Summary - This story explores the feelings of both Xena and Gabrielle when Gabrielle is stuck down by an enemy which Xena cannot protect her from. Although this is ultimately a story about courage and survival, it does deal with the effects of breast cancer, both physical and psychological, and should perhaps be avoided by anyone likely to be upset by this. There is some mild subtext, but this comes second to the love and strength of the two women.
Fighting the effects
Part One : Xena : Living a dream
Gabrielle trudges up the shaggy hillside, thighs burning from the effort, boots slipping in the long, dark tufts of dewy grass. She digs the butt of her staff into the deep soil as she goes, hoping for extra leverage, determined to keep up her pace. She’s just about reached the crest of the hill and can finally pause, propped against her staff, out of breath but glowing from the exercise and the dry warmth of the afternoon sun.
Ahead of her, down the rolling grass bank of the hill and almost on the horizon, she can see a small town, its grey buildings clustered around a central point, smoke spilling out of chimneys here and there, cultivated fields spreading their way to East and West. She only has to take a moment to scan the empty grassland between herself and the settlement before she picks out a single moving figure, making steady progress towards her. Having recovered her breath in the clean, fresh air, she smiles, happy, and waits where she is only with the aid of no small amount of will power, breaking into a grin when the object of her attention starts up the hillside to greet her.
“Xena!” Exuberant as always, my young friend jogs over and embraces me. “It’s so good to see you again, I missed you!”
“Uh ha.” I let her cling to me, enduring almost being knocked off balance because I’m privately rather pleased by such a fond reception. “It’s only been a week, Gabrielle.” My tone is gently mocking, but indulgent too, and I give her a small squeeze before she lets go.
“A week and three days,” she corrects me. “I’m glad you’re back.” I roll my eyes, but it’s softened by a smile, and she laughs gaily and turns to start back along the crest of the hill. “How’d you get on? Is the King sticking to his word?”
I shrug lightly, setting off after her at a casual stroll. “Close enough.” I scan the landscape ahead, taking in the beauty of summer foliage set against a brilliant blue sky. I spot a suitable path and nod Gabrielle towards it. “He’d raised the taxes a little, but I soon set him straight on that.”
“I’ll bet you did,” she responds proudly.
“And what about you? How was the festival - you have a good time?”
The annual Athenian festival of bards was something that Gabrielle hadn’t wanted to miss. She’s been talking about it excitedly for weeks, and I can see that she’s practically bursting with the thrill of all that she’s learned. Personally, I would rather carry Argo on my back for a league than sit through a week of lectures on the history and art of storytelling, so I took the opportunity to check up on an old adversary. For someone who prides herself on being so independent and solitary - or at least, who used to - I’m surprised by how much I missed my companion, and I’m secretly happy to be reunited with her.
“It was incredible,” Gabrielle is enthusing, “I learned so much. They had storytellers from all over Greece there.”
“They did, huh?”
“And from further away too. There was this one travelling bard - Xena she was incredible - her style was so beautiful, it was almost poetry.” She gesticulates with her hands as she speaks, alternately sweeping them in front of her expansively then clutching them against her solar plexus.
“I’ll bet you were in your element.” I pick my way along the narrow, gravely path, pebbles crunching and shifting under my boots and tree branches brushing my shoulders. For once I’m glad that Argo isn’t with us - she doesn’t much care for uneven ground and enclosed spaces.
“I’ll never be able to write like that,” Gabrielle goes on, shaking her head and making wavy hair dance across her back.
“Sure you will.” We come to a fork in the path, and I’m distracted from the conversation by the need to push back a thick branch and make sure I’m choosing the right route. When memory fails me, I sniff the air, searching for the salty dampness of the ocean. It’s still some distance away, but my senses are acute and the smell of sea spray is nothing if not familiar to an ex-pirate. Confident, I start off down the Eastern pass.
“You think so?” Buoyed by my off-hand comment, Gabrielle grins and reconsiders, which makes me smile in amusement. “Maybe. With enough practice,” she decides, then is silent for a moment to contemplate this. “Can we come back next year? There’s so much I can learn here.”
Almost feeling the saltwater in my bones already, I look down to Gabrielle, thinking it only fair to give her a little attention. “If it makes you happy.”
My friend grins at me in silent thanks. Our arms brush together as we walk. “Of course, you could always come with me next time.”
“Don’t push your luck.”
I have my limits, and Gabrielle delights in testing them from time to time. She laughs at me, and we go on walking.
We could have gone on travelling a little longer than we do, until the sun dropped too low to see by, but we’ve made good time and the ocean is within sight on the horizon now. It’ll only take a short time to get to the dock and catch our boat in the morning, and if we go any further tonight we’ll run out of forest to camp in: that would mean staying at an inn, the luxury of which we can scarcely afford. So by way of compromise we scout out a good campsite in the dying hours of the afternoon, then walk down to the harbour village for supper at a tavern. Gabrielle calls this ‘going out for an evening meal’ and thinks us very civilised. I’m just pleased to have my belly full of meat pie, and don’t much care what she calls it. She continues her fantasy on our way back to the trees, no doubt still in a creative frame of mind from the festival.
Gesturing to the flask of ale in my hand, which we purchased from the tavern with our few remaining dinars, she says “This is very sophisticated of us, Xena, don’t you think? Having a glass of wine after our meal. It’s very... cultured.” She frowns. “Not sure I’ve ever had the pleasure before.”
Glancing sidelong at my companion with overt suspicion, I hold up the dark bottle and study it. “It’s not wine, it’s ale.”
“Remind me why we didn’t get wine?”
“Because we would have had to have pawned your staff to pay for it. Anyway, I don’t like wine.”
Gabrielle looks at me, always intrigued to learn some new snippet of information about my past or my preferences or my opinions. Admittedly, it’s scant pickings, because I’m not a great one for self-disclosure at the best of times. “You don’t?”
“Oh well,” she dismisses cheerfully, “maybe it’s for the best then. We could pretend it’s wine.”
I scowl. “But it’ll taste like ale.”
She tuts. “You have to use your imagination, Xena.”
I’ve never been entirely convinced that I have one. “I think you have plenty of imagination for the both of us,” is what I mutter out loud, and lead the way into the small clearing where we left our things earlier. The campsite is perched atop a rise in the hilly landscape and it feels safe and defendable. Not that there’s likely to be any danger, but you have to expect the unexpected: I don’t like being taken by surprise.
“Aren’t ale and wine the same thing though, really?” Gabrielle chatters on philosophically, coming to a halt by her satchel and placing her hands on her hips as if the conundrum were taking up most of her concentration. “Just... different grapes?”
Without the distraction of the uphill walk on top of a belly full of starch, I pause to regard her with exasperation. “Ale isn’t made from grapes, Gabrielle, it -”
“Well what is it made from, then?”
“From...” I shake my head, unable to believe I’m partaking in such banal conversation. “I don’t know, from ale, I suppose. Will you quit analysing and just pour?” I toss her the bottle, slinging it by its slender neck. “I’ve got a thirst on me like -”
“Okay, all right, I’ll pour it.” Probably knowing I’m about to make some unladylike statement and spoil our pretence of civility, Gabrielle acquiesces and sets about looking for the goblets.
“Great.” I unhook my chakram from my belt, weighing it absently in my palm. “I’m going to check the perimeter.” I set off with my usual self-discipline, even though the only use I’m likely to put my chakram to is cutting back foliage.
I stay close by, though, and listen to Gabrielle humming tunelessly as she lays out the bedrolls and finds a convenient place to stow her staff. I come across a large rock overlooking a steep grassy drop over the edge of our little hillock and sit to enjoy the view. Evidently there was a landslide some years previously which took the trees along with the mud into which they were anchored, and now the clearing offers a pretty panorama of the sun falling into the sea. Dozens of small boats are dotted along the horizon - just black splodges really - making their way into or out of the port. I watch them in unashamed contentment, the dying sun casting a honey-yellow glow over everything, glinting off the chakram as it lies on the rock beside me and the blade of the sword dug into the ground between my feet.
Gabrielle approaches me quietly, not wanting to disturb my enjoyment, although of course I heard her coming from some way back. She stands by my side and shares the view with me for a moment before speaking. “You like it here, don’t you.”
At length I turn from the horizon and take the goblet she offers me. “It feels good to see the ocean again.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle has no issue with seeing the sea, I know, it’s being on it that she’s not looking forward to: I can see it in the unconscious creasing of her brow.
I humour her with a smile and pat the rock beside me, signalling for her to sit down. “It’s not a long trip, Gabrielle: it’s just the fastest way back to Athens.”
“I know. It’s fine.” She sips at her ale. “I’ll live, I’m sure.”
She doesn’t sound very sure. “If we had Argo we could go across land, but I couldn’t bring her on the boat, she’d have gone greener than you.”
“It’s okay, Xena, honestly,” she pats my arm, reassuring me. “Like you said, it’s only for a few days. And I know how much you like sailing. You’re looking forward to it, right?”
I shrug - the closest I ever come to admitting excitement over anything - but my eyes stray back to the sea and I’m sure they must reflect the wash of the blue there.
We drink in silence for a while, shoulder to shoulder, until I’m done with my goblet. “Good ale.”
“Uh ha.” She studies the remnants of her drink. She isn’t much of an ale connoisseur, usually preferring water. “I’ll sleep well tonight.”
“Well there’s no rush in the morning. We don’t have to leave early.” My eyes are back on the horizon again and I’m distracted, but contentedly so, as engrossed in my memories and fantasies as Gabrielle can be.
“I saw a river on the way up: I’ll go bathe there in the morning, it’ll be my last chance for a few days.”
Pulled out of my happy reverie by Gabrielle’s preoccupation with our impending boat trip, I turn away from the ocean and regard her with a smile. Time to distract her, I think. “So, we’ve had our meal, had our drink: what else would a civilised evening involve?”
Gabrielle visibly brightens at this prompt. “Oh! Well...” She looks about her for inspiration, and I wait patiently for her to find it. “Of course, a good meal should always be followed by dessert. I don’t remember the last time I had dessert.” She closes her eyes, and I watch her fantasising about all the wonderful delicacies conceivable. Her imagination is such that I’m sure she is able to experience the pleasure of all those dishes, even the ones she’s never tasted, within the confines of her mind. I’m always in awe of her ability, and don’t rush her back to reality. “Can you remember? Our last dessert?”
“Erm... does fish count?”
“Then I can’t remember.”
She shakes her head. “Did the tavern have dessert? Like... cherry pie, or fried dumplings?”
I nod. They had both.
“Then why didn’t we... Oh,” she remembers, “the dinars.”
I nod resignedly. “The dinars.”
“Well surely we can rustle something up. I’d like to have dessert.” Impulsively she stands and begins to wander around the vicinity of the rock, searching, thinking. Pausing by a tree to give inspiration time to strike, she gazes down to her boots and apparently spots something at the base of the trunk. She frowns. “There are grubs here. We could have grubs, as a last resort.” She doesn’t look overly convinced as she gazes down at the wriggling white things feasting themselves on a cropping of fungus. “Have you ever eaten grubs?”
She turns back to look at me. “Did you like them?”
This apparently comes as no surprise to her, and she thankfully discounts that option, wandering back to sit beside me again.
C’mon Xena, I think, get busy. “If we were having your fancy meal, we’d follow it with educated conversation, wouldn’t we?” I heave my bones casually from my improvised seat and pull my sword from its resting place in the mud. “That’s more your department than mine,” I go on, “tell me about the festival. I want to hear more about that.” I stroll over to a tree, half listening to Gabrielle launching enthusiastically into a report of all she’s seen and heard in the last week. I gaze upwards, apparently idle, then turn my back on the tree, ready my sword in a nice two-handed grip, then slam the hilt backwards into the trunk. The slim tree shudders under the insult, and a large, reddish-orange fruit thuds to the earth at my feet. Perfect. I collect it casually and return to Gabrielle like a self-satisfied cat bringing home a mouse.
“What is that?” Gabrielle breaks off from her narration and turns her full attention to the fruit, which I balance on the rock between us.
“What sort of fruit is it?” Most impressed, she looks upward to search the foliage overhead, but apparently sees nothing more of interest up there. There are lots, actually, but to point them out would take away all my fun.
“No idea.” This much, at least, is true. “Saw a monkey eating one once, though, so figure it must be okay.” I move my chakram out of the way lest Gabrielle get ideas about using it as a culinary utensil - again - and heave up my sword. Having been fingering the blood-red splashes of colour on the smooth orange skin of the fruit, Gabrielle pulls her hand back sharply as I bring the blade down, slicing the top off the fruit and revealing a gooey pinkish centre.
Gabrielle takes up the colossal thing, propping it between her knees, and begins to investigate its innards as I studiously wipe my sword with a waxy leaf. I watch her sniff the treat experimentally, then scoop some of the creamy mush onto a finger and sample it. “It’s sweet! It must be very ripe. It’s good, Xena.”
I peer in, having a smell too, then try a little. It’s agreeable and fragrant, and my approval is clearly an indication to Gabrielle that our prize is safe to eat. We prop the fruit between us and share it, but it’s really too sweet for me and I don’t want very much, leaving Gabrielle to haul the thing back into her lap and scoop out the flesh messily with her hand.
She continues to recount her experiences at the festival until she reaches the moment when we met on the hill. “Of course, any convivial evening should be rounded off with a good story,” she concludes.
We both laugh at her lack of subtlety, and I make an exaggerated gesture for her to go ahead. “I’m all ears.”
By the time Gabrielle is done with her story the sun has set, and we turn in, positioning our bedrolls side by side. She curls onto her side and falls quickly into the dozy first stage of sleep, and I lie awake gazing at her back. Finally, despairing of myself for my procrastination, I reach out and touch a finger to her shoulder.
“Huh?” She heaves up on an elbow and turns to look at me.
“Missed you too,” I tell her sheepishly.
Gabrielle looks down at me with enormous understanding. She knows I missed her. That it has taken me all day to master the demons that keep me from showing too much emotion and to muster the ability the return the sentiment that she gave so freely and spontaneously on the hill doesn’t matter to her. She bobs down, encircling me lightly in an arm, and rewards me with a quick, sweet kiss to my temple. That done, she settles back to sleep, leaving me speechless from the lump of gratitude that has risen up in my throat and barely knowing what to do with the wash of kindness and acceptance that she has settled over me like a blanket. When I do sleep, it is soundly and well, because she is at my side.
I hardly notice the roll of the deck beneath my boots as I stroll the length of the sturdy old boat. I’ve spent so much time at sea over the years that my mind no longer even consciously registers the continual rhythmic bobbing, requiring me to pay attention to my balance only during the roughest weather. A soft gust of wind catches in the linen sail above and slaps it against the mast, the same wind stirring my hair about my shoulders. It’s a calm afternoon - perfect sailing weather - and the breeze guides the vessel effortlessly through waves brilliant white with reflected sunlight. Very few people are on deck, as most of the other passengers are below in the cabins where it’s cooler, playing cards or taking a nap, so I’m free to roam around as I please, alternately enjoying the isolation and imagining that I’m back in command of some tall ship, with a telescope slung at my waist, a rolled map in my hand, and the freedom of the oceans before me.
I’d be happy to stay at sea for long stretches at a time - it’s safer and more comfortable than a life of trudging across land - and if I only had myself to think about that’s almost certainly what I’d be doing. But I’d be travelling alone, I remind myself dryly, and look about me for Gabrielle. She isn’t a boat person, to put it mildly. Shielding my eyes from the afternoon sun, I notice my friend leaning against the side of the boat up at the aft, watching the wake disappear behind us. Probably she’s feeling sick. Again. She’s been unusually quiet all day, ever since she returned from the river this morning and woke me for breakfast: no doubt she’s been preoccupied with thoughts of the journey, too busy keeping her imagination at bay to engage in her usual chatter. Most likely she’s thought up the very worst scenario, her story-teller’s mind presenting her with images of tsunamis and shipwrecks, sea monsters and pirates, and now she’s having to convince herself that the smooth journey so far is a good sign, that nothing awful is going to happen after all.
I settle myself against the rail beside her. “Hey.”
I take a moment to gaze out across the gently undulating waves. “Think we’re gonna sink?”
She nods gravely. “Yes.” Despite her humour she looks tense and unhappy, and not comically so, as I’ve often seen her on sea voyages.
I feel for her: I shouldn’t tease. “How’s the stomach?”
She keeps her gaze on the horizon and scowls a bit. “Tolerable.”
“Well, not much longer, huh?” I try to comfort her. “You’ll live.” I lift a hand to touch at her back, rubbing soothingly over the crosshatched pattern of her green woven shirt. She usually responds positively to a gentle touch no matter what, usually smiles or presses closer in quiet appreciation, but now she just sighs and rubs a hand wearily over her face. It’s disconcerting to me, and I still my hand. “Anything else wrong?”
“No.” The answer comes too quickly, though, and I’m not reassured. I let go, no longer sure if my touch is wanted, and join her in gazing out to the shimmering line of the horizon, not sure what else to do.
Finally, and silently, I see her pull her eyes down and she turns toward me a bit without actually looking at me. I watch her wordlessly, frozen, as one would pause to watch a timid animal, fearful that any small movement might scare it away. Gabrielle visibly hesitates, then closes her hand over mine on the shiny wooden beam. I let her do what she wishes, forcing myself to watch and nothing more. Her small hand on mine feels unnaturally cool, the knuckles blanched white. A cold, hard, lump of a feeling settles in my belly: something’s wrong.
After a moment of thought, Gabrielle seems to make her private decision, and she squeezes my hand into hers and pulls it toward her. Cautious, I step closer and put an arm around her, wanting to show that she has my undivided attention. Without saying a word, or making eye contact, but with an expression so grave it would have been unimaginable only yesterday, she presses my hand against the warmth of her chest, pausing there for a breath before guiding my fingers under her tunic and over the soft flesh beneath.
Taken aback by this, and utterly perplexed, I stare at her intently. Her tender flesh is warm and firm against my palm, and she clings to my wrist fiercely. I’ve never touched her like this before - would never dream of it - and the shock of such unexpected behaviour almost makes me pull my hand back. I know, though, that Gabrielle would never do such a thing lightly: even now she’s bashful, and flinches at the contact that she initiated. Her flesh in my hand is soft and silken and beautiful, undeniably, but I have absolutely no idea what she wants of me.
“Gabrielle -” It’s a frightened whisper when it comes out, my breath stolen from me. “I don’t -”
But as I go to draw my hand back - apologetically but decisively - as it presses more firmly against the heavy swell beneath, I feel something. Something fundamentally and devastatingly wrong. A chill dashes through me, and all at once I understand what Gabrielle’s motive was.
She knows it too, and her eyes come pleadingly up to mine. “Xena...”
My fingers rest over the tiniest area of puckered, raised skin, the smallest bump of hardened flesh - flesh that just shouldn’t be there. The discovery is so profound that I pull my hand away almost in fear. I stare into her eyes, and I think that my shock only frightens her further.
We can’t deal with this here. Decisively I take her hand and pull her across the deck to the little staircase leading to the cabins below, barging past anyone who gets in the way. Once inside the small, hot, wooden room that we share I close the door and bolt it, as if to lock the awful discovery outside where it can’t get at us. I’m breathing more rapidly than the short walk across the deck merited, my pulse pounding somewhere behind my ears, mouth suddenly gone dry.
“When?” I manage to get out, my brain gone sluggish. “When did you find that?”
If anything Gabrielle looks to be the more composed of the two of us, in the moment it takes me to erect all the old shields around my heart and focus on the matter at hand. “This morning. When I was bathing in the river.” I notice that her hands are trembling with the adrenaline rush of this, but even so she looks composed, as if telling me about a problem will miraculously make it disappear. To Gabrielle, I’m infinitely knowledgeable and worldly, and she thinks I can’t be fazed by anything. She thinks that with me on side, nothing is surmountable. I pray to the Gods that I won’t have to prove her wrong.
The only way I can cope with all the cold, angry, frightened emotions that rush through me in this claustrophobic little cabin - the only way I cope with anything, really - is to let anger spur me into action. I will not allow myself to be a victim of paralysis - not in the battlefield, and not here on this boat.
“Gabrielle - I need to see.” I say it tactfully, sensitively, but leave no room for argument. “Come on.” I take her hand again, far more gently this time, and lead her over to her pallet, which is really just a wedge of shiny oak set to the floor with a narrow mattress on top of it. “Sit down.” I kneel in front of her.
In silence, in an atmosphere that has gone airless with tension, Gabrielle unlaces her green top, fingers clumsy on the cords, and shrugs the material back to her shoulders. She glances up to me briefly, acknowledges the smile I give her, then prefers to fix her gaze approximately on my shoulder, as if letting her vision lose focus will similarly distance her from the reality of this.
“I’m sorry, Sweetheart -” I wish that expressing apology changed what I have to do, but it doesn’t. Carefully, I slide my fingers against her torso, hoping that my hands aren’t too cold and wondering if I should have thought to warm them. I trace the upward curve of her slender ribs, feeling the barely controlled rate of her breathing, then let my fingers settle at the alien swelling. The lump is small, moveable, and apparently painless, but there is no denying its presence - or its impact. “Gabrielle, I’m...” But I trail off: what can I say?
“Xena.” She breathes the word, calmer now, as if resigned. When she looks down to me it’s almost with pity, as if she’s sorry for the effect this will have on me.
“Maybe it’s nothing,” I try hopefully, pressing experimentally on the lump, my palm brushing the heavy curve of her breast. “I mean, perhaps it’s just...” But it’s not a spot, or a blemish, or anything even faintly comparable, and we both know it.
“Xena, I’ve seen this before.” She covers my hand warmly with her own, showing that she doesn’t object to my touch. “My mother’s cousin had the same thing, and so did my aunt. I’ve seen it, Xena. It’s in my family. And now it’s in me -”
“Gabrielle, listen -”
“Xena, they died.” Her eyes lock with mine and I can’t look away. “They both died.”
“You’re not going to die.” I dismiss this angrily, tugging the green material back over her. “I don’t want to hear you talking like that.” What good will it do, being so negative? I refuse to think like that. I stand up, desperate for some movement, some action. “We’re going to get you to a healer, okay? As soon as we get back on dry land. We’ll sort this out. All right?”
It’s more of a demand than a question, but Gabrielle looks rallied, determined to be obedient, and nods.
I can only stand looking at her for a moment, feeling the anger drain from me and leaving behind a horrid, cold feeling in my chest. “It’s going to be fine.” She has to believe it - and so do I. I lean down to squeeze her shoulder, and then the hand that comes up to meet mine. “Everything is going to be fine.”
We don’t talk about the lump again. We don’t talk about anything: it’s hard to know what to say. At night when we turn in I want to say something, to offer some comfort, but she’s turned away from me and seems to be asleep, so I stay quiet. Both of us are preoccupied with our own thoughts: Gabrielle probably with worry and guilt, me mostly with anger. It’s only another full day of travel before we reach port. Seeing that I haven’t made any effort to pack up our meagre belongings, Gabrielle comes to join me in gazing out over a shiny wooden rail at the bustling scene below. Passengers are offloading their bags whilst the crew deal with the cargo, handing some over to the waiting traders and taking on new supplies for the next leg of the journey.
“Xena?” She touches lightly at my elbow. “If we don’t get our things together soon we won’t be able to go ashore here.”
I don’t shift my eyes from the dry sand below, people scurrying about across it like ants. “We’re not going ashore here.”
“Oh?” Understandably wrong-footed by this, she leans an elbow on the railing. “Why? This is where we left Argo -”
“Argo will be fine where she is for a bit.” She just goes on looking at me, and I grudgingly accept that to keep my emotions locked up away from myself is one thing - to keep them locked away from her is another: it’s not fair. I turn to look down at her, to give her the attention she deserves. “Gabrielle, we need to get you to a healer, a good one. This is a small town,” I gesture to the port below, “we don’t know anyone here.” Seeing that she looks upset, I wrap an arm around her and pull her close to me, stroking her hair. “We need to get you home.” Amphipolis is probably too far inland, although it would have been my first preference, but at least in a familiar part of Greece I’ll know where to find people I can trust.
I feel her nod. “Okay, Xena.” She takes a deep breath, then manages a smile to show she agrees with me.
“Okay.” I bundle her up into a proper cuddle, wishing I could somehow protect her better from this. “C’mere.” When I kiss the top of her head she chuckles a little and settles her arms around my waist. “I’m with you, all right?”
She rests her cheek on my shoulder as we watch the goings on of the port together. “You always are, aren’t you.”
“Huh. I’m glad.”
The little boat is on a tight schedule, and we don’t stay docked for long. Soon we’re on our way again, skirting the shoreline but far enough out not to be troubled by landmasses or sea-reefs. There’s little else to do except observe our progress from a shady spot at the aft of the boat: our cabin is small and airless and both of us feel better up on deck. For once, Gabrielle doesn’t complain of her usual seasickness - she has other things on her mind. We’re settled in our regular spot - Gabrielle standing and gazing out to the horizon and me sitting by her with my back propped against the rails - when there is a sudden snapping sound and a loud thud, and the deck planks vibrate slightly beneath my outstretched legs. I brush myself off casually and get up.
Gabrielle clutches the wooden beam for support. “What was that?!”
I watch the motley crew emerge from their siestas and go running about the deck in a rather ineffectual and uncoordinated fashion. “Sail rope’s snapped,” I observe.
Gabrielle follows my nod to the large crumple of white linen on the deck, a woven rope hanging loose from a pulley. “Oh. Is it a big problem?” The sailors gather around the fallen sail, pulling off their grubby caps and scratching at their balding heads.
I shake my head. “No. Not if you know what you’re doing.”
She looks at me pointedly. “Do you? Know what to do?”
I return her gaze, letting her know that I take the less than subtle hint. Another mess for me to sort out. I stroll casually over to the men, watching their disorganisation for a while with hands on hips. “I can help you out with that, if you want,” I say.
The Captain, who is only slightly less portly than the rest of his crew, spares me a glance. “That’s real cute of you, Lassie, but this is men’s work.”
Fair enough. You can lead a mule to water....
I shrug and return to Gabrielle. “Their loss. I could’ve done that blindfolded.” Actually, I have done it blindfolded, but it was part of a dare and I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve spent years aboard ships and can clamber about masts and rigging effortlessly, I’ve never had any notion of vertigo. “Still, if we’re gonna be anchored here for a while we might as well make the best of it. I’m going for a swim: you fancy it?” I’m going stir crazy and need some exercise.
“I’m not really in the mood,” Gabrielle tells me, “you go.”
“Sure?” I hate to leave her behind, but swimming in the ocean is one of my favourite past times, and I’m already shrugging off my extraneous clothing and tugging my gauntlets from my arms.
Gabrielle laughs and takes each item from me as I discard it. “Yes. Now go on.”
So I give a snarl of excitement, turn on my heel, spring up on the rail, and dive in. The surface breaks beneath my hands with only the smallest splash and I slide below into the cool, quiet, darkness of the ocean. Pressure closes in around my body, against my ears, and I hang, suspended, my body temperature dropping to that of the water, heart slowing, eyes adjusting. I’ve always been able to hold my breath for inordinately long periods of time. Down here nothing can reach me, I feel separated from reality, I’m safe. All that matters - all that I can spare the concentration for - is the water and the air clutched into my lungs. I don’t have time to think about Gabrielle, or what might happen if she...
Or at least, that’s the theory. Gabrielle is going to be fine, I tell myself firmly, so quit fretting. I kick out my legs and drive myself up to the surface, breaking through into the intense sunlight and taking a welcome lungful of air. I toss the hair from my face and scull my hands across the water, circling my legs to stay afloat. I turn, making sure that I know where the boat is, keeping an eye on the bumbling progress of the crew. They’ve sent a boy up the mast - the only one of them thin enough to make the climb - but he isn’t strong enough to haul up the new rope, and he looks decidedly unwilling to let go with either hand. I roll my eyes. Plenty of time, then.
Gabrielle likes to swim, and I think to myself that she’d like it out here. A shoal of small fish swim by, minding their own business. Too small to eat, unfortunately. Of course, Gabrielle wouldn’t see it that way, if she were here: she’d admire the pale orange colouring of the little things, the way they swim together as if they were a single entity, undulating, at one with the waves. Gabrielle would notice these things. I look up to the silhouetted figure, as she stands and watches me. I give a little wave, which she returns. Probably she isn’t up to swimming, probably the movement of her arm would give her some pain now, what with...
Damn. So much for forgetting. I scoop salt water into my hands and splash it over my face, trying to focus. Gabrielle is too young for anything dreadful to happen, surely? We’re worrying over nothing. I’ve seen some God-awful wounds in my time - I’ve inflicted half of them - this one is so small, so innocuous, just the tiniest swelling beneath her skin. It can’t be the killer that she fears it to be, some toxic, evil, growing thing - can it?
Suddenly I feel cold, and the expanse of water, the vast nothingness beneath my feet, threatens to overwhelm me. I kick out my legs and begin a hasty front crawl back to the rope ladder and the safety of the boat. Once on board I stride back to the cabin, for once welcoming its close walls and lantern light. Drying off with a scrap of cloth, I tug a trusty old map from my bag and spread it out on a bench. I’m so absorbed in studying the familiar, faded lines that I don’t notice that Gabrielle has followed me until she speaks.
“What are you doing?”
I’m really busy right now. I need to think. “Huh?”
She comes to stand by me, regarding the map casually. “What are you looking at?” she repeats mildly.
My decision made, I straighten. “Gotta get you to a good healer, Gabrielle.” No more messing about, no more denial: we have to face this thing head on and fight it. “There used to be a guy someplace around here,” I tap at the map with a finger. “I remember him from when I was young, he had a good reputation. He was pretty old even then, I doubt he’s still around, but he had a son who followed him into medicine: we should be able to find him.”
Gabrielle looks away from the map and fiddles with a loose cotton on her shirt. “Xena, it’s no big thing. If you had plans...”
“Don’t be crazy.” I roll up the map, with more haste than care. “Nothing is as important as this right now.”
“I didn’t mean to upset you, over nothing.”
“Your health isn’t nothing.”
She looks awkward, and won’t meet my eyes. “It’ll be fine, Xena, really.” She says this without much conviction, but then seems to rally herself and forces a smile. “I’m being melodramatic - as usual.”
I’m not reassured - not at all - but I don’t want to worry her any more than she is already. I reach out and touch at her cheek, and I think I see her smile become a little lighter, more genuine. “Guess that’s a writer’s prerogative, huh?”
“I suppose it is.”
It’s only a day longer before the boat approaches land again, and we spend most of this time in what is now our customary fashion: Gabrielle at the rail nursing her stomach, me sitting by her feet enjoying the quiet and the roll of the ship on the waves. Once land is well and truly in sight I head off to pack our belongings, eager to get going.
Gabrielle, on the other hand, is decidedly unenthusiastic, and is taking a lifetime to arrange what little she has into her satchel. “Gabrielle,” I implore her when I see that she still has all her belongings spread out on her bunk, “we have to be going.”
“There’s no hurry,” she insists whilst closely inspecting a skirt for any splitting at the seams, “the ship will be docked for a while, while they unload.”
I’m not good with impatience at the best of times, and this isn’t the best of times. “Yes, but the sooner we get moving the sooner we get you sorted, and that’s all I -”
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.” She busies herself with her folding, not looking up to see me waiting expectantly for her to continue. “We don’t need to worry about it anymore: I must have been mistaken, it’s nothing after all, so...” She shakes her head sharply, tossing hair over her shoulders.
I’m stopped in my tracks by this news, and stand starring at her with hands on hips. “But -”
“I overreacted, Xena, I’m sorry.” Skirting around her bed to collect another garment to pack, she gives my arm a reassuring pat. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”
I feel as if my brain is fuzzy, bracing itself for the elation that hovers just out of reach. “What do you mean: has it gone?” I feel the tension begin to lift from my shoulders. A mistake! It has to be the best news I’ve had in a long time. Maybe now we can take a leisurely walk into town, maybe take some time out to fish...
“Well, not gone, no, but I realised it isn’t anything, you know. So let’s forget about it.”
The weight settles right back. Gabrielle isn’t in the least bit cheerful, despite her fixed smile. Damn it. “Gabrielle,” I say carefully, “if that lump is still there then we can’t just forget about it, we have to -”
“Xena, I don’t want to talk about it, okay?” She pushes back her hair with irritation as she furiously loads up her bag. “I don’t want to think about it. Can we just drop this?”
I swallow, my throat gone dry. “No.”
“You know how boats make me feel: I’ve just been a little stressed, that’s all. I’ll be fine when we’re back on dry land,” she rambles.
As she makes her way back around the bed I catch hold of her arm, and don’t let go even when she turns furious eyes on me. “Show me.”
“Show me then, if it’s nothing.”
She laughs this off, subtly trying to pull her wrist from my fingers. “No, don’t be silly.”
“Will you let me go?” She twists her arm away and I can’t hold onto her without hurting her. “For goodness’ sake.” Tutting, she goes back to the bed, taking up her staff from its resting place propped against the wall.
Before she has a chance to inspect the leather binding for loose ends I take it off her and drop it on the bed. “Stop it. Stop avoiding this.”
“It’s nothing! Why won’t you just let go?” Her cheeks have gone blood red: she’s upset because I have her backed into a corner, but I’ve no intention of going anywhere.
If she wants to get mad, I can more than match it. “Stop lying to me!” I grasp her hands in a desperate effort to comfort her, to reach her, but she takes it as restraint and yanks back.
“Go away! Just... go away...” Her protest has no conviction this time, and, exhausted by fear, she stumbles back against the wall and covers her face with her hands.
Take a breath, Xena, I tell myself, take it easy. “Now,” I tell her, my attention only on her, my world full only with her, “now you let me see.”
She won’t look up, but after a pause she nods minutely: both permission and surrender. When I gently pull her hands down, out of the way, she takes to gazing vaguely in the direction of the door, her chin raised in defiance. Furiously fighting back tears, I imagine she’s letting herself fall into some fantasy world, indulging herself in make-believe to escape the awful reality of this.
I’m perfectly aware of the gravity of this too but I don’t have the luxury of wishing myself away from it. Painfully sorry, I pull away the cords of her top and ease aside the green material with my fingertips. I find myself muttering to her - just soft, meaningless sounds - trying to calm us both. I take her arm and lift it away from her, then see it, awful and alien. The lump seems hideous to me, even more so than last time, and the shock of it takes my voice from me. “Gabrielle -” I sound husky in my own ears, “this is bigger.”
She closes her eyes, her fantasy well and truly over with. “I know.”
I run my fingers over the hardened lump, fascinated and horrified in equal measure, as if I were a child seeing a dead creature at the side of the path. Experimentally I press the flesh inwards: it’s moveable, but it doesn’t disappear. What is it?
Have I ever been this frightened?
I’m immediately sorry for everything and pull her close to me, kissing first the cool fingers that hold mine and then her hair and cheek and anywhere else I can reach. “It’s all right -” I soothe her emphatically, hastily pulling her clothes back around her. “Shh now, it’s gonna be all right.” It has to be all right.
She’s immediately soothed my presence and my love, and the tears don’t fall.
She doesn’t say she believes me.
By the time we’re packed up the ship’s horn blasts a long, low note and I feel the judder of the deck as we anchor up. Time to disembark. I haven’t handled things very well up til now and I’m determined to make amends. I take Gabrielle’s bag for her as we walk down the wooden ramp to shore, then reach for her hand to help her step safely onto land. It’s silly really, because she’s perfectly capable of getting off a boat, but she glances up at me with quietly amused despair and takes my hand, and I know she understands my motives. Laugh at me all you want, Gabrielle, I think as we leave the boat, just don’t ever stop showing me that smile.
Once we’ve gotten away from the crowds at the port Gabrielle pauses, peering down at her boots in the reddish mud.
“You all right?” I ask her.
“Yes - I’m just thinking how good it feels to be back on dry land!” She shakes her head and laughs almost in despair at herself.
It’s not so much dry land as rather waterlogged, boggy land, as the earth here is mostly composed of clay and iron, but I understand her meaning and don’t hurry her, letting her enjoy her simple pleasure. I search in my bag for a skin for us both to drink from. “No more sea voyages for a while, I promise.”
“I’m going to hold you to that.” She takes the skin when I offer it and drinks eagerly.
“Yeah it’s great. Finally.”
She couldn’t hold anything down on the boat and has lived on water and dry bread since we set sail. “We need to get some proper food into you, then,” I think out loud.
“Huh, and how are we going to afford that?”
It’s a good question, one I’ve been giving considerable thought to, but I don’t want her worrying over it. “Gabrielle, look around you.” I try to distract her with humour, and we go on walking. “Fish on one side, deer and rabbits on the other: what more could you want?”
She smiles a bit in acknowledgement of my effort, but is too smart to be reassured. “I’m serious, Xena. The extra days aboard ship cost us more than we budgeted for. We have no money.”
I’ve never ‘budgeted’ for anything in my life, and I don’t intend to start now. If you need more money, you get more money. By whatever means necessary. “You let me worry about that.”
“A good healer is going to be expensive.” This quietly, her eyes still firmly on her boots.
“And what’s the alternative, huh?” I’m immediately sorry for snapping, and soften my words by stopping to clutch a hand to her shoulder and make her face me. “We’ll manage. I’m not taking you to some travelling fair to have a gypsy woman bless you.”
It isn’t a serious suggestion and Gabrielle humours me, regarding me with the gentle understanding that is so characteristic of her. “Might be worth a try,” she shrugs, teasing.
“No.” I cup a hand to her cheek, just fleetingly, and she presses her face against my palm, her eyes closing. I know she’s afraid, brave though she is. We both are. But nothing bad is going to happen, I won’t let it. “No witchcraft.”
She nods and smiles and we go on walking as if nothing had happened. “She might give me a lucky rabbit’s foot. I always wanted one of those.”
“The witch. The gypsy woman.”
I scowl, thinking a lump of bleeding carcass around her neck would be singularly unattractive. “I could get you a rabbit’s foot.”
“Would it be lucky?”
“Well then, it’s hardly the same thing...”
I have to concentrate on getting us into town and don’t fully engage in the conversation, even though it would probably be more therapeutic for Gabrielle if I did. For now, finding the healer is my priority. The image of the map is imprinted on my mind, and combining that with the vague memories I have of trips here as a child I’m able to find the path without too much problem. It’s only when I feel confident that we’re on the right route that I notice Gabrielle has gone quiet, and I try to reassure her. “The healer’s name is Lycos. He’s a good man. If he’s anything like his father he’ll have a steady hand and a fair heart.”
“That’s good,” she replies dutifully.
“I’d trust him above anyone else.”
She just smiles in reply, but it’s forced and non-committal.
It’s surprising how little things have changed here: I didn’t come often, perhaps once or twice a season on errands with my brother, but the narrow, winding paths are familiar to me, with their wonky little buildings crammed in on both sides, and I know where I am. It’s a busy, bustling town, thanks to the nearby port, and home to hardworking folk who follow the same routine for generation after generation just to earn enough to live. I remember as a child thinking the winding streets to be perennially dark, no matter how bright the sun, as the closely packed buildings - sometimes two or even three stories high - always cast the cobbles below into shadow. It’s market day today, and everyone is doubly busy, lugging their wares to and from the stalls. A couple of times I have to ask for directions to be sure I’m headed the right way, and am relieved to find that everyone knows Lycos and can point us to him.
The land here is infuriatingly bumpy and it feels as if we are always walking up or down hill as we negotiate the little streets. I’m used to the open space of farming villages like Amphipolis and Poteidaia, and it feels claustrophobic to me here, I don’t like it. I guess it’s what they call ‘the big city’. Water runs constantly from somewhere along the gutters, carrying with it every now and again a lettuce leaf or spoiled onion discarded at the market. At the top of yet another hill we find a street with fewer houses and more businesses, all with pointed wooden roofs. Through one window we see cakes stacked up waiting to be bought. Next door to this is a shoesmith. I scan the signs until I find the one I’m looking for.
“Here, Gabrielle. This is it, I remember.” Glad to find the familiar frontage of the healer’s surgery, I stride over and push open the door. It’s not until I’m almost through that I think to look back to Gabrielle. “You ready for this?”
She takes a deep breath and forces a smile. “Of course. Let’s go.”
“Good Girl.” As we go inside I rest a hand on her shoulder. I’m with you, Gabrielle.
There is a bell above the door and it tinkles, summoning a man who has calm eyes and stands regarding us expectantly. He doesn’t speak, but I know it’s Lycos: he was a man of few words even when I was a child. I remember him being younger, of course, and now he has filled out to be slightly portly and sports a closely cut, neat beard on a face which has matured into the charismatic, kind features of his father. His hair is a shade or two lighter than mine and is just starting to thin out on top. A few more years, I think fondly to myself, and you’ll be grey like your father, too.
I step forward to greet him. “Lycos.”
Lycos lifts his chin a little and studies me. “You’re not from this town, Warrior, and yet you’re familiar to me.”
“My name is Xena. I’m Cyrene’s child. I knew your father.”
He nods slowly. He was never an animated man, his movements always precise and economical. “Xena of Amphipolis. You used to come here with your brother. That was a long time ago.”
“It was,” I concede. He was a kindly and attentive man all those years ago, even as a quiet apprentice under his father’s tutelage, and I’m glad that he hasn’t changed. “I’m afraid I haven’t come here on a social visit. My friend is sick: we need your help.”
I introduce Gabrielle, watching his eyes float serenely down to her, and he listens intently as she explains everything to him. She seems to find it easy to talk to him - easier even than it was for her to tell me - and it’s a credit to his bedside manner that she’s so at ease. She’s calm and articulate and I’m proud of her: in her position I’m not sure I’d be as composed.
When she’s done Lycos goes on standing solemnly with his arms crossed over his chest, and I can’t bear it. “Well?”
He takes his time before speaking, then addresses Gabrielle. “You were right to be concerned. If nothing is done the disease will spread, as it did with the relatives whom you mention. You were wise to come: this is not a trifling matter.”
I flush cold and for a second I actually wonder if I might faint, although I can’t remember ever having done so before - I can’t feel my legs beneath me, and my heart has decided to take on a thundering pace. I instinctively look to Gabrielle and she does the same before pulling her eyes back to Lycos. She’s gotten too much like me: she knows when there’s room for emotion and when there isn’t. Right now, there isn’t.
“What will you do?” She asks him steadily.
“Remove the growth.”
“Will it work? Will you be able to...” she seems to stumble over the word “remove it all?”
“From your description, most likely yes.”
I hate not knowing all the particulars, I’m awfully impatient, always have been. I speak up. “Then that’ll be the end of it, right? This will be over with.”
Lycos looks back to me but takes his time, not allowing himself to be affected by the rising emotion in this narrow little hallway. His voice is even, quiet and patient, but not without kindness. “In medicine, nothing is certain, nothing is exact.” His eyes return to Gabrielle and his expression takes on more sympathy, although I doubt she notices it. “There is always a chance of recurrence. But if all goes well, the chance is small.”
“Let me get this straight -” Gabrielle holds out her hands as if wanting to hold on to something - anything - for support. “If I don’t let you do this, I’m going to die, right?”
I can’t stand to hear her talk like that. “Gabrielle,” I dismiss angrily, “you’re not -”
But she presses a hand to my arm and quietens me with a gentle “Xena -” Although she’d deny it, she’s always been by far the stronger of the two of us, far braver, and faces terrors that I shy away from. “I need to know.” Her hand squeezes gently at my wrist, and she gives me an encouraging pat before going on. “Is that right, Lycos?”
The Healer nods.
“Well then, I have no choice.” She says this almost as if it comes as a relief to her, but then she quietens, and when she speaks again she’s far less sure. “Xena - the dinars, I don’t think...”
She doesn’t need to finish. I gaze into her eyes when they come up to meet mine. We don’t have any dinars.
I open my mouth to speak, to find some way of dealing with this - I refuse to be made powerless, I refuse to be a victim, to give up, to surrender - but Lycos is already speaking. “Your health will suffer if there is too great a delay,” he tells Gabrielle. “My father would not have charged someone in need of his care. Neither will I. We will proceed: come, Gabrielle.” And he disappears through a heavy, ornate curtain which hides the room behind.
This is all so sudden and I still feel dizzy - it’s only the brush of Gabrielle’s arm against mine that keeps me grounded. I look at her and see her naked apprehension, but it’s combined with her characteristic determination. I can only stand dumbly as she takes my hand and considers her words in silence for a moment. “Xena, come with me? I don’t want to be on my own in there: will you stay with me?”
I’m enormously relieved and humbled that she would ask, and pull her into a cuddle. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” I kiss her hair, holding her suffocatingly to me. “I won’t leave you for a second, okay? Not a second.”
A smile - a genuine one, this time. “Okay.”
I know we have to go, to get on with this, but I take a moment to hold her at arms length and be sure I have her attention as I fix on those ocean-green eyes of hers. “Don’t be frightened. We’ll get through this - together.”
“Together,” she echoes, then turns away, as if drawing back into herself, away from the horror of what is inevitably to come.
We go through the curtains into a large room. It’s surprisingly dark, considering a surgeon needs good light, as the walls, floor and ceiling are all composed of shining mahogany, but there are candles flickering in the centre of the room, and pale light washes in from a window in the far wall. There is no fancy furniture, which makes the place feel somewhat stark, but I figure either Lycos can’t afford more or he doesn’t want his soft furnishings getting spattered with his patients’ blood. There are bookcases here and there loaded with his father’s textbooks, and wooden cabinets to house instruments and potions. Unlike most hospices and the like I’ve come across, this place feels calm and restful, and I trust Lycos with Gabrielle.
The Healer motions his patient to a pallet. Covered with grey blankets, the bed isn’t raised more than a hand off the floor, and it occurs to me that this is actually quite sensible: at least if your patient is already on the floor they don’t have far to fall when they start thrashing around with pain. The thought is far too grim, though, and I push it away. I touch Gabrielle’s shoulder and encourage her to go to Lycos, who hands her a white sheet to cover herself with. Clutching it to her, she removes her shirt and lies down. When Lycos kneels by her he’s wearing a starched apron, and busies himself with righting the blankets under her legs to make her comfortable.
Damn well wish I knew what to do with myself.
Lycos takes up his position by Gabrielle’s shoulder and speaks to her, smiling kindly as he does so. It’s the most expressive I’ve seen him, and he wins her full attention. I don’t hear what he says, but his tone is gentle. He lifts the sheet back, just enough to see, and Gabrielle turns her head to look at me in muted horror, as if in the hurry of all this it hadn’t occurred to her that he might actually have to look at her. It isn’t vanity, it’s... vulnerability, fear. I drop down to my knees and take her hand, clutching it tightly to my chest and cushioning her elbow in my lap.
“It’s all right,” I tell her, with far more conviction than I feel. “It’s okay, Gabrielle.” I stroke her arm soothingly, feeling the fine blonde hairs there, the blood pounding at her wrist. I see Lycos scowling in concentration, and want to know what he’s thinking. “Well?”
“It is quite as she said,” he tells me gravely, taking up a square of white cloth and folding it neatly into a long strip, “there is no choice.” From then on he quite rightly turns his attention to Gabrielle and addresses her. “Gabrielle, it is vital that you not move your arm during this, do you understand?” Even as he speaks he lifts her arm from its resting place on her belly, lies it at an angle by her head, and begins to bind her wrist to a stout post in the floor that I only now notice. I’m privately horrified at the thought of her being tied like this, but I understand why he must do it and so say nothing. Gabrielle just looks resigned, and doesn’t protest.
When Lycos reaches for the other arm it’s just too much, and I clutch it to me protectively. “I’ll hold her.”
He considers this for beat, then nods. “Then we shall begin. Gabrielle -” He takes a small dish and stirs the contents. “ - I will do what I can for you but there will be pain. This will help.” He holds the mixture to Gabrielle’s lips and she drinks, scowling at the taste and coughing a bit as it burns down her throat. From the smell of it there are a few herbs in there but it’s mostly alcohol, potent and fierce.
Lycos selects a scalpel. It’s time to distract Gabrielle’s attention, there’s no need for her to watch this. “Gabrielle -” I call her softly, then cup her face in a hand and turn her head toward me. I smile down at her. “Hey, you look at me, okay?”
She nods, her eyes fixed on mine. “Okay.”
“Good.” I give her fingers a squeeze and pull them to my lips to kiss them, earning myself a soft smile. Lycos cleans her flesh with more of the alcohol - the room seems thick with the smell of it now - and I begin to feel sick. I wish there were some way to avoid this. Wounds heal - I of all people know that - but for this to be inflicted on someone as innocent as Gabrielle seems terribly unfair. If I could take her place, I would.
Wordlessly, Lycos takes another strip of cloth and places it between Gabrielle’s teeth: something to bite on. Their eyes communicate and she knows what’s coming. It seems to be the action that brings the reality of this home to Gabrielle, and her eyes dart to me in sudden alarm, her breath coming quick, heart racing.
Lycos makes the first cut, deep and bold, and Gabrielle screams. My heart seems to seize up in my chest at the awful sound of it, stunning me into paralysis.
Lycos goes on with his work.
Gabrielle goes on screaming.
Horrific, chilling sounds, over and over, muffled by the gag but none the less piercing for it. She arches up as best she can with both arms held fast, and beads of sweat break at the base of her neck. She’s flushed deep pink and she’s breathing so fast I worry if her lungs will hold out.
Come on, Xena!
“Gabrielle, Sweetheart, listen -”
The agony and shock is written on her face, her eyes alternately wide with terror and squeezed shut with intolerable pain, the muscles in her neck tense cords. I feel like a dagger has been driven up through my belly and into my throat.
“Gabrielle, it’s all right, hush now -” I caress her face, bending close. “Take it easy, shh -”
She doesn’t seem to notice me. She writhes like a snake caught in the jaws of a beast and tosses her head until she can spit out the gag. The screams turn to desperate growls of pain that don’t even sound as if they come from her. Tears squeeze out from the corners of her eyes but she doesn’t even sob, just goes on making these awful guttural cries that stop my heart from beating.
“Gabrielle, you need to breathe -”
Lycos speaks - doesn’t raise his voice, or look up from his work - just speaks solemnly. “You need to calm her.”
So I take Gabrielle’s face between my hands, careful to keep her arm tangled in my lap, and make her look at me. When I speak again it’s as firmly as I can manage. “Gabrielle, stop. Stop this.”
Her mouth remains open but at least she quietens enough to breathe. Her eyes are unfocussed, her gaze fixed on the ceiling, and I have to call her name insistently twice more before she’ll actually look at me. She makes a breathless gasp, all her terror and agony in one word: “Xena!”
“I’m here, it’s okay -” It’s not okay, of course, but I don’t know what else to say to her. I bob down and kiss her hot cheek beneath my fingers.
“I don’t... I can’t...”
“Just breathe,” I soothe, “just breathe now...”
Another strangled, high pitched cry through gritted teeth, and then she begins to pant, which at least gets some air in her lungs and seems to be a distraction from the pain. Her hand finds mine, cold and damp, and holds it so tightly I lose the feeling in my fingers. I look up to Lycos, not knowing what to do for the best, and without taking his attention from his work he nods toward the dish of alcohol.
I grab it and get a hand behind Gabrielle’s head to lift it a little. “Here, drink some more of this -” I hold the dish to her lips, but it makes her cough and I don’t know if she takes any down. She begins to cry in earnest, her face still flushed vivid pink, but she isn’t begging Lycos to stop, or cursing or bemoaning her fate: she’s the bravest soul I’ve ever known, and I lean down again to kiss her and stroke back hair that has gone dark with sweat. I swallow and gather all the strength I have. “Gabrielle -” I speak gently, but firmly, ignoring the heart-wrenching sound of her tears. “Now, you listen to me.” I hold her gaze, even when her eyes stray to Lycos. The cloths around him are bloody and I don’t want her to see. “You keep your eyes on me, you hear? Don’t look away from me.”
I say this as if I were commanding an army, so important is it to me, and Gabrielle swallows and nods, her eyes focusing. “All right, Xena.”
“Don’t even think about anything else except me. You do as I tell you.”
Another nod. There’s suddenly a worse pain and she flinches, her eyes widening further, but she doesn’t look away from me.
Now you’ve gotten her attention, Xena: how’re you gonna keep it?
“This is soon gonna be over, Gabrielle.”
“I promise. And...”
But tears roll over her cheeks again and I’m sure I feel a crack run through my heart. “Shh...” I wipe her face dry with my hand and softly kiss the path of the tears. “I’m here. Don’t be afraid.”
“It hurts, it -”
“I know, I know. Here, have some more of this -” I support her head again and get some more of the potent mixture into her.
“Don’t leave? Don’t go, I couldn’t...” The alcohol is taking effect, making her drowsy and delirious, and I’m glad.
“No: no, never.” I feel her hand curling at the back of my neck and pulling me closer, so I take the opportunity to wipe the wetness from my own face in the softness of her hair. I can feel the heat radiating from her.
“I love you, Xena -” The fever and pain has taken her breath and she speaks in a dry whisper. Her eyes have glazed and she looks detached and vacant. It’s a blessed mercy, and I’m careful not to jolt her out of it.
I catch her arm as it falls back into my lap, gaze into eyes that are watery and blue now. “I love you, my darling...”
Lycos catches my attention. “It is difficult to see. If you would?” He carefully presses against her flesh to illustrate his meaning. He’s obviously reached a delicate stage of the procedure - although mercifully he works at Gabrielle’s side and I can’t see the wound - and he needs the skin stretched taut. I fold the sheet back and do as he asks, cupping my hand gently to her breast to give him the clear working field he needs to do his stitching. Gabrielle pays no attention to us now, and although she still rolls her head and moans it’s more with delirium and inhibition than pain. She’s warm in my hand, heavy and unbelievably soft. She’s beautiful.
I snap back into focus. “Huh?” I ask her gently.
“Take me home.” Her small fingers, still damp and drained of colour, touch at my face. “I want to go home with you.”
I smile and look into her eyes, even though I’m not sure if she’s able to see me. “Just as soon as we get you better we’ll go anyplace you like.” She nods and smiles too, her eyes clearly too heavy to keep open any longer. “We can get some of those dumpling things you like. With the jam inside? Then find a pretty lake and go for a swim, work off some of the sugar, what do you say?” I’ve made her laugh, and I’m ridiculously pleased with myself.
“It’s you that likes the jam,” she slurs.
I laugh too and go to concede this, but suddenly a scowl crosses her face and she startles. The sleepy smile is gone and she’s trying to sit up, shoving and kicking at the blankets. “Hey, hey -”
“I can’t breathe, I can’t -” She clumsily tries to peel my fingers from her. The alcohol has taken away her inhibitions and she fidgets and tugs away the sheet.
When Lycos speaks I realise I’d almost forgotten he was here, so involved am I with Gabrielle and her suffering. “It’s all right.” He rubs his hands on a cloth. “It is done, let her sit. She has come through it, the wound needs only to be dressed.” He raises his voice a touch. “All is well, Gabrielle: sit, if you wish to.”
As soon as he unties her I haul her gingerly up and into my arms. The movement is obviously painful and she only has the strength now to whimper in response to it, but she clutches her good arm around me and nestles her face into my shoulder, her breathing calming almost at once. I mumble privately to her and rock her a bit, tidying the sheet about her: it would be important to her to be covered. Cradling her head to me as one would a floppy infant, I help Lycos with the bandage. “Did it work?” I need to know.
“The lump was small, well contained,” he assures. “She is young and healthy. If she is kept quiet and warm there is no reason why she will not be well.”
“Thank you -” My gratitude is enormous.
Almost reluctantly I ease Gabrielle away from me and take her face in my hands. “Gabrielle, it’s over, all right? You hear me? It’s over now.” I see her swallow, and push hair back from her face. “Have some more of this, it’ll help you sleep.” I hold the shallow dish for her and she drinks deeply, apparently no longer noticing the burn of the alcohol. She wipes her mouth with an arm then goes floppy, and Lycos takes her and lies her back down, checking the pulse in her throat as he does so.
“She has been very worried over this.” He gazes down into her face as a father would a child, and I too notice lines about her eyes that aren’t usually there. “She needs to rest. Take her through there -” He gestures to another curtained doorway at the opposite end of the room. “You’re welcome to stay until she’s recovered.” He gives Gabrielle’s shoulder a little shake and calls her name. When she stirs he is apparently satisfied, and gets up to tidy away his things.
Reluctantly I rally her and get her to her feet. She trusts me entirely and doesn’t question anything that I ask of her: she’s completely unsteady, but game for whatever I instruct. She’s covered by the bandages wound around her so I leave her shirt for now, and instead put my arms around her waist and encourage her numb feet toward the curtain.
As I usher Gabrielle through, Lycos calls my name and I turn back to him. “I would strongly recommend against letting her sleep outside tonight.”
He’s right, of course. Gabrielle has just had surgery, she can’t sleep out in the forest tonight or for a fair few nights to come. She needs to be inside, in the warm and dry, in a proper bed. I’d give Gabrielle anything she needed in an instant, without hesitation, but rooms cost money that we don’t have.
Her voice sounds tiny and I spin around and go to her, seeing that she’s dizzy and faint. “It’s okay,” I reassure, and get a good grip around her again to steady her.
This room, in contrast to the other, is small and cosy. There is still dark wood everywhere, but it’s furnished more comfortably, with tapestries on the walls and curtains at the window. It’s a rest area with a cushioned space on the floor, and it’s quiet except for the occasional chirping of birds. I tell her that everything is fine and lie her down on the cushions. She’s clutching her head as if it aches - which isn’t surprising - but otherwise doesn’t seem to be in too much distress. Once I’ve eased her down safely I kneel to pull off her boots.
“Where am I?”
I’ve only seen Gabrielle drunk twice - once on henbane and once on potato cider. I try not to laugh at her. “You’re with me.” Discarding the boots, I lay a blanket over her and tuck it at her middle. “That okay with you?” I smile into glazed eyes, immeasurably glad that she’s okay.
“Always,” she agrees mildly, as if this was an obvious fact.
“Uh ha.” I settle her arm on her wounded side, wanting her to be comfortable. She’s still flushed bright from her exertions and the alcohol, her heart beating a shade too fast, but her skin has lost its waxy, sallow appearance and she looks peaceful, lips parted to breathe. I can leave her to sleep while I go find us a place to stay tonight. And some way to pay for it.
“Stay here?” She doesn’t open her eyes - just tucks her chin into her chest to swallow a bit.
“Gabrielle, I need -”
“Just until I stop falling? I feel like I’m falling...” Her voice is soft and breathy and trails off. She really doesn’t have much of a stomach for drink, bless her.
I sit back on my heels. A little longer won’t make any difference. I’ll stay until she’s asleep. “Of course I’ll stay.” I stroke hair from her face, letting my hand trail across her cheek. “I’ll catch you.”
Gabrielle finds my arm and fumbles until she has me pulled down beside her. “Stay where I can see you?”
Abandoning all thoughts of doing anything except being with her, I stretch out and encircle her head in an arm. She’s still upset, traumatised by the surgery, and probably in some pain, although she wouldn’t admit to it. I welcome her into my arms when she rolls toward me and let her settle her head on my shoulder. I tell her that it’s over and everything will be all right, over and over, and she listens quietly until sleep takes her.
Gabrielle doesn’t question how I manage to find or pay for the room we sleep in that night, in a cosy little tavern, and I don’t volunteer the information. The building seems to sit at a slight sideways tilt, as if stooping with age like the old men who play cards at its bar, but it’s comfortable and safe. Gabrielle is understandably groggy and sore, and follows my guidance without thought of protest, up the narrow stairs and into bed. She has the presence of mind to ask me where I’ll be sleeping, having noticed that the room only holds one bed, and I assure her that a bedroll on a carpeted floor is a luxury compared to a bedroll on mud and rock, and that I’ll be just fine. She is appreciative, eats the broth that I present her with, and falls asleep.
I make myself comfortable in my bedroll and soon doze too, glad that the worst is over now. I’m only disturbed in the very early hours of the morning by movement from the bed, and I sleepily sit myself up. Gabrielle often dreams, and often mumbles in her sleep: usually I ignore it, unless I hear something that can be used for teasing ammunition the next day or, like now, she sounds distressed. Hearing what I think is a fearful tone to her indecipherable muttering, I dozily throw back my blanket and drag myself over to the bed. I lean over her, finding her turned away from me, and lightly rub my fingertips at the small of her back.
“Hey,” I whisper, “go back to sleep.”
This is my usual weary intervention, like a mother reaching out of bed to rock the cradle of a restless infant, and it normally has the desired effect.
When Gabrielle refuses to quieten, her eyebrows drawn into an unconscious frown, I renew my efforts and tend to her: stroking the hair from her eyes, moving the hands from her mouth, straightening creased clothing, righting a slipped blanket. She’s muttering something about being afraid. “Hey,” I tell her again, “it’s just a dream.” I press my hand to her face to cool her flushed cheeks. “The monster’s not gonna get you, you know,” I indulge her. “You tell it: it’ll have to get past me first.” She always wakes with fantastical stories about adventures which predictably place me as the hero, to my acute embarrassment.
“What if... What if it...?” She mumbles into her pillow.
“C’mon -” Decisively I gather her up and neaten her in her bed, once again moving her hands away from her face and tucking them under the covers. Her body is densely limp, but not so heavy that I can’t turn her onto her back where she’ll be able to breathe more easily. “I’ve got to get some sleep tonight, don’t I.” I press a kiss to her forehead, and along with the change of position this seems to rouse her from the nightmare and she goes quiet and peaceful again, and doesn’t wake until the morning rays of sun spread across her bed and dance in front of her eyes.
By this time, of course, I’m up and dressed and ready for the day. I only return to the room when I hear her stir, and find myself lingering in the doorway, just out of her sight, watching her. The rest seems to have done her good and she yawns and stretches a bit as if her head feels clearer. She sits gingerly, checking the range of movement in her affected arm and cringing a bit when she pushes herself too far. I see her eyes stray over to my folded bedroll and packed bags, but she doesn’t seem alarmed by this clear sign that we aren’t hanging around: she’s never been one for lying in bed once she’s awake, and apparently has no issue with moving on. Of course she doesn’t know the half of it, and guilt tugs at me.
I’ve set a plate of bread and cheese by her bed, and a skin of fresh water, and she takes her time over her breakfast before turning her attention to her bandages. They’re tight, but it was necessary to stop any bleeding. She looks like she isn’t too comfortable in them, and carefully unwraps the outer layers. She looks glad to be able to breathe deeply again, and does so gingerly as the layers fall away. Her hand settles over the remaining dressing but she makes no attempt to remove it. I think I see her shiver, and I know she can’t be cold in the sunny room: her eyes close and I wonder if she’s remembering vague, childhood memories of her aunt, imagining flesh gone dark and dry and diseased. She presses a hand to her mouth and swallows as if to rid herself of a sudden bad taste, then gives her head a decisive shake. Hastily she pulls on her top, lacing it loosely, then sits thinking and I’m not sure if I should interrupt. At length she visibly gathers her courage and eases back the dressing just enough to peek beneath, as if being covered by her shirt makes her feel just secure enough to expose the wound. I can’t see it from here, but yesterday I noticed that it was small and neat, the flesh pulled together with a tidy weave of white catgut - Lycos did a good job.
I hate to disturb her but I’ve waited too long already and we don’t have time - we have to be moving out. Reluctantly I push the heavy wooden door open fully and step through. Hearing the creak she pauses and presses down the dressing, but goes on with her examination when she sees it’s only me.
I smile as warmly as I can. “Hey.”
“Hey,” she returns mildly.
“How is it?” I nod to the wound and come to sit beside her.
She doesn’t show me, but nods and tells me, “Good, I think.”
“Good. That’s gonna heal fine: it’s a neat job.”
She responds positively to the encouragement, and sets about righting her top. “You could have done it just as well, I’m sure.”
It’s an off-hand comment, but not something I haven’t given thought to. My practice of medicine is rather unrefined, admittedly - I probably would have cut the stitching twine with my teeth - but Gabrielle would have trusted me to do it. “Not on you,” I admit, a little bashful. “Hands wouldn’t have been steady enough.”
Gabrielle laughs softly at me, but understands the message of affection and concern behind my words and takes a moment to squeeze my hand. “Well, I’m glad you were there, Xena, thank you.”
I’m glad I made a difference. “Me too.” I wish this moment could last longer but we’re out of time. With extreme reluctance I stand and motion for her to do the same. “Gabrielle, I hate to rush you, but we need to be going: there’s a cart waiting out front.”
“It’s okay, Xena, I’m ready.” She stands gamely to attention to prove this. “Where are we going?”
Now that it’s time to say the words I find that I can’t force them out.
I take a deep breath for courage. “You’re going to Amphipolis,” I tell her, trying to appear cheerful about it. “The cart is going that way, it won’t take long by horse. Mother will take care of you - fatten you up after that boat trip.” I take her hand and pat it encouragingly, hoping to lead her out to the waiting cart without having to face the inevitable question...
“You’re not coming?” She allows me to tug her arm but her feet remain planted squarely by the bed.
Knowing there’s no way to avoid this, I face her again. “Listen, I’ll follow you in no time, I just have some business to finish up here first. You won’t even notice I’m not there, Mother will give you so much attention: you know how she enjoys having you there.” It’s hard to keep up the smile, faced with the awful look of rejection and dismay in Gabrielle’s eyes.
“Xena I need you right now -” she blurts out, her fingers grasping and relaxing unconsciously in my hand.
“I know, I know, look -”
“Don’t you want to come with me? What’s so important you have to stay?”
She looks lost, all of a sudden, and I can’t stand it. “No, Gabrielle, I’m not doing this through choice, please believe me.”
“Then come. Or I’ll stay here -”
“No, no -” I shake my head. “Listen to me. We don’t have any money, we can’t afford to stay here any longer.”
“Then we’ll go back to our camp: I’m fine now -”
“No.” I’m not budging on that. “You’re not sleeping outside, not yet, you need to be warm and dry.” I take both her hands in mine. “I’ve found some work here, it’ll pay for last night and for the cart. I’ll work just long enough to pay off the debt, then I’ll hike to Amphipolis the moment I’m through. It’ll take me three days, four at most: I’ll be there before you know it.” Throughout this I press on despite Gabrielle’s efforts to interrupt, needing to make her hear me. Now I press my fingers over her lips, trying to show her how important this next bit is. “I want to be with you, okay? I want to be with you, Gabrielle, but I have no choice in this. It’s good work - building fences and a stone wall on a farm - I can do it with my eyes closed, I can earn money fast. Tell me you understand?”
She nods, and I know that she does understand. I think I feel the lightest kiss against my fingers, then she nestles her cheek into my palm. “I love you, Xena,” she says simply.
“I -” I’m interrupted by a shout from outside - the cart is ready to leave, and the driver won’t wait. “We’ll be together again soon, okay?” I pull her into my arms for a fierce hug, pained but resolute.
I feel her nod against my shoulder. “Try not to be long?”
“I’ll be thinking about you all the time,” I hear myself saying, the words spilling out of me without conscious thought. I give her a squeeze, then the driver calls again, and it’s time for her to go.
Part Two : Gabrielle : Eyes on me
I have no idea how long the cart ride takes. I’m really not paying attention. Sitting at the back with my legs hanging over the edge and a grey blanket wrapped around my shoulders the horses lead us over a bumpy path and through trees and fields, and I keep my gaze focused on the gravel as the big wooden wheels bump over it, taking me further away from Xena with each turn. I don’t know why I feel like this. Xena and I often spend time apart: why does the world seem more and more lonely with each passing tree? It’s as if I fear the separation before it’s even begun, and it takes considerable effort to keep myself calm, to hold back from jumping off the rickety old cart and running back to the small harbour town we’ve just left.
I’m being silly.
Most likely my insecurity is a result of the trauma of the last few days, I’m being haunted by an over-active imagination. The worst is over, and I have only to look forward to rest in the company of people whom I like and trust. By the time Xena gets here I’ll have gotten myself fit for our next adventure, that’s what’s important.
It’s a little after midday when we reach Amphipolis, and I thank the driver before easily finding Cyrene’s tavern and shouldering through the heavy wooden doors. With the dressing hidden beneath my shirt and my cheeks no doubt flushed pink from the wind I probably look to be the picture of health, although I have to stifle a cough in the crook of my elbow as I go from the cool air outside to the warmer atmosphere inside.
This isn’t a particularly busy time of day, as most of the farmhands who stop in for lunch will have gone back to their toil, but the tavern is popular and is still doing a fair trade. I make my way through the polished tables, drawn in by the homely smell of cooking and the sound of the villagers chatting amongst themselves. It has always struck me as ironic that Xena - who grew up living and working in a tavern - should so much prefer to be out on the land, working with the animals and the natural elements, where as I, who was raised in a farming community, should feel so much more at home here. Xena says that if trouble is going to start, it’s likely to be at an inn. Admittedly I’ve seen my fair share of evidence to support this, but it’s usually from the safety of looking over her shoulder. I like inns - inns always contain people, and I like people. I enjoy talking and telling stories, learning about others, entertaining. Maybe I’ll be able to spin a few yarns here, tomorrow when I’m less tired.
I’m so tired...
“Can I get you a drink, Friend?”
Having reached the long oak counter, I smile at the barmaid who welcomes me. “No, thank you - I’m looking for Cyrene?”
“Oh -” The young woman looks about her then calls out.
I follow her gaze and spot Xena’s mother wiping down some tables at the far end of the room. When she looks up she recognises me instantly, and her delight is obvious. “Gabrielle!” She abandons her cloth and hurries over, her long skirt and apron flying about her brown boots. She holds out her arms to embrace me, and I’m glad to be here. “Little One, it’s been so long!”
“Hello, Mother.” I return her hug, surprising myself with how good it feels to be held.
“Let me look at you.” She regards me at arms length and smiles at what she sees. “And Xena?”
“She had some business to attend to, she’ll be here in a few days.” I hope. “Cyrene, would you mind if we stayed here? Just for a...”
“Oh!” Cyrene laughs this off, waving her hand to stop me saying more. “You don’t need to ask me that. Come, come, I’ll find you something to eat, you must be tired after your trip.” She loops her arm in mine, calling to her staff to mind the bar for her, then leads me upstairs to the family home.
I’ve always liked it here, since the first time I visited. In contrast with Xena’s hardiness, her childhood home is warm and peaceful, there’s something about the atmosphere here which is always welcoming. From what Xena has told me about her early years I don’t think that Cyrene faced quite the same financial hardship as my parents had to contend with, thanks to the steady and dependable income from the tavern. Not that Xena was raised in wealth, by any means, but even with a single parent and three children to feed the bar provided a sufficient enough income that food and other necessities were never in short supply. Xena isn’t fussy about eating and I can imagine that her fare as a child was pretty basic, but she’s never spoken about times when the family’s food had to be rationed, as I can recall happening once or twice in Poteidaia when a harvest failed or during a long winter. If anything the tavern has thrived in recent years, and the kitchen that Cyrene sits me down in is large and well kitted out with utensils and equipment.
“What will you have, Gabrielle? Milk and some apple pie?”
From my seat on a sturdy bench at a long table which fills the centre of the room I watch her take a jug of frothing milk from the warmer, protecting her hands with a teacloth. “Just the milk, thank you Cyrene, I don’t feel like anything too heavy.” For some reason my stomach is turning, my head gone dry and tight from the wind and bumps on the cart. Cyrene sets down a mug on the table in front of me. Appreciative, I take it up with both hands and drink the warm, creamy froth, feeling it settle my stomach a little. “Thank you -” I say again, wanting to thank her for more than just the milk, and drink deeply again, glad of the sweetness. The heat of it brings a sweat to my brow, but my arms somehow ache and tremble too much all of a sudden to wipe it away.
Out of the corner of my vision I see Cyrene sit on the bench beside me. “Did you come here by wagon?”
I nod, my nose in the mug. “Cart, yes.”
“Then why do you look as if you’ve just walked twenty leagues?” It’s more of an observation than a question. She presses a hand beneath my fringe to my forehead. “And a fever, too -”
I shake my head automatically, eager to reassure her. “It’s nothing, really, I’ve just...” My head pounds at the movement. “Just been under the weather, and I’m tired from the trip, I suppose, and...”
“Xena sent you off on a trip when you weren’t well?” She tuts softly.
“No, no -” I don’t want Cyrene to think badly of Xena: I can’t imagine where I’d be now if it weren’t for Xena’s altruism and dedication these last few days. “Xena knew I’d be in good hands here.” I bravely turn to look at Cyrene, ignoring the dizzy nausea that washes over me at the movement. “Besides, she was right - wasn’t she?” This teasingly, and Cyrene’s expression of concern softens.
“Of course she was.” She cheerfully pours me out some more milk. “There’s a rose garden behind the tavern - perhaps you’d like to sit and rest there for a bit?”
I swallow, my throat sore and dry. “It sounds lovely, but...” My eyelids have gone heavy and they droop of their own accord. Out on the road we never stop and rest because of a runny nose - we don’t have the luxury - but somehow here, in this sunny room, my body refuses to rally itself.
“Come along,” Cyrene says decisively, almost startling me out of the doziness that has come over me, “to bed with you.”
“Oh, no, really, I don’t need -” Bed in the middle of the day? I haven’t been permitted that since I was five.
“Bed it is for you, Little One.” She takes me gently under the elbow and helps me up. “And I’ll put some honey in your milk.” She guides me through a door and into the short corridor where the bedrooms are. “A mother knows best. Didn’t your mother ever tell you that?”
I manage to laugh, grateful for her kindness. “I expect she probably did.”
“Well then. Rest now, and no doubt you’ll be right as rain in the morning and able to tell me all about the adventures you and Xena have been having.”
I fall into the snug little bed in the room that Xena once shared with her younger brother. I remember being surprised, when I first came here, to learn that the two had shared a room: I’d assumed that the boys would have been put together. But apparently Xena - who was fiercely independent even then - had only given a half-hearted shrug of protest when she was asked to make space in her room for a cot, and Cyrene had suspected that her daughter had secretly been glad of the company of her sweet and adoring younger brother.
It’s a lovely room, altered very little since those days, but the act of changing into a shift and stowing my bag in a wardrobe exhausts me ridiculously and I don’t have the energy to look around the homely room and take in more than the old tapestries on the walls in rich red and orange hues and the matching blanket spread on the bed. Cyrene has pulled the heavy curtains for me and set a new candle close by incase I need it in the night. I fall asleep almost straight away, my limbs aching and dense, and hear nothing from the busy inn below.
When I wake it’s pitch dark and must be night time. I’ve been dreaming, but the images are just out of reach and I can’t recall what I was thinking about. When I first draw in a breath I’m sure I must be in Hades - I’m devilishly hot, the very air seems to burn down my throat, my face blazing. I toss back the covers, tugging in more heavy air.
Pain throbs in my head and shoots down the back of my neck, making my shoulders ache no matter what position I try to take up. So hot! The air is like daggers in my throat and makes me cough, which in turns pulls at the small of my back and the stitches at my side to the point where I don’t know which way to turn to ease it. The blackness swims around me, whether my eyes are open or closed, and I’m not even sure if I’m lying on the bed, the floor, or the ceiling, such is my dizziness. Perhaps I’m back on the boat, bobbing endlessly on the waves, rising and falling, rising and falling...
There’s movement outside and the door opens, letting in a crack of candlelight.
“I’m just turning in: I’ve brought you a skin of water, if you’re thirsty?”
The figure comes a few steps closer, unable to see in the dim light.
I try to sit up, knowing the voice is familiar but unable to place it, thanks to the dense fog in my brain. But the covers are tangled about my legs, the pillow lost on the floor somewhere, and I can’t get enough anchorage to get up. The figure passes me and tugs back the curtain, spreading moonlight over me. The whiteness of the light seems harsh to me and I turn my head away. “Xena?”
The figure sits beside me on the edge of the bed, reaching for me. “Child?” Her hand is cool against my cheek and I press against it. “Dear Gods, you’re hotter than Hades!” She lights the candle, and squinting I see that it’s Cyrene.
So I’m not in Hell. I remember: the cart, Amphipolis, Xena’s home...
“Show me your face -” Cyrene turns my head toward her but the movement shoots pain down my neck again and I shift aimlessly away. “Gabrielle -” More directly, this time. “What’s wrong?”
I don’t even know, I don’t know what’s wrong, I’m just hot. I toss about again. “Xena -”
“Xena isn’t here, My Love. Now what’s happened? You have quite a fever on you.” Occupying herself in a motherly fashion she sets about straightening my shift and tidying my hair, and I pay her no attention, more preoccupied with dragging hot air into my lungs.
“I want to stay with you,” I tell Xena, desperate that she hear. “Don’t leave me here, I want to stay with you, Xena -”
“Hush, Little One! Hush now!” She takes my hand and it brings me back to reality a bit. Of course, Cyrene: Xena isn’t here.
The talking makes me cough again and I can’t seem to ease the dry tickle in my chest. I put all my effort into it but the coughs sound weak and sticky in my ears. I clutch onto Cyrene’s hand for a bit, then feel that I have to change position or die: I pull an arm across my face and roll over, bringing up my knees in an effort to soothe the pulling ache that the coughing has set off again in my back and shoulders.
Gods, I feel like the swirling cess pits of Hades!
Cyrene encircles me in an arm and pats softly at my back until the spasms pass. She sets about righting my shift again, then pauses as if surprised by something. I don’t know or care what. I’m so hot I feel sure I must be vivid purple, maybe that’s what it is. I try to tug away my clothes, desperate for any way to assuage the incredible burning fires inside me.
Cyrene gets up and leaves, although I scarcely care what she does, and when she returns she has a cool cloth to hold to my face. I turn to it like a dying traveller in a desert, wanting nothing more than to feel it’s freshness on every part of me. “There now, Little One, there -” a soothing voice mumbles beside me, “be still, it’s all right.” I clutch onto her wrist and let her bathe my neck, tipping back my chin to give her room. “Xena will soon be here: is that why you’re so upset? You are safe here, Gabrielle, all is well. Hush now, shh...”
I feel sleep taking me again, cool and calm this time. I keep my fingers loosely around her wrist, and some interminable time later feel her ease them into her hand. I can feel the linen material of her skirt against my arm, and curl myself a little closer to her presence as I drift in and out of fevered sleep. She goes on talking to me for a bit, then is quiet, letting me rest. My mind only feels clear again when I wake to a bright wash of white, and know that the moon must be at its highest point.
I take my hand from hers and rub my face. “Mother?”
She doesn’t answer me, but smiles in acknowledgement and starts to bathe my arms with the cloth.
“I thought I was dreaming -” The images are still there, just out of reach. I’m sure they must be important, so real do they feel to me, but I just can’t quite remember.
“Your temperature was very high.”
I swallow away the dry burning in my throat, grimacing as I do so, and she offers me a skin. I tip a little of the cool water over my cracked lips. “Thank you, Cyrene -”
She smiles warmly again. “Lift your head -” She replaces the pillow for me. “You’re through the worst - your breathing sounds easier now.”
“I had such vivid dreams -”
“Tell me of them in the morning, Child, don’t exert yourself now.” She tenderly brushes back my hair with her fingertips and dabs the cloth around my temples and ears, which I imagine are still glowing fiery pink. “Get some rest now.”
“I’m sorry, I’ve kept you up -” I feel embarrassed and guilty.
“Gabrielle,” she cups my face briefly between her hands and laughs at me, “do you never listen when you’re told to be quiet? Your poor mother must have despaired with you.” This elicits a bashful smile, because I think everyone I’ve ever met has at some point despaired with my relentless chatter. “I want to listen to all your stories,” Cyrene goes on, “but not tonight.” She encourages me to lie down again, covers me with a sheet, and fixes me with eyes almost as blue as Xena’s. “Listen to me: you are safe, you are well, and you are loved here, Gabrielle.” She presses a hand to my forehead and I just can’t keep my eyes open any longer. “Go to sleep now, let your body heal. No more fighting tonight, Child, just sleep...”
I hold onto her hand in her lap for as long as I can, but soon even that sensation fades away into cool blackness.
When I pull on my clothes the next morning I feel bright and refreshed. I pad along the hallway to the kitchen with a grumbling stomach: I woke to the smell of bread cooking, and I’m now extraordinarily hungry. When I enter the big old kitchen Cyrene looks up from the stove, smiles, and gestures for me to sit at the table. I obediently do so, crossing my ankles under the wooden bench and swinging my bare feet a bit as I pull the linen napkin into my lap.
“Cyrene, this looks wonderful.” I examine the large hunk of steaming bread in its dish before me, the crust dark and crispy and the inside fluffy and pale.
“I’m glad you think so.” She comes over to the table and sets down an egg in front of me.
I peer into the speckled shell, delighted. The egg has been boiled to perfection, its yolk deep yellow and runny. “Xena and I find eggs sometimes, but never hen’s eggs.” Hens tend not to wander around wild, and we would never steal from a farm. “Goose eggs, sometimes, or duck eggs.” I try to recall what else we’ve come across. “Lizard eggs. Fish eggs...” I shiver. “There’s no comparison, believe me. I haven’t eaten an egg this good in so long.”
Cyrene chuckles at me and pushes the dish of bread closer in encouragement before sitting down to her own breakfast. “Good.”
I tear off a strip of bread, dip it into my yolk, then chew the sticky, sweet treat with no small amount of gusto. “It’s beautiful.”
“I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
This gives me pause, and I regard Cyrene for a moment with my hands resting protectively around my egg. “Thank you, for last night. I don’t remember much, but you were so kind, thank you.”
Cyrene waves her hand in dismissal, but gives me a smile that makes me glad to be here: Xena was right all along, this is for the best.
“How’s your head?” Cyrene asks conversationally after a while.
“Better. A bit groggy.” I concentrate on spooning out the silky white flesh.
“Take plenty of water.”
“I will.” I nod as I chew my bread.
“No ale for you in the tavern.”
I shake my head obediently. “I won’t.”
“And your arm?”
I swallow the mouthful, my eyes on the next. “It’s fine.”
“No, I -”
I stop with a crust of bread halfway to my lips. How does she know about my side, about the wound? I’ve been careful to keep it covered, and I know I’ve hidden any little twinges of pain I’ve felt. I look up to her and know from the intensity of her gaze that her question wasn’t a casual one. I’d actually managed to forget about the lump, for a few precious hours, and to feel as if I were a whole person again. Lately it has seemed to me that everyone has been more interested in the lump than in me - Xena, Lycos, and now Cyrene too.
“I saw your wound last night,” she tells me simply.
“Oh.” I wish I could disown it, this seemingly innocuous scar that everyone seems so fixated on. I’ve lost my appetite, and set down my spoon.
“Could Xena not protect you from an archer’s bow?”
I blink and regard Cyrene with barely disguised startlement. She thinks that an arrow has caused this? Gods, if only it had been! I almost go along with the misunderstanding, largely to save Cyrene from worrying but also, I admit to myself, to avoid the shame, the embarrassment of this, as if the lump had somehow been my doing, my fault. It would be so much easier to just agree. An arrow...
But that would cause Cyrene to think badly of her daughter, and I can’t allow that. None of this is Xena’s fault. “It wasn’t an arrow.” I prefer to gaze down at the crumbs on my plate than to look at her. “It was a blade. A surgeon’s blade.”
There is a moment of silence as Cyrene pushes away her breakfast, then she rises and comes to sit beside me. “Come then, Gabrielle: tell your story.”
There’s nothing for it but to tell.
My mind drifts back to that moment at the river, when my travelling fingers came across the alien lump and it seemed as if time itself had stopped. Sometimes it feels to me as if I’m still in that frozen moment, suspended, my heart frozen behind my ribs.
“I was ill,” I begin. “There was this... this growth, under my skin. It got hard and it got bigger.” My fingers move unconsciously to rub the spot under my arm. “Some of my family, on my mother’s side, when I was little: I remember Mother describing the same thing. I remember people dying.” My hand stills and I force it back down into my lap. “We came here to find a healer. He did all that he could, he used a knife and he...” Well, it’s obvious what he did. I find myself scoring a fingernail across the pad of my thumb, repeating the motion over and over. I can still feel the blade on me...
Silent until now, Cyrene prompts me gently. “That must have been painful, I think.”
Her observation is sympathetic, but I respond vehemently. “I’m not afraid of pain.” It’s not the pain that haunts me - it’s the loss. I squeeze my hands together to still them. “And anyway, Xena was there.” I can’t help but remember: there was pain, pain of such awful, sickening intensity that it drove my body to arch itself up in convulsions I couldn’t control. But, far more importantly, there was Xena. Xena’s face above my own, Xena’s hands holding mine, Xena’s words forming a lifeline to which I could cling.
Seeing that I’m not forthcoming with anything more, Cyrene inhales slowly, nodding. “Poor child.” This is said more to herself than to me, I think. “I’ve heard of such things, Gabrielle. I understand your being afraid. But if it’s gone from you then you will be well. I know of no one, young and healthy like you, who has suffered once it’s removed. It’s only the old or weak, and that’s not you.”
I nod automatically. “That’s what the healer said.” I’m not sure if talking has helped or not. “I know I’ve been lucky.” This is another mechanical phrase, because in truth I don’t actually feel in the least bit lucky. It’s not fair to burden Cyrene any further, though, and I try to brighten. “It’s just been a... a difficult week, that’s all.”
Cyrene nods and puts an arm around me, pressing her head against mine in a show of empathy and solidarity that I appreciate. “I’m sure it has been, Little One.”
The cuddle helps, and I nestle against her for a long moment before drawing back enough to manage a smile for her. “I’m glad I’m here: I’m glad to be with you.”
Cyrene smiles too and holds my face gently between roughened hands. “Well, you’re family, Gabrielle.”
This brings a flush of pleasure to my cheeks, because it’s just the sort of thing Xena would say if she were here.
“Another egg now, Child?”
I draw in a deep, steadying breath. “Yes please.”
The rest of the day is spent pleasantly enough, as I keep busy and recuperate. The next is manageable, the third bearable. But by the forth Xena has still not arrived, and I feel myself growing more desperate. It’s something I can’t even understand, let alone explain. I’ve always been self-sufficient, independent, even as a child. Certainly I like the company of others, but I don’t become fearful and restless without it, not like this. I need to get some perspective, I tell myself.
My resolve lasts for the time it takes to eat two spoonfuls of porridge: there’s a knock on the door.
I watch Cyrene rise from the breakfast table and go to answer the knock, and I can’t eat the next spoonful of my porridge, barely able to breathe with the desperate excitement that it might be my friend. When Cyrene returns alone, with just a note, I feel the contents of my chest dropping down heavily into my belly. I feel sick, and put down my spoon.
“It’s addressed to you,” Cyrene tells me, and hands over the note.
“Me?” Surprised, I take the parchment and immediately recognise the rough, jagged scrawl.
It rained yesterday and we couldn’t work on the wall
Will have to stay here a few more days
I miss you
It’s signed simply with an ‘X’.
I carefully fold the note, suddenly feeling very alone and inexplicably afraid.
I almost jump at the word, partly because I’d somehow forgotten that Cyrene was there and partly because her voice isn’t so dissimilar to her daughter’s.
“Xena... Xena says she’ll be a few more days. The work’s taking longer than she thought.”
“Oh.” Cyrene nods, watching me closely. “I’m sorry: I know you’re looking forward to seeing her.”
This, I acknowledge if only to myself, is such a wild understatement of the truth that I can’t even bring a reply to my lips. I want Xena so badly - what’s wrong with me? I can’t even survive a few days on my own? What’s wrong with you, Gabrielle? I’m not even on my own, in the name of the Gods, I’m in Xena’s home, with her mother, who couldn’t have shown me more kindness and hospitality.
I feel guilty. I’ve been ungrateful. I’m being ungrateful, by sitting here and not talking to Cyrene, gazing down into the food she’s made me and that I’ve barely touched. “I’m sorry,” I mumble at last, needing to excuse my poor manners. “I’m not very hungry.”
I’m stupidly overwhelmed, like a teenager who has been humiliated by a silly show of emotion, or some delicate being of fragile constitution. I want to save us both the embarrassment of my tears, and push up from the table on impulse, apologising again. I get out of the room as quickly as possible, fool though I must look.
I dash to my favourite spot in the house almost without thought. It isn’t big enough to be called a room - it’s more of a hallway - but there’s a big old sofa facing a window which looks out over the rose garden and the fields beyond. I flop down into its cushions.
A dozen thoughts run through my mind, and most of them begin with ‘I want’, ‘I wish’, ‘if only’. Selfish thoughts. I wish I’d never gotten sick in the first place, and I wish Xena hadn’t left me alone, even here. There: that’s the essence of it. My mother always said to me: ‘I want doesn’t get’. Or, more accurately, ‘I want doesn’t deserve to get’. I’m well and I’m someplace comfortable and safe. So why is it that right now I can’t bring myself to give thanks for that?
I feel wretched about myself, and curl into the plump sofa, hiding my face, hiding myself.
The moment my head settles on the woven cushions, the well-loved material in varying shades of burnt orange, I slip into the first stage of sleep. I’m exhausted. I imagine I can feel a hand softly stroking my face, smoothing back my hair. It feels cool and light, soothing.
“I know it’s been difficult for you to sleep, Little One.”
I sit up sharply, fully awake, embarrassed. “I was just -”
“Gabrielle.” She says my name softly, in very gentle reprimand - just as Xena would - and comes to sit beside me. She just looks at me for a while before speaking. For once words desert me, and I say nothing. “Tell me,” she begins conversationally, busying herself with pulling at a loose orange thread, “tell me about the nightmares that keep you awake? Tell me a little about those, Gabrielle.” Her eyes come up to meet mine and I almost physically squirm away.
I don’t want to think about the dreams. There are so many - none of them clear - all just hazy images that go dark and fearsome. “What nightmares?” I ask with forced cheerfulness.
Cyrene laughs a bit and shakes her head. “You know, you and Xena are so alike.” Utterly disregarding my evasion, she presses on. “You behave as if you were quite alone with all this, just as she would. You are not alone, Gabrielle.”
I look away sharply to hide my immediate reaction to this. Why does kindness always weaken the toughest defences? It really shouldn’t come as a surprise to me: the Gods know I’ve used the tactic on Xena often enough. You couldn’t break through the barriers she holds around herself with a mace, but with a cuddle...
“It’s just... It’s just that every time I close my eyes...”
Cyrene doesn’t hurry me, just rests her head to one side and tries to look at my face. “What do you see, when you close your eyes?”
So many images I could tell her about, so many horrors. Do I describe the dream where I’m back under that healer’s blade? Do I talk about the images of blood, hot and thick and relentless? Or about how I’m convinced that I’ve woken to find another lump, or that awful disfiguring maw that my aunt bore as evidence of her battle? “I see myself,” I say at last. “I’m fighting something that I don’t know how to defeat, something inside of me. It grows stronger and stronger until there’s nothing but this awful, hungry thing, eating me up.” It takes different faces, certainly, takes the form of different monsters, but it’s familiar each time. “Or I see myself having to tell my parents, my sister. I’m trying to make them understand, but it’s as if they can’t hear me, and they don’t help.” All these things and more swim together, usually, dizzying me.
Still Cyrene doesn’t speak - I don’t need her to, really - but she does reach to my lap and grasp my hand, squeezing it in hers.
“They’re just dreams,” I say, and I believe it. They are just unrealistic fantasies churned up by my overtired brain. It’s not until a tear drips down into my lap that I realise I’m crying, and I wipe an arm hurriedly over my face, embarrassed.
“It must be difficult,” Cyrene comments gently, “not to be with your family.”
I pull in a deep breath. I don’t wish that I were with my own mother instead of Cyrene, because while I love her dearly we were never that close and I can’t imagine what she could offer me that Xena’s mother could not. Even Lila - who I was always close to - wouldn’t be an ideal choice because as her older sister I’d just feel protective and guilty for upsetting her. No, the worst dreams aren’t the ones where I’m separated from my blood family, as Cyrene imagines. The worse ones are those where I’m parted from the one person who I truly consider to be family - where I’m apart from Xena.
This starts me crying in earnest, and no amount of will power will stem the flow of tears or the awful tugging in my chest. Cyrene takes me in her arms and rocks me, probably shocked herself by my distress. She holds my head tucked under her chin. “Oh, there now, my Little One!”
“I’m frightened, Cyrene -”
“My Child -” She holds me securely, as one would swaddle an overwrought baby. Her hand on my face feels cool - I must be flushed from crying, but I can’t seem to stop. I reach for her and clutch at her arms, desperate not to be alone. Cyrene kisses my hair and speaks with quiet confidence. “Cry, Gabrielle, if it helps. Cry, my child, I’m here.”
I do cry, until I’m spent, and it helps. The demons raging in my heart aren’t vanquished, by any means, but they are pushed back down a little and are just about manageable again. I dread to think how I must look, with tear stains down my face and neck and my hair gone lank from the dampness. I don’t have the strength to lift my head from Cyrene’s shoulder for a bit and so just lie where I am, soothed by her quiet rocking, gazing aimlessly ahead and noticing that her skin has the same bronze tone and scattered freckles as Xena’s.
At length I lift my head and sit up, wiping my face. I’m bashful and don’t know what to say, but I’m so grateful for Cyrene’s kindness and hold onto her hand. She allows me a moment to compose myself, then gives my fingers a squeeze. “Come and finish your porridge before it gets cold?” We stand up and she rests her arm loosely around me as we walk. “Even on the worst days I could always get Xena to eat porridge,” she tells me cheerfully, “have you noticed how much she likes it?” She tuts and shakes her head in amusement before leaving me at the kitchen table and going to fetch more milk to top up my bowl.
I find myself laughing at her observation, glad to have the distraction of a mundane topic of conversation. “No, I hadn’t. I suppose it isn’t something you can really eat out on the road.”
“She loves fish, though, I know that.” I take a spoonful of my cereal.
“Is that so?”
Cyrene has half her concentration on her cooking, her back to me, and I feel able to chat without being daunted by too much attention. “Didn’t she like fish as a child?” It lifts my spirits to talk about Xena, it does me good just to chatter. I raise my voice to be heard over the bubbling pots and pans.
“Not that I noticed,” Cyrene tells me. “She liked to fish,” she adds, “but I don’t remember her being overly concerned with eating the result.”
This both interests and amuses me, and I go on to tell Cyrene about Xena’s prowess at eel catching, and carp flinging, and any other fish-related incident I can bring to mind. “Once she turned an eel into a weapon and used it like a chakram.”
Cyrene pulls a face and makes a noise which suggests she is both revolted and keen to hear more.
And so we go on chatting, in the hours and the days that follow. Cyrene seems to have decided that it would be best to keep me busy and occupied, and I think she’s probably right. Xena is a safe topic for discussion: it cheers me up and reminds me of normality, and gives Cyrene all the gossip on what her daughter has been up to. No doubt Xena wouldn’t be best impressed by our nattering about her, but as she isn’t here we go on regardless.
In this way, the days are bearable. The nights are harder, but Cyrene usually wakes me early and finds some activity to occupy me. She has the clever knack of keeping me distracted without it being glaringly obvious that she’s doing so. On my fifth or sixth morning here - I’ve lost track, it seems so long - she invites me outside to the garden. I follow her into the cool morning sunlight and enjoy the view of the small walled garden with its abundance of blooms in every colour. The aroma is beautiful, and I take deep breaths of the fresh air. The garden is well enough tended to be neat and pretty, but left to its own devices enough to still appear natural and free. The flowers - mostly roses - are all in bloom, turning their colourful faces up to greet the sun, and I hear the gentle trickle of water from a fountain nearby.
Cyrene gestures me to a bench, behind which grows a huge clump of lavender which perfumes the air all around it. “You have to admit we have a healthy crop this year,” she observes, surveying the garden with hands on hips. “I doubt they would be appreciated in the bar, but there’s the kitchen, and a bouquet in your room would be nice, don’t you think?”
She wanders along by a low bed of flowers, grazing a hand through some dainty pink blooms. “Ah, now, what about these.” She settles on a patch of tall, slender lilac blossoms, and takes a small knife from a pocket in her skirt.
Eager to sample their sweet scent, I go over to help. Poking my nose into the yellow heart of a perfect specimen, I inhale deeply. “These are lovely, they remind me of home.” I think they used to grow in our front garden.
“Ah, they’re perfect then.”
I pick one and add it to her bunch. “Xena isn’t one for flowers, is she.”
“I try to point them out to her when we pass them on the road, but she isn’t interested unless it’s something edible. Which I can understand.” A worm wriggles about in the loose soil, and I watch it dispassionately.
“You think about Xena a lot, don’t you?” Her tone is conversational, and most of her attention seems to be on wiping dirt from the blade of her knife with grubby fingers.
I do think about Xena a great deal, but surely that’s to be expected, as we’ve spent almost every day together for more than a year now. I’m not sure, then, why I can’t give her a simple answer. It’s not just that we have a great deal of shared experiences: I enjoy thinking about Xena, I want to think about her. “I miss her,” is all I can honestly think to say.
“She’s lucky to have you as a friend, Little One.”
“I’m lucky to have her. I wish she was here.”
Cyrene just smiles sympathetically and goes on with her picking. It’s ridiculous: I should be able to be apart from Xena for a few days without feeling as lost as I do.
Can’t, the rebellious part of me interjects, but should be able to.
We go on gathering the flowers, mostly in companionable silence, until the sun rises higher and the sky and holds more heat. By the time Cyrene has two sizable bunches at her feet my hands are wet from the dew on the leaves and grubby from the earth, and I have to go over to the fountain to wash them.
The gate clicks behind us and Cyrene pushes up wearily, probably assuming as I do that it’s one of her staff wanting to speak to her. I see a tall figure silhouetted in the gateway but don’t look up from drying my hands on my skirt.
“Xena!” Cyrene gathers up her skirts and goes to embrace her daughter, while my hands freeze in mid-motion. “It’s good to see you, Daughter.” Cyrene gives Xena a fierce hug which the Warrior cheerfully returns, then looks her daughter up and down to be sure that she’s still reasonably sound of wind and limb. “You travelled on foot?”
Xena wears a huge grin, and the sight of it has stopped my heart. She has smiled at her mother, but now her eyes have found me and I can’t tear away from her gaze. I’m rooted to the spot, my hands clasped together in anxious anticipation
Cyrene looks between us both with an unreadable smile of her own. “You must be hungry. I’ll fix a snack for you - come in when you’re ready.”
Cyrene nods, pats her daughter’s arm softly, then gathers up the flowers and leaves us alone.
I should go over to her, but somehow I can’t get my feet to move. I don’t know how I feel anymore - about anything - and worse still I don’t know how Xena feels, after the trauma of the boat trip, and the surgery, and the time apart. I just can’t move.
Please Xena, let it be you who -
As if she had heard my thoughts she crosses the distance between us, and as soon as her arms weave their way gently around me I’m flooded with warmth and relief. I reach up and wrap my arms around her neck, sinking into her embrace and tucking my face into the warm spot at her shoulder. I’ve longed to be here for days.
Oh, Gods, Xena -
Xena gets a comfortable grip on me and we stand like this for a long time, unmoving, unthinking, just together. I’ve missed her so intensely, and need her so much to be with me, that I can’t stand to let go. I’ve never known Xena so patient, and I hold on tight to her for a long, long moment before she gently tries to rouse me by stroking at my hair and rubbing a hand over my back. Finally, a little embarrassed, I lift my head from her. When I look up to her face she’s watching me with eyebrows raised in question. “You okay?”
“Fine.” I say it with conviction, because I am all right now that she’s here. “I just missed you, that’s all.”
I go to shrug off my silly behaviour, but before I can she pulls me back against her and squeezes me. “Missed you too.”
It’s so wonderful, and I snuggle against her until I notice her forearms, which are scraped and a bit bloody. “What happened here?” I grasp her wrists and examine the scratches. Her palms look dry too, the skin shorn off in places, and there are yellowish bruises on her biceps.
“Building the wall,” she tells me without much emotion. “Stones were a bit rough on the arms.”
My heart hurts at this news, because she did that work to earn money for me. “Someone should have helped you.” I examine the scratches with my fingertips, keen to be sure they aren’t deep.
She shrugs. “Then I’d have had to split the money with them, and I’d still be there and not here.”
This is indisputable, and I can’t pretend I’d prefer it that way. But still... “But your arms, Xena.”
I hear her laugh softly at me. “Don’t worry, I’ll live.”
I ignore her teasing. “These don’t look too clean.”
“If I’d have passed a hot tub in the forest on the way here I’d have used it, but...” Another playful shrug. “Guess I lucked out.”
The matter seems deadly serious to me, although the tiny part of my brain that is still rational tells me I’m being ridiculous. I look behind me for the fountain then lead her over to it. Focussing on this allows me to ignore the churning in my belly, the tangled mix of emotions that are causing my heart to pound away behind my ribs like a runaway cart. I take her arms again and hold them under the running water to bathe them. To her credit, Xena humours me and makes no protest, just watches over my shoulder. Even when her arms are clean I turn my attention to her hands, trying to buff the dirt from around her fingertips. It’s an entirely futile task - I don’t think Xena has had clean fingernails since she learned to toddle - but I lose myself in the action of caressing her hands under the running water. Xena stands patiently and allows this, every now and again curling her fingers around mine so we can hold hands.
It’s too nice, too intoxicating, too... confusing. I reluctantly let go. I can’t look her in the eye for a moment, although I can’t say quite why, and even she has to take a deep breath before she speaks again. “Thanks.” She brushes her fingers lightly against my right arm. “How is it?”
I look down to my chest, as if I could see the scar through my shirt. “It’s fine.” I don’t want her to worry.
“No. No, Lycos did a good job, it hasn’t been hurting.”
She seems to visibly relax at this news. “Good. I’ve been worried, you know. I would’ve been here if I could.”
“I know.” She’s here now, that’s what’s important. I slip my arm around her waist and she hangs hers around my shoulders in our familiar pattern, and we start back toward the tavern. “Besides, your mother has been wonderful to me.”
“Been feeding you up, I expect.”
She makes a knowing sound, and we laugh.
I was so sure I’d feel better now she’s here, but in some ways I think I feel worse. Now that I have nothing to look forward to the present is inescapable. My stomach is constantly in a knot, and my emotions are so convoluted and tangled that I have no hope of sorting them out. All I can think coherently is that the tumour might come back, I can’t move on from it. A dozen or more times in the time that passes between each meal I find my hand going to the scar and checking that that lump hasn’t returned. Sometimes my fingers catch on the seam of my shirt and for an instant I’m sure it’s there, and in those moments my heart freezes up in my chest. Will I ever be free of this?
I try to follow Cyrene’s advice and keep busy, keep distracted. I help in the tavern, wash my clothes, replace some frayed twine on my staff. All the time I smile politely to anyone who looks at me and pretend that all is well. It isn’t. I’m frightened.
During the day I can keep going, keep my mind from it, but when the light goes down it becomes impossible to keep my anxiety buried away inside. The worry is like poison. I thought I’d be glad to have Xena sleeping in the other bed across the room from me, but it just means I have to stifle my tears, pressing my hands or the pillow to my face so she won’t hear and be worried. When at last my tears exhaust me and I manage to sleep I fall straight into another nightmare.
I see the gleam of the surgeon’s knife, feel it cutting into me, and my mind is filled with the red swell of blood, hot and thick. I try to struggle away but I’m bound. I cry out for help but no one hears.
Then the landscape shifts and I’m outside, my feet on fresh grass. For a moment I’m relieved, but then I look around me and see my parents, and Lila, and a crowd of people all dressed in black. They’re gathered around a hole in the ground: it’s a funeral. I want to see into the coffin, but I keep getting jostled by the mourners an I can’t get a clear view. My mother is wailing and I struggle to get to her, but the crowd won’t let me by. They’re all chattering to themselves, and the sound becomes deafening - ‘her poor mother’, ‘and she used to be such a pretty thing’, ‘punishment from the Gods, no doubt...’ I barge through, holding my arms up to protect my face, and suddenly find my aunt standing in front of me. Is it her funeral? I reach for her but she steps aside, and finally I can look down into the grave.
My own face stares back at me.
It’s my funeral.
I scream in horror and convulse, bringing myself upright in bed. I scarcely have enough breath, my chest heaving, but I cry out the only coherent word in my mind. “Xena!”
The blackness all around me is absolute, I can’t see a thing, I don’t know where I am. My heart thunders painfully in my chest and all I can hear is its pounding in my ears. “Xena!” It’s a desperate sob. I wasn’t dreaming, this is real, I’m dead, I’m -
“Gabrielle, I’m here -” Two arms go around me and I realise that I can see a little, after all. I can just make out the shine of Xena’s long hair in the moonlight and the curve of her shoulder as she kneels by the bed and holds me. “It’s okay -”
Thank the Gods. I curl in to her and cling on desperately, overwrought. “Xena, it’s back -” I don’t want to tell her but I can’t hide it anymore, can’t keep the secret. I try to wriggle closer to her, and she gently but determinedly lifts my legs back into bed.
When she speaks she’s calm and indulgent. “What’s back?”
“The lump, the... thing.” I’m desperate to make her understand, and claw softly at her, trying to find the best way to hold onto her and not let go. “It’s back, it’s -”
“No, Gabrielle,” she soothes, “you were just dreaming. Lie down, it’s okay.”
She eases me back on the bed but I refuse to let go, pulling her down with me. I feel just a smidgen safer, with her filling my vision and her forearms resting on either side of me, and I swallow away the dryness in my throat. There’s no moon tonight and even though my eyes have adjusted I can still only just make out her features, painted in grey shadows. I feel her breath on my face and her hair as it falls against my shoulders. “It’s not a dream,” I insist, groping for her. “It’s real, I can feel it, it’s come back.”
“No -” She shakes her head but doesn’t sound so confident this time.
“I can feel it, Xena -” This brings tears to my eyes: I never wanted to hurt her like this. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry -” I touch at her face, my heart hurting for what I’m putting her through.
I see her swallow, her panic barely under control. Her eyes are locked with mine for an instant, then she rallies herself into action. “No. You’re wrong. Show me. Let me see, come on -”
I pluck uselessly at my side, wanting to show her, but my fingers have gone trembly and numb from the adrenaline and I can’t tug away the material. “I can’t -” I feel crushingly guilty for doing this to her, for not being strong enough to have fought it. “Xena, I’m sorry -”
Ignoring both my words and my useless hands she struggles to pull away the material of my shift. “I can’t see a thing,” she curses to herself, then looks about her. “Where’s the damn candle?”
“Xena -” I’m afraid and all I want to do is hold her. My hands are getting in her way, and she has to clasp them in hers to still them.
“Gabrielle, listen -” She gives me all her attention again. “I can’t see: I need to see.” She shakes her head as if to clear it. “Take this off, I can’t see a thing. Take it off.”
I feel her hands tuck under the blanket, and her cool fingers find my legs, brushing upwards to the hem of my shift. She gathers up the material and eases it over my body, her knuckles grazing my hips as she goes. I lift my arms enough for her to pull the shift over my head, and she tosses it distractedly to one side. I don’t much care what she does or what she sees, all I want is to have her near to me, and as I lie back down I put my arms around her neck. “Don’t leave me.”
“Never,” she promises, finding a hurried smile for me, and settles the blanket back over my legs. “Never, Gabrielle - you know that. Lie still -”
She becomes intent on what she’s doing and I don’t interrupt. She trails her fingers along my side, needing to get her bearings in the inky darkness, then I feel her hand press gently against the swell of my breast, over the healing scar. Her touch is pleasantly cool against my glowing skin and I lift my arm lazily above my head to give her more room, my hand brushing my ear. She moves her fingers, pressing experimentally into my armpit then further across over the fullest curve. Her touch is firmer when I inhale, pressing my flesh into her palm, but she’s infinitely gentle and considerate. I wouldn’t be without her now, but I hate to think how pained she’ll be when she feels that awful, alien hardness, when she knows, as I do, that it’s won...
“Gabrielle, there’s nothing here -”
“There is,” I insist mindlessly, “here -” I grasp her hand and pull it clumsily against me.
“Sweetheart, it’s just your rib, it’s...” she shakes her head, “it’s your rib.”
“No -” I can’t think straight. My rib?
“Yes! It’s the same on both sides, Gabrielle, look -” She grazes her hand across my belly, carefully feeling that side too before grasping my hand and pressing it beneath her own. “See?”
I feel it there too. So... the lump isn’t back? It’s okay after all?
“It’s gone, Gabrielle.” She pauses for a moment, I think with her eyes closed, while I lie paralysed with shock and relief and disbelief. I listen to the sound of both our breathing rates slowing. When Xena speaks again her tone is far calmer, in control again. “It was just a dream.”
“It was so real -”
“I know.” Despite the darkness I can see that she’s been shaken too. She leans over me, cradling my head in a hand, and cuddles me.
Only with her comfort does my heart begin to slow back into a steady rhythm, my hunger for air lessen. Numbly I drape an arm around her neck, my fingers curling loosely into the mass of wavy hair at her back. “I’m sorry -” I stare up at the black void above us, unable to see past Xena in the dark night air.
“No, I’m sorry.” She gathers up the sheet and pulls it to my shoulders. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t here with you.”
She isn’t looking me in the eye, her gaze on the sheet, so I stroke her face to get her attention. I’m so grateful to her and it’s important that she knows. “Xena, you’ve done so much for me: none of this is your fault. I love you.”
A small smile, and she wipes drying tears from my face before bobbing down to kiss my cheek. “Love you too, Gabrielle.”
I nestle against her for a moment before half-heartedly encouraging her back to bed, but she just shakes her head and kneels by me until I’m asleep again, her chin resting on her arm on the bed and her eyes resting on me.
For the rest of that night Xena’s love surrounds me and is all I need. It’s a blissful feeling. I do dream, but it’s as if Xena is standing guard over me, fighting off all the terrors of previous nights and only letting through warm, happy visions. For the first time since all this began I enjoy my night, feeling safe and protected by the blanket of darkness, and it’s in the morning when I wake to the cool dawn light that the fear returns to me.
Xena’s love - no matter how precious to me - won’t stop this thing inside me from coming back, if it so chooses. It’s an enemy that neither of us can fight, not even Xena, with all her strength and considerable force of will. What’s more, her devotion is only going to make it all the more painful if something bad does happen to me. Not only do I have myself to worry about, I have to protect her from this too. I’m not blind to the irony that this is exactly the responsibility Xena takes for me every day of our lives. Have I ever thanked her for that? Did I ever really give her a choice? She walked out of Poteidaia alone, and I followed and nagged and cajoled until she gave in and let me stay - was that a fair thing to do to her?
Not for the first time, I wonder if Xena would be better off without me, just as I know she always worries that I’d be better off without her. Anyway, it’s a moot point, because we go together and that isn’t going to change, not now. Like Cyrene says, we’re family.
I like the word and cherish it. I love Xena - it’s the only thing I can take comfort in at the moment - but even that throws up confusing and uncomfortable feelings for me. Before all this happened, back in happier times, I was just starting to think of myself as a sensual being. I was becoming aware of myself in ways I hadn’t imagined before. Not at home on the farm, to be sure - I was in the company of the village children I’d grown up with, and it never crossed my mind that boys and girls did anything together except swim in the lakes and play ball. Even when I was betrothed to Perdicus, and fancied that I might have children and a family of my own one day, I was far too naive to imagine how that might come about. But when I left home to travel with Xena, and started to notice how beautiful and feminine she was, I began to look for those same qualities in myself, wondered if someday someone might view me in the same way that I saw her.
But not any more. Not now.
I don’t see myself in that way any longer. I don’t feel in the least bit sensual or sexual. My body is a liability, a betrayal. I wish I could detach myself from it, from the poison on the inside and the brand of the surgeon’s knife on the outside. I don’t want anyone to see me, and so I go back to wearing the long, loose clothes of my childhood, wanting to cover up, to forget. I can’t bear to look at myself.
Feeling at my most trapped and isolated when the sun is at its highest I wander outside and find Xena, practising with my staff in the gravelled area beside the tavern. The bar isn’t open yet - it’s too early - so there’s no one else around.
Xena is clearly enjoying herself, swinging the staff about her, feeling out its weight and balance. When she sees me she gives a grin but doesn’t break her routine. “Hey.”
“You don’t mind me borrowing this, do you?” She twirls around, bringing the staff in an arc across her body as if to sweep away the legs of an imaginary foe. “It’s been a while since I practised.”
I shrug, having no reason to object. “Of course not.” I look about me for somewhere to sit.
“It’s got a nice feel to it, huh?” Xena holds the staff parallel to the ground, resting it on her palms. “I brought along a spare - you want to spar?” She nods toward a dull wooden stick propped against the fence.
Nothing to lose, I figure. My heart isn’t in it, but I have nothing better to do. “Sure.”
She grins and offers me my staff. “You want this one?”
I take up the other weapon, basic though it is, and test its weight. “No, this is fine. You look like you’re enjoying that one.”
“Uh ha.” She gives a snarl of pleasure, and swings it around her again while she waits for me to come over. “You gonna be all right in those?” She nods toward my clothes - long skirt and full sleeves. “I’ll wait while you change if you want.”
“No,” I say quickly, “I’m fine like this.”
She shrugs. “Okay.”
We spar for a bit. She’s right that it’s all but impossible to fight properly in such restrictive clothing, and although we’re just playing here and it doesn’t matter, I do fleetingly worry over what will happen when we’re back on the road.
We like to spar, Xena and I. It keeps us fit, keeps our muscles toned, and teaches me some of Xena’s fighting prowess. When we first began she used to take me through each move one step at a time, very slowly. We’re more fluid now and it’s almost like a dance. We practice familiar moves and routines, hardly having to think about each new part of the sequence, and we try out new things, Xena teaching, me testing, learning together. It’s comfortable.
That is, until Xena decides she wants to talk. “You haven’t had any more bad dreams?”
She eases off, blocking my strikes and not making any of her own. “It was hard to see you that upset.”
“Sorry.” My tone isn’t in the least bit apologetic.
“If you want to talk...”
“I’m fine now.” This staff is a little battered, but it’s a nice one, and I enjoy the softly vibrating ring as it smacks against my own weapon in Xena’s hands.
“I feel badly that I wasn’t with you, I’m sorry...”
Huh! Now she’s just trying to assuage her own guilt. Too right she should have been with me, all those days and nights when I felt as if I were dying. She feels badly? She should try these boots on for size. “Xena, don’t go on.” I tut and give her staff another resounding strike. This isn’t part of any routine we’ve practised, but I’m caught up in my own anger, swept along by it. I swing my staff wildly, double handed, unheeding of whether she’s ready or not.
My staff misses hers. She’s defenceless. I realise in an instant that the wood is about to wallop her square in the face, but I can’t do anything about it - the staff has its own momentum and it’s too late to pull it back. How could I have aimed for her face?!
Xena’s hand comes up from nowhere and snatches the wood, blocking the blow. She doesn’t even look at it - just at me.
“I’m sorry -” I drop my staff as if it were suddenly ablaze. “I... I need to stop: I’m sorry -” I hold up my hands in surrender and back off, stunned by my own violence. I need to get out of here, I can’t even face her. I turn and stride out, head down. What have I done?
“Gabrielle -” Xena has bigger strides than me and is there blocking my way before I can even bring my head up. I look about for an escape route, but she plants the butt of my staff in the earth by my feet and presses it into my grip. “If you need to fight, then let’s fight.”
Has she understood none of this? “No, Xena, I’m not in the right mood just now, I almost...” I shake my head. “I don’t want to hurt you, I -”
She forces me to take my weapon. “You’re saying you’re better in combat than me?”
“Well, no -” Clearly that’s ludicrous.
Admittedly no. I shake my head.
“Well then. Better you fight me than the next person you get mad at. I’ll survive. Come on.” She knocks lightly at my staff with her boot then goes over to retrieve the old stick I dropped.
So I take to sparring again, seeing in her eyes that the proverbial candle has been lit and now she can see into all the shadows that were hidden to her up til now. She pieces together all the little inconsistencies of the last few days and knows that I’m very far from being better. I fight reluctantly at first, just giving a few meek attempts at attack, not sure how this is supposed to be helping. But then she gives my staff a few hard knocks and it causes fury to blaze up in me, driving my swing, giving it power and force. My confidence in her ability to defend herself grows as I see how effortlessly she blocks my attacks and I strike out wildly, imagining that instead of her I’m facing this awful, all-consuming thing inside me. I growl at it, my eyes glazing over with moisture to the point where I can barely see, and I just batter at it/her wildly and uncontrollably.
“What are you angry about?” Her words are maddeningly calm, more of a statement than a question, and seem to come from far away.
“Just shut up.” I swing again, pleased with the solid impact of wood against wood. “Don’t talk to me,” I egg her on with an angry snarl, “don’t talk to me now, when you should have been here all this time.” I give a laugh but it contains no humour. “When you should have been protecting me from this all along.” I grind my hands around the staff, firming up my grip. “Why didn’t you protect me?” In desperation I give another haphazard bash, but it’s so far off target it misses Xena entirely and just lands in the muddy grass. “You could’ve stopped this thing from being inside me, you should’ve saved me -” As soon as the words are out of my mouth I’m shocked by how ridiculous they sound, but they run on regardless. “How could you let this happen, Xena, how could you...”
The staff drops out of my hands and as I move forward to her - not knowing whether I want to strike her or embrace her - it trips me and fires up another blaze of rage at the sheer bloody injustice of the universe. I batter clumsily at the enemy in front of me, my blows completely lacking in both strength and conviction. She catches hold of my wrists but doesn’t really make much attempt to stop me - just to keep me close to her - so I wrestle half-heartedly with her, alternately clinging to her and trying to push her away, absolutely distraught. “Xena -” I’m so breathless I can hardly speak. “Xena, it’s got me.”
“Gabrielle,” she insists against my ear, the rich sound of her voice pulling me back toward reality, “I’ve got you.”
At this I surrender and cling to her, my heart pounding from the exertion. I press my face into her shoulder, unable to even cry, and she holds me as gently and lovingly as anyone ever could. My Xena, my protection, my solidarity...
But even this, even being held by Xena, which would once soothe any demon imaginable to me, somehow no longer really helps. As I stand with my body pressed to hers a part of me cringes and withdraws from the contact. I have no power over this enemy, and, worst of all, neither does she. The scar at my side is like a brand and I feel certain that even now she must be aware of it, that everyone who sees me must somehow be aware of it.
It’s ironic that now Xena is here and so ready and eager to listen to me I find myself with nothing at all to say. There’s no point in discussing all this ad infinitum: it won’t change anything, even if I could find the right words, which I doubt. I don’t even know how I feel anymore, I don’t know who I’ve become. I see myself as a shadow of the person I used to be. The tumour and its aftermath has taken everything else: my health, my clarity, my strength of will. It has taken my body from me and with that has gone the hope that I might ever be like Xena, or be anything more to her than a dear friend. It was always a silly fantasy - that one day she might find me attractive - but only now it’s gone forever do I quite appreciate it’s value to me.
If I no longer have words - I, who have expressed myself so eloquently and compulsively since childhood - then I no longer have anything. I no longer feel anything. No passion, no enthusiasm, no hope.
And so I become almost mute. I go about each day automatically, polite but detached, unthinking. I don’t start conversation and I try very hard not to think. I sink into myself.
No words, no thoughts, no point...
Part three: Xena: Under the influence
I’ve never known Gabrielle to be like this. The Gods know I’ve seen her upset, and I feel more and more responsible for that each time: her grief is almost invariably caused by the suffering of others, and she wouldn’t be exposed to that if it weren’t for me. But even then, she’ll talk to me. Usually, I can scarcely get her to stop: whether I want to listen or not, Gabrielle will talk.
Now she’s silent, and I can’t reach her. I might have a chance if I even knew exactly what had gotten her so shaken. I tell her the tumour won’t come back - Lycos said so - and that she needn’t be frightened. She humours me and tells me I’m right, thanks me politely, and remains as introverted and unhappy as ever. There’s something I’m missing and it frustrates me. She was afraid at first, of course, but it was fleeting: she’s brave and faces pain and even death head on. It isn’t that that’s bothering her. So what is it?
She goes to bed early now, and tonight I don’t feel like sitting around waiting for Mother to finish up in the bar. So I go for a walk in the cool night air, wandering aimlessly, thinking that it’ll do me good to be alone for a bit. Usually I like solitude, but not tonight: it’s just lonely. I find myself drawn to the light and merriment of an inn at the far end of the village. I know the place - it was around when I was a child - but I’ve never ventured inside before: its reputation was enough to keep me away, and in any case, Mother wouldn’t have approved. By the time I was old enough not to need her permission to go where I pleased I was no longer welcome anywhere in Amphipolis.
It’s been a long time, though, and the people here will have changed. Luckily I no longer need my mother’s approval for what I do - which is just as well, considering how I’ve spent most of the last few years - and so I head inside.
Once I’m through the heavy swinging doors my senses are assaulted by the heat and the noise of the place. The crowds of people here laugh and sing and drink, stoking up a huge fire until it’s unclear whether their cheeks are flushed from the heat or the cheap grog. It’s just the sort of place I would have enjoyed back when I led my army - probably right before I burnt it to the ground.
I find my way to the bar, doing my best to avoid the flailing limbs and clinking glasses of the drunken revellers, and order an ale. I sit on a stool and nurse the frothing liquid, swirling it around and watching it slosh against the sides of the huge tankard. When I take a sip it’s weak and watery, but then it is cheap, and I figure the patrons here aren’t much interested in the vintage.
“You’ll never get drunk on that, Warrior.”
I look around sharply to a big, muscular man with long sandy hair and a neat beard. He sits his bulk down on the stool beside mine.
“Who says I’m trying to get drunk?”
He shrugs, making himself comfortable. “You’re in the Lamb and Barrel - I’d say that’s a pretty good indication.” He waves over the bartender.
He has a point, I have to admit. “Why’d you call me a warrior?” I’m wearing civilian clothes, so if people here recognise my face it’s best I leave - I don’t want any trouble.
“Because you have a blade at your hip.” He makes his order, and I hastily remove the dagger from my belt and hide it away in my boot. When I straighten again he sets a small glass down in front of me. I sniff at the red liquid - whatever it is, it’s strong.
“Compliments of who?” I want to know.
“Tyldus.” The big man nods in greeting.
“Seems familiar.” I knock back the drink in one swallow, and he does the same. I was right: it’s as strong as fire. “Isn’t that a centaur name?”
Tyldus shrugs. “I’m no centaur.”
“Who are you, then?” My head spins with the slug of alcohol. It’s good. I push both empty glasses back toward the barkeep, who obliges.
“I’m whoever you want me to be. Just like most people in this joint. Take your pick: warrior, farmer, pirate - I do it all.”
I look my new companion up and down. He has big, strong hands roughened by labour, legs like tree trunks, and a small chopping axe and length of rope about his waist. He seems like a man who could turn his hand to anything. “What brings you in here?”
We are shoulder to shoulder, both with our elbows resting on the shiny bar. “Same as you,” he guesses as we accept our next round. “A drink, some company, some oblivion.”
It’s a pretty accurate assessment, I’ll give him that, so I drink another glass of fiery liquor with him. “Well I’m up for some company, if you’re willing. Alongside the drink.” I toast him with my empty glass.
“More than willing.”
“Huh. Guess I struck lucky, then.” My head is beginning to spin, and I scowl when my words sound slurred. This stuff is positively toxic! Oh well, it doesn’t matter much: I’m no stranger to drink - or stronger intoxicating substances, for that matter - and I can keep control of myself. If my mind gets a little foggy then so be it: the prospect seems distinctly desirable right now. In the past I would drink so much that I passed out of consciousness, but contrary to what my men believed it was rarely by accident - I wanted oblivion and actively sought it out. I’m not so stupid that I don’t know when to stop. So to Hades with it. “You hail from around here, Tyldus?” He doesn’t, of course, because if he’d been in Amphipolis a few years back he’d know who I am, and what I did, and he wouldn’t be sharing a drink with me, but it makes conversation.
And so he tells me about himself. All about himself. There’s nothing remarkable to hear and I lend half my attention to him and half to the drink, which obligingly keeps coming. When he asks about me I shrug and gloss over it, and he seems glad to get back to talking about himself. As we talk he sidles closer to me. Probably he thinks I won’t notice. Lucky for him I think him vaguely appealing - in a rough sort of way - because if I didn’t he’d have parted company with his kneecaps by now. “You hungry, Tyldus? I’m starved.” I wasn’t, when I came in, but I’m ravenous now.
“Sure.” He grins at the prospect of being able to provide for a pretty lady - even though I consider myself to be neither of these things - and reaches along the bar for a bowl of nuts. I shrug - any port in a tsunami. The nuts are salty and satisfying to crunch. Gabrielle isn’t one for nuts, I think to myself. If she were here she’d just pick at them dispassionately. She prefers dried fruits: she has such a sweet tooth, I remember one time...
But Gabrielle isn’t here.
And I’m glad, I insist to myself, because I don’t want to think about all that right now. She wouldn’t like it here, anyway, so I have nothing to feel guilty about. We’re just friends and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t enjoy Tyldus’ company. Even if she were here she wouldn’t be talking to me, as things stand right now, so I’m better off on my own with the ale.
There, the anger has made me feel better.
I glance around me as a brawl breaks out. Two men come crashing toward me and I scoot out of the way as my stool goes flying and a skinny oaf goes crashing into the bar. I could chastise him, of course - I could break his legs, if the fancy took me - but hey, life’s too short.
Through the bottom of yet another drained glass I watch Tyldus give the man what-for and send him on his way. Flushed with the satisfaction of having protected me, he returns to his seat and puffs out his chest a bit. My stool has disappeared under the bar, so he pats his knees and I’m glad of the resting place, not feeling too steady. I hold on with an arm around his broad shoulders and observe him with detachment. Of course, I think to myself with morbid amusement, I’d usually prefer a man to be behind me - that way you don’t have to look into his ugly face when he has his grubby hands all over you. I used to tell them that it felt better that way, deeper. But the truth was that I wanted them to be faceless because it made it easier to have them killed the next day: anyone who knew too much about the Destroyer of Nations was doomed to an untimely demise. At least they died happy. One or two were invited back to my bed, but none of them meant anything to me.
Borius was the one man I would have wanted to be facing me, to be in my arms, but he had his own preferences and we both had to live by them.
If Gabrielle and I ever...
I don’t let myself finish the thought, knowing it’s just stupid, drunken wishful thinking.
I wouldn’t have my back to her, that’s all.
I return my attention to my drink. Tyldus is still droning on about his mediocre achievements and I just nod dumbly and smile when he pauses. How many times have I done that with Gabrielle? I think about all the times she would chat to me while I barely listened, even though in contrast to Tyldus her words are always wise and thoughtful and honest. What I wouldn’t give now to have her talk to me, to tell me everything that’s in her heart.
Gabrielle, I’m with you: surely you know that by now?
Tyldus weaves an arm around my middle, and I allow it because... because it’s nice to be held, I suppose, even by a stranger. It used to be enough, back when I was forming the army. It still would be, I suspect, if it weren’t for Gabrielle and her endless, unconditional love. Nothing else compares anymore.
Damn it, Gabrielle isn’t here! I throw back another drink and decide to settle for what I have. I sling an arm around Tyldus’ great neck and let him pull me toward him. I scarcely pay attention when he kisses me, my mind swimming with the drink and with thoughts of Gabrielle. He goes on a bit too long and I have to twist my head away to breathe. There’s nothing particularly attractive about him, but I could use the distraction and he’s decent enough I suppose, so I try to muster up some interest. I had the right idea back in my army days, right? Enjoy them for the moment then forget about them. Saves you the pain of all this love nonsense.
I pat his big chest flirtatiously and smile. He kisses me again and I respond well enough: it’s a long practiced art and I can do it almost without thinking, without giving up anything of importance to me. His hands move over my arms. He clearly isn’t interested in talking any more, and I’m surprised to realise that talking is what I most feel like doing. Most likely it’s no great loss, I console myself: probably he doesn’t have the brain cells to rub together to hold a decent conversation.
His hands roam more daringly and I wonder why I’m letting him get away with this. I may be drunk, but I reckon I could still break his jaw with my eyes closed, and without spilling my drink. If Gabrielle were here she’d disapprove, I’m sure. This isn’t exactly dignified, I suppose, but then dignity is overrated. Ladylike princesses in their castles have their dignity, and their chastity, and absolutely no power over anything, including the direction of their own lives. They can keep it. I used to do this sort of thing all the time.
But then that’s the point, isn’t it? I used to do this all the time. I’m not that person anymore. I stopped because I met people who showed me a better way of life: people like Hercules and Gabrielle. I’m fantasising about how Gabrielle would judge me if she knew I was here, getting angry at her over something she hasn’t even done! If Gabrielle were here she’d be more likely than anyone else I know to understand why I’m doing this and to sympathise, to help. I’m not being fair to her.
Tyldus is nibbling at my neck and somewhere in the back of my fuzzy mind it strikes me as faintly disgusting. My stomach turns: I’ve been in this seedy place far too long already. “Listen, thanks for the chat but it’s time I was going.” None too subtly I push his face away from mine and get off his lap. It’s not until I stand that the room spins around me and I realise how unsteady I am. Too much drink, Xena, not good...
Tyldus stands too, and I don’t move away because I know I’ll fall flat on my face. “Don’t be coy,” he urges, “I know what you came here for.” He reaches down to his trousers and for a moment I can only dread to think what he’s going to bring out. Two natural urges compete for dominance and I foggily toss up which one I’ll opt for - vomiting, or whipping out my breast dagger and practising banana peeling with it. Both attractive options...
At first I’m relieved to see that what he has actually produced from his pocket is a small handful of dinars. Then my clumsy brain puts two and two together and helpfully lets me know that he’s trying to buy my services. He thinks I’m a prostitute, looking to bed him in return for a few drinks and some coin.
Okay, so the vomit option is in the lead...
I should be angry, but then if we’d met just a few short years ago he wouldn’t actually be that far off the mark. I didn’t trade sex for money, but I did use it to buy myself power or favour or obedience, so it’s not such a big leap. Wealth was power, so if sleeping my way to a sizeable hoard of riches had been the only way to acquire them I probably would have done it. Sex was just a tool to me, even after I’d met Borius. It was only Lao Ma who managed to teach me what power really was, and that sex couldn’t buy it. The difference between me in those days and the poor wenches that work places like this was that I had a choice. The girls here rely on fellows like Tyldus to make enough money to live, and that knowledge is the only thing that keeps me from brushing up on my banana peeling.
“Come on, Cupcake, just a little -”
Before his hand can even reach my butt I lash out for his wrist and bend it painfully upwards, making him yelp and contort himself in an effort to lessen my twisting. “Forget it, Cupcake,” I hiss at him, “or you’ll be just a little dead, understand me?” Ah, I think to myself contentedly, that’s the stuff. Nothing like a little violence to clear your head and lift your spirit.
Tyldus nods vigorously.
“Fabulous.” I release him and march off, happy that I’ve made my point abundantly clear.
There’s good news and there’s bad news, my brain tells me. The good news is that Tyldus doesn’t follow me, and sits back on his stall to nurse his wrist. The bad news is that I’m too drunk to figure out where the door out of this place is.
Seriously not good, Xena. Seriously bad girl...
“You look like you could use a drink.”
Not again! I turn to the pretty, feminine voice beside me. Or, more accurately, I turn half way and the room obligingly rotates the other half. I squint, trying to bring the slim figure into focus. She’s as tall as me, with chestnut brown hair and eyes to match. “Frankly,” I inform her, annunciating each word carefully, “I think that right now a drink is the very last thing in Tartarus that I need.”
She laughs prettily, tossing her hair about her shoulders and making me dizzy. “I don’t mean ale. Milk, maybe? It’ll settle your stomach.”
Milk? What kind of crazy place is this? “Who says it needs settling?”
“Oh.” How awful to be so transparent. “I haven’t drunk milk since...” Since I was pregnant with Solan?
“Well if it’s been that long maybe it’s time you started. Sit down and I’ll get you a glass.” She points to a table and a couch in a dark corner by a wall. As I have no idea where anything else is, including the door, I find my way over to it and sit. I’m glad to be off my legs, which don’t feel too reliable all of a sudden, and rest my head back against the wall. When the woman returns she sets a glass down in front of me, then sits beside me with her long legs crossed.
“If you’re a waitress shouldn’t you be working?” Gods, I’m sharp when I’m drunk.
“Do you object to my company?”
I roll my head against the wall to look at her. She has the most luscious ruby lips. “Nope.” Rousing myself, I knock back the milk. Urgh.
“Good.” She makes herself comfortable. “I’m not a waitress. I’m Alexandria.”
“Nice to meet you,” I say dutifully. With the back of my skull resting against the wooden panelling of the wall I can keep stock-still and just survey the room with my eyeballs, which at least makes me feel a bit less queasy.
“You’re a traveller?”
“How’d you know that?” I feel enormously hungry again, all of a sudden. “Do they sell pasties here?”
Another gentle laugh. “I don’t think so.”
“Cake? Slices of cake?”
“I doubt it, sorry.”
“I know you’re a traveller because of the state of your boots. What brings you to Amphipolis?”
“My friend got sick. Needed a good healer.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Is she okay?”
“Yeah, he cured her.”
Alexandria pauses. “You don’t look too happy for someone with a cured friend.”
This is undeniable. I lean forward and take up the glass again, swilling around the dregs. “Go figure.”
She cocks her head to one side. “Most people don’t come here to celebrate things. They come to forget. What is it you’re trying so hard not to think about?”
Now that I’m asked, the answer to this is startlingly, painfully obvious. “Her.”
“Oh. You have an argument?”
“No.” I don’t think I’ve ever argued with Gabrielle. Disagreed, yes, but argued?
“She say something unkind?”
“She do something nasty, then? Did she swipe your boyfriend from you?”
Not very likely, considering my taste in men. “No, she didn’t do anything bad.”
Alexandria scowls, then shrugs. “Honey, you’re not making a lot of sense.”
I shrug too, and turn so as to look at her. “Don’t worry, I rarely do.” I smile at her and introduce myself. “My name is Xena.”
She nods jovially but smiles warmly, her eyes going a shade more orange in the flickering lantern light. “Nice to meet you, Xena.”
She has a pretty face - a kind face - and when I talk she listens to me. I’m usually stonily silent, always careful not to give too much away, but they say that a drink loosens the tongue and it certainly has that effect on me. I talk nonsense mostly, I’m sure, but Alexandria is apparently entertained and it’s liberating, good for my ego. She calls over the waiter and orders some fritters. They arrive in a wicker basket, balls of various unidentifiable fruit covered in sweet batter. I tuck in.
“Gabrielle would love these,” I say with a full mouth.
“She would?” Alexandria eats a tad more daintily than I do, licking at her fingers. “I thought you didn’t want to think about her. Gabrielle is your friend, right?” She is only making an observation, not a criticism. “Thought you were mad at her?”
“No, no.” How could I be? “No, I love her.” Really more interested in my snack, I swallow and feel the sweet starchiness of the batter going down my throat. “Is this peach?” I study a piece of fritter that I’ve bitten in half. “Where’d they get peach from at this time of year?”
Her hand encircles mine as she takes the fruit to look at. “I don’t know what it is. Could be anything.”
“Huh.” I take that as a none too subtle criticism of the catering here, but then no one comes to the Lamb and Barrel for the cuisine any more than they come for the fine beverages. She offers me back the fruit and I eat it from her hand. Her fingers linger and brush over my lips, and as I feel their delicate pressure I give in and let myself notice the long, lean line of her neck, the swell of her breasts beneath her blouse, the shining curls of her hair.
I reach for her and she shifts closer, stroking my head and returning the kiss that I lean in for. She’s warm and fragrant and soft, and I want nothing more than to be held in her arms, to taste her lips and her flesh. Her hands drag up my body and grope at me, here in our dark little alcove, and I respond in kind. I can kindle passion very quickly, even when I’m half-cut. Male or female, it’s never made much difference to me: I’m more than competent, either way.
After a fierce few moments of kissing and clutching at each other a new need washes over me and I pull her against me in a cuddle, my chin on her shoulder. I don’t want sex, I want... I snuggle against her, into her soft neck, hide my face there. I want to be with someone who means something to me, I want something more than just this fleeting midnight liaison. I want a friend, not a stranger.
I want Gabrielle.
I should be at home with Gabrielle, not out here in this seedy home of the desperate and lonely. This isn’t me anymore: I have a family now. I pull back from Alexandria, who is really very beautiful and who has deep, wise eyes just like Gabrielle. I cup her face in my hands, pained. “Alexandria, I’m sorry -”
She settles her finger over my lips. “Go home, Xena. Go home to your friend.” She smiles at me with enormous understanding, and I fervently hope that she’s happy, whoever she is. I lean forward to kiss her, then take my leave and go.
The night air sobers me up a bit and leaves me exhausted and barely able to drag one foot after the other. I manage to reach the gates of the tavern, but there’s something I have to attend to before I go in. I stumble over to the nearest bush and keel over, dropping to my knees.
The fritters were a big mistake.
Even as I’m being absurdly sick I observe that on the whole I have a stomach cast of steel and am not usually given to lose my lunch over excess, or pain, or anything else. Unlike poor Gabrielle, who seems to throw up at the slightest provocation. But then she isn’t much bothered by vomiting, whereas I hate it. I hate the loss of control. I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve been sick in my whole life, and almost all of those were when I was carrying Solan, so I can claim diminished responsibility.
And then there was the once after I’d given him away.
So it makes sense that to me, vomiting isn’t just about losing control: it’s about losing something private, something intimate. I hate it.
I can distinctly remember the first time I was ever sick, and the same feelings get evoked in me every time since. It was when I was six years old: I was with my older brother and his friends when we came across an old, disused piece of farming equipment rusting in a field. The top part of it spun around on a base which was embedded into the earth, and the boys challenged each other to see who could sit on the thing and spin around the fastest without falling off. Ever keen to keep up with them, and correctly figuring that as I was the lightest the thing would spin fastest with me on it, I took a turn. The boys were only too happy to oblige, and fell about laughing when I finally tumbled off, flushed pea-green, and foul liquid gushed out of my mouth like water from a tap. I remember being giddy with both terror and hysterical excitement at this new experience, fearing that my insides were bursting out of me but high with the thrill of it. Toris wasn’t best pleased: he had to leave his friends and take me home to get cleaned up, and he got a ticking off from Mother to boot.
No, Mother didn’t approve then and she’d be even less pleased now, so I manage to wipe my face and get myself inside and up the stairs as quietly as possible. I all but fall into the darkened bedroom, kicking off my boots as I go and stripping off my clothes, leaving them in untidy heaps on the floor. I manage to find and tug on a shift, just about able to get the right appendages through the right holes. I can see my empty bed in the darkness but don’t think I can bear it. I pad unsteadily over to where Gabrielle lays and slide into bed with her. I reach out, finding her warm back under the covers, and curl around her, holding the small body against my own, our arms entwining. Sorry I ever let you go, Gabrielle, I think, and rest my cheek on her back. Without waking, she makes a soft purr of satisfaction and comfort, and snuggles herself into the embrace. By the time I doze off our feet are tangled and I have her hands held in mine, her cool, slender fingers clinging unconsciously to mine.
“I’m here,” I whisper to her in the darkness, “I’m here now.”
I sleep like the dead, and don’t wake until I feel her stirring. I inadvertently have my arms clamped around her so tightly that there’s no way she’d be able to get up and leave without me knowing about it. It takes me a moment to come to full consciousness, my head feeling as though it’s filled with sand, and by the time I’m able to open extremely sore eyes Gabrielle has turned over and is gazing down at me, propped up on an elbow, her fair eyebrows up under her fringe with surprise and concern.
“Huh?” I try to orientate myself. “You have a nightmare? It’s all right, I’m right here -” Come on, Xena! Be of some use to her, for the love of -
“No, no, I wasn’t dreaming,” she tells me distractedly. “You okay?”
Her hand comes to rest against my face, deliciously cool and soft. I must look a mess. “I’m fine, just fine.” As my eyes adjust I see daylight, and realise it’s morning already. I close my eyes against the brightness and the thumping in my head.
“Have you been crying?”
No doubt my eyes are read and puffy. I’d forgotten about that. “Not me. I don’t cry.”
Just like I don’t vomit.
I feel her brush hair back from my face, soft and infinitely gentle. “Xena...” There are so many emotions carried in just that one word. I open my eyes again to see an expression full of concern and regret and pain for me, but know that those emotions go hand in hand with love and take comfort from that. She knows full well that I was drinking last night, and why.
“Hope I didn’t disturb you,” I apologise, “I got back a little late. I didn’t wake you did I?”
“No, no, I... I slept better than I have in ages.” She says this with surprise.
I’ve missed sleeping beside her too. “Good.” I smile and take her hand to squeeze. “Lie back down then, it’s still early, my head isn’t ready to get vertical just yet.”
I feel her sink down against me, feel the brush of her cheek and her hair against my face, but then the weight is gone again and she’s getting up. “It’s breakfast time, Xena, I should help Cyrene.”
“You stay there for as long as you like, it’s okay.”
I reach out for her, but she’s already gone.
Well, it was naive of me to think that things could be so easily put right. Gabrielle isn’t a child who can be cheered with a smile, a horse who can be won around with a sugar lump. I need to figure out what’s wrong, what’s really wrong. She isn’t going to tell me straight out - if she even knows herself - so I’m going to have to figure it out for myself. Come on, Brain - it’s just you and me now, whether we like it or not.
Unfortunately, I’m severely hung over, and Brain isn’t playing ball. I drag myself out of bed and plod down to the kitchen. Mother is cooking at the stove, alone, so I plonk myself down at the table. “Gabrielle eaten already?”
“If you could call it that.” Mother brings over a slice of dry toast and a glass of water. The sight even of that turns my stomach, and I clutch my pounding head in my hands, elbows resting on the sturdy old table. “You might have spent your evenings drinking when you were in your army, Xena, but you won’t under my roof.”
I groan to myself. Just what I need. “I wasn’t in an army, Mother: I led an army.” I sometimes wonder if she knows just how bad I was, back then.
“Either way. I won’t have it here.”
She has every right to set such a stipulation: this is her house, and she must see enough of the effects of drink with her patrons. “How’d you know?” I’d thought I was being so quiet, too. I take the tumbler of water and try to get some of it down me.
“A mother knows, Xena.” Her tone has softened, become almost resigned, and she stands behind me and idly rubs my back, trying to soothe my nausea. Her hands are as rough as mine - albeit from different labours - but they’re also strong and sure, as mine are. Neither of us speaks for a bit, enjoying being together, and I eat my toast. “Gabrielle isn’t a vain girl, is she.”
It’s an observation rather than a question, and is so out of the blue that I just snort in reply. “No.” It’s so ludicrous it’s almost laughable.
“Hmm. Strange then that she should spend so much time at the mirror, don’t you think?”
Puzzled, I look up from my plate and follow her gaze out into the hall, where Gabrielle stands regarding herself in the long mirror there, out of earshot. She looks so desperately alone, so melancholy, and my heart tightens painfully behind my ribs. “She looks so unhappy...”
“She does,” Mother agrees, her hand stilling at my shoulder. Then she sighs. “But I’d say even that is an improvement. Before you arrived, Xena...” She just tuts and shakes her head, her gaze dropping down to the grey slate tiles beneath her boots.
I look back to her, realising that she’s probably been closer to Gabrielle in these last few weeks than I have. “I don’t know how to help her,” I confide.
We watch Gabrielle gazing forlornly at herself, eyes fixed and unfocussed, lost in thought. If there was a dragon at her back I’d slay it: how can I fight an invisible enemy? Finally Mother goes over to her, summoning up a warm smile as she does so. “More toast, Little One?”
Gabrielle actually starts, but she smiles quickly to cover it. “No, thank you Mother.” She averts her eyes from the mirror, as if to pretend she hadn’t been looking in the first place.
Mother stands behind her, regarding their reflections, and rests her hands lightly at Gabrielle’s sides. “I think your hair has gotten a shade lighter since you came here.” She strokes a strand of hair over Gabrielle’s shoulder. “With all the sunlight in the garden?”
Gabrielle just looks uncomfortable, and keeps her eyes away from the mirror. She laughs awkwardly and doesn’t reply.
“You’re a very pretty girl,” Mother presses on, “I’m sure your mother often told you so.”
Gabrielle pulls a face, her eyebrows drawing together, and looks about her as if she feels trapped by Mother’s hands at her waist. She pointedly doesn’t look in the mirror. “No, I’m not really.”
Mother goes on regardless as if she hadn’t heard this and is oblivious to Gabrielle’s obvious discomfort. One thing my mother is not is dim-witted - she’s noticed, all right. “There’s a market in the next town today - it doesn’t come around very often - and I could use some peaches, and a pineapple or two, I haven’t tasted pineapple all winter. You and Xena can go fetch some for me.” She doesn’t pause long enough for Gabrielle to protest. I know what market she’s talking about, and it’s there every damn week. “There’s such a pretty lake along the way, has Xena ever told you about it? You could stop off there for your lunch. The walk will do you good. Go get your boots then - go on with you.” I never figured how to say no to Mother, and apparently neither has Gabrielle: she presses out a smile and reluctantly goes.
When Mother returns to where I’m sitting I scowl at her in confusion. “You can’t abide pineapples.” In fact, I seem to remember her being mildly allergic to the things.
“Well yes,” she dismisses, “but I had to think quickly.”
I just look at her dumbly, and she rolls her eyes as she begins to clear away the breakfast things.
“For a daughter of mine you really aren’t too quick on the uptake, Xena.” She tuts, then her hands pause on the dishes and she looks thoughtful. “She won’t look at herself. I don’t know why. She doesn’t want others to look, either.” A shrug. “She hardly shows her face in the bar anymore, and she used to love it there, telling her stories and chatting with the villagers. It’ll do her good to get out.” She sets the crockery down by the sink. “The market will be busy, and the lake will be quiet, so one way or another you’ll figure out what’s troubling her.” She makes herself busy again. “In any case, peaches and pineapples are juicy, messy things - it’s all but impossible to eat them without getting sticky - and you can hardly wash your hands in a lake without seeing your own reflection in it, now can you?” She makes her way around the table, her skirts brushing past me as she loads used dishes onto an arm. “Your mother has been around long enough to have learned every trick in the scroll, Xena, so don’t give me that look. And don’t tell me that you’re too much of a warrior to get yourself a little mucky, because it was me who had to bath you when you came home from strawberry picking, and that was a sight to behold.”
“I didn’t like strawberries,” I sulk mildly, “I never ate them.”
“No, you just flung them around the place until you were covered from head to toe, didn’t you,” she accuses me with amused despair, and stands looking down at me with such undisguised love that I can’t help but be honest with her.
“Gabrielle won’t talk to me.”
“You’ll find a way.”
“She seems more willing to talk to you these days.”
Again Mother takes on a look that suggests I’m missing the completely obvious, as one would feign patience and tolerance when teaching an ogre to cover his mouth when he burps. She reaches to stroke my hair, then cups a hand to my cheek. When her eyes connect with mine they’re full of understanding, and I await her wisdom as eagerly as a child. “Of course she is: it’s not me that she’s in love with, now is it, Xena?”
Mother’s words echo in my mind as Gabrielle and I set off. I try to dismiss them as the misinterpretation of an out of touch parent, but I’m not able to shake them entirely. It’s a beautiful sunny day and the walk through the forest is extremely pleasant. Gabrielle says little, but she doesn’t seem too melancholy so I let her enjoy her surroundings without interruption.
The market is bustling, so we only visit the fruit stall. Gabrielle doesn’t involve herself with the other shoppers as she usually would but she doesn’t look uncomfortable to be around them. Along with the pineapples and peaches we pick up two coconuts, shaking each one in turn to hear the sweet milk sloshing about inside. Gabrielle spots a basket full of dark, glossy cherries. “They look nice,” she comments, “like the ones in the pie your mother made?”
I pay for a bunch of cherries too, and we start back for the trees: we can’t talk here, it’s too crowded.
“Do you think we could make one of those pies? With the sugar all golden on top?” Gabrielle asks conversationally: it does seem to have done her some good to have come here.
“I don’t think you can bake pie in a saucepan,” I muse regretfully, thinking about the limited cooking facilities available to us on the road. “Guess we’ll have to drop by Amphipolis more often.”
“Your mother would like that.”
By the time we reach the lake it’s early afternoon: we’re thirsty, ready for lunch, and the sun is at its most fierce. Gabrielle hasn’t seen this part of Amphipolis before, and stands gazing out over the clear blue water surrounded by lush trees. Very few people know this lake is here, I tell her: it’s a private place where my brothers and I used to swim as children. It never dries up, even in mid-summer, thanks to a fierce little waterfall bringing water from higher ground.
We sit down on the sandy bank and I’m typically clumsy as I haphazardly cut and peel some fruit so that each piece oozes or drips juice down my arms. I do remember Mother’s instructions, but as this is my usual skill when it comes to food preparation it takes no conscious effort to get completely covered in fruity pulp. I can see Gabrielle trying not to laugh at me, so at least I’ve accomplished something positive. The fruit is ripe and when I hand over her share she tucks in - it’s a joy to see her eat properly again.
“Thirsty?” I ask her.
She answers around a mouthful of fruit. “A bit.”
So I take a hairy coconut, set it on a rock between my knees, and stab it with my breast dagger. Watery milk squirts up into my face, and Gabrielle gives in and laughs. The sound is wonderful and I take a moment to treasure it. I wipe my face in the crook of my arm. “Urgh.” Damn it, Xena, do you have to make quite such a good job of this getting messy thing? When I look over to Gabrielle she seems to go self-conscious and averts her eyes. I don’t think Mother’s intention was that I cover myself in goo while Gabrielle eats as neatly and efficiently as ever. Giving up on the silly idea, I hand her the bowl-like coconut husk and she drinks deeply from it.
When I’m done and can no longer stand the flies that have come to feast on me I get up and dust myself off, kicking off my boots and shrugging off my clothes down to my shift. “I’m going for a dip.” I pause for a moment. “You coming?”
“No, thanks. You go.”
Well, I can’t claim to be surprised. It was worth a try. I go on into the water, enjoying its warmth. This place really is idyllic, just like I remember it. I swim around in small circles, thinking. Gabrielle was probably more comfortable in the market with all those people than she is here just with me. Why do I make her feel like that? It’s the intimacy she doesn’t like: why? Something about that damn tumour. She doesn’t worry that it’ll come back, not now, she hasn’t mentioned that or dreamt about it for days, I don’t think that’s the problem.
I’ve always faced problems head on, and see no alternative but to do the same here. If it’s intimacy that’s scaring her then intimacy is exactly what she’s going to get: she might rip my head off for it, but at least it’ll get us to the bottom of this.
“Gabrielle,” I call out, “the water’s lovely, come for a swim!”
She’s always been a water-baby and I can see that she’s tempted. It’s devilishly hot now and a refreshing dip would usually be her top priority. “Well,” she acquiesces, “maybe just a paddle.” I watch her wade in up to her ankles, holding her long skirt out of the way. When she glances up to me I smile in acknowledgement of her effort and give her time to adjust.
She likes being in the water so it isn’t difficult to think of a way to coax her a little deeper. “Hey, there are some pretty shells down here in the sand, can you see?” I point with my toe.
She’s visibly torn, wanting to see the shells but unable to from where she is. “I don’t see them, can you bring some over?”
“Erm...” I fake consternation, shaking my head. “There are so many down here.” Giving up, I make myself comfortable on a big boulder embedded up to its middle in the sand. “Come over and see for yourself.”
I watch her hover where she is. “My clothes will get wet.”
Again I feign nonchalance and shrug. “Take them off.”
Gabrielle has never been reluctant to strip off for a swim before - there isn’t room for modesty out on the road - and I’m still struggling to understand why she’s taken to wearing clothes which cover her from wrists to ankles: we’re in the height of summer, and Amphipolis isn’t exactly a holy town where exposed flesh is frowned upon. But she hesitates now so I don’t push her, respecting whatever agonies are running through her mind.
Finally she strips down to her shift and wades over to me, her face set in grim, dogged determination as if she’d just completed a necessary but unpalatable task. I reach out for her hand to steady her and to guide her to the patch of shells. Once she finds them she’s predictably captivated: she sits in the sand beside the boulder, the warm water lapping around her waist, casually splashes sticky juice from her face, then studies the treasures in earnest. So much for Mother’s theory - the reflection of Gabrielle’s face dances in front of her as she peers down to the shells, and she doesn’t seem in the least bit troubled by it.
So I just sit and watch her for a bit, the boulder’s surface warm underneath me and my legs swinging in the clear water. Gabrielle is subdued, certainly - usually she’d be showing me each shell in turn, trying vainly to spark my interest in the delicate shapes and pastel colours - but she seems content and absorbed, digging the shells from the sand with her fingertips and rinsing them in the water. Every now and again she finds one she particularly likes and sets it on the boulder beside me to dry out. One specimen still houses its inhabitant, and I watch in amusement as it crawls away over the rock while Gabrielle’s attention is elsewhere, completely baffling her as to its whereabouts when she turns back to it. “The water’s warm, huh?” I try to coax her into conversation.
“It’s beautiful.” She studies a shell in her palm - a pale creamy one with whirls of lemon yellow - then looks about her. “It’s a lovely place.” Again, I’d usually expect her to be asking me all about the times I spent here as a child, but she remains silent, contemplative. At length she goes back to the shells, seemingly lost in their beauty and perfection.
When she’s been at it for a while she stretches, scowling, the hunched over position telling on her back. So I move down into the water with her, sitting behind her with my legs stretched out beside hers. “Here, lean back on me.” I ease her shoulders back and take some of her weight. She looks weary from lack of sleep and doesn’t protest, settling her head back against me and closing her eyes, turning her face up to the sun.
I let my arms go around her, and kiss softly at her hair, brilliant yellow and warm. I think I take to rocking her a bit, so keen am I to make everything all right. It’s quiet here, it’s just us. “You know I love you, right?” I whisper into her ear.
A slight nod. “I know that you do.”
She’s as tight-lipped as the miniature clam shell resting in her palm: how can I get her to talk to me? I consider asking her straight out what’s wrong, but figure that if it was that easy to say she would have done so by now. I can hardly criticise her for being non-communicative - it would be a tad hypocritical, coming from me. In the early days Gabrielle would always badger me to talk, about everything. When I didn’t - when I couldn’t - I expected her to get annoyed, to give up, but instead she very quickly learned to change tack. She stopped using words and started using actions, giving me the space I needed but always being there with a smile and a gentle touch, ever loving and devoted, until the words just tumbled out of me, story after story of all the horrible things that I’d done, that were eating away at my soul. The first time I told her such things I almost physically recoiled, waiting for what I assumed would be her inevitable reaction of disbelief and disgust and anger, but it never came: only more gentle, kind understanding. This positive reinforcement was all I needed to go on talking to her. She’s so perceptive and intuitive that I doubt she gave her change in tactics any thought, she just did what she felt was right.
None of it comes so easily to me, and it takes me far more conscious thought, but perhaps the love and patience that she showed me is what Gabrielle needs now, maybe it’s the one thing that will coax her into talking.
So I begin by stroking her hair soothingly from her face, pressing my cheek against hers, taking her hands and holding them. I go slowly, gently, not asking anything from her and not intruding on whatever dozy thought or daydream she’s having. I stroke my hands over her fair, freckled arms, careful to go on cuddling her, and without opening her eyes she turns her head toward me, nestling her face into my neck. I kiss her forehead then rest my head against hers, gazing out across the blue brilliance of the lake and trying to share in whatever her pain is. I can feel her relax in my arms and I take more of her weight. If she wants to sleep here in this warm, safe place, then that’s fine by me. I’m not sitting too comfortably, though, twisted as I am, so I gingerly slide my hands under her arms to support her weight while I shift my legs.
A hand clamps onto my wrist and pushes it away. “Xena don’t... don’t touch me there.” She scowls unattractively and pulls away from me, leaning forward over the shells again, although I doubt her angry eyes see them.
Startled by this, and confused, I pull back my hands, lest they should do any more damage. “I’m sorry - did I hurt you?” I hadn’t meant to touch near the scar, I hadn’t been thinking about it.
“Is it still sore? Because maybe we should go back to Lycos and...”
“No, it isn’t sore. Just... forget about it, okay? I don’t want to be touched there, that’s all.”
And so all I can do is stare at her back, more confused than ever. If the wound isn’t painful, why such an angry response? If I could think of a sensible question right now I’d ask it, but I don’t know where to start. What is she so afraid of? What is she trying to protect?
There’s an awkward silence for a while, which Gabrielle eventually breaks with a sigh. “I mean -” she begins by way of surrender, of apology, “I don’t mind if you touch me. If you hold me. Just... not there.”
Her tone makes it sound as if she says this to appease me, for my benefit, but I know Gabrielle too damn well not to hear the undertone of uncertainty, of pleading. Without hesitation I put my arms back around her, determined to show that I’m with her. I rest my head against hers and feel her small fingers knotting into my shift, holding me close to her.
“It’s all right,” I tell her, and she nods. We’re both lost in a storm, unanchored and afraid, but at least we’re in it together.
I hold her tight for a bit, the water lapping around us, heat from the sun sinking into us and beginning to light some of the shadows. The breeze stirs Gabrielle’s hair and I casually brush it back out of the way, watching it curl prettily at the base of her neck. I love the creamy hue of her skin - she spends as much time outside as I do, but her flesh always stays lighter.
She lifts a hand to scratch her fingers softly into my hair, her head tipped back and turned toward me, so I take this as unspoken consent and duck my head down to kiss the soft angle between her neck and shoulder. It’s good to be close to her again, I’ve missed it more than I could ever have anticipated. Her ear is cool against my cheek, and I move to caress it, stroking the soft line of her jaw, thinking how beautiful she is, how pink her lips are, how...
Gods, this is wrong.
The thought suddenly occurs to me, and I pause. This is taking advantage. And I swore I’d never do that. Being close to her is one thing, but touching her like this - and thinking what I’m thinking - isn’t about comforting her, it’s about indulging myself.
Selfish, selfish monster, Xena - damn you.
I let go of her as if she’d become hot to the touch. The Gods know I’ve taken advantage of others my whole life, but it has never led to the kind of happiness Gabrielle brings me. Right from the start, when we first met, I took a private oath to never, ever use her trust for my own ends. I’ll be damned if I’m going to go back on that, now or ever.
Gabrielle, who had up until now seemed lost once again in her own private reverie, brings her head up sharply at the loss of contact. She half turns to me, on impulse, but then seems to realise something, and her gaze drops again. She lifts her arms to cover herself, on the pretence of having to study a corner of her nail. “Is it that bad?” Her voice is barely audible, and so monotone that it takes me a moment to register that I’ve been asked a question.
Resignedly she gets up and wanders away from me out into the lake. Wrong-footed again, I just sit looking at her. “That you don’t want to touch me. The scar - is it that bad?” Having clarified, she gives a self-depreciating shrug. “It’s okay, Xena, I understand if -”
“No!” So this is what all this has been about? She thinks the mark on her is so awful that no one would want to look at it - to look at her - least of all me? Suddenly I understand, and I’m almost physically hit with the force of it, with the stupidity of not having realised it before. Gods, I’m so sorry, Gabrielle. “No, no -” I insist, and get up to go to her. “No, that is not it, I want t touch you.” I take her back into a cuddle, regardless of whether she wants it or not. I can’t let her think that, it’s so untrue: the mark is barely visible, and even if it weren’t, it wouldn’t alter how I feel about her. “I want to be with you.” I cradle her to me, and she goes up on tiptoe and returns the hug willingly, reassured that her fears are unfounded. “I just didn’t know if you’d be comfortable,” I say with my chin on her shoulder, “I only wanted to comfort you.” I tut at myself and pull back to look at her. “Sorry I’m not doing a real good job of it.”
Gabrielle smiles, probably amused by my clumsy candour. “It’s okay, Xena.”
“Listen to me - everything’s going to be all right -”
A chuckle, as if this were as sweet but meaningless a statement as promising someone the moon. Hearing a thing does not always allow one to believe in it, I know. I need to give her more than this small, perfunctory reassurance, I need to find a way to touch a deeper part of her soul. Her anguish isn’t soothed at all, only thinly buried like those shells in the sand, ready to be unveiled again with the slightest shift in the tide. “Gabrielle -”
“You’re here, Xena - that’s enough.” And she quickly kisses my cheek, as if I were the one who needed reassuring.
But it’s not enough - it’s no where near enough.
I cherish the kiss like a gift. It isn’t that Gabrielle hasn’t kissed me of her own volition before, because she has, although it’s usually as an expression of comfort or empathy. It isn’t that I haven’t kissed her, because we’ve done that too. I’ve always been comfortable with giving a platonic kiss: probably it started with the arrival of Lyceus, who as a baby always tasted sweet and loved for me to press kisses into his belly or feet. But for Gabrielle the contact is never casual: I have her trust - now it’s time to make good use of it.
“I want you to do something for me,” I say, her hands held in mine.
Gabrielle just looks at me mildly, expectantly.
I tug lightly at the hem of her shift. “Take this off.”
With this an awful anguish comes over her face and she groans painfully enough to squeeze at my heart. “Oh, Xena, no -”
I actually think it would be less agonising if I were to take up my sword and drive it into my own belly. The girl who was once so free and happy and confident now can’t even stand to take her shift off in front of me.
I take her firmly into my arms. “Listen to me -” I kiss her temple, determined that she hear me. “I love you -”
“I love you too, Xena, but I -”
I resist her meek efforts to squirm away. “Trust me,” I say into her ear. “Just trust me.” A better idea has presented itself, and I reach down to take her hand. “Come on.” I beckon her lightly but assertively. “It’s all right, come on.”
Seeing this as a temporary reprieve, Gabrielle holds my hand and comes with me across the lake. At no point is it too deep to stand upright, and when we cross the middle and approach the waterfall the smooth, shiny rocks come up under our feet and we clamber over them. We duck under the falling water, and I guide Gabrielle down onto a rocky plateau between the tumbling water and the deep brown rocks of the cliff. With the water only up to her ankles here she looks around her: the narrow space forms a cave that is screened off from the world, fairly noisy from the beating of water on rock, humid and steamy. “It’s amazing,” she enthuses, always impressed by the beauty of nature. “You found it when you were young here?”
“Uh ha. My brother carved his initial into a rock back there, see?” I point, and she peers over and spots the faded ‘T’ in a reddish rock in the sand.
“It’s beautiful, Xena.” She turns to look back at me and share her enjoyment of this place. When she sees me I actually make her laugh, a pretty little crease forming between her eyebrows. “Can you actually see anything from under there?”
I’m perched on a rock with the waterfall pounding heavily on my shoulders, and am shrouded in mist. “Nope,” I report honestly, “not a thing.” She laughs despairingly at me, then quickly sobers, probably guessing my motive. “And neither can anyone else,” I tell her, “so take it off.”
I see her swallow hard, see the pain etched into her face. She turns her back to me, seeking out any escape from the inevitability of this. Her eyes fall on a shiny patch of wall, its surface glistening with dampness and as reflective as a mirror, and she shakes her head fervently. “I can’t -”
Using every scrap of will power I have I get up and go to her. I desperately don’t want to see her upset, but I have to convince her that she’s wrong about the scar - she has to get over this, or it will eat away at her just like the tumour itself destroyed her aunt. I stand behind her, arms securely around her middle, trying to give her the strength to face this demon. I look at her reflection on the shiny wall. “You’re beautiful.”
Gabrielle looks skywards as if to escape from the awful reality of this, and tears of frustration and desperation roll from her eyes and fall over her cheeks. “I’m really not, Xena.”
“You are to me.” I love her so much it’s intolerable. I squeeze her softly, wipe her tears, then decisively gather up the wet material at her thighs. “Come on.” I pull her shift up and over her head, and she hasn’t the strength of will even to resist, just stands with her eyes tightly closed as if she were awaiting an executioner’s blow. “Open your eyes,” I beg her softly, but she won’t.
So I tease her hair back from the nape of her neck and kiss her there, slowly and softly. If I can’t tell her how beautiful she looks to me, I’ll show her instead. I bring up my hands to gently massage her shoulders, to ease the tension from her neck, to stroke the muscular lines of her back. When I think she’ll let me I gently turn her around to face me. She’s breathtakingly beautiful, she really is, and it makes me even more determined, even more devoted. She still has her eyes closed, lips parted to accommodate rapid, fearful breathing. “Give me your hand -” I take her fingers in mine and hold them for a moment to warm them before holding them to my lips to kiss.
Despite some observers’ belief to the contrary, I never, ever had an ulterior motive for befriending Gabrielle, for letting her travel with me: there was nothing sexual in my mind then and there isn’t now, but I need her to feel relaxed about her body again, and with the failure of words I don’t know any other way than this. I’ve always been dimly aware of Gabrielle’s preferences and know that this sort of intimacy between us won’t alarm her. Unlike me, she has no interest in men - beyond the purely platonic - and if others see it differently it’s because they misinterpret her affection and inherent friendliness for something more than it is. Admittedly she spent time with several lads whom we met in the towns we passed through when she was younger, and even married, ‘to be sure, once and for all’. She was still young - and more naive than she ever would have admitted - when we got ourselves caught up in an effort to reunite a cursed Orpheus with his body and defeat Bacchus’s hold over his womenfolk. The party held by the vampire women bore little resemblance to the gatherings held in Poteidaia, I’m quite certain, and I knew that night that she had made her choice, ‘once and for all’.
Now, as I hold her encircled in an arm, her head goes back in surrender, lifting her chin and presenting her neck, long and lean and leading down to her shoulders and the swollen curves of her breasts. I dutifully kiss down her throat - feather-light touches like the brush of rose petals - then guide her hand up to follow my lips, encouraging her to touch with her fingertips. She understands immediately, lightly feeling the skin that I’ve moved on from, her fingers constantly moving between her own flesh and my cheek, exploring a little more then coming back to me for reassurance.
I’d fully intended to stop at her shoulder, to draw back and let her go on by herself, guiding her hand if necessary until she came to the scar, but I worry now that she’ll perceive that as a rejection. In any case, what better way to show her that it really is all right? What better way to prove to her that this part of her is still loved and accepted?
I lick my lips to moisten them and bob my head down again, her free hand trailing idly through my hair. Clearly with Gabrielle’s permission, and ostensibly at her request, I trail kisses down over the beautifully soft curve of her breast and hold my lips to the tiny scar. She’s fragrant and sweet beyond all belief, and I touch her as if she were the most precious, sacred thing in all the world to me.
When I glance up to her I see that she’s watching now, and calmly too, with interest rather than fear. I smile at her, rest my forehead against hers, and gently guide her hand to her breast, letting her feel. Encouraged, we carefully lift her arm above her head and I kiss too the hollow of her armpit where the pale curve of the scar spreads. She strokes my hair from my face as she watches me do this, then feels for herself, and I hold her but don’t interfere in what I imagine is a very private moment.
I kiss her head then avert my eyes, not needing to be privy to what she’s doing. If she wants to explore how her body feels and responds to her touch then let her. I gaze out across the small cave, an arm loosely about her waist, until she returns her attention to me and wants a cuddle.
I expect she’s exhausted by the emotional turmoil of this, and she collapses against me, her head on my chest. I hold her tight, kiss her. “You are beautiful,” I insist, “you always were.”
She laughs self-consciously - a release of tension - but I think she believes me this time.
We stand for a bit, until her breathing tells me that she’s restful and calm. “You want to go home now?” We’ve done enough, and I silently thank Mother for her idea to come here, although I’m not sure this was quite what she had in mind.
“All right.” She has hold of my hand, and only releases it to let me bob down for her shift. I wring it out and straighten the wet material, then ease it over her head. I smooth it down her body as best I can, then bring my eyes up to meet hers, which seem to have gone even greener with the light reflected from all the water.
If I ever had any doubt whatsoever as to how I feel about her, it goes in this moment. I cup my hands to her face, showing her what I want but leaving her free to decide. I love you, I think, I love you so much...
Gabrielle licks her lips, shifts her feet, then leans in closer to me and her eyelids flutter closed. Her light fingers come to rest on my cheeks and her reddened lips part for me - it’s a moment I think I’ll remember for the rest of my days. I finally, finally get to brush her mouth with my own. It’s the lightest, softest touch imaginable, scarcely more than a breath. Her fingers trail down my arms and take a tighter hold of me. Our mouths come together again and I kiss her just a little more daringly, the sensation absolutely exquisite, and she’s willing and welcoming and lovely.
It really is a very innocent kiss, by my standards, but then Gabrielle isn’t like me - for which Greece and most of the Known World should be thankful - and it’s a hugely brave step for her. When we part I see her smile, and think it’s the best smile I’ve seen from her in far too long.
Overjoyed, I clutch my arms tight around her waist and lift her playfully off her feet, gazing up at her as one would worship a Goddess. Gabrielle just laughs at my silliness until I put her back down again and nuzzle her nose with my own.
“What does this mean?” she asks me timidly, unconsciously bringing up a hand to touch at the lips I’ve just been kissing.
“Whatever you want it to mean,” I say honestly. No pressure.
She nods and smiles, thoughtful about this. “Okay.”
“Okay.” I don’t get an answer from her then and there, but it’s all right. Everything is all right.
We leave the cave, ducking out from under the waterfall again, and wade out of the lake. We collect our belongings and walk back to Amphipolis mostly in silence, but there’s a small smile from Gabrielle every now and again - a private one - and I know she’s okay. Once back at the tavern we find Mother in the kitchen, and Gabrielle eagerly shows her our purchases.
“We made sure to get a big pineapple for you,” Gabrielle is saying, and presses the fine specimen into Mother’s hands. “We haven’t tried any but I think it’s good and ripe, don’t you?”
Mother looks warily down at the pineapple as if the sight of it is making her want to retch. “That’s nice, my dear.” She sets it gingerly on the tabletop, glad to be rid of it, and I have to laugh at her.
“And some cherries,” Gabrielle goes on animatedly, peering into the bulging bag. “Will you make a cherry pie with them? You do it so well.”
Clearly astonished by the transformation, Mother moves to inspect the produce. “Those are beauties, Gabrielle, they’ll make a wonderful pie.” Leaving Gabrielle to contemplate the cherries, Mother glances up at me and raises her eyebrows - all I can do is shrug and blush in response.
Part Four : Gabrielle : Dream come true
She kissed me!
I can’t believe that Xena actually kissed me. I’m so happy. At night I fall into bed and lie awake, remembering her lips on mine, almost dizzy with joy and incredulity. I’ve been so afraid about what she might think, after all the wretched business with the lump, and now it feels as if all that fear and pain is gone. I’m whole again and I’m free, thanks to her. I spend a long time gazing over at her as she sleeps peacefully in her bed, just thinking about all the wonderful possibilities ahead.
In the morning we decide to go out for a walk, to take some of the fruit left over from yesterday and have a picnic, enjoy the summer sun. Cyrene has baked a cherry pie, and we wrap two large slices in linen and load them into a satchel along with the rest of our lunch. Cyrene has been wonderful to me and I make a point of thanking her sincerely before we head out.
We walk through the town and out across the lush fields beyond. We had originally intended to go back to the lake, but we amble along, avoiding the paths and the villagers on them, and I don’t think we’ll actually get that far today. It doesn’t matter - it’s beautiful here, and we’re able to be alone. Tiny violet flowers are scattered in the grass and I stoop down every now and again to pick one. I walk close to Xena and our arms bump occasionally. I like the contact, and let my fingers brush lightly at her elbow, wanting to be sure always of her presence.
After some time like this she stops abruptly and turns to me with mock exasperation. “What exactly is it that you want?”
Her reaction is so over-acted that I can only laugh at her.
“Because you’re tickling - will you quit?” She rubs the sensitive flesh at the crook of her elbow briskly with her other hand.
“Sorry, Xena.” I try to look convincingly apologetic.
Rolling her eyes, she holds out her hand for mine. I never imagined that one day we’d be able to walk along hand in hand: it’s not Xena’s style, and I know she’s making an exception now because she wants to please me, because we’re safe here in her home town. Touched by her thoughtfulness, I take her hand and we go on walking. She’s surprisingly gentle, the pressure of her fingers light but secure around mine. I feel enormously proud, favoured. Thank you, I think, for everything.
I don’t say anything for a while, enjoying the chirping of the birds all around us and adapting to the feel of her hand in mine. This is all so new and wonderful to me, and my silence doesn’t last long: I’m eager to talk. “Xena,” I pipe up as we stride through longer grass, “how did it feel to you, when you kissed me?”
Xena keeps her eyes on the horizon and just shrugs a bit, still in an amusingly flippant mood. “Real good, I guess.” Something about a little smirk that plays over her lips prevents me from entirely believing that she hasn’t given it much thought. “How’d it feel to you?”
“It was lovely,” I admit, a bit bashful. “Can we do it again?”
This makes her pause. She licks her lips slowly. “What, now?”
I look around us: there’s no one for miles, we’re all alone in this big meadow. “Uh ha.”
She makes a big show of putting down her bag and turning to face me. “Right.”
“Right.” I rest my hands at her sides, and when she holds me to her and leans down she initially just kisses my cheek, very light and brief. It’s a beautifully reassuring, comforting thing to do, and makes me love her all the more. Knowing she’s turned serious now, I snuggle against her, thanking her for being so thoughtful.
Then she lifts my chin with a finger, and I find her lips softly against mine. Xena must be so experienced, and yet she’s patient and undemanding, guiding me but ultimately letting me lead. I enjoy the soft feel of her against me, her nose beside mine. I pull away, go back, pull away again. Her lips are like silk and their pressure on mine is infinitely soft and tender.
I feel dizzy - be it from holding my breath or the giddy delight of our contact - and am glad of her hands holding supportively under my elbows. I come back down from tiptoe and lick my lips.
“Done?” she asks, making me laugh, and I nod. “Happy now?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Wonderful. You think we can carry on walking now?”
“Sure.” I curl my fingers back into her palm and we continue on our stroll. I wish the rest of the world saw Xena’s sense of humour, as I do.
We find ourselves making steady progress up the side of a grassy hillside, and it’s tough on the ankles. We set ourselves the goal of a cluster of bushy trees at the top of the long rise of earth, and, once there, reward ourselves with lunch. Xena sits, leans her back against a tree trunk, stretches out her long legs and crosses her ankles, then digs into a slice of cherry pie. I watch her for a bit, surreptitiously, under the pretence of fussing about with the bag, and think how lucky I am to be here. I’m lucky that Xena and I have what we do.
But what is it, exactly, that we have? What is it that we are?
Best friends? Partners? Lovers?
Xena asked me what I wanted all this to be mean, what I wanted the kiss to mean, and I haven’t given her an answer yet. As I watch her, contentedly munching on her pie, I know that she’d wait forever and a day just for me to decide that we should simply go on being friends. She would never push me, never try to persuade me, pressure me. I love her for that, truly I do, but it isn’t fair to keep an answer from her. Last night, this all seemed so simple: Xena had kissed me and that was it, a happy ending, the last line of the scroll. Only now, in my naivety, do I think about the rest. People who are in love do more than kiss, and I... Well, I never have. A month ago I wouldn’t have hesitated, but now, since the lump and all that went with it, life is no longer so simple. It will take me a long time to forget the way I felt back then.
Needing space to think, I tell her I’m going to find a stream to wash the fruit in, as I’m not hungry enough for pie, and I wander up over the crest of the hill. The land drops away more sharply on the other side and the view is splendid, the land below sprawling out in a beautiful panorama of green and blue. There’s not a soul in the lush fields that stretch as far as I can see.
Believe it or not - and right now I scarcely believe it myself - I never gave the nature of my relationship with Xena much thought. Oh, I thought about her, to be sure, but analysed just how I felt about her? Not really. There was no need: I loved her almost from the day I met her - what more was there to think about? I knew we’d be together. Only now do I find myself considering doing more than we’ve always done, and it scares me just a little. There is more to love than sleeping side by side night after night: there is sharing the physical as well as the emotional, reaching some new, higher level. I want that union, I decide: Gods, I want it. To connect with her in a way that words alone could never achieve...
I hear footsteps behind me, and turn to look up at Xena, who, up on the crest of the hill above me, is silhouetted by the midday sun. “You find a river?” she asks me.
“Oh -” I look down to the shiny red cherries in their cloth beside me. “No, I didn’t, actually.”
She nods, uncertain. “You were gone a while, I wondered...” she trails off.
She was worrying about me, and I’m sorry. “I was just enjoying the view,” I reassure her, “come sit with me?” I pat the grass beside me, and wait for Xena to ease herself down. “You enjoy the pie?”
“Good.” No doubt taking her by surprise, I turn for a cuddle, putting my arms around her shoulders and snuggling my head beside hers. It’s nice just to hold her. Anything more is going to take some adjusting to. In the past we’ve only really done this if one of us was upset, and it’s going to take some time to get used to doing it on impulse, just because we want to. I feel her slight hesitation and know that she thinks something must be wrong. We need to learn to lighten up with each other.
I pat at her back softly and play idly with her hair, and wait for her to decide that everything is okay after all. There hasn’t been enough spontaneity between us lately, everything has been so serious, so heavy. So on impulse I give her a quick kiss on the cheek then flop back onto the grass. It feels soft and tickly underneath me: when was the last time I just lay on the grass? I smile at Xena and beckon her down with a finger, then hold her as she settles herself beside me, her weight on her elbows, her arms encircling my head.
She looks down at me for a long time, with ocean-blue eyes that I know so well, and we both stroke at each other’s hair, enjoying the privacy and the heat from the sun. At length Xena leans down and presses her lips softly over mine. I’ve so much to learn, and I let her teach me, revelling in how loved and secure she makes me feel. Sometimes I look up at her, sometimes I close my eyes, but all the time I feel her gentle hands about my face, her thumbs stroking my cheeks or her long fingers guiding me, and we kiss for the longest time with only the birds and the daisies as our witness.
I’ve never been as intimate with anyone. I know this is only the beginning and my heart soars: I trust her completely and at last I feel free again. Overcome with the joy of it, I roll Xena over and push her down onto the grass so that I’m on top of her, and I take my turn at kissing her while she caresses my arms, her raven hair spread out in a mane behind her.
I’m engrossed. I never dreamt anyone could taste so good, could be so soft and supple beneath my lips, could love me for what I am without question or condition. If this was all we ever did, all we ever had - kissing together under the midday sun in some abandoned field - Xena would be content, and would never ask me for more. The depth of her love and compassion is endless.
Almost without conscious thought, my hand trails down the length of her neck to her breast, and the urge to press against her, to feel the weight and curve of her flesh under the linen of her dress, is both exhilarating and overwhelming. I can’t explain it, but by the Gods, I want her so much! A kiss isn’t enough: I want all of it, I want all of her. I press my hand against her - gently, always gently - and feel her fingers curling into my palm, encouraging me.
“I love you,” I tell her, as if I need an excuse to be doing this.
“It’s okay,” Xena says lightly, granting my unspoken request for permission. Her easy response makes me think again about how much she knows, how comfortable she is with all this, and how new it is to me by comparison. It’s wonderful, there’s no denying, but I want to have time, not to go too quickly.
I take my hand from her and instead rest my head down on her chest, tucked under her chin, my cheek against the soft fullness of her breast. I can feel the dull thud of her heart, and the rhythm of her breathing. Even this is a new and beautiful experience to me, and I want time to take it all in, to appreciate it, not to speed through these lovely early stages: we’d miss out on so much on the way. I do love Xena, and I do want us to be together, but not here in a field, beautiful and isolated though the rolling hills are. I want the time to be perfect. I want to be able to remember every moment, to miss none of it.
My decision made, I push up on my arms and look down at Xena, who gives me a lazy smile. “Can we wait?” I ask apologetically. “Just for a while?”
Her smile only grows warmer, and she fondly strokes her fingertips at the small of my back. “Sure we can.”
“Not long -” I hasten to add, not only for her benefit but for my own: I do want this. “Soon.”
She just nods. She understands my heart and I love her for it.
I clasp her hand between my own and pull it to my lips to kiss, and she sits up to accommodate this. “You’re sure you don’t mind?”
“It’s all right, Gabrielle,” she says simply, her eyes warmer than the sun above us. “There’s no hurry.”
“So long as you’re sure. One hundred percent?”
I notice her scowl. “More than that.”
More than that? “Xena, a hundred percent is all there is, it’s.. everything, it’s... a hundred percent.”
She just frowns more deeply and shakes her head. “You sure?”
“Well, I never was very good at maths.” She selects a cherry from the cloth beside me and chews on it.
“I can’t believe you don’t know how much a hundred percent is.”
Xena shrugs and gazes out across the fields, apparently content to have me beside her and unconcerned by her poor grasp of mathematics. “Whatever - if you’re happy, I’m happy.”
I’m touched, but I really feel this is something she should understand. “No, Xena, listen: it’s like...” I try to think of an example that will make sense to her. “When your mother baked the pie, there was one hundred percent of pie left. Now you’ve eaten... well, most of it... there’s around... twenty percent left. See?”
She scowls again. “I ate it because I was hungry.”
“I know that-”
“And it was good pie.”
“I know - it doesn’t matter why you ate the pie, Xena: the point is there was a hundred percent and now there isn’t.”
“You ate some too.”
“How much did you eat?”
“I don’t know,” I shake my head, “just a slice, I think -”
“So what percent it that?”
“Well...” I’m getting confused. “It depends how big the slice is.”
“Mother would’ve given you a bigger slice,” she tells me confidentially, popping another cherry into her mouth, “because she’s trying to feed you up.”
I grip my head. “Can we just forget about the damn pie?” How on earth did we get started on this conversation?
“You started it.”
But I can see she’s laughing, so I just give her a playful shove, and surrender entirely when she stretches an arm around me.
“Listen, Gabrielle: I’m happy, okay?” Her tone softens and the humour goes, leaving her intent and serious again. “We’ll wait until you’re ready: it’s all right. I promise.”
I snuggle my shoulder against hers and we look out across the landscape together. “I just want to be able to look forward to it. You now?”
“I want to dream about it.”
She just laughs, probably at my fanciful nature, and says nothing.
So I let myself daydream for a minute, about how it’ll be to lie in bed beside her, and more. “It’ll be worth the wait,” I observe.
“And it won’t hurt much, will it?”
Her head snaps around and she stares at me. “Why do you say that?”
“I just... I wondered if it might, I suppose.” I don’t know why, but I’ve always expected that it would hurt a bit, the first time. The origins of this assumption are so lost in my memory that I can’t now recall what I could have heard from others or deduced for myself that would make me think in that way. But, nonetheless, I’ve always carried the mild suspicion that it would at least be a little uncomfortable, which is perhaps why I’ve never been in any rush to experience it, until now. Now, I think that I’d happily walk over hot coals to get to Xena, if that was what it took.
Xena is still looking at me, both saddened and determined, then shakes her head assertively. “Not with me. Not ever.”
I’m reassured, but notice that she doesn’t entirely dismiss the notion in the general sense. Her eyes have gone a little glazed - haunted - and she turns her gaze back to the sprawling fields.
“Did it hurt you, the first time?” I ask.
A small, humourless smirk tugs at a corner of her mouth. “Yes. But that was with a stupid boy.” She shakes her head again, more wistfully this time. “Standing up behind some barn. We were both too young.” Finally she looks at me again, raising a hand to touch my face. “Your first time is not going to be like that. I wouldn’t let it.”
I’m saddened by her confession, but it’s overshadowed by gratitude and love. “Thank you, Xena.”
She nods, and it’s a while before she speaks again. “There are a couple of nice places. The lake, of course: we could swim, and you’d look lovely with the sunlight reflected off the water. Or there’s a nice inn, out by the harbour: I always thought you’d like it there, there are stacks of books that I know you’d just love.” She’s lost in memories and dreams, and it’s lovely to see. “Or at home, of course, if you wanted.” She shrugs softly, still looking out over the grass but really seeing all the wonderful places she’s been to and wanted to share with me.
A glow of pride - and self-satisfaction - comes to my cheeks. “So,” I tease gently, “you’ve given it some thought then.”
Xena shrugs mildly, her hand still resting lightly on my shoulder. “Maybe once or twice.”
But a small, private smile echoes after her words, and I know damn well that she’s thought about it, more than just once or twice. “Uh ha.”
Xena gives in and laughs at my teasing, and turns to look at me. “You’re not the only one who has dreams, Gabrielle,” she berates me playfully, then goes serious again and moves to press her lips against mine. “You’re just the one who makes them come true.”
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