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Normally, I love those kind of days, those warm, dry days when Aeolus catches the clouds and molds them into wondrous shapes and forms, only to have old Helios reach out and add his own dramatic touch of shadow and depth. And then, in the time it takes to tell Xena how lovely the sky is, they've shifted it all around again. But that particular day, I didn't notice the sky, nor the flowers in a distant meadow, nor the charming little stream that ran and splashed alongside the road down which we walked. I didn't notice anything except Xena, and I wasn't at all happy with what I saw. Instead of sitting easily in the saddle, one hand resting casually on the horn, as was her custom, Xena was hunched over slightly, her breathing heavy and her face sweaty and pale. But, in between my recitation of a new heroic poem, I'd already asked her a number of times how she felt and had, each time, received the same irritated response.
"I'm fine, Gabrielle, now get on with your story, okay?"
She wasn't fine, though, and that was becoming quickly apparent. A low moan escaped from her lips.
"Well, this is just great," I thought to myself, "Xena's ready to pass out and fall off Argo and I can't say one word about it for fear of making her mad."
It wasn't necessarily an uncommon scene between us; Xena silent, me chattering away. Usually, I didn't mind, since I could almost always, at some point, get a smile out of her, or at least an agreeable grunt or two, and I seldom tire of the sound of my own voice. But that day, I needed her to talk to me, and her reluctance to do so, to tell me what was wrong, or even acknowledge that there was anything wrong, only served to aggravate the subtle annoyance I was beginning to feel at her chronic inability to communicate. Well, if I couldn't get her to talk, I was at least determined to get her to stop and rest. But how? We walked on for quite a while as I searched my brain for some believable excuse.
Then I saw the cypress grove up ahead.
"Ohhhh! Mmmm!" I cried out suddenly, hopping on one foot.
"What's wrong?" Xena asked hoarsely, turning slightly in the saddle.
"It's nothing...I - I just twisted my...ohhh...ankle. I'll be okay...mmmm...don't worry..." I was limping badly now and falling behind, forcing Xena to pull Argo to a stop.
She let out a sigh. "Can you walk?"
"I - I think so," I grimaced, leaning hard on my staff. "Well, maybe not." Stopping in the middle of the road, I bent down and rubbed my "injured" foot.
Xena, through squinty eyes, saw the grove, too.
"All right," she said, inclining her head slightly. "We can stop. Can you make it to that clearing on foot or do you need to ride?"
"I think I can make it," came my pained reply, "just give me a minute."
Xena trotted Argo up the small embankment and into a flat, open area surrounded by a number of large cypress trees. When I arrived a few minutes later, I found her slumped against one of the trees, her head resting on arms which were crossed on angled knees. I hobbled over and stood directly in front of her.
"Let me see your ankle," she said, raising her head and trying to focus on my feet.
"My ankle's fine, but you," I bent down and took Xena's face in my hand, "are sick. Xena, you're burning up."
She brushed my hand away and made an effort to produce a flash of anger from her eyes.
"I can't believe you did that," she began. "Of all the..."
"Well, how else was I going to get you to stop?" I interrupted, my own eyes flashing. "It's obvious that something's wrong with you, but will you ever admit it? Oh, no. The great Warrior Princess always has to be silent and stoic and never, ever show anything that might be considered a weakness."
My hands went instinctively to my hips. It's amazing how quickly a small amount of temper can expand when you let it. Like steam in a kettle, it comes out in short, little puffs at first, but then when things really start heating up inside, there's just no stopping it. I guess I hadn't realized how frustrated and angry I'd become, or just how good it would feel to let it out. Practically before I knew what was happening, I began to verbally release all the pressure which had been building up inside of me. Xena, I decided, would just have to sit there and listen.
"You know, it gets very tiring for me to always have to figure out what you need or how you're feeling, because you - never - tell - me," I emphasized the last three words. "I'm sick of it, I really am. It makes me feel like you just don't care enough about me to let me know what's going on with you. I'm not a mind-reader, for the gods sake." I slapped my fist into my palm, wanting to drive the point home. "I NEVER make you guess how I'm feeling. Sometimes you can just be so...I don't know...so..."
But I was cut off in mid-sentence when Xena, who had been struggling to get up all this time, suddenly pitched forward and rolled onto her side.
"Xena!" I cried.
"I - I can't..." she reached out blindly with her hands.
I ran around behind her and pulled her head and shoulders onto my lap.
"Shhh, shhh, just lay here for a minute," I said, my heart suddenly pounding, from concern this time, not anger.
Xena made a weak attempt to sit up, but I held her tightly.
"No, no. Just lay here." It didn't take long before regret began to compete with concern as I looked down at Xena's drawn features.
"I am so sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you. I had no idea that..."
She stopped struggling and reached up to put a finger to my lips. I took her hand gently.
"All right, I'll be quiet."
She had no more than started to relax in my arms, though, when she began to shiver. Small, involuntary jerks at first, that quickly escalated into full-blown shakes. I forced down a wave of panic and managed to keep my focus. Looking around, I caught sight of Argo and the two bedrolls tied to the back of the saddle. I eased Xena to the ground and ran over to retrieve them, along with the extra blanket I'd somehow convinced her to pack.
Finding a level spot, I spread out one of the bedrolls, heaping the others next to it. When I went back to her, she was still shivering, her hands wrapped around her arms as if to steady herself against the violent cataclysm going on inside.
"Come on. Let's get you over here." I lifted her into a sitting position and, with much effort, pulled her to her feet. Her weight was hard against me. We half-walked, half-stumbled over to the bedroll. I tried to lower her gently, but she's taller than I am and her knees wouldn't give her much support, so it was a useless attempt. She landed with a thump and stared up at me through glazed and watery eyes.
"Oh, Xena, I'm sorry," I said sheepishly, knowing that, had the roles been reversed, she would have easily picked me up in her strong, firm arms and laid me down as gently as if I'd been a feather.
But she only gave me a soft look and a nod as I removed her armor and boots and threw the two other covers over her, tucking them in with what I hoped was a confident and reassuring smile.
Her shaking continued as I brushed the damp, matted hair from her forehead. Her face was flushed and hot and, if anything, the fever was getting worse.
"I'm going to build a fire and make you some tea," I said matter-of-factly, more to calm myself than anything.
Xena's hand reached out from under the bedroll and caught my arm, pulling me in close to her face.
"In the saddlebag," she whispered, "under my cloak, there's a leather pouch with some powdered bark. Put a little of it in hot water. It will help with the fever." She coughed several times and pulled her hand back under the warmth of the covers. I touched her forehead again and nodded solemnly.
"I'll be right back."
I was able to get an adequate fire going with the few dead limbs I found around the perimeter of the clearing. Fire building is not usually my strong suit, so, for that small accomplishment, I was thankful. After that, I went to Argo, took the water bag from off the saddle and poured several good glugs worth into the large brass cup that alternately served as our stew-pot, tea kettle or whatever else might be needed at the moment.
After placing it carefully amid the already glowing embers, I went back to the saddlebag, into a section where Xena kept the few things she actually owned; her spare chiton, her cloak, and her bag of medicinal flowers and herbs. As I pulled the cloak from the bag, a small bundle fell to the ground. Ignoring it for the moment, I dug down and found the leather pouch Xena had wanted. Looking inside, I could see the dark brown powder, finely ground, with a pungent odor that tickled my nose. Slipping it into my waistband, I stuffed the cloak back into the bag and bent down to pick up the bundle. Just as I was about to drop it in the bag as well, I stopped and looked at it more closely. It was about the size and shape of a small loaf of bread, and was made up of scraps of parchment, tied loosely together with several thin bands of leather. It wasn't anything I remembered seeing before and I wondered where Xena had picked it up. In between the leather bands, I could see words and as I looked closer, I saw my name among the words, written in a cramped, uneven hand. "That's Xena's writing," I thought to myself, "it's got to be." Just then, I heard Xena cough, and I threw the bundle haphazardly back into the bag. Argo whinnied softly and turned her head toward me.
"Oh, sorry, girl. You need some attention, too, don't you. I'll be back to get that saddle off of you in a little while. Just be patient." The horse gave a low snort and turned back to grazing on the tender shoots of grass which grew around the campsite.
It took a while for the water to heat up enough to dissolve the powder. After mixing it in, I brought the liquid to my lips, making sure it wasn't so hot that it might burn Xena's mouth. It was earthy and medicinal tasting, but not unpleasant. I could only hope on Xena's word that this concoction would bring her fever down.
I sat the drink on the ground and knelt down beside Xena. Carefully propping her against me, I maneuvered around until she was cradled in my lap.
"Can you manage this yourself, or do you need some help?" I asked gently.
"I can manage," Xena replied, but even as her hand went up to take the cup, I could see that she wouldn't be able to get it to her mouth without spilling most of it.
"Here," I said as I steadied Xena's hand with both of my own. Together we brought the cup to her dry, cracked lips. After she had taken several small swallows, I started to take the cup away, but she shook her head.
"I need to drink it all."
I nodded. "Okay."
Slowly, carefully, I helped Xena finish the mixture.
"What's wrong with you?" I asked, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice.
"Must have picked up something in that last village we stayed at," she replied weakly. "I saw several people who looked like they might be sick. I don't think it's the plague, though, or we'd have heard about it. If I can just sleep, get rid of the fever, I'll be fine." She had stopped shaking quite so hard, but I could tell, as I ran my fingers lightly across her forehead, that the fever was still raging.
"Sure, you'll be fine," I said with as much confidence as I could muster. "Is there anything else I should do?"
Xena shook her head. "I just need to sleep."
I carefully eased myself out from under her and laid her head gently back down on the bedroll.
"That sounds like a good idea. Are you comfortable?"
Xena closed her eyes and nodded.
"I'll be right here if you need me, okay?"
I knelt for a few minutes more, gazing at the pale, drawn face of the person who was more important to me than anything else in my life. Several different emotions began to contend with each other inside of me. On the one hand, I liked the idea of taking care of Xena. That just never happened, of course, because Xena always took care of herself, and usually me as well. It seemed like such a small thing to do, hardly a repayment for all she'd done for me. And yet, on the other hand, something about seeing her like this, so helpless, so vulnerable, certainly not the strong, independent, indestructible woman that I was used to having by my side, made the whole world, and me along with it, seem a little out-of-kilter. I let out a low sigh and stood up.
Taking the cup and the leather pouch, I walked back to where Argo was still grazing. I rinsed out the cup with a small squirt of water and tied it back in its place on the saddle. I was about to drop the pouch back in the saddlebag when I remembered that Xena was going to need my bedroll. Thankfully, the nights were still fairly warm, but the idea of sleeping on the hard ground had very little to commend itself. I thought of Xena's cloak. It would work perfectly, providing just enough padding while still giving me cover if I needed it. Reaching into the bag, I grabbed a handful of the thick, soft material. As I did, my fingers closed around the small leather-bound bundle. I pulled it out and studied it again. One of the leather thongs had loosened and the parchment scraps were beginning to splay. I tucked it under my arm and finished pulling out the cloak. Laying them both carefully on the ground, I unbuckled Argo's saddle. With a heave, I lifted it off and sat it next to the tree where the horse stood grazing. I then took off the blanket and threw it on top of the saddle. Good old, patient Argo. Never complaining, always ready, use to living the same kind of nomadic life that had long been Xena's fate. In a way, horse and master were a great deal alike. I smiled at the thought. "Although, I expect I can even read YOU a little better than I can her," I said softly as I ran a rough cloth over the horse's back. Argo's ears pricked up slightly and she gave me a little snort. I slipped the bridle off and tied a rope around her neck. I grabbed the water bag and the two of us headed for the stream.
I couldn't find it in me to do any fishing for dinner, but I did come across a fairly good selection of nuts and berries, and a clump of mushrooms that would cook up nicely with the other dried vegetables and spices I had brought with us. Argo had a long drink and a quick nibble on the mossy plants which thrived by the edge of the water. The sun was just beginning to sit on the tops of the trees when I led Argo back to camp. Kneeling next to Xena's covered figure, I watched as the blanket rose and fell with the slow, even rhythm of her breathing. I laid the back of my hand gently against her cheek. Her face was still hot and flushed, but a certain peacefulness had settled over her features and, in my mind, I stumbled through as much as I could remember of a childhood prayer to Asclepius, asking that he would bring his healing powers to her body as she slept. I stoked the fire and filled the brass cup with water, again putting it in the embers to heat.
When dinner was at a good simmer, I picked up the cloak and the bundle of parchment and brought them with me to the fire. After arranging the cloak into a suitable bedroll, I sat down and fingered the leather thongs. Several of them had started to come undone and the scraps of parchment were loose and beginning to fall out. My original intention was just to straighten the scraps and tighten the bands, but as they dropped into my lap, I was overcome with curiosity. It wasn't so unusual to find me writing something on a scrap of parchment, but never had I ever seen Xena with pen in hand, and the thought of what she might write was just too intriguing. I could smell the rich aroma of the vegetable stew wafting through the campsite as I settled back and looked closely at the top piece of parchment. I began to read.
I don't know why I'm even trying this. I'm not good at it. You're the bard, the writer, the one who knows how to use words. But if I don't get this out somehow I think my heart is going to burst. I almost lost you today, my best and dearest friend, and if you had died, it would have been all my fault. I should have known better than to try and cut through an area where a war was going on. I'm the former warlord. I'm suppose to know about things like this. No one is safe in a land where two armies are fighting. You knew that much, enough to suggest that it might be better to go around. But my pride, my stupid, foolish pride, wouldn't let me take your advice and it almost cost you your life. What if that had happened? What then? What if I couldn't have brought you back? What if I had stopped trying when Hippocrates and Marmax told me to let you go? You would have been gone forever, and something inside of me would have been gone forever, too. Something that only you have been able to help me regain. I've never told you, but any of the self-respect I have now is there only because you see something in me that's worthy of respect, though what that is, I don't know. But you seem to know, and for some unknown reason, that's enough for me. You see, every now and then, I get a glimpse of myself through your eyes, and because of that, because of what you see, I have hope, and that's something I thought was lost a long time ago.
Dearest, sweetest Gabrielle, I swear I will never put your life in danger like that again. And if it should happen, if any harm should come to you from any cause I've created, may my body and soul be given a thousand times the torment in Tartarus."
It took me a moment after I'd finished to notice that, somewhere during the course of reading, I'd forgotten how to breathe. I relaxed my jaw and let out a long breath.
I don't know if I can adequately described my feelings at that exact moment. They were a strange jumble of wonder, sadness, excitement, longing and giddiness. My stomach gave an odd little lurch and I knew that, if I'd had to, I wouldn't have been able to talk without a catch in my voice. The realization that Xena had been effected so deeply by what took place in that healing temple caught me by complete surprise. I suppose I'd always imagined that what she did for me was just an unconscious reaction. I was seriously wounded and she did what needed to be done to save my life, no more or no less than she would have done for anyone. That may have been true, but it was more than that, much more.
I looked again at the piece of parchment in my hand and a tiny smile crossed my lips. Xena's handwriting was just as you might suspect, not pretty or fancy or even especially legible. It had bold qualities to it, even though she'd had to rein it in and scrunch it down in order to fit on such a small space. I, though, thought it the most lovely thing I'd ever seen. No painting or sculpture or any other man-made creation, had ever touched my heart, my soul, as did this scrap of parchment. I laid my hand over it for a moment as the words continued to reached into my heart and fill me with an overwhelming joy. That joy, however, was cut short when a dark odor assailed my nostrils and it suddenly hit me that if I didn't act quickly, dinner would be one burned mess on the bottom of the brass cup.
I scooped up the parchment pieces, conscientiously keeping them in the same exact order that I'd found them, and set them carefully under a corner of the cloak. Grabbing the brass cup out of the fire, I stirred the contents. The stew had only just begun to stick to the sides of the cup, giving it exactly the right amount of texture, so dinner was saved. I sat the cup to the side, enough in the fire to keep warm, but not enough for more cooking, and walked over to Xena. She took one long, ragged breath, and reached out from under the covers to rub her eyes.
"Hi there," I knelt down quietly, letting my hand rest gently on her shoulder.
She turned a little and looked up at me through narrow slits.
"Hi," she replied, her voice raspy and weak.
"How are you doing, or is it too early to tell?"
She cleared her throat and rolled over onto her back.
"Well, I'm still here, I guess that's a good sign." She put the back of her hand up to her forehead and managed a small smile.
"You better not be thinking about going anywhere. Not without me," I smiled back.
"Wouldn't dream of it."
"That's good." I looked at her intently for a moment. Her eyes were rimmed in red, but even in sickness, the depth of them, the blueness, drew me in. I blinked self-consciously and looked away.
"Hey, are you hungry? I've made some of my famous vegetable stew and I think I got a pretty good burn on it."
She struggled to prop herself up on one elbow. "I probably should try to eat a little, though - and don't take this personally - the thought of food has absolutely no appeal."
"I can imagine." I reached out and cupped her cheek in my hand. "It feels like the fever's gone down a little."
"It's the powdered bark. It does wonders, but unfortunately the effects will probably last only a few hours. Give me a hand, okay?"
She drew herself up into a sitting position and threw back the covers. Her arms had indentations where they had been pressed against her leathers.
"You'd be more comfortable out of those," I commented, giving her my arm and helping her to her feet.
"Yeah, I know. But right now, I need to take a quick trip to the woods."
I nodded. "Can you make it by yourself?" She seemed light-headed and could barely stand up. I didn't want to chance having to drag her back into camp if she fainted while out among the trees.
"Just let me get my bearings," she said, still holding tightly to my arm. Rubbing her eyes again a couple of times, she seemed to find her balance.
"I can make it. Be right back."
I watched her stagger into the brush, her hands grasping bushes and branches to steady herself. I went to the saddle and took out her extra chiton and a few rags and ran down to the stream to wet the rags so that she might wash the sleep and dried sweat off her face when she returned.
We reached the campsite at about the same time. I helped her out of her leather shift and noticed that the coarse undergarment which she wore was still damp from the sweat of the fever. As she was pulling that off, though, her legs began to give way. I quickly slid my arm around her waist and caught most of her weight. Almost as if in slow motion, we fell to the bedroll. It actually was a much more graceful landing than the one I had previously tried for her and for a split second, we both sat there stunned, my arm holding tightly to her bare shoulders. She leaned her head over against mine and I heard a low chuckle next to my ear.
"I meant to do that," she said with a small, lop-sided grin.
"Uh-huh," I replied. "Well, next time, we need to work on our form a little more."
"Why don't you just sit there," I said, handing her the wet rags and the fresh chiton, "and I'll be right back to serve you." I gave a little bow and left her to her bathing, such as it was. In the mean time, I made up a pallet of young, tender cypress branches I had gathered earlier, weaving them together to form a softer, more comfortable mattress in hopes of giving her some relief from the aches of the fever. Then, I brought Argo's saddle over to where she sat and arranged it carefully behind her so that she would have a sturdy cushion to lean back against while she ate.
The stew was as tasty as I hoped it would be and I was able to coax Xena into eating a fair amount. I got as much water into her as possible as well, though I could tell that it was difficult for her to swallow. By the end of the meal, she had lost what little strength she'd awakened with and leaned back heavily against the saddle. The fever was coming back with a vengeance, I could see it in her eyes.
"How about some of that wonderful brown powder for dessert?" I asked, trying to keep the mood light and curtail my own concern at the same time.
"Hmmm," she whispered, nodding, "sounds delicious."
"Coming right up." In a flash, I repeated all my actions from earlier that day; fill brass cup with water, put in fire to heat, mix in powdered bark, help Xena drink it, lay her softly down to sleep.
As I pulled the covers up around her shoulders again, I was suddenly overcome with the wish that I was the one shivering and aching under the blankets. It would have been so much easier than to see her pain, her distress, her complete helplessness in the face of this illness. This is how a mother must feel, I remember thinking, or a lover. That thought stayed in my mind for a long time as I stood looking down at my friend. At length, I gave a small sigh and a shake of my head and walked back to the fire to put on another log.
Sleep would come for me, perhaps, but not for a while. I sat on my bed and uncovered the bundle of parchment. I reread the first letter and was as touched by it as I had been before. Then, I paged through a few more of the pieces. They were all letters, all written in the same cramped, uneven scrawl. Most of them were to me, though a couple were to her mother. Those I didn't read, but laid them carefully and respectfully aside. Several of the letters to me were hardly more than everyday conversations that Xena might have wanted to have but, for some reason, didn't. They were full of small, innocuous, almost trivial, things, like how proud she was of the way I handled myself when we came across those hill bandits, or how she thought I should emphasize Hercules and Iolaus more in my story of Prometheus, or that she was surprised to find out that I liked my nutbread a bit stale instead of fresh out the oven. It made me wonder, though, why Xena felt the need to write these particular letters, as we often had conversations about these very types of things. But as I continued to read, it dawned on me that maybe, somewhere along the line, Xena had found out just how satisfying it was to express herself on parchment, and once that discovery was made, she seemed to want to let loose with every thought, every feeling, every emotion. I had to smile at the picture of Xena sitting around the fire, long after I'd gone to sleep, painstakingly writing down whatever came to her mind on scraps of parchment. As that image came into focus, I felt closer to Xena than ever. There were so many things we didn't yet understand about one another, but here, maybe, was one thing, one very important thing, she was beginning to understand about me. I thought of all the times that I had been annoyed by her silence, supposing that it meant she had nothing she wanted to say to me. But that was obviously not the case, and the truth of that made my heart swell. The fire had already burned low when I pulled my bed close to Xena and drifted into sleep.
The next morning, I awoke with the dawn, an extremely rare occurrence. Xena was stirring in her bed and, as I looked over at her, I could see her brows furrowed in pain. I leaned over and laid my lips against her forehead, as one might do with a sick child. Her skin was hot to my touch and I heard a small moan rise up from her throat. She expelled a long, uneven breath and opened her eyes slowly.
"Can I have some water?" Her voice was so low, I had to strain to hear her.
I bit my lip and nodded. "Yeah, sure. I'll go get some." I jumped up and ran to retrieve the water bag. When I returned, I helped her into a sitting position. I started to hold the bag to her mouth, but she grabbed weakly at my wrist.
"No, not from the bag. I don't want you to get sick, too. Just pour a little in my hand."
She tried to cup her fingers, but didn't have the strength even for that. I cupped my own hand and poured the cool, clear liquid into it. It was an awkward arrangement, but she managed to get several good swallows and that seemed to be enough. She leaned her head against my shoulder, finding comfort in my closeness.
"Should I make up some more of the brown powder?" I asked at length.
When she didn't answer, I shifted her to the side. She turned her head and I could see that her eyes were glazed and her breathing shallow. My heart began to pound.
Her head nodded slowly. "Brown powder," she whispered.
I carefully laid her down and again went through the steps from the previous day. Although I didn't realize it then, this was to become our routine for the next few days. Xena's normally tanned and ruddy complexion had almost completely faded and dark circles were imprinted around her eyes. It was her weakness, though, which really frightened me. It wasn't long before she couldn't sit up for more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time and I had to help her eat, drink and bathe, as well as make her trips into the woods.
"I'm really worried about you," I finally admitted to her when we got back to camp after one of those trips. "I just wish your fever would break and you'd start getting your strength back."
"Well, that is the plan."
"I know, but when? Isn't there something more we can do? Can't I...I mean, aren't there other herbs we can try, or something?"
"Nothing that I know of," she replied softly. "Whatever this is, it just has to run its course." She looked up at me and sighed. "I know you must be getting tired of having to take care of me."
"Oh, no, Xena. No. I...I want to take care of you. I mean, I wish you weren't sick and everything, but, I'm glad I can do this for you. You'd do exactly the same thing for me, wouldn't you?" I knelt down and ran my fingers lightly through her hair, looking her directly in the eyes. "Wouldn't you?"
"Yeah," she said, nodding, "I'd take care of you."
"Well, you have, you know, many times. I just figure this evens us out a little. Not completely, but a little."
"We can call it even if you want," she said as she eased back down on her pallet.
"I guess I don't mind being in your debt," I replied.
I took every occasion to read the parchment scraps. Maybe I should have felt some sort of embarrassment or guilt about invading Xena's privacy, but not once did that thought enter my mind, and even if it had, I'm not sure it would have prevented me from reading the letters that she had so diligently written. During those times, I was able to climb inside Xena's heart and get a closer look at what was there. It was something I'd wanted to do from the very first moment I met her, but every time I had tried, a line had always been drawn, a wall erected, a door closed. Here, though, with each letter I read, it was all thrown wide open, every feeling, every emotion, every nuance of Xena's heart was there to be explored. I couldn't help but want to embrace and treasure each precious word.
One evening, after the fish had been caught, cooked and eaten, the medicinal tea made and drunk and the patient tucked gently into bed, I read this:
How can I reach you? How can I tell you that I know and understand the grief you're feeling - the loss, the hurt and the anger? And because I do understand, I'm afraid for you. Afraid that, somehow, what's happened has crushed beyond repair the innocent, trusting nature that is your very essence. I look into your eyes now and see a darkness that was never there before and I think, this is my fault, I could have prevented this. I could have killed Callisto when I first had the chance. I could have talked you out of marrying Perdicus. So many things I could have done differently. But I was trying to be selfless and not think of only what I wanted or what I needed. Even my attempts at selflessness, though, seem to backfire, and now your heart is broken and, because of that, so is mine. I would do anything, if I could, to change things, to go back to where we were before this all happened. But I can't, and all that's left is to somehow go on. I only want to see you smile again, and see the light shine from your eyes. Those are my guideposts, leading me home, and without them - without you - I will be lost. Forgive me, Gabrielle. Please forgive me."
I reached down and touched the last three words, blurred from the tears which must have fallen from Xena's eyes as she wrote them. I stood up and stumbled into the woods, leaning heavily against a large cypress as tears blinded my eyes. She wanted me to forgive her for what happened to Perdicus. But what she didn't know, what I hadn't been able to admit even to myself, was that I was the one to blame. I was the one who needed forgiveness. I was the one who deserved to bear that guilt, not Xena. Violent sobs took hold of my body and I struggled to catch my breath. I slammed my fist into the tree again and again as the images of painful, frightening memories flooded my mind.
'Xena, Xena, I am the one who killed Perdicus, not Callisto, and certainly not you. It was my foolish decision, my own delusion, which brought him into the deadly web that claimed his life. I am the one who married him for selfish and indulgent reasons. I am the one who hadn't loved him the way a wife - a lover - should. I am the one who...who even now, can't grieve, not really. Not as I grieved when I thought you had died.'
I collapsed against the tree and wept bitterly, holding my head in my hands. How long I sat there like that, I don't know, but when I looked up again, darkness had surrounded me and the moon was sending pale, blue streams of light through the sinewy branches.
At length, I made my way to the stream and splashed the cold, crystal water over my throbbing head. When I returned to camp, I pulled my bed to the other side of the fire. I would sleep alone, I had decided, unable to bear the thought of trying to find comfort next to Xena.
When I awoke the next morning the sun was already half way up the eastern sky. I squinted and looked around. Xena was sitting by a freshly fed fire. I sat up with a start. Immediately I noticed the bundle of parchment, lying exposed by the foot of my bed. I quickly threw back the cloak and covered the letters.
"What are you doing up?" I asked, my voice heavy with sleep.
"Well, I guess you just can't keep a good woman down." The glimmer of a smile began to play around her mouth.
"You're feeling better, then."
"Yeah. Yeah, I am."
"That's great." I stood up slowly and walked toward her. As I got closer, though, her smile became a look of concern.
"Are you all right? You're not getting sick, are you?"
"I'm okay," I answered. "Why?"
"You don't look very good. Your eyes are red, and a little swollen."
"Oh," I said, turning away from her slightly. "I'm just tired. I didn't sleep very well last night."
She looked over at my bed, but said nothing about the fact that I had moved it.
I followed her gaze. "I was, ah, pretty restless. I just didn't want to disturb you."
She only nodded and looked back at me.
I ran my fingers through my hair and smiled despite myself, the relief of seeing her looking better momentarily outweighing the guilt from the previous night's discovery.
"What would you like for breakfast?" I asked.
"What are my choices?" she countered.
Impulsively, I reached over and tousled her hair. "Why don't I just surprise you."
"Gabrielle, you never cease to surprise me."
After breakfast, we spent some time by the stream, bathing and lounging in near silence under the warm morning sun. But Xena was still quite weak, and it soon became apparent that she would continue to need much rest. When she had settled in for a late morning nap, I went to where her cloak was lying and retrieved the bundle of parchment, not knowing whether or not she had seen it. I carefully arranged the letters back in order and tied the leather straps much the way I remembered them being when I found it. Without ceremony, I walked back to the saddlebag and dropped it in, hesitating only for a moment to hold the cherished words against my cheek one last time.
Xena slept for several hours and when she awoke, she looked even more refreshed than she had that morning. Color was beginning to come back into her face and her eyes were regaining their clarity and sparkle. I handed her a cup of regular tea and sat down across the fire from her.
"Is the fever gone?" I asked.
"I think so," she replied, holding my gaze. "I'd almost forgotten how good it feels to feel good."
I broke eye contact first. "Yeah, I bet."
"This has been hard on you, hasn't it?" she said after a while. "Not just the whole caretaking thing, but, well, you know..."
"Well - a little, I suppose," I answered, almost defensively. "But what else was there to do. I wasn't going to leave you here on your own. You were practically non-functional for a few days. I'm just glad no one came by looking for a fight. Now that might have really been stress-inducing."
Xena let out a long sigh and fingered the brass cup in her hand.
"Believe it or not, I had a chance to do some serious thinking during my - illness. And I need to apologize to you."
I suddenly felt my body begin to tense.
She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry I'm so stubborn and contrary sometimes. You and I both know I've got too much pride for my own good. I just wish I knew how to control it a little better, but old habits are hard to break, and this is an old, old habit. I don't like to admit when I'm wrong, or when I'm weak, or when I'm not in control of a situation." She looked up at me and smiled. "You're much better at that."
"And," she continued, "you're much better at sharing your feelings about what's going on inside of you. I love that about you. I wish I was more like that." She paused for a moment. "But, I'm not. I'm not like that now, and I'm not sure if I ever will be." She looked at me intently. "Is that okay? Can you accept that about me? Can you forgive me?"
I suddenly choked at those last words and tears began to sting my eyes. Xena made a small move to stand up, but then decided against it. I held up both hands in front of me, then brought them together and pressed them against my lips, fighting desperately to gain some kind of control over my voice.
"Xena," I said at last, "there is nothing I need to forgive you for. Nothing. You are my best friend and I love you. I love you - and accept you - just the way you are. In fact, because you are the way you are. I've never in my life felt closer to anyone." She gave me a puzzled look and I knew the time to confess was now. "Not even Perdicus."
"Not even Perdicus?" she asked softly.
I shook my head, tears streaming down my face.
"Gabrielle, we don't need to talk about this now." She looked at me gently.
"Yes we do. We do because I need you to know something, something I didn't even realize myself until last night. I need you to know that I was wrong. I should never have married him. I could never have given him my whole heart, and although I may have loved him, I wasn't in love with him. It was a selfish and immature decision and I'm not exactly sure why I made it, but I do know that I will regret it for the rest of my life. All of the blame for his death lies with me, not with anyone else." Xena opened her mouth to protest, but I shook my head.
"Not with anyone else," I repeated deliberately. "I'm the one who must accept that responsibility. The only one."
Xena set the cup down and stood up. She came over and knelt beside me, taking both my hands in hers.
"That's a lot of responsibility to bear alone. Maybe I could help. I have had a little experience in that area."
"Oh, Xena." I fell to my knees and we grabbed for one another, holding each other close. I could feel our tears mingle as she pressed her cheek against mine.
After a while, she leaned back and brushed an errant strand of hair from my forehead.
"You know, we can't change the past, or forget it. But we can leave it behind. What do you say? I'll try, if you will."
I looked up into her eyes. "It's a deal," I whispered as my arms pulled her close to me again.
We stayed like that for a long time, and, at some point, I realized that within the context of the silence which had fallen between us, there was more honesty, more meaning, than any words could have possibly conveyed.
In time, Xena got stronger and stronger, until the day finally came when I kicked sand over the fire and she threw the saddle over Argo's back.
The rhythm of Argo's hooves on the dusty road set a nice, easy pace, and, as I walked along beside my friend, enjoying the beauty of flowers in a distant meadow and the sound of a clear, rushing stream, I reveled in the quietness of our communion.
Far above us, Aeolus played catch with the clouds, and old Helios looked down with his kindest and warmest smile.
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