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Disclaimer: This story depicts/implies death and violence and a lesbian relationship. If you find this offensive, if you are under age 18, or if such material is illegal where you live, flee at once.
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The story begins with Ephinyís funeral. At the end of the episode "End Game," Xena holds Gabrielle in her arms and the two watch as the fallen Amazonís body is consumed by the flames of the funeral fire...
Gabrielle clung tightly to the warrior, burying her head in the familiar leather. Though she tried to be strong, standing there in the midst of her Amazon sisters, she could feel her spirit beginning to splinter. Helpless, she listened to the sounds of her own soul crackling along with the resplendent flames as the funeral fire enveloped the deceased regentís body, carrying her safely to Artemis.
Xena searched for words, some small consolation for her grieving friend. Yet there was nothing she could say to ease her pain. Ephinyís senseless demise had come at a time when Gabrielle needed her most and words of comfort, no matter how earnest, would be of no use to her now. The warrior tenderly pressed her lips to the young womanís forehead and drew her near. She could feel her cherished friendís pain seeping through her armor and into her chest and she knew if she let go, the bard would fall apart.
The moon was high overhead and the embers from the ceremonial fire smoldered under the vigilant stars, a quiet reminder that the Amazon known as Ephiny was no more. The warrior sat on the edge of the small pallet keeping a watchful eye on her companion. Though she and Gabrielle had planned to leave the village after the funeral, the bard reconsidered and decided to stay on for a few days in order to help Chilapa settle into her position as the new queen. Moreover, the village had suffered extensive damage during the clash with the Romans and there was much work to be done.
Shuffling through her tattered satchel, Gabrielle struggled against the tears pooling in her eyes as she half-heartedly searched for a clean shift. "Let me help you," Xena offered and reached into the satchel.
She quickly found the elusive garment and handed it to the bard. Gabrielle mumbled a faint expression of gratitude and began to undress. Without another word, she slipped into the shift and settled onto the pallet, pulling the blankets over her head. Xena extinguished the solitary candle on the table by the window and crawled into the bed against the opposite wall. When the room was dark, she could hear the bardís sobs and the sounds of her anguish threatened to crush the stalwart warrior.
A knock at the door jolted the two women from their restless slumber. "Come in," Xena called out, glancing over at her companion who was still hidden under the covers. The door began to swing inward, revealing the young Amazon on the other side. "I know itís early, but I have a message for Gabrielle," Amarice uttered apologetically.
"What is it?" Xena climbed off the pallet, shaking her head slightly in an attempt to break free from her drowsy haze. The bardís form stirred beneath her blanket and, slowly, she sat upright. "A message? From who?," she questioned.
"From Queen Chilapa. Sheís out riding with the scouts, helping with the inspection of the perimeters. She said she would return by midday and when she does, she wants to meet with you in her hut."
"Will that be all?"
"Ye...yes," Amarice stammered, hesitating on her way out the door. "Gabrielle?" The bard raised her eyes in response. "Are...are you ok?"
A faint smile teased the former queenís lips and her expression softened. "Iíll be fine, Amarice," she sighed. "Thank you."
The young Amazon turned and took her leave, quietly closing the door behind her.
Xena, able to see the sorrow in her friendís emerald eyes, approached the bard and sat down next to her. "How can I help you get through this?," she quietly asked. It pained her to see Gabrielle looking so haggard. Her characteristic glow had disappeared and she saw lines on her face that hadnít been there before.
The bard swallowed hard and flinched slightly. "I...Xena, I donít know," she mumbled, her voice quaking when her tears reemerged and spilled onto her cheeks. The warrior reached for her weeping friend, gently guiding her into her arms. "I know itís hard, Gabrielle. And I know youíre hurting. But youíre strong...one of the strongest people Iíve ever known. You can make it through this. I know you can," she softly reassured her.
As she had so many times before, the bard gave herself over to the warriorís embrace, sinking deeply into its steadfast consolation. Xena held her tight, encircling her in her arms in an attempt to drive away her suffering. She hated to know that she was hurting. She hated to see her cry. And she hated Caesar for his ruthlessness, his arrogance, his insatiable hunger for power. She despised him for betraying her all those summers ago. But now, as she held her shattered friend close, she found herself hating him most for the role he had played in Ephinyís death. It was his relentless pursuit of an invincible Roman empire, an empire he intended to mold in order to suit his own needs, that brought Pompey and Brutus to Amazon territory. Each village Caesarís army conquered only served as a stimulant, arousing his incurable appetite for power and anyone who got in the way of his dictatorial vision was apt to be annihilated.
The warrior knew there was no way Caesar would ever agree to the peace treaty Gabrielle had proposed. But the bard had hope that her last official act as queen would bring about change. And the last thing Xena wanted to do was suffocate what little hope her friend had left, so she kept her dismal opinion to herself.
The bardís body trembled as her anguish manifested itself in uncontrollable sobs. "Itís going to be all right," Xena whispered and leaned back on the pallet, taking Gabrielle with her. The bard snuggled close, resting her head against the warriorís chest, and closed her eyes in a vain attempt to quell her tears. The relentless misery clawed at her insides, shredding her soul. Coursing through her veins, filling her frame to the brink, it gushed from her eyes in salty triumph.
The soft glow crept through the window as the sun made its debut, emerging from behind the clouds high in the eastern sky. Xena could tell from the shadows on the walls that it was almost noon. "Gabrielle? Gabrielle?" She tried to wake her friend without startling her.
The weary bard stirred slightly when she felt the warriorís lips brush against her cheek. "Has Chilapa returned?," she asked, forcing her eyes open.
"If she hasnít, sheíll be here soon," Xena answered and managed a faint smile. "Would you like for me to come with you?," she offered.
"No, Iíll be fine," the bard insisted. Sitting upright, she planted her feet on the floor and stood to stretch the muscles in her legs. "But thank you for asking," she added, briefly grazing her finger tips over the warriorís cheek. Xena smiled and rose to her feet, pulling her near for a final hug before she headed for the queenís hut. "You sure?," she asked, her affection for the bard shimmering in her eyes.
"Iím sure," Gabrielle quietly replied and reluctantly tore herself away from the tranquilizing embrace. "Thank you," she reiterated and the warrior knew what she meant. The words werenít a mere response to the question or reaction to the embrace. They were intended as a reminder of all the two had experienced together, overcome together. A subtle affirmation of the steadfast love bonding their karmas, carrying them side by side through the portals of time.
"Queen Chilapa?" The bard peaked through the crack between the wall and the half-open door.
"Gabrielle..." Chilapa looked up from the piece of parchment in her hand, placed it on the table, and gestured for the bard to enter. She found it strange to hear the woman who, only yesterday, had been queen using the title to address her. Though she was certainly honored, she was also surprised when Gabrielle gave her the mask and, in a quiet corner of her mind, she asked herself if Ephiny would have approved. The new sovereign held both Gabrielle and the fallen regent in high regard and could only hope to successfully lead her sisters down the path the former rulers had so painstakingly cleared.
"You wanted to see me?," Gabrielle asked, rousing the queen from her thoughts.
"Yes. I...this isnít easy," she sighed and retrieved the scroll from the table, handing it to the bard.
Gabrielle unrolled the parchment and studied the words. "This is Ephinyís handwriting," she uttered, glancing up at Chilapa.
"Her final requests," the queen confirmed. "Iíll leave you alone," she said respectfully and left the hut.
I ask that the following instructions be carried out in the event of my death. First and most importantly, there is a scroll addressed to my son, Xenan, in my foot locker. Iím requesting that the scroll be delivered to him by Queen Gabrielle. There is a necklace tied to the scroll. It belonged to his father, Phantes. Tell him to wear it proudly and that he can return it to his father when they meet again on the other side. All other scrolls in the trunk I leave to Gabrielle. As for the remainder of my belongings, I leave the matter in the queenís capable hands. Artemis be with you, my Amazon sisters.~~Ephiny
Once again, the bardís eyes betrayed her and tears trickled down her cheeks. Her legs faltering under the weight of her anguish, she slumped into a chair next to the window and buried her face in her hands. Though she tried, she couldnít make sense of the regentís untimely demise. She knew, if not for Caesarís shameless greed, her friend would still be alive. Anger swelled in her chest as she wept and she longed for a world free of violence and bloodshed.
"Gabrielle?" Xenaís voice broke through the silence when the warrior cautiously entered the room.
The bard held out the scroll written by Ephiny and Xena took it from trembling hands. A troubled expression moved over the warriorís face, tears filling her eyes as she read. When she finished reading, she placed the scroll on the table and knelt next to the bard. Her sobs growing more urgent, her heart breaking in two, the former queen fell forward and into her friendís comforting arms. "I know, Gabrielle. I miss her too," Xena whispered, her own tears stinging her eyes.
The warrior gently pulled her companion closer, rocking her back and forth, whispering in her ear. Time passed, though neither woman knew how much, and the bard pulled away. Rising to her feet, she stifled her tears and lifted her head. Though it took every bit of energy she had, she mustered the strength to say, "I need to be alone for a while. Iím going for a walk."
"When will you be back?," Xena asked, obviously concerned.
"By sunset," Gabrielle answered on her way out the door.
Xena watched out the window as her friend made her way across the village, disappearing into the surrounding trees.
The bard climbed up the steep incline, clinging to the rocks embedded in the ground to keep from falling. A smile emerged and a small chuckle emanated from her throat when she found herself wishing she hadnít thrown her staff in the river. Her mind drifted backward in time and she began to reminisce. She remembered her first encounter with Ephiny. That fateful day at the edge of the Amazon hunting grounds, when Terreis had lost her life and given her the right of caste which made her an Amazon princess. She remembered the endless bantering between herself and the Amazon with the razor-sharp tongue and the satisfaction she felt when Ephiny presented her with her first fighting staff. She reflected on the birth of Ephinyís child and the times she and the regent had been there for one another, sharing good times and hardship, laughter and tears. With a heavy heart, she sank to the ground. Sitting in the lush grass near the top of the hill, she looked out over the valley, her mind flooded with fond remembrances of her cherished friend.
"Come. Now." The familiar voice fell on her ears and a gentle breeze wrapped around her body, warming her to the core. Sensing someone or something standing behind her, she slowly turned her head and looked over her shoulder. "Come. Now," the illusory form before her repeated. Instantly assuming that the furies were trifling with her mind, Gabrielle closed her eyes in an attempt to will the apparition out of her head. "Come. Now," the hallucination repeated again, this time prompting a reply from the bard.
"You must have me mistaken for a pet," she mumbled and began to cry, the memories of her deceased friend becoming more persistent.
She heard the mysterious illusion laugh before saying, "Donít cry, Gabrielle. Thereís no need." The bard felt something warm settle between her shoulder blades. She abruptly jumped to her feet and backed away, her mouth gaping wide. "Ephi...Ephiny?," she uttered in sheer disbelief, staring at the vision before her.
"Yes, Gabrielle," the illusion answered and stepped toward her. "Donít be afraid."
But the bard was afraid, trembling in fact. How could this be? The spirit moved closer still and reached out to her. "Itís ok, Gabrielle. You can touch me."
The doubtful woman cautiously extended her arm and brushed her finger tips against the smooth skin. With the contact came the realization that the form standing there in front of her was indeed Ephiny. Overwhelmed with emotion, the bard burst into tears and threw her arms around the Amazon. "Ephiny, how...how is this possible?," Gabrielle managed through arduous breaths, still clinging to her friend.
"Artemis was watching when I was killed," she began to explain. "The goddess was pleased with my progress as Amazon regent and yours as queen. She said my death was an honorable one, the Ďselfless sacrifice of a devout warrior and leader,í she called it." The Amazon paused and smiled at her friend before going on. "As a reward for my service and allegiance, Artemis granted me the gift of choice. I am permitted to decide where Iíll go when I cross over. I can choose to be with my Amazon sisters or with Phantes in Elysia. In the mean time, she gave me permission to contact one person before I cross over completely. I chose you."
"Why me?" Gabrielleís forehead creased slightly, disclosing her puzzlement. "Why not Xenan?"
"Oh, believe me, thereís nothing I want more than to see my son again but...but it would only confuse him." A sad expression crossed her face as she spoke. "Besides, there are so many things I want to talk to you about." Her demeanor quickly transformed and she smiled again.
"Thank you," the bard said softly and instinctively hugged her again. "Sit down," she suggested and found a spot in the grass. "You can sit, canít you?," she asked, causing the regent to laugh out loud.
"No, Gabrielle. When you die, your backside can no longer be used for that purpose," she grinned, planting herself next to the bard.
"I see your sharp wit is still intact," Gabrielle chuckled.
"Even the gods have a sense of humor, Gabrielle. After all, Joxerís still out there fumbling around, isnít he?," she laughed.
"Yeah, heís still stumbling from village to village botching everything in his path," the bard snickered.
"Did you read my final instructions?," the regent asked, reminding her friend that their time together was limited. For a moment, Gabrielle had forgotten that she was talking to a ghost.
"Yes, I read them."
"Just one...," the bard sighed. "You left the rest of the scrolls in your foot locker to me. Ephiny, what scrolls?"
"They arenít there?!," the regent exclaimed.
"No, no. Theyíre there. At least I assume they are. I havenít looked. I just read the requests you left behind a short while ago. I was just wondering..."
"You were wondering whatís in the scrolls." Ephiny finished the sentence for her.
"The scrolls are an example of one of the many ways you altered my life," the regent stated.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, as you know, I enjoyed reading your scrolls. In fact, I enjoyed them so much that, when you were away, I began to try my hand at writing."
"You did?" The bard looked surprised.
"Yes. I found myself in awe of the way you were able to weave a tale. You made me want to crawl inside the parchment and spend eternity in the midst of your words," she confessed, sparking a smile on her friendís face.
"You really think Iím that good?," Gabrielle asked, flattered by the compliment.
"I know you are," Ephiny maintained. "And I guess my curiosity got the best of me. I just had to try it!," she giddily disclosed.
"I never knew," the bard, deeply moved by the words, took her friendís hand in her own, giving it a slight squeeze.
"No one knew. But, now that Iím dead, I guess it doesnít matter if you laugh when you read them," she joked before growing serious again. "Gabrielle, promise me that no matter what happens, youíll never give up on your writing."
The bard blinked back her tears and nodded. "I promise. And Ephiny?"
"I can guarantee you that I wonít laugh when I read them."
The regent knew if she were alive, she would be blushing. "Iíve been watching over you and our village since my death," she informed the bard, changing the subject. "And I want you to know that Iím grateful to you and Xena for all that youíve done. Iím proud of you, Gabrielle."
"And my decision to step down as queen and pass the mask on to Chilapa?," she questioned, hoping that her decision met with the regentís approval.
"Well done, my friend," she nodded. "Chilapa would have been my choice had the decision been mine to make. As for your resignation as queen, I understand and I think you did the right thing in light of the path youíve chosen to follow."
"About that...When Xena and I were in India..."
"I know, Gabrielle. Since my death, Iíve been able to look into the past and, I admit, Iíve used that ability to examine yours...and Xenaís," she informed the bard.
"Xena loved you," the bard told her, thinking back to the events that had transpired the last time Ephiny and the warrior saw each other.
"I know," Ephiny smiled. "I forgave her for the incident in the village a long time ago...once I received word that you were all right. The good news is, since I died, I havenít felt that annoying pain in my elbow," she grinned, rubbing her arm. "I heard her talking to me, Gabrielle. I heard what she said when the two of you were standing next to my body in the queenís hut. Thank her for me...please. Thank her for looking out for the Amazon nation."
The bard flinched when she thought about that day in the village, the day Xena thrashed Ephiny and her sisters in an attempt to get to her. Her skin crawled when images of the brutal attack crossed her mind. "You two have worked everything out since then, right?" The regentís question interrupted her thoughts.
"Yes. Yes, we have," the bard answered.
"Why havenít you told her?"
The bard felt the muscles in her throat constrict and her mouth suddenly felt dry. She knew the regent had been able to watch her in the present and witness her past, but was it possible that she was capable of seeing inside her soul? "What do you mean?," she asked, trying to guard her secret.
"You know what I mean," the regent replied with a certainty that rattled her companion. Gabrielle clamped her lips together and stilled her tongue. "Youíre in love with her. Thereís no use denying it, Gabrielle. I can see past that vague expression youíve managed to plaster on your face. You canít lie to a dead woman!," she chuckled, her frankness momentarily stunning the bard.
"Alright, alright! I admit it!," she finally exclaimed, joining the Amazon in her laughter. "I do love her." Her tone grew earnest and her voice serene as the confession rolled off her tongue with more ease than she had ever imagined possible.
"Then tell her," the regent ardently instructed.
"Ephiny, I canít. She..."
"Gabrielle...," the Amazon interceded. "If there is one thing Iíve learned, itís that we donít always have as much time as we would like. Only the fates know whatís in store for us and theyíre not big on filling us in in advance."
The bard listened carefully and pondered the words. Her heart thumped against her chest, her anxiety threatening to devour her. "What are you afraid of?," Ephiny asked softly.
Gabrielle considered the question carefully, searching the reaches of her mind for an answer. "Iím afraid she wonít feel the same way about me. Iím afraid Iíll lose her if I tell her," she finally replied.
"Youíll never know if you donít try," the regent logically noted, refusing to tell her friend that she already knew how the warrior felt about her. It was important that the bard seek the answer to this question on her own. It wasnít her place to tell her.
"Youíre right. I know that," Gabrielle sighed. "But..."
"No. You have to stop making excuses and face this, Gabrielle. Youíll never forgive yourself if you put it off until itís too late."
The bard let the words swirl around inside her head. She was right. Tomorrow wasnít promised to anyone. "Iíll tell her," she conceded.
"Do I have your word on that?," Ephiny responded.
"You have my word."
Gabrielle noticed the change in the Amazonís form when her image fluttered slightly, fading and reappearing again. "Iím running out of time," Ephiny quietly uttered and stood, moving toward the edge of the cliff to take in the view one last time.
The bardís tears resurfaced and she wrapped the regent in her arms. "Have you made your decision?," she whispered in her ear.
"Yes...I have," Ephiny sighed, holding onto her friend. "I want to be with Phantes in the Elysian Fields. Iíve never stopped loving him, Gabrielle. And, someday, when Xenanís time comes..."
"I understand," the bard said softly and pressed her lips to the Amazonís cheek. "I love you," she whispered.
"I love you too." The regent forced the words through the lump in her throat. "Take care of yourself and make sure Xenan knows his mother loved him."
"I will...Iíll think about you every day."
"Iíll be listening," Ephiny replied and the bard felt the Amazon slip from her arms.
Gabrielle stood alone on the cliff, looking out over the tranquil valley. Her spirit renewed, she made her way down the hill toward the Amazon village and the warrior who, though she didnít know it yet, held her heart in the palm of her hand.
When she reached the bottom of the incline, she stumbled over something hidden in the brush. Looking down at her feet, she saw the object nestled amid the green leaves and bent over to retrieve it. Tears filled her eyes as she ran her hands over the untarnished wood. She smoothed her fingers over the length of it, bringing them to rest on the feathery tip.
Once again, Ephiny had given her the fighting staff her mother had passed on to her when she was a young girl. Though the bard didnít know what her future might bring or where the way of peace might lead her, she would carry the staff as she always had...as a constant reminder of her beloved sister.
Gabrielle sat on the floor in the queenís hut. Alternating between laughter and tears, she hung on each word scrawled on the parchment she held in her hands. Though she was alone in the room, she commented on nearly every sentence. She knew if anyone saw her, they would think she was a complete lunatic but it didnít seem to bother her. Her heart told her that the regent, and author of the scrolls, was listening.
One by one, she went through the stack of manuscripts. The eloquent writings carried her over the pages, conjuring up every conceivable emotion along the way. In her mind, she could see the regent sitting at the table pouring her heart and soul onto the parchment. With passion and earnestness, she spoke of her son, of her husband, of what it meant to be an Amazon warrior. And, for a moment, Gabrielle was certain she could see the world through Ephinyís eyes.
An almost inaudible knock at the door forced the bard to speak. "C...come in," she stammered, looking up from the parchment.
Xena entered and moved toward her, the worn floorboards creaking beneath her confident strides. Without a word, she lowered herself to the floor and wrapped her arms around the bard. Gabrielle smiled and yielded to the sweetness of her loverís kiss. "Well done, my friend." The words fell softly on the bardís ears and she pulled back slightly, staring at the warrior. Xena stared back, the arch in her eyebrow exposing her bewilderment. "What did you say?," Gabrielle asked.
"I didnít say anything."
"Yes you did. You said...," the bard began before she was distracted by a flickering light in the corner of the hut. "Xena? Do you see that?," she asked, marveling at the lustrous vision.
"See what?" The warrior turned her head from side to side and inspected the room, searching for something out of the ordinary.
This light danced before Gabrielleís eyes, culminating in a magnificent array of colors before fading away. As the last remnant dissipated, the bard heard the faint sound of laughter and it didnít take her long to realize that the voice behind it belonged to Ephiny.
"She was here again, wasnít she?," Xena asked, snuggling close.
The bard sighed and settled into her loverís embrace, tenderly kissing her lips. A contented smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she whispered, "Sheís always here."
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