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STANDARD DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo belong to the folks at MCA/Universal, particularly those at Renaissance Pictures.No copyright infringement is intended here ... for my money, this is the 'them' we all know and love anyway.
WITH GRATEFUL THANKS: As usual, I couldn't have completed this tale without the support and loyal encouragement of my 'Canadian Muse'. Once again, she provided the serenity, wisdom and courage I needed to conquer my doubts and reject my personal distractions to eventually get my 'stuff' together and finish this work. My nose and my grindstone will be forever grateful and appreciative.
A SIMPLE STATEMENT: This story follows the events depicted in the episodes titled 'Maternal Instincts' and 'The Bitter Suite', but only insofar as these occurrences 'happen' after those incidents did. In no way does this author feel qualified to resolve all the ongoing conflicts still present between these two marvelous characters; as always, this is MY view of where their relationship might be as a result of their ordeal. Any comments, kudos or critiques may be directed to the email address above. Thanks for your attention. Love and best wishes. MMG
The bard passed a shaky hand across her forehead, her fingers lingering momentarily to massage the space between her eyebrows. She tried to keep her gestures casual; she didn't want the tall woman walking next to the horse to notice anything unusual.
"Gods' wish," Xena said quietly, for the fourth time in as many minutes. She cast a worried glance down at the slim blonde striding beside her. "You OK?" the warrior asked, letting her blue gaze travel over the flushed, young face.
"Yeah," Gabrielle said, sniffling and dropping her hand. After a moment, the little bard turned a curious expression toward her tall friend.
"What did you say? 'Gods' what?" she asked.
The bronze face creased in a subtle grin. "Gods' wish," Xena repeated, sending an abashed smile at the soft, green eyes. The warrior shrugged self-consciously, returning her attention to the dirt path. "That's what my mother always said to me whenever I sneezed." She heard the bard's shaky laugh. "I could never figure out what it meant, either." She glanced quickly at the trim form, then focused again on the surrounding greenery.
"I always wondered, 'Was it the gods' wish that you wouldn't sneeze again, or was it their wish that you had sneezed again." The bard's soft laugh floated upward. After another quiet moment, the warrior turned her attention back to her soulmate.
"Anyway, it took my mind off my nose for a minute." Xena's gentle smile answered her companion's.
The women strode together for a few more paces before the tall, leather-clad figure let her blue eyes rest on the young bard more directly. In spite of the girl's pointed attempts to disguise the situation, the tall warrior had clearly noticed the slightly pallid cast to the bard's features, not to mention the light sheen of perspiration that glistened over the soft countenance. Xena absently pulled the light cape higher on the slim neck. When the back of her hand brushed the side of the bard's face, the warrior stopped walking and faced the young blonde directly.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, somewhat concerned. "You've got a fever." She gently turned the girl to face her, sliding the palm of one slender hand under the damp, blonde bangs. She quickly detected the heat emanating from the girl's forehead and the sides of her face. "For Artemis' sake," the warrior said, "you're burning up!"
She took the soft face in her hands and gazed seriously into the glassy verdant pools. "Why ever didn't you say something?" The warrior released the clammy face and stood back, hands on her hips, to examine the young woman's expression more closely.
Gabrielle grimaced as the pounding between her eyes sent a sharp pain from one temple to the other. She sniffed and shrugged the woolen cape away from her neck while making a concerted effort to relax the frown she felt contorting her forehead.
"It's not that bad," the girl protested weakly. She let her eyes cautiously meet the warrior's blue gaze, struggling to send her best smile up into the woman's worried frown. "Anyway, I think it's this cape that's making me ho..." She began to pull the woolen garment away.
Xena's long fingers thwarted the bard's actions. "No, you don't," she said firmly. "Leave it on." The girl wearily submitted to the warrior's directive. She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead again. Xena released the edges of the woolen covering, but kept her attention on the bard's flushed face. When the blonde's hand moved from her head to the center of her chest, the warrior's warning signals sprang to life.
"Does your chest hurt, too?" she asked the bard.
Gabrielle nodded wordlessly, then covered her mouth as a soft, shallow cough slid from her throat. The green eyes closed painfully. "Yeah, a little," she admitted, slowly raising her eyes to meet the warrior's gaze again. Xena drew in a deep breath.
"I'm just a little ... worn out, I guess," the bard said, flashing a fragile smile. "It's been kind of a long .. few weeks."
As soon as the statement left her lips, the bard felt a wave of remorse for uttering it. She saw the deep pain wash over the bronze face. The girl laid a gentle hand on the warrior's sleek forearm. "I'm sorry ... I just meant ..." Gabrielle whispered.
"It's OK," the warrior said, her blue eyes understanding. "You're right ... it hasn't been easy for either of us, lately." The tall woman smiled warmly at her friend.
The bard stumbled a step backward as a heavy, ruthless coughing spasm suddenly overtook her. She sagged against the warrior's muscular body.
Xena's heart lurched as she reached to steady the small form of her friend. She listened to the dry, hacking cough with a knowing ear. She wrapped her arm around the bard's slim shoulders and took the girl's hand to support the trembling form. After a moment, Gabrielle stopped coughing and drew several labored, uneasy breaths. She swallowed hard and turned to meet the warrior's serious blue gaze. The tall woman's jaw clamped tight at the apology in the soft, green pools.
"Why didn't you tell me? Gabrielle, you're sick ... very sick. Aren't you?" She brushed the damp, blonde hair away from the feverish face and pulled the girl closer. The warrior flinched when she felt the rising heat that surged from the small form in her arms.
The bard shook her head slowly. "It just got bad today. I only felt ...a little lousy last night," the girl joked feebly. She pulled back from the warrior's embrace to meet the tall woman's eyes. "But, maybe, if we stop for today? I just need to rest for a while, that's all." The warrior's gaze was skeptical. "Please? Just ... let's find a nice, warm cave somewhere, OK?"
The golden face softened in a tiny grin. She cupped the bard's face with one hand. "Yeah, OK. We can do that. But I think some rest is the least of what you need," Xena said. "It can't hurt, anyway." She released the bard's face and bent to easily sweep the small form up into her arms.
"Hey!" Gabrielle protested weakly. "No, Xena," she said, her voice raspy. "I can walk, honestly."
"Nope, you can't," Xena said firmly, settling the bard's light form against her chest. "You need to save your strength." She gave the girl's weak smile a supportive grin.
"You can't carry me the whole way. That's too much." The bard blinked slowly as an unexpected wave of dizziness clouded her vision. The warrior's sharp insight recognized the symptom as still another danger sign. She turned and smoothly deposited the slender form onto the mare's back. "OK, then, you can ride the rest of the way." Gabrielle groaned quietly as she gave in to the warrior's decision.
"Besides, Argo's missed you, haven't you, girl?" Xena patted the animal's thick neck. Argo whinnied and tossed her head in agreement. The mare turned and playfully nibbled the bard's soft boot.
"Yeah, I can tell," the bard squeaked. She giggled softly, then covered her mouth as another series of coughs shook her thin frame. "OK," she said after the fit had ended. "I guess I'm outnumbered." Gabrielle pulled the cape around herself.
The warrior gently tucked the edges of the wrap around the girl's body. She bent down and retrieved the bard's staff and threaded the wand through the straps on the side of the saddle. Then she turned and started down the path again.
Chapter One ~~~
"Here, drink this ... all of it," the warrior said, handing the bard a steaming mug.
Gabrielle propped herself up on one elbow, sniffed the liquid, wrinkled her nose and turned glassy eyes up at the bronze face leaning over her.
"What is it?" she asked, coughing lightly.
"It'll help stop the coughing and loosen up your chest," Xena answered. She cradled the bard's shoulders with one arm and used the other to help the girl bring the cup to her lips. "That's good," she said softly as the bard swallowed a mouthful. "C'mon, have some more."
They had been in the cave for two days now and Gabrielle's condition, while not really worsening to any degree, hadn't improved by any great measure either. She was still plagued by debilitating bouts of coughing and the soft green eyes remained glazed with fever. The girl also repeatedly blinked wearily to combat the continuing dizziness and the throbbing pain attacking her forehead. To her tall friend's increasing dismay, the young blonde was rapidly weakening, the effects of the ongoing illness sapping her strength and usurping her reserves.
The warrior had steadfastly tended the little bard, mixing herbal remedies and medications, supplying warm, soothing meals and gently prodding the bard about her necessary consumption of sustenance and, above all, liquids. When the girl had been besieged by devastating, wracking chills, the warrior had held her shivering friend close, sharing the sustaining warmth of her own body to offer loving solace and comfort to the suffering bard. Her good intentions and substantial healing talents not withstanding, the young blonde had not gotten better. Xena now battled her own affliction; she became filled with worry and dread.
Gabrielle took another sip of the dark brew. She forced herself to swallow the liquid, even though the taste contorted her face into an uncharacteristic scowl. When the warrior brought the cup to her mouth again, the bard turned her head.
"Ugh!" she grumbled. "What did you put in that?" Gabrielle grumbled, casting an irritated frown up at the cobalt pools.
"Tree bark, for one thing," the warrior answered calmly, meeting the questioning green gaze.
Gabrielle shifted to gain a better focus at the stoic bronze face. She blinked as the smooth expression softened quietly.
"It's true," Xena admitted. "Among other things, the recipe calls for particles of tree bark." She brought the cup back to the parched lips, giving the bard a genuine smile. "C'mon, drink up," she prompted. "It'll only taste awful for a second." She tipped the cup into the girl's pout. Gabrielle acquiesced, but only after some additional griping.
"Yuck!" the little blonde sputtered after she'd managed the fourth swallow. She shifted her weight and covered her mouth with the back of her hand. The warrior waited while the young woman battled yet another fit of exhausting coughing. After the spasm passed, she gently pressed the cup into the bard's fist, sat back and dropped the damp cloth she'd been holding in her lap into the small pot of water next to her. When the cloth was saturated, she wrang out most of the moisture, folded the cloth into a wide strip and pressed the cool material against the bard's flushed face. The girl relaxed into the welcome sensation.
Xena, however, was experiencing quite another reaction; the uneasiness she'd been battling since settling them both into the comfortable and quite serviceable cave had slowly changed from a tenuous worry to a fast-approaching genuine fear. She was fully aware of the seriousness of the bard's condition and the gravity of the young woman's symptoms. She tried to maintain an outward appearance of calm, but the tall warrior's psyche was locked on the frightening fact that Gabrielle was still very sick and the usually confident warrior was now fighting her own panic.
Gabrielle shakily set the cup of liquid down and lowered herself wearily back onto the bedrolls. She raised a pale face to the warrior, offering her friend a pathetic smile.
"Sorry to be so much trouble," Gabrielle whispered. The warrior continued applying the cool cloth to the girl's face. "Sometimes, I think that's all I've ever been to you ... trouble." Xena scoffed away the statement. "No, really," the bard said, summoning her waning strength. She turned her head to face the warrior's gaze directly. "All the stupid situations I get myself into .. you're always having to 'rescue' me." The warrior suspended the cooling application to return a serious expression to the green gaze.
"Gabrielle, that's nonsense," the warrior said with quiet firmness. "The one thing you have never been to me is trouble." She gently stroked the limp blonde tresses. "You're my best friend ... my family. No matter what ... 'history' we've made lately. Don't forget that. Please?" The girl's tired expression pulled at the tall woman's heart. The two women shared a knowing smile. Finally the warrior's solemn face creased in a quiet smile.
"If anything, you've kept my life ... interesting these past three summers." Gabrielle's frail laugh made the warrior gulp. Xena returned the cloth to the pot of cool water. As she dried her fingers on another cloth, she gazed lovingly at the little bard's pale face. "You taught me how to laugh again. I'd forgotten that ... not much to laugh about, where I was ... what I was doing ...." Gabrielle blinked, the green eyes struggling to focus on the beautiful bronze face.
"Something else I have to thank you for....my friend," Xena said softly. The blue eyes dropped to the cloth in her fingers. "Sometimes I wonder what you ever saw in me ... with my heart so bitter and hard." She raised her eyes to the bard's again. "No matter what has happened lately, I'll always be grateful to you for not giving up on me."
Gabrielle caught the warrior's long fingers in one small hand. The green pools were soft on the smooth, golden face as a tiny grin pulled at the bard's mouth. "Guess you're lucky I'm stubborn, too, huh?"
The warrior's gentle laugh sounded in the small cave. She squeezed the little hand holding hers. Finally, Xena took a short breath. "C'mon," she said briskly, lifting the bard off the blankets again and sliding her arm around the slim shoulders. When she had the blonde secure in her lap, the warrior picked up the earthen mug again. "Sorry, but you need to finish this. You have to get it all down for it to work."
The bard made a face, clearly portraying her lack of enthusiasm at the warrior's order. With a resigned sigh, Gabrielle pulled herself up straighter and let the tall woman guide the cup to her mouth. She took some liquid, grimaced and swallowed the foul mixture. After a moment, the bard lifted her eyes to the blue gaze.
"Xena?" Gabrielle said in a very small voice.
"Hmm?" the warrior answered, lifting the cup again. She halted the container's progress when the bard's small hand covered hers.
"I'm so sorry about ... Solan." The bard lowered her eyes to the cup again. The warrior's throat caught as she watched the girl's tears travel over the pallid face. "So very, very sorry," the bard whispered. Xena closed her eyes for a moment, steeling herself against the rancid pain she still felt at the mention of her son's name. She gulped and unlocked her teeth.
"I know," the warrior said quietly. She met the bard's desolate gaze. "I know you are." She gazed into the green eyes of her best friend. The clear blue eyes glistened for an instant. Then the warrior's expression cleared.
"C'mon, drink up. No more excuses." Xena raised the cup again and Gabrielle took it from her. The bard lifted the container to her mouth, tilting her head back to drain the contents. After she swallowed the last of the brew, she shivered and handed the cup back to the warrior.
"Boy, that stuff will scare away whatever I have, that's for sure," the bard joked dryly. Xena smiled quietly, set the cup down on the cave floor and helped the trim blonde lie down again. When the girl was settled, the warrior touched the young woman's sweaty cheek, pulling the blanket closer to the soft chin.
"Try and get some rest. The tea should help calm the coughing, but you should stay quiet. Alright?" Gabrielle nodded sleepily. As she felt her eyes grow heavy, she tried hard to focus on the face of her friend. "I'm going to go find something for breakfast. I won't be gone long, I promise." The warrior tucked the edges of the blanket tighter. "Stay put, OK?"
"OK," the bard whispered. The green eyes fluttered closed as the girl gave in to the effects of the dark tea. "Just be careful, please?" She struggled to meet the blue gaze. Finally the trim form relaxed. "Be ... care ... ful ...." Her words melted into sleep.
Xena knelt next to her friend for a long moment. She grit her teeth as the sound of the girl's shallow, ragged breathing seemed to reverberate within the quiet cave. The warrior felt her dread rising when she recognized the bluish tint that had begun to invade the bard's lips; it meant the congestion invading her lungs was gaining momentum. Xena pressed two fingertips against the side of the slim neck. The pulse she located was rapid and uneven.
Xena retrieved the cloth from the small pot, twisted the water from the wad of material and laid the damp, folded piece gently over the bard's forehead. She smoothed the blanket over the quiet form and stood up.
Chapter Two ~~~
As she searched the underbrush surrounding the cave for any worthwhile nourishment, Xena's mind performed it's own maneuver. Without exactly understanding why or how, the warrior's consciousness began a silent petition to whatever imposing force might be listening. It seemed to happen without her intention and she couldn't seem to manage a way to stop it. So, she let her mind flow on its own path.
'Please, in the name of Sweet Artemis,' the warrior pleaded. 'Don't take her now ... not after everything we've been through. I just got her back. Not now ... please.' Xena bent to examine some animal tracks. The blue eyes studied the indentations on the dry earth for a moment, then floated up to focus on a distant point in the dense greenery.
'I know I've never really deserved a friend like Gabrielle,' the warrior thought, her throat constricting tightly. 'But, you've brought her to me ... please don't take her away.' The tall woman blinked briskly, trying to recapture her concentration on her task. She returned her attention to the ground. However, after another moment, she found herself distracted and staring into the space again.
Visions of the young woman lying on the blankets in the cave swarmed through the tall warrior's mind; Gabrielle striding briskly beside her, Gabrielle's infectious giggle bouncing up to her in her seat on Argo's back, Gabrielle's loving touch on her arm ... that sensitive, understanding smile. She heard the soft voice saying her name, gentle and supportive.
A flash of pain shot through the warrior's soul as she remembered the same young face, covered with tears, screaming angrily at her own hate-filled sneer. The warrior closed her eyes tight. Gabrielle ... Gabrielle ... Gabrielle. The warrior let the loving memories warm her worried heart. Xena didn't even notice the path her tears took down over her face. Her thoughts were locked on her blonde friend. She swallowed hard.
A skittering noise behind her jostled the warrior out of her contemplation. Xena's expert reflexes danced back to life. She wiped the moisture from her face and turned slowly to her left, her piercing blue gaze landing on the gray pelt of the scurrying rabbit. The smooth face remained calm as the woman unlatched the chakram from her belt. A moment later, a plump rabbit pelt was swinging from the warrior's left hand. She checked the other snares and traps she'd set the previous night before turning her steps back toward the cave.
The warrior knelt outside the small cavern to skin and dress the carcass before entering the chamber. As her hands accomplished the task automatically, the bronze face creased in a gentle grin. She silently acknowledged her adherence to the performance of this relatively ordinary ritual as her mind traveled backwards, to the first summer of her association with the young, slightly naive little blonde.
Very soon after she and Gabrielle had begun traveling together it had become very clear to the warrior that this necessary practice greatly disturbed the young girl. So, Xena had simply gotten into the habit of 'preparing the catch' away from the camp ... or rather, out of the bard's view. It had seemed like a small acquiescence; after all, the girl rarely asked for much. So the warrior had conceded to the young woman's preference.
'She never could abide seeing something killed,' the warrior thought sorrowfully. 'Of course, she had never taken a life before ....' The crystal blue eyes snapped closed for a moment as their owner took a deep, painful breath. Xena swallowed quietly, wiped her knife in the tall grass, stood and entered the cave. The first sound she heard was Gabrielle's feverish mumbling.
Xena dropped the rabbit cadaver on the stones surrounding the fire and moved quickly to the little bard. Immediately, the warrior noticed the heavy sheen of perspiration covering the frightened, pallid face. She searched the bedrolls for the damp cloth she'd left in place on the girl's forehead. When she located it, she plunged the cloth into the small kettle again and began swabbing the fearful face. The tender ministrations seemed to calm the girl's frenzied thrashing only slightly. After a moment, the young blonde's ranting resumed.
"Help her!" Gabrielle screamed, reaching toward an invisible target. "You can do it ... you can bring her into the light." The warrior's chest tightened at the bard's rising delirium. She put her hands on the girl's heaving shoulders.
"Gabrielle," Xena crooned, pulling the shivering form onto her lap. "It's alright. Just relax." The warrior's sharp attention quickly registered the alarming sweat-soaked wetness of the girl's linen tunic but she dismissed the fact for the moment. Gabrielle's eyes were open wide, staring frightened and excited. She turned a numb expression toward the tall warrior.
"But he can show her the way," the girl wailed. "His goodness can rescue her ... take the darkness from her soul." Gabrielle collapsed against the warrior's chest, another vicious coughing fit battering her body. "Please ...." she coughed, trying valiantly to draw a clear breath. "Tell him to help her." Wild green eyes met the confused blue gaze. "He'll listen to you ... you're his mother!"
Xena stared into the bard's raving expression. An instant later, her implicit instincts reinstated her senses. She cradled the small warm body to her chest, crooning quiet assurances to the terrified girl in her arms who clutched at her leather tunic in fearful alarm.
"Alright, alright," the warrior said calmly. "I'll talk to him. You rest." Xena rocked the bard gently. "You just rest now. I'll take care of it." She lowered her chin and kissed the limp blonde hair. "Calm down Gabrielle," she whispered. "It's alright." Xena gulped against her own panic. "Solan and I will take care of Hope. Don't worry."
Gradually, the slender, anxious form relaxed. The bard's breathing slowed from the agitated panting into short, heavy breaths. She released her grip on the warrior's leather strap, swallowed gingerly and closed her eyes in pathetic exhaustion. The warrior kept rocking.
After a few moments, Gabrielle slowly raised her head and strained to focus on the blue eyes of her friend. Xena smiled at the flushed, shiny face, using long, gentle fingers to sweep the damp reddish-blond wisps away from the wet cheeks. She pulled the little form closer.
"Solan can use his goodness to save her," the bard whispered hoarsely. The bard burrowed into the warrior's chest, her slim arms wrapping tightly around the tall woman's waist. "She must turn away ... turn away from .. the darkness." The warrior's tears fell on the soft, moist head. "She must ...." the girl chanted, closing her eyes. "She mu-must."
"She will," Xena said quietly, lowering her lips to the damp forehead. "She will ... she has your goodness in her, too." The warrior continued to rock the slim, quivering form. "Shh, sleep now." Gabrielle collapsed against Xena's strong body. "Go back to sleep, Gabrielle."
Xena held the bard close until she heard the girl's panting fade into a semi-regular pattern. She slowly tilted her head to study the cherished face and realized that Gabrielle had finally fallen asleep. Xena loosened her tight hold on the warm, little body and returned the bard to the bedrolls. She carefully replaced the blankets over her friend, remoistened the damp cloth and laid the wet material on the bard's perspiring forehead. When she sat back, the warrior's smooth face was covered with her own tears. She watched the quiet form for a long moment, a disabling foreboding rising in her chest. She knew this episode marked a serious turn in the bard's condition; she knew that time was running out for her to reverse the direction of the illness. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ A candlemark later, Gabrielle opened her eyes. She blinked carefully, making a great effort to steady the drifting images in front of her. She slowly swung her gaze to the side and smiled weakly as the warrior's face finally drifted into focus. The bronze face softened as Xena returned the grin. She laid her hand on the bard's cheek.
"Hi, there," the warrior said softly. "How are you feeling?"
"Hot," the bard said simply. She ran her tongue over her parched lips. "I'm really thirsty, too. Can I have some water?" The girl slowly drew a shaky hand across her eyes.
Xena turned and retrieved one of the earthen mugs from the campfire's stones. She pulled the waterskin onto her lap, filled the mug, laid the waterskin back down and leaned toward the little bard. Gabrielle weakly pulled herself up onto one elbow, took the mug from the warrior and raised the water to her mouth. She drank the water quickly and handed the mug back to the warrior. Xena took it, refilled it again and returned the cup to the girl's warm hand. The bard got down a few more swallows before surrendering the cup again. Then she fell back down onto the bedrolls.
Xena recorked the waterskin and set the cup aside. She leaned forward, sweeping the back of her fingers against Gabrielle's face. The warmth of the girl's flesh sent a wave of concern through the lean form. She tilted her head to meet the girl's groggy expression.
"Your fever is still too high," she told the tired face. "We need to work on that." The warrior tried to keep her expression as calm as she could. Her heart fluttered when she saw the bard gulp nervously and run her tongue over her lips again. "Want to hear my thoughts on this?" Xena said dryly, a subtle grin lighting the smooth face. "Since it will be your decision whether or not we proceed with my plan."
Gabrielle's eyes brightened minutely as she sent a tiny smile to answer the warrior's gentle comment. Even in her fever-clouded state, the girl recognized the sincere petition in the tall woman's tone. Their reconciliation, although thankfully welcomed by them both, had only recently occurred. It would take a long time and a great deal of concentrated attention, the bard felt, before their relationship could be considered totally healed. She knew her best friend was making what was, for the warrior, a very important effort toward reestablishing the trust and devotion they'd had for each other before the terrible schism had nearly robbed them of each other's loyalty. She felt her smile grow at the love she saw in the tall warrior's blue eyes, as well.
"OK," the bard said, meeting the intense azure gaze. "What do you think 'we' should do now?"
Xena's subtle grin widened as she repositioned the thin blanket over the bard's slender torso. "Well, we have to bring the fever down .. and soon. Otherwise ...." the warrior blinked quickly, but not before the bard saw the genuine panic flicker across the crystal pools. "Well, we just do, that's all. It's sapping your strength, not letting your body fight off the rest of what's happening to you."
Gabrielle swallowed quietly. She pulled herself up on her elbows. "Xena, what do you need to do? Just tell me so we can get started on it." The warrior recognized the return of the quiet, gentle strength for which she had always admired her small friend; she spent a tiny moment gratefully acknowledging its appearance. Then she took a short breath.
"How about a bit of a swim?" The bronze face actually smirked. The bard's green eyes widened in surprise. "There's a nice little lake, just down the hill from here."
"A swim?" the bard repeated, her eyebrows disappearing beneath her limp bangs. "You wanna go for a swim now?"
"Well," the warrior said, the renowned eyebrow creeping upward. "Actually, I thought I'd take you to the lake and let you ... enjoy the cool water." The bard's mouth drifted closed as the warrior's true intention finally registered in her hazy awareness. She smiled warmly at her best friend. "So, do you feel up to it?" Xena asked. "I really think it will help lower your temperature."
Gabrielle smiled warmly at the warrior. She pulled herself to a sitting position and touched the smooth, golden face. After taking a moment to indulge in a short, subdued cough or two, the bard ran one small hand through the blonde hair hanging against her neck. She leaned back on her hands to gaze at the beautiful face again.
"Well, it sounds wonderful, even if it is my 'healer' talking," the girl grinned. After a moment, the green eyes showed a glimmer of a twinkle. "Will you wash my hair for me?" she quipped. The warrior chortled gently.
"At your service, my bard," Xena said, stroking the locks in question. "It'll be my pleasure." She uncoiled her long legs and stood up, holding out both hands to the bard. "C'mon, the sun's good and bright right now."
Gabrielle pulled off the blanket, tucked her feet under her and clasped the warrior's outstretched hands. Xena carefully pulled the girl to her feet. She paused a moment to help steady the wavering bard, then gathered up the blankets, wrapping one expanse around the girl and laying the other over her own shoulder. The warrior bent over and picked up the waterskin, handing it to Gabrielle. Then she easily swept the trim form into her arms.
Xena walked toward the entrance to the cave, stopping a moment next to the saddle and saddlebags hanging from one of the craggy rocks jutting from the side of the cave. She gestured with her chin.
"Grab the bathing bag," she told the bard and Gabrielle leaned slightly away from the warrior to capture the strap of the cloth satchel containing their bathing gear. She pulled the small bag into her lap. The warrior pulled the trim figure back to her chest and continued toward the entrance, bending slightly to clear the opening before stepping out into the warm sunshine. Gabrielle giggled quietly and wrapped her arms around the warrior's neck. She dropped her head onto Xena's shoulder, snuggling close against the sleek torso. The warrior carried her precious cargo toward the little lake. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Chapter Three ~~~
Xena stepped carefully on the path leading to the small, glistening pool. She had discovered the reservoir on her way back from an earlier food-gathering run, as usual tucking the precise location and distance from the cave into the many sections of her mind When she had determined that the bard's temperature was not responding to the usual practice of applying the dampened cloth, she remembered the pond and decided to make use of it. She happily congratulated herself on the retention of the information.
The warrior glanced down at the petite figure in her arms. In the bright sunlight, the chalky pallor of the bard's complexion was even more noticeable, as was the dull, disconcerted gaze that clouded the sparkle usually present in the green pools. Xena tried to submerge the leaden feelings of dread that had invaded her chest and smiled warmly at the tired young woman leaning against her.
When they reached the lake, Xena carefully set Gabrielle on her feet and guided the girl to a flat boulder near the edge of the water. She slipped the blanket from her shoulder, spread the material over a grassy area beside her, then took the bathing bag and the waterskin from the bard. The warrior sat down on the blanket and pulled off her boots and leg coverings while the bard opened the blanket wrapped around her body. She reached to steady herself on the warm, smooth rock beneath her. Gabrielle took a moment to let herself enjoy the warm sunshine, the sparkles dancing on the surface of the water and the sight of her best friend sitting comfortably in the middle of the blanket. She returned the warrior's gentle smile as she directed her attention to shedding her own boots.
Xena stood up close to the boulder, her strong, slender hands perched on her narrow hips. She followed the bard's focus, taking a moment to enjoy the sight of the lovely lake and the beautiful day as well. The warrior's attention drifted back to the bard, letting her eyes travel over the trim, muscled form and the soft, young face. So much had happened to them during the recent months; for a fleeting moment, Xena found herself battling the deep, abiding apprehension that had clamped a heavy presence around her chest. Had they come this far only to be parted by this ominous disease? The warrior gulped quietly; 'I'll be damned in Tartarus before I let her go again,' she vowed. She met the bard's shaky grin with a wide smile.
"Ready?" Xena asked. Gabrielle grinned warmly and pushed herself forward off the edge of the rock. She put a tentative hand on the warrior's arm, then yelped softly as the tall woman lifted her into her arms. She gave her tall friend a slightly deprecating pout before settling comfortably against the woman's chest and relaxed to enjoy the ride. The warrior walked slowly into the cool, clear water.
Xena carefully lowered the bard into the rippling water, keeping the lithe, trim body level with the surface of the pool. She bent her knees to bring the girl below the water enough to allow it to gently caress the bard's warm form. Gabrielle gasped quietly as the cool water washed over her, the contrast between the pool and her feverish frame awakening her senses. She leaned back, relaxing in the warrior's strong hold, enjoying the cooling sensation as she let her hair glide into the water. Xena kept a careful watch, making sure the water didn't cover Gabrielle's face but allowed the liquid to engulf the trim figure, lapping gently at the bard's loose-fitting tunic and caressing her long blonde hair.
The bard raised her head and returned the warrior's watchful gaze. The girl's contented grin heightened the tall woman's spirits. Even in her concerned state, the sight of the young blonde's pleasure gave the warrior a feeling of renewal. She tightened her grip on her compact companion, lowered the girl into the water for another moment, then raised the trim body out of the water again. She carefully released Gabrielle's knees to allow the girl to stand on the soft bottom surface of the pond. She watched the young face closely.
"You still OK?" the warrior asked cautiously. "Not too cold?" The bard ran her fingers through her wet hair.
"No," she said softly. "You were right. This was just what I needed." She laughed quietly, brought the back of her hand to cover a small cough, and smiled happily into the warrior's tender expression. The bard took a firm hold on Xena's arm and lowered herself into the water, letting the clear water wash over her face. After she stood up, shaking the water away from her hair, she leveled an impish grin at her partner.
"So, when does my hairdressing take place?" The soggy eyebrows skipped upward. "Oh, you thought I forgot, huh?"
The warrior smiled widely. "Nope, I knew you wouldn't," Xena chortled. She sloshed toward the edge of the water. "Come on back over here," she called to the bard. The warrior picked up the bathing bag, pulled open the cords at the neck, withdrew a small pouch and dropped the square of soap into her other hand. She turned back toward the girl, sat down in the water and gestured to the bard. Gabrielle trekked slowly toward the reclining warrior, pivoted and settled herself between the warrior's knees, her torso nearly covered by the cool water, her head in the warrior's lap. Xena used the soap to build a handful of lather then transferred her attention to the blonde head in front of her.
The warrior worked deftly without wasting time; she didn't want Gabrielle to spend an unnecessary amount of time in the water or be subjected to a chill as a result of the experience. Xena completed the hair cleansing in short order, working her long fingers through the soft tresses, using her fingertips to massage the girl's scalp and hairline before gently lowering the blonde head to the water to rinse away the soap. In just a few minutes, Gabrielle was shaking her clean hair across her shoulders. The warrior stood up and moved smoothly to the blankets. She gathered up one woolen expanse, holding it wide as a suggestion to her companion . Gabrielle shook her wet head one more time before pulling herself out of the water and striding slowly toward the covering.
Xena wrapped the blanket snugly around the wet, slender form and guided the girl back onto the boulder . She pulled a large linen piece from the bathing bag and draped it over the long wheat-colored tresses, then wrapped the material around the bard's head like a turban. Gabrielle laughed softly, responding to the warrior's gentle prowess. When her head was warmly ensconced in the linen, she craned her face around to gaze up at the sleek warrior.
"Haven't I had enough funny hats?" the bard chirped cheerfully. The warrior's smile faded quickly when the little blonde bent her head to endure a loud bout of coughing. However, the tall woman's keen hearing detected a slightly less ragged quality to the hacking. She decided at least the congestion in the young woman's chest was lessening. She told herself, even a small piece of good news was welcome.
"You gonna be OK for a minute?" she asked. The girl nodded as a tiny bit of her normal robust color returned to her cheeks. She pulled the blanket around herself and bent to sweep away the small bits of leaves and particles of dirt that clung to her feet before pulling on her boots. Meanwhile, the warrior picked up the square of soap, rinsed it off in the clear water and returned it to the small pouch in the bathing bag. She sat down on the blanket, rummaging in the bathing bag again.
Xena pulled out another expanse of cloth from the bag and spent a few minutes drying her arms and shoulders before briskly running the cloth over her legs and feet. After she had pulled on her boots and leg coverings, she stood up, draped the cloth over one shoulder and dropped the bathing bag casually into the bard's lap. The warrior laid her hand on the girl's shoulder.
"Well, you're all clean and so's your hair. Let's get you back to bed and have some supper." Gabrielle turned a tired, but happy grin up into the bronze face. She stood up and took a short step toward the warrior. Xena picked up the other blanket, handed it to the girl and easily swept the small form into her arms again. She turned and retraced her steps to the cave.
Chapter Four ~~~
Once they were back inside the cozy little cavern, Xena put the bard down next to the bedrolls and helped the girl settle herself on the blankets. Gabrielle dropped the extra blanket, handed the warrior the bathing bag and the tall woman tossed it across the cave toward the saddlebags. Xena spent a few moments rubbing the moisture from her own dark locks with the cloth from her shoulder, watching the bard unwrap her blonde head and perform the same kind of duty. The warrior let her eyes linger for a moment on the sweet, flushed face. She was pleased to notice the dull, sluggish look had receded somewhat from the green pools. She spread the damp linen she'd been using over a rocky point in the cave wall and faced the bard.
"You still OK?" Gabrielle nodded, still concerned with drying her hair.
"Then I'm going to tend to Argo .. make sure she's set for the night." The warrior cast a quick look at the cave opening. "Be right back and then we can try my new recipe for rabbit stew."
Gabrielle smiled warmly at the golden face above her. "New recipe? Hmm, sounds ... interesting." The girl's grin approached its normal charming clarity.
"So little faith," the warrior quipped dryly. "You'll see," she joked at the girl's impish grin. "You'll be asking me to scribe the ingredients. Just wait." With that, the warrior turned and exited the cave. The little blonde giggled softly.
'Tending to Argo' took only a few minutes. After she had secured a bundle of dry foliage near the tethered horse and checked the contents of the stone pool she had fashioned for the mare's water trough, the warrior quickly returned to the cavern. As she passed through the opening, she saw the bard, still on the bedrolls, her slim legs stretched out in front of her, trying to extricate herself from the damp, linen shift clinging stubbornly to her wet body. The warrior knelt behind the girl and took hold of the hem of the garment.
"Here, let me help you," Xena said and, before Gabrielle could verbalize the quiet objection that had formed in her throat, the warrior smoothly pulled the shift over the girl's head.
Gabrielle grimaced at the sound of the warrior's loud gasp. She closed her eyes for a moment and took a slow, shallow breath. She waited nervously as she felt the blue eyes sweep across her naked back. She had been dreading this moment since they'd returned from their rather odd experience in the land of Illusia. She turned slowly toward her best friend's face.
The bard knew exactly what the warrior was staring at. She had been preparing herself for her friend's reaction; she was fairly sure what that reaction would be. She was not prepared for the look of shame and self-loathing that now covered the sculpted face. The bard saw the tall woman gulp just before her chin began to quiver.
"Gabrielle ... your back." The blue eyes jumped to the bard's gaze, returning quickly to the girl's battered form. "There are burn marks here." The warrior glanced at the green eyes, a look of shock widening the sapphire pools even more. "And this deep bruise on your shoulder. How did you get ....?" Gabrielle lowered her eyes. The warrior's stomach turned over.
The entire quadrant surrounding the girl's right shoulder blazed in a deep, reddish-purple bruise, the edges of the abrasion showing ugly yellow and green stains. Smaller, but equally harsh discolorations covered the rest of the slender back, interspersed with crimson, misshapen scars, clear evidence of painful, although past, burns and raw scrapes. The lean form began to tremble.
"Oh, gods!" the warrior whispered. She laid a shaking hand on the injured flesh as her mouth snapped open. "Is that what happened when I ....?" The tall form began to shake. "Oh GODS!" Xena wailed. "I did this," she croaked, her voice splintering in pain. "I did this!" The tall woman slammed the back of her hand against her mouth, striving with every morsel of control to stem the rising wave of nausea advancing toward her throat. For a moment, the blue eyes stared at the fading bruises and healed burns. Finally, the warrior closed her eyes tightly, tears flowing heavily over the contorted face.
"Xena," the bard began quietly, turning to face her anguished friend. She put one hand on the warrior's arm.
"Gods forgive me!" Xena screamed, pressing both palms to her head. "Gabrielle, I'm so sorry!" The warrior's sobs shook her tall frame. "How can I ever .. can you ever forgive me?" She covered her face with her hands.
"Xena," the bard said, shouting over the tormented howls emerging from the warrior. "Xena, look at me." She tugged at the warrior's hands, firmly pulling the fingers away from the woman's face. Xena dropped her hands pathetically, her expression a study in rampant mortification and self-disgust. The bard took the wet face in her hands, ducking her head to force the warrior's eyes to meet hers.
"Listen to me!" the bard said firmly. "You were out of your mind with grief." She lifted the warrior's chin with her fingers. Slowly, the weeping blue gaze rose to meet the girl's tolerant look. "It's in the past, do you understand?" She gently wiped away the tears from the woman's wet face. "Do you hear me? We've come away from that place."
Xena took a shaky breath and stared sadly into the bard's soft gaze. "We must put this behind us." Gabrielle stroked the bronze face with her fingers. "Please don't torture yourself anymore." The warrior gulped and drew in another wobbly breath. The bard took one slender hand. "It's over," she repeated softly. "You asked me to forgive you, and I have. I've forgiven us both. Please say you do, too."
Xena swallowed heavily, staring forlornly into the soft green gaze. Gabrielle waited quietly, watching the warrior slowly regain her control. She knew her friend well enough, and even after the terrible division which had almost destroyed their friendship, the young blonde still held the tall woman in her deepest regard, feeling more devotion and affection for the warrior than any other person she'd met in her entire young life. The girl saw the pain in the face of her most cherished friend, but she respected the woman too much to try and interfere with her private, intensely personal process.
Finally, the bard pulled the blanket over herself. She raised her focus to the warrior's anguished face. "Can you find my other shift for me, please?" the bard asked calmly. She rubbed her arms, shivering slightly. "I'm getting a little cold."
The simple request broke the warrior's inward condemnation. She shook her head briskly, wiped her face with her hands and stood up, quickly crossing the cave to retrieve the requested item from the saddlebags. She carried the short, beige garment back to the girl huddling on the blankets. She knelt down, holding the short item open at the neck, and started to draw the shift over Gabrielle's head. Her actions halted abruptly when her eyes again focused on the bard's injured back. The warrior froze in position.
The bard swiveled her shoulders to focus on the tall woman's shocked expression. She put one small hand on the warrior's clenched fists. "It's alright," the girl said softly. "They don't hurt anymore." The blue eyes leaped to the green gaze. "Honestly, Xena," the bard said, a gentle smile meeting the leather-clad figure's stare. She took the shift from the warrior, pulled it over her head and drew the material down over her torso. She repositioned her long hair over the collar of the garment, pulled the blanket over her shoulders and sent a warm, loving smile toward the warrior's mortified face.
"It's OK, really it is," the bard said, her hand resting again on the warrior's tense arm. Xena could only stare at the soft young face of her friend. She sat back on her heels, gazing in amazement at the devotion still present in the sea-green eyes. The dark head moved slowly from side to side. Sobbing painfully, Xena leaned forward and quickly gathered the little form into her arms, holding the young woman close and stroking the blonde head. The bard returned the embrace, her arms wrapped loosely around the warrior's waist.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, her throat so tight she could barely breathe. "I'm so sorry." She sat back to gaze into the pale, young face. "I never meant ...." the warrior gasped. "I was so ...."
The bard laid a gentle palm over the warrior's quivering mouth. "Shh," the girl said softly. "It's in the past. I have you back now and I'm thanking Artemis for that ... everyday." The warrior pulled the girl close again.
"I'm so sorry ... please ... forgive me."
Gabrielle leaned back from the tender embrace. She cupped the side of the smooth face and smiled warmly into the sorrowful blue eyes. The bard brought her cheek against the warrior's. "I already have," she whispered. She sat back to gaze into the tearful azure pools. "We have to move forward, now." She gathered the woman's long fingers in hers.
The warrior trembled, pulled in a deep breath and brought the small hand to her lips. "Yes," the tall woman whispered, swallowing hard. "Yes."
After another moment, the bard cast a playful grin at the warrior's solemn face. "So," she chirped, pulling the blanket over herself. "Where's this rabbit stew you've been bragging about?" the girl joked. She turned to inspect the campfire. "Let's see if it's as good as you claim."
The warrior's control slowly returned. The statement, obviously intended to soothe her aching conscience, sent a wave of relief through the tall, leather-clad figure, but for an entirely different reason. The bard was hungry ... a condition she had not displayed with any insistence since they'd settled into the cave. It was a very good sign and the warrior's heart skipped at the welcome news. The bronze face quietly softened and smiled.
"Comin' right up," Xena said, her voice still showing the effects of her tears. The tall form rose from the blankets and moved to the campfire, wiping the vestiges of the moisture away with a slender palm. In a short time, the fire danced back to life from within the circle of stones.
Chapter Five ~~~
Xena replaced the small kettle on the new flames, stirring the thick stew with a thin tool she'd fashioned from a soft piece of wood. Gabrielle slid down onto the bedrolls, her blonde head propped on her fist. She watched the warrior add a handful of wild mushrooms to the steaming mixture in the pot. The little bard studied the smooth, golden face with a knowing eye. It was a face she knew well and loved deeply. When the small, imperceptible rippling slipped across the smooth, sculpted cheekbones, the reaction did not escape her attention. The girl knew her warrior friend was striving madly to maintain the stoicism and control for which she had become known. Gabrielle felt her stomach twist at the sight of the tall woman's continued discomfort.
The warrior could feel the soft green eyes on her face. She gulped against the tightness in her throat and forced herself to concentrate on the kettle bubbling over the fire. A long, quiet moment passed between the two women. Finally, the bard lowered her eyes and began tracing patterns in the folds of the blanket.
Xena slowly raised her eyes to the trim figure on the bedrolls. Her jaw tightened at the sight of the dark smudges visible under the long, fair lashes, the pallid color of the girl's normally pink cheeks. She had been willing to let herself believe the discolorations were the result of the young bard's continuing battle with the insidious illness; now she realized that her conclusion had only been a convenient ruse to soothe her own ravaged conscience. As she gazed at the sweet face of her soulmate, the warrior's internal rebuke reignited. She swallowed hard and addressed her best friend.
"Gabrielle?" the tall woman began, gulping quickly when the sea-green eyes rose to meet her gaze.
"I really am sorry .. about .. what happened ... when I came to ..." Xena's throat constricted tightly. She covered her mouth with one hand.
"I know," Gabrielle said quietly, lowering her eyes to the blanket. The warrior's heart thumped at the pain of betrayal in the soft voice. She held her breath as she waited for the young woman to continue. Suddenly, a terrifying dread had settled within her. After what seemed like a very long time, the bard raised her eyes.
"In all the time we've been together, I've seen that look of ... vengeance any number of times." Gabrielle spoke quietly, the softness of her tone giving her words an even more intense quality. "I never thought I'd ever see it ... coming at me." The bard shuddered and lowered her eyes for a moment. "That's what really hurt, Xena." The girl met the blue stare with a purpose. "It wasn't the ... trip across the valley behind the horse." Gabrielle let her eyes linger on the warrior's.
"I always thought we'd be friends forever ... that nothing could ever come between us." The verdant pools glistened with unshed tears. Gabrielle swallowed quickly, lowering her gaze to her fingers. "I don't think I've ever told you but," she raised her eyes on the cobalt pools again. "Sometimes, when I'd get really frightened or start feeling ... very inept." The young face softened. "I'd hear your voice .. in my head. And it would always take the panic away." The warrior swallowed slowly, ignoring the wetness on her face.
Gabrielle lowered her eyes. "After Hope ...." The girl closed her eyes for a moment, then met the blue stare again. "After what happened to Solan ... I felt so .. empty ... so ashamed of what I'd done." The bard's tears washed over her face.
The warrior leaned slightly toward her small friend. The sleek body stiffened when the girl raised one small hand. "No, I was responsible ... my daughter killed your son," Gabrielle said firmly, a sad acknowledgment in the quiet statement. "It sliced open my heart ... and yours too." The warrior blinked, the blue eyes locked on those her friend. "It doesn't matter how it started," the bard said sadly. "It ended with Solan's death." The emerald gaze traveled slowly over the bronze face. Finally, the girl spoke again.
"Then, when I tried to tell you how sorry I was ... and you wouldn't even listen to me ...." For an instant, the bard's expression grew somewhat bitter. "I thought I would die, too. And when you just ... left ... I was sure I would."
Xena swallowed quietly. She pulled her gaze from her partner's, her thoughts divided. Part of her resented the quiet accusation, but part of her accepted responsibility for the girl's pain. Her eyes rose to meet the bard's again. The green eyes had softened.
Gabrielle took a slow breath, a small, hesitant smile warming her weary face. "But, I didn't and I'm grateful that we're ... past that now." The warrior continued to stare at the young face. "I know neither of us will ... forget what happened," the girl said, her voice cracking slightly. "But, I .. pray .. we can go forward ." The green eyes rested on the smooth, sculpted features. "Do you think we can?" the bard asked softly, the emerald pools pleading. Gabrielle pulled her lower lip between her teeth as two large, heavy tears slowly glided over her face.
A moment later, the warrior had gathered the small, trim form into her arms. She held the little form close, stroking the soft blonde hair. Xena sighed gratefully when she felt the bard's arms slide around her waist. The two friends sat quite still for a long moment. Then the smooth voice sounded in the small cave.
"Yes, Gabrielle," Xena said quietly, settling back to address her best friend. She used her long fingers to wipe away the girl's tears. "We can ... and we'll be stronger from this." The little blonde smiled. "I feel it in my soul ... we will." The warrior pulled her friend close again. "We will ... we will," she whispered, her own quiet prayer forming in her head.
Xena released the bard and moved back to the fire. As she stirred the contents of the bubbling kettle, she gave her friend a warm smile. Gabrielle responded to the loving expression in kind, but it soon became apparent that the effects of the short jaunt to the lake combined with the emotional discussion with the warrior had greatly drained her waning strength. She lowered her weary form back onto the bedrolls, tucking one trim arm under her head and slowly closing her eyes.
"Wake me up when it's ready," she said, breathing deeply. "Can't wait to sample your 'new' recipe." The sweet face lit in a little grin.
Xena watched the trim form relax as the girl quickly fell fast asleep. The warrior's happy expression faded slowly. She studied the young face, still concerned about the pale, fragile cast to the girl's skin. She stepped back to the bedrolls and pulled the blanket over the small figure, gently stroking the soft, blonde hair. Her heart filled with affection for the young bard. The warrior bent to place a gentle kiss on the girl's forehead before she sat back, her hands resting on her sleek thighs.
'Stop hating.' Lao Ma's quiet instruction echoed in the warrior's head. 'Stop hurting ... stop wanting .... stop hating.' Xena closed her eyes and visualized her gentle Oriental mentor. 'You've been dead a long time, Xena,' the vision told her. 'It's time for you to live.' Xena opened her eyes and gazed down at the young blonde's peaceful expression.
"You too, my precious, little friend," the warrior whispered. "Time for the hurting to end."
Xena tenderly slid her palm under the small hand lying on the bedroll. She closed her fingers over the soft skin for a moment before covering the hand with the blanket. She stood up and returned to the fire, focusing once more on the metal pot. She stirred the bubbling contents as her gaze swept the cave floor for the waterskin. It took only a moment for Xena to remember ... she had left the waterskin at the lake. She cursed her own short-sightedness.
Xena glanced at the sleeping bard, pulled the kettle out of the fire and stood up. On her way out of the cave, she slid her sword into its scabbard. As she made her way back to the lake, she tried to push back her irritation with herself. She decided she could always check the traps again. The warrior quickened her steps. She didn't want to waste any more time; Gabrielle needed sustenance and the day was slipping away.
In a short time Xena had arrived at the bank of the pond. She found the waterskin, uncorked it and pushed the open skin under the surface of the water, quickly refilling the bag. She recorked the sack and turned toward the cave again. Coincidently, her eyes lit upon one of her traps and she bent to retrieve the carcass captured in the apparatus. She quickly skinned and dressed the animal, cleaned her knife and resumed her trek back to the cave.
The tall woman's thoughts once again settled on the small, quiet form lying on the blankets in the dry, safe enclosure. Perhaps, had she not been concentrating so completely on her friend's condition, and on her own blinding, heart-wrenching remorse, the warrior might have heard the heavy rustling in the brush beside her. Unfortunately, she did not.
Chapter Six ~~~
It took only an instant for the warrior to recognize the menacing form emerging from beneath the dancing foliage. The small, flashing eyes, large ears and drooling snout clearly identified the approaching beast. Even more classifying were the long, sinister tusks rising from each side of the grisly jaw, their character formidable and threatening. The animal was crouched low, ready to attack, a predatory gleam shining in the beady, ominous eyes. And those eyes were trained on the pelt hanging from the warrior's hand. Xena stopped walking and quietly reached for the sword on her back.
She never saw the animal move toward her. A split second later, the dark, brown hide slipped from under the withering foliage and surged into the woman's chest, knocking her backwards and quickly dislodging the sword from her hand. She immediately felt the hot, foul-smelling breath from the creature assault her face. She grabbed two handfuls of grizzly hide and pushed with all her might.
For the next few minutes, a grim battle ensued as the animal and the warrior each strained to gain the upper hand. Xena wrapped both legs around the scraggy beast and grunted as she felt the brutal creature roll across her chest, pulling her over with it. The sharp rocks and jagged ends of the brittle branches along the path tore at the warrior's back and the sides of her legs. The animal squealed hideously, wrenching his massive head from side to side, trying to free himself from the warrior's grasp. Xena wailed as the long, sharp tusks scraped against her stomach. The two avenging forms rolled over, then rolled over each other once more.
Finally, the warrior was able to wedge her foot against the side of one of the large, thick trees. She summoned all her strength and pushed hard against the coarse-haired body pinning hers to the ground. With a final shriek, the animal was flung backwards, away from the prone warrior, landing hard against the base of another tree. Xena drew in a short breath as she watched the angry beast slowly regain his balance. She glanced quickly around the area, trying desperately to locate her sword. Her gaze found the weapon a short distance away, above her head and slightly to her right. She twisted her body around and reached for the sword. The moment her hand closed around the hilt, she turned back toward the advancing animal.
Before she could focus on the hairy form, Xena screamed as the searing pain of the animal's tusk sliced into her side. As her vision began to waver, she brought her sword down hard across the shank of the animal's shoulder, enjoying a grim satisfaction as she felt the wide blade sink into the thick hide. The beast screeched and stumbled backwards, snorted once at the wounded woman on the ground, snapped up the small animal carcass and quickly darted into the undergrowth, eventually disappearing into the forest. A few moments later, an eerie silence settled over the wind-swept path as the warrior pressed her hand against the ragged tear in the side of her leathers. Her last thought as darkness replaced her consciousness was of the small, blonde friend whose name she whispered.
"Gabrielle ....." Then the warrior's world went black.
Chapter Seven ~~~
Inside the cave, Gabrielle awakened suddenly as the violent shivering assaulting her body shook her abruptly awake. For several minutes, the bard lay clutching the blankets covering her, trying valiantly to stop the frightening tremors. Eventually, the quaking subsided as the young blonde attempted to regain some semblance of awareness. When she could focus again, she raised her head to search the cavern for the tall warrior.
Gabrielle turned toward the entrance of the cave, experiencing a moderate level of apprehension when she noticed the approaching darkness apparent outside the opening. She let her eyes wander around the cave again. She saw the small pot sitting next to the circle of stones and noticed the low level of the flames in the midst of the circle. The green eyes fell to the warrior's armor, laying neatly under the saddlebags. What she didn't see was the sleek, leather-clad form of the warrior. Despite her afflicted state, a growing uneasiness began to gnaw at the bard's wavering sensibilities; something was very, very wrong.
The bard pulled off the blankets and rolled over, slowly pulling herself up onto her hands and knees. She crawled the short distance to the side of the cave, took a deep breath and was immediately overcome by the sharp pain radiating across her chest. She pushed the heel of her hand against the blinding ache for a moment, gathered her resources again and slowly stood up using the stones in the cave wall. She waited while the dizziness behind her eyes cleared before moving unevenly along the wall toward the entrance to the cave. It was a slow, painful, tedious journey.
Once outside the cave, Gabrielle tried desperately to focus on the forest surrounding the chamber. She raised a hand to her eyes in an attempt to deflect the rising wind swirling around her. The cold air sliced through her fever-ridden body, lifting the blonde hair away from the damp neck and pelting the stricken form with twigs and debris from the dirt path. The bard leaned against a tree and searched the area for any sign of her tall friend.
Finally the squinting green eyes caught sight of a small, brown patch of leather partially covered by some low-hanging branches. The welcome sight brought a tiny surge of energy to the trembling bard. She moved shakily toward the brown figure, using the trees along the path to steady her steps. As she got closer to the form, a putrid sense of panic invaded the young woman's throat when she realized exactly what she was seeing. She lurched toward the leather patch, her eyes now riveted on the sight ahead of her. "Oh, gods! NO!"
Gabrielle dropped to the ground next to the prone form of her friend. She hardly noticed the grating pain that surged through her chest as she pulled on the warrior's sleek arm. Struggling against her own breathlessness, the bard reached across the tall woman's back and pulled at the warrior's arm on her other side. As the silent form turned over, Gabrielle gasped at the blood covering the front of the leather tunic. She gently touched the warrior's face.
"Xena?" the bard whispered. Her heart plummeted when there was no reaction from the immobile warrior.
The blonde head wrenched backward as a frenzied scream escaped the girl's throat. She pulled the warrior's form toward her, cradling the silent figure to her chest and rocking mournfully.
"Not now!" the girl shrieked. "Not like this." A tragic sob shook the bard's trembling form. "Please, Sweet Artemis, don't take her away from me again. Oh, gods! NO!" She pulled the dark head to her chest.
>From deep within the dark realm of the blinding pain, the warrior heard the sorrowful appeal of her soulmate. She struggled valiantly against the comforting release of the shadowy blackness. With one final burst of her will, she pushed the agony in her side away and reached up toward the sweet, loving sound of the bard's voice. The dark lashes fluttered and the blue eyes drifted open.
"Gabrielle," the warrior whispered and the fragile sound immediately pulled the bard's eyes to hers. "You should be in the cave ... you're sick." A very timid smile began to appear on the anguished, golden face. A moment later, the blonde's shaky laugh trilled amidst the whistling wind. She gulped and smiled weakly at the warrior.
"I thought you weren't going to scare me like this anymore." The warrior's tired smile widened.
"Sorry ... lost my head," the warrior said in a coarse voice. She clenched her teeth together and raised an unsteady hand toward the girl's wet face. "Maybe you should tell that to the pig." Gabrielle captured the hand and pulled it to her cheek. Then she focused on the warrior's agonized expression.
"Is it gone?" Xena asked in a thready voice. The bard's expression showed her confusion. "The pig," the warrior repeated. "Is the pig gone?" Gabrielle quickly scanned the surrounding area.
"Yeah," she assured the warrior. "I don't see anything nearby." She returned her attention to her friend. "Can you walk?" she asked the figure in her arms.
"I think so," Xena said, slowly raising her ravaged body off the ground. The bard tried to assist her tall friend. "Let's get out of this wind," the warrior said when she was on her feet again. Gabrielle bent quickly to retrieve the weapon and the waterskin. She looped the strap of the skin over her shoulder and tucked her arm around the woman's waist. Xena wrapped one arm around the bard's shoulders and pressed her free hand to her side. The two friends turned and started toward the cave.
Gabrielle lowered herself to the cave floor, gently removing the warrior's arm from around her shoulders. Xena crumpled onto the earthen surface beside her, gasping as the seething pain radiating from the wound in her side sent waves of nausea through her. After a long moment, the tall warrior sat back on her knees, supporting herself on one hand, and tried hard to focus on the young blonde's face.
"You should ...." the warrior grimaced, holding her side. "You should be under those blankets ... you're burning up." The tall woman pushed aside the serious aspect of the warm, sticky wash of blood that quickly covered her hand.
The bard's flimsy smile lit her gentle expression. "Look who's giving orders," she quipped in a fragile voice. "You aren't exactly in top form either, my warrior friend." Gabrielle took several shallow breaths. She dragged the waterskin across her lap and handed it to the warrior, who sipped the liquid cautiously.
"Point taken," Xena panted, clenching her teeth. "Please ... Gabrielle," the warrior pleaded. "You have to stay warm." She cast a deprecating glance at the long, ragged tear in her leathers. "I'll be OK, once I stitch this up." She looked up at the bard again. "But, your fever won't go away if you don't ...." The warrior's stern tone was quickly dispelled by the low, agonizing groan that escaped from her twisted grimace.
Gabrielle laid her hand on the warrior's sweaty face. "Xena, you're not indestructible, you know?" The little bard gave in to a short fit of coughing. She pressed her free hand against her temple, fighting the new wave of dizziness that clouded her senses. She blinked and tried to focus on the warrior again.
"We have to bind that," she said, her eyes dropping quickly to the blood oozing around the hand the warrior held against her side. "At least, let me do that first."
Xena closed her eyes, steeling herself against the rampant pain in her side. She dropped her head, panting through the wave of agony. The bard watched nervously as the warrior fought to regain her blinding control. After a moment, Xena's blue eyes met the bard's worried gaze.
"You might be right at that," the warrior muttered. She took another shaky breath, fell forward and crawled slowly toward the side of the cave. She breathed heavily as she leaned against the rocky wall, the sculpted face covered in perspiration and raw, red scrapes, another indication of her wrestling match with the grizzled beast. The tall woman clenched her teeth and concentrated on staying conscious.
"But after that, you get back under the blankets. Agreed?" the warrior decreed. The bard nodded tiredly.
A short time later, Gabrielle sat back from the warrior, a worried expression covering her pale face. She'd carefully cut away the torn, bloodied leathers and tenderly cleaned away the blood from the ragged slash in the woman's side. She knew it was only a stopgap measure at best, but she'd taken her usual care and concern anyway.
"I looked for the tormentil in the herb bag," the bard said, mentioning the medicinal plant they normally used to fight off infection in a wound such as the warrior's. "I couldn't find any." The green eyes studied the warrior's reluctant gaze.
"I used it. There wasn't much left, anyway," Xena answered quietly, her eyes steady on her friend's. For a moment, she was relieved when she thought the bard hadn't caught the reference to her statement. But the girl's stricken look soon changed her perception.
"The tea," the bard said quietly. The blue gaze blinked slowly. "You used it for my tea, didn't you?"
Xena sent a sheepish grin at the girl's guilty look. She shrugged lightly and met the concern in the green gaze. "You needed it ... you're still sick." She gently stroked the bard's soft face. Gabrielle took the slender hand in both of hers. She blinked against the tears gathering in her eyes.
"Oh, Xena," the bard whispered. The little blonde brought the hand to her face.
"Don't give me that look," the tall woman chided. "I made the necessary choice for the situation."
The two friends exchanged a long, tender glance. Finally, Gabrielle released the slender hand, wiped her face and moved closer to the bedrolls. The girl gathered one of the blankets in her hands and scooted back to the warrior's side.
Using Xena's knife, the bard cut a wide piece from one of their blankets. She folded one end of the piece into a thick pad then secured it over the warrior's wound with another long strip cut from the same material. Gabrielle's heart fluttered when she noticed how quickly the dark blood stain began to emerge through the bandage. She glanced at the stoic bronze face as she tied the ends of the dressing.
"That's going to take a lot of stitches," the bard said quietly. Abruptly Gabrielle leaned forward, overcome by a heavy, debilitating bout of coughing. The girl dropped her head and braced her hands on the floor, her small body convulsing roughly as the hacking eruptions shook her frame. After a long, painful moment, Gabrielle gulped and tried heartily to gather air. Finally, she raised her head and gazed apologetically into the warrior's anxious face. She drew a shaky hand over her forehead, trying hard to displace the throbbing pain between her eyes.
The warrior's palm closed weakly on the little hand closest to hers. "Gabrielle, please go back to bed," Xena pleaded. "You've already put yourself in more danger by going out into this damp air."
Gabrielle took in a series of short breaths, clenching her teeth against the jarring pain that galloped across her chest. She forced herself to smile bravely. "Yeah, OK," the blonde said, panting heavily. "But, I want you to promise me ... you'll wake me up if you need anything." The warrior blinked slowly.
"I mean it, Xena," the bard said, her voice unexpectedly firm. "Otherwise, I'm staying right here until ...."
"Alright, I promise," the warrior said wearily. She swallowed hard and clenched her fists as another wave of agony pulsed in her side. "Just hand me the waterskin. I'll be alright where I am."
The bard did as she instructed. After a moment, she glanced at the wavering flames in the meek campfire. She dragged herself upright, crossed the short distance to the stone circle and added a few short logs from the stack next to the fire. She paused a moment to regain her strength before taking a weaving path back to the bedrolls. When she was lying down again, she sent one last glassy look at the still, lean form.
"Just remember, you promised," the girl said in a thin voice. A moment later, the bard fell back exhausted under the thin blankets, instantly giving in to the overwhelming fatigue consuming her. The warrior watched the green eyes close before she collapsed back against the rocky wall. The blackness she'd been fighting finally won.
Xena woke up first ... that is, she awakened a short while later. 'Up' was a relative term, and at that moment, she was definitely not 'up'. After taking a few moments to reacquaint herself with her surroundings, she slowly turned to head toward the raspy breathing rattling from the form to her right. The warrior's blue gaze settled worriedly on the small form curled up under the thin blankets on the bedrolls. She pushed herself away from the wall and reached for the bard.
Instantly, a sharp, primal groan escaped from the tall form as the horrible, torrid pain ravaged through her side. Xena clutched the raging area, an agonized grimace contorting the golden face. She leaned forward, bracing her weight on her free hand, and slowly expelled her breath, the sound hissing loudly around her clenched teeth. She waited while the wave of queasiness dissipated before falling back against the cavern wall again. Several minutes passed while the warrior's implacable will reinstated her focus.
Xena pulled off the cork in the waterskin, lifted the skin and swallowed several mouthfuls of the water. Afterward, she splashed a small puddle into her hand and swept the cool liquid over her face. As her senses slowly cleared, the warrior's usually sharp perception presented a blatant fact for her consideration; the waterskin was now empty and one of the primary requirements for the bard's recovery, as well as her own, was the consumption of water. The cool, blue eyes drifted back to the small, quiet form huddled on the blankets. She let out a long, exasperated sigh, grit her teeth and carefully stood up.
The warrior steadied herself against the craggy wall and gathered her resources. She called upon the powerful, stalwart will within herself, pushing the furious agony in her body into the recesses of her mind. In a very short time, the tall, slender form turned and began to move toward the opening of the cave, the limp waterskin dangling from her fist. Her single, encompassing, determining thought was the completion of the task she had set for herself - to fill the waterskin in order to tend to her best friend. She ignored the seething fire in her side. A short time later, the warrior returned to the cave, a full waterskin hanging by its strap from her shoulder and a small, animal carcass grasped in her hand. Xena moved slowly toward the dwindling fire, carefully knelt down and dropped the skin onto the earthen floor. She sat forward, her long, slender palms flat on the dirt, and indulged her exhausted body, drawing slow, heavy breaths into her lungs and blinking deliberately to clear the blurring in her vision. When she had regained a modicum of control, she pulled another log onto the fire, used the waterskin to fill the small cooking pot again and set the vessel in the midst of the revitalized blaze.
She stood up gingerly, pressing one hand against the soaked, bloody bandage clinging to her side, crossed the cavern to the saddlebags and withdrew several items from within the pouches, including the medical kit, a clean piece of white cloth and the remaining blanket. Xena returned to the fire, spread the blanket, knelt down on it, laid the kit and the piece of cloth next to her. She sat back on her heels, her attention on the small kettle. She opened her fist to deposit the handful of various herbs and dried vegetables she had retrieved from the saddlebags into the water, then stirred the steaming contents with the thin wooden tool. She laid the wood down on the heated stones, sat back and spent the next few moments taking slow, labored, deep breaths until the cloudiness in her head subsided. Then she picked up her knife again.
Xena splashed some water onto her knife, scrubbing the edge of the blade. When she was satisfied with the relatively clean state of the sharp weapon, she laid the knife at the edge of the stones surrounding the campfire, the blade resting directly within the leaping flames. She watched the moisture quickly disappear from the edge of the knife. A soft, gentle voice broke her contemplation.
"Xena, what's happening?"
The warrior looked up to find the bard's gaze trained on her face. The girl's expression was equal parts concern and irritation. The emerald pools swept over the pain-ridden figure crouching near the fire. Gabrielle pulled off the blankets and moved to kneel near the warrior. She put her hand on the woman's sweaty arm.
"Your side?" the girl asked. "It's worse, isn't it?" Xena dropped her head and grit her teeth as another raging agony pounded through her side. When the pain had subsided enough, she took a breath, swallowed and sat forward, hands spread on her thighs, exerting every effort she possessed to conquer the seething torment. She felt the bard's slim arm slide around her shoulders.
"Xena," the bard said. "Please, let me help you." After a brief moment of weak denial, Xena agreed. She let the girl guide her back to her place near the wall. When the warrior was finally settled, Gabrielle's eyes fell to the blood-soaked bandage. She clamped her teeth together, too late to stifle the horrified gasp that escaped her throat. The green pools floated up to the warrior's glassy stare and the droplets of perspiration traveling slowly down the side of the warrior's face. The little blonde swallowed slowly.
"OK, you win," she said, a brave smile warming her gentle expression. "You've got the biggest 'owwee'." The warrior let out a fragile chuckle. It faded quickly at the terrified gaze flashing in the emerald pools. "Now will you let me help you?" A fresh glimmer of courage sparkled in the young woman's gaze. The warrior swallowed hard ... and nodded quietly.
Gabrielle turned her attention to the knotted ends of the woolen bandage she had affixed to the warrior's side. Concentrating hard on the teary image challenging her vision, the bard slowly untied the knot, lifted the bloody strip and carefully unwrapped the long section covering the middle of the leather-clad torso. Xena grit her teeth as Gabrielle slowly began to pry away the wadded piece which had tightly adhered to the wound, enmeshed in the blood that even now caked and oozed from the slash.
The warrior took a deep breath as Gabrielle pulled steadily at the material, a tormented grimace covering the bronze face. The sleek form stiffened in stoic discomfort as the bard tenderly worked the material free. Finally, the bloody patch fell away allowing Gabrielle a clear view of the damage done to the warrior's body. She dropped the wet, sanguine-colored piece onto the earthen floor, drew a shaky hand across her mouth and leaned forward to examine the long, ragged gash in the supple flesh.
Blood flowed easily from the exposed wound, several large droplets already making a crimson path over the slender hip and seeping slowly under the flap left in the slashed leathers. Gabrielle studied the ugly slash as she carefully dabbed at the area with a piece of dampened cloth. She noticed the purplish-red cast to the flesh surrounding the repulsive gouge; it was a serious ... and dangerous ... characteristic of this type of wound. After a long moment, the girl raised her eyes to the warrior's. Her heart trembled at the clear look of suffering in the wavering, glassy pools.
"You were right about the stitches," Xena said in a raspy voice. "But, it looks like you'll have to put them in." She forced a sheepish grin into her expression. "Bad angle for me." The bard's blonde head tilted slightly, the green eyes soft and compassionate on her friend's brave face. She gathered one of the woman's slender hands in hers, choosing to push aside the scolding statements forming in her mind. The blue eyes blinked and the young blonde's throat tightened at the ripple that floated under the sleek face when the warrior clenched her teeth in agony.
"I left the medicine kit by the fire," Xena panted softly, trying to gather her strength. "You feel strong enough to try them?"
Gabrielle gave the warrior a reproachful grin. She laid the dampened cloth against the ugly gash, positioned the warrior's hand over the material, stood up and crossed back to the campfire. She knelt and pulled out the medical instruments, placing the long, thick suturing needle on the ring of stones. She turned back to the warrior. Her instincts lurched at the look of regret in the flickering pools trained on hers. The bard held her breath. She stood up and moved to kneel next to the warrior again.
"Gabrielle," the warrior began evenly. "You'll have to burn the edges first." Gabrielle's stomach tightened. A tiny gasp sounded in the small cave.
"Gods, Xena," the girl whispered. "I can't. I know I can't do it."
"Yes, you can," Xena said, her voice thready but firm. "You have to. It's the only way to cleanse the wound." The bard spent a moment remembering the foul-tasting, but effective tea the warrior had selflessly prepared for her. The green pools were remorseful on the blue gaze. Xena covered the bard's hand, her slender palm warm against the girl's little fist.
"You can do it." The statement was more a plea, rather than a directive. "I trust you," the warrior said, her eyes gentle on the face of her best friend. "I may have waited too long, already," the warrior confessed ruefully before the fiery pain in her side contorted her face. She tensed through the sharp slice, her eyes closed tightly, before falling back against the rock wall again. The blue eyes drifted open to meet the bard's anxious gaze. She saw the young woman gulp. "But ... I want you to try, anyway."
"OK," Gabrielle said in a very small voice. "I won't let you down, Xena. Not this time." The warrior's bronze face softened.
"That's my girl," Xena said. After a moment, the face cleared again. "I left my knife on the fire ring." Gabrielle's eyes located the sharp weapon then turned back to the warrior's. "Go on," Xena coaxed gently. The girl turned and slowly approached the fire.
Xena directed her attention toward unlacing the seam in the middle of her leather tunic. When she had loosened the ties enough, she pulled the opening wider, shrugged her shoulders from under the straps and lifted the torn garment over her head. The tedious effort would have completely exhausted any other living being; somehow, the tall warrior maintained her concentration throughout the maneuver.
Xena tossed her battered leathers aside, leaned back against the wall and watched the bard kneel down at the fire. She saw the slim, muscled back straighten purposefully. The blue eyes searched near the wall of the cave, finally locating the necessary item. The warrior captured the article with one hand before the cobalt pools closed tiredly for a moment.
Gabrielle uncorked the waterskin, splashed some of the liquid into one hand, lowered the skin and rubbed her palms together. She shook the extra moisture from her fingers, picked up the length of cloth and carefully wiped her hands. After draping the fabric over her shoulder, she gulped nervously and pulled the warrior's sturdy knife from the flames, her eyes settling fearfully on the white-hot blade.
The bard took a deep breath, then was forced to press her forearm over her mouth as a short, unexpected bout of coughing rattled her concentration. She shrugged off the irritation in her throat, carefully cradled the weapon in the loose cloth, stood up and walked back to the warrior settled against the rocky wall. She knelt next to her friend, gently dabbing at the bloody wound with the damp cloth the warrior had dropped into her lap. The green eyes slowly raised to meet the warrior's trusting gaze. The girl's pulse leaped.
The tall warrior smiled wearily and swallowed, her eyes steady on the young woman's anxious face. She traced the soft chin with a long, slender finger. The bard pulled her lower lip between her teeth. The warrior dropped her hand and settled herself against the rocky wall.
"Go ahead. Do it," Xena said, her voice ragged and thin. She raised her other hand and placed a long, flat piece of wood between her teeth, biting down hard on the rugged surface. Gabrielle lowered the knife.
A piercing, seething, agonizing pain shot through Xena's body as the bard pressed the scalding edge of the dagger against the open wound on her side. From within her tortured memory, the warrior recognized the sickening smell of burning flesh. A muffled scream emerged from her mouth as she grit her teeth against the slab of wood and strove to submerge the raging nausea that clamored at the back of her throat. The bronze figure stiffened as the excruciating pain streaked across her being.
Gabrielle cringed at the agony reflected in the warrior's body. The girl's tears clouded her vision as she instinctively began to pull the knife away from the mutilated site. Her humane intentions were stalled by the warrior's strong grip on her hand. The girl's eyes shot to the piercing blue gaze, a numbing astonishment stunning the young woman's awareness. She flinched in commiserating anguish as she felt the sleek hand capturing hers lower the blade onto the charred site again. The bard shuddered in horror.
When her amazing instincts had determined the mandatory time had elapsed for the process, Xena relaxed her hold on the bard's hand, allowing the girl to pull the dagger away from the tortured area. Gabrielle dropped the offensive weapon and quickly pulled the warrior against her. The girl sobbed as she hugged the trembling form, her arms cradling the gasping woman, the young blonde's tears falling onto the warrior's sweat-soaked hair. Xena feebly removed the stick of wood from her mouth, panting heavily in the loving embrace. She turned a glazed stare up into the weeping green eyes.
"Thank you," the warrior murmured hoarsely. She collapsed against the bard, a thin spiral of smoke slowly rising from the searing burn on her side. A moment later, the sleek, bronze form was uncharacteristically still ... completely overcome and blessedly unconscious.
Gabrielle sobbed quietly, rocking the limp form cradled tenderly in her arms. The bard lowered her chin, gracing the warrior's damp forehead with her lips. "Oh, Xena," the young woman crooned. "Always yourself last." Gabrielle stroked the dark head, gently sweeping the dark hair away from the warrior's dripping brow. "Always last." She stroked the shiny, raven-colored thatch.
The bard leaned against the cave's craggy wall, struggling to pull herself together. After a moment, the ache in her chest subsided as she turned a loving gaze to the sleek, quiet face lying against her chest. Gabrielle swallowed hard, took a shaky breath and opened her arms, gently lowering the warrior's inert form to the earthen floor. She wiped her face with her hands, stood up and moved toward the stone circle with a definite purpose.
It took the young blonde only a short time to complete the necessary procedure; she affixed the precise, effective stitches needed to close the gaping slash in the warrior's side. As she tied off the last of the closures, the young face darkened at the irony of the situation. It was as the warrior's student that she had perfected the very skill that now occupied her attention. The bard closed her eyes and the blonde head shifted sadly.
The bard used the warrior's knife to trim the last of the heavy thread, sat back on her heels and drew a shaky hand across her eyes. She gazed down at the perspiring face of her soulmate --- her mentor and confidant --- more than her best friend. To the little bard, the tall woman signified her life's function. She gently wiped the glistening, smooth skin with the dampened cloth, her tears falling onto the dirt beside the warrior's shoulder. After one more clinical glance at her skillful handiwork, the little blonde gathered the medicinal instruments, stood up and retraced her steps to the campfire.
Nearly a candlemark later, Xena's blue eyes drifted open. An instant later, they swept the cave in search of the small, trim form. The warrior's inspection was interrupted as her groggy mind slowly became aware of the thin, woolen blanket covering her torso. The cobalt pools dropped to the covering and settled on the soft, blonde head resting against her shoulder. A tiny, contented smile invaded the bronze face. The woman's slender hand emerged from under the woolen material to gently caress the long, wheat-colored tresses. The clear blue eyes closed again.
Chapter Eight ~~~
The next morning, Xena pulled on the linen tunic she had retrieved from the saddlebags, battling the throbbing ache radiating from the region just above her left hip. She laid one hand against her side, her fingers tracking the line of new sutures under the light fabric. She winced at the soreness present along the tender area, at the same time smiling softly in recognition of the efficient placement of the stitches by her cherished, and very courageous, little friend.
The warrior tugged at the laces in the center of the shift as she slowly returned to the fire. She carefully lowered her tall form onto the dirt floor, pulled the blanket around her shoulders, picked up a wooden stick and coaxed the low flames back to life. After a moment, her eyes left the fire to rest on the quiet, sleeping form on the bedrolls. Her own discomfort faded from her awareness as the sounds of the young blonde's wracking cough filled the small cavern. The warrior swallowed around the lump in her throat.
'She's still coughing,' the warrior thought worriedly. 'The brew didn't break up the sludge. I have to get her to town soon. Things are not improving.'
Xena's blue gaze stared unseeing into the little, black kettle as she absently stirred the contents of the container. A shallow ache closed around the warrior's chest, an entirely different malady pulling her attention from the sharp agony in her side. Soon, the clear, blue eyes slowly filled with shining tears. The woman firmly wiped them away. 'Damn!' the warrior griped. 'Of all the times for you to get yourself .... 'damaged', Xena', the tall woman chastised herself. 'Now, when she really needs some important attention.' The warrior shook her head. 'Typical!', she told herself. 'How often has she had to 'do without' because of you?' Xena's conscience recoiled from her own scolding. 'Why now, of all times??' she thought painfully. 'Why did this have to happen now?'
The warrior's internal discussion was rudely interrupted by the sharp, insidious pain that sliced down her side. She pressed her hand against the injured area, her senses quickly alerted by the rising heat spreading through the site. The tall woman's intuition began sending perilous warnings to her brain; her wound would require additional attention during the ensuing hours, a situation that sent even more dread through the lean warrior's psyche.
Gabrielle awakened to the encouraging smell of the warrior's special herb tea. She allowed her senses to enjoy the sensation for a moment, the quiet activity a welcome alternative to the tiresome fits of coughing that had thwarted her sleep during the night, leaving her exhausted, fearful and sore. The little bard opened her eyes slowly, reluctantly acknowledging the heaviness still present in her chest and the dull ache still throbbing behind her eyes. She blinked and turned her head, expecting to find the tall warrior somewhere near the stone-rimmed fire. The young face registered the girl's concern at the absence of the slender form. The bard sat up, endured another vicious coughing spasm, then let her eyes scan the cave.
Her gaze found the warrior, the slender figure quietly leaning against the rocky wall of the shelter. The bard's happy reaction was subtly tempered by the woman's unusually still manner. The bard pulled herself to her feet, wrapping one of the blankets around herself, and slowly approached the quiet form of her friend. The closer she got to the silent warrior, the more frightened she became. By the time she was crouched beside her quiet friend, the girl's heart was thumping hard within her chest. She put a tentative hand on the warrior's arm, immediately noticing the tenseness under the satin skin.
Xena's face displayed its usual stoic calm, but the harried panic behind the crystal blue eyes was clearly visible to the young bard. She was always unnerved whenever she caught sight of the slightest glimmer of 'that look' in the warrior's eyes; the young woman knew her friend wasn't often challenged by many circumstances. The look in the warrior's piercing stare set off warning signals in the bard. When Xena turned slowly to meet her gaze, Gabrielle saw the clear, undeniable gaze of fear. Her breath caught in her throat.
Gabrielle sat quietly next to her friend for a long moment. Eventually, the blue eyes floated to the cave floor, blinked then rose again to the bard's face. The little blonde watched as a moment of regret clouded the cobalt gaze. She smiled at the smooth face and waited for her tall friend to respond. Slowly, the stoic face warmed into a gentle smile.
"Hi," the bard said softly. "Everything alright?" She rubbed the woman's forearm gently. Xena slowly raised her hand to stroke the bard's face. She let her long fingers travel gently down the girl's soft cheek before returning to gently cup the side of the young face with her palm.
"Sorry, I didn't hear you get up," the warrior said blankly, completely missing the bard's slightly astonished reaction to her statement. "I'm fine," Xena continued. "How are you?"
"Oh, yeah," the bard quipped sarcastically. "You look like you're just dandy." She watched the bronze face carefully, uneasiness adding to the heavy ache in her chest. She blinked when she saw the azure pools wince slightly. Yet, it had happened so quickly, the girl wasn't sure she'd seen it at all. She focused more intently on the warrior's face.
"You're still hot," Xena said finally, her calm, even tone forming an odd counterpoint to the rigid status of her body. The blue eyes settled on the bard's green gaze. "How do you feel?" Gabrielle gathered the slender hand into hers. "About the same," the bard said absently, a troubling dread rising within her. It was then she noticed the glistening perspiration covering the smooth, sculpted cheekbones. The bard swallowed slowly to calm her senses.
"Xena, what's going on?" the bard asked. Her pulse quickened when she saw the tiny spark of panic invade the warrior's stare. But again, it vanished as quickly as it had appeared. She waited, fully aware of the willful battle occurring within her tall friend.
"How's your side?" the little blonde asked, shifting her focus to the warrior's middle. She noticed the thin blanket loosely covering the woman's torso. She returned her gaze to Xena's face.
"It's tender and ..." the bronze face showed a subtle grin. "It hurts, OK?" Xena admitted, her smile more embarrassed than determined. "Boars are not known for their friendly nature." The warrior shifted stiffly. "You did a great job on my stitches, by the way." The little bard's face glowed at the warrior's commendation. "I didn't feel a thing," Xena joked, her light tone indirect contrast to the guarded tenseness in the slender form.
"Do I need to change the band ....?" the bard began.
"No, I took care of it," the warrior said, her statement slightly defensive. "It's .. I'm OK for now." Gabrielle's eyes swept quickly over the warrior's torso, trying to get a glimpse of the bandage in question, but the thin blanket draped over the tall woman's body prevented her from doing so. Finally, the smooth face softened as the dark-haired warrior laced her fingers with the bard's. Her blue gaze settled on the small hand wrapped with hers. She lifted her eyes to the girl's, wincing slightly at the look of anxiety in the sea-green pools.
The bard tried to keep her voice from shaking. "Xena?" the girl said softly. "What is it? What's wrong?"
Xena lowered her eyes to their two hands again, gently stroking the top of Gabrielle's fingers with her thumb. Gabrielle kept her eyes on her friend's face, her throat aching when two large tears glided over the warrior's smooth cheeks. The bard drew a slow breath.
"I just want you to know," Xena began, her voice low. "You're the best friend I've ever had." The cobalt pools left the clasped hands and rose to meet the bard's tearful gaze. "No one could ever have a better friend than you." She let her eyes travel over the young face. "All the pain I've caused you ... all the times I've put you in mortal danger." The tall woman shook her head sadly. "Gods, Gabrielle .... I tried to kill you myself." The little blonde took a breath, ready to respond, but her dark-haired companion continued in a clear, soft tone.
"Through it all ... no matter what ... you've been there for me. Been my friend, even when I didn't deserve one." Gabrielle watched the bronze face closely. Her senses were sounding quiet alarms in her mind; there was something ... defeated ... vanquished ... in the warrior's even tone. A frightening premonition filled the little bard. She wanted to voice her feelings but a force within her seemed to quell her intentions. She returned the gentle pressure the warrior's hand made on her fingers and kept her eyes on the golden face.
"I want you to know ... I will always be grateful for that. You never gave up on me ... on us." Xena swallowed quickly, a swift, barely noticeable wince narrowing the blue eyes. "You've stayed with me ... during the dark times, the endless days of my silence, my hatred." Xena blinked slowly, sending another wash of tears over the sculpted cheeks. "You gave me your trust and your faith. And I will never forget how you've ... awakened my soul. Never."
The little bard smiled warmly at her best friend. "That goes two ways, you know?" the girl said. "You've been there to be my friend, too, even when I know I drove you crazy." The warrior's shaky grin filled the girl with even more trepidation, but she forced herself to show a calm expression. "I'd say, we've both been very lucky to have found each other. Wouldn't you?"
The two friends stared at each other for a long moment. Gabrielle had clearly noticed the tense, thinly-masked control the other woman was exerting on herself; the warrior displayed the demeanor of someone who was ready to 'put her affairs in order'. There was a deadly calm in the sleek figure, an uncharacteristic manner of surrender. Finally Xena's liquid voice sounded in the quiet chamber.
"Now," the warrior said, gulping quickly and returning her attention to the bard's hand in hers. "I want you to do something for me."
Gabrielle leaned forward, her uneasiness rising within her. "Anything, you know that," the girl said. "What is it?"
Xena's blue eyes returned to the bard's face. She took a slow, controlled breath and moistened her lips. "I want you to .. get yourself back to Kerkira. There's a healer there. His name is Antenor. He can mix a poultice for your chest."
Gabrielle listened intently to the warrior. When Xena paused, the girl tilted her head. "And where will you be?"
"I'll be here ... waiting for you." The blue eyes were steady on the bard's gaze. The warrior gave the girl a halting smile. "I don't think riding is a good idea for me right now." She concentrated on the bard's soft face. "But, you should ... let Antenor take care of you ... until you get your strength back." Xena tried very hard to keep her voice, and her expression, as even as possible. "Will you do that ... for me? Please?" After a moment, the bard posed a careful question. "Why?"
The warrior blinked, her tenuous control teetering dangerously close to the edge. "What do you mean, 'why'?" She gulped quickly, resolutely summoning her control. "How about, because, your chest is filling up with fluid, you've been coughing constantly for the last four days, you still have a rather high fever .... being out here, in the cold, damp air can only make it worse ...?" The blue eyes sparkled at a level that approached their normal authority. "Do I need to go on?" Xena leveled what she hoped was a decisive glare at the bard's green gaze. However, she felt her defenses wavering when she recognized the stubborn gleam slowly invading the girl's expression. She decided to try another tactic.
"Look," the warrior began again, her tone apparently irritated. "This ... cut in my side is going to keep me ... off my feet for at least two more days." She released the bard's hand and sat back impatiently against the cave wall again. "I can't search for the plants I'd need to ..." she looked back at the bard, "tend to your ... condition." She swallowed nervously. "And I know Antenor is sure to have all that stuff right now." The warrior focused on her boots. "If you wait for me to get fit, it'll just take longer for you to get better." Xena took a short breath, pulled her hand across her eyes and turned slightly toward the little bard.
"Just ... can't you just do it, Gabrielle?" The tall woman said, her voice almost plaintive. She raised her eyes to the girl's. "I'd feel better if I knew you were getting the ... care you need." She waited for the bard to respond. "Please?"
Gabrielle's elbows rested on her knees, palms pressed together, fingers laced over her knuckles, her thumbs pressed to her lips. The soft green pools were trained on the warrior's face. When the tall woman's petition ended, the only sounds heard in the cave were the crackling noise made by the campfire and the muted whistle of the brisk breeze outside. The warrior's gaze met the girl's for a long moment, but soon fell away under the silent, yet intense challenge registering in the deep, emerald gaze. Xena gulped at the clear level of irritation flashing in the bard's stare.
Gabrielle's voice drew the warrior's attention back to her face. "Is that it?" the bard asked evenly. Xena swallowed quickly. A silent beat passed. "Are you finished?" Gabrielle's golden brows skipped under her limp bangs. The warrior squirmed at the girl's superior tone.
"I guess so ...." the warrior said quietly. "Yeah."
The bard nodded, unlaced her fingers, dropped her hands to her knees and leveled a firm glare at the warrior's sheepish expression. "Good," the girl said evenly. She took a deep breath and immediately had to face another violent bout of coughing. The girl stubbornly submerged the maddening impulse to expel the loathsome substance from her throat and lungs. She finally managed to quell the hacking. The green eyes flashed purposefully on the warrior's worried expression. "That's what I'm talking about," Xena said gently. The emerald pools narrowed.
"No, no. It's my turn to talk, now," the bard wheezed tenaciously, striving hard to overcome her breathlessness. "And you will listen," the girl said, gathering strength. The blue eyes widened slightly as the bard leaned forward. She met the adamant green gaze with a light trepidation.
"A few days ago, you told me that I've kept your life 'interesting'." The bard smiled warmly as the warrior tried not to look embarrassed. "Well, I can't even begin to tell you what you and our friendship have meant to my life," the girl said clearly, her gaze locked on her friend's. She let her eyes travel over the chiseled features. "I can't even imagine ... don't want to even consider ... what my life would be like without you." The crystal eyes slowly filled with shining tears.
Gabrielle's expression remained open. "Xena, in spite of everything ... and I do mean 'everything'," the bard repeated firmly, ignoring the warrior's gulp for the moment. "I wouldn't trade even a moment of those experiences for ... for any amount of dinars you'd care to name." The little blonde smiled warmly as the warrior's tears covered her face. "We're a set ... two halves of a whole." Gabrielle tilted her head coyly. "So, you'd better just face it, Warrior," she quipped dryly. "You're stuck with me ... come Tartarus' drought or Hades' high water." Xena's wet face creased in a genuine grin. The bard took the woman's slender hand.
"Either we both stay or we both go." The girl's eyebrows skipped beneath her limp bangs again. "Because I'm not going anywhere without you," the girl finished brightly. "Do you understand?" The little bard pursed her lips in a comic pout. "Like it or not, " she quipped, jostling the warrior's hand. "And that's the end of it." The girl ended her gentle declaration with a subtle nod of her head. The warrior's golden face clearly portrayed her admiration for the small blonde facing her.
In the next moment, the bard's attention was consumed by the buzzing in her head and the disturbing rattle in her chest. She covered her mouth and surrendered to a brief, arduous coughing fit before eventually acknowledging the encompassing fatigue still draining her body.
The warrior endured her own frustration while she watched her friend's brave struggle. Xena laid a tender hand on the bard's shoulder, but her own weakened state prevented her from offering further comfort or assistance. Even more disturbing, she knew she couldn't attempt anything more without betraying her own condition to Gabrielle. The warrior now faced a new dilemma ... how to cope with the seriousness of her wound and tend to her suffering friend at the same time, while keeping the true status of her injury from the bard's attention. With her resources severely encumbered, the tall woman knew she faced a formidable task. She fervently wished she could manage it.
The little blonde's coughing fit eventually ended, but the toll on her energy was clearly obvious. As she slowly regained her strength, she drew a trembling hand across her chest and turned a impish, albeit tired, grin at the warrior's concern.
"So, do I get to taste your fancy stew, or not?" the bard asked, pulling the blanket closer. "I'm sort of hungry this morning," the bard said.
"Sure. I'll warm it up for you." The tall woman unfolded her long legs and, using the cave wall to steady herself, carefully rose from her position. She clamped her teeth together to combat the moan she felt rising in her throat. Xena moved toward the campfire, the hand pressing against her fiery side hidden beneath the folds of the blanket as she knelt to revive the fire. The bard watched her friend closely.
Chapter Nine ~~~
The two women ate a quiet, subdued breakfast. Although neither was really hungry, both were determined not to portray their hesitancy to the other. The stew the warrior had created would have drawn great praise from the bard on any other day, if for no other reason than she would have welcomed it as a legitimate reason to tease her tall friend concerning the woman's otherwise absent culinary talents. This morning, however, the taste of the stew hardly registered in Gabrielle's senses. She was too busy considering the woman's subtle efforts to disguise the torment obviously attacking her body. Finally the little bard decided emulate her best friend's unflinching propensity for the direct route. She lowered her half-full platter to the cave floor and leaned forward.
"Hey?" she said cautiously. "Are you OK?"
The warrior's gaze was unsteady, to say the least. She swallowed slowly to give herself time to gather her resources before forcing a casual smile across her features.
"Sure," she said quickly, then reconsidered the obvious silliness of her statement. "Well," Xena amended. "Not all that all right, I guess," the warrior said sheepishly. The stoic face grimaced slightly and she pressed her hand against the inferno raging in her side. She gulped again and met the green gaze again. "Mostly just tired." The blue eyes closed as the tall woman raised a shaky hand to her forehead. "Really tired," the gravel voice said.
The little bard focused on the flushed, glistening face and the subtle tremor to the sleek, muscled form. She put a gentle hand on the warrior's sinewy forearm. "I think we could both use a nap. Whattya say?" The girl's impish grin lessened the apprehension tightening the warrior's chest. She covered the little hand on her arm with her own.
"I think that's the best idea I've heard all day," Xena said, her weariness showing clearly in expression. The bronze face answered the little blonde's loving concern. "Race you to the blankets," the tall woman joked, stubbornly pushing aside the panic in her throat. The little bard's quiet giggle calmed the warrior's feelings of dread. She uncoiled her long legs, carefully stood up and offered a hand to the bard.
"C'mon," the warrior said as the girl rose to stand beside her. Xena laid a long arm across the bard's shoulders and turned toward the bedrolls, her iron will striving to submerge the rising weakness overtaking her senses. The two women started toward the blankets spread on the cave floor. However, the warrior's thin mask of stability was unmistakably shattered when the little bard wrapped a loving arm around the tall woman's waist ... and it inadvertently landed on the raw, sizzling area above the left hip. An instant later, Xena groaned painfully, her tall body crumpling against the bard in agony. Gabrielle braced herself to support her cringing friend.
"Xena!" the bard screamed. She lowered the warrior's sagging form onto the bedrolls, then dropped to her knees next to her suffering friend. The warrior clutched at her tortured side, her breath panting and ragged. She rolled onto her back, then onto her other side, drawing her long legs toward her chest and moaned pathetically. Xena tried to focus on the little blonde's panicky gaze, the azure pools dull and clouded in pain. She touched the bard's shoulder.
"Guess I win, huh ?" The golden face smiled softly before the clear blue eyes closed.
The bard's tears washed over her face. "Always," the girl whispered. She cupped the bronze face with her palm.
Gabrielle covered the warrior's quaking body with the heaviest of the blankets before pulling at the cork on the waterskin. She splashed some water onto the piece of cloth in her shaking hands and pressed the moistened bundle against the ashen face, a clamoring panic spreading through her senses. The sight of the warrior's tortured frame ... and the woman's complete and utter surrender to the savage wound ... instilled a numbing dread in the young bard. She had never seen Xena so helpless, so thoroughly and unconditionally victimized by an injury ... any injury. The stillness of the warrior's form frightened the young blonde beyond anything she'd ever experienced.
Here was a woman who had endured a vicious gauntlet inflicted by her own men, had survived having her legs crushed and her spirit completely vanquished, who had withstood dozens of vicious battle injuries. This was a woman who had persevered on her mission to rescue her best friend, despite the fact that she'd been rendered totally blind along the way. How could such a brave, stalwart soul have now been so ruthlessly defeated? Gabrielle pressed her hand against her mouth, trying desperately to calm the terrifying fear enveloping her senses. She stared at the immobile warrior, her heart pounding in her ears.
Finally, the bard gulped angrily and thrust out both hands to capture the warrior's sleek shoulders. She shook the limp form briskly. "Xena! Don't you do it!" Gabrielle barked firmly. "Don't you dare let go!" The small hands grasped the warrior's face, for the moment ignoring the unhealthy warmth radiating from the clammy skin.
"XENA! You promised me!" Gabrielle desperately watched the unresponsive features for even the smallest reaction. "You promised!!" the bard sobbed, lowering her head to the warrior's chest. She wrapped her arms around the motionless form. "You said you'd never leave me. You said ... you said." The plaintive lament echoed in the small chamber in sad syncopation with the girl's mournful sobs.
The still form stirred, the dark head turning slowly toward the small, heartbroken figure. Gabrielle felt the slender hand caress the side of her face. She bolted upright, her weeping green eyes opening wide to meet the wavering blue gaze.
"Stubborn little bobcat," the wispy voice said as a single, heavy tear glided over the pallid cheek. The bard pressed her hand over the warm palm resting against her face. She blinked away her tears, striving to focus on the warrior's anguished face.
"I love you, Gabrielle," the warrior whispered. The blue eyes lingered on the bard's tear-streaked face for a moment before they slowly closed. Then the sleek, muscled form went totally still in her best friend's arms.
Gabrielle stared at the motionless warrior. She raised a trembling hand to the woman's neck, her fingers hopefully probing for any sign of life. The girl's heart skipped when she discovered the weak, thready pulse fluttering under the firm skin. She took a shaky breath, silently thanked whichever goddess was responsible and leaned forward to give the dark head a gentle kiss.
Gabrielle cradled the warrior's shoulders with one arm and leaned sideways to straighten the rumpled bedrolls with the other. She carefully lowered the muscled form onto the blankets and raised the woolen material, intending to cover her unconscious friend. The bard's body trembled when she noticed the dark, crimson wetness covering the entire front area of the warrior's tunic. Gabrielle dropped the blanket beside the warrior and bent closer to examine the hideous mark. It was then that she became aware of the foul, spoiled odor emanating from the bloody smirch. The girl gasped in horror.
Gabrielle shook her head to clear her senses. She turned back toward the fire and quickly located the warrior's knife. Using the sharp blade, she made a small tear in the material above the wound, then used both hands to rip the opening even wider. She quickly pushed the stained linen aside and carefully cut away the blood-soaked bandage underneath. The offensive smell rising from the area increased.
The bard slowly peeled away the bloody dressing, gently separating the injured skin from the soggy cloth. When she had completely exposed the wound, the image before her eyes sent a thundering devastation against her heart. The girl had seen enough gruesome, savage wounds to not be disturbed by the sight of the raw, tender flesh gathered between the dark sutures; it was the thick, ugly, yellowish fluid oozing from around the stitches that caused the bard's panic. It explained the stench choking her throat.
Gabrielle dropped the bloodstained bandage. She stared at the disgusting laceration, her mind momentarily locked in the throes of her own terror. She immediately recognized what the status of the wound meant; she knew she had to act right away or her beloved friend would surely succumb to the insidious contamination. The bard made a decision.
Working quickly, the little blonde fashioned a clean bandage from the remaining cloth in the saddlebags. With the new dressing in place, she draped the blankets over the still-immobile warrior, pausing long enough to gently dab away the heavy perspiration rolling freely over the still face. She tucked the edges of the blankets around the feverish form, and after pulling the back of her hand across her own damp forehead, leaned forward and gently stroked the warrior's clammy cheek.
"Hold on, my friend," the girl murmured into the woman's ear. "I won't be gone long."
With that, the bard leaned across the warrior to retrieve her cape from the corner of the bedrolls. She sat back and tightened the laces on her boots, then stood up, taking a moment to battle the dizziness that made her stumble sideways a few steps. When her senses cleared, Gabrielle wrapped the cape around herself, turned and marched purposefully toward the saddle hanging on the rocky outcropping in the wall of the cave. The last thing she grabbed on her way out was her staff.
Chapter Ten ~~~
Argo's hooves thundered steadily on the road leading to Kerkira as the small bard clung desperately to the golden hide. The mare had endured a short, pointed speech from the young blonde soon after the girl had emerged from the cave, wrestling heartily with the large saddle and the fur blanket. Basically, the young woman had succinctly explained the circumstances to the great steed; her mistress and the bard's dear companion was in dire need of assistance and they had no time for any demonstrations of temperament or stubbornness. In order to help their mutual friend, it was necessary to reach the town as quickly and directly as possible. The mare recognized the seriousness of the situation and obediently responded to the little blonde's directions.
The cold, crisp air assaulted the young bard's face and neck, whipping her long cape behind her and causing her blonde hair to stream backwards from her scalp. The rude wind made it difficult for her to focus on the path so she simply clamped her eyes shut and hung on as tightly as she could.
The girl absently considered the consequences of her nighttime journey on her sick body. She cringed as she imagined the tall warrior's reaction to her decision to make the nighttime trip; she knew what her friend's likely response would be. But she decided she could deal with that contingency when the emergency was over.
To the young woman's surprise, it was a very short trip. Argo had certainly surpassed even her own rather remarkable limits. Before Gabrielle knew it, the mare was trotting through the gates of Kerkira, slowing her pace until they had reached the row of sturdy, well-kept huts along the edge of the town square. When the animal came to a stop, Gabrielle tried to gather her wits as her eyes scanned the structures, trying to determine which housed the healer and his necessary medical wares.
"Which one is it?" the bard asked breathlessly, turning her head toward the row of buildings. She started to dismount, but had to resettle herself when Argo abruptly stepped forward to stand facing a uniquely adorned hut. Gabrielle blinked against the brisk wind to focus on the renowned symbol etched in the wooden sign affixed to the flagpole outside the hut.
"Thanks, Argo," the girl said, patting the horse's neck. She swung her leg over the saddle, released the reins and jumped to the ground, pulling her staff from the saddle straps before marching to the front door of the structure. She used her wand to announce her arrival.
The door to the hut opened to reveal a stocky, fully bearded, rather disheveled middle-aged man, a sleep-fogged expression on his face. His eyes scanned the bard's small frame as he pulled at the edges of the robe covering his nightshirt.
"Yes?" he asked the girl, his eyes cautious. His hands grew still when he saw the urgency in the young woman's expression.
"Antenor?" Gabrielle asked. The healer nodded, his expression slightly quizzical. "I need some tormentil," the bard said, breathing heavily. "My friend has been injured."
"For Hades' sake, girl," the man chided her. "It's the middle of the night." The man's eyes swept the area, obviously searching for the 'friend' the bard had mentioned.
"My friend is .. very ... sick," the bard said, sagging forward as she was forced to deal with another heavy fit of coughing. "She's in a cave about eight leagues from here." Gabrielle steadied herself against the door frame with one hand as she battled the painful hacking.
The man in the doorway studied the small form. His eyes rested for a moment on the blonde head before traveling quickly to the long wand the girl held in her other hand. A subtle recognition floated across the healer's face. He stepped back into the doorway.
"You're the bard who travels with Xena, aren't you?" the man said evenly. "Gabrielle, isn't it?"
Gabrielle met the man's steady gaze. She pushed away from the door frame, the trim form straightening defensively. "Yes," the bard said, her chin jutting in defiance at the man's reaction to the warrior's name. She casually lowered the free end of her staff into the palm of her other hand, the green eyes offering a determined challenge.
The man's expression slowly softened. "You're not too well yourself, I'd say," the healer said evenly. He stepped back and swept the door open wide. "Come in." The bard blinked slowly, somewhat confused by the sudden change in the man's attitude. "Well, I don't have the tormentil out here," Antenor told her, his tone amiable and inviting. He put a kind hand on the bard's chilly wrist. "And I can give you something for that cough, too." The man smiled warmly. "Come, sit. You can rest while I prepare a pouch for you."
Gabrielle expelled a weary sigh, lowered her staff and stepped into the warm, fragrant hut. The healer closed the door behind her. He gestured toward a chair near the table and the bard settled her tired form onto the wooden seat. She propped her staff against the edge of the table and drew a shaky hand across her eyes. After a moment, she raised her gaze to meet the healer's. Her focus dropped to the hand the man extended toward her.
"You should rest for the night, my dear," he told her. He gently touched the side of the bard's face. "You're not helping that fever, either." Gabrielle met the man's compassionate gaze with a flimsy smile.
"I need to get back to Xena with that tormentil," the bard countered. "She had a rather nasty fight with a very angry boar." She dismissed the man's surprised reaction. "He gored her pretty badly. I think it might be infected."
Antenor paced slowly to the other side of the table. "She's fighting boars, now?" the man said drolly. "I heard she'd changed her ways, but ....." Gabrielle was too tired to determine if the man was being sarcastic or making an effort to cheer her up. She decided she didn't really care, either way. She took a tired breath and trained a meaningful look at the mature face.
"The tormentil?" she prompted. "You do have some, right?"
"Yes, I have more than enough for what you need." The nagging headache that had returned behind the girl's eyes unseated her usually good-natured attitude. She casually laid her hand on her staff.
"Well, I'd like to get going, if you don't mind," the girl said, the emerald pools sharpening subtly. "I don't want Xena to wake up and find me gone." The healer's eyebrows shifted slightly. "She might be worried if that happened."
Antenor let out an amused chortle. "Listen, the Xena I remember ...." the man began, smiling widely.
"Is not the Xena I know," the bard finished sternly. The healer's playful smirk faded quickly. "Now," the bard said blinking slowly, trying valiantly to conquer the rampant fatigue threatening her control. "May I have some tormentil? We're really wasting time with this ... 'discussion'," the bard said with authority. She stroked the staff again. "Will you please pack some up for me?"
The healer's head moved slowly in a thoughtful shake, openly admiring the girl's brave spirit. His healer's instincts had quickly diagnosed the level to which the girl's malady had progressed. In truth, he thought, he should be ordering her to bed for at least a week. He knew she was battling a high fever and his trained ear had detected the dangerous rattle present in her heaving chest. Yet he sensed he'd have more success trying to bath an angry goat than he'd have trying to convince the young woman seated in front of him to abandon her warrior friend.
"I'll get it for you right away," Antenor said, giving the girl's brave heart the respect it deserved. He flipped the colorful cloth over his shoulder, poured a cup of liquid from the large jug on the hearth and handed the mixture to the bard. "Here, drink this while you're waiting," he told her. "It'll help calm the coughing and soothe your throat." He waited until she had taken a sip from the mug. The healer grinned as the little blonde made a face.
"This tastes as bad as the stuff Xena mixed for me a couple of days ago," Gabrielle said, returning the healer's mischievous smirk. "Do you use tree bark, too?"
Antenor's hearty laughter filled the hut. "Still using my recipe, I see," the man chortled. He laid a soft hand on the bard's shoulder. "Drink it all," he prodded. "And tell Xena, she has a good memory." With that, the man turned to his collection of herbs and remedies. The bard sipped the liquid slowly, settling wearily against the back of the chair. She pulled the cape tighter as a sudden chill awakened her senses.
A few minutes later the healer handed a small leather pouch and another narrow bag to the girl. "Here's the tormentil," Antenor said, indicating the small pouch. "I've already pulverized it into a powder." Gabrielle tied the strings on the pouch to the belt of her tunic.
"Just mix it with this oil," the healer said, handing over the smaller sack. "Make sure the poultice is thick enough ... to pull out the poison." The bard slipped the narrow thongs at the neck of the sack over her middle finger, capturing the narrow bag in the palm of her hand. She retrieved her staff and stood up, pausing only a moment to let the dizziness behind her eyes subside. She turned a grateful smile toward the healer.
"Thank you," she said to the man's bearded face. "Oh," the girl said vaguely, a blatant fact suddenly registering in her brain. "But, I don't have any money to pay you for ...." She stopped when the man touched her arm kindly.
"When you've taken care of our warrior friend," Antenor said, "you can swing by this way and we'll barter about it then." He patted the bard's shoulder. "And, by the way, you should save some of that for yourself," he told her, his tone paternal. "I'd recommend a thick poultice for your chest, as well." The bard smiled gratefully as Antenor gently guided her toward the door.
Gabrielle turned back to the man as she stepped through the open doorway. "Thank you, Antenor," the girl said, her green eyes warm. "I give you my word ... I'll be back to pay you as soon as ...."
"I trust you, Gabrielle," the healer said firmly. "You're Xena's friend. I know you'll keep your word." Antenor smiled down at the girl's grateful face.
Gabrielle slipped her staff under the leather straps on the saddle and Antenor helped her climb onto Argo's back. She gathered the reins, waved at the healer and turned the horse's head back toward the road again. Argo responded quickly to the pressure of the girl's heels. A moment later, the golden horse galloped into the night, carrying the young blonde back to their suffering friend.
Chapter Eleven ~~~
The beast had returned. She could feel his sloppy, warm breath on her neck, the foul stench assailing her face. She tried to divert the vile form, but he was too strong. She tried twisting away from the wretched figure but the blazing agony rampaging in her side defeated her efforts. She drew her body into a tight bundle, one hand protecting the throbbing, fiery area above her hip, the other thrust out in front of her to deflect the creature's maniacal attack.
The warrior moaned as the taut sutures in her side dragged at the edges of the wound. She rolled her body over raised herself up onto her hands and knees and crawled toward the scabbard leaning against the rocky wall. The wash of blood trailing over her skin became a secondary consideration. Slicing pain interrupted her progress, forcing the woman to sink to the cave floor, her trembling, sweating body heaving in desolate suffering and blinding agony.
Finally she saw her weapon, her eyes settling comfortingly on the familiar hilt. She slid the blade from its covering, flung the leather sheath aside and wrapped both hands around the sword's handle. The ferocious move unseated the kneeling figure's balance, forcing her wavering body to slam against the hard wall of the rocky cavern. The blue eyes stared, terrified and vulnerable, at the advancing form of the slobbering creature.
The warrior blinked madly, her vision distorted by the rivers of sweat that cascaded over her face. She quickly pulled one bare arm across her eyes and shook her head to try to regain her focus. The chiseled features contorted into an angry sneer as the hideous, ragged form slinked toward her, fangs bared and dark eyes glistening with the expected kill.
The quivering woman frantically tried to gain some leverage with her feet, her frenzied scrambling driving the gravel and invasive debris into the naked flesh on her heels. The discomfort of the malicious assault totally escaped the woman's attention. Her fever-clouded mind was struggling to reinstate a semblance of clarity. The delirious figure swept the heavy sword from side to side in a frantic attempt to defend against the noxious beast's approach.
A shrill, howling shriek reverberated in the cave. The warrior's expression reflected her terror as the grizzly hulk's hideous features slowly transformed into a sneering face of the God of War. The ghostly, chalky countenance floated above the earthen floor and descended closer to the trembling warrior, an ugly, conniving smirk contorting the image.
"Give in, Xena," the image goaded her. "You've challenged the gods once too often. They're angry with you for spoiling all their plans." The cadaverous likeness stretched and twisted. "Looks like it's time for you to pay for your crimes, after all." The repulsive face gave forth a screeching laugh. "If I can't have you, you can rot in Tartarus." The image chortled wickedly.
"NO!" the warrior screamed, waving her sword. "Get away! Get AWAY! Gabrielle will be back for me. She'll help me." The shimmering image laughed, then dispersed only to reform into the likeness of a screeching, blonde goddess, the long pale hair disheveled, the dark eyes bright with madness.
"Hurts, doesn't it?" the new representation gloated, an insidious smile glowing against the darkness of the cave. "You killed your little friend, remember?" The wispy vision laughed. "She won't be back. You killed her! You killed her like you've killed everything you touch." The depraved facade cackled, floating wickedly over the warrior's irrational face.
The tall quivering woman huddled against the wall, wrapping her arms over her head, trying desperately to silence the shrieking sounds. "NO!" the warrior wailed. "She's coming back for me." The blue eyes snapped open to challenge the repulsive image. "Gabrielle is coming back!" The woman dropped the weapon and clamped her hands to the sides of her head. She closed her eyes tightly, a hoarseness choking off the sound in her throat.
A soothing, calming voice sounded in the musky cavern. "Xena?" the voice said sweetly. The warrior's blue eyes snapped open and swept the interior of the chamber. They settled on the warm, glowing figure hovering near the campfire. "Don't cry, Baby," the gentle voice said. "Mama's here, Darling. I'm right here." The vision smiled lovingly, extending an open hand to the astonished warrior.
"Mama?" the tall woman gasped. "How did you know where to find me?"
The lovely, shimmering form laughed softly as it floated toward the woman against the wall. "I heard you crying, sweetheart. A mother always knows when her babies are hurt." The soft image focused on the warrior's glistening face. "You should know that ... you're a mother." The small image's soft laugh sounded again, echoing lightly in the quiet cave. The warrior reached to touch the vision.
The moment her hand encountered the cloudy form, the laughter around her changed abruptly. The new sound transformed into dozens of chanting voices, all ringing shrill and offensive within the cave. The gentle image of the woman slowly shifted, muting in shape and reforming again. The warrior closed her eyes tightly and shook her head, the obnoxious chorus clamoring within her brain. Until one, single, steady word silenced the ranting and completely captured the woman's awareness.
"Mother?" the young voice called softly.
When the warrior opened her eyes and focused on the transformed image, the pounding in her chest threatened to destroy her sensibilities forever. She stared at the shape in front of her, her throat constricting painfully. The handsome, young male face with the long, golden hair smiled lovingly at the warrior's dazed expression.
"It's alright, Mother," the youthful countenance crooned. The vision pointed to the entrance of the cave. "Please come," the boy pleaded. "We can be together ... like we've always wanted." The warrior's body began to shake. "Please, Mother. Come with me .. to the other side."
The dark-haired woman fell back limply against the wall. "Don't ... please don't," she moaned, one hand pressed above the treacherous ache in her chest. "Dear gods ... don't."
"Please come, Mother .... Please .... Please ... Please ...." ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Gabrielle hung on tightly to the saddlehorn with one hand, the precious sack of clear oil cradled safely in her other palm. She clamped her knees tight against the sides of the saddle. Since the stirrups were positioned for the warrior's long legs, the little blonde was forced to use her strong thighs and calves to anchor herself in the seat. The bard had briefly chastised herself during the trip to town, and now again on the trip back to the cave, for not taking the time to adjust the straps for her own shorter reach. She'd justified her dismissal of such an activity by telling herself ... she wasn't sure exactly how to accomplish such a feat, so she'd opted to simply 'make do' with the tack the way it was.
The night had grown colder, the temperature of the air even less accommodating than it had been on the earlier ride. As she leaned forward to flatten her trim body against the great steed's thick neck, the young blonde reluctantly acknowledged how thick her chest really felt and how unbearably ferocious her headache really was. She pushed these discomforts to the back of her mind to concentrate on staying in the saddle.
The one condition the little bard could not ignore was the raucous, torturous coughing that continued to plague her, repeatedly overpowering her and unseating her concentration. She had spent so much time responding to the bothersome 'tickle' in her throat and the breath-robbing congestion under her sternum, that she found herself simply allowing the hacking to run its course while she tried to maintain her grip on the saddlehorn. The contingency was quickly depleting her fragile resources even more ruthlessly. The return trip to the cavern seemed to stretch out endlessly.
Suddenly, Argo's powerful body swerved on the road as the mighty animal changed direction abruptly to avoid the large tree limb that slammed to the ground in front of her. Since the bard's attention was shared by her efforts to keep her precarious seat in the saddle and the nervous concern she felt for the condition of her injured soulmate, there was no room in her concentration for this unpredictable move. A moment after the golden mare's veering move, the young woman found herself launched into the air and landing, somewhat painfully, on her back on the dirt road. She waited for her senses to clear.
When she had regained enough awareness, the bard sat up and quickly checked herself for any new injuries, then inspected the hand which held the small sack of oil. She sighed gratefully when she noticed the bag had remained safe. The next thing she did was reach for the leather pouch she'd tied to her belt. The bard gasped when her fingers failed to locate the missing article.
Gabrielle sat up, anxiously scanning the surrounding area for the small, leather pouch that held the precious herb powder. Her heart lurched as she considered the possibility of having lost the essential ingredient necessary for her soulmate's treatment and recovery. The green eyes searched the path for the leather bag, a terrifying fear settling within her.
"Sweet Artemis," the girl murmured. "Please help me find it. It's Xena's only hope." The little bard blinked against the effects of the rising wind. Finally, her gaze located the leather sack ... the narrow thongs at its neck lying limp and open, a good portion of the dark, green contents being buffeted away by the swirling breeze.
"No!" the bard gasped, thrusting her tired body toward the dwindling mound of tormentil. She slammed her hand onto the small heap of powder and clutched the open pouch in her other hand. She carefully transferred the remainder of the herb particles from the ground back into the bag. The ratio of black dirt to medicinal herb didn't concern the little blonde at that moment; her thoughts were centered on retrieving as much of the powder as she could in order to create the healing poultice to treat her best friend's injury. When she had refilled the little pouch, she pulled the cords at the opening tightly, retied the bag to her belt, stood up, and gathered the supple reins from the golden horse's bridle. Argo whinnied her congratulations.
Gabrielle sat back on her heels, striving hard to gather enough of her shrinking energy to stand. She closed her eyes and leaned forward, drawing heavy, labored breaths. Finally, she opened her eyes, blinking hard against the hazy images clouding her vision. She dragged herself to her feet and tried to raise her foot to the metal stirrup, but the slope of the ground greatly hampered her success. Gabrielle paused in her efforts, momentarily surrendering to the fatigue depleting her resources. She leaned tiredly against the golden hide, her energy dangerously close to the lowest level. The girl fought bravely to combat what seemed her impending collapse. Tears gathered in the exhausted green eyes.
The great steed craned her head around to survey the young bard's predicament. After dutifully assessing the situation, the horse gently nudged her face against the trim form, waiting patiently for the small rider to acknowledge her. The blonde head slowly turned toward the equine's soulful expression. The mare whinnied quietly.
"Oh, Argo," Gabrielle whimpered. "I'm so tired ... my arms feel like fence posts." The girl stroked the sinewy neck. "I can't seem to get back up."
The golden head bounced in comprehension and support. A moment later, the mare's front legs bent gracefully, coming to rest on the dirt path. The move efficiently lowered the height of the saddle enough to accommodate the short legs of the bard. The girl wearily lifted her foot, stepped into the waiting stirrup and swung herself into the saddle. When she could feel the small form had resettled herself sufficiently, Argo straightened her front legs, snorted purposefully and quickly launched her strong body forward, resuming their important journey back to the warrior in the cave. The bard leaned forward, wrapping her arms around the animal's strong neck, whispering a plaintive prayer that they would reach the cavern in time. The mare stretched herself out and galloped faster.
When Gabrielle opened her eyes, it took a few moments for her to realize they had arrived back at the cave. The bard shook her head briskly, leaned sideways and slid from the saddle to the ground. She raced toward the opening of the cavern, her heart pounding in her chest. Once inside, the girl's steps halted abruptly; there was no welcoming fire blinking in the midst of the stone circle. There was no light at all within the cave. The bard gulped in fear.
"Xena?" the bard called softly, straining to focus in the darkened, musky interior. A muffled moan behind her caused her to turn around in search of the source of the noise. The green eyes squinted, centering attention on the misshapen heap crumpled against the cave wall. The girl advanced slowly toward the quiet form.
Gabrielle's heart lurched when she recognized the tortured figure. The warrior lay, huddled and silent, against the craggy surface of the wall. Xena's eyes were closed, the torn, blood-stained tunic twisted around her body, one hand wrapped loosely around the hilt of her sword, the other lying limply beside her. When the bard carefully touched her face, the warrior stirred slightly as the blue eyes struggled to open. The azure gaze was unresponsive on the girl's face. The warrior blinked once before her dark head fell to her shoulder. The bronze form became motionless again.
Gabrielle's fatigue vanished at once. She smoothly moved to the bedrolls and gathered one of the blankets. She gently removed the sword from the warrior's hand before covering the quiet form with the blanket. As she moved toward the circle of stones, the bard freed the little sack from around her fingers and untied the other leather pouch from the belt of her tunic. The little blonde spread some kindling in the middle of the circle, used the flint stones to ignite the twigs, then pulled two short logs onto the new flames. As the fire began to gain strength, the bard turned back to the warrior. The tall woman hadn't moved.
Gabrielle paused a moment to open her cape and exert an impatient effort toward dealing with an unexpected coughing spasm. When the hacking subsided, she drew off the woolen covering and dropped it onto the nearby bedrolls, at the same time picking up a rumpled piece of dampened cloth as she returned to the campfire. She spread the dampened cloth on the earthen floor, wiped her hands on her tunic and turned her attention to the two leather sacks.
The bard clamped her jaws together, willing her shaking hands to be still. She carefully opened the pouch containing the pulverized tormentil and poured the contents onto the cloth. Her heart plummeted as she stared at the small mound of herb powder ... it was nearly half the amount the healer had originally given her. Her tumble from Argo's back had resulted in a serious depletion of the precious substance. The bard took a long, careful breath, trying to clear the dizziness and fatigue that continued to threaten her senses. She made a few quick calculations, settled on her choice and reached for the smaller sack containing the clear oil. As she prepared the poultice, the little blonde's mouth moved quietly in a fervent prayer. She prayed she had made the right decision.
Gabrielle prepared the poultice according to the healer's instructions, mixing what was left of the tormentil with the clear oil from the smaller pouch. She carefully wiped away the blood and foul-smelling matter from the wounded area and spread a thick portion of the mixture over the torturous wound. As she wrapped a new bandage around the damaged site, the little blonde found herself considering a random thought; at least her friend was still unconscious and had therefore been spared from enduring the painful procedure. The young woman smiled scornfully as she tucked the edges of the blanket around the slender form.
When the procedure was finished, the bard sat back and cleaned her hands on the cloth in her lap. She wiped perspiration from her forehead, stood up and exited the cave. She found Argo waiting patiently near the tree at the entrance to the cave. She removed the saddle and blanket from the mare's back, dropping the equipment near the opening before turning back to the golden steed. She stroked the horse's long neck, murmuring quietly against the golden hide.
"Thanks, Argo," Gabrielle said, dropping her weary head against the animal's mane. "Let's just hope we made it in time. The mare whinnied softly against the girl's hair. "I know," the bard said, the dull ache in her throat distorting her words. "I'm worried too." She gave the mare a final pat and returned to the cave.
Throughout the long, arduous night, the bard tenderly applied the moistened cloth to the injured warrior's neck and face, trying to soothe the woman's delirious ramblings and relieve her raging fever. She supported the warrior's shoulders while Xena tried to drink the water she had poured into the small earthen mug. Gabrielle repeated the procedure numerous times and after each episode she found she had to expend more effort fighting her own gnawing, rampant fatigue and the disabling tightness still present within her chest. Still, she forced herself to concentrate on tending to the warrior's feverish form.
Twice during the night, the little bard had unwrapped the soggy bandage and, after wiping away the thick, unsightly substance clinging to the warrior's side, she'd carefully swabbed the lacerated area with the damp cloth before spreading a fresh poultice mixture over the wound. Following each new application, the girl had secured a clean bandage around the sleek body and replaced the blanket over the quiet form. Only when the last of the compound had been expertly applied did the little blonde finally allow herself to accept the sleep beckoning her.
As the thin slivers of dawn crept over the green curtain outside the cave, Gabrielle awoke, pulled her exhausted form away from the cave wall and turned to the warrior's limp body. She pressed her palm to the stricken woman's face, enjoying a brief sense of triumph at the slightly less feverish temperature present in the golden skin. She sat back tiredly, yielding to a short coughing spasm and pulled her hand across her eyes.
After resting against the wall for a moment, Gabrielle leaned forward, forcing her exhausted mind to center once again. She lowered her tired gaze to the inert figure of her best friend. A crippling despair swept over the young woman as the wave of tears washed over her pale, haggard face. She raised her hand and gently stroked the long, dark hair. The warrior stirred slightly under the girl's tender touch, her head rolling slowing toward the bard before the lean form relaxed again, drawing a deep, peaceful breath. The bard continued the gentle caress until she fell asleep again, murmuring a silent, heartfelt prayer.
Half a candlemark later, the warrior's blue eyes drifted open. They slowly surveyed the interior of the musky cave, finally settling on the low flames dancing in the stone circle, before slowly sweeping back to the area nearest her position. Her gaze fell to the blanket covering her body then became aware of the snug, clean bandage wrapped around her torso. She concentrated on realigning her jumbled senses.
Instinctively Xena lowered one hand to the tender, pulsing area on her left side. Even in her drained, debilitated state, the improved status of the wound registered in the tall woman's awareness. She strained to clear the foggy cloud in her head, trying hard to determine exactly when and how she might have accomplished the healing procedure. Her thoughts were disrupted when she became aware of the quiet, regular breathing drifting from behind her. She slowly turned her head toward the sound.
The stoic, bronze face softened immediately at the sight of the little bard's sleeping form. Xena let her eyes travel over the soft, pale face and the rumpled blonde hair. It was at that moment the warrior realized her own head and shoulders were settled in the girl's lap, with one small hand resting gently on her shoulder. Fightly against the heavy fatigue still draining her reserves, Xena spent a short moment gazing lovingly at her best friend. She captured the slim fingers with her palm. Surrendering to the bone-wracking weariness, she laid her head back down onto the blanket and closed her eyes, a small, grateful smile warming her weary face.
Chapter Twelve ~~~
Two days later, Xena sat quietly watching Antenor drape the heavy quilt over the small, trim form on the rather wide pallet. The stoic face showed a calm expression; it hardly betrayed the heavy thumping of the heart beneath the woman's leather tunic. The blue eyes swung to the healer's face as he turned back to face her. Her pulse skipped when she saw the man's gentle smile.
"She's passed the crisis now," Antenor said quietly. "Her fever's broken and the fluid in her chest is loosening nicely." The warrior let out the breath she'd been holding for such a long time. The blue eyes closed, clenched tightly, then opened again to meet the healer's gaze. She found his attention had returned to the young woman in his care.
"For such a little thing, she's got the heart of a lion." Antenor faced the warrior again. "But, that's no surprise to you, I'd wager." The man's round face lit in a cheerful grin.
"No," Xena said softly, the blue eyes glistening with impending tears. "That's not any kind of a surprise to me." The tall form left the chair and crossed the room to settle on the edge of the bed. One slender hand captured the small fist lying on the quilt, the other swept the moisture that had covered her face. Xena smiled as the weary green eyes fluttered open to focus unsteadily on her face. The bard's shaky grin warmed the warrior's chest. The girl closed her eyes again, settling into a comfortable, easy sleep. Xena's eyes remained on the cherished face for a moment before returning to the healer's gaze again. "By the way, I haven't thanked you for giving her the tormentil for my side." The healer waved a hand light-heartedly. "No, I mean it, Antenor." The man's eyes settled on the warrior's sincere gaze. The two exchanged a knowing look before the blue eyes settled on the trim form again. "I was a bit surprised when she told me you had given it to her even when she said it was for ... me." Xena's expression hinted at her personal chagrin.
Antenor's subtle grin faded slightly before his round face brightened in a playful grin. "Xena, we all have done things we'd just as soon forget." The warrior swallowed quietly. "I couldn't very well begrudge you a change of heart when, in fact, you were the one who 'convinced' me to do the same. Now could I?" The man's smile was warm and sympathetic.
Xena tried to ignore the warm blush that traveled across her cheeks. "I really didn't have to work that hard to convince you. You were tired of the fighting and I agreed with your ... decision." The clear blue eyes were steady on the healer's face "Well," Xena said after a moment. "I want to thank you anyway. And I'll pay you for the tormentil ... as soon as she's able to ...."
The healer raised his chin and sent the warrior a firm glare. "No," Antenor said evenly. "That's not necessary. And I'd appreciate you not mentioning it again." The warrior blinked, somewhat surprised. She followed the man's gaze as it settled on the little bard under the quilt.
"Besides," the healer said, the twinkle returning to his dark eyes. "I got the feeling she'd have clobbered me with that staff of hers, if I'd refused." The warrior's smile was genuine. "She's quite a young woman ... and, quite a friend, I'll bet."
"You'd be very right," the warrior said, releasing the little hand and drawing the quilt up to the girl's chin. She stroked the blonde head tenderly before turning back to the healer. "You're sure she's going to be all right? I mean, her fever was really raging when we got here."
"She'll be just fine by the end of the week," Antenor said, ushering the warrior back to the chair. "In the meantime, let me treat you to a favorite recipe of mine that isn't medicinal." The tall woman chortled lightly as she lowered her tall frame onto the wooden seat again.
"You cook regular food, too?" she quipped, accepting the metal tankard from the healer. "Well, I always said you were a man of many talents, Antenor," Xena told the man, her wide smile lighting her sculpted features. "OK, let's have some of ... whatever it is you're bragging about." One dark eyebrow climbed upward as the healer placed a steaming bowl in front of her. The mixture smelled wonderful, the dark, creamy texture was thick and full.
The healer carried his bowl to the other end of the table, sat down facing the warrior and offered another plate containing several large pieces of dark bread. Xena helped herself to one large slice. She accepted the spoon the healer handed her and sampled the hearty stew. The offering tasted even better than it smelled. The two friends settled in to enjoy a leisurely meal.
After Antenor had refilled his bowl at the hearth beside the table, he offered to do the same for the warrior. Xena refused, assuring the man that the food had indeed been tasty and welcome. She leaned back in the wooden chair, her fingers lightly clasping the tankard's looped, metal handle. She raised her eyes to the healer's when she sensed him studying her face.
"What?" she asked quietly. "What is it you want to know?" The bearded man swallowed the mouthful of food, took a sip from his own tankard and leveled a sincere gaze at the warrior's expectant expression.
"I was just wondering ... just from a ..ah .. professional point of view, that is." The man stopped, slightly uneasy about finishing his question. The warrior's blue eyes locked on his brown pools.
"You were wondering .. what?" the warrior asked, the bronze face approaching its stoic quality. "Antenor ... you know I hate riddles. What's your question?"
The healer abandoned the lightness in his manner. He faced the woman squarely and posed his question.
"Why didn't she make a poultice for herself from the tormentil I gave her? She had more than enough in the pouch." The warrior's mouth dropped open slightly and the blue eyes widened in surprise. "In fact, I told her she should before she left here that night. Surely your wound didn't require that she use all of it?"
Xena dropped her gaze from the healer's face and stared numbly at the wooden tabletop. She took a very slow, calming breath before raising her eyes to the dark brown stare of the man across from her. She gulped quickly to quiet the loud pounding in her ears. She moistened her lips and tried to keep her voice even.
"How much did you give her?" Xena asked in an unsteady voice.
The healer's expression registered his own consternation. "The leather bag she used?" he began, referring to the pouch he'd given the bard. The warrior nodded. "What I gave her nearly filled it. I wanted to be sure she had enough for you both." The man noticed the warrior's stricken look. "Didn't she tell you that?"
"No," the warrior said after a long moment. "She only said she got the tormentil from you the night she rode in on Argo." The blue eyes lingered on the small quiet form on the bed. The warrior's hand tightened around the metal tankard. "She didn't mention how much was in the bag." The healer watched the wave of torment travel across the woman's smooth face. He sat back in his chair, a slow realization registering in his mind. For a long moment, it was quiet in the cozy, fragrant hut. Antenor kept his eyes on the warrior's mournful expression.
"Well, when she wakes up, maybe she'll tell us what happened to the rest of it." The man's remark pulled the warrior out of her reverie. "I'm sure she had a reason for only using half." The clear azure pools left the healer's face and traveled back to the girl on the bed. The man saw the deep emotion simmering behind the woman's piercing stare. He remembered that same intensity from a time long ago. He also recalled what a mistake it might be to press the issue at this precise moment. Antenor slid his chair back from the table. The warrior's attention shifted absently to the source of the subtle noise.
The healer gathered up the two empty bowls and eating utensils, wiped his hands on a cloth and turned back to the pensive warrior. He leaned against the long table which held the many sources of his wares. Antenor crossed his arms over his ample middle and sent a solicitous gaze at his old friend. "I think you should get some rest, too," he told her. "It hasn't been all that long since your wound." Xena casually rested one hand on the area being discussed. "How is that coming, by the way? All healed, as usual?"
The warrior's expression conveyed her complete disinterest in her own injury. "It's fine," she said woodenly, a resolute glare behind her eyes. She transferred her attention to the form on the pallet. "She's the important patient, now." The blue gaze traveled back to the man's brown pools. "You just concentrate on her." The healer saw the vestiges of steel gray float across the steady look. He nodded agreeably.
After a moment, Antenor moved to a large chest at the foot of the bed. He opened the lid, withdrew a large, colorful quilt and held out the covering to the warrior. The man grinned as he lowered the lid of the chest. "I figured you'd want to sleep in here tonight." The warrior's gentle smile thanked the man. "That chair is the least uncomfortable," the healer quipped, gesturing to a large, rattan piece, its seat and back covered by bright, padded cushions. "Just call out if you need me," he said softly, laying an understanding touch on the woman's sleek arm. He crossed the hut and opened a door at the other end of the room. "Good night, Xena."
"Good night, Antenor," the warrior answered. "And thanks again." The healer waved and stepped into the other room, closing the door behind him.
Xena stood up slowly and crossed the room to sit on the side of the large pallet. She gazed at the trim form, the size of the mattress making the small figure appear even more petite. The warrior gently touched the soft, young face, closing her fingers over the slim hand resting on the coverlet. The tall woman swallowed hard, fighting the thickness in her throat. She stared at the bard's sweet, peaceful expression for a long time.
Finally, Xena rose from her seat on the bed and crossed to the large, padded chair. She released the hooks on her armor and removed the other leather articles, leaving only her plain, leather tunic. She picked up the large covering Antenor had supplied, wrapping the warm material around her body. Xena quietly repositioned the padded armchair closer to the side of the bed and lowered herself onto the thick, cushioned seat. Just as she leaned back and prepared to get comfortable, the bard's fragile voice quickly captured her attention.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered, the verdent pools searching the room for the face of her friend. The warrior moved smoothly to the side of the bed.
"Right here, Gabrielle. What do you need?" The tall woman sat on the edge of the mattress and leaned toward the small, quiet form. Gabrielle blinked slowly, trying to focus on the warrior's blurry face. As her vision cleared, the pale face studied the golden countenance. She concentrated on the woman's blue gaze.
"Nothing," the girl said, her voice thick with sleep. "Just wanted to be sure you're OK." The warrior's throat tightened as she watched the soft face relax again. "G'night," the bard murmured. The girl's breathing was even and natural.
"Good night, Gabrielle," the warrior whispered. She let her eyes travel over the girl's peaceful expression. Within moments, the clear, azure pools filled with tears. Xena stared at the sweet, young face, the girl's features lit by the glow of the dancing flames on the hearth. The tall woman stroked the soft skin with the back of her fingers, then gently swept the silky wheat-colored hair away from the soft, attractive features. Her heart swelled with affection for the young woman under the quilt.
Xena stood up and gathered the flowered covering around herself again. She put one knee on the mattress at the bard's feet and carefully slid herself into the space between Gabrielle and the solid wall behind the bed. The warrior settled on her side, her long frame close to the bard's trim figure. Gabrielle stirred slightly, as though she sensed the proximity of the warrior's body. The girl drew in a deep, contented breath and her head rolled slowly toward the sleek, smooth face. Her breathing settled into a steady pattern again. Xena laid down, curling her other arm under her dark head. After another moment, the blue eyes closed and the tall warrior joined her friend in restful sleep.
A few hours later, the little bard awakened slowly, her green eyes scanning the quiet interior of the cozy hut. The girl quickly recognized her surroundings, easily reacquainting herself with the fragrant, comforting atmosphere and the soft, wide mattress. She was also relieved to note the welcome lightness in her chest and the absence of the dull ache from behind her eyes. After a moment, the girl's gaze drifted down to the sleek, muscled arm draped across her waist. She slowly rotated her head until her eyes focused on the sleeping figure nestled against her side. The girl smiled in the darkness, resting her hands on the warm, bronze limb. Then she closed her eyes and returned to the land of her dreams.
The next morning, Xena helped the bard steady the steaming mug. Gabrielle sniffed the dark mixture and sent a regretful glower at the warrior's quivering smirk. The green eyes dropped to consider the mug for a moment, then returned to challenge the blue gaze. One dark eyebrow crept under the dark bangs. The little blonde sighed in surrender. She accepted the mug, lifted it to her lips and slurped up a mouthful. She swallowed the liquid, grimaced and flashed a meaningful glare at the twinkle in the blue eyes. The girl sat back on the pillows.
"You and Antenor are working together, aren't you?" the bard grumbled. "He told me this is his recipe but you enjoy seeing me choke on it, I can tell" The green eyes narrowed at the tall woman's barely controlled grin. Gabrielle gave the mug a scornful look before raising her gaze to the warrior's again.
"Well, it is the best remedy for your chest," Xena said, a small apology in the smooth voice. She tousled the bard's blonde hair. "It wouldn't really be medicine if it didn't taste awful, would it?" She smiled warmly at the girl's pout.
"Yeah, right," the bard scoffed. The warrior put one palm under the mug the bard held and gently lifted the vessel up toward the girl's chin. Gabrielle's glower intensified. The two friends engaged in a silent, steadfast argument. After a moment, the bard rolled her eyes, sighed loudly and raised the mug for another sip. The resulting shiver was slightly more melodramatic than necessary. Her tall friend tried in vain to submerge her chuckle.
Xena stood up and leaned down to retrieve the tray and cloth napkin from the bard's lap. She carried the remains of the girl's breakfast to the table, depositing the collection on the wooden surface. She took a quick breath and turned back to the bard. Gabrielle reacted to the subtle change in the tall woman's manner.
At that moment, the door to the hut burst open and the rotund healer bustled into the room, his arms filled with various plants and herbs. The warrior stood up and took a step away from the bed, turning to face the man. Antenor's expression brightened when his clinical gaze settled on the clearly improved state of the bard's condition. He crossed the room and divested himself of the leafy assortment before moving cheerfully toward his young patient.
Antenor placed a gentle hand on Gabrielle's forehead, then carefully laid his ear against the gir's chest. The warrior watched the healer's proficient actions, a slow grateful smile warming the stoic face. The man settled his large form on the side of the bed and turned a happy expression toward the tall leather-clad figure. He folded his hands in his lap.
"Well, I think our pretty little patient is well on her way back to health." He smiled widely at the little bard, whose warm smile returned his. She blushed shyly at the healer's description of her, dropping her gaze to the container she still held in her hands.
"If I am," the girl said, raising her eyes to meet the healer's again. "It's because of you," she told the man. The young face grinned. "Even if you do make me drink this ... junk," Gabrielle joked, indicating the dark mixture in the mug. The girl's green gaze skipped to the warrior's smirk. "You're both enjoying this, aren't you?" the bard joked, her eyes landing on the healer's again. The three friends enjoyed a comfortable laugh.
As the joyful noise subsided easily, the healer winked at the warrior before turning again to the bard. His wide palm tapped the bottom of the mug. "It only works if you drink it, of course." The bard's grin faded immediately only to reappear again at the sound of her tall friend's playful chuckle.
"It's a conspiracy!" the girl squawked. She trained a comic scowl at the two innocent faces. She shook her head in comic resignation, raised the mug and bravely took another swallow, trying hard not to let her face betray her true reaction to the bitter, unsavory taste. The healer patted her arm affectionately as he left his seat on the mattress. He turned to the tall warrior.
"One more day, I think," he said in a professional tone. Antenor exchanged a guarded look with his tall, dark-haired 'old friend'. The brown eyes shone warmly at the woman's concerned look. He touched her sleek forearm, turned briefly back toward the bard and swept his large form out of the room. The bard's eyes followed the gentle figure's departure before returning to meet the blue eyes of her friend. She settled herself back against the pillows.
"Now, what were you going to ask me?" Gabrielle asked, her gaze steady on the warrior's. Xena paused only a moment to react to the bard's intuition regarding her intentions. She sat down on the side of the bed, the cobalt pools flicking to the mug in the girl's hands. A tiny smile graced the golden face. The warrior gently relieved the bard of the vessel, turning to place it on the nearby table. She swallowed quickly and focused on the expectant expression of her best, and most cherished, friend. She took a shallow breath and smiled warmly at the young face.
"It's about the night you came here on Argo...?" The girl gazed intently at her friend. "The night you brought the tormentil back for my side?" The bard's expression cleared as the subject of the warrior's question finally registered in her mind. Gabrielle nodded.
"Oh," the bard said, nodding. "Well, what do you want to know?" A tiny, meddlesome concern had begun to nudge at the bard's awareness. Gabrielle knew only too well how astute and sharp the warrior's instincts were. Something in her tall friend's manner suggested soon the conversation would make it necessary to explain what had happened on the night in question. The bard swallowed nervously.
Xena saw the subtle gulp that constricted the bard's slender throat. She leaned toward the bard, her hands on either side of the slender form. The warrior concentrated on the soft, green gaze, and was unexpectedly faced with her own trepidaton. Her instincts concerning the lovely young blonde woman she called her best friend were strong and loyal. She almost regretted the pursuit of the upcoming discussion, but the tall woman admitted to herself ... her inner turmoil demanded a resolution, one way or the other. Xena took a quick breath and began.
"Antenor said he gave you enough tormentil that night to not only treat my side, but to make a poultice for yourself as well." The bard let out a short sigh. She dropped her eyes from Xena's and focused on her nervous fingers as they fumbled in her lap. She waited for the warrior to continue. "Why didn't you?" Xena asked gently. The blue eyes rested on the girl's averted gaze. "Gabrielle?" she prodded softly. The warrior's chest tightened when the bard's eyes rose to meet hers. The green pools glistened with shining tears.
Gabrielle gulped nervously, gathering her thoughts before answering the warrior's question. She lowered her gaze to her fingers. "On the way back to the cave, I lost part of the powder ... almost half of it, in fact. I fell off Argo and the bag ...."
"Argo threw you?" the warrior interjected. The bard's eyes jumped to the blue pools.
"No, no," the girl said quickly. "She ... I guess she swerved or whatever, to get around this big tree limb on the path and since I wasn't paying close enough attention, I fell off and the bag came untied." The little blonde's expression depicted her displeasure with herself. "It spilled out onto the ground and the wind .... well, about half of the powder blew away." The green eyes dropped to her lap again.
"See, I didn't get the stirrups shortened before I left, so it was kinda hard for me to ....." The bard's contrite explanation ended abruptly when she turned to address the warrior. The golden face was covered with tears, the blue eyes wide and astonished on the bard's face. Xena closed her open mouth and gulped against the ache in her throat.
"You used what was left ... on me, didn't you?" the warrior said, her voice tight with emotion. "You put it all on my side." The blue eyes were locked on the girl's face.
The green gaze was steady on the warrior's stricken expression. The young blonde faced the warrior, her trim form straightening against the pillows. "You needed it," the girl said simply. "You were hurt."
The warrior's blue eyes flashed with a hint of derision. "As opposed to the raging fever you'd been dealing with for days and the annoying little rattle occupying your chest," she said sarcastically, leveling a superior glare at the bard's persistence. Gabrielle's chin rose a degree as she sent an unflinching stare at the piercing gaze. The girl crossed her arms over her chest.
"I made the right decision for the situation," the little blonde said, her voice controlled and firm. Xena was flustered by the girl's quietly willful comment. A moment later, the chiseled features darkened in a warm blush. She struggled to reinstate the superior glare, but her resolve was quickly undermined by her own embarrassment. She chose instead to silently admonish the bard's impish smirk.
"And, besides, who was it who brewed up that awful tea for me ... twice?" The green eyes twinkled at the tall woman's chagrin. The girl tilted her head. "Hmm?" the bard teased, taking her friend's slender hand. "This time is was my turn to 'do' for you," Gabrielle said softly, mimicing the warrior's raised-eyebrow look. "Fair's fair, after all."
Xena could only stare at the bard, her clear affection warming the blue gaze. She squeezed the small hand wrapped around her fingers while her dark head traveled from side to side. "What am I going to do with you?" the liquid voice asked softly.
The green eyes swept comically across the coverlet before rising to meet the blue gaze. "Be grateful there's only one of me?" the girl quipped facetiously, her face openly playful.
Xena chuckled softly, her amusement answering the bard's cheerful giggle. A moment later, the warrior sat forward to pull the trim form into her arms. "Oh, I am," Xena said, her voice earnest against the girl's temple. When the women parted, Xena's palm captured the girl's chin. "I'm very grateful that 'one' decided to be my friend." Gabrielle returned the warrior's loving smile.
"An honorable, selfless decision, my young friend." Antenor's quiet voice sounded from the doorway across the room. The healer took a short step into the area, his admiration for the bard's courage obvious in his eyes. "You both took quite a chance, however you look at it." The warrior's gaze swept to the healer's kind face as the bard's focus followed almost the identical route. Then the women's attention returned to each other. A moment later, they both turned to address the healer.
"She's my best friend," the women said at precisely the same moment. The two best friends turned to each other and laughed outloud, then hugged each other tightly The healer smiled with them.
The bard turned her attention from the scroll in her lap to the warrior's activity at the campfire. Her verdent gaze settled on the heavy, iron frying pan the woman was tending and the two thick pieces of meat sizzling in the middle of the implement. Gabrielle had to admit the aroma wafting up from the dancing flames was very appealing. She watched as Xena turned the servings over before briskly sliding the skillet back and forth over the fire.
Finally the warrior lifted the pan away from the campfire and placed it down on the ring of stones surrounding the site. She brushed her hands together, drew her knife, and deftly carved the thick pieces into smaller, square portions. The bard leaned closer to get a better view.
When all of the meat had been sufficiently re-apportioned, the warrior brought the skillet next to the small, iron pot bubbling over the flames and transferred the meat from the frying pan into the kettle, briefly stirring the contents with her knife. Next, the leather-clad chef picked up the flat expanse of bark resting next to her and used her knife to slide the pieces of sliced mushrooms and wild tubers from the bark into the kettle. She laid the skillet aside and turned a mischievous grin to the bard's curious expression.
"Supper's almost ready," the warrior announced. "Are you as hungry as you usually are?"
Gabrielle sent a look of mock irritation at her tall friend's impish expression. "Ha, ha," the girl chortled in fun. Her nose drew her attention back to the steaming kettle.
"Whatever that is, it smells great." The girl trained a teasing grin at her friend's smug grin. "Since when have you become such a gourmet?" the bard quipped. "Or is this another of Antenor's 'secret recipes'?" The warrior scoffed at the blonde's insinuation.
"I'll have you know I taught Antenor all he knows about cooking," the warrior chided her friend. "I only let you handle the cooking because I know you enjoy the food so much." The golden face smiled widely at the the bard's 'insulted' look. Xena ducked her head to escape the twig the girl had tossed at her ear. The bard gave her tall friend a playful shove. A short time later, the warrior announced that their meal was now ready. Gabrielle picked up the two earthen plates resting on the bedroll beside her and held them out to the warrior. Xena lifted the pot and used the wide, wooden ladle she'd created early in their travels to spoon equal portions of the cooked food into the two platters. She returned the kettle to the fire, uncorked the waterskin and settled her long, sleek frame onto the large log across from the bard, accepting the plate the girl handed her. The two women began to eat.
After enjoying several mouthfuls of the thick, tasty stew, the bard turned a contented expression toward the warrior's relaxed form. She swallowed some of the food in her mouth before trying to address her tall friend. Xena grinned at the girl's enjoyment of the food.
"Xena!" the bard said enthusiastically. "This is the best stew we've ever had." The warrior performed a little nod in acceptance of the bard's compliment. She watched the girl deliver another spoonful to her mouth, her young face lighting happily. The tall woman laughed softly at the little blonde's animated activity.
"Whoa, take it easy, there," the warrior said, her eyes amused on the girl's chomping jaws. "You're going to wear out your teeth." The bard giggled softly. "We have plenty of time. You don't have to rush."
Gabrielle swallowed again, then systematically licked some of the dark, thick gravy from her fingers. She sent an adorable grin at the warrior's loving smile. "But it's really good!" the bard mumbled around the food. "You've really outdone yourself this time." She used her spoon to capture a piece of sliced mushroom from the side of her plate and lifted the treat to her mouth. While she chewed, she scooped up another chunk of the tender meat. The girl's spoon disappeared into her mouth again.
"Oh, by the way," the warrior said, casually drawing a small bundle from the belt of her leathers. "Here, I made something for you." She handed the parcel to the little blonde.
The girl's eyes danced excitedly at the unexpected gift. She put her plate down on the bedroll, wiped her fingers on the edge of the blanket and carefully unwrapped the little package. She spread the piece of cloth in her palm and picked up the unusual item, letting the article dangle from the thin leather thong attached at one end. Gabrielle brought the object closer to examine it more easily.
"What is it?" she asked the warrior.
"It's the pointed end of a boar's tusk," the tall woman said evenly. The bard's eyes flew to the warrior's cryptic expression. She studied the long, sharp tooth for a moment before meeting the clear, blue stare again. The golden face creased in a knowing grin.
"You didn't," the bard said quietly, her eyes on her friend's raised eyebrow.
"Oh, yeah," the warrior answered, her blue eyes twinkling playfully. "You bet I did."
Gabrielle's mouth dropped slightly open. The warrior picked up the small kettle, the wooden spoon poised at its rim.
"More stew?" she asked innocently. The little blonde's astonished look continued for a short moment before her boisterous laughter filled the campsite. The warrior joined in the girl's delight while the golden mare looked on indulgently.
~~~~ THE END ~~~~
Author's Note: Unfortunately, one rather obnoxious, bad-tempered boar was jeopardized during the completion of this tale ... but, by all accounts, he had it coming. Buon' Appetite! (And that's Italian!)
She Ain't Heavy 1 3/2/98
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