By M. Parnell
They had never come this far west in The Sweetwater, and Gabrielle was not quite certain why they were here now. Xena had explained, briefly, but it was one of those ideas of Xenas that were appreciated better in action than design. Xena would be a poor recorder of her own exploits: she seemed to expect that people could intuit her reasoning, with the barest of hints. Shed objected to that notion when Gabrielle suggested it. "Gabrielle, I made it perfectly clear: since so many people are coming, Nerad has to be invited. It only stands to reason." The party had, indeed grown to a gathering. Invitations seemed to be transferable here, capable of being passed to several parties, who were each free to pass it along to several others. Only a major weather catastrophe would limit the size of the gathering now, Xena feared, and it was then that shed decided Nerad would have to be invited. Personally.
"Xena, I dont think youve thought this through. You didnt even want a small party, because Nerad might feel threatened; now that its likely to be," she swallowed, "enormous, you want him there as a guest. What am I missing?"
"Hes less likely to feel threatened if hes included Gabrielle. He wont see it as a plot, hatching behind his back."
"At the same time, " the bard pointed out, "hell probably notice that to the people around these parts youre a much more attractive alternative to him." Xena chuckled, a low, earthy sound that caused Argo, to prick up her ears.
"Would that be a personal opinion?" she asked. Gabrielle smacked her hard.
"Im trying to be serious. Were riding into the camp of the enemy "
"Not quite that," Xena pointed out.
"Hes not quite a friend," was Gabrielles retort.
"So I just want to make sure this is a good idea."
"I think its a good idea." She paused. "Its the only way I know to tell him that Im not a threat, even while Im demonstrating that I could be, if he pushes me that way."
"The Stronghold of Nerad, Overlord of The Sweetwater." Gabrielle read the sign with disbelief. "I'd take this more seriously if it even vaguely resembled a stronghold." She was sitting next to Xena on a bluff which gave a good view of Nerad's encampment. "Not quite an enemy, but old habits die hard," she'd admitted. She listened now with a touch of admiration as Gabrielle listed the glaring failures of the place as a stronghold of any sort.
"Well, someone chose a good site for it, anyway, so I'll assume it predates Nerad," she snorted with contempt.
"Why is the site so good," Xena asked off handedly.
"It's the highest place in the area," Gabrielle replied. "But that doesn't make up for the way it's fallen into disrepair. Even from this distance you can almost see through it in places." Xena nodded, pretending to inspect the lacing of a bracer. "And the shrubbery and brush grows right up around the place. How hard would it to be to take shelter there while you burned the place down around them?"
"A piece of cake," Xena agreed. "If you don't watch out, Gabrielle, you'll wake up one day and find yourself a warrior."
The bard smiled at the compliment, then considered again, noting Xena's grim tone.
"Let's go." Xena clicked softly to Argo, and they moved on.
Things were no better inside the fort. The gate was wide open, unattended, and the cross bar which would have secured it was nowhere to be seen. There were men apparently stationed on the walls, but their presence was made apparent only through the raucous laughter which came from above. From her seat behind the warrior, Gabrielle felt Xena's body tense, and smiled. "You want to bust heads, don't you," she suggested quietly.
"More than a few need busting," came the reply though tight lips.
In many respects it was a walled town. Within it dwelt the troops, dependents of the troops, and the workers who supported Nerad's whole army, such as it was. The rambling wall had grown as the population had grown, with little rhyme or reason, spreading out over the wide, high plain like an uncertain serpent. Curious heads turned their way as they rode through the fort. They were recognized by most. Everyone knew about the events at the peddlers' gathering. Xena rode straight to what she knew would be Nerad's residence. It was large, it was surmounted by a staff bearing his crest, and it was heavily guarded.
"Tell Nerad, he's got company," she told them.
Gabrielle suppressed the smirk she felt at their evident anxiety. "It's a social call," she told them, mercifully. She could only guess how that was translated to Nerad, because the response was disproportionate. She would have felt a sense of anxiety herself, under other circumstances, if Xena was not at her side. She was inches from Xena as they stood waiting for Nerad. She could smell the warrior's warm scent, leather, sweat, and a hint of the apples they'd shared on the road. A crowd had gathered, keeping a safe distance, and a squad of soldiers had clustered, hands on sword hilts, hoping they wouldn't need to be drawn. Xena's eyes roamed the surroundings, revealing carefully measured contempt. Xena might have been relaxing in a bath, for all the tension she displayed, yet Gabrielle knew what response a hostile movement would bring. Gods, it was easy to be brave when you stood next to Xena. And hard to resist the power that emanated from her. A wave of hot desire swept her, and she wanted, at that moment, to be inside the source of all that power. She yearned to look at the warrior, yet feared, if she did, that she would have to touch her, then - Stop it, now, she chided herself. Not the time. Later. She became anxious for Nerad to make an appearance.
At last the doors opened. More armed men filed out, preceding Nerad. Xena wondered at the absence of Placar; he could have been on duty somewhere. More likely he was still asleep. They'd left home in the early precincts of dawn. Morning visits can be very effective, Xena had said. Gabrielle understood now. Nerad had come to the door to greet them. His hair was still damp, from a hasty attempt at cleanliness, she guessed.
"Xena. Gabrielle." He sketched a bow: the courtly lord of the manor.
"Nerad," Xena said simply. "We were in the area, thought we'd repay the visit."
His skin crept at the memory of that visit. Placar had nagged incessantly about the need to deal with the woman. In principle, he agreed, in reality, he doubted Placar could do more than anger her; regardless, he knew that Placar made him uneasy; Xena chilled his marrow.
"You are welcome, more than welcome," he enthused.
"We haven't eaten," she continued.
Oh, Xena was enjoying this, Gabrielle realized.
Nerad gestured to the coterie around him, and several men scurried away. The Overlord stepped aside, and waved the two women inside. They were escorted through a serpentine corridor, to the inner chambers. The building appeared to have grown in the same way as the town, as need and materials dictated. The most remarkable thing about it was the stench. At the end of winter, it might be more expected, but they were just ending the time when light and air should have done their work in freshening the place. She wondered if it was ever clean. Beside her, Gabrielle made a gagging sound.
"Have you any perfumed oils?" Xena asked pointedly. "I seem to have left home without them." Nerad stood before them, in what seemed to be a large, all purpose room. Men bearing his crest filed in and formed a loose circle around them. Low benches, deep with cushions, were set around the walls. Tables were set before them, piled high with platters of cheese, fruit and bread. It looked better than the wheat gruel they'd had for breakfast, Gabrielle admitted to herself, but given the stench, she wished Xena hadn't lied about not eating. Undaunted, Xena had already snared a couple of figs, and handed one to the bard. 'What can they do to figs?' her shrug asked.
Nerad waited respectfully until she had finished chewing. She seemed to have decided not to take a seat, and Nerad was reluctant to push it. From the moment he'd heard of her presence, he'd felt a sort of shame about his stronghold. Damn Placar! He'd always insisted Xena would never dare show her face in the stronghold. Now her she was, and where was he? Worthless shit. He kept those thoughts from his face as he waited for Xena to reveal the purpose of her visit. It was not long in coming. The woman seemed to be in a hurry.
"Ill come to the point, Nerad," she began, with a disarming smile. "Were both busy people. Gabrielle and I are having a few friends in the day of the full moon. I know you have many things that require your attention, but if you can find the time, wed be happy to see you."
Because he had never received a purely social invitation, Nerad could only think she was laying a clever trap. "Feel free to bring your friends," she said, as if reading his thoughts.
No answer was forthcoming; he would consider this invitation as a maiden considers a marriage proposal. In the end, he wouldnt come, Xena was certain. One more thing:
"Your men made a right cock-up of things at the peddlers gathering. But I suppose youve heard that."
Nerad had heard many things: The Tribes had attacked, Petra had attacked, Xena had opened the food stores to the people. Only a new soldier, Drax, had countered the self-serving account of Placar, and he had tossed his crest at Nerads feet before he finished the tale. The Overlord had lost face badly.
"The odds were overwhelming," he replied.
She smiled, and wasnt surprised to hear Gabrielle answer him: "Overwhelming odds? Xena and Drax had no trouble routing the Tribes."
"Maybe thats because we werent drunk," Xena suggested, arching an eyebrow.
"Or maybe because youre warriors," Gabrielle added.
"Your men ran for cover like rats," Xena said simply. "They arent warriors, Nerad. If they were Id recommend they be hung for desertion." There was a muttering from the circle of men around them. "As it is, you might do better trying to turn them into warriors, then, just hang the ones who dont catch on. There must be someone in this place who knows about soldiering."
Nerad couldnt avoid a reply. "Xena," he began in a strained voice, "I dont have the cream of the Athenian Guard. We do our best."
"Bullshit." She shrugged. "Still, its your neck. I wont always be there to meet the Tribes. But youd better not send your men to collect tribute in my neck of the woods anytime soon. Ya got that," she ended.
He made no reply.
"If you come to the party, dont feel you need to bring anything."
In the event, Nerad didnt come to the party. He did send a cart load of food.
Xena left Hermia to direct the unloading. She chuckled over the quantity supplied.
"About time we had some benefit from the tribute we pay. My Farnis wouldnt half have enjoyed this." Hermia had dressed for the occasion, Xena noted with appreciation. The brown hair had an uncommon sheen, and lay in intricate braids across her head, the rest falling around her shoulders. The dress she wore was not new, but Xena had not seen it before. Maybe this party was a good idea. Sometimes Gabrielles ideas needed to be experienced to be appreciated. Hermia had arrived early, just after dawn, rolled up her sleeves, and begun a massive effort in the kitchen. Gabrielle had chosen a good day. The air was crisp, but the sun was bright. If it was dry, things would work, for it was to be an out-of-doors affair, mostly. Xena had constructed makeshift tables from boards and rocks, blocks of wood, whatever would allow a level surface on which to set the food. Shed found the boar Gabrielle had ordered, two large ones; they were dressed and waiting for the fire to grow hot enough. She lounged against the side of the house, listening to the bustle inside, feeling as if shed done it all before. Of course you have, she told herself. The sounds were the same as those inside the inn. At any moment her mother might call her to come and help. Then shed call a second time. Finally, shed come around the side of the house as Xena escaped around the corner. Whats really changed? she asked herself. All these years later and Im waiting to be called to give a hand in the kitchen. Of course, Gabrielle isnt my mother; and I wont escape. Cant escape. Theyd come so close to the mountains when they journeyed to Nerads fortress that the air had smelled different. If freedom had a scent, that was it. Gabrielle had asked: "Xena, is that the way out? Is it so impossible?"
Nothings impossible, Gabrielle, shed wanted to say. Ive learned that over the course of my life. But its not likely. I might get you over, but I can't imagine how I'd manage with Argo, and I wont leave her behind. We all go, or we all stay. Instead, she merely said: "I hear that it is. Sorry."
Tartarus now, Tartarus in the hereafter.
People were starting to arrive. She recognized none of them. They waved to her from afar, and set themselves down on the expanse of land around the house. Some were content to lie back in the grass and wait for things to start. She wondered vaguely what they expected.
"Xena, you're frowning," Gabrielle said as she walked toward her.
"No," she replied, "just thinking. What do they plan on doing here?" Besides eating things that we could probably use this winter.
"Eat, drink, pass out drunk, wake up, and stagger home. Unless you want to provide
some entertainment? A few songs, a demonstration of the chakram, a fire-breathing
" She squatted in front of her. "Now you are frowning. Don't
worry, it was just a wild thought. All you need to do is relax and have a good time.
Unless things get rowdy, then - "
"I'll be ready," she promised. "Nothing will go wrong."
Gabrielle knelt forward, until her lips reached the warrior's cheek. "Thank you, Xena. You've been very good about everything."
"What did you expect?" she asked, feigning indignation.
"You know what I mean. This did create a lot of extra work, and you never once complained, about the bother, the - "
Xena let her go on, though her focus was less on the soft words, than on the fresh young face. Gabrielle's eyes sometimes shone so clear, she couldn't believe they had ever been clouded by trouble, or worry, or grief. Yet she had caused her all those things.
"You're never a bother, Gabrielle," she said aloud, "even when I bitch about things, it's not real. My life meant so little "
Gabrielle had stopped, puzzled by the interruption. "Xena, I was just asking if the fire was hot enough for the boar? Are you all right?"
Xena came back to the moment with a start. "Yeah, I'm fine. I'll just go check the fire."
She rose, then turned back to her. "I haven't been to a party in a long time. Thanks for going to all this trouble."
Gabrielle's eyes registered surprise now, and delight. It wasn't that Xena never said hello, but she hadn't expected it over this. "You're welcome," she managed, showing a warm smile that Xena carried with her through the long day.
The crowd topped off around the century mark, somewhere near mid-afternoon. Then the early comers began to drift away, full of roasted meats and Hermia's best brew. The latecomers settled down for their turn at food, and the impromptu games that had sprung up. The most involved and longest running was prisoner's base, only now it was played with a reckless abandon that kept Xena alert. Grown men and older boys played, and the flailing fists which occasionally determined the winner were well within the bounds of acceptable behavior with this crowd. It was a good way for them to burn off excess energy, and the ale. She was happily surprised to see this band of mostly-convicts engaged in any activity at all which did not have some profit at the end. No earrings were at stake here, nothing wagered, yet they worked with ferocious zeal to achieve a goal. Life here had few enough of those, apart from survival.
Drax and Ileander had been among the latecomers. His departure from Nerad's camp had meant that Drax was on his own, closer to winter than was safe. He needed to provide shelter, set up a store of goods, and fodder for his horses. He'd been busy all morning.
"Seemed as good a time as any to get the horse," he told Xena. "I've got a shed ready. Thanks for seeing to him all this time. If I can ever return the favor "
"I'll let you know."
He doubted she'd ever do that. She'd eat grass before she'd ask for help, he reckoned. Unless it was for Gabrielle. She'd done that, willingly. They settled then into the mysteries of furniture construction.
Singing was heard from quarters of the field, sporadically, and never for long. In the end, there was too much good food to be consumed. Most people had brought food along, breads, pottage, in large crocks, sausages to be warmed over the lingering heat from the boar-roast, pastries sweet with honey. They knew it was the last chance for such a feast before the long, dark days of winter set in. People stayed close to home then, venturing only far enough to find fuel, and game. Hermia had painted a bleak picture:
"Wolves become bolder; Archon has quite a job keeping them from the goats. The Tribes sometimes come looking for food." She paused, haunted by some memory or other. "But they seldom come this far west in the winter. I'll be happy to have you close by," she said, brightening. "It's not good for Lilla to be so alone for so long. There aren't many children around these parts."
Today, that was not the case. Children seemed to be all over, the younger ones close to the house, where many of the women had gathered. Gabrielle was with them. Xena looked for her often, each time the door opened, she hoped it would be Gabrielle. It seldom was. She hadn't really seen her since the boar had been declared ready for consumption. Succulent meat, with browned, crackling fat had been apportioned in fairly equal shares to whoever was on hand. It was the highlight of the day. Gabrielle's satisfaction had shown on her face, as she dug roasted apples from the ashes and handed them around on short sticks. Lady Bountiful, Xena had called her. She had made a face then, self-mocking, but she had played the role beautifully, and she acknowledged it late in the day, when only those who lived close by remained.
"They had a good time, Xena, didn't they?" she asked.
"A great time."
"And they were good," she mused. "It wasn't at all like the peddlers' gathering."
"There was no profit to be made here, Gabrielle, it was all free for the taking.
Besides, I think that riot scared them all."
"Couldn't be that they knew you were watching their every move," she asked with a raised eyebrow.
Xena quirked a smile in reply. Her only crisis of the day had been a tipsy man who'd fallen in the embers of the roasting-pit. "It doesnt matter. You gave them a nice day." She ended with a kiss on the forehead, then sat wearily on one of the long benches and pulled Gabrielle on to her lap. "Xena, I have things to do," she protested.
"What else is there to do? Clean up the mess? Hermia's got it under control, and I haven't seen you all day. Just sit for a minute."
"Now don't pretend you care what these people think. If I cared what they thought, I'd guess they'd figure I'm some paragon of virtue for having put up with them all day, when I'd much rather have been sitting here, like this." She wished that everyone would take her broad hint and leave at last, but the crowd in the house now were the original invitees, were close neighbors, and were in no hurry to leave. Xena had just resigned herself to this when the door flew open, as if caught by a sudden gust of wind. All eyes turned there, and Arthea entered the room. She was well fitted out in a colorful frock, matched by a multi-striped head scarf, that covered one side of her face.
"Hello, folks," she said cheerily. "Don't look as if you've seen a ghost."
Gabrielle rose from Xena's lap. "Arthea. Welcome. I didn't think you'd be coming at this hour."
Damn, she'll want to stay the night at this hour, Xena knew.
"It was hard getting away," she replied, with supplying any details.
"Is Lutus with you?" Gabrielle asked.
"Okay. Well, then, have a seat, and let me give you some supper. Hermia, could you warm things up, please?"
Arthea will see to that, she thought, but nodded agreeably, and turned to the hearth.
"Xena, nothing to say to an old friend?" she asked.
"You always were a woman of few words," she said, in case anyone had not caught on that she'd known Xena before.
"Yeah," Xena agreed. "I've got to feed the horses," she apologized, and was gone.
Those remaining looked around uncertainly. They had all met Arthea; Ileander had shared the convict chain with her, yet no one knew what to say to her. Sepra stepped forward with a mug of ale, warmed and sweetened with honey.
"It's getting a bit chilly, you'll want this," she said with a warm smile. Arthea welcomed it, and drew her scarf off with a flourish. The left side of her face bore the mottled bruise left by an open hand across her face. She watched their faces, then volunteered:
"Lutus was something of a brute." She drained the ale with one quaff, than tucked into the stew. "I wanted a ride with the wagons which came here today with food, but Lutus would have seen, as he helped load the meat," she said between mouthfuls. "So I waited until no one was about. It wasn't easy to find rides for little bits of the way. I'm not going back," she finished.
"Of course, not," Gabrielle said. Hermia held her breath, dreading what she feared would be Gabrielle's next words. "I wish Xena and I had room for you." Hermia's breath whooshed out with her relief. The young one was learning.
Arthea, showed her teeth in what was nearly a smile. She munched on a chunk of brown
bread, seeming to consider her options. "I expect I'll find someplace. You never know
what this place will hold for you. I'm sure Xena's still surprised her plans didn't work
"Plans?" Gabrielle's eyes narrowed with interest.
"Yeah. About escaping."
"Escaping?" Gabrielle echoed. "What plan is that?"
"We all have little plans circling upstairs all the time, Gabrielle. Keeps us alert. You never know," Drax said hastily.
"You know what I mean Drax," Arthea said confidentially. "None of us could figure why Xena would submit to those bastards. She could have beaten them all with one hand tied. She proved that," she snorted happily. "We figured it was by choice, for some reason we didn't know. But we were certain she'd be off as soon as it suited her. Then, it all changed. She's here, and she's staying." The room was still as death. "The way we saw, it was all connected to you, somehow. She certainly went crazy when she saw you in the camp."
Gabrielle stood immobile clutching the edges of the table; it had gotten very warm. The horror of that evening in the camp, when the convicts had overturned the cistern, and Xena was beaten, all came back to her. Why had Xena been so enraged? She had never understood. Arthea's words made an awful sort of sense.
"Drax?" Her voice sounded strange, even to her. "Is this true?"
His long silence was answer enough. When he finally began to speak, she had no need to hear it. "Thanks," she cut him off. "I know what I need to know."
"Gabrielle?" Arthea's voice dripped sincere apology. "I thought you'd know, being as you and Xena - "
"I didn't know," she said dully. "I guess I was the only one."
Sepra had begun to gather things for the walk home. Hermia, wrapped a wooly shawl around Lilla's thin shoulders, then put a strong hand on Arthea's arm. "If you want a warm place to sleep tonight, you'd best come with me. Now."
"Gabrielle," Drax tried again, speaking softly, for her ears alone. "I tried to keep you from following, I would have told you that last night, if you'd shown any sign that you were coming "
"I know Drax. Thanks." Her eyes were on the hearth-fire, burning low. She made no sign when Ileander bid farewell. At last the house was quiet.
Xena raised her head, surprised to hear Gabrielle entering the shed. "I'll be through in a minute," she told her without looking up from her brushing.
"Take your time."
She turned at the odd tone in the bard's voice. "Something wrong?"
"Do you remember the inn we stayed at when we left Prestia?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes," Xena replied warily.
"We were happy there, weren't we? I mean, after all the trouble we had, we were apart for so long, and in that place, everything was perfect for that little while." Xena had stopped brushing Argo. She stood stock still, waiting for Gabrielle to get to the point, afraid what the point might be.
"I called it Elysia. You said you said, it was Elysia; maybe the only Elysia you'd ever know. I don't believe that, there's too much good in you, but it was Elysia." Gabrielle pressed her lips together, and blinked hard. "That's what you meant in Mustrakis, about seeing me in Elysia, wasn't it? You weren't talking about the afterlife, you meant the here-and-now. You were arranging a rendezvous, weren't you? Telling me where to wait for you, until you escaped." She fixed a her eyes on Xena, waiting for an answer.
"Yes." Xena returned her gaze, unflinching, trying to read her eyes.
"And I was too dumb to get it, wasn't I? Once again, little Gabrielle didn't do what she was told. I just handed King Tarkian the last nail to bang into your coffin." She laughed shortly. "The nail? Great Zeus, I held the hammer."
"No, Gabrielle." Xena moved toward her, arms open. Gabrielle took a step back.
"Don't deny it, Xena. Arthea told me."
"Arthea? What would - "
"Drax confirmed it. Now I understand why you were so angry with him. You expected him to keep me away, but I outsmarted him," she said in self derision. "Oh, I was clever; so clever, I went to beg mercy for you, and Tarkian gave me the key, the key to lock you up here forever. So when you saw me," her voice dropped to a whisper, "when you saw me, you had to go berserk. I mean, what else could you do? You endured that brutal march I wondered why you put up with it, why you didn't have some plan to just leave. But see you did have a plan, to get me safely away, then you'd just walk out of Tartarus, I mean, you escaped from the real Tartarus, how hard could it be. Then you would meet me in Elysia." Her voice broke on the words. "And it was a good plan; your plans always are, but I spoiled it. I had to follow you. How can you even look at me?" she ended abruptly. She turned to the wall, head buried in her hands. Xena moved behind her, wrapped her in strong arms, and waited for the spasmodic sobs to slow. Sometimes tears had to be shed. She envied Gabrielle the ability to cry, and let her body purge whatever could be carried away by tears. At last, her body stilled, and she was quiet, except for a helpless sniffle.
"Here." Xena produced a cloth from somewhere, and turned her around, overcoming a small resistance. Slowly, tenderly, she wiped the bard's face, dabbed at her eyes, and held the cloth at last before her red nose. "C'mon, blow," she urged. "I can't talk to you if stuff is dripping." Gabrielle was too distraught to laugh, but she knew Xena's intention; she surrendered gratefully, and blew.
"Better," Xena pronounced. "Now, sit down." There was an air of authority in her voice that Gabrielle found oddly comforting. She settled on the deep pile of hay, and looked up at the warrior, who seemed at that moment to be ten feet tall.
"First, and I mean this: I don't want Arthea around here."
"Xena, it wasn't only Arthea, I had the feeling everyone has known all along, except- "
"But no one said anything. Only Arthea. She wasn't talking as a friend."
"She's the only one who would tell me the truth," Gabrielle pointed out.
"What truth is that? Some truth that places this whole mess on your shoulders? That I had planned on escaping Tartarus as soon as I arrived? Yeah, that's true; but it's just a tiny corner of the scroll, Gabrielle. The truth you need to believe is a lot bigger." She spoke with slow deliberation, anxious that Gabrielle really hear her words. "The truth is, that I was sentenced here because of things I did long before we met. The truth is, that I never found a way to make my message clear. How could you have known that Elysia meant the inn? That was a long shot, at best."
"You made it clear I was to stay away; I followed anyway," she said flatly.
"Yeah, you followed." She shook her head, allowed a small smile. "Never could break you of that habit. I remember the first time you followed me; it took me a long time to understand why you did that; longer still to believe it. If you had listened to me then, I don't know where I'd be. Dead, most likely; in another Tartarus. Or wishing I was dead." She lowered herself to the hay, never taking her eyes from the anguished face. "Are you hearing me, Gabrielle? You don't know how it is to wake up day after day, to just nothing. You changed all that. Made me change. I fought it," she admitted, "but losing never felt so good."
"Xena, that doesn't change - "
"What? That you followed me? That you said, one more time, with your actions, that we share one life? I love you for that," she said fervently. "I had stopped believing that anyone could ever love me that way."
"Xena, no. You are so easy to love."
"Only for you, Gabrielle. The gods alone know why."
"Then I know what the gods know," she said solemnly.
Xena nodded, seeing a new peace in Gabrielle's eyes. "Then you know I'm glad you're here, with me. It's where you belong." Gabrielle nodded. Xena drew her close, and lay down on the hay. It was cold; they'd be wiser to move inside, but it had been a long time since they'd been together outdoors. She missed the campfires, the dark canopy overhead, Argo stamping nearby, and the occasional borrowed corner of a barn. It was where they got to know each other, discovered how best to give and receive joy.
"For whatever your reasons, Gabrielle, thank you for following me." She stilled the bard's lips with own.
Chapter Twenty One
This was a day off. Xena never said anything, but neither did she rise at dawn. Argo neighed impatiently, watching her suddenly indolent mistress stretch and turn over in the hay. Gabrielle brushed a wisp of hay from her nose, and snuggled deep into the blanket, vaguely aware that when shed fallen asleep she had only Xena to keep her warm. The memory made her smile, and she reached out to feel her again.
"Whered you get to," she asked, sleepily, eyes still closed.
"Right here." She molded herself to the womans form immediately. "Im not going any place."
Right, Gabrielle thought, not for at least five minutes, but she relaxed into the warmth of her lover, loving the breath that felt so good against her neck, reveling in the impossibly soft flesh that masked so much raw power.
Much later, she woke again, sun peeking through the crack between the shutters. Gods, she thought, its late; wonder why Xena didnt wake me? The answer was a heartbeat away: Xena was still asleep. "This place is getting to you Xena, " she whispered, half to herself. I think that might be good, she mused. Or maybe not. "Xena?" She waited for a mumbled reply. "Are you just sleeping in? You arent sick?"
"Just tired. You wore me out last night."
"I didnt notice," Gabrielle countered.
"Yeah, well, I managed to keep up. Barely," she grinned, then gave the bard a gentle squeeze. "Beautiful, smart, brave, sexy, and you throw a great party. How'd I get so lucky?"
"You don't have to cheer me up any more, Xena. I'm okay."
"Cheer you up?" She rose on her arms to loom over her. "You'd think I never told you that before. Well, not the bit about the party. When you add a new skill, I have to stop and add it to the list."
"When I add a new skill?"
"Sure, think of all the things you've learned since you've been with me."
"I'm sure you were always smart, always could talk, so we don't have to look at that."
"True," Gabrielle agreed. "My mother could tell you stories that would - " She broke off.
"I'm sure she could." I'm sorry, Gabrielle, she thought, then fought against the melancholy that hung in the air. "I could tell stories about the brave bard, and her staff. You've become a master with that thing."
"Thing? Excuse me Warrior Princess, it's not a thing. We've bonded, like you and the chakram. It shares my Amazon spirit," she said proudly.
"I think that's where you got the party thing, from the Amazons. It's in their blood."
"Yeah," she said surprised at the gush of tears which escaped her.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry. You miss them."
"A lot. I really felt that we were all sisters, all different kinds of people, but all sisters. How could I not miss them? Don't you?"
"Yes; not in the same way, maybe. It's not the same for me. I mean, I like them. Sometimes I envy them, but I'm not close to them the way you are."
"Because you don't want to be close. You know they think of you as one of the tribe."
Since I tried to kill you? she thought to herself.
Maybe not quite as much since you broke Ephiny's arm trying to kill me, Gabrielle thought.
"I wouldn't mind seeing Ephiny right now; or Jalani," Xena admitted.
"I wonder if they think of us?"
"Could they forget their queen?" Xena asked, seriously. Gabrielle's eyes grew unfocused, seeing another time and place. Xena shook her gently. "Gabrielle. If we think of what's gone, we'll go crazy," she warned. "Focus on now. I'll take you for a ride," she offered seductively.
"Not to Hermia's," she replied. "I don't want to see Arthea again."
"Not Hermia's. Some place special."
"There. Wasn't this worth the ride?" Xena dropped Argo's reins, held Gabrielle's hand loosely, and walked a few paces up the knoll to a sun-warmed mound of lush grass.
Gabrielle looked around before sitting, then looked wonderingly at Xena. "It's nice, Xena," was her comment.
"Nice? Gabrielle, it's better than 'nice', " she insisted. "When is the last time you've been this warm out of doors? It's still like summer here. No; better: it's like spring. The green is still fresh and young." She shook her head, baffled at the lack of enthusiasm. "Gabrielle, come on, try. It even smells like home."
The bard sniffed diffidently. "Maybe your home," she decided. "I'm sorry, Xena. Don't be angry, I just don't think it's so special."
"I'm not angry. Why do you always think I'm angry?"
"No. Yes," she admitted. "I like it here. I feel so good, I wanted to share it with you."
"Thank you for wanting to share. She squeezed the warrior's hand. "This just isn't my kind of place, I guess. Can we leave now?"
Xena nodded sullenly. "Okay. Let's go. I've got work to do."
The work seemed never ending for a few weeks. Hunting, mostly. There was little left to gather once the thick frost was on the ground. Cramma had parsnips, turnips, and honey from her apiary. She was always anxious to trade for game. Fish were caught and smoked on a long pole Xena suspended between two trees. They would keep through the winter, a ready store of food. 'We'll be fine," she told Gabrielle, one eye always on the mountains to the north and west, one ear alert for the howls of wolves. She thought she heard them some nights, amid the eastern wind. Gabrielle would feel their presence soon enough, she knew, and always answered the anxious question the same way: "It's just the wind."
There came a morning when Gabrielle woke shivering, despite the fire blazing in the hearth. The warming stones tucked amid the blankets had long since grown cold. Xena was draping a shaggy rug over the door. "Great Zeus, Xena, will it always be this cold?" Xena glanced over her shoulder, and smiled reassurance.
"I've just got to close off some of these drafts. Should make a big difference. Breakfast is ready, if you're hungry. Something warm in your belly should help." She turned back to the door. Gabrielle ladled out a thick gruel, which had cooked while they slept, carried it to the table, and watched Xena while she ate. "It feels better already," Gabrielle said, from under the blanket she had wrapped around her. "Seems like a good day to stay inside."
"Seems like. Wish we could." Xena agreed. Gabrielle filled another dish, placed it next to her own and poured on a generous helping of honey.
"Gabrielle, that's too much."
"You're complaining? She tapped her forehead, thinking hard. "Can't recall the last time you thought anything was too sweet."
"You know what I mean," Xena objected. "That honey has to last the winter."
"Cramma will give us more. I think she likes you."
Xena gave her an evil look. "I'm not the one who had a private tour of the apiary."
"I think she was hoping the bees would sting me to death to clear the way to
you." She smiled, dipped a finger in the honey and held it to Xena's lips. "You
really like Cramma's honey?"
"I like yours better."
"I can't think of a better reason to stay inside," she purred.
"Something to look forward to," Xena countered, "after chores."
"You are rather single-minded in your purpose, Xena," she told her petulantly.
"I'd rather be warm and full than cold and hungry all winter. You'll thank me in the end," she predicted smugly.
"I know; it still kills the mood. After a few hours traipsing around the countryside we'll be cold, and tired - "
"All right. You stay in today. I just want to check the snares, we might get lucky there, then look for the boar. I know a big one's been rooting around, I see all the signs, just can't track him. Today should be easier."
"Why is that?"
"Have a look," she moved to a window and pulled a shutter open. The wind was nasty, skidding over a thin layer of white that had changed the landscape enough to make Gabrielle forget the cold. "Xena, it's beautiful! Why didn't you tell me?"
"Thought I'd stand a better chance of getting you outside," she shrugged. "But I've given up on that, so you may as well enjoy it before it's gone; and I'd like to track that boar while he might still leave prints in the snow." It was not a deep or lasting snow, just a veneer, frosted with an icy sheen. The sun would do its work, though she had no doubt the clouds overhead held more of the same. "If I leave now, I can maybe get him before it turns nasty again. I can get the wood in later."
"Will you be gone long?"
"No. Sure you don't want to come?"
"You'll move faster alone. And you'll be quieter. Just be careful."
"Always. You stay inside, keep the door barred. There shouldn't be anyone around looking for trouble on a day like this, but, well, you know what to do." She waited for an answering nod, then donned her weapons. Gabrielle reached to draped a long, gray cloak over Xena's shoulders, and stopped briefly in her arms before releasing her with a kiss. "Don't be long. I hate it here without you."
There was nothing in the snares, and Xena's mood was a little soured as she followed the track that skirted the forest. If she was right about the boar, he'd been feeding here, and would likely have left some sign other than his droppings. "Footprints would be nice," she told Argo, scanning the ground, leaving it to Argo to pick her way over the frozen surface. She carried a long spear in her right hand, resisting the urge to don the furry mittens she carried in the saddlebag. "Another mile, then we go home, Argo," she said after a while. "Looks like no luck today." It grew colder as she wandered in the shadow of the mountains, the wind whipped as if anxious to bend all to it's will, and the mare whinnied her agreement at the sound of 'home'.
"One more place to look, girl." There was a gentle slope which she knew led to a broad, deep stream. It fed the River Pern further on; here it was almost inaccessible for most purposes, having cut a deep channel for itself over long centuries. The steep bank was thickly studded with trees, eager to drink in this uncertain climate. The boar seemed to have slept in this day, but something was bound to be about. She hated to go home empty handed.
The sound was almost drowned by the rushing water, but Xena had been listening for animals, so that's what she heard. Only this was not the grunt of a boar, but the bleating of a goat. It had to be one of Sepra and Archon's flock; Xena couldn't believe one of Natrakia's would be so far from home. "C'mon, Argo, one more job; Gabrielle will have to wait a little longer."
She followed the sound along the bank until it seemed to come from right below, then dismounted to peer over the steep bank. There it was, half in the water, front hooves flailing wildly at the bank which was just beyond its reach. "Won't be a minute, Argo." She felt sorry for the small creature, half frozen, helpless despite its best efforts. "I'm coming," she said softly, hoping a human voice would comfort the animal. It was not quite a lamb, but close enough to evoke memories of the efforts made in Amphipolis to save even one member of a flock. She eased around an enormous tree which teetered above the bank, and picked her way down the slope.
It was a smallish goat, a billy, and when she reached for it she regretted not having brought the rope. She'd get more than a few bruises with a struggling goat in tow while she hauled him up the bank. Still, the whip was at her hip, and it would be enough. She couldn't grasp him without immersing one foot in the icy stream. Let's be quick about this, she told herself, hearing in the back of her mind what Gabrielle would have to say about keeping your feet dry in winter. She was smiling when she finally got a good grip on the goat and wrenched him free of what must have been roots holding him to the spot.
She was still smiling when the tree, which had stood for all the living memory of Tartarus left its spot and moved toward her, swiftly, in near silence. Xena turned at the odd sound of frozen earth being lifted away from itself, had one awful moment to see the dark form hover for a moment between earth and sky, then descend in a vicious free fall. In that moment she let go of the goat, and turned toward the bank, beginning a frantic leap, too late to get clear. Her right side met the tree, but she was moving with it, absorbing the blow as it carried her into the bank. Instinct told her the ground would be softer than the tree, and she was carried downward so that her left hip would make first impact, just below the water line, where it would not be frozen. Instinct couldnt tell her that an enormous slab of rock waited there for her. She only knew that when her hip seemed to tear apart. Then the seconds of furious motion were over, and all grew still.
It took a long moment for Xena to absorb what had happened. She was dimly aware of the little goat scrambling up the bank, in an eternity of frozen time, sending clods of dirt down on he head. She seemed to wake as if from a dream, the strange image still in her head. A snort of ironic laughter escaped her, then she caught her breath at the pain. Something was pressing against her hip, forcing its way through. She tried to move away from the object; impossible. The tree was on her, pinning her to the bank. One leg was bent under her, the knee pressed into the muck of the stream bed; the other seemed suspended in the water, no longer under her control. Her face was half turned to the bank; all she could see was half-froze ground inches from her eyes. She found she could move one arm, and used it to grasp a root which hung above her. Her right arm was tight against her body. She twisted it, tried to pull it from under the tree. No good. Normally, she could wade the deepest part of this stream without getting her head wet. Now she was angled so that her body was in water almost to her neck. This was very bad.
"Argo," she called, then whistled. There was no acknowledgement. It hadnt occurred to her that Argo wouldnt be there, or maybe had been hurt somehow.
"Argo." She didnt like the note in her own voice. She couldnt help herself, let alone help Argo. It was not yet close to midday. Gabrielle would start wondering why she was away so long in another hour, maybe two. Wondering would turn to worry; by late afternoon, when the sun was low in the sky, she would decide to take some action. What? A search on foot? How long before she would come this way? In the dark, what could she find? It might take days, even if she enlisted aid. Days. She let the consciousness of pain intrude on her thoughts for a few moments, felt the full effect of the aching, icy water. How long can you last in this, Xena? Days didnt seem likely. Maybe Argo had already gone to get help. If shed been unconscious, the horse might not have waited for a command; but she didnt know if shed been unconscious. Argo was just not there.
The horse had seen it all, watched the tree topple, and waited for Her to come up the bank. The little goat had startled her; still she waited with a patience born of experience. She always came back, later, if not sooner. She could smell Her still, could find Her anywhere by scent alone. That gave her comfort. After a time the scent grew faint; the water scent filled her nostrils. She whinnied, stamped her feet, reminding Her that she was there. No response. This was worrying. She ventured as far as she dared to the edge of the bank, where the ground threatened to crumble beneath her. She was there, and not there. The Other should be here. It was hard to leave; long after she had turned away from the stream she listened in vain for the sound of Her voice.
There were man-smells all along the route to the Other. Argo avoided them, the traps and plumes of smoke around which men clustered. She saw none of them, and they did not see her. She followed the meandering trail they'd come along that morning, moving faster. She was not hunting now, just returning to the Other. Something told her speed was important. There was a man-smell that she knew, like goats, like the little goat that ran past her at the stream. She recognized that, and slowed. This scent was in the house, and on Her, often. It was on the Other, as well. After a few moments pause, the golden mare altered course to come nearer to the man-smell.
Archon had hoped the weather would hold off until he found the lost billy. Stupid animal, he swore, all the time knowing he'd miss the little fellow if he was never found, if the wolves got him, or - " He stopped in his tracks. Xena's horse was in the path ahead, riderless, as if waiting for someone. Waiting for me, he realized as he grew near. "Argo?" He believed that was her name. It was odd to see her alone. He reached for her reins, but she took a step back; so much was established. "All right," I won't come to near," he said, holding his hands before him. "Where's Xena, then?" he asked, more to himself than to her. If Xena needed help, the dumb animal would be no use finding her. Damn! He couldn't let the horse roam loose around here, between wolves and horse thieves, her life would be worth nothing. "You'd like a nice, warm, stall, wouldn't you girl," he said, advancing slowly, "and Xena would want you to come with me." He reached suddenly for the reins, again, and Argo shook with indignation at his effrontery, backing further away. She looked over her shoulder as she moved back on course. Archon scratched his chin, then turned back to the search for his goat.
There came a time when Xena stopped moving, stopped twisting, stopped trying to dig away the bank with her free arm. She hadn't given up, but was hard pressed to think of a new approach to the problem. Just out of her sight a massive tree had enough of its weight on her to keep her pinned forever, if help never came. The sun had passed its zenith; it's rays no longer shone on her. That little bit of warmth had made quite a difference, she knew, now that it was gone. Fresh precipitation had started to fall, a steady rain, which quickly turned to a steady stream of sleet. As cold as she was, it made little difference, except that it was even less likely anyone would happen upon her. Less likely that Gabrielle would have any friendly company, Drax, or Archon, who might offer to keep an eye open. Gabrielle would be starting to worry, listing all the reasons why worry was foolish, why Xena would come through the door at any moment. Only she wouldn't be coming through the door any time soon. Maybe not ever, unless help arrived. "Arragh!" she grunted in a renewed effort to free herself. She wouldn't leave Gabrielle here, alone. She'd chew through the blasted tree first. If only she could reach it. The movement after so long made her feel good for a moment. But the constant efforts had exhausted her. Everything seemed to have slowed, including her mind. She wondered how long she'd be conscious. She spit a mouthful of water against the bank. The water level had been rising steadily for some time, fed by the runoff from the mountains. It was made worse by the tree which dammed the water in a pool around her. She tightened her grasp on the root above, and wrapped it around her forearm. If she drifted off it might serve to keep her head above water. "I'm trying, Gabrielle," she whispered.
Argo had turned down the track which led to the Other. She was moving faster than was safe on the icy turf, anxious to be there, now that she was so close. Then she saw them:
two horses, on a distant ridge, the first she'd seen all day. Her nostrils flared at their scent. She had fought the men who rode these horses. She could smell the strong foreign scent even at this distance. They were very close to home, to the Other. They had seen her now, and started towards her with cries and whoops. She reared, snorted her contempt, and veered off in a new direction.
"Artemis for the Amazons. Ares for me." It was a measure of her desperation that her mind had strayed to consideration of the Olympians. It was a long time since she'd prayed; even longer since she'd offered a prayer for herself. Unless she counted the deal she'd made with Ares, in Prestia. He'd never come to collect; she snickered to think he may have missed his chance. Odd he hadn't shown up here, in Tartarus. There were certainly plenty of his sort here, more thugs than warriors, mostly, but they would soon have a fine new temple to Ares where they could worship, offer sacrifices. Like my father. Enough; she roused herself, lifted her chin out of the water, and tried to understand if it was getting dark, or her vision was dimming. Was that an effect of extreme cold? She couldn't remember ever hearing that, but she was in new territory here. Anything was possible. Anything possible. Lao Ma had said that; she'd proven it to be so. For a few moments Xena had known that power. Power to turn that tree to splinters, she thought. "I'm not that good," she said aloud; not now.
There was only one goal now: speed. They wouldn't chase her forever, Argo knew; they couldn't. But she could run forever, if need be, for Her, or for the Other. She ran for them now, as she had never run. The other horses were good, kept pace on the flat ground, followed at a distance up a slope, careened after her as she descended the slope at a dangerous clip. All the time they put distance between themselves and the Other. There was a wood, Argo knew, that loomed suddenly after a wide ridge. She was headed for that, in an arcing circle, she would lose them there, these ponies of the plains, all pounding speed. Try to keep up amid the roots and rocks. She took the ridge at a gallop, and plunged into the thick of the wood, dodging trees as she flew by, listening, beyond the pounding of her own heart, for her pursuers.
It was something of a mercy that the stream was sheltered from the wind. She heard it, occasionally heard twigs snap off the trees above her, but she was shielded from its worse effects. There was something of a lull in the afternoon, as usual, then she heard it again, back with a vengeance. And she heard the wolves for the first time. She hadnt seen any game all day, none had ventured down t the stream. The wolves would be hard pressed for game, too. She knew that her scent would be largely masked by the water. Argos scent would have faded long ago, unless her carcass was just above, growing stiff in the cold. That would bring the wolves soon enough.
Chapter Twenty Two
This was the first day Gabrielle had spent anytime writing since the night of the earthquake. She tired to find inspiration in the weather. Cold, snow and ice were not new to her, but she had never known it long enough to write about it. She wrote some fanciful lines, likening it to everything from diamonds to milk. "Not very original," she'd decided, and tired instead a tale of a thing of ice, terrorizing the locality until its heart was melted by love. "Trite," she declared, wondering if the people of the North had any such myths of their own. Xena would know, she decided, and determined to press the warrior for a story when she returned. It was early; Xena wouldn't be back for some time. Time to try a new direction. Write about what you know, she reminded herself, and looked around for a subject. She knew the little house; in a few weeks she had come to know it as well as her childhood home in Potadeia. She had learned to adjust the flue so that the house didn't fill with smoke, discovered which parts of the hearth burned too hot for baking, and knew where to work when Xena was out of doors, so that she could make frequent visual checks through the open shutters. She could write about Xena; she knew her better than anything else, and still unearthed new mysteries. The woman seemed to have lived ten lifetimes, considering all she knew, who she knew, where she had been. Those stories were well recorded, some in scrolls she had yet to share with Xena. It was, oddly enough, more fun to learn the little things: what flowers made her sneeze, the places where the merest touch could make her helpless with laughter, her trick of moving each eye independent of the other. The fact that she was accomplished at needlepoint had astonished Gabrielle when Cyrene revealed it to her. She was used to Xena's skill with a needle mending torn flesh, so it shouldn't have been a surprise, but the delicate flowers she produced were. So, she'd write today about Xena, once again.
Two hours later, she threw down the quill in frustration. It was no good to write about Xena when she missed her so much. It was just a few hours, but she wasn't used to being away from her. You can't spend twenty-four hours a day with someone, for years, and not feel a void when she wasn't there. She could list all the times, all the reasons they'd been apart, and ache thinking about them. "Okay, Xena, you'd better have a whole herd of something after being gone this long." Her voice sounded small in the still house.
She gave up writing at midday, ate some bread and cheese, and unbarred the door long enough to get a good look at the weather. It was colder than before, if anything. Icy pellets struck her face, whipped by a ferocious wind. No sign of Xena. She took her lower lip in her teeth, and compiled a mental list of all the things Xena could be doing that would have caused a delay: tracking a boar, or some other game; butchering some animal to avoid lugging the whole thing home some distance, aiding someone in distress. She barred the door again, lit another lamp, and put another log on the fire; Xena would be frozen when she returned.
Lamplight during the day was always depressing to the bard. The daytime was meant for sun and air, not gloomy dark corners illumined by sputtering lamps. She didn't know how she'd last a whole winter with this light. It made her mood black, as if it wasn't dark enough. The sun was moving lower, and Xena had still not returned. It had become a lot harder to find reasons for her continued absence. They were all still possible, but not likely. Xena would not have stayed away the whole day. She'd been almost obsessive about not leaving the bard alone for long. At the edge of her mind Gabrielle began to entertain dark thoughts, of accidents, violence, injury: worries that Xena would have condemned as a waste of energy. "Don't worry, act," she'd said a thousand times. "If you can't act, plan for when you can act." Good advice. So the bard thought ahead. If Xena was gone much longer, she'd have to do something about finding her. That meant Drax, most likely. He and Ileander were staying in Hermia's barn for the time being, until something better was available. She could get there fast enough on foot, faster still if she could ride the other horse safely, but she wouldn't risk that. How much longer to wait, was the question. Until dark? It would be harder to find her then. Twice she threw a cloak over her shoulders, and twice she hung it back on the hook, afraid she was being premature. When she had to put yet another log on the fire, she determined it was time to act. She carefully tended the fire so that the embers would kindle a new blaze on her return. She took a lantern, got a rope from the shed, and set off, cloak clutched tightly around her, staff in hand. She looked a long time at the direction Xena had gone that morning, then set off at a run for Hermias.
It had become a question of inches now. So far she was able to keep her head above water, barely, for a few moments at a time, long enough to get a breath, before she relaxed her body, letting her face sink halfway into the frigid water. Her eyes were still above water, and she took a dispassionate measure of the depth of the water against the bank. At the rate it was rising She lifted her head for another breath, and set a simple goal: to find the strength for the next breath. Cmon Gabrielle, where are you?
Argo whinnied outside the door for only a few minutes before setting off again. The scent of the Other was too strong, and it seemed to be stronger the further she moved from the house. She trotted along a track shed followed many times.
Gabrielle heard hoof beats behind her, and turned, relief already dawning in her eyes. It died there at the sight of the riderless horse. Argo didnt stop until she was upon her, then shoved her nose against her, conveying the urgency that had driven her so far. There was no point asking about Xena, the message of the horse was clear enough, and she mounted with a simple command: "Take me to her, girl."
Argo moved swiftly along the return journey. Gabrielle recognized the track as one of Xena's regular hunting routes, except that the horse seemed to make unexplained forays, detours, which seemed to take her out briefly in another direction. There must be method in her madness, the bard decided. Before each detour she'd stop, suddenly, and sniff the air. That could only mean some unseen danger; Gabrielle wondered if it was somehow connected to Xena, and whatever had befallen her. She tried not to think too much about that. It occurred to her that she should have brought some medical supplies, bandages at least; she wondered what Xena had in the saddlebags.
At last she understood what made Argo alter course so many times: they crested a bluff and sound carried clearly to them, the sounds she often heard at night, which Xena dismissed as wind: the howling of wolves. Argo stopped, as if uncertain where to go. Gabrielle couldn't tell from which direction the sounds came. Argo pawed the ground in front of her, as if anxious to go that way, then plunged a few yards to her left, then back to her right, hesitant. "Argo, go to Xena," she urged. Whatever danger the horse was evading was an obstacle to the goal. It couldn't go on this way. They're only wolves, Gabrielle, she told herself. "Xena, girl. Take me there." Her voice was not quite a command, but it gave the horse license to do what she most wanted to do, and she dashed forward, wolves be damned.
There was a sound on the bank above, Xena 's head broke the water. As she inhaled, she listened. No horse, no boots. A padding of paws against the ice-crusted ground. She fought against the cold induced trembling which shook her body, trying to be still, hoping it would go away. It didn't. It was alone, anyway, she knew by the sound. She couldn't turn her head enough to follow its progress down the bank; she had to wait until he had negotiated his way down the slope, and was able to look her in the eye. Wolf.
Slim pickings, today. A wolf would normally avoid humans; Xena wondered if the strong goat scent had lingered all this time, drawing the wolf to the spot. It made little difference, he was here, looking at captive prey. She returned his stare, afraid to look away, while she considered her limited options. If she submerged totally he might lose interest. Of course she might drown before that happened. If he decided to attack, he'd have a hard time without himself plunging into the icy stream. That might be the deciding factor. On the other hand, her left arm might be a tempting target, suspended as it was above her head, wrapped around with strong roots. It was the hold that kept her from slipping under the water, but it had gone numb, and the roots had cut deeply into her flesh, starting bloody rivulets down her arm, diluted by the frozen rain. If he decided to tear at her arm, she wasn't sure she could disentangle it from the roots. Fine mess, flashed through her mind, and she pushed the thought away. It didn't help for him to know that. He seemed to share her trepidation. This wolf, with his powerful jaws, and four unfettered legs was puzzled by what he had found in the water. This was no goat. It didn't bleat and struggle, but regarded him on equal terms. No; more than equal; that provoked a snarl. She replied with a snarl of her own. He pawed the ground, emitting a menacing growl from deep in his throat. She couldn't match the growl, but damn, no dumb animal was going to intimidate her. Her own feral instincts flared now, a startling, ferocious power flowed from her, seemed to slam the wolf in the heart. He whimpered, as if struck, took a step back, and scrambled up the bank, bushy tail low, between his legs. Xena collected herself, tried to understand what had passed between them, and finally, gratefully relaxed her arched back.
The wolf broke over the top of the bank at a run, startling a horse and rider. Argo reared, ready to strike with her hooves if he attacked, but he had no fight in him. "Easy, girl," Gabrielle said, after her own frozen moment. Argo went as near to the edge of the bank as she dared, and stopped. Gabrielle slid down, afraid to guess what the wolf's business might have been.
"Xena?" The voice was clear, like a bell in the darkness. Xena moved her lips but her teeth began to chatter and only a shuddering breath escaped. It was enough for Gabrielle.
"I'm here, Xena. Hang on." She surveyed the bank carefully, and placed the lantern where it would shed the most useful light. One foot wrong and she'd be in the stream as well. She tossed off her cloak, took the loose coil of rope from her shoulder and fastened it to the saddle. She tied the other end around her own body, and began a careful descent of the bank. Her feet found hold on rock before she met the water; she knelt, then lowered herself onto her stomach. The back of Xena's dark head was just below, barely visible in the murky darkness. She reached out a hand. Xena started at the contact.
"Xena?" Gabrielle felt her head nod in reply. "We'll get you out in no time."
"We?" she managed, when her face came out of the water.
"Argo's up top. She came to get me." Another nod, not as strong. She couldn't see the spasm of relief that touched the warrior's face. Gabrielle arched up to have a better look at the predicament they faced. Now she noticed the water level, just lapping at Xena's nose and mouth. Every few seconds, Xena's neck would arch to clear her of the water; a quick breath, and she relaxed, face down. The strain must be enormous, Gabrielle realized with a sharp pang. "Are you injured, or just trapped?" she asked, and held her breath until the answer came.
"My hip," was all she said, before she took her breath.
"Okay, don't worry, I'll take care of it." She took her own breath, remembering another tree, another time Xena was helpless. Never mind, she told herself, this isn't then. Think, she commanded herself. The problem would not be getting Xena up the steep bank, but getting her free of the tree. Two possibilities: get the tree off Xena, or get Xena from under the tree. "Xena? Can you move at all?" A long pause, then a strangled "No."
"I don't want to make things worse. If I manage to dig the earth from around you, will - "
The dark head moved violently from side to side.
"Not a good idea then. Okay." She looked at the massive tree, wondered how much of its weight was borne by the water, and shrugged mentally. That made little difference. There was no other way. "Argo will pull the tree away from you, Xena." That won a nod of approval.
"Downstream?" she asked.
"Don't know," Xena said when she rose for a breath.
Damn, of course she wouldn't know. She was turned three quarters toward the bank, she couldn't even see the tree which imprisoned her, much less know how best to move it. "Okay, don't worry," she said again. "We'll take care of it."
She swiveled around on her stomach so that she was stretched vertical to the stream, eased the rope from around her waist, and held it in both hands. It was then that she felt a moment of panic. It wasn't possible. The trunk was huge. She would never be able to encircle it with the rope. Somewhere, impossibly far down its length, branches stuck out at odd angles, some fractured by the fall. Those would serve to hold the rope, if she could get to them. "Xena?" she called, just to make contact. The wait before the response was interminable. "Xena?" she called again, just as Xena called back, coughing on her single word. "Yeah."
"Just hold on, Xena." Please. "Artemis, you never abandon your Amazons, be with me now," she murmured, as she considered her options. Xena would form a loop in the rope, toss it toward the branches, snag the best one, and that would be that. "Well, you can't do that, Gabrielle," she told herself quietly. "You'll have to do this the hard way."
The trunk was slippery, from water, and from the ice which was beginning to form. At the same time, the bark was rough; it made Gabrielle feel better as it grated against her skin, knowing there was something on which to grip. So she inched her way along its length, breath half held, alert for any sign her weight was causing it to settle further. She thought it would be okay; the greater part of the tree's weight seemed to be rather solidly settled on some foundation.
Gabrielle was only a few feet above the stream, a fall would not be fatal, she could wade through the current, waist or chest deep at worst. The trunk, however, was angled so that for much of its length it was several feet above the water. If Gabrielle were to fall off, she wouldn't be able to climb back on mid-stream. She would have to return to the bank and begin the crawl again. No time for that, she told herself, Xena was working too hard to get air; and then, there was the cold. She didn't know how long Xena had been in the water. She had made good time once Argo came for her, but she had no way of knowing how long Argo had stayed with Xena before seeking help. Anytime in that frigid water was too long, even if you weren't injured She pushed that thought away. First things first.
She was within reach of some branches now. The one she chose had to be sturdy enough to bear the strain of the tow rope, and positioned so that the tree would move in the right direction. She watched the current. It was not powerful, but it was moving more swiftly than usual, fueled by the rain. If the tree was pulled off so that it floated downstream, it might be carried away from Xena. At least it wouldn't be propelled into her. So: downstream it was, she decided, and hoped movement in that direction wouldn't cause further harm.
The rope was tied around the branch with a knot Xena had showed her, had insisted she learn. She thought she had done it right, and began the long crawl back, moving as quickly as she dared, clutching the other end of the long rope.
"Xena," she called, as she clambered up the bank, "almost ready." She heard with relief an answering grunt as she double checked the knot which fastened the end of the rope around the saddle horn. That done, she lowered herself carefully down the bank until she was next to Xena once more. She reached out to let the warrior know she was there. "Xena, we're ready. When I give the signal, Argo will pull the tree downstream."
"Mm-m-m," Xena shuddered, "go. Do it."
"I'll give the signal from here."
"No!" The voice was hoarse, but carried an unmistakable note of urgency.
"Xena, I don't want you to be hurt more," she said with as much urgency, but Xena was moving her head to make her point again. She couldn't see her face, but heard her spit water out before speaking.
"You have to cut the rope, once the tree is free."
"Cut it? Xena, it's the only rope I have here. I'll need it to pull you - "
"Cut it!" she repeated, "near the saddle. The tree could pull Argo in " Her voice trailed off, but Gabrielle knew what she meant. Once dislodged, the tree would have new power to do damage. Argo could well be pulled into the stream, and killed. "All right," she said. "I'll cut the rope." There was a knife in the saddle bag, she knew, and as she fished it out, she considered that the rope was long. She could cut it nearer to the tree, and save a good part of it. As close to the tree as possible, she determined. She gave Argo a pat before taking her place where the rope came over the bank. It occurred to her then that the massive base of the tree, with its roots radiating wildly, might roll when the tree went. She'd have to watch that, and be ready to jump clear. "Hold on, Xena," she yelled, giving the warrior no time to object to her position before she gave the command to Argo: Go Argo," she called in a clear voice. The horse had been waiting for the command, and began to move, slowly, steadily, hooves digging into the turf, making progress, moving the fallen tree despite its weight. Gabrielle peered closely over the bank, trying to make out the warrior in the dark. She was suddenly not sure if she would know when the tree had been moved enough
"Xena? Call out when - " She was cut off by a groan which seemed to come from the tree as it began to move. She froze at an immense cracking sound, and watched the tree split along its length, as Argo strained against the rope.
"Oh, Gods," she breathed, seeing half the tree move away, while the rest remained stolidly against the bank, against Xena. At last the split stopped, two thirds of the way down the trunk, leaving the tree in a wide V-shape, the free half bending low into the stream. Then everything seemed to happen at once: water had pooled in the V; when it had enough strength it moved, sweeping the trunk aside, aided by the sturdy mare who continued to pull from the bank. As Gabrielle watched it came to her: in one piece the tree never could have been moved by that stream, but split it two, it was possible. It moved. And now the base of the tree moved with it, turning in an immense circle as it slowly wheeled her way, gouging away the bank, creating its own path to the river. Gabrielle jumped back, leaving it space to move, and saw Argo, impossibly far ahead, absorbed in her task. The rope was still taut, but now the tree had a life of it own, and Xena's words took on a grim urgency. Cut the rope.
"Argo," she yelled; in that moment the horse stopped, and braced itself for whatever danger was held in the young girl's voice, for certainly that was a cry of alarm. "Argo," she heard again, as the bank beneath her feet began to give way, and four hooves sought solid ground. Now she was the object being towed, by the full weight of the dreadful tree. She whinnied in protest, summoned her strength for the uphill struggle this suddenly had become, then just as suddenly, the force pulling her down was gone. She scrambled up the bank, past the rain-soaked girl who held a knife in trembling fingers. Gabrielle shivered from the cold, and from reaction, then put her head down and tore back to where Xena had been trapped for so long.
"Xena?" The bank of the stream had changed dramatically, sculpted by the violent passage of the base of the tree. Gabrielle moved as close as she dared to where she had left Xena, and called below. "Xena?" she repeated and peered down into the darkness.
"Still here, Gabrielle," came the weak reply.
"I'm coming down with the rope." She thought she heard a word in reply as she eased over the bank and lowered herself down the rope as before, anchored to Argo's saddle. Xena was much as before, though her right shoulder was raw where rough bark had had ground against it. Her forearm was still wrapped by the wiry roots which grew from the bank. As before, her face was barely able to rise from the water.
"Was that all right? Did you get hurt?"
"F-f-fine," she stammered, through trembling lips. She had experienced the whole thing as a captive observer, barely capable of feeling, straining to hear, unable to see. Except for a brief, intense pressure which had forced her torso deeper into the mud of the bank, she had little idea of what had happened. The tree was gone, that was all. Gabrielle was here, and "Argo?" she asked.
"Up top waiting for us, so let's get busy. I'm going to put this around your body, Xena; tell me if I hurt you."
She nodded, wanting desperately to see the bard's face, happy to hear her voice so near.
"Yes?" she answered, as she reached her arms around Xena chest, circling her with the rope.
The bard half smiled at the odd request, but began a steady stream of chatter, as her nimble fingers secured a knot. "Good thing you made me learn these knots," she told Xena, then asked: "Can you use your legs at all?"
"Can't feel them," Xena told her.
"Oh. No problem." She half submerged in the stream, feeling carefully for any sign of injury, making sure that her legs were free. It was then that she felt the rock which jutted out from the bank, below the water level. She guessed the tree had slammed her hip against the rock, causing the injury Xena mentioned. Yeah, that would do it, she acknowledged grimly, then looked up the bank to the new task. Argo would haul Xena up, Gabrielle would climb up the bank at her side, easing her over the rough spots. She would brook no argument about this. "Xena, I'm climbing up beside you," she said with some force.
"G-g-ood," was Xena's surprising reply. "Could use c-c-company."
Cautiously, Gabrielle grasped Xena's shoulders. "You can let go of the roots now."
"Can't," she admitted.
Gabrielle looked closer: the roots had cut cruelly into her forearm. Silently, she took the knife and severed the root. She'd free the arm from the roots later. Now she gripped the shoulders and turned her, so that her injured hip was away from the bank, and her face was at last visible. She touched her face briefly, wiped mud from her cheek. Xena managed a faint smile.
"Go, Argo," she commanded the patient mare, who began a steady pull away from the stream. Gabrielle's hand was on the rope, ensuring that the movement was smooth, watching the warrior's face carefully. "Are you okay?" she asked after a few feet. "Just holler if the pain is too bad."
"No pain. Everything's n-n-numb." That was good, and maybe bad, Gabrielle thought, depending on the cause. Maybe their luck would hold and it would only be the cold water and the pressure.
"Good," she said with a broad smile in her voice.
"Yeah," Xena agreed quietly.
The bank had seemed to grow with each trip up or down, now those few yards may have been miles, as the bard inched her way through the mud, finding hand and footholds in the soft earth, one hand always free to check Xena's progress. At last they were at the top. Gabrielle climbed ahead and gripped Xena under the arms to pull her onto the flat earth.
With an effort, Xena turned onto her stomach. Gabrielle understood, and straddled her back, careful to put no pressure on her hip. Swift, practiced fingers stripped the armor from her torso. Then she began a rhythmic pumping of the warrior's back, happy to see the water which was expelled from her lungs. Xena waved her off at last, and lay her head on a forearm to rest.
"Xena, don't sleep just yet. We have to get home, get you warm." Xena nodded, but her eyes were closed. Gently, Gabrielle patted her cheek to rouse her.
"Do you think you can stand, on one leg?" she asked. You can lean on me."
With an effort Xena dragged herself from the attractive edge of sleep, and focused on the question. Her legs might have been blocks of wood. At least they didn't hurt. "I'll try," she replied. With Gabrielle's help, she rose to one knee. Argo was positioned close by, and Gabrielle coiled the rope, so that Xena could use it as a handle to pull herself to a standing position, leaning half her body weight on the bard, left leg hanging useless. She clutched the saddlehorn, and lay her head against the wet fur of the saddle. Gabrielle held her eyes for a moment.
"Xena. Can you sit?"
"Then we'll lay you across the saddle." She repositioned herself under Xena's weight while she considered. "I can't lift you, we know that, but if I just duck underneath you, give you a boost, while you hoist yourself up " It could work. Xena seemed to agree.
So the smaller woman squatted beneath the warrior, head stuck between her legs. "Do I feel good down here?" Gabrielle asked.
"Always," Xena said, with a grin, then gasped.
"What is it?"
"Feelings back," she said, voice shaky. She suddenly began to shiver again; she swayed against the saddle for a long moment.
"Let's go, Xena," Gabrielle said, with new urgency. Now or never, maybe. "On three," she shouted, trying to be heard above the pelting rain. "One." She gripped Xena's thighs. Two." She tested her footing, digging into the soft earth. "Three." With a mighty effort she stood, afraid for a moment that she would collapse under Xena's weight, then Xena's own efforts lifted her off the bard's shoulders, and she flopped across the saddle.
"That wasn't so bad," Gabrielle said aloud.
"No," Xena lied, through teeth gritted against pain. Her guess was that the hip was dislocated, at least. "Gabrielle. Tie me on."
"Right." The bard settled the cloak over Xena's body, then followed Xena's directions to fasten her to the saddle. "Xena, it will be faster if I ride too. I think there's room, and you've been cold so long "
"Sure, Gabrielle. Argo can handle it."
Argo turned her head to Xena's voice, and whinnied in affirmation.
"Gravity is a mortal's best friend," Gabrielle said, not certain whether Xena heard her or not. She thought the injured warrior had been asleep for some time, and counted that a mercy. The ride had been slow, wet and rough at best.
"Kind of jouncy, in these parts," she had said at one point, halting Argo while she adjusted the skins which cushioned Xena's ride.
"Jouncy? Sounds like one of your words," Xena had said slowly.
"I suppose it is. Do you like it?" She lifted the cloak to see Xena's face. Her eyes were shut. She looked so vulnerable there, head hanging upside down, tears came to the weary bard's eyes. "Xena, I'll take care of you," she promised. "Always."
Now, she looked at her again, spoke softly into her ear, while she untied the rope which held her safe. "C'mon Xena," she urged. "We're home." Gods it sounded good to say that. Argo stood outside the door, as close as she could get. If the doorway was just a little bigger, she could have carried Xena right into the warmth of the house.
"A few steps, and you can lie down," she promised. Xena slid off the horse and steadied herself against the sturdy woman at her side. "All set," she hissed, and they took the few steps into the house. Gabrielle had spent a few minutes inside, moving furry skins and blankets near the hearth, and rousing the smoldering fire to vibrant life. Xena seemed to find new energy as she moved toward the warmth, and sank to the blankets with a sigh, of pain or relief Gabrielle couldn't tell. There she gave up all pretence at strength, and lay for long minutes, mouth slack with exhaustion, shivering violently as her body readjusted to the foreign notion of warmth. Gabrielle lay beside her, wishing she wouldn't have to stir for a long time, knowing the comfort was only momentary. At last Xena turned her head to the woman at her side. "Sorry to be so much trouble," she said, voice shaky. "And now you have to put my hip back in place."
"Oh." Gabrielle had seen Xena put her own dislocated shoulder back in place with a mighty whack against a wall. She hoped the procedure wouldn't be similar. "Well, Xena that's something you've never taught me," she said keeping her voice light. "So, what do I do first?"
"Nothing to it," Xena told her. "Half of it's my job. Help me turn my back to the table."
"You aren't going to ram yourself against it?" she queried uneasily.
"Why would I, Gabrielle?" Xena asked, puzzled. "Just need to hold on to something, so that when you pull I won't budge."
"Yeah, and sort of twist it." She stopped, and ran her fingers gingerly over the joint, wincing a little. "Twist a half turn to my left. Should do it."
"Xena, maybe I should go get Hermia to help."
"No, you can do this," she said with quiet confidence.
"Let me get your wet things off, first. I think I'll have to cut the breeches " She stopped at Xena's violent head shake.
"Uh-uh, just do it."
"Xena - " she began, but something in Xena's face hushed her. She thought the warrior was about to cry.
"Gabrielle, it hurts," she confided. "It's screaming now, making up for all those hours I couldn't feel it. Just do it," she pleaded.
Wordlessly, Gabrielle took a grip on the skins and turned them so that Xena could reach overhead and grip the legs of the heavy walnut piece. She positioned herself at Xena' feet, and gripped the leg just above the knee. It was only now in the warmth that she realized how cold Xena's body was. Cold as death. She had touched that flesh before. Xena lifted her head to observe, and Gabrielle was struck by the blue cast about her lips. She turned back to the job, not knowing where to look, trusting that Xena would tell her when she felt it move back into place. Unless she passed out, Gabrielle thought suddenly. What then? That worry ended with Xena's grim command:
Gabrielle pulled, swiftly, and an unexpected cry of exertion escaped her as she felt
the leg move, and twist to her will. She hadn't expected to hear it lock in place. The
noise startled her. Then it was over. Xena lay back, her cheeks red despite the pallor. A
trickle of blood ran from a bite in her lower lip.
"Gods," she gasped, breathless. "That's better."
"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed. She drew the back of a hand over dry lips. "Is that it?" she asked hopefully.
"Yeah. I think there's something broken. Not much to do about it."
"Just here " She touched the side of her hip. "You can take a look. Will you help me undress?"
"Gods, yes, I'm sorry, you must be frozen." She moved to her side.
"Gabrielle." Xena placed a cold hand on her arm. "You " she was fast losing focus now. "Saved me. Don't apologize."
Gabrielle moved swiftly to strip the sodden leather from her body. Like ice. The dark breeches were pulled off slowly. The cold had reduced the swelling to almost nothing. Gabrielle noted, as always, the crude initial seared into Xena's hip, near the crotch. Callisto would never be forgotten, but now she was the least of Gabrielle's concerns.
"Xena, you're bruised all over." Black and blue spots mottled her skin.
"Shivering will do that," she said, making no effort to look.
It sounded like a joke, but not from Xena; not in these circumstances. She'd ask her again tomorrow.
The roots had begun to unravel of their own accord, now that the pressure was off, but she had to use gentle force to pull them away. It was a mercy that the arm still had little feeling; it would a misery tomorrow. Xena lay patiently while Gabrielle cleaned the arm with soft touches, and wrapped it loosely. Now she turned her attention elsewhere. Gabrielle didn't know what she was looking for, but Xena lay on her stomach, head pillowed on one arm, while the bard inspected her horribly bruised left side. If Xena said something was broken, she could only believe it. It looked as if everything must be broken.
"Don't think it's too bad," she told the bard, voice muffled by the blanket which was draped over her upper body. She didn't need to ask how it looked, she'd seen enough injuries to know. "Just needs rest. Nothing to do for it," she said.
"Okay." Gabrielle hoped Xena was right, decided to believe it for the rest of the night, anyway. She was ready to drop, and there was still work to do: Argo waited in the cold, more wood was needed on the fire, and Xena needed something warm inside her.
She tucked the blankets around Xena, and took hot, round stones from near the fire to place strategically under the blankets, close enough to provide warmth without doing harm. She lifted the table enough to angle it so that it provided draft protection for the warrior before the hearth. It would be nice if there was a bed, Gabrielle thought. Xena had wanted a bed She'd think about it later. Now she fetched the water she'd put on to heat, mixed it with wine, and stirred in a generous dollop of honey. From a small earthen jar on the self, she took a small brown cake, the dried juice of the lactuca verosa. She considered briefly whether Xena would want the powerful narcotic, then crumbled it into the cup.
"Xena, one more thing," she said with apology in her voice. "Drink this." She fed spoonfuls to her, slowly, until the wine was mostly gone, and the effort of raising her head and swallowing was too great. Except for the drug, Gabrielle would have drained the cup then, suddenly aware that she was cold, and hungry. More tired than anything.
"Sleep, now Xena." She lowered herself until she could place a kiss on her forehead.
Xena's eyes fluttered with a sudden realization: "I didn't get the wood in."
"Don't worry about the wood."
"We can't be without wood."
"I'll get the wood."
"You can't - "
The question was beyond her strength. Her eyes screwed up with the effort of thinking.
Gabrielle put a hand on her forehead, brushed the bangs back, and spoke gently to her: "Don't worry. I'll take of things. You've taught me well." Now she read the mind behind the furrowed brow. "I'll get food. The water's not far, and I can handle an axe well enough to chop wood for a few weeks."
Weeks. Xena shuddered again. Gabrielle tucked the blanket closer around her neck. "You'll be on your feet in no time. Until then, let go, and trust me. I can do this, Xena."
She pressed her lips against the warrior's cheek. "I was so afraid "
"But you came through the wolves " Her weak voice held a note of pride.
"It wasn't the wolves I was afraid of." She shook her head in self-surprise. "I was afraid for you. Don't leave me, Xena."
"Never Gabrielle." She watched Gabrielle's face until her heavy lids began to close. Gabrielle then told her: "Sleep," and rose to her feet.
"You too, Gabrielle. Sleep."
"Not yet, Xena, I'm all right, and I still have work to do," she said, before realizing that Xena meant far more than sleep. She wanted company there, on the floor. Her eyes were still closed, but her mouth turned up in a small smile when Gabrielle lay down beside her on the floor, making a space for herself under the blanket. She rested her head carefully against the warrior, and wrapped one arm around her shoulders. "Is that comfortable Xena? Am I hurting you?"
"Uh-uh; you feel good. Warm." A long pause. "Argo " she began.
"I'll see to Argo in a minute." She lifted her head to touch her lips briefly to Xena's. They seemed to leave a smile there, and then the warrior was asleep.
Argo had found her way into the shed, trusting the Other to take of things now. There was hay, and water, and it was warm. She could use a rubdown, would like her saddle to be off, would even like her muzzle stroked. All that would come, she knew. For now, she was content.
Chapter Twenty Three
The house was still cloaked in darkness, yet it was time to start the day. Gabrielle longed to stay put, under the blankets, warm, asleep. Yet there was too much to do. Throughout the long night when sleep was welcome, it wouldn't come. She did drift off for a few moments at a time, always to wake with a start, afraid the nightmare had been real. It had been real, she discovered each time, but it was over; Xena was here, at her side, safe. She'd watch the warrior for a few minutes, feel her pulse, listen to her breathing, tuck blankets around her, and change the warming stones when they grew cold. Then she'd settle down again, watching Xena until her eyes closed, and the frantic struggle replayed itself in her dreams and she shook herself awake. That had been the pattern through the long night. She wondered if Xena was reliving the day's events. Impossible; she was serene in sleep, hadn't stirred all night. Of course, she'd had the benefit of the narcotic. She'd sleep until the sun was high. With a half-stifled sigh, Gabrielle eased from under the blankets, shivered in the still dark room, and began her day.
"You shouldn't carry so much; you'll hurt yourself."
Gabrielle gasped and jumped at the unexpected, faint voice. Half the load of wood she carried thudded to the floor, grazing her shin. "Ow!"
"Be careful," Xena went on. "We can't afford to have both of us off at feet at once."
"Xena! When did you wake up?"
"Few minutes ago," she said sleepily. "I heard you chopping wood."
"I'm sorry, I wanted you to sleep - "
Xena's head shook in gentle negation. "It's okay. Very impressive whacks."
"Yeah?" The bard beamed, then nodded, pleased with herself. "I think I did okay. I'm small, but I'm pretty strong. And I've learned that it's not all strength, it depends on hitting just the right spot."
"Like so much else," Xena agreed with a sly smile. "You're pretty good at finding the right spot."
"Hey," Gabrielle laughed, relieved to find Xena awake, in good humor; maybe things would be all right. "You don't sound like someone who was smacked by a tree and half frozen to death just a few hours ago." She collected the wood, piled it hastily near the hearth, and knelt beside Xena, one hand on her forehead, eyes searching the warrior's face. "How are you feeling?"
"Better. I should after all that sleep. The morning's half gone. "
"It's barely past sun-up. Do you need the chamber pot?"
"No," she decided.
"Are you hungry?"
"No. Just thirsty."
"I'll get you something." She began to move away.
"Not yet." The request was undeniable. Gabrielle sank back on to the skins beside her. The warrior still lay on her stomach, face to the fire. She didn't speak, but responded with gentle pressure when Gabrielle took her hand.
"How is your hip?"
"Sore," she admitted, voice husky.
Sore could mean anything, Gabrielle knew, from 'mildly painful' to excruciating.'
"Are you warm enough?"
"Oh, yeah." Her face creased in a satisfied smile.
"It's good to be inside," Gabrielle said after a long silence. "Nothing's falling, but it's damp, and the wind…" Always the wind. Sometimes it seemed to carry voices. She'd have to ask Xena sometime if she heard them; but not now. The blankets rose and fell in the slow rhythm of a sleeper. "Sleep well, love," the bard breathed, before kissing the back of her hand and tucking it under the blanket.
There were candle wicks to be trimmed, soaked wheat berries to set to cook for porridge, and ashes to be swept from the hearth. That done, Gabrielle allowed herself a few minutes to rest. Hermia would likely be by soon. 'The nice thing about bread,' she liked to say, 'was that it would do half the work for you.' Once her bread was set to rise, she looked for company, most days. Gabrielle looked forward to seeing her; she was a little uneasy about Xena's likely reaction. She didn't go looking for company in the best of times. Still, she liked Hermia…No Arthea today, please, Gabrielle asked no one in particular. If the day played itself out as it had begun, in a contented quiet with Xena, she'd consider it a success. Gods, how many times I've wanted Xena to myself, not busy, not dashing all over. I never meant this way.
Archon came by not long after. Gabrielle came from the root cellar to find him standing in the doorway, eyes on Xena, who slept on the floor. "Archon?" she said, a bit angry with herself for being caught off guard. "Gabrielle. I called out; no one answered, so I came in." He nodded toward the door. "You should keep it barred."
"I know. I’ve been in and out all day." It was a poor excuse, she knew.
He entered at Gabrielle's gesture, and stood just inside the door. Gabrielle moved no further. His eyes darted around the room. They settled briefly on Xena, then moved to Gabrielle. He seemed unwilling to look at Xena, as she was.
"I thought something was wrong," he said gravely, "that’s why I’m here." He told her of his encounter with Argo the day before. "I guess I should have forgotten the damn goat and told you, but at the time…"
"I understand," Gabrielle said truthfully; goats were a big part of his survival.
"It somehow never occurred Xena might need help. I did see Hekatore round these parts yesterday. Did he drop in?"
"No," Gabrielle answered. "There was no bleeding."
"Good; he's a strange one. I don't know if he can do what folk say, but me and Sepra don't encourage him coming round. He always seems to know when there's bad trouble. Death."
Gabrielle smiled uneasily, remembering Xena's history with Hekatore. For now, she wished Archon would leave them alone.
"Thank you for coming by, Archon. Truly," she said, taking a step toward the door.
"She’ll be all right?" he asked anxiously.
"Fine. Just needs a little rest."
He nodded, shuffled his feet. "If you need a hand, give a shout."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said. She paused, wondering how Xena would feel about that. Then: "Archon. Could I ask you not to mention this to anyone?"
"Just Sepra," he assured her. "Is there anything that needs doing now?"
"No. Things are under control." For the moment.
"Then I’ll be going. Bar the door," he warned sternly. "It’s not safe when you’re alone…"
"Archon, who’s with Sepra right now?" she asked pointedly.
"That’s different. She’s not likely to be a target. We pay our tribute." He shrugged. "And there’s not much anyone can do about the Tribes. There’d be no living if we worried about them every minute."
She nodded her agreement. He’d put his finger on it: Xena was a target. A sitting duck, now. "I’ll bar the door." For all the good it would do, she thought as she fitted the bar in place.
When Xena woke again, the sun was halfway to its zenith, and a cold light filtered in through the oiled parchment over the windows. She rubbed the back of a hand against dry lips and watched Gabrielle's back for a few moments, guessing from the movement of her shoulders that she was polishing her breastplate. She coughed, at last, so as not to startle the bard again, and the blonde head looked up from the long table.
"Welcome back. I missed your company," she said sincerely. She was beside her again, kneeling this time.
"I feel as if I've been drugged," Xena said as she worked to wet her mouth with saliva. A sudden thought occurred. "You didn't - " she began.
"I did," Gabrielle admitted. "Just one, and you didn't finish it all."
"Gabrielle, don't ever, unless you ask," she said. Her voice was still weak, but her message was firm.
"Xena, you needed it. I know you would have refused. I know how you feel about drugs, but - "
"Gabrielle, this isn't about how I feel, just a practical note." She paused, suddenly tired. "Cold has the effect of slowing things down, breathing, pulse; you know that. So does verosa."
Gabrielle was still for a moment, absorbing the message. Then she nodded, a sheepish smile on her face. "So after all that effort, I brought you home and damn near killed you?"
Xena's head moved slightly, in agreement. "It wasn't the safest thing to do. I only mention it because - "
"Because you don't want me to screw up again?"
"You didn't screw up. I just want you to know it's not the…recommended treatment," she said gently, then smiled. "The next time I spend the day in a frozen stream, and you risk life and limb to save me, haul me through a freezing rain, brave wolves and gods know what else, then patch me up, leave off the narcotic." She reached to seize one of Gabrielle's hands, clutched it a little too tightly, as she often did when intent, and asked: "Do you understand?"
Gabrielle did understand. This was no criticism; the recitation of deeds was a measure of Xena's gratitude, a recognition of all her lover had accomplished. She nodded. "Got it. The next time you'll have to beg for the drugs," she promised with a grin. "Which reminds me: how did you end up down there?"
Xena sighed, embarrassed to speak of it. "Rescuing a goat. It was trapped there, at the edge of the stream. I turned around and a tree was falling on me."
"What is it about you and trees? If you aren't hanging from one, they're slamming into you," Gabrielle cut short her chuckle; Xena seemed not to share her amusement. "I'm sorry," she said.
"Don't apologize; you're right. Maybe you can put in a good word with Artemis on my behalf?" she asked with a wry grin.
"If Artemis needs telling again, she hasn't been paying attention. Now, just tell me this: what you did to frighten that poor wolf?"
That was a hard question. "I'm not sure. I just know I wanted the wolf to be gone more than he wanted to stay around." She tried to recapture the moment; she had been so tired… "I don't know. It just happened." She looked at Gabrielle as if ready to accept disbelief.
Gabrielle was ready to believe anything Xena told her; what she had witnessed in Chin made anything seem possible. "Whatever you did, I'm glad. Word will spread through the pack, and they'll stay away from us."
"I know how you feel about them. You showed a lot of guts coming through them."
"Please." She cast her eyes upward, dismissively. "That was all Argo; I was just along for the ride. She must have had quite a day. I wish horses could speak."
Xena nodded, wishing she could visit the mare, right then.
"You always promise to tell me about Argo, how you got her." She waited; Xena only smiled in reply. Today would not be the day. No matter. The bard stretched out beside the warrior. Xena moved the hand she held to her lips, and pressed it there for a long time. "These next few weeks are going to be hard, Gabrielle," she said at last. "I'm sorry."
"Now you stop apologizing. We'll be fine. Are you in pain?"
"Some. Not much. It's really a minor break, more a crack, than anything, I think." I hope.
"And there's nothing more to be done for it?"
"Boneset? We have comfrey, I can prepare it if it will help."
"Location's wrong for a splint; boneset won't help."
"Will it be safe to lift you on the chamber pot?"
"Yeah, that'll be fine," Xena nodded. "Not much alternative," she conceded.
"Well, we could - "
"Don't go there, Gabrielle," she warned with a glare.
"I'll be happy not to," the bard agreed. "Now. Would you like to turn over on to your back?"
"In a while. It feels good this way." 'Good' was too strong a word, but she guessed that moving would be worse. "Gabrielle. The less people who know about this, the better.
Gabrielle nodded. "I didn't plan on an announcement." The prospect of Nerad, Placar, or anyone else trying to take advantage of Xena's injury was very real. "Hermia will know; she's always dropping by. Archon's already been here." She related the brief conversation. "Drax should know; he can be useful."
Xena nodded. Drax could be very useful. "It doesn't have to go beyond that," she said.
"There is Arthea." She sympathized with Xena's weary sigh. Arthea had become something of a fixture in the vicinity. She had a place to sleep at Hermia's, who saw to it that she earned her way. She'd spent a few days with Cramma. The large woman had sympathy for any woman whose man beat her. That hadn't lasted. Cramma's farm required too much heavy labor. For now, probably for the winter, she'd be with Hermia, which meant she'd be a frequent visitor.
"That can't be helped. Arthea needs to be told how things are," Xena decided. "She's not stupid, and she doesn't bear me any grudge. She'll keep quiet about it."
"If you say so," Gabrielle muttered as she rose. "I'll get you something to drink, then I'll check the snares."
"I'm sorry you have to do that," Xena said after a moment.
Gabrielle looked up from the hearth. "I don't like killing animals, but as you've pointed out: I eat them." She shrugged. "It'll be okay. When they die, it helps us survive. Them or us. I hate that."
"The Amazons believe - "
"I know," she cut her off. "We're all in this world together, we each have a role. So I thank the brown twitchy rabbit that's struggling against the ropes, and end his life as easily as possible." She looked at Xena directly. "I still hate it, but I'll do it. I have my priority too, you know: you." She approached with a steaming mug. "Drink this before it's cold."
"Colt's foot?" She turned up her nose at the scent.
"No complaints," she admonished. "I've added plenty of honey."
"I'm not complaining, but I don't need colt's foot. My chest is clear, no cough…"
"I'm happy to hear it, but we're taking no chances on you developing anything. Besides, it's been steeping for a good long time. Can't waste it."
She positioned herself beside Xena, providing support while Xena maneuvered herself from stomach to back, and lay against skins Gabrielle piled behind her, so that she was in a half-sitting position.
"I wish we had that mattress," the bard confessed. "It would be softer for you."
I wish we had the mattress too, Xena wanted to say, but Gabrielle didn't need that right now. "Better to have a firm surface," she said instead, turning her face to hide a grimace. "Good hard floor, for support." It was probably true, but it didn't make her hip feel any better. It was easier to sit on the ground outside, than to sit on the floor of a house, she decided. Things were more in proportion. She would almost have preferred the barn. A bed seemed very desirable just then. As soon as she was well enough, they would have a bed.
She pulled the blankets up high around her; it was chilly, and she had nothing on.
Gabrielle held the mug to her lips. "I can hold it Gabrielle," she said. "My arms work fine."
"Okay," she said doubtfully, as her eyes darted over the left arm, where faint blood stains smeared the cloth wrapping, but she transferred the mug to Xena's hands. "Just don't spill it. We don't - "
"I know: we don't need me getting scalded." She watched as Gabrielle retrieved the chakram from the wooden peg which held her weapons.
"Here. I pity anyone dumb enough to intrude on you." She placed the chakram at Xena's side. "I won't be long. Can I get you anything before I go? I have porridge just about ready?"
"No. I'm fine."
"Can you stay awake?"
"Yes. Gabrielle, I'm fine," she insisted. I just can't walk. Gabrielle had her gray cloak around her. "Just worry about yourself for a while," Xena admonished. "You're riding Argo?" she asked.
"Of course; you have nothing to worry about." She turned from the door to kneel beside the warrior again. She kissed her, then pressed her cheek to the warrior's for a long moment. "I'll be back," she said, and was gone.
The little house was fragrant with herbs, and strong bear's garlic. The store of the wild plant was low; when it was gone they'd do without until the spring. Today it added a welcome note to the long simmering stewed rabbit, making Xena realize how hungry she was. Gabrielle had returned with two large hares, killed by her hand, and gutted streamside before she brought them to the house. With only occasional comments from Xena she'd managed to skin them. The pelts did not survive intact, but the rabbit fur would still have its uses. She'd set the pot over the fire, hauled more water from the stream, and swept the hearth with the bundles of broom. She gave Xena a bowl of porridge; the warrior would have been happy to wait for the rabbit, but it seemed important to Gabrielle that she accept. She knew why right away. "Walnuts. Honey and walnuts." She lowered the spoon and moved her gaze from the bowl to the bard. "This isn't breakfast, Gabrielle. It's dessert."
"And you'll love every mouthful," she nodded with assurance.
Xena stirred the mixture slowly for a moment, then began: "Gabrielle…"
"I don't want to hear it Xena, not today," she said firmly. "I didn't waste the walnuts, I didn't waste the honey, and I don't want to hear a word about how many mushrooms are in the stew. We have a cellar full of walnuts, and we dried enough mushrooms to feed The Sweetwater. I was a little extravagant, maybe," she admitted, "but life is short. If I haven't learned that lesson enough, I learned it all again yesterday. What I don't want to waste is time, worrying about tomorrow, and ending up with a heart full of regrets. If this makes you happy today, that's what today is for. Do I make myself clear?" She ended with a little frown at the doubtful structure of the sentence.
Xena nodded her understanding. "I wasn't going to say anything like that," she replied quietly. "I just wanted to say that this was a nice surprise. I didn't think I was hungry," she smiled, "but this…I love you for a lot of reasons, Gabrielle. You keep adding to the list."
"Xena, come on; it's only a bowl of wheat cereal," she said dismissively, and turned back to her tasks, humming softly.
"Yeah," Xena muttered. "Only a bowl of cereal."
That was all, a bowl of porridge, and a few words, but the room had brightened as if lit by a thousand candles. That's how it seemed to Xena, who shifted uncomfortably now and again, trying not to distract Gabrielle from her seemingly unending round of chores. Something had occurred to her, about wasting time, and the events of the day before. And regrets.
"Yes, Xena? Do you need something?"
"No. I just thought maybe you'd come and sit with me?"
"In a bit, honey. I just have to feed Argo and our gift from Petra - "
"The horse wasn't a gift, Gabrielle - "
"I know. Sorry. The horse still needs to be fed. We should name her. I'm tired of calling her 'the horse,' you know?"
"Call her whatever you like."
"Okay. I'll give it some thought. Be right back." She turned back. "Pull the blankets up around your chest. Every time I open the door a blast of cold comes in. We've got to do something about getting you dressed."
"Have you noticed how some days go one for ever? Like yesterday. And some seem to fly."
"You don't mean today?" Xena asked incredulous. It was not yet sunset; she could swear she'd sat in that corner by the hearth half her adult life.
"Xena, it's almost sundown and I still have a ton of things to do."
"I guess it depends on how you're passing the time. Sitting idly has never been my idea of fun." She'd whittled an ornate spoon while she sat, in between small naps which had punctuated the afternoon. The spoon was almost finished, and she scraped at it in a desultory fashion with a small dagger.
"I bet Zeno could explain it," the bard said.
"Zeno? He couldn't explain how to cross a town square," Xena scoffed.
"I suppose you've read Zeno's works?" Gabrielle smirked.
"No," Xena replied; she paused for effect: "Zeno read them to me."
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open. "You know Zeno? Of Elia?"
"Wow." Her eyes narrowed with curiosity. "You never mentioned that."
Xena eyed her, amused. I should have known you'd be interested, she thought.
"What's he like?"
Xena looked up from her work and snickered. "I know he can't drink worth a damn."
"Xena," came the reproach, "he's one of the finest minds of our time. His ability to hold spirits is beside the point."
"Spirits come in handy when you try to understand his logic." She shook her head. " 'Half the time is equal to twice the time.' Try to explain that one."
Gabrielle pondered for a moment. "I'd have to know the context," she confessed. "The point is that he's immersed in the questions that go to the very heart of reality."
"Immersed? I think he's drowning. His answers don't mesh with my reality." She picked up the small dagger by her side. "Imagine this is an arrow, okay? Now, when I release the bow, this pretty soon turns up in whatever object I've chosen. Right?"
Gabrielle nodded. That was the pattern.
"So it has moved, right? That, to me indicates motion. But no," she wagged a finger in negation. "Zeno, says 'Uh-uh.' The arrow hasn't moved, because there is no motion. At every split second," she moved the dagger along a slow arc, pausing along the way, " the arrow is still. Like now." She held it still. "Then it's here." She moved it further along and held it still again. "He said," she screwed up her eyes recalling his words, "that it's always occupying a particular space, even if the time is so brief it can't be registered, before it's occupying a different space, a little further on. In each space, it's still. What he doesn't explain is how it gets to the next space, if there is no motion." She dropped the dagger
with a grimace.
Gabrielle regarded her doubtfully. "Xena, are you certain you have that right?"
"Gabrielle, I swear, that's what he said. The funny thing is, sometimes I can almost believe him, when I catch a dagger, it's as if it's just hanging there, waiting for me to grab it." She shook her head again. He still has to explain how it gets from one place to another if there is no motion."
"Well, I can't explain it, but I wish I had met him."
"So you can discuss your theory of how the first people came from fish? I don't think the world is ready for your minds to meet, Gabrielle."
The bard shook her head with disdain. "Who can explain why the gods set the paths of people like Zeno to cross the paths of people like you?"
"People like me? Gabrielle, there is no one like me," she said without vanity, "and the gods had nothing to do with it. Zeno was my guest, sort of a command visit. One of my earliest lessons: philosophers rate lousy ransom. I was happy to see his back."
"Serves you right, holding him for ransom. What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that I had a hungry army. Do you think it was easy keeping them happy?"
"I can't say I ever gave that much thought. I thought they just responded to your magnetic charm."
"Don't knock it, Gabrielle. Charm had its place."
"That wasn't a knock, honey. I've seen your charm at work. Right before you cleave someone in two."
"You know me too well."
"And not well enough. I can't believe you never mentioned Zeno. Who else haven't you mentioned?"
"Come over and sit and I'll think of someone."
"Oh? Are you making them up now? Did you make up Zeno?"
"If I was making someone up it wouldn't be Zeno," she pointed out with a pained expression. A mischievous smile lit her face. "It would be someone young, exciting, beautiful…"
"Like Petra Tartras," Gabrielle supplied.
"Like Petra?" Xena's smile faded. "Why her?"
Gabrielle paused. "I don't know. She just came to mind. Weren't you dreaming up someone to make me jealous?"
"She'd do that? Make you jealous? Why"
"Because she's beautiful, and exciting. Why wouldn't I be jealous if I learned you two had a past?" She looked away, and asked: "You haven't, have you?"
"No. I'd never met her before."
"Oh. Well, Zeno I can live with. The stew should be ready. I hope you're hungry: I made quite a lot, I thought maybe Hermia and Lilla would be by. I wonder where they've got to?"
"Are you sure you don't need help?"
"No, Gabrielle, thanks." She smiled before lifting a spoonful of stew into her mouth.
Gabrielle sat on the floor beside her, cradling her own steaming bowl.
"Is it warm enough?"
"It's great, Gabrielle. Just right." It was good, she was hungry; the meat disappeared quickly, the gravy was sopped up with bread. She felt Gabrielle’s eyes on her, and looked up from the bowl. "What? I was hungry."
"I know," the bard answered, a touch of laughter in her eyes. "I can't get used to seeing you eat naked. Well, not a bowl of stew or porridge."
Xena cast a glance down the length of her body, then met her eyes evenly. "I know I’m naked. The blankets cover most of me. What can I do? I don’t have an extensive wardrobe."
"You don't have to sound so proud about it; and you can’t lie here naked on the floor, just wrapped in blankets when people are around."
Xena eyed her leathers, hung to dry a safe distance from the hearth. "No," Gabrielle said firmly. "They aren't dry, and they'll need a good conditioning before you can wear them again."
"I could just crawl down to the root cellar and hide," she sighed
"Pathetic doesn't really work for you, Xena."
The warrior's smile suggested that wasn't always the case.
"I won't fall for it this time," Gabrielle amended.
"Then you suggest something," she said, exasperated. "Or get me a needle and thread; I'll stitch something from a blanket."
"Xena, be serious," she scolded. "Arthea’s bound to drop in. More often than usual."
"I am serious. These old blankets will put her off me."
"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed. "They've never lost Argo's scent."
"Best thing about them." The warrior showed her teeth in a brief smile.
"Yeah," came the grudging reply, "a little bit of the old life in the here-and-now, but it doesn't answer the question of what you're going to wear. Are you a little bit sorry now that you tore your only shift in two?"
"No," she said, noting with silent wonder how much Gabrielle could sound like Cyrene on occasion. "It was messy thing, and I'm glad it's gone. I can live without one just fine." She was puzzled at Gabrielle's crestfallen face. "Maybe if Ileander ever gets his loom in order I'll barter a length of fabric from him."
"I hope you're on your feet before then," Gabrielle said fervently.
"Don't worry; I won't lie here one second longer than necessary."
Gabrielle nodded, knowing what the warrior said was true. "Until then, let's see what we can do about getting you cleaned up. Your feet are almost brown, grass is stuck to your legs, your hair must be loaded with dirt from the river. You'll feel better when you're clean."
"Gabrielle, I can do this myself, really," Xena said mildly.
"You couldn't reach your feet," she pointed out, as she wrung excess water from the sponge into an iron pot full of hot water.
"Well, you've taken care of my feet, and my back, and my hair," she said too sweetly, "and I thank you, but I can reach the rest."
""Xena, I know this isn't the most romantic bath I've ever given you, but as
a matter of practicality I think we'll do this my way." She moved with tender
strokes over Xena’s bruised left side. "I can do it faster, for one thing, and
get back to everything else I still have to do. Besides, if you ever tipped the
pot over, the bedding would be wet, and we'd have no place to sleep tonight. I'm
almost done now. Lift up your chin."
Xena obeyed, with grim resignation. "When have I ever tipped over a pot?"
"You're doing everything with one hand," the bard observed. Think I didn't notice? I've caught every grimace, felt it each time you winced. You insist you feel fine, but you're in pain. Why you have to things from me, I don't know. I'm not the enemy."
"I'm not hiding anything," Xena said after a moment.
"No?" Gabrielle moved a hand against Xena's back; the warrior inhaled sharply. "If I'm not mistaken, that rib is broken. Is there anything else?"
"Gabrielle, I don't know if it's broken," she replied tersely. "It does hurt," she conceded, "especially when someone jabs a stiff finger against it."
"Xena, I barely touched it," she protested.
"Oh, really? Well, you made your point," she spat. "And if I didn't mention every last sore spot, that's because it's only pain, and it all requires the same remedy: time and rest. Ya got all that?"
"Why are you shouting?" the bard asked quietly.
"Why are you so bloody bossy all of a sudden?"
"Bossy?" she echoed, incredulous.
"Yeah, bossy," Xena insisted, nodding her head for emphasis. "All day long it's been: Xena drink this, Xena turn over, Xena go to sleep, Xena - "
Gabrielle stood up, threw the sponge into the pot and looked down at Xena, hands on hips. "You must be feeling pretty good. When you're really hurt, you don't mind a little fuss. My mistake." She hefted the pot, and moved to the door, where she paused. "Let me know if I can get you anything."
"Gabrielle?" Xena's voice was startling after the long quiet.
"Hmmm?" The bard didn't look up from her work.
"I need to use the chamber pot."
Gabrielle set aside the heavy pot and piece of the horsetail plant she used to scrub it clean. "You look as if you combed your hair with a rake," she said as she approached, holding the big clay pot in both hands.
Xena waggled the fingers of one hand. "I didn't have a comb nearby."
"Would it have killed you to ask?"
"Didn't seem worth the trouble."
"No," the bard snorted. She placed the pot next to Xena. "Stick you in a wasteland and the civilities go out the window: clothes, grooming." Appreciation.
"Don't push it, Gabrielle," she growled.
"That's pretty big talk for someone who's waiting to be lifted onto a pot." She bent to Xena's side; the warrior waved her away.
"Never mind; I can do it myself."
"Xena, you can't do it by yourself."
"Oh, no?" She glared at Gabrielle and pulled the pot closer. "Can I have a little privacy?"
"We live in one room. Good luck," was the acerbic reply. Still, she turned her face to the window, gazed sightlessly at the bleak landscape outside. She resisted looking at the sounds behind her, but only for a moment. "Xena, you win, okay?" she said fiercely. "I know you can do this by yourself; I know you can empty the thing by yourself, even if it means balancing it on your head while you crawl outside. You don’t really need me at all. But damn it," she said, crossing to her in two long strides, "you aren't going to do that." Xena waited for Gabrielle to reach her as if frozen. The task was accomplished in silence.
Gabrielle returned with the clean pot, barred the door and leaned against it. Xena's eyes seemed to dart across the dimly-lit room like blue lightning.
"Was there anything else?" the bard asked in a neutral tone.
"No. No thank you." Xena’s voice was barely audible. She watched as Gabrielle returned the pot to it’s place, then rummaged in the wooden chest where she kept her things, and fished out a tightly rolled cloth. She untied the ribbon which encircled it as she crossed the room, and unfurled it at Xena’s feet with a flourish. "Here, you’re still naked. Even if you don’t care, I do. Go on, take it," she said impatiently, as Xena merely stared at the garment she held. It was a cotton shift, dyed blue, unadorned, except for a ribbon which threaded through the low neckline. "This isn’t how I planned on giving it to you, but you could have the courtesy to take it." She dropped the shift in Xena’s lap and returned to the table.
It was very soft, probably woven from the fine cotton grown in Egypt. Xena guessed Gabrielle had bought it in Mustrakis, in those few short days before the exile.
"Gabrielle, it’s lovely."
"Thank you. It must have cost – "
"Yeah, it did cost a lot, and it’s worth every last dinar," she replied defensively. "At least I thought so when I bought it. Maybe you’d have preferred a hammer, or saw, or something else I can only guess at, but I chose to spend the dinars on this. Any objections?" She fell silent.
Xena considered what else to say. There was nothing. She lifted her arms and slipped the shift over her head, and as far down her body as she could manage.
"It’s a good fit," she volunteered.
"I do know your size, Xena," she replied without looking.
Damn, Xena thought, taking her lower lip between her teeth. She replayed the words and moments which had led her to this point, looking for a way to get beyond them to where the day had started. "Gabrielle," she ventured at last. "Would you have time to do my hair?"
It was beginning. The bard nodded, lips tight as she retrieved the tortoise shell comb, and stopped to select a long piece of braided, buttery leather from a long wooden chest which had survived the peddlers' market. She wondered if the request would be as close as Xena came to an apology. She had gotten much better at that, but still picked her spots. It didn't matter at that moment. Gabrielle avoided contact with her eyes as she came closer, but couldn’t avoid the rest of the warrior. The shift was a fine fit, ending just where the swell of Xena’s full breasts began. She knew the blue would compliment Xena’s eyes. She’d had that in mind when she chose it, so long ago, it seemed, in Mustrakis.
She ran the comb though the tumbled mass, frowning at the occasional knots, finding frequent excuses to touch the soft shoulders beneath. "That's better," she said at last, adding one finishing touch. Xena reached behind to seize her wrist gently. "I'm sorry," she said without turning.
"I know." But it was nice to hear it said. "Did I hurt you? Really?"
"No. Not much. Would you come around where I can see you? Please." Gabrielle complied, sat hip to hip facing Xena.
The warrior's hand cupped her cheek, face turned a little to catch the soft red glow from the fire. "Yesterday, that whole long time, this was all I could see; I could hear you if I really tried. I would have waited all winter for you to come for me, Gabrielle. I just want to be with you." The blonde head nestled against her chest. "All day, I wanted you here beside me." She stroked the blonde hair. "Just like this."
"I wanted the same thing, Xena," she said, voice suddenly softer.
"So why did I spoil things?" Gabrielle was touched by the plaintive tone in the warrior’s voice.
"Because it scares you to be dependent. Helpless - "
"No," Xena laughed, "I’m not afraid – "
Gabrielle went on as if Xena hadn’t spoken: " – immobile, waiting to be fed and bathed. Watching me do things you think you should be doing. Gods, I can feel your muscles tighten when I talk about it. Don’t tell me you aren’t afraid."
"It's not like this was the first time you've ever had to nurse me."
"No, and I’m betting it won’t be the last time. You’ve always hated it and you always will." And there’s something about this place which makes it worse. She paused, lifted her head to watch Xena’s face, to let Xena see the resolution in her face, and when she spoke again her voice held an air of command: "Don’t turn your fear into anger; if you can’t help doing that, at least don’t direct it at me. I didn’t push that tree over on you. I helped get it off you. I’ve done my best by you Xena; I always will. I don’t deserve your hostility, and I won’t stand for it." That said, she lowered her head to the warrior’s chest again, gave her a fierce hug, and waited for a response. It wasn’t long in coming.
"Do you remember the first time you had to take care of me?"
"Of course I do. How could I forget that?" Callisto’s first strike. So much had happened since then.
"That's when I first realized how strong you are. Physically strong, I mean. Despite your size."
"Nothing. Just thinking out loud."
"That’s all you have to say? I make a major statement of personal intentions, and you have no response?"
She shook her head slowly, eyes searching the room as if seeking the answer in it’s deepening shadows. "What can I say, Gabrielle? Tell you again that I‘m sorry I snapped at you? Promise to be different? I don’t know if I can keep that promise. So what do I say?"
Gabrielle had no answer; Xena had expected none. "Even 'I love you' must sound empty after a while."
"Try me," Gabrielle challenged. After a minute: "That's a very long pause."
"I do love you, Gabrielle. So much…I love you, I want to take care of you, and I don't like feeling useless." She felt Gabrielle's face muscles move in a sudden smile against her breast, as the bard shook with soft laughter.
"Xena, I've described you many times in my scrolls. 'Useless' is a word that has never been employed."
"You can laugh, Gabrielle, but the food stores won't last forever. We can't count on something in the snares every day. Then we'll be taking from the reserves."
"Xena, it will only be for a few weeks."
"It won't be easy to replenish them if the game is gone." She turned Gabrielle gently by the shoulders. "Have you ever seen real hunger, Gabrielle? Did Potadeia ever have a serious problem that way?"
"No, some years were lean, but on the coast, there was always something to eat."
"You've been lucky. I've seen hunger. I've caused it. When I had an army to feed, I didn't care who was left hungry in our wake. Villages would face the sword rather than face a slow death from starvation."
"Xena, we won't starve."
"Starvation doesn't have to be to death. See a hungry village, and the people look older than they are. Sort of gray, and slow. The children have thin, pinched faces, and crooked bones…Gabrielle, we saw them at the peddlers' market."
The younger woman nodded, seeing the faces again. "There's plenty of food in The Sweetwater, Xena. Archon has offered a hand - " She felt Xena's muscles grow tight. "I know," she said quickly, forestalling an explosion, "everything has a price. We'll pay it, one way or another. You know that Archon expects you to be midwife when it's Sepra's time. Do you think he'll let his midwife perish?" She didn't wait for a reply. "Hermia will help."
"Gabrielle, these people haven't a lot to spare."
"I know," she went on smoothly, as if reciting well considered plans. "Natrakia and Ikar always have something to barter. And there's Drax."
"What do we give them in return? They can't live on promises."
"We'll think of something."
"Gabrielle." She hesitated. "I still have a pouch full of earrings."
"We won't need them," she responded decisively. "We'll be fine. Tell me, Xena: did you worry this much when you had an army to feed?"
"I didn't have to put every bite on the table then. And I didn't mind stealing what others had worked to produce," she admitted. "This is different." She considered how to explain the difference, then said:
"There was a couple at the peddler's market. They asked me to witness their vows to each other."
Gabrielle glanced at her briefly, puzzled at the odd quality in her voice. "The wedding ceremony? I met them. They were here for the party, and told me about it I wondered when you were going to mention them."
"I've been thinking about them. A lot. In the middle of that awful place, after so much had happened, they were so eager, seemed optimistic…It was as if they were giving each other a gift."
"Of love," Gabrielle supplied. "Of each other." She was very still, wondering where Xena was going with this.
The dark head nodded. "It gives some point to being here; being on Earth at all." Maybe we're more than food for the worms after all. "Gabrielle, we're here; I don't know if we'll ever leave. It doesn't really matter, somehow. Wherever I spend my life, I want it to be with you. I think you know that. And, I'm not sure why, but you seem content to be with me."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest that understatement, but Xena was not finished:
"I've pledged myself to you a thousand times, in my mind. I'd like to say the words to you, in front of witnesses, or alone; you decide; that is, if you agree."
Gabrielle blinked tears away before they could fall. "You have an interesting sense of timing," was all she said.
"Is that a 'no'?" Xena asked quietly.
"Of course not," Gabrielle exclaimed. "I'm not going to refuse," she explained, "but you took me by surprise." She pulled away and looked at Xena's face. "Why now? After all the time we've been together? If this is your way of making up… Xena, we'll still have our battles, that's just the way it is - "
"It's not about making up, Gabrielle. You said something today about not wanting regrets. I feel the same. If I hadn't come back yesterday - "
"But you did."
" - if you hadn't saved me," she went on, I would have regretted not saying things to you…"
"What things? I know you love me."
"You don't know, can't know how much. You are so full of love; you'd have to be to find a way to love me."
"Xena, you're not being fair to yourself."
"Yes I am. I know what I can be like. How does anyone love someone like me? I couldn't," she confessed. "My capacity to love isn't that great. But then, I have the easy part: loving someone who’s immensely loveable."
"Xena, why are you talking like this?"
"It's not a good idea to give me idle time, Gabrielle. Haven't you noticed that? I think too much."
"About all the wrong things."
"No; this time I think I got some things right." She nodded, as if satisfied that was the case. "What do you say?" She squeezed Gabrielle's shoulders, spoke low into her ear.
"I want to say everything that's in my heart, right now, but the words haven't been coined yet."
"That's never stopped you before," Xena told her. Gabrielle turned, ready to object with mock indignation, but Xena was smiling as never before; she stopped, caught off guard a second time. "I don't think I need to say anything else, do I?"
"Nope. Just tell me when and where."
"Today, right here and now."
"If you like," Xena agreed, "but we won't have witnesses."
"No, I don't really mean that. I want our friends to be there, to know how we
"That's the general point, but I think they know, Gabrielle."
The bard laughed with sudden memory. "I don't think it's ever been hard to see. Solari used to tease me…What would she say?"
"That you’re crazy?" Xena guessed.
"Crazy in love sounds rather trite, huh? I wouldn’t use it in a scroll, but just between us,
I don’t mind saying it." She traced the line of Xena’s jaw with a finger. "I think my Amazon sisters would be stunned."
"Because we've finally gotten it together. I think they'd all but given up on that ever happening. That's what this means, right? That we've gotten past everything? We've made it?"
"I hope so, Gabrielle. I don't think there's a bump in the road we've missed. Yet we're still together."
"I think they'll figure that out, somehow."
"They'd throw quite a party for you."
She shrugged. "Anyway, Jalani will know," she said as an afterthought. "One day she'll wake from a dream and tell them."
"You sound pretty certain."
"She's a remarkable woman. She knows things. She knew things about me I didn't know myself. She helped me find my way back to you. Somehow, we have a connection. You know how wherever a spider is in the web, it's alert to the least disturbance or presence on any strand?"
"Are you saying Jalani is like the spider? Or is that you?"
"I don't know, just that we're all dancing on the same strings."
"That's an interesting idea. Worthy of Zeno," she teased.
"I'm nothing like Zeno," Xena objected.
"I'm sure of it," Gabrielle agreed. "No one else could have eyes like these." She kissed each eye. "Or lips so soft." She tasted them with her own. "And now that I've made you dress, I want you undressed as fast as possible."
The warrior's breath was coming quickly. "Sure, just give me a hand…" She began a series of small nibbles down the bard's neck.
Suddenly, Gabrielle pulled away. "Xena, this isn't a good idea, not now. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have started anything. I wasn't thinking."
Damn. "Right Gabrielle, It's a rotten idea." Wish you'd realized that a few minutes sooner. "But we can be very careful," Xena suggested hopefully.
"Xena, when have we ever been careful? When you come you'll do more damage to your hip."
"Then you come. I'll wait." A few weeks. She made a face.
Gabrielle moved back into the embrace. "No; we'll both wait until you're well," she said firmly.
"Gabrielle, there's no point in both of us being miserable."
"Are you miserable, Xena? I'm not. I don't think I've ever been happier."
"Eggs, cheese, butter, bread, and a jug of mead in the cart." Hermia unpacked a basket as she spoke. "Drax is bringing that in." She pulled off her shawl with one hand, then moved to the fire, casting an appraising eye at Xena as she passed.
Gabrielle picked up an egg, coated in beeswax for freshness. "A hen’s egg?" she asked in wonder. "I haven’t seen one of these since…I can’t remember."
It had been another long night. She’d slept, somehow, through the screaming wind, for a time, but Xena had been restless. She denied any great pain, but had shifted positions throughout the night, as if seeking an elusive comfort. Or riding hard. She had heard Hermia’s greeting though the door with pleasure.
"Ikar had a remarkable few days," Hermia was saying. "Brought home a box of chickens, with a rooster," she exclaimed. She put the goat cheese and butter, both wrapped in waxed cloth, on the shelf where she knew they were always put. "I would have been by yesterday, but I wanted to make the trip worthwhile. Now then, what else do you need?" She looked from Gabrielle to Xena, and back again.
"What did all this cost?" was Xena’s question.
"Ikar owes me," she shrugged.
"So do we."
"We’ll talk when you’re back on your feet." She raised a questioning eyebrow at Gabrielle. "She doesn’t look as bad as Archon let on."
Gabrielle blew out a huff of air. "I’m glad he told you," she conceded, "but I wonder who else he’s told?"
"Only Sepra, if I know anything about people," Hermia responded. "He’s no fool. Fools don’t survive in Tartarus." Her eyes turned again to Xena. "How bad is it?"
"I’ll be fine. Give me a couple of weeks." Hermia looked at Gabrielle for confirmation
"That’s what she says," Gabrielle replied. "She usually knows."
"I’m glad to hear that, Xena. Not much good comes this way. I lay awake half the night worrying that things were about to get worse," she admitted. "Damn, that sounds selfish," she shook her head in apology.
"I appreciate your honesty." We worried about the same thing. "I think we’ve got things under control. Gabrielle’s taking good care of – " she hesitated " - things." Care of me. Why can’t I say that?
"I want to help out," Hermia hastened to say, "I haven’t tied any strings on these parcels. I don’t mean to put you under any obligation, or pay you tribute, just helping out, friend to friend. If you want to pay me down the road, fine; if you never do, that’s fine. I won’t pretend I don’t have an interest is seeing you well again. The Sweetwater’s quieter since you came. Mostly it’s those bastard’s of the Overlord staying away. But there’s more…I like having you for neighbors, friends. I like you, both." she said with a firm nod. She wiped her hands on the frayed dress, as a finish to her speech.
The warrior and the bard exchanged a silent glance. Gabrielle spoke for them both: "Hermia, we like you, too, and we’re happy to have you for a friend." A smile lit her face, and she raised a questioning eyebrow at Xena. Someone had to be the first to know their plans, but Drax spoke first:
"Glad that’s settled," he said, as he came through the door stooped under a jug of mead. "Do you all like me, too?" He didn’t wait for an answer, deposited a small sack on the table and looked at Xena: "Shall I leave this in easy reach?" His eyes twinkled above cold-reddened cheeks. "Seems like a good season to lay about indoors drinking mead." He looked at her closely. "I like your dress. Nice change from brown."
"It’s lovely," Hermia chimed in. "Brings out your eyes."
Gabrielle fought to keep an amused smile from her lips, but knelt to tuck a blanket around Xena, whose discomfiture was evident. "Be gracious Xena," she admonished in a low murmur, "and be thankful I made you dress; they could be commenting on your other qualities." Then, in a louder voice: "I had an idea last night." Xena felt a frisson of unease. "I’d like to toss it out there and see what you all think."
'All', Xena thought. That means she knows I won’t like it.
"I was trying to think what I have to offer of value to the people of The Sweetwater. I won’t go through the list of what I can’t do, but I’m learning," she acknowledged. "I do know this: I can read, I can write, and I have a certain way of putting words together. Outside, I could pass a hat in a tavern when I told stories, and earn a few dinars to keep us in bread; here, people can’t afford to pay for frivolity. But for something really useful, like reading and writing, they might be willing to part with their hard earned goods. So I thought, maybe," she paused, careful to avoid Xena’s eyes, "maybe I could offer lessons, for adults, children, whoever wants to learn." There was a silence in the room. "When the weather makes it possible, of course." She waited, watching Drax and Hermia turn the idea over. Xena’s eyes were cast at the floor. "Bad idea?" she asked after a time.
"No, Gabrielle, it’s a great idea," Xena replied slowly. "I just can’t imagine everyone here shares your reverence for literacy."
"I’d have to question that too, Gabrielle," Hermia agreed. "But I know how I feel: I’d pay a good deal for Lilla to be able to read and write. I never thought it would be possible here. My Farnis could read, couldn’t write much, beyond his name, but he was proud of that. What sort of fees are you thinking of?"
"Fees?" Gabrielle’s face creased in an uncertain smile. This was hardly a universal endorsement. Yet if Hermia was interested… "I haven’t thought of fees, just whatever anyone could spare."
"I can read," Drax was quick to point out, "so can Ileander, but a few weeks back, Archon spoke of wanting their offspring to have the skill. That would be a few years down the road," he observed, "but in the meantime, I’d bet Archon and Sepra would be willing to pay to learn it for themselves."
"There, a few customers already," she beamed, and gave Xena’s arm an affectionate squeeze.
"That’s great." Xena managed a small smile.
Right, Gabrielle thought. "Drax," she asked suddenly, "would you give me a hand outside? There’s one big, stubborn, length of wood I can’t budge."
"Xena, she might be on to something," Hermia pointed out when the door closed.
"I hope she is."
"It’s a little hard to tell; you look like you’ve got a fishbone caught in your throat." Xena’s attempt at a glare faded in the face of Hermia’s grin. "Save it for your enemies, Xena," she advised her.
"Hermia, I don’t want to be the skeptic here, but given the nature of this place, what are the odds people will give the means of survival away for the privilege of learning to read? Even if they’re willing, what can they spare?"
"That’s up to them. Archon would likely spend an afternoon chopping wood for you. Of course he’d do that for no return if you’d allow it. They’d like to be your friends too, you know. Friends don’t always have a hand out."
"Yeah, well that’s beside the point," she insisted. "The point is this: Gabrielle thinks her lessons will pay our way. I don’t mind if she thinks so, but I’m afraid it won’t happen. People will give to us, and expect something back, someday."
"You see it as tribute?"
"So will they."
"I think you’re wrong, Xena," she said steadily.
The warrior shrugged. "Maybe. But I need you to do something for me. You know everyone, see everyone. I have a sack full of earrings." Hermia began to shake her head. "Use it to pay them," Xena told her.
"No, Xena, that wouldn’t be right."
"Why not?" she asked. "We’d have what we need, Gabrielle’s little idea will be a success, and they’ll all be richer by an earring or two." Gabrielle will never be happy with my using them, she thought sourly.
"Xena, what about the folk who really want the lessons? Who are happy to pay in kind?"
"Let them pay if they like. Just use the earrings to pay those who really don’t want lessons. It will make Gabrielle feel better to think she can contribute this way," she reasoned.
"It will make her feel like dirt to think you have so little faith in her, Xena. I confess I’m surprised to hear you speak this way."
Xena looked at her bemused. "Hermia, I have every faith in Gabrielle, but I’m trying to be practical. For everyone." I really hate looking up at everyone, went through her mind. "The earrings are in the root cellar." She described the place under the store of dried mushrooms where the sack was tucked away from prying eyes; tucked away from Gabrielle. "She'll never even know they're gone. Will you get them? Please."
"I’ll do as you ask, Xena, but I don’t like it," Hermia said after a moment, with a heavy shake of the head. "I don’t like secrets between friends. It’s a bad business."
"Just do it." She shifted uncomfortably. "When I’m up and around I’ll take care of it myself. Of course, then it won’t matter. I’ll provide for us."
The front door opened as Hermia emerged from the root cellar; she gave a little start. One hand was full of mushrooms; the other concealed the leather pouch between the folds of her skirt. She felt she had to say something. "Thanks for the mushrooms, once again. I never could feel safe eating the ones I picked myself." Gabrielle looked across to Xena; there was a new look there; Hermia had been aware of it since her arrival, she realized.
"Xena's tried to show me, many times. I haven't passed the test yet."
"There's no trick involved," Xena pointed out. "Your eyes and your nose will tell you everything."
"Maybe we can add that to the reading lessons," Gabrielle suggested.
"Arthea's fond of mushrooms: the wrong kind," Hermia put in hastily. "I found her nibbling on the tiny, scarlet caps that grow in the fall, amid the leaves. She started talking odd; to people who weren't there. I guess my ale's not enough for her."
"Sounds like henbane," Gabrielle observed with a wry smile.
"That's dangerous, Hermia," Xena said slowly.
She agreed with a vigorous nod of the head. "I don't want them around Lilla; she'll taste anything. I found the lot of them. I threw them in the fire from Arthea wasn't around."
"I hope she's brought you more than trouble."
Hermia waved a dismissive hand. "Don't listen to me, Xena. She causes a lot of aggravation, but underneath, she's not all bad. She'll work, if I keep after her. She plays well with Lilla; like a big kid she is, sometimes. It's just other times, I'd gladly wring her neck."
Gabrielle stirred the fire. "I'm surprised she hasn't come by."
"She will," Hermia predicted, remembering the gleam in her eye when she heard that Xena was injured. "She'd be here now except for my steely gaze. I told her if she left the bread, or Lilla, I'd take a strap to her and chase her into the cold. And I will."
"What else needs to be sharpened?"
"Let’s see? You’ve done your weapons, twice, all my cooking knives… I guess that’s it. Unless you want to sharpen your fish hooks?" she chuckled.
"Done them," Xena replied, shortly, tapping the leather carryall beside her.
"Oh. Well then…" In three days Xena had gone through every sedentary activity she or Gabrielle could devise. The remaining healing time would stretch on forever. For both of them. "You could make some more of those things you use for fishing," she suggested "The make believe bugs."
"Flies, mostly, Gabrielle. That’s what fish like, all sorts of flies. And after I sharpened the hooks, I tied a fly on each one." She set aside the large chunk of fungus she had used as a sharpener. "Ran out of hooks."
"Want to read a scroll?" she asked next, knowing what the answer would be.
"I’d rather listen to you read it."
"I know. Okay, later, after I check the fish trap. I'm glad Drax showed me how to build that. It's a handy thing to know. I'm surprised you never showed me that?"
Xena snorted her disgust. "Fish traps. I can't think of a less creative way to fish."
"We can't all pluck our dinner from the stream on demand."
"How hard is it to catch fish with a rod?" Xena asked.
"The trap saves a lot of time, Xena."
"The Babylonians believed the gods don't deduct from your life the time you spend fishing," the warrior observed with approval.
Gabrielle looked at her doubtfully, wondering if Xena had just coined a Babylonian belief. Never mind; she wouldn't be fishing for a few weeks, anyway. Back to the matter at hand. "Would you like to write a scroll? Maybe a story, a poem, a reminiscence…" her voice trailed off under the withering look directed her way.
"What would you like to do?" she asked patiently.
"I don’t know." She thunked a small dagger into the center of the door.
"Xena, I hope that’s not becoming a habit." She wrestled with the knife until it came free.
"It didn’t make a new mark did it?" She asked with pride. "It struck the same place as the last one."
"Last two," Gabrielle corrected. "All three it the same mark. Maybe I should haul in a piece of wood and let you toss knives at it all day."
"It would be something to do," Xena agreed.
"And on second thought, it would probably drive me crazy watching you do it." There was one more thing…She hadn’t expected to suggest it just yet, but she was getting desperate. "She dug in the bag which held her scrolls, and produced a bundled roll of heavy linen. "Just the thing to cure boredom." She held it out at arm’s length, and smiled.
Xena opened the bundle warily, and smiled at the profusion of colors which lay wound in tight skeins. Gabrielle, what am I supposed to do with this stuff?" Her voice was gentle, but strained, as if fighting to hold back what she really wanted to say.
"Xena, its embroidery thread, needles - "
"I know what it is."
The bard laughed nervously. "Of course you do. The linen would be beautiful if it had a nice design, of some sort…"
"You want me to embroider?" Xena asked.
"I don’t do that," she stated flatly.
"You used to do that. I have the evidence."
"The little pillow, I know, Gabrielle. I used to do a lot of things."
"Does that mean you can never do it again?"
"The thing is, Gabrielle, I don’t want to do it again."
"Never. Why did you think I might? Did you buy this stuff?"
"Yeah, Xena I did." She took the linen, with all it contained from the warrior’s lap, and rolled it up again. "Waste of dinars."
"Not entirely. The needles will always come in handy. Maybe I could use some of the thread – "
"Yeah, sure, stitching up some wound, or other." Gabrielle didn’t look up as she spoke.
"That’s more your thing. Why should I think for a moment that you might want to make something for me?"
"You mean other than the table? And the benches?"
"That’s not fair. Those things are practical, and for both of us. I was just the first to recognize we needed them."
"Regardless. It wouldn’t hurt you to do something with no practical value at all. Make something you can’t use, just enjoy. Something pretty."
"Like an embroidered cushion?"
"I can't think why you'd buy something like that for me," Xena said. "What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that maybe in a spare moment - "
"A spare moment? Apart from injury time, when would that be, Gabrielle? Before I hunt? After I dress the animals? Set the snares? Gather fuel? Patch this bloody sieve of a roof over our heads? When, Exactly, do I find a spare moment to do needlework?"
"Maybe in the middle of the night when you sit by the fire, brooding," Gabrielle returned, suddenly on the offensive. "Or when you finish stacking the wood and stare at the horizon, as if wishing could take you beyond it; or when you sharpen your sword for the tenth time in a day, when you haven't used it all week. Maybe you could make me a present, just something to add a little color here, make it seem more like - "
"Like home?" Xena asked shamefaced.
"No Xena, wherever you are is my home. I just want our home to proclaim to the world that the people who make this home didn't come to Tartarus to die, but to live."
Xena wavered; Gabrielle had long ago come to recognize when Xena was deeply moved. Apart from the eyes, which seemed almost to shimmer, her body let down its guard, every muscle relaxed, ready to let the world in. That had begun, and just as suddenly stopped. She thrust the bundle back at Gabrielle. "I really don't think so."
It's not as if you have something more important to do right now." The bard was taken aback by the turnaround.
"Okay, I'm pretty useless right now; but not that useless."
"Xena, I never said that."
"That doesn't make it less true. Tell you what: next to the woodpile there's a selection of wood that's not for burning. There's a piece of walnut there, about four feet long; it crooks at the top. Would you get it for me? Please."
"Just get it."
Arthea might have been waiting for Gabrielle to leave the house so hard upon her heels did she follow. She slipped through the door with the merest rustle of her dress, yet Xena had heard her approach. She didn't look up from her task. The length of wood would need few changes to serve as a walking stick. A crutch. She knew the device all too well. Her distaste was evident in her face as she greeted her visitor.
"Arthea." She nodded curtly.
"Hello, Xena. Gabrielle's not around?" She peered around the room with feigned interest, before her eyes lit on Xena.
"She's never really gone, Arthea," was Xena's comment. "Anything I can do for you?"
She smirked before answering. "Just need to talk to Gabrielle; something I need to tell her." Her cloak was tossed off in a moment. Xena couldn't believe the dress she wore was chosen for warmth. "Do you like this?" the woman asked. "A soldier gave it to me; things weren't all bad at Nerad's camp. "You look nice in that," she observed when it was clear that Xena would make no response. "Must have brought it with you."
"What did you want to tell Gabrielle? I'll give her the message."
"That's all right, I don't mind warming up a bit. And don't worry," she volunteered guessing at the reason for Xena's coldness. "It's nothing about you. I'm sorry I told her why you couldn't try to escape; hope it caused no trouble between you."
"None at all." After all we've survived together that was a firefly next to a thunderbolt. "Do you think you'd be standing inside the door if you had?" she asked mildly. Arthea nodded, a tight smile on her face, recognizing the threat implicit in the words. She watched as Xena held the piece of wood at arm's length, appraising.
"Make yourself useful, Arthea. Give me a hand," she said at last, reaching a hand to the startled woman.
"Xena, what - "
"C'mon, I need to get up," she insisted. Arthea complied, pulling Xena's left hand while the warrior used the newly fashioned walking stick to lift herself from the floor.
"Is this a good idea?" Arthea asked, noting the exertion on the warrior's face. "Gabrielle's not going to like this," she added apprehensively.
"Don’t worry about Gabrielle," Xena said between clenched teeth. She leaned all her weight on her right leg and the stick. "That's better. Nice to be vertical again."
"What's the point, Xena? You can't walk."
"I can manage a little; I think." She cast a glance around the area, determining a destination. "Would you like some mead?" she asked Arthea. "I'm sure thirsty." The table was only paces away; she planted the stick firmly a little bit ahead, and moved her right leg to join it. Two more such efforts and she was at the table, leaning against it for support. She grinned at Arthea, dipped a cup into the earthen jug which held the mead, and swallowed with satisfaction.
"I would have gotten that for you," Arthea told her.
"I'm tired of people getting things for me." She looked out the window, squinting a little against the unfamiliar light, glimpsing the outside world for the first time in days. Gray and brown, yet it looked good. The snow had all but melted, the little that remained was mottled with bits of dead vegetation, and mud. At another time she would have found it ugly. She raised her eyes to the lowering clouds. There would be wet weather, very soon.
Gabrielle would be by the natural pool that had formed in the stream at the end of the slope. She couldn't see her from this window, but knew the task wouldn't take long. There was no reason to dawdle in this weather. She turned, pivoting on her sound leg. The injured hip didn't feel too bad, but she wasn't ready to do any cartwheels yet. She considered a brief trip to the horse shed to see Argo. That'd really be pushing things, she decided. Maybe a seat on the bench would be the best choice just now, hard as it was. The addition of a thick skin for cushioning would help, and she could list ever so slightly to the right to take weight off the injury…
Gabrielle saw the empty spot on the floor first; her heart jumped. As the door swung wider she saw a thick sheepskin on the bench. At last she saw the warrior, one hand gripping the edge of the table, the other clutching the wood she'd left her with before. She had guessed at the purpose for the wood, had not guessed she'd use it this soon. Had never guessed she'd return to find Arthea's arms around her waist. She turned her back to the room while she closed the door, took a deep breath, and had a smile in place when she held up the rush basket of fish. "The trap was full. These guys couldn't wait to be supper. You can take some back to Hermia when you leave, Arthea."
"Thanks, Gabrielle. She'll be ever so grateful." The words tumbled out as Arthea straightened, waiting to take a cue from Xena.
"Yeah," Gabrielle nodded, smiling even more broadly, before she turned to Xena. "Good thing your knives are all sharp. You can clean them." She let the basket drop on the table with a thud. Her eyes met Xena's briefly. Words could wait.
"What brings you out on a day like this, Arthea?" she asked with exaggerated interest.
"I just wanted to say 'hello', I haven't seen Xena since the injury. And I
wanted to make arrangements with you." Xena had made no move to pull away;
Arthea couldn't help herself: she gave Xena's forearm an affectionate squeeze.
"Arrangements?" Gabrielle said, pretending not to notice.
"Your lessons. Reading, writing. I can do some of that, but I'm always anxious to know more."
"I'll bet," the bard replied.
"I can make it worth your while," Arthea went on.
"Really?" Gabrielle knew how little Arthea did in exchange for room and board with Hermia.
"I have some skills. I'm handy with a needle, if you'd like anything decorated. Or I could show you how to do needlework, if you like."
Xena met Gabrielle's withering glare without flinching, but she shrugged Arthea away.
"Thanks, I'm really not interested in needlework, but we'll think of something." From the edge of her vision she watched Xena's slow progress towards the table, a thin-bladed, razor sharp knife in her hand. She resisted the impulse to help, despite the strain evident in Xena's face. I can play games, too, she admitted to herself.
Damn. Cutting board, Xena thought unhappily, looking to the slab of hardwood which hung from a peg by a thick leather cord. She'd ruin the table if she cut the fish against it. And she could use the slop bucket for the discards. She was plotting how to get them both with the least motion when Arthea moved with sudden decision, placing the board before her, and the slop bucket on the floor beside her.
"Anything else?" she asked.
Xena shook her head, and set to work. Gabrielle stabbed the smoldering heap of ash in the hearth.
Gabrielle watched Arthea until she was a long way from the house before she spoke.
"Fine," Xena replied. She still sat at the table, leaning her right side against it, left leg stretched out before her.
"Do you want to get them, or shall I?" Xena lowered the knife, and regarded her with narrowed eyes, knowing the bard had more to say. "I don't know just what it is you're trying to prove, but I know a trip to the root cellar would sure as Hades impress me."
"I'm afraid that will have to wait a while."
"Really? Well, don't worry, your secret is safe with me. Know one will ever know that five days after breaking your hip you still couldn't manage to negotiate the steps to the root cellar."
"Gabrielle, that's not what this is about."
"Yes it is," she snapped. "You have to be proving something, to me, to yourself, to whomever, I don't know who, I don't know what. It just seems damned foolish."
"Call me sensitive, Gabrielle, but I'm tired of sitting on the floor, dressed in nightclothes, while half The Sweetwater parades by. It may as well be the public square in Athens."
"I understand that, Xena," she began, then paused, remembering the day before. Hermia had arrived with fresh bread, Lilla in tow. The little girl had seldom strayed more than three feet from the warrior, sometimes playing at the edge of the blanket, other times staring silently at her, at eye level, once falling asleep with her head on Xena's lap. At the time, she'd enjoyed a quiet chuckle at Xena's discomfiture. It didn't seem humorous now. And there had been Ikar, Drax, Ileander…
"I do understand," she said with more conviction. "this can't be easy. I just don't know how to keep people away. They've all been friends, you know."
So far, Xena thought. "You can't keep them away, Gabrielle. I don't want you to do that. But this," she waggled the walking stick, "I can do. It helps."
"If it makes you feel better, Xena, then I'm happy. I just wish it hadn't been Arthea."
"Gabrielle, she was here," Xena said, as if that was explanation enough.
"I've been here most of the day," Gabrielle rejoined with an aggrieved air. "Don't give me that blank look, Xena, as if you don't quite follow. Arthea doesn't come by here to see me," she gave a short laugh, "and she'd much rather be taking lessons from you. It would make her happy if the earth swallowed me." She did a visual survey of Xena, from her tousled dark hair to the shift which followed the contours of her body. "I don't blame her.
I just wish you wouldn't encourage her."
"Gabrielle, I didn't - "
"Yes, you did. That's how she sees it, too. And you look so beautiful in that shift, it's everything I thought when I bought it, only I thought it would be for me alone. Now I feel as if Arthea is all over it, all over the house, in a way she never was before."
Dumb, Xena berated herself. She should have seen it, would have, except she wasn't looking from Gabrielle's point of view; nor was she looking from Arthea's. It had only mattered that she be up, as soon as possible. "You're right Gabrielle. I shouldn't have… I should have waited for you. I was only thinking that you wouldn't have to tend to all my needs on top of everything else you have to get done each day."
"Xena, I don't mind doing things for you," she said very quietly. "I've never complained."
And you never would, Xena acknowledged with silent affection, only hinted at by the smile that suddenly played on her lips. "Then humor me. I need to be useful, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle returned the smile, then sat beside Xena on the bench, wrapping an arm around her waist. "I should have known you were beyond restless: you slept last night as if you were riding Argo." She had muttered something, too, but Gabrielle didn't tell her that. It had sounded like 'kill'.
Xena struggled to recall the fragments of the dream which had played at the edges of her mind all day. She had been riding…She shuddered involuntarily.
"Are you cold? That shift looks great, but maybe it's time you headed back
under the blankets."
"I think I'm ready for that," she agreed, though she wasn't cold. "Gabrielle? Tomorrow I'm wearing leather."
It had been a long day, like most in Tartarus, Xena mused. She was tired, yet not ready for sleep. Gabrielle stood by the hearth, undressing where there was the most warmth, just a few feet from Xena. For a moment she stood naked, bunching her own shift in both hands so that it would fall with no effort over her body, and Xena the sight with warm familiarity. So lovely. Beloved. To be jealous of Arthea seemed so absurd, yet the heart had its own logic.
Gabrielle stole a glance over her shoulder. "What are you grinning at?" she asked.
"Grinning? That's a smile of warm affection."
"Needs work. It looks like a grin."
"Oh yeah? I should warn you that such comments place your back rub in grave jeopardy."
"As if you can keep you hands off my back," Gabrielle scoffed. "Or my front." She slipped the shift off her shoulders and let it slide to her waist. She sat a little to Xena's side, and lifted her hair to give Xena access to her neck and shoulders.
"Gods, that feels great," she sighed as the large hands began to knead her flesh, probing deeply to release the tension in her muscles. "I didn't realize how tired I was until now."
"Because you haven't stopped moving long enough."
"Amazing how much there is to be done every day." She laughed softly. "I used to think it would be nice to be settled down, so I'd have more time for my stories."
Xena's fingers slowed for a moment, then resumed their work with extra vigor. "You'll have time, someday; I promise."
"Thank you, Xena. I know you mean that, but it's really my promise to make, to myself, that I will have - or make, the time to write. It's my dream, so it's my responsibility."
Xena rested her cheek against the bard's back. When did you grow up? she asked with silent wonder. Caring for me, caring for the house, nurturing your own dreams even in this place. "Some day I'll be able to tell Zeno I know Gabrielle of Potadeia."
"Do you expect Zeno to end up here?"
"Why not? It would probably justify one of his crackpot theories, somehow."
"You know, I did find time to write, that awful icy day, when you were
"Hmmm. I read some of it."
"You read it? It wasn't ready for that."
"Gabrielle, you left your sack of scrolls at the edge of the blanket. That usually means you want me to read them."
"Has it been that obvious?"
"For about two years now."
"Oh. Well. I feel self conscious asking you to read them. I don't want you to
feel pressured for an opinion." A pause. "So what did you think?" She turned to
face Xena, who twisted her lips in amusement.
"I think you started about four stories and never finished any.
"They weren't really stories. I couldn't stay with a thought for long. It was so lonely here, just the wind for company." She stopped for a moment, listening to that same bitter whine, then roused herself to continue. "So I just did some word sketches of people, and things that have happened."
Xena's dark head moved in a slow nod, recalling the outline of the events at the peddler's market. "That dark warrior sure was busy; but she wasn't alone, you know."
"That day I was writing, the longer it went on…I couldn't take my mind off you."
"Okay, I like that," Xena smiled with approval, "but when you do finish it, can't you throw in something like: 'Then the recorder of these events waded into the fray, wielding her staff…' You know what I mean."
"Maybe you should write that part?"
"Gabrielle, I'm serious."
"So am I. I usually throw myself in, as a sort of proof that the events are first-hand, that I was there, regardless of what role I played. But it would be so different if you wrote it. Or part of it. Have you ever read the account of Chin? No, of course you haven't; you made it clear you don't want to - "
"Gabrielle, not yet, maybe someday."
"Fine. No hurry," she said dismissively. "The point is, there are two very distinct tones there: one is my voice, telling what I witnessed, the other is my recording the things you told me, from before, about Lao Ma Anyone could see who was telling which part of the tale. You have an interesting voice, it seems to be hiding as much as it's revealing; almost all the time. Of course, you needn't read about Chin, it's also there in the scrolls about M'Lilla, Caesar, Lyceus." Of course you don't want to read those either, she realized. "Trust me, Xena, it's there. You really move a story along."
"You're the bard, Gabrielle. Let's keep it that way. I can't take too much role reversal at once." She said it as banter, but her eyes betrayed something else.
"I'll be a bard as long as I have a voice," she acknowledged. "That's my destiny. I have this fantasy," she confessed, that someday, people will care. They'll read these scrolls, and care about all that I've seen."
"That's a big responsibility. You'd better get it all in: Hermia, Archon and Sepra, Drax and Ileander. Lilla. Arthea. You'll make them live again someday. All of them. When you write about Tartarus, they all must have a place."
"That's a tall order, Xena. I don't think I have enough scrolls," she joked.
"I've spoken to Archon about the scrolls," Xena replied, in deadly earnest. "He doesn't slaughter goats except from necessity; when he does, he said he wouldn't mind if some went to parchment. Ileander thinks he can manage to fashion them for you."
"I never realized you took my scrolls so seriously."
The warrior shrugged. "I do."
Chapter Twenty Five
Gabrielle was dreaming about fire, a huge unquenchable fire that filled the landscape. The faster she ran, the faster the fire raced behind. The staff she held grew hot in her hand. And she was alone. "Xena," she called, but her voice was drowned by the roar of the flames. "Xena "
"Gabrielle, honey Im right here." Xenas voice was in her ear; her hand clutched tightly in Gabrielles own. "That must have been some dream."
"Gods, yes. There was a fire " She stopped, suddenly aware that the smell of the fire persisted outside her dream.
"There is a fire, somewhere," Xena told her. The wind is from the east."
Which would mean Hermias place, or maybe Archon and Sepras farm.
"Could this mean the Tribes?"
"It could, I suppose, but burning is not their usual way. Could be a stray ember from a hearth." Gabrielles eyes stole to the hearth a few feet away, acutely aware of how easily existence could be in jeopardy in this place. She was happy to see the room striped by the first rays of dawn which stole through the shutters boards. The Tribes preferred to attack at night, she knew that much. "Its time to get up anyway," she said.
Drax made his report with the precision of a well-trained soldier. "They were busy last night," he began. "Maybe a dozen all, told, from the tracks they left. Archon lost four goats."
"Youre sure it was the Tribes, not wolves?" Gabrielle asked.
"They want us to know it was them Gabrielle. The tails of the poor things were tossed on Archons porch. Archon and Sepra got off easy. A family that just settled in down the way was burned out. Archon reckons he and Sepra are too valuable to destroy: they provide fresh meat. These other poor souls were expendable." He flicked an eyebrow at Xena. "They were burned inside the hovel. Hope they were merciful and killed them first."
Gabrielle watched Xenas impassive face, looking in vain for any clue to the warriors thoughts.
"They had a child," Drax began.
"Drax, no." Gabrielles voice was strained.
"We cant find the child, she wasnt in the fire." He wiped a grimy hand across the soot marks on his face. "It seems likely they took her for themselves."
"Took her? For what," Gabrielle asked cautiously.
"I dont know; Archon doesnt know. They take people, kids mostly."
"It could be for sacrifice," Gabrielle mused aloud, "or slavery. Are they cannibals?" she asked abruptly.
"No," Xena said firmly. "Its probably slavery." It seemed the least final of the available options.
Gabrielle focused on the obvious question: "What can be done?"
Drax stared at her. "Done? Like what?"
"To rescue her," Gabrielle said, a little annoyed that it wasnt obvious.
"Gabrielle, I cant rescue her. Im one man."
"Isnt there anyone else? The Overlord. Isnt that his job? If a troop of soldiers "
"The Tribes are long gone, Gabrielle. Even if the Overlord wanted to give chase, which he wont want to do, hed never find them."
"Xena?" Her eyes turned to the dark warrior half-seated on the bench, silent all this time. She was wearing her battle dress, sans armor, walking stick held loosely in one hand.
"Theres nothing to be done Gabrielle," she said without emotion.
"Not with this overlord," Drax put in.
The room fell quiet. They all three knew how different the answer would have been if Xena were sound. Or if Xena were overlord.
"I'm headed to see how Natrakia and Ikar made out. I'm not sure why; gathering the bad news is not the same as doing something about it." He looked at Gabrielle. "Can I do anything before I go?"
"No, thanks. I'll see you out. I could use the air."
The smell of smoke still hung in the air. Drax tightened the cinch on his saddle. It was unnecessary, but he needed time to frame his thoughts. "Gabrielle," he said at last, "why won't she do it? The Sweetwater would fall into her lap. There'd be no end of support, and then - "
"She won't Drax. That's all."
"You knew her before Drax, when she had an army."
"Yes, I did." His weathered face was sectioned by a thousand wrinkles when he was puzzled.
"You didn't like her much."
"No," he admitted readily, "but she's different now."
"I think so; but she can still be excessively aggressive. The idea of power " She shook her head. "She doesn't want it. Doesn't trust herself with it."
"What? She's afraid to have the power?" He smacked his thigh with
frustration. "Zeus bugger a duck! The one person who can help us, and she's afraid to
"I didn't say 'afraid'," Gabrielle responded defensively. "It's not fear," she said, feeling that she was not being entirely truthful. "It's caution."
Drax was not impressed by the semantics. "If I was her I'd be a whole lot more 'cautious' about having the roof burned around my head."
"Drax, if she could sit on a horse she'd be after the band of raiders right now, overlord or lot."
Drax had seen anger in her eyes before; he'd gone too far. "I have no right to judge. It's just hard to accept." He touched his fingers to the long fair locks which tumbled around his forehead, in farewell.
Gabrielle shivered as she crossed the threshold. Xena was not in the room. Her eyes traveled to the door which gave access to the horse shed. 'If she could sit a horse '
"Xena!" she called urgently as she ran through to the shed.
Xena stood beside Argo, leaning one arm on her neck for support, speaking quietly. "Yeah?" she asked the bard without breaking contact with the mare.
"What are you doing?" she asked quietly.
"Visiting my horse. What did you think I was doing?" She got no reply, but knew the answer. "I'm not stupid, Gabrielle. If I thought I could ride, I would try it. I know better."
"I know," was the response, "but there are times you seem to think you can do anything."
"The bigger problem is when other people think I can do anything."
"Drax didn't expect you to go after the raiders."
"No, he didn't expect it. It didn't stop him being disappointed that I had no answers." She was looking intently at Argo's intelligent face. "Even Argo is disappointed."
"Argo?" Gabrielle was puzzled.
"It's in the air, Gabrielle, can't you feel it?" She looked around, inhaled deeply. "It's there. Argo wants in on the action."
So do you, Gabrielle realized with a sinking feeling. How long had it been since the peddler's market? Long, boring weeks, punctuated only by the accident that had further reduced her mobility. Now trouble was at her doorstep, and she couldn't respond.
"Come back inside. We haven't had breakfast yet."
"I'll be right there," Xena said, then she cocked her head. "Get inside, quick." Gabrielle hastened through the breezeway, and made her way inside, careful to listen for Xena's hobbling footsteps close behind. She had learned to hear the world outside, and knew from the faint clops in the earth that a band of riders was moving through the soft dirt on the slope which led from the road. She watched through the shutters, looking for the raiders of the night before, and gaped in surprise at their visitors. Petra Tartras rode at their head, Drax beside her.
"Xena. It's Petra," she said in wonder as Xena reached the window. "Drax is with her."
"That's just great." Xena moved to the door, threw it open, and stepped through to stand outside, leaning on her bent stick. Gabrielle took her place at her side. Gabrielle's eyes were on Petra, Xena's on Drax as they drew near. Drax was not bound, yet his sword was not in its sheath. He was in some sense a prisoner. He jumped off his horse and ran the last few steps across the frozen earth. "Xena, they've got the child; and the ponies of the raiders." He waited for a reaction. There was none from Xena. Gabrielle's face creased in a broad smile. "Welcome to our home, Petra," she said.
"Gabrielle. I remember." The hard lines of her face softened marginally.
"This man was good enough to show us the way." She looked at Xena for the first
time. "From the pony he's riding, I surmise he's your pissing comrade."
Xena's blue eyes narrowed. "You've got some business here?"
Petra regarded the house, nodded in approval. "I like to keep abreast of what happens in my domain. I see you are relying on a crutch once again. Otherwise I have no doubt you would have defeated the raiding tribesmen, and saved me the trouble. As it is, I had plenty of business last night." She snapped her fingers, and a young man rode up, a small girl, her dirty face framed in golden ringlets, balanced on the saddle before him, nestled in his thick woolen cloak. She was intent on a crust of bread. "Here is our prize."
Gabrielle half gasped at the sight, said "Thasnk you," and took an eager step toward the child. Petra regarded her with a wry smile; the rider turned his mount sideways, blocking Gabrielle's access to the small girl.
"Gabrielle. We rescued her; she's ours," Petra explained mildly. She made a small movement of her head and the long plume of her which crested her head swirled languidly, caressing the embossed leather which settled around her shoulders. The effect was magnificent, Xena thought with grudging admiration, but it changed nothing.
"She's not a war horse, Petra. What do you want with her?" she demanded.
"Maybe nothing," Petra replied. "The scrawny offspring of convicts have little value, save as slaves. Or to breed more slaves."
"You can't mean that," Gabrielle protested.
"Shall I feed her for nothing? Allow her tainted blood to mix with that of my people? Would you prefer I kill her now?"
"You could leave her with us."
"In exchange for what?"
"My horse. The one Xena chose to take from the peddlers' village." She took a step toward the shed."
"A nice mare," Petra agreed, "but just one of many. The other mare, the golden mare, is more to my taste."
"Argo?" Gabrielle asked incredulous.
"Argo," Petra nodded. "Is this child worth the life of a war horse?"
"The kid means nothing to me, Petra." Xena growled. Her words stunned Gabrielle who dared not look at her, afraid the blue eyes would hold the same message.
"Then I have my answer," Petra replied, and pulled her reins, preparing to leave.
"But I won't let you make her your slave," Xena continued. "I'll fight you for her."
Gabrielle froze, her eyes fixed on the face of Petra who couldn't suppress a momentary surprise. She looked the warrior up and down. "I wouldn't fight you this way; I'd have too great an advantage."
Xena remained silent. She had been counting on this response. She felt Gabrielle relax beside her; but it was only beginning.
"Zayko found her. Fight him," Petra said with a nod of her head toward the rider who held the girl. Gabrielle looked at him closely now. He was very young, fair and well-muscled. He smiled at the prospect of a fight, but waved a dismissive hand in Xena's direction and unloosed a torrent of words that Gabrielle didn't understand.
Petra turned to Xena. "He's insulted to be fighting an injured woman convict." She lingered on the final word. "Beneath his abilities."
Xena's lips curled in a smile of contempt. "It will give me no satisfaction to whip an insolent puppy, but if it makes him feel better, tell him to give up his horse," she suggested.
Petra relayed the message. Zayko handed the child to the nearest rider and jumped to the ground. He pointed to the chakram and spoke to Petra again.
"He wants you not to use the disc."
Xena nodded and flung the chakram toward the house without looking. As it embedded itself in the door post, Drax's hopes sank. The chakram was a great equalizer.
"Choose the weapons," Petra told Xena, a final concession to her injured state.
Petra paused, then spoke a single word to Zayko. His face contorted in anger for a moment, then he called to his comrades. After a moment a whip was passed to him. Gabrielle realized that Zayko had no whip on his saddle; it would not be his favored weapon. Xena would have noted that right away.
"Gabrielle." Xena spoke without looking. The bard entered the house and returned with Xena's whip. As she handed it to Xena she spoke softly to her. "Can you do this?"
"I can do anything, Gabrielle, remember?" She wished she had laced on her bracers.
Drax stepped up beside them. "Xena, you're in no shape for this. Let me fight
"Thanks, Drax, but Petra would never allow it." She wants me. Still clutching the stick in her right hand, she cracked the whip with her left, eyes on Zayko. He unfurled his own whip, in a less than satisfying demonstration.
"Enough," Petra said in disgust. "Begin. Oh, Xena. If you lose, Argo is mine."
Xena might not have heard. Her attention was on Zayko. She smiled and waited for the man to make the first move. Patience wouldn't be his game. He fumbled with the whip, trying to get a feel for the thing. She knew what his target would be, if he had any warrior sense at all, and she was prepared to let him have it. He began a wary approach, to bring himself within whip's reach. Xena waited as if bored, yet so in tune with his movements she could have tracked him with her eyes shut. When at last he moved to strike, her own hand moved first; the tip of her whip bit his hand mid-throw, and the handle fell to the ground. Face burning, he retrieved the whip, stretched a length between his arms for no good reason, and approached once more. His advantage was that he could move, and he sought to use that advantage, running suddenly, arm raised, out of reach. His path took him diagonally across her field of vision; she puzzled at his tactic. He seemed not to know how easy it would be for her to adjust, turning so that his primary target was impossible to access. When he did realize, it was too late. Caught between indecision and the need to do something, he made a feeble attempt to land a blow; while his long, arching cast was still in the air, she sent her whip on a direct, accurate line to his groin. The snap there halted all movement, despite the leather codpiece he wore, then he pitched forward to land on his knees. He heard sympathetic murmurs from the ranks behind him, interspersed with a few guffaws as he rose.
Pain and humiliation were powerful motivators, Xena knew. His next onslaught would be different. It would also be his last. Across the short space which separated them, Zayko took her measure one last time. He had not envisioned defeat as a possibility. With an effort, he refused to consider it now. This time, he would prevail by cunning.
Xena saw something change in his eyes as he shuffled forward, and guessed where he
might be headed. Once; twice; three times lucky? Don't think so flashed through her mind.
She flicked her wrist and the frozen ground before her splintered, sending a little shower
of earth and loose pebbles through the air. Zayko snorted, as if in contempt of the move,
but everyone had seen him flinch. She flicked again, and he paused, unnerved by her
goading. Another man might guess how anxious I am for this to end, Xena thought, and fail
to oblige. Zayko had a lot to learn. His eyes moved suddenly to his target, he took two
quick steps forward and hurled the contents of his left hand at her face. He didn't know
she'd been expecting that, from the moment he rose from the ground, fist clenched. She
merely turned her head and took the force of the debris against one cheek. She was facing
him, unperturbed, as he swung the whip overhead toward the walking stick which bore her
weight. He didn't see the flare in Xena's eyes as the whip snaked around the stick. To the
unpracticed eye it appeared that Zayko had scored a triumph. The stick flew out of Xena's
hand, and she was horizontal to the ground, where she seemed to hover in mid-air for a
long moment. Zayko snatched his whip back, to ready for another throw, but it carried the
stick back with it, causing him to leap out of it's path. At that moment he heard a crow
of triumph, and caught a glimpse of Xena, extending the whip above her head; then it
sliced through the air, and wrapped itself around Zayko's neck. She snapped it tight to
her as she hit the ground, hard; Zayko's body spun 180 degrees before it came to a rest.
For a long moment, all were one with the frozen landscape, then the riders began to stir,
torn between attacking the convict, and loosing the whip which was strangling Zayko.
"Hold." Petra barked the command. "What is your pleasure Xena?"
"He's yours," she replied dismissively, from her vantage point on the ground. She felt the bitter cold for the first time. "Just leave the child."
Petra gave an order to the man who held the child. He carried her to Xena, but Gabrielle was there to take her. Only then did Petra turn her attention to the man on the ground, groggy, dragging scant breath into his body by instinct alone. She dismounted, strode to him, released the whip with a flourish which left rope burns on his neck. She roused him with a series of sharp smacks on his cheeks. When he had come to his senses she drew a knife from her sheath, yanked his head backward by his long braided hair, and sheared it off neatly. He didn't move as she dropped it onto his chest.
Drax had retrieved Xena's stick. She waited impassively while Petra crossed the ground to her.
"You took the puppy to school. He'll be a better warrior for it someday." Petra said, putting the best face on things.
"If he lives long enough," was Xena's clipped response. She felt a slow trickle of blood where something had struck her cheek. She wanted to wipe it, but wouldn't before Petra. She wanted to lie down, to relieve somehow the renewed pain in her hip from the fall. Instead she asked: "Would you accept out hospitality?" She glanced around the field which surrounded their home. Gabrielle sat on a tree stump, eyes riveted on the child in her lap. "Gabrielle," Xena called to her. "I've invited Petra inside. All right?"
"That's fine, Xena," Gabrielle replied, caring little, but suddenly conscious of the rest of the world. For starters, it was cold. The little girl had been outside for gods alone knew how long. And there was Xena She gathered the toddler in her arms and made her way to the house.
"Petra's giving orders to her troops," Xena reported as she and Drax joined her inside. She hung the chakram at her hip once more. "She'll be here in a minute."
"Fine, Xena. It's a good thing Hermia was by yesterday. We have lots to offer. To you, too, Drax." Hermia had become a sort of middlewoman; she saw everyone, and trading through her had become a welcome convenience, especially now, Gabrielle knew, remembering with pride that her promise of lessons was helping put food in their mouths. She looked closely at Xena, reached a hand to touch her cheek. "You came down really hard."
"Yeah," Xena acknowledged, "but no harm done." She wiped her face with a damp cloth.
"You didn't have to invite her now."
"Yes, I did. She wants to see me hurting. I have to let her know she won't see that."
"I guess that's some sort of warrior logic I don't get."
Xena gave her a weary smile. "Don't try. Besides, there's something I need to find out, and she's gonna tell me." She looked at the child. "How is she?"
"Seems none the worse for wear. I think she's too disoriented to ask about you know."
"I'll just get her settled down to sleep. She's wonderful, Xena. So like " her words were lost as she her move into the warmth of the room near the hearth.
"Xena?" Petra opened the door, looked around the single room, and entered.
"Welcome. Warm yourself by our fire." Xena indicated the bench nearest the hearth, and waited for Petra to settle herself, before sitting, left leg at an angle before her.
"I've never been in a convict home before," Petra announced.
"Life is all about first time experiences," Xena observed.
"Even the final event: death," Petra agreed. She wondered at the sly smirk that played on Gabrielle's face as she joined them.
"I guess that's true for most people," the bard said. Breakfast was to have been porridge. That wouldn't do for company. There was bread, cheese, and a haunch of venison hanging in the root cellar. That would do nicely. She settled the jug of mead on the table while she and Drax fetched the food.
"We have certain commonalties, Xena," Petra opened, in a serious tone. "We might use them to the benefit of all." When Xena did not respond she went on: "You are a competent warrior. It puzzles me that you have not challenged for overlordship."
"I'm not the overlord type."
"Certainly not in the fashion of Nerad," she agreed with a dismissive shake of the head, "But in you own fashion, surely, you could have the power."
"I'm not real ambitious that way," Xena told her.
"But there was a time " Petra nodded her head knowingly. "One hears stories."
"It's a good trick to know which stories to believe."
"You're content here? Whittling spoons?"
Petra hadn't missed a thing, Xena noted.
"Good spoons are hard to come by." Gabrielle's voice was less than friendly as she set a platter of cheese and bread before the two warriors, then took a seat beside Xena, making a show of taking Xena's hand.
"I'm very content," Xena said, realizing it was true, much of the time. With all the problems, she had this each night: Gabrielle at her side. She couldn't think of a time in her adult life when she'd been more content. Except for those awful moments when it all lost focus...
Drax set the haunch of venison before them, on a hard wood cutting board. The sharp knife was for self service Gabrielle realized, appalled. "Warriors; every excuse to use a weapon," she objected, and rose to carve off thick slices.
"You sound like Ileander," Drax said with a broad grin, wishing Ileander had come along.
There was little conversation while they ate, the heavy meat and bread required a good
deal of chewing. When they were finished, and lashings of Hermia's mead were being thrown
back, Petra pointed across the room. "That's an Amazon ceremonial mask." She
said of the Gabrielle's mask which hung in a prominent place.
"Gabrielle is Amazon royalty," Xena told her.
"Another Amazon in Tartarus."
"Another?" Gabrielle asked eagerly.
"There is one other here. I'm sure you'll meet sometime," Petra said, done with that topic. "I understand now you weren't marked when you came here. Tarkian would never brand one with noble blood."
Gabrielle jumped in: "I have no noble blood, Petra. I was not born an Amazon. I
had the title bestowed on me by right of caste."
"She earned the right with an act of courage and humanity," Xena amended. "Gabrielle is noble by nature."
"Xena is of royal blood," Gabrielle said, noting Petra's pointed gaze at Xena's unmarked hand.
Petra looked doubtful "I had imagined "Warrior Princess" was an honorary title, of dubious honor, with emphasis on 'Warrior'," she smiled.
"The royal house of Prestia," Gabrielle began, wanting to tell the whole story of Xena's liberation of that country from usurpers, but Xena caught her eye; a slight shake of her head was enough.
"The stories told of Xena in these parts don't mention Prestia."
"I think I'll see if the child is hungry," Gabrielle said. "Do you know her name?" she asked Petra, who didn't waste the energy to shake her head in answer.
"Nara, I think," Drax supplied. "I think I heard her called that, once, at Cramma's."
"Nara," Gabrielle repeated, as she crossed to her, happy to be able to waken the girl by name.
"Why did you bring the child here, Petra?" Xena asked in a soft voice.
"We were close by. I was surprised that raiders from the Tribes operated so close to your home, undeterred. Now I understand." She indicated Xena's injury. "You won't be out of the saddle for long." It was not a question. "And now I must take my leave. They'll be snow from the mountains before another daybreak, and I have many things to do." She rose suddenly; Xena did the same, turning a near gasp into a call to Gabrielle. "Petra's leaving."
"Yeah, I know; sorry," she apologized, occupied with the child's soiled diaper.
"Farewell, Gabrielle. I thank you both for your hospitality. Drax." She inclined her head to him. "I'm happy to know the pisser has a name." And she was gone. Drax stood for a moment looking through the window until the party had mounted and disappeared over the hill.
"That was a full morning. I confess I don't know why you felt the need to fight her."
"She made a statement by showing up. I had to make a counter statement. Perception is everything , Drax. I can't think how many fights I've avoided because I managed to persuade someone I was tougher than they'd ever want to deal with."
"And that's from a person who loves nothing better than a good fight," Gabrielle said from the corner."
"If you say so," he shrugged. "I'd best be off, myself. They'll wonder where I've gotten too. Hermia won't half hate missing a meal with Petra." He shook his head. "Funny what passes for entertainment in these parts."
"Yeah," Xena breathed, happy to relax at last, to loosen the controls that masked her pain. It wasn't too bad, she acknowledged; even with the jarring impact with the ground it felt better than the day before. It hadn't even been a week, and the thing was much improved. Still, it was good to be left alone. In the corner, Gabrielle had the child seated on a sheepskin, and was making introductions.
"She's bright, Xena," she called out. "Says 'Gabrielle' pretty well. I'll have to wrap her in a blanket for sleeping, while I get this dirty thing washed. Maybe Hermia will let me have some of Lilla's old things, if she hasn't used them for rags."
"I'm sure she will," Xena said slowly.
"She can sleep here, next to me, for now. Maybe when you're healed you can make her a cradle."
"A cradle?" she asked, suddenly wary. "Gabrielle, she'll only be here a few days."
Gabrielle straightened. "A few days? What are you saying?"
"It's not as if we're keeping her," she said with a small shake of her head.
"Not? Of course we are," she said indignantly. "Don't listen to her Nara, I'll be here for you."
Xena opened her mouth to say something, but wasn't sure what it might be. She couldn't have been more plain. She watched for a few minutes as the bard coaxed Nara to hold a small cup of water. At last she spoke: "Gabrielle, I think we have to talk about this."
"What is there to talk about, Xena? Nara has been delivered to our doorstep. Why shouldn't we keep her?"
"Us? Gabrielle, c'mon," Xena expelled a short laugh. Gabrielle didn't see the humor.
"Why not us?" she demanded, staring at the warrior from across the room. "There are plenty of parents in Tartarus, in the world, for that matter, who are worse than we could ever be." She turned back to Nara. "I think I'd be a good mother, anyway; given a chance."
Xena sat very still; the room seemed to have a magical quality of shrinking in size at the most inopportune moments. This was such a moment, and the air seemed to whoosh out of the room, leaving behind the smoky, slightly musty smell of a damp, Tartarus winter. Indoors.
"You'd be a very good mother, Gabrielle. But we can't just keep her. She may have kin."
"In Tartarus? What are the chances?" Gabrielle scoffed.
"It's not impossible, Gabrielle; I've heard of large family groups settled in some areas."
"Wishful thinking," she accused. "You'd love someone to step forward and ask for her, but it's not going to happen. She's here and she's staying here."
"And I have no say in this? Isn't this the sort of thing we should decide together?"
"Why? So you can decide the answer is 'no'?"
"Gabrielle, this would be a major change in our lives; we have to give it some thought."
"Xena, if we can't make room in our lives for an innocent child, alone in the world, we're pretty sorry creatures."
"You make it sound very simple, Gabrielle."
"Most things are simple, Xena. You're the one who makes it complicated, because you have to have your way, all the time, so everything else has to change to fit. That must be a damned hard way to live."
"Let's avoid my flaws and stick to the point. This kid will change everything: we won't be able to pick up and go - "
"Go where? This isn't the road, Xena. We're settled folks now, remember?"
"How about the other night? Would you have left her alone to come looking for me?"
"No," Gabrielle acknowledged, "that would have been a problem, but we can't build our lives around what might happen next. Most of what's happened in my life, good and bad, has been far beyond the limits of my imagination." She was still then, looking past the walls of the house, over the mountains which were the bounds of Tartarus, to things Xena could only guess at. When she came back to the moment, her face held a steely resolve. "I'm not asking for your permission, Xena, and I don't want to discuss this anymore. I'm keeping this little girl. If you want to be part of our lives, you're welcome."
Part of your lives? So. Xena moved the tip of the little crutch in small circles on the floor, watching the woman as she rocked the child to sleep in the small circle of light which spread from the fire. The girl seemed finally to feel the absence of her mother; she fussed and babbled a word endlessly: "Mama." At last she gave up from exhaustion. Gabrielle looked at Xena. "I still have all the chores to do."
"They can wait. Would you come closer please?" she asked carefully.
"All right, but I'm not changing my mind," she said firmly as she crossed the floor.
"I won't ask you to change your mind." Only a few feet separated them; Xena could have touched her, wanted to, but Gabrielle didn't seem ready for that, standing with her arms folded across her chest. "It was never about permission, Gabrielle. You must see me as quite a tyrant." She forced a small smile. Gabrielle shook her head, opened her mouth as if to speak, then stood silent as Xena went on. "If she - Nara - is to stay here, we'll have to make some arrangement for milk. Sepra and Archon or Natrakia maybe will let us have a pair of goats, for some price we can manage. She's already sort of big for a cradle, but I can make her a small bed of some kind."
"Thank you, Xena. I hadn't thought about those things - yet," she admitted sheepishly. "I can do this without you," she insisted, "but it makes it a lot easier for you to be with me."
"With you? Where else would I be? This is for life, Gabrielle. You and me. We're ready to make that statement to the world." Aren't we? she asked herself. "Don't get me wrong, I still think this isn't the best thing for Nara, or for us; but you're not giving me a lot of choice. This is the price for staying in your life."
Gabrielle seemed puzzled. "Xena, I never said that," she said at last.
"Yes, Gabrielle, you did. And if that's how you feel, if you need Nara to make you happy, I'll try to make it work for you. For all of us."
Gabrielle's face softened; her arms reached out to Xena. "It will make me happy, Xena, but it's not that you don't " she nestled as close as she could to Xena on the hard wooden bench. "And you aren't a tyrant. It just seems that you make all the important decisions. I couldn't let you make this one."
Xena returned the embrace, her mind grappling with the decision the bard had just made, the words she'd said."
"Now I'd better do those chores before Nara wakes up. Will you be okay with her? I won't be long? Just checking the traps."
"Traps? Sure. I'll manage."
Gabrielle stopped at the door, and turned to Xena, puzzled. "What's this?" she asked.
Neatly carved into the lintel was a large monogram, signifying 'Petra'. Xena swore.
"What has she done, Xena? What does it mean?"
"It means that if any harm comes to us, the perpetrators answer to Petra," she spat.
Gabrielle was puzzled. "Is that a bad thing?"
"Not if you want it," she replied, tight-lipped. Not if she isn't just keeping me for herself, she thought, banging the door against the frame.
The day passed quickly for Gabrielle, more slowly for Xena, under the strain of being enthused about the child. So like Hope. Just what we need.
It was close to sundown, a time few people chose to travel in winter, when Cramma's voice in the yard caused Gabrielle to hold the child more closely. As she opened the door her heart thumped so that she felt it in her ears. Xena watched the scene, nearly silent. Words were exchanged, thanks and promises, then Cramma was gone, with the child, and the few things Gabrielle had already settled on her.
At last Gabrielle turned to Xena. "I don't know how you manage, Xena. Once again,
you got your way."
The warrior looked at her, open-mouthed.
"Did you offer a supplication to your favorite god? He sure works fast. The child's one relation in the world turns up not ten miles away. Quite a coincidence, wouldn't you say?"
"You heard Cramma, Gabrielle," Xena said patiently. "They settled here to be close to her. Just in case something like this happened. Cramma's rough, but she's a fine woman. She has a lot of love to give."
"So do I Xena," she said harshly.
"Gabrielle, you don't have to tell me how much love - "
"And I know you had nothing to do with it, not really, but you can't pretend that
it makes you unhappy. So take that glum look off your face; you, at least, had a terrific
day: a good knock down fight, great chance to show off for the Petra and the gang, and a
little problem neatly solved before nightfall. Another day in the life of the Warrior
"Gabrielle, stop it. I did what I could to keep that little girl from a life of slavery. What happens to her now is a matter for her kin, for Cramma, to decide. I had nothing to do with bringing her here, I had nothing to do with sending her away, and it doesn't make me happy to see you miserable. Come over here." It was something more than a request: it was Gabrielle's signal to let the tears fall freely. It was all right, it was always all right to get lost in Xena's warmth. Anything was permitted there, everything was safe. So she sobbed against the leather and flesh, mourning for Nara, for Hope, and for herself.
Chapter Twenty Six
Petra was proved right about the snow. Xena woke before dawn to a world that was hushed and still; she knew without looking that the ground was blanketed. This was not the icy veneer of the last storm, but a thick driving snow, piled in high drifts by the faithful wind which came from the East. The back of Cramma, perched on her donkey the night before, would be the last they'd see of company for days. She felt Gabrielle's breath soft against her skin, a welcome touch of warmth in the cold darkness. She resisted the urge to stroke her cheek. This would be a morning to sleep late; there would be little to do all day. The timing of the storm was fortunate: a few days with Nara and Gabrielle would have found it all that much harder to give her up.
A few more days with her and we'd have grown so close Cramma wouldn't have had the heart to take her away, Gabrielle mused. She set the porridge bowls on the table and moved to Xena's side. "You'd better get it while it's hot. There seems to be no keeping out the cold today." A crown of dark hair was all that was visible of the warrior in the early darkness. "Come on, Xena. Can't sleep all day." She ripped the blankets from her.
"Hey!" she protested, and yanked them back, holding them tight against her. "Give me a few minutes. What's the hurry? There's too much snow to go anyplace."
Gabrielle frowned, disappointed. "You know that without looking? Can't I tell you ever anything?"
"Sure. You can tell me how much you love me." She blinked once, rubbed her eyes, and watched as Gabrielle's surprise turned to something else.
"I get to tell you that? Again? Okay," she screwed her eyes as if deep in thought, and said at last: "I love you more than I loved Timpani."
Xena nodded solemnly. "Hmmm. Your pony."
"Xena," Gabrielle went on hastily, "don't be hurt, I really loved Timpani."
"Calm down," Xena said, stifling a yawn. "You could learn a lot about love from kids and their pets."
"Good, then you do understand," Gabrielle's face relaxed in a smile, and she lowered herself to the floor, settling into the space Xena made with her arms. "Did you have a favorite pet, Xena?"
"Pet? I don't know if we had pets. There were always sheepherding dogs around Amphipolis, since it's - "
"I know, sheep country," Gabrielle supplied.
"Yes, it is," Xena confirmed proudly. "The dogs were all working dogs. Even the ones around our place. They were all the same type, small, feisty, never back down. Kind of like you."
"I guess I'll take that as a compliment," Gabrielle said after a moment.
"You'd better," Xena told her. "They kept the inn clear of vermin better than any cats. Ratters, that's what my mother called them."
"You didn't have pets, you had ratters. Charming. That might explain a lot. So did you have a favorite ratter?"
"I did," was the immediate answer. "Spots."
"Original," Gabrielle remarked.
"Toris named her," Xena said defensively. "He was the oldest, and got his way. Back then, anyway. But the name fit. She had dark brown spots all over. She was very good at her job, but when it was slow, she'd sit by the hearth, and if you turned your back from the spit for a moment, she'd leap up, right over the flames, and tear off a piece of whatever was roasting. My Mother would grab the broom and chase her. I can still hear her: 'Out damned Spots' she'd say. Spots would leave for a while and sneak back in when Mother was busy. I liked her. I would have called her 'Dash', I think."
"What happened to her?"
"She lived to a ripe old age, and died in her bed of straw in the barn, leaving behind several litters of pups. I'd like to say that. Truth is, she was crushed by the wheel of a cart." Following me.
"It was a long time ago. I just wish she'd had a better end. She didn't die right away. My mother finally did something to end her suffering." She shook her head. "Little Spots. I haven't thought of her in a long time."
"Maybe sometime we could have a pet? Dog or cat, it wouldn't matter. I haven't seen many in these parts, but they must be around."
"I would bet Ikar could find something." Her hand traced lazy circles on Gabrielle's back.
"You're in a good mood today." Or maybe it's just kids you don't want around?
"About the same as usual," Xena decided.
"How is your hip feeling? And the ribs?"
"Fine. Well, much better. So good, I think I'll do some serious sewing."
"Serious sewing? Embroidery?"
"No," she said with a frown. "Something practical. You'll like it."
Gabrielle watched Xena work with bemused fascination. In some ways, it was like watching the accomplished warrior do most things: little wasted movement, no hesitation, just a plan to be put into action. So she laid out a pliant length of doeskin on the long table and cut, with no pattern, no markings on the skin, but a clear direction in mind. She stitched quickly, precisely, fingers flying though she scarcely looked at the work. All the while she held up her end of a conversation. Gabrielle drifted closer to the table in stages, finally asking the question: "Xena? Are you making yourself something new to wear, finally?" she asked, hope dawning in her eyes.
Xena narrowed her eyes and held the nearly finished garment before her. "I like what I wear, Gabrielle. Does this look like a fit for me?"
Gabrielle saw it clearly now, a pair of pants. Too short by a good deal for Xena. "They're for me?"
"Yeah," Xena nodded, setting to work stitching again. "Warmer than what you wear."
"But you never measured me how - "
"Gabrielle, do you think I don't know your dimensions?" she snorted softly.
"Xena," that's so sweet." She sat beside her, pulled her head close and kissed her cheek. "You didn't have to do this."
"I wanted to," Xena responded, eyes on her work at last. "That cloak doesn't begin to keep out the weather. These will help." She bit the end of the stout thread and tied it off.
She gave the pants a critical inspection, then satisfied, handed them to the bard. "Done.
Put them on while I start on the shirt."
"They're awfully soft," she said.
"Doeskin will get like that, if it's treated properly. Now hurry up; I'd like to see them."
Gabrielle kicked her boots off, let the short skirt fall to the floor and stepped in to the pants. It was as Xena said: she knew her dimensions very well.
Xena nodded her approval, unable to keep the pleasure from her face. They were as she had envisioned them, hugging the bard's form while not being constricting.
"You look terrific." And if it weren't for this damned hip I'd have you on my lap right now.
"I've never worn pants like these before, just those furry leggings. These feel, " she considered, "like a body glove." She ran a hand down the outside of a thigh, enjoying the buttery softness. "I'm warmer already."
So am I, my bard, Xena thought, but merely said: "That's the point. Now, if you get the other piece of hide from the shed, I'll start on the shirt." She could already see the finished garment in her mind's eye, draped smoothly over the firm breasts. "This drafty place won't trouble you again."
"I've never seen clothing fashioned this way. Where did you get the idea?"
"I spent some time with the people of the North. Way north, beyond Britannia. The people I stayed with roam the seas, venture to places that appear on our maps. A native of one of those places returned with them. She dressed just like this."
"Returned? You mean as a prisoner?"
"No. Seems that she liked to travel, too. And she liked to tell stories. I think she was a bard among her people."
"Really? And her home isn't on our maps?" A certain sparkle came to Gabrielle's eyes when her interest was well and truly piqued; the sparkle was there now. "How do you get there? To her home, I mean."
Sail west, always west, beyond any known lands, until you run short of supplies, and the crew is on the verge of mutiny."
"You sound as if you've been."
"Not yet." She grimaced. "When my ambitions lay in conquering the world, it was part of my long term plans. I'd still like to see it some day." Fat chance, she mused. The woman either had a vivid imagination, or the land is truly full of wonders. Flocks of birds so thick they blot out the sun for hours when they take flight. Herds of bison that thunder past for hours, with no break. What I'd really like to see is a waterfall."
"We have those here," Gabrielle pointed out.
"Not like this one. It sounds as if a sea the size of the Mediterranean must be pouring itself out. Or else she's a terrible liar." She shrugged. "Who knows. I'd like to see for myself, someday." Her lips twisted sardonically. "And they've never heard of Ares. Or Zeus."
"Sounds like quite a place." They were silent for a while; Xena took a few quick stitches to secure a seam.
"Xena, what about new clothes for you?"
"Xena, if this is about yesterday, it really isn't necessary. I'm over that."
"Over what?" Xena asked, clearly puzzled for a moment, then she understood. "Nara? Why would this be about Nara?"
"A peace offering?" Gabrielle suggested.
Xena's eyes clouded briefly. "Hate to disappoint you, but I've had this in mind for weeks. As for a peace offering, I didn't know you were expecting one."
"I'm not - "
"Of course you are, otherwise you wouldn't assume I'm handing you one." She began to gather the pieces of scrap which littered the table. "How did this become such a big deal?" she wondered aloud. "Would you get me the other doeskin, please. I'd like this to be finished."
The joy she felt in the project was gone. She worked as before, but few words were exchanged; when she handed the shirt to Gabrielle the bard accepted it with a muffled word of thanks. There was enough of the skin left to make slippers, Xena noted, but sitting so long in one place had made her hip sore. She rose to stretch. Outside, the storm seemed to have intensified, if that was possible. She wondered if the drifts would make it impossible to leave the house. She hadn't really counted on anything like this when she built it. Still, there'd be plenty of time to adapt the house to the realities of Tartarus. Gabrielle had slipped the shirt on, and sat as before, hunched over a scroll. One thing about bad weather: it limited the time spent on chores. Xena wondered vaguely if the scroll was about Nara. Or Petra. The shirt suited Gabrielle, it's soft folds changing even as she moved the quill across the scroll. Xena wanted to say so, wanted to say something, but she couldn't judge the bard's mood. Another quarrel, another wasted day in Tartarus. Her head moved to follow a particularly vicious blast of wind, which ended in a scream, like someone howling through the storm. Gabrielle heard it, too, and looked at Xena, a question in her eyes. Then it was heard a second time, and Xena began a slow move to the shuttered window. Together, the two women peered through the curtain of white. It was mid afternoon; the light of the day was diffused through the landscape. The nearby stand of trees was visible as a dark mass of no particular composition. The house would look just the same to anyone unfortunate enough to be outside its walls; yet in a world of swirling whiteness, a dark mass, might be anything, might be salvation, couldn't be worse than the certain death of the storm. So, a figure cloaked in white staggered toward the house, not realizing until he stumbled against a wall that it was, indeed, a house.
The muffled sound brought their heads around to the side wall, across from the hearth. Gabrielle grabbed her cloak from a peg. "There's someone there, right outside. I'll go help," she said. Xena cursed her inability to move well enough to help, but she stood beside the open door, watching as the bard worked her way around the corner of the house, careful not to lose contact with the rough walls. It was with relief that she saw her return at last, followed by a slow moving, stooped figure. It was a man, sporting a beard stiff with matted snow beneath a nose botched red and white with cold. He seemed to lose his ability to move, to stand, to speak when he entered the warmth of the house, and toppled forward to the floor. Xena fetched blankets as Gabrielle worked the stiff cloak from him, and pulled off his ice-crusted boots. A few warm stones were dropped into a cup, and mead was poured over them, while Gabrielle shook his beard roughly to dislodge the snow and ice.
"He couldn't have gone on much further like this," she said.
"Lucky bastard," Xena nodded.
"I wonder who he is, and why he's out on a night like this."
"We'll soon know," Xena guessed, as he stirred, trying to rise on shaky arms. "Just lie still for a few moments," the warrior told him softly. "You're in no danger here." He buried his face against an arm, and sobbed.
"Now that's relief," Gabrielle said. She hurried to fetch the cup of mead.
"Yeah." Xena stood a little to the side, watching the man writhe on the floor, a puddle forming where the ice melted. With his tattered cloak now hanging by the fire to dry she could see his features: the chapped cheeks, the nose threatened by frostbite, his red beard curling close to his face. Red beard. There was something familiar in that; she moved closer. He stole a glance at her, then quickly turned away; too late.
"Gaederus," she breathed, and if he ever heard the voice of Hades, he knew it could only be warmer. "You bastard, is that you?" The tip of her stick touched him; he squirmed away, squealing.
Gabrielle returned, mead in hand. "What is it?"
"We don't need that, Gabrielle. He's not staying."
"Xena, what are you talking about?"
The warrior drove a booted foot into his side. "He can't stay. Isn't that right, Gaederus."
"Gaederus." Gabrielle stared for a long moment; images from that endless night in Priblis flashed through her head. The red beard moved with his face as he smiled and stammered, seeking a reprieve from the bard.
"I did see you in Priblis," he began, and worked to collect his thought.
"Oh yes," Xena confirmed. "We saw you too. Right before the troops of Mustrakis grabbed us."
"I - I - I, uh, heard you'd been taken. I don't know how - "
"Forget it, Gaederus," Xena told him harshly. "We all know how they found Gabrielle: you led them to her, and kept her there with a phony message from me."
"That's not how it was," he tried again, knowing he spoke in vain, watching transfixed as the warrior reached to grab his beard. She pulled his face to eye level.
"You betrayed us," she hissed, as she brought hard knuckles against his nose. Blood spurted onto his chest, then splattered the floor as she whipped his head around with a second blow.
"Xena. Stop it." Gabrielle was at her elbow.
"I'll do just that," she said, never taking her eyes from Gaederus. "Get out."
The man mopped frantically at the blood which poured from his nose and mouth, considering his limited options: the elements or the fury which seemed to radiate from the warrior beside him. One chance. His eyes turned to Gabrielle. "I'll die if I leave" he whimpered.
"Probably," Xena agreed, "but then again, you'll die if you stay. And that was an order, not a choice. Get your putrid hide out of my house." Her words were charged with all the energy that under different circumstances would have fueled physical violence. Even so he shrank from her now, inching toward the door, and the storm which seemed less threatening all the time.
"Xena. What are you doing?" Gabrielle demanded, a hand on Xena's arm. "You can't throw him out there to die?"
"I can't" the warrior spat incredulous. "Can't?" she echoed even louder. "I'm doing it, Gabrielle, so stay out of the way."
"Xena, you'll be sending him to his death!"
"We've established that, Gabrielle. I figure he's already lived three minutes longer than he has any right to expect." She turned her attention back to the groveling man on the floor. "Isn't that so, Gaederus? You thought we'd never cross paths again, right? You must have pissed your pants when they sent you to Tartarus, to me! And then the gods sent you stumbling at my feet. I owe someone a big thank you. Now get out before I cut off your frost bitten ears."
"Xena. I don't care what he's done. He's not leaving this house tonight." Gabrielle's
voice held a rare whiplash of command.
"Have you forgotten what he's done?" Xena growled. "He's the reason were in this gods forsaken place!"
"I haven't forgotten, but I don't care what he's done. We're not denying him our hospitality today."
"Fine; you're out of it. I won't have him under my roof."
"It's our roof, Xena. I have a voice in who is permitted under this roof, too. And I say he's welcome. Today, anyway."
"Sheltering the reason we're here." Xena smacked her forehead in wonder. "Gabrielle, sometimes you're just too good to be true." It wasn't a compliment.
"I've that said a lot, Xena. Mostly from people wondering how I put up with you. As for why we're here, I know this leaves a lot out, but isn't a least part of the reason the fact that for years you led an unprecedented life of crime?"
Xena stood very still, then she worked air back into her lungs for a reply. "I often wonder how you put up with me, too."
"Xena, I didn't mean that," Gabrielle said hastily aware she'd gone too far.
Xena turned away; Gaederus wouldn't see the fury that swept through her. In a barely controlled voice she spoke to the bard: "So we have a difference of opinion. "I could throw him out of here; what could you do to stop me?"
Gabrielle swallowed, met the challenge in the suddenly midnight eyes, and replied: "If you throw him out, I won't stay here." She stopped abruptly, scarcely believing that she'd said the words. Xena heard them, shook her head as if that would change what had been said.
Gabrielle scrambled to make sense of what she had said. It seemed awfully drastic; probably impossible, but equally impossible to retract, so she merely repeated the words.
"I won't stay. I won't stand by and watch you send a man to certain death."
Him or me, that's what it came down to, and Gabrielle had a made a choice. First Nara, now Gaederus. It was suddenly hard for the warrior to swallow. Without a word she took the few painful steps to where a length of rope hung from a peg. She bound Gaederus hand and foot, then looked steadily at the bard. "Tell me when he's gone," she said, grabbed her cloak, and exited through the sheltered breezeway which connected to the shed.
She had not settled down when Gabrielle appeared at the entrance. "What are you doing?" Xena was barely visible in the cold gray light which found it's way through the shutters.
"Dont worry, I'm not going far; I'm afraid you're stuck with me. But I won't stay under the same roof with that bastard. Didn't I make that clear?" she asked in a harsh voice.
"Then Gaederus can stay out here," she replied after a moment.
"With my horse?" she shook her head. "Not on your life."
"You'd rather he stay inside with me?"
"No, Gabrielle, that's your choice. I'd prefer he froze his ass off outside. I know I made that clear."
"Xena, come on, this makes no sense."
"This makes no sense? Does it make sense to shelter the man who betrayed us? Sent us here? Where's the sense in that?"
"It won't change anything to send him out to his death," Gabrielle reasoned, " and it doesn't make us better people to act out of vengeance."
"Well, that's the problem," Xena exclaimed, "I haven't gotten the finer points of being a better person. Vengeance would suit me just fine."
"That's your last word?"
"No; there's this: You're just putting off the inevitable. That bastard will die by my hand."
"I don't like you like this, Xena."
"Obviously. You prefer the company of that traitor."
"I don't prefer - "
"Just don't turn your back on him." The bard left quietly, shivering a little, from the cold, or Xena's words, she couldn't say.
"You me, and a bedroll Argo. Again." Xena settled down long before dark, for what was to be a long, sleepless night.
No one slept much that evening. Gabrielle listened for Gaederus, he listened for Xena. From her place in the shed, Xena listened for anything. Long before dawn, she heard movement at last: Gaederus, stealing about the house. She held her breath, tracking his movements through the noises he made, chinking pottery, rustling the stiff waxed cloth around the cheeses, pouring something, mead, by the sound of it. She considered interrupting, but was certain Gabrielle would object to that, would help him stuff a sack with provisions. At last she heard his footsteps crunch in the snow, a steady movement away from the house, and closed her eyes.
"Xena? He's gone." Gabrielle had a warm cup in each hand. "I brought you something warm. Was it too bad out here? It seemed like the wind didn't stop all night."
Xena sat up slowly, brushed hay from her hair, and curled a lip: "It was like old times, sleeping in a pile of hay. Except for the snow blowing in through the cracks. Except that my home is just a few feet away." And except that I was alone, she thought bitterly.
Gabrielle sat beside her, and held out a cup, uncertainly. So much had been said the night before. She was torn between an apology, and hoping they could just move past it. Xena took the cup after long consideration. Gabrielle relaxed a bit; it seemed that Xena, too, was anxious to put the ugly moments behind her. She was looking at Gabrielle appraisingly. Doeskin suited her. The honey-hair seemed made to fall on that supple surface.
Gabrielle reached to pick a wisp of straw from the warrior's hair. "Xena," she said contritely, "I hated it that you were out here, but you can be so stubborn." Her smile urged Xena to respond in kind.
The warrior was not quite ready for that, but kept her voice low as she asked: "Me? Who was ready to up and leave if I tossed Gaederus out on his ass?"
"Xena, it wasn't about Gaederus, it was a matter of principle," she explained.
"Principles. Yeah, I know the place principles take in your life," Xena replied uneasily. She considered that they had yet to share with anyone their plans to make a public commitment to each other. Gabrielle had suggested that they wait until they could specify a day. They hadn't even spoken of it in weeks. Too busy squabbling, I suppose.
"Just tell me this: would you really have left?" she asked abruptly, needing
A pause, then: "Probably."
"Where would you have gone?" Xena continued, arching an eyebrow.
Gabrielle shrugged. "Hermia's."
"In that storm? You wouldn't have gone two miles."
"And how much did your 'principles' rely on me caving in?"
"Let's say I didn't really think I'd be spending the night in the storm." She lay her head against Xena's chest. Xena stiffened, then lifted the blanket, to take Gabrielle into the warm space beneath. "But I never meant for you to spend the night in the cold." She sighed and snuggled closer to Xena, rubbing a thigh clothed in soft doeskin against her. "It really is cold out here." She sipped from her cup. "Gaederus finished the mead. He was gone before I woke up. He also took some cheese and the last of the bread. Oh, he took a blanket, too."
"Yeah, I figured," Xena said quietly. "Why did you untie him?"
"He had to eat, Xena. And then I didn't want him peeing on the floor, so I let him outside. I tied him again, he let me. I guess he figured I wouldn't tie him as well as you had."
At least he's gone, Xena consoled herself. They'd cross paths again, and this time, she'd see that Gaederus was armed. She half smiled at the image of what she might do to him.
"Are you angry?" the bard asked.
"Do I ever stay mad for long?" Gods, with you so warm beside me, how would that be possible.
Gabrielle smiled. "You make me feel guilty. But yesterday, it seemed like the right thing to do."
"He ruined yesterday, let's not mention him again today." The soft hair felt warm against her cold nose. She snuggled against her, moved lower to seize an earlobe with her teeth. Her hands roamed over the woman.
The sudden change of tone caught Gabrielle by surprise. "Is this about making up?"
"Does every move I make need a reason?" Xena asked, letting her hands fall to the straw. "Can't it just be that it's been too long? So long Gabrielle," she said with sudden urgency, "since I've tasted you." She took the bard's cup, and set it down beside her own in the straw. "Let's just stop fighting," she said wearily. "Nothing is worth that distance between us, not your principles - "
"Not your vengeance?"
"Not vengeance," Xena agreed, Gabrielle's hair twined in her fingers, her mouth urging the bard to quiet. "So long " she murmured.
"Xena. This isn't a magical solution to our squabbles."
"I know that, Gabrielle," Xena nodded, a little frustrated. "But it can't hurt."
"Are you sure you're up to this?" the bard wanted to know, pulling away with reluctance.
"If I could smack that - " she stopped, shook her head emphatically. She wouldn't say the name again. "Anyway," she continued, "I'm more than up to this." Gently, she turned Gabrielle by the shoulders. "Gabrielle.
Continued - Chapters 27-34
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