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by Xandrina,Font of Useless Knowledge
& Ellipsis Queen
Disclaimer: Being as this story contains characters (namely Xena, Gabrielle and Argo) owned by MCA Universal, I'd like to say that I mean no infringement by borrowing them. The other characters and the storyline are mine. Don't be too hard on them. Some of them have had very hard lives.
Being as this is a Xena story, expect a bit of violence, and a bit of blood. If either of these would disturb you, please don't read this one. I don't want to cause discomfort. This story is for the enjoyment of myself and anyone else who cares to read it, and is not for financial gain. If you find Sapphic undertones in this story, well, that's your right as a reader. Whether they are intended (or even really there), I'm not telling.
The woods at night are rarely silent. You can hear the night birds leaving on their hunts, the hunted rodents scurrying for cover. And then there are those noises that you can't identify. A sound you don't hear, but you sense in other ways. It was one of these non-sounds that brought Xena to her feet. Sword in hand, she slowly walked around the campfire. "Stay back, Gabrielle," she warned.
Gabrielle looked up from where she sat her mouth full of roasted rabbit. "Wha' id you hea'?" the blond girl mumbled.
"Shh . . . I don't know." Warily, Xena crept closer to the shadows. To Gabrielle's amazement, Xena abruptly dropped her sword arm to her side and stepped back. Emerging form the shadows was a woman dressed in flowing silk robes of blue and green. She carried no weapons, only a fur bag. "Good ev'n, friends. Might I share your fire?"
I was so disappointed in myself. Two weeks I traveled, following her, thinking about how I'd greet my other self, and that was the best I could do? Athena help me!
Gabrielle bounced to her feet with her customary enthusiasm. "Sure, come sit down." The stranger smiled, and turned to Xena for her reaction. Regretting her impulsiveness, Gabrielle did too, expecting to see a stern nod, or perhaps her best friend's eyes rolling heavenward. Instead, she found the warrior with a puzzled look on her face, seeming not to have heard question or answer. "It is OK, isn't it Xena?" Gabrielle asked. Xena nodded slowly.
Oh, I had an awful time trying not to stare right back. Her eyes, magnets to mine, were the same as I remembered. I could have just looked into her eyes for hours, reading thoughts fluttering by. She'd trained the rest of herself to give nothing away, but she couldn't hide anything in her eyes. But no, it was all the changes I really wanted to look for. Her clothes, still sere darkened leather, were nevertheless softer, more befitting the angel she was becoming than the demon she was fighting off. Her face, her hands, even the way she breathed. I know it sounds strange, but I felt it in her.
With a sweep of her gown, the woman settled in beside the fire, the floating silk bringing to mind a butterfly. Watching the other two watch each other, Gabrielle nervously cleared her throat. "Um, I'm Gabrielle, and this is my friend, Xena."
Not responding to the names as Gabrielle had expected, the self-invited guest looked up with obvious interest. "Gabrielle? I've heard of you. The Warrior-Bard who won't kill. That is so fascinating. I'd love to hear some of your stories." Gabrielle blushed at the implied praise. Her mind began to spin, sorting stories to tell. A thought suddenly came to mind. She paused a moment and looked again at the woman.
"What did you say your name was?"
"Oh, you can call me Dree."
I'm sorry. I didn't know what else to tell her. I normally go by Xana, or my full name, Xandrina . . . but then Xana and Xena? That could have gotten confusing. I love the accidental coincidence though, don't you?
Without a second thought, Gabrielle launched into her repertoire, continuing until the flames burned low. She didn't even notice when Xena continued to covertly study Dree from across the fire.
Narrator's note: Before I start again, I'd like to apologize for the problem in the first part. I hope it won't happen again. Will it, Xana?
Hey! I was there! It's my story, and I can jump in whenever I want to.
That's true, but you asked me to narrate. I'm not sure how well people are going to be able to follow this if you keep on breaking in on me.
Well . . . I'm not making any promises, Tasha, but I'll try to hold my comments to a minimum, OK?
OK. Wait a minute! The audience isn't supposed to know who's narrating! Stop messing with the program!
In the morning, Gabrielle woke to the smell of cooking food. Looking to the fire pit, she expected to see Xena silently eating, giving her friend a few moments of extra sleep and herself a bit of solitude. Instead, Xena was nowhere to be seen, and it was Dree who was cheerfully cooking breakfast. She had changed out of the silk from the night before, and was instead wearing a loose blouse and leather men's-style trousers.
I doubt they ever looked quite so good on a man!
"Good morning, Gabrielle. Are you hungry? I found some eggs and cooked them with the left-over rabbit from last night, or else I have pan bread."
"Um, sure," she answered, still looking around. An appreciative audience in the evening is one thing. A cheerful near stranger in camp in the all-to-early morning is another thing altogether. "Where's Xena?"
"She went off that way," Dree said, motioning over her shoulder with her knife. "She'll be back in a moment. Did you sleep well?" Dree pulled a wooden bowl from her bag and scooped eggs and a piece of fried bread onto it. Then, instead of handing it to the Bard, she held it out just as Xena walked into the clearing. Without a hint of surprise, Xena took the bowl and sat down to eat. Gabrielle looked bewildered. "How . . .?"
". . . did you sleep, Gabrielle?" Xena asked. Gabrielle blinked a few times in surprise, and nodded.
"Oh, fine, fine. Only a couple rocks." She took her own plate from Dree, and sat in mystified silence. Dree and Xena looked as though they'd been running the morning routine together for years, anticipating each other in everything. Gabrielle suddenly felt left out, not finding anything much to do but eat and watch. She dawdled over her meal while Xena and Dree broke camp. With a guilty start, she realized that she'd been watching breathlessly as Dree moved toward Argo, bridle in hand. *I don't want her to get hurt. I'd better say something,* she thought. However, instead of backing away, or kicking (as the war-horse was wont to do), Argo stood docilely while her bridle was adjusted. Then she nuzzled Dree's hand as she did with none but Xena. Gabrielle gasped. "Xena!" she hissed. "You're letting a total stranger near Argo?"
Xena glanced up from the saddlebag she was packing. "Argo seems to like her well enough. Works for me."
"But," Gabrielle began. Then she stopped. Bringing up the times, sometimes weeks at a time, when she had not been allowed to even touch Argo seemed childish. Besides, it was usually mutual. "Well, OK." *It'll be nice when it's just Xena and me again.*
As if reading that thought, Xena spoke. "Dree will be traveling with us for a while." Gabrielle was stunned. It wasn't like Xena to accept others so easily. "We're headed in the same direction, so we decided it would be best."
Oh, sure! There's a whole piece of the story missing! When I woke up, Xena was sitting against a tree, watching me. It was like she knew that she should know me, but she didn't know how or why. She also wasn't willing to ask. I considered just telling her, but I didn't feel I should just come out and say, "Hi. I guess you don't remember, but I saved your life once, and in doing so, I exchanged part of my essence with yours. We are now two parts of one whole." Uh huh. That would have gone over well, don't you think? So, instead, we just stared at each other. It was several minutes before I broke the silence. "Good morning. Did you sleep well?"
"I never do," she answered. I knew what she meant. I guess it comes with the territory. I nodded as I sat up. Even if you don't remember every face, every voice, they are all there. They wait until you are asleep and your mind calls them to haunt your dreams. It's not the real people; the ones that count have already forgiven you. These are just the ghosts that your mind captured as the people died, but that makes little difference when they won't stop calling. I hope no one who reads this can truly understand what I mean. "Which way are you traveling?" she asked me.
"West," I answered. Same as they were. Amazing coincidence. She said as much. She got kind of a half smile on her face. "There's a lot of scum along the roads round here. I'm not much company, but you seemed to like Gabrielle's stories. It will give her someone else to chatter to, if you'd like to travel with us." I know that she just wanted more time to figure me out, but I didn't care. I agreed quickly. I think that she realized then how much of her thoughts she had shown while talking with me, and it disturbed her. Not much for letting out secrets, you know. She stood, not looking at me anymore. I knew what she was thinking, and I'm afraid that I shook her up a bit when I voiced those thoughts for her. "I know that you need to think, and that you want to have a look around. Don't worry about breakfast. I'll take care of it, and stay here with Gabrielle too. We can talk more later." I think that was when she finally decided that she had to trust me. Don't ask me why. If anyone but she could read my thoughts so well (and she couldn't at the time), it would cause me serious consternation.
As for all those things that mystified Gabrielle, I felt Xena was there when I handed her the food, she knew I knew, and so she wasn't surprised. Around the camp, I just knew what she would want done to get ready to go, so I pitched in. Argo recognized the Xena in me, and that's why she reacted as she did. It's no big deal.
The road was hard-packed dirt, which you might think would be perfect for walking on. After hours of travel though, your feet ache from hitting that unrelenting ground. By early afternoon, even Gabrielle had given up on her half-hearted attempts to keep a conversation going. They walked along the forested path, Xena leading Argo, each keeping to their own thoughts. They all realized how good the travel had been when they stepped past the tree line into the blinding sun. "As if we needed this," Gabrielle grumbled. Her normal good spirits had been diminished all day, and what was left seemed to evaporate in the heat. "My feet hurt, I'm hot, I'm tired, the sun's too bright, and all the water is warm. I'm sick of walking, sick of stupid flies buzzing in my face, sick of this whole day. When are we stopping for lunch?" Before anyone could answer, she looked up ahead and what she saw managed to cheer her up a bit. "Oh, look! A farm! Maybe they'll give us some cool water from their well."
Xena smiled to herself. This appreciation for the little things in life was one of the things she liked best about Gabrielle. "All right, Gabrielle. We'll stop there for a while, if they'll let us."
Gabrielle quickened her pace, forcing the others to do likewise in order to keep up. She reached the well far ahead of them, and looked around. Although the house and yard were clean enough, it was obvious that it had been a while since the less-than-urgent work had been done. An herb garden in front lay neglected, many plants at the point where they needed to be harvested or else they would go to seed and be wasted. The roof was in need of a few new shingles, else with the next rain the damage would spread extensively. Fortunately, it hadn't rained in a while. Not a sound came from the house. "Hello?" Gabrielle called. "Is anyone here?" She was answered with silence. With a shrug, she turned to pull the water bucket from the well.
She nearly had the bucket within reach, close enough that she could smell it, when the rope caught on a sharp piece of stone lining the well. She tried pulling harder, but it wouldn't come loose without dumping out the bucket. Tippy-toeing, leaning over the edge, she could reach the catch with her fingertips. Just a little bit further . . . the rock that she was standing on shifted, causing her to lose her balance and tip head-first into the well.
With an astounding leap, Xena covered the twenty feet between them in time to grab Gabrielle's hips just as her feet flew skyward. Gabrielle gasped when she hit the wall, knocking her breath right out of her. Xena pulled her friend out, trying not to scrape her stomach on the rough well edge. Panting and bruised, Gabrielle emerged . . . holding the bucket of water.
Xena stared at Gabrielle in disbelief. Gabrielle looked at the bucket and back up. "Well, I wasn't just going to drop it!"
I admit it. I laughed.
I wasn't going to mention that.
Gabrielle wasn't hurt much, and their expressions were so funny . . . you would have laughed too.
The corner of Xena's mouth twitched. Maybe it was a smile, or maybe not. "Gabrielle . . ."
The bard didn't respond, as she was already drinking her fill of the fresh, cool water.
Xena looked around the yard, taking in every detail. "Well, if this place has been abandoned, it's been very recently."
"Huh," Gabrielle replied. "How can you tell? My mother would never let our home look like this."
"That's your mother." Xena ignored the look Gabrielle threw her way. "No, there's work that needs to be done, but not everything has been neglected. The herbs need to be picked, but they've been watered. That well's so deep because there's no water at the surface. Most of the plants would be dead by now if someone weren't caring for them. Oh, and also there's a bucket of fresh milk on the side porch."
Gabrielle's eyes went wide, and she went to look around the corner. "How did you know that was there?" she asked upon her return.
Xena just smiled. "I know many things." Her smile vanished as quickly as it came. "Watch out," she yelled as she leaped for Gabrielle and Dree. She grabbed them each around the waist, knocking the three of them over into a heap. Before anyone could make another sound, a large draft horse came barreling past, its eyes wide in fear, dragging a long farm rein and a broken piece of wood. It trampled much of the herb garden, as well as the ground that Dree and Gabrielle had been standing on moments before.
"Wow, that was close. Thank you, Xena. I didn't even hear it coming," Dree said. She was still sitting on the packed dirt as Xena bounced to her feet, and helped Gabrielle up.
"What do you think scared the poor thing so bad?" Gabrielle asked, as Xena in turn extended a hand to Dree.
"I don't know, but I'm going to go take a look," Xena replied. She walked quickly off in the direction the horse had come from, her companions in close pursuit.
The horse's backtrail was easy to follow, beginning in a nearby field. About half of the field had been plowed up, the furrows uneven, but apparently from lack of skill, not effort. At the edge of the worked portion lay the shattered remains of the plow. Its center brace was obviously the piece of wood that had been tangled in the horse's rein. Beside the plow was a crumpled blue form that resolved itself into a human shape as they got closer. The woman was sitting on the ground, bent over and holding her ankle. "Did you twist it?" Xena asked, as she crouched down beside the woman.
The woman looked up, pain blanching her face a yellow-white. "No," she gasped. "Snake bite."
Xena looked up sharply. "Here," she said holding out her arms. "Now, don't move any more than you have to. Hold very still." She easily picked up the small woman, and quickly carried her back to the house. Gabrielle ran ahead a bit to push open the front door. Xena followed her in, and placed the woman gently on a sturdy table at one end of the room. "Gabrielle, see if there's any hot water by the fire. Dree. . ."
"Here they are, Xena," Dree said, holding out a handful of slightly crushed herbs from the garden as well as Xena's medical pouch. Xena looked at her strangely, but took the things from her without a word.
Just because I'm immortal doesn't mean I can't know a little bit about healing, you know.
Gabrielle came over with a pot of water. "Here, Xena."
Xena nodded her thanks as she took some of the leaves off of one plant, the roots of another, and the entirety of a third, rolled them briskly between her hands, and placed them in a large square of linen. Then she opened her bag and pulled out a brown powder, and a small jar of oil. She put a pinch of the powder and a few drops of oil on the crushed plants, folded up the cloth, and placed it in the steaming water. Pulling out her dagger, she grasped the woman's boot, and when it wouldn't slip off, cut it off. The puncture wounds were bright spots against the shiny red skin. The woman's leg was swollen to nearly double its normal size, and there were purple streaks beginning to form around the bite marks. "I thought so," Xena mumbled. "Poisonous." Dree brought over a lit candle and moved to hold the woman by the shoulders. Xena ran the dagger's point through the flame a couple times before quickly slashing over the bite. The woman cried out in agony. "Gabrielle, hold this," Xena instructed as she tied a band snugly just below the woman's knee. "Now, don't let it get loosened." Gabrielle took the ends and held them tightly. Xena grasped the leg firmly, sliding her hands down toward the wound. Blood oozed out of the cuts. The woman gasped, and then was silent. A second, and a third time, Xena "milked" the poison out, and then placed the herb poultice over the injury. "Now all we can do is wait. How's she doing?"
"Out cold," Dree said.
"Good. Best thing for her right now."
Gabrielle began looking around the small house. The large main room that they were in was a full half of the house, with the table that the woman was laying on at one end, a bench and pair of chairs at the other end, and a large fireplace in the center of the interior wall. That made sense, since then the whole house could be heated with only one fire. There were curtained doorways on either side of the fireplace. Gabrielle looked behind the one on the right, and found a well-kept kitchen. If the outside of the house looked neglected, this room was where attention was lavished. Everything was spotless, the pots and pans lined up on pegs on the wall, all within easy reach. There was a feeling of love and warmth that had nothing to do with the fire. She must love to cook, Gabrielle thought.
The other room was the bedroom. She pulled back the curtain to peek in. The room was dominated by a large, beautifully made bed. It looked as though the woman had neglected to smooth out the blankets, which were in a rumpled mess. Gabrielle stepped forward, thinking to do the woman a favor. As she got closer, she realized her mistake. The blankets were covering a man. He appeared to be sound asleep, but as Gabrielle placed her hand on the bedpost, he opened his eyes. "Amalia?"
Gabrielle gasped in surprise. When no immediate answer came to him, the man struggled to sit up. It was then that Gabrielle realized that there was something seriously wrong with him. It wasn't just grogginess that made him struggle; his legs did not move on their own. He was lifting and turning himself with his arms alone. When she looked at his face, she saw that he was also blinded. "Amalia?" he called out again, his voice a bit louder this time.
"Oh. Oh," Gabrielle said, putting her hand on his shoulder to steady him. He flinched as though she'd hit him. "I'm sorry." She pulled back just as sharply. "I'm . . . um . . . my name is Gabrielle. Amalia, that's your wife?" The man nodded mutely. "She was working in the field behind the house? And she got hurt. My friends and I found her and we brought her back here to try and help her."
"What happened to her?" he asked hoarsely.
"A . . . a snake bit her . . . on the leg." At his open-mouthed look of horror, she reached out again, stopping herself just before she touched him. "No, no, don't worry. Xena's the best healer I know. Amalia will be all right, I know it."
Not placated, the man continued to struggle towards the edge of the bed. He swung his limp legs over the edge, and used his very powerful arms to ease the rest of his body down. Then he started to pull himself across the floor to the doorway.
Gabrielle didn't know what to do. "Xena," she called. "Xena?"
The warrior was at the doorway in an instant, nearly stepping on the man bellycrawling towards her. "What's going on?" she growled.
"This is Amalia's . . . the woman's, husband. He didn't believe me when I told him that you are taking care of her. Oh, Xena, help him!" Gabrielle waved her hands in obvious distress at seeing the man look so helpless.
Xena stepped back, holding away the curtain. "She's over on the table," she said. "She's sleeping now, which is the best thing that she can be doing at this point. Don't jar her." The man grunted an acknowledgment, and continued forward.
Gabrielle came over to the Warrior Princess' side. "Why didn't you help him?" she asked.
"I did. I told him where his wife is."
"No, I mean why didn't you carry him over to her . . . or put him back in bed and tell him that you'd bring her to him when she was a bit better?"
"What? And humiliate him? Look at him, Gabrielle. That man's a fighter. It would hurt him worse than any of those wounds ever did if someone were to treat him like a child, to carry him around or 'put him back to bed' . I wouldn't do that to him." Xena placed a hand on her friend's shoulder. "Besides, that's his wife in there. I couldn't keep him from her if I wanted to."
Gabrielle nodded in realization. "Just like nobody could keep me from you if it were you in there," she murmured.
"Her breathing is steady, and her heartbeat is strong. I think that we caught the poison in time." Xena announced this to everyone in the room, but especially to the man reclining on the lounging chair beside the table. He had, as Xena expected, made his way to his chair and seated himself without any assistance requested or required.
"Thank you, Xena," he responded. "I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been here to help. I'm not in much of a condition that I could have . . . " He flipped his hand in front of his face, as though the movement could somehow wipe away his scars.
Xena reached out and grasped his arm in traditional warrior style. "You're welcome. I'm just glad that I was in the right place at the right time."
"Um . . ." Gabrielle hesitated, "If you don't mind me asking . . . what happened to you . . . um . . ."
"Oh. My name is Collin. I'm sorry that I didn't introduce myself sooner. I was a bit distracted." He quirked his mouth into what could have been a smile. "No, Gabrielle. I don't mind your asking. After four years, I'm used to what I've become, if not exactly happy with it.
"This farm was my father's before me, and his father's before him. It was always my dream to live here with my wife, growing things until I died, and then my son would take over." He reached out and found his wife's limp hand. He laced his fingers with hers before he went on. "Unfortunately, dreams are sometimes just that. My father was getting old, and I was anxious to prove to him what I could do. I was working in the far field when Trasin, one of the men from the village, came riding past. He stopped, yelled to me that there was an army approaching, and that I should come and help the people fight. I ran off with him without a second thought, bringing only my scythe with me.
"I don't know what I was thinking. I wasn't a soldier. I guess I just wanted to protect my wife, my father, and my land. Anyway, when I got to the village, most everyone was there, armed with whatever they could find. I was one of the better prepared. That should have warned me right there. I asked around, trying to see if anyone was forming a plan, where we were going to defend ourselves from, or if we even knew who was attacking and why. All I could find out was that it was the Warrior Witch."
"The Warrior Witch?" Gabrielle interrupted. "Who is that?"
"I don't know. I'd never heard of the Warrior Witch before either, but that's what the village magistrate called her. He said that she had her men under a magic spell and she fought like Ares himself, but he wouldn't say anything more. That scared us, you know? Half of us were ready to give her whatever she wanted if it would just make her leave us alone, but the magistrate told us that we couldn't. He said that she would just kill us all and take it anyway. The only way to protect our families was to fight. By the time the first group came, I was expecting to see . . . I don't know, a harpy or a hydra leading the army."
"What did she look like?" Gabrielle asked.
I wish she hadn't asked that. I was watching Xena the whole time, and with each passing moment, she got a little paler, a little more stricken. The story was just a little too familiar.
"I never got to see the Witch. I was too busy fighting off her men. They certainly fought like they were spellbound. They were vicious. Didn't think I could kill a man, and suddenly I had to. I squinted my eyes and imagined harvesting to be able to do it, but I managed to kill a dozen or
so before someone slashed me across the face with a sword. I think I got him too as I fell to the ground, but I'm not sure. I didn't think that anything could be more painful than losing my eyes until that horse ran across my back. The last thing I remember was thinking that I was going to die without telling my wife one last time that I loved her.
"I woke up, and I felt my heart sink. I knew that I must be in Tartarus because I was in so much pain, and that I was going to be punished with blindness for killing those men. You can't imagine how overjoyed I was when I found out that I was lying on the side of the road under a little tent and tied to a plank. My dear Amalia had come after me. She found me still alive, and she was taking me home.
"Father was sick, and all of the other men had been killed so Amalia had strapped me to a piece of a door, and was slowly dragging my body back to our house all by herself. She wouldn't even leave me long enough to get the horse and have it pull me. I will always love her for that." Collin gave Amalia's hand a quick squeeze. "She kept me alive for the week it took to get back, and for every day after that, even when I just wanted to give up and die.
"Father was here for us both as well. He went back to running the farm, although he had to cut back, and worked until the day that he died. That was this last winter. I do what I can, but that's not very much. Since then, Amalia has been trying to do everything herself. I was afraid that something would happen to her." He brought her cool fingers to his lips and kissed them. "And that's my poor life."
To be continued.