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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.
In the afternoon, Xena went for a long ride on Argo, heading out of town in the opposite direction from the one Gabrielle had taken. She had ridden for an hour or so when she discovered a small grove of oaks a short distance from the road. Dismounting, she turned Argo loose to browse, then sat on a shady rock to sharpen her sword. She drew the whetstone along the blade with strong, sure strokes, finding comfort in the familiar rhythm of the task.
Where was Gabrielle now, she wondered. She pictured the bard walking east along the road, the sun no longer in her eyes as it would have been this morning, but shining beautifully on the golden hair. How often had she stopped to rest? What time would she reach the inn? She had got an early start; maybe she was there already.
Xena paused to test the sharpness of the sword before continuing. When at last it suited her, she set the hilt on the ground and turned the tip of the blade up so she could sharpen it more easily. When the tip, too, was as keen as she could make it, she put down the sharpening stone and let the sword rest against her left breast. She studied the point for a moment, and then slipped it under the edge of her armor.
This would be the way to do it, she mused, the best way to fall upon a sword. It would be a bit tricky, but if the blade were guided between the ribs just so, it would go straight into the heart. The pain would last only a few moments; death would be sure and quick. Of course, it would be easier to run the blade through the soft abdomen, but such a wound might leave one to suffer for hours or even days before dying. Yes, through the heart was definitely best.
Xena started slightly and caught her breath. What was she thinking about! Falling on her sword? That was no warrior's death! A warrior should die in battle, sword in hand. With a shiver, she returned the weapon to its sheath, then stood up and whistled for Argo. When the mare came to her, Xena wrapped her arms around the warm neck and laid her face againstit.
"Don't ever leave me, girl," she said softly.
Argo snorted and sidestepped out of Xena's embrace, then butted the warrior playfully with her head. Xena laughed and stroked the mare's nose. "I'm sorry I've neglected you," she said, "but I'll try to make it up to you. And just think-- From now on, you'll have me all to yourself." She was silent for a moment, then sighed, swung herself into the saddle, and turned the mare's head toward town.
* * *
She sat late in the tavern that evening. The market fair was over, and the room was full of merchants, townsfolk, and peasants who were eager to spend their newly-earned dinars on one last night of frivolity before leaving town on the morrow. It was among these noisy revelers that the warrior sat, a silent, brooding presence in a shadowy corner, a dark figure to be stared at briefly by the others and then forgotten.
Many a dinar was wagered and lost on a roll of the dice that night. And there were many songs sung and tales told of brave heroes and capricious gods. Xena sat watching it all through the smoky torchlight, listening to the stories and songs, drinking goblet after goblet of the inn's best port.
At last the crowd began to thin, as the tipsy clients stumbled up the stairs or out into the street. Xena noticed that her goblet was empty again and she waved it in the air to catch Lydia's attention. The innkeeper came over and, bending close, put a hand on her shoulder.
"Xena," she said quietly, "you've had enough for tonight. You need to go upstairs and try to get some rest--you look exhausted."
Xena stared at her for a moment, then sighed. "Okay," she murmured.
"Will you be all right?" Lydia asked, studying the warrior's face.
"Yeah, I'll be fine."
"I'll light a candle for you," said the innkeeper, straightening up.
"No, that's okay. I don't need one," Xena said.
"All right." Lydia pulled the dark head against her in a quick hug. "I'll see you in the morning," she said, smiled, and then went to tend to another customer.
So this was it, Xena thought. This was the moment she had been dreading all night . . . the moment when she must go upstairs to the empty room and lie alone in the bed she had shared with Gabrielle. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, then got up and made her way with somewhat unsteady footsteps up the stairs and along the dark hallway. In the room, there was still a little light from the innyard below. Xena slipped off her weapons and clothing, then lay down on the bed.
She stared into the darkness, certain that she would not be able to sleep. After a time, the torches were put out, the voices gradually faded, and she heard Salmoneus come up to his room. At last she closed her eyes and fell into a light doze, but woke suddenly a short time later with a cold knot of fear in her stomach. Someone was in the room with her.
"Xena," a man's voice called softly. She sat up. It was too dark to see him, but her ears told her that he was standing near the center of the room . . . between her and her weapons. Yet the voice seemed familiar and not unfriendly. Why couldn't she place it?
He moved closer and now she could dimly make out his muscular form. "So, you're awake, are you, my warrior princess?" he murmured.
Xena let out the breath she had been holding. "Ares," she said flatly. "What are you doing here?"
"I've come to comfort you, my dear."
"I don't need your kind of comfort."
"Oh, but you do! Now that that irritating little bard you thought you loved has so cruelly deserted you, it's bigtime heartbreak, isn't it? Don't deny it, Xena."
She was silent. Ares sat down on the bed and reached out to caress her cheek. "My poor, sad princess," he cooed. "Did you really think the love of that wimpy girl would be enough for you? You're a woman of passion, Xena, and you need real love."
He leaned closer, taking her face in both hands. She could feel the heat of his breath and then his warm lips on hers. She tried to pull away, but was strangely unable to do so.
"You need a man's love, Xena," he whispered in her ear. "No, more than that--you need a god to love you--someone who won't die on you or run home to mother at the first sign of trouble."
His hands were on her breasts now, cupping them, gently teasing the nipples. She shivered and moaned softly, letting her head fall back as he kissed her throat. She knew she should fight him off, but her body betrayed her, hungry as it was to be touched and loved.
"Come and be my warrior queen, Xena," Ares said. "I want to ravish you, to love you the way you need to be loved." He pushed her gently back onto the bed, then eased his body onto hers. His lips and tongue caressed her collarbones, her chest, and finally her breasts. Her heartbeat quickened and her breathing became ragged. She felt weak and powerless to resist.
Ares moved up and brought his face close to hers again. "Haven't you been good long enough?" he murmured. "It can't be any fun for you, and look what it has brought you--nothing but disappointment, heartache, and loneliness. Xena! Come back to me, where you belong. Just think what the two of us can do together." He brushed the hair softly back from her forehead. "Think of the sons we'll have--every one of them as strong as Hercules--noble warriors to carry on the battle even when you're too old to fight."
"Sons?" she whispered in amazement.
"Yes, my darling, and daughters, too, brave and beautiful warriors like their mother." He kissed her again. "That silly Gabrielle could never give you what you really want. She could never give you children, now, could she? And she could never give you the armies and glory that I can give you." He paused to nibble povocatively on her earlobe. "Just say the word, Xena," he whispered. "Say you'll be my warrior queen and we can start tomorrow to conquer the world. Just imagine the battles we'll fight, the cities we'll spoil and burn! The earth will run red with blood! Picture it, Xena! What a glorious sight it will be!"
A chill went through her and all at once she heard Gabrielle's voice saying, "Promise me you won't become a monster." If she said yes to Ares, that was exactly what she would become. Why hadn't she seen it before? Was her mind too blurred with wine and grief? Well, no matter. She saw everything clearly now.
With a sudden gathering of strength, she shoved the war god away from her. "No!" she cried, "I won't do it! I won't let you seduce me!"
Caught by surprise, Ares lost his balance and landed on the floor with a loud crash and a vehement curse. Xena sat up and peered down at him in the darkness. "I promised Gabrielle I wouldn't become a monster," she said, "and I intend to keep that promise."
Ares burst into laughter, then got up and carefully brushed himself off. "So you promised Gabrielle," he said with a sneer. "And was this the same Gabrielle who promised that the two of you would always be together? The Gabrielle who then ran out on you?"
Xena felt the color drain from her face, and hoped that Ares could not see her in the dark.
"Why should you keep a promise to the faithless Gabrielle?" he demanded. Then, grabbing a handful of her hair, he yanked her head back so that her face was turned up towards him. "Tell me that, Xena!"
She stared at him, and even in the dark, she could see the rage that now distorted his features.
"I'm going to keep my promise, Ares," she said in a dull, tired voice. "Now get out of here and leave me alone."
He laughed and released her hair with a jerk. "I'll go now," he said, "but I'll be back. When you've had time to get good and lonely, I'll come and find you again. By then you'll be able to see how heartlessly that girl betrayed you and you'll be happy to break your stupid promise. Yes, I'll be back, Xena, and you'll welcome me with open arms." He touched her cheek, but she slapped his hand away. With one last chuckle, he turned and walked toward the door, vanishing just before he reached it.
Xena shivered and drew her knees up to her chest. There was a timid knock on the door and she heard Salmoneus' voice calling, "Xena, are you all right?" She slipped out of bed and crossed the room, realizing, just as she got to the door, that she was naked except for her moontime rags. Well, the merchant's concern was touching; he deserved a small reward. She pulled open the door and saw him standing there in his nightshift, a candle in one trembling hand and a dagger in the other.
"Is everything all right, Xena?" he asked. "I heard a noise and a man's voice and I thought maybe--" He stopped and his mouth dropped open as his eyes took in her full figure. "Oh! I'm sorry! I--"
Xena put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm fine, Salmoneus," she said gently, "but thanks for coming to find out. I just had a little visit from Ares is all."
"Ares!" His eyes widened and he looked anxiously past her into the room. "Ares was here?"
"Don't worry," she said quickly. "He's gone now and he won't be back. It was very brave of you to come." She squeezed his shoulder and smiled. "Go to sleep now. I'll see you in the morning," she said.
Xena closed the door and retreated to the bed. Climbing under the covers, she lay there and began to tremble, as the full import of what had happened became clear to her. She had almost given in to Ares. She had come that close to being seduced by him, had almost agreed to be his warrior queen. The thought of her narrow escape was more frightening than any nightmare could have been. But Gabrielle had saved her. Even though the bard herself was gone, her loving spirit remained. Xena breathed a sigh of gratitude and pictured Gabrielle asleep in a room in another inn, a day's journey away. She could almost hear the soft, even breathing, could almost feel the warmth of the bard's presence beside her. The image gave her courage and she clung to it as the last hours of night passed and dawn crept in at the window. Then, with the heavy hand of weariness upon her, Xena closed her eyes and fell asleep at last.
* * *
"Why don't you go to Athens? There's always something happening there," Xena said to Salmoneus the next morning after breakfast.
"Athens," he said and stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Well, that's an idea. But it's not just a matter of going someplace where something's happening. I have to make some money, too, you know."
"Picky, picky, picky," she said with a grin.
He looked at her and laughed, then colored and looked away. He had been this way all through breakfast--a little shy and uneasy--probably thinking about seeing her last night, Xena decided.
"Where are you planning to go?" he asked her then. "I mean, after your saddle's ready."
"I don't know," she said, "but I guess I'll have to decide one of these days, won't I? Maybe I should go visit my mother." Then she frowned. No, that wasn't a good idea. Amphipolis was too close to Poteidaia. If she went home, she should also go visit Gabrielle. But she couldn't do that. Not yet, anyway. The pain was still much too raw. It would be nice to spend time with someone she felt close to, though--someone who would understand if she was sad or moody. Maybe she should look up Hercules and Iolaus. Yes, she liked that idea. She smiled and then noticed that Salmoneus was watching her.
"Well, did you think of someplace better?" he asked.
"Yeah, I was just thinking I might--"
She broke off in mid-sentence as a boy of about ten or eleven years suddenly burst in through the open door. "Lydia!" he shouted, and stopped short, his eyes searching the dim room for the innkeeper.
"I'm right here, Flavian," called Lydia from behind the counter. "What is it? What's wrong?"
He ran to her. "It's Paulos! He and his men are riding into town--probably coming here first!"
Xena saw a look of fear cross Lydia's face, then watched as the innkeeper put her hand on the boy's shoulder. "Run out to the kitchen and get Lia," Lydia said in a voice so low that Xena had to strain to hear it. The boy turned and sprinted to the kitchen. Lydia, meanwhile, pulled a coin box from under the counter and quickly began transferring most of its contents to a leather bag. Xena threw a questioning look at Salmoneus, but he shrugged and shook his head.
In a moment, Lia and Flavian were back. Lydia counted the dinars left in the box, closed it, and stuck it back under the counter. Then, handing the bag to her daughter, she said, "You know what to do." Lia nodded and hurried out the back door. Xena had caught only a brief glimpse of the girl's face, but it was enough to see the terror written there.
Rising from her seat, the warrior crossed swiftly to the counter. "What's going on, Lydia?" she asked. "Who's Paulos?"
The innkeeper looked at her, hesitated, then said, "He's the thieving bastard who comes around every month or so, demanding money from all the merchants in town. 'Protection money,' he calls it," she finished bitterly.
"What happens if you don't pay?"
"Well, Dorkas and Xenos refused to pay--at first--and their shop burned to the ground." She looked at Flavian. "You remember that, don't you?"
The boy nodded gravely.
Lydia returned her gaze to the warrior. "When Anatolios and I refused to pay--" She stopped and took a deep breath. "Lia was--" Again she paused and glanced at Flavian. "Well, I've told you what happened to Lia," she said to Xena, who nodded. "And when Anatolios tried to avenge her . . . he was killed."
Xena stared into the brown eyes and saw the depth of pain there. "It was Paulos who did these things?" she asked.
The innkeeper nodded.
Xena reached out and put her hand over Lydia's. "I'm going to take care of this bastard for you," she said. "When I'm finished with him, he won't bother you again."
"No, Xena, you don't need to get involved."
"Yes, I need to and I want to," the warrior said firmly. She squeezed Lydia's hand. "Don't you see? This is my chance to pay you back for all the kindness you've shown me."
"But I don't want you to get hurt."
Xena smiled. "I'm a warrior, Lydia. I know how to fight. I'll be fine."
"You're going to fight Paulos?" asked Flavian in a voice full of wonder. "Who are you, anyway?"
"My name is Xena," she said, and grinned at the boy.
"She's called the Warrior Princess," Lydia told him. Then to Xena she said, "This is Dorkas' and Xenos' son, Flavian."
Xena experienced a moment of surprise at the thought that two such stoic people had ever been passionate enough to produce a son, but she quickly smiled and held out her hand. "I'm glad to meet you, Flavian," she said. "And to answer your question, yes, I'll fight Paulos if I have to, but first I'll try to convince him to leave town without a fight." She started toward the door, and Flavian followed excitedly.
"Oh, you'll have to fight him, all right," he assured her. "Paulos is a very wicked man and he doesn't scare easy. Can I watch you fight?"
"Sure, but stay back out of the way, so you won't get hurt."
"Okay! I'm going to go tell everybody!" he cried and darted out the door ahead of her.
Xena stepped into the street and looked toward the square. Four men on dark-colored horses were just rounding the corner. She went back and leaned against the doorpost, folded her arms, and studied them as they approached. One man rode slightly ahead of the group. His horse seemed better than the others, and his weapons of a higher quality. He had black hair and a closely-trimmed beard which did not fully hide the jagged scar on his left cheek. This man, Xena surmised, was Paulos.
"Anso," the man said to one of the others as soon as they had clattered to a halt, "go in and get the money from our little innkeeper friend. And be sure to tell her the price has gone up to seventy-five dinars."
A short man with dirty yellow hair and close-set eyes grinned and swung down off his horse. He sauntered to the door, but stopped when he found Xena blocking his path.
"Excuse me, lady," he said with a sneer, "but I got some business to conduct inside here."
"You'll have to deal with me first," Xena said calmly, "because I'm making it my business to see that you four don't bother anyone in this town ever again."
Anso scowled and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. There was a mean, deceitful look about him that made the warrior dislike and mistrust him. "Look, I haven't got time for this," he said. "Are you going to get out of the way or am I going to have to move you?"
Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed Xena's shoulders and attemped to shove her aside. A quick knee to his groin doubled him over and a fist to his jaw sent him sprawling backwards into the street. There was a titter of laughter from some of the spectators who had gathered.
"What's the problem here?" demanded Paulos. "Who are you?"
"My name is Xena," she said, speaking in a loud, clear voice so that all those standing around could hear. "This town will no longer tolerate your thieving, murderous ways, Paulos, and I intend to make sure you leave these people in peace. Now, if the gods gave you any sense, you and your thugs will ride out of town right now and never come back. Otherwise, you'll be sorry."
Paulos chuckled. "So, it's Xena, is it?" he said. "The warrior-princess-turned-coward who goes around pretending to do good because she lost her army and her nerve to fight, too. Well, if you think we're afraid of you, then you'd better think again!" He motioned to one of his other men. "Get rid of her," he said.
The thug who responded to this command was large--a great barrel of a man who dismounted with a heavy grunt. Pulling a dagger from his belt, he leered at Xena for a second, then lowered his head and charged straight toward her. She moved a couple of steps to the left and noted how long it took him to correct his course. Apparently, he relied on brute force alone to cow his opponents. Xena waited until he was practically upon her, then quickly sidestepped. Unable to stop, he crashed headfirst into the stone wall of the inn and crumpled to the ground, senseless, blood spreading across his forehead. There was more laughter from the still-growing crowd, along with a smattering of applause.
That's one down, thought Xena with grim pleasure, and turned to see who would be next.
Anso had picked himself up and was drawing his sword. The fourth man, who wore a filthy eyepatch over an even filthier face, dismounted, spat in the dusty street, and drew his sword, too.
Xena glanced around. She was beginning to feel hemmed in with the inn so close behind her and the spectators standing nearby. So when the two thugs ran at her, she let out a battle cry and launched herself into a tight flip over their heads. Landing behind them, she whirled, snatched her sword out of its sheath, and waited for her attackers to figure out what had happened.
Anso recovered first, turning and issuing a quick sword thrust which she deftly parried. He slashed at her and she ducked. Then she kicked him in the side, and he went sprawling again.
The man with the eyepatch was upon her now. She met his thrust with a twist of her sword which sent his weapon flying out of his hand. Grabbing his wrist, she yanked him forward. A blow from the butt of her sword hilt to the back of his head dropped him neatly in the street.
"Two down," she muttered. She grinned at the sound of people cheering and calling her name, but kept her attention on Anso, who was up again. Paulos, she noted, had still not dismounted. Perhaps he felt it beneath his dignity to fight the cowardly warrior princess. Well, he'd have his turn. It would be easier to deal with him one-on-one, anyway.
But something was wrong, Xena realized as she and Anso began circling each other, watching carefully for an opening. Usually, during a fight she felt energized, all her senses heightened. The rush she got in battle was one of the rewards of being a warrior. But today there was no rush. Instead, she felt unfocused .. . tired, even. That flip had taken a lot out of her; she wouldn't use that maneuver again today. What was wrong with her? Too much wine last night? Too little sleep? Or maybe she was just getting too old for this job. Gabrielle might have had the right idea, after all--a little cottage with a vegetable garden. Anyway, it didn't sound half bad at the moment.
She had to pay attention, she knew--had to force herself to concentrate. It was extremely dangerous to fight under these conditions. One mistake could cost her not only the fight, but possibly her life, as well. And she could not lose this battle. She had to win it for Lydia . . . above all, for Lydia, who had been so good to her, but also for Lia and Dorkas and Xenos and Flavian and all the other people Paulos had harmed.
Anso made a sudden lunge at her and she parried, reminding herself again to pay attention. She feinted to the left, then thrust right when he tried to block her first move. Her blade drew blood on his upper arm, and he uttered a vile curse. She laughed and waited for his charge. When it came, she whirled aside and delivered a swift kick that caught him in the jaw. His head snapped back and he fell, then lay without moving.
"Three," panted Xena, to the sound of applause and cheers. She drew the back of her hand across her sweaty forehead, wishing she had braided her hair this morning to keep it out of her face. Only Paulos remained for her to fight, but he would probably be the most difficult to defeat. He had been sitting there watching her technique all this time, and she had no clue about his own. And he had the advantage of being fresh when she was tired. She would have to get this over with quickly, before exhaustion betrayed her into making some deadly error.
He dismounted in a leisurely fashion, tossing his horse's reins to a surprised bystander. Then he turned and smiled a cynical smile at Xena. "Well, you just can't get good help these days," he commented.
She grinned. "Doesn't look like it," she said.
"That why you got rid of your army?" he asked, sliding his sword out of its scabbard.
"Something like that." He was trying to get her to let down her guard, she decided. Well, she wouldn't fall for that trick.
She stood her ground as he approached, and they faced off, swords at the ready. They moved slowly around each other for a few moments, then she feinted right and quickly thrust left, but he parried effectively. In fact, now that the fight was engaged, she could see that he was a fairly good swordsman. If she were not so tired, she could have beaten him easily. But now they were more evenly matched, and they sparred for a time without either of them being able to gain the advantage.
At one point, Xena heard a groan and then caught a glimpse of Anso dragging himself away across the dusty ground. She was surprised that he was conscious already, but he apparently wanted no more of this fight, so she felt it safe to ignore him.
With her attention still focused on Paulos, she stopped to blink the sweat out of her eyes and try to think. She could not go on much longer; she was too tired. What she needed was a ploy to give her an opening. That was all she needed--a small ploy that wouldn't require much energy from her. Just then, a child in the crowd began to cry, and Xena seized upon a plan. Pretending to be distracted, she broke eye contact for a brief moment with Paulos, deliberately leaving herself open to attack. He lunged forward instantly and she dodged aside, barely escaping injury from his blade. Then, twisting around, she landed a kick on his sword arm just at the moment when it was fully extended. The weapon flew out of his grasp, and a second kick toppled him. Xena pounced at once, pinning him with a foot on each wrist and her sword at his throat.
She stood there, breathing hard, staring down at him while the crowd screamed "Kill him, Xena! Kill the bastard!" Paulos' eyes met hers, full of anger and the humiliation of defeat. But he did not plead for his life--a fact which raised him a bit in her estimation. One quick thrust of her sword was all it would take to make certain he would never murder, rape, or terrorize innocent people again. Surely, if any man deserved to die, it was this one . . . yet she found herself hesitating.
If she killed Paulos, would she become the monster she had promised not to be? Gabrielle considered herself a monster for killing Garron. Would she think the same about Xena if she killed Paulos? Letting him go was out of the question, but maybe she could bring him to justice . . . if she could save him from these revenge-minded townspeople.
She found the indecision maddening, and although it lasted only a few seconds, it cost her. Out of the corner of her eye, she suddenly caught a movement, and someone shouted, "Behind you!" Looking quickly over her shoulder, she saw a mace leave Anso's hand and come hurtling toward her. She ducked, but it was too late. The spiked ball slammed into the side of her head, and the world exploded in light and pain.
* * *
After that, there was only the darkness . . . a sweet, warm darkness that held her as softly and gently as a womb. There was no pain in the darkness, no fear or nightmares or dreams of any kind. There was only the blessed peace of nothingness. But after a while, there were voices, and hands that jerked and pulled at her. The pain came again and then she felt someone touch her face. A voice was calling her name, and it was a kind, familiar voice . . . but there was only one voice she wanted to hear. She opened her eyes and the light sent more pain stabbing through her head. She could see nothing but a jumble of blurred shapes and colors.
"Gabrielle," she said in a voice barely stronger than a whisper. "Where's Gabrielle? I want Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle's not here right now," said someone Xena slowly recognized as Lydia. "I've sent Salmoneus with a couple of horses to go get her. They should be back soon."
Of course. Gabrielle was gone. How could she have forgotten? The darkness called to her and Xena sank gratefully back into it. This time she went much deeper and stayed there a long time, floating on a gentle sea of calm and forgetfulness. She thought she would like to stay there forever, that she never wanted to leave this wonderful place of quiet rest. But finally the voices came again. Or rather, one voice came, a voice she loved, calling her up from the darkness, drawing her, pulling her once more into the world of pain. But the light did not seem quite as bright this time when she opened her eyes, and there was a little more focus to the forms around her.
"Xena, can you hear me?" The voice now had a blurred face framed in gold. "Please wake up, Xena! Please!"
"Gabrielle," whispered the warrior, "you came back."
"Yes, I came back, Love. Salmoneus brought me back and I've been sitting here for hours, waiting for you to wake up."
Xena felt the bard's gentle hand on her cheek and struggled to bring her face into focus, but she couldn't to do it.
"Do you remember what happened?" asked Gabrielle. "You got hurt in a fight."
A fight? She had been in a fight? Xena closed her eyes against the pain that seemed to have made her mind a blank. But the pain did not go away and the memories would not come. A feeling of panic came over her as she realized she did not remember. She opened her eyes and tried again to see her lover clearly.
"It was with a man named Paulos and three other thugs," Gabrielle continued when Xena didn't answer. "Salmoneus told me all about it while we were riding back here."
Paulos. She had fought a man named Paulos. Xena captured this clue and tried to force her sluggish brain to make sense of it. Finally, an image appeared. A bearded man, sitting on a horse. A scar on his cheek. Yes, he had been called Paulos.
The blur that was Gabrielle seemed to be watching her closely. "You pinned him down and then you got hit in the head with a mace," she said. "Are you remembering any of this, Xena?"
Another image came to her. The man named Paulos looking up at her from the ground, her sword at his throat. Now it was coming back to her. She had been in a fight . . . a fight she had wanted to win for Lydia. But she had lost.
"Yes, I remember," she told Gabrielle. She seemed to have no strength at all. She could barely make her mind work or her voice loud enough to be heard.
"You've got a nasty gash and a big knot on the side of your head," Gabrielle said. "Lydia had to cut away some of your hair so she could stitch the wound."
Xena tried to bring her hand up to her head to feel the wound, but Gabrielle gently caught and held her hand.
"Not now," she said. "You can look at it tomorrow."
Xena curled her fingers weakly around Gabrielle's. Maybe she was dreaming. She still could not quite believe that the bard had returned. There was something she needed to ask, something she desperately wanted to know, but the pain was like a thick fog in her brain and she could not seem to think. She closed her eyes for a moment and moved her head a little, trying to clear it, but nothing seemed to help.
"Xena, you're in a lot of pain, aren't you?" said Gabrielle, leaning close and touching the warrior's face softly.
"Yes," murmured Xena.
"Lydia said she would have some tea ready for you when you woke up. I'll just call down and have her bring it up here." The bard stood and started to move away from the bed, but Xena used all the strength she could muster to cling to her lover's hand.
"Don't leave me," she pleaded.
"Oh, Xena, Sweetheart, I'm just going over to the window for a minute," Gabrielle said. "I'll be right back, I promise."
The warrior reluctantly released her, and then heard Gabrielle calling down into the yard. "Salmoneus! She's awake but the pain is pretty bad. Could you ask Lydia to bring that tea up?"
Xena closed her eyes. She could feel the darkness beckoning to her. It would be so easy to go there again, just to slide into that soft place and be done with all this pain for a while. But no. This time she would fight it. This time there was a reason to stay awake, in spite of the pain. She opened her eyes.
Gabrielle was beside her again, sitting on the bench by the bed, holding her hand. "Xena, are you going to be all right?" she asked. There was an edge of fear in her voice.
"I don't know, Gabrielle."
"I was so scared when I came in here and saw you like this--so pale and with blood all over you. And then it took such a long time for you to wake up. I should have been here for you, Xena. Maybe if I had been here, this wouldn't have happened."
"You don't know that," said Xena slowly. Please don't blame yourself."
The door opened and Salmoneus came in and hurried over to the bed.
"Xena!" he exclaimed. "We were worried about you! How do you feel?"
"I feel like shit, Salmoneus," Xena said dully.
He stared at her in surprise for a moment, then laughed and clapped a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Well, she's just as feisty as ever, isn't she?" he said. "I guess that means she's going to be all right."
"I hope so," said Gabrielle.
"Salmoneus," said Xena, speaking slowly and with some effort, "I want to thank you for going to get Gabrielle, but could you come back another time when I feel more like talking?"
"Oh, uh, sure, Xena. I'll come back tomorrow." He grinned at her and patted her arm, then left the room just as Lydia came in.
The innkeeper walked quickly across the room and set a mug on the table. Then, leaning over the bed, she cupped Xena's face in her hand. "How's our warrior princess?" she asked. "The pain's pretty bad, is it?"
Lydia picked up one of the warrior's hands and held her fingers against the wrist for a few moments. "Well, your pulse is a little stronger, anyway," she said. "Is everything else okay? Can you move your arms and legs?"
"Good. How about your vision?"
"It's kind of blurry."
"Hmm. Well, I think that will clear up pretty soon. Let's hope so, anyway." Then she turned to Gabrielle. "Does she remember what happened?"
"She didn't seem to at first, but after I told her a few things about the fight, she said she remembered."
The innkeeper nodded and turned back to Xena, gently smoothing the hair back from the warrior's face. "I've got some tea for you that should help with the pain," she said. "I made it strong because I had a feeling you'd have a real whopper of a headache when you woke up. Do you think you can sit up and drink it?"
"I don't know."
"She seems pretty weak," said Gabrielle. She bent down and slipped her arm under the warrior's shoulders. "Here, I'll help you," she said, and pulled her up.
The movement sent a new spasm of pain through Xena's head, and she moaned sharply. Gabrielle quickly sat behind her on the bed and put an arm around her. "You can lean on me," she said. "I'll hold you."
Xena leaned back weakly as a wave of dizziness and nausea followed the pain. "I think I'm going to be sick," she said.
"Lydia, get the basin! Hurry!" said Gabrielle.
The innkeeper held the basin in front of her and Gabrielle gently supported her head and kept her hair back out of the way.
"There shouldn't be much left in her stomach," Lydia said. "She was sick earlier, right after she woke up the first time."
When it was over, Gabrielle wiped Xena's face with a cool, damp cloth.
"Xena, do you remember waking up and asking for Gabrielle?" Lydia asked.
"I think so."
"And then do you remember being sick?"
"That's what I thought. You lost consciousness again pretty quickly there." Lydia reached for the mug. "Okay, let's try the tea now," she said.
"Do you think she can keep it down?" asked Gabrielle.
"I hope so. There's some peppermint in it, so that should help settle her stomach."
She handed the mug to Xena, but it seemed incredibly heavy and her hands shook when she tried to hold it, so Gabrielle reached around from behind to help her. The tea felt warm and good in her mouth, washing away the taste of bile and soothing the rawness in her throat.
"I think she'll be all right with it," Lydia said. Then she sat on the bench and watched for a time in silence as the warrior drank. Finally, she said, "Well that was quite a fight this morning, Xena."
The warrior looked at her. "Yeah," she said softly. "I'm sorry I lost."
"Lost? Xena, you didn't lose!"
"But Paulos-- He must have gotten away."
"Oh, no, he didn't get away! But of course, you don't know how it all ended, do you?" Lydia smiled at her.
Xena took another sip of tea. Her head still throbbed painfully, but it felt good to have Gabrielle's arms around her. And her vision was clearing up some, she noticed. At least now she could see the expression on Lydia's face.
"Well," the innkeeper began, "after you stabbed Paulos in the neck and then got hit with the mace--"
"Wait," Xena said and held up one hand. She was trying to think, but it was still so hard. There was something wrong with what Lydia had just said. She looked at the innkeeper in frustration, but Lydia was watching her quietly and seemed willing to give her time to sort things out.
"I remember standing over him," Xena said slowly, "and I had my sword at his throat." She paused. "People were shouting for me to kill him . . . but I couldn't decide if--" she glanced back at Gabrielle, "if killing him would make me a monster."
"Xena!" whispered the bard and gave her a quick hug.
"I don't think I ever decided," the warrior continued, "and I don't remember stabbing him at all." She took another sip of tea and watched Lydia over the rim of the mug.
"Hmm," mused the innkeeper and considered for a moment. "Do you know what I think must have happened? I think that when you saw the mace coming and ducked, you drove your sword down into Paulos' neck."
Xena nodded. "Maybe so," she said.
"It was hard to see from where I was, but I don't think you actually cut his throat. Still, there was a lot of blood spurting out, so you did some damage--enough to keep him from escaping, anyway." She leaned forward and put her hand on Xena's leg. "Here's the interesting part, though," she said. "You'll never believe who finished the job for you."
"Salmoneus didn't tell me this part," said Gabrielle. "Who was it?"
Lydia grinned and waited a moment to draw out the suspense, then announced, "It was Dorkas."
"Dorkas!" exclaimed Gabrielle and Xena together.
"Yes! Apparently, she's kept all her anger and hatred of Paulos stored up inside her for years, and today it all came out. As soon as you fell, Xena, Dorkas ran over and grabbed up your sword and just started hacking at Paulos' neck. By the time we stopped her, she had almost cut his head clear off his body."
Xena closed her eyes for a moment, and behind her, she felt Gabrielle shudder.
"What about the other one?" Xena asked. "The short one. What was his name? Anso."
"Well, after he threw that mace, a bunch of the men who'd been watching just ran in and jumped on him and started beating him," Lydia said. "A few of them had weapons or tools, but most just used their bare hands. They pretty much beat him to a pulp."
"Dead?" Xena asked.
"Weren't there four men in all?" asked Gabrielle. "What happened to the other two?"
"They got run out of town," said Lydia. "And I can pretty much assure you they won't be back. Without Paulos they're not much of a threat, anyway." She paused and fixed her intense gaze on the warrior. "But don't you see what happened, Xena?" she said. "You inspired us. We watched you fight for us and suddenly we realized that we don't have to be victims anymore. So when you couldn't finish the battle, we finished it ourselves! We killed those bastards, and I can't tell you how happy I am to know that they will never hurt us again." She faltered, her voice choked with emotion, and then went on. "What a gift you've given us! You can be sure the story of how the Warrior Princess defeated Paulos will be told around the hearths of this town for many winters to come."
"Lydia," said Xena quietly. "I never meant to inspire bloodlust and revenge. That's not what this was about."
The innkeeper stared at her without speaking.
"I believe Paulos deserved to die for his crimes," Xena went on, "but he should have been brought to justice and given a fair trial first. I think that's the decision I would have made if I hadn't got hit by the mace."
Gabrielle's arms tightened around her. Then she held the mug up to Xena's lips, and the warrior took a deep drink.
Lydia remained silent for a minute, then said, "I hear what you're saying. It's so easy to confuse revenge with justice. But I just want you to know how grateful I am to you, Xena. You can't imagine what a weight has been lifted off my heart knowing that the man who raped my daughter and killed my husband is dead."
"I understand," Xena said softly. "I feel the same way about the man who attacked Gabrielle."
"I'm just so sorry that you got hurt," Lydia said. "You gave us quite a scare, you know. Salmoneus and Elpidios carried you up here. There was so much blood! I thought I'd never get the bleeding stopped!"
"Head wounds," commented Gabrielle. "They always bleed like crazy. When Salmoneus came to get me, he still had blood on his clothes, and I thought at first that he was hurt. Then he told me it was your blood, Xena, and that was even scarier."
"I cleaned you up a little bit, but I'm not sure I did a very good job," Lydia said. "And I tried to comb some of the blood out of your hair, but I was afraid I would hurt you, so I quit."
"That's all right," said Xena. "I'm sorry I was so much trouble."
"No, Xena, it was no trouble. It was a labor of love. As far as I'm concerned, your presence here has been nothing but a blessing. Remember when I told you that first day that something good would come of your being here? Well, this is it."
"What is? This pain in my head?"
Lydia laughed. "No, that's the bad part. The good part is being rid of Paulos. And the other good part is that you're going to be all right . . . because I really think you will be, although you may be pretty uncomfortable for a few days."
"And Gabrielle came back," said Xena. "That's a good part, too."
"Yes," said Lydia, smiling at the bard. "That's one of the best parts."
"I agree," said Gabrielle, hugging Xena again.
Lydia studied the warrior for a moment. "How are you doing?" she asked. "Is that tea helping any?"
"Yes, it is. The pain's still there, but it's more bearable now. And I can think better, too." Xena drained the mug and handed it back to Lydia.
"You seem to be getting a little color back in your cheeks," the innkeeper said, "but it's probably time we let you get some rest."
"Do you want to lie down again?" asked Gabrielle, and when Xena nodded, she gently eased her back on the bed.
Lydia stood up. "I'll bet you're ready for some supper, Gabrielle," she said. "I can bring up some fish soup and bread for you."
"Mmm, that sounds good!"
"How about you, Xena?" Lydia asked. "Do you think you can eat anything?"
Gabrielle looked at the warrior for a moment and then put her hand on Lydia's shoulder. "Tell you what," she said. "Why don't you bring up a really big bowl of soup and I'll try to get her to eat some of it."
Lydia grinned. "Oh, and if she won't eat it, there'll be that much more for you; is that how it works?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Okay, you saw right through my little trick, but I really am pretty hungry!"
"All right, I'll be back in a couple of minutes."
Xena waited impatiently for Lydia to leave. She knew now what it was she wanted to ask Gabrielle, and she wanted to do it before her mind got foggy again. The room was beginning to get dark, and Xena could hear voices from the innyard. It was evening, she realized for the first time. That meant she had been unconscious most of the day.
"Gabrielle," she said when the door closed behind Lydia, "there's something I need to know."
The bard sat down on the bench and took Xena's hand between her own. "What is it, Love?" she asked.
Xena hesitated for a moment, suddenly afraid to hear the answer she might get. But then she took a deep breath and said, "Did you only come back because I got hurt or did you come back to stay?"
Gabrielle lifted Xena's hand and kissed it softly. "I came back to stay," she said, "if you want me to."
"If I want you to! Gabrielle, there's nothing I want more!" She paused, and then added, "Well, except maybe for my head to stop hurting so much!"
The bard bent down and kissed Xena's forehead, cheek, and then her lips. "I wish I could take your pain away," she whispered.
Xena grinned weakly. "I wish you could, too, but this is a nice distraction, anyway." She reached up and pulled her lover down for another kiss.
"Xena," Gabrielle said as she sat up again, "there are so many things I need to tell you."
"We'll have lots of time to talk."
"I know, but at least I want to say how sorry I am. Ever since the thing with Garron, I've been so wrapped up in my own pain that I couldn't see yours. And I may have even made yours worse. I seem to remember saying some pretty nasty things."
Xena squeezed the bard's hand. "You had a lot of pain to deal with," she said. "I understand why you weren't your usual charming self."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't know how you ever put up with me," she said. "And even though I'm back, I don't want you to think that everything is perfect now, either. I'm still confused about a lot of things and there's so much I need to try to deal with somehow. It's just that I realized you were right--I don't have to do it all alone."
"Good. Because I want to help you, if there's any way I can."
"And there's something else you need to know, Xena," Gabrielle went on. "I still don't know when--or even if--I can let you make love to me again." She stopped and looked away, swallowing hard. "It's just so hard to think about it right now-- That's why I said I'd stay only if you want me to."
"Gabrielle," said the warrior gently, "I really believe that one of these days you'll want to make love again. But I know you have a lot of healing to do, and that it will take time. I can wait until you're ready. In fact," she said with a grin, "I'm kind of relieved you don't want to make love tonight because, as it turns out, I have a headache."
Gabrielle laughed and then kissed her again. "You silly thing! I'm so glad I came back!"
* * *
In a short while, Lydia reappeared at the door. The two lighted candles on the supper tray she carried gave a warm glow to the room. "I brought another mug of tea for Xena, in case she needs it later in the night," she said.
"Oh, good idea. Thanks," said Gabrielle.
"And I brought a big bowl of soup, half a loaf of bread, and some mead." She paused. "What I'm wondering right now is whether you'll be able to sleep in that bed. There's so much blood on the mattress cover that I think I'll end up throwing the whole thing out. Dorkas was here for a while this morning, helping me take care of Xena, and she offered to make a new cover. Elpidios can fill it with straw for me, when it's done, but that won't help much tonight. I thought about putting you in a different room, but I doubt that Xena wants to move around that much." She glanced at the warrior, who shook her head.
"It'll be all right," said Gabrielle. "We'll be fine; don't worry about us."
"I think I'll just bring an extra blanket that you can spread over the worst of it."
"Okay. That'll work," said Gabrielle.
Lydia went next door and quickly returned with a blanket. "Now, is there anything else you need before I go back downstairs?" she asked. "We think we'll have a big crowd tonight because people will want to come and talk about the fight. And, of course, some folks will probably drop by just to ask how Xena is doing."
"I can't think of anything else we need," Gabrielle said. She stood up and took one of the innkeeper's hands in hers. "Thanks, Lydia, for taking such good care of Xena. I should have been here to do it. I'm sorry I wasn't."
"You're here now," said Lydia. "That's what's important." Then she put an arm around the bard's shoulders and said, "Gabrielle, I want you to promise me something. If you need anything during the night--anything at all--or if Xena gets worse, I want you to come and get me."
"Just go through the kitchen to that room in back where Lia and I sleep and call my name," Lydia continued. "I'm a light sleeper and I'll hear you. Do you promise?"
"Yes. And thanks again. You're such a good person." Gabrielle threw her arms around the innkeeper and they hugged for a long minute. Xena watched them, smiling.
"Goodnight," Lydia said. "I hope you sleep well . . . both of you," she added, looking at the warrior. "I'll probably peek in before I go to bed, but I'll try not to wake you."
"Goodnight, Lydia," said Gabrielle.
"Goodnight," echoed Xena.
As soon as Lydia was gone, Gabrielle walked over to the tray and picked up the soup bowl. "This smells really good," she said, and put a dripping spoonful into her mouth. "Mmm, it tastes really good, too. You've got to try some of this, Xena."
"I'm not very hungry."
"I know, but you need to try to eat something anyway." Gabrielle took another bite and then set the bowl down. "Let's see if we can prop you up a little bit."
She carefully tucked the saddlebag and some folded blankets behind the warrior's head and shoulders, then seated herself on the bench and picked up the bowl again. Dipping a spoonful of soup, she blew on it to cool it and then held it to Xena's lips. "Open up," she said with a smile.
Xena was surprised to find that the soup tasted better to her than any food had for days, and she swallowed it willingly. Then another spoonful was offered, and she swallowed that, too.
The next spoonful went into Gabrielle's mouth. "You know," the bard said after a minute, "I think I knew I was making a big mistake before I ever left here yesterday. I was just too stubborn to admit it." She reached for the bread, tore off a hunk, and handed it to Xena.
"Leaving you hurt so much," Gabrielle went on. "I felt like my heart was being ripped out or something."
Xena watched her without speaking, holding the uneaten bread in her hands.
"I thought I would feel better as the day went on, but I didn't, really," the bard said. "I just kept walking and thinking about you and wondering if I should turn around and go back."
"I thought about you, too," Xena said softly.
Gabrielle looked at her tenderly for a moment, then suddenly grinned and said, "Hey, am I going to have to feed you the bread, too? Are you too weak to lift it all the way up to your face?"
"Oh. I forgot about it." Xena studied the bread as if she didn't quite know what to do with it, then slowly pulled off a piece and put it in her mouth.
Gabrielle took a big bite of her own bread and then said, "I thought I was going home, Xena, but I wasn't. I was going away from home. You're my home now. I knew that, but I guess I forgot it somehow. More soup?"
"And another thing I realized," continued the bard as she spooned soup into the warrior's mouth, "was that even though I believed I'd been thinking some things through, I hadn't, really. I'd just been sleeping all the time so I could avoid thinking." Gabrielle set aside the bowl and picked up the tankard of mead. "Want some of this?" she asked.
"Maybe a little bit."
She held the tankard so that Xena could sip from it, then took a long drink herself. Then, setting the tankard down, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She picked up the soup bowl again and offered a spoonful to Xena. "So anyway, there I was," she said, "walking all day, thinking about you and trying to decide what to do. Then I came to the village and got a room at the inn." She paused to eat a couple of spoonfuls of soup. "And then last night," she went on, "I was going through my pack, looking for something, and I found this strange bundle, way down in the bottom. I couldn't even imagine what was in it."
Xena put another piece of bread in her mouth and chewed mechanically, but she could not take her gaze off Gabrielle. Then the bard turned the full intensity of her green eyes on her.
"Xena," she said, "why didn't you tell me that my scrolls survived the fire?"
"I was afraid to, after what you did to the one scroll I gave you."
Gabrielle regarded her for a moment and then smiled. "Well, I can see why you would be afraid. I was pretty crazy for a while there, wasn't I?"
"Yes, but you had good reason to be crazy."
Gabrielle dropped her gaze to the bowl and scraped the bottom of it with the spoon. "Here," she said holding it out to Xena. "Last bite."
"I don't want any more."
"Are you sure?"
"Okay," said Gabrielle and stuck the spoon in her mouth. Then she took a big swallow of mead and held the tankard for Xena to drink. "I sat there in my room and read scrolls," she said, "and I cried and cried. And I knew I had to come back. I could hardly sleep all night because I was wanting it to be morning, so I could come home to you."
Xena reached out and touched the bard's cheek. "You had already decided to come back?" she said. "Even before you knew I was hurt?"
"Not only had I decided, but I'd already walked about three hours in this direction when Salmoneus found me. He and I had a good talk while we were riding back, by the way," she added. "You were right about him, Xena. He really had some good things to say."
"I'm right about a lot of things," Xena said with a grin. "You just don't like to admit it. But what did Salmoneus tell you?"
"Oh, just-- I don't know. All about the fight. And then some stuff about you and about how you blamed yourself for what happened at the cottage-- We'll talk more about it later." She took a quick sip from the tankard, then set it down and reached for Xena's hands. "I just want to tell you one more thing right now and then we can go to sleep," she said.
"This morning, after I'd started back . . . I'd been walking for a while and all at once I got the feeling that something was wrong. And then I heard your voice, and you said 'Where's Gabrielle? I want Gabrielle.' And I got really scared because I knew you were hurt, and I also knew it would take me hours to get to you."
Xena looked at her in amazement. "It's like when I heard you scream," she said.
"Yes, that's what I thought, too," Gabrielle said eagerly. "And now we've both had this same experience. What do you think it means?"
"I don't know. That we both have really good hearing?" She grinned.
Gabrielle stared at her and then laughed. "Well, that blow to the head didn't hurt your sense of humor any. I think you're going to be all right, Xena," she said and softly stroked the warrior's cheek. Then her face became serious and she asked, "Do you want to know what I think it means? I have a theory."
"Yes, I thought you'd have one," Xena said dryly.
Gabrielle didn't smile. She was silent for a moment, then took a big breath and said, "I think it means that you and I are connected on a deeper level than most people are. I think it means we really are soulmates." She bent and kissed the warrior gently on the mouth. "Do you like that theory?" she asked.
"I like any theory that comes with a kiss," Xena murmured.
The bard laughed and then sat up. "Okay, I can see you're not going to be serious about this tonight. What do we need to do here so we can go to sleep? Let's see how much blood there really is in this bed." She pulled back the covers and surveyed the scene.
"Hmm. Quite a bit," she said. "And there's a lot on you, too." She brushed some dried blood off Xena's shoulder and then ran her hand lightly over the leather outfit. "Well," she said, "do you want to sleep in your warrior princess costume, or do you want to take it off?"
"Oh, you thought that line was funny, did you?"
"Actually, at the time, nothing seemed very funny. But now it sort of does." She smiled. "So what do you want to do?"
"I'd like to take it off, but I'm not sure I can get out of bed without either getting sick or passing out. Or both."
Gabrielle studied her for a moment. "We'll find a way to do it," she said. "Let's see if you can sit up again for a minute." She put her arm under the warrior's shoulders.
"Slowly," warned Xena.
"Okay." Gabrielle eased her up and then held onto her.
Xena closed her eyes as the room began to swim.
"How are you doing?" asked the bard.
"I'm kind of dizzy, but I don't feel sick."
"All right. I'll try to do this quickly." She sat behind Xena and began unlacing her. The warrior opened her eyes and tried to focus on the door. Gradually, it began to appear like the solid object it was, and some of the dizziness passed. "Now swing your legs off the bed," Gabrielle instructed her, and Xena moved slowly and awkwardly to obey.
The bard sat on the bench in front of her, studying her face. "How's the pain?" she asked.
"It's still there. Not as bad as before."
"Does sitting up make it worse?"
"No, not really."
"A little. It's better now."
"Do you think you can stand up?"
"I can try."
"Okay," said Gabrielle. She stood and moved closer to Xena, then bent down. "Put your arms around my neck and hold on." She slipped her own arms around the warrior. "Ready?" she said. Then straightening up, she pulled Xena up with her.
Xena felt the room began to swim again, her knees trembled, and she clung to her lover for balance.
"Hang on," Gabrielle said softly. "This will just take a minute." She eased the leather straps off over Xena's arms one at a time, then slid the whole outfit down and off, along with the undergarment. "Okay, that's it. You can sit down again."
Xena sank down onto the bed, feeling exhausted.
"Don't lie down yet," said Gabrielle. "Let me put this blanket that Lydia brought us on the bed first." She quickly spread the blanket and then helped the warrior lie down on it.
"There's a lot of blood on your clothes," Gabrielle said, picking them up off the floor. "I'll clean them tomorrow. I don't think you'll be needing them for at least a day or two."
"No, I don't think so," agreed the warrior.
"And I'll give you a nice bath, with warm water. And maybe we can figure out a way to wash your hair without getting you out of bed."
"You take good care of me," Xena said with a smile.
"Yeah, it's a good thing you're planning to keep me around for a while."
"For a long while, I hope."
Gabrielle began undressing, and Xena eased herself over nearer to the wall to make room for her in the bed. Then she lay watching the play of the candlelight on the bard's skin and hair.
"Did you have any nightmares last night?" asked Gabrielle.
"No. I had something worse."
"Something worse? What do you mean?"
"I had a little visit from Ares."
Gabrielle stared at her. "Ares! What did he want?"
"The same thing he always wants," Xena said in a tired voice, "for me to come back to him and be his warrior queen. But the scary thing last night was that I almost said yes."
"You almost said yes?" the bard asked in wonder. She sat on the bed and took one of Xena's hands and held it tightly. "Why?"
"I don't know. He was just so seductive, I guess, and I was feeling . . . so vulnerable." She brought Gabrielle's hand to her mouth and kissed the palm. "But you saved me, My Love," she said.
"I saved you? How could I save you? I wasn't even here."
"You saved me by making me promise again not to become a monster. Just at the last minute, I remembered my promise and that's why I said no to Ares."
"Xena--" Gabrielle said and then stopped. A tear slid down her cheek. "I should have been here for you," she finished in a whisper.
"You were here," Xena said softly. "Your love was here, and that's what saved me. Now blow out the candles and come to bed. I'm tired."
Gabrielle smiled and followed the warrior's instructions. She lay on her back and looked over at Xena. "Do you want me to hold you?" she asked.
"Yes," Xena whispered. She rolled carefully onto her side and moved over into Gabrielle's embrace. With her head on the bard's chest, she could feel the warm skin against her cheek and hear the familiar heartbeat. "I've missed this," she said softly.
"So have I."
Xena nestled closer against her lover's body and then relaxed. "Lydia said you would come back, but I didn't believe her," she said. "I thought I had lost you forever."
"No, I'm afraid you can't get rid of me as easily as that," Gabrielle murmured and used her free hand to smooth the hair back from Xena's face.
"I guess not," the warrior mumbled sleepily.
Neither of them spoke for a time. The throbbing in Xena's head gradually lessened and she began to feel as if her body were floating gently, somewhere far away from pain.
"Xena, I love you so much," said Gabrielle.
The warrior heard, but could not answer. She had already been claimed by sleep . . . a sleep so peaceful and pure that it could only hold the sweetest of dreams.