Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
It has been six days now that weve been on the road.
Six days since we left the relative warmth of Parnasos behind for a frozen place where I swore to myself I would never go again.
Six days since my world was turned upside down and not for the first time, but if this is the price I must pay for living a life with Xena, then I will gladly bear the cost.
We push along the infrequently used trail, grinding dead leaves and twigs into the ground beneath our feet. The air is cold and damp, and the barren trees of the woodland bow low in homage to the force of the harsh winds that swirl around us. We are fortunate; the winds are at our backs, sparing us from a frontal onslaught, but at the same time I irrationally fear that with such power behind us, it will only serve to hasten our journey. And I am in no hurry.
Xena walks beside me, yet she is a thousand leagues away, with one strong hand gripped tightly on the leathered reins of Argos bridle, leading the big war-horse along.
"It will snow soon," Xena says. She lifts her dark head to the heavy-gray sky and flares her nostrils, breathing in deeply of the raw, dried-husk scent of the forest air.
This is the first time she has spoken since midday, and though the slate-colored plumes of clouds obscure the sun, I know that there are few hours of daylight left.
"Well, were dressed for the weather, at least," I say, pulling my furred cloak tightly to my throat.
"Hrmph," Xena grunts, eyeing me briefly with cold eyes that seem to match the color of the sky, and I curse myself for my inane observation.
Xena has been quiet for days now. Certainly, she has cause for it, and its certainly a mood of hers Im no stranger to. But this time, for the first time in quite a while, it leaves me feeling unsure of myself.
The silences are more a part of the Xena who once was, I know that, a Xena whose past still remains in so many ways a mystery to me. Oh, she tells me what she can, whenever shes ready, and I willingly accept those terms. For I know that sometimes she would rather forget than ever speak of some things again.
Her life as a warlord is a dark tale, one that chills my soul like no other. Yet the people who were in her life then Borias, MLila, Lao Ma - each offered her some small part of the goodness that dwelled within them. And Xena, though she didnt realize it at the time, embraced those gifts, and made them her own.
Still, I would rather hear of her life before Cortese came, of the joyful times at home with her brothers, Lyceus and Toris. It is those stories that bring a smile to my face and warm my heart. But it is a thing not of those days that has set us upon this trail on a bitter, early-winters afternoon.
It has been six days since Xena and I heard word in a broken-down tavern of a healer who had worked tirelessly to save a village struck down with a fever, only to fall victim to it himself.
Six days since Xena and I learned that Nicklio was dying.
To me, the journey has felt more like six years.
I feel a cold wetness on my cheek, and another settles on my eyelash. The snow has begun to fall.
Our minds are a wonderful thing, I consider, as I stumble forward on the increasingly slippery trail. What we are incapable of handling, of dealing with, we simply block out, turn away from. The temple of Mnemosyne taught me that well enough. Or, more frequently, we relegate an incomprehensible act or experience to that of a dreamscape, and we are left to wonder through the growing, soothing mists that shroud its memory, whether it ever happened at all.
But with each passing step, as we draw closer and closer to our destination, a dull knife twists in my gut and the heaviness in my chest grows. It is this feeling of dread that overwhelms me, paralyzes me, and I cannot shake it.
I turn my eyes towards the ice-covered limbs of the sycamores and pines, they are beginning to weigh down now under the touch of the frozen whiteness that envelops us. And I remember that time in my minds eye which seems so long ago, but in my heart is as sharp and piercing as though it were yesterday.
It was no dream, that.
Argo can feel it too, I know it. I can see the air billow from her in great clouds as she snorts and whickers, kicking up her hooves from time to time, skittish.
But she will follow wherever her mistress leads, and so will I.
The cold bites into my lungs and surges through my limbs, robbing me of the last comforting vestiges of my warmth and security. Xena seems oblivious to it all, plunging ahead with a certainty born of a focus and commitment that I have yet to fully understand.
I wonder, as I watch her broad back lead on in the whirling snow like a beacon, whether this is the first time she has walked this path on her own. Certainly, I know of at least two other occasions she traveled this way, when she did not.
Once, was when I had her strapped to a litter jostling roughly behind Argo. I was frantic - desperately more concerned with saving her life than preserving my own; all the while feeling her essence drifting away from me, like tiny crystals of snow melting in my palm. The more tightly I tried to cling to her, the less I had to hold.
Am I so wary of this journey now because Nicklio could not save her then? I dont think so I hope not, anyway. Because he did once, that earlier time, when MLila brought Xena to his door.
It was not yet Xenas time to die, MLila said, not then.
But with me it was different.
"Dont," Xena told him, when hed begun to examine her. Why, I had wondered? I was shocked. Stunned. Why was she so willing to give up, when I was not? There was nothing he could do, Nicklio had said, and so I had to sit by and wait, watching my everything die slowly before my eyes. And I, powerless, impotent to stop it.
Is it still resentment anger that I feel, because she left me? I hope to gods in my heart this is not so. When Xena passed on No! I squeeze my eyes shut at the crushing memory of that moment, and even now feel my soul being rent in two as it was then, at the cruel severing of our bond.
Of course, she would find her way back to me, though at the time I did not know it. How she did it, to this day I do not fully understand. The gods must have played some part in it, for they always do when such supernatural mischief is afoot. And I would never dare to underestimate the will of Xena to conquer even death itself, for there were countless times in her past when she proved herself a worthy opponent to that dark force.
But there was another who guided Xena back to the land of the living, though of the particulars of it all she has told me little. MLila.
And so for the second time, from beyond the pale of her own death, she saved Xena.
"Aahh " I trip over a tree trunk hidden by a soft blanket of newly fallen snow, and feel myself tumbling, pinwheeling towards the ground. I brace for the impact which is sure to follow.
I barely have time to resign myself to my icy fate when, impossibly, two hands sweep under my arms and catch me, pulling me back to my feet.
Two blue eyes study me carefully. "You okay?"
How is it, I wonder, that she manages to move so swiftly? Surely, she was born with instincts and senses so sharp and true that she probably knew I was falling before I was even aware of it myself.
"Im fine," I mutter, feeling silly at my clumsiness.
Xena nods her head and then strikes out again along the path, but I see she chooses to walk by my side now, instead of ahead of me.
How can I be jealous of a memory? Because she, and others like her, knew a part of Xena I have not? That I never will? Xena has never done anything to cause me to doubt her, and so this uncertainty, this insecurity is mine alone to bear, and so I shall.
The rational part of me understands that there are people in Xenas past who have no doubt influenced her life both good and bad and have helped to carve out from the muddy clay of the riverbank the woman who I know and love today.
She tells me that Ive done the same to her: taught her, shaped her, shown her the way of peace. Ive made her the person shes become, she says.
I know the feeling.
The night is upon us now, and the winds, thank the gods, have died down to a low, mournful moan. The snow continues to fall, though at a lighter pace than before, and travel, though difficult, is not impossible. Our way is guided by the barely discernible signs of the trail, the iridescent glow of the snow cover, and Xenas irrefutable resolve.
It has been several hours since we passed through Pelis, the little village perched at the foot of Mount Nestos. In the swirling snows it was a blur to me now as it was then, quiet, bundled up tightly against the winter chill and the deadly fever. No living creature could attest to our having come or gone; even our footprints were quickly obscured by the drifting whiteness left in our wake.
Now, far up the mountainside, in a lonely little homestead better suited for a hermit than a healer, I can see the rough-hewn wooden door to a cabin that has swung open countless times in my dreams, revealing a sight I can never erase from my mind: Xena, lying cold and dead upon a pallet.
Xena quickly ties up Argo, and my heart catches in my throat as she pounds her fist on the wooden planks.
The hood of her cloak has fallen back, white snowflakes pepper the shiny blackness of her hair, and I know that she would not have made this journey had she not known, felt, deeply within her soul, that her old friend was still alive.
Tired of waiting, though it has only been an instant, Xena pushes the door open. It is aged and tired, like its owner, and it grumbles loudly in protest.
We move into the cabin, closing the door against the weather behind us. I am overwhelmed by the sudden quiet, sheltered here as we are, from the elements. A warm fire burns brightly in the hearth, casting long shadows against the walls. The sweet scent of the wood-smoke masks, but not completely, a thick, cloying air of sickness. It drapes the room like a heavy curtain, blotting out all that is life and good.
The room has changed little from how I remember it; there are the mortars and pestles of a healer, the little bottles pouches of herbs, carefully folded cloths. There is a place for everything and everything has its place, and I doubt whether Asclepius himself could have assembled a more extensive inventory of restoratives.
At last, I turn my eyes towards that which I have been avoiding.
I see a body lying on a pallet which is not Xenas; a young girl who is not me sits vigil by the side of it, holding a thin, weathered hand.
She looks up, her pale face betraying no fear. No surprise. "You are Xena," she boldly says, the light from the fire throwing highlights into her ebony hair, "He said you would come."
Elena is her name, and she quickly relieves us of our cloaks after pointing us to the small stable in back where we can shelter Argo. We sit and warm ourselves by the fire, and Xena never takes her eyes off Nicklio, as Elena tells us her story.
She is from the small village at the foot of Mount Nestos. A Moon ago, maybe more, the fever skulked into Pelis like a thief in the night, robbing a wife of her husband, a sister of a brother, a mother of a child. Quickly, the blight spread and, with the hamlet in desperate straits, Nicklio was summoned.
The healer rarely ventured from his mountain aerie nowadays, she explained, but he willingly gathered up his herbs and poultices and came to Pelis, to do what he could. "I have seen this evil before," she told us Nicklio had said, "and it will fight us tooth and nail for every soul before it leaves this place. But there is a chance."
Tirelessly, he worked his way among the sick and dying villagers, and Elena found herself trailing by his side, watching, eventually becoming his ersatz assistant. He would talk to her as he mixed a healing tea, explaining the properties of the ingredients and how they served. She found herself mesmerized by his deep, rich tones, as he outlined the benefits of plentiful water and a cooling, cold compress bath, to keep the fever at bay.
Eventually, the tide began to turn, and indeed, as Nicklio had hoped, the fever did leave the village. But not before claiming unto itself one final victim.
Against the wishes of a grateful townspeople, the healer insisted that he be allowed to return to his home, and so Elena had accompanied him, caring for him ever since. That was eleven days ago.
Perhaps the fever thought it would take Nicklio quickly, but it sorely underestimated the steely, tempered will of the old man. For the healer clung to what was left of his life like a lover, refusing to concede even a minute of it to the raging fires that burned within him, hungrily consuming him.
Still, he was fighting a losing battle, Elena could see that, and in the black of the night when he would cry out in his sleep, Elena would lay a cool compress over his heated brow and know that death lurked not far away.
She begged him to tell her what to do, but there was nothing she offered him that he would take, and no request came from him for even the simplest of needs, and so she worked instead on instinct and what she had absorbed from him during her informal apprenticeship.
The one thing that fueled him, that kept him going, she said, was his desire to see Xena one last time. When he told her this, Elena was willing to leave him to send a message, if that be his wish, but the old man told her it was not necessary.
And now, she was here.
I look at Xena now, to see her reaction to this news, but she keeps her poker face. It is as if somehow, inexplicably, the Fates have led her back to this place. They, and a talkative bar patron back in Parnasos.
I can see the tired lines in the young girls careworn visage; this last moon cannot have been easy on her. Dark brown eyes set deeply into her face glisten, as she says, "It has been two days now since he fell asleep. I saw this so many times, in Pelis," she brushes her hand against her nose, sniffling, "with my little sister ."
"Sssh, why dont you get some rest, Elena," I say, putting an arm around the girls narrow shoulders. "Well keep an eye on him for a while. Sleep."
"Thank you," she says gratefully, gathering up the dusky blue folds of her peasant dress. She moves off to a darkened corner of the cabin where a small cot stands. I can tell within minutes that she has fallen into an exhausted sleep.
"Poor girl," I say, "Being up here all alone all this time."
"She wasnt alone," Xena says firmly, watching the barely discernible rise and fall of Nicklios chest.
I sigh. "You know I didnt mean it that way," I say, and I slip my hand on top of Xenas. After a moments hesitation, I feel her hand stir and then, quickly, she takes my hand up in her own.
"I know," she says, lightly brushing her lips against the back of it, "I know."
And there, in a heartbeat, we are connected again, and all my doubts and insecurities melt away like a late-winters snow under a dawning sun.
Now it is our turn to sit vigil, together, to wait, for whatever fate the gods have in store for Nicklio. How he has aged since last I saw him I think, as I examine the planes of his face in the flickering light, the deep valleys of wrinkles tilled into it by the sun and by the cares of his profession. The full head hair on his head is snow white now, and he is thinner. Much thinner.
Each rasping, crackling breath sounds as though it might be his last, and I am struck by the irony of how this warrior woman beside me who herself has healed so many, can do nothing for the man who in the past has saved her.
"Im here, old man," Xena says, her voice a low rumble. Gently, she re-arranges his hair that is already in its place, and places her palm against the side of his grizzled cheek.
There is no response from the healer.
"He can feel your presence, Xena, Im sure of it," I say, and I mean it. I slip my arm around her leathered waist, watching the muscles of her jaw work.
"After MLila died, he he was the only one who believed in me in those days," she says, struggling to keep her composure. "He said that if MLila had faith in me, it was good enough for him."
"He was right," I say, feeling my warrior trembling with emotion.
"He told me that I didnt have to be what the Romans had made me, that I could use my strength, my power, for the greater good. Not for destruction and death. And do you know what I did? Do you know how I repaid him?"
Glittering blue eyes bore into me.
"No," I say softly, knowing that this is one of those rare times when Xena allows me a glimpse into the life of the person she once was.
"I laughed in his face and walked out. After stealing his horse, of course."
"Oh Xena," I say, pulling her close and stroking her dark, silken hair, "Im sure he forgave you."
"Are you kidding?" Xena thrusts back her shoulders and rubs a fist in the corner of her eye, smiling faintly. "With Nicklio? There is no forgiving. Theres just acceptance. Love. Complete and unconditional. Hades horses! Im sure he would have given me the damn beast if only Id asked for it!" She chuckles softly and turns back to the fragile-looking old man on the pallet.
"I never saw him again until you brought me here."
The night has worn on into morning, and Nicklio is getting weaker, I am sure of it. I have seen death in my travels with Xena, and I know enough to sense that it is in the room with us now, an uninvited guest, even as Elena turns from the fire and pours us a thick, hearty vegetable soup.
Xena had gone outside earlier to check on Argo, and she informed us that the snow had stopped falling. I peeked outside for myself, and marveled at the crisp, quiet beauty of the snow-bound forest, and allowed myself to feel a peacefulness here that I had not known before.
Perhaps it is the delicious scent of the soup, or the fresh burst of air from Xena tramping in and out, or perhaps it is just an awareness finally seeping through the otherworldly mists that enshroud him, but I see it, and Xena does too.
Nicklios eyes flutter. "Xenaaa ."
Xena is instantly at his side, and Elena and I stand back, moved by the sight, giving them space. "Hello my friend," she says, her voice breaking.
"Xena ." He tries again, struggling to raise himself up.
"No," she says, tenderly pressing him back onto the pallet. "Save your strength. Rest."
"I knew you would come," he says, clasping her hand in his, his words coming in a hoarse, throaty rasp.
"Wild horses couldnt keep me away," she says, forcing a smile, and suddenly I feel just a little bit badly about my ever having resented coming back here in the first place.
"Xena," he tries to speak, but what little energy he has left is flagging, that is apparent. "I havent much time, and there is something I must tell you," he falters, "something you must know."
"Sssh, later, old man," Xena chides him, "when youre stronger."
"No," Nicklio gasps. "There is no later, warrior, and you know it." He lifts his dark eyes to hers, and sees the truth reflected back in them. It comes as no surprise.
Xena is like a statue in the morning light, all still, noble, discerning. Finally, she leans down closer to Nicklio, and I can barely hear her voice as she says quietly, as if to a child, "Im listening."
I see Nicklios lips move, but if he is actually speaking, I cannot hear it. I wonder, if at this point between he and Xena, whether words are even necessary.
Finished, he looks at her through fever-glazed eyes.
Xena smiles and nods, but I can see the strain on her face, the mixed emotions there.
His mission completed, his final, healing task done, Nicklios head falls back, and relief pours through him. His eyes slip closed once more.
I can bear it no longer. I move to Xenas side and lay my hand on her shoulder, but already her face has become flat. Unreadable. In fact, were it not for the tear trickling from the corner of her eye, shimmering, captured by the fires glow, and my own awareness that the quiet of the room has suddenly deepened, I would not have even realized that Nicklio has gone.
It has been some days now since Xena lost her friend, days during which we left the land of snow behind and began to travel south to warmer climes, to Athens. The chill that had overtaken us on the road to Mount Nestos has faded away quickly under the welcoming heat of the sun, and soon we will forget it entirely.
The mind is a wonderful thing, I think, what it allows you to do.
We have stopped for the evening and made camp, in an open glade near the edge of a forest. Xena has passed this way before, she says, and the space meets her strict requirements in terms of seclusion and safety, along with a plentiful water supply nearby.
Dinner was pot luck literally. We could have had the dried fruit, cheese and bread we picked up from a farmer several days back, but instead Xena insisted that I unpack my cook-pot while she tried her luck in the surrounding wood. It was late, nearly dark in fact when she took off, but I should have known better. She returned in short order, grinning from ear to ear, with a plump rabbit that I immediately dressed and prepared in a simple stew.
We ate in a companionable, comfortable silence, as we have done so many times over the past few years, breaking the quiet from time to time to discuss our plans for Athens, what the road ahead might look like the weather.
But we did not speak of Nicklio.
We lie together now in the dim glow of our banked fire, and Xena holds me close, just that, nothing more, waiting for Morpheus to take us.
I have not asked her what Nicklio said to her, perhaps I never will. I will wait. If she chooses to tell me, she will do so.
A light breeze blows through our camp, and I hear the soft chime of the cook-pot that still hangs over the spit, cooling. I shiver a bit in the chilled night air, and I feel Xena run her hand up and down my arms, warming me.
"Better?" she buzzes in my ear.
"Yeah, thanks," I say, feeling a warm glow surge within me.
Xena has told me that when she loses a friend, she loses a part of herself as well, and I believe that. I have felt it, too. But I like to think that what our futures hold, our experiences, the people we meet, will replenish that loss. At least, I hope so.
I scoot closer to Xena, reveling in the natural heat of her, and I feel her breathing become deep and even. In the dim firelight, I can see the thick swath of her eyelashes at rest upon her cheeks. But there is no sleep for me this night, not yet.
There was a time when I feared death, but not any longer. Not since I looked it in the face and turned away from it. But I do fear for Xena, and perhaps there is no getting over that. Her path is the way of the warrior, after all.
I have thought about it, and I believe it is the Bard in me who fancies that when the day comes for one of us to cross over, that we will both do so together.
Actually, thats not exactly true, for I feel that even then, Xena will leave a heartbeat in advance, seeing that the pathway for me is safe and clear, in death as in life.
I do not fear that day.
Though the cool winds trip through our campsite, I am warm in the arms of my warrior, and my eyelids grow heavy at last. I allow my mind to drift to consider these last few weeks with Xena, and what has happened to us.
I think I have come to terms with the mystery which clouds so much of what was and still is the warrior princess. Each passing day a bit more of her is revealed to me, and I never tire of it.
But there is more, so much more, that she keeps hidden. Whether to protect me and my ideal of her, or to steel her own heart against the memory of it all, I cannot say. I do know she loves me with everything she is, and I her, and that is enough.
One day, I am sure of it, she will take me to that place where I so long to be, and allow me to touch her soul like no other has before, or ever will again.
Until that day, I will wait.
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