We traveled a week before we stopped in a village for the first time. Gabrielle was eager for a warm bed and a meal not cooked by either of us but otherwise seemed unimpressed with the idea of meeting other people and relaying our adventures on the road. Though, admittedly, our adventures weren't all that exciting and included being chased by a wild boar, pulling and reseating a shoe on a dancing palomino filly, and me being thrown into the brambles during an evening training session.
Not a lot of story fodder there. Though my young friend did nearly laugh herself senseless at my unfortunate foliage visitation. It was worth the few scratches and bruised hips to see her cry for an emotion besides fear or sadness. Later, while doing a poor job of apologizing through muffled chortles, she said it was a combination of my startled look and Argo's expression of sheer horror that had pushed her over the edge.
"You had this look on your face like it was a personal affront that you, the mighty horse trainer, should be thrown from the saddle," she'd said as she dabbed ointment gently on my various scratches.
"It was," I'd argued, delighting in both her touch and the mirth in her voice.
"I've never seen anything like it." She'd laughed again, shaking her head and swaying blond locks with the movement. "There is nothing about you I don't love," she'd smiled gently and then froze when the words left her lips. Her eyes widened and she'd looked like she might run for the woods as a blush crept through her features.
"Don't butter me up now," I'd teased her gently, trying to relieve her awkwardness. "You can't say one nice thing and think I'll forget that you've been laughing at me since before sundown."
She'd breathed with relief and resumed her gentle ministrations. "It was worth a try."
So now we sat in a tavern sipping ale and chewing lamb. My plan was to spend a couple of days here, helping with some local harvesting or building, and earning a few dinars.
Gabrielle sat quietly in her seat against the wall, watching the crowd change with arrivals and departures. She looked odd to me with the gentle torch light flickering off of her breast plate. Her hair was pulled back into a leather strip and her bracers nearly glowed with the care I'd given them the night before. Without my own armor to shine and sword to sharpen, Gabrielle's had become a good substitute.
"Eat," I said, pointing to the food on her plate that had been barely touched. She'd rearranged it nicely several times but no amount of shuffling brought the morsels closer to her mouth.
She glanced at me and I saw that her eyes were wide and dilated. I looked at her hands, still holding useless utensils, and noticed the trembling in them. She was scared witless. I looked over my shoulder and saw nothing out of the ordinary. I'd given her my usual position of surveying the room because she liked her back to a wall. I imagined she'd been snuck up on a few too many times in her young life. But the position left to me was one without advantage.
"Gabrielle?" I asked softly, wiping my lips with my linen napkin and placing it back on the table. Green eyes flicked to me.
"I can't eat."
"Okay. Let's take it to our room and eat, then. Would that be better?"
"I don't want to be here," she whimpered.
Quickly I counted our assets and determined what we already owed for the room, dinner, and Argo's board. We wouldn't come out ahead if I didn't get some work here. Okay," I drawled out, searching my mind for peaceful and legal solutions. Get Gabrielle out of here, get back on the road. I could exchange some of my tunics and Argo's extra saddle blanket for at least part of what we owed and pay the balance in the dinars we did have. I would make that up later, at the next village, when Gabrielle was ready to face strangers.
"Wrap up your food," I said gently, pushing the napkin towards her. She did so with trembling hands. "Go to the barn with Argo. I need to talk to the inn keeper and do a little bartering."
She blinked at me, clutching her uneaten meat and rolls. "Maybe if I go to the room, I'll be okay," she stammered.
I watched my blonde companion closely for several long moments. The question became whether to force her through this or let her walk away. "What are you afraid of here?" I asked at last.
"All the people," she blurted. Then, more calmly, "all the people."
"Okay. Do you think they'll hurt you?"
She glanced around again, finding solidarity when her eyes landed back on mine. "I don't think they will."
"Has anyone touched you?"
"Is it different from our tavern in Amphipolis?"
I could have passed out holding my breath and waiting for her to elaborate so I didn't. I looked around at the large room with a discerning eye. It was different in a lot of ways: it was larger, had more people. The fireplace was on the east wall and made of large mountain boulders instead of river rocks. The overhead lighting was provided by torches and not hanging candles. I sighed. The only thing that kept me from utter frustration was knowing I was at least this difficult for my other Gabrielle on many occasions. I can't help you unless you help me, I mused to myself.
I considered my different options of attack while watching her nervous hands and eyes. "Why are you afraid of these people?"
Splendid. "I'll tell you what, Gabrielle. It doesn't matter to me if we go or stay. I can sleep with you in a bed here or with you under the stars out there. There are a lot of things that you probably aren't ready for yet. It's no big deal if this is one of them."
"You think it's ridiculous," she dropped her eyes.
I reached a hand over to clasp hers, oily from the meat juices that seeped through the napkin she held. "No. I think you are an amazingly brave woman. You are stronger than I could ever be because despite your fears and your hatred, you laugh and love and live. I could never do that so freely." Believe me. "I will follow you wherever you lead."
"We can't afford to go," she murmured.
"I'd barter the clothes off my back if I had to," I promised her. "Everything is material. We can buy other stuff later. Do we go or stay?"
She considered this for several long moments, scanning the crowd, her brow wrinkled in intense concentration. "I think I can do this. We stay a couple of days, eat in our room, earn some dinars?"
"Or we go. Do you need me to make the decision this time? I will."
Gabrielle looked at me gratefully before taking a deep breath. It seemed enough to her that I was willing to take the burden and relieve her shoulders. "We stay."
"We can leave even in the middle of the night if you want. Just let me know."
I gathered my plate and both of our drinks. "Let's go upstairs." She was almost an extension of my body she was so close as we started towards the room we'd secured.
Later that night, after dinner and starting a warm fire to break the chill of a coming winter, I left Gabrielle briefly to go check on Argo and inquire with the men in the tavern below about work for the coming days. I found Argo to be belligerent and angering the stable boy but he was gentle and had kind hands so I wasn't worried. She'd taken to kicking the stall door and slamming her trough again and again with a golden shoulder. I shrugged, she wouldn't likely hurt herself with her antics and hopefully wouldn't damage the stall ... much.
My mission in the tavern was successful and I lined up work helping in a wheat field the next day and likely the following. If we wanted to stay in town longer, I could help a man rebuild his shed and goat pens. I'd wait to see how Gabrielle was doing before I committed to that job. But each task would pay a handful of dinars and a home cooked meal for my companion and me so I accepted the first and promised to think about the second.
Not having the reputation in this life that I did in my other, it took a little convincing that a woman could hold her own in a field of men and was worth some pay on top of it. As a result, I also won a few dinars arm wrestling and put them to good use buying Gabrielle some tasty little tarts.
She was pacing the room nervously when I came back inside so I set my small package down and wrapped her in warm arms without hesitation. Though these moments of gentle tenderness were new to me since starting this different life, I found myself enjoying the touches and embraces. I remembered the other Gabrielle always laying a hand on my arm or my side and now I understood why and somewhat regretted never allowing the bard the pleasure of my responding. Because it was pleasurable, I realized now as I held this Gabrielle in my arms, to have someone enjoy your touch and your presence.
Did the other Gabrielle ever know, really know, what she meant to me? How important she was just for my day to day living? Probably not.
"How's Argo?" Gabrielle had murmured after many long moments of us standing quietly in the dimly lit room.
"Fine. Causing trouble. You know," I ran my hand down her back, feeling the silkiness of her hair under my callused fingers. "How are you?"
She shrugged. "I'm okay now. I just get nervous without you around. I've never been alone much."
I guided her across the room to the bed where I sat down and pulled her with me, still wrapped in my arms. "I think you may have to learn to be alone again. I can't always be with you." She didn't respond so we were silent for a few more minutes before I spoke again. "Maybe we need to get you a puppy."
She laughed gently and squeezed me. "Maybe some day but not while we're out wandering the world."
"You're right." I held her a few more minutes before I disentangled myself and stood up. As I stoked the fire and readied for bed, I explained to her the work I'd acquired.
My day started early and Gabrielle insisted on coming along and helping even though we'd not bartered for her wages. She was loathe to sit in the room whether it be out of fear of being alone or a need to contribute, I didn't really know. Nor did I care.
With long scythes provided by the farmer we cut the golden stalks of wheat and bundled them for drying. Others would come along later with wagons and donkeys to load the wheat and move it to where it could be threshed.
By mid day, when we stopped for the noon meal and ate heartily of fresh baked bread and well salted ham, I noticed that my companion was turning a not so flattering shade of pink. I tried to send her back to the inn where she and her fair skin could escape the worst of the afternoon sun but she, of course refused. I did convince her to settle under a copse of trees near the field we worked. She watched me with those gentle jade eyes and I thought I'd done nothing to deserve the affection I saw in them whenever I glanced over.
She'd become such an important part of me so ridiculously fast. I was closer to this Gabrielle than I had ever been to the other. Whereas a few short fortnights before I'd referred to the other Gabrielle as my own, it was this one I was bestowing that title upon now.
I missed the other Gabrielle still, felt guilty for this absurd betrayal of her ... much like loving her sister instead of her. But I knew this one better even though it was only because I was much more open to this Gabrielle. I prodded her and whispered to her and held her long hours of each night.
She cried into my linen clad shoulder after nightmares. She held my large hands in undisguised wonder when I told her stories or related plans.
This was a Gabrielle I could love forever and be with always.
It was on that day, in that blazing sun that changed the hue of my gentle friend's skin but merely further bronzed my own, that I decided to keep this life at all costs. I convinced myself, closed eyes raised to the bright blue sky, that my other Gabrielle no longer existed and I had no need to get back to her. This was my Gabrielle now and my life was here.
That night, I wrapped her in my arms and she tucked herself easily against me as had become our habit. I'd applied some oil to her face and forearms to prevent the worst of the stinging. I smelled it now as I held her, the pungent scent nearly more than my sensitive nose could handle.
She flung her leg over my hips as she'd been starting to do lately. This position left her nearly sprawled across my body and had I been a woman of less self control, I would have found the sensation of her skin on mine more painful than pleasant. But I welcomed her familiar touch and took great pride that she trusted me enough to hold me in this fashion.
"I think I know," she said at last. I was nearly asleep when the words were muttered and I blinked my blue eyes back open to stare at the ceiling. Moonlight flashed into the window and danced across the floor, slightly illuminating our small room and our entwined bodies.
"Know what?" I said at last, having no clue what she meant and being too fuzzy minded and weary muscled to try figuring it out myself.
"Why I was so scared the other night."
Ah. This I wanted to hear. I moved slightly, stretching my long limbs without moving much or disturbing her warm body. "Why is that?" I asked after mentally cheering myself to full wakefulness.
"When I was at your tavern, with you and Lyceus, I was a server. And I know how to do that because I've done it for so long. I know how to provide food and drink while going virtually unnoticed and how to avoid the worst of the grabbing and the insults. But here, I was removed from that. I was supposed to be a patron, a guest. It was something I'd never done before and I didn't know how. So when I got frightened by the noise and the people, I didn't know how to respond because all of it was so new and different."
I pondered this for a very long time and examined her words. She was right, I realized and I told her so, praising her for her understanding of herself and her situation. She'd been uneasy at first in Amphipolis, confused about her role and her purpose in life. She'd tried several times to fall back into the life of a slave through her actions and reactions. But we'd been able to draw her out of that life and into a new one. I'd completely displaced her by bringing her here to this tavern where she felt like an outsider once more. She'd wanted to react as a slave again, as she had in our Amphipolis tavern, but was enough removed from those feelings of servitude that she didn't even have that to rely on. She was at a point in her healing where she neither belonged nor didn't belong.
"How do you feel about it now?" I asked softly, stroking the shift she wore with gentle fingertips. I felt her developing back muscles shift under my hands and the thought of exploring those muscles further sent a quick twinge of heat through my body.
"I realized, I think, that I do have something to fall back on. I have you. And when you looked me in the eyes at the table and told me we could go, I knew you would never let harm come to me. That you are the only person in this whole world who cares about me for me ... you wouldn't have brought me there if you'd thought it would turn out badly."
She was right about that. I nodded and pulled her closer, kissing the crown of her head. "I will never leave you," I whispered softly.
Her head bobbed against my breast with her nod. After a few moments, she moved again so she was more firmly on top of me. She slid one leg between mine and the other outside of my right thigh. She moved her arms under her shoulder and pressed her face into my neck where I could feel her hot breath and her moist lips. Okay ... this wasn't going to work. As I was trying to figure out a way to extricate myself from this far too intimate position without hurting her feelings, she apparently was trying to figure out what to do next.
She reached her decision before I reached mine and I felt Gabrielle's lips graze my pulse point.
"Uh ..." I stammered stupidly. "What are you doing?"
The feeling was exquisite: her smaller body weighing firmly into my own so I could feel her contours and heat as if I shared them. Her breath was warm and her teeth sharp as she nipped and licked at my neck. I felt my hormones responding though I commanded them not to. I'd had better control of my army.
"Does it bother you?" she whispered, moving slightly and pressing against my center inadvertently. I felt my hips rise in reply.
"I don't know," I said honestly, my voice hoarse with raw emotion.
She stopped then as if considering my words. "Really?"
"I ... I love you so much. And I want you to be with me forever. But I don't know if this is what we're about. I think what we have is more spiritual than physical."
She seemed to think about my muttered words and even consider them before she pressed her thigh down again. My body jerked again.
She grinned, I could feel the movement of her lips where they rested on my overheated skin. "Your body doesn't agree."
"We disagree on a lot of things," I replied easily in an effort to lighten the moment. "This just happens to be one of them."
"I think you want to."
"I think you're right. But I need some time. I don't want to go somewhere we're not ready to be. I don't want to damage your healing process."
She sighed softly but her body seemed to relax, indicating she was halting her advances. "I ... you mean so much to me. I don't know how else to express it."
"You do it everyday," I whispered, somewhat relieved to have averted the situation and given myself time to think about it. "I can tell by the look in your eyes or how you smile for me. And I can tell by the way you trust me with your heart and your body. You don't need to prove anything to me."
"Can I give you a massage?"
I laughed softly at the inquiry and kissed her head again. "I think that wouldn't be so wise right now."
She smiled and slid back to my side, wrapping me firmly in arms strong from training and sparring. "Goodnight, Xena," she whispered.
She was snoring long before my own body relaxed enough for me to even close my eyes.
We'd stayed two more days before we were on the road again. We'd taken advantage of the small marketplace there and purchased some herbs and dried foods for our travels. I was also able to barter for some warm woolen cloaks which would be a necessity in the coming winter months.
"If we had a cow," Gabrielle said out of the blue as we were silently trodding a well packed cart road, Argo having finally become accustomed enough to the traveling that she meandered behind us willingly. Then my blonde companion fell silent.
"We could drag two stubborn animals across the country?" I filled in for her.
She laughed and elbowed me gently. "We could drink fresh milk everyday."
"I s'pose," I shrugged my shoulders. "Could do the same with a goat and they're smaller. We couldn't drink enough milk from a cow. It would spoil."
"Good point." More silence as she thumped her staff down with each step and gazed at the blue sky above. "Goats are pretty smelly, though."
"And cows aren't?" I asked incredulously. "They're a bigger smell."
"Yeah," she kicked at a stone I didn't see. "A goat would be okay."
"Do you like milk?" I wondered aloud because the other Gabrielle hadn't been much of a milk drinker though she would have a cup now and then.
"It's okay," she shrugged, kicked at another invisible stone.
"So you don't want a goat?"
She shrugged again, done talking, giving me no indication where the conversation had been going before she'd abruptly aborted. I remembered our discussion of a few nights before, about her being afraid to be alone. Maybe this was a plea for a pet. Inwardly I groaned. As much as I loved her and even though I'd do anything for her, we were in no situation to have a pet following us around.
I draped my arm across her shoulder and kissed her temple. "I love you," I murmured.
She nodded and leaned into me. I wished I could hold her heart in my hands and fill it up. The emptiness she must feel inside it was staggering to us both.
Less than a week later we left yet another town where I'd gotten some work repairing a sheep pen and cow pasture. Gabrielle had made a few extra dinars helping an elderly widow with her washing and mending.
But she'd promptly spent all of hers and most of mine.
"I couldn't let him go there," she said for the hundredth time in just as many minutes. If I weren't so worried about her emotional frailty I would have gagged her by now.
"I know," I said instead. "I'm not angry."
"You look angry," she whispered. "I'll take him back. Don't be angry."
"He's fine. He'll be useful." Though Zeus knows I had no clue what we needed with the little spotted beast.
"He was taking him to the tannery."
I nodded, having already heard the story but declining to point out that hearing the story again didn't make the little guy any more useful to us.
"He's so sweet, Xena. I'll take care of him and you won't have to do a thing."
"You hate horses," I pointed out, glancing over my shoulder at the beast in question who walked amicably beside my own golden mare.
"He's not a horse exactly," she clarified as if that made a difference. "And I don't hate horses, they're just not so fond of me."
I nodded again and silence prevailed for another candlemark.
"I'm really sorry, Xena," she said softly. "I spent our money without even asking you and you'd earned most of it. All your hard work ... I'm so sorry."
"S'okay," I smiled at her and her liquid green eyes met my blue ones. "Don't worry. We can get more when we need it. It'll be okay."
She shook her head. "The issue really isn't him," she motioned back with the hand not holding the lead line. "I made a decision that would impact both of us and I didn't consider your feelings. I won't do it again."
I sighed with exasperation and halted our growing procession. I turned to her. "I don't care, Gabrielle. Honestly, I think it's great that you feel secure enough in me and my reactions that you can make these decisions on your own."
"But you wouldn't have taken him."
I shrugged, "So what. What I would or wouldn't do isn't what we're talking about. What are you going to name him?"
"Tobias," she smiled suddenly, apparently thrilled with my response. "You like it?"
"I do," I turned back to the road. "Let's try not to maintain a traveling farm, okay?"
We settled camp that night and then did some sparring.
She was growing much more adept with the steel blade and had picked up some of my more untraditional techniques of spinning and switching hands. She drilled tonight with easy precision and strong moves, smiling as she felt the confidence in herself build. She'd had none of the rage episodes we'd previously experienced for more than a fortnight now but I didn't dismiss them so easily, I expected to see them again.
Now I sharpened her sword and watched her groom the silly little donkey with the big fuzzy ears. He was comical in appearance, his back barely higher than her waist. His coat was a rich dark brown mottled with white and his short mane stuck out like a straw broom between his ears and along his skinny neck. I thought he was ridiculous looking, stubborn, and smelly. Even tonight, after hours of consideration, I still hadn't found a use for him.
Gabrielle seemed more pleased with her newest acquisition than she had been earlier in the day. Her hands were gentle on the little guy as she murmured to him with soft words not meant for my ears. She brushed his much neglected coat until it shined and cleaned his too-long unshod feet. Then she combed out his impossible mane and the little wisp of hair at the bottom of his tail.
So I watched the donkey fondly as I ran the whetstone along the blade settled across my knees. I guess the little guy wasn't that useless if he brought pleasure to Gabrielle. He was small, wouldn't eat a lot and probably wouldn't slow us down much. I sighed heavily, resigning myself to our increased traveling party.
Gabrielle must have heard my weary exhale because she looked up from her tedious job of making a donkey look like a glimmering steed. Her green eyes sought out my blue gaze and then she grinned. It was a heart warming, self-satisfied grin that told me at this moment in her life, everything was good and she was happy. I smiled back.
That night when she came to me she was confident and brazen.
She crawled under the blankets and over my body easily so her elbows were planted on either side of my head and her nose nearly touched mine. Just the nearness of her caused my body to warm instantly and my loins to cry for attention. I'd never thought of making love with the other Gabrielle, it was truly an idea that had never entered my mind in any form. But with this one straddling me, warming me, mingling her breath with mine, I knew exactly what I wanted.
"I want you," she whispered hoarsely, echoing my thoughts and leaning down to breathe in my ear before capturing my lobe between gentle teeth.
"Gabrielle," I whispered softly, trying to muster a warning undertone that a mother might use with a child. I found that thought completely inappropriate at that moment but it didn't matter because she ignored me entirely.
"I know you want me," she continued with nipping teeth and sucking lips along the column of my neck. "You think you're protecting me but you're not. I know you would never hurt me."
Agh, my body protested my mind's unwillingness. Just go with it, it screamed. Feel her, you need this, she wants it. There's no harm in pleasing each other physically ... especially when you love her. She rocked her hips against mine, spreading her knees wider so the bare skin under her skirt had firm contact with the rough hewn cotton of my tunic.
My mind gave up the battle as my arms joined in, wrapping her firmly in a tight embrace. I returned the favor she was bestowing upon me and nipped along her jaw bone. She growled. I smiled against her warm sweet skin.
"I love you," I whispered softly, having reached her ear. "If you need to stop, you tell me okay? At any moment."
"Don't wanna stop," she assured me, nearly breathless as her hips sought closer contact with mine.
Having engaged myself in this battle of lovemaking, and having always been a woman to commit completely or not at all, I took control of the situation and turned her gently so her back was on the sleeping rolls and my body her blanket. We met lips for the first time and after several sensuous lingering kisses, I felt her soft tongue seeking entrance and had neither the will nor the inclination to deny it.
Gods, she tasted good. Her lips and tongue were eager to explore the cavern of my mouth, dipping into moist recesses and claiming them as their own. She began to moan and writhe with obvious desire.
"Easy," I whispered, breaking the kiss, wanting this first time together to be gentle and rewarding not hurried and only satisfying. She panted beneath me as I ran my hands along her still clad body and undid the necessary ties and fasteners to rid her of the material. The milky white skin that was revealed contrasted sweetly with the golden tan of her arms and legs. Her discarded clothing had already been replaced with a thin blanket of glistening sweat.
"You, too," she moaned, reaching for me and looking a little frantic until I obliged and pulled the tunic over my head and kicked the leggings off my long limbs. When I settled back on her smaller body this time, it was skin against skin and the sparks seemed to flow between us and around us as a blacksmith's hammer striking forging metal.
I explored her body slowly with fingertips, lips, and tongue. I touched each scar, found each sensitive spot until she was bucking and writhing beneath me and expelling the oddest keening sound of need through clenched teeth. I'd been with women before but had never really considered myself an expert by any means since that part of my life had always been about satisfying me. But it wasn't hard to turn the tables and remember what I liked and then to use those likes on the slim form beneath me.
"Please," she grunted at last, her hips having taken on a life of their own. Her own hands moved from clutching my shoulders to sliding down her body to finish the job herself.
"Unh unh," I said gently, pushing those hands away but being careful not to restrain her in any way as I was sure she had been in the past. "Let me."
She was too busy pleading to realize where my hands had gone until I entered her silken wetness with long fingers. She raised herself off of the bedroll to gather me in deeper, a choked scream escaped her lips.
It didn't take long to bring her to the edge since she'd been dancing along it like a circus performer for several long moments beforehand. I pressed my thumb against the bundle of nerves between her lower lips and captured her upper ones in a breath-stealing kiss. My other hand pinched and squeezed a taut nipple and that was the final straw. I swallowed her moans and my body held her solidly to the ground as my hand between us milked out each final wave against bucking hips. She slowed, then was still aside from the gentle tremors of aftershock.
I lay on her warm silken body, my hand still inside her pulsing wetness, my other hand having moved to support her lower back and still lay there caressing the corded muscles it found. I was trying to determine if I could finish me here or if I should walk away for some privacy to do it. Because, either way, I knew I had to relieve the throbbing between my legs.
She seemed to come to herself long enough to understand my predicament. She moved her hands from their limp position at her sides to circle my naked torso. She raised her knee between my legs which encouraged me to extract my fingers and entice one last surge of her slim hips. Then she pressed her muscular thigh against my center and applied pressure to my behind to grind even more into her.
I latched my lips onto her pulse gratefully as I rocked against her and, moments later, I followed her over the precipice into the comfort beyond where she caught me with gentle hands and murmuring lips.
"Thank you," I whispered when I was able and she snorted softly through her nose.
"Thank me? Thank you."
I leaned back to meet her eyes after she was quiet for several moments and realized that she was on the verge of something I knew very well. She was about to push me away, unable to deal with the emotions and closeness that followed our lovemaking. She was more like the other Xena and this was a dangerous crack in the shell she'd formed to protect herself.
What would have kept me from retreating?
I leaned back down and moved slightly so the majority of my weight was on the bedroll. Then I gathered her closely in my arms, feeling her stiffness, and rocked her back and forth. "S'okay," I murmured. "Don't go away, don't be afraid. I love you. You can be vulnerable with me," I repeated gentle words of encouragement and support until I felt her body relax. Then she snuggled her face deeply into the crook of my neck.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "You didn't deserve that."
"Don't be sorry. I understand."
"I started it and then it was so wonderful and then I tried to run away from it."
I nodded at her quick and accurate recap. "But you're still here."
"I've ... I've had sex before, you know?" she tilted her head back, allowing me to see those flecked green eyes. I nodded. "But I've never made love. It's never felt like this, in my heart."
I smiled, completely understanding what she was saying, and held her tighter to me. "I love you so much, Gabrielle," I whispered. "So much."
We fell asleep naked against each other's bodies, staring at the star filled night sky. Argo stood on the edge of our clearing and Tobias had secured himself shelter between the mare's long front legs. I sincerely hoped tonight wouldn't be the night we were robbed on the road because I had no desire to let her go long enough to get dressed.
We entered into this new facet of our relationship with remarkable ease. The only real change was that I loved her even more, something I'd not thought possible. She was still consumed with immense self doubt but often leaned towards affectionate playfulness, teasing and joking without a care in the world.
We traveled for days on end with our little entourage. Every night we practiced with sword and staff and she was quickly nearing the point where I needed to pay close attention to her moves or risk a close shave. I never let myself dwell on the dichotomy of this Gabrielle's obvious skill and the other Gabrielle's pacifism. She used her slight stature to great advantage and was quick and relentless. Her muscles became wiry and taut and they responded easily to her every demand.
Only once since Tobias joined us did she have a fit of rage. I couldn't even recall its cause, so meaningless it was to me, but it had a powerful effect on her. She nearly trembled with rage when she tossed me my sparring sword. I immediately discarded the weapon when I saw her state.
"Pick it up," she growled.
I shook my head. "Never swords like this. Never. Get your staff."
Still cognizant enough to understand my reasoning she quickly obliged and found the two hardwood staves.
The power of her moves was astounding to me. She was quick and hard, each move calculating, she growled out words that meant nothing to me and had I not known she spoke only Greek I would have questioned their origin. But they relieved her somehow in her fit of anger and she began to concentrate more on her ability and her moves. She got a couple of good sound strikes to my thighs and I mentally winced at the painful bruises that would emerge while I congratulated her on her attack.
It was our longest sparring match yet, I think. She'd shrugged off my initiation of our ending pattern several times before finally accepting it. Both of us were dripping with sweat and heaving by the end, staves crossed, noses inches apart.
"Excellent," I said softly.
She grinned, completely relieved of the former uncontrollable emotion. "Why do you put up with my moodiness?" she asked, only half joking.
I smiled right back at her. "I think it's cute."
"Cute?!" she bellowed in mock indignation, tossing aside her staff and watching me do the same before she sprinted after my retreat. I leapt over a startled Tobias; she dodged around him. I ran up a large leaning tree trunk to jump off and flip into the stream beyond; she disdained my impromptu diving board and used the bank instead to leap and land beside me in the glistening water. Rinsing off the sweat slowly became a forgotten task, replaced by warm kisses and caressing hands.
Five days in front of one village and two behind another, we encountered our first rowdy travelers. We'd passed many on our voyage but never had either one of us had to raise a hand in defense. Smiles and nods that encouraged us on our way had greeted us up until now. It was amazing what little attention one could garner when one wasn't the ex Destroyer of Nations.
But this group was a bunch looking for trouble: full of lousy drunken sots and had been warriors. They looked ratty enough to need our dinars but I doubt that was their true intent when they stopped us that day. The sound of steel leaving scabbard sent chills up my spine as I easily took the staff Gabrielle had been using as a walking stick when she handed it backwards.
The men didn't have a chance, really. There were five of them total, too inebriated to hold their own against Tobias with a spoon tied to each ear. Their ineptitude was displayed with wide arcing thrusts and completely unguarded bodies and we downed each of them with little thought.
Blunt force hits to their thick heads did little to curb my need for battle and I watched Gabrielle draw blood with sickening envy. I longed for the sword in my hand and the feel of flesh on steel. It was addicting, really, and I missed the sensation and the fervor of battle.
She killed one man and wounded another before wiping the blade on tattered clothing and sheathing it. She looked at me and grinned but it was neither the half insane smile of a battle lusted warrior nor the glee of victory. It was a simple showing of self pride for a job well done and lessons learned. I smiled back immediately, relieved that she didn't suffer from my battle maladies.
It was a hurdle of sorts to put her on the line and have her come out unscathed. Her confidence grew and she nearly swaggered for close to an hour until I teased her about. She took the ribbing easily as she always did. We'd each learned something that day. She'd learned to have faith in herself and in the things I had taught her. I'd learned that the warrior I'd thought I buried was dangerously close to the surface.
We entered more dangerous territory several weeks later. Bandits had tried to relieve us of our goods no less than three times in five days, forcing us to become more vigilant and our intimacies to be quick.
I was actually to the point of riding Argo almost daily now and landing on the ground less often for my efforts. Though a skilled horsewoman, my gregarious filly was a more skilled horse. Her ability to dip a shoulder without warning was only slightly more astounding than her perfected skittering fear at twigs and misshapen stone. Gabrielle occasionally road the spotted beast but more often he was used for carrying our bags and lightening Argo's load which enabled her to dump me all that much faster. We needed to work on logistics.
So it was in this fashion that we met the largest group of men yet: Gabrielle leading Tobias and me mounted on a prancing Argo. I slid down immediately, listening for Gabrielle's sword to be drawn.
There were ten men and they all looked a bit more skilled than any we'd seen to this point. Each was armed with a short sword and had passable armor. I suspected we were in for a real battle. I twirled my staff slowly between my hands, sizing them up, watching for any move towards us.
I didn't have to wait long. They rushed us all at once and we burst into a flurry of motion that startled our animals nearly as much as it startled our attackers.
I knocked several unconscious, always thinking of the Fates' declaration and constantly praying to not draw blood with my attack. I wondered vaguely if death due to head injuries counted but didn't really have the opportunity to ponder that further.
Gabrielle held her own magnificently and when I had finished with six, she was wrapping up her fourth. I watched her move easily with the sword as an extension to her lithe arm. The rippling muscles aroused me and brought back memories of our love making the night before. Maybe that's why I was distracted. Or maybe I was losing my edge in this soft life I had created for myself.
Regardless, I didn't see one of my wounded bandits rise until it was too late to stop him. He came to the two fighting figures silently from the other side and there, right before my eyes, as I was running to flip over my lover, he drove a sword through her body. He pulled the blade away with a sickening sucking sound and took advantage of my shock to grab his friend and run.
She was nearly as shocked as I when I fell to my knees beside her and gathered her in my arms. Her pale hands tried to hold the blood inside but I knew by one look that it was a fatal wound and I could only offer her comfort in these last few moments of life.
It hadn't been long enough, this love we'd shared. It hadn't been deep enough or strong enough ... or anything enough. Because it hadn't lasted forever as it should have. I rocked her body against me, flashing helplessly between that horrible wound in Thessaly where I'd breathed life back into her to the too few times we had loved each other's bodies.
She was so much a part of my soul that I felt it detaching as she left. I imagined I could see it flee her body and take hands with my soul to lead it away. "I love you," I whispered. "In this life and in every other. I will always be with you."
She nodded to me, smiling, green eyes sparkling with the last surge of life. "I love you, too, Xena. So much. Thank you for setting me free."
I knew instinctually that she meant more than the slavery that had bound her. Simply by loving and living and being part of my life, she'd discovered a self worth she'd never known before. I doubted the other Gabrielle had ever found that same peace of mind and I'd been too self-absorbed to assist her in the search. Our last moments were poignant and powerful; the body I held slowly became nothing but a shell for the spirit I'd lost. I laid it to earth and closed its eyes before rising and screaming with rage and pain.
At first my mind was too numb to function as I stood for hours until I slowly, methodically, prepared a pyre. Then I wrapped the body in my most comfortable shift and her favorite blanket before carrying it to its final place of rest. I led both animals over to offer their farewells, thinking it ridiculous but knowing she would have demanded it.
Her stupid spotted beast snuffled the body pathetically, pushing his muzzle into unresponsive skin and lipping at lifeless hair. I loved him all the more for his na´ve affection and wished I could prod the body back into Gabrielle as well.
I touched torch to tinder with heavy hands and watched the blaze take as I stood, for the last time, by the side of my lover. I had to calculate back in my head, it had been nearly six months since I'd made a deal with the Fates. Six glorious months of learning this Gabrielle and becoming her confidante, friend, and lover. Six months I wouldn't trade for all the gold in the world.
It wasn't until much later, laying by myself on bedrolls that once were plenty warm but were now cold, that the thought crossed my mind. There was no reason to stay in this life. I should go draw blood, kill someone, and return to my old life. That Gabrielle wasn't this Gabrielle, but she was my buoyant bard nonetheless. I grinned at the thought of seeing her again, then I cried myself to sleep.
It took two solid days of bantering with myself before I reached a decision. I was torn between being loyal to this Gabrielle and seeing the other Gabrielle. I was mystified by the technicalities of a promise made to that Gabrielle and if they held in this life. I'd promised her that I wouldn't become a monster if something had happened to her.
But, really, if one wanted to split hairs, nothing happened to that her ... only this her. And the promise had been made to the other her. I was confusing myself. In the end, I rationalized that I wasn't becoming a monster because of what had happened, rather I was already a monster and that made any agreement on that condition null and void.
Quite pleased with this logic, I set out on the third day to find myself a victim, dragging a palomino and a donkey all the way.
I found a likely target as I neared a small village. He was a large well armed man harassing a small poorly armed farmer. I was nearly giddy with my good fortune as I initiated the fight.
It didn't take long for my blood to sing as I wielded my dead lover's sword. I glanced briefly to Tobias and Argo, wishing them well, hoping the farmer was a kind hearted man, before I sunk the blade between the large man's ribs. The blood poured gloriously warm from his body and coated my hands in sticky welcome. It was an exquisite feeling of coming home that I had sorely missed. I could smell the scent of fresh life ended so strongly I imagined I could taste its metallic flavor on the back of my tongue.
He slipped off my blade and fell to my feet and I waited.
"Thank you," the farmer stumbled forward and patted me on the shoulder. "You are an amazing woman! Who has taught you to use a sword so?"
I stood quietly for so long the man must have thought me daft and moved ahead towards the village. This couldn't be.
I looked around stupidly. Argo. Tobias. Me. Sword. Dead man. Blood. Check on all counts. Why was I here? I did what you said you old hags!
Now I was beyond confused. Had I imagined the whole thing? Was this Gabrielle really that Gabrielle? Was there only the one life? Was Lyceus really alive? Had it been the Fates' plan all along to land me in a mental facility outside of Athens? Because I was a skip, hop, and a jump away from there now.
Greece had never known the fury I was that day as I stalked away from the battle scene into the woods and laid blade to a hapless tree. Argo and Tobias followed me simply because they didn't know enough or weren't smart enough for any other course of action.
Exhausted and weary, I built a fire and considered my options.
For a solid week I spilt the blood of everything that crossed my path. I killed out of frustration and apathy, leaving a bloody swath behind me. Still Argo and Tobias followed though I imagined their eyes widened in shock and they wondered each time if they were next.
Still I was doomed to this life of lifelessness. Had I only known, Gabrielle would never have held a sword. She would have scribed her dreams and her plans and I would have protected her. Had I known, I would have killed the man who'd raised against her instead of merely wounding him with a solid bump on his head.
The guilt that followed these thoughts led to my next killing spree. Slowly, I gained a reputation as a one woman army, crazed and detached. People feared me but I felt nothing in the blood that I shed or for the men that I killed. I guess we do fall back on what we know best when the rest of the world is robbed from us. This was the monster Gabrielle had wanted to prevent.
Now I'd been without her longer than I'd been with her. The fall had turned to a snowy cold winter which had passed into a warm bright spring. Summer was upon me and I was all but insane. I chewed methodically on the jerky I'd procured during my last shopping expedition and watched the animals that watched me. My only true friends. They forgave me my misdeeds and welcomed me with round brown eyes.
It was late winter when I'd given up my frantic killing. It was getting me nowhere and the blood on my hands had finally become more painful than the ache in my heart. It had been a betrayal of Gabrielle's gentle heart and to kill in her name, for her, even if it meant getting back to her had been wrong.
So now I traveled listlessly and killed only to protect myself. Though my well-earned reputation mostly prevented me from any need to do that. I considered ending my life but was honestly too afraid that there was a solution to getting back to Gabrielle I was just missing. And killing myself didn't seem the best way to go about searching for that solution.
This night, under a bright canopy of stars that held too many memories for me to even glance at, I read back through the journal I'd been keeping regarding my previous tries. I'd killed several people for their crimes including petty theft clear up to rape and murder. I'd killed a man for looking at me funny. Killed a man for walking on the wrong side of the road. Killed a man because I was frustrated that the death of his thieving friend had not absolved me. The list was nearly endless as I rolled through the scroll.
In an eerie, sickening way, the scroll had also become a tribute to my Gabrielle. I'd written in stories and memories, between the killings. There were even small phrases of love that a more skilled person would have called poetry but I called ramblings. On these nights, when the ache was the worst, I read some of my writings to Tobias and, bless his spotted little soul, he came to me silently and laid his muzzle upon my knee. He had loved her as much as I. The loyalty she inspired was astounding.
Argo had become a pretty reliable mount and we managed always to come out of things ahead. Rarely did she try to dump me anymore and she'd proven herself to be of the same stout heart that the other Argo had been. If I were being honest with myself, I would have admitted that Tobias was a terrible hindrance now. Since I was riding everywhere I went, it was hard for the little guy to keep his pace with us. Now he was completely unburdened and untethered and he followed us down each trail much as a dog would its owner. The irony was not lost on me that he had become the pet that Gabrielle had wanted.
And for this reason I still cared for him, fed him, blanketed him with my best fur in the dead of winter. Parting with him would end my last tie to Gabrielle. The little beast had been so dear to her.
Tonight's rereading of the scroll led to no great revelations and I went to sleep lonely and cold yet again. Maybe I'd find a solution tomorrow. How many more tomorrows could there be?
A fortnight later, I arrived at a busy town. It appeared to be hosting a festival of some sorts, there were literary types abounding and plays being rehearsed at nearly every corner. If it hadn't warmed my heart so to think of Gabrielle's reaction to an event such as this, I would have kept moving. But I was in the mood for a good meal and a warm bed. I also needed some provisions. And maybe tonight I would dream that Gabrielle was beside me here. That was well worth the price of admission.
My decision having been made, I dismounted and led Argo towards the stable.
"Room for my horse?" I asked the burly man outside the large door. He was forking hay into a big wooden cart.
The man looked up revealing plain brown eyes in a plain weathered face. He took in me and my mount in one glance before catching sight of my spotted tag along who stood beside me with nothing but a halter. He nodded.
"Give ya the week of the festival free in exchange for the donkey."
"No deal. I have dinars and I'll pay," I shook my head.
"He looks sturdy. Lost my donkey a couple weeks back, I could use the likes of him."
"He's not for sale." Stupid man. "Just boarding for them both, please."
"You're a warrior, that's a warhorse. Whaddya need with the little beast?"
"My donkey, my business."
"A donkey isn't a pet, lady. You'd be better off without him. Extra mouth to feed, little legs slowing you down."
I'd be dead without him. "You going to rent me a stall or not?"
"I only have one," he seemed to retreat in his feeble attempt at bartering.
"They share," I assured him. "Show me where to go."
He led me down the wide dirt aisle to a stall on the end and opened the door. Tobias trotted behind and flicked a long ear at the man with mild annoyance before slipping into the stall with us.
I brushed them each down tenderly, always having taken more time with their needs than my own. Tobias whuffled me gently as I worked at Argo's legs and feet, cleaning them of clinging mud we'd encountered earlier in the day. When I was done, I slipped them each an apple and scratched Tobias's long soft ears.
He blinked at me fondly as he inhaled his tasty fruit. "I wish I could take you to her," I whispered. "She would love you as much as the other one did." He nodded unknowing agreement and leaned his head into my stomach.
Shortly I was on my way to the inn to get settled for the night.
Finding a room had been a task as well but I did all right in the end. It was nothing more than a large closet with a small mattress and no luxuries but I didn't mind. It was moderately comfortable to me anyway and I'd managed a bargain on the meal in exchange for the lousy accommodations.
After a dreamless night, I checked on my four footed charges early the next day and then began the hated job of shopping. It had been immeasurably more fun with my lost companion. I still bought things for her sometimes: trinkets that weighed me down as I traveled or food that was thrown out just before going bad. Today was no exception and I purchased a small glass globe on the end of an intricate silver chain. She would have loved the way the smooth sphere reflected different colors of light and spun freely from its chain. I tucked it away for Tobias to see. Maybe he would wear it on his halter for a few days before I stored it away. I really was losing my mind.
Newly acquired possessions stored, I caught two plays late in the afternoon and early evening, then I spent the rest of the night scribing what I had seen in my scroll of deaths and memories.
I was packed and ready to go shortly after dawn. I went to the stable to prepare my entourage and walked confidently down the aisle towards the stall on the end which held my companions. Argo was sticking her head over the half door, wide eyed and somewhat frantic. She whinnied with more gusto than she normally did when requesting breakfast or a good run so I jogged the last few steps. She was alone.
My heart leapt from my chest to pound there on the floor. She was alone. Tobias was gone. It was like losing my bard all over again, the pain I felt, the agony of having been abandoned. How could he leave me?
Of course if I'd taken the time to be rational, I would have realized he hadn't left me. Couldn't have left me. He was just a donkey after all. It was quite clear that he had been taken. If someone had been careless and left open the stall door, then Argo would have been gone as well.
Though not formally schooled, I was a smart woman. And it took me half a second to put two and two together and end up with four. I set out immediately to find the burly stable owner who'd stolen my donkey.
Only the man was nowhere to be seen and though I listened hard for the sound of Tobias calling to Argo, I never heard his bray. I searched all morning and afternoon, asking everyone around about the cagey horseman and the missing donkey. Surprisingly, it was nearly dusk before I started threatening people's lives.
I took Argo out on a leadline to see if she could find him and still came up empty handed. She was nearly as frantic as I in the growing moonlight. She whinnied several times for the little beast but we never heard a response.
What kind of lowlife would steal a woman's pet? Who needed a donkey so desperately? Well, if he thought it would blow over and I'd go on my way, he was sadly mistaken.
For three days I searched for Tobias, my nights filled with horrible dreams and lasting visions. Every nightmare I'd managed to overcome was back in full force: Gabrielle dying, my killing, losing M'Lila.
Finally, on the fourth day, as the festival was closing and the town was becoming less hectic, I spotted a little beast hooked up to a cart on one of the side roads. Without hesitation, I ran full tilt across the small town's main cart path until I was close enough to know it was him then I ran faster, dragging a saddled and bridled Argo behind me.
Beside Tobias was a woman pulling uselessly at his halter, trying to get those little legs to move. He looked at me and honked out a loud hopeless bray. Argo whinnied back at him and I felt my heart start to fill a little again.
"That's my donkey," I said before I'd even stopped running.
She looked up at me with confusion and shook her head. "Tis not. My husband bought it at market nearly two months ago when our last donkey was falling ill."
"Your husband run the stable?"
"Your husband stole him from me less than a week ago."
She shook her head again, clearly thinking I was an idiot. "No, we've owned him for awhile now. Pete in the next village was keeping him because Linus knew we wouldn't have room for him with the festival. Just brought him home this morning he did."
"Linus stole my donkey," I said slowly, the anger rising in me. "And I'll have the bastard's head roll before I leave the beast in his care."
Her eyes widened in shock at my words but I could tell she wouldn't back down easily. This was a woman hardened from life in a tough community. The things that you owned you fought hard for; the things that you wanted simply required harder fighting.
It was then that Linus himself stepped out of the back of a store to find his wife and I going toe to toe. I wasn't worried, I could take her on and would. I was less worried even by his presence.
"What goes on here?" he asked gruffly.
"You stole my donkey," I accused immediately. Gabrielle would have tried a less assertive approach but one sticks with what one knows best.
"Nonsense. Berta and I have owned this donkey for two months. You have your horse in my stable, no donkey."
I stepped up to him, dropping Argo's reins. "That donkey is mine, stupid man, and you know it."
"You can't prove a thing, lady. I have a bill of sale for this donkey dated two months past."
"Then you're as shady as the forest floor because that donkey belongs to me."
He snorted with disgust and turned his back to walk towards his wife and Tobias. That was a mistake, not a fatal one but a mistake nonetheless. His fatal mistake came a moment later when he pulled a willow switch out of the cart and hit Tobias's rump with it.
The spotted beast leaped forward with wide eyes and the fury inside me was unstoppable. Sword drawn, I took two steps towards the man and raised my weapon. He was quicker than I gave him credit for, though, and had a sword to defend himself before my swing connected.
I grew angrier with every parry and knew I would kill this man. Looking over to sweet Tobias I saw a bloody welt form on his haunches and it infuriated me more. My anger channeled directly down my arms to my blade and my swings became overpowering.
"You will never hit him again," I growled, screaming in fury.
"It's just a damn donkey," he growled back, turning out to be a formidable opponent.
"He's my donkey."
"So what!" he yelled back. It was enough of an admission to me and I let the darkness lead me right into his death. The blade cut his chest easily, sliding through flesh and bone to the muscle that had once given him life but now pumped it out of the gaping wound I'd left. The anger still boiled within me as he fell to the ground. I had never in my life felt the darkness so entirely a part of me, not even after M'Lila. Not even in my worst warlord days.
I felt it coming as a quaking. My whole body shook with the power of change and I knew, at last, I'd found my salvation. I spun slowly to take in the scene: the woman screaming over her dead husband's body, Tobias wide eyes and long eared watching me, Argo's brown eyes rolling with eagerness at the scent of fresh blood. I bade them goodbye and prayed the woman treat them well.
This night I look up from my scrolls and watch my companion's dark profile across the fire. So much has changed, so much has gone unsaid. She looks beyond herself even as she stares into darkness.
I put my scroll down and rise to cross the small camp site and sit beside her. She starts at my nearness but gives me that quirky half grin when she looks my way.
"Hey," I say softly, patting her knee with gentle familiarity.
"Hey," she replies, tossing dark hair over her shoulder with one large hand.
I brush at her bangs. "Need trimmed again."
She nods, looks away.
"You know," I begin slowly, not sure how exactly to go about saying the unsaid. I decide on the direct approach, knowing it has always been her favorite and she respects it. Maybe that respect will override the awkwardness. "There is nowhere else I would rather be."
She glances at me in mild shock, those blue eyes telling me nothing in the sparkling firelight. She's such a complex person. There are times when I feel I know her completely, where we share the same soul. Then there are times like this where it's almost like dining with a stranger.
I begin again, realizing she's not going to help me through this stumbling escapade. "Najara," I pause, "couldn't have kept me with her. Once I knew you weren't coming back, I would have followed you. Again," I smirk, as does she.
"If Najara were what she had pretended to be, she would have been everything you wanted."
Well, that's a start. "Not everything. I ... I don't know how to be without you."
This seems to startle her slightly and she tilts her head.
"I ... I won't lie. Sometimes the darkness and the killing get to me. Sometimes I'm weary at what we face every day," she turns her head away from me as I speak. I cannot even attempt to read her thoughts now. "But, Xena, I don't ever want to be without you."
"I never should have tried to leave you," she says softly, surprising me. "I keep trying to protect you but I'll never be able to."
The words reveal nothing to me, really, but it's enough that she is talking so I encourage it to continue. "I think we're destined to be together, Xena," I announce as if it's some sort of revelation on my part. As if we haven't been apart only to come back together often enough to make that point painfully clear. "Maybe we need to just accept that and figure out how to work out being together."
She nods slowly and though I'd hoped she'd continue our conversation, she doesn't.
We sit in relatively comfortable silence side by side and watch the fire. I'm thinking back to the funeral pyre after our latest battle with Caesar, she seems to be lost in another pyre. I wonder if it's Solon's or Lyceus's. I can't bring myself to ask and force her to voice the sorrow her face expresses.
"Do you think," I say at last, "that if we leave the Elysian Fields for another life ... that we'll meet each other in that existence too?" I'm grateful she doesn't argue the point that I've fated her to Elysia with me.
"I think so," she concedes. "I think we will always be together."
She nods and glances at me with surprising conviction.
"I like that idea. Maybe next time I'll be the warrior," I tease her with a gentle elbow to the ribs.
She sits up straight and watches me with sapphire eyes that show amazing amounts of affection and sadness.
"What?" the atmosphere forces me to whisper my word. The forest seems to have become still around us. Even Argo has stopped chewing in deference to this moment.
She clears her throat and it looks as though she might shed tears. "I love you."
Though said many times before, there is something about the way she says it this summer night that causes my heart to stop beating. I reach a hand to her, squeezing the muscular forearm. "I know," I say softly. "I have never doubted that. It's what kept me alive after taking Hope into the pit. It's what led me back to you then, what keeps me here now. I love you too," I assure her.
She glances away and the emotions are so clear on her face I wonder that this Xena may not be mine. Her heart has never been on her sleeve as it is tonight.
"Do you want to talk?" I ask her stupidly since that's exactly what we're doing.
She is silent for a very long time. "Do you remember the temple of the Fates? Where I nearly killed that boy who left the medallion when he ran?"
I nod, completely taken aback by our little excursion into memories long unvisited. I can't keep myself from reaching out and smoothing back thick black hair. Her eyes close at my touch.
"Remember how I was so ... happy to see you?" She's choosing her words carefully.
I nod again. I do remember. And I remember how attentive she'd been for months afterwards before sliding back into routine. She'd hugged and touched me a lot, held me at night. She'd been sure to compliment me on my writing and my staff skills. She'd been incredibly happy. I remember that time quite fondly, actually, and think of it often.
She takes a deep breath and slides pale moonlight filled eyes my direction before looking away again. And then she launches into the most incredible story I have ever heard. She details a life where I was a slave and her brother was alive. Where Argo was nothing but a high strung filly and I was a warrior with a donkey for a sidekick. She tells me about how this other Gabrielle had become her lover and how she'd mourned her death.
It's nearly dawn when she finishes and we have long since moved to lay on the bedrolls. I'm between her warm body and the warm fire. She's wrapped me in long arms that are strong and solid as her voice fills my ear with husky tones I know so well.
We lay silently for a very long time after her last words are spoken. It's a fabulous tale and one that must be true simply because of the way she tells it. The words left her mouth with nothing less than reverence and I realize she must have told the story many times in her head but just this once out loud. It's remarkable, really, to think of us being lovers in that life. It's something I've never considered in this one. I love her immeasurably. I plan to be with her for the rest of my life. But I'd never thought about the physical part of our relationship or rather, how that part was lacking. Though thinking of it now gives me warm visions. I wonder if being with me these last three years has been a study in frustration for the dark warrior.
"Do you miss the other Gabrielle?"
She smiles. "She asked me that of you, in different words. I do, a little. But she is you. And you are her. There are minor differences because of background but the hearts and souls are still the same."
"When she asked, what did you say?" I sound jealous, I realize, but ask the questions anyway.
"I think I lied to her. Told her I didn't. But I did. I thought of you every day. Thought about how much I wanted both lives because each one had its merits."
"There is nowhere else I would rather be," she repeats my previous words to me in a whisper. "I'll never leave you again, Gabrielle. We were meant to be together in every life."
I snuggle deeper into her embrace and feel her hot breath on my ear. Now that I know we've shared physical love in another life, my mind is spinning with possibilities and I tell her so.
She laughs, holds me tighter even though I'd thought a moment before it wasn't possible. "One revelation at a time, bard," she whispers fondly. "We have the rest of our lives to decide what we want from each other."
I like the sound of that almost as much as I like the sound of her heart beating strong and steady behind my head. I'm lucky to have found her. Or maybe it has very little to do with luck.
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