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When the sun came up the next morning, Xena moved to rise from bed, but Gabrielle gently pulled her back down. "And where are you going, my warrior?" she asked.
"I didn't know you were awake," Xena said. "I need to relieve myself and then go check on Argo."
Gabrielle sat up, looked down at Xena and said, "You're not going anywhere. It's my turn to take care of you. I'll check on Argo."
"Will you use the chamber pot for me?" Xena asked teasingly.
"No, but don't you move until I can come around there and help you." Gabrielle hopped out of bed, ecstatic that for the first time in days she was hungry, her head was not spinning, and her stomach was not churning. Other than being hungry and a little weak and tired, she felt fine. She picked up the chamber pot, came around to Xena's side of the bed, and placed it on the floor. "You told me last night the less you moved the sooner you would heal, so you are going to stay in this bed for the next few days." Xena started to protest but Gabrielle planted her hands on her hips and interrupted her. "Now you listen to me, Xena, I saw the amount of blood in that bowl last night, and I still think you should have a healer come and examine you. I'll not sit by and let you die because of your own stubbornness. You are bleeding inside somewhere, and every time you move it probably aggravates it. You are not getting up unless I am here to help you. Now let's do this gently; no sudden movements."
Xena knew she was defeated; she also knew Gabrielle was right. In her warlord days she had lost many men to internal bleeding. She only hoped that her self-curative powers would work this time. She couldn't suffer the thoughts of leaving Gabrielle here so far from home and all alone, and what about Chloe? What would happen to her and her children? Her thoughts were interrupted by Gabrielle's command, "Put your arm around my neck and let me lift your legs while we swing you around to a sitting position." Although Gabrielle did most of the work, just sitting up caused her blinding pain. Xena knew she was going to make Gabrielle very happy because she was going to follow every one of the rules she had laid down. After she finished, Gabrielle help Xena to her feet and back into the bed.
Gabrielle extracted clean clothes from their packs and chattered to Xena as she dressed. "I'll order us some food, and then I'll go take care of Argo. Where are the stables? Oh never mind I'll ask down stairs. Xena, I think you should just drink broth and eat things that are easy on your stomach. How do you feel? I know the pain is still there, but are you still sick to your stomach?"
Xena managed a smile at all of Gabrielle's comments. She assured her, "Gabrielle, my ribs and stomach are very sore, but the nausea has passed. You're right, some broth would be good."
"Great, I'll ask if they can recommend a good healer," Gabrielle said.
Xena's reply was a little too quick, "No!"
Gabrielle stopped her activities and looked at Xena. Then she moved to the side of the bed, kneeled on the floor by Xena’s head, touched her forehead with the palm of her hand and brushed her bangs back. Xena was cool to the touch. "Why don't you want a healer?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena caught Gabrielle's hand in hers, brought it to her lips, and kissed the finger tips gently. Xena knew Gabrielle's subtle motive for brushing her hair off her forehead, "No, I don't have a fever." Gabrielle looked annoyed. Deciding to be perfectly honest with Gabrielle, Xena explained, "Gabrielle, I already know what a healer will say, and I don't want you unnecessarily worried. A healer would take one look at me, prod around on my belly, make it hurt like Hades and then tell us that I probably would be visiting Tartarus quite soon." The fear on Gabrielle's face pressed Xena on quickly. "I am not going to die. Trust me. I received this injury almost three days ago. If an infection was going to set in, it would have already done so by now. I would already be dead or in the throes of a raging fever. You have heard Cyrene and Toris talk. I have many skills, one is self-healing. Remember the warrior techniques I was teaching you, and you asked me what I used the meditation for?" Gabrielle nodded somberly. "This is one of its uses. Now go run your errands; I think I could use some food."
Gabrielle rose and bent down and kissed Xena softly on the lips and then asked, "Xena, you wouldn't lie to me would you to protect me from worrying?"
"No, Gabrielle, I would not. Last night you told me we were going to get through this together, and I believed you. Now I'm asking you to believe me."
"I do, my love, I just wanted to hear it from you." With that said, she turned and walked over to the door and left the room peeking back through the closing door to see Xena close her eyes.
Over the next three days, Gabrielle hovered over Xena looking for any sign she might be taking a turn for the worse. She only left her side three times a day to do her chores. During those times, she hurried to empty the chamber pot, check on Argo, order bath water, and to bring them food. When she returned, she would often burst into the room expecting to see Xena either dead or up running around the room. Xena neither died nor climbed out of bed without the assistance of her little bard. During the day, Gabrielle would busy herself writing in her scrolls and eating continuously while Xena slept a deep, healing sleep. Gabrielle was amazed; she had never seen Xena sleep that much in the two years they had been traveling together. When Xena was awake, Gabrielle fluffed her pillows, straightened her blanket, bathed her, and helped her to the chamber pot. She even insisted on feeding her the first two days. Before sleep each night, she would help Xena roll over and would gently massage her back, shoulders and then her legs and feet. Then she would cuddle up against Xena and tell her sweet stories with happy endings. Every time Xena moved in the night, Gabrielle would raise up on her elbow and check on her. Xena had never felt so loved. As the days passed, so did the pain in her stomach. By the end of the fourth day, Xena was able to sit up in bed, but she still napped in the morning and in the afternoon and slept through the night.
On the fifth day of her confinement, Gabrielle finally allowed Xena to sit up by herself, and much to their relief, most of the pain was gone. The bruising on her face had all but faded, and Gabrielle carefully removed Tyrus' stitches amazed that only tiny holes where the needle had pulled the thread through remained. With time they too would disappear. The massive bruise that covered her torso was shrinking leaving behind violet dappled markings on a yellow background. Small knots grew over the cracks in the ribs indicating that they healed quickly. Xena was happy to sit up, and they both celebrated when she ate her first solid meal on the evening of the fifth day. That night Xena and Gabrielle completed the celebration by making sweet, tender love to each other. As Gabrielle drifted off to sleep in Xena's arms, she thought that Cyrene and Toris underestimated the powers of her Xena.
The next morning Gabrielle ordered their meal and hot water for a bath. After eating, she helped Xena lower herself into the hot bath water and joined her at Xena's insistence. Gabrielle sat behind Xena cradling her in the water after she had scrubbed her back and washed her hair. After days of silently contemplating on the events that she surmised happened on the Sea Mist, Gabrielle finally decided to broach the subject again. She said, "Xena, you know if you don't want to talk about what happened on the Sea Mist, I'll understand, but I think you should. Remember all the dark things that happened to you that drove you down the path to Ares. I don't think you need anything else like this lurking in your mind." Gabrielle could not see the single tear roll down Xena's cheek. "If it had been me, Xena, what would you do?" Xena shuddered inside at the thought. Gabrielle continued, "Would you just leave me all alone to work through this by myself, or would you try to help me to work it out by talking?"
Xena spoke, carefully modulating her voice to camouflage her deep emotions that threatened to explode to the surface and reveal her raw feelings, "Gabrielle, I pray nothing like this ever happens to you. I don't think I could stand it."
Gabrielle was not sure until that moment that the rape had actually occurred. The acknowledgment was almost more than she could handle, and she felt sick. As she spoke, she became more emotional, "You can't stand the mere possibility of it happening to me? Xena, how do you think I feel knowing that it did happen to you? Do you think I feel less? That I somehow am better able to handle it than you could if the roles were reversed? What is this? Is it better that it happened to you because you are the big, bad warrior who can handle anything, and I'm just the little, emotionally delicate bard? Do you think I haven't run a sword through that bastard time and again in my mind for what he did to you?" Gabrielle tightened her hold around Xena's broad shoulders and pulled her tighter into her, resting her chin on Xena's right shoulder and laying her face against her warrior's. She quietly continued, "I wish I could take away the events that happened and make everything right for you, but I can't. I don't even know how to make it better let alone fix it. Please, just don't lock me out because this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and I am having a difficult time dealing with it. I hope you understand how much a part of me you are. What ever you feel, I feel too. What ever happens to you, happens to me too."
The words of the bard struck home. She verbalized feelings that Xena knew she herself thought about Gabrielle but was unable to put into words. The bard spoke Xena's thoughts; how long had it been since anyone had done that? Xena suddenly understood the deep pain Gabrielle felt. No longer strong enough to maintain the warrior facade, she let the walls crumble, and she cried unashamedly, twisting so she could weep into Gabrielle's breast. Gabrielle held her, kissed her and whispered, "It's all right; I'm here; I'll always be here; I love you, and I need you. It's all right." And Xena cried, not just because of the rape, but for all the pain and sorrow she had experienced since Cortese but had never allowed herself to feel.
Sometime later, well after Xena's tears had ceased, Gabrielle rose from the tub, dried herself and slipped on her shift. Then she helped Xena from the water, dried her, dressed her in a linen shift, and tucked her in the bed. Xena was emotionally exhausted but ready to purge herself of the events on the Sea Mist. She gladly relinquished total control to Gabrielle. It felt good to let someone else make the decisions for a while.
As Gabrielle joined her in bed and held her, Xena began to speak quietly, conserving words in her warrior fashion, "I don't know what you remember, but the night of the storm I had to check on Argo. As I was returning, Damon and some of his men jumped me. They hit me from behind. I remembered nothing until the next morning when I awoke tied in Damon's bed with him lying next to me. I knew he had already raped me and had beaten me." Gabrielle held her emotions in check and bit her lip. "Tyrus told me later Damon had gone crazy and kicked me in the face, several times in stomach and ribs." Gabrielle wanted to say something, anything, but she couldn’t interrupt Xena because she knew how difficult it was for her to get through this. "I was desperate to escape to get back to you because I knew you were very sick, and I was afraid of what they might do to you." Tears appeared in Gabrielle's eyes at the thoughts of Xena beaten and raped and all the time only thinking of protecting her. "I pretended to be unconscious, but he knew I was awake. He sat on my stomach, I knew then something was wrong from the intense pain, and he slapped me in the face. The pain was almost unbearable, but I ignored it. That's when he began his second vicious assault. I thought I had nothing to lose, so I threatened him...told him he'd better kill me, or he wouldn't live to regret it." Gabrielle said a little prayer of thanks to Artemis for that wish not being granted. "Of course that only made it worse...he was brutal. When he finished, he sent one of his men to help me to relieve myself. That's when I was able to escape."
Xena paused and silence like a black shroud engulfed them. Xena finally said, "I knew he'd come for you. I hid you in a barrel in the hold. Then I killed his men one at a time and left their bodies in front of his cabin like a loyal cat leaving mice for its benefactor. I wanted to draw him out, make him careless, challenge him one-on-one, and make him pay for what he did to me. It worked until I became careless and had to face two of his men in a sword battle on their ground, not mine. I took them, but the toll was heavy; that was the first time I vomited blood. I knew I could not defeat him. I was too weak. He was preparing to execute twenty of his own men if I was not found, so I turned myself in. He was about to run his sword through me when one of his sailors killed him. Tyrus told me the men were ready to mutiny. I had no choice but to hope they would intervene."
Xena stopped talking for a few moments, collected her thoughts and said, "I think the worst thing was knowing he took what I only want to share with you." Gabrielle felt the knot in her throat. "And I was powerless to stop him; he could do whatever he wanted, and there was not a thing I could do to stop him. Great Zeus! How I wanted to kill him!" Xena was dry eyed but Gabrielle began to weep, and Xena enveloped her in her arms and kissed her, "Don't cry my love; it's all right. Everything will be all right, I promise."
Looking up into Xena's beautiful, blue eyes, Gabrielle asked, "Will it, Xena? Will it ever be all right?"
"Ssshhh...My love, we'll get through this together," Xena promised.
The next day they slept late, bathed and took their meals in their room. Neither was in a hurry to do anything. It was as though they were both resting and letting their peaceful time together heal their bodies and their spirits. No one spoke of Damon or the Sea Mist, nor did they speak of the perilous journey that loomed before them or of the uncertainties of what was to come. When night fell, they found solace once again in each other's loving embrace. ________________________________________________________________________
The next morning Xena dressed and went down stairs to check on Argo and to pay for an additional night at the inn. She told Gabrielle that she needed the extra day to locate and purchase a good pack horse and additional food and supplies for their new overland route that they were forced to take. Although not entirely true, it did play into her reasons. She was glad to be out of bed after seven days of being cooped up. She was anxious for some physical activity. However, she was not anxious to begin the trip east. Not only was she painfully aware of the dangers that lurked there, she was fearful of what she might find in Sinope or even what she might not find. Unable to continue the sea trip to Byzantium, her plans were definitely altered. It was well over a hundred leagues between Cius and Sinope, and they would have to traverse mountainous terrain for at least thirty leagues before reaching the grassy rolling plains. Once on the plains, there would be different hazards to face. They would have to climb through rugged mountain passes to finally reach Sinope. There would not be many villages between here and their final destination. Other than Astacus and Heraclea Pontica there would be few places to find additional supplies. Astacus was twenty leagues from Cius and Heraclea Pontica was thirty leagues beyond Astacus. From there it was another fifty leagues to Sinope. At least between Astacus and Heraclea was Amazon territory. Xena knew they could seek help from the Amazons if the need arose. She even considered leaving Gabrielle with her Amazons, but she also knew this alternative would not sit well with Gabrielle. In this foreign territory anything could happen, and she did not wish to endanger Gabrielle any further or overlook any possible options.
As Xena reformulated her plans and searched the city of Cius for the supplies and food the journey would require, she was unaware that her every movement was closely monitored.
When Xena returned to the inn in the late afternoon with her newly purchased gear and a large bay colored pack horse, the spies tailing her crept silently out of the city leaving only two behind to keep an eye on the Warrior Princess through the rest of the evening and night. Slipping through the shadows of early evening, the intelligence gathering party returned to their secluded camp camouflaged among the dense trees that lined the narrow mountain pass that was the only road leading to the east. The warrior would take this route. Then they would make their move, and she would be theirs.
Xena rousted Gabrielle out of bed early the next morning before the sun had touched the horizon. In the gloom of early morning, Gabrielle, grumbling, fumbled to dress herself and then joined Xena in the stables. Xena carried their gear down and was busy packing the new horse. Glancing at Argo Gabrielle looked dismally at the saddle high atop the golden steed and thought, `Oh gods.' All too soon Xena mounted and reached down to hoist her onto Argo's back. Gabrielle wondered why Xena did not put her in the front as she did on the way to Amphipolis.
Before she could voice her thought, Xena spoke, "As soon as we are out of the city and we have hit our stride, I will let you ride in the front so that you can sleep a little." Gabrielle's heart was warmed by Xena's attention to her every need. She thought herself truly blessed to be joined to such a kind and caring life partner. "I also want to see how these two will work out together," Xena said referring to the horses. " I have better control if I sit in the front." Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's waist and snuggled into her back. Although Xena loved the feel of Gabrielle pressed against her body, she worried that Gabrielle would become too comfortable and fall asleep and take a tumble. She reminded Gabrielle to hang on tightly. As the two wended their way through the streets of the city, the sun began to slowly climb and melt away the early morning chill.
The spies, who had been left to watch, slipped from the stables and the tavern and retrieved their own mounts from the alley behind the inn. Hanging well back, so as not to be seen, they slowly tailed the eastbound travelers.
Outside the city, Xena eased the two horses into a slow, easy lope. Knowing that they would soon enter a mountain pass that was narrow and steep, she wanted to make good time whenever the terrain would allow it. Two candlemarks from the city Xena slowed the horses as they began their ascent into the mountain pass. The trail was narrow and rugged, and the horses carefully chose their footing with each step. As they climbed, the forest around them became denser and more primeval. Ground mist swirled around the horse’s hooves. The sunlight burned through the leafy branches intermittently, occasionally causing momentary blindness to the travelers and their steeds. The path, well worn by many travelers, seemed desolate as if it was a thousand leagues from civilization. Gabrielle chattered happily, and Xena answered her with chuckles and simple replies. As the forest deepened, the happy conversation trailed off, and Xena sensed something was not quite right. Noticing Xena stiffen in the saddle, Gabrielle peered through the dense foliage and tried to see what she knew Xena felt.
"Gabrielle, we are going to dismount," Xena said.
"Xena, what is it?"
"I don't know, but it's too quiet. I want you off Argo. Stay clear of the pack horse, and remain behind me." Xena stopped Argo when they reached a small level knoll where the trail widened. She swung her leg over Argo's neck, jumped to the ground, and helped Gabrielle dismount. Then she drew her sword and searching the tree tops for the unseen threat moved forward cautiously. Gabrielle, with a hand pressed into Xena's back, became her shadow. Xena did not know how many there were, but she could feel their presence. She knew they were totally surrounded and sorely outnumbered. She whispered to Gabrielle, "Drop back slowly and get your staff." Gabrielle's staff protruded from the pack on the second horse and was easily accessible. She slowly inched back, and just before she could reach for the staff the attack began.
Twenty masked warriors carrying swords, bows, and spears dropped all around them from the heavens like rain falling from the sky. At the same time fifteen more appeared suddenly from the depths of the forest. The two, who had been following, sealed the trail behind them. Gabrielle's terror was immediately relieved when she recognized the Amazon masks, but Xena remained in a defensive position keeping herself between most of the warriors and Gabrielle. Gabrielle clasped her hands above her head, and the Amazons stopped in their attack. When Xena realized the warriors did not approach, she tossed her sword aside, and clasped her hands above her head in the familiar Amazon greeting of peace. They moved away from the horses and were taken totally by surprise when a tall Amazon stepped forward and swung a spinning kick into Xena's gut knocking the wind from her and doubling her over. Before she could recover, the same Amazon kicked her viciously in the back of the knees and drove an elbow into Xena's back dropping her to her hands and knees. Then in one swift, fluid motion the towering Amazon drew her sword from her sheath and lifted it double fisted in an arc above Xena's head. Gabrielle, who had moved toward Xena after the first vicious kick screamed, "NO." and threw her body over Xena's protecting her as the deadly blade began its descent. When the blade did not come crashing down on her, Gabrielle looked up at the sword wielding Amazon who towered over them menacingly behind the mask . In the most commanding voice she could muster Gabrielle announced, "I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons by right of caste bestowed upon me by Terreis, daughter of Melosa."
From behind the tall Amazon, another woman stepped forward and pushed her avian mask back. "We know who you are, My Queen; we want to know why you are traveling with this murderer, the Warrior Princess, Butcher of Cirra, Destroyer of Nations, Disciple of Ares?" the warrior said.
Astonished at the venom that dripped from those words Gabrielle frowned. Had they not heard that Xena had changed and now worked to correct her past transgressions? Xena, holding her stomach and trying to find her breath, sat back on her heels. Gabrielle dropped by her side, looked up angrily at the Amazon who had so ruthlessly attacked her warrior, then shifted her attention to Xena. Touching Xena's shoulder and reaching for her stomach, she asked with quiet concern, "Xena, is it all right, your stomach?" Xena nodded. Gabrielle rose and turned to address the woman who had stepped forward. "I would like to speak to your acting queen," she commanded.
"I am the acting queen," the woman replied. "I am Philippa of the Eastern Provinces."
Gabrielle was surprised that she stood before the acting queen of the Eastern Nations. They were at least thirty leagues from Amazon territory, and the queen seldom traveled that far unless it was very important. Gabrielle maintained her regal bearing and said coolly, "Then perhaps you can explain to your queen why she and Xena, her joined consort, were so viciously attacked." Gabrielle turned to Xena and reached her hand down to her. Xena smiled for Gabrielle, amused at what a great actress the bard could be, took her hand, rose and stood beside her. She then glared at the Amazon who had almost sent her to the underworld.
Gabrielle's words stunned the Amazon queen. A look of utter confusion played across Philippa’s face. When she finally found her voice she stuttered slightly, "But...but, my Queen, we were told to meet you in Byzantium. When my warriors arrived and located your ship, they were informed that the Warrior Princess took your unconscious body off the ship at Cius. When my Amazons returned and informed me, we rode as hard as we could to rescue you. We thought she had kidnapped you and was going to hold you for ransom or worse. Our spies had heard that she was taking you to Sinope. The slave trade there is prolific."
"Now why would the woman I love and who loves me want to do all those things? And who told you to meet us in Byzantium?" Gabrielle asked evenly.
"We received word from Ephiny, acting Queen of the Western Nations, that you and your consort would be arriving in Byzantium," Philippa explained. "We were not aware that Xena, the Warrior Princess, was your companion."
Gabrielle, still playing her role, furrowed her brow and stated, "Xena is not just my companion, Philippa. She took me from the Sea Mist because I was very ill. And since it is apparent you have not heard, Xena is no longer a servant of Ares or a warlord."
Philippa stepped forward, dropped to one knee, laid her right fist on her chest, bowed her head and said, "I apologize to you, My Queen, for my ignorance and rash actions, forgive me."
Gabrielle spoke the ritual Amazon litany, "All is forgiven, rise, Philippa."
Philippa rose and immediately stepped in front of Xena, dropped to one knee and repeated the ritual, "I apologize to you, Xena, My Queen's consort, for my ignorance and rash behavior. I hope you can understand, I only wanted to protect My Queen."
Xena imitated Gabrielle's words, "All is forgiven, rise, Philippa."
Philippa rose and immediately the tall Amazon stepped forward towering over Gabrielle and lifting her mask from her face. Xena bristled at the closeness of this tall, dark woman. She felt Gabrielle's fingers tighten on her hand which she still held. Dropping to her knee and bowing before Gabrielle, the Amazon spoke, "Your humble servant, Petra, apologizes to My Queen, for my brusque and ignorant behavior. May you find it in your heart to forgive me." Xena hoped that not every Amazon here would have to go through this ridiculous ritual, or they would be there all day.
Gabrielle spoke, "All is forgiven, rise, Petra." Feeling Xena's presence, Gabrielle thought to herself, `I'm not the one you need to worry about.'
Petra immediately turned to Xena. She dropped to her knee, bowed her head laying her sword in the palm of her hands, offered her blade and her life to Xena. "Forgive me, warrior, for my cowardly, misguided behavior; my life is yours to forfeit."
Thoughts of grabbing her sword and lopping off her head flitted through Xena's mind and possibly Gabrielle's too because the bard squeezed Xena's hand hard. "All is forgiven, rise, Petra." Xena replied dryly.
But rather than rising, the warrior remained on her knees and looked up into Xena's eyes and said with sincerity, "It was an unfair battle, warrior. I am sorry, but my heart is glad that we have such a brave Queen who would throw herself under a blade to save her joined consort."
Xena raised her eyebrow at the warrior who only moments before took such delight in forcing her to her knees and who now knelt completely subservient before her. Xena searched the Amazon’s face for ulterior motives but saw nothing but the face of a dedicated warrior. She finally replied, "Yes, our Queen is the bravest woman I know. Now stand up, warrior." Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand and thought to herself, `And I am the luckiest woman alive.'
When they retired for the evening, Gabrielle insisted that Xena let her examine her after Petra’s attack. Xena finally agreed to her demands. There was a nasty bruise across her upper stomach but nothing like before. When she prodded around on it, Xena didn't even flinch. Gabrielle was satisfied that Xena had not suffered any serious injuries, but she paid special attention to the area, healing it with her sweet kisses during their love making. When they lay in each other's arms later, Gabrielle confided in Xena, "When I saw one of my own Amazons so viciously attack you after you had thrown down your sword, I thought you were dead. I was so scared I didn't know what to do."
"Well, my love," Xena said, "although I don't like the idea of you jumping in front of a sword, you did a brave thing, Gabrielle, you saved my life."
"I guess they are a little slow to receive news so far from anywhere," Gabrielle replied thoughtfully. "I can't believe they had not heard of how you had changed. I'm really surprised they did not know that you traveled with their Amazon Queen." Gabrielle was quiet for a while thinking about the events of the day and then she asked, "Xena, exactly how did the Amazons know we were going to be in Byzantium?"
"I suppose it's my fault; I asked Toris to get a message to Ephiny requesting that she send some Amazons to meet us at the boat," Xena answered.
"Why did you want the Amazons to meet us?" Gabrielle asked curiously.
Xena knew she would have to tread lightly. She said, "There were a number of reasons."
"Would you mind telling me some of them? You can start by telling me why you did not inform me of this message."
Xena explained, "I'm sorry, Gab, I didn't tell you. I didn't want to upset you. I was afraid that by the time you got to Byzantium you would be so sick, you would be unable to continue. I needed a back up plan. A place where you could stay among friends where you would be safe, and you could recuperate."
"And tell me, Xena, where were you going to be if I was too sick to go on?" inquired the bard.
Xena knew this had better be good and she said, "All right it wasn't a very good plan. That was before you nursed me back to health both physically and emotionally and before you threw yourself in front of a sword wielding, mad Amazon to save my life. I've changed my mind, I wouldn't leave you behind if you begged me."
"That's more like it, my warrior," Gabrielle said sternly.
The Amazons insisted on escorting their queen and her consort to their eastern border which was almost to the city of Heraclea Pontica. They brought extra horses and offered one to Queen Gabrielle, but both she and Xena preferred that she ride with Xena on Argo. They did insist on leading their pack horse for them, and each night when they stopped to set up camp, the warriors put up a large tent for both their Queens, giving Gabrielle and Xena the larger of the two. They heated water so that their Queens could bathe comfortably each evening, and each night they cooked a feast.
Gabrielle delighted her Amazon subjects with a repertoire of tales and stories about the Western Province Amazons, the gods, and, of course, her favorite subject, the Warrior Princess. Over the course of time, Gabrielle convinced the Amazons that Xena was not a person to fear or hate. While Gabrielle gathered the Amazons around the fire and engrossed them with her stories, Xena would sit in her usual spot and stare at her. The warrior watched every little nuance that was Gabrielle. The way her eyes would sparkle and dance, the way every once in a while they would make eye contact and Gabrielle's face would brighten only for her at that moment. Xena loved the way her bard’s fingers moved as she described a vivid picture. Xena smiled inside at Gabrielle’s lips when they would not quite close when she listened to someone talking. The warrior delighted in the bard’s musical laughter, her perfect innocence, and all the other things that made Gabrielle, her Gabrielle. How she loved her! And while she sat and watched Gabrielle, Petra sat and watched Xena watching Gabrielle.
After one such evening, Xena went to check on Argo as she always did before bed. There leaning against a tree in the moonlight was Petra. The two had not spoken with each other since that first encounter, and they maintained a respectful distance at all times. Xena knew the tall Amazon, who could look Xena in the eyes standing flatfooted was there before she spoke. Her warrior senses were on full alert, but her curiosity won out, and she ignored the warrior as she attended Argo.
Petra spoke first, aware that Xena was aware of her. "Beautiful evening, don't you think?"
Being non-committal, Xena replied evenly, "Yes, it is."
"Should be at the eastern border in a couple of days," Petra said.
"Yep," Xena replied as she worked a brush through Argo’s mane.
After an uncomfortable pause, Petra said, "If I might be so bold, how long have you known our Queen?"
Xena stopped brushing Argo and frowning said, "Why do you want to know?"
Petra replied, "Just curious."
"Over two years," Xena said as she continued brushing the horse.
Petra moved away from the tree and toward Xena. "She is indeed a special person," she observed.
Xena said, "That she is."
"How did you ever get her to fall in love with you?" Petra asked, her voice incredulous.
Xena turned and faced the warrior whom she judged to be at least six years younger than herself. She asked, "I honestly do not know. Is there a point to this conversation?"
Petra ran her hand down Argo's neck. "We're alike you and I," she said. "We are both warriors. You've felt the bloodlust. So have I. You hardened your heart so that it doesn't bother you to kill. So have I. When I look at you I see myself, darkness." Xena listened carefully to the words of this Amazon warrior and heard herself speaking years ago. "I see you look at her with such softness and love, and I see her look at you with adoration. How did you win a love like that?"
"Just fate, I guess," Xena said and then paused and gathered her thoughts. "We're not that much alike." Petra stopped rubbing Argo and looked at Xena with a frown. "You kill for a reason. I stopped needing a reason. When you apologized, you meant it. I would never have done that. You haven't arrived yet, Petra, do yourself a favor, don't. Don't sink to my depths because climbing back out is not easy. If it were not for Gabrielle, I would be dead now. You cannot live with out light for long. Don't let your light go out because you may not find a Gabrielle who will share her light with you."
"You think there is hope for me?" Petra asked quietly.
"If there's hope for me, there's definitely hope for you." A long pause followed and finally Xena asked, "What is it you really want Petra?"
Petra, slow to answer, finally said, "There is someone in my heart, but she is so different from me. I thought because of that, it was hopeless." The tall warrior paused as if struggling for the right words. "Then I saw you and Queen Gabrielle; so different but so much in love. I just want to know how did you win her heart?"
Xena thought to herself, `Oh great now I'm playing match maker,' "Do you think she has feelings for you?"
"We've never spoken about it, and sometimes she gets so mad at me, and I have no idea why, but sometimes in quiet moments, I see her look at me, and then I think she has feelings for me."
Xena didn’t quite know what to say to this young warrior. Artemis’ words of advice flitted through her thoughts along with visions of Petra kneeling before her. Xena remembered the young warrior’s sincere eyes and honest words from their first encounter. Xena repeated simply, "I saw inside your heart warrior; I would trust it." Xena turned and walked away leaving Petra bathed in moonlight.
When she returned to her tent, Gabrielle was waiting for her in bed. "Took longer than normal, is everything all right?" she inquired.
Xena sat on the edge of the pallet and smiled and said, "Everything's fine; It's a beautiful night."
The Amazons bid their queen and her consort good bye at the eastern border not more than eight leagues from the city of Heraclea Pontica. Gabrielle promised that she would visit them again one day, and Philippa gave her and Xena warm embraces. As Xena turned Argo eastward, Petra stepped from the crowd of Amazons and offered Xena her warrior farewell. Xena leaned forward, clasped Petra's arm, and stared into her dark brown eyes. Petra said for Xena's ears only, "Thank you, warrior." She stepped back as Xena urged Argo forward. Gabrielle watched the interchange closely and searched Petra's face curiously as they rode by her. The only thing revealed was a pleasant smile.
Sometime later Gabrielle inquired, "Did something happen back there between you and Petra?"
"You mean did she try to kill me? Yes," Xena said.
"No, I mean, after the initial meeting. I never saw you two even near each other, but when we left, I heard her thank you. What was that all about?" Gabrielle asked, her curiosity burning.
"Oh, nothing, it's just a warrior thing," Xena replied evasively.
"Oh I see; you have this warrior code that won't let you reveal things to us non-warriors, right?" Gabrielle stated somewhat indignant.
"Yep," Xena smirked.
"Well, that's not fair! How would you like it if we bards kept trade secrets from you warrior types?"
Xena replied teasingly, "Imagine that, something a bard refuses to talk about!"
"We have a code of honor too, you know," Gabrielle stated.
Xena said, "Uh huh."
"Hey, I can keep a secret, warrior, just as well as you."
"You think so, eh?" Xena teased.
Gabrielle said, "Oh! No, I know what you're doing, you are just trying to get me to forget about you and Petra."
"Yeah, that was what I was trying to do, but I don't think it was worth it," Xena replied seriously.
"What do you mean by that?" The bard demanded.
Xena rolled her eyes, snorted, shook her head and said, "What do you say we make camp?"
"You're trying to change the subject again," said the bard.
"Yeah, I am; I was just thinking how nice it's going to be to be alone with you again after sharing you the last six days with your Amazons."
Gabrielle smiled at the comment and replied, "You know I kind of like the way you change the subject sometimes." Xena chuckled and reined the horses to stop under a copse of trees.
That night by the campfire, Gabrielle questioned Xena about their upcoming challenge. "How far are we from Sinope?"
"It's still almost ten days travel from here," Xena said.
Xena seemed quiet and pensive, and Gabrielle remained silent for a while. Finally she asked, "Do you have a plan, Xena?"
Xena replied, "I'm working on it." Then they were quiet.
Later Gabrielle said, "When you figure it all out, will you please inform me? I want to know what you want me to do to help." Xena stared intently into the campfire.
Xena sighed and looked at Gabrielle and said, "Gab, I really don't know exactly what I'm going to do until I get there. I will need to see the outlay of the palace where Chloe is. I don't know if she is free to come and go. I don't even know if she is under house arrest. She and her children could already be dead for all I know. It has been over a moon since she wrote that letter to Cyrene. It's been almost nine years since I was in Sinope. Things have probably changed. When I get there, I will have to reconnoiter the area and try and find a weakness in their defenses."
"Xena, what if a traveling bard was able to get into the palace and provide entertainment? While I was inside, I could snoop around."
"No! I'll not have you risking your life," Xena stated emphatically, her voice firm and her words unbending, closing the door on the conversation for the evening.
After ten long days of travel over grassy rolling plains and through rugged, mountainous terrain, Xena and Gabrielle finally arrived in Sinope. The final leg of their journey had been boring and arduous. As each day passed as they neared the city, Xena became more pensive and less talkative. The final day on the road they hardly said a word. Gabrielle had never ridden into battle with Xena; had she, she would not have been so confused. This was just the warrior's way when preparing for battle and when faced with insurmountable odds. The entire way she focused every bit of her body, mind, and soul on the what lay ahead. In her mind she laid out a hundred different plans and worked on each minute detail. When not planning, she practiced her warrior skills over and over in her mind while Argo plodded along as if a prearranged agreement had been made between rider and horse.
Before entering the city, Xena pulled two robes from their pack, handed one to Gabrielle, and said, "Put this on, we don't want to stand out." Then she put on a bulky, silky robe that hid sword and clothing from curious eyes. In Sinope Xena was pleased to find an inn and stables not far from the royal palace before sunset. She did not want to be roaming the streets of a strange city after dark with Gabrielle. For a moment, her mind drifted to Gabrielle again, and she realized she had neglected her the last few days. She would have to take care of that later. Gabrielle was a problem, however, how could she be sure her stubborn little Amazon bard would cooperate with her plans? She could not let Gabrielle get mixed up in this because it was too dangerous. For several moments she cursed herself for bringing her with her. She could have been in Sinope days ago and headed back by now. How had she let her own selfish desires influence her decision? Oh well, no use worrying about what could not be helped now. She would just have to lay the law down and make Gabrielle see things her way.
That evening Gabrielle and Xena enjoyed a meal in the tavern before retiring for the night. When they had arrived, Xena took their gear upstairs and laid out clothes for them on the bed.
Curiously, Gabrielle asked, "What's this?" fingering the silky material. "Where did you get these?"
"Those, Gabrielle, are the clothes we will wear while here in Sinope. We must at least appear outwardly to be locals. Our accents of course will give us away when we speak, but that is why I am going to let you do most of the talking, besides you are better at it than me. I picked the clothes up in Cius when I went out to buy supplies."
Gabrielle picked up the smaller of the two garments and held it up. She started to shake her head as a look of doubt furrowed her eyebrows. Then she turned to Xena and said, "I think I like yours better. This is a little skimpy, don't you think?"
Xena dug intently through a bag as Gabrielle spoke. Finding a silver bracelet, she tossed it onto the bed. "There, that completes the whole effect," she said focusing on Gab's comment. Xena replied, "Not at all, that's what all the slaves wear in Sinope. Make sure you keep that bracelet on; it indicates your status."
"You're kidding, right? This is a joke, right?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief.
"No, Gabrielle, I'm not kidding." Xena said as Gabrielle began to protest. "Now let me explain before you start. Just hear me out." The bard sat on the bed, crossed her arms, and lifted her eyebrows as if to say, all right, explain. "First of all we need information. We will raise suspicion if we stand out too much. I have to wear the clothing of a noble woman because I need the robes to conceal my sword which we might need. If you play the part of the slave, you can chatter, and no one will care if you have a Thracian accent."
At that Gabrielle bristled, "It's Corinthian, not Thracian!"
Xena shot back, "And what's wrong with Thracian accents? After all you did fall for a Thracian! We must not be that barbaric!"
"You don't have to get so defensive; at least you don't have to be a slave," Gabrielle said pouting.
"Yes, well," Xena glanced away and continued, "as I was saying your accent won't give us away because it is not uncommon to have slaves here from the Greek city-states." Xena then wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and peered with laughing eyes into hers. "Besides, who would believe I was your slave? If I were, I'd just kick your butt and run away." Gabrielle in mock anger began to struggle in Xena's arms, and the two flopped on the bed laughing. After a playful tussle on the bed, Gabrielle begrudgingly agreed, and the two bathed, then slipped into their new clothes, and went downstairs to dine.
The next day in the markets, Gabrielle played her part perfectly, chattering with everyone about everything that eventually always returned to the topic of the royal family of Sinope. Xena marveled at her bard's gift for conversing. She could disarm and persuade even the most tight-lipped to enter into conversation with her. Her bardic abilities enabled her to create an instant biographical history for herself that made the most cynical shop keeper wipe a tear from his eye and give Xena a look of sheer disdain. While Gabrielle infiltrated, Xena listened carefully to the eastern accent so that she could mimic it when she was forced to give monosyllabic commands to her sometimes wayward slave.
When they finally left the market, Xena complimented Gabrielle on a job well done but asked, "Did you have to tell them I have a horrible temper and beat you?"
"You didn't like that? I thought it was a realistic touch," Gabrielle said grinning. Xena rolled her eyes.
That evening after Gabrielle was asleep, Xena rose and dressed in her leathers and armor and walked quietly out onto the balcony. She climbed the balcony banister and leaped up, grabbed the overhang and hoisted herself up onto the roof. There she made her way quickly through the city leaping from roof top to roof top until she could see the palace separated from the city by a high wall. From her vantage and with the help of a clear sky, she could see much of its layout. From Gabrielle's inquiries, she knew the court yard was located in the center of the palace, and the royal family's living quarters encircled the courtyard. The administrative buildings were on the north west corner, and the throne room and state rooms were on the southeast side of the palace. After a candlemark, Xena determined there were only palace guards at the main entrance facing north. The south side of the palace was cut into the mountain.
Xena leaped to the ground and raced to the corner of the palace wall. Reaching the wall, she plastered herself against its rough texture and blended into a shadow cast by a large tree that grew leaning over the rear wall. Xena wondered why they would let a tree grow this close to the wall. It was not a very good idea defensively, but then again Sinope was never threatened because it was practically inaccessible by land. It sat on a peninsula and was safe from inland invasions because of the high forest-clad mountains that encircled it. Its port was protected and difficult to attack. The steep incline from the harbor to the city made sea attacks foolish. It was not external forces that the city needed to worry about. Xena quickly climbed the tree and dropped inside the walls of the palace.
Once inside the walls, she slipped through an open doorway. Moving silently into the palace, she crept through a long hallway that entered the courtyard. From there she dashed across the central courtyard and into a foyer separated by curtains from a large room. Xena peeked through the curtains and discovered that the large room looked to be an elegant apartment. Believing the apartment was empty, she moved into the room and examined several personal items lying on a table. The market keepers had indicated that the mother of the young king was still living in the palace, however, they knew not where. Xena wondered if she touched Chloe's things. If only it was like it used to be, she would know. Dragging her mind to the purpose of her visit, she moved into the next room and found the bed chamber. In the room she checked the large bed. It was empty, but the covers had been pulled back as if waiting for its occupant to return soon. Xena swept the room with her eyes and finding no additional rooms, retreated the way she had come. At the entrance to the foyer, she took a right and entering a tiny hallway that soon turned left or right. She took the right and entered a small chamber with marble benches. On one bench, she saw a white, silk robe. As she picked up the robe, she could hear the faint splash of water in the next room. The robe was soft and cool in her hands, and she lifted it to her cheek. In an instant, a flood of memories threatened to bring her to her knees. She saw Chloe's face looking down at her in the fields of clover. The robe belonged to Chloe; she knew her scent. With robe in hand she headed toward the sounds of the water.
Gabrielle awoke and reached out as she often did to reassure herself that her love was sleeping peacefully by her side. Her hand touched only empty bed. "Xena?" She sat up and blinked her eyes clearing the sleep. The warrior was not in the room. Gabrielle rose and found Xena's clothes from the evening folded neatly over a chair, but her leathers and armor were gone along with her sword and chakram. She ran to the door but found it locked from the inside. Gabrielle then looked to the balcony. She walked slowly and opened the door. Xena must have left by the balcony, but why? Gabrielle stepped onto the balcony and sat down quietly waiting for her warrior's return.
Hidden in the shadows, Xena observed the bathing woman from the dark doorway. Her skin was like white alabaster bathed in the moonlight which poured through arched windows, and her dark hair contrasted sharply. Her lithe body moved gracefully in the water, and Xena's heart pounded in her chest at the realization that the woman in front of her was her Chloe. Her mannerisms betrayed her identity. This was Chloe. Suddenly the woman turned as if her name had been spoken aloud. She looked unafraid in Xena's direction, and the warrior ducked deeper into the shadows even though she knew Chloe could not see her from the bath. Unsure what to do, Xena felt like a voyeur. She just wanted to stand there forever and gaze upon her Chloe and remember all that they were and all that they had so long ago.
She was jarred from her memories by a sound that was sweeter than honey, "Is it you? Please come out of the shadows so that I may see you." Xena stepped slowly from the darkness and into the soft moonlight. A smile parted Chloe's lips, and she whispered, "I knew it was you, my love."
Gabrielle sat on the balcony two candlemarks waiting for Xena's return, finally she retired driven in by the night chill. She climbed under the covers shivering. She wished Xena was there to warm her and wondered where her warrior was. She prayed to Artemis that Xena was safe. As she drifted off to sleep, her mind's eye saw a willowy young woman racing through green fields of soft clover.
The two women stood for the longest time drinking in each other. Finally Chloe made her way to where Xena stood, climbed the steps from the baths, and stood in front of her. Xena held the robe open and helped Chloe into it. Chloe pulled the robe around her and turned to look up into Xena's eyes. Deep emotion filled her eyes and then she spoke, "I felt your presence for the first time in almost thirteen years." Xena said nothing as Chloe took her hand and lead her to her bed chamber. There they sat on the bed still staring into each others eyes. "My gods, Xena, you are more beautiful than you were when you were seventeen, and even then you made the gods envious." Xena dropped her eyes and smiled. "Well, I can see you are still a woman of action not words."
Xena's heart pounded as she looked up into eyes that sparkled with tiny black diamonds and danced on slate gray irises. "And you are just as I remember. You still look as you did in our seventeenth summer," Xena said her voice soft and low.
Chloe’s smiling face turned serious and she said, "Xe, I have missed you so much; I thought at times my heart would burst with sorrow. The last time I saw you when you and your forces came raging out of the West to rescue me, I wanted to throw myself in your arms." Chloe looked down at the strong hand in hers. "But I turned you away. I am sorry. It was a mistake. I was so afraid you would be killed. I couldn't watch that happen again." Chloe sighed and looked into the Aegean-blue eyes. "I had become almost used to the idea that you were dead, or at least when that realization would revisit me, I did not cringe as much at the thought. My heart grew accustomed to the wrenching pain in my chest when something would remind me of you and that horrible memory would torment me again."
Remembering sadly, Xena replied, "It's my fault; had I not been so stupid the year before, you would have known I survived the battle."
Chloe touched Xena’s check with the back of her fingers and pleaded, "Don't blame yourself, Xena, you have suffered enough, we both have. I just wish I could remove from my mind that final memory of your body being carried from the field by Toris." Xena felt her stomach lurch at the memory. "I was watching from the hill, you know. I saw our Lyceus, so handsome and brave, fall, and then there was a blur of activity and the next thing I knew you had disappeared." Chloe looked away from Xena as if seeing her now made the memory even more vivid. "When I finally saw you, you were lying on the ground, and Toris was standing over you. I saw him drag you from the field. He then picked you up. You were completely limp, your arms and legs dangled and your head lolled lifelessly, and you were covered with blood." Xena felt as if her heart was being ripped from her chest, and tears tumbled down her cheeks. Chloe continued, "I knew you were dead. I turned and ran. I couldn't see for the tears. I don't know how far I ran, but I ran until I thought my heart would burst. Then I fell. When I awoke, I was on a slaver's ship, but I didn't care. I just wanted to die so that I could join you and Lyceus in the Elysian Fields." She looked back up at Xena, tears moistening her youthful freckled cheeks. "Had I not been so impetuous, had I been more careful, I would not have been taken by the slavers, and I would have found you." Looking up at the ceiling she exclaimed, "Gods! I curse that day!"
Xena could stand no more. She took Chloe in her arms, and they held on to each other. Xena spoke, "It's my fault, my love." She choked on her tears but managed to continue, "I fell that day not from injuries, but from grief. Toris tried to get me to my feet, but I refused. My mind was so filled with Lyceus, I could think of nothing else." Chloe pulled away to look into Xena's pained eyes. "Toris carried me from the battlefield that day, not because I was injured, but to keep me from being killed. Had I not been so weak and self-centered, we could have been together all these years. That one action sacrificed our happiness forever." They both fell into each other's arms and cried and tried to comfort each other, and somewhere in their sorrow and in their need to comfort each other, they rediscovered the bliss they once experienced in each other's embrace so long ago.
Before the light of dawn, Xena stirred at sounds of the larks announcing the coming day. She rolled out of Chloe's arms and sat up on the edge of the bed. Chloe awoke and touched her, "What is it, my love?"
"It's almost dawn; I've got to be going." Xena stood and began to dress as Chloe climbed out of bed and came around to help her fasten on her sword and armor. Xena sat again on the edge of the bed to pull on her boots.
"When will you be back?" Xena looked up at the note of desperation she heard in Chloe's voice but continued tying her boots.
"Soon, don't worry." She smiled to add reassurance to her promise. "Is it always this easy to get in here?"
Chloe said, "For now it is. The palace minister does not see me as a threat, but Lyceus is almost a prisoner in another part of the palace."
Xena stood up, a questioning look on her face, and said, "Lyceus?"
Chloe smiled, "My son, the heir to the throne." Xena nodded understanding. "Can you return earlier this time?" Chloe inquired, "Tonight? There is much we must talk over, and I have someone I want you to meet."
Xena raised her eyebrow and said, "Yes, we must talk. When is it safe?"
"I am usually awake well after everyone else has retired. If you can come when the moon has not reached it's zenith, and the sky is black, it will be quiet, there are only guards at the main entrance."
Xena said, "I'll be here." Chloe stepped into Xena's arms and they kissed. Xena pulled away gently, "Until tonight, my love," she said and walked out of the room.
Xena retraced her steps back to the corner of the stone wall. Twenty paces from the wall, and she sprang into a run and leaped from one wall catching the toe of her boot on a protruding stone and pushed herself upward and to the other wall climbing in a quick zigzag pattern until she reached the top. There she leaped into the tree and swung down to the other side of the wall dropping back against the wall and hiding in the shadows. Checking for patrols and seeing none, she ran for the cover of the row of buildings whose roofs she had used the evening before. She hurriedly made her way back to the stables hiding in the shadows of the buildings that hugged the narrow road. Once in the stables, she climbed to the loft and stood on the sill of the open window. From there, she hoisted herself up onto the stable roof and leaped onto the roof of the inn. She lowered herself over the roof suspended by her hands. She swung her body and jumped into the balcony of her and Gabrielle's room. Once on the balcony, she removed her armor, sword, and chakram and like a thief, stole into the room. There she quickly undressed and slipped under the covers next to Gabrielle as she looked to see if Gabrielle noticed her entrance. Gabrielle's back was to Xena, and she appeared asleep, her breathing slow and deep, and Xena sighed with relief. She certainly did not want to face Gabrielle yet.
As Xena drifted off to sleep, Gabrielle opened her eyes and stared into the dull gray of morning. Silently she thanked the gods for returning Xena safely to her, then she squeezed her eyes shut against the hot tears that threatened.
The next day Xena tried to pretend nothing had happened the night before, but her heart was simply not into deceiving Gabrielle. She knew she could not tell her everything that had happened between herself and Chloe, but she would not lie to her either. She already felt Gabrielle was apprehensive and did not seem her chipper self. She wondered if Gabrielle had awakened and found her gone. She had not intended to be gone as long as she was. Then again, she had not intended to scale the walls of the palace and find Chloe on her first attempt either. She had no idea it would be so easy. She worried that it was too easy.
After a silent, late morning meal in the tavern, Xena suggested they go for a walk and perhaps visit a market so that Gabrielle could shop for entertainment purposes rather than for information. Xena hated that sort of thing, but she felt guilty. First she had ignored Gabrielle for the last several days, and then last night...well, not that she regretted her time with Chloe. She could not stand the thoughts of hurting her little Amazon, yet she was feared it was too late. She herself was confused. She loved them both. Chloe’s loss was the major reason her life had become such a nightmare, and finding Gabrielle was the major reason her life had finally turned around. How could she sacrifice either of them now?
Gabrielle agreed to the shopping suggestion but not with the usual enthusiasm that Xena grew to expect from her bard. She was saddened at Gabrielle's reaction, knowing in her heart it was her fault. As they walked in the warmth of the late morning sun, Xena began to speak, "Gabrielle, I went on a reconnaissance mission last night after you fell asleep." Expecting her to explode at not being told, Xena braced herself.
Gabrielle simply replied, "I know, I woke up, and you were gone."
Xena didn't quite know what to say although she had suspected this was what happened. "I am sorry I didn't tell you immediately this morning but.."
Gabrielle cut her off, "You didn't want to worry me." and kept walking calmly.
Xena looked at her out of the corners of her eyes and tried to read her mood, "It's more than that, Gab," she said. "I didn't tell you because I didn't want to have to fight with you. I knew you would want to come along. And, well, this is one thing that I have to do on my own."
Gabrielle stopped and looked up at Xena, "Why, Xena? Why is this the one thing you have to do on your own? Are you afraid I might see how much you still love Chloe? Is that it?"
"Gabrielle, I love you," Xena implored.
"Xena, believe it or not, I know you love me, but is that supposed to make it easier knowing you still love her too?" Xena did not reply; what could she say? "Answer me this, Xena. We've never really talked about it, but how did you feel when I decided to marry Perdicus? You knew then I loved you, but I chose to marry Perdicus."
Xena felt that old pang inside her gut, and sadly she replied, "I felt empty and sad and lonely." She paused searching her mind for the right thing to say, "Look, Gab, I don't know what the future will bring, but I do know I want you in my future. I cannot see me without you. Please try to understand, I need to work through this. I am confused, and I can't ask you to help me figure it all out like I usually do. It would not be fair to you. I hope I have never let you down before, and I do not intend to start now." Xena encircled Gabrielle's shoulders, and the bard leaned into her.
"I'm sorry, Xena, for adding to your problems," Gabrielle said.
"You have never added to my problems, Gab, you've been the solution." With that, the two entered the market and each spent the day working hard to please the other.
That evening Xena informed Gabrielle that she needed to return to the palace to see Chloe to discuss the plans to help her and her children escape from the city of Sinope. She should not wait up for her. Gabrielle smiled a brave smile and told Xena to be careful. When she left, Gabrielle climbed into the large, empty bed and cried herself to sleep.
Xena used the same route as the night before and found it just as easy to enter the palace. Chloe, who had been watching for her, met her in the courtyard, and they immediately slipped into the foyer of Chloe's apartment. There, Chloe stopped Xena and pinned her against the wall as she pulled her head down so that their lips could meet. Xena felt her passion rise to meet Chloe's, but she stopped them both before it was too late pulling away almost breathlessly she said, "Chloe, wait, we need to talk before we lose ourselves in each other."
Chloe chuckled and said, "You're right, besides I want you to meet someone." Taking Xena's hand, she led her down the hall beyond the bath and into a room on the right. There in a small bed, a perfect miniature image of Chloe slept among the pillows and blankets. Xena stared in wonder at this beautiful little girl who looked exactly as Chloe did when she was a small child. The only discernible difference was the child's straight dark hair, Xena assumed her father's trait. Chloe's soft musical laughter at Xena's reaction filled the room, and Xena turned to smile at her with a raised eyebrow. Chloe spoke softly, and they moved away from the sleeping child, "She is almost three summers, and she is a gift to us from the gods."
Xena had heard that saying before in many references, but coming from Chloe, there was probably more to it that just a figure of speech, so Xena inquired, "What exactly do you mean?"
Chloe grasped Xena's hand in hers. "I decided I wanted a daughter. I thought about it for a long time. I missed you Xe, and I wanted a child to remind me of you. I prayed to Artemis and beseeched her to intercede on my part and give me a daughter who would be yours too. Not long after that, I discovered I was with child, I knew it was a girl; she spoke to me." Xena looked into Chloe's eyes and furrowed her eyebrows. "You remember, Xe?" Xena nodded. "So I spoke with her for hours on end, and I told her all about you, and how much I loved you, and how much you meant to me. And I told her you would make a wonderful mother, and you have so many skills to teach her. Then I prayed again to the gods that they make this child yours and mine in spirit and soul."
"Well, she certainly is yours, that's for sure," Xena said trying hard to hide the skepticism in her voice.
Chloe grinned, "And she is yours too. Imagine my husband's surprise; he was dark with curly hair." She then became deadly serious. "Xena, if anything happens to me, promise me, you will take her to Cyrene." Xena tried to stop this talk, but Chloe would not be stopped. "Promise me, my love, you will take this child as my gift to the mother of my heart. This child is her grandchild, and you are as much a parent to her as I. I have made sure of that."
Xena finally acquiesced, "All right, you've convinced me." She then turned and walked back over to peer down into the tiny freckled face. She somehow felt a warm glow within herself. Looking at Chloe, she asked, "And what is her name?"
Chloe smiled, joined her and said, "Zoe." Xena looked at Chloe knowingly. "A combination of my name and yours. Her name means life. With the birth of Zoe and my Lyceus, I brought the three of us back together again." Xena hid her cynicism, and watched as Chloe knelt on the floor by the child's head. Chloe looked up at Xena with laughing eyes. "You always doubted even when you saw the proof; I think that was one thing I found most attractive about you. You were never naive. Perhaps a little too stubborn, but never naive." She pulled Xena down next to her. "Let me show you something." Chloe bent over and kissed her sleeping daughter awake. "Zoe, honey, I've someone who you must meet." Zoe's eyes fluttered opened, and she smiled sweetly at her mother, and then she looked into Xena's eyes.
Xena looked down into her own ocean-blue eyes as if she was looking into a mirror that slightly distorted size. The child said, "Hello, Xena, Momma has told me all about you." Xena was taken aback by the child's instant recognition of her and by the child's appearance. "I have your eyes and hair; Momma says I have your temperament too, sometimes." Chloe chuckled and gathered the tiny child into her arms and hugged her as Zoe wrapped her right arm around her mother's neck and hugged her tightly; she looked over her mother's shoulder at Xena with her blue eyes and reached out with her tiny left hand for Xena.
After tucking Zoe back into bed, the two returned to Chloe's chambers. Xena began to talk, afraid if she didn't start immediately, she would succumb to her own desire to touch Chloe and try to recapture all the years they had lost. "Things have changed for me Chloe since I last saw you almost ten years ago. I no longer lead an army. I gave that up."
Chloe smiled joyfully and grabbed Xena's hand, "Thank the great Artemis, my prayers have finally been answered. It broke my heart to hear of your activities; I knew that wasn't my Xena."
Xena looked into her lap and then back up at Chloe finding it difficult to tell her what she really needed to tell her. Chloe, recognizing the Xena she knew who often found it easier to jump on a horse and gallop off to hunt wild boar than to speak of what was in her heart,
asked, "What is it Xena, talk to me. It can't be all that bad."
Xena knew there was no easy way to say this, and she couldn't be as flowery as her bard, "I still love you with all my heart, Chloe. I feel as though you are a part of my soul that I had lost for so long, and I can't bear the thought of losing you again, but I have to be honest. I am bound to another."
Chloe smiled knowingly, "Oh, Xe, surely you didn't think that I would believe that you have pined away for me all these years? It's all right Xena, tell me about ..." Pausing unsure if she was asking about a man or a woman.
Xena interjected, "Her." and Chloe laughed.
"Tell me about her."
Xena searched her warrior vocabulary to describe her Gabrielle. "Her name is Gabrielle. She is a bard and an Amazon queen. She was from Poteidaia." Xena trailed off.
Chloe chuckled at Xena's Spartan description and teased, "I can see why you love her." Xena looked puzzled. "Come on, Xe, tell me why you love her.
Xena looked down frowning unaccustomed to searching her feelings. Finally she said, "I love her because of who she is and because she loves me for who I am. She only sees the good in people. She filled my empty heart and gave me a reason for existing. She is so good and kind and sweet. She is the beacon in the dark night of my soul."
When Xena finished, Chloe bent forward and kissed the warrior on her lips lingering for several moments. When they parted, Chloe said, "I love you, Xena, and I want you to be happy. I will always be a part of your life." Xena bent toward her and kissed her passionately, and they melted onto the bed in each other's arms. Later that night Xena confessed to Chloe that Gabrielle made her happy.
The next morning Gabrielle awoke to find Xena's arms wrapped around her. She did not hear Xena come in, but it must have been early this morning because Xena still slept soundly as though she was exhausted. Gabrielle snuggled back against Xena and drifted off to sleep.