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Astacus was only twenty leagues from Calchedon. Four days' ride and they would ferry across the Bosporus and be in Byzantium. From there they would be a fortnight from Arborea if all went well. Xena was anxious to complete the trip and be reunited with Zoe. She, however, did not look forward to facing Ephiny, Eponin, and the other Amazons. She hoped she could avoid a confrontation with her Amazon friends. She would use the excuse that they needed to leave quickly for Amphipolis to relieve Cyrene's mind and let her know they were safely home. Perhaps there would not be time to question hers and Gabrielle's relationship.
Days blurred as the two traveled through the rugged country side, and they fell into the routine of the journey. Breaking camp every morning and making camp each evening only added to the tedium of the trek through the strange land. The desolation ensured them that they would not be greeted by any wayward travelers or accosted by bandits. The monotony of the journey was only disrupted briefly by the day they spent in Calchedon and Byzantium. They spent one night in an inn in Byzantium so that they could refresh in a warm bath and have a good meal. Xena was surprised that Gabrielle did not even mention the markets of Byzantium; it was known far and wide that they sported the finest markets in the Greek world. She assumed that Gabrielle was just too tired to bother with her usual passion, shopping, and only wished to be home.
They had hardly spoken to each other over the last five days. Xena was wrapped in her own world reliving over and over the events in her life that always seemed to rise out of the gloomy recesses of her mind to remind her of who she was and where she had been. Her preoccupation kept her tongue even quieter than usual as her body automatically carried out the essential functions like riding, eating and sleeping. She never noticed the grim expression on her silent companion's face as Gabrielle studied the stranger before her. She never remembered to revisit the realization that Gabrielle quit writing in her scrolls although there was plenty of things to write about over the last moon. She didn't observe that Gabrielle's appetite was poor, and she only picked at her food. She didn't hear the deafening stillness that cried out from Gabrielle's silent lips. Even if she had noticed all these things, she probably would have done nothing about it; she was powerless to battle her internal demons let alone lift the spirit of another. Besides, she believed it was better this way.
When Petra and Electra arrived in Abdera with Zoe, they were greeted by Amazons who patrolled the docks. Although the harbor was open to all Greek shipping, it was under the auspices of the Amazon Nation, and it was closely guarded by a large Amazon military unit. Immediately being recognized as fellow Amazons, the escort party was delivered to the harbor commander. When Petra explained their mission and the fact that the child they escorted was Queen Gabrielle and the Warrior Princesses', they were quickly provided a well equipped party of warriors to guide them inland to Queen Ephiny. Word had arrived in Abdera that Queen Gabrielle had chosen Xena as her consort over a moon ago, and the Amazons were anxious to provide protection for the child who evidently from the looks of her was Xena’s offspring. The commander of Abdera also sped word to Queen Ephiny that Xena's daughter would be arriving within a day in the escort of six Eastern Province Amazons and a military unit from Abdera.
When Ephiny received the message from Abdera, she thought there had to be some kind of mistake. How could Xena have a daughter? Better yet, when would she have found time? Ephiny immediately called Eponin and made plans to ride out with the welcoming party and see for herself.
Ephiny was struck by the sight she beheld when her party intercepted the Abdera warriors. There on a large war-horse rode a tall, dark Amazon warrior, seated behind her was a petite woman smaller, than Ephiny. In front of the large woman, a raven-haired child. Ephiny stopped dead in her tracks when the child's serious gaze fell upon her. Sitting before her atop the horse was a miniature version of Xena. It wasn't just her eyes and her hair; it was also her demeanor. Everything about the child, with the exception of the dark freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her nose, screamed Xena. Ephiny looked at Eponin who sat astride her horse in equal shock. Finally Ephiny spoke to Eponin, "You and Xena are close; did you know anything about this?" Eponin only shook her head in bewilderment.
Two days out of Byzantium the terrain gradually transformed into the rugged, mountainous region dotted with pleasant valleys and green mountain passes of Eastern Thrace. Gabrielle's heart lightened at the more familiar landscape and the cool early morning air, but Xena seemed even more distant and extremely tense. Gabrielle noted the stiffening through her body as the warrior's senses snapped out of their automatic mode and leaped into high alert. Gabrielle looked around but could distinguish nothing that should put Xena in such a state of anxiety. As they plodded along, signs of civilization became more apparent. Olive trees grew in long rows and stacks of hay dotted a hillside in the distance. She knew they would soon be nearing a small hamlet. Xena pulled Argo up short, causing the horse to whinny in alarm and actually take a step back into the pack horse that followed them. Xena stood in the stirrups and leaned her head out searching the dirt road they followed. She tilted her head listening for any sound that might help her identify the danger she could feel crawling up her skin. She then tapped Argo's sides, and they edged slowly down the trail. Gabrielle could tell Xena was sniffing the air. Gabrielle strained to see or hear anything, but she could detect nothing out of the ordinary. She knew, however, when it came to danger, Xena seldom made a mistake.
"Smell that?" Gabrielle jumped at the sound of Xena's voice.
It had been so long since she had heard Xena say anything and since she had used her voice that when she started to answer, she found she first had to clear her throat, "N...no. What is it, Xena?"
Xena stopped Argo again and replied, "Death." She then reined Argo off the main trail and cut through a small green field and into a large stand of trees. Eventually she came to a small underground stream that gurgled out of a protected rock face and cut its own path down to the bedrock and flowed through the forest. Gabrielle knew Xena had been there before. There was no other way she could have possibly known about this place otherwise. Xena eased Gabrielle down and jumped to the ground. Turning to Gabrielle with a stern look on her face, she stated, "I want you to stay here with the horses, and make camp. There is a village over that ridge." She indicated with her chin. "It's about a league from here. I'm going to see if there is anything I can do." Xena turned and started to walk away when Gabrielle called after her.
Tired of inactivity and assuming the villagers were having trouble with some bandits or the like, Gabrielle pleaded, "Xena, let me come with you."
Xena swung around and grabbed Gabrielle by the upper arms, stared down with dark, icy eyes and said in a harsh, demanding voice, "Gabrielle, no. You are to stay here. Do not come anywhere near that village." Shocked, Gabrielle struggled in her grip and tried to pull away. Then Xena shook her roughly and commanded coldly, "Do what you are told to do, and stop acting like a child." Xena released her as Gabrielle jerked away almost losing her footing. She stared at Xena disbelieving what had just happened and rubbed her arms which were sure to have bruises later. Xena then raised her index finger at Gabrielle and warned her again, "Stay here until I get back." She turned quickly on her heels and loped off in the direction of the village.
Before Xena even entered the hamlet, her fears were confirmed. The smell was unmistakable. Burning, diseased and rotted, human flesh was a smell that she would never forget. As she entered the village, victims of the illness were scattered here and there dying where they dropped. Burning with a raging fever and in the throes of delirium, they had become disoriented and using their remaining strength tried to escape the curse. Xena followed the sickening smell of burning flesh through the town to the pits she knew she would find. The pits were full, but no one tended them, and the fires had burned out. Then she went back into the town to find oil to burn the bodies and to search for survivors. There were usually a few who would be left if they had not run off in a feeble attempt to escape the fate of their neighbors. Of course, all this did was to condemn anyone they came in contact with to the same fate.
Gabrielle examined the angry red marks on her arms in disbelief. She had no idea what she had done to warrant such treatment. Her mind actively tried to analyze what had gone wrong. Xena never treated her this coldly before they had become lovers, or rather before Chloe's death. Sure she had been distant, unreasonable at times, and overly protective, but she had never touched her in anger. She flopped down on a rock and stared off in the direction Xena had run. Then she wondered at her own reaction. Funny, a month ago if Xena would have done this, Gabrielle knew her heart would have been broken. She snorted and thought `I guess Xena's indifference is rubbing off on me.'
After a thorough search of the small village, Xena discovered a score of healthy individuals, mostly young men. The inn and stables she found filled with at least fifty or sixty people who were either dead or dying and suffering from different stages of the disease or who had weathered the worst of the ravages of the disease and were beginning their recuperation. She rounded up the young, healthy men and practically at sword point convinced them they were going to remove the dead from the make-shift hospital and burn the bodies. Along with the village men, she threw herself into carting the dead out of the hospital. Together they tossed the corpses onto carts and took their remains to the pits. After several candlemarks of dirty, hard work, Xena and her troops began disposing of the bodies that littered the streets.
She then sent a detail of six to search every building in the town for bodies. Another six she sent to find the sick and to bring them to the make-shift hospital. The remaining eight she gathered around her in front of the inn and instructed them on their duties. Some were to clean the building; others were to categorize the ill and move them into different sections according to how ill or in what stage of the illness they were. She then briefly outlined the stages of the disease. When they were finished, they were all to bathe the patients and provide them fresh water and food. After receiving their instructions, Xena lead her men into the inn. As they moved into the building, Xena began to give orders when her voice failed her as her eyes fell on a woman tending the sick. Xena's heart skipped several beats. Fear jumped into her throat and she reflexively stepped back; her body felt like lead. She thought for a brief moment she would be ill. The men standing around her looked at her curiously and waited expectantly for her commands. Realizing none were forthcoming, they all followed her gaze to the young blonde woman kneeling beside an ill patient.
In the time it took to bat an eye Xena covered the distance between herself and Gabrielle. She reached down and jerked Gabrielle to her feet. Gabrielle was shocked as the violent jolt slammed her teeth together. When she realized it was Xena who dragged her to her feet, she was angry until she saw the emotions playing across Xena's face. Without a word, Xena clasped Gabrielle to her chest and hugged her tightly. A sob escaped her chest. Gabrielle pulled back and looked up into Xena's eyes and read abject fear there mixed with a mass of other unspoken feelings. Xena took Gabrielle by the hand and lead her out of the inn. Silently she unharnessed one of the horses they had used earlier and lifted Gabrielle to its back. She swung on behind her, held her tightly between her arms, turned the horse towards their camp, and kicked it into a gallop.
When they arrived in camp, Xena leaped from the animal's back before it came to a full stop. She helped Gabrielle down and then slapped the horse on the rump. It galloped out of their camp and turned back towards its village. Xena immediately built a campfire, directed her attention to Gabrielle, and commanded, "Give me your clothes, and get in the stream and scrub every bit of your body including your hair. Don't come out until I tell you to."
Gabrielle complied but asked at the same time, "What is it, Xena?" as she handed over her clothing. Xena tossed each item of clothing into the blazing fire. "Xena, what are you doing?" Xena looked up at Gabrielle standing naked before her and began a visual examination of her body. As Gabrielle's skirt was dropped into the flames, Xena jumped to her feet and touched the skin at Gabrielle's waist. Gabrielle searched Xena's face for an explanation. Xena did not answer but fingered three tiny red marks on Gabrielle's belly.
Xena asked hopefully, "Gabrielle, did you have these this morning?"
Gabrielle averted her gaze and examined the insignificant marks that concerned Xena. "I don't think so, why?" She searched Xena's face and thought Xena was going to cry for a moment. "Tell me what's going on, Xena?"
Pushing Gabrielle towards the stream she replied, "Gabrielle, we don't have time to talk; we must act fast."
Three candlemarks later Xena made camp in a large cave several leagues from the cursed village. In the rear of the cave a cold spring pooled into a shallow, clear lake. After scrubbing herself and Gabrielle clean in the cold forest stream, she hurried Gabrielle onto Argo, and she raced against darkness to reach this cave and complete her preparations. There she built a fire, gathered extra firewood and armloads of soft grass for a bed for Gabrielle. She also snared a rabbit and dressed it and set it to roasting. Gabrielle was unsure what to do or how to react; Xena promised her she would explain everything when all preparations had been made. Gabrielle hoped she would also explain what she meant by that too. When Xena finally spoke, it was not what Gabrielle expected, "Gabrielle, when that rabbit is done, I want you to eat as much of it as possible. You will need your strength. There is a town not far from here; I'm going to ride there and get some things I will need. I won't be gone long, and when I return, we'll talk." Then Xena did something very unexpected; she took Gabrielle's face in her callused hands and gently kissed her lips. Before Gabrielle could say a word, Xena swung into the saddle and galloped out of camp.
Much to Gabrielle's relief, three candlemarks later Xena came galloping back into camp through the darkness. She tended Argo and then carried her new supplies into the cave and stored them on natural rock shelves that had been created ages ago by rushing, underground rivers. She reached into a bag, withdrew a loaf of bread and sat down next to Gabrielle in front of the fire and said, "Here," handing her the bread, "eat as much of this as you can."
Gabrielle took the bread and broke off a chunk and said, "Xena, this bread has mold on it."
"I know. I bought several loaves for you." Gabrielle gave her a strange look. "It might help fight the illness," Xena explained.
Gabrielle dropped her hands and said, "How can you be so sure I'm going to get sick? What about you? You were carrying the dead and throwing bodies over your shoulder. Your not invincible, Xena. What if you get sick?"
Xena drew in a large breath and released a sigh. "I can't get this sickness, Gabrielle, because I already had it." Gabrielle looked curiously into Xena's face. "Once you have had it and if you survive, you cannot get it again. That's the only reason I went into the village to help."
Gabrielle suddenly realized the seriousness of the situation and she asked, "You think I will become ill?" Xena nodded painfully; her throat tightening at the thought of what was going to happen. "How can you be so sure?" Gabrielle said, "Some of those people didn't get it."
"I think the illness is caused by flea bites. You have three bites on your stomach. I don't know how this happens, but I had the same thing," Xena explained trying hard to hide her fear.
The look on Xena's face alarmed Gabrielle, "Xena, you survived this illness. I have you here with me to help me. Surely I can beat it too," Gabrielle said trying not only to convince Xena but herself as well.
Xena looked into Gabrielle’s eyes and said, "I hope so Gabrielle, but what Mother and Toris say about my self-healing powers are also true. I just was always uncomfortable with the fact that I was different, so I would never admit to them." Gabrielle did not doubt this claim. She had even seen Xena come back from the dead, not to mention her injuries in Cius.
"Xena, how long ago did this happen to you?" Gabrielle asked.
"When I was seventeen summers," Xena said.
"I think Cyrene mentioned something about that to me."
Xena sighed and braced herself for what she knew she must tell Gabrielle. She said, "Yes, you asked me about it on the Sea Mist. I wasn't ready to talk about it then. It was the first time in my life I really thought I was going to die." Xena paused and looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "Gabrielle, I'm going to tell you something that I've never talked to anyone about, other than Lyceus and Chloe. They knew, but we seldom talked about it." Gabrielle moved closer to Xena and slipped her small hand into the warrior's large ones. "I told you the three of us had a special relationship, but it was one that was beyond the mortal realm. Chloe's mother was like a sister to Cyrene. She lived with us for a while, and we were born only eight moons apart. I don't know if you will believe this, but before Chloe was born, we were connected. I could hear her talking to me, and she could hear my thoughts. I don't know how or why we had this power."
Gabrielle was curious, remembering that Chloe had told her the same thing. She asked, "Do you remember what you talked about?"
Xena nodded and said, "I remember the first thing she said, `I've been sent to keep you company, sister.' All I know is we were close from the moment she was born. I don't remember everything else; I was very young. Mother said I would hold Chloe when she was an infant, and she would stop crying and just smile up into my eyes. Before Lyceus was born the same thing happened. We could hear him talking to us, and we talked to him. He too announced that he had been sent to keep us company, and he called us both sisters. As we matured the voices remained. We didn't need to talk to each other. And when we were separated over great distances, we could still hear each other's thoughts."
"That's why Chloe and Lyceus never worried about you," Gabrielle said. "They always knew where you were because you told them through your thoughts?"
"Exactly," Xena answered and then said, "It was a game to us. But I always pushed too far too hard. Chloe and Lyceus tried to keep me grounded, but even they could not control me sometimes. With this power we had, I wanted to know how far it would reach. How far we could go. So each time I took off, I went further and further. My last trip, I went all the way to Sinope, and still I could hear them laughing and talking to me. When I was gone, I knew everything that happened in Amphipolis. They told me everything through their thoughts."
"What happened when you were seventeen?" Gabrielle asked.
"It was on my way back from Sinope. My last trip. I traveled the same route we took. I was wild and exuberant and very careless. I thought I was invincible." She paused and frowned. "Sometimes we speculated about our father..." She shook her head and continued. "I had just crossed into eastern Thrace not far from here. I came to this town and rode in and jumping from my horse, I went to an inn to eat and drink wine. There were very few people there, but I thought nothing of it. I drank too much and stumbled out to the stables, climbed into the loft and slept the night away as Lyceus and Chloe teased me in my mind for getting drunk. The next morning with a slight headache from the wine, I decided to lead my horse out of town and walk a while. The jarring of the horse was too much with the way I felt, but before I left, I bought some bread and cheese for the road. As I was walking, I saw a dead man laying in the street. I was curious, and I rolled him over. It was a horrible sight. As I pulled my hand away, I noticed it was covered with blood and corruption from the man's neck that had swollen so much it burst. He had died of the plague. I knew I should never touch those who had died of the plague. As I rode out of the village, I passed the open pits of burning bodies. Chloe and Lyceus knew immediately something was wrong; they kept pleading with me to come home right then."
Gabrielle, engrossed in the tale asked, "What did you do?"
"I carried a death sentence; I could not go home. I knew the symptoms, and I searched for a place away from people where I could wait for the onslaught of the illness. I found this cave with the cold spring. A raging fever was what usually killed. I was determined to fight the disease, and the cool water would help. When the symptoms hit, I drank willow tea and soaked in the frigid waters to lower my fever. I was so weak, I could not hunt, but I needed to eat to keep up my strength. I ate the bread even though it had not been fresh, and it was moldy. I didn't care; the mold would not hurt me," Xena became quiet and lost in thought.
In a low voice, Gabrielle asked, "Could Chloe and Lyceus still communicate with you?"
Xena stared into the fire and answered, "For a while, then one night in agony I took a knife and opened the pustules in my neck, arm pits and upper legs." Xena dragged her attention away from her musings and looked at Gabrielle and said, "They were swelling so much I could not stand the pain. After that, I passed out, and the fevers ravaged my body. When I finally crawled to the water through my delirium and rolled in, it was too late. The fever burned away the voices forever. A day later the fever was gone. I climbed onto my horse and looped a rope around my waist and tied myself to the saddle horn, and I rode night and day to reach Amphipolis. I slept most of the way draped across the horse. When I arrived, I went straight to the healer to make sure I no longer carried the pestilence. I could not risk giving it to my family. The healer forced liquids into me and healing herbs, and cleaned me up. I went home, crawled into bed and slept for three days. When I woke up, I was so scared. I had never been without the voices. I felt so alone. Lyceus and Chloe knew I couldn't hear them, and they no longer could hear me. We were all frightened. We refused to be out of each other's sight for months. They did their best to help me, and with time, I regained my self-confidence. It was never the same though."
The story ended and Xena and Gabrielle were silent for a while and then Gabrielle spoke.
"How long do I have, Xena."
Xena looked over at Gabrielle realizing her tale must be horrifying to Gabrielle knowing what she now faced. "For me it was four days, but the healer told me it can be anywhere from one to six days before the symptoms begin. Xena's stomach lurched at the thoughts of Gabrielle becoming ill with this deadly pestilence, and she wrapped her strong arms around her bard and she said, "Gabrielle, we'll get through this together. I love you." Gabrielle melted into her arms and wept not because of the danger she faced but because of the words of love Xena had spoken to her.
Xena knew that Gabrielle would have to be well rested and strong if she were to survive the illness, therefore, she hunted for herbs and game. She insisted that Gabrielle eat as much as she possibly could and continued to force the moldy bread down her. She fixed various teas to fight the sickness before it began. Xena reached deep inside herself searching her knowledge for ideas to help Gabrielle prepare for this the greatest battle of both their lives. She didn't want to frighten Gabrielle. She tried to hide her concern and kept herself busy. Inside she was fighting a different battle. She berated herself for her recent behavior and wished she could turn back the sands of time. How could she be so blind not to realize Gabrielle was her life, her love, and her light, and now it may be too late to make amends for the way she treated her. With each passing day, Xena closely watched Gabrielle and hoped silently that she would be spared, but on the morning of the third day Gabrielle awoke feeling an ache in her lower back. Xena knew the battle had just begun, and it would be long and difficult, and she feared this was one battle she would be unable to win.
Xena fixed willow bark tea for the aches and rubbed the tenseness from Gabrielle's muscles. She made her stay in bed and brought in fresh soft grass for a mattress to insulate Gabrielle from the cave floor. By the end of the first day the aches had spread to her joints and her head pounded, and she ran a slight fever. Xena remained awake all night, held Gabrielle in her arms, and wiped her fevered brow with cool damp cloths as Gabrielle slept restlessly. The next morning the fever had risen, and Gabrielle tossed and turned in her blankets and moaned in her sleep. When consciousness came, she reached for Xena's hand for silent assurances. Xena could not shake the thought that this was the payment exacted for her sins. By that afternoon, Gabrielle was slipped in and out of delirium, and Xena knew it was time to take more drastic measures. Gabrielle could no longer keep any solid food down and hardly any liquids.
Xena removed her own boots, and leather shift and then pulled Gabrielle's night shift from her hot body. She then lovingly picked up her little bard who moaned and struggled against the dark demons who tortured her soul. Xena carried her to the rear of the cave, stepped into the pool of chilly spring water, and carefully lowered Gabrielle's fevered body into the cooling waters. Xena then sat in the icy water and cradled Gabrielle's head in her hands letting all but her face slip under the life-saving waters. Xena had seen all to often the after affects of a raging fever, and she knew well if it didn't kill, it could easily leave its victims deaf or blind, or it could even muddle the mind. The thought of her beautiful Gabrielle left impaired by this sickness made Xena's knees weak, but she would love her no matter what the outcome. She beseeched the gods to let Gabrielle live.
After a candlemark in the frigid water, Xena noticed that Gabrielle had stopped writhing in pain. She rose, picked her up, laid her on a blanket, and rubbed her dry. Then she moved her over to the soft pallet she had prepared earlier and covered her with another blanket. Xena pulled her shift over her head and focused her attention back on Gabrielle. It was a delicate balance she would have to maintain. The fever must be allowed to run its course to fight the illness, and at the same time, Gabrielle must not become too hot nor too cold. Xena fetched the water skin, sat down next to her patient, and gently parted her lips and dropped a few drops of water into her parched mouth. She then rubbed her throat stimulating her to swallow. She continued this procedure until she was able to get about a half a cup of water into her. Gabrielle needed the fluids. The fever had burned her dry, and she had not relieved herself in almost and entire day. Every candlemark she would have to force fluids into her.
Early that evening Gabrielle became agitated and began to cry out Xena's name. Xena grabbed her hand and leaned close to her ear and spoke softly to her, "Gabrielle, I'm here. I'm right here by your side."
Gabrielle opened her eyes and smiled a sweet smile at Xena and then whispered in a raspy voice, "Xena, I'm sorry I disappointed you." She swallowed dryly, and Xena reached for the water skin as Gabrielle whispered hoarsely, "Please don't leave me, Xena."
"Gabrielle, my sweet, you have never disappointed me, and I will never leave you. Now will you drink for me?" Gabrielle nodded fluttering her eyes as if she were fighting against a sleep too dark and too long. Xena slipped her arm under Gabrielle's shoulders and dribbled the water between her lips. Then as Gabrielle drifted off into a peaceful sleep for a while, Xena cried wiping angrily at her hot tears. Two candlemarks later the high fever returned, and Gabrielle writhed in pain once more. Xena stripped her own shift off again, picked Gabrielle up, and placed her back in the cool waters. She would have to dip her fevered charge in the spring water two more times that night before sunrise would come.
Xena knew the pestilence well; after her bout with it, she made it a point to learn as much as possible about it. After she had recuperated, she would sneak off to the healer and ask questions about the illness that almost took her life. She knew death usually occurred within the first five days, that over half of those who came down with it died. She also was told the bread mold had curative powers and could help fight the sickness. This was the third day for Gabrielle. If she made it through tonight the battle would be half over. Xena also realized the worst was yet to come.
Xena looked at Gabrielle and could see the angry red swelling developing in her neck, armpits and groin area. She carried in some firewood, then went out to gather as much soft moss as she could find. She returned to find Gabrielle moaning and thrashing on her pallet. She cried out desperately in her delirium for Xena to help her, and Xena felt her heart break knowing there was little she could do. Xena believed no torture devised in Tartarus could be worse than what she herself was going through as she haplessly watched Gabrielle's body wracked with pain, writhe and thrash on the pallet. The fever was spiking once more. She picked her up and again returned her to the cool bath. Xena's guts churned. She knew that Gabrielle wasn't strong enough to continue the fight at this level; the fever had taken its toll. She struggled so much she was quickly reaching the point of exhaustion. Her heart worked too hard and could not take much more. As Xena sat in the icy water cradling Gabrielle's head in her hands, she began to weep and talk to her through her tears. "Oh, Gabrielle, please fight this. Don't give up. Please don't make me go on alone. I love you. Please, forgive me for what I have done to you. I should never have taken you with me. Gods, forgive me for what I have done." She leaned over and kissed Gabrielle on her closed eye lids, her cheeks and her lips. She moved to her ear and repeated over and over, "I love you, I need you, Don't leave me. Please, Gabrielle, Please." And her salty tears dropped into the cool spring water.
After another candlemark, Xena moved Gabrielle from the water and back to her bed. Then she soaked the moss in the cold water and packed it around Gabrielle's head and in her arm pits and between her legs. These were the areas that must remain cool to regulate the fever. Every so often she would carry cool water from the spring and moisten the moss cooling it with the water. It was the third evening and Xena had not slept since Gabrielle's first symptoms appeared. Xena sat by Gabrielle and dribbled water between her lips, kept the moss moistened, caressed her hair, and sang softly in her ear for many candlemarks.
By morning of the fourth day, Gabrielle's fever had remained high but had not spiked all night. Xena kept the moss moist and cold. It would soon be time to treat the next symptom. Knowing what she had to do sickened her, and she wished there was another way. She didn't know if she could bring herself to perform the act. The swelling continued, and the angry red marks had turned purple. The blood under the skin seeped down the insides of her arms and thighs and down her neck into her chest leaving in its path angry bruises. Xena felt under Gabrielle's jaw for her heart beat; it was rapid and faint, and the swelling was interfering with her breathing. She had no choice. If she did not act soon, Gabrielle would strangle.
Xena built a fire and fetched the wine skin and her dagger from the supply shelf and laid them by the fire. She then took the remaining moss and packed it on both sides of Gabrielle's throat and under her arms. She then retrieved some rags from her supplies. Heating the knife in the fire until the blade glowed red, Xena then moved next to Gabrielle and kneeled on the ground by her. She bent down and kissed her fevered lips and whispered in her ear, "Gabrielle, I love you. Can you hear me?" From somewhere deep in her subconscious, Gabrielle could hear Xena's distant voice, and she moved her lips. Xena noted the response and continued, "I'm sorry, my love, this is going to hurt." Then she took the wine skin and poured wine over the swelling on her throat, arms, and groin area. She put aside the wine skin and grabbed a handful of rags, taking the knife which had cooled by now, she placed the point of the blade against the base of the pustule on the right side of Gabrielle's throat and plunged the blade into the swelling. Gabrielle moaned weakly. Xena immediately sopped up the blood and yellowish foulness that poured from the wound. Working her fingers over the swelling, Xena forced as much of the blood and infection out as she could. She then cleaned and reheated the knife and performed the same procedure on the other sites swollen by the disease. She meticulously cleaned the areas with an infusion of antiseptic herbs and hot water. She dressed the wounds with clean cloth. She sat back glad that job was over and hoped that it would provide Gabrielle some escape from the pain. She suddenly realized that she herself was feeling very tired. She could not sleep! She simply would not allow it. What if Gabrielle needed her?
It was the fourth night. Xena continued her regimen of forcing fluids, and cooling her body. She also had to constantly change the dressing on the wounds because yellowish blood constantly seeped through the bandages. Xena was exhausted, but she refused to sleep. She sat next to Gabrielle and held her hand. By early morning of the fifth day Gabrielle's breathing became labored, and Xena retrieved her saddle and propped it up behind her to help her breathe. Xena worked desperately to slow the fever and push the liquids, but by the evening of that day, Gabrielle's pulse had quickened and her breathing became more shallow.
Xena cried at the realization that Gabrielle would probably not live through the night. She lifted Gabrielle from the saddle, kicked it out of the way, and sat down on the bed. Xena gathered Gabrielle into her arms, held her, and rocked her through her tears. Images of their short time together flashed through her mind, and she smiled and laughed and cried as each memory played out before her. She shifted her body in her arms, and lay next to her, and pulled Gabrielle into her, and talked to her unconscious form, "Oh, Gabrielle, I've been so foolish to have wasted all the time we had together. I am so sorry. How will I live without you?" She then let her memories carry her into peaceful oblivion, and she saw Gabrielle offer herself in exchange for the freedom of others in Poteidaia. Then she saw her burst through an angry crowd in Amphipolis and save her from a stoning. She saw her throw her body over Princess Terreis protecting her from a hail of arrows. There was a glowing, vibrating white thread, and Gabrielle lay dying having risked her life to save a child in the middle of battle. The thread intertwined with a dark black thread. And Xena saw the image of Gabrielle dragging her own broken body up a mountain through a blizzard seeking help, and she saw Gabrielle crying over her lifeless body and begging her to come back, and she heard her proclaim her undying love and faith in her. The light bringing thread filled with hope, and Xena saw Gabrielle fling her body under a slashing Amazon blade, and the blade fell severing the white thread. Xena cried out in agony, her desperate plea, "Artemis, please. I remember you!"
Xena found herself standing in a temple and before her the shimmering goddess appeared. Xena dropped to her knees. "What is it you desire, my favored one?" Artemis asked.
Xena spoke with her eyes cast down, "I must apologize and beg your forgiveness, Artemis. I turned my back on the gifts I have been given."
Artemis replied sternly "Are you ready now to accept all of your gifts, my daughter?"
Still casting her eyes down as in deference to the goddess, Xena replied, "Although I am not worthy of your indulgence, I am ready."
"Xena, when you deny some gifts, they disappear." Xena looked at Artemis with tear dampened eyes. Artemis' voice had changed, softened, "The voices were not burned from your mind by the fever. Your fear deafened you to the voices. You quit using the gift because you were too fearful of what it meant. You refused to accept who you were, but you blamed it on the fear of losing Chloe and Lyceus."
Xena admitted abjectly, "Because I did not trust the gift, I lost them both. Chloe would have known I was not dead had I not turned my back on the gift."
"This is the truth, my daughter, but the gods love you, Xena, and they are kind to you. You lost Chloe and Lyceus, but for every loss there is a gain. We gave you Gabrielle and Zoe."
Xena replied with a tinge of self-disgust, "Yes, and I turned my back on Gabrielle."
Artemis was silent for a moment and then questioned, "Why did you reject that gift, my warrior?"
Tears streamed down Xena's cheeks as she finally acknowledged the truth, "I loved Lyceus and he died. I loved Chloe and she died. I was afraid if I loved Gabrielle, she too would die. Now it doesn't matter. I saw her thread cut."
"Xena, you can no longer deny where you came from or who you are. Do not deny that with which you have been blessed. Accept it and rejoice in it. Those who truly love you will love you regardless."
Xena awoke with a start, and immediately cursed herself for allowing herself the luxury of sleep. The fiery bundle she cradled in her arms and held against her through the night was no longer hot, and Xena feared the chill was that of death. She did not want to let go of her precious bundle; she did not want to look into Gabrielle's dead face. Fear gripped her heart as she gently raised up on her elbow and looked down at Gabrielle's profile. Sometime in the night Xena had rolled Gabrielle on her side and had pulled the little bard's back into her chest and tucked her slight body protectively in her own body's embrace. Dark circles lay beneath her eyes, her cheeks were hollow, and her lips were cracked from the fever. A tear slipped down Xena's face as she reached out to caress Gabrielle's cheek. The cheek was warm not from fever but warm, life-giving blood coursing through her veins. Xena sat up quickly and rolled Gabrielle onto her back. She threw the covers back and observed her chest. It rose slowly with the intake of air. Xena placed her fingers under Gabrielle's jaw and found the pulse beating strong and slowly. Xena closed her eyes and whispered fervently, "Thank you, Artemis."
Xena believed the worst had passed, but she knew the battle was not yet won nor the outcome known. Though the fever was gone and Gabrielle slept a deep, peaceful, healing sleep, Xena did not know if she would suffer any aftereffects from the fever. Sometimes the spell of Morpheus was so seductive, those caught in its magic web were unwilling to or unable to return to the waking world. Gabrielle's wounds still oozed but the fluid seemed less vile, and Xena carefully cleaned them when she bathed Gabrielle's body. She gently rolled the bard onto her side and washed her back and dried her thoroughly. Gabrielle did not even stir at Xena's ministering but slept as soundly as a newborn infant. Xena continued to sit by her side dribbling water between her lips and singing softly to her for the better part of three days. At night Xena would wrap Gabrielle in her arms and hold her tightly so that in her own sleep if Gabrielle stirred, she would know.
After three days, Xena became increasingly concerned. Gabrielle was taking fluids, but she was becoming painfully thin for lack of solid food. Although Xena fed her broth, the bard needed more substantially nutritious foods if she was to recover.
Xena decided it was time to try and rouse Gabrielle from her deep sleep and she began talking to her, "Gabrielle, can you hear me? You really need to wake up, my love. Aren't you hungry?" Xena gently shook Gabrielle, but to no avail. She then lifted her eye lid and peered into the eye's dark center. Using her other hand she passed a shadow across Gabrielle's eye and much to Xena's relief, the dark center grew larger. She then did the same to the other eye. Both eyes reacted; at least Xena knew that Gabrielle was in there somewhere, and her soul had not left her body, not yet anyway.
That night Xena held Gabrielle and talked well into early morning. She spoke of her love for her and of the abysmal sorrow she felt when she thought she had lost her in Thessaly. She spoke of their travels together and of how lonely her life had been before her. She apologized for being unable to stop Callisto from killing Perdicus. She confessed she was devastated when Gabrielle decided to marry Perdicus. She told her stories of her childhood and all the things she did as a child. She talked of Cyrene and the inn and Toris and his friends and of the garden they had. She shared her loves and her fears and growing up in Amphipolis. She told Gabrielle the most joyful moment of her life was the night they confessed their love for each other and the next morning when they rode through the heavens with Helios. Xena finally drifted off to sleep as the sea of words continued to flow slowly from her tongue until in the end an `I love you' trickled from her lips. And a faint smile washed across her bard's sleeping face.
The next morning Xena awoke and glanced over at Gabrielle. Although tired, the bard's eyes were opened. Xena sat up suddenly and leaned across Gabrielle resting her hand on either side of her. Xena stared down intently into her eyes unsure if she was indeed conscious. Gabrielle stared back unblinking. After several moments, in a weak and raspy voice Gabrielle stated seriously, "By the gods, you have beautiful eyes." Xena collapsed onto Gabrielle's chest and wept.
Gabrielle's recuperation was long and painful. The sickness had so weakened her, she was unable to even sit up for more than a candlemark at a time for several days. Xena had to do everything for her, feed her, bathe her, and dress her in her gown, and carry her outside and hold her up while she relieved herself, much to Gabrielle's embarrassment. Xena didn't care; she was so thankful to have her back, nothing mattered, and she lovingly cared for Gabrielle's every smallest need. When Gabrielle cried in frustration at not having the strength to hold her own spoon, Xena held her in her arms and kissed her and asked her, "What if it were me? Wouldn't you do the same for me?" Gabrielle sniffed and wiped at her eyes and nodded. "Imagine what a horrible patient I would be! You're a joy to take care of, you never complain."
Gabrielle grinned through her tears at that vision and said sullenly, "I can't imagine you ever being this weak. Gods, Xena, you went through this all by yourself and then climbed onto a horse and rode for ten days to Amphipolis. I don't know how you did it."
Xena just shrugged and suggested, "I don't think I had it as bad as you, that's all." Gabrielle knew that was not the truth, but she didn't feel like pursuing the topic.
Gabrielle's body was still stiff and sore and her joints ached. No amount of massaging and willow tea seemed to ease her discomfort. Xena knew that the cave had long since served its purpose, and its dampness now was making Gabrielle's recovery difficult. It had been a fortnight since the onset of Gabrielle's illness. The wounds had healed nicely, and Xena knew she was no longer contagious. It was time to move her to an inn where she could speed her recovery along. "Gabrielle, there is a town about three leagues from here with a decent inn. I think it would be best if we try to move you now to this inn so that you can get off the ground and rest in a comfortable bed. Hot, soaking baths should help you work out the stiffness more quickly."
The thoughts of soaking in a hot bath was tempting, but the idea of riding on Argo seem an insurmountable task. "Xena, I would love a hot bath, but I don't think I can ride. I can't even stand up without you holding me."
"We can do one of two things. I can hold you on Argo, or I can build a travois to transport you there. We can't stay here, Gabrielle. You're not improving as you should." Xena said firmly.
The visions of being dragged behind a horse on a litter made her feel even more helpless than she already was. "I would prefer to ride in your arms," Gabrielle said acquiescing.
"Then that's what we'll do. If it gets too hard for you, we can always stop and build the travois."
The ride from the cave to the village was the longest three leagues Gabrielle ever traveled. Xena had packed their gear early the next morning and then fed Gabrielle her morning meal and dressed her. Then she picked her up as though she was lifting a small child, and Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's neck. Xena had positioned Argo in such a way that she could use some rocks as steps. She easily swung her leg over and gently sat them both into the saddle. She then swung her left leg over Argo's neck and hooked her leg around the saddle horn and rested Gabrielle's legs across her muscular thigh. With her right foot in the stirrup and her right arm cradling Gabrielle, Xena effectively created a sling with her own body to cushion the bard against the jolting gait of a horseback ride. The going was slow, and Gabrielle bit the insides of her lips bloody against the cramping pains she felt throughout her body. She tried not to complain although tears threatened by the time they reached the inn. She knew Xena's arm and leg had to be exhausted from her dead weight, but Xena chatted casually the entire way, an attempt Gabrielle knew to occupy her mind. When they reached the stables attached to the inn, the stable master helped Xena down with Gabrielle.
Xena gently laid Gabrielle on the bed when they finally entered the room at the inn. She removed her clothes and tucked the covers around her. Gabrielle soon fell into an exhausted sleep. Xena went to work and started a fire in the fireplace to take the chill off and to heat some water for some willow bark tea. She then slipped down stairs and ordered lots of hot water for their bath and meat and wine for their meal. She checked on her horses, picked up the rest of their gear, and brought it back to their room.
A candle mark later the water and food arrived. Xena woke Gabrielle and propped her up in bed and sitting on the edge of the bed gave her the tea and fed her. Gabrielle's appetite had steadily improved over the past several days much to Xena's relief. When they finished eating, Xena stripped out of her clothes and picked up Gabrielle and lowered them both into the steamy water. Xena sat behind her bard and used her own body as a pillow to cushion her from the rough tub. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, hugged her into her, and whispered in her ear, "How do you feel, my love?"
Gabrielle, her muscles relaxed by the hot water replied, "Better now," and she squeezed Xena's hand.
"Gabrielle, I need to talk to you about the way I treated you before."
Gabrielle's brow furrowed, "Xena, that's in the past. Let's just forget it."
"I can't forget it until I talk it out with you. I used to be very good at just forgetting everything and look what it got me. I almost drove you away because of my behavior, and I not only owe you an apology, I owe you an explanation even if it is lame." Gabrielle was quiet; the memory of what had happened between them was too painful to speak of, and Gabrielle finally realized why Xena refused to talk about some things in her past. It was easier to ignore it than face the pain. "When Chloe died, I realized that every person who ever really loved me died. In some twisted way, I believed that would be your fate too if you continued to love me. I loved you so much, I couldn't bear the thought of you dying. I would rather lose your love for me than see you dead. I did everything in my power to turn my heart cold toward you so that you would come to hate me. My heart broke and my resolve softened every time I glanced the pain in your eyes, but I honestly believed it was the best for us both. Then when I saw you kneeling there nursing the dying and risking your life, I realized I was going to lose you anyway. For a moment I lost my mind. My heart split in two, and I knew I did not want to live without you. I had been a fool to even try." Xena's words drifted into silence and then she asked, "Can you ever forgive me, Gabrielle?" Tears fell from the bard's eyes, and she was quiet for so long that Xena became worried.
Finally the bard spoke, "Xena, I have missed you so much, and I am so glad you have come back to me, there is no need for forgiveness. There is nothing to forgive. You were hurting, and you just needed time to sort things out. I am only sorry that I ever doubted you. Although I tried so hard to convince myself that you stopped loving me, deep in the recesses of my heart I refused to believe it. I know we were destined to be together. I don't know how or why, but I know you were meant to be with me."
Xena rose from the water without a word gently taking her lover with her, walked to the bed, and placed Gabrielle among the pillows. She folded her body gently over her bard resting most of her weight on her arm and her knee. She pulled the covers over them letting the bed whisk the water from their bodies, and she looked deeply into her lover's eyes. Gabrielle could see the fiery passion glowing in those ocean-blue eyes, and she reached up and pulled Xena's head down so that their hungry lips could feast on each other. They drank deeply, desperately trying to extinguish a thirst that would not be quenched. Xena parted Gabrielle's teeth with her tongue and tentatively explored her sweet mouth tasting hungrily of the nectar as the hummingbird ravenously samples the sweetness of the honeysuckle. Gabrielle's body moved rhythmically to the commands of Xena's mouth and her hands wrapped around her warrior and pulled her down on top of her wanting to feel her body crushed beneath the exquisite weight of her lover. And as their bodies rose to meet the passions that burned within them that night, the true inner healing began.
The days passed quickly at the inn, and Gabrielle, although wobbly, regained her stamina and was able to sit up longer and walk around the room with Xena's help. The dark circles under her eyes disappeared, and the color returned to her cheeks. Her muscles and joints quit aching, and she and Xena spent every available moment rediscovering the passion and the love they almost lost. It had been a moon since Xena and Gabrielle had left the protection of the Eastern Amazon Nation. While Xena cared for Argo and her pack horse, she mused about their situation. Xena was anxious to complete the journey and see Zoe and Cyrene, but she knew Gabrielle was not yet ready to travel. She was still too weak to walk without assistance, and Xena was not about to risk a setback. She wasn't that impatient yet; besides she rather enjoyed having her bard all to herself. She knew that would end as soon as they were reunited with Zoe and their Amazon friends. They would spend a few more days here, and then perhaps Gabrielle would be well enough to travel. They were still at least eight days from the Amazons.
When Xena returned from the stables, she was frightened to find Gabrielle in a heap on the floor and weeping uncontrollably. She rushed to her side and dropped to her knees, "Gabrielle, what is it! What's wrong?" Gabrielle flung herself into Xena's arms and wept as if her world was coming to an end. Xena didn't know what to do other than hold her. Eventually her sobbing quieted and Xena asked again, "Gab, tell me, what is it, my love. What's wrong? Are you in pain?" Gabrielle shook her head and tried to speak, but she only broke down into tears again. Xena picked her up in her arms and carried her to the bed. Gabrielle rolled away from her and cried bitterly into her pillow. Xena, becoming more concerned sat on the bed and spoke, caressing Gabrielle's hair and moving it away from her face. "Gabrielle, please talk to me, you are scaring me." Gabrielle rolled over and looked through her tear filled eyes at Xena and took her hand and squeezed it reassuringly. Xena rose and poured Gab a cup of water and brought it to her along with a cool, damp rag to wipe her face.
Gabrielle finally regained her composure and through her shaky voice told Xena what was wrong . "I can't walk, Xena. Every time you leave to run errands, I try to stand and walk, and I can't do it. I lose my balance and I fall."
Relieved, Xena tried to reassure her, "Gabrielle, your just weak. You just need time to build up your strength."
Gabrielle shook her head, "No, Xena, I wish you were right, but you're not. My legs are not that weak." She looked down into her lap and squeezed her eyes tightly shut against the tears that threatened, and Xena reached out and took her hand in hers. Gabrielle continued with her eyes cast down, "How am I going to travel with you when I fall every time I let go of something? I'm an Amazon Queen, Xena. How am I ever going to perform my duties? Whoever heard of an Amazon who couldn't walk?" Gabrielle paused and looked away from Xena. "I won't let myself be a burden to you, Xena. If you would only help me get back to Poteidaia, I will be grateful."
Xena couldn't believe her ears, "Now you listen to me, Gabrielle, I'm not about to let you go, not after what we've been through. I love you; are you going to turn your back on me now?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena pleading, "Xena, I love you too, but I can't do this to you. If I become a burden, we'll only grow to despise each other. I don't want that to happen to us."
"Nothing is going to happen to us, and I could never despise you. I made a vow to the gods that if they would spare your life, I would take care of you and love you no matter what the outcome. I am not letting you go, and I'm not giving up. Just get that through your pretty little head."
"No matter what the outcome? You knew something like this might happen?" Gabrielle questioned.
Xena, realizing her mistake said, "Gabrielle, we aren't sure there is really anything wrong yet. Give yourself some time first. We'll worry about this later when the time comes."
Gabrielle demanded, "You didn't answer my question, Xena."
"Gabrielle, you had a raging fever that lasted for five days. Fever can cause all sorts of problems." Xena said trying to sound reassuring.
"Like what?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena stood up and walked over to the water pitcher to pour herself some water, not that she was thirsty, but she wanted an excuse to change the subject.
Gabrielle knew Xena was stalling and wasn't about to let it go, "Like what, Xena?"
Xena looked from where she stood and replied, "It's not important, Gab. You don't have any of those problems. You are going to be fine."
Gabrielle felt her anger rise. She believed Xena's refusal to explain things to her was Xena's attempt at hiding things to protect her. She swung her legs over the side of the bed before Xena could move to her, and she stood holding onto the edge of the bed to steady herself. In a voice filled with angry frustration she said, "If I am fine, Xena, then why can't I walk to you? You are only a few paces from me?" Xena's face had a look of pained shock. Gabrielle let go of the bed and teetered as if she were trying to balance on a narrow ledge. She moved forward and tried to walk toward Xena, but her gait looked like that of one who had drunk too much wine as she lurched forward, and before she had taken three steps, she stumbled and fell to the floor. Xena rushed to her side and tried to comfort her and help her up, but Gabrielle pushed her away and yelled, "No, leave me alone!"
Xena sat back unsure how to respond. She finally said quietly, "Gabrielle, I'm sorry."
Gabrielle looked up through angry eyes and said, "Now will you tell me what you know?"
Xena only accepted the fact that something was definitely wrong after she put Gabrielle through several tests. Walking backwards while holding on to both of Gab's hands, Xena discovered that Gabrielle's legs were strong, and she could walk fine. As soon as she let go of even one hand, Gab tottered like an infant. It was as though she had forgotten how to walk. The realization that Gabrielle had not completely escaped the illness unscathed left Xena reeling, and she blamed herself, although she never let Gabrielle know. In front of Gabrielle, she was an iron woman determined to help her overcome this problem. She gave her courage to keep trying even when it looked hopeless. Everyday for at least a candlemark in the morning and in the afternoon they worked on her balance. Once Xena realized it was not muscle weakness that contributed to Gabrielle's balance problem, she attacked the problem by devising all sorts of exercises to help her regain her ability to balance herself. Xena was sure the problem could be overcome, if not totally, at least enough so that she could lead a normal life. The real problem they both realized was this was going to take a long time, and they needed to get back home. They were acutely aware of the fact that they were already over a fortnight past due.
Gabrielle was horrified at the possibility that her Amazons would see her in this weakened condition, and it ate at her until she lost sleep. Xena finally suggested she could perhaps hide the fact from them if they worked together. As long as Xena had her arm around Gabrielle's waist and they walked together, she was perfectly all right. By herself, she could hardly stand up without tumbling over like a child who had not yet learned to walk. Gabrielle agreed happily. For candlemarks every day, they devised all sorts of situations that might arise, and they worked their way through each. Around the inn they practiced going up and down the stairs, sitting at the tables, and going through doors. In the stable they climbed on and off Argo. Xena coached Gab on spreading her stance and using her staff to help her balance while Xena pretended she was shaking hands or removing Argo's saddle. The inn's local patrons watched curiously as the tall warrior woman and the petite bard moved among them as one. No one dared comment or question the relationship for fear the warrior would do more than stare them into submission. After five days of practicing and exercising, Gabrielle finally told Xena she was ready to make the trek home.
The remainder of the journey to the Western Amazons was blissfully uneventful. Gabrielle rode in front so that Xena could hold her more securely. Each day Gab and Xena continued their practice sessions every time they stopped to rest, and soon they were working together like a well practiced team of chariot horses. Xena only hoped they could carry out their deception successfully. Ephiny was the one she worried about the most.
When they crossed the eastern border into Amazon territory, they were immediately greeted by a welcoming party that had been sent to meet them. Evidently a patrol party had actually left the territory and searched for them beyond their borders. Having located them the previous day, they sent a speedy courier to deliver the news. This was very unusual. The Amazons seldom encroached on surrounding territory, and they would not tolerate such encroachment into their own provinces. Of course Xena reminded herself she was traveling with their Queen, and they were after all over a moon past due.
Xena and Gabrielle were happy to see Eponin within the welcoming party, but they were both a little nervous and remained in the saddle. When asked if they would like to dismount and rest awhile, they both responded they were anxious to continue and see Zoe. When Petra stepped out of the crowd to greet them, Xena knew she would have to dismount and greet her friend. Before she did, she squeezed Gabrielle's hands tightly between hers and the saddle horn and whisper, "Hold on." Gabrielle gripped the horn and smiled at the tall warrior standing by Argo's neck and staring up at her. Xena swung agilely to the ground and with her left hand firmly planted on Gabrielle's thigh she reached out with her right hand and grasped Petra's arm. "Petra, my friend, I am happy to see you decided to stay awhile. I trust your journey was a good one; how are Electra and Zoe?"
Petra smiled up at Gabrielle and then at Xena, "Our journey was good. We had no troubles at all. Zoe and Electra are both fine, and Zoe is quite happy at the news you are coming." Petra frowned for a moment and continued. "She did have a bad time there for a while."
Xena's concern rose, "What do you mean? What happened?" she questioned.
Noting Xena's furrowed brow, Petra reassured her, "She's fine now. It only lasted about five days. It was almost a moon now. She woke up crying for Queen Gabrielle, and nothing would console her. She clung to Electra for five days and cried, complained of a headache and whined for Gabrielle. Queen Ephiny was so worried she moved Electra and Zoe to her chambers and kept the healer there night and day. The healer claimed the child was perfectly healthy."
Xena glanced up at Gabrielle, and they exchanged looks. And Xena commented, "Perhaps she was just homesick for Gabrielle. After all they were growing close."
"That's what I thought," Petra said. "After five days of restlessness, she settled down and slept almost continually for three days. When she woke up she was fine, perfectly happy."
"We are anxious to see her." Xena put her foot in the stirrup, swung her leg over Argo and sat behind Gabrielle wrapping her arms around her bard. Gabrielle sighed a breath of relief feeling the security of Xena's arms. She could finally relax her concentration for a while. Her knuckles were white from gripping the saddle horn, and her hands were starting to cramp from holding so tightly. Petra looked up at the two and read a closeness that she had not seen the last time she saw them. She was pleased.
When they arrived in the village, they were greeted by a horde of enthusiastic Amazons and the two tried to smile and look as equally pleased to see everyone. Xena swung down from the horse and held the stirrup for Gabrielle's foot while she spoke to Ephiny. Unable to slip her foot into it, Xena guided Gab's foot indifferently distracting Ephiny’s attention with a question. Gabrielle swung down and into Xena's strong grip. Ephiny noticed with approval the closeness of her two dear friends. She had been concerned because Petra had hinted mysteriously that there might have been some problems between the two. Xena, thinking well ahead, stepped behind Gabrielle and slipped her strong hands around her waist as Ephiny stepped forward to hug Gabrielle in a warm embrace. "We were beginning to worry about you two. You are well over a moon past due."
Xena pulled Gab's staff from Argo's saddle and placed it in her hands and firmly on the ground and answered Ephiny's concern, "Yes, Argo threw a shoe and came up lame for awhile. We had to let her rest." Gabrielle smiled and nodded distracted by her effort to widen her stance and maintain her balance with the help of her staff. Zoe came bounding through the parting crowd and ran jumping into Xena's outstretched arms. Xena swept her up, kissed her on the cheek, hugged and shifted her to her right arm. She wrapped her left arm around Gabrielle and pulled her into her. Gabrielle smiled brightly up at Zoe who reached down and encircled Gabrielle's neck with her arms. Zoe planted a big kiss on Gabrielle's cheek and looked deeply into the bard's eyes. Gabrielle understood immediately the child knew of her infirmity. Zoe then gently placed her small hands on each side of Gabrielle's cheeks and smiled into her face.
Ephiny was ready to escort Gabrielle to her quarters but was surprised when Xena asked Eponin if she would take care of Argo for her. It appeared the tall warrior had no intentions of letting Gabrielle or Zoe out of her sights. Ephiny then spoke, "You two must be tired. Your quarters are ready. Why don't you get some rest before the celebration tonight?"
The thought of a wild Amazon celebration was the last thing Gabrielle wanted to face, but she smiled anyway and replied. "Yes, we are quite tired. It's been a long journey, and we would like to spend some time with Zoe."
Ephiny nodded and lead the three through the crowd. She said, "I hope the three of us can have some time to talk about a few things before you have to be leaving us." Looking at Xena she added, "I understand your mother is expecting you to return to Amphipolis, and I hope you don't mind. When I was told that you and Gabrielle were approaching, I sent word to her that you were both safe."
"Thank you, Ephiny. We will stay long enough to rest, but we really need to see mother." Then Xena looked at Zoe and back to Ephiny. Ephiny nodded with understanding. "Could you have a tub delivered to our quarters?" Xena asked. "I think we would like to get cleaned up in the privacy of the Queen's quarters rather than in the baths."
Ephiny hid her surprise at the unusual request and glanced at Gabrielle. "Of course, what ever you two want." When they stopped in front of Xena and Gabrielle's quarters Ephiny hugged Gabrielle and then stepped back still holding her in her arms, "I am so glad you two are home safe." She glanced up at Xena and then back at Gabrielle, "I'm sure you will delight us tonight with stories from your travels." Ephiny missed the pained look on Gabrielle's face, her attention drawn to two fresh scars at the base of Gabrielle's throat. She couldn't help but stare. She was positive they were not there before. Dragging her attention back to Xena and Gabrielle, Ephiny smiled and stated, "Rest well, I will see you two later." She turned and strode away.
Xena moved them into the quarters and helped Gabrielle sit on the end of the bed and then she put Zoe down on the floor. Gabrielle flopped back on the bed and covered her face with her hands, "I don't know how long I can keep this up, Xena." Xena sat down next to her emotionally exhausted. She knew exactly what Gabrielle meant. This was a great deal more difficult than she imagined. She would almost rather be doing battle with Callisto which didn’t seem as challenging.
Zoe climbed up on the bed next to Gabrielle and pulled her hands away from her face. Gabrielle looked curiously at the little child. "Gabrielle, you are going to be all right. It will just take time." Gabrielle hugged her. Zoe snuggled deeply in Gabrielle’s embrace and said, "I was really worried for you because you were hurting so much, but I knew you would be all right. Xena is a good healer."
"Thank you, Zoe." Xena stared at the child with her mouth open and Gabrielle reached up and pushed her warrior's jaw shut, "What's the matter Xena, you didn't know this about your daughter?" she asked.
Xena stammered, "Know what?"
"Oh, I think you know what."
Xena's brows furrowed with the realization of what Gabrielle was suggesting and she asked, "How did you know?"
"Zoe and I had long conversations those three days we were alone." Xena cringed at the memory but was thankful that nothing had happened to either of them. Their conversations were interrupted by the delivery of the tub and several buckets of steamy, hot water.
Xena helped Gabrielle into the water and then she and Zoe joined her. While they bathed and played, Xena and Gabrielle planned their strategy for the evening's festivities.
That evening the celebrations began in the dining hall with a magnificent feast. Xena escorted Gabrielle with her arm wrapped protectively around her waist, and Zoe hung onto Gabrielle's hand. Once in the hall, Xena and Gabrielle sat with Ephiny. Ephiny could not quite get over how doting Xena was. She couldn't seem to keep her hands off the Queen. She also took note that Zoe had attached herself to Gabrielle too and seemed extremely protective of her. She was curious. There was something not quite right. Gabrielle smiled and looked happy, but she seemed in some way overwhelmed and was uncharacteristically quiet. Xena on the other hand was very talkative. And what about those scars on Gabrielle's throat? There was definitely something amiss. Her thoughts were interrupted when the servers brought in the food, and Ephiny became distracted by the multitudes of conversations swirling around her. She did notice, however, Xena wave the wine servers away several times. She was drinking nothing but cider, how odd.
After everyone had gorged themselves on the vast variety of foods, the celebrations moved outside to the central courtyard where bonfires had been lit and various activities were already in progress. Xena rose from the table and encircled Gab's waist as she rose and the three joined a group around the central square. Gabrielle knew it was only a matter of time before she would be asked to tell a story, and she was mentally preparing herself for the task. Under other circumstances, she would be more than overjoyed to entertain all evening, but tonight her heart was just not into it. All sorts of contests were occurring and several Amazons challenged Xena. She declined all takers and stayed loyally beside Gabrielle, and with her strong arm supported her. Eventually Zoe climbed into Xena's lap and reached out and grasped Gabrielle's hand in hers.
As the night darkened and the contests ended, one-by-one Amazons ambled over and took seats around the central square until there were at least four circles of women surrounding the fire and several stood outside the circles conversing. Ephiny sat across from Gabrielle and watched her intently. Eponin had also noticed something strange as did Petra. Both warriors sitting on opposite sides of the fire observed that Xena was sitting right next to Gabrielle something she never did before. Always when it was time for Gabrielle to relate her wonderful tales, Xena would position herself away from the bard, partly because she was embarrassed that many of the stories were about her, but mainly because they observed, she delighted in watching Gabrielle tell her stories. Where she was sitting now, she could not watch Gabrielle's face and eyes.
Ephiny stood and all the Amazons quieted around her as her eyes swept the circles of women and then she spoke, "We are honored and pleased to have our Queen Gabrielle and Xena home safely with us from their long journey." The Amazons raised their voices in cheers and Ephiny raised her hands palms facing forward in the air again for silence, and she continued, "We are all waiting and hoping she will entertain us with a story from her journey." Everyone applauded and cheered loudly. Gabrielle clutched Xena's hand in fear and dread. Normally she would relay a story in an exciting and animated fashion, but she could not do that tonight. She needed a story that did not need animation to be good. Her mind raced; all the things that happened were too personal or tragic to spin into a tale just to entertain.
Xena leaned over and whispered in her ear, "Steady yourself, I'm standing up." Xena moved Zoe from her lap and sat her next to her. She then rose much to the surprise of Ephiny and Gabrielle and everyone there and addressed the crowd, "Ephiny, Queen Gabrielle has an incredible story of intrigue, drama, loyalty, bravery and self-sacrifice. I don't know if she will share it with you because she is so modest. She is the heroine in this true story." Gabrielle looked at Xena incredulously as all the Amazons cheered for the story. Xena sat down and leaned over and whispered into Gabrielle's ear, "Tell them, Gab, how you saved my neck." Gabrielle listened to Xena and looked over at Electra and Petra who were intently staring in their direction.
Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand and spoke in her ear above the raucous cheering of her Amazons, "Tell them I'll share the tale."
Xena rose to her feet and lifted her hands as Ephiny had done earlier, and the Amazons quieted slowly. Xena then spoke, "Our Queen has agreed." Loud cheers went up and Xena raised her hands again and eventually they became silent. "This tale is very close to Queen's heart and very difficult for her to share. She asks that you all be seated and listen quietly." The Amazons all sat and collectively leaned toward their Queen. Xena sat down, picked up Zoe and cradled her in her lap. She then wrapped her arm around Gabrielle and glanced over at Ephiny's perplexed face.
Gabrielle began the story setting the dramatic mood with her voice. She told of how spies, enemies of the Warrior Princess, had stolen into Cius and watched Xena from the shadows. She described how they had set an ambush along the narrow mountain pass east of Cius on the only road to Sinope. She related the difficulty of the journey through the steep, mountain pass. She spoke of the ancient gnarled and giant trees and how they blocked the sun and hugged the trail making it dark and eerie as the mist floated in ghostly currents across the earth at their feet. She told of the deep silence that engulfed them, and how Xena had felt the danger, and how the brave warrior shielded her with her body, placing herself between the danger and their Queen. The Amazons were mesmerized by the bard's voice, and Xena sat with a smile on her lips as her bard entranced the crowd. She felt such deep love and pride in her brave, little bard. Her audience exploded in gasps as Gabrielle related the lightening fast strike as forty warriors sprang from the tree tops and from the forest surrounding them. The audience gasped again when Gabrielle revealed the attackers were Amazons intent on killing the Warrior Princess, not knowing she was the Queen's chosen one, and how Xena had thrown down her weapon and clasped her hands in the Amazon sign of peace. Shocked horror spread through the crowd when Gabrielle told of the giant Amazon who brought the Warrior Princess to her knees in a savage and violent, unexpected assault. The crowd's eyes widened as Gabrielle told of the Amazon's sword raised high above her head and arcing down toward their brave warrior's neck. Cries of awe and relief went up when Gabrielle told of throwing her own body over her warrior's back sacrificing herself for the woman she loved. When the story finished Gabrielle's eye danced in tears at the memory, and Xena hugged her tightly. The Amazons pounded the ground and cheered for their Queen. Eponin grinned from ear to ear, and Ephiny, smiling, leaned back resting her elbows on the knees of an Amazon behind her and nodded with approval at Gabrielle.
Ephiny stood and above the whoops and applause yelled, "Bring the drums; let the dancing begin."
Several people crowded around Xena and Gabrielle who both remained seated. Electra and Petra appeared grinning in front of the couple, and Gabrielle looked up sheepishly at Petra. Before she could say anything, Petra was on her knee in front of her, "My Queen, that was an incredible story. You have a wonderful gift. Thank you for making me sound larger than life." They both exchanged grins, and for the first time all evening, Gabrielle finally felt somewhat at ease.
Xena grabbed Petra by the arm and leaned forward so that she could be heard without yelling, "Petra, could you do me a small favor?"
"Anything, Xena," Petra said.
"Zoe is very tired, but I don't want to leave Gabrielle to put her to bed. Could you please take her to our chambers and deliver her to the servant?" Petra was glad to be of service and picked up Zoe, and she and Electra moved away through the crowd.
The crowd, enthused by the incredible story and the bravery of their Amazon Queen, threw themselves into the dancing. Many were already feeling the effects of the tremendous amount of wine they had consumed and were dancing with wild abandon to the beat of the rhythmic drums. Gabrielle leaned into Xena. The two were completely relaxed for the first time all evening and absorbed in each other when Ephiny approached, reached down, and quickly tugged on Gabrielle's hand. "Come on, Gabrielle, let's dance." Gabrielle loved to join in the dancing, and Xena would never participate, so Ephiny and she often danced together.
Gabrielle resisted and feigned tiredness, but Ephiny thought she was just being shy and wanted more persuading. She would not be put off, and she tugged harder on Gabrielle's hand. Fear gripped Gabrielle's heart, and she felt as if any moment she might tumble to the ground while Ephiny just smiled down at her. In a flash Xena's hand shot out and grabbed Ephiny's wrist in a brutal grip cracking the bones painfully. Ephiny yelped in pain and released Gabrielle who would have tumbled over if it were not for Xena's arm around her. Instantly Ephiny's guards were at her side with their swords drawn and pointed at Xena. Xena, realizing that she was hurting Ephiny, released her wrist. The acting Queen rubbed her bruised wrist and without thinking, in a flash of anger, ordered her guards, "Arrest her!"
The guards quickly hustled Xena to her feet. Xena was torn. She couldn't leave Gabrielle stranded here, but at the same time she did not want to make everything worse by putting up a struggle. She tried to speak to Ephiny. Shrugging off the guards, Xena reached for Ephiny's arm as Ephiny turned angrily away. One of the guards interceded in an attempt to protect Ephiny and drove a knee into Xena's stomach bringing the warrior to her knees. Gabrielle screamed and rose to her feet. Ephiny spun around to see Xena take a kick in the back which sprawled her onto the ground, and Gabrielle stumble in a drunken gait and fall in the dust as she tried to go to Xena. It took a few moments for the scene before her to register, and she stood stunned unable to move as it dawned on her. `Gabrielle, something was wrong with Gabrielle.' Xena struggle toward Gabrielle ignoring the blades pointed at her as the guards came after her again. Ephiny raised her hands to stop them, and they let Xena push past them to get to Gabrielle who lay crying on the ground. Xena gathered her bard in her arms lovingly and picked her up out of the dirt cradling her. She pushed her way through the crowds and away from the horrible scene and to their quarters.
Sometime later Ephiny sent Eponin to bring Xena to her quarters. Xena refused to come until Eponin had fetched Petra for her. Xena would not leave Gabrielle alone even if at this moment she was asleep. Petra was the only one she trusted with her bard. When Petra arrived, Xena spoke simply and quietly to her, "Petra, the Queen is ill. I must go see Ephiny, she has summoned me. I need you to sit by Gabrielle's bed and let no one near her, and let nothing happen to her. I'll be back as soon as possible." Petra only nodded and pulled a chair next to Gabrielle's sleeping form.
Xena strode into Ephiny's quarters and found her sitting in a chair in front of the fireplace. A low fire burned there. Ephiny replied, "Sit down, Xena." Xena complied. "Now would you please tell me what is going on with you and Gabrielle?"
"I am sorry I hurt your wrist. It's not broken is it?" Xena asked ignoring Ephiny’s question.
Ephiny demanded, "Forget my wrist; what is wrong with Queen Gabrielle?"
"She didn't want anyone to know," Xena replied quietly.
"Xena, stop being cryptic and explain to me what is going on." Xena sighed and looked into her lap but remained quiet. "Look, Xena, I'm going to find out one way or another. Do you want me to go see Gabrielle right now?"
"She's sleeping," Xena said.
"She can be awakened," Ephiny countered.
Xena sighed and said, "Ephiny, I don't want to argue with you, but I cannot break a trust. If Gabrielle wants me to tell you, then I will, but not before. That is all I have to say."
Ephiny knew she was defeated when it came to this topic. She changed the subject. "All right, if you can't tell me about Gabrielle, perhaps you can tell me about Zoe."
Xena owed Ephiny an explanation. After all she relied on her Amazons to provide a safe haven for Zoe while she and Gabrielle traveled here. "Zoe is my child," Xena said simply.
Ephiny thought she knew everything about Xena. The child certainly looked like her, but when did she have this child? She had to know. "And just when did you find the time to have this child?" Ephiny asked.
"I did not give birth to her." Ephiny thought she was going mad. "I don't think I can explain it so that it will make sense to you, but suffice it to say, she was a gift. I am not turning my back on my gifts any longer; I just accept them."
Gabrielle woke late the next morning lying on her right side. She focused on her surroundings and tried to force the sleep from her mind and recall where she was. As the haze lifted, the memories of last night fell upon her, and she cringed inside. She knew what she had to do. She could never stay here now. Xena would just have to respect her wishes. As though hearing her own name in Gabrielle's mind, Xena's arms appeared and wrapped around her. Gabrielle rolled over and into her warrior's arms and looked Xena in the eyes. Xena bent toward her and kissed her on the forehead and Gabrielle snuggled into Xena's embrace seeking comfort and solace from the nightmare her life had become. Gabrielle finally spoke, "Xena, I want you to take me to Poteidaia."
"Gabrielle, we've already had this conversation," Xena said patiently.
"I know, but I'm serious. If you won't take me home, I will order my Amazons to do it."
"Gabrielle, please, let's not rush into this. We can go to visit Hippocrates, maybe he can help us."
"I'm not rushing into it, Xena," Gabrielle said. "Because of me, you took a beating last night. I am a liability to you. Your life is already endangered enough without me making things worse. Having me around will end up getting you hurt or even killed. There is nothing Hippocrates can do. I think we both know that."
"Gabrielle, please, without you I have no life," Xena pleaded. "You are my life. Please don't do this. I beg you."
"I'm sorry, Xena. You will have to respect my wishes." Xena rolled out of bed and stood with her back to Gabrielle and tried hard not to break down and cry. She then sat down on the edge of the bed. Gabrielle interrupted her misery, "What did Ephiny say about my situation?"
Xena felt as though her heart would break. Hiding behind her defenses, she slipped into her warrior mode, "I didn't tell her."
Perplexed Gabrielle asked, "You mean she didn't talk to you?"
"She talked to me; I just refused to tell her anything." Xena replied indifferently.
"You refused to give the acting Queen information she wanted?" Gabrielle asked and then thought to herself, `I bet she was happy.' "I'm surprised you're not being detained right now after last night."
"If you want Ephiny to know, you tell her. I'm not taking you to Poteidaia. That's no place for a great bard like you. If you want to go there, you'll have to get someone else's help." With that said Xena grabbed her clothes, stormed out of the Queen's chambers and slammed the door. Gabrielle stared up at the ceiling as tears trickled down her face.
Ephiny was surprised to receive a summons from Gabrielle later that day. She saw Xena storming around the compound usually in the company of Petra, and she wondered what Gabrielle was doing and why Xena seemed so upset. She had been informed that Xena had taken Zoe to Petra and Electra's hut early that morning and had then returned to the Queen's chambers.
Gabrielle managed somehow to get up and dress herself and move to one of the chairs in her quarters to await Ephiny’s arrival. When Ephiny arrived, she did not stand but commanded Ephiny to be seated. Without any small talk, Gabrielle cut right to the point. "Ephiny, I want you to arrange an Amazon escort for me to Poteidaia immediately."
Ephiny was speechless, this was not what she expected. "May I ask why?" she inquired.
"Why? Because, I need to go home."
Ephiny sighed and visions of Xena sitting before her last night giving clipped answers played in her mind. "And what will Xena be doing? Why does she not take you?" Ephiny asked.
Ephiny, growing quite impatient with this entire situation, stood in front of Gabrielle with her hands on her hips and said, "Look Gabrielle, I've had enough of this mysterious behavior. You and Xena have no right to hide things from us and then expect us to be at your beck and call. I want explanations, and I want them now. I simply cannot send Amazons on missions without a full knowledge of that mission's purpose." Gabrielle eyes pooled and when she looked down into her lap, a tear fell. Ephiny dropped to her knees in front of the young Queen, whom she considered a sister, took her hands into her own and looked into her eyes. Her voice softening she said, "Sister of my heart confide in me, please." A choking cry escaped Gabrielle and Ephiny enfolded her in her embrace.
Through her tears, Gabrielle began to explain. She choked out, "Oh, Ephiny, I have to go home because I can't stay with Xena."
Remembering Petra's allusions, Ephiny asked, "Have you and Xena had a falling out?" Gabrielle shook her head. "Then why must you leave her?" Ephiny's mind was busy picturing how Xena had doted on Gabrielle yesterday and had almost broken her wrist for touching the Queen. She was very confused.
Gabrielle inhaled greatly as if trying to shore up her courage to carry on, "If I stay with her, I'll only endanger her life. Even here she is not safe. Last night she was beaten for me." Ephiny saw the incident in her mind. "I can't burden her by staying with her."
"Gabrielle, I saw you fall last night, please explain," Ephiny said.
Gabrielle didn't think; she just rammed ahead, "We were late in arriving because I became very ill. I almost died. Had it not been for Xena I would have. I had a raging fever for five days and when it left me, it took with it my balance. I cannot walk without help." Ephiny remembered Zoe. Five days the child was inconsolable and cried for Gabrielle, and she thought, `How very strange!'
Realization dawned on Ephiny, and she reached up and ran her fingertips across the fine scars at the base of Gabrielle's throat. "Is that where these came from?" Gabrielle nodded. "Xena's healing powers?" Gabrielle nodded again. "What does Xena say about this infirmity? She knows a great deal, surely she has some insight."
Gabrielle sighed and said, "She thinks it's the results of the fever, and if we work hard, I will regain what I have lost, or at least most of it. But, Ephiny, I don't believe that is true. I fear it is just what Xena wants to believe."
"And your trip to Poteidaia, what does Xena say about that."
Wiping her tears Gabrielle answered, "You know Xena, she doesn't want me to go. She thinks she can make everything all right. She thinks she can take care of everybody." Gabrielle paused. "This time she is wrong."
"Do you want to leave her?" Ephiny asked.
Gabrielle looked into Ephiny's eyes, her own floating in tears, "You know the answer to that, but I must for her sake. I must."
"So, let me get this straight." Ephiny leaned back and said, "Xena and you are still very much in love. Xena doesn't want you to go. You don't want to go."
Gabrielle interrupted her. "Ephiny, please don't make this any harder for me. I need your help."
Ephiny frowned and said, "You need my help to make two people, whom I have come to care for very much, very unhappy?" Ephiny shook her head and sighed. "Gabrielle, I will help you get to Poteidaia if that is what you want in your heart, but I want you to see our healer first." Gabrielle agreed. "And another condition, you are not rushing into this. I want you to take three days and just rest before you make your final decision." Gabrielle started to argue, but Ephiny would not relent in her decision; Gabrielle finally agreed.
Ephiny assigned Gabrielle a servant to be in constant attendance to help her move about her quarters and to run errands for her and fetch her food. She then went to find Xena. Xena was sparring with Petra on the practice field when Ephiny found her and asked her if they could talk. Xena didn't seem much interested until Ephiny added it was about Queen Gabrielle. The two women returned to Ephiny's quarters so that they could speak privately.
Motioning for Xena to sit down, Ephiny poured her a cup of wine and handed it to her, "I spoke with Gabrielle." Ephiny paused expecting a reaction, but Xena only looked at her impassively. "You can relax, Xena, she told me what happened." Ephiny noted in her mind the details of Gabrielle's story was more like what the warrior would tell rather than the bard. "You no longer have to worry about betraying her confidence."
Xena sat back and took a drink of her wine. Finally she said, "So what do you want to talk to me about?"
Ephiny felt the anger within her rise and Xena’s indifference annoyed her even more. She said, "To be perfectly honest, Xena, I am mad as Hades at you both. How dare you try and hide something so serious from me. I thought we were friends; I cannot believe you tried to perpetrate such a deception. Had you both been honest with me, none of that business last night would have occurred." Xena felt like a child reprimanded by her mother.
Xena sat her cup aside and said, "I apologize to you, Ephiny, but Gabrielle was so upset, she didn't think she could face you. It's important to her to be able to contribute. She has always been strong willed. She can't stand the idea that she needs others to help her. She doesn't want anyone feeling sorry for her."
Ephiny frowned, unable to remain angry at Xena, knowing full well it was mostly the Queen's idea. "You know she wants an escort to Poteidaia." Xena looked down into her lap and nodded. "She said you wouldn't take her."
Xena finally spoke resolutely, "No, I won't take her there. That's not where Gab belongs. She belongs with me. I'll not return her to that dreary life where she will be expected to eke out an abysmal existence from dirt so poor it will hardly grow olives. Where she will be expected to marry some poor farmer who will saddle her down with a half a dozen children. She's too good for that. Gods! She's an Amazon Queen whose bravery matches that of any warrior I've ever known. She was willing to lay her life down for mine; I'm not willing to condemn her life to that existence."
Ephiny was amazed at the words that flowed from the warrior's lips. "I thought you should know," Ephiny said, "that I agreed to provide her an escort." Xena looked over at Ephiny and her eyes narrowed. "What was I suppose to do, Xena? Knowing Gabrielle, she would have crawled there if I refused to help her. Besides, she is the Queen; it's in her power to form her own escort. She need only ask; there's not a warrior here who would deny her request." Xena knew Ephiny spoke the truth. "I told her she must first let our healer examine her, and she must wait three days. I would not have her rush into this." Xena was grateful for this information. "And one other thing, Xena, I assigned her a personal attendant to help her get around since you and she had your little disagreement this morning."
Xena rose and replied, "She won't need the attendant, I'll take care of her until she leaves for Poteidaia."
Ephiny smiled inside and said seriously, "Thought so. By the way, Xena, she told me you both are still very much in love." Ephiny saw the emotions in Xena's eyes and knew the warrior was heartsick. "You have to find away to hang on to her, Xena." Xena nodded and left.
Ephiny and Xena stood against the wall, their arms folded across their chests observing as the healer examined Gabrielle. The older Amazon woman gazed deeply into Gabrielle's eyes and had her follow her finger from left to right. She then had her look straight ahead at her as she held her fingers slightly behind Gabrielle's head. "Tell me when you can see my fingers. Good." She then looked into her ears, "Do your ears ache?" Gabrielle shook her head. The healer still peered into her ears reflecting the light of a candle with a small hand mirror and frowned. Then she had Gabrielle squeeze her fingers and push against her hands. Finally she had her up and trying to walk. "Close your eyes and try to walk." Gabrielle took three steps, her balance slightly better than with her eyes open. She then helped Gabrielle back to her bed and looked over to Xena and Ephiny. The two stepped forward expectantly. Turning to Xena she asked, "Was Queen Gabrielle ill before her bout with the illness you said was a moon ago?" Xena questioned Gabrielle with a look. Gabrielle shook her head.
Xena turned to the healer, "She was seasick for several days, but that was over two moons ago."
The healer looked at Gabrielle, "You did not get chilled or wet, you weren't running a fever before that, even a slight one?" Gabrielle frowned searching her memory. So much had happened. She finally shook her head, and the healer frowned even deeper and became lost in thought.
Xena interrupted the healer's concentration, "Gabrielle, you and Zoe did get soaked on the plains that night. You must have been cold. Not long after that Zoe was running a fever."
The healer turned to Xena and said. "I'm going to give you some oil to put in her ears twice a day for seven days, and I'll send some powders too. Mix it in some tepid tea four times a day. I want her to take that for seven days also."
Ephiny stepped forward, "Thyra, what do think is wrong with our Queen?"
"Fever could cause this disorder, but Xena was with her the entire time soaking her in the cold spring waters. With that procedure, fevers seldom burn hot enough to cause that type of damage. The plague kills it does not maim. If one is lucky enough to survive, recovery is usually guaranteed." Looking and smiling at Gabrielle she asked, "Our Queen does not do well on the water?" Gabrielle smiled sheepishly at her and shook her head. "Then you are sensitive to motion. A slight illness or inflammation can cause problems similar to seasickness or feeling drunk." Turning to Ephiny she said, "I'm not sure, but I am going to try some things that might help."
Over the next three days, preparations were made to transport the Queen to Poteidaia. A wagon was hauled into the stables to be converted into a royal carriage in which Queen Gabrielle could ride comfortably. Poteidaia was almost ten day's ride by horse and would take much longer by wagon. Every time Xena entered the stables to tend Argo her eyes fell on the evil instrument of the destruction of her happy life. Gabrielle was determined to leave regardless of what Xena or the healer said. Xena had resigned herself to the realization that she had all but lost her beautiful Gabrielle. She still helped her with every little chore and put the medicines in her ears and fed her the bitter teas the healer had prescribed. With each passing hour it seemed Gabrielle slipped further and further away from Xena.
On the evening of the third night, Xena helped Gabrielle bathe and into bed. She had sent Zoe to Petra and Electra earlier that evening for the night. After Gabrielle was tucked into bed, Xena climbed under the covers with her, "Gabrielle, since this is our last night together, may I please hold you one more time?"
The question almost broke Gabrielle's heart. She had done so well to harden her heart to this point, a technique she knew she had learned from Xena. "I think I would like that," she said.
Xena enclosed Gabrielle in her arms, "Gabrielle, I know you are going to go to Poteidaia, but I want you to know, I still don't want you to leave me."
"I never thought I could be so unhappy as I am now. I guess I never knew what true happiness was until I met you. And now that I am loosing you, I also know what true despair is." Xena spoke quietly from the heart.
Gabrielle bit her lip, "Xena, I'm sorry I'm hurting you, but you know I must do this. Let's not make our last night together so hard."
The two lay in each other's arms for the longest time both lost in their thoughts. Xena's mind traveled back to the night she confessed her love to Gabrielle and the morning Helios took them on a wonderful trip across the heavens, and she squeezed her eyes shut.
"Gabrielle, remember Helios?" Gab nodded in Xena's arms. "I have a story for you." Gabrielle looked up at Xena and noticed a tiny tear clinging to her beautiful eyelashes. "This is about a warrior too, but this warrior had lost her way because during a great battle she lost a piece of her heart. But she was so busy fighting and struggling she never knew it was missing. When the battle ended and the warrior left the field, although she had won the day, she felt empty. So she tried to fill the emptiness.
She ate and ate and ate to fill the void, and when she was done, she was only sick. The emptiness was still there. Then she drank wine until she could no longer stand, and when morning came, she was even sicker, but the emptiness still haunted her. Then she turned to war and plunder, and she took more wealth than she could spend in a lifetime, and she killed more people wantonly than any other warrior living or dead, but still the emptiness was her constant companion. No matter where she went or who she was with, it was always with her.
One day she decided to go on a quest to find what was missing. She traveled for a thousand leagues east searching foreign shores and mountain tops, but she was still empty. She turned west and traveled two thousand leagues through deserts and across the seas, but every night she went to bed and slept embraced in emptiness.
One day she sat down with her emptiness in a land far from her home, and she asked herself, ‘Where have I not yet been?’ She turned her feet homeward. Perhaps there she could fill the hollowness, but when she arrived home, they only hated her and turned her away more empty than before. When she was too tired to go on, she met someone who called her friend and who accepted her and loved her regardless of what she was or where she came from or what she had done. The warrior's emptiness filled with love, and she found new meaning, and she put away her wanderings and lustings, and she was happy."
The two were silent for a while and then Xena said, "Gabrielle, I'm afraid the emptiness will return. I don't want to be left alone anymore." Gabrielle took her into her arms and held her as Xena wept openly.
Sometime during the night Xena was awakened by someone tugging gently on her hand. Xena first thought it was Gabrielle, but Zoe climbed into bed next to her and looked down into her eyes. "Xena, Mommy wants to talk to you."
Thinking Zoe had been frightened and left Petra's to climb in bed with her and Gabrielle, she lifted the covers. "You want to climb in here?" she asked.
Zoe pulled on Xena's hand and spoke more persistently, "No, Xena, Mommy wants to talk to you." Xena furrowed her brow at the realization of what Zoe was saying. She quickly climbed out of bed careful not to awaken Gabrielle, picked Zoe up and left their quarters.
Once outside she asked, "Explain to me what you meant, Zoe.
Zoe sighed and patiently explained, "Mommy said she needed to talk to you, and you couldn't hear her. She sent me to get you."
"Zoe, honey you've been dreaming, let's go back to bed." Xena said and started back inside.
Zoe protested, "Xena, I wasn't dreaming. Mommy said it was very important that you go and see her."
Xena decided to humor Zoe, "All right, where is she?" she asked.
Zoe said, "Mommy told me you would ask, and she told me to tell you to look inside your heart, and you would know where she was." Xena thought to herself, `That sure sounded like Chloe.'
Xena slipped back inside, threw on some clothes, and escorted Zoe back to Petra's at her insistence. Zoe refused to stay in the Queen's quarters, but would not offer an explanation why. Xena knew of only one place where she might speak with Chloe if indeed this was not simply the dreams of a child missing her mother...the temple.
Xena stole through the night avoiding the Amazon sentries and quickly found herself at the temple of Artemis. The temple guards looked the other way when they saw the familiar warrior approach and enter the temple. Inside, Xena ran her fingers across the altar and looked around exploring her memory of the last time she stood in this temple and the great joy that followed that visit. How things had changed!
She was about to leave when she heard the familiar voice that melted her insides. "Xena, I am so glad you came." Xena's mind painfully remembered the bath in Sinope. "Don't be sad, my love. I am so very happy now."
Xena turned and Chloe stood not three paces from her, "Oh, Chloe, I am so sorry." Xena shook her head and as tears fell she said, "I tried so hard to make everything work out, but I failed you again."
"Xena, you didn't fail me," Chloe said. "You got Zoe here safely, and soon she will be in Cyrene's hands. She'll grow up happy in her loving care with you and Gabrielle to parent her and Toris to spoil her." Xena cried inside at the mention of Gabrielle. "That is all I wished for."
Ignoring her own pain for the moment, "What about your son and you?" Xena asked.
"Xena, you gave up the voices and the sight. I did not. I saw our destiny. Zoe's was the only fate that was rested in your hands," Chloe explained.
Xena implored, "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Oh, Xena, would you have believed me?" Chloe smiled and said, "Would you have taken Zoe from Sinope and left me there?" Xena looked away. "I didn't think so. It was worth it all, Xe, to hold you in my arms those two nights in Sinope, and making sweet love with you again was more than I ever wished for. I only wish you could rejoice in that too."
"I do, Chloe, believe me. I never thought I would know our love again, and I am thankful." Toris' words came back,...`never satisfied.' "I'll cherish those two evenings we shared forever."
Chloe smiled and then became serious, "I came here for you tonight, not to tell you of my happiness, but to help you find your happiness." Xena looked down; she had found her happiness, but as they stood here in this temple, it was quickly slipping away because with dawn Gabrielle would be gone. "You already possess the key to keeping her, Xena."
Xena knew Chloe spoke of Gabrielle. "How?"
"Why did you return to Sinope after my death?" Chloe asked.
Xena's voice was tinged with cold venom, "Revenge. I wanted to kill everyone of them slowly. I wanted to bathe in their blood and send them to Tartarus."
"Is that why you took time to retrieve Zoe's doll? I think not." Chloe paused and grinned at Xena, " Xe, remember when we were young and fiery? Passion coursed through our veins, and we lived life fast and on the edge? Remember how you could drink Dionysus himself under the table?"
Xena laughed, "And hate myself for having wasted the next day in the clutches of the cruel vine?"
Chloe smiled at her memories, "You would get so drunk, Lyceus would have to drag you home because you could barely stand up."
Xena grinned, "You put an end to that. You became tired of me being too drunk to make love; you gave me that perfect piece of Amethyst to wear to fend off the effects of the vine."
Chloe laughed softly and said, "Remember what you did with it?" Xena's face clouded. "That's why you went back to Sinope." Chloe paused letting Xena think. "You took the amethyst to a jeweler in Amphipolis, and you had two small, perfectly matched tear drop gemstones cut from it, and you had them set in the center of crescent moon shaped gold rings in honor of Artemis, our patron goddess; one for you, one for me."
Xena's face was a mass of emotion swinging between sorrow and anger, "I couldn't stand the thought of those bastards in Sinope touching the things that were yours from Amphipolis. I searched your room and found your ring and Cyrene's brooch she had given you the year before Cortese. I wanted your ring, and I wanted the brooch for Zoe."
Chloe nodded and asked, "Whatever did you do with your ring?"
Xena frowned, "I still have it; I quit wearing it after Cortese when I turned away from Artemis and became a disciple of Ares."
"Don't you think it's time to put it back on?" Chloe asked.
Xena sighed, " If I were to start wearing it now, it would only make me think of you when I'd look at it."
"And what would be wrong with that?" She grinned. "Xena, my ring would fit Gabrielle perfectly." Xena furrowed her eyebrows and frowned. "Why did I give you the Amethyst, Xe?"
"To keep me from feeling the effects of wine," Xena answered.
"And what is wrong with Gabrielle?" Xena looked at Chloe strangely. "It's a gift, Xe, use it. I must go now." She turned and walked into the outstretched arms of Hades whose half formed image materialized instantly in front of Chloe. Hades looked over Chloe's head, and his blue eyes smiled at Xena as the two disappeared, and Xena could have sworn she heard Chloe's voice in her head saying, `Father, Xe.'
Xena found herself rummaging through her packs until she located the two crescent rings, she had fashioned so long ago. The larger one of the two she slipped onto her third finger of her right hand. It still fit. This was the first time she wore the ring in almost thirteen years, and although it was made from heavy gold and a deep purple stone, it felt natural on her finger. She looked down at Chloe's ring resting in her palm. In her mind she heard Chloe's voice, `Gabrielle's ring'. Xena glanced over at her sweet, sleeping bard. Two candlemarks and it would be dawn.
Xena laid the ring on the table by the bed and bent down and kissed Gabrielle's lips gently at first and then with need. In her grogginess, Gabrielle returned the kiss and reached up to pull Xena down to her. Xena slipped under the covers and pressed her nude body against Gab's, and Gabrielle responded by deepening the kiss that had captured her lips. As they kissed, Xena reached down and lifted Gabrielle's gown, inching it up her thighs. Gabrielle's hand joined gladly in the task and soon their mutual goal was accomplished. They stopped kissing long enough to pull the bothersome clothing from Gabrielle's head and toss it aside. They both gasped in pleasure as their bodies melted into one, soft skin touching soft skin. Xena looked down into Gabrielle's eyes, "Gabrielle, close your eyes, my love." Xena kissed first one eye lid and then the other and then she moved down the side of Gabrielle's jaw line planting tiny kisses while her fingers caressed the skin on the inside of Gabrielle's thigh. Moving down her neck, Xena mixed kisses with tiny nibbles driving Gabrielle to tingling madness, and her body moved beneath Xena's in a rhythm that communicated the depth of her desire. With the first soft touch Gabrielle shuddered with unexpected pleasure that rocked Xena to her very core, and she too exploded which caused both to cry out in unison. Gabrielle bit down on Xena's shoulder sending another jolt through Xena as she heightened her desire to deliver more pleasure to her love. The two lay in blissful, mutual lovemaking for another candlemark.
As Helios rose in the east, Gabrielle lay in Xena's arms relaxing in the after glow of unleashed passion. She was mindlessly playing Xena's fingers between hers when she noticed the foreign presence. She held Xena's hand up so that she could better examine the ring, "What's this?" she asked.
Xena pulled her hand lose and reached across Gabrielle to the table; she picked up the other ring. She held it above them so that they could both see the ring. She then lifted Gabrielle's hand in hers and slipped the ring onto her finger. It was a perfect fit. And then she said, "You and I are kindred spirits, Gabrielle, linked eternally, and love that is eternal cannot be denied. These rings unite us forever."
Gabrielle rolled over and looked down into Xena's eye. "That was beautiful, Xena."
Xena shrugged, "I'm just a warrior, not a poet."
Gabrielle shook her head, "Sounds more like a poet." She then rolled to her back and lolled in Xena's arms and looked at the ring on her finger and then at Xena's. "They are beautiful, Xena. When did you have these made?"
"Some time ago," Xena replied.
The sounds of horses and warrior voices emanating from the central compound disrupted the peace of the morning. Xena slowly rolled out of bed and sat up on its edge. Looking over her shoulder at Gabrielle she caught her bard looking wistfully at the ring upon her finger. Xena sighed, rose and strode to the wash basin across the room. She then slipped her leather shift over her head and turned to look at Gabrielle, "It's time, Gab. They are loading for your journey. You need to eat before you leave." Gabrielle stood up holding on to the edge of the bed, a technique she employed to maintain her balance. Xena crossed the room and took Gabrielle in her arms. Looking down into her bard's blue eyes, Xena bent down and kissed Gabrielle deeply. The two remained in a deep embrace and kissed long and passionately. Xena finally pulled back gently, averting her eyes and stepped away.
She began to turn when Gabrielle took a step toward her and reached for her, "Xena, wait!" Xena stopped, but she dared not turn to face Gabrielle. She was teetering on the precipice of an emotional cliff, and was using the full extent of her warrior resolve to maintain her cool composure. She feared if she slipped over its edge, she would shatter into a thousand shards of raw emotion when she hit bottom. Gabrielle took another small step forward wishing to comfort her warrior, knowing Xena's heart was breaking when she noticed a strange unfamiliar feeling. Something was different, but she could not or would not let herself explore this new feeling. Not just yet.
Xena waited for Gabrielle to speak, but when no words were forthcoming, she misread the silence as a change of heart, and she moved away, "I'll get your clothes and help you dress."
Gabrielle took another careful step away from the bed. She fully expected to find herself on the floor at any moment. It did not happen. She finally let herself examine this knew phenomenon. She wasn't dizzy, her head was clear, and her feet and legs seemed to obey her silent commands. She tested her new found abilities and took a normal step. The earth did not tilt beneath her feet, the room did not spin around her, and she remained standing. In disbelief she cried out staring down at the floor where her feet were firmly planted, "Xena!" Xena's head snapped up from Gabrielle's packs and she immediately rose and moved to rush to her, but Gabrielle threw out her hands for her to stop. Xena froze like a statue, concern painted across every feature of her face. Gabrielle stood with her arms out to help her balance, and she took a step in Xena's direction. Xena held her breath refusing to even hope. Gabrielle then dropped her arms to her sides and took two more steps. Tears welled up in the bard's eyes, and she began to cry into her hands. Xena stood before her in a heartbeat and wrapped her arms around her. Gabrielle cried in Xena's arms, and Xena held her tightly and stared at the ring on her own hand. Gab whispered into Xena's neck, "I don't have to leave you now." Xena eventually released Gabrielle and took several steps back holding out her hand to Gabrielle. She had to have proof that Gab was healed. When Gabrielle walked effortlessly into her arms, Xena thought her heart would burst with joy, and she swept Gabrielle into her strong arms and moved her to their bed where they would celebrate this new chapter in their lives.
When Xena and Gabrielle finally left the Queen's quarters mid-morning, they found a table of anxious Amazons waiting expectantly in the dining hall. Ephiny rose and all eyes turned to the door when the happy couple entered the hall hand-in-hand. Ephiny rushed around the table and caught Gabrielle in her embrace, "Thank the gods." Looking up at Xena she questioned her with her eyes, but the warrior only grinned back at her. Then she stepped back with her hands still on Gabrielle's shoulders and looked probingly into her eyes. "How do you feel? You look...wonderful." Gabrielle beamed at Ephiny and then up at Xena, and Ephiny took Gabrielle by the hand and escorted her to their table.
Everyone at the table expressed their joy at Gabrielle's remarkable recovery and Ephiny finally spoke, "I guess this means the trip to Poteidaia has been canceled."
Gabrielle smiled joyfully and nodded, "Yes, we need to go to Amphipolis, but I won't be needing an Amazon escort," she said reaching for Xena's hand, "My personal warrior will do the honors."
Eponin was sitting across from Xena silently observing the entire affair, "Well, Eponin how have you been since I last saw you?" Xena inquired with a wink and a wicked grin playing on her lips.
Eponin tapped the deep purple stone sewn to her warrior's amulet, "Much better thanks to you and your little stone." The two warriors laughed. Gabrielle noticed the warrior's gesture and looked down at the ring on her hand and wondered at the Amethyst stone delicately encircled in a crescent moon, the symbol of Artemis. She then looked up at her Xena sitting next to her and thought, `Warrior mine, how many other secrets do you guard in that great heart of yours?'
That night the drums of the Amazon Nation beat joyfully for the return and good health of its Queen. The wild celebration played into the early morning, and Queen Gabrielle enchanted her loyal subjects with epic stories of adventure and intrigue, mystery and love, and sorrow, and joy. Xena sat across from her bard between Eponin and Petra mesmerized by her lover's eloquent delivery of her craft. When the stories were finished and the drums beat out the rhythms of the ancient dances, Gabrielle joined Ephiny in the dance of sisterhood. Together their bodies moved joyfully through the ritual enactment of the spiritual bond of those born sisters and of those who became sisters united in their hearts. As the drums changed cadence and moved smoothly into the erotic dance of love, Ephiny and Gabrielle swooped down on Xena and dragged her into the mass of feminine bodies beating out the passionate rhythm. Xena, who never danced, smiled at her little bard as her agile body fell easily into the rhythms of the movement as Ephiny moved away leaving the lovers lost in their private dance. The methodical rhythm of the beating drums and the sensual movements of the dance transformed the crowded square into a private intimate world in which only the two remained. They communicated their deep love to each other through their eyes and through the language of their bodies, and when the throbbing drums ceased to beat, the two stood, eyes locked in a deep embrace. Together they left the celebration to celebrate alone their gifts.
Chapter 32: Conclusion
Cyrene cried tears of joy when Gabrielle walked through the door of the inn. The two women hugged joyfully and kissed each other's cheeks brushing aside the salty tears with their lips. Stepping back, Cyrene held Gabrielle's hands in hers, "Let me look at you, daughter of my heart." Cyrene could not contain the smile that lit up her face. "I was so thankful to receive the message that you two were safe, but now that you are here I know everything is truly all right." She pulled Gabrielle into her embrace and hugged her to her breast once more as Xena ducked and stepped through the doorway. Cyrene could not help herself, and she began to cry at her sight. The three moons of waiting with not so much as a word had worn on the woman, and now she gave into her emotions as Xena moved to her and wrapped her into her comforting embrace.
"Mother, it's all right we are home and safe." Xena looked down at Gabrielle and pulled her into their embrace. Cyrene finally composed herself and pulled back, her eyes questioning her tall daughter's face. Xena knew what her mother feared to ask. Xena gave her a sad smile and said. "We'll talk about it later. For now I have someone you must meet." Xena left the two and exited.
Cyrene turned to Gabrielle, "She seems so happy, Gabrielle. Tell me, what of Chloe?"
At the tears in Gabrielle's eyes, Cyrene knew without words the answer to her question. Before the two could speak, Xena entered the inn, "Mother I would like for you to meet Zoe." Xena reached behind her and pulled the little girl from behind her legs. Zoe smiled up sweetly into Cyrene's shocked but delighted face. Xena bent down and picked up Zoe and said, "Zoe say hello to Cyrene." Looking at the child in Xena's arms, Cyrene knew she was looking into the eyes of her own daughter when Xena was but three summers old. Cyrene was speechless.
"Hello, Grandmother, Mommy told me all about you. She loved you very much." Zoe reached her little arms out to her grandmother, and Cyrene took the little child from Xena and hugged her to her breast as tears flooded her eyes.
That night after the evening meal, Cyrene took her beautiful granddaughter to her room and tucked her into her bed. She sat on the bed with the child and told her a sweet story about Chloe, Xena, and Lyceus from their childhood. When Zoe drifted off to sleep, she sat for a while and observed the sleeping child lying peacefully in her bed. In sleep she was Chloe, the daughter of her heart. Awake she was Xena, the daughter of her womb. Cyrene wondered at the thought that drifted through her mind, `Night and day in one; dark and light.' She said a quiet prayer of thanks to Artemis and to whichever god was responsible for this gift.
When she returned to the kitchen to rejoin Gabrielle, Xena and Toris, Xena related the events of their journey to Sinope leaving out much that she knew would upset her mother. She told of arriving in Sinope and finding Chloe. She talked about Zoe and Chloe's son whom she never met. She described the events of the night Chloe came to them, the night her son was murdered and of their escape from the city. She lingered only briefly on the painful events that led to Chloe's death. Cyrene knew her daughter well and understood that there was much being left out to spare her pain. But of Zoe, she had to know more.
"Xena, please tell me about Zoe. I know that you three were connected. I know the gods smiled on you, but how did Chloe give us this beautiful miniature of you both?"
Xena smiled, "Mother, you know Chloe, she could charm the moon from the heavens if she wanted it badly enough" Toris, who had been silently observing, smiled at his sister's comment and thought, `Couldn't all three of you?' Xena turned and looked at him strangely, but continued, "She told me she prayed to the gods for this child to have both our essence. She wanted to send you, the mother of her heart, a gift from her heart." Cyrene smiled sadly. "That's really all I know, Mother." Xena then reached into her pouch and pulled forth the ivory brooch she had retrieved when she returned to Sinope. She handed it to her mother, "I brought this back; I thought you might like to give it to Zoe one day. Cyrene looked down at the piece of jewelry lying in her hand, and the well of tears overflowed, and together she and Xena held each other and cried for the one they had lost.
That evening when they retired, Cyrene pulled back the covers and climbed into bed next to her new granddaughter and pulled her next to her body. Zoe opened her eyes and smiled at Cyrene, "Cyrene, Mommy said you would sing her lullabies when she was young."
Cyrene smiled down at the tiny freckled face, "Would you like for me to sing you one?" Zoe nodded and cuddled with Cyrene. Cyrene held the child in her arm and sang soft lullabies until Zoe closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Cyrene lay peacefully with the sleeping child warm at her side, letting her mind drift leisurely through her memories, and in her mind's eye, she saw her two daughters sitting in the green fields laughing and teasing and hugging each other. She then saw them stand up and wave at her. Chloe shouted laughing across the distance, "Cyrene, mother of my heart, I love you." she turned, joined Lyceus and hand-in-hand they walked away while Xena watched them go. Xena turned sadly and approached Cyrene, and as she neared, Cyrene could see Zoe in her arms and then Gabrielle appeared at Xena's side, and Xena encircled her waist with her arm, and the three stood in front of Cyrene, and Cyrene wept.
Thanks, B. for your patience.