Early in their relationship, concerned about how life at her side may change Gabrielle, Xena suggests a getaway that isn’t quite as relaxing as she’d hoped.
SNOW AND TELL
The whiteness descended relentlessly, extinguishing the sun, a sheer shroud in the wind whipping everything beneath into stillness. Gabrielle’s butt felt numb against the blanket covering the floor of the shelter they’d dug in the snow. Their draped cloaks provided a roof over the three icy walls. It seemed they’d huddled there for hours, knees drawn up, limbs stiffening, their primary warmth each other. Given the curtain of flakes at the opening, Gabrielle feared they might never move. She hazarded a carefully deep breath as if it too might be frozen.
"You think Argo’s okay?"
"Probably better than us. Nice stand of trees we passed awhile back, good munchies under the snow." Xena turned from her scrutiny of their unpredictable enemy. Smiling, she added, "Not that we’re doing so bad."
Xena nudged her toe against the saddlebag at her feet. "Plenty of delicious dried meat and fruit. All the fresh, cold water we could want. Enough furs to keep us snug little bed bugs." She grinned. "And at least one source of endless entertainment."
"Uh huh. It’s the ‘snug little bed bugs’ part I’m not seeing yet. Do they sleep as well vertically?"
Xena chuckled. "The one who’s not so entertaining can. Her lap could provide some comforts of a bed for the other bug."
"Yeah?" Gabrielle brightened. Just to be sure, she cautiously made a practice "run." Her part of the roof caved in a little when she reclined, but otherwise Xena’s idea seemed satisfactory. She resumed her sitting position. "So … what do we do in the meantime?"
"I’m the bed bug. You’re the bard bug. Entertain."
Dawn was breaking. Only a light shower of snowflakes remained from yesterday’s storm. Xena’s muscles begged for mercy from the cramped position she’d maintained throughout the night. She shifted slightly against the cold wall at her back.
The warrior grinned down at the red-gold head burrowing into her lap. Contrary to Gabrielle’s fears, the girl had little trouble falling asleep and apparently now settled in for a second round of snoozing. Wisdom said Xena should wake her. Instead, she sat quietly while Gabrielle wriggled to a comfortable position on her "pillow," snuggled deeper into her furs and drifted back to sleep. "Pleasant dreams," Xena murmured, imagining that wherever Gabrielle was had to be better than current reality. At least the weather hinted at permitting more progress, once they got moving. Xena snorted softly. "Progress. Riiiiight." As if their destination really mattered.
A few days ago they’d helped villagers deal with a warlord demanding monthly payments for "protection" against other warlords. Before that, they’d stopped robbers from making off with complimentary goods from traveling merchants. Before that …. Xena shook her head. Causing trouble was a lot easier than ending it. She accepted that as part of her new mission in life, but had begun to worry about the wear and tear on Gabrielle. Not that the girl ever complained. Indeed, she’d begun looking for problems they could solve. Her brow furrowed at the slightest altercation. She’d squint at congregations of people, primed to ferret out a negative source. Regarded every tree or hill or bend in the road as a hideout for potential attackers.
This perplexed Xena at first. Her job was to keep them safe, to be on guard for trouble. She’d told Gabrielle that. Encouraged her to continue being her trusting, carefree self. They’d been in a tavern when she realized why her words didn’t take. A large, distorted mirror hung behind the bar. She caught a glimpse of herself as they entered – quickly scanning the room, scowling at drunks who got too close, staring down anyone who enjoyed fingering his weapons too much. And right behind her, Gabrielle – emulating her every expression, her walk, her moves. A reflection of the warrior herself. A shiver had gone up Xena’s spine. Shortly thereafter, she’d suggested they take a trip to a spot she’d discovered in the dark past.
"There’s no particular reason?" Gabrielle had asked. "No threat? Not some old buddy to visit? Maybe buried treasure to dig up and dispense among the poor?"
"Nooo. You said you’d never camped in the mountains. Might as well see what you’ve been missing."
"You mean, just to relax, enjoy the scenery? Like a … vacation?"
"Something like that."
"Oookay." Gabrielle had raised a suspicious brow. Not sensing any secret agenda, she’d grinned and clapped her hands. "Okaaay! Sounds good to me."
It was early spring. Though they still brought heavy cloaks and sleeping furs, Xena hadn’t expected encountering unseasonably rough conditions. Argo could come along without any problem making the climb. They’d take a leisurely, winding route up to a large plateau with a breathtaking view of the surrounding area, a lake and several waterfalls. Even as a warlord – perhaps especially as a warlord – Xena had appreciated the crisp air and quiet, pristine beauty.
They’d nearly made it there when Xena sensed the weather change. Soon gray skies and the onset of snow pretty much obscured some of the sights they’d come for, but it hadn’t occurred to her to worry beyond that. She’d made treks like this countless times, forced herself and her men to push through blizzards, up trails much worse. They knew how to take care of themselves. If an accident happened, too bad. It wasn’t as if her soldiers were irreplaceable. Or her. But Gabrielle?
Xena easily saw through the girl’s cheery, "I’m right behind you. Don’t slow down on my account." They hadn’t been on the plateau long before she heard, "Um, Xena? I know you’re up there, `cause I almost fell through one of your boot prints." The warrior had called it quits for the time being. They’d dug out their temporary shelter before the storm got worse. Xena chuckled. All this, to show Gabrielle a "good time" for a change. "When will I ever learn?"
She gazed down again at her peacefully slumbering companion, feeling a surge of affection for this new responsibility. Surprising, considering how much easier it would’ve been if she were alone. And that now she actually cared about making sure nothing bad happened to somebody. Or herself. She checked outside one more time. Clear, and the sun promised more light, if not warmth. Sighing, she gently squeezed Gabrielle’s shoulder.
"Time to get moving."
"Mmhmmm. I won’t be able to walk if my legs doze any longer."
"Hmmm?" Green eyes blinked open. "Wha?" Gabrielle raised her head. "Your legs?" She peered up, concern cutting through her grogginess. "Xena, I’m so sorry. Did you get any sleep? You must be –."
"It’s okay. Weather’s better. Time to get going." Xena ruffled her companion’s hair. "Bard bug needed lap. Warrior bug needs legs."
Gabrielle shielded her eyes. Yesterday she couldn’t see through airborne snow. Today the settled whiteness nearly blinded her. Still, she appreciated the stark wonder of the frozen landscape. Interspersed among the evergreens, a few ancient oaks resignedly held their ground, brittle old limbs straining to hold up the snowy weight that bent saplings nearby. White-capped boulders reminded her of mushrooms she picked in one of her favorite relaxation spots back home.
She strained to hear the accustomed chirps and tiny feet, struck by the silence broken only by their crunching boots and labored breath. She suddenly realized how glad she was to have Xena’s back. And larger footprints. As beautiful as she found the virgin snow around them, she couldn’t imagine experiencing it alone.
Gabrielle nearly collided with the solid body in front of her. She glanced anxiously behind, suddenly aware she’d taken for granted bad guys wouldn’t be popping up out here. Xena didn’t seem to be looking anywhere in particular. She stood with her head cocked, as if listening to someone invisible.
"Um, Xena?" Gabrielle shuddered. "Ares isn’t here, is he?"
"What?" After a moment, Xena turned around. "Did you say ‘Ares?’"
"Looked like you were listening to somebody. I was hoping it wasn’t Ares."
"Ares? Why would …." Xena laughed. "No, not exactly his ideal hangout. He prefers more noise and heat." She pointed to a large rock formation ahead. "That’s our general direction. It’s been awhile, but we should be near a lake. Hard to tell, with the snow covering everything."
Gabrielle looked down. "Could we be walking on it?"
"I suppose." Xena scanned the area once more. "Ground doesn’t seem as level. See how these trees slant to the right? Those clumps of dead high grass? Might be a gully."
"Is that bad?"
"Probably not, if we’re careful." The warrior backtracked to a tree they’d passed. She snapped off a large limb and returned to where Gabrielle stood. "I wanna check something out. Stay here."
Xena slogged a few yards through the snow, first poking the stick into the area in front of her. "It’s sloping, but should be okay!" she shouted over her shoulder. "Don’t come yet. I just need to –." The warrior wobbled a moment, before vanishing in a whisper of white puffs.
"Xena!" Gabrielle’s mind replayed in slow motion what she couldn’t believe she’d seen – except for the tracks leading up to a big hole in the ground. She could hear the warrior’s voice in her head warning, "No! Stay back!" Her feet didn’t get the message. They moved on their own, cautiously, but as fast as they could to where Xena had disappeared.
She knelt carefully near the hole. "Xena?!" No response. She inched closer and leaned forward, still not able to see into the blackness. "Xena!" Now frantic, she glanced wildly around for the help she knew it was foolish to expect. And saw the most beautiful sight she could imagine. "Argo!"
The Palomino whinnied. Her hooves lifted high above the snowdrifts as she picked her way toward Gabrielle. She stopped a short distance away and snorted.
"Oh, Argo!" Gabrielle rose carefully and went to greet the mare. "Am I glad to see you," she said, hugging the horse’s head.
Argo accepted the embrace momentarily before shaking loose. She snorted, this time with fear and impatience.
"Yes, Xena’s in trouble. We have to help her." Gabrielle stroked Argo’s neck, in truth trying to calm herself. "I’ve got to …." She realized Xena had taken off the horse’s bridle, but left the saddle on. Holding her breath, she walked to Argo’s other side and saw …. "Yes! Rope!"
After what seemed like ages, Gabrielle dropped the rope into the hole. She also tossed in their sleeping furs, water skins, as well as a sack full of healing, food and cooking supplies. She tugged on the end tied to Argo’s saddle. The mare whinnied, bucking her head as if to say, "I’m ready. Go!"
Gabrielle adjusted the bag of firewood on her back. She tested the edge before easing her legs into the opening. It occurred to her as she tightly grasped the rough lifeline that she’d never done anything like this by herself before. Argo whinnied again. "Oh, sorry. I do have you, don’t I?" Swallowing, she wrapped her legs around the rope. "Wish me luck."
Gabrielle’s stomach lurched as she swayed freely in space. She forced herself to keep her eyes on the opening, imagining Xena saying, "Steady. Don’t look down. Relax. Pretend you’re an inchworm out for a little wiggle on a branch. Backwards." Gabrielle smiled at the image, focusing on it and the shrinking circle above until her feet touched something solid. She lowered herself a little more, onto a large, sloping piece of rock. She let go of the rope and shimmied to the ground.
The light from above revealed little but amorphous shapes. The only faint sounds came from invisibly scurrying creatures. Gabrielle shuddered at the thought of them crawling over her friend.
"Xena?" Bracing herself against the rock, Gabrielle began shuffling around its base, sensing Xena nearby. Her hand slid across a slick spot on the rock’s surface just as her toe stubbed against something soft.
"Xena!" Gabrielle squatted next to the prone form. She ran her hands over it, searching for an arm, flesh, a face. "Thank the gods!" she said, dropping down and gingerly sliding beneath the warrior’s shoulders. "You’re alive!" She hugged Xena to her, laying her cheek against the still head, pulling away when she felt sticky wetness near Xena’s bangs. "And hurt!"
Gabrielle brushed the pale cheek she could now see in the faint light. "S’okay. I brought stuff. I’ll make us a fire."
"No." Xena’s head moved slightly from side to side. "No fires."
Gabrielle glanced around, trying to identify the danger Xena could probably sense even with her eyes closed. "No fires? Xena, I can’t see anything that might –."
"Flesh," the warrior mumbled with a small groan. "Flesh’ll burn."
"Don’t worry," Gabrielle soothed, smiling. "No wind down here. I’ll be careful."
"Mmmm … smell. Too bad." Xena’s face scrunched in disgust. "Too … bad." A tear escaped clenched eyelids. "If …. If can’t stop … kill … me."
Xena lay still. She didn’t need her aching body to tell her something was wrong. Natural cause or human? Sensing another presence, she focused on her limbs. Something covering them, but no binds. Except … her arm. A splint? And around her pounding head. She relaxed. Good signs under the circumstances. Whatever they were.
She cracked open her eyes. Not much to see in the darkness above. She’d figured as much from the stale air. A pit of some sort. A glance down her body ended at the sputtering glow of an almost dead campfire. She rolled her head toward a faint sound. Gradually she discerned a form propped against a large dark mass. The top of the light-haired figure drooped toward the lap, where a knife rested in one limp hand and a potato in the other. The warrior smirked.
"Sleeping on the job, eh?" A long snore answered Xena’s question. "Gabrielle?"
"Mmmmm." Gabrielle’s chin slowly rose. She yawned, her eyes reluctantly blinking open.
"I see you’re getting the hang of sleeping upright."
Gabrielle stared drowsily at the pile of fur that seemed to be speaking to her. Her eyes widened at the face peering out. "Xena! You’re awake!" She nearly flew across the short distance to kneel at her patient’s side.
"How’re you feeling?" Gabrielle touched the bandage around Xena’s forehead. "The bleeding’s stopped."
Xena gingerly raised her right arm. "Fracture?"
"Careful!" Gabrielle helped Xena lower the arm. "A piece of …." She swallowed. "A piece of bone was sticking out, above your wrist. I hope I set it okay." She peered closely at the warrior’s bloodshot eyes and wrinkled brow. "I’ve got some herbs for you." She smirked. "You know, in case you’re human and that hard head of yours hurts."
Xena pursed her lips. The bard was getting mighty skilled at reading her. "Always good to take precautions. Little more rest, I’ll be fine." She closed her eyes before they further confirmed the throbbing pain. "I am a little cold."
"Cold?" Gabrielle glanced at the barely glowing embers. "Oh, no! How did that burn down so low? I wanted to make some soup."
"Heh, like I said, somebody sleeping on the job."
"You, um, want a fire?"
"I’ll live. Probably not much down here you can use anyway."
"I’ve got some wood left from what I brought." Gabrielle got up to crouch next to her carry bag. She hesitated, not certain how conscious Xena was of her earlier reaction to fire. "It’s just …. I wasn’t sure if …. A while ago you seemed so – ."
"Hey …." Xena levered up on her good elbow, squinting in concern at her young companion. "I was teasing, about you sleeping. As scared as you must’ve been, you had the presence of mind to anticipate everything we’d need. You got down here. You patched …." She paused, frowning. "How did you get down here?"
Gabrielle grinned. "A rope. Plus assistance from the best equine sidekick in the universe."
Xena grinned. "That’s my girl." Feeling a bit nauseous, she decided to get prone again. "Both of you. Sure saved my butt. Gabrielle, with everything you’ve done, don’t beat yourself up over a little fire, okay?"
Gabrielle stared at her friend. Sometimes she felt suspended at the center of overlapping dimensions, each with its own set of standards, guarding its territory yet vulnerable to sneak attacks from another. A warlord’s ruthless past, shadowing the present of a tortured hero, shielding a spirited village girl who’d somehow survived to fight for her future in the sun. How did Xena live like that? Preserve her innocence together with the demons she’d also locked away? Barely acknowledging her conflicting emotions in a flash of regret, the tightening of her jaw or the briefest smile. Aware of her wordless revelations one minute, oblivious the next. And yet ….
Who was to say she didn’t deal with things the best she could? Or should, to maintain her sanity, her focus? Certainly not another village girl who knew little besides talking. But how could Xena appreciate her true self, viewing only through the nightmare she’d been? Gabrielle sighed. Time would tell. But probably not that minute.
"Okay." She began building the fire back up. "How about you make it your job to sleep? If you’re a good girl, you’ll have a yummy herb brew waiting for you when you wake up."
A warm beam of light replaced the cool grayness of the previous day’s overcast skies. Lucky for the chasm’s human occupants, since they had little wood left to spare. Xena had just confirmed this in her early morning exploration of the area. She uncovered the small pot of broth they’d set on the hot embers of last night’s fire, letting the steam warm her gimpy hand before filling her mug. She shook her head, smiling. Gabrielle truly had thought of everything.
The warrior sat on her furs to sip her breakfast. She gazed fondly with furrowed brow at her fitfully sleeping companion, wishing the girl had more confidence in herself. Sure, she could be hot headed and stubborn about things completely out of her experience or capability. But when it came to what she should be proud of, she’d question herself. Like worrying about starting a fire, despite rescuing a certain fallibly infallible Warrior Princess. Maybe if ….
"Nooooo. Stop …."
"Gabrielle?" Xena called softly. She gently shook her friend’s shoulder.
Gabrielle twisted away with a low moan. "No …. Not … too bad."
Xena leaned over Gabrielle, startled to see tears running down the young woman’s cheeks.
"Please …. Be … all right. Don’t die."
"Come on, Gabrielle. Wake up."
Green eyes flew open, darting in fear until they focused on the blue ones inches away. "Xena!" Gabrielle sat up and threw her arms around the warrior. "I was so scared."
"Shhh. S’okay. Just a nightmare." Xena pulled back a little. "Better now?"
Gabrielle scrubbed at her eyes. "Mmmm. Yeah. Wow." She shook her head. Her cheeks reddened under Xena’s concerned scrutiny. "Sorry. I don’t usually have bad …." She bit her lip and glanced down.
"I know. Sounded like a doozy."
"I … talked?" Gabrielle’s breath caught. "What …. What’d I say?"
"Not much. Seemed like something – or someone – was after you." Xena sat back on her heels, her expression neutral. "Something that might … kill you."
"Yeah?" Flustered, Gabrielle got to her knees and started straightening her bedroll. "Probably all this reminded me of that time Lilla and I got lost in the woods. We just knew we heard some monster behind us." She forced a grin. "More like a stray dog, if we’d waited to see before hi-tailing it home." She glanced casually at Xena. "I see you’re feeling better."
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek at the change in subject. She shrugged and got up to pour some broth for Gabrielle. "Yeah, I am. Figured I’d better check on another way out of here." She pointed her chin toward the sling on her arm. "Unless you planned on shimmying up with me on your back?"
"Heh. I’m game if you are."
"I bet." Xena handed Gabrielle the mug. "Hate to disappoint you, but there may be an alternative." She returned to her bedroll. "See that crevice over there? It leads to more caverns like this, but going up. If my hunch is correct, we’ll tunnel through the rock, hopefully come out a cave entrance."
"Hmmm." Gabrielle took a sip of her broth. "Not sure I like the idea of mucking about in the dark for who knows how long. What’s wrong with Argo pulling us up?"
"In case you haven’t noticed, the escape rope disappeared along with my trusty steed. She’s used to me going off, meeting up with her later. She knows we’re alive."
"Is she used to leaving you when you’re hurt? Or traveling with a novice like me?"
"Gabrielllle. I may treat her like she’s human, but – ."
"How do you know? Maybe she doesn’t have to be so sensitive around some people, but I’ve seen it."
"You sayin’ I don’t know my own horse?"
"Do you tell her ‘be nice’ to you?"
"I don’t need to. We understand each –."
"Does she play tricks on you? Ignore you like Centaur poop one minute, act like you’re a bumbling idiot who needs protecting the next?" Gabrielle smirked at Xena’s glowering silence. "Uh huh. Why not test it out? Or mayhaps you’d rather test yourself more? Stumbling along with a bum arm and slightly dented thick skull? Unless …. Don’t tell me it’s your competitiveness? You afraid I’ll be right?" Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "Or could it be you’re not as up to par as you pretend? I swear, Xena – ."
"Argghhh! Enough already!" Xena stood a bit too quickly, covering her bout of dizziness with a wide-legged "we know who’s really in command here" stance. She tilted her chin toward their potential overhead door. "Do it!"
Gabrielle hesitated, not exactly prepared for victory. She and Argo might’ve bonded a little over Xena’s welfare, but weren’t exactly pals. They barely spoke the same language, let alone were on conversational terms. For all she knew, Xena could be right. Argo might be off –.
"What’re you waitin’ for? Argo to get here telepathically?"
Two sets of eyeballs popped out.
"Argo? Is that you, girl?"
"Argo!" Gabrielle clapped her hands. "Argo, Xena’s hurt! We need you to …."
Something appeared at the opening. Slowly the circular edge of coiled rope slid into the hole, its weight tipping it over and down to unravel into a single, thick strand dangling a few feet above the rock Gabrielle had originally landed on. The women looked at each other. The shorter one scrambled up the rock and balanced on her tiptoes to grab the rope. It pulled up and nearly out of her hand.
"No, Argo! Not yet!" Gabrielle smirked as the rope inched down again. She shimmied back to the ground.
"What’re you doing?"
"You’re going first."
"You know I go last."
"Not this time, Warrior Princess. Not with that bad arm."
"Gabrielllle. I’m perfectly capable of –."
"Right. Now get over here. Not enough room for both of us. I’ll give you a boost up. You’re on your own after that, if it makes you feel any better. "
"What about our stuff? We can’t –."
"I’ll tie the rope around it once you’re up. Now quit stalling."
"See, even Argo agrees with me."
Teeth gritted, Xena ripped the bandage off her head. "Wouldn’t want Argo thinking I’m a complete invalid," she muttered, her pride grudgingly giving in to good sense.
Xena leaned against Argo, enjoying the view of Gabrielle enjoying the view. "I think she likes it," she whispered to the Palomino.
Gabrielle slowly pivoted for a panoramic sampling of scenic delights. From their vantage point she could easily take in the plateau they’d left over a week ago. Most of the snow had melted, though the lake’s thin skin of ice did not yet reflect the season budding around it, welcomed instead by a white- and yellow-dotted carpet of greens. Farther away, silvery ribbons streamed down a wall of rock and foliage.
She turned to walk a few feet in the opposite direction. The sun bathed a large meadow below. A combination of kinder weather and terrain had already invited in a medley of birds and colorful wild flowers. She surveyed the area where they stood – a flat, grassy, relatively small oasis with rock on the north side and the sloping forest they’d ascended through on the south. A purple sprig caught her eye. She crouched to admire it. She clutched a small bit to her chest when she straightened to gaze at clouds floating above
Gabrielle recalled their rather strained confinement to a cave not far from Xena’s plunge through the earth. The warrior had insisted they keep traveling, promising sights lay ahead that would make up for recent disappointments. Gabrielle insisted her injured friend needed more time to recuperate. Argo eventually settled the matter by developing a slight limp. Gabrielle smugly – but silently – noted the horse conveniently "recovered" about the same time the pain lines on Xena’s forehead went away. Shortly thereafter, they’d set out again. The day’s journey to this spot had been quiet but pleasant enough.
"I’d say it was definitely worth the trip." Gabrielle smiled at her friend. "Maybe we could camp here a couple days? Instead of heading back to the plateau?"
"Sure, don’t see why not." Xena strolled across to the other side. "We could even spend some time wallowing around down there first, if you want."
Gabrielle came to stand beside Xena, surprised not to see the smirk she’d expected. "Um, yes, that would be nice." She frowned as Xena continued staring at the meadow as though anticipating it would change somehow. "You sure? You won’t get bored going so long without butts to kick?"
Xena glanced at Gabrielle, then focused on the meadow again. "I can always practice on those plants. You know – whack their little heads off before they bloom?"
"Xena?" Gabrielle detected a bitter edge to the warrior’s humor. "Is everything …. Did I say something wrong?"
"Of course not!" Xena let out a long breath, immediately regretting her surge of impatience. She lay her hand on her friend’s shoulder. "No, it’s not you. I’m sorry you ever think it’s you. I’m fine. Maybe a little hungry," she said, patting her stomach. "Bet you are too."
Gabrielle grinned. "Of course I am."
"Uh huh. I’ll gather some wood. That oughtta occupy me awhile, with one hand and all. Why don’t you whip up something for lunch?"
"Okay." Gabrielle watched the older woman walk away, a slight tension evident in her stride. She looked down again at the meadow. It appeared the same as before – sunny, bountiful with the season’s promise. She wondered what Xena had seen. Whatever it was, it must not’ve been as pretty.
The stars emerging from the dusk seemed close enough to touch, the moon within reach of a finger to outline its fullness. Gabrielle closed her eyes and extended her arm toward the heavens. She imagined a cool surface, smooth save a few bumps here and there. A fiery core beneath a translucent layer strong enough to contain the heat while freeing the light. Kind of like Xena. She withdrew her hand and pulled her furs tighter against the chill. She scooted around to face her silent companion.
"Mm." The warrior quickly dropped her solemn observation of Gabrielle’s profile, to the sword she had propped against her injured arm. She picked up her polishing cloth.
"This is even better than that plateau."
"We didn’t exactly get to enjoy it. Ground should be much drier when we go back. Me, I’m lookin’ forward to a nice, cold dip in the lake. My injured wing should be ready for some light exercise by then."
Gabrielle snorted. "Like you haven’t already given it a work out." She looked into the distance. "But I meant more … the perspective. Kind of a bird’s-eye view. Down there – like when we were plodding through the snow? – it can sometimes get overwhelming. From here, it’s so much smaller. So free and open. See?" she asked, circling her arms, as if around the scene below. "Not so intimidating. More manageable, even for me."
Xena draped the polishing cloth over her sword. "Gabrielle, you do just fine in the thick of things. You needn’t doubt yourself so much."
"Doubt myself?" Gabrielle frowned, puzzled. "Well, sure, I know I get in the way sometimes. I’ve got a lot to learn." She grinned. "But with you around, what’s to worry?"
"People don’t usually have nightmares about what’s not worrying them."
"Night- …. Oh." Gabrielle got up to stir the rabbit stew simmering over their fire. "I told you – probably old history. Or maybe I ate that dried beef too fast."
"Gabrielle?" Xena waited for her companion’s attention. "I tell myself I can keep you from harm. I have confidence you’ll do your part. But being with me …. There’s more to it than that. There’s …."
Xena sighed. Her jaw tightened. "I don’t want you becoming like me." She put her hand up to nip any protest. "I see it already, Gabrielle. I see you looking for the bad, expecting trouble. Enjoying it sometimes. It’s hard enough getting used to a life like this. I don’t want it bleeding into your dreams – your ideals, your peace of mind. I couldn’t take that. You couldn’t either."
Gabrielle came over to sit across from Xena. "I … I’m not sure how to say this …."
Xena snorted. "You’re the bard bug, remember? Just say it."
Gabrielle sighed, for once regretting her reputation for words. "Okay, I wasn’t really dreaming about childhood monsters."
Xena nodded. "It was ones you’ve faced since me."
"Maybe, but not the way you think." Gabrielle pulled up her knees and wrapped her arms around them. "I love being with you. It hasn’t changed who I am inside. If I like what you do – what we do – it’s because, deep down, that’s what I wanted. I just didn’t have a chance to find out before."
Xena shook her head. "Come on, Gabrielle. Did you really picture cheering on somebody who hurts people? Maybe hurting people yourself?"
"I pictured …. making a difference somehow. I’m cheering on somebody who helps people, who gives me the chance to do that too. I’m not afraid that’ll change. I’m not afraid of being hurt. I’m not afraid of learning to live with how I might hurt one person, trying to help another. The only hurt that … worries … me is … yours."
Xena swallowed. "That … I’ll … hurt you?"
"No, no, not at all!" Gabrielle scooted closer. "I meant the …." She cringed a little at what she was about to say. And the stoic warrior’s possible reaction. "Um, the hurt … inside …you."
The warrior settled back against her log, but otherwise remained expressionless. "Go on."
"I know you’ve been through a lot. Things you’d like to forget. You keep going, strong and determined like it’s not there." Gabrielle lowered her head. "Every now and then it … comes out … anyway."
Xena’s eyes narrowed. "Comes out? What exactly are you saying?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "The other day, after you fell? You were kind of out of it for a while. You said you were cold, but didn’t want me starting a fire. You mumbled something about flesh burning. The … smell." She caught Xena’s sharp inhale but forged ahead. "You said, ‘Too bad.’ That if you couldn’t stop … something …."
"I’m not sure. But either it would kill you or … or you’d want to die."
"That’s what your nightmare was about? Gods." Xena closed her eyes. "And here all I’ve worried about is protecting you when I’m awake." She snorted. "Or from others when you’re asleep."
Gabrielle leaned forward, bracing herself on one of the warrior’s outstretched legs. "Xena, please, don’t blame yourself for –."
"Have I …. Have you had dreams like that before?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Don’t worry. Nobody’s better at keeping secrets. If it wasn’t for that bump on your head – ."
"What did you see?"
"In your nightmare. What did you see?"
"Xena, I don’t really remember …." Gabrielle bit her lip, not sure how to take the warrior’s intense stillness. "I … um … remember a big scary shadow. Chasing you, like it wanted to swallow you up. A voice kept repeating, ‘Too bad, too bad.’ I couldn’t tell if it was the shadow or … you."
"Mostly you kept running."
"And when I wasn’t running?"
"You stopped. Once with your back to it, once turning to face it." Gabrielle lowered her head. "I wanted it to stop, but not you," she acknowledged softly. "I didn’t want you listening to it, maybe getting eaten alive. I don’t …. I didn’t want you to … die."
Xena studied her companion a long moment. "In your own way, you shared one of my worst nightmares. I’m sorry for that, Gabrielle, and always will be." She saw tears welling up in her friend’s eyes. "I’m also grateful, in more ways than you know." She leaned forward and lightly grasped Gabrielle’s chin. "Took guts to tell me that. Thank you."
"Whew!" Gabrielle wiped her cheeks. "So, no squishing bard bugs tonight?"
Xena chuckled. "Not for that anyway. Never know what else they might get into."
"Oooo, not this one. She’s gonna be so quiet you’ll think she turned into a bed bug. Except …," she amended, sniffing the air, "to say, ‘Supper’s ready!’"
"Mmmm." Gabrielle snuggled deeper into her furs. The early morning sun and crisp air coaxed her to keep her eyes closed a minute longer. Finally she eased them open. She rolled her head to the left, quite prepared to find the adjoining bedroll bodiless. It did surprise her to discover what the body in question was doing. She rose and walked to the side facing the meadow. "Hi," she said, dropping down next to Xena.
Gabrielle smiled at Xena’s profile, then followed the older woman’s gaze. "It’s really beautiful, huh?"
"A brook, forest, probably decent soil for vegetables. Not a bad place to settle in."
"Mmhm. Maybe even start a village."
"Wonder why …. Maybe a little too remote?" She bumped shoulders with Xena. "Not everybody is as adventurous as us."
"Actually, there was a little village here once."
"Yeah? You know what …." Gabrielle didn’t need to finish her question, as Xena faced her with the answer in her eyes.
"I’d underestimated an enemy’s strength." Xena stared out again. "We retreated through the mountains, the way you and I came up. We were pretty nicked up, low on rations. By the time we made it here, that valley looked like the Elysian Fields. Maybe it was, before I came."
"What happened?" Gabrielle probed softly.
Xena shrugged. "Our hosts weren’t ecstatic to see us. I told them we wouldn’t hurt them, just wanted to replenish our supplies. They didn’t believe me. Said they’d rather have nothing, than give it to us. I didn’t believe them. We searched around. Found the usual carving knives, chopping axes – no real weapons. I stationed a guard in each home anyway. Didn’t want them plotting to poison us or something."
"They still found a way?"
Gabrielle got a queasy feeling. It occurred to her that Xena might be reliving one of the nightmares she revealed back in the chasm. "You … punished … them? Destroyed –."
"Not that time." The warrior smiled sadly at Gabrielle before turning away. "Seems I’d underestimated them too. They did what they promised. What we never expected. Hours after we turned in, they set fire to their homes. While we tried to keep it from spreading to the storage huts, they torched their crops."
"Oh, Xena. Did some of them die? In the flames?"
Xena shook her head. "The guards must’ve been asleep. Most got trapped inside. The rest of us couldn’t stop it. When dawn broke, we sat there exhausted, stunned.
We saved what we brought with us, but true to their word, the villagers left us nothing besides scorched earth. They’d vanished like they’d never been there, probably to the mountains."
The two gazed out silently, Gabrielle’s head on Xena’s shoulder, her hand covering the larger one clawed in the dirt.
"My own men. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the …. They weren’t innocents. I figured they’d die by the sword – maybe mine. But they were under my orders. My responsibility. Back then I pushed it down. Chalked it up to the usual hazards of the job. Made light of it. ‘Too bad,’ I told them. ‘Fools wouldn’t listen. The lesson is, stay alert. And pick sensible victims.’"
"And … now?"
"Their screams, their burning flesh are mixed in with the innocents who deserve caring about." Xena snorted. "Talk about ‘overwhelming.’" She looked at Gabrielle with eyes now open to puzzlement and pain. "You don’t think that scares me too?"
"Not at first." Gabrielle smiled wryly. "Too caught up in my ‘nothing ever gets to the Warrior Princess’ haze." She squeezed Xena’s hand. "I do now."
Xena’s mouth quirked in acknowledgement of Gabrielle’s understanding. She sighed. "Truth is, I’m not sure I really knew myself. I think I’ve been running from it, more afraid to admit it was there. I used to embrace it. Took it as proof I was as bad as my reputation. Made it into my armor, a weapon against anyone hoping I’d show weakness or mercy."
"But you’re not like that anymore."
"Question is, can I afford that. This …. This ‘new’ me. I’m supposed to be this invincible force for good, right? Gabrielle, learning to live with a conscience …. This new me is like …." Xena shivered. "Like a babe in the woods."
"Gods. I’d never …. I didn’t …."
"I think that’s what you saw, in your nightmare. Me not hiding from or dismissing the past – all I’ve done. If I run, I’ll be running forever. Looking over my shoulder when I should be focused on what’s in front of me."
"If you stop?"
"Maybe I’ve given up, given in to it. Could mean I am – or I’ll become – too bad to stop."
"What about when you turned around? You know, to face it?"
Xena chuckled humorlessly. "Why do you think I was in my underwear the first time we met? It wasn’t `cause I was laundering my leathers in the dirt. I’d seen what I’d become, wanted nothing to do with the ‘old’ me anymore. Either way, the darkness could overtake me. If it’s because I surrendered, I’d deserve to die. If I fought it but couldn’t stand looking at it everyday …."
"No!" Gabrielle pulled Xena around to face her. "Look at me! What do you see?"
"What do you see?"
"Gabrielle, what in Tartarus …." Comprehension dawned in Xena’s eyes. She sucked in her cheeks. "I see a stubborn, crazy kid, secretly attracted to things that go bump in the night, without the good sense to be afraid."
"Right." Gabrielle smirked. "And if you stick with me, that’s what you’ll see for a long, long time. Behind you, in front of you, on either side – whether you’re running, stopping, sleeping, fighting, or whatever."
"I don’t recall you mentioning yourself in that nightmare."
Gabrielle pursed her lips. "It’s assumed. I told it, didn’t I? A bard doesn’t have to mention herself, to be there in her stories."
"Ah, guess I’ve got a lot to learn about that too."
"Not to worry." Gabrielle patted Xena’s hand. "You’re more teachable than you think."
The warrior rolled her eyes. "Ditto."
"Why, thank you," Gabrielle responded brightly. "Does that mean I can be more like you? Without you worrying I’ll be more like you?"
Xena scowled. "Don’t push it. Besides, if this morning’s any indication, I’d say you’re rubbing off on me, as much as the other way around."
"Yeah?" Gabrielle frowned. "Is that a good thing? I mean, can you afford it – the ‘new’ you?"
"This trip?" Xena looked into the distance. "It was supposed to show you something else besides trouble and me kicking butt. Instead, I got a different … perspective, seeing things more through your eyes. On myself. On what I live with, take for granted. Don’t particularly like to reflect on very much. Kind of like a looking glass." Xena smiled at Gabrielle a little shyly. "Not just of the me I show, but into my …. Well, you know."
Gabrielle bit her lip, misty eyed. "And you say you’re not good with words."
"I’m not done yet," Xena continued with mock gruffness. "There’s that ‘may look rosier than really is’ feature I have to be cautious about. But overall," she said, laying her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, "I’m willing to trust the me I see in you."
Gabrielle grasped the warrior’s hand. "Then this trip really was worth taking." She got up and threw a kiss to the morning’s sky. "Know what? I think we’ve spent enough time up here. I’m ready to revisit that formerly troublesome plateau of yours."
"Too bad." Xena remained where she was, gazing at the meadow.
"Too bad? You said it should be fine now. Thought you wanted to …." Gabrielle studied her partner’s back, beginning to wonder if maybe they hadn’t sufficiently dispelled recently materialized ghosts from the past.
"Too bad you’re hyped to go in that direction. You haven’t been down this side yet. Dew glistening everywhere. Baby birds chirping. Flora shooting up. Your kind of place all right. Come to think of it," Xena said, tossing Gabrielle a lop-sided grin, "looks new to me too." She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply before resuming her observation of the meadow. "I’d almost forgotten the scent of spring in bloom."
Gabrielle came up behind to give her friend a hug. "You know, for a soft-hearted ex-warlord, you may be too bad after all."
"Heh, better save affectionate sarcasm for your new four-legged friend," Xena teased giving the arms around her a squeeze. She got up and headed for the other side. "Speaking of which, she must be somewhere having as much fun as us. Probably quieter," she amended, cutting her eyes at Gabrielle. "She’ll come lookin’ for us when it’s time."
"Hey, you’re the one with the ‘sensitive’ connection to her. Whatsamatter? It short circuit?"
Gabrielle giggled. "No, I just believe it’s more likely we’ll be following her."
Xena snorted. "Sure hope your loyalty to me lasts longer than it did for Argo." She continued her one-handed attempt to roll her furs into a decent shape. "Hey, could use a little help with this, Healer Bug." Hearing more giggling, she glanced over her shoulder. "What’s so funny? You enjoying my hour of need? Humph, I’d better warn Argo about your dark side. Probably fooled her into thinking –."
"C’mere." When Xena grumpily joined her, Gabrielle pointed to the golden Palomino frolicking in the tall grass below. "See? A few gallops ahead of her humans. I’m gettin’ pretty good at that telepathy thing, huh?"
"Very comforting. I feel better already."
"Mm. Incredible luck for a do-good ex-warlord." Xena raised a brow at her horse, then at her friend. "Traveling companions scarier than even me."