Convert this page to Pilot DOC Format
As Good As My Word
Shuffling her feet to a private rhythm, Gabrielle moved listlessly along the tree-lined gravel road, concentrating her attention on the sound of her boots crunching against the pebbles, planting her staff with each step. All around her, insect orchestras tuned-up and readied for their dusk performance, but the bard was too preoccupied to appreciate their efforts. She wondered why the atmosphere throughout the castle had been so tense, but no one had been forthright enough to tell her what was going on, least of all the woman with whom she had arrived the previous morning. There were secret meetings with the king at all hours, always behind closed doors, whispers in the hallway, strangers scurrying in and out of the royal chambers, and no answers for the inquisitive young storyteller. Being kept in the dark always annoyed Gabrielle, especially when certain people gave her patronizing looks and promises of explanations to come at some unspecified time in the future.
She started slightly at the far away sound of a voice -- perhaps it was someone calling her name -- then returned her focus to her feet. The irked bard knew who the voice belonged to, and she decided to pay the bearer no attention. The strong cadence of hooves beating against the ground and the soft spray of gravel punctuating each stride heralded the approach of a swift horse, and Gabrielle once again heard her name float toward her atop the wave of noise crashing through the humid air. The petite redhead slowed her pace a bit, but kept walking in the middle of the road (so as not to appear to be waiting), and waited. Scant moments later, a golden palomino mare drew alongside her and the rider dismounted immediately, and after two long strides stood in front of Gabrielle. "And just where do you think you're going?" asked the tall, armored roadblock. Gabrielle frowned furiously, contorting her face into a monstrous grimace before lifting her eyes to meet those of the woman who questioned her. Her angry expression melted away with one look at the face before her. The beautiful countenance of her best friend was now decorated with a swollen, split upper lip, and a nasty looking black eye. A sharp intake of breath betrayed her concern; after all, there were perhaps a handful of living beings in the known world who could deal a single injurious blow -- let alone two- to Xena, Warrior Princess. "I'm not going anywhere now. What in Zeus' name happened to you? Who did this?" the bard asked, dropping the staff as her hands moved instinctively to Xena's mildly battered face. Xena drew back and took Gabrielle's hands in her own, shaking her head to dismiss the young woman's excessive worry. "King Lias clobbered me with his scepter. It was an accident. It's nothing, really. Doesn't even hurt...now, anyway." She smiled and released the small hands, only to find one creeping again toward her face. The warrior rolled her eyes and stooped to level herself with the smaller woman. "Go ahead. If it'll make you feel better, just get it over with," she grumped through a crooked smile.
Gabrielle clenched her jaw in sympathy as she gingerly traced her fingers around the deep purple bruise, wincing as she noticed the cobalt blue eye now shot through with red. Two stitches adorned Xena's busted lip, and Gabrielle fought the urge to place a small kiss there, knowing that her high-strung friend would have a fit over such a blatantly sentimental gesture. Instead, she applied a light pinch to the warrior's nose. "You must be slowing down in your old age," she teased. Xena jerked her head away and straightened her posture, squaring her shoulders and glaring down at the only person who would dare say or do such a thing, knowing she could get away with it.
"No, really," the young Amazon continued, "first I scored a direct hit to your nose with my staff, and now this? What will become of your fearsome reputation when word gets out that Xena, Destroyer of Nations, gets beaten up by bards and elderly men?" Xena refused to take the bait. She tolerated the teasing and the laughter for a few more moments before remounting Argo and extending an arm down to Gabrielle. "Come on, funny girl. We should get back to the castle. I need to talk to you." Xena's serious tone prompted the bard to forego the standard objections to traveling on horseback, and she retrieved her fallen staff and took the proffered arm, swinging herself up behind the warrior without another word.
Night had begun to settle a blanket of darkness over the land by the time the horse and her two riders reached the city gates. Two armed guards stood watch, and they opened the heavy wooden doors without questions upon seeing Xena approach. They were well past the days of mistaken identity now, and everyone in Treus knew of the incredible likeness between their own Princess Diana, the king's personal cook, Meg, and the Warrior Princess, Xena. All three had raven hair, luminous blue eyes, and all were unusually tall, but each woman was easily identifiable due to drastic differences in their dress, speech, and demeanor. The elegant, perfectly coifed Diana wore the finest gowns, had impeccable manners, and a preternaturally sweet disposition. Meg leaned toward saucier outfits (and behaviors), and possessed a randy sense of humor. Finally, there was Xena. The notorious ex-warlord was known for her leather and armor, sword and chakram, grave bearing and martial prowess. Not to mention a certain lovely, red-haired, ever-present, erstwhile Amazon queen, who the soldiers noticed was at that moment clinging to the warrior like a barnacle as they rode toward the castle.
After entrusting Argo to a conscientious stable hand, Xena and Gabrielle stole into the castle through a back entrance, and discretely returned to their room without encountering a soul. Gabrielle was curious about the whole cloak and dagger routine, but Xena seemed intent on keeping their return quiet for as long as possible. When they were finally behind closed doors, the bard seated herself on the edge of an overstuffed red divan and waited patiently for an explanation. Xena checked the suite thoroughly for intruders, rats, or who knows what. Once she was certain that the room was secure, the warrior moved to sit by Gabrielle's side, close enough to speak in a whisper.
"Gabrielle, King Lias is dying." Xena spoke softly, but clearly and with no hesitation. "His health is much worse than last time, and there is no real hope for recovery. He asked us to come here because he was certain he didn't have very long. Lias wanted to see his friends and give away a few personal things before he became too ill to receive visitors, but he's taken a turn for the worse since our arrival." Gabrielle took Xena's hand and met her eyes, her face conveying the sorrow she knew they both felt.
Xena continued, "His mind and body are betraying him, Gabrielle. He's in constant, intense pain. He can't speak his thoughts, and often he can't control his limbs. The poor man just stares and mumbles, doesn't make any sense. He can't feed or clean himself, he needs constant care. Meg and Diana are doing all they can for him, but his eyes, Gabrielle, his eyes are so..."
The warrior's steady voice cracked and trailed off. Tears welled up and ran freely down her cheeks. Gabrielle reached for her, only to have her arms caught and eased down again. "Please, wait. I need to tell you everything. I have to get it all out now," Xena whispered. Gabrielle nodded and renewed her grip on her friend's hand.
"King Lias is a proud man, a wise ruler and a loving father and grandfather. He's also one of the few people who seems proud to call me a friend. That means a lot to me." Xena took a deep breath and wiped her eyes with the back of her free hand. "It nearly killed me when I saw him yesterday. He was propped up in his bed with Meg and Diana on either side, holding his hands, which seem to shake constantly now. His jaw hung open, his lips trembled. And his eyes were so full of...shame. He's still inside that body, trapped and disgusted with his own helplessness." The tears flowed unabated, and Xena again drew her hand across her eyes. "He cried when he saw me, Gabrielle. He wept like a child. I didn't fully understand why until I read this." Xena produced a small roll of parchment from her boot and handed it to Gabrielle. The warrior stood and walked to the open window while Gabrielle silently read the king's message.
If you are reading this sealed message, it means that my illness has robbed me of my faculties, as I feared it would. I had hoped to speak these words to you myself, but I hope this letter will prove an adequate substitute. First, let me assure you that the kingdom is secure and you have not been summoned to perform some breathtaking act of heroism to ensure the safety of my people or my family. I requested your presence for two purely selfish reasons. First, I am an old man, and I want to be surrounded by those whom I love and respect when I am called to meet my judgment in the Underworld. You, Xena, are among those near to my heart. Thank you for coming. Second, I know that you will understand this request and not think me insane for broaching the subject, since we discussed this very issue during your last visit.
Do you remember sitting in the courtyard, long after the ceremony had ended, and sharing two excellent bottles of wine with a foolish old man? I recall every word, every moment, for that is when I came to this decision. Xena, I want to retain my dignity, my autonomy. If my illness has stolen these away from me, I am now calling on you, my friend, to restore them. Xena, I believe that you understand what this means to me, and that your judgment is unaffected by sentiment. You know that if I possessed the strength and presence of mind, I would carry out my plan alone and not trouble you with such a difficult request. Please, do not sit by and let my family suffer through an interminable period of uncertainty, anguish and false hope. I have enclosed specific instructions in a separate message. I pray that you will grant this, my last wish. Yours in gratitude and love, Lias, King of Treus
Gabrielle rolled the parchment and placed it on the divan, and went to stand by Xena at the window. The bard appeared confused. "Xena, I'm not quite clear what King Lias was asking. What exactly does he want you to do for him?"
The little composure Xena had held onto slipped away, and she leaned against the window ledge for support. "Lias wants me to help him die, Gabrielle. He doesn't want to go on like this, and he's asking me to end his life, to kill him. That's why he lashed out at me today. I told him I didn't think I could do as he asked. He looked so angry, so disappointed."
Xena drew a deep breath and exhaled heavily before continuing. "Lias couldn't speak his feelings, so he acted on them. His scepter was right there, so he whacked me one. Maybe I deserved it, I mean, how can I refuse him a dignified exit? After all the blood I've shed, what could one more death possibly mean, right?" Xena gave a rueful little laugh, then fell silent for a moment. "He wept so hard that I didn't think the tears would ever stop. How can I say no to him? I don't know what to do, Gabrielle. I just don't know what to do."
Gabrielle placed a hand on Xena's shoulder, turning her away from the window just as the warrior collapsed into her arms. Dropping to her knees, she eased Xena to the floor and wrapped her arms around the strong woman now shaking with sobs, overwhelmed by confusion, grief, and guilt.
The sky above Treus was prickled with thousands of dim stars, and accented by a graceful, if weak, sliver of moon. A single lamp burning in the corner combined with the wan light of the heavens, casting a dim glow across the room. Together, they provided enough luminance for Gabrielle to see the face of the woman she still held in her arms. Aside from the injuries, the warrior's countenance was drawn and slightly pale from worry and lack of sleep. Without serious protest, Xena had agreed to lie down and try to get some much-needed rest. An unspoken condition of her surrender was that Gabrielle would continue to hold her for as long as she allowed. Xena didn't ask, and Gabrielle did not offer; it was simply understood. Hours passed as the vigilant bard soothed her friend through a fitful slumber, occasionally stroking her hair or renewing her hold, pulling her close and whispering assurances of safety when she called out in distress.
Outside the window, a nightingale sang softly, providing a gentle counterpoint to Gabrielle's harsh thoughts. 'How could King Lias ask her to do something like this? Had he no idea how much this would hurt her? He obviously doesn't know Xena as well as he thought, or he wouldn't have made such a selfish request. Asking her to kill him, as if she was some heartless executioner! I know she's taken lives before, many times in war. But most who have died at her hand since those days were strangers, and almost all were killed while she was defending our lives, or those of people who couldn't defend themselves. It's different with people she knows, people she loves. Like Marcus. Even though she knew it was for his own good, killing him nearly tore her apart! She does not deserve to endure that kind of pain again.'
Xena muttered something in her sleep and twisted out of Gabrielle's grasp, rolling onto her stomach while her fists repeatedly clenched and released, bunching the soft sheets between fingers and palm. Knowing that she could not stand by and watch while Xena suffered, Gabrielle resolved to take this up with the king himself. If he had been lucid enough to understand Xena's refusal and spry enough to assault her with his blasted scepter, well then, he was well enough for an audience with a perturbed Amazon queen, one who wished to share a few choice words with his royal majesty. Gabrielle slid quietly from the bed and crept from the room, glancing over her shoulder at her best friend, still trapped in a restless sleep.
Torches lined the hallway to the king's bed chamber, making navigation easy if not stealthy. Gabrielle saw the two soldiers posted outside the door, and decided that the best way to get past the royal guard is to act as if you know exactly where you're going and what you're doing, and that it's none of their business. 'Act haughty, nonchalant. Going into the king's chamber in the middle of the night, no biggie.' As she approached, she nodded curtly to the guards and turned sideways as if to slip between them to reach the door. The guards looked at each other, both shaking their heads. No one had said anything about allowing the little redhead entry to the chamber. They closed ranks, blocking Gabrielle's path to the door and trapping her already extended arm between them. Her hand had just closed on the handle and pressed on the thumb-latch when the door suddenly pulled away from her, opening from inside. A hand darted out from the room and shoved one of the guards aside, opening a path of entry just before the other hand closed around Gabrielle's arm and jerked her inside, the door closing swiftly behind her.
"What in the blazes of Tartarus are you doing here at this time of night?" a familiar voice hissed from behind. "Shouldn't you be asleep or something?"
Gabrielle knew without visual confirmation that it had to be Meg. Turning to face her, the bard decided to play it cool. "Xena confided in me about the king's illness. She's exhausted and I finally convinced her to get some sleep, but I promised that I would check on King Lias for her. How is he doing?"
Meg eyed the interloper with mild suspicion, not completely convinced that Xena would send Gabrielle to sit watch in her stead, especially in the dead of night. Gabrielle only scrunched her face in concern, waiting for an answer. "Not well," Meg replied, "he's been very restless tonight. Can't get to sleep. Keeps asking for wine and offering me a glass, again and again. Tells me I don't drink enough, that I make him feel bad. He's called me Xena more than once. That's about all I can understand. Poor kingy, he's all confused."
'Yeah, poor kingy,' Gabrielle thought bitterly. "Meg, you look exhausted. Why don't you go and lie down for a while, let me keep King Lias company. I promise to send for you if anything changes." Her solicitous tone and sincere expression persuaded Meg that the little Amazon could be trusted to keep watch...for a while, anyway. After several more assurances, the royal cook grudgingly took her leave, but not before informing Gabrielle about the usage and location of the various medicinal aids employed in the king's treatment. As the door closed behind Meg, Gabrielle made her way to the king's bedside, determined to give him an earful for causing her best friend such distress.
Over the king's canopy bed was draped a translucent purple material, serving as both a shade and a privacy screen. Peering through the material, Gabrielle could tell that the king was awake. His hands moved absently above his face, tracing patterns in the air. Drawing aside the filmy barrier and seeing the ailing king clearly in the lamplight, the young woman's breath caught in her throat. All notions of confrontation dissipated instantly, replaced by feelings of remorse and pity. Even Xena's candid description of his appearance had not prepared her for the heartbreaking sight of the emaciated, ashen-faced man lying helpless on his deathbed.
The king wore a loose-fitting short gown made of light golden silk. His ghostly white legs poked out from beneath the hem like thin sticks of chalk. Long, narrow arms, which appeared as fragile as the limbs of an infant, raised and lowered jerkily as the king's bony fingers jittered around his head. His face...well, one look into those blankly staring eyes brought Gabrielle to tears. This man was not King Lias, not the one she knew. That man was already gone. What lay before her was some sort of shell, housing whatever remained of the great king until his thread was completely severed by Atropos, freeing him from his mortal torment.
Though she was quite certain now that this man was beyond understanding or caring, Gabrielle felt it necessary to apologize for her hasty judgment of the situation. Leaning in close, she began to whisper. "King Lias, I'm sorry. I misjudged you. When Xena told me what you had asked of her, I was angry. I thought you were being selfish, asking her to do something that would hurt her so much. I didn't know..." Gabrielle's apology was cut short when Lias suddenly seized her wrist in a surprisingly strong grip and groaned loudly as his body was rocked by painful spasms.
"Uhhnn, uhhhhnnn! Xena! Promise...me! You promised me!" The king's raspy voice rang throughout the large bedchamber. His words were clear and held no possibility for misunderstanding. The bard knew exactly what he meant, and wondered if she had again judged Lias too quickly. Perhaps it was as Xena had said earlier, that the king was still fully aware of what went on around him, he was just no longer able to control his responses.
Gabrielle gently pried his fingers from her wrist and held onto the frail hand. She stroked her fingers across the old man's papery skin, reflecting on all the deaths she had witnessed during the past two years journeying with Xena. Most were swift, coming at the hands of a skilled warrior with mercy in her heart for those engaged in honorable combat. Even when Xena had killed in anger, or out of some twisted sense of necessity (as with a fleeing Horde soldier), she had never seen her intentionally prolong anyone's pain. Xena seemed to know when things were past the point of no return, and ceased her efforts to rescue or revive when the pull of death grew insistent. She had known when Perdicus screamed in agony while suffering from two deep sword wounds that he was beyond aid, and would bleed to death within moments. Gabrielle remembered looking hopefully to the warrior, pleading with her to help her husband. She received only anguished looks and a strong hand on her shoulder, a hand which remained there until the life drained away from his body and he grew cold to the touch.
Xena knew when to let go of life with grace, and when to grab it by the shoulders and shake it violently, waking it up and holding onto it with a vice-like grip. Gabrielle had experienced this firsthand in a besieged temple in Thessaly. She had been mortally wounded and slipped away from life only to awaken moments later, very sore and very much alive, in Xena's arms. She had also witnessed Xena's return from the dead, though the details of the warrior's experiences in the Underworld were still being withheld. The bard realized that her best friend's intimate acquaintance with death gave her a perspective on the dying king's request which Gabrielle did not share.
Was it right to take a life simply to maintain a proud man's dignity? Or to end his pain? Would Lias' death be yet another crime, adding its weight to the scale which Xena would forever struggle to balance? Or would granting a request for mercy be considered an act of charity, weighing in her favor? Gabrielle prayed to the goddess of wisdom for an answer, pleading that a clear path might be shown to lead her friend out of despair. She prayed that release from mortality would come naturally to King Lias, removing the burden of responsibility from Xena's already heavily laden shoulders. Releasing the king's hand, Gabrielle replaced the curtain and sank back into the cushions of her chair. She prayed again, aloud this time, to anyone who would listen. The bard prayed with a fervent eloquence, entreating the benevolent gods to help a noble, dying monarch hold on to his dignity, and to help a penitent warrior maintain her honor.
Darkness still lay thickly across the room when Xena entered the king's chamber, discovering the missing young woman slumbering in a chair by the king's bed. She crept close enough to touch her, and briefly stroked her hair before moving a hand to her shoulder, shaking her awake.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle, wake up. You shouldn't be in here."
The bard opened her eyes with a start, remembering exactly where she wasn't supposed to be. She focused first on the sleeping King Lias, his face silently twisted in pain. Even Morpheus could not provide him with peace now. Turning to face the woman who now knelt at the king's bedside, Gabrielle wondered if anyone could.
"Xena? Do you really think he can still hear us, understand us?" Pondering for a moment, Xena replied, "Yes. Yes, I believe that Lias is aware of everything that's happening to him. I think he's just unable to communicate now, that's all." "Not verbally anyway," Gabrielle whispered, looking again at her friend's battered face. "Although Meg said that he'd been talking a lot earlier. He just didn't make any sense. When he spoke to me..." the bard instantly wished she could suck the words back in, remembering exactly what Lias had said. "What did he say to you, Gabrielle? Tell me," Xena insisted. "He...he said...you promised him." Xena's eyes registered the bard's words as a blow to her heart. The dull ache which usually resided therein flared into a sharp pain as she realized what she had to do. "I did. I gave him my word that if his life lost all quality, if there were no reason for continuing, that I would help him. I have to help him, Gabrielle. I promised." With that, Xena walked to the table at the foot of the bed and retrieved two glass vials and a small cup of water. Gabrielle watched mutely as the stone-faced warrior replaced her vulnerable friend, taking over the solemn task of ending another life. Xena mixed the two drugs with the water, creating the final solution. Alarmed by the sudden surety on the part of the recently conflicted woman, Gabrielle moved to intercept the warrior as she returned to Lias' side. She took Xena's free hand in her own and forced her to look her in the eye. Searching the reddened blue eyes for some sign of uncertainty, she found none. Chancing one last appeal, she softly questioned her friend. "Are you sure? Xena, you don't have to do this. I know how much this would hurt you, and no matter what you think, you don't deserve that pain. You're a good person. The best I have ever known." Xena's expression softened as she noticed a tear drop from the little bard's eye. "Gabrielle, I'm only as good as my word."
Chapter 6 The next night, the oppressive darkness of the Treuan sky was brightened by the brilliance of a noble king's funeral pyre. Citizens from Treus and many of the surrounding lands of Boetia came to pay their respects to the royal family, and to say goodbye to a widely admired man. Standing before those assembled to honor his memory, Queen Diana addressed the crowd. "My father was a strong man. A man who was strong enough to stand up for what he felt was right, even when those beliefs threatened conflict with our neighbors. A man strong enough to resist the temptations to abuse wealth and power, and wise enough to know when to ask for help." At this she turned and looked past her husband, Philemon, and stared directly at the Warrior Princess. Xena shifted her weight from foot to foot, nervously awaiting Diana's next words. Gabrielle, meanwhile, looked as if she had swallowed a hot coal. "Twice, when this kingdom was in jeopardy, he called on his friend, Xena. Each time my father put his trust in you, there were those who called him foolish. He always defended you, believed in you. I want to take this opportunity to thank you for never abusing his faith. He spoke of you often in his last days, and I know he was very grateful that you came to say goodbye." Diana's voice began to crack, and tears streamed down her cheeks. She continued to sing the praises of her late father, and even those who had opposed King Lias in the past came to feel for his daughter's great loss. It was plain to all how much she loved him, and how much pain his illness had caused the sensitive young woman. There was a collective sense of relief that he had not lingered long before death came for him. As the ceremony ended, Xena stood near the pyre and sang a beautiful requiem celebrating the life of a man who lived and died with honor. Gabrielle watched from a distance and said a silent prayer that Xena would be granted the same opportunity.