The Cottage part 4
By Eva Allen
* * *
She sat late in the tavern that evening. The market fair was over,
and the room was full of merchants, townsfolk, and peasants who were
eager to spend their newly-earned dinars on one last night of frivolity
before leaving town on the morrow. It was among these noisy revelers
that the warrior sat, a silent, brooding presence in a shadowy corner, a
dark figure to be stared at briefly by the others and then forgotten.
Many a dinar was wagered and lost on a roll of the dice that night.
And there were many songs sung and tales told of brave heroes and
capricious gods. Xena sat watching it all through the smoky torchlight,
listening to the stories and songs, drinking goblet after goblet of the
inn's best port.
At last the crowd began to thin, as the tipsy clients stumbled up the
stairs or out into the street. Xena noticed that her goblet was empty
again and she waved it in the air to catch Lydia's attention. The
innkeeper came over and, bending close, put a hand on her shoulder.
"Xena," she said quietly, "you've had enough for tonight. You need
to go upstairs and try to get some rest--you look exhausted."
Xena stared at her for a moment, then sighed. "Okay," she murmured.
"Will you be all right?" Lydia asked, studying the warrior's face.
"Yeah, I'll be fine."
"I'll light a candle for you," said the innkeeper, straightening up.
"No, that's okay. I don't need one," Xena said.
"All right." Lydia pulled the dark head against her in a quick hug.
"I'll see you in the morning," she said, smiled, and then went to tend
to another customer.
So this was it, Xena thought. This was the moment she had been
dreading all night . . . the moment when she must go upstairs to the
empty room and lie alone in the bed she had shared with Gabrielle.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, then got up and made her way
with somewhat unsteady footsteps up the stairs and along the dark
hallway. In the room, there was still a little light from the innyard
below. Xena slipped off her weapons and clothing, then lay down on the
She stared into the darkness, certain that she would not be able to
sleep. After a time, the torches were put out, the voices gradually
faded, and she heard Salmoneus come up to his room. At last she closed
her eyes and fell into a light doze, but woke suddenly a short time
later with a cold knot of fear in her stomach. Someone was in the room
"Xena," a man's voice called softly. She sat up. It was too dark to
see him, but her ears told her that he was standing near the center of
the room . . . between her and her weapons. Yet the voice seemed
familiar and not unfriendly. Why couldn't she place it?
He moved closer and now she could dimly make out his muscular form.
"So, you're awake, are you, my warrior princess?" he murmured.
Xena let out the breath she had been holding. "Ares," she said
flatly. "What are you doing here?"
"I've come to comfort you, my dear."
"I don't need your kind of comfort."
"Oh, but you do! Now that that irritating little bard you thought
you loved has so cruelly deserted you, it's bigtime heartbreak, isn't
it? Don't deny it, Xena."
She was silent. Ares sat down on the bed and reached out to caress
her cheek. "My poor, sad princess," he cooed. "Did you really think
the love of that wimpy girl would be enough for you? You're a woman of
passion, Xena, and you need real love."
He leaned closer, taking her face in both hands. She could feel the
heat of his breath and then his warm lips on hers. She tried to pull
away, but was strangely unable to do so.
"You need a man's love, Xena," he whispered in her ear. "No, more
than that--you need a god to love you--someone who won't die on you or
run home to mother at the first sign of trouble."
His hands were on her breasts now, cupping them, gently teasing the
nipples. She shivered and moaned softly, letting her head fall back as
he kissed her throat. She knew she should fight him off, but her body
betrayed her, hungry as it was to be touched and loved.
"Come and be my warrior queen, Xena," Ares said. "I want to ravish
you, to love you the way you need to be loved." He pushed her gently
back onto the bed, then eased his body onto hers. His lips and tongue
caressed her collarbones, her chest, and finally her breasts. Her
heartbeat quickened and her breathing became ragged. She felt weak and
powerless to resist.
Ares moved up and brought his face close to hers again. "Haven't you
been good long enough?" he murmured. "It can't be any fun for you, and
look what it has brought you--nothing but disappointment, heartache, and
loneliness. Xena! Come back to me, where you belong. Just think what
the two of us can do together." He brushed the hair softly back from
her forehead. "Think of the sons we'll have--every one of them as
strong as Hercules--noble warriors to carry on the battle even when
you're too old to fight."
"Sons?" she whispered in amazement.
"Yes, my darling, and daughters, too, brave and beautiful warriors
like their mother." He kissed her again. "That silly Gabrielle could
never give you what you really want. She could never give you children,
now, could she? And she could never give you the armies and glory that
I can give you." He paused to nibble povocatively on her earlobe.
"Just say the word, Xena," he whispered. "Say you'll be my warrior
queen and we can start tomorrow to conquer the world. Just imagine the
battles we'll fight, the cities we'll spoil and burn! The earth will
run red with blood! Picture it, Xena! What a glorious sight it will
A chill went through her and all at once she heard Gabrielle's voice
saying, "Promise me you won't become a monster." If she said yes to
Ares, that was exactly what she would become. Why hadn't she seen it
before? Was her mind too blurred with wine and grief? Well, no
matter. She saw everything clearly now.
With a sudden gathering of strength, she shoved the war god away from
her. "No!" she cried, "I won't do it! I won't let you seduce me!"
Caught by surprise, Ares lost his balance and landed on the floor
with a loud crash and a vehement curse. Xena sat up and peered down at
him in the darkness. "I promised Gabrielle I wouldn't become a
monster," she said, "and I intend to keep that promise."
Ares burst into laughter, then got up and carefully brushed himself
off. "So you promised Gabrielle," he said with a sneer. "And was this
the same Gabrielle who promised that the two of you would always be
together? The Gabrielle who then ran out on you?"
Xena felt the color drain from her face, and hoped that Ares could
not see her in the dark.
"Why should you keep a promise to the faithless Gabrielle?" he
demanded. Then, grabbing a handful of her hair, he yanked her head back
so that her face was turned up towards him. "Tell me that, Xena!"
She stared at him, and even in the dark, she could see the rage that
now distorted his features.
"I'm going to keep my promise, Ares," she said in a dull, tired
voice. "Now get out of here and leave me alone."
He laughed and released her hair with a jerk. "I'll go now," he
said, "but I'll be back. When you've had time to get good and lonely,
I'll come and find you again. By then you'll be able to see how
heartlessly that girl betrayed you and you'll be happy to break your
stupid promise. Yes, I'll be back, Xena, and you'll welcome me with
open arms." He touched her cheek, but she slapped his hand away. With
one last chuckle, he turned and walked toward the door, vanishing just
before he reached it.
Xena shivered and drew her knees up to her chest. There was a timid
knock on the door and she heard Salmoneus' voice calling, "Xena, are you
all right?" She slipped out of bed and crossed the room, realizing,
just as she got to the door, that she was naked except for her moontime
rags. Well, the merchant's concern was touching; he deserved a small
reward. She pulled open the door and saw him standing there in his
nightshift, a candle in one trembling hand and a dagger in the other.
"Is everything all right, Xena?" he asked. "I heard a noise and a
man's voice and I thought maybe--" He stopped and his mouth dropped
open as his eyes took in her full figure. "Oh! I'm sorry! I--"
Xena put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm fine, Salmoneus," she said
gently, "but thanks for coming to find out. I just had a little visit
from Ares is all."
"Ares!" His eyes widened and he looked anxiously past her into the
room. "Ares was here?"
"Don't worry," she said quickly. "He's gone now and he won't be
back. It was very brave of you to come." She squeezed his shoulder and
smiled. "Go to sleep now. I'll see you in the morning," she said.
Xena closed the door and retreated to the bed. Climbing under the
covers, she lay there and began to tremble, as the full import of what
had happened became clear to her. She had almost given in to Ares. She
had come that close to being seduced by him, had almost agreed to be his
warrior queen. The thought of her narrow escape was more frightening
than any nightmare could have been. But Gabrielle had saved her. Even
though the bard herself was gone, her loving spirit remained. Xena
breathed a sigh of gratitude and pictured Gabrielle asleep in a room in
another inn, a day's journey away. She could almost hear the soft, even
breathing, could almost feel the warmth of the bard's presence beside
her. The image gave her courage and she clung to it as the last hours
of night passed and dawn crept in at the window. Then, with the heavy
hand of weariness upon her, Xena closed her eyes and fell asleep at
* * *
"Why don't you go to Athens? There's always something happening
there," Xena said to Salmoneus the next morning after breakfast.
"Athens," he said and stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Well, that's
an idea. But it's not just a matter of going someplace where
something's happening. I have to make some money, too, you know."
"Picky, picky, picky," she said with a grin.
He looked at her and laughed, then colored and looked away. He had
been this way all through breakfast--a little shy and uneasy--probably
thinking about seeing her last night, Xena decided.
"Where are you planning to go?" he asked her then. "I mean, after
your saddle's ready."
"I don't know," she said, "but I guess I'll have to decide one of
these days, won't I? Maybe I should go visit my mother." Then she
frowned. No, that wasn't a good idea. Amphipolis was too close to
Poteidaia. If she went home, she should also go visit Gabrielle. But
she couldn't do that. Not yet, anyway. The pain was still much too
raw. It would be nice to spend time with someone she felt close to,
though--someone who would understand if she was sad or moody. Maybe she
should look up Hercules and Iolaus. Yes, she liked that idea. She
smiled and then noticed that Salmoneus was watching her.
"Well, did you think of someplace better?" he asked.
"Yeah, I was just thinking I might--"
She broke off in mid-sentence as a boy of about ten or eleven years
suddenly burst in through the open door. "Lydia!" he shouted, and
stopped short, his eyes searching the dim room for the innkeeper.
"I'm right here, Flavian," called Lydia from behind the counter.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
He ran to her. "It's Paulos! He and his men are riding into
town--probably coming here first!"
Xena saw a look of fear cross Lydia's face, then watched as the
innkeeper put her hand on the boy's shoulder. "Run out to the kitchen
and get Lia," Lydia said in a voice so low that Xena had to strain to
hear it. The boy turned and sprinted to the kitchen. Lydia, meanwhile,
pulled a coin box from under the counter and quickly began transferring
most of its contents to a leather bag. Xena threw a questioning look at
Salmoneus, but he shrugged and shook his head.
In a moment, Lia and Flavian were back. Lydia counted the dinars
left in the box, closed it, and stuck it back under the counter. Then,
handing the bag to her daughter, she said, "You know what to do." Lia
nodded and hurried out the back door. Xena had caught only a brief
glimpse of the girl's face, but it was enough to see the terror written
Rising from her seat, the warrior crossed swiftly to the counter.
"What's going on, Lydia?" she asked. "Who's Paulos?"
The innkeeper looked at her, hesitated, then said, "He's the thieving
bastard who comes around every month or so, demanding money from all the
merchants in town. 'Protection money,' he calls it," she finished
"What happens if you don't pay?"
"Well, Dorkas and Xenos refused to pay--at first--and their shop
burned to the ground." She looked at Flavian. "You remember that,
The boy nodded gravely.
Lydia returned her gaze to the warrior. "When Anatolios and I
refused to pay--" She stopped and took a deep breath. "Lia was--"
Again she paused and glanced at Flavian. "Well, I've told you what
happened to Lia," she said to Xena, who nodded. "And when Anatolios
tried to avenge her . . . he was killed."
Xena stared into the brown eyes and saw the depth of pain there. "It
was Paulos who did these things?" she asked.
The innkeeper nodded.
Xena reached out and put her hand over Lydia's. "I'm going to take
care of this bastard for you," she said. "When I'm finished with him,
he won't bother you again."
"No, Xena, you don't need to get involved."
"Yes, I need to and I want to," the warrior said firmly. She
squeezed Lydia's hand. "Don't you see? This is my chance to pay you
back for all the kindness you've shown me."
"But I don't want you to get hurt."
Xena smiled. "I'm a warrior, Lydia. I know how to fight. I'll be
"You're going to fight Paulos?" asked Flavian in a voice full of
wonder. "Who are you, anyway?"
"My name is Xena," she said, and grinned at the boy.
"She's called the Warrior Princess," Lydia told him. Then to Xena
she said, "This is Dorkas' and Xenos' son, Flavian."
Xena experienced a moment of surprise at the thought that two such
stoic people had ever been passionate enough to produce a son, but she
quickly smiled and held out her hand. "I'm glad to meet you, Flavian,"
she said. "And to answer your question, yes, I'll fight Paulos if I
have to, but first I'll try to convince him to leave town without a
fight." She started toward the door, and Flavian followed excitedly.
"Oh, you'll have to fight him, all right," he assured her. "Paulos
is a very wicked man and he doesn't scare easy. Can I watch you fight?"
"Sure, but stay back out of the way, so you won't get hurt."
"Okay! I'm going to go tell everybody!" he cried and darted out the
door ahead of her.
Xena stepped into the street and looked toward the square. Four men
on dark-colored horses were just rounding the corner. She went back and
leaned against the doorpost, folded her arms, and studied them as they
approached. One man rode slightly ahead of the group. His horse seemed
better than the others, and his weapons of a higher quality. He had
black hair and a closely-trimmed beard which did not fully hide the
jagged scar on his left cheek. This man, Xena surmised, was Paulos.
"Anso," the man said to one of the others as soon as they had
clattered to a halt, "go in and get the money from our little innkeeper
friend. And be sure to tell her the price has gone up to seventy-five
A short man with dirty yellow hair and close-set eyes grinned and
swung down off his horse. He sauntered to the door, but stopped when he
found Xena blocking his path.
"Excuse me, lady," he said with a sneer, "but I got some business to
conduct inside here."
"You'll have to deal with me first," Xena said calmly, "because I'm
making it my business to see that you four don't bother anyone in this
town ever again."
Anso scowled and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
There was a mean, deceitful look about him that made the warrior dislike
and mistrust him. "Look, I haven't got time for this," he said. "Are
you going to get out of the way or am I going to have to move you?"
Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed Xena's shoulders and
attemped to shove her aside. A quick knee to his groin doubled him over
and a fist to his jaw sent him sprawling backwards into the street.
There was a titter of laughter from some of the spectators who had
"What's the problem here?" demanded Paulos. "Who are you?"
"My name is Xena," she said, speaking in a loud, clear voice so that
all those standing around could hear. "This town will no longer
tolerate your thieving, murderous ways, Paulos, and I intend to make
sure you leave these people in peace. Now, if the gods gave you any
sense, you and your thugs will ride out of town right now and never come
back. Otherwise, you'll be sorry."
Paulos chuckled. "So, it's Xena, is it?" he said. "The
warrior-princess-turned-coward who goes around pretending to do good
because she lost her army and her nerve to fight, too. Well, if you
think we're afraid of you, then you'd better think again!" He motioned
to one of his other men. "Get rid of her," he said.
The thug who responded to this command was large--a great barrel of a
man who dismounted with a heavy grunt. Pulling a dagger from his belt,
he leered at Xena for a second, then lowered his head and charged
straight toward her. She moved a couple of steps to the left and noted
how long it took him to correct his course. Apparently, he relied on
brute force alone to cow his opponents. Xena waited until he was
practically upon her, then quickly sidestepped. Unable to stop, he
crashed headfirst into the stone wall of the inn and crumpled to the
ground, senseless, blood spreading across his forehead. There was more
laughter from the still-growing crowd, along with a smattering of
That's one down, thought Xena with grim pleasure, and turned to see
who would be next.
Anso had picked himself up and was drawing his sword. The fourth
man, who wore a filthy eyepatch over an even filthier face, dismounted,
spat in the dusty street, and drew his sword, too.
Xena glanced around. She was beginning to feel hemmed in with the
inn so close behind her and the spectators standing nearby. So when the
two thugs ran at her, she let out a battle cry and launched herself into
a tight flip over their heads. Landing behind them, she whirled,
snatched her sword out of its sheath, and waited for her attackers to
figure out what had happened.
Anso recovered first, turning and issuing a quick sword thrust which
she deftly parried. He slashed at her and she ducked. Then she kicked
him in the side, and he went sprawling again.
The man with the eyepatch was upon her now. She met his thrust with
a twist of her sword which sent his weapon flying out of his hand.
Grabbing his wrist, she yanked him forward. A blow from the butt of her
sword hilt to the back of his head dropped him neatly in the street.
"Two down," she muttered. She grinned at the sound of people
cheering and calling her name, but kept her attention on Anso, who was
up again. Paulos, she noted, had still not dismounted. Perhaps he felt
it beneath his dignity to fight the cowardly warrior princess. Well,
he'd have his turn. It would be easier to deal with him one-on-one,
But something was wrong, Xena realized as she and Anso began circling
each other, watching carefully for an opening. Usually, during a fight
she felt energized, all her senses heightened. The rush she got in
battle was one of the rewards of being a warrior. But today there was
no rush. Instead, she felt unfocused . . . tired, even. That flip had
taken a lot out of her; she wouldn't use that maneuver again today.
What was wrong with her? Too much wine last night? Too little sleep?
Or maybe she was just getting too old for this job. Gabrielle might
have had the right idea, after all--a little cottage with a vegetable
garden. Anyway, it didn't sound half bad at the moment.
She had to pay attention, she knew--had to force herself to
concentrate. It was extremely dangerous to fight under these
conditions. One mistake could cost her not only the fight, but possibly
her life, as well. And she could not lose this battle. She had to win
it for Lydia . . . above all, for Lydia, who had been so good to her,
but also for Lia and Dorkas and Xenos and Flavian and all the other
people Paulos had harmed.
Anso made a sudden lunge at her and she parried, reminding herself
again to pay attention. She feinted to the left, then thrust right when
he tried to block her first move. Her blade drew blood on his upper
arm, and he uttered a vile curse. She laughed and waited for his
charge. When it came, she whirled aside and delivered a swift kick that
caught him in the jaw. His head snapped back and he fell, then lay
"Three," panted Xena, to the sound of applause and cheers. She drew
the back of her hand across her sweaty forehead, wishing she had braided
her hair this morning to keep it out of her face. Only Paulos remained
for her to fight, but he would probably be the most difficult to
defeat. He had been sitting there watching her technique all this time,
and she had no clue about his own. And he had the advantage of being
fresh when she was tired. She would have to get this over with quickly,
before exhaustion betrayed her into making some deadly error.
He dismounted in a leisurely fashion, tossing his horse's reins to a
surprised bystander. Then he turned and smiled a cynical smile at
Xena. "Well, you just can't get good help these days," he commented.
She grinned. "Doesn't look like it," she said.
"That why you got rid of your army?" he asked, sliding his sword out
of its scabbard.
"Something like that." He was trying to get her to let down her
guard, she decided. Well, she wouldn't fall for that trick.
She stood her ground as he approached, and they faced off, swords at
the ready. They moved slowly around each other for a few moments, then
she feinted right and quickly thrust left, but he parried effectively.
In fact, now that the fight was engaged, she could see that he was a
fairly good swordsman. If she were not so tired, she could have beaten
him easily. But now they were more evenly matched, and they sparred for
a time without either of them being able to gain the advantage.
At one point, Xena heard a groan and then caught a glimpse of Anso
dragging himself away across the dusty ground. She was surprised that
he was conscious already, but he apparently wanted no more of this
fight, so she felt it safe to ignore him.
With her attention still focused on Paulos, she stopped to blink the
sweat out of her eyes and try to think. She could not go on much
longer; she was too tired. What she needed was a ploy to give her an
opening. That was all she needed--a small ploy that wouldn't require
much energy from her. Just then, a child in the crowd began to cry, and
Xena seized upon a plan. Pretending to be distracted, she broke eye
contact for a brief moment with Paulos, deliberately leaving herself
open to attack. He lunged forward instantly and she dodged aside,
barely escaping injury from his blade. Then, twisting around, she
landed a kick on his sword arm just at the moment when it was fully
extended. The weapon flew out of his grasp, and a second kick toppled
him. Xena pounced at once, pinning him with a foot on each wrist and
her sword at his throat.
She stood there, breathing hard, staring down at him while the crowd
screamed "Kill him, Xena! Kill the bastard!" Paulos' eyes met hers,
full of anger and the humiliation of defeat. But he did not plead for
his life--a fact which raised him a bit in her estimation. One quick
thrust of her sword was all it would take to make certain he would never
murder, rape, or terrorize innocent people again. Surely, if any man
deserved to die, it was this one . . . yet she found herself hesitating.
If she killed Paulos, would she become the monster she had promised
not to be? Gabrielle considered herself a monster for killing Garron.
Would she think the same about Xena if she killed Paulos? Letting him
go was out of the question, but maybe she could bring him to justice
. . . if she could save him from these revenge-minded townspeople.
She found the indecision maddening, and although it lasted only a few
seconds, it cost her. Out of the corner of her eye, she suddenly caught
a movement, and someone shouted, "Behind you!" Looking quickly over her
shoulder, she saw a mace leave Anso's hand and come hurtling toward
her. She ducked, but it was too late. The spiked ball slammed into the
side of her head, and the world exploded in light and pain.
* * *
After that, there was only the darkness . . . a sweet, gentle
darkness that held her as warmly and gently as a womb. There was no
pain in the darkness, no fear or nightmares or dreams of any kind.
There was only the blessed peace of nothingness. But after a while,
there were voices, and hands that jerked and pulled at her. The pain
came again and then she felt someone touch her face. A voice was
calling her name, and it was a kind, familiar voice . . . but there was
only one voice she wanted to hear. She opened her eyes and the light
sent more pain stabbing through her head. She could see nothing but a
jumble of blurred shapes and colors.
"Gabrielle," she said in a voice barely stronger than a whisper.
"Where's Gabrielle? I want Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle's not here right now," said someone Xena slowly recognized
as Lydia. "I've sent Salmoneus with a couple of horses to go get her.
They should be back soon."
Of course. Gabrielle was gone. How could she have forgotten? The
darkness called to her and Xena sank gratefully back into it. This time
she went much deeper and and stayed there a long time, floating on a
gentle sea of calm and forgetfulness. She thought she would like to
stay there forever, that she never wanted to leave this wonderful place
of quiet rest. But finally the voices came again. Or rather, one voice
came, a voice she loved, calling her up from the darkness, drawing her,
pulling her once more into the world of pain. But the light did not
seem quite as bright this time when she opened her eyes, and there was a
little more focus to the forms around her.
"Xena, can you hear me?" The voice now had a blurred face framed in
gold. "Please wake up, Xena! Please!"
"Gabrielle," whispered the warrior, "you came back."
"Yes, I came back, Love. Salmoneus brought me back and I've been
sitting here for hours, waiting for you to wake up."
Xena felt the bard's gentle hand on her cheek and struggled to bring
her face into focus, but she couldn't to do it.
"Do you remember what happened?" asked Gabrielle. "You got hurt in a
A fight? She had been in a fight? Xena closed her eyes against the
pain that seemed to have made her mind a blank. But the pain did not go
away and the memories would not come. A feeling of panic came over her
as she realized she did not remember. She opened her eyes and tried
again to see her lover clearly.
"It was with a man named Paulos and three other thugs," Gabrielle
continued when Xena didn't answer. "Salmoneus told me all about it
while we were riding back here."
Paulos. She had fought a man named Paulos. Xena captured this clue
and tried to force her sluggish brain to make sense of it. Finally, an
image appeared. A bearded man, sitting on a horse. A scar on his
cheek. Yes, he had been called Paulos.
The blur that was Gabrielle seemed to be watching her closely. "You
pinned him down and then you got hit in the head with a mace," she
said. "Are you remembering any of this, Xena?"
Another image came to her. The man named Paulos looking up at her
from the ground, her sword at his throat. Now it was coming back to
her. She had been in a fight . . . a fight she had wanted to win for
Lydia. But she had lost.
"Yes, I remember," she told Gabrielle. She seemed to have no
strength at all. She could barely make her mind work or her voice loud
enough to be heard.
"You've got a nasty gash and a big knot on the side of your head,"
Gabrielle said. "Lydia had to cut away some of your hair so she could
stitch the wound."
Xena tried to bring her hand up to her head to feel the wound, but
Gabrielle gently caught and held her hand.
"Not now," she said. "You can look at it tomorrow."
Xena curled her fingers weakly around Gabrielle's. Maybe she was
dreaming. She still could not quite believe that the bard had
returned. There was something she needed to ask, something she
desperately wanted to know, but the pain was like a thick fog in her
brain and she could not seem to think. She closed her eyes for a moment
and moved her head a little, trying to clear it, but nothing seemed to
"Xena, you're in a lot of pain, aren't you?" said Gabrielle, leaning
close and touching the warrior's face softly.
"Yes," murmured Xena.
"Lydia said she would have some tea ready for you when you woke up.
I'll just call down and have her bring it up here." The bard stood and
started to move away from the bed, but Xena used all the strength she
could muster to cling to her lover's hand.
"Don't leave me," she pleaded.
"Oh, Xena, Sweetheart, I'm just going over to the window for a
minute," Gabrielle said. "I'll be right back, I promise."
The warrior reluctantly released her, and then heard Gabrielle
calling down into the yard. "Salmoneus! She's awake but the pain is
pretty bad. Could you ask Lydia to bring that tea up?"
Xena closed her eyes. She could feel the darkness beckoning to her.
It would be so easy to go there again, just to slide into that soft
place and be done with all this pain for a while. But no. This time
she would fight it. This time there was a reason to stay awake, in
spite of the pain. She opened her eyes.
Gabrielle was beside her again, sitting on the bench by the bed,
holding her hand. "Xena, are you going to be all right?" she asked.
There was an edge of fear in her voice.
"I don't know, Gabrielle."
"I was so scared when I came in here and saw you like this--so pale
and with blood all over you. And then it took such a long time for you
to wake up. I should have been here for you, Xena. Maybe if I had been
here, this wouldn't have happened."
"You don't know that," said Xena slowly. Please don't blame
The door opened and Salmoneus came in and hurried over to the bed.
"Xena!" he exclaimed. "We were worried about you! How do you feel?"
"I feel like shit, Salmoneus," Xena said dully.
He stared at her in surprise for a moment, then laughed and clapped a
hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Well, she's just as feisty as ever,
isn't she?" he said. "I guess that means she's going to be all right."
"I hope so," said Gabrielle.
"Salmoneus," said Xena, speaking slowly and with some effort, "I want
to thank you for going to get Gabrielle, but could you come back another
time when I feel more like talking?"
"Oh, uh, sure, Xena. I'll come back tomorrow." He grinned at her
and patted her arm, then left the room just as Lydia came in.
The innkeeper walked quickly across the room and set a mug on the
table. Then, leaning over the bed, she cupped Xena's face in her hand.
"How's our warrior princess?" she asked. "The pain's pretty bad, is
Lydia picked up one of the warrior's hands and held her fingers
against the wrist for a few moments. "Well, your pulse is a little
stronger, anyway," she said. "Is everything else okay? Can you move
your arms and legs?"
"Good. How about your vision?"
"It's kind of blurry."
"Hmm. Well, I think that will clear up pretty soon. Let's hope so,
anyway." Then she turned to Gabrielle. "Does she remember what
"She didn't seem to at first, but after I told her a few things about
the fight, she said she remembered."
The innkeeper nodded and turned back to Xena, gently smoothing the
hair back from the warrior's face. "I've got some tea for you that
should help with the pain," she said. "I made it strong because I had a
feeling you'd have a real whopper of a headache when you woke up. Do
you think you can sit up and drink it?"
"I don't know."
"She seems pretty weak," said Gabrielle. She bent down and slipped
her arm under the warrior's shoulders. "Here, I'll help you," she said,
and pulled her up.
The movement sent a new spasm of pain through Xena's head, and she
moaned sharply. Gabrielle quickly sat behind her on the bed and put an
arm around her. "You can lean on me," she said. "I'll hold you."
Xena leaned back weakly as a wave of dizziness and nausea followed
the pain. "I think I'm going to be sick," she said.
"Lydia, get the basin! Hurry!" said Gabrielle.
The innkeeper held the basin in front of her and Gabrielle gently
supported her head and kept her hair back out of the way.
"There shouldn't be much left in her stomach," Lydia said. "She was
sick earlier, right after she woke up the first time."
When it was over, Gabrielle wiped Xena's face with a cool, damp
"Xena, do you remember waking up and asking for Gabrielle?" Lydia
"I think so."
"And then do you remember being sick?"
"That's what I thought. You lost consciousness again pretty quickly
there." Lydia reached for the mug. "Okay, let's try the tea now," she
"Do you think she can keep it down?" asked Gabrielle.
"I hope so. There's some peppermint in it, so that should help
settle her stomach."
She handed the mug to Xena, but it seemed incredibly heavy and her
hands shook when she tried to hold it, so Gabrielle reached around from
behind to help her. The tea felt warm and good in her mouth, washing
away the taste of bile and soothing the rawness in her throat.
"I think she'll be all right with it," Lydia said. Then she sat on
the bench and watched for a time in silence as the warrior drank.
Finally, she said, "Well that was quite a fight this morning, Xena."
The warrior looked at her. "Yeah," she said softly. "I'm sorry I
"Lost? Xena, you didn't lose!"
"But Paulos-- He must have gotten away."
"Oh, no, he didn't get away! But of course, you don't know how it
all ended, do you?" Lydia smiled at her.
Xena took another sip of tea. Her head still throbbed painfully, but
it felt good to have Gabrielle's arms around her. And her vision was
clearing up some, she noticed. At least now she could see the
expression on Lydia's face.
"Well," the innkeeper began, "after you stabbed Paulos in the neck
and then got hit with the mace--"
"Wait," Xena said and held up one hand. She was trying to think, but
it was still so hard. There was something wrong with what Lydia had
just said. She looked at the innkeeper in frustration, but Lydia was
watching her quietly and seemed willing to give her time to sort things
"I remember standing over him," Xena said slowly, "and I had my sword
at his throat." She paused. "People were shouting for me to kill him .
. . but I couldn't decide if--" she glanced back at Gabrielle, "if
killing him would make me a monster."
"Xena!" whispered the bard and gave her a quick hug.
"I don't think I ever decided," the warrior continued, "and I don't
remember stabbing him at all." She took another sip of tea and watched
Lydia over the rim of the mug.
"Hmm," mused the innkeeper and considered for a moment. "Do you know
what I think must have happened? I think that when you saw the mace
coming and ducked, you drove your sword down into Paulos' neck."
Xena nodded. "Maybe so," she said.
"It was hard to see from where I was, but I don't think you actually
cut his throat. Still, there was a lot of blood spurting out, so you
did some damage--enough to keep him from escaping, anyway." She leaned
forward and put her hand on Xena's leg. "Here's the interesting part,
though," she said. "You'll never believe who finished the job for you."
"Salmoneus didn't tell me this part," said Gabrielle. "Who was it?"
Lydia grinned and waited a moment to draw out the suspense, then
announced, "It was Dorkas."
"Dorkas!" exclaimed Gabrielle and Xena together.
"Yes! Apparently, she's kept all her anger and hatred of Paulos
stored up inside her for years, and today it all came out. As soon as
you fell, Xena, Dorkas ran over and grabbed up your sword and just
started hacking at Paulos' neck. By the time we stopped her, she had
almost cut his head clear off his body."
Xena closed her eyes for a moment, and behind her, she felt Gabrielle
"What about the other one?" Xena asked. "The short one. What was
his name? Anso."
"Well, after he threw that mace, a bunch of the men who'd been
watching just ran in and jumped on him and started beating him," Lydia
said. "A few of them had weapons or tools, but most just used their
bare hands. They pretty much beat him to a pulp."
"Dead?" Xena asked.
"Weren't there four men in all?" asked Gabrielle. "What happened to
the other two?"
"They got run out of town," said Lydia. "And I can pretty much
assure you they won't be back. Without Paulos they're not much of a
threat, anyway." She paused and fixed her intense gaze on the warrior.
"But don't you see what happened, Xena?" she said. "You inspired us.
We watched you fight for us and suddenly we realized that we don't have
to be victims anymore. So when you couldn't finish the battle, we
finished it ourselves! We killed those bastards, and I can't tell you
how happy I am to know that they will never hurt us again." She
faltered, her voice choked with emotion, and then went on. "What a gift
you've given us! You can be sure the story of how the Warrior Princess
defeated Paulos will be told around the hearths of this town for many
winters to come."
"Lydia," said Xena quietly. "I never meant to inspire bloodlust and
revenge. That's not what this was about."
The innkeeper stared at her without speaking.
"I believe Paulos deserved to die for his crimes," Xena went on, "but
he should have been brought to justice and given a fair trial first. I
think that's the decision I would have made if I hadn't got hit by the
Gabrielle's arms tightened around her. Then she held the mug up to
Xena's lips, and the warrior took a deep drink.
Lydia remained silent for a minute, then said, "I hear what you're
saying. It's so easy to confuse revenge with justice. But I just want
you to know how grateful I am to you, Xena. You can't imagine what a
weight has been lifted off my heart knowing that the man who raped my
daughter and killed my husband is dead."
"I understand," Xena said softly. "I feel the same way about the man
who attacked Gabrielle."
"I'm just so sorry that you got hurt," Lydia said. "You gave us
quite a scare, you know. Salmoneus and Elpidios carried you up here.
There was so much blood! I thought I'd never get the bleeding stopped!"
"Head wounds," commented Gabrielle. "They always bleed like crazy.
When Salmoneus came to get me, he still had blood on his clothes, and I
thought at first that he was hurt. Then he told me it was your blood,
Xena, and that was even scarier."
"I cleaned you up a little bit, but I'm not sure I did a very good
job," Lydia said. "And I tried to comb some of the blood out of your
hair, but I was afraid I would hurt you, so I quit."
"That's all right," said Xena. "I'm sorry I was so much trouble."
"No, Xena, it was no trouble. It was a labor of love. As far as I'm
concerned, your presence here has been nothing but a blessing. Remember
when I told you that first day that something good would come of your
being here? Well, this is it."
"What is? This pain in my head?"
Lydia laughed. "No, that's the bad part. The good part is being rid
of Paulos. And the other good part is that you're going to be all right
. . . because I really think you will be, although you may be pretty
uncomfortable for a few days."
"And Gabrielle came back," said Xena. "That's a good part, too."
"Yes," said Lydia, smiling at the bard. "That's one of the best
"I agree," said Gabrielle, hugging Xena again.
Lydia studied the warrior for a moment. "How are you doing?" she
asked. "Is that tea helping any?"
"Yes, it is. The pain's still there, but it's more bearable now.
And I can think better, too." Xena drained the mug and handed it back
"You seem to be getting a little color back in your cheeks," the
innkeeper said, "but it's probably time we let you get some rest."
"Do you want to lie down again?" asked Gabrielle, and when Xena
nodded, she gently eased her back on the bed.
Lydia stood up. "I'll bet you're ready for some supper, Gabrielle,"
she said. "I can bring up some fish soup and bread for you."
"Mmm, that sounds good!"
"How about you, Xena?" Lydia asked. "Do you think you can eat
Gabrielle looked at the warrior for a moment and then put her hand on
Lydia's shoulder. "Tell you what," she said. "Why don't you bring up a
really big bowl of soup and I'll try to get her to eat some of it."
Lydia grinned. "Oh, and if she won't eat it, there'll be that much
more for you; is that how it works?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Okay, you saw right through my little trick, but
I really am pretty hungry!"
"All right, I'll be back in a couple of minutes."
Xena waited impatiently for Lydia to leave. She knew now what it was
she wanted to ask Gabrielle, and she wanted to do it before her mind got
foggy again. The room was beginning to get dark, and Xena could hear
voices from the innyard. It was evening, she realized for the first
time. That meant she had been unconscious most of the day.
"Gabrielle," she said when the door closed behind Lydia, "there's
something I need to know."
The bard sat down on the bench and took Xena's hand between her own.
"What is it, Love?" she asked.
Xena hesitated for a moment, suddenly afraid to hear the answer she
might get. But then she took a deep breath and said, "Did you only come
back because I got hurt or did you come back to stay?"
Gabrielle lifted Xena's hand and kissed it softly. "I came back to
stay," she said, "if you want me to."
"If I want you to! Gabrielle, there's nothing I want more!" She
paused, and then added, "Well, except maybe for my head to stop hurting
The bard bent down and kissed Xena's forehead, cheek, and then her
lips. "I wish I could take your pain away," she whispered.
Xena grinned weakly. "I wish you could, too, but this is a nice
distraction, anyway." She reached up and pulled her lover down for
"Xena," Gabrielle said as she sat up again, "there are so many things
I need to tell you."
"We'll have lots of time to talk."
"I know, but at least I want to say how sorry I am. Ever since the
thing with Garron, I've been so wrapped up in my own pain that I
couldn't see yours. And I may have even made yours worse. I seem to
remember saying some pretty nasty things."
Xena squeezed the bard's hand. "You had a lot of pain to deal with,"
she said. "I understand why you weren't your usual charming self."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't know how you ever put up with
me," she said. "And even though I'm back, I don't want you to think
that everything is perfect now, either. I'm still confused about a lot
of things and there's so much I need to try to deal with somehow. It's
just that I realized you were right--I don't have to do it all alone."
"Good. Because I want to help you, if there's any way I can."
"And there's something else you need to know, Xena," Gabrielle went
on. "I still don't know when--or even if--I can let you make love to me
again." She stopped and looked away, swallowing hard. "It's just so
hard to think about it right now-- That's why I said I'd stay only if
you want me to."
"Gabrielle," said the warrior gently, "I really believe that one of
these days you'll want to make love again. But I know you have a lot of
healing to do, and that it will take time. I can wait until you're
ready. In fact," she said with a grin, "I'm kind of relieved you don't
want to make love tonight because, as it turns out, I have a headache."
Gabrielle laughed and then kissed her again. "You silly thing! I'm
so glad I came back!"
* * *
In a short while, Lydia reappeared at the door. The two lighted
candles on the supper tray she carried gave a warm glow to the room. "I
brought another mug of tea for Xena, in case she needs it later in the
night," she said.
"Oh, good idea. Thanks," said Gabrielle.
"And I brought a big bowl of soup, half a loaf of bread, and some
mead." She paused. "What I'm wondering right now is whether you'll be
able to sleep in that bed. There's so much blood on the mattress cover
that I think I'll end up throwing the whole thing out. Dorkas was here
for a while this morning, helping me take care of Xena, and she offered
to make a new cover. Elpidios can fill it with straw for me, when it's
done, but that won't help much tonight. I thought about putting you in
a different room, but I doubt that Xena wants to move around that
much." She glanced at the warrior, who shook her head.
"It'll be all right," said Gabrielle. "We'll be fine; don't worry
"I think I'll just bring an extra blanket that you can spread over
the worst of it."
"Okay. That'll work," said Gabrielle.
Lydia went next door and quickly returned with a blanket. "Now, is
there anything else you need before I go back downstairs?" she asked.
"We think we'll have a big crowd tonight because people will want to
come and talk about the fight. And, of course, some folks will probably
drop by just to ask how Xena is doing."
"I can't think of anything else we need," Gabrielle said. She stood
up and took one of the innkeeper's hands in hers. "Thanks, Lydia, for
taking such good care of Xena. I should have been here to do it. I'm
sorry I wasn't."
"You're here now," said Lydia. "That's what's important." Then she
put an arm around the bard's shoulders and said, "Gabrielle, I want you
to promise me something. If you need anything during the
night--anything at all--or if Xena gets worse, I want you to come and
"Just go through the kitchen to that room in back where Lia and I
sleep and call my name," Lydia continued. "I'm a light sleeper and I'll
hear you. Do you promise?"
"Yes. And thanks again. You're such a good person." Gabrielle threw
her arms around the innkeeper and they hugged for a long minute. Xena
watched them, smiling.
"Goodnight," Lydia said. "I hope you sleep well . . . both of you,"
she added, looking at the warrior. "I'll probably peek in before I go
to bed, but I'll try not to wake you."
"Goodnight, Lydia," said Gabrielle.
"Goodnight," echoed Xena.
As soon as Lydia was gone, Gabrielle walked over to the tray and
picked up the soup bowl. "This smells really good," she said, and put a
dripping spoonful into her mouth. "Mmm, it tastes really good, too.
You've got to try some of this, Xena."
"I'm not very hungry."
"I know, but you need to try to eat something anyway." Gabrielle
took another bite and then set the bowl down. "Let's see if we can prop
you up a little bit."
She carefully tucked the saddlebag and some folded blankets behind
the warrior's head and shoulders, then seated herself on the bench and
picked up the bowl again. Dipping a spoonful of soup, she blew on it to
cool it and then held it to Xena's lips. "Open up," she said with a
Xena was surprised to find that the soup tasted better to her than
any food had for days, and she swallowed it willingly. Then another
spoonful was offered, and she swallowed that, too.
The next spoonful went into Gabrielle's mouth. "You know," the bard
said after a minute, "I think I knew I was making a big mistake before I
ever left here yesterday. I was just too stubborn to admit it." She
reached for the bread, tore off a hunk, and handed it to Xena.
"Leaving you hurt so much," Gabrielle went on. "I felt like my heart
was being ripped out or something."
Xena watched her without speaking, holding the uneaten bread in her
"I thought I would feel better as the day went on, but I didn't,
really," the bard said. "I just kept walking and thinking about you and
wondering if I should turn around and go back."
"I thought about you, too," Xena said softly.
Gabrielle looked at her tenderly for a moment, then suddenly grinned
and said, "Hey, am I going to have to feed you the bread, too? Are you
too weak to lift it all the way up to your face?"
"Oh. I forgot about it." Xena studied the bread as if she didn't
quite know what to do with it, then slowly pulled off a piece and put it
in her mouth.
Gabrielle took a big bite of her own bread and then said, "I thought
I was going home, Xena, but I wasn't. I was going away from home.
You're my home now. I knew that, but I guess I forgot it somehow. More
"And another thing I realized," continued the bard as she spooned
soup into the warrior's mouth, "was that even though I believed I'd been
thinking some things through, I hadn't, really. I'd just been sleeping
all the time so I could avoid thinking." Gabrielle set aside the bowl
and picked up the tankard of mead. "Want some of this?" she asked.
"Maybe a little bit."
She held the tankard so that Xena could sip from it, then took a long
drink herself. Then, setting the tankard down, she wiped her mouth with
the back of her hand. She picked up the soup bowl again and offered a
spoonful to Xena. "So anyway, there I was," she said, "walking all day,
thinking about you and trying to decide what to do. Then I came to the
village and got a room at the inn." She paused to eat a couple of
spoonfuls of soup. "And then last night," she went on, "I was going
through my pack, looking for something, and I found this strange bundle,
way down in the bottom. I couldn't even imagine what was in it."
Xena put another piece of bread in her mouth and chewed mechanically,
but she could not take her gaze off Gabrielle. Then the bard turned the
full intensity of her green eyes on her.
"Xena," she said, "why didn't you tell me that my scrolls survived
"I was afraid to, after what you did to the one scroll I gave you."
Gabrielle regarded her for a moment and then smiled. "Well, I can
see why you would be afraid. I was pretty crazy for a while there,
"Yes, but you had good reason to be crazy."
Gabrielle dropped her gaze to the bowl and scraped the bottom of it
with the spoon. "Here," she said holding it out to Xena. "Last bite."
"I don't want any more."
"Are you sure?"
"Okay," said Gabrielle and stuck the spoon in her mouth. Then she
took a big swallow of mead and held the tankard for Xena to drink. "I
sat there in my room and read scrolls," she said, "and I cried and
cried. And I knew I had to come back. I could hardly sleep all night
because I was wanting it to be morning, so I could come home to you."
Xena reached out and touched the bard's cheek. "You had already
decided to come back?" she said. "Even before you knew I was hurt?"
"Not only had I decided, but I'd already walked about three hours in
this direction when Salmoneus found me. He and I had a good talk while
we were riding back, by the way," she added. "You were right about him,
Xena. He really had some good things to say."
"I'm right about a lot of things," Xena said with a grin. "You just
don't like to admit it. But what did Salmoneus tell you?"
"Oh, just-- I don't know. All about the fight. And then some stuff
about you and about how you blamed yourself for what happened at the
cottage-- We'll talk more about it later." She took a quick sip from
the tankard, then set it down and reached for Xena's hands. "I just
want to tell you one more thing right now and then we can go to sleep,"
"This morning, after I'd started back . . . I'd been walking for a
while and all at once I got the feeling that something was wrong. And
then I heard your voice, and you said 'Where's Gabrielle? I want
Gabrielle.' And I got really scared because I knew you were hurt, and I
also knew it would take me hours to get to you."
Xena looked at her in amazement. "It's like when I heard you
scream," she said.
"Yes, that's what I thought, too," Gabrielle said eagerly. "And now
we've both had this same experience. What do you think it means?"
"I don't know. That we both have really good hearing?" She grinned.
Gabrielle stared at her and then laughed. "Well, that blow to the
head didn't hurt your sense of humor any. I think you're going to be
all right, Xena," she said and softly stroked the warrior's cheek. Then
her face became serious and she asked, "Do you want to know what I think
it means? I have a theory."
"Yes, I thought you'd have one," Xena said dryly.
Gabrielle didn't smile. She was silent for a moment, then took a big
breath and said, "I think it means that you and I are connected on a
deeper level than most people are. I think it means we really are
soulmates." She bent and kissed the warrior gently on the mouth. "Do
you like that theory?" she asked.
"I like any theory that comes with a kiss," Xena murmured.
The bard laughed and then sat up. "Okay, I can see you're not going
to be serious about this tonight. What do we need to do here so we can
go to sleep? Let's see how much blood there really is in this bed."
She pulled back the covers and surveyed the scene.
"Hmm. Quite a bit," she said. "And there's a lot on you, too." She
brushed some dried blood off Xena's shoulder and then ran her hand
lightly over the leather outfit. "Well," she said, "do you want to sleep
in your warrior princess costume, or do you want to take it off?"
"Oh, you thought that line was funny, did you?"
"Actually, at the time, nothing seemed very funny. But now it sort
of does." She smiled. "So what do you want to do?"
"I'd like to take it off, but I'm not sure I can get out of bed
without either getting sick or passing out. Or both."
Gabrielle studied her for a moment. "We'll find a way to do it," she
said. "Let's see if you can sit up again for a minute." She put her
arm under the warrior's shoulders.
"Slowly," warned Xena.
"Okay." Gabrielle eased her up and then held onto her.
Xena closed her eyes as the room began to swim.
"How are you doing?" asked the bard.
"I'm kind of dizzy, but I don't feel sick."
"All right. I'll try to do this quickly." She sat behind Xena and
began unlacing her. The warrior opened her eyes and tried to focus on
the door. Gradually, it began to appear like the solid object it was,
and some of the dizziness passed.
"Now swing your legs off the bed," Gabrielle instructed her, and Xena
moved slowly and awkwardly to obey.
The bard sat on the bench in front of her, studying her face. "How's
the pain?" she asked.
"It's still there. Not as bad as before."
"Does sitting up make it worse?"
"No, not really."
"A little. It's better now."
"Do you think you can stand up?"
"I can try."
"Okay," said Gabrielle. She stood and moved closer to Xena, then
bent down. "Put your arms around my neck and hold on." She slipped her
own arms around the warrior. "Ready?" she said. Then straightening up,
she pulled Xena up with her.
Xena felt the room began to swim again, her knees trembled, and she
clung to her lover for balance.
"Hang on," Gabrielle said softly. "This will just take a minute."
She eased the leather straps off over Xena's arms one at a time, then
slid the whole outfit down and off, along with the undergarment. "Okay,
that's it. You can sit down again."
Xena sank down onto the bed, feeling exhausted.
"Don't lie down yet," said Gabrielle. "Let me put this blanket that
Lydia brought us on the bed first." She quickly spread the blanket and
then helped the warrior lie down on it.
"There's a lot of blood on your clothes," Gabrielle said, picking
them up off the floor. "I'll clean them tomorrow. I don't think you'll
be needing them for at least a day or two."
"No, I don't think so," agreed the warrior.
"And I'll give you a nice bath, with warm water. And maybe we can
figure out a way to wash your hair without getting you out of bed."
"You take good care of me," Xena said with a smile.
"Yeah, it's a good thing you're planning to keep me around for a
"For a long while, I hope."
Gabrielle began undressing, and Xena eased herself over nearer to the
wall to make room for her in the bed. Then she lay watching the play of
the candlelight on the bard's skin and hair.
"Did you have any nightmares last night?" asked Gabrielle.
"No. I had something worse."
"Something worse? What do you mean?"
"I had a little visit from Ares."
Gabrielle stared at her. "Ares! What did he want?"
"The same thing he always wants," Xena said in a tired voice, "for me
to come back to him and be his warrior queen. But the scary thing last
night was that I almost said yes."
"You almost said yes?" the bard asked in wonder. She sat on the bed
and took one of Xena's hands and held it tightly. "Why?"
"I don't know. He was just so seductive, I guess, and I was feeling
. . . so vulnerable." She brought Gabrielle's hand to her mouth and
kissed the palm. "But you saved me, My Love," she said.
"I saved you? How could I save you? I wasn't even here."
"You saved me by making me promise again not to become a monster.
Just at the last minute, I remembered my promise and that's why I said
no to Ares."
"Xena--" Gabrielle said and then stopped. A tear slid down her
cheek. "I should have been here for you," she finished in a whisper.
"You were here," Xena said softly. "Your love was here, and that's
what saved me. Now blow out the candles and come to bed. I'm tired."
Gabrielle smiled and followed the warrior's instructions. She lay on
her back and looked over at Xena. "Do you want me to hold you?" she
"Yes," Xena whispered. She rolled carefully onto her side and moved
over into Gabrielle's embrace. With her head on the bard's chest, she
could feel the warm skin against her cheek and hear the familiar
heartbeat. "I've missed this," she said softly.
"So have I."
Xena nestled closer against her lover's body and then relaxed.
"Lydia said you would come back, but I didn't believe her," she said.
"I thought I had lost you forever."
"No, I'm afraid you can't get rid of me as easily as that," Gabrielle
murmured and used her free hand to smooth the hair back from Xena's
"I guess not," the warrior mumbled sleepily.
Neither of them spoke for a time. The throbbing in Xena's head
gradually lessened and she began to feel as if her body were floating
gently, somewhere far away from pain.
"Xena, I love you so much," said Gabrielle.
The warrior heard, but could not answer. She had already been
claimed by sleep . . . a sleep so peaceful and pure that it could only
hold the sweetest of dreams.
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