Chapter Twenty Three
The house was still cloaked in darkness, yet it was time to start the day. Gabrielle longed to stay put, under the blankets, warm, asleep. Yet there was too much to do. Throughout the long night when sleep was welcome, it wouldn't come. She did drift off for a few moments at a time, always to wake with a start, afraid the nightmare had been real. It had been real, she discovered each time, but it was over; Xena was here, at her side, safe. She'd watch the warrior for a few minutes, feel her pulse, listen to her breathing, tuck blankets around her, and change the warming stones when they grew cold. Then she'd settle down again, watching Xena until her eyes closed, and the frantic struggle replayed itself in her dreams and she shook herself awake. That had been the pattern through the long night. She wondered if Xena was reliving the day's events. Impossible; she was serene in sleep, hadn't stirred all night. Of course, she'd had the benefit of the narcotic. She'd sleep until the sun was high. With a half-stifled sigh, Gabrielle eased from under the blankets, shivered in the still dark room, and began her day.
"You shouldn't carry so much; you'll hurt yourself."
Gabrielle gasped and jumped at the unexpected, faint voice. Half the load of wood she carried thudded to the floor, grazing her shin. "Ow!"
"Be careful," Xena went on. "We can't afford to have both of us off at feet at once."
"Xena! When did you wake up?"
"Few minutes ago," she said sleepily. "I heard you chopping wood."
"I'm sorry, I wanted you to sleep - "
Xena's head shook in gentle negation. "It's okay. Very impressive whacks."
"Yeah?" The bard beamed, then nodded, pleased with herself. "I think I did okay. I'm small, but I'm pretty strong. And I've learned that it's not all strength, it depends on hitting just the right spot."
"Like so much else," Xena agreed with a sly smile. "You're pretty good at finding the right spot."
"Hey," Gabrielle laughed, relieved to find Xena awake, in good humor; maybe things would be all right. "You don't sound like someone who was smacked by a tree and half frozen to death just a few hours ago." She collected the wood, piled it hastily near the hearth, and knelt beside Xena, one hand on her forehead, eyes searching the warrior's face. "How are you feeling?"
"Better. I should after all that sleep. The morning's half gone. "
"It's barely past sun-up. Do you need the chamber pot?"
"No," she decided.
"Are you hungry?"
"No. Just thirsty."
"I'll get you something." She began to move away.
"Not yet." The request was undeniable. Gabrielle sank back on to the skins beside her. The warrior still lay on her stomach, face to the fire. She didn't speak, but responded with gentle pressure when Gabrielle took her hand.
"How is your hip?"
"Sore," she admitted, voice husky.
Sore could mean anything, Gabrielle knew, from 'mildly painful' to excruciating.'
"Are you warm enough?"
"Oh, yeah." Her face creased in a satisfied smile.
"It's good to be inside," Gabrielle said after a long silence. "Nothing's falling, but it's damp, and the wind " Always the wind. Sometimes it seemed to carry voices. She'd have to ask Xena sometime if she heard them; but not now. The blankets rose and fell in the slow rhythm of a sleeper. "Sleep well, love," the bard breathed, before kissing the back of her hand and tucking it under the blanket.
There were candle wicks to be trimmed, soaked wheat berries to set to cook for porridge, and ashes to be swept from the hearth. That done, Gabrielle allowed herself a few minutes to rest. Hermia would likely be by soon. 'The nice thing about bread,' she liked to say, 'was that it would do half the work for you.' Once her bread was set to rise, she looked for company, most days. Gabrielle looked forward to seeing her; she was a little uneasy about Xena's likely reaction. She didn't go looking for company in the best of times. Still, she liked Hermia No Arthea today, please, Gabrielle asked no one in particular. If the day played itself out as it had begun, in a contented quiet with Xena, she'd consider it a success. Gods, how many times I've wanted Xena to myself, not busy, not dashing all over. I never meant this way.
Archon came by not long after. Gabrielle came from the root cellar to find him standing in the doorway, eyes on Xena, who slept on the floor. "Archon?" she said, a bit angry with herself for being caught off guard. "Gabrielle. I called out; no one answered, so I came in." He nodded toward the door. "You should keep it barred."
"I know. Ive been in and out all day." It was a poor excuse, she knew.
He entered at Gabrielle's gesture, and stood just inside the door. Gabrielle moved no further. His eyes darted around the room. They settled briefly on Xena, then moved to Gabrielle. He seemed unwilling to look at Xena, as she was.
"I thought something was wrong," he said gravely, "thats why Im here." He told her of his encounter with Argo the day before. "I guess I should have forgotten the damn goat and told you, but at the time "
"I understand," Gabrielle said truthfully; goats were a big part of his survival.
"It somehow never occurred Xena might need help. I did see Hekatore round these parts yesterday. Did he drop in?"
"No," Gabrielle answered. "There was no bleeding."
"Good; he's a strange one. I don't know if he can do what folk say, but me and Sepra don't encourage him coming round. He always seems to know when there's bad trouble. Death."
Gabrielle smiled uneasily, remembering Xena's history with Hekatore. For now, she wished Archon would leave them alone.
"Thank you for coming by, Archon. Truly," she said, taking a step toward the door.
"Shell be all right?" he asked anxiously.
"Fine. Just needs a little rest."
He nodded, shuffled his feet. "If you need a hand, give a shout."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said. She paused, wondering how Xena would feel about that. Then: "Archon. Could I ask you not to mention this to anyone?"
"Just Sepra," he assured her. "Is there anything that needs doing now?"
"No. Things are under control." For the moment.
"Then Ill be going. Bar the door," he warned sternly. "Its not safe when youre alone "
"Archon, whos with Sepra right now?" she asked pointedly.
"Thats different. Shes not likely to be a target. We pay our tribute." He shrugged. "And theres not much anyone can do about the Tribes. Thered be no living if we worried about them every minute."
She nodded her agreement. Hed put his finger on it: Xena was a target. A sitting duck, now. "Ill bar the door." For all the good it would do, she thought as she fitted the bar in place.
When Xena woke again, the sun was halfway to its zenith, and a cold light filtered in through the oiled parchment over the windows. She rubbed the back of a hand against dry lips and watched Gabrielle's back for a few moments, guessing from the movement of her shoulders that she was polishing her breastplate. She coughed, at last, so as not to startle the bard again, and the blonde head looked up from the long table.
"Welcome back. I missed your company," she said sincerely. She was beside her again, kneeling this time.
"I feel as if I've been drugged," Xena said as she worked to wet her mouth with saliva. A sudden thought occurred. "You didn't - " she began.
"I did," Gabrielle admitted. "Just one, and you didn't finish it all."
"Gabrielle, don't ever, unless you ask," she said. Her voice was still weak, but her message was firm.
"Xena, you needed it. I know you would have refused. I know how you feel about drugs, but - "
"Gabrielle, this isn't about how I feel, just a practical note." She paused, suddenly tired. "Cold has the effect of slowing things down, breathing, pulse; you know that. So does verosa."
Gabrielle was still for a moment, absorbing the message. Then she nodded, a sheepish smile on her face. "So after all that effort, I brought you home and damn near killed you?"
Xena's head moved slightly, in agreement. "It wasn't the safest thing to do. I only mention it because - "
"Because you don't want me to screw up again?"
"You didn't screw up. I just want you to know it's not the recommended treatment," she said gently, then smiled. "The next time I spend the day in a frozen stream, and you risk life and limb to save me, haul me through a freezing rain, brave wolves and gods know what else, then patch me up, leave off the narcotic." She reached to seize one of Gabrielle's hands, clutched it a little too tightly, as she often did when intent, and asked: "Do you understand?"
Gabrielle did understand. This was no criticism; the recitation of deeds was a measure of Xena's gratitude, a recognition of all her lover had accomplished. She nodded. "Got it. The next time you'll have to beg for the drugs," she promised with a grin. "Which reminds me: how did you end up down there?"
Xena sighed, embarrassed to speak of it. "Rescuing a goat. It was trapped there, at the edge of the stream. I turned around and a tree was falling on me."
"What is it about you and trees? If you aren't hanging from one, they're slamming into you," Gabrielle cut short her chuckle; Xena seemed not to share her amusement. "I'm sorry," she said.
"Don't apologize; you're right. Maybe you can put in a good word with Artemis on my behalf?" she asked with a wry grin.
"If Artemis needs telling again, she hasn't been paying attention. Now, just tell me this: what you did to frighten that poor wolf?"
That was a hard question. "I'm not sure. I just know I wanted the wolf to be gone more than he wanted to stay around." She tried to recapture the moment; she had been so tired "I don't know. It just happened." She looked at Gabrielle as if ready to accept disbelief.
Gabrielle was ready to believe anything Xena told her; what she had witnessed in Chin made anything seem possible. "Whatever you did, I'm glad. Word will spread through the pack, and they'll stay away from us."
"I know how you feel about them. You showed a lot of guts coming through them."
"Please." She cast her eyes upward, dismissively. "That was all Argo; I was just along for the ride. She must have had quite a day. I wish horses could speak."
Xena nodded, wishing she could visit the mare, right then.
"You always promise to tell me about Argo, how you got her." She waited; Xena only smiled in reply. Today would not be the day. No matter. The bard stretched out beside the warrior. Xena moved the hand she held to her lips, and pressed it there for a long time. "These next few weeks are going to be hard, Gabrielle," she said at last. "I'm sorry."
"Now you stop apologizing. We'll be fine. Are you in pain?"
"Some. Not much. It's really a minor break, more a crack, than anything, I think." I hope.
"And there's nothing more to be done for it?"
"Boneset? We have comfrey, I can prepare it if it will help."
"Location's wrong for a splint; boneset won't help."
"Will it be safe to lift you on the chamber pot?"
"Yeah, that'll be fine," Xena nodded. "Not much alternative," she conceded.
"Well, we could - "
"Don't go there, Gabrielle," she warned with a glare.
"I'll be happy not to," the bard agreed. "Now. Would you like to turn over on to your back?"
"In a while. It feels good this way." 'Good' was too strong a word, but she guessed that moving would be worse. "Gabrielle. The less people who know about this, the better.
Gabrielle nodded. "I didn't plan on an announcement." The prospect of Nerad, Placar, or anyone else trying to take advantage of Xena's injury was very real. "Hermia will know; she's always dropping by. Archon's already been here." She related the brief conversation. "Drax should know; he can be useful."
Xena nodded. Drax could be very useful. "It doesn't have to go beyond that," she said.
"There is Arthea." She sympathized with Xena's weary sigh. Arthea had become something of a fixture in the vicinity. She had a place to sleep at Hermia's, who saw to it that she earned her way. She'd spent a few days with Cramma. The large woman had sympathy for any woman whose man beat her. That hadn't lasted. Cramma's farm required too much heavy labor. For now, probably for the winter, she'd be with Hermia, which meant she'd be a frequent visitor.
"That can't be helped. Arthea needs to be told how things are," Xena decided. "She's not stupid, and she doesn't bear me any grudge. She'll keep quiet about it."
"If you say so," Gabrielle muttered as she rose. "I'll get you something to drink, then I'll check the snares."
"I'm sorry you have to do that," Xena said after a moment.
Gabrielle looked up from the hearth. "I don't like killing animals, but as you've pointed out: I eat them." She shrugged. "It'll be okay. When they die, it helps us survive. Them or us. I hate that."
"The Amazons believe - "
"I know," she cut her off. "We're all in this world together, we each have a role. So I thank the brown twitchy rabbit that's struggling against the ropes, and end his life as easily as possible." She looked at Xena directly. "I still hate it, but I'll do it. I have my priority too, you know: you." She approached with a steaming mug. "Drink this before it's cold."
"Colt's foot?" She turned up her nose at the scent.
"No complaints," she admonished. "I've added plenty of honey."
"I'm not complaining, but I don't need colt's foot. My chest is clear, no cough "
"I'm happy to hear it, but we're taking no chances on you developing anything. Besides, it's been steeping for a good long time. Can't waste it."
She positioned herself beside Xena, providing support while Xena maneuvered herself from stomach to back, and lay against skins Gabrielle piled behind her, so that she was in a half-sitting position.
"I wish we had that mattress," the bard confessed. "It would be softer for you."
I wish we had the mattress too, Xena wanted to say, but Gabrielle didn't need that right now. "Better to have a firm surface," she said instead, turning her face to hide a grimace. "Good hard floor, for support." It was probably true, but it didn't make her hip feel any better. It was easier to sit on the ground outside, than to sit on the floor of a house, she decided. Things were more in proportion. She would almost have preferred the barn. A bed seemed very desirable just then. As soon as she was well enough, they would have a bed.
She pulled the blankets up high around her; it was chilly, and she had nothing on.
Gabrielle held the mug to her lips. "I can hold it Gabrielle," she said. "My arms work fine."
"Okay," she said doubtfully, as her eyes darted over the left arm, where faint blood stains smeared the cloth wrapping, but she transferred the mug to Xena's hands. "Just don't spill it. We don't - "
"I know: we don't need me getting scalded." She watched as Gabrielle retrieved the chakram from the wooden peg which held her weapons.
"Here. I pity anyone dumb enough to intrude on you." She placed the chakram at Xena's side. "I won't be long. Can I get you anything before I go? I have porridge just about ready?"
"No. I'm fine."
"Can you stay awake?"
"Yes. Gabrielle, I'm fine," she insisted. I just can't walk. Gabrielle had her gray cloak around her. "Just worry about yourself for a while," Xena admonished. "You're riding Argo?" she asked.
"Of course; you have nothing to worry about." She turned from the door to kneel beside the warrior again. She kissed her, then pressed her cheek to the warrior's for a long moment. "I'll be back," she said, and was gone.
The little house was fragrant with herbs, and strong bear's garlic. The store of the wild plant was low; when it was gone they'd do without until the spring. Today it added a welcome note to the long simmering stewed rabbit, making Xena realize how hungry she was. Gabrielle had returned with two large hares, killed by her hand, and gutted streamside before she brought them to the house. With only occasional comments from Xena she'd managed to skin them. The pelts did not survive intact, but the rabbit fur would still have its uses. She'd set the pot over the fire, hauled more water from the stream, and swept the hearth with the bundles of broom. She gave Xena a bowl of porridge; the warrior would have been happy to wait for the rabbit, but it seemed important to Gabrielle that she accept. She knew why right away. "Walnuts. Honey and walnuts." She lowered the spoon and moved her gaze from the bowl to the bard. "This isn't breakfast, Gabrielle. It's dessert."
"And you'll love every mouthful," she nodded with assurance.
Xena stirred the mixture slowly for a moment, then began: "Gabrielle "
"I don't want to hear it Xena, not today," she said firmly. "I didn't waste the walnuts, I didn't waste the honey, and I don't want to hear a word about how many mushrooms are in the stew. We have a cellar full of walnuts, and we dried enough mushrooms to feed The Sweetwater. I was a little extravagant, maybe," she admitted, "but life is short. If I haven't learned that lesson enough, I learned it all again yesterday. What I don't want to waste is time, worrying about tomorrow, and ending up with a heart full of regrets. If this makes you happy today, that's what today is for. Do I make myself clear?" She ended with a little frown at the doubtful structure of the sentence.
Xena nodded her understanding. "I wasn't going to say anything like that," she replied quietly. "I just wanted to say that this was a nice surprise. I didn't think I was hungry," she smiled, "but this I love you for a lot of reasons, Gabrielle. You keep adding to the list."
"Xena, come on; it's only a bowl of wheat cereal," she said dismissively, and turned back to her tasks, humming softly.
"Yeah," Xena muttered. "Only a bowl of cereal."
That was all, a bowl of porridge, and a few words, but the room had brightened as if lit by a thousand candles. That's how it seemed to Xena, who shifted uncomfortably now and again, trying not to distract Gabrielle from her seemingly unending round of chores. Something had occurred to her, about wasting time, and the events of the day before. And regrets.
"Yes, Xena? Do you need something?"
"No. I just thought maybe you'd come and sit with me?"
"In a bit, honey. I just have to feed Argo and our gift from Petra - "
"The horse wasn't a gift, Gabrielle - "
"I know. Sorry. The horse still needs to be fed. We should name her. I'm tired of calling her 'the horse,' you know?"
"Call her whatever you like."
"Okay. I'll give it some thought. Be right back." She turned back. "Pull the blankets up around your chest. Every time I open the door a blast of cold comes in. We've got to do something about getting you dressed."
"Have you noticed how some days go one for ever? Like yesterday. And some seem to fly."
"You don't mean today?" Xena asked incredulous. It was not yet sunset; she could swear she'd sat in that corner by the hearth half her adult life.
"Xena, it's almost sundown and I still have a ton of things to do."
"I guess it depends on how you're passing the time. Sitting idly has never been my idea of fun." She'd whittled an ornate spoon while she sat, in between small naps which had punctuated the afternoon. The spoon was almost finished, and she scraped at it in a desultory fashion with a small dagger.
"I bet Zeno could explain it," the bard said.
"Zeno? He couldn't explain how to cross a town square," Xena scoffed.
"I suppose you've read Zeno's works?" Gabrielle smirked.
"No," Xena replied; she paused for effect: "Zeno read them to me."
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open. "You know Zeno? Of Elia?"
"Wow." Her eyes narrowed with curiosity. "You never mentioned that."
Xena eyed her, amused. I should have known you'd be interested, she thought.
"What's he like?"
Xena looked up from her work and snickered. "I know he can't drink worth a damn."
"Xena," came the reproach, "he's one of the finest minds of our time. His ability to hold spirits is beside the point."
"Spirits come in handy when you try to understand his logic." She shook her head. " 'Half the time is equal to twice the time.' Try to explain that one."
Gabrielle pondered for a moment. "I'd have to know the context," she confessed. "The point is that he's immersed in the questions that go to the very heart of reality."
"Immersed? I think he's drowning. His answers don't mesh with my reality." She picked up the small dagger by her side. "Imagine this is an arrow, okay? Now, when I release the bow, this pretty soon turns up in whatever object I've chosen. Right?"
Gabrielle nodded. That was the pattern.
"So it has moved, right? That, to me indicates motion. But no," she wagged a finger in negation. "Zeno, says 'Uh-uh.' The arrow hasn't moved, because there is no motion. At every split second," she moved the dagger along a slow arc, pausing along the way, " the arrow is still. Like now." She held it still. "Then it's here." She moved it further along and held it still again. "He said," she screwed up her eyes recalling his words, "that it's always occupying a particular space, even if the time is so brief it can't be registered, before it's occupying a different space, a little further on. In each space, it's still. What he doesn't explain is how it gets to the next space, if there is no motion." She dropped the dagger
with a grimace.
Gabrielle regarded her doubtfully. "Xena, are you certain you have that right?"
"Gabrielle, I swear, that's what he said. The funny thing is, sometimes I can almost believe him, when I catch a dagger, it's as if it's just hanging there, waiting for me to grab it." She shook her head again. He still has to explain how it gets from one place to another if there is no motion."
"Well, I can't explain it, but I wish I had met him."
"So you can discuss your theory of how the first people came from fish? I don't think the world is ready for your minds to meet, Gabrielle."
The bard shook her head with disdain. "Who can explain why the gods set the paths of people like Zeno to cross the paths of people like you?"
"People like me? Gabrielle, there is no one like me," she said without vanity, "and the gods had nothing to do with it. Zeno was my guest, sort of a command visit. One of my earliest lessons: philosophers rate lousy ransom. I was happy to see his back."
"Serves you right, holding him for ransom. What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that I had a hungry army. Do you think it was easy keeping them happy?"
"I can't say I ever gave that much thought. I thought they just responded to your magnetic charm."
"Don't knock it, Gabrielle. Charm had its place."
"That wasn't a knock, honey. I've seen your charm at work. Right before you cleave someone in two."
"You know me too well."
"And not well enough. I can't believe you never mentioned Zeno. Who else haven't you mentioned?"
"Come over and sit and I'll think of someone."
"Oh? Are you making them up now? Did you make up Zeno?"
"If I was making someone up it wouldn't be Zeno," she pointed out with a pained expression. A mischievous smile lit her face. "It would be someone young, exciting, beautiful "
"Like Petra Tartras," Gabrielle supplied.
"Like Petra?" Xena's smile faded. "Why her?"
Gabrielle paused. "I don't know. She just came to mind. Weren't you dreaming up someone to make me jealous?"
"She'd do that? Make you jealous? Why"
"Because she's beautiful, and exciting. Why wouldn't I be jealous if I learned you two had a past?" She looked away, and asked: "You haven't, have you?"
"No. I'd never met her before."
"Oh. Well, Zeno I can live with. The stew should be ready. I hope you're hungry: I made quite a lot, I thought maybe Hermia and Lilla would be by. I wonder where they've got to?"
"Are you sure you don't need help?"
"No, Gabrielle, thanks." She smiled before lifting a spoonful of stew into her mouth.
Gabrielle sat on the floor beside her, cradling her own steaming bowl.
"Is it warm enough?"
"It's great, Gabrielle. Just right." It was good, she was hungry; the meat disappeared quickly, the gravy was sopped up with bread. She felt Gabrielles eyes on her, and looked up from the bowl. "What? I was hungry."
"I know," the bard answered, a touch of laughter in her eyes. "I can't get used to seeing you eat naked. Well, not a bowl of stew or porridge."
Xena cast a glance down the length of her body, then met her eyes evenly. "I know Im naked. The blankets cover most of me. What can I do? I dont have an extensive wardrobe."
"You don't have to sound so proud about it; and you cant lie here naked on the floor, just wrapped in blankets when people are around."
Xena eyed her leathers, hung to dry a safe distance from the hearth. "No," Gabrielle said firmly. "They aren't dry, and they'll need a good conditioning before you can wear them again."
"I could just crawl down to the root cellar and hide," she sighed
"Pathetic doesn't really work for you, Xena."
The warrior's smile suggested that wasn't always the case.
"I won't fall for it this time," Gabrielle amended.
"Then you suggest something," she said, exasperated. "Or get me a needle and thread; I'll stitch something from a blanket."
"Xena, be serious," she scolded. "Artheas bound to drop in. More often than usual."
"I am serious. These old blankets will put her off me."
"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed. "They've never lost Argo's scent."
"Best thing about them." The warrior showed her teeth in a brief smile.
"Yeah," came the grudging reply, "a little bit of the old life in the here-and-now, but it doesn't answer the question of what you're going to wear. Are you a little bit sorry now that you tore your only shift in two?"
"No," she said, noting with silent wonder how much Gabrielle could sound like Cyrene on occasion. "It was messy thing, and I'm glad it's gone. I can live without one just fine." She was puzzled at Gabrielle's crestfallen face. "Maybe if Ileander ever gets his loom in order I'll barter a length of fabric from him."
"I hope you're on your feet before then," Gabrielle said fervently.
"Don't worry; I won't lie here one second longer than necessary."
Gabrielle nodded, knowing what the warrior said was true. "Until then, let's see what we can do about getting you cleaned up. Your feet are almost brown, grass is stuck to your legs, your hair must be loaded with dirt from the river. You'll feel better when you're clean."
"Gabrielle, I can do this myself, really," Xena said mildly.
"You couldn't reach your feet," she pointed out, as she wrung excess water from the sponge into an iron pot full of hot water.
"Well, you've taken care of my feet, and my back, and my hair," she said too sweetly, "and I thank you, but I can reach the rest."
""Xena, I know this isn't the most romantic bath I've ever given you, but as
a matter of practicality I think we'll do this my way." She moved with tender strokes
over Xenas bruised left side. "I can do it faster, for one thing, and get back
to everything else I still have to do. Besides, if you ever tipped the pot over, the
bedding would be wet, and we'd have no place to sleep tonight. I'm almost done now. Lift
up your chin."
Xena obeyed, with grim resignation. "When have I ever tipped over a pot?"
"You're doing everything with one hand," the bard observed. Think I didn't notice? I've caught every grimace, felt it each time you winced. You insist you feel fine, but you're in pain. Why you have to things from me, I don't know. I'm not the enemy."
"I'm not hiding anything," Xena said after a moment.
"No?" Gabrielle moved a hand against Xena's back; the warrior inhaled sharply. "If I'm not mistaken, that rib is broken. Is there anything else?"
"Gabrielle, I don't know if it's broken," she replied tersely. "It does hurt," she conceded, "especially when someone jabs a stiff finger against it."
"Xena, I barely touched it," she protested.
"Oh, really? Well, you made your point," she spat. "And if I didn't mention every last sore spot, that's because it's only pain, and it all requires the same remedy: time and rest. Ya got all that?"
"Why are you shouting?" the bard asked quietly.
"Why are you so bloody bossy all of a sudden?"
"Bossy?" she echoed, incredulous.
"Yeah, bossy," Xena insisted, nodding her head for emphasis. "All day long it's been: Xena drink this, Xena turn over, Xena go to sleep, Xena - "
Gabrielle stood up, threw the sponge into the pot and looked down at Xena, hands on hips. "You must be feeling pretty good. When you're really hurt, you don't mind a little fuss. My mistake." She hefted the pot, and moved to the door, where she paused. "Let me know if I can get you anything."
"Gabrielle?" Xena's voice was startling after the long quiet.
"Hmmm?" The bard didn't look up from her work.
"I need to use the chamber pot."
Gabrielle set aside the heavy pot and piece of the horsetail plant she used to scrub it clean. "You look as if you combed your hair with a rake," she said as she approached, holding the big clay pot in both hands.
Xena waggled the fingers of one hand. "I didn't have a comb nearby."
"Would it have killed you to ask?"
"Didn't seem worth the trouble."
"No," the bard snorted. She placed the pot next to Xena. "Stick you in a wasteland and the civilities go out the window: clothes, grooming." Appreciation.
"Don't push it, Gabrielle," she growled.
"That's pretty big talk for someone who's waiting to be lifted onto a pot." She bent to Xena's side; the warrior waved her away.
"Never mind; I can do it myself."
"Xena, you can't do it by yourself."
"Oh, no?" She glared at Gabrielle and pulled the pot closer. "Can I have a little privacy?"
"We live in one room. Good luck," was the acerbic reply. Still, she turned her face to the window, gazed sightlessly at the bleak landscape outside. She resisted looking at the sounds behind her, but only for a moment. "Xena, you win, okay?" she said fiercely. "I know you can do this by yourself; I know you can empty the thing by yourself, even if it means balancing it on your head while you crawl outside. You dont really need me at all. But damn it," she said, crossing to her in two long strides, "you aren't going to do that." Xena waited for Gabrielle to reach her as if frozen. The task was accomplished in silence.
Gabrielle returned with the clean pot, barred the door and leaned against it. Xena's eyes seemed to dart across the dimly-lit room like blue lightning.
"Was there anything else?" the bard asked in a neutral tone.
"No. No thank you." Xenas voice was barely audible. She watched as Gabrielle returned the pot to its place, then rummaged in the wooden chest where she kept her things, and fished out a tightly rolled cloth. She untied the ribbon which encircled it as she crossed the room, and unfurled it at Xenas feet with a flourish. "Here, youre still naked. Even if you dont care, I do. Go on, take it," she said impatiently, as Xena merely stared at the garment she held. It was a cotton shift, dyed blue, unadorned, except for a ribbon which threaded through the low neckline. "This isnt how I planned on giving it to you, but you could have the courtesy to take it." She dropped the shift in Xenas lap and returned to the table.
It was very soft, probably woven from the fine cotton grown in Egypt. Xena guessed Gabrielle had bought it in Mustrakis, in those few short days before the exile.
"Gabrielle, its lovely."
"Thank you. It must have cost "
"Yeah, it did cost a lot, and its worth every last dinar," she replied defensively. "At least I thought so when I bought it. Maybe youd have preferred a hammer, or saw, or something else I can only guess at, but I chose to spend the dinars on this. Any objections?" She fell silent.
Xena considered what else to say. There was nothing. She lifted her arms and slipped the shift over her head, and as far down her body as she could manage.
"Its a good fit," she volunteered.
"I do know your size, Xena," she replied without looking.
Damn, Xena thought, taking her lower lip between her teeth. She replayed the words and moments which had led her to this point, looking for a way to get beyond them to where the day had started. "Gabrielle," she ventured at last. "Would you have time to do my hair?"
It was beginning. The bard nodded, lips tight as she retrieved the tortoise shell comb, and stopped to select a long piece of braided, buttery leather from a long wooden chest which had survived the peddlers' market. She wondered if the request would be as close as Xena came to an apology. She had gotten much better at that, but still picked her spots. It didn't matter at that moment. Gabrielle avoided contact with her eyes as she came closer, but couldnt avoid the rest of the warrior. The shift was a fine fit, ending just where the swell of Xenas full breasts began. She knew the blue would compliment Xenas eyes. Shed had that in mind when she chose it, so long ago, it seemed, in Mustrakis.
She ran the comb though the tumbled mass, frowning at the occasional knots, finding frequent excuses to touch the soft shoulders beneath. "That's better," she said at last, adding one finishing touch. Xena reached behind to seize her wrist gently. "I'm sorry," she said without turning.
"I know." But it was nice to hear it said. "Did I hurt you? Really?"
"No. Not much. Would you come around where I can see you? Please." Gabrielle complied, sat hip to hip facing Xena.
The warrior's hand cupped her cheek, face turned a little to catch the soft red glow from the fire. "Yesterday, that whole long time, this was all I could see; I could hear you if I really tried. I would have waited all winter for you to come for me, Gabrielle. I just want to be with you." The blonde head nestled against her chest. "All day, I wanted you here beside me." She stroked the blonde hair. "Just like this."
"I wanted the same thing, Xena," she said, voice suddenly softer.
"So why did I spoil things?" Gabrielle was touched by the plaintive tone in the warriors voice.
"Because it scares you to be dependent. Helpless - "
"No," Xena laughed, "Im not afraid "
Gabrielle went on as if Xena hadnt spoken: " immobile, waiting to be fed and bathed. Watching me do things you think you should be doing. Gods, I can feel your muscles tighten when I talk about it. Dont tell me you arent afraid."
"It's not like this was the first time you've ever had to nurse me."
"No, and Im betting it wont be the last time. Youve always hated it and you always will." And theres something about this place which makes it worse. She paused, lifted her head to watch Xenas face, to let Xena see the resolution in her face, and when she spoke again her voice held an air of command: "Dont turn your fear into anger; if you cant help doing that, at least dont direct it at me. I didnt push that tree over on you. I helped get it off you. Ive done my best by you Xena; I always will. I dont deserve your hostility, and I wont stand for it." That said, she lowered her head to the warriors chest again, gave her a fierce hug, and waited for a response. It wasnt long in coming.
"Do you remember the first time you had to take care of me?"
"Of course I do. How could I forget that?" Callistos first strike. So much had happened since then.
"That's when I first realized how strong you are. Physically strong, I mean. Despite your size."
"Nothing. Just thinking out loud."
"Thats all you have to say? I make a major statement of personal intentions, and you have no response?"
She shook her head slowly, eyes searching the room as if seeking the answer in its deepening shadows. "What can I say, Gabrielle? Tell you again that Im sorry I snapped at you? Promise to be different? I dont know if I can keep that promise. So what do I say?"
Gabrielle had no answer; Xena had expected none. "Even 'I love you' must sound empty after a while."
"Try me," Gabrielle challenged. After a minute: "That's a very long pause."
"I do love you, Gabrielle. So much I love you, I want to take care of you, and I don't like feeling useless." She felt Gabrielle's face muscles move in a sudden smile against her breast, as the bard shook with soft laughter.
"Xena, I've described you many times in my scrolls. 'Useless' is a word that has never been employed."
"You can laugh, Gabrielle, but the food stores won't last forever. We can't count on something in the snares every day. Then we'll be taking from the reserves."
"Xena, it will only be for a few weeks."
"It won't be easy to replenish them if the game is gone." She turned Gabrielle gently by the shoulders. "Have you ever seen real hunger, Gabrielle? Did Potadeia ever have a serious problem that way?"
"No, some years were lean, but on the coast, there was always something to eat."
"You've been lucky. I've seen hunger. I've caused it. When I had an army to feed, I didn't care who was left hungry in our wake. Villages would face the sword rather than face a slow death from starvation."
"Xena, we won't starve."
"Starvation doesn't have to be to death. See a hungry village, and the people look older than they are. Sort of gray, and slow. The children have thin, pinched faces, and crooked bones Gabrielle, we saw them at the peddlers' market."
The younger woman nodded, seeing the faces again. "There's plenty of food in The Sweetwater, Xena. Archon has offered a hand - " She felt Xena's muscles grow tight. "I know," she said quickly, forestalling an explosion, "everything has a price. We'll pay it, one way or another. You know that Archon expects you to be midwife when it's Sepra's time. Do you think he'll let his midwife perish?" She didn't wait for a reply. "Hermia will help."
"Gabrielle, these people haven't a lot to spare."
"I know," she went on smoothly, as if reciting well considered plans. "Natrakia and Ikar always have something to barter. And there's Drax."
"What do we give them in return? They can't live on promises."
"We'll think of something."
"Gabrielle." She hesitated. "I still have a pouch full of earrings."
"We won't need them," she responded decisively. "We'll be fine. Tell me, Xena: did you worry this much when you had an army to feed?"
"I didn't have to put every bite on the table then. And I didn't mind stealing what others had worked to produce," she admitted. "This is different." She considered how to explain the difference, then said:
"There was a couple at the peddler's market. They asked me to witness their vows to each other."
Gabrielle glanced at her briefly, puzzled at the odd quality in her voice. "The wedding ceremony? I met them. They were here for the party, and told me about it I wondered when you were going to mention them."
"I've been thinking about them. A lot. In the middle of that awful place, after so much had happened, they were so eager, seemed optimistic It was as if they were giving each other a gift."
"Of love," Gabrielle supplied. "Of each other." She was very still, wondering where Xena was going with this.
The dark head nodded. "It gives some point to being here; being on Earth at all." Maybe we're more than food for the worms after all. "Gabrielle, we're here; I don't know if we'll ever leave. It doesn't really matter, somehow. Wherever I spend my life, I want it to be with you. I think you know that. And, I'm not sure why, but you seem content to be with me."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest that understatement, but Xena was not finished:
"I've pledged myself to you a thousand times, in my mind. I'd like to say the words to you, in front of witnesses, or alone; you decide; that is, if you agree."
Gabrielle blinked tears away before they could fall. "You have an interesting sense of timing," was all she said.
"Is that a 'no'?" Xena asked quietly.
"Of course not," Gabrielle exclaimed. "I'm not going to refuse," she explained, "but you took me by surprise." She pulled away and looked at Xena's face. "Why now? After all the time we've been together? If this is your way of making up Xena, we'll still have our battles, that's just the way it is - "
"It's not about making up, Gabrielle. You said something today about not wanting regrets. I feel the same. If I hadn't come back yesterday - "
"But you did."
" - if you hadn't saved me," she went on, I would have regretted not saying things to you "
"What things? I know you love me."
"You don't know, can't know how much. You are so full of love; you'd have to be to find a way to love me."
"Xena, you're not being fair to yourself."
"Yes I am. I know what I can be like. How does anyone love someone like me? I couldn't," she confessed. "My capacity to love isn't that great. But then, I have the easy part: loving someone whos immensely loveable."
"Xena, why are you talking like this?"
"It's not a good idea to give me idle time, Gabrielle. Haven't you noticed that? I think too much."
"About all the wrong things."
"No; this time I think I got some things right." She nodded, as if satisfied that was the case. "What do you say?" She squeezed Gabrielle's shoulders, spoke low into her ear.
"I want to say everything that's in my heart, right now, but the words haven't been coined yet."
"That's never stopped you before," Xena told her. Gabrielle turned, ready to object with mock indignation, but Xena was smiling as never before; she stopped, caught off guard a second time. "I don't think I need to say anything else, do I?"
"Nope. Just tell me when and where."
"Today, right here and now."
"If you like," Xena agreed, "but we won't have witnesses."
"No, I don't really mean that. I want our friends to be there, to know how we
"That's the general point, but I think they know, Gabrielle."
The bard laughed with sudden memory. "I don't think it's ever been hard to see. Solari used to tease me What would she say?"
"That youre crazy?" Xena guessed.
"Crazy in love sounds rather trite, huh? I wouldnt use it in a scroll, but just between us,
I dont mind saying it." She traced the line of Xenas jaw with a finger. "I think my Amazon sisters would be stunned."
"Because we've finally gotten it together. I think they'd all but given up on that ever happening. That's what this means, right? That we've gotten past everything? We've made it?"
"I hope so, Gabrielle. I don't think there's a bump in the road we've missed. Yet we're still together."
"I think they'll figure that out, somehow."
"They'd throw quite a party for you."
She shrugged. "Anyway, Jalani will know," she said as an afterthought. "One day she'll wake from a dream and tell them."
"You sound pretty certain."
"She's a remarkable woman. She knows things. She knew things about me I didn't know myself. She helped me find my way back to you. Somehow, we have a connection. You know how wherever a spider is in the web, it's alert to the least disturbance or presence on any strand?"
"Are you saying Jalani is like the spider? Or is that you?"
"I don't know, just that we're all dancing on the same strings."
"That's an interesting idea. Worthy of Zeno," she teased.
"I'm nothing like Zeno," Xena objected.
"I'm sure of it," Gabrielle agreed. "No one else could have eyes like these." She kissed each eye. "Or lips so soft." She tasted them with her own. "And now that I've made you dress, I want you undressed as fast as possible."
The warrior's breath was coming quickly. "Sure, just give me a hand " She began a series of small nibbles down the bard's neck.
Suddenly, Gabrielle pulled away. "Xena, this isn't a good idea, not now. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have started anything. I wasn't thinking."
Damn. "Right Gabrielle, It's a rotten idea." Wish you'd realized that a few minutes sooner. "But we can be very careful," Xena suggested hopefully.
"Xena, when have we ever been careful? When you come you'll do more damage to your hip."
"Then you come. I'll wait." A few weeks. She made a face.
Gabrielle moved back into the embrace. "No; we'll both wait until you're well," she said firmly.
"Gabrielle, there's no point in both of us being miserable."
"Are you miserable, Xena? I'm not. I don't think I've ever been happier."
"Eggs, cheese, butter, bread, and a jug of mead in the cart." Hermia unpacked a basket as she spoke. "Drax is bringing that in." She pulled off her shawl with one hand, then moved to the fire, casting an appraising eye at Xena as she passed.
Gabrielle picked up an egg, coated in beeswax for freshness. "A hens egg?" she asked in wonder. "I havent seen one of these since I cant remember."
It had been another long night. Shed slept, somehow, through the screaming wind, for a time, but Xena had been restless. She denied any great pain, but had shifted positions throughout the night, as if seeking an elusive comfort. Or riding hard. She had heard Hermias greeting though the door with pleasure.
"Ikar had a remarkable few days," Hermia was saying. "Brought home a box of chickens, with a rooster," she exclaimed. She put the goat cheese and butter, both wrapped in waxed cloth, on the shelf where she knew they were always put. "I would have been by yesterday, but I wanted to make the trip worthwhile. Now then, what else do you need?" She looked from Gabrielle to Xena, and back again.
"What did all this cost?" was Xenas question.
"Ikar owes me," she shrugged.
"So do we."
"Well talk when youre back on your feet." She raised a questioning eyebrow at Gabrielle. "She doesnt look as bad as Archon let on."
Gabrielle blew out a huff of air. "Im glad he told you," she conceded, "but I wonder who else hes told?"
"Only Sepra, if I know anything about people," Hermia responded. "Hes no fool. Fools dont survive in Tartarus." Her eyes turned again to Xena. "How bad is it?"
"Ill be fine. Give me a couple of weeks." Hermia looked at Gabrielle for confirmation
"Thats what she says," Gabrielle replied. "She usually knows."
"Im glad to hear that, Xena. Not much good comes this way. I lay awake half the night worrying that things were about to get worse," she admitted. "Damn, that sounds selfish," she shook her head in apology.
"I appreciate your honesty." We worried about the same thing. "I think weve got things under control. Gabrielles taking good care of " she hesitated " - things." Care of me. Why cant I say that?
"I want to help out," Hermia hastened to say, "I havent tied any strings on these parcels. I dont mean to put you under any obligation, or pay you tribute, just helping out, friend to friend. If you want to pay me down the road, fine; if you never do, thats fine. I wont pretend I dont have an interest is seeing you well again. The Sweetwaters quieter since you came. Mostly its those bastards of the Overlord staying away. But theres more I like having you for neighbors, friends. I like you, both." she said with a firm nod. She wiped her hands on the frayed dress, as a finish to her speech.
The warrior and the bard exchanged a silent glance. Gabrielle spoke for them both: "Hermia, we like you, too, and were happy to have you for a friend." A smile lit her face, and she raised a questioning eyebrow at Xena. Someone had to be the first to know their plans, but Drax spoke first:
"Glad thats settled," he said, as he came through the door stooped under a jug of mead. "Do you all like me, too?" He didnt wait for an answer, deposited a small sack on the table and looked at Xena: "Shall I leave this in easy reach?" His eyes twinkled above cold-reddened cheeks. "Seems like a good season to lay about indoors drinking mead." He looked at her closely. "I like your dress. Nice change from brown."
"Its lovely," Hermia chimed in. "Brings out your eyes."
Gabrielle fought to keep an amused smile from her lips, but knelt to tuck a blanket around Xena, whose discomfiture was evident. "Be gracious Xena," she admonished in a low murmur, "and be thankful I made you dress; they could be commenting on your other qualities." Then, in a louder voice: "I had an idea last night." Xena felt a frisson of unease. "Id like to toss it out there and see what you all think."
'All', Xena thought. That means she knows I wont like it.
"I was trying to think what I have to offer of value to the people of The Sweetwater. I wont go through the list of what I cant do, but Im learning," she acknowledged. "I do know this: I can read, I can write, and I have a certain way of putting words together. Outside, I could pass a hat in a tavern when I told stories, and earn a few dinars to keep us in bread; here, people cant afford to pay for frivolity. But for something really useful, like reading and writing, they might be willing to part with their hard earned goods. So I thought, maybe," she paused, careful to avoid Xenas eyes, "maybe I could offer lessons, for adults, children, whoever wants to learn." There was a silence in the room. "When the weather makes it possible, of course." She waited, watching Drax and Hermia turn the idea over. Xenas eyes were cast at the floor. "Bad idea?" she asked after a time.
"No, Gabrielle, its a great idea," Xena replied slowly. "I just cant imagine everyone here shares your reverence for literacy."
"Id have to question that too, Gabrielle," Hermia agreed. "But I know how I feel: Id pay a good deal for Lilla to be able to read and write. I never thought it would be possible here. My Farnis could read, couldnt write much, beyond his name, but he was proud of that. What sort of fees are you thinking of?"
"Fees?" Gabrielles face creased in an uncertain smile. This was hardly a universal endorsement. Yet if Hermia was interested "I havent thought of fees, just whatever anyone could spare."
"I can read," Drax was quick to point out, "so can Ileander, but a few weeks back, Archon spoke of wanting their offspring to have the skill. That would be a few years down the road," he observed, "but in the meantime, Id bet Archon and Sepra would be willing to pay to learn it for themselves."
"There, a few customers already," she beamed, and gave Xenas arm an affectionate squeeze.
"Thats great." Xena managed a small smile.
Right, Gabrielle thought. "Drax," she asked suddenly, "would you give me a hand outside? Theres one big, stubborn, length of wood I cant budge."
"Xena, she might be on to something," Hermia pointed out when the door closed.
"I hope she is."
"Its a little hard to tell; you look like youve got a fishbone caught in your throat." Xenas attempt at a glare faded in the face of Hermias grin. "Save it for your enemies, Xena," she advised her.
"Hermia, I dont want to be the skeptic here, but given the nature of this place, what are the odds people will give the means of survival away for the privilege of learning to read? Even if theyre willing, what can they spare?"
"Thats up to them. Archon would likely spend an afternoon chopping wood for you. Of course hed do that for no return if youd allow it. Theyd like to be your friends too, you know. Friends dont always have a hand out."
"Yeah, well thats beside the point," she insisted. "The point is this: Gabrielle thinks her lessons will pay our way. I dont mind if she thinks so, but Im afraid it wont happen. People will give to us, and expect something back, someday."
"You see it as tribute?"
"So will they."
"I think youre wrong, Xena," she said steadily.
The warrior shrugged. "Maybe. But I need you to do something for me. You know everyone, see everyone. I have a sack full of earrings." Hermia began to shake her head. "Use it to pay them," Xena told her.
"No, Xena, that wouldnt be right."
"Why not?" she asked. "Wed have what we need, Gabrielles little idea will be a success, and theyll all be richer by an earring or two." Gabrielle will never be happy with my using them, she thought sourly.
"Xena, what about the folk who really want the lessons? Who are happy to pay in kind?"
"Let them pay if they like. Just use the earrings to pay those who really dont want lessons. It will make Gabrielle feel better to think she can contribute this way," she reasoned.
"It will make her feel like dirt to think you have so little faith in her, Xena. I confess Im surprised to hear you speak this way."
Xena looked at her bemused. "Hermia, I have every faith in Gabrielle, but Im trying to be practical. For everyone." I really hate looking up at everyone, went through her mind. "The earrings are in the root cellar." She described the place under the store of dried mushrooms where the sack was tucked away from prying eyes; tucked away from Gabrielle. "She'll never even know they're gone. Will you get them? Please."
"Ill do as you ask, Xena, but I dont like it," Hermia said after a moment, with a heavy shake of the head. "I dont like secrets between friends. Its a bad business."
"Just do it." She shifted uncomfortably. "When Im up and around Ill take care of it myself. Of course, then it wont matter. Ill provide for us."
The front door opened as Hermia emerged from the root cellar; she gave a little start. One hand was full of mushrooms; the other concealed the leather pouch between the folds of her skirt. She felt she had to say something. "Thanks for the mushrooms, once again. I never could feel safe eating the ones I picked myself." Gabrielle looked across to Xena; there was a new look there; Hermia had been aware of it since her arrival, she realized.
"Xena's tried to show me, many times. I haven't passed the test yet."
"There's no trick involved," Xena pointed out. "Your eyes and your nose will tell you everything."
"Maybe we can add that to the reading lessons," Gabrielle suggested.
"Arthea's fond of mushrooms: the wrong kind," Hermia put in hastily. "I found her nibbling on the tiny, scarlet caps that grow in the fall, amid the leaves. She started talking odd; to people who weren't there. I guess my ale's not enough for her."
"Sounds like henbane," Gabrielle observed with a wry smile.
"That's dangerous, Hermia," Xena said slowly.
She agreed with a vigorous nod of the head. "I don't want them around Lilla; she'll taste anything. I found the lot of them. I threw them in the fire from Arthea wasn't around."
"I hope she's brought you more than trouble."
Hermia waved a dismissive hand. "Don't listen to me, Xena. She causes a lot of aggravation, but underneath, she's not all bad. She'll work, if I keep after her. She plays well with Lilla; like a big kid she is, sometimes. It's just other times, I'd gladly wring her neck."
Gabrielle stirred the fire. "I'm surprised she hasn't come by."
"She will," Hermia predicted, remembering the gleam in her eye when she heard that Xena was injured. "She'd be here now except for my steely gaze. I told her if she left the bread, or Lilla, I'd take a strap to her and chase her into the cold. And I will."
"What else needs to be sharpened?"
"Lets see? Youve done your weapons, twice, all my cooking knives I guess thats it. Unless you want to sharpen your fish hooks?" she chuckled.
"Done them," Xena replied, shortly, tapping the leather carryall beside her.
"Oh. Well then " In three days Xena had gone through every sedentary activity she or Gabrielle could devise. The remaining healing time would stretch on forever. For both of them. "You could make some more of those things you use for fishing," she suggested "The make believe bugs."
"Flies, mostly, Gabrielle. Thats what fish like, all sorts of flies. And after I sharpened the hooks, I tied a fly on each one." She set aside the large chunk of fungus she had used as a sharpener. "Ran out of hooks."
"Want to read a scroll?" she asked next, knowing what the answer would be.
"Id rather listen to you read it."
"I know. Okay, later, after I check the fish trap. I'm glad Drax showed me how to build that. It's a handy thing to know. I'm surprised you never showed me that?"
Xena snorted her disgust. "Fish traps. I can't think of a less creative way to fish."
"We can't all pluck our dinner from the stream on demand."
"How hard is it to catch fish with a rod?" Xena asked.
"The trap saves a lot of time, Xena."
"The Babylonians believed the gods don't deduct from your life the time you spend fishing," the warrior observed with approval.
Gabrielle looked at her doubtfully, wondering if Xena had just coined a Babylonian belief. Never mind; she wouldn't be fishing for a few weeks, anyway. Back to the matter at hand. "Would you like to write a scroll? Maybe a story, a poem, a reminiscence " her voice trailed off under the withering look directed her way.
"What would you like to do?" she asked patiently.
"I dont know." She thunked a small dagger into the center of the door.
"Xena, I hope thats not becoming a habit." She wrestled with the knife until it came free.
"It didnt make a new mark did it?" She asked with pride. "It struck the same place as the last one."
"Last two," Gabrielle corrected. "All three it the same mark. Maybe I should haul in a piece of wood and let you toss knives at it all day."
"It would be something to do," Xena agreed.
"And on second thought, it would probably drive me crazy watching you do it." There was one more thing She hadnt expected to suggest it just yet, but she was getting desperate. "She dug in the bag which held her scrolls, and produced a bundled roll of heavy linen. "Just the thing to cure boredom." She held it out at arms length, and smiled.
Xena opened the bundle warily, and smiled at the profusion of colors which lay wound in tight skeins. Gabrielle, what am I supposed to do with this stuff?" Her voice was gentle, but strained, as if fighting to hold back what she really wanted to say.
"Xena, its embroidery thread, needles - "
"I know what it is."
The bard laughed nervously. "Of course you do. The linen would be beautiful if it had a nice design, of some sort "
"You want me to embroider?" Xena asked.
"I dont do that," she stated flatly.
"You used to do that. I have the evidence."
"The little pillow, I know, Gabrielle. I used to do a lot of things."
"Does that mean you can never do it again?"
"The thing is, Gabrielle, I dont want to do it again."
"Never. Why did you think I might? Did you buy this stuff?"
"Yeah, Xena I did." She took the linen, with all it contained from the warriors lap, and rolled it up again. "Waste of dinars."
"Not entirely. The needles will always come in handy. Maybe I could use some of the thread "
"Yeah, sure, stitching up some wound, or other." Gabrielle didnt look up as she spoke.
"Thats more your thing. Why should I think for a moment that you might want to make something for me?"
"You mean other than the table? And the benches?"
"Thats not fair. Those things are practical, and for both of us. I was just the first to recognize we needed them."
"Regardless. It wouldnt hurt you to do something with no practical value at all. Make something you cant use, just enjoy. Something pretty."
"Like an embroidered cushion?"
"I can't think why you'd buy something like that for me," Xena said. "What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that maybe in a spare moment - "
"A spare moment? Apart from injury time, when would that be, Gabrielle? Before I hunt? After I dress the animals? Set the snares? Gather fuel? Patch this bloody sieve of a roof over our heads? When, Exactly, do I find a spare moment to do needlework?"
"Maybe in the middle of the night when you sit by the fire, brooding," Gabrielle returned, suddenly on the offensive. "Or when you finish stacking the wood and stare at the horizon, as if wishing could take you beyond it; or when you sharpen your sword for the tenth time in a day, when you haven't used it all week. Maybe you could make me a present, just something to add a little color here, make it seem more like - "
"Like home?" Xena asked shamefaced.
"No Xena, wherever you are is my home. I just want our home to proclaim to the world that the people who make this home didn't come to Tartarus to die, but to live."
Xena wavered; Gabrielle had long ago come to recognize when Xena was deeply moved. Apart from the eyes, which seemed almost to shimmer, her body let down its guard, every muscle relaxed, ready to let the world in. That had begun, and just as suddenly stopped. She thrust the bundle back at Gabrielle. "I really don't think so."
It's not as if you have something more important to do right now." The bard was taken aback by the turnaround.
"Okay, I'm pretty useless right now; but not that useless."
"Xena, I never said that."
"That doesn't make it less true. Tell you what: next to the woodpile there's a selection of wood that's not for burning. There's a piece of walnut there, about four feet long; it crooks at the top. Would you get it for me? Please."
"Just get it."
Arthea might have been waiting for Gabrielle to leave the house so hard upon her heels did she follow. She slipped through the door with the merest rustle of her dress, yet Xena had heard her approach. She didn't look up from her task. The length of wood would need few changes to serve as a walking stick. A crutch. She knew the device all too well. Her distaste was evident in her face as she greeted her visitor.
"Arthea." She nodded curtly.
"Hello, Xena. Gabrielle's not around?" She peered around the room with feigned interest, before her eyes lit on Xena.
"She's never really gone, Arthea," was Xena's comment. "Anything I can do for you?"
She smirked before answering. "Just need to talk to Gabrielle; something I need to tell her." Her cloak was tossed off in a moment. Xena couldn't believe the dress she wore was chosen for warmth. "Do you like this?" the woman asked. "A soldier gave it to me; things weren't all bad at Nerad's camp. "You look nice in that," she observed when it was clear that Xena would make no response. "Must have brought it with you."
"What did you want to tell Gabrielle? I'll give her the message."
"That's all right, I don't mind warming up a bit. And don't worry," she volunteered guessing at the reason for Xena's coldness. "It's nothing about you. I'm sorry I told her why you couldn't try to escape; hope it caused no trouble between you."
"None at all." After all we've survived together that was a firefly next to a thunderbolt. "Do you think you'd be standing inside the door if you had?" she asked mildly. Arthea nodded, a tight smile on her face, recognizing the threat implicit in the words. She watched as Xena held the piece of wood at arm's length, appraising.
"Make yourself useful, Arthea. Give me a hand," she said at last, reaching a hand to the startled woman.
"Xena, what - "
"C'mon, I need to get up," she insisted. Arthea complied, pulling Xena's left hand while the warrior used the newly fashioned walking stick to lift herself from the floor.
"Is this a good idea?" Arthea asked, noting the exertion on the warrior's face. "Gabrielle's not going to like this," she added apprehensively.
"Dont worry about Gabrielle," Xena said between clenched teeth. She leaned all her weight on her right leg and the stick. "That's better. Nice to be vertical again."
"What's the point, Xena? You can't walk."
"I can manage a little; I think." She cast a glance around the area, determining a destination. "Would you like some mead?" she asked Arthea. "I'm sure thirsty." The table was only paces away; she planted the stick firmly a little bit ahead, and moved her right leg to join it. Two more such efforts and she was at the table, leaning against it for support. She grinned at Arthea, dipped a cup into the earthen jug which held the mead, and swallowed with satisfaction.
"I would have gotten that for you," Arthea told her.
"I'm tired of people getting things for me." She looked out the window, squinting a little against the unfamiliar light, glimpsing the outside world for the first time in days. Gray and brown, yet it looked good. The snow had all but melted, the little that remained was mottled with bits of dead vegetation, and mud. At another time she would have found it ugly. She raised her eyes to the lowering clouds. There would be wet weather, very soon.
Gabrielle would be by the natural pool that had formed in the stream at the end of the slope. She couldn't see her from this window, but knew the task wouldn't take long. There was no reason to dawdle in this weather. She turned, pivoting on her sound leg. The injured hip didn't feel too bad, but she wasn't ready to do any cartwheels yet. She considered a brief trip to the horse shed to see Argo. That'd really be pushing things, she decided. Maybe a seat on the bench would be the best choice just now, hard as it was. The addition of a thick skin for cushioning would help, and she could list ever so slightly to the right to take weight off the injury
Gabrielle saw the empty spot on the floor first; her heart jumped. As the door swung wider she saw a thick sheepskin on the bench. At last she saw the warrior, one hand gripping the edge of the table, the other clutching the wood she'd left her with before. She had guessed at the purpose for the wood, had not guessed she'd use it this soon. Had never guessed she'd return to find Arthea's arms around her waist. She turned her back to the room while she closed the door, took a deep breath, and had a smile in place when she held up the rush basket of fish. "The trap was full. These guys couldn't wait to be supper. You can take some back to Hermia when you leave, Arthea."
"Thanks, Gabrielle. She'll be ever so grateful." The words tumbled out as Arthea straightened, waiting to take a cue from Xena.
"Yeah," Gabrielle nodded, smiling even more broadly, before she turned to Xena. "Good thing your knives are all sharp. You can clean them." She let the basket drop on the table with a thud. Her eyes met Xena's briefly. Words could wait.
"What brings you out on a day like this, Arthea?" she asked with exaggerated interest.
"I just wanted to say 'hello', I haven't seen Xena since the injury. And I wanted
to make arrangements with you." Xena had made no move to pull away; Arthea couldn't
help herself: she gave Xena's forearm an affectionate squeeze.
"Arrangements?" Gabrielle said, pretending not to notice.
"Your lessons. Reading, writing. I can do some of that, but I'm always anxious to know more."
"I'll bet," the bard replied.
"I can make it worth your while," Arthea went on.
"Really?" Gabrielle knew how little Arthea did in exchange for room and board with Hermia.
"I have some skills. I'm handy with a needle, if you'd like anything decorated. Or I could show you how to do needlework, if you like."
Xena met Gabrielle's withering glare without flinching, but she shrugged Arthea away.
"Thanks, I'm really not interested in needlework, but we'll think of something." From the edge of her vision she watched Xena's slow progress towards the table, a thin-bladed, razor sharp knife in her hand. She resisted the impulse to help, despite the strain evident in Xena's face. I can play games, too, she admitted to herself.
Damn. Cutting board, Xena thought unhappily, looking to the slab of hardwood which hung from a peg by a thick leather cord. She'd ruin the table if she cut the fish against it. And she could use the slop bucket for the discards. She was plotting how to get them both with the least motion when Arthea moved with sudden decision, placing the board before her, and the slop bucket on the floor beside her.
"Anything else?" she asked.
Xena shook her head, and set to work. Gabrielle stabbed the smoldering heap of ash in the hearth.
Gabrielle watched Arthea until she was a long way from the house before she spoke.
"Fine," Xena replied. She still sat at the table, leaning her right side against it, left leg stretched out before her.
"Do you want to get them, or shall I?" Xena lowered the knife, and regarded her with narrowed eyes, knowing the bard had more to say. "I don't know just what it is you're trying to prove, but I know a trip to the root cellar would sure as Hades impress me."
"I'm afraid that will have to wait a while."
"Really? Well, don't worry, your secret is safe with me. Know one will ever know that five days after breaking your hip you still couldn't manage to negotiate the steps to the root cellar."
"Gabrielle, that's not what this is about."
"Yes it is," she snapped. "You have to be proving something, to me, to yourself, to whomever, I don't know who, I don't know what. It just seems damned foolish."
"Call me sensitive, Gabrielle, but I'm tired of sitting on the floor, dressed in nightclothes, while half The Sweetwater parades by. It may as well be the public square in Athens."
"I understand that, Xena," she began, then paused, remembering the day before. Hermia had arrived with fresh bread, Lilla in tow. The little girl had seldom strayed more than three feet from the warrior, sometimes playing at the edge of the blanket, other times staring silently at her, at eye level, once falling asleep with her head on Xena's lap. At the time, she'd enjoyed a quiet chuckle at Xena's discomfiture. It didn't seem humorous now. And there had been Ikar, Drax, Ileander
"I do understand," she said with more conviction. "this can't be easy. I just don't know how to keep people away. They've all been friends, you know."
So far, Xena thought. "You can't keep them away, Gabrielle. I don't want you to do that. But this," she waggled the walking stick, "I can do. It helps."
"If it makes you feel better, Xena, then I'm happy. I just wish it hadn't been Arthea."
"Gabrielle, she was here," Xena said, as if that was explanation enough.
"I've been here most of the day," Gabrielle rejoined with an aggrieved air. "Don't give me that blank look, Xena, as if you don't quite follow. Arthea doesn't come by here to see me," she gave a short laugh, "and she'd much rather be taking lessons from you. It would make her happy if the earth swallowed me." She did a visual survey of Xena, from her tousled dark hair to the shift which followed the contours of her body. "I don't blame her.
I just wish you wouldn't encourage her."
"Gabrielle, I didn't - "
"Yes, you did. That's how she sees it, too. And you look so beautiful in that shift, it's everything I thought when I bought it, only I thought it would be for me alone. Now I feel as if Arthea is all over it, all over the house, in a way she never was before."
Dumb, Xena berated herself. She should have seen it, would have, except she wasn't looking from Gabrielle's point of view; nor was she looking from Arthea's. It had only mattered that she be up, as soon as possible. "You're right Gabrielle. I shouldn't have I should have waited for you. I was only thinking that you wouldn't have to tend to all my needs on top of everything else you have to get done each day."
"Xena, I don't mind doing things for you," she said very quietly. "I've never complained."
And you never would, Xena acknowledged with silent affection, only hinted at by the smile that suddenly played on her lips. "Then humor me. I need to be useful, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle returned the smile, then sat beside Xena on the bench, wrapping an arm around her waist. "I should have known you were beyond restless: you slept last night as if you were riding Argo." She had muttered something, too, but Gabrielle didn't tell her that. It had sounded like 'kill'.
Xena struggled to recall the fragments of the dream which had played at the edges of her mind all day. She had been riding She shuddered involuntarily.
"Are you cold? That shift looks great, but maybe it's time you headed back under
"I think I'm ready for that," she agreed, though she wasn't cold. "Gabrielle? Tomorrow I'm wearing leather."
It had been a long day, like most in Tartarus, Xena mused. She was tired, yet not ready for sleep. Gabrielle stood by the hearth, undressing where there was the most warmth, just a few feet from Xena. For a moment she stood naked, bunching her own shift in both hands so that it would fall with no effort over her body, and Xena the sight with warm familiarity. So lovely. Beloved. To be jealous of Arthea seemed so absurd, yet the heart had its own logic.
Gabrielle stole a glance over her shoulder. "What are you grinning at?" she asked.
"Grinning? That's a smile of warm affection."
"Needs work. It looks like a grin."
"Oh yeah? I should warn you that such comments place your back rub in grave jeopardy."
"As if you can keep you hands off my back," Gabrielle scoffed. "Or my front." She slipped the shift off her shoulders and let it slide to her waist. She sat a little to Xena's side, and lifted her hair to give Xena access to her neck and shoulders.
"Gods, that feels great," she sighed as the large hands began to knead her flesh, probing deeply to release the tension in her muscles. "I didn't realize how tired I was until now."
"Because you haven't stopped moving long enough."
"Amazing how much there is to be done every day." She laughed softly. "I used to think it would be nice to be settled down, so I'd have more time for my stories."
Xena's fingers slowed for a moment, then resumed their work with extra vigor. "You'll have time, someday; I promise."
"Thank you, Xena. I know you mean that, but it's really my promise to make, to myself, that I will have - or make, the time to write. It's my dream, so it's my responsibility."
Xena rested her cheek against the bard's back. When did you grow up? she asked with silent wonder. Caring for me, caring for the house, nurturing your own dreams even in this place. "Some day I'll be able to tell Zeno I know Gabrielle of Potadeia."
"Do you expect Zeno to end up here?"
"Why not? It would probably justify one of his crackpot theories, somehow."
"You know, I did find time to write, that awful icy day, when you were
"Hmmm. I read some of it."
"You read it? It wasn't ready for that."
"Gabrielle, you left your sack of scrolls at the edge of the blanket. That usually means you want me to read them."
"Has it been that obvious?"
"For about two years now."
"Oh. Well. I feel self conscious asking you to read them. I don't want you to feel
pressured for an opinion." A pause. "So what did you think?" She turned to
face Xena, who twisted her lips in amusement.
"I think you started about four stories and never finished any.
"They weren't really stories. I couldn't stay with a thought for long. It was so lonely here, just the wind for company." She stopped for a moment, listening to that same bitter whine, then roused herself to continue. "So I just did some word sketches of people, and things that have happened."
Xena's dark head moved in a slow nod, recalling the outline of the events at the peddler's market. "That dark warrior sure was busy; but she wasn't alone, you know."
"That day I was writing, the longer it went on I couldn't take my mind off you."
"Okay, I like that," Xena smiled with approval, "but when you do finish it, can't you throw in something like: 'Then the recorder of these events waded into the fray, wielding her staff ' You know what I mean."
"Maybe you should write that part?"
"Gabrielle, I'm serious."
"So am I. I usually throw myself in, as a sort of proof that the events are first-hand, that I was there, regardless of what role I played. But it would be so different if you wrote it. Or part of it. Have you ever read the account of Chin? No, of course you haven't; you made it clear you don't want to - "
"Gabrielle, not yet, maybe someday."
"Fine. No hurry," she said dismissively. "The point is, there are two very distinct tones there: one is my voice, telling what I witnessed, the other is my recording the things you told me, from before, about Lao Ma Anyone could see who was telling which part of the tale. You have an interesting voice, it seems to be hiding as much as it's revealing; almost all the time. Of course, you needn't read about Chin, it's also there in the scrolls about M'Lilla, Caesar, Lyceus." Of course you don't want to read those either, she realized. "Trust me, Xena, it's there. You really move a story along."
"You're the bard, Gabrielle. Let's keep it that way. I can't take too much role reversal at once." She said it as banter, but her eyes betrayed something else.
"I'll be a bard as long as I have a voice," she acknowledged. "That's my destiny. I have this fantasy," she confessed, that someday, people will care. They'll read these scrolls, and care about all that I've seen."
"That's a big responsibility. You'd better get it all in: Hermia, Archon and Sepra, Drax and Ileander. Lilla. Arthea. You'll make them live again someday. All of them. When you write about Tartarus, they all must have a place."
"That's a tall order, Xena. I don't think I have enough scrolls," she joked.
"I've spoken to Archon about the scrolls," Xena replied, in deadly earnest. "He doesn't slaughter goats except from necessity; when he does, he said he wouldn't mind if some went to parchment. Ileander thinks he can manage to fashion them for you."
"I never realized you took my scrolls so seriously."
The warrior shrugged. "I do."
Continued...Chapter 25 - 26
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