Xena and Gabrielle were starting the third week of their journey south from Hiratha. It had been two months since Travus found them at the side of the lake in Traka. Thanks to the grateful generosity of the townspeople of Hiratha they had a small horse-drawn wagon, pulled by a placid chestnut mare. Gabrielle was walking well now, but tired very easily, which occasionally resulted in her producing a frustrated and creative curse, which often resulted in Xena smiling and enjoying her bard’s returning and expanding way with words.
There was a little more trouble with writing, as Gabrielle still had very limited capability with her injured right hand. She had tried to the point of tears to write with her left hand, but since the communication between mind and word was so disordered, adding a new hand to the procedure proved too overwhelming.
Dorothea had silently watched this battle. Then she used her sewing skills, and one day brought out something that looked like a leather glove, made of alternating stiff leather and strips of sinew. When the glove was fit over Gabrielle’s right hand, there were two small loops between her index and middle fingers that she could securely fit a quill into. This let her use her arm to move the quill while her fingers were relatively still.
At first the going was slow. Gabrielle would dip the quill in ink, scowl fiercely in concentration, take a deep breath, then s-l-o-w-l-y write a word. Or sometimes, part of a word. Then the painstaking process would repeat until sweat was beading on her forehead and her shoulder started to shake. She would still keep going, but Xena was usually there to gently still the hand, and kiss the stubborn woman on the head.
Today, they had stopped by a river to eat and wait out the hot noontime of summer. Xena woke up to a dance of sun and shade as she lay on a hand-woven blanket under a cypress tree. After she cleared some of the dull confusion after this rare midday nap, she rolled over to see how her companion was faring.
They had rigged a miniature folding table for the bard to practice on, and this was set up under a pear tree at the edge of the river. Xena half expected to see the blonde had settled down for a nap of her own. Instead, what she saw compelled her to jump up and scramble over to her companion.
The shade had moved well away from the bard, but she was still bent over the small desk, the hot sun was burning right down on the blonde head and Xena had seen the flushed red face, taut features and both shoulders were hunched and shaking.
Xena gently put her hand on the arm that wasn’t writing.
Dulled green eyes in the red-hot face turned to look at her.
“Nuh dun” was the thick-tongued answer.
“Okey-dokey.” Xena reached over and pulled the quill out of the glove, pulled the glove off and moved the table away.“Sweetheart, you’re too hot. We need to cool you off, ok?”
Gabrielle seemed to be looking around for something. Then she saw the quill off to her side and reached for it.
“Ah, ah, ah,” Xena warned mildly. She grabbed the quill and tossed it like a dart into the tree. “First we cool the bard off.” She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle’s waist and stood up, pulling both of them upright.
Xena had started sweating in the hot sun. She noticed that Gabrielle was hardly sweating at all. As soon as the addled writer stood up, her eyes rolled upward. Xena didn’t waste any time. She picked her up, walked to the river and stepped into the water.
The river, fed from distant mountains, was running about half its usual depth, and was cool but not cold. Xena waded into the deepest spot, which came up to her thighs. She sat down slowly, carefully lowering Gabrielle into the water until she was half-floating, on her lap.
Xena started to lift up handfuls of water to drizzle over the overheated face and neck. “Honey, whatcha doin’?” Remember, you’re not gonna scare me anymore. Remember?”
The bard blinked and the green eyes looked at Xena with some of the haze gone.
“Oh!” Xena scooped up some water from the river and brought it up. “Here you go.”
Gabrielle reached up to hold Xena’s hand like a cup and drink.
“Wait, wait, honey, just a minute.” Xena got another handful which Gabrielle eagerly drank again. She looked at Xena with almost normal eyes.
“Gabrielle, honey, please be careful.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Gabrielle twisted in the water and buried her head in Xena’s shoulder. “I’ve lost my sense.”
Xena smoothed more water onto the golden hair. “Shhhh. You have all kinds of sense. Sometimes it just takes its sweet time showing up when you need it. But you’re working so hard. I’m so proud of you. You are worlds better than before, and getting better.
A petulant voice responded from her shoulder. “I’m better?”
“You know you are. Come on, look at me.”
The head rose obediently and the clear green eyes looked into the smiling blue ones.
“Gabrielle, I know…” Xena nodded encouragingly, “…I know that you are all right. You are my Gabrielle, you are the Gabrielle you were. You may not feel that or know that, but I know it. And you trust me.
Green eyes looked down, but the head nodded. “Yes.”
“Good. Ok. Are you feeling better?”
Head nodded again.
“Would you like to get out of the water?”
Gabrielle shifted in the water. She reached up and put her hand on the curve of Xena’s breast, which showed clearly through the now water-soaked tunic. “Will we, will we be…together again?” She didn’t look up.
Xena put her hand over the one close to her heart. “Love, we will, we will.” She was immediately tangled up in a gripping hug. She just held on. “We will.”
It was well into twilight. Gabrielle lay still in the half-light, her right hand in Xena’s lap, getting its daily massage.
“Mmm?” When no more was forthcoming, Xena looked up. “What?”
Gabrielle waved her good hand a little. “I just…I can’t tell if you’re ok. You came back. I wasn’t there. Everything was happening, and I couldn’t help you. Now I think that soon…I can.”
“Can what, love” Xena had resumed the gentle massage between the fingers.
“Mmm, I can be there for you, like I was. Not you having to…having to…do everything.”
Can I tell you something?”
“Honestly, Xena, you know you can.”
“I mean, can I tell you something and you will listen to me and believe me?”
Gabrielle nodded, understanding.
Xena took a deep breath. “When I was…gone, I was lost. I just let myself go away. It was hard. It was empty.” Her blue eyes lost their focus and her lids lowered, remembering. She was drawn back by a warm hand pulling on her arm. “Please come down here.” The bard pulled insistently and Xena uncoiled her legs and lay down on her side, facing Gabrielle.
Gabrielle ran her fingers through soft dark hair. “Tell me,”
“Honey, I don’t…”
“I just wanted to tell you that I think I went from being as empty and hollow a thing as can even exist -- nothing…I went from that to having so much. When they brought me back to the world, I thought ‘I don’t want this.’ And then, I found you again. You were the world. It was so clear.”
Gabrielle looked reflectively past Xena’s head. “What if I hadn’t been there? I could have died. What would you have done?”
Xena thought and answered as honestly as she knew. “I would have kept going, I think. Because I wouldn’t know how much…how much every minute can mean.”
“I could still die.”
Xena smiled. Now here was the thoughtful bard she knew. “Well, yes you could. We both could, we’ve done it before. I just want to be the one here for you. I want to be with you, no matter what. It is not a burden, It is the most joyful blessing of my life. Dorothea was right; I am the luckiest woman in the world.”
Gabrielle now looked directly into Xena’s eyes. “I missed you. It hurt me.”
“I know that now, honey, I’m sorry.”
“You’re back now.”
“I will always love you, Xena. All my life I will.”
They both lay quietly as the sun disappeared and the twilight blended into night.
“Why don’t you try a story?”
“You want a bedtime story?”
“Sure, why not.”
“Ok. Still have problems. Ok. Once there was a warrior…once there was a warrior and a bard….and they….”
“Nice subject matter, Golden One.”
Xena pursed her lips and rolled her eyes in innocence.
“Do you want a story?”
“Once there was…a warrior and a bard…”
And so the story began anew.
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