The usual disclaimers apply. Xena, Gabrielle and Argo are not mine. They belong to Renaissance Pictures.

The Hungry Land By Mary Morgan
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Gabrielle tried to wake up. She knew that she was sleeping, but this dream had gone far enough. In it, she dreamt that the earth softened beneath her and she was starting to sink. The soil covered her face grain by grain. In panic, she opened her mouth to call for her friend, and drew in a breath. Earth flooded in. She gagged on the dirt, and the noise that she made must have wakened her partner. Still trapped in the dream, she saw Xena rouse and walk over to watch while the earth covered her eyes, while it drowned her. But this was only a dream. She knew that. Very few of her dreams were prophetic. So why was she frightened? end

Gabrielle woke. Something hissed in her ears, and her neck ached. Carmine blotches floated in front of her eyes. She rubbed at their lids with her fingers. These felt cold; their skin was like ice and was rough with fine grit from the ground they had rested against. Wary, she opened her eyes. The sun shone full in her face, though it had failed to warm the rock she was leaning against. Hours must have passed. "Trust me. I've dozed off again," she thought with embarrassment. "Just sit down to rest while I wait for Xena, close my eyes for a minute and I'm away," she taunted herself.

Though it was hardly surprising. She had been sleeping badly, here on the plateau, waking exhausted and plagued by a nagging anxiety. Three nights in all, each troubled by dreams. And she'd been dreaming just now. As she realised this, Gabrielle felt her heart falter, then quicken. "I'm terrified," she thought with dismay. "But of what?" She reached for a water skin, to sluice the foul taste of her doze from her mouth, and looked around her. So there was nothing to see but rocks scoured by the wind, hollows scabbed by grey patches of snow. She'd seen worse. So most of the provisions had gone. They'd survive, even Argo. So Xena had been strangely determined to take this difficult route, although it was plainly out of their way. And so now she had gone on ahead, scouting, she said, though the warrior had sounded impatient when she told her to wait and to rest. So her partner was late. She'd be back, perhaps with a rabbit or two. So there'd been dreams. Gabrielle stopped: she couldn't remember the dreams. Just the fear. It struck her again, so hard that she sucked in her breath. Cold air scorched her lungs and made her eyes water.

Then she heard hoofs. Argo returning: she knew the mare's gait, and there was no one else foolish enough to up be here. She stood up and saw Xena, riding with negligent ease, her face dour. But her partner was pleased. Even this far away, Gabrielle knew what that scowl covered. Relief. Even elation. "Now what?" she asked herself, and then waved. Deep inside, her fear snickered knowingly. She ignored it, focused on Xena, who now towered above her. When the warrior, wordless, reached down a hand, she took it, let herself be hauled into the saddle. "Let's see what she's found," Gabrielle thought. A new feeling flowered inside her, and she knew it by name. A sense of foreboding.

Xena rode for two hours, angling north, away from their trail. Noon came and went. The sun, chill and white in the sky, slipped over her shoulder, threw their shadows under their feet. She pushed Argo hard, Gabrielle saw with surprise. The mare's coat had darkened with sweat, her sides worked like bellows. "Hey," she said softly, then tried again, pressing harder round the warrior's waist to get her attention.

"Patience, you'll see soon enough," Xena said.

"No hurry. There's plenty of time. Give Argo a break." She felt Xena take a quick breath and then shift. Her friend's knuckles briefly showed white as she pulled on the reins. Argo slowed and then stopped. Xena waited while Gabrielle slid to the ground, then swung down with her usual grace.

"Sorry, Argo." Xena reached down a skin, poured water into her hand, then rubbed it over the mare's muzzle. "What was I thinking?" she said, to herself. She filled a cupped palm with more water and let Argo drink. Gabrielle, watching, felt the fear flare once again, and silently echoed the question.

They reached it soon after. Gabrielle gasped when she saw. "It's so lovely," she said, when she'd recovered her breath. Words rose in a swarm in her brain. Numbly she sorted them out. The land fell away into a crater which stretched past the horizon. The air rising from it was hazy, as though it were heated. It swelled into a dome which quivered and shook. Where it moved, rainbows crawled over its skin. When she looked down, she saw green. Cushioned and vibrant, a pelt of lush green.

"Come on." Xena's face shocked her, it was so flushed. "Race you there." The warrior turned, ready to plunge down the slope into the forest below, through a gap in the rocks rimming the crater.

"Wait." Gabrielle swallowed, tasting fear once again. What was going on here? A forest? Here on this plateau with its fuzz of thin moss and its pools capped with crazed layers of ice? "Something's wrong."

"What's wrong?" Xena turned. "Just once in a while, can't you leave out the pros and the cons? This is a gift, and you know what they say about gifts."

Gabrielle did, though the horse which she thought of was Trojan. "It's well off our route," was the best she could do by way of objection. Everything else just sounded plain daft.

"It's north of our route, but we can still bear due west. And take a break. Hunt, make good our supplies. There'll be plenty of prey down there." Xena flung out her hand, palm slightly cupped, forefinger pointing. A conqueror's gesture, Gabrielle thought. The sort they gave statues. She tried to muster her doubts, but her partner abruptly got tired of talking, pivoted round on her heel and bounded away down the path.

"Yes, there'll be plenty of prey down there. Now." Gabrielle flinched at the thought, wondering where it had come from. Her head was starting to swim. The rocks looked like teeth, which meant that the path was a throat, waiting to swallow. She shuddered. This place repelled her, but Xena was down there, in the trees' shadow. Gabrielle straightened her shoulders and wrapped Argo's reins round one of her hands. Defeated but dogged, she followed her partner, leading the mare, sinking into the crater.


The sun shone strongly in her dream. If she looked directly over her head she could see a blue sky. All around, though, the forest grew. She turned slowly, taking it in. Bark glowed like copper, leaves hung like slices of emerald. Huge flowers seem to float without weight, carved from ruby and amethyst, from topaz and pearl. Lovely but armoured, Gabrielle thought; each surface here would gash or bruise or pierce. A feeling blossomed inside her and rose in her throat. As it did so, the world started to spin. At first she thought she must have grown dizzy, but she soon saw the truth. The forest was moving around her. The shapes of the trees had all changed. Limbs crooked at their joints, straightened again, twitched and scuttled. Leaves became wings which unfurled, jewelled on the surface, dusty beneath. Compound eyes flickered shut and then opened, focussed on her, judging the distance. As the forest swept down, she choked on the fear in her throat.

Why was she so tired? Gabrielle hoisted herself to her feet and reached for her share of the gear, meaning to pack it. When she swayed, Xena looked over her shoulder from where she stood saddling Argo. "Sit down, Gabrielle." Gabrielle looked at her closely, then sat down. Cold coiled inside her: Xena's face had been blank. Perhaps there was nothing behind it, but Gabrielle trusted her instincts with Xena. She knuckled her eyes. What would be worse? To make a mess of her chores, or to uselessly keep out of the way? Whichever she did, Xena would secretly fume. She stayed put and considered the previous day.

It had been hot. Perhaps that was why she had felt so wretched. And the air here was so thick. It clogged her lungs, shimmered with insects, was heavy with pollen. Trying to see through it strained her eyes. Anything further than a few paces away seemed to lie behind water, or glass. Then, this path was so tricky to follow. It wound through the forest and was easy to miss. Roots writhed across it, making for treacherous footing. Branches and briars snaked into her path, snagging her hair and her skin.

Xena had strode through all this. Where Gabrielle stumbled and doubted the path, she'd trod it down like a conqueror's road strewn with petals. She'd left the mare with the bard and pushed on ahead. >From the bounce in the warrior's stride, Gabrielle knew that Xena would have chosen to walk whatever the state of the trail. She plainly loved it; the motion, the pace, the play of her muscles as they took on and vanquished the trail. She even defeated its shadows. Up ahead, where these lay thickest, they seemed to surrender to Xena's black hair and dark armour, so she grew ever taller and stronger.

Gabrielle had tired long before dusk. She had stopped for a moment, meaning to call out to Xena, but her partner had gone round a bend in the track. Sighing, thrusting a hand through her hair which was matted with sweat, the bard had moved on, trying to blank out the ache which burned in her muscles, her sides. She thought back with regret to the plateau, its clear, icy air, and lifted an arm to sweep sweat from her brow. Trickles dripped into her eyes, making them sting. Vision blurred, she had rounded the corner and seen with relief that Xena was squatting a handful of strides up ahead. Green light shone in a circle around her, water lapped at her feet. A glade with a stream, somewhere to camp for the night, Xena said.

There were fish in the stream, but though she'd felt hungry before, Gabrielle ate little. The fish had tasted like mush on her tongue, and she was exhausted. She'd kept dozing off, only to have Xena nudge her awake. The third time, Xena gave up. "You can eat what's left in the morning, when you feel better," she had said, taking the platter out of her hands. "Now let's see to these."

Gabrielle had looked down when she said that, at her arms, at her legs folded beneath her. They were covered with scratches, most shallow and beaded with droplets of blood, but some deep. She'd been vaguely surprised, because she'd not felt them. Now she watched Xena moisten a rag and dab at the wounds. She was taking her time, but Gabrielle sensed that she felt ill at ease. The bard flinched when she realised this, and Xena winced in response. All the same, she did not move any closer, but still kneeled only just within reach.

And this morning? Things had been worse. Food choked her, while Xena kept even more distance between them. Gabrielle read rage in her partner, and impatience, both barely tamped down. "She will leave me," she thought in despair, but good sense denied it. "She loves me. She'll find a way." Thinking this, although she'd been up for scarecely an hour, she felt sleep steal upon her, and the first, smothering touch of a dream.

The ground that she lay on was hot, getting hotter. A desert? She opened her eyes, saw sand stretch in every direction. But there were rocks here and there, and in their shade, drifts of snow. She stood, and an icy wind slashed at her skin. She wrapped her arms round her waist, pulled them tight. Only the soles of her feet still felt warm. She looked down. The ground was dimpling, was sifting, seemed pimpled and cracked. Out of the cracks and the pits, tiny black shapes heaved themselves up, many legged, scrabbling for purchase. They tottered and staggered, spread limp, dragging rags, which soon dried. Stretching these, the ants swarmed and swirled, filled the sky. It turned the colour of milk, shot through with rainbows. Though Gabrielle covered her face, she felt the insects invade her, clogging nostril and mouth. When she screamed, they filled her chest and consumed her.


Xena kicked out the fire and smoothed soil over its remains. Through the mist, she could make out the sun's disk as it rose over the trees. It would be a hot day, she thought. Another hot day. She shivered, feeling hairs rise all over her skin, and a jolt of excitement ran down her spine from her neck to her tail bone. But these conditions were taking it out of her partner, slowing her steps, draining her strength and her normal high spirits. Xena looked over to where Gabrielle was still sitting. The bard had fallen asleep again, her head lolling forwards, her hands lying limp, palm up in her lap.

Xena walked over to squat down beside her, and gave her shoulder a vigorous shake. "Wake up now," she was saying as Gabrielle's eyes flickered and finally opened. "It's time to start out."

"Oh." Gabrielle blinked. Embarrassment coloured her skin, masked her unusual pallor. "Sorry. Must have dozed off." She got to her feet, reaching out to steady herself. Then she snatched her hands back. "Xena?"

The warrior fought to relax. What was this? Had she stiffened when Gabrielle touched her? "What is it with me?" she enquired of herself. Just now, had she wanted to kick her awake. And last night? She closed her eyes briefly, remembering how moisture had flooded her mouth, how her skin had grown hot as she swabbed away blood, how she had wanted to lick it. She shuddered, disgusted. Aloud she said, "I wish I could give you a rest day, but we have to keep going." She reached out herself, was relieved when her fingers made contact with Gabrielle's skin easily, willingly, with no pricklings of distaste. "That's more like it," she told herself. "Must be this place. It's getting to me."

"The sooner we're out of here the better," she said aloud to Gabrielle, as the bard stretched, then joined her in walking towards the mare.

"Yeah. What is it with this place? Why haven't we seen a single living thing except insects and trees?" Gabrielle scuffed her toe in the dirt and looked around her, scowling.

Xena looked too. The land opened up for a while and the path smoothed. She could ride Argo. She swung herself up, surveying what lay around her. She still couldn't see far. Trees all around, and where there were none, brush and grasses sprang up, some as high as her head. And all this was up here, on this high, freezing plateau. Yes, something was wrong, but she couldn't say what. So she shrugged, and offered no other answer.

The bard went on talking anyway, softly, as though she was thinking things out for herself. "It's so overwhelming. Like it's in a fever. And it seems to be, well, so defensive." She kept pace with the warrior, planting her staff firmly into the ground, swinging her feet in a steady rhythm. Almost the old Gabrielle. Xena let herself smile, just a quirk of her lips, and just for an instant. "No," the bard said, even more softly, "not defensive. It's aggressive. Ferocious." She took a few more strides.

Xena glanced down at her partner. Now and then, the reddish gold hair flipped back a little. She saw an arc of pale cheek, streaked with dust. When Gabrielle was quiet her mouth was shut tight. Little lines pinched its corner, a deeper one tracked up to her nose. Her skin shone with sweat. She kept her eyes down, on her feet. "I should stop," Xena thought. "Should make her ride Argo, at least." Worry ruffled the surface of what she felt for her bard, and she nearly leaned down, wanting to smooth back her hair, soothe her skin.

Then a sudden gust of impatience overtook her. "Weakling," she heard her own voice whisper inside her head. "That's all she is. Why tie yourself down?" Shocked, seared with shame, she rammed her heels inwards. Argo leapt straight into a gallop. "I'll scout ahead," she made herself shout back over her shoulder. But even while she raced away from the bard, something inside her expanded, spread its wings with delight.

Soon she kneed Argo north, leaving the track. When the mare balked, blinded by grasses, she hammered her sides with her heels, driving her on. Foam spattered her legs before long, but she kept up the pace. The world was a tawny tunnel of heat which turned here and turned there, shooting her through it. She laughed out aloud, wanting never to stop.

Then she came to a river, and had to, though she ached to go on. For a moment, she thought that she could, and leant forward. But Argo tossed up her head, danced to one side, whinnied and snorted. Xena leapt from the saddle and ran up to the bank, thrusting her hand in the water, scooping it up, splashing it over her face. At her side, Argo stepped up. Remembering barely in time, she grabbed a rein, made sure that the mare took her drink slowly.

At length Xena calmed, looked around. She could see the forest started again on the further bank, and that, since the river curved to the north, they need not cross it. She felt disappointed, and watched the river sweep by. It was in full spate, tossing tree trunks, swirling them round in its currents. Xena knew how it felt, and feeling the same she plunged in. Once over, she nearly did not return, nearly pressed on at a run into the forest. She knew she could keep going for ever, make endless demands on her body, stay drunk on its heady response.

Then something jumped in the river, falling back with a splash. Alert, she turned back to its waters, saw the tiny commotion again. Trout. Her partner loved trout. Xena grinned, stepped into the waters, snagged herself supper for two. She swam back briskly, vaulted on Argo, then turned to go. "Tamed and house trained," her voice sneered at herself. "Don't you want to be free?" She shut her ears and rode back.

Gabrielle was still walking. From a distance Xena watched the small figure toil through its own dust. Something smote her, and she heard herself grunt in reaction. She rode down to the bard, who stopped and looked back at her, white faced and panting. Xena sighed, then swung her up.

"I can walk. Argo can't manage two in this heat," Gabrielle said after her breathing had steadied. It had taken some time. Her voice was burred with exhaustion.

"Rest." Xena was curt. She tried to soften her voice. "We'll all manage." She felt the small woman relax, felt her own tenseness start to grow slack. Impatience gripped her, a desire to be up and be running. Then Gabrielle's head settled into her shoulder as she slipped into sleep and the warrior could wrench back control of her feelings. "What's going on?" Xena asked herself. "Why do I never get tired, while she just gets weaker?" But the only voice which replied mocked her for betraying her strength by caring for weakness. Fighting it left her tired after all.

In this dream, she woke to the sensation of being smothered again. I must be under the ground, the bard thought groggily, and tried to move her arms, to fight against whatever confined her. Touch told her, as well as the green light filtering in when she opened her eyes, that instead she was wrapped in thick, sappy vines. Heavy odours wafted from flowers whose vermilion petals drooped and lapped at her face. They had some darker fluid running through their veins. She had been left here: perhaps she had even been bound. She felt sick with fear, and with desolation. Choking, she bit at a stem which seemed to be trying to force its way into her mouth. Something which tasted like copper flowed over her tongue. A red spray spurted out, blotching her skin and everything in sight. Blood, she thought. "My blood."

Xena watched Gabrielle. Light from their fire's dying embers flushed the face of her partner, making the sweat glimmer. What had she muttered just now? Something about blood? Xena shivered. It was the second night now. While Gabrielle had barely woken since yesterday, the warrior had not slept at all. Hours ago, she had made a fire, prepared tea and some food, forced a little into the bard, all the time fidgeting, longing to be somewhere else, anywhere else. Once Gabrielle had stopped chewing, had fallen asleep again as she sat there, Xena had barely taken the time to settle her down on her blanket before striding off.

For a time, her desire to be moving had contented itself with circling their camp, but this didn't last long. She had felt like a horse on a lunging line, goaded into a gallop, but forced to stay always in the same place. She had made another circuit, then another, then suddenly, helplessly, had given way, had raced off, back along the way they had come. Scorning the track and its bends, she had plunged straight through the forest. Not so long after she reached the rim of stones which bordered this unsettling land, having raised barely a sweat.

Now she was back, and still not at all tired. She was stronger if anything. But she was very afraid. What had she been thinking of? Not Gabrielle, not for a second during that run. Nor of herself, but only of running; of being free. She looked down at the bard. It would be so easy to leave her. To just turn around and disappear into the forest. "But she'll die here," she whispered, to no one.

"Then spare her that misery," someone replied, and her hand curled and strayed, hovered over her sword hilt. "That way you'll be free." Yes, she'd be part of the forest, and free. She clenched her hand, stared at the fist she had made. Then Gabrielle shifted, twisted uneasily and moaned. Old habit made Xena start forward and reach out a hand.

The moment it touched the younger woman's hair, swept a strand off her forehead, her hand knew. It could no more cut off itself than harm Gabrielle. This steadied Xena. She rested her knuckles lightly on her partner's cheek, and hissed at the heat she could feel. The bard was burning up. Fetching her water skin, wetting a rag, she wiped her face gently, concentrating on the task, on the fact of Gabrielle's presence, and her need.

Gabrielle moaned again, muttered, indistinct words, though Xena thought she heard her name. Then the bard groaned, twisted round, lashed out with her hands. Xena caught them, held them down. "Wake up, Gabrielle. Wake up. It's only a dream." She said this again and again, and though it calmed the bard she did not awake. Xena grew afraid she never would. In the first light of dawn, she realised the bard's eyes had opened, and met Gabrielle's feverish gaze. "Help me, Xena." Her voice was dry and frail, like a dead leaf. "I can't wake up."

In her dream, she was watching Xena run. The warrior ran endlessly, tirelessly, racing through dense stands of trees as though tracing wide avenues, not threading narrow paths. She saw her, it seemed, from every direction at once. As though she were a leaf of the trees Xena ran past, as though she were moss on a stone Xena's foot touched. Repletion swelled all around. Something had been excited, something was being sated. The land gathered itself, ripened, grew more. Gabrielle realised she knew this because she was the land. Because she had been eaten alive by the land.

Xena readied Argo, strapping on their packs swiftly. She fondled the mare's ears. "Follow us," she whispered into the nearest, hoping the mare could. Then she turned back to Gabrielle, lifted her into her arms. The bard's eyes were closed once more. She lay quietly. Xena, dipping her head, could hardly make out a heart beat. Panic rose inside her, but she squashed it. With Gabrielle in her arms, she started to run.

The forest thickened before her. Trees stood against her, lashing out limbs, flailing roots. She ran on, dodging and turning, sure footed in spite of its tricks. Then it changed its tactics, cajoled her, bled more of its strength into her, trying to drug her, whispering, "Be one with me, share my strength." She tapped into that strength, fed it into her muscles, gripped the bard tighter, ran still faster. It tried to deceive her, turned the trail back on itself, meaning to swallow them both. "West is there," she said to herself, and forged her way to it.

When the land started to rise, she knew she was near to the border. "Almost out," she breathed to her partner. "Hang in there." The slope became steep, and then steeper. Xena's feet slipped in soft soil and she slowed, looked around for bare rock and then made her way to it. She'd feel safer with that under her feet. She checked Gabrielle, feeling her pulse fast and faint under her fingers. Anger flared, and she lifted the bard, settling her over her shoulder. After that, using one hand and her feet, she climbed to the lip of the crater.

There were stones on this side as well, tall and white. She started towards them, expecting to pass them in seconds, for the slope levelled off here, becoming a rim of black soil. But she couldn't get near them. One step, a second, then her feet rooted themselves in the earth. Light dimmed and time slowed. Her heart beat at her temples, shook her bones, which yearned to be free of her flesh. Gabrielle's weight bore her down and she sank to her knees, settling the bard on the ground just before her. Then she looked up at the sky and she screamed.

"You can't leave," the voice whispered to her, when she was done and could hear it. "You're already part of the forest. You soaked in its strength. It's part of you now." She stiffened as something behind her opened its mouth, prepared to engulf them. Xena sobbed. She looked at her partner's white face. "Turn round and come back," she heard in her head. "Be rid of your burden. Savour your conquest." Its laughter mocked her.

Xena stopped fighting the forest, allowed its raw strength to race through her. Her thoughts gathered power, ignited in starbursts of flame. Through the dazzling eruption, she spotted a possible way. "I'll give it conquest." She drew out her sword. "It's revolted by weakness. Let it have what it wants." She tightened her grip on the hilt. "Feed it. Distract it." She brought the sword down, watched it part flesh, watched the blood spurt and soak into the ground.


Summer began on the slopes of the plateau. Grass grew in patches down here, fine bladed and sweet, dotted with gentians and rock rose. Argo sniffed it and pranced like a filly, then rolled on the sward. In sheltered corries juniper dozed, blue green in the sunlight. Rowan trees rooted in clefts in the rock, colonised gullies above tumbling streams. Lower down silver birch clustered, striping the ground with their shadows.

Gabrielle observed this intently. It helped to dispel the chill wisps of dream which still clung around her. These accused her, showing her winter come to the land high above, mists settling as frosts overnight and fuming as fog in the mornings, ice slicking the ponds. At night it was harder to fight them. Then she saw funguses dry to a crust and collapse into powder, grasses bleach and wither, rattle and snap in the wind, leaves brown and shiver, die and fall. "She did it for you," the land claimed in her dreams. "It's your fault." Gabrielle would shudder and wake, afraid that it was.

In a grove by a pool near the base of the plateau, Xena sat, perfectly still and staring at nothing. A breeze scented with wood smoke startled the face of the pool, making it flinch, and stirring her hair as it passed. Gabrielle saw her push the strands back. Then the bard turned her attention back to their fire. Now the water was hot she could make tea. Steam drifted up from the cup and she sniffed at it, frowning. She picked up a small package and peeled back the wrapping. The comb which emerged was still brimming with honey, and she drizzled some into the tea. That was better, she thought, scratching her arm. Two angry, red mounds showed what she had paid to the bees.

She let the tea cool, just a little, then walked over and settled herself down by her partner, glancing up at her face. "Here." She held out the cup. When Xena didn't react, she said, mildly, "It'll get cold."

The warrior roused herself. She reached out for the cup, and sniffed at it, then raised it to her lips. She took a small sip, then another. Holding her peace, Gabrielle waited till she had finished the tea, then leaned over and took the cup back.

Xena glanced at her. "Did you get stung?" she asked.

Gabrielle displayed her arm. "Cheap at the price." She awarded her partner a cheerful grin.

Xena studied the stings, then her face. "Thanks." Her face relaxed a little. After a moment, stiffly, she returned Gabrielle's grin.

The bard leaned back into her briefly, then turned matter of fact. "So let's change that dressing. Okay?"

Xena rose and went back to the fire, where she watched Gabrielle assemble a bowl of hot water and some cloths. When that was done, she presented her arm. Taking her time, Gabrielle undid the knot, then unwrapped the bandage, damping the innermost layers. She took a deep breath just before she pulled them away. The wound had been deep. She remembered its puffy, wet lips, glistening red just below the rag which Xena had used as a tourniquet.

But once the cloth was clear, she sighed with relief. Xena's familiar magic had asserted itself once again. The wound looked cool, the flesh around it healthy. A mere two days, and the thing was nearly healed. Gabrielle examined her neat little stitches carefully as she bathed them, sorting her thoughts. Xena's arm was okay: now, what about Xena? How could she get her to talk?

In the end, she just said what had burned on her tongue from the moment she woke safely outside the forest. "Would you rather have stayed?" When Xena said nothing, she felt her eyes prick and then water. "Some help you're going to be," she railed at herself, appalled by her doubt and her fears. She kept her head down and felt tears slide down her cheeks, wanting to wipe them away, but hoping the warrior would not notice.

She was aware first of Xena's fingers, gently catching her tears. Then her voice. "The only thing I was sure I wanted, was to stay with you," Xena was saying.

Gabrielle felt herself smile and looked up, to share it. But there was still more to be said. "Do you feel you've left something behind?" she probed gently.

Xena's eyes went inwards. "No." Then she dropped her hand, locked it tight in her other. "That's why I'm afraid, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle leaned in as close as she could, wrapping her hands around Xena's. "Tell me," she coaxed.

"I'm afraid that I brought out what I went in with, and that it poisoned that place. That what happened was me." Now she was weeping.

Gabrielle tightened her grasp. "Say something," she screamed at herself, "say something to mend this." She felt Xena shake, and draw a deep breath, muscles tensing, ready to move. "She'll run away, just to save you. You've got to stop this."

The words rose to her tongue without thought. "You brought us all out. Argo, and me, and yourself. It's you who saved us."

"I put you at risk." Xena kept her eyes on their hands, but stayed still. "The darkness inside me felt at home in that place. And I didn't leave it behind me. I wanted to cut it out. When I gave the forest back what it had given me, I was trying to do that as well. But I couldn't."

Gabrielle remembered the depth of the cut, and shuddered. "No. That place was the risk. Not you." She loosed one hand, used it to grasp Xena's jaw, raise her head. Once Xena was looking back at her, was paying attention, she said, "If you had left anything there, I'd go back to get it. Understand?" She surprised herself with her fierceness.

Xena's eyes widened. "Gabrielle," she said softly. "How can you say that?"

"I mean it." Gabrielle made herself pause. This was too important to rush at. "You're not a good side and a dark side, Xena. You're not two people, a good one and a bad one. What you are is someone who has conquered your darkness, like you conquered that land. You wouldn't be you without it."

She watched Xena take each word, consider it carefully. When she was sure her partner was ready, she added, "And I love you. All of you." And then held her breath.

Xena said nothing for a moment. Instead she smiled, widely. Then she asked, "How about a new dressing?" She lifted the arm with the wound, raised an eyebrow, managed to look rather like Argo, demanding a treat.

Gabrielle remembered to breathe. When she knew that she could, she replied, "Okay. Hold still."

Under Xena's incredulous eyes, she reached for the comb, dripping honey on a scrap of clean cloth.

"You planning a bear hunt?" Xena asked. "With me as bait?"

"You remember the healer in that last village? She told me about this. Said it stopped infections and made the dressing easier to take off later. I've been wanting to try it." Gabrielle looked up, realised that Xena had snatched back her arm. "Humour me." She grinned. "It's not as though you couldn't handle a bear or two, after all."

"I prefer it in tea," Xena grumbled. But she lowered her arm, held it out.

"There," Gabrielle said, when she had finished. "All done. Who knows, perhaps we've made medical history here."

Xena examined her arm, then her friend. "Xena: warrior guinea pig?" Her voice sounded injured.

Gabrielle chuckled, then, suddenly unsure of herself, dropped her eyes. "I should have asked you first." She tried for a lighter tone. "I needn't put it in the story."

Xena placed a hand on each of Gabrielle's shoulders, dipping her head till her brow touched the bard's. "Nah," she said. "We're in this together."



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