Summary: When an ordinary day goes very wrong, Xena struggles with guilt over her inability to protect Gabrielle, and both women find themselves in a harsh jail where justice is not highly regarded. When they manage to escape, Xena tries to support Gabrielle in a decision she disagrees with as the two have to face the consequences of their time spent in the prison.
Disclaimer: I did not invent the characters herein, I just enjoy writing about them. This story is subtextual and contains violent and descriptive scenes of an adult nature. It also includes dark themes which some readers may find upsetting. I did not write the song lyrics and do not take credit for them, I just altered them to fit in with the story. All reviews appreciated and replied to at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was right there, right in front of her. It was silver and green, like a precious jewel, and just within her reach. Gabrielle leaned out slowly, changed her mind, drew her hand back ready for a sudden lunge. It was big enough to grasp blindfolded, and it wasn't even a moving target, all she had to do was focus, just like Xena told her.
"Yah!" Gabrielle plunged her hand into the water and groped for the fish. It darted between her fingers, tickling her with its tail, and by the time she had her fist clenched it was gone. "Damn it!"
Xena's laughter was rich and carefree. "Why'd you shout at it?"
Gabrielle pulled back her hand and shook the water from it. Squatting precariously on the slippery rocks over the now empty pool, she scowled down at Xena, who was leaning casually on the stone and grinning. "Because fish don't have ears." She adjusted her bare feet, using her fingertips to help her balance. These boulders had tumbled down the gently sloping cliff centuries ago, and now formed dozens of rock pools, several deeper pools, and even boasted a small waterfall.
"Yeah but you shouldn't startle 'em." Xena looked around her for another pool. "C'mon, have another try."
"Try again: it's a life skill." Still amused, and doing a very poor job of hiding it, Xena reached up to her friend. "Steady, it's slippery."
"I wish you'd try to see my point of view, Xena." Gabrielle slid herself down to the warrior's level, wearing a toughened leather skirt and bikini which wouldn't tear against the rocks. "We fish to live: we do not live to fish." Xena caught her gently under the arms to steady her, and Gabrielle let her hands linger around Xena's shoulders for a moment.
"Yeah, yeah," Xena dismissed. "Now, watch how it's done." She crouched, beckoning for Gabrielle to join her, and pointed into a slow moving stream. "See?"
Behind several dark leaves, swaying softly in the current, was a golden fish. "Uh ha." Gabrielle watched, always eager to learn from Xena, who could do anything.
Xena picked a couple of tiny leaves from a weed at her feet and dropped them onto the surface of the water, to get the fish's interest. She held up her finger, just to be sure of Gabrielle's attention, then dropped a pebble behind the fish to startle it out of its hiding place. When it moved she shot her hand into the water and pulled out her catch with relish. "Ha!"
"Woah!" Gabrielle dodged the flapping tail and flying water droplets. "Good catch!"
"Yeah." Xena grinned at the fish, waited for him to still, then threw him into a satchel on her back. "Dinner."
"Okay, I accept that you can fish better than me." Gabrielle began to make her way down to the grass, anchoring herself with a hand on Xena's knee as she stepped down into a shallow pool. She was wet from her hair to her toes after their leisurely morning, but it was fairly warm, and she would soon dry out.
"Well I'm glad you see that." Xena took Gabrielle's hand from her leg and held it until her friend was on the ground, then jumped down herself.
"But," Gabrielle continued, "If we want a nutritionally balanced meal we should have some meat too, right? Duck, or chicken, or… how about a fawn?"
The warrior rolled her eyes. Waiting for Xena to secure her bag, Gabrielle crouched and gazed into another pool. Beneath a large old tree, some oily sap had dripped into the water and now formed a pretty haze of translucent colours on the rippling surface. Water and oil were polar opposites with so little in common, yet together they formed the most beautiful union. Gabrielle reached in and dipped a fingertip in the water. She watched the rainbow of colour dissipate into nothing, then reform as she removed her hand. Xena patted her shoulder and she rose and shook droplets from her hand.
They walked back toward their camp, barefooted on the grass, and Xena went on with their conversation. "Don't you think fawn is just a little ambitious? I don't want you hurting yourself."
"There has to be some wildlife around here," Gabrielle turned as she walked, holding out her hands to gesture to the forest. "It'll be simple." She went to her bag and took out her small dagger, tucking it into her belt, then jogged over to their horse. "What d'you fancy, Xena? A fox? Or maybe some lamb." She grinned at the thought of the rich, dark meat. "I wonder if I could drag a lamb back."
"Couldn't you just steal a couple of eggs?" Xena asked hopefully, looking around for something to gut her fish.
"I won't be long," Gabrielle ignored her, and climbed onto the big beige horse. "Let's go, Argo." She settled herself in the warm leather saddle and took up the reigns.
At her leisure, Argo looked over her shoulder questioningly.
"Look, we're going hunting."
The horse snorted.
"Yes, me. Me and you." Gabrielle waited. "We don't seem to be going anywhere. The idea is that you walk." When there was still no movement, she leaned down to whisper confidentially into a pinkish ear. "If I don't hunt, what are you going to eat?"
Argo lowered her head to her hooves and began to nibble on the grass, her long eyelashes blinking serenely.
"Oh." Gabrielle straightened again. "I'd forgotten about that." She sat thinking for a while, listening to the soft calling of forest birds, brushing her bare toes idly over Argo's sandy sides. If Xena noticed that she hadn't moved, it would be somewhat embarrassing. She leaned down again. "Of course, I do have sugar lumps in my bag."
It seemed to Xena that Gabrielle had barely been gone, so engrossed was she in cooking her fish and chopping up some peppers to go with it, when Argo's softly thudding hooves heralded her return. The dark haired woman glanced over her shoulder to see Gabrielle carrying a loaded bag. "Hey, what'd you find?" She stood up, brushing her hands clean on her leathers, and turned to congratulate her friend.
Gabrielle offered the bag.
Xena took it with happy expectancy and peered inside. Hoping for some warm, rich meat to accompany the fish, or at least a little poultry, she was rather disappointed by what she found. "Apples? You went hunting… for apples?"
Gabrielle gave a sheepish grin and a small shrug.
They were good and shiny, it was true, but heavy to carry around, and well, they just weren't meat. "That's the only food you could find?"
"Yes. Well, no," Gabrielle conceded. "I mean yes, I got apples, but no, I didn't personally find them." She looked back to Argo, who was munching noisily, intent and self absorbed.
Xena smiled and set down the sack. "Hey, don't worry – at least we'll get our vitamins, huh? Come get some food, it's ready." She gently stroked her fingers over Gabrielle's wrist, commiserating and encouraging in the same gesture.
"Hmm." Placated, Gabrielle followed. "I did find a rabbit, you know." Gabrielle sat down on the fur, her legs crossed under her, and took the wooden dish she was offered. Xena wasn't an expert on culinary presentation, but the food was always wholesome and cooked through, if a little predictable.
"Uh ha?" Xena sat beside her and ate the flaky white flesh with her fingers. She wasn't one for utensils and ate everything with her hands, using her teeth to rip apart tough bread or her fist to break nuts.
"I tracked it," Gabrielle continued, her arm brushing Xena's, "But when I got close it heard me and ran away. I tried to be quiet. Maybe I'm just heavy footed. Mother always said I was."
"Well, better luck next time."
They ate their meal, shared a drink from a skin, then cleaned up their dishes.
"Right." Xena pushed to her feet. "Come on. Wanna show you something." She set off at her usual purposeful pace, and Gabrielle had to jump up and run to catch her.
"Well," Xena rested an arm lightly around the smaller woman's shoulders, her hand cool and soft on Gabrielle's arm. "You want to hunt but your prey hears you when you get too close." They ducked under some prickly leaves and walked into a grassy clearing.
"Right…" Gabrielle hooked her arm around Xena's waist, looking casually around her.
"So you need to make the kill from further back, a blade's no use for you. Here -" Xena released her and took up a wooden bow from the long grass. "A little shabby, but it'll do." She untangled an arrow and gave Gabrielle the bow, pointing her in the direction of several stumps of wood set on a log some distance away.
"Did you make this?" Gabrielle examined the weapon, impressed, then held it up in what seemed like the right position.
"Uh ha. Now load the arrow-" The warrior slotted the arrow into place and adjusted Gabrielle's grip. "There." She stood back. "Go on then."
Gabrielle scowled, trying to focus on a wood stump. "I haven't done this before."
"Just give it your best shot."
"Okay…" The younger woman gripped the bow firmly in her palm, the arrow lodged between her fingers, and pulled back the string. It was surprisingly taut, making her muscles quiver and cutting into her fingers. Her brow drawn into a frown, she held her breath and released the string.
The arrow fell in front of her, narrowly missing her toes.
"You really haven't done this before, have you?" Xena scooped up the arrow.
"No," Gabrielle admitted, discouraged.
"Well, at least you won't have picked up any bad habits. Try again-" She handed back the arrow. "Drop your shoulders? Spread your feet, keep your chin up," Xena advised. "Like this-" She moved behind Gabrielle, who was focussed on her target, and put her arms around her. She grasped hold of the bow and placed her hand over Gabrielle's on the string. "Nice and easy. Keep it smooth. Don't lift your elbow too much, see?"
"Uh ha." Gabrielle nodded, eager to learn. It did feel easier with Xena guiding her.
"Look along the arrow… and… release."
Gabrielle did, feeling a rush of adrenaline go through her, and watched the arrow narrowly miss the stump. "Hmm," She grinned back at Xena. "Not bad."
"Not bad at all. Now you do it." She presented another arrow.
"All right." Determined, Gabrielle carefully placed the arrow, positioned the red frill between her fingers, and drew back the tight string. She tugged her bottom lip between her teeth, biting on it softly as she tried to aim the bow. "Is that right?"
Needing to get near to Gabrielle's line of sight, Xena moved close behind her again, putting an arm around her middle, and leaned in to look. Putting her cheek against Gabrielle's, she looked along the sight. Her partner's skin was warm and her fluffy hair smelled of flowers. Distracted, Xena let her eyes close, and she pressed her head closer. Inhaling deeply, she blinked and focussed again. "You're aiming too low, lift your lead hand."
"Yeah." But Gabrielle wasn't concentrating either and her correction made her position even less accurate. Xena's hand was resting on the bare flesh of her abdomen, light and gentle as always. The younger woman tipped her head back a little and let her hair rub against Xena's jaw.
Xena found her fingers stroking over the smaller hand under hers, caressing the slender wrist, feeling the warmth where veins ran close to the surface. She eased her fingertips over Gabrielle's knuckles then into her palm, making her grip slacken and the bow string loosen.
Gabrielle turned her head to kiss at Xena's lips, her arms dropping. The bow forgotten, Xena turned her around, giving her a private smile, warm and loving. She slid long fingers under Gabrielle's jaw, feeling her cool ears against her hands, and lifted her face to kiss her. Gabrielle's eyes closed as she sank into the kiss, into Xena's presence and her love. She opened her mouth, wanting to taste Xena and to feel her somewhere more intimate, to share herself. Her nose was pressed against Xena's cheek, and she allowed herself to move with the kiss.
When Xena lifted her lips from Gabrielle's she chuckled at the expression on her friend's face: wide-eyed and stunned, eager and expectant. She studiously took the bow from one hand at Gabrielle's side, and the arrow from the other, and dropped them at their feet. That done, she stepped close again, their bodies together, and touched her lips back to Gabrielle's, taking her into a cuddle. Gabrielle reached up and knitted her fingers into the locks of wavy black hair, feeling the heat of Xena's scalp and holding her close. In Xena's arms she was safe, protected and complete: whether she was dressed or naked, standing or lying, asleep or awake, it was where she was comfortable and happy.
After the kiss Xena nuzzled her face and hair, alternating between squeezing her playfully and stroking her softly. "I think I've something else to hunt now." She ran her hands down to Gabrielle's and held them warmly.
"What's that?" Gabrielle pushed up on tiptoe for another taste of Xena's lips, painfully just out of reach.
"You." Xena teased playfully, pulling Gabrielle with her, trying to move quickly without breaking their contact.
Half giggling and half intent on their desire for each other, they stumbled back to their camp. Gabrielle rested herself against the first sturdy tree, and Xena took her wrists, pinning them to the bark above her head and pressing into her for a kiss.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and allowed herself to become consumed in Xena's world. She was aware of nothing except the warrior and her touch, and the reassuringly solid trunk behind her. She was hungry, and opened herself fully to her partner, encouraging her with soft sounds and a willing body. They held hands, Gabrielle long and lean with her arms outstretched, then released each other so that Xena could reach around for the leather cords of the bard's top.
Once she was free of the material, Gabrielle looked down to study Xena, as she indulgently kissed and stroked the flesh she had revealed. Her eyebrows were neat and exquisitely arched, her eyelashes as dark as her hair and pretty against her cheek. Gabrielle thought her to be the most beautiful sight, and happily watched her, holding her head gently.
Xena resisted as long as she could, then surrendered and took a pink nipple between her lips, feeling the cool solidity of it on her tongue. The sensation increased the aching emptiness at the pit of her stomach tenfold, and made the waiting unbearable. She hurriedly pulled down the leather skirt. "You want to lie down?" She was breathless, her mouth dry and her speech rushed.
"No, here," Gabrielle dismissed, feeling Xena's arms go around her, taking her into a close cuddle. "Take this off -" She clutched at the remaining material between them and tugged it up over Xena's head, separating them for only a moment before they could return to each other. Being naked together felt like the most natural thing.
Xena held her soulmate to her. "Love you -" She kissed whatever skin her lips found, then, by mutual agreement, slid her strong hands down to Gabrielle's thighs and took her weight, feeling muscular legs lock around her waist.
They cuddled and kissed like that for a short time, Gabrielle's mind buzzing with the feel of her sensitive, wet flesh rubbing against Xena's stomach. She wished she had more hands so as to touch Xena all over, to explore her face and hair and chest and back, to hold her hands and hold her close. "I can't hold on -" Gabrielle confided, when the rubbing became so intense as to be painful.
Xena mumbled acknowledgement of this and put Gabrielle down gently, not releasing her weight until her bare feet were in the grass, the damp blades tickling between her toes. They easily moved into their positions, cuddling with one arm around the other woman and one arm down between them.
Gabrielle moved her feet apart, consciously relaxing so that Xena could slip first one then two fingers inside her. She groaned, unable to keep it in, and felt her legs begin to tremble. Resolved to keeping it together just a moment longer, she tried to ignore her own feelings enough to concentrate on moving her hand to Xena and giving her what she wanted. The older woman's body was larger and warmer than her own, her breasts bigger, nipples darker, her flesh more easily able to accommodate three fingers without conscious effort.
No one was in the forest to hear them. The tension built rapidly as they moved, their lips together and Xena's hand pressed to the tree for stability, and their restrained groans were followed by the pants of release. Wave after wave of pleasure went through them both almost in synchronisation, and Gabrielle pushed her hips into Xena, wanting more.
When it passed Xena was spent and out of breath, only slowly able to take her weight back on her feet and gently withdraw her hand. She automatically took Gabrielle into her arms, although she hadn't managed to open her eyes to see her.
"Please," Gabrielle breathed, "Again, don't stop…"
This was extremely common, and Xena smiled, both amused and proud. She dropped down onto her knees and gently encouraged Gabrielle to move her legs apart. When she did, she knelt up and nestled her nose into ginger curls, feeling Gabrielle's hands on her head. She ran the tip of her tongue between wet folds of flesh, feeling the girl respond and loving the sounds she was making. Xena sucked softly at the hardened nub she found, her hands stroking soothing circles around thighs and buttocks that were beginning to quiver. She felt Gabrielle adjust her stance and bear down, fingers knitting into her hair, and so pressed her tongue inside.
Xena held Gabrielle's hips to guide her soft bucking when the moment came, then had to rise quickly and pull her into a hug to stop her collapsing. "All right?" She kissed blonde hair. "Done?"
Gabrielle nodded, her head coming to rest wearily against Xena. Her fingers were at her mouth, Xena's salty taste still on them, and she allowed herself to be guided over to their blanket spread out on the grass.
"Here, into bed -" Exhausted herself, Xena got them both down and pulled a cover over them. "Just five minutes."
"Hmm. Just five." Gabrielle spread herself almost on top of Xena and dozed into sleep, her head on her partner's breast.
Xena's breathing deepened and she lost all awareness too, her body needing a moment of quiet to recover. When she stirred again she let her hands stroke leisurely up and down Gabrielle's body, over her bottom, along her lean back and into her honey hair.
Gabrielle pushed herself up on her arms and gazed down at Xena. No one else in the world existed. "I love you, so much."
"I love you so much," Xena echoed back to her, smiling up at her pretty face. Gabrielle was the first and only person in her life with whom she shared everything, to whom she gave every part of herself.
They spoke quietly, only to each other. "You're beautiful." Gabrielle traced her fingertips lightly across Xena's lips, liking the shape and colour. Xena could taste herself there. She reached up a hand and did the same, smiling in satisfaction as Gabrielle let a finger into her mouth. The girl's eyes closed. "Again, Xena -"
Xena laughed and pulled her down into a boisterous cuddle, speaking into her hair. "Again?"
"Mmm," Gabrielle confirmed.
"Well…" Xena gave in, offering her lips, her hands supporting the girl's waist.
Gabrielle almost touched her, was almost with her again, two souls joining as one, but then was sitting up, alert and awake. "Did you hear that?" She looked over to her right, frowning softly.
"I didn't hear anything," Xena told the girl sitting astride her, naked and beautiful. "Come back here." She took small hands into her own and kissed them.
"It was a rustle," Gabrielle ignored her. "Like something small. You think it's a rabbit? I really could enjoy some meat. No offence to your fish." She looked back to Xena, who was playing with her hands.
"It was just the wind."
"No, there was a kind of mewing sound too: high pitched. Maybe I can hunt it. One more chance: I can do it this time." Excited, she climbed off Xena and reached for her clothes.
Xena groaned, disappointed. "Sweetheart -" She rubbed the backs of her fingers over Gabrielle's lower back, watching her shoulder into her green shirt.
"I won't be long!" Gabrielle reassured, tugging on her boots. "Just think: holt, salty meat." She paused when she heard the cry again. "There, hear that?" She took up her staff.
Xena sat. "I heard it." It sounded more human than animal to her, and she hurried into her clothes, grasped her sword, and followed her partner.
Gabrielle pushed through the undergrowth, tracking the sound. She let her staff lead her, her grip on it light but sure. Her footfalls were quiet: Xena's were silent. She paused in a clearing, listening intently, then saw a bush move.
Xena would've preferred to be ahead, to have Gabrielle safely behind her. She respected her friend and had faith in her, but she knew her own reactions to be faster. Gabrielle would have been offended to have heard it, though, so the warrior held her tongue and kept behind, but her sword was in her hand.
Nearing the moving foliage, Gabrielle held up an arm to pause Xena. She took a moment to check around them. Seeing no one, she parted the dark leaves with the butt of her staff, and gasped. "Xena -"
"What the -"
"It's a baby -" Unheeding of any danger, Gabrielle handed back her staff and reached down to pick up the child. "He's beautiful! Do you think it's a boy?" Clearly delighted, she cradled the infant in her arms. It was clean and dressed in pretty white linen with a little cap on its head. Not newborn but not older than a year, it was easy enough to hold in one arm, and Gabrielle bobbed back down for the small blanket on which it had rested.
Xena slowly turned in a circle, her sword outstretched, scanning the trees.
"Isn't he delightful?" Gabrielle rocked the baby softly, smiling at it. "How'd he get here?"
"People don't just leave babies, Gabrielle," Xena warned. "I don't like it."
Gabrielle glanced around. "Well, where did he come from? I don't see anyone."
"Neither do I." Xena scowled.
The baby grumbled softly, reclaiming Gabrielle's attention. "Oh, don't be upset!" She held him close to her face and cooed to him. "Are you hungry? You must be hungry, huh? Shh…" She stroked at his cheek, making him smile. "You're adorable!"
"Don't get carried away, Gabrielle," Xena told her. "We have to find where it came from." She scanned the ground for footprints, but saw only earth and clumps of grass.
"Of course, but we have to find him some food too – he's hungry."
Xena looked back to her partner, quietly thinking with both pride and envy how at ease the girl looked, how kind and youthful. Gabrielle would make a good mother: she had the right temperament and was gentle and fair. A better mother than she herself had made, Xena thought with regret. Gabrielle would never abandon a child: even this one. "Well I think there's a little goat's milk left over," Xena acquiesced. Gabrielle grinned at this, and they returned to their camp.
Gabrielle sat down cross-legged on the blanket, cradling the baby in her lap, and conscientiously fed him milk from a small beaker. Xena stalked around, swinging her sword, her eyes raking through the foliage surrounding them. Finally, seeing no one, she came and sat down. She took a whetstone from her bag and glanced at her companion. "Don't get too attached."
"Oh, I'm not." Gabrielle tickled the baby's fine hair. "I wonder where his mother is? How could someone just leave such a beautiful child?"
Xena shrugged and looked away from them. "Dunno."
"Do you want to hold him?"
"No thanks, you're doing fine." Uncomfortable, the warrior focussed on drawing the stone slowly along her silver blade, watching tiny curls of it shave off and fall between her boots.
"You think?" Apparently pleased by that, Gabrielle beamed down at the child, feeling the soft warmth of his body in her arms. "I guess I've had a lot of practice, with Lila and all."
Xena looked over at her, grudgingly keen to hear one of Gabrielle's stories. She had to admit, her friend looked comfortable and confident with the infant. "Yeah? You used to baby-sit, huh?"
Gabrielle nodded emphatically. "All the time. Especially when I got older, when mother and father were working on the farm." She laughed. "I used to tell Lila off, and tell mother how she liked to have her eggs cooked, and put her to bed at night. We weren't very old when she got taller and bigger than me! Didn't stop me trying, though."
Xena smiled. "I bet you were a great help."
The younger woman nodded. "I liked it. I like children." She touched at a tiny hand with her finger, and watched the baby grasp instinctively at her, its nails turning white with the pressure. A rainbow had formed in the sky, out across the lake, and Gabrielle turned the baby toward it, pointing with her finger. "See the rainbow? Isn't it pretty?" She spoke enthusiastically to him, making Xena smile. "Do you like rainbows? That's a very beautiful one, don't you think? See all the colours?" She took a moment to enjoy him. Her head on one side, she turned to her partner. "I think I could be a good mother," She said thoughtfully. "Would…" She took on a tentative tone, keeping her eyes on the child, and Xena listened warily. "Would you like us to have a child, one day? To bring up a baby, I mean."
Xena shook her head, tossing her whetstone back into her bag and blowing the shavings from her sword. "Don't be ridiculous, Gabrielle." She had spoken in a harsher tone than she intended, and the baby began to grumble.
"You've frightened him…" Gabrielle jiggled the child in her arms, making sympathetic expressions. "Why is it ridiculous?"
Xena had to raise her voice over the crying, which was piercing and going right through her. "Well it's not biologically possible, for one thing."
Gabrielle shrugged. "Well yes, of course. I was only speaking hypothetically."
"Right." Xena reached back into another satchel, desperate to turn away. "Does it want more milk?"
The two women were sufficiently distracted not to notice the approach of two soldiers, dressed in black with the royal crest on their helmets. The taller, thinner of the two, his skin an unattractive yellowish white, clutched his hands to his ears to block out the incessant crying. Shoved forward by his rather more rotund companion, he grimaced and called out. "Hey, that there's our baby, give 'im back."
Xena was up with her sword outstretched before he had finished speaking, positioning herself in front of Gabrielle. With this new interest, the baby was quiet. "Your baby, huh?" Xena grinned, aiming the point of her sword at the taller man's chest. "How cute. I suppose these are modern times."
"I want it back." He jabbed out his finger, withdrawing it quickly before it could be cut off. Both men were looking around them furtively, as if they had something greater than Xena to fear.
"Right." Xena nodded, pretending to think this over. "And remind me, why would I want to give a baby to two bumbling fools like you?"
"'Cos if you don't I'll be tomorrow's horse feed!" The soldier implored, the pitch of his voice rising a little further. "The kid ain't mine: I lost 'im, I did!"
"Lost him?" Somewhere not far in the distance, Xena heard the rhythm of horse's hooves on impacted mud, and the thunder of wooden cart wheels.
The soldiers heard it too, and what little menace they had dissolved into panic. "That's them!" The tall man exclaimed, "What we gonna do?"
His companion, who had until then been silent, hissed "You were supposed to be looking after him, not leaving him about the place while you had your way with the local apple picker!"
"I lost me bearings, I did, and then it'd crawled off!" The soldier tried to defend himself.
Xena watched this exchange, hearing other voices from the mud trail behind the trees.
The fatter man, who was older and clearly less prone to the hysteria of his comrade, lowered his voice. "You're useless and incompetent." He tugged an old sword from its place on his belt, Xena's eyes on him. "Keep your hole shut and we might just get out of this with our hinds intact."
More soldiers burst through the trees, then, the commotion setting the baby crying again. They were all dressed in black, and parted for an older man who was clad in the rich colours and fabrics of a king. "What in all the Kingdom of Olympus am I supposed to make of this?" Angry, he pulled his robes above the level of his fine shoes and approached. He pointed to the child in Gabrielle's arms. "Take him!"
The fat man spoke up. "These wenches stole your son from us, Sire! Wanted him to sell for their witchcraft, they did."
A soldier snatched the baby from Gabrielle. She jumped up, finding her staff too far away and having to rely on her words. "Wait, you're wrong! We just found him, we -" Another soldier swung around and launched a kick at her. His muddy boot made impact with her collar bone and she stumbled back and fell heavily. All the air seemed to have left her and she couldn't pull it back in.
The King gathered up his son and his robes, and started back for the road. "Send them to Galiron!" He ordered his men.
Xena jumped over Gabrielle and ran her sword through her attacker, who had been foolish enough to turn his back. No longer watched by the constraining eyes of their king, the group of thugs set to their task with relish. A handful pounced on Xena, attacking together so she couldn't throw them off. Several approached Gabrielle, who, already down and winded, was a less exciting target.
By the time the third boot had gone into her abdomen Gabrielle couldn't think, much less move. Her body curled itself around the burning pain, her knees coming up and her elbows tucking down. Fire trickled down her legs and set her feet trembling, and a kind of warm sweetness spread up through her chest until she could taste blood in her mouth. A huge hand caught hold of her hair, and her numb fingers wouldn't even grab the arm, let alone pull it away. She heard the crack of her skull against the rock she had fallen by, but then everything else faded just as light gives way to night.
Xena heaved and threw three beasts off of her, slashing with her sword to give her space to analyse the situation. "Gabrielle -" She called out, wanting to locate her only ally by sound if she wasn't able to turn and look. She parried several lunges and swung the hilt of her sword back into a particularly vulnerable area. "Gabrielle?" She chanced a look.
Behind her, through the trees, she saw a small body being dumped onto the wagon. Fear went through her, cold and sickening. The horses started along the road. The stunned moment let her guard down and she took a slash to her arm. The pain of the wound brought her back quickly, and, coupled with sudden rage and terror, the adrenaline made her quick and strong.
Xena did enough damage to make the men stagger back and give her a little more time. She had to follow that wagon. All she had was a name – 'Galiron' – and she didn't know where or who that was. She couldn't let Gabrielle out of her sight, and nor could she quickly defeat the soldiers, not single-handed and carrying an injury.
Determined, she set off at a sprint, following the path of the road but keeping parallel to it, through the jungle where the trees grew denser. The men followed, but she was faster and managed to just get out of their sight. Once she was sure she was hidden by the forest, she selected a tree and climbed it. Her time with the Amazons had been well spent. It would've been easier with bare feet, but she hauled herself up with the strength of her arms, into the canopy, and squatted silently. She watched the soldiers pass. They were out of breath and bored, and soon gave up their sport and trudged back to the road.
As soon as it was reasonably safe, Xena jumped down. She had already lost sight of the cart, but knew it would have to follow the road for a while before the path split or the land became clear enough for its passage. She whistled for Argo. There wasn't time to go back to their camp, but there was nothing of importance there – only a few pots and pans. Most of their wares were still in the saddlebags, and Xena rarely kept her weapons anywhere but about her person.
The sandy horse arrived at a gallop, cutting artfully through the trees with her white mane and tail streaking out behind her. Xena leaped on. "Ya!" She tapped her heels to Argo's sides and the horse set off.
Xena caught up to the lumbering wagon but didn't dare get close to it. She would have no more chance of fighting than she had at the camp, and would just join Gabrielle as prisoner. Hot blood ran down her arm then congealed into a sticky reminder of the urgency of her mission. The soldiers had been brutal once their master's back was turned: she had to get Gabrielle away from them.
She followed the crew until they reached the shore. There, the King and a good many of the men left their companions and set off along the coast. Gabrielle was hauled off of the cart, clearly still unconscious, and dropped onto the sand. Xena decided it was the perfect opportunity to strike, with her enemy's numbers reduced and their backs turned. She swung off of Argo and began her run, wanting to arrive silently and use surprise to her advantage.
As she neared the soldiers across land, though, she saw that others were approaching them from the sea. Cursing, she slowed her pace, her chest working with effort. A small row boat landed on the beach and three men clambered out. They wore different uniforms to the soldiers: greyish tunics and big leather belts that made them look even less respectable. Xena ducked behind a tree. There was much noisy greeting between them, then one of the men from the boat hauled Gabrielle up and dragged her into the rickety vessel.
Xena went to start forward again, then thought better of it: she'd never make it in time. "Damn it!" The boat returned to the waves, and the soldiers trudged back inland, free of their load. Xena started back toward Argo. There was an open ocean ahead, so the only place a small vessel like that could be headed was a tiny island set at the entrance to the natural harbour. Was that the island of Galiron? At least once Gabrielle was there, she wouldn't be hard to find. Xena mounted her horse and rode along the coast, wanting to find a quiet place to make camp and leave Argo, and to approach the island – and whatever it held – from the rear.
It was growing dark by the time she found the secluded beach she was looking for. It would be impossible to work at night, so she found some berries and roots for a meal then settled for sleep, her thoughts focussed on her plans for the next day. Her mind wandered to Gabrielle in her sleep, of how their last words had been tense and at odds, and her dreams conjured up swirling images that she couldn't repress even as she startled herself awake. She should have been able to protect Gabrielle, and now she would get her back, she refused to entertain any doubt about that.
Xena rose as soon as it was light and spent the following day building a raft. It was mindless work, really – she had built plenty before – but it kept her hands busy and kept the worry at bay. By the time night fell, she was ready.
Even as a child, Xena hadn't been afraid of the dark. It was a friend, cloaking her movements, giving her time to think, hiding emotions she could no longer hold back. She called Argo over to her. "You'll have to fend for yourself for a while, Girl." She patted the long neck then removed the heavy saddle and set it in the hole she had dug in the sand. "I don't know how long I'm going to be, but I don't think this is going to be a quick job." She gazed over to the island. From this angle, a long wall and sprawling stone structure was visible in the distance, lit up by lanterns, an area of solidity in the murky opacity of the sea. "You keep yourself hidden. There are plenty of apples around to keep you busy." She shovelled sand into the hole with her hands, grinning up at her horse, who was watching her. "I don't want anyone knowing we're here: mustn't blow our cover." Brushing off her hands, she stood. "Well, go on then." Argo whickered and stomped her front hooves lightly in the sand. "I know, I know," Xena softened, obligingly rubbing the white patch on the horse's nose, "I'll miss you too." Argo neighed softly, indignantly, as if her feelings were hurt. "Yes I know we're a team, but I didn't make the raft big enough for the both of us." Argo blinked in acceptance of this: she didn't object to getting her hooves wet in a stream, but she was far too much of a lady to entertain the notion of being up to her neck in seaweed and salt. "Go on," Xena forced herself to speak more firmly. "I'll find you when I need you. Go."
Argo ducked her head then turned and galloped away. Without saddle or reigns she really was a stunningly beautiful horse, youthful and graceful, and Xena watched her for a moment before climbing onto her little raft.
The sea was fairly calm, and the rowing wasn't too difficult. Confident she hadn't been seen, Xena tied her craft to a rock and climbed up over the grey boulders to the stony black wall. It was a fairly small island, with a right-angled building on two sides and open space on the other two, all surrounded by the wall, which wasn't hard for Xena to climb over.
Careful to be quiet, she approached the building, found a window-like opening in the wall, and peered inside. Her hands gripped the sturdy metal bars which ran from top to bottom, and she guessed those who resided here did not do so of their own free will.
On the other side of the wall was a small room – just four stone walls – with a high ceiling. Opposite Xena was a heavy steel door, and under the window was a rickety bed. At both ends of the room, bolted to the walls, were iron shackles. Other than that, the room was empty.
So this was a jail. It didn't come as any great surprise to Xena, who had stayed in and ruled over a few. It made sense for a king to send a criminal to a penal institution, and it shouldn't be too hard to get Gabrielle out, by appeal or by force. She moved along to the next window, pressing herself against the wall. This room had a sleeping occupant, female and dark haired, so Xena moved on.
Peering surreptitiously into the fifth cell, she found Gabrielle. Her friend was sitting on the floor, back pressed against the wall, her chin resting on her hands. "Gabrielle -!" Xena called softly.
Gabrielle startled and followed the sound to the window. Seeing Xena's head and shoulders silhouetted against the sickly moonlit sky outside, she leaped to her feet and ran over. "Xena!" Jumping onto the steel-framed bed, she could stretch her arms through the bars and clutch at her friend. "I knew you'd come! Oh, I'm so glad to see you." She grinned, running her fingers over Xena's face, as if reminding herself of every feature. She sobered then, for a moment, pressing her forehead against the bars as Xena did the same, as close together as they could get. "I knew you'd come and find me."
"Are you all right?" Xena asked earnestly, drawing back to hold the girl's face in her hands, examining her.
Gabrielle gave a sheepish smile. "I'm fine. Bit of a headache, but I'm fine." She endured Xena probing the bruise on her forehead. Noticing the greyish bandage around Xena's upper arm, a spot of dark blood soaking through it, she touched at the frayed material, playing a stray thread between her fingertips. "You've been fighting? You're hurt -"
"It's nothing," Xena reassured, taking Gabrielle's hand and holding it in her own. She uncurled the fingers and affectionately kissed them, holding them for a moment against her lips as Gabrielle watched. "Have they hurt you?"
"No, I haven't seen a great deal of the guards, I try not to." Despite the bars, both women kept their hands on each other, wanting to be reassured of the other's presence and vitality. "There are lots of women here, I haven't seen any male prisoners. Some of them are adamant that they're innocent, like I am. This place is crazy, Xena, there's no justice to it."
Xena acknowledged this. "Listen, is there someone or something called Galiron? It's something I heard the King say."
Gabrielle nodded. "He's the head guard. I only saw him briefly but I've heard stories about him." Her expression suggested that those stories were none too pleasant, so Xena didn't press the issue.
They spoke in hushed tones, by necessity, their faces close, and Xena was holding the small hand that was curled in the heat at the base of her neck. "First thing tomorrow I'll ask to speak to him, sort this mess out." She was still angry about how this had transpired, and felt guilty for not having done more.
Gabrielle shook her head, though, determined. "No, Xena, you don't understand: I think he's dangerous, he doesn't do things fairly. If they told him about you, you'll end up in here too. Promise me you won't get involved with him."
Xena scowled. "Gabrielle, if he's in charge, he's the one I have to -"
"Promise me," Gabrielle repeated, earnest. Promises were important to her, had been taken seriously by her parents from an early age, and Xena had never known her to break one or ask for one lightly. "He won't listen, in any case."
Xena didn't like this, but Gabrielle was so fervent, and looked so distressed by the subject, that she decided to leave it for now. "All right. We'll find another way." That seemed to placate her partner. She idly stroked back a lock of blonde fringe, and liked seeing Gabrielle smile in response. "So what have they had you doing?" Apart from the grubby grey clothes, her friend looked very much as she had the day before, and it was reassuring.
"Not much. The guards spoke to us, out in the courtyard, warned us not to step out of line. Some of the others were afraid, but I told them, I said my friend would come and get us out, I never doubted it." She bounced onto her toes proudly. "Everything's all right now you're here. So long as we're careful." She chattered on. "We had to clean out the cells. I've just been sitting here, really." She looked down and fiddled with a chipped nail. The babbling ceased and the false excitement faded. "Thinking, mostly. Thinking about you." She sighed. "And about what happened. It was my fault. You always tell me not to jump in with both feet, and that's exactly what I did, and got us both in trouble. I'm sorry."
"Hey -" Xena kissed her knuckles again. "You couldn't leave a child by itself, you did what was right. I'm proud of what you did." When Gabrielle smiled, she added, "You were good with that baby." This pleased her friend even more, and lightened the mood again. "Are you hungry?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes comically. "Am I! I thought fish was bad, now all I get is gruel."
Xena grinned. "Yeah, thought so. Here -" She searched in the bag she had carried on her back, pulled out a bundle, unwrapped the cloth, and offered it to Gabrielle.
"Chicken? Thank you, Xena." Her eyes widening in expectation, Gabrielle scooped the cooked strips of white flesh into her hands and ate them enthusiastically. "Is this your way of proving you can hunt better than me after all?"
Xena laughed. "No." The food had to be nutritious but prepared so as to leave no bones or skin or other pieces of evidence, so she had thoughtfully roasted the meat then stripped it from the carcass. She didn't speak again until Gabrielle was finished, letting her enjoy her meal. "Argo says hello, by the way." Gabrielle laughed. "I'll get you out, don't worry." A nod. " It's late, why weren't you sleeping?" She handed a wineskin through the bars and watched Gabrielle drink.
"Couldn't. I don't exactly feel relaxed. I didn't sleep last night, either." She gave back the skin.
"Well, you should, you need to be strong in places like this."
Gabrielle nodded. "It's funny: I've gotten so used to sleeping beside you, I can't seem to drop off when you're not here." She reached for Xena's hand, and interweaved their fingers, pressing their palms together.
"Well I'm here now. Why don't you try to rest?" Xena saw Gabrielle look down longingly at the bed, obviously tired. "Lie down, Gabrielle, sleep." She ran her hand over her partner's shiny blonde hair.
"You won't go?"
"Not until it starts to get light, no." In truth, Xena couldn't sleep too well without Gabrielle either. When Gabrielle lay down Xena could no longer see her, but she dangled her arm through the bars, and if Gabrielle reached up they could hold hands until the girl got too tired and dropped her arm. Gabrielle spoke occasionally, checking Xena was still there, then fell asleep.
Xena stood for as long as she could, then, when her legs grew tired, slid down and sat with her back to the wall, separated from Gabrielle but at least with her. The still darkness gave her rather too much time to think, and she tried not to go further than planning what she would do the next day.
Night after night, this routine continued. Xena spent her days alone on the mainland, and her nights with Gabrielle, bringing her food, water, and blankets for the dark hours. She tried talking to the guards: they clearly didn't know of her connection to Gabrielle, so she kept herself anonymous and her enquiries general. As Gabrielle had predicted, though, it was useless. The jail, apparently, wasn't somewhere you could bargain or buy or fight your way out of. Despite the appalling way it was run, it was impressively secure, and Xena couldn't see an easy way of affecting a jail break.
Each time she saw her friend, the girl was tireder, physically and spiritually, and showed less and less of her characteristic good humour. "Xena," She said earnestly one night, clutching at the bars, "You have to get me out of here. Please. I go along with what the guards want but it doesn't help, there's no reasoning with them. Today they beat one of the other women, for nothing. No matter how hard we work, it's never enough. I'm afraid, all the time: I can't cope here."
Pained by this, Xena held Gabrielle's blistered hand to her face and rubbed her cheek against it. "I'm working on it, Gabrielle. We will end this, I promise you. I've sent word to the King, he has to know what's going on here."
Gabrielle nodded, trusting Xena and knowing she had to be patient. "All right."
Every night that Xena arrived, Gabrielle would greet her with more enthusiasm, as if her whole day existed for this moment, but would then be increasingly withdrawn, saying little about how she had spent her time and how she was feeling.
Xena felt the pain of this intensely, and by the time ten days and nights had passed, with no word from the King and no success with the guards, she had had enough. When darkness fell she rowed to the island and climbed over the wall with new determination. She would tell Gabrielle to be ready, that tomorrow she would get in, do whatever it took, and get Gabrielle out. If she had to smash the skulls of every miserable guard in the place, including this Galiron character, that was what she would do. Ideally, she would use stealth, but she was so appalled by the stories she heard and the marks on her friend's hands and face that nothing seemed beyond feasibility.
Xena slid along the building and pulled herself up to the little square window. Seeing that the cell looked empty, she called Gabrielle's name softly, assuming she was lying out of sight on the bed below. No one replied, though, and as Xena's eyes tracked up to the door she saw that it was slightly ajar: the room had no occupant.
Fear flushed through Xena, cold and prickly, and her fingers went numb on the metal bars. Where was Gabrielle? Hot anger chased the fear: the Gods help anyone who had harmed her. But that thought brought the fear back. The panic was almost overwhelming for a moment, and Xena could only stand with her belly and forearms pressed against the stone, staring into the lonely, empty space.
It was strange to think how much she had grown to rely on the presence of one other person. Everything that she was lacking, Gabrielle possessed. She had always realised that she wasn't the most rounded individual, but she had never imagined that she would find someone who enriched her spirit to such a state of completeness. The idea of Gabrielle in pain or distress was unbearable, but in her anxiety Xena could only stand at the window and imagine exactly that for some time.
Once she had pulled herself together, she moved around the rear wall of the building, warily listening at then looking into each window, in the hope that Gabrielle had simply been put in a different cell. There were lots of prisoners, all women, but none of them looked too well, and none were Gabrielle.
So Xena had to row back to land, making record time thanks to her alternating worry and anger. Surely she would know if anything dreadful had happened? Surely she would feel it, Xena told herself. She sat and ate the food she had taken in her bag for them to share: Gabrielle's favourite orange berries, and a little crumbly cheese.
She somehow felt more hopeful after a decent sleep, and after some running repairs on her little raft she rowed back across the now familiar stretch of water as soon as night fell. She climbed up to Gabrielle's window – rather recklessly, on reflection – and almost stumbled back when she was met by an elder, slightly chubby woman leaning with her elbow on the sill.
The woman turned her head and casually regarded the warrior, her eyes widening just a little. She had wavy grey hair which hung down her back and was half covered by a dusty blue material scarf around her head. She inhaled and spoke softly. "I think it's not me you expected to find, Love. You've a friend here?"
Xena cursed her clumsiness: she hadn't intended to be seen by anyone until she was good and ready. "Yes, I do."
"Oh." The woman nodded and returned to gazing at the opposite wall. "Think she must be good and lucky, to have a friend willing to come here like you have." She put her head to one side. "Who are you looking for, Lass?"
It might not be wise to reveal the connection between them, Xena thought, but she had no other way of finding out where Gabrielle was. "Her name is Gabrielle. She hasn't been here long. Have you seen her?"
The woman thought for a moment, the lines in her weathered face deepening. The task animated her a little, and she began to gesticulate with a hand. "Young thing, blonde, likes her stories?"
"Yes!" Xena confirmed excitedly, "Yes, that's her. Where is she?"
The woman turned toward Xena, taking on a look of sympathy. "Aye, she's a sweet girl. I saw them taking her to the infirmary here: all blood, she was, poor babe. She stood up to them good and fine, so she did, and they don't like that. That's all I know."
The fear came back full force, and Xena struggled to push it down. In some ways it was better not knowing. She didn't think she had ever felt fear like she did when Gabrielle was in danger. "I don't understand, what did they do to her?"
The old lady shrugged. "Didn't see; that I didn't. You learn not to see things, in here. She was a brave one, so I hear, defending one of the others. Those guards are vicious, they would've wanted to teach her a lesson, make an example, you know? Poor love."
Xena nodded, her lips coming back into a snarl. "I'll get her out. They'll be sorry. All this is wrong. They'll see how good they feel when my sword -"
The woman caught hold of Xena's arm. "Wait!" She was shaking her head, concerned. "That's suicide, it is." She lowered her voice. "You don't know them, you won't stand a chance. You have to be cleverer than them, see?" She tapped a finger to her temple. "Think. Trick them, make them think you're playing their game when all along they're playing yours." She leaned back then, and let go. "Or you can say goodbye to Gabrielle, and to your own hide. Mark my words." A small smile came over her face, and she looked kind and more like a grandmother than a prisoner. "You'll get what you want. Be strong of heart, and you'll get what you want."
Xena nodded, taking this in. "You're right." An idea began to form in her mind, and at last gave her some direction.
"Hmm." She nodded knowingly.
"What's your name?"
The woman looked at her, blue eyes bright. "Mary. And you are?"
They shook hands. "Xena."
"I'll do what I can, for your Gabrielle." Mary nodded determinedly, her mind set. "All that I can, aye."
"Thank you," Xena said sincerely, then remembered something. "Are you hungry?"
Mary laughed, surprisingly animated and exuberant. "Always hungry, Love!"
"Here -" Xena handed her in a wrapped cloth, and watched her enjoy the succulent white fish flesh and sticks of crunchy green vegetable.
Mary was a good ally to have, Xena thought. She seemed genuine and worthy of trust. At least she provided a link to what was going on in the jail. Xena came away that night with a new sense of purpose. She would wait until Gabrielle was well, until they could talk again, be sure of their plans. Then they would put an end to this madness. They had gotten out of worse situations: it just required imagination.
Xena returned every night, adamant that Gabrielle not spend the dark hours alone feeling that she had been abandoned. She saw Mary once more, and on a couple of nights the cell was empty, but finally Gabrielle was there. "Sweetheart -" The relief was enormous, and Xena pulled herself close to the bars, all her attention on her partner. "Oh, I'm so pleased to see you. Are you all right?"
Gabrielle sat on the floor, her back against the wall, knees pulled up against her chest. Summer was slipping further away, and each night was slightly colder than the last. In semi-darkness, it was difficult to distinguish her features clearly, but Xena saw her lift her head. "Xena." Her voice was flat, but Xena didn't pick up on it.
"Yeah it's me," She comforted. "Hey, c'mere where I can see you." Smiling, she reached through the bars, wanting and needing to touch her partner.
Gabrielle rose slowly, stiffly, and came over to the window. She took and held Xena's hand, but wasn't close enough for the warrior to be able to touch her face. Her hair was unbrushed and there were grazes on the exposed grubby areas of her skin, but there were none of the awful wounds that Xena had imagined.
"I missed you," Moved, Xena pulled up Gabrielle's hand and kissed it, as she often did when they spent quiet time together. Gabrielle allowed this, but didn't move closer. "What happened?"
"It's the way it is in here. I haven't learned to behave around the guards, I wasn't careful enough." Not quite meeting Xena's eyes, Gabrielle rubbed at her face. She kept her hand in Xena's, but it was Xena who did all the squeezing and stroking. "Look, Xena… I don't want you to come back here again." Xena recoiled at this, puzzled, but Gabrielle continued. "You don't understand this place, there isn't an easy way out. It's making it harder for me to keep seeing you like this."
Xena thought this was crazy, and couldn't begin to understand it. "Don't talk like that. I've got a plan: if we work together we can do this."
But Gabrielle was shaking her head, and regretfully twisted her hand away. "No, Xena, I can't do that."
"You can!" Desperate and frustrated, Xena gripped the bars. "Don't give up! Did they do something bad to you, is that it? Tell me, please…"
Gabrielle pressed her lips together sadly. "It's not that. They just beat me, that's all: I don't want it to happen again. It's not giving up, it's being realistic."
Xena was exasperated, and didn't know what to say. "I love you…" She had learned to turn to the phrase when she didn't know how else to express her feelings. She used to find it incredibly hard to say, but being around Gabrielle, who said it so frequently and easily to her, and always when she most needed to hear it, had taught her how rewarding it could be.
Gabrielle nodded, as if she had truly heard this. "I love you too, Xena." She came close to the wall, took Xena's face between her hands, and kissed her. The metal bars were a slight hindrance, but as Xena closed her eyes they seemed to dissolve away and let her slide into the luxury of Gabrielle's lips, the warmth of her hands, her smell and her proximity. She opened her moth a little, feeling Gabrielle respond softly before pulling back. "But I need to be on my own for a bit." Gabrielle withdrew before her friend could grab for her. "Go home, find Argo, try not to worry." She backed off, her smile sad.
"But Gabrielle -"
"Just leave, Xena. Please."
The stunned warrior watched Gabrielle return to her spot in the shadows on the floor. She was so shocked by this new situation that she automatically turned away, her legs carrying her numbly back to her raft.
What was wrong with Gabrielle, why was she suddenly so nihilistic? With each hour that passed, pacing around in her small camp, the angrier Xena became. How dare Gabrielle just give up, on the both of them? What kind of justice was this? By the time night fell again, a new plan had formed itself in her mind, with the speed and surety of an army leader, a Destroyer of Nations. The deadliest viruses kill from the inside.
The next time she saw Gabrielle, she was being slung into a cell with her. She almost stumbled over, but managed to keep her balance. The other women turned from their conversations and regarded their new cell mate. Trying to catch her breath, Xena returned their stares, forming a silent tableau, until Gabrielle pushed through from behind the other women. Her back to the guards, Xena's eyes darted across and fixed on Gabrielle, warning. She gave her head an almost imperceptible shake. Gabrielle dropped back, feigning disinterest.
The guards slammed the door shut and bolted it. "Now serve your time for your impudence, Wench!" Galiron – whom Xena had discovered was actually second in command of the jail – laughed unpleasantly. "Rot with the rest of them!" Galiron was a tall, stocky man, with a trimmed beard and gruff voice. He bore scars on his face, and gave the orders in the absence of the chief jailer.
When the guards had all gone and the corridor was quiet again, Gabrielle ran forward. "Xena, what are you doing?" Clearly both pleased and dismayed, she put her arms around Xena, tucking her face into the warm embrace that her partner stooped down to offer. "I told you not to come here – this was exactly what I wanted to avoid!"
Most of the other women lost interest and returned to their languid pacing, some continued to watch. Xena stroked down dusty blonde hair, smiling warmly. "It's my own fault for being clumsy. I should've known I wouldn't be able to find you without getting caught." She held Gabrielle's face, her heart warming just to be with her. "It doesn't matter. Everything'll be all right."
"Xena," Gabrielle despaired, but reached her arms up around Xena's neck for a long moment of just being together. It was true that she wouldn't have wished for Xena to be in this predicament with her, but the hope it offered, and the sheer relief and joy of having her here, outweighed all else in that moment.
The jail, Xena soon discovered, was a brutal and spartan place. There were a great many female prisoners, some hardened criminals and some youthful innocents, like Gabrielle. Fair, just practice was not held in high regard. The women were at the mercy of the whims of Galiron, who relished his power and paid little heed to the rules laid down by the absent chief jailer. The building was huge and drafty, and there was a desolate courtyard where the women were made to chop wood or grind stone or wash linen, all the while buffeted by the salty wind coming off the sea.
There was a fair degree of camaraderie between some of the women, but others were suspicious of everyone and were only out for themselves. Xena hadn't been on the island a full two days when she found out that one of the others had heard her conversation with Gabrielle and turned them both in as being co-conspirators, no doubt in the hope of securing some amount of leniency for herself. Xena had been eating her meagre meal of watery broth: it wasn't too appetising, but then her own cooking didn't set a very high standard, and she was used to eating whatever food she could get and being grateful for it. The guards burst into the cell, creating much panic amongst the other women, and dragged Xena and Gabrielle out into the courtyard, where Galiron was waiting.
"How dare you, you witches!" He blustered, marching back and forth on stubby legs. "Did you think you were cleverer than me? I tell you, there's no escape from this place, it's Hades on Earth, and you've just brought about your own judgement day." It was cold, and Xena shivered in her scratchy grey smock. This hadn't ever been part of the plan, admittedly, but a bloody nose never hurt anyone. She glanced over at Gabrielle, quietly proud of the defiant stance she was taking. "What punishment can I find for you?" Galiron approached Xena and starred into her face. His breath wasn't too good and he had an unpleasantly bulbous nose. Xena lifted her chin and stared back. Huffing, he went over to Gabrielle, who was being held by her arms and couldn't wriggle away, and appraised her too.
Xena was prepared for snarling and anger and violence from him, that was to be expected of someone with limited brain capacity, and could be dealt with. What unnerved her far more was the repugnant smile that spread across his ugly face as he regarded Gabrielle. He reached to touch her cheek and she jerked her head away. The smile grew into a grin.
Galiron gave a curt order which Xena couldn't make out over the cheering of the half dozen guards. She was dragged over to an upturned cart close to the building wall, and her frenzied struggling and kicking and biting was ineffectual against the strength and determination of the men, who were warmer and better fed than she. She felt her arms being tied down to the cart with rope, which cut into her wrists if she tried to pull away. For a moment she wondered where the weapons they were planning to use were, but then she registered the excitement on the men's faces, saw the ale skin they passed between them, and realised what they were going to do.
Something inside Xena lurched then sank lower, leaving a heavy, resigned feeling in her chest, and she rested her head back down on the wood. She barely felt the pulling at her clothes and the clumsy nuzzling at her neck. The sky was grey and she wondered if it would rain. This wasn't the first time, and maybe it wouldn't be the last: it hadn't done her any significant harm so far – not physically, at least. There was no point in struggling; experience had taught her that. She let her legs fall to the sides, and closed her eyes.
It hurt, but once there pain was a constant thing, and brought no surprises. It was a thing of the mind, and could be blocked; Lao Ma had taught her that. She should have taught Gabrielle, Xena thought regretfully, but it would have taken years, years longer than they had had together. She wondered how much longer they two would have. Would they really share the rest of their lives, or would it all end here, in this grubby, unholy place?
A sound brought Xena a little closer to awareness again and she turned her head to look over to the other cart, some distance off. All she could see of Gabrielle was a flurry of yellow hair, then a fist, then nothing as she was made to lie down below the level of Xena's vision. Galiron was grinning, so she looked away, back to the clouds slowly crossing the dead sky. She wouldn't have wanted to see, anyway.
"Get off me!" Gabrielle demanded, indignant. It was a good little fight to put up, but it was doomed to failure. "Bastards!" Her partner was usually such a gentle soul, Xena thought, it was tragic and unjust that she should lose her innocence like this. "No! No!" The tone of her voice changed from hostility to fear: she had obviously realised her fate too. Xena's heart twisted in pain for her. "Oh, no, please! Please!"
Xena squeezed her eyes shut tight when Gabrielle screamed, wished she could press her hands over her ears too. It was a sound of such incredible pain and terror, and shock, that Xena found it unbearable. She tried again to look over, but could only see the leering faces of the guards. "Gabrielle -" She tried to call out, tried to keep her voice gentle. "It's all right, Gabrielle, don't be frightened, relax, it'll soon -" She was cut off when a large hand caught her face and yanked it in the opposite direction. Her head was pulled forward by her hair and a strip of material forced into her mouth. The gag was dry and made it hard to breathe, but the pain was getting worse, and at least it provided something to bite down on.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice was full of desperation, panicked and grief-stricken. "Xena -"
Xena couldn't reply. She heard her name again and again, changing from a question to a desperate mantra, screamed then sobbed. She felt her tears fall over her cheeks and make her neck wet and sticky. The weight of the second man on top of her seemed to squeeze air from her lungs. She wished she could pass out, or at least retreat further into herself, but Gabrielle's terrified crying wouldn't allow that. The girl sounded as if she thought her life was ending. Xena knew it wouldn't, but nor would it ever be quite the same. Gabrielle wasn't a big girl, Xena knew full well, and frightened as she was it must be hurting like the devil.
Not for the first time, Xena cursed herself for her own bloody, wretched existence. At times like this the feeling couldn't be pushed away. If it weren't for her, if she hadn't wondered into Poteidaia, Gabrielle would never have been put in this position. And no matter how many times Gabrielle insisted that the guilt was non-sensical, or how much she loved and cherished every day with her partner, this feeling never truly went away. It hurt far more than anything physical ever could.
Xena's mind could usually be relied upon to stay alert and focussed when she was under stress, she had never been the type to swoon when it all got too much. Maybe it was the cold out here, or the lack of air getting into her lungs, or the hot blood that was beginning to slick down her legs, but consciousness swam away for some indeterminate amount of time.
When Xena woke up it was with a start. She had a sharp pain in her cheek, and as she opened her eyes she realised it was because her head was resting on the stone floor. She tried to push herself up, and couldn't move, had no feeling in her arm. Panicked for a moment, she felt with her free hand to see if the arm was still there at all. Finding that it was, and had simply gone numb because of her weight on it, she managed to sit.
She was back in a cell, a rather large one with a high ceiling. She was alone, and it was just getting dark, her surroundings lit by sickly lantern light, so she knew she couldn't have been out for long. Her head clearing, she took a moment to assess her own condition: a good leader always regrouped and reassessed before beginning afresh. She was bruised and bloody, but there was nothing that wouldn't heal: with a little rest she would still be functional, and that was all that mattered.
Next was her environment. She was chained to the damp wall by a metal cuff around her ankle, but it had a fair amount of slack, and didn't stop her stiffly standing up and looking around. There wasn't anything of note except a grate in one wall, the size of a small window, with diamond shaped holes big enough to fit a hand through. Xena sat down again, having had quite enough of standing, and looked through.
On the other side was an identical cell, and it contained a figure. Xena gasped and reached her hand through, even though the prone body was much further than an arms length away. "Gabrielle!" She pressed herself against the grill. "Gabrielle, can you hear me?" She studied the body intensely for a moment. "It's me, Gabrielle -"
The younger woman was obviously still unconscious, and perhaps mercifully so – blood congealed around her nose, thick and dark, and it was wiped over her face and hands where she'd unknowingly rubbed at it. At least she was clothed again, but there was fresher blood underneath her, and she was pale.
Fear went through Xena like never before. Was she looking at a corpse? Would Gabrielle ever get over what had happened out there in the courtyard? When she had been lying on her back on the battlefield with a sword in her face, Xena had felt more rage than fear. When Lyceus died, it had been guilt. When her mother disowned her, it was shame. Nothing had been cold and agonising like this.
"Gabrielle," She tried more softly, "It's all right now, it is. You're safe now, you're with me. Open your eyes?" Miserable, tears stung behind her own eyes. "I'm so sorry." She dropped her head, feeling cold and sick. "Gabrielle, I'm just so -"
A key turned in the iron lock in Gabrielle's cell, and the door swung open. Xena got to her knees, trying to see. If another guard had come to take his turn, she was sure her fury would be so great that she would tear out the metal grate with her bare hands.
"Mary!" Surprised, she called to their friend. "Mary, you've got a key? What's going on?"
The elderly woman carried a battered basin in her hands, had some material slung over her shoulder, and clutched a skin under her arm. Moving slowly and sedately, she knelt by Gabrielle and set down her wares, then looked to Xena. "Glad to see you're all right, Lass." She smiled a little and nodded. "Did wonder for a time there." She saw Xena's concerned expression. "She's breathing, don't trouble yourself. Tough little thing, is what I think." Resting her head on one side, she gently rolled Gabrielle over onto her back and stroked matted hair from her face with a calloused hand. "Aren't you? Too tough for them, too strong to be broken." She dipped a square of material into the white basin, wrung it out, then began to clean Gabrielle's face.
Relief perked Xena up, giving her a little energy back. "How'd you get the key?" She repeated.
Mary shrugged, continuing with her work. "I help run the infirmary, do what I can. They wanted me to check on her."
"Wait; you work for them? You take orders from them?" Xena was appalled. "How could you?"
Mary paused for a moment, not turning to face Xena but instead gazing up out of a high window. "I was brought here when I was a lass not much older than you. All my life, inside these walls. It's no way to live," She shook her head, her hand playing unconsciously in Gabrielle's hair, "Aye, no way at all. But you keep your head down, you do as they say, let them think they own you, and you stay alive." She returned to her task, untying the cords of Gabrielle's tunic. "His favourite I was too, for a bit. Just like you, Lassie. Just like you." She told Gabrielle, and shook her head. "I would like to see my children again, my girl, and the wee laddie, if he got through the fever." She sighed. "That would be good, for an old woman."
Xena couldn't reply to this, and sat silently for a while, watching the wrinkled hands at their work. They were gentle but purposeful, and Gabrielle was washed in a motherly fashion before she had a chance to get too cold. The whole situation was escalating in intensity by the day. It had begun as a plan to grab Gabrielle and get away, but now Xena saw that if they did manage to escape, she couldn't let it end there. The guards would have to be brought to justice for what they had done, and the other prisoners like Mary would be freed and returned to the lives they were snatched away from.
It was a noble idea, but from where Xena sat, her clothes scratching her skin and the taste of blood in her mouth, it seemed as good as impossible. After a time, she spoke again. "Turn her face toward me? I want to see her."
Mary understood this, and settled Gabrielle's head comfortably. She regarded the girl sadly for a moment, then picked herself and her goods up.
"Do you have the other keys?" Xena asked hopefully.
The old woman shook her head. "I'm not that trusted, Love." She held up the one black key she had, and enclosed it in her palm. "And if this one doesn't get back to 'em, I'll be sent to my maker before he's good and ready for me." She came over to Xena and patted her hand, genuine sympathy on her features. "G'night, Lass. May the Gods bless the both of you." She picked up her long skirts and headed for the door.
Xena squeezed her hands around the bars, using their solidity to give her focus. In her position of trust, Mary would be a powerful ally to have. "Mary – we can't give in to them, we have to fight! Can't you see, if we don't stand up and do something we'll be here the rest of our lives, and next week there'll be another Gabrielle for them to rape, another mother to take away from her family." She got up on her knees. "Please, help me, we can find a way."
Mary didn't pause, though, and her voice was weary. "Too old for fighting, I am. Too old, and too tired." The door closed and her slow footsteps retreated down the corridor.
Xena sat thinking for a long time, gazing down at Gabrielle until the wind blew the small candle flames out and it got too dark to see her. The worst thing, Xena decided, was that there would be no one looking for them. They were happy in their own company, and led surprisingly insular lives. There were many people whom Xena considered friends – Joxer and Ephiny, Princess Diana and Lila – but it would be months before anyone puzzled over their absence. Even her mother, who she was closer to now than she had ever been as a youth, didn't expect to see her daughter for seasons at a time. And how would Gabrielle's parents feel, and all her various cousins and in-laws, when they learned what had happened to their sweet natured, loving child? Xena knew she deserved all the hatred they would feel towards her. Perhaps Gabrielle had been right, perhaps there was something to be said for having children, someone who would notice when you were missing and remember you when you were gone. Xena hadn't done too well on that score, she thought with regret: Solan wouldn't even recognise her if they crossed paths.
The next day Xena was pulled out of her cell before she could look through the grate for Gabrielle. The jail was a large institution, for a deceptively small chunk of land, and it wasn't difficult for the guards to separate two prisoners whom they perceived as posing a danger. Days passed, and Xena didn't see or hear of Gabrielle. She was sure her injuries hadn't been life threatening, and was confident that she was alive, but that was only small consolation as the days stretched into weeks and finally months.
Each day followed a similar pattern, and after a while life seemed almost normal. The mind can come to accept almost any situation with surprising rapidity. Xena worked hard and kept quiet. She quickly learned that only those who caused trouble took the beatings: the others were largely ignored. If the guards forgot to give her food one day, she was wiser than to remind them. If she was given a heavier stone to move than the woman next to her, she made no complaint. She had every intention of causing the guards trouble, but it would be when she chose to, when there was a purpose. Principle alone wasn't a strong enough motivator to get on their wrong side.
Sometimes a prisoner – especially someone new to the island – would go too far, and they would find themselves in the hangman's noose. Galiron took great delight in these occurrences, turning them into events of entertainment, gathering everyone round to watch. Thus, Xena felt secure that Gabrielle must still be alive and well enough to work: death was never a private affair on the island.
The problem was how to get to Gabrielle without the guards knowing. Given enough planning and just a little luck, Xena thought that she would be able to make good her escape, but there certainly wouldn't be time for searching every cell for her partner, and fleeing alone would put her in no better position than she had been in months ago, when the sun still held heat. Patience seemed to be the only card she had left to play.
The winter months held rich pickings for Galiron, as otherwise God-fearing folk committed petty crimes to provide food for their families over the solstice. Conditions became crowded, and the guards were keener than ever to dispatch members of their charge to Hades, to make room for younger, stronger specimens. Xena knew her earlier indiscretion hadn't been forgotten, and it didn't come as any great surprise, if she was truthful, when her number was up.
"Too much trouble, this one." The guard unlocking her cell declared. "Got beady eyes, always plotting and planning. Galiron wants rid of her." He gestured his colleague inside. "Plus we need the room for a pretty little thing from Thrace."
Xena allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. The second guard looked younger, and had a nervous manner. "But it's late," He protested, "Almost dark. You know how Galiron'll be if he misses a gutting." Xena's stomach turned: not a pleasant prospect.
"Hmm." The bigger man grumbled, apparently given pause by this. "Put 'er in the holding cell then. It'll wait 'til the morning."
Xena followed along stone corridors that were new to her. The need for escape had taken on a new urgency, and she tried to memorise every turn, to scan every brick for some opportunity.
"Here y'are, then." Stopping at a large dark cell, the guard pushed Xena through the door then locked it and left.
There were only two small windows, very high and impossible to squeeze through even without the bars. The whole space was in shadow, and Xena had to stand blinking for a moment before she could see much at all. It was time to start making rapid alliances. "Anyone else in here?" Everyone else she had spoken to was either apathetic, like Mary, or full of bravado and dead.
There was a scuffle in a far corner. "Xena?"
The voice sent warmth flooding through Xena's heart, and she reached out. "Gabrielle?"
"Gabrielle, oh, Gabrielle, where are you?" She moved forward at a run.
"Here, here -" And then Gabrielle was there in front of her, alive and smiling, none of the beauty gone from her face, none of the colour faded from her exquisitely green eyes. They got their arms clumsily around each other and stood as if suspended in time and separated from everything else in the world. They clutched at each other, wanting to feel warmth and vitality and love.
"Thank the Gods…" Xena held Gabrielle securely in her arms and rocked her from side to side, pressing kisses into her hair. Gabrielle looked up at her, and they nuzzled cheeks. "I never stopped thinking about you."
"Nor me." Gabrielle tucked her face into her partner's neck to smell her familiar, comforting aroma. "I missed you, so much."
"I wish I could think of a way out of this. You know what this place is, don't you…"
Gabrielle nodded, and rested her forehead against Xena's chest. The warrior seemed to want to touch her all over, to squeeze and hold her, but Gabrielle just wanted to be still, and to hear Xena's heartbeat against her ear. "I know. They have the nooses ready." She watched Xena's hands slide down her arms, and their fingers interweaved. "It doesn't matter, nothing lasts forever." She sighed. "Xena, why did you let them catch you? I don't understand, it's not like you. I told you if you came back they'd know. Everything that's happened to us here… how did they catch you?"
Xena smiled sadly, and stroked back some stray blonde hair. "That was the whole idea. I always intended to be caught, it was the only way to get here to you: I tried everything else. I figured it would get us both in the same place without them having to know that we were working together. Things… didn't go quite so well to plan after that, though." She played the lock of hair between her fingers then lay it carefully over Gabrielle's shoulder. It was matted and unbrushed, not shiny and silky as it always used to be, but to Xena it didn't matter.
Gabrielle nodded, understanding. She was grateful for what Xena had done, but her devotion had condemned her to death. "You shouldn't have done that."
"No choice, Gabrielle."
"No." Gabrielle was quite aware that if their positions had been reversed, she would have copied Xena's actions. She inhaled deeply, smiled because Xena was there with her. "Look, they even gave me a bed in here. And I do use the term loosely. You think Galiron's developing some compassion?" She tried to chuckle, and took Xena's hand to show her to a blank covered wooden pallet on the ground.
Just standing up took a considerable amount of energy when you hadn't eaten a decent meal for some time, so Xena sat, and smiled to have Gabrielle close to her. They got as comfortable as they could, Gabrielle resting her weight on Xena, curled against her chest. They were silent for a while, both aware of each precious moment as it ticked by.
"I'm not afraid," Gabrielle said suddenly, feeling Xena's chin on her head. "I am not afraid. Let them do what they see fit tomorrow. You and I will be together, I feel it."
It was an admirable sentiment, and Xena was proud of her friend's bravery. "Uh ha." She slid down, tired, and they rested lying on their sides, arms and legs touching. Their noses almost together, Xena could see the light reflected in her partner's pretty eyes. "I feel that too."
Gabrielle reached up and traced her fingertips over Xena's lips. "There'll be something better, next. We won't ever have to see a place like this again. At least it'll be an ending to this. I mean…" Her voice quietened, held an edge of anger, trembled slightly. "If they rape me again, I don't think that I…"
"Shh…" Not able to bear hearing that, Xena kissed her partner's forehead. "Don't think about that. Please. Don't think it."
Gabrielle nodded, sniffing back tears. "I won't."
"I want you to know," Xena tried to distract her, "I want you to know that you are the most precious person in all the world to me. You're my spirit and my light. You're a part of me. I love you, Gabrielle." It always surprised Xena to hear those words in her own voice: there had been a time when she no longer thought herself capable of emotion. Now, it took no effort to say. It was always genuine, and warm, and she always marvelled at how much it visibly moved Gabrielle. Three simple words.
"Oh Xena, I love-" Gabrielle had pushed herself close, and replaced her fingertips with her mouth. She closed her eyes and let the kiss consume her. Their bellies pressed together, Xena's hands wrapped around the slender body in her arms, and Gabrielle's kneaded themselves into thick brown hair.
Xena returned the kiss, her eyes closing too, and tasted Gabrielle in her mouth. She knew they were two halves of one whole, and even death wouldn't separate them. Gabrielle's kiss softened, and her arms came to rest on Xena's shoulders. Realising she was tired, the warrior encircled Gabrielle's head gently in her arms and supported it until the kiss was over.
Eyes still closed, Gabrielle settled herself. "I keep thinking about a nursery rhyme that Mother used to sing to me, even before Lila was born. The little tune keeps running through my head."
"Mmm hmm?" Xena kissed her hair. "How's it go?"
"You know I can't sing," Gabrielle laughed at herself.
"I don't care, sing it to me." She just wanted to hear Gabrielle's voice, to focus on it exclusively.
Inhaling gently, Gabrielle sang the childish little song to her. As with all bedtime melodies, it was about an idyllic, perfect world of peace and greenery. It detailed all the wonderful things that would be found there, all the opportunities for fun, loaded with assurances of love and companionship. It was a nice place to believe in. The relaxing imagery, along with the bard's soft voice, lulled them both close to sleep.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and gazed up at her soulmate, giving her a smile. There was nothing left to say: Xena knew a smile in return would be enough. She continued to watch until Gabrielle's eyes closed again and she fell asleep. She really was beautiful, bruised and smudged as she was. Xena gazed at her a little longer, then gingerly set her down, hoping she would sleep peacefully.
Whatever happened tomorrow, Xena thought, at least they would do it together. She laid her head on Gabrielle's chest, where it was warm and comforting, and let her own exhaustion take her into sleep.
The morning came before Xena had even registered the passing of the night, inevitable and final. The courtyard was full of prisoners and guards, as was customary, and Galiron was giving his usual menacing speech about today being an example to others who were planning to step out of line. He paraded along the ranks of women, blustering and spitting.
Xena barely noticed. Her attention was fixed on Gabrielle, who smiled softly back at her, and she allowed herself to live in gentle green eyes that were more familiar even than her own. If this was to be the path the Fates had cast for them, so be it. They would walk it together, and be ready for new adventures on the other side. Xena wondered if Gabrielle's articulate, illustrative mind was swimming with quotations from ancient texts she had read, paintings in crumbling temples she had seen: such works always encompassed life and death, maybe she would find comfort and reassurance in the memory of them. Xena didn't much care for poetry, or art, and doubted she would have understood any of the great works anyway, but she wished there'd been time for Gabrielle to tell her a few of the stories. Just as she had the ability to simplify and illustrate battle plans and strategies for her partner, Gabrielle could remodel and bring to life myths and tales for the warrior.
Xena was dimly aware of some activity amongst the guards, and gazed over to them. The portcullis in the eastern wall had been raised, and underneath it stood the man whom Xena recognised to be the chief jailer. He was rarely seen – only at events like this – and she didn't think she'd ever heard him speak, but she'd been told his name was Alcmaeon. Galiron behaved in a marginally more civilised manner when his commander was around, and Xena hoped his presence would mean a quicker and relatively more dignified end.
She turned away, not interested in the pomp and politics, and let her gaze settle back on Gabrielle. The younger woman smiled again, brave and serene. Xena thought it was an image she'd like to carry with her always.
Suddenly there was a great commotion behind them. Xena struggled to see, her arms held by a burly jailer. A mass of people had crowded around the building. There was chaos for a few moments, with some of the women trying to run and the guards catching and beating them for their insubordination. When the throng had cleared Xena could see that a handful of the guards were struggling to lift the heavy portcullis, which had somehow come loose of its fastenings and crashed down onto Alcmaeon. There was mush shouting from them and floundering from him, until finally he was pulled free.
Alcmaeon didn't rise, but remained on the earth kicking out and grasping at his throat. Xena felt a grin rise up in her, and she didn't bother to suppress it. So the very symbol of his status had come down and compressed his airway. It was perfect justice, in a place where there was none. Served the bastard right, Xena thought. May he rot in Tartarus with all the women who had been sent to their deaths under his jurisdiction. Xena knew that a sharp jab on the right pressure point on his neck would free his airway and save him: the power to rule over life and death was powerful, she had to admit. She would stand here, watching in mock helplessness, while his life writhed and ebbed away. If Gabrielle had been in her position, she would have saved him, no matter how good or evil she judged him to be. Xena didn't think she had ever possessed that purity of spirit. If she had, years at the head of Greece's most feared army had quashed it forever.
A movement behind the mêlée caught Xena's eye and she looked up. It was Mary, who had been standing quietly at the back of the crowd throughout. She fixed Xena with such an intense gaze that the warrior couldn't look away. As she watched, Mary slowly brought her hand out from behind her back and uncurled her fingers to reveal the brass hoop around which the rope that held up the portcullis had been tied. Its pointed end was dusty with brick debris. Xena's eyes traced the line of the ropes, which now hung slack and useless, then returned to Mary. The old woman winked.
It was then that Xena knew she had to take her chance. She twisted against the guard, trying to break free. "I can save him!" She called out. "I know what to do! Let me help." She glanced over to Gabrielle, who was watching her with surprise but knew better than to interfere.
Galiron shook his head sharply and waved his hand at the guard who held Xena, but Alcmaeon thumped his fist on the impacted earth and frantically beckoned her over.
Released, Xena ran through the assembled bodies and dropped to her knees by the long, spindly body. She got astride it, enjoying herself already, and drew back a hand. Alcmaeon looked up at her, panic stricken, veins bulging around his widened eyes. "I can help," Xena told him, "But there's a catch. There's always a catch, isn't there, Alcmaeon?" He shook his head and spread his hands, disbelieving. Xena laughed. "I'll save your life, if you save mine." She leaned down. "Let me go. And her." She cocked her head in Gabrielle's direction.
Galiron, who was kneeling by Alcmaeon's head, grunted indignantly and folded his arms across his chest. "Absolutely not, you're a prisoner of the state."
Alcmaeon smacked at him comically then nodded vigorously to Xena and pointed at his neck.
"You are a man of your word, aren't you, Alcmaeon?" Xena toyed with him. "A deal's a deal, right?" She reminded. "You'll be in my debt." She had been right: it was a good feeling. All too addictive, too. Xena knew it was a tendency within her, a predisposition. Violence ran in her blood, and she'd lost count of the number of times that only Gabrielle prevented her from giving in to it.
Alcmaeon nodded again and mouthed something indecipherable.
"Well all right -" Xena pulled back her arm and shot two fingers into his neck, making him jerk with the pain of it. Alcmaeon gasped in a breath, colour rushing back to his face, and Xena stood triumphantly to massage her hand.
When Alcmaeon was able to speak he was good to his word. Grudgingly, he repaid his debt. Galiron protested noisily, but in vain. "There's a boat, moored down by the gates." Alcmaeon's voice was husky, and he didn't look at Xena as he rubbed at his neck. "Take what you want and go."
Xena went over to Gabrielle and untied her. Relief and celebration would have to wait: she just wanted to get off the island. She stepped over to Mary, and didn't notice Galiron lean in to Gabrielle as she passed him. He whispered something against her ear, grinning and ruddy cheeked, and she shivered visibly and hurried to catch up with Xena.
The warrior reached out to shake Mary's hand. "Thank you," She said sincerely.
Mary chuckled, looking suddenly youthful. "Old thing's been loose for years – I was just waiting for an opportunity."
"I'll come back for you – all of you – I promise."
The old woman nodded. "I've never had a doubt."
It would arouse suspicion to linger, so Xena gave a nod then gathered up Gabrielle and they fled. They jumped into the small kayak and rowed hard, fighting the seasonal strong waves and the fear that was still urgent within both of them. They were weak from the lack of food, and every muscle hurt, but adrenaline served them well.
Pausing for a moment on the beach, Xena caught Gabrielle's arm. "Look -" She pointed upwards, above the leafy horizon, where there hung a bright rainbow; streaks of incandescent colour in a dusty sky. "To welcome us home."
"Home," Gabrielle agreed, the pastel lines reflected within her eyes, and they shared a quick, fierce hug before moving to dig up their belongings from where Xena had buried them. They changed into their own clothes, and headed inland.
Argo wasn't hard to find, and she greeted them with a contrary mixture of joy at their return and consternation at their absence. Then they travelled toward the city, wanting urgently to put space between themselves and Galiron's men. It wasn't until they had been travelling for several days, and had several nights' good sleep, that the adrenaline subsided a little. To say life was normal again was untrue, but there was some time for normal activities.
Xena lay down and pulled the blanket over her. It was fairly early and she no longer felt excessively tired, but Gabrielle still seemed to tire quickly, and was already curled on her side, her breathing steady. They had been doing a lot of travelling, Xena thought: heading toward the palace for an audience with the King. "Warm enough?"
"Mmm." Gabrielle mumbled, her hands close to her face. She had taken to wearing some of her older clothes until they could replace her green shirt – a longer brown skirt and a sky blue blouse that reminded Xena of when they met – and they kept her warmer than her old attire would have done.
"Good." Xena crossed her ankles and settled her head on her hands. It occurred to her that a life of freedom took almost as much adjusting to as life in prison. It was ironic, but facing death had been liberating, in its own way. She had spent half her life being afraid of death and the other half welcoming it, so to finally come face to face with it, to think it inevitable, removed all the uncertainty.
The same couldn't be said for Gabrielle, of course, and Xena silently thanked whoever was listening for Gabrielle's health and happiness. She rolled over, weary of her own endless analysis, and wrapped an arm around her partner. Gabrielle made appreciative purring sounds and shuffled herself back into the cuddle. "This is nice," She mumbled, stroking the palms of her hands over Xena's forearms in a motherly fashion.
Xena kissed the back of her head, wholeheartedly agreeing. She patted her hand on Gabrielle's belly. "How much've you been eating," She teased, "You're worse than Argo! I'm glad to see you've put your weight back on." Gabrielle gave a non-committal chuckle, but in her good humour Xena missed the significance of it. She moved her hand to pull a strand of hair from her eyes, leaning over Gabrielle's shoulder. The smaller woman lifted her elbow helpfully and waited for Xena to get comfortable, and barely noticed when her partner accidentally brushed her breast. Since they had been together – truly together – they had been physically intimate, and Gabrielle had never felt bashful.
Xena paused. "Gabrielle – you're bigger everywhere." Frowning, she propped herself up on an elbow. "I think…" Barely able to comprehend the connections her mind was making, Xena ran her hands down Gabrielle's front. "I think you're -"
Gabrielle sighed. "Pregnant, I know. I am, Xena, I haven't been bleeding." She rolled onto her back. "At first I thought it was just the shock, but -" She shrugged.
Xena felt like a child who couldn't understand the link between one event and another, who lacked the capacity to take in some new situation that was all too real. "I don't… I don't see how…" In the semi-darkness, Gabrielle lifted up her top and took Xena's hands to gently guide them over her swollen abdomen. Incredulous, Xena felt. A stranger would simply think that Gabrielle had a slightly rounded figure, but Xena knew her partner's body, and, unclothed, could see that she was unmistakably pregnant. Her nipples had darkened and enlarged slightly, and Xena noticed that Gabrielle encouraged her to use a lighter touch with them than she usually would have wanted.
Gabrielle looked up into Xena's face. "It must have been… In the jail… What they did to us." She couldn't bring herself to say it, knowing how it hurt the both of them, and quietly rearranged her clothes. "I'm sorry."
"Oh -" Shaken from her shock, Xena helped pull Gabrielle's clothes around her then hugged her tightly, hiding her face in the girl's neck. "No, I'm sorry." She felt Gabrielle's hand stroking her hair soothingly. How characteristic for Gabrielle to be the stronger of them at a time like this. "I know of… There are herbs, you can use, we just need to find a market, I'll…"
"No." Gabrielle's voice was firm, and she pressed her cheek and a kiss to Xena's face before resting her head back on the blanket to make eye contact. "No, Xena. This is my baby. Our baby. It's something that I want. I can't change what's happened, but I can have a say in my future." She held Xena's hands to her stomach. There were tears in the corners of her eyes, but she was determined. "You and I, right?" She brought Xena's hand up to her mouth and kissed it.
Xena managed to press out a smile. "If that's what you want."
"Go to sleep, then. We'll talk some more in the morning." Aware that she had sounded rather abrupt, Xena lay back down and let Gabrielle curl against her shoulder. The dark sky overhead seemed less settled than it had been moments before. Nothing in life was constant. The very idea of having the child of the monster who had violated you seemed fundamentally wrong to Xena. What was inside Gabrielle would be little more than a cluster of tissue, no more alive than a chipped nail or a dried scab that would be better off discarded. Gabrielle, of course, wouldn't see it that way. To her, all life was precious. The more of death one saw, Xena thought, the less important life seemed to be.
When the morning came Xena didn't want to talk about the pregnancy, and Gabrielle didn't even want to think about the rape, so little was actually said. They headed into the town. It was lively and prosperous, and Xena imagined that the King had little idea of how his orders were being interpreted over on his prison island.
They found a suitable looking inn just in time for supper. It would do them both good to spend a couple of nights in a proper bed. When Xena jumped down from Argo she saw for the first time how tired Gabrielle looked. Walking behind, the girl hadn't complained, but she was leaning heavily on her staff, and Xena felt instantly guilty. It was customary for her to ride and Gabrielle to walk – it was how it had always been and how Gabrielle preferred it, because it gave her the opportunity to wander off into the forest if a wild berry or tame bird caught her eye. Xena realised that there would be a lot of things that would have to change with the progression of the pregnancy, all the things that she found comfort and security in.
They ate a meal, then climbed the small, varnished stairs to their room. "Why don't you get an early night," Xena suggested gently, "I'll handle this."
"I can come and help," Gabrielle offered, propping her staff against the windowsill.
"The King thinks you tried to kidnap his son, remember? And now you're an escaped convict. It's best if I go alone."
Gabrielle had to agree with that. "Well all right, but be careful." She was tired, and lay down on her bed, yawning.
"Uh ha," Xena humoured her. Before she left she squatted down by the bed to look into Gabrielle's peaceful face. In the time it had taken her to organise her belongings, her friend had fallen asleep, and was now snoring softly. Xena stroked back a wisp of hair, noticing that it had darkened slightly and taken on an almost ginger hue. The warrior's emotions were mixed and she didn't know what to make of them. Most powerful of all was the desire to protect her partner, to keep her safe and close and to nurture whatever it was her heart desired. Xena sighed. Grudgingly, she pushed to her feet. "I won't be long." She leaned down and kissed the oblivious girl's forehead, then went to find the King.
She had been right in suspecting that he was a fundamentally good man, if a little out of touch, and he seemed genuinely disturbed to hear of what was happening. The innocent prisoners would be set free, he said, and the guilty would be tried fairly. Galiron – and Alcmaeon, who was no better for tuning a blind eye – would be suitably punished. Xena believed him, but politely reminded him that she would come back to check that he had been good to his word, and there would be all Hell to pay if conditions didn't meet with her satisfaction.
With that task done she stopped at a small tavern and traded a dinar for a jug of ale. The more she drank the more melancholy her mood became. She played the rough wooden mug between her hands, gazing down into the musky amber liquid. What had happened to Gabrielle – to them both – had been her fault. She had learned to accept that Gabrielle travelled with her through choice, and when they ran into unpleasant situations it was a consequence of that decision that Gabrielle had to take responsibility for. What she couldn't accept, however, was when her own actions compromised Gabrielle's safety: when she wasn't strong or quick enough to win a fight, or when her plans were found wanting.
Now, not only would Gabrielle be left with the psychological scars of what had happened, she would have a child who had no father but resembled everything that she feared. Xena knew that every time she saw the infant, she would see Galiron. She took another gulp of her ale and wondered why she wasn't charging back to that island to slice Galiron's ugly head off.
She inhaled deeply. Was Gabrielle angry at her, was this some form of revenge? Once the child was born – a child that would never be hers – all Gabrielle's attention and affection would be taken up with it, and everything that Xena enjoyed in life would have to disappear. And, perhaps worse of all, Gabrielle would have her child, and Solan would still be leagues away not even knowing his own mother's name.
Xena cursed silently into her mug. What was the alternative? To leave Gabrielle, to go their separate ways? Even in her drunken state she knew that was laughably stupid, and shook her head.
The ale wasn't helping. It never did, really, and she wasn't sure why she'd drunk so much of it back when she ruled her army. Perhaps it was just to numb the pain of her smashed legs: it certainly didn't numb her heart. Her body had been considerably more tolerant of the alcohol back then though, she thought, as she made her way unsteadily out of the building. Had those days really been so long ago?
It wouldn't do to go back to Gabrielle like this. It wasn't fair to wake her, and in any case, she would only disapprove. The moon was up, and there were few people about. Xena wandered the short distance to the edge of the town and out into the woodland. It was where she always felt most comfortable, amongst the freshness of the leaves, where she could be alone. Her feet turned heavy and she scowled down at them. When they refused to move she gave in and sat messily at the base of a big old tree, leaning back against its trunk.
She watched an owl hopping from branch to branch, its fluorescent eyes standing out against the blackness of the sky. "Be grateful you don't have my problems," She told it, then gathered up some pebbles to send bouncing aimlessly over the ground by her boots.
The owl cooed loudly at her then flew away, back to its family. Xena nodded, her head heavy and continuing under its own momentum. "Well good for you, anyway." How could she have thought of Gabrielle as a problem? Some days she was the only reason Xena went on living, she was light, and goodness and strength. How unkind to think of her in that way when her life and her plans didn't run neatly alongside Xena's. None of this was her fault.
"You've been on your own too long," Xena told herself, and sat up to inspect a hole in the leather of her boots. She heard a sound off in the woods somewhere, and froze, listening. The thumping of hooves grew closer. If someone wanted to attack her, she hoped they wouldn't mind if she stayed sitting down. The hooves beat out a familiar, dainty rhythm, though, and she rested back. "What do you want?"
Argo picked her way across the stones to Xena and grumbled softly. She looked surprisingly big from this angle, and without her saddle or reigns she was as wild and beautiful as the day Xena found her.
Bowing her head, Argo came over and stood across Xena's legs, presenting her sandy belly. She scuffed her front hoof on the ground.
"Lemme see." Xena picked up the leg and examined the shoe. "How'd you get a stone in there?" Scowling, she rooted around for a stick then worked on digging out the offending pebble. Argo whinnied innocently. "Hmm." Xena wasn't fooled by that for a moment. Her unruly hair fell into her eyes, and she tutted and pushed it back with her arm. "Do you think I'm a good mother?"
The horse snorted non-committally.
"I mean, I take care of you all right, don't I?"
Argo shifted her weight.
"Will you hold still? I guess we look after each other." She flicked the stone out from under the iron horseshoe and set down the leg. "There you go." She rested her head back on the bark to stop it swimming, and stroked the lean, sandy leg. "Although you could use a wash. You're a little ripe, you know that?" She turned up her nose, forced to gaze at the horse's belly. "Huh. Maybe I can't even bring up a horse right." The alcohol in her veins made the observation funny and at the same time miserably astute.
She sighed, letting her hand play over a knobbly knee. "Gabrielle's done so much for me. I can't imagine where I'd be now if it weren't for her. She saved me. How can I let her make a mistake like this?" Hearing a munching sound, she looked up to see Argo lipping at an apple. "Are you even listening to me?" The palomino looked back to her guiltily, her jaws pausing in their gleeful chewing. "She doesn't see that it's a mistake," Xena explained. Argo listened intently, her eyes narrowing in concentration. "I know how she thinks: the way she sees it, it'll make something good out of a bad situation." She shrugged. "Maybe it will. Maybe it will make her happy." She laid her head to one side, smiling a little. "She would make a good mother."
Giving up on this, Argo returned her attention to the apple tree. She selected a ripe green fruit and carefully deposited it in Xena's lap. "Oh," Xena rolled it in her hands. "No thanks." Argo nudged at her gently, blinking long eyelashes. "Well all right." She bit into the juicy fruit, thinking that the moisture might do something for her beating head. "Gabrielle deserves to be a mother. Just because I wrecked my chance doesn't mean she will. You support someone when they're a someone that you…" She held her palms in front of her, studying the lines and trying to forage out the right word.
Argo gave a monosyllabic neigh, pushing up her head so that a wave ran through her mane.
"Love, yeah," Xena agreed.
With that settled, Argo picked her way over Xena's sprawled legs and stood with her rear toward her mistress, waiting.
"You're right, it is late." Xena tried to push herself up. "Hope you know the way." The world swung around dizzyingly, and she clutched at her head. "The Gods on Olympus. Do I look as old as I feel right now?" When Xena didn't look like moving, the mare returned to her and offered her back. Xena climbed up and clung onto the warm body, stroking her hands through the oily white hair at Argo's neck. "Thanks, Girl. Just take it a little easy, will you? World's not too steady right now."
Argo trotted back and deposited her outside the inn, nudging her inside. The ale had worn off in the fresh air, and all Xena wanted to do was sleep. She found her way into their dark room and shrugged off her leathers. Her own bed, across the room, looked unappealing, so she slid into the first bed next to Gabrielle, who was still sleeping peacefully. Xena pushed her back against Gabrielle's body and felt a slender arm unconsciously find its way around her. The whole room seemed to swing, so she closed her eyes. She squeezed the small hand in hers, thinking it was cool compared to her sweaty palms, and held it to her as she fell asleep.
Thanks to their respective conditions, they both slept relatively late. When Gabrielle woke she felt refreshed and comfortable, and lay with a hand stroking gently between Xena's shoulder blades until she too woke up. "I didn't hear you come in."
"I was longer than I planned." Xena rubbed at her sore head, trying to piece together what had happened the night before.
"How did it go?"
"Good. It's over."
Gabrielle sighed, relieved. "Oh, thank the Gods. They'll all be free? Mary, and all the others?" Her hand was still and warm on Xena's back.
A pause. "And Galiron?"
"Forget about him. Don't even think about any of that anymore." Xena rolled onto her back to look at Gabrielle. For her, it would have been a simple command to follow. For Gabrielle, it was as good as impossible.
They moved into a cuddle, and Gabrielle was responsive enough, moulding her body to Xena's and snuggling against her playful kisses. Her hands simply rested on her partner's shoulders, though, and when the taller woman's fingers eased down the strap of her shift she shrugged away and righted her clothes. She sat, gazing across at an old tapestry hung on the wall, and Xena was left looking at her back. "What?"
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle told her. She shrugged, but her voice was sincere. "I just don't feel like it right now. Must be the baby, and everything."
They sat in silence for a time, light from the window playing over the bed and a soft breeze from somewhere ruffling Gabrielle's golden hair as it lay on her back. Xena was deflated and confused. She felt frustration and guilt and anger all over again, and waited sullenly for it to subside into pity. "No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have." She touched Gabrielle's arm, making a connection with her. "Is it what happened?"
"No," Gabrielle surprised her by saying, "No, I don't think it's that at all. I just don't feel it. I think it's what's happening now, to my body." She looked back to Xena, excited and hopeful. Xena wasn't often emotive, and her expression gave little of her feelings away, but she lowered her eyes, and it moved Gabrielle up the bed again. "Xena." She pressed the palm of her hand gently to Xena's brow, stroking back hair. "We haven't talked about what happened, have we, not really. Would it help?"
Xena rubbed her face into Gabrielle's palm, steeling herself against all the sorrow that washed up in her. She fervently did not want to talk about all of that, to have to relive Gabrielle's screams, to hear her sobbing again and have to face the utter helplessness and humiliation that those days had brought. "It's in the past. None of that matters now."
"But it does. It does matter, because of this." Gabrielle took Xena's hand and laid it on her stomach. "Xena: I can't do this without you." When she inhaled her abdomen pressed up against Xena's hand, warm and soft. "Please, say you're with me?"
Xena felt her partner's body, felt how it was familiar and yet changed, imagined she could sense the life inside her. "I'm here," She promised. "I'm right here." She had made her decision the night before, and she was committed to it. She had vowed to support Gabrielle in whatever she did years ago, so there was really no choice to make. "I'm sorry I dismissed the idea of us being a family." She still felt guilty about the way they had parted, when Galiron's men found their camp. "I didn't mean it how it sounded. It's not that I'm not committed to you, it's just… a baby is a big responsibility, and our lifestyle…" Was she able to offer a baby any more now than she had been able to offer Solan all those years ago?
"We love each other. That's enough. That makes us family." Gabrielle smiled warmly at her, stroking her face, and kissed her hair.
"Family." Xena let the smaller woman lie down in her arms, and pulled the blanket over them both: they had slept half the morning, a few more minutes wouldn't make much difference.
There was no place for regrets or uncertainty in Xena's mind from then on: if having this child was what would make Gabrielle happy, it would be what she pursued wholeheartedly. Before they left the town she bought a lush cream fur to put on Argo's back. "It'll be more comfortable for you," She told Gabrielle proudly. "From now on, you ride. Here, give it a try." She held the stirrup ready.
"Until Argo decides I'm too heavy," Gabrielle laughed, hauling herself up.
"You've got a while yet." She took the reigns and led Argo toward the path. "You're sure you don't want to stay here a bit longer?"
"Nah, we should get moving. Besides, we don't have the dinars."
"So where are we headed?" Gabrielle reached down to pat Argo's neck. The sheepskin was soft against her legs, and she let her feet swing out of the stirrups.
"Where'd you want to go?" Xena glanced back over her shoulder. "Where do you want to have your baby, Gabrielle? At home?"
"Hmm," Gabrielle smiled, thinking about that. "I would like to go to Poteidaia. My aunt is a midwife, you know. And it would be good to be with Mother, and Lila." She chuckled to herself. "You'll have to be there to hold my hand, though."
Xena snorted comically at that. Argo copied her.
"And mop my brow," Gabrielle continued, oblivious. "And do things like that."
Privately, Xena though that Gabrielle had a rather naive view of what giving birth would be like, but she was young, and couldn't be expected to have anything other than a fairytale view of things. She would find out soon enough, and survive it, as Xena had.
They travelled at a leisurely pace, knowing there was plenty of time, and stopped off at some of their favourite spots: lakes and glades and valleys. Their attention focussed on Gabrielle, her physical and emotional changes, her excitements and anxieties, and the jail was conveniently forgotten, pushed to the back of their minds. The tiredness passed, but was replaced with persistent nausea. Gabrielle coped with reasonably good humour, but got grumpy sometimes, and Xena felt for her.
"You'll live," She assured, one morning when the sickness had gone on all night unabated. "Everyone does."
"Hmph." Gabrielle lay on her side, feeling sweaty and limp, and rubbed her head on her outstretched arm.
"Poor Gabrielle." Sympathetic but amused too, Xena knelt by her. It was a beautiful spot, lush with the coming of spring, and she could feel dew on her legs. "Why don't you use that pressure point I showed you, hmm?" She had been down to the stream, and wrung out a cloth she had washed there. Folding it into a long strip, she placed it on Gabrielle's forehead to cool her.
"Oh." Weary and miserable, Gabrielle heaved her arms from under her head and the heavy grey blanket and half-heartedly jabbed at vaguely the right area on her wrist. "Not working," She reported. Her skin was a little pale and waxy, and dark circles had formed under her eyes.
"Not working," Xena nodded in acknowledgement of this, smiling.
"You do it." She let her arm flop onto Xena's knees.
"All right." Xena supported Gabrielle's forearm in her lap, gently uncurled her fingers to hold them, and tapped two fingers against the hollow of her slender wrist. "There, how's that?"
"It makes life bearable." Gabrielle blindly felt for the cloth and repositioned it on her brow.
Not wanting to laugh and appear unfeeling, Xena took to rubbing her hand up and down the cool arm, pulling the small fingers against her belly. "How's the stomach?"
"It's sitting somewhere around my throat," Gabrielle reported.
"Well try this, it should help." Leaving the arm on her knees, Xena untied a palm-sized cloth bag and took from it a shiny, irregular golden lump. "Open your mouth?" Gentle, she held the lump to her partner's lips. "Slowly."
She watched Gabrielle lick it then nibble a small piece off. "That's good." The smaller woman licked her lips, then opened her eyes and frowned. "Is this Argo's ginger?"
"Yes," Xena admitted reluctantly, "But she won't mind sharing."
"That's a comfort." Gabrielle gave in to the tiredness and closed her eyes again, but she continued to take what Xena gave her, until she had eaten the lump and instead licked Xena's fingers, drawing the tips into her mouth.
Gabrielle's lips were a little cracked from being dry, and Xena reminded herself that she must encourage her to drink. Nonetheless, they were still their usual fair shade of pink, and were soft and tender to kiss, even if their kisses were largely platonic these days. "Better?" Xena stroked back lank blonde hair, repositioning it over Gabrielle's shoulder. "You're warm enough?" These last few months the compulsion to protect and care for Gabrielle had intensified: she didn't want to be far from her, and liked her to be warm and well fed.
"Uh ha. I'm great." A small smile lit Gabrielle's face, making her look immediately beautiful and more comfortable.
"You are." Xena bent over to kiss and scratch Gabrielle's head, then let her sleep.
The sickness did continue for a time, but Xena knew it was well and truly over when Gabrielle developed a taste for over-ripe orange berries with soft goat's cheese, seeking her delicacy out with a frequency that bordered on obsession.
The next problem that they had to contend with was backache: Gabrielle's from the increased weight she was carrying and Xena's from trying to find a sleeping position that accommodated her partner. Sometimes walking would help, sometimes it would make it worse. Sometimes Gabrielle wanted to rest, sometimes she couldn't sleep.
What always eased the ache was a good swim. Summer was coming around again, with longer days and shorter nights on the horizon, and the waters of Greece's lakes and rivers had warmed to a comfortable level. Gabrielle wriggled her toes in the sand and splashed water over herself, pushing back her hair. "Xena! Come and feel this, quickly!"
Hearing her, Xena surfaced and stood waist deep in the lake, blinking water from her eyes. "What?"
"I can feel him moving," Gabrielle was full of excitement, her round cheeks reddened from her swim. "Here, give me your hand." She reached for Xena's hand and spread the long fingers over her belly, pressing them lovingly to her bare skin. "Can you feel it? He's kicking!"
She laughed infectiously, and Xena had to nod and smile, her enthusiasm compelling. "He's kicking all right."
They stood in silence for a while, Gabrielle smiling contentedly and looking down at her abdomen. She held Xena's hands and moved them occasionally, wanting them both to share in and enjoy the moment. Visibly well into the pregnancy now, she had developed a layer of puppy fat all over. Her face was more rounded and her arms and legs bulkier. Her skin was clear, her eyes bright, and Xena was sure her hair had lightened and softened a little. She even had a slightly altered fragrance, which only Xena would have noticed: her skin had a fresher, more flowery smell. Her friend thought her to be incredibly beautiful. Her body was always warm under Xena's fingers, her temperature always up a little, and in sleep she was quiet and soft.
"You still think it's a boy?" Making conversation, Xena rubbed her hands over the swollen abdomen, trying to entice some more movement.
"Yeah," Gabrielle nodded, her hands playing thoughtfully over Xena's wrists. "I don't know why, it's just how it feels to me. I don't mind, either way. Do you?"
She sighed contentedly. "I can't wait to hold him."
"Hmm." Xena had to agree that it would be an entrancing image. Their faces were close together, and the waves lapped around them, pushing them closer. Feeling her nose against Gabrielle's cheek, Xena closed her eyes, falling into a fantasy. They hadn't made love since before the whole awful prison affair began, and Xena was a sexual creature, she missed not being able to express her feelings for Gabrielle in that unique, intense way. She respected her partner's wishes, understood how traumatised she must feel, but for just one, small kiss…
Gabrielle lifted her chin, her face nuzzled against Xena's, and found her lips, dark and full. Her arms came up and caressed the taller woman's face, and her fair lashes fell closed. Numb for a moment, Xena finally lifted her arms around Gabrielle's increasing waist. She parted her lips, wanting to feel Gabrielle inside of her, wanting to taste that connection of spirit that almost always came when they joined themselves like this.
It was brief but powerful, and when she drew back for breath Gabrielle felt slightly dizzy. Disorientated by looking down at the shifting waves, she rested her head at the base of Xena's neck, against her pulse where her familiar scent was most obvious. Her lips still tingling, she circled her hands over Xena's shoulders, stroking skin that was quickly drying in the sun. She had always liked Xena's shoulders, especially from the back. They were strong and muscular when she was fighting or fishing or chopping wood, but still managed to be soft and feminine in shape when Xena's arms were by her sides.
Xena bowed her head, wanting to envelop Gabrielle in her love and her protection, "I love you," She whispered into the girl's ear. She hadn't said it often enough lately. She was good at expressing her devotion through heroism and selflessness, it showed in the passion of sex, but it was Gabrielle who wrote the heartfelt poems and stories, who found analogies for their relationship in nature. It was Gabrielle who talked.
Nodding, Gabrielle kissed her neck. "I love you, Xena." At length she drew back and stretched.
"Back aching?" Xena guessed.
"Yeah, it is, a little." Gabrielle grimaced and rubbed at her loins.
Xena sympathised. "Let me rub it for you?" It always felt like a small contribution, but it seemed to help.
Gabrielle nodded decisively. "That'd be good, Xena, thanks." She turned for the beach, reaching back for Xena's hand. "These are pretty." As they moved through the clear water, its level receding down their legs, Gabrielle stooped to collect some curled shells in her hand.
Xena glanced at them. "Very nice." Shells were shells: marine life was pointless if it wasn't edible.
When they reached the waters edge, still clutching Xena's hand Gabrielle bent down again and swirled the shells through the water to clean them of sand. Straightening, she displayed them on her palm. "I haven't seen many like this before." She turned them with her thumb: intricate white things, with neat lines of beige and mustard.
"No." Xena squeezed the small hand in hers, impatient: it wasn't so warm out of the water and still dripping wet.
"If I threaded them onto some twine I could make a necklace," Gabrielle thought out loud. "Or a bracelet." She smiled cheekily. "What do you think?" She pulled Xena's hand close to her and held a shell against her bronzed wrist.
Xena just looked at her despairingly for a moment, making her laugh, and they carried on up the beach to their furs. They dried off and Xena shouldered into her shift.
"Do we still have any of that nut oil?" Gabrielle called. She rubbed her hair dry then sat down to brush sand from between her toes.
"Uh ha." Xena took the bottle from a bag and came over, sitting behind Gabrielle. "Just here?" She touched her friend's lower back, where the ache usually was.
"Mmm," Gabrielle made a dissatisfied sound. "All over. My shoulders too." Xena poured oil into her palm and began to massage the freckly skin. "Everything aches. And I thought being pregnant was supposed to make you feel good!" Gabrielle chuckled, pulling her damp hair over her shoulder out of the way and curling the ends around her finger.
"Well, I guess nothing is entirely good or entirely bad." Xena kneaded the heel of her hand into Gabrielle's spine.
"That's very philosophical for you, Xena." The girl teased.
"I do have many skills."
Gabrielle laughed at this familiar line, then winced, the muscles in her back tightening under Xena's hands.
"Nothing," Gabrielle tutted. "I just really am sore all over." She looked down at her breasts, supporting them protectively in her hands. Usually firm but small, they were now far larger and slightly lumpy, softer and hotter.
"Yeah, I know." Xena moved up close behind her for a cuddle, wrapping her arms around her naked body. She gently replaced Gabrielle's hands with her own, massaging the warm oil into tight skin. "You look beautiful like this."
Gabrielle turned her head to see Xena's face. The warrior wasn't one for compliments at the best of times, and she hadn't made any reference to Gabrielle's looks since she had started to show. "Really? You think that?" She reached up to touch Xena's cheek, studying soft blue eyes.
"I'm so proud of you." Xena kissed the fingers then pressed her cheek against Gabrielle's, just being with her. It was nice to have time just to be together.
Gabrielle turned in her arms. "Take this off -" She tugged at the shift, then pressed herself against Xena's naked body. Ignoring the arms that were struggling out of the material, she took Xena's face in her hands to get her attention, and kissed her.
Xena's arms automatically moved around the girl, their bodies slippery from the oil. Nothing else mattered but the kiss. Xena fell into it, opening herself to the woman she had missed so much, and was barely aware of their movements. Gabrielle's hands moved over her, exploring, stroking teasingly down between her legs then coming innocently up to her face. "You want… you want to -?" In answer Gabrielle climbed into her lap, clutching at her and kissing her hungrily. Her fingers kneaded softly into Xena's hair, her eyes closed, and her breathing hastened. "Gab… Gabrielle…" Xena broke the kiss gently, nuzzling her nose against Gabrielle's to maintain contact. "Are you sure? After what happened…" This was too serious a thing to hurry. Holding the girl securely in her arms, Xena regarded her, her head to one side.
Gabrielle was out of breath and had to swallow before she could speak, tucking her chin down to her bare chest which always bore a reddened, freckled rash now. "I'm sure. It was… months ago, Xena, and I want you. I know it took me some time, but I need to be with you. I love you." She stroked at her partner's fringe, wiping a damp strand from her forehead. Her legs were bent under her, her toes curling into the blanket, and her weight was on Xena.
Xena felt air rush out of her. She had tried to be patient, had completely understood that Gabrielle would need time, but she wanted this so badly, both physically and spiritually. "I want you to be sure. There's no hurry." She looked right into Gabrielle's eyes, wanting the truth. The green was flecked with a little blue and some brown, and Xena thought they were the most beautiful, captivating eyes she had ever looked into.
"I know, Xena. Thank you." Gabrielle rocked forward and kissed Xena, caressing her face. Naked and pregnant, with unbrushed hair about her shoulders and a soft layer of perspiration around the base of her neck, she was more beautiful than anything Xena could imagine finding on Mount Olympus, and the warrior succumbed to the kiss and the buzz of Gabrielle's presence. "It's all right – let's."
"Okay," Xena gave in breathlessly, "Okay, but gently, all right? Gently, the first time." Gabrielle nodded. "Cuddle me?" She waited for the arms to go around her shoulders. "Don't worry? I'm here."
"Mmm." Smiling contentedly, quite happy that the pace had slowed, Gabrielle rested her head on Xena's shoulder and gazed out into the forest.
She felt Xena's hand rubbing soothingly up and down her back, tracing the curves of her body that now had an emphasised feminine shape. Xena was always hot: dressed or undressed, she always felt warm to the touch, a sort of dry heat that matched the bronze tone of her skin. She had a mole just above her shoulder blade, and Gabrielle reached over to play a finger around it.
Xena kissed her neck. "Took me so long to find the courage to do this, when we met."
Gabrielle laughed softly, listening to the conversation.
"I wanted to right from the start, you know."
"I know you did." The girl yawned contentedly, scratching her nose.
"Do you remember where we were? By that lake, after that huge rainstorm?" Kissing soft skin between her words, Xena gently guided Gabrielle's legs farther apart. She tried to see her partner's expression, and grinned up at her.
"Uh ha. Outside Athens, right?"
"And you were so young," Xena reminisced fondly, "Your hair was as red as a Cedar." She slid her hand down over Gabrielle's bump, stroked her thighs to give her warning, then began a soft little rubbing motion with the backs of her fingers. Gabrielle's flesh there was like silk, hot and slippery, and her body held an aroma that always affected Xena suddenly and profoundly.
At this touch Gabrielle stiffened slightly with a soft groan and took more of her weight on her knees. She eyes squeezed shut, blocking out the world around her, and her hand squeezed a fistful of dark hair into her palm.
"Relax -" Xena reminded her. "Sit down?" With conscious effort Gabrielle lowered her weight back onto Xena's lap. "You all right?" Gabrielle nodded vigorously. "How is it?"
"Beautiful." Gabrielle managed to open her eyes again and take a deep, steadying breath.
"It's lovely." She nestled her face into Xena's neck. "I've wanted you." She massaged her hands back into the curly hair, smelling the river water and kissing the silky texture whenever the fancy took her.
"Yeah," Xena had to admit, "Me too." Gabrielle was usually so eloquent, and Xena would listen with pride and awe to her tell her stories or argue her point, but at time like this, the mumbled impulsive comments were equally as powerful. She closed her eyes, her face bathed in the heat at the base of Gabrielle's neck, and kept up her rhythmic rubbing, using just her knuckles. "Is your back okay?"
"Did the oil help?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle could still smell it on herself. "Go faster?"
"Shh, shh, just take it easy." Xena reaffirmed her grip, wanting to cuddle Gabrielle. That was how all this had started after all: despite her daydreams and fantasies, their relationship hadn't kicked off with a boiling over of hormones and passion. Right from the start it had just been about cuddling each other and being close. First of all it was when one of them was upset or hurting. They quickly stopped needing an excuse, but for a long time they expressed their love through holding hands and sleeping side by side, sharing an apple, pressing close while riding Argo. Xena couldn't imagine making love to Gabrielle without holding her and being emotionally with her.
"It feels good," Gabrielle reported breathlessly, her body starting to move in rhythm with Xena's hand. "I like it, Xena."
"Do you like it, when I do it?"
Xena grinned again. "Uh ha." She kissed Gabrielle's cheek. Her hand felt wet and the movement was smooth and gliding. Gabrielle moaned, her muscles drawing up tight in readiness, but Xena calmed her. "Don't tense up, hmm?" She slowed her pace a bit.
"It's coming. Xena, put your fingers -?"
"Just take it easy the first time, just let it come," Xena instructed.
Gabrielle nodded. Shifting position, she let her knees move further apart and moved to take Xena's face between her hands. She looked down into smiling blue eyes, fixing her gaze there. Xena swallowed and blinked, inhaling deeply, then readied herself not to miss an instant. Gabrielle had blonde hair falling over her face but it didn't matter, neither could spare the concentration to push it back. Xena watched intently as Gabrielle's eyebrows drew close together and her lips parted. A fine rash sprinkled over her cheeks and neck, and she held her breath. Their foreheads were almost touching and their eyes were locked, and Gabrielle had a gentle orgasm, quietly and softly, without looking away. When the hardest waves had passed she smiled and let her head rest against Xena's, her eyes closing.
"Gab -" Her name was the most beautiful thing Xena could think of to say.
"Wish you could feel this -" With the last waves still washing through her, Gabrielle's voice was husky. She kept her hands still and focussed on the conscious and unconscious movements of her body, the rocking of her hips and the convulsing of her muscles, and how they were in tune with Xena's fingers.
"I've got a good idea." Confident she could stop, Xena pulled up her hand and shifted Gabrielle's weight in her lap, holding her securely while her body had no tone. "It's okay." She finally managed to stroke back yellow hair, and Gabrielle's head turned to her for a deep kiss.
"Thank you -"
Xena just shook her head. "Are you all right?"
Gabrielle laughed but it came out almost as a sob. "I'm great." She nodded to convince Xena, and they hugged and kissed again. Gabrielle nestled herself close, rubbing her head against Xena's like a cat marking its scent. "Oh, Xena, don't stop there, don't let go -" She moved back just enough for Xena's hand to move back down between them, then pressed back against her, her hands coming up to grind desperately on Xena's breasts. As soon as Xena's fingers grazed her she jerked and unconscious little mewing sounds rose from her.
Loving this, and letting go, Xena kissed her throat and encouraged her to continue, all the time working her fingertips gently inside. Her dark hair had dried into unruly curls that hung down her back, and Gabrielle held handfuls to her nose to inhale the fresh scent. "C'mon," Xena encouraged softly. Her voice was rich and dark, her eyes half closed, her lips ruddy with the rush of blood, and Gabrielle gazed at her, turned serious again. "C'mon Gabrielle, let go -" Her voice dropped an octave, gone dry, and she gave the smile that was only for Gabrielle's eyes. "For me…"
It really had been forever. Gabrielle dropped her head onto Xena's shoulder, suddenly gone weak. Her muscles relaxed momentarily, welcoming her partner deeply inside, before convulsing and drawing upwards all over again. She pushed her legs forward, feeling Xena's free hand curling under her thigh to move her where Xena needed her to be. At that pressure, Xena joined the molten fire that throbbed between them, moving in synchronisation to the waves that swept around them.
Gabrielle's mind returned first, her muscles still twitching, hot and tight, and she pulled up her head to watch the tail end of Xena's delight. The darker woman's head was back, her mouth open, her eyebrows drawn into a frown. Compelled to hold her, Gabrielle pulled up shaky arms and took Xena's head in her hands, somehow finding her lips with her own.
Exhausted, they managed to lie down on the fur, panting and sweaty. No longer could Xena pull Gabrielle on top of her, or safely lie over her, so instead she curled herself along the smaller woman's back, encircling her in her arms. "Thank you." She was surprised by the dryness of her voice, by the blood tingling down to her toes.
Gabrielle just nestled closer, rubbing the arms she found locked around her middle. "Me? What for?"
"For being with me."
Gabrielle chuckled, tiredly. "Well, ditto, then." At length she sighed indulgently, loving the way her body felt. "You asleep?"
Xena grunted. "Don't think so."
That was good. Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand in hers, kissed it, then drew it down between her legs. "Don't stop, then?"
From then on Gabrielle's libido knew no bounds. Xena always laughed when she took the girl into her arms, but she reminded herself to be more careful what she wished for. She was thankful that they were travelling through quiet, uninhabited lands, and went heavy on proteins and starches to keep her energy up. For a blissful but exhausting couple of weeks Gabrielle always wanted to be touched, to hold hands or to have her arm brushing Xena's as they walked, to be in physical contact with living things, even if it was only Argo. The horse accepted these new demands placed on her with surprising efficiency, nuzzling her damp nose into Gabrielle's hand when company was required, and not making a fuss when Gabrielle shooed her away and turned her attention only to Xena.
During this time the bard spoke at length about home, and family, and Xena wondered if she would be content to travel endlessly once she had a child to consider. She had given up Solan to protect him form a life on the road, where you never knew what tomorrow would bring and always had to watch your back. She couldn't ask Gabrielle to repeat her mistake. Everything would have to change.
Gabrielle talked excitedly about introducing the child to its grandparents, to Poteidaia, to having a willing babysitter in Lila. Xena had to admit that she was looking forward to seeing her own mother with the child, as if this new life would go some way toward making up for the mistakes she had made, would be a fresh start. Ignoring all the difficulties of the situation, Xena thought that bringing up a child together would seal the commitment they had to each other, would make them solidly and indisputably family.
The pace of life was easy. When Gabrielle felt fit they made steady progress toward Poteidaia. When she had days of feeling tired and lazy, like now, they wouldn't move far from their camp, taking time to enjoy the spring. Xena would sit and sharpen her sword – although the only labour that blunted it was woodcutting or the occasional boar hunt – and Gabrielle would write or mend their clothes or make little playthings out of scrap wood.
Xena rolled her eyes to find herself taking an afternoon nap. Next thing she knew, she thought, she'd be putting on weight and making daisy chains. She wasn't really sleeping, anyway, she told herself: just resting, because it kept Gabrielle happy. Just gazing up at the soft undulation of the tree leaves high above them, letting the chirping song of forest birds was into her ears. Just letting her eyes rest…
"Huh?" Xena sat up sharply, shrugging off sleep and looking in the direction of the hand tugging at her leathers. "What is it?"
"Xena I think it's coming." Gabrielle was kneeling on the fur with her hands pressed to her thighs for support. She gazed intently at the ground ahead of her, but her eyes weren't quite focussed, as if her concentration had turned inwards.
Xena got herself up, throwing aside the blanket. "Probably just a practice run, your body does these things," She assured confidently. She lay her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and was surprised to find it hot and sticky.
Gabrielle just shook her head, adamant. "It's hurting." She rubbed a hand over her abdomen, frowning. "I've never felt like this. I feel cold, and I'm shaking, and I feel…" She scowled, obviously unable to find the right word. "…heavy. Dragging."
Concerned, Xena put her arms around Gabrielle's shoulders. "Gabrielle… it's only been six or seven months, it's too soon. If you have this baby now, it won't…" She trailed off, unable to say it.
Gabrielle gave her head another dismissive shake. "We must have counted wrong. We both lost track of time in there, you said yourself."
Xena tugged a corner of her lip between her teeth, actually seeing Gabrielle's abdominal muscles tightening in a contractive wave. "Sweetheart, I don't think you're big enough to be full term, you -"
Gabrielle grunted and bent forward, planting her hands on the fur. "Gods! Xena, this hurts!"
Xena nodded, resting her arms around Gabrielle's torso. So this was how this situation was going to end. Something heavy fell in her chest and her throat thickened, making it hard to swallow. "I'm sorry," She mumbled, hiding her face in yellow hair. Gabrielle had been so excited…
"We counted wrong," Gabrielle repeated through clenched teeth, her fists squeezing in the fur. "Look, it's summer already. Damn!" Shocked by the intensity of the wave of pain, she straightened and rubbed her belly. "What're we going to do? I wanted to be in Poteidaia." She searched Xena's face for an answer, for the obvious solution that she had missed. Xena always knew what to do.
"It's still days away," Xena told her, helpless.
"But I want -" Another contraction came, more forceful than painful, and Gabrielle rested her head on Xena's shoulder, winded.
Sympathetic, Xena stroked her back. "You don't have a choice, that baby's coming." She felt Gabrielle nodding against her, recovering. Maybe her friend was right, maybe they had miscalculated. Nature could do strange things. Gabrielle had always been petite and her muscles were toned: perhaps she did show less than other women would do at nine months. In any case, it wouldn't help to be negative. "We have everything we need here," Xena decided, "Warm water and blankets, food and privacy. Your body has everything else you both need. Women have been doing this for centuries, Gabrielle, you're just gonna have to get on with it."
Gabrielle nodded vigorously, spurred on by Xena's confidence. "All right. You'll stay with me?" She reached out a sweaty hand, and Xena clasped it tightly.
"I won't leave your side," Xena promised her warmly, swept up in the moment and a little excited.
"Let's do it then."
Xena kissed her hand. "You're a brave girl."
Gabrielle laughed and nodded. The first contractions weren't too bad. Her cheeks flushed red and her hands went white, but all she seemed to want to do was close her eyes and concentrate. She grunted occasionally, lines forming on her forehead, but she didn't appear to be in bad pain, and the contractions passed very quickly. Pleased to have something to do, Xena prepared their things, lighting a fire and spreading an old linen over the fur. She hadn't delivered a baby before, not ever having taken an interest in such things, but as a mother who had gone through the process she seemed to know instinctively how things would go.
For a long time Gabrielle was just restless, but then the contractions sped up rapidly, lasting longer and bringing more pain. "Aww!" The girl doubled over, cradling her stomach. "Xena!"
"Right here." The warrior rubbed her back.
Growling, Gabrielle pushed onto all fours, her hair falling about her face. Her back arched and she curled her toes, waiting for it to pass. "Was it this bad for you, with Solan?" She just wanted to hear Xena's voice, to have something other than the pain to focus on.
Xena gazed out across the clearing, the scene reforming in her mind. "I don't really remember." She could picture the inside of that tent, could recollect the sounds of the centaur battle outside, but the herbs her treacherous servant Satrina had given her clouded everything else. She had held Solan in her arms but not really felt him. Maybe things would have been different if she had.
"How long do you think it'll be?" Gabrielle panted, reclaiming Xena's attention.
"I can't tell. You can't rush it, it'll happen." Xena took a strip of soft leather and tied it around Gabrielle's hair, holding it back out of her face.
"Well, should I be pushing?"
"Not if your body isn't ready, you'll tear." Xena stroked her partner's face, wanting to help.
"How will I know?"
Xena laughed. "You'll know." Although it would be a good idea to establish how things were going. Maybe the labour had progressed so quickly because the baby was in the wrong position? Xena felt panic flush through her: if that happened she wouldn't be able to save either of them. "Will you let me take a look at you?" She rubbed her hands down Gabrielle's arms.
The girl shrugged, knowing even less about midwifery than she did about motherhood. "Uh ha."
"Put your arms around me." Xena held her partner kneeling up in front of her. "This is gonna hurt a bit. Relax, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle waited, trying to control her breathing, then winced and clenched her fists. It was mighty sore. She usually liked having Xena's fingers inside her so much, but this was different, and it just hurt. "How can anyone survive this?"
Xena patted her back and gently withdrew. "I think you're ready: I can feel the baby's head." She wiped blood from her hand.
"Mmm Hmm." Xena smiled encouragingly. Gabrielle acknowledged her, then groaned deeply and sunk down to the ground.
"It's coming again." It was starting to become a feeling to dread. She moved her knees apart, trying to ease the building pressure.
"You want to have a push?"
Gabrielle shook her head no. She certainly did not want to push: if it hurt now, how much worse would pushing make it? She dropped her forehead into her fists as the wave went down through her. It clamped up her abdomen, and when it reached her hips it was as if fire was ripping her apart. She wanted to scream, but the pain and shock took her voice and all that came out was a deep sob.
Xena saw a shiver run through her partner. Helplessness was a feeling she hated. "It's all right, Gabrielle -"
Gabrielle tugged in a breath. "Xena I can't!" That contraction was followed almost immediately by another, and this time she did cry out, her face bright red.
"Take it easy -" Xena knew there was nothing she could do, but seeing Gabrielle in pain was heart wrenching, and she would have swapped places if she could.
Panicked, Gabrielle gasped for air, her hands grasping Xena's leathers. "The baby's coming…"
"Of course it is," Xena enthused, stroking her face.
"Xena please, I don't think I can do this -" Tears streaked over Gabrielle's cheeks and her breath was ragged.
"Sure you can," Xena told her, feeling the small hands wringing at the leather strips of her skirt. "You're doing great!"
Xena never could stand to see her friend cry. "C'mere." She cuddled her warmly, letting her sob. "You're gonna be just fine. You can do it, Gabrielle, I know you can. Don't cry now." She kissed at the flushed face. "Here, have some water." She took a skin and held it to Gabrielle's lips, cupping her chin to catch any drips. "Good girl."
Gabrielle nodded her thanks, sniffing. Blood and mucus ran down the insides of her legs: it was almost time. "Can't you knock me out or something? It wouldn't take much, just one good hard knock." She took Xena's hand, formed it into a fist, and pressed it to her head.
The warrior chuckled at her fondly. "I don't think so." She let Gabrielle flatten out her fingers again and hold them to her face.
"You could just pass me your sword, and I could do it myself, with the hilt," Gabrielle bargained.
Gabrielle's eyes glazed, then, and she lost interest in everything outside of her own body. Ignoring Xena, she hunkered down, stretching out her arms. "Damn this."
Xena watched the rage build up in her partner, knowing it was a good thing. She was clearly in pain, but she was trying to push too, her hands squeezing rhythmically in the fur.
When it had passed, the girl looked down at herself, out of breath. "It hurts so much."
"It won't last forever," Was all Xena could truthfully say. She offered the skin again, pouring water carefully into Gabrielle's mouth.
"It's a test, isn't it?" Gabrielle licked her lips. "It's testing how committed I am to this. I'd do anything for him, Xena. I can do this."
"Of course you can." Proud, Xena dabbed a cool cloth to her forehead.
"That's too cold." Gabrielle pushed her hand away.
Being rebuffed gave Xena time to sit and think. For a first child, the labour seemed abnormally quick. Trying to be unobtrusive, she wiped at the clotted blood on Gabrielle's legs. "Gabrielle, this baby, it -"
"Shut up about that now, Xena: I need to push." Gabrielle let herself bear down, pushing hard despite the pain. The hurting came second to the desperate desire to push now, and she used every scrap of energy that she had. The scream that came at the end of it was more a release of tension than of pain or fear. "Xena, it' coming." It was a statement of certainty, and she reached out for a cuddle.
"I know." Xena supported her for a moment, rocking her against her breast, soothing her. "Let's see. Tell me if it comes again, okay?" Gabrielle nodded dumbly, her chin on Xena's shoulder. The warrior pulled up her partner's shift, rolling and tucking it at her waist so it was out of the way. She rubbed the tops of her legs, which felt clammy and trembly, wanting to stimulate the blood supply. "Hold on?" Gabrielle had most of her weight on her, almost dozing between contractions, and Xena had to make sure she could support herself. She looked down and touched at the engorged flesh, seeing how it was shrugging back in readiness. She had to wipe away stringy, clotted blood with her hand to feel the baby's head, and she knew then, with awful certainty, what the outcome of all this would be. Perhaps Gabrielle knew it too, secretly. She felt sick to her stomach. "It's only going to take another couple of pushes," Xena told her. There was no going back: they had to see this through now. "Do you want to lie down to have your baby? Lie down and relax so I can reach?"
"Yeah." Willing to do whatever Xena recommended, placing absolute trust in her, Gabrielle got down on the fur and lay back, planting her feet on either side of Xena's knees. "It's coming again." She was resigned to the pain of this now, and clutched her thighs, ready.
"It's all right," Xena soothed, gathering up clean cloths and a scrap of blanket that she had warmed by the fire. "You're gonna be okay. Take it easy, Gabrielle, just go with it."
"Oh Gods, it's like… it's like…" Gabrielle writhed, pulling on the fur above her head, and pushed. Every muscle in her body twisted with the effort, and as Xena reached down she was able to take a solid mass supportively into her hands.
"One more, Gabrielle, one more, Sweetheart -"
"Aww!" Gabrielle cried out, startling the birds from the trees, and the baby was born into Xena's hands.
Xena looked down at it, still and quiet in her palms. It breathed, but it didn't cry. Its head and tiny hands were well formed, although the skin was paper thin, red and veiny. Dismayed, Xena could see though that its miniature internal organs weren't contained within its body, that skin and bone hadn't fused properly. "Oh, Gabrielle -" All her energy went too, and she felt her heart crush, knowing she was watching Gabrielle's dreams die. "I'm so sorry."
Gabrielle tried to push herself up, utterly exhausted. "I need… to hold him."
Understanding this, Xena quickly wrapped the fragile body in the blanket and handed the bundle to Gabrielle when she knelt. "He's… he's beautiful, Gab." Ignoring the tears that spilled onto her cheeks, she set the baby in Gabrielle's arms, making sure the blanket didn't obscure his face.
Gabrielle gazed down at him and started to cry too, despite the laughter that broke out of her. "He's perfect -"
"He's got blue eyes, just like you -"
The exchanged glances, kneeling opposite each other, sharing joy and agony. Gabrielle rocked her baby softly, wanting to memorise every aspect of his face. She scowled when she felt the weight of the afterbirth within her, but Xena just whispered to her to push again, and she gazed back at her son and felt no more of it. She rested her forehead against Xena's. "I told you it'd be a boy," She smiled, cold tears dripping onto her arms.
"You did," Xena agreed, her eyes stinging. "You knew, Gabrielle."
"My son. He's amazing." She eased the blanket away from his face. "You're perfect, did you know that? Mommy loves you." She bowed her head to kiss him, and Xena's stomach twisted tighter, full of sorrow and hatred at the evil of the world. Gabrielle looked back up to her partner, admirably sympathetic. "How long, do you think?"
Xena just couldn't look her in the eye. "Not long."
Gabrielle nodded, accepting this. "I wish…" She inhaled determinedly. "I'd like to feed him."
Xena steeled herself too, finding strength in action. "You can, if it's what you want."
"Teach me how, Xena."
The warrior sniffed. "Take your shirt off." She gingerly held the child while Gabrielle shrugged off her shift, then laid the baby against its mother's bare flesh. "Here, now, stroke his cheek?" The baby yawned widely, the veins in his neck showing under his fragile skin. "Move him close to you?" Xena guided Gabrielle's hands, then watched in satisfaction. It wasn't so hard to remember being with Solan. It felt like only a few seasons ago. How old must he be now? Xena realised with embarrassment that she didn't know exactly. At the time feeding him had just seemed like another necessary task, a function to be given no more thought than the need to drink or bathe or scratch. Watching Gabrielle, soft and loving and perfectly in tune with all of nature, she realised what she'd missed. She had never gazed down into his face, admired the colour of his eyes, rocked him and talked to him, as Gabrielle was doing. All she had been able to think of was losing Borius, and her army, and how she could stop this from being yet another life she destroyed. She had always loved him, she knew that; she had always wanted to protect him. She would never have wished for Gabrielle to experience the sickening pain she had felt when she handed her child to Kaliepus. A part of her heart had fallen away and died that day. How much would this cost Gabrielle?
"I'm calling him Jason," Gabrielle announced, her head on one side. "It's a good Greek name, don't you think? It's a strong name: noble." The baby had finished, far too weak to feed properly, but at least Gabrielle had felt the sensation, had been able to do this one small thing for him.
"I think it's perfect." Xena smiled through her tears. "It's a lovely name."
"He wants to sleep -" Gabrielle laughed at the sweet, peaceful face, crying too because she knew it was a sleep he would never wake from. "We should let him sleep for a bit." With painful care she lay the baby down on the fur then eased herself out beside him, resting on her elbow. "Mommy's here -" She stroked his face with her finger.
Resigned, Xena lay down behind her, kissing her hair and encircling her with an arm. "I'm here, Gabrielle," She assured quietly.
Gabrielle nodded. "He even has hair. Look at his hair." There was only a tiny, thin amount of it, but it was golden and fine.
"He has your hair."
"Yeah." The smaller woman agreed with this. She rested her weight back against Xena, gazing at the boy, instinctively offering her finger for him to suck on.
Xena wasn't sure how long they were there. Very soon the tiny body stopped moving, the eyes remained closed, and the skin grew paler. Gabrielle didn't visibly react, and lay watching him for a while, her hand still rhythmically caressing his tiny face. Xena stayed with them, hurting for Gabrielle, and for her own memories.
Finally, the girl inhaled deeply. "Xena, will you take him? Build a pyre. I want to rest by myself, just for a while." She spoke politely, but her voice had no colour, no interest. She patted Xena's hand, then laid herself down, her head on her arm.
Xena wanted to stay, wanted to be able to comfort her partner, but forced herself to do as she was asked. Perhaps it was best for Gabrielle to have some time on her own. "Sure." She pulled a blanket over Gabrielle, who was still naked and marked with sweat and blood from her exertions, then took up the child.
It was a relief to have something to do: physical labour eased the cramps in Xena's muscles that squatting and lying for so long had caused, and it was a welcome distraction. She efficiently built a small wooden frame, tying the branches with rough twine, and placed the linen-wrapped bundle on the top. This was all tradition and ceremony, really – it didn't change anything – but sometimes that was all one had.
She placed the pyre at the edge of the lake, found a big timber to use as a torch, then returned to Gabrielle. The girl sat up when she approached, looking dishevelled and somewhat dazed.
"Why don't you wash yourself, you'll feel better," Xena advised gently. She fetched a dish of water, a cloth, and some clean clothes.
"Thanks." Gabrielle got on with her task, quiet and subdued. She took her brush and went to use it, but cringed and dropped her arm back to cradle her stomach. Seeing Xena watching her, she handed over the brush. It was carved from pale wood, sanded and varnished, functional but pretty. It was one of the few things she had brought with her from home. "Xena." Keen to help, Xena brushed her hair for her as she sat waiting, gazing out toward the lake. The warrior took care to be gentle, and stroked her free hand soothingly over Gabrielle's head. She wished she knew what to say.
Neither spoke, because there was nothing to say. Xena handed the brush back, letting her hand linger at her friend's shoulder. Gabrielle pushed herself up, leaning on Xena's hand at her elbow, and smoothed down her clothes. She nodded, and they went over to the edge of the lake. Moved, and feeling it fitting, Xena sang a song of mourning that she had learned in her village, a soft, sad melody that recognised their pain and accepted it as a natural part of life. Gabrielle listened quietly. Xena set the pyre alight and pushed it out into the water, letting the momentum take it away from the shore. She returned to Gabrielle, placing a hand on her shoulder, and handed her the torch. It was a traditional gesture: when the flame burned out, the spirit's journey in Charon's boat would be completed, and it would be free to take its place in the underworld. In silence, they watched the flames engulf the pyre, and the tiny bundle atop it, and send it crumbling into the water. Very soon the surface of the lake stilled again, and it was as if it had never been disturbed. Gabrielle extended her arm and dropped the extinguished torch into the water, then turned and walked wordlessly away.
After several days, after Gabrielle had rested, they set off again, heading aimlessly toward Poteidaia just because that had been the original plan. Xena tried to be sympathetic, to be comforting, but was aware that she couldn't completely understand Gabrielle's quiet misery. Their characters were different – opposing even, at times – and even in the same circumstances she knew they wouldn't behave or react in quite the same way.
Time passed. Physically, Gabrielle's recovery was speedy. She was young, and the baby had been small: within a week a passer-by would not have known that she had ever been pregnant. Finding her sitting on a boulder gazing out at the horizon, Xena paused a short distance away.
"None of this is your fault, you know." If only there was a magic phrase that could be said to take all this bad feeling away. She spread her hands. "You didn't get to eat properly, and you were lifting all those rocks, and you were afraid. It wasn't your fault."
Gabrielle nodded. "I know."
"It will hurt less, eventually." She went to stand by her friend, looking down at her, seeing how the weak sun caught the highlights in her hair and made them shine. "It will Gabrielle, it won't be like this forever."
"Mmm." Gabrielle watched a flock of birds scattering across the sky. Perhaps they were returning home for the warm weather. "That almost scares me. I don't want to forget him, to forget his face." She could see his tiny, perfect features etched in front of her eyes, colouring every scene she saw.
"You won't," Xena promised, squeezing her shoulder. "But you're young, you can still have other children – children of your own."
Gabrielle stood, shrugging her off, and went to stand by herself. "Xena that's a heartless thing to say," She accused in a tired sigh. Xena sat heavily on the boulder, knowing that it had been insensitive. It came down to it that they had both always viewed the baby differently, because of its conception, and while Xena would have loved it and cared for it, she would never have felt for it like its mother did. Both women knew this to be true, and it was pointless arguing or even talking about something that couldn't be changed. After a long time, Gabrielle spoke again. "You think about Solan every day. I see you."
The warrior nodded, gazing at the dry lines on her palms. "Every day."
"Just because they aren't here, just because we can't be with them and they'll never know we exist, they're still our children." Gabrielle stared sightlessly into the watery orange sky. "And Jason is my child."
Xena nodded, agreeing. They were silent for a moment. In the old days, in the dark days before Gabrielle's light, if Xena was upset she would go somewhere quiet and be alone with her thoughts, let them wash over her for as long as it took for them to subside. Gabrielle had taught her a new way, though, always coming to be beside her, smoothing her hair or stroking away her tears. Xena hadn't understood it at first, hadn't known how to let herself be comforted, hadn't been brave enough to share some of her burden with another. Using her new skills, Xena went over to Gabrielle, still silent, and stood behind her, wrapping her arms around her. Gabrielle leant back against her, and it was enough to just be together.
They watched the sun setting. Gabrielle always liked sunsets. She liked sun rises too, when she could be dragged out of her bedroll early enough to catch one. Xena felt her shiver, and rubbed her arms. The girl nestled against her, then turned for a kiss. She softened quickly, and allowed Xena to lead her by the hand over to their furs.
A few paces away from them, she stopped. Xena turned back to her questioningly, stroking the cool fingers in her palm. She couldn't identify the emotions that played across Gabrielle's face as she gazed down at the blankets. It was a mixture of apprehension and puzzlement, and Xena wondered if there was fear there too. Perhaps anger played its part, but Xena preferred not to acknowledge that. She returned to Gabrielle, reclaiming her attention, and kissed her again. "We don't have to do anything…"
"I want to." Gabrielle traced her fingertips along the lines of the fabric covering Xena's abdomen.
"Come to bed, then." Xena stroked back blonde hair. "I want to help. Come to bed?"
Gabrielle smiled, just softly, and Xena took that as permission. She reached down and lifted Gabrielle up into her arms to carry her. She wasn't heavy, and it was somehow comforting to have someone so precious in her arms, to keep her close and protect her. Feeling an arm go around her shoulders, Xena touched her lips to Gabrielle's, loving her as she carried her to the fur and set her down. She was conscious of the irony that when they first met, when Gabrielle was younger, their positions would usually be opposite: Gabrielle would always be leading, encouraging physically and vocally, good-naturedly trying to distract Xena from her task and earn herself a cuddle or a kiss or some show of affection. 'Not now, Gabrielle,' Xena would protest, disapproving, until the soft arms and gentle words would win her over and she would abandon her work in favour of time spent close to another human being. Now it was Xena who had to do the coaxing: equally sympathetic, and equally persuasive.
She pulled off Gabrielle's clothes and then her own, and lay down over her. She whispered encouragement against her ear, stroking down her hair. Seeing that Gabrielle was listening, she slid a leg between her partner's, careful to take her own weight, and kissed her neck. Gabrielle lay with her, holding her but distantly, her thoughts apparently elsewhere.
Intoxicated by the smell and warm feel of her, Xena pressed her hands into the swollen breasts, loving how they filled her palms. Gabrielle, though, tugged her hands away. "Don't." She swallowed something away, but Xena couldn't tell if it was fear or that anger again. "They're too sore, still."
Gabrielle wouldn't look at her, and Xena pulled back, rebuffed. Perhaps this had been a mistake. She hadn't wanted to push Gabrielle into anything. In the past, if Gabrielle had been upset this was what she had wanted and would actively seek out. "Listen to me, it's all right if you don't feel like -"
"Maybe you could use your mouth, though?" Gabrielle interrupted as if she had been thinking and hadn't heard Xena's words. Still not making eye contact, but inhaling deeply, she took Xena's arms and pulled her down into a cuddle again. More than willing, Xena interweaved their fingers and kissed and nuzzled softly wherever she could, slowly tracing her lips down over Gabrielle's belly, through ginger hair, and between her legs. Her mouth was kinder to the bruised flesh than her hand would have been, and she concentrated on the soft swelling where the skin met, rather then trying to reach inside. She knew Gabrielle and knew from the pace of her breathing and the little shivers that went through her when she was almost ready. She moved back up, releasing the sweaty hands.
Gabrielle's eyes darted to her, and told her everything. "You're afraid -"
"No," Gabrielle denied, her thighs squeezing around Xena's hand. "No."
"You are…" Xena encircled Gabrielle's shoulders with an arm and leaned down close to her. "I'm here. I love you." Rape never really went away, did it. Answering Gabrielle's body, she stroked lightly with her fingertips, and met the open mouth with her own.
When it came it was stiff and silent. Gabrielle's body responded wholeheartedly but her mind was detached and she had her eyes shut tight as if this was something to be endured. They were together, but Xena had rarely felt so alone. Very quickly Gabrielle sat up, out of breath but emotionless, and moved to kiss Xena's neck. Appalled, Xena held her wrists, almost restraining her. "Gabrielle, you don't have to…"
"I want to."
"But -" Xena ducked away from another kiss, trying to swaddle Gabrielle in her arms instead. "Stop this! What's wrong, I don't understand."
"No, you don't," Gabrielle told her, not unkindly. "Please Xena, please just don't argue, okay?" Her small fingers closed over Xena's mouth, and her golden locks and warm lips fell on her breast, and Xena's resistance melted away, letting Gabrielle break free of the hold. "Don't argue right now." Wanting to forget just for a moment everything that had happened, Xena knelt and felt Gabrielle's hands go where she most wanted them to be. She arched her back, her hands tracing the smooth curves of Gabrielle's shoulders, and let the fire rush through her, quick and hot. It was a release of tension, and it relaxed her muscles, but it didn't satisfy or soothe her as being with Gabrielle usually did.
She opened her eyes to find Gabrielle at last looking at her, and she had tears streaking in glistening lines over her rounded cheeks. "Oh -" Xena heaved herself up onto knees that had gone numb from her weight and embraced the girl, kissing her head and tucking it under her chin. "Hey, Gabrielle. Don't cry like that, please don't." She rocked her partner, who had softened and was truly with her now.
"Xena, what they did to us…" Gabrielle cried, wiping at her face and pressing herself close to the woman she loved. It was the first time she had cried over it.
Xena nodded, kissing the soft hair again then gazing up into the forest canopy. "I know: what they did to us."
"I just think I've forgotten it, then it comes back, and it's no better than before." Gabrielle clutched at the hand that Xena gave her. "I've only ever wanted to be yours, to belong to you: since I first met you, since I was seventeen. The indignity, the shame of having to let them do that; I can't seem to… to transcend it." She shook her head, then the grief took her again and she covered her face with Xena's hands.
"Shh -" Xena tugged out the folded blankets that they used as pillows and wrapped one around herself and one around Gabrielle. Then they held each other tightly and waited for the hurt to subside. Xena could feel the tears streaking down her own face, but it didn't matter, so long as she could comfort Gabrielle.
Despite what the smaller woman had said, time had begun to heal the wounds a little, and she didn't cry for long. She sniffed, warming her face against Xena's neck. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that. I thought it'd help, I wanted to try, to go some way toward… getting over this." She stroked Xena's shoulder, far more gently than she had before.
Xena held her hand. "Well maybe it has helped?"
Gabrielle nodded, realising that she felt better. "Yeah, perhaps." Xena moved to rest her shoulder against a log, settling. "Can we talk? About Galiron, and Jason, and us?"
"Mmm hmm." Xena had sensed that Gabrielle was getting ready to talk about her feelings. Having to wait until the time was right to express themselves was a trait they both shared.
Xena held out her arms, her legs crossed comfortably in front of her on the fur. She waited for Gabrielle to settle herself sitting astride her lap, then made sure the thick grey blanket was snugly around her naked body.
Calmer, Gabrielle took a wavy strand of mahogany hair to play with. "Did it hurt you?"
"It hurt me to know what was happening to you. It hurt that you were in pain and there was nothing I could do."
Gabrielle smiled slightly. "That's not what I asked you."
Xena sighed. "Yes, it did: but I knew it wouldn't last forever. You see, it didn't matter to me – not so much, anyway – because it's just physical, it's fleeting, it's nothing. I know it was harder for you." She rubbed the smooth thighs under her hands sympathetically.
"But love– it should be pure, and real, and tangible. It should be something higher, something spiritual." Scowling with concentration, trying to find the right words, she put her head on one side, curling Xena's hair around her finger.
"Sometimes sex and love have nothing to do with each other."
Gabrielle just shook her head, fundamentally unable to accept that. "That isn't right."
"No, it's not." Xena studied her friend's eyes, wanting to know how she felt.
The smaller woman placed the lock of hair experimentally over Xena's head, half of her attention taken up with her innocent playing. "I'm not going to be like that." She said decisively. "When we're together it's always about love."
Xena smiled. "If only all the world were like you, Gabrielle."
"It's just been…" Gabrielle gazed up at the hazy sky, "…such a bad few months." It had been raining, but the sun was trying to break through now.
"Sometimes I wonder when it'll stop. That's why I wasn't afraid of dying, back in the jail?" She shook her head, dissatisfied. "I feel badly about it now. I mean, life is precious, right? But at least it would have been an end." Having rested her arms, she reached back up and started to braid some of the warrior's hair. "Then we got away, and I thought it was all right. And then I realised I was pregnant." She paused. "And then Jason." She shrugged. "Is it really over? Or is there more to come? Like the eye of the storm."
Dreamy and distracted, Gabrielle had let her blanket slip down to her elbows, so Xena pulled it securely around her again. "Ut-uh." Xena shook her head. She liked the weight in her lap, the way Gabrielle's calves fit neatly alongside her thighs, the warmth her partner provided. "The storm is over," She reassured. "I promise you."
Gabrielle had to smile, and traced her palm over Xena's cheek. "And how do you know?"
"I know," Xena told her, taking her hand, "Because bad things are always followed by good. Always."
"That's a romantic notion, but I -"
"No, it's true. Just like those rainbows you like so much. Rain is always followed by sun. A rainbow is the Gods' promise to us, that things do get better. See?" She pointed up to the sky behind Gabrielle.
The smaller woman turned, taken in by the story, and gazed up at the insipid but huge rainbow that swum across the heavens. Each of the seven colours leaked into one another at the edges, but remained distinct at the centre.
"If you want an example," Xena continued, "Look at me. I thought my life couldn't get any worse. I had no army, no friends: no hope." Enjoying her companion's awed expression, Xena kissed the arms that were clumsily around her head. "Then there was you."
Gabrielle looked back to her, all her compassion and capacity for love returned to her eyes. She leaned down, lying against Xena, and kissed her. The warrior embraced her warmly, tightly. It was the closest they'd been for some time.
Gabrielle drew back, holding the finely sculpted face between her cool hands. Xena smiled, although her eyes had moistened. 'I love you,' she mouthed silently, wanting to look away before the tears fell.
Gabrielle nodded. 'I know,' she returned, also in silence.
Their arms went around each other again, and they slid down to be side by side on the fur, warm and cosy under their blankets. Everything would be all right, simply because they would be together.
When the sun rose the next day they both felt a renewed sense of energy and direction. The grief was still there, but it was manageable. They packed up their belongings and headed for the nearest town, under the pretence of needing supplies but both really wanting to be around people: normal, happy, healthy people. They stayed around for a few days, comforted by the normality. During a stroll they came across a hand drawn poster on cream parchment advertising a concert of sorts at the village hall that evening. There was to be poetry, and song: bards peddling their craft.
Gabrielle's eyes were bright as they traced over the curled writing. Xena sighed, softly but indulgently. "Wanna go?"
"Do I!" Gabrielle grinned, her excitement child-like and infectious – just like the old days. "It looks amazing."
The warrior rolled her eyes. "Guess we're going, then." She smiled, though, and they walked on.
"You don't mind?"
"I'm sure I'll survive." Xena shook her head at a persistent market seller who was waving a handful of wilted herbs at her. "It sounds mushy to me, but if it makes you happy."
"It's not mushy, Xena, it's beautiful!" Gabrielle enthused. "You think there'll be other bards like me there, people who have travelled, people who write chronicles and poetry?"
"Maybe," Xena humoured her.
When the evening came Gabrielle changed into a dress, wanting to put on fine clothes, to feel womanly. She stood in their room at a dusty old inn brushing her hair, gazing out of a window at the quiet market square, when Xena came in.
The taller woman paused. The dress was long, down to Gabrielle's ankles, and was of a turquoise hue to match the shade of her eyes. Its lines were simple and neat, highlighting Gabrielle's now slim shape. "Look at you." Xena smiled, pride squeezing on the walls of her chest.
"Do you like it?" Gabrielle turned, setting down her wooden brush and tossing blonde hair back over her shoulder. She wasn't vain and had never cared much for feminine things, but just now, just once, she wanted Xena to notice.
"You look lovely," Xena told her honestly, holding her hands when she came over. "I didn't see you buying it."
"You wouldn't have done, it was months ago," Gabrielle said. "It was only a few dinars, from a poor woman in Thessaly. I exchanged a good boiling pan for it."
"I wondered where that'd gone."
"I wanted it for the solstice," Gabrielle continued, "But… we never really had much of a solstice, did we." She shrugged, and Xena was saddened to see that all that grief was only shallowly buried beneath the surface. She squeezed the small fingers in her own. "It was in Argo's saddlebag all that time. I dug it out, when we found her, but then of course it didn't fit so well." Another shrug.
Xena knew nothing she could say would be able to mend the ripping hole in their past, so she didn't try. "Well it looks beautiful now."
Gabrielle smiled. It was time to look to the future, and tonight was something she wanted to enjoy. "Thanks."
They headed for the hall, which was bustling with people, and took their seats at the front by the low wooden stage. The performance was everything the parchment promised it to be, and Gabrielle was enthralled. Predictably, Xena only made it to half way in, then got fidgety and made her excuses to leave. Gabrielle was more amused than surprised, having expected as much, and let her go.
But then, as soon as Gabrielle had settled on her bench again and applauded the bowing man and his poetry, Xena walked out onto the wooden boards. Frowning, Gabrielle sat up straighter, watching Xena come to stand centre stage. Her partner gave her a glance – tiny but loaded with all the love and adoration that she usually hid in public – then began to sing. It was a soft, simple little melody, made rich by Xena's deep voice, and Gabrielle listened to her in stunned silence, incredulous.
"When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around,
The Heavens open a magic lane.
When all the clouds darken up each new day
There's a rainbow skyway to be found,
Leading from your windowpane
To a place behind the sun:
Take a step beyond the rain.
Somewhere over a rainbow
Way up high
There's a land that I heard of
Once in your lullaby.
Sometimes I wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds
Are far behind me.
Where troubles melt like sugar lumps,
Away above the tall tree-tops:
That's where you'll find me.
Somewhere over a rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams
That we dare to dream
Really do come true.
Somewhere over a rainbow
Night birds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow-
Well then: so too can I."
Gabrielle didn't fight the tears that came, but laughed too, for the first time in an eternity. Taking her applause, Xena glanced down at her with a grin and a wink, genuine and carefree.
As they walked out of the hall and across the square, Gabrielle settled her arm around her friend's waist, where it always fitted so snugly, and felt the weight of Xena's arm on her shoulders.
"Did you really write that song?"
"Uh ha." Xena gazed at the other townspeople as they made their way home.
Gabrielle chuckled. "Have you gone soft on me?" She squeezed Xena's waist, pulling them closer together, and trying to tickle her, which experience had shown her to be an impossible task. "I didn't know you could write inspirational poetry like that." She paused. "And about me, too."
"I have many skills."
"Hmm." Gabrielle watched her sandaled feet stepping across the cobbles. "I reckon people are going to be humming that song for a long time to come, you know."
"Y'think?" Xena looked down at her.
Gabrielle returned the look and they smiled. "Yeah."
"Hmm." Xena squeezed her friend's shoulder. "I like that."
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