The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by MCA Pictures and used here without permission.
The opening lines of this story are taken from lyrics of the song "Ghost" by the Indigo Girls. They, too, are used without permission. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this story.
This story contains the expression of love between two women. Hopefully, you know if you should or shouldn't be reading it. This story also contains what probably amounts to a virtual river of tears. Don't be alarmed if you notice them dripping from your computer screen.
Feedback regarding this story is welcome at Danae121@aol.com.
NOTE: This story takes place immediately following the events of "Destiny." It was inspired by Renee O'Connor's very moving and talented portrayal of grief in "Destiny" and "The Quest."
There's not enough room in this world for my pain.
Signals cross and love gets lost and time passed makes it plain.
Unknowing captor, you'll never know how much you pierce my spirit.
But, I can't touch you. Can you hear it?
I now know how it feels to be weakened like Achilles, with you always at my heels.
I feel it like a sickness, how this love is killing me, but I'd walk into the fingers of your fire willingly.
Dance the edge of sanity, I've never been this close.
I'm in love with your ghost.
Artemis stood with her hands on her hips behind the Fates. She had been trying to prevail upon them. They paid her little attention as they tended to their labors.
"There MUST be something you can do!" the goddess insisted.
Lachesis turned from measuring threads with a bored expression. "There is nothing that can be done, Artemis. Her lifeline has been severed. Now, do go... Take your tiresome 'mighty warrior' disposition out of here and leave us in peace."
Artemis stood up to her full height and said with a restrained voice, "But, this is different. It was not her time to die."
"You intervened with that excuse once before, Artemis. You were fortunate then, but you were too slow to act this time. Atropos has cut her thread. It is done. Even as we speak, she nears the river to the underworld." Lachesis turned back to her art.
"Then, she hasn't entered the underworld yet?"
"No, but it is only a matter of time."
A deep furrow creased Artemis's brow. Her eyes wandered over the thousands upon thousands of colorful lines strung before her. Frustrated, she sighed heavily. "Which thread is hers anyway?"
Lachesis rolled her eyes and motioned to the blonde sister on her right. "Show her, Clothos, then maybe she will let us be."
The youngest Fate, responsible for spinning the treads of life, looked up at Artemis pleasantly.
The goddess gave her a charming smile.
Clothos returned her eyes to the threads. She began searching, running a slender index finger along them. "Her cord is never hard to find... it is one of the thickest and most vibrant. Some of these lifelines have barely more than a few strands, but hers contained many. It was so easy to handle... so strong, yet supple. Let's see... Oh! Here it is."
Artemis squinted at the fiber which Clothos had identified. Following it from its beginning, she kept her eyes glued to the thread as she stepped around Lachesis. She moved toward Atropos and then stopped. "Wait, what happened here?!" She pointed to a place where the line became twisted with another. The two entangled threads seemed to be strung as one from there on.
Lachesis reluctantly shifted her eyes from her task. "Her life seems to have been entwined with another. Unusual, but it happens occasionally."
The goddess continued tracing the braided threads. She eyed the cord so intently she didn't realize how near she was to Atropos. She stepped sideways onto the Fate's foot, just as she was about to bring her sheers together. Atropos recovered herself in time to keep from cutting a bunch of strings all at once.
"Artemis!!" The oldest Fate glared at her with annoyance.
The goddess winced. "Sorry." She ducked under Atropos's arms and resumed tracking the thread. It was so tightly wrapped with the second lifeline she couldn't tell where it had been cut. She examined it closer. "Atropos, I don't see where you sliced it."
The Fate huffed and dropped her scissors on the ground. Pushing Artemis out of her way, she placed her fingers on the thread. She inspected it. Frowning, she stooped so her face was only a few inches from the filaments. She looked nervously out the corner of her eye at the goddess. Finally, she spotted the cut. The severed ends of the sturdy fiber were barely exposed in the twists of the two strings. She jabbed at them. "Here!"
Artemis strained her eyes to see where the line divided. Her eyes widened. "You call that a cut?! That other thread is holding hers together. The two ends of her cord are still touching."
Atropos picked up her sheers and replied calmly, "Yes. But, that other thread will eventually loosen from around hers. In the natural course of mortal grief, the other lifeline will untangle itself from the one that was cut. It will unravel... it will let go. And then, you will see... her lifeline will fall free... and it will separate where it was cut. She is dead, Artemis. There is no denying it."
The goddess kept staring at the two threads. After several minutes, she spoke again. "And, what if the second thread doesn't unravel itself from hers?"
"It will," Lachesis said with certainty.
"But, what if it doesn't?! What if it remains tight and keeps the two ends of her line together?"
The Fates exchanged glances but offered no comments.
"It is possible that she could be sustained by the second thread... for a time." Lachesis responded.
"Sustained?? What does that mean?"
"Hades will not be able to claim her soul until the second lifeline is disentwined... until it lets go. Until that happens, she will hover in the realm between the living and the dead."
Artemis lifted her chin as possibilities began to crowd her mind. "Thank
you for your indulgence, my dear Fates."
A half-hour later, Artemis still stood watching the Fates work. She had backed up some distance from them. Her mind was racing.
"Artemis, what are you up to? Haven't you muddled things enough?"
The goddess recognized the voice of the figure which had been standing in the shadows. "Always the supportive brother, aren't you, Apollo?"
The god joined her in the middle of the room and looked at the threads curiously. "What are you hoping to achieve, Artemis? The lass cannot keep her suspended indefinitely... and even if she could, to what end? What difference does it make?"
"Ambrosia could make a difference." Artemis's eyes glittered.
"Ah... I think I see where you're going," he said speculatively. "Yes, ambrosia could make a difference... if it could be obtained in time." The handsome god brought a finger to his jaw and became pensive. "Alright, let's suppose the girl can hold on long enough. What about the warrior? ...Artemis, she is tired. She gave up. Do you really believe you can convince her to go back?"
"No, I don't." She paused. "But, I think M'Lila could."
"M'Lila?!" Apollo's voice was stern. "Artemis, you have already risked Hades's wrath. You are lucky he didn't discover you helped M'Lila go to Xena disguised as that girl. Anyway, look what it got you! You sent M'Lila there to help the warrior find her life, and instead she lost it."
Artemis flared her nostrils.
Apollo went on. "Now you want to send M'Lila from the underworld again?!"
"Xena is just outside the underworld, Apollo... M"Lila would hardly even be leaving."
"Artemis, you know what Hades did when he found out Ares helped Callisto escape the underworld. If he learns you're escorting M'Lila in and out at will... Well, I fear for you."
Artemis narrowed her eyes and kept her gaze straight ahead. "I appreciate your concern, my darling brother. But, I'd rather have your cooperation."
"My cooperation? What can I do?"
"Don't play dumb, Apollo... O great god of healing. You know very well it's the bard's grief which keeps her lifeline so tightly wound around the warrior's. Didn't you hear Atropos? ...As the girl's grief diminishes and her heart heals, her thread will release the other. Then Hades will claim Xena forever."
"Are you suggesting this girl be subjected to the agony of bereavement indefinitely... just to keep the warrior suspended between life and death?!"
"Of course not! But, if M'Lila can persuade her, Xena will need time to get to the ambrosia... time which the bard's grieving will afford."
"So, what is it you're asking of me?" Apollo was becoming impatient.
She looked at him intently. "Apollo, I'm asking you not to intercede. Let the girl's grief pass in its own time."
"Artemis, I am the god of medicine. I will not refuse those who call upon my restorative powers. If she asks, I will comfort her."
"And if she chooses to bear it?" Artemis's dark eyes were pleading.
"I will not render my healing without invitation," he said at last.
"Thank you." She turned back to the Fates.
Apollo watched them too. After a few minutes, he pursed his lips. "Artemis, what is it about the warrior that is so important to you anyway?"
"You wouldn't understand, Apollo."
"Why wouldn't I?"
"Because you're not a female," she said under her breath.
"What was that?" The god tilted his head toward her.
Artemis raised her chin. "Let's just say I've made an investment in her."
Artemis's lips were gentle on the Egyptian's cheek. After the quick kiss, M'Lila gazed steadily into the goddess's eyes and smiled demurely.
"Will you do it?" Artemis asked softly.
"Yes, I'll go to her. Artemis, you knew the answer to that question before you asked."
The goddess shrugged her shoulders slightly. "Well... never let it be said that I took anything about you for granted."
M'Lila could literally feel the warmth radiating from the immortal's face which remained close to her own.
The two stood in a field of tall grass somewhere in Elysium. Artemis took the young woman's arm and drew it through her own. They began walking slowly.
"I don't have to warn you of the dangers, M'Lila."
"And, you realize she may run out of time."
"Yes... I do."
"Do you understand why this is important to me?"
"Naturally... it's important to me for the same reason." The Egyptian's voice was sincere. "...And, I've been praying for a chance to undo my mistake."
Artemis stopped. "You couldn't have known what would happen, M'Lila. Your only error was overestimating Xena's defenses." She grinned and touched her cheek. "But, then, you always do look for the best in those you love."
They resumed their stroll, walking more closely together. In the distance they saw some children playing.
Without taking her eyes from the girls and boys, the goddess inquired, "What will you say to her, M'Lila? How will you make her see she must go back?"
The young mortal was silent with indecision. She smiled instinctively as one of the girls began skipping and singing.
Distracted by the adorable girl, Artemis exclaimed, "Listen to that beautiful little voice!"
M'Lila recognized the song and began to hum under her breath. Then, she became quiet as an idea occurred to her. "I know what to do."
The goddess turned to her expectantly.
"Artemis, I'm not sure she'll be able to SEE that she should go back."
An alarmed expression came to the immortal's face.
"She'll need to HEAR that she should."
Artemis frowned and shook her head, indicating that she didn't comprehend.
M'Lila eyes sparkled with memory. "When I was with Xena on her ship... Sometimes, I would sneak away to the bow where I could feel the wind in my face. It made me want to sing... and I would." She paused and smiled. "Xena would always hear me. She would stop whatever she was doing and come forward and climb up into the bow with me. She would usually sit down on the coils of line and listen." M'Lila chuckled sweetly. "Sometimes, if the sea was rough, the bow would plunge, and she would be sprayed with foam. But, she would keep sitting there, wet and salty, insisting that I not stop singing."
"Having heard your gorgeous voice, I know why she did."
M'Lila lowered her eyes and continued. "There were other times... during the nights... she often would become troubled and restless. So, I would sing to her then too, or sometimes I would just talk... and even though she couldn't understand my words, she would listen so intently... and she would finally sleep."
Artemis studied the woman's face. "Are you going to appeal to her with a song?"
"No, but I am going to make her listen."
"There is another whose voice will be more musical to her ears than mine."
A broad, gleaming smile slowly spread the goddess's lips. "Yes...
that just might work." Her eyes twinkled at M'Lila as she trailed
her fingertips along the young woman's neck. "You're a genius, Love."
Four hours had passed since Xena died. Her body lay on the pallet in Nicklio's hut. Gabrielle still sat next to the warrior. Her hand still held Xena's arm, and her head still rested on the edge of the pallet. The light of dawn was beginning to seep through the cracks near the door. Except for the bard's occasional sobs and the crackling of wood in the fire, it was completely quiet.
Gabrielle opened her eyes just enough to peak through her lashes. She immediately shut them again, squeezing out new tears. 'This must be a dream, this must be a dream,' she told herself. She had been repeating this for the past hour. But, each time she opened her eyes, she saw Xena's lifeless face resting not far from her own. She clenched her fist and concentrated, as if she could will the past two days into oblivion. 'The next time I open my eyes, Xena and I will be back on the road to somewhere besides Cirra, and none of this will have happened.' As she gripped Xena's arm, a memory stabbed her mind like a red-hot poker. Her face became contorted with pain. 'If only we could go back to Philippi.'
"How much farther?"
"Are you tired? Do you want to ride?" Xena increased her pace so she was walking next to the bard instead of behind her.
"No, I'm not tired at all," Gabrielle said cheerfully. "I thought YOU might be. You've been walking slower and slower." She playfully kicked a stone from her side of the road into Xena's path.
"Have I?" The warrior booted the rock back onto Gabrielle's side, a few feet in front of her.
The bard glanced at her suspiciously. "Are you sure you want to go to the festival, Xena?" She kicked the stone farther ahead of the warrior. "I mean, it doesn't matter that much to me, and there will be others this year besides the one at Philippi."
"I'm sure, Gabrielle." Xena flicked her toe and sent the stone back to the other side.
"So, how much farther is it?" Gabrielle tapped the rock with the outside of her foot so that it landed right where Xena was about to step.
Without missing a beat, the warrior adjusted her stride and punted the rock high into the air. "We should be there tomorrow." The stone came down ten yards ahead of them, exactly in the middle of the road. It skipped a few times and came to rest on Gabrielle's side.
Xena tried to suppress a grin.
Gabrielle looked curiously at her friend as they continued. "Xena, how did you develop so many skills anyway?"
"Practice," she answered matter-of-factly. She looked at the bard kindly. "I've been watching you use your staff. You're becoming quite skilled yourself."
"Yes. Show me that new thing you do."
"What new thing?"
"That one-handed strike with a spin."
"You noticed that." The bard smiled proudly. "It's my own move."
"Show it to me."
"Okay..." Gabrielle backed off the trail. Xena started to follow her. "No, no..." The bard held her staff out toward Xena to keep her from coming closer. "Lotsa room, lotsa room." She swung her staff in wide circle to check her distance from Argo.
She held her staff in front of her with her right hand. With deft quickness she flipped her wrist so the lower end of her staff came up between her arm and her side and the upper end extended out from her. At the same time, she spun her body half way around. The staff, braced against her side, knocked over a pretended attacker. With her back now to Xena, she jerked the staff from behind her and twirled it over her head once. As she brought it down, she gripped it with her left hand and spun the remainder of the way around with a whack against another imaginary foe.
Xena blinked. "Do it again. That was too fast."
"Stop it, Xena. I know you're just humoring me." Gabrielle walked back to her.
"I'm not. That is a verrrry good move." The warrior's voice was rich and earnest.
Gabrielle smiled at her modestly.
They resumed their course. "You know, Xena, I want to become proficient enough with this staff to be able to protect you as well as you protect me." Before Xena could respond, Gabrielle chucked, "Not that you ever need protecting."
After a couple steps, Gabrielle realized Xena was no longer beside her. She turned around.
The warrior had stopped in her tracks. Her eyes were misty. "Thank you, Gabrielle." Her gaze lingered lovingly on the bard's face.
Gabrielle hesitated. Xena so seldom let herself become emotional. The bard cherished these infrequent exchanges and savored them while they lasted. Each affectionate moment seemed to build upon the last. And, with the passing days, she knew that everything - traveling together, their games, practicing with their weapons, and a sort of humor that was more a grin than a laugh - was creating bonds between them. It gave her a sense of growing excitement.
A burning log in the fireplace popped loudly and startled Gabrielle from her memory. Her eyes flew open. She expected to see Xena's glistening, blue eyes staring back at her. Instead she saw the warrior's pale, expressionless face slumped against the pallet. Her throat constricted so quickly she gasped for air. She closed her eyes again and held tighter to Xena's arm.
Nicklio sat against the wall with his thighs drawn up to his chest. His chin rested on his arms which were on his knees. He watched Gabrielle. He had watched her all night as she struggled to let go of Xena. A few times he'd seen her start to remove her hand from the warrior's arm, but she had never withdrawn it completely. He had tried several times to talk to the girl, to coax her away from Xena's body. She ignored him, or perhaps she'd not even heard him. 'What could bring her out of this?' he thought. 'There had to be something.'
As a healer, Nicklio had witnessed grief many times. Everyone experienced it differently... dealt with it in different ways. But, Gabrielle's reaction was almost beyond what he'd observed before. He could tell her grief was abysmal. Nicklio wondered if she was going to find her way out of its depths.
A log in the fire fell and drew his attention. He gazed into the light, thinking how strangely the Fates worked. It couldn't be mere coincidence that Xena died here... in the same hut where M'Lila had taken her last breath.
Nicklio remembered how Xena had reacted to grief. The scene was vivid in his mind. He had been knocked unconscious by one of Caesar's men and awoke to the sight of Xena sitting on the pallet with M'Lila's dead body. She was cradling M'Lila's head and shoulders in her arms, absently caressing her cheek. She shed no tears. She was singing very softly and staring into space. The haunting dirge Xena sang was unbearably dark, and there was a bitter edge to her voice. There was such agony on her face, but her eyes looked empty. Nicklio blinked away his tears and looked at the dead Romans on the floor. When Xena stopped singing he turned to her again. She still held M'Lila but seemed to be in a trance. Nicklio grimaced and searched her eyes. He withdrew slightly, still staring at the woman. He suddenly felt alone... as if his body were the only one in the room which contained a soul.
Gabrielle's crying brought Nicklio back to the present. He focused again on the fire. It was low. He dragged himself up to get another log. All night, he had tended the warmth, and now he was almost out of wood. It was getting light outside. He would have to bring in more firewood and make them something to eat. Maybe he could reach the girl through her hunger. She probably hadn't eaten in days.
Nicklio donned a thick parka. He kneeled next to Gabrielle and laid a hand on her back. "I must get wood. I'll be back." There was no sign the bard had heard him. He sighed, stood, and walked to the door. A swift gust of cold air streamed into the hut when he opened it. Once outside, he pulled the door closed behind him.
The burst of frigid air had caused Gabrielle's eyes to open. She jumped up and ran to the door. She threw it open and stumbled into the snow. Her leg throbbed from the newly-stitched knife wound.
Nicklio ran back to her. He pulled her up. "Gabrielle, where are you going?! You must get back inside!"
"No!" Gabrielle's head jerked around as if she were looking for something. "Where's Argo?!"
"She's in the stable," Nicklio yelled into the wind. He tried to move her to the hut.
Gabrielle wrestled free and ran toward the stable. She hauled the heavy door open and peered inside until her eyes found Argo. The horse nodded and neighed. Gabrielle limped slowly to Xena's mount. Nicklio stopped when he reached the door.
"It's me, Girl," the bard whispered. She placed her hand on the horse's neck. She started to speak again but couldn't. She swallowed very hard. "Argo, Xena is gone." She looked into the horse's eyes, as if she expected the mare to speak. Sobbing again, Gabrielle ran her hands over Argo's jaws and nose. "I'm still here, Girl. I'll take care of you. You'll be okay. You'll be okay."
Relieved, Nicklio whispered under his breath, "That's it... keep
An hour later, Gabrielle panicked when she stepped inside Nicklio's hut. Xena's body was gone.
"Where is she?!!" She moved to the middle of the room and twisted around.
The healer rose from the hearth and rushed to her. He grabbed her arms with enough force to make her look at him. "It's okay. She's there." He pointed to the far end of the room.
Gabrielle saw a blanket covering what she knew was Xena's body. She took a feeble breath and gritted her teeth to keep from crying again. She ran to the warrior's body and gripped her cold arm through the blanket.
The bard unwillingly released her hold.
Nicklio walked her to the fire. "Sit now." He pressed down on her shoulders, and she gave in, crumbling onto a rug. Her body felt numb, but her mind was in excruciating pain. 'This is too hard,' she thought to herself. 'How can I just sit here with Xena dead in the corner?!'
"I'm making stew." Nicklio lifted the lid from a pot which hung over the fire. He fanned the steam into the room, hoping to whet her appetite. "Not a usual breakfast... but we need a substantial meal."
Gabrielle gave him an irritated glance and stared into the fire. 'He's trying to take my mind off Xena,' she seethed. 'I wish he'd just shut up and leave us alone.'
"Your horse okay?"
The bard sneered at him. "Argo is Xena's horse."
Nicklio lowered his eyes in apology and stirred the stew. After he replaced the lid, he picked up a loaf of bread which had been warming near the fire. He ripped off a heal and laid it on a plate. He picked up his mortar and sniffed its contents. Tipping the mortar, he tapped it so that a small amount of powdered spices fell onto the plate next to the bread. Next, he picked up a cruet of olive oil and poured a small puddle near the spices. He pushed the plate toward Gabrielle. She noticed it and frowned.
"Dip the bread in the oil and then into the spices. Then take a bite. You'll like it. The spice mixture is called 'Dukka'... an Egyptian recipe which I learned from M'Lila."
Gabrielle looked at him quizzically and then at the pot hanging over the flames. She heard the stew simmering. She felt like her insides were boiling too. She clenched her jaw again. She wanted to scream at the gods. She wanted to scream at the fucking moon-worshiper who had killed Xena. She wanted to scream at her beloved Xena for letting him.
The healer ladled stew into bowls for each of them. He took Gabrielle's left hand and placed the bowl into it. He formed the fingers of her other hand around a spoon. "Eat!" he almost shouted.
The bard snapped her head toward him. The anger was evident on her face.
He began eating. "Mmm, delicious." He shoveled a few more spoonfuls into his mouth.
Gabrielle stared at him. She didn't care if she ever ate again. Why should she? Who was she kidding? Argo would survive without her... probably wouldn't even notice if she weren't around. That horse never had liked her. Maybe she'd just let herself starve to death. Even if it meant writhing in the fires of Tartarus, at least she could join Xena in the underworld. And, the first thing she'd ask the pretentious warrior was, "Where do you get off just leaving me like that?!!"
Nicklio decided to try again. "Gabrielle... what will you and Argo do? Where will you take Xena's body?"
Gabrielle blinked several times. Her eyes slowly moved to the corner. What was it she had promised Xena?
Nicklio waited, knowing something was happening.
Gabrielle latched onto a memory. Long ago, Xena had asked that her body be taken to Amphipolis. The bard had promised she would. Xena's life would not truly be complete until her body was resting next to her brother's. 'I promised her.' Her eyes burned with devotion, and she said aloud, "I promised her!"
"What?" Nicklio asked.
"Argo and I must take Xena to Amphipolis!" Her voice was steely with determination. Before Nicklio could respond, Gabrielle lifted the bowl and began eating.
Nicklio breathed another sigh of relief.
Gabrielle emptied the bowl and looked expectantly at Nicklio.
"You'd like more?" he asked.
The bard nodded and hungrily scooped some into her bowl when Nicklio motioned for her to help herself. Remembering the bread, Gabrielle picked it up and did as Nicklio had instructed. The oil and spices combined to make the most intensely pleasing flavor. She tore another piece of bread from the toasty loaf and wiped the plate. After she'd finished the second bowl of stew, she leaned against the wall. Having not slept for three days, her full stomach now made it impossible to fight exhaustion any longer. Her eyelids became heavy.
As her thoughts started to blur, she observed Nicklio. He was dipping a piece of bread into the spices.
"Who's M'Lila?" She mumbled.
"Hmm?" Nicklio looked up.
"The person who gave you the recipe for that stuff..."
"Xena didn't tell you about M'Lila?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"I'll explain later. Sleep now."
Xena and Gabrielle sat on a wide, stone wall which paralleled the road to Philippi. They had just passed through a tiny village. The bard had purchased some lunch for them and was now drawing it out of their pouch. The wall had apparently been erected by the farmer who owned the land adjacent to the trail. In the distance there was a sturdy hut and a stable. A few pigs rooted around the dirt near the hut, and sheep grazed in the field near the road.
Gabrielle spied a vegetable garden at the edge of the field. She fished around in the bottom of their pouch. When she withdrew her hand, she had two dinars in her palm. Her eyes shined mischievously.
Xena's wrinkled her brow, wondering what the bard was up to.
"Fresh vegetables sound good, don't you think?"
The bard hopped off the wall and trotted through the grass. When she reached the garden, she examined a plant. She pulled off two large, red tomatoes and held them up for Xena to see. Then, she squatted down. The grass was too high for Xena to tell what she was doing. The bard popped up and walked over to the stable. The pigs grunted and scurried away from her. She took the dinars from her pocket and placed them in an empty bucket near the stable door. She sprinted back across the field.
Xena's eyebrow arched. "That's twice since I've known you that you've pilfered food."
"I left some money!... more than I would've paid at the market." Gabrielle held the tomatoes out to the warrior.
Xena pulled her hands back. "Nuh-uh. If I touch those tomatoes, I become an accessory to your behavior."
Gabrielle laid the tomatoes on the wall next to their cheese and bread. Then she pulled a large cucumber from her pocket. "I couldn't resist." She gripped the warrior's knee with excitement. "Xena, do you know how good a sun-warmed tomato tastes?!"
Xena watched the bard climb onto the wall. Gabrielle crossed her legs in front of her and grabbed one of the tomatoes. She wiped it off with a rag and handed it to Xena. She cleaned the other one and sank her teeth into it. The juice dribbled down her chin. "Mmmm!"
Xena chuckled heartily at her friend's delight in such simple pleasures. The warrior pulled a knife from her boot and, with dexterity and speed, cut two slices of tomato, a slice of cheese, three slices of cucumber, and two slices of bread.
Gabrielle continued eating the tomato as she watched Xena.
The warrior assembled the cheese and vegetables between the pieces of bread. She lifted it to her mouth. Before she took a bite, she licked her lips in exaggerated anticipation. She bit into the sandwich with gusto. "Mmmm!" She winked at Gabrielle.
The bard laughed. "So, you're not angry with me for taking the vegetables?"
"No, it's a nice change. Our lunches were getting a bit routine." Xena noticed Gabrielle eyeing her sandwich. "You want me to make you one?"
"Would you? It looks delicious."
Xena put down her sandwich. She rapidly prepared another and handed it to Gabrielle.
The bard bit into it and chewed vigorously. "That's what I like about you, Xena," she said with her mouth full.
"You make a nice sandwich."
"You like me for my sandwich?!"
"Well, not just your sandwich. There are so many other things... the way you throw your chakram, your war cry, the way you dispose of useless thugs who get in our way... your eyes...."
Gabrielle blushed. "Nice eyes."
"As nice as my sandwich?"
"Well..." the bard said with mock contemplation. She took another bite. She swung her legs and let her eyes wander over the beautiful countryside. "Oh, Xena, look!"
Xena followed the bard's finger to a small dog that was running toward them. The mutt barked once and jumped up on the wall next to Xena. He barked again.
"He's so cute! He's saying 'hello' to you, Xena. Give him a piece of cheese."
Xena scowled at the animal. "Gabrielle, he has fleas!"
The pup instantly backed up from Xena. He cocked his head at her and growled unimpressively. He jumped down to the other side of the wall and scampered toward Argo. He danced in and out between the horse's legs, sniffing. Argo seemed to give Xena an annoyed look. The horse snorted once. The dog continued to smell Argo's right front leg intently. Argo snorted louder. The pup turned around and started to lift one hind leg. The horse brayed angrily and stamped her foot with such force dust rose from the ground. The dog yelped and shot off. He dashed toward the wall, headed directly at Xena. Seeing her, he yapped again and changed course slightly. He bounded over the wall like a hunter and ran as fast as he could toward the stable. He disappeared behind it.
Xena and Gabrielle laughed so hard tears rolled down their cheeks. Gabrielle held her stomach and leaned back. When she did, her hand missed the wall, and she toppled over into the grass.
Now laughing harder, but also concerned, Xena jumped off and held out a hand to help the bard up. Gabrielle gripped her arm. The warrior was too weak from laughter to pull, however, and fell down almost on top of her. Surprised, Gabrielle's eyes enlarged. Xena grinned broadly, and they both lay in the grass laughing again.
Gabrielle's body jerked, and she opened her eyes. Nicklio was grinding a pestle into a mortar. The bard sat up. "How long have I been asleep?"
Nicklio put down his tools. "About an hour. Try to rest more."
She closed her eyes only to see a vision of Xena's laughing face. She opened her eyes again quickly. Almost of their own accord, her eyes shifted to the corner. She tensed with the shocking reminder of what had happened.
Grief began to settle upon her anew. It felt like fear... but different. 'Oh, no,' she said under her breath. 'I can't go there again right now.' She tried to think of something else.
She looked around the room. For the first time, she saw strings of various drying herbs hanging from hooks on the walls. She noticed the numerous wicker baskets situated randomly in the room, and she made herself try to imagine what they contained. Her eyes traveled up the stem of an iron candle holder. It forked into three arms which held candles. One of the candles had burned itself out. Everywhere in the hut there seemed to be vials, jars, vases, and steins.
The bard watched Nicklio. As he added ingredients to the mortar, he consulted a thick book of potion recipes. She wondered what types of drugs Nicklio had developed. He had used something to dull the pain when he sewed her leg. Perhaps he had something which would deaden the pain in her heart.
Though she was afraid to close her eyes again, she knew she had to rest
if she was going to take Xena to Amphipolis. As if she were bracing for
a blow, she grimaced and slowly shut her eyes. There was only blackness.
She sighed and fell back to sleep.
When Nicklio entered his hut, he saw Gabrielle was still dozing. He held the door open and motioned for someone to follow him. A burly, elderly man stepped inside. Nicklio put a finger to his mouth and pointed toward the sleeping bard. The other man nodded. The healer pointed to the corner.
Both men stepped over to the pallet. The older man pulled a stick from his parka. It was about a foot long. He positioned it on the pallet so the end was even with the top of Xena's head. He carefully flipped it end over end until he reached Xena's feet. "About six," he said in a hushed tone. He made a tick on the stick at the location which was even with Xena's boots. Then he moved to the head of the pallet and repeated the process to measure the width of the warrior's body.
He glanced at Nicklio and then pulled the blanket back from Xena's face. "Strange... even now her face doesn't look peaceful."
"I don't believe she ever found peace," Nicklio whispered.
"How shall I design it?"
Nicklio thought for a second. He picked up Xena's breastplate from beneath the pallet and held it out.
The man took a surprised breath. He touched it gingerly. "Just like..."
"Yes," Nicklio nodded sadly. "Adorn her sarcophagus like you did M'Lila's."
The man tilted his head toward the door. They both walked back outside. It was snowing again, but the wind had died down.
"Nicklio, my sons and I will make the sarcophagus. But, you must know, this is not an easy task."
The healer bowed his head.
"It is because of that woman that my family lost M'Lila. My sons are still bitter... especially because of the dishonor she brought upon M'Lila with her relentless murdering." Nicklio started to speak, but the man went on. "I know... you say she had changed. That may be... but it is still difficult for us."
"I understand, Tyrus. But remember, M'Lila loved this woman so much she was willing to die for her. We must respect M'Lila's loyalty to Xena."
The man dropped his eyes.
"Tyrus, you know M'Lila would want this."
The man nodded and set his jaw. "It will be ready tomorrow." He trudged off through the snow.
Nicklio shed his parka and hung it on a hook near the door. He glanced at Gabrielle. Her eyes were still closed, but her face held an odd expression. He went to her. The firelight revealed that she was having a bad dream. 'Not surprising,' he mused. 'But, fitful sleep will only tire her out more than she already is.' He touched her arm to wake her.
The bard sat up straight.
"You were having a nightmare."
Gabrielle let out the breath she'd been holding and shut her eyes. Tears began trailing down her cheeks. She inhaled with a stuttered shake of her chest and gave Nicklio a pitiful look. "It's my fault," she sobbed.
The healer took her arms in his hands. "No, it's not. Gabrielle, you must let go."
"No!" Gabrielle's eyes closed again and she shook her head sorrowfully. She pushed Nicklio's hands away and stood up. She gazed into the fire for a few seconds. "I'm going to check on Argo."
Nicklio jumped up and lifted her coat from a hook. He held it to her. "Put this on then."
She slipped her arms into the sleeves and pulled the hood up. Before she stepped outside, she grabbed two apples from a barrel.
Nicklio felt his heart tear as he watched the girl exit. She needed to be comforted soon or she might go mad from heartache. Why hadn't Apollo yet attended to this poor young woman?!
Nicklio looked up and sighed. He had done his best to remember everything the god of medicine had taught him. Apollo had chosen him, just as Artemis had chosen M'Lila. He recalled the day, many years ago, when Apollo had asked him to take an oath to serve as his mortal healer. Nicklio had shuddered at the honor. The god had shown him many antidotes for bodily illness and injury. Apollo had also told him there was no earthly treatment for grief. 'Therefore,' Apollo had said, 'I reserve my devine healing powers for the grieving and leave the physical suffering to you and those you care to teach.'
It was evident that the god had not yet granted mercy and solace to Gabrielle.
Argo pressed his nose into Gabrielle's palm. The horse had eaten the apple she'd held out and was looking for another. The bard, lost in thought, hadn't realized the mare was ready for a second piece of fruit. Argo nipped her fingers.
"Hey!" Gabrielle yanked her hand away. "Oh... sorry, Girl." She took the other apple from her pocket. "Here you go."
As Gabrielle stroked the horse's nose, she noticed one of Argo's saddlebags lying against the hay. She saw one of her scrolls protruding from the top. The bard kneeled down in the hay. She slowly withdrew the scroll and unrolled it. Hot tears dropped on the parchment as she recognized the words she'd written a few weeks ago. She slumped down against the wall of the stable. Her first reaction was to push the memories away. "It hurts so much to remember," she said aloud. 'It hurts to dream, it hurts to think, it hurts to feel.' "IT HURTS!!" She screamed so loud Argo reared up and snorted at her.
'If only I could forget,' she breathed. Then, realizing what she'd said, she quickly took it back. She trembled. What would follow forgetfulness? What would remain if she lost her precious memories of the Warrior Princess? She gasped. ...Just emptiness! Wiping away her tears, she focused again on the parchment. With a frantic appetite, she read her own handwriting... 'It was one of the scariest moments of my life...'
Gabrielle threw the last log on the fire and moved back to her blanket. The ground was cold, even through the wool material. She chuckled as she remembered Princess Diana's fear that she'd die of a cold bottom.
She and Xena had just finished their supper. They'd caught trout in a shallow stream near the road to Philippi. Gabrielle was thrilled to have snagged more fish than Xena had... But, then, the Warrior Princess probably LET her. They had talked for a long while after dinner. Xena had said something about the wolves they heard howling in the distance, and it sparked a conversation about Orpheus. Then Xena said they needed more wood and had disappeared into the dark. The fire was burning low. Gabrielle wished the warrior would hurry.
In her spare time, she had been writing a tale about their adventure with Orpheus... and Joxer. Out of habit, she rolled her eyes when she thought of the dear, bumbling idiot.
She hadn't been able to finish the story, however. She was loath to relive the unthinkably frightening emotions which had wracked her mind when her body transformed itself into a would-be bacchae. She knew that part of the story must be written, but she hadn't been able to do it.
Lightening from a far away storm startled the bard. A warm draft blew her hair. Gabrielle wondered if the storm would pass south of them, as Xena predicted it would. She sat back and watched the glowing embers in the core of the fire. The white, red, and yellow colors were hypnotic. A memory of Callisto entered her mind. She shook her head to clear it. Looking around at the shadows, she took a deep breath. She turned her head back to the burning logs and wondered what it would feel like to be consumed by fire.
She closed her eyes and listened to the night sounds. An owl hooted, crickets chirped incessantly, bullfrogs croaked, a wolf growled. A WOLF GROWLED??! Gabrielle froze. The low, rumbling snarl couldn't have been more than ten feet away. She strained to hear something which would confirm or deny her fear.
There it was again! It was closer now, or maybe it was another one. She could hear an animal panting. Trying to remain absolutely still, she looked around for her staff without moving her head. It was against a tree, too far away. Xena's sword was propped against a rock a few feet from her. Could she possibly get to it before this creature pounced on her? Images of the bacchae appeared before her eyes. She tried to blink them away, but her fright only intensified the picture in her mind. She saw ravenous wolves baring their sharp teeth, foaming at the mouth, ready to rip her limb from limb. What should she do?!
"Focus, Gabrielle, focus." she whispered to herself. "Stay calm."
Fire! Animals are afraid of it! She leaped up and grabbed the cold, butt end of a log which extended from the flames. At the same time, she jumped to the opposite side of the fire and crouched low. She held the burning wood in front of her and peered into the darkness. She could hear movement in the bushes, but she couldn't see anything. Her heart beat so loudly she couldn't be sure what she really heard next. She heard... something.
Gods! Where was Xena?! Her eyes widened even more. Come to think of it, WHERE WAS Xena?!!! Maybe the wolves had... No, wolves were no match for Xena. But, oh!... Xena hadn't taken any weapons with her into the woods! And, if Xena WERE okay, the wolves could never have gotten this close to their camp! Gabrielle choked back her terror and waved the burning log in the air. Her eyes darted back and forth across the clearing. She expected at any moment to see crazed wolves flying at her neck.
Gabrielle almost jumped out of her boots. She spun around to see Xena smiling at her through the bushes. The bard's body shook violently. "XENA!!!" She collapsed on the ground.
The warrior stepped into the clearing. "That was the perfect defense, Gabrielle! Animals won't attack fire."
The bard's head hung down, and she struggled to regain her composure.
Xena suddenly realized how badly she'd frightened her friend. "Gabrielle?" She went to her and kneeled. She could almost hear the bard's heart pounding. She placed a hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you...."
"What exactly were you trying to do then?!!" Gabrielle looked up at her with agitated eyes, her breath still ragged.
Ashamed of herself for not realizing what she'd done, Xena's mouth dropped open slightly. She winced. "I only meant to...."
The bard stood and took several deep breaths. She shook her head and walked to her blanket.
Xena stepped to her own blanket and sat down, not taking her eyes off the bard.
Gabrielle took another deep breath. She frowned with exasperation at the warrior. "Didn't you find any wood?!"
"Yeah," she said sheepishly. She got up and walked to the edge of the clearing. She disappeared into the shadows and then reappeared with an armload of wood. She made another trip and piled the second stack onto the first.
The warrior heaved a large log on the fire. Sitting again on her blanket, she looked cautiously at Gabrielle. The bard sat, hugging her legs against her. Xena lowered her eyes and pursed her lips. She should have known better than to try something like that on such an eery night. "You sure you're alright, Gabrielle?"
"Yeah." After several minutes, she said quietly, "It's okay. I know you were just trying to teach me. I'm okay. I think I'll try to sleep now." She picked up another blanket and pulled it over her as she lay down on her side, facing the fire. Her eyes remained open.
Xena observed her. The color had not returned to her cheeks, and she seemed to quiver every few minutes. Xena cursed at herself. How could she have been so insensitive? She grabbed her own blanket and flung it over her legs. Leaning back on an elbow, she continued to watch the bard. Gabrielle's wide eyes still gazed at the fire.
The warrior kicked her blanket off. She snatched it up and walked around to sit behind Gabrielle. She leaned down, placed her hand on the bard's shoulder, and said gently, "Gabrielle, are you still scared?"
"No... just shaky." She took a deep breath. "Xena, you nearly scared me across the Styx!"
"I know. I didn't think. I'm so sorry."
"I'm not angry, Xena. It's just..." She swallowed. "The worst part was thinking that some wild beast had hurt you."
The warrior blinked at her words.
The bard turned her face toward Xena. "If something happened to you... I'd..."
"I feel the same way about you," the warrior interrupted.
Gabrielle smiled and took a weak breath.
Xena squeezed her arm. "Do you mind if I sleep beside you tonight?"
The bard shook her head.
Xena pulled her own blanket around herself and lay down behind Gabrielle. She rested her head on her arm and placed her other arm lightly over the bard's waist.
After a while, Gabrielle scooted herself closer to the warrior so that her back was against Xena's torso. She turned her soft cheek to the warrior's. "Xena..." she said with a sleepy voice.
"Tomorrow night... I gather the firewood."
Xena grinned against the bard's cheek and nodded.
Gabrielle felt Xena's eyelashes on her skin when the warrior blinked. She pulled Xena's arm around her tighter. At the same time she leaned back more fully into the warrior. Xena untucked her arm from beneath her head and slid it under and around the bard. Lying in the circle of Xena's strong arms, Gabrielle felt completely safe... and loved.
For her part, Xena punched an uninvited thought out of her mind. She made herself think of the most undesirable thing she could... Virgilius!... 'That's better,' she thought, as she felt her body go cold from the disgusting image of sex with the grotesque warlord. She closed her eyes and moved ever so slightly away from Gabrielle.
"What?" Xena's was almost asleep when she heard the bard's murmur.
"That's another thing."
"Another thing?" Xena inquired.
"Another thing I like about you."
Gabrielle snuggled closer against Xena. "Nice arms."
The warrior's eyes were open again. 'Virgilius... Dagnine... Bacchus...'
Priceless Part 2