DISCLAIMER: How do you solve a problem like Miss Xena: Xena, Gabrielle, et al. aren't mine. Just borrowing them w/ no intent to profit. I'll put them back when I'm finished. Promise. The rest is mine, however. If you don't respect my copyright, I'll send a pack of singing nuns to your door. (Or is that 'flying nuns'? Whatever.) How do you catch a cloud and pin it down: Some violence. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say. How do you find a word that means Miss Xena: The love that dares not speak its name is spoken of here. By nuns and wanna be PhDs, no less. If you can't handle it, please busy yourself with sewing play clothes out of old drapes and curtains. It's coming back in style, don'tcha know
Many a thing you know you'd like to tell her: A bouquet of Leontopodium alpinum (edelweiss) goes toViv for doin' the beta thing! Sadly, she loses the award for "Best impression of a von Trapp Family Singer". On the bright side, I hear she looks quite fetching in a habit and lederhosen. Thanks also to the group of 'not quite singing', 'not exactly nuns'. To quote 'Dite, "As if
" Heh. Thanks all. Many a thing she ought to understand: I've taken some liberties w/ historical accuracy in this fan fic. The convent, nuns, town, and castle are purely my invention. Some aspects pertaining to Languedoc and its history are based on fact, although characterizations of actual historical figures are fictional. Portrayals of the attitudes and personalities of these historical figures are based purely on imagination and speculation. Yadda yadda. Please note that there'll be an essay exam later in the semester, and I will be handing out a list of secondary sources for your reading enjoyment and edification. But how do you make her stay and listen to all you say: Comments gladly welcome.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By angharad governal
To be in love is to stretch toward heaven through a woman.
Uc de St. Circ, 13th century troubadour, from The Women Troubadours, trans and ed. Meg Bogin
Present day, St. Marie d'Ormarc Abbey, Ormarc (Midi Pyrenees), France
"And as you know, this is the convent's manuscript library. The Reverend Mother has asked me to help you in your research should you require it."
The tall figure swathed in a black habit gestured to the shelves full of leather-bound volumes and rolled parchment that lined the far wall of the small room. The movement of the nun's hand was precise, efficient, and without an accompanying flourish that one would expect of someone showing, at least to Gwenhwyfar Morrison, treasure beyond imagining.
However insignificant the gesture was, Gwenhwyfar found herself caught in itthe tiny flick of the woman's wrist, long tapered fingers extending ever so slightly to gesture to the neatly kept shelves, the strange gracefulness, the striking elegance of muscle, blood, and bonehit her with the force of a knife in her chest, momentarily distracting her from the contents on the crowded shelves. For the love of God, Gwen, will you stop that and concentrate. The nun turned to face her. Of course, the blue eyes and radiant smile doesn't help matters, either.
The nun's eyebrow lifted under the veil of her dark habit as she studied the blonde, as if hearing Gwen's thoughts. "Are you all right, Dr. Morrison?"
Gwen smiled wanly, "I'm not a Ph.D. yet, Sister Augustine." She emphasized the tall woman's title, prodding her wandering mind to focus on the situation at hand. "Please call me Gwen. Thank you for your hospitality and offer to help."
The nun bowed slightly. "The Reverend Mother has made a special dispensation from my duties should you need assistance. A few of the other Sisters do speak English, should there be an emergency."
"You sound like you're from the States, Sister. Did you spend time in the US? Studied there?"
Sister Augustine bowed once more, a tiny smile gracing her lips, and once again, Gwen was struck with the impression of elegant movement, despite the tall, almost lanky frame, the imposing height emphasized even more by the black cloth that covered the woman from head to toe. "I was born and raised in Los Angeles before I took my orders at St. Marie d'Ormarc. It's an amazing coincidence that, as native Angelinos, we've only crossed paths at a convent near the foot of the Pyrenees."
"God and the University work in mysterious ways," Gwen returned an amused grin as she walked toward the shelves. "Meaning no disrespect, but I suppose that should have been your line." She glanced back at the nun, whose eyes glinted in amusement. Oh, this is not good, Gwen. You're in a convent in Francepractically in the middle of nowhereon a research grant that could decide your future academic career and you're flirting with a gorgeous blue-eyed nun. Stop it. Your mother would be mortified.
"Gwen? Please forgive me, but I thought the Reverend Mother said your name was "
The blonde nodded as she delicately took a bound volume from a shelf. She walked toward the large table that occupied the rest of the room. "Um, yes. She did introduce me as Brangein. It's actually Brangein Gwenhwyfar." She shrugged. "The name was passed down in my family. Both names, in fact. My family's always called me 'Bran', but I've always preferred 'Gwen'. I'm sure you can understand why, Sister. You can imagine all the nicknames and jokes. And believe me, I've heard every single one."
Sister Augustine hid a small grin from the scholar who gently placed the book onto the clean worktable. The nun watched as Gwen took a pair of white gloves from the leather backpack she had brought with her to the small convent. As the woman pulled the gloves over her fingers, Sister Augustine responded. "If you've need of anything else, please feel free to look for me in the convent grounds. I'll leave you to work, Gwen."
The veiled head gave a slight bow and turned towards the door at the far end of the small room. Gwen, already engrossed by the volume before her, hastily looked up at the retreating dark form.
"Thank you, Sister."
The blonde's eyes focused upon the black cloth of the nun's habit, which swayed slightly with each retreating step. Oh God, it hasn't been that long. A fine eyebrow rose towards the short locks of the blonde's head as her eyes wandered down the expanse of black cloth. She idly wondered what lay hidden underneath the shapeless fabric. Yes it has. She sighed audibly, shook her head, and tried to focus on the volume that lay open on the table. "It's going to be a long year," she said aloud into the empty room as her eyes turned to the illuminated pages.
The sound of footsteps and muffled voices outside the door of the tiny room awakened her. She sat up and peered into the spacemoonlight illuminated the cell and highlighted the spare nature of the room. She blinked as her eyes began to adjust to the light entering from a small window near the modest bed. She sighed, wishing for a brief moment that she were back home, that she would have the luxury of going into her living room and turning on the television so she could drown out the thoughts now running through her mind. If only . . . She sighed once more and turned her head toward the closed door, listening as the footsteps faded.
The quiet enveloped the small cell. She peered at her watch. 3:05 AM. Don't they ever sleep? She rubbed her eyes and turned to stare at the heavy wooden door of the room. Which one was it, now? Martin? No, no . . .Matins. No, that can't be right. That's supposed to happen at midnight. I'm amazed that I didn't wake up then too. Let's see. Uh, it must be . . . Oh, let's face it, Gwen, you were too busy trying to act as nonchalantly as possible when you were asking about her life in this place, trying to make sure she didn't notice that you were STARING at her to pay attentLauds! That's it. It must be Lauds.
Several weeks had passed since she first arrived at the convent. Her initial survey of the contents of the library was promising, but the sheer volume of the documents seemed overwhelming. Much to her relief, the convent had kept records of when the library had acquired certain manuscripts. She spent several weeks sifting through numerous documents, eliminating texts that seemed irrelevant to the focus of her research into the literary history of twelfth and thirteenth century Languedoc.
I'd better try to get some sleep. I need to drive to town to find a line to connect the laptop so I can email my advisor to let her know what's been going on with the work . . . . .There's probably an electricity line somewhere on the grounds. They can't NOT have one. What if there was some sort of emergency or something? Jeez, Gwen. This isn't a Motel 6. The closest thing you can get to a working medieval abbey, and you're complaining about the lack of modern conveniences! This what you WANTED, remember?
Gwen lay back against the narrow bed, her eyes blinking back sleep as she stared at the shadows flitting against the ceiling of the cell.
It wouldn't be such an inconvenience if you stayed in town LIKE YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO instead of staying at the convent for the past few nights. And let's face facts, here. You know why you chose to stay here instead of at the inn . . .. You must be some sort of masochist. Bad enough that you're practically falling at her feet during the hours you do spend together . . .. On the other hand, her help has probably cut down your research time by at least two or three weeks. You can actually start focusing on what you're supposed to be doing here . . . And dammit, Gwen, it's not mooning over someone you can't possibly have.
"So that castle a few miles from Ormarc is actually a hotel?"
Sister Augustine turned from the shelves, a volume in her gloved hand. "Yes. Several years ago, it was the family seat of the Lord and Lady d'Ormarc. It became too expensive for the family to keep financially, so instead of letting the castle go to ruin, it was renovated into a hotel. Of course, most of the land in this area still belongs to Lady Thisbe Hippolyta d'Ormarc. Much of it, as you know, is farmland or grazing land for sheep and goats."
The scholar nodded, having had the experience of her small car surrounded by a flock of sheep on the only road to the town of Ormarc. She would arrive at the convent hours after, profusely apologizing to the grave yet kindly Reverend Mother for her lateness. The magical phrase "sheep on the road" had absolved her of her sins.
"So the area does get its fair share of tourists, then? I would think that if the town was closer to the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela or maybe if it had a cathedral, more people would know about it. But I guess there's enough interest in the area to merit a hotel. The town even has that small inn."
"Its beauty is considered to be a hidden treasure. Most people who travel to the south tend to visit Marseilles or Montpellier and don't venture any further west than Toulouse. It's not as busy as most, but Ormarc does attract its share of adventuresome tourists."
"And curious literary-slash-cultural historian types."
The nun hid a small smile, and Gwen repressed the urge to stare as the woman turned back toward the shelves. Is that some sort of rule? Thou shalt not smile except in the presence of outsiders and medievalists in search of God knows what; when thou dost smile, hide thy mouth before thy hands clasped in the attitude of prayer, lest they think you strange, ephemeral, vain, mad, or aloof. She looked down, her hands slowly curling into fists against the wood of the worktable. This no time for sarcasm, Brangein Gwenhwyfar. No teasing the good Sister, if only in your thoughts.
Much to her surprise, the sight of the nun's mouth upturned in joy and amusement affected her in much the same way as it had weeks earlier. Her first sight of the woman's smile -- minutes after the nun had gestured to the library shelves at their first meeting -- had surprised her with its sheer unexpectedness. She remembered being slightly overwhelmed and credited her own reactions to the sight of the documents that lined the shelves of the small room. As the weeks passed and she spent more time with the veiled woman, she began to doubt her own assertions. Over the small span of time that she had spent at the convent, Gwen realized that the imposing woman rarely smiled outside the presence of her company. She seemed single-mindedly dedicated to her sacred orders, her manner purposeful, sober, and sure.
The nun showed that same sense of dedication as she helped the scholar with documenting and sorting the library's vast collection, but Gwen felt a lightness and an odd playful shyness to the woman's demeanor during their hours together. She revealed little about her past life, but answered the blonde's questions concerning the convent and its nearest neighbor, the small town of Ormarc.
She's a mystery wrapped in an enigma. I wonder why she left LA. Why go thousands of miles to an isolated French nunnery? Was she running away from something?
Sister Augustine deposited a thick volume in front of the blonde. "This volume looks promising, Gwen. There are a few other texts that were catalogued as dating to about the late 1300s, but most of the library's documents seem to date after 1400."
"Well, what we've found so far has wildly exceeded my imagination, even though most don't fall in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Some of the texts seem to be copies of manuscripts that I've seen at the Bibliothèque Nationale. I am inclined to wonder whether there are differences from the MS volumes that I've seen here and in Parisregional differences, and so forth." The blonde chuckled. "I know several people who would give their eye teeth to see what I've seen so far."
The nun bowed slightly. "I'm pleased that I've been a help to you and that the books found here won't languish in obscurity."
The blonde smiled and lightly tapped the cover of the text the nun had placed before her. "I'm surprised that researchers don't flock here the world over. Your collections are amazing. It would probably take several lifetimes to make a real dent into what's truly here. What I'vewhat we've uncovered here is incredible. I'm more than grateful for the help you've provided over past few weeks."
Sister Augustine bowed once again, her cheeks suffused with a slight reddish tint as she tried to hide a small smile between her clasped hands. She turned to the shelves once more.
You shouldn't hide that smile of yours, Sister. Kingdoms would fall at your feet with that smile. Knights would pledge their lives to you and troubadours would sing your praises throughout Languedoc.
Gwenhwyfar sighed softly, her gloved fingers carefully opening the simple leather cover. Her eyes began to skim over the pages of the manuscript. Silence reigned over the room as both women became absorbed in their tasks. As had happened over the past few weeks, her eyes wandered from the page to the dark figure searching through the library shelves.
The veiled woman's face was turned from the blondeher features profiled and illuminated by the light coming from a nearby window. Her eyes scanned the numerous volumes, a copy of a list of manuscripts that the scholar had identified as "a good lead" in her hand, oblivious to the blonde's furtive glances.
Look at that profile. Alabaster cheeks, a perfect Roman nose, piercing blue eyes, beautiful rose-tipped mouth. A classic, beautiful, medieval face. I wish I knew her before this place. I wish we met before all this. We could have beenI could have--
Gwenhwyfar shook her head. I think I could fall in love with--Stop it, Gwen! She's just happy to spend time outside her normal life, her routine. It's a vacation, a reprieve. It has NOTHING to do with you. As if that would be realistic. . . Hey Sister Augustine, I want you to drop this whole 'Bride of Christ' gig and run away with me back to America. Oh and by the way, would you mind telling me what your name was before you took the veil?
She felt a touch against her arm and looked up to find the nun standing by her side, eyes clouded with concern. The tall woman bowed slightly, her face inching closer to the blonde. "Forgive me, but are you all right? You seem a bit"
Startled, Gwenhwyfar turned her head, her free hand suddenly gesturing to the surrounding walls. Her voice cracked and her words came out in a rush as she tried to avoid the nun's gaze. "T-the conventwh-when did you say it was built?"
Sister Augustine's eyebrow rose under her dark veil, surprised at what she saw in the blonde's eyes before the woman had abruptly turned from her gaze. Her own mind became troubled, recognizing something in that brief glance; it was a look that she knew, a recognition, an acknowledgement that she understood. She knew it would trouble her peace of mind in the weeks to come. She was about to respond when Gwen gave a shaky laugh.
"II'm sorry Sister. I guess it struck me as odd that, uh, I- I'm assuming that the town and the convent sprung up around the castle as it was built, right? I don't know why it never occurred to me to ask if the exact date is known. Or as close as you can get to an exact datebeing that most of the manuscripts here seem to date after 1400."
The scholar shook her head, her mind latching onto the abstract problem, pushing aside any other thought from her mind. "But there seems to be numerous documents from an earlier century in this tiny library too. The convent seems to be too remote, almost too inaccessible to be a central depository. Toulouse seems to be the logical place for such a thing. W-was there more to this place? Some sort of minor depository or a scriptorium where documents were actually produced or preserved? II" She sighed softly. "I'm sorry, Sister Augustine. I guess I'm just thinking out loud." Gwen looked down at the volume before her.
The dark woman looked at the blonde. The scholar had a slight frown on her face as she stared at the manuscript. She looks like a little child puzzling out a sentence. The light makes her hair look like spun gold. She blew a soft breath and tried to concentrate on the woman's question. Her head nodded slightly and a flourish of dark cloth rustled softly as she turned to regard the walls of the convent library. Her eyes closed briefly as she tried to quell the thoughts now crowding her mind. "The convent was founded by a behest of the d'Ormarc family almost seven hundred years ago."
Seven hundred? "SEVEN hundred?" the blonde repeated.
The nun nodded, turning to regard the blonde scholar. "Yes. The convent was founded in the 1300s. The castle structure was rebuilt over several generations, but the final incarnation of it was finished about the same time as the convent."
Gwen leaned forward against the table, her own private realizations about the nun standing a few feet from her forgotten as she absorbed what was said seconds earlier. Her eyes traced over the page, a puzzled look etched on her face, "So St. Marie was built after the Cathari heresies?"
"Yes. According to the records of this parish."
"Then why have I just found a legal title that's dated 1129 from the bishopric at Toulouse granting a request from En Chrétien d'Ormarc to build a cathedral and an adjoining convent? It says that the cathedral would house the veil of The Holy Mother that was recovered in the Crusade of 1095."
1226 AD, Ormarc (Languedoc/Occitania)
The city lay in ruin.
She stood at the rampart of the western wall and stared out at the burned rooftops, the setting sun tingeing the smoke-filled air in a wash of red and purple. For a moment, everything faded. Time stood still and she could almost forget all that she had seen. In her heart, she knew that she could not. The events of the past few weeks had changed her, had marked her in ways that went beyond the jagged gash which covered her face from her hairline to her jaw.
The sun was moving into the horizon, slowly sinking, muting the landscape in a veil of darkness. She wondered if its light would ever hold the promise of joy, of life, in her eyes. She wondered if the light would ever hold anything except the deep purple of desolation and destruction.
She watched the dying light as the world that she knew crumbled around her.
1226 AD, Ormarc (Languedoc/Occitania), ten weeks earlier
She felt wetness against her face, a sticky wetness that was making it difficult to see. She pushed against the cooling stone floor in a desperate attempt to stand. She turned her head and she felt a searing pain flow over her body. Her stomach lurched and she expelled what little food was left in it.
She was still alive.
The sword blow should have killed her, but somehow, she survived.
Get up! Get up!
A wave of dizziness passed through her frame. She shook her head, desperately trying to clear her blurred vision. She put a hand to her face, her palm smearing the wetness across her forehead as she pushed against the protective hood that covered her head, her fingers moving against her hair.
You're hurt, but you're still alive. Now get up before that soldier realizes it too and comes back to slaughter you.
Suddenly, she heard a clang and a pair of rotting blood-caked leather boots came into her fuzzy field of vision. Her eyes swung to where the abandoned sword lay. She looked up to find her would-be killer staring at her with a look that would have made her stomach rebel had it not done so before.
"Yer a woman! Ya Cathar heretics are worse tha' the Saracens! Unnatural monsters! Heh." The soldier's eyes gleamed as he reached for the ties of his dirty, blood-splattered leather jerkin, "Let me show ye the error of yer ways." His hand reached lower, grabbing his crotch, emphasizing his intent to the prone figure clad in chainmail and leather. "I bet ya never even had a man before--"
She struggled to stand, her eyes growing dim, as her fingers tried to reach for the knife in her boot.
Can't pass out. I--I need to reach--
The soldier moved closer, his fingers making quick work at the ties of his breeches, his palm absently rubbing against the growing bulge underneath.
"Did they know ya were pretendin'? Heh. I bet ya had 'em fooled, but I know what'cha are. And I'll show ya what a real man---"
The soldier gasped harshly, his eyes growing wide. He looked down, an incredulous look crossing his face as he stared at the knife hilt sticking from his chest.
He fell with a heavy thud as the woman slumped back to the floor.
She blinked and looked up to find fevered green eyes staring at her in fear, her body suddenly cradled in velvet and brocade-clad arms. She reached up to touch a soot smudged cheek, brushing aside reddish-blonde locks.
"Na Gabrielle--" She coughed harshly, blood splattering against her mail and the woman's dress.
"Hush. Don't talk. Save your strength."
She shook her head. "Help me stand. We need to get the others, help them to your father's castle, my Lady."
Na Gabrielle struggled to help the mail-clad woman as chaos reigned around them. Fire raged through the central market and smoke billowed through the air blocking the light of the setting sun. People ran from the cathedral, some heading toward the city gates in an effort to defend against the soldiers and mercenaries from the North, while others fled toward the castle and nearby mountains. Several minutes passed and the noblewoman managed to help the warrior to a nearby stone wall.
She gently caressed the noblewoman's cheek as she leaned against the wall for support. Is this real? I can't tell if-- Is it-- "Is it truly you or am I imagining this as I lie dying?"
"I'm here." Na Gabrielle's voice rose as she saw the extent of the injuries the warrior suffered. "You're bleeding!"
The warrior laughed softly, her face moving closer to the noblewoman's, "And you're beautiful."
Their mouths met softly.
"We must hurry, Lady. We must find other survivors and get to the castle as quickly as we can."
A solidly built man with a graying beard turned from a group of haggard-looking farmers. His eyes went wide as he saw his daughter and the city blacksmith holding up a slumping form between them. He rushed over, grabbing the warrior's arm from his daughter's hold.
"I have her, Gabrielle. Run, child. Go find the physician. Hurry."
Na Gabrielle, already running toward the inner courtyard of the castle, turned to glance worriedly at the woman who leaned heavily against her father's side. With a nod towards her father, she disappeared among the growing crowd of people rushing into the walls of the castle.
"Luc," the man gestured to the stables within the castle walls, "let's take her in here for now."
The blacksmith nodded, shifting the weight of the woman toward himself. "If I may my Lord--" The blacksmith lifted the woman in his arms, walking quickly to a small pile of hay. "Na Gabrielle insisted that she help me carry N'Alexandra, but--"
With a grunt, Luc gently deposited the unconscious woman onto the hay pile. The old man leaned toward the warrior, his hands pushing back blood-caked hair from her face.
"What happened, Luc? How did you find them?"
The tall blacksmith ran a hand through his shoulder-length brown hair. His blue eyes surveyed the stables filled with people huddling for warmth.
"I was helping Peter the Carpenter evacuate the cathedral when we came upon your daughter and N'Alexandra. I almost thought she was dead, En Chrétien. I helped Na Gabrielle here, while Peter headed for the abbey to make sure the Sisters had evacuated as well. My Lord, surely these French would not dare attack such Holy places?"
En Chrétien shook his head. "It matters little, my boy. Such is the nature of war."
"But these Cathar seem harmless enough, why--"
"My Lord!" A man with a long graying beard ran to the nobleman's side, Na Gabrielle following closely at his heels.
"Ezra, quickly. It's Alexandra."
The physician knelt over the prone woman. The nobleman stood up as Na Gabrielle handed the blacksmith a cup of water. The tall man drained the cup and bowed towards the man and his daughter. "Thank you, Lady. My Lord, if you'll excuse me, I must find Peter." He turned to leave.
"Wait! Luc!" Ezra Ben Jonah stood quickly, placing a delaying hand against Luc's muscular forearm. "We must move N'Alexandra to the castle. She's lost much blood. I need to cauterize the wound on her face and side."
The blacksmith nodded and lifted the woman to his arms.
All eyes turned to see a short man with curly blonde hair rushing towards them. He bowed quickly before the lord of the castle. "My Lord, my Lady. The nunnery's evacuated. Most of the city's either here or have fled to the mountains, Lord. The French--the main army--is several leagues from the city, but there are some soldiers within the city-- looting, burning buildings, killing our people."
Lord Chrétien nodded as Luc and Na Gabrielle followed the physician towards the inner castle courtyard.
"My Lord, if I may ask--"
"Yes, come with me, Peter."
"Yes, my Lord."
Both men turned toward the postern gate. "You were saying, Peter--"
"My Lord, surely after what had happened at Toulouse, the French--"
"You know of what happened at Toulouse?"
"Yes, my Lord. I have a cousin, Henry, who lives in the city. He sent word after the siege ended. Surely, after the defeat of Simon of Monfort by Count Raymond, the French would realize that they could not possibly take--"
"The Northern Barons want this land, Peter. The Cathars were merely an excuse for them to invade. After the massacre at Béziers, there were negotiations, agreements. . .concessions made with the Papacy and the Ile de France concerning the spread of the Cathars. But it did not stop there. When Count Raymond had taken Toulouse back from the hands of the French, I too, hoped that this Crusade against our lands and people would end. I was wrong. There is news that the French are trying to take Avignon."
"Dear God, no!"
"Yes. We must try to stop them from taking Ormarc as well. Tell the guards at the gate to let in as many as they can. Then we shall close the entrance."
Peter bowed and ran hurriedly toward the postern gate.
The carpenter stopped mid-stride and turned toward the lord.
"Bring as many able-bodied men as you can find to the inner courtyard. We will need many in order to survive the coming siege."
She awoke in a panic, her arms flailing wildly as she sat up, her voice hoarse. "Ga--Gabrielle!" She coughed violently. Arms suddenly enveloped her and she struggled against them.
"Ssshh, love. I have you."
She calmed instantly, and the arms around her body tightened their hold. "Gabrielle?"
A voice filled with unshed tears whispered against her ear. "I'm here. I--I thought I lost you."
She tried to move, to see the woman's face.
"Don't move, Alexandra. Please. You're still hurt."
The noblewoman gestured to a bearded man at the far corner of the room. He took a pitcher toward the bed. "Here child, drink this." He held a cup in front of the warrior. "Not too much." He nodded softly as he watched the woman sip at the cup.
The warrior looked at the man standing by the bed. She weakly pushed the cup away. "Lord Ezra. How-- how long--"
"Six days, child. Your fever finally broke yesterday." The physician placed a weathered hand against her forehead and smiled softly. "You will be well enough to leave your sickbed in two. Now rest." He placed the cup on a nearby table. "Make sure she drinks what is left in that cup. And I suggest you get some rest as well, my Lady. If you'll both excuse me, I need to attend to the others. " He bowed and walked to the other beds at the far end of the room.
N' Alexandra reached back toward the woman sitting behind her. Gentle fingers enveloped her own. "Have you been here the entire time?" She felt a head nod against her shoulders. "Have you slept? Eaten?" No answer came. "My Lady, you need to take care of--"
"I'm fine and I needed to be here, with YOU."
"But you must keep up your strength."
She heard an exasperated sigh.
"Even at death's door, Alexandra--"
"I'm hardly at death's door, Lady. Lord Ezra Ben Jonah himself said--"
"That you are much too stubborn a mule to die so easily."
The warrior chuckled softly. "So why do you put up with me?"
She felt a soft kiss against her hair. "Because I love you, you idiot. Now, you need to drink what's in the cup."
"Gabrielle, it tastes like horse piss."
The noblewoman sighed once more. "You must be feeling better. Your tongue has certainly recovered quickly enough."
Na Gabrielle smiled indulgently. "Shall I tell you a tale to make the horse piss more palatable?"
"She is awake?"
"Yes, Father. She's still weak, but she insists that she's fine. She says that she won't stay one minute longer in the sickroom. Lord Ezra has threatened to tie her to the bed."
En Chrétien smiled. He ran a hand through his graying head and gestured to his daughter to join him. A table, filled with papers and maps, occupied the far end of the large room.
"Has he taken the bandages from Alexandra's face?"
"Not yet, Father. En Ezra says that she will bear a scar."
"I suspected as much. I saw the wound--"
Na Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't know how she survived. There was so much blood, Father. When I finally found her near the cathedral grounds, she looked so pale. It was as if death had already taken her. I managed to get her only a few feet to the western end of the cathedral when she collapsed in my arms."
En Chrétien put an arm around his daughter's shoulder.
"She was delirious. She asked if I were a vision granted to her before she died. If--if it weren't for Luc and Peter--"
"You shouldn't have been there."
Both eyes turned toward the entrance of the room. N'Alexandra leaned against the doorframe. The left side of her face was covered in bandages; her long dark hair was bound in a loose bun. She wore a dark gray cloak that covered her chainmail and leather armor.
"I beg your pardon, my Lord, for interrupting. My Lady, I can do much more good here than in the sickroom. I am well." N'Alexandra stopped in front of the nobleman and his daughter and bowed. "En Ezra has released me." She gestured to the bandages. "And these will be removed by tonight. My Lord, what of the defenses for the city?"
En Chrétien gestured to a map on the table. "They've managed to breach the northeastern wall of the city gate. That is how their mercenaries and foot soldiers entered the city. We were able to turn them back, but many of our own people died in the effort. We've moved most of the supplies from the city to the castle proper. Some of our men will stay at the city gates as well as within the city itself, but our main forces will reside in and around the castle."
"We should put archers on the ramparts overlooking the glacis. Post other archers near the murder holes should the outer gate fall and there be a need to lower the portcullis."
"Yes. My thoughts exactly."
"I know, my Lady--"
Na Gabrielle enveloped the tall woman in a breath-stealing hug. "Promise me that you'll rest, if only a little." She turned to face her father. "My Lord, if you'll excuse me, I'll go to the buttery to check on the supplies for the castle."
The warrior and the nobleman turned and watched as the young woman left the room.
Present day, Los Angeles, CA, USA, the Cohen household, 4:35 AM
A muffled voice spoke from underneath a blanket. "Lilla, who the hell is stupid enough to call at--" a brief peek at the illuminated face of a nearby clock-radio, "-- 4:35 in the morning?"
Lilla Isolde Morrison-Cohen sighed. She sat up, pushed the blanket from the prone figure, and reached for the lamp near the bed. "It's Bran, Josh."
"That sister of yours--"
"Hey, is that Josh? Let me talk to him."
Lilla handed the phone to her husband as he rubbed his eyes, sat up, and yawned.
"Bran flakes, it's 4:30 in the morning--"
"Oh, I'm sorry, Josh! I thought it was at least seven there."
"It's seven in New York. For your information, your sister and I live in LA." A disgruntled sigh. "How the heck are you? How's France?"
An excited voice crackled over the line. "It's great! And I have news-- that's why I called. I need to ask you-- Hey, did I wake up Sarah?"
Josh blinked and stared at the receiver. "You called to ask if you woke Sarah!?!"
"No, you idiot. . . I just thought maybe the call--"
"She's probably still asleep, like a NORMAL person would be AT THIS HOUR. She slept through the last earthquake."
A disheveled blonde head peered through the now open bedroom door. The four year-old Sarah's eyes brightened as she spotted her father on the phone. With a loud giggle, she ran from the door and jumped onto the bed, landing between her parents.
Josh uttered a loud "oof" and Lilla swatted playfully at her daughter's backside.
"What did I say about jumping in our bed?"
The little girl grinned and sat up. "Sorry, Mama. Is that Auntie Bran? Can I--"
"May I talk with her?"
The phone crackled once more. "Is that Sarah? Let me talk to her, Josh."
He sighed, handing the phone to his young daughter. Sarah snuggled between her parents and the adults shared a smile as their daughter talked animatedly over the line.
"Auntie Bran? Are you coming home soon? I got the birthday present you sent. Are you going to be back for Hanukkah? Mr. Bobo misses you. I miss you too."
Laughter filled the other line. "Yeah, sweetie, it's me. I miss you and Mr. Bobo too. No, I won't be back before Hanukkah, but I promise to bring back lots of presents to make up for it, okay?"
Sarah nodded vigorously. "Does it earthquake in Fance?"
"Not so far, sweetheart."
"It earthquaked here. Papa says--" the young girl looked to her father. Josh smiled and tousled the child's hair. "Papa says I slept through it."
"Is that so?"
"Did Mr. Bobo sleep through it too?"
Sarah laughed. "He hid under the covers. He's a scardy cat."
"But you're my brave Sarah and you protected him?"
The child nodded again.
"That's my girl. Okay, sweetie, let me talk to your Papa. Give your Mama a kiss for me all right?"
Sarah gave the receiver back to her father, climbed onto her mother's lap, and gave a sloppy kiss to Lilla's cheek.
Lilla laughed. "What was that for, sweetie?"
"Auntie said to give you a kiss."
Lilla smiled indulgently. "Give Papa a kiss too and we'll let him talk to Auntie, okay?"
" 'kay." Sarah turned and gave an equally sloppy kiss on her father's cheek.
Lilla lifted the child in her arms and turned toward the door. "All right young lady, let's get you back to bed."
"But I'm not sleepy."
"May I have some foo loops?"
The phone line crackled and Josh put the receiver to his ear. "Yeah Oat Bran, this better be good."
"I'll give YOU a kiss if you would answer some questions for me."
"There's no need for threats. Now, why on earth did you call me this early? Couldn't you have just emailed or something?"
"Actually, I thought it would be better if you heard it from me directly."
Josh laughed. "Well, what in the world is it, Bran? Did ya suddenly find religion and decided to become a nun? Or better yet, did you seduce one of the good Sisters to the dyke side?"
A pause. "Did that last earthquake shake what little is left of your brain, Joshua?"
"Heh heh. Okay, okay. In all seriousness, what's up?"
A rustle of papers.
"Okay. . . . I need to know everything you can tell me about the time you spent at Columbia-- at the Covington-Pappas Institute."
"Covington-Pappas? As in the Covington-Pappas Institute of Xena Studies?"
"What does that have to do with-- Did you find something in France? A scroll or--" Joshua laughed nervously. "Don't tell me that you found them entombed in a medieval French abbey?"
"Do you know whether there have ever been accounts of them travelling to Gaul?"
"Not off-hand, but a few contemporary accounts mention a woman warrior and her companion travelling beyond the boundaries of what was ancient Greece. Look Bran muffin, Xena studies is controversial. I mean, it was practically the butt-end of jokes before Dr. Covington found those scrolls in the 1940s. Heck it's still controversial even now. Don't you remember any of your Archaeology 101?"
"That's what I have you for, Josh. You have to admit that it's a nice bonus to have an archaeologist as a brother-in-law."
"Hmm. Well, do you at least remember Schliemann?"
"He found Troy, right?"
"Uh huh. He was a German businessman-- an armchair archaeologist who was obsessed with Troy. They said that he used Homer's Iliad and Odyssey to find Troy. At the time, people thought he was crazy -- the Iliad and Odyssey were pieces of fiction, imaginative literature. He actually used those texts as a basis, a map, if you will, to find Troy. Before that, everyone thought Troy was just a myth."
"So you're saying that Dr. Covington--"
"Well, her father, Harry, and his translator, Melvin Pappas, were looking at the Xena legends before Janice. Her father was obsessed. Xena was thought to be a legend. Stories made up by matriarchal nomads and stuff. Anyway, Harry's legacy to archaeology was uh, colorful."
"And what about his daughter?"
"Well, she was quite a character herself, but she was a brilliant archaeologist. She brought legitimacy to the field of Xena studies with her discoveries. She was practically the founding mother, along with her translator, Melinda Pappas."
"And those scrolls, when did you say they were found?"
"1940. Macedonia. The institute at Columbia was founded after the war -- 1948-49, thereabouts ."
Present day, St. Marie d'Ormarc Abbey, Ormarc, (Midi Pyrenees) France
" .And as far as Joshua knows, there has never been any mention of Xena and Gabrielle after the rule of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 138. It was as if they disappeared from the written cultural record. He did say that certain areas carried on an oral tradition--myths, folk tales, legends. But nothing substantial to link to any kind of written historical record. It wasn't until the dig in the 1940s when they actually found scrolls and a few artifacts that there was proof that there were more to the legends, that they were actual people. I guess it would be like finding Avalon and Arthur's tomb or Merlin's crystal cave."
"And the pages that you found here mentions these two women?"
"Yes, Sister Augustine. Right here--"
The nun leaned forward, her eyes skimming over the page to where the scholar indicated.
"I was astounded when I found that legal title concerning the convent and a cathedral here at Ormarc, but decided to see if I could find anything else. There were no other documents concerning the cathedral or the convent. I did, however, find these pages. If you look at the binding of the text, these last few pages seem to have been sewn into this volume after it was initially produced. The script-- the handwriting is different from the rest of the volume."
Gwen smiled and leaned back into the wooden chair as Sister Augustine looked over the text. The blonde shook her head and laughed softly. "These pages not only mention Xena and Gabrielle, but they also tell a story about them." She stood up and began pacing across the small room.
Sister Augustine's gloved finger moved slowly over the page. "Is it common for Greek legends to be mentioned in medieval texts?"
The scholar stopped by the shelves, smiling softly as her eyes lingered over the tall form looking over the manuscript volume. "More common than most people think. While it's true that the Renaissance brought about a re-discovery of Greek and Roman texts to the West, it was never truly 'lost' in the first place. The Renaissance essentially ushered these texts back into Western culture as a whole, brought it back to general popular knowledge and imagination. But these same texts were studied by monks, nuns, and other scholars throughout the Middle Ages. That knowledge was never truly 'lost'; it was just 'hidden' for lack of a better term. There were other 'Renaissances' throughout the medieval period. Periods when knowledge and learning flourished and thrived."
The nun straightened, turned, and watched as the woman continued to walk the length of the room. She smiled softly, her eyes bright as she quietly listened to the scholar.
"Contrary to popular belief, the 'Dark Ages' weren't all that dark. Ovid was quoted often, as were Aristotle and Plato, the Orpheus legend was told and re-told. Several medieval dynasties claimed to have their roots stretching back to Troy, Athens and other Greek city-states and the Roman Empire itself. Charlemagne claimed himself as the direct inheritor of the old Roman Empire. After all, the modern concepts of universities and nation-states had their origins in the Middle Ages. The Age of Exploration and the Renaissance were built upon and were made possible due to the foundations laid during the medieval--" Gwen sighed. "I-I'm sorry, Sister. I-I didn't mean to lecture there. It--it's just a pet peeve of mine. You can't imagine how discouraging it is to see the popular notions about the Middle Ages, how it's always portrayed as the backward stepchild of--" Gwen shook her head and chuckled ruefully. "There I go again."
Sister Augustine walked slowly toward a small window by the worktable, her eyes lingering over the view of the town in the distance. "No need to apologize, Gwen. I'm pleased to know that you show such devotion to your work, that you have such a passion for it."
The scholar smiled. "Some people would say that it's more of an obsession-- I-I guess." She took the cotton glove from her fingers and ran a hand through her short locks, her shoulders shrugging in a nonchalant manner. "At least it keeps me out of trouble. I mean, I couldn't possibly find trouble in a convent, now could I?" You are really pushing it, aren't you, Morrison? What the HELL are you thinking?!?
The veiled head turned toward the shelves, hands hiding her mouth in a gesture that had grown all too familiar to the blonde scholar. "Unless you decide to raid the abbey kitchen, get drunk on sacramental wine and run around naked while singing 'Climb Every Mountain', then no."
The scholar stood in stunned silence, mouth agape in shock. Did she just say what I thought she---
Laughter. Deep, rich, joy-filled laughter erupted from the nun and echoed through the small library. The veiled head shook slightly, mouth upturned in a rakish grin as the dark form turned to face the scholar. With a gesture that surprised them both, Sister Augustine crossed the space between them and placed a gentle finger against the blonde's chin. "You'll catch flies."
Nodding, Gwen spoke softly. "I-- I-- thank-- yes, Sister." She has the MOST amazing mouth. All I have to do is move my face an inch or two and I could almost-- What am I thinking?! Her eyes went wide. I can just hear Josh now Ya see, Lilla, I TOLD you that she would make some poor, defenseless nun forsake her vows--
The nun's hand lingered a fraction longer before she turned abruptly toward the worktable. "Is there a connection between the legal title you found several weeks ago and the pages concerning Xena and--"
"And Gabrielle?" Gwen blinked, the sudden change sending her thoughts skittering to an abrupt halt. "I-- um--it's possible. I-- That's why I need to-- to make an appointment with the Lady d'Ormarc."
"Yes. Since the parish records are sketchy, I need to interview Lady Thisbe and ask her about her ancestors. She may have some information that might prove useful." The blonde walked toward the worktable, gesturing to the open volume. She stopped next to the nun, pulled a white glove over her bare hand, and gently turned the pages of the manuscript. "At first I wasn't sure, but as I read through more of the text, I realized that this name --" Gwen pointed to a small portion of the document, "right here wasn't referring to Xena's companion."
The nun peered at the elaborate script, her forehead wrinkling in confusion behind her wimple. "Forgive me, but that looks like it also says 'Gabrielle.' How do you know that it talks about someone else?"
The blonde nodded. "Yes, that's what I thought at first as well, but this bit roughly translates to, And gladly shall I, Gabrielle, tell the tales of one, skilled in war and art, doubly blessed daughter of Potidaea, friend and companion to the warrior woman, Xena, of Amphipolis born. "
"But what is the connection between that and the request by--"
"Well, the text continues here," Gwen gestured to another portion of the manuscript, "And from what I can tell, it seems to make reference to the Lord of Ormarc requesting the work, essentially commissioning this Gabrielle to compose this tale. It says, Because En Chrétien wills it so, I shall undertake it with great goodwill. I can't be certain that it refers to the same Chrétien, but names tend to run in families. I'm fairly certain that this Chrétien may be related to the same man who asked the Bishop of Toulouse for permission to build a cathedral at Ormarc."
The veiled head peered closer at the text. "And what does this name refer to? Is it one of the characters in the story?" A tapered finger gently brushed against the document.
"Uh, well--" the scholar shook her head. "I'm still-- that is-- I'm still translating most of it and what I've-- it's still quite rough." Gwen sighed. "It, well, frankly it says, Since first I caught sight of you, Dompna, I've been at your command. Because merit and beauty exist in you without pretension, with great happiness N'Alexandra, to you do my stanzas go, for in you lies my heart." Gwen turned from the worktable, avoiding Sister Augustine's gaze. "It--it's still quite rough, as--as you can tell."
Silence filled the small library and Gwen ambled toward the far shelves as the nun continued to look over the manuscript.
The scholar stopped in the middle of the room and spoke once more, "I--I'm guessing that this Alexandra was a--a noblewoman-- possibly-- or maybe this Gabrielle was praising her patron. It was common for troubadours to--to give excessive praise to their employers, the nobles of the court." And do you seriously believe that, Gwen? There's no doubt about what that stanza means and you know it. It's gonna be difficult for anyone to make the argument that it's just in praise of the Virgin Mary. Can you imagine what would happen if you brought this up at a conference session at K'Zoo? You thought the arguments about the Bieiris de Romans poem was a hoot, just wait until THIS hits.
The nun's eyebrow raised behind her veil as her gaze fell upon the blonde. "Is it also possible to conclude that this noblewoman was the troubadour's belovéd?"
Gwen turned, her eyes locking with the nun's, her voice barely above a whisper. "Yes, that's entirely possible."
1226 AD, Week 5 of the siege (Ormarc/Languedoc)
The citizenry had banned together to fight the besieging army. After the city wall was breached, it seemed all was lost. But somehow, the citizens and the knights fighting for Lord Chrétien had prevailed. They had driven the foot soldiers and mercenaries from the city. Men, women, and even children of all classes had pitched in and rebuilt the breach in the wall. A strange sense of normalcy had pervaded the city; to an outsider, the only sense that the city was under the constant threat of imminent invasion and destruction was the sight of several large wooden catapults that stood near the city walls. A brigade had formed to ferry rocks and boulders to the "cats." Men and women alike took turns operating the machinery in an attempt to keep the French army at bay.
She made her way across the central market, her dark gray cloak wrapped about her body, the hood hiding her face from passers-by. She knew this was futile, as those not bent on their tasks invariably noticed her as she walked by and curtseyed or bowed in acknowledgement. She gritted her teeth and walked faster, cursing her height and the torches that surrounded the market. She was almost at the postern gate of the castle when she heard her name.
"My Lady-- N'Alexandra!"
She recognized the voice, stopped, and turned to see the city blacksmith walking hurriedly toward her. The muscular man stopped before her and bowed.
"Lady, I saw you at the city gates. I wanted a word, but you walk so quickly." The blacksmith grinned. "I know that you have business to attend to at the castle, but if I may--"
N'Alexandra nodded. "Yes, of course, Luc. Are the supplies adequate at the western gates? Are we in need of more men?"
"We're fine for the moment, Lady, but--"
The woman raised her hand, momentarily silencing him. "Luc, before you continue, I wanted to thank you. It's been chaotic for the past few weeks and I never had the opportunity to thank you for saving Na Gabrielle-- for helping her back to the castle. And for saving my life. I owe you a great debt. If there's anyth--"
"No, Lady. Your thanks is reward enough."
N'Alexandra gestured to the postern gate and they continued toward the castle.
"My Lady, is there news of Avignon? Have the French taken the city?"
"No news yet, but our sources believe that, like us, Avignon is still besieged."
"Does Lord Chrétien have plans to break the siege? Confront the army?"
"No, I don't believe so. The best option for us is to wait it out. Siege warfare is a game of patience, Luc. If we try to make a move against them, it will only give them another opportunity to breach the walls. We must wait it out, try to anticipate what they may do next, and stop it if we can."
The blacksmith nodded silently and followed as the tall woman headed to the castle gates. As they entered the castle and walked toward the Great Hall, Luc spoke once more. "Are you meeting with En Chrétien this evening, Lady? I'd like to volunteer-- to go into their camp or try to get information from Avignon."
N'Alexandra's eyebrow rose behind the hood which hid her face. She nodded softly, and raised her voice over the noise they encountered as they entered the Great Hall. "Yes, I'll see him later tonight and I'll let him know of your offer." She gestured toward the gathered multitude. "But for now, warm yourself, get some food, and rest, Luc. He'll speak to you later this evening."
1226 AD, Week 7 of the siege (Ormarc/Languedoc)
She leaned against the stone walls as she listened to Na Gabrielle's voice echo throughout the Great Hall. She let it roll through her frame, the meaning of the words lost for a moment as she took comfort in the pitch and undulation, the gentle rise and fall of sound. She closed her eyes and tried to memorize the gentle cadence, storing it in her memory as she had done for the past few weeks. She sighed, opened her eyes, and stared out at fire in the center of the Hall. Nobles and commoners alike crowded the room, silently listening as the noblewoman concluded her tale. She smiled as she recognized the story.
"As the battle ensued, Xena tried all she could to avoid the sword as she and her kinsmen fought against the warlords. With skill and bravery, the warrior knocked her enemies unconscious, aiding her allies without killing their foes. Her brother, seeing her tactics, cried out in frustration, 'Arm yourself, sister! Don't fight destiny!' Hearing this, Xena turned and witnessed the sight of her friend thrusting a knife into her former master. The warrior woman recalled the counsel of the Fates: spill as much as a drop of blood in rage and all would be undone. Her mind traveled back to all that she had seen: the joy-filled face of her brother, the tomb where her mother had lain, the presence of warlords that she had vanquished in another life, and the face of her friend twisted in hatred and bitterness. With a whispered goodbye to her brother, the warrior woman grabbed a sword and plunged it into her nearest foe. Suddenly, she was taken back to the battle by the Temple of the Fates. She turned to see the boy lunging for her. Instead of killing him, she grabbed him by his sword hand and threw him to the ground. Surprised, the boy looked upon Xena's face. The warrior said, 'Go, you have a second chance at life. Swear that you will not waste it by killing.' With that, the boy left and Xena turned to see her friend. In joy, the warrior woman grasped the bard to her and both turned from the Temple to continue their journeys."
Applause followed and Na Gabrielle bowed in acknowledgement. As she walked from the circle near the fire, her eyes scanned the Great Hall, stopping only when she caught sight of a figure near the Hall entrance. The tall woman pulled at the hood of her cloak and quickly glanced at the noblewoman walking towards her. Na Gabrielle stopped before the warrior, her fingers reaching for the hood.
N'Alexandra shook her head, taking the woman's hand from the edges of her cloak. She shifted the sword in her left hand, resting the length of the blade against her leg. She spoke gently. "Don't-- I'll scare the children."
Tears sprung into the noblewoman's eyes, her free hand tugging at the hood of the garment. Her fingers gently caressed the scar that ran the length of the left side of the warrior's face. "Alexandra--"
The warrior's eyes closed at the sound of Na Gabrielle's voice.
"My love-- Please don't hide your face from me. The only thing that frightens me is the thought of you not returning--"
"Gabrielle, it is what I am, what I do." The warrior opened her eyes. "I am a warrior. A soldier. Gabrielle, I cannot guarantee that--"
Na Gabrielle placed her fingers against N'Alexandra's lips. "I know, love. I know it is a selfish thing for me to wish-- to wish to grow old with you."
The warrior placed a gentle kiss against the tips of Na Gabrielle's fingers. "There is nothing more that I'd want than to grow old with you. But people in my line of work rarely have that luxury." She sighed and placed her forehead against the noblewoman's. "I--I shall endeavor to try and-- and fulfill that wish-- to return and grow old with you."
Tears fell freely from Na Gabrielle's eyes as their lips met in a soft kiss.
The warrior broke the kiss and her fingers lingered against the noblewoman's cheek as she closed her eyes. She spoke softly. "I've written something. I-- It--It's-- It's not very good, but--"
Na Gabrielle smiled and gently kissed the warrior's closed eyelids. "Whisper it, so that it may ring loudly in my heart, my love."
N'Alexandra drew a soft breath and turned her head to whisper into the woman's ear. " 'The dawn comes. The watchman calls. My heart breaks for I must leave your arms. The lark sings and soon--' " She let out a small frustrated sigh and opened her eyes. "I'm-- I'm terrible at this. I'd never be a decent troubadour."
Na Gabrielle laughed softly. "It's a good start considering you've never composed an alba before." Her fingers gently caressed the warrior's scarred face. "And you would choose a time like this to finally take up poetry."
"When all of this is behind us, I shall compose a thousand albas dedicated to you. I may even sing a few."
The noblewoman smiled softly as she moved from the warrior's embrace. "See that you do return to me N'Alexandra d'Ormarc, if only to afford me the chance to help you improve your poetic skills. It will be another addition to the many that you already possess."
She glanced toward the Great Hall. A small group crowded around the large fire pit at the center of the hall, while others carried blankets and food from nearby storage rooms to other areas of the castle. "Are you on watch tonight?"
The dark haired woman shook her head. "No. It seems that someone convinced En Chrétien that I needed a few days rest before I try to take on the French army single-handedly." She smiled softly. "I tried to persuade him to the contrary, but--"
Na Gabrielle placed a gentle finger against the warrior's lips as she turned to face her. "Well, if Father has suggested you rest, I insist that you take his advice. Here--" She took N'Alexandra's hand into her own as they slowly walked through the large doorway. "At least let me take you to a quieter room and a proper bed."
"You've never told me why--"
"That tale-- the one about Xena being shown another path, another life--"
Na Gabrielle raised her head from the warrior's shoulder. She placed her head against her own arm while her other hand played against the woman's collarbone, her fingers lightly brushing against bare skin. "What about the story?"
"Why? Why did Xena choose to go back -- to become a warrior again? Surely she would have accomplished more -- would have served the greater good--" N'Alexandra blew out a breath of frustration, opened her eyes, and stared at the flickering shadows against the ceiling.
Na Gabrielle pulled a blanket against her naked form and sat up. She ran a hand through her reddish blonde locks and turned to gaze at the reclining figure beside her. "Maybe Xena realized that although the life she led as a warrior had caused sorrow and pain, there was also a purpose in it. There was a reason why the Fates blessed her with the vision of what the world would have been had she not taken the sword. Both lives had their share of pain and regret, but. . . . Perhaps Xena realized that the greater good would better be served if she were a warrior, rather than an--"
Silence filled the room as Na Gabrielle watched the woman fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The sky was dark when Na Gabrielle awoke. The bed was empty. She looked up to find the warrior-- her hair spilling over her shoulders, dressed in a long white shirt and leather breeches-- standing by the window. The woman was staring out at the view of the surrounding valley--the campfires from the invading army twinkling like a swath of stars in the black night. The noblewoman rose from the bed, walked to where the warrior stood, wrapped her arms around the woman's waist, and buried her face against the cotton shirt.
"It's still dark, my love." She placed a soft kiss against the woman's shoulder. "Come back to bed."
The woman continued to stare out the window. "It will be light soon. The army will be on the march. We both know that I will leave with Peter and Luc in a few days. Try to get some sleep, Gabrielle. We both have duties to perform come daybreak. En Ezra and the others will need your help. As much as I--" She turned to face the noblewoman and gasped. "Gabrielle! You're-- you're--"
The noblewoman pulled away from the woman, a smile crossing her own face at the surprised look that etched across the warrior's features. "I'm what, my love?"
An eyebrow rose skyward. "You'll catch your death of cold." The warrior moved from the window, grabbed a blanket from the bed, and wrapped it about the woman's nude form. "There, much better."
A smirk crept across Na Gabrielle's face as she pulled the blanket tighter around her body, "That's only a matter of opinion, Alexandra." She sighed softly as the woman drew her into a hug. She felt a soft kiss against her hair. She spoke into N' Alexandra's shoulder. "Is there any chance that I can convince you to come back to bed with me?"
"Hmm." The warrior placed a hand against the noblewoman's chin, gently lifting it so their eyes would meet. "And what form of incentive shall my Lady provide?"
Na Gabrielle laughed softly and pulled the woman's face toward her own. Minutes passed and she moved from N'Alexandra's embrace. "Well?"
A mischievous grin appeared on the warrior's face. Before she could reply, Na Gabrielle spoke a hint of merriment in her voice. "Don't you dare mock me, Alexandra. You know very well that I can order you to--"
"Order me, eh?" The taller woman pulled the blanket from Na Gabrielle, lifted the squirming woman into her arms, walked across the room, and dumped the noblewoman unceremoniously onto the bed. She stood by the bedside and made a sweeping bow toward the naked woman who lay sprawled on the bed. She winked at her and stood at attention. "I am at your command, my Lady." she said in a half-joking tone. "Orders?"
Laughing heartily, Na Gabrielle grabbed the front of the warrior's long shirt and pulled her into the bed.
The day passed and both women found themselves in front of the cathedral. Its grand spires reached out into the night sky and emulated the sharp crags of the nearby mountains. It was empty and they passed through the massive doors into the sacred space. Torches illuminated the interior of the church and as they walked in silence, their footsteps echoed throughout the building and they cast large shadows against the stone walls. They stopped before the central nave.
"Father's great- grandfather built this cathedral, Alexandra. It was to commemorate the birth of his son. Grandfather celebrated his marriage here and the baptism of his own son. My father was married here, and celebrated Erec's baptism and mine too." She turned around, staring at the aisle wistfully, her eyes filling with tears. "Erec was married here and little Chrétien had his baptism here. Mother's funeral, Ghislane's funeral, Erec's --"
N'Alexandra gently drew Na Gabrielle into a hug. "I remember. He would be proud of you, Gabrielle. Ghislane too. They would be proud -- knowing that you're raising their son with such love. Your mother would be proud because you're running your father's house with such skill --that you honor all of them in your memory."
"Do you think that we'll survive this, Alexandra? That someday we'll see my nephew celebrate his own marriage here?"
The warrior placed a kiss against the shorter woman's hair as she stared at the stone columns. "I hope so, Gabrielle. I promise that I will try my best to make that happen."
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