~ Alone (Once In An African Blue Moon) ~
by Jennifer Alexander Robinson

Disclaimers: The characters of Gabrielle and Xena are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance, and no copyright infringement is intended. I borrowed them for the purpose of this story without intent of profit.

X:WP (Alt) Post AFIN: Still grieving over Xena's death in Japa, Gabrielle embarks on a voyage, which takes her to the land of Kush and a fateful meeting with Nubian Warrior Queen Utaria, ruler of Meroe. This is a gentle journey of new hope and new love. This lyrical narrative is a combination of Gabrielle's introspective cutaway thoughts, and is inspired by African praise poems and songs. It weaves myths, magic and rituals with factual elements.

References: This story refers to events that occurred in Xena: WP TV series and in my vignette, Musings: The Bard and The Warrior.

Violence: Implied, nothing graphic.

Sexual content:
This story depicts attraction and/or love between consenting adult women.

Author's note: This is my second attempt at fan fiction and is my tribute to all the warrior bards, past, present and future. Artistic license invoked regarding blended historical warrior queens/kings, timelines, cultures, deities, languages and geography. The additional characters, poems, contemporary praise poems/songs and music belong to me. I hope you enjoy it.

All rights reserved: Please do not copy or change except with the author's permission.

For my heart Sharmila and Lianre

Special thanks to Jae, *beta reader (up to chapter 6)

Alone (Once in an African Blue Moon) Music-C


"Each time you love, love as deeply as if it were forever, only nothing is eternal."
Audre Lorde (1934 - 1992)

So it begins,
Come the time when truth hurts...
The welling up of inmost thought,
Choke into reality,
Clawing at memories locked within,
The clarity of understanding,
Creeps into the dawn of knowing...

"Xena!" Gabrielle jolted upright in her hammock. Her laboured breath mixed with the pounding of her heart echoed in her ears.

"Safe and sound," a male voice mumbled.

Gabrielle recognized the tone. The voice belonged to Wang Zhu, one of the outlawed Ch'in monks she escaped with from Japa. Gabrielle rubbed her hand over her face. She opened her eyes wider. In the low lamplight, Morpheus's dream mist cleared from her sight, bringing with it the reality of her surroundings.

Currently, she was safe aboard an Arabian trade vessel. She listened to the monk fidgeting in the hammock above hers as he settled back to sleep. Much to her relief muffled snores sounded from the day shift crew occupying the other berths.

Feelings of envy coursed through her at the other priest-poets huddled in their hammocks under thin wool blankets, each seeking the elusive remnants of sleep retreating from the imminent dawn.

Three months had passed since Xena's death in Japa. Gabrielle slept less and less. Oftentimes, she woke from dreams that shattered her soul and left her vacillating between anger and guilt. Visions of death stalked her days and spectre's dominated her dreams at nights.

Settling onto her back, she picked up a corner of the blanket and dabbed the night sweats from her face. Gabrielle mused on the tragic occurrences in her life, especially her rape at the hands of a demon, which resulted in the unnatural birth of her daughter whom, in vain, she named Hope. Sadly, within hours of her birth, her demonic child killed a man.
Most people who experienced tragedy had hope; the passing of time would blunt the sharp edges of pain. Gabrielle was not like the majority of ordinary men and women. She had lived two lifetimes, yet her grief sat buried in the ground like jagged stones with their edges protruding out to the elements.

The mental onslaught continued through the night. Each inward reflection brought a hideous sight, which stabbed at Gabrielle's heart. She rolled onto her side and curled her body up into a foetal position. She covered her ears with her hands, in an attempt to quieten the screams of the wounded, the clash of swords and the sickening sound of bones being hacked resounding in her head.

In horrifying flashes, Gabrielle saw Xena fall crippled and mortally wounded. She heard the primeval scream leave her throat as she sliced through flesh and disemboweled many Roman soldiers. She stood rooted to the spot. As the soldier's innards tumbled out and fell to the ground, a sick powerful thrill washed over her.

A callous thought flitted through her mind as the image of Xena's hanging body her head propped on a table in a place of honour imprinted on her retinas. I am sure the Samurai appreciated my final Chakram strike. I took him down in one swift move as efficient as he removed Xena's head. Gabrielle shuddered. She was sick and tired of violence, of war, of the sounds of fighting and the stench of dead bodies permeating the ground with their spilt fluids of sweat, urine, faeces and the metallic odour of blood.

* * * * *

High waves slapped splashes of water against the window. The constant rocking had continued for hours at a time.

Gabrielle braced herself against the pitch and roll of the boat. She took slow breaths and gagged. Her stomach roiled at the sweaty, salty moist air in the cramped quarters. She jabbed the spot on her wrist with two fingers. Silently she complained, Xena, the seasickness remedy just is not working as well on this voyage.

She lifted her head and pulled out the travel bag she used as a pillow. The Chakram and the Sais underneath clinked as she placed the bag beside her. Gabrielle untied the flap and reached in, her hand touched the urn containing Xena's ashes. For a moment, time stood still, and she envisioned pouring Xena's ashes into the waterfall on Mt. Fujisha. Xena would regain her body and a momentous quarrel followed which they overcome.

Gabrielle angrily shoved the urn down into the bag. Her fingers made contact with the worn herb pillow. She pulled the patchwork bag out, held it to her nose and inhaled the faint aroma of lavender, eucalyptus, pine and mint. The scents evoked memories of her and Xena sitting around the campfire, the vulnerable look in Xena's eyes as she presented her with the herb bag.
She took out Xena's armbands and secured them around her biceps. The recollection of Xena's strong arms around her was intense. Gabrielle sighed. A persistent twinge in her chest sharpened. She massaged the ache with the heel of her hand. She doubted and despaired that her heart would ever hold anything other than hurt.

Losing Xena in a brutal and undeserved way was one painful loss too many to bear. Her death left a yawning crater, which irrevocably altered Gabrielle's state of mind.

Redemption is redemption, Xena. I was your truth. Gabrielle moaned within. I am selfish I admit. She squeezed her eyes shut holding back the sting of hot tears.

Eventually, the waves became calm. Soothed by the dawn glow, Gabrielle fell into a fitful sleep.

* * * * *

Gabrielle glanced up at the blue sky. The morning's rain filled mists had dispersed. She stood on the deck of the Adina with Wang Zhu.

"I have decided not to accompany you farther," Gabrielle said. "Last night Xena spoke to me in a vision. My destination is now Meroe in the land of Kush." She handed Wang Zhu a sealed scroll. "If you happen to cross paths with Eve, please give her this. Captain Himyar will know where to find me."

A year ago, Xena's daughter Eve, traveled to India to pass on the teachings of Eli. Prior to leaving, Eve thanked Gabrielle for saving her mother, and bringing her happiness. Now, Gabrielle considered herself a fraud. She failed to save Xena's life.

Wang Zhu took the scroll. "I will guard it safely. Our sanctuary will be the temple monastery." He bowed his head. "Namaste, Gabrielle." Wang Zhu walked down the gangplank and joined the other monks on the dockside.

With their departure, Gabrielle's anxiety grew and overshadowed her mood. The priests were witness to Xena's death in Japa. They too had mourned Xena's loss. She watched until she lost sight of their white robes among the crowd. Gabrielle turned and made her way below deck.

* * * * *

Chapter 2

Everybody come / Gather round and listen,
O Kingdom of Kush / Proud nation of Meroe...
The drums call / Rhythms beat away veils of time...
O Nubian Kandake'/ Brave wise rulers all,
Our enemies fall / Honour your ancestors...
The drums call / Rhythms beat away veils of time...

Three Weeks Later

Gabrielle stood on the ship's deck. She inhaled deeply, catching the region's warm, spicy scent as it wafted on a light breeze across the water.

Afternoon sun shone down on the Meroe coastline dotted with sandy palm-fringed beaches and lagoons. The glare from the vibrant colours of the landscape dazzled her. She raised her hand to shield her eyes.

In the distance, fishermen cast out swirling bright red and yellow nets weighted down by large coloured wooden beads. A flock of seagulls circled above. The birds kept their beady eyes on the boats and awaited the excess fish bounty.

Along the foreshore, a kaleidoscope of market stalls on the bleached white sands displayed an array of goods and exotic livestock.

A stone archway and tower, at least five floors high, marked the entrance to the busy harbour.

Three warriors in a canoe paddled out to meet the Adina. A black hide shield with a crocodile emblem was on prominent display in the boat.

"Royal coastguards," Himyar said. "Queen Utaria has hundreds of warriors stationed along the coast. Large and small boats use different entrances."

One of the guards in the canoe pointed his finger, directing the vessel to an inlet.

Himyar shouted to his crew, "Lower the sails and hold her steady, Olu."

Olu, the helmsman steered the Adina' sharp bow through the shallow water in the bay.

Captain Himyar's men dropped anchor and lowered the gangplank. They loaded the merchandise onto smaller boats then ferried the cargo to the shore. The sailors deposited the goods onshore, and then rowed back to the Adina.
"Why do you not meet face to face?" Gabrielle asked.

"Queen Utaria, in her wisdom, devised a silent trade system. The arrangement draws hostile and timid tribes into trading. A true test of the systems moral and social worth is its longevity, as it required complete trust from both sides. The warrior general considers all requests for an audience with queen Utaria. Come, I will introduce you."

They walked down the gangplank together. Gabrielle sat in one of the small boats alongside captain Himyar. He rowed them to the shore.

* * * * *

Once onshore, a group of royal coastal guards gathered around Gabrielle and Himyar. She gazed at them. She made sure to keep her stance relaxed and nonthreatening.
Up close, the warriors' brown and ebony bodies glistened with sweat mixed with the ochre mud of the land. Gabrielle guessed there were about fifty male and female guards.

Some warriors had shaved heads or matted locks; others wore their hair braided and twisted into elaborate horned and plumed hairstyles. The spear throwers thrust their iron-tipped spears in Gabrielle and Himyar's direction. "Obroni, Obroni, Abagebe...Abagebe," they called out.

Gabrielle understood enough of the language to know Obroni meant any white traveller from over the horizon. She was unfamiliar with the word Abagebe. Her gaze met a female archers eyes; the woman glared back at her. The warrior's reaction made her a little apprehensive. She sized up the situation and cast a furtive glance at the weapons each guard carried.

Coastguards had spears, barbed lances, long and short daggers strapped to their bodies. Several masked warriors, male and female, stood a little apart from the circle of guards. They held round shields decorated with the queen's crocodile emblem.

In her capacity as Amazon queen, Gabrielle recognized the horned masks were symbols of strength and bravery; their shields and thick gold neck-rings indicated rank.

A short, muscular woman strode forward out of the group. She raised the shield strapped to her left arm in a silent command.

Instantly, the guards ceased their chanting.

The warrior pushed up her wood mask to settle on top of her head. "Akwaaba," she greeted. "Me din de General Ba'ani."

"Medaase. Me din de Captain Himyar." Himyar bent his stout body in a brief, uncoordinated half bow. He then pointed towards Gabrielle.
Gabrielle drew herself up to her full height. "Medaase, General Ba'ani. Me din de Gabrielle, Queen of the Southern Greek Amazons." It is almost true. I am the former queen.

General Ba'ani bowed her head. She spoke to Gabrielle in a mixture of Greek and Meroe. "Finally it has come to pass. Meroe welcomes you, Queen Gabrielle."

Gabrielle while delighted to hear her native tongue widened her gaze at the comment. "Medaase, General Ba'ani." She acknowledged the warrior general with a reciprocal bow. Gabrielle continued the conversation in Greek and faltering Meroe. "I am a visiting bard and scholar. I humbly request an audience with queen Utaria."

"We prize our poets and storytellers queen Gabrielle. It would be an honour to present you to queen Utaria."

"Medaase, General Ba'ani." Gabrielle extended her hand. They shook hands. She learnt from Himyar a handshake was an acceptable part of the Meroe tradition.

General Ba'ani waved a group of guard's over to attend to the cargo.

Coastal warriors inspected the exterior and interior of the goods for any sign of damage.
They signalled back to the general.

"Begin the trade," General Ba'ani said.

Gabrielle turned to Captain Himyar. "I do not know how long I will stay." She clasped his hands in hers. "Thank you for the respect you showed to me, and for the safe journey."

"I will visit you in six months time, Gabrielle." Captain Himyar gestured to his crew.

The sailors got into smaller boats and rowed to the shore. Deckhands loaded the merchandise into the ferries. Himyar joined his men. They rowed back to the Adina.

Gabrielle took a calming breath. She turned and walked away.

* * * * *

"Nhyeso!" A guttural cry rang out.

Gabrielle spun around.

A ragged, gang emerged from the cover of trees and large sand dunes. They charged the coastal guards wielding clubs and spears.
"Guard Queen Gabrielle from the raiders," General Ba'ani said.

Six warriors cordoned off Gabrielle. The other guards formed two lines, one row of archers behind a row of spear throwers. Royal archers aimed their bows high in the air and released a volley of arrows at the oncoming marauders. A flight of spears followed.

The ambush party raised their shields to deflect the spears and arrows raining down on them. They struggled to drive forward. Some of them fell to the ground injured or with a lethal wound.

Gabrielle's warrior instincts kicked into battle mode. She unhooked the Chakram, released it and swiftly drew her Sais from her boots.

The metal ring skimmed a path over the shields of the onrushing gang and sliced the tips off the nearest raiders spears. As the object whooshed over the marauders heads, each ducked to avoid the spinning golden circle. Battered by the hail of missiles, the raiders halted. They cowered and huddled together. One by one they dropped their weapons.

"Seize them," General Ba'ani said.

Gabrielle stretched out her hand and caught the returning Chakram. She clipped it to its hook on the belt around her waist. Crossing her arms in front of her, she waited for the guards to herd the raiders forward. Gabrielle then realized the coastal warriors were gawking at her in astonishment. She smiled confidently and shrugged her shoulders in a nonchalant manner.

Chants of "Abagebe, Abagebe," directed towards Gabrielle began. As their voices rose in triumph, the coastguards stomped their bare and sandal-clad feet into the sand. Some of the warriors jeered and prodded at the marauders with their spears.

"Medaase papaapa, Queen Gabrielle." General Ba'ani bowed.

"You are most welcome General Ba'ani." Gabrielle glanced over at the royal guards. She could not ignore their chants. "Please, can you tell me what does Abagebe mean?"

"Abagebe means, 'the one long expected.' Come. Let us make haste to the camp. Queen Utaria will explain."

Gabrielle detected the hint of a smile on the general's lips. She acquiesced with a nod.

General Ba'ani beckoned to four guards carrying a palanquin on two parallel poles. She indicated to Gabrielle that they would carry her.

The chair bearers filed alongside Gabrielle and knelt down on the ground. "I can walk, General Ba'ani," Gabrielle said.
Ignoring Gabrielle's mild protestation, the general offered a helping hand and assisted Gabrielle to climb into the seat. General Ba'ani then marshalled the remainder of her troops.

Some of the guards took charge of the captives; the others hauled the goods received.

Gabrielle's chair quartet hoisted her in the covered litter onto their shoulders and fell in behind the general and four drummers.

Each warrior musician banged out thumping tribal rhythms on the traditional drum slung over his side.

Marching behind, the elite coastguards clattered spears against their shields and blew cow horns in a spirited response to the music.

Aboard the palanquin, Gabrielle swayed with the chair's motion and to the thunderous beat of the drums. Her skin tingled and she felt the hairs standing up on her arms. She placed her palm in the centre of her chest. Her insides vibrated as the music moved through her body.

The continuous sounds of drums accompanied the coastal army convoy on the precarious journey through the forest.

Ouch! Gabrielle winced. She slapped and swatted the mosquito away from her face and neck.

A warrior walking alongside the palanquin handed a sizeable palm leaf up to her.

"Medaase." Gabrielle accepted the fan gratefully.

* * * * *

Chapter 3

Carefully weave the act of Kinship...
O Kandake Utaria/ Ruler of Meroe...
Widen your vision / Sharpen your focus...
Hear all and weave / Weave as the first Kandake' did...

Carefully weave the act of Friendship...
O Kandake Utaria / Warrior, Priestess, Seer...
O Greek Amazon Queen Gabrielle / Warrior, Bard of Potidaea...
Wielder of the Chakram and Sais,
Widen your vision / Sharpen your focus...
Hear all and weave / Weave as the first Kandake' did

The royal party reached the outskirts of the forest late in the afternoon. Gabrielle gazed at the beautiful, rugged sight in front of her.

A huge mountain, surrounded by four smaller hills, sat at the head of a horseshoe-shaped valley. The coastguards made their way down into the basin and stopped at the foot of the large peak, where several warriors stood guard.

Gabrielle's chair bearers lowered the palanquin. She climbed out. "Medaase," she said.

"This is our base camp and home to the coastal army contingent," General Ba'ani said. "Please excuse me, Queen Gabrielle." She turned and walked towards the captured men.

The coastguards ushered their captives into a cave.

General Ba'ani returned to Gabrielle's side. "Our camp is on the plateau up there. There is a short climb ahead of us." She pointed to a spur.

"Is it dangerous?"

"No, it is not difficult."

Gabrielle followed General Ba'ani to a partially hidden path on the left side of the mighty mountain.

Two warrior scouts, a man and a woman, joined them on the trek up the peak. In the fast gathering dusk torch-bearing scouts expertly navigated the secret mountain trail. The party hiked along the upland until they reached the plateau.

General Ba'ani guided Gabrielle along the path. As they trekked, Gabrielle heard the sound of running water off in the distance.
Around a corner, the quartet came upon a group of warriors on guard beside a waterfall, which cascaded over the edge of the limestone hillside into the valley below.

"I will go ahead to speak with queen Utaria. Bright and Ife will bring you into the camp," General Ba'ani said.

"Medaase, General Ba'ani." To Gabrielle's surprise, the general turned and walked through the waterfall gateway.

Ife and Bright knelt down on one knee on either side of Gabrielle. She realized they intended to carry her on their shoulders. Gabrielle shook her head. "Daabi."

The couple gazed up at her with wide smiles. "Aane, honourable okofo."

Honourable warrior. She looked between the pair. Gabrielle relented and stood still. Ife and Bright hoisted her up onto their shoulders. They entered the waterfall.

The noise of flowing water echoed in the cavernous surroundings. Gabrielle jerked as cold sprays of water hit her and sent chills along her skin. The sensation only lasted for a few seconds.

* * * * *

Gabrielle and the scouts stepped out of the dark of the waterfall. She blinked a few times adjusting to the sudden brightness.

Fiery torches set atop tall poles, lit up the night. Queen Utaria's companions had gathered to greet them; assembled warriors similarly attired as the coastal army stood in attendance.

Gabrielle glanced back. She saw they had walked under the falls through the camouflage of a rock shelter. Bright and Ife lowered her to the ground. "Medaase," she whispered.

The duo acknowledged her with a nod and a smile.

Drummers with narrow drums under their arms beat out a pounding tempo. The other musicians played traditional rhythms on a variety of instruments.

Women in bright tribal dress accompanied the musicians with joyous shrill ululations and tongue clicks. Two smiling female attendants rushed forward. They held out squares of coloured fabric to the group.

Gabrielle followed the scouts' lead and took the towel. "Medaase." She dabbed at her wet hair and tunic.

The handmaidens' bowed and made a quiet retreat.

Bright and Ife left Gabrielle standing at a discreet distance. Gabrielle watched them walk over to an impressively dressed woman. General Ba'ani stood next to her.

The scouts prostrated themselves before the imposing female.

I imagined queen Utaria to be older. She appears to be of a similar age to my own.

Queen Utaria had a reasonably, muscled physique and was a head taller than the people around her, including Gabrielle. She bent down and touched Bright and Ife on the head, they rose to their feet. Throughout her conversation with General Ba'ani, queen Utaria's gaze constantly darted over to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle overheard the phrase Abagebe mentioned. She also glimpsed an unreadable expression on the queen's face. The cursory glance made Gabrielle self conscious of her apparel; she smoothed her hands over her wet soldier tunic.

With a deep bow to their ruler, Bright and Ife retraced their steps without turning their backs on the queen. They stopped when they reached Gabrielle's side.

General Ba'ani strode over to Gabrielle. "Please may I have your weapons, Queen Gabrielle?" The general motioned to the two scouts. "Queen Utaria has decreed Bright and Ife protect you with their lives."

"Of course, General Ba'ani." Gabrielle handed her weapons to the warrior.

General Ba'ani escorted Gabrielle the few paces to stand in front of queen Utaria.

Gabrielle's stare locked onto the monarch's expressive brown eyes. A slight tremble ran through her body. Her gaze penetrates to my inmost soul.

The two women bowed to each other as equals.

"Akwaaba, Queen Gabrielle." Queen Utaria also used a mix of Meroe and Greek. "Goodness walks with you against harm in all the empty places."

Gabrielle was unsure of why she wanted to cry at the warm greeting. Palpable waves of intense emotions swept over her at the sound of queen Utaria's melodic voice. She felt her knees go weak. A lump formed in her throat, which made words difficult.

Am I going mad? After Xena's passing, Gabrielle would have greeted madness with open arms. She gave the queen a tremulous smile and inclined her torso in a half-bow. "Medaase Kandake Utaria. I am extremely pleased to meet you," Gabrielle said. She surreptitiously took in Utaria's appearance.

Queen Utaria wore a high-crown turban on her head that matched her gold and green robes. The jewelled, gold collar around her elegant neck confirmed her royal status; gold cuffs decorated her ears and adorned her bare arms. "You speak Meroe, Queen Gabrielle?"

"I speak kakra, kakra Meroe, Kandake Utaria." In emphasis, Gabrielle pinched her thumb and forefinger together and wrinkled her nose in apology.

"You flatter me. You understand and speak more than a little Meroe Queen Gabrielle."

"Medaase, Kandake Utaria."

"Where did you learn the Meroe language?"

"On my first visit to Egypt with Xena I made friends with Neo'ni, a cook in Queen Cleopatra's palace kitchen. I went to compliment her on a sweet dish. I communicated by signs and story mimes, and she replied in her mother tongue."

Her mind drifted back. Xena gave me a long, strange stare. Her eyebrow quirked in an exaggerated arch, when she found Neo'ni and I huddled together out of sight in one of the palace kitchen storerooms.

Gabrielle brought her thoughts back to the present. She continued. "Neo'ni spoke to me of Meroe's praise-singing bards, the Maka'da. I believe their wordplay in praise poems and songs are unique to the art of storytelling. Consequently, I harboured a secret and profound desire to study Meroe culture. You also speak Greek well, Kandake Utaria."

"Medaase Queen Gabrielle. It is an advantage to be able to converse with traders and visitors from many lands. General Ba'ani will return the weapons to you in due course. I guarantee your safety while in my realm," Queen Utaria said.

"I fully understand the procedure concerning weapons is in accordance with being in your presence. I also accept Ife and Bright as my personal guards. Their behaviour is exemplary, Medaase Kandake Utaria."

"If the idea pleases you, I would prefer..." Queen Utaria gestured between them. "We forgo using our titles when we speak to each other."

"As is you wish, Utaria." Gabrielle returned the warm smile. Her gaze moved over the royal visage and stopped on queen Utaria's mouth. Ooh! Even her teeth are beautiful and dazzling white.

"Thank you for your feat of bravery, Gabrielle," Utaria said.

"You are welcome."

Utaria turned to her camp entourage. "My seer vision is now flesh. Make welcome, Abagebe, my honoured guest, Greek Amazon Queen Gabrielle. Throughout her stay with us, you will afford her the same protocol as is befitting her royal Greek status."

The camp members whispered excitedly among themselves. The retinue of men and women bowed to Gabrielle. "Akwaaba, Queen Gabrielle."

Gabrielle gazed over the group. "Medaase papaapa. I am glad to be here."

"Hopefully, you are not too exhausted from your journey. A long night of entertainment is ahead," Utaria said.

"It is an honour, Medaase." Gabrielle stared directly into Utaria's face. "You expected my visit?"

"Aane, I had a vision. Come, refreshments first." Utaria pointed the direction with her exquisite gold-embossed crocodile sceptre.

Gabrielle fell into step with the queen. She glanced up at Utaria's finely plaited hairstyle.

Utaria's braids fell to her shoulders. Tiny cowry shells and gold beads attached to the ends of each long braid made tinkling sounds with every stride she took.

Oh my, Utaria has musical hair. Gabrielle grinned. She sent Xena her thoughts. Xena, you would agree with me. Utaria is proof Cleopatra does not possess the monopoly on beauty.

* * * * *

Chapter 4


O Kandake Utaria / Warrior /
High Priestess / Seer
Stand tall on the shoulders of noble ancestors...
Child of Kandake Shakhete /
Your mother's army /
Mounted on war elephants /
Turned great Alexander back...
Daughter of mighty King G'na /
Build Meroe's golden wealth...

Unity is strength / Division is weakness...
We loyal subjects / Valiant warriors
Bow to your foresight...

You wield power in lands men dominate...
In your wisdom /
Trade with Egypt keeps them at bay...
By your iron will /
Roman usurpers receive no tribute...
Your military brilliance thwarts marauders...

Unity is strength / Division is weakness
We loyal subjects / Valiant warriors
Bow to your foresight...

A backdrop of rocks surrounded the realm behind the waterfall. Gabrielle and Utaria strolled ahead. Ife and Bright followed behind with General Ba'ani, who carried Gabrielle's weapons in a leather bag slung over her torso.

Gabrielle found the atmosphere to be warm. The reason became apparent as they passed a number of fire pits positioned along the vicinity.

They reached the campsite interior a short distance away situated within a grove of peculiar looking trees. Three roaring fires were the focal points, around which a flurry of activities was under way.

Utaria directed Gabrielle's gaze towards the strange trees. "While on the mountain, Gabrielle, this is my residence."

Gabrielle gazed upward. She was speechless. Utaria's extraordinary dwelling was an enormous tree, which appeared to be the wrong way up with its roots pointing into the air. Thick spread branches almost disappeared into the heavens. She noticed the door's crocodile insignia carved into the cylindrical trunk.

"The Baobab trees are hundreds of years old. They are an integral part of our life in the camp. Some trees are large enough to shelter up to forty people," Utaria said.

Gabrielle regarded the smooth, copper-coloured bark, which was unlike those of other trees. She pointed to the midsections of the nearby trees. "Why do they bulge?"

"Baobabs store water in the trunks. Our children call them bottle trees or upside down trees. There are countless tales about them."

Gabrielle nodded. She heard the wistful tone when Utaria mentioned children. Gabrielle pushed the thought away for another time. "Is the water fit to drink?"

"Aane, a single tree holds enough water to quench the camp's thirst and for all other needs. You will learn the many versatile uses we have for the Baobabs the longer you stay. We revere them as the trees of life."

Male servants approached carrying a table and chairs; with the queen's crocodile emblem carved into the backs. They set the furniture down in front of the royal Baobab, comfortably away from the queen's fire. Servers laid the table with platters of unusual fruit and goblets filled with juice and fresh water. They bowed, and then left.

"You must be weary. Please be seated."

"Medaase, I am a little tired." Gabrielle took a seat beside Utaria. "But I look forward to the night's entertainment." She sniffed the air discreetly. "Which herbs can I smell burning?"

"There are containers around the camp, filled with citrus oils, mint, sage, eucalyptus and rosemary to prevent mosquitoes." Utaria pointed to the royal abode. "Additionally, we soak strips of cloth in the solution and hang them from our Baobab homes." She waved over a woman carrying a towel and a large calabash bowl of water.

The attendant bowed. She knelt down in front of Gabrielle and held out the bowl.

"Herbal water to cleanse your face, hands and feet," Utaria said.

"Medaase." Gabrielle bent her head and inhaled the infusion of citrus oils and mint. She barely recognised her watery reflection. It was light enough for her to notice the dullness in her gaze; her eyes seemed sad. Her hair had grown straggly and was unkempt. She looked down at her hands and sighed in defeat at the sight of her dry, flaky skin.

Gabrielle fleetingly considered the last time she gazed into a mirror was in Japa at the tattoo on her back. The tattoo was to protect her against the malevolent ghost Yodoshi. Xena was at her side at the time, albeit in spirit form. Gabrielle recollected the hope in her heart Xena would return to the land of the living.

She unconsciously bit down on her lower lip and winced against the sudden pain. I did not expect to be this emotional. I still cannot believe I all but cried when Utaria greeted me. She licked a spot of blood from her dry lips. Cupping her hands, Gabrielle splashed her face. She thought it best to air dry her sunburnt skin. Her hand trembled as she ran her wet fingers lightly over her hair. She rinsed her hands and patted them dry.

The handmaiden tugged at Gabrielle's boots.

"Medaase, I can do it." Gabrielle pulled her footwear off and placed her feet in the bowl. She tried not to wriggle too much as the woman washed her feet. Her eyes roved around the encampment.

Guards and the members of the royal entourage sat around the third campfire in animated conversation relaying the day's stories. Royal cooks prepared food over a smaller fire.

The assistant finished drying Gabrielle's feet, and took her leave.

"Are you uncomfortable?"

"Aane I find some customs difficult."

"I appreciate your honesty," Utaria said. She leaned towards Gabrielle. "I do not tolerate any form of cruelty against slaves, or there will be serious repercussions. In my kingdom, it is not unusual for some slaves to intermarry, and inherit their owner's wealth."

"You have created a fair system. I wish there were more rulers who think as you do." Gabrielle's gaze strayed over to the Baobab. She could not shake the slight uneasiness of the Baobabs uncanny shape. The flickering campfire gave the hanging fruits an eerie bat-like silhouette. Gabrielle shuddered as goose bumps rose on her arms. Irrational imaginings began to form in her head of Bacchus yellow eyes, glowing with pure evil.

"Ete sen, Gabrielle?" Utaria asked.

"Aane, I am." It was too soon to tell Utaria the Bacchus tale.

Utaria handed Gabrielle a colourful shawl, and a pair of leather sandals. "Attendants will clean your boots."

Gabrielle took the items. She draped the shawl around her and slipped her feet into the light shoes. "Medaase papaapa, these sandals are a perfect fit."

"My pleasure."

To Gabrielle's embarrassment her stomach rumbled.

"Please help yourself to some fruit, we will eat a heavier meal in a while."

"Medaase." Gabrielle sheepishly heaped pieces of fruit into a bowl. In between succulent mouthfuls, she quenched her thirst with sips of water and juice. Gabrielle was in the process of licking her fingers and stopped suddenly. She lifted her gaze from the bowl and met Utaria's gaze.

Utaria's lips parted in a smile. She pointed to the finger bowl and handed Gabrielle a small cloth. "Here, use this."

Gabrielle grinned and accepted the cloth. "Medaase." She rinsed and dried her fingers.

Utaria tilted her head to one side. "I want us to converse plainly."

"Certainly, please speak your mind."

"Aside from our culture, what brings a Greek Amazon queen to Meroe?"

* * * * *

Gabrielle swallowed hard in an effort to dislodge the persistent lump in her throat. Utaria's blunt question was a shock.

"I meant no offence. Let me explain," Utaria said. "My people revere me as high priestess and seer. You were in my visions for years. I told my subjects, a warrior woman with golden hair, wielding a metal sphere would arrive to seek my wisdom."

Gabrielle's mind buzzed with the information. "I also have the gift of prophecy. From the moment we met, I sensed the intriguing connection between us."

"So have I." Utaria smiled.

"I will answer your question, but first please tell me your vision?" Gabrielle said.

Utaria closed her eyes. "You stood on a mountain holding a strange metal circle above your head. I observed everything from the air like a bird. You gazed skywards and screamed out, "Tell me why?" You threw the Chakram. A severe pain gripped my heart then I fell from my lofty spot in the heavens. I awoke soon after." Utaria opened her eyes.

The details in Utaria's vision surprised Gabrielle. She moved her chair closer. "Rest assured the target was not you," Gabrielle said.
"I believe you, or my coastguards would have killed you on sight, but I wanted to look into your eyes first."

Utaria's gaze held an expression Gabrielle could not identify. "I sense there is more you wish to say. I will not be offended."

"Your eyes are heavy with guilt and other secrets."

Gabrielle attempted to avert her gaze from Utaria's unwavering stare but found she was unable to do so. Her stomach churned with the emotions that swirled around her head. She gripped the edges of the shawl and folded her arms around her torso, seeking to cocoon herself.

She gave herself a mental shrug. Her thoughts calmed. "Almost four months ago, my close friend, Xena, and I travelled to Japa. We intended to right a wrong deed Xena committed many years before." Her voice grew hoarse, "Xena chose to forfeit her life even with the success of our campaign." Gabrielle was glad to have kept her countenance throughout.

"I sympathize with your heartbreaking loss. Mother died soon after giving birth to me. My father passed in my eighteenth year." Utaria spoke with care. "You do not have to explain further."

"Medaase," Gabrielle said softly. Utaria's gaze held a sympathetic glow that warmed Gabrielle right down to her bones.

"For those of us left behind death is a condition of the mind. I identify with your anger."

"You are absolutely right. I am angry. I failed to save Xena. The gift of foresight eluded me on the fateful day."

Gabrielle shifted her gaze to the campfire and stared into the flames. She worked her jaw for a minute to relieve the tense ache. Her mind searched for the right words. She then turned to face Utaria.

"In truth, my gift has been absent for years. The only time I experienced foresight was when first I began my travels with Xena. Through a feverish vision, I saw the Persian army invading my homeland, one of the advance scouts killed Xena. I was able to tell Xena the exact tactics. The details saved Xena's life."

Utaria uttered a small sigh. "Our visions are a blessing and curse, Gabrielle."

"I understand the sentiment, but my head recognise things differently than my heart."

Utaria nodded in agreement. "The dilemma is troubling. Are you able to continue?"

"Aane, I want too." Gabrielle adjusted the shawl, which gave her a few seconds to collect herself. "After Xena's death, I fled from Japa by boat and while aboard the Adina, I dreamt of Xena. She spoke to me and showed me the Baobab tree."

"What did Xena say?"

"Bury me beneath the tree of life under a tranquil sky...when the moon turns blue the truth will reveal itself to you."

"Was Xena a poet?"

Gabrielle grinned. "No, Xena was not a poet."

"Perhaps Xena wanted to give your mind something to grasp hold. In time, the Baobab will call to you. It is your good fortune Baobab trees proliferates our land."

Gabrielle reached for her goblet of red juice. Her hand trembled as she extended the cup to Utaria in a toast. "Medaase papaapa. I appreciate your sympathy and understanding."

Utaria picked up her chalice. "Medaase papaapa. You honour me with your personal story."

Each woman took a sip from her goblet.

"Excuse me, Gabrielle." Utaria then summoned an attendant to her side. She spoke quietly to the woman.

Gabrielle had needed to unburden herself to someone who listened. Giving voice to her most painful memory relieved her state of mind. She gazed at Utaria. Utaria has a gift. From the time I set eyes on her, the feelings that lay dormant for many months are scrambling to get out. Already she seems like a friend.

* * * * *

Chapter 5

After supper, Gabrielle sat at Utaria's fire, talking with the Maka'di, Nyaga. Utaria had introduced them to each other before supper. Nyaga was a petite woman who adorned her baldhead with a cap made of coloured beads.

"What do the markings on the queen's clothes and sceptre, and these represent?" Gabrielle pointed to the carving on the Maka'da staff.

"The bird and snakes establish me as the tribe's linguist. The crocodile on the royal staff represents Queen Utaria's adaptability and regal heart, Queen Gabrielle."

"Please call me Gabrielle."

"I must decline. We are to address you by your appropriate title."

"As the queen wishes," Gabrielle said. She smiled her reassurance to the poet. "How long have you been a Maka'di?"

"I have been a Maka'di for ten years," Nyaga said.

Gabrielle detected the pride in Nyaga's tone. She threw a glance at Utaria sat talking to General Ba'ani. "Are you tied solely to the royal family?"

"Aane, my family's alliance to Queen Utaria's household spans over three generations."
Nyaga grinned. "You appear to be an eager student, which is a good thing."

"I look forward to my studies. Medaase papaapa." Gabrielle offered her hand to Nyaga.

They sealed the agreement with a handshake.

Queen Utaria clapped her hands together.

An attendant hustled a group of female dancers forward to stand in front of Gabrielle.

Each dancer had shells, beads and bells tied around her feet and wrists. They carried gourd shakers covered with a mesh net strung with small beads and cowry shells.

"My dancers wish to honour you with a special performance," Utaria said with a broad smile.

Male and female drummers banged out rhythms and created a heady beat.

Every one of the performers vied for Gabrielle's attention.

The women's exposed breasts jerked and bounced in time with the drumbeats. Their hips snaked and swayed to the tempo. They displayed agility and athletic prowess with a series of flying leaps, which caused the ceremonial skirts to ride up toned thighs, exposing the absence of underwear.

Gabrielle became self-conscious of the semi-nude dancers' spectacular movements. She met Utaria's gaze.

Utaria raised a single eyebrow towards her in silent question.

Gabrielle blushed hard. The warm sensation rose up into her scalp. She returned her gaze to the dancers.

The impressive dance performance culminated with dramatic hip, breast, and shoulder shimmies accompanied by thunderous drumbeats.

Camp members raised their voices in loud appreciation.

Gabrielle stood and clapped. "Medaase papaapa everybody." She gave a friendly smile to the dancers and musicians. "I found your performance exhilarating."

The beaming performers bowed and departed.

"The pleasure is mine," Utaria said. "Nyaga will recite next."

A new low, steady drum pattern began.

Everyone lounging around the campfires sat up and took heed. Gabrielle was eager to hear Nyaga perform the laudatory poem to Queen Utaria.

Nyaga rose and bowed to Queen Utaria, Gabrielle and General Ba'ani. A harp-lute rested on a block of wood in front of her. She plucked at the strings of the rectangular box with her thumbs and forefingers and began to sing.

Gabrielle revelled in the lyrical quality and timbre of Nyaga's voice. She found the music to be expressive and rich in detail. If a bubbling brook hopping over stones had a musical sound, this is it.

Nyaga ended the song. She bowed to her sovereign and honoured guest.

Royal warriors and the camp entourage clapped their approval and made clucking noises with their tongues. They emitted whooping cries into the night.

Queen Utaria smiled and dipped her head. "Medaase papaapa. Your song was powerful and uplifting." She embraced the Maka'di.

Gabrielle got up from her seat. "You took me on a journey of discovery, Medaase." She shook Nyaga's hand.

Nyaga held on to Gabrielle's hand. "Take this opportunity." She smiled. "Let the camp know that Queen Utaria's vision concerning the Greek Amazon queen's visit is a good thing."

Encouraged by Nyaga's words Gabrielle turned to Utaria. "I would like to tell a story."

Utaria smiled. With a wave of her hand she gave Gabrielle permission.

Gabrielle took a deep breath. She directed her gaze over all those gathered. "My tale is one of friendship and honour. I sing a song of Xena, Warrior Princess."

After Gabrielle finished her story. Spontaneous drumming broke out. The camp entourage emitted whooping cries into the night. They clapped their approval and made clucking noises with their tongues.

Royal warriors thumped their spears on the ground and against shields. Triumphant calls of "Abagebe, Abagebe," aimed at Gabrielle began.

A lone tear slid from the corner of Gabrielle's eye and ran down her cheek. She wiped it away with the back of her hand. Gripped by a light-headed sensation, she inhaled a deep breath and released it. Her calling had awoken from deep in her soul. The revelation filled her with joy. Gabrielle dipped her head to Utaria.

Utaria rose from her chair and held out her hand.

Gabrielle took Utaria's hand.

Utaria's face lit up in a smile. She held their clasped hands up high in the air. "Queen Gabrielle pays me tribute this night."

Warriors and attendants raised their voices in approval once more.

The camp members' response was a balm to Gabrielle's ears. Their cheering lifted her spirits. She hoped the grin gradually spreading across her face did not look too foolish.

* * * * *

Gabrielle was to share the queen's residence. Large ceremonial wooden masks staked into the ground formed a distinct walkway to the entrance of the royal dwelling. She climbed the five steps up to a raised platform with a covered balcony that circled the Baobab.
Queen Utaria showed Gabrielle her sleeping quarters inside the spacious interior of the tree house.

Screens divided the circular shaped area. Colourful hangings and mats decorated the walls and floor. Low light shone from the torches around the space. Containers filled with herbs sat in the cradle of the torch standards. The warmth spread the familiar scents throughout the room.

Utaria led Gabrielle to the other side of the tree house to a bath hut situated at the rear. They entered the small room. Utaria pointed to a series of holes drilled into the wall.
"This is the water system." She unplugged a stopper. Fresh water spurted out and flowed down into a hole in the floor covered by a metal grate.

"Your Baobab house is magnificent."

"I hope you find it as comfortable as I do." Utaria handed Gabrielle two small gourd bottles. "One is a blend of citrus oils for protection against insect bites." She lowered her gaze to Gabrielle's mouth. "This special concoction I use to keep my skin and lips from becoming dry and cracked."

Gabrielle instinctively licked her lips. She took the bottles from Utaria. "Medaase I appreciate the lotions."

"There is also a clean sleeping robe on your cot," Utaria said.

Gabrielle smiled into Utaria's eyes. "Medaase papaapa, your generosity overwhelms me."

"My desire is your comfort."

Gabrielle detected a noticeable shift in Utaria's gaze.

"I leave you to bathe," Utaria said filling the awkward momentary silence. She turned and walked away.

* * * * *

Gabrielle entered her sleeping quarters. She spotted a sleeping shirt and a shawl on the bed; her clean boots were on the floor. Gabrielle tightened the towel around her body. She tiptoed across the room and dropped the damp towel next to her bag on the chaise opposite the bed.

She picked up the nightshirt and slipped the cotton garment over her nude body. She lifted up the blanket and dived under the covers. Gabrielle stretched her legs out and spread her arms wide. She ran her hands over the sheet; the cool texture of silk on her skin was luxurious.
Her mind brimmed with new sights, sounds and sensations. She gazed up into the eaves of the tree house. I wish I could see the stars.

Inevitably, Gabrielle's reflective thoughts replaced the ambience of her surroundings. She focused on her adult life, most of which she spent with Xena either in daily peril, or in a constant state of alertness. Gabrielle sighed. Come what may and despite the consequences of all the danger, they had been able to find the time for each other.

The sound of low humming from Utaria's quarters ceased Gabrielle's morose musings.
Aha! I was right.
She is musical.

Utaria's voice floated towards Gabrielle from behind the partition. "May I speak with you some more? I am unable to sleep as yet."

Gabrielle smiled to herself. She sat up in her cot. "I cannot sleep yet either." She grabbed the shawl and draped it around her shoulders.

Utaria popped her head around the screen door. "There is one thing you can do for me."

"If it is within my power. Please enter."

* * * * *

Utaria walked into Gabrielle's room. She sat in a chaise beside the bed. "Can you tell me about the memory which caused you to shudder earlier around the campfire? I hope you do not view this as an imposition?"

"I will explain. The dangling Baobab fruits reminded me of sleeping bats which led me to recall a scary incident."

"Is the story true?" Utaria gathered her Kaftan and tucked the hem under her feet.

"Aane." Gabrielle saw Utaria's eyes widen. The topic had piqued her interest. Away from her subjects, Utaria's demeanour disarmed Gabrielle with her girlish eagerness. Maybe she is lonely too.

Gabrielle recounted an edited version of the evil, bloodthirsty God Bacchus and his fanged followers, the female blood-drinking Bacchae.

At the conclusion of the story, Utaria said, "That was exceptional. You tell it almost as though you were still living the adventure."

"Medaase papaapa. I am flattered."

Utaria smiled. "The primal emotions in the story were engrossing." She gazed at Gabrielle in the bed. "Your cheeks glow a pleasant pink."
I tried so hard not to blush. Gabrielle's Bacchae possession had been an extraordinarily sensual experience. She often wondered whether Xena found the incident fascinating and repellent in equal measure. They had never spoken about the event. Gabrielle gave Utaria a hesitant smile. "It is warm in here." She shrugged the wrap off and placed the shawl in her lap.

"As a team, you and Xena were formidable," Utaria continued.

Gabrielle fixed her gaze at a distant point over Utaria's head, as if seeing the past. "Aane, I thought so too," she said.

"Your Bacchae experience demonstrates evil and guilt is inescapable in all of us. People keep a part of themselves buried deep as a grain of sand at the bottom of the sea, indistinguishable from the others." Utaria's voice trailed off.

Gabrielle detected the faint sigh. "Please continue I would like to know your opinions."

Utaria hugged her legs to her chest. "I believe life is a calabash filled to overflowing with exotic experiences and senses we have to wade through daily. However, a duality governs our soul; the struggle creates fragile tensions within. We must first empty the bowl to perceive wisdom."

Gabrielle regarded Utaria in mild surprise. "Indeed, you are a philosopher and a cook."

"I agree with you on that fact." Utaria chuckled.

Gabrielle grinned. Utaria's laugh was infectious the sound made her acutely aware this was the first time in months she felt relaxed. She lowered her eyes. An overriding guilt took sudden hold of her senses. She would never listen to Xena's laughter again.

"Ete sen, Gabrielle?" Utaria asked.

Gabrielle lifted her gaze. She gave Utaria a nod. At this point, she decided to be open and forthright. "I need to make something clear to you concerning Xena."

"Please speak without fear of my judgement."

"Xena and I shared a deep love, with her death the world I lived in vanished. For the first time in years, I am unsure of where I belong."

Utaria swung her legs on the floor and leaned toward Gabrielle. "Life may lead where you least expect, but have faith you should be where you are." She held her hand out.

Gabrielle scooted closer to the edge of the bed. She leaned over and grasped Utaria's hand.

Utaria softened her gaze. "I would like to share my beloved mother's words with you, 'Gaze at the smallest insects and understand yourself. Mother Nature has bestowed upon you strength greater than your size to bear the burdens which crushes all spirits.' My Nana Nenia taught them to me when I was young."

As Gabrielle listened to the sincerity in Utaria's tone, memories of the last few months flashed through her mind. She blinked repeatedly, irritated by the prickly sensation in the back of her eyes. With her free hand, she pinched the bridge of her nose, stifling the burning tickle.

"It is safe for you to be tearful. I am privileged you allow yourself to be vulnerable in my presence." Utaria released Gabrielle's hand with a light pat. "Have I told you that you are also a gifted linguist?"

Gabrielle missed the reassuring warmth at once. She gave Utaria a shaky grin. "I hope, with Nyaga's tutoring to become familiar with the complex rhythms of the Meroe language, which is a good thing and will prevent my invocation of some deity or other, like the time I awoke the Titans." Gabrielle stopped mid-flow. "I tend to ramble."

Utaria gazed at her in amusement. "Do not apologise, passion is a quality I admire." She held Gabrielle's gaze. "In Meroe we say 'the spirit gives us wisdom."

"The saying is a wise one," Gabrielle said amiably. "May I ask you a personal question?"

"What would you like to know?"

"Did your father raise you as your mother would have wished?"

"Aane, he did. My mother was a formidable warrior and on her deathbed father swore to her I would be taught the strategies of war, and to have valour. Nana Nenia taught me to be honest and compassionate. The best tutors in Meroe helped to develop my business and political acumen."

Utaria fixed her penetrating stare on Gabrielle. "I am sure you will agree when you have the heart of a fighter it makes no difference if you are a man or a woman."

Gabrielle recognized the fervour in Utaria's gaze. She nodded in agreement.

Utaria continued. "In visions my fears are a reality and my people become the greatest trade of all. My aim is to unite all tribes before my foresight comes to pass. I embrace my destiny to rule the Meroe nation. I tell my people to remember in unity we find strength and division is weakness."

Gabrielle felt a keen empathy with the ideals of working towards the 'greater good.' Though she appreciated Utaria's veracity, her questioning mind needed more. "Are the objectives achievable without war?"
Utaria reflected for a moment. "I view warfare as negotiation," she said. "Violence and the suppression of violence are both crucial to building a nation. Although people possess an aptitude towards violence, our capacity for hope is greater. My intention is to reign and influence the here and now in the hope of leaving my imprint on the future."

"When your royal duties allow, I would be privileged to spend time talking with you also."

"I sense the doorway to your soul glows with the thirst for knowledge with which to fill the abyss in your heart. You will be a diligent student. Nyaga is a good teacher. Utaria leaned a little closer to Gabrielle. I also want to know more about the amazing journeys of you and Xena."

"Believe me, there is much to tell."

"I am glad you are here," Utaria said. Her words charged the air between them.

Gabrielle's breath hitched as she met Utaria's heartfelt gaze. "So am I."

"And changing the subject, bats will come here tonight, because of the Baobab flowers."

"Ugh...bats." Gabrielle shuddered with obvious distaste. She recalled the sweet scent of the large, pendulous whitish flowers around the base of the Baobab tree.

"They feed on the fruit and flowers at night," Utaria continued. "Be warned, although the bats will not bother us, by tomorrow those flowers would have turned brown and the smell will be quite unpleasant."

"That is a relief to know, I think." Gabrielle smiled into Utaria's friendly brown eyes and noted the soft crinkles at their corners.

Gabrielle listened to the rustling sounds of Utaria preparing to retire. The routine made her feel normal. During the majority of her time with Xena, the notion of an ordinary life was the only thing that had eluded her. She snuggled the small herb pillow to her throat.

Utaria's voice sounded from behind the screens. "Would you like to visit my favourite picnic place on the mountain?"

"Aane, Medaase papaapa."

"Da yie, Gabrielle."

"Da yie, Utaria." In the cool of night, cricket's constant chirps slowed down.

* * * * *
Chapter 6

The royal party comprised of General Ba'ani, scouts, Bright and Ife, Nyaga and a dozen of Utaria's personal guards including the female archer with the stony stare Gabrielle encountered at the dock. On this occasion the warrior respectfully averted her gaze from Gabrielle.

Quarter of a candle mark later, they reached the southern edge of the plateau.

Warriors guarded the entrance to a wooded area. They bowed their heads. "Akwaaba mo Highness, Akwaaba Queen Gabrielle."

"Medaase," Gabrielle said. She smiled as the clamorous calls of the forest creatures greeted them on entering the wooded valley.

Fruit trees, impressive evergreens and berry shrubs populated the sunny area. Lush grass interspersed with vivid wildflowers covered the forest floor and stretched far into the distance. A stone bridge spanned the fast, flowing stream. Grazing on its far banks were a spiral-horned herd.

"My place of wonder and healing," Utaria said with an expansive wave of her sceptre. "Those animals are antelopes, we rear them for the meat and their sweet milk." Utaria prodded the earth with her staff. "This land makes for good pasture."

Gabrielle glanced up at the drifting clouds in the startling blue sky. "It's a magical landscape. We seem to be in the heavens."

"Aane, we are in the god's valley." Utaria's smile widened. "Indeed, there are a number of wondrous sights all over this peak." She beckoned Gabrielle over. "Come, my attendants have placed a thick carpet over a slab on the elevation of the riverbank. A picnic awaits us."

Gabrielle breathed in the floral bouquet and felt giddy with emotion as she regarded the picturesque setting. A single Baobab, its Gorgon spread branches covered with budding yellow fruits, grew beside the river. Butterflies and other flying insects darted from flowers to shrubs, in and out of the grasses at the water's edge.

Is the spot agreeable?"

"Perfect," Gabrielle said.

* * * * *

Nyaga sat cross-legged beside the drummers on a corner of the spacious rug. Soon, low drumbeats and the sound of the harp strings joined in with the woodland chorus.
Utaria and Gabrielle sat next to each other on the wide rug, their backs bolstered by long pillows and head cushions. Both women drank from their goblets of chilled, fresh milk and sipped on cups of refreshing water.

Gabrielle belched loudly into the hand towel. She grimaced with embarrassment. "Mepa wo kye."

Utaria chuckled. "No apologies necessary. The milk obviously met with your approval."

Gabrielle smiled, relieved. "Aane, it was thirst-quenching."

Utaria tapped her top lip with her forefinger. "You have a little milk here."

"Medaase." Gabrielle wiped her mouth with the towel. She glanced away, self-conscious. Her gaze flittered briefly around. "The dell is truly unspoiled," she said.

"Aane, my favourite place is a hot waterfall spring near the crystal cave temple."

"Sounds intriguing."

"Both are wondrous sights. If you desire, I will escort you there another time."

"Medaase, I would like to."

"Good," Utaria said. "We have much to learn from Mother Nature." She gestured to the area around them. "Plants and trees nurture us and feed our spiritual being. I can teach you my use of them for healing. We can learn of each other's philosophies...or, if you prefer, something I do often is to sit quiet with nature."

Gabrielle heeded the hesitancy in Utaria's tone. "I would be agreeable to a mutual exchange of knowledge. Perhaps I can show you the meditative breathing techniques I learnt on my travels through Ch'in, India and Japa."

"I agree." Utaria relaxed onto her side. "Let us rest a while." She placed a cushion under her arm; propped up by her elbow she rested her head on her palm.

"Good idea." Gabrielle lay flat on her back with the pillow under her head.

Sunlight filtered through the leaves of the shrub tree, its branches covered with clusters of lavender flowers.

Gabrielle closed her eyes against the dappled effect. She focussed on Nyaga playing the harp-lute. The music calmed her mood and the sound of the rushing water relaxed her body.

* * * * *
A while later, Gabrielle blinked open her eyes. Awoken by an itch on her neck, she scratched at the irritation. The sun's position had moved in the sky. I must have dozed off. She sat up.

Utaria stood at the water's edge with her back towards Gabrielle.

Gabrielle's idle gaze moved down Utaria's graceful neck. She found Utaria's regal posture admirable, in spite of the heavy, gold-jewelled collar she wore at all times. Who does she confide in? Utaria with minimum effort is one of the few women able to retain my interest, aside from Xena.

Utaria's voice broke through Gabrielle's musings. "I sense your gaze."

Gabrielle got up. She walked over to Utaria. "What are you staring at with such intent?"

Utaria pointed to a green, mossy stone at the bottom of the pebbly brook.

Gabrielle spotted the colourful angelfish packed together, hiding among the plant roots. "Xena loved to fish..." Gabrielle's voice trailed off into silence.

Shoals of tiny silver fish darted by the hiding spot. In a flash, the striped predators ambushed and devoured their prey.

Gabrielle gazed into the water at the feeding frenzy. All in one random collection, vision flashes of every single summer spent with Xena rocked her. She reflected on the loss of loved ones and mused on events yet to transpire.

The pain of remembrance filled Gabrielle with a sweet melancholy at her mortality. She folded her arms across her chest and squeezed hard, the firm steadying pressure of her fingers on her biceps helped to ground her in the present reality. Something glinted at the corner of her eye and drew her gaze to the base of the Baobab tree.

Stretched across a clump of long grasses the spider's web glistened in the afternoon sun. A dragonfly twitched in the sticky gossamer trap, its shiny wings detached from the azure body. "Poor thing," Gabrielle said drawing Utaria's attention.

Utaria pointed out two dragonflies nearby, mating on the wing. "Witness nature's cycle of life and death."

The epiphany of sorts offered Gabrielle an odd balance of contentment and anxiety. Her internal transformation had begun. She sighed.

"Ete sen, Gabrielle?" Utaria moved to stand in front of Gabrielle.

"Me ho ye," Gabrielle said.

Utaria's eyebrow rose. She made a noise through her teeth.

Gabrielle recognised the 'sucking of teeth' as an everyday Meroe expression of dissatisfaction. She met Utaria's quizzical gaze with a wrinkle of her nose. "I will try to explain what I mean."

Utaria and Gabrielle walked back to the carpet and sat down.

"I think the glade will be a perfect place to lay Xena's ashes," Gabrielle said. She brought her hand to her forehead and rubbed her brow. Her head ached with frustration, love and sadness. She took a sip of water to ease the pain in her throat.

"This would be an ideal spot," Utaria said in a warm tone. "We honour the forests as the heartland of the spirits." Utaria seeming to catch Gabrielle's uncertainty regarded her for a moment. "Naturally, the idea fills you with dread."

"Aane." Gabrielle fought back her rising emotions. "In Japa, Xena told me in the event of her death, to bury her wherever I called home. An urn containing Xena's ashes is all I have." She sniffed at the familiar tickle of on-coming tears.

Utaria handed Gabrielle a handkerchief.

"Medaase." Gabrielle accepted the silk cloth. She dabbed at her nose and continued. "I had blind faith in Xena's durability. Her admirable resilience reminded me of the Meroe tale concerning the god Thora and his dislike of the Baobab growing in his garden, so he threw it over the wall of paradise." Gabrielle's gaze sought Utaria's eyes. "Xena is the tree that landed below on earth, upside down but still alive, and continued to grow," she said.

"Your description enabled me to catch a glimpse of the force Xena was. Together you performed heroic feats daily. No battle too small. I am greatly impressed."

Gabrielle pressed the heel of her hands to her eyes, pushing the memories back. "Maybe, but terrifying as well."

"I do not doubt, but change is always radical, Abrihet," Utaria said tenderly. "You have retained a quiet dignity, and with it a noble truth that casts a glow around you."

"You called me Abrihet. What is the meaning?" Gabrielle said, surprised at the level of passion in the Nubian queen's eyes and words.

"She emanates light."

"Medaase, Abrihet is a beautiful name."

"The title suits you." Utaria grinned. "Tell me more of Xena," she enquired in a soft tone.
Utaria's sympathy at once reassured her. Gabrielle needed to connect with Xena by way of constant recall. She gave Utaria a brief thankful smile, and then continued. "Along with fishing, Xena loved tactics. She loved to plan." Gabrielle observed Utaria's gaze sharpen when she mentioned Xena's penchant for strategy. She admired a kindred spirit.

"Xena knew me well." Gabrielle tapped her finger against her forehead. "With her demise, Xena realized I intended to chase a warrior's death. She also recognized with the right spiritual guidance I had a decision to make whether to live or to die."

"You are the way, Gabrielle. Your destination cannot be reached without first undergoing the journey."

Gabrielle started at Utaria's choice of words. "Xena once believed I was her way." Her voice cracked, and she bit her bottom lip to stop it from trembling. She stared at her fingers picked at the hem of her tunic.

Utaria moved over and covered Gabrielle's hand with hers.

Warmth from Utaria's grip flowed into Gabrielle's hands. Heat tingles seeped into her bones, ran up her arms to the centre of her chest, and melted Gabrielle's internal coldness. She raised her gaze. The tenderness in Utaria's eyes captured Gabrielle. She lapsed into fond remembrance. The same look of concern once graced Xena's face.

"I hope to persuade you to lay down your weapons and weary body for a while," Utaria said. "When you are ready it would bring you great comfort to undergo a spiritual dialogue of truth. In my capacity as high priestess, it is an honour to help you to do so."

Gabrielle's mind retrieved an episode indelibly inscribed in her memory. "Once in Greece, I sought forgetfulness at the temple of Mnemosyne, but the experience proved futile. No remedy exists for a heart filled with pain." She directed a calm look at Utaria. "What purposes will the ritual serve?"

"You and Xena had dreams together of a better world, but, without consulting you, Xena relinquished those dreams. The ceremony allows you to speak your piece and say a final goodbye to Xena," Utaria said.

Gabrielle gazed down to her lap. Her hand remained in Utaria's gentle grasp. "Each time I felt fragile and alone, you offered me wisdom, warmth and selfless support." She gave Utaria's fingers a grateful squeeze. "Medaase papaapa, I accept your invitation. After the burial, I will undergo the spiritual dialogue."

"Medaase," Utaria said. "You entrust me with your most precious possession, your heart." She let go of Gabrielle's hand with a pat. Utaria then picked up a bowl. "This is my favourite sweet dish. Here, try some." She offered the plate to Gabrielle.

"Medaase." Gabrielle took two bite-sized leaf parcels from the dish.
She unwrapped one and popped the treat into her mouth. The sweet flavours of the perfumed spices burst over her tongue. Gabrielle made low carnal noises in her throat. "This is the dish Neo'ni prepared." She regarded Utaria and smiled. "Now it is my favourite too."

Utaria responded with a playful smirk. Nyaga and Ba'ani watched Gabrielle with grins on their faces.

Gabrielle realized she had a mouthful of sweetmeats. She stopped talking, and beamed at them.

"Ma doko no, doko na, majesty," general Ba'ani said.

"Aane, Ma doko no, doko na." Nyaga covered her mouth with her hands and giggled.

"What are they saying?" Gabrielle gave Utaria a perplexed stare and waited for the punch line to the unknown joke.

Utaria offered another sweetmeat parcel to Gabrielle. She took the treat. "Medaase."

A small smile twitched at the corner of Utaria's mouth. "Ma doko no, doko na is a compliment that means, give sweet thing, sweet mouth."

"Ma doko no, doko na," general Ba'ani and Nyaga repeated with broad smiles.

"Medaase." Gabrielle acknowledged the admiring comment with a mock-bow of her head to Nyaga, and general Ba'ani in turn. Almost right away, Gabrielle's back stiffened, and the hairs at the back of her neck stood up. She turned her head. Her gaze met the glower in the archer's eyes.

The warrior sat with the royal entourage on another rug. She held a small knife in her hand and appeared to be using unnecessary force to strip a length of willow twig.

She seems fit to be tied. Gabrielle shrugged the mental impression off, and turned to face Utaria. "What do the talking drums say?"

"The drums speculate on the changing times since your arrival." Utaria's cold stare in the archer's direction confirmed she had seen the hostile gaze.

"I did not know drums could speculate."

Utaria let out a snort. "Aane, they can," she said with a chuckle in her voice.

Gabrielle smiled. She was grateful for the respite laughter offered.

* * * * *
Xena's Eulogy

O Xena, Warrior Princess,
War cry's echo through forests,
For the child of Amphipolis...
Tears of blood stain my face,
Once a Destroyer,
Of Gods and Nations,
Now redeemed,
Defender of the Greater Good...
No longer earthbound,
Forever mourned...
Soul mate,
Grace is found.

The ritual procession headed by Gabrielle and Utaria reached the burial site in the glade. General Ba'ani, Nyaga, and a female drummer, all dressed in white kaftans and turbans also attended the ceremony.

Gabrielle stepped forward and placed Xena's urn in the coffin under the tall Baobab tree growing beside the stream. The lid design depicted the interest of the deceased and sent them onto their next adventure. She choked up with tears at Utaria's thoughtful gesture. She gave Utaria a sad smile.

In celebration of their Greek heritage, Gabrielle put a gold ingot as payment for Chiron, and a Cowry for Eshu, keeper of the Meroe gates. She piled a heap of stones raised over the spot as a monument.

Somber drumbeats accompanied her as she delivered the eulogy to Xena.

* * * * *

Chapter 7

I will love and cherish you, ?
I will nourish and nurture you, ?
I will delight in your growth anew...?
As good wine, ?
I will savour you, ?
I will tenderly cultivate and teach you...?
Now you walk the path of love, ?
And maturity, ?
Follow it naturally, ?
Safe in the knowledge, ?
Of the new awakening...??

This precious new facet of love,
Is clear to see, ?
The new awakening, ?
Me ...?
Trust in you, ?
Trust in you and me, ?
Drink deeply, ?
Of our loving friendship cup, ?
Drink deeply...?

Torchlight illuminated a film of blue smoke in Gabrielle's room. Incense and herbs burned underneath the torches, wisps of pungent scents circulated into the air.

Utaria stood at Gabrielle's bedside with a bowl of smouldering herbs in her hands, chanting softly under her breath. She fanned the blue smoke over Gabrielle's body with a peacock feather.

Gabrielle whimpered and shivered beneath the heavy blankets. Her skin glistened with sweat and matted her hair to her forehead. In stark contrast to her complexion, her flushed cheeks stood out in her pale face. She began to thrash her head from side to side in her feverish sleep.

Utaria set the herb container and feather down on the table. She then took a pinch of herbs from the mortar and pestle on the bedside table and sprinkled the powder into a cup of water. She stroked the hair from Gabrielle's forehead with the back of her hand. Gabrielle was cold and clammy to her touch. Utaria picked a cloth out of the bowl, with tender care, she dabbed Gabrielle's face with the damp cloth. She lifted Gabrielle's head and placed the goblet to her mouth.

Gabrielle instinctively sipped the liquid. Her eyes remained shut. Utaria set Gabrielle's head carefully down on the pillow. She reached for a small jar on the table, dipped her finger into it and took out some salve, which she spread over Gabrielle's cracked lips.

Feint sounds of drumming and chanting voices filtered into the Baobab as the outer door opened.

A knock sounded on Gabrielle's door. "Mo highness may we enter?"

"Enter Ba'ani."

The screen door slid open, Ba'ani and Nyaga entered. Nyaga bowed her head. She handed Utaria a demonic mask. "How is queen Gabrielle?"

"Medaase, Nyaga." Utaria took the item. "I prepared and administered a potion for the fever. Also, I performed the protection ritual to cleanse queen Gabrielle's morose energy and repair her much maligned body." Utaria leaned over and attached the mask to the pole above Gabrielle's bed.

General Ba'ani briefly glanced at Nyaga. "With respect, mo majesty, you seem weary, and in need of rest. I speak for both of us. Our support is unfailing, mo highness. We understand the esteem with which you hold queen Gabrielle," she said.

"You know me well my friends. Aane, both assumptions are correct." Utaria looked between general Ba'ani and Nyaga. "Your support raises my spirits. Medaase." Utaria sat on the chaise. "I understand we received welcome news regarding the campaign, General."

"Aane, majesty. The members are ready to sign the peace treaty. Heads of Tribal Councils wait to honour you at a ceremony in the capital." General Ba'ani reported.

Utaria turned her attention on her Maka'di. "You seem anxious, why? "

Nyaga puffed out her cheeks and let out a breath. "Your favourite Sauda asserts Gabrielle to be a white devil. She further claims Gabrielle is not the person she purports to be and doubts Gabrielle's real purpose in Meroe."

Utaria sighed. "Sauda lost favour because over her inflated ego long ago. My interest in her as a potential lover lessened with the increase of my prophetic dreams about Gabrielle." She flexed her neck muscles to relieve the tension. "General Ba'ani, give the archer extended coastguard duties until further notice."

General Ba'ani bowed. "Your wish is my command, mo highness."

Utaria gave Nyaga a tired smile of indulgence. "Stop worrying."

"I will, mo highness." Nyaga bowed. The Maka'di and General Ba'ani quietly left Gabrielle's quarters.

Gabrielle groaned. Utaria caught her flailing arms and brought them down to rest on top of the blankets. "You are safe with me," she said in a soothing tone. Gabrielle opened her eyes and gave Utaria a glassy stare. She sat up, mumbled something incoherent, and then grabbed Utaria around her waist in a firm hug.

Utaria wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. "I will not allow anyone or anything to hurt you," she whispered into Gabrielle's ear.

* * * * *

Gabrielle coughed in her sleep. Utaria jumped up from where she reclined dozing on the chaise. She moved over to Gabrielle's bedside. The heightened colour in Gabrielle's cheeks had lessened.

Utaria took a cloth out of the bowl and squeezed out the excess water. She sat down on the cot. As she mopped Gabrielle's brow with the damp cloth, she began speaking to her in a low voice.

"Me din de Queen Utaria, Warrior ruler of Meroe, seer and high priestess. Public and personal events during my reign chronicled here in a combination of Egyptian signs and other secret signs known only to myself. The tablet complements the Meroe oral tradition. This entry concerns Gabrielle, Warrior bard of Potidaea, former Queen of the Southern Greek Amazons.

My foretelling of Gabrielle's arrival through numerous visions over the years had not prepared me. I became captivated the moment I set my sight on Gabrielle. I shook her hand and gazed into her green eyes. A powerful tremor passed through me that I struggled to conceal. My reaction, as transpired, was not due to a portent of doom, but instead to an instantaneous connection. Gabrielle also acknowledges the empathic bond between us.

Gabrielle arrived stricken with heartache and guilt over the death of her life partner, Xena. I shared her experience of being alone. Gabrielle inspires me. She is wise and unfailingly courteous. Her bravery is undeniable with her willingness to immerse herself in an unfamiliar world, in order to comprehend her own.

The habits Gabrielle possesses I find impossible to ignore. There are many, all of which I find endearing. The joy shining in her eyes while she is story telling stirs my soul. In particular, when her nose wrinkles in apology, I want to plant a tender kiss on the bridge.
I am beset by the frequency of my erotic visions regarding her. The first is an image of the two of us bathing in the waterfall.
In the next, we are sat atop a mountain. Gabrielle's head rests on my shoulder, and we are in a comfortable embrace gazing up at the strange phenomenon in the night sky. I chastise myself over thinking about her in this manner.

There is a twinge in my heart with the absence of my mother's love and guidance. Sadly, for all that I am, I received no tuition on protecting my heart from the influence of love. Above all, and without thought of personal gain, I vow to aid and protect Gabrielle with everything at my disposal."

* * * * *

I thought that I could save you,
Save you from yourself,
Your screams silently find me
Through the windows of my dreams...

Left here without you,
Feeling sad and blue,
All I do is sit and stare,
At mind pictures,
A perfect pair,
And cry,
Imperfect tears...

Why couldn't I save you?
Save you for myself,
Chained by despair,
You drowned in my dream tears...

Gabrielle groaned and opened her eyes. Her gaze widened in disbelief. A horned beast with sharp teeth floated above her cot. She rubbed her hands over her face and wiped the dream mist from her eyes. Gabrielle's vision cleared. She released a closely held breath.

The terrifying apparition was nothing more than a ceremonial mask dangling from an angled pole above her bed.

Many jumbled thoughts crossed her mind. Primarily, she was nude under the blanket. She had a dim memory of excruciating pain followed by soft words and gentle, warm hands that helped guide her to lie down. Also, the dream she awoke from was different to the visions that besieged her after Xena's death, but she could not quite figure out why.

Gabrielle pushed the dream aside for the moment. She sat up gingerly. Sniffing at the heady scent of herbal oils emanating from her warm body, she glanced around.
Herbs and incense smouldered under the torch stands added to the overpowering fragrances in her quarters.

Gabrielle summoned up the cold facts. She had buried Xena's ashes. That was her last clear memory. She called to mind Utaria's request at the burial.

"The physical ties that bound you to Xena in life still bind your spirit. Keep a pinch of the ashes as it will aid us with the summoning for the dialogue of truth ceremony."

Fear of the impending ritual stirred up a deep anger inside of Gabrielle. She contemplated on the year's prior in India.

Gabrielle became a devotee of 'The Way.' She committed to the path of peace for a time until all the violence she encountered, and the battles she fought alongside Xena made the practical application of the philosophy obsolete. Subsequently, in the five months since Xena died, Gabrielle became even more ambivalent about her spiritual identity.

I am truly alone now, Xena. Gabrielle let out a sigh as her sorrow deepened. Her eyes filled with hot tears. Gabrielle grabbed the blanket and buried her face. She inhaled an exotic fragrance trapped in the fibres, immediately the scent calmed her. Come on pull yourself together. Her internal voice coaxed. Remember, one day at a time. She dabbed her eyes with a corner of the bedspread. Gabrielle's stomach grumbled. She rubbed her empty belly and glanced around.

A tray with two goblets rested on the bedside table. She reached over to uncover the cups; one contained a red drink, the other fresh water. Gabrielle drank a few sips of water and some of the red juice. She opened the leaf parcel and ate the fruit inside. The drinks and fruit combinations settled her queasy stomach and soothed her parched throat.

Gabrielle's gaze fell upon her weapons on the low stool. She reached down and picked up the Chakram. Her fingers caressed the cold metal as she studied it in the dim light. "I should have buried this with you," she whispered aloud. Without warning, Gabrielle threw it across the space.

The Chakram zipped through the air and rattled a torch stand near the doorway. Silently the weapon returned to Gabrielle's outstretched fingers. She grasped the Chakram with the surety of a steady hand. Xena would have loved to... Gabrielle's train of thoughts petered out. She put the Chakram down on the table.

Her shifting emotions left her drained. Gabrielle took a calming breath. Gathering the blanket up around her nude body, she leaned against the backboard and closed her eyes.
Gabrielle's sensitive hearing picked up the sound of the sliding partition door. She opened her eyes.

Utaria stood observing Gabrielle from the doorway. "Makye," she said with a smile.

"Makye," Gabrielle's voice sounded hoarse, even to her own ears.

"I intended to be here when you awoke, forgive me." Utaria hurried over to Gabrielle's bedside. "Ete sen?"

"I am a little weak."

"As soon as you eat something more substantial than the Baobab fruit you will regain your strength. Did you drink all of the Sorrel?"

"Aane, Medaase."

"Good, the infusion will purify and cool the heat in your blood."

"How long was I ill?"

"Six moons passed.

"I thought it yesterday when I woke up." Gabrielle regarded Utaria's caring expression. She imagined she glimpsed the beleaguered affection, which always lingered in Xena's face.

"After we conducted the ceremony for Xena, you collapsed. We worried you would not survive the killing fever. I drove the evil Nsumbi out with a powerful incantation."

Gabrielle frowned. "What are Nsumbi?"

"Nsumbi are malevolent spirit's that steal our health and rob our minds."

"Are you an accomplished healer?"

Utaria gave a thoughtful smile. "I employ many skills."

"I am grateful. Medaase papaapa, you saved my life. I intend to repay your kindness."

"It is my pleasure. You survived." Utaria pressed the back of her hand to Gabrielle's forehead.

Gabrielle's eyes widened at the intimate gesture. I recognise that scent. Utaria is the person who hugged and comforted me.

Utaria smiled into Gabrielle's gaze. "I am checking for any last traces of fever."

"Is this blanket yours?"
"Aane," Utaria said. She tilted her head to the side and gave Gabrielle an odd look.

"I, I meant to say the blanket has a nice scent."

"Medaase, Gabrielle."

Seconds passed. Gabrielle inevitably blushed under Utaria's gaze.

"?te sen?" Utaria said, concern lacing her tone.

Gabrielle gave an awkward grin. "A bout of dizziness I think. I need to use the bath hut."

"Allow me to assist you."

Gabrielle lowered her legs over the side of the bed. Inadvertently, she let the blanket slip and exposed her torso. Gabrielle gave a self conscious little laugh. She ducked her head and grabbed for the bedspread. Glancing up she met Utaria's gaze. A prickly heat spread up Gabrielle's neck suffusing her cheeks with colour. She tightened her hold on the blanket.

"Your talisman tattoo is beautiful. I saw the design when I was washing your body," Utaria said with a sheepish grin.

"Medaase. It is a tragic reminder."

Utaria picked up the Kaftan from the chaise. She handed the clothes to Gabrielle.

"Medaase." Gabrielle slipped the robe over her head. "You honour me with the special treatment."

Utaria moved towards Gabrielle. "You are a special person," she said. "Losing someone you loved leaves a gap never to be filled, but I want you to know you are not alone."

Gabrielle's breath caught in her throat she blinked hard as Utaria's face blurred with the sudden tears in her eyes. Gabrielle hung her head. She took a couple of deep breaths to re-establish her equilibrium.

Utaria bent down and put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. She helped her to stand up. In silence, Utaria guided Gabrielle towards the bath hut.

* * * * *

Chapter 8


The day arrived for the spiritual dialogue of truth ceremony. Royal standard bearers led the way followed by others with large ornamental, ceremonial masks, specially crafted for the ritual. The ritual party included warriors, Nyaga, chanting singers, drummers and spirit dancers. Utaria and Gabrielle walked behind the spirit dancers with additional guards at the rear.

Gabrielle's heart thumped in her chest with the intense drumbeats. The pulsating sound travelled through her body and lifted the pain in her chest, which left her invigorated. She recognized the drum healing patterns from sessions she had with Utaria in the glade.

On the walk, masked spirit dancers prepared the way by throwing handfuls of grey ash along their path.

We need to expel the evil spirit of desolation devouring your soul. Utaria's word's rattled around in Gabrielle's head. Gabrielle patted the pouch in her dress. At Utaria's insistence, she carried an assortment of healing stones in the pockets of her clothes. She had also studied the properties of each sacred gem.

Gabrielle was not familiar with the Vodun religion practiced by Utaria, but Xena had been. She recollected according to Xena, Helen of Troy practiced Vodun in secret, the belief system helped get her through the trials of the Trojan War years. Gabrielle glanced over at Utaria walking beside her.

Utaria dressed in a beaded black Kaftan, which harnessed the spiritual energy of her ancestors and evoked an elevated consciousness. On her head, she wore the tribal crown-wrap of a high priestess. She carried the staff of the god, Ghadu in her hand; his all seeing eyes were the sixteen palm kernels embedded in the cane.

In her capacity as high priestess, Utaria also wore an extraordinary amount of precious and semi-precious stones, mother-of-pearls and bead jewellery.

Although Utaria explained that the uses of sacred pearls in the worship of Vodun deities were entirely different, Gabrielle gave a mental shudder. She silently acknowledged the similarities with the pearl jewellery so adored by the She-demon Tataka; that had possessed her in India.

The spirit dancers unexpectedly jumped in front of Utaria and Gabrielle. They threw ash directly over the two women.

"Do not flinch, this is an act of spiritual cleansing," Utaria said.
Gabrielle nodded. She discreetly wiped ash from her lips. The powder settled on her red painted face and speckled her new white Kaftan, a gift from Utaria. A memory of an exasperated Xena, standing with her hands on her hips popped into Gabrielle's head. She smiled as she recalled Xena trying to understand the reason she had to howl at the moon, naked and covered in blue paint.

At the stream the procession crossed the rock bridge in pairs. Consumed by thoughts of the past Gabrielle's footing faltered, and she stumbled on a sunken stepping-stone.

Utaria grabbed hold of Gabrielle and prevented from falling to her knees into the cold water. Bodyguards, Bright and Ife also rushed forward to Gabrielle's aid. Utaria dismissed the scouts with a curt nod.

Gabrielle gazed up at Utaria. "Medaase, you saved me from a nasty fall," she said.

Utaria's face was impassive, but her eyes betrayed her emotions for a brief moment. She gave Gabrielle a tense smile. Utaria wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. She held her close to her side. "Ete sen?"

"Yes, I am fine." Gabrielle rested her head against Utaria's shoulder just above the curve of her breast. The strong beat of Utaria's heart reassured Gabrielle. Then, a rush of energy passed between them, and the sensation unnerved her. Forgive me, Xena, my body betrays me by wanting the comfort of a warm embrace.

Utaria did not relinquish her hold on Gabrielle until they were standing on the riverbank. She stared at Gabrielle for a long moment. "The ceremony includes spirit possession and requires a certain amount of intimacy, which will tax our emotions."

Gabrielle's ears burned with embarrassment as she felt her body grow warm with a surge of excitement. "I understand," she said.

Utaria canted her head at Gabrielle, and narrowed her eyes. "Are you sure? She said her voice sad. "We cannot bring Xena back from the dead."

Gabrielle swallowed the lump in her throat. Utaria's empathic nature came as a welcome remedy for her raw emotions. "You read my mind. A part of me had clung to a fragment of hope of getting Xena back."

"I ask you to trust in me, the Spiritual Dialogue of Truth is an important stage of mourning, and ultimately it will lead you to acceptance of your truth," Utaria said.

"I trust your guidance, Utaria," Gabrielle replied.

* * * * *

The party reached the heavily guarded Seers dream temple. Gabrielle's mouth fell open. She took in the splendid sight.

Streaks of rainbow crystals glinted in the temple's pillared façade. Hewn from the mountain, fresh water streamed down furrows on one side of the edifice into a well at the base.

After speaking with the temple guards, Ife and Bright went inside to inspect the cavern.

"Those formations seem to be frozen in mid-air." Gabrielle pointed up at the stone objects hanging off the roof of the temple.

"They do appear that way. Water from the falls contains powerful properties, anything in its path turn to stone, by the new moon. The objects are offerings to the gods and the spirits," Utaria said.

Bright and Ife exited the rock temple. They bowed to Utaria. "All is secure inside, mo highness," Bright said.

"Good, let us go in," Utaria said.

Gabrielle, Nyaga, the dancers, musicians and scouts followed Utaria into the cavern.

The group passed through a short passage. Clusters of luminous, white crystals in the black walls cast a dim light along the route. They emerged from the tunnel onto the wide footpath of a central chamber. Spectacular and unusual formations of crystal tendrils grew in all directions over the cave walls and floor.

"Xena and I have been to many caves, none were as beautiful as this one is," Gabrielle said.

Utaria stopped. "This central area is the sanctum of music. The dancers and musicians will set up camp here. They must keep up the constant chants, drumming, and spirit dances throughout the ceremony."

Almost immediately, the ritual entourage laid rolls of carpet on the ground and built a small fire.

Flag bearers staked the ceremonial masks into the ground to form a boundary around the camp.

The dancers continued to sway and jerk their bodies to the hypnotic drumbeats and the singer's trance-like chants.

Utaria and Gabrielle walked over to inspect the representational masks. "The 'Dead Awake' mask represents Xena," Utaria said.
Gabrielle reached up and touched the smooth Sese wood of the formidable mask reverently.

Utaria continued to explain. "Xena's mask embodied a much beloved person. Though dead, Xena remains alive in the hearts of the people that knew her. Your ornament is the 'Soul Mate' mask, and it expresses how love entangles us all on meeting our soul mate."

Gabrielle gave Utaria a sombre smile. She stroked the mask's beautiful, symmetrical features.

"The 'Sympathy' mask is a gift from Ba'ani to you. Its purpose is to radiate empathy and understanding for those who experienced a great misfortune."

Gabrielle looked up at the downcast eyes and solemn visage of the ornate mask alongside. "I will thank general Ba'ani in person when she returns from the coast," she said.

Utaria took a position between the last two masks. "My seer's masks." She placed an open palm of each hand on the foreheads of the two stern faced ornaments. "The horned mask personifies me as high priestess and protector of Meroe, and the bird signifies the importance of learning from the past."

Gabrielle briefly glanced at the impressive horns, but it was the carved bird craning its neck backwards, which drew her interested gaze.

"Both give me the power of sight to see in the spirit world." Utaria then closed her eyes and uttered a few quiet words under breath, when finished she opened her eyes. She then indicated to a series of stone steps, which lead up to a ledge and a pocket in the cave wall. "The ceremony will take place in the dream chamber up there."

Gabrielle's eyes tracked up to the crawlspace entrance above. "How long will the ritual last?"

Utaria shrugged her shoulders. "I cannot say for sure, Gabrielle, it will depend on the amount of time you need."

"I am ready," Gabrielle said. Her stomach gave an audible growl.

Utaria's mouth quirked into a reluctant smile. She summoned her servants.

Two women hurried over, one with a platter of figs, the other carried a tray with four goblets, filled with wine and water. They stopped in front of Utaria and Gabrielle.

Utaria and Gabrielle ate a handful of figs each and drank the cups of water. When they had finished eating, Utaria handed a wine goblet to Gabrielle. "This palm-nut wine contains the plant of Circe."
"I know mandrake root is poisonous," Gabrielle said. She furrowed her brows and hesitantly took the cup.

"The potion will open our minds to the possessions. The amount of root we used is not poisonous." Utaria drank the contents of her goblet in one swallow.

Gabrielle took a sip of the beverage. She wrinkled her nose. "Tastes of aromatic spices."

"That is the saffron and cinnamon," Utaria said watching as Gabrielle finished the wine.

Nyaga walked over and stopped in front of Utaria and Gabrielle. She bowed deeply to the two women in turn. "Travel well, mo highness, queen, Gabrielle," she said. Nyaga held out the gemstones in her hand. "Please accept these traveller's stones as a gift from general Ba'ani and myself for your journey." She handed one each to Gabrielle and Utaria.

"Medaase," Gabrielle said. She shook Nyaga's hand. Gabrielle gazed at the milky pebble for a moment, then placed the stone in the pocket of her Kaftan with the others. She looked on as Utaria handed a papyrus scroll to Nyaga. They embraced, and Nyaga took her leave.

Gabrielle and Utaria climbed the stone steps up to the dream chamber.

At the top of the ledge, Utaria knelt down on the ground. "We have to crawl through the opening," she said.

Gabrielle got down on her knees and followed Utaria through the hollow space. Sharp rock fragments covering the floor stung her knees and palms as she crawled along. She clenched her jaw.

* * * * *

Gabrielle stood up and dusted her knees off. Inside the deceptively, roomy grotto was dry and warm.

A small fire burned in a designated area where the natural ventilation system of the cave channelled the smoke away from the main space. Four stone incense bowls with floating candles sat at each corner.

Luminescent filaments of crystals dangled from the roof of the chamber, and the veins of crystal in the walls imbued the space with an ethereal glow. A fur and cushion-strewn dais centred the cave. Additional lighting came from an ornate, gold lantern hanging above the raised platform.

Gabrielle's senses became stimulated by a heady scent of incense and other burning herbs. Immediately, the intoxicating fragrances affected her mood. Her whole body tingled with a spontaneous growing arousal.

"The odour of Buchu leaves, Frankincense and Jasmine, opens the way and clears a path," Utaria said.

Gabrielle had become hyper aware of Utaria's fragrance since her illness. Now I know what the something else is...Jasmine. "Yes, I recognised the scent from you."

"I use it for meditation. It does tend to linger on my clothes." Utaria tilted her head and gave Gabrielle an intense stare.

With Utaria's eyes upon her, Gabrielle averted her gaze. She could not fail to notice the many other curiosities lying around the cave.

A bone and peacock feather cloak; adorned with sacred gems, hung in splendour on the cave wall, along with an assortment of gold masks, weapons and armour.

In the far corner, a shrine to the deities, carved statues adorned with numerous pieces of beaded jewellery. Surrounding the shrine were golden artefacts as, chalices and incense bowls filled with burning herbs and sacred oils. The libation container on the altar was a carved bone skull with teeth, a bone carved snake slithering out of the mouth into the eyeholes.

Utaria took Gabrielle hand and led her over to the shrine.

Realization dawned of the gravity of the ritual she was about to embark on. Gabrielle's heart almost pounded out of her chest. Her nostrils flared with the familiar scent. "I can smell blood."

Utaria dipped her fingers into one of the golden chalices. She drew a sign on her forehead. "That is so. Utaria said dabbing Gabrielle's forehead with the fresh animal blood."

They knelt down on the rug in front of the shrine. The statue of a winged-goddess and baby made of jet-black glass caught Gabrielle's attention. Clothed in robes of many colours, the goddess sat on a throne of gold. A silver tiara headdress incorporating a circular disc with horns adorned her braided hair.

"That statue resembles the Egyptian goddess, Isis," Gabrielle said.

"Aane, we honour the Goddess under the name of Auset. Our spiritual beliefs are a mix of ancient traditions inherited from long, distant ancestors, and some religious practices brought by Egyptian travellers to our shores."

Utaria took a bundle of incense sticks and handed some to Gabrielle. "Ritual smoke and sacred oils will enable us to let go of our inhibitions and commune with the dead."

Gabrielle took her turn to wave the incense wand over Utaria. She inhaled the sweet, cloying fragrance of the aromatic oils and herbs as she massaged the oils into Utaria's hands and feet. Sensations of pleasure coursing through her body caused her to shiver as snatches of erotic images drifted through her mind when Utaria reciprocated.

Utaria gazed at Gabrielle. "How are you? The effects of the Mandrake wine alter our perception. Do not be afraid or ashamed of the erotic sensations you will experience."

Gabrielle lowered her gaze, suddenly self-conscious. "I am a little disorientated."

Utaria took the bone and feathered shroud off the hook in the wall. She fastened the impressive cape around her shoulders. She picked up the ritual skull. "Before the visual hallucinations begin. Come, let us sit." Utaria led Gabrielle over to the centre of the room.

* * * * *

Chapter 9


Rituals are ancient beliefs that connect the living to the dead. Rituals bind us across the chasm of life. Rituals are conduits of emotions, which allow us to recognize the moments to be honored. Through rituals, we evolve. Look, see the trappings of rituals all around.

Utaria and Gabrielle sat cross-legged beside each other on the podium, within a circle of precious stones. She gave Gabrielle a sympathetic smile. "Hold the healing stones in your hands."

Gabrielle took out the gems from her Kaftan and held them in her open palms.

"The powerful gems we carry on the journey will amplify and focus our energies in the spirit world. They will protect us and deflect any negativity." Utaria removed the healing stones from her garment. She held them out. "Taking into consideration your union with Xena, the Lapis Lazuli stone would be helpful with relationship communication, between the living and the dead spirits." She picked out a blue gemstone and placed it in Gabrielle's hand.

"I appreciate your thoughtfulness." Gabrielle gazed down at the small array of coloured stones in her palms. Her hands tingled with increased warmth emanating from the gems.

Xena's Chakram lay on a quartz slab in front of Utaria, alongside were a bone skull, a piece of bark and leaves, flints, a number of bottles and a sharp knife.

Utaria rested the bowl of blood down beside the objects. "I need Xena's ashes."

Gabrielle took off the silk pouch containing the remainder of Xena's ashes from around her neck and handed the item to Utaria.

Utaria opened the pouch and took a large pinch of ashes out. "Xena's name begins with the sign for the crossroads. It is also the symbol for the creator." She sprinkled a little of Xena's ashes in the Chakram circle forming a large X. "O Eshu, God of communication and spiritual language. With these offerings, we praise you. O keeper of the gate between the realms of gods and man. You own every road of life. Among the gods, you are the first. Kandake Utaria, seer and priestess, call upon you. Hear your humble servant. Watch over and guide us in our quest. Sharpen my vision, widen my focus."

The sound of the chanting and hypnotic drumbeats filtered into the cavern and combined with Utaria's incantations. Gabrielle's emotions brewed into an intoxicating mixture. Her grip tightened on the gems.
Utaria's incantation resounded through the grotto. "Put the gems back into your pockets, and pluck a single strand of your hair from the root," she said.

Gabrielle grimaced as she tugged at her hair. She handed the strand to Utaria, and rubbed the sore spot on her head.

Utaria pulled out a strand from her plait. She placed the hair together with the piece of Acacia bark and a few mandrake leaves, into the Chakram circle. Utaria picked up the flint and struck it against the Chakram and quartz stone in a quick, downward motion. Molten sparks ignited the kindling. The concoction sizzled into the fragrant air.

Gabrielle's gaze widened as a spiral column of blue smoke wafted up to the roof.

Utaria leaned forward to inhale a lungful of the smoke she beckoned Gabrielle closer.
Gabrielle leaned in to face Utaria she gazed into her eyes. Utaria raised her hand and tilted Gabrielle's chin. She lowered her lips, and blew the smoke into Gabrielle's mouth.

When the warm smoke tickled her throat, Gabrielle suppressed a cough and swallowed hard. Almost immediately she became light-headed. Rocked by a sudden painful memory, clutched her chest and squeezed her eyes shut.

"Breathe slowly, and embrace the sensations you feel." Utaria placed a gentle hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "You will eventually regain control. You must first expunge any final grievance's you harbour in your heart. The unsettling vibrations are our spirit auras attempting to find a way through."

Gabrielle opened her eyes, and exhaled a small plume of smoke. She swiveled her head around when she felt a strong presence behind her. "Someone breathed on me." Gabrielle touched the back of her neck. She turned her head back around to witness Utaria convulsing. She widened her eyes in concern.

"Utaria, Ete sen?" Gabrielle reached over and grabbed Utaria by the hand. Her alarm was short lived.

Utaria stopped the violent shaking. When Utaria squeezed her hand in reassurance, Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief.

"Who is Solan?" Utaria asked.

"Solan was the name of Xena's son. My daughter Hope killed him," Gabrielle replied softly.

"Why have you never released the pain?"

Apprehension curled inside Gabrielle she obeyed the compulsion to speak her private thoughts freely.
"I wanted to bury the taste of loss deep in my psyche. Grief had become a regular companion. Tricked by a demon I committed murder and then he raped me. My daughter was born days after. Barely hours old she choked a man. Hope's tiny hands possessed an evil strength to commit the horrific deed. The memory of her angelic expression continues to haunt. I should have killed her, but I lied to Xena."

Gabrielle's ignored the flow of her tears. "Years later, Hope murdered Solan. I poisoned her and I became a killer. I lived with the regret of being unable to offer Hope a stable home, and the chance to love her into changing her evil nature."

Her voice cracked with the emotion. "The unending pain and casualties numbed meaning." She wiped her face with the sleeve of her Kaftan. "Each fatality the darkness spreads." Gabrielle raised a fist and pound at her breast. "Is that what attracted Xena? Am I a bringer of death?"

"No. You are a survivor," Utaria laced her fingers with Gabrielle's.

Gabrielle took comfort from Utaria's compassionate words and gesture. She gazed helplessly at Utaria for a full minute before she continued with her confessions. "After the death of her only son, Xena inflicted the most violent physical abuse on me. Solan reached out to both of us from the other side, and we reconciled."

Each jolt of memory sent a stabbing pain through Gabrielle's brain. She increased the pressure on their tangled fingers. "The temporary but debilitating loss of love, and family bond between us never fully healed. Recriminations reared up at inopportune moments throughout our life together. I kept my own counsel because..." Her voice trailed away.

"Because, you would not change the path of the bittersweet journey, which first united your two souls," Utaria said finishing Gabrielle's sentence. "You kept quiet because wherever Xena was, that was home. Through it all you endured. Having experienced severe loss prepared you for the day you feared, but knew would eventually arrive."

Gabrielle's shoulders hunched over in an attempt to deflect the painful, true words. She began a hypnotic rocking motion.

"We can stop at any time," Utaria said. "But, if you want to complete the spiritual dialogue of truth you must make the choice of joining with me now."

Her quiet sobs subsided. Gabrielle inhaled deeply, and breathed out any final resistance. "I appear to be at the mercy of my fluctuating emotions, but I wish to continue," she responded in a hoarse voice.

"As you desire," Utaria agreed.

Gabrielle stared with interest as Utaria picked up the ritual skull chalice, and set it down in the centre of the X formation.
Utaria carefully poured out some liquid from a bottle into the ritual skull. She emptied in the last sprinkles of Xena's ashes. "I need a little of your blood."

Gabrielle held out her hand. Utaria gently pricked Gabrielle's finger, then her own. She squeezed two drops of their blood into the skull cup.

A small silver and glass vial hung from a long leather string around Utaria's neck. She uncapped the glass bottle and poured the contents into the skull chalice. "Take two sips," she said, placing the chalice to Gabrielle's lips.

Gabrielle sipped the silver tinged liquid. She frowned at the taste.

Utaria drank the last of the concoction from the bone skull. "The sacred smoke and this potion will allow me to dream-walk in your dreams." She poured the remainder of the liquid onto the platform, in a straight line, linking her to Gabrielle. "O great Eshu, accept this libation."

Gabrielle felt a faint tug at her heart. She found it increasingly difficult to focus. With each passing second her eyes grew heavier.

Utaria indicated for Gabrielle to lie down on her back, beside her. "Remember," she alerted. "Our innermost, subtle consciousness never leaves the body, even in death. Time is a matter of perception. When the spirit auras align, you and your soul mate will meet on the same celestial path," she added tenderly. Utaria reached across to hold Gabrielle's hand.

Whenever she takes my hand I feel my whole life vibrating with hers. Gabrielle's mind silently registered. Waves of energy spread through her body, evocative of the sun's rays at springtime in Meroe. "Ugh!" She gasped. An involuntary heave jerked Gabrielle's upper body. Her whole being filled with warmth that radiated up from her belly. A ray of purple light burst out from her chest and shot up into the air above her.

Spears of white and blue light erupted from Utaria's chest. Both women stared up in a trance state as their radiant energies blended together to form a multi-coloured halo, which hovered above the Chakram circle.

A column of smoke from the offering wafted up and passed through the centre of the halo. The coloured smoke swirled around faster and faster, blurring into a vortex, charging the air with bolts of electricity.

Fingers of current streaked down hitting Gabrielle and Utaria in the chest, which arched their bodies. Their breathing grew shallow. Tendrils of electrical energy wrapped around the women's immobile bodies, and lifted them up. Utaria and Gabrielle ascended and vanished into the shimmering halo spiral.

* * * * *
On The Road Called Time

I gather memories on the road called time,
The scent of her skin like sweet wild berries,
The warmth of her lips and taste of her tongue,
Our love tempo I pluck from the air,
Unique melodies only soul mates hear...
The heavens open,
Showering down,
From between moist thighs,
Sweet rain falls,
On the road called time...

A large number of floating, crystals formed a dazzling never-ending road. Two nebulous shapes clothed in iridescent purple, white and blue, merged together.

Gabrielle found herself in a place that was not an actual place.
She had an impression of her surroundings, also a physical detachment as if she were not inside her body anymore, but outside of her thoughts. Hairs on her arms and neck stood in anticipation. Gabrielle sensed Xena's warm, familiar presence and became aware of the curve of Xena's breasts pressing against her. She nestled into Xena's arms.

Enveloped by the sensation of security and love, Gabrielle moulded her body against Xena. She could feel each movement and each shift of muscle. Comprehension where her body ended or where Xena's began evaded her. Xena's kisses were fleeting, teasing at first, then more assured. Her warm, darting tongue, spread an unbearable ecstasy through Gabrielle. She imagined she breathed in Xena's essence. The ache of longing for this moment dissipated.

"Xena, where are we?" Gabrielle was unsure whether she spoke aloud.

"Welcome, my love. This is the crossroads."

"It is so hard to let you go, Xena. After the dream, my mind gladdened. I thought of your homecoming."

"Gabrielle, you are my truth. I practiced no faith but I worshiped you. Your pure, selfless love brought me the greatest happiness. I apologise for my abusive behaviour toward you."

"Xena, I accept the apology. You have shown years of contrition. My misplaced sense of justice nearly cost your life. I ask for forgiveness too. You said our meeting changed everything for you. If it were true, you should have stayed with me."
"You and I found that in times of war truth is the first casualty. We do what it takes to protect those we love. Gabrielle, I truly never reconciled with the murderous person I once was. The warrior's code I followed demanded a sacrifice. Trust my decision was the right one."

Gabrielle sunk deeper into the embrace of her beloved her form cushioned by an invisible energy. "I accept the choice made between staying with me, or releasing the souls into a state of grace. I finally understand the price you chose to pay to regain your redemptive warrior spirit. The power of love exceeds the love of power. To give me up was the final penalty. This knowledge brings peace. Xena, my best friend and soul mate."

"You are a true champion, Gabrielle, and champions adapt. Move forward with your life there are many wonderful things ahead of you. I love you beyond time. You were my world. Remember to follow your heart. Honour my memory and live your life."

Gabrielle slumbered in the warm tones of her voice as Xena sang.

"My love for you,

Is borne on the wings of a dove,

Guarded by the heart of a lion,
Fanned by pride,
Soothed by tranquillity...
My love for you,
Soars as an eagle in flight,
My love for you,
Is hopeful and free..."

* * * * *

A flash of white light returned Gabrielle and Utaria back on the platform in the cave.
Gabrielle's eyes opened she did not recall closing them. She realized she and Utaria had been connected by an intense kiss. The closeness of their bodies made her significantly aware of the intimacy they shared. She did not jerk away but gently eased her arms out from the embrace. Utaria you are remarkable.

Her gaze trailed from the flare of nostrils to the high cheekbones and came to rest on the full plump lips. Gabrielle's sensitive hearing picked up a rustle sound. Her head jerked up and she gazed over darted to the doorway.

The archer stood tall with her hunting bow, arrow in the nock. She aimed the weapon at Gabrielle a maniacal gleam in her eyes.

"Die white devil." Gabrielle's mind translated. The split second it took her to take evasive action Sauda released the arrow.
Gabrielle steeled herself against the imminent. She turned her thoughts inward. Well Xena it appears I will join you and my family sooner than later. She stared at the warrior in defiance and pity. I guess she believes I am to blame for her lack of favour with Utaria.
The projectile whistled through the air toward her. Gabrielle prepared to die but the impact she expected never happened.

From a prone position Utaria reached up and caught the arrow with one hand; its flight halted a hair's breadth away from Gabrielle's chest.

Gabrielle laughed, the sound echoed in the room. Feelings of relief surged through her body and the tense muscles in her features eased.

"Ete sen?" Utaria enquired in an apologetic tone. She sat up.

Gabrielle focussed on the sparkling brown gaze staring curiously at her. Her frame shook with a few silent laughs. "Yes I am alright. I have definitely seen that feat before," she responded.

Utaria threw the shaft to the ground. "You seem to be much calmer." A small smile twitched the corner of her mouth.

Meanwhile at the entranceway Bright and Ife tackled Sauda and hurried her out of the cavern. From beginning to end the menacing incident had lasted scant moments.

General Ba'ani entered the room and dropped to her knees. "Forgive me majesty for the momentary lapse in apprehending Sauda. I accept complete responsibility."

"At ease General, none were harmed. Prepare the way the ritual is completed."

The warrior got to her feet, bowed and left.

Queen Utaria bit her lip; her face grew serious. "We are returning to my sovereignty soon. I invite you as my esteemed guest. I hope the unfortunate incident will not discourage you. I assure you she would not have succeeded."

"Medaase, Utaria. I accept your invitation." Gabrielle's beam turned into a grimace. "Utaria, my back is sore. Please take a look?"

Utaria helped Gabrielle to pull up her Kaftan. "The tattoo has vanished!"

* * * * *

Gabrielle and queen Utaria exited the cave of dreams. The ritual party greeted them with jubilant cries, and tongue clicks.
"Firstly the sunrise, and then we bathe."

Gabrielle feigned sniffing at her armpits. She wrinkled her nose. "Do I stink?"

"No," Utaria laughed softly. A handmaiden offered Gabrielle a silk Kaftan and sandals.

Gabrielle accepted the embroidered robe and shoes. "I am much obliged, Utaria. These are exquisite items." She draped her body in the garment and grinned. "You leave me wanting for nothing."

"That is my intention," Utaria confessed, stepping closer to Gabrielle. "May I?" Getting a nod of permission, Utaria put a towel around Gabrielle's shoulders.

"The sunrise before we bathe." Gabrielle confirmed with a shy glance. Her heartbeat thumped harder at Utaria's closeness.

Utaria gave her a warm smile and pointed.

Gabrielle's eyes followed Utaria's finger.

The upper edge of the sun appeared on the eastern horizon, revealing thin, white clouds hanging over the mountain. Intense crimson, orange, pink and yellow spread into the ether.

A cacophony bombarded Gabrielle's ears. To the left a loud, hissing noise. Thousands of small birds came flying out of the dark crevices in the peaks. In synchrony the flock arced and soared with precision.

"The animal kingdom awakes with you, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle stood entranced. A painful burst of emotion surfaced. She felt tears sting the back of her eyes. The bittersweet memory of the last time she marvelled at the vivid sky her breath caught in her throat.

Queen Utaria' eyes glittered with sorrow and empathy. She touched Gabrielle on the shoulder. "Weeping uplifts and energizes the spirit. A burden has lifted."

The couple gazed up at the colours in the heavens.

* * * * *


A features waterfall flowed over the steep hillside and fell into a huge, hollow rock. Gabrielle and Utaria stood under the gentle cascade. With backs turned away from each other, they washed their respective bodies, a contrast of ebony and ivory skin.

Gabrielle's spirits lifted with the stunning landscape. She called over the noise of the falls. "You were correct."

"The view is breathtaking," Utaria responded loudly.

Gabrielle sniffed the black soap. "What is this perfume?"

"The aroma is a mixture of honey, Shea butter and cocoa. The women of our village make them."

Utaria and Gabrielle turned around together. They exchanged coy glances at the other's form. The same smiles blossomed on each woman's lips.

A knot of pleasure tightened in Gabrielle's stomach. The warmth caused her insides to tingle low in her belly. She refused to deny the obvious. I want more than sorrow. Twinges of guilt threatened to overwhelm her.

Both women dressed hidden from view behind a privacy screen. Gabrielle clad in the Kaftan. Queen Utaria chose a purple dress and matching stole.

"The outfit suits you," Gabrielle complimented.

"Thank you," Utaria responded, self-conscious.

Servants prepared the designated picnic spot. The two women sat on the carpet. Weakened through fasting they ate porridge, fruits and nuts. They quenched dry throats with goblets of juice and water.

After the meal Gabrielle dozed in the morning sunshine. She awoke a while later. Her eyes fell upon an interesting display.

Utaria groomed herself unaware of Gabrielle's interest. She oiled and twisted her tresses into tight ringlets.

Engrossed Gabrielle watched Utaria's nimble fingers move lightning fast. Whom does she love? She has a magnetic aura. I guess nearly everyone is drawn to her. Gabrielle became unsettled over the notion. She pondered when her preference began. She by no means viewed other females in a sexual manner since meeting Xena, or contemplated the truth as regards her choices, until now.
Xena had imagined otherwise in relation to Najara. Gabrielle yearned for enlightenment. Najara claimed she was a crusader for good. Xena later exposed Najara' controlling, bloodthirsty and murderous nature.

Gabrielle's mind acknowledged the energy between she and Utaria. The dilemma over her growing attraction to the queen occupied her waking thoughts. Everyday Gabrielle with all of her being loved Xena back to life. Arousing her carnal feelings she perceived as betrayal to Xena's memory.

Utaria began wrapping a turban over her locks.

"No," Gabrielle blurted out.

"Gabrielle?" Utaria gave her a curious stare.

"Your have lovely curls," Gabrielle commented.

"Thank you." Utaria removed the headdress.

Gabrielle stared into Utaria's face. I know that look. Her inner voice murmured. She recognized the blush by the slight shift in Utaria's eyes.

"You may touch my head." Utaria took Gabrielle's petite hand.

Gabrielle combed her fingers gently through the curly strands. "The texture is bouncy." She began peppering Utaria with questions. "Why use grease? How often do you clean oiled hair?"

Utaria grinned. "We use palm oil to keep our mane in control. Nubian hair absorbs the grease well. I will wash it after five moons." She paused, "Would you like me to braid your hair?"

Gabrielle shook her shaggy blonde locks from her eyes. "Yes, please."

"Sit here," Utaria gestured for Gabrielle to settle back in-between her legs.

The initial awkwardness of the intimate contact only lasted a few moments. Once Gabrielle relaxed she felt very comfortable during the lengthy process.

When finished Utaria handed her a mirror glass.

Gabrielle gazed at her elaborate plaits. "I love the coloured beads woven into my braids. The style is similar to your own. Medaase."

"My pleasure. The braids are tight at first. Let me massage your scalp."

Gabrielle hummed with pleasure as Utaria's magical fingers eased the slight discomfort.

"I compare your hair with the finest silk threads. I confess, I know because the fever made you fearful and you hugged me," Utaria admitted.

"Luckily your highness, the action is not an offence."

Peals of laughter rang out.

* * * * *

At the foot of the mountain, the warrior's met Queen Utaria and Gabrielle with an exotic means of transport, a couple of elephants.

The animal trainer took a step towards the regal woman and gave a bow. He carried an open sack filled with peanuts.

Utaria grabbed a handful from the bag. She passed a few to Gabrielle. "Feed her she needs to smell you."

Gabrielle, wide-eyed, gawked up at the mighty beasts. Blue Eyes lifted her wrinkled appendage and brushed the tip across Gabrielle's face. Gabrielle placed the snacks in the centre of her palm and stretched her arm out. The animal sucked up the treats with its two-lipped snout. She giggled at the tickling sensation.

On the journey, Gabrielle reflected on the dialogue of truth ritual. The ceremony enabled her to say goodbye to Xena. Xena's death left mental scars. Gabrielle resolved that marks were meant to stay. She repeated the mantra. I will confront and overcome my fears. Her heart swelled with a newfound hope.

* * * * *

Queen Utaria and Gabrielle, aboard the magnificent beasts, travelled into the capital.

The town composed of wood and stone buildings, with a central market protected by a two-meter, high wall erected for defense.

Gabrielle sat in the Sedan chair perched atop the elephant. Her grip tightened on the decorated handrail. Blue eyes snout rose up to rest on her forearm. She can sense my anxiety. Gabrielle let go of the death grasp on the rail and patted the supple trunk. "Medaase."

Soldiers marshalled the throngs of people along the route. Many of them waved colourful banners and carried palm leaves for shade others held gaily coloured umbrellas. Dignitaries rode in gilded palanquins.

Utaria raised both arms. She held the sceptre and clenched her free hand into a fist. The smile and gaze encompassed the spectators. She called out, "The treaty is decided and peace is ours. Unity strengthens us..."

"Division weakens..." The crowd replied as one. Then began cheering. Their uplifting sound followed the procession through the gates to the palace.

The imposing, two-storey royal domicile spread along the enormous space in the natural landscaped gardens.

Household workers greeted the returning party with chants, "Akwaaba beloved queen Utaria."

"I am glad to be home safe amongst old friends," she dipped her head toward Gabrielle. "...And new acquaintances. Make welcome my guest, Greek Amazon queen Gabrielle."

Gabrielle gave a smile as the many curious faces fixed on her, voices welcoming and genuine.

With a tap from the trainer, the elephants lowered to their hunches. The women alighted, and the handlers led them away.

"The areas behind the gardens have enclosed pastures for them to graze. They are the single animals I keep captive."

"May I ask why?

"A gift from my parents." Utaria grinned in memory. "They are older than I am. These L-shape buildings are quarters for chiefs, their entourage and other royal servants."

Handmaidens rushed to attend queen Utaria and companion.

The temple doors flew open, and a wizened person, a baldhead covered by a shawl hobbled out aided by a gnarled stout walking stick.

"Nana Nenia, I missed you." Utaria threw her arms around the elderly woman, and lifted the short figure up.

"Granddaughter put me on my feet. I am not ready for the grave yet."

Gabrielle watched as Utaria kissed and squeezed her grandmother. A twinkle in the woman's eyes showed the love for Utaria.
"Nana Nenia, allow me to present the Greek Amazon queen, and bard. My new friend, Gabrielle."

Yaa ena Nenia refused the offer of support. She straightened her crooked back as old bones allowed. She watched as the blonde head bowed.

"Good afternoon, Yaa ena Nenia. Good be between you and the empty places that you walk." She correctly addressed the matriarch.

"Akwaaba, Gabrielle. So, she is the one long-expected." The elder turned and winked at Utaria.

In Gabrielle's mind Utaria became shy and awkward at the senior's words and actions.

"Come, your quarters is this way." Utaria shooed away the servants that rushed to help.

Gabrielle followed and climbed the stairway. Carvings, wall coverings, together with vases, plants and baskets containing exotic flowers decorated every room.

Nana Nenia met them in the main dining hall. "Gabrielle, please take refreshments." Yaa ena Nenia offered. "I think Utaria in the excitement has forgotten her manners."

The comment was acknowledged by a modest shrug from Utaria. Gabrielle liked the comfortable way between them.

One of the palace guards brought a message.

"Please excuse me for a moment. I am needed. I must attend to a pressing matter." Utaria left with the messenger.

Yaa ena Nenia and Gabrielle sat eating fruitcake and drinking juice. The impressive room was decorated with paintings depicting nature scenes, and Utaria's campaign victories. Two striking statues occupied one end of the hall.

"Who do the sculptures represent, Yaa ena Nenia?"

"Utaria's parents." Resting on both hands she propped her chin on the cane. "I am not related by a bloodline. Her mother was a dear friend. Queen Shakhete named me as a surrogate on her deathbed."

As they conversed Gabrielle learned Yaa ena Nenia, aged eighty-five years old, was the oldest member of the household. The topic soon turned to Utaria. "Yaa ena Nenia, since my arrival on Meroe shores Utaria, has been supportive and a source of strength for me," she informed the elder.

"Utaria is a dearly loved granddaughter and leader. She has so much love still to give."
She became excited and spoke faster. Gabrielle found it difficult to translate the garbled words due to the lack of teeth in her mouth.

Utaria rejoined the women. She heard just enough comments to be embarrassed. "Grandmother please stop Gabrielle knows sufficient about me." At the senior's insistence she explained. "Nana Nenia speaks of an old Meroe saying. A friend in need is a friend indeed."

Gabrielle simply nodded then added, "I agree." Her eyes became misty at the memories of the last five months. "Before I met Utaria I wanted the sun to stop shining and for me to cease to exist. Within a short time she turned out to be a good friend."

"My pleasure." Utaria eased into a warm, bashful grin.

Yaa ena Nenia watched the interaction between the two women. She cracked a toothless smile and clapped her arthritic hands together, amused by her private thoughts.

* * * * *

The Nubian queen was full of surprises; the best kept of those came hurtling into the room.

Gabrielle was shocked to discover Utaria had two lovable little secrets. Ayo and his sister, Akilah aged eight. She had taken the delightful pair into her royal home. Orphans were usually included into relative's household, failing that the whole village helped to raise them.

Utaria explained to Gabrielle. "The twins are from the coastal tribes. Five years ago, they were saved from slavers who took their parents and other family members. The children were hidden from the raiders and brought to me at the encampment."

Gabrielle noted the loving gaze Ayo and Akilah had for Utaria; each child arm wrapped around one of her legs.

"They are my pillars, constantly at my side."

"Except when you go to the mountain," Akilah reminded her.

"Exactly." Utaria smiled with pride, the smaller hands engulfed by her larger ones. "I want to introduce you to someone. This is Gabrielle, she is an Amazon queen from a land called Greece." She urged the pair forward.

"Akwaaba, Yaa ena Gabrielle," the dimpled twosome chorused, with gracious bows.

Charmed, Gabrielle returned the bow. "I am pleased to meet you.

Akilah wide grin tweaked the dimple in her cheek. She held out a chubby hand to the bard. Gabrielle clasped the small fingers and shook her hand.

The girl stepped back. She tugged Utaria's dress. Utaria kneeled and listened as Akilah whispered something in her ear. "She is the eldest. It falls to her to question you. What are you called in Meroe?" She reported.

Gabrielle crouched to speak with the youngster. "I do not have one. Utaria described me by a special title once."

"Abrihet." Utaria met the glance with a raised eyebrow.

The little girl's eyes danced with mischief; she looked over to her brother. "Me and Ayo think Jwahir, golden woman." The twins giggled at their joke.

"Children, manners." Utaria scolded.

"We are sorry, Yaa ena Gabrielle."

"I forgive you both." Gabrielle took pity and beamed into the cute faces. "Jwahir is okay. I prefer Abrihet."

"Maame picked an excellent one for me. I am the clever person who reasons," Akilah said.

"Utaria is correct." Gabrielle looked enquiring at the tall woman. Maame? She mouthed. Utaria shrugged happily.

Ayo sucked his thumb and stared. He wiped the spit from his finger, and came a couple of steps nearer. The boy offered his podgy hand for Gabrielle to hold.

"Hello," Gabrielle looked at the bright eyes peering up at her.

"Well, Ayo, I see you have charmed our visitor," Utaria began chuckling.

"He is a clever fellow." Yaa ena Nenia wagged a digit of her bent hand at his cheeky face.

Akilah copied her grandmother. "Ayo, you are a smart little man," she waved her fingers sternly.

Ayo released Gabrielle's hand. He gave chase after his sibling.

Akilah shrieked and ran the other side of the table to escape.
The pair rushed to Utaria's side. They launched themselves into her body, nearly toppling her.

Gabrielle, along with Yaa ena Nenia, grimaced in sympathy.

Utaria's long arms scooped them in a bear hug. She flung the children to the floor, where a tickle fight ensued.

"Akilah, Ayo. Aa!" A singing voice stopped the fun. In hurried Chiku, the nanny. She bowed. "Mo highness, forgive my intrusion." She hustled the twin's away to wash before evening meal.

* * * * *

At supper, Gabrielle's heart warmed at the sight of the twins close as possible at Utaria's side. A patient and a nurturing influence for them.

"Chiku means chatterer." Gabrielle conversed with the sturdy, middle-aged woman sat across from her. The nanny spoke nonstop, and finished every sentence with a clap, and the words "Aa!"

Assigned a suite near the queen's, Gabrielle walked past the door to the nursery and entered her luxury rooms. She peered out her window overlooking the rear palace gardens. The palatial surroundings made her wistful for the rugged mountain camp. She gazed up at the cloudless, night sky. I miss you, Xena. Gabrielle sighed.

* * * * *

Chapter 10

Meroe nation prized the Maka'da who memorize their history. Gabrielle welcomed the change from the constant fighting. She received the best training any bard in Greece could hope for, and time passed. Everywhere Gabrielle went she met with greetings of "Jambo, Jambo," huge grins and children's laughter.

She and Nyaga sat in the rear gardens. They opened story time to all offspring of courtiers, servants and locals daily. The Maka'di encouraged Gabrielle to recite yarns of brave warriors and vengeful gods. She had a knack for explaining the culture of far away lands to the eager brood.

The talented siblings, mainly her shadow Ayo, his name meant joy, became a constant source of delight for her. Ayo had talent for the drums. Queen Utaria engaged Tunde, a master tutor. He played at the beginning and end of the children's daytime sessions. The instrument did not interest Akilah. She told a good tale herself. Disciplined, she kept a watchful eye on the younger children, making sure they behaved. Her usual seat beside Nyaga remained empty.

"Ayo, where is Akilah?"

The boy wrinkled his forehead, trying to figure out the answer. "Her bedroom, Yaa ena Gabrielle."

Gabrielle went to find Akilah. She stopped to watch the children at back of the storage huts making bracelets. The younger kids carried the haul of round and oval-shaped grain to the older ones, who bored holes in the seeds with a nail. Everyone helped to string the kernels on to thin strips of leather.

She entered the cool palace and climbed the stairs. Gabrielle approached the nursery and heard music. She poked her head into the room.

Akilah sat crossed legged on her bed. Her hand fluttered over the three tone holes. She navigated two slots on the downside with her thumb. Her eyes widened surprised to see Gabrielle in the doorway. She stopped playing the delicate melody. "Jambo, Yaa ena Gabrielle."

"Jambo, Akilah." You make a pleasing sound. I used to play a flute, but it had three gaps. I must tell your Maame."

Akilah beamed with pride. She got off the bed and threw herself at Gabrielle, hugging her around the waist.

* * * * *
Lost in thought, Gabrielle bumped into Utaria in the corridor. "Jambo, Utaria."

"Jambo. Forgive my lack of hospitality. The court and other affairs have been constant," Utaria gazed into Gabrielle's face. Ete sen? You look happier."

"Aane, better, Medaase." Gabrielle felt lighter in her mind, and the heavy pain had eased in her chest. "I am loving a bath." She wrinkled her nose.

"Always a pleasure, mo highness." She half grinned.

"I miss our time on the mountains." Gabrielle just realized she enjoyed time with Utaria and craved it.

Utaria blushed at the sudden comment. Gabrielle recognized the exposed gaze. The sight took her breath away.

"I will rectify the situation soon as possible. I promise."

Gabrielle viewed Utaria a wise and exemplary ruler. Seldom unjust her deeds showed her disgust of injustice against any person.

Her court was made up of scholars, engineers, architects, philosophers, healers, artists, musicians, singers and other performers. Gabrielle enjoyed the academic life of the palace.

Royal drummers and singers announced the night's event. Gabrielle assembled with Utaria, Yaa ena Nenia, Chiku and the twins to listen to Nyaga. Ba'ani attended, when her duties allowed. Most stories concerned everyday life. Each yarn a moral tale.

Nyaga set up the fable. "Tonight the story is the shape shifting trickster. Tricksters delighted in breaking rules, boasting, and playing tricks on both humans and gods. They were often in the guise of animals or sometimes appeared as a man. A smooth talker weaving his way in and out of trouble."

Gabrielle had chosen to sit cross-legged on cushions with the children. She described her meet with the one-eyed monster. "The trickster reminds me of my younger self. I used my wit to outsmart the Cyclops. Luckily, giants are not very bright."

She glanced up to see Utaria watching her. Their gaze met, exchanging secrets and intense emotions. Gabrielle smiled and nodded, wisps of happiness began to rise in her breast.

* * * * *

Queen Utaria kept her word. She planned a surprise for Gabrielle. A special trip arranged to visit Xena's Baobab tree.

In spite of the twins badgering they remained at the palace. Royal children were forbidden to travel with the Queen.

She led Gabrielle along a new path in the mountain. The women found a wide view where they sat observing the night sky.

Gabrielle shivered in the chill of the evening.

"You may share my body heat?" Utaria opened her shawl.

"Medaase." Gabrielle moved nearer.

Utaria began to tell the bard a story. "The world is an enormous, sacred calabash. Heaven is the masculine part. Earth is the feminine side. She is fertile, nurturing and feeds the people. The throne design follows the same idea."

"How so?"

"My royal chair is shaped from a single block of wood cut into two base parts supported by five columns. A single pillar is the sky, another the land. The front two signify fire and water, a central post denotes lightning. Meroe believes major forces regulate fertility, the seasons and time itself."

Gabrielle blinked several times. Listening to the dulcet tones made her strangely tearful. "You narrate a superb tale." The bard's hand reached to link with Utaria's fingers. She leaned against the tall woman's shoulder.

Utaria looked at Gabrielle. She hoped her beating heart was not as loud as it sounded to her. "Your beauty equals the stars."

Gabrielle was speechless, overcome by her emotions she nestled tighter to Utaria's warm body.

Queen Utaria lowered her cheek to rest on the blonde crown. She caressed Gabrielle's arm in a soothing and comforting manner.

* * * * *

Everyone was expected to take part in the major rituals. People, common and nobles, sang and danced along with the drums, for which they were famous. At festivals and rituals the people wore masks.
"Just like to the Greek amazons." Gabrielle thought for the hundredth time. Her naming day loomed. She received further instruction on the formal custom from Utaria. She brimmed to overflowing.

They carved pieces of bark into symbols. She chose the walnut heart, ram's head, snake, moon and star. The signs represent friendships to adjust and withstand problems.

Nyaga used a black colour to draw lines on the fabric to divide into squares.

Gabrielle dipped the shapes into the bowl of dye. She printed one in each cube. "The method is an exciting change from quill and papyrus. I am pleased with the names Utaria chose for me. Are two usual?"

"Aane, in a lifetime a person may acquire many praise titles."

Tell me of Nyaga?"

"My name means life is precious."

"A great title."

"Medaase." The Maka'di grinned behind her palm. The gesture had become a habit, as she was conscious of her prominent front teeth.

"You decided to stop doing that. General Ba'ani thinks you are gorgeous."

Nyaga squealed and covered her ears. "No, I have gone deaf."

"Yes true."

* * * * *

Days later, Gabrielle admired her finished garments in her room.

"May I enter?" The Maka'di stood in the doorway.

"Please come. She grinned with pride. "My cloth turned out well."

Nyaga entered and sat on the bench beside the door. "The dress suits you. Will you leave us? Our queen will not ask you."

The sharp nature surprised Gabrielle. "What do you mean?

"Queen Utaria fears nothing, except your departure. She gave you the slippers."

Gabrielle reflected back to the day. When I recovered from the 'killing fever,' Utaria presented me with unique leather sandals. There were tiny signs carved on the straps.
"The symbols!" You have stolen my heart.

"The gesture was the queen's way of expressing she cared for you. Her manners are beyond reproach. She cannot impose unwanted attentions."

The claim upset Gabrielle, through fear she ignored her feelings. She clutched the dress to her chest as a safety blanket. I need to be honest with myself, and her. "I will make it right, Nyaga."

"Aane. My eyes see the magic between you." The Maka'di smile held a friendly challenge. "Come, try the outfit."

Gabrielle chanced on Ba'ani leaving. She had disturbing news. "Our ruler has decreed the soldiers be prepared for battle. A struggle is ahead of us. The Romans broke a promise, and now want Meroe to pay tribute."

"I know the greed and cruelty of Romans. I am sadden their grasp has once again reached Meroe."

"Do not worry, armed conflict is not imminent."

* * * * *

Gabrielle shifted on her naming stool next to Utaria's throne in the banqueting hall. Alongside, Yaa ena Nenia, Chiku, Ba'ani and Nyaga bedecked in royal splendour. Courtiers and many invited guests assembled.

She recalled the moving service.

Handmaidens washed and dressed her in the Meroe outfit complete with sandals. She accepted the names Abagebe Abrihet, 'The one long-expected who emanates light.' They paraded the bard through the city square, and then back to the palace gardens. She had to sit down on the personal chair, not once but threefold. They gave another to place in the home in Greece. To finish she was dusted with powder to represent the blessings of the ancestors.

The cooks prepared a banquet of her favourite dishes, and sweets. She smiled happily and glanced at the siblings, sat in between her and Utaria, munching on the various sweet dishes.

Revelry went on into the night. Gabrielle's features ached from the genuine smiles bestowed on many. It appears most of the city turned out for the social gathering.

* * * * *

Gabrielle lay in her bed too excited to fall asleep. Her mind whirled in a haze of sensations. There came an urgent knocking on her door. She recognised the hushed voice.

"Gabrielle, are you awake?"

Utaria waited at the doorway carrying a stole. She greeted with a tilt of the head, and a charming smile on her face. "You are lovely."

Her chest tight with emotions, a blush crept up to the roots of her hair. "You too."

Utaria draped the shawl over Gabrielle's shoulders. She offered a hand. "Come. A truly wondrous sight has occurred."

They climbed the stairs to the roof. The Nubian drew Gabrielle to sit on the carved bench. She pointed to the heavens.

Gabrielle inhaled. Utaria's hand tightened around hers.

The full moon gleamed. This was the second to occur within one season. A rare blue star cluster twinkled and cast a distinct hue.

Utaria turned to Gabrielle, her visage filled with unspoken feelings.

Gabrielle gazed into brown eyes, and everything tumbled into place. Xena's words played in her mind. Meroe is the key. Remember to follow your heart. Honour my memory and live your life.

She slid closer into the personal space of a tearful Utaria. "This battle weary bard wishes to stay in Meroe with you. One sunrise at a time."

Utaria took Gabrielle into her arms. "You are my happiness."

Gabrielle responded by meeting and covering soft lips with intense, loving kisses. She touched her full body against the one who secretly captured her broken spirit, mended it, and expected nothing in return.

The women sat silent in a warm embrace, gazing up at the event in the sky. Utaria hummed the tune Gabrielle first listened to at the mountain camp. She then began singing.
"I will love and cherish you,
I will nourish and nurture you,
I will delight in your growth anew...
As good wine,
I will savour you,
I will tenderly cultivate and teach you...
Now you walk the path of love,
And maturity,
Follow it naturally,
Safe in the knowledge,
Of the new awakening...

This precious new facet of love,
Is clear to see,
The new awakening,
Is me...
Trust in you,
Trust in you and me,
Drink deeply,
Of our loving friendship cup,
Drink deeply..."

Utaria's melodic tones and words swelled Gabrielle's heart, and carried her back to their time spent at the glade. With tears of newfound happiness shining, Gabrielle sent Xena her thoughts.

In spite of death Xena, I believe in some way you set up the occasion. Your final plan executed. You always believed everything happens precisely as they should. My love for you remains aflame. Here, a surprising new love sits beside me. The magical sign is your blessing. Perchance when the moon is blue, the fates grant us a soul mate twice.



Positive comments welcome. Feed me carefully, at jenar@hotmail.co.uk
My poetry can be found at http://www.sapphicvoices.com/authoresses/RobinsonJA.html

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