Unable to reconcile her ideals with Xena’s Warrior Way, a young Gabrielle takes her place as Amazon Princess and Ephiny’s partner. But when her tribe are forced into war, Gabrielle realises that she needs Xena more than ever. Injured in the battle, she has to gain the understanding of the woman she loves and of the woman she must leave behind.
I do not in any way own the characters or locations in this story, I just enjoy writing about them. If you have any comments or questions, feedback is always welcome and responded to at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you enjoy the story!
“You’ve had a good day, Gabrielle?”
“I’ve had a good day.” Gabrielle gave a carefree laugh and flopped back on her bed. Her tent was one of the largest on the site – she was an Amazon Princess, after all – and she gazed up at the pointed wicker ceiling, seeing the little rays of evening sun that seeped through the gaps and shone down onto her. Life here was simple and comparatively easy, there was always a regime to be guided by and plenty of company.
“Good. So have I.” Ephiny stripped off her leathers and clambered onto the bed in her dark underclothes. Curly hair sat around her shoulders and she wore her customary strips of leather around her wrists and biceps, a symbol of her position in the tribe and a memento of parted friends and sisters. “Did you write your scrolls?”
Gabrielle saw Ephiny cross her ankles and wriggle her toes leisurely. Once the tasks of the day were done – washing, tidying and farming – there was plenty of time for leisure. “Yes, I wrote pages.” The young Princess had spent most of the afternoon writing: there was so much to catch up on. On the road there had never been enough time to write: if you weren’t walking you were fighting or hunting.
“Uh ha, what about?” Ephiny was always happy to chat, about any subject that took Gabrielle’s interest. She was willing to read the Bard’s scrolls and hear about whatever she was working on.
Gabrielle felt Ephiny’s fingers lazily playing with her hair. “About the time Xena and I tricked a Cyclops,” she reported eagerly. “He was a blind Cyclops, actually, so you had to feel for him. He was ferocious, though, and the size of an oak.”
Ephiny laughed. “Sounds like a great story, Gabrielle.”
“It was a great adventure,” Gabrielle reminisced. Xena had never been interested in her scrolls; she hadn’t been able to understand Gabrielle’s need to record events and tell tales. Still, Gabrielle thought with more sadness than she would have anticipated, without Xena there wouldn’t have been any stories to tell.
The Bard had settled with the Amazons some months ago, way back at the beginning of the summer. Since she had been here she had seen the days lengthen and then begin to diminish again, and now the sun didn’t rise so early and lacked its midday intensity. It had been a surprisingly easy decision to make, to stay here and build a real home and a stable life. Gabrielle had never expected to travel with Xena forever, and after nearly a year the time seemed right to let the Warrior go about her life without the continuous distraction of an over-enthusiastic village girl. The Amazons wanted their princess amongst them, and more so, Gabrielle wanted to be with Ephiny. The blonde woman who sat stroking her shoulder had always been a good friend and confidante, and Gabrielle enjoyed her and her company. Life on the road was often lonely, and having been brought up in a close family, she needed to feel special and loved. Gabrielle knew, somewhere in the depths of her heart, that if Xena had been able to fulfil the role of a partner there would’ve been no question of leaving her, but truth was truth and one had to live with reality. Xena clearly never had those feelings, and it wasn’t fair to ask her to change. Ephiny was an amazing woman, and Gabrielle loved her.
“We haven’t seen Xena for many moons now,” Ephiny commented casually, interrupting Gabrielle’s memories. “You should send word to her, ask her to visit.”
Gabrielle nodded automatically. “I don’t know where she is.” Her thoughts wandered off again, to the day they had said goodbye. ‘Be happy,’ Xena had told her, giving her a hard squeeze, ‘look after the people here who care about you’. She had smiled, but Gabrielle had seen a sort of muted despair in her eyes, the same look as when she had rescued Gabrielle and her townsfolk from slave traders but the village leaders said she wasn’t welcome, or when they’d returned to Amphipolis and Xena’s mother declared that she had no daughter. Gabrielle had tried to apologise, to explain herself, but Xena had gently stopped her. ‘We’ll always be friends, Gabrielle, no matter how far apart we are’. She had promised to visit, but after a couple of times, while she was still in Amazon lands, she stopped coming. Gabrielle guessed that by now she was in some far off land, having met new people and forgotten about her temporary sidekick.
“You’re thinking up some new story now, should I just leave you to it?” Ephiny teased her partner, chuckling, stroking her cheek to reclaim her wandering attention.
“No, no…” Feeling guilty for all but ignoring Ephiny, whom she’d barely seen all day, Gabrielle pushed away her thoughts and rolled onto her hands and knees. It wasn’t fair to always be lost in a daydream of the past: Ephiny was right here, and they had a good life together. “No, you’re not going anywhere.” Laughing too, she moved up the bed and sat herself beside Ephiny, who casually and easily put her arms around her.
Kissing Ephiny always felt natural and comfortable. The Amazon was attentive and kind, and they had fun together. They seemed to see things in a similar way, and there was never any bickering or awkwardness. She was open and easy to get to know, which initially made her an appealing contrast to Xena.
For the first few months of life together the Warrior appeared to little more than tolerate her new companion. She was frequently lost in her dark memories and thoughts, struggling with monsters inside herself that Gabrielle could have no conception of. When that self-imposed turbulence had passed, and for a long time after they met, Gabrielle didn’t see her show any great emotion at all, be it positive or negative. She only showed affection when pressed, and even battle fuelled anger was usually closely followed by a sneer. One day was particularly bad, though, and even Xena, usually so strong and self-contained, had her breaking point.
A nasty battle had been on the cards, and Xena felt compelled to help. She knew it would be frantic and bloody, and told Gabrielle to wait for her some distance ahead. Gabrielle had made her obligatory protests, saying that she didn’t want to be treated as a child and was capable of looking after herself. In truth, though, Gabrielle was still flushed with the excitement of travelling with Xena. The Warrior protected her from everything, and life was like playing a game. Xena had been immovable, so Gabrielle surrendered and sat it out at camp. There was likely to be lots of pointless killing, she decided, so maybe it was best she stayed away.
The Bard had known it was the anniversary of Solan’s birth, but in her naivety she hadn’t connected it with the battle – which had Xena fighting alongside Centaurs – or realised just how much the date would affect her friend. Her knowledge of that period in her hero’s life was still scanty, no matter how enthusiastically she pressed for details, and she couldn’t know the agony that this day brought, year after year. Fury and grief had distracted Xena and made her clumsy in battle. When she finally returned to the camp at nightfall she clutched at a slightly misshapen arm.
“Don’t fuss, Gabrielle,” she had instructed wearily, dropping her sword and lowering herself onto a fur. “I’m all right.”
“What happened to your arm?” Worried not only by the injury but also by Xena’s apathy, Gabrielle knelt by her, tucking her long skirt under her knees.
“Cracked a bone.” Xena unfastened her armour. “You’re gonna have to set it.” Hazy blue eyes moved over the buckles and didn’t rise to meet Gabrielle’s incredulous stare.
“I can’t…” The Bard protested, sickened by the thought.
Xena moved as if every motion was painful, every breath sore. “Don’t argue, there’s no one else to do it. Now here -” She offered her arm.
“Xena, I don’t know how to.” Gabrielle gingerly took the limb in her hands. The flesh had an awful, waxy feel to it, and midway between wrist and elbow was a raised bump.
The Warrior gritted her teeth. “Hold here…” She pointed. “Then just twist, hard, and it’ll pop.” She rummaged in a bag with her free hand, pulled out a small skin, flipped off the cork, and took a mouthful. “Don’t be gentle, you only get one go.”
Gabrielle was reluctant in the extreme, but this was one of those awful moments where you simply had no choice. “Well, are you ready?” It sounded like a ridiculous question, but she saw Xena nod. Gabrielle tightened her grip, hating the idea of having to hurt the woman she had grown to care about.
“Go on.” Xena looked away, out into the woods, her mind distant.
Gabrielle had that cold, sick feeling she always got when she had to force herself to do something she dreaded: like wringing a chicken’s neck back home on the farm, or agreeing to her betrothal, or saying goodbye to Lila. Half of her mind focussed intently on the task and the other half trying desperately to ignore it, she yanked at the limb and gave it a vicious twist. She felt bone moving against bone, and tight muscles snapped the ends back into place.
Gabrielle should have known that Xena would cry out and jerk back, but the reality of it still shocked and frightened her. It wasn’t even so much what Xena had done, but rather the way she did it. It was as if something inside of her had snapped at the same moment as her flesh, and she curled forward around her arm, making the most awful cries of grief that went far deeper than the pain of a broken bone.
“I’m sorry…” Gabrielle panicked, reaching out but afraid to touch. “Did I hurt you? I…” She had never heard Xena produce such sounds: choking sobs that rose up from a broken heart and a soul wrung too taut. A child in the face of such enormous grief, Gabrielle just sat and watched.
“Go away -” Xena reached out and blindly shoved at Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Go and sleep, go.”
“No -” The girl instinctively rejected that. “Xena it’s okay -” She tried to hold her friend, even though Xena was not the tactile type and very rarely initiated touch.
“Leave me alone, Gabrielle, just…” Even as Xena’s arm was clumsily pushing against Gabrielle’s chest, her head was coming to rest against her shoulder.
Incredibly affected by this, Gabrielle angrily pushed Xena’s hand out of the way then got close to her and held her. She was surprised by the dead weight in her arms and the fierceness of Xena’s trembling. “It’s Solan?” She didn’t get an answer, but the gasping wails only intensified. The young girl didn’t think she’d ever witnessed such distress, and it was overwhelming. “You can cry,” she tried to reassure, feeling her own eyes filling. “You can cry with me…”
There was nothing she could say to ease her friend’s grief; it just had to be gotten through. Accepting this, she tucked her face against Xena’s and held onto her tightly, going with the juddering inhalations and automatically rocking her.
Finally, finally, the crying lessened. Her own cheeks damp, Gabrielle raised her head and noticed Xena’s injured arm resting limply beside her, all but forgotten. The Warrior’s weight against her had increased, and her legs were beginning to cramp. “Lie down -” Gabrielle eased her exhausted friend down onto the fur and hurriedly covered her and the cold arm with a blanket. Xena’s useful arm remained locked around her, so she lowered herself too, stretching out her legs. “I’m here…” In the flickering firelight, the quiet misery written on Xena’s face was even clearer. She had no energy left to sob, but tears wetted her cheeks and her lips were dry from her rasping. Hurting for her, Gabrielle tried to stroke away the water with her fingertip, their faces close. “I’m here.” She was surprised to find that seeing Xena crying had moved her to tears.
“Thank the Gods for you, Gabrielle.” Xena mumbled the words, her eyes closing.
Hoping she would be able to sleep, Gabrielle leaned down to touch a kiss to Xena’s forehead, then let her fingers play softly over the dark hair. She remained still to watch for a moment, her elbows on either side of the Warrior. When she thought her friend was asleep she made to move, but Xena’s arm was still around her, long fingers weaved into her reddish brown hair.
So Gabrielle had lain down where she was, turning her head to rest her cheek against Xena’s. Sometime during the night, when Xena became uncomfortable, she rolled over, pulling Gabrielle with her. The Bard had pressed herself against the warm back, liking the smell of Xena’s wavy hair against her nose. The next morning nothing was said about it, but Gabrielle carried the privilege of that evening in her heart, and had never forgotten it.
There had been no such initiation ceremony with Ephiny, things had always been easy and simple. Perhaps too easy, Gabrielle thought, then immediately felt ashamed of her ingratitude. “I do love you,” she told the Amazon.
“I love you,” Ephiny reassured, taking her hand and squeezing it.
Gabrielle smiled, liking the gesture. She quickly kissed the fingers in hers then moved to kneel astride her partner, who laughed and held her comfortably. Gabrielle steadied herself with hands on Ephiny’s shoulders, and they kissed. For the younger woman it wasn’t really about passion, and hadn’t been since the first couple of times. Being together was about love, about sharing time, physical affection. She soon softened into Ephiny’s arms, both of them laughing with the childish pleasure of play-wrestling as they rolled down into the bed. Ephiny untangled an arm to tug up a blanket. She loved Gabrielle dearly and gently nuzzled her neck, making her giggle. The Amazon woman wasn’t concerned with her partner’s immaturity, in technique or emotion: it didn’t matter. Gabrielle’s happiness was paramount, and she would learn as she grew.
The two removed each other’s clothes, slowly and comfortably. There was no hurry, no danger, no cold. Gabrielle loved the feel of Ephiny’s hands holding her, a warm body next to her own. There was a certain irresistible luxury to lying side by side, naked, with only each other’s familiar eyes to gaze into and a welcoming body to nestle yourself against. Gabrielle ducked her head under the blanket to place her hands and lips on Ephiny’s chest, and willingly and naturally opened herself to the gentle hands that went down her body.
These times were some of the few where Gabrielle could detach her heart from her head, and enjoy the sensations and the love without the constant analysis her brain had a tendency toward. She could lose herself in Ephiny and her friendship, focus on extreme physical pleasure and relaxation, and, for a while at least, not think about Xena.
When she was flushed and satisfied, Gabrielle fell into a dozy sleep, with Ephiny’s arms about her, and didn’t wake until she was disturbed by her partner’s movement. With no stars or sky visible overhead, as she was used to, it was harder to tell when it was morning.
“I’m coming -” Ephiny was saying, and untangled herself from Gabrielle, setting her gently back on the bed.
“What is it?” Gabrielle rolled over and pulled the covers up to her chest, seeing Ephiny getting into her clothes.
“You sleep, Gabby,” Ephiny told her with an indulgent smile, “I won’t be long.” Then she jogged over to the doorway, and Gabrielle saw her disappear through it with one of the other women, who was looking grave.
Concerned, the Princess rubbed at her face and hair to bring herself awake, then rolled out of bed and dressed. When she got outside she was met with a great commotion, the likes of which she hadn’t seen in the camp during peace time. People were heading toward the meeting circle, some chatting excitedly with each other, wondering what the fuss was, and others looking more intent and serious. Some of the Amazons were speaking in hushed tones, others were silent.
What was going on? Had Xena come? Was Xena here? Gabrielle felt excitement flush hot through her. Maybe that was it – there was always a celebration when Xena came, she was well liked and respected here. But no, the elders looked too serious to be planning a welcome party. The heat faded away and was replaced by inexplicable cold.
Suddenly Ephiny was at her elbow. “Ephiny, what’s happening?”
“You’d better come, Gabrielle.” Ephiny was never melodramatic, but she looked tense. “There’s a meeting.” They hurried to the circle. Gabrielle sat with the other royal Amazons while Ephiny took her place with the warriors.
Under the gradual rising of an insipid sun, Gabrielle sat and listened. Despite the amount of heated talk that morning, their situation was an ironically simple one. The choice was to go out and fight an army passing across their lands, and risk losing many Amazons in the process, or to hold fire and remain passive, while watching many more civilians in the surrounding villages be slaughtered and chance their own camp being ransacked and destroyed. Was the life of one Amazon worth more or less than the lives of two defenceless village folk? Was the wealth and comfort of future generations worth the slaughter of their forebears? And what of pride and dignity, were they always preferable to humility and submission, regardless of cost?
As Gabrielle sat with her sisters, listening to the Queen make her ruling, she was acutely aware that in several summers it could be her having to make that decision. She would one day be Queen, as inevitably as the sun rose every morning over their lands. When she and Xena ran into a problem she would come up with scores of ideas to get them out of it, solutions which she thought were indestructible. Xena would then promptly dismiss most as impractical, ineffective, or downright suicidal, and rightly so. Every now and again, though, one of Gabrielle’s nuggets of wisdom would plant the seed of an idea in Xena’s head, on which their plan would be based. Now, with no Xena for guidance or inspiration, Gabrielle had no ideas. As her people made their agreement and the meeting broke up, the young Princess was left with an awful, helpless desperation. How could she function in an army of warrior women when she had joined them to avoid exactly what they were planning to face?
This new threat changed life in the camp almost beyond recognition. Everyday tasks were dispatched quickly so that everyone could focus on the upcoming battle. The women whom Gabrielle usually laughed and strolled with became strong and intent, set on defending their land and their honour. The Princess couldn’t fault any of this, but she felt decidedly out of place.
“There has to be a better way of resolving this,” she told Ephiny, who was busy organising her weapons and trying on her battle clothes, just to be ready. “We should talk to them, try to make peace,” she beseeched.
“Gabrielle, it’s been tried, there’s no other way.” Ephiny loaded an arrow into her bow and tested the tension of the string. She was a skilled and accurate archer, and when Gabrielle had spent sunny afternoons watching her practice on wood stumps she had forgotten the real purpose of a bow and arrow.
“But if we leave them alone they’ll be no threat to us, why start an unnecessary war, why kill for killings sake?”
“Because if we don’t stand in their way they’ll attack the villages to the East, and those people can’t defend themselves. Here, help me with this -” Ephiny changed her clothes, with no modesty and none of the gentle sensuousness Gabrielle was used to seeing in her. She turned for the Bard to tie the leather cords at her back.
“I’ve seen the army, Ephiny, some of those boys are barely more than children, they’re innocent.” Gabrielle laced the costume and watched Ephiny lift her mask to inspect its fastenings.
“They stop being innocent when they aim a bow at me or my sisters. That’s the way it has to be.”
The Bard felt desperate, and paced up and down in her tent, which had been transformed from a homely space into an armoury of sorts. “I came here because I didn’t want to spend my life fighting. I left Xena because I knew if I stayed with her one day I’d have to kill. But now it’s here, it’s right here in my home.” Upset, she held out her hands entreatingly to Ephiny, who came over and caressed her wrists, her expression compassionate but pained.
“I know, Gabrielle, I know. I can’t ask you to fight with us, I won’t.” She squeezed the hands then dropped them. “But this is what I have to do. I’m an Amazon, this is my duty, I want to stand with our people.” There was no middle ground over this, and both women knew it. “I have to go check the horses, I won’t be long.” She gave her partner a brief hug, but was gone before the younger woman was either reassured or comforted.
Gabrielle felt as if she had no where to turn and no options. She agreed with everything Ephiny had said, but her own code – her way – didn’t include killing. And yet she couldn’t sit in her tent and expect the others to protect her, to risk their lives while she was in safety: not as a leader of the tribe.
Desperate, she sat down at her desk and spread out a new scroll, a smallish one with dark mahogany handles. She dipped a quill into ink and began to write.
I hate to ask this of you after so long, but I think my home is in danger, and we need your help. Amazon lands are threatened by a new and great army, and I’m fearful that even all-out war will not protect us or the surrounding villages. Ephiny is confident but I’m not. I know our tacticians’ knowledge does not rival theirs – or yours.
I hope this finds you well and happy, Xena, as I am. I understand if you’re not able to come, but I miss you, and today more then ever, I feel lost without you beside me.
She rolled up the scroll and sealed it, allowing herself to linger a moment over the thought of Xena. For a long time she had assumed her friend wasn’t able to read, although she wasn’t quite sure why now. Perhaps it was Xena’s disinterest in her scrolls, stories about her lack of schooling, or little comments she made which Gabrielle was never sure how seriously to take. Xena frequently displayed some new talent or aspect of character that took Gabrielle completely by surprise, though, and one time she had discovered and casually read out an ancient script in Greek so complex even the Bard had to give it all her attention. Gabrielle didn’t make the mistake of underestimating Xena again.
Preparations for battle continued: they couldn’t take any chances, they had to assume the worst. For a day Gabrielle hoped desperately every moment that Xena would come, the next she was almost fearful that she would, and the day after she had given up hope. Going through all this privately was exhausting, and she felt guilty whenever she looked at Ephiny, the only woman who she felt entitled to feel so intensely about.
Gabrielle was sitting in her tent with Ephiny when she heard word of Xena, and her heart began to race so hard she wondered if her partner could feel it across the tiny space between them. “Scouts at the Eastern tip of our lands,” the young messenger had reported breathlessly, “Tracking a tall warrior woman on a white horse.”
“She’s come, Ephiny,” Gabrielle insisted, excited for her people and for herself. “I know it’s her, she’s come.”
Still, these were fighting times, and you couldn’t be too careful. Anyone could have intercepted Gabrielle’s note, or even just used their imagination, and it wasn’t safe to just assume it really was Xena. As Princess, it was Gabrielle’s responsibility to lead a group of women out to intercept this new visitor to their lands. She hurriedly changed into clothes that were conducive to stealth and speed, and she and Ephiny headed out.
As they neared the borders of Amazon land they took to the trees and waited in silence. Adjusting her bare feet on the bark, Gabrielle listened for the rhythmic padding of Argo’s hooves, then saw Xena. She was filled with irrational pleasure, and didn’t notice that she was moving and making a sound until she felt Ephiny’s hand on her arm, gently reminding her to be patient. Always in tune with her surroundings, Xena had heard. She slowed Argo and swung herself to the ground, continuing her journey on foot, her eyes tracking the treetops around her.
When the moment was right, when they were in the best tactical position, the Amazons signalled to each other and all let out their shrill war cry. Gabrielle joined in readily; it was a relief to be able to make noise, to break a little of the tension. Xena stopped and held her arms up above her head, clasping her hands together. Seeing this signal of friendly intention, the women all slid or jumped down from their hiding places and levelled their various weapons on Xena.
Gabrielle stepped forward. Her face was hidden behind her ornate warrior mask, but Xena’s eyes were on hers, nonetheless. Had they really been apart so long? Xena looked no different, except perhaps that her hair was a little longer. It was just as dark as the younger woman remembered, the autumn sunlight highlighting strands of chestnut brown amongst the blackness. Gabrielle recalled the first time she had been allowed to touch it: Xena’s nose had bled profusely once after she had taken a blow to it, and Gabrielle had knelt by her rather helplessly, holding back the thick curtains of hair and trying to stroke away the dry ache at her friend’s forehead. Xena had said very little, but her eyes had been expressive, frank and unguarded: as they were now.
Gabrielle blinked, having utterly lost concentration. Xena was holding out her sword, hilt first, following the tradition which required her to demonstrate that she was willing to go unarmed. Gabrielle took the weapon, the blade long and heavy in her grasp.
That done, Xena lowered herself onto one knee. Respect was important within the hierarchy of the Amazons, and had to be displayed to the Princess, especially as standing at her full height Xena was the taller of the two. The custom had always seemed rather demeaning to Xena, but she didn’t feel it now, knowing, despite the ritual mask, that it was Gabrielle who stood before her. Her friend had abandoned her old Poteidaian clothes for a small leather skirt and strapped top, adorned with beads and symbolic items. Her feet were bare to allow her to move through the forest with the ease and surety of an animal, and around her ankles and wrists she wore strips of leather and cloth in remembrance of her Amazon sisters. It was a starkly contrasting image to the one Xena remembered – that of a slightly more rounded, wavy haired village girl – but it was unmistakably Gabrielle.
After a pause in this position, the Amazon Princess pushed up her mask and handed the Warrior back her sword as proof of her trust. Their eye contact was brief but loaded: Gabrielle saw the heart-warmingly familiar flicker of a smile in her old friend, and Xena was slightly disturbed by the incongruous mixture of joy and sorrow written in the younger woman’s features. It was like one of those times when Gabrielle would be tearful over some event but at the same time laughing at Xena’s clumsy attempts to cheer her up. Having to accept this puzzlement for now, Xena slid her sword back into its scabbard and stood.
A tall young Amazon woman came running through the group then, light on her toes, her long hair bouncing against her back with each step. “Gabrielle -” She came to the Princess, moving Gabrielle’s attention away from Xena, and spoke softly and briskly. “Enemy troops, to the South of us, at the edge of our land. Five or six in number.”
Gabrielle instinctively looked to Xena.
“Advance lookouts,” Xena said knowingly, “Not enough to launch an attack, but we don’t want them seeing us out here alone, we’re too vulnerable.”
Ephiny came forward, catching Xena’s eye for a greeting nod: other pleasantries would have to wait. “Phaedra, Marai, go with Gabrielle back to camp, ensure her safety. The rest of you, with me – we’ll create a diversion, just in case. Head West.” The safety of the Princess was paramount. For Ephiny, this extended to a personal level, and she knew Gabrielle wouldn’t argue with her. “Xena -”
“I’ll double back,” Xena stated, reaching for Argo’s reigns, “Get their attention for you.” She climbed up onto the palomino, adrenaline pumping and head cool.
Gabrielle stepped over to her even as the others were looking about them for the safest route. “Xena -”
Xena smiled down and touched her shoulder. “I won’t be long.” Then she jabbed her boots against Argo’s sides. “Ya!” The mare turned into the pull of her reigns and broke into a gallop. Within moments, the forest glade was empty and silent.
The drama passed quickly, the threat manageable for now, and the women regrouped back in the comfort and safety of the village. There had been a huge meal to welcome Xena, but the mood was subdued, and everyone soon retired to their tents. It was early, and the sun wasn’t quite down, but Xena had had a long day travelling, and besides, there wasn’t much to do except turn in. So she stretched out on the bed in her cosy little Amazon tent, crossed her ankles, and clasped her hands behind her head.
She had never intended to come back here. When Gabrielle first said that she was considering staying with the Amazons, when she had spoken of her admiration for Ephiny, they had argued. Xena regretted it now, but she had been hurt, and it was conditioned in her, and in her character, to defend herself with anger.
“I cannot believe you’re seriously considering this, Gabrielle,” she had said, glancing up from mending her leathers for long enough to look Gabrielle up and down before continuing her work in earnest.
Gabrielle had been taken aback by Xena’s abruptness, aggravated by having to talk to the crown of the Warrior’s head. “Why shouldn’t I?”
Xena had accidentally jabbed the bone needle into her finger, and cursed. “You’re just a village girl, what do you know about ruling a tribe?” She regretted her words instantly. She sucked at her bleeding finger, having become suddenly clumsy. “Son of a bacchae.” She had studied the swelling orb of dark blood on her fingertip. Somehow, the pain of it, and the sight of it, rich and vital, helped. “You should stay where you belong: with me.”
Fury had come up in Gabrielle, her cheeks flushing red, and she had been unusually insensitive to the message Xena hid behind her words. “What, so you can baby-sit me, you mean?” Did the Warrior really think so little of her? Gabrielle knew she couldn’t fight, but she’d hoped that she had begun to prove her worth as a negotiator. She earned her keep and did her share of their domestic chores.
“Don’t be ridiculous -” Xena had scowled, tangling the twine she had been trying to thread into the needle and slapping both down onto the pile of leather, frustrated.
“You’re not listening to me, Xena.”
Gabrielle’s voice had dropped, softened, and Xena had sounded like a child when she continued to bicker. “I am listening but you’re not talking sense -”
Disagreements between them were always short lived, but the argument played over and over in Xena’s mind. She shook her head. She couldn’t possibly blame Gabrielle for her decision to settle here; it was the sensible thing to do, and Xena was glad that she would be safe and happy. She had begun to hope, though, after a year of travelling with the Bard, that they would always be together. Clearly she had misunderstood the situation. It was no more than a fantasy, and she berated herself for letting down her guard and allowing herself to get hurt. It’d been too painful to come back, to see Gabrielle and have to leave her, over and over, so she stayed away.
Gabrielle’s letter had found her in a small tavern, somewhere outside of Sparta. She had been fighting, travelling, fighting some more. It was all for The Greater Good, of course, but her spirit was flattened, and none of it seemed to matter. Not so much, anyway. She felt as if she were viewing the world in monochrome, listening to a story without a narrator. Gabrielle was going to take some getting over. The messenger had been lucky to find her, with her back to the wooden doors and her face hidden behind a heavy tankard. The ale wasn’t particularly flavourful, but it was thick and frothy, and the burning sensation as it went down her throat, along with the slight buzzing it put in her head, was desirably distracting. Once she read the scroll, neatly rolled and in Gabrielle’s familiar flowing hand, she surprised even herself with how quickly and willingly she mounted Argo and set off.
Now, she lay by herself and pondered the irony of being so close to Gabrielle, over in her royal tent, and yet so completely apart from her. They had barely spoken over dinner, with Xena sidetracked by scores of the younger girls wanting to hear about her adventures, and Gabrielle at the head of the long table with Ephiny. It was pointless lying down if she wasn’t going to sleep, so Xena rose and went over to where she had spread out a map of the surrounding lands. She immersed herself in tactics and battle plans, and didn’t notice the figure in the doorway.
The Warrior straightened. “Gabrielle?”
“I couldn’t sleep.” The Amazon ducked under the door flap, kitted out in the comfortable but flattering garb of her people, all dark leather and soft purple linen. “Am I disturbing you?” She gestured to the map.
“No, just thinking. Come in.” They regarded each other for a pause, no longer sure how to relate. “Where’s Ephiny?” Xena sat on the padded bench, and Gabrielle smiled gracefully and joined her. It had only been a few months, but to Xena she looked like a Queen, dignified and beautiful, and pride came up powerfully within the elder woman as she watched her friend speak.
“She’s doing a night scout with the others. It seems quiet out but we’ve decided to be proactive, we want to be ready.”
Xena nodded approvingly. “Sensible idea.”
Gabrielle nodded too, then sat in slightly awkward silence for a time. Xena just watched her, waiting. The Bard had rarely been lost for words, but things had changed between them now, a gap had opened up, much as both would have denied it.
“It’s good to see you,” Xena told her sincerely, “You look well.”
Gabrielle smiled tensely. “Thank you for coming, Xena, I’m grateful.”
“You think it’ll be that bad?”
Night owls howled somewhere outside. The sun was gone, and the tree leaves rustled in the soft night wind. Gabrielle gave an unexpected, soft laugh, which was instantly and warmingly familiar to her friend. “What?”
“I can’t believe you bowed to me,” Gabrielle chuckled, the memory having fluttered into her mind. The humour fizzled away the tension between them and both grinned, glad of the distraction. “I didn’t think you were into our Amazon rituals.” Usually, Xena varied between exasperation and open scorn. Gabrielle had to admit that some of her tribe’s traditions seemed rather superfluous, and there were many she remained unfamiliar with.
“I didn’t bow to you because you’re an Amazon Princess,” Xena told her, “I bowed to you because you’re Gabrielle.” Her smile was warm and genuine. Seeing that nothing further was forthcoming from her stunned friend, Xena spoke up again. “So, Ephiny won’t be back ‘til morning?”
“Probably not, no.” Gabrielle answered then gave in to a yawn. Even now, after all this time and in spite of how their circumstances had changed, Xena’s presence still made her feel content and secure.
Xena chuckled, privately. Nothing kept Gabrielle from her sleep, or her food, no matter how fervently she would protest or deny the fact. “Let’s get some sleep, then. Like old times, huh?” She smiled at Gabrielle, happy to be with her, and reached over to squeeze her shoulder. “C’mon, it’s a cold night.” She went to the bed and stretched her long frame out on it, weary. Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, then willingly came to join her with an eagerness that surprised them both. “No point in us both getting’ chilly. I missed you, you know.” In fact, this was an understatement in the extreme, but Xena kept her voice light as she held out her arms for Gabrielle.
“I’ve missed you…” Suddenly desperate, the girl pressed herself against Xena and grasped hold of her shift, clutching the material tightly in her fists. “Xena.” She exhaled slowly, overwhelmed by how the feel of Xena’s arms and the scent of her flesh had affected her. She hadn’t known she could miss one person so acutely.
“There.” Xena cuddled Gabrielle against her body. “There now. Close your eyes, try to sleep.”
When they had first met they had always lain on either side of the fire, with Xena in a position where she could silently get up and stalk about when she chose to, and Gabrielle a little further back from the flames, tucked somewhere more protected. Gabrielle remembered the first time they shared the same bedroll; it hadn’t been through choice. The memory amused her now, but at the time it had been a big deal for the little Poteidaian tagalong to get so close to the impenetrable warrior.
They were with a group of travellers – Amazons, actually, but offshoots of an Eastern tribe – and it was winter. They all carried their tiny sleeping tents with them, and apparatus designed to be hauled around had to be small and compact. The two women had stood staring at their shoddy tent the first night, wondering how a large dog could comfortably fit into it, let alone two people. “Xena won’t get her boots in past the knees!” Gabrielle had exclaimed, still able to laugh because the icy night winds hadn’t yet picked up.
“We’re in a war, Gabrielle,” The Warrior had told her, “There’s no room for luxuries.” She disappeared into the tent. “Are you in or out? I’m getting a draft.”
“I’m in, I’m in.” There was no way Gabrielle was sleeping outside. She crawled in and managed to fasten the cloth behind her, struggling to stretch it over Xena’s feet and to fight against the flapping of the material. “It’s so cold!” The tiny lantern didn’t provide the kind of heat a hearty campfire did.
“There’s going to be a freeze.” Xena pulled a hefty fur over her shoulders. “C’mon then -” She held out her arms for Gabrielle, smiling slightly with amusement at the girl’s hesitation. “I don’t bite. I’ll keep you warm, c’mon now, it’s gettin’ chilly.”
There really wasn’t room to lie neatly side by side, unless you wanted your extremities to be on the damp grass. So Gabrielle clambered up beside Xena, trying not to catch her head on the roofing cane, and gingerly set herself down in Xena’s arms. It was instantly warmer, and Xena was much softer than Gabrielle had imagined. Her leathers were smooth, made supple by long use, warmed to her body temperature.
“Now you’re not gonna be snoring all night, are you?” Xena teased her. She threw the fur over them both and nudged Gabrielle’s head more comfortably under her chin.
“Do I usually?” Gabrielle slowly let her weight rest on Xena, her cheek against the soft flesh of her chest. She inhaled tentatively and was surprised by the strength of Xena’s unique smell, leathery and fresh like river water.
“Not usually.” It would be typical, though, for Gabrielle to have one of her fidgety, snuffly nights. Xena settled her arms tightly around the Bard, wanting to benefit from her warmth. “So go to sleep.” She closed her eyes, ignoring the blonde hair tickling her nose.
Gabrielle lay silently in the dim, flickering light, gazing at the silhouettes of the other tents through the material walls. Growing in confidence, her hands slid over the leather clad torso and held on, lightly at first then with a stronger grip. She could feel herself moving slightly as Xena breathed, and, if she closed her eyes, she could hear the slow, strong beat of the other woman’s heart. “This is nice.”
“It is not nice, it’s cold,” Xena mumbled.
“I know, but I meant, you know, being… like this.” She tapped her fingers lightly on the leathers to clarify her point.
“Oh.” Xena was trying to sleep.
“You’ve never held me before.”
“Well you only had to ask.” Xena could feel warm breath at the base of her neck. “Now will you go to sleep?”
After that night they had always slept close together. Sometimes Xena rolled her eyes comically, sometimes she would move her fur closer to Gabrielle’s even at the expense of being further from the fire, but they were always able to touch each other. In happy times, Xena would sleep with just her fingertips brushing Gabrielle’s arm. After a bad day, they would cuddle. Gabrielle had grown so used to it that she had taken it for granted. Only now did she realise how much she missed the simple act of falling asleep beside Xena under the stars every night.
In the stillness of the tent, Xena patted the warm body against her own. “Get some sleep. Gonna have some work on our hands in the morning; that army isn’t far away.” This was said more grimly, and Xena gazed up once more at the roof beams.
“Do you think we can take them on?” Gabrielle lay unblinking in the dark, the blanket over her, her cheek against Xena’s breast. If she kept perfectly still, if she held her breath, she could feel Xena’s heart against her ear.
“The Amazons are a strong nation. If everyone pushes forward, if we stick close, there’s every chance.” That was all that could be said: there was no value in making promises or softening the truth. They would do all that could be done, and it would just have to be enough. Xena’s hand began a gentle stroking movement over Gabrielle’s back, hoping to soothe her into sleep.
“I see.” If everyone fought, they would have a chance. Gabrielle understood. “Thank you for being here.”
“Wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on a ruckus,” Xena laughed. “Anyway, I was getting kind’ve bored without you.”
This was said in a light-hearted tone, and Gabrielle chuckled too. “No more having to drag me out of bed in the morning, or listen to first drafts of my scrolls, or clean your pots when I burn fish on them – yeah, I can see how life would be dull.”
“Mmm, it was,” Xena humoured her, deadpan. “And now I remember why I never got any sleep.”
“Are you saying that was my fault?”
“Good night, Gabrielle.” Xena ended their conversation, and Gabrielle laughed, having forgotten the banter they used to share, passing the time on long, uneventful days of travel. As an afterthought, Xena nuzzled her lips under the fluffy blonde fringe and kissed the girl’s forehead.
Her mouth open in a silent gasp, Gabrielle lay still while the dark haired woman slept, her cheek against warm flesh and her eyes fixed on the blackness around them.
It was time for battle. In Xena’s experience, these things could only be delayed for so long, and eventually you just had to take up your sword and fight. Once in the field, you could use your head for a while, could think and analyse what was going on around you, but soon, when the battle found its own momentum, it became almost mindless. Small wounds were painless, kills were emotionless, the work was savage and never-ending.
With Ephiny at her back and Gabrielle safe in the camp, Xena had reached this stage of automation. She had ceased to see the young boys and the hardened men, those who had bloodlust in their eyes and those who had fear: she dispatched each new enemy with equal efficiency. Her plan had given the Amazons an advantage and they had the upper hand, but they had long passed the point of no return: the killing would continue until nature found her own balance; only then could they stop.
The going was easy for a while, then the Amazons were wrong-footed when their enemy regrouped and came at them with renewed vigour. It came as no surprise to Xena, who had spent enough time at the head of armies to know how they functioned. This was just a last burst of energy, but it would be a challenge.
“Ya!” She swung her sword across her body and knocked away a blade that had appeared to her left.
“Men coming over the hill!” Ephiny called back to her, “I could use a hand here!”
Xena glanced over each shoulder, her back pressed to Ephiny's. Men were approaching her from both sides. She could take on both at the same time, or she could swing around to dispatch one and then be at Ephiny’s side, but she couldn’t take all three. Her hand gripped around the hilt of her sword as she weighed up what to do. Before she could make her decision, the armoured fighter to her right tripped over something between his feet and went over clumsily, breaking something as he dropped.
Xena snarled: so much the better. She instantly turned away from him, heaving around her blade and taking out the man to her left and Ephiny’s attacker in one swing, giving a triumphant cry as she did so.
The familiarity of the voice behind her sent a chill through Xena’s blood, obliterating the stony wall of nonchalance that had built up in her.
“Not bad team work, huh?”
Gabrielle pulled her wooden staff out from between the muddy black boots and quickly positioned herself with her back to her friends, forming a protective triangle. “Do you need some help?”
Ephiny grinned. “Wouldn’t say no, Gab.”
They were in the thick of it, and Xena had to shout over her shoulder to be heard. “What are you doing, it’s dangerous,” she scolded.
“I am not going to sit in my tent while the two of you are out here,” Gabrielle insisted, clumsily but effectively batting away a thin spear. “I changed my mind. These are my people and my lands, I want to fight for them.”
“Well stay focussed,” Xena advised, “There are more coming.”
Gabrielle had had little battle experience, but she held her own because she had studied Xena, and her Amazon sisters. She had watched them intently, and was a fast learner. She was small and nimble on her feet, and for a time the three of them fought in their triangle formation, defeating the army one soldier at a time.
The Amazons had been forced from their protective ranks and were spread across the plain, but the battle was all but won, without too many casualties on their side. Every now and again an arrow would spill from the sky, enemy wounded would stagger from the ground for a fresh assault, and freed horses would skitter over the grass: it still wasn’t a safe place to be.
Xena felt something barge against her, recognised it immediately as Gabrielle. Even as she was wondering with a degree of irritation why the girl was distracting her, she was turning and being knocked off balance by Ephiny, who had moved quicker. Time seemed to slow, and Xena felt isolated, the sounds of the battlefield echoing away down a long tunnel. Something bumped against her leg and she felt sickened by the awful realisation that it was Gabrielle’s head.
Her friend was suddenly on the ground, groping helplessly at herself, blood spattering from somewhere. Ephiny had dropped and was trying to still her: they were two struggling bodies, and all Xena could make out were limbs, sticky blood, and the cries of an Amazon Princess far too far out of her depth.
Xena’s eyes rose to meet those of the barbarian who stood grinning in front of them, Gabrielle’s blood on his sword. “Damn you,” she whispered. “Damn you to Tartarus.” She hefted up her blade, satisfied with the weight and gleam of it as it moved under the sunlight, and watched the beast’s head roll from his shoulders. It thumped to the mud an instant before he did, his useless sword across his rotten heart.
Gabrielle yelped, an uncharacteristically high pitched sound, and it brought Xena back from a great, detached distance. “Gabrielle!” Feeling came back and slugged Xena in her belly. “What is it, what’s wrong?” Panicked, she struggled to see, her hands pawing at Gabrielle’s body to identify what was just blood stained and what was actually bleeding. “Keep still!”
Together Xena and Ephiny managed to pull Gabrielle’s hand away from her left arm, which had been slashed open. Gabrielle was crying out, visibly torn between trying to see and not wanting to look. Blood had spattered up onto her face and hair, and the arm bled profusely, draining her fingers of colour.
Ephiny called for the others, beckoned them to bring a litter. She had Gabrielle’s head cradled in her arms, and found herself taking more and more weight as the cries grew softer and Gabrielle began to lose consciousness. “Don’t sleep, Gabrielle,” she insisted in an urgent whisper, “You mustn’t sleep now, stay awake.”
Xena clamped her hands around the wound, trying to stem the flow of thick, sticky liquid. “It’s all right,” she shouted over the commotion around her, “Gabrielle, it’s all right -” Perhaps if she could insist it firmly enough Gabrielle would have to believe her. Gabrielle always listened to everything she said: if she willed her friend to stay alive she wouldn’t dare disobey, would she?
When the Amazons brought a stretcher Xena’s hands worked automatically, tying a length of linen tightly around Gabrielle’s upper arm to reduce the blood supply and helping to haul her body onto the weaved sticks. Her mind, though, was racing around in dizzy circles and she couldn’t think clearly. She should have protected Gabrielle: somehow she could have and should have avoided this. What did the outlying villages matter anyway, she told herself savagely, she should’ve just gotten Gabrielle and gotten out, and to Hades with everyone else. Damn this place, she wished she’d never set eyes on it.
They all stumbled untidily into the large tent that had been set up as a field hospital. All around there were wounded Amazons, but at least there was order, and a space to set Gabrielle down: that was more than Xena would have anticipated a day or two ago.
Gabrielle had passed into darkness for several moments, but when they began to work on her she roused, her eyes glazed over and searching for focus, her hand gripping at the blankets underneath her. “Xena?”
“I’m here, Sweetheart,” Xena told her, “Right here.” She hurriedly investigated the edges of the wound then pressed a clean linen over it while she waited for a bone needle and yarn to be brought to her.
Gabrielle rolled her head and took in Xena for a moment.
Before she could panic, Ephiny squeezed her hand. “I’m here, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle nodded, slowly, then looked back to Xena and her arm. She watched a healer hand the Warrior her needle. “That’s going to hurt, isn’t it.”
Ephiny helped her lift her head. “This’ll help: here, take some -” She held a small ceramic cup to Gabrielle’s mouth, wanting her to take some of the herbs and liquor that would numb the pain. Gabrielle scowled but swallowed.
“I can still feel it -”
“Hold still.” Xena told her, “I can numb it for a while.” Turning the pale face away with one hand, she drew back the other and jabbed two fingers against Gabrielle’s neck.
“Aww!” Gabrielle screamed once and jerked, but then relaxed again and rubbed at her neck.
Xena studied her friend, forcing herself to be detached, just for as long as it took to get this done. There was blood everywhere, all the more visible against deathly white skin. “Is it just your arm? No where else?”
Gabrielle looked down at herself, drugs swimming in her brain. “I… I don’t know.”
“Let’s see then, take this off -” Xena untied the brown cord at Gabrielle’s chest.
Gabrielle’s cold hand went to block Xena’s. “Everyone will see -”
Ephiny gently pulled her arm away. “It’s a field hospital, Gabrielle, no one’s looking at you.” She interweaved their fingers. “I’ll wash off some of this blood; it’ll make you feel better.”
Gabrielle responded automatically to the warm smile and encouraging tone with a nod, but her mind was hazy, and lying flat made her dizzy. Xena quickly checked for other injuries, then Ephiny washed and covered her as best she could, but Gabrielle barely noticed them. She felt as if she were floating within herself, present but detached. Her arm hurt, but again, the pain felt a long way away. Xena’s fingers were surprisingly delicate and nimble in their work. It was a striking contrast to when she was fighting, or gutting a kill, or chopping wood, and Gabrielle rolled her head on the fur to watch. When Xena found her hands constricted under Gabrielle’s chin she would gently nudge her patient’s head to one side, only for Gabrielle’s gaze to wander back shortly after.
The Warrior set down her needle: she’d sealed the wound as best she could. It wasn’t pretty, but Gabrielle was young and would heal quickly. The most important thing was that the blood loss had ceased. If Gabrielle was kept quiet, with warmth and enough to eat and drink, she would pull through. From what Xena could hear, the fighting was over.
Exchanging relieved glances with her friend, Ephiny stroked at Gabrielle’s face to get her attention. “It’s over, I have something clean for you to wear.”
Xena wiped her hands on a cloth. “Sounds good, huh?” She tried to summon up some good humour, despite the chill at the pit of her heart. “C’mon, sittup. I gotcha.” She slid her hands under Gabrielle’s arms and lifted her upper body. She was floppy and heavy for a moment, her head hung back, until she stirred and her muscle tone returned. “Everything’s all right.” Xena waited for Ephiny to untie the girl’s skirt, which was stained with her blood, then got an arm under her thighs and lifted her up with an exaggerated groan of effort, letting Ephiny clean up.
Gabrielle felt cool and slightly clammy, but she was alive. She was as white as the linen that covered her, but her lips had a little colour, and they were upturned slightly. Xena shuffled back a little, giving Ephiny room and wanting just a moment to be with Gabrielle, to feel her vitality and to silently thank whichever Gods were listening. Under the sheet, Gabrielle’s body was soft in her arms, its warmth gradually returning, and her skin was youthful and beautiful. It was a nice moment, but Xena’s heart wrung when the girl lifted a hand to stroke lovingly over her cheek. “Ephiny’s right behind you,” Xena explained, sure Gabrielle had gotten them confused.
But Gabrielle nodded, understanding this, and didn’t drop her hand until she was ready. “I love you,” she whispered, resting her head against the Warrior’s shoulder.
“I love you,” Xena returned.
She watched the tiny nod, then saw that Ephiny was waiting, and put Gabrielle down on the clean fur. They dressed her and tied her arm in a sling. It was all that could be done for now.
“Take her, Ephiny.” Xena wiped her stained hands on the rag again, suddenly exhausted and resting heavily back on her heels. “You’re her partner, you go with her.” She watched the Amazon woman gently guide Gabrielle up to her feet and away toward a private corner of the tent. Bone tired, in body and soul, Xena rubbed the cloth over her hands compulsively, then stood gazing at where the blood had stained the fine lines of her palm. She never thought she’d find herself with Gabrielle’s blood smeared on her hands. She hadn’t been holding the knife, but the wound still felt like her fault. Protecting her companion before had never been much of a problem, while Gabrielle was happy to linger behind and watch, but it wasn’t going to be possible now. Gabrielle was no longer a little girl, she was an adult who had to make her own choices. Xena told herself that she couldn’t be responsible if those choices led to days like this, so what was the rock of ice behind her ribcage? Was it really guilt, she wondered, the guilt that she deserved and therefore always expected to feel, or was it just pain? Pain and remorse and wretched jealousy. Could one girl’s injury really cause her so much heartache? If she could’ve transferred the wound to herself she would have, but it went deeper than that. She looked over to the rough orange curtain that concealed Gabrielle, and wished she could be with her. Somehow, that would’ve helped. It wasn’t a thing Xena could describe or understand, she only knew it to be true.
In a calmer area of the tent, set aside for those who needed to rest, Ephiny helped her partner down onto a makeshift bed of furs and throws, and lay out beside her. “I’m here.” She pulled a blanket over Gabrielle’s legs and took her into her arms. “It’s all over.”
Gabrielle nodded. Ephiny was leaning against the wooden beam which supported the ceiling, and was comfortable to rest snugly against. The pain was still there, but she’d gotten used to it, and that made it easier to bear. The heady mix of drugs made her feel dozy and as if her mind were swimming. Sometimes she seemed to move further from consciousness, and enter a warm, dark place where she could rest.
“You’ll be all right, Gabrielle, you will.” Ephiny kissed Gabrielle’s hair, tenderly holding the blonde head against her. She doubted the girl was listening to her, her eyes closed and her breathing deep, so she just sat with her. Flecks of blood remained in Gabrielle’s fringe, and her skin was still a shade too white. Others had been more badly hurt, but Gabrielle had fought bravely, and Ephiny was proud of her.
For a time Gabrielle snored in her characteristically soft fashion, her hands resting on Ephiny’s arms and her cheek on her shoulder. When she stirred, she mumbled without opening her eyes. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Where else would I be?” Ephiny teased gently, looking down at her.
“You came back for me, Xena…” The Bard nestled her face under Ephiny’s chin, all her weight on the elder woman.
Ephiny heard this, truly heard, and nodded, her fingers absently stroking a bare shoulder.
Gabrielle pressed herself closer. “I’m so in love with you.”
Ephiny smiled a little sadly. “I know.” She watched Gabrielle sleep, studying the peaceful face from which came so much goodness and purity. The girl deserved to be happy, an error of judgement didn’t negate that, and it had been fairly obvious to Ephiny for some time that such happiness could only be provided by Xena, of whom Gabrielle never ceased to think and speak. It was because she loved her sister in return that when Xena returned, some hours later, the Amazon rose.
Xena had cleaned up, and was holding a wooden dish and spoon awkwardly. With her leathers and a dagger at her side, it was a rather incongruous image. “How is she?” She asked tensely.
“She’s been sleeping.”
Xena nodded, her eyes floating down to settle on Gabrielle. Then she inhaled and squared her shoulders, facing Ephiny again. “Here. She should eat.”
Ephiny pushed the bowl back. “No, you do it, Xena. You sit with her. I’ll be helping the others.” She smiled at the Warrior and left her, knowing really that that was how it should’ve been all along.
Uneasy, Xena sat. She had just learned to be herself with Gabrielle, to let down her defences, to give herself, and now… what right did she have now? “Gabrielle -” She gently nudged at the sleeping girl. “Wake up, you need to eat.” She waited for Gabrielle to stir and push the thick red blanket back from her face.
“Oh, Xena…” She had thought Xena had been there before: maybe she had just been dreaming.
“Uh ha. Sit up. You hungry?” She helped her friend to sit, careful not to pull on her arm, and propped her against the wooden beam.
“I don’t know, a little maybe.” Gabrielle peered into the dish.
“Yeah, sure you are.” Xena smiled, settling on her knees in front of the Bard. “I thought you were always hungry.” She scooped a little of the hot oaty mix onto the spoon and offered it to Gabrielle, watching attentively as she ate. “Even with my cooking.”
“Even then.” Gabrielle smiled too. Xena knew all about her, and had always understood her. She swallowed the sweetness and took some more.
“How’s the arm?” Xena studied Gabrielle’s face, feeling pain at the sight of a nick above the Bard’s eye that she hadn’t noticed before. Gabrielle was still visibly pale, her lips a little ashen and her hair lank and dark.
“I can feel it,” Gabrielle glanced down at her sling, supporting it gingerly
on her lap, “But I’ll live.”
“That’s the spirit.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I’ve had enough.” The food was good, but she felt tired and her chest was heavy, and eating was too much effort.
“C’mon, you’ve barely had any.” Xena had a gift for knowing the right way to coax her friend into something. Sometimes humour was the best approach, sometimes she would be firm, and other times, like now, she would shuffle a little closer and give a particular smile, and Gabrielle would give in every time. She watched the girl take some more. “Good.”
“You keep feeding me up like this and Argo won’t be able to carry me.” Gabrielle laughed to herself, her eyes closed, then sobered. “I suppose she doesn’t even remember me, though.”
“Nah, ‘course she does.” Xena put down the bowl. “Argo misses you.”
That made Gabrielle laugh again. “I don’t believe you.”
“No it’s true, she does.” Xena sat herself beside her friend. “Like I do. I’ve told you that.”
Gabrielle rolled her head on the beam and gazed into sky blue eyes that held her own. The pain in her arm seemed to be getting worse with every moment, little swords jabbing deeper and deeper into her muscle. Equal in intensity, anguish wrung out her heart, making her more and more desperate. The combination of the two was too overwhelming to fight, persistent and exhausting as they were. “Xena…”
“Shh.” Seeing the pain on Gabrielle’s face, Xena stroked her hair. “It’s been good to see you again,” she continued, forcing a smile, trying to distract Gabrielle with conversation. In truth it hadn’t been good to see Gabrielle again, because it only necessitated having to say goodbye all over again. The thought flicked across Xena’s mind that if she hadn’t come, the Amazons might have been defeated, and for a heartbeat she wondered if that might’ve been for the best, too, because then Gabrielle would have no choice but to return to her. She shocked herself with her own wickedness, and felt instantly guilty and doubly depressed.
“I think I’ve made the biggest mistake.” Gabrielle closed her eyes against the throbbing, her voice gone breathy.
“You were trying to protect your home,” Xena insisted, “You had to fight, to do what you thought was best.”
“No, no,” The Girl argued with irritation, pulling pointlessly at the rug over her legs. “Not the fighting. I understand now. If someone threatens me, or my people, or you, then I’ll do whatever it takes to stop them. I didn’t mean that.”
“Oh.” The Warrior listened to this with quiet dismay. Surely then Gabrielle meant that it’d been a mistake to join her in the first place, to leave her peaceful village and set herself on a path which inevitably led to this. Xena knew it, but she didn’t want to hear it.
“I should’ve stayed with you,” Gabrielle told her, fighting the pain and the need to sleep. “I love Ephiny, but I belong with you – can’t you see that?” She fidgeted with the pain and frustration, trying to see through the haze in her mind, then her energy gave out and she stilled again. “I love you.” She shrugged: it was as simple as that. “I want to be with you.”
A great lump of shock and emotion rose up in Xena and she couldn’t speak straight away, couldn’t give any of the sensible, altruistic responses she’d planned when she fantasised this moment. She wanted to laugh, but tears stung at her eyes. She suddenly felt very tired again. “I wanna be with you, Gabrielle.” She reached around the girl and held her, scratching her fingers into the reddish hair. “We’ll be together.” She felt Gabrielle nod, and happily took her weight, warm and soft as she was. Xena kissed her head. Gabrielle was safe, and they would be together. Everything else would wait.
And so everything was perfect for Gabrielle. Everything except, of course, Ephiny. Gabrielle knew she had no choice – her place was at Xena’s side – but how to tell Ephiny without hurting her? How could Gabrielle make her see that this had never been a game, she had never intended to use or betray the Amazons, she had just made a dreadful error of judgement. She loved Ephiny and her guilt was huge, but she couldn’t live each day as a lie.
Xena had offered to help, to talk to Ephiny, or at least be there, but Gabrielle knew that wasn’t right. She owed Ephiny an honest explanation, and a private one. She wasn’t a child now, having grown up in these last few months, and she had to face her own problems.
She turned when she heard Ephiny come into their tent, and managed to return her friend’s smile. “Hey Gabrielle, how’s your arm?” Ephiny came over to her and gently stroked her shoulder.
“It’s not so bad, I’m all right.” Gabrielle wiggled her pinkish fingers as proof. Supported in its sling, her arm felt hot and stiff but wasn’t painful if she kept it still.
“That’s good. You’ve rested, you feel like going for a walk? It’s warm out.”
Ephiny’s hand moved down to take Gabrielle’s. The younger woman squeezed the fingers in her palm. It wouldn’t make any difference where they talked, she supposed: the outcome would be the same. “Okay.”
The walked together through the village and over the grassy fields to the top of a gentle hill where one could sit and look out across the lands below. With the army defeated, it was once again safe to go about life as usual, and everything was peaceful. Gabrielle held onto the warm hand in hers, turning over in her mind how she could say goodbye to the woman she claimed to love. If Xena could’ve been happy here Gabrielle would willingly stay, and no one would be hurt, but she knew the Warrior would never settle in a small village. Her mother had frequently told her, ‘You can have a slice of cake, Child, or you can have an apple: not both’. Gabrielle never had been very good at choosing.
“You like stories, don’t you, Gabrielle,” Ephiny said, after some small talk which her distracted companion hadn’t been very responsive to. “Would you like to hear one?” She sat down on the fresh grass and gently eased Gabrielle down beside her.
“Of course.” This took Gabrielle by surprise and brought back her attention. She was always weaving tales, in her mind and out loud, but Ephiny wasn’t much more of a bard than Xena was, and she had only recounted a couple of childhood stories to Gabrielle.
“All right.” Ephiny pointed out over their lands, almost to the horizon where the ocean was just visible. “You see that rock?” A short distance from the craggy cliff was a huge outcropping of brownish rock, jutting out of the sea.
“The Rock of Dendricles? Yes, I’ve been there.” Gabrielle listened attentively. She hadn’t seen anything of particular interest in the ancient stone – it was lifeless apart from a scrap of grass and a few nesting birds – but she was always eager to hear a story.
Ephiny nodded and began. “Many, many years ago, before we were alive, even before Amazons walked the Earth, when the world was still forming, that rock stood on top of the cliff.” She indicated with her finger. “One day there was a great storm. There was wind, and rain, and a huge lightning bolt came down and struck the rock. The fury of the Gods that day was so great that the lightning split the rock in two. The rain battered at it, washing earth away from its base, and one half crashed down into the sea.”
“Gods.” Gabrielle could picture such a storm, and imagined she could see the split chunk tumbling into the water, the impact sending great waves up into the sky.
“Eventually the storm ended and everything was calm again, but now one half of the rock was in the sea, and the other half was still on the cliff,” Ephiny continued. “The piece left behind was smaller and more fragile, exposed as it was to the elements. Gradually, over the years, salt water got into the stone and weakened it, and it started to crumble away so that there was only sand left.
“When the next rainy season came, the sand was washed over the edge of the cliff, onto the beach, and then carried out by the waves. The half rock that’d been standing in the sea all this time blocked the passage of the sand and it began to build up around the sides. Over time, sea creatures made their homes there, and tiny mosses and lichens grew, and the grains of sand hardened and turned back to rock.” Ephiny turned to face Gabrielle, who was starring sightlessly out to the horizon. “So you see, the two halves found their way back to each other again. When nature makes a whole, she won’t let it exist in anything but a whole.”
The beaten old rock had taken on a new beauty to Gabrielle, who starred at it with tears as salty as the sea spilling over her cheeks. “Ephiny, I…”
Ephiny took hold of her and pulled her into a cuddle. “I know: you love me, but you belong with Xena.”
The relief and the guilt crashed into Gabrielle like a wave, and she hid her face to cry, her arm clutching onto Ephiny with all the strength she had. “I’m so sorry, I never meant to hurt you.”
“Shh. Don’t explain.” Ephiny gathered the blonde hair up into her hands and kissed the skin she exposed. “I understand you, Gabrielle: I know who you are.” She drew back enough to hold Gabrielle’s face and look at her. “Don’t feel bad, I’ll always love you.”
Gabrielle tried to return Ephiny’s smile, and found herself laughing despite the sobs that were still coming from her, the intensity of feeling was so great. “I love you,” she assured, and Ephiny nodded and kissed her on the lips. “How… how did you know?” She sniffed and sat back to rub at her face.
“I think I have for a while,” Ephiny said, releasing her but not breaking the contact. “Not at first, but later. In the beginning I assumed you were always talking about Xena because you were excited and that was all you knew, but when you went on talking about her… well, then I realised.”
Gabrielle nodded, thinking that on reflection this made sense. “I am sorry,” she repeated. “If I could have avoided this, been more certain in the first place, I would have.”
“I wouldn’t,” Ephiny argued, characteristically forthright and good humoured. “I’ve made a precious friend, and the Amazons have a fine Queen-to-be. I wouldn’t change anything.”
Gabrielle appreciated this enormously and was chokingly moved by it. The two sat side by side in silence for a while, resting against each other, then made their way back to the village.
The two women had spent all day travelling and now the sun was setting. In bare feet, Xena padded across the grass to the small clearing where her soulmate sat on a long, low rock, gazing out across a sleepy beach far below. She stood in silence for a time, wondering how her young friend was feeling. Finally she walked over and sat down. “You’re missing Ephiny?” She watched several birds flutter and squawk across the sky.
Gabrielle inhaled, smoothing her new, shorter brown skirt over her legs. “I do miss her, but I’m where I want to be.” She looked across to give Xena a smile. “My place is with you.”
The Warrior let her eyes trail over Gabrielle’s hands, small and delicate in her lap, and wanted to hold them, to squeeze them and give them warmth. “We’ll be together, Gabrielle. Always.” She hesitantly reached out, letting her hand hover above Gabrielle’s, too uncertain to actually make the contact. When Gabrielle caught her hand and clutched it tight against her thigh, happiness and relief went through the Warrior like fire through dry timber, and she felt her voice become slightly shaky. “You’re my best friend.”
Letting go, Gabrielle turned to face her, her expression slightly troubled. She took a moment to settle her leg comfortably underneath her, and her free hand played absently with a hole in her red boot. Concerned by her expression, Xena waited impatiently for her to speak. “Is that what we are, Xena? We’re best friends?” Her tone was mild and suggested neither satisfaction nor displeasure, leaving Xena unsure how to respond.
“What do you want us to be?”
Gabrielle, who hadn’t looked her in the eye to this point, released her hand to scratch distractedly at her own hair. She appeared thoughtful for a moment, then, as if with no prior planning or consideration, leaned over and touched her lips to the elder woman’s, soft and simple.
It was the sweetest little kiss Xena had ever had, and she almost smiled, amused by the innocence and impulsiveness of the gesture. She felt small fingers find hers on the stone again and weave in between them, the pale palm surprisingly sweaty as it rested against her own.
Loving and accepting of her friend, Xena parted her lips just a little, wanting to open herself and show that her defences were down. She loved Gabrielle – that much she had learned in these last few months – and she wanted them to be together. It would be no great difficulty to make love to her, if that was what she needed from their relationship, Xena decided. When she had been young, others had used sex to manipulate her. Later, with power and confidence behind her, she had used it to manipulate others. Now, she could scarcely recall the last time she had given it a thought. Gabrielle was young, though, gentle and loving, and if she wanted physical expression of Xena’s feelings for her, wanted for them to sleep together naked rather than clothed, it would be no great compromise. Gabrielle had had her heart for some time: Xena would willingly give her body too, if that was what her soulmate desired.
Gabrielle drew back, her eyes opening. As Xena watched she stroked her hands lightly over the Warrior’s shoulders, exploring, then pushed her fingers into the thick black hair, caressing it before letting her hands come to rest cupping Xena’s face. Her affection was written across her features now, her green eyes full of love and her lips slightly upturned, and Xena instinctively leaned in to receive the light kiss that was pressed to her cheek.
“I went to the Amazons to find a family,” Gabrielle confided, “but I already have that right here. I had my sisters: that’s how I’d like us to be. Like blood.” Xena nodded acceptance of this, and, having said her piece, Gabrielle turned in the Warrior’s arms and rested back against her to watch the sunset. “So long as we can still do that, every so often.” She bargained comically, her tongue going across her bottom lip. “That’s part of the deal, okay?”
Xena laughed at her and encircled her in familiar, strong arms. “Understood, Gabrielle.”
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