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By Tim Boothby
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo are the property of MCA/Universal. Anything else in this story is, for better or worse, a product of my imagination and is not intended to infringe on their rights. This story is strictly a non-profit endeavor. Any reproduction or other use of the story without my consent is prohibited.
VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
CREDITS: I stumbled onto fan fiction by accident, through the fans of the many incarnations of Star Trek. I was introduced to Xena Fan Fiction through M. Parnell's story "Origins" (if you haven't read any of M's work, go do it and quit wasting your time on my stuff!). It left me with a taste for more, and I have read some incredibly well written stories since. Thanks again to M for teasing me into giving this a try. Enjoy!
THE Hippocratic OATH
I swear by Apollo the physician, by Asclepius, Hygeia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath:
"To consider dear to me as my parents him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and if necessary to share my goods with him; to look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art if they so desire without fee or written promise; to impart to my sons and the sons of the master who taught me and the disciples who have enrolled themselves and have agreed to the rules of the profession, but to these alone the precepts and the instruction. I will prescribe regimen for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone. To please no one will I prescribe a deadly drug nor give advice, which may cause his death. Nor will I give a woman a pessary to procure abortion. But I will preserve the purity of my life and my art. I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art. In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or with men, be they free or slaves. All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal. If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all men and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my lot."
"Gabrielle!" Xena's voice rang in panic and alarm as her friend was driven from her feet by a large man with an evil looking spear.
The young bard struggled bravely, attempting to get to her feet. She couldn't get any traction on the loose gravel, and her bloody left leg refused to respond. She saw the spear rise and then someone was before her, blocking her view for a moment. To her surprise it was not Xena, but a man in a dirty white robe. She saw the cruelly designed point of the spear emerge from his side, soaking the robe in blood and shredding the garment. The man scarcely cried out, but resolutely remained between the warrior and the bard. Using her staff she forced herself to her feet.
A familiar battle cry reached her ears, as the chakram struck across her attacker's helmet. His eyes rolled up into their sockets and he crumpled. Xena made short work of the remaining two and staggered across the small clearing toward her friend. Her hand clutching her bloody side.
The old man rose to his knees and feverishly pulled implements from one of the many bags upon his person. "Sit here," His voice ordered quietly. Without knowing why, Gabrielle obeyed. He removed a stopper from a vial and poured from it liberally across his hands, then cleaned them on a clean cloth. He similarly treated her wound. "Nicked the muscle," He commented lifelessly. He chose a tiny needle and threaded fine sinew suture into it. With deftness that amazed both women he stitched the muscle exposed by broken skin. He cleaned the area again and carefully, but with the same fantastic speed, closed the wound completely.
"I didn't feel a thing," Gabrielle mumbled in amazement.
"I am glad." He poured liquid from another flask across his hands and wiped them on a clean cloth. "Let me see," He gestured to Xena's side.
"It'll be fine," She answered coolly.
"Nonsense," He chastised her quietly. "You have taken a nasty cut."
"I'll bind it until I can tend to it," She asserted.
He withdrew the implements from his bag and cleaned and bound her wound for travel. "Clean it with this, it will ease the pain and aid in pain and healing." With that he rose and began to walk away.
Next he went to the unconscious man that had injured Gabrielle. He rolled open an eyelid and peered closely. "You will live, but you will not enjoy it for a while." He placed a few dried herbs under his tongue.
"That man tried to kill you," Xena commented as she tried to help him to his feet.
"I know." He moved to the next man and treated his wounds. The two women watched as the old man frantically went from man to man, treating the wounded and preparing the dead for what was beyond. Xena watched silently as he placed a small coin in the mouth of the last dead man, to pay for his ride across the river Styx. Then he rose and left the glade.
"You're hurt," Gabrielle protested.
"Yes," He answered simply, beginning to walk up the slope toward the woods.
"We can help you," Xena called to him, she could plainly see that he was going to bleed to death if something wasn't done very soon.
"It is not necessary," The lifeless voice came weakly, as he continued to climb the long hill.
Xena boosted Gabrielle onto Argo's back and followed him, catching up quickly. "If you don't let me help you, you will die."
"Perhaps," He looked at her for a second. "Perhaps that would be best."
Grimly he continued up the hill, finally cresting it and walking down the other side toward a stream. She studied him closely. Tall and thin to the point of emaciation, his eyes were dark and lifeless, long snarled gray hair. Everything about him screamed of a man that took no care of his health or well being. She noticed his hands, far cleaner than the rest of him, the nails were meticulously cleaned and trimmed.
He stopped by the stream for a moment and drank quickly before following the bank downstream. He was soon staggering noticeably, but continued doggedly toward a dense growth of trees. He was sweating heavily, his face deathly white as he entered the trees, following a narrow path he entered a small clearing that overlooked the stream and a small pool. He surveyed his surroundings with contentment before he collapsed.
"Xena," Gabrielle called by reflex, but her friend was already there. She rolled him carefully onto his back and ripped open the robe. The spearhead had shredded the skin of his side, but appeared to have slid over the ribs. His side was a torn mess but that alone was not necessarily life threatening, to a healthy person. In his poor condition and with the amount of blood lost his chances were remote.
Gabrielle used her staff to cover the short distance between them. Argo trailed close behind. Xena fumbled through his bags and found the implements necessary. She quickly used the flask that he had given her to clean his wound. Using his strange curved needles she began the process of closing his wounds. It took a long time, but she finally bound the spider's web of stitches under clean bandages.
"Will he live?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
"I'm not sure," Xena answered honestly. "He was in terrible condition before, but now..." She didn't finish the sentence. They made him comfortable upon a pallet of blankets and leaves then set about making camp. Xena continually telling Gabrielle to sit, and Gabrielle continued to help her make camp.
As Gabrielle made a stew from their stores Xena looked through the bags that he had carried over his shoulders. They were heavy and sturdy, filled with the largest collection of healing implements and medicines that she had ever seen, with the possible exception of Hippocrates, and even he might not recognize some of it. He carried little food but several flasks of water, no clothes, little that would suggest a normal traveler.
With such a great store at hand she began to mix the herbs necessary to aid in his recovery. Among the many items in his kit she found a feeding horn. After insuring that the mixture was smooth and thin she deftly opened his mouth. The horn was positioned to and slid into his throat. His body tensed as the airway was closed for a second, but she resolutely poured the mixture into him. After it was removed his chest rose with a jagged breath and he began to again breathe normally.
They built the fire close to him. Gabrielle limped over to help Xena undress and clean the injured man. Both were appalled by his condition. His body was a collection of jagged scars. Evidence of past wounds that were barely treated, if at all. Another piece for this puzzle. He was obviously very accomplished in the treatment of wounds, but took so little care of his own.
Xena shivered slightly, an unconscious reaction. Among his other difficulties he was suffering from lice and a large collection of infected scabs. How could a person mistreat themselves so badly? A few moments search left her in possession of a razor from his effects. She carefully began to trim his gray and matted hair, then carefully shaved him. His clothes and the removed clumps of hair were burned. He lay naked before the fire, still dirty but starting to look presentable. They warmed water by the fire and bathed him carefully. Finally, they covered him with an old blanket to sleep... and heal.
"How's your side?" Gabrielle lifted Xena's arm to examine the bandage.
"I'm fine," She insisted, staring at the human puzzle before her.
"Right," Came the gentle sarcasm of her reply. "Lets get you out of that armor and leather and see about that."
Xena endured her friend's affectionate bullying. She soon sat in her shift as Gabrielle carefully cleaned the area. "It'll need stitches," She informed Xena.
Xena nodded and fetched the necessities, saving the Bard from walking on her injured leg. She dutifully sat on a log and stared at the old man while Gabrielle slowly and patiently closed the gash above her hip. "This doesn't hurt, does it?"
"No, that cleanser that he gave me must deaden the pain."
"Mine too," Gabrielle sighed as she tied the final knot.
"There," Xena smiled at her warmly. "Good as new."
"Right," again came the sarcasm.
Xena smiled again and helped Gabrielle toward the fire. The stew was nearly done. Xena enjoyed a story from the happily stirring cook as it completed. Xena set aside a portion to cool as the two women ate in relative silence. When she had completed Xena carefully mashed the savory chunks into a paste that was diluted with cool water. She carried it to the sleeping enigma and, as she had done with the healing mixture, she fed him.
His immediate needs seen to, Xena bullied Gabrielle into her bed and set about tidying up the camp. Finally she went to her bed. She turned a few times to get comfortable with the sore hip her eyes finally came to rest on Gabrielle's face. Her eyes were wide open and staring at the man across the fire.
"Why did he do that," She finally wondered aloud.
"He took that spear for me," Gabrielle's voice cracked faintly. "A total stranger and he was ready to die for me."
"I don't know why, but I'm grateful." Xena admitted quietly. She looked deeply into the bard's eyes. Gabrielle smiled warmly at her.
It was too close; Xena recalled the incident in her mind. The sudden ambush, there were several of them and all professionals. Gabrielle had performed some of the best staff work of her life but her opponent was a veteran with years of experience in the rough and tumble style of a highwayman. His spear was heavy, the head a collection of razor sharp spikes. It had opened her leg nearly to the bone. Xena was hard pressed by the others and then Gabrielle was down. She saw the spear descend, and the old man came from nowhere to stop it with his own body. She shuddered at how close that had been. Gabrielle saw her reaction.
"Pssst!" She looked to Gabrielle. A tuft of blonde hair and two blue eyes were all that that she could see of her, peering out from under a raised gap in the blanket.
"What," Xena snapped from the vision.
"I'm fine, go to sleep."
Xena smiled in spite of herself and raised an eyebrow, trying to recapture a bit of the Warrior Princess facade. "Good night, Gabrielle."
"Night, Xena." The blanket dropped and the little bard was completely gone from sight.
But the Warrior lay awake for a while longer, pondering this puzzle. Her gratitude was not easily earned, but this strange old man had done it. She saw, over and over, the lifeless look upon his face as he unflinchingly took the thrust that could have ended the life more precious to her than her own. Xena owed this man a debt that she could never repay.
They settled into an easy routine over the next few days. Gabrielle and the Old Man needed time to recover. Xena alternated her time between their care and some long overdue mending of her equipment. Gabrielle spent most of her time with her scrolls, but took long breaks to try and help Xena, each time finding herself firmly escorted back to her bed. The old man never woke, but continually moaned and thrashed in his bedding. On a few occasions his eyes opened and stared feverishly at the open sky. He raved in several languages, often many at once, Xena tried in vain to catch any glimpse of the man's mind through his words, but he was far too elusive.
She rose early on their fourth day in the small glade. She was surprised to find that her side was troubling her very little. That odd elixir coupled with her own amazing powers of healing made a potent combination. She bathed quickly in the stream and dressed in a simple tunic. The old man was still unconscious; a quick check left her worried. His color was better but he was still comatose. She prepared yet another infusion of herbs and broth and fed him. She was preparing him eight meals per day now. Slowly increasing their size, she was fighting to force enough sustenance into the frail body to aid his healing and put some badly needed weight on his skeletal form. She was encouraged as his ribs began to slowly disappear from view.
His fever had broken and he slowly began to stir, his eyes flickering. Encouraged, Xena rolled back an eyelid and was taken aback by what she saw. His eye was glowing, only the white was visible. His stirring turned into thrashing, guttural noises burst from his throat. Across the camp Gabrielle threw off her blankets and struggled over to them. She and Xena gently restrained him. The noises slowly became words.
"No Asclepius, let me die." The voice was pleading, then turned harsh. "Damn you, let me die."
With a burst of strength that amazed them both he broke free of their restraint and staggered to the shallow pool at the edge of the clearing falling face first into the water. He slowly rolled over, his eyes open and blank. He exhaled explosively as his whole body went limp. The two women looked to each other quickly fearing the worst, then bolted to the water to help him. Xena stood beside him, ready to support him if needed, but the wasted figure floated easily. She could see the angry red of old injuries fade, and the scabs of more recent ones loosened and drained.
Xena left the water for a moment and returned with a pungent herbal soap and cloths and began to gently bathe the old man. They carefully removed the sickly colored scabs to reveal healthy pink new skin. Judging from the smell of the soap, it should take care of any remaining lice... for that matter it was strong enough to keep most people away. Another piece to the puzzle, but none of them would fit together. As she finished her ministrations his eyes flickered open.
"You're going to be fine," Xena favored him with a rare smile.
The old man stared deeply into her blue eyes to find the lie that he knew must be there, and when he couldn't find it, he wept bitterly. Xena gently carried him back to his pallet and laid him down, Gabrielle covered him carefully with a blanket.
"He's asleep," Xena felt the pulse at his throat, it was now much stronger.
"How could anyone want to die so badly," Gabrielle asked quietly.
"Many reasons," Xena answered simply, her eyes distant with some unwelcome memory.
Without realizing it Gabrielle placed her hand upon her friend's shoulder, the simple contact banished memories before they could flood back over the Warrior. She tilted her head until her cheek touched the back of Gabrielle's hand, wordless gratitude from a person of few words.
"He's going to need more than we have here," Xena thought aloud. "He needs to regain a lot of weight." She changed quickly into her normal garb. "Any requests for lunch?"
"Nutbread," Gabrielle smiled.
"I don't think that I've ever tracked wild nutbread, but perhaps a bit of venison?"
"Well, if that's all you can find." Gabrielle sighed.
Xena smiled warmly at her and left the camp, leading Argo. "She's smiling more and more." The bard said happily.
"Perhaps she has good reason," The tired voice of the man told her.
"You're awake," She knelt by him and fussed with his bedding and makeshift pillow to make him comfortable. The attention seemed only to embarrass him. "Yes child, where are my clothes?"
"Well, they were infested and blood stained... they were a mess," She blushed. "We had to burn them."
"You burned my clothes."
"Don't be child," He rose slowly and dug through his bags, pulling a long piece of cloth from one. He carefully settled the blanket over his shoulders. "Who are you," He asked as he deftly cut the cloth into pieces, the pattern apparently in his mind alone, and began to sew.
"My name is Gabrielle, my friend is Xena."
"The Bard and the Warrior Princess?"
"Yes, you've heard of us?"
"Yes child, I have heard many stories."
"Good I hope."
"For the most part, I have heard the stories that others claim to have borrowed from you. Tales of the atonement of a warlord. Are you such a great believer in redemption?" His eyes riveted upon hers.
"Yes, I've seen what a person can become, despite their past."
"Yes, I suppose that you have." He looked down to the needle in his hands as it deftly continued its work. "Will you tell me your stories of redemption?"
"Yes," Gabrielle reached forward and carefully took the work from his hands. "But only if you rest while I talk." She watched him lie back down. She was about to begin a story when she realized that she didn't know his name "Where are my manners, what is your name?"
"I have no name," His voice dripped with self-loathing. "I do not deserve one."
"A story, please child."
When Xena returned to the camp a few hours later she found Gabrielle regaling the old man with stories. She sat quietly for a few moments and listened. Xena smiled at the little bard as she told yet another stranger of her exploits. She dismounted and unloaded half of a dressed out deer and a large sack from behind Argo's saddle Still listening she carefully stripped the gear from the horse and groomed her.
Gabrielle turned to her friend and smiled as she carried the goods into the camp and concluded her story. The old man sat back up and continued his work as Gabrielle went to help Xena. "Half of a deer, and a bag, that must have been a strange hunt."
"I did a bit of trading at a village down the road." Xena reached into the bag and presented her friend with a cloth wrapped bundle.
"Nutbread!" The bard sniffed the bundle happily. Xena laughed at the growl that suddenly burst from her friend's stomach. She reached in again and removed a white robe, similar to the one that the old man wore before. She crossed the camp and held it out to him.
"It will not be necessary, but I thank you for the thought."
Xena looked with some curiosity to the cloth that the old man was sewing, her eyes widened slightly. "This would be more comfortable," She persisted, desperation in her voice.
"But this, is more appropriate." He insisted. Xena backed away from him, bumping into Gabrielle.
"What is it, Xena?"
"He's making a new robe for himself," Xena said quietly.
"Well, if he prefers to make his own clothing..."
"He's making it from a burial shroud."
Gabrielle looked at the cloth, then the man patiently sewing. "Let's go make lunch," She said in an insistent tone.
As they butchered the remaining venison Gabrielle told her friend of the discussion that they had while she was gone. Xena listened as she placed a large roast on a spit to broil. More pieces to the puzzle, but there was still no picture in evidence.
He had finished his robe by lunch, after much persistence on their part, he joined the two women to eat.
Finally the young bard set aside her plate. "Everyone should have a name," Gabrielle pressed her earlier conversation.
"It is part of who we are," She insisted.
"Dear child, I am not someone that wants to be, even in small part, myself. What kind of name would be appropriate to that." His eyes were serious. "Xena is a strong name, but beautiful, so well suited to her. Gabrielle, sweet and lyrical, full of life and wonder and no less of beauty, it captures your very essence. There is no name that can be fitted to me, at least none that one so fair should ever hear."
"How about healer?" Xena suggested.
"Perhaps, but it covers so little. Only what you want to see. Even you, Xena, could not comprehend what I have done. You are blinded by misplaced gratitude."
She looked deeply into his eyes; they were dark and bottomless. So dead. She met his gaze evenly. "I can't accept that."
"Why, because I helped your friend, or because you were a warlord?"
"Dear child, I cannot help but envy you."
"You envy a butcher?"
"No, dear child, I envy you. Whatever you may have been in your life, you are no longer. That past may have lead you to death and ruin but there are things far worse in this world." He pointed to Gabrielle. "Look at this sweet child. She is a flower, flourishing with you. She could not live in darkness; she would not stand at your side if you were all that you feared. I can attract no flowers. There is nothing within me for one so fair of spirit to cling to, and I envy you that."
"What could you have ever been to hate yourself so badly." Gabrielle asked quietly. A long silence followed, his face a mixture of conflicting emotions. He finally shifted uncomfortably.
"A defiler," He hissed, self-loathing dripped from his voice. "Destroyer of lives, render of flesh, Death incarnate. I was a torturer."
Neither woman could hide their reactions, Gabrielle's face paled in horror. Xena recovered quickly behind a mask of a warrior.
"Yes," His voice grated. "They had better names for it, but no matter what you call it, that was what I did. Once a noble Roman, a patrician to the manor born. My parents were so disappointed when I chose to be a surgeon, but they became proud when I joined my brothers in the legions. Proud eagles marched before us, what a farce. We struck across Iberia and Gaul and Brittany and smashed all into submission. When their armies could take the field no more they fought us in small groups. Find a few and kill them. They were whittling away at the outposts, the men afraid to leave the encampments. Then a tribune came to me, showed me the bodies of our dead, hacked miserably, they died slowly... one of them my brother, Trajanus. They had disemboweled him, and then cut his hands off. When the patrol found him he was trying to push his guts back in. with bleeding stumps."
His fists clenched before him, tears ran freely down his face. "They came to me as I prepared Trajanus for his grave. I had to put him back together; I could not bear to have him go to what is beyond in pieces. I made him in death what I cannot be. A whole man." He fought the cracking in his voice. " 'We have prisoners,' The Tribune told me. 'They must know the hiding places, and we can end this now.' I saw nothing but the face of my brother when they brought me the first, and he died without revealing anything. They kept bringing them to me, and little by little I lost my humanity, my soul curled up upon itself and hid from what I had become. Do you know the sound made when a person is strapped to a table and dissected alive? The horror when man's soul screams, or a woman's or even a child's for that matter... I do. I hear them every second that my miserable life continues. The pain and terror that reaches beyond the body. That last anguish as the soul leaves the body a mindless husk that will tell you anything if you promise to end the suffering."
He wept bitterly and without control, his body racked with grief. "I could take no more. I had become mad. Some of the men wanted to kill me, unable to face the monster that they had helped to create. The Tribune had me bundled into a galley for home, guilt on his part I suppose. When the ship sank in a storm I thought that I would find peace. Even the sea rejected me, casting me upon a strange shore. I have wandered for nearly forty years. Egypt, Hind, Cathay, Persia, Macedonia, not even the Penchennegs of the steppes would end my suffering. I had once been a surgeon for the legions; I kept at least to that. I tried to convince myself that redemption was possible. I have practiced the healing arts in lands unknown even to Alexander, but the screams still come... for me there is no redemption. How does one put a name to that?"
"Asclepius came to you in a dream," Xena reminded him. "He rewards what you have done for others."
"He mocks me," He snarled bitterly. "He has kept me from leaving this pathetic existence, I profaned the healing arts, and this is his punishment."
"Perhaps he is keeping you here for another reason," Gabrielle placed her hand upon his arm. "How many have you helped in forty years?"
"Hundreds, perhaps, who knows it is not enough."
"Maybe the redemption that you seek must come from within," Xena's voice was quiet, and soothing. "There comes a time when we must be able to forgive ourselves."
"Have you reached that time yet, warrior?"
"No," She admitted. "But I have barely started."
"You should pay more heed to the stories of your bard," He reminded her. "She has seen the good in you. She bears witness to your redemption with every story."
"And we have both seen the good in you," Xena pressed the issue, her voice was passionate as she fought with an unfamiliar weapon.... words. "You offered your life for hers, for how many others have you done that."
"I do not know, I do not count."
"I owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude."
"You owe me nothing."
Xena grasped Gabrielle's hand. "You saved the most precious part of my life, and I can never repay that."
He sat quietly, staring at the ground before him. Finally he rose and returned to his bed and lay staring into the sky. Gabrielle listened to the exchange in silence, afraid that if she intervened these two people would stop talking. Now, more than ever, it was important for both to talk. These were two tortured people, each convinced of the redemption of the other. Each unwilling to see it in themselves. If they would only turn their arguments toward themselves... but they continued to blindly argue in favor of the other.
Xena and Gabrielle went about their daily routines, brushing down Argo, and mending road weary equipment. Finally that night, after a meal in silence, Xena carefully polished the nicks from her sword blade as Gabrielle diligently wrote in her scrolls. Late that night both were awakened by the soft mumbling from the old man's pallet. He tossed in his sleep; his eyes flickered once, revealing again that strange light. Neither could understand the words but the tones were clear, Rage, horror, sorrow and then finally, peace.
Finally with a bitter snarl of fury he sat up in his bed. He stared into the fire for many long hours, oblivious to the sad contemplation of two women as they watched him. He spent the next day in silence, tending to his gear. Xena took careful note of the herbs and other components that he used to make many of his poultices and elixirs as he restocked his kit. That afternoon he roamed the surrounding woods to gather more.
After dinner he sat quietly, carving upon a walking staff that Gabrielle had found for him. Xena and Gabrielle went behind a clump of bushes and stripped for their evening baths.
"Forty years," Xena wondered aloud. "How can anyone live for forty years with that much self-hatred."
Gabrielle worked a heavy lather in Xena's hair. "I don't know. I've wondered how you can stand it for even two."
Her friend was silent for a moment. "Gabrielle, I haven't been that bad for a very long time."
"No, not always, but every now and then you slip back into it, not for long, but you do get those moods." Gabrielle began to rinse the soap from her hair. "Even in your best times you don't lose your guilt."
"How can I?"
"I don't know, maybe when you can do as he did, tell your story. Make a clean breast of it."
Xena stopped scrubbing herself and tossed the sponge over her shoulder. It made a satisfying sound as it wetly landed in Gabrielle's face. "Oh, you are so funny." Both laughed as the tension of the conversation eased away. They returned quietly to the camp, the old man was asleep again. They silently wished the other a good night and sent to their beds.
The next morning the old man examined Gabrielle's thigh. "You need to begin exercising your leg," He instructed her. "Perhaps you can try some simple staff drills."
Gabrielle happily walked out from the camp, Xena and the old man watched her as she slowly worked through the beginning movements. "How long has your shoulder given you problems?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Your right shoulder, you carry it lower than your left."
She tried to look at it, without much success.
"It isn't obvious," He assured her. "But your shoulder is slightly out of place." He walked behind her and touched a spot.
She winced involuntarily. His hands found the spot that he was looking for. "You have reset this yourself?"
"You should have had someone help you," He began to manipulate the joint.
"There wasn't time," Xena mumbled. "There was a goddess shredding an Amazon village when it happened."
"You should make time," A few quick movements and he stepped back. "At least under less stressful circumstances."
"You should take your own advice," Xena raised an eyebrow at him, working the shoulder carefully.
"Perhaps, a pact then. Neither of us will neglect ourselves again." He looked at her sternly. "Unless involved in direct combat with a deity."
Xena smiled in spite of herself, and was surprised to see a small, shy grin tease the corners of the old man's mouth. "Pact," She agreed.
He tossed her the staff that he had been trimming. "Go, exercise your shoulder, child."
She caught it deftly. "I am hardly a child."
"You began your new life two years ago," He looked at her gravely. "You walk an unfamiliar path with new legs, this is very like a child. Rediscover yourself, Xena. Enjoy your second childhood. But, first, work that shoulder or it will stiffen."
"You sound like a hopeless romantic," Xena teased him gently.
He favored her with another rare smile. "Blame it upon a fine education in the classics, literature, philosophy, and logic. Despite its many failings Rome has fine schools. And despite their many faults, Romans are emotional people, driven to epics and bad poetry."
"Apparently the schools are fine to teach such a talented healer."
He started to answer, a bitter look upon his face, but with apparent effort he suppressed his initial response. "Thank-you," He answered simply. He sat on his pallet and prepared himself a snack of cold beef, cheese, bread and wine. Xena shook her head as she tossed his words around, then joined Gabrielle for a light sparring session.
His dreams were visited again that night. It seemed an eternity as he fought the arrival of the god of healing. Xena and Gabrielle slept on, unaware of his renewed struggle with the images from his mind. Slowly they both began to share a common dream. They walked together across an open field, before them was a large encampment. Soldiers passed them, oblivious of their presence.
"Romans," Xena's voice observed impassively.
Gabrielle pointed, Xena saw the old man standing before the stockade's gates. They joined him and walked though into the orderly encampment.
"It was here," He murmured, walking slowly toward a large tent near the rear walls, and latrines, Xena noted.
He pulled aside the tent flap and entered, they followed him to find that he overlooked a large table. A naked man was strapped to it, his eyes wide with fear as another man entered. A much younger version of the old healer. He wore a black robe and carried a tray of grisly implements, which he set beside the prisoner's head. The helpless man struggled desperately against the straps.
The old man shook his head; his face was livid with anger and disgust. Moving with a speed that surprised even Xena he tore the sword from the scabbard across her back and buried it between the shoulders of the younger incarnation of himself. Their surroundings faded, they were again in the large, open field. The old man was lying on the ground, the sword buried to the hilt in his back, its bloody blade sticking grotesquely from his chest.
Xena fell to her knees to help. "Its bad," She sighed. Her fingers probing. "He'll die if I don't remove it, but he'll die even quicker if I do."
"Pull it child," The old man's voice was weak. "End this before it can start."
"Hold," A voice called from behind. Asclepius walked across the field toward them. "Do you wish to end this, my son."
"Yes, damn you!"
"Despite the consequences?"
"What consequences?" Gabrielle interrupted the old man.
"If he dies before he started, all evil that he has committed will vanish. As well as any of the good."
"Let me die," He moaned.
"All good," Xena's voice shook.
"You can't let him die," Xena looked protectively at Gabrielle.
"It is not my choice."
"Show him," Xena asked quietly, though her eyes begged the favor.
Asclepius nodded, around them the forms of people flickered and solidified. There were hundreds, easily even thousands surrounding them. "My son, if you were to die in the past, do you know what evil would happen?"
"The evil was brought by my life, not my death."
"Really," He pointed at a man surrounded by happy children. "He was gored by a bull as a child, you treated his injuries and he lived. If you die..." The man faded, his children sadly disappeared. "And this one," Asclepius pointed at another. "A brave soldier that stood in defiance of bandits, you removed an arrow from his chest. If he had died and not come again to the defense of his village..." Several dozen more vanished. Pain flashed across the old man's eyes. "All of these people, they are alive today, either through your care, or as a result of helping those that helped others. You cannot live your life without contacting the threads of other lives, for good or ill you have touched thousands of lives. Their fate is intertwined with many others." To one side the fates appeared, they were busily weaving the strands of his life. True to the promise of the patron of healers thousands of threads joined briefly with his own before separating again.
He pointed sadly into the distance. They could see the fight where they met the old man. This time he was not there, Gabrielle was pinned to the ground by the spear. The brigand twisted it cruelly, causing Gabrielle to scream in agony. Xena broke from the fight to race to her friend's rescue, and was cut down from behind.
"How many more will die if this thread is allowed to continue, my son."
The old man looked to his two companions. Gabrielle was pale; her eyes locked in horror upon the scene before them. Tears poured down Xena's face, she couldn't even face the possibility before them. She desperately clutched the small Bard and wept without shame. The brigands soon stripped the armor and weapons from Xena's body and tossed the contents of their bags about. Gabrielle's scrolls were scattered to the winds as they pillaged their goods for valuables.
Desperately Xena tried to beg him not to permit this, but she could make no sound. He voice was frozen, but he could read the desperation and helplessness upon her face. His body racked with pain as his mind fought itself. Finally his body relaxed. "I will follow you." His voice was choked in tears. Asclepius pulled the sword from the back of his newest follower, it was clean, there was no wound left behind. The god of healing left it at the feet of the sobbing warrior. The field faded, and soon the shaken women were sharing soothing dreams that pushed aside the fear of the possible future that had threatened them.
They woke the next morning before dawn to the sounds of stirrings in the camp. The old man was wearing the robe that Xena brought for him. His heavy bags were hanging from his shoulders; the walking staff that he'd carved rested in his hand. He dropped the robe that he had made for himself into the fire and watched the heavy material of the shroud smolder, then blaze. "My name is Asinius... the Healer." He announced quietly and silently left the camp.
Gabrielle's eyes sought Xena's face. The warrior's cheeks were glistening with tears, after a moment she found that she too was silently crying. She crawled around the fire, Xena was lying on her side and Gabrielle snuggled up behind her friend. She draped her arm over Xena's midriff, holding her quietly as the two were lost in contemplation.
Xena could finally see the picture within the puzzle. The old man.... Asinius... finally appeared to be whole. There was a heavy feeling in her chest as she wondered if she would ever allow herself to find that sense of tranquillity within her.
"Do you think that he found peace," Gabrielle finally asked.
"Perhaps," Xena pulled the Bard closer to her. "Or at least he finally found the path." Gabrielle rose and rested her cheek Xena's shoulder.
"It was a long journey for him."
"Yes," The warrior agreed. "But he didn't have you beating him over the head about the good inside of him."
"He finally opened up and shared his heart with someone that he could trust," Gabrielle teased, though the undertones were serious. "And saw that his life had meaning."
The warrior had no answer.
"Xena?" The bard asked after a short, uncomfortable silence.
"Am I really the most precious part of your life?" The Bard's eyes teased her.
"Yes, you are." Xena tenderly kissed her cheek. "Now go to sleep."
"Good night, Gabrielle."
A few seconds of silence.
"When will you forgive yourself?"
"Did you memorize every word that I said?"
"Of course, you say so little that it really isn't very hard."
Xena ignored the sarcasm. "I hope so," She admitted quietly.
"Good night, Gabrielle."
Not far away a man smiled into the darkness at the sight of the two women by the fire. He shifted his shoulders slightly to settle the heavy bags and tossed aside an apple core. He heard Xena refer to him as a puzzle under her breath. Perhaps he was, and if all the pieces could be found he would one day be whole again. Xena too was a puzzle, but she already realized that she would not be whole without Gabrielle. He wished them well in their quest. He was hungry again, his appetite returning with a vengeance. He found a strip of dried beef in his bag and tore a section off and tucked it along his cheek to soften. He turned and continued up the long hill, resuming his journey, walking into a glorious sunrise.
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