Gabrielle’s liaison with a curious old man grants her one wish: that Xena’s dreams come true. However, what the Warrior is most preoccupied with is not what Gabrielle suspects, and Xena soon finds herself in her own past, having to face the loss of a soulmate whom she never discussed with Gabrielle. Xena finds herself unexpectedly accompanied by a very familiar child. It is only when she learns the lessons taught by her old friend and allows herself to love the child that she realises how painful loss can really be.
This story is subtextual and aimed at adult readers.
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It had been a hot summer. Longer and hotter even than usual for Greece. It was just starting to turn autumnal, with the sun setting a shade earlier every day, spilling warm ochre across the sky as it eased itself below the long, straight line of the horizon. Still, judging by the endless stretch of the summer, winter and the cooler weather would be a long time in coming. It was the sort of lazy evening when it seemed as if no one in the known world could be in a hurry to do anything. Time stretched on inexorably, like the dusty road which the two women had been walking for the better part of the day.
“Is there any water?” The younger woman plodded rhythmically beside horse and rider, her shoulder occasionally brushing the mare’s sweating flank. A skin was dropped down to her. “Thanks.” She took a sip, finding the water warm, but thirst-quenching.
On either side of the travellers grew corn so high it would brush Argo’s belly if she tried to cross it. It was a robust crop: maize-yellow and tightly packed. An ambush would be difficult to spot, but rather noisy on crunching through it, and the two friends and their equine companion felt safe as they meandered down the sandy path that had long ago had all the moisture parched out of it by the growing crops. Small pebbles skittered under Gabrielle’s boots, and dust swirled up in little eddies, only to be swished away by the horse’s tail as it swung behind her.
The palomino, strong and into the prime of her years, snuffled and sneezed with the dust coming up from her hooves, tossing her head and pulling on the reigns. Gabrielle pressed a hand sympathetically to the long, hot neck. “Poor Argo. You’re hot too, aren’t you.” She moved in front of horse and rider, and poured some of the water into her palm. The creature came to halt, scuffing her hooves across the gravel and watching Gabrielle’s actions with restrained anticipation. She turned her head considerately to one side to sneeze, jolting a tolerant Xena in the saddle, then delicately lapped water from Gabrielle’s offered hand, pressing big rubbery lips and flaring nostrils against the girl’s palm. “There.” Gabrielle smiled when the watery hazel eyes came up to her appreciatively from
under sandy lids. “Not much further.” Gabrielle felt Argo’s grey tongue working between her fingers, its rough surface licking away the salty sweat there only to replace it with horse saliva, which was hardly preferable. She tried to extract her hand without appearing rude. “Here, hold still -” She filled her palm again then wiped her hand across the hot, dry nose, washing off some of the dust and moistening the greyish, leathery skin. The horse allowed this, then licked her lips and gave a nose-clearing snort before setting off again at an obedient lilt.
Gabrielle fell back into step by a glinting stirrup, shaking her hands dry. The sky was dazzlingly blue, even at this late hour of the afternoon, and she turned her face up to it with eyes closed, enjoying the dry warmth.
From above her, her companion spoke for the first time in miles. “It worries me, you know.”
Gabrielle tried to focus on her, but found herself too blinded by the sun to make out more than a silhouette “What worries you?”
“When the two of you get on. It makes me think you’re both in cahoots about something I don’t know about.”
The younger woman chuckled, reassured, and stroked the horse’s muscular flank. “We just don’t want to bother you with things that are…” she paused to consider her words “… beyond you.” She trailed her hand back to sympathetically pat a leather-clad ankle. “Besides, it’s too hot to be cranky with people. People or horses.”
Xena rolled her eyes.
“We should probably rest her for a bit.”
“Hmm.” From her advantageous vantage point, the elder woman scanned the land around her, and answered in her own time. Gabrielle was used to this from her companion, whose tendency toward stoicism and guardedness was not something even she had managed to entirely alter, and waited patiently, keeping pace with the big horse. “There are some trees up ahead, where it’s greener,” Xena observed at length. “We’ll put her in the shade.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle went on walking in silence for a bit, watching the dust flick up onto the toes of her boots. She’d been walking in these boots for the full year since she’d left home in Poteidaia to travel with Xena, and they were starting to look a bit shabby. Still, for all her naivety back then, she’d been wise enough to figure that every warrior needs a good pair of walking boots, and these had lasted pretty well. There had never been much money back home on the farm, but she had been lucky enough to have an uncle whose trade was in saddlery and tack – there was always a healthy demand from passing travellers - and he had been able to keep his nieces in decent boots from the age they were old enough to toddle, thanks to the off-cuts of leather.
Could it really be more than year since she’d met Xena? She’d seen so much that time had raced by. Her previous life of peeling vegetables, minding her baby sister and helping her mother keep their small cottage had been perfectly comfortable, but her soul had struggled against the dullness of village life since before she could remember, and those days faded away further and further the more she saw of the world. It had been early summer when she’d followed the tall stranger out of her dreary village, and now summer had come and gone again and they were heading into their second autumn together. Despite the speedy passing of time, she felt as if they’d been friends for a lifetime. Gabrielle smiled at the thought. She had always had sound instincts – her Mother used to tell her so – and she had known when Xena arrived in her village, dusty and silent, that they had much to offer each other.
It had taken Xena a while to come around to her way of thinking, Gabrielle remembered with private amusement. Or rather, for her to be badgered into agreeing to a travelling companion. ‘You don’t have to travel alone’, she’d told her new friend, that first day. ‘I like to travel alone’ Xena had told her. Gabrielle had stubbornly refused to believe that. She was nothing if not persistent, and eventually the stranger, with her raven black hair and incongruously blue eyes, relented and began to enjoy the company.
A whole year. Gabrielle had celebrated her seventeenth birthday not long before Xena rode into her village, and had enjoyed childish things like books and new clothes, trinkets from the beach and flowers from her sister. How much she’d changed in the year that followed. When she turned eighteen she was trudging through mud, sleeping out under the stars, eating boiled greens from a dented pot. There had been no money for gifts, but she’d been exceedingly happy to be where she was and considered herself to be very fortunate.
But if it had been more than a year since they met… “Xena, when’s your birthday?”
“Huh?” from atop the horse.
“Your birthday. You know, the things most people have once a year. Not that you’re most people, but nonetheless. It’s been over a year: when’s your birthday?”
“Oh.” Xena seemed to accept then consider this. “A few months back.”
“A few months?!”
The taller woman shrugged. “Winter baby. Came out in the cold and dark. Apt, huh?” Her expression warmed, and she glanced down to her companion. “Not a summer girl like you.”
“Why didn’t you say? I didn’t know.” Gabrielle felt badly for her friend, and slowed her pace as they reached the cropping of dry trees. “I would’ve…”
“Would’ve what?” Xena humoured her gently, and jumped down from her horse. “Said ‘Happy Birthday’? Well, you can say it twice next year. Don’t worry about it, Gabrielle.” She patted the girl’s arm warmly then set about tugging free the leather straps that held on the saddle.
“A birthday is something to celebrate. Why didn’t you tell me?”
The Warrior glanced over her shoulder to speak as she worked, not wanting Gabrielle to take everything upon herself emotionally, as she usually did. “No one has celebrated my birthday for a long time – not since I was small.” It was a fact, no point in getting all dramatic about it. “Guess I got out of the habit.” She lifted the heavy saddle from her horse’s back and patted her rear to send her off to nibble on the grass. As she straightened again she caught sight of a lone tree on the horizon, and the stark outline of it, its branches silhouetted black against the blue evening sky, brought back a jolting memory that she had been trying to ignore. There had been one person, she thought sadly, who had wanted to celebrate her birthday with her. One friend. A friend who never got the chance. A black tree, a lone branch...
“I’m sorry,” Gabrielle mumbled, commiserating with her friend over the situation rather than expressing apology.
The sound brought Xena sharply out of the past, and she was glad of it. She pulled in a deep, steadying breath and turned her attention to Gabrielle. Seeing that an off-handed comment wasn’t going to be enough to comfort her friend, she sought out Gabrielle’s eyes and gave her a smile. “Don’t be sorry. It was a long time ago.” She squeezed a slender shoulder, and waited for her friend to brighten before going on with unpacking their bags.
“Maybe we should throw you a birthday party.” Gabrielle said this half in jest and half in seriousness, considering the childhood events she had enjoyed and that Xena must have missed out on.
“Huh!” Xena dismissed this, thinking herself far too old for such frivolity.
“If it was your birthday,” Gabrielle pressed, ever ready to chat, “if it was your birthday right now, what would you most want?”
That wasn’t difficult to answer. “Supper!” Xena sat down on the scrub at the edge of the cornfield and pressed her back against the sturdy trunk of the tree. “I’m starved. Where’d you put those berries you picked?”
Agreeing wholeheartedly with this plan, the smaller woman brushed off a stump of wood and sat, watching Xena stretch out her long legs as she searched in the saddlebag. “They’re in there.”
“Uh ha!” The elder woman produced their supplies. She could not be said to be a good cook, tending to neglect her food and burn it or grow impatient and have it raw, always eating with her hands, but she could usually rustle together enough to sustain them both. She unwrapped from a cloth a hunk of bread from the last market they passed, and a block of cheese that had probably been hanging around for too long in the heat but was edible nonetheless. She shared out their meal, tossing her hair back intermittently as it fell over her shoulders.
“It doesn’t seem right,” Gabrielle went on, unable to let the matter drop. “A birthday should be celebrated.”
Xena tore off a mouthful of soft bread with her teeth. She didn‘t want to think about anniversaries. “Gabrielle...”
“It doesn‘t seem fair, not when my birthday was so...” Gabrielle popped a ripe orange berry into her mouth, wanting a distraction from the sudden reddening of her cheeks, and felt the fruit burst as she bit into it, releasing slightly bitter mush. “... so special.”
Xena’s mouth was so filled with her bread and cheese that her words were practically unintelligible, but she sounded far more cheerful. She chewed again and swallowed. “Well it was your eighteenth.”
They shared a grin. It had been a special birthday. Gabrielle blushed again, and Xena chuckled at her and touched affectionately at her cheek. The Warrior finished her snack then bundled the wrappings back into her pack. She rose, idly tidying away her things, then leant herself back against the tree, breathing in the fresh air and allowing herself to enjoy a rare uncomplicated moment. Her gaze wandered inevitably to Gabrielle, who was finishing up with a wineskin.
Xena watched her partner fuss around with their goods for a bit, then said her name. It was a lazy afternoon and Xena couldn’t bring herself to work.
“Yeah?” Distracted by what she was doing, Gabrielle mumbled an acknowledgement.
Amused, Xena rubbed an itch on her nose before settling back against the tree again and answering. “Gabrielle.”
Taken out of her private daze by the repetition, Gabrielle straightened and turned, meeting Xena’s eyes questioningly. Her friend’s smile, its depth and intimacy, made the girl pause.
Xena enjoyed this for just a moment: Gabrielle’s attention, her presence, her trust. Finally she stood, then gestured with a nod of her head. “C’mere.” She held out a hand.
Taken aback by this, Gabrielle paused, shaking her head unconsciously, as if feeling that she had missed something. Her gaze floated down to the offered hand, and she stepped forward to take it, rather timidly. “What’s wrong?”
Xena smiled warmly: Gabrielle was always so concerned that something might be wrong. “Come here,” she repeated simply, and found Gabrielle’s other hand too to gently pull her closer. “It’s a nice afternoon, right? I figure we’re in no hurry.” She rested her head back on the bark and softly stroked a lock of blonde hair away from Gabrielle’s face. “Spend some time with me. Just with me...” She leaned in, then, and held her lips against Gabrielle’s, very softly.
After her initial surprise, Gabrielle delighted in this and stretched her arms upwards to weave her hands into Xena’s hair, leaning in to enjoy the kiss. “Just you and me,” she echoed, bringing her arms around Xena’s neck, loving the feel of her long, tousled hair and the brasswork on her leathers and the softness of her skin. She found the elegant line of Xena’s jaw and nestled her face there, feeling strong arms holding her. “We could stay here for a bit, and just...” The backs of Xena’s fingers traced upwards and brushed over her chest, and a small shiver took away her voice.
“And just...” Xena agreed, her hands grazing Gabrielle’s ears as she held her face gently for a proper kiss, deeper than the one before.
When they broke off, Gabrielle was breathless and a little dizzy, and clung onto her partner as she looked around her. “Here? Xena, the path...” It was rather too close for comfort, and although sometimes the risk of being caught was a thrill in itself, that wasn’t the mood right now. Although she loved those urgent, passionate occasions, Gabrielle always secretly thought that the risk of being discovered was far less than she perceived it to be: Xena probably knew damn well that there was no one about, or she wouldn’t instigate such behaviour. But here - this really was too out in the open.
“No, not here,” Xena reassured. She looked about her once, then returned eyes that burned blue with fun and devilment to Gabrielle, and grasped her hand. “This way.”
The fields they had passed earlier had been filled with tall yellow grain crop, but down here in a slight valley the soil was wetter and sported enormous grasses, green and fresh and far softer than the corn. Xena crossed the path and waded in, tugging Gabrielle behind her. The two had to sweep the fronds out of the way to clear a trampled path, the tips of the blades brushing at their shoulders. Once she’d gone a reasonable way in, and the leafy doors closed up the path behind them, Xena joyfully flopped down onto the soft green cushion beneath her and gestured for her companion to join her.
Laughing, Gabrielle knelt, her hands on Xena’s shoulders for balance. “If anyone sees us -” she warned.
“No one’s gonna see us.” Xena beamed back, shuffling closer so as to kiss and stroke at Gabrielle’s neck and shoulders.
“Well, you’d better be right,” Gabrielle teased, but by then Xena’s hands had come up to her breasts and she stopped giving a damn whether all of Rome was watching them.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” Xena purred, holding Gabrielle as she began to loosen the green cords of her shirt. “Trust me.”
Gabrielle did trust Xena implicitly, and allowed the rough material to be eased over her arms. Her skin had flushed hot and she felt Xena’s every touch intensely. Xena could do this to her so quickly.
“Now take your boots off and concentrate on me.” Xena tapped herself proudly, breaking into a smile, and watched as Gabrielle hurriedly unlaced and tugged off her small red boots.
As Gabrielle climbed into her partner’s lap, ready, the rest of her clothes discarded, she thought back again to their first time together. ‘I’m naive, I know,’ she’d told Xena, after they’d kissed wonderfully for what felt to Gabrielle like forever, ‘but aren’t you supposed to, you know, take this off?’ She’d gestured hopefully to her skirt. But Xena had shaken her head, and drawn back enough to hold Gabrielle’s hands and nothing else. ‘No. No: you take it off. When you’re ready.’ This sweet acceptance from one so experienced had sealed Gabrielle’s love entirely, and she had pulled off her clothes and squeezed into Xena’s arms as eagerly as she was doing now.
“I love you -”
“Likewise.” Xena took hold of her with deceptive strength and they rolled down onto the grass, Gabrielle’s back pressed against the cool dampness there. Xena’s hands moved over her, awakening her body, bringing her alive. The soft fingers went everywhere, and Gabrielle writhed and lost touch with which part of her was yearning the hardest. Glad to be lying flat lest the dizziness in her eyes and brain make her pass out altogether, she reached up and began to ease the straps from Xena’s shoulders, push aside the greyish material beneath the leather strips of her skirt. She felt Xena’s weight on her, and no longer had the presence of mind or the will to go on undressing her partner. She clutched her hands around Xena’s waist and moved with her, her muscles tensing at the critical moment and bringing her into a sitting position in Xena’s arms.
“More, Gabrielle -”
Xena’s thick, deep voice, her instinctive urging, was an incredibly powerful motivator to them both, and they rolled down onto the grass again, this time with Xena on her back. Gabrielle, her lungs aching from the effort of such a desperate and wonderful release, drew her hands over all the delicious curves of Xena’s body, fighting to get past her leathers, their lips pressed together. Thrills danced through Gabrielle’s naked body and she encouraged Xena’s touch, welcomed the intimacy. She traced shaky fingers over the soft, leather-clad curves, teasing, up into dark hair, down the long neck and back, circling behind strong thighs.
Xena caught her hand and guided it between her legs, encouraging, reassuring.
The Warrior began to groan when Gabrielle’s fingers found the hot, silky flesh there: it was a sound which the younger woman heard precious little of, and she relished it. She lay across Xena, caught in her arms, and enjoyed Xena’s inevitable stiffening, the pulsing of her muscles, she soft cries that died into whimpers and which Gabrielle soothed with another long kiss.
After taking a moment to smooth Xena’s clothes down around her, Gabrielle returned her gaze to her partner’s face and found her fists clutched to her head, the heels of her hands pressed into her eyes. Gabrielle couldn’t remember such a reaction before, but it was a moment when no one could claim to be composed or rational, not even a Warrior Princess. She tenderly eased the clenched fists away and supported Xena’s head between her own hands. “It’s okay,” she soothed instinctively, thinking that Xena was disorientated rather than upset, more overwhelmed than overwrought. The Gods knew she felt the same way more often than not, when they were together like this. “Xena, it’s all right. Relax, have a rest, I’m here.” She kissed Xena’s forehead and let her roll into a cuddle, both of them utterly spent. As Gabrielle welcomed her partner into her arms and they snuggled together, she thought she heard Xena mumble a word: just two syllables, said lovingly, but painfully. “What’s that?” Gabrielle lowered her head and encouraged her friend to repeat the word, kissing at her temple, but the Warrior was already dozing. Gabrielle didn’t think it could have been a shortening of her name: Xena had never called her Gabby - that was reserved for her sister and a friendly old uncle back on the farm. The younger woman had no idea what the word could be.
It didn’t matter, anyway, and she smiled in response to the hands weaving unconsciously around her, to the flushed cheek resting at her breast. The rush of energy had cleared her reserves, and she dozed lightly for some interminable time.
Awareness returned gradually and softly, and Gabrielle dreamily brushed her fingers through the tender shoots of grass tickling her nose before sighing indulgently and coming around properly. Behind her, Xena was breathing restfully, an arm locked around the younger woman’s middle.
“Hmm?” It was a long, lazy sound.
“Two things.” Gabrielle rubbed her cheek against Xena’s outstretched arm then rested her head on it, gazing out through the undulating green, a distant breeze stirring. “First: we should get going, you know.” She didn’t really want to get going, or to ever leave Xena’s embrace, but she knew they ought to.
Xena made a dismissive groan. “Plenty of time. Still early.”
“We had plenty of time,” Gabrielle corrected her, “before your little... interlude.” She rubbed her hands stimulatingly over Xena’s bronzed arms. “Not that I’m complaining. But It’s getting late, and you know Argo gets stroppy when she goes past her bedtime. If you don’t get around to your quality brush-down time with her tonight she’ll be insufferable tomorrow. She won’t listen to a word you say.”
A deep breath. The truth of this was inescapable. “Mmm.”
It sounded to Gabrielle like Xena agreed. The Warrior didn’t move, although in her defence, neither did Gabrielle. “Second point,” the girl persisted: “where are we actually going, anyway? Where are we headed?”
Xena at last shifted a bit, stirring herself. “East.”
“I know East, but whereabouts East?” Xena was always infuriatingly vague with her directions.
“Home.” Xena finally replied, pushing herself up into a sitting position and straightening her clothes. “Going home. To Amphipolis.”
“Really?” Excited by this, Gabrielle rose too. “We’re going to see your mother?”
“Maybe.” Xena gave her companion a look which told her she’d be answering no more questions on the subject. It wasn’t quite a look of warning, like she would use when Gabrielle was getting too close to a private or sensitive subject, but nor was it quite the teasing expression Xena would use when she had some treat or surprise planned. “Now here, get dressed, it’s getting cold.” Not unkindly, Xena scooped up Gabrielle’s discarded garments and handed them to her.
Gabrielle did as she was told, slightly perplexed but too deeply in love at that moment to question Xena’s words. She would find out the plan soon enough, she figured, and it wasn’t worth spoiling the mood by irritating Xena with a hundred questions. Once she’d tied the lace of her tunic she looked up to her companion, who was kneeling patiently and waiting for her. “I’m done.”
“Good.” Xena pressed up to one knee, but before she stood she leaned in to Gabrielle, tenderly brushed her hair back behind an ear, and kissed her forehead. To Gabrielle, this was a perfect end to a lovely moment, and she couldn’t help but reach her arms around Xena’s neck and hold her for a proper kiss, their bodies pressing back together in a thrilling echo of the moments before. Xena took her hand and led her back through the grass, but not before throwing her a smile which warmed Gabrielle’s heart all over again.
Gabrielle made the rest of the journey almost in silence, dreamy and satiated. She rode behind Xena, quite certain that her shaking legs wouldn’t carry her if she tried to walk. Her whole body felt warm, and slightly tingly, even down to her toes as they brushed Argo’s sides. She had an arm around Xena to keep her balance, and every now and again Xena would glance back at her with a smile, and stroke her hand, and Gabrielle would smile too and return the gesture.
It was a blissful feeling, and Gabrielle was relaxed and mellow when they arrived at a small clearing suitable for camping in. Xena started a fire then saw to Argo: Gabrielle had only to lay out the bedrolls and wash some things down at the river, but her dreaminess slowed her and Xena predictably finished her tasks first. The sun was almost down by the time Gabrielle returned from the river, having taken a moment there to bathe and change out of her travelling clothes. She returned to Xena, who was sitting on a big uprooted tree trunk by the fire, and began to lay out the damp clothes to dry.
She paid little attention to the Warrior, who looked as dreamy as she felt, other than to acknowledge her happiness at being in such close proximity to her friend. After a moment, though, Xena reached up to stroke her leg, just brushing the backs of her fingers over Gabrielle’s thigh, under the hem of her skirt. Gabrielle paused and looked down to her partner, who was still gazing into the fire.
“You okay?” The younger woman asked, thinking the gesture unusual.
After a slight delay Xena nodded, absently.
Gabrielle set down the last of the linen on the log and turned her attention to her partner, brushing a dark fringe away from eyes which were suddenly distant. “What are you thinking?”
As if pulling her thoughts back from very far away, Xena slid her hands around Gabrielle’s waist and eased the girl down into her lap. “Again?” She asked, her tone more hopeful than playful, and not at all how Gabrielle was used to.
The younger woman sat quietly on Xena’s thighs, sliding an arm around her shoulders. Xena’s hands were clasped innocently around her waist, her eyes at last making contact. “Of course, again,” Gabrielle reassured her. “You don’t have to ask me that.” In fact, she couldn’t remember Xena ever having asked before. Ah, except the very first time - Gabrielle’s very first time - but the tone then had been entirely different, and very tender. No, usually if Xena wanted more she wouldn’t be in the least bit reticent about it.
The Warrior made an acknowledging sound, dropping her eyes again.
Puzzled, Gabrielle dipped her head to see into Xena’s face, their noses touching. “Now?”
“Uh ha -” Xena’s chin came up and the sound was lost in a kiss which Gabrielle largely instigated, her small hand cupping Xena’s cheek.
The girl nuzzled against the Warrior and pressed their foreheads together. “You know I wouldn’t ever say no to you...?” It was true that Gabrielle felt wonderful and didn’t need another release, but she was very happy to lie with Xena, if that was what she wanted.
Xena seemed to rally, to break out of her sudden melancholy, and looked up to Xena with a devilish smile. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Gabrielle allowed herself to be reassured and to share in that wonderful smile. Xena motioned for her to scoot around, so Gabrielle turned to face her, sitting astride her legs, steadying herself with her hands in Xena’s. Without preamble, the Warrior gathered up Gabrielle’s ocean-green shift, pulled it up over her arms and head, and discarded it. The girl’s flesh was soft and fragrant from her wash, and Xena buried herself in a cuddle, apparently quite happy again. She slid her hands up a muscular back, at the same time letting her lips caress all the soft flesh she was presented with.
It was quite a luxury, Gabrielle thought, to be able to enjoy Xena like this without being overwhelmed by her own desire. She focussed entirely on her partner’s pleasure and indulged her in every way, always attentive and gentle. After a long time spent kissing and cuddling like this, Gabrielle got up and took Xena’s hand to lead her to their furs. The Warrior followed obediently, her cheeks flushed slightly red from her desire and the heat of the fire. Gabrielle squeezed her hand softly and glanced back to smile at her: if Xena was being haunted by some dark thought or memory, her light would force it away into the shadows tonight. There would be only the two of them.
Gabrielle heard movement behind her - the shifting of blankets, footsteps in the leaves - and smiled because she knew what it was. The sun had risen for a new day, and breakfast was already sizzling in a pan over the fire. Xena plodded her way across the camp, zigzagging a bit in her early-morning drowsiness, and dropped down on the log beside Gabrielle. She sat motionless for a moment, bent over slightly with hands hanging between her knees, until full consciousness grudgingly presented itself and she could straighten and face the world.
That done, her head turned to her companion, who had the pleasure of seeing the previous nights softness return to her features, the gentle smile that played at her lips. Xena watched Gabrielle turning the sausages for a moment, then took a deep breath in and tucked her arm around the girl’s shoulders, squeezing her in very softly and giving her side a pat before letting her hand settle. Gabrielle had only to glance at her to know what her thoughts were of, and shared a smile with her.
The younger woman set down her tongs on the edge of the pan, and at length, having assured herself that they would balance where she’d propped them, she spoke. “Last night was lovely.”
“Uh ha.” A hand strayed up to Gabrielle’s hair, and Xena pulled her head closer to kiss blondness that was warming in the morning sun. She wasn’t one for words at the best of times, but the thickness of her voice communicated enough. She wasn’t one for touch and affection, either, at least not over breakfast. Gabrielle always had more luck in the evenings, after their supper, when Xena was more relaxed and inclined to be receptive to such things.
But the morning after a night making love was different, and Gabrielle snuggled her shoulder against her partner as they sat and watched the sausages sizzle together. She felt the weight of Xena’s head next to hers, and affectionately patted her leg. “You’re still tired?”
Xena didn’t open her eyes and didn’t shift her weight, and Gabrielle had to laugh at her. She turned on the log so as to get an arm around Xena and stroke her hair. Time alone like this was precious, and she tried never to waste it. “Why’d you get up if you’re still sleepy?”
Accepting that she was actually awake, and not dreaming, Xena opened her eyes and made an attempt to straighten herself again. She let her eyes settle on Gabrielle’s, and didn’t resist when she found them flicking down to the lips she’d been so absorbed in last night. She gave a shrug for comic effect. “Cos when it’s daytime you get up, I guess.”
“You could’ve had a lie in.”
Xena scowled. “Got hungry.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle commiserated, then added, “Oh dear.” She patted Xena’s head and watched her close her eyes again, succumbing to drowsiness. She was the one who was usually impossible to drag out of her bedroll: she found it rather sweet that Xena could be fallible too. “Didn’t you sleep well?”
Xena grunted a bit, tucking herself closer to her partner. “Bad dreams.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Bad dreams for Xena were usually very real dreams about the past, and Gabrielle sympathised. She kissed her friend on the side of the head and tried to be with her. Xena had seemed distracted, these last few days, and quieter than was usual even for her. Last night, when they’d been together in their furs, it was as if the elder woman’s mind was elsewhere. Gabrielle was receptive to what Xena needed and didn’t try to pull her back from whatever place she was in. Instead she had let Xena lie passively on her back and indulged her entirely. Every time Xena went to touch her for anything other than her own pleasure, Gabrielle would take her hand, kiss her fingers, and gently encourage her to touch herself. By the end Xena had seemed lost and barely even aware of Gabrielle, who hadn’t minded in the least: if Xena wanted or needed to indulge herself in a fantasy every so often then she would accommodate that willingly. There was pleasure to be taken in watching Xena so liberated, naked on her fur with firelight glowing over her flesh, crying out with the consuming pleasure she was experiencing.
In the fresh morning light Gabrielle could only hope that it had helped, that it had been a therapy for whatever Xena found it impossible to talk about. What mattered now was spending time together and giving Xena a day or two to recuperate, be it from a bad memory or a cold or a crisis of faith. Gabrielle would be here. She kissed her friend’s cheek, eliciting a grunt of approval not unlike something Argo would do.
“Shall I tell you a story?” Gabrielle was taking most of Xena’s weight now, held in her two arms, and the Warrior’s head was resting tiredly on her shoulder.
Another grunt. “A story? What about?”
Gabrielle shook her head in despair and smoothed dark hair as she patiently explained. “If I tell you what it’s about I may as well tell you the story. I know you like to plan ahead, Xena, but try to be spontaneous.”
“Hmm,” Xena sounded dubious, and shifted her cheek on Gabrielle’s shoulder, feeling the reassuring grip around her tighten. “Go on, then.”
Gabrielle adopted her wistful, story-telling voice. “A long time ago, when man came up out of the sea to live on the land -”
“From the sea?” Xena interpreted her disdainfully, not bothering to lift her head from its resting place. “How’d you figure that?”
“Will you please bear with me? It’s a story, go with it.”
“Well I don’t see how men -”
“When men rose up from the sea,” Gabrielle went on, her fingers straying down to settle over Xena’s lips, “they felt that the Gods had granted them everything they could ever wish for. The land was beautiful and warm, and the men and women could talk, and run, and eat sweet berries from the trees.”
“Sounds nice,” Xena commented conversationally, placated by the small hand patting gently between her shoulder blades.
“It was,” Gabrielle agreed, encouraging her interest. “They felt they must be in the Elysian Fields to have such wonder and freedom. But then, gradually -” and at this her voice turned melancholy, warning Xena that a turn of events was imminent, “gradually they grew more and more sad, and no longer took pleasure at the sight of mountains or beaches or forests.”
“Why?” Although she would have strenuously denied it, in the safety of Gabrielle’s company Xena’s mind had a childlike inquisitiveness, and she was privately eager to learn all that could be taught.
“Well one day the Gods came down from Olympus and asked the same thing. And you Know what they found?” Gabrielle tucked her head down by Xena’s to be sure of her attention.
Xena shook her head no.
Enjoying herself, Gabrielle went on, her fingers at Xena’s cheek. “The people could do things on the land that they never could in the ocean. But although they stood tall on their tails and ate the fruit from the trees and the crops in the fields, there was something they missed above all else.”
“They had no arms, and they couldn’t hold each other. Nothing they did or saw mattered if they couldn’t share it with someone they loved.” She kissed Xena’s hair. “So the Gods gave us arms, because they knew that man would never be happy unless he could share the closeness he had in the sea.” Pleased with herself, she looked down to Xena. “What do you think?”
Xena wrinkled her nose up a bit. She thought about expressing her opinion that arms were actually quite useful for holding a sword, or a mace, or a bow, but fundamentally she found all of Gabrielle’s stories beautiful, and couldn’t bring herself to say it. “Think your sausages are burning.”
“Oh!” Gabrielle abruptly released her hold and turned to fish the crisping sausages from their oily home and plop them into two dishes. She’d already poured frothy ale into two mugs, and handed Xena her drink and wooden bowl of steaming meat.
The sausages were something of a treat, and Xena took and ate them enthusiastically, burning her fingers in the process.
“Good?” Gabrielle asked her.
“Good.” Xena nodded vigorously and took a swig of her ale. “Hot.”
“Mmm.” The sausages were peppery and satisfying, and the bitterness of the ale washed them down nicely. Once she was done Gabrielle looked over to see Xena gazing into the fire, absently wiping grease from her lips. “You’re still tired?”
“A bit.” Xena resignedly set down her dish. “Couldn’t seem to sleep.” Seeing that Gabrielle was worried, she reached up to gently scratch a hand in her hair. “Too much on my mind, probably.”
“Probably.” Smiling, and surrendering, Gabrielle leant in to her and kissed her lips, reminding them both of the night before. “Why don’t you go back to bed for a while. Get some sleep. You’ll feel better.”
“Back to bed? In the day?” This was clearly an alien concept.
“Yes! Didn’t you ever lie in? As a teenager?”
Xena scowled. “Nope. Always had work to do.”
“Huh. Me too, I guess,” Gabrielle realised: there was always work to do on a farm. “But I wanted to. Go on: I’ll clear up here. See if you can rest, Xena.”
“Sounds dodgy to me,” Xena opined sceptically, trying to brush grease from her hands then wiping an arm tiredly across her eyes. “Sleeping in the day. Isn’t that something babies do?” Her voice trailed off and she was really speaking to herself, unable to rub the fogginess from around her temples.
Her companion looked at her, with both sympathy and annoyance at Xena’s typical reluctance to show any sign of weakness, to take care of herself. “Xena,” she chided gently, “go.”
The Warrior pushed to her feet. “Suppose you’re gonna be insufferable if I don’t, huh?”
“Uh ha.” Gabrielle went to the dishevelled bedroll and straightened Xena’s dark, striped fur. When her friend obediently lay down, Gabrielle covered her and knelt for a bit to fuss with the coverings. “There. Now just... just do nothing, okay? Don’t even think. I’ll handle everything. Go to sleep.” She let the Warrior’s long fingers curl into hers, then bent over to kiss her on the head. She’d intended to bob back up again, but Xena held her, so she rested her weight on her forearm and indulged her friend, cuddling her for a bit. It was irregular in the extreme for Xena to be quite so... acquiescent, so clinging. The Warrior always described such behaviour as ‘mushy nonsense’ and would only indulge in it when they were... well, doing what they did. When they were together. She was tired though, Gabrielle reasoned, and probably had a chill on her, and even Warrior Princesses needed to be looked after sometimes. “Go to sleep,” she repeated into Xena’s hair. “Do as you’re told.” She set Xena’s hand down on her belly, and left her to rest.
There was Argo to tend to, and the breakfast pots to wash, and their things to pack, and Gabrielle went about these mundane tasks making as little noise as possible, except to hum a bit to herself from time to time. While wiping the sausage fat from the pan with a leaf she accidentally let go of the handle and the pan clattered against its companion, but when she glanced over at Xena the Warrior didn’t stir, her chest rising and falling with the peace of sleep. Good.
Once she had done all she could about the place, Gabrielle decided to head down to the river to fetch some water. The current was fast moving and the water she had drawn up the day before had been fresh and cool. Xena would appreciate a mug full when she woke up, Gabrielle thought, it would clear her head. She picked up three empty skins, holding one by the neck and tucking the other two under her arm to leave a free hand for her staff.
It was a fair distance to the water, but it was downhill, and Gabrielle enjoyed the walk. Her belly was full with the sausages, and at this hour it was not yet unpleasantly hot. At the waters edge, Gabrielle knelt down and held the skins under to fill them. She had the second one done and was just starting on the third when she heard the turning of cartwheels on the road behind her. She paid no attention until the distant crunching was joined by what sounded like a rapid fall of hard objects on the impacted mud of the road - a sound like horse’s hooves. Silently, Gabrielle set down the skin and took hold of her staff. The sound was growing nearer, but still it wasn’t loud enough to be the thundering of horses - ponies, perhaps. An army of dwarves riding ponies?
Still, it paid to be cautious. The nearest trees were across the path, the sandy riverbank offered no hiding places, so Gabrielle stood, staff in hand, ready. Her eyes were fixed on the bend in the road up ahead, waiting to see what would come charging around it. Now she could hear voices - no, just one voice, more alarmed than angry, and it held the quiver of age. Was an old man being chased by the horses?
Then the cacophony rounded the corner, and Gabrielle was so taken aback that she couldn’t react for a moment. There was a horse, but only one, pulling a creaky cart, and almost as aged as his master. The elderly man was desperately trying to bring his steed to a halt, clutching the reigns with one hand and his hat with the other. The cart had come around a corner too fast and almost tipped, and the impact of its load on the wooden side had knocked the securing pin from its hole. The objects thundering to the ground weren’t hooves, Gabrielle realised, but potatoes. The cart was loaded up with pails full of potatoes, most of which were now rolling across the path and toward the river like a sea of lemmings on the march.
“My crop!” The old man was crying out, having brought his horse to a stop and trying to clamber down from his seat. “It’s all the money I have!” He clutched his hands to his tattered olive cap and watched in despair as his goods rolled away from him. He was certainly too aged to be able to catch them all, and once in the water they would be ruined.
Gabrielle looked about her, wondering what she could do, then remembered her staff. “I’ll help you,” she called up to the man, “just see to your horse.” The old steed was still skittish from all the noise, and every time he jolted he sent a few more potatoes flying.
Ignoring the barrage rumbling toward her, Gabrielle dug the end of her staff into the sand and dragged it along, forming a moat to catch the potatoes. She didn’t have time to repeat the motion to deepen her trench, and the front line vegetables bounced over and continued on their suicide path. Once a few of the potatoes caught in the dip, others piled up behind them and began to form a small wall which was harder for the others to crash through. Gabrielle quickly extended the ditch in both directions, grateful for her boots as she was pelted with rolling escapees, then scored a second line behind the first in case it were to give out. She and the man watched nervously for a few moments, then dared to relax. Gabrielle rested the butt of her staff back on the ground, rather pleased with herself.
“Thank you!” The man called out, and hobbled his way down to her, clutching one of his buckets. “Thank you so much! This is my whole crop.” He held his hands out over the potatoes as if they were his children. “I’m taking them to market to sell - my family won’t last through the winter without that money.” He certainly had a large load, and although some were now bobbing in the river, most were piled by Gabrielle’s feet and scattered about the beach.
“I think we saved enough,” Gabrielle tried to reassure him, but he didn’t look placated.
“I’ll miss the market,” he went on as if he hadn’t heard her. “No one pays a fair price by the end, the best is gone.” Shaking his head in consternation, he dropped to one knee and began to laboriously scoop his potatoes one by one into the bucket. His movements were slow, stiff and painful, and it would take him all day to gather up his load.
Gabrielle felt badly for his misfortune, and knelt by him. She lay a hand on his shoulder to still him, and could feel the creaking of his bones as he moved. “It’s okay, I’ll help you. Here.” She passed him one of the filled skins. “Why don’t you give your horse some water so he’ll make the rest of the journey. I’ll fill the buckets and load them onto the cart for you.”
The man gazed at her in wonder for a moment then remembered to pull his cap from his head and hold it to his chest. “You’re an angel, sent to me from Mount Olympus.” He regarded her a moment more, then gave a disarmingly honest smile to show her he was joking. “My wife and I will pray for you tonight, my dear girl.” He pushed stiffly to his feet, clutching her shoulder for support, and went back to his cart.
As Gabrielle began to load the potatoes into the bucket, she watched the man pat his horse gently on the neck then apologetically take away the raw potato that the creature was attempting to eat. He filled an empty bucket with water from the skin and set it under the horse’s nose.
He kept Gabrielle supplied with empty buckets, but Gabrielle had filled the first by the time he managed to stagger down the beach with the next, and she knew that he would never be able to complete the task without her. How come Xena always manages to avoid the hard work? she wondered.
Gabrielle was hot and sweating by the time she had lifted all the buckets back onto the cart and secured the side. “Take a load for yourself,” the man gestured to a pail left on the floor, “with my thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Gabrielle said, although she didn’t look forward to carrying the potatoes - and the water - back up the hill.
“I’ll get to market in good time now, the man was saying. “Tell me, is an old man permitted to ask your name?” He bowed slightly again and held out his hand for hers.
Gabrielle presented it willingly, thinking him sweet. “I’m Gabrielle.”
He nodded in acknowledgement of this. “And I am Akamar. I should like to give you something, Gabrielle, for your kindness.”
Gabrielle was about to tell him that the potatoes were quite enough - she didn’t think she could carry anything else - but he went on.
“Humour an old man, if you will, and accept my offer. Gabrielle: I grant you a dream come true.”
Gabrielle was puzzled by this, and just a little discomfited. “I really don’t -”
“Oh, not a lifelong dream,” the man assured, laughing, still holding her hand gently in one of his, his skin roughened and dry. “That would make life far too dull, don’t you agree?” He laughed a bit more to himself, and ended up wheezing and needing a moment before he could speak again. “No, no: just one. Name one sweet dream, and you shall have it.”
Gabrielle didn’t actually believe him, but nor had she the heart to brush him aside. His blue-green eyes were bright with wisdom and mirth, under the peak of his faded cap, and she found herself picturing how handsome and lively he must have been in his youth. “I honestly think that I have all I’ve ever dreamed of,” she told him in a moment of clarity, her mind casting a glance over the parts of her life she held most dear: travel, adventure, family, Xena... “But,” the thought occurred, “my friend is asleep. I think I’d like her to have her dream.” Gabrielle nodded, pleased with her decision, even though the rational part of her mind knew this all to be folly. Xena was bound to be dreaming about her - about last night - and that was something she was sure the Warrior would like to experience again.
The man mirrored her nod, and smiled. “As you wish.” He squeezed her hand, then released it. “I must be on my way. Thank you again, dear girl.” He clambered up on his cart, tipped his hat to her, and he and the horse - and their load of potatoes - trundled away down the path.
Gabrielle shook her head fondly, then collected up her staff, skins and bucket, and set off up the hill back to camp.
Xena became gently aware of her surroundings, as the early morning light intensified and spilled across her eyes. She grimaced and tugged her blanket over her face, hoping that if she ignored the day, it would ignore her. Quickly realising that this wasn’t going to work, she stretched out her limbs, rubbed her cheek on her pillow, and tossed back the cover. She lay still for a bit, idly regarding the faded patches on her already worn bed covering. It was a dusty pink, marked with embroidered lines in the same colour. Here and there it was a shade lighter, thanks to exposure to the strong Greek sun. Xena hadn’t chosen the colour: it had simply been the only spare bed sheet her mother had to hand when she had grown too large for her cot. Xena had no great interest in colour or decoration, and wouldn’t have much minded if she’d gotten one of her brothers’ blankets of blue or grey. It was soft to sleep in, and that was enough.
Xena pushed up on her arms, waiting for her head to clear and her eyes to become accustomed to the light, then got out of bed. Out of the small bedroom window she could look down on the village people below as they went about their morning tasks. Xena liked her vantage point, she preferred to be somewhere high - be it in her room or a mountainside or a tree - where she could regard goings on. She always kept the window open - although the old wooden frame protested and would sometimes snap down dangerously of its own accord - because she liked the fresh air. Even in the winter, she liked to be able to smell the scents on the wind. Her mother always chastised her for letting the cold in, but Xena paid her no attention. There were very few people, in fact, to whom she paid much attention, finding them shallow and preferring her own company. There had only been a couple of exceptions: her younger brother, who was far more like his sister than his mother, and her father, whom she could scarcely remember and who in any case was gone now. Recently she had allowed herself to believe that she had finally found a kindred spirit... but now that spirit was extinguished, and Xena was resigned to being alone. It was probably best to get used to it, she figured, as she couldn’t imagine finding anyone else who she would be able to share her soul with so freely. Right now, she wished someone like that would turn up.
The window snapped shut in its customary fashion, making Xena jump and startling her from her dozy morning ruminations. Never angered by inanimate objects - only people - she went to the window and dutifully opened it again, pushing it home a little harder this time, before pulling on a dress and heading downstairs.
The family lived in the rooms above a tavern, which sat toward the centre of the ancient Greek town and enjoyed reasonable business thanks partly to its fortuitous location but largely to Xena’s mother, both owner and landlady, who kept the prices down, the atmosphere warm, and the ale flowing. Cyrene managed both her business and her family pretty much single handed: a trait which her teenage daughter admired and aimed to emulate. Toris, the older of the three siblings, and no longer a child, worked hard in the inn, at doing repairs on the building and minding their fruit trees and small clutch of animals. He wasn’t at all paternal, though, and Xena didn’t feel particularly close to him. She was most often left minding Lyceus, the youngest, and the two had an enviable bond which had been evident - if unexpected - to everyone including Xena from the first time she had lifted the squirming baby from his crib and quieted him. They were so alike, she and Lyceus, that Xena privately wondered if Toris was born of a different father, although she never voiced this to anyone.
Xena plodded her way down the stairs into their small kitchen. The house was empty, as it was too early for the tavern staff to have arrived, and both her brothers were off on a trip to the next village to barter for supplies. Guessing her mother had gone down to the market early, hoping to miss the intense, midday sun, Xena fixed herself the easiest breakfast she could think of - bread and cheese - and sat at the sturdy old oak table to eat. She wouldn’t have dreamt of having something as troublesome as an egg, or heating milk for some oats - it took too much effort, and in any case, she was a hopeless cook and would be liable to burn her meal beyond recognition.
She’d been sat gazing at the crumbs on her empty dish for some short time when her mother returned. Cyrene had hooked on her arms the expected bags, but she also held the hand of a small girl, no older than four summers or so, with strawberry blonde hair and striking green eyes. Xena had no cousins that she knew of - for the logical reason that she had no uncles or aunts that she knew of - and her mother wasn’t accustomed to babysitting village children, what with living in a pub, and all. “Who’s that?”
“I have no idea.” Cyrene shooed the child gently onto the bench opposite Xena, then set down her heavy bags. “I was on my way back and I found her sitting by the road. I looked all around but she seemed to be by herself. Didn’t you wonder why I was gone so long?”
Xena hadn’t, actually, and gave a non-committal shake of her head. Her mother looked hot and flustered from the trip, and Xena felt just a tad guilty that she was likely to be eating most of what Cyrene had just carried home. “Didn’t she tell you where she came from?”
“She won’t say a thing!” Exasperated, and a little out of breath, the older woman planted her hands on her hips.
Xena had tried to avoid eye contact with the child, never comfortable around anyone younger than herself - except her brother - but the girl was staring at her with open fascination, and it was difficult not to look at her. “She doesn’t look like a runaway.” Xena knew that some children lived rough, sleeping in the streets and eating whatever they could steal. She felt for them, and yet somehow envied them their freedom. In any case this kid, although a bit grubby from her journey, looked well kempt, in a simple dress and leather boots. She wasn’t underfed, and her eyes, which were mesmerising for some reason Xena couldn’t identify, were bright and alert.
Cyrene went to the girl and put an arm around her shoulders. Although desperately busy most of the time, and somewhat distant because of it, it was clear to everyone that she was a good mother. She made sacrifices for her children and loved them wholeheartedly. “Are you lost?” she asked the child, giving her a gentle hug to reassure her. The girl glanced up at her, neither responding to nor shaking off the embrace. She frowned a bit, as if she didn’t know how to answer what she was being asked, then looked back to Xena.
For her part, Xena disliked being stared at and made an effort to look away. “You think she’s sick, or something?”
“She doesn’t look sick.” Cyrene gave the child’s back a little rub to reclaim her attention. “Are you hungry, Little One? I bet you are. Would you like an apple to eat?” The girl nodded, giving a small smile, and Cyrene went to search in her bags, pleased. “You talk to her, Xena, she likes the look of you.”
Xena shrunk back into herself and almost made an excuse to leave: she didn’t like children, she didn’t know what to say to them. “Mother -”
There was a rap on the front door. “Go on, Child!” Tutting good naturedly, Cyrene tossed Xena a shiny green apple then went to answer the door.
Xena looked back to the girl, who had gotten up impulsively and was standing looking longingly at the apple in Xena’s hand. Xena hadn’t played with kids her own age, always preferring to amuse herself or watch Toris work, and she didn’t know how to initiate conversation with them. She had never played with dolls, or dressed up, or wanted a kitten - she didn’t share their interests. “What’s your name?”
Surprisingly, the girl answered her readily. “Gabrielle.”
Xena nodded, again lost for an appropriate response. Gabrielle’s eyes were still on the apple, so Xena held it out to her. The child approached - carefully but not apprehensively - and took the fruit. She turned it in her small hands then started on it, content to stand by Xena’s knee. Xena watched her for a bit, uncomfortable, thinking how embarrassing it would be when her mother returned and found her so obviously ill at ease. She tried again. “Where’s your mother? Where do you live?”
Gabrielle scowled softly at the fruit, her small hands making it look ridiculously out of proportion. “I don’t... I can’t remember.”
Xena rolled her eyes and rested an elbow on the table. This was why she didn’t like children - you could never get sensible conversation out of them. Lyceus was different - he had always been smart - but with anyone else it was a lost cause. “Well what does your house look like? Whereabouts in Amphipolis is it?”
Again this was met by a frown, but Gabrielle replied gamely enough, her words slurred by her mouthful of apple. “It’s a farm. It’s a house with a white gate, by a farm.”
“Everyone lives by a farm, it’s a farming village, how do you expect -”
Cyrene closed the front door with a bang, and Gabrielle startled. She moved toward Xena, hooking an arm onto her knee, and faced her more fully as she concentrated harder on her apple. “Well?” Cyrene asked as she returned.
Xena was starring at the child as if she were a stinging insect that had landed on her leg. She tactfully extricated herself. “She doesn’t make any sense, Mother, I give up, I’m not good with babies.” She stood, disgruntled, and edged past Gabrielle, who had abandoned her apple and was gazing up at her in obvious distress.
Oh look, now you’ve upset her.” Tutting, Cyrene sat in Xena’s place and easily lifted the child into her lap to soothe her.
It’s not my fault if she’s simple.”
“Xena, hush!” Cyrene held Gabrielle in her arms and rocked her absently, and the little girl watched their interaction with uncomprehending fascination. “You’re good with your brother,” Cyrene reasoned, stroking down blonde hair.
“Lyceus is different,” Xena scoffed, “he makes some kind of sense. He understands what you ask him.”
“No,” Cyrene corrected, “you talk differently to him, so he understands you better. You don’t use the same words with him, the same tone.”
This was news to Xena, and her instinct was to deny it. “I do not.”
“Of course you do.” The matter settled, Cyrene stood, setting Gabrielle on her feet, and fondly wiped apple juice from around her mouth. “Now I heard her say that she lives in a house with a white gate on a farm - isn’t that right, Little One? - so you can take her and walk around Amphipolis until you find a house with a white gate on a farm.”
“Oh, Mother -”
“You have nothing better to do today, and it’ll do you good to be kept busy. With your brothers away I’m up to my neck in work, Xena, you’ll have to help out with this.” And she nudged the child over to stand by Xena’s feet.
“This is ridiculous -”
“What is the alternative? To send her out by herself? You would have had me leave her out on the path to starve, to freeze when the sun goes down?” Cyrene watched her daughter lower her eyes - neither of them would have done that to a child. “No,” she went on in a gentler tone, “so it’s up to you. Go on with you now, go on.” And she ushered them out.
On the front path, Xena sighed and looked down at Gabrielle, who in turn gazed trustingly up at her. “I have no idea what to do with you.”
As if in silent commiseration with this, Gabrielle reached up to take hold of Xena’s skirt, then looked out over the village before them.
Xena was no stranger to waking: she often did it to think, to work off some energy, or just to pass the time. She set off through Amphipolis half-heartedly, but she knew every part of her hometown and privately knew that no house matched Gabrielle’s description. Quickly losing interest, she found herself wandering toward the shore of one of the larger lakes in Amphipolis, far preferring the quiet of nature to the bustle of the town.
“Your Mommy called you Xena,” Gabrielle finally piped up. She trotted along beside the older girl in apparent contentment, with Xena just about tolerating the hand at her skirt.
“Because it’s my name.” Surely Lyceus hadn’t been so dumb at this age? Xena thought she was likely to go crazy if she had to spend much time like this.
“But why did she call you that?” Gabrielle looked down to watch the sand flicking from her boots.
“Why?” Xena shrugged. “Cos it was good and short and she figured I’d be able to spell it, I guess.”
Gabrielle laughed then, as if in appreciation of humour even Xena hadn’t known she’d used. It was a nice feeling - to be appreciated - and Xena said no more until the child spoke again. “Can you? Spell it?”
“Uh ha.” This rather proudly.
“Will you?” Gabrielle stopped, then squatted down in the fine sand and looked up hopefully.
It was a childish activity, Xena knew, but then she had nothing better to do with her time, and she could spell her name. She knelt, and wrote out the word with her finger in the sand. “Happy now?” Gabrielle, who had watched avidly, bent over the word and caressed it with her fingertips. Xena’s attention wandered over to the calm blue of the water, and she wished she could go for a swim.
“I can write my baby sister’s name,” Gabrielle told her, her head on one side, “but I can’t do mine. It’s too long. Can you write my name?”
Xena looked back to her and gave an apologetic shrug. “Afraid not. Sorry.” Gabrielle nodded as if this was quite reasonable, and they set off again along the beach. Gabrielle bobbed down occasionally to pick up a shell or pebble or piece of seaweed. Xena craved some physical activity, and was tetchy. “You know how to fish?”
“To fish?” Gabrielle looked thoughtful. “My father said... that I’m too small.”
Great. The kid couldn’t even hold a rod. Xena couldn’t remember ever being told she was too young to do anything. In fact the reverse was true: often in her house she would hear ‘you’re too old to lie in bed when there’s work to be done’, or ‘you’re too old to play with your food like that - eat or go hungry’. Xena had never seen such statements as unkind or unfair, they were just a reminder of the truth - everyone in Amphipolis had to work hard to survive, and she and her brothers were no exception.
They went on walking, past the lake and along a grassy path with trees dotted on either side. “How about climbing trees? You climbed a tree before?”
Gabrielle gazed out at the trees around her. “No.”
“But I’ll try. I can try.” The child looked hopeful, and Xena had to give her credit for her determination.
Xena selected a good tree and started up it, enjoying her strength, the way her body obeyed her, the easy swing from bough to bough. She forgot about Gabrielle: she needed a few moments of self-absorption, just her and the tree, concentrating on nothing other than keeping her grip and her balance. She couldn’t get terrifically far, as the bigger branches were widely spaced and she had to concentrate on finding good finger and toe holds on the trunk with which to haul herself up. As high as she could go, she sat herself on a limb. “Curses.”
To Xena’s surprise the girl was right behind her: she had used smaller branches that wouldn’t take an adult’s weight, and the climb for her had been barely harder than ascending a ladder. The teenager was quietly impressed: a reaction she didn’t have often. “I wanted the fruit.” She tipped her head upwards, gesturing to the purplish fruits above them, “Can’t get any higher though.”
Gabrielle gazed upward. She didn’t look too comfortable, clutching herself fiercely to her slender branch, but her face was set in determination and she continued her climb. She had only to go up a little further before she could reach up and grab at the fruits dangling full and ripe amongst the dark leaves. She picked a couple, and dropped them down to Xena.
The teenager’s expression brightened. “Nice one, Kid!” She bit into the palm-sized fruit, enjoying the slightly bitter flavour and the texture of the watery seeds. After a few satisfying swallows, she glanced up at Gabrielle, who was standing watching her with her arms locked securely around a branch. “C’mon,” Xena told her, patting the bark beside her. “Come sit down.” Gabrielle did so, stiffly, and Xena didn’t look back to her until she had finished her delicacy and wiped her mouth with her arm. “You want one?”
Gabrielle shook her head, her eyes fixed approximately on her knees, her hands pressed to the branch on either side of her.
“What’s wrong with you?”
The girl didn’t shift her gaze. “High up.”
“High up?” Xena scowled. “You’re scared of heights?” Gabrielle just looked uncomfortable, and the answer was pretty obvious. Xena had never had any fear of heights - didn’t have much fear of anything - and found it difficult to understand, but this was just a baby, after all, and she had been brave enough to climb up to the fruit. “You’re not gonna fall. Look - I’ve got hold of you.” She put her arm around the girl’s waist and got a good grip on her. “See? Now eat your fruit.” She handed one over and started on the remaining snack herself.
Gabrielle gazed at Xena in undisguised wonder, until hunger got the better of her and she had to turn her attention to her fruit. She swung her legs, feeling perfectly safe held against Xena, and wiped her juicy, sticky hands on her dress.
Xena felt better for having spent some time outside with no one to nag at her and nothing to remind her of the events of the last season. Grudgingly, she figured they should be getting back: her mother was on her own and would need help with the mealtime rush. She told Gabrielle as much, and swung herself down to a lower branch. Gabrielle got half way, but it was harder for her on the bigger boughs, and she soon got stuck, wrapping her arms miserably around the wood and looking mournfully about her.
Xena almost laughed, as she would have done at one of Lyceus’ mishaps, but her brother wouldn’t have taken offence, and maybe Gabrielle would. “You did good, Kid: don’t beat yourself up.” Xena reached for the child and eased her into her arms. She shifted the weight, settling her against a hip, then dropped down the last steps to the ground. Once there, she took a moment to hold Gabrielle at arm’s length and look at her juice-stained face. This time she had to laugh at her, and Gabrielle laughed too.
Once back at the inn there was, as always, lots of work to do. Cyrene took one look at Gabrielle, despaired with both children, and sent the younger one off for a bath. They were sent out the next day to look again for a cottage on a farm with a white gate, but were similarly distracted, and found nothing. After that Cyrene was so busy that she didn’t question where they went, so long as they were out from under her feet.
Xena wasn’t used to being in another’s company so constantly, and after a few days her nerves were on edge and she felt claustrophobic and irritated. She liked having time alone, and Gabrielle didn’t ever hush up, let alone give her some space. By the end of the day it was just too much for her to take. Sitting at the supper table with a pounding head, she wished she could be anywhere else than here, be with her brothers, or with... Well, it was no good wishing that.
Xena turned away, not able to deal with the ceaseless and seemingly insensitive chatter. He mind was heavy and full and she craved the solitude she had been denied since Gabrielle was put in her charge. What had her Mother been thinking - she was awful with children and always would be. She bent wearily to take off her boots, her body protesting at even that simple effort.
Even with her back turned she could hear the creak of wood as Gabrielle clambered up to stand on the bench. “I can tell you a story,” the child enthused. “I tell stories to my mother and my sister like this. They say that -”
Hearing another loud creak, Xena turned to see the girl climbing up onto the table and standing on it with her bare feet. “Gabrielle get off the table.” Xena felt tired to her bones, exhausted by the constant sad ache in her heart.
“It’s a story about a big tree in a wood.” Completely disregarding her, Gabrielle planted her feet sturdily on the table and spread her small arms like branches.
“With big, strong branches and dark green leaves -”
Xena had been angry already - had been inexplicably angry for most of the day - but the simple, childish picture brought to mind an image so stark and awful - a lonely branch and a length of rope - that her patience gave out and she pushed to her feet without any awareness of her tiredness or aching legs. “Be quiet!” She yelled at the girl as if she were a general addressing a mutinous soldier. “Just be quiet! I don’t want to hear your stupid stories: I don’t want to hear your voice! Leave me alone!” With that she spun and marched for the door, full of fury and pain as fresh and sharp as if it had never been suppressed at all, and was still like a wound spilling blood that wouldn’t congeal. There was a bump behind her and she glanced back automatically, and was angry at herself even as she did it. The chatter had stopped abruptly, and Gabrielle had jumped heavily down from the table onto the tiled floor and crumpled with her legs messily underneath her. Xena saw the silent shuddering that inevitably led to pathetic crying. “Grow up!” She demanded, disgusted, and swung out of the door, blinded by an anger that seemed to boil stronger within her with every season and year of her life that passed. The harder she fought against it the more forceful it became, and sometimes she fantasised about the bliss of finally falling into it and being consumed by it altogether.
Although it probably was a stupid idea to tell a small child to grow up, Xena thought, and slowed her progress down the corridor. She could hear Gabrielle crying, and while she saw the tears as a weakness in herself, the same could hardly be said of a baby. One could hardly criticise a cat for purring or an infant for wanting milk. She should probably go and apologise: to hush up the whimpering, if nothing else.
Xena went back to the small dining room and paused in the doorway. She’d expected to see unrestrained fury, an indignant animal ready to give a return strike, but the creature she found looked small and hopeless and lost, slumped and shuddering with uncontrollable tears that seemed to go right through her and choke her with their intensity. Gabrielle was red and flushed, her sobs rasping in her throat and audibly tearing at her chest. She looked as if she had no control over her grief and no will to try. Rather than screaming for attention, she was alone in her misery, eyes closed and arms clutched limply about her stomach.
The sight gave Xena a pain in her chest, and all her anger seemed to fall out of her and was forgotten. “Gabrielle -” But her voice was so choked and quiet, and Gabrielle’s distress so great, that she wasn’t heard. Xena had never witnessed such a thing. Being a boy, Lyceus had never sobbed in this way - as if his world were ending and he felt himself to be all alone with the enormity of it. He’d wept once when he got a fish hook in his thumb - in no small part because he’d lost the fish - but it had been more anger than this awful hopelessness. Xena went forward a few more paces. “Sorry, okay?” She was fumbling in the face of such naked emotion and she knew it.
Toni would have known what to do, Xena thought suddenly, she was that sort. Xena wished very badly that she were here.
Gabrielle was crying so much she was making herself cough and retch, her eyes fixed on the tiles a short distance ahead of her, wide and fearful. Distressed by this, Xena made an impulsive move toward her, but didn’t know what to do once she’d gotten there. She disregarded the idea of barking at Gabrielle to stop before it had even formed in her head. Instead, she crouched down. “Gabrielle -” She touched at a flushed little elbow, but Gabrielle drew it back and clutched it closer to herself.
“Don’t -” Xena urged, keeping her voice gentle. She felt a burning behind her eyes and had to swallow hard to keep her voice even. “Don’t cry.” Gingerly she scooted forward a bit on the cool tiles until she had the crying bundle between her knees, and leaned down to her. “I didn’t mean to shout.” Wary but determined, she slowly put her arms around Gabrielle and eased her against her chest. Gabrielle made no resistance, collapsing her weight into Xena’s arms. “I’m sorry -” The atmosphere was so heavy and overwhelming that the burning moved into Xena’s throat and she couldn’t gulp it away. Laying a hand on Gabrielle’s cheek to cradle her head, she was shocked by how hot she’d suddenly become, her skin now bright red and clammy. “I shouldn’t have shouted.” She tucked her head down by Gabrielle’s, closing her eyes against images of the tree and the rope and a lifeless body. “I like your stories, I like to hear them.” Her own voice was wet now, and she wiped her cheeks on the warm head under her chin. “I didn’t mean it, okay?” She gave Gabrielle’s side a little rub to rouse her, and felt her nod. The sobbing had quietened, and Gabrielle’s weight was against Xena as a gesture of forgiveness. “It’s all right.” From this angle, Gabrielle’s fair hair looked greasy, and Xena thought that she would have to be sure to wash it in the morning.
Gabrielle’s sudden anguish had exhausted her, and very quickly, with Xena mumbling and rocking her with a maternal instinct she would have denied possessing, the crying ceased and sleep took over, making her drowsy and floppy. Xena sat on the floor holding her for far longer than was probably necessary to quieten her, but there was something about the dying sunlight from the window, and the cool tiles against her legs, and the sensation of having a warm, breathing creature in her arms that made her linger, with her cheek against dishevelled yellow hair.
It wasn’t until her legs began to cramp that the elder woman stirred and retrieved an arm to wipe at her groggy face. She looked down to Gabrielle, who was still flushed but her eyes were closed and her lips were parted to breathe around a clogged nose. Xena regarded her for a while, wondering just who she was and just why their paths had come to cross. For a fleeting moment she had the most overwhelming sense of familiarity, as if the girl were as much her own kin as Lyceus or Toris, and as she gingerly scooped her up it was without her usual trepidation at the idea of close physical contact.
Xena pushed to her knees and then her feet, unsteady under the extra weight, and carried the sleeping girl along the corridor and into the bedroom. Once there, she kicked the door shut and deposited her load on the edge of the bed. Finding herself unable to let go lest Gabrielle tumble from her drowsy sitting position, she groped around with one hand for the child’s crumpled night shirt. “Gabrielle -” she hissed, trying to rouse the child without startling her. “We’ve got to get you undressed, get your nightclothes on. C’mon, help me out here -” She began to tug clumsily at the fiddly garments, supporting Gabrielle’s weight with a shoulder or a forearm or whatever happened to be free. Once she’d got the sleeping child undressed she wiped at her wet face with the crumpled material then struggled to straighten her night shift with one hand. “You all right, huh?” she prompted, searching the sleepy face. Gabrielle gave a droopy nod. “Great. Here, give me your arm -” Somehow she managed to manoeuvre both limbs into the appropriate gaps. “There. You’ll do. Now go to sleep, everything’s al right.” Xena lifted the child’s legs onto the bed and covered her with the blanket. Gabrielle’s cheeks were still tearstained, but her eyes were dry and she was already dozing quietly. Xena gazed down at her for a moment before going to her own bed. She’d always known she had no affinity for children, but she hadn’t realised how awful she actually was.
And even that, Xena acknowledged as she lay down in the semi-darkness, was an oversimplification. It wasn’t so much that she was useless at interacting with children: she was pretty bad at interacting with just about everyone. A child’s honesty just served to highlight her ineptitude, that was all. The longer people knew her, the less they liked her. She couldn’t trouble herself to keep up pretences of civility with them: she would usually rather be alone.
The exception, of course, had been Estonia. Toni knew her, and loved her despite it. Toni understood her. Toni understood everyone, in fact: she was Xena’s opposite, and liked people, liked to spend time with people. She was beautiful, and kind, and Xena missed her more keenly with every passing day. She forced herself not to cry - or rather, not to make the angry, choking sounds that she allowed herself at night instead of babyish sobbing - so as not to wake Gabrielle, but she slept poorly.
As soon as it was light, Xena rose and went to sit in a quiet alcove of the tavern to eat her breakfast. She was undisturbed for some time, largely playing with her meal, until her mother came to prepare for the day’s guests.
“Xena,” the elder woman greeted her daughter, surprised to find her there. “I’m glad you’re up. It’s market day today, I’ll need some help with the customers.” She took clean goblets from the bar and set about hanging them on the hooks above her head.
“Not today, Mother.”
Cyrene paused. Xena had a strong will of her own, but she wasn’t usually disobedient. “Xena, it’s going to be very busy -”
“Maybe later. But not right now.”
Cyrene set down the goblets she was holding and made her way over to Xena’s table. “Why?” She asked as lightly as she could, not wanting to sound accusatory. “Where are you going?”
Xena watched her mother slide onto the bench opposite her, and she put down her spoon and sat back, instinctively trying to protect her personal space, even from her mother. “I’m going up to the hill. The hill where...” she trailed off, not able to complete her sentence, but her mother understood.
“Xena, you need to let it go,” Cyrene implored, leaning her elbows on the wooden table. “It’s not helpful to keep sitting by yourself up there!”
“It helps me.” Xena wouldn’t look at her.
“Why don’t you speak about her?” Cyrene went on. “You don’t speak, Xena, you hold everything so close.” The elder woman was trying to be sympathetic, and spread her hands helplessly. “Lyceus is the only person you’ll talk to about her, and he’s just a child.”
“Lyceus is the only person who’ll talk to me about her!” Xena insisted. Then, more quietly, “He’s the only one who doesn’t see her as a taboo subject.”
“I’m going up there, Mother.”
Xena pushed away her dish, and Cyrene knew there was no point in arguing with her; it was best to let her blow off steam. “Well, you’ll have to take -” the tiniest pause while she recalled the girl’s name “- Gabrielle with you. She can’t be under my feet, I’ll be too busy.”
Xena nodded gravely, pushing up. “I’ll take Gabrielle.” Suddenly, it didn’t seem like such a chore anymore. For whatever reason, Gabrielle was like a tiny spark of light in her darkness: not enough to illuminate the shadows there, but a distraction, at least. She waited until Gabrielle awoke, gave her food and milk, then hurried her into her clothes.
“Where are we going?” Gabrielle asked good-naturedly, the events of the day before forgotten.
“For a walk.”
This was apparently answer enough, and Gabrielle contentedly wandered beside Xena, asking only that her hand be held from time to time. She gazed about her as they progressed steadily up a hillside, interested in the dense, narrow trees, the occasional song of a passing bird, the crunching of forest detritus beneath her small boots. Xena said nothing to her. As they approached the crest of the lonely hill, Xena released her hand and strode on too quickly for the child to keep up.
Gabrielle followed doggedly, although at an unhurried pace. Once at the summit she stood still and watched, uncertain. Xena walked, as if her feet were leaden, until she reached a single tree, shorter and more sturdy than its companions. She paused for a long moment, as if gathering herself, then raised her head again and lifted a hand to trace along a thick branch at head height. She felt every bump and dip in the bark until she reached a deeper groove, and the knot of ice in her stomach hardened. She had removed the dark length of rope, when she had found... the last time she had been here, but the scarring on the tree remained. Xena closed her eyes against the images that flooded over her.
The branch. The rope. Estonia.
Xena had climbed the hill with much lighter steps, that time. She had been happy. Now, she knew she would never erase from her mind the scene that had greeted her. Xena had dashed to cut her down, wincing as the lifeless body flopped to the ground, her fingers numb and trembling as she’d struggled to pull the rope from around Estonia’s neck. She had called her name again and again, screaming at her, cursing her. She had stroked the soft auburn hair, kissed the cherry lips and begged for a sign of life, pledging anything she owned or could come by if only the nightmare would end.
But it had been real, and nothing could change it. Toni was dead. Xena had lost half her heart that day, and didn’t know how to get it back. She dropped down to a rock beneath the tree and hid her face in her hands to sob.
Gabrielle watched this quiet scene from her vantage point a few steps back and felt an awful, oppressive sadness which she couldn’t begin to understand. She was completely at a loss, alone and frightened in a situation which her years made her incapable of comprehending. Her first thought was to run away, and hide, but the pull to Xena was too strong. Apprehensively, she went to stand in front of Xena, able to see only a mass of hair and long fingers knotted almost cruelly into it. Gabrielle didn’t know the right words to say, but even if she had they would have been lost beneath the awful gasping and crying. So out of helplessness Gabrielle lay a hand on the thick mane of black hair, feeling the warmth from Xena’s scalp. She sucked three fingers of her other hand into her mouth to comfort herself, and waited for the uncomfortable feeling to go away.
For her part, Xena had almost no awareness for a while, consumed by grief. Such intense emotion is by nature self-limiting, and her resulting exhaustion was such that she had no idea how long had passed before she could think clearly once more. The tears dried up along with her energy reserves, and she just couldn’t cry any more. She took some deep breaths, her throat dry and protesting, and straightened a little, her shoulders cramping.
As soon as she lifted her head she remembered Gabrielle, who was gazing at her with an uncharacteristically blank face, utterly bewildered by the sight she had witnessed. Xena was sorry to have upset the child, and took her into her arms. Gabrielle said nothing, displaying the tact and sensitivity of one far older, but knitted her arms about Xena’s neck and clung on.
Xena had tried hard, at first, not to like the child. She was of the opinion that the less you allowed yourself to feel for another person, the less hurt you were liable to be when they rebuffed you. She had remembered how Toni had admonished her for just such behaviour when Lyceus was born, though, and grudgingly let herself grow fond of Gabrielle. It wasn’t that she had been jealous of any attention the girl might receive from her mother, just as it hadn’t been jealousy she’d felt when her brother was born. As she had told Toni, she’d just thought that Lyceus was going to mean more work and less free time for everyone. Her friend had laughed despairingly at her, and insisted they take the baby from his cot and take turns at holding him. ‘But Xena,’ she’d said, in her bright voice, ‘he’s so much like you! He has your eyes - just look how blue they are. He likes you - see how he’s holding onto you’. Xena had looked at the tiny fingers wrapped around her own, and gazed into the tiny face that regarded her. ‘Guess he is pretty canny,’ she’d allowed, ‘for a little guy’.
It was thanks to Toni’s wise counsel that she had fallen in love with Lyceus, and it was her influence that allowed Xena to take comfort from Gabrielle’s affection. She pulled in a deep, steadying breath, gave the child a squeeze, then sat back to look at her, keeping a relaxed grip around her waist.
“Why are you very sad?” Gabrielle asked her before she could speak.
“Because one of my friends died here, a little while ago.” Toni wasn’t just a friend, a part of her mind screamed back, she was everything, she was my -
Xena inhaled sharply and pushed the anger away. It wasn’t helpful right now, she needed to focus. “It makes me sad to think about it.”
Gabrielle seemed to understand this, and was sorry. She patted at Xena, her head on one side, and sucked her fingers again. The hilltop wasn’t a pleasant place to be, its atmosphere was dark and clinging, and Gabrielle was afraid to look over her shoulder in case there was a demon there. Xena seemed to see demons in all the shadows here.
Xena sighed and stood, sliding through Gabrielle’s arms until they ended up clutched loosely around her thighs. “Let’s go,” she decided, and groped for the child’s hand. “We’re done up here, let’s go.” Xena didn’t know why she’d come, really. Toni wasn’t here: only dark memories of her. Xena wasn’t the sort to lay flowers on a grave, the ritual seemed pointless to her: the flowers would die too, and then there would just be two deaths to mourn.
No, it was better to focus on the present. And the immediate present was about getting through another day, preferably without making anyone angry or upset with her, because that would at least be an improvement on yesterday. “C’mon,” she told Gabrielle, “race you.” She set off down the hill at a gentle jog: the sooner she got off this cursed mountain the better, and besides, exercise always drove the grief back a little, made it bearable again. She glanced behind her, seeing Gabrielle giggling with pleasure at the game and breaking into a clumsy toddle. “Beating you!” Xena called out, but she slowed her pace so that Gabrielle could catch up. When she did, Xena gently tried to nudge her back. “You’re not gonna get past me, Gabrielle, I’m gonna win.”
“No, I’ll win!” Gabrielle countered, laughing, and twisted to break free of Xena’s grip.
“Don’t think so.”
“Will!” Gabrielle had gotten a few paces ahead, but Xena caught her up in a bear hug from behind and pulled her up off her feet, making her shriek with fun. They were down on the clearer, sunny grass at the base of the hill, and the atmosphere felt lighter. Unable to run with the weight, Xena set Gabrielle back on her feet and scooted round in front of her. Continuing their play fight, Xena bundled the girl over onto the grass, making her lose her balance and thump down onto the soil.
Gabrielle starred up at her with a mixture of startlement and disbelief. No one had ever treated her so boisterously, except her sister, who in any case was smaller than she was. But as Xena buried her head in the girl’s stomach and pretended to eat her, Gabrielle suddenly found it all enormously funny and wonderful, and began to shriek with laughter, playfully wriggling and trying to bat Xena away. When Xena surrendered to this and swung her up into a cuddle, Gabrielle thought of her as some precious new toy that she never wanted to be parted from, and clung to her with a previously unknown passion. She thought Xena was wonderful.
The remainder of the day passed quietly. Xena was thoughtful - introspective - and tired from her grief, and wanted only to sit, unmoving, close to her home. Just as she would usually only allow Lyceus’ company when she was in such a mood, she now sought solitude from everyone except Gabrielle. The child seemed aware of the heaviness around her, and was happy to sit at Xena’s feet and play with twigs or stones or whatever was to hand. Occasionally she would stand at Xena’s side and want to be held, gazing at Xena as she had at the base of the mountain. Xena would absently put an arm around the child and hold her close, as if she too gained comfort from the contact with another person, even if that person was just a baby.
When night fell Xena dozed off quickly, but was soon woken by a nightmare: awful images of bloodstained rope and a broken body, of chill wind whistling through the branches of an oil-black tree. She sat up in bed and wiped hurriedly at her wet face, working to slow her breathing. Her eyes adjusting to the darkness, she watched Gabrielle pad over to her. Silently, the child petted at her, stroking her in an innocent attempt to soothe her.
Xena shuffled over in bed. “C’mon.” She threw back the blanket and hauled Gabrielle up beside her. “Go to sleep,” she encouraged, letting Gabrielle snuggle into her arms. “Let’s both get some sleep now.”
She quickly dozed off again, inexplicably soothed by the sound of Gabrielle’s breathing, the small twitches of her limbs and the occasional mewing sound as she dreamt. Xena’s mind swam through black, endless seas, searching everywhere for a spark of light. She felt as if something were eluding her, as if at any moment she would be able to pierce through the fog and find... something. Something was missing, nothing was quite complete. Her first thoughts were of Toni, but that wasn’t the answer, it was something hidden, something she couldn’t quite grasp.
In the darkness of her room she rolled over and instinctively embraced the small body curled against her own, her hand moving through the silky blonde hair under her chin.
The child stretched lazily then turned and sat. “Mother, is it morning yet? Can we go play?”
Xena’s eyes flashed open. It wasn’t Gabrielle’s voice, and for a moment she was blind in the inky darkness, too stunned to speak.
“I want to play with the horses, Mommy: can we?”
Xena ignored the gentle pawing at her, the bouncing of the excited boy. “Solan?”
He shifted onto his knees and stroked at her hair. “Will you teach me to ride with you? Please, Mommy?” He had crystal blue eyes under a mop of sandy hair. He was surprisingly fair skinned, considering his parentage, his complexion clear and bright. He adjusted his position again, moving as close to his mother’s warmth as was possible.
Xena swallowed, her throat suddenly parched, and automatically nodded. “Whatever you want,” she agreed dumbly. The boy seemed happy with this, and lay down again beside her.
Finally able to break out of her shock enough to move, Xena got up on an elbow and stared down at him, just able to make out his features now that her eyes had adjusted and a cloud had slid away from the full moon. “Solan,” she said again, her voice more reliable this time, and lay a hand on his chest to be sure that he was real. How could her son be here, how was it possible? She had left him as a baby with Kaliepus, how...?
In a flash, Xena remembered everything. She knew who she was. She was dog-tired, and all her mind could fix on was Solan. Solan was here, Solan was with her. Fighting back tears, she traced the backs of her fingers over his cheeks and forehead and lips as he slept, wanting to memorise every soft curve, every feature. She repeated his name again, at last able to say it to him, to hear it in her own voice. He was beautiful, so much so that it almost took her speech away again. He was angelic, his small body floppy in her arms, his trust and unconditional love surrounding her and filling the small room. “We’ll do anything you want,” she assured him in a whisper, really just wanting to mumble to him. “Your Mamma’s here now -” She bent down to kiss him, his face soft and warm against hers, and she nestled there for a bit. She would never let him go again, everything would be all right now...
Half asleep, he curled a tiny hand into her hair, and Xena kissed him again and stroked his arm. She pulled him tenderly closer to her and held his body against her own, curling around him. He was her precious child, and she would keep him by her side always. Wrapped up with him, she fell into slumber.
And awoke with a start when one of Gabrielle’s little twitches elbowed her in the ribs. Once again Xena pulled herself up into a sitting position on the bed, blinking away her disorientation.
Her first thought was of Solan, but when she pulled the covers back there was only Gabrielle, still dozing and snuffling a bit. So Solan had been a dream? Huge disappointment washed over Xena until another shock hit her - what in Hades was she doing in Amphipolis? And more to the point, why was Gabrielle a baby? She gawped down at the sleeping child. The last thing she remembered, before all this madness, she had been at their camp, dozing while Gabrielle cleared away their breakfast things. They had eaten sausages.
Maybe the sausages were bad, Xena theorised, maybe this was all some feverish hallucination. She swung out of the bed, barely giving her body time to adapt to the change in position, and promptly walloped her knee on the wooden dresser by the bed.
“Aww!” Xena cursed the thing and clutched at her knee. Damn it! This was no dream, that was for sure: her throbbing knee assured her of that. So what in the name of all the Gods...?
“Huh?” Xena looked back down to the child, whom she had accidentally woken. Even with the rounded, underdeveloped features of childhood, it was unmistakably Gabrielle. Xena squinted intently at her, unable to believe the sight before her. How’d Gabrielle get to be barely past toddling again?
“Why are you awake?” Gabrielle’s hair was finer and blonder than Xena was accustomed to, her voice a pitch higher. She struggled to sit up.
“Did you have a bad dream?”
“No, no, I just...”
“Cuddle me?” Gabrielle scooted across the bed to Xena, and reached out her arms.
The Warrior wasn’t accustomed to getting up close and personal with children - she had never felt comfortable with them - but this was Gabrielle, who’s soul she felt she knew intimately. She had always understood that they would journey through many lifetimes together, and that their relationship would take many forms, but she’d never dreamt that her next incarnation would be as a babysitter.
The small arms brushed against her, seeking the comfort of contact in the darkness.
“I was just looking out of the window. It’s all right.” Xena bent down and picked the child up - clumsily and with effort - and held her against a hip. Dazed, she carried her over to the window where they could both examine each other in the moonlight. The likeness to her partner was incredible, and the child was adorably pretty, even to Xena, who wasn’t in the least bit maternal. Big, ocean eyes blinked at her understandingly, and Xena was overwhelmed by the love she found there. “Gabrielle -” she breathed the name, her heart warmed by this link with normality, and she closed her eyes to inhale the scent in Gabrielle’s hair, the familiar fragrance of her skin.
Gabrielle was perceptive and felt a difference in the way Xena held her, looked at her, spoke to her, even though she wouldn’t have been able to explain it. Thrilled, she touched her hands to Xena’s face and giggled in glee, pressing her toes against Xena’s ribs.
“It’s all right, I’m here -” Xena let the girl slip more comfortably into her arms and cuddled her warmly, holding her close and cradling her head on a shoulder. Gabrielle stretched in absolute bliss at this and pressed herself to the woman who had come to embody her entire universe. She held on tightly for a few moments, until sleep claimed her again and she sagged, her chin on Xena’s shoulder.
The Warrior kissed the top of her head softly, becoming accustomed to the alien sensation of a child in her arms, and turned to gaze out of the window. What in all Hades was going on, and how in the name of all Olympus was she going to get things straight this time?
The night passed, as all nights do, and Xena sat down for breakfast the next morning simply because it was routine to do so. She was lost in thought, half excited and half fearful, puzzled and overwhelmed. She idly watched Gabrielle, who sat at the head of the long old kitchen table swinging her legs and patiently waiting for food to arrive. They’d gotten up early, and it was some time before there was further activity in the tavern.
When Xena heard her mother walking along the corridor she stood, apprehensive but eager. She hadn’t enjoyed the best relationship with her mother when she was young - they were both too independent and strong willed to allow it. The isolation Xena had felt over Estonia’s life and her death had created cracks in the family which tore apart all together when Lyceus died. Both women had mellowed a little over the ensuing years, and - in no small part thanks to Gabrielle - were now closer than they had ever been. Nonetheless, Xena felt guilty for the way she had treated her mother, remorseful over her lack of effort at the time to find a meaningful connection between them. Perhaps this was some small chance to mend some of those bridges before they could burn.
Cyrene looked younger and her face was less stern than it appeared in Xena’s memory of this time. She had endured a difficult life, certainly, but in her youth she was by nature cheerful and busy: it had taken the loss of all three of her children to bury that vitality, although the stubborn determination to go on fighting through life no matter what had never left her. “Xena.” The elder woman regarded her daughter with a slightly surprised smile, and Gabrielle with a warmer one. “You’re up early, the two of you. Couldn’t Gabrielle sleep?” She went to the child and fussed fondly with her hair: Gabrielle looked up at her and beamed.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Xena admitted, feeling slightly awkward. She never used to speak much to her mother. She never used to speak much to anyone, with the exception of Lyceus, who as a baby would gaze up at her with endless fascination and never disapprove or answer back.
Her reply gave Cyrene pause. “You couldn’t sleep? That’s a first for you, you’re usually an effort to get out of your bed.”
It wasn’t said unkindly, and Xena gave a small, self-depreciating shrug. “It’s a nice day, seems a shame to miss out on it.”
“Uh ha.” Cyrene regarded her daughter a moment longer, presumably thinking this a positive step after the melancholy of the last weeks, then turned to the counter to start on breakfast.
Xena got up and stepped over to where her mother was working. “Can I help?”
Cyrene looked at her daughter for a moment as if she had just told her that the Known World was round. “Well, if you like.” She was soon busy again, her momentary surprise passed. “You can set the table. Be a good girl and pick up some apples from the market today - with your brothers away we’re running low.”
Apples were always a popular snack in Xena’s household, because they were cheap to buy in the winter and grew in abundance during the summer out on the trees behind the tavern. Xena took spoons from a drawer and set them out on the table. She wished her brothers were here - what she wouldn’t give, just to spend another day with them. “There should still be some apples left on the trees out back: I’ll go get them for you, save some money.”
Cyrene stirred her pan of breakfast oats, watching the milk boil. “You’ll be telling me you’re going up to fix the roof, next. I don’t know many girls your age who spend as much time up trees as you do. It‘s like you feel at home up there.” Again it was a fond and familiar refrain, and Cyrene rolled her eyes as she dished out the porridge. “Still, I suppose you take after your mother - I was always a tom-boy too.” She carried the bowls to the table, leaning down to Gabrielle as she gave her her small portion. “There you are, Little One.”
“Thank you.” Gabrielle grinned up at her before drawing the dish closer to her and peering in.
“She’s such a pretty thing.” Cyrene clearly loved young children and was indisputably good with them. It was her misfortune that her two oldest offspring turned out to be so bloody minded, spirited and consumed by wanderlust. Lyceus was her favourite because even in his teenage years he was a placid and thoughtful boy. The tragedy of losing him was probably the greatest of all. “Look at those pink cheeks.” She gave Gabrielle a squeeze. The child was clearly in her element with so much attention bestowed on her. “Like a pretty kitten, aren’t you?” She cooed meaninglessly to the child, who nodded in the hope of earning more praise. “Eat your food then, Pet.”
Seated at the table, Xena watched her mother across her steaming bowl. “Not like me. I was never pretty.” It wasn’t a mournful or self-pitying comment - Xena had never wanted to be pretty - rather she had liked being compared to her mother and wanted to rekindle the subject.
“No,” Cyrene admitted freely, taking a mouthful of her breakfast. “No, Xena: from the day your were born no one ever said you were pretty. You were beautiful. As a baby, at Gabrielle’s age, now... You’re a beauty, to be sure.” She shook her head in something close to wonder. “With those high cheek bones of yours, and eyes bluer than Poseidon’s realm... It’s a miracle to me that you haven’t already been snapped up by some handsome lad and with children of your own. From the day I had you I knew I wouldn’t keep you long.”
“Mom...” Xena rolled her eyes comically in response to the familiar nagging, but made no further protest because of the warmth of her mother’s words.
“Well...” But then one of the tavern staff came in, apologised for interrupting, and told Cyrene about some problem or other that needed her attention. She sighed resignedly and pushed up from the table, having already finished her food. She pointed to Xena’s bowl. “Eat up, Child, if you’re going to go climbing trees.” Xena smiled and ate. Even Gabrielle - in her adult form - knew better than to nag her over food, but it was a mother’s prerogative.
Gabrielle tried her hardest with her meal, always enthusiastic about food, but the wooden spoon was really too big for her, and she had to clutch the handle in a fist, making precise control difficult. She would clumsily scoop up large spoonfuls of her porridge, only for most of it to drip back into her bowl before she got it close to her mouth. She tolerated this admirably for a few attempts, then released her spoon and scowled, frustrated. “I can’t.”
“Your spoon’s too big,” Xena agreed, although her observation was of limited use because the tavern didn’t stock smaller spoons.
Gabrielle just gazed glumly down into her half-eaten porridge, and swung her legs a bit.
What would a responsible parent do, Xena wondered? Try to teach the child some fine motor control? Encourage independence? Somehow Gabrielle didn’t look to be in the mood for that, and her food was getting cold. Xena felt for her, and shifted over onto the bench beside her. “Here. Eat your breakfast.” She took the spoon, loaded it with what she judged to be a suitably sized blob for a small person, and offered it to the child. Without hesitation Gabrielle took the mouthful and chewed it, swinging her legs in enthusiastic appreciation of this new turn of events.
They cleared her bowl in agreeable silence. Xena found the whole technique alien: it was not in any way like feeding oneself, where the coordination of finishing one mouthful and being ready for the next happens without conscious thought. She found herself wondering if her portions were overwhelmingly big or frustratingly small, whether she was rushing Gabrielle or boring her. The girl, for her part, didn’t seem to mind in the least, and ate whatever she was given while her eyes roamed around the room, taking it all in.
By the time Cyrene returned, Xena was clearing up. “Mom I’m going up the hill this morning. To see Estonia. Can you mind Gabrielle for a bit?”
Cyrene put her hands on her hips and looked regretful. “Xena, we’ve spoken about this. You can’t keep thinking about all of that, you have to move on. She’s gone now, and blaming yourself for what happened -”
“I’m not,” Xena reassured, interrupting. “I know, Mother, you’re right. I just want to say goodbye. Please understand that.” Xena had been intending to do just that when all of this started: she had carried the sadness of Toni’s death with her for too many years, and now that she had Gabrielle, and had found her Way, it was time to let go. “Just one more visit, and I’ll let her rest.”
Cyrene gave a nod of acceptance - probably because this was the most frank her daughter had ever been with her on the subject. “Very well, Xena. I do understand you.”
“Thank you -” The words were so sorely needed, even after all these years, and Xena took her mother into her arms to hold her. It was something she had done so rarely, and regretted so fiercely.
The elder woman laughed with surprise and patted her daughter softly. “But I can’t take Gabrielle: there’s a problem with one of the ale pumps and I’ll have my hands full with it. You’ll have to take her with you.”
It wasn’t an ideal place to take a child - again - but Gabrielle was well behaved and could probably be trusted to amuse herself down on the grass while Xena did what she had to do. She’d be able to keep an eye on her, anyway.
So the two headed back out to the mountain. It was a jolt to see it again, but at least Xena would be able to say goodbye, she thought, to roll up this scroll and concentrate fully on the next - whatever that might be. She left Gabrielle to play by a patch of wild flowers, picked a small bunch herself, and headed up the hill with them.
It had been a long time since she had viewed this scene through her own eyes and not those of a confused, overwhelmed teenager. She had been back several times as an adult, but the natural world is constantly changing, and the sight before her never quite matched up with her memory, as it did now.
The old tree was smaller than she remembered - or maybe she had just gotten bigger? - and the boughs thinner. Thick enough to take a girl’s weight, though. Xena ran her hand along the bark, identifying the notch burned by the rope, then turned her back to the tree and crouched at its base. The hill wasn’t really as foreboding as she remembered, and for the first time here she allowed herself to be reminded of happier times, warming images of her friend. She could still see Toni’s face, her cheeks always flushed with excitement or exertion, her wiry frame deceptively strong, her eyes chocolate-brown.
“I know you’re not one for flowers,” Xena said out loud, holding up her hastily collected bunch. “Not sure why I brought them really.” Giving a little shrug, she regarded her bouquet, the stems wilting a little from the heat of her hand. The pansies were bold and beautiful, vivid blues and purples framing jet black hearts. Toni had been more like her than anyone else she knew, or had known since. Uninterested in pretty feminine trappings, in motherhood or domestic work, she had been as free and as wild as Xena, and had wanted to explore the world and all the excitements it had to offer. Probably they had been too alike: Toni’s short life had been ultimately too much for her to endure, and Xena’s natural intensity and sobriety meant that she lacked the ability to rally her from her melancholy. Toni died feeling that the world was a harsh, cruel, unforgiving place, and essentially Xena had agreed with her. They differed only in their coping mechanisms, their reactions to the blows life dealt them. Toni hadn’t been able to tolerate her grief at all, the Gods bless her, and had surrendered to it. When Xena found herself in a similarly crushing collapse of her world only a year or two later - when Lyceus died - she fought with every scrap of fury she had against the world, determined to dominate and remould it into a fairer, more benign form. Her plans had gone wrong, of course, had become perverted by the influence of new allies and enemies, by the introduction of concepts such as money and power, of which Xena had previously had no conception. There had been a time, though, when she thought about taking Toni’s lead, considered that perhaps her friend’s solution was best, after all. It had been years later, the day she buried her weapons and her armour, at the edge of a sleepy farm village. She would have followed through with it, too, if it weren’t for a band of slavers, and a village that needed protecting, and a spirited girl who gave Xena a new Way to live for.
It was because of Gabrielle that she was here.
“I have to say goodbye, Toni,” Xena implored. “I have to let you go. I wish I could’ve helped you more, back then. I wish I’d known how.” She played with the flowers, getting tiny flecks of pollen on her fingers. “Toni -” It’d been so long since she’d said her name out loud, and it squeezed Xena’s heart so that tears sprang to her eyes. “I miss you.” She sat more comfortably, and found herself stroking a hand idly over the bark behind her as if it were now a friend. “I just know you’re someplace good. I know things are easier for you now.” She smiled despite the tears, picturing the teenage girl she once knew climbing trees in the Elysian Fields. “I’ll never forget you: you know that, right? I love you.” Perhaps one day, when her atonement here was done, she’d see Estonia again. She imagined how they’d sit and talk, just like they used to. She looked forward to that day. “Until then.” She pressed her hand for a moment more against the sturdy old tree, then turned and didn’t look back.
Xena picked her way down the hillside, her heart lighter than it had been since she’d arrived in this bizarre place. Perhaps now she could turn her attention to solving the problem at hand. At the bottom she called out for Gabrielle. She couldn’t see the child, and thought that maybe she’d gone off to explore something that had taken her interest. But Gabrielle was obedient, and sensible at any age, and surely wouldn’t have wandered off when she had been told not to.
Suddenly uneasy, Xena hurried to the grassy spot where she’d left the child, and called her name insistently. “You come here now!” But Gabrielle didn’t come. Xena dropped to her knees and grazed her fingers through the grass searching for clues, her mind super-alert. There were a few stones and picked daisies that had been used as playthings, but they hadn’t been left in any neat order. Xena’s fingers found a shallow mark in the earth which could have been caused by a struggling foot. Her heart pounding now, Xena’s eyes darted about her. There were more footprints - just areas where the grass had been flattened the wrong way - bigger this time. On hands and knees, the Warrior followed them a short way. There was a tiny thread of black leather caught on a bramble. She pulled out the light sword she’d slung into her belt.
Xena kept low and tracked. Somehow it was instinctual to her and always had been: it was no effort. The sword hung from her hand, its tip trailing in the fallen leaves, as her eyes picked out more footprints, her ears open to any irregular sound, acutely sensitive. Xena knew how to hunt prey. If she’d had time to analyse it - and she didn’t right now - she would have admitted to enjoying it. She had certainly had plenty of experience: desperate months of trailing through jungle, scarcely aware of the turning of day to night, of the need to sleep, of pain or hunger or exhaustion. At first she had barely paid attention to the mud or animal blood she became caked in: it was just a consequence of the natural order of things - need the food, kill the food, eat the food. After a while, though, back in those dark days, she had seen the blood as a symbol of power and prowess, and had taken to smearing it on herself as body paint, marking her forehead and cheeks and arms. Sometimes she’d moved on all fours, as if she were an animal herself, at one with the soil under her hands and bare feet.
That had been a long time ago, and Xena moved in the civilised trappings of her linen and boots, but even she couldn’t have denied how easy it would have been to slip back into that elemental existence.
It was easy to find the camp of thugs, and there weren’t many of them. Xena didn’t even trouble herself to sneak up on them. She was furiously angry, and strode into their midst with murderous intent. The men predictably came at her, and she set at them without so much as a flinch. Most warriors, she knew, would have warned against unbidden rage, believing that it dulled the mind, led to silly mistakes. Xena had never found that. The wilder she was with fury, the better she fought.
Before the yobs could mount much of a defence, Xena had them all laid out on the floor with cracked jaws. She’d laid eyes on a small figure sitting forlornly behind a store of weapons, and nothing else mattered. As she strode across the camp one of the leather clad buffoons dared to stagger up in front of her.
“You want the kid back, hand over your money!”
Xena shoved the heel of her hand into his face, breaking his nose and sending the splinters up into his skull. He dropped, twitched, then stilled. Not only was it a laughably ineffectual threat, it was also rather inappropriate, Xena thought, as she rarely ever had more than a few dinars to her name.
Still, it wouldn’t do to hang around. Gabrielle was sitting on a grubby cloth with her legs folded underneath her. Her little dress and fair skin were grimy with mud and streaked with sweat, and her hair was matted and in need of a wash, but it didn’t look as if she’d been hurt. In a hurry, Xena reached down a hand to her. “Come on.”
The girl looked up at her with eyes as big and wide as a night owl. “Can’t.” She pulled a leg out from under her and displayed the iron shackle around her ankle.
Xena felt her jaw tighten. “Keep still,” she ordered, and hauled up her sword. “Don’t move.” Gabrielle gazed up at her with unashamed awe, even plainer than when her adult self would idolise the Warrior, and didn’t move. It clearly didn’t occur to her for a moment that Xena might strike her. The Warrior brought down her blade and split the dull chain. She tugged it away with disgust, then reached down an arm a second time for the child. “C’mon.” Without hesitation Gabrielle climbed into Xena’s embrace, held against her hip and safe.
Xena strode back through the camp, boiling with anger that was at least partly directed at herself for her carelessness. “This is my child,” she told anyone conscious enough to listen, barely cognizant of what she was saying. “I’ll kill anyone who so much as looks at her again, I swear it by Ares.”
If it weren’t for the girl in her arms, Xena would almost certainly have flown at the men like a savage dog, clawing and tearing until every one of them was dead or silenced. She had taken on armies single handed before, and been the one to walk away, but there was nothing glamorous or dignified in the kind of fighting such an assault necessitated, and she would limp back to her camp all but dead, so battered by her wounds that she would lie on the ground for three or four days, unmoving and barely conscious, until she’d recovered enough to tend to herself. She often wondered how she’d managed to go for such a long time without so much as a skin of water, how she survived injuries that would have killed anyone else, how she kept fighting despite the agony in her muscles and lungs and head. Although she was scarcely aware during those foggy days, dragging herself back from the very edge of death, she always did survive them.
But those were different times, when she only had herself to think about. Now there was Gabrielle, and she couldn’t leave the girl alone while she recuperated from a battle. The men would get what they deserved, but they would have to wait for it. It would be all the sweeter, Xena thought, when she finally did slit all their ugly necks.
With her baby clutched against her, she strode over to where she’d seen the horses tethered, and quickly untied a sturdy looking brown steed. “Get up, Gabrielle -” She lifted the girl from her hip and hoisted her up onto the horse’s back. “You okay?” With a growing sense of urgency she slid her boot into a stirrup and hauled herself into the saddle. “Hold on tight.” Gabrielle sat obediently with her tiny hands clutched around the pommel, but it was actually a rather pointless order because Xena tucked an arm around the girl’s middle and held her so securely that it would have been impossible for her to fall.
The Warrior took up the reigns and kicked the horse into action, not looking back to the dogs at the campsite. She was careful not to push the horse too hard and make the ride bumpy, but she wanted to put distance between them nonetheless. Gabrielle said nothing, part traumatised by the days events and part mesmerised by the motion of the horse and the wind streaking her hair. After a while she took more interest, and patted fondly at the horse’s neck, her head cocked to one side, or reached up to see if she could touch the leaves passing overhead, her head flung back to watch the flashing green image. Xena was far too preoccupied with their path to pay her any more attention than to clutch onto her fiercely.
When she was satisfied that they were almost back to Amphipolis - but not so near that their destination was obvious - Xena slowed the horse and pulled him to a stop. “We’ll walk from here,” she said more to herself than to either of her two companions. “It’ll be safer.” She swung down off the horse, and reached up for Gabrielle, who obediently climbed into her arms. Setting her load down, Xena patted the steed and sent him off. “We’re almost home, Gabrielle, it’s all right. Come on.” She reached for the child’s hand, wanting only to get them both locked safely inside the tavern. It only took a few steps for her to realise that Gabrielle was limping.
Something was wrong and she hadn’t noticed. The adult Gabrielle never made a fuss and her younger self was equally stoic: Xena had been treating the child as if she were an adult, for her own convenience, and now she cursed herself for it. This child had shown her nothing but love and devotion, and here she was so embroiled in her own anger and guilt that she hadn’t stopped to give her small friend a hug or a smile.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Stopping the girl, she knelt in front of her.
“I hurt my leg.” Gabrielle was grimacing as if the pain on walking was considerable, and holding one foot slightly elevated.
Xena took hold of her tatty shift and lifted it enough to see. “Oh... Gabrielle...” The deep red graze on the child’s thigh cut an awful dip in her flesh, and was dirty with congealing blood. The pattern of the injury was all too familiar, and Xena’s heart somehow doubled in weight and set off a horrid pulling pain in her chest. “This was done with an arrow -” She touched her fingers around the bruised flesh, which bore an ugly yellowish hue.
“It nearly missed but it still hit me.”
They’d fired an arrow, at an innocent child? Had she been trying to escape, or was she simple target practice, for men too drunk to aim properly? Xena swore to herself: she would go back and finish the lot of them, and they would gain true understanding of what torture was on the way. “I’m sorry -” She told Gabrielle, and pulled her into an embrace. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t with you. I’m not ever going to leave you again, not ever, okay? I’m here.” More than a placating reassurance, for Xena it was a sworn oath. From that moment on, she decided, no matter what, she would treat Gabrielle as her own child. If they had to live out the rest of their lives like this, she would protect Gabrielle with every droplet of energy she had. “Are you hurt anywhere else?” She had the child pulled against her, but felt her shake her head. “It’s gonna be all right.” She pressed a kiss into fine blonde hair. “I’ll carry you. Don’t be upset: I’m here.” She gently scooped Gabrielle up in a lying position in her arms and set off again through the wood. She heard herself mumbling soothingly all the way back to the inn and up the creaky wooden stairs to their private rooms. Gabrielle was quiet but not morbidly so, and alternately looked about her from this new vantage point and gazed up wonderingly at Xena.
Once inside, Xena had one of the waitresses fill the hot tub, while Gabrielle busied herself with a goblet of milk and a slice of pie, then locked herself and Gabrielle in the steamy room, at last able to relax and stop. She had been naive and foolish in thinking that caring for a child was an easy business, and to believe that she could leave Gabrielle to fend for herself as she did when they were both adults. If she was going to care for Gabrielle - and she was, without hesitation - then she had to commit to it fully. No more fighting, no more living out in the jungle. For as long as this reality lasted, Gabrielle was her priority.
“Now, are you gonna let me take a look at that leg?” She came to kneel in front of Gabrielle, who was leaning back against the edge of the tub.
“Take this off then.” Xena pulled the torn material up over the child’s head and discarded it. “Tomorrow we’d better go to the market and get you some new clothes.” Proper clothes - not ill-fitting cast offs, but clothes of her own. She lifted the lame leg to inspect it, and Gabrielle balanced with a hand on her shoulder. The wound looked painful for a child to cope with, and staring at it just made Xena feel guilty.
Gabrielle hopped a little, and took a deep breath of steam, as if experimenting with whether it would make her cough. “I’m glad you came,” she said at length, interrupting Xena’s guilty reverie. “I missed you. I was so pleased when... when you came.”
Xena wanted to apologise for not coming sooner, to say she was glad she’d come too, but it all just sounded hollow, because she should have taken action, not be sitting here now lamenting about it. So instead she asked “What else happened?” She pressed her thumbs curiously at the edges of the wound, eliciting what looked like pus.
“Not much. They just left me.”
At least that was a relief, and Xena felt herself relax, just a little.
“But they didn’t give me much food,” Gabrielle remembered, as if this was the worst thing.
Xena smiled and stroked her hair before getting up to her feet. “Well I’ll get you all the food you want. As soon as we get cleaned up, huh?”
“Yeah. Oh, and,” Gabrielle recalled, “I... I... I... I...” She flapped uselessly, shaking her hands in her enthusiasm.
“You... You...” Xena prompted, smiling, and pulled off her clothes. “You forgot what you were going to say?”
Gabrielle scowled, defeated. “Yeah.”
“Aww,” Xena sympathised, “sorry.” She dipped her hand in the bubbling water. It was a little cooler than she would have liked it, but she figured it shouldn’t be too hot for a child. “C’mon then.” She climbed into the tub, sat on the ledge which ran around the edge, and held out a hand to help Gabrielle balance.
The girl clambered in as daintily as she could, sinking into the water slowly as if wary that it might sting her grazes, or contain a crocodile ready to snap at her. She stood on the ledge beside Xena, clinging to her fingers, and jiggled a bit as if torn between going further and backing off. “It’s too deep.”
Looking at her, Xena agreed that if she tried to sit on the ledge she probably would be up to her neck in water. It was frightening, all the difficulties children faced which one could overlook. “You want to sit on my lap?” A big nod came in answer, so Xena caught under Gabrielle’s arms and lifted her into her lap. “There. Okay?”
Another nod, and Gabrielle took to splashing her ankles about in the water as if her feet were flippers. The wound on her leg didn’t look so bad, now that the grime had floated off of it, and didn’t seem to be bothering her much. After playing for a bit she slumped back against Xena, tired after a stressful day, and rested her chin on her chest.
Xena smoothed down her hair, not sure what to do but wanting to make amends for the events she considered to be her fault. She wasn’t used to such quietness from her small friend. “You want me to tell you a story?”
Gabrielle appeared to think for a bit, then shook her head no.
That was a first, but Xena was privately pleased, because she didn’t have any stories to tell. “You... want me to sing to you?”
Gabrielle brightened at this, and scrabbled around to get leverage, ending up kneeling with painfully bony knees on Xena’s thighs, her small hands on the Warrior’s shoulders. “Yes!” Her face had returned to its usual state of animation, and she expressed her delight by touching clumsily at Xena’s face. “It’d be good if you sang.”
Come to think of it, Xena didn’t know many more songs than she did stories. Although there was one she remembered hearing her mother sing to Lyceus, when she was small. Maybe her mother had sung it to her, too: she couldn’t remember.
The child watched Xena for a time, mesmerised. For her part Xena wasn’t too used to being gawped at from such close quarters and would have expected to feel uncomfortable, but she found herself gazing back into ocean green eyes, and finding familiarity there. Despite her youth there was a goodness in Gabrielle’s soul that could not be disguised. Xena recognised it as intimately as she would know her own heartbeat. She had been surprisingly lonely here, and clung on to Gabrielle’s spirit more firmly than ever. Xena found herself smiling as she hummed to the child, and reacting to her little expressions of pleasure or surprise. It was a delight she had never experienced. Not even with Solan.
When the pretty tune tailed off, Gabrielle glanced around her for entertainment, and reached down into the water to scoop up a handful of foamy bubbles. Leaning back against the support of Xena’s arms, her rounded belly protruding slightly, she experimented with sliding the bubbles between her palms and clapping her hands to make them pop. Quite taken with this, and with the way the soapy remnants wound little trails around her wrists, she leant over Xena’s arm to scoop up some more. Content that she had a grasp of the basic properties of her new toy, she looked about for some use to put it to, carefully cradling an armful of foam against her chest. Coming to a decision, like an artist ready to apply paint to a canvas, she reached forward and piled the bubbles on Xena’s head. Having made her sculpture, she attentively brushed away any stray bubbles sliding their way over Xena’s head. “My mother’s hair is brown like yours,” she observed.
Xena tolerated this activity with surprising patience, trying not to move too much lest she be accused of hampering the creative process. “Do you miss your mother?” Where was Gabrielle’s mother? Was she a young woman on the other side of Greece worrying over her daughter? Or did nothing exist outside of this bubble of alternate reality? Was this some kind of parallel existence, or was it just a dream-like state, a hallucination? Would it pop at any moment, like the bubbles sliding gradually down her nose, or was this how they would be forever?
“I’d miss you if you weren’t here,” Gabrielle evaded, consciously or not, her head cocked to one side. “I want to stay with you.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Xena reassured, and held her more tightly. She wondered if Gabrielle had a strong memory of her mother, or if her history was a vague and removed thing, something artificial, like the recollection of a dream. In any case, Xena didn’t want to upset her by pushing the issue. And besides, a path of bubbles had weaved a soapy trail over one eye and she had to keep it closed and squint out of the other one, so it wasn’t the ideal time for a serious conversation. If any of her old enemies could see her now, she thought - if anyone except Gabrielle could see her now - she would never live down the humiliation. “Gabrielle,” she said tightly, trying not to move.
“Yeah?” This with a look of studious concentration.
“I think... I’m gonna have to...”
The bubbles had gotten up her nose, and Xena sneezed explosively, spattering the fragrant foam everywhere. Gabrielle froze in mid creation at the startlingly loud noise, then regarded Xena and promptly began to laugh uncontrollably, clasping her hands together and squatting down in Xena’s lap. Her cheeks and chest flushed red with the delight of it, and the sight of her was absolutely infectious. Xena wiped soapsuds from her face, which was apparently comical in itself, then found herself laughing at the brilliance of Gabrielle’s pleasure. She took a better hold of the child, who was slippery now and not sitting still, and Gabrielle - not incorrectly - interpreted this as an affectionate gesture and slid into a cuddle, her arms going around Xena’s shoulders. Now that she could clutch the girl securely against her, Xena’s devilish side surfaced and she scooped up a respectable mound of bubbles to pour over Gabrielle, who wriggled excitedly and kicked out her legs, causing warm water to splash up over the sides of the tub. Driven on my this lively response from her prey, Xena mounted a renewed attack, alternately crawling her free hand over Gabrielle’s body to tickle her and bobbing down to nuzzle her with a kiss. All manner of silly little threats found their way past her lips, and Gabrielle shrieked joyfully at each suggestion and shook her head frantically, all the time trying to guard herself from Xena’s tickling by batting away. It was a tactic doomed to failure, Xena noted victoriously, because at the same time Gabrielle was clinging to her and trying to pull her closer. It was absolutely delightful, and Xena stopped even thinking about how she must appear. The sound of Gabrielle’s laughter was more addictive even than the best opium she had sampled in abundance back in her warlord days, and she did all she could to elicit more of it.
When Gabrielle had laughed herself out she flopped into Xena’s arms and fell into a state of semi-sleep as easily as a newborn. Xena carried her out of the water and dried them both as best she could. She had no experience with such things - Lyceus was the only person she knew who was younger than her, and he was a boy and did things for himself - but she managed, clumsily, and got herself into a summer shift and Gabrielle into an oversized shirt. With the girl’s rosy cheek on her shoulder Xena carried her dozing charge to their room and set her gingerly down on her small bed. The sun was only just going down and the room was still light with an orange glow, but it had been a trying day - for them both - and there was no harm in having an early night.
Xena straightened out the two floppy little legs then sat heavily on the edge of the bed - she was tired too, pressed down by all of this. “Gabrielle -” She gave the nearest foot a little shake to rouse the child a bit. “I’m gonna dress your leg for you, okay? Then we’re both gonna get some shut eye. All right? Sound good to you?” She got a sleepy nod, then efficiently bandaged the wound. It was painful to see, and Xena felt better when the torn flesh was neatly covered with a clean white bandage. That done, she man-handled the floppy girl under her coverlet and leaned down to kiss her goodnight. It was something she liked to do, secretly - kiss Gabrielle on her cheek, or the top of her head - and her clean skin smelled the same now as it always did.
Gabrielle shifted a bit, her golden hair splayed out on the pillow, and sighed tiredly. “Mother -” Even with eyes closed, she reached out a hand and caught her fingers in Xena’s shift.
The Warrior knelt and took the small hand between her own, watching Gabrielle open heavy eyes. “Sweetheart, it’s me, I’m not -”
“Mommy I’m cold,” Gabrielle complained softly, clutching a single finger into her grip. Despite her tiredness, her eyes were clear: she knew who Xena was.
Xena’s words died on her lips. She should gently correct the girl, she knew, remind her that she had a mother who loved her and concede that this retired warlord could never compete with that love. The only problem was that Xena’s love was so enormous that she wanted to compete. She wanted to be Gabrielle’s world, and the focus of her affection. And besides, Gabrielle was cold. What harm would one night do?
“C’mon then. Come lie close to me.” Xena caught Gabrielle under the arms and scooped her up, carried her to the larger bed and set her down in it. They both crawled under the covers, and Gabrielle curled into Xena’s arms.
It was so wonderful, and so profoundly right to hold a child against your heart, that Xena fell into a sleep more wholesome and restful than she’d enjoyed in a long time. Or at least, only until the sun went down. Once it was dark, her worries returned to haunt her, and she awoke chilled and with a dry throat, unable to sleep.
What was she doing? Hadn’t she learned from Gabrielle that selfishness wasn’t her Way? That to love another was to do what was best for them, not for yourself? If Gabrielle’s mother did exist here, the two had to be reunited. The only way to find out, Xena decided as she lay in the pitch black room, was to go to Poteidaia. She would take Gabrielle home, and if she found a parent pining for her child, she would hand the girl back and force herself to do it with a smile. She would still see Gabrielle, she told herself: she would be... a big sister, or a favourite aunt. And no, it wouldn’t be the same and it wouldn’t be enough, but it would be the right thing to do.
The next morning, decisively, Xena rose early and packed her things. It was something she was used to - moving on, travelling - and she could pack a small bag almost thoughtlessly. When Gabrielle woke, yawning and rubbing her eyes, Xena set her down in front of a crust of bread and some cooled chicken. The Warrior watched her furtively while she tucked in, then when the girl was finished she asked “You done?”
Gabrielle nodded with a kind of shrug, as if to suggest that she was never really done with food, but this was as good as it got.
“Good. Go get your clothes on. We’re going on a trip.” She tried to sound happy (which she wasn’t), and patient (which she wasn’t either), but she was tense and a tight smile was the best she could manage.
Gabrielle clambered from her chair and went to Xena, trailing her hand along the edge of the table. “Where are we going on a trip, Xena?” She stood between Xena’s knees, starring up at her. Gabrielle never complained about travelling, Xena thought, she was always eager to see new things.
It didn’t seem like a good idea to mention Gabrielle’s family - if this strange world was an isolated or unreal one, and Gabrielle’s home didn’t exist here, it would only upset her to be reminded of it. It did cross Xena’s mind that perhaps she had another reason for keeping silent - that if she mentioned Gabrielle’s mother again the girl might chatter about her on their trip, might be excited to see her, and Xena would have to share the affection she had grown used to having for herself. It was a selfish reason, and Xena didn’t want to think about it. “We’re going to another village,” Xena answered her, “there’s someone I want to find.”
“Oh. How long will it take?” This more out of interest than concern.
Xena didn’t know how long it would take, she’d never made the journey without a horse before. “A week maybe? A bit longer?”
Gabrielle nodded, and placed her small - and slightly sticky, Xena noted with despair - hand on the knee beside her. “We’ll go together? You won’t leave?”
Now this Xena could be more confident about. “I’ve told you before, Gabrielle,” she reassured warmly, leaning down for a hug, “where I go, you go. That okay with you?”
Gabrielle gave a big nod, standing on tiptoe with her slender arms locked around Xena’s neck.
“Good. Go get your clothes, then.”
And so the unlikely pair set out. Xena didn’t know if she would return to her old home in a week or not at all, whether Gabrielle would be with her or not, whether this reality was the way she would live for the rest of her life or she’d wake up tomorrow with her adult companion back beside her. This was an uncomfortable situation for a Warrior Princess who had been planning and goal setting since before her teens, but she was nothing if not adaptable, and somehow she would cope with it, just as long as she had done all she could to ensure Gabrielle’s safety and happiness. And so it was with determination that she set off toward her goal.
The pace was inevitably slow, with no horse and Gabrielle’s strides half their normal size, but Xena was used to the meandering path of her companion, as she stopped to look at berries or an insect or a pretty view, and in any case there was no hurry. Xena had never really made much time solely to enjoy Gabrielle’s company, simply because it was foreign to her nature, so she decided not to squander this opportunity. Admittedly conversation with a child whose years didn’t yet run into double figures was likely to be rather basic, but if she was honest it would probably be more on her level anyway. Despite the difference in age, this child displayed many of the familiar characteristics which Xena loved and valued in her adult counterpart, and her company was equally enjoyable.
If she had thought herself concerned about Gabrielle’s safety before, as an adult, it was quadrupled now. Was she tired? Cold? Hungry? Bored? As she walked, Xena thought that a baby would just cry its distress, and an adult could be responsible for speaking for itself, but was Gabrielle at the age where she would bear discomfort in silence out of obedience, or fear of retribution? Was Gabrielle afraid of her? The chilling thought went through Xena and made her steps leaden. She had no reason to suspect as much, aside from the fact that practically everyone she had ever met had grown to fear her. She stopped and looked back.
Gabrielle had dropped a fair way behind, and Xena instantly reprimanded herself for not paying more attention - anything could have happened. Damn it. Perhaps a horse would have been a better idea. “You all right?” She asked the girl.
“Yeah,” Gabrielle replied lightly, nodding as she came up to Xena’s side. This close, the top of her head only reached Xena’s mid-thigh, and she had to crane her neck to look at the Warrior.
Xena didn’t think she’d increased her pace much. “You’re slowing down, is your leg hurting?” Was she being cruel in the extreme to make a child walk on an injury like that? Xena was single-minded, and knew she would barely have felt such a wound herself, but a baby? She was thoughtless at best, self absorbed at worst. She kept telling herself it, so why couldn’t she stop being it?
Gabrielle apparently had no such thoughts, and gave a mild shrug. “No.” She fidgeted about a bit. “My legs ache.” It wasn’t a complaint, or an excuse, just an observation.
Relief and guilt flooded through Xena like ocean waves washing onto a beach, refreshing one moment and cold the next. “I guess we’ve come further than I thought.” In fact it wasn’t very far at all, but that was by the standards of a warrior who thought little of marching through the night and day without let up, pushing through the protests of her body.
“Do your legs ache?” Gabrielle was always keen to hear about others. She played a hand lightly at the hem of Xena’s dress.
“Well, no, but they’re bigger than yours,” Xena smiled reassurance at her. What to do? Gabrielle was too big and heavy to comfortably carry on a hip very far, and while Xena thought she could conceivably carry her in a lying position almost indefinitely, she didn’t think Gabrielle would tolerate it for very long. If they kept stopping it would take an age to get to Poteidaia, and their money and supplies were finite. She stood thinking for a moment, with Gabrielle waiting patiently for something to happen. Then she recalled an image from long ago: it was Toris with Lyceus, when her younger brother was in his third or forth year. The brown haired boy had his brother on his shoulders, running around a field with Lyceus shrieking with the fun of it, his bare feet clutched in his brother’s hands. Xena couldn’t remember if her brother had ever given her piggybacks. Perhaps her father...
“Tell you what,” she said to Gabrielle, reclaiming her wandering attention, “let’s give your legs a rest.” She crouched down with her back to the girl and reached for her hands. “Here, get on. I’ll carry you. Reckon you’ll be taller than the trees, don’t you?”
Her delight suppressed only by her surprise over this new thing, Gabrielle eagerly clambered onto Xena’s back. Xena pulled her legs into the right position and told her to hold on, then stood up gingerly. She had to shift the new weight on her shoulders, and adjust the muddy little boots knocking at her ribcage, and spared an empathetic thought for Argo and her kind. She didn’t feel too steady, and widened her stance, determined to master this ultimately paternal activity. Cyrene had been both mother and father to her, and in any case, Xena was never going to have much of an affinity for baking and sewing dresses.
“How you doing up there?” She asked her passenger, feeling the small hands at the top of her head.
“Are you my horse?” Gabrielle asked excitedly, taking in this new perspective.
“Well, if you like.” If it keeps you entertained, Xena thought, and started off at a stroll.
“Can you trot?”
“No.” There was a limit to the humiliation she could take. “I’m a horse that only walks. I’m very considerate of my rider, you see. I’m an elegant horse.” Again she thought of Argo, who was nothing if not ladylike - although Argo could turn it on a dime and be a ferocious warhorse when the cause was sufficient. Xena was rather satisfied with her answer, and apparently so was Gabrielle, as her question had been a query rather than a request. Gabrielle had never derived any pleasure from speed, as Xena did - she preferred having time to appreciate her surroundings.
“I can reach the trees,” she informed Xena excitedly, straining upwards and reaching her hands into the hanging leaves, brushing her fingertips through them. “I can...” She reached too far and lost her balance, and Xena felt the girl’s arms clamp around her head in an effort to hang on. Gabrielle was laughing, both alarmed and amused.
“Gabrielle, I can’t see -” Gabrielle had her hands haphazardly over Xena’s face, blocking the sight in one eye and squishing her nose out of shape. The girl’s legs were wrapped around her neck too, now she came to think of it, like a python squeezing the air from its prey, but Xena decided to tackle one problem at a time. “You think you could -”
“There’re apples, Xena,” Gabrielle exclaimed. “Can you see them?” She was reaching up into the foliage again, and Xena hung onto her ankles with one hand whilst trying to pry her fingers away with the other.
“Can’t see much of... anything!” Victoriously she peeled off the hand and held it in hers, looking around her as she realised she’d veered to the edge of the path in her blindness. “Where are the apples?”
“Up here.” Gabrielle pointed. They looked good and ripe, too.
“Good find. You think you can pick one?” She steadied Gabrielle while she pulled down a rosy apple, clutching the big fruit to her chest as she got her balance back. She handed it down to Xena, then picked one for herself. “Nice work,” Xena praised, biting into her snack. “You’re turning into a neat little farmer, I’ve got myself a star apple picker. Think we’ll make a good team, don’t you?” She patted Gabrielle’s leg as she set off down the path again.
Progress was much more speedy in this fashion, although Gabrielle alternated riding with walking, and needed an afternoon nap. When the sun began to fall Xena found a quiet glade near the bank of a familiar old lake and set up camp there. There were plenty of small towns between Amphipolis and Poteidaia where they could have found inns to stay in, but again there was the question of having enough dinars. Besides, it was mild, and Xena had missed being outside in the elements. She started on their evening meal, pointedly instructing Gabrielle not to go near the fire. As ever, the child ate whatever was put in front of her, and was particularly appreciative of the handful of purple and red berries Xena tipped into her palm for dessert.
After she’d cleared up, the Warrior sat down heavily on a log to watch the child, who was sitting cross-legged on a grey blanket and playing with two twigs and a pinecone. Xena couldn’t make out quite what she was mumbling to herself, but it sounded like she was acting out some fantasy scene, with the bits of forest detritus as her characters. Xena had imagined as much, when she’d wondered how her adult friend had developed her storytelling abilities. Xena couldn’t remember playing in such a way: she’d amused herself by walking, and climbing trees, by fishing and mock-fighting with the boys in her village, but she’d never had much imagination for fantasy.
She looked down to her feet and idly kicked away some fallen wood stumps which were lumpy under her boots. One caught her eye and she bent down to pick it up. It was roughly oval shaped, but with a pinching in the middle like a figure of eight. Xena turned it over in her hands a few times, then smiled and pulled a knife from her boot.
A short time later she rose and went over to Gabrielle, tucking the wooden stump under the furs she’d laid out earlier. “Gabrielle, time for bed.”
Gabrielle looked, up at her, disappointed, a twig in each hand. “I’m not tired.”
“Oh, so how come you’ve been yawning since supper then?” She beckoned with a fond twist of her head. “Come on. Your sticks will still be there in the morning.”
Gabrielle reluctantly got up. “I don’t want to go to bed.” Her tone wasn’t sulking, just sad, and Xena welcomed her over with an arm around her shoulders.
“Not even with me?” She scratched her hand into the silky blonde hair on Gabrielle’s head.
“With you,” Gabrielle acquiesced, resting her cheek against Xena’s belly and looking forlornly back at her imaginary fantasy scene.
“You might find something you like under the furs if you get into bed,” Xena encouraged her, with a ridiculous amount of anticipation. “Go have a look.”
Distracted from her disappointment by this promise, Gabrielle skipped over to the bedroll and knelt at the edge to dig about in the furs. As Xena triumphantly got in beside her, she found the toy Xena had hidden there for her, and held it up. It was a carved owl, with big eyes and feathers and two wings tucked against its rounded body. It had been done roughly, of course, but it was unique, and Gabrielle thought herself equal to the Gods to have such a special possession. She gasped in delight and studied it, both held at arms length and tucked against her chest. “It’s a bird,” she told Xena distractedly, flopping down to lie encircled in Xena’s arm with her head propped on her shoulder.
“So it is.” Xena glanced over, smiling.
“Birds can fly very high. Especially this one.” She swooped the toy about in the air, almost clocking Xena on the nose with her elbow.
“Not at night though,” Xena discouraged gently. “Owls need to sleep at night so that they’re wide awake in the day.” As soon as it had left her lips something about that statement sounded wrong to Xena, but she pressed on. “Just like little girls. Why don’t you tell him to go to sleep.”
Taking the hint, Gabrielle rolled onto her belly, her chin on Xena and the owl clutched to her. She nodded and let her eyes drift closed. “Thank you, Xena.”
“Uh ha.” Xena watched her for a bit, and soon she tired of her awkward position and blindly reached out her arms. Xena tucked her into a warm cuddle, rolling onto her side, and kissed her cheek. Gabrielle was soft and cosy to be against, and Xena soon fell asleep with her cheek nestled against her child’s forehead.
Gabrielle was predictably tired and hard to stir the next day - she had never been a morning person, unlike Xena, who was always up as soon as the impenetrable black of night began to surrender to the first thin rays of daylight. She liked to stretch and get organised, and watch the sky change from black to grey, through watery blue to familiar Greek brilliance.
“C’mon, maybe a swim will wake you up.” She guided Gabrielle down to the edge of the lake. Not one to be hurried, the girl wanted to sit and play with her owl in the sand for a short while before Xena could persuade her not to take the object into the water. Gabrielle buried the poor animal several times before setting him atop a perilous mountain, then seemed content to leave him there to watch.
Xena pulled the girl’s shift over her head: why did children’s clothing get dirty twice as quickly as adult attire? “You’re getting hot,” she remarked in surprise, “the sun’s barely up and already you’re roasting. Go cool down, go on.” She watched Gabrielle splash into the water as she dusted sand from her hands.
The water was cooler, and took the flushing from Gabrielle’s cheeks. Xena waded in past her, and threw over her shoulder “Can you swim?” Gabrielle nodded eagerly, so Xena turned, shoulder deep in water, and held out her arms. “C’mon then.” She didn’t even intend to give the child an encouraging grin, but it was almost instinctive, it came naturally. Not only did the very sight of the child make her inexplicably happy, but Xena found herself enjoying her new role, enjoying the revelation that she was actually reasonably proficient at it.
And so Gabrielle messily set off toward Xena’s welcoming arms, determination etched on her face. Her style was a clumsy adaptation of doggie paddle, and lacked the grace of breaststroke or the speed of front crawl, but she was making progress, despite splashing herself repeatedly in the face. She had her tongue stuck out of her mouth, her eyes on the prize, her feet flapping frantically behind her. Xena reached out, ready to catch her when she made it. “Keep going,” she encouraged, taking ridiculous pleasure in Gabrielle’s achievement, “almost there.”
“You can do it -”
“Clever girl!” Xena scooped the child out of the water and swung her around before holding her in a cuddle. “Well done, Gabrielle! You can swim, can’t you.”
Gabrielle nodded, pleased with herself, her legs hooked around Xena’s waist. “I could swim...” She paused to think of a suitably long distance, her head cocked to one side, her hands clutched at Xena’s shoulders “...all the way to... to...”
“To?” Xena bobbed her gently in the water, delighted by her.
“To the moon,” Gabrielle decided.
“That’s a long way.” Xena released Gabrielle enough to nudge her around onto her back, never completely letting go, aware that the child was well out of her depth. “Think we should go for a ride? Hold onto me.” She set off at a gentle breaststroke with Gabrielle perched on her back and holding on around her neck. “All right?”
“Yep.” Gabrielle pressed herself close to this wonderful new gift in her life.
Xena was a strong swimmer and the squirming weight was no problem to her, although she had to adjust Gabrielle’s arms at her neck when they threatened to cut off her air supply. “Can you see any fish?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle watched her feet trailing in the water.
“Yeah? What kind?”
“Sharks,” Gabrielle decided.
Gabrielle pointed at random out into the lake, and Xena made a sharp turn in the opposite direction, making the child laugh and hold on tighter. Thrilled by both the ride and the attention, Gabrielle quickly decided that she’d spied another shark, and Xena obediently veered away from it.
They went on playing like this for a while, until Gabrielle lost interest and favoured lying her head against Xena’s shoulder. Figuring she was tired, Xena took her back to shallow water and eased her down. She felt cooler and the redness was gone from her skin, and Xena thought she should probably get her dried and dressed before she got too chilled. “You fancy a snack? I think we have some nuts, and berries.” She held Gabrielle’s hand and they waded back toward the shore.
Once out of the supporting water, Gabrielle stumbled and fell to her knees. Xena was fondly amused by her weariness, and bent down to pick her up. “Whoops. C’mon, nearly there.” She set Gabrielle back on her feet, but as soon as she had done so the child fell again, her legs too weak to hold her. Disturbingly, she flopped over onto her side, her breathing hard, a slight scowl on her pale face. “Gabrielle?” Xena knelt, feeling panicked, and shook her a bit. “Gabrielle? What is it? Stop it.” She felt the small body, finding it cold and faintly clammy. The child groaned and rubbed at her face, apparently unable to get up. Xena’s exploring hands immediately went to Gabrielle’s leg, and the wound there that she had almost forgotten. Unhidden by clothes, the arrow wound was now obviously infected, puffy and an awful shade of yellowish green. Xena cursed herself for not having noticed earlier, for not having thought about the possibility. Had she not cleaned the wound properly? Had the arrow been poisoned to begin with, or had it simply been dirty?
For a moment, for the first time in a great while, Xena felt panic to the point of being frozen. Suddenly there seemed to be so many things she needed to do that she didn’t know where to start. She was so afraid of what might happen to Gabrielle if she did anything wrong that for a few breaths she just knelt there in the sand, watching the child’s laboured breathing and the look of frustration on her face.
Annoyed at herself, Xena pulled herself out of her frozen state and gingerly lifted Gabrielle into her arms, trying to hurry but not jostle her. Out of the water, it was evident just how chilled the child was. She set her down on the square of drying cloth she’d left on the beach, and began to briskly rub her with a corner of it, hoping to both warm and stimulate her. Fear blazed in her and she barely noticed her own wet shift clinging to her.
Gabrielle coughed sickly a few times, roused by the rubbing, and fidgeted, trying to lift her head. “My owl...”
“Gabrielle, keep still.” Xena’s tone was firmer than she had intended, but her priority was to get Gabrielle dry and warm and to examine her leg, none of which she could do with the girl writhing about. She pressed a hand to the child’s belly in an effort to still her as she worked with the cloth, feeling the quick heartbeat pounding there.
“But my owl...” Gabrielle pleaded mournfully, reaching out toward her toy, perched on its sand mountain a short distance away. The lake was vast enough to feel the force of the wind and the pull of the moon, and a gentle tide was lapping its way nearer to the wooden animal. With her hands outstretched Gabrielle began to cry, quietly but, for Xena, unbearably. She pulled a fist to her mouth and wept, her legs drawing up to her belly despite Xena’s efforts to hold her.
The Warrior paused and regarded her, shocked by her misery. She had her priorities, but Gabrielle was not a horse, or a piece of meat to be tended to: she had priorities too. Xena pushed up to her feet and ran to fetch the toy, grabbing it and returning to deposit it in Gabrielle’s arms. “Here, it’s okay.” She took a moment to bend over the child and kiss her, hearing her gasp in tearful relief and clutch the toy close. “It’s all right, Gabrielle, hush now.” Gabrielle had rolled over to face her, her status as hero and saviour redoubled in the child’s eyes by this one small act. Xena rubbed her back more gently than before and felt her quieten. Probably she was in shock - the poison had been in her system for a few days now, what difference would another moment make? Xena smoothed down the wet blonde hair and kissed the pale forehead again. “Is your leg hurting you?”
When there wasn’t even a nod for reply she drew back to look at the child. Gabrielle’s eyes were open, still fixed on the toy clutched in her hands, but her focus was distant, and she didn’t appear to have heard. Panic flashed icy cold through Xena again. Oh, Gods, she thought, stay with me. She shook the girl’s arm until she stirred, then pointed to her leg. “Does it hurt?” She repeated.
Gabrielle paused for a moment before shrugging and shaking her head, which experience led Xena to conclude that her friend actually was in some discomfort. At any age, Gabrielle was brave and never made a fuss about herself.
“Come on,” Xena said at length, “let’s get you warmed up. Hold onto me? I’ve got you.” She picked child and blanket up and carried her back to their camp. Setting her down for a moment by the dwindling fire, seeing that she was occupied with the owl, Xena quickly dried and dressed herself. When she returned to take Gabrielle into her lap she had her supplies with her, and set about getting the child into some clothes and dressing her leg. Some of her colour had returned, although she was still subdued, but the leg, to Xena, looked awful. The wound itself was puffy and mottled yellow, and the skin around it bore an unnatural maroon flush.
“What is it?” Gabrielle inquired quietly from under Xena’s chin.
Right on form, Xena thought affectionately, always wanting to know everything. “It’s just a scratch, Gabrielle,” she reassured them both, careful to cover up the unpleasant sight. “We’ll stay here today and let you rest up. You’ll be just fine tomorrow.” She let herself believe the words: Gabrielle was tough, the fever would break, and her body would rid itself of the infection. “Okay?” She took the owl she was offered and held it out for Gabrielle to take back.
Xena stuck to her plan, forced herself to keep busy, and let Gabrielle sleep. The two lay side by side overnight, although Xena was awake for most of it, gazing up at the stars and worrying. It wasn’t any great surprise when Gabrielle was still dozy in the morning - this was a daily occurrence, in any reality. Xena found some bird eggs and scrambled them in a pan before going to wake Gabrielle. She gave her a little nudge and called her name, waiting for the green eyes to open. “Gonna have some breakfast?” She smiled down at the child and pushed back the covers for her.
Gabrielle rolled to her feet obediently, reassuring Xena, but she walked with a distinct limp, and only managed a couple of paces before flopping down again. Her breath was hard come by, and overnight her leg had turned an awful deep purple.
“Gods -” Shocked, Xena crouched and eased the girl up, brushing dry mud from her knees. “You all right?”
Gabrielle didn’t reply, concentrating on keeping her balance with her weight held off her lame leg. She had her mouth open to breathe, her chest heaving, and there was a quiet alarm in her eyes that made Xena take hold of her.
“Look, you’re just hungry, right? You didn’t eat much yesterday. You just need some food in you.” Afraid, and doing a poor job of suppressing it, Xena picked the girl up. “You like eggs? Here.”
They sat, Gabrielle in Xena’s lap and still clutching her owl, and Xena handed her a plate of egg. The child went to grasp the wooden spoon, but her hand had a slight tremor to it and apparently lacked the strength to complete the movement. Xena encouraged her to go on, but it was obvious that she was too weak to manage even this simple task. Helpless, Xena took the spoon and fed her the fluffy egg, although she didn’t take very much of it.
The infection had gotten hold, Xena knew, and it set off a cold pressure behind her ribcage that there was no distraction from. This wasn’t going to get better by itself. Xena didn’t have the herbs and salves with her that she needed. She wasn’t even sure if they would work, not with a child, not with an infection this bad. Gabrielle’s whole leg...
Got to get back, Xena thought, got to get back to Amphipolis, can’t keep a sick child out in the forest like this. She looked down to Gabrielle, who was sleeping again, and stroked her hair. Wasn’t the whole reason they’d set off on this journey to take Gabrielle home, to Poteidaia? If it was important for Gabrielle to be with her mother then, surely it was all the more vital now? If Gabrielle didn’t make it...
Xena cursed herself for thinking such a thing and pushed the notion aside. Gabrielle would be fine - she always was - she just had to get her someplace where she’d be comfortable and warm and have some medicine.
So, Amphipolis or Poteidaia? They were half way between the two - both would take probably four or five days, with Gabrielle needing to be carried and to rest frequently. Which way to go? Damn it, Xena hated to be helpless. She looked down to Gabrielle, who was floppy and dozing again, her skin pasty. Xena stood, carrying the child back to the furs, and set her down carefully, arranging her small limbs under the blanket. “I won’t be long,” she told her, “I’m just...”
“Hmm?” Given pause, the Warrior sat and bent over so that the grasping hands could reach her.
“When I’m better,” Gabrielle began in a small voice, “can we go for a ride on your horse?”
Xena smiled. “Sure we can.” She rested her forearms on either side of Gabrielle, scooping her into a cuddle. Pale hands stroked clumsily in her hair.
“Can...” Gabrielle had to swallow to strengthen her voice enough to talk. “Can we take her to a big field, so she can run?”
“Uh ha.” Xena let her hand stray to Gabrielle’s rounded cheek, and touched affectionately at the tip of her nose.
The child gave a shuddering sigh. “She’d like that, wouldn’t she.”
“I’m sure she would.” Xena smoothed back lank hair. “And you can feed her some apples?”
“Apples,” Gabrielle agreed with a nod, as her eyes drifted closed.
Xena caught the arms around her neck as they loosened, and leaned in to press an innocent little kiss on Gabrielle’s lips. The image of the two of them riding Argo together was a comforting one, and Xena let herself float into it for a few moments as she held the small body in her arms.
Funny though, she thought to herself, that Gabrielle should mention a creature she had never even met. Xena’s eyebrows drew into a frown. She owned no horse here: what was Gabrielle referring to? Perhaps it was coincidence: many families kept horses, and almost all travellers did - perhaps Gabrielle was just making an assumption? Although she had referred to the horse specifically as ‘she’, and working horses were usually male. Xena pushed up from her resting position. “Gabrielle, how did you -” But the child was already asleep - or worse - and Xena didn’t have the heart to wake her.
She stood, making sure Gabrielle was covered warmly, and moved some distance away, picking her way through some brambles and long grass to find a place to be alone. She could see Gabrielle from where she was, but was afforded a degree of privacy. The Warrior knelt, sitting back on her heels, adopting the most submissive position she could think of. The small dagger she carried with her in her boot dug into her ankle, and she removed it and lay it in the grass in front of her.
“I have never been very good at praying,” she said at length to whoever might be listening, “but I hope someone up there can hear me.” She shrugged rather helplessly, spreading her hands. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where I am. Everywhere I go, I seem to lose the people I care about.” She thought about the lonely tree. “Estonia. Lyceus. Solan.” How many more people would she have to say goodbye to? “Gabrielle.” Her voice broke on the word, and her heart contorted in pain, making her angry and desperate. “Please, please don’t take Gabrielle from me too. She’s just a child. Show me what to do: do I turn back, or go on? Show me how to keep Gabrielle with me.” She dropped her head, offering up whatever dedication or supplication was necessary: if it would buy Gabrielle’s life, she would gladly give it.
Of course, no one answered. Xena pushed wearily to her feet, and returned to camp. She packed up their things, quietly and quickly. She would go home. Amphipolis was a given, a known commodity: she would go there. “Gabrielle - ” She whispered to the child, regretfully pulling her into a sit. “We’re going for a little walk. Okay? I’ll carry you, you just -”
Xena paused to listen to the faint, croaky voice. Gabrielle had dark circles under her eyes now, and even the dappled forest light seemed to hurt them. “Yeah?”
“Are...” Gabrielle wheezed, barely audible, “... are we there yet?”
“Not yet, Sweetheart: just a little walk.”
Gabrielle nodded, accepting this. “I thought we were... at the temple.”
“Temple?” Xena laughed this off, not understanding, and went to gather the child up into her arms. “No, we’re going back to Amphipolis. We’re going to get you to a healer.”
There was more strength in this one word, and it gave Xena pause. “But Gabrielle, we have to -”
“I had a dream,” Gabrielle went on, barely able to keep her eyes open. “I dreamt about a temple. And there was a woman, with fair hair, dressed all in pink silk.”
“Well that’s a pretty dream, Sweetheart, but -”
“Xena we have to go there.” Gabrielle clutched at Xena’s hand and held it, her eyes fixed and determined. She spoke as if she found the campsite airless, and the end of each sentence was harsh and quiet. “We have to go. I saw it. The woman in pink. The temple...” She trailed off and her eyes closed, and Xena couldn’t rouse her.
The Warrior clutched the baby to her and stood. Gabrielle must have been describing Aphrodite, and there was a temple not far from here - albeit in a direction which would lead them away from both Amphipolis and Poteidaia. Gabrielle had always claimed the Gift of Prophecy: was this the message Xena had sought, was it really a vision of the future, or just a child’s fantasy? Xena gazed down at Gabrielle, knowing the decision she made would mean her life. She had long held the responsibility for her partner’s safety - it was simply a fact, regardless of how Gabrielle would deny it - but she never thought it would come down to this, to one simple decision. A one in three chance.
Xena bobbed down for her bag and slung it on her back. She had never been one to be inactive, passive. She would make her decision, and deal with the consequences boldly, as she always did. She would trust Gabrielle: they would go to Aphrodite.
It was a walk of two solid days and a whole night. Xena didn’t stop. She didn’t sleep, didn’t eat. Every so often she would take a swig of water, but she didn’t stop. Gabrielle didn’t awaken, even when Xena shifted her weight to relieve aching arms. At night, when the air grew damp and thick with moisture from the trees, Xena held the child closer to her, her head and face covered with linen to warm the air she was breathing a little.
When they reached the small temple, Xena was exhausted and ready to drop. She forced her aching legs up the steps, avoiding the baskets of fruit and flowers that had been left there as offerings. The structure was pretty but otherwise unimpressive, small and built of stone, nestled in a leafy grove. Inside it was attractively lit by sunlight spilling in through high windows. It was really just a square space, dominated by an altar for worshipping and more steps laden with more gifts. Xena had no time for sacrifices or for kneeling. She called out. “Aphrodite!” The word echoed around her, bouncing back to her from the stone walls. “Aphrodite! I need to speak with you: show yourself.”
A few paces away, a tingling sound gave way to a shower of sparkles, falling away to reveal an immaculate Aphrodite, dressed in a glittering pink two-piece and with blonde hair tumbling at her shoulders. She regarded Xena disapprovingly. “I’m afraid this isn’t a bath house, you must’ve made a wrong turn.” She didn’t sound in the least bit apologetic.
“My name is Xena.” Xena approached her, still cradling Gabrielle. “I need your help. I’ve come here with my child -”
Aphrodite brightened at this. “Ooh, I love babies! They’re so cute, don’t you think? So... Oh.” By this time she had looked down into Gabrielle’s face. Finding it grey, decorated with cracked lips, lank hair and sunken eyes, she backed off. “What’s that?” The Goddess was clearly uncomfortable, and absently wound a curl of hair around her finger.
“Her name is Gabrielle.”
“Why is she all... you know... waxy like that? It’s not a good look: really.” Aphrodite regarded them both as if they were infectious.
“She’s sick,” Xena explained, as patiently as she could. “She’ll die if nothing is done.” The words went entirely against Xena’s nature, but she spoke them. “Please, help us.”
Aphrodite turned up her nose, and went over to fiddle with a sprig of lavender at her altar. “Woah, listen, Honey, you’re in the wrong temple, you need the Goddess of Maternity, or The Infirm, or something. Something... icky like that. I don’t do death and decay, it is so bad for the complexion.”
Disbelieving, Xena pressed forward. “You’re not even going to try? My child is dying, and you won’t even help her? Damn it, you won’t even look at her -”
“I’d be really grateful if you didn’t make a mess in here, these tiles cost a fortune, you know what I mean?”
Xena staggered back with the impact of this. She had precious little faith in the Gods as it was, but this... this destroyed any belief she had ever had. Overwhelmed with anger, she gazed down to Gabrielle, and the anger was washed away by grief. The child, who she had barely dared look at on the trip for fear of what she would find, was scarcely breathing, her skin ashen and cold. Under the blanket, her injured leg was heavy and frighteningly dark, mottled and bloated like a dead thing. “I’m sorry...”
“Listen, why don’t you take it outside and just...”
“Shut up!” Xena rounded on Aphrodite, blood rushing up to her cheeks. “Shut up!” It came out as a sob, silencing Aphrodite. “Call yourself the Goddess of Love? You don’t know the meaning of the word! How could you: if you’d ever felt it you’d never leave a child to die like this. I love her. I would do anything to save her, do you hear me? Anything. I would give my life for hers in an instant. You know nothing.” There was only grief now, and Xena sunk down onto a step, cradling Gabrielle and turning all her attention to her. “You can go straight to Hell.”
Aphrodite was clearly stunned by this, and hovered where she was for a few long, silent moments. “I... I didn’t...”
“Get lost.” Xena tucked her face down by Gabrielle’s and kissed the cool cheek. “Go away.”
After that, Xena knew nothing but Gabrielle. There was no time now to go back to Amphipolis or anywhere else. All that mattered was that they would be here, together. She set about stroking Gabrielle’s matted hair back from her face with a fingertip, the skin there now grey and sullen. “I’m here,” she whispered, “you know that, right?” There seemed to be the ghost of a nod, but Xena couldn’t be sure if she’d just imagined it. “I’m with you: it’s just you and me, just how you like it.” Xena leaned down to indulgently kiss the child’s face again. “You can sleep if you want to, it’s okay.” Gabrielle made a little twitch, then, so Xena clutched her tiny hand, encircling it in her palm, ready to still her if anything awful happened. Xena had seen plenty of death, the way the body could revolt in the last moments, the stomach contorting, blood coming, limbs convulsing. Spare her that, Xena preyed. “Everything’ll be all right, Gabrielle, hush -”
The sunken eyes flickered, then opened. Beyond the awful waxy skin, those eyes were still bright, with irises as turquoise as the depths of the ocean, flecked here and there with hazel. Given simple but enormous joy by this most beautiful sight, Xena broke into a smile and cradled the child closer, their noses almost touching.
“Xena -” The voice was just a cracked whisper.
“I’m here, Sweetheart -”
“I’m not, just something in my eye.” Xena hadn’t been aware that she was, but when she bobbed down for another kiss she left Gabrielle’s cheek wet. “You want me to sing to you?” Her voice was unsteady and barely had more volume than Gabrielle’s.
The child pulled up a hand and held her cool fingers against Xena’s face, touching the curves of her cheeks and nose, the warmth of her lips. “No. Just look at me?”
Xena could feel the tears coursing now, but ignored them. She pressed a kiss into the small palm. “I could look at you forever...”
“I love you...” The air escaped Gabrielle on the last word as if there were a great weight suddenly on her chest.
“I love you.” It was coming, Xena knew, and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it. It was almost here. Oh, Gods... “You’re my angel, Gabrielle, you know that? You’re the best part of who I am. I love you.” Unable to bear the inactivity, Xena hauled Gabrielle up and set her against her chest as one would hold a newborn, a hand supporting her head. It probably wasn’t the best position for a sick child to be in, but it hardly mattered now, and Xena knew it. She gazed up lovingly - worshippingly - and in Gabrielle’s wide eyes and parted lips she saw awareness. Not fear - Gabrielle had never been afraid of dying - but knowledge: she knew.
“Don’t be afraid of a thing,” Xena insisted, “you hear me?” Their eyes were locked. “Don’t be afraid, my darling.” Gabrielle gave a deliberate blink. “I will always be beside you: always. I love you so much...” Gabrielle’s eyes rolled back and she loosened, her head easing down onto Xena’s shoulder. “You just go to sleep.” Xena ignored the sobs breaking from her chest, the salty tears flooding from her eyes. “Go to sleep, Gabrielle, shh...” Cradling Gabrielle’s head to her, Xena let the dead weight slip down against her chest a bit. “My good girl.” Calm despite the trembling of her fingers and the stinging of her eyes, Xena gingerly found the juncture of Gabrielle’s shoulder and neck and grazed her fingers upwards, feeling for the pulse point under her jaw.
Of course, there was nothing.
Moving almost automatically, Xena knelt and carefully, so carefully, eased the lifeless body down onto the cool floor of the temple. One hand pressed to the unmoving chest, she bent to close Gabrielle’s eyes and kiss her lips, and tell her goodbye.
“Say... I’m real sorry about... about your kid...”
Xena turned. Aphrodite stood where she had been the whole time, all pretty and vital and pouting, not a speck of grime on her, not a scratch of blood, immortal. “You.” Xena spat out the word, and rose up to her feet, blood thundering through her. “You. You could’ve saved her.”
“I’m sorry, Xena, I didn’t realise this Gabrielle meant so...”
“Don’t you even say her name!” Xena had rounded on her, stalking, deadly. “You’re not even worthy to breathe the same air she does.”
“Listen,” Aphrodite backed off, “I thought it was just one more human, you know? Just another -”
“Shut up! Just shut up!” Wild with fury and pain, Xena charged for Aphrodite, hands outstretched, face an awful mask of grief and injustice. She clawed for the Goddess, growling like an enraged banshee, all the more furious when Aphrodite shimmered out of existence before her and rematerialised by Gabrielle. Crying out with the pain of all that had ever happened to her, of all the losses she had endured, of Solan, Lyceus, Estonia, and now this final, final grief, Xena grabbed a terracotta pot from the altar and flung it. It was aimed at one of the stone pillars which supported the ceiling, and struck its target, shattering into crumbly pieces. Satisfied by the violence and damage and smashing sound, Xena hauled up a larger piece and threw that too. Her arm swinging clumsily, she knocked over a small pillar which bore a whole clutch of offerings, sending the fruits, flowers and ceramic gifts clattering and rolling. Blind with pain, the Warrior gave a kick at the debris, but the momentum carried her off balance and she thumped down onto her rear amongst the destruction.
Given pause, Xena saw Aphrodite kneeling by Gabrielle. “Don’t you touch her! Get your filthy hands off her!” It was more of a sob than a shout, and Xena lacked the strength even to climb back to her feet. Just leave us alone...
Aphrodite was gazing into the girl’s peaceful face, thoughtful but visibly distressed. “I didn’t know you loved her like that. There shouldn’t...” For once the Goddess was at a loss. “There shouldn’t be pain like that. You’ve got so much.” She looked at Xena, as if seeing her for the first time, then back to Gabrielle. “I think if you lose her too there’ll be no love left in you.”
Xena just sat and cried, because she knew it to be true.
“Hatred is the enemy of love,” Aphrodite went on reasoning to herself, “the world is too full of it already. There’s something special about this little one...”
“Please -” It was a begging sob, and Xena didn’t expect anyone to hear or care.
Torn, Aphrodite reached to lay her hand on Gabrielle’s head. Xena couldn’t see any more detail than that, and when the Goddess said nothing more the Warrior pushed up to her feet and staggered through the rubble she’d created toward the two of them. She was too exhausted to move quickly, and too afraid of what she’d find.
The first part of Gabrielle that came into Xena’s view behind a crouching Aphrodite was a small foot and ankle. It didn’t move - not even a twitch - but there was something about the colour of her skin: it was no longer grey and waxy, but pink, peachy, warm.
“Gab... Gabrielle?” Xena dropped to her knees and pawed at the girl, not daring to believe that Aphrodite could or would have done something to help them. Gabrielle simply looked to be sleeping. After a moment, with Xena holding her breath, the child sighed and brought up her arms to rub at her eyes. Her heart leaping, Xena could only make a series of surprised, meaningless gasps. She watched Gabrielle open her eyes and look around in confused distress, not knowing how she’d come to be lying on a cold floor. She groaned softly, her face crumpling, ready to cry. Stirred into action, Xena reached for her. “Hey, hey...” She eased the child up into her arms, cradling her with infinite care. “You’re all right? You’re okay?” Desperate to know, she brushed back Gabrielle’s hair and stared into her face.
In Xena’s arms, Gabrielle was instantly calmed and cheered, and smiled at her beloved protector before gazing animatedly around the room. “Xena, look at the flowers, they’re so pretty.” She pointed over Xena’s shoulder, enthused by one of the floral offerings at the altar. “Can I go see?”
“Well, yes -” Xena was speechless, unable to do anything but stare at the child, who was pink and vital. Happy, Gabrielle trailed through Xena’s fingers and skipped off over to the altar.
Relief. The emotion was so intense that it took all of Xena’s strength. “Thank you -” She managed to say, reaching out blindly for Aphrodite. “Thank you, thank you.” She sunk her head into her hand, utterly spent. The blackness pressed in over her eyes and she felt herself sinking into it. Thank the Gods...
The darkness lifted gradually, and Xena sighed and stretched out indulgently, content in that wonderful dreamy moment at the tail end of sleep. Sleep, or... a faint? Alarm dashed through Xena and she froze. Aphrodite, the temple... she’d never fainted before in her life, if she’d taken to the habit now and was sprawled on the floor of Aphrodite’s temple she would never, ever live it down. Never ever.
Could she smell cooking? Could she smell... potatoes?
Wary, Xena opened first one eye then the other. Her vision was filled by the sight of two boots - not pink, but a familiar brownish red, and rather scuffed too. Her breath held in her throat, Xena pulled her gaze slowly upwards.
“I thought the smell of food would wake you up. Huh. Know you too well, don’t I.” When Gabrielle knelt she was beaming, and folded back a corner of blanket which was covering half of Xena’s face.
“Wha -?” Xena sprang up, crouching on her toes, fingertips on the fur. Gabrielle was not only thoroughly alive, but - two bonuses in one day - she was apparently pretty adult. “Gabrielle?”
“Yeah -” Gabrielle frowned, suddenly concerned, and reached for Xena’s shoulder. “Are you okay? You slept too deeply?”
It was so good to see her again! “Gabrielle! I missed you -” Xena squeezed into Gabrielle’s arms, holding her tightly and stroking her hair, rubbing their cheeks together. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
Gabrielle gave a surprised chuckle and held her friend, almost knocked off balance by the force of her embrace. “Where else would I be? What’s wrong?”
“I didn’t... I just...” Xena held Gabrielle’s face between her hands, overwhelmed to see her whole again. Speechless, she pulled Gabrielle back against her, peering out over the girl’s shoulder at their familiar camp. “I just wanted to tell you, that’s all.”
“I love you too, of course. You seem upset, I don’t...”
“No, no.” Xena didn’t want to worry Gabrielle, not over... a dream? Had it all been a dream? But it’d gone on so long, and been so real. “I just had a dream, that’s all,” Xena excused herself feebly, unable to think of any other explanation right now.
“A bad dream?” Gabrielle seemed doubly concerned by this, and stroked Xena’s face, gazing into her eyes, searching for answers.
“No, not all bad,” Xena conceded with a reassuring smile, releasing her companion.
“Oh.” Puzzlement at this, followed by hope. “Why? Was I in it?”
Xena was warmed by the memory, and turned her head to kiss the hand that grazed across her cheek. “Yes, you were in it.”
“Ah. Good.” Extreme satisfaction at this news. They leaned together, and Gabrielle settled a lingering kiss on her partner’s lips. “So then what was the bad part?”
Best not to upset her. Best not to upset myself, Xena amended. She sniffed the air dramatically. “What’re you cooking?”
“Ah -” The younger woman sprang up and went to the fire. “Potatoes. I was given some by an old man I met down by the path. Thought you’d be peckish.”
“Absolutely.” Watching Gabrielle tend to her snack, Xena came to sit on the log by the fire. She used to sit by fires with Estonia like this, and just talk, sometimes with Lyceus toddling around on the grass before them.
Toni shouldn’t be hidden away, she deserved more than that. Both the women she loved did. “Gabrielle -”
“They’re nearly done.”
The girl turned. “Xena what’s wrong?” She set her pan back over the flame.
Xena had never intended to keep Toni a secret from Gabrielle, but she wasn’t accustomed to talking to her partners about old loves, certainly not about the oldest love of all. Would Borius have wanted to hear all about Toni’s life, or Caesar? Marcus probably would have listened, she thought ruefully, but she hadn’t had him for very long, either. “I’m sorry I don’t talk much,” she said finally.
Sensing that Xena’s mind was no longer on her meal, Gabrielle sat back, letting the potatoes fend for themselves. “You don’t have to apologise for anything, Xena,” she said carefully. She had long ago accepted that Xena was never going to be one of life’s great talkers, but, given time and patience, the Warrior had actually shared a great deal that she hadn’t told anyone else.
“But you deserve to know certain things. About certain... people.”
“You can talk now,” Gabrielle tried. “We can talk about anything you want.”
Best to start at the start, Xena figured, and fixed her gaze on the safety of the fire. “I said we were going home. To Amphipolis? I didn’t mean to see Mother.”
“No, you said,” Gabrielle encouraged. “Where do you want to go, Xena?”
“To see a friend. A friend who died, a long time ago.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle sat back a little. There had been so many friends, she thought regretfully, so many who Xena had loved and lost.
“A girl I knew when I was young.”
Xena’s expression was distant, faintly forlorn, as it had been for much of this trip. Gabrielle lay a hand on her arm, wanting her to open up. “Tell me about her?”
Xena inhaled heavily, uncertain if she wanted to reopen old wounds. “She lived in my village. Around the time Lyceus was born. I only knew her just over a year.” She began dutifully enough, but as she spoke her mind skipped and danced its way back through the years since and found once again the vision of Toni’s beautiful, youthful, beaming face. “Her name was Estonia.” A soft laugh. “I could never be doing with that. I always called her Toni.”
Gabrielle smiled, thinking this a nice memory, and stroked the goose bumps that had risen on Xena’s tanned arm. “Was Toni your age?”
A nod, although Xena looked chilled, not from cold but from grief. “A few moons older. Though the Gods know, she was wise beyond her years. Too wise.”
Carefully, Gabrielle asked, “What happened, Xena?”
The question was inevitable, and Xena began almost with a shrug. “She took her life. She couldn’t cope with the things that happened to her, may the Gods bless her.” Xena had to wipe an arm over her eyes to stop them spilling salty water down her face, and she shrugged Gabrielle off when she tried to help. “We were barely more than children. Teenagers, anyway.”
“I found her. At the top of a hill the two of us used to visit. Hanging from a tree...” And her face had been purple, engorged and ungodly. Xena had almost vomited at the sight.
“I’m so sorry -” Gabrielle touched at Xena’s face, moved almost to tears herself, and met no resistance this time.
“I never really got over that.” The tears were soon sniffed away, leaving Xena with a haunted, resigned look. “Not until Cortese came, anyway, and then it was just another thing to be angry about, to avenge, what with Lyceus, and all.”
“I’m sorry, Xena...” Gabrielle lay her head on Xena’s shoulder and held her, rocking them both slightly, enormously sad for her.
“They said she was just a friend. She was never just a friend.” A note of anger had come into Xena’s voice, and she shook her head defiantly at the fire. “Not just that.”
The younger woman smoothed back black hair that reflected red flecks from the fire. “It’s okay to miss her, Xena. It’s okay to love her. It’s okay.”
Understanding was all Xena needed, as it had been what she’d lacked for most of her life, until she’d met Gabrielle. It was probably the only thing that could have saved both her and Toni from their self-inflicted fates. “I love you -” Xena turned and embraced Gabrielle, allowing herself to be comforted as Toni had never been. “I’m with you.” A kiss then, to cement the statement, and a hug by way of apology for all that had gone before. “I was going to visit her grave. I don’t need to, I realise that now. The one who matters to me now is you. My priority is you.”
Gabrielle knew this and didn‘t need to be told, although it was nice to hear. “You were dreaming about her?”
“Partly.” Xena drew back to look at her partner, feeling better for having told her, feeling better just to be with her, alive and well and safe. “And about you. I love you.”
“I love you, Xena.”
They shared another hug, then, and Xena took a deep breath to dry her tears and steady herself. “Something smells good,” she realised, brightening. “What are you doing with those potatoes?”
“I thought I’d fry them,” Gabrielle told her, pulling back to smile at her friend before going over to the fire, “make them crispy.” Potato was always a good staple food, but was rather bland for Gabrielle’s taste. “Like this, do you think?” She tipped the pan to show Xena the slices of potato she had cut.
Xena leaned forward to peer in. There was something most comforting about normality, routine. “Thinner. So they soak up more fat.”
Xena shrugged. She rather liked fat, truth be told. “Maybe cut them into sticks. Yeah, chip bits off. Make... chips.”
“Chips of potato, huh? Okay.” Gabrielle set about doing this. “You think that’ll catch on?”
Xena took one of the water skins Gabrielle had set against the log. “I dunno.”
As she watched the thin sticks crisping, Gabrielle realised she was inexplicably hungrier than she thought. “I feel like I haven’t eaten in weeks. Wish I’d got a chicken now.”
Xena smiled to herself: Gabrielle was a great cook, but she was a pretty lousy hunter. She refrained from voicing this, and instead stroked a hand fondly over the girl’s back as she sat on the log to tip the steaming potato sticks from the pan into a dish. “I think fish would go better.”
“You’d eat fish with everything if you had your way.” Gabrielle settled with a leg tucked underneath her, the bowl on the log between them.
“Sure I would. Nothing wrong with that.” Xena grinned and sampled a slice. “Hey these are good! You don’t think fish would go? Fish and... chips?”
Gabrielle shrugged, tucking in. “Well, maybe.”
There was silence for a bit as they ate, and even for a time after they’d finished, with Xena gazing out into the trees, and her attention wasn’t called back until she felt Gabrielle’s gentle touch on her knee. “You’re done?”
“Oh... yes. Full.”
The smaller woman set aside the dish, and shuffled closer. Her fingers found Xena’s and they held hands. “Are we still going home? To Amphipolis? I don’t mind.”
Xena turned her back on her daydreams and focussed willingly on her partner. “I told you, Gabrielle: I don’t need to go back now. I’ve said goodbye. I’m here, with you.”
“You don’t have to need to,” Gabrielle insisted, “it’s enough if you want to.” She shifted again so as to put an arm around Xena, sitting as they had been that morning, before the old man, and the dream, and the potatoes. “Go and see her, Xena. You can visit her grave. It doesn’t all have to be about goodbyes: you can talk to her, she’ll hear you.” She kissed the raven hair at Xena’s temple. “We’ll go together. We’ll go home together.”
Knowing this was absolutely what she wanted, Xena pulled Gabrielle into a cuddle, hiding her face in blonde softness. “Wherever I go: I am home if I’m with you.”
“Hmm,” Gabrielle smiled, her look a simple and youthful one, like a child pleased with some small praise or compliment. “Ditto.”
Xena laughed, then, at the resemblance to the child she had known, and squeezed Gabrielle closer, as she would have done her younger self. “Tell me a story. I want to hear about the farm, and your sister, and what you were like as a child. Tell me a story, Gabrielle.”
The bard’s eyebrows went up at this, her small nose wrinkling a little. “Let me get this straight - you want me to tell you one of my stories?” It was usually a case of nagging, cajoling and bribing her friend to sit and listen to her latest tale.
“Sure I do.” Xena gently kissed her forehead, then sat back. “Please?”
Extremely self-satisfied, Gabrielle grinned. “You want me to put some more chips in the pan? We could be here a long time.”
“Gabrielle: go for your life.”
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