Convert This Page to Pilot DOC FormatConvert this page to Pilot DOC Format


Chapters 21 - 22

by M. Parnell
Copyright 1997

Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and any others from Xena, Warrior Princess, along with the back story, are the property of their creators and producers. Their use in my story does not constitute any attempt on my part to infringe on their rights. The rest of the story is mine. The story is a strictly non-profit endeavor. Any reproduction or other use of this story without my consent is strictly prohibited.

The story contains violence. It also assumes that Xena and Gabrielle are in love with each other. If any of that offends you, please choose another story.

Tartarus takes place after ORIGINS. It is not necessary to read ORIGINS first, but some references will be puzzling to you.

I began this story before season three. Given all that has happened, I find it hard to continue without allowing season three to intrude in some places. If that doesn't fit with the first fifteen chapters, well, (picture me shrugging my shoulders here), it can't be helped. Maybe some day I'll go back and make it all consistent.

Chapter Twenty One

This was a day off. Xena never said anything, but neither did she rise at dawn. Argo neighed impatiently, watching her suddenly indolent mistress stretch and turn over in the hay. Gabrielle brushed a wisp of hay from her nose, and snuggled deep into the blanket, vaguely aware that when she’d fallen asleep she had only Xena to keep her warm. The memory made her smile, and she reached out to feel her again.

"Where’d you get to," she asked, sleepily, eyes still closed.

"Right here." She molded herself to the woman’s form immediately. "I’m not going any place."

Right, Gabrielle thought, not for at least five minutes, but she relaxed into the warmth of her lover, loving the breath that felt so good against her neck, reveling in the impossibly soft flesh that masked so much raw power.

Much later, she woke again, sun peeking through the crack between the shutters. Gods, she thought, it’s late; wonder why Xena didn’t wake me? The answer was a heartbeat away: Xena was still asleep. "This place is getting to you Xena, " she whispered, half to herself. I think that might be good, she mused. Or maybe not. "Xena?" She waited for a mumbled reply. "Are you just sleeping in? You aren’t sick?"

"Just tired. You wore me out last night."

"I didn’t notice," Gabrielle countered.

"Yeah, well, I managed to keep up. Barely," she grinned, then gave the bard a gentle squeeze. "Beautiful, smart, brave, sexy, and you throw a great party. How'd I get so lucky?"

"You don't have to cheer me up any more, Xena. I'm okay."

"Cheer you up?" She rose on her arms to loom over her. "You'd think I never told you that before. Well, not the bit about the party. When you add a new skill, I have to stop and add it to the list."

"When I add a new skill?"

"Sure, think of all the things you've learned since you've been with me."

"For instance?"

"I'm sure you were always smart, always could talk, so we don't have to look at that."

"True," Gabrielle agreed. "My mother could tell you stories that would - " She broke off.

"I'm sure she could." I'm sorry, Gabrielle, she thought, then fought against the melancholy that hung in the air. "I could tell stories about the brave bard, and her staff. You've become a master with that thing."

"Thing? Excuse me Warrior Princess, it's not a thing. We've bonded, like you and the chakram. It shares my Amazon spirit," she said proudly.

"I think that's where you got the party thing, from the Amazons. It's in their blood."

"Yeah," she said surprised at the gush of tears which escaped her.

"Gabrielle, I'm sorry. You miss them."

"A lot. I really felt that we were all sisters, all different kinds of people, but all sisters. How could I not miss them? Don't you?"

"Yes; not in the same way, maybe. It's not the same for me. I mean, I like them. Sometimes I envy them, but I'm not close to them the way you are."

"Because you don't want to be close. You know they think of you as one of the tribe."

Since I tried to kill you? she thought to herself.

Maybe not quite as much since you broke Ephiny's arm trying to kill me, Gabrielle thought.

"I wouldn't mind seeing Ephiny right now; or Jalani," Xena admitted.

"I wonder if they think of us?"

"Could they forget their queen?" Xena asked, seriously. Gabrielle's eyes grew unfocused, seeing another time and place. Xena shook her gently. "Gabrielle. If we think of what's gone, we'll go crazy," she warned. "Focus on now. I'll take you for a ride," she offered seductively.

"Not to Hermia's," she replied. "I don't want to see Arthea again."

"Not Hermia's. Some place special."

"There. Wasn't this worth the ride?" Xena dropped Argo's reins, held Gabrielle's hand loosely, and walked a few paces up the knoll to a sun-warmed mound of lush grass.

Gabrielle looked around before sitting, then looked wonderingly at Xena. "It's nice, Xena," was her comment.

"Nice? Gabrielle, it's better than 'nice', " she insisted. "When is the last time you've been this warm out of doors? It's still like summer here. No; better: it's like spring. The green is still fresh and young." She shook her head, baffled at the lack of enthusiasm. "Gabrielle, come on, try. It even smells like home."

The bard sniffed diffidently. "Maybe your home," she decided. "I'm sorry, Xena. Don't be angry, I just don't think it's so special."

"I'm not angry. Why do you always think I'm angry?"

"Disappointed, then?"

"No. Yes," she admitted. "I like it here. I feel so good, I wanted to share it with you."

"Thank you for wanting to share. She squeezed the warrior's hand. "This just isn't my kind of place, I guess. Can we leave now?"

Xena nodded sullenly. "Okay. Let's go. I've got work to do."

The work seemed never ending for a few weeks. Hunting, mostly. There was little left to gather once the thick frost was on the ground. Cramma had parsnips, turnips, and honey from her apiary. She was always anxious to trade for game. Fish were caught and smoked on a long pole Xena suspended between two trees. They would keep through the winter, a ready store of food. 'We'll be fine," she told Gabrielle, one eye always on the mountains to the north and west, one ear alert for the howls of wolves. She thought she heard them some nights, amid the eastern wind. Gabrielle would feel their presence soon enough, she knew, and always answered the anxious question the same way: "It's just the wind."

There came a morning when Gabrielle woke shivering, despite the fire blazing in the hearth. The warming stones tucked amid the blankets had long since grown cold. Xena was draping a shaggy rug over the door. "Great Zeus, Xena, will it always be this cold?" Xena glanced over her shoulder, and smiled reassurance.

"I've just got to close off some of these drafts. Should make a big difference. Breakfast is ready, if you're hungry. Something warm in your belly should help." She turned back to the door. Gabrielle ladled out a thick gruel, which had cooked while they slept, carried it to the table, and watched Xena while she ate. "It feels better already," Gabrielle said, from under the blanket she had wrapped around her. "Seems like a good day to stay inside."

"Seems like. Wish we could." Xena agreed. Gabrielle filled another dish, placed it next to her own and poured on a generous helping of honey.

"Gabrielle, that's too much."

"You're complaining? She tapped her forehead, thinking hard. "Can't recall the last time you thought anything was too sweet."

"You know what I mean," Xena objected. "That honey has to last the winter."

"Cramma will give us more. I think she likes you."

Xena gave her an evil look. "I'm not the one who had a private tour of the apiary."

"I think she was hoping the bees would sting me to death to clear the way to you." She smiled, dipped a finger in the honey and held it to Xena's lips. "You really like Cramma's honey?"

"I like yours better."

"I can't think of a better reason to stay inside," she purred.

"Something to look forward to," Xena countered, "after chores."

"You are rather single-minded in your purpose, Xena," she told her petulantly.

"I'd rather be warm and full than cold and hungry all winter. You'll thank me in the end," she predicted smugly.

"I know; it still kills the mood. After a few hours traipsing around the countryside we'll be cold, and tired - "

"All right. You stay in today. I just want to check the snares, we might get lucky there, then look for the boar. I know a big one's been rooting around, I see all the signs, just can't track him. Today should be easier."

"Why is that?"

"Have a look," she moved to a window and pulled a shutter open. The wind was nasty, skidding over a thin layer of white that had changed the landscape enough to make Gabrielle forget the cold. "Xena, it's beautiful! Why didn't you tell me?"

"Thought I'd stand a better chance of getting you outside," she shrugged. "But I've given up on that, so you may as well enjoy it before it's gone; and I'd like to track that boar while he might still leave prints in the snow." It was not a deep or lasting snow, just a veneer, frosted with an icy sheen. The sun would do its work, though she had no doubt the clouds overhead held more of the same. "If I leave now, I can maybe get him before it turns nasty again. I can get the wood in later."

"Will you be gone long?"

"No. Sure you don't want to come?"

"You'll move faster alone. And you'll be quieter. Just be careful."

"Always. You stay inside, keep the door barred. There shouldn't be anyone around looking for trouble on a day like this, but, well, you know what to do." She waited for an answering nod, then donned her weapons. Gabrielle reached to draped a long, gray cloak over Xena's shoulders, and stopped briefly in her arms before releasing her with a kiss. "Don't be long. I hate it here without you."


There was nothing in the snares, and Xena's mood was a little soured as she followed the track that skirted the forest. If she was right about the boar, he'd been feeding here, and would likely have left some sign other than his droppings. "Footprints would be nice," she told Argo, scanning the ground, leaving it to Argo to pick her way over the frozen surface. She carried a long spear in her right hand, resisting the urge to don the furry mittens she carried in the saddlebag. "Another mile, then we go home, Argo," she said after a while. "Looks like no luck today." It grew colder as she wandered in the shadow of the mountains, the wind whipped as if anxious to bend all to it's will, and the mare whinnied her agreement at the sound of 'home'.

"One more place to look, girl." There was a gentle slope which she knew led to a broad, deep stream. It fed the River Pern further on; here it was almost inaccessible for most purposes, having cut a deep channel for itself over long centuries. The steep bank was thickly studded with trees, eager to drink in this uncertain climate. The boar seemed to have slept in this day, but something was bound to be about. She hated to go home empty handed.

The sound was almost drowned by the rushing water, but Xena had been listening for animals, so that's what she heard. Only this was not the grunt of a boar, but the bleating of a goat. It had to be one of Sepra and Archon's flock; Xena couldn't believe one of Natrakia's would be so far from home. "C'mon, Argo, one more job; Gabrielle will have to wait a little longer."

She followed the sound along the bank until it seemed to come from right below, then dismounted to peer over the steep bank. There it was, half in the water, front hooves flailing wildly at the bank which was just beyond its reach. "Won't be a minute, Argo." She felt sorry for the small creature, half frozen, helpless despite its best efforts. "I'm coming," she said softly, hoping a human voice would comfort the animal. It was not quite a lamb, but close enough to evoke memories of the efforts made in Amphipolis to save even one member of a flock. She eased around an enormous tree which teetered above the bank, and picked her way down the slope.

It was a smallish goat, a billy, and when she reached for it she regretted not having brought the rope. She'd get more than a few bruises with a struggling goat in tow while she hauled him up the bank. Still, the whip was at her hip, and it would be enough. She couldn't grasp him without immersing one foot in the icy stream. Let's be quick about this, she told herself, hearing in the back of her mind what Gabrielle would have to say about keeping your feet dry in winter. She was smiling when she finally got a good grip on the goat and wrenched him free of what must have been roots holding him to the spot.

She was still smiling when the tree, which had stood for all the living memory of Tartarus left its spot and moved toward her, swiftly, in near silence. Xena turned at the odd sound of frozen earth being lifted away from itself, had one awful moment to see the dark form hover for a moment between earth and sky, then descend in a vicious free fall. In that moment she let go of the goat, and turned toward the bank, beginning a frantic leap, too late to get clear. Her right side met the tree, but she was moving with it, absorbing the blow as it carried her into the bank. Instinct told her the ground would be softer than the tree, and she was carried downward so that her left hip would make first impact, just below the water line, where it would not be frozen. Instinct couldn’t tell her that an enormous slab of rock waited there for her. She only knew that when her hip seemed to tear apart. Then the seconds of furious motion were over, and all grew still.

It took a long moment for Xena to absorb what had happened. She was dimly aware of the little goat scrambling up the bank, in an eternity of frozen time, sending clods of dirt down on he head. She seemed to wake as if from a dream, the strange image still in her head. A snort of ironic laughter escaped her, then she caught her breath at the pain. Something was pressing against her hip, forcing its way through. She tried to move away from the object; impossible. The tree was on her, pinning her to the bank. One leg was bent under her, the knee pressed into the muck of the stream bed; the other seemed suspended in the water, no longer under her control. Her face was half turned to the bank; all she could see was half-froze ground inches from her eyes. She found she could move one arm, and used it to grasp a root which hung above her. Her right arm was tight against her body. She twisted it, tried to pull it from under the tree. No good. Normally, she could wade the deepest part of this stream without getting her head wet. Now she was angled so that her body was in water almost to her neck. This was very bad.

"Argo," she called, then whistled. There was no acknowledgement. It hadn’t occurred to her that Argo wouldn’t be there, or maybe had been hurt somehow.

"Argo." She didn’t like the note in her own voice. She couldn’t help herself, let alone help Argo. It was not yet close to midday. Gabrielle would start wondering why she was away so long in another hour, maybe two. Wondering would turn to worry; by late afternoon, when the sun was low in the sky, she would decide to take some action. What? A search on foot? How long before she would come this way? In the dark, what could she find? It might take days, even if she enlisted aid. Days. She let the consciousness of pain intrude on her thoughts for a few moments, felt the full effect of the aching, icy water. How long can you last in this, Xena? Days didn’t seem likely. Maybe Argo had already gone to get help. If she’d been unconscious, the horse might not have waited for a command; but she didn’t know if she’d been unconscious. Argo was just not there.

The horse had seen it all, watched the tree topple, and waited for Her to come up the bank. The little goat had startled her; still she waited with a patience born of experience. She always came back, later, if not sooner. She could smell Her still, could find Her anywhere by scent alone. That gave her comfort. After a time the scent grew faint; the water scent filled her nostrils. She whinnied, stamped her feet, reminding Her that she was there. No response. This was worrying. She ventured as far as she dared to the edge of the bank, where the ground threatened to crumble beneath her. She was there, and not there. The Other should be here. It was hard to leave; long after she had turned away from the stream she listened in vain for the sound of Her voice.

There were man-smells all along the route to the Other. Argo avoided them, the traps and plumes of smoke around which men clustered. She saw none of them, and they did not see her. She followed the meandering trail they'd come along that morning, moving faster. She was not hunting now, just returning to the Other. Something told her speed was important. There was a man-smell that she knew, like goats, like the little goat that ran past her at the stream. She recognized that, and slowed. This scent was in the house, and on Her, often. It was on the Other, as well. After a few moments pause, the golden mare altered course to come nearer to the man-smell.

Archon had hoped the weather would hold off until he found the lost billy. Stupid animal, he swore, all the time knowing he'd miss the little fellow if he was never found, if the wolves got him, or - " He stopped in his tracks. Xena's horse was in the path ahead, riderless, as if waiting for someone. Waiting for me, he realized as he grew near. "Argo?" He believed that was her name. It was odd to see her alone. He reached for her reins, but she took a step back; so much was established. "All right," I won't come to near," he said, holding his hands before him. "Where's Xena, then?" he asked, more to himself than to her. If Xena needed help, the dumb animal would be no use finding her. Damn! He couldn't let the horse roam loose around here, between wolves and horse thieves, her life would be worth nothing. "You'd like a nice, warm, stall, wouldn't you girl," he said, advancing slowly, "and Xena would want you to come with me." He reached suddenly for the reins, again, and Argo shook with indignation at his effrontery, backing further away. She looked over her shoulder as she moved back on course. Archon scratched his chin, then turned back to the search for his goat.

There came a time when Xena stopped moving, stopped twisting, stopped trying to dig away the bank with her free arm. She hadn't given up, but was hard pressed to think of a new approach to the problem. Just out of her sight a massive tree had enough of its weight on her to keep her pinned forever, if help never came. The sun had passed its zenith; it's rays no longer shone on her. That little bit of warmth had made quite a difference, she knew, now that it was gone. Fresh precipitation had started to fall, a steady rain, which quickly turned to a steady stream of sleet. As cold as she was, it made little difference, except that it was even less likely anyone would happen upon her. Less likely that Gabrielle would have any friendly company, Drax, or Archon, who might offer to keep an eye open. Gabrielle would be starting to worry, listing all the reasons why worry was foolish, why Xena would come through the door at any moment. Only she wouldn't be coming through the door any time soon. Maybe not ever, unless help arrived. "Arragh!" she grunted in a renewed effort to free herself. She wouldn't leave Gabrielle here, alone. She'd chew through the blasted tree first. If only she could reach it. The movement after so long made her feel good for a moment. But the constant efforts had exhausted her. Everything seemed to have slowed, including her mind. She wondered how long she'd be conscious. She spit a mouthful of water against the bank. The water level had been rising steadily for some time, fed by the runoff from the mountains. It was made worse by the tree which dammed the water in a pool around her. She tightened her grasp on the root above, and wrapped it around her forearm. If she drifted off it might serve to keep her head above water. "I'm trying, Gabrielle," she whispered.

Argo had turned down the track which led to the Other. She was moving faster than was safe on the icy turf, anxious to be there, now that she was so close. Then she saw them:

two horses, on a distant ridge, the first she'd seen all day. Her nostrils flared at their scent. She had fought the men who rode these horses. She could smell the strong foreign scent even at this distance. They were very close to home, to the Other. They had seen her now, and started towards her with cries and whoops. She reared, snorted her contempt, and veered off in a new direction.

"Artemis for the Amazons. Ares for me." It was a measure of her desperation that her mind had strayed to consideration of the Olympians. It was a long time since she'd prayed; even longer since she'd offered a prayer for herself. Unless she counted the deal she'd made with Ares, in Prestia. He'd never come to collect; she snickered to think he may have missed his chance. Odd he hadn't shown up here, in Tartarus. There were certainly plenty of his sort here, more thugs than warriors, mostly, but they would soon have a fine new temple to Ares where they could worship, offer sacrifices. Like my father. Enough; she roused herself, lifted her chin out of the water, and tried to understand if it was getting dark, or her vision was dimming. Was that an effect of extreme cold? She couldn't remember ever hearing that, but she was in new territory here. Anything was possible. Anything possible. Lao Ma had said that; she'd proven it to be so. For a few moments Xena had known that power. Power to turn that tree to splinters, she thought. "I'm not that good," she said aloud; not now.

There was only one goal now: speed. They wouldn't chase her forever, Argo knew; they couldn't. But she could run forever, if need be, for Her, or for the Other. She ran for them now, as she had never run. The other horses were good, kept pace on the flat ground, followed at a distance up a slope, careened after her as she descended the slope at a dangerous clip. All the time they put distance between themselves and the Other. There was a wood, Argo knew, that loomed suddenly after a wide ridge. She was headed for that, in an arcing circle, she would lose them there, these ponies of the plains, all pounding speed. Try to keep up amid the roots and rocks. She took the ridge at a gallop, and plunged into the thick of the wood, dodging trees as she flew by, listening, beyond the pounding of her own heart, for her pursuers.

It was something of a mercy that the stream was sheltered from the wind. She heard it, occasionally heard twigs snap off the trees above her, but she was shielded from its worse effects. There was something of a lull in the afternoon, as usual, then she heard it again, back with a vengeance. And she heard the wolves for the first time. She hadn’t seen any game all day, none had ventured down t the stream. The wolves would be hard pressed for game, too. She knew that her scent would be largely masked by the water. Argo’s scent would have faded long ago, unless her carcass was just above, growing stiff in the cold. That would bring the wolves soon enough.

Chapter Twenty Two

This was the first day Gabrielle had spent anytime writing since the night of the earthquake. She tired to find inspiration in the weather. Cold, snow and ice were not new to her, but she had never known it long enough to write about it. She wrote some fanciful lines, likening it to everything from diamonds to milk. "Not very original," she'd decided, and tired instead a tale of a thing of ice, terrorizing the locality until its heart was melted by love. "Trite," she declared, wondering if the people of the North had any such myths of their own. Xena would know, she decided, and determined to press the warrior for a story when she returned. It was early; Xena wouldn't be back for some time. Time to try a new direction. Write about what you know, she reminded herself, and looked around for a subject. She knew the little house; in a few weeks she had come to know it as well as her childhood home in Potadeia. She had learned to adjust the flue so that the house didn't fill with smoke, discovered which parts of the hearth burned too hot for baking, and knew where to work when Xena was out of doors, so that she could make frequent visual checks through the open shutters. She could write about Xena; she knew her better than anything else, and still unearthed new mysteries. The woman seemed to have lived ten lifetimes, considering all she knew, who she knew, where she had been. Those stories were well recorded, some in scrolls she had yet to share with Xena. It was, oddly enough, more fun to learn the little things: what flowers made her sneeze, the places where the merest touch could make her helpless with laughter, her trick of moving each eye independent of the other. The fact that she was accomplished at needlepoint had astonished Gabrielle when Cyrene revealed it to her. She was used to Xena's skill with a needle mending torn flesh, so it shouldn't have been a surprise, but the delicate flowers she produced were. So, she'd write today about Xena, once again.

Two hours later, she threw down the quill in frustration. It was no good to write about Xena when she missed her so much. It was just a few hours, but she wasn't used to being away from her. You can't spend twenty-four hours a day with someone, for years, and not feel a void when she wasn't there. She could list all the times, all the reasons they'd been apart, and ache thinking about them. "Okay, Xena, you'd better have a whole herd of something after being gone this long." Her voice sounded small in the still house.

She gave up writing at midday, ate some bread and cheese, and unbarred the door long enough to get a good look at the weather. It was colder than before, if anything. Icy pellets struck her face, whipped by a ferocious wind. No sign of Xena. She took her lower lip in her teeth, and compiled a mental list of all the things Xena could be doing that would have caused a delay: tracking a boar, or some other game; butchering some animal to avoid lugging the whole thing home some distance, aiding someone in distress. She barred the door again, lit another lamp, and put another log on the fire; Xena would be frozen when she returned.

Lamplight during the day was always depressing to the bard. The daytime was meant for sun and air, not gloomy dark corners illumined by sputtering lamps. She didn't know how she'd last a whole winter with this light. It made her mood black, as if it wasn't dark enough. The sun was moving lower, and Xena had still not returned. It had become a lot harder to find reasons for her continued absence. They were all still possible, but not likely. Xena would not have stayed away the whole day. She'd been almost obsessive about not leaving the bard alone for long. At the edge of her mind Gabrielle began to entertain dark thoughts, of accidents, violence, injury: worries that Xena would have condemned as a waste of energy. "Don't worry, act," she'd said a thousand times. "If you can't act, plan for when you can act." Good advice. So the bard thought ahead. If Xena was gone much longer, she'd have to do something about finding her. That meant Drax, most likely. He and Ileander were staying in Hermia's barn for the time being, until something better was available. She could get there fast enough on foot, faster still if she could ride the other horse safely, but she wouldn't risk that. How much longer to wait, was the question. Until dark? It would be harder to find her then. Twice she threw a cloak over her shoulders, and twice she hung it back on the hook, afraid she was being premature. When she had to put yet another log on the fire, she determined it was time to act. She carefully tended the fire so that the embers would kindle a new blaze on her return. She took a lantern, got a rope from the shed, and set off, cloak clutched tightly around her, staff in hand. She looked a long time at the direction Xena had gone that morning, then set off at a run for Hermia’s.

It had become a question of inches now. So far she was able to keep her head above water, barely, for a few moments at a time, long enough to get a breath, before she relaxed her body, letting her face sink halfway into the frigid water. Her eyes were still above water, and she took a dispassionate measure of the depth of the water against the bank. At the rate it was rising...She lifted her head for another breath, and set a simple goal: to find the strength for the next breath. C’mon Gabrielle, where are you?

Argo whinnied outside the door for only a few minutes before setting off again. The scent of the Other was too strong, and it seemed to be stronger the further she moved from the house. She trotted along a track she’d followed many times.

Gabrielle heard hoof beats behind her, and turned, relief already dawning in her eyes. It died there at the sight of the riderless horse. Argo didn’t stop until she was upon her, then shoved her nose against her, conveying the urgency that had driven her so far. There was no point asking about Xena, the message of the horse was clear enough, and she mounted with a simple command: "Take me to her, girl."

Argo moved swiftly along the return journey. Gabrielle recognized the track as one of Xena's regular hunting routes, except that the horse seemed to make unexplained forays, detours, which seemed to take her out briefly in another direction. There must be method in her madness, the bard decided. Before each detour she'd stop, suddenly, and sniff the air. That could only mean some unseen danger; Gabrielle wondered if it was somehow connected to Xena, and whatever had befallen her. She tried not to think too much about that. It occurred to her that she should have brought some medical supplies, bandages at least; she wondered what Xena had in the saddlebags.

At last she understood what made Argo alter course so many times: they crested a bluff and sound carried clearly to them, the sounds she often heard at night, which Xena dismissed as wind: the howling of wolves. Argo stopped, as if uncertain where to go. Gabrielle couldn't tell from which direction the sounds came. Argo pawed the ground in front of her, as if anxious to go that way, then plunged a few yards to her left, then back to her right, hesitant. "Argo, go to Xena," she urged. Whatever danger the horse was evading was an obstacle to the goal. It couldn't go on this way. They're only wolves, Gabrielle, she told herself. "Xena, girl. Take me there." Her voice was not quite a command, but it gave the horse license to do what she most wanted to do, and she dashed forward, wolves be damned.

There was a sound on the bank above, Xena 's head broke the water. As she inhaled, she listened. No horse, no boots. A padding of paws against the ice-crusted ground. She fought against the cold induced trembling which shook her body, trying to be still, hoping it would go away. It didn't. It was alone, anyway, she knew by the sound. She couldn't turn her head enough to follow its progress down the bank; she had to wait until he had negotiated his way down the slope, and was able to look her in the eye. Wolf.

Slim pickings, today. A wolf would normally avoid humans; Xena wondered if the strong goat scent had lingered all this time, drawing the wolf to the spot. It made little difference, he was here, looking at captive prey. She returned his stare, afraid to look away, while she considered her limited options. If she submerged totally he might lose interest. Of course she might drown before that happened. If he decided to attack, he'd have a hard time without himself plunging into the icy stream. That might be the deciding factor. On the other hand, her left arm might be a tempting target, suspended as it was above her head, wrapped around with strong roots. It was the hold that kept her from slipping under the water, but it had gone numb, and the roots had cut deeply into her flesh, starting bloody rivulets down her arm, diluted by the frozen rain. If he decided to tear at her arm, she wasn't sure she could disentangle it from the roots. Fine mess, flashed through her mind, and she pushed the thought away. It didn't help for him to know that. He seemed to share her trepidation. This wolf, with his powerful jaws, and four unfettered legs was puzzled by what he had found in the water. This was no goat. It didn't bleat and struggle, but regarded him on equal terms. No; more than equal; that provoked a snarl. She replied with a snarl of her own. He pawed the ground, emitting a menacing growl from deep in his throat. She couldn't match the growl, but damn, no dumb animal was going to intimidate her. Her own feral instincts flared now, a startling, ferocious power flowed from her, seemed to slam the wolf in the heart. He whimpered, as if struck, took a step back, and scrambled up the bank, bushy tail low, between his legs. Xena collected herself, tried to understand what had passed between them, and finally, gratefully relaxed her arched back.

The wolf broke over the top of the bank at a run, startling a horse and rider. Argo reared, ready to strike with her hooves if he attacked, but he had no fight in him. "Easy, girl," Gabrielle said, after her own frozen moment. Argo went as near to the edge of the bank as she dared, and stopped. Gabrielle slid down, afraid to guess what the wolf's business might have been.

"Xena?" The voice was clear, like a bell in the darkness. Xena moved her lips but her teeth began to chatter and only a shuddering breath escaped. It was enough for Gabrielle.

"I'm here, Xena. Hang on." She surveyed the bank carefully, and placed the lantern where it would shed the most useful light. One foot wrong and she'd be in the stream as well. She tossed off her cloak, took the loose coil of rope from her shoulder and fastened it to the saddle. She tied the other end around her own body, and began a careful descent of the bank. Her feet found hold on rock before she met the water; she knelt, then lowered herself onto her stomach. The back of Xena's dark head was just below, barely visible in the murky darkness. She reached out a hand. Xena started at the contact.

"Xena?" Gabrielle felt her head nod in reply. "We'll get you out in no time."

"We?" she managed, when her face came out of the water.

"Argo's up top. She came to get me." Another nod, not as strong. She couldn't see the spasm of relief that touched the warrior's face. Gabrielle arched up to have a better look at the predicament they faced. Now she noticed the water level, just lapping at Xena's nose and mouth. Every few seconds, Xena's neck would arch to clear her of the water; a quick breath, and she relaxed, face down. The strain must be enormous, Gabrielle realized with a sharp pang. "Are you injured, or just trapped?" she asked, and held her breath until the answer came.

"My hip," was all she said, before she took her breath.

"Okay, don't worry, I'll take care of it." She took her own breath, remembering another tree, another time Xena was helpless. Never mind, she told herself, this isn't then. Think, she commanded herself. The problem would not be getting Xena up the steep bank, but getting her free of the tree. Two possibilities: get the tree off Xena, or get Xena from under the tree. "Xena? Can you move at all?" A long pause, then a strangled "No."

"I don't want to make things worse. If I manage to dig the earth from around you, will - "

The dark head moved violently from side to side.

"Not a good idea then. Okay." She looked at the massive tree, wondered how much of its weight was borne by the water, and shrugged mentally. That made little difference. There was no other way. "Argo will pull the tree away from you, Xena." That won a nod of approval.

"Downstream?" she asked.

"Don't know," Xena said when she rose for a breath.

Damn, of course she wouldn't know. She was turned three quarters toward the bank, she couldn't even see the tree which imprisoned her, much less know how best to move it. "Okay, don't worry," she said again. "We'll take care of it."

She swiveled around on her stomach so that she was stretched vertical to the stream, eased the rope from around her waist, and held it in both hands. It was then that she felt a moment of panic. It wasn't possible. The trunk was huge. She would never be able to encircle it with the rope. Somewhere, impossibly far down its length, branches stuck out at odd angles, some fractured by the fall. Those would serve to hold the rope, if she could get to them. "Xena?" she called, just to make contact. The wait before the response was interminable. "Xena?" she called again, just as Xena called back, coughing on her single word. "Yeah."

"Just hold on, Xena." Please. "Artemis, you never abandon your Amazons, be with me now," she murmured, as she considered her options. Xena would form a loop in the rope, toss it toward the branches, snag the best one, and that would be that. "Well, you can't do that, Gabrielle," she told herself quietly. "You'll have to do this the hard way."

The trunk was slippery, from water, and from the ice which was beginning to form. At the same time, the bark was rough; it made Gabrielle feel better as it grated against her skin, knowing there was something on which to grip. So she inched her way along its length, breath half held, alert for any sign her weight was causing it to settle further. She thought it would be okay; the greater part of the tree's weight seemed to be rather solidly settled on some foundation.

Gabrielle was only a few feet above the stream, a fall would not be fatal, she could wade through the current, waist or chest deep at worst. The trunk, however, was angled so that for much of its length it was several feet above the water. If Gabrielle were to fall off, she wouldn't be able to climb back on mid-stream. She would have to return to the bank and begin the crawl again. No time for that, she told herself, Xena was working too hard to get air; and then, there was the cold. She didn't know how long Xena had been in the water. She had made good time once Argo came for her, but she had no way of knowing how long Argo had stayed with Xena before seeking help. Anytime in that frigid water was too long, even if you weren't injured...She pushed that thought away. First things first.

She was within reach of some branches now. The one she chose had to be sturdy enough to bear the strain of the tow rope, and positioned so that the tree would move in the right direction. She watched the current. It was not powerful, but it was moving more swiftly than usual, fueled by the rain. If the tree was pulled off so that it floated downstream, it might be carried away from Xena. At least it wouldn't be propelled into her. So: downstream it was, she decided, and hoped movement in that direction wouldn't cause further harm.

The rope was tied around the branch with a knot Xena had showed her, had insisted she learn. She thought she had done it right, and began the long crawl back, moving as quickly as she dared, clutching the other end of the long rope.

"Xena," she called, as she clambered up the bank, "almost ready." She heard with relief an answering grunt as she double checked the knot which fastened the end of the rope around the saddle horn. That done, she lowered herself carefully down the bank until she was next to Xena once more. She reached out to let the warrior know she was there. "Xena, we're ready. When I give the signal, Argo will pull the tree downstream."

"Mm-m-m," Xena shuddered, "go. Do it."

"I'll give the signal from here."

"No!" The voice was hoarse, but carried an unmistakable note of urgency.

"Xena, I don't want you to be hurt more," she said with as much urgency, but Xena was moving her head to make her point again. She couldn't see her face, but heard her spit water out before speaking.

"You have to cut the rope, once the tree is free."

"Cut it? Xena, it's the only rope I have here. I'll need it to pull you - "

"Cut it!" she repeated, "near the saddle. The tree could pull Argo in..." Her voice trailed off, but Gabrielle knew what she meant. Once dislodged, the tree would have new power to do damage. Argo could well be pulled into the stream, and killed. "All right," she said. "I'll cut the rope." There was a knife in the saddle bag, she knew, and as she fished it out, she considered that the rope was long. She could cut it nearer to the tree, and save a good part of it. As close to the tree as possible, she determined. She gave Argo a pat before taking her place where the rope came over the bank. It occurred to her then that the massive base of the tree, with its roots radiating wildly, might roll when the tree went. She'd have to watch that, and be ready to jump clear. "Hold on, Xena," she yelled, giving the warrior no time to object to her position before she gave the command to Argo: Go Argo," she called in a clear voice. The horse had been waiting for the command, and began to move, slowly, steadily, hooves digging into the turf, making progress, moving the fallen tree despite its weight. Gabrielle peered closely over the bank, trying to make out the warrior in the dark. She was suddenly not sure if she would know when the tree had been moved enough...

"Xena? Call out when - " She was cut off by a groan which seemed to come from the tree as it began to move. She froze at an immense cracking sound, and watched the tree split along its length, as Argo strained against the rope.

"Oh, Gods," she breathed, seeing half the tree move away, while the rest remained stolidly against the bank, against Xena. At last the split stopped, two thirds of the way down the trunk, leaving the tree in a wide V-shape, the free half bending low into the stream. Then everything seemed to happen at once: water had pooled in the V; when it had enough strength it moved, sweeping the trunk aside, aided by the sturdy mare who continued to pull from the bank. As Gabrielle watched it came to her: in one piece the tree never could have been moved by that stream, but split it two, it was possible. It moved. And now the base of the tree moved with it, turning in an immense circle as it slowly wheeled her way, gouging away the bank, creating its own path to the river. Gabrielle jumped back, leaving it space to move, and saw Argo, impossibly far ahead, absorbed in her task. The rope was still taut, but now the tree had a life of it own, and Xena's words took on a grim urgency. Cut the rope.

"Argo," she yelled; in that moment the horse stopped, and braced itself for whatever danger was held in the young girl's voice, for certainly that was a cry of alarm. "Argo," she heard again, as the bank beneath her feet began to give way, and four hooves sought solid ground. Now she was the object being towed, by the full weight of the dreadful tree. She whinnied in protest, summoned her strength for the uphill struggle this suddenly had become, then just as suddenly, the force pulling her down was gone. She scrambled up the bank, past the rain-soaked girl who held a knife in trembling fingers. Gabrielle shivered from the cold, and from reaction, then put her head down and tore back to where Xena had been trapped for so long.

"Xena?" The bank of the stream had changed dramatically, sculpted by the violent passage of the base of the tree. Gabrielle moved as close as she dared to where she had left Xena, and called below. "Xena?" she repeated and peered down into the darkness.

"Still here, Gabrielle," came the weak reply.

"I'm coming down with the rope." She thought she heard a word in reply as she eased over the bank and lowered herself down the rope as before, anchored to Argo's saddle. Xena was much as before, though her right shoulder was raw where rough bark had had ground against it. Her forearm was still wrapped by the wiry roots which grew from the bank. As before, her face was barely able to rise from the water.

"Was that all right? Did you get hurt?"

"F-f-fine," she stammered, through trembling lips. She had experienced the whole thing as a captive observer, barely capable of feeling, straining to hear, unable to see. Except for a brief, intense pressure which had forced her torso deeper into the mud of the bank, she had little idea of what had happened. The tree was gone, that was all. Gabrielle was here, and "Argo?" she asked.

"Up top waiting for us, so let's get busy. I'm going to put this around your body, Xena; tell me if I hurt you."

She nodded, wanting desperately to see the bard's face, happy to hear her voice so near.


"Yes?" she answered, as she reached her arms around Xena chest, circling her with the rope.

"Keep talking."

The bard half smiled at the odd request, but began a steady stream of chatter, as her nimble fingers secured a knot. "Good thing you made me learn these knots," she told Xena, then asked: "Can you use your legs at all?"

"Can't feel them," Xena told her.

"Oh. No problem." She half submerged in the stream, feeling carefully for any sign of injury, making sure that her legs were free. It was then that she felt the rock which jutted out from the bank, below the water level. She guessed the tree had slammed her hip against the rock, causing the injury Xena mentioned. Yeah, that would do it, she acknowledged grimly, then looked up the bank to the new task. Argo would haul Xena up, Gabrielle would climb up the bank at her side, easing her over the rough spots. She would brook no argument about this. "Xena, I'm climbing up beside you," she said with some force.

"G-g-ood," was Xena's surprising reply. "Could use...c-c-company."

Cautiously, Gabrielle grasped Xena's shoulders. "You can let go of the roots now."

"Can't," she admitted.

Gabrielle looked closer: the roots had cut cruelly into her forearm. Silently, she took the knife and severed the root. She'd free the arm from the roots later. Now she gripped the shoulders and turned her, so that her injured hip was away from the bank, and her face was at last visible. She touched her face briefly, wiped mud from her cheek. Xena managed a faint smile.

"Go, Argo," she commanded the patient mare, who began a steady pull away from the stream. Gabrielle's hand was on the rope, ensuring that the movement was smooth, watching the warrior's face carefully. "Are you okay?" she asked after a few feet. "Just holler if the pain is too bad."

"No pain. Everything's...n-n-numb." That was good, and maybe bad, Gabrielle thought, depending on the cause. Maybe their luck would hold and it would only be the cold water and the pressure.

"Good," she said with a broad smile in her voice.

"Yeah," Xena agreed quietly.

The bank had seemed to grow with each trip up or down, now those few yards may have been miles, as the bard inched her way through the mud, finding hand and footholds in the soft earth, one hand always free to check Xena's progress. At last they were at the top. Gabrielle climbed ahead and gripped Xena under the arms to pull her onto the flat earth.

With an effort, Xena turned onto her stomach. Gabrielle understood, and straddled her back, careful to put no pressure on her hip. Swift, practiced fingers stripped the armor from her torso. Then she began a rhythmic pumping of the warrior's back, happy to see the water which was expelled from her lungs. Xena waved her off at last, and lay her head on a forearm to rest.

"Xena, don't sleep just yet. We have to get home, get you warm." Xena nodded, but her eyes were closed. Gently, Gabrielle patted her cheek to rouse her.

"Do you think you can stand, on one leg?" she asked. You can lean on me."

With an effort Xena dragged herself from the attractive edge of sleep, and focused on the question. Her legs might have been blocks of wood. At least they didn't hurt. "I'll try," she replied. With Gabrielle's help, she rose to one knee. Argo was positioned close by, and Gabrielle coiled the rope, so that Xena could use it as a handle to pull herself to a standing position, leaning half her body weight on the bard, left leg hanging useless. She clutched the saddlehorn, and lay her head against the wet fur of the saddle. Gabrielle held her eyes for a moment.

"Xena. Can you sit?"


"Then we'll lay you across the saddle." She repositioned herself under Xena's weight while she considered. "I can't lift you, we know that, but if I just duck underneath you, give you a boost, while you hoist yourself up..." It could work. Xena seemed to agree.


So the smaller woman squatted beneath the warrior, head stuck between her legs. "Do I feel good down here?" Gabrielle asked.

"Always," Xena said, with a grin, then gasped.

"What is it?"

"Feeling’s back," she said, voice shaky. She suddenly began to shiver again; she swayed against the saddle for a long moment.

"Let's go, Xena," Gabrielle said, with new urgency. Now or never, maybe. "On three," she shouted, trying to be heard above the pelting rain. "One." She gripped Xena's thighs. Two." She tested her footing, digging into the soft earth. "Three." With a mighty effort she stood, afraid for a moment that she would collapse under Xena's weight, then Xena's own efforts lifted her off the bard's shoulders, and she flopped across the saddle.

"That wasn't so bad," Gabrielle said aloud.

"No," Xena lied, through teeth gritted against pain. Her guess was that the hip was dislocated, at least. "Gabrielle. Tie me on."

"Right." The bard settled the cloak over Xena's body, then followed Xena's directions to fasten her to the saddle. "Xena, it will be faster if I ride too. I think there's room, and you've been cold so long..."

"Sure, Gabrielle. Argo can handle it."

Argo turned her head to Xena's voice, and whinnied in affirmation.

"Gravity is a mortal's best friend," Gabrielle said, not certain whether Xena heard her or not. She thought the injured warrior had been asleep for some time, and counted that a mercy. The ride had been slow, wet and rough at best.

"Kind of jouncy, in these parts," she had said at one point, halting Argo while she adjusted the skins which cushioned Xena's ride.

"Jouncy? Sounds like one of your words," Xena had said slowly.

"I suppose it is. Do you like it?" She lifted the cloak to see Xena's face. Her eyes were shut. She looked so vulnerable there, head hanging upside down, tears came to the weary bard's eyes. "Xena, I'll take care of you," she promised. "Always."

Now, she looked at her again, spoke softly into her ear, while she untied the rope which held her safe. "C'mon Xena," she urged. "We're home." Gods it sounded good to say that. Argo stood outside the door, as close as she could get. If the doorway was just a little bigger, she could have carried Xena right into the warmth of the house.

"A few steps, and you can lie down," she promised. Xena slid off the horse and steadied herself against the sturdy woman at her side. "All set," she hissed, and they took the few steps into the house. Gabrielle had spent a few minutes inside, moving furry skins and blankets near the hearth, and rousing the smoldering fire to vibrant life. Xena seemed to find new energy as she moved toward the warmth, and sank to the blankets with a sigh, of pain or relief Gabrielle couldn't tell. There she gave up all pretence at strength, and lay for long minutes, mouth slack with exhaustion, shivering violently as her body readjusted to the foreign notion of warmth. Gabrielle lay beside her, wishing she wouldn't have to stir for a long time, knowing the comfort was only momentary. At last Xena turned her head to the woman at her side. "Sorry to be so much trouble," she said, voice shaky. "And now you have to put my hip back in place."

"Oh." Gabrielle had seen Xena put her own dislocated shoulder back in place with a mighty whack against a wall. She hoped the procedure wouldn't be similar. "Well, Xena that's something you've never taught me," she said keeping her voice light. "So, what do I do first?"

"Nothing to it," Xena told her. "Half of it's my job. Help me turn my back to the table."

"You aren't going to ram yourself against it?" she queried uneasily.

"Why would I, Gabrielle?" Xena asked, puzzled. "Just need to hold on to something, so that when you pull I won't budge."


"Yeah, and sort of twist it." She stopped, and ran her fingers gingerly over the joint, wincing a little. "Twist a half turn to my left. Should do it."

"Xena, maybe I should go get Hermia to help."

"No, you can do this," she said with quiet confidence.

"Let me get your wet things off, first. I think I'll have to cut the breeches..." She stopped at Xena's violent head shake.

"Uh-uh, just do it."

"Xena - " she began, but something in Xena's face hushed her. She thought the warrior was about to cry.

"Gabrielle, it hurts," she confided. "It's screaming now, making up for all those hours I couldn't feel it. Just do it," she pleaded.

Wordlessly, Gabrielle took a grip on the skins and turned them so that Xena could reach overhead and grip the legs of the heavy walnut piece. She positioned herself at Xena' feet, and gripped the leg just above the knee. It was only now in the warmth that she realized how cold Xena's body was. Cold as death. She had touched that flesh before. Xena lifted her head to observe, and Gabrielle was struck by the blue cast about her lips. She turned back to the job, not knowing where to look, trusting that Xena would tell her when she felt it move back into place. Unless she passed out, Gabrielle thought suddenly. What then? That worry ended with Xena's grim command:


Gabrielle pulled, swiftly, and an unexpected cry of exertion escaped her as she felt the leg move, and twist to her will. She hadn't expected to hear it lock in place. The noise startled her. Then it was over. Xena lay back, her cheeks red despite the pallor. A trickle of blood ran from a bite in her lower lip.

"Gods," she gasped, breathless. "That's better."

"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed. She drew the back of a hand over dry lips. "Is that it?" she asked hopefully.

"Yeah. I think there's something broken. Not much to do about it."


"Just here..." She touched the side of her hip. "You can take a look. Will you help me undress?"

"Gods, yes, I'm sorry, you must be frozen." She moved to her side.

"Gabrielle." Xena placed a cold hand on her arm. "You..." she was fast losing focus now. "Saved me. Don't...apologize."

Gabrielle moved swiftly to strip the sodden leather from her body. Like ice. The dark breeches were pulled off slowly. The cold had reduced the swelling to almost nothing. Gabrielle noted, as always, the crude initial seared into Xena's hip, near the crotch. Callisto would never be forgotten, but now she was the least of Gabrielle's concerns.

"Xena, you're bruised all over." Black and blue spots mottled her skin.

"Shivering will do that," she said, making no effort to look.

It sounded like a joke, but not from Xena; not in these circumstances. She'd ask her again tomorrow.

The roots had begun to unravel of their own accord, now that the pressure was off, but she had to use gentle force to pull them away. It was a mercy that the arm still had little feeling; it would a misery tomorrow. Xena lay patiently while Gabrielle cleaned the arm with soft touches, and wrapped it loosely. Now she turned her attention elsewhere. Gabrielle didn't know what she was looking for, but Xena lay on her stomach, head pillowed on one arm, while the bard inspected her horribly bruised left side. If Xena said something was broken, she could only believe it. It looked as if everything must be broken.

"Don't think it's too bad," she told the bard, voice muffled by the blanket which was draped over her upper body. She didn't need to ask how it looked, she'd seen enough injuries to know. "Just needs rest. Nothing to do for it," she said.

"Okay." Gabrielle hoped Xena was right, decided to believe it for the rest of the night, anyway. She was ready to drop, and there was still work to do: Argo waited in the cold, more wood was needed on the fire, and Xena needed something warm inside her.

She tucked the blankets around Xena, and took hot, round stones from near the fire to place strategically under the blankets, close enough to provide warmth without doing harm. She lifted the table enough to angle it so that it provided draft protection for the warrior before the hearth. It would be nice if there was a bed, Gabrielle thought. Xena had wanted a bed...She'd think about it later. Now she fetched the water she'd put on to heat, mixed it with wine, and stirred in a generous dollop of honey. From a small earthen jar on the self, she took a small brown cake, the dried juice of the lactuca verosa. She considered briefly whether Xena would want the powerful narcotic, then crumbled it into the cup.

"Xena, one more thing," she said with apology in her voice. "Drink this." She fed spoonfuls to her, slowly, until the wine was mostly gone, and the effort of raising her head and swallowing was too great. Except for the drug, Gabrielle would have drained the cup then, suddenly aware that she was cold, and hungry. More tired than anything.

"Sleep, now Xena." She lowered herself until she could place a kiss on her forehead.

Xena's eyes fluttered with a sudden realization: "I didn't get the wood in."

"Don't worry about the wood."

"We can't be without wood."

"I'll get the wood."

"You can't - "

"Why not?"

The question was beyond her strength. Her eyes screwed up with the effort of thinking.

Gabrielle put a hand on her forehead, brushed the bangs back, and spoke gently to her: "Don't worry. I'll take of things. You've taught me well." Now she read the mind behind the furrowed brow. "I'll get food. The water's not far, and I can handle an axe well enough to chop wood for a few weeks."

Weeks. Xena shuddered again. Gabrielle tucked the blanket closer around her neck. "You'll be on your feet in no time. Until then, let go, and trust me. I can do this, Xena."

She pressed her lips against the warrior's cheek. "I was so afraid..."

"But you came through the wolves..." Her weak voice held a note of pride.

"It wasn't the wolves I was afraid of." She shook her head in self-surprise. "I was afraid for you. Don't leave me, Xena."

"Never Gabrielle." She watched Gabrielle's face until her heavy lids began to close. Gabrielle then told her: "Sleep," and rose to her feet.

"You too, Gabrielle. Sleep."

"Not yet, Xena, I'm all right, and I still have work to do," she said, before realizing that Xena meant far more than sleep. She wanted company there, on the floor. Her eyes were still closed, but her mouth turned up in a small smile when Gabrielle lay down beside her on the floor, making a space for herself under the blanket. She rested her head carefully against the warrior, and wrapped one arm around her shoulders. "Is that comfortable Xena? Am I hurting you?"

"Uh-uh; you feel good. Warm." A long pause. "Argo..." she began.

"I'll see to Argo in a minute." She lifted her head to touch her lips briefly to Xena's. They seemed to leave a smile there, and then the warrior was asleep.

Argo had found her way into the shed, trusting the Other to take of things now. There was hay, and water, and it was warm. She could use a rubdown, would like her saddle to be off, would even like her muzzle stroked. All that would come, she knew. For now, she was content.

Continued - Chapter 23

Fan Fiction
Return to the Fan Fiction area