One evening, as I was untying the packs from Argo, I found that a wineskin had been punctured. The smell clinging to the skin was foul and sharp and I couldn't remember smelling anything like it except at a tavern. It was a potent alcohol, had to be–– and apart from picking up a skine of malt from an inn, we never carried alcohol with us. It was in the fourth season of my traveling with the warrior and I was at that place where I didn't know everything about her habits, but I thought I did. That was a dangerous combination, as in being in such a state of mind, the warrior always managed to surprise me. So, naturally, when I smelled the acrid liquid, I couldn't help but think Xena was hiding something from me.
I had heard about warlords and soldiers taking to drink to quell some of their more violent memories or to wipe their dirtied consciences clean. And I wasn't so oblivious to think that Xena didn't suffer from her past––she did suffer, so incredibly––so I decided to confront her right then and there.
From Argo, I walked the few paces back to the campfire, our bedrolls under one arm, the offending wineskin under the other. Xena sat cross-legged on the ground, facing the glow of the fire and the flickering shadows on the darker trees beyond. At the base of the nearest rock, I unceremoniously dropped the bedrolls to the ground. Xena had taken all her weapons out and laid them in particular positions on the dirt before her; it looked to be like she was reading tarot cards. To her left, near her knee, sat her sword; above lay her boot dagger; in the center, her chakram; to the right, her whip and breast dagger, well my breast dagger that she confiscated from me earlier. She was studying them intently, looking for nicks, scratches, tears. As I came up beside her, she looked up and her mouth twitched, like she wanted to smile. It was in her eyes anyway.
"Ah, Gabrielle. Did you get that skin? I need it."
"You mean this skin?" I hold up the one I had carried over; it looked deflated and pathetic. Xena's face fell.
"Guess I'll have to pick up some more at the next village we pass. No matter, got some on my person, anyway." Xena fishes in her breastplate and retrieves a small flask. I watch in horror. How could I have missed it? Xena's a drunk!
"Ah, Xena?" I stall her. She looks up once more, taking in my uneasy expression.
"What is it Gabrielle? You didn't eat those berries again, did you? I told you the red ones are no good––"
"No, I didn't eat any berries. Look, we have to talk."
"What's wrong?" Xena's face softens and she turns more to face me. All right, I think, I'm doing this for her own good.
"Listen, we've been traveling together for quite some time now, right?"
"And we've become quite good friends, haven't we?"
"Get to the point, Gabrielle."
"The point is, I care for you." I put my hand on Xena's forearm to emphasize my sincerity. It might have been my imagination, but I think I felt her move closer to me, leaning in.
"You do?" Her eyes are left unguarded, and for the first time I see her. I see the real Xena, not the warrior, not the seductress, not the villain, but the girl unformed from a small Grecian village who had a tavern-owner for a mother and a missing father and two loyal brothers. A woman who had faults and weaknesses, who had been hurt by countless men and women who only sought to profit from her beauty or her skill. A woman who had been beaten down by circumstance and kept down by her own darknesses, who had spoken with gods as equals and conquered whole nations. I also saw the strength in her, the ability to take that tortured past and mold it by her own sheer will into something good, something for a greater purpose than her own desire. And that took courage. I was suddenly rendered speechless and that, my friends, is quite a feat.
"Gabrielle?" That sheet of ice returns, frozen over her blue stare, refracting and distorting all that I had seen in an iridescent curtain.
"I do, Xena. I do care about you––" I eye the flask in her hand and steel myself in turn, "Which is why I need to ask you something."
"Well, go on."
"What's in that flask, Xena?"
She looks to the bottle in her hand, glances back to me and furrows her brow. "Some grain alcohol, why?"
I struggle not to cry out. "What exactly is grain alcohol?"
"It's distilled from rice in the Orient. About the purest form you can get."
So, she's into the hard stuff! This is becoming worse by the second. Where do I begin?
"Listen, Xena," I lean closer to her and place my fingertips on the line of her jaw. It feels firm and finely etched in my hand, and I can follow the movement of her throat as she swallows. I can feel her breath on my face, and in the moment of quiet that I allow, her eyes flutter closed and she's leaning closer still. Sensing this is the moment, I come out with it. "You don't need that anymore. You're stronger than that and I'll help you. I'll always be here for you––"
She pulls away quickly, "What?".
"What do you mean, I don't need that anymore?"
"Well, I'll just have to come right out and say it then, won't I? Your drinking, Xena. You have a drinking problem!"
"I have a what?"
"Don't deny it. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem," I say, my hands in front of me in case she decides to deliver any swift blows. Denial makes people violent. I remember that from Ezekias, the town drunk in Potedaeia; he used to start throwing chairs when the barman kicked him out at night; he simply refused to believe the tavern was closing.
"Gabrielle, I don't have a drinking problem."
"Really? Then what is the alcohol for?" I say, more accusatorially than I intended. Xena gives me an incredulous look and gestures to her chakram. She picks it up and holds it firmly in the palm of her large hand. Oh gods, this is it! She's finally going to snap and kill me!
"The grain alcohol, which by the way is near impossible to drink, is used on my chakram. When I oil the metal it gets slippery, the alcohol depletes the oil so I don't loose my grip when I catch the damn thing."
"Oh," is all I can manage to say.
"You thought I was a drunk?" Her eyes are dancing now, glistening is suppressed laughter. Suddenly, the sincere moment that passed between us earlier, flashed into my mind.
"Well, what did you think I meant?"
Xena suddenly becomes something that I had never seen in her before: She blushes, actually blushes. She acts like a bashful young woman, avoiding the stare of a new lover. I suddenly understand completely and the knowledge, rather than sending my head into a sea spin and my stomach into sailor's knots, makes me feel grounded and in control and powerful. And with this new power, comes a sense of responsibility for the woman sitting across from me: I must never hurt her; I must stand by her; and I must be gentle with her. She may be the toughest person I know, a woman who can wield a sword with the skill and thrust of ten men, but she is emotionally one of the most fragile. So, I choose to disregard that blush and relieve the pressure on the ex-warlord.
"Well, it doesn't matter. I'm sorry that I thought you were a drunk, Xena."
That was just enough time to regain her composure and she smirks at me. "It's all right, Gabrielle. But, next time, try talking to me first before you reach any conclusions about my character."
I agreed, but I know now that she hadn't got it all right. I do know her, better than she knows herself. And I also know my place, which is right beside her.