DISCLAIMERS:Ownership: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle
are owned by Studios USA and no profit is intended from this work. All other characters
and the story idea are owned by me. Please don't copy or repost without my permission,
unless for private use.
Hurt/Comfort: This story could be characterized as hurt/comfort. There are images of violence, although no direct violence occurs in the story.
Love/Sex: A loving relationship between two women (guess who?) is portrayed in this story, although this one is definitely a PG-13.
Feedback: Please! Anything your heart desires.
Timeline: The story takes place during season 6, directly following the Ring trilogy.
Thanks: As always to the best beta reader around Jane (XetG)! Also, thanks to the members of The Bard's Village for providing me feedback and catching some serious boo-boos.
"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori"
("It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country")
Gabrielle rolled out of her lover's loose embrace and
pushed herself up from the sleeping fur, pulling her cloak on and flipping the hood over
her head. The rain was falling in a steady rhythm against the roof of their shelter. It
was a sound that Gabrielle had come to loathe.
They'd been traveling south from the Norselands for three weeks now. They had found sea passage only as far as the north of Gaul. At that point, they could have waited for further passage to Greece, but decided to travel south by horseback. Since it was spring, traveling by land would be free from the bitter cold that they'd recently experienced in the far north. However, soon after leaving the little port town, they discovered that in this country, spring brought rain. Nearly every day of the journey had been cursed by it, making the trip arduous and miserable.
Gabrielle poked at the embers of their fire, causing a small flame to spurt up. She held out her hands and when they were warmer, she scrubbed her face, trying to rub away the remaining whispers of the nightmare that had woken her.
"What are you doing up?" a soft voice asked from behind her.
Gabrielle turned around and smiled at Xena. She wasn't surprised to find alert, crystal blue eyes staring back at her. Her own eyes were still struggling to fully open, but the warrior always woke up ready for action.
"I slept for a year, Xena," Gabrielle replied in a voice still rough from sleep. "I think I can now manage to get up before you at least once in a while."
Xena laughed and sat up, bringing the sleeping fur with her. She moved over to Gabrielle and threw the fur blanket around them both.
"I'm cold," she said, pulling Gabrielle closer.
"You're as warm as Haephestus's forge," Gabrielle said, leaning against the warm body next to her. "You just wanted a cuddle."
"How do you know me so well?" Xena asked.
"Just a lucky guess," Gabrielle replied, flashing a lopsided grin.
"Hey, you're supposed to say I'm the other half of your soul and you know me as well as you know yourself," Xena protested.
"Oh, yeah," Gabrielle said with a shrug, "that too."
She tried to keep a straight face, but a smile escaped. Xena smiled back, and then leaned down for a kiss. They both felt the warmth of their embrace, and as it began to build, they forgot about the cold and the rain. It was a lovely way to wake up.
"So why did you decide to cut your hair again?"
Xena asked, looking down at the golden head walking beside her horse. Gabrielle's horse
had come up lame the previous day and they'd traded both horses for a large bay gelding,
which would hopefully have better footing in the muddy roads. The bay was also big enough
to take them both on its back if Gabrielle ever got tired of plodding through the
"What's wrong with my hair? Don't you like it short?" Gabrielle asked, self-consciously running her fingers through the damp strands.
Xena chuckled at her lover's paranoia. "Of course I do, but I liked it long too. You looked absolutely beautiful when I woke you up from your little nap."
"Well, thanks," Gabrielle said with a sardonic grin. "But all that hair was too hard to take care of. I just got used to short hair, I guess."
Gabrielle knew her practical warrior would understand that logic. She didn't even try to explain the other, more emotional, reasons she had for cutting her hair again. Xena had originally cut it with her chakram to save Gabrielle from Alti, who held the bard by the hair, forcing her to experience her crucifixion. The visions were tearing apart Gabrielle's mind and body and Xena had to act fast to stop them. Gabrielle had accepted the new hairstyle just as she had accepted their destiny, and from that day forward, she would often run her fingers through the short locks, and remember her choices. She never wanted long hair again.
"Are you going to get up here or do I have to listen to you plop-plopping all day?" Xena asked, looking down at Gabrielle's mud-encrusted boots.
"OK," Gabrielle sighed. "Just let me wipe them on the grass or I'll rub mud all over Dimitrios." She moved over to a clump of grass by the side of the road, and began to rub her boots on the green grass.
"Why did you name this horse Dimitrios?" Xena asked.
"Because he reminds me of a man from Potidaea," Gabrielle replied, looking over her shoulder. "He was the blacksmith and"
Gabrielle had thrust her boot forward and felt it connect with something that she swore hadn't been there before. She looked down and saw a man's disembodied head, encased in a strange mask. The mask was made from a strange material, and had large eyes and a square snout. The head ended in a mess of tissue and blood, which now covered her boot. She swayed and struggled to keep her lunch from coming back up.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked when the story abruptly ended. She looked curiously down at her companion, who had turned as white as a sheet and seemed mesmerized by the muddy ground at her feet.
"Gabrielle?" Xena repeated, and then jumped quickly off the bay when she saw the younger woman drop to her knees, expelling her lunch.
"Hey, hey, sweetheart," Xena said, falling to her knees beside the struggling woman.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle mumbled, turning into Xena's embrace and burying her face into the skin above the warrior's breastplate. "I just didn't expect that. Is there a body?"
"What? What do you mean?" Xena said, looking around. "There's nothing here, sweetheart."
"The head," Gabrielle tried to explain.
"I don't understand."
Gabrielle didn't particularly want to see the gruesome sight again, but she slowly turned back to the muddy hole. When she finally faced it, she found nothing there.
"It was there," Gabrielle said, looking confused. "A man's head in a strange mask. There was blood so much blood." A memory of her own hands, stained red with blood, swamped her mind and she felt her stomach clench. Xena felt the muscles below her fingers jerk, and she began to rub her hand in a soothing circle on Gabrielle's abdomen.
"There's nothing there, just your imagination," Xena said softly. "Quiet now; rest a minute." She continued her gentle stroking and soon felt the tense body begin to relax under her hands. "Come on now, let's get you cleaned up." She helped Gabrielle rise from the mud and led her to a small stream that bordered the road.
"I don't understand," Gabrielle mumbled. "It was there. I know what I saw."
"You're tired," Xena said. "Our last adventure was hard on us both."
"No, I ." Gabrielle let Xena lead her by the hand across the road. She looked back to the puddle beside the green clump of grass. There was still nothing there. "Yeah, I guess I am a little tired."
Two nights later, Gabrielle found herself once again woken
by nightmares. She was sure that the same dream was recurring every night, but its details
still eluded her. She sat huddled by the fire and watched the ghostly shape of an owl
circle overhead and land on a branch directly above her. It hooted softly and she lifted a
finger to her lips.
"Shh," she whispered. "If you wake up my warrior, she'll be very grouchy."
As if the owl understood, it spread its huge wings and took off with a soft whoosh. It circled once, and then headed away, through a sky that was finally not dumping rain. Gabrielle sighed and poked the fire. It was late or early depending on how you looked at it. Although she had no memory of the images in her dream, she could remember the feelings. In the dream, she was wet and muddy. That wasn't surprising, since lately she spent most of her days that way. But on top of being wet and muddy, she felt terrified. It was a terror that she had rarely felt in her life, and it was coupled with loneliness so severe, it left her shaking and breathless.
"I don't understand why I'm feeling this way," she muttered softly to herself. "Things are great right now. Xena and I have reunited after another horrible separation. Well, horrible for her. I slept through most of it. I feel closer to her than I have in a long time, and I know she feels the same way. So what is going on in my stupid brain?" She smacked herself softly on the side of her head in frustration.
"Stop hitting yourself on the head and come back to bed," Xena said in a tired mumble.
Gabrielle smiled and her eyes sparkled with affection.
"I'm sorry I woke you," Gabrielle whispered.
"S'all right." Xena lifted the fur and gestured for Gabrielle to come back underneath. Gabrielle decided it was a better place to be than huddling beside the fire, so she crawled inside.
"Bad dream?" Xena asked, wrapping an arm around her.
"Yeah," Gabrielle said with a tired sigh. "I'll be OK now."
Gabrielle listened as Xena's breath deepened and slowed. She wanted to continue to feel warm and protected and loved, and she dreaded the feelings that the nightmare would bring. She finished the night in a fitful doze, jerking awake each time she felt the cold and fear.
"It's been dry for two days in a row," Xena said
with a wide grin. "Maybe our luck is changing, huh?"
Gabrielle sat behind the saddle astride Dimitrios. Xena could feel a small head resting against her shoulder, but there was no response from the bard.
"Hey, are you sleeping back there? I don't want you falling off."
"Hmmm," Gabrielle mumbled. The horse lurched over a rut in the road, and Gabrielle jerked fully awake, clutching onto Xena's leathers as she felt herself slipping.
"Whoa," Xena cried, stopping the horse when the path leveled. "You OK?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle said. "I guess I was nodding off."
"All right, let's rest a minute." She waited until Gabrielle hopped off, and then dismounted gracefully.
"Are those nightmares still keeping you awake?" Xena asked, as she led the bay off the road.
"I guess," Gabrielle said noncommittally. "Look, I'm OK. We don't need to rest. I'll stay awake."
Xena placed her hand on her partner's shoulder and looked into Gabrielle's haggard face. Lines of tension ran across Gabrielle's forehead and around the corners of her mouth. Purple smudges marked the skin below her eyes.
"Gabrielle," Xena said with a tender smile, "I want you to know that I'm saying this with the utmost love you look like shit."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said with a tired smile.
"Why don't you just sit under that tree while I scout ahead," Xena suggested. "We're almost to the top of this ridge. I'll go see what's on the other side. Sound good?" She waited until Gabrielle nodded, then led the bard to a shady spot beneath a large oak. "You'll be OK?" Xena asked, brushing a strand of hair out of Gabrielle's eye.
"Yeah," Gabrielle said, smiling at the tender gesture. "I'll be fine after I rest a little."
"OK, I'll be back in a few." Xena grinned and remounted Dimitrios. She looked over her shoulder again and smiled encouragingly at Gabrielle, before spurring the horse forward. Gabrielle watched them until they disappeared behind a line of birch trees.
The exhausted bard leaned her head back and let the sun warm her face. It was wonderful to finally feel dry. She took a deep breath through her nose and smelled the rich odor of the woods. She continued to breathe deeply, smelling the trees, the earth, the life around her. Then, on the edges of her senses, she smelled a different odor. It was the smell of garlic. It reminded Gabrielle of her mother's kitchen. She sniffed again, but it was gone.
"Must be a garlic field somewhere nearby," she mused. Her voice was loud in the silent forest. She tilted her head and listened no birdsong, no insects, just wind in the birch trees. The rustling leaves sounded like ocean waves on a sandy shore.
And then a sound, carried by the wind. It began softly and then grew louder men's voices, shouting and crying out in anger and in pain and in terror. With the voices came the sounds of explosions. The sounds grew louder and louder, until Gabrielle threw her hands over her ears, trying to drown out the horrible noise.
The smell of garlic returned, flooding her lungs and making her gag. She tried to breathe, but she could only cough, her body trying to expel the foreign matter. Her eyes burned and tears flooded down her cheeks. She doubled over, digging her fingers into the soft dirt, as the coughs ripped through her.
"Gabrielle!" Xena returned from her scouting expedition, vaulting off the horse when she heard her lover's distress. She rushed to the struggling woman, landing on her knees beside her. "What is it? Are you choking?"
She patted Gabrielle firmly between the shoulder blades, but it didn't seem to help. Gabrielle was fighting to pull air into her lungs and her face was red from the struggle. Xena ran back to the horse and grabbed a water skin, returning to the bard's side and pressing it to her lips.
"Drink this, just a sip," Xena said desperately. Gabrielle tried, but the water didn't get far, sputtering up again with her harsh coughs. A blue tinge appeared on her lips. The sight seized Xena's heart in an icy grip.
"Gabrielle, try to breathe through your nose," Xena said in a firm, calm tone, burying her own panic deep inside. She started to pat Gabrielle's back again. "You've got to breathe."
Gabrielle was trying to breathe, to do as Xena asked. All of her energy was focused on doing just that, but her lungs wouldn't cooperate. She wanted to be out of this place, away from the horrible smell, the invisible gas that had filled her lungs. She clutched at Xena's chest armor and tried to draw herself up.
"Just lie still and try to breathe," Xena said, a trace of panic edging its way into her voice. She grabbed hold of Gabrielle's grasping hands and then, running out of ideas, she pulled the smaller woman into her arms. The smell of rotten garlic disappeared, replaced by the smell of leather and lavender, the unmistakable odor of Xena. Gabrielle breathed deeply through her nose, filling her lungs with the cleaner air. The coughs finally slowed and then stopped, leaving her wheezing, but breathing steadily.
"That's better," Xena said, still holding tight to her partner. "You want to try some water again?"
Gabrielle nodded, not daring to speak in case the coughs returned. Xena carefully lifted the water skin to Gabrielle's lips and smiled encouragingly as she took a sip. After a few more sips and no return of the coughs, Xena finally let out a relieved breath.
"You scared me," Xena said. "Did you choke on something?"
"It was like gas," Gabrielle said. Her voice sounded like sandpaper and tears still dropped in tracks down her face. "Didn't you smell it?"
"No," Xena replied. Her brow furrowed with worry. "You must have fallen asleep, maybe dreamt something."
"I didn't dream it," Gabrielle rasped. "There were horrible sounds of a battle, at least I think it was a battle. There were explosions louder than the black powder explosions in Chin. And men were screaming and crying and then the smell like rotten garlic."
"There's nothing here, Gabrielle," Xena said, trying to soothe the bard. She used her fingertips to wipe the tears from the bard's face. "It was a dream."
Before Gabrielle could protest, Xena helped her to her feet and led her slowly toward the horse. "I have something that will make you happy," Xena said with a grin. "Come on."
She mounted Dimitrios and then held out a hand for Gabrielle. Once settled, she spurred Dimitrios up the trail. After a few minutes, they crested the ridge and she jumped off the horse, helping Gabrielle, who still seemed weak from her coughing fit. They walked to a large boulder and looked down to the valley spread below them. It was like a beautiful blanket, stretched to the far hills - a huge field of red poppies, dancing in the soft breeze.
"Great, huh?" Xena said, placing a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"It's beautiful," Gabrielle said in awe as she gazed down at the poppy field. "There must be thousands of flowers."
"Probably hundreds of thousands," Xena mused. She remembered a trick she had learnt to determine enemy troop numbers. As she began counting flowers, she felt Gabrielle's body stiffen under her hand.
"Are you OK?" Xena asked. Gabrielle had gone pale once again. Her eyes were still fixed on the poppy field spread out below them.
Before Gabrielle's eyes, the poppy field had been transformed. Before her now was a field of mud and death. The ground was marred by huge long gashes, cut deep into the ground. Here and there, she could just make out the tops of men's heads as they walked in the ditches. Strange strands of barbed metal were placed in the middle of the battlefield, several bodies caught in their grip. Directly below her was a huge crater. She gasped in horror when she saw that it was filled with dead men and horses, half buried in the mud.
"What is it?" Xena asked, moving in front of Gabrielle and taking hold of her arms.
As Xena blocked her view of the field, consciousness left Gabrielle as quickly as a candle being extinguished. Xena caught her bard as her knees buckled and she began to slowly sink to the ground.
Gabrielle woke to the touch of a warm, callused hand
stroking her forehead. Her eyes struggled to open, and finally succeeded. She winced at
the glare from the late afternoon sun.
"Hey," Xena murmured. "Welcome back."
Gabrielle looked up at the warrior, who looked down at her and didn't even try to hide her worry.
"Hi," Gabrielle said, trying to smile. "How long"
"About an hour," Xena replied before Gabrielle could finish. "Tell me what happened. Did you have a headache before you fainted? Feel nauseous?"
"No," Gabrielle said, trying to sit up.
Xena gently pushed her down. "Don't get up. Just relax."
"It was the field," Gabrielle continued as she lay back down. She closed her eyes at the memory. "It was horrible. It was a battleground, but unlike any that I've ever seen before. There were bodies everywhere, and "
Xena saw the blood drain from Gabrielle's face again, and she stroked the younger woman's forehead.
"Shh," she said softly. "It's all right. It was just a bad dream."
"I wasnt sleeping," Gabrielle pointed out, trying to concentrate on the feeling of Xena's hand on her forehead and push the haunting memories from her mind's eye.
"You haven't gotten any decent sleep for weeks, have you?" Xena asked as she ran her fingers over the lines on Gabrielle's face and the purple smudges under her eyes.
"I told you before, I slept for a year," Gabrielle replied, attempting a light tone. "I can afford a little insomnia."
Xena frowned. "I'm going to make you some tea, but first I want you to eat something," she said, moving toward the saddlebags.
"I'm not hungry."
"This is non-negotiable," Xena snapped. She caught herself and softened her tone. "Gabrielle, you need to sleep. I'm brewing you something that will help with that, but before you drink it, I want you to get something into your stomach."
"I don't " Gabrielle felt tears begin to prickle her eyes and she tried to rub them away before Xena turned around. As usual, she was too slow for the warrior princess.
"What is it?" Xena asked, handing Gabrielle a bread roll and hunk of cheese.
Gabrielle thought about saying it was nothing, but she knew Xena wouldn't let her get away with that.
"I'm afraid I won't wake up again," she whispered. She added hastily, "I'm just being irrational."
"You're not being irrational," Xena said, then prodded, "Eat."
Gabrielle took a tiny bite of the roll and struggled to swallow. The bread was like dust in her mouth, but Xena smiled encouragingly and Gabrielle forced herself to keep eating.
"I just can't shake this fear," Gabrielle said after a few more bites. "I was imprisoned for a year in that forest. I know there's no way that could happen again, but sleeping just scares me."
"You said you were imprisoned," Xena said, mixing the herbs together for the tea. "Could you see what was going on around you?"
"Sometimes," Gabrielle replied. "There were periods that I don't remember, but other times I was totally aware of what was happening, and I tried to wake up. Each time I tried, I would feel something putting me to sleep again. Sometimes, it was pleasant, like being rocked in someone's arms. Other times, I struggled and fought, and then the force just seemed to be dragging me under." She shuddered at the memory, and tears sprang back into her eyes.
"Here, drink up now," Xena said, handing her the tea. Gabrielle took the mug in her hands, but didn't raise it to her lips.
"Gabrielle, you've got to drink that," Xena said firmly. "I'm sure the lack of sleep is causing your visions. You can't live like this; it'll tear you apart and make you sicker than you already are."
Xena moved beside her partner and wrapped her arm around the smaller woman, drawing her close. Gabrielle leaned her head to the side to rest on Xena's shoulder.
"Will you hold me while I sleep?" Gabrielle asked in a small voice.
"Yes, of course," Xena replied forcefully. "No one will cast a spell on you while I'm here."
"They might cast a spell on us both," Gabrielle said, but smiled slightly.
"Then at least we'll be sleeping together, and I won't be wandering around marrying some hairy Danish king." Xena chuckled. She squeezed Gabrielle and kissed the top of her head. "Now, drink that tea."
Gabrielle sighed and did as she was told. Xena had added mint leaves to cover the sleeping herbs, so it went down pretty easily. The aftertaste was bitter, though, and Gabrielle made a face when she put the mug down.
"That was pretty nasty," she mumbled, already feeling her eyelids growing heavy.
"Shh," Xena whispered. "Just close your eyes and think of something beautiful."
"OK," Gabrielle mumbled. "I'll think of you."
Xena grinned and listened while Gabrielle's breaths deepened and slowed.
A feeling of intense misery woke Gabrielle and she cried
out softly as she sat up. Xena still slept next to her, as she had promised, a strong arm
wrapped protectively around her waist. Gabrielle trembled as the feeling of anguish
overtook her again, like a noxious breeze blowing over her. Carried on that wind was a
sound, very soft but growing louder, the sound of a man weeping. The soft cries turned to
gut-wrenching sobs, and Gabrielle felt tears falling from her own eyes in response.
"No," she whispered, putting her hands over her ears and closing her eyes tightly. "This is just a dream. I need to wake up. This is just a dream." She desperately repeated the mantra in her mind.
"I'm sorry." The man's words sounded brittle. "Oh, Evie, I'm so sorry."
Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly and saw the man on the other side of the fire. Although the firelight should have made him visible, he was indistinct, as if he was sitting in shadow. She could see that he sat on the ground, with his knees pulled up to his chin. She tried to focus, to see his face, but he became no clearer.
"I'm sorry, Evie. I was so scared," he continued. "I didn't want to die so much death."
Gabrielle thought she saw him rocking slightly. She realized that he wasn't speaking any language she recognized, but she understood every word he said.
His sobs returned, and Gabrielle again felt his misery flood her. Tears began to stream down her face and sobs shook her small frame. The movement woke Xena, who was instantly alert, trying to determine what had captured the bard's attention. She looked across the campsite, where Gabrielle was focused, but saw nothing there.
"Gabrielle, come on now," Xena said. She tried to pull Gabrielle back into her arms, but the smaller woman was coiled tight and wouldnt budge.
"No," Gabrielle moaned, "no, no, no."
"Gabrielle, it's just a dream," Xena said, stroking and gently shaking her partner. "Wake up now."
Gabrielle couldnt take her eyes off the man across from her. She couldn't hear Xena or feel her gentle touches. The man and his emotions dominated her senses.
"Evie, please understand. Please forgive me," the man finally gasped. "I'm not a deserter. I'm not a traitor. I was just scared. I ran. Oh, Evie, I'm so sorry. So very, very sorry."
The man stood up and walked toward the fire, holding his hands out in supplication. He came sharply into focus and Gabrielle saw that his chest was ripped open from dozens of wounds.
Gabrielle's scream shook Xena to the core of her being and she clutched frantically at her bard, pulling her forcefully into an embrace.
"Gabrielle," she cried, "wake up. It's all right. I'm here. You're all right." She hugged Gabrielle to her, rocking her.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Gabrielle said, echoing the words that had consumed her.
"Shh," Xena murmured. "It's all right."
"It was just a dream?" Gabrielle finally asked, holding tightly to Xena.
"Yes, baby," Xena said softly. "It was just a dream." She continued to rock Gabrielle for a few minutes until the smaller woman finally released her desperate hold and pulled away.
"Feel sick," Gabrielle mumbled, and Xena quickly moved the sleeping fur out of the way as Gabrielle's body rid itself of the meager dinner and tea that she had consumed only a few hours before. Xena rubbed Gabrielle's back until the spasms stopped, then she picked her up with the fur and carried her to the other side of the fire. She sat down with the bard still in her arms, holding her like a small child.
"You need to go back to sleep, now," Xena said.
"No," Gabrielle moaned, in a tone that broke Xena's heart.
"You have to, sweetheart," Xena said. "Don't be afraid. I'll hold you in my arms all night."
"I want to go home," Gabrielle said, feeling a sudden, crushing yearning for the green fields and sandy beaches of Greece. "I just want to go home."
"We're going home, my bard," Xena said, placing her cheek on the top of Gabrielle's head. "We'll leave again at sunup and see how fast we can get that horse to go. OK?"
"'Kay," Gabrielle said in a sleepy voice.
"Sleep now," Xena commanded softly. "Things will be better in the morning."
Gabrielle slowly drifted off, but jerked awake again when she felt a tendril of fear on the edge of her consciousness. Xena felt the movement and shushed her, rocking her back to sleep. A few minutes later, the pattern was repeated. After several restless hours of waking and dozing, waking and dozing, Xena finally noticed fingers of light tickling through the trees. Gabrielle awoke a final time, and also realized it was dawn.
"Guess we should get up," Gabrielle mumbled.
"No, try to get some more sleep," Xena said softly, laying Gabrielle down flat on the sleeping furs and tucking them around her. "I'll go get some fresh water and see if there are any fish in the creek. Sound good?"
"OK," Gabrielle said, managing a lopsided smile. She watched the warrior grab the water skins and head down the hill. When Xena was out of sight, Gabrielle sat up and crawled toward the fire, keeping the fur wrapped around her shoulders. She threw another log on the embers and poked the fire back to life, until a good-sized flame was dancing in the stone circle. She sat, absorbing the warmth, until she felt a little more awake. Then she allowed her mind to explore the events of the night before.
"It wasn't a dream, was it?" she asked aloud in the still morning.
Watching the man had been like watching a reflection. He had seemed trapped, snared by his pain and sorrow, in a hell that somehow Gabrielle was able to share whether she wanted to or not.
"Hey, I thought you were going to get some more sleep," Xena softly chided as she returned to the campsite. She held a large trout by the gills.
"Couldn't sleep," Gabrielle said, smiling apologetically.
"You hungry?" Xena asked. She frowned when the bard winced and turned a little paler. "You've got to try to eat a little."
"I'll try," Gabrielle promised.
It was usually Gabrielle's job to clean and cook the fish, but Xena realized that probably wasn't a very good idea. So she moved downwind from Gabrielle and began to prepare the fish.
"We'll leave as soon as we've eaten," Xena said over her shoulder.
Gabrielle thought about what Xena had said. She pictured herself and Xena, riding like the wind through the poppy field, the hooves of the bay trampling the red flowers. In her mind's eye, the crushed petals coalesced into a mass of red, which flowed and became pools of blood. She heard the sound of weeping.
"No!" she cried, standing quickly. The sudden movement caused stars to dance in her vision and she swayed, willing herself not to faint.
"Gabrielle," Xena shouted, throwing down the fish and her knife and rushing to the bard's side.
"We can't go," Gabrielle said, putting her hand on Xena's chest and feeling the warrior's rapid heartbeat. "If we do, this will never end."
"I don't understand," Xena said, feeling frustrated and tired. She wanted to leave this cursed land as quickly as possible, and she thought Gabrielle had wanted that too.
"Something is going on, and I don't really understand it either," Gabrielle said. She straightened her shoulders and tried to ignore the tension that made them burn and ache. "What I saw last night, what I've been seeing in my dreams and visions, is some kind of echo."
"I think so," Gabrielle replied, not sounding at all sure. "Like a haunting."
"Like Amphipolis?" Xena asked, not looking forward to reliving any part of that experience, when her mother's ghost had haunted her.
"But it's not the same," Gabrielle said with a confused frown. "Everything about it is strange. I don't think the visions are from the past I think they're from the future."
"Are you saying it's a prophecy?" Xena asked, her eyes reflecting her struggle to understand.
"I suppose you could call it that," Gabrielle said, confusion crossing her features. "I think something horrible will happen here. Something so devastating, it's caused a ripple. It's like a stone that's thrown into a still pond. The ripples extend in all directions, forward and back in time."
"Surely that's true of so many places," Xena said, remembering battlefields with thousands of dead and injured, many of them the result of her campaigns.
"I suppose so," Gabrielle said, sounding unsure again.
"And why are you cursed with seeing this?" Xena asked. She finally realized that Gabrielle was struggling to stay on her feet, and gently pushed her down to sit again beside the fire.
"Maybe I can see it because of the dream state I was in for so long." Gabrielle mused. "Maybe a part of my consciousness is still on another plane. Whatever the reason, this is real; it's not just a dream."
Xena felt powerless, and the feeling frustrated and angered her. She wanted to act, to fight, to use force to stop this thing that was hurting her love. She settled for pounding her fist into the ground.
"Xena, it's OK," Gabrielle said, reaching for Xena's hand and brushing the mud from it.
"Look, I understand everything you've said," Xena said, rubbing her forehead in frustration. "So let's suppose you're right. Then this place is a cursed hell that you, for some reason, are living through. So that means I've got to get you out of here. Why are you saying you can't leave?"
"First, because I don't think it will go away, at least not until we get out of Gaul, and that could take days. I don't know if I can make it through another night unless I do something. Which brings us to the second reason I want to stay here."
"What's that?" Xena asked, already formulating her argument for leaving.
"Because there's a soul who's trapped here. I need to help him. I think that if I do, the visions will stop." Gabrielle thought about what she had said, and then added, "I hope."
"You hope?" Xena asked with a frustrated gasp. "Sorry, that's not good enough. I'm not letting you risk yourself and your sanity. I'll find different herbs, ones that'll knock you out completely, and then I'll ride like Tartarus to get us out of this place. We can make the sea in three days "
"No, Xena." Gabrielle interrupted the frantic rants of her partner. "I'm not running from this. And the more you drug me, the worse this will get, I think."
"You think, but you don't know," Xena said.
Gabrielle smiled at her lover and watched angry flashes sparkle in the clear blue eyes.
"Let me just sit here for a few more hours and try to eat a little," Gabrielle said, lightly stroking Xena's thigh. "Once I've gained a little more strength, I'll be ready."
"Ready for what?" Xena asked, pain filling her eyes. She wanted to be the one preparing for battle, but there was no one to fight.
"Ready to talk to him," Gabrielle answered simply.
"I don't like this," Xena grumbled, her hands tightening into fists again.
"I know, love," Gabrielle soothed. "But I have to try." She considered for a moment. "If it doesn't work, I promise that we'll do it your way. We'll get on Dimitrios and ride as far and as fast as we can."
"OK," Xena said with a sigh. "I'll give you one chance and then we're out of here."
Gabrielle nodded, and then flashed a small smile. "Didn't you say you'd get breakfast?"
Gabrielle managed to eat a small portion of fish and half a roll. Xena brewed her a mug of mint tea, and when she finished drinking it, they settled down on the furs, quietly watching the fire. The nervous tension was tearing at Xena's guts, and she decided to do some sword drills to work out the frustration. But when she stood to retrieve her sword, Gabrielle looked at her with wide, frightened eyes, and she quickly sat down again. From that point on, Xena made sure that she didn't lose contact with Gabrielle, keeping a hand on her arm, or leaning a knee against her leg. Gabrielle had no energy to move from the fire. Her head pounded with an intense headache that buzzed in her ears and made her eyes burn. It felt as if her brain was being squeezed inside her skull. She tried another mug of tea at midday, and when she felt only slightly stronger, she decided she shouldn't put things off any longer.
"I'm going to lie down," she said softly, looking into Xena's eyes.
She felt more frightened than she had in a long time since she had raced through a Norse forest, the cries of the monster Grindl echoing through the trees. Then, she'd been afraid of finding the body of her lover, torn apart by the monster. Now, she knew that Xena would be safe, no matter what happened. That calmed her a little and she mustered a smile for her love. Xena didn't hide her own feelings, her blue eyes blazing with stark fear.
"Just hold me," Gabrielle said, trying to stroke the worry from Xena's face.
"Forever," Xena whispered.
She waited for Gabrielle to settle into the furs, and then settled behind her, wrapping an arm protectively around the smaller woman's waist. They lay there, their breaths quickly falling into syncopation, slowing and deepening together.
The feelings of sorrow woke Gabrielle, as they had the night before. She wasn't sure how long she had been asleep. She knew it wasn't night, but the light was strange. She sat up and realized they were surrounded by a thick fog that refracted the afternoon sunlight. The sounds of weeping came suddenly, and so did the man, who sat only a few feet in front of her. She started at his sudden appearance. Unlike last time, she could feel Xena stir and wake. She squeezed her lover's hand in reassurance, and willed her to remain silent. Gabrielle wasn't sure how Xena would perceive the events, but she knew she had to do things without interference.
Gabrielle marveled at how real the man looked. His eyes were a smoky gray and he had a thick black moustache. His hair was cut very short. Like Spartan soldiers, Gabrielle mused. And it was obvious that this man was a soldier, though he wore strange clothes and had no armor. Xena watched as Gabrielle stared intently at something that wasn't there at least not in Xena's world. The warrior decided to remain quiet, for now, but was alert and ready to act to protect her love. She felt like a coiled spring, her body prickling with adrenaline.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle heard the man cry, in the same tone as the night before. "Oh Evie, I'm so sorry."
"It's all right," she said, her voice cracking.
"I'm sorry, Evie. I was so scared. I didn't want to die. So much death."
"I know. I understand," Gabrielle said, louder this time. She realized that he was repeating the same words as before, and she wondered if he could hear her.
"Evie, please understand. Please forgive me," the man said. The words sounded like they were being torn from his throat. "I'm not a deserter. I'm not a traitor. I was just scared. I ran. Oh, Evie, I'm so sorry. So very, very sorry."
"Listen to me," Gabrielle said, looking directly at the man. "I forgive you. Please believe me."
"I'm sorry," the man said. Gabrielle sighed in frustration when the same words were repeated from the night before. She felt Xena's hand squeeze hers, offering the only help she could give.
"Please hear me," Gabrielle said desperately. "I can hear you. I understand your pain. I know you're sorry. I forgive you."
The man stilled and met her eyes for the first time. Gabrielle didn't dare breathe as she waited for him to speak.
"You forgive me?" he finally gasped.
"Yes," Gabrielle said excitedly. "Yes, I forgive you."
"I'm sorry," the man repeated, but his tone was calmer.
"I know," Gabrielle said. "You were just scared. You didn't want to die. I understand why you did it."
He looked uncertain, but hope began to glimmer in his eyes. Gabrielle struggled for words to finally convince him. She wasn't sure she understood what had happened to him, but she decided to take a path that felt right.
"I know you were just trying to get home to me," she said. "I love you for that. I don't care what happened. I love you no matter what."
This caused the man's tears to return, but they were no longer the result of hopeless anguish. "You love me?" he asked tentatively. "Even after what I did?"
"Yes," Gabrielle said firmly. "Even after what you did. It doesn't matter. I love you no matter what. I'll love you forever."
"I love you too, Evie," the man said, a beautiful smile spreading across his face. Gabrielle watched as his image slowly began to fade. "I love you too, I love you too," he repeated, the voice fading until it was a whisper on the breeze that blew the fog away.
Gabrielle felt the pressure in her head release suddenly. She felt as if she was a puppet and the puppeteer had released the strings. Xena caught her as she fell to the side and picked her up, drawing her close in her arms.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, stroking the bard's face. "Come on, love, talk to me. Tell me you're all right."
Gabrielle struggled to focus. "I'm all right," she said, her voice slurred. "I'm just tired. I'm so tired."
"Did it work?" Xena asked anxiously.
"Yes," Gabrielle said, managing a weak smile. "It worked."
She gave up the fight to stay awake and Xena held her tightly, smiling when soft snores gave evidence to the small woman's deep slumber.
"I love you too, sweetheart," Xena whispered, kissing Gabrielle's head. "I'll love you forever, too."
Gabrielle slept until dawn the next morning. She could have easily continued sleeping, but Xena was anxious to leave the place that she still considered cursed. When they left the campsite, Xena insisted that Gabrielle ride in front, so that the warrior could grab her if she fell asleep and lost her balance. Xena expected the bard to protest, because the front of the saddle was uncomfortable, but Gabrielle mounted without a word. As they crossed the massive poppy field, Gabrielle held tight to the saddle horn, her fingers white with the pressure of her grip. She waited for the visions to overtake her mind again, but all she heard was a distant echo of screams and explosions. That was enough, though, to frazzle her nerves, and she sighed with relief when they reached the foothills on the other side of the valley and Xena pulled the big horse to a stop.
"Let's take a break," she said, dismounting and then helping Gabrielle down.
Gabrielle didn't respond, just sat down against the trunk of a large oak tree, leaning back and closing her eyes.
"You want to talk about it?" Xena asked, sitting beside her partner and placing a comforting hand on her thigh.
"I'm just so tired," Gabrielle said softly.
"I know, baby," Xena said. "After a few more long sleeps, you'll start to feel better."
"I'm not just physically tired," Gabrielle said, running a hand through her hair. "I'm mentally tired, too." She sighed deeply. "All the work we do, to try to right wrongs and help people. Sometimes it feels so insignificant, like a teardrop falling into the sea. There's so much death, so much hatred, and we can't do anything about it."
"What do you mean, 'we can't do anything about it'?" Xena asked. "You helped a soul to find peace. What greater good can you do?"
"But there are so many others," Gabrielle said. "In the past, in the future millions of souls crying out in the night."
"You can't be responsible for them all," Xena said, taking Gabrielle's hands in hers and looking into her eyes. "Don't take that weight on your shoulders."
"I don't want to," Gabrielle said, looking down at her hands entwined with Xena's. "In fact, sometimes I don't want to be responsible for any of them. I don't want to think about them, to hear them. Just once, I want to ride past a fight and not turn around. I want to let the thieves steal and the murderers kill."
"I feel the same way sometimes," Xena admitted. She sighed. "But this is my path; this is my way."
"And I chose the way of friendship," Gabrielle said with a nod. "And I walk the path by your side."
"Look," Xena said, her eyes brightening, "when we get back to Greece, let's take a break, huh? Let's find somewhere to hole up, where no one can find us. Just for a little while."
"Trouble always finds us, Xena."
"Well, I know a peaceful vineyard by the sea," Xena said with a grin. "There's no one around for miles. We can drink wine and eat olives."
"Sounds wonderful," Gabrielle said wistfully. She had a vision of Xena feeding her olives and making love in sun-drenched splendor.
"Then it's agreed?" Xena asked, recognizing the dreamy look on her lover's face.
Gabrielle flashed a brilliant smile and nodded her agreement. She knew that something would happen, someone who needed help would cross their path. But she pushed the future from her mind. Tonight, she would lie in Xena's arms and she would dream of a vineyard by the sea.
Author's Note: Both the title of this story and the quote at the beginning are from a poem by Wilfred Owen, "Dulce Et Decorum Est". Wilfred Owen was a British officer and poet who fought for Britain in World War I. He was killed seven days before Armistice. He was twenty-five. His poetry is very powerful, and I encourage everyone to read it it's widely available online.