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Disclaimer- no violence to speak of, no sex, no nothing but misery! This started out as a twiddle and blossomed into something more. The Myth of the Fox and the Wolf is an Ancient Oriental Myth. I picked it up some months back in reading a book on the History of Chinese Literature.

Thank You - To Roo, who always tells me the truth about what I write in a way I can deal with it. She is my editor, co-writer on many stories, my wicked conscience when needed and best friend in life. She has my respect, gratitude and undying friendship forever.

To Atalanta and TX Trouble who helped edit this, especially At who keeps asking where the rest of it is. My standard answer . . . I'm working on it. *G*

To Dean, My husband. Who looks at me funny when I start talking poison's, swords, handcuffs, and other paraphernalia and wonders if he should have upped his life insurance.

To Sarpedon who whined in his XWS throes for something to occupy him. Well he's the reason this is here.

To Writer2B - Ok it's almost finished and there will be a copy in your box. Thanks for continued encouragement!!

Slow Poison

By Becky Lutzke 


If you prick me, do I not bleed? 

A shadowy figure slipped through the night, quietly moving between the village homes. The figure quickly hugged the wall of a house as two men drunkenly stumbled past. *Hiccup* "Such a lovely storyteller. Nice stories." one of the men mumbled. The other bent quickly over a nearby barrel and proceeded to empty his stomach. His companion turned and watched.  

"Come on Heracles, I know a place we can sleep for the night." The two men stumbled off, oblivious to the hooded stranger. With the stealth of a cat, the stranger entered the nearby inn and maneuvered to the rooms in back. Carefully peeking through a keyhole, the stranger could see a young strawberry blond woman bending over and slowly washing the sweat from her brow.  

"Gabrielle," the stranger whispered. Inside the room Gabrielle hummed a soft tune, and enjoyed the feel of the cool water on her skin.  

Gabrielle finished her late evening bath and dressed in her nightshirt. She padded over to the window in bare feet. Leaning against the window frame, she watched as a cloud traveled across the moon. "You had better be safe Xena, and you better be here on time tomorrow." The wind blew through the window, teasing her gently across the brow. Shaking her head, she slid into bed and blew out the candle next to it. Gabrielle slowly snuggled down into the covers, and soon her breathing was slow and steady, signaling sleep. The stranger carefully pulled two lock picks from the left shirt pocket of the cloak and deftly worked on the mechanisms of the door lock. After opening the door, the specter moved slowly across the room and pulled out three barbs from a small vial. The end of each glistened yellow in the moonlight. The stranger gently tucked one of the barb's into Gabrielle's right boot, another into her satchel, and logged the third barb into the fur grip on her fighting staff. The stranger then slipped out the door and left the inn as quietly as they had entered. 

Morning dawned warm, and muggy. Gabrielle was roused by the innkeeper's wife. They had become good friends over the last week, while Gabrielle waited for Xena to return from a neighboring kingdom. Xena had been summoned by the King of Lias on a matter of state. Gabrielle had been tired of all the travel and had offered to stay on at the inn as Bard while Xena was gone. The innkeeper and his wife had been pleased, and offered the standard arrangement of room and board. Gabrielle was free to keep any tips she made. It had worked out extraordinarily well, and the two women had formed an affinity for each other. Gabrielle had replenished her and Xena's money supply. The innkeepers had more business then they could handle and had no fights. A message had arrived last night that Xena was fine and would be back on the morrow. 

"Gabrielle," A soft gentle voice penetrated the bard's sleep." Come on sleepy head, breakfast." It was then that Gabrielle caught the smell of fresh hot bread, boiled eggs, and sweet fruit. She rolled over and faced the table to see Mia pouring her a cup of tea. 

"Good Morning Mia." Stretching languorously, she pulled herself up and climbed out of bed. She gently padded over to the table, and dove into breakfast with exuberance. "How did you do last night?" Gabrielle asked between mouthfuls. 

Mia chuckled, "Oh, just fine. Enough to cover all you eat in a day."  

Gabrielle blushed and slowed her eating, but not too much. "So what can I help you with today?" Gabrielle asked. 

"I hear the village healer got a few soldiers in last night and may need some help." Mia said as she began to make up the bed. 

Gabrielle stopped for a moment, "None of them were . . ." Her voice trailed off. 

"Oh, no!" Mia quickly injected and paused in her ministrations. "Goodness knows Xena knows how to take care of herself. No, three men dressed in dark clothing ambushed these men outside of the town. Probably just some ruffians."  

Gabrielle let out a sigh of relief. "Good, I'll stop by and see if there's anything I can do. Strange though, I've never heard of petty thieves attacking well armed soldiers." While contemplating this thought she reached for her boots, and began to pull them on. Mia slapped her hand away and the boots dropped to the floor. The barb spilled out and came to rest next to the table leg. Gabrielle looked up at Mia startled out of her thoughts. 

"No child," Mia said. "You finish your breakfast, then you can go on." Mia rose and turned to leave. "There are some traders from the eastern lands in town, might wanna check their wares."  

Gabrielle finished her breakfast. Then she dressed and slipped on her boots. She smiled as she noticed that they were starting to wear on the bottom and the sides were becoming frayed." Well, I guess I'll need to get a new pair today." She reached for her staff, narrowly missing the barb imbedded on it, and then headed out the door. She quickly descended the steps, and was soon in the sunlight heading toward the village healer's home. As she walked, she noticed the foreign traders watching her intently. She grasped her staff a little tighter and finished her trek to the healer's house." Aron, are you in? "She called as she entered the home. 

A middle aged short man, with dark curly hair, and soft brown eyes came out of the back room. "I'm here Gabrielle. What can I do for you?" Gabrielle's eyes gentled when she saw the man. She had been in earlier in the week to restock some of the harder to find herbs Xena used in the medicines she made up. Aron had been impressed for her medical knowledge for one so young. 

"Actually I came here to ask if I could help out with the soldiers that came in last night." Gabrielle slid her hand slowly down the staff, scraping the barb across her palm." Ow!" She looked at her staff and swore," Zeus's chariots! How the heck did that get there?" She pulled the barb loose quickly, pricking her thumb in the process. She threw it in a trash container nearby. 

"Well it would seem I can be of assistance to you." Aron said glibly." Come here and we will clean that up and bandage it."  

"Oh, its ok. I'll take care of it later." She said sucking her thumb. 

"No, I insist. Xena would skin me alive if I didn't and personally, I'm still using this skin!" The healer pulled Gabrielle over and sat her down, cleansing the palm and thumb with antiseptic. 

"Really, it's just a little scratch . . ." Gabrielle began again. 

Aron shook his head, "Uh huh. Then why are you bleeding?" Gabrielle looked down and noticed the blood dripping over her hand. She quieted down and allowed the healer to smear an herb concoction over the small laceration, and bandage her hand." Now as for the soldiers. They will be fine and are resting comfortably. I suggest you hop off the chair and get some shopping done. Oh, and let me check that tomorrow for you, OK?" 

"Okay Aron, but really I still think its nothing." Gabrielle grabbed her staff and headed out the door and toward the market. 

Aron shook his head and then walked over to look at the thorn Gabrielle had thrown away. It was then that he noticed the yellow honey like substance on the end. "Hmmm." Carefully he removed the thorn, and placed it on a nearby table in a bowl." Now what is this?"

Chapter 1  

Gabrielle felt as if she had entered into another world as she moved among the trader's tables. She luxuriated in the feel of the foreign linens, relished the exotic tasting food, and studied the uniquely designed wares. But what captured Gabrielle's attention the most was the storytellers from another land. You know, I might be able to use some of this in my stories. I wonder how I can get Xena to defeat a dragon. Gabrielle had to giggle to herself at that thought. All this time, Gabrielle couldn't help but notice that these foreign people were staring her at, more that what one would expect. But she wasn't about to let that stop her from satiating her appetite for things that were new and interesting. While watching one of the jugglers keep his timing with four torches while walking across a bed of hot coals, she felt someone touch her hair. She quickly swung around to find a woman, smaller than her with dark eyes and dark hair stagger back. "My apologies Lady." She quickly bowed. 

Sensing no threat Gabrielle brought her staff to rest by her side again." It's all right. I'm sorry for startling you. What were you doing? " 

"I was seeing if your hair was real." The lady quickly said as she bowed once again. 

"Yes it's real. Go ahead, you can touch it." 

The lady hesitantly reached forward and let her fingers run through Gabrielle's hair." It is so soft; so bright, like the sun." Gabrielle nodded. The lady removed her hand." Thank you. My name is Ha-San. Please, would you like to have a midday meal with my family? It would honor me for this favor you have granted me."  

Gabrielle smiled, "I'm Gabrielle, and I would be glad to join you. But I need to see a man about a pair of boots first."  

"You need boots? Ahhh, I think we can help you. My husband makes them. Come." Gabrielle nodded and followed the lady back to her table. Gabrielle waited while the lady spoke quick, accented words to a wise looking older man, and then motioned Gabrielle over. She was seated on a carpeted stool and the man proceeded to measure her feet and calf. He spoke to Ha-San quickly, and the disappeared." He says they will be ready within four candle marks. Come, we will go and eat. 

In a nearby doorway a cloaked figure watched as Gabrielle was led away by the eastern woman." Found a friend Gabrielle? Too bad you won't have her for long." Carefully, so as not to be noticed, he followed the two women blending in with the bustling crowd. 

Gabrielle was shown into a nearby tent. It was decorated with intricate thick rugs; pillows and a long low table sat in the center. Ha-San, motioned Gabrielle to sit." It seems you and I will be the only ones. My husband has told me that the children have gone exploring."  

Gabrielle smiled as she took a seat on a pillow. "That's ok." She replied as she headed for the nearest pillow." Ha-San, how is it that your husband can have my boots ready so quickly?" 

Ha-Sans face grew red with anger. "A lady commissioned him to have a pair of boots made for her a week ago, saying she would return on the following day for them. She has not returned. She had the same measurements as you. My husband wishes to make some special alterations in them for you."

Gabrielle looked quizzically at her." What special alterations?" 

"You'll see." Ha-San responded and poured the woman some goat's milk.

Gabrielle shook her head, realizing she would have to wait and see.

Forgetting about her earlier encounter with the bar on her staff, she used both of her hands to get adjusted to the low height of the pillow. "Ow!" Gabrielle jerked her hand up as she felt a sharp pain run through her hand. 

"What is wrong? " Ha-San asked worriedly. 

"It's nothing, I scraped my hand on a thorn and now it's hurting a little. It will pass. Now you mentioned food? " 

It was late evening when Xena rode into town. She was hot, tired, and hungry. Lord Lias' problem was solved; there would be no more assassination attempts. Cerius was dead, his men scattered. She could now rest for a little while. She dismounted Argo next to the stables and removed her saddlebags. As she began to head into the stable, she was met at the entrance by the stable boy." You must be Xena." He said with a shy grin. "I'm Charus. Gabrielle has spoken a great deal of you. She has already made arrangements for me to see to the needs of Argo this evening." Xena started to hand the reigns to the stable boy, then hesitated." Gabrielle told me to tell you not to argue, or the Queen of the Amazons would make good on the white fuzzy thing threat!" 

Xena's face froze, then she chuckled. She handed the reigns to Charus and threw her saddlebags across her shoulder.  

"Okay, just be sure she gets a good rub down after she is fed and watered." Xena said with the corners of a smile showing on her lips. 

Just like Gabrielle to predict my needs, but we need to have a major talk about what she lets strangers know. Xena shook her head and grinned as she headed off to the inn. Upon entering, she took stock of the patrons with a cool glance. Since there seemed to be no possible major threats, Xena began to walk to the bar. 

Mia saw her, and immediately headed toward her. "Xena, well Gabrielle will be happy you're back!" The innkeeper's wife then turned to a servant. "Have a bath prepared in Gabrielle's room, and food and wine brought up." She instructed. The young man nodded and headed off. 

"Yeah, I can imagine." Xena smirked as she began to pour herself a port." So, where is she?" 

Mia's expression became thoughtful. "Hmmmm, I haven't seen her since earlier this morning. She was going to check with the healer and see if he needed any help and then go shopping. There are traders from the east here. She should be in soon, though. It's almost time for her to go on."  

Xena nodded, and furrowed her brow as she took a drink. It was unlike Gabrielle to not be back in time to eat and collect her thoughts before her performance. "Maybe I should go after her." Xena stated as she downed the last of the port. Xena turned and began to head out the door. 

Mia grabbed her arm gently. "No way. I have strict orders from Gabrielle that if you get in, you're to bathe, eat and rest till she arrives."  

Xena let a smirk slide across her face, "Oh really? Well, we will have to see about her Queenship's orders won't we?" 

Mia started chuckling, "She said you were a tough customer. That's why she had me make your favorites for dinner. Really, she's fine, Xena. Go on and get washed up."  

Xena looked out the door of the inn at the setting sun, and then nodded." Ok, but she better show up soon!" Mia watched the warrior climb the stairs. 

Gabrielle, I don't think you know how tightly you have her wound around your finger Mia thought as she moved off to fill a patron's glass. 

Ha-San and her family were laughing at Gabrielle's story. The children were rolling in the floor with laughter as Gabrielle regaled them with the story of Cupid and his child's stray arrows. "Gabrielle, you are such a gifted storyteller. In my country storytellers are considered blessed and valued very highly. Is this not so with your country?" 

Gabrielle sighed, "Sometimes Ha-San. It depends on where you are. But I love what I do. I feel so alive when I tell of the adventures I've had and others have done." Gabrielle had stayed the afternoon with Mia and tried several of the eastern delicacies set before her. She had watched as Mia worked on some intricate stitch work for her daughter's wedding veil while being regaled with stories from far away. Before she knew it, the children and men were arriving for the evening meal. So Mia had asked for a story of her travels. 

Ha-San and her husband nodded. Ha-Ku, Ha-San's husband, handed Gabrielle her new boots. "Daughter, for you. I would consider it an honor if you would allow me to fit them to your feet."  

Gabrielle smiled, "Yes, I would like that. Please." Ha-Ku knelt in front of Gabrielle and fitted the boots. It was immediately evident to Gabrielle that they were the finest she had ever worn. On the inside they were very soft and seemed to energize her feet. On the outside they were a rugged brown leather that she knew would withstand the leagues of traveling that she would soon endure. 

"May they carry you lightly on your journeys daughter." Ha-Ku said with great humility. Inwardly, he filled with pride at his work as Gabrielle moved around the tent getting the feel for her new boots. 

Gabrielle moved over to Ha-Ku and gave him a hug. As she peered over his shoulder, she noticed the deep shadows falling within the tent. "Oh, I need to get back. Please forgive me." Gabrielle stated as she rushed to gather up her staff and purchases from the day at the market. 

Ha-San and Ha-Ku stood and whispered to one of there three sons. He nodded and stood up. "Narus will see you back to the inn." Ha-Ku stated as they neared the entrance to the tent. 

As Gabrielle stood, she flinched in pain. She looked at her hand and only then noticed that the bandage was soaked in blood." Darn," she berated herself "I must have bumped it."  

Ha-Ku moved to examine it, "Daughter this needs to be changed. Please before you leave, allow us."  

Gabrielle shook her head, "No Ha-Ku. I'm sure Xena is back by now and I need to get back. I'll change it before I tell story's this evening. I promise."  

Ha-Ku gently shook his head, but consented, "Very well, but I will send Ha-San to check on you tomorrow."  

Gabrielle hugged the man and woman once more and then felt Narus take her arm." Come, we go."  

Narus saw Gabrielle to the door of the inn, and bid her goodnight. Mia saw her enter, and then noticed the bandage on her hand. "What happened? " Mia queried as she led Gabrielle between the tables and the bar. "Xena was right, you ran into trouble."  

"No, I scraped myself on a thorn while I was at the healers." Gabrielle explained, "It's nothing bit I need to change the bandage before Xena sees it." Gabrielle flinched as Mia took her hand. "Gabrielle, the hand is very warm. I think it may be infected. Come on to the kitchen, I have something we can put on it there and you can have your dinner."  

A servant sat a plate of food near Gabrielle as Mia removed the bandage. Gabrielle began to eat, even though she was in mild discomfort. She paused, when Mia gasped. "What?" 

"What's wrong?" 

"Gabrielle I thought you said it was just a scratch? This is an open wound." Mia stated as she began to blot up the blood, "Not big, but enough to cause problems."  

Gabrielle looked down at her palm and her thumb and saw the scratch and prick was larger than what she remembered. "That's impossible, I'm sure it was smaller."  

Mia cleaned and bandaged the wound. "Gabrielle what did Aron tell you about this?" 

Gabrielle sighed, "He told me to stop in tomorrow so he could take a look at it again! " Mia shook her head, and walked over to the hearth. She poured a cup of tea and then sat it in front of Gabrielle. 

"Xena is here and she is not going to be pleased about this. Eat up, it's almost time for you to go on." Gabrielle nodded glumly, and could already hear the grilling Xena was going to give her. Gabrielle finished her meal and headed up to her room to wash up before starting her stories. She stopped at the door of her and Xena's room took a deep breath and entered. Xena was lying on the bed asleep. Gabrielle smiled and poured some water in the wash basin near the hearth. Being careful not to get the bandages wet, she cleaned up quickly. As she turned around, Xena's piercing blue eyes captured her. 

"Hello. How was your nap? Are King Lias' problems taken care of now? " Gabrielle inquired as she moved toward her satchel, trying to hide her bandaged hand out of Xena's view. 

"The nap was fine. King Lias' still rules his kingdom, and I think he will be more careful how he picks his advisors in the future. What's wrong? " Xena sat up, clearly awake and attentive to Gabrielle. 

"Wrong? Why would there be anything wrong? " Gabrielle reached for her satchel with her good hand. 

"Gabrielle! " Xena's eyes narrowed suspiciously and they traveled over her friend's body. "Gabrielle, let me see your other hand."  

Gabrielle turned from the satchel, "Really Xena it's nothing and I need to go on downstairs in a minute." Gabrielle however made a key mistake; she used her hands trying to explain. Xena bolted out of the bed, crossed the room in two quick strides, and grabbed Gabrielle's injured hand. "Ssssssss, Xena please. That hurts." Xena loosened the pressure on Gab's hand, but didn't release it. 

"Gabrielle, what happened? " Xena's voice was firm and her eyes cut through Gabrielle. 

"Xena, really its nothing. I scraped my hand on a thorn that was stuck in my staff. Aron treated it this morning and then Mia helped me clean it up this evening. Really, I have to go downstairs now. Can we talk about this when I come back up?" 

Xena looked in Gabrielle's eyes, but couldn't see any deception there. She gently released Gabrielle's hand. "All right, but I wanna know what you were doing today. All of it too! Okay?" 

"Okay." Gabrielle turned around and reached into her satchel. "Zeus! "She yelled, quickly withdrawing her hand. A small thorn protruded form between her thumb and forefinger. "Not another one! I really need to check my stuff closer." 

"Here, let me see that. " Xena pulled the thorn out and took Gabrielle back to the wash basin. She cleaned off the puncture mark. "Not too bad. Where have you been that your picking up so many thorns?" 

"I haven't been anywhere," Gabrielle said irritably. 

There was a knock on the door. "Yes?" Xena called out. 

Mia's voice drifted through the door. "Gabrielle, the customers are calling for you. Are you coming?" 

"Yes!" Gabrielle answered impatiently as she turned on her heal and headed for the door. 

"I'll be down in a minute." Xena called as she left the room. Gabrielle nodded and headed downstairs. Xena looked at the thorn on the table thoughtfully and then went to dress. Gabrielle was in the middle of a second story when Xena descended the stairs. She noticed the inn was full, and that there was a large group of easterners at a table near the stage. The farmers and soldiers from the area were seated in rapt attention to Gabrielle's words. Xena moved quietly to an open table near the back of the inn, where she could observe everything safely. Gabrielle wove two more tales of the warrior princess and then one she had learned that afternoon from her friends, called "The Fox and the Wolf." 

The story ran of how the Fox and a wolf inhabited a den together. But the wolf grew to dislike the fox and sought his destruction. The wolf made several attempts to rid himself of the Fox, but each came to naught. This was the downfall of the wolf, which ended up falling into the trap he had set for his enemy and dying. The Fox had looked down upon the dead wolf and spoke these words, "Fate removed the wolf's soul, and it was snatched away. Far distant from happiness be his soul that hath perished. How long hast thou striven, Abos Tirhan, to destroy me! But now have burning calamities have befallen thee. Thou hast fallen into a pit which none shall descend without finding in it the blasts of death."  

Gabrielle's words died away, and soon the room was awash in the sound of applause and cheering. Gabrielle smiled, she felt suddenly tired and warm. The room seemed smaller than it was, but she bravely smiled and accepted the acknowledgment. "Please, I must take a break now. My throat is dry." Gabrielle pleaded. Still, there were calls for another story, but Gabrielle waved them off and headed toward Xena. Xena had noticed the weariness in her friend's gait when she had descended the stage. Now as Gabrielle sat the true exhaustion show on her face. 

"Gabrielle?" Xena asked in a low tone as she leaned towards Gabrielle. Concern was written all over her face. Gabrielle waved her off as Mia approached the table.  

"Well done my friend! Here are you tips for the night and some warm cider to warm your body." Gabrielle smiled as she took a drink, but the smile quickly faded to a grimace. "Taste's funny. Can I have some water Mia?" Mia nodded and moved away from the table. 

Xena grabbed the mug sniffing and then tasting it. "Tastes fine to me. You sure?" 

Mia returned and set the water on the table. Gabrielle drank down two glasses of water. Xena again looked worriedly at Gabrielle. Ha-San approached then, wary of the warrior nearby. "Gabrielle?" 

"Ha-San!" Gabrielle said with as much enthusiasm as she could muster after she looked up. "Come and sit with us. Xena, I would like you to meet Ha-San. We met in the market today and she graciously fed me lunch."  

"Nice to meet you. It's not an easy chore feeding Gabrielle. I am honored to meet someone of such ability."  

The small woman laughed, "She does have a mighty appetite. But her presence was a blessing for us. I can not stay, but wanted to thank you for reciting one of our stories. We will see you tomorrow, no?" Gabrielle nodded. "Good, it was nice to meet you Warrior Princess." Ha-San bowed and left with the rest of the family. 

"Xena I think I'm going up to our room. Could you tell Mia that I'm not going to continue tonight?" 

Xena nodded. Gabrielle stood and staggered against the table. Xena caught her arms and steadied her. "Gabrielle?" Gabrielle looked strangely at Xena for a second and then let her head lean forward on Xena's shoulder.  

"Xena, I'm really tired all of a sudden. Could you help me upstairs to our room? " 

"Sure." Xena threw Gabrielle's arm over her shoulder and then wrapped her arm around her friend's waist. They had just made it to the steps when Gabrielle collapsed. Xena swung her friend into her arms and took the stairs two at a time. She kicked open the door of the room and laid Gabrielle down on the bed. "Gabrielle? Come on Gab, wake up."  

Gabrielle's eyes opened. "Sorry about that, too much fun today I guess."  

"Too much fun, huh." Gabrielle's breathing steadied and slowed. She was asleep again. Xena checked her for signs of fever, but there was none. Her hand looked fine, except being slightly red from contact with the thorn that was in her satchel. She took a closer look now at the other hand. This was different. The bandage was soaked with blood in the area of the palm. Xena swore under her breath and reach for her saddlebags. "Gabrielle, you have to be careful with this hand. You should know that." Slowly Xena removed the bandages, and then swore under her breath again. "Its nothing! My Gods, Gabrielle. How could a thorn do this?" Xena looked at her friend, "You have some explaining to do tomorrow Gabrielle." Xena set about tending Gabrielle's hand and sewing up the cut. 

Downstairs in a darken corner of the inn, Mia set another flagon of ale in front of a hooded stranger. "Planning on staying the night?" she inquired. 

"No," he replied deeply. "I have made other arrangements for the night. However, could you tell me if the storyteller will return for another round tonight?" 

"No, she felt a little tired and has gone off to bed now." Mia shook her head and went back to the bar.  

"Thank you." He rose with a smile on his face and headed out of the Inn. Xena walked downstairs after she has done caring for Gabrielle's hand. Her friend had barely moved during the whole thing and that worried her. While it was Gabrielle's nature to relish her sleep time, it wasn't normal for her to be this exhausted after a break from the road. It was now time to get some answers as to what was going on. 

Xena cornered Mia "What happened to Gabrielle? The truth Mia."  

"She told me she was scratched by a thorn, and that Aron had tended the hand. That's all I know Xena. Honest! Why?" Mia wiped her hands on the bar towel and glanced toward the stairs. 

"Because I have never seen a scratch that deep from a thorn. Maybe a knife, but never by a thorn. Can you direct me to the Aron's home?" 

"Yes, but before you go blaming Aron. You should you know he is a fine and honorable man." Xena nodded. Mia give directions and Xena set off in search of the healer. 

Xena found the healer's home easily enough and knocked on the door. She heard some fumbling around inside, the sound of someone smashing their toe into the table leg, and swearing. The glow of a lamp shone from under the door and the door opened. "Yes, what can I do for you?" The man was obviously half-asleep.  "Your name is Aron? I'm Xena. I need to speak with you about Gabrielle." 

"Come in." The man closed the door after Xena entered and set water over the nearby fire to warm. "Tea?" 

Xena looked around at the shelves of books and medicines. "Yes, thank you."  

Aron set a mug of tea on a nearby table and motioned for Xena to sit. "Now what's this about Gabrielle?" 

"I was told by Mia that Gabrielle came in earlier today and was treated by you for a thorn scratch." Xena sat, sniffed the tea and then relaxed. 

"Yes she was here when she did it. It was imbedded in her staff...nasty looking thing. Very long scratch across the palm of her hand. Still have the thorn." Aron rose up and pulled a small bowl from the shelf. "Strange, it seemed to have a gold honey type substance on it. Nothing I ever seen before." 

Xena took a look at the thorn, and her eyebrows rose. "Gabrielle was pricked by another of these this afternoon, when she went to reach into her satchel. Aron, didn't you think it was unusual to receive a quarter inch gash from a thorn?" 

Aron looked bewildered at Xena for a minute. "Now wait a minute, she had just a little scratch across her palm. I had some trouble stopping it from bleeding which I thought was unusual, but other than that all was fine. Are you telling me that it's that deep now?" 

Xena nodded, a sick feeling started to grip her stomach. "Aron, I don't think this is a coincidence."  

Aron came around the table and reached for a book on the shelf. "Tell me her symptoms, beside the bleeding and the deeper gash. Has she had any other symptoms?" Aron said with deep concern in his voice. 

Xena thought for a minute. "Well, she has been irritable. But I put that down to the weather. She was tired this evening, more than what is normal for her. She seems to be experiencing some amount of pain, and her sense of taste seems to be off."  

Aron continued to flip through the book until he came to a marked page, then he ran his fingers up and down the pages, slowly flipping them, and making faces. When he had at last come to the end of the chapter, he turned around with a worried expression. "I can't find any poisons listed with those symptoms. But that doesn't mean there aren't any. This doesn't make sense." Aron returned to the table and drank his tea, still thinking. "Did she eat something that she might be reacting too? Has she been somewhere that has been exposed to some kind of disease lately?" 

Xena, who had been quiet since Aron's search, shook her head. "No, she has been busy. Set upon by bandits and the normal strains one would face traveling. She has shown no signs of sickness till I left her here. Aron, I'm baffled as to what it could be. But everything points back to the thorn."  

"I don't know Xena." Aron looked up. 

Xena drained her mug. "I need to get back. Thank you for trying." 

Aron shook Xena's hand, "I'll continue to look among my medicine journals. If there is anything I can do, please send for me immediately." 

Xena headed toward the Inn, when she saw a figure slip between two of the homes. Xena shook her head, and proceeded on to the inn. Mia was cleaning away dishes from the bar and wiping it when Xena entered. Xena moved to the bar and accepted a cup of port from Mia. 

"You have been a good friend to Gabrielle. How is she doing?" Xena asked. She took a taste of the sweet wine, but it tasted flat to her tonight. 

"I checked her half a candlemark ago, and she was resting comfortably." Mia replied, noticing the tired look in the warrior's eyes. 

"Thanks Mia, I appreciate you looking after her while I was gone." Xena looked around the Inn, noticing there were fewer patrons than normal. "Not many people tonight."  

Mia nodded. "Gabrielle's storytelling is widely known, but when she begged off her second turn tonight the place emptied pretty quickly. She has a heart of gold, that one. What did Aron have to say?" Mia walked toward the fireplace and laid a new log on the fire. 

Xena watched Mia, while she poured herself a glass of port. "We think she may have been poisoned." Xena stared at the flames leaping up and consuming the dry wood. She slightly shook her head." But it makes no sense. We will see how things are going in the morning. There's nothing more we can do until then."  

Mia nodded, and looked toward the door of the inn. "Well, you are welcome to stay as long as you need Xena. Gabrielle has been a friend and a good business partner."  

Xena nodded and headed upstairs. She quietly opened the door, and looked toward the bed. Gabrielle wasn't there. She pushed the door wider with her foot and carefully unsheathed her sword. She found her sitting in front of the room's hearth, staring at the dancing flames. "Hey, what are you doing up? You're supposed to be resting."  

Gabrielle turned a little, and Xena could see she had been crying. She quickly moved across the room and wrapped Gabrielle in a warm hug. "Shhhh, what's wrong?" 

The tears flowed down Gabrielle's face as she tried to tell Xena the problem. "Hurts...*sob*....they hurt so bad..." Her voice was barely a whisper. 

"What, your hands?" Xena pushed Gabrielle carefully back, and looked at her hands. The bandage was fairly clear of any signs of blood thankfully. 

"No...*sob* joints ache Xena....*sob*... shoulders...elbows...spine....hips....knees...." Gabrielle's body shuddered in pain, and tears flowed down her cheeks steadily. "Please Xena... make it stop." Xena ran her skilled hands over Gabrielle's shoulder, and down her spine feeling the inflamed taunt muscles. 

"Shhh, I'll do my best." Xena rose and went to her saddlebags. She pulled out two packets of herbs, and mixed them in a cup. Moving quickly to the fireplace, she poured warm water into the cup. Xena knelt in front of Gabrielle. Placing her arm around Gabrielle's back for support, she helped Gabrielle to drink the entire contents. After placing the cup off to the side, she carried Gabrielle to the bed. After she had laid her down, Xena went to her saddlebags and pulled a small black container from it. She returned quickly to Gabrielle's side. 

"Gabrielle, the tea will take time. I need you to try and relax while I rub this into your joints." Gabrielle nodded as she wept silently. Xena removed the lid and the smell of mint and ice floated through the air. With skilled fingers, she slowly worked the salve over each joint in Gabrielle's body. Gabrielle's crying eventually calmed and her breathing steadied. Xena looked up and found her lightly dozing, her muscles still twitched below the skin. 

Xena continued to massage her friend's legs until the muscles settled, and she fell into the arms of Morpheus. Then Xena lay down next to her friend and wrapped her gently in her arms. Saying a silent prayer to the gods, she fell asleep. 

End Of Part One.









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