THE MY LORD SERIES
CHARACTERS (story first appeared)
Xena of Amphipolis, Conqueror of Greece
Gabrielle of Poteidaia
pseudonym:. Athia (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
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 conquered 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)
Lords & Their Families
Ayers: Eastern Lands (By the Fates)
Castan: Mentioned as meeting with other Lords at beginning of My Lord.
Haldis: Challenges Gabrielle (By the Fates)
Stasis: Mentioned as meeting with other Lords at beginning of My Lord.
Vacaou: Sent assassins to kill Xena after she defeated Caesar. Xena killed him to reclaim her throne. (ML)
House of Gaugan (My Lord)
Ridel: Gaugan's son
House of Judais
Judais: Northern Lands (By the Fates)
Clair: Servant (The Chosen's Promise)
Harlan: Clair's son (The Chosen's Promise)
Stavros: Nephew of Judais (By the Fates)
Tassos: Brother of Judais (By the Fates)
Tracate: Nephew of Judais (By the Fates)
House of Thanos
Thanos: Southern Lands (By the Fates)
Cofeus: Bavavos' chief guard (Megara)
Brijan: Guard (Megara)
Etan: Bavavos' Guard (Megara)
Katrina: Servant of Bavavos (Megara)
Kover: Guard (Megara)
Podios: Administrator (Megara)
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.
The Greek Gods
Aphrodite – Goddess of Love
Ares – God of War
Dionysus – God of Fertility, Wine & Drama
Eileithyia – Goddess of Childbirth
Mnemosyne – Titan Goddess of Memory
Hades – God of the Afterlife
Zeus – Most powerful GodThe Centaurs
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)
MY LORD: ATHENS
PART ONE: CORINTH / THE ROYALS
Spring brought warmer days with occasional rains; the peasants anticipating an abundant harvest welcomed both. In Corinth, the Royals were in residence having returned from Megara four moons prior. Xena had no desire to leave the familiar. There was in the familiar a continuity she needed.
She did her best not to dwell on Ares' warning of a harsh future. If Gabrielle owed Aphrodite an unknown debt for her life there was nothing that could be done but wait until the fateful day when the Goddess of Love redeemed the debt.
In the past, Aphrodite had always shown a sincere affection for her Chosen. The Goddess was also constant in her support of Gabrielle's love for Xena, demonstrating an admirable tolerance for the warrior. Even Aphrodite's wound, which had threatened Xena's life, was motivated at its root to bring Xena and Gabrielle to a finer level of mutual honesty. For these reasons and Ares' warning of the price she would have to pay, Xena was hopeful that redemption of Gabrielle's debt would cause the bard no harm and at worst, like Aphrodite's wound, the burden of the redemption would be shifted to her.
In the forest on the outskirts of Corinth, Xena and Stephen paused upon seeing Gabrielle and Trevor at the edge of a meadow. Gabrielle raised her bow, her sight on a stag. The Major whispered, "Do you think she will hit him?"
Xena responded in an equally hushed voice, "If she releases the arrow, yes."
"You doubt she will shoot?"
"I don't know." Xena felt Gabrielle's essence. She could sense her partner's uncertain emotions. This was not the first time Gabrielle had accompanied Xena or her brothers on a hunt. In the past she never claimed a shot, giving the honor to her companion. Until the present moment Xena had no hint that today's hunt would be any different.
Xena heard the arrow whistle through the light breeze. Gabrielle's aim was excellent. The stag collapsed where he stood.
"Damn!" Stephen released the breath he was holding.
"Never underestimate her Stephen. If you do, it's at your own peril," said Xena before walking toward the kill.
Gabrielle and Trevor crossed the meadow to where the stag lay dead. Gabrielle wore a serious cast. The Captain placed his hand on her shoulder. "He didn't suffer."
"I've killed men in battle. Why was killing this stag so much harder?" asked Gabrielle thoughtfully.
"He didn't threaten your life. We could have gone fishing instead. The choice was ours."
"The choice was mine."
"If you hadn't shot the arrow, I would have."
"So we share the responsibility and no one is held accountable?" Gabrielle chose to answer her rhetorical question with a lesson of war Xena had taught her. "The leader is accountable."
"So are those who consent to be led," responded the young war-tested warrior.
"Only to a point. If you were right there would be no such thing as a soldier's pardon."
"Gabrielle, don't you think I have blood on my hands? The fact that I followed the Conqueror… and you into battle doesn't change the fact that Hades will judge me."
With their eyes set upon the stag, the two stood quietly immersed in their own thoughts. Feeling deeply alone Gabrielle turned to Trevor and asked, "Why do men hunt together?"
After giving the question some consideration Trevor answered, "Any number of reasons. Friendship. Safety. A better chance to succeed." After a moment he posed his own question. "Why did you choose to hunt with us today?"
"I had a dream," admitted Gabrielle as she crouched down and looked directly into the stag's lifeless eyes. "There was a wager whether I would shoot the arrow."
"Who was wagering?"
"I don't know. There were many voices behind me, both men and women. I didn't recognize them and I couldn't turn to see who they were."
"Did you shoot?"
Gabrielle glanced up to Trevor. "I woke up without knowing."
"So you decided to make the dream real?"
Gabrielle nodded. She stroked the stag's cheek compassionately. "It wasn't the same. It wasn't what I expected. As hard as this was for me, in my dream the decision was much harder."
"In life, Gabrielle, we do what we must. Indecision can cost you your life."
"I've learned that lesson in battle."
"Sometimes a hunt isn't that much different."
"For the hunted, no."
"And for the hunter, too." Trevor knelt on one knee and took Gabrielle's hand in his own. "Sometimes our prey fights back. Other times we risk starving. I'm glad to say neither was our fate today."
The following morning within the Royal suite Gabrielle sat at her desk. Dalius had just left with Gabrielle's final instructions for a tour of regional villages where they would meet with healers and provide medicinal supplies. The tour was scheduled to leave in two days.
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."
"You do that." Xena went to Gabrielle. "In the mean time Stephen is waiting for me. With your permission, my Queen, I will be off to the stables."
"A kiss first," replied Gabrielle. Xena complied happily. Gabrielle relished her partner's gentle passion. "Permission granted."
Xena had a fine day, one spent working with a half-dozen colts and fillies recently added to her stables. Returning to the Royal suite she was disappointed to find the rooms empty. Being quite dirty she decided to bathe. At the moment of her decision, the suite entrance door opened. Gabrielle and Makia entered, each carrying a trencher filled with food and drink, engrossed in easy conversation. Seeing Xena, Gabrielle exclaimed, "You're back!"
"I do live here," said Xena drolly.
"We have dinner."
"I see. Good evening, Makia. I envy you. Seeing this feast, I suspect you've had the Queen's company for much of the afternoon."
The cook placed her tray down. "I have been so lucky, your Majesty." She glanced over to Gabrielle. "I will miss the Queen when she's gone."
Gabrielle affectionately placed her hand on Makia's arm before approaching her Lord. "I have Makia's promise that she will take good care of you. So, be kind."
"Kind? Makia, who is our Queen speaking of?" asked Xena with feigned offense. "Am I not undemanding of comforts when the Queen leaves me to my own devices?"
"You are, your Majesty. I think that is why the Queen is concerned."
"I am perfectly capable of deciding when to eat and to sleep."
Gabrielle addressed the cook. "Thank you, Makia. I will see you in the morning."
"Good night." She bowed to Xena. "Your Majesty."
"Sleep well, Makia."
As the door closed Gabrielle embraced her Lord.
"Gabrielle, I am all dirt and smell of horses," objected Xena.
Gabrielle would not be discouraged. She tightened her hold. "Very attractive."
Xena laughed. "You are not for sweet soaps."
"I've always appreciated you as you are by nature."
"Then you would object if I chose to bathe?"
"Not if you invite me to join you."
"I don't know. There is a risk to that proposition. I may show no self-control and seduce you. Our dinner would surely get stone cold."
Gabrielle smiled. "It is a risk I'm willing to take. A cold dinner is no price for the pleasure that accompanies a seduction."
"You, my bard, are far too easy a conquest."
"Then I am no conquest at all."
"No, you never were, were you?"
Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's heart. "I will miss you."
"More than you will miss Makia?" said Xena, enjoying the banter.
"Much more." Gabrielle took Xena's hand. "Come with me. A bath and cold dinner for us both."
Xena allowed Gabrielle to lead her into the bath. "Cold dinner? The stew is steaming. We will have to take our time."
The following day Targon stood before the Conqueror at her desk.
"What is it, Targon? You look like you swallowed a fistful of bitter herbs."
"My Lord…" said Gabrielle reproachingly as she entered from the bedroom.
"Well he does!" said the Sovereign in her own defense.
The Administrator handed the Conqueror a scroll.
"From Athens?" guessed Xena.
"Yes, your Majesty."
"And what critical construction project is Kartis championing today?" Xena referred to the city-state's governor, an ambitious man, with formidable military skill and to Xena's concern, if unchecked, problematic prowess.
"An expansion of the public baths."
"This is outrageous. Kartis would have us take hard earned Grecian dinars from the treasury so wealthy Athenians can be luxuriously washed and perfumed." Xena glanced over to Gabrielle as the younger woman approached. "My Queen, you are conspicuously silent. Do you commend this petition to me?"
Gabrielle shared Xena's annoyance with a series of frivolous Athenian petitions seeking funding from the treasury. "It seems as if Kartis' petitions are meant to raise Athenian public opinion against Corinth."
"You think him overly ambitious?"
"I don't know him well enough. His reputation remains strong among the Athenians."
"Why wouldn't it be? He builds Athens's economy with poorly paid labor, the majority foreigners, most holding a status no better than slaves. They have no voice in local government and know that they will be deported if they speak against his policies."
Gabrielle suspected Xena's patience had reached its limit. "Will you intervene?"
Xena directed her question to her Administrator. "Targon, you have good knowledge of the pulse of Athens. What say you?"
"I think Kartis should be treated prudently," said Targon confidently. "He has done nothing but advocate for his city. The policies of Corinth not only allow but encourage such input."
"That is the Queen's influence." Xena wore a lighthearted grin as she motioned toward the Royal in question.
Targon continued. "A Royal visit, allowing for inspection of the city and discussion of the petitions might soothe Kartis' discontent."
"Soothe Kartis' discontent'," repeated Xena distastefully. "Targon, I will not stroke Kartis' oversized ego. Anyway, Kartis may lead the city but Turian is always lurking in the shadows. I think him an aspiring puppet master and he knows it."
"Do you judge Kartis weak?" asked the Administrator.
"No, he has his power base. I think he has foolishly invited Turian into his circle."
Gabrielle had yet to meet Turian, a Lord relatively new to Athens, and was thus at a disadvantage in judging him. "You always say it's best to keep those you suspect close," said Gabrielle offering an alternative perspective.
"Not as close as Turian is to Kartis." Xena handed the scroll back to Targon. "Take this. I don't want this reflection of Athenian elitism on my desk."
The Administrator took possession of the scroll and placed it in his satchel. "Is there anything else, your Majesty?"
"Not right now." Xena glanced over to Gabrielle and smiled knowingly. "I think my Queen and I will discuss the concerns of Athens after you leave. By tomorrow you will know whether she has influenced my opinion of the self-anointed leader of the learned city-state in the north."
Targon chuckled, a rare relaxation of his formal comportment. "Yes, your Majesty." He bowed respectfully to both Royals and exited the suite.
Alone with her Lord, Gabrielle asked, "Xena, what's the worst that can happen?"
"Civil war," said Xena without hesitation.
"I think you're overreacting. I agree Kartis has been obvious in his program to win Athenian approval…"
"Gabrielle, that is how it starts," said Xena, uncharacteristically cutting her partner's speech short. "Convince the Athenians they are better off independent from Greece or worse yet, that they, given their superior intellect and virtues, are ordained by the Gods to be the realm's leaders, and law and order is set aside."
"The law is just as important to Athenians as it is to the Corinthians," said Gabrielle decidedly. "There can be no legitimate criticism of Grecian law. We are the most liberal of people."
"You have never stopped challenging me on the law," said Xena pointedly as a smile rose to her lips.
Gabrielle remained staunch in her defense. "With the end of slavery I have only had reason to challenge specific application of the law. The law in general is fair and necessary."
"Gabrielle, we are talking about who administers the law. The specific application of the law separates a tyrant from a just ruler."
"I love a just ruler."
After years of serious debate with Gabrielle, Xena relished both her partner's declaration of love and her support of the realm's policies. "As I do," she said with affection before shifting to a more serious tone. "The unsettledness in Athens is not a threat to me alone. You are Queen of Greece."
Gabrielle thoughts returned to a diplomatic solution. "Targon's idea of a Royal visit has merit."
"Gabrielle, Kartis is only a little less of a wildcat than Turian. Both will swipe my outstretched hand with their claws."
Gabrielle voiced a newly formed plan. "If the Queen visited Athens?"
Xena leaned forward on her desk. "Were I his guest my drink would surely be poisoned. But with you? Kartis has always thought of you differently. I say he will set his charms upon you, generously offering you honey for your tea."
"I don't want to see you poisoned and I like honey in my tea."
"You're serious." Xena sat back in her chair, gripping the end nodes of each arm, never a good sign of her temper. "You would go to Athens? What of your tour of the local villages?"
"Dalius can meet with the village healers."
"I do not like the idea…"
"Udell and I have been corresponding." interrupted Gabrielle, her growing frustration with Xena's rigidity showing. In Udell she referred to a respected Athenian philosopher who had been commissioned to tutor her in current philosophical thought. She continued, "I was hoping to visit with him someday soon. At his age he does not like to travel."
"To study philosophy is one thing…"
"Xena, I trust Udell. He knows Kartis. He hears what is being said in the city square. He can give us an objective perspective. And, at the same time, the people of Athens, who are my greater concern, will see that Corinth has not forgotten them. I will do what I must to reassure the Athenians that they are better served by their Sovereign than by a well-schooled rhetorician."
"Be careful, Gabrielle. Remember how much Athenians value education. Don't go insulting them. I'll have to ride into the city and rescue you for sure." Xena's was an edgy humor.
"They don't think of me as a threat. To them I will always be a peasant from Poteidaia."
"They will think of you that way only if you play the role, my bard. You are better read than their pretentious scholars. You can debate and win any contest of wits. I should know."
"I spar with the best and have learned from her," said Gabrielle warmly. Her conciliatory words, no matter how sincere, failed to move Xena.
"Sometimes I wish you had not been such a good student."
"Xena, I think my visit would be for the best."
"I do not!" said the warrior with rising vehemence. "Gabrielle, a few well placed spies can ferret out Kartis' intentions."
"We need to give him a timely response." Gabrielle unflinchingly held her stance.
"There is value in exercising patience and planning."
"And there is the risk of lost opportunities. Delays will breed resentment at best and suspicion at worse. We gain nothing by it."
"You may gain your life!" Xena punctuated her objection by standing up.
Accustomed to her partner's volatility and equally certain no harm would come to her, Gabrielle was not intimidated. "It is my life!" she snapped.
Gabrielle's adamant assertion of independence in the diplomatic arena was rare and unexpected. Xena's reaction was immediate. She arrested her bleeding emotions and closed her heart. Gabrielle felt the change as a weakening of their bond to only a faint presence. It was a painful loss to her. She held Xena's gaze with her own. She knew her partner's discontent and disappointment was rooted in love. She also knew that events in the recent past had caused Xena's concern for her safety to heighten acutely. Gabrielle weighed her motives against the price of Xena's vexation, concluding that it was good and right for her to demonstrate her competency and reassure Xena that an ill wind was not to be constantly feared. "Xena, please," pleaded Gabrielle far more gently.
Xena took to her chair again and placed her hand on a half-read scroll. "Gabrielle, I know you well enough to know when your mind is made up. I am done arguing. Do what you must."
Gabrielle had won the argument. She now feared the price she would have to pay for her victory. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me. Just pray that neither you nor I live to regret your decision." Xena returned to her work.
Gabrielle waited hoping Xena would grant their conversation a better ending. Her Lord's silence confirmed that she would not. Disappointed, Gabrielle left the suite to continue her day's schedule.
Three days later, arrangements for a Royal visit to Athens were near complete.
Seeking Xena, Gabrielle was directed to the horse-training corral adjacent to the Royal stables. There, Stephen, Voger and two assistant grooms watched attentively as Xena guided a beautiful aggressive filly by a long tether. Gabrielle stood to Stephen's left, leaning against the corral fence. "Any progress?"
"She's stubborn," said the Major.
"Xena or the horse?"
"The horse. Xena is infinitely patient." After a few heartbeats he asked, "Are you all packed?"
"I will miss you," said Stephen tenderly.
"I won't be gone long." Gabrielle placed a comforting hand on his arm.
"Your Guard is looking forward to Athens. Don't be too lenient with them. Do not compromise your security in order to grant them ‘r and r'."
"You sound like Xena," said Gabrielle with playful exasperation.
"Thank you." The Major smiled.
Gabrielle chuckled. "My Guard has never let me down. Much of the credit goes to you. You've trained many of them."
Stephen touched the scar that marked Gabrielle's arm. "We almost lost you."
"They could not have prevented what happened."
"Did Xena ask you not to go?"
"Yes." Gabrielle searched her brother's pensive eyes. "Stephen, what do you know?"
"She's been very quiet these past few days."
"We've spoken. She will not make any conciliatory gesture toward Kartis and she disagrees that I will succeed in making inroads with him or any of the other Athenian leaders."
"And you are determined to prove her wrong."
"It's not like that. There's always been an undercurrent of competitiveness between the two of them. He treats Xena like a barbarian while she treats him like a spoiled child. Why make things worse by putting them in the same room together?"
"You see Kartis differently?"
"He can be reasoned with… I think I can reason with him."
"Gabrielle, you and Xena are so close. Is there anything you can truly do better without the other by your side?"
"Xena is always with me." Gabrielle placed her hand over her heart.
"I know, but there is value in her experience and in her exceptional ability to judge people."
"Gabrielle, just promise me you will be careful."
"I promise." Gabrielle embraced the Major lovingly. Upon separation she said, "Maybe you and Jared should take Xena hunting. She doesn't like our suite when I'm gone." Gabrielle noted that Stephen seemed troubled. "What is it?"
"I asked Xena for a fortnight of leave to take Tess to Megara. We both have fond memories…"
"I understand." After a heartbeat Gabrielle smiled brightly. "What do you think if Xena and I join you after the fortnight?"
"Would you?" said Stephen enthusiastically.
"It's on my way home from Athens and I'm sure Xena would welcome any plan that would hasten our reunion."
"My Queen." Xena climbed over the corral.
"My Lord." Gabrielle welcomed her warmly.
Stephen excused himself leaving the Royals alone.
"Are you here to teach this filly some manners?" asked Xena. "If so, I shall hand her reins to you."
"I rather watch you and learn," said Gabrielle sincerely.
"You are beyond my tutoring, Gabrielle."
"I think there is still a great deal you can teach me."
"But you reserve the right to decide what to learn and when," said Xena curtly, her intended criticism evident.
"I do what I must for the greater good," pleaded Gabrielle softly. "You taught me that as Queen it is my duty."
"And we are both destined to live by the consequences of our duty," said Xena with a tinge of bitterness that had nothing to do with Gabrielle and everything to do with her past.
"Xena, please don't be angry with me for doing what I think is right."
"As long as you are not angry at me for expressing my disagreement."
"If you are direct with me, never. If you punish me indirectly then I can only wonder how much you truly respect me."
Xena turned and placed her hands on the top rung of the corral, tensely leaning against it while she watched the filly pace back and forth in her constrained space. She felt like the filly. She knew that given their disagreement either she would stay in the mental corral or she would force Gabrielle to trade places with her.
Xena had promised Gabrielle her freedom years before. She would not be the cause of Gabrielle returning to a restrained state again. Xena heard Gabrielle near. She sensed the bard beside her. Without looking at her she said wearily, "You are following your conscious. How can I fault you when your goodness has saved my soul from torment on earth?"
"I love you," said Gabrielle.
Xena turned her gaze to Gabrielle. "That is a grace I will never understanding having."
Encouraged, Gabrielle said, "Xena, Stephen mentioned that he has your permission to take Tess to Megara."
"I thought you would approve," said Xena somewhat surprised by the change in subject.
"I do. So much so that I suggested we join him in a fortnight. I can travel to Megara directly from Athens."
Xena nodded. "I like the idea."
Gabrielle smiled. "Then we shall have Megara, Xena. All will be well. I promise you."
In the Royal bedroom Gabrielle was dressed in her preferred traveling clothes. She wore rust linen slacks tucked into her tall tanned boots and a cream colored blouse. She finished packing her saddlebag and carried it into the main chamber. There Xena waited, a solitary figure standing on the balcony observing the Queen's Guard readying for their journey to Athens. Wearing black leather slacks and a white blouse, she deceptively projected an unfelt image of assurance and strength. Also in wait was Samuel. He stood by the suite entrance door.
Gabrielle paused momentarily upon seeing Xena. Her partner had retreated into her private thoughts as Gabrielle's day of departure neared. "This is the last of my things," said Gabrielle as she offered her saddlebag to Samuel.
The Guardsman took it in hand. "Shall I wait for you outside?"
"Yes. I won't be long."
Samuel exited. At the sound of the door closing, Xena turned to Gabrielle. It was rare for Gabrielle to act against Xena's explicit request. Xena radiated a conscious distancing that Gabrielle chose not to challenge. There had been no lovemaking the night before or upon their waking. Though Gabrielle desired the intimacy, she slept close to her Lord asking for no more than her nearness.
Gabrielle reached out her hand as a silent call, a request for an unspoken reconciliation of their differences. Xena approached accepting the wordless invitation. They walked out of the suite. They were immediately joined by Honor. The young hound took his place by Gabrielle's side, a playful escort.
The few servants they passed paused in their work and offered a minor bow as they wished their Queen a safe trip.
Reaching the courtyard, Gabrielle spied Stephen and Jared at a distance. The Queen's Guard was as always neat and polished. The youngest, Joél, carried her standard. Spirit, fully outfitted, waited for her.
Trevor approached. "Your Majesty, your Guard is ready for your command."
"Thank you, Captain."
The formality was not only out of respect for Xena's presence. Upon arriving in Athens Gabrielle would manage all interactions under Royal protocol, a protocol that she found stifling. She always felt as if she was speaking a foreign language. Her words did not come easily off her tongue, a private rebellion, she thought, waging within her.
Gabrielle released Xena's hand and knelt upon one knee. She bid Honor a heartfelt farewell. The puppy, though growing tall, was too young to travel. She would miss him. Still, she thought Honor would better serve Xena during their separation. She stood up. "Xena…"
"Travel safely," said the warrior quietly.
"I will miss you."
Xena raised her hand to Gabrielle's cheek. "Come back to me safe."
"I will send a message if I am delayed otherwise I will meet you in Megara as we planned."
"Athens awaits you my Queen." Xena stepped aside giving Gabrielle unobstructed access to Spirit.
Gabrielle mounted her stallion. She was dissatisfied with their farewell. "My Lord…"
"I am yours, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Queen of Greece. I am and shall always be yours and yours alone," said Xena repeating her vow to Gabrielle upon their joining.
Speechless, Gabrielle leaned down. Xena went to her. They shared a tender kiss. Separating, Gabrielle rode Spirit briskly out of the palace gates, needing to distance herself from her Lord in order to reset her waning composure.
Jared and Stephen came and stood by their Sovereign as she silently watched Gabrielle and the Queen's Guard exit the courtyard. Privately they felt the sense of loss that always accompanied Gabrielle's departures. Without a word Xena turned and walked briskly into the palace. Stephen followed her with his gaze. "Jared, she needs a friend. Will it be you or me?"
"Give her time, Stephen," counseled the General.
PART TWO: ATHENS / THE QUEEN
Gabrielle's contingent approached Athens through the main southern road. As they neared the city gates the Guardsmen's' formation shifted from rows of three to two with Gabrielle leading followed by Trevor and the standard carrying Joél. Continuing in twos: Samuel and Alem, Sentas and Tavis, Brogan and Cantus, Endres and Hamish and the remaining twelve that comprised the score of men. They made an impressive military statement. Conversations, bartering, all street activity paused as the travelers proceeded toward the Agora, the chief marketplace of Athens and center of the city's civic life. Gabrielle heard one voice after another, female and male, proclaim "the Queen". She was the recipient of universal courtesy as women curtseyed and men bowed to her. She was unaccustomed to such a reception. When traveling through Corinth, a commonplace occurrence, the people greeted her with a "good morning" or the like accompanied by casual hand waves.
Spirit, expressing his own anxiousness, high stepped. Gabrielle reached down and soothed the stallion with a pat on the neck and gentle words. Spirit's temperament had yet to completely recover from his injury. He remained distrustful and impatient with new people and places.
Gabrielle had debated riding Geld to Athens. She chose otherwise because of her own need to have Spirit's familiar presence while away from Corinth. She also knew that the white stallion made a noble impression. The combined image of her, Spirit, her standard and the Queen's Guard were her first strategic move in what she expected would be a complicated series of diplomatic maneuvers between her and Kartis.
Ahead she saw the Governor's residence, what amounted to a modest palace. Kartis would host her within the walled compound that included the two-story main residence, the militia's quarters, an armory as well as a half-dozen other structures. Her Guard would bunk in the Athenian militia's barracks within the complex.
Normally, Gabrielle would not have thought twice about dismounting at the gate and walking in. Instead she followed protocol. She must be acknowledged and invited within and dismount only upon a purple carpet laid down for her at the foot of the palace stairs.
The gateman approached and bowed. "You Majesty, welcome back to Athens."
"Good afternoon, Markem. I hope all is well."
"It tis. Governor Kartis is being informed of your arrival. Allow me to escort you."
Markem walked ahead on foot, leading Gabrielle and her Guard to the palace's main entrance. Reaching the appropriate place, Gabrielle dismounted, followed by Trevor, Samuel and Alem. As second in command Tavis road forward beside Joél.
Gabrielle kept her vision forward not acknowledging the action of her men to secure her safety. On this journey Gabrielle felt the consequences of not having Xena to deflect attention away from her. She was uncomfortable being the sole focus of the palace staff and she knew her discomfort would only increase as she met the city's aristocracy. Within moments Kartis walked down the stairs toward her. He was an attractive man, Xena's age. Like Xena his features were dark. He wore his hair short and a neatly trimmed goatee. He sleeveless blue tunic accentuated his impressive physical stature and his muscular arms and legs.
From a wealthy family Kartis had enjoyed all the privileges of his parents' social status. Taught in the Gymnasium he studied rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and military strategy, in addition to wrestling, horsemanship and weaponry. His intelligence, agility, and strength exemplified the Greek ideal of honing a perfect balance between mind and body.
Having met Kartis on only a few previous occasions, Gabrielle appreciated the handsome, dynamic man and granted that his most dangerous tendencies were not that different than the Conqueror's. Gabrielle also noted Kartis' charisma. He had the power to attract allies who failed to see the danger that lay below the surface of his ambitions. Gabrielle's goal was to forge a mutually acceptable understanding of Athens, and more specifically of Kartis' place in the realm.
"Your Majesty, welcome to Athens." The Governor greeted the Queen warmly.
Gabrielle offered him her hand, which he graciously accepted. "Governor, I thought we dispensed with formalities during my last visit."
Kartis smiled. "Of course, Gabrielle. I hope your journey was not too taxing."
"Not at all. I enjoy seeing the countryside."
"The Athenian women I know are delicate creatures requiring the utmost solicitude, a result of their particular upbringing. It is always refreshing to be in your capable company. Now, if you would join me, I have your rooms ready."
Gabrielle remained in place as she asked after her Guard's accommodations. Kartis scanned the men seemingly assessing the formidable military men. There were many familiar faces. The Governor proceeded to offer the high standard of Grecian hospitality, directing Markem to show the Queen's men to the stables and then their rooms. He directed his next comment to Trevor. "Captain, have you any special requests?"
"The Queen's security protocol remains unchanged," said Trevor.
"I am confident you shall find our efforts to safeguard our Queen up to your standards," said Kartis. He then turned to Gabrielle, offering her his arm. "Shall we?"
Gabrielle allowed Kartis to lead her inside.
The Governor kept to an easy pace, limiting his usual bold strides. "I was disappointed that the Conqueror did not choose to visit Athens with you."
"Concerns of the realm required her to stay in Corinth," said Gabrielle.
"I hope we are done with the eastern problem."
"General Kasen's latest reports indicate that circumstances have greatly improved. The Persian brigands have ceased their raids."
"I was glad to learn Corinth did not bend to the Persian's attempt to blackmail Greece into feeding their peasants."
"It was difficult to turn the hungry away," said Gabrielle thoughtfully. "Ultimately, Greece cannot save the world. We must set and maintain reasonable limits to our generosity."
"Reasonable is the operative word. One man's reason is another man's folly," said Kartis, keeping his gaze forward.
Gabrielle would not be baited. "We can only do our best."
"I agree." The Governor turned to his Queen. "Am I to expect a personal answer to Athen's petitions to Corinth?"
"I am here to discuss them."
"They did not seem so important to require a royal visit."
Gabrielle met and held Kartis' gaze. "They indicate a broader agenda which I believe does deserve further inquiry."
The Governor maintained a neutral mien. "Is this your judgment or the Conqueror's?"
"I admit the Conqueror and I are not in total agreement as to how best to respond to Athens."
"I take it you see greater merit in Athen's needs."
"As I said Kartis, I believe they represent a more complex concern, one I wish to discuss with you and the city leaders."
"The city leaders?" said Kartis obviously taken by surprise. "Do you intend to cast a wide net for your dialogue?"
"As wide as you cast for me. I will leave it to you to invite individuals of merit to discuss the needs of Athens with me."
The Governor's agitation was immediately soothed. "I can name a number of men who I trust to give good counsel."
"Will tomorrow be too soon to begin?" asked the Queen as they crossed over the palace threshold.
"Leave it to me." Kartis paused at the center of the decorative foyer. "Have you thought of how you wish to spend the evening?"
Gabrielle was determined not to waste a moment of time. "I was hoping you would host my meal. I have always enjoyed our conversations."
"Excellent." The Governor accepted the honor gracefully. "I would like nothing more."
Later in the evening Gabrielle and Kartis sat opposite one another in a moderate size dining room. Two male servants attended to them, inconspicuously bringing and removing plates of food and filling their wine cups. The stateswoman and statesman quickly shifted from genteel conversation to a passionate argument regarding matters of the realm.
Kartis summarized the extent of their discussion to one fair conclusion. "So Gabrielle, you do not support Athens's petitions."
"There are more pressing projects that need the funds requested," confirmed the Queen.
"A hospice," said Gabrielle without hesitation.
Kartis nodded a nuanced acknowledgment. "I know of your campaign to improve the health care in Greece. And I cannot argue with you on that point. Our citizens are very grateful to have the services of a healer."
"Do all citizens of Athens have access to a healer?"
"I don't see why they wouldn't."
"There is a price."
"There is always a price."
"Not if the city subsidizes the care of those who cannot pay."
"Our proposed baths would be self-sustaining after the initial investment in capital." Kartis redirected the conversation effortlessly.
"And who will be able to afford your baths?" asked Gabrielle impatiently.
"They are not my bathes," said Kartis as he sat up rigidly. "They are for the Athenians. And it is true the baths will not be affordable to everyone living in the city - those of a lesser class, the peasants if you will. But isn't that how it should be?" Kartis did not miss Gabrielle's cool reception to his argument. He leaned forward on the table. "I am not so foolish or crass to ignore your origins, Gabrielle. I tell you that you are making a mistake if you reference your exceptional rise to power as justification for a drastic change in our social policy. You are a marvelous, unique exception. That is all. You are not the exception that proves the rule."
Gabrielle showed no sign of being placated. "My advisors tell me there is a deeply rooted discontent in Athens. If true, why? It cannot be because Corinth will not open its treasury to fund your projects."
"In part it is. Athens is growing. We have a vision for our city and we want proof Corinth supports us in realizing that vision. Instead, we are begrudgingly given a token of interest. Corinth does nothing to affirm Athens unique qualities to the rest of the realm."
By unique Gabrielle understood Kartis to mean superior. "Athens is not the only city in Greece requesting the patronage of Corinth."
"No, I am sure we are not. But, the citizens of Athens are unlike the crude inhabitants of those cities. We are a jewel. We are Athena's city and have an obligation to live in a manner that venerates our divine patron. How better to do so than to make this city a utopia? Let others learn from us, not restrained us out of jealously or fear of being diminished by comparison."
"Is that what you think?" asked Gabrielle angrily. "That Corinth envy's Athens? If the Athenians are so advanced they should be more than capable of funding their expansion. Why should the peasants that live and work throughout the realm fund Athens's ambitions with their taxes?"
"There is more to discuss. And I am certain I will offend you though it is not my intent."
"Speak honestly and I will hear you."
"I trust that you will."
Their argument continued, bringing little satisfaction to either of the participants. A knock on the door caused the dining room occupants to pause in their discussion. A beautiful woman entered. "Good evening," she said.
Kartis stood up. "Sarah, is everything all right?"
"It is getting late. I wanted to make sure you haven't kept our Queen hostage, left to patiently endure your philosophical musings. You can be tiresome." She then turned to Gabrielle. "I am sure your Majesty would be too gracious to complain."
Kartis laughed. "Queen Gabrielle, allow me to present Sarah, daughter of Lord Eurius. She keeps me socially respectable in manners of State business."
From Targon's briefing, Gabrielle knew Lord Eurius to be a moderately wealthy landowner. "I know of your family. How are your parents?"
"My father and mother are well. My father rode into the city from our estate when he learned of your visit. I believe he will be meeting with you tomorrow."
"I look forward to speaking to him." Gabrielle was somewhat surprised that Sarah was so independent. It was unusual for upper class unmarried daughters to live outside their father's house. "Your family has a residence in Athens?" she inquired.
"Yes. I keep our Athens household for my parents."
"You like the city?"
"Very much. Father indulges my wish to live here. I keep the best company and make myself as useful as I can. Which brings me to the second reason for my interruption," Sarah turned to Kartis. "Lord Turian asked me to remind you that you promised to have a word with him tonight."
"Yes, I did. I should go and see him," said Kartis. He bowed to Gabrielle deferentially. "Your Majesty, if you would excuse me, we can continue our insightful conversation in the morning. For now, I ask that you withhold final judgment until you meet with the men of Athens. Only then decide what is best for Greece."
"As I thought," said Sarah. "You should be ashamed of yourself boring our Queen."
"Sarah, you misjudge me. I say we were both quite attentive to the others' point of view."
"The Governor speaks the truth," said Gabrielle giving Kartis a small, yet meaningless victory.
Kartis laughed triumphantly. "I have the Queen as my champion. How lucky am I?" He looked over to Gabrielle and warmly bid her a good night before escorting Sarah out of the room.
After taking time to consider Kartis' arguments Gabrielle exited the dining room. There, Alem waited to escort her to her suite of rooms. They walked together down the palace hall.
"How are your quarters, Alem?" asked Gabrielle.
"They gave us the barracks east of the stables. They're comfortable enough. How was your dinner?"
"I rather have Makia's cooking. Kartis surprised me. He is more ambitious than I thought."
"Is that good or bad?"
"He is intelligent and has some provocative ideas worth considering. Still, it is best if you don't turn your back on him or his men."
"That says it all, don't it?"
"Let your brothers know that I say to be careful."
Gabrielle retired to her bedroom. Standing on the balcony she looked up to the stars. She felt Xena's essence faintly. She assumed Xena's self-distancing continued. "My Lord," she whispered. "Please don't keep yourself from me."
The following morning Gabrielle met with Udell. Sitting within a garden situated near the Athenian library the two spoke outside of earshot of Samuel and a pair of Kartis' palace guards.
Udell was a man in his sixth decade of life. He was comfortably dressed in a maroon tunic and sandals. Soft spoken, patient and sharp of mind Gabrielle had enlisted him as an advisor the year before. The scholar recommended philosophical readings, answered Gabrielle's questions and critiqued her assessments of the material. Due to the distance between Corinth and Athens their relationship developed through frequent correspondence. Gabrielle chose not to involve Udell in the palace intrigue, withholding all the questions she initially intended to pose to him.
"Gabrielle, have you read the works of Lucretius?" asked the philosopher.
"No, I haven't."
"He's Roman but don't hold that against him. As a follower of Epicurus he has proven that he is far from parochial in his search for knowledge."
"Then he's read Democritus?"
"Yes, extensively. Lucretius has some interesting opinions regarding the soul."
"Does he value the soul?"
"I say he does. He has alienated many because he has no tolerance for the superstitions that give the Gods power over mankind."
"He does not believe in the Gods?"
"He thinks them distant beings that have limited influence."
Gabrielle glanced away, contemplating what she knew of the immortals, specifically Aphrodite and Ares. After a few moments she concluded, "Lucretius would then challenge that my Lord is Ares' Chosen."
"Not necessarily. He wrote that the Gods may place images in our minds influencing us, but still we have free will and are accountable for our actions." Interpreting Gabrielle's silence Udell concluded, "You are skeptical."
"There are things I've experienced..." Gabrielle paused for a moment then asked, "What else does Lucretius write about the soul?"
"He thinks it material, a part of the body, not separate. At death it disperses on the pyre along with the rest of what makes us human, never to be known as it once was again. He refutes the existence of Tartarus and complains that we suffer the worry of a judgment that will never come."
"So if there is no justice in life there is no justice at all." The reckoning Gabrielle always imagined for her abusers had no purchase in Lucretius' philosophy. The thought disturbed her.
"Who is to say, Gabrielle? Justice measured by one person on a particular day or even in the course of a lifetime says little. Faced with a decision, I doubt that an act of compassion will ever be condemned no matter the consequences. On the other hand, a selfish act may ironically have unforeseen positive ramifications. Do we judge by intent or by outcome? Do we judge one act alone or a catalog of them? Do we judge in terms of the impact on one, two, seven or more generations?"
"Udell, I've long believed in the greater good, and for me that means that I am seeking to create a world that is just. What meaning is there in life if there is no justice?"
"Love, Gabrielle. Beauty. Joy. There is so much to experience. Why cannot life simply be enough?"
"I'd have given up," Gabrielle admitted. "I have believed that to sacrifice today was the price to have tomorrow in Elysia. If there is no Elysia…"
"Is there a sacrifice if you are given Elysia?" Udell challenged. Receiving no response, he answered his own question. "I think not. There is only a postponement. But, if there is no Elysia, if your sacrifice has no promise of reward, I think it is much truer, purer. There is no corruption of motive."
"I can see why Lucretius' writing is disliked. He challenges us to be virtuous beyond a common man's imagination."
"You are a bard who tells tales of common women and men who do uncommon feats, inspiring us to find our own greatness. Have any of your stories reflected on the actors' motive to enter Elysia, or have their motives been far more simple - to help others, to fight evil in the here and now, to overcome adversity in order to live another day, that being enough?"
"Udell, I tell my stories to Grecians. For the most part we live with a shared vision that at death we will fall under the watch of Hades. I do not speak of Elysia because I don't have to."
"Are you making a mistake assuming that all share the same vision of death as you?"
Gabrielle looked down, grasping her hands. "You have given me much to think about."
"And here I feared you might be bored by an old man such as I."
"Never," said Gabrielle as she raised her gaze. " Our conversations have been the highlight of my visits to Athens. Being hosted by Kartis… well, I rather be home."
"With the Conqueror?"
"The timbre of your voice when you speak of her is one of young love. Unless my count is wrong, you have been together for three years."
"Five, actually. It took time for us to openly declare our love for one another."
Samuel approached. "Excuse me, your Majesty. It is nearly noon and you are expected at the palace."
"Thank you, Sam." Gabrielle stood up. "Udell, will you be available tomorrow?"
"Of course. It will be my pleasure to continue our conversation," said the philosopher.
"I will send a messenger setting the place and time."
"I can meet at the palace."
Gabrielle looked about her. "I'd welcome having an excuse to explore the city."
Udell got to his feet. "As Queen, I would not have thought an excuse necessary."
"Even queens must take care not to offend their hosts. I would not want Kartis to think that I do not value his hospitality."
"It is wise of you," said Udell. He bowed to her. "Until tomorrow, your Majesty."
The next day Gabrielle met with Kartis' handpicked Athenians, including Turian. She found Turian to be surprisingly restrained in his manner and his speech. He was a handsome man of impressive stature nearing the end of his fourth decade of life. Turian had appeared on the Athenian political scene roughly a year before. He was a man of some wealth and no notable family history. He secured the respect and trust of many influential Athenians with his wise counsel. Unlike Kartis Turian carried a sword, symbolically conveying his willingness and ability to defend himself. Of all Gabrielle's observations she was most affected by the content and tone of Turian's comments. He did not characterize Athens as elite. On the contrary, he was frank that the Athenians had much to learn. He argued that there were many opportunities for their leadership to do better and his suggestions were aligned to Gabrielle's own priorities such as hospices, labor reform and promoting fair trade practices.
The others Athenians discussed with unabashed forthrightness the failings of Corinth and argued for change. Uniformly their criticisms were levied upon Xena in spite of the fact that it was common knowledge that Gabrielle decreed the end of slavery, a policy change that had cost the men she met greatly. Nothing marked their insincerity more than that conscious oversight.
Left alone in the dining chamber with Kartis, Gabrielle stood near an open window looking out to the palace gardens. She turned to her host ready to argue what she felt was the one constant in the Athenians' expressed discord with Corinth. It was not economics or philosophy. It was a dislike of Xena. "Why are you so critical of the Conqueror? How do you fault her leadership?" she asked.
Standing, the Governor leaned back against the dining room table, his legs stretched out before him like a contented lion. "I admit she has done well, but her prejudices are limiting Greece's opportunities to prosper," said Kartis with practiced ease.
"I don't know what prejudices you mean. I do know that the quality of life of the majority of the citizens of Greece is envied by other nations."
"There is much we can learn from Rome."
Mention of Rome gave Gabrielle reason to pause. She had not considered Caesar a factor in the discord. "I am sure there are men and women in Rome that have knowledge and skills that would be of value to Greece. But, Rome is first and foremost Caesar and Caesar is a viper."
"I am glad not all people are of your mind. If they were nations would judge Greece by the Conqueror and Athenians, Corinthians and Spartans alike would be seen with blood on our hands."
Gabrielle could not defend her Lord's past, thus she focused on the present. "The Conqueror has expanded our alliances…"
"With vassal States," said Kartis unimpressed. "What of the rest of the world? How isolated will you have us be?"
"Name a nation you judge strategic to Greece's future other than Rome that Corinth does not have diplomatic ties to?"
"They are small and insignificant compared to Rome. Rome encompasses no less than a third of the known world, Gabrielle. You discount so much by sanctioning the Conqueror's hatred for Caesar, a hatred rooted in the fact that he spurned her as a lover." Kartis paused. He studied Gabrielle intently, seeing the nuanced coldness that entered her eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm being rude."
"There is nothing you said that is untrue. The other nations are small. Rome is large. Caesar was the Conqueror's lover and he did betray her. The consequence of that betrayal is that the Conqueror hates Caesar. And for that reason and many more I do support the Conqueror's decision to keep Rome at a safe distance."
"I see you remain unconvinced. Consider that contrary to what some may think the prosperity of a nation cannot be built on the individual accomplishments of its citizens. It is the State that establishes and maintains the quality of life of the people. Without a strong State the people are lambs ready for that slaughter you so irrationally fear from Rome. There is nothing more important than the State. The State must come first."
"We are not in disagreement."
"But we are. You put the Conqueror above Greece. I was wrong to hope otherwise. I was wrong to hope you would be Queen to Greece. You are instead Queen to the Conqueror."
Gabrielle carried in her heart painful remnants of decisions that had placed Greece first, setting aside her desire for a private and peaceful life with Xena. Each time she acted, she did so to honor her vow to be Queen. "You misjudge me."
"The proof of whether I judge you fairly will come with time."
Gabrielle had enough of their discourse. "It has been a long day, Kartis. If you will excuse me, I will retire to my rooms."
"Of course." Kartis held open the chamber door for Gabrielle.
She stepped out to where Samuel waited in the company of two Athenian guards. He stepped forward, silently taking his place beside her, as she walked down the corridor.
The Queen and her guard turned a corner. They were beyond Kartis' observation. Turian stood in a nearby alcove hidden within the shadows. He stepped into the light and greeted Gabrielle.
Gabrielle paused. She was not in the mood to engage in a conversation with another Athenian. "Turian, do you always stand away from view?"
"It is a safer place than out in the open within the sights of those on a hunt for political expediencies. May we speak privately?"
Gabrielle gave Samuel a reassuring glance. The Guardsman stepped back as Gabrielle and Turian walked ahead.
Turian observed, "You seem preoccupied."
"I've been given much to think about."
"It is to your credit that you listen."
"I wish I knew what is best for Greece."
"I counsel you to follow your heart."
Turian's counsel echoed Xena's. The counsel presumed that Gabrielle's heart would be true in all matters. But experience had taught Gabrielle that her heart may not lead to decisions best for Greece. Because of her experience Gabrielle continued to grapple with the disparate forces of heart and mind. "And what of reason?" she asked.
"Overvalued, I say."
Gabrielle found Turian's subtle qualifications in their previous discussion refreshing given the unabashed certainty of the other Athenians she had met. She also found that she liked him in a way she could not readily justify. Her reaction was quite different than Xena's assessment of the man. And so she chose to pose a dangerous question as innocuously as possible. "Turian, Kartis isn't what he seems to be, is he?"
"It depends on what you see in him."
Gabrielle understood that caution was being exercised by both she and her companion. "You are different from Kartis and the other Athenians."
"Am I? What tells you so?"
Gabrielle smiled for the first time that night. "My heart."
Turian was obviously pleased by her response. "I have long wondered about the Queen of Greece. Now that I have had the opportunity to speak to you and observe you, my heart tells me that you are worthy of your throne."
"Thank you," said Gabrielle appreciatively.
"You are not offended that I questioned your right to rule?"
"Why should I be? I am Queen because the Conqueror chose me to be hers. I was not placed on the throne by the people. Many were against, even offended by the Conqueror's choice."
"Because they did not know you. Time has healed those wounds."
"You're wrong. Here in Athens the wound is still open and festers, although it is hidden behind polite hospitality."
Obviously impressed, Turian observed, "You are capable of piercing the Athenians' veil of deceit. It is a fine skill but be careful in letting them know you possess it."
"Because my presumed ignorance breeds false confidence in my adversaries and gives me an advantage?"
"Yes. An insightful ruler is a danger to those intent on deception."
Gabrielle paused and turned to the warrior politician. "Turain, are you intent on deception? Are you with me now to give me a false sense of confidence in you?"
Turian mirrored Gabrielle's actions, finding and holding her gaze. "I cannot blame you for your suspicions. The accusation of false sincerity has been placed at my feet more than once. How can you trust someone you do not know? You can't if you rule your life by reason. That is why I have selfishly counseled you to follow your heart. There is little time to adequately convey personal histories, to affirm or challenge incomplete or erroneous impressions and to develop alliances. Your Majesty, I do not want to hurt you. Nor do I wish others to cause you harm."
"I am in danger, aren't I?" said Gabrielle, betraying no fear.
"Be as you are – cautious." Turian bowed to her. "Good night, your Majesty."
Choosing not to displease Kartis Gabrielle set aside her desire to leave the palace and arranged for Udell to meet her in the courtyard garden. Continuing their discussion from the previous day they explored the subject of death, specifically if we cease to exist or if our existence enters an eternal plane.
"Do you think the Gods are outside of time and in death we join them?" asked Gabrielle.
"It is a possibility," said the philosopher. Responding to Gabrielle's thoughtful countenance Udell wore an indulgent smile. "You look doubtful."
"The Fates… It's said that their weavings are always toward the future. I have never heard of them changing the past. If true and if it is also true that the Gods are bound by the Fates wouldn't it be logical to think that the Gods are bound by time?"
"It would seem that your logic is reasonable, but who is to say the Gods are bound by logic?"
"There is no doubt the Gods know the past and present as we do, but what of the future? If there is such a thing as ones destiny then the future is irrevocably a fact of the Fates' loom only waiting for the moment when the future becomes the present?" Gabrielle posed a still nascent vision of life. "Maybe there is more than one future. Maybe we are constantly reaching one crossroad after another where our choices decide which path is taken; which destiny of an infinite number of possible destinies we come to experience."
"Is it your proposition that because we have free will we are co-creators of our destiny?" asked Udell sincerely intrigued.
Gabrielle gave his question serious consideration before answering. "Yes," she said wanting to believe she was not an actor in a play following a preordained script.
"And where are the Gods in your scheme of the universe?"
"They touch our lives. There are times we find ourselves at a crossroad of their making."
"So, the crossroad not the choice is of their making?"
"Yes. The choice is always ours."
Udell glance down to his aged hands as if reading his history in the wrinkled and discolored skin. "I'm an old man and I've face more than one crossroad where whatever decision I made seemed equally cruel. Then what?"
"My Lord has taught me that what is most important is the truth."
"The truth can harm others in undeserving ways. There are times when mercy requires us to keep silent or speak a falsehood."
"I'm talking about the truth that you can only find in your soul." Gabrielle spoke assuredly. "The truth that cuts through all manner of pain and leaves you at peace."
"I know you have lived an exceptional life, Gabrielle. It seems your life has taught you equally exceptional lessons. You are a wise young woman."
"I'm not wise." Gabrielle placed her hand over the philosophers. "That's why I'm here with you. To learn."
"Your Majesty, don't allow your natural humility to cloud the truth you so revere. Look about you. The people struggle to eke out a life. Few have both the mind and disposition necessary for philosophy, though sometimes it seems that the city square is replete with pretenders. You are wise beyond your years. What I admire most about your approach is that you demand more than objective ruminations that aspire toward an unattainable ideal. You require a practical approach. Your approach shall ultimately prove its value if it can withstand the forces of man and nature."
Gabrielle set aside her mentor's complement and focused on her most important teacher. "For my Lord there is no philosophy that has proven such an unqualified value. There are always exceptions."
"I appreciate the Conqueror's skepticism, especially since I find her to be a rare human being. If you forgive my forthrightness, I find the Conqueror to embody an extraordinary number of contradictions."
"Knowing her as I do I'm not surprised that you would think so."
"You know better?"
"Truth, honor and love. She rules by them all."
"I note you mention love last."
"No one desires love more than the Conqueror and yet she…" Gabrielle hesitated. "In our life together the Conqueror has risked the loss of my love in order not to compromise her truth and honor."
"Have you come to agree with her?" asked Udell compassionately.
"No, not always." And yet Gabrielle privately admitted that she was in Athens because she was following her beliefs, fulfilling her sense of responsibility to the realm. "I love her for who she is. How can I condemn her for her integrity?"
The following evening Gabrielle was summoned to Kartis' suite. She walked the distance between her suite and his, arresting her anger. It seemed that with each passing day the Governor was asserting a greater authority over her.
Gabrielle waited outside the suite as she was announced. Upon entering Kartis dismissed his attendant. Alone with the Queen, he said "Gabrielle, it is time to be completely candid. The Conqueror cannot lead Greece to greatness."
"Greece is great." Gabrielle's growing impatience broke through the façade of decorum. She spoke sharply. "Your judgment cannot tip the scales of public opinion."
"You know very well it is not my judgment alone but I will nevertheless speak only for myself. The Conqueror cannot erase the past. Memories are long. The Conqueror's history is such that I feel I am being generous in limiting my critique to her blemished honor. I grant that you have been a positive influence upon her but you cannot erase resentments that came to be before you ascended to the throne. Nor, if reports that reached Athens are correct, have you the power of reining the Conqueror's worse impulses and prevent her from brutal killings such as her recent massacre of a band of Persian brigands. If you have tried to rehabilitate the part of the Conqueror that marks her as Ares' Chosen, and I believe you have, you have failed."
Gabrielle walked toward a window. She stared out to the city as she honestly assessed Kartis' wretchedly frank words. She turned to her host. She repeated her one constant heartfelt argument. "Greece has improved measurably under the Conqueror's rule."
The Governor approached her. He was relentless in arguing his cause. "I have and continue to agree that Greece is in some ways improved because of the Conqueror. I also say a better future for Greece awaits the right man… and woman."
Kartis' ambitions were now nakedly exposed to Gabrielle. All pretenses were set aside as she asked, "You would be Sovereign?"
"Name a more qualified candidate. But, before you answer consider this. You may know a few good military men. Their association with the Conqueror taints them. Greece needs a man of power not war. The next Sovereign should be a man of letters, his academic training not only preparing him for leadership, but also giving him legitimacy among the aristocracy. And finally, he should be a man of wealth thus making his motives less suspect."
"Why tell me this? You speak nothing less than treason. I could have you arrested."
"You won't because you are a woman of your word and will not punish me for speaking honestly. I share my uncensored thoughts with you because I need you if I am to succeed."
"Why? If you are ideally suited to lead Greece you would have no use for me."
"I need you because my arguments are based on reason and much of Greece is swayed by emotion. You have the love of the people. They will resist a change in government unless you sanction it. Civil war is not inevitable. A change in the throne can be achieved with minimal bloodshed. Gabrielle, the transition I have planned can only be accomplished with you by my side."
"Rhetoric may win you allies in Athens, but how will you defend yourself against the Conqueror, or your own military for that matter."
Kartis laughed. "Don't let appearances fool you. I have had a sword in my hand since I was a boy. My father was no idealist. He taught me that words were never enough to vouchsafe a man's safety or his possessions."
"I see that you are at risk times three."
"The Conqueror, Caesar and your ring of traitors. I think the last your greatest risk. If a man is willing to betray our Sovereign, what makes you think he would not as willingly betray another who places himself on the throne?"
"I have no reason to fear my associates. We are Athenians of the same frame of mind. We come from the same background and have been taught the same values. We know what must be done. Though I will be Sovereign I will not hold power selfishly in my fist. I will look to establish a democratic government with citizen representation. We will rule Greece as many of the villages and towns and a few progressive cities such as Athens are ruled. It can be done on a grander scale. Men have less reason to overthrow a government when they believe they are part of the government."
Gabrielle suspected that to outright refuse Kartis was to end any chance of influencing him. She played the role of reluctant ally. "Would you have me kill the Conqueror?"
"I imagine that would be distasteful business for you."
"Are you saying she would live?"
"No, she must die." said Kartis matter-of-factly. "I reserve the task for myself."
Gabrielle was no longer surprised by the Governor's arrogance. "You seem so sure."
"I am a fair judge of my fighting skills."
"No, I mean of everything, including me."
"I am an observer of people, Gabrielle. You and the Conqueror show respectful concern for one another. There is no passion. I think the Conqueror is not the only one in your match that believes the ends justifies the means. You have done well for yourself. I will not criticize your motives."
Gabrielle had never been so blatantly portrayed a mercenary. She set the emotions the offense triggered to the far recesses of her heart. "You don't believe I ever loved the Conqueror?"
"Slaves don't love those that hold them in bondage. They learn that to survive they must please their mistresses and masters. I say you are a survivor."
And so she was thought Gabrielle, but not in the manner Kartis imagined her. "I need time to think."
"As I expected," said Kartis. "You are not scheduled to leave for another three days. There is time."
"If necessary, I will extend my stay in Athens."
Kartis' demeanor hardened. "Uncertainty and the delays it causes can be dangerous. I expect that you will judge our reasons for a change sufficiently compelling that you will join Athens' caused prior to your scheduled departure date."
In the whole of her life Gabrielle had never willingly surrendered to her abusers. Her better judgment warred with her pride. She reined her rage, allowing none of her wrath to bleed to the surface. "As you said Kartis, I have time and I shall use it to my advantage. I shall consider your proposal and its benefits to Greece… as well as to me. It would be unfortunate if your expectations were not realized."
"Yes it would," said Kartis with a hint of menace. "I hope for both our sakes that does not happen. Now, I have others waiting. Send word Gabrielle when you are prepared to commit yourself to me alone."
Welcoming her dismissal, no matter how discourteous, Gabrielle left Kartis without further comment. She judged his final words a clear reflection of his ambition. He did not ask for a commitment to Athens, nor to Greece, but to him. Xena had Gabrielle's vow but it was spoken as a vow to Greece, to the greater good.
In the privacy of her suite, Gabrielle weighed her options. She knew it would be suicidal to try to send a warning to Corinth. Kartis would scrutinize all messages sent and have his militia hunt down any covert couriers. There was no immediate means to warn Xena without unduly risking the lives of her men. For the time being she chose to present herself as the opportunist Kartis judged her to be. She would continue to meet with the men of Athens who seemed ready to challenge the realm. She would attempt to gauge whether their intentions were as concretely against Corinth as Kartis presented them to be. She would also take the opportunity to irrefutably identify Kartis' traitorous co-conspirators thus avoiding the more difficult task of later trying to flush them out from the shadows.
Gabrielle felt she owed Xena an apology. Still, as wary as Xena had been she had not anticipated such sweeping treachery among the Athenians.
Gabrielle closed her eyes seeking her connection with Xena. Feeling only a faint thread of their bond, she doubted Xena could sense her distress.
Her attention was diverted by a knock at her door.
Samuel entered. "Your Majesty, Turian requests to see you."
"Please let him in, Sam."
Turian entered. As Samuel closed the door the Athenian's hand went to his sword pommel. Gabrielle knew the warrior's gesture well. Turian scanned the large room thoroughly.
"How may I help you?" asked Gabrielle.
Turian focused upon her. "Are you well?"
The question surprised Gabrielle. "I am."
"You were very quiet at dinner."
In the dining hall, Turian had been seated at the opposite end of a large table far from the immediate vicinity of Gabrielle's conversations. She had obviously been under his surveillance. "I thought it best to listen without further rebutting Kartis and his guests."
"So, no one has…"
"You have not been personally threatened?"
Gabrielle stepped forward until she was only an arm's length away from the man. She met and held his troubled gaze. She understood him to mean a very specific threat. "I know how men talk about women. They boast of their virility and wager on a future conquest. As a slave, before Corinth, I was never the subject of such a conversation because with my master's permission they could simple take me and make me do as they willed. In the Conqueror's household, as her slave and then her servant the talk was not as loud, yet it was always as crude. It was only as the Conqueror's consort and then as Queen that I was no longer subjected to hearing such talk, though I am not so naïve to think the talked stopped. I see that tonight I was very much the subject of men's conversations."
"The wine continued to flow freely after you left the room. A few men were drunk," said Turian betraying no further emotion.
"Is that an excuse?" demanded Gabrielle.
"Wine gives men leave to do stupid things."
"I would say worse than stupid." Far from appeased, Gabrielle held her sharp gaze upon the warrior. To her surprise, she was deeply disappointed in him. "Thank you for your concern. My Guard…"
"He is only one man," said Turian firmly. "Your safety requires greater diligence."
"You see only one man," said Gabrielle with a minor smile.
Turian side stepped Gabrielle and entered her bedroom and then her bath. "You are alone." His statement demanded confirmation.
"In my rooms, yes." Gabrielle walked onto the balcony. Turian followed. Gabrielle looked up to the heavens wondering if any of the Gods were watching over them. "I am under watch. The watchmen are also under watch. Layer after layer of observation that seemingly has no end. I live in a cage composed of eyes instead of metal bars."
Turian scanned the landscape of palace buildings, the perimeter wall and beyond it the city of Athens. "I would hate it."
"I do." Gabrielle mused. "There is much to recommend being an anonymous member of a crowd. It is a freedom I miss."
"When did you last know it?"
"From time to time the Conqueror and I travel without our Guard, usually in open spaces away from villages and towns. There was an exception last winter. We were in the north and stayed at a village where at first only the innkeeper and his son knew us. I miss how I felt there. I was happy being a healer and a bard. I was known and appreciated for my skills, not my title."
"May I ask you a personal question?" said Turian gently.
"There are arranged marriages where those joined grow to love one another. Did you come to love the Conqueror?"
"I would never have thought to compare my relationship with the Conqueror to an arranged marriage. Unlike an arranged marriage I had a choice. I have always had a choice whether to be with her or not. The night I first chose to be with the Conqueror… I loved her. I have never been with her without love."
"And she loves you?"
"Yes, but I admit that in the beginning I did not know that she loved me."
"Why then be with her?"
"If you were to ask Kartis and the others they would say I was ambitious and used my body to gain comforts and power."
"I don't believe that," said Turian sincerely.
"No, you don't," said Gabrielle, touched by the realization. "The Conqueror had given me all that she promised when I first entered her household. I was fed, clothed, sheltered and kept safe. In return I labored but the labor was never demeaning nor physically punishing. She allowed me to be a bard and by my request arranged for me to apprentice as a healer. I was living a rich life and had nothing to give her in return."
"Except yourself." Turian speculated.
"Yes. And still I benefited. She gave me a woman's gentleness and passion."
"I can understand why you are loyal to her."
It was not loyalty that kept Gabrielle at Xena's side. Gabrielle felt the absence of Stephen and Jared. They, Makia and Samuel were the friends to whom she expressed without censor her love for Xena. Unlike Makia and Samuel they had a unique knowledge of her Lord and thus appreciated the delicate balance that made their joined lives possible. Turian could not begin to understand her union with Xena, no matter how he might try.
With Xena's essence beyond her reach, Gabrielle preferred not to dwell on her partner. "Have you a family, Turian?"
"A brother and a sister. They live in Thrace near our childhood home. I help them as I can so they don't have to struggle for their livelihood. For their safety I do not acknowledge them here in Athens."
"You have presented yourself as an Athenian." Gabrielle restated a fact she had often heard.
"I was a pauper's son who was apprenticed as a child with a merchant. He brought me to Athens. I came to wealth through trade. As a young man I never stepped foot in the Gymnasium and I bathed from water I hauled from a well. You are sorely mistaken if you think I support the city's outrageous petitions. The intelligentsia makes a mockery out of reason."
"So, you are not bound to Athens?"
"I should not care for the city. Its conceit nauseates me. Such ostentation and hypocrisy is an embarrassment to a true Greek who works the land and defends his family with a sword. That said, I will not condone the sacrifice of innocent lives by ambitious men who have lost their perspective of what can and should be done."
"Then, you do see a danger?"
"Don't you?" asked Turian earnestly.
Gabrielle wanted to trust Turain. To do so she needed to know more about his history. "If you are not connected to Athens by birth, why stay? Have you a love?"
"No. I have never sustained… I have been disappointed on more than one occasion. There comes a time when a man stops expecting love."
For the moment Turian seemed to accept her refusal to answer his question. Relieved, Gabrielle wondered aloud, "No arranged marriage for you?"
"I will not take the risk of a loveless union. Bitter is a bed without mutual affection. Not to be indelicate but I rather spend my coin for a woman to give me pleasure. It is an honest exchange."
"I was with a young man for a number of moons after the Conqueror freed me. I did not love him but I did care for him. I don't regret what we shared."
"So, you have known a gentle man's touch?"
"Yes. The memory was tainted when he too raised his hand against me."
"I'm sorry, your Majesty."
"Please call me Gabrielle."
Turian smiled. "Gabrielle. Before, you mentioned a lost sense of freedom. I know you enjoy to ride. Tomorrow, would you join me? There are a few places not far from here that I would like to show you. I doubt Kartis would object although he may insist on a proper Athenian escort."
Gabrielle smiled warmly. "It is a tempting invitation. I think it is better if I don't give Kartis reason to fear that I will take leave of his gracious hospitality."
Turian cocked his head to the side. The irony of Gabrielle's statement did not escape him. "I understand."
Gabrielle was uncertain of Turian's role in the unfolding events that threatened to alter the stability of the realm. She chose to follow Xena's advice to keep her enemies close. "Turian, in the morning I plan to tour the city further. I would welcome your company."
"Then you shall have it."
The two turned their attention to the cityscape. "It is said that Athens never sleeps," said Turian. "There is always a story told or a question debated as cups of wine are poured."
"It wouldn't be long before I pined for my bed and a candlemark of silence," quipped Gabrielle.
"I thought as a bard you would think this Elysia on earth," said Turian indicating the city with a sweep of his hand.
"No, my glimpses of Elysia have had nothing in common with city life."
"You are still a young woman from Poteidaia more comfortable in a pastoral setting?"
"I am," said Gabrielle as she looked up to the clear night sky.
The two fell into a comfortable silence. After some time Turian turned to Gabrielle. "What are you thinking?" he asked.
"Just random thoughts."
"You seem comfortable with the night."
"I don't fear it. I've spent some of my best, though at times painful moments surrounded by an incomplete darkness. During those times the light of the stars and the moon were never brighter to me. I can't see the stars during the day and at best the moon is a misty orb, nearly transparent. Were it not for my memory of the night I would be left uncertain of whether the stars and moon were real or just an illusion."
"You make the night sound like a magical place."
Gabrielle smiled. "The night brings to life a different world, one I was taught to explore by listening closely to its sounds and breathing deeply its scent, trusting myself to find my way or if the terrain is too dangerous, to wait patiently."
"For dawn when there is no night?"
"There is always night. I just can't see it because of the sun."
"And what do you think of the day?"
"I have come to love both night and day. The balance is necessary."
"I find people very much like night and day. They have their darkness and their light. And they have their personal seasons when one seems to dominate the other."
"What season dominates you, Turian?"
"Winter though I wish it wasn't so."
Intrigued, Gabrielle wondered if Turian's was a melancholy soul. "Does it have to be?"
"It will take someone with more light than darkness to come into my life."
Turian took Gabrielle's hand and kissed it. He raised his gaze to her. Gabrielle found her gentler emotions stir and was nonplussed by them.
Turian seemed equally moved. He released her hand and stepped back. "Good night, Gabrielle."
"Good night, Turian." Gabrielle watched Turian's departure. As her suite door closed she looked back up to the stars and whispered, "Xena, come to me. I need you."
The following morning Gabrielle sat in the palace gardens in wait for Trevor. The Captain approached soon after being summoned by Samuel. "Your Majesty."
"Queen's protocol, Trevor," said Gabrielle. The Captain visibly relaxed. Gabrielle patted the bench seat. "Join me,"
He sat beside her. Gabrielle covered his hand with her own. "We have a problem."
"You mean other than the prickly Athenians?" asked the Guardsman.
"Hard not to."
"I should have confided in you sooner…"
"Kartis has asked me to betray my Lord. He seeks the throne and has rallied a number of powerful Athenians to his side. He is convinced that as Athens goes so goes Greece."
"Is he mad?" said Trevor too loudly. He looked over his shoulder. There was no one to overhear.
Gabrielle waited until she once again had his attention. "No, not at all. And that is what frightens me most. He cannot be easily dismissed. Trevor, we are his prisoners and time is running out for me. I must give him an answer tomorrow."
"What do you plan to do?"
"Buy more time by sending a message to Corinth that I am being delayed. Kartis will surely censor my message to the bare minimum. I will have little chance of warning my Lord."
"You and the Conqueror have your other way. Can't she sense that you are in danger?"
"If she opens her heart to me."
Trevor knew the one force that could obstruct Gabrielle and Xena's bond. "Have you had a disagreement?"
"Yes." Though she preferred to keep her own counsel in regards to Xena, Gabrielle knew that for the sake of her Guard's lives, as well as her own, she could no longer withhold the truth. "Trevor, she did not want me to come to Athens alone. When troubled my Lord tends to withdraw from those who cause her pain. She may not…"
"I understand." Trevor tried to save Gabrielle any further discomfort. "We are on our own. I will inform the men. We have been doing our own reconnaissance, tracking the movements of the militia and the palace guards. We will compare notes and identify what weaknesses we can exploit."
"Did you know something I didn't?"
"The Conqueror has taught me to be prepared for any possibility. It relieves boredom and in difficult times it positions us with one or more contingencies."
"I should know better than to expect less from you." Gabrielle squeezed Trevor's hand affectionately. "I'm grateful to have you here."
"Thank me when we ride free from Athens." Trevor enclosed Gabrielle's hand in his own. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Kartis hasn't threatened you personally?"
Gabrielle reassuringly placed her free hand on Trevor's arm. "Nothing I can't manage."
"Your answer gives me no comfort."
Gabrielle held Trevor firmly. "What I told you in Messene still holds. If I am harmed I will need you, so don't do anything foolish."
"Damn it, Gabrielle!" The Captain's agitation sent a tremor through his body that Gabrielle could not help but feel.
She captured his gaze, her composure remained constant. "Trevor, listen to me. I love you. Your life… the life of all my brothers is a fair trade."
"No, Gabrielle. No!" He stood, freeing himself from her grasp. "There is no fairness in any exchange where one choice brings violation and the other death."
"You're right. But, such is life and wishing differently won't change a thing. Now, go and rally my brothers. Tell Sentas I expect his most audacious solution. I can't wait to have reason to use the new skills he has taught me."
Trevor looked up to the palace. "Given that your quarters are on the second floor those acrobatics might just come in handy."
Gabrielle and Turian spent much of the afternoon together walking the city streets in the company of Samuel, Alem and two Athenian guards. Gabrielle knew Trevor had men dispatched to provide covert security. She was sure she spied Sentas on a rooftop and looked forward to teasing him of her discovery.
"So, if you were given the choice to live only in the city or in the countryside which would you choose?" asked Gabrielle.
"Like you, I would choose the countryside," Turian replied. "The only skill I hold that would find limited use is that of war and I shall know no loss in setting my sword aside. But for you, Gabrielle. In the countryside you would forego the grand audiences that the city offers. Isn't that a loss to you?
"There are no finer audiences than those in the villages I have visited."
"There is a village near my estate. I am certain they would welcome your talent for telling tales."
"You have never heard me."
"I trust your reputation is well earned."
"Where is the village? If I am near I shall make certain that I visit it."
"It would be an honor to host you on my estate. It is near Ambracia."
"That is far."
"Far enough to grant limited security from Athenian retribution. My estate stands in the heart of a valley. The Achelous Mountains are to the east. There are waterways in the south that lead to the Ionium Sea. I have sheep and goats and a few milk cows. The land is fertile so we grow all we need, barley, wheat, vegetables. I have a fine orchard of fruit and olive trees."
My overseer Brith and his wife Ajacia keep the estate for me. They have three children, two boys and a girl."
"Are you close to them?"
"If anything were to happen to me, the estate is deeded to Brith. He and his family deserve to reap what they have sown."
"That is good of you."
"I wonder what Brith would think if he knew how I envy him. I know I shouldn't," said Turian wistfully.
"You have learned a lesson only few are taught. Worldly riches do not ensure happiness."
"Happiness is an intimate gift a man and a woman can give each other if they are both brave enough to bear the Fates most painful weavings."
"I agree that love must be tested to be proven true."
"Justifying the pain?"
"Tempering it so it is bearable." Gabrielle smiled breaking the solemn mood. "I also think that love is not limited to a man and a woman."
"I understand why you wouldn't. I have never felt drawn to a man in that way."
"Love is not limited to romantic feelings. The best friendships share the same qualities."
"You have such friendships."
"I do and cannot imagine my life without them."
"In Athens it is hard to have friends."
"But not impossible."
"I cannot stand in your presence and discount the possibility," said Turian kindly as he offered Gabrielle his arm.
"Shall we be friends, Turian?" asked Gabrielle with a gentle smile as she wrapped her arm through his.
Turian smiled brilliantly. "Yes, Gabrielle, I think we shall."
Gabrielle sat at a small dining table within her rooms eating a private dinner.
Kartis entered the chamber unannounced. "Good evening," said Kartis. The Governor noted that Gabrielle was wearing her traveling clothes. "Well, I can see you obviously did not want to dress for dinner."
"I sent a message," said Gabrielle unapologetically.
Kartis raised a piece of parchment he held in his hand. "I received it. I was concerned. You seem well enough. Has my company grown tiresome?"
Gabrielle stood up. "I am accustomed to a less social life. An evening to myself didn't seem too much to ask for."
"These are uncommon times requiring more from both of us than we may be accustomed to giving." Kartis approached Gabrielle until he stood only two hand widths from her. He looked into her eyes. "Have you made your decision?"
Gabrielle gestured toward the table where a scroll lay. "I have drafted a message to Corinth notifying the Conqueror of my decision to remain in Athens for another fortnight. You have asked much of me. I will not make my decision prematurely."
Kartis spoke in a stern whisper. "I wish I could trust you."
"You can," said Gabrielle unflinchingly.
"No, I can't, can I?" He raised his hand and traced Gabrielle's jaw with his fingertips. "I trust my eyes and what I see is a woman who is not willing to be seduced." He dropped his hand back to his side. "That is unfortunate because you are now more a threat than an asset to Athens and have left me with no choice but to imprison you."
"Prison?" Gabrielle stepped back. She opened her arms wide, presenting a defenseless target. "Why not kill me?"
"No, I don't want your blood on my hands." Kartis turned toward the table. He picked up the scroll and read the message. His voice gentled. "I know you have been meeting with Udell. I trust the man. So do you, I think. My former tutor is very devoted to me. Upon my request he eagerly shared the content of your discourse. I don't think he thought he was betraying a confidence. Udell is impressed with how you wrestle with difficult questions: the nature of the soul, truth, integrity, the greater good. Hearing how he admires your commitment to duty and justice, I admit I am disappointed. I thought reason would convince you that the greater good would be better served if you joined me. Unfortunately, because of your decision many Grecian lives will be lost."
Gabrielle's temper reached its limit. "You are audacious declaring civil war and then blaming me for the deaths you cause."
Kartis responded with equal vehemence. "Gabrielle, you are the lone force of stability in the Conqueror's life. Without you who knows what madness she will perpetuate in seeking vengeance for a betrayal." He pointed the scroll at her. "Then again, you better than most must know what she is capable of. I am aware of the Conqueror's ugliness only by reputation. I am sure you have seen it in very personal ways. Given your past, living with a woman like the Conqueror should be familiar though I cannot imagine it is easy."
"Please stop..." Gabrielle's distress was only partly an act for Kartis' benefit as Xena's greatest acts of cruelty flashed before Gabrielle's mind's eye.
"Just because your soul can bear the Conqueror's darkness does not mean that the rest of humanity can or should."
Gabrielle steeled her spirit. Before Kartis' blind eyes she transformed herself to the indomitable Queen of Greece. "What are you going to do with me?"
"Give you more time to think," said Kartis arrogantly. "By now all your men have been arrested. You are without allies." The Governor seemingly waited for a reaction from Gabrielle. Receiving none he continued. "Gabrielle, I am sincere. I find you to be very beautiful and intelligent and I have no wish to hurt you. On the contrary, I am optimistic that we can still be allies." Again, Kartis waited. Again, Gabrielle remained silent. Angrily, he asked, "Will you come peacefully with me or must I call my guards?"
Gabrielle betrayed no fear. "I will not fight you."
"Good. Now, please come this way," he gestured toward the door.
Gabrielle did as asked. As she and Kartis stepped out of the suite two Athenian guards immediately bracketed her. She looked about for Samuel. There was no sign of him. To her relief she saw no blood on the walls or floor. She prayed he and his brother Guardsmen were not harmed in their capture.
The four walked to the dungeons located in the depths of the palace. Gabrielle was not taken to the main prisoner hold. Instead she was ushered into an isolated cell. Though not to the standards of Corinth, the cell was inhabitable.
Kartis stood at the door. "I will return tomorrow. Given that I am providing you the solitude you have sought, it is my hope that you will revisit my proposition and that our future discussions will be more sincere as well as fruitful." He raised the scroll he still held in his hand. "And thank you for this scroll. I will send it off to Corinth. I now have an additional fortnight to prepare for the Conqueror."
Gabrielle stood in silent watched as Kartis closed the prison door. Left alone she began to pace as she considered her options. If indeed all her men were arrested, she would have to wait for them to find a means of escape. She took heart in the fact that she had warned Trevor and that her Guard was comprised of the most resourceful men in the realm.
There were only two things Gabrielle felt she could do. One was to continue to engage Kartis in a dialogue. He had not gone so far beyond the pale that the damage done could not be mitigated. She sat down on her pallet considering the circumstances as objectively as she could, setting aside her need to see the good in people where there might be none left untainted. "Damn," she whispered, fearing what seemed to be the inevitability of a civil war. She leaned back against the prison wall and raised up her knees close to her body. She felt her loneliness. She wanted nothing more than to be in Xena's safe embrace. She hated that Xena would soon find herself in battle. She hated what war did to her partner, how hard it was to bring the warrior back from her darkest instincts to a gentler experience of life.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and concentrated on her Lord. Xena's essence remained faint. Gabrielle would not be discouraged. She traveled within herself seeking their place of spiritual union. The corridors were pitch black. With each step she felt no displacement, no other presence, only her aloneness. In the opaque space she called out for her partner. Her voice echoed. With the return of silence she waited.
Gabrielle was awakened from sleep by the sound of her prison cell opening. Turian stepped inside. Disorientated, Gabrielle quickly scanned her surroundings trying to make sense of place and time. She remembered her imprisonment the night before. More importantly, she remembered that she had failed to find Xena on their intimate plane.
"I've seem to have woken you from a sound sleep. I will counsel Kartis to reconsider your accommodations. They are obviously far too comfortable to motivate a change of heart," said Turian derisively.
Gabrielle swung her feet to the floor, sitting upright on the bed. "Why are you here?" she said crossly.
"Just paying a visit. I would hate for you to find fault with Athenian hospitality." Turian stood brazenly in the center of the cell. "Kartis is a good man. You may find that hard to believe sitting in here but it is true. He dreams of a Greece that will match the ideals brought forth by his revered philosophers." Turian glanced for a moment back to the cell door now closed by the guard. He approached and knelt on one knee before Gabrielle. He lowered his voice as he took Gabrielle's hand tenderly in his own. "Philosophy is a worthy occupation though it has no practical application. We must be careful, Gabrielle. As you are aware there is no dearth of watchmen in this city."
"You are not of the same mind as Kartis?" asked Gabrielle softly.
"Hardly. But, I think you suspected that all along. I have my own plans for Athens and Greece."
Gabrielle removed her hand from Turian's. "So you are orchestrating your own overthrow of the throne."
"I am not a man with such ill advised ambitions. I am however doing what must be done given the state of affairs that shrouds Greece."
"Your song is not so different than Kartis'."
"Gabrielle, in spite of your placement here, Kartis is smitten by your virtues and wants to believe that he will win you over. Doing so will bolster his conviction that he is acting in the right. I say it can be you who wins him over. You only have to try."
"I have tried. If I could I would stop this madness."
"You cannot succeed unless you alter your message. You must comply with his demands."
"I believed you thought me more than an opportunist."
"You must be practical. There is no place for idealism in the world. The wheels are in motion. There is no going back for Kartis. Gabrielle, I propose an alliance."
"This alliance will not include Kartis," speculated Gabrielle.
"No it won't. I am no advocate for the man."
"You advocate for yourself."
"Of course. What else would you expect from me?"
"Nothing less," said Gabrielle bitterly.
He sat beside her. "You have many assets, Gabrielle. You would make a fine partner. Together we can lead Greece to a better future."
"I am Queen. What do you offer me that I don't already have?"
"A life without the Conqueror."
Gabrielle stood up placing distance between her and the Athenian. "Why does everyone in Athens assume that my life is misery?"
"I have listened to you and I know better than to discount your feelings for the Conqueror. However, the Conqueror is not here and your life is at risk. Saving yourself should be your first priority."
"There are more important things than my life."
"What good will your death do? You cannot help Greece from the grave."
"Nor can I destroy it."
"Gabrielle, listen to me. It is true that I concur with Kartis that the Conqueror is not the future of Greece. What I do not concur with is his plan to declare civil war. I have forged my own alliances. Do as I say and I promise you Kartis will free you and I will squash his rebellion."
"What must I give you in return for my freedom?"
"Your word that you will work with me on fashioning a new Greece."
"I ask for nothing more. I wish to gift you with a better life."
"How can you expect me to believe you? Remember, I am a former slave. What men do for women is not necessarily given nor received as a gift."
Obviously offended, Turian stood up. "I am a man of honor, not a rapist."
"You and Kartis present yourselves in like manner."
"What?" Turian laughed derisively. "Are you going to tell me Kartis has been a perfect gentleman? Don't be fooled. He is a man and his admiration for you does not end with your higher virtues. He has commented time and time again on your beauty. He will have you or give you to the highest bidder once you agree to his terms."
"And what makes you different?"
Turian's brashness was arrested by the question. For a moment he looked down in thought. He took a calming breath and then raised his eyes to Gabrielle. "You have no reason to believe that I am different," he said sincerely. "I must be honest with you. I find you desirable. I cannot veil my feelings like a more sophisticated perpetrator might do. If you came to me I would welcome you and be a happy man. But, that is not why I am here. What I do is separate from anything you and I could ever be to one another. I act for the good of Greece. Kartis must be stopped and Greece must change its course."
Gabrielle believed him. She did not want to see Turian die at the end of Xena's sword. "Turian, work with me and the Conqueror for the reforms you feel are so essential to Greece's future. The Conqueror is not as closed to new ideas as you believe her to be."
"Like Kartis there is no going back for me, Gabrielle."
"If I say no to you?" she asked, intent on having a final measure of the man.
"The truth is that if you do not work with me Kartis will see Athens destroyed."
"He loves Athens. All he does is for the city."
"Kartis will destroy what he intends to save. He will not be the first to live such a paradox. Nor will he be the last." A sound on the other side of the prison door momentarily distracted Turian. He refocused on Gabrielle. "You don't have much time. You will have to make a choice. Take this last counsel to heart. There is no escaping your destiny. You cannot simply wait here to be rescued. By either Kartis or by my hand your future will be decided. If you wish to see me ask the guard. I will come to you."
The day passed slowly with no sign of Kartis. Evening meal had been served and the dungeon was relatively quiet. Gabrielle debated how to address Kartis when he did come to her. Turian's offer had left her confused. She felt terribly unsuited for the machinations of political intrigue within the palace. Xena had always been far more astute in recognizing and neutralizing such deceptions. Gabrielle's strength was in dealing with a challenge straightforwardly. Since arriving in Athens, Gabrielle had come to appreciate Xena's impatience with diplomacies that were by her judgment duplicitous, fueled by self-serving motives.
Gabrielle revisited every encounter she had with both Kartis and Turian, trying to find the key to each of the men's personalities. Turian judged Kartis a good man, yet resented Kartis' priorities and desire for power. Turian painted himself as a common man no longer willing to see the waste perpetuated by the aristocracy. Xena considered both men threats, but seemed more wary of Turian. It was hard to discount Xena's assessment and yet Gabrielle found goodness in him.
Gabrielle debated whether to pretend to collude with either man or to reject them both. She believed Kartis would not harm her in the near future. Turian's warning of Kartis' more carnal desires gave her pause. Kartis had been complementary from their first meeting. The nature of his admiration was now in question. Turian had been equally attentive and had spoken candidly. That Turian made no threat, and chafed at her reference to being violated was countered by his willingness to unseat Xena from the throne. The contradictions embodied within both men left her at a loss. She faced neither good nor evil without qualification. They were complex men. Her life with Xena taught her that truth resided within the complexity. A wishful desire to find a simple answer would do her no good.
Sitting up in bed Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried again to reach Xena through their connection. Xena's essence continued to be faint. Gabrielle opened her eyes and stared at her hands, focusing on their joining ring. "My Lord, please hearken my call to you," she whispered. It was her hope that Kartis would bring Xena to Athens by having her message delivered. Kartis seemed please with Gabrielle's brief dispatch not knowing how contrary to custom it had been.
The silence was shattered by a sudden cry. Gabrielle went to the prison door, placing her ear against the wood. More sounds marked a rise in activity. All led her to believe that a skirmish was in progress. She continued to listen hopefully as the sounds grew louder. Now she heard voices. They were too faint to identify any one man. Without warning a great impact hit the door. She jumped back. After a few moments a key was inserted into the door lock. The door opened. Trevor stood on the other side. "Gabrielle, are you all right."
"Yes!" she said feeling a wash of relief.
The Captain reached out for her. "Come then. We don't have much time before the palace guards are roused."
Gabrielle ran forward, taking Trevor's hand, allowing him to guide her. Four of the Guardsmen led the way. The balance fell behind her and Trevor. Reaching a stairwell they faced a band of Athenian guards, Turian at their lead.
There was an immediate clash of men. Weaponless Gabrielle stood against a wall behind a protective perimeter created by her Guard.
Turian fought through a breach and captured Gabrielle's arm. He dragged her down a side corridor, placing himself between her and the fighting. Having achieved a safe distance he stopped and faced his Queen. "Gabrielle, I say again, if you leave Athens will fall."
From the far side of the confrontation, Kartis approached with a dozen men. The Queen's Guard was now outnumbered.
"Get away from her!" Trevor hit Turian in the face with the side of his sword. Gabrielle pulled free. She cried out as the Captain raised his sword for a death blow. "Trevor, wait!"
Samuel charged forward and took Gabrielle from behind lifting her up and carrying her away.
"Sam, stop!" Gabrielle shouted to no avail as the Guardsman continued to run toward an exit at the far end of the dungeon. Three Guardsmen passed by leading the way while the balance followed. One was Trevor. To Gabrielle's relief, his sword was free of fresh blood.
After scaling a flight of stairs the Corinthians bolted through a door that led to the palace courtyard. It was only upon reaching the courtyard, dark with night, that Sam released Gabrielle, setting her on her feet.
"What did you think you were doing?" Gabrielle angrily demanded.
"Saving your life," responded the unrepentant Guardsman. "Or did you want to stay with Turian?"
"Shut up, Sam!" shouted Trevor.
"What, you too? By the Gods what's going on here that no one has told me?"
Tavis placed himself between the two men. "Calm man," he said to Sam then turned to Gabrielle, gentling his voice. "We need to keep moving."
As they spoke Brogan and Hamish jammed the palace door preventing the Athenian guards from following.
"I say we break up in smaller teams," said Sentas. "We will be less conspicuous and increase our chances of getting out of the city."
"Sentas is right." Trevor took command. "Sam and I will stay with Gabrielle. The rest of you go in twos and threes. We need to get word to the Conqueror."
"She may be on her way," said Gabrielle.
"Finally, luck is with us."
"We need horses and more weapons," said Tavis.
"We have enough swords," said Trevor, finding that each man held one in hand. "As we leave the city we'll have chances enough to increase our weaponry at the expense of Kartis' men."
"Don't take any unnecessary risks," Sentas counseled. "We will have our day."
"By the Gods, Sentas, are you getting careful in your old age?" asked the Captain.
"Judge for yourself. Take this." The Guardsman presented his short sword to Trevor. "Gabrielle needs a fully weaponed guard.
Tavis handed his similar weapon to Samuel. "Take mine, too. Sentas and I can do well enough with our wit and our hands. Right brother?"
"Let's go," said Sentas rising to the challenge. He paused and set his own challenged before his fellow Guardsmen. "First team that reaches the Conqueror shall have a night of drinks at the expense of his brothers."
In spite of the dire situation Gabrielle smiled, for as the moment proved once again, the Guardsmen could always find a reason for a wager.
The threesome of Gabrielle, Trevor and Samuel exited the palace grounds through a gardener's entrance previously identified by the Guardsmen. They chose sparsely traveled streets that wound through the city. Their destination the poorest district where they might be able to find an unoccupied shelter. They search nearly two candlemarks before reaching a small street that ended in a terrace, below them a house was built on a moderate sloping hillside. Gabrielle and Trevor rested on the ground side-by-side while Samuel took first watch near the street entrance.
Having time to think Gabrielle replayed their escape in her mind. She sought to better understand the events she had just lived. She turned to her companion. "Trevor, how did you escape your cell?"
Trevor reached into his breast pocket and removed a key. "Your friend Udell arranged for this to be hidden in my dinner. It was a sloppy but effective trick."
"I owe him a debt of gratitude."
"We all do. It's good to know that not all the educated Athenians think like Kartis. The people are with you."
"How can you be sure?"
"Gabrielle, the reception you received coming through the city and every day since should be all the proof you need. The respect and affection the people have shown you has not been given grudgingly."
"That is why Kartis wants my help."
"He's not a fool to want you. He is a fool to think you would betray the Conqueror."
Gabrielle was thoughtful. "Trevor, I've learned one thing while here. There are still many people who question why I'm with my Lord. My motives are questioned."
"That's because they haven't seen you two together."
"They have. But not like the palace household or our armies or even the Corinthians at Niko's."
"It's their loss."
Gabrielle looked away. She could not remember the last time she felt so uncertain, so unprepared to cope with the events of the day. Trevor spoke her name. She turned her gaze to him.
"What are you thinking?" he asked.
"I wonder if we've been complacent," said Gabrielle, her internal tumult evident.
"How so? You've never stopped trying to improve conditions for the people of Greece."
"Change comes slowly and our improvements cannot be characterized as bold and sweeping. They are modest in comparison to the vision of the Athenians."
"Ask a former slave and he or she will disagree," said Trevor referencing the realms outlawing of slavery.
"The one policy that has left the rich landowners livid."
"Don't confuse the Athenians with Kartis and his privileged lot."
"I've spoken to other prominent men and women. They are not all looking to increase their fortunes."
"Are you saying you agree with them?"
"I'm saying some of their ideas have merit."
"Like building more bathes?"
Gabrielle smiled. "I didn't say all their ideas had merit."
"Why overthrow the government? Why not work with it?"
"They feel they've tried and Corinth has failed them."
"If you ask me I say they're selfish and impatient."
"There has been more than one occasion in which my Lord has accused me of impatience."
"But not of being selfish."
"I've had my moments," said Gabrielle sheepishly.
"Gabrielle, you said the Conqueror might be on her way. What do you know?"
"I wrote a message to my Lord that I would be delayed another fortnight. I think Kartis sent it to Corinth."
"How does that help us?"
"The salutation in the messaged was addressed to the Conqueror."
Trevor grinned. He asked knowingly, "Not to your Lord?"
"In formal correspondence I address her as Sovereign and yes, privately either by her given name or as my Lord. Never do I refer to her as Conqueror. I also failed to mention our meeting in Megara. I think she will be suspicious."
"This one time I hope she is also impatient."
"When it comes to my well-being she usually is."
"That's love I think."
Gabrielle leaned her head against Trevor's shoulder. "Yes, I agree."
"So, you will forgive Sam for taking liberties with you?"
Gabrielle nudged the Captain. "Trevor, I didn't realize you aspired to be a statesman."
"Do you disapprove of my aspirations?"
"No. And, neither can I can blame Sam for carrying me away from harm's way."
"Glad to hear." The sound of men shouting distracted the two friends. They sat silently, listening, unable to clearly hear what was being said. "I better take a look." Trevor stood up. "Will you be all right?"
"I'm fine. Go on."
"Yes, your Majesty," said Trevor bowing graciously. That earned him an affectionate slap on the leg just as he began to walk away.
Gabrielle watched him as he disappeared around a corner. She took hold of what had been Tavis' short sword and readied herself mentally for a fight or a retreat whichever would serve them best. Within a few heartbeats a flash of light signaled the appearance of a divine force. A goddess dressed in luminous silver armor appeared. Gabrielle did not know her.
"You are Gabrielle?" asked the Goddess.
"I am Athena. How are you?"
Under the current circumstances the question struck Gabrielle as absurd. She remained silent.
"For a bard you are not much for idle talk. Very well, I shall waste no more words and speak to why I'm here. It must be difficult knowing that the fate of my city rests in your hands."
Gabrielle now knew that Turian's warning had merit. "Are you going to tell me that I have to go back to Kartis?"
"You are not my Chosen. I haven't the right to tell you what to do."
"I don't know what to think."
"Do you believe Kartis will sacrifice my city to realize his ambitions?"
"You are right. What is your opinion of Turian?"
"I want to believe he is sincere. The only thing I know is that I can't afford to misjudge him. Too many lives are at stake."
"Now that I have come to you what will you chose to do?"
Gabrielle looked down to her hand. She focused on the insignia on her ring. All that Xena taught her about being a leader came to her in her Lord's most uncompromising voice. You must be willing to sacrifice yourself for the greater good. Greece comes first. "I'm left with only one choice. I have to go back."
Athena glanced down the street. "Will you take your Guardsmen?"
"No, they'll try to stop me."
"With good reason. The Athenians battling for power are ruthless. There is no promise that they will show you mercy. And even the fastest courier in Greece could not have yet delivered your message to the Conqueror. She cannot save you."
"Why go back then?"
The question surprised Gabrielle. "You don't think I should?" Receiving no answer she reasoned, "If I can make a difference isn't my life worth the lives of the innocent?"
"There is something you should know," said Athena with a hint of unease. "The Fates have granted me the favor of seeing into the future. I found myself at a crossroad where you alone stood. The future of Athens depends upon which path you choose."
"I will do what I must."
"Contrary to what you may think there is no obvious right or wrong choice. The future may unfold horrendously in spite of your best intentions."
"Going back is not enough?" asked Gabrielle, confounded. "What must I do to save Athens?"
"Be careful in how you listen to your heart."
"That tells me nothing."
"I have no right to say more."
"Since when do the Gods play by any rules?"
"I gave my word to the Fates." The Goddess observed Gabrielle's obvious turmoil. Affected by it she warned, "Gabrielle, you are Aphrodite's Chosen. Know that I wish you no harm."
"Though my entreaty is sincere and though lives may be saved if you follow my counsel, you will never thank me for my intervention. In fact, I think you will curse me."
"I don't understand. Why did you come?"
"I do not want to see my city destroyed. The people of Athens expect nothing less than my protection. There is a way to avoid a holocaust. To do so you must petition the Fates to show you the same thread I have seen."
"The Fates gave Xena a choice. She is still haunted by her decision."
"I speak of knowledge. You will learn what will come to be given whom you are and a choice you will make. Armed with that knowledge, knowing the far-reaching consequences of what you believed was a personal decision, you can choose whether to alter your course. If you don't accept my offer, I will have changed nothing."
"You're telling me that either I do as you say or I will be responsible for the destruction of Athens and the deaths of thousands."
"No, I am not placing that responsibility upon you. You will not raise the sword. You will not light the flames. Those who do will be held accountable." The Goddess paused thoughtfully. "To be fair to you, will you leave the city if I assure you that if you escape and return to the Conqueror, the fate of Athens will remain unchanged?"
Gabrielle did not believe she had reached the critical crossroads. "The Athenians will be saved?"
"I did not say that. I only propose that you will have no reason to regret your escape."
"You are telling me that Athens will be destroyed whether I leave or stay without touching the thread of my destiny, but if I go to the Fates and touch the thread there is a chance to save the city."
"Gabrielle, there are worst things than losing ones life."
"Yes, I am." Athena said forcefully. "And, for generations I have observed the trials of mortals. What I say is true. The day may soon come when you will welcome death over life."
"I've already survived the darkest nights of the soul."
"There are darker still."
Gabrielle stood up. "When I accepted the throne, I took an oath to always act for the benefit of Greece. Take me to the Fates." The Goddess seemed unmoved. "Athena, I am willing to take the risk. It is my choice as Aphrodite's Chosen."
"For your love of the people? My sister may disagree but she will be hard pressed to argue." Athena extended her hand. "Come with me."
Gabrielle glanced back to the street that led to Trevor and Samuel. There would be no farewells. She took Athena's hand and immediately felt a sudden, somewhat nauseating sense of displacement. She closed her eyes causing the sensation to gradually ease. Sensing a renewed stillness and the release of her hand she opened her eyes finding herself in the presence of not only Athena but also a loom made of unfamiliar woods with countless threads leading to it and three women standing beside it guiding its threads. She assumed they were Clotho, the maiden, Lachesis, the mother, and Atropos, the crone.
Atropos turned unhappily towards the uninvited. "Athena, you had no right to bring her here."
"The decision is yours, Atropos." The Goddess' words were greeted with a heavy silence. Her anger rose. "Did you expect me to do nothing?"
"I did not expect you to compound your mistake. I told you, Gods and mortals alike are meant to remain blind to the future." The Fate sighed heavily. "What did you tell her?"
"To go back to the Conqueror."
Atropos directed her words to Gabrielle. "Is that true?"
"Yes," said Gabrielle.
The crone returned her gaze to Athena. "I'm impressed. Aphrodite will thank you."
"I doubt that," said the Goddess dismissively.
"Your rivalries are unbecoming," responded Atropos tartly.
Gabrielle stepped forward. "Excuse me."
"You wish to see your destiny?" asked Atropos gently.
"I wish to save Athens," responded the determined Queen.
Atropos walked closer to the loom and pointed to a thread. "This is your life Gabrielle. At this point, not yet passed, there is a mark. When time reaches that point the thread will be cut and you will enter Hades' domain. It is that point in time that Athena is concerned with. Touch the thread just before the mark and you will come to understand your destiny and your legacy." It is knowledge that you must not share or all good that comes from it will be unraveled.
Gabrielle understood that she was being invited to see her imminent death. This did not surprise her. She also understood that with the privilege of seeing the future came the burden of secrecy. She assumed she would not live long enough for the burden to cause her much distress. She approached the loom, reached out and placed a fingertip upon the thread.
Gabrielle walked the main road to the Governor's palace. The crowd separated as her identity was acknowledged and relayed forward. Kartis waited for her at the gated entrance.
"You surprise me, Gabrielle. I did not expect your return." said the Governor.
"My first interest is the people of Athens."
Kartis stepped forward seeking a private counsel. "I'm listening."
"Are you a man of your word?"
"You know I am."
"I offer my life in exchange for your assurance that you will do what you must to safeguard the people of Athens from civil war."
"That promise could be construed in many ways. I will not surrender in the face of the Conqueror's forces."
"That is not what I ask. You will escort the women and the children and the old and ill out of the city's district."
"I see you know the story of Xena's siege of Corinth. I am no Bevan. I will not use the innocent as a shield or for barter."
"Other's among you may expect you to do so."
"If they do they are worse than barbarians. I value Athenian lives. I will not lower myself to the level of a snake devouring all that is before me."
"Have I your promise?"
Kartis looked up, over Gabrielle's shoulder. "The people of Athens are watching you, Gabrielle. I'm sure they wonder where the Conqueror is right now. Is she in your thoughts as well?"
Gabrielle was taken aback by Kartis' tone. She chose not to give him the satisfaction of receiving an answer. "I am here with you. You are primary in my thoughts."
"Primary but not solely. You are a Poteidian are you not?"
"My promise will not spare you."
"I look at you and I wonder whether you have finally understood the wisdom in accepting my proposition or if you are conspiring to betray me. I can tell you that your escape has embarrassed me among my associates. I feel like a groom who has been cuckolded. What goodwill there was between us has withered on the vine and shall bare no fruit. As a spoil of war, you will be tamed, Gabrielle. If it were not for my commitment to Sarah I would do the honors myself. I am a man with many friends and more than one of them has expressed an interest in knowing his Queen intimately. Being a good friend I should not withhold the opportunity, don't you agree?"
"Kartis, why are you like this to me now?"
"You who choose to be the Conqueror's whore instead of being bound to a man of honor ask me to explain myself. Look in the mirror for my reasons."
"You are wrong to condemn me."
"Athens will know who is their rightful ruler. Bend down to your knees, Gabrielle." Kartis lowered his voice malevolently. "Do it!"
"I will not grovel to you in the public eye," said Gabrielle defiantly. " My value rests on my Queenship. Strip me of my dignity and I am nothing."
"You are a strong-willed wench. I shall enjoy breaking you."
"You can try."
"Have I your word that you will follow my commands after we enter the palace?"
"I will follow all commands as they pertain to me. I will not consent to any command that harms another."
Kartis leaned closer, the scent of his sour breath repulsed Gabrielle. "You will be with whom I assign you to willingly?"
"I cannot give you that pledge. I gave my heart and soul to the Conqueror and belong to her."
"I now have proof of your true allegiance. I was right not to trust you. To whom you have given your heart or soul is of no consequence. The men I speak of want only your body and the right to boast that they have fearlessly taken you in the face of the Conqueror's wrath."
"Whomever he is he will not be the first man to have me."
"He will be the last. I am certain of it. And, only you and I will know under what terms. Now, when I offer you my hand you will accept it and you will stand by my side for all of Athens to see that you have chosen me over the Conqueror. They will soon recognize me as the Conqueror's successor."
In was at that moment, with her death certain, Gabrielle decided to take her own life. She refused to re-experience the humiliation of being violated, of being debased. She refused to have Xena live with such images in her mind.
Kartis escorted Gabrielle into the palace and then to her suite of rooms. There one of two Athenian guards standing at attention opened the door. Kartis gestured for Gabrielle to enter. She did so. He followed her inside. The door closed.
"There is no better time than the present to discuss your role in my government," said Kartis.
Gabrielle walked to the heart of the chamber and turned back to her imprisoner. If true to his word, Kartis had no intention of violating her. She would listen not argue, pacify not provoke. She needed only a few moments alone to carry out her plan.
"You will adorn my palace, your purpose decorative. I shall display you at all government functions not to be admired for your own sake but as a reflection of the power of your master." Seeing Gabrielle's countenance harden Kartis paused. "I see you do not welcome the notion. I think your garments and accouterments give you a false sense of importance. Strip your clothes… slowly."
Mortified, she removed one garment after another, each falling to the floor at her feet until, except for her medallion and her ring, she stood naked.
"Turn around. Let me see you." Upon seeing the scars tracing Gabrielle's back Kartis asked, "The Conqueror marked you?"
"No," whispered Gabrielle.
"Keep turning." Gabrielle closed her eyes and bowed her head, feeling a long dormant shame.
"Look at me." Kartis wore a self-satisfied smile. "As you said, strip you of your dignity and you are nothing."
A knock on the door caused Kartis to cease his insults and impatiently tramp to the suite entrance. He opened the door slightly, receiving a discrete message. He turned his gaze back to Gabrielle and commanded, "Stand there. I won't be long." He stepped out. The door shut behind him.
Left alone Gabrielle closed her eyes and sought out Xena's essence. She felt a fragile thread of her partner's vibrant energy. From it she received solace. Her resolve to act strengthened. Gabrielle bent down to her knees and searched her clothes. She retrieved her boot dagger. Again, she closed her eyes and sought out the intangible connection she shared with her Lord. With both hands she raised the dagger, point facing toward her. As tears fell silently down her cheek Gabrielle spoke aloud, "Xena, hear me. I pray that you will forgive me for coming here without you. Believe me when I say that I did what I thought was best. I love you and I will wait for you. If you will have me I will spend eternity with you whether Hades commends you to Elysia or condemns you to Tartarus." With one quick stroke she plunged the dagger through her heart.
Kartis entered the room in Turian's company. Turian stopped shocked to see Gabrielle lying naked in a pool of blood. "What did you do?" he demanded of Kartis.
Stunned in his own right and intimidated by Turian's anger Kartis stepped back. "I did nothing. I just readied her for you."
"Damn you, Kartis." Turian went and knelt beside Gabrielle. Removing his cloak, he covered her body with unexpected gentleness. He reached out and grazed her tear stained cheek with his fingertips. After a moment he composed himself and turned to Kartis. "There will be no stopping the Conqueror now."
"Then no one will know that Gabrielle is dead."
"How long do you think you can keep this a secret?" asked Turian with a sweep of his hand over the lifeless body."
"Long enough to ready for a battle," said Kartis.
Within the palace Xena and her men battled the Athenian guard.
"Conqueror!" called Udell from his hiding place.
Xena caught sight of the philosopher. "Where is Gabrielle?" she demanded.
"I will take you to her," the scholar stuttered. He turned and led her and her men down the palace corridor until they reach a door to a guest room. Entering he stepped aside remaining by the door.
Xena entered impatiently. Her eyes were drawn to a bed. There Gabrielle's body lay in state. She went to the bedside and fell to her knees. Jared, shaken collapsed into a chair. Stephen stood behind Xena. Sentas turned his face away as Tavis placed his hand on his brother's shoulder for support. There was no motion other than Jared's trembling body and the muffled tears the other men shed.
Udell took a step forward. "Your Majesty, Queen Gabrielle took her own life instead of betraying you or allowing herself to be…" He could not finish his statement, thinking the truth too ugly for those who loved the young woman.
Athena appeared. "Why are you standing here doing nothing? There is a battle to win. The Goddess received no response. Stephen alone raised his gaze to the Goddess. He had never seen a divinity and for a moment wondered who she was. He judged by her angry, edgy demeanor that the Goddess was not Gabrielle's benefactor Aphrodite.
Athena caught Stephen's gaze and held it. "You are here to protect my city. Not to stand pathetically mourning one woman."
Stephen spoke in a hush. "Athens can burn to the ground. My sister's life was worth more than all the Athenians combined."
Athena's nostrils flared in anger. She pointed to Gabrielle and shouted. "Your Queen did not think so!"
"I would have stopped her if I could."
"I saved her life for this day."
"You were there. Her infected arm. Gabrielle was right. Even if you had amputated she would still have died."
"We owe you nothing," spat Stephen.
"Mind your tongue."
"Why? Take my life. I don't care."
Xena took hold of her dagger. "Athena, you have left me no reason to live."
Correctly interpreting Xena's intent, Stephen lunged forward. "No!"
Xena trust the dagger at the place upon her chest that still held a faint scar from Aphrodite's wound.
What followed were moments of grief followed by rage, as the men she loved, her brothers began killing Kartis' men without discretion. The killing escalated indiscriminately, as one Athenian after another found death waiting for them at the end of a Guardsmen's and the First Army's swords. Torches were lit and the city dwellings burned, the flames taking flight from thatch roof to thatch roof, until the metropolis was completely engulfed by the inferno. Athens experienced the annihilation of Cirra multiplied a thousand fold.
The images ended and Gabrielle opened her eyes. She stepped back, overwhelmed by what she saw. She whispered, "That can't happen." Her concern was more for her Lord and the tarnished souls of her brothers than for the Athenians. She looked to Atropos and asked, "If I live?"
"As your destiny unfolds on that night so does Athen's."
"Then I will live."
"Tell her." Athena demanded of the Fate.
Atropos stared at the Goddess, obviously not one to be dictated to. She then gentled her expression as she said to Gabrielle, "Kartis will kill you unless…"
"Unless what?" asked Gabrielle as she glanced between the Fate and the Goddess.
The crone's pity was evident. "Unless he believes that you have chosen him over the Conqueror or you seduce a champion among the Athenians to stop him."
"You are dealing with men, Gabrielle," said Athena.
Gabrielle turned toward the Goddess angrily. "You expect me to betray Xena? I won't do that! I can't!"
"Then return to the Conqueror," interjected Atropos. "Athena told you the truth. There is nothing else you or the Conqueror can do to save the city."
"Damn you! Damn you, both!" Gabrielle shouted.
Athena kept her composure. "As I warned you Gabrielle, you would be given reason to curse me."
"Never again, Athena." Atropos vowed sharply, and then walked back to her work.
Gabrielle stared at the three Fates and their loom. She knew one thread of the future. She and Xena would die by their own hands. She could hope that their earthly suffering would end. If so, the price was terrible. How could she justify herself to the souls that would die because of her decision? Eternity with the memory of her decision would be Tartarus no matter where Hades sent her. And what of Xena? Gabrielle was not surprised by Xena's decision to raise a dagger to her breast. Unaware that Gabrielle had been taken to Ithome by Ares, believing that Gabrielle had died; the warrior had sought death as a release from her suffering. Choosing life, Gabrielle might change the future enough to give Xena a reason to keep living.
Atropos was clear. By returning to Kartis Gabrielle was signing her own death decree unless she recruited a champion. From what she witnessed she believed there was indeed a champion within her reach. A decision made Gabrielle shifted her vision towards the waiting Goddess. "Athena, take me back to Athens. Someplace away from my men where I might not be recognized."
"What are you going to do?" asked the Goddess.
"Tell me first. Once we leave here can I ask for your help?"
Athena looked over to the loom. Atropos caught and held her gaze. "No, Gabrielle. The Fates will not allow me to interfere again."
"I will go back to Kartis and I will choose life over death. With time we will both learn what my choice will mean to your city."
"Thank you, Gabrielle," said Athena sincerely.
"I'm not doing this for you."
"I know. You are helping Athens in spite of what I've done and for that I am grateful."
Within her let room at the Dolphin's Cove Inn Gabrielle sat at a small table with a sheet of parchment and a jar of ink before her. She held a quill tentatively in her hand, set in her task of composing a message to Kartis. Her mind and heart were at odds. She decided to use the fact that Samuel had swept her away to her advantage. The message was drafted to pander to Kartis' ego and to infer her willingness to betray her Lord.
Forgive my abrupt departure. As must have been apparent, I did not take leave of you voluntarily. Unfortunately, in the face of my hesitancy my Guardsmen demonstrated a lapse in discipline.
I am pleased to inform you that I have been able to extricate myself from their zealous guardianship. I will present myself to you in front of the Governor's Palace at noon.
It is my hope that I may fulfill my role in making your vision for Greece come true.
Queen of Greece
Gabrielle folded and sealed the message. She left her room, walked down to the inn's tavern and secured a messenger. She immediately left, seeking anonymity in the crowds of the city. For now she was simply an undistinguishable Athenian traveling through the city streets. Soon she would be seen as a traitor. To be deemed a traitor by those she loved raised within her an unsettling nausea.
The sun was directly overhead as Gabrielle walked the main road to the Governor's Palace. Like her vision of the future, the crowd separated as her identity was acknowledge and relayed forward. The Governor waited for her at the palace gate.
"I was pleasantly surprised to receive your message, Gabrielle," said Kartis. "I did not expect your return."
"May we speak privately?"
Kartis stepped forward. "I'm listening."
"I would hope to have the wisdom to see what is right and good for the people of Athens. The Conqueror is in Corinth and I am here. You have called upon me to make a choice. By my presence before you I have made my choice obvious to the people of Athens."
"Are you willing to make that choice before all the people of Greece?"
"Yes. Tell me what you wish from me and it will be done."
Kartis smiled and extended his arm. "Come with me, Gabrielle Queen of Greece."
Gabrielle took his arm in her own and allowed Kartis to escort her back into the palace. She saw Turian standing nearby observing the scene. He matched her gaze. After a heartbeat Gabrielle shamefully averted her eyes.
Gabrielle was left alone after sharing dinner with Kartis and a half-dozen corrupt Athenian businessmen and an equal number of Kartis' military echelon. She had remained silent unless directly spoken to, which was rare. Her acquiescence to Kartis, as treason was spoken in her presence, damned her.
Gabrielle excused herself and returned to her suite of rooms. Kartis promised a visit later in the evening. She dressed in a simple peach silk nightdress. Its skirt was slit open to the thigh. She also wore a robe of the same material in a slightly darker shade. Standing on the balcony, Gabrielle waited for Kartis' inevitable appearance. Looking up to the stars, reminded of her Lord, she shut her emotions within the deepest recesses of her heart as she had learned to do during her slavery. As a slave she never had to pretend she welcomed her violation. Athens would demand far more from her. She would seduce her adversary and give him free access to her body. Gabrielle did not understand how Xena could have used her body in such a way as warlord and as Conqueror and survived without her humanity damaged. She reconsidered and came to the conclusion that her partner's humanity had been warped by her indiscriminate use of her body. Xena's acts were not without ramification. The outcome was, in part, the warrior's sexually bound battle lust.
Gabrielle's thoughts were maddening. She tried to shut her mind. She was left in a cruel limbo knowing that soon Xena would learn of her betrayal and in lesser time Kartis would physically claim her as his prize. She would take her own life if she were assured that the future was sufficiently altered to stop Athens's destruction. If only she was certain Xena would not fall upon her sword in grief.
Her thoughts went to Lucretius' philosophy. She prayed that he was wrong. She wanted her soul to continue on long enough to confess the truth to Xena. She wanted so much to save Xena the hurt, if not in her mortal life, then in eternity. She resigned herself to the harshness of the un-vindicated legacy that was to be her destiny.
Gabrielle heard her suite door open. As Kartis entered, she walked down the few balcony steps into the main room. If Kartis was intent on playing cat and mouse with her, Gabrielle would offer him catnip as a distraction.
He paused and crossed his arms. "Have you been waiting for me?"
He shook his head. "Look at you. Do you think yourself so irresistible that I would come to you seeking your favor?"
"You have been… very solicitous toward me," said Gabrielle humbly.
"By the Gods, why would I want to be with the Conqueror's whore?"
Gabrielle's thoughts split in two conflicting directions, overwhelming relief that she would be spared Kartis' touch and anger at the insult. She spoke coolly, keeping to her formal diction, "Our arrangement is not precipitated on any further increase in our intimacy."
"So right!" Kartis affirmed disdainfully. "I doubt you could give me anything worth sending Sarah out of my bed."
Gabrielle bowed slightly, wordlessly echoing Kartis' statement.
Kartis approached her. "I expect the arrival of Brutus within the next handful of days. Do you know him?"
"We have met." The mention of the Roman was unwelcomed.
"What is your impression of him?"
"I sensed he is an honorable man. Unfortunately, Caesar stands in his blind spot."
"He trusts Caesar."
"So you think me a fool to trust Caesar?" Kartis' agitation betrayed his uncertainty.
"As you have proven to me tonight, you are a prudent man in how you develop your alliances. I can only counsel you to tread carefully."
Unexpectedly, Kartis laughed. He spoke with renewed confidence. "You surprise me, Gabrielle. I threaten your life to gain your cooperation and you acquiesce without not so much as a curse. I offend you and you respond with reasonable counsel. Are you your own woman or do you attach yourself to the most powerful in order to gain benefits otherwise beyond your reach?"
"I have learned from my years with the Conqueror when and how to influence others."
"You will influence me?"
"I already have."
"Have you? I hadn't notice."
"Why did you not kill me and take comfort in having one more adversary dead at your feet? You know as well as I do that I can be of use to you. And, I know just as you do that by forcing my seemingly voluntary public declaration of an alliance that I can never return to Corinth. The Conqueror will cut me down without a second thought."
"You could plead your case with the Conqueror. She is said to love you, or was I right that you are a carnal convenience to her."
Again an insult, again Gabrielle chose not to respond. "You do not know the Conqueror as I do. She values her honor above all else. And love… I doubt that you would measure the Conqueror's love as equal to the Athenian concept of the virtue."
"You will not have my pity."
"I don't seek it. I surely do not deserve it."
"As I have said, you are a survivor, Gabrielle. That makes you a dangerous woman. And yet, I cannot help but admire you. I know of no slave that has risen so high from the dregs of society."
"You give me too much credit."
"I doubt that. The men you have met with these past few days have been won over by your beauty and intelligence and that has posed a problem for me. Who of the many should I give you to?"
Gabrielle steeled. "There is no candidate I would welcome."
Angered, Kartis grabbed her harshly. "But you will welcome him." He pulled Gabrielle back by her hair. "I have your promise."
Turian entered unannounced. "Don't go bruising my reward, Kartis." he said edgily.
Kartis released Gabrielle. "No harm done, Turian. We were just coming to an understanding. Weren't we, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle turned toward Turian. "I am your reward, then?"
Kartis walked to the silent Turian and gave him a congratulatory slap on the back. "He was very persuasive." Kartis then walked to the door where he paused and chuckled, "Only the best for the Queen of Greece. Enjoy her my friend."
Turian waited until Kartis had exited. He kept his distance from Gabrielle. "Are you all right?" he asked with obvious concern.
Gabrielle's anger subsided as her hopes grew. "Yes, thank you."
Turain looked about and sat down in a nearby chair. "You can go to your bedroom. I'll be here. I shall not intrude any further upon your privacy."
Gabrielle had no intention of retiring to her bed. There was too much to learn. "Turian, why?"
"Gabrielle, you are safe with me. Kartis and the others can think whatever they want." Seeing that Gabrielle remained unmoved, Turian leaned forward. "I have been truthful to you," he said reassuringly. "I do hope you can trust me. We are facing difficult days."
"What will happen?"
"I have lost my leverage. By your public declaration Kartis has what he wanted. He is goading the Conqueror to travel to Athens. He is sure he can exploit her pride and bring her into the palace. He won't stop until he kills her."
"But he won't."
"Depends if she can maintain her focus on the prize, which is Kartis and not you."
Gabrielle was not concerned. Xena was never more focused than when faced with a betrayal deserving her vengeance. Her calculating mind would make no mistakes. "You said Kartis is goading the Conqueror. How?"
"The declarations he had you sign. One was sent by messenger to Corinth. Two have been posted: one at the city gate and the other in the Agora. The fourth he keeps for himself as a trophy."
"I knew before I returned to the palace that I was forfeiting my life. Still, it's hard…"
"Why did you come back?"
"For the greater good. Because I believe the city has a better chance of surviving with me here."
"Why sign the declarations?"
"Kartis would have killed me if I refused. I still serve a purpose alive."
"It is selfish of me but I am glad you chose life. I will do my best to keep you from harm's way."
"Turian, you don't owe me anything."
"But, I do. I am the one that asked you to remain in Athens."
"I did so because I am Queen and am sworn to place Greece above all else."
"I see." Turian fell back against the chair disappointedly. An aching fatigue carried in his voice as he suggested, "You should try to get some sleep."
"What will you tell Kartis in the morning?"
"That you were sweet to me and that I will not share you with another man. Gabrielle, I think it best if you move your things into my suite. There will be less chance some fool will take exception to my claim upon you."
Gabrielle turned and walked to the bedroom, pausing at the threshold. She had lost Xena. As much as she tried to keep the devastating truth from her heart, it made an excruciating incursion up it. She faced a lonely death. So too did Turian though he might not know it. Whether fact or fiction, that he was believed to be intimate with her condemned him. She wondered if he understood his fate and stayed to protect her anyway.
Gabrielle looked back to the man who had garnered her affection. She remembered Atropos' guidance - she would die unless she seduced a champion among the Athenians. Gabrielle did not fear death. Athena was right. There are worse things than death. In losing Xena to a perceived betrayal Gabrielle had entered the darkest night of her soul. Gabrielle did not want to be alone and she felt Turian deserved more than what life had given him. She gazed down to her left hand and felt her loss of Xena's love, knowing nothing that Turian offered her could be as wondrous. She removed her ring, placing it in the pocket of her dress. She then silently returned to him.
Turian looked up to her. "Gabrielle, what is it?"
She reached out her hand to him. He took it and after a thoughtful moment stood up. She leaned forward and gently kissed him. For a brief wisp of time she was released from both the past and the future. The kissed ended.
"You don't have to do this," said Turian.
"I know," said Gabrielle as she raised her hand gently to his cheek.
Turian kissed Gabrielle. He brought her closer to him with a firm yet tender embrace. Gabrielle allowed herself to be carried away by his sensual desire for her. Turian released her taking her hand in his. "I swear I will be good to you." As a tear fell down her cheek Gabrielle renewed their kiss.
Their lovemaking led them to the bedroom where they patiently undressed each other. Seeing Gabrielle's scars for the first time Turian paused. He silently matched Gabrielle's questioning gaze then swept his hand across her back without further hesitation.
Turian was a patient lover. Their extended foreplay had heightened Gabrielle's receptivity. He took care not to overwhelm her as he reached climax. Afterwards, he held her, offering her a constant reassuring embrace. Gabrielle fell asleep with Turian's touch firmly in her mind. She could not allow any other thought and not act to end her life.
Gabrielle awoke to the diffused light of dawn. Turian held her gently. "Good morning," he said.
"How did you sleep?"
To her relief Gabrielle recalled no dreams. "Fair." She raised herself up, holding the bed sheet close to her.
She answered honestly. "No."
"What do you ask of me, Gabrielle?"
"I've been thinking about what lays in store for Athens and for us. I expect times will become ugly. Gabrielle, if you could have one outcome in addition to saving the city, what would it be?" Gabrielle looked away, her most painful thoughts resurfacing. "Be truthful," coaxed Turian.
Gabrielle returned her gaze to the man. "I don't want to hurt you."
"You won't. Tell me. What is your heart's desire?"
"I want no harm to come to the Conqueror. I want her to beat back Kartis and stop Rome from entering Greece."
"Since my dream for Greece is now beyond my reach I will do what I can to give you yours."
Gabrielle knew war. She had seen in her brief lifetime overwhelming indiscriminate death and wanted an end to it. She could not save herself. She could save the man beside her. "Turian, you can still leave the city and join the Conqueror. You can be of use to her."
Turian sat up and turned to Gabrielle. "If you come with me."
"Then I am more valuable here."
"Don't stay because of me."
"I'm not. I'm being as selfish as a man can be."
Gabrielle covered his hand with hers. "Thank you."
"I promise you, Gabrielle. I will do what I can to help you and the Conqueror. Now, I need to dress and make an appearance before Kartis. A man must boast of his conquests." He paused contritely. "I am sorry but it is expected."
Gabrielle smiled sadly. "The conversation of men. Yes, I know."
"I will not say much. For once I rather not taint my memory." Turian kissed her. "There will be no lie. You gave me a sweet night."
Gabrielle watched as Turian left their bed and dressed. She tried not to dwell on the unfolding tragedy that was their lives. They had both reconciled themselves and surrendered to their fates, sharing an uncommon peace in the process.
Gabrielle now had Turian as an ally. Having Kartis' confidence no one in the palace was better positioned than he to monitor and mitigate the Governor's actions. Winning Turian over to her cause had not motivated her invitation. She had sincerely needed and wanted the comfort and companionship he offered. Maybe, she thought, he proposed to help her because he sensed her lack of ulterior motive.
Turian and Gabrielle entered the dining room where Kartis and Sarah sat dining.
Upon seeing them, Kartis exclaimed to Gabrielle, "Ha! We have captured two of your Guardsmen."
"I want to see them," demanded Gabrielle.
"Why should I let you?" asked Kartis like a child refusing to play politely.
"Because she will try to convince them to go along with this charade," said Turian.
"What good can they do me?"
"Kartis, impressions are made by the most innocuous images. Right now Gabrielle is seen surrounded by you and your guards. Some observers may wonder if she is indeed here by her free will or is in fact a prisoner. Have her bracketed by her Guard and suddenly speculations change. The question then posed is whether the Royal Guard supports the Queen against the Conqueror."
"He is right," said Sarah softly.
Kartis turned to his lover and held her gaze. He spoke to Turian without diverting his eyes. "You make a good point. I'll arrange an escort." He stood and offered his hand to Sarah. She accepted and allowed him to escort her to the door. There Kartis paused and turned to the fallen queen. "Gabrielle, if you say or do anything to make your men suspect your motives I will kill them before they take their next breath."
"I will win them over," said Gabrielle reassuringly.
"See that you do." Kartis exited with Sarah.
Left alone, Gabrielle gratefully took Turain's hand. "Thank you."
Turian kissed her lightly. "Be careful."
"You won't come with me?"
"I cannot be publicly solicitous to you. Don't worry, I will never be far away."
Gabrielle was escorted to the dungeons. Bypassing the private cell she had been assigned, she entered a large enclosure separated by floor to ceiling bars. Upon seeing her Trevor and Samuel stood from where they sat on the floor.
"Stay were you are," a guard ordered the unshackled men. He then opened the prison door and allowed Gabrielle to enter.
She embraced Trevor who warmly greeted her and then reached out to Samuel. The latter Guardsman refused her hand. "Sam…" she said, a muted plea.
"What's going on?" he demanded.
"We read the declaration in the city square," said Trevor as he released Gabrielle.
"Did you go back on your own?" asked Samuel impatiently.
Expecting the request, but not prepared to completely explain her actions, Gabrielle kept a measured voice. "Yes, I did."
"By the Gods, why do it?"
"I thought it best."
"For Athens. For Greece."
"You really believe Kartis should rule? What did the Conqueror do to deserve you placing her under your boot?"
Samuel's relentless challenge took its toll. Gabrielle retreated further into herself seeking refuge. "I can't explain."
"You mean you won't!"
"You're right, I won't explain myself to you," said Gabrielle sharply. "You have a choice to trust me or not."
"Gabrielle," said Trevor introducing a calmer voice into the conflict. "What are we to think?"
In response Gabrielle gentled her mien. "You know me."
"And you know us. There is nothing you can't tell us."
"I made a promise."
"To whom? Turian?" Samuel kept an interrogatory posture. "Was that before or after you broke your vow to the Conqueror?"
Gabrielle shifted her gaze from Samuel to Trevor. The Captain glanced down uncomfortably. "Gabrielle, the palace guards talk. They say you share Turian's bed."
"You don't look worse for wear," said Samuel.
Gabrielle turned furiously toward him and slapped the Guardsman across the face. Shock and anger equally etched on his face, Samuel instinctively stepped back then surged forward
Trevor placed himself in between the two holding Samuel. Behind him Gabrielle said dispassionately, "I ask you to trust me!"
"Trust! Trust!" shouted Samuel. "Are we simply to accept what you say and do blindly?" He pushed himself from Trevor and stepped away. After a moment he refocused upon Gabrielle. "Would you be so liberal with us?"
"If I asked you and you told me that there was nothing more you could tell me then yes, I would."
"Even if your life depended on it?"
"Especially if my life depended on it. You are sworn to safeguard me and I know you would never risk my life."
"And what are you sworn to?"
"My Lord. My brothers. Greece." She said the latter with emphasis.
"Is the Conqueror still your Lord?" asked Trevor.
Gabrielle could not prevent a tear from falling down her cheek. "Yes!" she said fiercely.
"And what you've done is for Greece?"
"Yes." Gabrielle repeated this time softly.
"Gabrielle, what should Sam and I expect?"
"Our execution," spat Samuel unmoved.
"Sam…" Trevor chastised with his tone.
"Trevor, Sam's right." Gabrielle reached out and rested her hand on his arm. "There is a way to keep you alive. You must stand by me."
"And betray the Conqueror as you have," said Samuel in his fathomless anger.
"Sam, shut up!" Trevor's own temper rose.
"Is that an order?"
"Yes, damn it, if it must be." Trevor glanced from his pain racked friend to the woman he loved above all others. "Gabrielle, you are still our Queen."
"And the Conqueror is our Sovereign," interjected Samuel.
"For Zeus' sake…" Trevor seemed ready to pummel Samuel.
"Trevor, you owe me nothing." Gabrielle slipped her hand down his arm, taking hold of his forming fist, easing it back to a less aggressive state as their fingers intertwined. "Sam is right to honor his vow to the Conqueror."
Trevor raised their bound hands. Gabrielle could see how much he wanted to believe in her. The Captain smiled painfully. "I am with you." He turned to his brother. "Sam?"
Gabrielle could see that Samuel was affected by her exchange with Trevor. His bluster ebbed. "Do you need an answer now?" he asked.
"He will do as you ask. As your Captain I order it." Trevor said plainly. "Sam, if we live to face the Conqueror I will tell her I gave you no choice."
"That is a coward's way out," countered the proud Guardsman.
"No, you are a solider following an officer's orders. You will receive a soldier's pardon."
"While you stand alone on the gallows? That is not who I am. I've said my peace. I'll stand with you."
"Thank you, Sam." Gabrielle released Trevor's hand and reached out again to him.
For a second time he refused her. "I'm doing this for Trevor, not you."
Gabrielle's hand dropped to her side. "Very well. I'll tell Kartis and try to get you out of here."
Gabrielle left the men and then briefly reported to Kartis their willingness to cooperate. She negotiated better accommodations for the Guardsmen then made her way to the suite she shared with Turain. Securing her privacy she sat down. Her meeting with Trevor and Samuel replayed in her mind. No manner of self-distancing could spare her from the hurt she felt. Samuel's anger was honest and justified. She had made her decision for the greater good. She had and continued to be willing to pay the price exacted. What she tried to keep at arm's length in order to save herself further heartbreak was the knowledge that those she loved were being hurt as a consequence of her choice.
She knew that if Athena had not intervened, if the Fates had not given her the limited vision of the future, she would have taken her own life and saved Trevor and Samuel the dishonor they had consented to on her behalf. Gabrielle's decision traded one dishonor for another. No innocents would die because of the Guardsmen's grief. The fact offered limited solace.
The following day promised further hurt. Kartis was clear in his intentions. He would arrange for Gabrielle and her Guardsmen to visit the Agora. There was no better medium of communications than the network of tradesmen and tradeswomen. With each transaction Gabrielle's presence would be commented upon. Customers would carry the news to their homes scattering it throughout the city and its environs.
Turian entered the suite. He immediately approached Gabrielle, moving a chair across from her and then sitting down. Her distress was obvious. "What is it?" he asked as he took her hand, offering comfort.
"I met with my men. Trevor and Sam came back looking for me."
"Will they stand by you?"
"Yes. Kartis has agreed to release them under an escort. They shall remain weaponless."
"They are confused and angry with me. Sam especially."
"What did you tell them?"
"Very little, really. I asked them to trust me."
"And they do?"
"I don't think they can bear thinking the worst of me."
"Lucky for them. To have refused would have meant immediate execution."
"They are men of honor. They would not think twice about dying for what they believe in." Privately, Gabrielle felt her men had consented to a greater price than the loss of life.
After allowing a moment of stilled silence, Turian squeezed Gabrielle's hand gently, claiming her attention once again. "Gabrielle, I have a report from the outlands. It should only be a matter of days before the Conqueror is at the city gates. Word is that she and her forces left Corinth the day after receiving your first message. Your declaration was delivered to her on the road to Athens."
"She will call on both the 2nd and 3rd armies," said Gabrielle knowingly.
"Will she wait for them?"
"I'm not sure. It depends on her assessment of Kartis' forces. I hope she doesn't wait. Rome cannot be given time to march to our borders."
"Kartis' hubris will be his downfall. He is still intent on provoking the Conqueror to attack."
"She won't take the bait. She will set the terms of engagement." Turian leaned back. Gabrielle wondered aloud the cause. "What?"
"Everything you've said is sound," said Turian earnestly. "You do trust me not to betray the Conqueror further."
Gabrielle realized Turian still doubted her commitment to him. What they shared did not near the unconditional trust that had grown between her and Xena. She felt the pain that accompanied her sacrifice of that trust. Once again, she pressed her feelings for Xena down. She could not be Queen and continue otherwise. "You gave me your promise," she said sincerely.
Turian glanced down to her hand. "Gabrielle, I notice you no longer wear your ring."
"I am not worthy of it," she said feeling her shame.
"You are being too harsh with yourself."
"You do not understand the meaning of the ring."
"So your naked hand is not a sign that your heart has changed?"
"The Conqueror's Queen's heart has always been constant. It is that she died the moment I removed the ring."
"Then who are you that sit here before me?
"If we survive this battle of wits and swords I want to be with you," said Turian, his words heartfelt. "I want to take you to a safe place…"
Turian's proposal offered Gabrielle no peace. "Turian, I will not leave Athens alive."
"Have you lost hope?"
"The moment I decided to return to the palace I knew my fate. The question of my death has only been on what day and by whose hands. You have saved me from Kartis. You cannot save me from the Conqueror."
Turian did not shield his upset from Gabrielle. "Do you want to be saved from the Conqueror's wrath?"
Gabrielle remained unaffected. Her heart was not to be touched. "What I want no longer matters. I made my decision and I shall see it through to the end."
"Gabrielle, you are not alone in this fight," said Turian fiercely.
Gabrielle raised her hand to his cheek. "I know and I thank Aphrodite that I'm not."
Turian took Gabrielle's gesture as an invitation. He kissed her passionately and soon thereafter took her to bed.
PART THREE: FROM CORINTH TO ATHENS / THE CONQUEROR
Xena stood under an oak tree in the palace courtyard, her gaze directed to the infirmary, her thoughts lingering upon Gabrielle. Jared exited the Guardsmen's mess hall. Seeing Xena he walked to where she stood and for a moment traced Xena's point of interest. Making an assumption he asked, "Thinking of the lass?"
"Jared, do you remember telling me that I could stand at the hitching post in front of the infirmary and listen to Gabrielle's storytelling without her being the wiser?"
"I do," said Jared, a smile rising.
"She has changed from those days of shyness and self-doubt."
"Yes, she has. To become our Queen she had to change."
"I find it hard to believe that she's traveled so far in only five years."
"Why? You were younger than she when Cortes attacked Amphipolis. You formed and led an army and you did it alone."
"Not in the beginning. In the beginning I had Lyceus and then I had you."
"Gabrielle has us."
"I worry about her."
"So do I."
"I wish we had been on better terms when she left."
"Did you argue?"
"She has gone to Athens against my wishes."
"What harm could it do? The reports from Athens…" Jared referred to daily communications from the realm's spies dispatched by Xena as a precautionary measure to safeguard Gabrielle's well being.
"There is nothing for me to latch on to. Gabrielle is meeting with Athens' elite. Her public appearances with Kartis have been cordial. Turian remains in the periphery."
"All as you would expect." Recognizing his friend's heightened concern Jared probed further. "Xena, is there something else?"
"I just received a message from Rome. Caesar has ordered Brutus to prepare for a diplomatic mission. Our informant doesn't know exactly what the mission is except that Greece has been mentioned."
"You think Kartis is looking to Rome?"
"Thanos failed to deliver me to Caesar. It is only a matter of time before Caesar seeks another vile alliance."
"The timing is off. Gabrielle is scheduled to leave Athens before Brutus could possibly reach the city."
"Unless keeping Gabrielle in Athens is part of the plan."
"I don't see how that can be. It was Gabrielle's decision to go to Athens. Neither Caesar nor Kartis could have anticipated her presence." Jared placed a comforting hand on Xena's shoulder. "You will be seeing the lass in Megara. Wait and speak to her then."
Xena turned to the General, not hiding her sorrow. "Jared, I can hardly sense her and I want to. There is a growing emptiness inside me as if I'm losing her." Her expression changed to attentive interest. "What the.."
Targon had hurriedly exited the palace. He walked in his fragile gate toward her. The Administrator carried a scroll in his hand. Xena exercised all restraint in her wait for him. Upon reaching his Sovereign and the General, the man breathlessly said, "Your Majesty, a message from the Queen."
"Here," said Xena extending her hand. Targon immediately placed the scroll within her grasp. Xena impatiently opened and read the scroll.
My dear Conqueror,
I regret that I will be delayed in Athens another fortnight as I continue discussions with Governor Kartis and distinguished leaders of the Athenian populace. I am optimistic that our dialogue will conclude with a mutually acceptable resolution of our differences.
Gabrielle, Queen of Greece.
"Well?" asked Jared.
Xena handed the scroll to him. "You tell me."
Jared read, a look of puzzlement swept over him. "Conqueror? This doesn't sound like Gabrielle."
"No, it doesn't. Jared, I'm done being patient. I don't need my connection with Gabrielle to know that there is something wrong."
"What do you plan?"
"I will lead two of the First Army's companies and the Royal Guard to Athens. I want the rest of our armies on alert. And, send a message to Megara. I want Stephen to join us in route. We leave at dawn."
The following evening Xena sat removed from camp. Jared sought her out and rested beside her. He was a silent witness to her state of internal turmoil.
After some time, with all emotion arrested, Xena turned to him. "Jared, Ares told me that the day would come when Gabrielle would have to repay a debt to Aphrodite."
"What on earth for?" said the General with undisguised impatience towards the Gods.
"Saving her life. Gabrielle would have died from the Persian's poisoned blade."
"That is only Ares' talk. Who is to say any god healed Gabrielle?"
"I say. Gabrielle was dying. I knew it then."
"Even if Aphrodite did save Gabrielle, what does her owing Aphrodite a debt have to do with the goings on in Athens?"
"Ares said that on the day Gabrielle's debt came due I would live Tartarus on earth unless I called on him."
"He did, did he?" said Jared disdainfully. "What did Gabrielle think?"
"I never told her. I didn't want her to live in fear."
"Aphrodite has no special love for Rome to use Gabrielle to Caesar's benefit."
"Aphrodite may have chosen Gabrielle for someone else," speculated Xena.
"That does not make sense. Aphrodite has never criticized your joining. Remember, she helped you keep Gabrielle."
"We are talking about the Gods, Jared."
"You understand Ares well enough. Aphrodite is not her brother."
"She is a God and the Gods have made a point of reminding us that their actions are not only beyond our control but also beyond our understanding."
"Ares, Xena. You can't be thinking of asking for his help. You know how Gabrielle feels about him."
"She once asked me to promise never to seek a favor from him again. I never gave her that promise."
"You can't trust him," Jared contended. "Look at what he has done in the past to break you and Gabrielle apart. Who is to say this intrigue is not his doing?"
"And if it is am I to stand helpless while the world as I know it is stripped away from me?" asked Xena helplessly.
"You cannot barter with the God!" said the General heatedly. "There will be nothing left for you to give Gabrielle."
"What should I do then, old man?"
Jared saw Xena's rarely expressed vulnerability. She was truly at a loss. He knew this woman well. He knew what she needed to do to keep her equilibrium. "You must do what you have always done. Live by the truth."
"The truth?" said Xena as if the virtue had lost its moral quality. "Right now the truth frightens me. I'm afraid it will destroy me."
"It may hurt you but you will survive."
"And if I rather not… survive," asked Xena disheartedly.
"Then don't. But at least die with honor. Don't lick Ares' boots."
"I am to be the Conqueror to my last breath?" sighed Xena.
"Yes. It was you who told me that to become the Conqueror was your destiny. And it was also you who told me that you could not escape that destiny."
"I think… I think I will need you by my side in the coming days. What we learn… if it is the worst that I imagine, it will have an effect on every man in the Guard and many in the Army."
Jared stared at Xena disbelievingly. "Xena, Gabrielle has done nothing wrong. Right now we only have insinuations, hearsay and gossip. None can be relied upon."
"We will see with our own eyes," said Xena unconvinced. "Let us hope we don't wish to gouge them out for what they show us."
"Damn it, why are you so despairing?" said Jared exasperatingly.
Tears welled in Xena's eyes. "Jared, Ares has never lied to me."
Stephen had joined the Conqueror's march during the afternoon of the following day. He took comman of one First Army company. Camp was established and meals were served when an Athenian courier delivered a message from the Queen. Stephen took personal possession of it and approached Xena and Jared.
Xena took the scroll Stephen offered her, breaking the Queen's seal. She read the declaration. "No," she whispered with an aching sorrow.
"What does the lass say?" Receiving no answer Jared repeated urgently. "Xena, what does she say?" He reached out and took the scroll from Xena's trembling hands. Stephen read over the General's shoulder. Both men were momentarily struck speechless.
"It's in Gabrielle's script. It's not a forgery." Stephen's observation clashed with the disbelieving tone of his words.
"She could have been coerced," said Jared. "Xena, you must not judge her until you know for certain."
Xena did not answer him. She turned and walked away.
"Jared, this is not written by our Gabrielle. It can't be," said Stephen.
Jared rolled up the scroll. "There is something you don't know. We've been receiving disturbing reports from our spies."
"Do they condemn Gabrielle?"
"No, they were inconclusive. Now… Stephen, I don't know what to think."
"Why, Jared? Ask yourself why Gabrielle would do this. If there is no reason then it is not her doing."
"Stephen, I love Gabrielle like a daughter but there is a part of her that has always been hidden away from me… and you. You can't deny that. Who knows how Athens has touched her heart."
"I stake my life on Gabrielle's heart and soul."
"And what of Xena's? Think hard Stephen. Today you must make a choice. Will you stand by Xena or Gabrielle?"
The Major stated his answer unequivocally. "Gabrielle made that choice for me a long time ago. I promised to stand by Xena."
"And so we will. For now keep this news to yourself."
Xena walked away from camp. With each step she steeled her heart, raising barriers from the assault of emotions that had the power to ruin her. Her heart was a wasteland devastated by Gabrielle's searing words. Gabrielle had condemned not only Xena's rule but also Xena herself. Describing the Conqueror as a woman of unforgivable and uncontrollable violence too unstable to trust with the realm.
Xena paused in a grove of trees. She stood feet planted solidly and closed her eyes, traveling inward as she had done for days. Gabrielle's essence had grown fainter. There was no reaching Gabrielle. There was no knowing Gabrielle.
Xena felt an eerie disturbance around her. She opened her eyes to find Ares leaning against a tree. Seeing he had her attention Ares said, "Xena, if you are praying to me, I can't hear you. Try shouting at the top of your lungs and you might just get me interested in your troubles." Saying nothing, Xena walked away. "Hey!" called Ares indignantly. "Why is it so hard for you to admit that I was right and you were wrong."
Xena turned on her heels. "Shut up, Ares!"
"I can stop this Xena. All you have to do is ask me."
"Stop what, Ares? What in Tartarus is happening that makes me need a favor from you?"
"You read Gabrielle's declaration. She is determined to take Greece from you. I'll make sure Greece remains yours."
Ares' offer proved that he had no idea of who Xena had become, what she valued in life. He did not offer her Gabrielle. She wondered if he could or if Jared was right that by asking Ares for help she would forfeit any possibility of having Gabrielle's return. "No, thank you. I'll deal with Gabrielle in my own way."
"Know this Xena," said Ares smugly. "When you change your mind, and I know you will, I won't hold this refusal against you."
"By Zeus, you are arrogant."
"Tell you what. Hear what your visitor from Athens has to say and then tell me you still think that way." Ares put his hand to his ear. "Hark, I hear him now."
Xena watched Ares disappear. Knowing not to discount his taunt she walked back to camp. There she saw Jared and Stephen speaking to Udell. She called out the philosopher's name as she approached the threesome.
"Your Majesty," said Udell deferentially, "may we speak privately."
"You can speak freely," said Xena.
"I'm sure your officers are honorable men, however, what I must discuss with you is of a personal nature."
"Come with me." Xena guided Udell toward the camp's perimeter. Finding themselves alone Xena asked, "What is it?"
"Your Majesty, Queen Gabrielle is reportedly…" The philosopher hesitated, his discomfort reflected in his inability to look the Conqueror in the eye.
"What Udell!" demanded Xena impatiently.
"She has moved her belongings into Lord Turian's suite of rooms."
Showing no surprised Xena asked, "What else?"
Udell paused as if gauging the Conqueror. He spoke more ably. "She has toured the Agora in the company of two Royal Guardsmen. I saw her there. She looked unharmed and was very solicitous to Governor Kartis. There is also a declaration…"
"I've read it," said Xena, wanting to keep the interview as short as possible.
"It was been posted in the city gate and at the center of the Agora. The city has been thrown into a state of confusion. The people do not know what to think."
"What do you think?" asked Xena coolly.
"I spoke to the Queen twice before these events unfolded. She gave me no indication that she was considering challenging the realm."
Xena's interest piqued. "What did you talk about?"
Udell gave an accounting of his meetings with Gabrielle and then waited silently as Xena considered what she had heard. Xena asked, "Did the Queen give you reason to believe your conversations would end?"
"As we bid farewell after our first discussion she was clear that she wished to meet again. She gave no such indication after our second meeting."
"Why come to me, Udell? I know you are fond of the Queen. Why not stand by her?"
"With all due respect, your Majesty, the Queen is wrong in her criticism of the realm."
"Philosophers speak of ideals. I am no one's ideal," said Xena warily.
"You have done great things for Greece. Kartis is a spoiled whelp."
"Thank you, Udell." Xena dismissed the philosopher with genuine appreciation. "If you speak to the General he will see to your comfort."
Udell bowed to his Sovereign and then said sincerely, "Your Majesty, I am sorry I could not bring you better news."
"As long as it is the truth," said Xena in a clipped diction.
"Your Majesty, may I say one more thing?"
"I use reason to search for truth, and yet in my life I know that there are some truths beyond reason. That is where our faith resides. You are facing many daunting facts. Don't let them blind you to the truth that resides hidden behind them."
Udell's counsel demanded a profound unbiased insight into the human condition, an insight Xena doubted she possessed. "How will I know, Udell, that such a different truth exists? My own desire for a less painful truth could move me to an unsound judgment."
"I can only counsel you to act such that you minimize the risk of regret. Some actions can be reversed. Others cannot."
"It is fair advice. I will keep it in mind."
"Your Majesty," said Udell as he bowed a second time and left Xena's presence.
Xena watched the philosopher as he reentered the camp circle. She was decided. She would not call upon Ares. It was obvious to her Ares could not help her. She was tempted to call upon Aphrodite seeking an explanation but thought better of it. Aphrodite proved to be no ally.
Three days passed. Kartis entered Turian's suite and called out for him. In the process of dressing, Turian entered the main chamber from his bedroom. Kartis set formalities aside. "Xena has infiltrated the palace. Today is judgment day and we will succeed."
"Kartis, are you insane?" said Turian having no further reason to withhold his judgment. "Your militia is no match for the Conqueror's armies."
"They don't have to be. I only need to kill her. Without the Conqueror her army will fall like a house of cards."
"You underestimate her generals and her army."
"Why the sudden respect for those muckers?"
"All these moons you have not heard a word I've said to you." The sounds of fighting filled the palace halls. Turian glanced toward the bedroom anxiously. Then he ordered Kartis, "Seal the door."
"Why? There is no reason to delay the fight."
"There is every reason to keep the Conqueror out of this room."
"You've got her whore with you." Kartis laughed. "By the Gods we shall have a sweet meeting with the Conqueror."
"Shut up!" Turian reached for his sword, which lay on a nearby table and ran and opened the suite entrance. He could see men fighting nearby, the Royal Guard's insignia prominent on many uniforms. He shut and locked the door.
* * *
Xena sliced her opponent across the torso. She did not wait for him to fall. Ahead of her a Guardsman was conferring with Stephen. The Major called out to her. "Kartis was seen running into Turian's suite at the east end of the palace." Without a word Xena ran in that direction, followed by her best men.
* * *
Standing in Turian's bedroom Gabrielle listened as Kartis and Turian argued. Not long after she heard the front suite door forced open. Within the room Kartis called out, "Xena, I must give tribute to the Gods for bringing you to my doorstep. With you dead my rule of Greece is assured." Gabrielle then heard the distinct sound of Xena's bootsteps marching across the marble floor.
* * *
Xena approached wordlessly, holding her sword firmly with both hands. Kartis stood before her. Turian was a further five paces beyond, near the balcony. Xena engage Kartis as Jared and Stephen entered the chamber. Stephen immediately battled Turian. Jared remained by the entrance guarding against Athenian militia.
With matched strokes Xena and Kartis crossed swords holding them against the other with equal force. Kartis taunted, "How does it feel to be betrayed?"
Xena surged forcing Kartis backwards. Two more strikes of their swords and Xena thrust her blade through the man. Kartis exhaled a low pain racked groan as he fell to the floor dead.
Gabrielle stepped out from the bedroom. She was dressed in a long silk robe. She was obviously unharmed and in light of the battle that was being waged around her remarkably self-composed. Kartis lay dead at Xena's feet. The warrior's sword was crimson with his blood.
Upon seeing Gabrielle Turian and Stephen halted their fighting. Gabrielle turned from Xena to Turian. For a moment all followed her gaze. There was an obvious silent exchange between her and the Athenian. Turian took advantage of the distraction and leaped from the balcony onto a vine covered wooden trellis, climbing down to the ground seeking an escape.
Gabrielle walked forward until she stood directly before Xena. She observed how her partner tightened her sword grip, a certain sign that the warrior was readying herself to strike. Gabrielle waited for the deathblow.
Xena could smell sex on Gabrielle. She trembled consumed by the realization of the complete extent of Gabrielle's betrayal.
Jared had gravitated toward Gabrielle. He now stepped to Xena's shoulder softly speaking his Sovereign's name.
Xena glanced toward the General. Her sense of time and place momentarily lost, returned. She had a battle to win. What she would do with Gabrielle could not be her first concern. She turned her gaze back to her former Queen. The Conqueror within her supplanted all other qualities that composed the warrior. "By your actions you have flung yourself upon my sword," she said. "For that more than anything else you have done this past moon, I will never forgive you." It was the Conqueror's minatory voice that Gabrielle heard. The Conqueror faced Jared. Her mien altered as she commanded in an agonized whisper, "Arrest her." She then walked to the door regaining her composure. Her command rose high to the rafters. "Stephen, you're with me!" After a brief masked consideration of Gabrielle the Major followed his Liege.
Gabrielle looked down to Kartis. As expected, his destiny was an ignoble, young death. He had lost yet won a victory. In the course of his own demise he had destroyed her. Gabrielle raised her gaze to the door. Kartis' harm did not end with her. She wondered how complete he had triumphed over Xena. Xena might survive physically. But, Gabrielle had every reason to believe that the fate of Xena's soul was not as certain. Gabrielle's betrayal had the power to rob Xena of her fragile hope. Xena's life once again took the form of an endless odyssey whereby the Fates caused her to suffer retribution for past sins. Xena was at risk of being propelled into an abyss so deep that she would never again know the light of day.
"Lass, why?" asked Jared.
Gabrielle never expected to be alive to answer the question. Sworn to silence she said nothing. Averting her eyes from Jared, she felt her brokenness absolutely.
"If you don't speak in your own defense Xena won't have a choice but…" the General coaxed.
"I know," she whispered.
"Do you know what you have done to her?"
"Did she deserve it?" he asked in a low, firm voice.
Gabrielle fixed her gaze upon the suite door, the image of her Lord's retreat firmly in her mind's eye. "No, Jared, she didn't."
"Lass, look at me." He reached out and gently placed his hand on her chin, guiding her to meet his eyes. "You have in the past sacrificed yourself because you believed you were doing good by it. Tell me, is this one of those times?" Tears wells in Gabrielle's eyes. "As I hoped. I need to get you out of Greece."
"No! I won't run away," said Gabrielle taking a step back.
"Do you want to die?"
"I will do no more harm."
"Blasted stubborn girl!" said Jared angrily.
Alem entered. He glanced toward Gabrielle uncertainly then shifted his attention to Jared. "General."
"What!" demanded Jared as he struggled to hold his temper.
"We have Trevor and Sam. The Conqueror has order them arrested. They will stand trial in Corinth."
"They did nothing wrong!" Gabrielle protested.
"They will have an opportunity to explain their actions," said the General.
"Jared, we have nothing more to argue about. I must return to Corinth to defend them."
"Gabrielle, it will be the Conqueror not the Xena you love that will pronounce judgment upon them… and you. Lass, hear me. There will be no reasoning with her."
"I have to try," said Gabrielle. She had no desire to save herself. She did however owe a debt to the Guardsmen and would not abandon them.
"So you must," said Jared dejectedly. "Alem, take the Queen into custody. Make sure no harm comes to her."
"General, I don't understand," said the perplexed Guard.
"It's not your place to understand," he snapped. Seeing Alem's obvious confusion Jared grew angrier. "Damn it! Just follow orders."
"Jared, he's my brother," Gabrielle whispered so only the General could hear her.
"And I lass? Who can I now be to you?" asked Jared heartbreakingly. He reached out and placed his hand on her cheek. "Gabrielle, whatever you did… whatever happens next, know that I love you."
"I love you, too," said Gabrielle refusing to shed any further tears. "Go, Jared. Please stay with Xena. I'm afraid for her."
Jared shook his head. "It's too late. As I said, I stand by the Conqueror. Xena is nowhere to be found." He turned his back to Gabrielle and left the room.
Alem stepped forward.
"May I change to my traveling clothes," asked Gabrielle.
The Guardsman nodded his head.
For a moment Gabrielle observed her brother's noble carriage. She was grateful that she was with a Guardsman and not a regular soldier. Guardsmen were trained to maintain a soldier's emotional distance in the face of devastating misfortune. These were the worst of times. She could not imagine a more painful detail than escorting a loved one to her death. "Alem," she said gently. "Thank you."
Alem swallowed hard as Gabrielle removed herself to the bedroom.
Gabrielle sat up on the pallet in her Athenian jail cell. Three days had passed with contact only from her assigned First Army guards. Hearing the sound of footsteps and muted voices she looked over to her cell door. It was too early for evening meal. Someone was coming to her. She braced herself for the encounter.
The door was unlocked. Jared entered and then closed the door behind him. "Lass."
Gabrielle was relieved to see a familiar face. "Jared."
"Have you been treated well?" asked the General.
Jared took a chair and placed it close to Gabrielle's pallet before sitting down. "We must talk, you and I. The fighting is done. We suffered few loses. I can't say the same about the Athenian militia. What can you tell me of Kartis' associates?"
"I can give you a list of the men I met with."
"Good. I will have supplies brought to you so that you can write them down. Is there anything else you can tell me that will help us get this city back in order?"
"Sarah, the daughter of Lord Eurius was Kartis' lover."
"So I've been told. Is that it?"
"All right then." The General stood up.
Gabrielle had expected a longer and more personal interview. She was disappointed by the Jared's military comportment. "Jared, how is Xena?"
Jared held himself stiffly. "I'm a general in the Conqueror's army. I no longer keep company with the Xena I love."
"You can't let her shut herself away from the world," pleaded Gabrielle.
"Let her?" said Jared, his voice rising with emotion. "Do you think I have a choice? Stephen and I have both tried to reach her. She is an angry woman. Her eyes are cold and distant. Her orders are exact and not to be argued with." He sighed, his passion dissipating as he exhaled. "There is a great deal of hurt behind her anger."
"With time…" said Gabrielle hopefully.
"Maybe an eternity." Jared ran a hand through his hair. "I never thought a day such as this would ever come." He regarded Gabrielle thoughtfully. "Lass, we are alone. You can explain yourself without fear of being overheard."
"Jared, I can't justify my actions."
"Lass, what do you expect Xena to do?"
"Now, I don't know. I expected her to defend her honor and kill me along with Kartis."
"You wished that for her? For yourself?"
"Wish for? No, Jared. What I wish for is Xena's mercy." As improbable as it would seem, having been spared, Gabrielle's faith in Xena's steadfast love and capacity for forgiveness had taken residence in her heart. Gabrielle embraced her hope, having nothing else to commend enduring another candlemark of life.
Jared stared at Gabrielle incredulously. "Do you believe she will forgive you without being given an explanation? Gabrielle, you betrayed Xena, your brothers, Greece. You left no stone unturned in destroying all that I thought you held dear. You don't ask for much."
The General's words were crushing. Before Gabrielle stood the man who had always been more than a friend to her. He had been her self-appointed guardian. He had safeguarded her even when she doubted her place in Corinth. She feared there could be no reconciliation between them. "Jared. What of you and I?"
Jared seemed very much at a loss. "I want to understand why you insist on being a stranger to me."
"I'm sorry." Feeling helpless, a tear traced down Gabrielle's cheek.
"Gabrielle, I love you," said Jared agonizingly. "But, I also love Xena. You've left me no choice. I stand by her."
Gabrielle felt the void a soul enters when the totality of its aloneness can no longer be denied. She had known that terrible place during her slavery. "Jared. Give me your dagger. I swear to you that its sole use will be to end Xena's torment. She will not have to sentence me."
"No," said the General decisively. "You will face her in Court. You will answer her questions and absolve her of any inferred responsibility for your treason. Only then will I consent to hand you over to Hades."
Gabrielle bowed her head. "I understand."
Jared walked to the cell door. "Gabrielle, think twice before you speak in Court. I doubt you can save your life. You might still be able to save Xena from the torment of your betrayal."
PART FOUR: CORINTH
Ten days passed. Within the time span Gabrielle was escorted by a half-dozen First Army soldiers to Corinth and placed within a private cell in the bowels of the palace dungeon. She was given access to scrolls from the palace library and blank parchment, quill and ink, as well as any personal items from the Royal suite that did not constitute a weapon. Other than a change of clothes she asked for nothing. Her days and nights were spent sitting on her pallet, immersed in her memories.
The light of dusk entered Gabrielle's cell. The beauty of the gentle light was not lost to her. Unexpectedly, a flash of light overwhelmed the room. Gabrielle once again had proof of the fragileness of even the simplest pleasure. As the blinding affect of the light receded she saw Aphrodite standing before her. Gabrielle spoke the Goddesses' name with uncharacteristic reserve. In turn, Aphrodite presented herself sans her usual flair. "You are prideful, Gabrielle. Why didn't you call for my help?"
"What do you know?" asked Gabrielle, realizing for the first time that Aphrodite had not been complicit in her downfall.
"Not enough, I think. I know Athena was watching you closely while you were in Athens. I know you arrived in the city as a Queen and left disgraced in shackles. It must be quite a story, one worthy of a bard with your talent."
Gabrielle could see that the Goddess was waiting for an explanation. "I can't tell it," she said.
"I made a promise."
"To whom? Athena? Gabrielle, you are my Chosen, not Athena's." said Aphrodite angrily. She took a step forward. "Tell me this. Is it true you were unfaithful to Xena?"
"Yes," answered Gabrielle, fighting an impulse to divert her eyes.
"Why?" Aphrodite did not hide her disappointment. Receiving no answer she continued. "Did you make another promise or do you simply have no defense for your actions?" Again, Gabrielle offered no response. Aphrodite paced from one end of the prison cell to the other and back again. She paused and returned her attention to her Chosen. "Xena intends to try you in Court tomorrow. What will you say to her?"
"I don't know."
"Treason is punishable by death. Do you expect me to stand aside and let her execute you?"
Gabrielle stood up desperately. "You can't interfere."
"Give me one reason why I shouldn't."
"Xena has the right to judge me."
"And sentence you?"
"Yes. And if she chooses she also has the right to execute my sentence."
"Listen to yourself, Gabrielle. Do you have any idea what Xena will suffer if she hurts you in any way?"
Gabrielle remained steadfast. "She must be free to decide."
"To what end? I don't know your motives. I am certain if I did I would not like them."
"Aphrodite, these past years the world has tousled Xena and I about like ships in a raging storm. We have held to each other and gotten through the worst together. That is the only way this nightmare can come to an end. We must be left to face one another without the influence of the Gods."
"That sounds romantic and being the God of Love you would think I would applaud it but Gabrielle you forget one undeniable fact. You have blatantly betrayed the Conqueror. Name one man or woman she has not executed after they were proven guilty of treason." Gabrielle turned away from the Goddess. "Gabrielle, if Xena spares you, which I highly doubt she will, there will be no end to your suffering."
Gabrielle was unimpressed by Aphrodite's warning. "My life ended when Athena came to me."
"So, she did have a hand in this," said Aphrodite, her outrage untethered.
Gabrielle turned to the Goddess and pleaded, "Aphrodite, don't interfere with Athena."
Aphrodite would not be mollified. "Gabrielle, I say this again. You are my Chosen. Mine! First Ares toys with you. Now Athena. My siblings show me no respect. I am tired of it. It will stop."
Gabrielle feared that the history so recently changed could once again be altered undermining all that she accomplished in Athens. "Aphrodite, promise me you will let me deal with Xena and Athena in my own way."
The impertinence of Gabrielle's request tried the Goddess's patience. "Do you realize you are asking a God for a promise?"
"I am your Chosen. That must count for something," said Gabrielle unfazed.
"Indeed it does. I will do what you ask as a favor to you. But, I warn you Gabrielle, Hades will hear my complaint if you die by Xena's hand."
Gabrielle wondered what point there was in Aphrodite threatening her with Tartarus when she was certain her fate had already determined it as her destiny. "I understand."
"Gabrielle, I thought in picking a slave as my Chosen times would be less complicated. You have proven me wrong."
Gabrielle heard in Aphrodite's voice the reassuring presence of the Goddess's exasperated affection. She could not help but smile. "Thank you."
"I will be nearby," said Aphrodite as she placed her hand gently on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Don't be too brave to call for me."
When the time came for Gabrielle to face the Conqueror's judgment, it was Alem who escorted her to Court. He said as few words as necessary as they walked side by side. Upon reaching Court's closed doorway, he silently shackled his Queen's wrists and ankles.
The Guardsman gave a signal to two of his brothers who stood guard. They opened Court's heavy wooden doors to reveal the fully occupied chamber. Xena sat on her throne. The Queen's chair remained in place to her right. Jared stood to the left. Guardsmen lined the walls poised at attention. The Generals and Lords of Greece, and their wives were present.
For a moment Gabrielle remembered her triumphant introduction to Court. The present moment could not have been more different. She glanced toward Alem then began her brief journey to her judgment. With each step she could see her Sovereign more clearly. Whom she saw was the Conqueror. The Conqueror took to her feet, maintaining a bold physical bearing.
As Gabrielle walked her chains struck against one another and scraped the floor, the oppressive sound echoed throughout the silent hall. She paused in front of the raised floor. She did not demur under her partner's scrutiny.
The Conqueror's harsh voice broke the silence. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Queen of Greece you are charged with treason. How do you plea?"
Gabrielle held herself nobly. "Guilty." She withheld her endearment. She felt unworthy to address Xena as her Lord.
"You have no defense?" asked the Conqueror.
"No, I do not."
"There was no coercion?"
"No spell cast or drug administered?"
"I exercised my free will."
The Conqueror placed her hand tightly upon the pommel of her sword. What only Gabrielle and Jared could see was that Xena had done so to counter its trembling. Gabrielle held Xena's gaze, recognizing in her partner an unbearable distress. "Why?" asked Xena in an achingly low voice.
Gabrielle wished she could offer a reason that would allow Xena to acquit her. "I did what my destiny decreed."
A shadow crossed Xena's mien. "Destiny?" she said severely. "Destiny is nothing but what we must do because of all that we are, because of all that we wish to become. You say it was your destiny to betray Greece as if your path made betrayal inevitable, as if Greece deserved your distain. Have I, your Sovereign, so unforgivably harmed you?"
The press against Gabrielle's heart was intolerable. Jared had told her that she would need to publicly exonerate the Conqueror of wrong doing. Their exchange was far more than that. She was made to bear witness that all that Xena had given her in her unbounded generosity, none more cherished than Xena's gentleness, was believed to be discarded as worthless. "No,…no harm has come to me by your hand."
"Had you such strong objection to my policies that toppling the realm was your only recourse?"
"You are a fair and noble sovereign," said Gabrielle, contradicting her written declaration against the realm.
"Did you act…" Xena hesitated. The tension in the room was electric as all waited for the Conqueror's next question. "Were you motivated by your heart?"
Gabrielle dropped her gaze to the floor and remained silent.
"Don't hide in silence," said Xena, her voice strengthening. "Speak the truth."
Gabrielle looked up to the woman that owned her not as chattel, the woman who had proven herself to be a rightful complement to her soul, the woman that she had willingly surrendered herself to; union being the only way for Gabrielle to know completeness. "In all that I have done I have followed my heart."
Xena turned her back to Gabrielle. The crush of Gabrielle's confession could not have been more brutal. Xena's gaze was fixed upon her left hand, her ring. A tear traveled down her cheek. She wiped the tear away, steeled her self and returned her gaze to Gabrielle. "You are dead to me." She glanced dispassionately to Jared, seeing him physically shudder. She gave no command, knowing that to ask him to execute the law in her absence, to execute Gabrielle, would break him. She walked silently toward the side exit.
Lord Judais stepped forward. "Your Majesty."
The respected Lord continued his solicitation. "I beg your pardon. I ask for clarification. What sentence have you pronounced?"
Xena scanned the room. She had heard in Judais' question a veiled request for mercy, a sentiment that seemed to reflect the wishes of other valued members of Court. She could spare Gabrielle's life without damaging her standing as Sovereign. Xena decreed in a clear and commanding voice, "Banishment from Greece with safe passage to our borders." She spoke to Jared. "General, see to it."
Gabrielle stepped forward. The sounds of her chains caused all to cast their eyes toward her. "I…"
"What!" Xena demanded.
"I ask for a soldier's pardon for Sam and Trevor," said Gabrielle, mining all that she was that had made her an august Queen. "They followed their Queen's orders believing my actions honorable and in the best interest of Greece."
"They are not stupid men," said Xena bitterly. "They will hang on a cross as a lesson to all who break their sworn allegiance to the Royal Guard."
"As I have sworn my allegiance," said Gabrielle careless of her own life as she sought to save those of her men.
Like a panther pouncing on its prey, Xena leaped the stairs to Gabrielle and ripped off the medallion that hung on younger woman's neck. "No more!"
Shaken, Gabrielle reverted to her last recourse. She fell to her knees. "My Lord, I beg you to show those who love you compassion."
"Love me?" said Xena bitterly.
"Sam and Trevor have proven themselves in their service to you."
"No, you're wrong. They have always been in service to you, Gabrielle."
"The years before I arrived in Corinth. Those years should not be forgotten."
"If I could only forget…" Xena's thoughts touched upon the recent past, when lost memories were reclaimed at an excruciating price. She had not forgotten the lesson learned in Ithome. She had not forgotten the extraordinary journey Gabrielle had taken in order to return to her self and then to Xena. Memories of Ithome as well as other places and times shared with Gabrielle coupled with the present moment left Xena confused and heightened her suffering all the more. Without a further word, she stepped away and exited the chamber.
Jared gave Alem instructions. The Guardsman motioned Gabrielle toward the main entrance. She walked the length of the Court Hall keeping her eyes forward, wanting to avoid meeting the gaze of those lords, such as Judais and Ayers, whom she most respected and considered friends.
Upon exiting the hall, Alem removed Gabrielle's shackles. "You'll stay in your cell until Makia can get your things without disturbing the Conqueror."
"Who will escort me from Greece?"
"The General will decide. There will be no dearth of volunteers. I shall be one of them."
"How can my brothers still want to help me?"
"Gabrielle, I know few things in life. One of them is that you love the Conqueror and as you confessed, you followed your heart. I don't know why you can't tell me why you did what you did. I have to believe that your silence now and your actions in Athens are all for the greater good."
In the face of injustice, Gabrielle was not consoled. "Sam and Trevor… they don't deserve to die because of me."
"I spoke to Trevor. He knew the risk he was taking. He doesn't blame you. Gabrielle, Trevor and Sam won't suffer long. Their brothers will make sure of that."
As night fell, Jared entered the Royal Suite unannounced. Xena sat at her desk. She looked up from the scroll she had just completed writing and said, "What is it, Jared?"
"I have no volunteers to crucify Sam and Trevor."
Xena leaned back in her chair. "And in turn the Queen's Guard has stepped forward to escort Gabrielle to the border. Am I right, General?"
"Yes, you are."
Xena stood and walked to the balcony. Jared followed her, keeping a distance of a half-dozen paces. "What does everyone know that I don't?" asked Xena. She turned to her friend. "I gave Gabrielle every chance to explain herself. She told me nothing."
"She followed her heart," said Jared, his love for his ward undisguised.
"I had come to believe that her heart led to me."
"I don't doubt that it does."
"To be cuckolded?" said Xena sorrowfully. "You merit love differently than I do."
"Xena, I don't understand why Gabrielle left you any better than you do. When I look in her eyes I see her sadness and regret. What I do not see is doubt. I wager my life that there is an unspoken reason why she hurt you."
Xena returned to her desk. She placed her fingertips on a blank piece of parchment. "I shall have a message ready by the morrow. Take it and a handful of trusted Guardsmen who will not divulge Gabrielle's whereabouts and escort her to the land of the Centaurs. Deliver her to Kailipus. He will keep her safe until she decides her future. Give her Spirit and fill her saddlebags with gold coins."
Jared stepped to the side of the desk. "You love her still?"
"Don't speak to me of love," said Xena harshly. "I have enough blood on my hands. I don't want anymore. To kill Gabrielle… I would go mad."
"Sam and Trevor. Will you have their blood on your hands?"
"Jared, I am the Conqueror!" Xena's declaration once would have been enough to silence any retort. She heard it as feebly as she assumed Jared had.
"To save their lives must I do as Gabrielle and kneel down and beg you?" said Jared, offering a reason for mercy. "I will do it, Xena."
"There is no saving my soul!" she shouted to the Gods, raising her fist in the air. "This is not the life I chose! Give me an eternity in Tartarus over this heartbreak." She could no longer contain her tears. They overwhelmed her. She felt Jared's embrace and took hold of him. She cried, "Old man, I can't go on."
Jared soothed gently, "You will. You will find a way. I'll deal with Sam and Trevor. They'll stay in Corinth, sentenced to hard labor. With time under a program of rehabilitation I'll bring them into the First Army. They'll never be Guardsmen again but they will be in your service and be given a chance to atone for their actions. If I'm asked I'll say you granted me the favor. Your standing as Conqueror will not be undermined." Jared waited patiently. As Xena's tears subsided he solicited concurrence. "Xena?"
She held him tighter and said hoarsely. "Do it."
PART FIVE: CENTAUR LANDS
The Grecian winter was coming to a close. Throughout the realm bards and merchants alike recounted the tale of the last meeting, five moons prior, between the Conqueror and Queen. Questions were asked by all who heard the story. They echoed those the Conqueror laid before the Queen. The questions remained unanswered. As a result speculations were discretely voiced. Though there seemed to be a desire to believe that the Queen's actions had a noble motivation, few found reason to criticize the Conqueror's actions. Indeed, to many, the Conqueror had exercised an extraordinary degree of mercy.
The Conqueror managed the realm efficiently. She limited her travels and tolerated only a few diplomatic visits. News from her Roman spies indicated that Caesar's ambitions were once again directed away from Greece and its allies. Though Roman wars continued to be waged, the bloodshed remained beyond Grecian boarders.
Those closest to the Conqueror were loyal and watchful of her well-being, doing all that they could to ease her burdens. The decree that the former Queen's name not be spoken was universally adhered to by every man, woman and child residing in the palace.
The relative peace that had cloaked Corinth was disrupted by a dispatch from General Dymas of the Northern Garrison. Turian had been captured. The Conqueror and Jared rode north with a contingent of Guardsmen. But for the day that Dymas' message was received; the purpose for their journey was not again broached. Arriving at the garrison, Xena requested an immediate interview with the prisoner.
Turian was housed in the stockade. The Conqueror entered. She stood outside the barred cell, her gaze dispassionately directed toward the prisoner. Jared took possession of the prison keys from one guard then motioned for all the guards and Dymas to wait outside. They complied without comment. He then unlocked the cell and pulled open the heavy door.
The Conqueror entered. Turian took to his feet. He did not wait to be addressed, speaking directly to the woman who called for his arrest. "Do you hate me because I dared raise my sword against your forces or because Gabrielle chose me over you?"
Jared brandished his sword. "You filthy liar. The lass wouldn't have you by choice."
"What did she say?" asked Turian of the General unflinchingly. Not receiving an answer he demanded of Xena, "What did Gabrielle say was between us?"
To hear Gabrielle's name again caused Xena's strongest inner discipline to quake. The effect was not outwardly apparent as she answered Turian. "She said that in Athens she followed her heart."
Turian glanced away for a moment. He then returned his gaze back to Xena. "To whom did she follow her heart?" he asked in a low thoughtful voice.
"She did not say," said Xena. What Xena saw in Turian was a mirror image of the awe she had felt when she had come to accept the depth of her love for Gabrielle. In Turain's expression, she had confirmation that Turian had not coerced Gabrielle into his bed. "Why?" she asked, "did Gabrielle return to the palace after her Guards took her to safety?"
"Gabrielle did not tell you?" said Turian caught unawares. "I thought you knew."
"Tell me now," said Xena, exercising all her patience. The Athenian was in a position to mitigate the unbearable ignorance she had lived with since departing for Athens. She could not imagine an explanation worse than the images that haunted her sleep.
"You let her live without knowing the truth?" said Turian, the revelation obviously a surprise. "By the Gods, you do love her."
"Why did she do it?" asked Jared for the now silent Xena.
Turian glanced over to the General. "To save Athens," he said; his bravado no longer at the forefront. "I had warned her that Kartis would sacrifice the city in his war with the Conqueror."
Jared continued the interrogation. "What reason did she have to believe you?"
"She had spent enough time with Kartis to see his true colors. Underneath his civilized facade was a man who divided the world between those gifted by the Gods with talents and breeding and thus deserving a privileged life, and everyone else destined to toil for little or no reward."
"Why trust you?" asked Xena doubtingly.
"I would like to think that she saw me for the man that I am."
Jared erupted, "Xena, you don't believe this mongrel?"
Turian did not wait for her to answer as he confidently concluded, "You do believe me."
"Whether you live or die does not hinge on whether I believe that Gabrielle went to you willingly," said Xena. "The charge against you is treason and treason is punishable by death."
"Then I will die with the memory of Gabrielle's tenderness towards me as my consolation," said Turian proudly.
Xena and her contingent traveled southeast taking a secluded path through a dense forest. Sensing that they were being watched she raised her hand, a signal to haut.
Three centaurs approached. She recognized Tansorious, one of Kaleipus' lieutenants. "Greetings Tansorious. I, Xena, Sovereign of Greece, request permission to enter Centaur lands."
"For what purpose?" asked the Centaur cautiously.
"To speak to Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
"You must first speak to Kaleipus."
"I expected no less."
"Very well. Choose a handful of men and I shall escort you to the village."
Xena ordered her men to set camp. She chose Jared, Tavis, Sentas, Alem and Brogan to accompany her to the village.
Tansorious sent a fellow centaur ahead to announce the visitors. The half-candlemark ride to the village was completed in silence.
Entering the village Xena spied Kaleipus in wait outside his lodge. After a few heartbeats, Solan exited the lodge and stood beside his step-father. Xena smiled, seeing how her son had grown. She judged him a healthy and handsome boy. Solan reflected her smile.
Xena dismounted and handed Argo's reins to Jared. She stepped confidently to Kaleipus greeting him with the respect he, as leader of the Centaur Nation, deserved. "Good day to you, Kaleipus. I hope you and your young prince are well."
Kaleipus placed a fatherly hand on his son's shoulder. "We are well, Xena. Your visit is unexpected. What brings you to our lands?"
"I am here to right a wrong. Greece has new information regarding the Athenian rebellion against the realm. The information changes Greece's judgment of its former queen. "
"The Queen acted selflessly. Her motive was to save Athens from destruction."
"There was no treason?"
"Not by her."
Solan turned to Kaleipus. "Father, I told you…"
"Yes, Solan," said Kaleipus patiently. "You did say the Queen would not have harmed Greece. But I and the Conqueror must rule judiciously. We must weigh the evidence and make our judgment accordingly. With what evidence Greece possessed, there is no faulting the conclusions that were reached."
Xena bowed her head gratefully acknowledging Kaleipus' generous explanation.
"Now, son. I must speak to the Conqueror privately."
"Yes, father," said Solan. He stepped up to Xena. "Will I see you later?"
"Of course." Xena placed a hand on her son's shoulder before qualifying her statement. "With your father's permission." Xena gazed beyond Solan to Kaleipus.
"You shall have plenty of time to visit," said Kaleipus agreeably.
"I will find you," Xena promised the boy.
Solan stood aside as Kaleipus gestured Xena toward the lodge entrance. She entered first, stepping into the heart of the large room before turning around to face the centaur. She wasted no words. "Where is she?"
Kaleipus did not take any noticeable offence in Xena's impatient questioning. "She has a modest lodge a half-candlemark walk to the north. She stays mostly in solitude. Unfortunately, for Solan, she keeps none more than him at arm's length. The boy is confused by her distance. I think Gabrielle sees too much of his mother in him. It cannot be easy for her."
"May I see her now?" asked Xena persistently.
Kaleipus stepped toward a shelf where many scrolls were stored. "Xena, have you read the poets: Aeschylus and Sophocles?"
"I have. As well as Euripides," she said, surprised by the change in subject. "Why?"
"Do you know what makes a tragedy a tragedy?" The centaur did not wait for Xena to respond. "It is when we cannot escape our destiny."
"You're wrong," said Xena, not to be lectured about ones destiny. "Oedipus could have avoided his downfall if he had chosen not to marry."
"But, he seemed right to be certain that he was safe to love Jocasta."
"Who was his mother as prophesized." Xena recounted the well known story.
"Gabrielle has lived a tragedy. She waits for you to make it not so."
There was much that Xena believed Kaleipus did not know, facts that Xena refused to share. None more damning than Gabrielle's infidelity. "I can't change her past. What is done is done."
"Is that how you feel when you are with Solan?"
"As much as I wish otherwise, yes. To me he will always be my son. He in turn believes his mother died in childbirth."
"With each passing year his resemblance to you becomes more uncanny. Do you think this escapes him?"
"He has no reason to believe me his kin.
"I cannot help but notice how you look at him. You do so with a mother's eyes."
"I will not encourage him to think me other than a friend." Xena feared that she was on the brink of forfeiting what little happiness her journey could offer her. "Kaleipus, do you doubt me? If you do and want me to go, only say the word and I will."
"No, Xena," said the centaur thoughtfully. "I won't send you away. Stay and enjoy time with him. I know it will do Solan good to be with you."
"If I were you I would not want me anywhere near him."
"Then it is good that I am not you. I believe love is too strong to be so easily subsumed. Solan's affection for you has the potential of growing to love. If he comes to love you it does not change his love for me."
"It's that simple?"
"Yes. And I know you know I'm right."
"How?" asked Xena, truly curious of Kaleipus' reasoning.
"You never have stopped loving Gabrielle. If you had she would have died on your sword and you would have felt no remorse for killing her."
Gabrielle looked out from the un-shuttered front window of her lodge. It was early evening. The sky had quickly grown dark and ominous. Sweeping sheets of rain followed. She caught sight of a tall figure walking toward her lodge. The figure's strides were forceful, seemingly undeterred by the weather. The figure was as a whole disarmingly familiar.
The figure stepped up the lodge's porch and knocked on the door. Gabrielle opened the door. Xena removed her hood. "May I come in?" she asked.
Bewildered, Gabrielle stepped back, opening the door further.
Xena entered. Waiting only for Gabrielle to close the door she explained, "I just arrived. I didn't want to delay seeing you. I've been to the North Garrison. I received a report from Dymas that Turian had been captured."
"You saw Turian?" she said reactively.
"Where is he now?"
"He is no longer a threat to the realm," said Xena coolly.
Assuming Turian's death, Gabrielle asked, "By your hand?"
"By your command then?"
"Yes," said Xena unrepentantly.
"Why?" Gabrielle's accusatory voice trembled. "What did Turian do to deserve his fate?"
"To raise ones sword against the realm is treason."
"I am alive. How does my betrayal compare?"
"The choice was mine. Would you rather have had me condemn you to death?"
Gabrielle did not answer. The fact that she would have welcomed an end to her life was not for her to share with the women who granted her mercy. Gabrielle continued her challenge. "Did you know Turian's motives? Did you even bother asking him?"
"I did ask him. He said that neither Kartis nor I deserved the throne. He thought differently of you. Given what I saw between you two in Athens it was no surprise that he held you in high esteem."
Xena had touched Gabrielle's truth with subtle, yet insightful precision. It was a truth Gabrielle could not, given her promise to Athena, clarify. Her soul groaned. She held herself responsible for Turian's death. "Is there anything else you wish to say to me?"
Dispiritedly, Xena walked to the door and reached for the handle. She spoke keeping her eyes on the wood. "During our life together I believe we had come to an understanding, a trust, that a direct question was granted an honest answer. Whether I want to hear the truth is beside the point. I need the truth, Gabrielle. Tell me now. What happened between you and Turian?"
Gabrielle considered her answer carefully. "He was an honorable man and never once harmed me."
"Did he… how intimate were you?"
Gabrielle's anger surged. Her answer was fueled by her unceasing helplessness in the face of the Gods' indifference and the harsh world they created. She wondered what she had done to deserve the loss of all she held dear? Worse yet, why did she have to be the cause of Xena's wretchedness? "If that is the reason why you killed him, you were wrong to do so. Turian did not deserve your vengeance. I lay with him by choice. It was my choice, Xena. It was I who went to him."
Xena bowed her head. "Why?" She turned her gaze back to Gabrielle. "You have had many honorable men in you life. Did you love him?"
"No, but neither did I hate him." Gabrielle could see in Xena an effort to make sense of the inadequate explanation.
"Was the Athenian so persuasive? Did you agree that I was beneath him… that I am unworthy of you?"
Gabrielle's heart broke anew. Xena's dignity had been assaulted. The visceral onslaught of Gabrielle's intimate betrayal had wounded the warrior at her most fragile core. "I never thought that," said Gabrielle in a hush.
"Then why did you leave me?"
Xena's pain filled eyes were unbearable to Gabrielle. She tried to console, "I gave you my answer in Corinth. I did what I thought was best. I followed my heart and for the greater good did what I had to do."
"You are a woman of maddening contradictions. I can't pretend to understand you."
"I'm sorry, Xena. I did not want to hurt you." Gabrielle had long wanted to apologize. It brought her no relief. She could only hope that somehow her remorse would help Xena heal.
"You have my apology as well," said Xena. "I was too hurt and angry to listen to you or the reports I received regarding what took place in Athens before and after your public renunciation of my rule. In our life together I gave you certain promises that though at times I have rued, I have always honored. By your word, in Athens you followed your heart. As I stand here before you I know that as incomplete as I find your statements to be that to be able to move on with my life I must accept them as sufficient. I must believe that you made the right choice for Athens, if not for either you or me. One question that remains between us is whether I have and will continue to follow my heart."
Though standing too far apart to touch, Gabrielle instinctively reached out for her partner. "Xena, I cannot be the reason for your ruin."
"I have tried..." Xena took a calming breath. "I must believe that I have been right in my actions. Gabrielle, Turain corroborated your assertion that you acted to save Athens. Prior to leaving the Northern Garrison I sent word to Corinth clearing your name of all charges levied against you. I have also directed Targon to scribe the necessary documents to endow you with an estate and sufficient income to ensure your well-being."
Gabrielle was stunned. She struggled to make sense of the sea change in Xena and as a consequence in her own life. She reacted to the most unwarranted outcome. "I have never asked for wealth."
"What would you ask of me?"
Gabrielle labored to think clearly. This was her one chance to redeem those who were pitilessly victimized in Athens. "I am grateful for your pardon. I know I have no right to ask, but…Trevor and Sam."
"My message to Corinth included orders to reinstate them into the Royal Guard."
"I don't know what to say."
Xena reached into her leather pouch and removed Gabrielle's medallion. "Give me your hand." Seeing what Xena held, Gabrielle complied. Xena placed the medallion upon Gabrielle's open palm. "If you choose to wear your medallion you are recommitting yourself to your brothers. Many of your former Guard traveled with me. I am certain they will welcome a visit from you. As for me, I won't interfere in your life again. Good bye, Gabrielle." Xena bowed and then, without further delay, she exited the lodge.
From her window Gabrielle watched Xena's departure until the warrior disappeared into the forest. She then sat down trembling, overwhelmed by a fathomless sense of loss. She felt the cool metal of her medallion in her hand. Though she treasured its return, what cut deeply was that she received no invitation back into Xena's life. "Aphrodite," she prayed, "please help me understand why we must suffer so."
A knock on the door resounded in the room. Gabrielle's pulse quickened. Would her prayer be so quickly answered? Despite Xena's farewell Gabrielle's heart swelled with hope. "Xena?" Gabrielle ran and opened the door. She was shocked by who she saw.
"May I come in?" asked Turian.
He smiled. "Very much so." Gabrielle embraced him. He enfolded her in his strong, tender arms. "I'm getting you all wet," said the rain soaked man.
Gabrielle released him and stepped back. "Come in."
Gabrielle guided Turian to a chair. "Would you like something to drink or eat?"
"No, thank you. I've been well treated." He motioned with his hand. "Sit down, Gabrielle. I want to talk to you."
She moved a chair beside him and sat down. Turian took her hand. "How are you?" he asked tenderly.
"It's been hard," she said having no desire to be less than truthful.
"I tried to find you. No one knew where you had been banished. The Conqueror brought me here."
"She did not harm you?"
"She stood between me and General Jared. Given the chance he would have cut my heart out. I still find it hard to believe that the Conqueror has let me live. I didn't think I was that persuasive," said Turian with uncontained gladness. He raised and kissed Gabrielle's hand. "Gabrielle, I have some gold and the Conqueror has returned my lands to my possession. Come back to Greece with me."
The events of the past candlemark had become too much for Gabrielle. She leaned back feeling an intolerable conflict of her loyalties. "Turian, I don't want you to misunderstand me. If the circumstances in Athens had been different I would not have been with you."
"You cannot tell me what we shared was a lie," said Turian soberly.
"We were tender with one another, and yes, you gave me comfort and pleasure. I did my best to keep my feelings for the Conqueror from our bed."
"It says something that you could."
"It proves that I am well practiced in shutting my heart away."
Turian released Gabrielle's hand. "Do you love the Conqueror?"
"I never stopped loving her," said Gabrielle in a manner not to be contradicted.
"What did she say to you? What promises has she made?"
"None that would make a difference between you and me."
"Tell me, Gabrielle," insisted Turian.
"She has cleared my name of all charges of treason and is ensuring that I have an income. She has also reinstated Trevor and Sam into the Royal Guard."
"That is all?"
"She gave me this." Gabrielle revealed her medallion.
Turian glanced down to the familiar metal. "What does it mean to you?"
"It is not like my ring. Its meaning goes back to my days as a servant. I was a sister to the Guardsmen. She has returned the honor to me."
"Does this mean that you will return to Corinth?"
"For now, my life is here."
"I don't understand. Why stay with the Centaurs? There is a world waiting for you."
"I was never a prisoner here. The Conqueror sent me to Kaleipus because he is a friend to us both."
"What could possibly keep you here?"
"I have had a safe place to heal from the losses I experienced in Athens and in Corinth. I needed time to think and to decide what I wished to do with my life. Within a couple of moons after arriving I came to the conclusion that it would be better if I did not travel. I'm more physically fragile than you may realize. It was the right decision."
"But if you were once weak you are now strong," said Turian persuasively. "I see your strength. There must have been another reason for staying."
Gabrielle looked out her window to the forest from which Xena appeared and returned to. "I stayed because I had not loss hope of seeing the Conqueror once again."
"Because by staying she would know where to find you?"
"I did not think she would seek me out. She has other reasons for coming here. The realm's relationship with the Centaurs is unique and requires her personal attention from time to time."
"I ask you again. Come home to Greece with me. I promise you Gabrielle I will do all in my power to give you a good life."
"Thank you, but no. Leave me knowing that you gave me the gift of yourself and though it was short lived I will be forever grateful."
"You cannot love me?" said Turian disappointedly.
"Not in the way you wish me to. Though I respect you I also disagree with you. The Conqueror is a great Sovereign and deserves your support. The fact that we sit here together is proof of her justice and integrity."
"Gabrielle, she has walked away from you!" said Turian with renewed verve.
"I am hers even if she no longer claims me."
"You are destined to a lonely life, longing for someone who will not have you."
"There is no other way for me."
Turian glanced over to the door. "Two Guardsmen wait for me outside. I will be escorted off Centaur lands a free man. I should be happy. Instead, I feel cheated."
"I am sorry if I have hurt you." Gabrielle had now offered her second sorely desired apology. Again, doing so brought no comfort.
Turian looked back to Gabrielle. "You have done me no wrong. Nor, I admit, has the Conqueror. I had a dream but it was dwarfed by Kartis' civilized savagery and the Conqueror's more thoughtful vision. Where does a man go after such failure?"
"The best men learn from their failures never to repeat them. They become wiser," said Gabrielle offering a balm she could not accept for herself.
"Is there hope for me?" asked Turian with a touch of wit.
"Yes, I think so," said Gabrielle grateful for the shift in tone.
"I shall always remember you with affection, Gabrielle. If ever I can help you, please summon me to you."
"Thank you." Gabrielle stood and took hold of Turian's hand. "Let me walk you out." Turian allowed Gabrielle to lead him to the door. Standing at the door she said, "I cannot regret placing my faith in you. You are a good man."
Turian cupped Gabrielle's cheek with his hand. "You deserve happiness, Gabrielle." He leaned down and gently kissed her on the lips. "Farewell."
"Good bye, Turian. Be safe."
He hesitated one more moment. Regret permeated the ether. He opened the door and exited the lodge, walking in the direction of the waiting Guardsmen.
Gabrielle closed the door. Leaning against it, her body glided to the floor. Tears fell down her cheek. She cried unceasingly, as sorrows recently buried returned to haunt her.
From a distance Xena, Tavis and Sentas had observed Gabrielle and Turian's reunion. Xena had left the Guardsmen to safeguard Turian's departure from the Centaur's lands. Whether he left alone or with Gabrielle she would learn soon enough. She traveled up a hill to where a stone shelf offered cover from the elements. There she looked out to the horizon. The rain had subsided and the sun had begun to set. The sunset reminded her of Scupi.
Time passed unmarked. She heard approaching footsteps. Jared stood beside her and without a word spoken watched the sky as its hues changed until the heavens seemed aflame.
Xena kept her eyes forward. "Say it, Jared. Whatever it is just say it."
"I was wondering how you found the lass?"
"Athens has made her hard." Xena turned her gaze to Jared. "I imagine she was just as hard before she entered my household. She has gone back to that part of herself. The part that she has always kept separate from the world."
"It doesn't have to be like this. If you…"
"No, old man," said Xena more firmly. "Gabrielle chose to go to Athens against my wishes. She chose to go back to Kartis. And, she chose to enter Turian's bed. Of all her choices the hardest one to accept is her choice not to explain herself to me. Her secrets are far too great to be set aside."
"That is your choice," said Jared sternly.
"It's Gabrielle's choice. After Tracate she made a promise. Each day that she remains silent she breaks that promise."
"Release her from the promise. Live on without knowing."
"I have not demanded that she tell me what she withholds from me. I will live on in this bitter world without knowing."
"You are giving her to Turian."
"If she loves him she will go with him. And I think by that choice I will know, at least in part, what happened in Athens."
"And if she stays?"
"She has no reason for staying."
"You are her reason for staying. You are her reason for living. That hasn't changed."
"You still sense that despite her expert detachment?" asked Xena, wanting to believe Jared.
"She wears her hardness like a shell. You have the power to pierce it."
"No, I don't. I never have. For all of our life together I have known the loneliness that comes with not being invited into the most remote places within her."
"Be fair. Does Gabrielle see all of you?"
"She has seen far more of me than I have ever seen of her." Jared ceased his argument. Xena sensed his rare willingness to support her conclusion even though it was not to Gabrielle's advantage. It marked the inexplicableness of Gabrielle's actions.
"What will you do?" he said.
"What can I do but wait. The future will unfold at its own pace. All any of us can do is wait to see whether the sun will rise again and if it does, live until the next sunset comes and we are given, if we are lucky, a merciful sleep."
Xena lay sitting up on the pallet within her quarters, listening to the renewed rain. She called out permission to enter in response to a knock on the door. She was surprised to see Turian.
"I thought you would want to know that I leave alone," said Turian. "Gabrielle loves you. I don't think you ever doubted her. I think you doubted yourself and you shouldn't have. I was wrong about you and I'm sorry for the harm I've done you." Turian paused. Xena silently held her gaze; her piercing blue eyes had a crystalline aura to them. The Athenian's self-assured manner escaped him. He sobered, "Conqueror, I am in your debt. I know you have no reason to trust me, but if I can ever be of service, you only have to call upon me."
Xena nodded imperceptivity. "Safe travels, Turian."
"Thank you. I wish you well." He bowed respectfully and then exited.
Sitting in her quarters as the night sounds rose, Xena found little comfort in the natural respite from the blinding glare of life. She did not want to sleep. She did not want to revisit her lonely dreams. They impressed upon her the desolation she had returned to when she first learned of Gabrielle's betrayal. Turian's reassurance that she had Gabrielle's love did not touch her gently. His words seared her. The contradiction of his words and Gabrielle's deeds were irreconcilable and thus so too was Xena's heart, which expressed a constant moan of hurt.
Aphrodite appeared at the center of her quarters. Seeing the Goddess Xena's thoughts turned to Ares' warning, "Why did you curse me?" she asked hoarsely.
"I have done no such thing," said the Goddess defensively.
"Ares warned me."
"What did my brother tell you?"
"Because you saved Gabrielle from dying from the infection caused by the knife wound on her arm, she owed you a debt. He said unless I gave my soul up to him I would know Tartarus on earth."
"Xena, it was not I. Ares spoke of Athena. She healed Gabrielle because the Fates told her that Gabrielle was the key to saving Athens. Athena knows no limits when it comes to protecting her city."
"Protect Athens? That doesn't make sense. Gabrielle did Athens no favor when she entered Turian's bed."
"I won't try to justify her actions with Turian."
"Because there is no justifying them," said Xena with renewed harshness.
"Xena, you are wrong if you judge Gabrielle without knowing her story."
"What choice have I? She won't say more than that she followed her heart. What does that mean? What standing do I have in her heart?"
"I'm sorry to say that I don't know the reasons behind Gabrielle's actions."
"How could you not know what went on between Gabrielle and Athena?" said Xena as her frustration soared.
"As I have told you in the past, contrary to what some mortals think, no God is all powerful and all knowing. Xena, I don't condone Athena's interference with my Chosen's life. I want the truth just as much as you do." Aphrodite reached out to the warrior and said decidedly, "Now, take my hand."
"Why?" asked Xena warily.
"We are going to the Acropolis."
"What for?" Xena would not volunteer to be a pawn in the Gods' games.
"There you will petition Athena for the truth."
"Why haven't you asked her?"
"I promised Gabrielle I would not broach the subject with my step-sister. You have no such promise to stop you from seeking the truth."
Never had Xena known the restraining power of a promise. Promises had placed one barrier after another between her and the truth. The truth is what she wanted. She would not bypass the opportunity to have it. She took Aphrodite's hand. After a few disorientating moments she found herself standing beside the Goddess at the foot of the stairs leading to Athena's temple. Together they walked inside. "Call her," Aphrodite instructed. Xena did so.
It was not long before Athena appeared. "What is this?" she said irritably.
"I think you know why we're here," said Aphrodite.
"I have nothing to say. Gabrielle made her choice knowing the consequences."
"What choice? What consequences?" Xena stepped forward undeterred by the fact she faced a God. "What lies did you spin?"
Obviously offended, Athena responded sharply. "I am not the spinner of destinies. Atropos did me the favor of showing Gabrielle how one decision would alter history. It was her decision to make. Gabrielle should count herself lucky. Few are granted such insight."
"What was the choice?" demanded Xena.
"To see all the people of Athens killed or not."
"What power on earth would have done such a thing? Not even Caesar is that bloodthirsty."
"My army?" Xena took a step back as if slapped. Confused, she asked, "Why would I destroy Athens?"
"You didn't. Your army did."
"Against my command?" said Xena outraged.
"Gabrielle caused Kartis great embarrassment among the Athenian Lords when she fled the palace. His revenge was to grant one of his associates access to her with every intention of seeing her raped and killed. Gabrielle first choice was to take her own life before one more man could add his name to the list of unworthy men that have had their harsh hands upon her. Either way she would be dead because you and your army were too far from Athens to save her. Arriving in Athens, seeing Gabrielle and what she had done, you took your own life to join her on the other side. Upon learning of your deaths, the rage of the Conqueror's army was unleashed. Innocent men, women and children of Athens were taken to Hades by a wildfire that engulfed the city."
"That's a lie! My men would have never taken revenge against innocents."
"Grief can drive men to do the unthinkable. Cirra was nothing compared to the atrocities my city suffered." Athena's statement silenced all protest within Xena.
Aphrodite asked, "When Gabrielle chose to accept Kartis' proposition, what did she know would happen?"
"Gabrielle knew that she would be alive when Xena reached her. Athens would survive and at least for now, so too would Xena."
Many of the puzzle pieces that composed a clear picture of the events that took place in Athens were now in Xena's possession. There was one missing piece that Xena was unwilling to pursue any further. She met and held Athena's gaze. "Aphrodite told me you saved Gabrielle's life. Is her debt to you paid?"
"There was never a debt," said the Goddess. "If she had gone against Athens I would have not felt betrayed though I would have been disappointed." Athena turned to her step-sister and said, "I must admit, Aphrodite, you were right in choosing Gabrielle. She is a remarkable young woman." After a moment of shared silence, in which Xena and Aphrodite seemed preoccupied in their own thoughts, Athena asked, "Now, are we done here?"
Aphrodite deferred to her companion. "Xena?"
"Did Gabrielle know I would spare her life?" asked Xena, wanting to better understand her own role in what had transpired.
"No," said Athena. "The life string Atropos showed her did not foresee the future that would be if she chose differently. Anything else?"
"Athena, in the future stay away from Gabrielle," cautioned Aphrodite. "My Chosen is not meant to be your puppet."
"She was no more my puppet than she has been yours. Xena, although I am not the Goddess of Love, I counsel you to go and find Gabrielle. Facing an impossible situation she sacrificed your love for the greater good."
"Don't you dare counsel me," said Xena spitefully. "I could have killed Gabrielle."
Aphrodite placed her hand on Xena's arm, subtly but forcefully restraining her. "Remember, Gabrielle is my Chosen. In spite of what she asked of me, I would never have allowed you to hurt her. It took all my patience to let her face you in Court."
"She insisted on suffering your justice. I was honestly surprised by the mercy you showed her. Given how much she is suffering now I don't know if you have done her a favor."
Xena turned and walked out of the temple, followed by Aphrodite. What Xena had learned took her near her breaking point. "Please take me back."
"Will you go to Gabrielle?" asked Aphrodite.
"Xena, hasn't she suffered enough?"
"We both have."
"Athens had nothing to do with you. Athens was about Kartis."
"Maybe in the beginning, but Athens is now also about Turian," said Xena impatiently. "Take me back, Aphrodite."
"Xena, Ares was right about one thing. If you give him your soul your suffering will end. You hurt because you love. The hurt will end if you embrace your darkness. I would hate to see you give up the best of yourself. You deserve better and so does Gabrielle."
"I have another love in Centaur lands and right now that is who I want to be with."
Understanding, Aphrodite acquiesced. "Very well." With a gesture of her hand she returned Xena to her quarters, leaving the warrior with her own thoughts.
The following morning Xena sought out Kaleipus, securing a private word with him in his quarters. Xena's discomfort was obvious to the centaur. He spoke as soon as the door was closed. "What is it?"
"My men were members of the Queen's Guard. They have a unique bond with Gabrielle."
"I think it would do them and Gabrielle good to spend a few days together – have a proper farewell."
"You and your men are welcomed to stay as long as you like," said the centaur.
"They will be freer with Gabrielle if I wasn't here."
"I trust your General. If you rather return to Corinth…"
"I prefer a hunting trip with you and Solan."
"A hunting trip? Where?"
"You decide. You can also decide the composition of the hunting party."
"How many of your men should I count on?"
"Then it will be a party of three," said Kaleipus. "When would you like to leave?"
"As soon as possible."
"Give me a couple of candlemarks to get ready."
"Shouldn't you ask Solan first?" asked Xena, not wanting to cause her son any discontent.
"I will," said Kaleipus smiling. "But, it won't change a thing. I have no doubt what answer he will give me. Xena, the boy wants to get to know you. As far as he is concerned, having a few days with you to himself will be Elysia."
"Thank you, Kaleipus." Xena exited the lodge and walked to her quarters to prepare for the hunt. She was hopeful she might know a sliver of peace in the company of the centaur and her son, both of whom had nothing to do with the political maze that is Greece.
Kaliepus sent a message to Gabrielle, discreetly informing her of the hunting trip. He instructed her to go to Tansorious if she was in want of anything.
Mid-afternoon the following day Gabrielle sat on her porch steps, her eyes fixed upon the entrance to the forest path that led to the centaur village. She had Xena's blessing to speak to the Guardsmen – her brothers. She missed the men who had always offered her a safe haven, who taught her martial skills, who played games with her, who listened attentively to her stories and who accepted her care revealing their otherwise shielded hurts and fears.
She wondered if they would come to her, or if they would assume nothing, respect her privacy and wait for her to make a gesture of reconciliation. In her hand she held the vitally symbolic medallion of the Royal Guard. Taken from her - a damning disgrace - and returned to her - a restored honor. Upon seeing it the Guardsmen would have no question of Xena's endorsement of a reunion between sister and brothers. Gabrielle had only to wear it.
The thought of doing so gave her pause. She must believe she deserved the Honor of the Medallion. She knew she had acted honorably. What caused her to hesitate was her inability to exonerate herself completely. Xena took her and Turian's word that what was done had to be done to save Athens. Xena did so on a faith necessitated by the warrior's fragile soul's need to keep her encroaching darkness at bay. Her brothers did not have an equal motivation to believe her. Gabrielle weighed the risk of rejection with the reward of acceptance.
Dressed in a simple rust colored tunic, with staff in hand, Gabrielle approached the Conqueror's camp.
Tavis caught sight of Gabrielle first and went to her. "I've been waiting for you to show up," he said nonchalantly. He gestured toward her staff. "I haven't had a sparring challenge since you left."
"Hello Tavis," said Gabrielle shyly.
"Gabrielle, how are you?"
"I've missed you." Her trembling voice carried her equally trembling emotion.
"I see you wear your medallion. Will you be coming back to us?"
Gabrielle raised her hand to her mouth as her emotions surge. She could not suppress her tears. Tavis took the younger woman into his arms. "Hush, you know your brothers have no defense against your tears. We shall break down and cry and the Conqueror will call us all puppies until the next full moon."
Gabrielle tightened her hold of the man, needing his gentle reassurance.
"Tavis, what kind of boorish thing did you say to our sister now?" Sentas stood beside the two. He held out a handkerchief for Gabrielle. Still leaning against Tavis she turned her head to her most playful brother. "He said nothing wrong."
"I'm amazed. You know, Gabrielle, I would have no objection to taking Tavis' place if you had the mind to indulge a second brother."
Tavis turned and placed himself between Sentas and Gabrielle. "She's mine. I saw her first."
"Guardsmen share or have you forgotten our code?"
"Your kerchief first." Tavis took possession of it and then released Gabrielle. He gently dabbed her tears from her face before surrendering the fabric to her. "There."
Sentas pushed Tavis away. "Step aside, I've waited long enough." He transferred Gabrielle's staff from her hand to Tavis and then took her in his arms and whirled her around. Gabrielle cried out in delight.
"Put her down before you make her dizzy," shouted Alem as the balance of the Queen's Guard approached.
Sentas did so, keeping a firm grip upon Gabrielle until he was sure she was on sure footing. The men, each in their own way, welcomed her.
The hunting party of centaur, warrior and boy traveled the highland path toward an overlook of the valley where Kaleipus suggested they camp for the night. Solan was dejected having missed a doe, his arrow clipping a low hanging tree branch. He walked ahead keeping his own company.
Xena and Kaleipus exchanged a look of understanding. "He wanted to impress you with his hunting skills," said the centaur.
"Probably won't do any good to tell him I've missed my share of game when I was his age," said Xena her heart aching for her son's disappointment.
"Especially when it isn't the truth," quipped Kaleipus.
"You give me too much credit. Or maybe not enough. I've worked hard to develop and maintain my skills."
"He's a serious boy. Not that he doesn't have a good time with his friends. There is just a part of him that seems more comfortable alone or with adults."
"When I was growing up in Amphilpolis I had my brother Lyceus. He was my best friend. My only friend, really. I didn't have much in common with the rest of the village kids. I could run faster, ride a horse better, release an arrow and throw a knife on target."
"Who taught you?"
"I'd ask whomever was good at what I wanted to learn. And if there wasn't anyone I taught myself. There would be that first time I did something right. Teach a horse a trick, kill my first stag. Gods, there isn't a better feeling than that."
"And when you failed?"
Xena's gaze rested gently upon her son. "I felt like Solan feels now. Angry with myself. Angry at the world. I used that anger to work harder, longer, until I got good enough."
"Maybe tonight he'll accept a lesson from you."
"We'll see. It's better to wait to be asked."
"I'm not sure his pride will let him ask you."
"Then he is not his mother's son."
After a dinner of roasted rabbit Xena rested against a tree near the fire. Her thoughts drifted back in time when Gabrielle was alone on the practice range with her bow.
By the position of the arrows, Gabrielle's aim was consistently a hand length from the heart of the target in every direction.
Xena admired her partner's form. Gabrielle was deliberate in her aim. Her brothers had taught her well. Xena observed Gabrielle's technique looking for opportunities for improvement.
Gabrielle sighed as one more arrow missed its mark. She retrieved the bolts. As she turned away from the target she saw Xena. She raised her hand in greeting.
Xena approached. "How goes practice?"
"You've hit the target each time," observed Xena generously.
"It's not good enough."
"I wouldn't expect better aim from my Guard."
"You do expect better from yourself."
"Point taken," said Xena as she nodded in agreement. "I was thinking of taking Argo for a ride by the river. Want to join me?"
Gabrielle glanced over to the target. Her stubborn determination painted across her face. "No, thanks."
"All right. I will be back for evening meal." Xena walked away, understanding all too well how Gabrielle felt.
"Xena!" called Gabrielle. The warrior turned back. "Could you watch me?" asked the young queen. "If you have any suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them."
"Go ahead." Xena gestured with her hand.
Gabrielle smiled, encouraged. She shot two bolts with no improvement.
Xena stepped around Gabrielle until she stood at her partner's back. "May I?" Her breath gently swept near Gabrielle's ear. Gabrielle glanced over to Xena giving silent consent. Xena adjusted Gabrielle's cocked arm. "It will be easier to steady your aim if you keep your arm closer to your body."
Xena stepped back. Gabrielle took aim and shot a bolt. It hit at the perimeter of the inner target, cutting the distance of her miss by half. Xena smiled both at the improvement and the determined look upon her partner's face as Gabrielle pulled another bolt from her quill. She took aim and shot again. The miss equaled the one before.
Gabrielle stared at the target thoughtfully. "Xena." She glanced over to her partner. "Thank you."
"I will see you at dinner?"asked the warrior.
"Yes, I'll be there."
"Xena?" The boy's voice brought the warrior back to the present. Solan stood before her with his bow in hand.
"Tomorrow, could you give me a lesson with my bow?"
Xena smiled. "Sure."
"Could you look at it now? I'm not sure I've got the tension right."
Xena reached out her hand. "Give it here."
The boy handed her the bow and then sat beside her.
"This is a nice weapon," said Xena, admiring the fine carving of the wood.
"Kaleipus made it for me," replied Solan proudly.
Xena glanced over to the centaur who watched them attentively. He offered her an approving smile. The balance of the evening, boy and warrior spoke about bows and hunting, wood carving and leather-smithing. It was the finest evening Xena had known in recent memory.
Gabrielle worked in her herb garden by the light of the morning sun. In the two days that had passed she had broken her self-imposed isolation and shared parts of her days and all of her evenings with her brothers. Their time together had eased her feelings of estrangement.
Jared had made a special effort to see her and talk to her privately. Though he was gentle with her, she sensed an undercurrent of anger within him. It was obvious that there was no going back to her life before Athens. Too much had changed. Though disappointments might be explained, even accepted and forgiven, emotions once felt still lingered in memory.
Gabrielle wished for a time in the future when she could speak to the other valued friends left behind without a word of farewell: Stephen, Makia, Dalius, and Targon, as well as a few of her most supportive Lords: Judias and Ayers. She was confident her exoneration would be welcomed news. She reasoned that explanations given might sweep aside all judgment except for one, the same that she could not blind herself to in Jared's eyes; the one that had broken her bond with Xena – Turian.
"Are those herbs for healing or cooking?"
Gabrielle heard a gentle, familiar male voice. She looked up to see Trevor. She smiled. "Both."
The Guardsman pointed to the insignia sewed on his shirt. "I have my commission."
"I see, Captain."
"Are you still my sister?"
"Good." He crouched down. "Can you use some help? I wouldn't mind putting in an honest days work especially if I don't need to draw my sword to do it."
"Trevor, can you forgive me?"
"There is nothing to forgive," said Trevor as he took Gabrielle's hand in his own. "Gabrielle, I don't know if I will ever be able to equal your strength and generosity. To risk losing our love to save a city of strangers… I'm too selfish. I would not have sacrificed you for all the people in Greece."
"A long time ago my Lord told me that for me to be her Queen I had to place the realm before all that I cherished. I thought I knew what she asked of me. It wasn't until Athens that I truly understood."
"Athens was a hard time. I left the city questioning much that I was once sure of. Still, I had my faith in you… and in the Conqueror. I told myself somehow the world would set itself right again. And look, here I am with you and we are both in good health and free citizens. And…" Trevor's voice choked with emotion. Gabrielle raised her fingertips to his cheek. He continued to speak. "And, I am still your brother and love you."
Gabrielle embraced him. "It's all right… I love you, too."
With time the two re-gathered their composure. Gabrielle offered Trevor cool water to quench his thirst. He accepted and they retired to the porch of her lodge. The following candlemark was spent in comfortable companionship.
Gabrielle noted that it neared time to begin preparing her evening meal. "Would you like to stay for dinner?" she asked Trevor.
"And have you all to myself?" The Captain smiled. "I would, but my brothers would never forgive me. Come to our camp."
Gabrielle broached one subject they had both avoided. "Sam? Is he with you?"
Trevor grew serious. "We rode together. Gabrielle, he is an angry man."
"Then I should stay away."
"That would be a mistake. You need to face him. For both your sakes."
Trevor escorted Gabrielle to the Guardsmen's camp. Her presence was expected and thus there was no extraordinary fanfare. Gabrielle joined the cooks, choosing to help prepare the meal. The shared light-hearted sibling comradery eased the tension in her chest.
As dinner was being served, Gabrielle caught sight of Samuel standing silently at a distance. As she walked toward him, the nearby Guardsmen opened a path for her. She stopped a few paces from the Guardsman who had given so much to protect her. "I'm sorry," she said.
"You could have trusted me with the truth," said Samuel showing no tenderness.
"No, I couldn't. I gave an oath that I would not share what I learned."
"Would you do the same given a second chance?" asked Samuel seemingly unmoved.
"Yes, except I would not have let you come with me."
Samuel turned and walked away.
"Sam… please…" called Gabrielle after him. She watched him disappeared into the forest.
She felt a presence beside her. "Join your brothers, Gabrielle," said Alem.
"I've lost Sam, haven't I?" she said sadly.
"I wish I could say he will come back to you, but I can't. Some wounds don't heal." Alem placed his arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and guided her to the fire ring.
Xena and Kaleipus indulged Solan, extending their hunt by two days in hopes that he would achieve a kill worth boasting about. Their patience was rewarded when Solan's arrow pierced the heart of a moderately size boar. Both adults liberally commented on the beast's ferocity, a disproportionate assessment the boy took at face value, his pride bucked up in equal measure by their praise for his tenacity.
In preparation for the evening roast Xena took Solan on a different hunt, one for natural herbs to tenderize and flavor the meat. Her son was a willing and quick student, learning the names and uses of the herbs shown to him. She impressed upon him that both man and woman needed the knowledge to be able to feed themselves as well as, in the case of medical herbs, care for themselves.
Solan mentioned Gabrielle's name in context of a healer. It was the first time since Xena's arrival that Gabrielle's name had been spoken between them. Xena concurred that Gabrielle was a highly knowledgeable and skilled healer. She added that what made Gabrielle most effective was her intuitiveness and compassion in the face of pain. As the warrior and boy walked back to camp, Xena's observation of her former partner was in the forefront of her mind.
After their evening meal was completed, Kaleipus announced that in the morning they would begin the journey back to the village. Given the distance travelled, it would be a two day trek. Solan expressed a desire to transport the whole boar back. After thoughtful discussion he reluctantly agreed that only the hide, tucks and butchered meat would be carried.
Solan bid his companions a good night before taking to his bed roll.
Kaleipus chuckled. "I don't have to think hard to trace this boy's pride to his parents."
"Any boy would want to show off," said Xena knowingly.
"He will have glorious dreams tonight."
"It was a good day."
"It was a good four days. I'm glad you thought of this hunt. You will need to return more often and continue mentoring our young prince."
"I don't know if I should," said Xena solemnly.
"Isn't it obvious. Look at how Gabrielle has suffered because of me. If word regarding my affection for Solan reached my enemies… Kaleipus, not only Solan but you and your entire village would be at risk."
"We are already at risk. There is no love lost between centaurs and humans. Xena, the only thing that is obvious to me is that Solan feels the inexplicable bond a boy feels for his mother, for you. He just doesn't know how to express his heart in words."
"Kaleipus, you can't know how proud I am of him. He is beautiful in his innocence. I don't want to rob him of his childhood as I was robbed. Believe me, if I could have him by my side without breaching our agreement, I would."
"I shall not back down from this argument, Xena. As leader of the centaurs I expect Greece to work harder to maintain its diplomatic ties to my nation. You will return to our lands to negotiate a trade compact and you will return on an annual basis for no less than a fortnight to renegotiate the compact for the upcoming year. I will accept no envoys… no excuses. Have I made myself clear?"
Xena shook her head and smiled. "Perfectly."
"Shall you meet my demands?"
"I don't seem to have a choice."
"Good," said Kaleipus grinning. "You can tell Solan in the morning."
The hunting party of three returned to the village after evening meal. Xena bid Solan and Kaleipus a good night. She stowed her pack and bow in her quarters and then walked casually to the Guardsmen's camp. As she neared the fire ring she heard Gabrielle's voice and paused. Still hidden within the forest she debated whether to interrupt the gathering. Standing in the night's stillness she felt a sudden and unexpected sensation. The feeling once constant elicited a sob. She felt Gabrielle's essence.
Xena closed her eyes and concentrated, feeling the intimate warmth that she knew was inextricably linked to the bard. She did not want the sensation to end. Having gone without its comfort for moons, she had begun to believe it a cruel turn of her imagination. As much as she did not want to cause the connection's end Xena felt a desperate need to be nearer to its source. She stealthy approached the camp's perimeter, well positioned to observe Gabrielle. The bard smiled easily in the company of her brothers, in the warm embrace of friendship.
Gabrielle turned her eyes toward her, keenly in wait. Xena wondered if Gabrielle had sensed her as she had sensed the bard. She stepped forward, clearly in sight of all. "It's good that I am a friendly visitor or all of you would have been for a rude awakening."
"We trust the centaur guards to give us a fair warning, my Liege," said Trevor, standing.
"Sit down, Captain. I am not here to interrupt," said Xena casually, choosing not to acknowledge Trevor's presence as out of the ordinary. "I can see all has been well during my absence. I bid you good-night."
Brogan stood up. "My Liege, will you answer a question before you leave?"
"If I can, Brogan," said Xena affably.
"Will you wager on Stephen's child? Boy or girl?"
Gabrielle's gaze moved from Brogan to Xena as she asked with a hint of excitement. "Tess is with child?"
"Brogan, you've spoiled your brother's surprise." Xena's gentle gaze held Gabrielle's. "Yes, Tess is expecting. Stephen is beside himself."
"I say happy and I think a little frightened as well. Though Dalius is gentle with her, I believe she would prefer you as her mid-wife."
"A new life," Gabrielle sighed.
"Yes, and whether boy or girl, the child will have the best of parents and a cadre of uncles."
"As well as two aunts. Is that not right, my Liege?" asked Alem.
"Yes, Alem. Stephen and Tess's child will learn of the world through the stories of the finest bard in Greece and have the protection of the realm's Sovereign."
Xena's tacit inclusion of her in the child's life caused Gabrielle to glance down as she felt an overwhelming wave of emotion.
"My Liege," Brogan pressed. "You still have not said, boy or girl?"
"A girl." said Gabrielle softy.
Xena spoke in an intimately equal voice. "A girl? Do you think?"
"Tess told me it's what Stephen wants."
"Then may Eileithyia grant them both a healthy girl," said Xena in a rare blessing.
Tavis laughed and called out to Sentas, "Pay up!"
"What's this?" asked Xena.
"We wagered on what you would wager."
Xena shook her head and chuckled.
Gabrielle playfully said, "You always said your men would wager on anything."
"Oh no, these are not my men they are your brothers."
"And proud we are of our sister," affirmed Alem.
The men uniformly voiced their agreement.
"Gabrielle?" Young Mason's voice broke through the din. "Would you tell us a story? A short one?"
Hamish slapped him in the gut. "Short not! An epic with fighting and intrigue."
"And to please Alem's sentimental heart add a love story," said Sentas.
Gabrielle looked to Xena with questioning eyes. The warrior responded by sitting among the Guardsmen, directly across from Gabrielle. "It has been a long time since I've heard a story," she said.
Having the assurance she needed, still keeping eye contact with Xena, Gabrielle began the story of the Trojan War, focusing on the love between Hector and Andromache.
Xena scanned the men as they each settled themselves to comfortably listen. She knew by Trevor's presence that Samuel was also in camp. He was however conspicuously absent from the gathering. She surmised that the reunion of sister and brothers had not been as completely successful as she had hoped.
Having finished the story and received her brother's praise and gratitude, Gabrielle stood and observed the lateness of the evening.
"I'll walk you back," said Xena, preempting any other offers to escort Gabrielle to her lodge. The warrior energetically jumped to her feet and took hold of a nearby torch. She silently walked toward the trailhead, waiting patiently until Gabrielle bid her brothers a good night.
The two women took to the forest path in amicable silence. Having walked beyond hearing distance of the Guardsmen, Gabrielle asked, "How was the hunting trip?"
"A success. Solan downed his first boar."
"He must have been exited."
"That's an understatement," said Xena laughing easily.
Gabrielle smiled, obviously enjoying Xena's lightheartedness. "Did you enjoy the trip?"
"It was good to spend time away from the usual concerns of living. I think Kaleipus felt the same."
"How did you find Solan?"
"He's growing up to be quite a young man. He's sensitive. He feels deeply. Kaleipus and I spoke of you. He feels you have purposely kept your distance from Solan. I hope you don't hold him accountable for my actions."
Gabrielle stopped and turned to her partner. "Xena, no… I don't… You have been more than fair to me."
"Then why have you kept Solan at a distance? He has only wanted your friendship."
"Kaleipus must have told you I've been living a very private life."
"Solan is my son," said Xena firmly. Clearly, she expected Gabrielle to grant the boy special consideration.
"Yes," said Gabrielle with a full heart. "I see you in him. It's been hard to be reminded of all I've lost." Gabrielle began to walk again.
Appeased, Xena continued to keep pace. "I see Trevor sat beside you. Is all well with you two?"
"Yes. He has forgiven me. He has been more generous than I believe I deserve."
"What of Sam?"
"He's angry. He has every right to be. I tried to apologize. He won't hear it."
"Is there anything I can do?
"No… thank you. I'm grateful you've given me a chance to be with the men."
"Don't thank me. I was selfish. I could see that knowing the truth they needed to see you again. They needed you to know that they were still your brothers."
"They see my actions through your eyes. You could have rejected Turian's explanation and killed him. No one would have blamed you. No one would have known the truth."
"Gabrielle, you are the only one who does know the truth," said Xena, not willing to pretend otherwise.
"Is that why you came to me? Are you still seeking a confession?"
Xena paused and turned to Gabrielle. She spoke in a low intimate voice, one that had the power to pierce through Gabrielle's greatest defenses. "I know more now than before I arrived. I am certain I do not know everything that happened in Athens and why, and I accept that I never will. Gabrielle, we have shared a bond beyond my imagination. It was once my sole reason for living. I believed having known it I could never live without it. Time has proven me wrong. Given no choice I have continued on. My life is not what it was with you, but it is a life worth living. I shall know a kernel of contentment if we can be at peace with one another."
"Peace is illusive," said Gabrielle dejectedly.
"Do you regret our life together?" asked Xena, bracing herself for the worst possible response.
"No, Xena, I don't."
Xena's heart sighed. "Neither do I. Maybe some day we can be friends again."
"I think we still are friends," said Gabrielle quietly.
Xena smiled and then resumed walking. "Kaliepus has asked that I stay one more day. There will be a feast tomorrow in honor of Greece."
"Do you return to Corinth?"
"Yes. Tess is due soon. I promised Stephen I would stay near just in case Dalius needs help delivering the baby."
"You are the finest healer in Greece. Tess will be happy to have you with her."
"I don't know about that. She cannot forget that Stephen once loved me. Unless there are complications I think it best that I not be a part of the birth."
"Does Stephen know how Tess feels?"
"No, and I don't want him to know. I told Tess to love him and enjoy her time with him. It is foolish to worry about tomorrows."
"When did you tell her that?"
"On their wedding day. When I went to see her before the ceremony. I had no idea she resented me so."
"You never said anything."
"I cannot change her heart. Anyway, it was a day of celebration. I did not want to spoil the pleasure of seeing your most honorable brother wed."
"If I give you a message for Stephen…" said Gabrielle shyly.
"I will see he gets it. I'm sure he will welcome word from you."
They reached the end of the path. They left the forest and crossed the open space to Gabrielle's lodge. Xena paused as Gabrielle walked up to the first step of the porch stairs. The bard turned to her and said, "Thank you for the escort."
"Your welcome. Good night, Gabrielle."
"Xena…" Gabrielle hesitated for a moment. Seeing how Xena cocked her head to the side, a silent inquiry she continued her thought. "I have missed you."
Gabrielle's simple declaration harkened to another life now beyond Xena's reach. She searched Gabrielle's bright emerald eyes, seeing a sincerity that left her at a loss. She heard Jared's challenge in her inner ear. Could she return to Gabrielle, trusting the bard, seeking no further explanations for Turian? Xena's feelings edged to the surface, emotion trumped reason. She felt the limits of love in a way she had never felt before. "I have missed you, too," said Xena evenly, unable to surrender blindly to Gabrielle. After a heavy silence Xena gave Gabrielle a minor bow. "Sleep well." She then turned and walked back into the forest.
Gabrielle had observed a subtle retreat in Xena's demeanor. What optimism Gabrielle would have normally felt in hearing Xena's response was restrained by the warrior's obvious struggle to speak with conviction. Gabrielle entered her lodge and slipped into bed fully clothed.
Gabrielle awoke abruptly a few candlemarks later. Her heart was racing and she was wet with perspiration. Disorientated, she held her head in her hands as she tried to focus her fragmented thoughts. Her nightmare rose up from her subconscious mind. She could hear echoes of two clashing voices: Xena's warm consideration of Stephen's future child and her… "Oh, Gods!" she cried, getting out of bed, wishing to leave behind the memory of her own voice. She paced the lodge. It seemed as if above her the roof wept and to each side of her the walls groaned. Unable to withstand the haunting she rushed out of the lodge and ran into the forest. Her choice of path was deliberate, towards the evidence of a fragile hope that was mercilessly aborted.
Soon after Gabrielle awoke from her nightmare Aphrodite appeared in Xena's quarters. The warrior was, reading by candlelight. She had not expected the Goddess to visit her so soon. "Aphrodite, what brings you?"
Aphrodite paced across the room as she spoke. "When Athena saved Gabrielle's life I told her I rather see Gabrielle die in peace than have the best of her heart crushed. Athena did not listen. All she cared about was saving her precious city. So, Gabrielle lived and I have had to stand witness to the slow death of my Chosen." She paused and turned to Xena. "I was ready to blame you. I knew you had the power to destroy Gabrielle, but I got to give you credit. Your love for her guided every decision you made, no matter how painful. Deep inside you there was no letting go of the vestige of faith you had in her."
The Goddess was without her usual brassiness. In its place there was a troubled heaviness of spirit. Because of it Xena did not discount Aphrodite's concern for Gabrielle, though she did not understand why it was so dire. For the moment she set aside the Goddess's praise. "We both know that if I had lost all faith in Gabrielle I would lose myself in madness."
"Did you know that the Gods can not make mortals act against their will? We can try to influence them, guide them, even manipulate them but at the end what a mortal does is still dependent on who they are. The weak, self-serving and the compassionate are easy to twist and turn to our benefit but not the strong. The strong stand against us and often times act against a God's interest just to spite us. You, Xena, are a powerful woman and I have learned that I must be direct with you."
Xena sensed no hint of the impertinence that she had come to expect from the Gods. Aphrodite's unexpected humility frightened her. "Aphrodite, what do you ask of me?"
"Your bond with Gabrielle is not of the Gods making. However, the impetus of seeking it out and sustaining it is driven by your love for one another. Right now, at this moment, you have a chance to experience your bond. Do what it is you do to have it. Do it now!"
"Why?" asked Xena. She knew to be cautious of her bond with Gabrielle. Though its loss was a great blow to her she had not forgotten that the bond was no longer limited to bringing forth mutual bliss. It was also a conduit for darkness.
"Because you must," said Aphrodite earnestly.
The Goddess impressed Xena though not sufficiently enough to convince her to comply. "How do you know it's possible? Since Athens Gabrielle's essence has been a distant memory to me," said Xena even though she had felt Gabrielle's essence only a few candlemarks before.
"Xena, I have watched over you and Gabrielle these past years. I know that there are at least two ways in which you consummate your bond. One is by mutual desire. The other by an unexpected fusion when one of you has lost control of your emotions."
"That only happened once and Gabrielle took hold of me at the time."
"Try Xena," Aphrodite genuinely petitioned. "That is what I ask of you. Please try."
Xena understood that Aphrodite's request meant that Gabrielle was currently in an emotionally vulnerable state. She answered the Goddess by closing her eyes and traveling inward. Soon she stood at the periphery of her and Gabrielle's meeting place. Across the way was a pulsating light. Its rhythm mimicked a heartbeat. Xena walked toward it. She reached out her hand feeling a sorrow that was not her own. She cupped the light with her palm. Upon touching it a cruel force drove her down to her knees. She cried out in agony, the pain torturous. Her hand jerked away from the light as if burned by a hot coal, yet it remained unmarked. She opened her eyes to Aphrodite. She needed no explanation, no guidance.
She stood and then closed her eyes again. Instead of traveling inward she reached out with her essence seeking her soul mate. Having an immediate unquestionable sense of direction she opened her eyes, grabbed her cloak and left her quarters. The darkness of night and the rain limited her vision. She ran from the village into the forest following the intangible thread that bound her to Gabrielle.
She reached Gabrielle's lodge. Stopping before it Xena sensed it was empty. She felt pulled to the west. She journeyed another quarter-candlemark. A sound distinct from the rainfall caused her to stop. To her right she saw Gabrielle huddled against a tree trunk sobbing. Xena went to Gabrielle, falling to her knees, keeping an arms length between them. She spoke Gabrielle's name with a commanding voice.
"Can't… bear… the … pain," Gabrielle cried, looking blindly into the night.
"Gabrielle, what's hurting you?" Not receiving an answer, Xena visually scanned Gabrielle for physical injuries. She noted how Gabrielle's right hand reached out away from her body. It was then that Xena noticed what seemed to her like a small grave marker only a few hands distance away. "A grave, Gabrielle?"
"My child's," Gabrielle managed to say as her tears quieted.
Xena was stunned by the revelation. The strategic, the logical Conqueror who she was followed a thread of events to arrive at a conclusion. "You miscarried?" she asked, seeking confirmation of her conjecture.
"Yes… nearly a moon ago," said Gabrielle wretchedly.
Xena removed her cloak and laid it over Gabrielle. She was at a lost for words and relied on her actions to speak for her. She assumed the child was also Turian's. She concluded that Gabrielle had wanted the child. The bard's sorrow would not be so great otherwise. Xena remained physically distant. "I'm sorry."
"I was punished," said Gabrielle weakly.
Xena did not think the Gods would interfere as judge, jury or executioner of mortal crimes and transgression separate and apart from their ambitions, which is how she deemed Gabrielle's infidelity. And no matter how Xena belittled the Gods she knew none to be such an unredeemable monster that she or he would hold a child responsible for its parent's actions – that distinction she left for humanity. "No, Gabrielle," she said categorically. "The Gods have no right to stand in judgment of you and even if they do, none would harm an innocent child."
"Why then?" asked Gabrielle as she turned her gaze to Xena. "Why was my child taken from me?"
"I don't know." Xena glanced toward the grave. "Your child was also Turian's. Does he know?" Gabrielle looked down and shook her head. "Will you tell him?" Xena waited patiently hoping for an answer. Receiving none she warned, "Gabrielle, a secret as deep as a lost child will haunt you for the rest of your life."
"Leave me, Xena," said Gabrielle with renewed vigor.
"I am here for a reason."
"What reason!" demanded Gabrielle.
"Because, there is something you need to know." Xena paused to see if Gabrielle would willingly listen. The bard calmed sufficiently for Xena to begin her confession. "When we were last in Megara, Ares came to see me. He warned me that a day of reckoning would come when you would be approached by his sister and asked to pay a debt. He told me that you were healed from your knife wound for just that purposed. I assumed by his sister he meant Aphrodite. I was wrong."
"Athena?" said Gabrielle in understanding.
"Yes. Aphrodite and I spoke to Athena before I left for the hunting trip. I know Athena took you to the Fates. I know that you would have taken your own life and I would have done the same to be with you. Gabrielle, I also know my men would have taken vengeance and wrought a holocaust on the city."
"Our army, Xena. Including my Guard."
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I saw no reason to tell you about Ares' warning. He promised me that when events unfolded I would know Tartarus on earth if I didn't give up my soul to him. I didn't know when or how you would be approached. I believed Aphrodite loved you, so I couldn't imagine that she would hurt you. I believed the price that had to be paid was mine alone. I kept silent because I didn't want you living in fear for me. I was wrong about that, too. If you had known…"
"Nothing would have changed," said Gabrielle in a hush.
"You can't know that."
"But I do," replied Gabrielle more forcefully. "I would have gone back to Kartis. I would have signed the declaration. And, to save their lives I would have convinced Trevor and Sam to stand by me. At the end, the only thing that mattered was that I remain alive until you arrived in the city."
Xena waited for Gabrielle to speak of Turian. Gabrielle's silence once again pressed painfully against Xena's spirit. The warrior's soul was relentlessly tethered to a splintered life. "If I had killed you, it would have been equal to giving my soul to Ares, not that I thought that way at the time. I did know Tartarus on earth because I still loved you."
"Xena, there is no going back," said Gabrielle sorrowfully, the obvious a damning fact.
Though Xena wished differently she agreed, "No, there isn't. But, there is the present and what little future the Fates grant us. You have another choice to make, Gabrielle. You should speak to Turian. There is a life he can offer you, one that you deserve, one that is beyond my means."
"Are you are giving me your blessing to follow Turian?" asked Gabrielle, her confusion evident.
"You are no longer bound to me, but if my approval means anything to you, then yes, I give it without reservation."
"I do not love him."
"Nor do you hate him." Xena echoed Gabrielle's previous declaration. "There can be much that is good between love and hate." Gabrielle glanced down visibly struggling with the moment. Xena recalled a conversation between them in response to Lord Thanos' request for an heir to the throne. "Gabrielle, I once told you that if the day came that having a child was important to you, I would stand by you. That has not changed. There can be a child in your life and from that child can rise not only healing but also great love."
"I don't think there can be a child." Gabrielle matched and held Xena's gentle gaze. "The midwife I apprenticed with taught me that the worst that men do to women can damage them inside and cause them never to conceive or if they do, never to carry a child to birth. I know what I endured. It wasn't a fact I had to face until now."
"That may be true," said Xena, mining her own healing knowledge. "You must have the desire and the courage to try. And if you cannot bear a child remember that like I, Turian was not seeking a child from you. There can be more between two people. Much more. We both know that."
"At a price."
"Nothing so wonderful comes without a price," said Xena genuinely.
Never had Gabrielle been given such a succinct affirmation of her life with Xena and at the same time never had a door to a new life been more open to her. All that Xena said and did affirmed that the warrior assumed their permanent separation. With all the hurt between them, Gabrielle was left to question whether Xena's motives were altruistic toward her or simply a means to ending her own insufferable pain "If I choose to speak to Turian, what then?"
"To stay with him?" Embolden without cause beyond her own heart's desire Gabrielle asked, "Have I the choice to return to Corinth?"
"You are welcomed, if you so choose," said Xena sincerely yet devoid of inviting warmth.
"Xena, how would I return?"
"You would return as has always been the Queen's custom, proudly crossing the city streets mounted upon Spirit."
If Gabrielle hoped for a further mention of love, one that did not reside in the past, she did not receive it. Without such reassurance, her decision would have to be made independently. She stood up and handed Xena her cloak. "I will give you an answer by nightfall tomorrow. Until then I wish to be alone."
Xena took possession of her cloak. "I will let your brothers know not to visit you."
Gabrielle walked toward her lodge, oblivious of the rain.
The following evening a feast was served in the Centaur village courtyard under a clear sky filled with named and unnamed constellations. Xena sat on a blanket beside Solan. Within sight of all the men she uncharacteristically deftly drew him to rest against her. He in turn silently, gratefully slipped into the safe haven Xena offered him. Together they enjoyed the excellent meal of roast boar, tubers, and vegetables accompanied by plates of fine bread, cheeses and fruit. Barrels of mead were tapped to toast the alliance between Centaur and Grecian.
Gabrielle's absence was not openly commented up. From Jared, Xena learned that the Guardsmen were confused by their sister's renewed distance. Respecting Gabrielle's privacy Xena did not offer an explanation for her former partner's actions.
Late in the evening Gabrielle entered the village courtyard carrying her staff. She remained at a distance. Seeing her, Xena excused herself from Solan and weaved her way around the revelers. "Gabrielle."
"I will ride with you to Turian's estate and speak to him," said Gabrielle decidedly.
"Very well." Xena gestured toward the gathering. "Will you join us now?"
"No, thank you. I need to pack."
"Would you like some help?"
"I'm only packing for the trip. Not to move permanently," said Gabrielle willfully.
Feeling her hope for Gabrielle's return slip away Xena exercised her extraordinary self-control. "So, you plan to return and continue to make this your home?"
"I don't know what I'm going to do." Gabrielle met and held Xena's gaze. "There was a time that home was not a place."
Xena understood and chose not to directly respond to Gabrielle's reference to their relationship. "Arrangements can be made if you later choose to leave the Centaurs."
"And no matter what I choose you will see to the arrangements, won't you?" asked Gabrielle, the intention of her edgy tone impossible to ascertain.
"If it is true that we are still friends then allow me to be a friend to you," said Xena cautiously.
Gabrielle failed to hold at bay the harsh impress of disappointment. She had no just reason to advocate for Xena's favor. It had become obvious to her that the hint of warmth between them during the previous evening's storytelling had chilled. "Good night, Xena. I will be ready at daybreak."
"Until then, Gabrielle." Xena watched Gabrielle retreat into the night. She held a vague vision of a gentler place beyond the distance, one in which she was no longer completely alone, once that place was exemplified by Megara. Now, it was an elusive mist in the ether.
PART SIX: THE RETURN
Side-by-side on their mounts Xena and Gabrielle led the men who had once composed the Queen's Royal Guard through central Greece. None but the two women knew their destination. Jared and the balance of Royal Guard had returned directly to Corinth.
On the crest of a hill Xena signaled for the Guard to wait as the women continued forward toward a wealthy Grecian's estate. Sufficiently removed from the others Xena reined Argo to a halt. Gabrielle did the same with Spirit.
Xena turned to Gabrielle. "It's getting late. We'll set camp near the spring we just passed."
Gabrielle's vision remained fixed upon the distant estate that could, if the Fates decreed, become her home. "I will send a messenger if I chose not to return."
"I'll wait for word from you."
"How long do I have?" asked Gabrielle as she shifted her gaze to Xena.
"As long as you need," replied Xena as she continued to conduct herself with reserve.
Gabrielle knew she could ask Xena if she wanted a final separation, if her offer of friendship was driven more by loyalty than any remnant of love, if returning to Corinth was simply an impossible dream. She knew if she asked, Xena would answer her truthfully. She also knew that she did not want to speak to Turian without harboring the possibility of a life with Xena. Gabrielle said nothing more. With a flick of his reins she cantered Spirit down the hill.
She dismounted upon reaching the gates of the estate. From there she walked Spirit. A door from the main building opened and out stepped Turian. He was dressed in a green tunic and sandals. He jogged to her waving a male servant away. He stopped a pace from her. "Gabrielle."
"Have you changed your mind?"
"May we speak privately?"
"Of course. Where are my manners?" He called out to the servant, "Cal, please take care of our guest's stallion."
The servant approached reaching out for Spirit's bridle. The stead reared. Gabrielle calmed him with word and touch. She addressed herself to Cal. "I'm sorry, he doesn't take well to strangers. He'll be fine at the hitching post. If you could bring him some water…"
"I shall see to it," said the servant before running to the stables.
Gabrielle led Spirit to the post, tied his reins and gave him a final soothing touch.
Turian motioned toward his home. "Gabrielle, please come this way."
Gabrielle walked to the manor's entrance. Turian followed closely behind. Before entering he looked out to the hillside. "You rode with the Conqueror?"
"Yes, she offered to escort me here."
The two entered the manor. Its interior was simply yet elegantly furnished. Gabrielle found it quite beautiful.
Turian guided Gabrielle to a chair within a small sitting room. "Would you like some refreshments?" he asked, as he remained standing.
"No, thank you."
"What brings you to me, Gabrielle?"
"I told you one reason I stayed with the Centaurs was because my health was fragile. I did not tell you the reason for my fragileness. Within a moon after arriving at the village I realized I was with child. Your child. I miscarried four moons after leaving Athens."
"A child…" Turian sat down on a large chair across from Gabrielle. "I never thought… in all my years my seed never brought forth life. I came to believe I couldn't." He looked over to Gabrielle. "Did you want the child?"
"Yes." Gabrielle smiled sadly. "I thought after all that was taken from me the Gods had given me a gift in recompense. But it wasn't meant to be."
"I'm sorry I failed you."
"You did not." Gabrielle knelt before Turian, taking his hand. "My womb may be too damaged to nurture a child. I have always wondered why I did not become pregnant by the men who took me against my will. We cannot know the reason for the conception just as we cannot know the reason for the miscarriage."
Turian's eyes brightened. "That may be so. However, we now have evidence that together we might be able to give each other what we cannot have apart." He covered Gabrielle's hands with his own. "Gabrielle, I asked you to be with me before I knew this. I ask again. I promise you love and care and if you so choose I will sacrifice to the Gods every day until we are given a child. I have a good life, but I have never met a woman I have felt in sympathy with as I have felt with you. I know I can love you. I want to love you."
"But, I do not love you," said Gabrielle wanting to do no harm.
"You cannot deny that you have feelings for me."
"I do care for you, yes."
"Gabrielle, I know there are limits to what a man can ask for from life. If only I have the affection you have shown me in the past I will be very happy and grateful."
Gabrielle raised their joined hands and kissed Turian's. She kept her gaze lowered. She could love him, but her love would be of a different nature than her love for Xena. To say yes to him, to send a messenger to Xena meant sealing all access to a part of her heart that she gave to her Lord years before.
She raised her gaze. "I don't want to hurt you. I came here because the Conqueror insisted I keep no secrets from you."
"She was right to send you to me."
Gabrielle considered the gentle man. Her choice between Turian and Xena was not one among equals. Turian assured companionship with the hope that with time her affection for him would grow to love. Xena's offer of friendship was burdened by the memory of a magnificent love lost. To choose Xena was to risk the painful destruction of what gentle feelings they still shared.
"In the beginning of our relationship the Conqueror did not speak of love. Whenever we faced a crossroad she withheld the words and in their place she acted selflessly toward me. She sent me away when she feared our association would cost me my life. Later she bore a wound from Aphrodite, surrendered Greece to me, and welcomed death instead of having me know that a fateful decision she had made indirectly caused my slavery. When I lost my memory she consented, as you have, to live with less than the love she knew I was capable of giving her. In Athens she safeguarded my life and later in Corinth she set aside her honor and granted me freedom.
"I think she brought me to you because she wanted me to know that you could love me in spite of the loss of our child. I want to believe that she brought me to you as an act of love, not of abandonment. I need to believe that she waits for my return."
"And if she isn't waiting? If you are wrong Gabrielle, what then?"
"Turian, if you care for me you will wish me right."
"Because she is your happiness?"
Turian leaned back. "Then may you be right. May the Conqueror be waiting for you on the hillside with open arms."
"Don't be," said Turian sincerely. "Will you accept my hospitality and stay and dine with me?"
"Good." Turian stood and then guided Gabrielle to her feet. "Let us share a pleasant evening before the Fates touch us again."
* * *
On their mounts with Turian's estate before them Xena met and held Gabrielle's gaze. Gabrielle's eyes reflected volumes of emotion to her former partner. Xena was sure Gabrielle had left much unspoken - as she had. It was only after Turian led Gabrielle inside his home that Xena directed her men to set camp. Afterward she walked back to the hilltop and sat down against a tree keeping watch for any sign of Gabrielle or a messenger.
It was late in the evening when Xena saw movement in Turian's courtyard in the form of light from two torches. She stood up and walked to the hillcrest. Spirit with his distinctive white coat was visible among a number of indecipherable shadows. After a few moments one shadow mounted the stallion. Horse with rider trotted away from the estate and up the hill.
* * *
Gabrielle saw a figure ahead. She reined Spirit to a walk. Xena of Amphipolis in the guise of the Conqueror waited standing tall, her hands held behind her back. Gabrielle knew this deep feeling woman's most common response to hurt was anger, often self-directed for allowing any vulnerability to external forces. At other times Xena's anger was directed against the Gods and Fates who seemingly had the ability to arbitrarily control events in her life. How many times, Gabrielle thought to herself, had Xena held her current stance in wait for her? How many times had they faltered and found themselves at a loss with one another. In the past they had been able to breach what threatened to be an insurmountable silence through touch or more profoundly through their intangible connection. In such ways healing had come and their relationship deepened. This time Gabrielle could not avail herself of either touch or their illusive bond. She had to return to their beginning, when well chosen words between a slave and her mistress established a subtle, nuanced conversation that revealed far more than either could openly express without compromising their respective roles in destiny's dance.
Gabrielle brought Spirit to a halt. They remained a few paces from the warrior. "You waited for me," said Gabrielle choosing her words carefully, bringing forth the best of the past to the present.
"Yes," said Xena hoarsely.
"Xena, I want to go home… to Corinth."
Xena closed her eyes for a moment and by that gesture Gabrielle's kernel of faith that they might have a future together was firmly planted. Xena glanced toward camp. "Our tent is ready."
Again, well-chosen words spoke volumes. Gabrielle dismounted and walked to her partner. "I will be Queen of Greece and I will do everything in my power to heal the wounds I caused the realm by my actions in Athens."
"Your actions have been explained," said Xena quietly. "The people of Greece are indebted to you. If an apology is to be spoken it is to you, not from you."
"I hope we will never be less than friends to one another."
"So be it," said Xena sounding very much like the Sovereign issuing a decree.
"Xena, of your bed…" Gabrielle dared to broach the intimate subject.
"Gabrielle, though we shall sleep under one tent we shall lay in separate beds."
For the two days they had traveled to Turian's estate, they had slept in separate tents. Gabrielle understood their shared quarters was a symbolic gesture elevating Gabrielle once again to the stature of Queen. There was more Gabrielle wished to say but it was obvious that Xena was not prepared to discuss the subject further. An uncomfortable silence fell between them.
Xena gestured toward camp. "Come, I'll walk with you. I'm sure your brothers have been as concerned about you as I have been."
Gabrielle restrained all desire to reach out to Xena. "Thank you for caring."
"That I care for you will never change. Come now. It's getting late."
Once Xena would have offered her hand to Gabrielle or Gabrielle would have deftly taken Xena's hand into her own. But such times were now in the past as the two women walked side-by-side, together yet apart.
After sharing a few brief words with their men, Gabrielle entered the Royal tent. Xena lingered calling Alem to her. Standing at a distance from the others, Xena asked the Guardsman, "Alem, do you still consider yourself a member of the Queen's Guard?"
"I do, my Liege."
"Then go see to the Queen's security."
"The Queen, my Liege?"
"By my invitation, the Queen has chosen to return to Corinth."
"That is good news," said the Guardsman not hiding a smile. After a heartbeat he asked soberly, "But, what of Sam? Have you changed his detail?"
"I presume things are not well between brother and sister."
"Not well at all, my Liege."
I will not interfere and force them together."
"Someone must intercede."
"Let it be the brotherhood. Gabrielle of Poteidaia, a mere indentured servant was given an honor by the Royal Guard. It is for the Guard to decide whether the honor is still hers. The Honor of the Medallion has nothing to do with the Queen. Do you understand me, Alem?"
"Aye, I do, my Liege. I will speak to the others. I tell you from what I have seen only Sam doubts her."
"Don't be too hard on him. We do not know what passed between them."
"But, I do. Trevor has shared the story. Sam was hard with our sister. I think the truth may have hurt him more than the lie. He cannot rest knowing that she sacrificed herself and would do so again were the situation the same."
"He faults her for the very reason he loves her."
"She never gave up so much willingly."
"You're wrong, Alem. She has given up far more for me. Still, Athens is not a reason for your sister to lose Sam."
"Is there anything I or her brothers can do?"
"Love her." Xena placed a hand on the Guardsman's shoulder. "Make sure she knows that the Honor of the Medallion is still hers."
Xena sought out Trevor. He confirmed that Samuel did not welcome any mention of Gabrielle. As a result she gave Trevor leave to offer Samuel as well as all the men previously assigned to the Queen's Guard the choice of remaining or leaving the direct responsibility of Gabrielle's care.
Gabrielle unpacked a sleep shirt from her saddlebag. The interior of the large tent was arranged as it always had been except their generous bed of furs was split and laid apart. She longed for Xena's touch. She remembered how she had held Xena in their bed the night before she left Corinth for Athens. Had she known then what they would face apart she would have acted to bring forth their bond, creating a moment of bliss they could have held dear in their hearts even as their lives were torn asunder. Gabrielle knew that it was unreasonable to expect that Xena would set aside her infidelity. To do so publicly was not equal to doing so privately. Gabrielle's thoughts were interrupted when Xena entered the tent.
Xena noted which bed of furs Gabrielle was nearest to and took the other, sitting down and removing her boots. "Gabrielle, I've taken the liberty of asking Alem to serve as your personal guard. If you prefer another man please let Trevor know."
"Did Sam ask to be reassigned?"
"He wouldn't. But, I think the change will be in keeping with his current temperament. Do you disagree?"
"No, you're right. I don't think he wants to be part of my Guard. He may not be the only one."
"Gabrielle, Trevor's love for you resonates among the men. Your brothers are by your side. You're wrong to think otherwise."
Gabrielle closed the buckles on her saddlebag. "How many days until we reach Corinth?"
"Three if we travel long days, four if we take an easier pace. Do you have a preference?"
"Then you should try to get some sleep. We will start early."
"Xena, how do I… I'm not sure how to be with the men and when we arrive in Corinth there is the household and Court."
"I am sending messengers at daybreak. By the time we arrive in Corinth pronouncements will have been issued throughout Greece and to all our allies of your rightful return to the throne. Your return is in keeping with your exoneration. Athens shall not burden you unless you choose to carry it around your neck like a milestone."
"You make my return seem so easy."
"Politically it is. Personally, I expect you will experience difficult moments, even with those who were not quick to fault you. You are Queen of Greece and made a terrible sacrifice to save the people of Athens. Corinthians, all Grecians will have Athens to point to as proof of your love for the people. In you they will see the nobility of a leader who understood her obligation to put duty before her own safety."
"That won't be the whole truth and you and my men know it."
"It is the truth that matters to those who look to you as their Queen. The other truth is private and there it will remain."
"But that's unfair to you."
"Let me be the judge of that."
Gabrielle felt her interior fabric tearing. Her life would have been far easier if she remained isolated with the Centaurs or if she had taken residence in Turian's estate. In making her decision she had considered only her private life. Returning to Corinth and a public life suddenly felt far more daunting than her first introduction to Court. She was left to wonder how blindly she had acted. She looked to the woman who was the reason for her return realizing that she did not have a complete understanding of their terms of engagement. "Xena, in public affairs I am Queen. What do you expect of me privately?"
"We have spoken of friendship. I expect no more from you."
"Is that all that we are to be to each other when we have had so much more?"
"I don't know what is possible between us," said Xena honestly. "I look at you and I am at a lost. That is my truth, Gabrielle."
"Xena, promise me that if the day comes when you feel less lost, when you have even a hint of what you wish for yourself that you won't hesitate to tell me. I will not keep you from your happiness." Gabrielle did not speak optimistically. She was prepared to be sent away or subjected to the lesser indignity of being discreetly replaced in Xena's intimate life.
"I have grown accustomed to sleeping alone. After Athens my battle lust had no hold on me. I felt no fever. Such desire has left me and not returned."
Gabrielle had no expectation regarding Xena's conduct after their separation. She would not have been surprised or critical had Xena taken others to her bed. That Gabrielle's betrayal had stilled a sexual tempest was a stunning revelation.
Gabrielle had no rival and none loomed on the horizon. What comfort she took from that knowledge was insufficient to offset the lonely voice left by Xena's withdrawal. Gabrielle feared she would never again know the warrior's intimate touch. "I still ask the promise," she said.
"You have it."
"I want you to know that you have my promise of fidelity. By my word, never again…"
"Gabrielle, enough said." Xena briskly interrupted, her agitation radiating from her still, tense carriage.
Gabrielle looked down in shame. She turned and lay upon her bed, covering herself with a fur. She heard Xena extinguish the candles within the tent. Lying in the pitch black of night Xena said in a far gentler voice, "Sleep well, Gabrielle."
"Good night, Xena." Gabrielle said barely having the composure to speak. She turned to her side, holding herself close as she cried silent tears.
The following morning Xena awoke early. She sat up in her bed and spent time watching Gabrielle sleep. Having the bard beside her had brought her joy in the past. The distance that now separated them made for a bittersweet indulgence, one Xena was still grateful to take advantage of. The moment subsumed the memory of listening to Gabrielle's muffled crying as their evening drew to a close.
Xena dressed and went to the mess area for breakfast, securing a mug of tea and a serving of bread and cheese. Entering the tent she stood for a moment taking in Gabrielle's presence, a return she never thought possible, a return that caused her a constant undercurrent of pain in light of all the uncertainty that marked their lives together.
She knelt on one knee and placed the mug and plate down. She called Gabrielle's name as she had always done when waking the bard, patient and intent on making only the gentlest incursion on the bard's dreams. Gabrielle stirred and opened her eyes. "Good morning," said Xena. "I brought you breakfast."
Gabrielle raised herself up on an elbow and glanced at the offering. "Thank you."
"Gabrielle, it is true that I am lost. It is also true that I rather be lost with you than without you here with me."
"If there is anything I can do…"
"I will let you know as best as I can. Now, you better get dressed. There is little time to waste if we are to reach Corinth in three days." With that said Xena stood and began to pack.
The moment shared harkened to their beginning when much that was said and done was understated, when Gabrielle had to measure the Conqueror's intent more by deed than by word, a time when Gabrielle had to trust the Conqueror's heart to be true, absent of a clear and present declaration of love.
The Royals traveled the following two days with their mounts side-by-side. Few words were exchanged by the women even though their sense of comfort with one another had improved.
The Queen's Guard followed directly behind them. To Xena's relief and not her surprise, only Samuel expressed a desire to accept a new detail.
It was mid-morning and the contingent had made excellent progress on their journey back to Corinth. Gabrielle looked ahead on the familiar road. An impossible thought came to her. Despite the improbability of a positive reception she turned to her Lord and asked, "Xena, isn't the crossroad to Megara around the bend?"
"It is," said Xena having a similar recognition of their location.
"Could we…" Gabrielle's courage faltered.
Xena did not need to see more than the momentary animation in her partner to deduce her unspoken request. "Gabrielle, I've been gone from Corinth far too long. Given the announcement of your return to the throne I think it best if you make an appearance in the city and in Court. I ask just for a fortnight of your time in Corinth and then you can take your Guard to Megara."
Gabrielle's mood sobered when Xena gave no indication of joining her at their seaside home. "Do you have much to keep you in Corinth?"
"I am of no mind to travel again anytime soon. And yes, I expect Targon has plenty of business for me to review and act upon. We will need to brief you on current events."
"What of Rome?"
"Caesar will not rest until he has me as entertainment for the Roman forum or back on a cross. Our spies say the Roman Senate is growing impatient with his more audacious aspirations. Let Roman politics keep him at bay. It will do the world good."
"Was Brutus ever found in Greece?"
"No. He has been seen in the Senate and to my knowledge has never publicly admitted to a mission to Athens. I'm sure Caesar does not want to admit that he failed to recruit a viable traitor in Kartis."
"He would do better to keep peace with Greece. I don't understand why he doesn't just stop his scheming."
"Because it's personal, Gabrielle. He knows that I can never trust him again so, he in turn, cannot trust me."
The consequence of a betrayal, Gabrielle thought. She quieted knowing how Xena's history with Caesar bode badly for their reconciliation. Though Gabrielle's betrayal was not for conquest, her infidelity marked her as a woman who breached a sacred trust.
The Royals entered Corinth as Xena had described, together on their respective mounts of the Conqueror's golden warhorse and the Queen's breathtakingly white stallion, followed by the Royal Guardsmen.
Xena was attentive to Gabrielle who held herself stiffly, her eyes fixed forward. The city residents reacted in a number of different ways upon seeing the Queen. Some stood silent; others called out to family and friends to leave their dwellings. Many men bowed and women curtseyed respectfully, a few boldly raised their voices in greeting.
Gabrielle seemed no more comfortable as they reached the palace gates where the familiar Xanthus stood lead guard. "My Liege." The Guardsman greeted his Sovereign before he turned to Gabrielle and warmly said, "Your Majesty. Welcome home."
Xena waited a moment to see if Gabrielle would respond to the Guardsman. She did not. Xena filled the silence by asking Xanthus how things were in the palace.
"Tis been quiet except your hound hasn't stopped whining and searching for you," said the Guardsman as he smiled. "Voger will be happy to have an end to it."
"How are Stephen and Tess?"
"Tess is showing the baby more each day and Stephen's smile only grows wider."
"That's good news. Thank you."
Xena signaled forward and directed Argo into the palace courtyard. Gabrielle continued silently by her side.
Targon waited at the center of the courtyard. Xena smiled. In the brief distance between Xanthus and Targon she realized she was happy to be home. She dismounted with a surge of kenetic energy and then turned, as always had been her practice, to guide Gabrielle down from Spirit.
Gabrielle looked confusingly to Xena's outstretched hands before dismounting into her partner's embrace. "Thank you," she said quietly.
"You're welcome," said Xena easily. She faced her Administrator. "Targon! How are you?"
"Well, your Majesty. Thank you. I bid you both welcome home," he said glancing congenially toward Gabrielle.
"I'm sure you have a bit of work waiting for me."
"Nothing I consider urgent."
From the stables Xena heard barking. Voger approached with an impatient Honor demanding release from his leash. "Voger! Let him go!" commanded Xena.
The groom immediately complied. Xena knelt on one knee in wait. The hound ran to his mistress finding himself happily in her embrace. Xena relished the hound's physical affection.
Honor looked over Xena's shoulder and barked twice. Xena turned and matched his gaze upon Gabrielle. She said gently into his ear, "Yes boy. She's come back." The hound whined. "Go on," said Xena encouragingly.
Honor scampered over to Gabrielle. She extended her hand shyly. The hound would have no sedate welcome. He leaped up setting his front paws on her chest. Gabrielle went down onto her knees, taking the hound with her and then began to pet him with the rigor he demanded. Gabrielle smiled, seemingly losing herself in the moment.
Xena returned to her feet and watched with satisfaction. "He is still an overgrown pup."
"Yes, he is," said Gabrielle affectionately.
"My Queen, if you excuse me. I need to start addressing the business of Greece."
"Will I see you for dinner?" asked Gabrielle uncertainly.
"I will give Makia instructions for both of us." Xena offered Gabrielle what she knew was an incomplete answer. Now back in the palace she longed for time alone, time to make sense of her conflicting emotions. She felt an undeniable tenderness toward her partner. And yet, the wounds of Athens were deep and far from healed.
Watching Xena walk into the palace, Gabrielle continued to pet Honor, taking comfort from his unconditional love.
"I never thought I would be jealous of that hound." Gabrielle heard her dearest brother's familiar voice. She looked up and saw a beaming Stephen. "Welcome home, Gabrielle," said the Major opening his arms to her.
Gabrielle did not hesitate. She released Honor, stood and embraced Stephen. "I've missed you," she said.
"Did you? Were your other brothers negligent in your care?" said Stephen teasingly.
"No, they have been wonderful."
"How did you find Trevor and Sam?"
Gabrielle pulled away to better see Stephen. "Trevor has been steadfast in his belief in me. Sam…" Gabrielle's voice faltered.
"But not so Sam." Stephen completed the painful statement.
Gabrielle re-entered Stephen's embrace. He held her securely and said with a brother's tender affection, "You are where you belong."
"I don't know that I am," said Gabrielle, her confidence waning.
"I noticed your Lord was in bright spirits."
"Only as we arrived in the city, otherwise she has been distant and sober."
"You and I both know how deeply Xena feels. Give her time. Having you here in Corinth will help."
"I wanted to stop at Megara. She gave me leave to go in a fortnight." Gabrielle released the Major. "Stephen, she did not offer to join me. Corinth will not heal us. Only Megara can."
"Gabrielle, Megara is just another name for your heart. That is where the best of Xena lives."
"No more, Stephen."
"You are wrong to doubt her."
"No, you are wrong to underestimate how deeply my betrayal has hurt her. Don't let your love for us both blind you to the truth."
"I do not want to argue with you." Stephen cupped Gabrielle's cheek. "Hear me, my sister. You cannot give up hope."
Gabrielle smiled. "How can I when I'm to become an aunt?"
"Xena told you!" said Stephen outraged.
"Which Guardsman gave you my news. I'll give him muck duty for six months."
"Don't be angry. The men were wagering on whether you would have a boy or a girl." A gleam entered Gabrielle's eyes. "Xena wagered you would have a daughter."
"Did she? Did others take the wager?"
"Your brothers seem to think Tess will bear a boy with his father's brave heart."
"I say your Lord is far wiser than all the Guardsmen in Greece combined."
"So, you say your child will be a girl."
"I don't know. I will love girl or boy alike." Stephen grinned widely. "Though to have a little girl… it would be sweet."
"Time will tell."
"Yes! Moons and moons to wait. How terrible it is to make a man wait for his progeny."
"The moons will give you and Tess time to adjust."
"Speaks the wise mid-wife."
"Stephen, Tess needs you more now than ever. Never let her doubt your love for her."
"Gabrielle, she is my life. She knows that."
"Pregnancy makes women think odd thoughts. You will be patient with her, won't you?"
"I will. And, if you think I am disappointing her, I give you leave to boot me across the courtyard until I gather my senses again."
"Don't think I won't."
Stephen laughed. "Come I will walk with you."
Gabrielle and Stephen, each carrying a saddlebag entered the Royal suite.
"Here is fine." Gabrielle referred to the saddlebag, pointing to a nearby chair. She sensed something had changed and remarked accordingly.
"Xena moved to the far east wing after she returned from Athens," said Stephen.
The following morning Gabrielle received a note from Xena requesting that she attend Court. Dressed in a modest pale green dress, Gabrielle waited on the balcony for the allotted time. A knock on the door announced her escort, which she presumed to be a contingent from the Queen's Guard.
Xena entered and greeted Gabrielle warmly, "Good morning."
"Good morning, my Lord," said Gabrielle, the endearment spoken without forethought.
Xena paused thoughtfully and then raised her arms. The blouse she wore was a favorite requiring assistance to tie the cuffs around the warrior's wrists. "Would you?"
Gabrielle smiled and went to her partner. Having the left cuff nearly tied, she said, "I remember the first time I did this for you."
"Your first Solstice Eve as Queen," recalled Xena.
"Yes." Gabrielle began the task of tying the right cuff. "You fought for my life. As ill as I was you wouldn't let me give up."
"I was selfish."
Gabrielle glanced up. "You always speak of your generosity as selfishness."
"Gabrielle, when I awoke this morning the first thought that came to my mind was that I would see you today. I felt happy knowing that it was true and not just a dream that would not survive the light of day."
"Gabrielle, let us have a good day. Such a day waits our claim. I will do my best to make it so. I ask the same of you."
Gabrielle refocused on Xena's second cuff, making the tie snug. "You are ready for Court, my Lord."
"Are you?" said Xena
"Very well, my Queen," said the Sovereign, offering Gabrielle her hand.
Together they exited the Royal Suite. Waiting for them were the Guardsmen, Trevor, Tavis, Sentas and Alem, and Honor who excitedly darted from one mistress to the other.
Xena bent down to the hound and sternly called him "runt." He immediately sobered and waited in place. Without a further word Xena escorted Gabrielle through the palace. Honor walked quietly by Xena's side, his nails clicking on the stone floor. The sound blended with that of the Guardsmen's boot steps.
Gabrielle felt there had been a change; the tone of living had suddenly grown quite serious. Approaching Court she wondered whether she and Xena would have a good day.
Brogan and Hamish stood at the Court Hall entrance. Their presence was unusual. Lower ranked Guardsmen were commonly assigned the post. In perfect synchronicity they opened the large wooden doors. Gabrielle braced herself. She could never have anticipated what awaited her. Guardsmen formed in two lines a path from the hall entrance to the Royal thrones. The formation was rare, used only for the most prestigious state events. Trevor called out. The men unsheathed their swords, raised and crossed them.
"My Lord," whispered Gabrielle as she turned to Xena.
"In your honor, Gabrielle," said Xena quietly.
"I don't deserve this." Gabrielle's considered her acceptance of the public honor morally untenable, yet did not know how to extract herself from the moment.
"Do not confuse me with Greece. Greece awaits its Queen." Xena glanced forward. "Do not keep the realm waiting any longer."
"As you wish, my Lord." Gabrielle continued forward in Xena's company, never more confused of her standing in the Conqueror's life.
The Court session was remarkable for the unexceptional dialogue that took place between the Sovereign and the Generals and Lords who reported on matters of state. Gabrielle accepted salutations modestly. She was heartened to see that all the Generals of Greece had traveled from their respective garrisons for the occasion of her return.
With the last issue on Targon's agenda addressed, Xena stood up and announced that all were invited to a banquet in the Great Hall later in the evening. She then offered her hand to Gabrielle. Accepting silently, Gabrielle walked beside her Lord, presenting a harmonious image that could not have been further from the truth.
Gabrielle spied Lord Judais, paused and called him by name. The elder Lord approached. She extended her hand which he took gently in his own. "Your Majesty," said Judias as he offered a minor bow.
Wordlessly Gabrielle went up on her toes and kissed him on the cheek. "It is a pleasure to see you again."
"The pleasure is mine, your Majesty."
"Would you and your family be free to dine at our table tonight?"
"It would be an honor. I know my grandchild will enjoy seeing you again especially if you grant her a story."
"You can tell her that she will have two if she likes."
"That is fine."
Judais looked over to Xena. "Your Majesty, it is good to have you back in Corinth."
Xena smiled wryly. "There is only so much scampering about the countryside I can do Judais. Sooner or later, Targon expects me back to conduct business."
The Lord mirrored Xena's smile. "We can never completely escape our responsibilities, can we?"
"No. No matter where we go we carry the burden of our destiny. Until tonight, Judais."
"I look forward to it, you Majesty."
Xena offered her arm to Gabrielle. The Queen placed her hand upon it, allowing Xena to escort her out of the chamber. They exited the Court Hall and walked toward the Royal Suite. Gabrielle glanced toward Xena and said, "I hope you don't mind my inviting Judais for dinner."
"I think I understand why you did."
"Did he save my life?"
"No, but he did save me from having to fabricate a reason to spare you. It was obvious that no one in Court wanted you crucified. Banishment was enough."
Xena paused. "Gabrielle, may I ask a favor of you?"
"Anything," said Gabrielle welcoming any opportunity to return Xena's generosity.
"No more apologies. I do not want to live in the past. Though I can and have forgiven you, I am powerless to absolve you of whatever guilt or regret you feel. Only you can cleanse your soul. Do not place the burden at my feet again."
Not knowing how to respond Gabrielle bit her lip and began to walk again. Upon reaching the Royal Suite, Joél who stood guard, opened the door for them.
Xena paused and lowered her arm, separating herself from Gabrielle. "I shall return to escort you to dinner."
Gabrielle thought of releasing Xena from what seemed more duty than pleasure. To have declined Xena's escort was however, to reject her hospitality. "Until tonight, my Lord," she said before entering the lonely suite.
Gabrielle thought herself right to think of Xena's actions in light of Grecian hospitality. All care was given to ensure Gabrielle's physical well being. Words spoken were limited to only the necessary. There was no intrusion upon her privacy. There were no explicit expectations placed upon her except one. Xena had stated her terms. There would be no reference to Gabrielle's betrayal.
That they kept separate quarters within the palace contrary to past practice was a constant reminder of their wounded union. There would be no effort to veil their personal difficulties by one of them keeping residence in Gabrielle's former room accessible to their suite through the hidden causeway.
Standing in front of the fireplace beside Xena's empty chair, Gabrielle would have welcomed her old quarters. It was devoid of artifacts that referenced Xena or their shared life. Gabrielle placed her hand on the back of Xena's chair. Countless times as slave, freewoman, and Queen, Gabrielle had observed the warrior sitting in the chair in deep contemplation. Each time Gabrielle felt there was a part of Xena beyond her reach. Only in their mystical union had Gabrielle come to breach Xena's domain of silence. There her heart was touched by Xena's love. There too her heart trembled in the face of Xena's darkness.
The absence of Xena's rage more than the absence of her love perplexed Gabrielle. She understood why Xena's fragile wounded soul sought to protect itself from further harm. She did not understand why Xena's honor and pride had yet to demand its right to be avenged.
The next day Makia entered the Conqueror's suite, carrying her Sovereign's breakfast tray. "Good morning, your Majesty."
Xena welcomed her attentive cook with a smile. She placed the scroll she was reading aside and leaned back in her chair. "Good morning, Makia. What treat have you brought me today?"
The cook smiled wryly. "I don't know what you mean, your Majesty. My kitchen has only its usual fare."
"Then my memory must be waning because I don't recall having such a display of tarts on my breakfast tray as I had yesterday."
"You lost weight during your travels. I am only doing my job of encouraging you to remain fit."
Xena laughed. "Very well. Who am I to argue with your years of experience? Makia, how have you found our Queen?"
Makia's easy manner was subsumed by a sober mien. "I have not seen the Queen, your Majesty."
Surprised, Xena asked, "Who is serving her?"
"Stephanie, your Majesty." Makia averted her eyes from Xena's piercing gaze by looking down to the floor.
"Makia, all in the household staff look to you. Targon may be the Administrator but how his directions are received and carried out reflects your commitment to the realm – to me and to your Queen. I know that your choice to serve me has been an implicit affirmation of my actions and in turn your choice not to serve the Queen is an equally implicit criticism or worst condemnation of her."
"I have only two hands and limited time to carry out my duties, you Majesty. The Queen has not complained."
"No, she wouldn't." Xena stood up. "Our Queen… our Gabrielle nobly carries a great burden under a cloak of silence. Because I respect her privacy I will not share with you what I know. I will tell you that I see in her the yearning for comfort she would have once reached out to her mother for. That is how deep her wound travels. As much as I love her I cannot help her. You can. She needs you, Makia."
"I did not want to offend you, your Majesty." The cook was obviously at a loss.
"By choosing between us?" Xena was not convinced. "Why do you think I welcomed Gabrielle back into my life? Do you still see me so immune to hurt when it comes to affairs of the heart that political expediency or some other callous motivation moved me?"
Makia stepped forward. "She broke your heart and I am honestly confused by her return to Corinth," she said candidly.
"Then go to Gabrielle, Makia. Talk to her. More importantly listen to her."
"Your Majesty, are you saying that Gabrielle did nothing for which she must be forgiven?"
Xena took a moment to consider her answer. Her response was spoken with uncommon frankness. "She transgressed against me and only me and I have forgiven her. No one beyond our union has a right to judge her."
The Guardsman's self-distancing from Gabrielle was common knowledge. To date Xena had neither condoned nor criticized Samuel. Though she did not discount his feelings she judged Trevor's behavior commendable while Samuel's unfortunate though not completely unjustified. "Yes."
"If you excuse me, your Majesty, I have work in the kitchen waiting my attention."
"Good day, Makia." The cook picked up her serving tray and walked to the door. Xena called to her, causing the cook to pause and return her attention to her Sovereign. Xena stood feet planted, her hands behind her back, the image of the staunch ruler that she was. "In all our years together I have never told you…" Xena swallowed as she felt her throat constrict with emotion. "I love you, Makia. Know that you mean a great deal to me."
Makia was taken completely unawares. Speechless, she bowed to Xena and left the room.
Xena saw and understood the impact her profession had upon her beloved cook. She walked to her breakfast serving and smiled seeing the generous portion of cranberry sweetbread left for her.
The cook walked blindly down the palace corridor, her heart aching. Never did she imagine that the Conqueror would express her love so openly. The Conqueror's request that she go to Gabrielle was more staggering still. Makia wiped her tear welled eyes with the sleeve of her dress as she continued toward the Royal suite.
Gabrielle sat by the fireplace sipping a mug of tea. She heard a knock on the door. Alem stepped into the suite and announced Makia. Gabrielle stood, holding her tea mug with her two hands. Makia entered. Gabrielle sighed silently at the sight of the cook. She had debated going to the kitchens in search of her just as she had debated going to the infirmary seeking out Dalius. In both cases she reframed from acting, fearing rejection.
"Good morning, your Majesty," said Makia. "I came to ensure your satisfaction with Stephanie's service."
"She serves me well. Thank you for asking," said Gabrielle softly.
"You haven't touched your breakfast," observed Makia. "Have you lost your taste for my cooking?"
"I was hoping I wouldn't be eating alone."
"The Conqueror had her meal served in her suite."
"I see," said Gabrielle failing to hide her disappointment. "How do you find my Lord?"
"She is concerned about your well-being."
"You may report to her that I am well."
"How can I when I am sworn never to deceive the Conqueror," asked the cook with characteristic aplomb.
Taken by surprised, Gabrielle asked, "What do you know, Makia?"
"I spoke to a few of your Guardsmen. They told me what they knew about Athens and the time the Conqueror spent on Centaur lands. They said the Conqueror spared Turian's life and that on your journey back to Corinth you stopped at his estate. They were puzzled…"
"There was something I failed to tell Turian when we spoke at the Centaur village."
"It must have been important."
"Did the Conqueror know?"
"She insisted. She thought it best for me."
"Was she right?"
Makia's endearment pierced Gabrielle's defenses. Tears broke free and fell down her cheek. "It is hard to live knowing that I miscarried."
"Turian's child?" said Makia in a dumbfounded whisper. "Why, Gabrielle? Why were you with him?"
"I believed I lost my Lord… I didn't want to die alone, without any sense of love or warmth in my life."
"Couldn't you have explained yourself to the Conqueror?"
"Makia, I betrayed her so publicly. I proclaimed her a monster to be hunted and cut-down… I couldn't live with her hating me."
"But you were wrong. She spared you."
"She says she loves me, but she keeps her distance. I am still alone."
Makia stepped to an arm's length from Gabrielle. "You were with Turian willingly and for a time you carried his child. That bonds you to him in a way the Conqueror will never share with you. The Conqueror may be giving you the time you need to mourn your child. Although she has never had a child, I think she still has the sensibilities of a woman and can appreciate your natural grief."
Gabrielle turned away. Makia was wrong. Xena knew the heartbreak of losing a child, if not to death at least to a life she could never share.
Gabrielle felt Makia's hand on her shoulder.
"Gabrielle, must I remind you that the Conqueror has always waited for you to go to her. She waits for you to invite her back into your life."
"You are wrong, Makia. I am no longer welcomed in her intimate life."
"You told me the Conqueror has never felt she deserved you. Still, when you were the healer for the Eastern Garrison she presented herself to you resulting in your return to Corinth and your ascension to the throne. Her love gave her the courage to risk your rejection. You must be as brave as she."
"I tell you I can't."
Makia stepped to Gabrielle's side. "Maybe not today, but the day will come."
Gabrielle reached out for the cook. Makia took her hand willingly. "Makia, I have missed you so…" said Gabrielle through her tears.
The cook needed to hear nothing more. She embraced Gabrielle who cried freely in her arms.
Five days passed. With Stephen's and Makia's encouragement, Gabrielle gradually returned to her palace routine, reacquainting herself with the garrison infirmary and the city hospice and visiting the kitchens where work continued uninterrupted in her presence, as a casual atmosphere prevailed.
Each morning after breakfast Xena and Targon met with Gabrielle in the Royal Suite to address concerns of the realm. Otherwise, the Royals had no other prescribed interaction. When their paths crossed within the palace, their exchanges were cordial. At all times Xena remained circumspect.
Driven by loneliness, Gabrielle walked across the palace courtyard to the stables. There Voger stood outside the main corral watching Xena work with a colt. The colt was as black as Spirit was white. Were it not for Xena's love for Argo, Gabrielle could see her partner claiming the colt as her own once he reached maturity. She paused beside the groom.
"Damn it to Hades," muttered Xena in frustration as the colt darted away from her halter holding hand.
"He's a bit skittish," observed Gabrielle.
"The Conqueror has tried for nearly a candlemark to get that halter on the colt. He won't have anything to do with it."
Gabrielle returned her attention to Xena. The image of her Lord sharing the corral with the lively colt recalled the days that preceded her departure to Athens. Though much had happened since then – this particular moment felt very familiar and reassuring. "Have you tried?" she asked.
"By the Gods I have. He treats me worse than the Conqueror." Voger grinned. "Now, maybe if someone closer to his size." The groom called out to Xena. "Your Majesty, maybe our Queen will have more success. She can look that little hellion eye to eye."
Xena turned to the two observers. She crossed her arms. "Why not? The Queen tamed me."
Xena's easy response was unexpected. Delighted, Gabrielle called out, "I'll be right back." She then disappeared into the stables. After a few moments she returned with a bunch of carrots in her hand. She kept two and gave the rest to Voger. Then she climbed over the fence.
"So you will seduce him," Xena said amused.
Xena's comment caught Gabrielle by surprise. She hesitated as she felt a surge of remorse. Her worst fear, that Xena harbored an undercurrent of unexpressed resentment stymied her.
"Your Majesty, isn't the Queen simply using a technique you've used on many colts and fillies," said Voger good-heartedly.
Xena looked over Gabrielle's shoulder and called back to the groom, "Voger, you are no help to me."
"I beg your pardon, your Majesty. It is not as if a wager has been placed in the Queen's favor."
"You sure about that?"
"Who would I wager with, your Majesty? I stand here alone."
"I think you will take pleasure in seeing the Queen succeed where I have failed."
"Your Majesty that is not true, although I admit my want for the Queen's success is selfish. I will be relieved to get that colt under control."
Xena laughed. "You have become an expert in appeasing me, Voger. Don't think I don't know it." She plainly offered Gabrielle the halter. "The challenge is yours, my Queen."
Having had an opportunity to recompose herself Gabrielle accepted the halter. "Thank you, my Lord. I shall not disappoint you."
She stepped toward the center of the corral as Xena and Voger perched themselves on top of the fence to watch.
Gabrielle stood her ground patiently waiting for the colt to calm his errant pacing. She stashed one carrot in the pocket of her pantaloon. The second she held in her left hand. She wove her hand through the halter so that it hung on her wrist. She extended her hand slightly and once again took a waiting posture.
The colt kept his gaze upon the young woman. A quarter-candlemark passed with neither moving. Finally, the colt stomped his front hoof to the ground. Gabrielle did nothing. The colt repeated the gesture once, twice, a third time in what Gabrielle took to be a youth's protest of her impertinence, a demand to be recognized.
"He's hers," she heard Xena whisper to Voger. And as if to prove the Conqueror right, the colt took a full step forward. Gabrielle remained statuesque. Finally, the colt whinnied and bolted forward, stopping boldly in front of Gabrielle still body. Bobbing his head up and down, he then leaned his forehead against her chest, pushing her back a half-step. Gabrielle could not help but laugh gently.
"You are so bad," she said melodiously.
The colt shifted his gaze to the carrot and proceeded to take a bite.
"That's right. You like it don't you?" Gabrielle moved her right hand slowly to his cheek. She stroked him lightly. He raised his head to her. Voger was right to say they would be eye to eye. At that moment for Gabrielle there was only the colt and she believed that for the colt there was only her.
Another quarter-candlemark of deliberate, choreographed gestures and the offering and acceptance of the second carrot resulted in Gabrielle placing the halter upon the colt. Having succeeded, her smile wide, she turned to Xena and Voger.
"Well done, your Majesty," congratulated the groom.
Xena slapped him across the shoulder. "As if there was any doubt." She glanced up to the noon day sun. "Gabrielle, we're ready to have our meal in the Guardsmen mess. Will you join us?"
Gabrielle could not have asked for a better reward. "I'd love to."
"Good." Xena jumped down from the fence and turned to Voger. "You coming or will those carrots be your meal?"
"Let the colt have the carrots. I'll take Makia's cooking."
"Smart man." Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder as her partner came to her side. "Come, I'm famished."
The three-some walked through the courtyard, side-by-side in carefree companionship.
The next two days Gabrielle spent the latter part of her mornings with Xena and Voger working with the young horses. Gabrielle took responsibility for Coal, the black colt whom she named. Having a shared task seemed to help both her and Xena be comfortably together. They were not focused on one another. The colts and fillies were both sources of frustration and admiration as they were carefully won over to their training.
Each midday meal that followed the work sessions were shared in the Guardsmen mess. There too, the Royals were not left to themselves but entered a circle of boisterous brothers who kept the conversation full of amusing stories and more than one offer for an inconsequential wager.
Gabrielle's evening continued to be spent alone. Near midnight, unable to sleep she walked the flight of stairs to the turret. The sky was clear, the stars were never brighter. She closed her eyes breathing in the crisp cool night air and sighed. "It is a beautiful night." Gabrielle heard Xena's tender words and for a moment imagined them a dream. She opened her eyes and turned. Xena stepped forward from the shadows.
"I did not…" Gabrielle arrested her thought. She did not sense Xena. That fact broke her heart. "It is a beautiful night," she echoed.
Xena stood beside her and looked out to Corinth. "The city is quiet. There is reason to hope that Greece will sustain its peace."
"You have done well to make it so."
"I don't know about that. Sometimes it seems the good comes more from luck than effort. Still, I have to try."
"You will have your reward, Xena."
"I deserve no rewards, Gabrielle. Maybe Hades will grant me a small niche in Tarturus that won't be too terrible."
Gabrielle wondered privately if that too was the best she could hope for. Like Xena, believing she did not deserve the best of the afterlife, she had come to consider her mortal life her only means of knowing the happiness that Elysia once promised. Given Athens and all the moons that followed, having Elysia on earth again seemed improbable. And yet, the means to Elysia on earth stood within her reach.
Gabrielle believed she and Xena needed to travel to the one place that had the power to heal the worst wounds inflicted by the Fates. She dared to name it. "Xena, a fortnight has passed. Have you any objection to my traveling to Megara?"
"Megara?" repeated Xena pensively, glancing at Gabrielle before returning her gaze to the night. "Your homecoming has been a success. A respite in Megara should cause no concern."
"Then you give me leave to travel?"
Xena addressed Gabrielle directly. "Gabrielle, it is not for me to grant you permission. I asked a favor of you to bypass Megara and I am grateful that you chose to do so. What anxiety existed within the city has been calmed. At this moment, there is nothing more for you to do. The weather is good. You should enjoy a pleasant retreat."
Gabrielle looked down unable to keep her gaze upon her lost love. Her unhappiness did not go unnoticed. "What is it, Gabrielle?" asked Xena. Receiving no answer, Xena pleaded gently, "Please tell me. If there is something I can do…"
"I wish you would be my Lord again," said Gabrielle painfully.
"Haven't I?" asked Xena defensively. "I've invited you back to Corinth, seen to your acceptance by your Guard and by Court, given you your privacy and respected your freedom. When you first came to think of me as your Lord what more did I do for you that I do not do for you now?"
Embarrassed by her neediness, Gabrielle stepped away. "I'm sorry; it was unfair of me…"
"What more, Gabrielle?" demanded Xena.
"You loved me."
"I do love you," said Xena unequivocally.
Despite the words of love Gabrielle felt an unnavigable distance between them. The moment was terribly different yet reminiscent of their early days together when Xena made all effort to demonstrate her love through tender touch while withholding any spoken profession of the depth of her feeling. Now, Gabrielle was given the profession without physical affection.
Incapable of arguing for what had value only if freely given, Gabrielle conceded, "We are changed."
Xena studied her and then bowed her head. "Yes, we are."
To Gabrielle's eyes, her crestfallen partner was, as always, a woman of integrity. Xena would not pretend to be more or less than who she was. "I'm tired. I'm going to bed," said Gabrielle. Not long ago she would have reached out and taken Xena's hand. She would have asked Xena to lie beside her and hold her until she drifted to sleep. And if her sleep was peaceful it was because of the constant protective embrace Xena afforded her.
Xena raised her gaze and silently observed Gabrielle's departure.
Xena entered the palace courtyard surprise by what she did not see. There was no activity among the Queen's Guard to prepare for a journey. She sought and found Trevor, who was standing talking to two other men near the stables.
Trevor heeded her call and went to her. "Yes, my Liege."
"Trevor, why are you not readying for Megara?"
"I've received no such orders, my Liege."
"Where is the Queen?"
"She rode Spirit to the river."
Xena turned her gaze toward the concealed passage used to reach the open land that surrounded Corinth. "Some things will never change."
"My Liege, may I add that my sister was in a quiet mood."
Xena stood in thought for a moment. "Tell Makia to pack a picnic for two and bring it to me here. I'll be saddling Argo."
"Yes, my Liege."
Mounted on Argo, Xena approached the site where she and Gabrielle were accustomed to having a respite away from Corinth. As expected she saw Spirit grazing peacefully and Gabrielle leaning against the oak tree that provided shade from the sun. She dismounted and untied a saddlebag and wineskin. She encouraged Argo to join Spirit then walked to Gabrielle. As she approached she saw Gabrielle shade her eyes with her hands.
She felt a tinge of melancholy. Knowing that it was not her own, it was one of the few unsought sensing of their connection that she had had since Gabrielle's betrayal. She both welcomed it and was confused by it. Not showing its effect she greeted Gabrielle. "I hope you don't mind. I brought lunch, hoping you would share it with me."
"I'd like that."
"Good." Xena glanced toward the river. The sun glistened off the water. "I haven't been here in some time."
"It's peaceful," said Gabrielle wistfully.
Xena sat down beside her. "I think it is what we make it or at least it offers the possibility of what we hope to have."
"What do you hope for?"
"The peace you spoke of. The beauty I see. Feeling I belong in a place like this." Xena felt again Gabrielle's essence. Melancholy was still very much a part of her partner. "And what do you hope for, Gabrielle?"
"Not to be alone."
Xena cupped Gabrielle's cheek with her hand. Their connection coursed through their touch and for a brief moment Xena closed her eyes. She was tempted to call forth their bond more strongly, yet feared what she would feel; what of her own feelings would be revealed. She opened her eyes and lowered her hand.
Gabrielle had her eyes closed, apparently having shared the sense of connection. Xena saw how Gabrielle's expression changed from concentration to disorientation. Gabrielle opened her eyes. Xena found Gabrielle's questioning gaze difficult and looked away toward the river.
For Gabrielle the sense of their bond had been unexpected and had given her the gentlest moment of bliss she had known in what seemed a lifetime. Its brevity and unexpected break left a void experienced as physical pain that she understood could only find relief through Xena.
She had respected Xena's set boundaries, never challenging the distance Xena insisted upon since Athens. But Gabrielle's pain was large and she believed it was a pain Xena felt equally. She reached out and placed her hand over Xena's wanting to give and admittedly to receive comfort through touch.
Uncertain, Gabrielle hesitated in addressing her partner. Forgoing calling Xena by name or more intimately – her Lord – she mined her heart and spoke the truth Xena always demanded from her. "I have missed you… I know that to have our bond you must trust me unconditionally and that by my actions I have forfeited your trust." Gabrielle faltered, as Xena remained unmoved. She gathered her courage and continued. "Xena, I give thanks every day for you… I realize I'm being selfish. I just need to be sure that you know that I want you to be my Lord in every way. I know what is possible between us…" Every word Gabrielle spoke damned her; every reference to their loss was her undoing. She was her own prosecutor. She fell silent, as Xena gave no indication of having heard her.
Upon feeling Gabrielle's touch Xena focused on the sensation, so light and so profoundly powerful, it cut through her defenses. The moment recalled a time when they were newly discovering one another, learning what would and would not be accepted by the other. She listened to Gabrielle weighing each word and the accompanying emotion that carried in the bard's voice. Having silence once again, she held Gabrielle's hand more firmly as she closed her eyes and concentrated all that she was in traveling inward.
Gabrielle felt Xena's hand respond and found comfort and further courage in Xena's touch. She felt her partner's essence and closed her eyes seeking it in the intimate plane that was reserved only for the two of them. She found herself walking through a familiar corridor, though it was darker than she remembered it. The distance walked was far. Ahead, to her relief, she saw a torch suspended in the air. She was drawn to it. From a few paces away she could see Xena sitting in an alcove. Her hands wrapped around a raised knee, her gaze directed toward a window frame hanging independently in the ether.
Gabrielle was able to see what Xena saw.
The place was the Conqueror's suite. Gabrielle, a few years in the past sat on a chair near the fireplace, a scroll rested on her lap, her eyes focused on nothing in particular.
Xena entered, immediately garnering Gabrielle's attention. "Hello," said the Sovereign easily. She was in an obvious good-humor. "How was your day?"
"Good," said Gabrielle with little animation.
Xena went to Gabrielle and kissed her gently on the lips before sprawling herself in her chair. "If I recall correctly, Targon gave you lessons today."
"You do not sound very enthusiastic. I'm surprised. I've always thought Targon a capable instructor."
"He is," said Gabrielle unconvincingly.
Xena sat up in her chair and leaned forward. "The truth, Gabrielle."
"It's not Targon. It's just that there is so much I have to learn."
"You will be Queen of Greece. You must learn geography, expand your language skills and come to understand foreign customs…"
"And protocols for every possible occasion."
Xena chuckled. "Yes, and that too." She reached out and took Gabrielle's hand. She sobered as she said,"I know you rather be a bard and a healer. I'm taking you away from what you value most."
"That's not true, Xena. It's just that our joining is in six days and I know I won't be ready."
"Do you think I learned to be a proper Sovereign overnight? Ask Targon how many lessons in protocol he taught me. Poor man thought I would cut off his head; I was so impatient with him. Gabrielle, I have not forgotten my early days. I wager you will learn faster than I did and soon prove yourself a formidable presence among people of all walks of life."
"Xena, a Queen… I am not the type of person people will accept easily on the throne."
"How many times will we have this discussion?"said Xena with a hint of impatience.
"I'm sorry. I wish there was a talisman that could simply transform me to a Queen."
"But there is." Xena stood up and went to the fireplace mantle. She opened a small wooden box. "I wasn't going to show you this until our joining day, but it may be better if you take measure of it now." Xena knelt on one knee beside Gabrielle. "May I have your hand?" Gabrielle complied. Xena turned Gabrielle's open palm up then placed a ring upon it. "I wear the signet that marks me as the Conqueror and the Sovereign of Greece. As my equal you shall wear the same signet. By accepting this ring you not only accept the duty and rights of Queen you also grant me the honor of being your consort and champion. If ever I lose your sympathy, you need only to remove your ring and I will know your intentions toward me have changed."
"Xena, that will never happen."
"Gabrielle, you are young, nearly a decade younger than I am. Your heart is true and that is one reason I love you. I could never forgive myself if I kept you in a loveless union."
"You speak of divorce even before our joining. Why?"
"Because we have already been divorced once. Granted, it was my misguided doing. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? You must understand that you always have a choice. Each day you wear the ring you renew your vow to me as I renew my vow to you. We both know that sometimes speaking the truth is painful. That is why we have symbols to speak for us. The medallion was the Guardsmen way of speaking of love – something many of them do clumsily. This ring is your key to me. Wear it and I know my heart is safe. Remove it from your hand and I will understand you have reservations towards me and that I must be careful with you."
"There is much to this ring."
"Yes, there is. I admit after our joining it will be my wish to never see it from your hand."
The memory faded. In succession Gabrielle relived two further memories related to her ring. First, when Gabrielle, as sole ruler of Greece, came to Scupli to visit Xena. During their first night of lovemaking in Xena's homestead…
Xena paused as she removed Gabrielle's blouse. Xena's eyes beheld the necklace Gabrielle wore. Hung on a silver chain about her neck were the Conqueror's medallion and Gabrielle's joining ring. Xena took the ring in her hand. For a moment they both stilled. Xena closed her hand into a fist and leaned forward to kiss Gabrielle. Met willingly, Xena released the ring and their lovemaking continued.
That memory was replaced with Xena and Gabrielle in Crivello when Gabrielle's identity was revealed because she wore her medallion and her ring.
Gabrielle knelt to the villager Gustan who upon recognizing her had fallen to his knees in deference. She whispered, "Please, no one kneels to me. I am a simple woman living an extraordinary life."
The young man raised his eyes to those of his compassionate Queen. "We didn't know."
Gabrielle looked up for a moment, first to Callan, a village leader and then to her partner. "My Lord and I had hoped to spend a few quiet days before my Guard arrived. It seems we were wrong to think we wouldn't be known here."
"Your medallion and ring are hard not to see."
Gabrielle stood up and offered her hand to the villager as she said sheepishly, "Wearing them is second nature to me. I forgot they could betray my identity."
The past faded to the present. Darkness fell on the other side of the window. Xena turned her gaze toward Gabrielle. In the silence, through the power of their bond Gabrielle came to understand what she had to do. "Xena, please don't ask that of me." Xena looked back to the window in wait. Gabrielle began to feel their bond severing. She knew to have any hope of maintaining their connection she could not withhold the truth from Xena. Her memories were projected for Xena to observe, the first her meeting with the Fates…
"Tell her." Athena demanded of the Atropos.
Atropos stared at the Goddess, obviously not one to be dictated to. She then gentled her expression as she said to Gabrielle, "Kartis will kill you unless…"
"Unless what?" asked Gabrielle as she glanced between the Fate and the Goddess.
The crone's pity was evident. "Unless he believes that you have chosen him over the Conqueror or you seduce a champion among the Athenians to stop him."
This was followed by her confrontation with Kartis as she said to him…
"I know just as you do that by forcing my seemingly voluntary public declaration of an alliance that I can never return to Corinth. The Conqueror will cut me down without a second thought."
"You could plead your case with the Conqueror. She is said to love you, or was I right that you are a carnal convenience to her."
"You do not know the Conqueror as I do. She values her honor above all else."
Gabrielle's memory leaped forward. She explained herself to Turian…
"I knew before I returned to the palace that I was forfeiting my life. Still, it's hard…"
"Why did you come back?"
"For the greater good..."
Followed by the moment when in her suite…
Gabrielle looked back to Turian. She gazed down to her left hand and felt her loss of Xena's love, knowing nothing that Turian offered her could be as wondrous. She removed her ring, placing it in the pocket of her dress, then silently returned to him.
Turian looked up to her. "Gabrielle, what is it?"
She reached out her hand to him. He took it and after a moment stood up. She leaned forward and gently kissed him. The kiss ended.
"You don't have to do this," said Turian.
Turian kissed Gabrielle. He brought her closer to him with a firm yet tender embrace. Turian released her raising his hand to her cheek. "I swear I will be good to you." As a tear fell down her cheek Gabrielle renewed their kiss.
At daybreak Gabrielle and Turian lay in bed. ..
"I don't want to hurt you," said Gabrielle.
"You won't. Tell me. What is your heart's desire?"
"I want no harm to come to the Conqueror. I want her to beat back Kartis and stop Rome from entering Greece."
Later in Turian's rooms, Turian observed…
"Gabrielle, I notice you no longer wear your ring."
"I am not worthy of it."
"You are being too harsh with yourself."
"You do not understand the meaning of the ring."
"So your naked hand is not a sign that your heart has changed."
"The Conqueror's Queen's heart has always been constant. It is that she died the moment I removed the ring."
"Then who are you that stand before me?
"If we survive this battle of wits and swords I want to be with you. I want to take you to a safe place…"
"Turian, I will not leave Athens alive."
"Have you lost hope?"
"The moment I decided to return to the palace I knew my fate. The question of my death has only been on what day and by whose hands. You have saved me from Kartis. You cannot save me from the Conqueror."
"Do you want to be saved from the Conqueror's wrath?"
"What I want no longer matters. I made my decision and I shall see it through to the end."
Within their intimate plane, head bowed, tears fell down Gabrielle's cheek. Xena stood beside her and untied a small rust color leather pouch Gabrielle had always worn since Xena banished her from Athens. Xena opened the pouch and removed Gabrielle's ring. She offered the ring to Gabrielle.
Back in the common world Gabrielle opened her eyes breaking their connection. Matching Xena's attentive gaze she felt her unrelenting shame. She tried to release her hand from Xena's hold, but Xena was constant. "Please let me go," she pleaded, jerking her hand free.
"Are you not mine?" asked Xena.
"I didn't want you to see me with…"
"Turian? I saw nothing I haven't already imagined. The truth is what I imagined was far more painful." Xena glanced down to Gabrielle's belt. There she saw the same rust colored leather pouch she saw within their intimate plane. "It was you who removed your ring from your hand. It is not for me to return it to its place."
"How can I? Xena, I can't. Not after what I've done."
"Then it is you who keeps me away."
"Please, don't say that."
"Gabrielle, Atropos told you that to stop Kartis you would need to seduce a champion among the Athenians."
"Xena, I betrayed you." Gabrielle experienced a moment of astringent lucidity, of seeing her heart and soul cleansed of layer upon layer of justification. It was a terrible clarity in which she found herself no longer able to deny the root cause of her greatest offense. Her truth was felt as an acute unrelenting ache in her heart. "You now know the truth. I didn't have to be with Turian to save Athens." She reached out her hand; her courage failing her she let it fall near Xena's, unable to touch the warrior. "I've been able to endure my life because of your love. In Athens… I believed I had lost you. I believed I would meet death by your sword. Honor before love. That has always been your rule. I knew what I had done to you. I hated myself for choosing Athens over you. You were with me every moment. Every breath I took hurt because by simply living I continued to condemn you. I had nothing to sustain me. I wanted… I needed someone to tell me I wasn't terrible. That in spite of what I had done there would still be love for me. What Turian gave me was just enough to keep me alive. Still, I can't pretend… it's wrong for me to let you believe that I didn't have a choice. I did."
"Gabrielle, you must forgive yourself!"
"You haven't forgiven your past!"
"Do you compare Cirra where countless lives were lost to seeking comfort from Turian when you believed you sacrificed all love in your life for a noble cause, doing so for reasons that no one other than Athena and the Fates understood?"
Xena took a kerchief from her pocket and gently wiped Gabrielle's tears. "It seems, my bard, that you lied to me. More terrible you lied to yourself. In Athens you fulfilled your duty and that is quite a different thing than following your heart. I have seen now you placed your heart far from those intent on hurting you." Xena cupped Gabrielle's cheek with her hand. "Yes, you broke your vow. I forgive you. Do you hear me? You are forgiven for all your transgressions. All of them, Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle, what more is there to say?"
"I lost my faith in you?"
"Honor above all including love. I have never said otherwise. You were right to believe I would avenge my honor because until the moment I stood in front of you with my sword in hand I believed that in the defense of my honor I was capable of anything. Anything, Gabrielle. But, once again you have proven me wrong. My love for you is impervious to my darkness. It is powerful enough to withstand the unimaginable. That was a lesson we both learned in Athens. And though I would have preferred not to have been given the lesson, I am grateful to know that I hold one untouchable, pure element in my soul, and I am more grateful still to know that element is inseparable from you."
Gabrielle took a step back separating herself from Xena's touch. "Xena, try as hard as you might you cannot make me right. Nothing can make me right and whole again." She stood and walked away, whistling to Spirit who answered her call.
Xena followed Gabrielle, taking her by the arm. "Is this then our fate? An arrested love imprisoned by inconsolable guilt? Don't you want to return to me?"
"Damn you! I want you more than life itself. I cannot see my way to you."
"You and your brothers are renewing your love. It takes time. It takes patience. We are no different. Gabrielle. I do not pretend I have made my peace with you. I can only say I am closer to it than I was while we were at the Centaur village. Each day I spend with you my pain eases and my heart opens. Gabrielle, I cannot come back to you without your help. I surely cannot come back to you if you shut me out or push me away."
"Xena, I'm not blind to your hurt."
"Nor am I to yours. There is more than hurt in life. Have we not shared more than one smile since returning to Corinth?"
"There are more awaiting us. They will come unbided."
"I don't know what I'm to do. How do we begin?"
"We have begun. For now, come back to the river and share Makia's food with me. Let me be your bard. I have some fine stories of your brothers' escapades while you were gone." Xena released Gabrielle's arm and offered the younger woman her hand. "Please, Gabrielle…" Gabrielle took Xena's hand and allowed the warrior to guide her back to the tree. There, Xena fulfilled her promise telling lighthearted stories of the Guardsmen and sharing a fine meal.
Makia entered the Conqueror's suite. Seeing the Conqueror reading at her desk and Gabrielle lying asleep on a nearby chase lounge she quietly set the meal and then approached the Conqueror's desk. "Your Majesty, I brought enough for both you and the Queen," she said in a hush.
"The household continues to be expert in knowing the comings and goings of their mistresses."
"I went to the Queen's suite and found it empty."
"Yes, I reassigned Stephanie to other duties and have taken up the task of serving the Queen."
"I am glad to hear it."
Makia looked over Xena's shoulder to where Gabrielle slept. "Will she find peace?"
"It is hard to forgive oneself."
"You do understand her."
"Who better? There are things I've done that I will never forget or forgive myself for. With Gabrielle's love I have learned to live with them and still know happiness. I can only wish the same for her."
"Having your love, there is reason to hopeful."
"Thank you, Makia."
"Is there anything else I can do for you or our Queen?"
"Not right now. Good night, Makia."
"Good night, your Majesty."
Xena waited until Makia left before turning her attention to Gabrielle. Xena had coaxed the emotionally exhausted Gabrielle to sleep, promising not to leave her partner alone. She knew she could do no more for Gabrielle than she had done on this day. She had shattered the secrets between them and offered her forgiveness. It was now for Gabrielle to come to terms with her guilt.
Xena sat on the side of the lounge and gently called Gabrielle to wakefulness. Upon seeing Gabrielle open her eyes, she smiled and greeted her. "Hello. Makia brought us dinner."
"Hi." Gabrielle raised her hand to Xena's cheek.
Xena took possession of Gabrielle's hand and placed a kiss upon its palm. "Come, before it gets cold."
Gabrielle was grateful for what little touch Xena gave her, asking for no more. During their meal Xena continued her storytelling, keeping Gabrielle engaged with news from across the realm. The evening was a pleasant one for both women.
Xena ascended the rampart stairs in twos reaching the top still keeping to a steady breath. Surrounded by the darkness of night she walked upon the wooden planks toward a Guardsman's torch not far in the distance. There stood Samuel. Reaching him she paused and leaned against the rampart wall. After a glance to his Sovereign Samuel returned his gaze to his occupation of watch. Xena had the northeastern perimeter of Corinth in her sight. She had yet to be able to look, without pain in the direction of Athens. She breached the silence. "When your sister left me in Ithome to find herself, I assigned you to the night watch because I thought it would be better for you. I knew you missed her and did not need any reminder of her absence." Xena shifted her gaze to the Guardsman. "I spoke to Trevor. He told me that even before my offer for reassignment was made you requested the night watch and recommended Alem as your sister's personal guard."
"Alem likes the detail."
"One you once reserved for yourself." Xena waited for a response. She was disappointed to receive none. "Sam, I will not tell you to love her. A human heart cannot be dictated to. I have tried not to interfere. I know Gabrielle doubts her worthiness of being your sister. Nothing I can say will convince her otherwise. Tell me, Sam. What did she do that is beyond your forgiveness?"
"She betrayed Greece."
"I have explained that she returned to Kartis convinced that not to would have had grave consequences to the people of Athens."
"Her betrayal went further."
"Because she left you without a word?"
"Because she let Kartis use you to convince the Athenians that the Royal Guard stood by her?"
"I gave my consent."
"Not happily, I've been told. What then, Sam?"
"What she did to you."
"Turian?" said Xena hating to discuss what she deemed a private affair. "It is hard for me to accept the fact that Gabrielle was so sure I would kill her that she took comfort where she could find it. She was not only certain she had lost me she was also sure she lost her brothers' love. Sam, she was alone in the world and found in Turian a refuge from Tartarus on earth."
The Guardsman remained silent. Xena turned and looked back to the palace. "In those palace walls and outside of them, too, I've been indiscriminate and calculating in the use of my body. I whored myself as I lusted for power and conquest. My motivations were corrupt. Gabrielle's reason for being with Turian was as imperfect as it was human, a consequence of her vulnerability and tender heart. Why can you serve me, I who am far more flawed, and not your sister?"
"I've had only one sister and she died young."
"Tell me, if your sister had lived and disappointed you as Gabrielle has, would you have turned your back on her too? Does anyone who fails to live up to your moral standard lose their place in your heart?" Xena observed Samuel steel himself. "You have disappointed me, Sam. You have abandoned Gabrielle just when she needs you most."
"Do you have new orders for me, my Liege?" asked the defiant Guardsman.
"I have instructed Trevor that within reason to honor any request for a change in your assignment. You and Trevor unjustly suffered because you honored Gabrielle and stood by her. Knowing the truth of all that took place in Athens I feel I owe you both an apology and a debt. I am sorry for stripping you of your honor. If you are in want of anything please don't hesitate to ask. I promise I will give your petitions fair consideration."
Samuel turned to Xena. "My Liege, may I ask you a question?"
"What is it Sam?" said Xena, hopeful that the Guardsman might still bend from his rigid anger.
"Why didn't you kill Gabrielle?"
Xena did not have to think twice in answering. "So I could have this day."
"But, you didn't know the truth when you spared her."
"There is a truth that I have come to know through Gabrielle that is beyond understanding and that I cannot live without. It is a truth that has bored itself into my heart and will not abandon me no matter how grave my life becomes. You might think it love but you would be wrong. It is goodness. Gabrielle is my hope that there is more to life than hatred and violence … that redemption is possible. Good night, Sam."
Xena left the Guardsman to his own thoughts.
As days passed Xena and Gabrielle slowly grew to spend more time together. Gabrielle's assistance with the colts and fillies was now expected. In addition to mid-day meals, evening meals were often shared. They rode together outside the city limits every handful of days. Xena visited Gabrielle at the city hospice from time to time. By word they were growing more intimate. Still, to Gabrielle's heartbreak they rarely touched.
It was late in the afternoon. Gabrielle, finished with assisting in the infirmary, decided to seek out Xena. She walked across the courtyard. To her left, toward the armory, she heard an escalating chaotic cacophony of barks and growls. Concerned, she ran quickly toward the uproar. Turning a corner she stopped abruptly, terrified.
Honor and his brother and sister hounds had surrounded Xena who lay on her back weaponless. The hounds alternatively lunged toward the seemingly wounded warrior who did little to fight back her attackers. Gabrielle grabbed a staff among many stacked against the armory and ran forward. She raised the staff ready to strike a death blow on one and all of the hounds.
"No, your Majesty!" Voger cried out.
Gabrielle had not initially seen the groom. He sprinted from the side of the armory in an attempt to intercept her. Bewildered, Gabrielle halted all motion.
Xena sat up. She took hold of the nearest hound and turned him around, playfully slapping him on the rump. The rest of the hounds halted their now obvious play and alternatively looked from their human playmate to Gabrielle. Xena shifted her attention to her partner. "Gabrielle they're just harmless pups," she said laughing. "Did you think Voger thought so little of me he would stand aside as I was being ripped apart?"
Breathless and angry, Gabrielle slammed the staff down and walked away. Xena jumped to her feet. She followed Gabrielle, reaching out and placing a hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "Gabrielle…"
Gabrielle swung around fiercely. "For your life I'd give anything! Anything!" She pushed Xena back vehemently.
Xena recovered her balance and took Gabrielle by the wrists, forcefully stilling her, and said tersely, "And what shall you give for our life together? Will we ever know again whimsy and joy?" Not waiting for an answer she thrust Gabrielle's arms down and walked away.
Gabrielle stood stunned. "Xena…" she whispered helplessly.
Gabrielle realized that in the nearly two moons since her return merriment was not part of their private lives. Only in the company of others did laughter rise up and rule the moment; so different than the beginning of their relationship when Gabrielle, through her stories, took Xena away from the harsh realities of ruling the realm; so different than when they were at their best, when whimsy and joy would own them both, as they bantered and played with one another.
Two days passed without the Royals meeting. The separation was Xena's choice as she renewed her reclusive tendencies.
Jared and Xena walked through the palace grounds. Laughter caught both their attentions. "The lass is telling tales outside the Guardsmen's mess," explained Jared.
"Jared, did you choose this path by chance or design?" asked Xena suspiciously.
"Maybe we can find a hitching post to lean against and listen to Gabrielle's storytelling," said Jared. The General seemed to sense Xena's uncertainty. "Why shy, Xena?"
"Why indeed, Jared," she replied. They walked to the gathering. Gabrielle sat on the mess stairs surrounded by men who sat and stood wherever space allowed. Xena stayed in the back of the gathering, leaning against a porch post. Jared remained at her side.
After a while Gabrielle looked in their direction. Upon seeing them her speech was momentarily arrested. She quickly recovered and continued her story. Completing the tale Gabrielle chose for her next story a minor comedy to lighten the heart of her most dear listener. It was the first story Gabrielle had ever told Xena. Recognizing the story and the time it spoke to Xena looked down as she attempted to rein in her waning composure. She felt Jared's hand on her arm and raised her gaze to her concerned friend. "It's all right, old man. Just a good memory."
"Not one that deserves tears then?" said the General, raising his hand to her cheek and arresting a falling tear.
Xena surprised Jared by embracing him and kissing him on the cheek. "There is reason to hope, Jared."
"I'm glad. Now, my Liege, I beg you let me hear the story," said Jared lightly.
Xena smiled and released him. "A request I grant happily."
Gabrielle observed much of the exchange between Xena and Jared. When her story ended Xena slapped Jared on the back and walked away alone. Jared's bright smile told Gabrielle all she needed to know.
Tavis and Senta entered the infirmary, each holding a staff. Seeing the Guardsmen, Dalius asked, "What can I do for you men?"
"Nothing healer," said Sentas. "We are here to petition our sister to join us for staff practice."
Dalius called out to Gabrielle who had just finished changing an injured soldier's bandage. "Your Majesty, it seem as if these capable Guardsmen are in need of a challenge only your can provide."
Sentas turned his staff like a windmill. "Join us, Gabrielle."
"Stop that!" chided Dalius. "This is not a play area for your amusement. You could hurt someone."
"At least they wouldn't be in want of a healer," said Sentas.
"Gabrielle, I'm tired of listening to my braggart brother," said Tavis. "Will you do me the honor of trashing him? Not only I, but my fellow brothers, and I think Dalius as well, will thank you."
Amused, Gabrielle approached the men. "Sentas, have you forgotten the virtue of humility?"
"Gabrielle, would you expect me to allow a brother to beat me to appease his wounded ego? There is no honor in that."
"No, there isn't. We are bound to fight our best fight."
"Right you are." Sentas turned to his best friend. "Did you hear that, Tavis?"
"I did," said Tavis. "And am glad for it because it means my sister will show you no mercy."
Gabrielle addressed Dalius, "Can you spare me for a candlemark?"
"Of course. And if you have no objection, I would like to join you."
"Ha!" said Tavis." "Sentas, I was right. Dalius wants to see you whipped."
Dalius bowed humbly to Gabrielle. "I volunteer only as a precaution that I might give assistance were there an inadvertent injury."
Gabrielle chose not to point out to the healer that he had never previously demonstrated a similar concern for the staff sparring Guardsmen. "Very well."
"Come my brother!" said Tavis to Sentas. "Let us not tarry. I have waited too long for this day."
The Guardsmen led the others out of the infirmary.
"Dalius, you do not need to fear for my welfare," said Gabrielle discreetly.
Dalius smiled. "It is not you who I fear will be injured."
Gabrielle chuckled. "How terrible has Sentas been?"
"Insufferable. The only one other than you that can humble him is the Conqueror and I have not seen her spar with staff for some time."
Xena, Stephen and Jared were meeting in Xena's suite discussing the latest dispatch from their spies in Rome when Trevor knocked on the door and entered. "My Liege, I beg your pardon. I thought you would want to know that Sentas has placed a challenge before the Queen. The weapons staffs.
Jared laughed. "The fool. Has he forgotten how many times the lass has taken him down?"
"He has practiced some new moves," said Stephen. "My Liege, I would welcome the opportunity to observe and learn."
"Ho!" said Xena. "Here we are reviewing our covert plans against Rome and you would set our work aside to see what we all know will be your sister's triumph over Sentas."
"I shamelessly confess that right now witnessing the sparring match does means more to me than the security of Greece."
Xena shifted her gaze from Stephen to Trevor and lastly to Jared. Each man wore an uncensored grin. "Well, at least we are all in agreement. Let's go!"
The foursome walked across the palace courtyard to where a contingent of Guardsmen formed a circle. Xena paused next to Alem. "How goes it, soldier?"
"The Queen and Sentas are just warming up, my Liege."
"Are there wagers?"
"None. No one will bet against our sister."
"Pitty," said Xena as she placed her hand on Alem's shoulder and smiled.
A loud crack of staffs marked the beginning of the contest. All eyes turned to the center of the circle. To Xena there was little suspense. Gabrielle's agility and strength, coupled with her uncanny ability to anticipate Sentas offensive strokes gave her a clear advantage. A quick low sweep by Gabrielle against the back of Sentas' legs fell him. Gabrielle jumped forward placing a booted foot against his chest and her staff against his throat. She demanded his surrender. Sentas yielded by slapping the ground twice. The Guardsmen roared in approval as Gabrielle offered Sentas her hand. He took it and jumped to his feet.
More than one taunting jibe was spoken against Sentas. "I don't see any of you stepping forward," he called out.
"That's because we're not as stupid as you," said Brogan. "We all know only our Liege can match Gabrielle."
"Then let our Liege take the challenge." Sentas offered his staff to Xena.
Xena's stern gaze spoke volumes. The Guardsman had overstepped his bounds. Understanding his breach of decorum Sentas pulled back the staff close to his body. "My Liege, I'm…"
"Give me the staff, Sentas," said Xena stridently, reaching out her hand.
"Yes, my Liege." Sentas stepped forward and place the staff within Xena's reach. She seized it out of his hand and stepped into the circle.
"My Queen," said Xena with a minor bow. "Will you tolerate a second match?"
"I am in need of the exercise," said Gabrielle. Occupied accepting congratulations from a number of the Guardsmen she had not noticed the exchange been Xena and Sentas.
"Obviously, Sentas gave you little."
Xena's comment at Sentas' expense was greeted with low snickers and broad smiles.
Xena raised her staff. Gabrielle did the same. They tapped their crossed staffs lightly marking the beginning of the match. They began somewhat tentatively. They had not sparred for seven moons and though they knew each other well, they took their time reacquainting themselves with the unique rhythms of their opponent. Gabrielle tried her signature backward sweep. Unlike Sentas, Xena was able to leap Gabrielle's staff and without a break in motion responded with a mighty offensive stroke intent on taking Gabrielle to her knees. Gabrielle tumbled backward rolling completely over, stopping her momentum in a squat position. Xena's momentum took the warrior to a 90 degree angle away from Gabrielle. Having an opening, Gabrielle drove against Xena's body, her staff held firmly in her two hands before her. The impact leveled the warrior to the ground. Gabrielle rolled and landed on her back. She release the staff and flipped her body, retaking hold of the weapon she extended her hands until the staff crossed Xena's throat. She pressed down sufficiently to make her position known without causing harm.
Stunned by the shear creativity of Gabriele's acrobatics Xena lay still. From behind she heard an elated Sentas boast, "I taught her that." Though she could have lifted the staff away and continued the fight, Xena decided otherwise. She slapped the ground signally her surrender. Gabrielle lifted her staff away. Xena than smacked her staff aside and jumped to her feet, turning toward Sentas. "Did you, Lieutenant?" asked Xena as she strove forward. Her anger feigned.
"My Lord!" called Gabrielle as she moved to intervene.
Gabrielle's use of her endearment was more powerful than any weapon the young woman had mastered. Xena's outward fury was temporarily contained. "What say you, my Queen?" asked Xena with a wink only Gabrielle could see.
Gabrielle paused. Understanding the joke she smiled as she explained, "Sentas may have taught me to tumble but I claim credit for choosing when and how to use it for sparring."
Xena turned back in all seriousness to Sentas. "Is that true?"
"Yes, my Liege," he responded cautiously.
Xena laughed wholeheartedly. "I am vexed you did not warn me of your sister's ingenuity."
All the Guardsmen relaxed as Sentas said, "Until this very moment I did not know she would use the tumble in such a manner."
"The fault is mine for not heeding my own counsel." Xena glanced appreciatively toward Gabrielle. "From the first day I met Gabrielle of Poteidaia I knew she was not to be underestimated."
"Nor are you, my Liege. I think that is why you and my sister are a fine match."
Xena cuffed Sentas on his shoulder and then turned to her partner. "In more ways than sparring, Lieutenant."
Gabrielle smiled brilliantly. "I agree."
Stephen and Tess were granted their own cottage within the palace grounds. The comfortable household offered a sense of privacy that could not be enjoyed in the palace's imposing walls. It was mid-afternoon when Tess entered labor. She had messages sent to Stephen and Dalius. Dalius notified the Conqueror and Queen. News of Tess's condition quickly passed among the Guardsmen. The brothers continued their work with a heightened sensitivity to forthcoming news.
Gabrielle joined Tess and Dalius in Stephen and Tess's bedroom. Stephen, Xena and Jared waited in the cottage's front sitting room. All understood that Xena would not be called to assist in the birth unless Tess and/or the baby's life were in danger.
The candlemarks passed slowly and night fell. The longer the wait the quieter the occupants of the sitting room became. Given Tess's more frequent cries Xena deduced that her contractions were quickening and the baby's birth would come soon.
Her heart felt for Stephen as he stared blindly ahead, his hands clasped before him. She wondered if he was praying for his family and if he was, whether he received comfort from the effort. As deep in thought as he seemed, she could see how Stephen flinched with each of Tess's intensifying cries.
And then all sounds stopped. Stephen stood up nervously. Xena and Jared mirrored him and waited. The next sound heard was of a baby crying. Xena smiled in relief. Jared gave a small nervous laugh. Stephen remained silent, his eyes fixed upon the bedroom door.
The door opened and Gabrielle stepped out holding the baby. She smiled as Stephen approached her. "Stephen, you have a daughter."
"A daughter," he said as tears began to fall down his face. "Is she all right? Is Tess all right?"
"Your daughter is perfect and Tess is tired and wants to see you."
Stephen looked over Gabrielle's shoulder to his wife who lay quietly in bed while Dalius hovered at the foot of the bed. The baby gurgled, causing Stephen to look down to her. "By the Gods, she's as beautiful as her mother."
"Do you want to hold her?" said Gabrielle encouragingly.
"Yes." Stephen extended his hands, taking his daughter into his arms. He laughed happily and turned to Xena and Jared. The two went to the Major, congratulating him and making a fuss over the baby.
"I told you, you had nothing to worry about," said Xena. She glanced over to Gabrielle. "Tess had the best care."
Stephen looked back to Gabrielle. "Thank you." Then he returned his attention to Xena. "Thank you for staying by my side all these moons. I don't know what I would have done without you."
Xena placed a hand on Stephen's shoulder. "Go see to Tess."
Stephen glanced down to his child as if he could not believe she was indeed real. He then carried the infant into the bedroom.
"All is truly well, Gabrielle?" asked Jared softly.
"Yes, Jared. They are both quite well."
"I'll go share the news. There are wagers to be settled," he exclaimed robustly and took his leave.
Left alone with Gabrielle, Xena said, "We will need to think of a proper gift for a little girl."
"Is it time to give her parents an estate?" asked Gabrielle. The intention was one they had discussed in the past.
"Yes, I think it is. The way Stephen is feeling right now; there is a good chance he won't protest too loud or too long."
"Tess will be grateful. It will give her and the baby the security that she has longed for."
"One that normally does not come with marrying a soldier in the Conqueror's army," said Xena with a hint of discontent. "I'll have Targon draft the deed. Give my best wishes to Tess."
"You won't stay?"
"Let Tess have her family beside her. That is what she wants."
Gabrielle reached out and placed her hand on Xena's arm. "Xena, she will welcome you."
"Who is to say that on this day I welcome her?"
Gabrielle never expected Xena's terse response. She chose to say nothing more. Xena stepped away and crossed the room, exiting without looking back.
Gabrielle knew that the discord between Xena and Tess was of Tess's making. Xena was not one to forget a challenge of her honor. That Tess challenged Xena regarding her affection for Stephen had been bitterly received. She had hoped that Tess's jealously of Xena had been checked on her wedding day. Obviously, Xena thought differently.
Gabrielle suspected that Tess had no appreciation for the amount of stress Xena could have placed on Stephen by simply keeping his duties constant, causing the Major to have to choose between his wife and his career. And yet, despite Tess's ungratefulness, Xena had done everything in her power to support the marriage. She had, with the exception of the march on Athens, kept Stephen in Corinth. Stephen had yet to complain and with the new baby Gabrielle doubted the Major would be seeking a field assignment anytime in the near future.
Dalius came to Gabrielle's side, interrupting her thoughts. "Gabrielle, I will stay with Tess. It's late. You should get some rest."
Gabrielle welcomed the relief. "All right. Goodnight, Dalius."
She left the cottage and walked toward the palace. It was a cloud-covered night with little light. Lamps hanging on street poles lit her path. She passed the Guardsmen's mess hall, hearing familiar voices including Jared's and Trevor's as an impromptu celebration in honor of Stephen's child had begun.
She surrendered to her sorrow. Throughout Tess's childbirth Gabrielle had denied her emotions. Alone, she remembered the lonely loss of her own child. It had been late in the evening when she began to feel cramping. After brewing and drinking a medicinal tea she had laid in bed hoping the pain would subside. As time passed and her cramps intensified she realized that not only might she lose her child, if her bleeding was great she might also lose her life. Too isolated from the Centaur village to call for help she remained huddled in bed crying silent tears. By morning her bed was red with her own blood and the remains of her fetus, which was just less than the length of her hand. My mid-morning she had sufficient strength to care for herself.
From a side street Samuel crossed Gabrielle's path. He seemed as surprised to see her, as she was to see him. After a moment's hesitation Gabrielle found her voice. "Hello, Sam."
"Your Majesty," said the Guardsman.
Samuel's formality set the tone of their encounter. Gabrielle rued the additional reminder of the losses she suffered because of Athens. She wanted to heal and though she could not bring back her child she hoped she could mend her friendship with Samuel. "How are you?"
Samuel did not have a ready answer. He briefly glanced away before responding. "I am as you see me, your Majesty."
A roar of men's voices from the mess hall caused him to look in its direction. He withheld comment. Gabrielle answered his unspoken question. "Stephen and Tess have a daughter, Sam. You and your brothers are uncles."
A pained expression crossed Samuel's face. Samuel had not been a topic of discussion between Gabrielle and her brothers. From observation she concluded that his purposeful distancing from her had a reciprocal effect on his relationship with his fellow Guardsmen, none more than the members of the Queen's Guard who had embraced Gabrielle's return without reservation.
"May I be excused, your Majesty?" asked Samuel in a clipped diction.
"Yes Sam, of course." Gabrielle did not hide her disappointment.
The Guardsman turned and walked in the opposite direction of the mess hall. Gabrielle watched the solitary man wishing he would one day find it in his heart, as Trevor had, to forgive her.
Xena lay in bed in a half-wake half-sleep state, a growing anxiety building within her. A sudden pain racked moment caused her to sit up, "Oh Gods…" she cried out, feeling an overwhelming dread. Her breathing was quick and she was drenched in her own perspiration. She scanned her bedroom seeking out the threat that seemed to loom close to her. She saw nothing out of the ordinary. She then chose to close her eyes and extend her senses. "Gabrielle…" The bard's unmistakable essence was pulsating with an overwhelming merger of horror and sorrow. Xena ran out of her suite surprising Hamish who was standing guard. He followed her down the palace corridor.
Xena took no solace in seeing Joél guarding Gabrielle's door. The young Guardsman turned and looked at her, obviously confused in seeing the Conqueror with Hamish not far behind. Joél's hand went to the door handle. He hesitated. "Open it!" shouted Xena as she neared. He did so.
She entered the suite. Gabrielle's low cries drove her to the bedroom where the bard lay distraught. Xena sat on the side of the bed and gathered Gabrielle into her arms. Gabrielle clutched Xena desperately. "I'm here." Xena assured her. "I'm here, Gabrielle. You will get through this…."
"My Liege," said Hamish while standing outside the bedroom, not looking in. "Is there anything you need?"
Xena glanced toward the entrance, relieved that the senior guard knew better than to further breach Gabrielle's privacy. "Leave us." She heard the dual footsteps of the Guardsmen as they exited the suite. Xena turned her attentions back to Gabrielle.
"I'm sorry," said Gabrielle through her tears.
"Don't apologize." Xena held Gabrielle closer. "You have nothing to apologize for."
Xena closed her eyes and willingly opened herself to Gabrielle's pain. Aphrodite was right. There were two ways for them to reach into each other's souls. One was by mutual consent. The other was when one of them had no control of their emotions. Though Xena did not travel to their intimate plane she sensed the source of Gabrielle's distress. She willed herself not to turn from it, not to deny the truth. In one profound moment of insight she saw Gabrielle's memory of lying in bed with the aftermath of her miscarriage. The scene caused Xena to shudder. "All will be well. With time, I promise you Gabrielle, all will be well."
Gabrielle calmed, easing into a drowsy state, feeling a long lost sense of security, one she knew only in Xena's embrace. "Thank you," she said in a languid voice.
"Ly down," said Xena tenderly. She felt Gabrielle tense underneath her touch. "I'll stay with you until daybreak. You have my word."
Gabrielle eased her hold and allowed Xena to guide her back until her head lay on her pillow. Xena held Gabrielle's hand. "Rest now." She saw much in Gabrielle's gentle green eyes. There was need and gratitude and a sadness that she was only now allowing herself to acknowledge.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and soon drifted back to sleep. Only then did Xena shift to a chair she placed beside the bed. She kept an attentive vigil.
Gabrielle awoke to the sight of Xena sitting in the chair set at her bedside. Meeting Gabrielle's gaze Xena rose and sat on the edge of the bed, tenderly taking Gabrielle's hand. Seeing her partner's fatigue Gabrielle graciously reassured Xena that her nightmare had passed and coaxed the warrior to return to her suite to rest. They said little more to one another. There was no need.
As much as Gabrielle longed for Xena she equally longed for her solitude. She sent word to Trevor that she would be spending the day in her suite. She knew the message would be conveyed to Xena, Dalius and Makia. All honored her implicit request not to be disturbed.
As night fell she sought the comfort of the turret. Standing at the turret's ledge looking up to the evening stars, she took solace in their brilliant beauty. Their still peace opposed the memory of the previous night of painful chaotic dreams.
On this night Gabrielle came to conclude that the memories of Athens, Turian and her pregnancy were not unlike the memories of her slavery. She could not live having them in the forefront of her mind. They needed to be regulated to a place in her heart and her soul where they were honored as a part of her without dominating her sense of self.
She heard footsteps and turned her gaze toward the turret entrance. Xena soon appeared. The warrior remained at the threshold with her hands held behind her back. The pose was to Gabrielle's understanding one of a woman whose tender heart demanded the protection of distance.
"Hello," said Xena.
"Have you come to look at the stars?" asked Gabrielle invitingly.
"No," said Xena soberly. "I have a request. Gabrielle, I am leaving for Megara and I would like you to join me."
The request was unexpected. "I thought you promised Stephen to stay close because of the baby."
"Until the baby was born. She is healthy and Dalius and a mid-wife are more than capable of helping Tess adjust."
"When would you like to leave?"
"Tomorrow, if that is not too soon."
"I'll tell Trevor."
"Good." Xena glanced up to the heavens. "I gave up Solan after only two days. During the two days I had him I held him close and nursed him and felt… I felt the wonder of him. How an infant as beautiful and innocent as he was could come from my womb was a mystery to me. But, there was no denying that he had. The part of me that wanted him had to be set aside because I owed him a better life than the one I could give him. There isn't a day I don't think of Solan and damn myself for leaving him to Kaleipus' care. There isn't a day that my heart doesn't break because of the fact that I did what I had to do because of who I was at the time. There had never been a choice… not really. That is how life is sometimes. Given our friendship I didn't feel I had a choice but to say ‘yes' when Stephen asked me to help deliver his child. I've kept my promise. Now… well it's hard, seeing a child so new to life."
"I know," said Gabrielle.
"Yes, you do," said Xena, her expression painfully open. "Sleep well, Gabrielle."
"Good night, Xena."
Xena turned and walked down the stairs. Gabrielle listened to each footfall until the sounds faded to nothing. She understood that Xena needed Megara to set her thoughts of the past right again in the face of the ever-changing present. And she welcomed the opportunity to do the same for herself.
It has late in the afternoon when the Royals arrived in Megara. Gabrielle carried her saddlebags into their first floor bedroom. With Xena wordlessly following her she had every reason to believe they would share a bed for the first time since Athens - that by their very presence in Megara one more milestone in their return to one another would be achieved. She did not contemplate a renewal of their lovemaking. For her it would be enough to have the comfort of Xena's embrace as she fell asleep.
Xena paused at the bedroom threshold. Gabrielle waited, seeing her partner's hesitation. "Xena…"
"I'll take my things upstairs." Xena referenced the bedroom that accommodated them prior to building the extension to the house.
"Will you join me for dinner?"
"Gabrielle… this first evening I'd like to be alone. Being here… I can't explain."
"You don't have to. Maybe in the morning we can take a walk by the seashore."
"I'd like that. I will see you at breakfast." Xena stepped back disappearing from Gabrielle's sight.
Gabrielle chastised herself for assuming that the breach in their intimate life could be resolved by simply changing their geography.
Dressed in her robe, Xena stood at her bedroom window looking out to the sea. The time was dusk. She and the world were hovering between the harsh light of day and the dark mystery of the night.
She thought her life with Gabrielle was equal to this moment. There was a choice to be made, a choice they both had to make, whether to set aside the harshness of life - an indisputable fact in the light of day - and embrace the mystery of the night where deeper truths reside.
She had a persistent ache in her heart. She longed for certainty in an uncertain world. She had believed that Gabrielle's fidelity was unassailable. Proven wrong, she requested and received the truth from Gabrielle. Gabrielle did not love another nor did she lust for a physical release that Xena could not fulfill. The ironic paradox of Gabrielle's infidelity was that it was a testament to how greatly she valued her union with Xena and how deeply she mourned the loss of that union.
Xena considered the events that followed their return to Corinth. The incident with the hounds revealed that Gabrielle's protectiveness was as strong as ever. In her work with the colts and fillies and in the face of Xena's strongest blows during their sparring, Gabrielle was not shy in demonstrating her competency. And yet, except for the one request for the return of ‘her Lord' at the turret, in their intimate exchanges Gabrielle consistently acquiesced to Xena.
Gabrielle once said there was no Megara without Xena beside her. Xena agreed, Megara was nothing without them both. Megara was a place where their love thrived. It was a place where they came to heal both physically and emotionally. The power of Megara was that in this safe haven they could mine and exercise their courage and hope, inseparable from their faith in one another. Megara was where they had been willing to risk all that they were to keep their union. In returning to Megara Xena had renewed the challenge. Megara was a means to their reconciliation and only now did she believe they were both capable of attempting the task. In doing so they would risk the annihilation of their souls - the probable consequence of failure.
Xena had seen Gabrielle's disappointment when she had left her alone in their bedroom. Absent was Gabrielle's fire, her unassailable sense of entitlement to Xena's affection. Without such a clear expression of Gabrielle's desire Xena was left to trust her perceptions. She needed to trust that she was not misguidedly projecting upon Gabrielle her own desire for union.
Xena closed her eyes and reached out with her senses. She felt Gabrielle's essence. Xena sensed a hint of sorrow, loneliness. It merged with her like emotions. They completed one another and as long as they stood apart there could be no wholeness.
By the riverside Gabrielle was wrong to say Xena could not make her right and whole again. In one way she could. It was in the same way Gabrielle had the power to touch Xena's soul. ‘If not now in Megara, then when?' Xena asked herself. When was she going to take the risk to love Gabrielle completely? More importantly, to trust Gabrielle without reservation. When would she present herself as Gabrielle's Lord as Gabrielle defined the endearment –to give safe harbor, to love, to commit her life – body and soul - once again?
Xena would not stand her pain for another heartbeat more than their destinies demanded. Their destinies, in regards to one another, were theirs to define. Xena walked down the stairs to the first floor bedroom. The door was ajar. She knocked and then opened the door further. Across the room the two porch doors to the sea were open. Gabrielle stood on the porch dressed in a white nightshirt. Except for their fear there was nothing separating them. Xena did not trust words. She walked across the room and out to the porch. Reaching Gabrielle, who waited silently, she took hold of her partner's hands and kissed them. She then raised her gaze meeting Gabrielle's, seeing tears well in the bard's eyes. She slowly leaned forward making her intentions obvious, giving Gabrielle a chance to withdraw if she so chose.
Gabrielle did not withdraw. Instead she met Xena in a restrained kiss. The kiss deepened, as their confidence grew so too their passion. They explored one another honoring their mutual fragileness. Xena led Gabrielle to their bed, assuming nothing, until it seemed that they had both crossed a line of caution, having abandoned all their inhibitions. Their lovemaking, first sweet and tender, grew more fervent with the passing candlemark until it reached a fierce intensity that took one then the other to climax and left them spent falling asleep in each others arms. Throughout the night not a word had been spoken.
A fortnight spent in Megara had brought the Royals to a graceful happiness. It was a happiness bound to their delicate union. Their union required a constant sensitivity to each other's emotions. Wounds only beginning to heal were tended to by touch and deftly chosen words. Latitude was given when their wounds bled unexpectedly. They returned to trust that withholding themselves, even when motivated to spare the pain of truth, did neither good.
Gabrielle had promised her Guard a few stories after their evening meal. Xena had listened to a short sweet romance and then disappeared into the beach house leaving Gabrielle in the company of her brothers.
After telling two more tales, Gabrielle excused herself intent on seeking out her Lord. Alem went to her side. "May I walk with you?"
Gabrielle took the Guardsman's arm and led him to the path that wove around the beach house toward the sea. "What is it, Alem?"
"Gabrielle, I know I am not Sam…"
Gabrielle paused. "Alem, you should not compare yourself to your brothers. You each have your skills and talents and I love each of you as you are."
"A few of your brothers are closer to you."
"I can't deny that the Queen's Guard is special to me. And, I won't deny that within the Queen's Guard I've come to know and count on some of you more than others." Gabrielle began to walk again. "Sam was always with me. I felt safe with him near. I knew I could trust him." She glanced toward Alem. "Sam was free to speak his mind. He knew that I would listen. I valued his opinion even if we didn't agree. What we shared took time…"
"I'm sorry he chose to leave you."
"Sam has an honorable heart and I cannot blame him for being true to it."
"Gabrielle, I have… all of the Queen's Guard have honorable hearts and except for Sam we all chose to remain with you. There is no greater honor than to serve you. Don't you let Sam's decision make you think different."
"It's hard, Alem. I know I failed my Lord and even though she's forgiven me I cannot forget the hurt I caused her."
"After Athens the Conqueror changed. She never laughed and she rarely smiled. She has been happier these past days in Megara with you than she had been all the prior moons without you. I don't think she wants to go back and live in the past. If she sees Athens every time she looks at you, what chance has she to know happiness?"
"The past is not just Athens."
"No, you're right. The past is all that you have been to each other. The past is also your years as a slave and all the bloody battles that led to the Conqueror's rise to power. The past is never all good or all bad."
"And what of now, Alem? What are we, you and I, to do?"
"Isn't the present what we make of it?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Alem, you are wiser than most of Greece's renown philosophers."
The Guardsman laughed heartedly. "I don't think that's saying much."
Gabrielle leaned against Alem. "I think that you and I are going to be good friends."
"Nothing would make me happier."
Gabrielle scanned the seashore. "Do you see my Lord?"
"There is a fire by the cove. I say she is there."
Gabrielle looked to the outcrop of stone and smiled. "Yes. I think she waits for me."
"She always has," said Alem.
Gabrielle walked down to the seashore, taking a route near the surf. The sea was calm, the sound of the waters lapping the shore familiar and comforting. She thought back to her early days with Xena. The Conqueror was an enigmatic woman. With few exceptions her darkness dominated the perceptions of those in the palace. Those exceptions, specifically Jared's and Stephen's gave Gabrielle reason to believe that her own perception of Xena, one that recognized an undercurrent of compassion and humor, was not her own misguided judgment.
In Crivello, Xena had confessed the pivotal day that changed their future – the day Gabrielle had disarmingly asked Xena what made her happy and encouraged her to indulge herself in order to known happiness.
As Alem reminded Gabriele, happiness did not come easily to Xena. The warrior's spirit was heavy. Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to give Xena a lifetime, if not an eternity, of joy. To that effect, there was, however, one request she had yet to fulfill. It was a request Gabrielle could not in clear conscious fulfill alone.
Gabrielle entered the light cast by the fire. "Hello," said Xena warmly. "How was the storytelling?"
"Good." Gabrielle effortlessly went to her partner, sitting beside her and resting against Xena's shoulder.
Xena placed her arm around Gabrielle holding her close. They remained in that posture for some time before Gabrielle took Xena's hand in her own and kissed it lovingly.
"Gabrielle?" said Xena, a wondering inquiry.
"I was just remembering." Gabrielle shifted her gaze from Xena's hand to the sea.
"A good or bad memory?"
"The promise I made before leaving for Athens."
"The promise of Megara?"
"Yes, and that all would be well. I never imagined my promise would be so difficult to keep."
"We are in Megara, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle raised herself upon her knees and faced Xena. "Not completely."
"Gabrielle, please don't…" pleaded Xena.
"Love, listen to me," begged Gabrielle softly.
Xena paused. Gabrielle could see Xena's fear, her desire not to reenter the darkness they had, during their days in Megara, only just freed themselves from. Gabrielle now understood that she needed to surrender not to Xena's love for her but to her love for Xena. She placed her hand on her concerned partner's cheek. "You are my Lord," she said and then leaned forward and tenderly kissed Xena, giving all that she was to the warrior. Xena's response was hesitant. Their kiss ended uneasily.
Gabrielle leaned back on her heals. "Xena, I need your help."
"Tell me," she said, the tension in her body evident.
Gabrielle removed her ring from the leather pouch that hung from her belt and held it in her open palm. "I know how you feel about my ring. I can't… I was not the first to place it on my hand. You were. When you did, you accepted my vow. I need to know that you will accept my vow again, as I give it to you today."
Xena's gaze went from Gabrielle eyes to the ring. After a few heartbeats she looked back up. "What vow do you give me, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle took a calming breath, bowing her head as she composed her rising emotions. She then met Xena's gaze and said earnestly, "Xena of Amphipolis, I vow to love you, to honor you, to speak only the truth to you. I vow my fidelity." Gabrielle paused as a tear fell down her cheek. "I vow my life to you above all else including Greece."
"No, Gabrielle," protested Xena. " I have never asked you to place me above Greece… just the opposite."
"I know," said Gabrielle. "But I cannot come back to you as Greece's Queen first. I can only be with you if I am yours first. I need you to grant me leave from my queenship. I'm asking you to set me free from my Royal vow so that I may love you as my heart and soul demand of me. Never ask me to love you less."
Xena raised her hand to Gabrielle's cheek, her gaze ardent. "I accept your vow and set you free to follow your heart if ever you must choose between what is best for the realm and what is best for you." She then took possession of Gabrielle's ring and carefully placed it on Gabrielle's finger.
Comments always welcomed: Mayt_Fanfiction@sbcglobal.net
Expect the final story of this series, My Lord: An Act of Love in December 2008.
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