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Lysandra was as good as her word, Elkton conceded. Upon arriving at the infirmary, he found Photis and Silvus passing out bread and bowls of stew to the villagers whom had awakened from their enforced naps confused and hungry. Elkton thought it fitting irony that the food had been prepared by Hesperos the previous morning. The villagers had consumed every last morsel before, one by one and family by family, they began making their way towards home. To the last, none of them had any memory at all of their time inside the dreamscape.
Gabrielles own awakening followed just minutes after Elkton had settled the pair in his quarters, but he had not been present when the bard fought her way out of the fog and into the waking world. Shed awakened screaming and thrashing and it had taken all of Xenas strength and patience to soothe the girl to some semblance of calm. But despite Xenas reassurances that Manus would trouble her no more, Gabrielle could not be convinced to stay in the temple any longer than was absolutely necessary. Collecting their possessions, Xena bid Elkton farewell and packed the bard aboard a lethargic Argo. Daylight was only a few hours away as the trio left the temple heading east.
Once installed in the saddle, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xenas waist and lay her cheek against the warriors back. They rode in relative quiet for an hour, Gabrielle not speaking a word beyond the necessary. Xena tried in vain to engage her in conversation; she was met with monosyllabic replies at best. Gradually, questions gave way to silence and, lulled by Xenas heartbeat and Argos hypnotic gait, Gabrielle dozed, only to be awakened minutes later by a nightmare. She was saved a nasty spill by Xenas quick reflexes and it was at the warriors insistence that they stop for the night. With some reluctance, Gabrielle agreed.
Not long after they had pulled off the main path into a clearing, Xena proceeded to bed down Argo while Gabrielle arranged her blanket beside the fire. Summer Solstice or not, there was a definite chill in the air; a steady breeze fanned the stars to a sharp-edged luster and Argos breath plumed frostily on the air as Xena groomed her. The warrior was half asleep, mesmerized by her own exhaustion. Every muscle in her body had its own separate ache, but she had always believed in tending to her mounts needs before her own. "Were getting too old for this, girl," she murmured. Argo nickered and yawned, sawing her jaws back and forth. Xena quipped, "Whats that all about?" She unsuccessfully stifled the impulse to yawn. "At least you got a nap."
She ducked under the mares belly with ease and ran the body brush vigorously over the animals withers, removing two days accumulation of dirt and sweat. When she finished, she stowed the brush in her saddlebags and fed Argo the last apple in the food store. In the firelight, she could see Gabrielle tossing and turning, occasionally punching the satchel she used as a pillow. Xenas chiseled features fretted themselves into a frown as she realized she had no more legitimate excuses to keep her from the fireside. She had intentionally lingered over her duties in the hopes Gabrielle would be asleep upon her return; she was at a loss to comfort the girl. As the bard had always been so keen to point out, words were not the stoic warriors best weapon.
Unable to stall a moment longer, she took a deep breath, slung her saddlebags over one shoulder and moved wearily towards the fire. "Hey," she said when the bards eyes fell upon her. She received a nod in reply -- polite and cordial -- as if the two were strangers forced by circumstance to share lodgings for the night. Xena hated it, hated feeling shut out, especially when she felt that talking might help. When distressed herself, she often turned to drilling with her weapons; it comforted her to touch and command those things she knew. She wondered if, where bards were concerned, words might have the same soothing effect. If she had had the energy, she might have begun just such a dialogue, but as it was, with daylight just a few hours away, she was more inclined to let it drop. For now. "I never thought Id see the day when youd choose the hard, cold ground over a soft bed," she said, trying to fill the silence that was putting space between them.
"Yeah, well," replied the bard, recognizing a feeble attempt at small talk, and she loved that Xena cared enough to try. "Im going to be more particular about the places I sleep in the future. If I sleep in the future..."
Gently, as if she had not heard the bitterness in Gabrielles voice, Xena said, "Did you try the sleep stone? Elkton swears by em."
Gabrielle sighed heavily as she fished a small flat stone from beneath her satchel. "Sure it prevents nightmares: who in Tartarus can sleep with their head on a rock?" She consigned the stone to their fire with a deliberate pitch. "I dont know why we had to stop anyway. We could be halfway to Thebes by now."
Xena worked at containing her irritation. "We stopped because you almost fell out of the saddle. We stopped because its dangerous to travel an unfamiliar road in the dark. Argo could break a leg. We stopped because although you might be ready to go ten rounds with a cyclops, I am tired. You want me falling asleep at the reins?" Gabrielle shrugged and muttered something unintelligible, a response so unlike the Gabrielle she knew that Xena winced, but she kept the observation to herself. "Want me to rub your shoulders?"
"No. Thanks." Gabrielle sat up and draped her blanket around her. Her green eyes were wide pools in her set, unsmiling face. "I dont think all the hot teas, back rubs and sleep stones in the world will help."
"Your body will rest when it needs to, Gabrielle. Dont fight it." Xena yawned and rolled her head, producing a series of small cracks and pops. "Hope you dont mind if I stretch out, though." Gabrielle merely grunted dismissively and a silence fell between them that was not so much awkward as it was anticipatory...like an unexpelled breath. Without further comment, Xena sat down on a log to remove her greaves. While her fingers busied themselves with laces and buckles, she watched as Gabrielle lay another log across an already substantial blaze and stretched her hands to the flames. So much for small talk. She shucked off her greaves and gauntlets and lay them aside. "You know," she began delicately as her fingers fumbled with one of the straps to her armor. "It might help if you wrote some of this down...get it out of your system."
"Its not that easy, Xena," replied Gabrielle, her eyes never leaving the fire. "You dont know what its like...what Im feeling..."
Xena stopped what she was doing and briefly checked a molar with her tongue. "Youre right. I dont. You have to tell me." She leaned forward from her seat and looked seriously at the young bard. "Gabrielle, talk to me."
Gabrielle threw up her hands in disgust and the blanket puddled around her waist. "What do you want me to say, Xena?" Her eyes swam in unspilt tears as the words came tumbling out of her mouth in a nervous torrent. "Ive done some horrible things in the last twenty-four hours. I stabbed Elkton! Those poor men at the river...and you...I hurt you...the things I said to you...the bruises on your body..." her voice drifted off into a painful whisper. "I did that."
Xena dug her heels into the soft earth, resisting the impulse to capture the girl in her arms for fear the healing catharsis might end there, prematurely silenced by soothing rhetoric and a familiar embrace. It took every last ounce of her strength not to yield to the pained expression on her friends face. "Gabrielle...you havent said or done anything that cant be undone. You were under Manus influence."
Gabrielle shrugged and absently fingered the laces on her bodice. "I feel...dirty somehow, Xena...violated...with no way to wash myself clean..." Im so tired. Fatigue. Simple fatigue was at the root of her distress. "I think I need to go home to Poteidaia."
Xena nodded. "Okay, sounds reasonable. Your folks are probably --"
"For good, Xena." Gabrielle sniffed and looked up. "To stay."
"Oh, I see." Xena leaned forward, her hands clasped between her knees, trying not to impart by inflection or gesture just how unbearably lonely she would be without the girl. In the night, with its murmuring quiet, she drew guidance from a familiar wellspring of experience. "Never retreat." She could see Gabrielle regarding her with some confusion. "Never retreat, Gabrielle. Its demoralizing, and sooner or later, youre going to have to re-take the ground you once held."
Gabrielle took umbrage. "Are you saying Im a coward because I want to put all this behind me?"
"We both know youre no coward," Xena countered. "But if youre confused and frustrated here, youre going to be confused and frustrated at home. Youll only take the pain with you."
Gabrielle waved her hands accommodatingly; she knew that Xena was speaking from experience. Minutes passed in silence before the girl asked, "What would you do?"
"No, no. You have to make up your own mind." Xena stirred the fire with a stick, separating the larger logs so more air could pass between them. Through the veil of smoke and flying embers, she let her eyes come to rest on her friend. "Bottom line, Gabrielle?" She waited until the bards eyes met hers before elaborating. "You have to live with your actions and the anger inside of you. You have to make your peace with it." From across the fire, Xena could hear the girls swift intake of breath, a prelude to breakdown. "Right now, youre wondering if thats possible. Youre wondering if that sort of behavior was in you all along and youre wondering if theres enough left of your integrity to make you a person worth loving. The answer to all three is yes."
"But those things I said..."
"...are in the past," Xena interjected firmly. She moved with deliberate patience to Gabrielles side. "Ive done worse," she said, kneeling. "But you still love me, right?"
Gabrielle tried to smile but her expression collapsed. Wordlessly, taking her cue from Xenas proximity, she launched herself into the warriors arms and the tears came in a bitter, unrestrained flood. After long moments, she was able to stem the tide and catch her breath, but she still clung fiercely to her friend. "If I had killed you --" she murmured.
Firmly, Xena retorted, "But you didnt." She disengaged herself, holding the girl at arms length; Gabrielles tear-stained face was a study in vulnerability. "You didnt," she reiterated.
Gabrielle sniffed and ran a hand over her face. "You know I would rather die than hurt you."
"Well, you did that," replied Xena, patting the girls cheek playfully. "Do you feel any better? Now, relax...youre gonna have a frown line right..." she tapped the pronounced wrinkle between Gabrielles brows. "...right there."
A heartbeat and a swift intake of breath preceded the shame-laced whisper, "Im afraid to fall asleep. Im afraid hell be there...waiting for me."
Xena heaved a patient sigh. "Thats impossible. I told you. Manus is dead."
"My head knows that," Gabrielle argued. "But theres something...deeper..." She shifted her gaze to the coals glowing at the fires edge. "He went deeper..."
"Look, Gabrielle, if Morpheus owes anyone a good nights sleep, he owes you."
Gabrielle shrugged, and everything about her expression was noncommittal. "I guess."
Xena was secretly relieved, for her own sake, to see that logic still had a place in her universe. She waited a beat, considering the girls face, before murmuring Good night, and moving to her bedroll. She stretched her considerable length upon one blanket and haphazardly flung another across her legs, all the while aware that she was the object of scrutiny.
"How did you know I wouldnt kill you?"
Xenas breath caught in her throat. As she lay there, staring up the stars, she took a dangerous gamble on the truth. "I didnt. But I knew I was prepared to die."
"And I wouldve been responsible," Gabrielle retorted indignantly. "Did you stop to think about how I might feel?"
Xena propped herself up on one elbow. "Im not saying it was a perfect plan, Gabrielle. If I had it to do over again, maybe Id make some different choices. I wasnt exactly thinking."
"You were thinking enough to surrender...you offered me your sword," she said, her voice a combination of wonder and accusation. "I almost killed you, Xena."
Xena nodded. "Any number of times. When youre motivated, were pretty well-matched."
But Gabrielle was not to be swayed by flattery. "Why did you do it?"
"You know why: Manus had to be stopped."
"And it was a choice -- you or me," said Gabrielle.
"No," Xena replied evenly. There was never a choice. She sighed, exhaustion fraying her emotions at their edges. "Look, itll be daylight in a few hours. Can we continue this in the morning?"
"This is the morning, Xena," replied Gabrielle with irrefutable logic.
Xenas gaze was dangerous and when she spoke, her voice was an octave lower than normal. "Dont push your luck." Without another word, she dropped back to her blanket, pillowed her head on one arm and closed her eyes, signaling an end to any productive debate.
Despite Xenas abrupt answers, Gabrielle sensed that she wasnt truly angry. Xena was combative by nature, and guarded by custom. But there was something more behind the warriors defensiveness. Just below that prickly demeanor, there was guilt...and fear. The bard was secretly encouraged to find that she and Xena had such a thing in common. "How can you sleep right now?"
"Easy," mumbled Xena without opening her eyes. "I put my head down, I close my eyes, I make little snoring sounds with my mouth."
Gabrielle groaned, her frustration evident as she threw up her hands . "Augh! Youre impossible!"
Xena smiled vaguely. "Get some sleep if you can," she murmured, turning on her side.
"I wanna be on the road at sunrise." Her tone was light, but she knew that this topic of conver- sation was far from dead. The road to Poteidaia was a long one, and in a few hours, it would be filled with words.
From her place by the fire, Gabrielle fumed in silence. How can Xena live with these feelings? Hours. Days. Years. Gods, how can I compare my guilt to hers? Gabrielle tried to remember the last time, prior to this, that shed done something she was truly ashamed of having done. Shed played truant from her studies, as children are likely to do. And when she was 10, shed filched peaches from a neighbors orchard. Her guilt on both occasions lingered only slightly longer than the sting from her fathers well-placed hand. Absently rolling a length of kindling between her hands, Gabrielle considered that it was not the depth of guilt that mattered, or even the length of time one suffered under the yoke of such a thing, but how well they coped. Xena could and did function very well. She lived every day with tremendous guilt and while it was always there, it was never crippling. If anything, Xena seemed to feed off of it like some bitter fruit -- sustenance to rise every day and go about her business. Yet another aspect of the Warrior Princess to admire, and yet another lesson to be taught. In the midst of her introspec- tion, and quite unnoticed, Gabrielles anger left her, slipping from her body like a foe from a conquered land, leaving only exhaustion in its wake. As the bard stared at her friends back, she ventured tentatively, "Xena...are you asleep?" Xena responded by raising the corner of her blanket in an unspoken invitation. Heaving a sigh of relief, Gabrielle left her place by the fire and crawled into the bedroll alongside her friend.
There was some shuffling, some arranging and re-arranging of the blanket, all of which Xena endured with quiet patience and when Gabrielle remarked on the unyielding quality of breast armor in general, the warrior had swiftly removed and discarded same. As the bard made herself comfortable in the curve of Xenas shoulder, Xena warned playfully, "Fluff...and you die."
Gabrielle laughed soundlessly and snaked an arm around Xenas waist. They lay that way for some time, under the gaze of the stars, breathing in unison. Gabrielles first impulse was to say nothing, to preserve this perfect silence. It was an impulse immediately conquered by curiosity. "Xena?"
"Yeah?" replied Xena, yawning. Of all things, her patience seemed inexhaustible.
"Did you mean what you said?" Gabrielle asked; Xenas half-closed eyes begged elaboration. "About us being evenly matched."
"I think I said pretty well-matched...and yeah, I meant it. You gave as good as you got."
Gabrielle snorted, "Only because you were holding back."
Xena said nothing to refute the accusation, but a vague smile turned up the corners of her lips. "Goodnight, Gabrielle," she said, before once again closing her eyes in pursuit of sleep.
Gabrielle squinted, regarding with some seriousness her friends face as lit by the fire. Her eyes drifted down from the strong chin to the small wound at the base of Xenas throat -- clean and shallow, about the length of her little finger -- it wouldnt even leave a scar. She was compelled to touch it, to commit to memory this tangible reminder of the longest dark night of her life.
Xena felt the bards touch, feather light upon the hollow of her throat, and she started to say something, but the mournful expression on the girls face stopped her cold. She watched with pent-up breath as a tear made lazy progress down the blade of Gabrielles nose before falling in a warm droplet upon her arm. More tears threatened, a squall line of woe. Fumbling in the dark, Xenas fingers found Gabrielles, bringing both hands to rest across her abdomen. "Close your eyes..." She gave the girls hand a reassuring squeeze. "At least pretend to sleep."
Gabrielle nodded into Xenas shoulder; the scent of leather was very strong. She felt a hand stroking her hair and she closed her eyes, making a concerted effort to sweep the days unpleasantries to the back of her mind. She would deal with them in all good time. Presently, she became aware of a sweet melody, resonating through Xenas chest, humming along the tiny bones in her own ear. She laughed softly and rubbed her ear. "That tickles..."
"No. Dont stop," Gabrielle entreated; she knew Xena only sang when moved. She felt Xenas chin come to rest on her head. "Its nice," she said, at the edge of sleep. "Does it have words?"
Xena frowned at the stars. Does it have words? Until the music came unbidden to her lips, she had forgotten she ever knew the melody, and the words, even after 20 summers, were as fresh in her mind as the day she committed them to memory.
Women who sing themselves to sleep
Lie with their hands at rest,
Locked over them night-long as though to keep
Music against their breast.
They dream, who hold beneath the hand
A crumpled shape of song,
Of trembling sound they do not understand,
Yet love the whole night long.
"My mother used to sing that to me when I was very small," murmured Xena, her voice thick with sleep. "No matter how much I tried to stay awake. Id always be fast asleep before shed finished." She smiled to herself and continued to absently stroke the bards hair. "Do you think she was flattered or insulted?" No answer. "Gabrielle?" A small snoring sound wafted up, in concert with the murmuring cicadas. Night music, more satisfying than the sweetest melody.
Xena exhaled, a long sigh of relief and contentment. Her arm was beginning to tingle under the weight of Gabrielles head; she shifted carefully, relieving some of the pressure. The bard never stirred. Now, only when she knew Gabrielle was truly asleep did she permit herself to seek her own peace in earnest. Her last conscious thought, before the gratifying seduction of sleep, was of her mother, and how she, too, must have been flattered at her voices effect.
Gabrielles sleep, when it finally came, was profound and dreamless -- Morpheus reward for a job well done, and his sole concession to obligation. No one could say this Dream God did not pay his debts.
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