On a leisurely trip to the market, Gabrielle becomes embroiled in a card game which results in her having to witness first hand Xena’s actions as Conqueror. As she struggles to stay alive and to get back to her old life, she must once again win the love and trust of a young Xena, who believes her Way is the path of violence and power. There are adult language, themes and scenes here, as this is a Conqueror story.
I do not own any of the characters of Xena Warrior Princess in this fiction and am grateful that I am able to use them to tell a story which I hope you will enjoy. I did create Asambi, and I’m very find of him.
Any and all feedback gratefully received and always responded to at firstname.lastname@example.org
With thanks to Lucia.
I wrap my hand around the rough cork and twist. “It’s... not... budging!” Blasted thing. I let go, flexing my fingers to ease the numb burning in my palm, then tackle the wretched thing afresh. I plant the bottle between my knees and get it in a vice-like grip. “Getting just a little impatient here!” Going at the task with both hands, I squeeze the cork and do my utmost to prise it from the top of the vintage bottle.
It doesn’t shift, despite the veins standing up in my neck. Frustrated beyond all rational thought, I heave up the heavy green bottle and berate it loudly. “You’re doing this on purpose! Some gift you are. Let me in!”
Xena’s voice behind me is so soft and smooth that it takes an instant to realise that it’s not the gentle bubbling of the rich wine answering me. “You just gotta give it a brisk twist.” She takes the bottle from me, her long boots passing around me as she does, and, disgustingly, pops the cork in one easy movement.
“How’d you do that?!”
She chuckles softly and swings the bottle back to me by its neck. “Just pour, will you? I’m parched.” She sits on the blanket across from me, stretching out her legs to the fire. The sun is only just starting to go down and it isn’t cold at all, but a fire is still nice to have, just to look at.
I pause for a moment, holding the bottle protectively to me. “If you’re thirsty go drink some water!” Pretending to be offended, I caress the curves of the glass as I study the yellowed label. “I can’t imagine how much this cost. It was a generous gift from the King: we are not going to squander it, okay?” I bring my eyes up to her, to check I have all of her attention. She’s relaxed and it’s enjoyable for us both.
Her eyes are on me all right, and losing patience. “Okay,” she acquiesces, “I’ll savour every drop. Now pour it, before it ages another decade!” She offers up the goblets, then holds them out to me, and I surrender and pour equal measures for us both.
“Cheers.” I take my goblet and smile at her.
“Cheers.” She isn’t one for ceremony, and says the word dutifully, to be polite, to humour me. She drinks a little and shrugs. “It’s okay.”
I dip my nose in the deep goblet, inhaling deeply, then let the rich liquid flow onto my tongue. “Mmm... it’s more than okay, Xena, it’s very nice. Very fruity.” And, I’m sure, very potent.
“I prefer ale.” She takes another swig.
I tut. “Then you’ve got no class.”
“Well if you have the dinars to live on this, good luck to you.” She raises her glass to me again. “I’ll stick to something I can fill a skin with.”
She has a point. Not that I’d ever concede it. “You’ve got no romance in you.” I lie down on my blanket, stretching out and resting my head and shoulders back on Argo’s saddle, which Xena has been lovingly polishing for a not insignificant part of the afternoon. Humouring me, she doesn’t argue.
It has been an easy day, and I’m not tired. We ate early, after we caught two big fish in the lake, and I gaze out across it now, remembering the warmth of the water, the fresh smell of it. We should reach town tomorrow, but there’s no hurry, we’re only passing through for supplies. We did a good job in the last village, following Xena’s path of Good that’s so important to us both, and the King was clearly grateful. We don’t accept payment for what we do, but food and drink is always appreciated - especially when it’s wine this good.
I swallow again, sending warm red syrup down my throat. It shoots hot little tendrils along my ribs and tingling pulses to my fingers and toes. “How come you opened that bottle so easily?” She’d made it look embarrassingly simple.
Stretched out to my left, Xena shrugs. “Dunno.”
“You think I’d loosened it?” Suddenly it seems like a philosophical point, and I tip my head to one side. The world lags behind me for a moment, and I blink and open my eyes wide.
“Nope,” she opines. She’s enjoying this, isn’t she.
“Well, how’d you do it then?”
Another shrug. “Just stronger than you I guess.”
What a cheek! “Now wait - you think you’re stronger than me?”
She watches in amusement as I disprove my own point by struggling to push myself up, my arms gone rather trembly and weak. My head feels as if it swirls momentarily on my neck, and I scowl, waiting for it to right itself. “You can’t go around making unfounded accusations like that, Warrior Princess. I think I’m just as strong as you now, I’ve been working out, you know.”
“Okay -” Her smile fills her eyes with warmth, their depths catching tiny reflections of the fire. “I’m happy to prove it.” She takes the bottle and refills both our goblets.
“Right.” I look around me for a moment, then come up with something. “Ah, perfect.” I drag the saddle between us, plant my elbow on it, and offer my hand. “Let’s see, shall we?”
A look of mock nonchalance. “If you like.”
Her hand comes up beside mine but she doesn’t go further, letting me make contact. All of a sudden, foolishly, I’m daunted. We touch when we’re working together, we must brush against each other dozens of times a day, but I don’t think I’ve ever... held her hand?
This is ridiculous. I grab hold.
I barely feel her fingers go around mine before my arm is pressed to the saddle, the weight of her forearm pinning mine down. The sensation brings a sudden, previously unimagined image right in front of my eyes, of how it would feel to have the weight of her bare flesh on top of me. Shocked, I tug my hand back. What was that all about?
“You cheated, I wasn’t ready!” I bluster, trying to cover my lack of composure. Time for another big gulp of wine, I think.
“Hmm.” She takes a sip and eyes me over the rim of her cup. “You know, you shouldn’t get yourself into situations you’re not ready for, Gabrielle. Can wind you up in trouble.”
“You took advantage,” I carry on the joke, “you could have waited.”
I look up to share my laughter - she’s so serious so much of the time, it’s good to see her relaxed like this. But when I find her eyes they’re fixed on me, and she isn’t smiling. Deflated, I search her face. What have I said wrong? All the old anxiety has poured itself back into her features. She puts down her cup. “I wouldn’t take advantage of you. Not you.” It’s said in all seriousness.
“I know -” I can’t think clearly. Damn. I know I’ve missed something. I want to get back to where we were a moment ago. “Okay, so let’s make it best of three, all right?” I offer my hand again. Let’s forget what just happened.
After a moment’s hesitation, she seems to shrug off that sudden cloak of melancholy and puts her elbow back on the saddle. “Go on then - for all the good it’ll do you.” She smiles at me, and all my warmth floods back.
I just tut good-naturedly and take her hand. It feels warmer this time, and my own hand seems small in hers, nestled into her palm, protected. Our wrists touch. She waits patiently while I try to get my elbow into the perfect position for good leverage. Truth be told, I know I don’t have a hope.
“Are you ready yet?” she asks dryly.
“Hold on -” Need a drop of the good stuff if I’m going to pull this off with any dignity. I drink deeply from my goblet. The wine is rich and fruity, it burns a path down my throat. As she waits, she moves her fingers softly over mine, just playing, exploring, adjusting her grip. I’m surprised her skin is so soft, I always assumed there would be a roughness from so much time at the hilt of a sword. She strokes me with her thumb, giving my hand a little squeeze, and for a moment I want nothing more than to sink into her, to hold her hand under my chin and lean into her. It’s such an unexpected feeling, I don’t know what to do with it. She would think me so stupid if she knew. “Okay, I’m ready.”
“Are you sure?” Sarcastically.
I brace myself. I push hard on her hand, and just about manage to keep our arms vertical. I know she’s going easy on me. I strain my muscles, trying not to cheat and contort my body to help. My strength has built up considerably since I left home, I know I’m leaner and have more stamina, but the staff teaches you short bursts of power, and this is too sustained. I get the distinct feeling that she could keep this up all night. I feel my muscles start to tremble with the effort, and feel her ease off the pressure: still I can’t budge her, and she knows as well as I that she’s just by far the stronger. Predictably, she gets bored, presses my arm down to the saddle with humiliating ease, then lets go and turns back to sit comfortably on her fur. She’s laughing at me.
“All right.” I know when I’m beaten.
She chuckles softly, a warm sound that seems to fill the forest glade. “Don’t worry about it, Gabrielle. You have other skills, I’m sure.”
Oh I won’t worry: I can’t even remember how this whole strength thing started. “Another glass?” I pick up the bottle. Strangely, it’s grown heavier even though its content has decreased.
“You don’t like it?” I unsteadily pour the rest out for myself. It gets sweeter the more I drink, and burns my throat less.
“I don’t like it turning my mental faculties into mush.”
I flop onto my back, gazing up at a hazy twilight sky. “Actually I think it’s rather nice.” I feel light and dizzy. In control, but... uninhibited. I’m warm and happy. Just Xena and I: it’s the perfect evening.
“It’s too nice,” she tells me. I can’t see her expression, hidden as she is behind the saddle. “Too addictive.”
I just laugh a bit: Xena is always so focussed, so sure, I can’t imagine her being willing slave to anything other than her Way, evil or good. I lie on my fur, my limbs spread out and feeling as if they’re bobbing loosely, and roll my head. The dizzy effect is enhanced when I move and it’s funny, I like it. I push myself up on outstretched arms. Clumsily, I fumble the blanket back off my feet.
“Where are you going?” She speaks to me like a child she’s fond of.
“For a swim.”
I can hear her exasperation behind me as I stand and strip off my clothes. “Gabrielle... it’s almost dark.”
“But it’s still warm,” I counter, and take a few steps across the sand, putting my hands on my hips to survey the still lake. With this wine in my veins, a swim seems like the best idea I’ve ever had.
I hear her getting up. “You can’t go out in the water by yourself: you’ll drown.” This in the same tone as a statement that the sky is blue, or the earth is flat. She strides over the sand and grasps my elbow, as if she feels better with a good grip of me. “You’ve had too much to drink. You know how these things go straight to your head.” She tries to tap my temple fondly and I bat her away, flapping my hand at her.
“Stop! Huh. Well... come with me then.” Damn, Gabrielle, you’re such a good problem solver! Pleased with myself, I slip out of her hold and stride down to the sandy bank. Once there I try to balance on one foot to dip a toe in, but for some reason my balance isn’t good right now, and after a few attempts I frustratedly give up and splash in up to my ankles. I stand where I am, waiting doggedly for my senses to adjust, then wade up to my knees.
It’s actually surprisingly warm, despite the absence of sunlight, and the water swirls around my toes and tickles the back of my knees. It’s only a small lake and there’s no current, so I watch in puzzlement as the water shifts around me, until I see her legs beside mine.
“Are you going to go deeper,” she teases me in her rich voice, “or are you going to swim in three hands of water?”
“I’m going, I’m going. I was just waiting for you to catch up.” I glance around at her. She’s as naked as I am, natural and unabashed in the fading light. The reflections of a new moon glance across her curves and I’m transfixed for a moment, caught up in the smoothness of her lines, the dark freckles spread across tanned skin. Dear Gods, do I usually see her like this? Why do I want, so suddenly and so badly, to melt into her arms, to be so much closer than we are now? My heart twists down into my stomach, and then throbs lower. Xena, I want -
“Well come on then.” Rolling her eyes comically, she strides in up to her shoulders and relaxes, closing her eyes as the water caresses her. “Get your swim out of your system before I prune. Then maybe I’ll get a little peace tonight.”
I’m usually quite a good swimmer. Not as strong as Xena, but you can’t grow up as a farm girl and not learn to swim; there’s nothing much else to do for entertainment. But tonight I don’t feel that steady, I’m not co-ordinated. I do some sort of clumsy doggy-paddle over to Xena and attempt to stand by her. How could I have forgotten how much taller she is? What’s wrong with me tonight? The sandy ground is further down than I expect, and while the water laps around Xena’s shoulders it’s up to my chin. I splutter a bit and reach out my arms instinctively.
Xena is there, predictably, and resignedly holds my forearms to keep me bobbing at her level, my toes just brushing the sand. Told you so, her eyes say.
“Maybe swimming wasn’t such a good idea,” I admit.
“We all make mistakes.” She adjusts her grip, pulling me a bit closer, her long fingers curling supportively under my elbows. “It’s nice out here.”
I don’t often see Xena this still. She’s always walking, or working, or fighting. Her muscles are moving as she rides Argo. She’s scowling as she tries to thrash out a deal, get out of trouble, come up with a plan. Even when she’s asleep, it’s as if her mind is working, there’s an energy about her. But now, here, she seems peaceful as she watches me, waiting for what I’m going to say. I realise I’m providing her with free entertainment for the evening. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but she does have a sense of humour, and at relaxed times like this she does forgive my little blunders.
An unexpected ripple runs across the lake, from a not-quite-extinguished breeze or maybe the turn of the moon, and the water bobs me closer to her. I’m bashful, awkward for a moment, with my nose almost touching hers, but she just smiles, acknowledging it all, and rubs her nose playfully against mine. I laugh, at her unexpected openness and the sheer enjoyment of the moment, and the tension floats away again.
“Are you done?” she’s polite enough to ask.
“Think so,” I concede, and she nods and guides me back into water my own depth.
We stride back to the shore. I don’t feel so drunken anymore, just warm, sleepy, and emotional. Serves me right, doesn’t it. I glance over my shoulder, to make sure she’s by me. She is, of course. She seems to catch something in my eyes, some need there that I didn’t intend to display, and puts an arm around me.
I don’t mean to stop, I don’t know why I do, why I turn to her and lift a hand to touch her arm, but I want a moment with her. At my eye level, I have to blink away from gazing at her chest, where water beads along her curves. The intense new feeling returns to my stomach, a huge, indescribable need in me, a desire to have her attention and affection for every moment of every day. Or maybe not so new, just... previously unacknowledged.
Xena dips her head to try to see me, lays a hand on my cheek. Probably she thinks I’m upset. I’m not, I just need...
I squeeze my arms around her neck, clutching her tightly to me, driving the air out of us both. She’s too tall, really, and I have to go on tiptoe, but I need to hold her tight. Our bodies are wet and press together, her thighs and belly soft against mine and sending a shudder down to somewhere I barely knew existed. “Xena, I love you -”
Her arms are tight around me too, responding to the cuddle I so needed, her long, cool fingers gently on my back. “I love you too,” she promises, without hesitation, and again, like a statement of the glaringly obvious. “It’s okay -” Soothing me, reassuring.
But she doesn’t understand, I’m sure of it. I draw in a shaking breath. No, Xena - I’m in love with you...
“Xena -” Promise you won’t ever leave me?
Hearing the desperate tone of my voice, she makes a soft little sound of absolute empathy. “My darling -” The words are quieter than a whisper, almost stolen away by the breeze from the water. I’ve never heard her use such an endearment, never. She cradles my cheek in her hand.
I bring my face around to level with hers. Dear Gods, it feels like the whole world has stopped revolving. She licks her lips and they come apart and I see she’s just as uncertain as I, just as unsure. I come forward just a hairs breadth, feel the tiniest brush of her lips. She starts back a touch, torn, finds she can’t resist, returns, does this several times.
As I watch her intently, a look of resignation goes across her face: a surety that’s remorseful, regretful, but tinged with amusement. She presses her closed lips briefly to mine, like a kiss on the cheek, giving me one more moment of this. Then she draws back slightly and looks at me with all her gentle composure returned to her.
“Gabrielle, not tonight.” She smiles down at me, sorry but full of love, her fingers stroking hair back from my face.
But I love you...
“You’ve had too much wine. I want you to be sure. When your head’s clearer, huh? Then.”
I gaze up into eyes that are more familiar than my own soul. Her love surrounds me. All I see and smell is her. My best friend. She must see the longing in me, and chuckles sympathetically and pulls me in to her, scratching her fingers into my hair.
I know she’s right. My flushed cheek pressed against her shoulder, I can barely stand up straight. That wine was strong. I can’t think properly anymore. “You’ll sleep next to me...?”
Another soft laugh that I feel rather than hear. “Sure I will.” She lets go of me and takes my hand to lead me like a tired child over to the furs. I drop to my knees and she shifts the saddle and finds towels and clothes for us both. I rub myself messily, tug a shift over my half dry body, then flop down, gazing up at the now dark sky. My head whirls around but it’s not unpleasant, just tiring.
Once dressed in her own cream shift, Xena gets down beside me and throws the blanket over our legs. I feel her fidget about a bit, then her hand finds my shoulder and rubs it comfortingly. “You all right?”
“Uh ha.” And I am - I’m too drunk to be melancholy. I just feel somehow lonely without her. So when her hand moves down my arm, and squeezes it, and I understand the invitation, I roll onto my side and press myself back against her. She’s warm and soft against my shoulders, I feel her breathing, and her arm is snug and strong around me.
“We’ll talk in the morning,” she promises, and strokes my forehead, pulling my head back against her shoulder.
“Okay.” I’m happy with that. I’m so tired right now. I inhale deeply, sighing, then roll myself over and tuck into a cuddle, my head still on her shoulder and my arm lightly around her waist, and she accommodates me. I’m so lucky to have a friendship like this. “Have to get to market early in the morning,” I sleepily remind her.
“Hmm. Tomorrow night, then.”
“Tomorrow night.” We’ll sit and talk tomorrow night. Xena will tell me she loves me and we’ll see what else there is to discover between us. Happy with everything, I fall asleep with her.
I don’t wake once, and as planned we head out early for the market. Xena treats me very much as usual - she isn’t overly sentimental - but occasionally her gaze will linger, or she’ll smile, and I’ll know that I didn’t dream last night. She has me up on Argo, and when she steadies me her fingers catch in mine for a moment too long, or she beckons me down with an indulgent hold under my arms, and we’re closer than ever without having to say anything. I’m thrilled by the prospect of our return to camp.
First, though, there’s shopping to be done. Even at this early hour, the expansive market is bustling. It’s the largest in these parts, and attracts a great many people. I enjoy wandering, perusing the stalls, soaking up the morning sunlight. Xena is beside me, and that’s enough. We’re heading for the baker’s stall. We get through a lot of bread - it’s cheap and it’s sustaining. Usually we’ll buy a couple of plain loaves for less than a dinar, but we can afford to splash out a little this time: along with the wine, the King gave us a healthy load of supplies, so the dinars we have will stretch to a few luxuries. Usually, if we have money to spare, Xena will buy nutbread from the baker, knowing how much I love it, despite it being almost three times as expensive as a plain loaf. She has a particular fondness for a dense kind of bread with dried cranberries in, but she doesn’t often get to indulge herself: I know that if she finds her bread and my nutbread side by side on a stall, she’ll chose the nutbread, to make me happy. I’m sure the baker here will have both kinds, and I’m determined that she’ll get her preference this time.
I pause to look at fine silks on a stall: headscarves and linens for a dress, even silken slippers. “Xena, look at this beautiful orange skirt -” I finger the smooth material.
She grunts. “How would you fight in that?”
“I wouldn’t, of course, I’m just saying, it’s pretty. I wouldn’t buy it.”
We walk on. “Why look at something you don’t want to buy?”
I glance up at her to see if she’s joking. She’s not. She really doesn’t understand shopping. “Xena...” A crowd catches my eye, and I stop to look. Behind a stall is an open space, and people are clapping and cheering.
She’s gone on a few paces, but wearily returns when she notices I’m not beside her. “What is it?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Are they selling bread?”
“No.” I think they’re selling turns at a game.
“But we’re shopping for bread -”
I despair of her, I really do. I edge between the people, and see two villagers - a young couple, I think - hitting a ball back and forth across a net with wooden paddles. The young woman wins, apparently, and her handsome suitor bows in submission, then they go off laughing, thanking the stallholder and returning his equipment to him. It looks like fun.
The trader holds up the bats. “Only one dinar a game! Who’ll play next?”
“We will!” I call out to him, and get myself through the people, who have largely lost interest and are counting their money or reviewing their purchases or planning their route onwards. “We’ll have a game, please.” I fish a coin from my purse and give it to the old man, who smiles and hands me two wooden bats, and a ball which looks to be leather.
“Certainly, Missy. First to fifteen wins. There you go -” He gestures to the court, which is a grassy area with a piece of netting strung across the centre.
When I turn to Xena she is present but not amused. “What is this?”
“It’s a game.” I toss the ball in my hand. “We’re gonna play a game.”
“Play a game with you in a minute,” she mumbles under her breath. She shifts her footing in those high boots, tries to muster up some enthusiasm, fails. “I’m sorry, did I imagine puberty? We’re going to play a game?”
“Oh come on!” I laugh and clutch her arm appealingly. “It’ll be fun. Please?” She just looks at me. “We used to play something like this back home, on the farm. We used broken planks from an old fence,” I reminisce, “except we weren’t really supposed to, because the planks had nails in, and things. Once, I got a splinter in my thumb so long it almost went down to the bone.” I hold my thumb out for her inspection: I had been proud of that wound for moons. The scar has long since faded, though, and she looks at the digit dispassionately but, I think, not unsympathetically. “And sometimes,” I add, withdrawing my hand, “we’d play catch, but we used a blown up pigs bladder, which was fine, but every so often the bladder would burst, and blood would just go everywhere!” She raises her eyebrows at this. “Didn’t you ever play bat and ball when you were little?”
“Oh. It is fun though, trust me.”
In her own time, Xena takes a bat from me. “What am I supposed to aim at?”
Victory! “At me.”
“And what, you catch the...” she scowls and takes the ball from me, “...this?”
“No, no, I get a bat too.” I display it for her. “I hit it back.”
After a pause, with me watching uncertainly, she shrugs. “Peachy.”
We go to opposite ends of the little makeshift court. Xena grips her small bat with two hands and wields it like a broadsword. She tosses the ball experimentally a few times, then fires it at me with a triumphant battle cry. I knew she’d enjoy it.
I don’t manage to return that first hit, but try again and soon we can play a few volleys with reasonable success. Xena uses her bat - or hand, or foot - wildly and unpredictably, but she picks things up quickly and she’s soon grinning and snarling and generally finding her feet. If the only means of returning the ball is to head-butt it, or snatch it from the air with your free hand and fling it back, then that’s fine by Xena, apparently.
At first she has me running all over the court, but I’m quick and have stamina, and still return her balls with relative ease. Quickly she changes her tactics, and shoots the ball with deadly accuracy right at my chest. My staff is a long range weapon, and at close quarters I’m clumsy and not able to move out of the way quickly enough. I can deflect the ball, but that’s not enough: I can’t get in a good hit to return it and score a point.
“I know your weakness, Gabrielle,” she purrs from across the net.
She does, and I have no defence: the advantage I initially gained falls away and her points stack up. We’re even at fourteen points each - one more and she’ll win. Damn!
When I’m sure she’ll serve her trusty dead-aim shot, and I’m ready for it, she sends the ball high, and I have to make a jump for it. I make contact, but succeed only in halting the ball. I manage to catch it, but with all my concentration distracted I land awkwardly. My leg gives way and I feel myself thump to the ground. Woah...
I keep my head down, clutching the leg.
“Gabrielle? You all right?” I see her tall boots striding for me, then suddenly she has her arm around me and she fills up my vision, her gently concerned blue eyes and her soft hand on my face, the cinnamon smell at the base of her neck caressing me. “Hey - you okay?”
Hearing this, I snatch up bat and ball and send the leather sphere sailing across the net, where it bounces onto an undefended court. “I’m fine.” I grin and get up to my knees. “And I’m also, I believe, the winner.” I nod to the ball, which rolls gently to a halt. Xena gawps back at it, incredulous, then returns her wide eyes to me. “I know your weakness, Warrior Princess.”
The most seductive expression ever comes over her face and I think for a moment that she’s going to take me, right here. I can’t breathe. “Think you can be cheeky with me, huh?”
I know the smile in her eyes, and giggle under such wonderful closeness, my hands creeping caressingly up her arms. “Uh ha -”
Her face almost touches mine, I can feel her breath on my cheek. Her lips are almost on mine. “We’ll see about that.”
I close my eyes, holding my breath, so sure she’s going to kiss me, in front of all these people.
Then a hand grabs my arm and pulls me up to my feet. Xena strides back to the stallholder, and I hurry to keep up. We return his things and thank him, then stride thorough the bustling market.
“Let’s get on, Gabrielle.” I come up beside her. Damn it - she’s smirking. “You don’t want to be out shopping all day. Do you?”
She shoots a loaded glance at me, and I absolutely understand her meaning: we have far better things to do this evening than shop.
We walk on, and my focus lasts me all of a few dozen strides. Nestled behind two bulging stalls is a tent, small and compact, its interior hidden from view. It’s cone-shaped, and adorned with garish colours and designs that are certainly not Greek in origin. I wander over, and study the white and red designs, the hand-painted lines that represent a lizard, fire, the sun. “Xena, come look at this.” I circle the bizarre tent, with its starchy linen that doesn’t flap in the breeze, and find a sign. Small and again hand-painted, it advertises the service offered within. “Tarot. What’s that?” I glance back to Xena, who knows everything and will surely know this. She has her hands on her hips and is looking around her with disinterest.
I scowl. “Are you sure?” I lean down to read more. “Let’s see now. ‘Let the cards reveal your destiny. The shifting sands of the mind within reveal the winding path of your life’s journey’. Hmm.” How delightful! “It’s fortune telling! C’mon Xena, let’s find out what they have to say about us.” I urge her with a grin, eager to see inside the tent.
Typically, my friend doesn’t share my curiosity. “You make your own fortune.”
“That’s exactly what the sign says! Let’s see what’s in store for us - how bad can it be - battling ogres, saving a town or two, defeating warlords...”
“If you know all that is going to happen - probably in the next couple of days -” she concedes, “ - why waste your money to be told it?”
“Because it’s fascinating!”
She rolls her eyes. “You go be fascinated then. I’ll get the bread and meet you back here.”
“All right.” You can lead a mule to water, but you can’t make her drink.
I stoop down and push through the heavy tent flaps. It’s dark, with only the flicker of lantern light, and my eyes take a moment to adjust from the bright sunlight. “Hello?” I gingerly go forward until I can stand up. With the lantern not shining directly into my eyes, I can see properly.
The space is very small - I guess that if I stretched out both arms my fingers would touch the canvas on each side - and with such a sharply tapering roof it’s only possible to stand upright here in the centre. Despite the lack of space, there’s a lot packed in here, and along with the sudden cool darkness, it feels like another world, another time. Trinkets are placed on tiny stools against the linen walls, all made from dark wood, or stone or cloth - I recognise a beautifully carved elephant, and a drum decorated with skin and beads, and there is incense which sends up a lazy tendril of aromatic grey smoke.
Filling the centre of the tent is a low table, and behind it, still as a great silent tree in an eerie untouched forest, sits a man. Only the shape of his shoulders identifies him as such and prevents me from being afraid: he wears a loose cloak, decorated with designs similar to those on the tent. With its hood, this covers all that I can see of him except his face. His features are entirely concealed behind an ornate mask. Its style and complexity more than rivals anything I’ve seen used by the Amazons. With exaggerated roundness, and adorned with green tendrils, I’m reminded of the sun, or perhaps a child’s drawing of the head of a tree. It seems to me, in any case, that the emphasis is on the natural, the elemental. Everything here is warm and earthy and natural.
I gingerly lower myself onto the yellow cushions by the table. “Hello?” As far as I can tell, the man’s eyes are closed. Even his eyelids are painted with white face paint, giving him an eerie, pupil-less look. I had been expecting a batty old woman in a knitted shawl. “I’d like you to read the cards for me?” I try. “Please?” I place my dinar on the dark wood and wait.
The man opens his eyes, regards, me, then brings his hands out from under long sleeves, takes the stack of cards from their silk cloth on the table, and begins to shuffle them. I watch him with interest, making myself comfortable on the beaded cushions. His hands - or the fingers I can see under his sleeves - are intricately painted with body paint, including the nails. It must have taken a great deal of effort and time. He continues to shuffle the rather battered cards sedately, and my curiosity gets the better of me.
“You look amazing. Who are you?”
He pauses in his shuffling, and glances up at me before going on. “Axel.”
He has a deep, even voice, with a decidedly foreign accent. I can’t place it - it’s certainly not from Gaul, or Britannia, or Chin. “Axel,” I repeat, “that’s an unusual name.”
“Not my name,” he corrects as if I said something ludicrous. “Who I am.” His hands still, and he looks at me with big, dark eyes. “I am the axel on which the wheel turns.” Then he gives an animated tut, shaking his big form slightly. “Do you not have wheels, in your country?”
I laugh a little, dumbfounded. “Well, yes -”
“And who are you?”
“I did not ask your name!” He’s exasperated rather than angry, and it’s funny, his big eyes bulging and hidden beads rattling. “Who are you? Ah. You are the wheel.”
I’m at a loss, but there’s something magnetic about him, something profound, and I can’t dismiss what he’s trying to communicate. “Can you tell my fortune?”
“No!” Again, this as if I’m a crazy woman. He begins to deal the cards: five in a straight line, along the centre of the table. “The cards can see your path. And I can read the cards. So.” He sets the rest of the deck down on its red silk bed.
I lean on my elbows and peer at the five images in front of me. The cards are beautifully drawn, complex and colourful images with golden edges. I can’t begin to understand any of them, but I love to study them, their detail and design. They must be very old. The pictures are lovely, like something from a child’s storybook, but some of them appear faintly sinister, slightly disturbing.
I go back to the first card. “This is a picture of a chariot.” It’s a simple and obvious cart, with two big wheels at the back and a white horse standing ready at the front. “What does it mean?”
“What you think a chariot mean? It means you are going to travel!”
And I paid a dinar for this? I’m in the wrong job. Argo could have made up something more profound.
“There is going to be change,” he goes on. “There will be conflict, but there will be victory.”
“That sounds like every day of my life,” I tell him dryly.
He’s more articulate when describing the cards. “The chariot warns us of a need to control conflicting forces.”
Again, this isn’t exactly news. “My friend and I are always trying to mediate between one town and another, or a king and his people, or -”
But he makes another big tutting sound and looks at me with disapproval. “Why you keep looking outside the tent? Cards don’t see outside tent, cards see inside it. Yes? Conflict inside tent!” Shaking his head, he moves on to the next card, pushing it across the shiny surface for my inspection. “Ah. Now, what do you see?”
This picture is also sketched in a simple but pleasing style, and depicts two young people, side by side but facing each other, arms intertwined, smiling. “I’d say they’re very close. They’re happy.” The two drawings gaze into each other’s faces. “It looks like they’re in love.”
“Yes. The card is called ‘The Lovers’.”
I feel a lovely warm flush come over me and I can’t help but smile. I wasn’t looking close enough to home before? Well of course, this card must refer to Xena and I. This is a prediction I’m very happy to believe in. I love Xena, and if she feels the same way for me, as I’m increasingly certain that she does, then that’s all I want or need.
“You are pleased to see this card?”
I nod vigorously. “I think it’s about my friend. Someone I love very much.”
“And does your friend stand on her head often, huh?”
I laugh awkwardly, confused again. “No of course not -”
“But you did not tell me all that you saw. You saw what you wanted to see, you skipped over what was not important to you, you understand? What is the most obvious thing you see?”
“Well, the card is upside-down, but -”
“Ah! It is upside-down.”
I take the card and sit back on the cushions, turning it in my hands. “Because you dealt it that way.”
“Did you see me turn any of the cards when I mixed them? The card is turned because its message is reversed. So.”
I’m beginning to wonder if all this is just nonsense. I get the distinct impression that he’s making up the rules as he goes along. “So what’s the reverse of love,” I prompt testily, “hate? Are Xena and I going to hate each other?” Never.
My tone is slightly mocking, I know, but if anything it seems to gentle him. “No. But there will be a parting, of sorts, not necessarily physical. Most of all, the card represents an impossible choice. Prepare yourself. The choice will be yours.”
I don’t like the sound of this, and put the card down as if it bore poison. I’ve gone off this exercise and want to get it over with. “What’s next then?” The third card shows a tall tower, cylindrical with a few windows. The bricks at the top are crumbling and falling, the whole structure looks unsteady and ready to come down. “Great, this goes on getting more positive, doesn’t it! What does this mean, that a house is going to fall on me?”
“Nothing so literal.” He has crossed his thick arms over a big chest. I’m getting value for money, if nothing else. “Tower represent a shock, or... a collapse of plans. You make plans, yes? For today, for tomorrow, for the rest of the season. Sometimes plans must be changed. Is that so bad?”
“No,” I admit, “not necessarily.” Xena and I are always changing our plans, we have to be flexible.
“Ah. Expect... an awakening. When the ceiling is gone, you will see the light more clearly, does it not follow? Will be a good thing! Huh!”
Well, that’s nice then, at least there’s something to look forward to. He’s starting to make more sense, so I move eagerly to the next card. “Oh, great!”
He leans forward philosophically. “Why are you troubled?”
Just when you think it can’t get any worse! “It shows a man being hung!” Although I have to admit he looks decidedly cheerful about it.
“Yes, but by his feet, not his neck. So all is not lost.”
“That’s reassuring. So I’m going to get hung, but at least not by my neck.” Joy. “Oh, I guess that’s too literal an interpretation, right? Are you going to tell me this represents something positive?”
“You see in such black and white. Not everything is positive or negative.” He draws in a breath and settles himself back again. “The Hanged Man is in suspension, in limbo. All he can do is wait. Do not forget your impossible choice - you may have to sacrifice one thing in order to have another. Would you advise Hanging Man to cut off his feet to spare his body? What will you sacrifice, Greek Lady? Be sure all weights balance when they hang.”
I pull in a deep breath. I’m beginning to wish I’d gone to the bread stall with Xena. The fifth and final card has a picture of a giant wheel, surrounded by fancy animals, spinning in a blue sky. “I recognise this from somewhere, maybe I saw it in a book as a child. It’s the Wheel of Fortune, right?”
“So is my fortune going to go up or down?” I ask the question rather tongue in cheek, not particularly wanting to hear any more about collapsing buildings and hanging nooses, sacrifices and impossible choices.
“It hardly matters,” he shrugs broadly. “Everything changes. What is up at one moment will be down the next, but it will rise again.” He leans forward. “The cards can only show you one cycle of your journey at a time. Remember: change may not be pleasant, but it is always, ultimately, necessary.”
He’s lost me now, and I’m sure that when I turn my back he’ll begin chuckling at his little story and settle to thinking over what he can buy with my dinar. “Well, thank you for your time.” I get up from the cushions. “I’ll be sure to... think about what you’ve said. Bye then -”
“Think carefully - the wheel has begun to turn.”
“Okay!” Waving with forced cheerfulness, I push aside the material doors and get out as quickly as is dignified, ducking my head as the starchy linen slaps at my arms. What a weird guy. Xena is going to be insufferably ‘I told you so’ when I tell her about this. Now, where is Xena? She said she’d be waiting for me across this path.
As I look up, expecting to find her sitting on a boulder with legs crossed and tutting fondly at me, something rushes past me, the breeze blowing my hair into my eyes and dirt from the path flicking up in my face. “Woah!” I stumble back, desperately trying to keep my toes out from under the rumbling cartwheels that rush past me. I can hear the galloping of horses, and make out the shape of carts. “Careful!” Scornful, I dust myself off. People shouldn’t bring speeding carts through a market.
Before the dust can clear, with me nursing my stinging eyes, I hear the thundering of another cart. Disorientated, I try to duck back out of the way, but something comes out and grabs me, hauls me off my feet and into the cart. My arms and legs catch on the wooden edges and scrape on them. “Hey!” Bruised and stinging, and with the air driven out of me, I struggle mindlessly and try to get free, to get my bearings, dizzied by the speed. I’m plonked down onto a bench in the cart, and have to hang on to it to keep my balance as we bounce and swerve. I just make out the black shape of a man in front of me, somehow standing despite the jolting. I try to pull my arms free but in an instant he has them tied behind me to something and I can’t move. “Let me go!” I strain, but I’m held fast. I shake my head to clear away dust and hair, trying to see. We’re thundering along so fast I can hardly sit upright, but beside and opposite are more women, tied like I am, afraid and angry. The muscled man in mismatched black leather holds on tight and uses a whip to spur on his horses.
Dear Gods - “Xena!” I scream out and tug at my bindings. “Xena, help!” I can’t see out over the sides of the cart, and this speed is disorientating. “Xena!”
My struggling is ineffective, but I’m certain that at any moment Xena will leap into the cart, or on to the horses - I’ll hear her war cry and she’ll be here to save me and the others. She’ll be running behind us, leaping from building to building, catching up, excited and fierce. Any moment now her chakram will zip overhead and impale the soldier. She’ll give me a wink, and pull me down to the ground, and I’ll find a branch to fight with and we’ll take on whoever crosses us.
Gods, we’re moving so fast, and soon I’m sure we must have left the market far behind us. Xena doesn’t come. After some short time of travelling, with me still dazed and a bit disorientated, we pull up sharply and the girls and I are offloaded. There are a dozen or so of us: they’re all young, fairly poor, bewildered. We’re in a huge camp, with white tents all around, horses, wagons, men working busily. It’s an army camp, I’m sure: the men are dressed as soldiers and there are weapons scattered everywhere you look. A rich army, too, judging by the flags, the food spread out on a stall, the quality of the horses. It’s all bustle and activity. We’re herded into a long, low tent, with rows of bunks. If the masters live in luxury, their servants certainly don’t, but it’s not a slum, it’s civilised, if nothing else.
The other women are all understandably upset and angry. Each reacts in her own way - some bluster, or curse, or sob, or sit very quietly. They worry for their families, they worry for themselves. I try to keep my wits about me. If I were here alone I’d be looking for a way to escape, but I can’t very well take all these girls with me. I try to reassure them all: “Don’t worry, my friend will come and get us out of here. She’s a warrior, she’ll come.” Xena will come. I’m not in the least bit afraid - Xena is probably on her way, or here already, bopping the guards on the head, or daubing herself with mud as camouflage.
Just as I sit on a rough bunk and try to comfort one of the girls, a guard strides into the tent. “Get up!” he orders. “You’re to meet the leader of this army. Get your behinds up and show some respect! Out, come on - all of you, out!” He gestures for us to follow, and everyone obediently troops out and forms a line in front of the tent, ready for inspection. I find this offensive and oppressive, I have never believed in slavery. But I’m not yet in a position to make a protest, and in any case, I’m curious. I join the line.
Everyone waits quietly. In the distance, over at the perimeter of the camp, a figure strides toward us, flanked a few paces back by another. I can’t make out any more detail from here. It’s really warm, warmer than it was this morning, and somehow more humid here too. Maybe it rained in these fields overnight, because everything feels damp despite the heat.
The leader - I assume - has reached the end of the line, and pauses. In a hat and loose furs I can’t see much. The man who was behind steps forward and obscures my view. He has olive skin and thick black hair tied back and hanging down in dreadlocks and braids. He has a neat beard, cropped close to his face, and a long sword is slung at his waist. He isn’t the leader of the army, or he wouldn’t have been walking behind anyone, but I figure he ranks pretty highly. When he speaks, it’s in an unusual, rolling accent.
“Everybody listen!” His words are calm and measured. “Stop your snivelling and listen.” He briefly spells out what our duties around the camp will be - the usual cleaning, cooking and mending - and advises us that those who keep out of trouble and work hard are treated fairly here. I privately roll my eyes - Xena and I will soon sort this out. “Now pay your respect to the Conqueror!” He stands proudly with his thumbs in his belt.
The first thing that surprises me is that this conqueror’s voice is female. She saunters along, and past the man I just see the swing of her long dark hair. “Don’t bother running away,” she says tiredly, “it’ll be a decision you regret. Just do what I want and don’t think about anything else. Then we’ll all get along.” And dear, sweet Gods above, it’s a voice I would know absolutely anywhere. I go colder than I can ever remember being.
It’s Xena’s voice.
“Don’t give me any bother,” she goes on as she walks up the line, “because I don’t have time for it, frankly. Stay out of my way. This is a powerful army. Think yourselves privileged to be here.” She glances back to her companion, indicating that she’s done with her pep-talk.
Oh, Xena -
“Why us?” some small thing in the line along from me calls defiantly to her.
She pauses for long enough to shrug. “Needed you, saw you, took you.”
As she passes me her eyes travel across me briefly, and there is no recognition there whatsoever. And dear Gods, she’s so young! I have to hold back from gawping. Hades, what’s going on here? What’s happening? I’ve come a lot further than a few leagues down the road. This isn’t Xena putting on an act, there isn’t going to be a little wink to let me know she’s here and working on a plan. She is so young! She can only be early on in her second decade, with dazzling blue eyes and dark, messy hair down almost to her waist.
What is this? Is this the past? Xena’s past? What went on in that tent, back at the market? The man she walks with, the one who spoke to us - it would have to be Borius. I’ve somehow found Xena as Conqueror, at the head of her army, Destroyer of Nations.... I shiver at the phrase. I’ve come back all these years and here my Xena is an evil, sadistic murderer - or so she’s always told me. I’m going to be confronted by all that.
My knees almost buckle at this realisation. Xena strides off and into a big tent, clearly bored with us, and a guard shepherds us back inside. All I can do is sit on a spare bunk, in absolute disbelief. Who was that sorcerer in the tent? What have I accidentally done? And may the Gods help me - how on this earth am I going to put it right?
I walk around for the next few days in a daze. I don’t see Xena again. Of course, no one comes to rescue me. I’m so dumbfounded that I just follow orders, trail around after the other women, half-heartedly wash dishes and mend clothes and peel potatoes. I keep my head down, sleep on my bunk, eat the soup I’m given. My mind works furiously to the exclusion of everything else - how did I get here and how can I get back? I keep expecting Ares to pop up laughing. Or I’ll wake up from a dream - that’s what I always used to imagine as a child, that when bad things happened it’d all be a dream that would end when I woke up. But I don’t wake up. I know I’m like a helpless thing, but what else can I do?
Then on the third day, as I’m blindly putting one foot in front of the other, I’m given my next task - to clean Xena’s tent. I gather up all the strength and determination I have. It’s time to meet the Conqueror.
The tent is massive: sturdy white starched cloth held up by a centre oak pole and pinned down at intervals around the perimeter with giant iron pegs. No expense is spared for the Conqueror. It’s a status symbol.
Inside, it’s clean but rather plain. Weapons are piled in one corner, discarded after practice or sparring. There is a desk and chair, spread out untidily with disordered papers, a quill and a big book. There’s a lush area scattered with furs, cushions and blankets, where Xena must sleep. There’s an uneaten plate of food balanced on a cushion. Bits and pieces are dotted about, odd items of finery - an ornate vase, a bejewelled dagger, a golden crown - but they’ve been treated with disinterest, as if their owner has no use for them. I wonder if they were gifts to the Conqueror, little demonstrations of wealth or payment for protection, items of bribery or desperation. Did Xena steal them? Or perhaps are they mementos of past victories - the crown of a defeated king, the blade of a humiliated enemy? Little trinkets that are more for the benefit of others than for Xena, who has never had any interest in such things for their own sake.
As I’m evidently alone, I take my time plumping up the cushions and folding the blankets: there isn’t much else for me to do here, there aren’t any surfaces to dust or carpets to beat or goblets to wash. As I work, Xena strides in - a dark, heavy figure in her hat and cloak - and sits at her desk. She pays me absolutely no attention whatsoever. Kneeling by the furs, I position myself so that I can watch her without being obtrusive. She tugs off her hat, rubs her brow as if she doesn’t relish the task ahead of her, then pulls a big olive book across the desk and opens it. She studies the page, frowning all the time, then takes a quill from the ink pot. She doesn’t write much - a few faltering scribbles - and rubs her temples tiredly. At one point she sighs, shaking her head almost imperceptibly, and takes a drink from a small green vial kept about her person somewhere.
I move over to another small side table where she’s dropped her gauntlets, boots, and sword. As I look closer, I realise the sword as my Xena’s: I knew she’d owned it for a long time. As usual, it’s sparkling and well cared for: decidedly more so than her boots, which are muddy and a bit battered. I suddenly remember a conversation not long after we met: I’d been grudgingly cleaning my boots and half-jokingly asked her why she bothered keeping her own boots so smart when we were repeatedly and inevitably trudging through mud. She’d given a disinterested shrug - a common feature back in those days that I’ve seen less and less of as the years have passed - and said simply ‘Look sharp, feel sharp’.
“Shall I clean these for you?” I ask Xena now. I can’t stand the silence. I look over to her, but she appears not to hear me, scowling over her page. “Xena?”
She doesn’t look up. “What?”
“Shall I clean these?” I repeat, my fingers on the toes of her boots.
She shakes her head. “Don’t touch my things.”
That’s all the conversation I’m going to get out of her. I wander back to the furs, unsure what to do. How strange it feels, to spend time in Xena’s company and yet say so little to her. Usually I’d spend most of my time talking to her. Or maybe at her. I remember as a child sitting by the bed of a sick grandparent: ‘Talk to her, Gabrielle,’ my mother encouraged me, ‘she hears you even though she doesn’t respond.’ Well, that had been a dangerous thing to say to me: I probably talked the poor old woman into an early grave. Sometimes I feel the same way with Xena; that I am talking to someone who rarely answers but always hears me. With my Xena, that is - I don’t think this one even hears.
The flaps of canvas which form the entrance to the tent are pushed open, and a young woman enters. She’s about Xena’s age, with lighter brown hair cropped close to her face. She wears leathers and cloth with a bluish tinge. From her clothing and the weapons about her, I see that she’s a warrior.
She marches up to Xena and drops a heavy gold necklace on top of the book she’s working on, then stands smugly with hands on hips, waiting for a response. From my inconspicuous position I watch the interaction, and neither of the women seem to notice that I’m doing nothing more than just moving the odd cushion around.
Xena raises her head. “What’s this?” She clutches the heavy chain in a fist and holds it up.
The warrior woman rests a hip on the edge of the desk. “Took some men out to that town to the North. They didn’t even try to resist when they saw your flag.” She toys with the necklace with a finger. “There are piles like this outside.” She clearly thinks she’s done well, and awaits her Conqueror’s praise with her arms crossed over an ample chest.
“You took my men, out on a raid?”
Xena isn’t happy, and it’s hard to believe the warrior is too self-satisfied to notice. “There’s jewellery, gold - they’ve got nothing now and it all belongs to you. We could even go in and take the land, the horses -”
“You took my men, and you went to that village, and none of it under my orders.” I can only see Xena’s back, but she’s hugely angry. When Xena’s mad she blusters, or shouts, or swings her sword - but when she’s truly angry she’s very still and quiet, like this. She even frightens me when she’s this furious, it means she’s plotting something, it means she’s got deadly focus.
Finally the other woman, in her fine blue leathers, seems to acknowledge this. “But Conqueror, I thought it would please you that -”
“I’m a good warrior,” she insists, tapping her chest, “I can fight beside you, you know I can.”
“I said get out.” Still very quiet. “Those are my men and they answer to me.”
“You take this -” Xena slams the chain handful back at her, “ - and you get out of my sight!”
Angry and hurt and confused, the woman leaves. I’m sure she wanted to bathe in the Conqueror’s glory, to have a share in all the little luxuries and privileges a pleased leader can offer, but even I see that she was foolish if she really thought Xena would be grateful for her input. I can’t help feeling that the girl is going to pay for that lack of judgement, one way or another.
Xena pays no attention to me whatsoever and I don’t even pretend to work, I just sit on the edge of the furs and watch her. She rubs at her brow wearily for a bit, then determinedly takes up the quill again. From the harsh scratching of it on the page, and her tutting, I guess it’s not going too well.
It’s difficult watching someone you care about struggle. It’s difficult seeing them alone and not being able to go and sit by them, or put your arm around them, or share their problems. I get up and gradually make my way over to her, pretending to straighten or dust things as I go. If I’m to have any chance of getting out of this topsy-turvy place, Xena is surely the linchpin that I need to better understand. I’ve no desire to stay here - something happened, something she or I did has thrown us back into this, and I get the feeling that only she or I can get us out of it. And as she seems perfectly at home here, I guess it’s up to me.
I see a spare quill on the floor by the table and retrieve it. “You dropped this.”
She has her head in her hand, her elbow covering the page. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Huh?” She looks up and tuts, as if I’m the most inconvenient distraction. “No.”
“What are you doing?”
She presses her hands to the parchment - not so much for confidentiality, I think with amusement, but because in her haste and annoyance she’s made big blotches with the ink, and she’s embarrassed. My Xena is a better writer now than when I first met her - not because I’ve taught her any particular skill, actually, but because I’ve persuaded her to take her time. But still, writing more than her name and a few words is a tiresome challenge to her, and she doesn’t trouble herself with fancy handwriting. If it’s legible, she’s happy. But this Xena doesn’t even seem to have achieved that, and she knows it. “It’s private,” she snaps. “If you’re done with your work go away. I don’t have time.”
I think I can judge her mood. I hope I can. I take a risk and guess that she’s more angry with herself than with me. “I’m not interested in what you’re writing. I wouldn’t understand it. I just like words.” I gingerly slide onto the little stool at one corner of the desk. Her eyes are wide with disbelief at my bravado: I’d better talk quick while I’ve got her stunned. “I think maybe you’re collecting too much ink on your quill.” I scarcely dare breathe as I turn the spare pen in my fingers. This is a dangerous game, Gabrielle, you don’t know this woman. “May I?” Fully expecting a yell or a clout, I dip the quill in the black ink then hold it over the corner of the page that her arms still cover. “Remind me of the date? It’s hard to keep track.”
Out of sheer surprise, I think, she tells me. Years ago! This is years ago: I should be scarcely into puberty, and Xena... should be exactly as she is, young and at the head of her army. This isn’t a trick, a game, some parallel world - this is the past, this is Xena’s past.
Swallowing, needing to concentrate, I neatly write out the date at the top of her page. I keep my eyes on the desk, and wait a long time with her gaze on me before she speaks. “You’re from that little market town, aren’t you.”
“I was just passing through. I’m from a village called Poteidaia.”
“Huh.” She shakes her head and puts down her pen, rubbing her hands and just making the ink smudges there worse. “Intellectual in Poteidaia, are they?”
Don’t make fun of me. “No. But I can write.”
She weighs this up for a moment then nods. “As I can see.”
Time to try again. “I could teach you, if you like.”
“You seemed to be having trouble -”
“I don’t have enough lifetimes to waste.” She closes the book and shoves it away, then takes a fresh scroll and tosses it at me. “You do it. Write a letter - just write what I say.”
She gets up and paces as she dictates her letter to me. It’s addressed to a king, offering negotiations but implying violence if conditions don’t meet with her satisfaction. I don’t like it, but I assume it’s fairly standard conqueror stuff, and I’m not in a position to create a fuss over it right now.
When I’m done I show it to her. Writing is no problem to me, and the scroll is neat. She scans her eyes over it, then nods her approval. “That’s okay.” She’s almost out the tent before she remembers to pause and flash a disarmingly warm and familiar smile back at me. “Thanks.”
None of the girls want to be around Xena, so it isn’t hard to negotiate tent cleaning duty every day, sometimes twice a day. Most times Xena will ignore me for a while, if she’s in, then beckon me over and put a blank scroll in front of me. At least I get to be with her. She almost always seems distracted, her mind elsewhere, on her plans, the pressures weighing on her, the demands of keeping an army in their place and under her command. She walks a precarious line every moment of everyday. She spends a great deal of her time sparring and drilling with her men. Partly to keep up her skills and reflexes of course, but mainly to remind them how good she is, how worthy of their obedience and loyalty. Also, I think sometimes as I catch glimpses of her with them, she enjoys the company, the companionship. She’d never admit it, of course, but occasionally there’s the flash of a smile that isn’t about victory, or power, or greed: it’s about spending time with others, reaching a common goal, sharing a joke or observation. She seems constantly busy. She’s far more concerned with power than the trimmings that come with it, she isn’t like other leaders, luxuriating in their riches. She doesn’t seem to bother with trivialities like eating, or brushing her hair, or tending to little wounds acquired through swordplay or riding. I imagine she only takes the time to eat when her belly is paining her from the neglect, or to sleep only when she falls onto her furs from exhaustion.
For quite a while I just scribe what Xena says, on the scrolls or in her log books: mundane stuff really. I shiver at some of the threats in her letters, but as I said, my position is too fragile to risk commenting. She doesn’t talk to me in between tasks, but gradually becomes more civil, and I feel less threatened by her. I see my Xena in her. I live for these moments, and spend the rest of my days dutifully sewing or polishing or tending to the horses. Not that I’m happy with life as a slave or have any intention of continuing in this meek, demoralising existence - I know Xena wouldn’t want to live as a warlord any more than I do as a servant - but for now I don’t see a way out. I need to build up a relationship with Xena before I can confront her with the situation, I need to watch for anything useful - maybe even just sit around and wait for Ares to show up, for all I know. If things were normal, I’d go to the Amazons for help, I’d call upon Aphrodite, or trek to the loom of the Fates, but I’m not free to come and go as I please. I can’t risk being abandoned here and being apart from Xena - my unlikely but only ally at the moment - and I don’t fancy having my throat cut for disobedience.
One day, when I take up my place at the heavy old desk, Xena is even more reticent than usual as she approaches me, knurled stick in hand, and she sits, tiredly resting the stick down beside her. It’s a shock to see her so awkward. “Do we have accounts to do today?” I try brightly. I hope not, because I’m not a great deal better at maths than she is.
“No.” She fingers a fresh parchment, then decisively pulls it over. “You teach me. Teach me how you write all neat like that. I want to write a letter.”
It’s an order only thinly veiled as a request, of course, but inside I’m triumphant to have broken down this tiny barrier. “All right.” I take a pen, dip it for her, and gesture to the page. “Write your name.” I don’t often see it written - she tends to sign notes to me just with an X. Not to be romantic, or anything - just because why write four letters when one will do?
“I can write my own damn name.” She slaps the pen down, spattering a little ink on the shiny wood. It beads up into glassy black orbs.
“I know you can,” I assure her, “I just want to see how you write.” I hand the quill back to her. “And try to be gentle - this isn’t supposed to be a weapon!”
She doesn’t trust me, I can see, but goes with it and scribbles her name, then looks at me as if to say ‘told you so’.
“Good. Don’t press so hard, though.” She scowls and tries again. “That’s better - see? Take your time a bit. Now write my name.”
“What is your name?” She asks as though she couldn’t possibly have been expected to know. I realised, logically, that she wouldn’t know, but a tiny part of me had hoped that somehow she would have, that she had taken the trouble to acknowledge me personally, and this proof that I’m nothing to her brings a little pang of pain.
“Gabrielle.” I tell her. Stupidly, I watch for a glimmer of recognition that of course doesn’t come.
She turns her nose up. “Not much of a Greek name, is it?”
I shrug: probably it isn’t. “I guess not.”
She holds the nib over the page, hesitating. “I’m glad I don’t have a name like that.”
I’m offended! “Why?” I ask defensively.
“Because I’d never be able to spell it!” she exclaims in return, and suddenly I see her humour, and laugh. Not at her, but in appreciation of the joke. When I first met Xena she never made fun of herself, but she began to, gradually, once she felt safe enough. Here, she glances at me with that wonderfully sunny smile. I imagine that most people are too afraid to laugh even when they’re sure she’s joking. How lonely that must be.
“Start with a G,” I tell her.
Half way through the word she runs out of ink, and I guide her hand so she doesn’t drown the nib in ink. I go to admonish her for being heavy handed, but think I’d better not push it.
“My brothers had longer names,” she says suddenly, working on the end of the word. She’s only done one ‘L’, and I tap by it to remind her to put in a second. “Think by the time I came along Mother realised none of us were smart enough to go beyond four letters.” She puts her head to one side as she studiously draws a line under my name. I sit and listen to her, hoping she’ll go on, but she doesn’t. “My hand always aches when I do this.”
I suppress my disappointment: I wanted to hear her talk some more. “You’re holding the pen too tightly, Xena.” She needs to relax, treat the quill as an ally, not a foe to be wrestled with. She’s concentrating too hard on the letters and not seeing the bigger image she’s creating. “Why don’t you draw a picture?”
“Draw a picture?” She looks at me as if I’ve just suggested she eat her own liver.
“Yeah.” My hope is that it’ll make her more comfortable with the pen.
“Do I look like a child to you?” This time there’s no hint of humour.
“Of course not. I just think it’ll help.”
But she drops the pen, smudging her neat line. “I don’t have time to sit here and play games.” She pushes up from the desk, taking her stick and setting her weight against it. “I’m going out to the horses.”
And she strides off, without a look back or further instruction. I’m disappointed by my lack of progress, but great things can’t be achieved in just one day, and I try not to be downhearted. Xena needs a lot of time, and I need to tread carefully: I can’t assume I know her just because she looks like my Xena, I don’t have that privilege.
The next day she isn’t around when I clean the tent, but the day after she’s there. When I get to the desk, neatening up the papers there as usual, I find a sketched map, detailed and to scale. It’s not like one I’ve seen before, and I’ve always liked to pour over maps and to try to imagine myself in the places they represent. “Where did you get this?” I ask her.
She comes over. “I drew it.”
Silly as it is, I could almost cry. Xena has never been dull-witted and she knows that I’ll understand her words and their significance, take them as a compliment. The beautiful map proves that she did hear me, and did as I suggested, and I’m childishly proud of us both.
“I tried writing neatly, like you said, but it’s not right.” She sits and unrolls a scroll. I don’t read the words, but they’re all bunched up small at the top pf the page.
“Try... try leaving bigger spaces between lines,” I manage to tell her, still almost speechless at the revelation that she’s given thought to what I said to her. Taking a deep breath as if bracing herself for an arduous task, she dips the pen and carefully writes another line.
As I clutch the map to me, she pauses and scowls. “Sit down, will you? Don’t stand about like that.”
Having forgotten myself, I sit, and set the map down.
“Here.” She slings the big green accounts book over to me. “Take off a horse - it got injured out in the forest.”
I’m still her servant and I still have work to do, but I’m in a more positive frame of mind. Glad to be beside her, I open the heavy book and set about updating things. From behind where the book had been I see a large bowl of fruit, all ripe and bright and shining. I’m suddenly envious: rations here are plentiful - men can’t work on an empty stomach - and I’m never hungry, there’s more food than Xena and I have ever had on the road. But the meals the men and women of the army are served are basic and rather plain - breads and stews and shanks of meat. The soldiers don’t seem to mind, but I miss the little things I used to find to supplement our diet - nuts and berries, pastries from a market, the occasional piece of cheese. I look into the fruit bowl longingly. “Those grapes look so sweet.”
Without looking up from her work she shrugs. “Take what you want.”
Delighted - with her and with the fruit - I reach across and take several grapes, plucking each one from its stem in turn and savouring it like a child treasuring each gift at solstice. The Conqueror is only given the best, and the fruits are delicious.
I’m careful to finish my work, and I only allow myself to eat a little so as not to seem rude, but I feel warmly toward her and begin to chat. “On the farm where I grew up we grew figs. On a good season there’d be so many we’d sell some and give some to neighbours and be eating fig pie well into the autumn.” I chew on a grape, feeling it burst and ooze sweet juice into my mouth. I gaze back into the bowl. “We could never grow bananas - those are beauties, I love bananas.” My mind wanders, skipping through memories, as it always does when I talk. “We had a little vine but we never got grapes as good as these - you needed land higher up where the sun was stronger to get really sweet grapes.”
She’s still working, but comments conversationally “You talk a lot, don’t you.”
I suppose I do, and I don’t say so much after that, self-conscious and not wanting to annoy her. After some initial awkwardness, though, I’m happy to just sit next to her. I feel like we’re getting somewhere. When she’s finished her scroll she dusts it with sand to dry the ink, and I can’t read the words, but I see that she’s taken my advice, and the second half is more spread out and neater.
I wish I could sit here with her all evening, like we used to, but it’s not appropriate. So when I’m done I politely take my leave and make to go.
At the entrance to the tent, I turn back. Something wallops me in the chest and it’s not until I’ve got my fumbling arms around the cool, smooth object that I realise what it is.
“You said you liked bananas,” she offers.
The bunch is gloriously yellow with not a bruise in sight - four big, sweet bananas to do with as I please. Nearly speechless for the second time in one afternoon, I lift them to my nose and inhale the unique, fruity scent. “I didn’t even know bananas came from around here,” is all I can think of to say. I had always thought that Greece wasn’t tropical enough.
Xena facially shrugs, still in her seat. “Stuff grows, I guess.”
No matter what, I’m delighted with them. “Thank you.” I all but float back to my tent. I have one banana for myself, save one as rations, and share the remaining two with the other girls. From their bunks they applaud my bravery for stealing from the Conqueror: to them it’s unimaginable that she could have given them as a gift, just because I was hungry or said I liked them. Somehow, I don’t think it’s a wise idea to correct them. The Xena I know has never been overly fussed about food - with the possible exception of fish - and I only have to show interest in something she’s eating, or complain about my rumbling stomach when I’ve finished my portion, and she’ll toss me the apple she’s half way through, or push her dish over for me. And as much as I love her for that, this is so much different, symbolically so much more.
I go to bed happy, and look forward to seeing Xena the next day. Before I even get to my tent cleaning duty, though, I find the whole camp gathered around, at Xena’s behest, forming a big, circular audience. Once we’re organised, the Conqueror strides out, her stick clutched against her, dressed in fighting gear.
“Listen!” she calls out, “All of you listen!” There is silence, and everyone does listen. I see that she rules with absolute authority. It’s quite a spectacle, actually: she’s so powerful like this, so strong and confident. Even her posture is different to when we’re alone in the tent; she’s more upright, more still.
She comes to the centre of the group and pauses, but soon begins to stalk around the circle. Not many people meet her hard eyes - the Conqueror isn’t happy. Borius follows her but remains to one side of the clearing, arms folded. “I rule this army,” she barks. “Me. I don’t rule it because you’re afraid of me. I don’t rule it because I have wealth. I rule because I’m the best. You follow me because I give all of you success. Right?”
There’s an obedient spattering of acknowledgement and approval, some of the men raising their weapons in support. This seems to rally her, feed her, drive her on, and she continues with her dangerous circling, like a caged lioness. More so, she reminds me of a bird of prey, circling some unfortunate and unwitting rodent. Her limp becomes less pronounced as she stalks. I’m glad I’m toward the back, looking over the shoulders of a couple of the men who mind the horses.
“If you think I’m not up to the job,” she goes on, “then I’ll stand down. But understand this - I don’t share.” She doesn’t look at Borius. She doesn’t have to. She’s not really talking to him, in any case. “Someone here thinks she can rival me. Someone wants to lead my men as if they were her own.” She whirls around, and is finally still. She gives a dramatic shrug. “Fine. I’m willing to play fair. C’mon, Thraissa: you want this army? Come and take it.”
Everyone watches, scarcely daring to breathe, as a blue-clad warrior emerges from the crowd. I recognise her immediately as the woman Xena spoke to in her tent, the one who raided some outlying village and brought Xena the golden chain. She walks with a slight hesitancy, and I see a small swallow, but she holds her head up. She knows the crowd is watching. From the smooth proceedings, I guess that this isn’t an entirely unheard of occurrence.
“I’ve learnt from you, Xena,” Thraissa retorts. “I’ve looked up to you. But now I’m good, and you know it.” She knows the only defence here is attack. It’s the only language Xena understands.
The darker woman holds out her hands. “I’m happy for the men to decide,” she says reasonably. “Not enough room for the both of us, right?” Her charm is as disarming as always. She’ll use every guile, every tool available to her: she always has. Thraissa looks unnerved but she holds her ground, having no choice in this now. “But before they do -” Xena reaches into her robes - used to cover her disfigured legs - and produces a scroll. “Something I think you should all see.” She pointedly turns her back on her opponent. “This is a letter,” she unrolls the scroll, “thanking Thraissa for the work of her army,” she stalks around the circle, showing everyone the scroll, “and rewarding her with five hundred dinars. Now tell me: has any of you seen any of that money? Has anyone benefited from it? In my army, when I profit, you profit.”
She’s made her case, and her men are behind her. Outraged by this, they boo and hiss, then begin to chant ‘Xena! Xena!’ and stomp their boots and spears into the earth. They are out for the blue warrior’s blood, and I think they’re going to get it.
But I’ve almost stopped hearing. As Xena passes in front of me I see the scroll: with writing tight and bunched up at the top and larger and spaced out at the bottom, it’s horribly familiar. My stomach lurches. That’s the scroll Xena wrote! This is all a trick, it’s all a lie. She’s set that woman up because she’s afraid of the competition. And I was part of it!
I see Thraissa protest her innocence but no one is listening. Xena snarls with anticipation and throws her a sword, then snatches out her own dagger. Xena’s weapon is far smaller, but she’s a damn good fighter and I know it’ll be enough. The roaring noise from the army is overwhelming. The people in front of me bustle forward and jump and struggle to see, and they hide what’s happening.
Good: I can’t bear to look. I feel sick. This Xena is devious, and treacherous, and I’m ashamed of her. How could she sit there with me, offering me friendship and tolerance, and be writing that? How could I have been a part of it? Oh, I just feel desperately sick. I have to get out of this Hell. Xena, how could you? I don’t know you at all, do I?
I cover my eyes, and hear a series of cheers, then a final shout, and applause, and a thud. I dare to look through my fingers, and between the legs of the men in front of me I see a body slumped on the ground. Stooping, Xena pulls out her short blade, thick with blood. She’s glowing, exhilarated.
She snarls at the corpse. “That’ll keep your filthy hands off my army, bitch!”
I can’t bear it any more. I turn and stride off, not even caring where I’m going. Gods, why didn’t I say anything? Because if I had I’d be the corpse on the ground, that’s why. I always said I wasn’t afraid of Xena, of her past, her demons, I always stood up to her. But how can I here? She’d kill me without a second thought.
I walk and walk, and when I’m tired I turn a hundred eighty degrees and walk back, because I don’t have anywhere else to go, and I bloody know it. This is all a nightmare. I’m surprised to be able to walk back into the camp: I thought I’d be strung up for desertion.
That’s it: I can’t lie to myself, I can’t betray everything I’ve always believed in. I head for Xena’s tent. I have to have it out with her, show her what she’s doing isn’t acceptable. And if she stabs me like she did that woman who was probably just trying to impress her, probably just looked up to her, then I accept my fate. Maybe it’s the way out of this, for all I know. I can’t live like this. My imagination swims off out of my control again: I’m dying in Xena’s arms, she sees my face and remembers everything, the world is made right again. Death never hurts in your fantasies, wounds can be erased as easily as ink can be smudged, you can re-write and re-play each image until it’s perfect. If only this life were so adjustable, so escapable.
Xena isn’t in her tent, so I stand and fume, waiting for her. When she finally comes in I only get a nonchalant glance. She doesn’t ask me what I want, and takes off her jacket, throwing it on the back of a chair.
“Why’d you kill that woman?” I demand.
Xena straightens, takes her time in turning to me. “That’s not your business.”
“You made up that letter and framed her, and then you killed her.”
She’s looking at me now, I have her attention. “Like I said: that’s my business.” Her volume and tone have dropped.
I should get out now, while I still can. But my Xena wouldn’t do this, she wouldn’t ever do this: who is this woman? “Okay, so tell her to back off. Anything, I don’t know. You can’t go around killing people!”
She advances on me. “I can do what I damn well like.”
“Xena, it was an evil thing to do,” I implore, “what possessed you to -”
Before I even see her move she’s caught hold of my shirt and barged me backwards against a sturdy tent pole, driving air out of me. Her face is up against mine, snarling, and I can hardly breathe with her fist clutching my collar. “Now you listen, Little Girl,” she hisses, like a deadly snake, “this is my army and I make the rules - you come up against me, and you’ll wind up just like her.”
I’ve had enough of this! I can’t take this life anymore. “I’m not afraid of you!” Furious at everything, and not thinking, I lash out at her, shoving her hands off me. “I’m not interested in your threats!”
She’s far stronger than me and barely backs off, just takes a better grip of my shirt and slams me back against the wood. “It ain’t a threat -” She pulls out a dagger from somewhere at her waist, I see the blade glinting in the candlelight, and she presses the cold steel against my throat. I never, ever thought Xena would do this to me, she always swore she wouldn’t.
Both of us are breathing like marathon runners. “Xena you’re mindless! You don’t even know my name, do you? I’ve done my best to help you,” I scream at her, “and you don’t even remember my name! Tell me - tell me my name -”
“You’re a crazy woman -”
“Do it!” I’m so mad at her, for betraying everything we’ve built up over the years. My hands clutching at her arms are cold and shaking. I force tears from my eyes, much as I want to cry. Where has my life gone? I writhe in her grip - not because I want to get away, but because I want to be closer to a person that no longer seems to exist.
Her face is almost touching mine. I don’t dare swallow lest the movement push the knife into me, “I know your name, damn it.”
“How could you kill her?!”
“You keep your nose out of what I do or so help me I’ll -”
She doesn’t need to finish, I feel the increasing pressure on the blade. I can see right into her eyes, her beautiful blue eyes that I love so much, and even if I die here and now, at least I’ll be with her. “Well do it then! Do it, Xena!” I feel a tear roll down my face, but I don’t care that I’m naked in front of her.
I lock onto those eyes, pretending that it’s my Xena I’m looking at, and wait for the inevitable. I watch her expression, and, as I do, it changes minutely, from that furious, fiery rage to what looks like confusion. Unbelievably, the dagger at my throat eases off. Her hand falters, she hesitates, then she swallows and curses, a crude obscenity I’ve never heard her use before. Shoving me, she lets go.
She whips the blade back into its scabbard at her waist, but as it crosses her body she catches her other arm with the tip, and scores a neat red line in her flesh. She doesn’t immediately wince, as if she were expecting the pain, and only after a pause, her eyes closing for a moment, does she swear and bring the wound up to inspect it.
Xena just isn’t that clumsy with a blade. I can’t believe she’s accidentally cut herself. “You did that on purpose -” I’m still trying to catch my breath, still amazed to be alive.
She turns her back to me, and mumbles “What’re you talking about.”
I know what I saw. “You cut yourself on purpose: why did you do that?” I’d seen the indecision cross her eyes - it was as if she had to use the blade somehow, had to cut one of us, and she didn’t choose me.
“Don’t know what you mean.” She goes over to a basin on the sideboard, fills it with water from a jug, and takes up a cloth. She readies herself to clean the cut but doesn’t actually complete the action, as if she’s reluctant to erase the line of blood.
Bewildered, my heart beating hard behind my ribs, I go to her. I look over her shoulder at the wound. I’m speechless: I don’t know what to say.
Finally, Xena speaks, falteringly. “Sometimes... the blood... the pain... it helps.” She shakes her head, as if she doesn’t understand this herself. Dissatisfied, she efficiently begins to cleanse the wound.
“You... cut yourself...” I try to understand, “...because it makes you feel better?”
“The sight of the blood, even when it’s your own? When it hurts?”
She shrugs. “Sometimes.”
I watch the water turn red. I have never heard anything like this from Xena. I know she enjoys a part of killing, I’ve learned to accept that, if not understand it. But the realisation that she needs that blood, that control, to release her tension is frightening to me and hugely moving. She never injured herself back in our old life, I would have seen the marks when we bathed or swam. This Xena is so alone, and angry, so afraid of any other expression of emotion, that she has to do this?
The woman I feel beside me is my best friend, I’m immeasurably moved by her isolation. “Xena - Xena, here -” I take the cloth from her, gently, cup her hand in mine, and pat clean the wound. It’s all right, I’m here. Xena watches me as I work. I hold her hand in mine and dry it. “You shouldn’t punish yourself,” I say out loud.
“Not. Just that the pain... it makes it easier to focus, sometimes.”
My Xena... “You can’t hurt yourself like this. Maybe if -”
It’s the first time I’ve heard my name, and it takes my breath. My heart floods with warmth, just to hear her say the word. My hands clasping hers between us, I look up.
And she kisses me.
I close my eyes and fall into this moment. I need some love, here in this heartless place. I need Xena, in whatever form she takes, I’m so alone here. Her kiss is gentle, her lips are warmer and softer then I ever would have imagined. I suddenly love this closeness and wonder how I ever did without it. How did I restrain myself, all those days and nights beside her? A part of me seems to melt, and gives itself irretrievably to her. Another tendril reaches out and links to Xena, connecting us even more strongly than before.
Gods, I love you -
When she breaks off to breathe I fling my arms around her neck and hold her, squeeze her tight and love her. I cradle her head against mine, torn between doing that and rubbing her back and holding her hands... I need more arms than I’ve got. She doesn’t actually respond, doesn’t put her arms around me, but to be truthful I barely notice, and when I release her she comes back and kisses me again, full on the lips and full of passion. I’m filled with warmth at this recognition, at the knowledge that she wants and needs me too.
Then she grabs me up, lifts me as if I weigh nothing, and has me in her arms like a child or a bride. She’s superhuman strong, and she grins at me as she whirls me back across the tent. Boisterously she sets me back on my feet, then takes my hands to hold. I could spend all evening like this - a whole lifetime like this - standing with her, holding her hands, kissing and talking. It’s a dream.
But when I go to release her hands to stroke her hair, she doesn’t let me. I give her a moment, thinking she’s just keen to be with me, but when she still doesn’t let go I draw back to look at her, not understanding. She follows, and I realise my shoulders are against the oak tent pole - I can’t step back. She kisses me again, and it doesn’t feel so good this time.
“Xena -” I love her, but if she’s upset I need to hold her and listen to her; this isn’t helping.
A harder kiss, and I twist my head away, utterly baffled. She releases my hands and I think that she’ll cuddle me, or step back to talk to me. But, to my shock, she starts to untie my top, quickly and efficiently.
“Stop -” What on Earth is she doing? What is this? “Wait -”
“Relax -” I feel the coolness of her hand against my chest - somewhere she’s never touched me before - and under the ruffled material of my top it just feels intrusive. She’s kissing my neck, and I can’t see her face.
“Xena, stop a minute!” I don’t shove her away - she’s not hurting me - but I’m not ready for this. If this is what I think it is I never wanted or imagined it to be like this: I thought when we were together, especially the first time, we’d be sitting on a blanket at our camp, and she’d talk to me and ask me what I wanted, make sure I was okay. Am I being overly romantic? Is it never like that? I wanted so much for it to be like that with her.
“Xena, slow down a bit, okay? I’m not going anywhere, you don’t need to rush like this -”
“It’s all right!” She smiles, but it isn’t the warm expression I’m used to. She feels like a stranger. “Just relax, huh?”
Her hands are somehow all over me, and I feel uneasy, panicky, claustrophobic. “Stop it now -” I do push her away this time, but she thinks it’s a game. She’s so much stronger than me that I feel certain the only way to get her off of me would be to scratch or kick or bite, and I can’t do that to Xena: no matter what, I just couldn’t.
I really don’t know this woman at all. I squirm against the post, but it’s like she’s got tentacles and she’s everywhere. I start when a hand moves between my legs. Oh, dear Gods, I don’t want this. Why, Xena? Why did this have to happen?
And as I stand there, as she all but rapes me, I start to cry: not at the pain, because there is none; not because she’s forced me to, because I could’ve gotten away or yelled or fought; but because I wanted this so much, for so long, and now it’s here, it’s actually the saddest thing I can imagine.
My voice has gone small. “Xena, please -”
“I know what I’m doing, I promise.” She’s trying to be reassuring, but she’s completely misunderstood everything. As she is now, in this world, I think my feelings are beyond her comprehension.
“Please -” It’s just a breath, from behind my hands, and I don’t expect her to hear. How did we ever get to this?
But I feel her pause. “What’s wrong with you?” She’s utterly baffled: more scornful than angry, but certainly not concerned.
“I don’t want this.” I ignore the tears flooding salt down my face.
She stands. “What? What’d you come here being all nice for then?”
I’m not even relieved that she’s stopped, really, it doesn’t change anything. In this miserable situation, I feel desolate. There’s no point trying to explain, it’s hopeless. It’d be like trying to explain the nuances of love to a cyclops, like trying to force a blind man to see, or a cripple to walk.
When I don’t reply she holds up her hands in surrender. “I’m not forcing you to do anything.”
“I can’t do this -” My voice shakes with the tears shuddering through me.
She shrugs. “Well to Hades with you then.”
And, just when what I most need from her is a cuddle, she walks away.
“If you wanna go, then go.”
So I pick myself up, clutching my clothes, and run out of the tent. I swear I’ve never been this alone in my life.
I do my best to stay out of Xena’s way, after that. I don’t want to know this violent, selfish woman. She’s not the person I thought I’d grown to understand. She doesn’t come to find me. Why would she? In a moment of romantic foolishness, lying in my tent trying to sleep, I’d superimposed my own Xena back onto this stranger, imagined she’d come to me full of apology and explanation, taking my hand gently and asking that I forgive her anger and hurt and let her try again.
But she doesn’t, of course, and all I can do is get on with my work so I won’t be reported to Borius for laziness and punished for it. The physical activity is a help, at least, and I sit and clean the men’s armour. It’s menial, and something I know my mother would never have wanted for me, but I wouldn’t last out on my own here, not right now, I need to earn my food and I need to figure how to reverse this mess. I’m not unaware of the irony that not so long ago I’d have done anything to be allowed to clean Xena’s sword or leathers, when she’d barely trust me with Argo’s tackle. Now I have a whole pile of swords to clean.
Funny also - although I don’t laugh - that it was Xena who saved me from slavery, back in Poteidaia, and now it’s Xena who keeps me captive. I really thought I was starting to get somewhere, with the writing and all. There is a glimmer of my Xena there, I’ve seen it. I could even accept the sex, could have understood all the hurt and rage she has to find some outlet for, if only she’d granted me a little tenderness with it, had made some attempt to acknowledge me.
Xena has other favoured servants, and I don’t have to venture near her for some days, until it’s my turn to serve her supper again. I dread it and plead with the other women to swap tasks with me, but the Conqueror isn’t in a good mood and no one dares go near her. I’ve no payment to bribe them with, so I have to go.
I have every intention of dropping my tray on the table, bowing my head respectfully, and turning on my heel as swiftly as possible. For once in my life, I don’t want to be around Xena. Not this Xena. She’s cool and cruel and indifferent, and I begin to think that any warmth or humour I thought I saw in her was just my wishful thinking.
Hurrying across the camp I glance up at the stars - my procrastination has made me late. Xena will be angry and I suppose I’m going to be berated at best. I would never accept such treatment from my Xena - who grows more angelic in my eyes the further she fades - but I’ve no choice here, the Conqueror isn’t to be disobeyed.
Feeling sick, I shoulder through the door flaps of the tent, wanting to be small and quiet. I glance around wanting to locate her but not make eye contact. She isn’t sitting at her desk, or standing by her weapons. For a moment I think she’s not here, as I slip the tray onto a small table.
But then I see an unexpected form on the ground, to one side of the large space. The tent is only dimly lit with flickering yellow candles, and I have to strain to see, taking a few steps forward despite my fear. Xena is lying amongst a pile of furs and blankets, in the space where she sleeps. Something about her takes my attention, and I stay though I’d probably be wise to leave. Xena tends to sleep neatly, tidily, usually on one side, a single blanket pulled to her arms no matter now hot or cold it is. But here she’s flung out on her back, blankets tousled all around her, hair a mess at her shoulders.
“I have your supper -” I try, timidly, afraid that she’ll find it cold and be angry.
She appears not to hear me. If only I could see! I swallow and become bold, going to her.
Close up, with the candlelight flickering over her, I can see that her breathing is quick, her face pale. In an instant I’ve forgotten all her differences and just see my friend lying there, and my heart squeezes.
“What’s wrong?” I kneel at the edge of the furs.
“Piss off.” Her voice is dry and rough, angry. She swallows stiffly, trying to hide the tremble in a voice that suddenly sounds shaky and small.
I’m shocked. “What’s happened?”
“I said get out!” She finds strength in anger and manages to shout. A hand flashes out at me and the silver blade she clutches catches the orange of the candle flames. I jolt back, even though the gesture is just a warning, and balance on hands and knees. As I stare at her, disbelieving, I see the tremble of her hand, the whiteness of the knuckles. I realise that she’s no threat to me - she can’t even lift her head from the blankets.
“Xena what’s the matter?” What on Earth is wrong with her? “You’re sick?” My mind flies - has she been injured in battle, thrown from her horse? Is she bleeding to death under those furs? I can’t lose you -
“Told you to get lost! I swear I’ll slit your throat!” She pants between sentences, and her fist drops to her side. “You’ll regret disobeying me, I’ll make you wish your mother had never -”
“Xena -” Seeing that she’s making herself ill with her exertions, I shuffle closer and gently take the knife from cold, waxy fingers. She doesn’t try to stop me. “Are you ill? Are you hurt?”
Her eyes remain on the ceiling and she doesn’t once look at me. “What do you care?” For the first time here, I’m powerful and she’s entirely vulnerable: she’s afraid, afraid that I’ll hurt her, take advantage of this.
“I care about you,” I tell her gently.
“No one cares about me,” she bites back, “go away.”
My love for her comes back full force and I feel my eyes moisten. It doesn’t matter now what danger I’m in: I’m here. “I’m not leaving you like this.” I reach for a lantern and turn up the flame, determined to find out what’s happening. Looking back to her face I see that she’s been crying, her cheeks tearstained and sweaty. Driven by a new determination, I lift up the brown blanket to find the wounds I’m imagining. She’s tense and rigid, with goose bumps on her exposed flesh, but her jerkin and silk trousers are intact and I don’t see any blood. “What is it?” My voice is firmer this time, ordering her to tell me: I’ve lost patience, I need to stop this pain she’s in.
She swallows tightly. “Had my legs broken. On a cross. Pain... flares up, sometimes.” She rubs an arm savagely over her face. I can tell that every tiny movement is agonising, and she presses an arm against her mouth to keep herself quiet.
Of course, Caesar’s cross...
Her legs had been long healed when I met her, by some magician, a friend of someone she doesn’t speak of - out of respect, she says, and because it’s too painful to remember, I think. But here, of course, none of that has happened yet. Gingerly, I gather up the material at one ankle. She’s absolutely still, and I know she can’t pull her foot away. The flesh there is cold and white, corpse-like. Praying she’ll trust me, I unlace the brown cord up the side of each leg and gently, very gently, push the olive silk out of the way. With both legs uncovered from the knee downward I can see the deformity there, the ugly twists and the reddened scars of hard flesh. No wonder she has to use a stick to walk very far. My poor Xena...
“If you’re gonna get your revenge,” she says hoarsely, and jabs the hilt of her dagger at me, “get it over with.”
I look at her face. There’s no humour left, just hurt and anger and bitterness. Resignation. Her eyes lock with mine, blue and icy, and more utterly alone than I’ve seen Xena even in moments when she won’t accept comfort or companionship. She holds the gaze for a long moment, afraid, then averts her eyes and waits.
I’m angry at her for thinking such a thing, and at the world for leading her to expect it. I tut and shove her arm away. “What makes this better?”
She only pauses imperceptibly, and still grips her dagger as her hand goes back to the furs. “That bottle -” she nods toward a table, “fetch it for me.”
I bring it to her, emerald green fluid in a tiny, ornate vial. “What is it?”
She snatches it, flings away the stopper, and takes a long slug. When she’s done, she laughs humourlessly and wipes her mouth on her hand. “Naive kid, aren’t you.” Probably I am. I just look at her, clueless, and she scowls in surprise and explains. “It’s opium. Best you can buy. And thank the Gods for it.” She traces her thumb over the thick rim of the bottle, swallowing as if she can feel the hot liquid burning down her throat.
I try to gather up what little knowledge I have of drugs. Opium, I seem to remember, is effective but addictive, and can destroy the mind over time. “Is that... is that good for you?”
“Who gives a shit?” she replies abruptly, “No one I can think of. It works, that’s all.” She takes another swallow before returning the empty vial to me. “You can get out now. Go on, go.”
I’m shocked by what I’ve seen. By her pain, her misery, her addictions. This Xena is so far apart from my own that I don’t know where to begin a connection with her. I don’t know what to say. “I’ll stay if you -”
“Get lost!” Her aggression is so palpable that I stand. Her expression is full of rage and she grasps up her dagger again, and I just think it’d be better for her if she was calm, if I just did what she wanted so she wouldn’t get herself into more of a state.
So I back off. There’s nothing more I can do and she doesn’t want me here. I’m upset and I want to be alone to let it out. Numbly, I walk backwards across the tent toward the door. I see her reach for her blankets, trying to cover herself. She must move too sharply, though, and freezes. A sob breaks out of her, her fists clenching, and with that awful sound I realise just how much pain she’s in.
I can’t. I run back to her. “Xena -”
“Gabrielle -” her voice wet with tears, she reaches for me, and I drop by her side and grasp her hand, squeezing cold fingers tightly in mine and pulling them in to my chest.
“I’m here -” I bend over her, gentle and reassuring, and stroke her hair from her face. “You’re not alone, I’m here.” Her eyes latch on to me, like someone who is falling, drowning, and I go on talking to her. “Just keep still, don’t move, try to rest. It’ll soon be all right.” Her hand grips mine so tightly it hurts, and she nods minutely, trusting me. “I’m right here, Xena. I promise it’s okay.” I dare to brush her cheek, and she jolts as if she’d never been touched in such a tender way before, and closes her eyes to savour it. “How long does the medicine take to work?”
“Not... not long...” she tells me breathlessly.
We stay fixed as we are for some moments, her eyes opening again then not leaving mine. Tears stream over her cheeks but she doesn’t make any more sound, and I wipe them away and mumble reassurances to her. I can’t bear seeing Xena in pain, and I can feel my own heart thudding.
I just sit with her, holding her hand, not knowing what else to do, until her grip loosens a little and she rolls her head toward me, relaxing. “Is it easing a bit?” I lie her arm back on her stomach. She nods. The opium has caught her up in its soothing, numbing cloud and she’s instantly more comfortable, her breathing slowing.
There must be something else I can do. She’s hot and sweating. I see where she keeps her salves and potions, and collect a shallow dish of water, a cloth, and come herbs - citrus and lavender, aloe to soothe the pain. I set about bathing her legs, letting the water evaporate from her skin and take with it some of the heat, leaving - I hope - a pleasant tingle. My touch doesn’t seem to cause her any discomfort so I take my time, washing her feet and patting her legs dry. I can’t get over the dichotomy of her being Xena and yet so unlike Xena. She has the same long feet and big toes that are always muddy, but between ankle and knee her legs are unrecognisable. If this were an entirely different reality I could accept it more easily, but it’s not - this is the past but it’s real, all of this actually happened to Xena, she really was like this. I appreciate - I think for the first time - how hard it must have been for her to turn her life around, to pull herself out of this, and why sometimes it nearly drags her back down again.
Perhaps now I’ve made this breakthrough I can help, can steer her away from violence and greed. I’ve won her trust, she’ll listen to me. I glance up at her. She seems to be asleep, her head to one side, and I remember hearing something about not letting a person sleep when they’ve had too much of anything potent, that you have to keep them awake to keep them breathing.
Having laced up her trousers I return to her head. “Xena? You’re not asleep, are you?”
“No,” she mumbles.
“Good. Don’t go to sleep.” I shake her shoulder. “Open your eyes.”
She does, and looks around her as if what she sees is unfamiliar and puzzling. Concerned, I try to distract her. “Sit up, let’s wash your face.”
With enough physical encouragement she sits. I offer her the cloth, but she ignores me and continues to look around, behind, overhead, as if tracking moving objects. She doesn’t seem overly concerned, just interested. In the end I wash her face myself, turning her head toward me like an impatient mother with a child who would rather be off playing.
“What are you looking at?” I ask.
“The dragons: can’t you see them?” She peers behind me, and try as I might I can’t get her to focus on me.
“Xena, there aren’t any dragons in here.”
“Dozens of them. Green. With green smoke and green fire.” She scowls suddenly, and her arm shoots up, dagger in hand, narrowly missing me as she swipes the air above her shoulder. “Shoo! Don’t sit there! Bloody things.”
Gods! Exasperated, I pull the knife from her hand and throw it over in a corner where she can’t reach it. “You’ll have both our heads off with that thing!”
“They want to eat the air, eat it to feed their young,” she continues, “but I won’t let them. It’s my air, you hear?! Parasites. Don’t try it!” she calls out to her imaginary creatures, “Xena’s watching you now!”
Saddened by this ultimately rather pathetic scene, I rest my hands on her shoulders, wanting to put my head against hers. It’s no surprise really that she would welcome the hallucinations, that she’d prefer them to this reality. I remember my efforts to get her tipsy on that bottle of wine, a lifetime ago at our camp, and I’m ashamed.
“You’ve got to keep an eye on ‘em, see. They try to hide in the smoke.”
“Let’s get you comfortable and then you can sleep. How does that sound?” I urge her gently. “Come on, take this off.” I release the toggles of her leather waistcoat, thinking that her thin linen top will be more comfortable to sleep in. She neither protests nor helps. Deranged as this situation is, at least I can help in some way, at least I can be with her. I wash her arms, and around her neck, and tidy her hair at her back. Before I can dry her arms she holds up her hands and watches the water snake around her wrists and drip from her elbows.
“Get this off me -”
What does she imagine it is? What does she see? I lay a hand on her shoulder. “Xena, do you see blood, on your hands?”
She surprises me by shaking her head. “Green stuff. It’s green.”
Everything to her has turned green like the opium. I take a dry cloth and rub her arms. “There. All right?”
“Mmm.” She flops back and looks as if she wants to sleep. I carefully cover her, and wonder if I should leave. I think she’ll be okay now, I know the sensible thing would be to leave the Conqueror alone and be grateful she was too weak to cut my throat with that blade. I watch her for a bit, indecisive. Her head is rolled away from me, and at length she raises a floppy arm and points to the tent wall.
I lean over her. “What is it?”
“It’s dissolving,” she observes dispassionately. “It’s all... dripping. Dripping and green.”
My decision is made for me, and I lie down beside her. “Don’t look at that okay? Don’t look at it, Xena. Look at me.” I take her arm and pull her over onto her side, her nose almost touching mine. “Everything’s all right.”
She looks at me for a moment, weighing me up, then nods and closes her eyes, her fringe tickling my face. I go on studying her long after she’s obviously asleep. How I’d love to kiss her, just gently. How I’d love to encircle her head in my arms and hold her cheek to my breast. “It’ll be okay,” I whisper my promise to her, “I’ll put this right, I’ll get us back to normal. All of this will go away.” I don’t dare touch her, so I just lie gazing at her face, sorry for everything she’s had to go through, until I get too tired, and fall asleep.
I wake up sure that I’ve made progress. She trusted me last night, I earned her confidence: things will be different now.
But when I turn over, she isn’t there. I sit and look around me. No one. Confused, I get up, dress, and go outside. I don’t know what I expected: a domesticated Xena outside picking flowers to serve with my breakfast, maybe? A little bewildered, I wander about the camp, half-heartedly doing little chores that are asked of me. I’ve let Xena do this to me again: she’s pulling all the strings and I’m moping around waiting for her next instruction, and I’ve never done that in my life, ever, not for anyone. More fool me. Gabrielle, this isn’t going to get us out of this!
When I finally see her, around lunchtime, she’s with Borius, and walks past me as if I were thin air. I’m not desperate enough to go running after her. Damn you, Xena: after everything I did for you last night. Anyone else would have killed her where she lay.
I go on with the day in automation. Xena likes her supper early, and it falls to me to run the errand. I’ve been so eager in the past that everyone happily finds something else to do. I just don’t have the strength to confront her cold indifference again, it’s too painful, so I choose a time when she’s out, off over the fields with her horses, and quickly go and do my job. Relieved to be done, I slip out between the canvas flaps and hurry around the side of the tent. The day is bright, and with the humidity typical of this place. I’ve never known a Greek summer like it.
Skirting the cream canvas, I’m stopped by a guard, standing with his buddy. He’s tall and bulky with blonde hair fairer than my own sticking out from beneath his helmet.
“State your business here,” he orders in an accent more common than I expect from his smart uniform, and digs his spear into the earth close to me.
“Delivering the Conqueror’s meal, Sir. I’m finished now.” I’ve seen him around before, his name is Thallius, I think, which was a rather grand name for a mother to give her oaf of a son.
He takes a step closer and I don’t like it. I avoid his eyes, cold blue and piercing. “Excuse me.” Slave or no slave, staff or no staff, I am not about to be laughed at or pushed around by anyone. I’m the same person here that I was back in that other world, even if Xena isn’t, and I’m not a child or a coward. He touches my cheek, smiling horribly in my face. I snap his arm away, as quick and hard as if I’d had my staff. “I said, excuse me.”
His companion, smaller and with cropped brown hair, tuts as if he’s grown bored of scenes like this. “Thallius, leave her, it’s more than your job’s worth.” He leans idly on his sword.
The blonde ogre hasn’t backed off. “If she’s finished her work she’s got time for some leisure, Gideon, even slaves deserve that.” He moves in to me, reaching down to somewhere I don’t dare imagine, and with my back to the tent I react on instinct and swing for him. Xena is the one who enjoys sheer physical force, hand to hand combat, and she’s stronger and better at it - I like my staff, or some other object I can use as a blunt weapon, but if there’s nothing to hand I can punch and kick too. It makes him stagger back - more in surprise than anything else - and he cups his nose in a big hand. “Bitch! D’you see what she did? Little bitch!”
His partner isn’t as laid back as he first appeared. Made angry too, he grabs at my arm too quickly for me to avoid it and yanks me against one of the solid oak beams holding up the tent, driving air out of me. “Silly worthless tart, what’d you do that for?” he hisses.
Furious now, and afraid, I try to twist away, but suddenly both of them have a hold of my arms and they’re far stronger than me. I try to kick, to do anything, but the bigger one presses against me suffocatingly and pins me where I am, the beam driving into the centre of my back and his armour digging into my arms, and he tries to kiss me. It’s foul and I turn my head, trying to strain away as I feel his disgusting hot breath on my neck.
My chest heaves in panic even though I have no room to breathe. This is it: how stupid I was to be upset over what Xena did, that was nothing compared to this, to what this is going to be like. Gideon’s fingers are steel on my arms, I use all my strength but it’s as if I have none, it’s entirely ineffective. The world seems to close in and I feel that there’s no one left in this dusty open space to help me. I imagine I can hear the wind whistling mournfully over the remains of civilisation. His hand comes up my leg and I jolt as his fingernails scratch searingly up the outside of my thigh to my back, sending stinging jabs through my stomach and down to my knee. Gods help me -
The squeeze of his hand, and the coldness of the air on newly exposed flesh is more painful even than the scratches, as I realise he’s gotten my skirt up around my waist. Oh, Dear Gods, not this -
My father would never have wanted this.
Rationality tells me that it won’t likely take long, but with the world shut down as it is I know it’s going to feel like an eternity.
And then, just when I’m so scared I can’t breathe anymore, he stops. He just pauses where he is, and I’m filled with a new terror that he’s teasing me, and this ordeal is going to last longer: he won’t even allow me to hide away in myself, he’ll take from me everything I have. Not knowing what he wants of me, I dare to pull my eyes up to his face, and see that he’s just staring, unfocussed, yellow hair still sticking out from beneath an askew helmet. His hands fall harmlessly away from me, and then he just goes down, smoothly and silently, like a character through a trapdoor on a stage.
And behind him: Xena. I hear the wet suck as her sword comes out of his back, and the thump as he hits the ground. I can only stare at her. Xena...
“Gabrielle go in the tent.” It’s an order that bears no argument. She doesn’t look at me, and turns her sword to Gideon. Her jaw is set tight and there’s no hint in her face of anything except anger. She thinks I’ve been messing around with her men. She’s going to come in and kill me next.
I flee, dashing into the tent because there’s no where else to go, no way to escape her. I run as if there were a monster at my heels, escaping one nightmare only to enter another. I throw myself through the canvas flaps and feel them slap on my already reddened cheeks. Panting, I drop onto her bed, my face in my hands. I’m shaking and I can’t catch my breath, it’s heaving painfully in my chest and my heart is going so quick I’m afraid it’ll seize in me and give out. The terror is so consuming that I can’t move and can’t slow my breathing. I’m going to die, I’m going to die here under Xena’s sword.
I want to cry but my chest is dry and rasping and nothing comes out, I’m too frightened even to make a sound. I’m so sorry I ever got into this situation. I was so naive, I didn’t understand how dangerous the world is, how dangerous Xena is. I know nothing. That was so close, another moment and they would have... I can’t bear to imagine it.
I hear the door flaps and see the tall figure in the corner of my vision, still and silhouetted. It’ll make her even more angry that I’m sitting on her bed, I’m in absolutely no position to take such a liberty, but I just couldn’t stand up anymore, I don’t feel my legs and my body trembles as if I were being shaken. I’m sorry, Xena, I’m sorry...
She doesn’t move for what seems like an age, just stands there with the tip of her sword swinging slightly with the beating of her heart. When she finally walks to me I keep my head down, not looking beyond her muscled legs, not knowing what rage I’m going to be confronted with. If it were any other person I could shut off from it, but the fact that she wears my Xena’s face makes it doubly cruel.
By her sides, her hands make a strange little gesture of helplessness, and she kneels down and releases her bloody sword. I’ve no choice but to look at her, and the face I find is so dizzyingly familiar that for a moment I’m sure the world must have righted itself and it’s my friend that crouches here in this tent with me. Her eyes are terrified for me, searching mine, desperate and not knowing what to say. Although her face is tight and inexpressive, her lips pressed together, those blue eyes are mesmerising and lovely, and I just look at them.
She glances down - I don’t know why: because she’s upset or bashful or guilty, I’m not certain - and sees something at my leg. “You’re hurt.” She lifts up a corner of my skirt, and I peer down to the bleeding scratches, seeing myself shudder with every thumping heart beat. “That should be cleaned.” Her voice tight but otherwise unemotional, she rises and goes to fetch a bowl and cloth. There’s silence between us, and I don’t break it for utter confusion over what she’s thinking. She’s not angry? She’s not going to kill me? Her sword lies discarded on the floor, dark blood sliding thickly off the steel. With her back to me, she says “I killed them.” She turns, bringing back a chipped white basin containing water that has a menthol odour. “I told them not to touch women or children. I always tell them that.”
I’m not sure if this is an apology or just a statement of fact, but it sounds remorseful. I just nod. I never wanted anyone killed because of me, I would never ask for that.
She takes another glance at the leg, focussed determinedly on wringing out her cloth. “Lie down.”
Again, as uncomfortable as it makes me, I do what she says unquestioningly for fear of what will happen if I don’t. I push off my sandals and go down on my side, clutching the brown fur beneath me and watching what she does. Gingerly, she folds back the material. She’s dispassionate, but something about the slow, careful nature of her actions reassures me that this isn’t just some task to get done. She pauses and looks at the scratches. Oozing and streaking my leg with blood, the five lines go from behind my knee up almost to the small of my back, and are sorest over the curve at the top of my leg. They aren’t deep, or dirty, and all she can do is ease the wet cloth over the skin to clean away the blood. I turn my hip toward her so she can reach, and watch her.
Her long hair is matted and dishevelled: she must have ridden her horse hard across the fields. Xena always likes to ride when she needs to think, to work something out: exercise helps her to relax and focus. I wonder what she had to think about? Sometimes she’ll drill half the night, or hunt, or just stalk about in the dark, and I always think she’s best left alone.
Ouch! She touches a particularly deep scratch and I start, drawing in breath. She stops and looks up at me. I focus on her eyes again, enjoying the connection. My heart has slowed down and I’m not afraid: she’s not going to hurt me. At length she smiles, just a little, and reaches to squeeze my hand as it rests on the bed. This tiny gesture undoes me and all my energy - all the tension - goes. I smile back, as best I can, and clutch her hand tight. I close my eyes and rest my head on my arm, and when she continues her movements seem more fluid and confident. She’s gentle and barely touches me, the cool water soothing away any pain. I don’t care where she touches, I just don’t care now.
“They’ll heal,” she says, and I realise she’s stopped. “It’ll be fine.” Her voice has gone so much more gentle, so filled with warmth and like how she used to speak to me. “Sit up.” She helps me, pulling on my hand. Her trappings are different - the animal skins, her long braided hair - but her face reminds me so acutely of what I had and now seem to have lost. I find myself unable to let go of her hand when she goes to remove it from my grasp, and she looks at me with utter uncertainty and confusion. I miss my Xena, I miss everything about that old life that I’d give anything to get back to.
I find myself crying like a child, untidy and unable to stop, horrible wrenching sobs shaking my chest and tears streaming from eyes that I hide behind my hands. This is a living Hades and I’m so completely alone in it.
So familiar is Xena’s embrace that I don’t even start when her arms go around me and squeeze me in to her. She’s usually gentle, as if she’s afraid she’ll hurt me with her strength, but now she holds me more tightly than ever and it’s enormously comforting. I cuddle her in return, slipping down from the bed onto my knees. I clutch her to me and press my face into her hair.
It’s so good to just be with her again. A part of my Xena is here, I know it: I can reach her and I won’t let her go. I stroke her arms and shoulders, wanting to reaffirm my connection with every part of her. I tease back her hair, needing to touch everywhere, and she nuzzles her nose against mine before drawing back enough to take my face in her hands.
When I look at her I see a nakedness I’ve rarely seen in my own Xena. She’s bewildered, her breath quick, eyes darting between mine. “Who are you?” she beseeches, “Who are you? You’ve come here and changed everything.” She shakes her head. “I’ve never known anyone like you. It’s like I’ve known you a thousand years. You’ve turned everything upside-down. Don’t go, Gabrielle -”
And when she kisses me now it’s with tenderness and love. I close my eyes and fall willingly, my hands moving as desperately over her body as hers are over mine. She makes me feel alive, she makes me feel like a grown woman. I know she loves me from the need in her, the creases in her brow. The way she can’t take her lips from mine. Unlike last time she’s gentle, and lets me touch her, and for some of the time I just lock my arms around her neck and hold her as tightly as I can.
I know I can do anything if I have Xena with me. I want to show her - I have to show her - that this love is everything to me. My hands move to her chest and I struggle to remove her clothing, to find a way through the furs and skins. When I can’t, and scowl in frustration, she chuckles softly and unbuttons what is actually quite a simple jacket. She pulls the material aside then takes me back in her arms, cherishing me, returning her mouth to mine. I push aside the fur and find her breasts, hot and soft, and squeeze my hands over them, making her moan softly. Immediately moved by this, I bring my hands back up to stroke and caress her face, offering comfort.
Her hands, with those long fingers of hers, fix around my waist and she guides me astride her legs, bringing my chest parallel to her face. She untucks the material of my top and we pull it up over my arms. I lean in and hold her face against my chest, craving her undivided attention. This is perfect.
I’m so involved with her that I don’t register the door flaps parting. “Xena!”
I recognise Borius’ voice and snatch up my top, mortified. I don’t dare look over to him, acutely aware that even with the material I’m clutching he can see too much of me.
Xena doesn’t even look at him. “Get lost. I’m with Gabrielle.”
And embarrassed as I am to have been caught like this, I’m immeasurably proud that at this moment I’m the single most important thing to Xena, and her attention is solely for me.
Borius is persistent. “Xena we don’t have time for your games!”
She mumbles “I only want Gabrielle right now. Get out.” She kisses my temple, gentle and soft. I’m positively gloating: I couldn’t feel more self-satisfied.
“Enough of your selfishness!” He strides over to us and pulls Xena away by the arm. “Put her down! Have a little focus!”
He’s got her attention, and I’m suddenly resentful. I pull my clothes back around me.
“Damn it, this’d better be good.” Xena hastily fastens the toggles of her jacket and squares up to Borius.
“There’s been a flood, down river, in the plains where there is a large settlement,” he explains in his rolling accent, calm but insistent. “They are in disarray.”
She shrugs. “What do you want me to do about it, go hand out food parcels?”
She frequently uses sarcasm with him, and he is clearly annoyed that she doesn’t take him seriously. Their relationship has a strange dynamic - they’re both more reliant on each other then either will admit. Xena is in awe of Borius and looks to him for counsel when her inexperience leaves her lacking, but outwardly she treats him as a toy, giving him an audience only when it gives her pleasure or serves her purpose to do so. Borius loves her, that I know, but he spends so much of his time irritated with her, quarrelling. Their power, their position as head of the army, seems to switch with astounding frequency, sometimes several times a day, and the underdog suffers humiliations until they redeem themselves. It’s a very strange kind of friendship to me. I feel that Borius wants to change Xena, and that that’s wrong and doomed to failure: and yet what am I doing?
“Xena, why don’t you think with your head?” Borius goes on, grabbing her arms and shaking her. She shrugs him off, shoving at him for good measure. They’re so turbulent, like wild monkeys vying for leadership of their group. “They are defenceless! Their belongings are washed across fields and they scrabble to collect them like hungry dogs after scraps! Everything of value will be piled in a tent, there for the taking!”
The Conqueror is thinking hard now, and I recognise Xena’s focus, her ability to forget what has gone before and turn all her attention to the problem at hand, ignoring pain, or grief, or the village girl who stands behind her feeling cold and forgotten. “A small tribe, Borius - there’s no glory in overturning them, it’d be like stealing from a three-legged centaur.”
“Exactly! We need money, Xena, we need to pay the men. There will be no risk to us!” He takes her arms again, but gently this time, and her anger toward him is gone. Despite their intimacy, she seems to see him almost as a father-figure, and wants his guidance and approval. “If we spread fear in one village, we meet no resistance in the next! Your reputation grows before you, my Conquering Warrior...” He has an intoxicating smile, I have to admit that, and she’s under his spell, I know. Whether she actually loves him as he does her I’ve never been able to discern, but she’s connected to him. She smiles her approval of his thinking and they kiss. His hands go where mine were only moments ago, and I’m jealous.
“We’ll head out before midday,” she tells him, her forehead against his. I can hardly stand to watch: I want my Xena back, the Xena who is loyal, and reliable, and who may be reticent but who I know always means what she says to me. “Ready the men. Check the horses. Burn the land as we leave - the path of destruction starts here!”
Borius nods and strides out, and Xena follows him, turning back to me only when she’s at the door and I call to her. She looks at me questioningly, as if she’d forgotten I was there, that I’d ever existed, and wonders what I could possibly want from her. Right from the start, I remember, my Xena had never done that: she may have been rough, but she’d have me pulled behind her so she knew I was safe.
I can’t stand by and let her kill and destroy, it goes against everything I believe in - and everything I know she’ll come to believe in. Yet I’m in no position to dictate to her, to stop her going to this defenceless village that we’d usually be trying to help. “You won’t hurt anyone, will you?”
She’s in too much of a hurry for me, too excited and caught up in her visions of glory to listen to a serving girl. “I won’t touch the women and children,” she says, clipped. “That’s all I can guarantee.” And then she’s out of the door, leaving me alone in the tent, my shirt still not quite buttoned over my chest.
We head out almost immediately. I trudge along with the other girls at the end of a long procession of men, carts and horses. Xena is up ahead, riding alongside Borius, I assume. As we make our way along a gravel path that snakes through dense trees I reassure myself that there’ll be plenty of time for me to change her mind. We have a journey of a quarter-moon on a boat down a swollen river - as if my troubles weren’t great enough! - and I can talk to her, explain that this is wrong, that it isn’t her Way.
Just as I’m lost in my daydreams, I feel a hand close around my elbow. Knowing no one is marching behind me, I spin around and find Xena there. She grins at me, holds a finger to her lips to indicate silence, then beckons for me to follow and heads down into the trees. Intrigued, caught up in her smile that is so youthful and carefree, I dash after her. No one sees us. Bounding over twigs and dodging branches, I catch up to her.
“What is it?” My boots crunch on the fallen leaves, although she seems to move almost silently, and I slow when I’m at her elbow.
She shoots another grin back at me, so devastatingly familiar that my heart jumps. “C’mon.” She grabs my hand and we run through the forest like carefree children, my hair bouncing on my shoulders as the breeze lifts it. Forgetting everything except her smile and my pleasure in this moment at being with her, I clutch her hand and follow where she leads.
The path which the horses and lumbering carts must take cuts through the forest here in a giant bend, and if we keep running in this direction we’ll join the road up ahead before the rest of the party.
“Xena!” Laughing at our childish fun, I grasp her arm with my free hand, wanting to know what’s going on. I’ve never enjoyed this freedom with my Xena, who is always so weighed down, the huge load on her shoulders too great to allow her to run through trees like this.
She stops and bundles me into her arms, wrestling playfully until my back is against a tree. She’s gentle, tickling me lightly with her fingers, and kisses my cheek and neck even as I joyfully try to squirm away. Again, the old Xena I know isn’t usually tactile and I can’t imagine doing this with her.
She pauses, and licks dark lips before speaking. “You and I should finish what we started.” Bracing her hands on the bark, she kisses me.
“Xena -” I’m breathless even at the thought of it, and find my hands caressing her arms under the loose black fabric of her sleeves. “There’s no time: the others...”
She chuckles, catching my mouth up in kisses that make me dizzy. “I can make it come so quick -” another kiss, her hands making me gasp “ - and so hard -” she eases my skirt up to my hips “ - they’ll never know we were gone.”
I feel like I’m melting: hot liquid pulses down through me and it’s like I’m losing my mind into a blissful oblivion. “But -” I couldn’t face those people seeing me doing this, I couldn’t. I’m not particularly modest but this is too intimate, too private.
She whispers against my ear. “But...” her arms are around me even as she caresses me, and I feel safe “... you want this so much that it’s gonna happen so quickly. You think I can’t do that to you?”
I’ve no experience, but I think that she probably can, judging by how desperate I am, after all this grief, just to be in her arms. “Gods...” I rest my head down on her shoulder, dizzy, and feel her fingers go inside me. Dear, sweet, Gods...
And I stop caring about everything. I close my eyes, knit my fingers into her dark hair, and embrace the pleasure that washes over me. She’s gentle and loving, I like to think, and most of all, she’s with me. This isn’t anger, or desperation: she wants to enjoy herself with me, and that’s just fine. With my eyes closed, I imagine that this is my Xena, who I’ve always, always wanted to be with like this. Gods I love you so much -
Her hand tugs the material of my top out of the way and she squeezes my breast deliciously, her cool skin making me shiver and prickle. She alternates between kissing me there, making me rest my head back against the solidity of the tree with stars before my eyes, and kissing my mouth, which I return with vigour.
“Come on -” she urges, her youthful voice a shade deeper than usual. “Let go. You want me, don’t you?”
If only you knew. “Yes -”
“Show me, show me how good you feel.”
I can’t, I can’t! I can’t hold on a moment more, and I do just let go. At the back of my mind I’m vaguely aware of the army marching toward us, on the road just a few paces away, and I clench my teeth and try to make only the smallest sounds. I kiss her hard, demandingly, then wrap myself around her and just hold on, letting wave after wave of intense pleasure rise up through me. It’s so powerful, and I go light-headed. I hear her little grunts, with my head on her shoulder. I’ve finally, finally done this thing with her, and I’m so proud.
I hold her mindlessly to me, both of us out of breath, until she plucks my arms from around her neck and points with a devilish grin to the army, who are about to pass us on the road. I close my eyes for an instant, thinking how bloody close that was.
But worth it. Still laughing to herself, Xena takes my arm and tugs me back toward the track. At the edge of the forest, she crouches and waits for the procession to pass, then pushes me up the little bank to silently take up my position at the rear, behind the other girls who don’t seem to have noticed my absence.
As I walk, on soft and unsteady legs, I silently try to recover my breath. That was never how I imagined my first time with Xena to be, I have to admit, but strangely I’m not disappointed. Gods, at least I’m with her, here in this lonely world. At least I have Xena with me, even if she is so remarkably different from the woman I know. Right now, I’m making the best of a bad situation. I’ll do all I can to set things straight again, but who knows, maybe that won’t be possible? Maybe this is it for me now? Something in my gut crushes at the thought of never again spending quiet evenings by the fire with her, or riding Argo, or just having her look at me in that way that lets me know that underneath everything, she loves me too. I’ll never see my parents again, or Lila, and I’ll be a slave like this, without the freedom to go where I choose, wear what I choose, be who I choose. But at least, I tell myself bravely, at least I’ll walk beside Xena. That is all that matters.
We journey for the best part of the day until we reach a wide river, shaded on either side by lush trees, and board a boat moored there. Some of the men take the horses over land, but most of us pile onto this massive craft, sturdily built with high masts and countless cabins.
Without the tides found at sea, I’m spared my usual seasickness and the journey is fairly comfortable. I share a basic cabin with the other girls, but soon find that most of my nights are spent in Xena’s spacious apartment - and bed. In the daylight, out on deck, she ignores me entirely, but this is the price I pay for her attention most nights. We don’t talk much - not like we used to - but she’s kind and gentle, and often I eat meals with her and benefit from whatever entertainment or gift has taken her fancy before we inevitably end up in bed.
I’m almost entirely passive when we’re together, I know, but I don’t know what else to do and she seems perfectly satisfied with the arrangement. I lie back and watch her, and the pleasure of it is so great that I couldn’t want for more. She dozes off with her head against my chest, or with me lying at her back, and with our naked bodies warm under the furs I try not to miss all the times we would lie together fully clothed and just chat about the day or the stars. Back then, I would have given anything to swap with this. Now, this is all I have, and I’m determined to be satisfied with it.
Some nights she doesn’t send for me, and I know she must be with Borius, and I’m hurt. But again, this is just how it is now. When we’re together I can believe she loves me - I’m convinced that she’s not just using me, she’s too loving, with sparks of the things I used to treasure about her.
Truth be told, I enjoy her secret attention, the perks that it brings, and almost entirely forget about the village we’re heading to, about her status as Conqueror. I shield my eyes from all that and just see the familiar parts of her that I choose to see.
One morning I lie tangled in her furs as the sun rises and spills cool light into the cabin. As she snoozes beside me, naked and dishevelled, I watch her. I used to sleep in the same bed as my sister, sometimes, but that was just sharing space - this feels so different. Back in proper time - in my real time - I would some mornings lie awake like this and just look at Xena, admiring her beauty and spirit, wanting to touch her. Somehow, she would always know. No matter how unconscious she appeared to be, she would always eventually mutter, in a resigned voice and perhaps opening one eye, ‘quit gawping at me, will you?’, and I would chuckle bashfully, or deny it, or just ignore her and shut my eyes quick, depending on my mood.
Here, though, she seems oblivious. She sleeps well, as if she has no cares, and I think she’d be scornful at the idea of getting up in the night to drill, or hunt, to mind the fire or sharpen your sword or tend to your horse. I lift myself up on an elbow, and am sure that she’s none the wiser.
She is young here, and I appreciate what an enormous burden she carried on her shoulders, at an age when I was still learning to cook and clean with my mother. She is enormously beautiful. I enjoy the sex, I can’t deny - Gods it feels good - but here it’s all we have. I miss just being together, talking. Out on the deck, she doesn’t even acknowledge me. ‘It’s for your own good,’ she said yesterday, abruptly, ‘if people see you’re important to me then you become a target’. And along with understanding her point, I glowed at her implied message.
I stroke her hair from her eyes, long and wild and dark. She doesn’t give a damn how she looks - and always looks good, to me. Silly girl, Gabrielle - you’re a love-sick teenager! I snuggle closer and put an arm around her, wanting her to know that there are other ways we can be close, that I don’t only feel lust for her physically.
I stroke her arm softly, and lean down to kiss her cheek. She scowls, tuts, and flips her head away. “I’m trying to sleep.” Her voice doesn’t hold that fond humour I’m used to hearing.
I’m determined. “I’m not trying to stop you sleeping: you can sleep.” I go on stroking and caressing, just her arms and shoulders, righting the covers to keep her warm, trying to encourage her into my arms.
She frowns again, annoyed, and tries to brush me off. “I’ve had enough of that, I don’t want anymore right now.”
And I actually think it quite sad, that the only expression of affection she understands is our wild rolling in the furs, a few frenzied hours of passion and desperation. I don’t want to do that again now either, I’m too exhausted, I’m spent from the night. So as she rolls away from me I follow, and put my arm around her again. I just want to talk, like we used to. “Xena, why’d you feel you have to raid all those villages, go after all that money? Why is it important?”
She snorts, and fidgets a bit, but tellingly doesn’t pull away from me. “Don’t give a damn about money.” She sniffs, not fully awake, and flicks long hair back over her shoulder. “But see, you have to pay for power. People won’t fall into line unless you pay them, or they’re afraid of you, or you’re the best. And I don’t like to rely on just one factor.”
“People like who? Like your army?”
She shrugs. “Like everyone. You have to keep control.”
“Because,” she insists almost angrily, “otherwise people leave you. People run them away even when you beg them to stay.” A little silence. “Or they wade into trouble when you’d do anything to keep them out of it. And that’s worse.”
Of course: she’s talking about her brothers. I understand completely, although I can’t let on, and I hug myself to her, my cheek against her back, and try to show her that I’m here. Xena has always had reasons for what she does, she has never been amoral. She’s always so sure in her convictions. “I don’t want payment. And I’m not afraid of you.”
A quick, derisive snort. “More fool you.”
“I am not. I’m here because I want to be here.” I push back her hair and kiss her head, needing her to understand.
She doesn’t say a word, but after a moment she grabs for my hand and holds it tight, pulled against her heart, and I spend a minute with her, communicating more honestly that we have here before, without a single word.
I sigh softly, her back warm against my chest, and relax my grip. “How old are you?” I like it when we have serious conversations, when we learn about each other, but I also like it when we just... chat.
A pause. “What does it matter?”
I have to stifle my impulsive laugh. She doesn’t hesitate because she’s offended, I think, but because she’ll need a minute to do the math. “It doesn’t,” I reply, “I just wondered.”
She scowls at me as she mentally does her sums, then tells me.
A year younger than me. Soon, if her life progresses as it has done before, she’ll have to face so much, she’ll find such burdens on her shoulders; even now I can barely imagine the enormity of it. She’s only just beginning, she’s yet to meet Alti, and Ares, and the Amazons: yet to lose herself in blood.
I start to rub her back, and I can tell from her breathing that she begins to doze again, her legs resting lazily against mine. There’s a lot to like about this new Xena that I find myself with. She’s spontaneous and eager to take risks. She’s attentive. She isn’t swallowed up in remorse and grief: she can live in the moment, and when we’re together her mind isn’t constantly dragged back to darker times. Perhaps she’s happier, here like this. I get to thinking that perhaps we’ll both be happier, if only I can stay here and keep her rampaging under some sort of control. Wouldn’t that be the greatest gift I could give my friend? To keep Solan with her, to steer her away from Alti, to erase all that sorrow from her scroll as if it were never written?
Just as I feel myself start to doze too the boat shifts, jolting suddenly in the water, and I’m alert again, sitting up in the furs, heart thumping. Is it my imagination, or are we lurching to one side? I go very still. All is quiet. I hold my breath in the silence, and just as my heart begins to slow again there’s another sickening roll and my stomach heaves. What’s happening?
Beside me, Xena stirs, and mumbles into the cushion. “How come you’ve let go?”
“I think we’re gonna sink -” My eyes dart about. I watch the tropical rain spattering angrily up on the cabin windows.
Xena groans and sits up, laughs when she sees me. “We’re not gonna sink.”
“Didn’t you feel that?”
“Gotten a bit choppy, that’s all.” She’s still laughing at me. “Gabrielle, don’t panic!” She puts her arms around me - just like she would if she were my Xena - and humours me with a cuddle and a blanket around my shoulders. This calms me a bit, and more so, doubly reassures me that the kind, understanding woman I know so well is reachable, isn’t so deeply buried. “Didn’t know you were afraid of ships - thought you were supposed to be spunky.”
“Yeah, well, nobody’s perfect, I guess.” The damn boat rolls violently again, turning my stomach, and I hear a crack of lightning shoot across us. “Gods!” I swallow hard. “I’m going to throw up -”
Xena lets go abruptly. “Not on me you’re not!” Smiling irritatingly, she gets to her feet, pulling a fur around her. “I’d better get up on deck and see what’s happening, looks like a big storm brewing.”
“Ah, it’ll be fine.” A strong hand reaches down for me, and when I take it she hauls me up, with my face almost touching hers and her blue eyes piercing into my soul. “And tonight... you and me...” And she kisses me again, consumingly, and everything in me flutters at the very thought of what tonight might bring, with the two of us close like this. She kisses my cheek swiftly, leaving me blushing and silly like a school girl, then turns and is gone, striding out to command her army. I dress quickly, pleased with myself, and venture outside.
On deck, I’m met by chaos. Xena was right: there is a huge storm out here, swirling up the water and whipping the ship from side to side. I cling to the rail as the men hurry around me, pulling in sails and shoring things up and generally doing whatever it is you do on boats when things aren’t looking good. It’s incredibly windy, tossing my hair in my face, and the river water slaps against the hull, sending up salty droplets. There is a general air of contained panic. Xena strides around and barks orders at her men, but she works too, hauling on ropes, rain plastering her hair to her face.
We lurch violently, and I fall to my knees. The deck is slippery and it takes all my strength to cling to the rails and not go sliding across the wood as we tip to and fro. These are torrential rains, beating down into the rainforests on either side of the river. I’m so far from Greece, aren’t I.
I’m turning green. Damn boats and I don’t make happy bedfellows. This is just a little rain shower, right? It’ll soon blow over and we’ll laugh about this and go on with our journey. It’s no big deal. Yes, soon I’ll look back on this and laugh and -
Blood of Hades! The deck somehow seems to fall away from under me and before I know it I’ve thumped down, my hands slapping the boards and, finding them wet, I go sliding across the surface of the boat as if someone had tipped the world on its edge. I scrabble to get a grip but it’s impossible and everything rushes past me. I feel my legs striking the wooden rails and, suddenly gripped with panic, grab for a hold. But the speed I’m moving and my own body weight work against me and my hands catch uselessly in the wetness and come loose.
When I plummet into the water, without even time for a yell, I’m under in an instant. As my eyes and ears fill, quietness and solitude engulf me. It’s such a peaceful contrast to the madness above that I wonder if I’m dying, if I’m in some sort of cool, slow limbo. It’s all blue and green, and the green swirls around me, like Xena’s imagined tendrils from the opium.
Then I’m thrown up to the surface again, and the water slaps cold in my face. I involuntarily gasp in a breath, and realise just how much my lungs were screaming out for air. Oh, Gods - I’m drowning!
I flap about in the water, trying to keep my head above the white wash of the waves. My limbs are going numb - although the water isn’t really icy - and my energy is floating away. I’m gasping for breath. There are weeds in the water and I keep tangling my wrists and ankles. There are rocks that my desperately scrabbling hands scrape on. I can swim, of course, but I’m used to placid lakes, the water here is just too powerful.
I can barely see through the rain, but the ship is a huge brown bobbing shape, and I try to keep myself facing it. “Xena!” It’s the only word in my mind. “Xena, help!”
Through my frenzied flapping, I see a figure at the bow. Her long hair streams out behind her. The boat is moving away from me, as I’m washed through the torrents, but through the haze I see her dive in after me, a streamlined shape with arms outstretched. Jubilation shoots through me like lightening. I kick about, gulping air when I can and water when I can’t, but seem to be getting dragged further down - my neck, my chin, my nose...
Then Xena’s hands are under my arms and she lifts me up for a proper breath. “Xena - !” I grab on around her shoulders, elated that she’s come for me, just like my Xena would have.
“Hold me tight!” she yells at me, “Hold on, Gabrielle!”
I clutch at her as she ducks down beneath the water and rips vines from around my ankles. I kick myself free, and willingly hold on as she drags us both toward the bank. Xena is a strong swimmer - probably she wasn’t satisfied with the lakes of Amphipolis and challenged herself with greater and greater dangers - and together we make it.
“Here! The root -” She shoves my hand onto a loop of tree root jutting out of the mud, and I grasp it. There isn’t room for both our hands, so she has a more tenuous grip, but we hold each other, and manage to stay above water.
“You saved me -”
“Stating the bloody obvious -”
“Xena, thank you -” I’m glad to be alive, to have found my friend again, and I rest my head against hers for a moment, just while I get by breath back.
“Thank my arse when I get us both out of this shit.”
She flashes a grin at me, and despite our ridiculous situation, I grin back, and I kiss her. Her face is cold but beautiful. She holds the touch for too long, and it makes me laugh, even as my lips are against hers. She moves closer to me, but in doing so her grip somehow slips, and in an instant she’s gone, bobbing beneath the water and then being tugged out into the swirling waves as if by some invisible hand.
“Xena!” I scream. Holding on to my anchor, I struggle to see. She’s keeping above water, but she’s being washed out away from me. From out of the haze of steamy rain I can see the ship. I squint, and can make out a rope ladder being flung over the side. I scrape hair from my eyes. Borius stands at the top of the ladder, and beckons to Xena, who thrashes around until she catches the bottom rung. A mass of dark wet hair and clothes, she climbs up. She swings her leg over the rail, then I see her pointing down to me, ordering the men, pointing again.
But the big ship doesn’t change course, just creeps inexorably past me. It can’t really, I suppose - can’t bring a big boat into a shallow little inlet like this. Of course I can’t hear what Xena says, but I see her face. Her eyes are fixed on me. Borius is shaking his head, shouting to her over the noise of the wind. She goes to climb back on the ladder: he pulls her down and holds her. I can see his lips - “She’s only a slave! Forget her, she’s just a slave!” And so I watch her, and she watches me, as the boat passes away, and is gone.
Xena? Oh, Gods. This is it. I’m alone. If all this chaos was for a reason, I’ve missed the whole point of it. If there was some grand design, it’s gone now. I try half-heartedly to pull myself up the bank, but my fine clothes - the ones Xena gave me: the Conqueror’s favourite doesn’t have to live in rags - are waterlogged and madly heavy. My arms are weak from the swimming and the water is tugging me away, and I can’t seem to move. Just a second to rest... I drop my forehead down on my arm, wet hair flopping onto the leafy soil, and wonder, just for an instant, if I should let go.
I miss my Xena. I miss my old life.
If my Xena was here, she’d come striding toward me, haul me out, tease me for my clumsiness, put an arm around me before throwing me a drying cloth.
For the first time, I question whether I’m ever going to see that friend again.
I should just let go...
Something touches my hand and I start, having almost lost my hold. I look down to the warm tendril around my arm, and seeing the long darkness of it I think for a moment that it’s a snake, a python come to squeeze the life out of me.
Before I can react I’m hauled up onto the bank and to my feet, steadied until I can see past my dripping hair. Stunned, I stare into the face of a stranger. The first thing I see about him is the darkness of his skin, and I’m almost afraid by it for an instant until I think of Marcus. I’m sure I’ve only laid eyes on two or three people in my life with skin this dark, from such far off parts of the known world. I stare at him in unabashed fascination, and he does likewise. He’s tall, with a rounded face and big white eyes. I think he’s around my age, perhaps a little older - young, certainly. He shifts his bare feet in the soil. He’s wearing loose pants which reach his knees, made from a brightly patterned orange fabric. Aside from that he wears nothing except jewellery - leather cords at his ankles, wooden beads around his neck that hang down over a muscled chest, more trinkets tied around thick biceps. He has some sort of body paint on his chest, arms and forehead, in red and white. Where on this earth am I? Does Greece even exist here? It feels warm and damp, and in front of me sprawls a lush forest, buzzing with unseen insects.
The man holds a spear, thin and sharp, decorated with coloured twine. Its butt is in the soil, and he makes no move to use it. He looks at me with faint surprise.
I should say something. “Thank you! For pulling me out - thank you, so much. What’s your name?” I’m a bit out of breath, but I try to be cheerful.
There’s no response from him. He looks at me like a child would regard a new toy it didn’t understand.
“I’m Gabrielle. You saved my life there. My friend... something happened and my friend couldn’t...” Damn. Come on, Gabrielle, be strong right now, all right? “Will you tell me your name?”
He speaks. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, but it does, that the line or so that he says is in no language I’ve ever heard of. His voice is deep, and smooth and gentle - just like Marcus’ was - but the language... it bears no comparison at all to Greek or Latin, the sounds are abrupt and staccato and from the chest.
“I’m sorry, I can’t understand -”
He says another few sentences, and we look at each other helplessly. It may as well be a parrot addressing a rat, we have nothing in common. For a moment helplessness washes over me like the murky river water: I’m still alone.
And then the man smiles. It’s a simple, uncomplicated expression: not one of Xena’s loaded looks, not a great grin, nothing sinister or false. He just smiles, gently, and takes a step toward me, letting his spear trail from his hand in an unthreatening gesture. It’s somehow warming to see, and I smile back. Perhaps we are not such different animals. He acknowledges my response, he knows that I mean to be friendly, as he does.
Okay, let’s be logical. We have to start somewhere. I tap my chest. “Gabrielle.”
The dark man considers this, fascinated by me. “Ga... brelle.”
“Close enough, yes. Gab-ri-elle.”
“Gab... reel.” He nods and laughs.
Eager, I gesture to him.
“Ah!” He’s got a big, jolly laugh. “Asambi.” He touches his own chest.
“Asambi.” At least, that’s how it sounds, and it’s a nice name, it suits him. So, we both have names - we have at least that in common. He regards me once more, seems to come to a decision, then beckons me after him. “Wait!” Even if he doesn’t understand the word, I guess the sentiment is pretty clear. “I have to wait for my friend, she’s on a boat on the river, you must have seen it? I have to go after her, I can’t just let...” I run along the bank, pathetically chasing the boat that is long out of sight. The rainforest is dense, and soon becomes impassable, with long, pale branches leaning down to the river and dipping their waxy leaves into the dashing water. “She’ll be...” But she won’t, will she. She won’t be pining over me. Like Borius said, I’m just a slave to her, a passing fancy. She is not my Xena, who I know would go to Hades and back to find me. My Xena isn’t here.
I look back to my new friend - the only one I have here right now. He reaches out again, and nods encouragement. Well I’m not going to get my life back standing here dripping, so I gather up my resolve and go with him.
Asambi walks calmly through the tightly packed trees. This is clearly his forest - he knows exactly where he’s going. The further in we get, the hotter and more humid it becomes, and I quickly dry out, I’m not cold. Asambi has big strides but he doesn’t hurry me, his bare feet crunching over the fallen leaves and twigs. I’m very glad to have my shoes, my feet aren’t that tough. The plants become more and more exotic, with big swaying leaves of shiny green and small, vividly coloured blooms here and there. I can barely see the sky, but the sun is so bright that it’s not dark down here under the high branches.
Asambi jabs his spear into the soil with every stride, the red tassels swinging around the pole. He leads for a bit, sometimes checking that I’m behind him and sometimes concentrating on his path. I get the feeling that he hears and understands every tiny sound around him, the chirps and rustles and drips. When we come to a little freshwater stream, he jumps over it then looks back to me with his youthful smile and reaches out a hand. It’s really not a big stream, but it’s nice to be treated like a lady, so I take his hand and smile my thanks.
“Where are we going?” I ask him. “You certainly know this jungle. I’m used to walking, but not in this heat! It didn’t seem so hot on the boat. I guess I was inside the cabin most of the time, though.” He looks at me quizzically until I unconsciously wipe an arm over my forehead. My hair has dried of river water and grown damp again with sweat. Suddenly seeming to understand, Asambi glances around him and pulls a waxy leaf from a nearby tree. The vein forms a strong backbone from which the leaf ends curl up slightly, forming a dish shape. He kneels by the stream and scoops up some water, then hands me the leaf. “Thank you!” The water is fresh from being tumbled over the small pebbles of the riverbed, and it’s just what I needed. Asambi watches me for a moment, clearly pleased, then drinks from his cupped hands.
We go on walking. My new ally is focussed, he’s not just ambling along, he’s headed somewhere. As we’re going in land - away from the river - I assume we’re going to his home. I have no option but to plod behind him. It’s surprisingly liberating, actually, to have no choice but to walk: it seems to take a weight off my shoulders. I want to find Xena, but I can’t right now. I want my old life back, but I’m not going to get it in this jungle. So I go on walking.
On many occasions Xena and I have walked all day. Well, mostly I walk and Xena rides, but sometimes she’ll walk beside me, if Argo is lame or needs resting, or if we want to talk. I have pretty good stamina. But it’s so humid here that I find myself tiring quickly, and have to touch Asambi’s arm to pause him. I mime what I hope is exaggerated tiredness, and sit on a fallen log, holding up my thumb and forefinger to indicate a small amount of time. He looks at me for a moment, then patrols around the immediate area, surveying the trees and the animal tracks and the lowering of the sun in the sky.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I’m not as fit as you.” I can’t let myself think of Xena now. I have to concentrate on surviving and working this puzzle out. I lived without Xena for a long time and I can do so again. I need to keep my mind on the here and now. “Is this your home? What part of the world are we in, I wonder? I’ve never been outside of Greece. It’s going to be dark soon, isn’t it. Dark? When the sun goes down? It gets colder in Greece when night falls but I can’t imagine that here, it’s so warm. I hope we’re nearly wherever we’re going, I’m starting to get hungry. My friend always says that -”
He walks over to me and peers down at me. He seems as fascinated by me as I am with him. Maybe he’s never seen anyone with white skin before.
“Sorry, am I talking too much? I always do.” I shrug apologetically. “Do you -” I point to him, “ - want me - ” and to myself, “ - to shut up?” I clamp my hands over my mouth.
Asambi laughs at me and goes on listening.
“No? Oh, well, that’s a first.”
He has a big grin, set into a rounded, attractive face. He goes to a tree just beside us, and I watch as he works. He selects a big glossy leaf that hangs close to him and pulls it off the thin stem. Sap drips from the cut flesh and he uses this to clean and moisten the surface of the leaf, shaking it off when he’s done. Then he takes up his spear, and with great concentration carves a nick out of the trunk of the tree. What in the known world is he doing? As I watch, a sort of orange syrup oozes from the cut, which he patiently collects on the leaf. He sticks his tongue between his lips in an expression of extreme focus, and reminds me of Xena when she’s trying to write or do math.
Quite quickly, the amber sap hardens and plugs up the wound, but not before Asambi has collected a little pool of it on his leaf. He returns to me and sits, his spear propped against his knee. He holds the leaf flat on his palms and agitates it smoothly, like the men who work at the mouths of rivers panning for gold. The amber gradually congeals as it did on the tree. The water droplets on the waxy leaf surface repel it, and it forms several rounded discs, darkening as it hardens, until Asambi can take the shiny orbs and they clink together in his hand like dice carved from ivory. With his appealing grin back, he tips the translucent orange shapes into my palm and discards the leaf.
“Oh -” He’s looking at me expectantly, and I peer at the roughly circular shapes. “Thank you.” They are about the size of dinars, irregularly transparent and cloudy. “Erm...”
The man laughs again - rather like one would at an uncomprehending child, I think - and raises his hand to his mouth, pretending to bite something imaginary and chew on it.
“Oh, you eat it!” I feel a little foolish. “Okay.” I take a piece of amber, clutching the others in my fist, and tentatively bite on it. It has a crisp exterior, but the inside is still soft. It’s molten sugar: it tastes of honey and sweet fruit and sugar. “It’s candy! Asambi, you made candy! From a tree! I feel like a bee after pollen. It’s delicious!” I pat his arm fondly, utterly absorbed and delighted by this one tiny luxury and act of kindness. The amber is sticky and sweet and I have to chew enthusiastically at it. Xena would secretly love these, she has a very sweet tooth. Asambi nods, smiling his big smile at me, and finds a twig to clean his spear head. “Thank you,” I say around a mouthful of melting sugar, “it’s exactly the energy boost I needed. You must know so much about this wood, I wish you could tell me.” With my arm affectionately against his, I finish my treat. When we’re done, he stands and moves a few paces onwards. “We have to walk again, huh?” My legs ache. “I guess we do.” Asambi holds up a thumb and forefinger, and I laugh. “It’s just a little way? Okay then.”
It’s just dark as we reach his camp at a big clearing. There are many tents, rounded with pointed tops like cones, all decorated brightly. The design looks familiar, but it’s not Greek and I’m too tired to think on it further. Only the flickering light from camp fires dance up the canvas sides of the tents and they seem to stretch on forever into the darkness. The settlement looks pretty permanent.
Around the fires sit scores of men and women, eating steaming food from big cooking pots suspended over the flames. For a moment I hope to Mount Olympus that I haven’t been brought into a tribe of cannibals as their next meal - the pots are certainly large enough - but there is a distinct aroma of roasted deer, and one plate warming in the embers is loaded up with pale tubers. The people are all dark like Asambi, dressed similarly in minimal but colourful clothing. They all notice us and stare at me, going silent.
Asambi walks closer to them, putting down his spear and speaking to them all in his fast, sharp language that I understand none of. Their eyes are all on me and it’s not comfortable. There are women here too, with short, curled black hair, and I think I see a few children peering out from behind tent doors or the women’s legs. Several of the older men, slightly stooped and with hair greying just as I remember my grandfather’s hair greying approach Asambi and speak with him. He talks emphatically but I’m clueless as to his meaning. I see them nod, solemnly but with fond pats for him, and he comes to me and holds out his hand for mine. I’m reassured by his smile, and I sit on the boulder he leads me to by one of the fires.
The people all stare at me, but I smile and nod and say hello. Soon I’m handed a carved wooden dish which is heaped with brown meat and white vegetables, rice piled up and some green leaves. Asambi sits beside me, nods encouragement, and eats his own meal as he chats companionably with his kin. They quickly lose interest in me, and I’m left to enjoy my food, rest my legs, and observe them all. Which God of Luck do I have to thank for landing so firmly on my feet? I don’t feel that these people are a threat to me. The women here do much of the serving and cleaning, and their men eat first, but they are treated with kindness and respect and I feel that the culture here is to value women, I’m not surprised that Asambi treated me with the consideration that he did.
I’m encouraged to eat and drink my fill, and I listen to them talk, and think about my situation, and do my best to be gracious when I catch them staring at me. I don’t blame them for being wary. I’m relieved when Asambi approaches me and has me follow him.
He takes me across the camp to a tent and gestures me inside. There are colourful weaved blankets and a wooden pallet. It’s dark and quiet. He points out a tent some small distance away nestled amongst the others then taps his chest.
“You’ll be there?” I guess. “If I need anything? You’re the perfect host, ‘Sambi, thank you.”
He bows a little and says a word as he leaves.
“Goodnight,” I reply, and am left alone in my tent.
In truth I’m exhausted by everything, and I sleep through. The next day I eat with the others, take a stroll, wash my clothes, and do little else of any benefit to anyone, except sit and rack my brains uselessly for a way out of this. The more time that passes, the greater distance I travel, the more I seem to be moving away from anything that might be of help. The people here are either mildly wary and stay away from me, or, in the case of the younger ones, are curious and stare as they pass at my bleached skin and hair. Not that anyone is unfriendly - if I smile they smile back, and offer a gift of a berry or a coconut shell, share a toy or a task - but it’s difficult to move onto anything more profound without a common language. Asambi is attentive and kind when I see him - my basic needs are catered for very well here - but that’s not enough. Toward the evening, when I’m growing desperate, I clutch his arms and implore him “You have to help me, I don’t belong here, I’m from Greece, in a different time. My friend was in that boat on the river and I have to get back to her to put this right - please!” He is greatly concerned, holding my hands and staring into my face, listening hard and trying to make sense of my flapping. He comforts me as best he can, with gestures that are easy enough to understand - he taps over his heart then over mine, or bows gently to me, or looks around for something he thinks I might need - but we both know that it’s of little practical use. Finally he takes me over to the big fire where everyone is eating, sits beside me and ensures I eat (white meat, succulent and smoky, still on the bone) while frequently looking at me and smiling reassurance. He’s very kind and I’m grateful. The tribe amuse themselves with dancing, and chanting, using makeshift instruments from skins and small bones. It’s a fascinating culture and at least it’s some distraction.
The days stretch on. I’m not accustomed to the heat and find it hard to venture out very far. And in any case, I’m fearful of getting lost. I approach a group of five young men, barely more than teenagers, as they rest after a hunt. They brought back a big carcass and lots of tubers, and are rewarded by the women with drink and the right to lounge in the sun for a while. They have rubbed off the fearsome war paint they use for hunting, and are adorned only with their cloth shorts and all manner of beads and bangles around their necks and wrists.
When I sit by them they look at me expectantly but not with hostility. “Hi,” I begin experimentally, “can you help me? Do you recognise this? Look -” I take up a twig and begin to draw in the soil. I mark out the rectangular shape of the tarot cards, try my best to fill in the detail. “I need to find a man who does this.”
The youths are predictably attentive and interested. They watch me respectfully then nod and chat amongst themselves. Their chocolate skin glows with sweat in the midday sun, their palms and the soles of their feet lighter and drier. They all have brown eyes and dark hair, are all fit and lean, and I have trouble telling them apart.
One gestures that he wants my stick, and I give it to him. All flashing their big white smiles, they watch as he draws some marks next to mine. I sigh privately as I realise they don’t understand: they think I’m just playing, and the man draws simple stick objects: a tent, the sun, a man. I thank them, and they nod. Damn.
On the third day there’s a great commotion in the camp when a hunter is brought back injured. I think it’s one of the young men I met yesterday, but I can’t be sure. There’s clearly been some sort of accident - perhaps he fell, or was injured by his own blade, or attacked by his prey - but he’s bleeding profusely from his wound and is losing consciousness from the blood loss and shock.
I follow them all into what is clearly a healer’s tent. Everyone is greatly concerned, but there is disorganisation and panic, and aside from prayer and spells not much seems to be done to help the boy. The healer - an old man weighed down with jewellery and charms - gives the hunter a drink of something and anoints the wound, but it goes on spilling dark blood onto the earth.
I’ve seen Xena deal with injuries like this before. She’s a skilled healer and she never gets it wrong. I push to the front of the crowd. “Please, I think I can help him. Will you let me try?” I reach for what I need slowly, so as not to alarm them. They’re wary, but seem willing to let me work so long as I don’t look as if I’m about to do him damage. “It’s okay,” I tell the man, whose big eyes are wild with panic, “you’ll be okay, I can treat this.” Maybe he thinks I’m casting some spell over him. I take cloth, bundle it up tight and press it to the wound. You have to apply pressure to stop bleeding, Xena always says so. I spot Asambi in the crowd and beckon him over. “Sam, come and help me. Press on this.” I guide his hands. When the lad on the table swoons I pat him and keep him awake.
“Gabrielle -” Asambi draws my attention to the linen, which has soaked through with blood.
“It’s all right, don’t take it off -” I get another cloth and press it on top of the first. “It’s slowing down.” The boy is breathing rapidly and I can feel that his pulse is pounding. I get his attention and point to my chest, emphasising my own slow, steady breathing. He understands and copies me, and the pulse which is pumping his blood out of him slows a little. “Good!”
I take a moment to calm down. Everyone is watching me, but I know what I’m doing, and the boy is going to make it. I fashion a scrap of linen into a sling and secure his arm, dressing the shoulder more neatly. I take my time in bathing his forehead and cleaning his hands, and when I look around my audience is clearly impressed.
This simple act is a turning point. I’m accepted by the tribe and everyone wants to show gratitude and to learn from me. When I catch Asambi’s eye he grins at me and looks proud. By sun fall the hunter is up on his feet again. There’s a big meeting, led by a middle-aged man, who, from his dress and demeanour and the way the others treat him, I assume must be the leader. He embraces his injured warrior warmly and I guess that they’re probably related, perhaps uncle and nephew. Just my luck to save the kin of the ruler! He approaches me and makes a sign across my chest with his hand and a small item made of bone and twine, and I bow my thanks, hoping it’s a suitable response to the ritual.
From then on I don’t have time to be melancholy about my situation. The children want to play with me, and their mothers let them. The women take me down to the river and we bathe before they decorate me with garlands and jewellery like they wear. It’s not long before I’m dressing as they do, with sandals and leather bracelets. I begin to learn my way around a bit. The river is actually only a short walk away, heading out in a different direction to the one Asambi and I first arrived from. The camp must be on a jut of land in the centre of a meander, and clearer land and pleasant beaches are easy to reach without having to pass though all that jungle.
Fully recovered, the young hunter and his friends come to see me one by one at all times of night and day, having daubed on red war paint to simulate one injury or another, wanting to learn how it should be treated. They pretend to limp, or clutch their middles, clearly enjoying themselves in the process and making me laugh to see their carefree exuberance. One comes to me with an arrow impaled in a length of tree limb, with red berry juice daubed all around the bark. He offers it to me and gestures animatedly to his arm. He’s flanked by his friends, who look on excitedly.
“Oh, what’d you do if you get an arrow in your arm?” I guess, setting the anatomical model down on my knees. “You’ve done that before? You should be more careful. Well, what you do is -” and I show them how you have to push the arrow right through and snap off the shaft, and they make appropriately alarmed noises and pull faces, and watch avidly as I wipe off the berry juice and bandage the branch. “See?”
“Ah!” They laugh and nod and bow their thanks to me.
I lose track of how much time passes in this sunny, friendly place. It’s as if I’m cut off from the real world and real time and am living this in a kind of dream, or a pleasing fantasy. I’ve secretly always rather liked attention - from the first time I got up on the kitchen table at age four and told a story, I expect - and these people can’t seem to get enough of me. With my healing of the man, and the leader’s approval and my association with Asambi - who I’ve taken to affectionately calling Sam - I can do no wrong. I keep telling myself that I’ll take some positive action, as soon as the weather cools a little, as soon as I’m stronger physically and emotionally, as soon as I have a plan. ‘As soon as’ never comes. It’s too easy to fall into this way of life, cut off from everything that’s painful and hard in the real world.
I start to develop a kind of communication. It’s very simple, but it’s a start, nonetheless. The people all understand that if I point to myself and say a word, then point to Asambi and say his name, that when I point to them I want to know their name too. So I point to the meat and say ‘food’, gesture above me and say ‘sky’, and so on, and in return the eager young folk tell me their words for these things. Neither of us manage the pronunciation very well, but it’s a great source of amusement.
One day Asambi and his friends are putting on their war paint ready for a hunt. This is an almost daily occurrence, and the five or six men chosen that day invariably come back with some creature or a handful of plump birds for the women to cook. I go to them, and they greet me with smiles. I’ve just given an adorable, plump baby back to its mother, and am in need of a little adult company.
“Gabrielle sleep,” one of the men suggests affectionately, pointing to a wooden bench that I like to sit on, over by my tent. I sit there to rest, not to sleep, but I understand his meaning.
I shake my head. “Gabrielle hunt.” I squeeze into their circle and take up a spear. I’ve hunted for food all the time I’ve travelled with Xena, and I grew to enjoy the sport. I like being out in the wood, spending quiet time where you can think. I never had Xena’s prowess, but I could feed myself.
They look at me for a moment, checking they understand, then begin to laugh and chatter to themselves. The women here don’t hunt: the men do the heavy or dangerous work and in return the females cook and clean and mind the babies. It’s a fair society that seems to work well. But I’m a warrior, and I want to hunt. I cross my arms adamantly and don’t budge.
Finally Asambi waves his hands and quietens the others. He can’t have more than two or three years behind him than me, but he’s the eldest of this group and he’s respected. Still chuckling to himself, he comes to kneel in front of me. “Gabrielle hunt,” he affirms, and begins to gently paint my face with the sticky clays. It’s as much ritual as camouflage, with all the bright colours, and to an extent a protection against the sun too, I imagine.
We go out into the damp forest and soon find fresh tracks to follow. I know the principles of hunting. I keep low and quiet, do as they instruct me. When we catch sight of the pig-like creature they let me throw my spear at it, but I miss and it startles. We don’t have to follow it far before catching up, and on the second attempt I get it and bring it down. The men all cheer me and laugh at my unexpected success. I enjoy myself immensely. Before carrying the carcass back we all kneel around it and Asambi gives a chant and makes a gesture skywards, as if to give thanks for the meat or bless the sacrifice of the animal. Then he walks beside me with his arm proudly around my shoulders, and my cheeks are pink with my success and the exhilaration of the jungle’s freedom. This will enhance my standing in the group even further. Food and its acquisition is highly valued, and I know I’ll be offered the first choice and the largest portion of meat tonight. I estimate I must have been here for about a moon, and already I’ve learned so much, found that we have more in common that I ever would have expected.
We return to the camp jubilant, the boys eager to share the story of my first hunt. But there’s no one around, and this is unusual in the extreme, the place is always buzzing. We hurry through the tents to the meeting circle beyond, and soon find everyone gathered there. It’s surprisingly quiet for a tribe meeting, usually there’s singing and dancing and chatter. Plus with food so important this is a time when everyone would usually be preparing for the return of the hunters and the evening meal: to ignore the arrival of a fresh kill and those who bring it is practically taboo. Something’s wrong. We push through everyone, and in the centre of the amassed group I see a figure hunched on the ground.
It’s just a mass of dark hair in a long cloak. The hands are tied with rope but they’re feminine and they’re white.
Surely, surely to the Gods, it can’t be?
I dash forward and throw my arms around her as I fall on my knees, cradling her in my embrace.
“Xena!” I push back her unruly hair to reveal a grimy and surprised face.
“Oh Xena, I’m so happy to see you, you’ve no idea. Dear Gods, I’ve missed you.” I hold her face in my hands and kiss her forehead, making her smile a little. It’s so incredibly good to have her here with me that all I can think about is holding her suffocatingly, feeling her warm cheek and sunny hair against my face, re-establishing our connection. I know she’s surprised that I’m here but I don’t give her time - or breath - to ask questions.
Bizarrely, it takes me these few moments to realise the significance of her bound hands. “Wait... Xena, what’s going on, why...?” I look up to the others, to the tribe leader, and only now see their expressions. They’re all angry - furious - and I haven’t seen that in them before. “What’s wrong?” I look around. “What is it?” Not only are they mad at Xena, they’re mad at me. Whatever their argument with her, I’ve just implicated myself in it by treating her with such familiarity and affection. They greeted me so warmly when I came. I feel myself flush cold, even in this heat: what has Xena done?
I look to the ruler for answers. He shouts angrily and his people echo him, agreeing. He comes to us, digs his hand into the pocket of Xena’s cloak, and pulls out a handful of jewellery. Not the shiny beads that the women wear, but gold and gemstones: the King’s jewels.
“Xena!” Shocked, I let her go.
The King barks a word at Xena as he retreats, and she spits after him. “Same to you.”
I sit on the earth, starring at her. “Xena, what have you done?”
“Ah, nothing,” she dismisses sourly.
“These are my friends!”
“Well I didn’t know that.”
“Xena - why?” I’m at a loss. “These people have nothing, they’re no threat, why’d you steal from them?”
“I’ve told you before - you frighten easy prey and you get less resistance from the tough guys. The boat was passing and I saw an opportunity, all right? I didn’t want their stupid trinkets.” Even though I’m fuming with her, she looks pathetic and small kneeling with her hair bedraggled and her hands bound. “I didn’t know you’d be here,” she says more quietly, “I’m glad you’re here.” Her eyes flick up to mine. “If I’d known you cared about them I would’ve left them alone, okay?”
“Xena -” It’s too late, it’s just too late. I love her, but now that she’s done this... The tribe aren’t going to let her go.
“Sorry, Gabrielle, all right? Sorry.”
“Xe -” I pull her head against my own, despairing over this stupid situation and my foolish naivety that got us both into it.
The tribe are baying for blood. We’re both hauled up and held standing. The warriors take up their weapons, and a great undulating chant builds. I catch sight of Asambi, who I can see is trying to help me but is being held back by the others. They all think Xena and I are accomplices.
Xena struggles furiously. “What’re you doing, you freaks, let me go!” She’s plucky, I’ll give her that, to have come without Borius or her men for backup. But then she always was a lone jungle cat, stalking and silent. I swallow in a suddenly dry throat: this isn’t going to be pleasant. I’m afraid.
The warriors - noticeably minus Asambi and some of his friends, who decline - form four lines of five men each. Facing each other, ten make a corridor for Xena and ten for me. The have their weapons.
A gauntlet -
Oh, Sweet Gods...
Xena tugs at the men holding her arms. “Hold on a bit here, are you guys crazy? You think Gabrielle is involved in this?” She twists angrily. “This is my fault, okay? Do you dullards get that? You leave her out of it.”
“Xena,” I try quietly, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but...”
“Look,” she hisses, “I screwed up, all right?” She calms a little, speaks more slowly. “A raid is one thing. But I never meant to cause you trouble. Not you.” She raises her voice and addresses the others again. “You -” she gestures to the ten men before me. “You join my line, all right?” She beckons them over. “You want a bloody gauntlet, I’ll give you one to remember. But leave her out of it.”
Her meaning is clear enough, and the men look uncertainly to their leader. Damn it, Xena: why did you have to do this? I’m happy to see her, of course, but did it have to be for this? She didn’t know I was here, I appreciate that she didn’t mean to cause me grief, and - for the first time here, I think - she’s trying to make amends for it and putting my safety before her own. It’s exactly what I’d expect from the Xena I know. Perhaps I am having some small influence? Perhaps we’re getting somewhere?
For all the good it’s done us - Dear Gods, a gauntlet! The leader agrees with a nod, and the warriors join Xena’s line. The original line up wasn’t meant to kill or maim, I think, but to hurt and frighten. Which, if I’m honest, is an understandable punishment if someone has come into your home and tried to steal everything you own. But a gauntlet of twice the length - what if Xena doesn’t survive it, what if it’s too much? She’s going to get so badly hurt...
The leader gives a shout and everything begins. The men ready themselves and Xena is pushed forward. “Just go away,” she says to me, “don’t watch, Gabrielle.” I’m bundled back out of the way. I’ve seen Xena like this before, before a big battle or some ordeal, she has to focus, to turn inwards, she can’t afford weakness. I stumble through the people and find Asambi. His big eyes are immediately full of empathy and I know he realises this isn’t my doing. I put my arms around him and hide myself in his shoulder.
It starts. I have to watch, it’s the least I can do. The men don’t have long blades or spears - that would be too quick and merciful - they use their fists, mostly, and small daggers to inflict surface wounds. Xena is remarkably stoic as she advances, her eyes fixed ahead of her, wincing minutely with each blow. She’s furious, but she’s sensible enough to realise that putting up a fight and turning this into an unruly skirmish is just going to bring the whole tribe down on her.
For a time I think she’s going to be all right. She’s tough and strong and she’ll be all right. But there’s only so much even Xena can take, and about halfway down the line a kick goes into her side and she groans horribly and goes down onto her knees. From then on it’s awful: the men crowd in so I can hardly see, and she’s like a rag doll, blows landing on her from all sides. I can see blood start to ooze from her nose, and she gasps in air between the pain. She doesn’t make a sound. She’s on her hands and knees, scraping forward through the soil, all the time trying to protect her middle as if the pain is worst there.
I alternate between watching in pitiful agony and hiding my face against Asambi’s arm. Xena! Please Gods, don’t kill her. Don’t take her away from me. I brought us to this, in my fumbling way, and I can’t get us back out. Oh, what I wouldn’t give in this moment to be back in our camp, back in the old life, sitting with her, eating our evening meal, talking.
The Gods be damned, I can’t stand here and do nothing! They’re killing her! I take Asambi’s arm and shake him. “Sam, you have to help me! This is the woman I told you about - Xena - remember? She’s my friend. My friend - surely you can understand that word? Like you and I - friend.” I gesture frantically between us, then between Xena and I. I thump over my heart, and Asambi nods his understanding - he recognises my word for friendship. He holds me gently and looks at me compassionately, but he has no more power than I to call off the men - Xena’s crime is indisputable - and my pleas are useless.
Think, Gabrielle! What would Xena do? If I were in danger she’d use every scrap of knowledge and savvy she had, use every trick at her disposal, exploit every last chance, push her luck and bet against the odds. “Sam, you have to think,” I implore him. “This all started with a man in a tent. A man wearing a mask like the sun. He had cards, he told my fortune. The Tarot told my fortune.”
Asambi starts at something I say, and I pause. “Tarot.” He mimes shuffling and dealing out cards. “Tarot?”
“Yes! Yes, you use the same word? Tarot?”
He draws a big circle in the air then mimes shielding his eyes from the bright sky. “Sun.”
He points to the nearest tent, pointed and decorated as they all are. “Tent.”
“Yes Sam!” He understands? He recognises what I’m talking about? “Where? Where will I find him?”
Sam grabs my arm and starts running, and I’m pulled with him across the camp, fleeing giddily away from Xena, and the men’s chanting, into a sea of tents. We anchor up beside one, no different to the rest, perhaps a little smaller, except that its main decorative motif is a vivid circle, printed in yellow on orange cloth. Sam points me inside, smiles encouragement.
“Sam, thank you -”
I shoulder through the heavy flaps, and again have to pause and blink to let my eyes adjust. Once I can see, I find a thick set man, covered by his cloak, sitting at a low wooden table.
“You!” I’m on my knees, acutely aware that I need to hurry. Xena is out there dying...
He lifts his head slowly, revealing a big, beaming mask.
“It’s you! You were at the market. You can speak Greek!”
“A dinar for a reading.” His hands, heavily painted in their vivid colours, emerge from long sleeves and he casually shuffles his cards.
“I don’t have a bloody dinar! I don’t have time, my friend is being hurt out there!” I know I won’t get anywhere with him by blustering, and try to push down my excitement and fear. “Look, whatever you did -”
“Did? I did nothing. The cards -”
“Then deal again!”
He laughs a bit, his whole body shaking under the cloak, deep and echoing. “I cannot do another reading until the first has expired. Until the cycle is complete. Or you want to get yourself in even worse of a mix up?”
I look at him with complete misunderstanding. If he can’t help me, he who began all of this, then who can?
“Your journey is not yet complete. Don’t you remember your wheel of fortune?” He produces a card from the top of the deck, and I recognise it from before: the wheel with all it’s bizarre characters.
“But...” He slides the card across the shiny surface to me, and I finger it as my gaze settles on the attractive illustration. “How do I get back to the beginning? To the top of the wheel?”
“You need to end up where you started,” he tells me.
Of course, but... “At the market?” I need to physically go back to the start, to the market in Greece? “I need to get Xena back there, don’t I.” I hadn’t even given thought to the cards, and yet they’ve been spelling out my journey: the travel symbolised by the chariot, the parting from Xena that the upside down lovers predicted.
“The wheel will only stop turning when its cycle is complete.”
I can’t set the wheel on a different course - I can’t influence the warriors here or reform the Conqueror - I just have to get us back to where this all began, physically and in our hearts. I need Xena’s love and I need her trust, and in return I have to rekindle the loyalty and acceptance I felt for her. I heave up from the cushions and go dashing back across the camp.
“Xena!” I cry out, “It’s all right, we just have to go home! I just need to take you home. Xena?” Everyone is gone. Panting, I pause and my eyes find two figures on the ground. I rush there, feeling my heart straining with each beat, and fall down beside her. She’s lying still, blood running from her, eyes closed. If she’s... if I’ve lost her... I won’t know what to do, I won’t be able to cope. Asambi crouches by her: he’s done nothing to harm her, and yet he’s the only one who has stayed.
I sit myself down, not knowing where to start. “Xena?” I try softly, “Open your eyes.” She’s badly hurt, but she’s breathing. I stroke hair from her face, grimacing at the bleeding nose and lip. She just made a mistake, she doesn’t mean to do bad things. I lean down and kiss her forehead. “C’mon, huh? Wake up.” I refuse to cry right now, it’s stupid and pointless. I give her shoulder a little shake. “It’s all right. It’s gonna be all right.” I take her hand and pull it into my lap to stroke the cool, trembling fingers. Under her sleeve her arm is darkened with bruises, tiny lines of congealing blood forming in the scratches there. It makes my heart sore, and I kiss her fingers, but the injuries don’t look too severe, surely she’ll make it.
I glance up to Sam, who looks concerned, although probably more for me than for Xena. “She’ll be okay,” I insist, “she’s tough. Xena can face anything, you wouldn’t believe what she can do,” I tell him proudly, smiling to fight away the tears, “she’s incredible. She’s so strong.” I look back to Xena and nudge her shoulder. “D’you hear? You’re too strong for this, okay? Wake up.” I lean down to shake her again and push back long, dark hair.
Xena sighs, and grimaces, then moans and tries to move. She swallows down blood and rubs at her face, scowling when she finds she’s bleeding. I paw at her softly until she startles and realises where she is. “Are you all right?” I help her sit up.
“Mmm...” She looks as if she has an almighty headache. “Fine.”
“Can you walk? Are you badly hurt?” My only focus is to get her back on the boat and on the way to Greece. I’ve floundered around here for too long, I’ve been aimless. Xena would never behave like that. I’m not a child. From now on I’m calling the shots, I’m taking charge of getting us both back where we belong.
“Can walk,” she nods, swallowing again, rubbing shaky hands over her stomach as if to check that she’s still intact.
“Then we need to go. I know you must be in pain, but -”
I know she’s hurt and needs to rest, but we have to get to the boat. “Stand up?” I look to Asambi. “Sam, I can’t thank you enough for how you’ve helped me...” Xena struggles to her feet but once there she doubles over, giving a low groan, staggering. There’s some deep pain in her, and she breathes slowly, trying to get through it. I don’t think she’ll make it to the river.
Asambi takes her arm, helps her straighten. She looks at him with contempt, shamefully, but she needs the support and she knows it. He nods in the direction of the water. Gods, thank you Sam... I grab Xena’s other arm.
She walks with a limp, and she has her teeth gritted, but she doesn’t complain. She keeps her head down and gets on with the task in hand - that’s always been her way. Even when I ask her if she’s all right, she either ignores me or snaps at me to keep walking. She can’t let herself succumb to sympathy, I think, she can’t let it affect her for fear that it’ll unravel her altogether. No one would believe it, but she’s more sensitive to kindness and understanding than most: being shown a glimmer of it affects her profoundly when she lets it.
Half way there we have to stop so that Xena can rest for a bit. We’re safely away from the angry tribe, and I know Borius will wait for Xena, so I let her sit on a log and take a breather. I try to examine her wounds, to look at her face, but she won’t let me fuss, and shrugs me off. She’s mad and her pride is hurt. Asambi treks off for a bit and returns with some of his amber candy in a leaf. His kindness makes me smile, and I take a sweet for the energy and squeeze his arm. He goes to Xena and offers her the leaf. And I swear, she looks up at him as if he were the droppings of some forest creature. Who is this woman? Sometimes, when I look at her, I see my best friend, and other times, she’s a stranger. Asambi has done nothing but help us both, yet she hates him because of her prejudices and preconceptions and because she thinks she’s above everyone else. She goes to speak, but I cut her off before she has a chance.
“Don’t you dare talk to him like he’s nothing, do you hear me?” I hiss the words, not caring if Asambi understands them or not. “Don’t you dare. He’s trying to help you! By Aphrodite, I’ll leave you here in this ungodly place if you insult him: so help me, Xena, I’ll do it. Don’t push away the only person who’s being kind to you and wants nothing in return.” I’ll disown her if she stabs Asambi in the back, I swear, it’ll be too much.
Behind her grazes and ashen skin, the dark blood congealing in her nose, Xena looks at me with absolute surprise. It’s as if she’s seen something in me she didn’t know was there. I look away. I don’t care, she can think what she wants. She’s used to a lifestyle where the strong take every opportunity to conquer the weak. She probably doesn’t understand why I don’t kill her here, while she’s weak, and go back to rule the army in her place. That’s what she’d do, if our roles were reversed. In return, I’m betting on our tenuous bond that she won’t dispatch me the moment she gets back to her men and her weapons.
Slowly, she takes the amber from Sam, nods to thank him, and eats it. At least it’ll give her some strength to go on. I don’t show it, but this is a tiny victory: I’m not her slave anymore.
“The only one?” she says at length.
I look at her questioningly, not understanding.
“You said he’s the only one who wants nothing in return for kindness.” She tips her head toward Sam, who’s standing looking out through the trees. “Does that include you?”
I can only meet her eyes for a moment. Does it include me? Is my love for her selfless? I don’t think it was in the old life - I wanted to learn from her, to be like her, to share vicariously in her glory. I’ve done things with Xena - good things - that I could never have achieved alone. I live a life that I would never have survived on my own. And now? Now she’s my way back to that life. I love her because she reminds me of that woman I want to be with, because she has the potential to be that person again. I can’t answer her question. “We need to keep walking,” I say gently, not wanting to seem curt or harsh. “Can you go on?”
“Uh ha.” She understands, I think. I doubt that her love was ever entirely selfless either, I think that’s practically impossible to attain. I offered her a path out of a life she didn’t want just as she did for me. It’s not necessarily a bad thing: we’re a team, we need each other. We need to be together.
I need to be with Xena. Gods, I need to be with her. “Hold onto me,” I tell her, ducking under her arm. “I’m here.”
“I know.” She puts renewed effort into her walking - for my benefit, I think - and we travel faster, the three of us. Soon I see the big ship at the river bank.
Of course there are lookouts, and I spot Borius, and a walkway is lowered for Xena, the returning heroine, no doubt injured in triumphant battle. I’m not sure how they’ll react when they find her empty handed - I don’t imagine it happens very often.
I let them take Xena, and turn to Asambi, all brightly decorated in his war paint and beads. “I won’t forget you,” I tell him, although he won’t understand. “I know Xena has done some bad things, but I love her, I have to go with her.” I touch over my heart and point to her, and he nods and holds my arms. I know I won’t see him again, but I hope he’ll be well and happy. “Take care, ‘Sambi.” I put my arms around his thick neck, and squeeze him for a moment.
Then it’s time to go. I clamber up the plank and don’t look back, already feeling the big boat pushing away from the bank and continuing its journey down the long river. There’s barely time to think, I don’t stop to feel relief or sadness. I go to Xena’s cabin, and find her and Borius in another stormy argument. She spends so much of this life fighting.
“What were you thinking?” Borius accuses her as she sits stiffly on the edge of her bed. In the corner a girl is hurriedly preparing washing water and salves to tend to her injured mistress, and trying to be inconspicuous. “You should not go into crazy situations alone, Xena, not in your condition!”
“I’m not a child, Borius. My ‘condition’ is no business of yours.”
She swallows away a bad taste again. Her hands are pressed to the bed, her shoulders tensed. Her hair is matted and straggly from sweat. She must feel like Hades. She needs to rest.
“Anything could have happened!”
Xena snorts. “It’s not me you’re worried about and you know it.”
“Why do you have to make everyone your enemy? I can provide you with anything: stop this madness!”
He goes to stroke her cheek, but she rebuffs him. “You don’t owe me anything.”
Exasperated, he storms out, and I don’t blame him really. They have a turbulent relationship and neither treats the other well. I’m sure Borius wants to love her but she won’t let him in, she toys with him because she won’t allow herself any vulnerability. The servant approaches timidly, but Xena tuts and recoils.
“I can wash myself. Go away.”
The girl is too smart to argue, and goes.
So it’s just us. Xena sighs and begins to take off her outerwear; her boots and gauntlets. “What’re you looking at?”
I’m not angry, or reproachful. I watch her rather sadly. “You risked your life for me in that gauntlet.”
“That’s the nicest thing I’ve seen you do.”
“Well don’t get used to it.” She grimaces when she has to stretch or twist, and it’s agitating her.
“Let me help you.” I can’t stand back when she’s hurt, and I go to her.
“Didn’t you hear? I can take care of myself.” But she can’t get her arm out of her sleeve, and lets me ease it off of her. I work at untying the lace at her shoulder, and when I don’t answer she sits quietly for a bit. “Why’d you come back? Looked like you had it good there. Why’d you come back to be a servant?” She gazes idly across the cabin, giving an arrogant little shrug that I know is just self-protection, self-defence.
“I am not your servant,” I tell her. “I’m not anyone’s servant. Get that straight.” I ease the material over her head. “I’m your friend.” I cringe as I get her clothes off, knowing I’m going to see her wounds. I don’t ever like to see Xena hurt.
But as the black material falls away, and she sits there naked, beyond all the awful cuts and bruises, I see that she is suddenly, and unmistakably, pregnant.
“By the Gods...”
“What,” she retorts scornfully, “didn’t your mother ever tell you where babies come from? Quit gawping and hand me that cloth.”
In my stupefaction I follow orders and give it to her. “I didn’t know...”
She shrugs. “Do now.”
I had no idea. It had certainly occurred to me that Xena was more fleshy here than I know her, less lean, but I put it down to a combination of puppy fat left over from her late teens, and the effect of a more luxurious life than we have out on the road, with more time to rest, less work and fighting and walking, food always readily available. The Gods know I’m skinnier now than I was when we started out. It never occurred to me that she was in her first few months of pregnancy.
I was with the tribe a long time, I know that. She’s put on her weight almost overnight, as people tend to do, and now there could be no mistaking that she’s entering the last few moons. No wonder she protected her stomach in that awful gauntlet...
“Are you all right? I mean, did they hurt you? Did they hurt... it?” I kneel by her and tentatively reach out to touch her swollen belly. I’ve never seen Xena like this, and I find that she’s stunning. I’m truly at her feet now.
If I’d have known I’d have walked the gauntlet in her place, I never would have let her. I take a second cloth and try to blot at the bloody marks on her arms and face. She needs a proper bath, really, but it’ll wait until the morning.
“This is Borius’ baby...” I stand to wash her face, seeing she’s too tired to do anything properly.
“Yes -” She pulls the blanket over her lap and lets me continue, tipping her head back and closing her eyes.
Then the baby must be Solan.
Can I really be witnessing all this? Can I persuade her to keep her child with her, prevent her from giving him away, so that she can know a life filled with that unconditional love and joy? Surely there’s no greater gift I could give her. “We have to take good care of you.”
“Can take care of myself.”
But she’s dozing even as she sits, so I agree gently to humour her and help her to lie down. I cover her with her blankets, and she’s all warm and pink and vital, bigger and softer than I’m used to, rounder and more feminine. My plans have changed - what right do I have to rush us back to that old life now?
The next day I’m desperate to talk about everything: her selflessness in saving me from the gauntlet, her coldness now, the baby. But I sleep in my own quarters and when I wake I find Xena roaming the deck and commanding her men as if nothing had happened. She wears her heavy furs which cover the bruises and the new shape of her body - I doubt anyone except Borius knows that she’s with child.
I leave her be for a while, occupying myself by laundering my clothes and leaning on the rail at the side of the boat, watching the trees as we lazily pass them by. It’s rather lonely here, actually, because none of the other girls want to be friends with the woman who has become the Conqueror’s favourite. I was allied to them, as they see it, and now I’m against them. But I don’t care, truth be told, I’m too focussed on Xena, and the playmates I’ve left behind don’t matter to me.
In the afternoon, when it’s too hot to do anything else, I find Xena and ask if she wants to share a hot tub. She agrees, rather grudgingly, and we sit side by side in the big tub behind her cabin, watching dappled light play across the water as it filters through the wooden slats around us. I wanted to give her time by herself, to get over the indignities of yesterday. As long as I’ve known Xena, she has always needed long periods of her own company, or perhaps to be just with Argo, and I’ve never tried to intrude. I like the time to think or write too. I never know what goes through her mind when she’s off alone stalking through the trees, hunting or foraging or drilling. She doesn’t talk about it. Maybe she just thinks, or worries, or berates herself for the past.
She’s quiet now, as she sits and idly watches water trail around her arms. She’s bruised all over, they’ve come out black and blue in some places, and she’s got a badly twisted ankle that I’ve no idea how she managed to walk on, and I feel for her, even though she’s acting tough as boots.
“Shall I wash your hair for you?”
She shrugs. “If you want.”
The fact that she doesn’t flatly refuse, with some insult thrown in for good measure, suggests to me that what she’s trying to say is ‘yes, please, Gabrielle, I’d love you to’. So I kneel behind her and rub soap into her scalp. She closes her eyes.
“You look beautiful like that, you know.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so stunningly feminine. Everything about her is natural and blossoming. The freckles over her shoulders have darkened, there’s a minutely warm new smell to her, and under my hands her hair feels glossy and soft.
“Huh.” It’s not a very positive sound.
“Doesn’t Borius think so?”
“Borius is sentimental,” she scoffs.
It’s such a shame to me that she isn’t enjoying this amazing thing that’s happening to her. Oh, Xena, you’re going to regret this so much one day. “It must feel incredible.”
“It feels uncomfortable.”
She’s so negative about everything: how can I drag her out of it? This strange mixture of nihilism and anger, how can I fight it? “You didn’t really want this to happen? The baby?” I kneel down close to her, gently massaging her shoulders with the soapy lather.
“It’s gonna be inconvenient.”
“But... Xena... you’ll have a child. That’s something very special. You aren’t glad about that? At all?” It’s very hard for me to understand.
She shakes her head and takes a moment to answer, and I feel like I’ve got a little way through her defences, made her think. “It’s... it’s another weakness. Another soft spot an enemy can aim for. I can’t afford that. I have an army to run.”
“Surely there can be a compromise?”
She turns to face me, and I see the vulnerability on her face, and we settle into a cuddle. “Don’t think so.”
“Xena -” My heart cries for her, it really does. I stroke wet hair from her face.
“Why are you so afraid of people who are kind to you?” Beneath all her nonchalance I see an underlying rage at the world - over Caesar’s betrayal, over the loss of her brother and home - and I think she’s vowed never to be victimised again. She’s scared of the softer impulses that she has in abundance, and she lashes out at everyone including herself in order to deny them.
“Because the gentler people are the more pain they cause you.”
She isn’t looking at me, although her arms are still loosely around me, so I take her face in my hands and make her see me. “I won’t ever hurt you. Do you hear me? I won’t ever. You have to believe me.”
“I know -” Before she even finishes the words her lips are on mine, her arms holding me tightly to her swollen body, and she kisses me with passion and desperation. I swear her mouth is hotter than I’ve ever known it, her lips redder and fuller, and I almost pass out with the intensity of feeling. She goes on, her nose against mine, her mouth on mine, and I’m glad of her tight grip on me as I go tingly and light-headed, my only anchor my hands cupping her face.
She lifts her head for a moment, licking her lips, and I come forward again for another kiss, desperate and insistent. “Kiss me -” My thighs slide on either side of hers, my weight supported by the water, and we kiss for an infinite moment, until I feel dizzy and need to rest.
I sit back and breathe, my lips tingling, my hands caught up about her. She doesn’t seem sure what to say, but I think we both feel better.
“Xena.” I sigh and sit back, and feel a bit closer to her again. We just sit for a bit, the water bobbing around us. “Your baby -” How can I convince her that this is important?
“Not now, okay?”
“But a baby is something special, Xena...”
“Just another brat to join another army.”
“No, it’s born out of love.” What a life she must have had, not to see that.
Xena actually laughs then, and looks at me with a genuine grin. “You really are naive, aren’t you! Wow.” She whistles and shakes her head. “That must’ve been some sheltered village you came from.”
Probably it was, I admit, but I’m firm in my convictions. “It should be about love.” Not wanting to see her laughing at me, I busy myself by rubbing my elbow with the sponge.
She turns to face me, a long arm along the edge of the tub, and studies me like some amusing curiosity. “How many people have you been with?”
What?! “I beg your pardon?”
She shrugs, but goes on watching me. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. Just trying to understand your angle.”
There’s no point in lying. I feign extreme interest in the sponge and answer her. “Just you.”
From the corner of my eye I see her surprise, and it quietens her for a moment. “Well, maybe you have an excuse for being naive, then.”
She stares at me for so long that I give up and look at her. Have her eyes got bluer since I last saw her? “What about you?” I’ve never asked her that question before. I’ve never needed to know, it was pretty obvious that there’d been a few before me. It’s her business. But if she can ask me...
“Don’t know. Lost count. A lot.” I nod. I always knew that, really. “The older boys in my village,” she goes on, matter of factly, “the men, servants. It’s not about... anything. It’s just fun. Just two people. Don’t remember most of it. It never means anything.”
I’m shocked by this, and I’m hurt. “Even with us?” I can feel the anger and tears building up from nowhere. “It means nothing, even with me?” Her eyes are locked with mine and I can’t look away even though I’m furious.
“No,” she says seriously, her voice gone soft. “Not with you.” She slides an arm around me, and I’m immediately appeased. “Told you: it’s all different with you.” She looks genuinely perplexed by this, and she gives up and tucks her face against my cheek, ready for me to hold her and hope to the Gods that I’m easing her pain in some way. If she’s spinning me a line, she’s the best damn actress, and I believe her. I believe her.
After this we seem to take up pretty much where we left off before the storm and all that time apart. There are no great, deep conversations, no revelations or changes or declarations of love, but we sleep together, like before, with Xena adoring me and me lying there and marvelling up at her. What she now lacks in physical agility is amply compensated by her mouth and her hands, and I can’t deny that I’m in ecstasy every time, full of love and excitement. I’m treated very well, with my own cabin and no particular work to do, and sometimes I wonder if I’ve just gone from being a servant for physical labour to another kind. I hold on to my certainty that this warrior woman really does feel something for me, as she will do in the future. I see her with Borius, of course, but I don’t see her with anyone else. Just me.
There really is very little to do. It’s a long voyage: the river splits the entire country in two. I try to ask Xena where we’re headed, ever keen to get her back to Greece, but at the moment there’s no where else to go except forward along the river. Xena is bored, I think, and cooped up. This spares me having to witness her rampaging and murder, for which I’m grateful, but it’s dangerous too because with every passing day I believe more and more that she’s my good, honest, reformed Xena, and she’s not. There’s very little mischief for her to get up to, except with me, which she does with increasing frequency. I’m not complaining. At least she has the excuse of her hormones. Maybe it’s habit, but I just seem to desire her more and more. I’ve never experienced this sort of physical need before, and I begin to understand how it can dominate everything.
“You’re quiet,” she says to me one evening, after she’s eaten, “couldn’t get you to shut up before.”
I’m preoccupied. “You know, all I wanted before was for us to talk. To sit down and talk about everything.” I refer both to before the gauntlet and before life turned topsy-turvy. “It’s funny. Now all I seem to want is to...” I’m burning just thinking about it. “...be with you. To be with you.” I’m not comfortable talking about it, and yet it fills every moment of thought. “To have... To do...”
Xena comes over and takes my arm, turning me away from the small window. “To go to bed with me?” She leans down with a knowing smile and nuzzles my ear. She’s a seductress, I swear.
“Well, yes -” I laugh because she tickles, and ease into her arms.
I lift my head as she kisses around my neck, and her hand comes up and squeezes my breast, her skin hot through the thin material. “I never used to be like this -” Tendrils of fire rush through me all over again. I’m sure I could do this over and over and still not be satiated.
“You never used to know me,” she brags, and turns my head toward her for a kiss.
My back pressed against the wall, I cup her hand to feel what she’s doing, following it under my top, groaning with the exquisite pleasure of her delicate fingers brushing my nipple. I’m sure I’m going to melt right here, down into a molten puddle. I’m wet and throbbing and -
The door clicks and I let go. Borius comes in, noticing us but probably thinking we were just talking or playing. He must be aware of what we do - Xena doesn’t make a secret of anything she does - but I don’t think he realises the frequency or the passion of it. No doubt he thinks I’m just a servant tending to her mistress’ whims in his absence. He eats some of the leftover fruit and comes to Xena, touching her and catching her up in his spell. Like Xena, he’s very physical, totally unabashed, and undeniably magnetic. Soon he has her turned away from me, and he’s slowly undressing her, kissing her and making her laugh. Xena is utterly unresponsive to anything I say about the pregnancy, about the new shape of her body, the beautiful flush of her skin, but when Borius speaks of it I do see a glimmer of acknowledgement in her, a tiny smile, or a glance down at herself. And so it should be too, I know: it’s their baby.
They forget I’m here. This is a private thing, an intimate thing. I’m jealous, but at the same time I feel like an intruder. I pass them and head hastily for the door.
“Wait -” Borius calls after me, with Xena possessively in one arm. “You’re going already? Stay here, Gabrielle: join us.”
Join them? In this? I couldn’t...
He comes over, and strokes a finger down my arm. “Spend a night with us. What do you say?”
He leans down and kisses my shoulder. I’m struck by desperation - I don’t want this, it’s far too private a thing. I’ve always believed it should be about love, and I don’t feel anything for him. I’m repulsed, I couldn’t share myself with someone I don’t know, it just goes against everything that’s in my heart. Stiff and frozen, not daring to shrug him off in case I make him angry, I move my eyes up to Xena.
Please, I try to tell her, don’t make me do this. I mouth the words ‘I can’t’ to her, praying she’ll understand. Her eyes are the colour of a summer sky, and are deep like a still ocean.
“Borius,” she says suddenly, “I don’t want to share you tonight. I’ll be more than enough, I promise you that. She’s just a servant, we don’t need her.”
Borius releases me, and looks back to her. He grins and leaves me. “Whatever you want, my Xena -” He turns all his attention to her and pulls her up into an overtly sexual embrace.
Over his shoulder, Xena looks at me and gives me a tiny smile that is the greatest gift. Thank you... I nod to her and run out, away to my own space, away from the violation that Xena saved me from. I don’t sleep easy, with the thought of them together, but I’m again assured of Xena’s fondness, of her dedication to me, and that makes it possible to go on another day here.
With each day that passes, as we scull our way down this muddy and endless river, Xena becomes more sedentary and disinterested. Her belly grows larger and her appearances outside her cabin less frequent. One morning I go in to her, hoping to nurse her, raise her spirits, perhaps share breakfast with her. I find her still napping in bed, which is most unusual for her, and go to her side, asking if she’s all right.
“It’s just coming, that’s all,” she tells me with a grim smirk, and twists awkwardly. “Baby’s coming.”
I inhale sharply, and feel my heart rate pick up. “It’s coming?”
“Okay, all right: I’ll get Satrina. Are you in pain? Do you want to get up? I’ll -”
“Gabrielle, don’t start fussing.” She clutches my wrist to stop me, uses the leverage to heave herself into a better position, then lets go. “I don’t want anyone here: I’ll do everything. Just stop flapping.”
I kneel by the bed and watch her. She’s obviously in some discomfort - she must have been like this most of the night - I don’t think there can be too long to go. “You don’t want anyone?” If it were me I’d want all the healers in Greece on standby, I couldn’t bear to be alone.
She doesn’t answer for a bit, then says off-handedly “You stay, if you want.”
Thank the Gods, at least her pride will allow that. I find her hand and squeeze it, wanting her to know that I’m here. She doesn’t respond, and eventually pulls away to wipe her face. I know she doesn’t want this baby. I know she must be frightened, under all that tough nonchalance: anyone would be.
I’ll get her through it somehow. “Xena, I’ve not done this before: maybe Satrina would -”
“No. I don’t want anyone gawping. Go if you want, I’ll do it by myself.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I insist. “I promise. I won’t leave you.”
“Hmm.” She swallows and exhales, as if accepting this. “Well be useful and rub my back then, will you? It’s killing me.” She rolls over and pushes back the covers. She’s naked, and I’m astonished by the changes her body is going through: her skin is damp and hot and prickly, her nipples suddenly dark and big, and there are spidery pink marks about her stomach and thighs. I lean in to rub her lower back, and notice that her odour has changed: not sweaty, as I’d expect, but musky and... Gods, she just has this aura about her, that her body is getting ready for the most incredible function it will ever perform. I don’t feel worthy of touching her. I’m in awe. “Anyhow,” she says, bringing back my concentration, “I’ve not done this before either.”
“It’ll be all right,” I respond absently, thinking her warm skin is slightly more olive than usual under my hands.
“Thought you had a kid sister?”
“Oh, Lila? Yes, but there’s only a couple of years between us. I vaguely remember Mother getting big, but I was shepherded out to my uncle while she was being born.”
“Oh.” She lies quiet for a moment then grimaces and her hands go to her stomach. “Damn, it’s kicking.”
“Really?” Enthralled, I lay my hands by hers and feel the strange movements in her flesh, the soft undulations under taught skin. “It’s so strong!”
“Try being on this end.” She scowls and shifts again, clearly not comfortable. It’s very telling: Xena never fidgets.
“It’s incredible. Xena, you should cherish this.” I know I would, if it were my child. It’s a miracle from the Gods.
“Gabrielle don’t preach to me now, all right? Save it.” Scowling, she turns over to face me, her knees drawn up under the blanket. “Shit.” She closes her eyes and tenses, lines drawing themselves in her brow. I can almost see the contraction bearing down through her and causing the most tender pain. She stops breathing and just endures it, and I’m moved to kneel up and stroke hair from her face, touching her arm.
“Damn...” She finally lets out her breath as the pain washes away. “How many of these?”
I wish I knew more. “How do you know when it’s getting near?” I have my arm around her, rubbing her back, and she accepts it.
She gives a humourless laugh. “When you start bleeding, I bless.”
“Are you? Bleeding?”
She shrugs. “Yeah.”
I can’t sit here helplessly and just watch, I have to be of some use to her. I can’t wait for instructions, she needs someone else to lead, to guide her through this. As difficult as it is, as inexperienced as I am, I have to be brave here and help her.
“Let me see.” I fold back the blanket. There isn’t too much blood, but she’s right: it’s started. “Xena -”
“I can’t lie down anymore - help me up.” She holds on to my arms, testing my strength, and together we get her onto the floor where she can kneel, bending over or holding the bed for support. Determined, I quickly gather cloths to put underneath her, a towel for the baby, water in a basin to bathe her forehead.
“What’re you doing,” she nags at me through clenched teeth, “I don’t want you over there, I want you here.”
I hear what she’s saying, and come back to put an arm around her and whisper “I’m here, okay?” against her cheek, to which she nods. “You’re gonna be fine.”
“Fuck!” She doubles over and presses her forehead to her fists against the floor. Pain winds through her and I see her whole mass shudder as an involuntary squeeze grips her. I’m frightened for myself, agonised for her, but also, I have to admit, completely fascinated and in wonder.
“It’s all right, Xena,” I insist more firmly. “Push if you want to.”
“Quit telling me what to do, you stupid girl, I’m not interested, just shut up.” But her hand has found mine and is squeezing it desperately, taking all the sting out of her words.
“All right,” I say to appease her, and tuck her wet hair back behind her ears.
I can cope, just about, while she’s swearing and yelling at me, because then I feel that she’s still in control, but it becomes overwhelming when she gives up on speech and just cries out - horrible, gurgling screams of pain punctuated by sobs. I’ve never seen her like this: even when she’s wounded in battle, even when she walked the gauntlet, she’s stoic and more angry than upset.
I take to just saying her name, cuddling her to me and stroking her hair and preying to the Gods of Love and Maternity that nothing bad will happen. If I were a midwife, if I had any experience, I’d try to ascertain how things were progressing, how the baby was, but I have no clue, I can only let nature take its course.
She begs something of me, but I can’t make it out. “Say that again, Xena? What do you want?”
She’s crying, tears falling from her eyes, and inside I weep for her. She pants to gather enough breath to get the word out. “Borius!”
Oh, of course she’d want him here, bless her, of course he should be here. “You love him, don’t you -” I’d never been certain before, I’d wondered how much of it was just a game.
She nods vigorously. “And I love you.” She nestles her face against my palm. “Don’t leave me, Gabrielle, please -”
“No, no -” I cuddle her tight to me, her weak arms clinging around my waist. “I won’t leave you.” I can feel my own tears on my cheeks: she’s never told me she loves me here before. “I won’t leave.” I kiss her face until she nods, then run to the door and order the nearest soldier to fetch Borius. “Quickly!”
Everything happens so fast. All I can hear is Xena screaming, her pain fills the cabin, I hurt for her. The whole ship must be aware of what she’s going through. Borius dashes in, and she greets him with a tearful hug, which is just what I’d expect of any labouring woman. There’s nothing we can do except be on either side of her and hold her sweating hands and tell her it’s all right and to push. I’m hot and flustered myself, and out of breath, and I’m as light-headed and elated as she when finally, with one last terrific strain, her child is born.
Borius takes the infant and holds him up like a trophy, thrilled by the bloodied, squirming boy. We wrap him up in a linen, then Borius cradles him and admires him, saying that when he’s grown he’ll be tall and strong and a respected warrior like his father.
Xena just sits with her legs tucked under her, defeated and slumped, out of breath and weak. I gently tell Borius to let her hold the baby, to let her see him. Xena takes the bundle in one arm, numbly, and brings her gaze to it dispassionately.
“He’s beautiful,” I tell her, prouder than I’ve ever been. “His eyes are just like yours.” She seems dazed, so I crouch by her and put an arm around her and squeeze her gently. “Well done!” I nestle against her to look at the infant, who is small and quiet but utterly perfect, with tiny wisps of yellow hair. I know how hard she’s worked, and try to support her weight. I’m so honoured to have been here, I really am. “What’re you going to call him?”
She just shrugs, and hands him back to Borius. “He’s your son,” she tells him wearily, “you take him.”
Borius is clearly very pleased with this, and holds him like a precious, prestigious thing. “He should be named like a warrior.”
I’m pleased by Borius’ reaction, but I want to protect Xena, to make sure her needs are tended to as well. “I think his mother should name him,” I prompt gently, stroking her wet hair. “Xena?”
She looks exhausted, which I’d quite expect, but beyond that, she looks tired. She’s not interested in anything. I’d hoped that seeing the baby would at least make her feel something. She shrugs, and looks as if she’s trying to think. “Solan? Because the sun’s full. Solan.”
I’d expected her to say that, and it confirms how real this world is. Here, Solan will know his father’s love, and I’m determined to keep him with Xena. “It’s perfect,” I praise her.
“Borius you take him,” she says tiredly, “take him out. I need to rest.”
Borius is only too pleased, and kisses her temple before taking his heir out to show off to his men.
Xena pushes to her feet.
“Xena, come to bed -”
She shakes her head. “Need to clean up.”
“I’ll help you -”
“I can wash myself. Told you not to fuss.” She goes stiffly to the table, pours water from a jug into a dish, wrings out a cloth and presses it to her face.
If I’d gone through what she just has, I’d retire to bed and not get up for a full moon. That’s not her way, I know: she wants to get on, to sort herself out, not to show weakness. I can’t change her, I think it’s best to let her do what she wants to do. “I could get you something to eat.” I want to care for her, to cook her something soft, bring her some milk. I’d do anything to make her feel comfortable and safe.
“I’m not hungry. I need to rest, I want to be by myself for a while.” She looks at me, and must see the concern and pain in my eyes. My heart hurts for her, I don’t want her to be alone. “I’ll be fine,” she says, her tone softening, and she allows me a little smile. “I’m just tired. Go on.”
I don’t want to fight with her. Maybe she will be better off left to sleep for a bit. “You’re sure?”
She nods, pulling on a shift. So I reluctantly get up and make for the door. “Gabrielle?”
She gives a facial shrug, as if to apologise for not behaving as she knows I want her to. “Thanks.”
So I let her be. I make it my responsibility to look after the baby. I do have experience of that, with Lila, and I know how to tend to him and keep him warm and contented. He’s adorable and a part of Xena, and I love holding him and talking to him, he’s truly precious for being her blood. Borius is suitably proud, and talks of finding him a sturdy horse to ride, and fine armour to wear, but it isn’t in his job description to change nappies, and he leaves the day to day caring to the women. The serving girls are mostly happy to care for a baby - it’s more rewarding than scrubbing floors, and who doesn’t love a baby? But I’m protective, of Xena and of Solan, I privately see them as my family, and I do it all myself.
There’s one thing I can’t do, though. I swaddle him up in a pretty blanket and take him to his mother. “Xena - he’s hungry.” He barely cries at all, he needs strengthening up.
Xena has been characteristically unprepared to rest, and stalks about her cabin like a cooped up animal. She’s tired of being on this boat, I know, she misses her freedom. “Huh?”
I hold him out to her. “Will you feed him?”
But she shakes her head dismissively. “Not right now.” She’s playing with some odd bit of armour.
I’m worried by her reaction to him, I didn’t expect her to be so... distant. “Xena,” I try patiently, “a baby needs its mother’s milk.” When she doesn’t answer, or even turn, I stupidly wonder if she hasn’t understood. I jiggle the baby softly, and try again: “You need to feed him.”
“And what if I don’t?”
I’m so shocked I can’t answer her at first. Just when I think I’m understanding her she says something heartless like this. “He’ll die,” I insist.
“Like I said: so what?”
Oh, I can’t even talk to her like this! Has her life really been so awful that she doesn’t dare love anyone, or is she just wicked and selfish? Damn. I walk away for a bit, rocking the baby, making sure he’s not too hot or too cold. He’s asleep most of the time, but when he opens his tiny eyes they’re brilliant blue like Xena’s. I use the only persuasion I think she’ll hear. “What will Borius think of you if you let his son die?”
Xena turns and looks at me, long and cold. It was a dirty trick, but I have to get through to her. “Give it to me.”
I hand her her baby.
Xena takes the child and sits with him on her bed. She’s deep in her own thoughts and I just watch, I don’t interfere. She’s quiet for a long time, studying his face. She isn’t affectionate with him, doesn’t talk or sing or smile, but she’s intent, and at least is paying him attention.
And as she looks at him, and holds him, his little body protected against hers, she softens. Despite her best efforts, she softens at the feel of her baby in her arms, as any mother would. He burps, or scowls, or does some other small baby thing that makes her smile just a bit in amusement.
“Feed him -” I prompt gently.
She sighs, and brings her chin up to look at me. “Sit down.” She nods to the bed beside her, and I sit, stretching out my legs, enjoying being with them. “Gabrielle, you’ve taught me about loyalty, and trust, and love.” She nods, considering carefully. “I’ll try. For you. Okay? I’ll try.” I watch proudly as she pushes aside the material of her top and brings the baby to her breast. He knows instinctively what to do, and presses his tiny hand and delicate little lips to her. She just watches, doesn’t react, but they’re together.
The baby is young, and sleepy, and is quickly satiated. “He’s like my younger brother, you know?” she opines, her head to one side. “Same hair. Same round cheeks.”
“Really?” I lean in, wanting to listen to her.
“Mmm.” She does up her top, and tucks Solan’s hand into his blanket. “Here.” And she gives him back to me, her job done, and gets up to go to her maps. I hold the boy. It leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s a start, at least.
It’s surprising, after the trauma of the birth, how quickly things get back to normal. If you can call this situation normal. The boat sails on. Solan is mostly looked after by the serving girls, his arrival doesn’t greatly affect Xena’s life. When I get a chance I dote on him - I love any child, but especially Xena’s. He’s not very active, and when he’s in Xena’s cabin he just sleeps in his crib, mostly.
When he gurgles, I get off the bed to go to him. “He needs winding.”
But Xena is ahead of me: “I’ll do it.”
I watch her enthusiasm and her determination, and I’m pleased: we’re getting there. Xena mostly seems pretty content, although admittedly some of that stems from some huge raid she’s planning that I don’t even want to know about. I don’t want to know.
One evening, with the baby in the next cabin, we sit on the bed and just talk. She wants to hear about where I grew up - to listen to stories about a normal, happy childhood, I think. I’m very happy to be here in this darkened room with her, talking like we used to, and I’m relaxed and spontaneous. Much as I like it, it’s good not to have to have sex in order to communicate.
“You want a drink?” she asks suddenly. “Here.” She pours the characteristic green opium from an ornate bottle into two small glasses, and offers me one. “Live a little.”
Sitting cross-legged on her big bed, the candlelight bathing me as the big boat bobs on an endless river, I gaze into the tumbler, swirling the thick green liquid so it clings to the walls of its glassy prison. Should I? I’ve never taken anything more intoxicating than cider before, and even then not enough to cloud my judgement much: it’s just often more sanitary than water, the alcohol kills the germs. I can’t say I approve of this, but one little experiment isn’t going to hurt, is it? The one thing that encourages me most, and makes me swallow the syrup in one long draught, is the need to share in her world, to understand where she’s coming from, to move my perception of the world closer to hers.
Fields of Hades, this is strong! It’s hot like a storm, sweet as anything, and it swirls and rages its way down my throat with dizzying gusto. “Woah, sweet feet of a Bacchi!” I flop back on the rough patterned blanket, and blink slowly as the opium assaults my senses and curls its fingers into the walls of my belly. “I can see the appeal.” The ship seems to swim away and all there is is me, and the softness of the bed, and Xena, who chuckles and makes herself comfortable beside me.
“Doesn’t it make you sleep?” My eyes feel heavy, and my arms and legs are drawn into the enveloping maw of the bed.
“Wow.” That’s cool. It’s all cool, really, isn’t it? I sigh, and sit up impulsively. I’m pretty happy. “It’s cold, you know,” I observe, patting her arm to be sure she’s listening. This is profound, and she should pay attention. “I’m cold.”
“Maybe you should wear more, then you wouldn’t get cold.” She tuts gently, and I watch her get up and fetch a thick, long jacket for me, fluffy and designed for use after bathing. I dread to think how much it cost. Xena lives in luxury here. She helps me on with it, and I’m irritated when she keeps missing my arm with the sleeve. Or is it my arm that’s moving? “Wrap up.”
“Are you mothering me?” I accuse spontaneously, keeping a hold of her hand as she sits back messily beside me, her legs stretched out. “You like this mother thing, don’t you.” I point. “Admit it: you’re maternal.”
She doesn’t rise to the bait. “Gabrielle, I am not your mother. That’s not the relationship we have.” She lets go of my hand, never overly sentimental, but gives me a smile.
“No, I’ll grant you that.”
“Will look after you, though.”
I shiver and pull the white towelling around me. I’m not actually that cold, if I analyse it, I’m just shivery. “Where are we, anyway? I mean - and let’s get to the point here - where, exactly, are we?” Why haven’t I asked her that before? Why did I never find the time or gumption to just say to her ‘Xena, where, actually, is this’? “It’s not Greece. I know Greece, and this isn’t it. No Ma’am. Not even in summer.”
She’s looking at me with restrained amusement. “Africa.”
“Africa?!” That was unexpected. “Africa. Africa, right? You did say Africa?”
“No wonder it’s hot.”
“I thought you were cold.”
“Oh no.” Anyway her wrap is very warm and soft, and I pull it close to me. It smells of her. “So - wait - did you find me in Africa?”
“In the South.”
“Oh.” Wow. This really is screwed up, isn’t it. The shakiness seems to have moved inside me. “What is this stuff you’ve given me, anyway?” I can still feel the green glow of it in my chest. “I think...” What was it I was thinking? Oh yes: “I think you’ve done it deliberately, to make me cold, so you’ll have to cuddle me, and then you’ll be able to, you know, have your wicked way with me, and all.” She will cuddle me, won’t she? I nestle closer and hold out my arms, and when she obliges and holds me she’s warm and soft, and I tuck my nose against her neck and let her tease out my hair.
“Hmm. Now remind me when I’ve needed an invitation. I can have you whenever, and wherever, I want.”
I can’t be offended, because it’s true, and because she has the most seductive smile. She takes my wrists and holds them restrainingly, pulling them up playfully and putting my arms about her neck, before she leans in and kisses me. I let her take what she wants, finding my attention drawn to her hair, twisting and winding it gently around my hands, feeling the softness of it.
In her boisterousness she pushes me over on the bed and I giggle with her, her face above mine, and stroke my fingertips over the curves of her cheeks, the lines of her lips and eyebrows. So young! Resting on her elbows, she reaches down to tickle me, her steely hands finding all the right spots at my sides and in the small of my back and behind my knees. I squirm dizzily under her, shrieking and trying to wriggle away. I love her smile and spontaneity, I love the scent at the base of her neck, the heat of her. I’m wildly too hot, and manage to shove her off of me for long enough to struggle my way out of the towelling gown. As soon as I’m done she’s on me again with a feral growl, holding my hands and pressing kisses about my neck and shoulders.
“I gotta get this off!” I bat playfully at her hands. “It’s hot in here!”
“I thought you were cold.” She is kneeling astride me, and sets about helping me off with my over clothes.
“Don’t be ridiculous; this is Africa, right? How can anyone be cold?” In my shift, I’m far more comfortable, and happy to welcome her back into my arms, her weight on me, her cheek against mine. “Mmm, that’s so nice.” I wrap my arms around her and squeeze her like a bear. I feel nice all over, from my toes to the depths of my heart, thanks to the opium; I want to go on feeling like this indefinitely. “Need another drink.” I pat her shoulder, but she doesn’t budge. “Xena! Shift! Gotta get up. C’mon.” I generally prod at her until she groans and rolls off me. “Thank you.”
I flop over, heave up onto my hands and knees, and pad over to the edge of the bed. Frowning in concentration, I reach down to where I’m sure I dropped the small bottle. I wave my hand about, waiting to feel the cool solidity of the glass against my fingers. “Oh, where are you?” Groaning to myself, I heave myself over the edge so I’m resting on my forearms and can look down. The bottle must’ve rolled right under. “Now, where... Whoah!”
A huge crocodile rears up out of inky green waves, water pouring from its spiny head, and snaps fearsome jaws at me. It snarls through yellowed teeth, sharp and jagged, and green smoke curls from its nostrils.
“Xena!” I dart back, bumping into her and tucking myself in her arms. “A monster! D’you see?” I pant for breath, my heart racing in my chest.
“Right there, a crocodile -” He had green and black eyes, and a head the size of the big pillows on the bed. “Gods -”
“There’s no crocodile -”
“There is!” Is she blind?! “I swear -”
“You’re seeing things. There’s nothing there.” She turns my face toward her, away from the monster. I’m surprised by how cool her fingers are on my cheek, until I wipe my own arm over my face and realise how pink and flushed I am. “You’re just imagining it.”
She has me wrapped up in strong arms, making me feel safe. “But... I saw...” I saw it with my own eyes, and yet her voice is so calm and reassuring that I believe her.
“I know.” She pushes back my hair, which has gone damp and dark. “Nothing’s gonna get you while I’m here. You hear? Not a thing.”
I fall into her eyes, and find the woman I love there, and the old life, and my soulmate. “Xena...” Kneeling in front of her, my trembly hands smoothing down her hair, shaky and sweaty, I drop all pretences. “Xena I love you -”
“I love you too.”
Oh, I’m undone, I truly am. I can hardly breathe, my chest is so heavy, but I have to talk to her. “Xena, you need to know, you need to understand, there’s another life, none of this is right.” She just chuckles and goes on looking at me: I take a deep breath and go on, determined that she understand. My brain is spinning. “This is all upside down. This is the past. You and I don’t belong here.”
She laughs softly, rubbing my sides soothingly. “Where do we belong, then?”
“In Greece. Together. We’re soulmates, we travel together and we try to help people, to do good. We make a difference. Xena there’s no army, none of this. Just you and me.”
“Just you and me, huh?” She tucks back a lock of my hair.
“Yeah. You have to believe me.” I’ve got to rest my head on her shoulder. The world is swirling around me and I’ve no idea how I stay upright on my knees. The cabin spins until it’s a thick green whirlpool, rushing past my senses. I’m frightened it’ll sweep me away. “Hold onto me -”
“I am -”
“Tighter -” I hug her arms closer around my waist, and feel her grip me, like a safety rope pulled taut around the waist of a climber.
“Tell me about this world, then, Gabrielle.” Her voice drips like green honey, and I feel her breath at my neck. “What else.”
There’s a digging ache at the centre of my chest, and it’s difficult to breathe through it. I sway as if I’m bobbing in this cursed river, and am only anchored by her. The world is green and hot. “You have a horse -” So breathless...
“A horse, huh?”
“Her name is Argo.”
“Oh. And how’d we get here, then? To the... the past?”
“There was a market. In Greece. A fortune teller in a tent. Something I said, something I did... and this happened. It’s some sort of magic.”
I’ve missed dreaming of that place. “We sleep under the trees, we have camp fires. You hunt and I find berries. I tell you my stories, and we talk.”
“Oh -” I feel her kiss my shoulder. “And are we together? Like this?” Cool, violating fingers roam up my legs, snake under my shift, and curl around my buttocks.
“And do I do things like this to you?” Her hands move up and take the shift with them, up and over my head and away. I nod, still clutching her shoulders. I can’t see anymore, can’t see anything past the emerald quagmire. “Do you like it?”
“Of course, Xena, but -” I have to get her to understand about... about the other life.
“Does it feel like this?” With her face still against mine, her lips capturing mine up in little caresses, she closes her hands over my breasts.
I groan, it sends such a fantastic pain down into my centre, like a hot brand, a fierce aching of the blood. I nod eagerly in affirmation. All I can feel is the pulsing between my legs, the need for her there. And yet I’m sure there was something I was supposed to be saying...?
Blackness curls its fingers at the edges of my blindness and I feel myself loosen and slump. She laughs in surprise, and calls my name and cradles me on the bed, whispering against my ear, kissing me and dragging her hands across my body with a determination that I have no defence against.
“Xena -” The ache is insistent, and so is she. I need a release, I need the light and elevation of it. I’m burning up with fever, and acutely sensitive to her touch.
“What do you want -”
I grasp for her hands, utterly uncoordinated, and try to pull them between my legs. “Touch me -”
“Ut-uh.” All I can make out of her is a mass of wild brown hair and burning ocean eyes. “I want to see you do it.” She takes my hand and guides it down, then settles to watch me, her arms innocently around my shoulders and middle.
I don’t care who does it, I just need it. The fact that she’s watching takes me over the edge almost before I’ve begun. I start the mindless, instinctual rhythm, crying out for her and exposing my all to her. She won’t touch my chest so I do, I build up the climax until it’s intolerable, then welcome its arms as it bursts into me, and I buck and writhe and growl for a long time until it releases me from its clutches.
Hot and tired, and proud and empowered, I roll to her and reach out blindly, not strong enough to lift my own eyelids, and encircle her in clumsy, trembling arms.
“You’re beautiful.” She kisses softly at my face a few times, then swaddles me up in the blankets and her body. Like a child in the womb, I pull up my legs, rest my head at her breast, and fall into a warm, consuming sleep.
I wake the next morning, having slept the whole night through, to birds chirping outside and pale sun streaming gently in through the window. I feel fuzzy and hung over, and sit up in the bed to wipe at my sticky eyes and get my bearings. The last trails of green leave me, and I feel my sanity return.
Gods, the opium...
I was utterly possessed by it, liberated yet imprisoned, disassociated from my mind. I remember it, though. I remember the way the world washed over olive, and I remember Xena. I look down to find her lying beside me, watching me with a lazy smile.
“You’ve been out a long time,” she observes. “Welcome back.” Her hair is a wild and fabulous mess splayed across the pillow. She’s as naked as me, the covers pulled to her chest. She takes my hand. “You all right?”
I am, but... “It was so strong. The opium.”
“Hmm. Well, you’re not used to it.”
I can see why she takes it to invite oblivion, although in hindsight it frightens me and I don’t want to repeat the experience. I sit for a bit, and think, playing idly with her fingers. “Do you remember what I said?” This wearily, because it was a truth I never intended to come out.
A soft chuckle. “Of course.”
“Did you... believe it? What I said about... the other life?”
She stretches an arm around me, still lying on her side, and smoothes her hand over my belly. “No. Of course not. It’s symbolic, that’s all. It’s what you want.”
“Right.” At least I haven’t messed things up even more, haven’t lost this new reckless game with the loom of life. “I said some silly things, huh.”
“It was sweet.”
The opium frees your tongue far too much. It’s dangerous. It makes liars of us, I reflect sadly. In the quietude of the cabin, I speak openly. “I wish you’d meant what you said, Xena.”
It’s painful to repeat, and I do so in a small voice. “You said you loved me.”
“Oh, I meant that.” Her voice rich with amusement, she tugs me down into her embrace.
It’s not only thudding down onto the bed that drives the air from me. “You meant it?” Surely this is a cruel trick. Xena loves me here too?
“Uh ha.” She nestles against me, tucks her legs between mine, and I feel her belly moving as she breathes.
“But... the opium...”
“I didn’t drink it.” She glances back over her shoulder, and I see her glass on the table, as full as when it was poured. She shrugs in response to my incredulity. “As soon as I smelled it: it turns my stomach now, since the baby.”
“Love you, yes. Happy now?” A big kiss that I press back, knitting my fingers at the back of her head. “Let’s make love -”
I melt. Gladly -
From next door, Solan cries. It’s high pitched and distressed and feminine, like any newborn that demands attention. Xena sighs and pauses.
“You want me to go?” I offer.
“No. I’ll go.” She actually wants to go to him, I can see it. “Just don’t get out of that bed.” A devilish smile that undoes me. “I’ll be right back.”
I watch her pull on a robe and go out, then flop onto my back in absolute bliss. I’ve been so focussed, from the day I arrived in this world, and I haven’t been thinking. My only intention has been to put things back to how they were. But suddenly, luxuriating here in this bed, my mind flips back and I lose all my drive to get back to Greece and sort this out. Didn’t the Tarot reader speak of choices, and of sacrifice? Of your world tumbling around you and everything changing? The death of one life in order to have another? Perhaps this is my sacrifice, my lesson - to give up what I want so badly in order for Xena to be happy. Perhaps this is how it should stay. She and I together, her child with her, her hunger for violence satiated by the need to nurture her baby? I could be of limited help to her back in the old life: she was already on the path of Good. Maybe it’s here that she needs me. So I’ll stay.
We’ll stay here.
There’s another gurgling cry from next door, all strangled and unintelligible, as baby’s cries are. Solan must be grumpy this morning! He’s usually a very quiet child.
But then I hear Xena. “Shut up!” She’s angry and irritated and impatient. Surely she wouldn’t speak to the baby like that? Something isn’t right. I push back the covers, put on my shift and ease my feet onto the cool wooden floor. I’ll go see what’s wrong.
I’m barely across the room when there’s the most awful sound ever. “Gabrielle!” It’s a desperate release of abject terror - no anger, or warning, or summons - just panic. I fly out of the cabin and around to the next, my bare feet slapping painfully on the deck, my legs working furiously. I find Xena and the serving girl caring for Solan both gazing into the little crib. There’s nothing composed about Xena’s posture, her usual calm aura melted away. The woman cries again, in frozen fear at what she sees in the cot, and I realise that it was her we were hearing all along, not the baby.
“Get out!” Xena orders her, her voice cracked and a shade too high.
“Mistress Xena, I didn’t do anything,” the girl implores, “I left him sleeping and when I came back this morning -”
“Go!” It’s a roar, the wild eyed rage of a wounded lioness, and the girl flees out of the door past me.
I rush to Xena and catch her arm. “Xena! What is it?”
And I look into the cot. The first thing I feel - foolishly - is puzzlement. I wonder why anyone would have taken the baby out and in its place tucked under the blanket a piece of candle wax, all white and waxy and slightly transparent. Not, it’s a doll, perfectly lifelike except for its complete stillness and the hauntingly pale ceramic of its skin. Babies don’t lie like that, all rigid and sallow, they’re pink and burping and wriggling. Babies don’t wear the face of death.
Pressure drives into my abdomen and squeezes up all my organs in a steely fist. “No...” Hanging on to Xena, not sure which one of us is likely to collapse first, I reach fearfully into the crib, sure some monster is going to fly out of it and bite off my hand. My finger reaches the waxen cheek, and it’s cold as bone and awful. “Please, no...” Surely it’s a trick. Surely it isn’t right. I force myself to put a hand on its chest, and wait desperately, angrily, for movement. There is none. “Oh, Xena -”
She’s gazing at the infant, sightless, open mouthed. Suddenly she seems small and lost. She doesn’t speak.
“Xena -” My heart is broken for her. I take her arms and try to hold her up. “Xena, I’m so sorry...” I cuddle her, squeezing myself to her, expecting her to relent and lean on me, but she’s stiff as a broadsword, and doesn’t react to me at all. “I’m sorry.” I sniff and try to rearrange her hair, needing to touch her. “He was always a sickly child, probably he came too early, it’s no one’s fault.” It had always been at the back of my mind, that he didn’t seem to cry or feed much, that something wasn’t quite right with him, but I have precious little experience, and I’d pushed the thought away. Still she doesn’t speak or move. “Xena - maybe you should hold him.”
That seems to stir her, and without shifting her gaze she draws in a breath. “I’m not gonna hold it.”
“But... it might help... to say goodbye.”
“Don’t treat me like a child.” She straightens and pulls away from me. “Put it in the river.”
“What?! Xena, I can’t!”
“Do something else with it, then. Just leave me alone.” And she turns and is gone.
So the Tarot cards deal themselves out again. Everything changes. The wheel turns and another floor of the tower of life crumbles under our feet. Things had been going so well. Now they’re worse than ever. In the end Borius takes his son and does give him to the cool, embracing arms of the river, as Xena wanted. She is in permanent darkness and I can’t hope to reach her. Anyone who approaches her is lucky to escape alive - I’m not foolish enough to cross her. Solan is not the only soul who ends up in the hungry water over the ensuing days: three of the crew are dead by the time we reach open sea. One man and a girl don’t put up a fight, and she drives them through for some minor transgression. The third, a soldier, brawls with her on the deck. The weapons are soon flung away and she lays into him with her fists and teeth and bare feet. She’s like a wild Banshee, a savage thing, and she seems to relish every bloodthirsty moment. She doesn’t end it quickly, although she has ample opportunity, and waits for him to almost regain his senses before finishing it. She kills him by smashing his skull against a mast. Back in the old life I would have intervened in this madness, I would have gambled on faith that she wouldn’t actually kill me, no matter how thick the haze of blood before her eyes. Here, I can’t bet on that.
We make rapid progress across the open water. It requires less meticulous navigation, and the breeze from the ocean can fill the sails and push us along at a good rate. A storm cloud hangs over our cursed boat. Xena doesn’t come out of her cabin.
I’m immeasurably glad to get my feet back on solid land, despite everything. It smells like Greek soil to me. I’m sure we must be heading in the right direction. Xena paces and fumes darkly until a horse is brought to her, and then she gallops off alone across the hills. She doesn’t return until it’s dark, and then she’s spattered in blood. I dread to think what she’s done.
We pass by a town. They offer no resistance to her pillaging, and I think she’s disappointed. “Burn the crops,” she orders. I want to know why, when we have all we can eat and there’s no need to fight. Her smile makes me go cold. “So they won’t resist the next time either.”
She becomes the most awesome leader I’ve ever seen. She has her men on a leash so tight and thin that everyone is in a constant state of arousal, eager to please the Conqueror and in terror of invoking her anger. Those who are loyal to her she rewards with public pats on the back: small gifts of weapons, extra responsibilities, praise. Those who cross her are shown no mercy, and are humiliated and belittled in front of the others. She flings a man’s food in his face for sneering at her: it’s not about a lack of manners, she knows damn well how rude she’s being, that’s the whole point.
It’s an endless round of killing: violence and senseless murder and evil. At the next town, her men return to her for orders. “There aren’t any men,” the leader of the party reports from atop his steed, “they’re all women and infants here.”
Xena shrugs. “Kill them too, then.”
The man pauses, but nods and turns his horse. I can’t believe she’s crossed this line: she’s never harmed the women and children. “Wait!” I face her. “Xena you can’t!”
She points at the soldier, who is waiting. “You! You take your orders from me. Go.” He nods and kicks his horse off. “And you.” She turns on me, and I’ve never seen her eyes so dead and deadly. “Don’t you dare cross me. I swear I’ll kill you too, so help me.” She storms into her tent, and I feel shaky with the fear of what she was going to do.
I’m at rock bottom. I can’t stand by and let her do this - to herself as much as to others, it’s not her Way - and if I confront her she’ll dispatch me and still go on doing what she’s doing. Well, I have to try. I have to try something! To Hades with this! I follow her into the tent, aware that I might never come out again.
The air inside is heavy. Everything is still. Xena stands, lost and alone, in the middle of all her finery, examining the shining steel blade of a curved dagger. She caresses its smooth lines, adrift in her own thoughts. I see big, pearly orbs dripping from it and think it must be her blood, until I note that the drips are actually just bouncing off the metal: tears falling from her eyes.
How can I take this pain away? “Xena -”
Her head comes up and she flies at me, grabbing me by the throat and ramming my back against something hard. I have to stand up on my toes so as to go on breathing. Her face is in mine, feral but streaked with tears. Her teeth are clenched and with each breath she growls. I feel the sharp sting of the blade at my throat.
I’m just so sorry for her. “Please, Xe, don’t cry.”
“Shut up!” She adjusts her grip and her footing, unsure under the anger. “You go out there and tell anyone about this and I’ll slit your throat,” she warns, sniffing. “I won’t care. I swear I’ll do it.”
It’s the bravado of an animal hunted into a corner. I lift my hand, and instead of trying to pull the dagger away I reach around her arm and stroke the tears from her face, as gently as I know how. She has always rebuffed my kindness in this life, been inclined to mock me for it, it’s an instinct in her that wins out over her need to be shown empathy and friendship. If there’s one thing I have to teach her it’s how to be soft. No matter the consequences, I will get through to her this time. “Xena, I’m so sorry about what happened to Solan. I know you loved him. I’m so sorry, Sweetheart -” I feel my chest shudder and I know that the tears are dripping from my own nose. “Don’t hurt yourself with that thing?”
“Damn you, fight me!”
“No,” I hush her, “no more fighting. Everything’s going to be all right. It’s okay, Xena...”
Without a word, slowly, Xena drops the knife. It just falls from her hand, and she collapses against me, shuddering with sobs that go through her chest and rasp in her throat.
“It’s all right, I’m here, it’ll be okay.” I cuddle her to me, my cheek pressed to hers, and our tears mingle. “It’ll be all right.”
Her strength goes from her, and together we slide to the ground. She holds on to me like a distraught child to its parent, her face alternately buried in my neck or shoulder.
“Shh...” I try to soothe her, try to leach out some of this awful hurting. “Xena I’m with you. It’s going to be all right.”
When she finally quietens I push back her hair and tip her face up to me. It’s red and flushed and wet, and she looks immeasurably tired. “Gabrielle, I believe you -” she says with the last of her breath.
“Your dream. About Greece. I believe you.” She’s nodding, her eyes on the floor, her fingers knotted in my clothes. “About the market tent, and you and I. I believe it all. I want that life.” She seems to surrender, and gives a little shrug. “We’ll go wherever you want. We’ll find your market. I’ve got nothing more to lose.”
“Okay.” I hold her to me. “Okay.”
We’ll go. We’ll go and try to put things straight. I haul out the maps, figure where we are, and plot the quickest way back to the market town. Xena is apathetic and meek, and nothing like the woman she’s destined to be. My presence doesn’t allow her to consume herself in rage and war, and without that fire she’s a shell, an empty person. I have no right to make her exist like this. We sleep in the same bed, night after night between days of travelling, but she curls with her back to me and says nothing. We don’t make love. This is the most awful purgatory for her.
I recognise the village when we ride into it, and pull Xena from the horse, running excitedly up the sandy path. “This is it! I see the tent! Xena, it’s going to be all right!” I have her hand, and she follows me heavily up the path. She doesn’t even question if I’m sure, or if I’m crazy. All the fight has gone out of her and she’s nihilistic. “Wait for me here, okay?” I put her down on a boulder opposite the garish tent, ignoring the shoppers around us. “Don’t move, all right?” I grip her arms and lean down to see her face. “Promise me?”
She shrugs. “Whatever you want.”
Good. “I won’t be long. Trust me,” I quickly press a kiss to her cheek. I’m determined to make things right, I’m sure this is the road back home.
I go into the tent, and again it’s dim and cool with the heady smell of incense in the air. The big black man with his circular mask sits behind his low table, waiting for me. Thank the Gods. I sit before him.
“Yes?” he asks dutifully after an appropriately unsettling pause.
“I’d like you to read the cards for me, please.” And I slide a dinar across the shiny wood to him.
“Another reading, eh?”
“That’s what you’re here to do, isn’t it? The previous cycle is complete.”
He nods, beads and trinkets swinging from his ears. “A service for a coin, that’s my trade.” He takes up the deck of oversized cards, and carefully deals out five, laying them before me. “There. They have spoken.”
I peer intently at the first card, eager to know its message. “She’s beautiful.” The picture is of a woman, slender and regal, sitting elegantly on a pedestal. “Who is she?”
She looks like an empress, with her curled hair fixed atop her head and golden bangles at her wrists. “What does she represent?”
“Ah, easy to decipher.” He sits back and folds his arms over a portly belly. “The cards are being open with you today! Empress represent protection. She give unconditional love. You be a lucky one to have an Empress in your deck!”
Oh, I know I’m lucky. I know who the Empress represents. “This is Xena. She always protects me.” I’m very glad to see this card. I move on to the next. “This is a woman too -” The sketches aren’t dissimilar, with a woman in finery shown seated on some sort of ceremonial chair, but in each corner of the card is drawn a long sword.
“That be the Queen.”
“A Queen! Is that Xena too?”
“A mature woman.”
I think for a moment, shaking my head. “I wouldn’t class Xena as elderly.”
He shrugs, a big mass of coloured cloth. “Then, a young woman, with a mature attitude.”
Oh, that’s better. “Definitely Xena.”
The man leans forward suddenly, staring into my face as if trying to see the workings of my brain. It’s quite disconcerting. “Last card Xena? This card Xena? Ut-uh.” He waggles a finger, pursing big lips. “Cards not repeat themselves. That for foolish girl to do. Who else Queen? Who else young here?”
“Not me! Do I look like young Queen to you? Ah!” He laughs silently, shaking his big mass, his eyes squeezed shut behind the mask. “No! You the Queen. Do you have your sword?”
I look down at the card again, with its four little broadswords. “I don’t understand what they mean. I’m not a warrior. I don’t want to be a warrior.”
“But you are the Queen of Swords.” He quietens again. “The Sword reminds us that power is double edged. Without caution, we may cut our own throats!”
“That’s what happened to me, you mean?” I understand him. “I came in here thinking all this was a game. I used my power carelessly, and look at what I’ve done to Xena. I won’t make that mistake again. Go on, read the next card.”
He pushes it toward me.
“Gods!” The image makes me withdraw instinctively. It’s the only overtly frightening picture I’ve seen on the cards. A skeleton, dressed in a hooded black robe, peers out at me sightlessly. “That’s worse than the Hanged Man! And this is...?”
“Oh, great!” But I’ve learned not to take the meaning of the cards literally, and don’t panic. “Death. The death of what?”
“Death, ending. The end of one situation. The beginning of another. The Wheel turns again. Renewal always follows decay. It is time to move on, Greek Daughter.”
I nod. “I know. I’m glad - I want to move on. I’m glad this is over.” I take the forth card. “Ah, now I recognise this one. The Tower, right?” I enjoy the comical illustration of the tall tower crumbling to the ground. “But its upside-down this time - that means something, doesn’t’ it. The meaning is reversed?” The mask looks at me expectantly. “Before it meant that something was going to happen, there would be a change of plans.”
“Yes.” He seems pleased with me. “Now card upside-down. So event already occurred. Being dealt with.” He makes a sweeping gesture of finality with his hand. “Done.”
“But remember: everything must be built on a solid foundation, or it will collapse. Everything. You? Your Empress? Build your foundation strong, and you will stay strong.” He clutches together his big, dry hands to emphasise his point.
“I know. We have to build our relationship on trust, and equality. I can’t judge her for what she did in the past. I can’t let that demon come between us.” It can’t be about sex, and desperation, and fear, like it was on the ship. “We’ll make it strong. I promise. I’m not going to let it collapse like the Tower.” I put down the card.
“Ah, you learn fast!”
I grin and nod, and eagerly take the last card. It’s the one I most wanted to see. “The Wheel of Fortune. So it has turned again, we have come full circle.”
“Life, Gabrielle, like deck of cards, is cycle of good and bad. Sometimes you are dealt bad card. But sooner or later the good will turn up. It’s not pleasant! But it’s the only way you move through the deck.”
I know, I know, he’s right. I feel certain now that everything will be all right. “I won’t forget,” I tell him, “I won’t forget what I’ve learnt.” I push up from my cushions. “Thank you!” And I dash outside into the sunlight.
Xena pushes up from her resting place. “You took your time.” She speaks fondly to me, and seems to look at me through dusky, gentle eyes. Old, wise, familiar eyes. Everything is back to normal, everything is right again.
“Did I?” I look around and find everything just as I left it: market stalls and busy sellers and bustling customers.
“Well, maybe I’m just impatient.” She studies me, as I stand in front of her, her dark hair falling about her shoulders. “You all right?”
It’s over, it’s finally over....
She must see I’m shaken: her expression becomes concerned, and she comes to me. Her arms go around me, squeezing me up into her love. She tucks her face in to my neck, whispering and kissing, pushing my head to one side. I rest like this, my arms supported on hers and fingers playing over tough leather and soft skin, and blink salt tears over my cheeks. In a moment I’ve gone from being overwhelmed to merely contemplative, gazing out at the world from the security of her embrace. I’m like a child, comforted simply and entirely by its mother’s attention. My fingers catch on the brass swirls on Xena’s shoulders, so I move my hands up and into her hair. I know her body so well that sometimes it’s more familiar even than my own.
I realise Xena is speaking to me, but it takes me a moment to focus on the words, to actually hear them. Louder than her speech seems to be the comforting thudding of her heart by my ear, the sound of her breathing. Like an infant mammal clinging to its mother, I recognise these sounds more keenly than any other. I’m home...
“What’s wrong?” she’s saying. “Gabrielle? You‘re white.”
But I’m fine. I’m absolutely fine. I smile up at her. She looks older, and more serene, and I swear, in the fading light, even more beautiful. “Nothing: I’m great.”
“Good.” She’s dubious, but I think she believes me. I don’t usually greet her like that. “What were you doing in there,” she asks suspiciously, “sharing your life story or something?”
I let myself laugh, and let go of her. “Just talking about you, I guess.”
That obviously clarifies everything for her, and she rolls her eyes. “Huh. Figures.”
A private little smile, and she takes up her bags. “Let’s get going then. Want to be home before it’s dark, right?” A glance back at me, devilish and loaded.
“Okay.” She puts an arm around my shoulders, and we walk, through the market and out toward Argo. I try not to think, or analyse, or question: I just walk beside her and am glad of it, immeasurably glad. At a small copse of trees where Argo has been waiting she asks me “You want to walk?”
Not tonight. “No I’ll ride behind you.” I need to be sure that she’s real, and let my hand trace over her leathers as she turns to tie our wares to the saddle.
Usually I do prefer to walk, but she only pauses a moment before shrugging and getting on. “Okay then. Here.” She reaches down an arm and I pull myself up, hug my arms around her middle and rest my head against her back, which is solid and warm. I hear her chuckle softly, shake her head and tut, and we start off toward home.
The sun falls gently and calmly, spreading a wash of orange over the still lake we’ve camped by. It’s peaceful here. We eat, and tend camp, and Xena sees to Argo. I bend to unlace my boots, glad of a full belly and a quiet place for my bedroll.
Xena potters behind me, and I don’t pay her any attention until she speaks. “Are you going for a swim?”
I disregard the idea as soon as I hear it, privately tutting at its absurdity. “Xena it’s almost dark.” I’ve already washed, and it’ll be cold out there now. Why would I want to swim? I rest on my knee to unpick a stubborn knot in the lace, more preoccupied by the swirl of cord than by Xena’s movement behind me.
“Oh.” It’s a very knowing sound, but I let it pass over me in favour of the knot. She pads across the camp to me, and I see her brown boots draw up beside me. “Gabrielle?”
Her voice is soft and shady and is almost lost into the warm peace of the evening, so familiar is it to me now. “Hmm?” The boot comes off, and I set it with its twin and tuck the lace inside so there won’t be another snag to contend with in the morning.
“Gabrielle.” She’s suddenly closer, and I feel her at my side a moment before a gentle hand strokes cool and soft down my arm then eases me up. I hadn’t intended to ignore her, I was just lost in thought, and only now do I register the gentle persistence of her tone. I stand, turning to her, and look up, up into soft, intimate eyes set into a face so kind and warm it makes my heart lurch. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean not to listen... Her hand remains at my elbow, and she takes the time to enjoy a smile before going on. I feel that she’s humouring me, that she’s amused. “You don’t want to swim, then...”
“To swim? No: Xena why would I want -”
She’s finding something funny. “Well how about a massage, then?”
This is unexpected, and stirs me out of my little daze. “Okay,” I shrug, “I guess my shoulders are a little stiff.” It’s a nice idea, I don’t see any reason why not.
But her eyes shine with amusement, and again I’m wrong-footed, realising I haven’t heard something she’s trying to say. I feel mildly detached, as if time is lagging, as if I’m drunk. “I didn’t mean your shoulders,” she tells me in a voice as rich as cinnamon, and still I don’t understand. I gaze into her face, hoping to find clarification there, wanting her to teach me everything I’m not getting. Finally, she quits teasing me. She gives a soft little tug on my sleeve. “Take this off?”
And understanding comes swift and sudden, as I stand inches from her, the two of us alone in this glade. I understand what she’s offering. It’s been so long since we were last here that I’d almost forgotten what happened all that time ago that to her was only last night. We planned this. We finally agreed to it. To be together. I look down to my top, strangely uncertain about how to get it off, now that the moment has come.
Xena must see all of this go across my face. She chuckles softly, gently, the sound like birds fluttering through shady trees, and touches her knuckles affectionately to my cheek before turning away to give me a moment of privacy, a moment with myself. “Take your time.” She fiddles with the pots and pans. Even the way she walks is mesmerising.
Gods, are we really going to...?
I glance over at our bedrolls. I lost count of the number of times she and I were together, back in that other life, but that was a different person, this is my Xena. I loved that other one, but here - well, it’s so different. She’s so different. I unlace my top, and stare at her back until she feels it and turns. “I love you so much -” It’s not like she isn’t aware of it, but I feel the need to say it now, to say it to her.
“I know.” She returns to me and takes my hand. “Come and sit down, huh?” She gives me that private, knowing smile that adds immense depth to her eyes, and we walk to the furs, my fingers linked loosely with hers.
I’m not in the least bit bashful to be undressed in front of her. I was at first, when I was younger, not so much because I was self-conscious but because I was awed by her own incredible beauty and self-comfort. But there isn’t much room for privacy on the road and very quickly we were bathing and dressing together every day. More than that, I’ve always wanted to share everything with Xena, I’ve never wanted to hide any part of myself, so there’s no reason not to let her see.
I lie back, exhaling slowly in comfort, and rest my hand on her knee while she finds the bottle of oil she wants. Every part of me tingles already - ridiculously - especially the bits that brush against the soft fur, and I feel aroused in silly places that I never would have imagined before, like my heels and forearms as the fur tickles them.
I hear the cork pop from the oil bottle and recognise the scent of rosewood. “Where’d you get that from?” I just want to hear her voice, like a child soothed by the sound of its mother, no matter what she’s saying. I can do anything so long as she just keeps talking to me.
That bloody market.
I feel her weight shift, my arm flopped over her knee, and her lean fingers start work on my shoulders, tucking under my loosened top, rhythmically squeezing away tension in the muscles there. “That feels good.” I stretch out my legs, my head rolled toward her. Xena can give very hard massages if she wants to - I remember the first time, I’m sure she was showing off, I thought she was going to break my bones - but she’s being far more gentle tonight.
“Uh ha.” She takes an arm and massages down to my fingers, pulling slightly then cupping my hand between her own. She works quickly and expertly, confident in what she’s doing, sliding my arm through her hands before setting it softly by my side and taking the other one. I sigh again, closing my eyes. She gives my hands a little squeeze before sliding down to my legs. I’m hypersensitive all over; when her cool fingers brush the backs of my knees it’s almost orgasmic, I want her so much.
She runs her fingers between my toes and it’s just one tickle too many. She knows it, too, and I hear her chuckle as I writhe and pull my feet away. “Let’s get you undressed.” Smiling at me, she pulls my green top off my shoulders and discards it. “That’s better.” She returns to work, sliding her hands over my breasts, and it’s agonisingly good. I cover her fingers with mine and moan, suddenly short of breath. “Shh...” Still with a smile as warm as the Greek sun, she bobs down and kisses my cheek, and then my lips, very innocently.
“Yeah.” She lets me pull her down on top of me. She encircles me in her arms and kisses my hair while I try to push away her clothes. I could lie here forever, looking up at her. She takes her weight on elbows and knees, and her brown hair falls over my shoulders. I adore her beyond what she could ever possibly know. I embrace her and lift my head to kiss her, smoothing down her hair. She smiles, all her love evident in her face, but only allows a small kiss. Desperate, I reach up, wanting to touch every part of her, needing to be in contact.
Equally determined, Xena lightly restrains my wrists and tucks her hands under my shoulders, holding me supportively and looking down at me until she has my absolute attention. “Gabrielle -” She’s amused, and licks her lips.
I never realised a word could shoot through me like that! “Oh, say my name again...”
“Gabrielle,” she humours me, “slow down.” She tucks her head against mine to kiss my ear. “Slow down, Sweetheart, there’s no hurry. Don’t rush.” I watch her duck her head, and she gives me a gentle kiss on the swell of my breast. I know she’s right. All my experience is with her as she was at the head of her army, always in a hurry, always desperate and afraid and angry. She’s right - it doesn’t have to be like that. “I’m here with you all night.”
That’s all well and good, but - “I don’t think I can wait all night!”
Xena grins, strokes my cheek, and gets off of me. “I won’t make you wait all night. Promise.” She helps me up, and I sit cross-legged and try to calm down as she reaches for the oil then kneels behind me. “Don’t you like to talk? Let’s talk.”
I trust and believe her absolutely, and do as she advises, pulling fresh night air into my chest, trying to ease the fire there. The other Xena never wanted to talk. “What about?”
“Don’t mind. You choose.” She works her thumbs into my back. I love her being close to me.
Hmm. Now that I have the opportunity, I find I don‘t really know what to say. “I learnt a lot at the market, you know.”
She laughs behind me. “Did you? What did you learn, then?”
“That I love you. So much.” I reach for her hands and hold them.
“Ahh. And you didn’t know that already? Before the market?”
“No, no, I did. But there was a lot I didn’t understand. Now I do.”
“Hmm.” She makes a little sound of approval. “Impressive market.” She puts her arms around me and I watch her pour oil onto her palm. “Well I love you too. And I knew that from way before the market.”
I laugh and glance back at her. “When did you know? Tell me exactly when.” It’s good for my ego.
“Oh, don’t know. When you saved me from a stoning in Amphipolis, maybe? Or when you said you were my friend and I wasn’t alone. Or when you went bathing out in the river and dropped the soap and fell over and it made me laugh.”
I think back. “All those things happened the day after I met you.”
“Yeah, well, you have to think quickly if you’re gonna get by. I knew then.”
She kisses the nape of my neck, and swirls her fingertips over my nipples before cupping them in the warmth of her palms. Her fingers are so delicate, her touch so light, but my response is so powerful. I sigh again, watching what she’s doing. It’s perfect, to spend all night with her, but... “I do want it to be gentle. This is so nice.”
“Of course.” She smoothes oil over my stomach, kissing my shoulder. “Of course it will be, huh?” She nuzzles her cheek against mine and I play with her hair.
“But we will be able to have... to do it like... to not always be gentle, won’t we?” Quick and rough and savage, with her completely in control and just taking me.
She corks the bottle and gives a surprised but mildly despairing and rather feminine laugh. “Yes. We will.”
That’s all right then. I look back to her, my eyes going down to her lips. Obligingly, she kisses me, almost like a child’s innocent kiss, just a light touching of lips. Somehow it’s more intimate than the open-mouthed intensity of the Conqueror’s hungry kisses. My memory skips back to a time beyond that. “You used to kiss me like that.”
“Did I?” She carefully rubs her hands together, then takes mine and spreads a little oil onto my palms too.
“When we first met. When we were friends. When you started to kiss me goodbye, in private: you’d kiss me like that.”
“That was brazen of me.”
In truth I’d never interpreted it as a romantic gesture, and I’m sure it wasn’t meant in that way - it was just Xena being her physical, tactile self. I watch as she eases our hands and the oil around my ribs and then strokes the backs of her fingers along the underside of my breasts. She guides my fingers, and I lean back on her. Her chin on my shoulder, she grazes my flesh lightly with her fingertips before cupping my breasts in her hands and supporting them exquisitely. It’s enormously pleasurable, and I stretch like a cat and groan, pressing my head against hers.
“I can’t.” I love the way she supports my weight, the gentle pressure of her palms, the way she doesn’t relent.
“Sure you can,” she kisses my temple. “Sure you can.” I feel as if I’m panting, trying to carry out her instructions, and that just increases the contact. I have no experience with being patient. “Why don’t you show me what you like? You do it.” She guides my hands onto myself.
“I like this.”
Wanting to please her, I make the effort to focus. I lift my hands and touch myself, clumsily at first but quickly gaining in confidence. I take her hands and lead them, make her squeeze my breasts, feel her wrists against them. Our hands slide deliciously with the oil. I feel like I’m showing off every part of myself to her, introducing her to each curve in turn, letting her feel it and stroke it and weigh it in her hand. With one arm comfortingly around my waist she strokes a nipple, watching it soften, darken, then harden up for her. Her hair falls over my shoulder to cover her hand. So in love with her, I turn and embrace her and kiss her properly, my fingers stroking her cheek as I give her everything I have. “I... love you... Xe...”
“Mmm. You... too...” She doesn’t hesitate in returning the sentiment or the kiss, and I feel another layer of myself slip away and open fully to her. My hands come up and I find her chest without even thinking. I want to touch her.
With new focus, I sit myself messily before her, tug off the rest of our clothes, and stroke my fingers over curves that are bigger and heavier than mine. Her skin is soft and tanned and I just want to nuzzle against it. Indulging myself, I support her breast in a hand and kiss and stroke her, my head tucked under her chin, my nose brushing a nipple which I finally, finally, get to take into my mouth.
Xena’s hand strokes softly over my head, messing up my hair, and she leans back on an arm, her eyes closing. I move closer into her lap and caress her back and shoulders as I let my lips explore her. It’s just wonderful. “Xena -” I kiss her collar bone.
“Oh, Gabrielle -” It’s not what she says, so much as the needy, groaning way she says it.
This power is intoxicating. “Now who needs to calm down?” I tease her, looking up at her face. I love this effect I’m having on her, but ultimately I don’t really know what to do with it, and I’m glad when she rises to the bait and wrestles me into a cuddle.
“Cheeky.” A quick kiss on my temple. We laugh and rub our noses together for a moment of quiet. “Lie down, Gabrielle. Lie down, Sweetheart.”
I do, and knit my arms around her. The sun has gone down fully now and there’s only the red-orange glow of the fire throwing light over us. She strokes my legs, inviting me to bring them up. So we’re finally going to do this thing, find this new level between us, make this connection that no one will ever break. I’m not afraid of anything tonight. It’s just Xena and I.
Her fingers find me, very lightly at first, and I close my eyes, wanting to savour every instant, every touch. I shudder softly. It feels so good. Moisture runs from me and stops anything from hurting. I cup her hand with my own, just to share what she’s doing. She runs her fingers alongside flesh that is hot and throbbing and yawning for her, and I hear her muttering reassurances as at last she slips inside of me.
“Dear Gods -” I press my lips to hers, finding her willing and responsive, and part my legs and lift my hips to her. “Xena -”
“Gabrielle I’m here -” I can hear from her voice that she’s smiling, and I don’t have to open my eyes to see it in my mind’s eye. She’s enjoying herself too, her tone rich and deep, and I’m glad. She reaches deeper, and wider, and I groan out and clench my fists. Damn, this is strong. I can’t take being tensed up like this, it’s not possible to be on the brink like this any longer, so I make a conscious decision and relax, just go limp and lie here and feel every delicious sensation. I just let it come. Xena tucks her head down beside mine and starts to whisper in my ear: intimate, personal things that I’ve never heard from her. I go breathless at the thought of what she’s suggesting we do, dizzied by the feel of her fingers inside me, and I grasp her hand, clutching her fingers like a life-line.
The explosion of heat flies into me and bursts at my core, and I’m lifted up by it and sent spinning into a happy oblivion. “Sweet... Gods!” I jerk and hold her hand tighter as wave after wave of enormous pleasure pulses through my body, keeping me in a timeless, sweet limbo before setting me back down on the fur and leaving me filled with relaxation and contentment. “Xena -” I knot my arms around her neck and ride out the remnants of this hugely instinctual thing with her. It’s silly to cry, but how can I help it when I’m so in love with her?
“Shh...” When the release drains away she slows but doesn’t stop, her free hand travelling over the curves of my chest and face, and I can hear her soothing voice against my ear. “Don’t stop, Gabrielle,” she encourages warmly, “it’s all right, you don’t have to stop. Relax. Let go.”
I’ve run out of words, and when it comes again I give up on speech, or the restrained moans that came out of me those other times in the tent or on the boat, and just cry out with every breath, wanting the forest to know what we’re doing and how bloody good it feels and that she belongs to me. I know the tears are streaming, and I just let it out.
It comes again and again, I’ve wanted her so much, and by the end I’m open mouthed but silent, just grimacing as yet another contraction grips me and sends molten pleasure swirling down around her blissful fingers inside me.
When I can no longer support my head, when I’m trembling all over, she releases me and pulls me up into a cuddle. “Xena, I’m just...” What can I even say? I love you. I’m part of you. I’m so proud to be with you like this.
“I know.” She cradles my head to her, and looks down to me. We hold hands. I’ve never been so close to anyone.
“I don’t think I can hold my head up -”
“Don’t worry. I’ll do it for you, ‘kay?”
“Uh.” I give an affirmative sound and close my eyes for a bit, resting, and she keeps my head in the crook of her elbow. When I open them again I find her gazing at me patiently. Managing to move a bit, I lift myself enough to find her lips. “Xena, I’d love it if you used your mouth, to do what you did before.” I run a finger across her lips, thinking how pink and warm they are, and how good they’d feel there, her lips and her tongue.
“Anything you want,” she promises.
Regaining strength and interest, I peck several more little kisses on her, finding it hard to break contact, then sit up. She must be desperate by now. She’s got impressive self-restraint; she’s only been thinking of my pleasure.
Back in the tent, and on the boat, Xena did everything, took control, and I just lay there in ecstasy. It’s not fair to do that now: I want us to be equal, I want to give her what she’s given me. “I’m not sure I know what to do -”
She chuckles at me. “Gabrielle, anything you do will be lovely.”
“But I want it to be nice,” I insist, I don’t want to fumble and leave her dissatisfied. Suddenly serious, I scowl and draw in a breath. “What should I do?” I want to be taught, I want her to go through everything step by step so I can be sure I’ve grasped it. Ideally I’d like a scroll to study, but if she can’t provide that, at least -
She swallows tightly. “I really don’t care.” Amused, but tellingly truthful. “Would you just touch me?”
I realise I’ve let go. “Sorry!” I cuddle her again, bringing back her smile.
“You haven’t ever, have you. Done this?” That smile gives way to something more serious, more pained. “Only me. I know how special it is for you. You need to realise how honoured...” She’s not good with words and she knows it, and shakes her head and makes do with a sincere “Thank you.” She kisses my hand, and strokes tears from my face. “Now c’mon -” With the grin back, she rolls down onto the fur and guides me so I’m sitting astride her middle. She pats my knees. “Don’t tell me you’ve never thought about it. Not written about it in your scrolls? I won’t believe you.” She takes my hands and squeezes them playfully, then guides them onto her chest.
“Well,” I acquiesce shyly, “I have thought. From time to time.”
In truth, only lately have I started giving the idea much serious attention. In my innocent way I would daydream of a kiss, but it never went much further. Or actually, it did, the day she walked into Poteidaia: I privately wondered what it might be like to be with that tall, hard, beautiful warrior. I pictured it. I was so despairing of myself that I put it out of my mind and didn’t consider it again until recently. “Did you imagine it?” I wonder.
“Sure. But we’re not talking about me. What did you think of doing?”
Well it’d be rude to ignore an invitation like that. Who else could get away with sitting on top of the Warrior Princess like this? I massage her arms and shoulders, and play, childlike, with her hair, and generally explore. I quickly learn that it’s not the same just using my hands, I feel that I want to kiss and taste too, so I reluctantly get off of her, and lie down beside her. Xena understands this, I think, and turns to cuddle me.
Her embrace is warm, and safe, and I can rest against her chest as I caress her and show her how I feel. Some of the time she has her eyes closed, some of it she looks down and watches what I’m doing. It’s arousing for me too, and my hand finds its way down between her legs of its own accord.
I rub the hot and silky flesh there, driven on by the soft sounds she starts to make, her long fingers caressing my arms. Kissing her quickly, I touch at what I’m sure is the right place. She’s absolutely ready, and she’s so experienced and so familiar with her own body that she relaxes exactly when I need her to. My head thumping with the thrill of this, my cheeks blushed, I slip inside, and she sighs from deep in her chest and kisses my hand.
I settle down by her and we enjoy kissing while I stroke her. She holds me close and guides my hand further between her soft thighs. “Is it okay?” I breathe against her. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
She has a hand knotted into my hair. “It’s all right, darling.”
So I press a bit harder, and a bit faster, and her response is obvious. It’s thrilling and exciting. From now on, whenever we’re out fighting, or negotiating, or riding Argo or buying goods at a market, people will think we’re just friends going about our business, and only she and I will know that we do this, that we’re this close.
“Sweetheart, use another finger. It’s okay. Go on.” She nods and smiles her encouragement, even though she’s breathless. Trying to be gentle, I do as she asks, guided by her. I can only dream of being like her: she’s so experienced, so worldly. “Ah,” she breathes with a grin, “good girl.”
“It’s okay?” I grow more daring by the instant, and it’s not really a question, more of a prompt. I press my forehead to hers, wanting to watch every moment.
“Uh ha -” Her voice has gone thick.
And Xena groans and twists and swears, and I grin because I haven’t heard her swear since she was conqueror. Her moment looks blissful, and I revel in it, thrilled both for her pleasure and my own achievement. I milk every last spasm out of her, then gently let go, wanting to hear what she has to say, she how she’ll respond.
She grins, caught up in her own pleasure for a moment, then opens her eyes and finds me. I can see she doesn’t have the energy to move just yet, and lying with her hair splayed out behind her I think she’s stunningly beautiful.
I sit and watch her. “I wanted it to be perfect for you -”
“Gabrielle, it was perfect.” She takes my hand and uses it to pull herself up. “I love you.”
“I love you.” I meet her lips, and nestle my face against her, suddenly tired.
“And in any case -” she plumps up the rolled furs behind us, then pulls up a blanket “ - we’ve got plenty of time to practice, right? Just you and me.”
We lie down, me with my back to her, and she squeezes her arms around my middle and rests her head against my shoulder. “Me and you.” I find myself yawning widely. I’m so tired! I close my eyes - there’s only dark forest to see anyway - and hold her hands, warm under our blanket. “I feel like I could sleep for days.” There’s a certain dozy contentment that I’ve not known the likes of before. With her here I feel totally safe and I doze off, lose all consciousness for a few moments, not long.
When I wake up I’m sprawled on my front, and press up into a messy sitting position, groggy for a second. I feel Xena stroking at my back with her fingertips, and don’t need to look around for her. I wrinkle up my forehead. “Is it normal to feel hungry?” Ravenous, actually.
Behind me, she chuckles. “For you, I’d say yes.” She pushes up from her resting place, throwing aside the blanket. “I’ll get you something.”
I sit comfortably, the grey cover over my legs and pulled about my waist, and wait idly for her to return. The night air is fresh and clean, and I can hear the distant rustle of forest creatures going about their business. When she comes back she sits heavily behind me, and reaches her arms around my shoulders to settle on my legs a wooden dish containing toasted chunks of nutbread and some shining red cherries. “Thank you -” It’s the perfect evening snack, and so lovingly prepared too. The bread is golden and crispy, and satisfying to bite off and crumble in my mouth. I eat approvingly while she sits looking out into the dark trees, one hand protectively on my shoulder. “You want some bread, Xe?” I offer a hunk back to her, but she shakes her head.
The wind swirls caressingly around us and stirs my hair across my shoulders. I roll the sweet cherries under my fingertips in the bowl, watching them catch the white reflection of the moon. Cherries are her favourite, and I don’t feel so badly that she spent dinars on the nutbread - she took care of herself too. I pull the stalk from the last one and hold that up. “A cherry, then?”
I hear her chuckle softly, and she strokes back blonde hair so she can see me properly. “You’re offering me your cherry?” She knows the joke is below her, but lets herself indulge in it nonetheless. “Isn’t it a bit late for that?”
I concede her point. “Far too late.” I let her take the rosy orb from my fingers with her lips, enchanted, then stroke her face. How perfect just to be here.
Slowly, as if she hardly dares imagine that this moment is real and solid and unbreakable, she wraps her long arms around my middle and holds me gently back against her, her chin on my shoulder. “I love you -”
I want to scurry into her arms and be suffocated there. I want to take in every touch, every aroma, every taste of her. I cradle her arms around me, nuzzling against her face. “I don’t love you...” How to explain? “I need you. I need to be beside you every day and take care of you and sleep beside you. I can’t bear the thought of a life without you in it.” I remember being in that African river, and being pulled under and not being able to breathe, getting more and more desperate until my spirit contorted with the need for air. “Like you need air when you hold your breath too long. You mustn’t go: I’d die.” I’m being melodramatic, I suppose, but she understands, I think, and rocks me.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Good. Her cheek is hot against mine. We just sit together for a bit.
“Or,” she adds suddenly with a cheeky lilt to her voice, “like when you’ve drunk too much ale and you need to piss, badly, and there’s no Little Warrior’s room to relieve yourself, no bush by the road, no -”
I shoot an incredulous look back over my shoulder at her. “You love me that much, huh?” It’s not such a flattering analogy, but it’s vivid enough. We’ll make a writer out of her yet.
“Hmm. That much.”
“Okay. Thanks, Xena.” I pat her hand, which has moved up over my stomach and is resting very lightly just under my breast, as if she still wants a remnant of that intimate contact with me. “I want you to tell me if you’re hurt,” I insist, going on with my list.
This she doesn’t seem to get, and she pauses before answering. “I’m not hurt.”
“No, I don’t mean now: I mean ever. Like when you fight and you take a blow to your arm or your leg, or when you crack a rib. I want to know. Like that time when you got walloped on the head and you went dizzy and couldn’t see properly and didn’t even tell me until you brought up your supper.” Silly, the things you remember.
She humphs. “Well, throwing up never killed anyone.”
I’m not sure I agree with that, actually, but I won’t contest it with her right now. “But I’d want to know. I’d want to help.”
“Okay,” she humours me, “I’ll tell you in future, okay?”
“Mmm.” I don’t think I believe her, but at least she knows now that I’ll give her Hell if she tries to hide things from me. “And if you’re upset. Don’t be upset and not let me know.”
Her arms squeeze joyfully around me. “Right now, I can’t imagine being upset about anything ever again. Not with you here.”
I mull over this, with her shoulder supporting my head and her arms rocking me. “I make you that happy?”
I close my eyes, dozy, falling into her soothing rhythm. “Ditto.” My breathing slows and I just rest, for a long time, our souls intertwined. Gradually, her weight on me increases, the rocking stops, and I gingerly turn in her arms. “Xena? Are you asleep?”
Her eyes are closed and she can hardly hold herself up. I hold her under the arms, getting onto my knees. She’s like a limply stuffed pillow, and lets me ease her down onto the fur. I straighten out her legs, and cover her. It’s warm, and I know she’s not bashful, and she’s incredibly beautiful in the moonlight, but I think that she should be covered up with her blanket, she should be protected with it tucked around her.
She snuffles a bit. “Thanks.”
I mumble to reassure her and lie beside her, propped up on an elbow. I lean down to kiss her face, my hair falling about her, and she takes my hand and holds it. “Go to sleep...”
“Sleep? Huh -” she tuts softly, not opening her eyes. “You don’t think I’m finished with you yet, do you?”
Oh, there’s a wonderful devilment to her tone that makes me shiver with anticipation and I’m taken back to her as Conqueror, young and brazen and fresh in front of me. I have always forgiven her for what she did in the past - how can you not forgive someone you love? - but I hadn’t understood before. I had almost disowned that section of her life, thinking of her as confused or misguided or sick during that time: I disassociated it from the Xena I know. But having actually been there, having seen her and known her during those times, I can accept what she was. Of course she was wicked, I can’t deny that, and it’s wrong and it’s regrettable. But she wasn’t evil just in the name of being evil. She was angry, and desperate, and trying to survive the only way she knew how. So would I be, if Caesar had betrayed me to a cross, my family dead or disowning of me, the people around me interested only in money and power. In that situation, you die away or you fight, and Xena fights.
I had always assumed there would be nothing I’d like about that other person. She’d be evil and undesirable through and through, we’d have nothing in common, and she’d be nothing like this woman I love. But there was a lot to like and admire in her then and she still has the same qualities now: she’s energetic, and attentive, and determined and thoughtful and persistent. She took that gauntlet for me then just as she would now, in an instant. She grieved over her baby just as she feels so keenly for Solan now.
I feel like I know every part of her, and that’s all I’ve ever aspired to. Was it fate that took us to that market? What form of strange magic happened in that tent? My wheel of fortune has turned full circle, just as the tarot foretold. I’ve been down to the bottom, and now I’m as high as I could be. Xena too, I hope. I interweave our fingers and pull her hand to my mouth to kiss her knuckles. I know that the wheel will soon begin a new revolution, and there will be more ups and downs to come. But with every turn, just as when a cartwheel makes its way down a road, we progress further with each cycle we travel. I learn more about myself and the workings of this world around me, and Xena and I grow closer. Despite the turbulence of change and progression, it leads us through our journey in life, and we learn and grow with it.
Xena convulsively pulls me closer and I lie down and tuck her into my arms. She’s limp and soundly asleep. A fond smile comes over my face: maybe she doesn’t have the stamina she once did, but there’ll be plenty of nights, and I’m happy to wait. I make sure her hands are warm under the blanket and cradle her head to my chest. I wonder where the next turn of the wheel will take us?
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