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The two travelers were up early and on their way the next morning. Demontrie had pressed more food upon them then they could comfortably carry. They were sorry to be leaving the old man. Long into the night, Gabrielle had told tale after tale and Demontrie had been a rapt listener. Xena had smiled and left their company. She never could easily listen to stories about herself.
They climbed for several hours and
with Argo again fending for herself, they made it to the top of the mountain by lunch time. The view was magnificent.
"Oh, Xena look. There is Poteidaia off in the distance"
"Yes, I see it and there is the Thessalian road."
Gabrielle turned and studied her friend as the tone in her voice had grown hard. The old Xena emotionless mask was up again and her eyes were cold and piercing. Gabrielle shrugged and let it be. Whatever was troubling Xena would soon be troubling her as well and she wanted to keep the peaceful feelings just a little longer.
The trail down was easily traveled compared to their journey up the other side. Night found them camped in the foothills with the Thessalian road directly below them and the forks not far away. Xena's old watchfulness had returned as did her constant reconnaissance. Satisfied that they were safe for the moment, they made camp and ate some of Demontrie's fine cooking. Gabrielle made short work of the nutbread that was left.
Xena sharpened her sword and chakram with smooth measured strokes as she stared into the fire. Her cold silence was so like the Xena of old. Gabrielle's annoyance grew. Why did she have to be this way? Then the words of Demontrie came back to her. There was a choice to be made. Could she choose and if so what would it mean for her, for the warrior, for the future? Could she continue to watch Xena be a warrior, watch her kill, watch her die? Could she kill, should she? With gloomy thoughts, Gabrielle sought her blankets and rolled into them.
Wordlessly, Xena watched her and then turned back to the fire. She steeled her resolve for tomorrow. The night dragged out long and hard. Sleeplessly, Xena watched and waited for dawn.
The two travelers had risen early and silently gathered their camp goods together. Without notice, Xena had been able to get most of the food and medical supplies into Gabrielle's pouch. The warrior rode ahead and then circled back watchful and wary as they approached the Thessalian road. By noon, the forks were in front of them. Xena stopped Argo and shifted uneasily in the saddle. She looked down at Gabrielle who had her eyes turned toward the left fork, towards Poteidaia.
"Poteidaia is about a days walk down the road. On the other hand, Amphipolis, my home village is about two days off the right fork."
"Thanks for the geography lesson, Xena. But you forget, I followed you down this road. I know the directions very well." Gabrielle looked up in annoyance at her friend. What was she getting at?
"Well," slowly began the warrior, "I was just thinking that you could be home by night and see your family. I just don't think I should come with you. You need time with your sister alone and frankly your family has never had much use for me. I guess I make them nervous."
"Of course you do. You never try to talk with them or socialize with anyone in the village. You go off by yourself all the time or keep silent." Gabrielle's voice rose in anger. "You never tried to get along with my family. They're just simple people, maybe not exciting or interesting enough for you."
Xena looked at her friend patiently, "You need time with your family and I'd be in the way. You should talk about Perdicus and share your feelings of loss. If everyone is worried about me, it makes it hard to be open. Besides....this will be a chance for me to go home and see mother. It's been a long time since I've been to Amphipolis. I'm pretty tired and this arm is still giving me trouble. Resting at home a little is going to do me good. When and if you are ready to....that is if you want to continue to travel with me, why you can come to Amphipolis and we can go from there." Xena finished her long speech staring at her hands in front of her. She just could not face Gabrielle just then.
Gabrielle's rage broke through, "Fine, just fine. If you want to go home rather than come with me, so be it. It's always your way, you never go where I want to. I thought you would be there for me, but I guess getting along with my family is too much for you."
"Yes," Xena softly uttered, "It is too much for me."
"See you around, Xena." Gabrielle clutched her staff in her hand and started striding down the left fork of the road. She never looked back and was soon out of sight.
Xena watched her go. As she saw the fast moving bard crest the hill and move from view, silent tears crept down the hard chiseled cheeks of the warrior princess. She called out softly, "Good bye Gabrielle, my friend."
A feeling of despair and defeat came over the warrior as she starred at the empty road in front of her.
Finally, she shook her head and turned Argo away from the forks back up the Thessalian road. Her eyes narrowed and hardened. She needed resolve and focus now more than ever. Gabrielle was safe and would be fine in Poteidaia with her family. There was just one more battle to fight and one more enemy to confront. She loped the golden warhorse past the turn off to Amphipolis. She made no attempt to hide or stay off the road. There was no longer a need. This contest needed a winner.
The warhorse had continued in a ground eating lope for quite some time and the miles had fallen by. There was still no sign of any contest entrants but that did not surprise Xena. She was headed for an open meadow still a few miles up the road. A hunch told her that is where she would find the would be contest winners and the man in black. As she drew close to the field, she reined Argo off the road and into the trees and brush. She swung down off the warhorse and moved deeper into the forest. Finally, feeling she was close enough, she left Argo in a stand of trees. She noiselessly crept to the edge of the clearing.
There, before her lay an open meadow with forest surrounding it on all sides. At the farthest end, a small knoll was visible with a lone gnarled oak tree a little in front of the rest of the greenery.
The meadow was littered with laying and sitting men, cooking fires and general rubble from a camp of a number of days. There were several hundred ragged louts in the clearing but the rider in black was not to be found. Xena grinned humorlessly. What a make shift group of fools! There were no guards posted anywhere. To the warrior long used to the order and discipline of her army, this motley crew bore no challenge. She could see several fights breaking out among the men arguing over food or money. Several others were playing with cards and some with dice. All seemed to be lounging around waiting for someone or something to happen. There seemed no order and no one seemed in charge.
The warrior quietly backed away from her cover and returned to her faithful warhorse. "Well, Argo. This is it for you and me," she spoke softly to the animal while stroking the soft neck of the horse and gently pulling its ears. The horse bowed her head, asking for more attention. Xena turned and pulled the saddle off and then slipped the bridle from the horse. "Take care of yourself, girl," she cooed and slapped the horse in the rear. The intelligent animal looked back over her shoulder at her mistress and then moved off towards the nearby stream.
Xena turned and a cold, steely expression swept over her face. Time to focus. She placed the saddle and blankets by a tree and pulled out the pouch and waterskin she had left. She had given most of the food and her healing herbs to Gabrielle. The rest she slipped into the pouch and drawing the cord over her head and shoulder, she headed back to the clearing.
Again, her piercing eyes swept the meadow for signs of the black horse man but he was not there. A glance toward the sky told her nightfall would soon be at hand. She would make her move then. The warrior leaned back against a tree and stretched out for a rest. She flexed her sword arm and smiled thinly as she felt the power and strength there. The wound was almost healed and would not slow her down much. Too bad for Hades's messenger. She felt the hate and deadly cold steal over her soul and she welcomed it as a long missing friend. When the time came for this last fight she would be ready.
With darkness, a silent shape stole between the shadows and glided towards the knoll with the lone oak tree. The lounging and prone men neither saw nor heard a sound. How could they with their loud rough voices and coarse laughter filling the air? When Xena reached the solitary oak, she silently climbed up it and into the upper reaches of the branches. The thick trunk made climbing easy and the large branches spread out high above the ground. The warrior settled back in a high nook to wait the dawn and developments. It was not the first time she had slept in a tree high above the ground and she settled back to listen to leaves rustling gently in the night air. Her last thoughts before sleep were of Gabrielle. She could see the gentle face before her, the sad eyes, the knowing smile. She would be in Poteidaia with her family by now. "Sleep well my friend, you're safe now," Xena whispered as she dozed off.
Gabrielle slowed and finally plopped down on a large flat rock along the dusty road. She had spent most of her energy and all of her anger. She recognized this part of the road and knew she was not far from home now. A wave of anticipation swept over her. It would be so good to hug her sister Lila. Suddenly, a stab of pain struck Gabrielle at the thought of Xena not being there. A strange feeling of loneliness seeped into her soul, a loneliness she had never felt before. "Well bard, you had a choice to make and you made it, didn't you?" she said aloud.
Still, a small voice whispered to her. "Why had Xena left?" Gabrielle shook her head, "She wanted to see her mother. She was tired and her arm bothered her. Going home is something Xena needs to do, just like me." The bard stood up and started slowly walking up the road.
Suddenly, she stopped and stared ahead at nothing as her eyes narrowed suspiciously. Xena never complained of being tired even if she was. As far as her wounded arm was concerned, hadn't she carried her for hours on the trip over the mountains? Why now the sudden need to see her mother? The doubts began to cloud Gabrielle's mind. Something was up. Maybe the warrior had grown tired of having her around. Maybe she wanted to be alone, away from the responsibility of taking care of her. Maybe, the warrior had made a choice. Tears welled up in the soft green eyes of the young bard. If that is what Xena wanted, then she would respect that.
Slowly, she trudged up the hill feeling the weight of a very heavy load on her shoulders. First Perdicus, now Xena. How many more loses will she have to bear? Suddenly, she stopped as she saw a man face down in the road ahead. Off to the side, a bony gray horse was quietly grazing. She quickened her pace and soon reached his side. She knelt down and gently turned him over causing him to moan. Perhaps, he had taken a nasty fall from the horse, she thought, although the animal hardly looked as if it could travel fast or far.
The man was dressed raggedly and had a black scraggly beard and long unwashed hair. He smelled as if he had not bathed in a long time. Crinkling her nose, Gabrielle finally spotted his wound, a large cut across his chest clearly made from a sword. "Here, drink this," she said offering her waterskin to the injured man. He slowly opened his eyes and focused them on her. He looked as if he recognized her. He took a choking gulp and then looked around, "Thanks...where's your big muscular friend?"
"If you mean Xena, she's gone."
The man licked his lips and then grinned, showing yellow rotting teeth.
"Who got her, then?" he
whispered weakly. "Who won?"
Gabrielle looked at the man in surprise. She noted his wound was well bandaged just as Xena might have done. However, dirt had gotten into the wound and it was now a terrible mess, raw and festering. He had taken a nasty fall as well and she was not sure if his leg was broken. He seemed to be in a fair amount of pain and he was sweating profusely.
"I don't know what you mean, no one got Xena." Gabrielle replied while wetting a cloth from her pouch and wiping his face. Her eyes narrowed as she noted all the supplies that were unexpectedly in her bag.
"Oh, still alive is she? Too bad...but guess that's OK, she did me a good turn."
Gabrielle could see that the man was dying and had little time left.
"Maybe, you shouldn't talk, save your strength."
"Too late for that....please, would you get word to my family in Balania? Tell them Enos tried but failed. Tell them never to enter no contest. It's bad business." The dying man gripped Gabrielle's hand as his body shuttered with pain.
"Enos," Gabrielle whispered with the start of fear dawning in her eyes, "What contest?"
It had taken but few a gasping words for Gabrielle to piece together the situation her friend faced. Enos died a few moments later. Gabrielle had breathed a thank you to the gods for relieving the poor man's suffering. She stood up and looked around panicky. Her mind whirled trying to decide what to do. "Wait, wait, I have to focus," she told herself.
She glanced at the sky. The day was far gone and Xena was miles ahead. Gabrielle knew there was no possibility that her best friend was on the road to Amphipolis. So many things made sense now. She ran towards the old gray horse who continued to pull up grass tuffs and chew contentedly. Without a thought she swung onto the horse's back. With her best imitation of a Xena "Ya," she dug her heels into the horse's side. She then hung on for dear life as the mare jerked into a slow bone jarring trot. "This is going to be some ride," she thought ruefully to herself.
Worry and fear soon crowded out all other sensations. She knew the warrior's plan almost as if she could read her mind. Xena would fight and kill the man in black and then die fighting the overwhelming number of contest entrants. Guilt welled up in Gabrielle's heart. What a fool she had been. So worried and consumed with her own grief, she had not clearly seen or understood her friend. Gabrielle choked back the tears that threatened and held on tightly to the lumbering horse. She could do Xena no good falling off this stupid beast.
She had no thought or plan about what help she could be to the warrior. All she knew was she had to reach her before it was too late. Gabrielle gritted her teeth, "Yes, Demontrie, I made my choice and it's to be with my friend, no matter what happens!"
The gray of the morning brought a chill and a cool wind blowing over the foothills. The leaves of the gnarled old oak stirred and started to glide down showing fall's presence. The warrior stretched her cramped limbs and yawned. The camp below was stirring but no one seemed in a hurry to be up and about. Xena munched on a hard biscuit and washed it down with some water from the skin. She scanned the horizon in all directions but nothing unusual was visible. "Wonder how long you are going to keep me waiting, my dark friend," she muttered.
Almost as if in answer to her call, a figure appeared cresting a hill of the Thessalian road. As he drew closer, Xena could make out a rider wearing a black cloak and hood. He was mounted on a superbly built stallion that didn't walk but rather pranced from side to side. The steed was tall and black as night with not a hint of white anywhere on his shinny coat. The rider and horse appeared to move as one as the animal pranced and danced down the road and into the meadow. The long mane and tail of the stallion flowed as did the cloak of the stranger. As they drew closer, Xena took in a deep breath. They were magnificent in form and appearance.
Some of the men lounging around their camp fires scrambled to their feet at the sight of the horseman but he seemed to ignore them. His head tilted slightly with disdain as one burley brute approached him and he rode past the man. He moved closer and closer to the knoll where Xena waited, almost as if he knew she were there. Finally, he pulled up the prancing stallion and swung down from the saddle. With a quiet word to his mount, he left the reins down and made for the top of the knoll.
He wore a large sword at his side and a long dagger in his belt.
He was almost directly under the tree where she crouched when he turned and swept back his hood. She was amazed at what she saw. Clean snow white hair and beard both neatly trimmed surrounded a pale weathered face of a man no longer young. A stern jaw and firm lips showed his strong character but as Enos had said it was his eyes that were truly remarkable. They seemed to be coal black with a piercing quality, totally devoid of emotion or feeling. He was tall, well built and carried himself like a king. Xena thought he was one of the finest looking men she had ever seen.
"Just my luck," she mumbled. "Why couldn't he be an ugly brute?" With that she did a double forward flip out of the tree and giving her war cry "Ayiyiyiyi," she landed right in front of him. He tilted his head to one side as she faced him but did not seem in the least surprised to see her.
"Hello, Xena. It has been a long time," he spoke with a smooth deep quiet tone.
"Have we met?"
"In a matter of speaking. Last time I saw you, you and your horse were trampling what was left of my only son." He spoke these words flatly, without anger, with no emotion at all.
Xena could only stare at the figure before her. "Where was this?" she whispered.
"You wouldn't remember the town's name but it was in the state of Cretia. I was the king of the province.
My son led a foolish charge against you and your army. They were all slaughtered." His eyes bore through Xena and she couldn't help but shutter and drop her own gaze. They did not seem the eyes of a normal human being.
"What is your name?"
"It doesn't matter really, does it? I had hoped to see you dead by the hand of one of these louts, worn down, finally at bay, then brutally murdered just as my son was. But now as I see you, perhaps it is better if I do the job myself. I can declare the contest won and distribute the prize to all later." He finished speaking almost as if to himself and then turned. He drew his sword and dagger and turned back towards the warrior. "Are you ready to die?"
Xena drew her own sword and swiped it around her head and then leveled it towards her adversary. "Are you?"
The dark stranger nodded and they began to warily circle each other. Some of the men noticed the action and began to edge forward. The man in black motioned them back and turned again to the warrior.
With the first thrust of his sword, his power amazed Xena. They parried and blocked as each moved forward and back. With each crash of the swords, sparks flew as the weapons were swung with strength and determination. With each thrust forward, the dark stranger would swipe out with the long dagger. It was only Xena's quickness and agility that saved her serious wounds. Suddenly, she whirled and struck out her foot to catch him in the chest. He staggered back but did not fall. Once again he came forward on the attack. Xena feigned low and then thrust her sword towards his chest. As he blocked her advance, she leaped into the air and flipped over him. He was ready for the move and gave her a nasty gash on her leg as she flew by. He had drawn first blood!
The fighting back and forth grew more ferocious. It was clear that the stranger knew Xena's every move and had a counter. He did not have any special techniques of his own. He used pure strength, power and quickness. He was extremely skilled and did not make mistakes. He never let his guard down and watched for any opening Xena might give. He would then attack it brutally. Soon both fighters were panting and dripping with sweat. Still they circled each other and when one would attack the other would counter. So the fight raged back and forth across the knoll.
It was the sort of fight for which Xena had little patience. Her technique was the use of quick thrusts and kicks. She would attack with such power and rage that any opponent could only fall back. Then she would finish him off. The man in black fought a long patient endurance battle where one mistake might mean the end but in the meantime it was stalemate. He kept the pressure on the warrior but he could wait. Xena, on the other hand, was tiring. The long weeks of fighting on the Thessalian road and climbing the Arcadian mountains had taken their toll even to her wonderful strength and endurance. While she had been struggling, the man in black had been resting, practicing and watching her moves from a distance. As they circled each other again, Xena's breath was more labored and she gasped for air harder than her opponent.
He smiled slightly and pushed forward his attack. Xena blocked his thrust and gave ground. She starred into his eyes looking for an opening but they were cold and expressionless. She began to lose heart and strange thoughts intruded into her focused mind. Why not let him win? He has a just cause. I have no reason to kill him. In his place, I would do the same, had done the same were it not for Gabrielle. The sudden thought of Gabrielle gave the warrior a pang. It was just the sort of opening the man in black waited for, that momentary loss of concentration. He lunged forward and caught Xena with his dagger on her left arm. The cut scored deep into the warrior's flesh but it was just what she needed.
With a roar of pain and rage, the warrior princess attacked. Her soul flooded with black hate and the one burning desire to take this man with her to Hades. Nothing else mattered! She no longer tried to defend or protect her body. Instead she charged forward with such raw violence and force that her opponent fell back. She kept up the offensive, swinging her sword ever harder and forcing him to give ground. Suddenly, she thrust her sword with all her might towards his midsection. He barely blocked the move and then used the opening to plunge his dagger deep into the warrior's left side. Xena gasped but before he could pull it out, she took advantage of his off balance motion to swing her sword at his neck. It sliced right through, cutting off his head and sending it a different direction than his torso which collapsed in front of her. Blood spewed everywhere!
Xena staggered back and looked down at the dagger buried in her body. With sheer will and courage, she grabbed the hilt and pulled it out, then tossed it away. Sucking for air, she sank to both knees as the shock came over her. Then she noticed the ragged men who had been watching the fight with great excitement began to press forward. She willed herself back to her feet and staggered back up the knoll till her back touched the trunk of the old oak. With her sword still in her right hand, she pulled her chakram from her side with her left hand. It seemed slippery to hold and looking down, she could see her whole left side and arm were covered with blood. "This should make an interesting throw," she thought wryly and let it fly.
The first three men who were pressing up the knoll felt the bite of the weapon as it cut them across their chests and then flew back in an arc into the warrior's hand. They went down in a heap. The crowd behind them stopped and wavered.
Xena knew she was through. She had no strength left for another throw. Her sword in her right hand had grown too heavy to hold and was wavering downward. A strange mist was obscuring her vision and she felt lightheaded. Somehow, all the anger and hatred flooded away and left her feeling very cold and tired.
As she looked up, she could see the mob pressing forward again and knew she could not stop them.
Suddenly, she heard a cry and saw a horse run through the crowd and almost reach the knoll before stumbling. A girl flew off the animal and landed on her feet. She cleared the remaining distance in an instance and turned to confront the mob with staff in hand. Through Xena's blurry eyes, it looked like Gabrielle but she knew this couldn't be. "How perfect that a vision of Gabrielle is the last I have on this earth," she thought. The warrior's strength was gone. The chakram slipped nervelessly from her hand and she slowly sank to both knees. Her sword dug into the ground. Without the strength to lift it, Xena leaned on the weapon to keep from falling over. Then she heard a voice so sweet and familiar.
"You men, get back or do more of you have to die!"
Gabrielle glanced back over her shoulder. She gave a cry as she saw Xena on her knees and the blood running down her side in a torrent. She then turned back resolutely to face the mob in front of her.
"Listen, I said, listen to me." The men pressed forward but stopped talking as the bard's commanding voice was heard. "You all joined in a contest to win a lot of dinars. Well, where is the money? The man who would have paid you is dead. In order to kill Xena, you'll have to go through me and some more of you will die. What for, where's the profit in that?"
Now, the bard changed her voice to a more conspiratorial tone. "500,000 dinars is a lot of money. You don't carry that around in a small purse. No, it's in a big chest, a treasure chest and I know where to go look for it."
The crowd began to rumble and grumble as the men tried to figure out what to do. One man shouted out, "Where is the chest?"
Gabrielle smiled at the men enthusiastically, "It's buried right under your noses. Listen, the man in black was said to spend a lot of time in the caves near Poteidaia in the Arcadian heights. Right?"
For a moment, there was dead silence. "Right?" Gabrielle demanded stronger this time.
"Yeah, I think I did see him there," one man yelled out. Another added, "You're right!"
Gabrielle ginned openly. Her suggestion had worked! Good old mob psychology. She thanked the gods silently for letting her remember her childhood playground.
"If I was going to bury treasure, I sure would do it in dark caves with lots of hiding places," Gabrielle announced to the crowd triumphantly.
There was a moment of silence as the men considered the bard's suggestion.
Then a murmur went up followed by a roar.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Gabrielle yelled.
With a rush the stampede was on. Men fell over each other running down the knoll, grabbing their gear and heading down the Thessalian road. Within a matter of minutes, not a soul was left in the meadow.
Only the body of the man in black was visible, stripped bare of his clothes by his own men and the black stallion grazing to the side. No one had even thought to try to ride the beast.
Gabrielle turned back to her friend in time to see Xena fall forward on her face in the dirt.
"No," she screamed and ran to the warrior's side. She carefully turned her over and cradled her head in her arms. "Xena, please...please Xena, stay, I can't lose you." The warrior opened her eyes and looked in wonder up at Gabrielle. "It is...you," she whispered. Her breath came in ragged gasps. Her piercing blue eyes softened and she smiled.
"Xena, I must save you. Don't you leave me, do you hear me, DON'T YOU LEAVE ME!" Gabrielle screamed at the warrior and shook her roughly. The warrior tried to focus on her friend but her senses were fading fast. "I....can't...."
"Yes, you can Xena, stay with me now, stay with me."
Gabrielle looked down at the wound and knew she had to work fast. She grabbed a cloth from her pouch and pushed it deep into the rent in the skin. She dragged Xena's head up and propped her against the oak tree. She got the waterskin and got Xena to drink. Next she began to work on the wound, cleaning it carefully and bandaging it tightly. Xena watched her progress with steady eyes. Gabrielle cleaned and bandaged the other cuts on Xena's body and sat back to look at her friend. "What do I do now?" she asked as she tried to brush the hair out of her eyes. She looked down at her hands and shuddered. They were covered with Xena's blood. There was blood everywhere but where it should be!
"Gabrielle,...listen to me....those men may come back, you must leave. You can't do anything more for me. A wound like this ....it can't be helped. Let me go." The last of Xena's words were spoken so softly Gabrielle had to lean close to hear them. She looked down at her friend and shook her head.
"No Xena, we'll fight this together. I'll get you through. Please, I won't let you go." The determination in the voice of the bard seemed to give strength to the warrior.
"All right. I'll fight ... but know... what you ask of...." Xena seemed to fade from consciousness before she could complete her thought.
Gabrielle took some of the water from the skin to wash her hands and to bath Xena's pale face. She then checked the wound in Xena's side. The flow of blood seemed to have slowed down but a trickle remained.
She was not sure what to do. Somehow, Xena was going to have to help her.
Gabrielle got up and stretched her tense shoulders. She looked around and decided that the knoll was as good a camp location as any and started to gather fire wood. She gave the body of the man in black a wide berth. The vultures had already begun their process. Returning up hill, she piled the wood up and began a fire. She gathered their supplies together and noticed again that she seemed to have ended up with all of them. Xena's store in her pouch was almost non-existent. "Wonder how that happened," she mused ruefully as she continued with her camp chores.
She gathered a blanket and made a level bed for her patient. Carefully, she removed Xena's armor and leathers as well as her boots. She gently dragged the warrior from the tree to the blanket and put another on top of her. Gabrielle's next step was to heat some water and make a tea from some of the herbs she had. She did remember some of Xena's medicine and knew which ones to use to ease the pain and fight infection.
Suddenly, she felt Xena's eyes on her and she turned to her patient with a smile. "Hi, sleep well?"
Xena watched her a moment with such soft caring eyes, it gave Gabrielle a pang. "I have some tea for you. Here, let me help you." Gabrielle lifted the warrior's head and put the cup to her lips. She drank with slow gulps and then smiled her thanks.
Gabrielle put the cup down and then turned to the warrior, "Xena, what should I do with the wound in your side. Can you see it? What should be done?"
The warrior did not have the strength to rise, so Gabrielle reached her arm under Xena's head and held her up so she could see. As she twisted to look, the first waves of terrible pain coursed through her body and she inadvertently stiffened. Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hand and felt her own gripped in a vice. Fighting to remain conscious, the warrior looked at the bandaged wound. "Show me....Gabrielle." Gently, the bard pulled back the bandage so Xena could see the rent. She nodded and laid her head back.
"Xena, ....Xena, what should I do?" Gabrielle asked a little frightened by the look in the warrior's eyes.
"Not much you can, cauterize it with my sword. It will help with infection.....Gabrielle, it's about as bad as it gets....a gut wound...not sure why I'm still here.....must have a good nurse. Xena looked at her friend steadily for a moment then weakly whispered, "The pain will be bad, give me the white powder.....and Gabrielle if I don't make it.....it's not your fault. I shouldn't be alive now. Tomorrow, you must leave here. It is not safe for you."
"Xena, I don't want to move you yet," pleaded the bard.
"Promise me....," Xena used the last of her strength to grip Gabrielle's hand even harder.
"Promise me...swear as my friend," the warrior's grip had become painful and her eyes piercing as she bore holes into Gabrielle's soul.
"OK, OK, I swear."
The warrior sank back with a slight smile turning up the corners of her mouth. "Thank you," she whispered and soon lost consciousness. A peaceful look came over her pale and drawn face, such a look as Gabrielle had never seen before.
The young bard worked quickly to cauterize the wound while her patient was out. The smell of burning flesh turned her stomach but she knew it had to be done. She put a healing salve on the raw wound and bandaged it firmly. There was little more she could do. At least Xena had not appeared to feel any pain from the procedure in her unconscious state.
Night fell and Gabrielle kept the camp fire burning brightly against the chill. She had made a light meal for herself and more tea for Xena. Later in the night, the warrior began to mumble in her sleep and start to thrash in her blankets. Gabrielle held her close so her wound would not reopen. After a time, she sank back into complete unconsciousness. Her face was a deathly pale and her pulse weak. Gabrielle thought she would lose her best friend during the night and kept a constant vigil.
"If she goes, then tomorrow I'll find Argo and we'll take her home to her mother," Gabrielle vowed.
Tears welled up in the young bards' eyes. How could she lose Xena this way?
She had grieved for Perdicus and Xena had helped her. Who would help her grieve for Xena? Could she even go on? "No, I won't lose you, Xena. I won't!"
Sometime during the late night, Gabrielle finally gave in to total exhaustion and fell into a fitful sleep. She awoke with a start at the early morning light and turned to her friend with fear in her heart. Xena's pulse was weak and no corpse could have been more pale but she still lived. Her face dripped with sweat and her whole body quivered with chills and pain. Gabrielle reached for the waterskin and lifted Xena's head so she could drink. She gratefully swallowed all that was left in the skin, wetting her cracked lips and parched throat. There seemed life left only in her cobalt blue eyes and they followed Gabrielle's movement as she got a fire going and heated the rest of the tea.
"Xena, I'll put a little of the white powder in this. Think that would be OK?"
The warrior did not have the strength to answer, but nodded slightly and took the drink that was offered to her lips. After a few swallowed, she seemed to settle back and soon lapsed into an unconscious state again.
Gabrielle finished a quick breakfast and looked around. The black horse had wondered off and other than the ghastly corpse of Xena's foe, nothing else was visible for miles. "I have to get us to water," Gabrielle spoke as if Xena could hear and answer her. "I don't like this promise thing you laid on me but the truth is we may need to be near a cold stream for this fever of yours. And where did you leave Argo anyway?"
Without water to cool Xena or wipe her face, the fever could get the best of her. Gabrielle made a decision and with a quick check on her patient, set out in search of the warhorse. After a few minutes in the woods, Gabrielle's patience wore thin. "Well, let's try this," and with that she put her fingers in her mouth and gave a sharp whistle. After a few seconds, she tried it again.
Suddenly, there was a crash through the trees and Argo came running. She slid to a stop so close to the bard, dirt kicked up into her face.
"Thanks a heap, horse. Let me tell you about the day I'm having," the bard admonished the mare.
"Great, now where did you put your saddle and bridle? Oh well, I think I can back track to where you were."
Gabrielle started back down the trail the horse had left through the underbrush. The obedient mare followed the young bard like a pet, glad for the company. Gabrielle reached the spot where Xena had left the saddle and bridle and soon had both on Argo. A look around showed a good camp site. Gabrielle mounted the horse and quickly returned to Xena.
The warrior was in the same state as when Gabrielle left. "Xena, this is going to be kind of tricky. OK Argo, do your thing. Down girl!" With this command, the palomino went down first on her front two legs and then the back. Carefully, Gabrielle grabbed a hold of Xena's shoulders and dragged her to the horse.
She gently lifted her over the saddle and gave Argo the sign to rise. The great warhorse seemed to sense the situation and carefully got back to her feet without jarring the warrior. Xena's head hung down on one side of the saddle and her legs the other. Gabrielle ran back to their packs and soon had the pouches and waterskins draped around the saddle horn. She set Argo off at a slow pace while she walked beside the warrior, making sure she did not slip. She tried to ease any sudden movement or jarring that might open her wound.
When they arrived at the camp spot beside the creek, Gabrielle gently lowered the warrior to the ground.
She quickly made a bed for Xena and got her into it. Fear froze the bard a moment as the wound showed fresh blood. Quickly, Gabrielle ran to the creek and was glad to find it freezing cold. The cold water was the best medicine she had. She filled the skins, wetted a cloth and returned to her patient. She deftly changed the bandage and cooled her friend's face and wrists.
Xena opened her eyes and steeled herself as the pain coursed through her. She focused on Gabrielle and gave her nurse a wane smile. Gabrielle gave her a drink and laid her head back down. It pained her to see the normally invincible warrior so weak and helpless. Once more, Xena slipped into unconsciousness. Gabrielle finished making camp and set up a fire pit.
The days blended into one another as Gabrielle fought for Xena's life. The pain and fever consumed her friend bit by bit leaving the once strapping warrior shaking, spent and shrunken. The hours just before dawn were the worst. The warrior suffered such pain, a searing fire in her abdomen, that moans escaped her steely resolve and tightly clenched jaw. How she looked forward to the doses of the white powder and the oblivion that would follow. Unbearable pain had destroyed the proud warrior's dignity. She had watched others die of stomach wounds and knew it was not a pretty sight to see. Gabrielle should not be a witness to this but she had no strength left to drive her away. After a time, Xena no longer cared or felt anything but the pain that racked her body. She sensed the end was close and welcomed it. At these moments, through the shadows and clouds of semiconscious, a sweet voice would pierce the fog and hold the warrior in a warm embrace.
Gabrielle kept a watchful vigilance through these horrible hours. She wiped the hot face and wrists of her patient with the cool stream water, trying to keep the fever at bay. She sensed, though, that her strongest weapon against the pain and fever that consumed her friend was her voice. She willed Xena to stay among the living with her stories and poems. She composed as she told, each new poem more beautiful and descriptive than the last. Each story coming forth from her heart was more powerful and stirring than any she had performed before. She kept up a constant banter and chatter as if Xena could hear her. In the late night hours, she bared her soul to her friend and accomplished her own healing in the process.
Finally, as evening came after a long day, Gabrielle finished yet another tale to her friend. She reached over absent mindedy to pick up the wet cloth to wipe the face of the unconscious warrior. "Its getting hard to keep telling you all these great epics I have composed when I get no applause for my efforts," she complained good naturally. Gabrielle cooled Xena's face and reached for her wrist. She was shocked to feel a hand reach and weakly grab hers. Looking up, she saw clear blue eyes looking into her face.
"Hi, about time you were awake," she said brightly and then the tears came.
She leaned down, hugged the warrior and kissed her gently. How delighted she was when her lips met cool skin. The fever was gone! Xena would live.
Gabrielle's energy seemed boundless. She bounced around the camp, making preparations and talking constantly. Xena could hardly keep up with her constant chatter and gave up trying to answer questions directed at her in rapid fire.
"I tell you, I have turned into quite a hunter. Look at the two rabbits I caught and I still have some more fish to smoke. We will have quite a store of food and even baked some more biscuits. Want some more tea?"
Xena shook her head. She lay propped up against the saddle and watched Gabrielle fuss around with a slow smile. "Its good to have such service. I'm getting quite use to being waited on."
Xena's smile faded and she turned searching eyes towards her friend.
"Gabrielle, you really should rest.
You look exhausted. You need to think of yourself more. You have unfinished business to deal with."
Gabrielle looked at her for a moment and her face grew serious. In a moment, the young bard's features aged and her look tore at the heart of the warrior. "Listen to me, Xena. Before, all I could think of was my loss, my pain, my choices. When you were hurt, you needed me. I realized that caring for you, making you well was all that really mattered to me. It is in doing for others, for people you care about that you can really help yourself. I learned that the best help for my sorrow was in helping my best friend, you. I'll always miss Perdicus but I won't give in to grief or bitterness. You need me, others need me and I need myself to be strong. I don't know what our futures hold but we'll figure it out together."
Xena smiled through misted eyes at her friend and thanked the gods for the miracle that brought her Gabrielle. She knew she didn't deserve the bard's love and devotion but she swore silently to spend her life trying.
"Now, enough of this mushy stuff. Let me show you my latest invention."
Xena propped herself up on one elbow to watch as she went into the bushes and came out dragging two long cut poles. Gabrielle glanced over at the warrior and smiled widely at the increasing strength she saw returning to her friend. She knew that Xena's recovery would be a very long and slow process but each small step seemed a major victory.
The warrior watched in amazement as Gabrielle took the poles over to Argo and fitted them into some ropes attached to the saddle. She tied some blankets across the poles and soon had a litter all set to go.
Without anymore to do, she went over to Xena and with a smile proclaimed, "Ready to go, warrior princess?"
"I guess so, if you are," was all Xena could find to say. Carefully, Gabrielle grabbed Xena's shoulders and pulled her into the make shift litter. The rest of the camp goods were quickly packed and loaded besides the warrior.
"Well, that's it. Time to be off. This was a beautiful camp site but we need to move on."
"Gabrielle, where are we going?" Xena asked weakly.
Gabrielle walked to her friend's side and took her hand in her own. "Xena, I made a promise to you we would leave the next day after you were wounded and I kept it." Xena looked at her friend and nodded.
"I'm keeping my second promise to you. I'm taking you home to your mother, alive!"