Xena was aware of very little after that. Sliding in and out of consciousness, she fell gradually forward until her head hung down over Argo's neck, her dark hair mingling with the cream of the mare's mane. The fog seemed to be drawing her a little deeper each time she entered it, drawing her onward, toward what, she did not know. But Gabrielle, meanwhile, kept up a constant stream of words which, like a lifeline, gave her something to hang onto and pulled her back into the world.
"Stay with me, Xena," Gabrielle pleaded. "Don't give up now. Be strong for just a little while longer. I know you can do it; you've always been so strong and brave. I can't let you go; I need you too much. And the world needs you, too. It's not your time to die. I can feel it, the same as I felt it before. I love you, Xena, and I don't want to lose you. Don't die. Please, don't die."
Struggling out of the fog at one point, Xena pushed herself partway up and looked back at Gabrielle. "Keep . . . talking," she panted. "I need . . . to hear . . . your voice."
The younger woman leaned forward to brush the hair back from Xena's face. "I'll keep talking just as long as you need me to," she said. "I'm not going to let you die. I told you that before and I mean it."
After that, there were only fragments--bits of light breaking through the gray curtain now and then, like mismatched pearls strung together by the sound of Gabrielle's voice. Time seemed to stand still, or at best, to repeat itself endlessly as Argo continued her slow, torturous journey down the mountain.
"Xena, can you hear me? Wake up! I need you to sit up for a minute." Gabrielle's hands were shaking her urgently, pulling her up, and reluctantly, Xena opened her eyes. "There's a man coming up the trail," Gabrielle said. "An older man, with short gray hair. Do you see him? Is it Elkton?"
Xena looked in the direction Gabrielle was pointing, but everything around seemed to be a sea of grayness. "Can't . . . see," she said. "Too much . . . fog."
"Fog? You said something about fog before. Is it getting worse?"
"Thicker . . . can't see . . . much."
Then, as if from a great distance, Xena heard a man's voice calling their names.
"He's calling to us! Can you hear him?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes. It's . . . Elkton."
Gabrielle sat up straighter and began to wave. "Elkton!" she cried. "Elkton! Help us, please!"
A few moments later, he was standing at Argo's right side, breathing heavily from the exertion of climbing. Xena could see him now, although his features appeared oddly smudged.
"What happened?" he asked, looking first at the warrior and then at Gabrielle.
"Xena was bitten by the serpent, and she's been getting sicker ever since last night. Her heartbeat is weak and she can hardly breathe."
"Where is the bite?"
"It's here, on her arm," Gabrielle said, pulling Xena's cloak back. "Right above her elbow."
Elkton took her arm in his hands for a moment and studied the fang marks. "Your arm is paralyzed?" he asked, looking up at Xena.
"We thought the bite would just affect her arm, but--" Gabrielle broke off.
"I know," said Elkton, as he gently released Xena's arm. "That's what I told her would happen. It's all that was revealed in my vision. But the venom has spread into the rest of her body. It's slowly paralyzing her heart and lungs." He shook his head. "I knew that something had gone wrong, but I wasn't sure what. That's why I came up the trail to meet you." He looked at Xena again. "Did you kill the serpent?"
"Yes," she whispered. "I got . . . the leaves . . ." She closed her eyes as the mist swirled through her mind again, and only Gabrielle's arms kept her from falling.
"She strangled the serpent and fed me the leaves, and that broke the spell," Gabrielle said, finishing Xena's story.
"So you're all right now, Gabrielle? You have your memories back?" said Elkton.
"Yes, I'm fine, but we've got to help Xena. We can't let her die! Please, Elkton! Please tell me you know some way to save her!"
The urgency in Gabrielle's voice pulled Xena back into consciousness again, but she felt very little interest in Elkton's reply.
"I had another dream vision last night," he said, looking up at Gabrielle, "and in it there were two women. One of them was very sick and the other one healed her. Now I know that I was being shown the way to drive the poison out of Xena's body." Gabrielle gasped in relief, but Elkton held up his hand to stop her from speaking. "Unfortunately, Xena has already grown very weak. I just hope--" He stopped and looked away.
"You just hope what?"
He looked at the young woman again. "I just hope it's not too late," he finished sadly.
"No!" cried Gabrielle. "Don't say that! Xena is very strong! She's managed to stay alive all night and all the way down this mountain. Don't tell me it's too late!"
"I pray with all my heart that it's not," he said. "We'll do everything we can to save her, and we both know that if anyone can survive this, it's Xena." Then he laid a hand on the warrior's leg and looked up at her. "You must be strong for a little while longer," he said. "We will do everything we can for you."
He turned to Gabrielle. "I'll go ahead to get things ready," he said. "Come as quickly as you can."
"We will," the bard said. "How much farther is it?"
"Not too far--maybe half a league," he said and then hurried away.
Gabrielle picked up the reins. "Did you hear that, Xena? You're going to be all right," she said with a smile in her voice. "You just have to hang on a little bit longer. I knew Elkton could help us. I just knew somehow that he could."
Xena tried to listen, but her own labored breathing was soon the only sound she could hear. Feeling totally exhausted in body and spirit, she slowly slumped forward once more over the fur-wrapped saddlehorn, and all sensation vanished.
* * *
She came to again when she felt hands pushing at her, shaking and lifting her.
"I'll hold her while you untie the rope," she heard Gabrielle say, then she opened her eyes to see Elkton fumbling with the knots at her waist.
"Are you awake?" Gabrielle asked softly as Xena leaned back against her.
"Uh-huh," the warrior mumbled.
"We made it. We're at Elkton's house. You're going to be all right now."
Then they were pulling her down off of Argo and, one on either side, they half carried, half dragged her into the house.
"Over there, on that pallet in front of the fire," Elkton said, and they lowered her onto it. "Keep her sitting up for a minute, if you can," he added.
"Okay," said Gabrielle. Then, quickly taking off her cloak, she knelt beside Xena and put a supporting arm around her shoulders.
Moving to the fireplace, Elkton peered into a small pot that hung over the embers. He stirred the contents for a moment, then poured the steaming red liquid into a wooden bowl, which he set on the floor beside the pallet. After that, he crouched down in front of Xena and put a hand on her shoulder. "This potion will help strengthen you," he said, "so you need to drink it all. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Xena said.
"She's been having a lot of trouble drinking things without choking," Gabrielle said.
Elkton regarded the warrior for a moment, and his nearness made it easy for her to see the lines of worry on his face, the deep compassion in his eyes. "Just do the best you can," he said, "but it would help if you could drink it all. I'm hoping it will give you enough strength to get through this."
"Through what, Elkton?" asked Gabrielle. "How are you going to get the poison out of her system?"
Elkton rose and stood looking at the bard. "I'm not going to do it," he said quietly. "You are."
"I am?" she asked in surprise, staring up at him. "But I don't know how to do anything like that!"
"You'll be able to do this . . . if anyone can," he said with a quiet smile. "I'll explain everything in a minute. For right now, have Xena drink the potion, then get all her clothes off and have her lie down. You can cover her with that sheepskin," he said, pointing to the cover that lay folded nearby. "I'll go unsaddle your horse and put her in the barn. Call me as soon as you're ready."
It seemed to Xena that it would take her forever to drink all of the potion. She took small sips, but still had to stop frequently to cough. The red liquid started to affect her almost immediately, though, creating a warm, tingly sensation that spread rapidly through her body. In a short time, the fog began to clear from her mind and it seemed easier to breathe. "This is . . . good stuff," she said to Gabrielle.
"Is it helping?"
"Yeah. I feel . . . a little stronger. Not like . . . passing out . . . all the time."
"Good," Gabrielle said. She set the bowl aside, unfastened Xena's cloak, and took it off of her. Then she gently brushed back the hair from the warrior's forehead. "You're starting to perspire. You must be warming up."
"It's . . . the potion. It feels . . . warm inside."
"There's just a little bit left," Gabrielle said, picking up the bowl again. "Can you finish it?"
Xena nodded. When she was done, Gabrielle unlaced her leathers and helped her slip out of them and her undergarment. Then the warrior stretched out on her back on the pallet and closed her eyes. It felt so very good to lie down.
"Xena," Gabrielle said as she spread the sheepskin over her, "I don't know what's going to be involved in getting you well, but whatever it is, I'll do it. I'm not going to let you die."
"I know," Xena whispered. She opened her eyes and gazed into the intense green of Gabrielle's. Reaching out, she squeezed the younger woman's hand. She really did feel better. Not good, but a little better, anyway. Maybe she would survive after all. "Go get . . . Elkton," she said.
Gabrielle went away and returned a couple of minutes later with the Mystic. Sitting down cross-legged on the floor next to Xena, the bard took the warrior's hand in both of hers. Elkton carried a small stool over and set it near Xena's feet.
"I'd sit on the floor if I thought these old bones could tolerate it," he said with a small grin as he seated himself. "But I know for a fact that they won't." He looked at Gabrielle for a moment and then at Xena. "How are you doing?" he asked the warrior in a gentle voice.
"Yes," he said, nodding. "Your breathing sounds a little less labored and you look more alert. I mixed the potion as strong as I dared. I'm glad it's helping you."
"What do we do now?" asked Gabrielle.
"Now comes the hard part," he responded. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and fixed his gaze on Gabrielle. "There is only one way to drive the poison out of Xena's body," he said, "and that is with love. That's why this ritual--or whatever you want to call it--has to be done by someone who loves her very deeply."
"I love Xena with all my heart," Gabrielle said, squeezing the warrior's hand tightly, "and I'll do anything to save her, including giving up my own life."
"Well, I don't think it will come to that, anyway," Elkton said with a sad smile. Then he fell silent for a few moments, gazing down at his hands. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances and waited for him to continue.
"This is a little hard for me to talk about," he said finally, and shifted uncomfortably. Then he looked up again and took a deep breath. "As I told you earlier, I saw two women in my vision," he said. "One was very sick, and the other was healing her. I thought these two women must represent the two of you, but I didn't know for sure which one was sick."
"How did the one woman heal the other?" asked Gabrielle.
"Ah. That's the strange part. She did it by--" Elkton hesitated and colored slightly. "She did it by making love to the other woman."
"By making love?" Gabrielle asked in surprise, glancing first at Xena and then turning a puzzled gaze on the Mystic.
"Yes. And after I found out that Xena had been bitten, I understood what needed to be done. Gabrielle, you must make love to Xena. You must make her feel your love all the way through her body, so that the venom will be pushed out. She needs to feel--" he stopped, apparently embarrassed, and looked from Gabrielle to Xena. "She needs to feel the full . . . pleasure . . . of love," he finished, almost in a whisper. "Do you understand what I mean?"
"Yes, I think so," Gabrielle said uncertainly, "but--" She looked at Xena and the warrior could see the fear in her eyes. "She's so sick," Gabrielle said, turning back to Elkton. "I don't know if I can-- If she can--"
"That's why I said it might be too late," Elkton said gently. "But this is the only way I know of to counteract the effects of the venom." He paused for a moment, and then went on. "I'll give you the rest of the instructions and then I'll leave you two to talk about it. If you decide it's not possible to do this now, with the poison so advanced, then I will understand." He turned to look at Xena, his eyes full of compassion. "We will make you as comfortable as possible," he said, his voice edged with emotion, "and we'll be here with you . . . when you cross over."
Xena smiled softly. "You're a . . . good friend . . . Elkton," she said.
For several moments after that, the room was silent, except for the crackling of the fire and the sound of Xena's ragged breathing. Then Elkton stirred and turned to Gabrielle again. "When the venom leaves her body," he said quietly, "it will come out through the skin, like sweat. You must wipe it off with these rags and then throw the rags into the fire. All of the venom must be burned."
Gabrielle nodded. Xena felt her lover's hands trembling and saw her eyes go to the large pile of rags near the fireplace.
"Some of the venom will return to the place on Xena's arm where it first entered her body," Elkton went on. "When enough of it has collected there, you can cut her arm and let it drain out. I've put a knife here for you, and a wooden basin. Pour the venom into the fire, and when you're finished, burn the basin. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Gabrielle whispered.
"I'll be right outside the door there. If you have any questions or need my help in any way, just call me." He was silent for a moment, then added. "I will pray to the gods, and ask them to help you--both of you."
"Just make sure Ares isn't involved in any way," Gabrielle said, looking at Elkton with a cynical smile.
The Mystic smiled back. "There will be no supplications to Ares," he said. "Except that he stay well out of this!"
"Elkton," Xena said then, and waited for him to turn toward her. "Thank you for . . . helping me . . . get Gabrielle back." She stopped to catch her breath. "That was the most . . . important thing. . . no matter what else . . . happens."
Elkton pressed his lips together and looked at her sadly. "Xena, I hope this story will have a happy ending, but if not--" His voice broke and he stopped to take a deep breath. "I just want to tell you how much I admire you for your courage and strength. It's an honor to know that you consider me a friend."
She nodded and tried to smile.
He rose stiffly from his stool and stood looking down at them for a moment. "The gods be with you," he said, then laid his hand on Gabrielle's head and added, "Remember to call me if you need anything."
"Thanks, Elkton, I will," Gabrielle said.
After that, he crossed the room with a heavy step and went out the door.
* * *
Xena lay watching Gabrielle, who sat motionless, staring at nothing, still holding the warrior's hand pressed between her own. The bard's face revealed much of the uncertainty and fear she was apparently feeling, but there was a determined set to her jaw that Xena knew well. After a few moments, Gabrielle lifted Xena's hand and laid her cheek against it, then kissed it. "Well," she said, raising her eyes to meet the warrior's, "we've never made love on command before."
"No," said Xena softly. "Gabrielle, I don't know if--"
"We're going to do this, Xena," the young woman interrupted. "We have to get the venom out of your system, and if this is what it takes, then we'll do it."
"Gabrielle, if this . . . doesn't work . . . I don't want you . . . to blame yourself."
"I won't. I promise."
"I just don't feel very . . . sexual . . . right now."
Gabrielle reached out to caress Xena's cheek. "I know, Sweetheart, but we've got to try, anyway," she said. "We can't give up. I can't bear to lose you; I love you too much. Please say you'll try."
"I'll try," Xena whispered, and squeezed Gabrielle's hand.
"Good. Then we'll do it. I'm just afraid that--"
"That if we really do it, it will be too much for your heart, and you'll--" She stopped.
"If that happens," Xena said with a weak grin, "then I'll die . . . a happy woman."
Gabrielle smiled a sad smile and stretched out on her stomach beside Xena. Propping herself on her elbows, she gently brushed the hair back from Xena's face and gazed into her eyes for several long moments. "I love you so much," she whispered, then leaned down to kiss the warrior's forehead, eyelids, and cheeks.
Gabrielle's lips felt warm and tender, and Xena reached up to pull her lover closer. But when she closed her eyes and tried to savor the sweetness of the kisses, she saw only the image of Gabrielle's face, etched with fear and grief. Then the bard's mouth gently covered her own, the tongue slipping in between her teeth. It was the kind of kiss Xena usually loved, but now, suddenly, her only thought was that her source of air had been cut off. Panicking, she pulled away abruptly, turning her head to the side. "I can't breathe!" she gasped.
"Oh, Xena, I'm so sorry!" Gabrielle said quickly, laying her hand on the warrior's cheek. "I don't know what I was thinking. Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm-- I just need--" She closed her eyes in a effort to get her breathing back under control. But fear seemed to have gained a stranglehold on her throat, and for several moments it was difficult to force air in and out.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said again, and Xena felt her lover's soft caresses on her forehead and cheeks. She opened her eyes to see the bard watching her intently, and she smiled, hoping to relieve some of the worry she saw on Gabrielle's face.
"I'm . . . better now," she murmured.
"Good," said Gabrielle, lightly touching the tip of Xena's nose. "Okay, we'll start over again, and this time we'll leave out the kissing on the mouth part. But don't worry," she added with a grin, "I have many skills."
Xena smiled weakly and laid a finger on Gabrielle's lips. The younger woman put her hand over Xena's, drew the finger into her mouth and sucked it for a moment. Then, reaching down, she pulled the sheepskin back to uncover the warrior's breasts and abdomen. Xena closed her eyes again as she felt Gabrielle's hand on her breast, the fingers circling and teasing the nipple. Her flesh responded, the nipple hardening and tightening, but she felt none of the excitement that usually accompanied this act.
Gabrielle's tongue was caressing her now, warm and soft, the lips closing around her nipple, pulling and sucking it. Xena opened her eyes and stared up at the thatched roof, willing herself to feel the pleasure of arousal, but she could not. Instead, the cold hand of fear tightened inside of her. She had not been afraid to die until this minute, but now she realized that she feared dying like this, unable to respond to Gabrielle's best efforts to save her. And, more than that, she feared the heavy burden of guilt she knew her lover would place upon herself.
Xena felt Gabrielle's hand move down over her abdomen and then slide between her legs. Refocusing her thoughts, she tried to put her fears aside and think only of the pleasure she knew Gabrielle could give her. But try as she might, she could feel no pleasure. Instead, she felt only the panic as it started rising within her again. Her life depended on having an orgasm now, and yet she had never felt so far from having one. The rasp of her breathing sounded loud in her ears, and each breath now began to feel as if it might be her last. Wisps of fog reappeared, floating across her field of vision, and she could no longer feel Gabrielle touching her. With a sudden cry of frustration, she pushed the bard's hand away.
"Xena, what is it?" Gabrielle asked in a frightened voice. "Did I hurt you? You're trembling all over."
"I'm sorry," Xena managed to choke out. "I just can't . . . do this. It's not . . . working. I . . . can't feel . . . anything."
"Can't feel anything? Do you mean you feel numb?"
"No . . . not numb." She stared at Gabrielle, not knowing how to explain the terror that seemed about to strangle her.
"You just can't feel . . . pleasure? Is that it?"
Gabrielle looked away, staring at the fire, pressing the back of her hand hard against her mouth. But after a few moments, she turned to Xena again. "I think the reason this isn't working is that we're both too scared," she said. "I'm scared of losing you, and you're scared of-- Well, I'm not sure what you're scared of, but I can feel the fear and tension in your body." She leaned down and gently touched Xena's face. "What is it, Sweetheart? Are you afraid of dying?"
"No, not of . . . dying."
Xena hesitated. "I'm afraid you . . . will blame yourself . . . if I die," she said softly.
Gabrielle didn't answer, and Xena turned her eyes away for a moment, not wanting to see the anguish in her lover's eyes. Then, biting her lip, she looked back again. "Just . . . let me go, Gabrielle," she pleaded. "Please. I'm not . . . in pain. It's not . . . such a bad way . . . to die." She saw a tear slide down Gabrielle's cheek and reached out to brush it away. "It's . . . not your fault," she went on, still struggling for breath. "The venom is . . . too strong. I . . . can't fight anymore. . . . I'm too tired." Another tear fell, but still her lover didn't speak. "Just . . . stay with me," Xena finished. "Hold me. It won't be . . . very long."
With a muffled sob, Gabrielle laid her head on the warrior's chest and wrapped an arm around her. Xena gently stroked the red-gold hair, feeling the wetness of Gabrielle's tears on her skin. For a time, neither of them spoke, but then Xena said, "I love you . . . Gabrielle. I don't want to . . . leave you. You're . . . my family . . . my best friend . . . my lover . . ." She stopped as she felt her own tears starting, trickling silently out of the corners of her eyes.
Gabrielle raised her head and looked at Xena. Her face was still wet from crying, but there was a calmness in her eyes which hadn't been there before. "You're right, Xena," she said quietly. "I have to let you go." She swallowed hard. "It's just so hard to do," she ended in a whisper. Reaching out, she smoothed the hair back from the warrior's face. "You're crying, too, aren't you?" she asked.
With gentle fingers, she wiped away the tears, and then touched her lips briefly to Xena's. "There's something I want to do before you cross over," she said softly. "I want to make love to you."
"Shh," she said quickly, stopping Xena's protest. "I want to make love to you, and I don't want it to be because I have to, but because I want to. Because I want to touch you one last time. It's kind of a selfish thing, I guess. But it's also a gift I want to give you. I want you to die knowing how much I love you, and feeling it with your body. I want you to-- Well, remember how you said you'd die a happy woman if you died while we were making love?"
"I want to give you that happiness . . . if there's any way I can. Please, Xena. Let me do this for you. Let me give you this one last gift."
Xena stared at her. Was Gabrielle trying to trick her into another attempt to get rid of the venom? Or was this really what she said it was--a final gift to her dying lover? Xena knew she was past being able to respond in any way at this point, but if it comforted Gabrielle to touch her again, then what could be the harm?
"All right," Xena said quietly.
"Really? You're sure? You'll let me do this for you?"
"Thank you," Gabrielle breathed and then she smiled softly. Taking Xena's hand, she held it against her chest for a moment. "Now," she said, "I want you to close your eyes and try to relax. You don't have to fight anymore. All your battles are over." Her voice started to break, and she stopped to take a few deep breaths.
Xena lay looking at her, unwilling to close her eyes and lose what might be her last sight of the face she loved so much.
Gabrielle's eyes met hers and held for several moments. "Close your eyes, Love," she said finally. "I need you to relax. I'll be right here beside you, talking to you and touching you. You won't be alone. And my love will always be with you . . . even on the other side." She reached out and laid her hand over Xena's eyes. "Close your eyes now and let go. Stop fighting. Let your body relax."
The warrior sighed softly as she felt the tension slowly begin to drain from her muscles. Gabrielle's hand gently smoothed her brow and caressed her cheek.
"There's nothing to be afraid of now," said the bard. "I'm going to let you go so you can cross over, and I promise not to blame myself. It's not my fault or yours that this happened. We just have to accept it and let go. We'll be together again someday. I know we will."
As Gabrielle went on talking, a sense of calmness and peace crept into the warrior's soul. The fear gradually slipped away and her breathing eased up a bit. She began to feel as if she were floating, suspended in some quiet place where nothing really mattered anymore.
"I'm going to start touching you now," Gabrielle said, "and if it's uncomfortable or you want me to stop for any reason, just say so, and I will. Can you feel this?"
"Mmm-hmm," Xena murmured, as she felt Gabrielle's hand once more on her breast, followed by the warm lips that pulled and sucked at her nipple.
"Does that feel all right?" Gabrielle asked.
"Nice," whispered Xena.
"Good. Now just try to focus on that feeling. Just think about how nice it feels and about how much I love you. I'm putting all my love into every single touch. Just relax and let yourself feel it."
Once again Gabrielle's lips and tongue were on her breast, gentle, yet insistent. And, to her surprise, Xena felt the first faint stirrings of desire, felt her nipples becoming erect and hard. Then, after a few minutes, the bard's hand moved down between Xena's legs, her fingers slipping in among the sensitve folds of skin.
"Let yourself feel my love, Xena," Gabrielle whispered. "I've never loved anyone the way I love you. Just let your body feel that. Feel my love for you."
And Xena did feel it. Blocking out thoughts of how difficult it was to breathe, she managed to focus on the tenderness of her lover's touch. After a time, she found that her weakened body was responding in a way she had not thought possible. Pleasurable sensations began moving through her, radiating in gentle waves. She heard a low moan and realized that it had come from her own lips.
"Xena? Is everything all right?" Gabrielle asked softly. "Do you want me to stop?"
"No, don't . . . stop," Xena whispered.
"Okay. Just checking," Gabrielle said. She moved down and Xena felt a series of soft kisses on the inside of her thighs. Then the sweet pleasure once more, a gentle stroking which she thought must be Gabrielle's tongue. She moaned again as the sensation grew, like a bud slowly opening in the sunlight, petal by petal, until it finally filled her completely. Her body began to move in weak spasms and she cried out hoarsely. Surely, she thought, no one ever had a more beautiful death.
"Yes! Xena, we did it!" she heard Gabrielle exclaim. And then after a moment she added, "The venom is starting to come out! I can see it! It's really weird-looking! It's kind of yellowish-green! Xena, take a look at this stuff!"
But the warrior could not look, could not even move. Those were the last words she heard as the fog whirled in around her, no longer gray but greenish now, and incredibly thick. Blotting out everything, it choked off her breathing, effectively smothering her. She tried to resist but could not. Her strength was gone and the fog was much too powerful. It pulled at her, drawing her out of her body, and in the moment she finally surrendered to it, she felt suddenly and marvelously free . . . free of pain and fear, and free of a body that no longer remembered how to move and breathe.
She let the fog lift and carry her, knowing at last what her destination was to be. In the distance, a light appeared, and she felt herself borne swiftly and inevitably towards it. The light marked the bank of the River Styx. She knew this now, knew that the light would guide her across in Charon's boat.
With a feeling of peace and deep relief, she allowed the fog to sweep her onward, closer and closer to the light. She was almost there, had almost reached the river's bank, when suddenly a figure loomed in the mist ahead of her. It was a spirit figure, just as she herself now was, but she recognized it immediately. "Ares," she said, coming to a reluctant halt. "I thought I was done with you."
His laughter swirled around her like the fog. "You'll never be done with me, Xena," he said. "You ought to know that by now."
She glared at him without answering.
"You thought you could defeat me," he went on, "but you were wrong."
"I did defeat you. I got Gabrielle back, didn't I?"
"Yes, but look at the price you've paid. You're dying, Xena, or hadn't you noticed? You're on your way to Tartarus, and you will never see your little friend again." He moved closer to her, and she felt the chill of his essence.
"Since when do you decide who goes to Tartarus?" she demanded. "I thought that was Hades' job."
"Oh, it is, but I know how these things work. You think that a few good deeds will atone for a lifetime of evil, but you're wrong, Xena. The balance swings too far the other way. I'm afraid it's Tartarus for you, my dear, and isn't that a shame?"
He smiled a cynical smile, and Xena did not answer.
"But it's not too late, you know," he said then. "I can still save you, give you back your life. You have only to say the word. And since you're going to end up in Tartarus anyway, why not have a little fun before you go?" His figure remained before her, but his spirit, warm and seductive now, seemed to surround and caress her. "Come back to me, Xena, and we'll conquer the world together," he murmured. "You know you want to. This is your chance."
"No, Ares, you're wrong," she said. "Maybe I once wanted to conquer the world, but not anymore. Not now, not ever! I would much rather die than go back to you. I don't need you to save me. Gabrielle's love is all I need. And even if I spend the rest of eternity in Tartarus, I'll still feel that love. I'll carry it within me forever." She moved forward, determined to force her way past him. "Get away from me now," she said, "and let me cross over."
But in that moment, she heard a voice, faintly, as if it came from a long ways off, and she stopped to listen. It was Gabrielle's voice, calling to her, "Xena, I love you! Don't leave me! Come back! Please come back to me, Xena!"
Come back? Was it possible to come back? But even as the question flashed upon her mind, she saw Ares begin to recede and disappear into the mist. The light, likewise, grew gradually less bright, fading away as she now travelled back through the fog, back towards Gabrielle.
Faster and faster she seemed to move, pulled by her lover's voice, feeling the first gentle touches of the bard's fingers on her skin. Then, all at once, she felt the full power of Gabrielle's hands and mouth, creating pleasure where she thought all sensation had died. The feeling grew stronger, and still stronger, swelling from her center to encompass her completely, making her whole body moan and writhe. And when it was over, the fog began to lift, fading meanwhile from green to gray and finally to the peaceful white of nothingness.
Xena opened her eyes sometime later, surprised to find herself staring up at the thatch of Elkton's cottage. Apparently, she wasn't dead after all. The room was darker than it had been earlier. A dying fire gave little light, but on the table, an oil lamp and several candles burned cheerfully. There was a faint, acrid odor in the air which Xena could not identify. Her ears took in the soft crackle of the fire and the lowing of a cow out in the yard. But except for these sounds, all was silence.
Turning her head to the side, she saw Gabrielle sitting on the floor nearby, her knees drawn up to her chest and her head resting on them. The golden hair spilled down, hiding her face. Xena slipped her hand out from under the sheepskin that still covered her and touched her lover's arm. "Gabrielle," she said quietly.
The bard lifted her head and smiled. She said nothing, but the joy in her eyes spoke volumes.
"You did it," Xena said, returning her lover's smile. "You saved me."
"Yeah, I guess I did," Gabrielle said, and took Xena's hand in hers. "How are you feeling?"
"Quite a bit better. It's amazing how much difference it makes being able to breathe."
Gabrielle's smile widened and she squeezed Xena's hand. "How's your arm?" she asked.
"My arm?" Xena considered for a moment. "Well, now that you mention it, it hurts."
"That's good, Xena! Pain is good! It means that the feeling came back." Gabrielle reached out and uncovered the warrior's right arm. "Can you move it?" she asked.
Xena raised her arm slowly, cautiously flexing her fingers. "It's a little stiff, but it shouldn't take long to get it back in shape," she said with a grin. Then, raising the arm slightly higher, she studied the bandage just above her elbow. "What have you done to me?" she asked.
"Oh. That's where I cut your arm to drain the venom out. I haven't stitched it yet, so be careful. I wanted to make sure every drop of venom was out first."
"Good idea," said Xena as she rested her arm again on the pallet. "Where's Elkton?"
"He went out to milk the cow and take care of the other animals."
"How long has he been gone?"
"Not long, I guess. He left shortly before you woke up."
"Good," said Xena, pushing herself up to a sitting position. "Help me get dressed before he comes back."
Gabrielle put her hands on the warrior's shoulders. "Xena, are you sure you feel like sitting up?" she asked. "Not very long ago, you were lying here practically dead, you know."
"I know, but I really feel much stronger now," said Xena. "I'll be fine. It's not like I'm going to do flips or anything, and I promise to lie down again if I get tired." She grinned and pulled Gabrielle close for a quick kiss.
"Okay," said the bard with a smile of surrender, "but don't overdo it." She reached for Xena's leathers and helped the warrior put them on. Then, kneeling behind her, she began lacing the garment up.
It seemed to take her longer than usual, and by the time the laces were tied, Xena could feel that her lover's hands were trembling. "Gabrielle, what's wrong?" she asked, turning her head to look behind her.
Gabrielle didn't answer, but instead wrapped her arms tightly around Xena and buried her face in the warrior's dark hair. Xena felt rather than heard the sobs that shook the bard's body.
"Hey," she said softly, and pried Gabrielle's hands loose. Turning around, she put a hand under the young woman's chin and lifted her face to the light. "What's going on?" she asked. "Why are you crying?"
"I was so scared," Gabrielle said in a low voice. "I thought I was going to lose you."
Xena put her arms around her lover and pulled her close. "I know, Sweetheart, but it's all over now," she said, gently stroking the red-gold hair. "Somehow we squeaked through again, and we're both still alive and kicking, so let's just enjoy that, shall we?"
Gabrielle tightened her hold on Xena and pressed her face against the warrior's neck. "I really thought I could let you go," she said. "I accepted that you were dying, but I just wanted to touch you. And when you responded to my touch, I started hoping again. Then you had that orgasm and I really thought you were going to be all right." She stopped speaking and pulled away to look at Xena. "But after that, you just quit breathing and I couldn't find any pulse. "I thought--" She swallowed hard. "I thought you were dead," she finished in a whisper.
"I guess I was," Xena said quietly, as she pulled Gabrielle into her arms again. "Or at least I almost was. I got as far as the banks of the Styx, but I didn't cross over."
"Why didn't you?"
"Well, a couple of things kept me from doing it. First of all, Ares showed up."
"Ares?" said Gabrielle, looking up. "I suppose he offered to save you if you would just come back to him."
"You've got it," Xena said with a grin. "He told me I was going to Tartarus and that I'd never see you again. He said I might as well come conquer the world with him, since I was going to Tartarus anyway."
"How does he know where you're going? I thought that was Hades' call."
"It is. I think he was just trying to scare me. Anyway, I told him I'd rather die than go back to him." She paused long enough to kiss the top of Gabrielle's head. "And I also told him that even if I was separated from you forever, I would still carry your love in my heart."
"Yes, Xena!" Gabrielle said, sitting up again. "That's exactly what I was trying to tell you. I kept saying it over and over, but I didn't know if you could hear me."
"I did, I heard you. I guess I just didn't realize until that moment how true it was. At any rate, as soon as I said that to Ares, I started hearing your voice again, and it was like I was being pulled back to you." She smiled and reached out to wipe the remaining tears off her lover's face.
"Xena, after you came back," Gabrielle said, hesitating a little, "you had another orgasm. Did you know that?"
"Yeah, it was nice," she said with a half grin. "But that's the last thing I remember."
"Well, I knew you were going to be all right after that because the venom was just pouring out of you, and you were breathing normally again. I called Elkton in to help me, right at the end. That poor man. He was so worried about you, Xena. He was just sitting out there on the doorstep, looking so sad and praying. You should have seen his face light up when I told him you were going to live. He came inside and held your arm while I cut it to drain the venom. Then we burned everything. You can still smell it a little bit."
"Yeah, I noticed the smell when I first woke up."
Gabrielle reached up to touch Xena's cheek. "I'm just so glad you're alive," she whispered.
"Me too," Xena said, leaning forward to kiss her lover. And as their lips melted together, she thought it was one of the sweetest kisses she had ever known. How long it lasted she wasn't sure, but the two women pulled apart when they heard a sound outside. They looked expectantly at the door, but it did not open, so after a moment Xena wrapped both arms around Gabrielle again. She held the young woman tightly against her, breathing in the warm scent of the gold hair. "It's nice to be able to hug with two arms," she murmured.
"Mmm-hmm," Gabrielle returned. "And it's also nice to be able to kiss you without worrying about whether I'm choking you."
Xena smiled into Gabrielle's hair and held her for several moments longer, then said, "I hate to break up this little love fest, but I just realized that I'm really thirsty. Do you think there's any water in the house?"
"Oh. Yeah, there is. Elkton brought in a couple of buckets of water from the well while we were cleaning up the venom. I'm sure there's some left. I'll get it for you." She scrambled up and went to the bucket sitting on the floor near the shelves that held Elkton's cooking supplies.
As soon as she was gone, Xena pulled herself slowly to her feet, moving somewhat stiffly, and holding onto one of the chair backs for support.
"Xena," Gabrielle said, as she brought the dripping dipper to the warrior, "I don't think--"
"Gabrielle, let me be the judge," Xena said, accepting the water. "I'm not going to stand for very long because I still feel a little shaky, but I'm not dizzy anymore. And I'm not going to pass out. I promise." She winked and then lifted the dipper to her mouth and quickly drained it.
"Okay," the bard said with a soft smile. "I guess I'm being a bit overprotective." She reached up to wipe away the water that dribbled down Xena's chin. "Want some more?"
"Yes, if you don't mind."
"Anything for the Warrior Princess," Gabrielle said with a grin. But as she started back toward the bucket, the cottage door opened.
The women turned to see Elkton standing there, a basket of eggs in one hand and a bucket of milk in the other. "What a beautiful sight this is!" he said softly, smiling and shaking his head. He closed the door and crossed the room. Then, setting the eggs and milk on the table, he took the warrior's hand in both of his. "Xena!" he exclaimed. "You're looking much better!"
"I'm feeling much better, too, I can assure you."
"This is like a miracle," he said, shaking his head again. "I really thought we would be standing by your funeral fire tonight."
"Yeah, well, I kind of thought the same thing," Xena said, grinning, "but sometimes things turn out better than you think they will. I owe you my life once again, Elkton. Mine and Gabrielle's. That's a debt I won't soon forget."
"No, no, no," he protested. "You don't owe me anything. There's the one you should thank," he said, nodding toward Gabrielle. "She saved you, not I. And you saved her up on the mountain. I've rarely seen such wonderful devotion between two people."
Xena looked at Gabrielle and smiled.
The young woman moved closer and put a hand on Elkton's shoulder. "It was your wisdom and knowledge that madeeverything possible, though," she said. "I think that's what Xena is talking about."
"Well, I'm just glad I could help," he said, reaching out to clasp Gabrielle's hand while still holding Xena's. He smiled broadly, first at one of them and then at the other. After a moment, he released their hands and quickly wiped his sleeve across his eyes. "Would you two like some milk?" he asked. "It's nice and fresh. How about you, Xena?"
"Yes, I'd love some!"
"Let me just get a mug." He took a clay mug from the shelf, dipped it into the milk bucket, and handed it to the warrior.
"Mmm, it's so warm and sweet," Xena said, licking the milk off her upper lip. "It's not every day we get fresh milk. This is a real treat."
"Gabrielle, do you want some, too?" asked Elkton, already reaching for another mug.
"Yes, please!" she said, then slipped an arm around Xena's waist and said to her, "Why don't you sit down, Sweetheart? You just look a little unsteady to me."
Xena grinned and lowered herself into the chair Gabrielle pulled out. "My healer has spoken," she said. "I must obey."
Elkton laughed as he handed the mug of milk to Gabrielle, then stooped to roll up the pallet and lay it aside. "How about if I make us some supper?" he said. "Is anyone hungry?"
"I'm famished," said Xena promptly.
"You ought to be. You haven't eaten anything all day," said Gabrielle. "And I think I might be able to eat a little something myself," she added with a grin.
"Good," Elkton said, peering into the basket of eggs. "I could just scramble up these eggs with onions and maybe some cheese. Does that sound like something you could eat?"
"That sounds wonderful," said Gabrielle. "I'll help you."
"No, you just sit down," he said, waving her away. "I don't need any help, and you two should rest after all you've been through today. Here," he added, taking a loaf of dark bread from the shelf and unwrapping it. "This ought to keep you from starving until the eggs are ready." He set the bread on the table, along with a crock of butter and a small wooden paddle.
"Thanks, Elkton!" Xena exclaimed, seizing the bread and tearing off a sizable hunk. Then she held out the loaf to Gabrielle. "Sit down," she said. "Relax. Eat some bread."
The bard took the bread and held it thoughtfully for a moment. "I was just thinking," she said, "that if Elkton doesn't need my help, maybe I could go ahead and sew up your arm now. Or would you rather wait until after we eat?"
Xena shrugged. "Now's fine," she said, her mouth already full of rich, buttered bread. "Or later. I don't care."
"I think I'll do it now then," Gabrielle said, setting the bread on the table. "Elkton, where did you put our saddlebags when you brought them in?"
"I just left them on the floor by the bed," he said, then turned to the braided onions hanging from the rafter and cut two off.
Gabrielle looked around, seemingly confused. "Where's the bed?" she whispered to Xena.
"It's in the little room over there," the warrior said gesturing. "Just go through the curtained doorway."
The bard hurried away, and Xena reached for another piece of bread, then noticed Elkton's puzzled look.
"Gabrielle doesn't remember anything much that happened while she was under Ares' spell," she told him. "That's why she didn't know where the bedroom was."
The Mystic set the onions and a cutting board on the table, then pulled out a chair and sat down. "So she doesn't remember being here before? Or meeting me?"
"And she doesn't remember your fight with the serpent?"
"No, nothing before she ate the kaya leaves." Xena glanced up and smiled as Gabrielle returned with the sewing kit and a hairbrush. "I was just telling Elkton that you don't remember much of what happened after you were drugged."
"Yeah, that's right," Gabrielle said to Elkton with a sheepish grin. "It makes me feel kind of stupid, actually." She laid the pouch with the needle and thread on the table, then went to stand behind Xena and began to brush the dark hair with long, gentle strokes, stopping now and then to work the tangles out.
"Well, Gabrielle," Elkton said as he deftly peeled one of the onions, "I know how it feels when your memory isn't working right. But at least you have a good excuse. Me, I'm just getting old." Then, before either of the women could answer, he went on. "Now I don't know about you," he said, looking up at Gabrielle, "but I would really like to hear the story of how Xena killed the serpent. If she feels like telling it, that is."
He looked hopefully at the warrior and she laughed. "Well, Gabrielle is the real storyteller here, and she's heard the tale already, so maybe she'll tell it."
"I only heard it once and that was a pretty sketchy version," the bard responded. "So I'd really like to hear it again. Please, Xena?"
"All right," Xena agreed reluctantly. "Now that Gabrielle has made me presentable, I guess I owe her a story." She smiled her thanks at the bard, then quickly stuck one last bite of bread into her mouth, chewed, and swallowed it. A long drink of milk served to wash it down.
Gabrielle, meanwhile, finished brushing the warrior's hair and sat down next to her. "Put your arm up here on the table," she said. Then she carefully unwrapped the bandage.
"Nice incision," Xena said, peering at the wound in her arm. "Very clean and neat."
"She did a good job, didn't she?" asked Elkton. "And she didn't have to cut very deep, either. The venom was right there under the skin."
"I told you I had many skills," Gabrielle said with a grin as she pulled a length of thread off the spool.
"Yeah, but at the time I thought you were talking about something else," Xena said, cocking one eyebrow.
"Just tell your story," Gabrielle said.
* * *
Xena laughed and took another sip of milk, then drew in a deep breath and let it out, composing her face into an expression more suitable for storytelling. "We started our journey at dawn," she said, "Gabrielle and I leading Argo up the rough mountain track. It was so dark at first that we could barely see where we were going." Then she told about the attack by Hera's warriors and how she killed one of them, but kept Gabrielle from killing another one. She did her best to keep her mind focussed on the story so that she would not feel the sharp sting of the needle piercing her arm. And by the time she began to tell how she had convinced Gabrielle to go the rest of the way up the mountain with her, the stitching of the wound was done. The bard leaned back in her chair and devoted all her attention to listening. Elkton listened closely, too, cutting up the onions and cheese meanwhile, and then breaking eggs into a large bowl.
Xena went on to describe the battle with the serpent, throwing in a few more details this time, but ending as she had before, by saying she had slipped and that was how the serpent had escaped to bite her. "I strangled it with my left hand," she said, "and you should have seen how it flailed and flopped around. But I hung on like death until I had choked all the breath out of it." She smiled grimly. "After that, my right arm went totally numb and I couldn't move it anymore."
Pausing again to take a drink, she watched Elkton set a heavy, footed iron skillet in the coals and drop a big scoop of grease into it.
"Xena," said Gabrielle, "there's something about this story I don't understand."
"Well, you said you had the serpent trapped with the forked staff and you were about to get ahold of it and then you slipped."
"But why? Why did you slip? It's not like you to be careless at such a moment. I can't believe you would just 'slip.' Is there more to this story than you're telling us?"
Xena was silent, considering what effect it might have on Gabrielle if she learned what her own role had been.
But before she could decide, the bard, as if reading her mind, said, "And you haven't said much about what I was doing this whole time. You told me you might need my help to fight the serpent, but did you ever really let me help?"
"Sure I did. You were a big help. You held things for me, like my whip, and handed me whatever I needed."
"That's all I did?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.
"Well, yeah, I-- I couldn't let you get too close. I couldn't risk having the serpent bite you."
"So I was perfectly happy just to hand you things?"
"No, not exactly. You got bored after a while and started talking about going back to the campsite. But right after that, I finally managed to trap the serpent . . . and strangle it."
There was a loud sizzling sound as Elkton poured the eggs into the skillet and began to scramble them.
"Mmm, that smells wonderful!" Xena said. "I'm so hungry I think I could eat a horse! But not Argo," she added quickly.
"Xena, don't change the subject," Gabrielle said. "You still haven't told us how you slipped after you had the serpent trapped."
The warrior regarded her friend for a moment, then noticed that Elkton was watching her, too, an expectant look on his face.
She sighed. "I slipped," she said, "because at the moment I was about to get my hands on the serpent, you grabbed my sword and said you were going to help by hacking the creature to pieces." She stopped and took a deep breath. "I told you not to, but you started swinging the sword anyway and I had to use my left hand to stop you. That's when the serpent broke free and bit me."
Gabrielle stared at Xena, an expression of horror on her face. For a few moments she didn't speak, but finally she said, "Didn't I know that you had to kill the serpent without shedding its blood?"
"Yes, I had told you that, but I'm not sure if I told you why."
"But I knew that you couldn't use the sword to kill it?"
"Yes, I'm sure I told you that much."
"Then I'm responsible for your getting bitten," Gabrielle said softly. "It was all my fault. I almost killed you."
"No, Gabrielle, it wasn't your fault," Xena said, laying a hand on her lover's arm. "That wasn't you up there on the mountain. It was someone else--a person of Ares' creation. In fact, there were moments when I looked into your eyes and I could have sworn I saw Ares himself looking back at me. He wanted me to fail in my quest to save you, and he tried to stop me by using you against me. Don't you see that?"
"I-- I guess so, but-- I don't know. I just feel like it's still my fault somehow."
"It's not your fault," Xena said again. "Don't think that even for a minute."
"She's right, you know," said Elkton. "You're not responsible, Gabrielle." He pulled the skillet out of the coals and onto the hearthstone. Then he looked at the bard. "The young woman Xena brought here two days ago was a very different person from the one who's sitting at my table now," he said. "That Gabrielle was selfish and rude and didn't seem to care about anyone or anything. I found it hard to believe that she was the friend Xena had risked her life for in the dreamscape passage." He smiled at her and then turned to take three plates down from the shelf. "But the Gabrielle who came down from the mountain-- That Gabrielle is a wonderful, caring person, full of devotion and concern for others." He filled a plate with eggs and set it in front of her. "That Gabrielle could never have been responsible for Xena's getting bitten."
Xena squeezed her lover's hand. "I hope you're listening to this," she said, "because I couldn't have said it any better myself."
"Yeah, I'm listening," Gabrielle said. She smiled and squeezed Xena's hand in return. "I feel better now," she added.
Elkton set a steaming plate in front of Xena. "Thanks," she said with a grin, "and I don't just mean for the eggs."
"My pleasure," he returned. "Now eat up, you two, before your food gets cold."
He filled his own plate and poured a goblet of wine for each of them. Then three hungry people began to eat and there was no further conversation for several minutes.
"This is so good," Gabrielle said finally.
"Oh, this is nothing, really," Elkton said. "Anyone can scramble eggs."
"Anyone except Xena, maybe," Gabrielle said with a sly grin.
The warrior glared at her.
Elkton looked from one to the other and then laughed. "Well, anyway," he continued, "I hope you two will stay a few days so I can do some real cooking. We haven't had much of a chance to visit, and I'm always happy to have company."
Gabrielle looked at Xena. "Oh, could we stay?" she asked eagerly. "It would give you a chance to rest up and I'd like to hear all about Elkton's work as a Mystic."
Xena smiled and looked at Elkton. "Well, there's no place in particular we need to be for a while, so we'd love to stay," she said. "You and Gabrielle can trade cooking secrets, and maybe I can do a little fishing and hunting to get you some extra meat to dry for this winter."
"Oh, you don't need to do that," he said. "I'm just glad to have the company."
"You'd better let her do it," Gabrielle said, leaning close to Elkton and speaking in a confidential tone of voice. "She'll get bored in a hurry if she has to sit and listen to us talk about cooking."
"All right, Xena," he said with a grin. "I accept your offer."
"Good," said the warrior. "Is there any more wine?"
"Yes, of course," he said, reaching for the jug. "There are grapes and figs, too, and I'll be glad to fry more eggs if you want them."
"Not for me," Xena said. "I'll just have some fruit and then I think I'll be full at last."
"Same here," Gabrielle said. "But Elkton, I wanted to ask you, how did you learn to cook? Xena told me you served a delicious meal when we were here before. I just wish I could remember eating it!"
"Well, I'll tell you what," Elkton said, laughing. "If Xena can hunt down some more partridges, I can probably recreate that meal for you. And as to how I learned to cook, well, I used to like watching my wife prepare food, and after she died, I had to do it myself, so I just started experimenting and trying to figure out how it was done."
"When did your wife die?" Gabrielle asked.
"Oh, it was a long time ago. Over thirty years now, I guess. She died in childbirth."
"Did the baby die, too?" Xena asked quietly.
"Yes, unfortunately, it did," Elkton said. "And we had lost our first child about a year before that to a fever, so it was a difficult time for me."
Gabrielle reached out and put her hand over his for a moment. "I'm so sorry," she said. "That's such a sad story."
He smiled at her. "Well, most of us know sorrow if we live long enough," he said. "And even though it's painful at the time, in the end, I think it has a way of making us more human somehow . . . more able to help others." He pushed a large bowl across the table towards them. "Now here, have some of this fruit," he added.
"Thanks," said Xena as she broke off a bunch of grapes.
"So you never remarried?" asked Gabrielle, reaching for a fig.
"No. I suppose I could have, easily enough, but I wasn't certain I could ever love in the same way again. And anyway, about that time I started getting involved with the Mystics. I became a priest and that work became the focus of my life, rather than family."
"You must have loved your wife a great deal," said Gabrielle. "How did you meet her?"
"We just grew up together, right here in this same little village. We never got out to see the world, like you two have." He grinned, then asked, "How about you and Xena? How did the two of you meet?"
"Oh, that's a wonderful story!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Would you like to hear it?"
"I'd love to!" he said.
Gabrielle looked at Xena. "Do you mind if I tell it now?" she asked. "Or do you want me to wait until you've gone hunting or something?"
Xena spat out some grape seeds and smiled expansively. "No, go right ahead," she said. "I'd actually like to listen because, as it happens, I had to tell you this same story a few days ago when you had no memory of it, and I want to find out if I got it right."
Gabrielle laughed. "Xena doesn't usually like to be around when I tell stories about her," she told Elkton. "She says I exaggerate too much."
"Oh, I see," said the Mystic, smiling as he refilled their wine goblets.
Xena leaned back in her chair and sipped the dark, red liquid. She felt pleasantly tired and wonderfully content, watching the way the candlelight played off her lover's face and hair, and listening to the emotive tones of Gabrielle's voice. Rarely had life seemed as sweet and whole as it did just now. But if she had never met that young girl from Poteidaia, what then? How would her life have been different? Would she even still be alive? Gabrielle had saved her life today, but it wasn't the first time she had done so. In the end, who could really understand how the Fates worked to weave the tapestry of existence?
Lost in thought, Xena didn't realize that Gabrielle had stopped speaking until she heard Elkton say, "You were right. That was a wonderful story."
"Well, there are plenty more where that one came from," Xena said, grinning. "And with a little bit of encouragement, I'm sure they'll all come spilling out." She winked at Gabrielle, then tipped her goblet up and drained it. "Now, if you two will excuse me, I think I'll turn in for the night."
Gabrielle reached out and squeezed her hand. "Go ahead, Sweetheart," she said. "I'll be in as soon as I've helped Elkton clean up."
"You go on to bed, Gabrielle," he said quickly. "I can take care of cleaning up. If I'd been through what you two have today, I would have been in bed long before this."
"No, I insist on helping," Gabrielle said. "I was once known as the best dishwasher in Poteidaia, and I have my reputation to maintain."
"Well," said Xena, laughing as she stood up. "There's a story I've never heard before!"
"Oh, did I forget to tell you that one?"
"Yes, you did. Especially on all those nights when you made me clean up the dishes!" She bent and kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "But I'll be sure to remember it in the future," she added. "Good night, Elkton."
"Good night, Xena. And the sweetest of dreams to you."
"Thanks," she said, letting her hand linger for a moment on Gabrielle's shoulder. Then she crossed the room and ducked into the curtained alcove. Unlacing her leathers, she slipped out of them and climbed into bed. The blankets felt chilly against her bare skin, and as she lay waiting for her body heat to warm them, she listened to the murmur of voices and soft sounds from the other room. After a time, she closed her eyes and drifted into the quiet realm somewhere between waking and sleeping. But as soon as she heard Gabrielle's step in the alcove, Xena opened her eyes again. "I'm awake," she said softly.
"I thought you'd be asleep by now."
"No, I waited for you." She watched her lover's silhouette against the curtain as she unlaced her bodice and shrugged it off, then unfastened and stepped out of her skirt. Xena turned back the covers as Gabrielle felt her way to the bed.
"It's kind of narrow, isn't it?" the bard whispered.
"Yeah, but that way we have a good excuse for sleeping close together."
"As if we needed one," Gabrielle laughed as she slid under the covers.
Xena snuggled up to her lover, wrapping her right arm around her. "Just be careful about my arm," she said.
"Oh. Right. Is it hurting you, Xena? Do you want me to get you some willow bark?"
"No. I'm fine. It hurts a little bit, but definitely not enough to keep me awake."
"Okay. Are your feet warm?"
"Yeah, they're great," Xena said with a grin, as she tickled the bottom of Gabrielle's foot with her toes.
"Hey! Stop that!" Gabrielle exclaimed softly.
Xena obeyed, laughing as she buried her face against her partner's neck and breathed in the soft scent of her. For a few moments, neither of them spoke, then Xena said, "That was quite a feat of lovemaking you did today."
"Mmm, I was good, wasn't I?" Gabrielle said, running her fingers lightly across the warrior's breast.
Xena raised herself up on one elbow and then leaned down so that her lips were almost touching Gabrielle's. "You were excellent," she whispered, bringing her mouth down to cover the bard's. The kiss was sweet and deep, but after a short while, Xena broke away gently. "I'm too tired for this tonight," she said, brushing a light kiss on Gabrielle's cheek, "but I want you to know that as soon as I get rested up, I fully intend to reciprocate what you did today."
"I'll look forward to that," murmured the bard. "But I did owe you one, you know."
"What do you mean?"
"Did you forget? When we were making love at the inn and we got interrupted and you said 'just remember who was doing what to whom'?"
Xena laughed. "Yeah, I had forgotten all about that. Well, I'm still going to return the favor very soon," she said. Then she laid her head on Gabrielle's chest.
In the other room, she heard Elkton unrolling the pallet again in front of the fire. Then he put out the lights, one by one, and the house settled into quiet darkness.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered.
"Remember when I came to you in that dream?"
"Yes. How'd you do that, by the way?"
"I don't know exactly. I just somehow realized that I could, so I did. Anyway, I was wondering-- If this whole thing hadn't worked out the way it did, would you have killed me, like I asked you to?"
"Maybe," Xena said slowly. "But I think it would have been the hardest thing I ever did."
"What do you mean, 'maybe'? Xena, you promised me."
Xena raised up again, but she could not see her lover's face in the dark. "I promised I would do it if there was no other way," she said, "but I had another plan, too."
"What was it?"
"You're not going to like it."
"Tell me, Xena. What was it?"
"It was to go back to Ares--"
Gabrielle drew in a sharp breath.
"Wait. Let me finish," Xena said, putting her fingers over the bard's lips. "I would go back to Ares, just until I was sure you were safe, then I would get killed in battle."
"That's suicide," Gabrielle said softly.
"Oh, and asking someone else to kill you isn't?"
Gabrielle shuddered and pulled Xena back down against her, holding her close for a few moments without speaking. Finally, she whispered, "I still can't believe it."
"That you're lying here, alive and warm in my arms tonight, instead of--"
Xena propped herself back up on her elbow and touched Gabrielle's cheek with gentle fingers. "Don't go there," she said. "If we start thinking about how things might have turned out, we'll go crazy. Just accept the gift and enjoy."
"I'm trying to."
"Good. But I do want you to promise me one thing."
"The next time we run into a bard in a tavern, promise me you won't talk to him, okay?"
There was silence and Xena knew that Gabrielle could not see her smiling.
"Xena, I can't promise that."
"You said you'd promise anything."
"I know, but not that. I'm always going to want to talk to other bards, and most of them aren't going to drug me."
"Hmm. Well, okay. Then promise you won't talk to any bards who are really Ares in disguise."
Gabrielle laughed. "Okay," she said. "If I see a bard who's really Ares, I promise I won't talk to him at all. In fact, I promise I'll start running the other direction as fast as I can!"
"Thanks," Xena said chuckling and laying her head down again. "I feel better now that I have your word."
Gabrielle stroked the warrior's hair for a few moments, then said, "I want you to promise me something, too, Xena."
"Promise me that if you ever decide to get bitten by a serpent again, you'll pick one with a different color venom. That yellowish-green stuff was really disgusting."
"Oh. Well, what color would you prefer?"
"I don't know. Just something more pleasant, like maybe lavendar."
"Yeah. Lavendar's a nice color."
"All right, I'll keep it in mind," Xena said, smiling.
Gabrielle yawned. "I'm getting kind of sleepy," she mumbled.
"Then go to sleep, Sweetheart."
"Okay. I love you, Xena."
"I love you, too. Good night."
Within moments, Gabrielle's breathing deepened, and Xena lay pressed against her lover's warm body, listening to the steady heartbeat. She knew that very soon she, too, would let Morpheus bear her softly away, but for right now she was content to savor this beautiful moment . . . this moment in which she felt so safe and warm, knew love was hers, and that life was very, very good.
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