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