The autumn rains had come early that year, which made the journey north a cold and miserable experience for Xena and Gabrielle. Their plan was to go first to Poteidaia and spend a month or two visiting with the bard's family, after which they would continue on to Amphipolis and stay at least as long with Xena's mother and brother. The weather did not permit camping out, except when they could find caves or other shelter. But Gabrielle soon became so good at convincing innkeepers to provide a room and meal in exchange for an evening of her storytelling that the two women rarely lacked for decent lodging.
They had made it as far as Therma, still about three days' travel from Poteidaia, when they heard some alarming news.
"Amphipolis!" the innkeeper exclaimed, upon learning their ultimate destination. "I hear they've got sickness there."
"What kind of sickness?" asked Xena, frowning.
"Well, a fellow was through here not two days ago, and he said practically the whole town's got the smallpox, and quite a few people have already died."
"Smallpox," repeated Xena, in a voice with an edge of fear to it. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, ma'am. Quite sure."
"And you're certain it was Amphipolis the man was talking about?" asked Gabrielle.
"Oh, yes. It was Amphipolis all right," he asserted, then he shook his head. "No, I wouldn't go anywhere near that town, if I were you." He set two plates of food down on their table and then moved away.
Gabrielle looked at Xena, whose attention seemed to be focused on some distant object.
"We have to go there," the warrior said in a flat tone of voice.
"Yes, of course we do," Gabrielle agreed, reaching out to squeeze her lover's hand. "We have to make sure Cyrene and Toris are all right. And maybe we can be of help somehow."
Xena looked at her then. "You don't have to go with me, you know. "You can go on south to Poteidaia, and I'll come get you when the danger has passed."
"No, Xena. That's not how we do things. I go where you go, remember?"
"No arguments," the bard said firmly. "We'll leave first thing in the morning. We can visit my family later -- after we've been to Amphipolis."
"All right, if you're sure," Xena said, and then gave her a grateful smile.
"I'm sure," Gabrielle replied. "And anyway, you'd do the same thing for me. Now, eat your food before it gets cold."
They left the next morning at first light. The day turned out to be clear and sunny, so the women were able to make good time, despite the muddy roads. They rode double on Argo most of the time, getting off to walk whenever the mare needed rest. That night they found shelter in a deserted barn, and then set out again at dawn.
The clouds began gathering around midday, and a couple of hours later the rain started. Xena and Gabrielle stopped long enough to put on their oiled-skin ponchos and then rode on. Before long, the downpour increased, and as Gabrielle felt the cold dampness soaking through to her clothes, she wrapped her arms tightly around her companion in an effort to keep warm.
"There's a cave not too far from here," Xena called back to the bard. "Maybe we should stop there for a while."
"Good idea!" returned Gabrielle, raising her voice to be heard over the pounding rain. Then she felt the warrior's legs kick against Argo's flanks as she urged the mare to quicken her pace.
Afterwards, Gabrielle had tormented herself, wondering whether, if she had not had her face pressed so tightly against Xena's back, she might have been able to see what was about to happen -- might have been able to prevent it somehow. But in the end, she knew that nothing could have been done. Even Xena had not known -- had not foreseen the event until it was too late.
It had all happened so quickly, and yet Gabrielle could still remember every detail -- the sudden, terrible lurch to the right as Argo slipped, and Xena's cry of "Jump!" And then the warrior's arm shoving her off the horse, and that terrifying sensation of flying through the air, knowing she was about to hit the ground, and hit it hard. And after that, there had been the shock, the breathless jolt to every part of her body as she landed, and she heard, at the same time, a sickening thud as the mare fell heavily to the ground. Then finally, most horrible of all, Xena's scream of pain.
For several long moments, Gabrielle did not move -- could not move -- could not even be sure what had happened. She could only lie facedown in the mud, gasping for breath as the rain beat down on her head and pounded the soggy earth around her. But finally she raised her head and wiped an arm across her eyes. Then, turning to look back over her shoulder, she saw Argo lying in the mud a few paces away, and Xena there, too, sort of curled up on her side, with her left leg still straddling the mare. Argo raised her head then, looked around for a moment as if dazed, and began thrashing her legs in an effort to stand up. Gaining her footing at last on the slippery ground, she staggered to her feet. As she did so, Xena let out a sharp moan, and Gabrielle suddenly remembered the scream she had heard earlier.
Pushing herself up, she scrambled on all fours to the spot where her lover lay. Wet, tangled hair hid Xena's face, and Gabrielle brushed this aside, revealing skin that had turned a sickly shade of white.
Xena opened her eyes. "Gabrielle?" she murmured.
"I'm right here, Love. Are you badly hurt?"
"My leg," she said through clenched teeth.
"The left one?"
"No. The right."
Gabrielle saw then how the right leg stuck out from under the left one, strangely askew and crumpled-looking. And a cold, sick feeling came over her as she realized what must have happened. "Was your leg under Argo when she fell?" she asked.
"Okay," Gabrielle said, taking a deep breath and trying to push back the panic that suddenly threatened to overwhelm her. "Why don't you roll over on your back, so I can get a better look."
The warrior eased herself over, gritting her teeth as she did so. Then, reaching down, she quickly hit two pressure points on her thigh. "There, that's better!" she gasped with relief.
Gabrielle bent to look at the injured leg, gingerly touching the cold, wet skin of her lover's thigh.
"Help me sit up," Xena said, reaching out a hand. "I want to see it."
Gabrielle pulled her up and put an arm around her for support while the older woman ran her hands carefully over her thigh and down along the boot.
"Is it broken?" the bard asked.
"Yes. In several places, I think. And my foot's probably broken, too."
Gabrielle shuddered slightly. "Do you want to take off your boot?"
"No, not yet. I think it will help to have the extra support. But you can go ahead and pull my shin guards off."
Then, before Gabrielle could move to do that, Xena reached out and took hold of her arm. "What about you?" she said. "Are you hurt?"
"No, Xena, I'm fine. Don't worry about me. I got the wind knocked out of me, and I'll likely have a few bruises, but otherwise I'm fine."
Xena nodded and wiped the rain and wet hair off her face. Then she pulled the now-muddy oiled skin closer around her shoulders.
"How far is that cave?" Gabrielle asked as she carefully eased the shin guards off. "We need to get you out of this rain."
"It's not much farther, I don't think."
"Will you be able to ride?"
Xena considered for a few moments and then said, "I think I can if I stand with one foot in the stirrup and hold onto the saddle horn. You'll have to ride the same way on the other side, though, to balance the load."
"Okay," Gabrielle said. "I'll bring Argo over." She looked up then and saw that the mare had moved only a few paces away from them and now stood with head down, watching them, as if she felt guilty about what had happened.
"Lead her around a little bit first, so I can see if she's hurt," Xena said.
Gabrielle got up and walked over to the horse. "Hey, girl," she said softly as she stroked the mare's nose. "It wasn't your fault, you know."
Argo snorted softly and turned her head to look at Xena. Gabrielle opened a saddlebag and stuffed the warrior's shin guards inside. Then she took hold of the bridle and led the animal in a wide circle that ended where Xena sat.
"She doesn't seem to be limping," Gabrielle said. "Do you think she's all right?"
"As far as I can tell, she is," the older woman responded. Then she reached out a hand to grasp Gabrielle's arm and pull herself up to a standing position. Taking hold of the saddle horn, she used both hands to lift herself up so that she could put her left foot in the stirrup, leaving her right leg dangling, limp and useless. "Go mount on the other side," Xena said, gesturing with her head.
Gabrielle hurried around the horse, quickly stuck her foot in the stirrup, and pulled herself up. Hanging onto the saddle horn with one hand, she put her other arm around the warrior's shoulders and pulled her close in a hug. "It's going to be all right," she said. "It's got to be."
Xena buried her face against the bard's neck for a moment and nodded. Then she lifted her head and clucked to Argo. The mare turned to look back briefly at her strange load, and then set off walking slowly along the road.
* * * * *
It wasn't all that far to the cave, just as Xena had said, but it seemed to take forever to get there. The position they had assumed aboard Argo was awkward and difficult to maintain, but by holding onto the saddle horn and to each other, they managed. Xena let her head rest on Gabrielle's shoulder, and the bard could hear her lover's breathing, fast and uneven, and she thought she could feel the other woman trembling.
"Is this hurting you?" she asked.
"No, not with the pinch on," Xena responded. "But I keep thinking about how much it will hurt when I take the pinch off."
"How long can you leave it on?"
"It's probably been on too long already, but I want to leave it until we get the leg set."
"Xena, you know I've never set bones before, don't you?"
"I know. I'll tell you what to do." She raised her head and peered through the rain. "That cave's just over there, a little ways off the road," she said. Then she let go of Gabrielle and picked up the reins to guide Argo.
Fortunately, the cave had a wide, high mouth that allowed them to ride all the way in without dismounting. Gabrielle jumped down and hurried around to Xena's side of the horse. "Do you want me to put down a blanket first for you to sit on?" she asked.
"Yeah," the warrior said. "Maybe over there in that space between the fire circle and the wall." Then she lowered her left foot carefully to the ground and stood holding onto the saddle horn while Gabrielle untied the bedroll.
"Let's hope our blankets and furs didn't get too wet," the bard said as she unwrapped the oiled skin that protected the bedding. It seemed strange to be talking about mundane things like wet blankets -- just as if this were an ordinary campsite on a day when nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Shaking out a nice, thick fur, she spread it on the ground near the wall. "There's a big stack of dry firewood in here," she went on. "That's lucky for us, isn't it?"
"Uh-huh," Xena answered in a distracted tone. "We should replace it before we leave."
Gabrielle stripped off her poncho and tossed it aside. Then she helped Xena take hers off, along with her weapons and armor, and wrapped a wool blanket around the warrior's shoulders. "Are you ready?" she asked.
Xena put her arm across the younger woman's shoulders and leaned heavily as she hopped slowly over to the fur. With a sigh, she sank down on it with her legs out in front of her.
Gabrielle knelt and began to loosen the laces of Xena's right boot. The cave's broad opening allowed a good deal of light to enter, so it was fairly easy to see what she was doing. But she knew there could be disadvantages to such a cave, too. "This isn't a very cozy place, is it?" she asked, glancing up at Xena.
"No. It's better for summer camping. But at least we're out of the rain." She shivered and pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders.
"Are you cold?" Gabrielle asked.
"I'll build a fire as soon as we get your leg taken care of."
She worked as quickly as possible to pull the laces loose, opening the boot up fully before finally easing it off Xena's foot. The flesh that had been encased in the leather was already turning various shades of purple, she noted, and had begun to swell.
Xena bent forward and ran her fingers over the lower leg and foot, probing carefully, while Gabrielle unlaced the other boot and pulled it off.
"Okay," Gabrielle said then, "I guess we'll need some splints and--" She stopped as Xena looked at her, eyes full of raw despair. "It's really bad, isn't it?" the bard asked softly.
Xena nodded and then peered down at her leg again. "My knee seems to be all right," she said after a moment, "but everything else is . . ." Her voice trailed off.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and struggled to keep her panic in check. "How many splints do we need?" she asked finally.
"Four, at least, for the leg, and maybe another two or three for the foot. See if there are some sticks in the woodpile we can use."
Sorting quickly through the collection of firewood, Gabrielle found several sticks that seemed straight and smooth enough to serve their purpose. Then she dug into the saddlebags, looking for old pieces of cloth to tie the splints with, but she didn't find much. She would have to cut strips from one of their blankets, she decided.
Crossing back to where Xena sat, Gabrielle knelt down again and put the sticks, cloth, blanket, and a sharp knife on the ground. Then she ran her hands tentatively over Xena's thigh, feeling the bulge where the bone was broken. She looked up into her lover's blue eyes. "What if I can't do this right?" she said.
"I don't know if Asclepius himself could set breaks like these," the warrior responded grimly. Then she attempted a smile and added, "Just do the best you can."
Gabrielle swallowed hard and nodded.
"Let's start with the thigh bone," Xena said. "Take hold of my leg right here, above the knee and give a slow, steady pull. I'll try to feel when the bones are aligned."
Looking back, Gabrielle could not help blaming herself that the bone-setting turned out so badly. If only she had known more about what she was doing, surely she could have made the fractures line up neatly so they could heal properly. But Xena had never blamed her -- not Xena, who had used those few split-seconds while Argo was falling to push Gabrielle away from harm instead of trying to save herself. How differently might it all have turned out if it had been her own leg that was crushed instead of Xena's? A crippled bard was a matter of no great importance, but a crippled warrior -- well, that was a contradiction in terms.
When they had set the leg as best they could, Gabrielle wrapped cloth around the splints for padding, and then tied them on -- two on the thigh, and two on the lower leg. After that, she rigged another, rather crude splint to hold Xena's foot straight and at a right angle to her leg.
"You'll need to keep checking these bindings, and loosen them as my leg swells," the warrior said.
"I will," Gabrielle assured her. Then she saw the pallor of her lover's skin, and the sheen of perspiration on her face. "Are you in pain?" she asked.
"No, but I'm about to be," Xena said grimly. Then she took a deep breath, and released the pressure points. A moment later, she let out an agonized cry and clutched at Gabrielle.
"It's all right. Just hang onto me," the younger woman said, wrapping her arms around the warrior and pulling her close. "Yell as much you want to."
But Xena did not yell. She only moaned a little, her breath coming in ragged gasps as she clung to Gabrielle. Then, suddenly, she pushed herself away from the bard, leaned over the other direction, and began to vomit.
Gabrielle ran to get the waterskin and wet a cloth. "Why don't you lie down?" she said, as she gently wiped Xena's face. Then she helped the warrior stretch out and covered her with a blanket. "What do you want for the pain?" she asked.
"Opium," Xena whispered.
"Okay, I'll get it." Gabrielle hurried to find Xena's herbs in one of the saddlebags, along with a mug. Opium was one thing they almost always carried with them. It was readily available in most town markets, and sometimes Xena harvested it herself when they came across poppies in the right season. A potent remedy for pain relief, it was usually reserved for cases of severe need. This was the first time Gabrielle had ever seen her lover use it for herself.
Opening the packet that contained the brown powder, the bard poured out a bit into the palm of her hand. "This much?" she asked, showing it to Xena.
"A little more."
Gabrielle increased the amount, dumped it into the mug, and added about three fingers of water. She swirled the mixture for a few moments and then lifted Xena's head. The warrior took hold of the mug and drank its contents in quick, desperate swallows. Then she lay back and closed her eyes.
"Now we just have to wait for it to work," Gabrielle said, setting the mug aside and taking one of Xena's hands between her own. The hand was cold, and the bard massaged it gently to warm it.
Xena opened her eyes. "I'll be all right," she said. "Go make the fire."
"I'll get you another blanket first," said Gabrielle. There was only one left, and she tucked it carefully around her injured companion. Then she laid the fire, lit it, and fed the flames until they were burning brightly.
Returning to Xena, she sat cross-legged on the fur beside her. The warrior lay with her eyes closed. Her breathing had become slower and more even, and the yellow glow of firelight made her skin appear warmer and less pale. But when Gabrielle laid her hand on her lover's cheek, she found it cool and moist. "Xena?" she said softly.
The blue eyes opened and turned to her, but there was an unfocused look to them now.
"How are you doing?" asked Gabrielle.
"Better," Xena murmured. "Doesn't hurt as much."
"Good," the bard said as she smoothed the damp hair back from the warrior's forehead.
"You need to unsaddle Argo," Xena said, speaking slowly, as if she couldn't quite remember what she wanted to say.
"Yes. I'll take care of her. Don't worry."
"It wasn't her fault."
"No, of course not."
"It was my fault," Xena went on in a vague tone of voice. "Going too fast."
"It was nobody's fault," Gabrielle assured her. "It was an accident, that's all."
Xena looked at her with eyes that seemed glassy and uncomprehending. Then, after a moment, she said, "I feel like I'm floating."
"That's good, Xena. Just close your eyes and go to sleep. Let all the pain drift away."
"Stay with me."
"I will. I'll be right here when you wake up."
The warrior's eyes slowly closed, and her breathing deepened still more.
Gabrielle bent and kissed her lover's cheek. "I love you, Xena," she whispered. Then she sat watching the warrior's quiet form until she became aware of the cold hand of fear tightening around her gut, and a shiver ran through her. No, she thought. She couldn't let herself start being afraid like this. She had to believe that everything would be all right. Xena's leg would heal and life would go on, just like before. It had to. She couldn't even imagine another kind of life for the two of them
Shaking her head to throw off the mood of gloom, Gabrielle got to her feet. There was work to be done, and doing it would help keep her mind off of other things. She began by cleaning up the vomit, and then turned her attention to Argo. The mare had been standing patiently all this time just inside the cave mouth. She seemed happy when the bard relieved her of the saddle and bridle, and shook herself by way of emphasizing the point. Pulling a currycomb out of one of the saddlebags, Gabrielle spent some time brushing the dried mud off the horse's right side, then ran her hands down each leg to check for swelling or other injuries.
When she finished, Argo whickered softly and then turned and trotted out of the cave. The rain had let up, Gabrielle realized, and looking out, she could see a wooded area that began about seventy-five paces from the cave, with a small stream running through it. They would need water, and quite a bit of firewood -- especially if they had to stay here for a while. And then there was the matter of food. They had enough dried fish, vegetables, and fruit to last a few days, but after that-- Well, she would worry about that later.
* * * * *
By the time it got dark an hour later, Gabrielle had gathered a sizable quantity of wood and stacked it near the fire to dry. Then she checked Xena's leg and, alarmed to see how swollen it had become, quickly set about loosening the splint bindings. She thought back to the time she had sprained her ankle while learning to do flips, and remembered that Xena had used cold water to reduce the swelling and had made her keep her foot elevated. After giving the matter a few minutes' consideration, Gabrielle brought several pieces of the newly-gathered firewood over and slid them under Xena's leg to raise it. She worked carefully, not wanting to wake her lover or cause her pain, but although Xena sighed once or twice, she seemed oblivious to Gabrielle's ministrations. When she had finished propping up the leg, the bard took what was left of the blanket she'd cut strips from, soaked it in the cold water of the stream, and then laid it over the swollen limb.
After that, she cooked a small pot of fish broth, to which she added a few vegetables. She was not very hungry, but she ate a bowlful of it, along with a piece of hard brown bread, saving some for Xena, in case the warrior wanted something to eat later on. Checking the broken leg, Gabrielle was relieved to see that the swelling had not gotten any worse. She wet the compress again and reapplied it, then put on her nightshift. There were no covers left for her to use, so, with a whispered apology, she took the second blanket off Xena, wrapped it around herself, and curled up on the fur beside her injured lover.
For a long time she could not sleep. And then, when she did doze off at last, she dreamed that she was setting bones -- grotesquely fractured bones whose ends would not match up no matter how much she pulled and twisted them. She woke to find Xena restless and somewhat feverish, though apparently still asleep. Moaning and speaking in words that Gabrielle could not understand, the injured woman soon became so agitated that the bard began to fear that the splints would be dislodged.
"Xena!" she called, shaking her by the shoulder. "Xena, wake up!"
The warrior woke with a small gasp and stared at Gabrielle with eyes full of fear and confusion.
"It's all right," the younger woman said, reaching out to caress her lover's cheek. "You were just having a bad dream, I think."
Xena didn't answer, but raised her head and cast her gaze quickly around the firelit cavern. Then, pulling the wet piece of blanket off her leg, she regarded it for a long moment before sinking back onto the fur. "It wasn't a dream," she said dully.
"No," Gabrielle agreed, then added, "I wish it had been." She took one of Xena's hands in hers.
The warrior looked at her for a moment, and then tightened her grip. "Gabrielle," she said in an urgent tone, "what if I can't ever walk again? Or fight? Or ride Argo?"
"Xena, don't talk like that. Of course you'll walk again. I mean, you might have a little bit of a limp, but I'm sure your leg will heal up. It's just going to take time is all."
"I don't know," Xena said, shaking her head. "I have a bad feeling about this whole thing." Then she sighed and looked away.
Gabrielle felt a chill run through her, but she took a deep breath and then pressed Xena's hand against her cheek for a few moments. "How's the pain?" she asked then. "Do you need more opium?"
"I made some fish broth," Gabrielle said while she mixed another dose of the herb. "Would you like a little of that?"
"No," Xena said in a tired voice. "I just want to sleep."
"Okay, here you go," Gabrielle said, and helped Xena drink from the mug. "I think I'll just check the splints again," she added when her companion lay back down. "Your leg was swelling so much that I had to prop it up and put this cold, wet blanket on it."
"Uh-huh," Xena murmured groggily. "That was the right thing . . . to do," she finished, and then closed her eyes.
By the time Gabrielle finished with the splint bindings, and made a trip outside to wet the blanket again, Xena had slipped back into unconsciousness. The bard tucked the blanket carefully around her lover, then sighed softly and got up to add wood to the fire. After that, she sat for a long time, staring into the flames. When she finally lay back down, she slept only fitfully, waking often to feed the fire and check Xena's leg.
The warrior woke again just before dawn and asked for more opium. Gabrielle watched the drug take its soothing effect, and then, feeling exhausted, she curled up once more next to her lover. Almost immediately, she fell into the deep sleep that had eluded her all night. And when she opened her eyes again, it was midmorning.
After making sure that Xena was still sleeping peacefully, and that her leg appeared a little less swollen, Gabrielle got dressed and went outside to wash her face and get a drink. Then she came back into the cave and ate a quick breakfast of cheese and dried figs.
When she had finished that, she stood looking out of the cave, trying to decide what to do next. Argo had already settled that question for herself, and was grazing among the trees near the stream. The day was heavily overcast, which made Gabrielle suspect they would have more rain later on. Turning to look at the firewood, she saw that most of the original supply of dry wood was already gone. What she had gathered yesterday was now dry and ready to burn, but there wasn't enough to last all day and through the night, as well.
She checked again on Xena, then took one of the oiled skins to carry wood in, and set out. She went farther and was gone longer than she meant to be, and when she returned, she saw that her injured companion was awake.
Dumping her load of firewood on the far side of the fire, she went to kneel beside the warrior. "How are you feeling?" she asked.
"The pain's coming back. I'm going to need more opium soon."
"What's that smell?" the bard asked suddenly.
"That's what I'm trying to tell you," Xena said, looking embarrassed. "I needed to go outside, but I couldn't get up, and I--" She stopped. "I'm sorry," she finished in a whisper.
"Don't worry about it, Sweetheart," Gabrielle said quickly. "I'll get you all cleaned up. It's my fault anyway, for not being here to help you."
The older woman shook her head. "I just feel so helpless," she said. "I can't do anything. I can't even relieve myself."
"Xena, you're badly hurt, and it's going to take time for you to heal," Gabrielle said quietly. "I know you hate it when you can't do things for yourself, but for right now you're just going to have to let me help you." She smiled and bent down to give her lover's face a gentle caress. "It's not the first time I've done it for you, and you've done the same for me," she added. "We're in this together, and we do what needs to be done."
"I know," Xena murmured. "Thank you."
Gabrielle gave her a quick smile, and then went to get water to heat for bathing.
* * * * *
"I'm not going to let you go back to sleep until you've eaten something," Gabrielle said when she was all finished.
"I don't feel like eating," Xena said. "All I can think about is how much my leg hurts."
"Okay, what if I give you part of the opium now, so that maybe you'll feel like eating something, and then I'll give you the rest of it later, so you can sleep?"
"All right, we can try that," the warrior agreed.
"Good," Gabrielle said, and measured out a little of the brown powder into Xena's mug. "And at some point, we need to talk."
"Talk? About what?"
"About what we're going to do. We can't just sit here for months in this cold, drafty cave. I think we should try to get you to a healer -- someone who knows how to set bones properly." She poured water into the mug and then looked at Xena. "Can you sit up to drink this?"
The warrior nodded and pushed herself up, groaning a little at the pain caused by the movement.
"I don't think there's much point in going on to Amphipolis right now," Gabrielle said as she handed the mug to Xena. Then she got up and put the cooking pot on the fire.
"Well, because we were going there to help nurse sick people, and now--"
"And now I'm the one who needs nursing."
"Exactly. And besides, I don't like the idea of exposing you to smallpox when you're already hurt like this."
Xena nodded. "All right," she said. "Then where do you think we should go? You seem to have given this matter some thought."
"Yes, I've thought about it, but I don't have any answers," Gabrielle said. "I guess we could go to Poteidaia -- although that would mean backtracking a bit. I've heard there's a new healer there, but I don't know how good he is."
"I want to go see Nicklio," Xena said. "He's the best healer I know."
"He set your legs before when they were broken."
"Hmm. Well, we would have to go beyond Amphipolis to get to Mt. Nestos," Gabrielle said thoughtfully as she stuck her finger in the broth to check its temperature. "It would take us a good five days or more, since we can't travel very fast," she went on. "And the snow might be heavy in the mountains by now. Do you think you can make it?"
"Give me enough opium, and I can go anywhere," Xena said with a wry grin. "And besides, I survived the trip last time you took me to Nicklio, and I was in worse shape then."
"Yes, you survived just long enough to get there, and then you died on me," Gabrielle said. She poured some broth into a bowl and carried it to Xena.
"Oh. Well, you're right," the warrior admitted, "but technically speaking, I did survive the trip." She took the bowl from Gabrielle and lifted it to her lips.
"I've got some bread here for you, too," the bard said. Then she sat down cross-legged, facing her lover.
"I'm still not very hungry," Xena said, lowering the bowl and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
"I know, but eat as much as you can. Is the pain any better?"
"Yes, but it's definitely still there."
"Xena, are you sure Nicklio can help you? When he set your legs before, you ended up not being able to walk very well."
"I think that was partly my fault for kicking Romans before my legs had a chance to heal," Xena said, and then drank some more broth. "I still believe that if anyone can fix my leg this time, he can."
"It's too bad Lao Ma isn't here."
"Yeah," Xena said with a sad smile.
"Or Eli," Gabrielle went on. "Eli could have healed your leg for sure."
"Why do all the good ones die so young?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle said with a sigh, "but it looks like Nicklio is our best bet right now."
"I can't eat any more," Xena said, handing the bowl back to the younger woman.
"All right. Do you want some bread?"
"Maybe later," the warrior said as she lowered herself back on the fur. "Right now I need the rest of that opium."
"Okay, I'll fix it for you." Gabrielle set the bowl aside, and then asked, "Xena, how are we going to get you to Mt. Nestos? We'll need some kind of litter, won't we, and I'm not sure I know how to make one."
"I'll tell you how to build it," Xena said, "and maybe I can even help lash it together. But I don't feel like doing it today. We'll do it tomorrow."
"Good," Gabrielle said, nodding. "Now, drink this, so you can get some sleep."
She held Xena's hand until she was sure the warrior was asleep, and then walked to the mouth of the cave. After a few minutes of consideration, she went back and pulled Xena's sword from its sheath. Carrying it out to the trees, she walked among them until she found a couple of small saplings with branches that forked partway up. She hacked these off near the ground, and then chopped off the leafy tops. It was just starting to rain when she got back to the cave with her two forked poles.
She spent the afternoon sitting by the fire, using a dagger to trim and smooth the poles, and afterwards wrapping strips of the old blanket around the forks for padding. When Xena woke again just before dark, Gabrielle proudly displayed her creations.
"Look what I made for you! Crutches!"
The warrior sat up and reached out to take one, smiling as she examined it. "Is this your way of saying you don't want to clean me up anymore?" she asked.
"No, of course not. I just thought that if you had a way to get around by yourself--"
"I wouldn't be so grumpy?"
"Right," Gabrielle admitted with a grin.
"Okay, well, let's see how they work," Xena said. Then, setting the crutch upright, she used it to pull herself awkwardly to her feet.
Gabrielle moved closer to steady her companion, and then handed her the second crutch. "Are they the right length?" she asked anxiously.
"Yes, they seem to be," Xena said as she took a few tentative steps toward the mouth of the cave. Then she stopped and looked back. "You did a good job. Thank you."
Gabrielle didn't know whether it was the crutches, or the idea of going to see Nicklio, or both that had such a positive effect on Xena's mood and thus upon her own. All she knew was that the fear and despair they had felt before gave way to a cautious sense of hope. They slept well that night -- Xena with the help of opium, of course -- and the next day the warrior hobbled out to the trees and used her chakram to fell the ones they needed to build a litter.
It turned out to be a somewhat crude affair, but good enough for their purpose. There were two long poles attached to either side of Argo's saddle, with the ends dragging on the ground. Crosspieces were lashed on and padded with furs and blankets. The whole thing was ready by late afternoon, and early the next morning, the two women set out for Mt. Nestos.
Xena woke to the sound of urgent knocking at the front door. She thought she must have been asleep for only a few minutes, but the gray light of dawn filtering in the window told her otherwise. Sitting up, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and listened for Lyceus to get up and open the door. But the visitor did not wait for that. The door opened almost immediately, and Toris' voice called out, "Xena? Gabrielle?"
"Just a minute!" Xena responded. She glanced back at Gabrielle, smiling when the younger woman groaned and pulled the blanket over her face. The warrior stood up and limped over to the wall. Lifting a robe off of one of the pegs, she slipped it on and quickly tied the belt around her waist. Then she took down her crutch, pushed aside the curtain, and stepped into the other room.
Toris was talking quietly to Lyceus, apparently about the storytelling the night before. The boy sat cross-legged on his bed, and Cyrelle was also awake, Xena noted, lying on her side with her head propped on one hand.
"What's wrong, Toris?" the warrior asked.
"It's Acantha," he said. "She started throwing up about an hour ago, and she says that the thought of cooking breakfast just makes her want to go on puking. So I told her to go back to bed, and I would see if Gabrielle could come and help us out."
"Do you think it's something she ate?" asked Xena.
"No. I mean, she ate the same thing as the rest of us last night, and nobody else is sick -- at least that I know of."
Xena heard a sound behind her, and turned to see Gabrielle standing in the doorway to the sleeping room.
"What's going on?" the bard asked, rubbing her eyes. "I thought I heard my name."
Toris advanced a few steps toward her. "Acantha's sick," he said. "I was hoping you could come cook breakfast and do the baking."
"Oh. Well, yeah. I can do that," Gabrielle said vaguely. "I just need to get dressed."
"Looks to me like you need to wake up first," Cyrelle commented.
"Uh-huh. That, too," the bard agreed.
"Thanks, Gabrielle," Toris said. "I really appreciate this. I'd fix the food myself, but you know how bad my cooking is."
"Yeah, it's almost as bad as Xena's," Lyceus said, laughing.
"Hey, I've learned to cook a few things," Xena protested.
"Yes, of course you have, Dear," Gabrielle said with a grin. Then she added, "I'll be there as soon as I can, Toris," and ducked back behind the curtain.
Xena moved closer to her brother and laid a hand on his arm. "Gabrielle told me last night that you thought Acantha might be getting sick," she said. "I meant to talk to her while we were at the tavern, but I completely forgot. I'm sorry."
He shrugged. "That's all right. She's just been so moody lately. I didn't know what was going on with her."
"Let me get you some herbs to help settle her stomach. Then I'll come check on her later."
She turned and made her way to the other end of the room, wishing she had taken time to put her boots on. Without them, her right foot had no support, and she limped more than usual. Arriving at the shelves near the corner fireplace, she took down a couple of clay pots and carried them to the table. She had begun keeping a supply of her more common herbs in the house some years ago -- a practice which had saved her many middle-of-the-night trips to her hut next door.
"Lyceus," she said, glancing up, "I think we could use a fire now, if you want to go ahead and get one going."
"Okay," he said reluctantly, apparently not wanting to leave the warmth of his blankets.
Toris walked over to Cyrelle's bed and said, "I'd like you to go to the market this morning and buy food for the tavern."
The girl frowned and sat up. "I was supposed to have the morning off, in case you don't remember," she said.
"Yes, I know," said Toris, "but now that Acantha's sick, I really need your help."
"Why don't you go to the market yourself?" Cyrelle asked.
"Because we're getting a big load of firewood in this morning, and I'm going to be busy splitting it. And so is Lyceus," he added, glancing over at the boy.
"Shit. I forgot it was firewood day," muttered Lyceus. "I hate splitting wood."
"Yeah, but look what great muscles you're getting," Xena said. "The girls are already starting to swoon over you."
Lyceus ducked his head in embarrassment, but not before Xena saw the grin on his face.
"Anyway, Cyrelle," Toris said, "I really need you to--"
"Why can't Gabrielle go?" asked the girl.
"Because Gabrielle has to cook breakfast, bake bread, and also do her usual job of cleaning the rooms," Toris explained patiently.
"Cyrelle, just do it," Xena broke in. "I'm sure Toris will give you some time off later to compensate."
"Yes, of course I will," he agreed.
"Okay, but I've never done it before," Cyrelle said. "How will I know what to buy?"
"I'll give you a list," Toris said. "It really won't take you more than an hour or so," he went on, "and you can have the rest of the morning off. How's that?"
"All right," she grumbled.
"Fine. Thank you," Toris said, sounding relieved. "Just come over after breakfast, and I'll have the list ready for you."
"Here are the herbs," Xena said, handing him a small cloth bag. "Make a tea for her, and have her drink some every couple of hours."
"Okay," he said, then added, "I'm going back now, so I can have the fire going when Gabrielle gets there."
"See you later," Xena said, and gave his shoulder a quick squeeze before he headed out the door. Then she looked at Cyrelle and Lyceus. "It's early yet," she said. "Why don't you two go back to sleep for an hour or so?"
"Great idea!" Cyrelle exclaimed, flopping back down on her bed.
"I agree!" Lyceus said, as he headed across the room and crawled back under the covers.
Xena smiled and went into the sleeping room. Gabrielle was standing before a small washbasin, toweling herself off.
"Isn't that water pretty cold?" asked Xena in surprise.
"Yes, but I didn't want to take time to heat it up," the younger woman replied. "And the coldness of it woke me up, which is what I needed. I'll get warm again soon enough, once I start cooking."
Xena moved to the bed and sat down on the end of it. "You look tired," she said.
"Yeah, it took me a long time to get to sleep."
"I know, but you got there before I did."
"Did I? Well, no wonder you're so sleepy this morning. What kept you awake?"
"I don't know. I was just thinking about a lot of stuff, I guess." She hung the linen towel on a peg and quickly donned her chiton. Then, picking up her sandals, she carried them over to the bed and sat down beside Xena.
The warrior watched as the younger woman laced up her sandals and tied them. "It's nice of you to do this for Acantha," she said.
"I'm not doing it just for Acantha," Gabrielle replied. "I'm doing it for Toris, and for all of us, really. The tavern is our bread and butter, and we have to keep our customers happy, you know." She grinned and patted Xena's knee, then stood up.
The warrior rose, too, and pulled her lover into a tight embrace. "I'll be over later," she said. "I want to see how Acantha's doing and talk to Arsenios some more."
"Okay. I'll see you then," Gabrielle responded. Then she gave Xena a quick kiss, and hurried out of the room.
* * * * *
Midmorning found Xena in her hut, crushing dried herbs with a pestle, and putting them into clay pots for storage. Sometimes she thought she must be single-handedly keeping the town's potters in business, since she used so many of their wares. The hut was one room, fairly narrow, attached to the end of the house nearest the northwest gate. There was a door that opened onto the street, and another one that led to the courtyard, but there was no direct access from the rest of the house. In the back corner, a small fireplace shared a chimney with the larger hearth in the main room. The hut's walls were lined with shelves filled with herbs, bandages, splints, and other tools of the healer's art. A window looked out towards the gate, and under it stood a narrow cot where Xena sometimes examined and treated patients.
She was particularly proud of her hut, since she had done much of the work of building it herself, laying the mud bricks in neat rows until the walls were as high as she could reach without a ladder. Toris and Maphias had then added the upper layers of bricks and extended the thatch roof from the other part of the house, and Maphias had built the shelves. The result was a pleasant room, she thought -- a room bright with sunlight and hope. It was just the right kind of place for helping people, relieving their pain, and sometimes even saving their lives.
What she had told Arsenios the night before was true: being a healer had brought new meaning and purpose to her life. Her days were almost always full and busy, just as this one had already started out to be. Of course, sometimes she wished she had a dinar for every time she had been awakened during the night by people needing herbs or wanting her to come tend to an ailing family member. But she could not really blame them for disturbing her rest; after all, no one could control the hour when sickness chose to strike. From long experience, though, she had learned that it was usually pointless for her to try to go back to sleep after one of these nighttime healing forays, and this morning had been no exception. After sending Cyrelle and Lyceus back to bed, she herself had gotten dressed and then begun her day's tasks.
Carrying one of the water jugs out to the courtyard, she began to water the herbs that grew in neat beds along the perimeter of the space. When she and Gabrielle had first moved into this house, they had kept chickens and goats in the courtyard, just as the previous owners had done. But before long, Xena realized that it would be more helpful to her work as a healer to grow herbs herself, rather than having to forage for them all in the surrounding countryside. Thus the area had been converted to a garden, and a fig tree planted at one end, just outside the sleeping room.
The arrangement had worked out well, except for the need to carry water to the plants during the long, dry summers. Today, for instance, although she watered carefully and sparingly, Xena soon emptied the two jugs that Lyceus had filled the night before, and she was forced to walk the three blocks to the well to get more water.
After she finished tending her herbs, she had rousted the two teenagers out of bed, and prepared a breakfast of boiled grain and fresh blackberries. While they ate, Cyrelle chattered excitedly about the battle tales Arsenios had told her the night before, but Xena found her own thoughts to be mostly occupied with the matter of how to defend Amphipolis. When breakfast was over, she sent Cyrelle and Lyceus off to the tavern, and then retreated to her hut.
She was almost finished grinding up herbs when she heard running footsteps in the street, and then Lyceus calling for her in the house and in the courtyard.
"I'm in here," she called back, and a moment later he burst in through the back door of the hut.
"Mother says you've got to come to the tavern right away!" he exclaimed breathlessly.
"Is someone sick?" Xena asked.
"I don't know. She wouldn't tell me what was wrong. She just said to come get you and tell you to hurry."
"Well, this sounds very mysterious," Xena said with a puzzled smile, then asked, "Did she say for me to bring herbs or anything?"
"No, she didn't mention herbs," Lyceus said, shaking his head.
"All right, then. You run back and tell her I'm on my way. I'll just throw a few things in my bag in case I need them."
The boy nodded and then turned and rushed out the front door.
Picking up a leather bag with a long shoulder strap on it, Xena quickly checked its contents and added a few herbs she wanted to take to Acantha. Then she draped the bag over her shoulder, picked up her crutch, and left the hut, closing the door behind her. She was still about forty paces from the tavern when she caught sight of Gabrielle leaning out of one of the upper windows.
"Xena! Come upstairs," the younger woman called. "I have something to show you."
The healer nodded and waved to show that she had heard, and Gabrielle disappeared from view.
The tavern room was deserted at this hour of the morning, although the sweet scent of freshly baked bread wafted through from the kitchen, and from the courtyard behind the building came the sound of axes splitting wood.
Xena crossed to the stairs and began her journey up them, one step at a time. Over the years, she had become fairly skilled at navigating steps with her crutch, but it still was not one of her favorite things to do. "This had better be important," she muttered to Gabrielle when she reached the top of the stairs.
"It is. Believe me," the bard returned in a voice that trembled slightly.
"What's going on?" Xena asked in a low voice. Was it just her imagination, or did her lover look more pale than usual.
"It's Arsenios," Gabrielle said in a whisper. Then she reached out to take Xena's arm and lead her along the hallway. When they came to the last door on the right, Gabrielle pushed it open and stood aside to let the warrior enter.
Xena stopped just inside the door and stared at the figure on the bed. Then she looked at Gabrielle.
"That's the way I found him," the bard said. "I haven't told anyone else yet."
Nodding, Xena patted the younger woman's shoulder, and went to stand beside the narrow bed. She stood gazing down in silence at the dead man lying there.
Arsenios' right hand clutched the hilt of a bloody dagger that had been driven deep into his heart. The left hand, bloodstained, hung off the side of the bed. His eyes, half open, stared unseeing at the rafters. But his lips looked as if they were about to curve into a smile, giving his face an oddly peaceful look.
"Do you think one of Demetri's men killed him?" Gabrielle asked as she moved to stand beside the warrior.
"No," Xena said. "It looks to me like he killed himself."
"Well, I wondered about that, too," the bard admitted. "Remember how I said last night that he seemed so sad?"
"I just never dreamed he would do something like this. Did you?"
"No, I didn't," Xena said, and sighed. Then she added, "But he was afraid he couldn't go on being a warrior, and I know exactly how that feels."
"Yeah, I guess you do," Gabrielle said softly, and Xena saw her shudder, then turn and walk over to the nightstand.
Slipping the crutch out from under her arm, the warrior leaned down to close Arsenios' eyes. Then she took off her leather shoulder bag and set it on the floor.
"Hey, there's something here with your name on it," Gabrielle said, handing a folded piece of parchment to Xena. "Maybe it's a message of some kind."
"I didn't even think Arsenios knew how to write," mused the older woman as she unfolded the missive. The letters within were crudely formed and badly spaced, as if their author were unused to writing, and several of the words were misspelled. Xena frowned as she tried to puzzle out the meaning.
"What does it say?" asked Gabrielle.
"'My dagger will give me peace,'" Xena read slowly.
"Then he really did kill himself."
"Yes, apparently so." Then she went on reading. "'You can send my head to Demetri as a warning. Tell him you caught me. It might buy you some time.' And then it's signed 'Arsenios,'" she finished, handing the parchment to Gabrielle.
"Do you think we should do that?" asked the younger woman as she scanned the message. "Send his head to Demetri?"
Xena considered for a few moments. "No, I can't really see that it would do much good," she said. "If Demetri is as ruthless and bloodthirsty as Arsenios made him out to be, he's not going to be scared off by the idea that one of his scouts got caught. In fact, he might just take it as a challenge and come here even sooner." She shook her head and added, "I'm sort of surprised that Arsenios even suggested it."
"Maybe he thought it was a way he could do one more good deed," Gabrielle said. "Or maybe he just wasn't thinking very clearly."
"Maybe not. But even if we wanted to do it, I don't know who we would send," Xena went on. "It would be a dangerous mission, and the messenger might end up getting killed."
"Right. Well, it was nice of Arsenios to make the offer anyway. I guess this means we could have trusted him."
"Yes, I think so."
"But now you have one less choice for your lieutenant."
Xena nodded. "I just wish I had--"
She was interrupted when the door opened abruptly. She looked up to see Toris standing in the doorway.
"What in Tartarus is going on?" he demanded.
"Come see for yourself," Xena said quietly, and stepped aside.
Her brother strode across the room and stopped at the bed. "Did you kill him?" he asked.
"No, of course not," the warrior said. "He was a friend."
"He killed himself," Gabrielle said. "And he even left a note," she added, handing the parchment to Toris.
"No!" exclaimed Xena, reaching out for the note. But it was too late. Toris quickly stepped out of her reach and scanned the writing.
"Oh! I'm sorry," whispered Gabrielle. "I wasn't thinking."
Xena nodded, but kept her eyes on Toris.
"Who's Demetri?" he asked, leveling his gaze at her.
"Demetri is Draco's son," the warrior explained. "He took over his father's army when Draco got killed in the spring. Arsenios came here to warn me that Demetri is planning to conquer all the northern towns, including Amphipolis."
"He's going to attack Amphipolis?" Toris asked in surprise.
"Why didn't you tell me? Have you told the town council? We need to mount a defense!"
"Yes, of course we need to," Xena responded, "and we will. But I only got the news last night, and I didn't want to start a panic."
"Xena wanted time to think about what to do before she started telling people," explained Gabrielle.
"Oh, so you're going to make all the plans, and then just order everyone around, is that it?" Toris asked.
"Who else knows this little secret?"
"Just Cyrelle and Lyceus," Xena said. "But they've been sworn to secrecy."
"You told the children, but you weren't going to tell your own brother?"
"The children only know because they happened to be there when Arsenios told us," Gabrielle said quickly.
Xena moved forward and put her hand on her brother's arm.
"Toris, of course I was going to tell you. And I'm going to tell the town council, too. I just wanted to think things through first."
"We may not have all that much time," Toris said. "We need to get going on this, and I say we start by doing what this Arsenios fellow suggests," he added, waving the parchment. "We can take his head to Demetri."
"No," said Xena, snatching the message from his hand and stuffing it inside her tunic. "It's a bad idea, and we're not going to do it."
"Who says it's a bad idea? You?"
"And your opinion is the only one that counts, isn't it -- no matter what anybody else thinks," he said, his face flushing with anger. "Well, I happen to think it's a very good idea!"
"Toris, listen to me," Xena said, trying to keep her voice calm. "I've dealt with men like Demetri. I know how they operate. They kill you first and ask questions later. We can't afford to risk sending somebody on this kind of errand. It's too dangerous."
"Well then, why did this Arsenios suggest doing it? Don't you think he knows Demetri better than you do?"
"To be honest, I don't know why he suggested it," Xena admitted.
"We were just discussing that when you came in," Gabrielle added. "And we decided he wasn't thinking too clearly. After all, anyone who is about to kill himself--"
"We have to send a scout," Toris interrupted. "We have to find out where this guy is, and how soon he's going to get here. Why not let our scout take the head as a warning?"
"Yes, we'll need to send a scout at some point," Xena agreed, "but I'll want that person to keep a safe distance from Demetri's army, and not risk getting captured and killed."
"What do you mean, 'at some point'?" Toris demanded. "We need to do it now. As soon as possible. We don't even know where this bastard is, or how big his army is."
"Yes, we do," Xena responded. "I already got that information from Arsenios last night."
"He has about a hundred fifty men, and they are traveling up the east coast, sacking villages as they go. I'd guess we have at least a month before they get here."
"That's only a guess, though, isn't it," Toris said.
"Yes, but I'd say it's a reasonable one."
"You're not always right, you know, Xena. You set yourself up like some kind of god, and you think--"
"I do not set myself up--"
"Hey!" Gabrielle broke in. "Could you two not argue about this right now? We need to decide what to do with Arsenios' body, and get this room cleaned up. And soon it will be time to fix lunch and serve it."
Toris and Xena glared at each other in silence for a moment. Then he said, "All right, what do you want to do with the body?"
"Well, we could either bury it, or we could have a funeral pyre."
"Where do you think you're going to bury it?" Toris demanded. "And don't say in our family crypt, because there's barely room in there for all of us, let alone for some stranger."
"Okay, then. We'll burn the body," Xena said calmly. "I'll get him cleaned up a little, and wrap him up, and you can build the pyre. We can do it on the west side of town. There's a place near the river where people often build pyres."
Toris nodded. "Fine," he said. "I'll get Lyceus to help me. We can use your cart and Argo to haul the wood and the body out there."
"All right," Xena said.
"What about this guy's horse?" Toris asked, nodding toward the dead man. "What are we going to do with it?"
"You can have it, I guess," Xena said, "if you want one to replace yours."
He shrugged. "I've been without a horse for years now. I don't really know that I need one, or want the expense of feeding it."
"I'm sure Cyrelle would like to have it," Gabrielle said. "She thinks riding Argo is pretty boring, now that Argo's getting old."
"Humph! That's the last thing Cyrelle needs, a horse of her own," Xena muttered. "Maybe we should just sell the beast. Anyway, we can talk about it later."
Toris turned and started toward the door. "Let me know when the body's ready to carry down," he said.
"Toris," Gabrielle called, going after him.
He stopped and looked at her.
"Don't tell Lyceus about Arsenios," she said. "Let me do it."
"All right, but you need to do it soon."
"I will. I'll be down in just a minute, and I'll tell him then."
Toris nodded and headed out the door.
Gabrielle turned back to Xena. "What about Cyrelle?" she said. "How do you think she's going to take this?"
"I really don't know."
"Do you want me to tell her?"
Xena considered for a few moments, and then said, "No, I'll tell her. Send her up here as soon as she gets back from the market."
The younger woman nodded.
"Oh, and I'm going to need some water and rags," Xena added. "And a fairly long piece of rope. I guess I'll just wrap him in the blanket he's lying on. I don't think we can use it again anyway, and we'll probably have to replace the mattress, too."
Gabrielle frowned. "It's going to take several days to get a new mattress made," she said, "and we won't be able to rent the room until then. Oh well," she said with a half smile, "I guess there's nothing we can do about it. I'll bring the water and rope up to you," she added, "just as soon as I talk to Lyceus."
Left alone in the room, Xena stood for a time without moving. The angry words she had exchanged with her brother still rang in her ears. Why did Toris so often seem to have such an irritating effect on her? She didn't remember arguing like that with Lyceus, but then he had died so young. Perhaps if he had lived to adulthood, things would have been different. But somehow she doubted it. She and Lyceus had simply looked at the world from a similar viewpoint -- a viewpoint which Toris had never shared with them. Well, one thing was certain. It would not be easy to plan a defense for Amphipolis if she had to fight Toris every step of the way.
She sighed and then tried to put the matter out of her mind. There were other things that needed her attention at the moment. Turning, she glanced at Arsenios' body, then carried a chair over and set it beside the bed. Seating herself, she laid her crutch on the floor, and leaned forward to study the dead man's face. "Arsenios," she said softly, "I hope you found the peace you were looking for."
Reaching out, she carefully pried the stiff fingers loose from the dagger's hilt, and then eased the blade out of Arsenios' chest. She held the weapon in her hands, staring at it as the memories came crowding into her mind -- memories of that day so many years ago when she herself had very nearly come to the same end.
The journey to Mt. Nestos after she broke her leg had passed in a haze of pain and opium-induced sleep. She remembered very little about it other than the agonizing jolt of the litter over the rough ground, and the painful way her leg swelled up again each day. She had no idea how long the trip had taken or how many times they had stopped to buy food and opium. She only recalled the relief she had felt when she opened her eyes late one afternoon and saw Nicklio bending over her.
Because of the swelling, the healer could do nothing with her leg that night. The following morning, Xena put the pinch on again so that he could work without causing her pain. After removing the splints, he spent some time manipulating her leg and foot. She watched his face meanwhile, and did not feel especially heartened by the grim set of his jaw. Still, she knew his skill, and hoped for the best. Gabrielle sat beside her, holding her hand and giving her occasional smiles of encouragement.
"I'm going to use some different splints," Nicklio said, showing them two narrow boards which were long enough to reach the full length of Xena's leg.
"But I won't be able to bend my knee," protested the warrior.
"That's the point," he said. He positioned the splints and then motioned for Gabrielle to hold them in place while he bound them. "I think that when you bend your knee, the movement of the muscles is pulling the bones out of alignment."
"Oh," Xena said, and then stared down at her leg, not knowing how to ask what she really wanted to know.
But Gabrielle seemed to read her mind. "Her leg's going to be all right, isn't it?" she said. "I mean, once it's healed up."
Nicklio looked at her for a moment, and then at Xena.
"The breaks were bad ones, as you know," he said quietly. "Even if I had been there when the accident first occurred, I'm not sure how well I could have set some of them. Now, though, the healing has already begun, so it's even harder." He paused for a moment, and then went on. "I've done what I can, but I don't believe this leg will ever really be able to support your weight. And over time, the muscles will wither and draw up, so that this leg will probably end up shorter than the other one."
"Are you saying I won't be able to walk?" Xena asked.
"Not without a crutch or a cane, I'm afraid."
She stared at him, her mind refusing to take in the full import of his words.
"Well, she'll still be able to ride, won't she?" Gabrielle asked.
Nicklio hesitated for a moment, then said, "I suppose it's possible, but frankly, I tend to doubt it."
Xena felt Gabrielle's arm go around her shoulders, but she could draw no comfort from the embrace. She could only watch, as if from a great distance, while Nicklio finished binding the splints to her leg and foot. Then she released the pressure points on her thigh, and the pain came flooding back, but she barely noticed it. The only thing she could feel was her spirit spiraling rapidly downward, out of control, into a deep, dark place from which she knew there would be no escape.
Afterwards, she lay for hours on her cot, unable to sleep, or eat, or even think. Dimly, she was aware of Gabrielle's attempts to get through to her, to cheer her, but she was powerless to respond. And at a certain point, she knew that the younger woman had taken all the weapons and hidden them away somewhere. But while she could sense her lover's fear, she could do nothing to help her with it -- not as long as she felt so totally overwhelmed by her own despair.
Nicklio, too, spoke encouraging words and offered herbal concoctions of various types. Xena obediently drank everything he gave her. Nothing seemed to lighten her mood, but some of the herbs brought the oblivion of sleep, and for that she was grateful.
She did not know how many days passed. Two, perhaps, or three? Or was it many more than that? She only knew that one night she woke and lay gazing into the darkness, her mind clear at last. From the cot nearby, she heard Gabrielle sigh deeply and turn over, then shift her position several more times before finally falling asleep again.
Only then did Xena let herself begin to think the thoughts she could not think before. Her life as a warrior was over -- that much was clear. Crippled and vulnerable, she would now be a target for her enemies, unable to defend herself or anyone else. And even if, by some miracle, she were not attacked, she would, at the very least, be seen as pitiable -- a pathetic excuse for a human being. There was only one thing to be done. She must end her life. Death was the last honorable option left to her. The only thing that gave her pause was the thought of the grief she would cause Gabrielle. But she knew the younger woman was tough and resilient. In time, she would recover, and then she would be able to live a full life, unencumbered by the burden of a helpless, lame companion. In effect, Xena reasoned, she would be doing her lover a favor by giving her a new chance at life.
It was the right decision. The only decision. And having made it, Xena felt at peace for the first time since the accident. All she had to do now was bide her time until she could act. "Soon," she whispered, smiling softly. Then she closed her eyes and fell asleep.
The next day she began to eat again, to talk and smile, and occasionally even laugh. Gabrielle appeared greatly relieved, and hugged Xena as if she had just returned from a long, difficult journey. The sense of peace remained constant in the warrior's soul, and she waited patiently for an opportunity to carry out her plan.
On the third day, Nicklio announced that he would be going to the village that afternoon to get some supplies and visit a couple of people who were ill.
"Why don't you go with him, Gabrielle?" Xena suggested.
"Go with him? Oh, no, I think I should stay here with you."
Xena shrugged. "There's really no need to," she said. "I'll be fine here by myself for a few hours. I can get around with my crutches, if I need to, but probably I'll just sleep." She stopped, and then seeing that Gabrielle seemed tempted, she added, "I think it would do you a lot of good to take a break and get out for a while."
"Well, if you're sure you'll be all right," the younger woman said slowly. Then she turned to their host and asked, "What do you think, Nicklio?"
"I'd be glad to have the company, if you'd like to come along," he said. "And I don't imagine Xena will get into too much trouble while we're gone."
So it was decided that Gabrielle would accompany the healer, even though Xena sensed that the younger woman felt uneasy about leaving.
"Don't worry," Xena said as she gave the bard a quick hug. "Everything will be fine." She stood in the doorway and watched the two of them head off down the snowy village road. "Goodbye, Gabrielle," she whispered. Then she closed the door and turned around to survey the room. She had her opportunity now, and she must hasten to take advantage of it.
The new splints had made getting around more awkward for her, but she could still manage well enough. And certainly she should have no difficulty in carrying out her plan. Her first choice would have been to fall on her sword, but she had no idea where Gabrielle had hidden her weapons, and did not want to waste time looking for them. She had had her eye on a knife that Nicklio often used to cut vegetables, and now she went in search of it. It didn't take long to find it on a shelf near the fireplace, and testing the blade, she decided it was more than sharp enough for her purpose.
With the knife clenched between her teeth, she moved to her cot and sat down on it. Then she laid her crutches on the floor. Assuming all went as planned, she would not have to use them again, and this thought made her smile a little. She lifted her right leg onto the cot, swung the left one up beside it, and then stretched out on her back. Holding the knife up, she studied it for a few moments, and then wrapped both hands around the handle. There was no point in delaying. This could all be over in a couple of minutes.
Carefully positioning the point of the blade over her heart, she took a long, deep breath, and then closed her eyes. She tightened her grip on the knife handle and was just about to plunge the blade in, when suddenly she felt two strong hands grasp hers, preventing them from moving.
She gasped and opened startled eyes to see Ares standing over her.
"Now, now, Xena," he chided. "You don't really want to do this, do you?"
"Yes, of course I do!" she retorted. "I can't be a warrior anymore, so there's no point in going on. And I'll thank you to go away and stop meddling in my life."
"I'm afraid I can't do that," he said as he gently pulled the knife out of Xena's hands.
"Sure you can."
He shook his head and studied the knife for a moment before tossing it across the room. "You know," he said, turning to the warrior, "I'm really disappointed that you didn't come to me for help with this broken leg thing. I could have healed it right up for you, good as new. Still can, for that matter."
She pushed herself up to a sitting position. "Right," she said, glaring at him. "And in exchange, you'd want me to come back and be your warrior again. Well, I'm not doing it. Not now. Not ever."
"That's good," he said, nodding, "because the fact is I don't want you to be my warrior anymore. I've decided you're getting a little too old for the job."
Xena stared at him in surprise, but said nothing.
"No, I've got someone younger in mind. Someone much younger."
"Your daughter! Which daughter?" Xena scoffed. "I'll wager there must be at least a hundred sons and daughters of Ares running around in the world."
"Mmm, you're probably right," he said with a grin, "but this is a very special daughter. She hasn't even been conceived yet."
"Oh, and who is going to be the lucky mother?"
"You are, Xena."
She laughed. "Are you out of your mind?" she asked. "What makes you think I would want to bear any child of yours?"
He smiled at her and sat down on the edge of Gabrielle's cot. "I think you'll do it because you want to have your leg healed. You want to go on living, and you want to go on being a warrior."
"Bearing you a daughter is the price for having you heal my leg?" she asked incredulously.
She turned away and reached down for a crutch, thinking she could use it as a weapon against him. But he caught her wrist in one hand and with the other turned her face so that she was forced to look at him.
"Think about it, Xena," he said in a low, urgent voice. "Think about what I'm offering you here. All you have to do is carry the child and give birth to it. Just nine short months, a little labor -- which I can make relatively painless for you -- and that's it. You hand the baby over to me to raise, I heal your leg, and then I promise I'll stay out of your life forever. What could be more simple than that?"
She stared at him. "That's it?" she asked. "Just carry the baby and give birth?"
"That's all there is to it." He smiled again and released her wrist. Then he gently caressed her cheek. "This suicide thing -- it's not you," he said. "You don't really want to die. Think how sad your little friend Gabrielle would be, coming in here and finding you all bloody and dead. No, that's not what you want to do. You want to go on like before, fighting for all those causes you think are so worthwhile. And you can do that," he continued. "I will never ask you for anything again. Once this little episode is over, we can go our separate ways, neither one of us indebted to the other."
Suddenly, his words were making a frightening kind of sense to her. She tried to think, but her mind was whirling, and she could not find the fallacy in the god of war's reasoning.
"What do you say, Xena?" he asked, taking one of her hands between his own. "All you have to do is say yes. You want to live -- don't deny it. So say yes to life. Your leg will be healed, and you will be a warrior again. It's so very simple, my dear. All I need to hear is one little word -- yes."
She kept on looking at him, unable to speak. His dark brown eyes seemed to draw her in, so full of gentle concern, as if he really cared about her. But this was Ares, she reminded herself. Ruthless, selfish, untrustworthy Ares. She knew she should resist him, but he was right. She did want to live. She wanted it desperately.
"Yes," she whispered. "Yes."
* * * * *
Xena snapped out of her reverie and looked up to see Cyrelle standing in the doorway, holding a bucket, a coil of rope, and some rags.
"Come on in," the warrior said, gesturing. Then she laid Arsenios' dagger on the bed and stood up.
Cyrelle came toward her slowly, her eyes focused on the dead man. "What happened to Arsenios?" she asked.
Xena put an arm around the girl's shoulders and pulled her close. "He killed himself, Sweetheart," she said.
"Killed himself? With his dagger?"
"But why? Why would he do such a thing? I thought he was going to tell me some more battle stories today."
"It's hard to say why people kill themselves," Xena said quietly, "but my guess is that Arsenios didn't know what else to do if he couldn't be a warrior anymore."
"But we wanted him to stay here and live in Amphipolis," Cyrelle said. "We could have found something for him to do."
"I know. That's what we thought, but apparently Arsenios didn't see it that way." Xena squeezed her daughter's shoulders again, and then released her. "Why don't you set the bucket down," she suggested, and reached out to take the rags and rope. "I'm going to get the body ready for the funeral pyre," she went on. "Would you like to help me?"
Cyrelle looked at Xena as if the invitation surprised her. "Yes," she said. "I'd like that."
"All right. Bring that other chair over here so you can sit down."
Xena seated herself again and laid the rags and rope on the bed. Cyrelle had always shown an unfortunate tendency to view warfare and death in a glamorous light. And part of the reason for this, Xena believed, was that the girl had never really lost anyone close to her, nor had she ever dealt with a dead body. Perhaps a small dose of reality would help broaden her perspective.
"I still don't understand," Cyrelle said, sitting down and gazing at Arsenios. "I was just talking to him last night, and he was telling me stories, and he was laughing and everything. He didn't act like he was going to kill himself. If I had only known, I could have talked him out of it. I'm sure I could have."
"You can't blame yourself, Sweetheart," Xena said gently. "None of us guessed what he was planning to do. And if anyone should have recognized the signs, it was me."
"Why? Because he used to be in your army?" Cyrelle asked, looking at her.
"No, because--" Xena hesitated, then took a deep breath, and plunged ahead. "Because once, right after I broke my leg, I almost did the same thing."
"You almost killed yourself?"
"Because I knew I couldn't be a warrior anymore. I felt helpless and useless, and I was afraid I would just be a burden on Gabrielle."
"But didn't you think about becoming a healer?"
"No. The idea never even entered my mind -- at least, not until later." Xena paused for a moment, and then said, "Cyrelle, when people get terribly sad or upset about something, they don't always think clearly. Sometimes they can't see that they have options. At least, that's what happened to me."
The girl gave her a puzzled frown and was silent for a short time. Then she asked, "Well, who kept you from killing yourself? Gabrielle?"
"No. It wasn't Gabrielle," Xena said. She looked into her daughter's face, almost losing herself for a moment in the deep, brown eyes which were so much like Ares'.
"I guess you might say that it was you."
"Me?" Cyrelle said in surprise. "But I hadn't even been born then!"
"No, but finding out you were going to be born helped convince me to go on living."
"Yes, really," Xena said with a smile. Then she reached for a couple of rags, and handed one to Cyrelle, saying, "We need to get started on our little project here." She bent down to dip her rag in the bucket of water and wring it out. But when she straightened up again, she saw that the girl had picked up Arsenios' blood-stained dagger, and was gazing at it reverently.
"Mother?" she said, looking up. "Can I have this? I really think Arsenios would have wanted me to keep it," she added hopefully.
Xena studied her for a long moment while she considered the request. Then, finally, she said, "Yes, you can have it."
"Really? I can?"
"Wow! You've never let me have any kind of weapon before!" Cyrelle exclaimed. She looked at the dagger again and then back at Xena. "Will you teach me to throw it, too?"
"Yes, I'll teach you to throw it."
"If we have time," Xena agreed cautiously. "But the funeral pyre will be this afternoon."
"Yeah, I know," Cyrelle said impatiently. Then she leaned down toward the water bucket. "I'm going to wash the blood off of it," she said.
Xena clamped a hand on her wrist. "Not now," she said. "First we need to get Arsenios cleaned up. After that you can wash the dagger."
"Okay," the girl said in a disappointed tone, and laid the weapon carefully on the end of the bed.
"Here," Xena said, as she unbuckled Arsenios' belt. "You might as well have the sheath, too." She slid the sheath off the belt and handed it to Cyrelle.
"Are you going to take his clothes off?" the girl asked in sudden wonder.
"No," Xena said. "I just thought we'd wash his face and hands, and let it go at that. Then we need to wrap him in the blanket and tie it up."
"Shouldn't we at least change his tunic?" Cyrelle asked. "This one's so--" she gestured toward the wide stain of dried blood on the dead man's chest.
"No, I don't want to mess with changing his clothes," Xena said. "If he were a family member, it would be different, but he's not. And anyway, I don't know if he even brought another tunic with him." She glanced over at Arsenios' saddlebags and the few other belongings that lay on the floor near the window.
Cyrelle followed her gaze. "What are you going to do with his sword?" she asked. "Can I have that, too?"
"No," Xena said promptly. "I don't want you using a sword."
"But I need to learn to use one so I can help fight Demetri."
"There are other ways of defending yourself that don't involve a sword."
"Like using a staff?"
"Yes, that's a good example," Xena said. Then she picked up the rag that was lying unnoticed in Cyrelle's lap, and put it into the girl's hands. "You wash Arsenios' hands, while I wash his face," she instructed.
Cyrelle bent down to dip her rag into the bucket. When she straightened up, she said, "Lyceus is going to ask Gabrielle to teach him to fight with a staff. If she says yes, can I learn, too?"
"All right, if Gabrielle is willing to teach you."
"How about sais? Can I learn to use them, too?"
"I suppose so, eventually, but why don't you just stick with the staff to start with?"
The girl didn't answer. She was holding one of Arsenios' hands while she tried to clean the blood off of it. "Why do dead people get so cold and stiff?" she asked.
"I don't know," Xena said. "That's just what happens." She used her own rag to gently sponge off the dead man's face and neck. Then she tried to arrange his hair and beard to look neat. Of course, it wouldn't make much difference once they tied the man up in a blanket and threw him on the pyre. It was just the only way she knew to honor him.
"Why won't you let me use a sword?"
She sighed and looked at the girl. "We've been through this before, Cyrelle. I don't want you to be a warrior."
"I know, but you were a warrior. Why can't I be one?"
"Because I don't want you to make the same mistakes I did."
The girl seemed to consider this while she rinsed out her rag. "Are you saying it was a mistake for you to be a warrior?" she asked then.
"Yes, I suppose it was, in a way," Xena admitted. "At least it was a mistake for me to be the kind of warrior I was in the beginning."
"But you changed. You became a good warrior, and you helped a lot of people. Was that part a mistake?"
"No, that part wasn't a mistake. But if I had never become a warrior in the first place, I might have lived a very different life. I might have found other ways to help people."
"Okay, what if I just become a good warrior, and not a bad one?" Cyrelle asked. "What would be wrong with that?"
"Nothing would be wrong with it, if it really worked out that way," Xena admitted. "But being a good warrior can be extremely difficult. You have to do constant battle with your dark side -- and don't think you don't have one, because everyone does. Then you have to resist the temptation to use your fighting skills to gain riches and power." She put a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Cyrelle, you have no idea how seductive those things can be," she went on, "especially to someone as young as you are."
The girl shook her head. "I wouldn't be tempted," she said. "I would only fight for good things."
"I know. That's what you say you'll do, but it's so much easier said than done." She smiled and patted her daughter's shoulder. "Believe me," she added, "it would be much better not to become a warrior in the first place."
"But what if I'm destined to be a warrior?"
Xena felt a chill run through her, but she did her best to ignore it. Reaching out, she cupped the girl's chin in her hand, and looked directly into her brown eyes. "You make your own destiny, Cyrelle," she said firmly. "You don't have to be a warrior. You have other choices."
The girl jerked free of her mother's grasp. "What choices?" she demanded. "To spend the rest of my life waiting on people in this stupid tavern? Or else sit home having babies? Those are the only choices I see, and I don't like either one of them."
"There's nothing wrong with being a mother," Xena said quietly. "And running a tavern is good, honest work."
"Well, it's not work that I want to do!"
Xena was silent for a moment. Then she said, "You could be a healer. I'd be glad to teach you everything I know. And when old Petros dies -- as he will one of these days -- there will be plenty of work in this town for both of us."
"I don't want to be a healer," Cyrelle said, shaking her head. "That's boring. I want to be a warrior."
"Being a warrior is not the glamorous life you think it is," Xena retorted. "I know you don't believe me, but it's true. And there's a lot about being a warrior that's boring, too!"
"I don't care. It's what I want to be."
"Well, I don't want to talk about this subject anymore," Xena said bluntly. Then she took a deep breath and let it out again, trying to calm herself. This was as bad as trying to deal with Toris. "We need to get Arsenios wrapped up and ready to go," she said after a moment. "Your uncle will be wondering what's taking us so long."
They worked together to pull the blanket up over the dead man and tuck it in. Then they began winding the rope around the body.
"The blanket is all wet under here," Cyrelle said as she slipped the rope under Arsenios.
"Oh. Well, that's because when people die, their muscles relax and then they, uh, release--" Xena tried to think how to explain it nicely. "Anyway, what's inside them comes out," she finished.
The girl looked at her in surprise. "You mean they poop and pee all over themselves?" she asked.
"Yes, to put it somewhat crudely, that's exactly what happens."
"Wow, that's really gross," Cyrelle said, making a face.
"Death isn't pretty, Sweetheart," Xena said. "It's ugly and tragic and often very painful."
Cyrelle was quiet for a few moments, and then she asked, "Do you think it hurt? I mean, when Arsenios stabbed himself, did it hurt?"
"Yes," Xena said. "I'm sure it did, but only for a few seconds. I think he died very quickly."
The girl leaned forward and passed the end of the rope around the dead man's legs and feet a few times, then tied a knot. When she finished, she sat back in her chair and stared, strangely expressionless, at the wrapped figure.
"Do you know what I think?" Xena said softly.
"I think you helped make Arsenios' last day of life a happy one. You listened to him tell his stories, and you took an interest in what he had to say. And that's one of the nicest things you could have ever done for him."
Cyrelle nodded, but did not respond.
"Losing a friend isn't easy," the warrior continued. "It's okay to feel sad about it."
Cyrelle continued to stare at the body for a few moments, and Xena thought the girl might cry, but she seemed to be making a deliberate effort not to. Instead, she picked up the dagger, stuck it into the bucket, and began scrubbing vigorously.
Xena watched for a moment, then got up and hobbled over to have a look at Arsenios' belongings. There was nothing of interest in the saddlebags -- just some bread and cheese, a few strips of dried meat, a map, a sharpening stone, and another dagger. She pulled the sword out of its scabbard and saw that it was an old, heavy one, badly nicked in several places, but still fairly serviceable. Shoving it back into the leather sleeve, she decided to leave the items and let Toris determine what to do with them. Maybe if she allowed him to be more involved, he would not be so angry with her.
Returning to the bed, she bent down to retrieve her leather bag from the floor and hung it over her shoulder again. Then she picked up her crutch.
Cyrelle was busy rubbing the dagger with one of the dirty rags. After a moment, she stopped and ran her thumb along the blade to test its keenness. "Do you think this dagger needs to be sharpened?" she asked, glancing up.
"I'll look at it when we get home," Xena said. "Right now I need to go tell Toris that the body is ready, and I want to check on Acantha."
"After that, are you going back home?" Cyrelle asked.
"Will you teach me to throw the dagger then?"
"All right." She glanced around the room. "Bring that bucket of dirty water with you," she said. "I think we'll just leave the rags and let Gabrielle pick them up with the soiled bedclothes."
"Okay," Cyrelle said. She threaded the belt of her chiton through the slits in the knife sheath, and then, looking up, she said, "Mother?"
Xena had already started toward the door, but she stopped. "What?" she asked, turning back.
The girl hesitated briefly, and then blurted out, "Will you tell me who my father is?"
"No, Cyrelle. You know I can't tell you that."
"You can't, or you won't? I mean, you do know who my father is, don't you?"
"Yes, I know who he is," Xena said, "but I just don't think it makes any difference. Who your father is has nothing to do with what kind of person you choose to become."
Cyrelle considered this for a moment, then she asked, "Does anyone else know who my father is? Does Gabrielle?"
"Yes, Gabrielle knows."
"No, and neither does Acantha."
"Who else knows?"
Xena shook her head. "I don't want to talk about this right now," she said.
"Is Hercules my father?"
"I can't answer any more questions. Just let it go, Cyrelle."
"Is my father dead? Is that why you won't tell me?"
Xena hesitated, then said, "No, he's alive."
"Does he know he has a daughter? Does he know about me?"
"Then why isn't he here? Why didn't he help raise me, or at least come visit me?"
"Because I wouldn't let him," Xena said.
Cyrelle stared at her, apparently surprised by this answer. "So is my father someone you hate, and you don't want me to turn out like him? Is that it?" she asked.
"Yes, I guess you could say that," Xena admitted.
"Then it couldn't be Hercules."
"No, it's not Hercules."
"But why would you have a baby with someone you hate?" Cyrelle asked, and then, as a new thought appeared to come to her, she added, "Was it rape?"
"No, it wasn't rape," Xena assured her.
"Cyrelle, I've told you too much already. Iím not going to say any more. You'll just have to believe that I had reasons for what I did, even though I can't tell you what they were." She stopped speaking and moved to where her daughter stood. Reaching out, she gently caressed the girl's cheek. "And the other thing you have to believe," she went on, "is that I love you, and I have never been sorry for a minute that I had you. That's the most important thing to remember."
The girl looked at her for several long moments, biting her lower lip, then she slowly turned away.
Xena sighed. "Are you coming downstairs with me?" she asked.
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Okay. Don't forget to bring the bucket."
Then, settling her crutch firmly under her right arm, she turned and headed for the door.
Gabrielle stood at the wooden worktable in the middle of the kitchen, cutting up vegetables for the stew that would be served for lunch. The fire burning in the large fireplace behind her made the room uncomfortably warm, and the faint breeze coming in through the south windows did little to help the situation. The kitchen was in the part of the tavern farthest from the city gate. It was a fairly large space, with a storage room at the end nearest the street. At the other end, a door led into the house now occupied by Toris and Acantha -- the house where Xena and her brothers had grown up. It was a bigger home than many in Amphipolis, with one main room opening onto the tavern's courtyard, and three small bedrooms. Ironically, it was more space than Toris and Acantha needed, since they had never been able to have the children they had so much wanted.
Pausing in her work for a moment, Gabrielle used the back of her hand to wipe the perspiration off her face. The door to the tavern room stood open, and now she heard the steady tap of Xena's crutch on the wood floor, and then a murmur of voices. A few moments later, the warrior appeared in the doorway, then crossed over to stand near Gabrielle.
"It's hot in here," Xena said.
"Yeah, I noticed. Where's Cyrelle?"
"I sent her out to dump the dirty water and to tell Toris that the body is ready." She paused a moment before asking, "How did it go with Lyceus?"
"Not very well. He got upset and started crying, and that made me cry, too," Gabrielle admitted. "It's silly, I know, since we barely knew Arsenios, but . . ." Her voice trailed off.
Xena smiled and reached out to brush back the hair that clung damply to the younger woman's face. "You two are just a couple of softies," she said, "and that's one thing I'll always love about you."
Gabrielle smiled back at her, then asked, "How about Cyrelle? Was she upset?"
"It's always so hard to know with that girl," Xena said, shaking her head. "But I think she was at least a little sad about Arsenios, and she asked a bunch of questions about why he would kill himself. She didn't cry, though."
"Well, I'm not surprised about that. When was the last time you remember seeing Cyrelle cry?"
"When she was about three years old?" Xena suggested.
"Yeah, that sounds about right," Gabrielle agreed. "When it comes to expressing her feelings, Cyrelle has a lot of the same problems her mother has -- or used to have."
"I know," Xena said with a rueful grin. "Well, at least Cyrelle and I actually had the chance to have a real talk for the first time in several months. I just wish we didn't have to get off onto topics like how much she wants to be a warrior, or--" She broke off as Cyrelle rushed into the room.
"I gave Toris the message," the girl reported, "and he said the pyre would be ready about midafternoon. Are we going home now?"
"No. I still need to see Acantha," Xena responded. "I don't think it will take very long, though. Do you want to wait for me here, or do you want to go on back to the house?"
The girl considered for a few moments, then said, "I'll stay here and talk to Gabrielle."
"Okay. I'll be back soon," Xena said. Then she crossed to the end of the room and headed through the door into the living quarters.
Gabrielle wiped her face again as she looked at Cyrelle.
"Why is it so hot in here?" asked the girl.
"Because that's the way kitchens usually are, I guess," said the bard. Then she was surprised to note that Cyrelle was wearing a leather sheath on her belt, from which she now made a great show of drawing a dagger. "Where did you get that?" Gabrielle asked.
"It belonged to Arsenios. Xena let me have it."
"Uh-huh, and she's going to teach me to throw it, too, just as soon as we get home."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to respond, but she couldn't think what to say, so she closed it again.
"I think I already know pretty much how to throw a dagger," the girl went on. "I think you just hold it by the blade, kind of like this, and then you--"
"Cyrelle! Don't throw that thing in here! You'll break something," Gabrielle warned.
"Don't worry. I'm not going to really throw it," Cyrelle assured her. "But what if a big, mean warlord came in here all of a sudden and tried to kidnap you? Then I would just hurl my dagger like this," she exclaimed, going through the pretend motions, "and it would pierce right through his heart and kill him instantly!"
"Or else I'd run up and stab him in the back, like this," she said, jamming the point of her blade down hard into the tabletop, "and he would fall dead at my feet!"
Gabrielle stared at the girl and felt a shiver run down her spine. "I don't want to hear you talking about killing people," she said firmly. "We've always tried to teach you that killing should be avoided whenever possible."
"I know, but sometimes it's not possible to avoid it," Cyrelle responded cheerfully, "and that's when a good dagger like this one can come in really handy." Then she yanked the blade loose from the wood.
"Well, why don't you see if that good dagger of yours will chop up some onions, as long as you're here," Gabrielle said, in an effort to change the subject.
"Are you kidding? I don't want my dagger smelling like onions!"
Gabrielle laughed. "You remind me of your mother the time she caught me cutting up an eel with her chakram. I've told you that story, haven't I?"
"Yeah, we've heard all your stories about a thousand times by now," Cyrelle said with a grin.
Not all of them, thought Gabrielle. But she did not say this aloud. What she did say was, "Okay then, see if you can find another knife to chop onions with. I really could use a little help with this stew."
Cyrelle sighed and reluctantly slid her dagger back into its sheath.
"Is that the dagger Arsenios used to kill himself?" Gabrielle asked, suddenly recognizing the weapon.
"Uh-huh." The girl turned and went to get a knife from the shelf.
"Well, doesn't it make you feel kind of weird to have it -- I mean, knowing what it was last used for?"
"No," Cyrelle said in a nonchalant tone of voice. "I figure if he chose it to kill himself with, it must have been his favorite dagger. I think he would have wanted me to have it." She cut the end off an onion and began to peel away the outside layer of skin.
Gabrielle watched her for a few moments and then turned her attention back to the carrots she was slicing. "Didn't it make you sad that Arsenios killed himself?" she asked.
"Sure, it made me sad, but do you know why he did it? Because he couldn't be a warrior anymore. That's how much he loved being a warrior. Just like Xena," she went on. "She almost killed herself when she broke her leg and couldn't be a warrior anymore."
"She told you that story?" Gabrielle said in surprise.
"Yes. We talked about a lot of things," Cyrelle said.
The bard shook her head in amazement. Every time she thought she had Xena figured out, the woman surprised her once again. But how much of the story had she actually told Cyrelle? Surely not the part about Ares. Gabrielle tried to think of a question to ask that would yield the information she wanted without giving away any secrets. But before she could think of one, the girl gave her the answer.
"Do you know who my father is?"
"Yes," Gabrielle said cautiously.
"Will you tell me?"
"No, Sweetheart. You'll have to ask your mother that question."
"I did," the girl said glumly, "but she won't give me the answer."
"She has her reasons, you know."
"Yeah, well, at least I found out a few things."
"What did you find out?"
"That my father is still alive, and he knows about me, and that the reason he's never come to visit me is that Mother won't let him. She hates him, and she doesn't want me to turn out like him."
"Hmm. Well, it sounds like you found out quite a bit."
"Yeah, but not enough. I still need to know who my father really is. Because what if--" She stopped and leaned across the table, as if she were about to confide a secret. "What if it happened someday that my father secretly came to see me, and I didn't know he was my father," Cyrelle went on in a low voice. "And what if I maybe even liked him or something, but I didn't know I wasn't supposed to turn out like him. What would happen then?"
Gabrielle regarded the girl for a few seconds in silence. The scenario she had just described actually had a greater possibility of coming true than Cyrelle could ever guess. "That's an interesting question," the bard admitted. "I don't know what would happen in that case."
Cyrelle nodded. "See? That's why I need to be told who my father is. And anyway, don't you think I have a right to know? Almost everybody knows who their father is. You know who yours is, and Xena knows who hers is. Even Lyceus knows who his father is. So why shouldn't I know who mine is? Don't you think it's only fair?"
The girl was wrong about one thing, anyway. Xena could not be certain who her own father was -- not since that time when the Furies had cursed her with madness. However, it was a question Gabrielle had always seemed to find more interesting than Xena herself did, and the bard had honored her lover's request not to tell the story to the children. On the other hand, there was no doubt who Cyrelle's father was, and now the girl stood before her pleading to be told. Gabrielle pondered the matter while she gazed into the face that, except for the darker eyes, looked so very much like Xena's. Then at last, taking a deep breath, she said, "Yes, I think you should know who your father is."
"Then tell me!"
"I can't, Sweetheart. I promised that I wouldn't tell, and I'm not going to break that promise. Xena's the one who will have to make the decision to tell you."
Cyrelle sighed and looked down, clearly disappointed, but after a moment, she looked up again. "Could you talk to her, Gabrielle? Please?" she begged. "I know she'll listen to you."
"All right, I'll talk to her, but I can't guarantee anything. You know how stubborn your mother can be."
"Yes, but if anyone can change her mind, it's you. How soon can you talk to her?"
"I don't know. I'll just have to wait until the time seems right. She's pretty worried about this whole thing with Demetri at the moment."
"Okay," Cyrelle said. "But please don't wait too long. Oh, and thanks, Gabrielle."
The bard smiled. "I'll do the best I can for you," she said. Then, gathering up a double handful of chopped-up vegetables, she carried them to the fireplace and dumped them into the pot of simmering water. She stirred the mixture with a big wooden spoon, and then, hearing the door to the house open, looked up to see Xena come into the kitchen.
"How's Acantha?" Gabrielle asked.
"She's feeling better. I think she may be tired, more than anything, so a little rest should do her good."
Gabrielle nodded, thinking that "rest" sounded like a particularly lovely concept at that moment.
And as if reading her mind, Xena came over and gave her a quick hug. "Are you doing all right?" she asked.
"Yeah. I'm fine."
The warrior glanced over at Cyrelle, who had suddenly gotten very busy slicing up the last of the onions. "What have you two been talking about?" Xena asked.
"Oh, uh, nothing special," Gabrielle said.
"Okay. Well, are you ready to go, Cyrelle?"
"Yeah!" the girl exclaimed, tossing her knife down.
"You're coming to the funeral pyre, aren't you?" Xena asked Gabrielle.
"Yes, I'm planning to."
"All right. I'll see you there," the warrior said. Then she turned and followed her daughter out of the room.
* * * * *
Gabrielle remembered very few times in her life when she had been as frightened as she was during those dark days after Nicklio first told them how it would be with Xena's leg. One moment Xena had been fully present there with them, but the next, it was as if her spirit had fled to some faraway land. And as hours passed, and then whole days, during which Gabrielle could get no response from her lover, she became terrified that Xena would simply will herself to die, or else wake from her trance just long enough to fall on her sword or cut her own throat with her chakram.
When the bard confided her fears to Nicklio, he admitted that he, too, was worried. "We'll do everything we can for her, Gabrielle," he said, "including letting her know how much we care about her. But I don't need to remind you that Xena is clever, and still quite strong. If she really did decide she wanted to kill herself, there wouldn't be much we could do to stop her." After which, he hastened to add, "Hopefully, it won't come to that, though. What's more likely is that Xena just needed to withdraw for a little while, to give herself time to work things out in her mind."
The bard nodded, but the conversation had done little to allay her fears. She hid her lover's weapons in the woodshed, and kept a close watch on the warrior, sitting beside her, holding her hand, and talking softly about anything that came to mind. Then one day, much to Gabrielle's relief, Xena had awakened and said "Good morning," almost as if nothing had happened. Granted, she was not quite back to being her old self, but at least she seemed peaceful, and resigned to the situation, and that was the important thing.
Gabrielle had not really wanted to go to the village with Nicklio that day, but she let herself be talked into it because of her desire to show that she trusted Xena, and believed that her recovery was going well. Still, the whole time they were gone, she felt anxious and impatient to get back. Then, when they did return, they found Xena in a strangely ecstatic mood -- an almost maniacal form of cheerfulness which scared Gabrielle as much as the darker mood of unresponsiveness had earlier.
"Well, Nicklio," the warrior said as soon as the three of them sat down to supper, "what if I told you that in just a few months, my leg will be all healed up, as good as new again?"
"I'd say that you've let your fantasies run away with you," the healer replied.
"Oh, this is no fantasy -- it's the truth!"
"Xena, what's gotten into you?" Gabrielle asked. "This is crazy-talk."
"No, it's not. I know for a fact that my leg is going to be perfectly healed."
Nicklio exchanged a puzzled glance with Gabrielle, then looked at the warrior and said, "Don't do this to yourself, Xena. You'll just get your hopes up and then be disappointed. Only a god could heal your leg perfectly."
The warrior suddenly burst out laughing. "Only a god!" she exclaimed. "That's a good one, Nicklio! That's really very funny!" Then she went on chuckling while the other two stared at her in amazement.
Finally, Gabrielle reached out to clamp a hand on her lover's shoulder. "Xena, stop it! What's wrong with you?" she demanded.
"Wrong with me? I'm happy! What's so wrong about that? I thought you'd want me to be happy."
"No, this isn't 'happy,'" Gabrielle said, shaking her head. "This is weird. It's insane. It's not like you at all. Now, tell us what's going on. Did something happen while we were gone?"
Xena grinned. "Oh, I had a little visitor, that's all."
"What kind of visitor?" asked Nicklio.
"The kind who can heal my leg, just like you said."
"You had a visit from a god?" Gabrielle asked. "A god who's going to heal your leg?"
"You got it, Sweetie!"
"Oh, come on," Xena said, laughing. "Can't you guess?"
Gabrielle frowned, trying to solve the puzzle. "Aphrodite?" she ventured.
"Nope. Guess again!"
"Artemis," suggested Nicklio.
"Wrong!" the warrior exclaimed gleefully. "Ooh, this is fun!"
"Was it Hades?" Gabrielle asked, trying to think of any god who had ever owed Xena a favor.
"No, not Hades!"
"Zeus!" said Nicklio.
"Wow! Why not go all the way to the top!" said Xena, laughing again. Then she looked at the bard and shook her head. "Come on, Gabrielle, think. Who's the one god who has an interest in whether I can go on being a warrior or not?"
Gabrielle stared at her and felt a sudden cold dread in her gut. "Ares," she murmured.
"Yes! You win the prize!" Xena cried, clapping her hands. Then she leaned over and gave the younger woman a big, sloppy kiss on the cheek.
But Gabrielle did not respond -- did not even smile. She could only go on looking at her lover in total disbelief.
"If Ares is going to heal your leg," Nicklio said, "why didn't he go ahead and do it today? Why should it take several months?"
"Oh. Well, that was just part of our deal. He's going to heal my leg after I've done my part, and that will take a little while."
"I can't believe you would make a deal with that bastard," Gabrielle said coldly, "even to get your leg healed. Xena, why would you ever do such a thing?"
"Because he saved my life."
"Ares saved your life? When?"
"This afternoon. While you were gone."
Gabrielle looked at her in stunned silence while her mind refused to understand.
"You were going to kill yourself," Nicklio said quietly.
Xena nodded. "I was lying on my cot, holding the knife to my heart," she said, "and Ares stopped me. He convinced me that I wanted to live."
"To live as his warrior queen?" Gabrielle asked in a bitter tone. "I thought you always said you'd rather die."
"Oh, so you wish I'd gone ahead and killed myself."
"No! I didn't mean that! I just meant--" She stopped as the reality of the situation began to penetrate her mind in a very painful way. Xena had almost killed herself. And then, as if that were not bad enough, it was Ares who had saved her. It was Ares to whom Xena now owed this terrible debt. Gabrielle looked at her lover. "Of course, I'm glad you're alive," she said in a voice choked with emotion. "But to make a deal with Ares--"
"I seem to remember that you made one with him yourself, once upon a time," Xena said calmly.
"I know, but I thought I was doing the right thing," Gabrielle said. "I thought I was saving you."
"And I thought I was doing the right thing today, by deciding to go on living and being a warrior."
"A warrior for Ares," the bard said dully.
"No, actually, that's not what he wanted," Xena said. "He thinks I'm getting too old to be his warrior queen."
"Too old?" said Nicklio in surprise.
Xena nodded. "He wants someone younger to do it," she said.
"Who?" asked Gabrielle.
"His daughter?" The bard cast about quickly in her mind, trying to remember tales she had heard about Ares and his numerous offspring. "Well, Penthesileia is the only daughter I've heard of who was a warrior -- an Amazon queen, in fact -- but she was killed by Achilles during the Trojan War." She paused. "I don't think either Alcippe or Harmonia are warriors, and I don't know of any other daughters of Ares."
Xena shook her head. "This is a new one," she said, "one who hasn't even been born yet." She hesitated, and then added, "It's the daughter I'm going to give him."
There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Nicklio said, "You're going to have Ares' baby?"
The warrior nodded.
"When?" asked Gabrielle. "I mean, are you already, uh--" She glanced at her lover's abdomen.
"Yes, you can congratulate me -- I'm pregnant!" Xena said, and laughed. But now her laughter had a more sober ring than before.
"And when the baby is born," Nicklio said, sounding as confused as Gabrielle herself felt, "then what happens?"
"Then Ares heals my leg!" Xena said, giving the other two a triumphant grin. But when they only stared at her, she apparently decided more explanation was needed. "When the baby is born, I give her to Ares to raise," she said, "and in exchange, he heals my leg. After that, he says he will never bother me again." She leaned forward and put her hand over Gabrielle's. "Don't you see?" she said urgently. "We'll be able to go on with our lives, just like before -- fighting for good and helping people."
"And the child? What will become of her?" asked Gabrielle, pulling her hand away.
Xena shrugged and leaned back in her chair. "Ares will raise her to be his warrior queen, I guess."
"And that doesn't bother you?"
"Yes. Doesn't it bother you to think about giving up your own daughter, just like you gave up Solan? And at least when you gave up Solan, it was because you didn't want him to be a warrior. But now you're going to do the exact opposite! You're going to sacrifice an innocent child to--"
"She's not innocent," Xena said flatly. "She's Ares' daughter."
"Right. And you just might be, too," Gabrielle shot back.
Xena stared at her without speaking.
"What are you talking about?" asked Nicklio. "Xena might be Ares' daughter?"
"I'll explain later," Gabrielle said without taking her eyes off Xena. "And anyway," she went on, "she will be your child, too. She's already growing inside your body, and before long, you'll feel her start to move and kick. How can you possibly give her up?"
"I can give her up because I want my leg to be healed!" Xena said in an anguished tone. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life as a helpless cripple!"
Gabrielle stared at her lover and saw how the blue eyes pleaded for understanding. But she could not understand. Sharp tears stung her eyes, and she swallowed hard. "You're not helpless, Xena," she said finally, trying to keep her voice from trembling. "And even if you were, it wouldn't justify giving up your child to Ares. Maybe you were right about what you said before. Maybe I would rather see you dead than to know you could do anything so totally selfish and uncaring!" And pushing her chair back abruptly, she stood up and stumbled to the door. Once there, she yanked it open and turned back for a moment. "I'm sorry," she said, "but that's how I feel." Then she hurried outside into the snowy night.
She was not even aware of the cold -- at least not at first -- although she did vaguely note that snowflakes were falling all around her. Blinded by tears, she made her way through the darkness until she came to a tree. Then, leaning her face against the rough, wet bark, she began to sob out all the anger, grief, and confusion that had been threatening to overwhelm her.
Time passed, but Gabrielle did not know or care how much. She clung to the tree while the cold gradually numbed her hands, and the sobs began to subside. Then she heard a slight sound behind her and felt a hand touch her shoulder.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, "I'm sorry. You must think I've gone mad, and you're probably right."
The bard let out a long, shaky breath, closed her eyes, and let her body sag against the tree trunk. Now, for the first time, she felt the wet, heavy snowflakes hitting her face, and heard the soft sound of them falling to earth.
"I know you won't believe me," Xena went on, "but I thought I was doing the best thing -- for both of us." She moved a little closer, and Gabrielle felt the warrior's warm arm wrap around her shoulders. "Come inside, Sweetheart," Xena said, "and let me try to explain. It's cold out here, and you don't even have a cloak. I'm afraid you'll get sick."
Gabrielle looked at her then. "What do you care if I get sick?" she asked in a voice made hoarse by crying. "You were going to kill yourself and leave me all alone with my grief. And now you plan to abandon your child to a life of murder and--"
Xena put her fingers over Gabrielle's lips to stop her. "I know you're angry," she said, "and you have a right to be, but let's talk about it inside, where it's warmer."
Gabrielle regarded her for a moment without speaking, then slowly released her hold on the tree and turned to face her lover.
"Here, take my cloak," Xena said, starting to untie the laces at her throat.
"No, I'm fine," Gabrielle said, even as she began to shiver uncontrollably.
"Take it," Xena said, quickly removing the cloak and handing it to the younger woman.
Gabrielle wrapped it around her shoulders and held it with one hand because her fingers were too cold to tie the laces. She watched her lover arrange the crutches under her arms and suddenly realized how difficult it must have been to maneuver through the snow with them. Yet instead of sending Nicklio out to find her, the warrior had chosen to come herself.
"Xena," Gabrielle whispered, "do you still love me?"
The older woman looked at her for a moment, then reached out to touch her cheek. "With all my heart," she said quietly.
The bard nodded and moved forward to take hold of Xena's arm, hoping that would help steady the warrior in the slippery snow. Then, together, they began the slow journey back to Nicklio's house.
* * * * *
A short time later, the two women sat wrapped in blankets in front of the fire, sipping warm mead from wooden mugs. They had invited Nicklio to join them, but he declined, saying, "I think this is something you two need to work out alone." Then he retreated to the back portion of the room, and began puttering around quietly among his herbs.
Glancing over at Xena, Gabrielle noted that the warrior's face looked weary -- etched with deep lines of sadness. Yet in spite of that, the blue eyes regarded her with a clarity that made the bard feel, for the first time in many days, that she was dealing with the "real" Xena.
There was so much they needed to talk about -- but where to begin? What questions should she ask? Taking a sip of mead, she stared into the fire. Maybe it didn't matter where they started, as long as they started somewhere. She looked at Xena again, and saw that the older woman was watching her.
"What do you want to know?" Xena said softly.
"I want to know why," Gabrielle responded. "Why did you try to kill yourself?"
"Because I can't be a warrior anymore, and I don't know any other way to live my life," Xena said. "I'm supposed to follow the way of the warrior, but if I can't do that, maybe it's time for me to move on to the next lifetime." She stopped speaking and sighed. "It just seemed like the right thing to do," she added. "The only thing to do."
"But Xena, didn't you even think about the people who love you?" Gabrielle asked. "Didn't you realize how sad we would be if you died by your own hand?" She felt the tears rising within her again and resolutely pushed them back. "Didn't you think about me, and how I would feel?" she finished.
"Yes, of course I thought about you. And I knew I would cause you grief. But I'm also aware that you're strong and brave. In time, I knew your grief would pass, and then you would be able to go on with your life, without a crippled lover to burden you."
"Burden me?" Gabrielle said in surprise. "Xena, don't you know how much I love you? I would do anything for you, and I would never consider it a burden."
Xena shook her head. "It's one thing to take care of someone for a short time when they're sick or wounded, but to have to do it year after year--"
"You're talking like you're totally helpless, which you're not."
"I feel like I'm helpless. I can't fight. I can't even ride a horse. I can't defend myself, or protect you from harm--"
"I don't need you to protect me, Xena. I can do my own fighting now, in case you've forgotten. I've even defended you a few times, and I can do it again, if necessary."
"Yes, but you shouldn't have to."
Gabrielle leaned forward and put a hand on Xena's arm. "Listen to me," she said. "I think you've blown this whole situation way out of proportion. Yes, you've got a badly broken leg, and you'll probably have to walk with a crutch, but you're a long way from being helpless. You're not paralyzed or bedridden or feeble-minded. You can still use your arms and your hands. You can swing your sword or throw your chakram. Maybe you can't do flips or kicks or fight the way you're used to fighting, but I'm sure any thug with half a brain would still think twice about attacking you."
Xena stared at the fire without answering.
"Am I right?" Gabrielle said. "Talk to me, Xena."
"Yes, I suppose you're right," the older woman said reluctantly. "But I still can't be a warrior," she added. "And I still don't know what to do with my life. It almost seems like it would just be better if I--" She stopped speaking.
"If you what?"
Xena turned to look at Gabrielle, her eyes full of anguish. "If I went ahead and killed myself, and the baby, too, and put us out of our misery."
"No," the bard said firmly. "That's not the answer, Xena."
"Then what is the answer?"
Gabrielle got up and went to stand beside the warrior's chair. Wrapping her arms around her lover, she pulled her close and held her in a tight embrace. "I don't know what the answer is, Sweetheart," she said softly, "except that it's not suicide." She bent to kiss the top of Xena's head. "We're going to get through this," she went on. "We'll get past the misery, and we'll find the answer -- but we have to do it together. It won't work if you run off and kill yourself."
The warrior's only answer was to press her face more tightly against Gabrielle's breast as she returned the embrace. Then, after what seemed like a long time, she pulled free and looked up at the bard. "What about the baby?" she asked.
"You're going to keep her, and we'll raise her together."
"But she's the daughter of the god of war, and she has a former warlord for a mother. What if she turns out to be evil, like Hope?"
"She won't be evil," Gabrielle said confidently.
"How do you know?"
"Because Ares isn't evil -- not in the same way that Dahak was. He's got a lot of unsavory character traits, but he's not inherently evil."
"Maybe not," admitted Xena, "but he definitely has a dark side. A very dark side. And so do I. Think about what this child is going to inherit."
"We'll just have to give her all the love we can, and help her learn to fight her dark side," Gabrielle said. "We'll teach her to hate war and bloodshed, and to love peace. Maybe it won't be easy, but I know we can do it, Xena."
The warrior looked up at her, and for the first time, Gabrielle saw a flicker of hope in her eyes. "Yes, maybe we can," Xena said softly.
Gabrielle knelt in front of her and placed a gentle kiss on her mouth. Then she got up and moved back to her chair. "There's so much we still need to talk about," she said.
"Like where we're going to live and what kind of new life we're going to have. And how we're going to keep Ares from taking the baby away once it's born."
Xena shook her head. "I'm too tired to talk anymore right now," she said.
"All right. It would probably do us both good to go to bed and get some rest. But Xena--"
"I don't think I can sleep if I have to worry about whether you might still try to kill yourself."
The warrior looked at her without speaking.
"Please promise me you won't do that. I really need to have your word on this."
Xena hesitated, then nodded. "All right," she said, "I promise."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said with a relieved smile. "That makes me feel a whole lot better."
They got ready for bed while Nicklio banked the fire and then retired to his own small sleeping room. Gabrielle was afraid that her thoughts and fears might keep her awake, but she fell asleep almost immediately, and slept peacefully through the night. When she woke in the morning light, she looked over at Xena's cot and saw the warrior lying on her side, head propped on her hand, watching her.
"Gabrielle, I want to go home," Xena said.
"Home? To Amphipolis?"
"Yes. I want my baby to be born there. I want my mother to know her grandchild." She looked away for a moment, biting her lower lip. Then she looked back again. "I never told her about Solan," she said softly. "She never even knew he existed."
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes," she said, "we should go to Amphipolis. Cyrene and I can help with the birth, and I know she'll make a wonderful grandmother."
Over breakfast, they told Nicklio their plans.
"Of course, we'll have to wait until I'm more healed up and able to travel," Xena said. "And also until it's safe to be in Amphipolis."
"Safe?" Nicklio said. "What do you mean?"
"We heard there was smallpox there," Gabrielle said. "We were on our way to check on Xena's family when we had the accident."
Nicklio frowned. "Well, I don't need to tell you how dangerous smallpox is, or that a pregnant woman shouldn't be exposing herself, if she can avoid it," he said, looking pointedly at Xena.
"I know," she said.
"But I would think that by the time you're ready to travel, the risk will have passed," he added. Then he asked, "Do you plan to make your home there permanently?"
It was a question Gabrielle herself had wanted to ask, and now she looked to Xena for an answer.
"I can't really say," the warrior responded. "I thought maybe we could stay there for a while and see how we like it, but--" She paused and then went on. "Well, I just can't see myself sitting around doing nothing but nursing the baby all day."
"You could work in the tavern," Gabrielle suggested.
"Doing what? I'm a bad cook, and it would be pretty difficult for me to wait tables, at this point. Maybe I could clean the stable, but even that would be hard to do if I'm using a crutch."
Gabrielle stared at her lover's face, seeing the despair written there, and wishing she could think of something to say which might relieve it.
In the end, it was Nicklio who came to their rescue. "Why don't you set yourself up as a healer, Xena?" he asked.
"As a healer?" the warrior said in surprise.
"Sure," he said. "You already know a great deal about healing, and I'd be glad to teach you anything else I can. You're probably going to be here two or three more months anyway, while your leg heals, so why not make good use of the time?"
"That's a great idea!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "What do you think, Xena?"
The warrior nodded. "It just might work," she admitted.
"Is there already a healer in Amphipolis?" asked Gabrielle.
"Yes, a man named Petros. At least, as far as I know, he's still there."
"Do you think the town is big enough for two healers?" asked Nicklio.
"Well, I wouldn't have said so a few years back," Xena responded, "but now that the gold and lumber trades are doing so well, the town is really growing. I guess if it turned out there wasn't enough work for two healers, I could always go someplace else."
So it was decided that Xena would become a full-time healer, and she began to study with Nicklio that very day. She appeared much encouraged by the decision, and although there were days when she still seemed despondent and withdrawn, her overall mood slowly but surely improved.
Gabrielle, meanwhile, made an arrangement to tell stories each night in the village's one tavern. She carefully saved the money she earned from this, as well as any other odd jobs she could find, until she had enough to buy a rickety old cart from a local farmer. On the day she hitched Argo to it, and drove triumphantly to Nicklio's house, she was rewarded by a big hug and kiss from Xena. Then afterwards, whenever the weather permitted, the warrior spent time working on the cart -- replacing worn and broken pegs, relashing the framework, and lubricating the axle.
As Xena's leg grew stronger, Nicklio took off the long splints and replaced them with shorter ones. He let Xena start putting weight on the leg, and he taught Gabrielle how to massage the muscles and exercise the joints to keep them flexible. On one of her trips to the village, the bard bought Xena some blue linen fabric from a local weaver, and the warrior made herself a loose tunic, plus trousers with a drawstring to accommodate her thickening waist.
Then, after three months on Mt. Nestos, the two women decided the time had come to leave. It was still winter, but the solstice had passed, and the days were already beginning to lengthen. When a break came in the weather, Gabrielle and Xena said goodbye to Nicklio with many warm hugs and words of thanks, then headed their cart southwest, toward Amphipolis.
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