by Ella Quince
Note to the reader: This story contains more romance than plot, so if you are bored or offended by the thought of two women being in love with each other, then I suggest you read something else.
For those readers who are familiar with my previous works, this is actually a fairly old story of mine -- written over a year ago -- that I've decided to finally post.
Gabrielle was weaving her tales before an especially appreciative audience tonight. The inn was overcrowded with travelers forced inside by heavy rains, the same rains that had finally persuaded me to abandon any notion of camping outside. When we had arrived, they'd been a sullen group, glowering like a second bank of thunderclouds... until Gabrielle began to speak.
Seated cross-legged in a casement window, the only place left unoccupied, she had begun softly at first, addressing the people directly around her. Then, one by one, the diners at the long trestle tables had fallen silent, straining to hear her words. And the rising sound of her voice had been like the rising of the sun, spreading warmth and cheer throughout the room.
Gabrielle had promised not to tell tales about the Warrior Princess, so this time I could enjoy her performance without embarassment. I leaned back against the rough stone wall, tired from our long day's journey. I usually avoided a show of weakness, but I was hidden in the shadows at the far end of the hall. If trouble started, I would see it before it saw me.
"This is good."
I turned at the sound of the innkeeper's voice whispering in my ear. Callus was studying the crowd with a calculating eye. Despite having reached the middle years of his life, he was a lean man, too miserly to allow an ounce of spare fat on his frame.
"They're not so restless anymore," he said with relief. "No fights tonight, no breakage. Fewer complaints."
"Does that mean we get a room?" I asked, quick to take advantage of his gratitude.
Callus grunted as if pained by my request, then said, "Mind you, all I can spare is a servant's room the size of a closet. One pallet. And you'll pay full price for that. Most that are here tonight won't get that much. They'll be sleeping on these tables."
"A closet will do," I said, anxious to conclude our bargaining so I could listen to Gabrielle. Besides, a second pallet would have remained unclaimed... but that was nobody's business but my own.
The innkeeper sealed our deal with a taciturn nod, then frowned and said, "Not good." I followed his line of sight to one of the tables, then realized his attention had already moved on to other concerns. "We need more soup out here. What good is a wife if she can't keep food on the table?"
He faded into the shadows, and a few minutes later a slender woman carrying a tray laden with dishes edged past me. The aroma that trailed after her reminded me how long it had been since I'd eaten...and if I was hungry, Gabrielle would be starved. I watched as eager hands reached out for the bowls and wondered how much of the food would be left by the end of the evening.
As soon as the tray was emptied, the innkeeper's wife threaded her way back between the tables. She was headed for the kitchen when Gabrielle's voice rang out at an especially dramatic line of her tale. The woman froze in place Then she turned and for the first time gazed across the room at the bard. She uttered a soft gasp.
I stepped up and spoke quietly. "Are you all right?"
"What?" The woman broke out of her trance, flustered and flushed. "Oh, yes, I'm fine...it's just, that bard...she's very good."
"Yes, she is."
After one more lingering look at Gabrielle, the innkeeper's wife scurried out of the hall. My curiosity piqued, I kept a watchful eye for the woman's return, but she never reappeared.
An hour later, after Gabrielle had bowed to thundering applause and collected a flattering amount of coinage, she joined me at one of the trestle tables. I had secured a sliver of space by smiling -- very firmly-- at the occupants of the table, who had hurriedly squeezed themselves toward the other end of the benches. It was a petty victory for an ex-warlord, but Gabrielle and I led a spartan life, and these small luxuries were all I could offer her.
Buoyed by her success, Gabrielle was lively and sparkling, and very hungry. Unfortunately, no matter how firmly I had smiled at the passing servants, and no matter how strongly their knees had trembled, there was no more food to be had.
"About dinner..." I started reluctantly, trying to forge through the flood of her words. Before I could finish my thought, a bowl of soup appeared on the table.
I looked up to find the innkeeper's wife serving us. Gabrielle was still so busy talking that she hardly noticed the second bowl being laid out, and she didn't react at all to the woman's sidelong glances in her direction.
"...and I had my doubts about that new ending for The Warlord of Argeria, but everyone laughed in the right places." She reached out for one of the bowls.
The voice was tentative, hardly arresting, but Gabrielle stopped, her hand suspended in mid-gesture. She looked up and searched the drawn face of the woman who had called her name. Recognition came slowly, but I could tell when it arrived because Gabrielle turned pale.
The woman smiled, but I could see a sadness in her eyes. "Have I changed that much?"
"No...no, I...I wasn't expecting to see you, that's all."
"I asked about you the last time I visited my mother, but..."
Gabrielle's voice, usually so fluid, was halting and brittle when she said, "I don't live in Poteidaia anymore."
"That's what Lilla said...and...and I heard about Perdicus. I'm sorry."
A long silence stretched between them until Gabrielle finally said, "Thank you." She cleared her throat. "How's your brother Ajus? I heard he injured his back during the last harvest."
"Oh, he's doing much better. And what about your cousin Galor?"
As they continued a polite exchange of inquiries over a seemingly inexhaustible supply of relatives, I quietly ate my soup. I also studied Gabrielle's friend. Perhaps Althea had changed a great deal, because upon closer inspection in stronger light, I realized the woman was not much older than Gabrielle, yet she lacked Gabrielle's strong color or the supple tension of a young body. Her long hair, pulled into an untidy coil gathered at her neck, was a lackluster brown. When Althea pulled away from the table, she moved with the stiffness of a woman twice her age.
"I'd better get back to work...Callus will think I'm wasting time... it sets a bad example for the servants."
She took another step back, but still could not turn her face away from Gabrielle.
"Althea..." Gabrielle's brow furrowed with concern, "...is he kind to you?"
Her question snapped the tie between them. The woman averted her face. "I'll stop by later," she murmured, and fled the hall.
I waited for some comment from Gabrielle that would explain the odd tension between her and the innkeeper's wife, but my young friend was stripped of her earlier exuberance. She stared down at her soup, then said, "I'm not really hungry...I'm going to our room now."
Knowing how futile it was to confront Gabrielle when she wasn't in the mood to confide, I let her leave without making a comment. My eyes followed her as she crossed the hall, lingered when she stopped to ask a passing servant for directions to our quarters, then traced the lines of her back until she walked out of sight. And then I remembered that Althea's eyes had also remained fixed on Gabrielle.
"Listen, if she's not going to eat that...."
Pulling my attention back to the table, I glared at the man who was leaning closer and closer to Gabrielle's untouched meal. "Don't worry, it won't go to waste," I said, and reached for the bowl myself. The scene I had just witnessed teased my mind as I sipped at the second helping of tepid broth. Dismissing the banal words the two women had uttered, I concentrated on remembering the sound of their voices and the awkward silences that had fallen between the lines. There had been a very familiar quality to the conversation, but surely I was mistaken....
When I had finished eating, I picked up the empty bowls and headed for the inn's kitchen.
Following the directions a servant had given me, I found my way to the open courtyard separating the kitchen from the stables. The rains had stopped. Stepping out into an evening mist that beaded and clung to my hair, I searched for my quarry. The innkeeper's wife was hauling water from a well in the center of the square.
Althea turned at the sound of my boots echoing against the rain-slickened flagstones. There was no trace of surprise on her face when she saw me striding toward her. She let go of the rope in her hands and waited until I was standing before her.
"She travels with you."
It was more a statement than a question, but I said "Yes," and noted a flash of fire light up the woman's eyes. Not quite anger, but its close friend: jealousy. That infusion of emotion revealed a delicate beauty in Althea's face that hadn't been evident before, but it faded quickly and her eyes returned to a dull, defeated brown.
"How much has she told you about me?" asked Althea in a flat voice.
After a slight pause to stifle my conscience, I shrugged. "Not everything."
"Does she hate me?" Before I could reply, the woman answered her own question, "No, of course she doesn't. Not Gabrielle. I've never seen hate in her, not even tonight."
"Neither have I." I reached for the taut rope snaked over the lip of the well and began to draw up the bucket.
"I think that's what I first noticed about her. When we were growing up, the other children sensed Gabrielle was different, that she saw the world in a way that was all her own. And she would look so hurt when they shunned her or taunted her, but instead of crying or getting angry, she would tell a story that would make them all laugh with her instead of at her."
"That instinct has made her a good bard," I said quietly. I set aside the filled bucket and took up another empty one.
"But then her father would punish her for telling so many stories," said Althea. "To him, anything that wasn't a fact was a lie. He was a hard man."
Although I had only met the man briefly, I agreed with her assessment. And I reproached myself for having given so little thought to the harshness he must have cast over Gabrielle's childhood. I heaved the second load of water up from the well. When I turned, Althea was staring at the flexing muscles of my arms.
"It would never have worked," said the woman.
"Oh?" I managed to keep my inquiry casual, almost absent-minded, as I straightened my shoulders to balance the weight of the two buckets I picked up. I could have walked faster on our return trip to the kitchen, but I deliberately shortened my stride to prolong the conversation.
Althea strolled beside me, eyes fixed on some far distant point, talking as if to herself. "She begged and pleaded for me to leave Poteidaia with her, but where would we have gone? It was only a few years ago, but it seems like half a lifetime. We were so young. I know even better now that we couldn't have survived on our own." She glanced over at me. "After all, I'm no warrior."
When we had finished dumping the water into a barrel in the kitchen, Althea held out her red, work-roughened hands and stared at them. The sight seemed to trigger another round of memories. "If only my husband's touch was half so gentle, or generous, as hers...." She trailed off, then said, "You're very lucky."
"Yes. Yes, I am."
A shuttered look came over her face, and I recognized there was nothing more for us to say to one another. I was about to leave, was almost through the arched doorway that led to the servants' sleeping quarters, when Althea spoke up again. "Gabrielle has always been so determined, so persistent...."
I smiled at that apt description.
"...I...I had to say cruel things to make her go away."
My smile faded. My hands clenched convulsively, as if reaching for a weapon.
"Treat her better than I did," pleaded Althea.
"Yes," I said grimly. "I will." And I strode away without looking back.
The stub of a candle was guttering toward its death when I stepped into the narrow room Callus had reserved for us. Gabrielle was lying turned to the wall, feigning sleep, but I could tell she was awake by the rhythm of her breathing. After quietly removing my armor, I slipped under the thread-bare coverlet to join my friend on the straw-packed pallet. I pretended not to notice the stiffening of Gabrielle's muscles as our bodies touched. I knew that as soon as I had settled myself in place, Gabrielle would begin to relax again, slowly letting herself fall into the embrace of my arms. And in the middle of the night she would finally turn and nestle her head on my breast, leaving it there until morning.
For weeks now we'd slept close together, sharing the same blankets in camp or the same bed at an inn. The pattern had started, supposedly out of need, when the weather turned damp and cold. Yet even on the occasional warm night we hadn't moved apart again.
There were times when I stayed awake, waiting for Gabrielle to lose herself in sleep, so I could savor our closeness. And one night, after the campfire had burned down into glowing coals, I had given way to temptation, letting my hand trail ever so lightly over the swell of her breast. I had stopped, apprehensive and expectant, when Gabrielle stirred; I could have sworn I heard a faint sigh of pleasure...but the promise was shattered when Gabrielle opened her eyes, then rolled away, as if hugging her desire to herself. And yet, the following night she had laid out our blankets together as usual.
It was a game of increasing frustration.
Until tonight I had always assumed that Gabrielle was too naive to understand what was happening between us, that she was unsettled by the emotions that our touching could arouse. Her brief courtship and marriage to Perdicus hadn't allowed much time for exploration of this kind. And I had been reluctant to pursue our attraction too forcefully. With men I was well-versed in how to please and be pleased, but that experience wasn't much preparation for making love to an innocent like Gabrielle.
'If only my husband's touch was half so gentle....'
Yet if what Althea had implied was true, Gabrielle wasn't so innocent after all.
I drew a deep, shuddering breath at the image of Gabrielle and Althea together, nude, touching in ways that had haunted my dreams.
"Xena?" murmured Gabrielle sleepily. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine," I whispered back.
Why haven't you loved me like that?
There was a ready answer to that question. Despite her compassion and generosity, Gabrielle might not consider that a blood-stained warrior was worth loving in that way.
I felt the weight of Gabrielle's body shift and draw closer. The urge to caress her was so strong....
There was another possibility, one that offered hope for a different answer.
'I had to say cruel things to make her go away.'
One way or another, I vowed, I would uncover the truth in this matter...because we couldn't continue like this for much longer.
I awoke early the next morning. Carefully untangling myself from Gabrielle's sleeping embrace, I went in search of the innkeeper's wife. I found her baking bread in the kitchen, her sallow skin flushed a dark olive by the heat of the ovens. As soon as she saw me, Althea nodded in silent greeting, then ordered her two servants out of the room on trivial errands.
"I was hoping to see you this morning." She pulled a bundle of cloth from a shelf and pressed it into my hands. It was soft and warm. "I tucked away a loaf of bread from this morning's baking for Gabrielle. She'll be hungry when she wakes up, but she's such a late riser that I was worried we might run out of food before she has a chance to--"
"I need to know what you said to her, what made her leave you."
The woman flinched, as if I had struck her. "No..." Althea backed away, her hands flying up as if to ward off yet another blow. "I've never forgiven myself for uttering those words...I couldn't bring myself to--"
"For her sake, please tell me. It's important." I was no bard, I couldn't call forth a persuasive and eloquent speech, yet my terse appeal wrung a reluctant nod from Althea.
The woman stalled for time, first stoking the oven fire with sticks of wood, then uncovering a bowl of yeasty dough. As her fingers knotted themselves in the thick flour mixture, she began to speak in a dry whisper. "She had such a fierce heart, and it was all mine...but she was betrothed to Perdicus, and I was betrothed to Callus. I accepted the fact that once I married, I would have to leave Poteidaia, leave her...."
"But Gabrielle didn't agree."
"No. She kept insisting we had a choice, that we could forge our own lives. But I was scared, and I didn't want to dishonor my family. So I told her...I told her that what we had called love was a childish game that girls played together while waiting to grow up and marry their husbands. I said that I had finally grown up, and she would have to grow up, too. And...." She stopped abruptly, the movement of her hands stilled along with her tongue.
"There's more," I said.
"Yes." The woman closed her eyes. "I laughed at her."
With conscious effort, I choked down my rage. After all, who was I to judge? Compared to murder and the rampages of war, breaking the heart of a young girl was a petty sin. "Thank you. That's what I needed to know."
I left Althea alone with her grief and her guilt.
When I returned to our room, Gabrielle was still asleep, but her arms were wrapped around the pillow that had cradled my head. I wondered if my scent still lingered there and if that was why her face was pressed into the folds of cloth.
In the close confines of the room, the aroma of freshly baked bread was overpowering; I was tempted to throw the loaf away, but the desire for such petty revenge shamed me. Instead I placed the bundle on a low table and slipped back into our narrow bed. As I settled my weight beside her, Gabrielle's arms loosened their hold on the pillow and sought out my waist. With a soft sigh of contentment, she snuggled against me and her breathing resumed its deep, steady rhythm. I thought back to all the signs that she was attracted to me, and my confusion when time after time she had moved too close, then drawn away.
'A childish game that girls play....'
Gabrielle was always so quick to take offense if she thought I was treating her like a child. If she believed the desire to touch another woman was also childish, then she would have tried to hide that longing. And I had mistaken her withdrawal for rejection or uncertainty. So each time temptation beckoned, I had stilled my trembling hands and forced my beating pulse to slow rather than unsettle Gabrielle with a glimpse of my passion.
I had even let her marry Perdicus....
What I hadn't considered was that my reserve was masking the signs of desire that she would have recognized, familiar signs that might have encouraged her to close the distance between us.
Gabrielle stirred against me. Her nose twitched.
"I brought you some breakfast," I said, and she opened her eyes. Even fogged with sleep, I could feel her stiffen with alarm at finding me locked in her embrace.
I longed to kiss away her fears...but not here, not now, not with the fragrance of Althea's bread surrounding us. So I rolled out of bed and uncovered the loaf. Still warm to the touch, it tore apart in my hands. Working to keep my voice uninflected, I held out a piece and said, "Althea baked this for you."
Gabrielle made no move to take it. Instead, she looked up at me and said, "How long do we have to stay here?"
My heart jumped. "We can leave now."
"But the rains...all that mud...." She studied my face and seemed to draw strength from my composure. "Yes, please, I want to leave now."
I tossed the broken loaf aside. "Let's go." And I held out my hand to her.
Dawn light the color of a ripening peach promised a clear day for traveling. I hoped it was a good omen for our hasty departure. There were no accounts to settle with Callus, so we were free to leave the inn at any time, still it felt as if Gabrielle and I were fleeing in stealth.
As we headed for the stables, the voices of the kitchen servants echoed across the courtyard. I stiffened when I picked out the sound of Althea's voice threaded among the others. I cast a quick, questioning glance at Gabrielle.
"No," she said. "I don't want to say good-bye."
I masked my relief behind a neutral nod of agreement, yet I couldn't help striding away just a little bit faster. Gabrielle matched me step for step, and then paced impatiently while I saddled up Argo.
The rain-soaked ground beyond the stables was too muddy for walking, so Gabrielle took my hand and let herself be pulled up onto Argo's back, just as she had let me pull her from the confines of our room. With a press of my knees, I urged Argo to a quick trot onto the roadway.
We left the inn behind without a backward glance. If Gabrielle had turned, for even the briefest moment, I would have known, I would have felt the tension in the muscled arms that were wrapped tightly around my waist. And in that same moment it occurred to me that riding together was another intimacy that Gabrielle allowed herself only when it was absolutely necessary.
So I wasn't surprised that as soon as the churning mud gave way to firm ground, Gabrielle slipped down off Argo and continued our journey on foot. Her retreat was familiar, only this time my understanding of it was new.
"I think..." said Gabrielle, after we had traveled in silence for awhile, "...that she's very uhappy."
"I think you're right."
"And there's nothing I can do about that, is there?"
"I wish things had turned out...differently...." Then she whispered, as if to herself, "...for her."
Fortunately Gabrielle's hearing wasn't sharp enough to hear my sigh of relief, and I've learned how to keep emotions -- like joy -- from showing on my face.
We traveled all morning, making slow but steady progress, leaving Althea farther and farther behind with every mile. By noon I was pleased to see the strained and distant look in Gabrielle's eyes fading away. We both fell into our normal banter and she munched happily on a shriveled apple and three-day old cheese. Our friendship appeared unchanged...but I knew better.
It was the mud that finally stopped us. The drying ground was still too soft for Argo's weight, even after I dismounted to walk beside her. I did most of the scraping to pare away the packed clods on her hooves, but Gabrielle helped enough to get smeared with mud.
"I'm a mess," said Gabrielle in dismay.
I looked down at her. Knowing what I did, I couldn't hold back. "No...you're beautiful."
This wasn't a perfect moment for a declaration of love; it wasn't even a very good moment. It would have to do, because I couldn't wait any longer.
I kissed her.
When we broke apart, surprise was still written on her face. "Xena?" Gabrielle whispered, but before I could answer her, she kissed me back -- hesitantly at first, then with a growing confidence as my arms circled her waist. Her arms twined around my neck, pulling me closer still.
And then it began to rain.
"Oh, Hades," she groaned, slumping against my chest.
I looked up, blinking against the raindrops, and scowled at the gods who were taunting us. "We just need to regroup."
Determined to sustain this moment, I swept Gabrielle up in my arms and carried her under the sheltering limbs of a nearby tree. "We'll be dry enough--" My boots slipped on damp moss, throwing me forward. I crushed Gabrielle against the tree trunk with enough force to knock the breath out of her body. When she could breathe again, she began to laugh.
I sighed. "Sorry, I guess this isn't really the time or the place..." A fierce yearning pushed its way through my resignation, and I found myself saying, "But I've wanted this for a very long time."
"You have?" Her eyes went wide with surprise. "But I never saw... you didn't... why didn't you tell me?"
I chose my words with deliberation, knowing what she needed to hear. "I wasn't sure you were old enough for this kind of love." I felt the convulsive grip of her hands on my shoulders. My words had opened an old wound, but it was a wound that had festered long enough.
"Not old enough?" said Gabrielle, her voice quavering ever so faintly.
With a wry smile, I confessed, "I was worried I would frighten you."
"Well, you were wrong about that." Her green eyes darkened, like storm clouds boiling over the open sea. "I've wanted this, too...wanted you."
Raw desire -- kept leashed for far too long -- uncoiled within me. I bent down and kissed her again, harder, and Gabrielle matched my urgency with her own.
Soon, kissing wasn't enough. The buckles of my armor gave way under Gabrielle's insistent fingers, and she began to touch me in places she had never touched before. Then I watched her face change -- with expressions I'd never seen -- as I echoed her touches back. After all this time together, we still had so much to learn about each other.
But if we continued this exploration....
I looked around, searching in vain for a patch of ground that could hold our weight without covering us in mud. "Gabrielle..."
"I'm not going to stop," she whispered in my ear, "so we'll just have to do this standing up."
I wasn't in the mood to argue with her.
Before too long my leathers dropped in a heap over my armor, and were followed by Gabrielle's tunic and skirt. Then, laughing at the ludicrous position we were in, we stopped our fevered grappling long enough to draw off our boots as well.
Digging my toes into spongy moss, I took Gabrielle's weight into my arms once more. My nipples had puckered in the cold, damp air, and when she slipped a thigh between my legs, I gasped in shock at the cool touch of her skin -- sensations that somewhat dampened my desire. Catching her look of chagrin, I smiled and said, "Don't worry, I'll warm up again soon."
And I did. As did she.
There was no finesse to our love-making, not with gravity threatening to unbalance us at every turn. We were clumsy and awkward, fumbling to learn this strange new pattern of love that had swept away our familiar friendship, stuttering out new words that carried far too much weight to be said easily.
No, not a perfect moment at all...until I saw Gabrielle's eyes flutter shut and heard her cry ring out in the still forest. Then it became the most perfect moment I could imagine.
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