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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.
It took them more than three hours to get to town. They travelled at a slow pace and stopped several times so that Gabrielle could rest. Xena appreciated the rest breaks, too, since the effort needed to hold the bay stallion to a walk made her arms tired. The two women attracted a lot of stares and sometimes crude remarks from other travellers, especially as the road became more crowded nearer town. Xena had to admit that they made a strange sight--a bruised, leather-clad young woman sitting sideways on a horse, accompanied by a tall woman in men's clothing on a big, prancing stallion. Well, she was used to being stared at, but Gabrielle was not, and the bard seemed pretty uncomfortable with the attention.
"Xena," she said finally, "how close are we to town?"
"We'll be there in half an hour, I think."
"I want to walk the rest of the way."
Xena looked at her. "Are you sure you feel like it?"
"Yes. I've got to get off this horse so people will stop staring at me," Gabrielle said.
"Okay. Follow me." Xena motioned with her head toward a grove of trees just off the road and guided the bay horse into it. Slipping out of the saddle, she tied her mount and turned to Gabrielle. As the bard slid off of Argo's back into her arms, Xena enfolded her in a gentle hug.
"Don't, Xena," Gabrielle said softly.
"Why not?" Xena said, without releasing her hold. "There's no one around to see us right now." But her lover did not respond to the embrace, so after a moment, Xena let go and put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Am I hurting you?" she asked, bending slightly to search the green eyes.
"No," Gabrielle said, breaking eye contact. "I just don't want to be held right now."
"You let me hold you last night."
"I was cold."
"Oh, is that the way it works now? I can only touch you when you're cold?" Xena released Gabrielle's shoulders and turned away.
"Xena--" Gabrielle began and then sighed. "I can't explain it. I just know that I can't be close right now. Please try to understand."
"All right, I'll try," Xena said dully. "Now let's get going." She untied the bay and led him back to the road. Gabrielle followed with Argo, and they walked on in silence.
When they reached the town, they found its streets clogged with carts, cattle, sheep, goats, and peasants. No one stared at the two women now as they struggled to make a path for their horses. Xena paused to let Gabrielle catch up. "Must be market day," she called, trying to make herself heard above the din.
"Something's going on," Gabrielle agreed. Then she leaned closer to the warrior woman. "Xena, is this one of the towns your army raided?"
Xena gave her a wry grin. "No, thank the gods. This is one of the places that agreed to furnish us with supplies in exchange for our leaving them alone. We only came through here a few times, so with any luck my name will be just a dim memory by now."
She stood surveying the crowd and shops for a few moments. The stallion was nervous, snorting and skittering sideways when some noisy children ran past. Xena tightened her grip on his bridle, then led him toward a small, swarthy man who was selling fishcakes at a corner stand. "Excuse me," she said, "can you tell us where to find a good inn?"
"Oh, you want The Golden Cask," he told her. "Just go straight ahead to the town square, then left one block. Big stone building, gray, two stories. You can't miss it."
"Thanks!" The fishcakes smelled good and Xena's stomach twisted, reminding her that they'd had nothing to eat since last night's supper. She glanced at Gabrielle, surprised that she wasn't clamoring for Xena to buy her some food. But the bard looked exhausted and pale, her expression unfocused. Xena took hold of her arm. "Gabrielle," she said, "are you all right?"
"Yeah. I'm just really tired."
"Okay. It's not far to the inn. Come this way."
They tied the horses to a hitching rail in the stableyard next to the inn. The tavern door stood open, and the room seemed surprisingly cool and quiet after the noise of the streets. Xena blinked, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer light. She noted a couple of men talking quietly over mugs at a table near the far wall. Otherwise, the tavern was empty.
Gabrielle sank down onto a bench at a table near the door. "I'll just wait here while you make the arrangements," she said.
As Xena was wondering where to find the innkeeper, a woman bustled in through a side door, carrying a tray of wooden chalices, which she set on the bar. She was about Gabrielle's height, but older and a bit stockier, with a full head of unruly auburn hair. As Xena started towards her, she turned and came forward, smiling and drying her hands on her apron.
"Good afternoon," she said warmly. "You two look like you've had a long journey. My name is Lydia. I'm the proprietor here."
She held out her hand, and as Xena took it, she found herself looking into brown eyes so full of honesty and caring that she immediately felt she could trust this woman in a way she trusted few people.
"I'm Xena," she said.
Lydia's eyes widened. "Xena!" she exclaimed, "The Warrior Princess?"
"Yes," Xena said guardedly. Maybe they remembered her here better than she thought.
"We were just talking about you last night!" exclaimed Lydia, "in this very room! Salmoneus was telling stories about you--how you changed from evil to good, and how you won the Miss Known World contest and prevented a terrible war. He said you made quite a beautiful Miss Amphipolis . . ." The innkeeper paused, her eyes taking in Xena's clothes and weapons.
"Ah, well--" Xena glanced down at Garron's rough tunic and trousers. "I was wearing a different outfit then." She gave Lydia a crooked grin, then quickly changed the subject. "What's Salmoneus doing in town?"
"Oh, he's here for the market fair, brought a whole cartload of fancy goods, imported from Egypt, so he says." She winked at Xena. "I dare say he's doing a good business. He's quite the salesman, you know."
"What's the market fair?"
"You don't know about our market fair? We have it every summer, and it lasts a whole week. People come from all around. Some travel for days to get here."
"So that's why the town's so crowded," Xena mused. "We were trying to figure it out."
"Salmoneus mentioned that you travelled with someone," Lydia said, shifting her gaze toward Gabrielle. "Is your friend a warrior, too?"
"No, Gabrielle's a bard," Xena said, and then her voice softened. "But she's fought some very brave battles." She turned to glance behind her and saw Gabrielle sitting with head on folded arms. "The last one almost did her in," Xena added, "so we were hoping you might have a quiet room where we could rest for a few days."
"Well, you're in luck, Xena, because I do have one room available. The fellow that had it left just this morning. You'll be right across the hall from Salmoneus. It's a small room, but it's clean. As far as being quiet, well, it overlooks the inn courtyard in back, so you won't get much street noise, but at night people like to sit out there and drink, and sometimes they get kind of loud."
"That's fine. It won't be a problem," said Xena quickly. "I guess we're lucky to find a room at all with the fair going on."
"Yes, you are."
"Oh, and Lydia, could we get some food? Just something simple--maybe bread and cheese? And two mugs of mead? We haven't eaten all day."
"Of course." Lydia said, studying Xena with frank curiosity. "I can bring a tray up to your room, if you like. Or would you rather eat down here?"
"No, in the room, if you don't mind."
"And will you be having supper here?"
"All right, let's see," said Lydia, calculating out loud, "a room for two people plus two meals . . . that'll be four dinars."
Xena pulled out her leather coin purse and dumped the contents into her hand. She handed four dinars to the innkeeper and put the other one back in the purse. It probably hadn't been wise to let the woman see how little money she had, she realized too late. Well, she would have a lot more as soon as she got that horse sold, but she had better do it quickly.
"We've also got two horses to be stabled," Xena added.
"You can arrange that with Elpidios; he's the stableman," Lydia said. "It's half a dinar per horse per night."
"Okay." Xena turned and walked back to where the bard sat. She bent over her, laying a hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle, come and meet Lydia. She has a room for us."
Gabrielle raised her head and then got up and followed the warrior back to where the innkeeper waited.
"I'm glad to meet you, Gabrielle," said Lydia with a warm smile and handshake. She studied the bard with the same frank interest that she had shown earlier for the warrior princess. Xena had the feeling that those intense brown eyes did not miss much, and that the innkeeper understood much more than what was actually said. Such qualities would have been alarming in an evil person, but Xena sensed that Lydia could be trusted to use her knowledge only in gentle ways.
Xena touched Gabrielle lightly on the arm. "Why don't you go up to the room while I get the horses taken care of?" she said. "Lydia's going to bring us some bread and cheese."
"Okay," murmured Gabrielle. "Nice to meet you, Lydia," she added with a wan smile.
"Just go up the stairs in the corner there," Lydia said, pointing, "then all the way to the end of the passage. There are six rooms, and yours is the last door on the left."
Gabrielle nodded and headed for the narrow wooden staircase. Xena watched her cross the room and slowly climb the steps. "She's really not like this," Xena said and turned to find Lydia watching her. "She's warm and friendly and talkative--" She stopped, as her voice began to tremble. She swallowed hard, then said, "Well, I'd better go see about those horses." And turning, she headed for the door.
"I'll bring the tray up soon," Lydia called after her.
* * *
Xena staggered up to the room several minutes later, loaded down with their saddlebags and other belongings. Gabrielle was lying across the bed, her feet hanging off, but she sat up when Xena dropped the gear noisily on the floor just inside the door. The bed was barely wide enough for two people, yet it took up almost a third of the space in the room. It stood in the corner where the two outside walls of gray stone met, and there was a clay chamberpot beneath it. Next to the bed was a small table, and in another corner a washstand with a dented metal pitcher and basin. The only other furniture was a lone wooden bench, just big enough to seat one. The two interior walls were made of thin wood panelling, and the wide floorboards had been worn smooth by the feet of many weary travellers.
Xena crossed the room and looked out the window into the courtyard. "Well, it's small," she said, turning back to Gabrielle, "but it's a whole lot better than what we had last night!"
Gabrielle looked at her, but said nothing.
Xena sat down next to the bard and bounced a little on the straw-filled mattress. "How's the bed?" she asked. "Think you can sleep here?"
She studied Gabrielle's face for a few moments, but saw no clues there as to what the bard might be thinking. "You know, I never thought I'd see the day when I wanted you to talk more," she said with a small smile, "but Gabrielle, I wish you'd tell me what you're feeling and thinking. Right now it's as if you're clear across the sea from me and I don't even have a rowboat."
"You wouldn't understand how I feel," Gabrielle said flatly.
"How do you know I wouldn't? You haven't even tried me." She laid a hand on Gabrielle's thigh. "And even if I don't understand, I will at least listen--for as long as you want me to. You need to talk, Gabrielle. You can't just keep your feelings all stuffed up inside of you."
"That's what you do."
Xena smiled grimly. "Yeah, but you're always after me to talk, so I've gotten a little better at it. At least, I think I have. But now I know how frustrated you must have felt with me. Please tell me how you're feeling. Please."
"I can't talk about it. This is something I have to work out alone."
"No, Gabrielle, you're wrong. You don't have to do this alone. That's why I'm here, to help you work through this. We love each other, and love is for the bad times as well as for the good times. We can get through this, but we have to do it together."
The bard sighed and pulled distractedly at her hair, then pressed her lips together in a frown. Finally she said, "I just can't, Xena. I don't know why, but I'm just not ready to talk. It hurts too much."
Xena stood up and began to pace back and forth across the narrow room. "Don't do this, Gabrielle," she said. "Don't shut me out like this!" She stopped in front of the bard and clamped her hands on the young woman's shoulders. "I love you. I want to help you. This is driving me crazy--please let me help you!"
Gabrielle looked up at her, and the pain written on her face stabbed at the warrior's heart. "You can't help me, Xena," Gabrielle said quietly. "No one can help me. I have to do this myself."
Xena straightened abruptly, turned, and paced across the room, then back to the stone wall. She stopped, facing the wall, then suddenly slammed the side of her fist against it, hard. Then she did it again. And again.
"Stop it, Xena. You're acting like a child."
Xena stopped pounding the wall and leaned weakly against it, resting her forehead on the rough, cool stones. Why was this so difficult? Why couldn't Gabrielle's wounds all have been physical ones? At least she knew how to deal with those. But these wounds of the spirit . . .
There was a knock on the door. Xena took a deep breath, tried to compose herself, and went to open it.
Lydia stood in the hallway with a tray of food. "Is everything all right here?" she asked, her eyes searching the warrior's face. How long had she been standing out there, Xena wondered. How much of their conversation had she overheard?
"Oh, we're fine," the warrior said. "We're just a little tired and grumpy." She gave Lydia what she hoped was a disarming smile, then reached out for the tray. "Mmm, this looks good!" she said.
Lydia smiled back at her. "Is the room all right?" she asked. "I'm sorry it's so small."
"It's fine, really. Last night we slept in the rain with no blankets, so this is like the Elysian Fields by comparison."
Lydia laughed. "Good," she said. "Just let me know if you need anything. I found you some grapes," she added, nodding at the tray.
"Thanks," Xena said. "We were really hungry."
She set the tray on the small table, placed it in front of Gabrielle, and pulled the bench over to sit on. The bard stared at the food for a few moments, then broke off a small piece of bread and began to nibble at it. Xena tore off a big hunk for herself and stuffed it in her mouth, hoping that food would somehow help fill the empty space she felt inside.
"You've got to eat more than that, Gabrielle," she said, slicing off some cheese and handing it to the bard. "How about some grapes? You know you love grapes."
"I'm just not hungry."
"Eat anyway. You've got to get your strength back."
Xena tried to set a good example, but after the first few bites, she discovered that she wasn't all that hungry, either. Nevertheless, she forced herself to go on eating, and when the food stuck in her throat, she washed it down with mead.
"Did you hear Lydia say that Salmoneus is in town?" she asked.
Gabrielle looked up. "Salmoneus!" she exclaimed and made a face. "Of all the people I don't want to see right now!"
"You don't have to see him. You don't have to see anyone you don't want to," Xena said. She pulled a couple of grapes off the cluster and put them in her mouth. "He's not my very favorite person, either, but I'm actually kind of glad to find out he's here. I think I'll ask him to sell that horse for me. He's good at selling things, and he probably has some contacts in town--which I don't."
"He'll want a big cut of the price."
"I know, but I'll work something out with him. It'll be worth it not to have the hassle of selling the horse myself."
Gabrielle gave her a look and then sat staring dully at the food without eating.
"How's the pain?" Xena asked. "Do you need some more tea?"
"No. I'm all right. I just want to sleep."
"That's a good idea. Will you feel safe if I leave you alone here for a little while?"
"Yeah. I'll be fine."
"Are you sure?"
"Okay. There's some market fair thing going on in town. That's why it's so crowded. I thought I'd go check it out. I need to talk to Salmoneus and also try to sell Garron's dagger. Oh, and I'll look for somebody who can make you some clothes."
Gabrielle's eyes drifted closed and her head began to droop over the bread and cheese.
Xena touched her shoulder gently. "Are you done eating?" she asked.
Xena moved the table back to its place by the wall and crouched down in front of Gabrielle. "Do you want to sleep in your warrior princess costume or do you want to take it off?" she asked.
Gabrielle looked at her and Xena thought she saw the flicker of a smile cross her face.
"Take it off," Gabrielle said.
Xena helped the bard undress and then tucked the covers around her. In less than a minute, she was asleep. Xena stood for a short time watching her, then went and rummaged through Garron's saddlebags until she found the dagger. She examined it briefly, tested the blade's sharpness with her thumb, and stowed the weapon in the rope belt next to her own. Then, picking up the tray, she slipped quietly out of the room.
Downstairs, Xena returned the mostly uneaten food to Lydia with a sheepish grin. "Guess we weren't quite as hungry as I thought we were," she said.
Lydia smiled, set the tray on the bar, and then turned her gaze on Xena. "I shouldn't really ask this," she said quietly, "but I was hoping I could help somehow-- What happened to Gabrielle?"
Xena stared at her, surprised by the directness of the question, yet touched by its caring tone. "She was raped," she heard herself say.
"I thought that might be it," Lydia said.
"Why did you think that?"
"Several reasons, I guess. The bruises. The way she holds herself. The withdrawn look in her eyes." Lydia paused and drew a deep breath. "It happened to my daughter, Lia, a couple of years ago. She was only fifteen at the time."
"How terrible!" Xena said. "I'm really sorry to hear that. Is your daughter all right now?"
Lydia smiled. "Yes, she's fine. There are some scars, of course, that will never heal completely, but Lia is betrothed now to a fine young man from the village here. They'll be married at the winter solstice, and they're going to help me run the inn. Lia already helps a lot. She does most of the cooking and laundry. You'll probably see her around."
Lydia stopped speaking for a moment, gazing into the distance, apparently lost in thought. Then she looked at Xena again. "It's not easy getting over something like that," she said softly. "It takes time and a lot of love. Gabrielle is lucky. She has you, and I can see that you really care about her. She'll be all right. Just be patient."
Xena nodded. She wanted to speak, but her throat was too tight with emotion.
There was a moment of silence and then Lydia said, "Did you burn yourself?"
"What?" Xena said, then saw the innkeeper looking at her hand. "Oh. Yeah, I did."
"I've got some ointment. It's just in the kitchen there. Seems like Lia and I are always burning ourselves. I'll get it for you."
She was gone before Xena could answer, and came back almost as quickly.
"How did you do this?" she asked, as she spread the ointment with gentle fingers.
"It's sort of a long story," said Xena.
"That's all right," responded Lydia. "I've always got time for a story."
"Well, we were staying at an abandoned cottage a few leagues from here. That's where Gabrielle was . . . attacked. I wasn't there at the time or I could have prevented it, I think." Xena stopped and took a deep breath. She barely knew this woman, this Lydia with the eyes that seemed to see straight into her soul. Yet here she was, pouring out her whole story. She felt crazy doing it, but somehow she couldn't help herself.
"Gabrielle was so upset that she set the cottage on fire," Xena continued. "We lost most of our belongings. I managed to salvage a few things, but I burned myself while I was doing it."
Lydia put the lid back on the ointment jar. "Xena," she said, smiling at the warrior woman, "I want you to know something. I asked you to pay in advance for the first night, but from now on your credit is good with me. You and Gabrielle stay here as long as you want to. You've been through a lot and you need time to heal--both of you."
"Lydia, you don't have to do this. I can pay the bill. I've got some things to sell--including a horse--so I'll have plenty of money."
"I know. I trust you. I just don't want you to be worrying about money when you should be worrying about helping Gabrielle."
Xena was silent for a moment, then she said, "I don't understand. You barely know me. I haven't done anything to deserve so much kindness from you."
The innkeeper smiled again. "You're right. I don't really know you yet, but I already know I'm going to like you, Xena. You have a heart that's brave and true, and you try to do the right thing--even when it's hard for you. I have a very good feeling about your being here. Something good will come of it. I'm not sure what, but I know it will be good."
Xena stared at her in wonder. "Are you a seer?" she asked.
"Not really, although some have called me that. I have a good understanding of people, and sometimes I get a sense of what will happen to them, but I've never tried to develop the gift. If I can use it to help someone now and then, that's reward enough for me."
"I think I'm going to like you, too, Lydia," Xena said. "In fact, I already do."
The innkeeper grinned at her and then quickly changed the subject. "Well, are you going to the market fair?" she asked.
"Yes, but I don't know where it is."
"It's out on the north edge of town. Turn left when you go out the door and walk straight down the street. You'll run right into it."
"Sounds easy enough." Xena turned toward the door, then turned back again. "Oh, I meant to ask if you can recommend a good seamstress."
"Yes, indeed. Go see Dorkas. She and her husband, Xenos, have a weaving shop just about a block from here. It's called the Magic Loom. You'll pass it on your way to the fair. Dorkas isn't the most talkative person you'll ever meet, but she does wonderful work for a reasonable price, and she's fast, too."
"Good. I'll go see her."
"Going to get yourself a new outfit?" Lydia asked, looking pointedly at the tunic and trousers.
"No, it's not for me, it's for Gabrielle. She's wearing my clothes right now."
"And whose are you wearing?"
Xena glanced down. "These belonged to the man who raped Gabrielle."
Lydia shook her head. "You two have really been to Tartarus and back, haven't you?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Xena gave her a wan smile. "Thanks, Lydia. I'll see you later," she said then and headed out the door.
* * *
The marketplace was crowded and dusty. A strange mix of smells assaulted Xena's nostrils, and her ears were battered by the constant shouts of vendors and the squawks and squeals of animals. Gabrielle loved this kind of chaos--especially if haggling was involved--but Xena generally found it unpleasant. Reminding herself that she had a job to do, though, she gritted her teeth and plunged into the mayhem. She wandered up and down among the rows of stalls until she found a weapons dealer, and after some dickering, got twenty dinars for the dagger. It was nice to have some money in her purse again, and even though it had hurt her pride to have Lydia offer her credit, it did ease her mind not to have to worry about boarding costs until the horse was sold.
Pushing on through the crowd, Xena now gave her attention to finding Salmoneus. After a few minutes, she spotted him in a stall near the edge of the marketplace. He appeared to be doing a brisk business, and she leaned against a nearby pole and watched awhile until there was a lull. Then, sauntering over to the stall, she cast an eye over the trinkets, gewgaws, and shiny baubles he had displayed.
"Well, Salmoneus," she said, "how's business?"
"Oh, fine, fine! Business is just fine!" His face glowed cheerfully as he rearranged a few items before glancing up. "Xena!" he exclaimed, his eyes widening. "I almost didn't recognize you! Is this the latest in warrior garb?" he asked, eying her costume.
"Yeah, I guess it is," she said with a grin.
"Where's Gabrielle? Is she with you?"
"She's, uh--" Xena hesitated. "She's feeling a little under the weather, so she's resting at the inn."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Where are you staying? The Golden Cask?"
"Right across the hall from you."
"Lydia told you I was there, huh? She's quite a woman, isn't she?" he said with a big wink.
Xena smiled, bemused. "Yes, she's very nice." She glanced at the merchandise again. "Where do you get all this stuff?" she asked.
"It's imported specially from Egypt, every bit of it," Salmoneus declared and stroked his beard in a pleased way.
"Then how come I've seen things just like this made in Corinth and Athens?"
"Shhh!" he said quickly, looking around. Then he leaned closer and said conspiratorially, "Most of these people aren't as well travelled as you and I, so they don't know the difference."
"Oh, is that how it works?" she said, arching an eyebrow at him.
"That's how it works," he assured her.
She couldn't really understand why anyone would want to buy the merchandise Salmoneus was offering, but as she glanced over it again, her eye was caught by a gold heart-shaped pendant, and she reached out to pick it up. It had been many years since she had felt any interest in jewels or trinkets of this type, but now it occurred to her that she might like to give such a thing to Gabrielle, might like to see the bardwearing it as a symbol of their love.
"Oh, isn't that a beautiful little heart?" purred Salmoneus. "Finest Egyptian gold, and only twenty-five dinars!"
"Humph!" Xena snorted. "I'm afraid you'll have to find some other sucker to buy it." But she didn't put the heart down, holding it instead in her palm to watch the way the sunlight reflected off the engraved design of intertwined leaves.
"Well, there's a sucker born every minute, is what I like to say," grinned Salmoneus. "But I'll tell you what, Xena, since we're such good friends, I can make you a special price on that little heart. Twenty dinars."
She considered for moment, still turning the trinket in the sunshine. She doubted that it was pure gold or that it came from Egypt, but it did have a certain appeal for her. Probably, she could get him down to fifteen dinars or possibly twelve, but even then it would take most of her slender funds. What Gabrielle needed much more urgently was new clothes. That's what the money should be used for. Besides, in Gabrielle's present state of mind, she might very well reject such a gift altogether.
Xena laid the heart down and grinned humorlessly at Salmoneus. "Sorry," she said, "it's just not my type of thing."
"Is it the price? I might be able to go a little lower. If you don't want it for yourself, then why don't you get it for Gabrielle?"
Xena scowled at him. "I'm not trying to haggle with you, Salmoneus. The fact is I don't want it," she said. "Now let's talk about something else."
"Sure, Xena," the merchant said quickly. "What do you want to talk about?"
"I have a business proposition for you. How would you like to sell a horse for me? For a cut of the selling price, of course."
"You're selling Argo?" Salmoneus asked in amazement.
"No, not Argo. This is another horse, a stallion, kind of flashy, lots of energy, a good warhorse for the right buyer."
"Well, sure, I suppose I could sell a horse as well as I could sell anything else. Selling is selling, after all."
"Good. Let's talk about it later," Xena said, as a couple of men approached the stall.
"Okay. How about over supper at the inn tonight?"
Xena thought for a moment. "No, I'll probably eat in the room with Gabrielle. But I could meet you downstairs afterwards."
"Great. I'll see you then."
Xena headed back up the street toward the inn, stopping when she came to the weavers' shop. Inside, a man sat working at a large loom. Xena found the rhythmic sound of the shuttle passing back and forth soothing after the cacophony of the market, and she stood quietly for several minutes, watching and listening. At last, the man stopped his work and looked up at her.
"Good afternoon," she said. "I'm looking for Dorkas."
"She's in back," the man said, then turned toward a door behind him and shouted, "Dorkas! Someone here to see you!"
The woman who emerged from the back room was average in height and stocky, with a square face and muscular forearms. Her straight brown hair was cut off bluntly at the jawline, making it shorter even than many men wore their hair. What Xena found most interesting about the seamstress, though, was the total lack of expression on the woman's face.
"Yes, my lady," Dorkas said.
The warrior quickly glanced behind her to see what lady had entered the shop, and then realized that Dorkas was addressing her.
"Oh, uh, I was looking for someone who could make some clothes--just a simple, two-piece kind of thing--you know, a little bodice and a short skirt. And I need it done as soon as possible. It's kind of an emergency."
"Is it for you, my lady?" Dorkas gazed at her impassively, and Xena was suddenly conscious of how strange she must look in Garron's clothes. Was this woman making fun of her by calling her a lady, or did she call every female customer that?
"No, it's for a friend of mine," she answered.
"I see," said Dorkas. "What kind of fabric?"
"What kind do you have?"
"Linen. Wool. A little bit of cotton, but it's costly, since it has to be imported."
"Uh, I don't know. Green? Or maybe brown? Blue would be nice, too, I guess."
Dorkas pulled three bolts of cloth from beneath the counter and spread them out. Xena moved closer and fingered the fabric. She really had no idea what Gabrielle wanted; obviously, she should have asked the bard some questions before coming here.
"Do you have the measurements?" Dorkas asked.
"Measurements? Uh, well, she's about average in size, I think. Shorter than I am, and a little smaller around." Xena stopped, flustered. She was really out of her element here. She knew so little about clothing and how it was made. The seamstress must think she was a fool.
"Does the lady live near here?" asked Dorkas in the same even voice that gave no real clue as to what the woman was thinking.
"Yes, we're staying at the Golden Cask, just down the street. Lydia's the one who gave me your name, in fact."
"Lydia is a good person," said Dorkas, and Xena thought she saw a softening in the stonelike features. "Maybe I could come and take the measurements," the seamstress said then.
"Yes, that might work," Xena said, considering. Would Gabrielle be willing to talk to this strange, impassive woman? Well, she would have to if she wanted any say in how her new clothes were made. "When can you come?"
"Now, if you like. You said you were in a hurry."
"Okay. I'm just on my way back to the inn, anyway. I'm sure Gabrielle will be much better at telling you what sort of clothes she wants than I am. The only thing is that she's-- Well, she's been injured, so she's got some bruises-- Just so you won't be surprised," Xena finished lamely.
Dorkas nodded and picked up a measuring tape. She cut swatches from the three bolts of cloth and then stood looking at Xena until the warrior realized that she was ready and led the way out into the street. They walked in silence. Xena was suddenly aware of how tired she felt and was grateful she didn't have to make conversation. When they entered the tavern room, Lydia saw them and came over to greet them.
"Would you mind waiting here while I just go up and make sure Gabrielle is awake?" Xena asked Dorkas. "I'll be right back."
Without waiting for an answer, she hurried to the staircase and took the steps two at a time. Opening the door to the room quietly, she saw the bard curled on her side, still fast asleep. Xena went and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle," she said softly.
The green eyes opened reluctantly for a moment, then Gabrielle sighed, stretched slightly, and snuggled back down under the covers.
"Did you have a good sleep?"
Xena watched her for a moment and saw that she was drifting off again. She squatted down beside the bed.
"Gabrielle," she said, "I found someone who can make you some clothes, but I couldn't explain very well what you wanted and she needs your measurements. She's downstairs now. Would it be all right if she came up here? You can tell her exactly what you want."
Gabrielle opened her eyes and stared at Xena for a moment. Then she sighed heavily and sat up. "Okay," she said dully.
Xena helped her get dressed and then went downstairs for Dorkas. She wasn't sure how cooperative Gabrielle would be, but soon the young woman was explaining in some detail to the seamstress what type of outfit she wanted. And she chose the blue color swatch.
"When can you have it done?" Xena asked when the other two had come to an understanding.
"Tomorrow afternoon," said Dorkas.
"Good. How much will it be?"
The woman calculated for a few moments and then said, "Fifteen dinars."
Gabrielle cast a questioning look at the warrior.
"That'll be fine," said Xena. It was a good thing she hadn't spent her money on that heart trinket. "Should I come by your shop to pick it up?"
"I can bring it here," Dorkas said, "to check the fit."
"That would be nice," said Gabrielle.
"Yes," said Xena. "We'll see you tomorrow, then."
The seamstress left and Gabrielle sat down on the edge of the bed next to Xena. "I didn't know new clothes would cost so much," she said.
"It's all right. I got twenty dinars for Garron's dagger." When there was no answer, Xena went on. "I think Dorkas will do a good job for you. Lydia recommended her. She's kind of strange, though, isn't she?"
"Yeah, she is, but I like her."
"I talked to Salmoneus and he's going to sell the horse for me. I'm getting together with him after supper to talk about it. As soon as he sells it, we can buy the other stuff we need . . . and we can start trying to find a horse for you."
Gabrielle looked at her. "Don't buy me a horse, Xena."
"I just don't want one right now. I don't even like horses that much. And besides, I'm not sure what I'm going to do."
"What do you mean?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle looked away and shifted uncomfortably. "Well, I've been thinking I might like to go home for a while."
"Home," Xena repeated. "To Poteidaia."
"Well, yes, that's a good idea," Xena said slowly. "You can rest there and get your strength back. And you'd probably like to see your family again. Sure, we can go to Poteidaia, if you want."
It was a perfectly reasonable request, Xena told herself, but for some reason, the idea filled her with a cold dread. How long would Gabrielle want to stay with her family? It might be much longer than Xena herself wanted to stay. Well, she could always go to Amphipolis to visit her mother and return for Gabrielle later.
The silence stretched on for a time, as each of the women entertained her own thoughts. Finally, Xena looked at her companion and said, "I guess it's time for supper. Want to eat downstairs?"
"Okay. I'll go down and get us something. It smelled pretty good when I came through there. Mutton, I think. I'll be back soon."
* * *
An hour later, Xena sat in the tavern at a table near the wall, with a tankard of mead in front of her. Salmoneus was sitting with some friends a short distance away, finishing up dinner. The warrior was in no hurry, though. In fact, she was glad to have a little time to herself to rest and think. The mead tasted smooth and cool, and the indistinct babble of voices around her soothed away her weariness. Leaning back against the stone wall, she closed her eyes, letting the muscles of her face and shoulders slowly relax. But her ears remained sharply alert, and she opened her eyes as soon as she heard Salmoneus approach the table. He grinned at her, sat down, and took a big gulp from the wooden wine goblet he had carried over from the other table.
"Well, there's no sneaking up on you, is there?" he said.
"I hope not," she returned, smiling, and took a sip of mead.
There were a few moments of silence, then Salmoneus said, "That was some tasty mutton tonight, wasn't it?"
"It wasn't bad," Xena agreed.
"I think you'll find the food here is generally quite good. Lydia's daughter does most of the cooking. Have you met her?"
"No, but Lydia mentioned her to me." Xena picked up her tankard and took a long drink. "She never mentioned a husband, though. Is she a widow?"
"Yes, her husband got killed two or three years ago."
"Got killed? Like in an accident?"
"No, I think I heard that he was murdered, but I don't know any of the details." Salmoneus took another sip of wine. There was another brief silence, then he asked, "Is Gabrielle feeling better?"
"What's wrong with her?"
Xena looked at him narrowly, then said, "She got kind of roughed up in a fight. She'll be all right in a few days, I think." She leaned her head on her hand and stared at the woodgrain pattern of the table.
Salmoneus cleared his throat hesitantly. "You, know, Xena," he said, "if you don't mind my saying so, you're not looking so good yourself."
Surprised, she looked up at him and ran her fingers absently through her tangled blackhair. "Guess I forgot to comb my hair today," she said with half a grin. She usually relied on Gabrielle to remind her of such things.
The merchant grinned back at her a bit uncertainly. "Well, that's part of it," he said, "but it's more than that. You look, I don't know, kind of pale and tired. Dark circles under your eyes."
Xena stared at him. She hadn't been near a mirror for days, nor had she given any thought to how she looked. "Well," she said, attempting to smile, but failing, "it's a good thing you don't need me to enter some crazy pageant right now. Maybe we'd better get our business taken care of so I can get an early start on my beauty sleep."
Salmoneus chuckled. "That's a good idea," he said. "So tell me about this horse."
"Want to see him? He's just over in the stable." She finished off her mead and then led the way outside into the warm summer evening. The sun had just set, but the sky was still bathed in an afterglow of light.
Elpidios sat on a straw bale near the stable door, oiling some harness leather. Xena nodded to him. "Nice evening," she said.
"Sure is," he responded.
"Wait here," she said to Salmoneus. "I'll bring the horse out and walk him around for you."
It was getting dark inside the stable, but she could still see well enough to distinguish the horses from each other. She slipped into Argo's stall first, and was pleased to see that the mare had been brushed and fed, and that clean straw had been put down for her. Elpidios was a good stableman, then, a person who truly liked horses. She would have to give him a nice tip when she left. The bay stallion had been equally well cared for. Xena petted him for a minute, then untied him and led him out into the yard.
"Wow," Salmoneus said, "that's a lot of horse!"
Xena set off running with the stallion's lead in hand, making in a couple of tight circles within the confined space of the stableyard. Full of energy, as usual, the bay tossed his head and trotted smartly, the sound of his hoofbeats sounding loud in the enclosed space. Elpidios stopped his work and watched the demonstration with interest. When Xena finished, she led the bay up to Salmoneus.
"Does he bite?" the merchant asked.
"Not that I know of. Go ahead and pet him."
Salmoneus reached out and stroked the dark nose timidly. "Where'd you get this horse, Xena?" he asked.
"Let's just say I inherited him."
He frowned at her. "Come on. You're going to have to do better than that," he said. "I can't sell merchandise without knowing where it came from."
She regarded him for a moment, sighed, and then reached up to scratch behind the stallion's ear. "Did you ever hear of Garron, the slave trader?" she asked.
"Garron!" he exclaimed, his eyes widening. "Of course I've heard of him! Hasn't everybody?" He laughed weakly. "Definitely not a man I'd want to run into in a dark alley," he concluded, then stared at Xena with growing realization. "Is this Garron's horse?"
"Was," she said shortly.
"Xena! Did you kill Garron?"
"Well, not exactly, but I can testify that he is dead. I've seen his body."
"And this was his horse?"
"Well, I'm not exactly an expert on horses, but he looks pretty classy to me. You've ridden him, I guess."
"I rode him this morning for about three hours on the way to town. He's an energetic mount and a little headstrong, although that might be cured with training. It takes an experienced rider with a firm hand to control him, so don't go selling him as some little girl's pony."
Salmoneus laughed. "No, of course not."
"He's sound and I suspect he's got a lot of speed, but I didn't get the chance to try him out. If somebody wants to, they're welcome to take him out for a run," she said. "Just as long as they don't run off with him without paying!"
"I'll be careful," Salmoneus said with a grin. "How old is he?"
"I don't know," Xena said. "Pretty young, I'd think." She handed the lead line to Salmoneus and pried the stallion's mouth open to study his teeth. "Three years?" she guessed, "maybe four?" She looked over at the stableman. "Elpidios," she called, "you any good at telling a horse's age?"
The man got up and dusted himself off, then sauntered over to peer into the bay's mouth. "Oh, I'd say about three years on this one," he said. "Those teeth aren't worn down much at all. You going to sell him?" he asked then.
"Yes. You know anyone who's interested?"
"Well have them talk to Salmoneus here. He's going to be handling the sale for me, right?" she said, looking questioningly at the merchant.
"Right," he said, then turned to Elpidios. "Got any idea what a horse like this might sell for?"
"Well," said the stableman slowly, "I once saw a big fancy stallion like this go for three hundred dinars, but mostly, horses around here sell for a hundred fifty, maybe two hundred if they're real good."
"Okay, that gives me some idea where to start, anyway," Salmoneus said. "Now, you be sure to send anyone to me who's interested in buying this horse. Have them come see me at the inn here or at my booth at the marketplace."
Elpidios nodded. "You want me to put him back in the stable?" he asked Xena.
"Yes, thank you. I think we're done looking at him for right now."
As the horse was being led away, the warrior sank down on a bench by the stable wall. Salmoneus came over and sat beside her.
"All right, let's talk business," she said. "How much of a cut are you going to want?"
"Well, twenty percent ought to do it," he said casually.
"Twenty!" she exclaimed. "I was thinking of something more like eight!"
"Oh, Xena, Xena," he said sadly, shaking his head. "I thought you had more respect for my skill as a salesman than that. I don't think you understand what an intricate combination of knowledge and experience is required for the type of delicate negotiations that will go into selling such a magnificent animal."
"Okay, how about ten?"
He sighed heavily. "No, my friend, it's just not enough. It's hardly worth my time for such a small pittance. I have to make a living, after all." He studied his hands for a time, then glanced at the warrior princess. She watched him, but said nothing. "I guess maybe I could scrape by on fifteen percent," he said finally.
She considered briefly. "Well," she said, "you're probably ripping me off, Salmoneus, but frankly, I'm too tired to haggle any more about this. Fifteen percent it is."
His face lit up in a huge grin and he stuck out his hand. "You've got a deal, Xena!"
She grinned back briefly as she shook his hand, then put on a serious face and said in a low voice, "Now listen to me. I really need the money soon from this sale, so I don't want you holding out forever trying to get a big, high price. Is that understood?"
"All right," he said slowly, "but you're not a person who's usually so interested in money, Xena, what's going on?"
She shifted her weight on the bench and scuffed at the ground with the toe of one boot. Then she looked at Salmoneus. "Gabrielle and I lost almost everything we own in a fire," she said quietly. "That's why I need the money. And I also need it to pay our bill at the inn. I wanted to bring Gabrielle someplace safe and comfortable so that she could rest and get well."
Salmoneus was silent for a minute, then he said, "Xena, let's go back to the tavern and I'll buy you some good port. I think you're a woman with a story to tell, and I want to hear it."
She laughed. "Well, I don't know how much of a story you'll get out of me, but I certainly won't say no to a free drink!"
He stood up, held out his hand to her, and pulled her to her feet. Then together they headed back to the tavern.
* * *
They sat out in the innyard while darkness settled over the town and the torches in their stands became the only source of light. Xena gazed up now and then at the window of the room where she knew her lover lay in the arms of sleep. Soon, very soon, she would join Gabrielle, and they would lie close together, maybe even touching, on the narrow bed. But first there was wine to drink and a tale to tell.
She had intended to tell Salmoneus very little, but the port warmed and mellowed her, and tiredness, too, helped weaken her defenses. What's more, Salmoneus surprised her by being a good listener, showing interest, and asking questions that, little by little, drew her story out. Xena told how she and Gabrielle had rescued the village girls from Garron, and then described their hasty retreat to the cottage. She avoided any mention of their lovemaking, of course, but did tell how she had decided to go fishing instead of staying to protect her friend.
"While I was gone," she said, "Garron came. He dragged Gabrielle into the cottage and . . . attacked her."
"Attacked her? Do you mean--?"
She nodded, unable to go on speaking for a moment. She picked up her goblet, then realized that she had already finished off the contents. Salmoneus quickly signaled to Lydia for refills.
"When it was over," Xena went on, "Gabrielle managed to hit Garron with the frying pan and knock him out. Then she set fire to the cottage, and it burned down with him in it. And most of our belongings were in there, too."
Lydia brought a jug over to the table and poured the rich, dark liquid into their goblets. "What are you trying to do, Salmoneus," she asked, "get Xena drunk?"
"Sure," he said with a wink. "It's the only way to pry any secrets out of her."
The innkeeper grinned and pushed a strand of auburn hair out of her eyes. "Be careful," she said to Xena, "this man is devious." Then, laying a hand on the warrior's shoulder, she said, "Come talk to me a minute before you go upstairs."
Xena raised her eyebrows. "About Salmoneus?" she said.
Lydia laughed. "No, about something else." She patted Xena's shoulder and hurried off.
The warrior and merchant drank for a moment in silence, and then Salmoneus said in a wondering tone, "So it was Gabrielle who killed Garron."
"Yeah, I guess you could say that, although she didn't exactly mean to. He's dead, anyway, which I suppose is the best thing for all of us."
"She didn't burn down the cottage in order to kill him?"
"No, she had other reasons, and I guess they made sense to her at the time, but basically, she just kind of went crazy for a little while there." Xena took another big swallow of wine and then folded her arms on the table and leaned forward. "The point is that the whole thing was my fault, in the end. I should have known better than to go off and leave Gabrielle alone when I knew that Garron might have followed us. If I had just stayed with her, none of this would have happened."
Salmoneus studied her for a moment, then he leaned forward, too. "Maybe it's not my place to say this," he said, "but it seems to me like you're being way too hard on yourself. I mean, you're an extraordinary woman, and Zeus knows you've saved my hide more than once. But you're not a god, Xena. You're a human being like the rest of us, and you make mistakes just like the rest of us. You made a bad mistake and Gabrielle got hurt, but what's done is done. You can't go back and change it--no matter how much you want to. You just have to go on from here and try not to make the same mistake again. That's about all you can do."
She met his gaze for several moments before turning away. "Yeah, I guess you're right," she said. "I hadn't looked at it that way." She put her finger in a small puddle of wine Lydia had spilled while refilling their drinks and traced a design on the table top. "I just keep thinking that if only I--"
"Don't, Xena. The 'if only' game can kill you. You know that as well as I do."
She was silent, still playing with the wine.
"Do you know why love is so exciting?" he asked suddenly.
Xena looked up. "Well, I can think of several reasons," she said, arching an eyebrow, "but let's hear yours."
"It's because at any moment you could lose it," he said. "The person you love could just get up one day and walk out the door. Or die. Or fall in love with someone else. The only thing you've got is right now, so that's where you've got to live. Not in the past, wondering what would have happened if things had been different. And not in the future, because there might not be any future. Right now is all you've got." He raised his goblet and grinned. "So I say make the most of it!"
Xena took a drink from her own goblet. "Salmoneus," she said, "when did you become such a philosopher?"
He spread his hands and shrugged. "Zeus knows," he said.
She chugged the rest of her wine and set the goblet down. Reaching across the table, she put her hand on Salmoneus' arm. "You're a good friend," she said. "Thanks for listening. I'm afraid I told you more than I ever intended to, so I hope I can rely on you to keep it in strictest confidence--especially the part about Gabrielle."
"Of course, Xena."
"And the official story, if anyone needs to know, is that I'm the one who killed Garron."
"Right," he said.
"Now, I'm going to go up and get my beauty sleep." She winked at him and stood up, then bent quickly and kissed the top of his head. "Thanks again," she said softly. Even in the uneven torchlight, she could see that he was blushing.
"Good night, Xena," he said. "I'll get that horse sold for you in no time."
She walked quickly inside and was halfway to the stairs when she remembered that Lydia wanted to see her. She glanced around. The tavern was crowded and much noisier than it had been earlier. The constant movement of people caused the torches in their wall brackets and the oil lamps on the tables to sputter and smoke, creating a yellowish haze in the room. Xena realized that there was now someone besides Lydia waiting tables--a slender girl with brown eyes and dark hair every bit as unruly as the innkeeper's. Xena watched the girl until she went to the bar for a fresh jug of wine, then followed and touched her on the arm. "Are you Lia?" she asked.
The girl looked up, startled, and then smiled. "Yes," she said, "and you must be the warrior princess. My mother has been talking about you all afternoon. She's really excited to have you here."
Xena laughed. "She must be hard up for excitement, then."
"Maybe so," Lia said, "but we don't get many celebrities here."
"Well, she's certainly been very kind, and I appreciate that. Right now I'm wondering where I can find her. She said she wanted to see me before I went upstairs."
"I think she's in the kitchen. Just go through that door over there," Lia said, pointing. "It was really nice to meet you, Xena."
"Nice to meet you, too. I hope we'll have a chance to talk sometime," the warrior said, and headed for the doorway Lia had indicated.
It was a little quieter in the kitchen, but the fire blazing on the hearth made the room hot and stuffy. Lydia was slicing mutton off the spit onto a plate. There was very little meat left on the skeleton suspended over the blaze.
"Lydia," Xena said.
The innkeeper turned and smiled, setting the plate down and mopping her face with the back of her hand. "It's a warm night," she said.
"Looks like you're working hard."
"Yes, it's been like this almost every night since the fair began, but there are only two days left, thank the gods. It's nice to have the extra money, but I won't be sorry to see it end. Anyway, Xena," she went on, "I wondered if you'd like to take some tea up for Gabrielle."
"Well, that would be nice, but please don't go to any extra trouble."
"It's no trouble," she said. "I've got some right here, already made." She turned back to the hearth and ladled the tea into a mug which she handed to the warrior. "You'll want a candle, too," she added, lighting one from the oil lamp and setting it in a clay holder. "Anything else?" she asked. "Do you need more ointment for that burn?"
Xena glanced at her hand. "No, it's fine. I believe you've thought of everything.Thank you."
Lydia leveled her gaze on Xena for a minute. "Did Salmoneus get any secrets out of you?" she asked.
"Mostly the same story I told you this afternoon, but it was more than I had planned to tell him."
"It's good to talk about these things sometimes," Lydia said softly, "especially with people who care."
The door opened and Lia stuck her head in. "Mother, those two men keep asking me when they're going to get their food."
"Tell them I'll bring it right out," Lydia said. She put an arm around Xena's waist and gave a quick squeeze. "Sleep well, Warrior Princess," she said.
"Thanks, I hope to."
* * *
Upstairs in the room, Xena set the tea and the candle on the night table and turned to look at the sleeping bard. She lay on her back, her face turned away into the shadows beyond the reach of the candlelight. But the gold hair spilled across the pillow, shining softly. Xena brought the bench over by the bed and sat down, still looking at Gabrielle. Should she wake her? Maybe sleep would be more healing than Lydia's tea. Undecided, Xena reached out and lightly touched her lover's hair, and Gabrielle, apparently already awake, turned and looked at her.
"What are you doing," the bard asked.
"Trying to decide whether to wake you or not. Lydia made you some tea. Would you like to sit up and drink it?"
"I guess so." She sat up and took the mug Xena handed her. "What time is it?"
"I don't know. It's been dark about an hour."
Gabrielle took a sip from the mug and then said, "All I seem to want to do is sleep. Do you think there's something wrong with me?"
"No. It's just your body trying to heal itself. Sleep is good for you right now."
The bard drank again and Xena studied her friend's face in the candlelight. It seemed to her that the bruises were starting to soften and fade a little bit. The eye was no longer swollen, but an ugly purplish mark remained below it.
"I had a nice talk with Salmoneus," Xena said.
"About how to fool people into spending money for things they don't need?" asked Gabrielle.
"No, not about that," Xena said quietly. "You know, once you get past all that silliness and greed, Salmoneus is really a nice man--a very caring person. I had forgotten that. He's the first one who saw that I might be turned from evil to good. Did I tell you that story?"
Gabrielle nodded and sipped again from the mug. "So what did you talk about?" she asked.
"Well, he wanted to know where I got the horse, so I told him. And then he kept asking questions so I ended up telling him--"
"You didn't tell him about me, did you? About what Garron did to me?"
"Well, actually, I did."
The bard stared at her. "How could you?" she cried. "How could you do that? Xena, you never talk about stuff like that, and now you go blabbing it to Salmoneus, of all people! You know he can't keep his mouth shut. It'll be all over town by morning!"
"No, it won't. I asked him to keep what I said in strictest confidence."
"And you think he will? This is Salmoneus we're talking about!"
"Yes, I think he will because he knows what I'll do to him if he doesn't keep his word," Xena said with a wry smile.
"Who else have you told?"
Xena hesitated. "Only Lydia," she said.
"Lydia! Oh, great! Now she'll have a nice topic of conversation whenever anyone comes in the tavern! I can't believe you did that! Didn't you ever stop to think that I might not want everybody and his brother to know about this? Don't you even care how I feel? What's wrong with you, Xena?"
The warrior sighed and reached for the mug. "Here, let me take that before you spill it all over yourself and get burned," she said. Gabrielle handed over the mug and Xena set it on the table. Then she said, "I only told Lydia because she asked me point blank what happened to you. She had already figured it out, anyway, because her daughter was raped a couple of years ago. She's a loving, kind-hearted person, Gabrielle. She only wants to help. She's not going to go around telling everybody what happened to you."
"I don't care what kind of person she is," said Gabrielle. "You had no right to tell anyone what happened to me! No right! None!"
Xena regarded her quietly for a moment, then said, "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I shouldn't have done it."
The bard glared at her, breathing hard. "I just hope that, while you were at it, you told them about how you went fishing while I got raped," she said.
"Yes, I told them," Xena said glumly. Then she leaned closer to the bard and said, "But if you remember, Gabrielle, I wanted to stay at the cottage with you. You're the one who insisted I go fishing. You're the one who said you felt safe and you could take care of yourself."
"But you should have known better!" cried the bard, her face flushed with anger and pain. "You should have known that Garron followed us, and you should have known that I could never defend myself against him! You should have known!" All at once, she was screaming and beating her fists against Xena's chest, but the warrior quickly imprisoned her wrists in a tight grip.
"You're right, I should have known," Xena said. "I made a terrible mistake, and it has cost us both dearly." She released the bard and waited for a response, but there was none, so she went on. "I warned you about putting people on a pedestal, Gabrielle. You did it with Meleager, and when he didn't live up to your image of him, you got hurt, remember?"
"Yes, but I never put you on a pedestal."
Xena snorted. "Like Hades you didn't! Gabrielle, you put me on a pedestal the day you first saw me in Poteidaia, and you have never let me come down! You put me on a pedestal so high that I couldn't help but fall off someday, and when I did we both got badly hurt." She took Gabrielle's face between her hands. "Look at me," she said softly and waited until the green eyes met her own. "I'm not perfect, Gabrielle. I never have been and I never will be. I will always try to protect you, but sometimes I may not be able to do it. As long as you stay with me, there's the risk that you will get hurt or even killed. You know that risk is there, and I thought you had accepted it, but now I'm not so sure."
She saw the bard's chin tremble and the tears begin to pool in her eyes and trickle down her cheeks. With one thumb, Xena wiped away a tear, then she let go of Gabrielle and turned away, taking a deep breath and letting it out again. The sound of voices reached her ears from the innyard below, but in the room there was only the sound of Gabrielle's sniffling and uneven breathing. Xena got up and walked slowly up and down the length of the room. Then she sat on the bed next to Gabrielle.
"Do you think you can ever forgive me?" she asked. "You once said you would try to forgive Callisto for killing Perdicas. Can you forgive me for letting Garron hurt you?"
Gabrielle looked at her. "I can forgive you," she said, her voice shaky with tears, "but I'm not sure I can trust you anymore."
"You can't trust me? What are you saying?"
"I trusted you to be there for me, Xena. I trusted you with my life."
"Gabrielle, that's what I'm trying to tell you. You can't trust me to be perfect because I'm not. But you can trust me to do my best for you. I will always put your interests before my own. I will gladly risk my life to save you. And you can always trust me to love you . . . because I always will."
Gabrielle looked away and used her hands to wipe the tears off her face. "I don't want to talk about this anymore. I want to go to sleep," she said.
"All right," Xena said softly. She stood up and held the covers while Gabrielle slid under them. The bard turned on her side, her face toward the wall.
Xena returned the bench to its place by the wall, blew out the candle and then, feeling tired in every bone and muscle of her body, slipped off her weapons and clothes. She crawled in over the foot of the bed, climbed under the covers, and lay on her back in the narrow space between Gabrielle and the wall. Staring up into the dark shadows of the roof beams, she listened until the muffled sound of her companion's weeping ceased. Then, surrendering to exhaustion, she fell into a dense and heavy sleep.
The nightmare started almost immediately. She was running . . . running over rough ground toward the cottage and its column of smoke, knowing she had to get there to save Gabrielle, trying with all her might to get there, yet terrified that she would be too late. It was so very hard to run. Her legs felt heavy and it took all her strength to keep them moving. It was as if she were running in deep water. Her breath burned her lungs, and her heart pounded hard against her ribs. On and on she ran, her terror mounting with each step. It was taking too long--she would never get there in time! Then, suddenly, she was there, standing in the clearing, the blazing cottage in front of her, its roof and walls a solid sheet of flame. The door opened and Gabrielle stepped out, naked and bloody, her hair afire. Horrified, Xena realized that her lover was dead, and that it was her ghost who now walked toward her, eyes burning into the warrior's soul. "Where were you, Xena?" Gabrielle demanded. "I needed you and you went fishing! I trusted you with my life and you couldn't save me!"
Xena screamed and woke with a violent start. She lay staring into the darkness, soaked with sweat and panting for breath.
"For the love of Zeus, Xena!" muttered Gabrielle. "How's a person supposed to get any sleep around here?" The straw mattress rustled loudly as the bard turned over abruptly to face the other direction.
Xena shuddered and then lay as still as she could, given the furious pounding in her chest and the shaking of her limbs. She hadn't realized how much she had come to rely on Gabrielle for comfort when she had nightmares. But she knew how desperately she needed that comfort now. Rolling over on her side, she raised up on one elbow. The faint glow of torchlight from the yard below revealed the bard's huddled shoulders. Xena touched her hesitantly. "Gabrielle," she said, "could you hold me? Just for a little while?" She swallowed hard. "I'm so frightened," she finished in a whisper.
There was no response for a moment, then Gabrielle turned toward her. "Xena, I-- I'm sorry, but I can't. I just haven't got anything to give you right now. I feel like I can barely deal with my own problems, let alone with yours." She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," she said again and turned away.
Xena sank back down and lay there for a long time, the fear still so strong within her that she could literally taste it. Her pulse raced and her breath rushed in and out through a mouth that felt incredibly dry. Her hand, reaching out for something solid to cling to, encountered one of the stones in the wall beside her, and her fingers curled around it. She willed its strength and calmness to come into her body. Time passed; she had no idea how much. The sound of voices gradually ceased in the tavern and innyard, and the window square faded to black as the torches were put out. It was now too dark for Xena to see the form of the woman who lay beside her, but deep and steady breathing told her that Gabrielle was asleep.
The nightmare's terror faded at last, leaving the warrior feeling weak and drained. She could not stay in the bed, she realized, could not risk falling asleep and dreaming such horrors again. Cautiously, she slipped from under the covers and crept out over the foot of the bed. Then, she groped through the pile of weapons, clothing, and other gear until her fingers found the rough wool of Garron's blanket. She stood up and draped it around her nude body. The blanket smelled of horses and leather, and she found the smell oddly comforting. Moving carefully in the dark room, she made her way to the table, located the mug, and drank the cold tea in thirsty gulps. Then, crossing to the wall opposite the bed, she sat down with her back against it, drew herknees up, and wrapped her arms around them.
She made no effort to control her thoughts or the memories that now crowded into her mind. Tender moments spent with Gabrielle were jumbled together with scenes from her childhood and her years spent as a plundering warlord. Memory after memory appeared, in a pageant that seemed to go on and on. She had been only a simple village girl. Who would have imagined such a life for her? So many things she had done in her short years . . . and now her life was more than half over. Even if she lived to old age, she could hardly expect to pass forty years--scarcely anyone did--although she had known some hardy souls who made it past fifty. But as a warrior, she was highly unlikely either to grow old or to die a peaceful death. Each day she survived was a minor miracle. Her life could easily end tomorrow, and what had she accomplished? A lot that was evil, a little that was good. She could never hope to balance out the bad, never hope to win the Elysian Fields. But one thing seemed important: she had found someone she could love with all her heart, and she was loved in return. Surely that was one of the greatest human achievements. Surely that counted for something.
Through the window, Xena saw the first gray hints of the coming dawn. Her eyelids felt heavy, her eyes bleary, and her body full of dull aches. Her yearning for sleep was at last proving stronger than her fear of nightmares. With a sigh, she pulled the blanket tighter around her, curled up on her side on the hard floorboards, and gave herself up to oblivion.
* * *
The room was light when she woke a couple of hours later. She pushed herself up to a sitting position, feeling stiff and singularly unrested. Her eyes went to the bed, where Gabrielle lay snoring softly. Xena stood up quietly and stretched, letting the blanket fall to the floor. Then she moved to the wash stand, poured some water into the metal basin, and methodically washed and dried each part of her body. She had just finished when she felt a sudden wetness between her legs, followed by a trickle of blood down the inside of her thigh. "Damn!" she whispered, as the realization struck her that all the rags they used for this time of the month had been lost in the fire.
Going quickly to their saddlebag, she pulled out what was left of the old cloak. Tearing off a long strip, she tied it around her waist, then ran another strip between her legs and tied it to the first one in front and back. The remainder of the cloak she folded into a pad and tucked it into position. She would have to get some more rags somewhere, especially since Gabrielle, as she hoped, would soon need them, too. Maybe Lydia could help.
Xena pulled on the trousers and tunic, then searched in the saddlebag until she found Gabrielle's comb. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she began the arduous process of working the tangles out of her hair, cursing occasionally under her breath. After a time, she glanced up and saw that Gabrielle was watching her.
"Did I wake you?" Xena asked. "I guess I haven't been very quiet."
"No, you were fine. I think I just woke up all by myself." The bard sat up, hugging the covers to her chest. "Xena?"
"I've decided I definitely want to go to Poteidaia," Gabrielle said.
"Okay," Xena said, then yanked the comb through one last knot. "Ouch!" she muttered. "Zeus! How did my hair ever get this bad?"
"It got that bad because you didn't comb it yesterday," Gabrielle responded. "You know your hair has to be combed every day to keep it from tangling."
"Well, I had other things on my mind yesterday. Besides, you usually comb it for me."
"I guess I had other things on my mind, too."
Xena looked at her. "Yeah, I know," she said gently. She tossed the comb back into the saddlebag and stood up. "I'll go down and get us some breakfast. We can talk about going to Poteidaia while we eat."
She returned to the room a short time later with rolls and cheese, two mugs of milk, and a good supply of rags. Gabrielle was standing by the window, dressed in the leather outfit.
"Once Salmoneus sells the horse," Xena said after they started eating, "we'll have money to buy the new gear we need. We can't go anywhere until we've done that. And of course, we'll need to wait until you feel more like travelling again."
"Xena," Gabrielle said, "I guess there's something I didn't explain to you."
The warrior stopped with the milk mug halfway to her mouth and looked at her.
"I, uh-- I want to go to Poteidaia by myself."
Xena took a big gulp of milk and quickly swallowed it. "You want to walk all the way to Poteidaia from here? Alone?" she said and set the mug down.
The bard nodded.
"Gabrielle, that is one of the worst ideas you have ever come up with," Xena said, "and I'm going to tell you why."
The younger woman sighed and rolled her eyes, but Xena continued doggedly.
"First of all," she said, "you are in no condition, either physically or emotionally, to make that kind of trip. It would take you a good seven days, maybe more, to get there on foot, no faster than you could travel. And second, it's just not very safe. You never know who you're going to run into on the roads these days. I can't believe you would even consider going alone after what you've just been through."
Gabrielle didn't answer. She tore a roll open, put a piece of cheese on it and then sat looking at the food without eating.
Xena leaned across the table. "I'll be glad to take you to Poteidaia, Gabrielle," she said. "It will only take four or five days on Argo, and when we get there, you can stay as long as you want. I might go do some other things, but I'll come back and get you when you're ready to go again."
Gabrielle looked up at her. There was a glint in her eye and a set to her jaw that made the warrior's heart sink. "I want to go by myself, Xena," the bard repeated. "I know it doesn't make any sense, but it's something I need to do."
"But why? I don't understand."
"Because I need some time to think and work things out. I can do that while I'm walking. I don't care how long it takes me to get there." She paused for a moment and then went on. "I just feel so hurt and confused. I can't think here--I need to get away."
Xena bit her lip. "Away from me, you mean," she said.
Gabrielle opened her mouth and then shut it again without speaking. She turned her gaze away from the warrior.
Xena bit into a roll, but it tasted like ashes in her mouth. With great effort, she chewed and swallowed it, her eyes searching the bard's face meanwhile. "You're leaving me, aren't you?" she said flatly. "I didn't protect you and now you're punishing me by leaving."
Gabrielle looked at the warrior again. "No, Xena," she said in a tired voice, "I would never do that. I would never try to punish you. This isn't even about you--it's about me. I need to get away. I need to think things through and decide what I want to do. I just don't feel like I can think here. I feel so . . . smothered, or something."
"So, first you complain that I'm not there to take care of you, and now you say I'm smothering you. Gabrielle, this doesn't make sense!"
"Nothing makes sense to me right now, don't you see that?"
Xena reached out and put her hand over Gabrielle's. "Yes," she said, "and that's only natural after what you've been through. Give it some time, Sweetheart. Stay and let me help you work things out. We can make sense of it eventually--it's just going to take some time."
Gabrielle pulled her hand away and leaned her forehead on it, her elbow on the table. Xena watched her for a moment, then stood up and walked to the window. She looked out for a time without seeing anything, then turned back to Gabrielle. "A few days ago, you said we were soulmates," she reminded the bard. "You said we were destined to be together for all time."
"Well, maybe I was wrong."
"And maybe you were right," Xena countered. "Gabrielle--" She closed her eyes briefly and drew a deep breath. "Don't you love me anymore?"
The bard looked up, her green eyes troubled and full of pain. "I don't know, Xena," she said softly. "I don't know how I feel about anyone or anything right now. That's why I need to get away and just try to figure this whole mess out. I don't even know who I am anymore or what I want to do. I'm not saying this is the end. I may very well decide to come back and be with you again, but I can't promise anything. Please try to understand."
Xena was silent. Her jaw ached and tears stung her eyes, but she pushed them resolutely back. Gabrielle looked away, then picked up her mug and took a drink.
There were footsteps in the hall, then a knock at the door. Xena hesitated a moment, then went to open it.
Salmoneus stood there, grinning broadly. "Good morning, Xena!" he said brightly, and before she could answer, he looked past her into the room. "And Gabrielle! It's so good to see you again!"
The bard nodded and murmured something.
"I must say," Salmoneus continued, "you look quite fetching in that warrior outfit!" He turned to Xena and said conspiratorially, "You'd better watch her! She'll be taking over your job, next thing you know!"
"Yeah, I worry about that," the warrior responded dully, then asked, "What can we do for you, Salmoneus?"
"Oh, well, there's a man down at the stable right this instant, looking at the horse, and when he heard it was being sold by Xena, the great Warrior Princess, he said he'd always wanted to meet you." He took hold of her arm and leaned closer. "I think it would really help, you know, in a public relations way, if you could just go down and talk to him for a few minutes. Could you do that? Maybe answer any questions he has? I think he's a good prospect, if you know what I mean!" He winked broadly at her.
"You're sure he just wants to meet me and not kill me or something like that?" Xena asked.
Salmoneus grinned. "Oh, he seems harmless enough."
Xena glanced at Gabrielle, then said, "Okay. You go back down and I'll be there in a couple of minutes."
"Thanks, Xena!" he said and rushed off.
The warrior closed the door and turned back to Gabrielle. The thread of their conversation had been broken and she couldn't remember whether there was something she had meant to say or not. "I don't know what else to say to you, Gabrielle," she said finally.
"You can't stop me from going."
"I know. You'll do what you feel like you need to do. But I'll probably keep trying to make you change your mind." Xena picked up her sword and chakram and fastened them to the rope belts. "Right now I have to go down and talk to this man about the horse. I'll be back soon." She turned and walked quickly out the door.
When she got back a little while later, she found Gabrielle undressed and in bed again, although not asleep. Xena stood regarding her friend for a few moments, then said, "Just how is it you think you can make the trip to Poteidaia when all you can do right now is sleep?"
"You said sleep was good for me."
The warrior sighed in exasperation and turned to the pile of gear on the floor. Squatting down, she began sorting through it with abrupt motions, tossing aside the things she didn't need. "I'm going to the market to try to sell the rest of Garron's stuff," she said over her shoulder to Gabrielle. "I don't suppose you want to go with me."
"No, Xena, I--" The mattress rustled as she sat up. "When I get my new clothes, then I'll feel more like going out. I just don't like to have everyone staring at me."
"Okay. Fine," Xena snapped, as she dumped the contents of Garron's saddlebags out on the floor.
Gabrielle watched in silence for a minute. "Please don't be mad at me," she said softly.
The warrior glanced up. "I'm not mad," she said.
"Yes, you are. Your jaw is clenched so hard that I can see the muscles in your neck, and you're throwing things all over the place."
Xena stopped what she was doing and suddenly became aware of the tension in her body. Gabrielle was right; she was angry. In fact, she was very angry. She looked at the bard. "I don't want you to leave," she said simply.
"I know, but I have to."
"When do you want to go?"
"As soon as I can. Dorkas said she would bring my new clothes this afternoon."
Xena took a deep breath and tried to calm the panic rising within her. "You'll still have to wait until the horse is sold, Gabrielle," she said. "You'll need a blanket and a waterskin, at the very least, and some money for food and lodging. I think it would be best if you could stay at inns instead of camping out."
Gabrielle nodded. "How soon do you think he'll sell the horse?"
"I don't know. I told him to do it as quickly as possible because we need the money."
The bard was silent, apparently thinking about something. After a few moments, Xena went back to her inventory of Garron's gear. When she finished, she put everything back into the saddlebags and stood up. Picking up the blanket from where she had dropped it earlier, she rolled it neatly and tucked it under her arm. "Well, I guess I'll go now. Anything you need?"
"No. But thanks." Gabrielle hesitated, then added, "You've taken good care of me . . . and I just want you to know I appreciate that."
Xena stepped over to the bed and reached out to touch the top of Gabrielle's head, then bent and kissed the gold hair. "I'll be back for lunch," she said softly, turned, and quickly left the room.
* * *
In the marketplace, Xena sold or bartered all the items she had brought with her. She got a shoulder bag for Gabrielle, a small waterskin, and two wooden mugs. Then she went to Salmoneus' stall.
"Xena! Am I glad to see you!" he beamed. "I've got something for you right here." He reached inside his tunic, pulled out a knotted handkerchief, and placed it in her hand.
The weight of the bundle made her look at him in surprise. "You already sold it?" she exclaimed.
"Sure did! To the man you talked to this morning. Of course," he continued, lowering his voice, "it didn't hurt that another fellow showed up who was also interested. I just waited to see which one would offer the most. Guess how much."
Xena fingered the wad of coins, trying to gauge its weight. "A hundred eighty," she ventured.
"Nope. Two hundred forty!"
Her eyes widened. "You're kidding!"
"No, that's the absolute truth," he said with a pleased glint in his eye.
"Did you already take out your part?"
"Yes, thirty-six dinars for me, and the rest is yours. You can count it, if you don't believe me."
"I believe you," she assured him.
"But you know, Xena," Salmoneus said, "Elpidios was a big help in selling that horse. He sent that man to me who bought it. You might want to, you know--"
"I'll go there right now," Xena said quickly. I was going to give him something extra anyway, for taking such good care of Argo" She tucked the money carefully inside her tunic. "Thanks, Salmoneus," she said. "You do good work."
It was only as she was walking away that the realization struck her: the quick sale of the horse now meant that Gabrielle could leave that much sooner. The thought was too painful to deal with right now. She put it out of her mind and hurried on to the stable.
Elpidios seemed quite pleased with her five-dinar thank-you offering, and gave her directions to the shop of a good saddle maker. It was much easier for her to describe the kind of saddle and saddlebags she wanted than it had been to order new clothes for Gabrielle. The business was soon conducted, a downpayment made, and then she headed back to the inn for lunch.
They had just finished eating when Dorkas came to the door. She politely averted her eyes while Gabrielle changed from leather to the soft, blue linen garment. "This is wonderful!" exclaimed the bard, as she smoothed the short skirt with her hands. "It fits perfectly!" She turned around so that the others could seethe new outfit from all sides, and then she smiled. Xena realized with a pang that it was the first smile she had seen on Gabrielle's face since she had been attacked.
"It's beautiful, Dorkas," Xena said, as she pulled out her coin purse. "I believe you've made Gabrielle a happy woman."
The seamstress was still studying the fit of the clothing, squatting down in front of the bard to check the snugness of the bodice and waistband. After a few moments, she stood up. "Does everything feel all right, my lady?" she asked Gabrielle.
"Oh, yes! I love it! Thank you, Dorkas!"
The seamstress nodded and the smallest of smiles crossed her lips. "I'm glad you like it," she said as she took the money from Xena's hand. "If I can be of service again, please let me know." Then she bowed slightly and went out the door.
"I wish we had a mirror," said Gabrielle, looking down at the new garment.
"Would it help if I told you that you look beautiful?" Xena asked.
The bard appeared skeptical. "Do I have lots of bruises on my face?" she asked. "How bad do I look? Be honest, Xena."
The warrior went and stood in front of her and tilted Gabrielle's face up toward the light. "The worst one is here, under your eye," she said, softly touching the spot. "The others are starting to fade a little. There's one here, one here, and another one right here." She touched each bruise in turn, wishing she could kiss them, but not quite daring to. "They're really not as bad as the ones on your arms. I don't think people will pay much attention to them," she concluded.
Gabrielle walked over to the bed and sat down, then ran her fingers over the new clothes again. "Now I just have to wait until the horse is sold and we buy new gear," she said. "Then I can go home."
Xena looked at her and felt the now-familiar ache in her heart. "The horse has been sold," she said quietly. "Salmoneus gave me the money when I saw him in the market this morning."
"Really? It's already been sold? Then all we have to do is buy the stuff I need for the trip!" Gabrielle looked at her eagerly. "We could do that this afternoon and I could leave first thing in the morning."
Xena's knees felt suddenly weak, and she sat down on the wooden bench. "Why don't you wait a few more days, Gabrielle?" she said. "Wait until you're rested and feeling stronger."
"No, I want to go tomorrow. The sooner I leave, the better."
The warrior sighed and bent to pick up her leather outfit from the floor where Gabrielle had dropped it. Taking out her dagger, she began cutting out the extra stitches. "Okay," she said, "we'll go to the market and buy the things you need. But first, I'm going to put my own clothes back on."
* * *
Such a shopping spree might have been fun, under other circumstances, but Xena could only think how sadly ironic it was to buy matching blankets and towels which they would not be using together. They also bought plates, bowls, and cutlery, plus a light cloak for Gabrielle to wear in cool weather. The bard entered into some of the haggling, but not with her usual enthusiasm, and many times she seemed content to let Xena do it all.
The day had turned off hot, and by the time they returned to the inn with their purchases, the warrior princess was feeling sweaty, dirty, and tired. Lydia was sweeping the tavern room when they came in. "Looks like you two have been shopping," she greeted them. "And it's so nice to see you getting out, Gabrielle," she added.
"Thanks," the bard responded without enthusiasm.
"Is that what Dorkas made for you?" asked Lydia, coming closer to get a good look at Gabrielle's clothes.
"Yes, she did a nice job, didn't she?" said Gabrielle.
"She certainly did. It looks lovely on you, and that blue really brings out the blue-green of your eyes."
Gabrielle smiled and Xena smiled a sad little smile, too. Then she realized that Lydia was looking at her in that all-seeing way she had.
"And this must be the true warrior-princess look," the innkeeper said. "Leather and armor."
"Yes, it's the real me at last," said Xena, her smile widening.
"I like it," said Lydia, then suggested, "Why don't you two join me for some mead? You look like you could use a little refreshment. On the house, of course."
"Count me in," Xena said gratefully. "How about you, Gabrielle?"
The bard hesitated. "It's tempting, but I think, if you'll excuse me, I'll go upstairs and take a little nap before suppertime," she said.
"Yes, by all means," said Lydia. "Maybe we can do it another time."
Gabrielle nodded and then headed for the stairs. Xena dropped down onto a bench at the nearest table.
"I'll be right back," said Lydia, as she headed for the bar. In a few moments, she returned with two brimming tankards.
Xena grasped hers in both hands and drank thirstily. "It's a hot day," she said, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand. "This really hits the spot."
Lydia watched her for a minute, then said, "Gabrielle seems a little better, don't you think?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"You don't sound very happy about it."
Xena met Lydia's gaze directly, then looked away. "She's leaving tomorrow," she said flatly.
"Leaving? What do you mean? Where's she going?"
"Home. To Poteidaia."
"Then you must be leaving, too," Lydia said with regret in her voice. "I had hoped you would be here for a while."
"Oh, I'll be here. Gabrielle wants to go alone."
"Alone! She's in no shape to travel alone. Where is Poteidaia?"
"It's east and north of here, right on the coast, about a week's journey on foot." Xena took another big gulp of mead.
"She shouldn't go that far alone, Xena," Lydia said. "Why don't you take her?"
"Believe me, I want to, but she insists on going by herself. She says she needs to get away so she can think about things, figure out how she feels. She says--" Xena closed her eyes briefly and took a deep breath. "She says I'm smothering her." She looked into Lydia's deep brown eyes and swallowed hard. "She's leaving me, Lydia," she finished softly.
"No! I can't believe that," the innkeeper said. She reached out and gave Xena's hand a reassuring squeeze. "She's just confused and hurt and doesn't know what she's doing. She would be a fool to leave you."
Xena was silent for several moments, then said, "Maybe she's not such a fool. As long as she stays with me, she will always be in danger. In Poteidaia, she can have an ordinary life . . . get married, have children, live to see old age."
"Is that what she wants? An ordinary life?"
"I guess so."
Lydia did not respond. She removed her hand from Xena's and took a drink of mead. Then her eyes seemed to focus on something far away . . . or perhaps on something deep within herself. Xena wasn't sure what was happening, but she sipped from her tankard and watched without speaking. After a few minutes, Lydia stirred as if she were waking from a dream and turned to look at the warrior princess.
"I'm not always right about these things," she said, "but I definitely have the feeling that Gabrielle will come back. I can't say how soon, but I just saw the sweetest vision of the two of you walking hand in hand down a village street. It was in the future sometime. I know because you both had gray hair and you shuffled a little as you walked, but you looked very happy."
Xena stared at her, wanting to believe, but unable to do so. "There's no way I'll live long enough to get old and gray," she said gloomily. "Maybe Gabrielle will. But not if she stays with me."
"Xena, I think Gabrielle wants to share your life. She's just really scared right now. But she'll overcome that fear, and then she'll be back. It would be better if we could keep her from leaving in the first place, though. Can't you convince her to stay for a while?"
Xena shook her head. "Once she gets an idea in her head, she hangs on to it like a dog with a bone. It's practically impossible to change her mind."
"What if I talked to her? Would that help?"
"No, I don't think so. You just don't understand how stubborn she can be." Xena drained the last of the mead from her tankard and glanced toward the stairs.
"Go on up," Lydia said gently. "I know you want to spend as much time as possible with her before she leaves."
Xena smiled at her. "Thanks, Lydia," she said. "It helps to have someone to talk to. You're a good friend." She laid her hand on the innkeeper's for a moment. "Gabrielle and I will be down later for supper." Then she got up and strode quickly toward the staircase.
* * *
It was hot in the room. Gabrielle lay on her back, asleep, a thin film of perspiration glistening on her bare skin. Xena quietly put down the things she had carried from the market and stood looking at her lover. A wave of desire washed over her, and she realized how much she longed to make love to this gentle woman. Apparently, she would never have the chance again. She closed her eyes. This was all Garron's fault! He was the one who had done this to them, the dirty, stinking bastard who had wounded Gabrielle so badly that even her ability to love was destroyed.
Xena opened her eyes and looked at the sleeping bard again. No, blaming someone else was the easy way out . . . the coward's way out. The truth was she was not worthy of Gabrielle's love. The Fates, for some unknown reason, had given her this chance at happiness and she had thrown it away with both hands. What a fool she was! And Lydia's little vision of her and Gabrielle growing old together . . . well, even Lydia admitted that she didn't always get it right. She had probably just made up that little story to make the warrior feel better.
Xena sat down on the floor beside the pile of gear and began going through it, placing the things they had bought for Gabrielle in the bag she had got for the bard that morning. She rolled one of the blankets into a bedroll and tied it so that it could be easily carried, then searched through their old, scorched saddlebag for things Gabrielle might need. She pulled out the comb and put it in the new bag, dug back into the saddlebag, and stopped when she came to the bundle of scrolls. Slowly, she drew the bundle out and held it in her hands. She had forgotten the scrolls were there and now wondered what to do with them. If she gave them to the bard, would she just destroy them? Perhaps she should keep them herself, but she wasn't much for sitting around reading--she preferred to have stories told aloud. And these particular tales, she suspected, would prove much too painful for her to want to read anyway, once her lover was gone. No, she would give them to Gabrielle. The bard had created them and it was her right to destroy them if she wanted to. Xena quickly emptied the shoulder pack and placed the bundle of scrolls in the bottom, then put everything else back in.
After that, she counted the money left in the handkerchief and estimated her expenses for the new saddle and another week's lodging. There were still some things she needed to buy for herself, such as a new whip and a currycomb, so she set aside money for those, too, and tied it all back up in the handkerchief. The rest she put in her leather purse for Gabrielle. They hadn't thought to buy the bard a purse at the market today. Xena would have to buy herself a new one later.
The packing completed, Xena stood and walked to the bed. How could Gabrielle sleep in this heat? And why did she insist on spending their last few hours together asleep anyway? Xena grasped the bard's shoulder and shook it. "Gabrielle!" she said.
The young woman woke with a start and fear in her eyes. "What is it? What's wrong?" she asked.
Xena immediately regretted her action. "Nothing's wrong," she said. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been so rough."
Gabrielle relaxed. "Is it time for supper?"
"I'll get up in a minute."
Xena released the bard and moved away from the bed. "I went ahead and put the things we bought for you in the shoulder bag," she said. "You'll need to check, though, to make sure I got everything."
The warrior went to the window and was glad to see the sky clouding over. Maybe it would rain and cool things off. Behind her, the straw mattress rustled as Gabrielle sat up. Then she heard a gasp.
"Xena! I'm bleeding!"
The warrior turned quickly. "Where? Is it your breast wound?"
"No, not there . . ."
Xena followed the bard's gaze to a reddish stain on the bed between her legs, then she let out a sigh of relief. "Gabrielle, that's the kind of bleeding you do every month," she said gently. "Did you forget what phase of the moon we're in?"
Gabrielle looked up with a rueful smile. "Yeah, I guess I did," she said.
"Well, I, for one, am glad to see you bleeding right now because it means you're not--" She stopped as she realized they had never discussed this point. But surely Gabrielle had at least thought about it.
"I'm not going to have Garron's baby," Gabrielle finished for her. "Yeah, I'm glad, too."
Xena nodded and went to their saddlebag. She pulled out a handful of rags and dropped them in the younger woman's lap. "Here," she said. "Mine started this morning. I got these from Lydia."
She sat on the bench while Gabrielle dressed, then handed her the coin purse. "Put this someplace safe, like in your bodice," she said.
Gabrielle opened the purse and looked in. "I don't need all this, Xena," she said. "Keep some for yourself."
"I did. I took out enough for all the expenses here, plus my saddle and some other things I still need to buy. And after I get the new saddle, I'll sell Garron's, so I'll have that money, too. The rest is yours."
"But it's too much."
"Use what you need for your trip, and when you get to Poteidaia, you can give the rest away or do whatever you want with it."
The bard looked at the money again. "Okay," she said reluctantly, then closed the purse and slipped it into her bodice. She sat down on the edge of the bed.
Xena crossed the room and crouched down in front of her. "I want you to promise me something, Gabrielle," she said.
"I want you to promise me you'll travel only on main roads, and that you'll spend the nights at inns. Don't camp out unless you absolutely have to." She paused, looking deep into the green eyes. "And be careful, Gabrielle. Don't go around trusting everybody you meet."
The bard smiled softly. "I promise," she said. "But, Xena, I want you to promise me something, too."
"I want you to promise that, no matter what happens, you won't become a monster. I know I asked you to promise that before, but I didn't realize then just how hard it was to make such a promise. Now that I've become a monster myself--"
"Gabrielle, you could never be a monster, even if you worked at it."
The bard turned away. "I killed someone, Xena. I have to deal with that somehow."
"But look what he did to you, Gabrielle! And he might have killed you, too. You were acting in self defense."
"You can call it whatever you like, but it was still killing, and I shouldn't have let myself cross that line. I've got to forgive Garron somehow for what he did. I don't know how I'll do it . . . it's just so hard even to think about right now, but I've got to forgive him. And I've got to keep hatred from ever controlling me like that again."
"You never cease to amaze me," Xena said softly. "I think that's why I will never stop loving you."
Gabrielle was silent for a few moments, then she looked at Xena again. "You still haven't given me your promise," she reminded the warrior.
"All right. I promise not to become a monster. But it would be so much easier if I knew you were going to be here to help me keep my promise."
Gabrielle got up and walked to the window. Then she turned and said, "I can't be here, Xena. We've been through this already."
Xena went and stood in front of her, putting her hands on the bard's shoulders. "When you wanted to marry Perdicus, I told you that seeing you happy would make me happy. That's still true, Gabrielle. If your happiness lies in Poteidaia, that's where you need to go."
"I don't think I'll ever be happy again."
"Sure you will."
"I want you to be happy, too, Xena. You need to have the chance to find someone who can love you the way you should be loved."
"I already found someone to love me. It's you."
Gabrielle turned away and looked out the window. "Find someone else, Xena. I don't think I can do it anymore. I don't know if I'll ever be able to love anyone again. You need to find someone else."
"No. There will never be anyone else for me."
Gabrielle turned back with an exasperated sigh. "Yes, there will be. You'll find her."
Xena opened her mouth to protest, but Gabrielle put her fingers over the warrior's lips. "I don't want to talk about this anymore. Let's go down and get some supper."
* * *
They found a table in the busy tavern room, and Salmoneus joined them soon afterwards. He was surprised to learn that Gabrielle was leaving, but gave some good advice on routes to take and inns where the bard could stay. Gabrielle was more animated than Xena had seen her lately, and her appetite seemed improved, too.
Xena herself quickly gave up all attempts to eat. The food had no flavor for her and was difficult to swallow. She could not seem to take her eyes off Gabrielle, wanting to memorize each movement, each expression to treasure when the bard was gone.
Lydia came and sat with them for a little while after they finished eating. She listened to the discussion of Gabrielle's travel plans, but could not contribute to it, since, as she admitted, she had spent her whole life in this town where she had been born. As soon as the topic of travel had been exhausted, though, she turned to the young woman. "Xena tells me you're a bard," she said. "I had hoped we'd get to hear you tell a story or two."
"I wish I felt like telling some stories," said Gabrielle with a sad smile, "but I'm afraid I don't right now."
Lydia reached out and put her hand over the bard's. "Gabrielle," she said, "can't I convince you to stay?"
Xena saw Gabrielle's face harden. "No," the bard said somewhat stiffly, "my mind is already made up."
Lydia glanced at Xena and the warrior shook her head slightly in warning. The innkeeper hesitated, but then turned back to Gabrielle. "I know this probably isn't any of my business," she said in a gentle voice, "but I think you're making a big mistake, Gabrielle. This is too big a decision to make so soon after what happened. You need more time. You're too emotional right now, and you'll only end up regretting what you're doing."
Gabrielle pulled her hand away. "You're right, Lydia," she said coldly. "It's none of your business and I don't want to discuss it any further."
But Lydia wasn't quite ready to give up. She leaned close to the bard and said in an urgent tone, "Gabrielle, can't you see that if you leave, you'll break Xena's heart?"
The words sliced through the warrior like a sword, and she sucked in a quick breath. Gabrielle turned to stare at her; then Salmoneus and Lydia did the same. Xena's throat tightened and suddenly she found it difficult to breathe. She stood abruptly, knocking her bench over with a crash. "It's hot in here," she said. "I'm going outside for some air."
She snatched up the bench and righted it, then turned and hurried across the room and out the door. Outside, a cool wind sent clouds scudding across an almost-dark sky, and lightning snaked down toward the earth. Xena ignored the ominous growls of thunder and strode quickly down the street, not caring where she went. She took in big gulps of air, trying to clear her head and still her pounding heart. She had walked for a good quarter hour by the time the rain began, a gentle sprinkle that rapidly became a downpour. Brought back to reality by the cold drenching, Xena realized she had been paying no attention to where she was going. She turned and started back the way she had come, but it was only when she saw the saddle maker's shop that she was able to get her bearings. Breaking into a run, she soon covered the rest of the distance to the inn.
Stopping just inside the tavern door, she scanned the room. Lydia was waiting tables again, Salmoneus had joined some friends, and there was no sign of Gabrielle. Good. The bard must have gone up to the room. Xena didn't want to talk to anyone else. She crossed to the stairs and swiftly climbed them.
Gabrielle was sitting cross-legged on the bed, fully clothed. A candle burned on the table. "Are you all right, Xena?" she asked as soon as the warrior came in. "You turned so white and left in such a hurry that I thought you might be sick."
"I'm all right," said Xena quietly. She stripped off her weapons and armor and began blotting them dry with a towel.
"Where did you go?"
"Just out to walk around in the streets a little bit."
"You got all wet."
"Yeah. It wasn't very smart of me, I guess." Xena dropped the wet towel on the floor and pulled another one off the wash stand to dry her hair, face, and arms.
Gabrielle watched her for a few moments, then said, "Xena? "
"Did you ask Lydia to do that?"
"To do what?"
"To try to talk me into staying."
Xena stopped drying herself and looked at the younger woman. "No, Gabrielle, I didn't," she said. "Lydia asked me if she should talk to you, and I told her she wouldn't be able to change your mind."
"Well, you were right about that, anyway," Gabrielle said. "I don't know who she thinks she is, to meddle in our business."
"She doesn't mean any harm."
"Maybe not, but it really made me mad. And then that part about how I was breaking your heart-- That was really going too far!"
Xena studied her friend in silence for a moment, then unlaced her wet leather dress and slipped it off.
"I told her that she just doesn't know you the way I do," Gabrielle continued. "I told her how brave you are and how strong and capable and independent. I told her you had done just fine before I came along, and you would do just fine after I left."
Xena walked to the open window. There were no torches in the innyard tonight. The wind blew a cool spray of rain against her bare breasts.
"I was right, wasn't I, Xena?" Gabrielle asked suddenly. "You'll be all right, won't you?"
Xena closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. The pain in her heart was gone, she realized suddenly, replaced by a welcome sense of numbness. She turned to look at Gabrielle. "I'll be fine," she said. Moving to the bed, she sat down beside the bard. "Are you going to sleep in your clothes?" she asked.
"No, I guess not. I just left them on in case I had to go out and look for you." She got up and began undressing. Xena stretched out in her place by the wall and watched the shadows moving in the rafters as the flame of the candle flickered in the breeze. The room was cooler than it had been in the afternoon, but it was still too warm for them to need covers.
Gabrielle blew out the candle and lay down beside her. "Goodnight, Xena," she whispered.
"Goodnight. Sleep well."
After a few minutes, Gabrielle turned over on her side, facing away from Xena. The warrior lay for a time, listening to the voices from the room below and to the soft patter of rain on the thatch above. She waited until Gabrielle's breathing had become deep and even, then eased closer, so that her arm was touching the bard's back. The familiar warmth of Gabrielle's skin soothed her, and before long, she fell asleep.
Some time passed before the dream began. It was the same as the night before. She was running toward the cottage fire, running on legs that were heavy and hard to move. But this time she knew it was a dream. She knew what she would find when she got to the cottage and knew, too, that if she could only wake up, she could save herself and Gabrielle from the fate that awaited them. Xena struggled to rouse herself, tried, even as she ran, to force herself out of that nightmare landscape. Finally, with a great effort of will, she woke and then lay in the darkness, breathing hard, but grateful to have avoided the terror of the previous night.
Gabrielle stirred and murmured softly. Xena moved away just as the bard rolled over onto her back. In a moment, her sleep-breathing resumed. Xena waited until her own heartbeat and breathing had calmed, then turned over on her stomach and slid one arm across her sleeping companion. Gabrielle sighed a little and turned her face toward the warrior, but did not wake up. Xena smiled, relaxed, and drifted into a dreamless sleep.
* * *
She woke in the morning light to find Gabrielle looking at her. Xena expected the bard to be angry at finding her arm around her, but Gabrielle said nothing. Instead, she slipped out of the embrace and sat on the edge of the bed. After a few moments, Xena sat up, too. This was it, she reminded herself, the day her lover was leaving. But she felt nothing, so removed was she in that moment from her feelings, and even from her body, as if all this were happening to a stranger.
She scooted to the edge of the bed and sat beside Gabrielle. "I don't suppose you've changed your mind," she said.
"No," the bard responded softly.
Xena sat for a minute without moving, then got up and started across the room, but after a couple of steps, she stopped and turned to look back at Gabrielle. All at once, the numbness vanished, and all the pain flooded back into her soul. In one swift movement, she went and knelt in front of the bard, taking her hands in her own.
"Gabrielle," she said, "I'm not used to begging, but please--" Her voice broke. "Please don't leave."
Gabrielle stared at her. "Don't, Xena," she said. "Don't make this any harder for me than it already is."
"Oh, so you admit that it's hard to leave."
"Of course it's hard to leave. I never said it wasn't. It may be one of the hardest things I've ever done."
"If it's so difficult, maybe that's a sign that you shouldn't be doing it."
The bard looked away. "No, Xena," she said. "It will never be easy to leave you. Waiting will only make it worse. It's best if I go now."
Xena's eyes searched the bard's face, and she saw Gabrielle bite her lower lip to keep it from trembling. Her gaze then travelled down to the breast wound, and she reached out to gently touch it. "Who will take your stitches out?" she wondered.
Gabrielle looked at her again. "I-- I guess I'll do it myself," she said. "How long should I wait?"
"Oh, I'd say about a week. You can do it after you get home." Xena laid her head on Gabrielle's thighs, breathing in the moontime scent of her.
Gabrielle put her hand on the warrior's head. "Xena," she said, "you've done so much for me that I can never repay--"
Xena raised her head and looked at the bard. "You've more than repaid me, Gabrielle," she said quietly. "You've taken care of me when I was hurt, you called me back from the dead, and best of all, you've taught me how to love. I'm the one who owes you." She raised one of Gabrielle's hands to her lips and kissed it.
The bard didn't answer, couldn't answer, Xena saw, because she was crying. After a moment, the warrior got up. She crossed to where her clothes lay on the floor and picked them up. The leather was still cold and damp, and she shivered as she pulled it over her body. She was reaching back to lace herself up when Gabrielle said, "Come here and I'll do that." How many times had Gabrielle done this simple act for her? This did not feel like the last time, even though Xena knew it was.
When the lacing was finished, the warrior put on her boots, shin guards, armor, and weapons. The pain of the impending goodbye weighed heavily on her heart. "I'm going downstairs," she said flatly.
"Okay. I'll be down in a few minutes," Gabrielle responded.
In the tavern, Xena sat with her head in her hands, staring at the table.
"I take it Gabrielle is still planning to leave," said Lydia, sitting down beside her.
Xena nodded. "This is tearing me apart," she said without looking at the innkeeper. "One minute I'm begging her to stay and the next I know she should go because I don't deserve her."
"Don't deserve her? What do you mean?"
"You don't know what a terrible past I have . . . how many evil things I've done," Xena muttered.
"I know something about it," Lydia said gently. "I know that on several occasions my husband, Anatolios, and I had to provide food and drink for the army of a certain Warrior Princess. And I heard tales of much worse things that happened in other towns."
Xena stared at her for a moment in surprise, then turned away, shaking her head. "I'm so sorry, Lydia," she said. "I wish I could make it up to you somehow." She bit her lip, then looked at the innkeeper again. "You were one of my victims and yet you've been so kind to me," she said. "Why?"
"Because I had heard that you changed," Lydia said. "Salmoneus told us the story of how you saved that baby and had to run the gauntlet. And when I met you, I could feel it--I could feel all the good inside you." She put her arm around the warrior. "Xena, you deserve as much love and happiness as anyone else, and maybe more because of the difficult road you've travelled. Please try to believe that." She glanced up then and patted Xena's shoulder. "Here comes Gabrielle. I'll go get you some food." She stood up and headed for the kitchen. Xena sat without moving until she heard her lover beside her.
"You two looked pretty chummy. What was that all about?" Gabrielle asked as she sat down.
Xena glanced up. Was the bard jealous? Well, so what if she was? She had no reason to be, and the warrior didn't feel like dealing with the matter now. She sighed and rested her head on her hands again. "Lydia told me that she and her husband used to have to supply my army with food and drink," she said in a tired voice. "I just don't understand why she's still been so nice to me."
"She's probably just thankful you didn't burn the whole town down," Gabrielle said.
Xena stiffened and closed her eyes. Gabrielle quickly laid her hand on the warrior's arm. "I'm sorry, Xena," she said. "That was a totally thoughtless thing to say. Please forgive me."
"It's probably true," the warrior said gloomily.
"It's not true and I never should have said it," Gabrielle said firmly. "You're not evil anymore. Lydia knows that. Why shouldn't she be nice to you?"
Xena turned her gaze on the bard, but she could think of nothing to say. Looking into the green eyes only made her heart hurt more.
Gabrielle sighed. "I wish you could learn to believe in yourself, Xena," she said softly.
The warrior dropped her gaze and didn't answer. Then both women looked up as Lydia arrived with a tray of bread and cheese.
"Well, it looks like you'll have nice weather to start your trip today," the innkeeper said to the bard. "I just hope the roads aren't too muddy after the rain last night."
"That's what I'm hoping, too," said Gabrielle with a brief smile.
"I've got some fruit and bread ready for you to take with you," Lydia said. "Be sure to get it from me when you leave."
"Thanks, Lydia, that's very kind of you."
The innkeeper left them alone at the table. Xena stared at the food and knew she could eat none of it. She sipped some milk and watched her companion picking at her own food. There seemed to be nothing left to say. Each time their eyes met, Xena's throat constricted painfully.
After Gabrielle finished, Xena followed her slowly back upstairs. She sat on the edge of the bed while the bard checked through her pack and then laid it with the bedroll, waterskin, and her staff near the door.
When everything was ready, Gabrielle stood uncertainly in the middle of the room, looking at the warrior. "How long will you stay here?" she asked.
"Until my saddle is done . . . another four or five days, anyway."
"And then where will you go?"
"I have no idea, Gabrielle," Xena said quietly.
There were several moments of silence, then the bard said, "Will you come visit me sometime?"
"Do you want me to?"
"Of course. I'll always be glad to see you."
"Then I'll come sometime," said Xena.
Another silence. "Well, I guess I should get going," said Gabrielle. "Are you coming downstairs with me?"
"No, I-- I'll just say goodbye here."
"Okay." She hesitated. "Could I have a hug?"
Xena stood up and went to her.
"Be careful of the wound," said Gabrielle.
The warrior took the bard gently in her arms and buried her face in the golden hair. She was trembling and she could feel the bard trembling, too. After a long minute, she whispered, "I will always love you, Gabrielle."
They pulled apart and Xena saw the tears streaming down her friend's face. "Goodbye, Xena," Gabrielle said in a choked voice, then turned quickly to gather up her gear.
"Goodbye," said Xena softly. She saw the door close behind the bard and heard the retreating footsteps in the hall. Then there were voices in the room downstairs, and after a little while, nothing. She walked back to the bed and sat down again. There was no way of knowing how long she sat there, for time seemed to have stopped. She supposed she should do something, but there was nothing she wanted to do. A procession of long hours stretched before her. Hours without Gabrielle. Time that would have to be filled somehow.
Someone knocked on the door.
"Come in," said Xena.
It was Lydia. "Xena, are you all right?" she asked. Her eyes searched the warrior's face.
Xena opened her mouth and tried to force herself to say yes, but nothing came out. Finally, she shook her head.
Lydia quickly crossed the room, sat down, and put both arms around her. Xena resisted the embrace for a moment, then gave in and turned to the innkeeper. With a sigh, she laid her head on Lydia's shoulder, and let herself cry at last.