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THE COTTAGE by Eva Allen
DISCLAIMER: The characters Xena and Gabrielle, along with others who have appeared in the TV series XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, are the sole property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. All other characters are the clever invention of the author. The use of Universal's characters in this story does not constitute the author's intent to make a profit or otherwise infringe on the existing copyright. The interpretation of the characters in this story is purely the author's own. Copyright for this fanfiction held by Eva Allen, September, 1997.
"What are we going to do today?" asked Gabrielle while they were finishing off the rabbit stew for breakfast.
"Anything you want."
"Mmm, know what? I'd really like to spend some time writing, if that's okay. We've had so many adventures lately that I'm kind of behind on my scrolls."
"Sure, you can do that." Xena smiled at her. "You can do anything you want to."
"But what will you do?"
"Me? Oh, I'll find something. I can try to get the grass stains off my sword and sharpen it up again. Brush Argo. Go for a swim. There are lots of things I can do."
Gabrielle studied her for a few moments.
"Xena, you know you hate sitting around in camp. Why don't you go out exploring for a while, or go fishing? Maybe you could get us some carp for dinner."
The warrior frowned. "No, that's not a good idea, Gabrielle. I don't want to leave you alone here."
"Are you still worried about Garron?"
"Have you seen anything at all to make you think he followed us?"
"No," Xena admitted.
Gabrielle laid her hand on Xena's arm. "Look," she said, "I have a really good feeling about this place. I feel perfectly safe here, and I would feel safe staying here alone, if you want to leave for a while. Really. And besides that, I can take care of myself. I've got my staff and I know how to use it. I'm not a child, Xena. You don't have to watch out for me all the time."
Xena stared at her, considering. "Are you sure you'd feel safe?" she said, at length.
"Because if you have any doubt at all, just tell me and I'll be glad to stay here with you--I mean that."
"I have no doubts, Xena."
"Well, it would be nice to get out and look for some herbs," she said hesitantly. "I'm almost out of the ones I use most often. And I could probably catch a fish or two while I'm at it, if that's what you want. I won't be gone more than a couple of hours, I promise."
"Yes, Xena, that's a good idea! I want you to go. I know you'll have more fun than you would sitting around watching me write."
Xena smiled. "How well you know me, My Love." She kissed Gabrielle quickly on the forehead as she got up from the table. "I just want to have another look around before I leave."
She put on her breastplate and bracers, then settled the sword on her back and the chakram at her waist. After first checking on Argo in the meadow, she made another circuit of the entire area--not as wide this time--and saw nothing to alarm her.
"Everything looks fine," she told Gabrielle when she got back.
"See? What did I tell you?" Gabrielle said, giving Xena a quick kiss. "Now get out of here!"
Xena took only a minute to find her herb bag and a short piece of rope to string fish on, then she headed across the creek to explore the area south of the cottage.
"See you later," she called to Gabrielle, who smiled and waved.
The land was hilly and rough, but Xena's long legs covered ground easily. She took in deep breaths of fresh air--partly because it smelled so good, but also because she was trying to calm the last bit of fear that still gnawed at her--the fear that Garron somehow, in spite of all her watchfulness and precautions, had managed to follow them. But surely she would have seen something. He would have given himself away somehow; he wasn't that clever. She had to stop worrying. Gabrielle was right--she could take care of herself. She had become a skilled fighter and Xena was often amazed these days, watching her . . . but against Garron? She wouldn't think about it. She would think about the morning sun on her face and the wind in her hair and where the best herbs could be found and how good it felt to be out rambling around like this.
She didn't travel in a straight line, and she paused often to take her bearings so that she would be able to find the way back easily. The herb bag filled up quickly, as she stopped here and there to dig choice plants with her dagger. She climbed a ridge and in the narrow valley beyond, she was particularly glad to find a clear, cold stream, shaded by willows. "Willow bark," she murmured. "Good for relieving pain. I always seem to need lots of willow bark." And while she was here, she thought, she might as well see if she could catch some fish.
The sun was high, and she realized she had been gone more than an hour already. Quickly, she pulled off her shin guards, boots, and bracers, and waded in. The cold water felt good in the growing heat of the day. Tilting her head to one side, she listened carefully, then moved into deeper water, where she knew the carp lingered in the shade of the far bank. It didn't take long to snatch a couple of fat ones from the water with her bare hands and toss them onto the bank. Two would be enough for tonight. She could always come back another day to get more.
Xena waded out, picked up the fish, ran the rope through their gills, and tied it. Then she shook the water off her arms andlegs, sat down on a shady rock and put on her bracers. She was just thrusting one foot into a boot when all at once she heard a sound that made her blood turn to ice. It was Gabrielle screaming.
Scrambling to her feet, Xena cast a panicked look around. Where had the scream come from? Had Gabrielle followed her? She saw no one around, nothing out of place in the placid little valley. Then she heard the screams again.
"Xena! Help me! Xena!"
She heard the cries plainly, and yet they seemed to come from nowhere. Then suddenly she realized that she was hearing them, not with her ears, but from somewhere inside of her. It was strange, but that was the only way she could explain it. Sitting back down, she began to lace the boot as quickly as she could with trembling fingers. Something was terribly wrong--she understood that much. Gabrielle needed her and here she was in the hills at least half a league away. It seemed to take forever to lace the boots, even though she skipped many of the eyelets. Finished at last, she slapped on the shin guards, grabbed up the herb bag and fish, and set out running.
The uneven ground hindered her speed, and she had to take time to find the landmarks she'd noted earlier. She had come farther than she intended to, and it was taking much too much time to get back. Her breath came fast and hard, and sweat trickled into her eyes. Then, glancing up as she dashed through an open area, she saw the smoke. It rose in a black column above the trees, some distance off. She stopped short, staring at it, her heart sinking as she realized that it marked the place where she estimated the cottage to be. "No!" she whispered. "Dear Zeus, don't let this be happening!" Then, drawing a shuddering breath, she plunged onward.
She didn't stop again until she had skidded down the last hillside and cleared the meadow creek in a single flip. Landing in a crouch, she dropped the herb bag and fish, drew her sword, and stood up.
There wasn't much left of the cottage. The dry wooden walls and thatch roof had apparently fallen easy prey to ravenous flames. The only thing still standing was the stone fireplace. Blackened rafters, beams, and clumps of thatch still blazed and smoldered on what had once been the cottage floor.
Xena scanned the clearing for some sign of life, but saw none. "Gabrielle!" she called. "Gabrielle, where are you?" The crackling and hissing of the fire was the only answer. Cautiously, she moved toward the blaze. The wind shifted then, bringing her the acrid smell of burnt wood, thatch, and something else-- A vision of Cirra flashed suddenly across her memory, and she heard again the screams of people being burned alive in their houses. "No, I won't think about that now," Xena muttered. She shook her head sharply, and as swiftly as it had come, the image was gone.
The heat of the fire kept her a couple of paces back from the blackened ruins, but she saw the body almost immediately. A crumpled form, charred past recognition, it lay near the center of the cottage. Xena closed her eyes as a shudder ran through her, and she bit her lip hard to keep from crying out. "No!" she groaned. "Gabrielle, no! Please!" Her knees felt like water. Sinking down in the grass, she let her sword drop and buried her face in her hands. She remained like that for several moments, trying to control her trembling, then forced herself to look at the body again. With the hair and clothing burned away, it was impossible to tell much about it. Was it really Gabrielle? Picking up her sword, she stood up and moved slowly around the ruins, her eyes never leaving the grotesque, black figure. It seemed bigger, somehow, than she would have expected her lover's body to be. When she reached the back side of the cottage, she caught a glimpse of the boots, which were not as thoroughly burned as everything else. They were, she realized with sudden relief, much heavier and larger than Gabrielle's boots.
But if Gabrielle wasn't dead, then where was she? And who had burned up in the cottage fire? Xena looked around the clearing again. "Gabrielle!" she called, then listened. A burning rafter broke with a soft pop, and she jumped. Backing away from the ruins, toward the line of shrubbery and trees, she tuned her ears to detect any sounds that weren't made by the fire. "Gabrielle!" she called again. That's when she heard the whimpering. A wounded animal, she thought at first. The sound seemed to come from a dense stand of bushes nearby. Sword at ready, she moved in that direction. Yes, here was the place where twigs had been broken when someone or something had pushed through. Xena parted the branches with her sword, peered in, and then stepped into a narrow space among the shrubs.
It took her a moment to spot Gabrielle, who was huddled deep in the shadows of the bushes. She sat hugging her knees tightly to her chest, her face buried against her arms. Stepping closer, Xena could see that the golden hair was tangled with grass and matted with what appeared to be blood. She sheathed her sword and knelt in front of her companion. "Gabrielle?" she said softly. The whimpering stopped, but there was no other response. Xena reached out and laid both hands on the blonde head.
"Don't touch me." Gabrielle's voice was low and ominous, like a growl.
Xena froze and then slowly withdrew her hands. "All right," she said. She was silent for a moment. "What happened, Gabrielle?" she asked then. "Are you hurt? I want to help you."
Gabrielle's head snapped up. "Oh, now you want to help, do you?" she said in a tone as sharp as any dagger. "Where were you, Xena? I needed you. I was screaming for you and you didn't come!"
Xena's breath caught in her throat. Through tangles of red-gold hair, she saw the crazed light in Gabrielle's eyes, the dark bruises on her face and arms, the cut and swelling over one eye. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I should have been here."
"Yes, you should have." Gabrielle glared at her and then laid her head on her arms again.
Xena studied the huddled figure, desperately wanting to touch her, but not daring to. "What happened here, Gabrielle?" she began again. "Can you tell me?" There was no answer. "How badly are you hurt?" Still nothing. Xena took a few deep breaths, trying to calm a rising sense of panic. Looking frantically for clues, she suddenly saw what she had not before, because of the dense grass and shrubbery in which the bard sat--Gabrielle was wearing nothing other than her boots. "Where are your clothes, Gabrielle?" Xena asked.
"I burned them!" Gabrielle said, looking up again. Her eyes were narrowed, her voice hard. "They've all gone up in smoke, just like our little love nest!"
Xena stared at her, chilled by a growing realization of what must have happened. "Whose body is that in the cottage?" she asked. "Is it Garron's?" A look of raw fear flashed across Gabrielle's face. She nodded, shut her eyes, and let her head drop once more.
Xena reached out to touch her, but then remembered and withdrew her hand. "What did he do to you, Love?" she asked as gently as she could. "Did he rape you?" A shudder was the only answer, but it told her all she needed to know. "Damn him!" she hissed, and slammed her fist against the ground. "I hope he's roasting in Tartarus!"
She closed her eyes for a moment and tried to get her emotions under control. The important thing right now was to find out how badly Gabrielle was hurt and to help her. There would be plenty of time for anger later. She opened her eyes and regarded the unmoving figure before her.
"Gabrielle," Xena said quietly, "you've got to let me touch you. You're hurt and I want to take care of you." She put her hand on Gabrielle's arm, but the bard jerked away.
"You should have taken care of me before, Xena," she said, looking up. "Why didn't you come when I needed you?"
"Gabrielle--" Xena reached out again, but suddenly the bard lunged at her, screaming and beating at her face and chest with clenched fists. Xena caught the flailing arms and tried to control the barrage, but Gabrielle proved stronger than she expected. Afraid of adding more injuries to those her lover had already suffered, Xena quickly decided on another tactic. She slid her hands up to Gabrielle's shoulders, her fingers seeking just the right points near the neck. It wasn't easy in the midst of such a struggle, but after a moment, she found the two spots and deftly applied pressure. It was a technique the bard had once dubbed the "modified pinch." Designed not to cut off the blood to the brain, as her regular pinch was, but simply to produce a state of light unconsciousness, it was useful for relieving pain while doing surgery or treating wounds. Almost as soon as she applied the pressure, Xena felt Gabrielle go limp and saw her eyes roll back. With gentle hands, she caught the bard and eased her down, stretching her out in the grass.
She hadn't expected to see so much blood. It seemed to be everywhere, smeared over Gabrielle's breasts, stomach, and thighs. For a moment, Xena couldn't identify the source, but then she saw the gash in one breast. Snatching some large leaves off a nearby bush, she used them to apply pressure to the wound. While waiting for the bleeding to stop, she tried to think what supplies she needed. A blanket to keep Gabrielle warm, some cloths for cleaning and bandaging, something to put water in--probably the cooking pot. She stopped in mid-thought, realizing suddenly that all the things she needed were in the cottage . . . and the cottage had burned down. "Gone!" she whispered. "Everything we own is gone!" She shook her head in disbelief, then mumured, "Well, this will be an interesting challenge!"
Xena checked the wound and saw that blood was no longer oozing from it. She needed to get Gabrielle out of these bushes and into the sunlight where it was warmer. And she would need a lot of water. Maybe someplace near the creek would be good. She stood up and looked down at the still form on the ground. Although bloody, the bard appeared peaceful enough. Surely it would be all right to leave her alone for a few minutes.
Xena pushed her way out of the bushes and stood blinking in the sunlight of the clearing. The fire had died down mostly to embers and a few small tongues of flame, but the ruins still radiated a lot of heat. She moved closer to survey the damage. The iron cooking pot sat on the hearth, where they had left it this morning, and she could just make out the frying pan lying near the center of the room, under a half-burnt rafter. At least she would be able to retrieve those two things. Where their bed had been, however, there were only ashes now. No hint of straw, grass, or even blankets remained.
Xena circled the cottage, and stopped near the front door, as her eyes fell on a framework of charred leather and fur. "My saddle!" she groaned. Not much remained of the bridle, either. She could, of course, ride bareback, but it would be practically impossible to do any fighting on horseback without a saddle. And although Argo was well trained, riding her with no bridle for guidance might prove tricky. Argo! Where was she? Was she all right? Xena turned toward the meadow and whistled. She was relieved to hear the familiar whinny as the mare trotted towards her, but just short of the clearing, Argo stopped and stood tossing her head nervously in the direction of the cottage ruins. Xena went to her. "That fire's got you spooked, hasn't it, girl?" she murmured soothingly. She stroked the golden neck, then checked the mare quickly for injuries, and found nothing to alarm her. "Okay, Argo, you look all right to me. I need to take care of Gabrielle now, and tomorrow you can help me get her into town somehow." She gave the horse an affectionate slap, and Argo turned and trotted off.
The warrior walked to the creek and picked up the herb bag and fish she had dropped earlier. Then she continued along the bank in the direction away from the meadow. Near the point where the stream left the clearing and entered the woods, there was a large rock, almost waist-high. It stood in a sunny spot, only a pace or so from the water. Xena studied it for a moment, then laid the herb bag in the grass near the rock. She dropped the fish into the cool creek water and tied the stringer to a bush. Then, after glancing around, she took off her weapons and armor, laid them beside the rock, and hurried back to Gabrielle.
Gathering the limp body into her arms, she carefully pushed her way out of the bushes. She carried Gabrielle across the clearing and laid her down in the grass near the big rock. In the bright sunlight, the bard's bruises and bloody wounds stood out starkly against the pale flesh. Xena stared at her for a short while and then gently touched Gabrielle's face. "This is all my fault," she said. "I should never have left you here alone. You needed me and I wasn't here for you. I'll never forgive myself."
She swallowed hard and took a deep breath, then tried to think about getting Gabrielle cleaned up. What she needed was a cloth of some type, but she didn't have one. After a moment's consideration, she went to her herb bag, emptied it out, and laid the herbs in neat piles beside the rock. The bag was made of a soft, suede-like leather which was reasonably absorbent. It wasn't really the best thing for the job she was about to do, but it was all she had. Kneeling in the grass between Gabrielle and the creek, Xena dipped the bag into the water and wrung it out. With slow, gentle strokes, she washed the blood off of her lover's face and arms, then carefully cleansed the breast wound. The gash was long, but not too deep, she noted. It really ought to be stitched to keep it clean and minimize scarring, but their needle and thread had undoubtedly been casualties of the fire.
Dipping the soft leather again, Xena washed Gabrielle's stomach, thighs, and knees. Then she gently rolled the bard over to check her back. She found more bruises and some dried blood, which she sponged off. The boots could be cleaned later, she decided. There was no sense in getting Gabrielle's one remaining article of clothing wet right now.
Xena paused for a moment then to steel herself for the part she had put off until last--the part she did not want to see, but knew she must. Easing Gabrielle's legs apart, she examined the tender flesh, now cruelly bruised and torn. With loving fingers, she softly touched the places she had touched in a very different way only that morning. Xena closed her eyes against the tears which suddenly blinded her, but she could not stop them. A deep sob shook her body, and then another, as the tears coursed down her cheeks. What was wrong with her, she wondered. She never cried like this. With great effort, she managed to stop the tears and bring her trembling body under control. Then, in a little while, feeling somewhat calmer, she wiped her face with her arm and continued cleansing her lover's wounds.
When she had finished, she made a cold compress of the leather bag and laid it on Gabrielle's swollen eye. The hair needed washing, but that could wait until the next day. The cold-water bath had probably chilled the bard enough already. It was time to get a fire going.
* * *
It didn't take long for Xena to gather wood, lay a fire, and start it using a brand she lighted in the cottage embers. Now she must wake Gabrielle up, but would the bard still be hysterical? Would she allow herself to be touched? Xena considered for a few moments. Maybe if she were already holding Gabrielle when she woke up, she would stay calmer. Crouching beside her friend, Xena slipped her arms under her and lifted her onto her lap. Then she eased herself back so that she could lean against the rock. She held Gabrielle across her thighs, the golden head cradled on her shoulder. Then, gently, she released the pressure points. After a moment or two, Gabrielle stirred and opened her eyes.
"Xena?" She looked up at the warrior, confused, and then around the clearing.
"I brought you over here to sit in the sun, where it's warmer," Xena said, "and I've cleaned you up a little bit. Do you remember what happened?"
Gabrielle's eyes moved quickly to the smoking ruins and back again, her body becoming tense and her breath coming faster. Fear replaced the confusion in her eyes. "I remember," she said finally, "but how did I get--"
"I used the modified pinch on you, so you've been out for a little while. I'm sorry, but you were struggling so hard, and I couldn't think what else to do."
Gabrielle looked at Xena for a moment, then looked away. She didn't speak, but she seemed to relax a little in the warrior's arms.
"Gabrielle, I know this will be hard for you, but can you tell me what happened? Can you talk about it at all?"
There were several moments of silence, but finally the bard began, in a voice so low and hesitant that Xena almost missed the first few words.
"I was writing," Gabrielle said, "by the creek over there, in the sun." She gestured vaguely in the direction of the meadow. "I didn't hear him. I guess I was too involved in what I was writing. I heard Argo whinny and I turned around and he grabbed me." She shivered slightly. "I didn't even have time to pick up my staff."
Xena stroked Gabrielle's hair softly, but said nothing.
"I started screaming. I screamed your name, but he just laughed at me and said that you were far away and couldn't hear me. He said he had watched you go a long ways off into the hills."
Xena closed her eyes for a moment and drew a shaky breath.
"I fought him, Xena, I really did!" Gabrielle was looking at her now. "I kicked him and bit him and fought him every way I could!"
"I know, Sweetheart. I've seen the marks of that fight all over your body."
"He was just too strong," Gabrielle mumured. "And he had a dagger. He kept saying he'd kill me."
Xena pulled the bard a little closer and kissed the top of her head.
"He dragged me into the cottage and threw me down on the bed. All I could think about was that it was right where you and I--last night--"
"I know," whispered Xena.
Gabrielle hesitated a moment and then went on. "I tried talking to him, reasoning with him, but he just laughed at me and said he was going to get his revenge." She took a deep breath and let it out again. "He cut my clothes off of me. That's how I got--" She glanced down at the breast wound.
"And then he--" She stopped and swallowed hard, crying now, her body trembling.
"You don't have to tell me," Xena said gently. "I've seen what he did to you." She waited for the trembling to stop. It took a long time. Finally she said, "Tell me what happened afterwards. How did the fire get started?"
"Afterwards--" Gabrielle began and then paused, as if she had trouble remembering this part. "I think I must have fainted or something. I just remember opening my eyes and seeing him standing by the table. He was bending over--I don't know what he was looking at, but I saw the frying pan on the hearth there, near the bed. I grabbed it and jumped up and I hit him, just as he straightened up. I hit him in the head--really hard."
"You knocked him out."
"Good for youl! What did you do then?"
"After that, I don't know, I just went kind of crazy or something. All I could think about was how he had ruined everything and made it all dirty and horrible. We had such a beautiful love nest and he came along and turned it into a hate nest. I couldn't stand thinking about it, so I lit the candle in the fireplace and set the straw on fire!" There was a wild light in her eyes, and her voice shook with emotion. "I had to do it, don't you see, Xena? I had to burn it after what he did! You can see that, can't you?"
The warrior stared into the frantic green eyes. "Yes, Darling, I see," she said softly and smoothed the hair back from Gabrielle's face. "Everything's going to be all right now. You're safe and everything's going to be fine."
After a moment, Gabrielle sighed and laid her head against Xena's shoulder. The two were silent for several minutes. Xena's mind was filled with the images that her lover's story had created. They were not images she wanted to see, but she knew she had to.
"Xena, take me away from here, please," Gabrielle said at last. "I hate this place."
"We'll go first thing tomorrow, I promise," said Xena.
"Not tomorrow. I want to go now."
"I don't see how we can, Gabrielle. It will take several hours to get to town, and you're not in any condition to travel. You've lost quite a bit of blood, and I don't think you'd find it pleasant to sit on a horse right now. Besides which, you don't have any clothes."
"That doesn't matter. I can wear anything--a blanket, a nightshift--I don't care."
"We don't have a blanket or a nightshift," Xena said quietly. "All our things were in the cottage, remember? They're gone. All burned up."
Gabrielle stared at her. "I did that, didn't I?" she said slowly. "I burned up all our stuff." Her gaze shifted to the cottage ruins. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. I didn't even think about--"
"I know. It's all right; we'll be fine. I'm just glad you burned up Garron while you were at it." She managed a weak grin, but Gabrielle only sighed.
"What are we going to do, Xena?"
"Well, you know how I always say I like to be creative? I figure this is my big chance!"
"Be serious, Xena. I don't feel like making jokes."
"All right. I thought we could stay right here tonight--right where we're sitting. I think I can rig up a little brush shelter or something, and we'll have the fire to keep us warm. And each other, of course."
"But I don't want to stay here. Isn't there a cave someplace we could go to?"
The warrior considered for a moment. "I don't remember any caves around here," she said, "and I didn't see any while I was out today. It's just not the right part of the country for caves. We'll be fine here, Gabrielle. And once the cottage fire cools off some, I want to try to retrieve some things that might have survived. Then in the morning, we'll get to town somehow and we'll stay at an inn, where we can eat good food and sleep on a real bed and you can rest and get well."
"How will we pay for it?"
"I don't know, but I'll figure something out."
Gabrielle was silent. Xena suspected she was not happy with the plan, but perhaps she would accept it without further protest. Xena wasn't so happy with it herself, but it was the best she had been able to come up with, given the circumstances.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
"How do you think I feel?" Gabrielle snapped. "I've been beaten up and raped. How would you feel?"
"I'm sorry. That was a stupid question. What I wanted to know, I guess, was how much pain you're feeling from that wound."
"It hurts," Gabrielle said flatly, "but it's bearable."
"Okay. I'll make you some tea as soon as I can get the pot out of the ruins. I couldn't stitch the wound up, since I don't have a needle and thread, so you'll have to be careful with it. Do you think you'll be all right here by the fire while I go do some things?"
Gabrielle nodded and winced as she moved stiffly off of Xena's lap and eased herself down in the grass near the fire.
The warrior watched her for a moment. "Do you want to lie down?" she asked. "Do you think you could sleep?"
"Will you be warm enough? You can wear my clothes, if you want."
"No, I'll be fine."
Xena got up, feeling somewhat stiff herself, and laid a few more sticks on the fire. She looked at Gabrielle, but the bard was staring at the flames and her mind seemed to be a hundred leagues away. The warrior sighed, picked up her sword and chakram, and headed for the meadow. There was a stand of young saplings growing near the creek. She studied these for a few minutes and selected three which were slender and straight, two of them forked. A single cast of the chakram felled all three, and her sword made quick work of the leafy tops. Picking up the three poles, she starte d back along the creek toward the clearing.
She stopped when she saw Gabrielle's staff and writing quill lying in the grass. She bent down to get them and then noticed a piece of parchment caught under a bush nearby. Laying down her weapons and poles, she went over and picked it up. Gabrielle's close-written script met her gaze, telling yet another exuberant tale of the exploits of the Warrior Princess. Xena's eyes fell on a section of writing near the bottom of the page.
"Hold on, Gabrielle!" called Xena, as she tied a rope around her waist.
"I can't hold on!" screamed the bard. Her strength was gone and she knew she would soon lose her precarious grip on the rope bridge where the two new-made gods, Velasca and Callisto, were throwing lightning bolts at each other. Her life would end in the lava pit below, but it would be worth it if these two evil beings perished with her. "Hurry!" she cried to Xena. "Just do it! Cut the rope!"
"Hold on!" commanded the brave Warrior Princess.
Just then, Callisto and Velasca lunged at each other and began grappling hand-to-hand, causing the bridge to jerk wildly.
"Xena, I can't hold on!" cried the bard.
"Gabrielle, don't take your eyes off me!" And with these words, Xena slashed the rope handrail, sending the two deities plummeting toward the boiling lava below. Then, with a great leap, she launched herself into space, just as her friend finally lost her hold and plunged toward certain death. Their hands met
The writing broke off at that point, and Xena let the hand holding the parchment fall to her side. Her knees felt weak and there was a terrible ache in her heart. She leaned against a tree and closed her eyes. So many times she had saved Gabrielle. Why had she failed so miserably today?
It was several minutes before she could gather the strength to move again. Glancing over at Gabrielle, she saw that the bard was sitting just as before, staring at the fire. Xena looked down at the parchment in her hand. At least this scroll had survived. Several others had been left in Poteidaia for safekeeping with Gabrielle's family, but the rest . . . well, they had been in one of the saddlebags in the cottage.
Xena picked up the weapons and poles and walked back to Gabrielle. "Hey, look!" she called. "I found your staff!"
The bard raised her eyes briefly. "Good," she said, but her voice sounded listless.
Xena laid the poles down and placed the weapons beside the rock. Then squatting down next to Gabrielle, she held the parchment where the writer could see it. "And look what else I found," she said.
Gabrielle stared at the writing for a few moments, her eyes narrowing and her face becoming hard. Suddenly, she snatched the page from Xena's hand, ripped it in two, and threw it into the fire. Then she grabbed the quill and threw that in, too.
Xena watched as flames quickly curled around the parchment. "Why did you do that?" she asked in a low voice.
"Because I never want to write again."
"You don't know that, Gabrielle. You're hurting now, but you'll feel better after a while. One day you'll feel like writing again."
The bard turned to look at Xena, fury in her eyes. "What would I write about," she asked sarcastically, "the brave Warrior Princess who goes fishing while her lover is being raped?"
Xena caught her breath sharply, as if she had been slugged. She stared at Gabrielle and opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Biting her lip, she turned her face away, then stumbled to her feet and walked blindly toward the cottage. Standing at the edge of the ruins, she stared at them without really seeing anything. She had to be patient, she told herself. Gabrielle's pain was raw and deep; she was just lashing out the way a wounded animal would. Healing would come, but it would take time. Meanwhile, she, Xena, had to be strong. And of course, she could be strong--she was a warrior, after all. But why was it so hard right now? And why did it hurt so much?
The best thing was to keep busy. There was so much to do, so much to think about to keep her mind off the pain. She shook her head to clear it and forced herself to pay attention to the sight before her. She needed to get the cooking pot, first of all. There it was, sitting on the hearth. It would be easy enough to snag it and pull it out with her whip, but-- Her eyes went to the charred remains of the saddle. Yes, there was the whip, now reduced to blackened fragments of leather, still lying in a neat coil.
Xena turned and walked back to the campsite. Gabrielle did not look up or show that she was even aware of her approach. Selecting one of the forked poles, Xena carried it back to the cottage. She knocked the pot on its side, stuck the end of the pole inside, and lifted the pot out, dropping it in the grass where it could cool. The frying pan was more difficult to get ahold of, but by prodding and shoving it with the pole, she finally got it out, too.
It was hot work. Xena paused to wipe the sweat off her face and found herself staring at Garron's body. "You got better than you deserved, you bastard," she muttered. "If it had been up to me, I would have made sure you were awake so you could experience every minute of being burned alive. Either that, or I would have torn you limb from limb with my bare hands!"
How had he done it, she wondered. How had he managed to follow them without giving a single sign that would have let her know he was doing it? She had seriously underestimated him--that was clear. And how had he known that attacking Gabrielle was the most effective revenge he could have taken on her? He must have seen them together, must have known they were lovers. Had he been watching through the window last night when they-- The thought sickened her, and she put it quickly out of her mind.
What else could she salvage here? That was the question. They had the pot to make tea in, but nothing to drink it from. Maybe the clay mugs had survived. She began poking in the ashes near what was left of the table. The fact that Garron's body was there did not make the job easier. Finally, she found a few fragments of one mug, then the second mug intact. She fished it out of the ruins with the pole and examined it. Totally blackened and badly cracked, it was still the only thing they had to drink out of, so it would have to do.
Had she saved everything worth saving? Scanning the cottage debris again, her eyes fell on the saddlebags. She poked at them and realized that one was actually lying on top of the other one. It was an easy matter to hook the strap between them and lift them out into the grass. She knelt beside them, and was met with the sharp smell of burnt cloth and leather. The bags were too hot to touch, so she went in search of a couple of sticks. The top bag was badly charred, with the flap burned away and most of the front panel missing. Using the sticks, Xena pulled out fragments of cloth which she knew had once been their towels and nightshifts. Next she found Argo's brush, the bristles gone and only a portion of the blackened handle remaining. A flask of oil she used to keep her leather boots and clothing supple had broken open, its contents sacrified to the flames. Gabrielle's extra bottle of ink had met the same fate. The metal dinner plates had survived, though, along with the forks and Xena's sharpening stone. All were heavily blackened, but they would be usable. She thought briefly of the wooden bowls they had eaten from last night. They would be just a memory now, she mused.
The second bag, protected by the first, had fared somewhat better. Its leather was severely singed in places, but for the most part, it remained intact. Xena pried it open anxiously. On top was a lightweight cloak, burned in several places, but with some good-sized areas of fabric unharmed. It could no longer be worn, she knew, but they could certainly find a use for spare pieces of cloth. Tossing aside the sticks, Xena began to use her hands to dig in the saddlebag, not really caring anymore if she got burned. Under the cloak, she found a small leather bag, soot-covered, but otherwise in good shape. Excitedly, she untied the drawstring and emptied out a spool of thread with a needle stuck in it. "Thank the gods," she said softly. Now she would be able to stitch Gabrielle's wound.
She reached into the saddlebag again, cursing as she hit a particularly hot spot, and pulled out a comb. Carved from bone, with roses for adornment, it had been a wedding gift from Perdicus to Gabrielle. One end was burned away and there were some scorch marks, but otherwise, the comb was fine. Xena laid it in the pile of rescued articles and peered into the bag again. Gabrielle's scrolls were all that remained. The outer layers of many of them had been burned in places, but a few of them appeared completely untouched by the fire. Xena unrolled one of the damaged scrolls and studied it for a moment. It seemed to her that it would be fairly easy to reconstruct the missing parts based on what remained. Looking over at the campsite, she saw that Gabrielle was sitting with her chin in her hands, staring at the ground. There was no sense giving her the scrolls right now--she would probably just burn them, as she had the other one. Xena re-rolled the parchment and placed it with the others. Then she picked up the cloak and tore a section of unburned cloth from it, wrapped the scrolls in it, and tied the bundle with another strip of the cloak's fabric.
Picking up the still-hot frying pan, pot, and mug, Xena carried them quickly to the creek and dropped them in the water. She found a sharp stone and used it to scrape as much black off as she could, then she filled the pot with water and carried it to the campfire. From her stash of herbs, she got some willow bark and a couple of other types of leaves, added them to the water, and set the pot in the coals. Gabrielle continued to sit, silent and apparently uninterested in her friend's activities.
Xena walked back to the cottage then with her dagger and cut the two saddlebags apart. She tossed the burned one back into the ruins and filled the other with the rescued items, leaving out only the thread and needle. She returned to Gabrielle and sat down beside her. The bard glanced up briefly, then turned her gaze away.
"I found some things that survived the fire," Xena said, "some things in one of the saddlebags, including the needle and thread. I think I should stitch up your wound."
Gabrielle looked at her. "All right," she said.
"It's going to hurt some. Do you want me to use the pinch again?"
"No. I can take it."
"Are you sure?"
"I figure if I'm tough enough to kill a man, I'm tough enough to stand a few stitches."
Xena frowned. "The logic of that escapes me," she said. "Look, Gabrielle, you don't have to prove anything to me. I know how brave you are."
"Just do it, Xena."
"Okay, but if you change your mind, let me know." She pulled a length of thread from the spool, bit it off, and threaded the needle. "Why don't you lie down?" she said. "I think that will make it easier."
It took eleven stitches to close the wound. Xena tried to work quickly, but she wanted to do a neat job of it, so that the scar would not be too bad. Gabrielle turned her face away, but Xena could see that she was hurting her, and that knowledge made the task even more difficult.
By the time she finished, the tea was ready. She dipped out a mugful and blew on it to cool it. "Gabrielle, sit up and drink some of this. It will help with the pain."
The bard pushed herself up and Xena handed her the tea. "It's hot, so be careful," she said.
Gabrielle studied the contents of the mug. "It has black stuff in it," she said.
Xena leaned over and peered at the tea. "I guess I didn't get all the soot out of the mug," she said. "It won't hurt you, Gabrielle--just drink it."
The bard took a sip and then made a face. "It's so bitter," she complained.
"I know, Love, but please try to drink it. It will help you feel better."
Xena glanced at the sky and saw clouds moving in from the west. Soon their warm sunshine would be gone, and there might even be rain on the way. She got up and started work on the brush shelter. First, with her dagger, she dug holes and set up the two forked poles, then laid the third pole across them. After that, she cut thick, leafy branches for a roof, laying them across from the pole to the rock.
"Xena?" Gabrielle said when the shelter was almost done.
"Why are you building this? We've slept out in the open plenty of times without a shelter."
The warrior stopped to consider for a few moments. "Well, that's a good question, actually. It's just that when we slept out before, we had clothes and blankets, and now we don't. I thought the shelter might hold the fire's heat a little better, and our body heat."
"Will it keep us dry if it rains?"
"I doubt it. And if there's a big wind, the whole thing will probably blow away," Xena said with a grin that looked more like a grimace.
"Then why are you building it?"
Xena thought again and finally said, "I guess it makes me feel like I am somehow protecting you."
Gabrielle sighed and took another sip of tea.
Xena placed the last few branches on the shelter, feeling a bit foolish now. Then, brushing off her hands and trying to sound cheerful, she said, "How about some carp for supper?"
"I'm not hungry," Gabrielle said flatly.
"I know, but you need to try to eat something."
There was no response.
Xena went and pulled the two fish out of the water, then took her dagger and went off a little distance to clean them. There was no oil for frying, but she could simmer the fillets in water. And she had seen some watercress growing in the creek nearby. They could eat that with the fish. She thought about gathering more blackberries, but quickly decided against it. No use being reminded of what they had done last night. Besides, she wasn't very hungry, either, come to think of it.
* * *
"Are you feeling any better?" Xena asked later, after they had eaten.
"No. I wish I were dead."
"Gabrielle," Xena said softly, "please don't say that. I love you and I'm very glad you're alive." They were sitting side by side, close to the fire. Xena reached out and laid her hand over one of Gabrielle's. "I know you're feeling a lot of hurt and anger," she said.
Gabrielle jerked her hand away. "You don't know anything about how I feel!" she cried. "Have you ever been raped, Xena?"
"No, you just screwed all the men in your army and had a grand old time--that's what you've done!"
Xena's hand shot out and grabbed Gabrielle's shoulder in a clamp-like grip. With her other hand, she turned the bard's face toward her. "Gabrielle, stop it!" she said. "I know you're hurting, but being mean to me is not going to make you feel any better." Gabrielle dropped her eyes and Xena let go of her. "I will never forgive myself for letting this thing happen today," the warrior continued in a low voice. "I should have been here for you and I wasn't. I would gladly give my life a hundred times if that would take away your pain and give you back your innocence. Please believe me, Gabrielle."
"I'm sorry." The bard's voice was little more than a whisper. "I feel like I've become some sort of monster. I thought I could rise above hatred and bloodlust, but I can't. It was like this when Callisto killed Perdicus, remember? But now it's worse. Now I've actually killed someone. I've lost my blood innocence. You must be so disappointed in me."
Xena put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. The bard stiffened, but didn't pull away. "Gabrielle," Xena said, "you didn't deliberately set out to kill Garron. It just happened. I'm not sure if that counts."
"I didn't plan to kill him--you're right, but when I lit that fire, I must have knownthat he would die. I must have known, on some level, that I was killing him. And I'm not sorry he's dead."
"I'm not sorry, either, and if it had been up to me, he would have suffered a lot more on his way to the River Styx." Xena grinned a humorless grin.
They fell silent for a few minutes. Xena studied the gray clouds which obscured the setting sun and tried to guess what time the rain might begin. It wouldn't be a pleasant night; she could pretty much predict that, anyway.
"I keep thinking about--" Gabrielle stopped and sighed.
"About what, Sweetheart?"
"About last night."
"Xena, why is life like that? One day you're incredibly happy and the next day you're so miserable you want to die."
"I don't know, Gabrielle. I've wondered the same thing myself. All I know for sure is that if we didn't have the bad times, we wouldn't appreciate the good times nearly as much. And I also know that it's love that gets you through the bad times. Love is really very powerful that way."
"No, it's not! Hatred is much stronger than love. And so are fear and despair. I thought I learned that lesson when Perdicus got killed, but I guess I forgot it."
Xena pulled the bard closer and touched her face softly. "You're wrong, Gabrielle," she said. "Maybe you can't see it right now, but you will eventually. You're going to come through this thing stronger than you were when you went in, and it will be love that gets you through. You'll see. It's just going to take some time--maybe a lot of time--but it will happen. You can depend on it."
Gabrielle stared at her, the green eyes dark with pain. Then, frowning, she turned away. In the west, there was a brief flicker of light and a low rumble of thunder.
"I think I'd better get some more firewood," Xena said.
She left and soon returned with an armload of dead branches, which she stacked near the fire, then fed the blaze until it was burning brightly. The pot of tea was still warm, and Xena filled the mug and held it out to Gabrielle. "Want some more tea? You may not get another chance till morning--especially if the rain puts the fire out."
The bard took the mug and made a face at it, then reluctantly began to sip.
Xena, aware for the first time of pain in her hands, examined them in the fading daylight. There were several angry-looking burn marks, and a large one on the back of her right hand was badly blistered. If she had some grease or oil, that would help kill the pain, but she didn't have any. Oh well, she had put up with much worse injuries before.
Gabrielle nudged her with the mug. "That's all I can drink," she said. Xena took the mug and, seeing that it was only about a third empty, drank the rest of the tea herself. It might help the burns, but mostly she hoped it would dull the aching in her heart.
"Let's try to get some sleep before it starts raining," she said, when she finished drinking. "After that, we may be too cold."
"I don't think I can sleep," muttered Gabrielle.
"Maybe not, but at least we can cuddle up and keep warm."
Gabrielle lay down on her side, facing the fire, and Xena nestled herself against the bard's back. She put her arm carefully around Gabrielle, trying to avoid putting pressure on bruises or the breast wound. "Are you okay? Warm enough?" she asked.
Xena laid her face against Gabrielle's back. She could hear the distant heartbeat and feel the gentle rise and fall of her lover's body with each breath. At first, she was uncomfortably aware of the throbbing burns on her hands, but soon the pain began to fade. She thought she would not sleep, but after a while, she did.
She dreamed that she stood on the brink of the lava pit, frantic to save Gabrielle. Then, just as she leapt into the chasm, she saw the bard lose her grip on the rope bridge and begin to fall. Too late, Xena realized that she had forgotten to tie the rope around her waist. Yet somehow she knew it would be all right, if she could just reach Gabrielle. But she couldn't. Falling and falling, headfirst, she stretched out her arms to grasp her lover's hands, but they were always just out of reach. Endlessly she fell, terrified, knowing that she had to catch Gabrielle or both of them would die. She reached out again--
"Xena, wake up! You're hurting me!"
Xena jerked awake and sat up. Her heart was pounding and her breath came in gasps. Disoriented, as she often was after such dreams, it took her several seconds to realize that she had merely awakened from one nightmare into another one. The night was fully dark now, but in the glow of the campfire's embers, she could see Gabrielle lying beside her, curled in a ball. Xena leaned over her and put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry," she said. "What did I do?"
"You were clutching at me and you hurt my wound."
"I'm so sorry, Gabrielle. Did I break the stitches? Let me look at it."
"It's all right; it just hurt is all."
Xena sat back and took a few deep breaths. "I'm really sorry," she repeated. "I guess I was having a nightmare."
Usually, Gabrielle took an interest in her companion's nightmares, asking what they were about, offering comfort and interpretations. But this time she remained silent.
"It was a nightmare I've never had before," Xena said, "and you were in it."
"Oh, that's just great!" Gabrielle said sarcastically, and pushed herself up into a sitting position. "I'm the one who's raped and you're the one who has the nightmares!"
Caught by surprise, Xena didn't answer for a moment, then said with a weak smile, "Well, I was just trying to be helpful."
A flash of lightning revealed Gabrielle's scowl. "I just don't get it," the bard said. "This isn't about you--it's about me. Why are you the one having nightmares?"
Xena smiled grimly. "Because I'm good at nightmares--that's one of my many skills. Besides, this isn't only about you." She reached out and laid a hand on Gabrielle's arm. "It's about me, too, because as it just so happens, I love you."
Lightning flashed again and the crack of thunder that followed made both women jump. The rain began then, with big, noisy drops splattering down on the leaves of the brush shelter. Xena moved quickly to put more sticks on the fire, fanning the flames with a plate to get the wood to catch. Maybe, if it didn't rain too hard and the fire was burning well enough, it would not go out. When she ducked back under the shelter, her eyes met Gabrielle's, and in the firelight, she could clearly see the pain on her friend's face.
"What is it, Gabrielle? Tell me," Xena said softly.
"It's just that I don't see how you can still love me after what happened today."
"Of course I still love you. Nothing that could happen to you will ever change that."
"But I feel so . . . I don't know . . . dirty, or something after he . . ." she stopped and swallowed hard. "I feel like everything's been ruined--love, sex, everything we had. I don't see how you can even stand to touch me now."
Xena stared at her and let out a long breath. "Gabrielle--" She stopped and bit her lip, then tried again. "I don't know what to say to you. I don't know how to make you believe that I do love you--just as much tonight as I did last night. You're still the same wonderful woman I made love to last night and will make love to again someday, when you feel ready."
"But I'm not the same--I've changed! Everything has changed! You loved the sweet, innocent Gabrielle who never let hatred control her, who never killed. That Gabrielle is gone, Xena. She'll never be back."
The warrior was silent for a moment, regarding her companion, then she said, "I love the Gabrielle of the kind and generous spirit, the Gabrielle who cares deeply about other people and who forces me to care, too. I love the Gabrielle who sees beauty all around her and poetry wherever she looks, the Gabrielle who is my conscience, and who helps me fight my demons. That Gabrielle has been hurt, and she's a little hard to see right now, but she hasn't gone away; she's still right here."
Gabrielle drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She didn't look at Xena or offer an answer, but as the warrior watched, she saw the firelight glinting off of tears that trickled down the bard's cheeks. Without warning, the rain increased to a downpour and soon began dripping in through the leafy roof of their shelter. Xena reached over and laid her hand on Gabrielle's arm. "You're cold, Gabrielle," she said. "Why don't you lie down so we can try to stay warm."
Xena snuggled up to Gabrielle's back again, but it was hard to get warm. The branches she had piled above them offered some protection from the driving force of the rain, but did little to keep them dry. Gabrielle put her hands over her face, trying to keep off the drips, and Xena buried her own face under the bard's hair. She listened to the hiss of the fire as the rain extinguished it and smelled the steamy smoke mingled with the scent of Gabrielle's damp skin and hair. Pressing herself close against the bard, Xena willed her body to keep her lover warm, but she had little warmth to give. As the minutes passed, she only got wetter and colder. Soon she was shivering and could feel Gabrielle doing the same. If only they had a blanket--just one lousy blanket! She tried to imagine herself wrapped in thick, warm wool, sitting in a cozy, dry place by the fire. But it didn't work. She still felt cold and miserable.
"Are you staying warm at all?" Xena said to the back of Gabrielle's neck.
"Well, at least you've got clothes on."
"Yeah," Xena said sarcastically, "and leather is so toasty and warm when it's wet!"
Gabrielle didn't answer.
"I've just been lying here fantasizing about our wool blanket. If we had a wool blanket, we might still be wet, but at least we'd be warmer."
"Well, we don't have one, so you can just forget it," Gabrielle said, struggling out of Xena's embrace and sitting up.
Xena lay there for a few moments and then sat up, too. She shoved her wet hair back and then tried to dry her face against her damp arm. "I just wish--" she began, then stopped. "No, never mind. I won't say that."
"You just wish what, Xena? Come on, let's hear it."
The warrior hesitated for a moment. "I just wish you had thought to save something from the cottage before it burned down--a blanket, the saddlebags, the saddle, anything!"
"That's all you care about, isn't it? Your stupid saddle."
Xena sighed. "No, Gabrielle," she said. "You know better than that. What I care about is you. I shouldn't have said what I did--I'm just feeling cold and miserable and my brain isn't working very well."
The two of them sat in silence for a minute. "Sounds like the rain is letting up," Xena said finally.
Gabrielle wiped her arms with her hands and shook the excess water off her fingers. Xena moved over to sit by the rock. She leaned against it, shivering as the bare skin of her back touched the cold, wet surface. When she was settled, she held out her arms to Gabrielle. "Come sit on my lap and let me at least try to keep you warm," she said.
The bard hesitated a moment, then crept over and sat on Xena's thighs. The warrior wrapped her arms around her cold companion. "Mmm, you're just like a little icicle," she said.
"You're not exactly a glowing ember yourself," Gabrielle muttered. She laid her head on Xena's shoulder. A last flash of distant lightning lit the sky, followed by the sound of retreating thunder.
"Xena," Gabrielle said softly after a few moments, "when I lit that straw on fire--" She paused and looked up at the warrior. "I never meant to burn the whole cottage down. I wasn't thinking, I guess. I was just . . . crazed. But that fire went so fast! The whole bed burst into flames and then the wall caught fire, and then the roof! I just stood there staring at it. Then these big hunks of fire and thatch started falling all around me, but it was like I couldn't move--I couldn't think what to do. I just stood there." She stopped, her breath coming quickly and her body trembling in Xena's arms. "I don't even remember getting out," she said. "I remember the rafters starting to fall and then I remember being outside. I don't know how I got there. I didn't think about saving anything. I don't even know why I saved myself."
She sighed and let her head rest again on the warrior's shoulder. Xena closed her eyes and laid her face against the blonde head. Then, after a few moments, she took a deep breath and said, "When I got back to the cottage and saw that burned body, I thought at first that it was you." Her voice choked with emotion and she had to swallow hard. "I felt like the whole world suddenly stood still," she whispered. "I just can't imagine my life without you in it. I can't tell you how grateful I was to find you alive."
For a time, neither of them spoke. The rain had stopped, but the brush shelter continued to drip. Xena ran her hand over Gabrielle's outside arm and leg to brush off the drops of moisture that clung there. The exposed skin felt cold to her touch, although she was beginning to feel some warmth where their bodies touched. "Gabrielle," she said, "something strange happened to me out there today." The bard did not look up, but her stillness let Xena know she was listening. "I must have been more than half a league away, down in a little valley, but I heard you screaming."
Gabrielle sat up. "You couldn't have," she said bluntly. "Not if you were that far away."
"I know. That's what was so strange about it."
"What did you hear? What did I scream?"
"At first, it was just screams, and then I heard 'Xena! Help me, Xena!' I heard it very clearly. It took me a minute to realize that I wasn't hearing it with my ears, but here--" she tapped on her chest, "with my heart."
The bard stared at her. "I've never heard of anything like that before," she mused. "Have you?"
"No, and I was really scared because I knew you were in trouble and that I could never get to you in time. I had been fishing and I didn't even have my boots on. I ran as fast as I could to get here, but the ground was so rough. It's a wonder I didn't fall and break my neck! And then, when I got about halfway, I saw the smoke from the cottage. I didn't know what to think. I just knew something terrible had happened."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and laid her head down again. "You heard me scream," she murmured and then sighed softly, as if this thought somehow reassured her.
"Yes, Love, I heard you." Xena stroked the golden hair for a moment and then laid her hand lightly over the bruised face to keep off the drops of rain. After a few minutes, she heard Gabrielle's breathing deepen and realized, to her surprise, that the bard was asleep.
She sat very still, not wanting to waken this person who so much needed the healing of sleep. The pressure of Gabrielle's weight on her thighs was beginning to make her legs ache, and her feet in the wet boots felt icy. Her back hurt where her spine met the unyielding rock, but she set her mind to ignore these discomforts as best she could. In time, her legs went to sleep and became totally numb, but the pain in her back continued.
Time slid slowly by. The dripping gradually stopped, and in the little bit of western sky that Xena could see from under the shelter, a few stars appeared. Leaning her head back against the rock, she began to consider some of the questions whose answers had so far eluded her. The first was how to get Gabrielle to town tomorrow. She figured the bard could ride Argo, if she sat sideways and they travelled slowly. The big problem was Gabrielle's lack of clothes. If the town weren't so far away, Xena could ride there and get a blanket or some sort of garment and then come back for Gabrielle. But that would take several hours, and she didn't want to leave her lover alone that long--especially not in this place of terrible memories.
Maybe there was something she could make clothing out of. Leaves? Xena couldn't imagine that they would make a very practical garment, and besides, she didn't have enough thread to sew them all together. Animal skins? That would require a major hunting effort, plus several days to cure the skins properly--several days which they did not have.
She tried to remember whether there were any farms or houses between here and the town. It was possible there were a few, but the peasants who lived in them very likely could not afford to part with anything as valuable as a blanket or extra clothing. Another idea might be for Xena to let Gabrielle wear her warrior clothes. Sitting up on Argo, the bard would be fully exposed to the view of other travellers, and the leather outfit would give her some protection. Xena, meanwhile, would be walking and leading the horse. It wouldn't be as obvious that she was naked. Maybe they could even slip off the road into the trees when they met people. Once they got close to town, they could find a hiding place, switch clothes, and Xena could ride on into town and bring back something for Gabrielle to wear. The warrior frowned. It wasn't a great plan, but it was the best she had come up with yet.
And then there was the matter of money. They had five dinars. That would pay for food and lodging for one night, two at the most. But after that, what? It would be nice to stay at an inn for a week or so in order to let Gabrielle rest and heal, but how could they afford it? They didn't even have the option of camping out now, since they had lost so many of their belongings. It would take a lot more than five dinars to replace even the essentials, like blankets. And the first priority was to get Gabrielle some clothes. Even that would probably cost more than five dinars. Xena sighed. Maybe there was some way she could earn money once they got to town. She knew tavern work, anyway, having spent most of her youth helping her mother and brothers run one. One thing she knew for sure: she would do anything she had to in order to take care of Gabrielle--even if it meant scrubbing floors or mucking out stables.
Xena shook her head in frustration and ran the fingers of her free hand abstractedly through her damp hair. These days she usually gave little thought to money, but suddenly it had become a big issue, an almost unsolvable problem. When she was a warlord, money had been hers for the taking, pouring into her coffers, big bags and chests full of it. She smiled, remembering how the sunlight had glinted off coins and jewelry piled at her feet by the frightened peasants whose villages she had plundered. But after a moment, her smile faded. How many of those she robbed had needed their few dinars as desperately as she now needed her own? "I deserve this," she whispered. "I deserve this and so much more." But Gabrielle didn't deserve it. What had this sweet young woman ever done that she should suffer like this? Nothing, except to fall in love with Xena, the once-evil Warrior Princess.
Her thoughts had grown as dark as the night around her, and for a time she did nothing to free herself from the abyss into which her mind had fallen. So many times she had struggled with the guilt she felt about leading Gabrielle on a journey of constant danger, but her friend had insisted on staying with her. And now that Xena had come to realize how intensely she loved and needed Gabrielle, she did not see how she could ever let the bard leave.
She glanced down at the quiet form whose body she could only dimly make out in the darkness. How did she do it, Xena wondered. How was Gabrielle able to sleep in spite of everything--the trauma, the pain, the cold, the uncomfortable position? Yet here she was, slumbering as peacefully as any baby in its mother's arms-- And with that thought, Xena suddenly realized there was another question she had not yet considered--one that her mind had hidden away and did not want to look at. What if Gabrielle was pregnant? A cold shiver ran through the warrior's body. How would her lover feel about bearing a child conceived in so much fear and hatred? And how would she herself feel? And what would happen to their partnership? They could not possibly continue to travel in such dangerous conditions with a tiny child in tow.
Surely it would not happen. Xena began making calculations. They were now at the new moon, which meant it was almost time for both of them to begin their monthly bleeding. Ever since they first began travelling together, their cycles had been closely synchronized. With any luck, it would not be the fertile time of the month for Gabrielle, and there would be no problem. In only a few days, they should know for certain.
Xena leaned her head back and closed her eyes, aware once more of the aching in her back. The burns on her hands were smarting again, too, but at least she wasn't as cold now, or as wet. Gabrielle's body felt warm and comforting against her own. She sighed, feeling tired and longing for the oblivion of sleep, yet fearing the nightmares sleep might bring. For a time, her mind continued to wrestle with the fears and heartache this day had created, but gradually her thoughts grew quiet and slipped away. And then, at last, she slept.
* * *
She woke to the sound of birdsong. The sky was pale blue, and a low mist hung over the wet grass of the clearing. Numbness had claimed her back as well as her legs, and Xena wondered in a disinterested way whether she might not have become totally paralyzed during the night. She shifted her position experimentally, and the pain that shot down her spine assured her that she wasn't paralyzed after all.
Gabrielle moaned softly and stirred. "Xena?" she murmured.
"I'm right here."
"Have I been asleep?"
"Uh-huh, for several hours."
"Really? I didn't think I'd be able to sleep at all." She stretched tentatively, wincing as she did so. Then she sat up, and that movement brought the first sharp pinpricks of feeling back into Xena's legs.
"Seemed to me like you slept pretty well," Xena said, and brushed a strand of gold hair away from Gabrielle's eyes.
The bard looked at her. "Have you been holding me all night?" she said.
"That's crazy, Xena! I could have just slept on the ground. Why didn't you put me down?"
"Guess I'm just a crazy kind of girl," Xena said with a wry smile.
Gabrielle frowned and slid off the warrior's legs, groaning as she did so.
"Sounds like you're pretty sore."
"Yeah. Everything hurts." Gabrielle said and crawled out from under the shelter. She stood up, stretched cautiously, and walked stiffly off among the trees.
Xena flexed her shoulders, back, and neck, then began to massage her legs, grimacing as the feeling came slowly and painfully back into them. By the time Gabrielle got back, she was standing beside the dead campfire, staring at the cold ashes.
"Let me take a look at that wound," she said, glancing up at her companion, who was standing with her arms tightly hugged across her chest for warmth. "Then I'll try to get a fire started."
Gabrielle opened her arms. The area around the wound had become red and a little puffy. Xena studied it for a minute, then said, "I'm going to take out one of the stitches, so this can drain better. Does it hurt?"
"Okay, wait just a minute." She got her dagger and a piece of cloth from the burned cloak. It didn't take long to drain the wound, and when she finished, she used the dagger point to break the burn blister on the back of her right hand and drained that, too.
"What did you do to your hand?" Gabrielle asked.
"No, I did it when I was getting stuff out of the cottage yesterday. It's not a big deal--doesn't even hurt much." She took the cloth to the creek, rinsed it out, and hung it over the rock to dry. "Gabrielle," she said, "when you lit the fire in the fireplace that first night, what did you do with the flint afterwards?"
Gabrielle looked at her blankly, and Xena tried again. "I have to try to find the flint in the cottage, so we can start a fire. Do you think you left it on the hearth?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
Xena sighed. "Okay, I'll go look." She picked up a stick and walked over to the cottage ruins. The rain had quenched the last of the smoldering embers, but it had also turned the thick layer of ash into a mucky paste. Xena hesitated a moment and then waded in. She spent several minutes poking around the hearth, but she could not find the flint. Finally, she squatted down and held her hand inside the fireplace. It felt warm there, and a little exploration with the stick revealed some live coals which had been protected from the rain by the mantelpiece. The next challenge was to find dry wood. It took some scouting, but eventually Xena came up with a few sticks and branches that she thought would work. And after considerable coaxing, fanning, and swearing, she managed to get a reluctant, smoky blaze started.
"Xena, how soon can we leave?" Gabrielle asked. She sat in the grass nearby, hugging her knees to her chest.
The warrior considered for a moment. "Well, there are several things we need to do before we go. If I ever get this fire going, we can make tea and cook breakfast. I could catch us some more fish."
"No. No breakfast. I'm not hungry and it will just take extra time. I want to get out of here as soon as possible."
"Okay," Xena said, glancing over at her companion. The bruises stood out dark and clear on Gabrielle's arms and face, although the swelling around her eye had gone down. "One thing I need to do is check the cottage to see if anything else survived the fire. And we really ought to wash the blood out of your hair. Do you want to do that here or wait until we get to town?"
"Here," Gabrielle said. "Do we have any soap?"
"No, the fire melted it, but maybe I can find a soap plant."
"I saw several in the meadow when we were cutting grass."
"Did you? Good. I'll find one."
The fire seemed to be burning, at least for the moment. Xena took the pot to the creek and filled it, then dropped some herbs into the water. But by the time she got back to the fire, it had reverted to smoke again, and muttering a few choice curses, she went back to fanning it with the metal plate. A flame had just reappeared when her ear caught Argo's eager whinny, followed by a whicker that sounded like it came from another horse. Xena stood up quickly and thrust the plate into Gabrielle's hands. "Here. Try to keep this fire going. I've got to go check on Argo."
She set out running along the creek, her long strides quickly covering the distance to the edge of the meadow, where she stopped short. Argo indeed had a companion, a big, bay stallion wearing a saddle and a bridle with a broken rein. "Garron's horse!" Xena exclaimed. She had been so preoccupied with Gabrielle's injuries that she hadn't even thought about looking for the slave trader's mount, which would have been tied in the woods somewhere nearby. "I must really be slipping," she muttered. But no matter. The horse was here now and if she could just get ahold of him-- Well, there would be no more money worries with an animal like that to sell.
The bay seemed quite interested in Argo, and the mare, for her part, was leading him on a flirtatious romp around the meadow. Xena watched for a few moments and then whistled. Argo trotted to her and the stallion followed at a short distance. Xena fussed over the mare at some length, pretending to ignore the other horse. When she saw that he had edged closer, though, she turned her head and began talking to him. "What a pretty boy you are," she crooned. "Were you tied up all day? You must have gotten thirsty. No wonder you broke loose. Or did you get scared during the storm last night?"
Slowly, she turned toward the horse, still talking sweetly to him, and took a step in his direction. He tossed his head and snorted, pranced back a few steps and then forward again. Xena held out her hand and took another step towards him. "I wish I had an apple for you. Then you'd come to me, wouldn't you?" She took another step, and the horse, apparently curious, moved a little nearer to her. Finally, they were close enough that the bay could stretch out his neck and sniff the warrior's hand, and in a smooth, easy movement, she took hold of his bridle. "What a good boy you are," she told him and stroked his nose. Argo nudged at her from behind, demanding her attention. Xena laughed and turned to pet the mare with her free hand.
She led the dark horse to a tree near the creek and tied him. She was eager to see what treasures Garron's saddlebags contained. Coiled on the side of the saddle was a length of rope. "That's a good start," Xena murmured. There were plenty of things she could use rope for. Tied to the back of the saddle was a wool blanket. It was wet from the rain and somewhat ragged-looking, but still, it would have felt good last night. She unhooked the saddlebags and dropped them on the ground, then uncinched the saddle and pulled it off. Uncoiling the rope, she knotted one end around the bay's neck and the other end around the tree. Then she took off his bridle. "Okay, she told him, you've got time to do a little grazing before I have to saddle you up again." The only response was a snort as the horse moved toward the creek to get a drink of water.
Xena quickly turned her attention to the saddlebags. In the first one, she found some moldy bread and cheese and a little dried meat. None of it looked appetizing, so she tossed it into the nearby bushes. Next she found a mug, plate, fork and spoon, a sharpening stone, flint, and a dagger. The second bag yielded a ratty-looking towel, a blue tunic, and a pair of loose, gray trousers. As Xena unfolded the clothes, she breathed a sigh of relief. "Bless you, Garron," she said, "you don't know how much we needed these!" She held up the clothing to examine it and sniffed at it suspiciously, but it appeared to be clean, although slightly damp.
Stuffing everything back into the saddlebags, Xena picked them up, along with the blanket, and headed back to the clearing. Gabrielle was standing on the bank of the stream, facing the water and sipping from the mug. Her bare white skin was bathed in sunlight, and the sight made Xena stop for a moment. From this distance, she could not see the bruises, but she could see Gabrielle's pain just in the way she held her body--head bowed, shoulders slumped, arms drawn in tightly as if to protect herself. Well, at least they had some extra clothes now. Neither of them would have to go naked into town. She hurried forward.
"I can't keep that stupid fire going," Gabrielle said flatly when Xena reached her side.
"That's okay. Did the tea at least get hot?"
"Yeah. But just barely."
"Good. Gabrielle, you'll never guess what happened. Garron's horse showed up with the saddle still on and the saddlebags. Come here, and let me show you." She took the bard's arm and led her back to the campfire. "Sit down," she said, then continued talking excitedly. "There was a rope and this blanket, and look what else!" She quickly opened the saddlebags and began emptying them, spreading the contents out like trophies on the grass. Only when she finished, did she look up to see the expression of horror on Gabrielle's face.
"Get those things away from me," the bard said in a low voice. "I don't want to touch anything that belonged to that man."
Xena stared at her. "But Gabrielle, we need some of these things--especially the clothes."
"I don't care. I'll go into town stark naked every day of the week before I'll wear anything of his."
"All right," Xena said after a moment's consideration. "I'll wear Garron's clothes and you can wear mine."
"Yours won't fit me. They'll be too big."
"We've got the needle and thread. We can take some tucks. It's only for a couple of days until we can get new clothes made for you. There's no other answer, Gabrielle."
"Okay," the bard said finally.
Xena gathered up everything except the clothes and crammed it all back into the saddlebags. "We don't have to use this stuff," she said. "We can take it to town and sell it or trade it for what we need. But the best part is the horse." She took hold of Gabrielle's arm. "Don't you see what this means? We can get a lot of money for that horse--enough to replace the things we lost and probably enough to buy you a horse, too. We can find a nice, gentle one that you would really like-- What do you think, Gabrielle? We could go so many more places and travel so much faster if we both had horses."
Gabrielle looked at her, but she did not seem to catch the warrior's enthusiasm. "Yeah, I guess you're right," she said, "but I don't know if I want a horse."
"Sure you do! You just need to get used to the idea. We'll talk about it more later. Right now we have to get some clothes on you. How about unlacing me?"
When the leather garment was off, Xena went to their saddlebag and got out the small pouch with the needle and thread. Then she tore a section of cloth from the cloak and folded it into a square. "I think it would be a good idea to tack this inside the bodice here," she said, crouching down beside Gabrielle. "It will provide some padding for your wound."
The bard nodded.
"I can do it, if you want me to," Xena continued, "but as you know, my sewing skills don't go much beyond stitching up wounds. I think you would be happier with the results if you did it yourself." She smiled and offered the garment to her companion.
Gabrielle looked at her for a moment, sighed, and then took it.
Xena dropped the bag with the needle and thread into the bard's lap. "I have some other things I want to get done," she said, "but if you need any help with the lacing or fitting or whatever, just yell." She walked away from Gabrielle a short distance, unfolded Garron's clothes, and put them on. The fit wasn't too bad, although she really needed a belt for the tunic and to provide a way to carry her weapons. Lacking that for the moment, she tucked the tunic into the trousers and tied the drawstring waist. Then she turned her attention to disassembling the brush shelter. It had served its slight purpose and now only blocked the sunshine they needed for warmth. Working quickly, she tossed all the branches and poles into the nearby woods.
When she had finished that project, Xena walked over to the cottage ruins. She pulled the charred bridle out of the ashes, cut the bit loose, and discarded the rest. Beyond that, she could find little else to salvage. Their cloth food pack, along with its contents, was gone without a trace. The wineskin and waterskin had been reduced to sooty scraps of leather. She found one of the spoons, but it was so tarnished that she dropped it back into the ashes again. Standing over Garron, she studied the tip of his sword, which stuck out from under his body. The scabbard had burned away, and the sword blade was blackened. It was possibly worth some money, depending on what condition the hilt was in. He must have been wearing a dagger, too; Gabrielle had said he had one. And he might have been carrying some dinars--possibly quite a few. An hour ago, she would have been desperate enough to rob the corpse, even though the thought of touching it disgusted her. But now she had his horse and the contents of his saddlebags. That was enough.
She crouched on the creekbank and did her best to wash the black off her hands and the bit. Then, rolling up her trousers, she waded in a little ways and tried to get the ashy muck off of her boots. She hated wet leather--wet boots most of all. It was a good thing she would be riding today instead of walking; otherwise, she would certainly end up with blisters.
Back at the campsite, Gabrielle was trying on the leather tunic. Xena laced it for her and helped determine where to take it in. While the bard was stitching it, Xena went to the meadow and dug up a soap plant root.
"Is the creek deeper up that way?" Gabrielle asked when she returned.
"There's a pool that might be waist-deep just this side of the meadow. Why?"
"That's where I want to take my bath."
"Gabrielle, the water is cold, and I don't think it's a good idea for you to get chilled. Why don't I bring water in the pot to pour over your hair and we can wash it right here?"
"No. I want to wash all of me. I don't care if the water is cold."
She had that look that Xena knew meant it was useless to argue with her, but she tried anyway. "I washed you pretty thoroughly yesterday, Gabrielle. Why don't you wait until we get to town and can get some warm bath water?"
"You don't understand, Xena. I feel really filthy after what happened yesterday. I need to try to get clean."
"All right," Xena said softly. "Just be careful with your wound."
Xena walked with Gabrielle along the creek and watched as the bard waded resolutely into the cold water. When she got in hip deep, she began to scrub herself vigorously with the soap root and her hands.
"Do you need any help? With your hair or anything?" Xena asked.
"No, I'm fine."
"Okay. I'm going to ride Garron's horse for a few minutes." She turned and headed for the meadow. The stallion seemed calmer than before, and responded well to her petting and attention. Xena cut a length from the tether rope to replace the broken rein, then saddled the bay and buckled on his bridle. In one smooth movement, she swung up onto his back. He proved to be a spirited mount, but a little headstrong and hard to control. Xena wished she could let him run full tilt, to find out how much speed he had, but the meadow was too small for that. Argo followed the bay around anxiously, at times pushing up close enough to nudge Xena's leg with her nose. "Don't worry, girl," the warrior called to her, "you'll always be my first love!"
After a few turns around the meadow, Xena guided the stallion back along the creek toward the clearing. Argo followed close behind her. She passed Gabrielle, who was sitting in the sun on the creekbank, trying to comb out her wet, tangled hair with her fingers. At the campsite, Xena dismounted and tied the bay to a tree. She went to their saddlebag and found the comb, then walked over to Gabrielle and squatted down beside her.
"Maybe this would help," she said, holding out the comb.
Gabrielle stared at it for a long moment, then looked at Xena, then back at the comb. Finally, she reached out and took it, holding it carefully, turning it over and over, running her fingers along the burned places. "My comb!" she whispered. "I thought it was gone." She looked up again, her eyes wet with tears.
Xena smiled softly. "You see," she said. "Good things can survive the bad. It happens more often than you might think."
Gabrielle didn't answer, but after a moment she brushed her hand across her cheek. Then she began pulling the comb carefully through the reddish-gold tangles.
"Do you want me to do that for you?" Xena asked gently.
"No, I can do it."
"I'd be glad to do it, if you want me to."
"No, that's all right. I'll do it."
Xena bit her lip and was silent for a few moments. "Okay," she said then. "I'll go start packing up." She got up and walked slowly back to the campsite.
Once there, she got out the coil of rope and cut herself a length for a belt, then tied another piece over her right shoulder. She attached her sword scabbard to this in back, tied the chakram at her right side, and tucked a dagger in at the waist. After that, she tied a section of rope to Argo's old bit and fashioned a simple bridle and reins. Then gathering up the loose things, she stuffed them into the saddlebags and attached the bags to Garron's saddle. She also tied on the frying pan, cooking pot, her armor, and Gabrielle's staff. Argo was used to carrying their gear, but the bay seemed nervous about the strange objects thumping and clanking at his sides. "Sorry, fellow," Xena said as she rubbed behind his ears, "you'll just have to put up with it for now."
Gabrielle came back from the creek and put on the leather outfit. Xena laced it for her. "You ready to go?" the warrior asked.
"More than ready."
Xena lifted the bard up to sit sideways on Argo's back. "How does that feel?" she asked.
"Kind of weird."
"Hold onto the mane with one hand," Xena instructed, "and onto these with the other." She handed Gabrielle the rope reins. "I'm going to lead you around a little bit so you can get used to it. Does it hurt to sit that way?"
"A little. Not much."
"Would you rather ride straddling the horse?"
"No!" Gabrielle said quickly.
They made a circuit of the clearing and then Xena turned control of the mare over to Gabrielle. She untied her own mount and hopped into the saddle. The bay was a little skittish, but soon settled down under Xena's firm control. The warrior rode over to where Gabrielle sat staring at the cottage ruins.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked. How strange it was to have to ask the normally talkative bard what she was thinking.
"I'm thinking I wish we had never come here," Gabrielle said. "I wish I had never seen this place."
"The first night was good," Xena said. "I thought you enjoyed it, too."
"The first night was beautiful," Gabrielle said softly. "That's what made the rest of it so terrible."
"If I had known things would turn out the way they did, I would never have brought you here, Gabrielle, believe me. My only thought was to make you happy."
Gabrielle looked at Xena and her faced softened. "I know," she said. Then she turned Argo's head toward the path. "Now, let's get out of here."