Zantar’s men had never strayed very far from the river, and most of the Cyran countryside was still unravaged. On a mild spring evening, with larks singing in the brambles beside the road and the sun sinking through rose-petal tufts of cloud, it was as close to the Elysian Fields as Xena was ever likely to get.
Ordinarily this was the sort of evening that would have had Gabrielle composing endlessly as they walked, spouting the sort of high-flying poetic nonsense that she’d spend all night feverishly scribbling down, with long pauses to chew on her quill and stare at nothing. But Gabrielle had been silent since they’d left Alesia and her family at the palace. Xena found herself missing the usual endless discussion about the wisps of smoke from peaceful chimneys, or the calm patience of cows, or some such thing. Even when Xena got bored of philosophical rhapsodies on peace and plenty, Gabrielle’s voice always gave her a rhythm to set her feet to, and a way to pass the time. It was also usually a pretty good bet that getting Gabrielle to talk would get Joxer to shut up.
While Gabrielle might have been suffering from poet’s block, Joxer was under no such burden. His clanking and clattering as he meandered along behind them was already enough to scare away every songbird for half a mile, and as if that wasn’t enough he’d spent seventeen verses trying to out-bellow the penned bulls on nearby farms and set every hound dog howling.
“Joxer the Mighty, pursued by Aphrodite, from his quest would never stir, because he’s too much man for her — Joxer, Joxer the Miiiighty!”
Xena tried to catch Gabrielle’s eye, but her attention was fixed on some point far behind the horizon, halfway between the trees and the rising moon, so distant that she didn’t even seem to hear Joxer’s racket. Her staff jabbed into the dust harder than necessary at every other step, and even under the bulky sack she still wore as a shirt, Xena could see that her shoulders were too tense for an evening stroll.
Joxer dropped off into muttering, composing his next verse, and Xena took advantage of the pause. “Some sunset, huh?”
Gabrielle blinked, took in the world with a weary, uninterested glance, and shrugged. “Looks like rain tonight.”
It did look like rain. They wouldn’t reach a sizeable village until tomorrow afternoon at least, and this part of the country was all gently rolling hills and close-bitten pastures, without any hope of finding a cave to camp in. The only thing in sight larger than a fencepost was a quaint little house, hardly more than a pile of wind-worn stones with a thatched roof, perched on a hill just beyond the next bend in the road. It seemed to lean a little to one side, like a gnarled old pine that had been growing on the windward side of a mountain for a hundred years.
Xena looked again at the clouds. “Our last tarp got cut up at Sparta. We don’t have anything to rig a shelter with, so we’ll have to see if we can stay at that farm, or else sleep wet.”
Gabrielle sighed and held out a hand. “Give me the money pouch.”
“Because if you show up in armor, pounding on some peaceful farmer’s door in the middle of the night and demanding he let us stay in his house, he’ll think he’s under attack,” Gabrielle said.
“I wouldn’t demand,” Xena protested. “I can ask politely.”
“They’ve had a hard winter here, and they’re depending on a good harvest,” Gabrielle went on. “And they’ve just been terrorized by a band of roving brigands for weeks. Food and supplies will be scarce, and we’ll have to offer them some kind of payment.”
“Fine. But I don’t see why I can’t —“
“Look, Xena, just trust me on this, okay?” Gabrielle snapped. “I know you’re the Warrior Princess, but I know how farmers think. Now give me the damn pouch!”
Xena unclasped the heavy leather money pouch from her belt and tossed it to Gabrielle, who caught it and stomped off up the hill without a word.
Joxer clapped Xena on the shoulder, his gauntlet crashing so hard against her armor that it made her teeth rattle. “Ouch,” he said cheerfully. “Looks like you two have some stuff to work out. I saw some daffodils growing by the side of the road a while back. If you hurry, you can flip over and get ‘em before she realizes you’re gone.”
With heroic self-control, Xena turned to look at Joxer and refrained from punching him in the throat. “Why would I want daffodils?”
“Why? For Gabrielle, of course.” He frowned, puzzled by Xena’s uncomprehending scowl. “You know, so you can show her how you feel about her?”
Xena snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. Gabrielle knows how I feel about her.”
“Yeah, but there’s knowing and there’s knowing, you know? Like, maybe you know that deep down somebody really cares about you and respects you for the great warrior you are, but then they use your only helmet as a pot to make Thracian pheasant stew and don’t clean it off afterwards, and then you’re picking pheasant out of your hair for three days and — it makes you wonder.”
Xena sighed and lifted Joxer’s hand off her shoulder, dropping it as though it were a recently-dead fish. “Problems with Meg?”
“She’s a wonderful woman,” Joxer said wistfully. “But sometimes I think she only wants me for my body.”
“The gods only know what else she could possibly want,” Xena muttered under her breath.
“See? Now that’s your problem, Xena. It’s that kind of disrespect that makes Gabrielle feel so unappreciated. Honestly, I can’t really blame her.”
Xena pinched the bridge of her nose, wondering vaguely if Joxer’s miraculous ability to induce headaches could somehow be weaponized. “Joxer, listen to me. After the things Gabrielle and I have been through, these — these petty squabbles over shirts, and rope, and who cooks, they don’t mean anything. We’ll have dinner, get a good night’s sleep, and everything will be fine in the morning. You know how she gets when she’s tired. I promise you, that’s all this is.”
Joxer stared at her, a peculiar expression forming on his face, and Xena realized with a sense of creeping horror that it was a mixture of concern and pity. She had endured a lot from Joxer over the years, but being pitied by him was a uniquely galling experience.
“Wow,” he said. “You are really terrible at this, aren’t you?”
“Guess I must be.” Xena turned her back on him, glancing the way Gabrielle had gone, but true night was falling fast and all she could see clearly was the warm glow of firelight in the house’s single window.
Joxer stepped up beside her and threw an arm around her shoulders. “Xena, I know this sort of thing isn’t your forte, but as your friend, let me give you some advice.”
“Is it advice on where to bury your bones? Because that’s sweet, really, but I don’t need it.”
“The most important woman in your life is feeling neglected,” Joxer continued. “There’s only one cure for that. Has been since the dawn of time. You have to grovel.”
“Grovel,” Xena echoed.
“There’s no other way, Xena, trust me. You should have seen my mother when my father stayed away conquering provinces and enslaving the innocent for too long — hoo, boy! The prisoners used to beg for the gallows. And she wouldn’t forgive my father until he’d brought her enough treasure and severed heads of her enemies to fill the entire front courtyard with blood and gold. If you’ve never seen a warlord grovel — well, you probably have,” he added hastily. “My point is, no matter how long you’ve been with someone or how many castles you’ve ransacked for them, sometimes every relationship needs a little groveling.”
Xena, who in her time had slain giants, overthrown gods, and made conquered kings crawl through the dust to kiss her boots, growled, “I don’t grovel.”
Joxer patted her arm. “It’s all right, I don’t expect you to understand. Just think of it as — a sidekick thing. I’m sure no one you love has ever bossed you around, and it’s kind of hard not to appreciate you, with all those, you know, bulging man-killing muscles and flips and stuff.” He hitched up his sword belt and threw back his shoulders, puffing out his skinny chest. “Just be glad you’ve got me around to comfort Gabrielle when you can’t.”
Xena looked up again at the farmhouse. Inside, no doubt, Gabrielle was talking with the family who lived there, telling them the story of rescuing Princess Alesia. In return she’d ask them about their lives, because she genuinely cared about things like how good the harvest was likely to be, how the children were growing, who the blacksmith’s boy was going to marry. All the everyday cares and triumphs of simple life in a peaceful village — the life Gabrielle had given up to walk the world at Xena’s side, on a path that had led through so much suffering already and was doomed to end on an icy cross.
There was no turning Gabrielle away from that path, Xena knew. She had chosen to stay at Xena’s side, in defiance of good sense and self-preservation, in the face of misery and bereavement and death — and she got upset over who cooked breakfast, or handled the money pouch? Over shirts?
But then, wasn’t that always the way it went? Xena saw the tactical situation, the clash of armies, the political motive behind every gesture of friendship or potential betrayal — always looking for the bigger picture, the next move. It was Gabrielle who felt, with her whole heart and soul, the immediacy of the moment. Small injustices wounded her: a child torn from her family, a single lost soldier in the midst of a battlefield. Over the years Xena had learned to trust Gabrielle’s instinct for what was important. She had a way of cutting right to the heart of any situation, more precisely than even Xena could send a spear into the heart of a man.
Chores and shirts and fairy-tales didn’t matter, had never mattered. Neither, in the end, did Xena’s pride. But Gabrielle knowing how Xena felt about her — very few things mattered more than that.
Joxer had turned on his heel, but Xena snagged him by the back of his breastplate as he started to march away. “Blood and gold, huh?”
“Well, probably puppies and flowers would work better in Gabrielle’s case,” he said thoughtfully. “Though I don’t know where we could get fresh puppies at this time of night.“
Xena turned him around and clasped his arm in a warrior’s salute, squeezing it until his flimsy vambrace creaked. “You’re a wise man, Joxer.”
“I am? I mean — uh, yes, of course. Joxer the Wise, that’s what they call me. Why, one time, the Sphinx herself was stumped by my brilliant —“
The door to the house opened, and a familiar silhouette started down the hill with a lantern in one hand and staff in the other. “Come on,” Xena said. “She’s waiting for us.”
The farmhouse was home to a lean, weatherbeaten man with the look of an old soldier about him. His wife, he said, had gone to visit the children in the next village over, and would be sorely disappointed that she had missed meeting the famous Xena, who had rescued the princess; but her disappointment would surely be soothed by the handsome fee Gabrielle had paid for the use of their barn.
“Half their chickens were killed by a fox that got into the coop last month, and the rest were taken by Zantar’s men,” Gabrielle told Xena as they crossed the yard between the barn and the house. “They’ve been struggling without the eggs to eat and sell, so I gave them enough to buy three more hens. It’s less than we’d pay for an inn, and I can probably make it up with a few performances when we get to Thassos.”
She didn’t sound angry anymore, just tired in a way that went beyond the physical. “That was very kind,” Xena said. Gabrielle lifted one shoulder in a shrug.
Xena hauled open the barn doors and hefted the lantern to get a good look at the place. It was old but well-built, piled with drifts and bales of fresh hay, and with a loft that would keep off whatever rain managed to leak in through the holes in the roof. She could think of plenty of worse places to spend a stormy night.
The wind was already beginning to pick up, and Xena was glad to shut the doors against it. “Where’s Joxer?” Gabrielle asked.
“I sent him on a mission. Don’t worry, he’ll be back before the storm breaks.” Xena hung the lantern from a hook on a stall-post and tossed her own pack and Gabrielle’s under it. “Come here and take off those boots,” she said. Seeing the way Gabrielle’s shoulders stiffened, she nudged a bale of hay closer and tried to soften the edge of command in her voice. “You’ve had a pebble in the right one since noon at least. It must hurt like hell.”
For a moment Xena was afraid that Gabrielle might not even let her have this without a fight; but then the mulish set of Gabrielle’s mouth relaxed and she dropped down onto the bale. “How do you know that?”
“You’ve been favoring your right foot all afternoon.” Xena knelt in front of her and made swift work of her laces, tugged the boots off and tossed them aside. She examined the injured foot to make sure there was no real damage, then started massaging with strong, sure hands, smiling at Gabrielle’s squeak of surprise. “You could have said something, you know.”
Gabrielle shrugged. “I didn’t want to slow us down.”
“It would have slowed us down a lot more if you’d twisted your ankle.”
Gabrielle tensed up all over again and pulled her foot out of Xena’s hands. “Of course. Guess I can’t do anything right today.”
Xena reached for Gabrielle’s other foot. When she didn’t pull away, Xena went back to massaging her sore arches. The silence stretched, and Xena listened to it as she listened to the wind, noting its rise and fall, its change in direction. Slowly the anger bled out of it, as the tension began to drain out of Gabrielle.
Eventually Gabrielle sighed and let her head fall back against the wall, relaxing fully for the first time all day. “That’s not fair,” she groaned. “How are you making that feel so good?”
“Some tricks I learned in Chin. Pressure points.” Lao Ma had taught Xena a great deal about the human body, and how to manipulate it for good or for ill. She, at the height of her powers, could probably have used a foot massage to kill or to heal; Xena settled for inhibiting pain, hoping that she could say with her hands whatever Gabrielle seemed to need to hear.
No such luck. “If this is your way of apologizing, it’s very nice, but some actual words would be nice, too.”
Xena shifted her attention to the tendon in Gabrielle’s calf that she knew tended to cramp up after a long day of walking. “All right. What do you want me to say?”
“Something like, ‘Gabrielle, I’m sorry for treating you like a servant who exists only to cook my meals, and for blaming you for things that weren’t even slightly your fault, and for ruining your story’. But in your own words, of course.”
Xena dug her thumb into a knot she could feel forming, and smiled as Gabrielle’s gasp of pain turned into a sigh of relief. “You forgot about the shirt.”
“I’ve decided to forgive you for the shirt, since I did take your rope.”
“How generous.” Xena worked in silence for a moment, pausing as she came to a thin white scar encircling Gabrielle’s ankle, a mark left by a manacle that had chafed at her skin until it bled. Xena ran her fingertips lightly across it, wondering idly which jail cell or ship’s hold it had come from. “I’m not very good at this,” she said at last.
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows in mock surprise. “Something you’re not good at? Well, that’s a first.”
“Ha, ha.” Xena tickled the bottom of Gabrielle’s foot, making her yelp and try to squirm away. ”Do you want an apology, or don’t you?”
“You can’t hold an apology for ransom, Xena. Is that what you’re not very good at? Apologizing?”
“I suppose that’s something else I could stand to practice,” Xena admitted. “But I meant I’m not very good at this. Having a family. Having a partner.”
“Xena,” Gabrielle started to say, tender and uncertain, but Xena shook her head.
“Satrina, Glaphyra — the women I cared about in my darker days were all my slaves, or my soldiers. I had complete power over their lives. That’s why I could care about them, because I could command them, and I thought they could never be a threat to me. The last person in my life who could have been a true partner was Borias, and, well — for the two of us, treating each other badly was half the fun.”
Xena glanced up to find Gabrielle gazing down at her, somber and soft, all the teasing gone out of her. “That doesn’t sound like love.”
“There was some love in it, I think.” Xena stood and stepped around the bale of hay, brushing Gabrielle’s hair aside with one hand and starting to work on her shoulders. “It was all mixed up with lust and fear and power, and it wasn’t enough to sustain us, but it was there. Borias knew that — I didn’t, not then and not for a long time after. I’d forgotten what love looked like, what it felt like, until you taught me all over again. I suppose I still have some things to learn.”
“Everyone has to learn how to love, Xena,” Gabrielle said softly. “Every love is different.”
Xena traced the curve of Gabrielle’s shoulderblade, idly feeling the corded muscle there from years of staff work. “You never had to learn.”
“Of course I did.” Gabrielle reached up and rested her hand over Xena’s on her shoulder. “I can’t say that I have no regrets,” she said quietly. “But I wouldn’t give up anything I’ve learned from loving you.” She leaned back into Xena’s hands, resting her head against Xena’s stomach. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. You didn’t deserve it. I let my temper get the best of me.”
“I’m sorry I took you for granted,” Xena replied. “Can you believe it? I took you for granted — after everything that’s happened, after I’ve almost lost you so many times. You’d think I’d have learned by now that every day with you is a priceless gift from the Fates.”
Gabrielle grinned. Xena wasn’t a woman who put much stock in metaphors, but she couldn’t remember a time when Gabrielle’s smile hadn’t felt like a sunrise. “Remember that tomorrow, when we get to Thassos and you buy me a new shirt,” she teased.
“Deal.” Xena leaned down and pressed a kiss to her forehead. Gabrielle shifted, half-turned and caught Xena’s lips with hers.
“I’ve been thinking,” she murmured as they broke apart. “I want to go somewhere farther than we’ve ever been. Somewhere Rome can’t reach us.”
A cold wind brushed the back of Xena’s neck — just a draft, she told herself, but couldn’t shake the feeling that it was her vision breathing just behind her, a gigantic beast with fangs like iron nails, stalking her patiently through her life as she desperately tried to escape its lengthening shadow. “Gabrielle,” she said, pleading, “don’t,” not even knowing exactly what she asked — don’t think about that, don’t talk about it, don’t let it happen, don’t run away from it —
Seeing her distress, Gabrielle gathered Xena’s hands in hers. “Listen,” she said, low and urgent. “If it can’t be changed, then it can’t, and nothing we do will make any difference. If we can change it, we will. But either way, getting out of their reach will give us a little breathing room. A chance for you to think, and to rest.”
A chance to get careless, Xena thought. A chance to let our guard down. Running away from danger was alien to her, had been since she had first chosen to stand and fight Cortese. She had seen clearly then, and had known ever since, that running only gave your enemy a chance to strike at your back — or, if you escaped alive, only left the scourge to fester. Better to fight whatever evil you faced, depend on courage and skill rather than cowardice and luck to survive. But how could she fight this? The one practical path she could see, leaving Gabrielle behind, was closed to her, and months had passed without offering another way to go.
Gabrielle stroked the backs of Xena’s hands with her thumbs, watching her face, doubtless seeing her struggle on the knife-edge of fight and flight and waiting to see which way she would fall. “Have faith, Xena,” she said softly. “You’ll never get past this vision if you don’t believe you can.”
I can’t get past it, Xena wanted to say. You can’t afford to believe in it, and I can’t afford to ignore it. But she couldn’t bear to see the disappointment, perhaps the bitterness on Gabrielle’s face, so instead she said, “All right. Did you have any place in mind?”
“We could go to India. The stories I’ve heard about it are so beautiful. An entire culture so much more devoted to spiritual fulfillment than ours.”
“I’ve heard people talk about the Ganges river,” Xena said, and tried to imagine it; such a vast, sacred thing, far from the Greek gods and their squabbling, far from the territory of any warlord she’d ever crossed swords with, where there were no Romans of any description, and certainly no snow. As the thought took shape, she felt the beast of her vision move back a pace, felt its terrible shadow lessen. Even if the cross couldn’t be avoided, the Fates would certainly have to work much harder to bring them to it from India than from Athens.
Some breathing room, a space for peace and faith, might be just what they needed. Once again, Gabrielle’s instinct had proved wiser than hers.
“We’ll leave in the morning.” Xena sat beside Gabrielle on the bale of hay. Gabrielle snuggled up to her at once, resting her head on Xena’s shoulder.
“There’s just one more thing,” she said seriously.
“Fairy godsister? Really, Xena?”
“Alesia’s only seven, and we almost killed her by telling her a traditional fairy story,” Xena pointed out. “I didn’t think we were ready to try to explain the nature of our relationship.”
Gabrielle thought about it for a beat, then nodded. “I see your point, actually.”
The barn door swung inward with a crash and Joxer fell across the threshold, chased by a gust of freezing wind and a spatter of rain. Xena leaped for the door, forced it shut with a grunt of effort and dropped the beam to keep it from blowing open again.
“Gabrielle!” Joxer struggled up to one knee, holding out a bunch of flowers that had probably looked much more impressive before the wind had plucked half their petals away and he’d crushed the other half by falling on top of them. “A token, my lady, of your incomparable beauty, and your — well, uh — pretty smell, and —“
Gabrielle plucked the wilted bouquet from his hands and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you, they’re lovely.”
Joxer beamed. “There, see, Xena? Told you it would work.”