Renaissance Pictures. I just borrowed Ďem for a bit, and Iím not making any money off of them (darn!).
The other characters are mine, and I kindda liked them.
Subtext: Are they or arenít they. Only TPTB know for sure, and they ainít telling. Thereís about as much
as on tv.
Violence: Natural disasters.
Thanks to Ambrosia for her help, and many, many thanks to Kamouraskan without whose editing and naggingÖ.*cough*Ö..encouragement this story would still be unfinished.
If youíd like to send comments, Iím at: email@example.com
Xena pulled her cloak tighter around her. Fall was balanced on the edge of winter,
and she shuddered in a sudden chilled gust of wind. She could feel Gabrielle, weary and
thin, nodding in restless sleep against her back. It had been a long, hard journey for
them. Choosing overland routes, they traveled from Troy, following the coastline to
Isauria. Once there it was necessary to board a ship to Cyprus. Gabrielle managed to
control her motion sickness using pressure points, but an uneasy stomach combined with
the arduous land journey to weaken her. The trip had also taken its toll on Xena whose
armor now hung loosely from her frame.
A second blast of air brought her thoughts back to the present. Galleus had written that there were nearby caves so she nudged the mare forward. Within half a candlemark, she was gently shaking her shoulders, and the bardís head bobbed like water-borne cork in a soft breeze.
"Come on, sleepyhead. Wake up."
Gabrielle opened her eyes, yawned widely, and slid off the roan. Her body ached for a good stretch, but the cold kept her huddled tightly under her cape.
"Looks pretty roomy in there," Xena said, emerging from the cave. "Weíll put the horse in with us. Itíll probably get really cold tonight."
Gabrielle took the reins and tied them to a nearby bush. "Iíll bring her in as soon as I gather firewood."
Xenaís brow knitted in a worried furrow. "You sure you feel up to it? I can always do that before I hunt."
"We each have our chores, Xena," she smiled patiently. "Iím not any more tired than you, just more willing to show it." With that, she walked off into the nearby woods.
Her third trip back to the cave produced a stack of wood Gabrielle felt would last the night, and she started a fire. She was just leading the mare into the hollow when Xena returned with a rabbit. Long ago the dried meat and old vegetables they ate along the road failed to tempt her, and the thought of a warm stew of fresh rabbit meat, one of her best dishes, made her smile.
They fell silently into their routine. Gabrielle cooked, the appetizing aroma of her food filling the cave, while Xena stripped the mare and brushed her. The companionable quiet carried over into the meal during which Gabrielle ate two portions large enough to ease Xenaís worry about her friendís health.
"Mmmmmmm, that was good," Gabrielle purred, putting herself in a sitting position next to the rock on which Xena lounged. She closed her eyes, enjoying the warm fire, the satisfying fullness in her stomach, and the comforting sound of Xena sharpening her sword.
"Too tired to tell a story?"
The lids lifted, and green eyes stared into the fire. "No," her voice was rich with contentment, "but Iíd rather you tell me about your cousin, Galleus."
Xena slid the sword into its scabbard. She leaned forward, resting her forearms on her lap and clasping her hands. "Weíve talked of Galleus before, Gabrielle. Besides, you know I donít have a way with words. Youíre the bard," she smirked.
"Twice Xena. Youíve mentioned him twice, and both were stories of the trouble the two of you got into when you were children. And Iíd like to hear you say something once in a while. I get tired of the sound of my voice."
"But I donít," she smiled.
Gabrielle swatted her arm. Admitting defeat with a sigh, Xena lowered herself to the ground next to the blonde. Though hard against her back, the stone on which she had previously sat blocked the cold air hovering just beyond the fire.
"Thereís not much to tell. We played together, my brothers, Galleus, and I. He teased me about being a girl, and I blackened his eye for it." She grinned, but it faded quickly. "He fought with us when we defended Amphipolis and rode with me until he realized what I was becoming. When he tried to warn me about my ambition, I ran him off. Had it been anyone else, Iíd have killed him." Her voice cracked, and she paused, allowing her mind time to ponder on the path her life might have taken had she heeded him.
"What did he do after that?"
"I donít know. I lost track of him for years."
"Until the messageÖ."
"Yes. Until the message. I guess he was disappointed in me, and I was angry at him."
"Lifeís too short for bitterness."
"From bard to philosopher?" Xena smiled. "Thatís easy to say now. Back then we hadnít experienced as much of lifeÖ..or maybe we experienced too much."
Gabrielle briefly studied her friendís face. A look of regret fluttered quickly around Xenaís eyes, and then the wall was up. "Now whoís the philosopher? Are you nervous about meeting him, Xena?"
"No. Well, yes. Itís been so long. So much has happened to me, and Iím sure to him. Weíre not the same people."
"You certainly arenít."
Xena looked into the green eyes and smiled. "I was fortunate to have
the right person come into my life. Now, letís get some rest, Gabrielle.
If the map is correct, we should be in Troodos before lunch. And I know
how much youíd enjoy a home cooked meal."
Gabrielle thought Troodos a dismal little village, as gray as the overcast sky above them. Homes on the outer edge were barely more than mud huts. In the inner hamlet, wooden buildings predominated although surrounded by the larger stone homes of the wealthy. People hurried to their business, the poor, inadequately covered, shoulders hunched against the cold, and those of better means, draped in cloaks or coats lined or made with animal fur. As they rode through the town, eyes lifted to take in the odd pair, a dark woman on horseback and a blonde walking at her side.
"Xena? Xena!" A deep bass pronounced.
They stopped and looked in the direction of the voice. He was a large, muscular man, taller than Xena, with piercing blue eyes and hair dark as coal. An indication of recognition crossed Xenaís face and was quickly replaced by her barrier. She was uncomfortable, not certain how to respond; but he clasped her forearm firmly and swept her into his massive bear hug.
"Xena. Itís good to see you again, cousin."
"The warmth of his greeting surprised and pleased Xena, and she returned the joyous pounding she was receiving on her back. Pulling away to look at her, he saw the smile spreading across her face. To maintain control, she allowed herself only one word: "Galleus."
"Itís not often we hear from the homeland, but Iíve kept track of you. I thank the gods you saw your error and changed."
She smirked. "I doubt the gods had much to do with it."
"I see some things never change," he chuckled.
There was a loud cough from behind Xena. "This is my friend, Gabrielle. WeÖtravel together."
"Welcome to Troodos, little friend and bard." He buried her small hand in his large, callused paws. "My home is your home."
Gabrielleís face beamed happily. "Youíve heard of me? Youíve really heard of me?"
"Of course, the bard of Potadaeia."
"Youíve really heard of me." A large grin spread from ear to ear. Suddenly becoming aware of her manners, she added, "Thank you. You are most generous."
Xena rolled her eyes.
"Let me finish loading up these supplies," he said, grabbing a large bundle and tossing it effortlessly on the back of the wagon, "and we can ride home together." He threw in the last of his goods before lifting himself onto the seat and proffering a hand. Gabrielle took it and found herself being lifted onto the seat by his large, strong arms. "Xena, you can tie your horse to the backÖ." It was almost a question.
"Sure," she responded.
Galleus was waiting, reins in hand, when Xena joined them. "How is your wife, Galleus?"
His expression became serious. "The healer has confined her to bed. Sheís afraid Janea will lose this child, and perhaps, her own life." Striking blue eyes met those of equally striking blue. "I am glad you came."
He smiled at Gabrielle. "Perhaps, little friend, once you have eaten and rested, you will entertain us with one of your stories."
Gabrielle returned his smile. "Iíd love to."
"If youíre interested in earning a few dinars, you may like to come back to the village square or one of the local taverns. After working hard all day, the miners enjoy a mug of ale and a story. We have heard a few retellings of the stories of Gabrielle about Hercules, Odysseus, Helen, Cleopatra, and some dark warrior. You may enjoy this visit more than you think, Xena. As I said, we donít get much news from Greece, and you may have a peaceful stay. Few here will recognize your name."
Xenaís eyebrow rose. It would be nice to relax and not constantly need to be alert and ready, but her ego felt a strong tweak. Galleus allowed himself a half-smile, and Gabrielle bit her lips in a wasted effort to muffle a snigger.
* * * *
Gabrielle estimated she had ridden for over a candlemark, listening and gaining insight, as the cousins caught up on the lost years of their separation. Galleus did most of the talking while the warrior nodded or added a rare comment. The chatter of childrenís play was heard before they had reached the top of the rise and were looking down onto the homestead. It filled Gabrielle with happiness, and she couldnít suppress the grin that brightened her countenance.
"It must be beautiful when the trees blossom, Galleus."
"Yes, Gabrielle, we think so."
An impressive stone home sat in the center of a clearing, encircled by a smaller, wooden one, and three orchards, each bearing a different crop. One contained neat rows of cherry trees, the second and smallest, olive, and the third was laden with grapevines. Behind the wooden building was an even smaller one. The three children ran toward them with cries of "Papa" and "Uncle Galleus", then followed them to the home. He quickly jumped from his seat, letting each child in turn disappear into his massive arms for a hug. Placing a hand on each shoulder as he said their names, he introduced them.
"My nephew, Timus." He winked as he stood behind the boy. "Heís a man now, all of 13 years. My niece, Valeda."
"Iím eight," she announced proudly, eyes widening as they traveled up Xenaís frame and rested on her armor. She took a step back.
Gabrielle nudged Xena and whispered, "Parents should use you to keep their children in line instead of the Gorgon."
"And my son, Ranus."
The six-year-old stepped forward, golden-brown eyes examining the duo. He extended his hand to Xena and, when she reciprocated, clasped her forearm with as much manliness his tiny frame could muster. He took Gabrielleís hand into his smaller one.
"Youíre the story-teller, arenít you?"
"Yes, I am," she replied, allowing her frame to grow an inch or two.
Xenaís tongue ran lightly along the inside of her mouth as she feigned sudden interest in the heavens.
"Janea, you shouldnít be out of bed," scolded Galleus.
"Now, husband," she patronized, "Iíve just come to greet our guests. Besides, it is difficult to do nothing but lie in bed all the time." She spoke their names as though she had known them all her life, embracing them and placing a quick kiss on each cheek.
Her beauty dazzled Gabrielle. Long, brown tresses hung just past her shoulders, golden-brown eyes seemed to see into her thoughts, the small nose nestled between high cheekbones and her face radiated the same gentleness as her voice.
"And my friend, Theron. Those were his two children you just met."
Theron greeted Xena, but his dark brown eyes rested on Gabrielle. Though not as tall as Galleus, his shoulders and arms were as muscular and his hands as callused. There was a rugged good look that belied his quiet demeanor and a wide, mischievous grin.
"You are welcome to stay here in the main house, but if you arenít used to the activity of children, you might prefer the wooden house," offered Theron.
Xena started to say something, but Gabrielle interrupted. "Yes, that would probably be better."
"As soon as you have settled in, join us and we will eat. I know you must be tired and hungry," offered Janea.
Theron escorted them to their temporary home. "Itís not as nice or warm as the main house," he apologized.
"This is fine," Xena said, putting her saddlebag on a small, wooden table, and creating a cloud of dust. "A good fire will take care of everything."
Theron shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, thereís a stable a few yards behind. Itís small, but clean. I can bring your horseÖ.."
"Donít bother. Iíll see to it."
"Well then, I guess weíll see you in a little while," he said, closing the door behind him.
"Gabrielle, the other house would have been warmer, and you know youíd enjoy being with those children."
"Maybe, but you wouldnít. A little dusting and sweeping is all this needs." She ran a finger along the mantle of the fireplace and examined the layer of dust produced on it. "And Iím sure Iíll have plenty of contact with the children."
"Here." Xena tossed Gabrielle a broom she found standing in a corner. "You get the cobwebs and dirt out the fireplace, and Iíll gather some wood. If I start a fire now, itíll be warm when we get back."
Gabrielle finished her chore and explored their new home while Xena started the fire. The room was spacious. The only furniture was a rectangular wooden table with benches on the two longer sides. The woodbin next to the fireplace was empty, but the fireplace was large with a metal rod jutting from its side on which pots could be hung for cooking. A curtained area at the rear of the room revealed a large bed, a small table with a pitcher and wash basin, and a tub. The linen on the bed was fresh and the area clean. In fact, the room looked as though someone had begun preparing it, but didnít quite finish. Gabrielleís stomach growled.
Xena chuckled. "I know. I heard it. Letís go feed that beast."
* * * * * *
The curtains were pulled back allowing some warmth from the fireplace to reach them, but there was a slight chill laced in the air. They were quiet; each lost in her thoughts, exhausted by the toils of the day. Gabrielle and her trio of youthful volunteers had completed cleaning the room, a job, she discovered, they had begun with Theron but stopped when Janea needed help preparing the noon meal. Xena and Galleus had chopped wood to fill fireplaces in both homes.
"Heís not what I thought he would be."
Xena turned on her side and propped her head with her hand. "What did you expect?"
"He was a warrior. I guess I expected him to be likeÖ..well, like you."
An eyebrow arched. "And that meansÖ?"
"Heís cuddly. Thatís not a word I would use to describe you."
"No, it isnít." She lay down.
"But you are warm." She moved closer.
"Gabrielle, your feet are like ice. Move over."
"Xena, Iím cold. And our body heat will keep us both warmer."
"Just watch the feet."
"And heís soft-spoken."
"Who? Oh, yeah, well, he always had that side to him, sort of quiet, liked to read and listen to stories. But he could wield a sword," she said with admiration. "In battle, he was a different man, fierce, determined, ruthless."
"And thatís good?"
"For a warrior it is. More than that, itís survival."
"I like Janea, too. Sheís such a warm, loving person. Reminds me of..."
"Of a certain bard I know."
"Is that how you see me?"
Gabrielle was sure Xena smiled although she sensed it rather than saw it in the dark.
"So," asked Xena, "Whatís a nice girl like you doing hanging out with a vicious warlord like me?"
"Ex-warlord," reminded Gabrielle. "Keeping you on the path, of course."
"Xena, how long before Janea delivers?"
"Iíd say within the next two weeks."
"Do you think sheíllÖ."
"It looks like it will be a very difficult delivery. Sheís a small woman, and the baby doesnít seem to be moving into position. Weíll all do the best we can."
The only sound in the dark was that of quiet breathing. Gabrielle was beginning to drift into sleep when she heard Xenaís voice.
"Why do you suppose you are Gabrielle, Bard of Potadeia, and Iím just
Gabrielle woke with a start. She was momentarily confused, but then remembered where she was. A shudder raced instinctively through her, and she realized it was colder than when she had gone to bed. Wrapping herself in a blanket, she padded to the washbasin. Tapping the thin layer of ice in the pitcher, she broke it and poured water into the basin. She was about to splash it on her face when she noticed a small kettle hanging against the inner wall of the fireplace. Investigating, she found it half filled with warm water. She made a mental note to thank Xena. After dressing, she walked to the stone house to offer Janea her help.
She entered the house, but it was quiet. The greeting room, as Theron called it, was ample, holding several chairs and a large, square table encompassed by benches. A staircase led to sleeping quarters. In the center of the room, an enormous stone fireplace, opened on both sides, served as room heater, stove, and divider, for traveling around the hearth led to a kitchen area and then to an outside door. She opened the door and her heart froze. Janea was bent over a tub scrubbing clothes.
"Janea, what are you doing?" She ran to the woman.
Janea stood, wiping the back of her hand across her forehead. "Good morning, Gabrielle," she beamed.
"I can do that for you. Why didnít you wake me?"
"You need to rest from your travels. The men, they come back so tired from the mine. Though they offer, I donít want them to have to do my work, too."
"Thatís why Xena and I are here."
She took the shirt from Janeaís hand, dropped it into the tub, and began leading her
to the house. Janea pulled away.
"Please. I canít just lie in bed all day. ItísÖboring."
"Wait." Gabrielle disappeared into the house and returned with a stool she had seen in the kitchen. "Here. Iíll do the wash. You can stay and talk with me, but you must sit down," she admonished. "Where are the children, Janea?" She began rubbing a spot on the shirt.
"They are at our neighborís farm," she said, pointing in the general direction of a homestead Gabrielle could not see. "The men bring them on their way to the mine, and return home with them in the late afternoon. In return for barter, Shana teaches them to read and write. My own parents did not think education important, especially for a girl, but I want my children to have it."
Gabrielle studied her for a moment. "Janea, letís make a deal. If you really get bored, youíll only watch while I do the chores, and when Iím finished, youíll rest in bed, and Iíll teach you to read and write."
Her face brightened. "I would like that, Gabrielle. But after I have this child, you must let me do something special for you."
Gabrielle nodded and swallowed hard. I hope you will be able to, she thought.
"I enjoyed the story you told the children. A girl caught in a whirlwind and brought to a far away land with strange people and animals, seeking only to go home. You do have an imagination."
Gabrielle shrugged. "Iíve seen a lot in my travels with Xena. Some of them as fantastic as that story."
"It must be hard, constantly on the road, no place to call home."
"It is, but itís never dull. And Xena is my home."
Janea smiled. "Thatís how I feel about Galleus. As long as I am with him, I am happy. I have been so fortunate. After leaving Xenaís army, Galleus became a mercenary, then a sailor. Thank the gods, for whatever reason, he came here." She absentmindedly rubbed her belly. "He worked in these orchards. Although his father owned the land, Theron worked in the fields, and they became friends. More like brothers. When we married, the wooden house was built for us. Two years ago, we lost Theronís father, his wife, and their youngest child to pneumonia. Theron was mindless with grief, and we cared for him and the children. He asked us to move into the house for convenience. Itís so largeÖ" Her voice faded. "Gabrielle, we have a good life here, except for the mine. I hate that mine." She winced.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, it was just a kick. I think this child is a boy, his kicks are so strong."
"Unless itís a girl like Xena."
They both laughed. "Yes, that is true." She became thoughtful. "Though I am grateful to Xena, I would rather this child have the soul of a bard. No warriors, no mines."
"Whatís wrong with the mines, Janea?"
"Theyíre horrible, Gabrielle. Slaves and prisoners work the other mines. Ours is small, worked by Theron and Galleus. The yields of the orchards combined with the money from the copper they mine keep us more than comfortable, but I would rather do without and have them safe at home." She winced in pain again. "I think I should lie down for a while."
"Let me help you."
They took the stairs slowly, and Gabrielle promised herself she would see to it that a cot is set up in the greeting room. She aided Janea as she eased onto the bed, then covered her warmly.
"Stay under these blankets, Janea. Iím going to open the shutters. If you call out, Iíll hear you."
"You are so kind."
Gabrielle smiled. "Iím practical."
"Gabrielle, I am a fairly good judge of people, and I feel I can trust you. There is something you must promise me."
Sensing her need, Gabrielle sat on the side of the bed and took a hand in hers. "What is it, Janea?"
Her eyes filled with tears. "I love this child, Gabrielle. It must have its turn at life. At any price. I know what Galleusí choice would be if a decision must be made between my life and that of the child. He has to know his decision would not be mine. I have tried to speak with him, butÖ" Her voice trailed off.
A surge of emotion filled Gabrielle, and she squeezed the hand she held firmly in her own. "Janea, IÖI donít know if I could."
"You would not be condemning me, Gabrielle. You would be saving a child."
"If itís necessary, I will try to honor your request. But," she added with a surety in her voice she did not feel, "Try not to worry. Xenaís here. Everything will be fine."
* * * * * * *
Once the clothing was scrubbed, Gabrielle brought the pile into the kitchen and hung them on a wall to wall rope she extended in front of the fireplace. During the course of the afternoon, she traveled the stairs several times to check on Janea, who was sleeping comfortably. She rested for a few moments before beginning to prepare the evening meal. There was an unfamiliar heaviness on her chest; it was the weight of impending disaster. She wished she were somewhere else, had not learned to love these people, and would not be around should the worst happen. She was weary of death.
"Youíre lost in thought."
"Xena." Relief and joy were apparent in her voice. She threw herself against the warrior with a force that made Xena step back to keep her balance.
"Gabrielle." She lifted the chin with a finger so as to look into the sea green eyes. Using a thumb, she wiped away a tear. "What is it?"
"I canítÖnot now," she choked.
Xena nodded. "Then later. In the meantime, Iím going to clean up."
"You are a sight." Gabrielle stepped back to view a very dirty Xena covered head to toe in reddish dust. "If you plan on sleeping in the bed and not on the floor, youíd better clean up."
"Is that a threat, bard? And what army did you plan to use to enforce it?"
"No threat. A statement. And I donít need an army," she said, taking a step forward. "I have cold feet."
Xena threw up her hands in mock surrender.
* * * * * * *
"mmmmmm?" She had been sleeping. It seemed Gabrielle never got the urge for one of her heart-to-heart chats until Xena dozed off.
"Janea and I talked today."
"She said if there were problems, she wanted her baby to survive. Xena, I canít choose one life over another. And poor GalleusÖ. Why does something like this have to happen to such good people? Xena, are you listening to me?"
Xena smiled warmly to the dark space she knew Gabrielle occupied. "Gabrielle, I always listen to you. I donít know why things happen. They just do. Life isnít fair."
Gabrielle turned toward Xena using her elbow to support her and wishing she could see those fervid blue eyes in the dark.
"Tomorrow Iím going with you to the mines. I want to see them myself. And I want to make an offering to Hestia for Janea."
"Iím sure if the gods listen to anyone, Gabrielle, itís you."
"And, Xena, thanks for the warm water this morning."
On the horizon, a thin thread of light separated the earth from its darkness. Slowly, the filament expanded, until the sun peeked its golden orb over earthís rim, and a dull, gray veil forced night from the room. Innocuous bright lines striped the floor until, filled with Apolloís courage, one brazenly landed on Gabrielleís face. An eye dared to open, and seeing the soft glow of day, it urged its partner to acquiesce. She could feel the weight of Xenaís body still in the bed, and although surprised to find her there, decided to snuggle and enjoy her heat. For almost a week, she had been determined to go to the mines with her friends but was reluctant to leave Janea alone. Today the children would be home to help, and Xena would not be able to give her more excuses.
Xena mumbled a complaint under the covers.
"Go back to sleep," advised Gabrielle.
"Feet, Gabrielle, feet."
Gabrielle snickered. "Xena, theyíre cold. And your body is so nice and warm."
"Iím warning you, Gabrielle. Move your feet."
"But, XenaÖ." Before she could finish her sentence, Gabrielle found herself sitting on the floor. "Oh, you think they were cold before, Missy," she said in her most threatening tone of voice. "This means war." She threw herself into the bed and under the blankets making sure her hands and feet found Xenaís exposed skin.
"Teach you to throw me out of bed."
"Oh, you want to play rough?" Xena was stopped in the middle of a pounce by a loud thumping at the door.
"Xena!" There was urgency in Timusí voice.
"What is it?" she called.
"Aunt Janea. She said you should come."
"Timus, saddle my horse and wait. Iíll be there in a moment."
"You knew, didnít you?" questioned Gabrielle, dressing.
"I thought it would be soon. I told Galleus it would be best if I stayed close for the next few days." Xena tightened the lacing on her boot. "Iíll go check Janea, but Iím sure Iíll have to send Timus to get Galleus."
Gabrielle was halfway to the stone house when Xena exited, striding resolutely to the stable. She quickened her pace and ran up the stairs, arriving breathlessly at the side of Janeaís bed. She was in obvious pain.
"How long?" Gabrielle asked Janea.
"Most of the night. I thought it was false labor. I had it for Ranus. But not long after Galleus left, the contractions became really close." Janea gritted her teeth. "Something doesnít feel right, Gabrielle." Biting her lips to prevent a scream, she groaned deeply.
Xena returned with their pouch of herbs. "Gabrielle, Iíll need two small pots of warm water. And remember the cloths I had you boil? I need those, too."
Gabrielle left and returned several minutes later with two kettles of water and a bundle of cloth. Placing the kettles over the fire, she brought the scraps to Xena, keeping one to wipe Janeaís brow. She watched as Xena pulled two different herbs from a pouch and placed each in a separate kettle.
"I know this is to ease the pain," she said, pointing to one of the kettles, "but why the Rue?"
"I had an Egyptian healer in my army, Gabrielle. He believed there were smallÖthingsÖeverywhere. Things we couldnít see that caused us to become ill. He ordered his cloth bandages boiled in water in preparation for battles, and when he tended the wounded, he would pour water steeped with fringed rue over his hands before he worked on each soldier and on the cloth he used to cover their wounds. He believed it helped to kill these tiny entities."
Gabrielle studied her hands. "Small things we canít see? Iíve never heard of an idea like that."
"Neither had I, but he saved the lives of soldiers that would normally have died. I donít know about his theory, but something worked."
Two faces appeared wide-eyed at the door. Xena blocked their entrance.
"Iím sorry. You canít come in," she said gently.
"Is Momma sick?" Ranus asked, anxiety in his voice.
"Let me see them for a moment, Xena." Janea waved the children toward her. "Come."
The pair ran to her bedside. She gave them each a hug.
"Xena and Gabrielle are taking care of me. It would help if you would go downstairs and tidy up. When Timus returns, he will need you to work with him on the chores." With a whispered ĎI love you,í she kissed each child and sent it on its way.
"Jenea, I need Gabrielle. Weíll be right back."
They walked out the room and Xena closed the thick, wooden door behind them.
"The baby is breech, and weíre running out of time."
"What if Galleus doesnít make it back soon?"
"I donít know if thereís much we can do, anyway."
"Nothing?" The idea they were faced with a circumstance in which they were helpless was foreign to Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, that same healer told me he once tried to remove a breeched infant from a mother who could not deliver by reaching into her and pulling the baby out. It didnít work, and neither survived. But he said he thought it was because he waited too long."
"Are you going to try it?"
"Not without talking to Galleus and Janea about it first. The healer could have been wrong, and it may cause more harm than good."
"Xena, if you donít try, theyíll die. You have no choice."
They returned to Janeaís bedside and tended her, wiping away the perspiration, cooling her brow with a damp cloth. Xena tried to give her an herbal tea to ease the pain, but she would vomit and could not absorb enough into her system to help. Gabrielle folded several layers of cloth around the handle of a wooden spoon to use as a cushion and offered it to Janea when she requested something on which she could bite down. It muffled her cries of pain.
As the contractions intensified, Janea grasped Gabrielleís hand, squeezing tightly. They spent the remainder of the morning and into mid-afternoon tending Janea. Gabrielle could only feel admiration for the petite brunette who suffered stoically through the labor. Soon the sun was no longer sending beams in the window. Knowing Galleus should have returned, Janea worried about her husband, and in the brief moments when the spasms stopped, she would still her breathing to listen for him.
On two occasions Xena pushed on Janeaís stomach, successfully moving the infant, only to have it shift back into the wrong position. The contractions were close, the pain taking its toll on Janea, and Xena became concerned that the child would not make it through the birth canal.
"Xena." Janea looked at her through exhausted, red eyes. "I do not think I can go through this much longer."
"Janea, a healer once told me of something he tried when he could do nothing else. It didnít work."
"Is there anything else you can do?"
Blue eyes met golden brown. "No."
"Then help my baby."
Xena turned to Gabrielle. It was the first time she had seen that expression on Xenaís faceóa look of doubt. Gabrielle nodded, and they moved to the smaller kettle. Xena removed the rue from the water.
"The men should have been back from the mine long ago, Gabrielle." There was an uncharacteristic hesitation. "We canít wait any longer."
"What about Galleus, Xena. Shouldnít he be here?"
"If we wait, weíll lose them both." Xena removed the rue from the water. "Pour this over my hands then soak that cloth in whateverís left."
"Iíll pray the gods guide you, Xena."
Xena stood tall and straight, hands dripping with water, a confident gleam in her eye; she made no comment about the gods. Gabrielle wondered if the confidence was real or a show for Janea.
"Youíd better bite down on that spoon, Janea. I donít think this will be comfortable."
The pain had worn Janea down. "And do you think Iím comfortable now?" she asked caustically.
Ignoring the remark and concentrating intently, Xena reached down and in. Finding the babyís legs, she pulled them carefully up and out, gently rocking the small frame until itís whole form was exposed. As soon as the infantís face felt the cooler air, it began to cry. Xena exhaled with relief, and Gabrielle wrapped the baby warmly and placed it on its motherís stomach.
"You have a daughter, Janea."
Gabrielle coughed repeatedly, and Xena pounded her back.
"Xena, this isnít wine," she choked.
"Itís from their private stock. But youíre right, itís strong. Itís not an ale, though." Xena took another swallow and grinned. "I like it. Once you get used to it, itís tasty."
Galleus had invited relatives and friends to a feast in celebration of their daughterís birth. The perimeter of the table was outlined with a solid row of smiling faces and the tableís surface weighted with platters of fruits, vegetables, and meat and pitchers of the potent drink. Candles on the table, in sconces on the wall, and along the hearthís mantle, brightened the room. It was an atmosphere of joy and laughter.
"Janea and the baby are fine. Sheís nursing her now," announced Galleus as he returned to his seat next to Xena. "That tea you gave her for fever has worked already."
"Good. Just be sure she takes some tonight and again tomorrow when she gets up."
"Xena, if you hadnít been here, I would have lost them both. There is no way I could ever repay you."
"I didnít do anything, Galleus. It wasnít time for the Fates to cut their threads."
"So youíve said," he smiled. "But in any case, we would like our daughter to carry your name."
Xena turned away, thoughtfully examining a spill on the tablecloth, her eyes misting. "Iím...honored, Galleus," she said after a pause, "but there are so many things in my pastÖmy nameÖ."
"Say no more, Xena."
Xena watched as a dazed, contented expression plastered Gabrielleís face. While she conversed and told stories, the younger womanís cup was continuously being filled as members of her audience filled their own. She doubted Gabrielle realized how much she was drinking and made a mental note to put a bucket next to the bardís side of the bed.
"Now," she said, trying to lighten the mood, "I heard Gabrielle praying to several of the goddesses, Artemis, Athena, and Hestia. Maybe you should name your daughter after one of them."
"With such a choice, I could end up like Cecrops," he chuckled.
Gabrielle observed Xena pouring another mug of wine. "Ya know, ya better watch that, Xena. Ya had a few already."
"Iíll keep that in mind. How many have you had?" Xena asked innocently.
Blinking several times in an attempt to clear her vision, Gabrielle peered into her cup. "Just a few sips. Now, donít ya worry Ďbout me," she said wiggling an index finger from side to side.
"I know. Youíre not a child, and you can take care of yourself," Xena sighed.
"Ya got it."
"Iíll go with you in the morning, Galleus, and help in the mines again. How bad was the cave-in?"
Galleus nodded in Gabrielleís direction. "You may be taking care of your friend tomorrow," he grinned. "Theron and I will finish clearing the cave-in tomorrow. Thereís no need for you to be there."
"Janea would prefer that you close the mines. She seems to think you can live nicely on the yields from the orchards."
"Janea would say that. She worries too much."
"Iíd say she has reason to worry. You were digging Theron out the day your daughter was born. Mining is dangerous."
"Yes, and so is fighting for the greater good." He grinned.
Xena arched a brow. "Not any more than being a warlord or a mercenary. And I donít have a family."
Digging in, Galleus replied, "No, but you do have your friend."
"Gabrielle has learned to handle herself in battle. Yes, I am concerned about her safety, but I trust her, and her skills have often been useful. Besides," she glanced affectionately at the bard, "if she wasnít around, Iíd miss her cooking."
Galleus gleefully pounded her back. "Getting soft in your old age, Xena?"
"Soft? OLD AGE?" Xena feigned indignation. "YouÖ."
"Xena?" Gabrielle leaned her head against the back of the chair. "I think I need to go to bed."
"Ok. Goodnight." Xena turned her attention back to Galleus. "Now, my friend,Ö"
"Uh, Xena?" interrupted Gabrielle. "My head is spinning, and I feel nauseated. I think someone should walk with me."
"Oh. Sure." She started to get up but a hand was placed on her shoulder.
"Stay and enjoy yourself, Xena. Iíll escort Gabrielle," offered Theron.
"WellÖ" There was reluctance in her voice.
"Iíll be fine, Xena. Probably just need some fresh air. Theron will walk me back." Gabrielleís hands were rubbing her pounding temple.
The night air was a cold wall into which Gabrielle walked. She stopped and leaned against a pillar on the veranda.
"Just give me a minute, Theron. I think I need to sit down."
He found a bucket, turned it over, and helped her ease her way onto it.
"This is embarrassing. I donít understand. I ate a dish of food and drank a glass of wine. Sure, it was strong, but not this strong." Gabrielle leaned forward and rested her head in her hands.
"Donít be embarrassed, Gabrielle. Itís not your fault. While you were busy telling stories, your fans were refilling your plate and mug. They didnít mean to harm you. They were just taking care of you because they enjoyed your tales so much."
"Oh, Gods." She stood and wobbled as quickly as she could to a group of bushes away from the house. Once there she decorated the bare branches with a different kind of adornment.
"Gabrielle," Theron called.
"Stay away." She waved him back. "I never knew there was a down side to being a good bard." She deposited the remainder of her supper then backed away and sat on the ground.
"Here. Use it on your face and forehead," he said handing her a wet cloth.
He held out his hand to help her up. She took it, and allowed herself to be pulled upward and into his strong arms. He was warm against the cold, steady against a moving earth; and she buried her head in his chest, inhaling his scent and clinging to him. She looked up at him and in the fullness of the moon, she could see his dark brown eyes taking her in. Deep within her rose a yearning, a desire, and she pressed herself against him.
"Oh, no, youíre drunk," said Theron. "It wouldnít be fair." Though it would be tempting, he thought.
Taking Gabrielle by the shoulders, he led her in the house. He tried to help her into bed, and she pulled him on top of her. He pulled her hands away, loosening her fingers from his collar, and he put her arms under the covers and tucked them tightly around her. Unwilling to leave until he was sure she was all right, he put a bucket on the floor next to the bed and sat down just as Xena walked in.
"How is she?"
"She threw up, and I didnít want to leave her alone."
"Thanks for taking care of her," she said.
"Anytime," he promised. "You didnít stay."
She nodded toward the sleeping Gabrielle. "Thought she might be sick."
Their eyes met, and they exchanged knowing smiles.
Xena added wood to the fire so it would burn through the night. Her shadow mixed with others and played along the walls. As she unlaced her boots, she heard Gabrielle groan.
"Hi," she whispered. "How are you?"
"Oh, Xena, youíre back. Iím seasick." She made weak attempts to hit the pressure point on her wrist, continually missing the mark.
"That wonít help you," she said, stopping the flailing hands.
Xena messaged the bardís temples until she drifted into sleep. Undressing quickly, she slid under the blankets causing as little motion as she could. She could see the blondeís chest rise and fall in the dim firelight. Content under her warm wrappings, she let her mind roam, wondering what her life would be like if she had never met Gabrielle.
Would she still be on her path of redemption or would the Destroyer of Nations possess her soul? Of one thing she was sureósheíd be eating her own terrible cooking every day, and that alone could devastate any inclination toward good. She laughed at herself. Bad cooking and loneliness. Incredible loneliness. She could remember when, at the end of the day, she would brush Argo down and talk to her. It was a bonding between horse and rider, but she needed, also, to hear a human voice. Her thoughts returned to the present. Argo. Gods, she missed Argo and wondered how she was doing on the mainland. She had checked around, and the stable in which she chose to board the mare was the most highly recommended in the port city. Although she hated leaving Argo behind, she knew her horse was in good hands.
Xena yawned. Burrowing down into the bedlinen, she cuddled next to Gabrielle enjoying her warmth. Smiling to herself, she moved her body so that the bardís feet were against her legs. No cold feet for you tonight, Gabrielle, she thought.