of course. Xena and I leave for Megara in the morning. We will wait for your decision there. Send Targon when you decide. Now, I must go.”
The following morning, as planned, Xena, Gabrielle and the Queen's Guard travelled to Megara. The trip was uneventful. It gave Xena time reconcile herself to the loss of Stephen's friendship. She knew Gabrielle had spoken to him after Xena had walked away. She knew Gabrielle told Stephen to make his decision whether he would be the father of the new Queen of Greece. If Stephen decline for Lisia then Jared would be King. Whether Lisia's regent or king, Greece would be in Jared's most capable hands.
Gabrielle did not take Xena's loss of Stephen's friendship as Xena had expected her to. In the past Gabrielle would have interfered and played peacemaker. Not this time. Gabrielle held Xena close and shared her pain, no more. By the time they left for Megara Gabrielle's essence carried a lightness to it. It seemed to float in the air freely in a manner Xena had never felt before. And yet, there was an air of determination in the bard. Events were unfolding with great speed. It seemed Gabrielle would suffer no delays. Each problem was immediately addressed, resolved or set aside as unresolvable. It did not matter. They had their future and it would not be taken from them.
The afternoon after arriving in Megara Gabrielle found Tavis in the stables grooming his stallion. The Major paused in his work. “Gabrielle, what brings you to me?”
“I'm worried about Sentas.”
“Why… what's wrong?”
“I'm not sure. He's very serious. It's unlike him. Of all my brothers, you're closest to him. I was hoping you could give me some insight.”
“It was once true that Sentas and I shared a brother's friendship, but ever since my commission to Major things between us haven't been the same.”
Gabrielle now believed she was getting closer to the truth. “Sentas has been your best friend since I arrived in Corinth.”
Tavis was noticeably uncomfortable with their conversation.
Gabrielle decided not to press Tavis further. “If you don't feel comfortable talking to him…”
“I'm willing,” said the Major. “I just want you to understand… I'll see what I can do.”
“Thank you,” said Gabrielle, giving him a kiss on the cheek before leaving.
Sentas sat outside, leaning against a large oak tree on the perimeter of the courtyard. He was intent in his work, trying to straighten a flat of leg armor that had been damaged during a strenuous gallop through the Corinthian woods. Tavis approached and sat down beside him. After a few silent moments Sentas glanced over to Tavis. “You here for a reason, Major?”
“Use to be I didn't need a reason to spend time with you.”
“Well, your commission keeps you busy elsewhere.”
“We never talked about it, did we?”
“I congratulated you when Hamish gave me the news.” Sentas returned his focus back on his metalwork. “Thought you would have told me yourself.”
“I know. I should have. I just wasn't sure how you would react.”
Sentas looked up. “I was proud of you… I am proud of you. The promotion couldn't have happened to a better man.”
“I thought of asking the Conqueror to reassign you to my command.”
“Why didn't you?”
“Gabrielle. The Queen's Guard. I know how hard it's been for me and I still get to drill with you and I'm included when the Conqueror and Gabrielle travel together. If you came to the First Army, I'd have little to offer you in recompense.”
“You should have trusted me to decide for myself.”
“Would you have accepted?”
“Don't know. Probably not. It would have been good to know that you wanted me.”
“Would that have made a difference?”
“I'm glad we got that settled.”
“If you say so.”
Tavis stood up. “Sentas, some of the men are going to Bella's tonight. Come with us.”
“I'm in no mood for a tavern wench.”
“You never are.”
“They're not my type.”
“No, I don't expect they are.”
Sentas looked up at Tavis, his eyes one moment hurt the next steel.
Tavis chose a different strategy. “Gabrielle is worried about you. If I can't be a friend to you, maybe she can. Good night, Sentas.”
Trevor, Sentas, Hamish and Brogan joined the Conqueror and Gabrielle for a mug of beer outside on the beach house porch. From a distance a figure walked toward them. The group turned their attention keeping close watch.
“Is that Alem?” asked Hamish, straining to make out the silhouette.
“Who is he carrying?” asked Sentas.
Xena stood up from the bench she shared with Gabrielle. “It's not even midnight.” She waited until the Guardsman entered the light. Recognizing him she called out. “Alem, who do you carry?”
“Tavis, my Liege.”
“Is he all right?”
“Drunk as a skunk.”
“That's not like him,” said Gabrielle with a note of concern.
“What was the occasion?” asked Xena.
“He was broody as all get up. Even insulted Bella's girls. I'll throw him in his bunk. He should be fine in the morning.”
“Do you need help?” offered Hamish.
“Na… If he'll need caring it ‘ll be at sunrise, no sooner.”
“Good man. Thank you, Alem,” said Xena.
“Tis nothing my Liege. The night is young and I've got one of Bella's girls waiting for me.”
Xena chuckled as she turned to Gabrielle. “They're your men, my Queen.”
“Tavis is assigned to you, my Lord,” reminded Gabrielle.
“Yes, but you still take it upon yourself to worry about him.”
“What is it with Tavis lately? Sentas, have you a clue?” asked Hamish.
“Why ask me?” said Sentas tersely.
“It was just a question. I meant no harm by it.”
“I know,” Sentas said dejectedly. “I'm sorry.”
“Well, it's getting late,” said Xena. “I'm ready to call it a night.” She extended her hand to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle accepted the invitation and stood beside her. She directed her comment to Hamish and Brogan, who were assigned guard duty. “I'm sorry you've missed the night on the town.”
“No need,” said Brogan. “I prefer a quiet night.”
“So do I,” echoed Hamish. “Our brothers have a greater risk of a skirmish and injury at Bella's than we do here.”
Gabrielle turned to Sentas. He continued to follow Alem's movements. She would have wagered, had a brother proposed one, that his thoughts were with Tavis.
The following morning Tavis slept face down on his bunk in the otherwise deserted bunkhouse. Sentas kicked Tavis' bunk.
“By the Gods, get out of here,” moaned Tavis.
“No Major. The Queen's order was to let you sleep through mid-morning. Times past.”
Tavis rolled over. He looked out the window. “Damn.”
“Here.” Sentas threw a waterskin at him. “Drink up. Your sister took pity upon you and added some herbs to settle your stomach and clear your head.”
Tavis unstopped the waterskin and drank a healthy dose. He placed the waterskin over his brow and leaned back on his pallet.
“I have to thank you,” sarcastically said Sentas. “Gabrielle is no longer worried about me. Now, she's worried about you.”
“Can't a man indulge himself every once in a while?” protested Tavis in an aching voice.
“You don't get drunk.”
“There's always a first time. Anyway, the right comes with my commission. I can drown myself in wine cut with the best spring water Greece has to offer.”
“If I was the cause… you're an idiot.”
Tavis opened his eyes to Sentas. “If that was some kind of apology, you need to practice more.”
“What do I owe you an apology for?”
“For ending our friendship.”
Sentas shook his head. “If the Conqueror heard us she would slap us both upside the head and tell us to stop acting like orphaned puppies.”
“Gabrielle would disagree.”
Sentas smiled. “Yes, she would and she did, didn't she? She sent you to me yesterday. Didn't do either one of us much good.”
“Yeah, well… there was a reason for that.”
“What pray tell might that have been?” said Sentas as he crossed his arms before him.
Tavis pulled himself up to a sitting position. “I look at her and I can't help but think everything she went through to bring Xena back to her. Makes me feel ashamed.”
“Because I'm a coward.”
Sentas sat down beside Tavis. “Tavis, you are no such thing.”
“I thought I'd drink and with the spirit of Dionysus' help I'd be able to break my silence. Instead, I passed out.”
“You have something to say?”
“For years I've bitten my tongue and refused to speak of love.”
“You have?” Sentas was obviously taken by surprise. “I didn't know… You didn't think your brothers would toast you? What kind of fool are you?”
Tavis looked down, unable to match Sentas' gaze. “If I spoke of love I would lose the very one I loved.”
“Tavis, I don't understand. Gabrielle and Xena have done all in their power to support Stephen and Tess. Why do you think they or your brothers would treat you differently?”
“Go now.” Tavis gave Sentas a shove. “You've done your duty and waken me. I'll be up in a quarter-candlemark. You have my word.”
Sentas remain unmoved. “No man, I won't leave you. I can't stand seeing you like this.”
“Gods, I've missed you, Sentas,” sadly said Tavis.
“As I've missed you my friend.”
“Friend,” said Tavis. His sadness turned bitter. “That is it there.”
“Friendship. You and I. You have no love for me. At least not in the same way I love you.”
“You love me?” A smile rose up in Sentas.
Tavis looked at Sentas nakedly bringing forth all the courage he held within his warrior's heart. “Yes.”
“Does Gabrielle know?”
Tavis shook his head.
“Oh, I think she does,” Sentas chuckled. “Aphrodite's Chosen isn't as blind to love as two hardheaded Guardsmen can be.”
“Don't laugh at me!” shouted Tavis.
“Why not when I include myself in the joke? Tavis, my dear Tavis.” Tavis held the waterskin over his chest, a protective shield from the harm words can do. In response Sentas placed his hand on Tavis' shoulder. “Man, I love you.”
“You do?” Tavis repeated incredulously. After a heartbeat he laughed as a tear fell down his cheek. “You do!” he repeated again with conviction.
Sentas embraced him. “Yes, I do.” Sentas pulled back and then kissed Tavis passionately.
Another three days passed before a contingent led by Targon entered the Megara courtyard. Targon had been escorted by five Royal Guardsmen, including Samuel, who drove a wagon carrying a large locked chest. Xena met his administrator before he had a chance to dismount.
“Targon, have you news for me and my Queen?” she asked.
“I do, your Majesty. Here is what you have been waiting for.” He reached into his saddlebag and gave Xena a scroll carrying Stephen's seal. Without delay she opened and read it. Stephen had accepted the throne on behalf of Lisia. The letter said little more. It was devoid of the warmth of a friend. “So be it!” she thought. She and Gabrielle had what they needed. A succession plan that would grant them their freedom.
“Is all well, your Majesty?” asked Targon.
Xena returned to him. “Yes, very much so. Take your time and settle in. We will talk later.”
“As you wish, your Majesty.”
Xena knew she would find Gabrielle at the cove. Without delay she walked to her bard, who would no longer be Queen.
Later as promised, Targon had a private audience with his Sovereign. They sat opposite one another within the Royal's quarters.
“Targon, I am curious of why you chose Sam to escort you.”
“Your Majesty, I did only as directed and called upon Royal Guardsmen to ensure my safe passage.”
“You sir are a rogue in a refined man's clothing,” said Xena with a smile.
“My mirror reflects nothing so attractive as a rogue. My body is broken and of little use to me let alone anyone else.”
“You are wrong,” said Xena as she leaned forward. “Your intelligence, insight, clear reason and most importantly, honesty have distinguished you. I judge your choice of escort a reflection of your affection for Gabrielle.”
“I just wanted to give Sam a final chance…”
“Does he know why you are here?”
“No, your Majesty. I've also kept the contents of the chest away from his keen eye.”
“I hope our gift will be sufficient compensation.”
“I can tell you it will not be.”
“No?” Xena leaned back disappointingly. “You judge it too little?”
“You misunderstand me, your Majesty. What the Queen's Guard share with you and their sister is priceless.”
“Thank you, Targon.” Xena leaned over to her desk and picked up a scroll. She offered it to him. “Gabrielle and I want you to have this.”
“May I?” he asked, indicating the scroll.
Targon opened and read the scroll. He looked up genuinely surprised. “Your Majesty… I don't know what to say. This is far too generous.”
“It is well deserved.” Xena picked up two more scrolls. “I ask that you give these to Dalius and Makia.”
“I assume that they will be equally grateful for what these scrolls convey to them.”
“Gabrielle and I wanted to make sure our family was well taken care of.”
Targon was visibly moved. He cleared his throat. “Yes…. Of course.”
“Come now.” Xena stood up and placed her hand on the man's bent back. “Dinner should be ready.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Xena paused. “Targon, I am no longer the Conqueror. My name is Xena.”
Samuel was standing on the boardwalk. His eyes gazed out to the sea. He thought of all the days and nights that he stood on this very boardwalk keeping guard on Gabrielle's behalf. They were both happy and sad times. They were intimate times, shared with a young woman who looked to him as her brother, trusting him not only with her life but her heart. Returning to Megara had opened his heart. He felt anew the pain of his estrangement from the Queen's Guard, more so the Queen. A part of him hated being ordered to Megara. A part of him was not so sure he wanted to continue in anger.
Gabrielle spied Samuel from her bedroom door. She knew that tomorrow her life would forever change. She welcomed the opportunity to try one more time to heal the schism between her and Samuel. She walked and stood beside him. “Hi Sam.”
Without looking at her, he asked, “My coming here was whose doing?”
“It was Targon's decision. I should be angry with him but now that you're here I feel only gratitude.”
“There is something different… I can sense it. Will you tell me?”
Gabrielle felt the challenge of being completely candid with the Guardsman, something she could not do in Athens. “My Lord and I will be making an announcement tomorrow. I wrote a message for you. I was going to ask Targon to give it to you upon his return to Corinth?”
Samuel turned to Gabrielle. “What does the future bring?”
“My Lord and I will not be returning to Corinth. We have decided to name Lisia successor to the throne. Jared will be her regent until her eighteenth birthday. If something were to happen to Jared, the regency will go to Stephen.”
Samuel betrayed no emotion. “Who else knows this?”
“Only those who needed to know: Jared, Stephen, Tess and Targon. Couriers have been dispatched to all the Generals. Your brothers will be told tomorrow. At the same time an announcement will be made in Court.”
“Then Megara is your farewell.”
“We did not want any fanfare.”
“The Conquer… your Lord. She deserves a good life.”
“It's a life I've always wanted to give her.”
“I know. I wish you well, Gabrielle.”
“Thank you, Sam.” She turned back to the beach house.
“Shall I escort you to dinner?” asked Samuel.
Gabrielle smiled, not hiding her pleasure. “I'd like that.”
The two walked to the roasting venison side by side.
Trevor, Tavis, Sentas, Alem, Hamish, Brogan, Samuel and the balance of the score of men who comprised the Queen's Guard stood before their Queen in the Megara courtyard.
Gabrielle scanned each man appreciatively. Targon stood to her left. Xena sat nearby on the porch rail. “I have the most handsome brothers, said Gabrielle smiling. “I've asked you here this morning to hear a declaration signed by me and my Lord.” She nodded to Targon.
He read, “Let it be known that Xena of Amphipolis, the Conqueror, Sovereign of Greece and Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Queen of Greece do hereby voluntarily relinquish all rights to rule the realm, naming their successor to be Lisia, daughter of Lord Stephen upon reaching her eighteen year…
“That's crazy,” said Mason loudly.
“Shut up,” Brogan demanded of the young Guardsman. “Go on, Targon.”
The Administrator continued, “In the interim, General Jared will rule as regent. Lord Stephen shall succeed as regent if and when General Jared is no longer capable of fulfilling his duties.”
The men remained silent. All eyes remained on Gabrielle. She pointed to the chest placed before her and said, “In that chest are two allotments of gold coins for each of you. You may return to Corinth and report to Jared, remaining in the Royal Guard, sworn to safeguard Lisia or you may choose a life away from the sword using your allotment to secure your happiness.”
“Where will you go?” asked Trevor.
Xena and Gabrielle kept the deeds to Megara and Sculpi. Only time would tell if either could be a safe haven. For now they would travel far from the ruling center of Greece. Gabrielle glanced over to Xena. “We think it best to travel to lands where we will not be known. We wish to live in peace.”
“You won't tell us?” said Trevor taking upon himself to speak for all the Queen's Guard.
“For your safety as well as ours it's best that we don't,” gently responded Gabrielle.
“When do you leave?”
“Tomorrow. We thought we'd have a farewell dinner tonight.”
Silence once again overcame the Queen's Guard. More men than half shed shameless tears.
“Sister,” called out Sentas breaking the spell. “You leave me Tavis to spar with. Tis a shame. My skills with the staff will never be the same.”
“Aye, and you leave me to listen to Trevor and Sam sing by the fire instead of having your stories,” shouted Alem. “Have you no mercy?”
The Guardsmen laughed. Soon Gabrielle was surrounded by her men. For a moment she glanced back to her Lord, sharing a smile. Xena nodded and walked into their beach house grateful Gabrielle's men had not disappointed her.
Xena continued through the beach house to the back boardwalk. The sea was calm. So too her heart. She closed her eyes, feeling an internal stillness rare in her life. Time drifted without measure.
A flash of light announced an immortal in her presence. “You cannot do this,” shouted Ares.
Xena opened her eyes to the God. The spell of contentment broken. “Leave me alone, Ares,” said Xena standing firm.
“I had you. You were mine again. How could you walk away?”
“It was an accident. I didn't chose it,” she responded, speaking of the amulet.
“Is that what you believe? It was as much an accident as Gabrielle having her arm cut with a poison blade.”
Xena stepped back as if slapped.
Ares continued in his rage. “I did it!” He swept is hand across his body. “I am a God! I am the God of War! I sent you the amulet and at the right time I put it in your hand!”
“And Gabrielle?” Xena could not help to ask.
“That was easy. I convinced that good-for-nothing brigand to taint his sword and go after her. Xena, I am your worst nightmare and will continue to be so until you… come… back… to… me!”
Gabrielle had heard everything from their bedroom door. She had chosen not to tell Xena of Lao Ma's scroll stating she had nothing to do with the amulet, wanting to place the amulet and all it meant firmly in their past. Gabrielle stepped out onto the boardwalk and approached the combative warrior and God.
As she reached them two more flashes of light struck at each side of Ares. Aphrodite was the first to appear. The second was an older looking God.
Aphrodite spoke to the elder. “Father, I told you Ares couldn't be trusted.”
Ares turned to Zeus and sheepishly said, “Dad, what brings you here?”
“Aphrodite told me her suspicions,” sternly said Zeus. “I did not want to believe that you broke your word to have nothing to do with Xena and Aphrodite's Chosen.”
“Xena is my Chosen,” protested Ares.
“No more, Ares.” Zeus turned to Xena and Gabrielle, raised his hands and shouted, “Let it be known to all the Gods that Xena of Amphipolis and Gabrielle of Poteidaia are under my protection.” He waved a hand over them. An aura shimmered over their heads. “No power of the Gods can pierce this veil.”
“Father,” said Aphrodite. “I do not see why I should forfeit my Chosen because of Ares.”
Zeus spoke to Gabrielle. “What is your wish mortal?”
Gabrielle glanced over to Aphrodite before answering Zeus. “Your daughter has always been fair to me. I have been honored to be her Chosen.”
“Then she may continue to seek you out. However, you shall never be compelled to act on behalf of her wishes without complete knowledge and consent. Is that understood?” Zeus turned to Aphrodite. She nodded in assent. “Good.” Zeus slapped Ares upside the head. “Boy, get out of my sight.”
Ares seethed in anger and humiliation. Without a word he disappeared. Zeus wasted no time and left without a further word.
Gabrielle directed herself to Aphrodite. “Thank you.”
“It was the least I could do. I wish you well Gabrielle. You too, Xena. I know you both have love. I wish you peace.” With that said Aphrodite left the mortals.
Gabrielle looked to Xena. Her Lord was visibly trembling. Gabrielle embraced her, “Xena, it's over.”
“Is it?” asked Xena in disbelief.
“Yes, love, it is. We are under Zeus' protection. Ares can never touch us again. We are truly free.”
The turn of events were bewildering. For now Xena focused on what was most important to her. She hugged Gabrielle close to her. “I love you.”
Gabrielle smiled as only Aphrodite's Chosen could. “I love you, Xena of Amphipolis.”
Taking time to re-gather her wits, Xena knew she had a few more tasks to complete before leaving Megara in the morning. She sought out Trevor and called him to her. They walked together.
“Have you said good-bye to your sister?” asked Xena.
“Not yet. I planned to after dinner.”
“What will you say to her or should that be left between you?”
“I have no secrets from you, My Liege.” Trevor looked forward and smiled. “I will tell my sister how much I love her. That I will always love her. And, if the Fates bring us together once again that I will hold her close and dear as the brother I am to her.”
Xena put her arm on the Guardman's shoulder. “Trevor, did I ever tell you that you reminded me of my younger brother Lycesus?” They paused and faced one another. Xena continued, “If he had lived… I want to believe he would have been as noble and brave as you.”
“My Liege…” said Trevor visibly moved.
“I am Xena to you.” She smiled.
“How can I thank you for all you have done for me?”
“You owe me nothing. It is I who owe you a debt. You kept Gabrielle safe during all these years. You loved her selflessly. You stood by her when others chose not to.”
“I will miss you.”
“As I will miss you. Have you decided what you will do?”
“I return to Corinth.”
“Jared and Stephen will be grateful to have you.”
“I do it for Lisia.”
Xena chuckled. “You have always been partial to the young and beautiful.”
“She will need a proper uncle's guidance. Stephen treats her too fragilely. She must live up to her Godsmothers' examples.”
“To Gabrielle's that I can see.”
“And to you as well. I know no truer heart.”
“Thank you. Let's go, our dinner is waiting.”
The dinner was a robust affair. Conversations ebbed and flowed. Each Guardsman had a decision to make. Whether to continue in their brotherhood and live by the sword or to seek out a different destiny. The older and well-worn held their gold pieces close. More than one chose to leave their commission and live a quieter life much like their Sovereign and Queen had chosen. Others took the windfall as a boon to enjoying their hard play, a just compensation for their hard living. Decisions made were shared. Good wishes given no matter the choice.
Xena and Gabrielle left the men to their talk and drink. They bid all a good night and walked to their beach house hand in hand. They walked through the house to their bedroom and beyond to the porch where they sat upon a bench. Gabrielle rested her head upon Xena's shoulder. They remain silent, knowing their own thoughts.
Xena heard footsteps from the side of the house. She judged two men approached. Tavis and Sentas stepped forward. They leaned their hands against the waist high fence that separated them from the women. Xena had never seen them happier. “Hello,” she said.
“May we have a word with you both?” asked Tavis.
Gabrielle raised herself up. Given their light demeanor she felt no concern. “Of course,” she said.
Sentas took a few steps back and then charged forward jumping over the fence as he completed a full somersault. Landing firmly on his feet he turned to Tavis in wait.
Xena laughed. “Sentas, you are my favorite court jester in Guardsman's clothing.”
Tavis simply vaulted over the fence. He cuffed Sentas on the shoulder. “Show off!”
Sentas' grin spoke volumes.
“Do you return to Corinth,” asked Gabrielle.
“We gave Targon our resignations,” said Sentas.
“Sentas and I wondered if you might want to share the road with two friends – that is if you're going anywhere near Crivello?” asked Tavis.
Xena glanced at Gabrielle. “I did not say a word,” said Gabrielle.
Tavis turned to Sentas and asked, “How did you know?”
Sentas laughed. “Winter is coming. It is proven safe to be known there and the terrain will protect from unwelcome outsiders. Anyway, there is another little girl there to visit.”
“You have proven me right,” said Xena. “Those who play the fool are far from it.”
“May we join you then?” asked Tavis. “We promise not to out stay our welcome.”
Gabrielle and Xena looked to one another. No words spoken, yet much said.
“Please don't say a word,” said Gabrielle answering for the both of them.
“By our honor,” responded Tavis.
“Am I right to believe that you have chosen to honor Aphrodite by being together?” asked Gabrielle with a glint in her eye.
Tavis blushed. Sentas took hold of his brother and lover and roused him playfully. “Oh yes, my sister, we have. As Aphrodite's Chosen I hope we have your blessing.”
“You do indeed. I am happy for you.”
“As am I,” said Xena.
“We will be ready in the morning,” said Sentas. “Come Tavis, we have packing to do.”
“Good night, Gabrielle. Xena,” said Tavis with a slight hesitation in speaking the warrior's name.
Xena responded easily in kind. So too, Gabrielle.
Walking away Tavis turned to Sentas. “We are lucky men.”
“Yes, we are.” said Sentas. “Why say you right now?”
Tavis turned and kissed Sentas passionately. Separating he said, “Because we have each other and because we will continue to have Xena and Gabrielle in our lives.”
Xena held Gabrielle close as they lay in bed. “I hope we can return here in the future,” said Xena. “But, if we can't it will be alright. I know this to be true.”
Gabrielle kissed Xena's cheek. “How do you know?”
“Because Megara has always been about you and me being as far away from Corinth as we could be. And now our lives will have no Corinth.”
“I thought we could keep in touch with Jared,” said Gabrielle.
“The old man would welcome it. I fear we could be drawn back into the fate of Greece. I love Greece. Still, I want to give no more to it.”
“We then will take care of our correspondence. Are you truly all right with Sentas and Tavis joining us?”
“I am. It will be good to be with friends. Did you notice how Tavis said my name? Soon, it will slip off the tip of his tongue without hesitation. That will be a good day.”
“Sovereign of Greece or not, I shall still call you ‘My Lord'.”
“Will you?” asked Xena turning toward Gabrielle.
Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's heart. “Discretely. I will do nothing to risk our anonymity.”
“Well then, my bard, so it shall be.” A few moments of silence passed before Xena spoke again. “I saw you speaking to Sam at dinner.”
“Yes. He is returning to Corinth. He promised to keep an eye on Trevor.”
“Ever the protector, that man.”
“Sam and I… we are good now.”
“I'm happy to hear it.”
Gabrielle sat up. “Xena, we are rich beyond all imagination. We have each other. We have our friends. We are well in health. We have sufficient coin to start our new life. We can walk away from Corinth knowing we did our best to give Greece a prosperous future. We are rich, indeed.”
Xena reached out and cupped Gabrielle's cheek with her palm. She repeated her vow for the day and all days to come. “ I am yours, Gabrielle of Poteidaia. I am and shall always be yours and yours alone. ”
Gabrielle closed her eyes taking hold of their connection, seeking out Xena's essence. Xena mirrored Gabrielle. There was no darkness, no long corridor to trespass in search of the other. There was an Elysian field filled with poppies. They stood hands held underneath a brilliant warm sun. They turned to one another and gently embraced.
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