"Are you feeling any better?" Xena asked later, after they had eaten.
"No. I wish I were dead."
"Gabrielle," Xena said softly, "please don't say that. I love you and I'm very glad you're alive." They were sitting side by side, close to the fire. Xena reached out and laid her hand over one of Gabrielle's. "I know you're feeling a lot of hurt and anger," she said.
Gabrielle jerked her hand away. "You don't know anything about how I feel!" she cried. "Have you ever been raped, Xena?"
"No, you just screwed all the men in your army and had a grand old time--that's what you've done!"
Xena's hand shot out and grabbed Gabrielle's shoulder in a clamp-like grip. With her other hand, she turned the bard's face toward her. "Gabrielle, stop it!" she said. "I know you're hurting, but being mean to me is not going to make you feel any better." Gabrielle dropped her eyes and Xena let go of her. "I will never forgive myself for letting this thing happen today," the warrior continued in a low voice. "I should have been here for you and I wasn't. I would gladly give my life a hundred times if that would take away your pain and give you back your innocence. Please believe me, Gabrielle."
"I'm sorry." The bard's voice was little more than a whisper. "I feel like I've become some sort of monster. I thought I could rise above hatred and bloodlust, but I can't. It was like this when Callisto killed Perdicus, remember? But now it's worse. Now I've actually killed someone. I've lost my blood innocence. You must be so disappointed in me."
Xena put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. The bard stiffened, but didn't pull away. "Gabrielle," Xena said, "you didn't deliberately set out to kill Garron. It just happened. I'm not sure if that counts."
"I didn't plan to kill him--you're right, but when I lit that fire, I must have known that he would die. I must have known, on some level, that I was killing him. And I'm not sorry he's dead."
"I'm not sorry, either, and if it had been up to me, he would have suffered a lot more on his way to the River Styx." Xena grinned a humorless grin.
They fell silent for a few minutes. Xena studied the gray clouds which obscured the setting sun and tried to guess what time the rain might begin. It wouldn't be a pleasant night; she could pretty much predict that, anyway.
"I keep thinking about--" Gabrielle stopped and sighed.
"About what, Sweetheart?"
"About last night."
"Xena, why is life like that? One day you're incredibly happy and the next day you're so miserable you want to die."
"I don't know, Gabrielle. I've wondered the same thing myself. All I know for sure is that if we didn't have the bad times, we wouldn't appreciate the good times nearly as much. And I also know that it's love that gets you through the bad times. Love is really very powerful that way."
"No, it's not! Hatred is much stronger than love. And so are fear and despair. I thought I learned that lesson when Perdicus got killed, but I guess I forgot it."
Xena pulled the bard closer and touched her face softly. "You're wrong, Gabrielle," she said. "Maybe you can't see it right now, but you will eventually. You're going to come through this thing stronger than you were when you went in, and it will be love that gets you through. You'll see. It's just going to take some time--maybe a lot of time--but it will happen. You can depend on it."
Gabrielle stared at her, the green eyes dark with pain. Then, frowning, she turned away. In the west, there was a brief flicker of light and a low rumble of thunder.
"I think I'd better get some more firewood," Xena said.
She left and soon returned with an armload of dead branches, which she stacked near the fire, then fed the blaze until it was burning brightly. The pot of tea was still warm, and Xena filled the mug and held it out to Gabrielle. "Want some more tea? You may not get another chance till morning--especially if the rain puts the fire out."
The bard took the mug and made a face at it, then reluctantly began to sip.
Xena, aware for the first time of pain in her hands, examined them in the fading daylight. There were several angry-looking burn marks, and a large one on the back of her right hand was badly blistered. If she had some grease or oil, that would help kill the pain, but she didn't have any. Oh well, she had put up with much worse injuries before.
Gabrielle nudged her with the mug. "That's all I can drink," she said. Xena took the mug and, seeing that it was only about a third empty, drank the rest of the tea herself. It might help the burns, but mostly she hoped it would dull the aching in her heart.
"Let's try to get some sleep before it starts raining," she said, when she finished drinking. "After that, we may be too cold."
"I don't think I can sleep," muttered Gabrielle.
"Maybe not, but at least we can cuddle up and keep warm."
Gabrielle lay down on her side, facing the fire, and Xena nestled herself against the bard's back. She put her arm carefully around Gabrielle, trying to avoid putting pressure on bruises or the breast wound. "Are you okay? Warm enough?" she asked.
Xena laid her face against Gabrielle's back. She could hear the distant heartbeat and feel the gentle rise and fall of her lover's body with each breath. At first, she was uncomfortably aware of the throbbing burns on her hands, but soon the pain began to fade. She thought she would not sleep, but after a while, she did.
She dreamed that she stood on the brink of the lava pit, frantic to save Gabrielle. Then, just as she leapt into the chasm, she saw the bard lose her grip on the rope bridge and begin to fall. Too late, Xena realized that she had forgotten to tie the rope around her waist. Yet somehow she knew it would be all right, if she could just reach Gabrielle. But she couldn't. Falling and falling, headfirst, she stretched out her arms to grasp her lover's hands, but they were always just out of reach. Endlessly she fell, terrified, knowing that she had to catch Gabrielle or both of them would die. She reached out again--
"Xena, wake up! You're hurting me!"
Xena jerked awake and sat up. Her heart was pounding and her breath came in gasps. Disoriented, as she often was after such dreams, it took her several seconds to realize that she had merely awakened from one nightmare into another one. The night was fully dark now, but in the glow of the campfire's embers, she could see Gabrielle lying beside her, curled in a ball. Xena leaned over her and put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry," she said. "What did I do?"
"You were clutching at me and you hurt my wound."
"I'm so sorry, Gabrielle. Did I break the stitches? Let me look at it."
"It's all right; it just hurt is all."
Xena sat back and took a few deep breaths. "I'm really sorry," she repeated. "I guess I was having a nightmare."
Usually, Gabrielle took an interest in her companion's nightmares, asking what they were
about, offering comfort and interpretations. But this time she remained silent.
"It was a nightmare I've never had before," Xena said, "and you were in it."
"Oh, that's just great!" Gabrielle said sarcastically, and pushed herself up into a sitting position. "I'm the one who's raped and you're the one who has the nightmares!"
Caught by surprise, Xena didn't answer for a moment, then said with a weak smile, "Well, I was just trying to be helpful."
A flash of lightning revealed Gabrielle's scowl. "I just don't get it," the bard said. "This isn't about you--it's about me. Why are you the one having nightmares?"
Xena smiled grimly. "Because I'm good at nightmares--that's one of my many skills. Besides, this isn't only about you." She reached out and laid a hand on Gabrielle's arm. "It's about me, too, because as it just so happens, I love you."
Lightning flashed again and the crack of thunder that followed made both women jump. The rain began then, with big, noisy drops splattering down on the leaves of the brush shelter. Xena moved quickly to put more sticks on the fire, fanning the flames with a plate to get the wood to catch. Maybe, if it didn't rain too hard and the fire was burning well enough, it would not go out. When she ducked back under the shelter, her eyes met Gabrielle's, and in the firelight, she could clearly see the pain on her friend's face.
"What is it, Gabrielle? Tell me," Xena said softly.
"It's just that I don't see how you can still love me after what happened today."
"Of course I still love you. Nothing that could happen to you will ever change that."
"But I feel so . . . I don't know . . . dirty, or something after he . . ." she stopped and swallowed hard. "I feel like everything's been ruined--love, sex, everything we had. I don't see how you can even stand to touch me now."
Xena stared at her and let out a long breath. "Gabrielle--" She stopped and bit her lip, then tried again. "I don't know what to say to you. I don't know how to make you believe that I do love you--just as much tonight as I did last night. You're still the same wonderful woman I made love to last night and will make love to again someday, when you feel ready."
"But I'm not the same--I've changed! Everything has changed! You loved the sweet, innocent Gabrielle who never let hatred control her, who never killed. That Gabrielle is gone, Xena. She'll never be back."
The warrior was silent for a moment, regarding her companion, then she said, "I love the Gabrielle of the kind and generous spirit, the Gabrielle who cares deeply about other people and who forces me to care, too. I love the Gabrielle who sees beauty all around her and poetry wherever she looks, the Gabrielle who is my conscience, and who helps me fight my demons. That Gabrielle has been hurt, and she's a little hard to see right now, but she hasn't gone away; she's still right here."
Gabrielle drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She didn't look at Xena or offer an answer, but as the warrior watched, she saw the firelight glinting off of tears that trickled down the bard's cheeks. Without warning, the rain increased to a downpour and soon began dripping in through the leafy roof of their shelter. Xena reached over and laid her hand on Gabrielle's arm. "You're cold, Gabrielle," she said. "Why don't you lie down so we can try to stay warm."
Xena snuggled up to Gabrielle's back again, but it was hard to get warm. The branches she had piled above them offered some protection from the driving force of the rain, but did little to keep them dry. Gabrielle put her hands over her face, trying to keep off the drips, and Xena buried her own face under the bard's hair. She listened to the hiss of the fire as the rain extinguished it and smelled the steamy smoke mingled with the scent of Gabrielle's damp skin and hair. Pressing herself close against the bard, Xena willed her body to keep her lover warm, but she had little warmth to give. As the minutes passed, she only got wetter and colder. Soon she was shivering and could feel Gabrielle doing the same. If only they had a blanket--just one lousy blanket! She tried to imagine herself wrapped in thick, warm wool, sitting in a cozy, dry place by the fire. But it didn't work. She still felt cold and miserable.
"Are you staying warm at all?" Xena said to the back of Gabrielle's neck.
"Well, at least you've got clothes on."
"Yeah," Xena said sarcastically, "and leather is so toasty and warm when it's wet!"
Gabrielle didn't answer.
"I've just been lying here fantasizing about our wool blanket. If we had a wool blanket, we might still be wet, but at least we'd be warmer."
"Well, we don't have one, so you can just forget it," Gabrielle said, struggling out of Xena's embrace and sitting up.
Xena lay there for a few moments and then sat up, too. She shoved her wet hair back and then tried to dry her face against her damp arm. "I just wish--" she began, then stopped. "No, never mind. I won't say that."
"You just wish what, Xena? Come on, let's hear it."
The warrior hesitated for a moment. "I just wish you had thought to save something from the cottage before it burned down--a blanket, the saddlebags, the saddle, anything!"
"That's all you care about, isn't it? Your stupid saddle."
Xena sighed. "No, Gabrielle," she said. "You know better than that. What I care about is you. I shouldn't have said what I did--I'm just feeling cold and miserable and my brain isn't working very well."
The two of them sat in silence for a minute. "Sounds like the rain is letting up," Xena said finally.
Gabrielle wiped her arms with her hands and shook the excess water off her fingers. Xena moved over to sit by the rock. She leaned against it, shivering as the bare skin of her back touched the cold, wet surface. When she was settled, she held out her arms to Gabrielle. "Come sit on my lap and let me at least try to keep you warm," she said.
The bard hesitated a moment, then crept over and sat on Xena's thighs. The warrior wrapped her arms around her cold companion. "Mmm, you're just like a little icicle," she said.
"You're not exactly a glowing ember yourself," Gabrielle muttered. She laid her head on Xena's shoulder. A last flash of distant lightning lit the sky, followed by the sound of retreating thunder.
"Xena," Gabrielle said softly after a few moments, "when I lit that straw on fire--" She paused and looked up at the warrior. "I never meant to burn the whole cottage down. I wasn't thinking, I guess. I was just . . . crazed. But that fire went so fast! The whole bed burst into flames and then the wall caught fire, and then the roof! I just stood there staring at it. Then these big hunks of fire and thatch started falling all around me, but it was like I couldn't move--I couldn't think what to do. I just stood there." She stopped, her breath coming quickly and her body trembling in Xena's arms. "I don't even remember getting out," she said. "I remember the rafters starting to fall and then I remember being outside. I don't know how I got there. I didn't think about saving anything. I don't even know why I saved myself."
She sighed and let her head rest again on the warrior's shoulder. Xena closed her eyes and laid her face against the blonde head. Then, after a few moments, she took a deep breath and said, "When I got back to the cottage and saw that burned body, I thought at first that it was you." Her voice choked with emotion and she had to swallow hard. "I felt like the whole world suddenly stood still," she whispered. "I just can't imagine my life without you in it. I can't tell you how grateful I was to find you alive."
For a time, neither of them spoke. The rain had stopped, but the brush shelter continued to drip. Xena ran her hand over Gabrielle's outside arm and leg to brush off the drops of moisture that clung there. The exposed skin felt cold to her touch, although she was beginning to feel some warmth where their bodies touched. "Gabrielle," she said, "something strange happened to me out there today." The bard did not look up, but her stillness let Xena know she was listening. "I must have been more than half a league away, down in a little valley, but I heard you screaming."
Gabrielle sat up. "You couldn't have," she said bluntly. "Not if you were that far away."
"I know. That's what was so strange about it."
"What did you hear? What did I scream?"
"At first, it was just screams, and then I heard 'Xena! Help me, Xena!' I heard it very clearly. It took me a minute to realize that I wasn't hearing it with my ears, but here--" she tapped on her chest, "with my heart."
The bard stared at her. "I've never heard of anything like that before," she mused. "Have you?"
"No, and I was really scared because I knew you were in trouble and that I could never get to you in time. I had been fishing and I didn't even have my boots on. I ran as fast as I could to get here, but the ground was so rough. It's a wonder I didn't fall and break my neck! And then, when I got about halfway, I saw the smoke from the cottage. I didn't know what to think. I just knew something terrible had happened."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and laid her head down again. "You heard me scream," she murmured and then sighed softly, as if this thought somehow reassured her.
"Yes, Love, I heard you." Xena stroked the golden hair for a moment and then laid her hand lightly over the bruised face to keep off the drops of rain. After a few minutes, she heard Gabrielle's breathing deepen and realized, to her surprise, that the bard was asleep.
She sat very still, not wanting to waken this person who so much needed the healing of sleep. The pressure of Gabrielle's weight on her thighs was beginning to make her legs ache, and her feet in the wet boots felt icy. Her back hurt where her spine met the unyielding rock, but she set her mind to ignore these discomforts as best she could. In time, her legs went to sleep and became totally numb, but the pain in her back continued.
Time slid slowly by. The dripping gradually stopped, and in the little bit of western sky that Xena could see from under the shelter, a few stars appeared. Leaning her head back against the rock, she began to consider some of the questions whose answers had so far eluded her. The first was how to get Gabrielle to town tomorrow. She figured the bard could ride Argo, if she sat sideways and they travelled slowly. The big problem was Gabrielle's lack of clothes. If the town weren't so far away, Xena could ride there and get a blanket or some sort of garment and then come back for Gabrielle. But that would take several hours, and she didn't want to leave her lover alone that long--especially not in this place of terrible memories.
Maybe there was something she could make clothing out of. Leaves? Xena couldn't imagine that they would make a very practical garment, and besides, she didn't have enough thread to sew them all together. Animal skins? That would require a major hunting effort, plus several days to cure the skins properly--several days which they did not have.
She tried to remember whether there were any farms or houses between here and the town. It was possible there were a few, but the peasants who lived in them very likely could not afford to part with anything as valuable as a blanket or extra clothing. Another idea might be for Xena to let Gabrielle wear her warrior clothes. Sitting up on Argo, the bard would be fully exposed to the view of other travellers, and the leather outfit would give her some protection. Xena, meanwhile, would be walking and leading the horse. It wouldn't be as obvious that she was naked. Maybe they could even slip off the road into the trees when they met people. Once they got close to town, they could find a hiding place, switch clothes, and Xena could ride on into town and bring back something for Gabrielle to wear. The warrior frowned. It wasn't a great plan, but it was the best she had come up with yet.
And then there was the matter of money. They had five dinars. That would pay for food and lodging for one night, two at the most. But after that, what? It would be nice to stay at an inn for a week or so in order to let Gabrielle rest and heal, but how could they afford it? They didn't even have the option of camping out now, since they had lost so many of their belongings. It would take a lot more than five dinars to replace even the essentials, like blankets. And the first priority was to get Gabrielle some clothes. Even that would probably cost more than five dinars. Xena sighed. Maybe there was some way she could earn money once they got to town. She knew tavern work, anyway, having spent most of her youth helping her mother and brothers run one. One thing she knew for sure: she would do anything she had to in order to take care of Gabrielle--even if it meant scrubbing floors or mucking out stables.
Xena shook her head in frustration and ran the fingers of her free hand abstractedly through her damp hair. These days she usually gave little thought to money, but suddenly it had become a big issue, an almost unsolvable problem. When she was a warlord, money had been hers for the taking, pouring into her coffers, big bags and chests full of it. She smiled, remembering how the sunlight had glinted off coins and jewelry piled at her feet by the frightened peasants whose villages she had plundered. But after a moment, her smile faded. How many of those she robbed had needed their few dinars as desperately as she now needed her own? "I deserve this," she whispered. "I deserve this and so much more." But Gabrielle didn't deserve it. What had this sweet young woman ever done that she should suffer like this? Nothing, except to fall in love with Xena, the once-evil Warrior Princess.
Her thoughts had grown as dark as the night around her, and for a time she did nothing to free herself from the abyss into which her mind had fallen. So many times she had struggled with the guilt she felt about leading Gabrielle on a journey of constant danger, but her friend had insisted on staying with her. And now that Xena had come to realize how intensely she loved and needed Gabrielle, she did not see how she could ever let the bard leave.
She glanced down at the quiet form whose body she could only dimly make out in the darkness. How did she do it, Xena wondered. How was Gabrielle able to sleep in spite of everything--the trauma, the pain, the cold, the uncomfortable position? Yet here she was, slumbering as peacefully as any baby in its mother's arms-- And with that thought, Xena suddenly realized there was another question she had not yet considered--one that her mind had hidden away and did not want to look at. What if Gabrielle was pregnant? A cold shiver ran through the warrior's body. How would her lover feel about bearing a child conceived in so much fear and hatred? And how would she herself feel? And what would happen to their partnership? They could not possibly continue to travel in such dangerous conditions with a tiny child in tow.
Surely it would not happen. Xena began making calculations. They were now at the new moon, which meant it was almost time for both of them to begin their monthly bleeding. Ever since they first began travelling together, their cycles had been closely synchronized. With any luck, it would not be the fertile time of the month for Gabrielle, and there would be no problem. In only a few days, they should know for certain.
Xena leaned her head back and closed her eyes, aware once more of the aching in her back. The burns on her hands were smarting again, too, but at least she wasn't as cold now, or as wet. Gabrielle's body felt warm and comforting against her own. She sighed, feeling tired and longing for the oblivion of sleep, yet fearing the nightmares sleep might bring. For a time, her mind continued to wrestle with the fears and heartache this day had created, but gradually her thoughts grew quiet and slipped away. And then, at last, she slept.
* * *
She woke to the sound of birdsong. The sky was pale blue, and a low mist hung over the wet grass of the clearing. Numbness had claimed her back as well as her legs, and Xena wondered in a disinterested way whether she might not have become totally paralyzed during the night. She shifted her position experimentally, and the pain that shot down her spine assured her that she wasn't paralyzed after all.
Gabrielle moaned softly and stirred. "Xena?" she murmured.
"I'm right here."
"Have I been asleep?"
"Uh-huh, for several hours."
"Really? I didn't think I'd be able to sleep at all." She stretched tentatively, wincing as she did so. Then she sat up, and that movement brought the first sharp pinpricks of feeling back into Xena's legs.
"Seemed to me like you slept pretty well," Xena said, and brushed a strand of gold hair away
from Gabrielle's eyes.
The bard looked at her. "Have you been holding me all night?" she said.
"That's crazy, Xena! I could have just slept on the ground. Why didn't you put me down?"
"Guess I'm just a crazy kind of girl," Xena said with a wry smile.
Gabrielle frowned and slid off the warrior's legs, groaning as she did so.
"Sounds like you're pretty sore."
"Yeah. Everything hurts." Gabrielle said and crawled out from under the shelter. She stood up, stretched cautiously, and walked stiffly off among the trees.
Xena flexed her shoulders, back, and neck, then began to massage her legs, grimacing as the feeling came slowly and painfully back into them. By the time Gabrielle got back, she was standing beside the dead campfire, staring at the cold ashes.
"Let me take a look at that wound," she said, glancing up at her companion, who was standing with her arms tightly hugged across her chest for warmth. "Then I'll try to get a fire started."
Gabrielle opened her arms. The area around the wound had become red and a little puffy. Xena studied it for a minute, then said, "I'm going to take out one of the stitches, so this can drain better. Does it hurt?"
"Okay, wait just a minute." She got her dagger and a piece of cloth from the burned cloak. It didn't take long to drain the wound, and when she finished, she used the dagger point to break the burn blister on the back of her right hand and drained that, too.
"What did you do to your hand?" Gabrielle asked.
"No, I did it when I was getting stuff out of the cottage yesterday. It's not a big deal--doesn't even hurt much." She took the cloth to the creek, rinsed it out, and hung it over the rock to dry. "Gabrielle," she said, "when you lit the fire in the fireplace that first night, what did you do with the flint afterwards?"
Gabrielle looked at her blankly, and Xena tried again. "I have to try to find the flint in the cottage, so we can start a fire. Do you think you left it on the hearth?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
Xena sighed. "Okay, I'll go look." She picked up a stick and walked over to the cottage ruins. The rain had quenched the last of the smoldering embers, but it had also turned the thick layer of ash into a mucky paste. Xena hesitated a moment and then waded in. She spent several minutes poking around the hearth, but she could not find the flint. Finally, she squatted down and held her hand inside the fireplace. It felt warm there, and a little exploration with the stick revealed some live coals which had been protected from the rain by the mantelpiece. The next challenge was to find dry wood. It took some scouting, but eventually Xena came up with a few sticks and branches that she thought would work. And after considerable coaxing, fanning, and swearing, she managed to get a reluctant, smoky blaze started.
"Xena, how soon can we leave?" Gabrielle asked. She sat in the grass nearby, hugging her knees to her chest.
The warrior considered for a moment. "Well, there are several things we need to do before we go. If I ever get this fire going, we can make tea and cook breakfast. I could catch us some more fish."
"No. No breakfast. I'm not hungry and it will just take extra time. I want to get out of here as soon as possible."
"Okay," Xena said, glancing over at her companion. The bruises stood out dark and clear on Gabrielle's arms and face, although the swelling around her eye had gone down. "One thing I need to do is check the cottage to see if anything else survived the fire. And we really ought to wash the blood out of your hair. Do you want to do that here or wait until we get to town?"
"Here," Gabrielle said. "Do we have any soap?"
"No, the fire melted it, but maybe I can find a soap plant."
"I saw several in the meadow when we were cutting grass."
"Did you? Good. I'll find one."
The fire seemed to be burning, at least for the moment. Xena took the pot to the creek and filled it, then dropped some herbs into the water. But by the time she got back to the fire, it had reverted to smoke again, and muttering a few choice curses, she went back to fanning it with the metal plate. A flame had just reappeared when her ear caught Argo's eager whinny, followed by a whicker that sounded like it came from another horse. Xena stood up quickly and thrust the plate into Gabrielle's hands. "Here. Try to keep this fire going. I've got to go check on Argo."
She set out running along the creek, her long strides quickly covering the distance to the edge of the meadow, where she stopped short. Argo indeed had a companion, a big, bay stallion wearing a saddle and a bridle with a broken rein. "Garron's horse!" Xena exclaimed. She had been so preoccupied with Gabrielle's injuries that she hadn't even thought about looking for the slave trader's mount, which would have been tied in the woods somewhere nearby. "I must really be slipping," she muttered. But no matter. The horse was here now and if she could just get ahold of him-- Well, there would be no more money worries with an animal like that to sell.
The bay seemed quite interested in Argo, and the mare, for her part, was leading him on a flirtatious romp around the meadow. Xena watched for a few moments and then whistled. Argo trotted to her and the stallion followed at a short distance. Xena fussed over the mare at some length, pretending to ignore the other horse. When she saw that he had edged closer, though, she turned her head and began talking to him. "What a pretty boy you are," she crooned. "Were you tied up all day? You must have gotten thirsty. No wonder you broke loose. Or did you get scared during the storm last night?"
Slowly, she turned toward the horse, still talking sweetly to him, and took a step in his direction. He tossed his head and snorted, pranced back a few steps and then forward again. Xena held out her hand and took another step towards him. "I wish I had an apple for you. Then you'd come to me, wouldn't you?" She took another step, and the horse, apparently curious, moved a little nearer to her. Finally, they were close enough that the bay could stretch out his neck and sniff the warrior's hand, and in a smooth, easy movement, she took hold of his bridle. "What a good boy you are," she told him and stroked his nose. Argo nudged at her from behind, demanding her attention. Xena laughed and turned to pet the mare with her free hand.
She led the dark horse to a tree near the creek and tied him. She was eager to see what treasures Garron's saddlebags contained. Coiled on the side of the saddle was a length of rope. "That's a good start," Xena murmured. There were plenty of things she could use rope for. Tied to the back of the saddle was a wool blanket. It was wet from the rain and somewhat ragged-looking, but still, it would have felt good last night. She unhooked the saddlebags and dropped them on the ground, then uncinched the saddle and pulled it off. Uncoiling the rope, she knotted one end around the bay's neck and the other end around the tree. Then she took off his bridle. "Okay, she told him, you've got time to do a little grazing before I have to saddle you up again." The only response was a snort as the horse moved toward the creek to get a drink of water.
Xena quickly turned her attention to the saddlebags. In the first one, she found some moldy bread and cheese and a little dried meat. None of it looked appetizing, so she tossed it into the nearby bushes. Next she found a mug, plate, fork and spoon, a sharpening stone, flint, and a dagger. The second bag yielded a ratty-looking towel, a blue tunic, and a pair of loose, gray trousers. As Xena unfolded the clothes, she breathed a sigh of relief. "Bless you, Garron," she said, "you don't know how much we needed these!" She held up the clothing to examine it and sniffed at it suspiciously, but it appeared to be clean, although slightly damp.
Stuffing everything back into the saddlebags, Xena picked them up, along with the blanket, and headed back to the clearing. Gabrielle was standing on the bank of the stream, facing the water and sipping from the mug. Her bare white skin was bathed in sunlight, and the sight made Xena stop for a moment. From this distance, she could not see the bruises, but she could see Gabrielle's pain just in the way she held her body--head bowed, shoulders slumped, arms drawn in tightly as if to protect herself. Well, at least they had some extra clothes now. Neither of them would have to go naked into town. She hurried forward.
"I can't keep that stupid fire going," Gabrielle said flatly when Xena reached her side.
"That's okay. Did the tea at least get hot?"
"Yeah. But just barely."
"Good. Gabrielle, you'll never guess what happened. Garron's horse showed up with the saddle still on and the saddlebags. Come here, and let me show you." She took the bard's arm and led her back to the campfire. "Sit down," she said, then continued talking excitedly. "There was a rope and this blanket, and look what else!" She quickly opened the saddlebags and began emptying them, spreading the contents out like trophies on the grass. Only when she finished, did she look up to see the expression of horror on Gabrielle's face.
"Get those things away from me," the bard said in a low voice. "I don't want to touch anything that belonged to that man."
Xena stared at her. "But Gabrielle, we need some of these things--especially the clothes."
"I don't care. I'll go into town stark naked every day of the week before I'll wear anything of his."
"All right," Xena said after a moment's consideration. "I'll wear Garron's clothes and you can wear mine."
"Yours won't fit me. They'll be too big."
"We've got the needle and thread. We can take some tucks. It's only for a couple of days until we can get new clothes made for you. There's no other answer, Gabrielle."
"Okay," the bard said finally.
Xena gathered up everything except the clothes and crammed it all back into the saddlebags. "We don't have to use this stuff," she said. "We can take it to town and sell it or trade it for what we need. But the best part is the horse." She took hold of Gabrielle's arm. "Don't you see what this means? We can get a lot of money for that horse--enough to replace the things we lost and probably enough to buy you a horse, too. We can find a nice, gentle one that you would really like-- What do you think, Gabrielle? We could go so many more places and travel so much faster if we both had horses."
Gabrielle looked at her, but she did not seem to catch the warrior's enthusiasm. "Yeah, I guess you're right," she said, "but I don't know if I want a horse."
"Sure you do! You just need to get used to the idea. We'll talk about it more later. Right now we have to get some clothes on you. How about unlacing me?"
When the leather garment was off, Xena went to their saddlebag and got out the small pouch with the needle and thread. Then she tore a section of cloth from the cloak and folded it into a square. "I think it would be a good idea to tack this inside the bodice here," she said, crouching down beside Gabrielle. "It will provide some padding for your wound."
The bard nodded.
"I can do it, if you want me to," Xena continued, "but as you know, my sewing skills don't go much beyond stitching up wounds. I think you would be happier with the results if you did it yourself." She smiled and offered the garment to her companion.
Gabrielle looked at her for a moment, sighed, and then took it.
Xena dropped the bag with the needle and thread into the bard's lap. "I have some other things I want to get done," she said, "but if you need any help with the lacing or fitting or whatever, just yell." She walked away from Gabrielle a short distance, unfolded Garron's clothes, and put them on. The fit wasn't too bad, although she really needed a belt for the tunic and to provide a way to carry her weapons. Lacking that for the moment, she tucked the tunic into the trousers and tied the drawstring waist. Then she turned her attention to disassembling the brush shelter. It had served its slight purpose and now only blocked the sunshine they needed for warmth. Working quickly, she tossed all the branches and poles into the nearby woods.
When she had finished that project, Xena walked over to the cottage ruins. She pulled the charred bridle out of the ashes, cut the bit loose, and discarded the rest. Beyond that, she could find little else to salvage. Their cloth food pack, along with its contents, was gone without a trace. The wineskin and waterskin had been reduced to sooty scraps of leather. She found one of the spoons, but it was so tarnished that she dropped it back into the ashes again. Standing over Garron, she studied the tip of his sword, which stuck out from under his body. The scabbard had burned away, and the sword blade was blackened. It was possibly worth some money, depending on what condition the hilt was in. He must have been wearing a dagger, too; Gabrielle had said he had one. And he might have been carrying some dinars--possibly quite a few. An hour ago, she would have been desperate enough to rob the corpse, even though the thought of touching it disgusted her. But now she had his horse and the contents of his saddlebags. That was enough.
She crouched on the creekbank and did her best to wash the black off her hands and the bit. Then, rolling up her trousers, she waded in a little ways and tried to get the ashy muck off of her boots. She hated wet leather--wet boots most of all. It was a good thing she would be riding today instead of walking; otherwise, she would certainly end up with blisters.
Back at the campsite, Gabrielle was trying on the leather tunic. Xena laced it for her and helped determine where to take it in. While the bard was stitching it, Xena went to the meadow and dug up a soap plant root.
"Is the creek deeper up that way?" Gabrielle asked when she returned.
"There's a pool that might be waist-deep just this side of the meadow. Why?"
"That's where I want to take my bath."
"Gabrielle, the water is cold, and I don't think it's a good idea for you to get chilled. Why don't I bring water in the pot to pour over your hair and we can wash it right here?"
"No. I want to wash all of me. I don't care if the water is cold."
She had that look that Xena knew meant it was useless to argue with her, but she tried anyway. "I washed you pretty thoroughly yesterday, Gabrielle. Why don't you wait until we get to town and can get some warm bath water?"
"You don't understand, Xena. I feel really filthy after what happened yesterday. I need to try to get clean."
"All right," Xena said softly. "Just be careful with your wound."
Xena walked with Gabrielle along the creek and watched as the bard waded resolutely into the cold water. When she got in hip deep, she began to scrub herself vigorously with the soap root and her hands.
"Do you need any help? With your hair or anything?" Xena asked.
"No, I'm fine."
"Okay. I'm going to ride Garron's horse for a few minutes." She turned and headed for the meadow. The stallion seemed calmer than before, and responded well to her petting and attention. Xena cut a length from the tether rope to replace the broken rein, then saddled the bay and buckled on his bridle. In one smooth movement, she swung up onto his back. He proved to be a spirited mount, but a little headstrong and hard to control. Xena wished she could let him run full tilt, to find out how much speed he had, but the meadow was too small for that. Argo followed the bay around anxiously, at times pushing up close enough to nudge Xena's leg with her nose. "Don't worry, girl," the warrior called to her, "you'll always be my first love!"
After a few turns around the meadow, Xena guided the stallion back along the creek toward the clearing. Argo followed close behind her. She passed Gabrielle, who was sitting in the sun on the creekbank, trying to comb out her wet, tangled hair with her fingers. At the campsite, Xena dismounted and tied the bay to a tree. She went to their saddlebag and found the comb, then walked over to Gabrielle and squatted down beside her.
"Maybe this would help," she said, holding out the comb.
Gabrielle stared at it for a long moment, then looked at Xena, then back at the comb. Finally, she reached out and took it, holding it carefully, turning it over and over, running her fingers along the burned places. "My comb!" she whispered. "I thought it was gone." She looked up again, her eyes wet with tears.
Xena smiled softly. "You see," she said. "Good things can survive the bad. It happens more often than you might think."
Gabrielle didn't answer, but after a moment she brushed her hand across her cheek. Then she began pulling the comb carefully through the reddish-gold tangles.
"Do you want me to do that for you?" Xena asked gently.
"No, I can do it."
"I'd be glad to do it, if you want me to."
"No, that's all right. I'll do it."
Xena bit her lip and was silent for a few moments. "Okay," she said then. "I'll go start packing up." She got up and walked slowly back to the campsite.
Once there, she got out the coil of rope and cut herself a length for a belt, then tied another piece over her right shoulder. She attached her sword scabbard to this in back, tied the chakram at her right side, and tucked a dagger in at the waist. After that, she tied a section of rope to Argo's old bit and fashioned a simple bridle and reins. Then gathering up the loose things, she stuffed them into the saddlebags and attached the bags to Garron's saddle. She also tied on the frying pan, cooking pot, her armor, and Gabrielle's staff. Argo was used to carrying their gear, but the bay seemed nervous about the strange objects thumping and clanking at his sides. "Sorry, fellow," Xena said as she rubbed behind his ears, "you'll just have to put up with it for now."
Gabrielle came back from the creek and put on the leather outfit. Xena laced it for her. "You ready to go?" the warrior asked.
"More than ready."
Xena lifted the bard up to sit sideways on Argo's back. "How does that feel?" she asked.
"Kind of weird."
"Hold onto the mane with one hand," Xena instructed, "and onto these with the other." She handed Gabrielle the rope reins. "I'm going to lead you around a little bit so you can get used to it. Does it hurt to sit that way?"
"A little. Not much."
"Would you rather ride straddling the horse?"
"No!" Gabrielle said quickly.
They made a circuit of the clearing and then Xena turned control of the mare over to Gabrielle. She untied her own mount and hopped into the saddle. The bay was a little skittish, but soon settled down under Xena's firm control. The warrior rode over to where Gabrielle sat staring at the cottage ruins.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked. How strange it was to have to ask the normally talkative bard what she was thinking.
"I'm thinking I wish we had never come here," Gabrielle said. "I wish I had never seen this place."
"The first night was good," Xena said. "I thought you enjoyed it, too."
"The first night was beautiful," Gabrielle said softly. "That's what made the rest of it so terrible."
"If I had known things would turn out the way they did, I would never have brought you here, Gabrielle, believe me. My only thought was to make you happy."
Gabrielle looked at Xena and her faced softened. "I know," she said. Then she turned Argo's head toward the path. "Now, let's get out of here."
It took them more than three hours to get to town. They travelled at a slow pace and stopped several times so that Gabrielle could rest. Xena appreciated the rest breaks, too, since the effort needed to hold the bay stallion to a walk made her arms tired. The two women attracted a lot of stares and sometimes crude remarks from other travellers, especially as the road became more crowded nearer town. Xena had to admit that they made a strange sight--a bruised, leather-clad young woman sitting sideways on a horse, accompanied by a tall woman in men's clothing on a big, prancing stallion. Well, she was used to being stared at, but Gabrielle was not, and the bard seemed pretty uncomfortable with the attention.
"Xena," she said finally, "how close are we to town?"
"We'll be there in half an hour, I think."
"I want to walk the rest of the way."
Xena looked at her. "Are you sure you feel like it?"
"Yes. I've got to get off this horse so people will stop staring at me," Gabrielle said.
"Okay. Follow me." Xena motioned with her head toward a grove of trees just off the road and guided the bay horse into it. Slipping out of the saddle, she tied her mount and turned to Gabrielle. As the bard slid off of Argo's back into her arms, Xena enfolded her in a gentle hug.
"Don't, Xena," Gabrielle said softly.
"Why not?" Xena said, without releasing her hold. "There's no one around to see us right now." But her lover did not respond to the embrace, so after a moment, Xena let go and put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Am I hurting you?" she asked, bending slightly to search the green eyes.
"No," Gabrielle said, breaking eye contact. "I just don't want to be held right now."
"You let me hold you last night."
"I was cold."
"Oh, is that the way it works now? I can only touch you when you're cold?" Xena released Gabrielle's shoulders and turned away.
"Xena--" Gabrielle began and then sighed. "I can't explain it. I just know that I can't be close right now. Please try to understand."
"All right, I'll try," Xena said dully. "Now let's get going." She untied the bay and led him back to the road. Gabrielle followed with Argo, and they walked on in silence.
When they reached the town, they found its streets clogged with carts, cattle, sheep, goats, and peasants. No one stared at the two women now as they struggled to make a path for their horses. Xena paused to let Gabrielle catch up. "Must be market day," she called, trying to make herself heard above the din.
"Something's going on," Gabrielle agreed. Then she leaned closer to the warrior woman. "Xena, is this one of the towns your army raided?"
Xena gave her a wry grin. "No, thank the gods. This is one of the places that agreed to furnish us with supplies in exchange for our leaving them alone. We only came through here a few times, so with any luck my name will be just a dim memory by now."
She stood surveying the crowd and shops for a few moments. The stallion was nervous, snorting and skittering sideways when some noisy children ran past. Xena tightened her grip on his bridle, then led him toward a small, swarthy man who was selling fishcakes at a corner stand. "Excuse me," she said, "can you tell us where to find a good inn?"
"Oh, you want The Golden Cask," he told her. "Just go straight ahead to the town square, then left one block. Big stone building, gray, two stories. You can't miss it."
"Thanks!" The fishcakes smelled good and Xena's stomach twisted, reminding her that they'd had nothing to eat since last night's supper. She glanced at Gabrielle, surprised that she wasn't clamoring for Xena to buy her some food. But the bard looked exhausted and pale, her expression unfocused. Xena took hold of her arm. "Gabrielle," she said, "are you all right?"
"Yeah. I'm just really tired."
"Okay. It's not far to the inn. Come this way."
They tied the horses to a hitching rail in the stableyard next to the inn. The tavern door stood open, and the room seemed surprisingly cool and quiet after the noise of the streets. Xena blinked, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer light. She noted a couple of men talking quietly over mugs at a table near the far wall. Otherwise, the tavern was empty.
Gabrielle sank down onto a bench at a table near the door. "I'll just wait here while you make the arrangements," she said.
As Xena was wondering where to find the innkeeper, a woman bustled in through a side door, carrying a tray of wooden chalices, which she set on the bar. She was about Gabrielle's height, but older and a bit stockier, with a full head of unruly auburn hair. As Xena started towards her, she turned and came forward, smiling and drying her hands on her apron.
"Good afternoon," she said warmly. "You two look like you've had a long journey. My name is Lydia. I'm the proprietor here."
She held out her hand, and as Xena took it, she found herself looking into brown eyes so full of honesty and caring that she immediately felt she could trust this woman in a way she trusted few people.
"I'm Xena," she said.
Lydia's eyes widened. "Xena!" she exclaimed, "The Warrior Princess?"
"Yes," Xena said guardedly. Maybe they remembered her here better than she thought.
"We were just talking about you last night!" exclaimed Lydia, "in this very room! Salmoneus was telling stories about you--how you changed from evil to good, and how you won the Miss Known World contest and prevented a terrible war. He said you made quite a beautiful Miss Amphipolis . . ." The innkeeper paused, her eyes taking in Xena's clothes and weapons.
"Ah, well--" Xena glanced down at Garron's rough tunic and trousers. "I was wearing a different outfit then." She gave Lydia a crooked grin, then quickly changed the subject. "What's Salmoneus doing in town?"
"Oh, he's here for the market fair, brought a whole cartload of fancy goods, imported from Egypt, so he says." She winked at Xena. "I dare say he's doing a good business. He's quite the salesman, you know."
"What's the market fair?"
"You don't know about our market fair? We have it every summer, and it lasts a whole week. People come from all around. Some travel for days to get here."
"So that's why the town's so crowded," Xena mused. "We were trying to figure it out."
"Salmoneus mentioned that you travelled with someone," Lydia said, shifting her gaze toward Gabrielle. "Is your friend a warrior, too?"
"No, Gabrielle's a bard," Xena said, and then her voice softened. "But she's fought some very brave battles." She turned to glance behind her and saw Gabrielle sitting with head on folded arms. "The last one almost did her in," Xena added, "so we were hoping you might have a quiet room where we could rest for a few days."
"Well, you're in luck, Xena, because I do have one room available. The fellow that had it left just this morning. You'll be right across the hall from Salmoneus. It's a small room, but it's clean. As far as being quiet, well, it overlooks the inn courtyard in back, so you won't get much street noise, but at night people like to sit out there and drink, and sometimes they get kind of loud."
"That's fine. It won't be a problem," said Xena quickly. "I guess we're lucky to find a room at all with the fair going on."
"Yes, you are."
"Oh, and Lydia, could we get some food? Just something simple--maybe bread and cheese? And two mugs of mead? We haven't eaten all day."
"Of course." Lydia said, studying Xena with frank curiosity. "I can bring a tray up to your room, if you like. Or would you rather eat down here?"
"No, in the room, if you don't mind."
"And will you be having supper here?"
"All right, let's see," said Lydia, calculating out loud, "a room for two people plus two meals . . . that'll be four dinars."
Xena pulled out her leather coin purse and dumped the contents into her hand. She handed four dinars to the innkeeper and put the other one back in the purse. It probably hadn't been wise to let the woman see how little money she had, she realized too late. Well, she would have a lot more as soon as she got that horse sold, but she had better do it quickly.
"We've also got two horses to be stabled," Xena added.
"You can arrange that with Elpidios; he's the stableman," Lydia said. "It's half a dinar per horse per night."
"Okay." Xena turned and walked back to where the bard sat. She bent over her, laying a hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle, come and meet Lydia. She has a room for us."
Gabrielle raised her head and then got up and followed the warrior back to where the innkeeper waited.
"I'm glad to meet you, Gabrielle," said Lydia with a warm smile and handshake. She studied the bard with the same frank interest that she had shown earlier for the warrior princess. Xena had the feeling that those intense brown eyes did not miss much, and that the innkeeper understood much more than what was actually said. Such qualities would have been alarming in an evil person, but Xena sensed that Lydia could be trusted to use her knowledge only in gentle ways.
Xena touched Gabrielle lightly on the arm. "Why don't you go up to the room while I get the horses taken care of?" she said. "Lydia's going to bring us some bread and cheese."
"Okay," murmured Gabrielle. "Nice to meet you, Lydia," she added with a wan smile.
"Just go up the stairs in the corner there," Lydia said, pointing, "then all the way to the end of the passage. There are six rooms, and yours is the last door on the left."
Gabrielle nodded and headed for the narrow wooden staircase. Xena watched her cross the room and slowly climb the steps. "She's really not like this," Xena said and turned to find Lydia watching her. "She's warm and friendly and talkative--" She stopped, as her voice began to tremble. She swallowed hard, then said, "Well, I'd better go see about those horses." And turning, she headed for the door.
"I'll bring the tray up soon," Lydia called after her.
* * *
Xena staggered up to the room several minutes later, loaded down with their saddlebags and other belongings. Gabrielle was lying across the bed, her feet hanging off, but she sat up when Xena dropped the gear noisily on the floor just inside the door. The bed was barely wide enough for two people, yet it took up almost a third of the space in the room. It stood in the corner where the two outside walls of gray stone met, and there was a clay chamberpot beneath it. Next to the bed was a small table, and in another corner a washstand with a dented metal pitcher and basin. The only other furniture was a lone wooden bench, just big enough to seat one. The two interior walls were made of thin wood panelling, and the wide floorboards had been worn smooth by the feet of many weary travellers.
Xena crossed the room and looked out the window into the courtyard. "Well, it's small," she said, turning back to Gabrielle, "but it's a whole lot better than what we had last night!"
Gabrielle looked at her, but said nothing.
Xena sat down next to the bard and bounced a little on the straw-filled mattress. "How's the bed?" she asked. "Think you can sleep here?"
She studied Gabrielle's face for a few moments, but saw no clues there as to what the bard might be thinking. "You know, I never thought I'd see the day when I wanted you to talk more," she said with a small smile, "but Gabrielle, I wish you'd tell me what you're feeling and thinking. Right now it's as if you're clear across the sea from me and I don't even have a rowboat."
"You wouldn't understand how I feel," Gabrielle said flatly.
"How do you know I wouldn't? You haven't even tried me." She laid a hand on Gabrielle's thigh. "And even if I don't understand, I will at least listen--for as long as you want me to. You need to talk, Gabrielle. You can't just keep your feelings all stuffed up inside of you."
"That's what you do."
Xena smiled grimly. "Yeah, but you're always after me to talk, so I've gotten a little better at it. At least, I think I have. But now I know how frustrated you must have felt with me. Please tell me how you're feeling. Please."
"I can't talk about it. This is something I have to work out alone."
"No, Gabrielle, you're wrong. You don't have to do this alone. That's why I'm here, to help you work through this. We love each other, and love is for the bad times as well as for the good times. We can get through this, but we have to do it together."
The bard sighed and pulled distractedly at her hair, then pressed her lips together in a frown. Finally she said, "I just can't, Xena. I don't know why, but I'm just not ready to talk. It hurts too much."
Xena stood up and began to pace back and forth across the narrow room. "Don't do this, Gabrielle," she said. "Don't shut me out like this!" She stopped in front of the bard and clamped her hands on the young woman's shoulders. "I love you. I want to help you. This is driving me crazy--please let me help you!"
Gabrielle looked up at her, and the pain written on her face stabbed at the warrior's heart. "You can't help me, Xena," Gabrielle said quietly. "No one can help me. I have to do this myself."
Xena straightened abruptly, turned, and paced across the room, then back to the stone wall. She stopped, facing the wall, then suddenly slammed the side of her fist against it, hard. Then she did it again. And again.
"Stop it, Xena. You're acting like a child."
Xena stopped pounding the wall and leaned weakly against it, resting her forehead on the rough, cool stones. Why was this so difficult? Why couldn't Gabrielle's wounds all have been physical ones? At least she knew how to deal with those. But these wounds of the spirit . . .
There was a knock on the door. Xena took a deep breath, tried to compose herself, and went to open it.
Lydia stood in the hallway with a tray of food. "Is everything all right here?" she asked, her eyes searching the warrior's face. How long had she been standing out there, Xena wondered. How much of their conversation had she overheard?
"Oh, we're fine," the warrior said. "We're just a little tired and grumpy." She gave Lydia what she hoped was a disarming smile, then reached out for the tray. "Mmm, this looks good!" she said.
Lydia smiled back at her. "Is the room all right?" she asked. "I'm sorry it's so small."
"It's fine, really. Last night we slept in the rain with no blankets, so this is like the Elysian Fields by comparison."
Lydia laughed. "Good," she said. "Just let me know if you need anything. I found you some grapes," she added, nodding at the tray.
"Thanks," Xena said. "We were really hungry."
She set the tray on the small table, placed it in front of Gabrielle, and pulled the bench over to sit on. The bard stared at the food for a few moments, then broke off a small piece of bread and began to nibble at it. Xena tore off a big hunk for herself and stuffed it in her mouth, hoping that food would somehow help fill the empty space she felt inside.
"You've got to eat more than that, Gabrielle," she said, slicing off some cheese and handing it to the bard. "How about some grapes? You know you love grapes."
"I'm just not hungry."
"Eat anyway. You've got to get your strength back."
Xena tried to set a good example, but after the first few bites, she discovered that she wasn't all that hungry, either. Nevertheless, she forced herself to go on eating, and when the food stuck in her throat, she washed it down with mead.
"Did you hear Lydia say that Salmoneus is in town?" she asked.
Gabrielle looked up. "Salmoneus!" she exclaimed and made a face. "Of all the people I don't want to see right now!"
"You don't have to see him. You don't have to see anyone you don't want to," Xena said. She pulled a couple of grapes off the cluster and put them in her mouth. "He's not my very favorite person, either, but I'm actually kind of glad to find out he's here. I think I'll ask him to sell that horse for me. He's good at selling things, and he probably has some contacts in town--which I don't."
"He'll want a big cut of the price."
"I know, but I'll work something out with him. It'll be worth it not to have the hassle of selling the horse myself."
Gabrielle gave her a look and then sat staring dully at the food without eating.
"How's the pain?" Xena asked. "Do you need some more tea?"
"No. I'm all right. I just want to sleep."
"That's a good idea. Will you feel safe if I leave you alone here for a little while?"
"Yeah. I'll be fine."
"Are you sure?"
"Okay. There's some market fair thing going on in town. That's why it's so crowded. I thought I'd go check it out. I need to talk to Salmoneus and also try to sell Garron's dagger. Oh, and I'll look for somebody who can make you some clothes."
Gabrielle's eyes drifted closed and her head began to droop over the bread and cheese.
Xena touched her shoulder gently. "Are you done eating?" she asked.
Xena moved the table back to its place by the wall and crouched down in front of Gabrielle. "Do you want to sleep in your warrior princess costume or do you want to take it off?" she asked.
Gabrielle looked at her and Xena thought she saw the flicker of a smile cross her face.
"Take it off," Gabrielle said.
Xena helped the bard undress and then tucked the covers around her. In less than a minute, she was asleep. Xena stood for a short time watching her, then went and rummaged through Garron's saddlebags until she found the dagger. She examined it briefly, tested the blade's sharpness with her thumb, and stowed the weapon in the rope belt next to her own. Then, picking up the tray, she slipped quietly out of the room.
Downstairs, Xena returned the mostly uneaten food to Lydia with a sheepish grin. "Guess we weren't quite as hungry as I thought we were," she said.
Lydia smiled, set the tray on the bar, and then turned her gaze on Xena. "I shouldn't really ask this," she said quietly, "but I was hoping I could help somehow-- What happened to Gabrielle?"
Xena stared at her, surprised by the directness of the question, yet touched by its caring tone. "She was raped," she heard herself say.
"I thought that might be it," Lydia said.
"Why did you think that?"
"Several reasons, I guess. The bruises. The way she holds herself. The withdrawn look in her eyes." Lydia paused and drew a deep breath. "It happened to my daughter, Lia, a couple of years ago. She was only fifteen at the time."
"How terrible!" Xena said. "I'm really sorry to hear that. Is your daughter all right now?"
Lydia smiled. "Yes, she's fine. There are some scars, of course, that will never heal completely, but Lia is betrothed now to a fine young man from the village here. They'll be married at the winter solstice, and they're going to help me run the inn. Lia already helps a lot. She does most of the cooking and laundry. You'll probably see her around."
Lydia stopped speaking for a moment, gazing into the distance, apparently lost in thought. Then she looked at Xena again. "It's not easy getting over something like that," she said softly. "It takes time and a lot of love. Gabrielle is lucky. She has you, and I can see that you really care about her. She'll be all right. Just be patient."
Xena nodded. She wanted to speak, but her throat was too tight with emotion.
There was a moment of silence and then Lydia said, "Did you burn yourself?"
"What?" Xena said, then saw the innkeeper looking at her hand. "Oh. Yeah, I did."
"I've got some ointment. It's just in the kitchen there. Seems like Lia and I are always burning ourselves. I'll get it for you."
She was gone before Xena could answer, and came back almost as quickly.
"How did you do this?" she asked, as she spread the ointment with gentle fingers.
"It's sort of a long story," said Xena.
"That's all right," responded Lydia. "I've always got time for a story."
"Well, we were staying at an abandoned cottage a few leagues from here. That's where Gabrielle was . . . attacked. I wasn't there at the time or I could have prevented it, I think." Xena stopped and took a deep breath. She barely knew this woman, this Lydia with the eyes that seemed to see straight into her soul. Yet here she was, pouring out her whole story. She felt crazy doing it, but somehow she couldn't help herself.
"Gabrielle was so upset that she set the cottage on fire," Xena continued. "We lost most of our belongings. I managed to salvage a few things, but I burned myself while I was doing it."
Lydia put the lid back on the ointment jar. "Xena," she said, smiling at the warrior woman, "I want you to know something. I asked you to pay in advance for the first night, but from now on your credit is good with me. You and Gabrielle stay here as long as you want to. You've been through a lot and you need time to heal--both of you."
"Lydia, you don't have to do this. I can pay the bill. I've got some things to sell--including a horse--so I'll have plenty of money."
"I know. I trust you. I just don't want you to be worrying about money when you should be worrying about helping Gabrielle."
Xena was silent for a moment, then she said, "I don't understand. You barely know me. I haven't done anything to deserve so much kindness from you."
The innkeeper smiled again. "You're right. I don't really know you yet, but I already know I'm going to like you, Xena. You have a heart that's brave and true, and you try to do the right thing--even when it's hard for you. I have a very good feeling about your being here. Something good will come of it. I'm not sure what, but I know it will be good."
Xena stared at her in wonder. "Are you a seer?" she asked.
"Not really, although some have called me that. I have a good understanding of people, and sometimes I get a sense of what will happen to them, but I've never tried to develop the gift. If I can use it to help someone now and then, that's reward enough for me."
"I think I'm going to like you, too, Lydia," Xena said. "In fact, I already do."
The innkeeper grinned at her and then quickly changed the subject. "Well, are you going to the market fair?" she asked.
"Yes, but I don't know where it is."
"It's out on the north edge of town. Turn left when you go out the door and walk straight down the street. You'll run right into it."
"Sounds easy enough." Xena turned toward the door, then turned back again. "Oh, I meant to ask if you can recommend a good seamstress."
"Yes, indeed. Go see Dorkas. She and her husband, Xenos, have a weaving shop just about a block from here. It's called the Magic Loom. You'll pass it on your way to the fair. Dorkas isn't the most talkative person you'll ever meet, but she does wonderful work for a reasonable price, and she's fast, too."
"Good. I'll go see her."
"Going to get yourself a new outfit?" Lydia asked, looking pointedly at the tunic and trousers.
"No, it's not for me, it's for Gabrielle. She's wearing my clothes right now."
"And whose are you wearing?"
Xena glanced down. "These belonged to the man who raped Gabrielle."
Lydia shook her head. "You two have really been to Tartarus and back, haven't you?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Xena gave her a wan smile. "Thanks, Lydia. I'll see you later," she said then and headed out the door.
* * *
The marketplace was crowded and dusty. A strange mix of smells assaulted Xena's nostrils, and her ears were battered by the constant shouts of vendors and the squawks and squeals of animals. Gabrielle loved this kind of chaos--especially if haggling was involved--but Xena generally found it unpleasant. Reminding herself that she had a job to do, though, she gritted her teeth and plunged into the mayhem. She wandered up and down among the rows of stalls until she found a weapons dealer, and after some dickering, got twenty dinars for the dagger. It was nice to have some money in her purse again, and even though it had hurt her pride to have Lydia offer her credit, it did ease her mind not to have to worry about boarding costs until the horse was sold.
Pushing on through the crowd, Xena now gave her attention to finding Salmoneus. After a few minutes, she spotted him in a stall near the edge of the marketplace. He appeared to be doing a brisk business, and she leaned against a nearby pole and watched awhile until there was a lull. Then, sauntering over to the stall, she cast an eye over the trinkets, gewgaws, and shiny baubles he had displayed.
"Well, Salmoneus," she said, "how's business?"
"Oh, fine, fine! Business is just fine!" His face glowed cheerfully as he rearranged a few items before glancing up. "Xena!" he exclaimed, his eyes widening. "I almost didn't recognize you! Is this the latest in warrior garb?" he asked, eying her costume.
"Yeah, I guess it is," she said with a grin.
"Where's Gabrielle? Is she with you?"
"She's, uh--" Xena hesitated. "She's feeling a little under the weather, so she's resting at the inn."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Where are you staying? The Golden Cask?"
"Right across the hall from you."
"Lydia told you I was there, huh? She's quite a woman, isn't she?" he said with a big wink.
Xena smiled, bemused. "Yes, she's very nice." She glanced at the merchandise again. "Where do you get all this stuff?" she asked.
"It's imported specially from Egypt, every bit of it," Salmoneus declared and stroked his beard in a pleased way.
"Then how come I've seen things just like this made in Corinth and Athens?"
"Shhh!" he said quickly, looking around. Then he leaned closer and said conspiratorially, "Most of these people aren't as well travelled as you and I, so they don't know the difference."
"Oh, is that how it works?" she said, arching an eyebrow at him.
"That's how it works," he assured her.
She couldn't really understand why anyone would want to buy the merchandise Salmoneus was offering, but as she glanced over it again, her eye was caught by a gold heart-shaped pendant, and she reached out to pick it up. It had been many years since she had felt any interest in jewels or trinkets of this type, but now it occurred to her that she might like to give such a thing to Gabrielle, might like to see the bard wearing it as a symbol of their love.
"Oh, isn't that a beautiful little heart?" purred Salmoneus. "Finest Egyptian gold, and only twenty-five dinars!"
"Humph!" Xena snorted. "I'm afraid you'll have to find some other sucker to buy it." But she didn't put the heart down, holding it instead in her palm to watch the way the sunlight reflected off the engraved design of intertwined leaves.
"Well, there's a sucker born every minute, is what I like to say," grinned Salmoneus. "But I'll tell you what, Xena, since we're such good friends, I can make you a special price on that little heart. Twenty dinars."
She considered for moment, still turning the trinket in the sunshine. She doubted that it was pure gold or that it came from Egypt, but it did have a certain appeal for her. Probably, she could get him down to fifteen dinars or possibly twelve, but even then it would take most of her slender funds. What Gabrielle needed much more urgently was new clothes. That's what the money should be used for. Besides, in Gabrielle's present state of mind, she might very well reject such a gift altogether.
Xena laid the heart down and grinned humorlessly at Salmoneus. "Sorry," she said, "it's just not my type of thing."
"Is it the price? I might be able to go a little lower. If you don't want it for yourself, then why don't you get it for Gabrielle?"
Xena scowled at him. "I'm not trying to haggle with you, Salmoneus. The fact is I don't want it," she said. "Now let's talk about something else."
"Sure, Xena," the merchant said quickly. "What do you want to talk about?"
"I have a business proposition for you. How would you like to sell a horse for me? For a cut of the selling price, of course."
"You're selling Argo?" Salmoneus asked in amazement.
"No, not Argo. This is another horse, a stallion, kind of flashy, lots of energy, a good warhorse for the right buyer."
"Well, sure, I suppose I could sell a horse as well as I could sell anything else. Selling is selling, after all."
"Good. Let's talk about it later," Xena said, as a couple of men approached the stall.
"Okay. How about over supper at the inn tonight?"
Xena thought for a moment. "No, I'll probably eat in the room with Gabrielle. But I could meet you downstairs afterwards."
"Great. I'll see you then."
Xena headed back up the street toward the inn, stopping when she came to the weavers' shop. Inside, a man sat working at a large loom. Xena found the rhythmic sound of the shuttle passing back and forth soothing after the cacophony of the market, and she stood quietly for several minutes, watching and listening. At last, the man stopped his work and looked up at her.
"Good afternoon," she said. "I'm looking for Dorkas."
"She's in back," the man said, then turned toward a door behind him and shouted, "Dorkas! Someone here to see you!"
The woman who emerged from the back room was average in height and stocky, with a square face and muscular forearms. Her straight brown hair was cut off bluntly at the jawline, making it shorter even than many men wore their hair. What Xena found most interesting about the seamstress, though, was the total lack of expression on the woman's face.
"Yes, my lady," Dorkas said.
The warrior quickly glanced behind her to see what lady had entered the shop, and then realized that Dorkas was addressing her.
"Oh, uh, I was looking for someone who could make some clothes--just a simple, two-piece kind of thing--you know, a little bodice and a short skirt. And I need it done as soon as possible. It's kind of an emergency."
"Is it for you, my lady?" Dorkas gazed at her impassively, and Xena was suddenly conscious of how strange she must look in Garron's clothes. Was this woman making fun of her by calling her a lady, or did she call every female customer that?
"No, it's for a friend of mine," she answered.
"I see," said Dorkas. "What kind of fabric?"
"What kind do you have?"
"Linen. Wool. A little bit of cotton, but it's costly, since it has to be imported."
"Uh, I don't know. Green? Or maybe brown? Blue would be nice, too, I guess."
Dorkas pulled three bolts of cloth from beneath the counter and spread them out. Xena moved closer and fingered the fabric. She really had no idea what Gabrielle wanted; obviously, she should have asked the bard some questions before coming here.
"Do you have the measurements?" Dorkas asked.
"Measurements? Uh, well, she's about average in size, I think. Shorter than I am, and a little smaller around." Xena stopped, flustered. She was really out of her element here. She knew so little about clothing and how it was made. The seamstress must think she was a fool.
"Does the lady live near here?" asked Dorkas in the same even voice that gave no real clue as to what the woman was thinking.
"Yes, we're staying at the Golden Cask, just down the street. Lydia's the one who gave me your name, in fact."
"Lydia is a good person," said Dorkas, and Xena thought she saw a softening in the stonelike features. "Maybe I could come and take the measurements," the seamstress said then.
"Yes, that might work," Xena said, considering. Would Gabrielle be willing to talk to this strange, impassive woman? Well, she would have to if she wanted any say in how her new clothes were made. "When can you come?"
"Now, if you like. You said you were in a hurry."
"Okay. I'm just on my way back to the inn, anyway. I'm sure Gabrielle will be much better at telling you what sort of clothes she wants than I am. The only thing is that she's-- Well, she's been injured, so she's got some bruises-- Just so you won't be surprised," Xena finished lamely.
Dorkas nodded and picked up a measuring tape. She cut swatches from the three bolts of cloth and then stood looking at Xena until the warrior realized that she was ready and led the way out into the street. They walked in silence. Xena was suddenly aware of how tired she felt and was grateful she didn't have to make conversation. When they entered the tavern room, Lydia saw them and came over to greet them.
"Would you mind waiting here while I just go up and make sure Gabrielle is awake?" Xena asked Dorkas. "I'll be right back."
Without waiting for an answer, she hurried to the staircase and took the steps two at a time. Opening the door to the room quietly, she saw the bard curled on her side, still fast asleep. Xena went and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle," she said softly.
The green eyes opened reluctantly for a moment, then Gabrielle sighed, stretched slightly, and snuggled back down under the covers.
"Did you have a good sleep?"
Xena watched her for a moment and saw that she was drifting off again. She squatted down beside the bed.
"Gabrielle," she said, "I found someone who can make you some clothes, but I couldn't explain very well what you wanted and she needs your measurements. She's downstairs now. Would it be all right if she came up here? You can tell her exactly what you want."
Gabrielle opened her eyes and stared at Xena for a moment. Then she sighed heavily and sat up. "Okay," she said dully.
Xena helped her get dressed and then went downstairs for Dorkas. She wasn't sure how cooperative Gabrielle would be, but soon the young woman was explaining in some detail to the seamstress what type of outfit she wanted. And she chose the blue color swatch.
"When can you have it done?" Xena asked when the other two had come to an understanding.
"Tomorrow afternoon," said Dorkas.
"Good. How much will it be?"
The woman calculated for a few moments and then said, "Fifteen dinars."
Gabrielle cast a questioning look at the warrior.
"That'll be fine," said Xena. It was a good thing she hadn't spent her money on that heart trinket. "Should I come by your shop to pick it up?"
"I can bring it here," Dorkas said, "to check the fit."
"That would be nice," said Gabrielle.
"Yes," said Xena. "We'll see you tomorrow, then."
The seamstress left and Gabrielle sat down on the edge of the bed next to Xena. "I didn't know new clothes would cost so much," she said.
"It's all right. I got twenty dinars for Garron's dagger." When there was no answer, Xena went on. "I think Dorkas will do a good job for you. Lydia recommended her. She's kind of strange, though, isn't she?"
"Yeah, she is, but I like her."
"I talked to Salmoneus and he's going to sell the horse for me. I'm getting together with him after supper to talk about it. As soon as he sells it, we can buy the other stuff we need . . . and we can start trying to find a horse for you."
Gabrielle looked at her. "Don't buy me a horse, Xena."
"I just don't want one right now. I don't even like horses that much. And besides, I'm not sure what I'm going to do."
"What do you mean?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle looked away and shifted uncomfortably. "Well, I've been thinking I might like to go home for a while."
"Home," Xena repeated. "To Poteidaia."
"Well, yes, that's a good idea," Xena said slowly. "You can rest there and get your strength back. And you'd probably like to see your family again. Sure, we can go to Poteidaia, if you want."
It was a perfectly reasonable request, Xena told herself, but for some reason, the idea filled her with a cold dread. How long would Gabrielle want to stay with her family? It might be much longer than Xena herself wanted to stay. Well, she could always go to Amphipolis to visit her mother and return for Gabrielle later.
The silence stretched on for a time, as each of the women entertained her own thoughts. Finally, Xena looked at her companion and said, "I guess it's time for supper. Want to eat downstairs?"
"Okay. I'll go down and get us something. It smelled pretty good when I came through there. Mutton, I think. I'll be back soon."
* * *
Continued...Part 3 of 4
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