Gabrielle smiled as she leaned against the tree and tightened the shawl around her shoulders. She lifted her face to the crisp, autumn breeze and sighed deeply. She couldn't remember when she'd spent just an ordinary day, without fighting or rescuing someone or something. So much of her time lately, it seemed, had been spent in crowded, dusty cities or dark, dank caves, or dry, barren flatlands. It's not that she minded so much. It was, she knew, the price for living this incredible life with Xena and she wouldn't trade it for all the golden apples in the world. She just hadn't realized until that very moment how hungry - how starved - she'd been for green, for rushing water, for cool freshness, for white clouds against blue sky, for beauty. She took in the surrounding countryside with a wide, sweeping look, feeling a clarity seep into her mind, her body, her soul that hadn't been there in a long, long time.
They were making camp in a small glade surrounded by a forest of cedar trees. The ground was almost entirely level and remarkably free of the small, sharp rocks which usually plagued their sleep. Not more than fifty meters away was the river; a cold, raucous, turbulent affair teeming with salmon.
"This is a place to satisfy hearts and bellies," Gabrielle thought. She looked across the clearing at her companion. Xena was humming as she unsaddled Argo. Taking a rope, she tied one end gently around the horse's neck, patting and nuzzling the animal with rare tenderness. Gabrielle stood there watching her for a long time, the smile returning to her lips. She loved seeing her friend this way - so relaxed and so at peace. This place would revive them both, of that she had no doubt.
"What can I do to help?" Gabrielle asked as she walked into the clearing. Xena looked up with half a smile and one eyebrow arched. Gabrielle usually wasn't much help when it came to setting up camp, but the offer touched her.
"Well, you can take Argo down to the river for a drink while I find some wood for the fire. I bet she'd like to nibble on some of that grass along the shore, too."
Gabrielle nodded her assent, but Xena noticed the furrow beginning to form between her brows.
"I thought you and Argo were getting to be better friends. You know, this might just clench it. She never bites the hand that feeds her. Well, almost never."
Gabrielle's relationship with Argo had been tenuous at best. But she had grown to respect and trust the faithful animal and she was always anxious to please Xena.
"Uh huh. Sure. No problem. I'll just, uh, take Argo, and, uh, we'll be fine. Really. Nothing to worry about." Gabrielle seemed to address the last statement to herself.
A slight smile played on Xena's lips as she handed the rope to Gabrielle and watched her carefully make her way down the hill with Argo in slow pursuit. As they came around a slight bend in the path, Gabrielle saw a small pool formed by a natural jetty of rocks. Argo saw it, too, and was soon leading Gabrielle. At length she dropped the rope, confident that Argo could manage the rest on her own. Gabrielle walked across the pebbled shore line to the edge of the water. The river was fairly wide at that point and the water outside the jetty was coming down in a flurry from a steep, rocky ravine. Farther up, she saw a series of small waterfalls with a larger one at the very top. She glanced over at Argo, who was happily slurping away.
"Tell you what, you just have a nice, long drink, and I'll be back in a flash. Just want to take a look at what's at the top of those falls."
She tied her shawl around her waist and made her way across the rock-strewned bank. Within minutes, she was half-way up the boulders which were piled haphazardly along the side of the ravine. The angle of the sun was hitting the falls just right and she could see a myriad of rainbows dancing in the spray. Entranced, she continued climbing. Every now and then, the water would shoot out unexpectedly and strike her face with a frigid sting, but it only invigorated her. The wildness, the power of the water and the new sense of freedom she was feeling compelled her on. It wasn't long before she had climbed to the highest point and was at eye level with the top of the falls. Giant cedars rimmed the banks on both sides and the low afternoon sun had begun to paint a burnished gold onto everything insight. She could still see Argo below, now drinking from the pool, now chewing on the young, tender reeds which grew through the stones by the side of the river, now drinking again.
"By the gods, this place is so beautiful," she whispered to herself. She edged over to a large flat rock, meaning to find a secure place from which to enjoy the view. But as she turned to sit, the stone under her foot gave way and, without warning, she slipped, losing her balance. Desperately, she reached out for something to grab onto, but her hands caught nothing but air. Falling back hard against the sharp, angled edge of a rock, her breath knocked out of her, she was catapulted down the face of the waterfall. As she hit the churning water below, she was caught in a vortex of swirling chaos, spiraling down, deeper and deeper. Everything inside of her was fighting to find the surface, to find air, but the more she struggled the deeper she went. Finally, just as forcefully as she'd been sucked down, she was released from the vacuum, her body bobbing to the surface like a cork. She gasped in a lung-full of air, only to be sucked under again by the river's strong current. For what seemed like an eternity, Gabrielle was pulled along with the current, choking, gasping, and being thrown against rocks with the helplessness of a rag doll. Several times, she tried to call out Xena's name, only to be silenced by a mouthful of water.
Xena knelt on one knee by the smoking tinder and, leaning down, blew gently until the smoke became a flame and the flame a fire. With practiced precision, she arranged the logs in just a certain way, tending them until they roared to life. She knew that even after the fire burned down, the embers would glow through most of the night, radiating warmth and comfort. Xena stood up and rubbed her arms. It would be cold tonight. She would make sure that Gabrielle slept close to the fire.
At that moment, Argo sauntered into the clearing, the end of the rope dangling on the ground. Xena cocked her head and walked over to the horse. Taking the end of the rope, she tied it loosely to a branch and looked down the path from where Argo had just come.
"Gabrielle?" There was no answer.
"Gabrielle," she called out a little louder. Still no answer.
She began to jog down the path to the water. She saw nothing as she searched with her eyes up and down the side of the river.
"Gabrielle!" she shouted. "Gabrielle!"
The sound of rushing water was her only response. To her left was the steady incline of the ravine. To the right, the river leveled off until the water ran more smoothly. Xena turned to her right and ran along the bank. The farther down she got, the taller the reeds were. She struggled to push down the panic which was beginning to rise up inside of her. The sun had dropped below the top of the trees and twilight had set in, making it difficult to see in the waning light. She waded through the reeds, the water bitter cold around her legs, calling out Gabrielle's name. As she was about to turn around and head back toward the ravine, her eye caught sight of a dark, tangled mass caught in a fallen tree on the other side of the river. Even in the dimming light, she saw what she knew could only be a body. She took a step into the cold, racing water but realized immediately that the current was too strong there for her to get across. Looking wildly around, she could make out that the river seemed to narrow not more than a hundred meters farther down. Running with as much speed as she could coerce out of her legs, she plunged in at the narrowest part and was able to half stumble, half swim across to the other side. Within moments she had reached the fallen tree. With a mixture of horror and relief, she found Gabrielle, her arm wedged awkwardly in between two branches. Incredibly, miraculously, she had been caught face up, her head resting back on the trunk. Xena waded into the water and laid her hand against Gabrielle's neck. Her skin was bruised and icy cold, but she could feel a faint pulse. She bent back one of the branches and released Gabrielle's arm. Even in the fading light, she could tell that it was broken. Placing it carefully across Gabrielle's chest and providing as much support as she could, she lifted her from the water and laid her gently on the bank. She knelt down, putting her ear close to Gabrielle's lips. There was no breath.
"Oh, Gabrielle. Please," she whispered softly as she rolled her onto one side and pushed gently on her stomach. When nothing happened, she laid her back down and, opening her mouth with her hands, began to rhythmically blow air into her lungs. She repeated this procedure over and over again, blocking out of her mind even the slightest possibility that she might not be successful.
"No. No! This will not happen!" her mind was screaming as she once again fought Hades for the life of her friend. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, Gabrielle expelled a lung-full of water and began coughing and gulping in air on her own. She looked up at Xena, her teeth chattering.
"Wh-what happened? Where a-are we?" Blood was trickling down from a gash in her forehead and Xena wiped it gently with a piece of cloth she had torn from Gabrielle's shawl.
"Shh. Don't talk. We'll have plenty of time for that later. I've got to get you back to camp. Listen carefully, Gabrielle. Your arm is hurt very badly. I'm going to tie it against your body with your shawl so that it stays very still. We have to get to the other side of the river, so you must trust me when we go across."
"I don't want to go back into the water. Please, Xena, don't make me." Gabrielle looked into Xena's eyes with a fear she seldom saw there.
"We have to, Gabrielle, and you must trust me. Can you do that?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I t-trust you. I trust you w-with my life." Xena stared back at her friend and touched her cheek with her fingers.
It was almost completely dark, but Xena could still make out the outline of the river. As she picked Gabrielle up into her sinewy arms, Gabrielle let out a sharp cry. Xena winced at the sound and made her way quickly to the narrows. Slowly, testing every step, she began to wade into the water. It had been chest high here when she came across before and she knew that one misplaced step and all might be lost.
"Close your eyes and try to relax if you can. Think of the best dream you've ever had and concentrate on that," Xena said softly into Gabrielle's ear. In response, Gabrielle pushed her face deeper into Xena's neck and stifled a sob. As the water got higher and higher, Xena had to loosen her hold on Gabrielle and let her float as much as possible without losing her to the current. Her strong legs were pushed to their limit as she fought against the force of the river. Water splashed into Gabrielle's face and she began to choke, her body tensing with fear. Xena grabbed on to her more tightly, and with one final push, heaved herself onto the bank, turning as she fell to cushion Gabrielle. She sat there for a moment catching her breath, Gabrielle, shaking badly, cradled on her lap.
Xena tried to take a wider path around the reeds, but in the dark it was difficult to see where the better way would be and she knew that she needed to get Gabrielle back to the fire, back to warmth, immediately. As she was sloshing through tangled, sharp blades, Gabrielle began to shake uncontrollably. With a new shot of adrenaline, Xena pushed through the last of the thicket. In the distance, up a small incline and to the left, she could just make out the orangish glow of the fire. She breathed a sigh of thanks that she'd put on an extra couple of logs. It was like a beacon guiding her home and within minutes she had placed Gabrielle on the ground close to the fire.
She carefully removed the shawl from around Gabrielle's side and ripped it into strips. With her sword, she split one of the logs in half, then in half again, and in half again until she had two thin, straight slabs with which she could immobilize the broken arm. She had done this dozens of times on the battlefield, but never with such shaking hands. Willing herself to be steady, she administered a numbing pinch to Gabrielle's neck and with only the force she needed, set the bone, wrapping the slabs tightly in place with the strips of cloth. She then removed the rest of Gabrielle's wet clothing and wrapped her in both of their bedrolls as well as Argo's blanket, rubbing her arms and legs through the rough material.
"I'm, I'm so c-cold." Gabrielle could barely get the words out. Xena looked around for something else to put over her friend, but there was nothing. She sat down next to her and laid a hand across her cheek.
"Y-Your hand f-feels so warm," Gabrielle said softly.
Suddenly, Xena stood up and began to unbuckle her breastplate, throwing it carelessly on the ground. After that, she took off her boots, her leather skirt and corset, and finally her coarse, cotton undergarment. She stood as close to the fire as she dared, letting the heat permeate her skin. With one quick movement, she loosened the bedrolls from around Gabrielle and climbed in beside her, draping her own body over Gabrielle's so that her warmth would penetrate into other's icy skin. Gabrielle let out a long, ragged sigh. Slowly, the smaller woman's body began to relax, the constant shaking subsiding into periodic shivers and finally quietness. Xena carefully slid her arm under Gabrielle's head and drew her into a closer embrace. Her body felt much warmer now and she had drifted into sleep, her breath coming in slower, deeper waves.
Only then did a tear begin to fall slowly down Xena's cheek and the emotions of the past few hours find their way out from the depths of her heart. She buried her face in Gabrielle's hair and cried silently. She had almost lost her again. The thought was unthinkable and yet Xena knew that at any given moment, either one of them could be pulled out of this world and into the next, whether in the brutal midst of battle, or on a day as ordinary and peaceful as this one. Danger was, she knew, all around and took many different forms. Nothing was certain, everything a risk. She knew it and could accept it, as hard as it was. After all, she had lost others - her brother, Lyceus; and Marcus . Even with the pain, she had learned to live without them, carrying them close to her in the special place of memory. But she realized, gazing intently at the face beside her, that it would be different if she lost Gabrielle. The hole left would be bigger, more desolate, impossible to fill. Gabrielle was not just a part of her, she was what completed the puzzle. She was everything Xena was not - innocent, pure, open to others, open to life. It was those very attributes that had somehow attached themselves to Xena's soul and brought out a nobility in her she never before knew existed. Without Gabrielle, would she have been able to resist Ares' temptations? Would she have been able to face the darkness in her tortured heart and find the strength to let it go, to continue in her quest to do what was right and good. Without Gabrielle, would she know the absolute joy of being loved and accepted without question? She laid her head back and looked up at the star-lit sky. These were questions without answers. What mattered most was that she had Gabrielle in her life. She hadn't lost her today or on any of the days previous. And for that, gratitude welled up inside of her. Her tears now were those of joy and thankfulness. The future was unknown and would remain so. So it should always be. Grace would be given only at the time it was needed and not a moment before. But for today, this ordinary day, what mattered most was still at her side. At that thought, Xena slept.