No copyrights to characters owned by Universal, Renaissance, or anyone else were harmed during the production of this fanfic. I admit I took 'em, but I put 'em back where I found 'em an' I didn't even scratch the paint.
Thanks: To L.N. James for initial encouragement, and to her and Melissa Good for setting an example of quality for me.
Special and most particular thanks to the delightful Medora MacD, who BETA read the whole thing. If you'd read the initial version, you'd be grateful to her, too.
And, like everything in my life, personal thanks to Gail, also known as the Supreme Allied Commander for putting up with me this far.
Violence: The only violence in this little epic is of the natural, organic variety. Very nineties, very green, very environmentally positive. Nothing to send the kiddies out of the room for. Violate my copyright, though, and I'll see what I can do.
Other Fun Stuff: In the tradition of the show, the relationship between the characters is entirely ambiguous and inconclusive. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. Know what I mean? Know what I mean? Say no more, squire, *say!* **NO!!** ***MORE!!!*** A nod is as good as a wink to a blind bat!
Allergy Alert: This product is guaranteed Joxer-, Ulysses- and Caesar-free. May contain traces of Perdicus.
Feedback, constructive criticism, standing ovations, dinars, etc., always welcome. Email to email@example.com
There was no doubt that the tragedy turned on the decision to cross the high pass. Nor is there any doubt that crossing the high pass at that time of year was an error. But it would be unfair to suggest that it was a careless, thoughtless or arbitrary decision. Like most decisions that go horribly wrong, it was, above all, constrained by events outside of the actor's control, as random as the movement of a cloud on a sunny day, or the stumble of a horse in a shallow stream.
On a sunny afternoon in late October, two riders ambled down a winding track through a mountain meadow. The afternoon sun showed that they were travelling south, which meant that they were en route from the barbarian lands of the north to Macedon and, beyond it, the unquestioned peak of civilisation, Greece. An observer perched on the bank of a mountain stream, if there had been an observer, would have seen that one was much bigger and darker than the other. Eventually, he would see that the impression of darkness was created by the taller rider's black leather clothing and long, black hair. The smaller rider was blond and dressed in greens and browns. He would not, of course, have seen the emotional reality illustrated by the physical appearance.
As they drew nearer, he would have seen that they were two unescorted women, an occurrence rare enough to draw closer inspection. Their voices travelled in the clear mountain air, one high and the other low. If the observer were attuned to such distinctions, he might have recognised that they were speaking Greek as the educated spoke it, and he might wonder how two unescorted Greek women of at least moderately good families came to be so far from home in safety.
Before they reached him, however, it would be obvious that the dark woman was not only unusually tall, but broad-shouldered and muscular enough to give the most eager bandit pause. If the observer were ill-intentioned, he would have found no cause for reassurance in her accoutrements. Her leather tunic was worn but clean and covered in large part by a dull finished, spotless, bronze curraiss of good quality. The hilt of the long sword projecting over her right shoulder showed the wear of long use and the spotless smoothness of devoted care. An experienced warrior would also have remarked the bullwhip, equally worn, and shining metal quoit that hung at her right hip, convenient for instant use.
Her friend, although much smaller, unarmoured and clearly ill at ease on horseback, carried a stout wooden staff, polished smooth by long use, slung on her saddle. Whatever her equestrian experience, her handling of the staff indicated confidence and skill and suggested that she was not as delicate a bloom as she appeared at first sight.
If the observer had continued to watch, he would have seen the first act of the tragedy, which would reach its climax two months later in the high pass. He might even have warned them of the treacherous nature of the ford they were approaching, and so prevented the entire ordeal. But there was no observer, friendly or malign. In the first act, as in the last, the travellers were utterly alone.
They were returning from the Carpathian mountains, where Xena had spent the summer finding a way to remove a nocturnal, blood-drinking monster that had preyed for years on the peasants of the region. The villagers and their lords had been grateful for their release from terror, to the point of keeping the bargain they had made in the spring. As they walked their horses down the mountain track in the golden sunshine of an autumn late afternoon, Xena felt an unaccustomed weight in the pack on her back. The weight came from a solid, well-wrapped parcel of silver and gold coins, more money than she had had since she had turned from plunder as a way of life three years earlier. More was tucked into their saddlebags. Gabrielle carried a supply of small coins in her pouch, enough to enable her to bargain in the towns they passed without revealing their wealth to all and sundry.
The one thing that Xena regretted as they made their way down the mountain was that Argo was not along for the journey. They had come north by ship up the Adriatic Sea and hired or bought cheap mounts as they wanted or needed them. The quality of horses available was widely variable, and at the moment Xena was fully occupied with a bay whose personality was deteriorating as the hours passed. She was less concerned about Gabrielle's pony, which, if less inspiring, was also less antagonistic. Her inattention to the pony was perhaps her first really serious error.
They were making good time on their journey. Xena mentally calculated that in another week they would reach the port where they had disembarked months earlier. They would then reach Athens or Corinth well before the onset of winter. This was as well, as the provinces they were travelling through (Illyria? Dalmatia? Even the locals were vague on where borders lay.) showed signs of increasing poverty, even famine. The routine purchase of supplies, while far from ruinous, was making an increasing dent in the small fortune they were carrying.
Then, in a rushing mountain stream in a green highland meadow, on a sunny afternoon while they were at peace with the world, disaster struck. They were never sure, afterwards, why it occurred. Gabrielle's pony may been dazzled by the sunlit water. It may have been betrayed by some irregularity of the ford. It certainly spooked and fell, throwing her into the rushing water. Xena's ill-tempered bay reacted to the crash behind it by rearing and then plunging. Distracted by Gabrielle's plight, the warrior landed in the stream beside her friend. Immediately, the current rolled her off the rock ledge that formed the ford into the swirling water downstream. Before her head bobbed to the surface, Xena had shrugged out of the pack. As she felt the bottom under her feet she thrust herself downstream in a blind, shallow dive and her frantic efforts were rewarded as her right hand tangled in Gabrielle's hair. Knowing her friend's inability to swim, she shouted "Relax," and got a mouthful of water for her trouble. She then rolled on her back and towed the bard face up to the bank. As Gabrielle retched and coughed on the bank, Xena stripped off her armour and ran back up the hill to the ford. She could see the horses swimming ashore about a hundred paces further down stream. Their harness appeared intact, but the saddlebags were gone. Reaching the ford, she dove into the water again, this time searching the bottom as the current tumbled her down the stream.
Xena repeated the same process three times. Each time, she stayed underwater as long as her burning lungs would allow and then struck out for the bank to run back up the hill and try again. After her third prolonged stay at the bottom of the river, she was exhausted. As she swallowed water and splashed frantically, her hand closed over the familiar contours of Gabrielle's staff. It was all she could do to hold her face above water as her companion, standing more than knee deep in the stream, towed her to the shallows. With the strength that had surprised more than one warrior in the past, Gabrielle dragged her larger friend onto the bank. She then stood clear, while Xena coughed and vomited until her stomach was empty of the river water and her lungs clear to breathe again. She knew from past experience that Xena hated any sort of physical weakness or illness and would not thank her for any contact until she had recovered some self control.
As the warrior rose to her feet again, water running from her tunic and hair, they both turned to look at the river. It was clear that there was no point in Xena returning to the flood: there was nothing left for her to retrieve. As they contemplated in silence the ruin of their dreams, Gabrielle found herself edging closer to the comfort of her companion's presence, until her arm slipped around the waist of her friend's soaked leathers. She was not sure if she was seeking to give or receive comfort, but she was grateful for the heavy arm that descended on her shoulders.
"I think," said Xena at last, "you saved my life. Again."
"I know you saved mine. We're even, again."
Xena finally opened the tinder box and, with a grimace of disgust, poured the water out of it. Checking that the flint and steel would still make a good spark, she turned to the forest. "We need dry tinder," she said, and walked, dripping and heedless of the cool breeze, into the trees.
Gabrielle spread the meagre remains of their possessions on the bank to dry in the sun. Xena's pack, split and emptied by the current, Xena's weapons, her own staff, a soaked tinderbox, three cooking pots and about five dinars in small coins was all that remained of all their goods. Their blankets, although soaked, were still tied behind the saddles. The rest was washed away in the torrent. As if to emphasise the loss, the two horses ambled up the hill and stood, docile and shaking, a few yards from her.
Xena had time to consider their situation at length while she sought the birches and pines that would supply fire lighters. Her dreams of returning to Greece in prosperity had just vanished in the nameless torrent. Indeed, it was clear that their chances of buying passage home were gone, too. And it was undeniable that they were in some trouble. It could be worse, she thought, as she carved long strips of bark off a birch. We're not seriously hurt, and there's still time left before winter. We are poor again, but we know how to do that. And there is every reason to hope that we will get home again.
Gabrielle, meantime, was shivering in the cool mountain air. This is a mess, she thought. I should never have persuaded Xena that I could ride back to the sea. We're a long way from home, and I have no idea how we're going to get home now. She turned and smiled as her friend returned, her hands full of birch bark and punk. Have faith, Gabrielle! You have a partner with MANY skills! And a couple of your own. I can't think of anyone I'd rather have beside me in a tight spot. We'll get home, somehow.
Their spirits recovered as a blazing fire dried their clothing. They still had the horses, such as they were, they were unhurt, and, if nothing further went wrong, they would easily make their way back to Greece by land. Although it was not their favourite mode of proceeding, they both had ample experience in living off the land. In reasonably good spirits, they walked the horses down the trail to a village in the valley below.
"So what do we do now?" Gabrielle asked as they walked down the hill.
"We go home," Xena replied, "I'll have to find a way of making our passage, but we'll get home. You'll spend the winter solstice in Potideia." I hope, she added to herself. But the gods alone know how we'll manage it. There's no denying we'll be hungry before we see Greece again.
"Never fear!" said the bard, in her sternest, most heroic voice. "I perceive a rustic village below us. Where there's a village . . . there's an inn! Where there's an inn . . . there's an audience! Where there's an audience, Gabrielle the Bard will never want for food, shelter, money and . . . applause!" She paused dramatically, arms outstretched to receive the accolades of her anticipated listeners. She looked around, as if noticing Xena for the first time. "Oh, and her friend gets to eat, too," she added.
"I didn't mean for you to have to work on this trip, Gabrielle. I'm sorry I persuaded you to ride." Xena's amusement was overridden by a growing sense of the difficulty of their position and a worm of guilt that she had let it happen. But Gabrielle had been so insistent that she was getting more comfortable on the back of a horse, and she had not had the heart to make her friend walk through the ford.
"It is as less than nothing, Xena." Gabrielle laughed, driven by her friend's gloom to spoof her own technique. "We've wrestled with, yea, and overcome worse than this, and I am still well pleased to be your own personal bard," she said pausing to deliver the most ornate of bows to her friend. In spite of her fears, Xena found Gabrielle's teasing infectious, and their laughter preceded them down the hillside.
They found little reason to laugh as they rode down the dusty street that made up the village. The passing faces wore the haggard look of engrained poverty. Barns in need of repair and fields where no harvest was under way or which held no crop to harvest, gave way to naked, bony children, silent, unsmiling women, men armed against nameless dangers and closed doors, closed mouths, closed faces all around them.
The explanation was not far to seek.
They entered a run down, two story building whose weathered sign might at one time have indicated an inn. Gabrielle, her best, dazzling, professional smile in place, struck up a conversation with the gaunt, reserved man behind the bar. A skinny innkeeper, Xena thought. This can't be a good sign. On that, at least, she was proved right. Charmed by Gabrielle's open, smiling face, the innkeeper unbent enough to tell them what they already suspected.
"You picked the wrong year to tour these parts," he said. "Of course, they've all been wrong years, lately. The harvest is under way right now, what there is of it. If it fails again, and it looks like it will, that will be seven straight years without a full harvest. People are hungry and likely to get hungrier. And since the fever went through last planting season, well, there aren't a lot of men left who want to make a living honestly. Still, there are some of them have found other trades and some of them may still have a dinar left."
"What kind of trade will prosper in the midst of famine and sickness?" The words were out of Gabrielle's mouth before she realised she had spoken. "I mean, they can't all be gravediggers, can they?"
"Bandits." Xena entered the conversation unannounced and stayed just long enough to kill it.
The innkeeper's eyes narrowed as he evaluated his taciturn customer's armour, weapons, scars, calluses and size. He came quickly to the conclusion that freedom of speech was likely to prevail, at least with this speaker. "There's no call to make those kind of accusations," he muttered. "Especially as far from home as you are." The silence hung over them.
I was right, Xena thought. And he's warning me that there's no local authority to keep them in check if I shoot my mouth off around them. And he's afraid that if I offend some of his 'customers' he won't have an inn left to keep when it's over.
"Well," said Gabrielle, brightly ignoring her friend's contribution, "If they have money, the question is how to get them to bring it in here and spend it. What you need is an attraction, an entertainment."
"Not necessarily. The last time we tried that, let's see, last year, some time in the spring, we let a pan flautist play one evening. They nearly wrecked the common room when he threatened to play an encore."
Gabrielle's eyes darted in the direction of her friend. Xena was the picture of wide-eyed innocence. "Well, the pan flute is an acquired taste," she conceded. "Even in Athens it is appreciated only by the finest connoisseurs of the performing arts. And the things that people do to it! There's a reason that shepherds are proverbially solitary." She and the publican joined in a chuckle at the expense of esoteric artists. "No, what you want is something everybody loves. Something they'll stay all evening for. Something they will fetch their friends in for: A bard!"
The innkeeper sniffed. "A bard? People don't want a bard. Besides, if he's any good, people forget to drink and I end up losing money on the night."
Xena smiled inwardly. Negotiations had just begun, although the innkeeper might not have been fully aware of that fact, and Gabrielle would have an audience tonight.
Half an hour later, Gabrielle was engaged to tell tales that night. The innkeeper was still dubious about the value of a bard, and a female bard he clearly thought of as a contradiction in terms. The talents of a bard, even one as skilled as Gabrielle claimed to be, he made clear, were a luxury, in a land that had neither the leisure nor the wealth for luxuries. Still, one by one, he found himself conceding the important points to her.
"I'm a fair man," he insisted, "and of course I'm a supporter of civilised entertainment."
Gabrielle's face shone with her admiration of a man who could maintain an interest in culture in such a backwater.
Xena smirked at his back. You're a supporter of beautiful girls with long, strawberry hair and sea-green eyes who keep smiling at you and making you laugh, she thought. Of course, I can hardly throw stones, she admitted to herself, her smirk shifting to a rueful smile as she admired her companion's negotiating skills . . . and other weapons of persuasion. I'm a supporter of the same cause. And much more committed to it than I ever thought I could be.
"I tell you what," he eventually said, with an air of unquestionable finality, "You tell stories for the length of time it takes these two candles to burn, and I'll let you stay the night. We'll split everything the crowd gives you. And I'll even cut my usual rates for the room." The discussion was over. He had made up his mind, and there was clearly no point in Gabrielle even trying to budge him.
Gabrielle's smile reflected her joy at finding such kindness among strangers.
Nice try, Xena thought. She's just getting warmed up. A fleeting trace of amused pity crossed her face. He really doesn't know what he's up against.
After a further half hour, the innkeeper agreed to provide a hot dinner, and a substantial breakfast and a room that they would not have to share with any other travellers, and to let Gabrielle keep any tips from the audience.
Now Gabrielle's tone changed. Now she was inspired by his generosity. She thanked him profusely for his vision and culture. She asked nothing more than the chance to justify his faith in the arts. She would produce an entertainment worthy of such a patron. She promised lavishly that the entire town would be there, that they would eat and drink until their last drachma was in his till. Eyes shining, she skipped to the door and went out into the main street to make the first announcement of her performance.
Xena stayed in her seat, it being understood that six feet of heavily armed muscle and leather, topped by smouldering blue eyes, was inconsistent with the gentle appeal that Gabrielle would be making in the street. As she passed, Xena saw her left eyelid flutter once in the slightest wink possible.
I saw you, Xena thought. You got everything he had to offer and quit, leaving him thinking he had beaten you. If we stayed here a month you would own the inn, and he would think it was his idea.
But we're not staying, she thought. I'm taking you home to Greece before winter hits. She considered the magnitude of the challenge before them. I hope I'm taking you home before winter, she corrected herself.
The innkeeper eyed Xena covertly after Gabrielle left, trying to divine her place in the scheme of things. Eventually he appeared to make up his mind, and his manner to Xena shifted subtly. Now he addressed her in confidential, understanding tones, one entrepreneur to another, about the difficulties of trade, the absence of security for goods, the need to be on one's guard against the dangers, physical and commercial, that beset an honest purveyor of goods.
I wonder where that came from, Xena thought, until light dawned, bringing with it a spasm of irritation. You think you've figured it out. You've decided that 'warrior' and 'bard' are euphemisms for 'pimp' and 'whore.' Still getting it wrong. No wonder Gabrielle rolled you. You don't have a clue about people. Not that I care what you think, as long as you keep it to yourself.
Xena's insight was unerring. The only question in the innkeeper's mind was whether he should broach the subject openly, but he had a dim, unformed apprehension of something in Xena's smouldering presence that suggested that freedom of speech might be overrated in this instance, and he did not express his views, at least overtly.
When all's said and done, he told himself, business is business. I'm not going to sit in judgement. I certainly have no objection to any attraction that might bring a dinar into the house. They're only meeting a need. But I will get a cut of any of that sort of business in my house. It's only fair.
Inspiration struck. But, he thought cunningly, I'll wait until they start it. She'll tell the stories first. Then, when they start the real business, I'll tell them they've broken our agreement, and insist on a cut if they want to stay the night. Either I get the stories for free, or I get a cut of the business they do after.
He bustled about, congratulating himself on his perspicacity. Xena sat impassively waiting for her friend's return.
So began six weeks of struggle to survive. Every day, they plodded southward as long as the shortening days gave light. Every night, Gabrielle told her tales in an inn, if possible, in a tavern more often, and occasionally in the streets. Too often, three hours of Gabrielle's best tales earned no more than a corner of a common room in an extremely common tavern, with whatever food the publican had despaired of selling or, for that matter, eating. Most nights, Xena slept, if the light doze that she dared to indulge in could be called sleep, with her back in a corner, her pack under one arm and Gabrielle's head in her lap, her eyes half shut and half on the riff raff with whom they shared the fading warmth of the common room fire.
The days were hard enough, but predictable. The world went its implacable course, and Xena and Gabrielle dealt with the usual challenges that two women travelling alone were used to.
What Xena had not counted on was the ghosts that haunted her nights. The hours of staring into the gloom of a nearly black common room, keeping track by sight and hearing (and frequently smell) of the sleepers around her, gave her ample opportunity to contemplate the past and the future.
The future was quickly dealt with. We'll get up in the morning and walk south on the best route we can find. With any luck, we'll get something to eat.
The past was more difficult to dispose of. The ghosts of her shortcomings became regular visitors in the small, cold hours of the night.
She really loved Perdicus. All you could think about was how you felt. All you could do was wallow in your own jealousy. You were there for the wedding, you just weren't there for her, not in any way that mattered. You never have been, when she needed you.
A peddler snored nearby.
You were even too hurt even to make arrangements for their safety. You knew Callisto was around. You knew she'd come looking for us. You should have escorted them away from her. But you wanted to 'give them their privacy.' HA! You couldn't stand the look of happiness on her face when she looked at him. It was killing you to think she chose that farm boy over the Lion of Amphipolis. It wasn't your heart that was broken. It was your pride.
A mercenary on the far side of the room muttered in his sleep. Wanna swap nightmares, buddy?
She would never have gone near Krafstar if you had paid attention to her. The corollary followed. Krafstar would never have gone near her if you had been paying attention.
Outside the inn, a small animal screamed, a scream that ended abruptly in a flutter of heavy wings. Did you think you were special, little creature?
I thought I was special once. I was the Chosen of Ares. I was the Destroyer of Nations. I was the Warrior Princess. Now I'm a former warlord with no money, no army, no horse, no food, no future, dying by the inch in a place that doesn't even have a name.
Gabrielle stirred in her sleep, her head moving where it was pillowed on Xena's thigh. And I'm taking her with me as I go down. I told her that people in my business don't worry about grey hair. That's the worst of it. I could live with Cirra. I could live with Corinth. I could live with the memories of Lyceus and Marcus and Borias and Lao Ma. I could even live with the memory of Solan. I could live with it all. But the only real change I've made in the world is that I've destroyed Gabrielle in the process.
She's the best thing that ever happened to me. She's the best person I've ever met. She's done so much for me and never counted the cost to herself. I've done every kind of harm imaginable to her in return. Even now, I've led her into a death trap, and she just keeps on trusting me. She'll trust me until I get her killed.
Something rattled in the cooling chimney. I can't accept that. There has to be a way to get her out of here. There must be. Someone like her can't just die because of the stupidity of someone like me.
Somewhere in the night, an owl, freshly fed on the flesh of a nameless victim, hooted its derision of her resolve.
The lot of a travelling bard was never easy in the best of times. In the hunger country in which they found themselves, between a failed harvest and a starvation winter, it was not surprising that even Gabrielle's best efforts were insufficient to support two hungry travellers. Her youth and beauty brought other methods of earning a living to mind, at least to some of the strangers they met, but the blaze in Xena's eyes completely discouraged offers of that nature before they were made.
The price of forage meant that the horses were sold within days, but animals with large appetites did not command a great market in the face of an impending winter. They were followed by the cooking utensils, one by one.
Hungry, usually wet, increasingly cold, eating food they would have turned their noses up at six weeks earlier, it was not surprising that they both fell victim to some of the fevers and other physical complaints that attend famine and war. Both were skilled healers, but with neither herbs nor medicines, neither shelter nor adequate food, even the most skilled healer is powerless. By the end of November, their situation was grim, if not yet desperate.
Xena's skills, of course, were more marketable in desperate times. As she sat in a tavern one evening in early December, listening to Gabrielle's performance, she was invited to supper by a greasy little man in expensive, but ancient and unwashed clothing. His stoutness among such a hungry population was remarkable. His proposition was predictable.
He poured wine generously with an ingratiating smile, but the expressionless stare of the Warrior Princess did not help the small talk. He did not wait for their food to arrive before getting to the point.
"I have, ah, business problems, you see. I'm a generous man, you know, ah, generous to a fault. My late wife, may the gods bless her soul, always said I would, ah, ruin myself with generosity. And if I can't solve the present, ah, difficulty, ah, she'll be right, no doubt about it, she'll be right."
He certainly has some worries. He's literally wringing his hands. And I haven't even reached for a weapon, yet.
The warrior glanced casually around the common room and took in the glares of the villagers. She was surprised by the naked hostility in their eyes. How has he aroused such feeling in the entire town? "Let me guess," she interrupted. "You have generously lent money to your starving neighbours." The red wine he poured for her was rich and complex in flavour and very strong; clearly it was not a vintage that the publican had drawn on deeply in recent times.
He leapt at her lead. "Yes, out of the softness of my heart, if not my head, I have tried to, ah, help them through these, ah, difficult times. But oh! the path to ruin! I do not know how I will survive the winter, now." He poured more of the rich wine for each of them.
"And now they can't pay you back." The stench of the slug's breath and the strength of the wine left her light-headed and even nauseous. He's got more dinner on his robe than Gabrielle ate last night, she thought.
That Gabrielle had eaten so little the previous evening was something else that Xena blamed herself for. Carelessness, she thought, nothing but unmitigated, inexcusable carelessness on my part.
It was a simple trick and had become a regular part of Xena's evening routine over the last month. Go out to the well as Gabrielle is getting ready to start her performance. Drink as much water as you can hold. Watch the speed of the kitchen. Order the dinner so that it arrives before she finishes her last tale. Surreptitiously, while she holds her audience with eye contact, put half your dinner on Gabrielle's plate as soon as possible after it arrives. Lift it off, don't slide it. Sliding leaves smear marks on the edge of your plate, and she'll catch you. Stir around what's left on your plate so that it looks like the remains of a much larger meal. Put one small bite in your mouth just as Gabrielle approaches. A dribble of juice or sauce on your chin is very convincing. Look guilty. Apologise profusely for being too hungry to wait. Get teased about whose appetite is limitless now. After dinner, get another big drink of water, and your stomach feels full as you go to sleep. Sort of full, anyway. At least you can sleep, most nights. Eventually. It's foolproof. A piece of cake. A child of six could do it.
But the previous evening, as she apologised for starting without her, she realised that Gabrielle was not teasing her. The folded arms, the glare from sea-green eyes, the storm clouds on the smooth forehead shouted, clearer than any words, that the bard was powerfully upset about something. What? I paid attention. I sat still. I didn't distract the listeners. What?
"Xena, does this dinner have legs?"
"Uh, no, not that I've found so far, but I wouldn't be surprised. Look, Gabrielle, I'm really sorry, but it came, and I was sitting here looking at it, and smelling it, and it wasn't going to get any warmer, and I was so hun-"
"Then how did it leave little footprints from your plate to mine?"
Xena looked down at the table. There were drops of congealing juice in three neat, precise, little lines running from one trencher to the other. She had not seen them in the dim firelight that filtered through Gabrielle's audience. Now that the crowd had dispersed, to their homes or to the bar, they gleamed like incriminating jewels dropped by a careless thief. Oops. How angry is she? Biting her lower lip, Xena snuck a look at Gabrielle without lifting her head. The Lion of Amphipolis looked for all the world like a guilty child.
"And what is it in the local food that makes you such a sloppy eater? You never had any trouble getting it in your mouth before, but the last four weeks or so, you keep hitting your face." Gabrielle reached out and wiped her friend's chin with one gentle finger, and licked off the dribble of juice. "Ugh. Am I expected to believe that the taste of this was so irresistible that you couldn't wait?" Even allowing for the sudden sweat on her friend's face, it was pretty bad.
"Well," Xena started uncertainly, to try to retrieve the situation. "It's just that you have been working so hard." Weak, really weak, we have to do better than that. "You perform for hours every night." Better, but not good enough. "And you have been supporting us for more than a month." That's more like it. "And if you don't keep your strength up, we're in real trouble." There, that ought to do it.
"Oh, I've been doing all the work, have I? I need to keep my strength up, do I? And I suppose those three bandits we met yesterday succumbed to my oratory? Remind me." Gabrielle's chin rested on her finger as she contemplated the rafters. "Was it the love poetry or the epics that finished them?" Without waiting for an answer, Gabrielle was raking the lion's share of the dinner back on to Xena's plate.
I forgot about them. Desperation. "Gabrielle, you're making a scene. People are looking at us."
That killer smile, the one she could never say no to as the blonde bent over and said quietly, "Then eat your dinner like a good little Warrior Princess and they'll stop looking." She sat at last and started on her own dinner. "Honestly, Xena, I'm not a child." The smile was gone. "I wish you would stop treating me like one." They ate in silence.
And I thought that innkeeper was in over his head. She sounds so much like Cyrene when she does that. I guess there's only one thing for it. I hate to do this, but . . .
Shortly after, Xena developed hiccups. She excused herself quickly and returned with a cup of cool water. She sat in the nearest chair and pulled her dinner across the table to her. They continued eating in silence.
As Gabrielle finished her dinner, she glanced at her companion and looked straight into two wide, cerulean eyes in complete Kicked Puppy mode. It's a good thing she has her back to the room for once. I don't think that look is likely to enhance the fearsome reputation of the 'Destroyer of Nations,' even in retirement.
In self-defence, she dropped her eyes to Xena's plate. It was still half full. "Stop it, Xena! Eat your dinner!" she hissed. You'd think I was stealing her dinner, not giving it back.
She looked at the hands she had come to know like her own. The warrior was silent. She was only looking out for me.
She looked at her own plate, cleaned of all trace of food. But she was patronising me. I'm not a little girl who eats before the grown ups. I'm NOT going to look her in the eyes again until she stops.
Her eyes wandered to the long black hair falling over her friend's shoulders. But she only did it because she really does care. And I was awfully hard on her, all things considered.
Inadvertently, her eyes met Xena's again, and got a second dose of the Kicked Puppy. Oh Poseidon and little fishes! In a minute she'll start with the chin quivering. There she goes. This is sooo not fair! "Okay, okay, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you." There was no response.
"Cut it out, Xena! You're not funny," she whispered urgently. "I mean it!" Her friend did not seem to hear.
"Okay, okay," she sighed, "but only one spoonful." She reached out to Xena's plate but stopped when she realised her friend's look had not changed. "Two spoonfuls, then," she said desperately. "Just stop looking at me like that."
"Two spoonfuls." Xena's spoon was halfway to Gabrielle's mouth bearing a veritable Parnassus of food before the bard saw the twinkle in the blue eyes.
For the first time since we met, she sits with her back to the room, and I think it's just coincidence, Gabrielle thought, chewing. "I've just been rolled, haven't I, Xena?" A second, equally large, helping landed before she could get her mouth closed. How do you balance that much food on that spoon? Another of your many skills? She swallowed, finally. The look in her friend's eyes was all the reply she needed. "Don't answer that."
The usurer was saying something in response to her guess. "So they say, so they say. But, ah, you know what these, ah, peasants are like." The man's voice took on a wheedling tone. "All smiles when they want something, all, ah, denial when it is time to pay it back. Soft words and, ah, kindness are of no use with them, I'm afraid."
"So you want someone to use more direct methods of persuasion." The food had not yet arrived. The wine was stronger than she had been able to afford in some time and her head grew light. Careful, old girl, you're a long way from home, and it doesn't look like you're going to win any popularity contests in this town while you are drinking with this leech. Keep it under control.
"You understand, ah, exactly! Regrettable! So regrettable! No one, ah, regrets the necessity more than I, I assure you! If only there were some, ah, more reasonable way of, ah, reaching, ah, an accommodation. But it's a matter of, ah, survival now, I fear."
"So what's in it for me?"
"Well, ah, food. You're hungry. I can feed you. So if nothing else, at least food and shelter for the winter," responded the little usurer. "My, ah, associates eat well, which is more than most are doing these days. And a reasonable, ah, hiring price. And. . ." He paused.
Wait for it, wait for it, here it comes.
His hand, soft and damp as a rotten melon, settled gently on hers. "There is, ah, always the chance of a, ah, partnership, if the, ah, appropriate terms could be, ah, worked out. I'm, ah, all alone, you know. I'm, ah, not a, ah, young man. I have no, ah, heir."
The sound of the words was even more revolting than she anticipated. The wine in her empty stomach churned. For a moment she thought she would vomit, publicly and spectacularly, on the fat toad smirking at her across the table. As she regained control, she withdrew her hand from under his and said evenly, "I already have a partner." She glanced at the bard. Unfed and exhausted, Gabrielle still held the room in thrall by sheer will.
The usurer's voice hardened, the hesitation gone with his smile. "She needs to eat, too. I'll wager that greedy pig behind the bar is not going to let either of you get fat tonight, is he?" Xena weakened. She and Gabrielle had both lost weight in the last six weeks, walking all day and eating little better than table scraps at night. Her own condition she accepted as a matter of course, but the change in Gabrielle broke her heart.
Her host's eyes flicked over Gabrielle's face, worlds of expression passing before her audience where she sat by the fire, her hair glinting in the soft light. He looked back at Xena where she sat like a statue with her back to the wall. But the warrior, for once, was not watching the bard. Her eyes were on the usurer, and she saw the flicker of lust behind the bulging, toad-like, blue eyes.
Biting off the satisfaction of an appropriate retort, she said simply, "I'll get back to you," and rose to leave the table.
"Don't wait too long. You're not the only sword looking for work this winter." The softness of the earlier offer was replaced by an edge of steel. Her anger surged and her hand twitched for a sword hilt as she experienced a sudden and almost overwhelming urge to decapitate him where he sat. Everyone in the room would applaud if I did, she thought. She looked at Gabrielle. Except the one who matters.
Without a word she crossed to the corner where she had been sitting alone, careful not to show the light-headedness brought on by strong wine on an empty stomach. The blood red wine still sat on the usurer's table behind her.
The next day they climbed in silence through a forested valley in a light mist that left them soaked to the skin by mid afternoon. Gabrielle was uncharacteristically silent, her eyes on the path ahead of her, her mind consumed by an unwavering determination to keep up with the strides of her taller friend. Hunger and cold gave her no strength for the creativity and speculation that had brightened so many days together on the road.
Her mind wandered. At one time she thought she was following Lila home through a storm the week after Solstice. She was puzzled that her sister was so tall and was wearing armour instead of her usual peasant dress. It was only when she looked up at the woman striding ahead of her that she thought to herself, That's the warrior princess, Xena. I hope she'll take me with her. I couldn't bear to be left behind in Potidiea. I hope she's forgiven me for betraying her to Ming Tien. The last three years came back to her with a snap, and she staggered. She saw Xena's head snap around, her eyes dark with worry. She gave the warrior her best smile, although she was too tired to speak.
That's IT, Xena decided. I need to get her under cover before she collapses. But where?
Xena's mind raced with worry about her friend's condition, and how to get her home safely. Scores of notions were eliminated, dozens of ideas examined, and as the afternoon wore on, the seed of a fateful plan began to germinate.
The day was too overcast to have a real sunset, but as the sky darkened, they found themselves approaching a stone fortress situated on a rocky outcrop. Good siting, Xena thought instinctively. It can't be undermined in less than a year, and they've cleared the land for two hundred yards from the walls. They've kept it clear, too. Whoever runs this place has a grip on things. Rather than spend the night in the cold and wet, they approached the fortress and arrived just as a guard was swinging a massive gate closed.
He stopped and picked up a heavy spear, holding it horizontally across his body. "Who are you and what do you want?" he snarled.
Xena considered the man. I could take him, but he's certainly not alone. And Gabrielle needs food and a fire, not a night in a damp dungeon. "My name is Xena. My friend and I are going home to Greece. We need shelter for the night."
"Greeks? We don't need beggars and we don't need whores. Get on your way or I'll gut you."
Broadminded and hospitable, Xena thought. She stood motionless, her hands empty. "My friend is exhausted. She needs shelter," she said simply.
"That's not my problem. Get moving."
"I could make it your problem."
The guard paused. This he had not expected. He looked more closely at the stranger. She was big, for a woman, but he was bigger. He was pretty sure that he was younger, although her face had taken on the agelessness of perfect stillness, and he could tell he was better fed. Why, then, was she standing there so calmly? Was she inviting him to start a fight? There was a look in her eye that he found strangely disconcerting, as though she were the fortress, standing there in the path, and he were the stranger at the gate. Something in the back of his brain screamed that something was wrong, that he had missed something, that this was a deadly trap. He considered his options. Taking a deep breath, he screamed "Guard! Guard! Guard!" in a massive voice. The shout would have been more terrifying if his voice had not cracked on the third repetition.
There was no denying its effectiveness, however. As the two women stood motionless, a dozen or more ruffians, in no apparent uniform, ran from inside the fortress and formed a double line on either side of their comrade. Having done so, they stopped, weapons drawn, in confusion. They had expected a band of men, not two women, and they had thought to find a fight in progress. Two strangers standing quietly at the gate were not included in their training. They stared at the two women, who stared back.
This is an improvement, Xena thought. Whoever is in charge can't be less inclined to help than the gate guard.
As they stood there, it was perhaps inevitable that a snicker started in the ranks of the guard. "What happened, Milo, she threaten to kiss you?" someone muttered.
Xena couldn't see who spoke, but the result was a nervous giggle through the ranks. She smiled gently and shrugged, raising her eyebrows. The laughter became general. So far, so good.
The laughter ended as a tall man loomed above the rear rank. His grey hair fell past his shoulders. A full white beard spread across a fur robe. "Milo, what's happening here?"
"These two beggars won't move on, my Lord. The taller one is armed. I didn't want to take any chances."
The big man stepped through the ranks of the guards. His right hand held a naked sword, his left a round leather shield. He looked up and down Xena and Gabrielle. "Who are you?" he finally asked.
"Xena of Amphipolis."
"What are you doing here?"
"We are going home to Greece. We asked for shelter for the night."
"Xena." The man gazed thoughtfully at her. "You rode to Chin with a chieftain of the steppes. What was his name?"
"Where is he now?"
"Dead. Killed by one of his lieutenants."
"He wasn't the kind of man who lets that happen."
"He was trying to rescue me."
"You don't look like the kind of woman who lets that happen."
"I was distracted. I was giving birth to his son."
There was a long pause. "Where is his son?"
"That happens, with children." The grey-haired man looked off into the forest behind Xena. Half to himself, he continued, "Borias was captain of my guard fifteen years ago, until the urge to wander took him again. He was young enough to be my son."
He turned to the guards. "Milo, find these travellers a place to stay. They will eat in the hall tonight."
An hour later, nearly dry and partly warm, they sat in his hall with his servants before a roaring fire, wolfing down a meal of thin broth and coarse, black bread, sliced thin and shared among many. From the high table, where the lord of the fortress ate with his favoured friends, the smells of veritable feast of beef, mutton, pork, warm, white bread, strong beer and good wine wafted past them. It was clear that not all of the suffering had been equally distributed.
During dinner, Xena was aware of the scrutiny of their host. He's planning something, she thought. Otherwise he would either have us at his table or he'd have thrown us out. He wants something. She glanced surreptitiously at Gabrielle, as if to reassure herself that her companion had not been spirited away during the meal. After dinner a cringing retainer came to confirm her identity, and returned later with an summons to the noble presence.
They joined him on the parapet of the stone fortress. The clouds had cleared as they ate and Gabrielle revelled in the rain-washed air. The fortress commanded a view of the land in every direction. As they watched the surrounding valleys darken in the gloaming, the proposition came. "I could use a woman like you in my service," said their host.
"And just what . . . position . . . did you have in mind?" asked Xena, the previous evening's conversation still in her mind.
He laughed, quietly. "Nothing like that, I assure you. I am unmarried, and I freely admit you are a . . . fascinating woman in every way." His smile disarmed his words, eyes twinkling above full beard. "But what I need, more than physical pleasure, is loyalty and capability. I need someone who can keep the peace in my lands. The peasants are made bold by their hardship. Too many of them no longer fear my law."
"Perhaps they fear hunger more." Hunger had not quenched Gabrielle's wits. Satiety had not smothered her sense of fairness.
Their host turned on the little blonde, as if he had only just noticed a third person present. "They have to fear something. Fear is the only thing that controls them. This year they don't pay their taxes, they don't do the labour the law requires -- you've seen the state of the roads -- and they don't keep my peace. They traffic with bandits. Hades knows, half of them ARE bandits if they think I'm not watching! People die of chaos as surely as they do of disease or starvation."
The lord warmed to his theme, turning back to the warrior. His heavy hands gripped the parapet. "I own all the land you can see from here, in every direction. But the ownership is only as effective as I can make it. I can't be everywhere at once. Two of my five barons died of fever this year. A third was ambushed and killed by bandits. Their seats are vacant with no heirs. The other two are ruled in name only by boys who won't need to shave for five years. The peasants know that I'm not covering my territory. I have soldiers - yes, and thugs -" this to Gabrielle, "in abundance. But Milo, for all his shortcomings, is one of the brighter men in my service. I don't have leaders. I need leaders. I need a Borias. Or a Xena."
He calmed gazing on the green hill below them. His voice dropped and his hands spread wide in appeal to Xena's reason. "How much longer do you want to wander the earth, Xena? I can set you up in a barony -- or in two or three baronies -- now, tonight, and give you fresh horses to reach your castle this time tomorrow. You can be mistress of all the land you see from the peak of your castle. You'll have a free hand in everything internal. Run them the way they need to be run, and get the taxes out of them. I know you can do it. I know your reputation. All I need is for you to swear loyalty to me as your lord, and they are yours. Not in the name of some man, but yours for yourself. Just say the word."
Xena looked at her host. She was warm and dry; her stomach announced that it could get used to regular meals again. The land below her glistened invitingly with the freshness of the day's rain. He's no saint, but he's honest enough that he will deliver his side of the bargain. Baroness Xena. It has a ring to it. Her eyes strayed to her companion. She was startled to see concern, even, fear in the green eyes.
Their host misinterpreted Xena's glance. "Take her with you, by all means. Call her your bard, your housekeeper, your chancellor, your chatelaine. It's all one to me. I don't tell you how to run your affairs, as long as you run mine to my satisfaction. Do we have a deal?"
'Run them the way they need to be run, and get the taxes out of them.' That's plain enough. Drive them and sweat them and thrive on their labour. 'As long as you run mine to my satisfaction.' He means it. She looked at Gabrielle again. She saw the effect of prolonged hunger. It had been, she realised with a shock, exactly six weeks that night since Gabrielle had overwhelmed an innkeeper and first told her tales in return for a meal and a bed. Six weeks of hard travelling and constant privation. She looked into Gabrielle's eyes and saw fear, not of starvation but of comfort bought at too great a cost. The gods know, I've terrorised and robbed enough peasants in my life, but I never pretended that I had any power to do so beyond the edge of my sword. I never set out to make one area's life hell for a generation. I never pretended it was right. To do it in cold blood, systematically . . .
"You are too generous, sir. And I have to be fair to you. I'm not the administrative type. I do well in short campaigns, and I have a flair for destruction, but I'd be a disaster as a ruler." She looked back at Gabrielle. That lie, I think, she'll forgive. She doesn't want to see me become a tyrant, even if it means her own survival. She can live with the hunger in her belly. I hope I can.
Her host sighed. "I won't put a knife to your throat. But I think you underestimate yourself. If you change your mind, let me know." His eyes strayed to Gabrielle. "Domestic life does have its advantages."
They left the next morning and continued south in the cool autumn sunshine. The night found them less well placed. In a tired looking collection of huts, they identified a filthy, crowded hovel that claimed to be a tavern. There, the competition made its bid.
Five men appeared out of the crowd, each bigger, dirtier, rougher and more heavily armed than the last, and sat at Xena's table without invitation. The largest and least appealing of the assortment jerked his head in the direction of Gabrielle, where she was enthralling the locals with a tale of an Athenian outpost besieged by the Horde. "She called you Xena. That your name?"
Caution. "Who wants to know?"
"Just some potential partners." A colleague elbowed him, hard. He smiled, revealing three bad teeth and worse breath. "Followers. Potential followers."
"I'm not in the leader business any more."
"That's a mistake, Xena, and there's not much room for mistakes around here this winter. You're the Chosen of Ares. Any group you lead prospers. Very few people around here are going to prosper this winter. Name your terms, and the god of war will look after the details."
"I have no ambition to be a bandit."
Her interlocutor shrugged off the insult. "Neither do we. We've tried it and there's no future in it. But you can do better. We hear you turned down a barony last night. If you lead us, you'll be a baron by spring, with no overlord to skim the gravy."
"I don't care for . . . gravy." A lie, a flat lie, a barefaced lie. Gabrielle can make gravy that Epicurus would weep for . . . Her mouth watered at the memories of campfires where Gabrielle's tiny pack had produced wonders of the culinary arts and the result of her hunting was flavoured with carefully hoarded spices and unlimited love. She swallowed hard.
"You don't have to be like other barons, Xena. You could be different. Run things your own way. These people have been ground down by poverty and by lords who don't care if they live or die. You could be in charge. You could do it right. Warriors would flock to you again. Peasants would bid to serve you."
Xena inspected the bandits facing her. They looked more than capable. If their faces were dirty, their weapons were clean. They were casually arranged to watch all three doors to the room, and spaced so that they would not impede each other if the need to practice their trade arose. They were sober, alert and more than usually bright. Her professional opinion coalesced from the details: This was a group to be reckoned with. She would have been proud to lead men like these once. And they were right: She could parlay this little gang into a barony regardless of the help or hindrance of the local authorities.
"Except for Ares. He tends to think he's in charge. And his gravy ends up tasting of blood."
"Around here, you're likely to get the choice of his gravy or a starvation winter. The peasants were boiling spruce needles here last winter. This winter will be twice as bad. Go ahead, Xena. Take the first step. You can't put a foot wrong. If you do slip, you know the god of war will catch you."
He's been trying to catch me for years. She looked at Gabrielle. The bard was bent forward, looking down from the battlements onto a battlefield covered by the wounded of the Horde. She keeps getting it wrong. The warrior didn't save that garrison. The real hero was the little healer. Only the crown of reddish-gold hair showed above the heads of her enraptured listeners. The light of the torches made a bright circle in her hair. May the gods help me, but I'm well and truly caught already.
One of the bandits cleared his throat, and her attention snapped back. "I've no mind to spend the winter here. Thanks for the offer."
They rose to leave her. "It's still open. Talk to your little friend. She looks like she could stand some prosperity."
Sitting alone in the corner again, Xena's thoughts were interrupted by arrival of the food the tavern keeper had promised. As she looked at the scraps the landlord grudgingly provided, Xena contemplated trying the dinner sharing trick again. Bad idea, she decided. Gabrielle's still watching like a hawk for it. I'm not sure that sharing this garbage with her would be a favour in any case. Her stomach revolted at the smell of it.
As she stared at the dinner they had been offered, Xena found her mind returning to her earlier conversation with the bandit chief. There was an uncomfortable and unaccountable feeling of finality in her rejection of their offer, as if she were now committed, for better or for worse, to an unknown and unimaginable future. What have I gotten myself into? she wondered. And, more to the point, what did I just commit Gabrielle to?
Her mind was half on Gabrielle's story as it ended in applause and half on the depth of their present plight. She felt, rather than saw, the approach of her partner.
"I don't think I can eat this, Gabrielle, and I don't think we should try. There's meat in it, I think, but I'm not sure what or who it was when it started out, and I'm sure it's past the point of rottenness."
"You're right, Xena. You should definitely send that mess back to the kitchen. You certainly shouldn't risk death by eating any of it. Come with me."
Xena looked up in surprise. It was not like Gabrielle to reject food in any form. This was a woman who attacked raw squid without a quibble. Okay, that was an peculiar situation, but still.
"You don't have to eat that stuff, tonight." The bard seized her hand and Xena found herself pulled, unresisting out of the common room.
Gabrielle led her into a bed chamber. It was clearly the tavern's finest, and reserved for only the wealthiest and most favoured of travellers. Tapestries shut out the drafts. Against one wall a heavily curtained double bed beckoned. The long wooden handles of warming pans protruded from each side. Across the room, a table groaned under the weight of a large tray. On it were fresh roasted pork, steaming nutbread, vegetables in all the colours of the rainbow, it seemed, bowls of thick, hot chowder and a large jug of wine. In the corner a large wooden wash tub steamed furiously.
"Gabrielle . . . where did that come from?" gasped Xena. Her mouth watered at the sight and smell of their first real supper in more than forty nights.
Gabrielle shrugged. "I had a good night," she said, a smug smile firmly in place. "There was nearly ten dinars in the bowl when the Horde finally ran away. I don't think they've seen the likes of me here lately."
They've never seen the likes of you anywhere, Xena thought. "You shouldn't spend it all at once, Gabrielle. That common room looks better than some we've slept in. And that . . . stew? didn't look so bad, really. I've eaten worse."
" No, you haven't."
"No. Xena, that was the most putrid, disgusting thing I've ever seen on a plate. Besides, you're too late. I've already paid for dinner for both of us. I can't get us home with ten dinars, but I can feed you, and I'm going to. And if you're nice to me, I'll scrub your back. Zeus knows you could do with a good wash."
Well, how do you argue with that? thought Xena as she smiled at her companion in acquiescence and reached for the buckles of her curraiss. "Do you think so, Gabrielle? When was the last time you looked behind your ears?"
That got a reaction. Grasping Xena's tunic by the shoulders, Gabrielle pulled her down until their eyes were inches apart. "Xena?"
"Yes, dear?" replied the warrior mildly.
"Go sit on the soap."
The decision to cross the high pass was not a unilateral error. It was a mark of how much Xena had lost, emotionally and physically, that she proposed the plan to Gabrielle. A few months earlier she would have announced it as a matter of course, but now, her self-assurance worn by weeks of struggle and hunger and the knowledge that her friend was spending the last of their coin, she merely suggested it. As they lay awake, warm and contented, stomachs full, skin glowing under the assault of mutual scrubbing, she raised the subject that had been growing in her mind for the last two days.
"Gabrielle, there's a pass due south of us here. There's no road through it, just a mountain trail. It's a hard climb. It's high, but usually snow free most of the winter. I took a party over it in early January about five years ago, and it's not yet the Ides of December. We could be in Macedon in three days, maybe four. The talk tonight was that there was a good harvest in Macedon this year. We wouldn't be rich, but we wouldn't starve. Otherwise, we go east to the Black Sea and try to go south through the plains. It would take another month. What do you think?"
Gabrielle looked at her friend, taken completely by surprise by the question. She couldn't remember the last time Xena had so obviously deferred to her on what was really a tactical question. She looked at the warrior's face, ever dear to her, but undeniably thinner than she had ever seen it, the dark shadows around the eyes, the lines from the nose to the corners of the mouth. She thought of the slack in the leather that had fit with stunning snugness when they started south. For the first time, she considered the emotional toll that weeks of starvation had taken on the warrior. It was like witnessing the erosion of a rock.
"I don't know what to do, Xena. I do know that I can't support us around here telling tales, and you can't support us around here without becoming a bandit under one name or another. I don't know how we could hope to earn boat passage south. All I am sure of is that you've gotten us out of bigger messes than this before, and I have faith that you will get us out of this one. Where you go, I go. If you say the pass, I say the pass."
Xena considered their situation. They were severely reduced by hunger and poverty, but they could afford the pass, whereas they would never be able to pay for passage by sea. They were about out of practical options, apart from the ones they were not yet prepared to consider openly, and they were fast running out of stamina and time.
The pass was a gamble; any journey would be this late in the year. But it was not known as a killer, and Macedon beckoned like a lighthouse through a storm. There would be a market for their various skills there. They could recover their health, strength, weight and optimism. They might also renew some of their deteriorating equipment and the basic load of supplies that they had assumed, in more prosperous times, were essential.
There was little prospect in staying where they were. It was clear that the region they were in was looking at a starvation winter, and two foreign women with neither friends nor family and with neither a dinar nor a drachma between them were not a good bet to survive until spring. The terms on which such survival might be accomplished, and the shape in which they might find themselves by the vernal equinox, did not bear long contemplation.
"Then tomorrow," Xena smiled, "we try the pass."
All things considered, it was not, even in retrospect, a foolish error, but it no less tragic for that.
The first sign of trouble came when they made stopped the first night. They camped in a sheltered valley about one hundred paces off the track they had been following. There was a stream near the hidden dell that had Xena found. It was in all respects ideal, except for one thing: It was only half the distance up the pass that Xena had expected. As she drank from the stream, she felt her armour rubbing loosely against her ribs. They say that in Athens it's fashionable to be thin, she thought. I'm about as fashionable as I'll ever be, if only I could get there.
Having filled her belly again with water - the one item that they had in abundance - she returned to the campsite to start a fire and tell Gabrielle that she would be hunting for their dinner. Her silent approach gave her an opportunity to observe her companion setting up camp. Although the puppy fat that Gabrielle had carried from Potideia was long gone, her present appearance was a shock. When had her ribs grown so prominent? When had her arms and shoulders, robust from hours of staff drills, grown so thin and slack? The amazon halter she wore hung as loosely as, well, as loosely as Xena's leathers did on her.
Swallowing the anguish that sprang up at her observations, Xena mentally recalculated their schedule. Her own condition was little better than Gabrielle's. A three-day trip over the pass would take five to six days at this rate. Still, no problem, she thought. We should have three to six weeks of good weather left. And if we end up eating grass soup, well, most of the people in that last village would crawl up this pass for a nice bowl of grass soup right now.
Gathering herself, she entered the clearing. "I think it's time for some fresh meat, Gabrielle," she said with a cheerfulness she did not feel. "I'll set the snares and see what I can shoot. With a little luck, we may have fresh food all the way south."
"Sounds good to me," replied her friend, smiling. "I'll just find some herbs and things to go with it, and I'll be ready to cook when you get back."
But Xena's heart sank at the smile that did not reach the sunken, dark-ringed eyes. Ready to eat, too, I bet, she thought, but the sight of her friend's thinness killed the joke unspoken. No jokes about food until we reach the other side. She puts up a good front, but I don't think she's even as solid as I am, emotionally, and that's not saying much.
By nightfall the second problem was apparent. Even Xena's skills could not manufacture game in a region that had been picked over by the starving for years. It was the wrong time of year for birds' eggs. The small game was extinct. She got one scrawny, skittish deer into shooting range, but as she released the arrow, despite a whispered prayer to Artemis, her hand shook, and the shot went awry. She recovered the arrow, but wondered if she was strong enough to stalk anything with a bow anymore.
The snares, laid with all the cunning of a lifetime of survival, yielded nothing.
The stream proved to have been as thoroughly plundered as the forests.
When she returned empty-handed to the camp, Gabrielle had found some green herbs and shoots, and had boiled them in their smallest (and only remaining) pot. She knew we wouldn't be eating meat, but she didn't say anything. How do I repay that faith? thought Xena. Well, I said we could survive on grass soup, and we will.
"It could be worse," said Gabrielle as they ate the broth.
It's hot, and has some flavour, thought Xena. It could be a lot worse. "Yes," she replied, "I could be doing the cooking."
"That too. And at least we're not reduced to grass soup."
Xena scowled at her bowl suspiciously and stirred it with her spoon. "We're not? What is this, then?"
Gabrielle smiled and dipped a hard lump out of the bottom of the pot. "This, I'll have you know, is stone soup. Not the same thing at all!"
In spite of herself, Xena laughed. The salt added to the dinner by the stone was notional, but welcome. "Forgive me, Gabrielle. Once again, I have underestimated your many skills."
Their chuckles joined with those of the nearby stream to give them a sense of well-being that they had missed for weeks.
It was the last joke they would share for some time. Stone soup was warm and gratifying and even helped them to sleep at night, but it was poor fuel for the climb they faced. Each morning they woke hungry and broke camp without eating. Each night, Xena revised her estimates of the time to cross the pass. They climbed steadily, but increasingly slowly.
Xena caught nothing, either on land or in the streams they crossed and followed. Gabrielle made increasingly meagre 'soups' each night. On the seventh day, they found a patch of wild onions, about a handful, and three tiny heads of wild garlic. It was a feast.
Nine days up the mountain, they passed the crest and made their camp in a cave that Xena remembered. The cave was snug and dry, and previous travellers had built a stone fire pit below a natural chimney and laid in a supply of wood. She announced that the worst was over. "We'll spend the night in the cave and start down in the morning. I don't want to try those slopes in the dark. And besides, there's no real rush now. We've survived the hard part."
They gazed down the valley before them in silence.
"Couldn't have made it without your stone, you know." She smiled at Gabrielle. They gazed down the mountain at the green valleys ahead of them. "I've never gone so long without catching something."
Gabrielle laughed, weakly. "Think of the story it'll make. Although it will need some work to put it into a shape people will want to listen to."
They looked at each other in silence, savouring the companionship of trouble shared and overcome. They could not know that Xena had just made her final miscalculation of the journey.
That's the worst of it, now, Xena told herself as they drifted off to sleep. It's literally downhill from here. The land looks richer, even from this far away. We made it. Two, maybe three days in our condition, and we will be fine. She looked at the bard sleeping by the fire. Thank the gods. I couldn't stand it if I led her into a starvation trap like that and couldn't get her out. I'll make it up to her, somehow. And with that she slept, content that their survival was now, if not certain, at least likely.
That night Xena was awakened by the wind. Looking out of the cave, she could see nothing. There was a nearly full moon last night, she thought. And the certainty of the disaster sank in even before she slipped from the bedroll.
Tiptoeing to the mouth of the cave, she gazed at the snow piled two feet high, and the wind whipping across the pass. It will be in our faces in the morning, she thought. As the wind picked up, she corrected herself. It won't be in our faces at all, because we're not going anywhere, not until this blows itself out. Even Argo couldn't get down that trail in this weather, even if she could see where she was going. Working as quickly as her freezing hands would allow, she piled the snow higher until the mouth of the cave was nearly covered. It was even darker now in the cave, but the wind was blocked. Xena fancied that she was already warmer.
"I guess we'll take a day and rest up." Gabrielle, the blankets wrapped around her, stood beside her. She had not heard the bard approach over the howling of the wind.
"Good idea," Xena replied. "I could use a day off myself." She smiled at her friend. "I thought you would sleep through anything."
"I felt cold after you got up."
"Then we'd better go back to bed." Smiling, they scuttled back to the residual warmth of the dying embers. And we'll stay in bed too, because it's colder than a god's heart out there. Pulling Gabrielle's back closer to her chest, she pulled the blankets up to their ears.
"Oh, Sir! This is so sudden! I'm all a-tremble!" quoted Gabrielle, in the high, light voice that identified the heroine of The Milk Maid and the Moneylender.
"I can't help myself. The touch of you makes me burn with desire!" replied Xena, in a fair imitation of the guttural baritone the bard used for lechers, landlords, warlords and assorted villains.
"Oh, please, Sir, if you would, burn a little hotter!"
"Hey, that's not in the scroll!"
But their laughter died, and the bard's shivering was not in jest.
All that day, the storm continued. Xena pulled the waterskins under the blankets to keep them from freezing. They drank water and fed the fire from their diminishing stock of wood.
The next day, Gabrielle, too tired to shiver, noted how little wood was left, and how small the fire was, and how cold the cave was. Exhausted, starved, freezing, the significance of their situation was unavoidable.
"Xena," she said, finally, "We're not going to get out of here, are we?"
Well, now what? Keep her spirits up or tell the truth? I guess there's no point in sugar-coating it. She's figured it out, or she wouldn't be asking.
"I don't know, Gabrielle. It depends how long the storm lasts. It's death to go out in it. If it blows out today, we will have a chance to try for lower altitude. If it doesn't, we have fuel for about one more day, if we're careful."
"How long do these storms last."
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. It usually doesn't snow when it's this cold. This is not an ordinary snowstorm. It's a blizzard. It can last three days to ten days. There's no way to tell. Then we have to get down the mountain through the snow. I just don't know what will happen. We just have to hope that it ends today."
"Xena, I want you to know one thing."
No! I'm too tired, and I'm too cold, and this is not the time for an emotional discussion. "You should rest, Gabrielle. Save your strength to keep warm."
There was silence. The storm increased in ferocity. The wind was now a constant scream across the mouth of the cave.
Some hours later, the dim light from the mouth of the cave began to fade. An indistinct lump huddled under the threadbare blankets. Xena was still curled around Gabrielle's back, one arm around her waist, her head against her neck.
"Xena, I have to tell you." Whispered, soft as the falling snow.
Long silence. Could she be asleep?
"What is it, Gabrielle?" she asked finally, dreading the impending revelation.
"I'm sorry we never got to go all the places we talked about. I wanted to visit Cleopatra with you. I wanted to see the hanging gardens of Babylon."
"I'm only sorry I took you out of Potideia, Gabrielle. You deserve so much better than you've had the last three years. Losing Perdicus, and then Dahok, and Hope, and Najara. You should be sleeping tonight in the biggest house, on the richest farm, with the handsomest husband and the best children in Potideia. All I've given you is horror and pain."
"I dreamed of more, Xena. A lot more."
(Oh, the infinite regret, the infinite pain, to know you have crushed such a flower.)
Xena was silent.
"I dreamed of you, Xena. And for three years, I've had you. Every single day. And I wouldn't trade it for the world." She pulled the warrior's arm hard around her, gathering the callused hand up under her chin.
"But you gave up so much."
"Sure. A big house to go crazy in, and a good farm to work me into an early grave, and a good husband to bore me, and children to distract me. And maybe, once a year, on Solstice Eve, they would have gathered to listen to Gabrielle tell one of her little stories. Everyone, from all over Potideia."
Long silence, as the brief daylight faded and the cold darkness gathered them to its bosom.
Gabrielle felt it first, a wet, cold spot on her neck. She jerked around to look at Xena, and then she saw the tears through the gloom. Am I hallucinating? Is she finally giving up? A hundred questions milled in her head.
"Xena . . ." Here, at the end of all things, words finally failed her.
"I've hurt you so much."
"No more than I've hurt you. Xena, things happen. We get over them. We forgive. We have to if we want to get on with our lives."
Xena seemed not to hear. "I've tried to do good, I've tried to be good, but it's never been enough. It just doesn't work. I feel like I'm carrying all the wrongs I've ever done on my back. Every person I killed, every coin I stole, every house I burned. It crushes me.
"But you know, I could stand it all, if it weren't for what I've done to you. I kept thinking I had time to make it up to you, but I'm out of time and there's no answer for the pain I've caused you. I can't wipe it out. I can't get free of the guilt. I'll never be free of it. I'll die smothered under that guilt."
And now, of all times, at the end of all times, she finally lets me in. The faint suggestion of a wistful smile crossed her exhausted face. "Xena, I know what you have done. I understand it. But you are more important to me than all the things you feel guilty about."
"But the things I did . . . they are permanent."
"Xena, do you see this scar on my arm?" White, thin, long, clearly visible, although not in the gloom of the cave. Xena remembered it clearly, standing out against the tanned forearm. "When I was twelve, Lila and I had a fight. She knocked me down and I landed on a scythe. My father thought I was going to lose my arm. But I didn't. I'm still here, and Lila is still my sister, and I love her. And I wouldn't be the same person if I didn't have the scar. I wouldn't give up the scar if I could. Besides, she has one on her knee from the same summer."
"But I'm not talking about a scar, Gabrielle. What I've done to you since you left Potideia is unforgivable. I left you and Perdicus for Callisto to find. I abandoned you to Dahok. I tried to kill your child. I tried to kill you. I don't deserve your forgiveness. I don't deserve your friendship. I don't deserve your love. They lay still, listening to the gale blowing through the pass. "I don't deserve you."
"Xena, don't you understand?" A weak whisper, powered by palpable urgency. She rolled onto her back to look at her friend in the gloom. She pulled her arm back under the blankets and reached up feebly to brush her friend's cheek. "It's only the unforgivable things that need to be forgiven. It's only the people who don't deserve forgiveness who need to be forgiven. That's what forgiveness means. That's what it's for."
Long silence now, as she lay with her hand against Xena's cheek, exhausted by the attempt to explain.
"Even if you can forgive me, Gabrielle, I don't think we are going to get on with our lives. I've dragged you through every hell hole in the known world and a couple that I discovered myself, and now my stupidity will kill you." The darkness in the cave was complete. The fire had died completely while they spoke.
"Xena, it's not like that. You never dragged me anywhere. I've been yours, all of me, completely, heart and soul, since I first saw you ride into Potideia." Her voice was very quiet. "Did you think there could have been a time when you did not have all my forgiveness, too? I know what you did to me. I know what I did to you. And after all of it, I'm glad. I love you. I will always love you. If we go down the mountain tomorrow, I love you." Although right now I don't think I could crawl to the mouth of the cave, let alone walk to Macedon. "If we . . . If we don't, if we die here tonight, I love you. Just as you are, just as you were when I first saw you in Potideia, I love you. You are the most important thing in the world to me. I wouldn't trade you, right here, right now, tonight, for the world. Or Mt. Olympus, for that matter."
The bard's whispered vehemence seemed to echo in the silence for several minutes.
"Really?" A little girl voice, far away, almost inaudible in the storm.
"Really." Equally soft, but firmer, more certain.
Sometime after that, the sobbing started. The first whimpers grew to deep, racking, convulsive eruptions of grief, repentance, surrender, acceptance and, mixed in with the rest, relief. Somewhere in the night, a burden slipped away at last. Invisible in the blackness, a brunette head was tucked under a stubborn little chin.
Eventually, they slept.
Somewhere, among the pantheon of grand and trivial gods, there is a god of weather. Despite his power, he has never had the character to achieve anything lasting. He is the most whimsical and capricious of all his tribe. It should not be thought that he cared about the touching little scene just related. No more did he care that the dead from the storm were lined up ten deep at Charon's ferry. The generally accepted scientific theory is that, having for several weeks carefully prepared and built up the blizzard of the century, he then got bored and wandered off.
Xena awoke cold and wet. The cold she did not particularly remark on, having become accustomed over the last few days to the numbness and stiffness in her back and limbs. The wetness was something new. She appeared, for some reason, to be lying in a pool of water. She had difficulty imagining why this should be, and more difficulty in deciding whether she cared. Eventually, her first coherent thought was that the one remaining waterskin had burst.
On finding it whole, her next thought was that either she or Gabrielle had lost bladder control in the night. A vague wave of disgust passed over her followed by a specific fear. A lifetime spent on battlefields had taught her that loss of bladder control commonly followed death. She appeared to be alive. But Gabrielle? She could not bring herself to look.
Finally, she looked to the mouth of the cave and saw bright sunlight streaming over the snow drift that blocked it and water running from its base.
Even so, it took some time for her to reach the conclusion that, if there was water running out there, the storm had broken, and the temperature had risen.
A dim emotion stirred in her heart, an urgency too vague to call excitement. "Gabrielle, wake up. We're getting out of here."
Gabrielle did not respond. Her body lay cold and still under the wet blanket. Struggling to her feet, Xena hoisted their little remaining gear on her back. At the mouth of the cave, she looked back to where Gabrielle lay unmoving. Discarding the pack again, she moved her friend's body to the driest spot in the cave and covered her with the drier of the two blankets. I'll come back, Gabrielle. I'll bring a party of Amazons, and we will take you home for the funeral an Amazon queen deserves.
At the mouth of the cave, she looked back. Gabrielle looked so small under the rough wool, smaller than even the months of starvation accounted for. Xena knew that, with the warming of the weather, all the fauna of the mountains and forests would be out looking for food. They would not be fastidious in their diet. Unbidden, the image came to her of wild beasts sniffing around her friend, followed by the thought of sharp, little teeth. There's no help for it, she thought. I don't think I can get through the snow myself, let alone carry her body.
Xena looked out of the cave. Far below in the bright sunlight, she saw a four-footed animal trotting from cover to cover up the slope, followed by a bushy, bright red tail.
Shocked, she turned back in a panic to where her friend lay, half expecting to see little carnivores already exploring her body. Oh, no. No, not that. I can't. I can't leave her here for the foxes. I'll have to carry her, she thought. And then: I don't know how I'll manage it. I'll die if I try. Then a second thought: I'll die if I leave her here.
She had carried Gabrielle short distances in the past, but never had she been so completely limp. It took her three tries to lift her friend in her arms. The second time Xena fell, striking her head on the wall of the cave. Like a turtle, she struggled on her back, finally discarding the pack to stagger to her feet and start again.
Another two minutes, with three pauses to rest, saw her standing, the near empty pack on her back, her friend in her arms. One last journey together. But I don't think I will want to tell the tale without you. Then, her friend's face cold on her shoulder, she staggered one step at a time into the thigh-deep drifts outside the cave.
On a sunny morning in late December, a solitary figure made her way down a winding track through a mountain meadow. The winding was not inherent to the trail, but a reflection of the walker's precarious awareness of her surroundings.
As the figure approached, the observer would have noticed with some surprise that its hair was long and straight and there was no trace of a beard. This, and the configuration of her breastplate, were the only visible signs of her sex, as the figure within the armour had shrunk to the skeletal asexuality of the last stages of starvation.
As she alternately staggered and plodded down the slope, an observer would have noted not extreme height, but rather a dwarfish appearance.
As she drew closer, he might have seen that this was an illusion, caused by the snow into which the traveller's legs sank legs past the knee at every step. He would also have remarked on the extraordinary thinness of the walker. The next observation would have concerned the strange burden that she was carrying, an anonymous, ragged bundle wrapped in a tattered and filthy blanket. So thin was the approaching figure, so deep was the snow and so well wrapped was the bundle, that the initial appearance was that the burden was greater than the bearer.
The strangeness of the bundle would be reinforced as she approached. She was in fact carrying a human body, carefully wrapped in the blanket, one arm dangling limply, long bright hair moving gently as the traveller walked. Such was the extremity of her condition that the observer might first have guessed that her plan for the body she carried was less funerary than cannibalistic, had it not been for the apparent tenderness and care with which she cradled it. But no observer, however close, could have seen the emotional desolation that surpassed her physical distress.
There was however, no observer in the meadow. All wise shepherds had long since taken themselves and their flocks and their pan flutes to the warmer refuge of the valley far below. At the end, much more than in the beginning, the traveller was utterly, completely alone in the meadow and in the world.
The sunlight dazzled Xena's eyes as she squinted, searching for landmarks in the snow. Finally, she gave up looking for the trail and settled for plodding slowly downhill. After two steps, her boots, now much too wide for her legs, were full of snow. After five minutes she could not feel her legs below her knees. Several times she stumbled, from either fatigue or hidden obstructions under the snow, and would have fallen, but the depth and heaviness of the snow converted her clumsiness into gentle genuflections, from which she slowly staggered upright to plod on.
She looked at the unbroken sheet of white ahead of her. An infinite distance below her, it seemed, she could see the forest on the lower slopes. This is where I'll die, she thought, if I haven't died already. I won't live to reach the trees. Rather than quit, however, she put another foot in front of her, sinking into the heavy, sticky snow.
Thirty minutes later, she saw shadows on the snow. Looking up, she discovered that she had reached the trees. Vaguely, she wondered why that seemed so important. She wondered why she was walking through the snow, and why she was carrying Gabrielle. The thought crossed her mind that she had not heard Gabrielle's voice in a very long time, and she wondered why her friend was so silent. It wasn't like her, really. She kept walking. She noted curiously that the snow was not as deep under the trees, but she could not work out why that should be, or why it seemed important.
About an hour after she started, Xena found a large flat boulder that was bare of snow. Laying Gabrielle on its dry, sun-warmed top, she paused to take stock. She looked up the pass. The cave where they had sought refuge and found a death trap was shockingly close in the bright sunlight. Hands on her knees, she looked down the hill. The snow was less than knee deep now, and she could discern the rough route of the trail through the forest. She looked at Gabrielle. The blankets covering her friend were steaming in the sunlight. The air was mild and the sun, when she emerged from the trees, was uncomfortably warm.
She picked up her friend again, shocked at how thin her body was, and how limp, and how quickly it grew heavy in her thin arms, and trudged down the trail. She remembered now why Gabrielle had stopped talking. It seemed very sad to her, but she could not remember how sadness was supposed to feel. Her mind wandered again, and she finally abandoned the question. Instead, she concentrated on moving further down the hill. That was important, she felt sure, although she could not recall why. But she remembered a decision, taken an infinite time ago, that she would walk down the hill, and thought she had better do so.
By mid afternoon, Xena could go no further. She was now out of the snow completely - it was stunning how a small drop in altitude changed the weather - and it looked as though there had been rain here, rather than snow.
She laid Gabrielle's body on the nearly dry blankets in a sunlit clearing and dropped the pack. She took a minute to straighten her friend's hair as well as she could without a comb or brush and to straighten and smooth the tattered remains of her clothing. She crossed the arms over her stomach, thinking that it looked more comfortable. Then, like an avalanche, Gabrielle's disinterest in comfort and the reason for it hit her. Unable to look at her friend's still face any longer, she sat against a tree, staring at the ground between her legs. After a long period of immobility, she removed her boots, shook the water and snow from them, dried her numb, white, wrinkled feet and legs and opened the pack. From it she took her snares and, leaving her boots to dry in the hot sun, staggered barefoot into the woods.
She returned twenty minutes later without the snares but with an armload of firewood. She lit a fire as close to Gabrielle as she dared. As she put their pot - she could not think of it as 'her' pot, even now - on to boil, a voice whispered behind her. "How do you find dry wood after a three-day storm?"
She continued to stand unmoving, the pot in her hands, wondering if she had imagined the voice. Then, wondering if Gabrielle's spirit was still with her, she replied evenly, "I thought you had left me." There was no response. Perhaps, after all, it had been an hallucination.
Fighting the wave of dejection that followed the silence, Xena turned slowly to see Gabrielle's body still lying on the blankets behind her. It had not moved. But the eyes in the skeletal face were open. They were looking at her.
Then the strain of the last day, and the last three days, the last two weeks, the last two months overpowered her self control. The pot fell and spilled unheeded on the grass as she dropped to her knees and pulled the little blonde into her arms. She covered her friend's face with tears and then, both hands being full of her partner, she avidly, urgently, kissed the wetness away again. The pressure of Gabrielle's hug was too light to be measured. The tears were not all her own.
All too soon, her arms burned under the weight of her friend, the warrior gently laid her back onto the blankets. "I don't want to wear you out all at once," she said. And, as light as you are, I can't hold you up any longer.
"That's okay," Gabrielle whispered, "We'll have lots of time to catch up after dinner."
She gazed down at the bard, embarrassment replacing the sense of relief. She turned desperately to the mundane for distraction. Dinner. She's hungry. I have to feed her. "Speaking of dinner, I'll see if there's anything in the stream," said Xena, and moved down the hill.
Three hours later, Xena had reset her traps, cleaned two rabbits and stewed one of them. She had caught and gutted five fat trout, eating the first raw, knee deep in the frigid, snow-fed stream. She had found wild onions, garlic, rosemary and late raspberries and was watching Gabrielle finish her dinner in the cheerful glow of the fire. They usually sat across the fire from each other when they ate, but tonight Xena sat beside her friend. She felt much more relaxed if Gabrielle were within arm's reach, as if cold and hunger might suddenly make a last, desperate attempt to snatch her friend away. The fire was perhaps larger than they needed, but there was plenty of wood for the night, and they were both appreciative of the extra heat it gave them. Roast trout and stewed rabbit filled her own shrunken stomach and a somnolent sense of well-being filled her head. It occurred to her, as she worked it out, that it was the evening before the Winter Solstice.
Their appetites, to Xena's surprise, had been very small. Two whole trout were still skewered on the green sticks on which Xena had roasted them, and wrapped carefully in fresh, clean leaves. The pot in which the rabbit had stewed was more than half full, and it was clear from Gabrielle's slow chewing that it would remain so. She was struck by the strangeness of the superabundance after the weeks of deprivation.
"This place must be left over from the Elysian fields," she said wonderingly. "I could have had more fish than I could carry. The rabbits were practically lining up for the snares." Her friend snorted. "No really, they're taking numbers out there."
"It's certainly better than some places we've been recently," Gabrielle replied thoughtfully. There was a pause as she continued eating. "Did you really mean it last night when you said that storm could have lasted another week?"
"Yes. We were lucky."
"I think we were due for some luck."
A longer pause followed. Xena watched with new found fascination as her friend finished eating her dinner. Gabrielle put her bowl down. She straightened her fingers and reached for the wooden cup on the ground beside her. She grasped it and bent her elbow to lift it to her lips. As she did so, she bent her head down and to the side to meet it. She opened her lips slightly to sip the water. Her throat seemed to rise and fall as she swallowed. She extended her arm to put the cup down. She blinked, long pale lashes crossing the beautiful green eyes for a moment.
I never realised how good it feels to watch her doing simple things, thought Xena. The motions of her hands, her face. Each movement held a world of wonder for the warrior. Each movement shovelled another layer over the memory of that awful stillness, buried it deeper in the cholera ground where the nearly-dead nightmares go.
Gabrielle wiped her chin. She brushed her hair back over her shoulders. She picked up the bowl. She put a piece of rabbit in her mouth. She chewed.
Xena gathered her courage in the silence. Finally she asked, "Did you mean what you said last night?"
Gabrielle looked at her intently. "Yes," she answered, surprised. "I've been trying to tell you that since Shark Island. Are you saving those trout for anything?"
"What about the other rabbit?"
"That's for tomorrow, too."
"Lunch?" asked Gabrielle, with an eager smile. They had not shared the luxury of a midday meal in two months.
"If you want. It's your Solstice present."
"Oh, Xena! A dead rabbit?" The laughter was weak, but heartfelt, passing gradually into tears, because food was still too precious to laugh about. Then she sobered. "I'm afraid I won't have anything to give you," she said apologetically.
"I already got my present." Xena smiled. "It's better than a dead rabbit." The smile faded. "It's more than I dared wish for." A longer pause followed as Xena reviewed yet again their last conversation in the cave. "It's more than I thought there was in the whole world," she whispered, seemingly unaware of her friend's listening presence. Her eyes glistened with sudden, unshed tears.
Gabrielle looked up when she heard the sudden trembling in her friend's voice. She sat transfixed by the tears in Xena's eyes. What do I say now? She never talks like this. Even at Solan's funeral - Gabrielle winced inwardly at the memory - she couldn't talk about her pain, just the anger. Embarrassed by her friend's unaccustomed vulnerability, she spoke with mock severity. "Xena, are you going all mushy on me here? 'Cause it's not a pretty sight."
"Who? Me? No! Of course not." Instinctively, feeling like she was swallowing a sea urchin, Xena stifled the wave of emotion that rose unbidden at the memory of her friend's words. Her stomach sank. Did I misunderstand her last night? Oh, Hades! Did I dream it?
Gabrielle saw the shutters go up behind the blue eyes. Her thoughtlessness struck her like a blow. Oh, Tartarus! Nice play, Sophocles!
"I mean . . ." Gabrielle faltered under the remoteness of her friend's gaze. "I mean, after the last three days, you're entitled to thaw out a little bit, I think . . ." Words failed her. Her eyes widened in distress as she realised what she had done. I'm supposed to be the smooth talker. Why can't I get it right when it matters, just for once?
"Xena," she said softly, "I'm sorry. You just startled me. It's like . . ." She searched frantically for an image that would not be misunderstood. Come on, Gab, you're supposed to be able to do this.
Xena's new- found frankness vulnerability was not to be coaxed out of hiding so easily. She looked at her friend, cautiously.
Why can't I just keep my mouth shut, they both thought.
Gabrielle finally tried again. "Xena, do you remember the dinner we had in the last tavern, before we started up the pass?"
How could she not? It was the only good, plentiful, tasty meal they had eaten in the last two months. "It was wonderful, Gabrielle," she said with a smile.
"Remember the bath?"
"That felt good, too."
"And the warm bed?"
"I liked that, too," she answered shyly. Her face was suddenly warm, and she looked away at the darkening forest. "I made the fire too big," she grumbled.
Gabrielle ignored the digression. "But the first thing you said when you saw it was that you could have eaten the slop the landlord provided and slept in your armour in the corner of the common room. Well that wasn't true, and it wasn't what you wanted, and it wouldn't have been good for you, but it was the first thing you said. Instead, we washed and ate dinner together and-"
"I remember, Gabrielle. I'm not likely ever to forget."
"And tonight the first thing I said when you told me how you felt was that I didn't want mushy. Well, I don't want to go back to the way it was before, and I don't think either of us would be as happy. I think we're better off being a little mushy. I like it when you're mushy. I'm not used to it, but I like it." She looked in vain for reaction from her companion. I'm just . . . sorry," she said, her voice falling away in the face of failure. She's not buying it. Tears welled up in her eyes.
The tears finally spoke for her where her words were unavailing. She really means it. She really does mean it. Xena searched for words to mend the breach. "Gabrielle . . . You've always . . ." I have no idea how to say this. Xena searched frantically for any phrase that would serve to reconcile the misunderstanding. She heard herself saying, "Gabrielle, things happen. We get over them. We forgive. We have to if we want to get on with our lives."
The use of her own words finally hit Gabrielle. She looked at her friend, searching for sarcasm, but found only the blue eyes widened in transparent sincerity. Putting down the empty bowl, she leaned into Xena's embrace, burying her face in the warrior's shoulder.
It was Xena's turn to be overcome by her friend's emotions. "Come on, Gabrielle. On Solstice Eve, anything is forgivable."
She almost missed the tear-choked, whispered reply. "The world and Mt. Olympus."
There was nothing more to be said.
Later, as the fire burned down, Xena turned to where Gabrielle lay on the blankets. Brushing the blonde hair - it looked very red in the firelight - back from her friend's cheek, she said, "I knew this trip was a mistake as soon as we started out. Even when we killed the last of those creatures, even when we were rich, even when we talked about buying a tavern together, I was sure it was a mistake. The last eight weeks, my only concern was how to get you out of there. There were times that the only thing that kept me going was the hope that somehow I might get you out of there. I could never quite give up hope completely, even when things were at their worst. After what you said last night," she paused to swallow, hard, "I don't think I ever can. I might need you to remind me sometimes, though."
"I can do that, Xena." Gabrielle stared at the embers, lost in thought.
"Hope is a great thing, Xena, but I have to admit I ran out of it weeks ago. I didn't really see a way out of the mess we were in on the other side of the mountains. The thing that kept me going was that I always had faith in you. You and your 'many skills'." They smiled together in the comfort of an old joke shared. "I told you in that last tavern, Xena, I have faith in you. I knew that as long as I could keep going, you would get us out of there. Even when the storm caught us, even when I knew I was too weak to get down the mountain, I still had faith that you would get us through somehow."
A log collapsed, sending up a shower of sparks. Gabrielle took Xena's hand in both of her own, the same hand she had clutched in the cave the night before. Moved by an impulse too deep for words, she kissed the palm, as if by doing so she could restore the flesh melted from it the last two months. Pressing it flat against her cheek, she stared into the embers. A few minutes later, she spoke again. "Sometimes, Xena, I think that hope and faith are the only things that really last when things go wrong. Kings die, kingdoms die, friends die, even gods die, but hope and faith go on and on. They are the greatest things in the world, in the long run."
There was a long silence. Both of the travellers were caught up in the moment, relishing each other's companionship and the blessed absence of hunger, urgency and despair.
Finally, Xena banked the fire and removed her armour. She joined Gabrielle on the bedroll in companionable silence. As she pulled the blankets over them, she looked down at her friend. "No," she said finally, with the faintest of smiles, "Faith and hope are pretty special, but I know something better. And it lasts, too."
At the winter solstice, winter is still to come. The weather will get colder, snow deeper, hunger greater. But at the solstice, a cunning Creator has given us the promise that, however cold, buried and desperate we may get, the sun will return, and we will not be left to freeze or starve in a dying world.
There are many other sources of isolation, hunger and despair in the world than simply inclement weather. It may be that the afflictions of the spirit are more serious than those of the body. Xena and Gabrielle certainly have found them harder to bear than the physical trials of life on the road.
It may be that a benevolent Creator has made the winter solstice as a promise that, despite present and future difficulty, we are not utterly abandoned in this life. It is a fitting time for exchanging such gifts as our circumstances allow, in token of the great Gift that we have been given.
It is hardly to be wondered at if our Creator should choose to give us a gift at this time of year, especially a gift that bears a promise to be fulfilled in the spring.
So let us leave our friends here to enjoy their Solstice Eve with the gifts of a warm fire, water, wood, food for the morrow, dry clothes and dry blankets. And, greatest of the blessings of a transitory world, each other.
And, more than temporary blessings, three gifts that last for ever.
21-22 December 98
Colophon: (With thanks to L.N. James, without whose example and encouragement this story would never have seen the light of day.) Thanks also to the wonderful and talented Beta reader Medora MacD., who suffered through the original version so you wouldn't have to. This story was aided by the two shortest days of the year, and financial circumstances suddenly and unexpectedly reduced to the point that it was about the only form of entertainment I could afford. It was also informed by the symbolism of the Winter Solstice as it applies to my religious beliefs. A small prize is offered to the reader who correctly identifies all the cultural allusions. . .