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.
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