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Healer’s Choice

by Maggie

 

DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny and Solari are the property of MCA/Universal Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended here.

GENERAL NOTE: In terms of ‘Xenaverse time’, this story follows the events of "Trust Fund", but the two scenarios relate only in terms of the loose structure of their creator’s mind.

I just figured everyone could stand a little ‘whimsy’ about now so I decided, "What the hay ... why not?"

BTW: No fair sneaking a peak at the last few pages to figure out who the ‘suffering party’ is; and I will know if you do. All us Xenite Bards have our own collection of ‘many skills’. So, start from the beginning and don’t cheat!! Enjoy! MMG

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Will you hold still?? Gods!"

"Well, it hurts!"

"I’m not surprised! Why did you wait so long to tell me about this?"

"It just got worse today. Yesterday, it wasn’t ..."

"Yesterday, you said it was a ‘bother’. Today it’s a major injury."

"Well, today it hurts!"

"Tell me something I haven’t heard already. Let me look at it again."

"Ouch! You said ‘look’!"

"Gods, you can be such a baby, sometimes!"

"ME a baby??? This from the woman who shrieked like a green harpy when I put two tiny stitches in the fleshy part of her ...."

"It was THREE stitches and I didn’t ‘shriek’."

"No, you just threatened me with a long, painful, horrible death."

"Well, I didn’t ‘shriek’. I might have yelled a little, but ...."

"Yeah, right!"

"So open up and let me look at it again."

"You won’t touch anything?"

"No, I’ll just look, OK?"

"You promise?"

"OPEN YOUR MOUTH!"

"You don't have to get huffy. OK, here ... look, then."

"I can’t tell anything. It just looks like a ...."

"YEOW! You said you were just going to look!"

"Oh, for the love of ...! What a baby!

"Wowll, id herdts!"

"What?"

"I said, it hurts!"

"OK, I’ll accept that. The way you’ve been howling all day...."

"The way I’ve been ...?"

"Why do you always wait until it gets this bad before you say something?

"I thought it would go away, that’s all. It always has before."

"Except for this time, right?"

"Yeah. This time it ... got worse."

"Uh-huh. Did you try the medicine pouch?"

"Yeah...."

"And?"

"No luck. It’s not getting any better."

"So now what?"

"Nothing left to try ... except ...."

"Except what?"

"It has to come out. It’s the only...."

"There has to be something else we can try first."

"Believe me, I’ve tried everything else I can think of. The usual stuff hasn’t worked."

"Well, maybe if you hadn’t waited so long ...."

"Look! I thought it would get better, all right???"

"But, it didn’t, did it??"

"No, in fact it’s worse today than it was last night."

"You do know we have to be at the Amazon village by tomorrow night?"

"Yes, I’m aware of that."

"To celebrate Ephiny’s birthday?"

"Yes! That’s why I was hoping this would get better before now."

"Well, it obviously hasn’t."

"No."

"So where does that leave us, exactly?"

"It ... ah ... it has to come out."

"You don’t mean ...?"

"Pull it. It’s the only way."

"Oh, no you don’t! I don’t do ‘teeth’!"

"Well, I could do it by myself ...."

"You ARE kidding, right?"

"But, it’s tricky."

"Tricky? Look, whattya say we look for a healer? There has to be one somewhere between here and the Amazons."

"Maybe, but this is ‘teeth’, remember?"

"And you don’t want to wait to find one, right?"

"I don’t think it will help, that’s all."

"Oh, swell. Well, all right, how?"

A long moment passed.

"Hey?"

"WHAT?!"

"Well, you don’t have to bite my head off!"

"Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell."

"Well .. OK."

"So, what did you want?"

"Excuse me?"

"You were going to say something."

"When?"

"Just now."

(De-e-p, c-a-l-m breath.) "I was just going to ask how we are going to do this?"

"Oh. Well, I have a few ideas."

"I figured that."

"The first one is ... Argo."

"Argo?"

"Yeah. We can use the suturing thread from the medicine pouch. We tie one end to my tooth and the other end to the saddlehorn. Then we get Argo to take off and ... poof! Good bye, one throbbing tooth."

"Oh, I don’t know about this."

"C’mon. It’s worth a try, isn’t it?"

"I guess. OK, I’ll get the thread."

"And I’ll get Argo."

A few minutes later, the heavy thread was tied, at both ends. The time had come to test the theory.

"OK, Argo. Go."

Nothing from the mare ... absolutely nothing ... except a long, disdainful, skeptical look.

"Argo! Move!"

This time the response was a loud, moist guffaw. Obviously, there would be no cooperation.

After several unsuccessful tries, it was clear whose will would win out in the present situation.

"I always said you were the most stubborn animal alive."

"Well, now what?"

"Let’s try this rock."

"WHAT?"

"Tie the other end to this big rock. We’ll throw it off the edge of the ridge. That should do it."

"You are daft!"

"Are you going to help or not?"

"OK, OK. But I still think a healer would be able to ... all right, all right. Gods, I hate it when you pout."

"Listen ...."

"I’m tying, I’m tying. There. So, now what, again?"

"We take it over there and toss it over the edge. That’ll take the tooth out, for sure."

"Let’s hope that’s all it takes out. Ugh! This thing is heavy."

"All the better. This will work, I know it."

"Well, I guess it’s worth a try. OK, (hrmph) over the (grunt) edge, huh?"

"Right. On three, ready? One ... two .. three!"

The rock sailed into the air, but the ragged edges were less than kind to the heavy thread. Within the first few seconds of the boulder’s downward flight, the line attached to the giant stone snapped ... leaving the offending tooth precisely intact and exactly in place.

"Argghhh!"

"I take it that means we try something else?"

"Ouch!"

"Still hurts, huh?"

"Yeah."

"You got another brilliant plan?"

"Look, instead of being so negative, why don’t you try and think of something?"

"I told you, I don’t do ‘teeth’."

"Great. Haven’t you ever had one of these?"

"Can’t say I remember one."

"Not even when you were a kid?"

"Nope. Sorry."

"Oh, gods! Oww!"

A surpressed chortle greeted the exclamation.

"You find this funny!??"

"No ... well ... you do look kind of silly with that piece of thread dangling from your mouth."

"Thanks for the compliment."

"OK, I’m sorry. So what else you wanna try?"

"Forget it. You’ll say it’s a dumb idea."

"No, I won’t."

"Yes, you will."

"I promise, I won’t. Now what’s your idea?"

Very long, nervous pause. Then ...

"We just knock it out."

Silence ... for another long moment.

"Say that again?"

"With the staff ... you could just take it and ...."

"THAT’S IT! We’re going to find a healer! Right now!"

"If you just give this a try ...."

"Now! On the horse. No arguments!"

"But ...."

"But, nothing! We’re going."

"It won’t help. I just know it."

"Don’t get stubborn with me! Get on the horse!"

"You sure we can’t just try ...?"

"Horse! Climb! Now!"

"Geesh! What a grouch!"

"We’re less than a morning’s walk from Palamas. We’ll find what we need there."

"I still say, if you’d just take the staff .... OK, OK. I’m getting on the horse. Boy! (Ouch!)"

By the time the sun traversed the center of the morning sky, the two women had arrived at Palamas, a fishing village near the coast of the Gulf of Volos. They asked a local merchant where the healer could be found.

"Dirce?" the man asked glancing curiously at the tall warrior in leather standing next to the small, blonde woman with the Amazon staff. "Her hut’s at the west edge of town. Just keep walking that way," he told them, motioning in the same direction they were headed.

"You can’t miss it for the smell and the roots hanging all over the place." They thanked the man and proceeded west.

"This is a waste of time, you know?"

"Not necessarily. Either way, she may be able to at least give you something for the pain."

"We’ll be with the Amazons tomorrow. Their healer can give me whatever I need."

"Just humor me, all right? It’s another half-day’s journey to the Amazons. You still have to get through tonight and I would like to get some sleep, for a change."

"Sooo sorry I’ve been disturbing you. Arghh! All right, let’s get this over with."

"Such a brave spirit! Here we are."

"This isn’t going to work."

The elderly woman in the multi-colored robes rose from her kneeling position in front of the vine-covered cottage and turned to greet the approaching travelers. Her wrinkled, worn face contrasted sharply with the warm, attentive compassion radiating from her dark, glittering eyes. The experienced gaze focused on the small blonde, then traveled to the tall, dark-haired woman walking beside her. She appraised the situation quickly and strode smoothly toward the distinctive pair.

"Toothache," the healer said knowingly. "Come. Sit," she instructed. "I have something that will calm the discomfort."

The warrior secured the horse’s reins on a slender branch of a nearby tree. Then she and the bard sat down on the low bench nestled in the patch of shade at the front of the building. As they waited for the healer to return, the two friends responded to the pungent odors emanating from inside the unique structure.

"Smells like some sort of soup," the bard said quietly. "Or maybe, a thick stew."

The warrior’s usual taciturn look answered the little blonde’s speculation.

"I swear, you could find a cooking pot in a four-scale wind."

"We all have our skills, Princess."

"More likely boiling tree bark." Argo’s noisy response punctuated her mistress’ comment.

"Another critic."

A moment later, the wizened healer returned holding a small, bundle of greenery settled in the middle of a square piece of cloth. In her other hand, she held a knobby, craggy piece of root.

"This will soothe the pain," she announced, offering the foliage cluster. "It’s called Star Anise. And this root," she continued, displaying the growth, "will draw out any infection surrounding the invasion."

"Tormentil," the warrior said clearly.

The old woman smiled warmly and handed over the root. She began to gather the cloth around the clump of long, leafy stalks. "Lay a clean, warm leaf against the tooth for no more than a candlemark. Then rinse the area with clear water." She surrendered the fabric-covered parcel. "Follow that with a mouthful of tea made from the root ... held in the mouth until the liquid becomes tepid. Then clear the mouth."

"How often do you repeat this ... procedure?" the bard asked.

"Once every other candlemark. If, after two days, there is still a disturbance, return and I shall release the tooth."

"You mean, pull it?"

"Only if it becomes necessary. Try the herbs first. Good folly," the woman said, closing her gnarled hand around the small cache of dinars the warrior had deposited in her palm. She smiled quietly again, then turned and made her way toward the garden near the side of the cabin. The travelers gathered up the bundle of herbs and the root, retrieved the mare’s reins and continued on their journey.

"Well, whattya think?"

"About what?"

"About the healer’s remedy?"

"How would I know? Sounded authentic enough. Either way, we’ll be with the Amazons tomorrow."

"OK, we’ll find a stream and try it out."

"The sooner the better."

"You said it. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep tonight, anyway."

"That makes two of us."

"Very funny."

A candlemark later, the two friends settled into their campsite, each performing the customary duties and chores needed to make the area accommodating for their short stay. It was time to follow the healer’s recommendations.

"Where’s that green stuff she gave you?"

"The rest of it is over there, next to the ...."

"The rest of it? What do you mean ‘the rest’ of it’?"

"Well, I already put one leaf against my tooth, like she said."

"How long have you had it in there?"

"I don’t know. Since we got here."

"That’s too long. She said ‘no more than one candlemark’, then rinse your mouth."

"She did?"

"Yes, she was very specific. ‘Only one candlemark’ and every other candlemark. Then you’re supposed to do the thing with the root and the tea."

"Oh. Did you write that all down, or something?"

"No, but I remember it."

"If you say so."

"So, spit it out and rinse your mouth."

"OK. But it really works. It stopped hurting."

"Good. Now, spit it out."

"Blaagh! Stuff tastes like dirt. Where’s the waterskin?"

"I don’t see it. Did you leave it at the stream?"

"I guess so. Well, be right back. Whoa!"

"You OK?"

"I think I stood up too fast. Whew!"

"You do look a little ... green. You gonna make it?"

"Yeah. No problem. Now, where was I going, again?"

"The stream? For the waterskin?"

"Oh, yeah."

"Hey?"

"Yeah?"

"The stream’s that way."

"Oh, right. Well, see you in a few."

"Are you sure you’re OK?"

"I’m fine. But I really need to get the dirt out of my mouth."

"You should have waited until we washed the leaf."

"Yeah, maybe. Well, anyway, it’s too late now, Sweet Nibs." (Subdued giggles.)

"What did you just call me?"

"I give up. What did I just call you?"

"Sweet Nibs??? Oh, you are acting weird. Better get that water quick."

"No, no. I’ll get the water quick. Be right back."

"Hey?"

"Oh, yeah, right. This way."

"Think you’re up to catching some fish?"

"What for?"

"Lunch would be good."

"Oookay. See what I can do. And the stream is over there."

"Right. Just don’t drown yourself, OK?"

"Nooo sweat. See ya’."

"Right."

Half a candlemark later, the woman at the campsite decided that her friend had indeed drowned herself or else had decided to go for a swim. She elected to investigate which choice had caused the delay in the other woman’s return. When she reached the bank of the stream, she found her friend knee-deep in the clear current, bent forward, her hands on her knees, gazing transfixed into the sparkling water. After observing the immobile figure for a few moments, she proceeded closer. The woman standing in the stream seemed totally unaware of her friend’s approach.

"What are you doing?"

"Huh? Oh, hi."

"What’s going on?"

"C’mere! You gotta see this!"

"See what? What’s down there?"

"Look at all these little silver things. They’re all over down here! Swimming around my feet and everything."

"Do you mean the fish?"

"Fish? Is that what they are?"

"Yes. The ‘little silver things’? They’re called ‘fish’. That’s why you came down here. To catch some of the ‘fish’."

"Catch them? What for?"

"Listen, do me a favor, will you?"

"Sure. What?"

"Get some of the water into your mouth."

"Do what?"

"Reach down and splash some of the water into your mouth. To get rid of the dirt, remember? You wanted to wash the dirt out of your mouth."

"I did? Oh, yeah. Sure, I can do that."

The woman in the stream cupped her hands together and scooped up some of the clear water. She brought the liquid to her mouth and drank easily.

"That’s it. Now spit the water out. Rinse your mouth and get rid of it. That’s good."

After repeating the process a few times, the woman standing in the water shook her dripping hands and leveled a playful look at her friend on the bank of the stream.

"Don’t even think about it. Just keep rinsing your mouth. Do it again."

More scooping. More slurping. More rinsing. Finally, a subtle look of recognition was exchanged, followed by an equally confused reaction to the water and its temperature.

"Hey, this water is really cold, you know?"

"Good. At least you know that. Want to come out of there now?"

"Sure." The woman sloshed toward the sandy bank. "Why did you have me go in there, anyway?"

"You were going to ... never mind. Go back to camp. I’ll get the fish."

"Get the fish? You mean, catch them? You won’t hurt them, will you?"

"No, I won’t ... hurt them. Just go on back to camp. I’ll be there in a little while."

"Yeah, OK. See you there."

"And keep away from that green stuff we got from the healer. Don’t chew on anymore leaves."

"No? OK. No more leaves. See you back at camp."

(A long, deep breath.) "Oh, brother. One more night. I hope the Amazon healer knows what to do about this."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was now evening, the daylight having surrendered to the tranquil night and the round, full moon. The travelers sat enjoying the warmth of the fire and the quiet, rustling of the creatures residing in the forest around them. Their meal had consisted of the fruits of the fishing expedition and the results of some knowledgeable searching in the surrounding underbrush. The two women were now preparing for sleep ... at least, one of them was.

"Now what are you doing?"

"Huh? Oh, this sword thing is really sharp, isn’t it?"

"Yeah, works better that way. You might want to put it down for the time being."

"Oh, I’ll be careful with it. Shiny, too. Look how it reflects the moonlight! Wow!"

"Yes, lovely. Just be careful, all right?"

"Gee, you can be a real spoil sport, sometimes, you know that?"

"A what? Hey, put that thing down before you .... yikes!"

"Oh, sorry! It didn’t hit you, did it?"

"No. It’s OK. Missed my toes by a whole twig’s breadth."

"Whoops! Turned out to be heavier than I thought. Give it here, I’ll put it away."

"I’ll put it away. You just try and get some sleep, OK?"

"I said I was sorry. Geesh!"

"No, it’s OK. Just try and sleep, all right?"

"Yeah, all right. Should I take out this leaf first?"

"What leaf?"

"The one in my mouth. This one."

"Have you had that in your mouth ...?"

"Since I got back from the stream." (Small laugh.) "Really helps my toothache."

"But you were only supposed to ... never mind. Give it to me. No, just throw it away."

"OK. It’s ‘thrown away’. Can I go to sleep now?"

"Yes. A very good idea. Go to sleep."

"I thought I was supposed to rinse with the root tea thing, again?"

"Yes ... no. It’s too late now. Just go to sleep. You can ‘rinse’ in the morning."

"Oh, OK. Well, see you in the morning. G’night."

"Good night." ( Deep breath.) "Oh, brother."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next morning, soft splashes of sunlight dappled the campsite as the moon surrendered her spot on the horizon to the newly, dressed dawn. The two women at the camp awakened slowly, neither all that willing to leave their dreams and prepare for the day. Eventually, the sounds of breakfast preparation interrupted the quiet melody of the forest’s music.

"Whatever that is, it smells delicious. Whatcha got there?"

"It’s herb tea. I made it from the root the healer gave us. Here, she said to hold some of it in your mouth for a while."

"Can’t I swallow some of it. It smells great."

"Yeah, I guess you could. Be careful, though, it’s hot."

"Thanks."

"How is your tooth, by the way?"

"Feels alot better. I think those leaves really helped."

"Good."

"Aren’t you going to have some of this? It tastes really good."

"No, I don’t have a toothache."

"Oh. Well, it’s good, anyhow."

"I’ll just settle for some water. Where’s the skin?"

"Over there."

"I’ll be right back. Then we can have breakfast."

"OK. Remember, the water is really cold."

"Yeah. I’ll remember that." (Pause, steady inspection and determination.) Ah ... what’s with your feet?"

"My feet?"

"Yeah, those things in your boots?"

"Oh yeah. What about them?"

"Do you notice anything ... unusual about them this morning?"

"Like what?"

"Like, they’re in the wrong boots?"

"These are my boots. I don’t think yours would ...."

"No, I mean, you’ve got your boots on the wrong feet. See?"

"Oh. I do?" (Giggle) "I thought they looked kinda funny."

"Didn’t they feel strange?"

"Yeah, a little."

"Well, do you think you can put them on right? It might be easier to walk to the Amazons that way."

"Yeah, I guess I’d better. It’ll only take a minute."

"I’ll fill the waterskin and be right back. Don’t ... go anywhere, OK?"

"Aren’t you gonna make breakfast? You look hungry."

"Nooo, I think we’d better be on our way as soon as possible. Just stay here, OK? I’ll be right back."

"OK."

The waterskin having been refilled, the travelers broke camp and prepared to continue their journey. It had taken three tries to affix the saddle to the mare’s back, but at last they were ready to move along.

"Let’s get moving. Now what’s wrong?"

"Ouch! I guess the leaf wore off. My tooth hurts again."

"Here’s one for now. But, just for a while, all right? We’ll have to be more careful about these things until we get to the Amazon village."

"Thanks. So, are we ready?"

"Yes. Maybe you’d better ride Argo. Less jarring that way."

"Yeah? Oh, OK. Whoops!"

"What happened?"

"I guess my foot slipped. I tried to step into this metal thing and .... it is kind of high, you know?"

"Yeah, high."

"Well, we could both walk, you know?"

"Yeah, walk."

"Are you all right?"

"Just fine. Let’s walk. We should be at the Amazons by the time ... you need another leaf. C’mon."

The two women began to walk and the ‘very high horse’ followed. It was clear it would be a very long morning.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The sun once again slid into the highest point in the sapphire sky. Soon afterward, the travelers crossed the boundaries of the Amazon Nation and were immediately greeted by members of that affinity who lowered themselves from the trees to offer the young blonde homage and welcome. She returned their greeting by performing their universal sign of peace, arms outstretched above her head, palms clasped together.

However, those same female warriors were sending perplexed and bewildered glances at the dark-haired woman standing next to their young queen, most likely because the leather-clad warrior was having trouble putting her hands together over her head. The winsome giggle tumbling from her didn’t help settle their confusion much, either.

"These are the gals giving the party?" Xena murmured none too quietly into Gabrielle’s ear. "They look awfully serious to me. You sure we’re in the right place?"

The bard quickly dispelled the protective inclinations showing in the expressions of the welcoming party as Solari approached her wearing a disapproving scowl.

"It’s a long story, Solari," the girl said hastily. "I’ll explain it when we get to the village." The little blonde turned to her tall companion. "Just ... follow the escort, OK?" she said, motioning toward the auburn-haired warrior who was waiting ahead of them on the path. "She’ll take you to the village. I’ll be right behind you."

The muscled Amazon held the bard’s green gaze for a moment, then signaled briskly to the warriors behind them. The small crowd dispersed, quickly melting into the surrounding forest and returning to their posts in the trees. Solari stepped aside to let the little queen pass in front of her as they started down the path toward the Amazon village.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Gabrielle returned Ephiny’s affectionate hug. After a moment, the statuesque Amazon stood back to address the girl’s apologetic expression.

"What’s with our tall friend, there?" Ephiny asked. "She get into some henbane during your last adventure?"

"No," the young bard answered, gazing woefully at her sheepish companion. "She has a toothache and the healer in Palamas gave her some kind of leaf to suck on for the pain." Gabrielle turned back to Ephiny’s questioning look. "She’s been a little ‘out of touch’ ever since."

The warrior approached the two blonde friends. "Hi ya, Eph’," she said to the Amazon warrior, slapping the woman heartily on the back. "Ready to celebrate your birthday? I sure am."

Solari’s raised-eyebrows look was calmed by Ephiny’s nod. "Show the queen’s companion where to stable her horse, will you, Solari? Gabrielle and I will be in her hut." The dark-haired attendant turned to the dark-haired warrior.

"You want to follow me?" she said calmly to the grinning warrior. "You can stable your horse over here."

"Sure, if I can get her to come with me," Xena said, turning to the golden mare. "OK, shall we check out the stable?" Argo sneezed disdainfully. The warrior turned back to the Amazon. "See what I mean? A real attitude, this one." She addressed the horse again. "C’mon, you’ll like it. I promise."

Ephiny silenced Solari’s joyful smirk. ‘Oh, this one I gotta hear,’ Solari thought merrily as she moved to follow the very relaxed ‘honored visitor’ to the stable. ‘The Warrior Princess, swacked out of her treehouse. Must be some story.’

The blonde Amazon wrapped a comforting arm around the little bard’s shoulders as they moved toward the unique lodgings designed for the reigning Queen. Both women turned in surprise as the sound of a happy whistle floated back toward them from the vicinity of the tall leather-clad warrior leading the golden mare.

"Well," the lovely Amazon said, smiling at the young bard. "Whatever’s scrambled her head, Aurora will have something to fix it."

"I sure hope so," Gabrielle sighed. "She’s been like this since yesterday. Maybe Aurora can whip up a tonic to get her back to ... what?" the young bard asked, stopping her own wishful thinking in mid-thought. "What’s that look for?"

"What look?" Ephiny asked innocently.

"That look," Gabrielle said firmly. "The one that says, ‘You’re not going to like this’."

"Oh, THAT look," the blonde Amazon said, laughing nervously. "Well," she continued, clearing her throat. "There’s a bit of a ... problem with that plan."

"Problem?" the little blonde asked, her green eyes narrowing in concern.

"Well, Aurora isn’t here ... right now," Ephiny said, wincing at the young queen’s look of dread. "She’s on a trip to the northern provinces. She’s doing some training with the young girls ... to see if there are a couple of them who might like to become her ... students, you know, for the healing." The Amazon waited while the bard digested the news.

"Oh, great!" the girl growled. "Well, when is she due back?"

Ephiny swallowed slowly and offered a flimsy grin. "Day after tomorrow."

Gabrielle’s chin dropped even farther. "The day after ...." the girl groaned. "Oh, Ephiny! You mean we’re going to have to deal with ... this ... for two more days??"

"Sorry, Gabrielle," the tall blonde said. "If we had known about it ...." The woman’s words drifted away. She gave the young queen a remorseful smile.

Gabrielle let out an exasperated breath. "Well, maybe we can get word to Aurora, tell her we need her back here ... now what’s wrong?" the little blonde scowled at her Regent.

"Sorry. She sent word this morning that she was taking the best ‘prospects’ into the woods to explain various ... herbs and their effects." The irony of the statement did not amuse the young queen. "There’s no way of knowing exactly where they’ll be."

"Great!" the girl muttered. "Just great."

"Well, listen, " Ephiny began, forcing a lightness into her tone. "Maybe this ... ‘leaf thing’ will wear off on it’s own before then, huh?" She smiled brightly at the bard’s doubtful face.

"At least you’re here now and the rest of us can lend a hand ... help you both hold tight until Aurora gets back and handles this. OK?"

"Yeah, maybe," Gabrielle conceded. The girl’s smile showed signs of reappearing. "Xena does have amazing ‘recuperative powers’. Maybe she’ll come around all by herself. Right?" She flashed a hopeful smile. "Besides," the bard said brightly. "We have a birthday party to enjoy. And have I got a present for you, my friend," she said, laying a small hand on the Amazon’s muscled forearm. Ephiny relaxed at the sound of the young blonde’s cheerful laughter ... until her eyes caught the sight of the tall, dark-haired warrior ambling toward them from the stable.

Gabrielle turned to follow Ephiny’s gaze. When she recognized the cause of the Amazon’s retreating grin, the young bard gulped nervously. The warrior had her sword slung casually over one shoulder and the bronze face was displaying a somewhat mischievous smirk. She swaggered over to the bard and the Amazon, looped a long arm over the young queen’s shoulders and winked openly at the blonde Regent.

"Hey, I’m starved," she warbled. "When do we eat around here?"

Gabrielle cast a weary gaze at Ephiny’s amused expression. She disengaged the warrior’s arm and propelled her gently toward the royal hut. As the two friends moved away, the bard spoke over her shoulder to the Amazon. "See what you can do, will you, Ephiny? It’s going to be a looong night."

The Amazon waited until the queen and her champion were out of earshot before giving in to the hearty laughter that had gathered in her throat.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Gabrielle turned from the door of the Regal Hut, carefully balancing the tray she had accepted from the young Amazon standing in the doorway. She closed the door, placed the food on the wooden table next to the wall, sat down in one of the chairs next to the fixture and focused her attention on the activity of her tall, dark-haired companion. After a few minutes of total confusion, she decided a gentle inquiry was in order.

"What are you doing?"

"Tracking the edge of the mat."

"Uh-huh." A slight, perplexed pause. "Why?"

"To wear it out evenly."

The bard’s total perplexity was accompanied by her equally befuddled scowl. "I .. ah.. say that again? To do what?"

"I’m walking on the edge of the mat so that it will wear out evenly."

The little blonde sat completely dumbfounded. The warrior interrupted her activity to inspect the tray of food, acquire random selections from several of the items present, then return to her industrious task while enjoying the edibles as she resumed her ‘tracking’ along the edge of the thatched covering.

"See, with a mat like this, in the center of the room, everyone is always walking around on the middle .. never on the edge. So the middle wears out waaay before the edge. This way, the edge will wear out at the same time. You get it?"

For one of the few times in her life, the young Amazon Queen was rendered absolutely speechless. After a moment, she briskly shook her blonde head to clear it.

"Xena? Why don’t you try and get some rest before the party tonight? Good idea?"

"Why? I’m not tired." The warrior finished the last of the foodstuffs and brushed her hands together.

"Xena, please! Just ... go lie down for a while, OK? Please? Just do it for me, all right?"

"Well, OK. If you think I should. But, someone’d better track that edge, or else it’s gonna ..."

"I’ll take care of the floor mat. Just lie down and rest. We have a long night ahead of us."

(Yawn, stretch, mumbling, relaxation.) "Yeah, OK. Gonna be some party, huh? Can’t wait."

"Oh, brother."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A candlemark later, the little blonde awakened for the fourth time during the short span of time to acknowledge what she had dreaded most had indeed taken place ... she was alone in the spacious hut. She quickly scanned the interior of the structure, panic and foreboding filling her senses. Finally she accepted the awful truth; her tall companion was not in attendance. She hurriedly pulled on her boots and started for the door of the hut, her hand already reaching for the large peg on the latch. An instant later, the panel swung roughly open to reveal an advancing Ephiny dragging a languid warrior princess whose wry smile contrasted sharply with the acrimonious scowl covering the blonde Regent’s face.

Ephiny handed the tall miscreant over to the blonde queen and glowered, knuckles on her hips, at the smug expression on the dark-haired woman’s face.

"What happened?" Gabrielle asked, accepting her ‘charge’ and directing the slender form toward the wooden chair next to the table.

"You’d better keep her in here with you, even if you have to bolt the door and tie her to the bed," the blonde Amazon sputtered. "Someone’s going to clobber her for sure, if she doesn’t get that ‘leaf thing’ out of her system soon."

"What?" The green eyes swung to the warrior’s wide-eyed smile. "What did she do? She didn’t hurt anyone, did she?"

"No, unless you call hitting someone square in the forehead with a big ripe tomato ‘hurting’ them’," Ephiny sputtered. She turned an accusing glare at the queen’s champion.

"What??" Gabrielle gasped. "Who? When? Are they all right?"

"Solari, just now and, yes, she’s OK." the tall blonde answered.

"How’d I know she was gonna come out of the stable right then?" Xena chortled, her blue eyes blinking in triumph. A childlike grin covered the smooth face. "Caught her dead center, tho’," the warrior giggled. "Splatt!" The normally stoic form jostled in contented laughter.

Gabrielle cast a horrified look at the warrior’s silly smile. "You threw a tomato at Solari??" she growled.

"No," Ephiny interjected. "She launched it with this." The bard spun around to face the tall Amazon and her mouth dropped open even farther when she recognized the object the woman held in her hand. It was a slingshot, a wooden apparatus with a pliant, expanse of leather secured between the y-shaped extensions.

"One of the younger girls said our friend wandered over to their group and they asked if she knew how to use one of these. So Xena proceeded to show her just exactly how well she could." The Amazon shrugged and met the bard’s green gaze. "I don’t know where she got the tomato. I didn’t ask."

Gabrielle looked from the slingshot to the warrior’s absurd smile and back to the grin Ephiny was trying valiantly to subdue. A moment later, the two blonde friends surrendered to their mutual amusement, laughing heartily at the incongruous hilarity of the situation. Soon the bard was wiping her eyes as her Regent tried to regain control as well.

"Is Solari OK?" the little blonde chuckled.

"Oh, she’ll be fine once she gets cleaned up," Ephiny said, laughing again. "But she’s hopping mad at our tall friend there," the Amazon confided. "We’d better try and keep them apart at the party tonight, or they’ll be Hades’ own harpies to entertain."

The young queen covered her blushing face with her hands. "Oh, boy," she sputtered. "I hope Aurora gets back soon, or Xena may have more than that leaf to get a remedy for." The girl shook her head and turned to the warrior seated in the wooden chair. As the two Amazons watched, the slender woman helped herself to another mouthful of food from the tray, stood and wandered none too steadily in the direction of the large pallet across the room.

"I think you’re right, Queenie," the warrior said, her speech slurred and disoriented. "I need a nap. Boy, do I need a nap...."

With that, the tall form climbed onto the wide mattress, wrapped her long arms around one of the covered pillows, lowered her dark head onto the colorful material, sighed and promptly fell asleep. When Gabrielle turned to address Ephiny, she noticed the Amazon’s eyebrows had completely disappeared under the blonde ringlets framing her forehead. The young queen put her finger to her lips, directed her Regent toward the door and the two quietly left the hut.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The birthday party was in full swing, raucous, noisy laughter and chatter filling the candle-lit meeting hall. Amazons of every description, size and coloring were gathered around the room, exhibiting various states of enjoyment in the evening’s festivities. The remnants of the expansive meal lay strewn about on the many tables and benches that had been positioned within the area as the women of the village celebrated the birthday of the Queen’s Regent, offering their warmest solicitations and heartfelt congratulations to their respected friend.

Ephiny popped another piece of roasted venison into her mouth, followed it with a handful of sweet, crisp berries, took a long, welcome swallow from the tankard in her other hand and turned casually to her young blonde friend seated comfortably at her side. She watched as the young queen broke apart one of the flaky, frosted cakes, dropped one half of the confection into her mouth and offered the other half of the pastry to the dark-haired woman seated on her other side. Unfortunately, the friendly gesture was thwarted by the sullen expression covering the woman’s smooth, bronze face.

"C’mon, Xena," Gabrielle chided her friend. "Have some of Ephiny’s birthday cakes." The warrior’s dark look traveled to the bard’s soft face. "You want to wish her ‘Happy Birthday’, don’t you?" The girl held out the portion of desert again. The blue eyes dropped to consider the offering, then swept up to meet the young blonde’s gaze. After a moment, the girl shrugged, withdrew the piece of cake and dropped the delicacy into her own mouth. She cast a reproachful grin at her friend’s brooding face. She leaned close to the warrior and spoke quietly into the woman’s ear.

"I do wish you’d stop pouting. You’re behaving like a stubborn child."

The piercing blue eyes snapped to the bard’s face. "I don’t know why you’re so upset about a single, little tomato," she grumbled. "It’s not like I was aiming at Solari, or something." The bard let out an exasperated sigh. "She just happened to get in ... the tomato’s way."

"OK, you didn’t mean to splatter her," the little queen said, "but you did. And I thought you owed her an apology."

"Yeah," Xena mumbled. "So you said."

Ephiny covered her growing amusement at the overheard conversation by taking another leisurely drink from the tankard. She let her eyes settle on the warrior’s brooding stare. When the clear blue eyes drifted to meet hers, the Amazon changed her focus to the other partying members. She tried hard to give the impression that the warrior’s protruding lower lip did not interest her in the least.

Gabrielle studied her companion’s surly expression for a few moments. Recalcitrant manner aside, the bard had also noticed the recurring kneading motion the warrior had been applying to her tender jaw throughout the evening.

"Your tooth still hurt?" the bard asked earnestly, her green eyes concerned on the golden face.

"Like a poking arrowhead," Xena grumbled. She dropped her hand into her lap and turned a sulking glare toward the bard. "The only thing that helps are those little leaves, and you won’t let me have any more." The warrior’s mouth contorted into a juvenile scowl. She separated her gaze from the little blonde’s.

Gabrielle patted the woman’s slender arm then turned fondly to the blonde birthday-celebrant. She pulled a small, flat package from beside her and handed it to the muscled Regent. Ephiny’s smile was genuine as she met the girl’s affectionate gaze.

"I haven’t given you my present yet," Gabrielle said as Ephiny took the cloth-covered parcel. "Happy Birthday, my friend. Here’s wishing you many more."

Ephiny put the tankard down and carefully unwrapped the package. When she had uncovered the present, the tall woman’s hazel eyes glowed brightly with genuine affection for the small young woman who had offered it. She studied the unique gift, returning the warmth in the little blonde’s green gaze. She reached to give the girl a loving hug, then returned her attention to the lovely present before her.

The gift was a small plaque fashioned of smooth, polished wood and delicately carved with scrolling patterns around its edge. In the center of the wooden frame, a small, pristine piece of parchment displayed the loving message that touched the tall Amazon’s heart, particularly because it reflected the special relationship she enjoyed with the young queen who had fashioned it.

On the parchment, Gabrielle had written the word ‘friend’, neatly transcribed in every dialect with which she had become acquainted in her many travels at the warrior’s side. Each translation had been ciphered in a subtly different color of ink and in a singularly special design of lettering. Around the edge of the parchment, a delicate chain of tiny flowers blinked within an elegant, continuous linking vine.

The bard watched her Amazon friend’s reaction to the gift. The women exchanged a warm smile as Ephiny carefully closed the cloth wrapping around the precious offering. She turned to the little blonde.

"It’s beautiful, Gabrielle," she told the young queen. "Thank you. I’ll treasure it always."

The women shared another friendly hug. Then the bard turned a tentative glance at the dark-haired warrior still slouching at her other side. Gabrielle withdrew a package from the pocket of her Amazon skirt.

"Xena carved this for you," she said, handing Ephiny the smaller bundle. "She would have given it to you herself, if she’d been ... well ... anyway. Happy Birthday, again," the girl said, laughing softly.

The Amazon unwrapped the small bundle to find a charming, hand-crafted statue depicting a youthful centaur, the features and physical likeness a perfect representation of the Amazon’s young son. Ephiny’s gaze found the warrior’s and the blue eyes, despite the heavy daze visible within them, were warm and friendly on the Regent’s face.

"Xena! It’s perfect!" the Amazon chirped happily. "One of your ‘many skills’?" the blonde warrior joked. The queen’s champion smiled quietly, as usual unsettled by the open compliment in the tall blonde’s voice.

"I think we’re going to call it a night, if that’s OK with you?" Gabrielle said finally, her gaze almost maternal on her companion’s sleepy expression. She stood up and firmly drew the dark-haired warrior to her feet at the same time. The bard accepted Ephiny’s solicitous grin. "We’ll see you in the morning." The bard turned back to the bronzed form in time to see the woman pick up her own tankard and smile wickedly at the blonde Amazon now standing next to the young queen.

At that precise moment Solari appeared at the edge of the table and leaned down to speak quietly to Ephiny. The blonde Regent immediately noticed that her auburn-haired lieutenant seemed to have enjoyed an abundant amount of the liquid refreshments available during the evening. However, she listened attentively as her sister Amazon delivered a welcome message.

"Yeah, Happy Birthday, Eph’," the warrior warbled, raising her full tankard to her lips. Instead of partaking of the rich ale in the vessel, Xena pursed her lips at the edge of the tall mug and firmly puffed against it ... sending the cap of white foam sailing over the bard’s head to land directly in the middle of Solari’s cleavage. The cold, sloppy mixture splashed loudly against the woman’s muscled chest and immediately began to ooze down the front of her Amazon vest, trailing a wet path between her breasts toward her contracting stomach.

The auburn-haired Amazon shrieked at the invasion of the chilly liquid against her body. Her shocked expression snapped toward the queen’s tall companion and the helpless laughter abounding from the bronze face only served to incite the dark Amazon even more. She gaped astounded at the giggling warrior as a furious glare invaded the female soldier’s face.

Ephiny and Gabrielle exchanged matching expressions of shock and concern. An instant later, the queen and her Regent found themselves wedged between a livid dark-haired Amazon’s advancing form and a joyful, but proportionately taunting warrior princess. Ephiny exerted all her strength toward sidetracking the Amazon’s murderous intentions, while Gabrielle made a determined effort to prevent her tall, chortling friend from answering the incensed Solari’s invitations. She fought to maintain her composure while literally being buffeted back and forth between Ephiny’s stouthearted exertions and Xena’s hapless wavering. After a few moments of highly volatile activity, the young queen’s patience had dissipated completely.

"All right, that’s enough! Both of you, back off!"

The sound of the bard’s angry voice immediately quieted the struggling combatants. Solari relaxed into Ephiny’s restraining grasp. Xena’s hilarity ended abruptly. The rest of the festive group was rendered instantaneously silent. The young queen’s posture straightened and she turned an incensed glare first at her best friend’s maddeningly innocent grin, then at the infuriated Amazon panting behind her Regent’s restricting stance.

"If you two were younger, I’d take a switch to you both!" she barked at the feuding females. "Now why don’t you try and act as though you’re old enough not to need one??"

The young blonde drew a short, angry breath. "Solari," she said, turning to the Amazon lieutenant. "This was an unfortunate accident, all right?" The green eyes sparkled in fury. "Get over it!" she said. "Here! Dry off!" Gabrielle ordered, tossing the woman a cloth napkin from the table. The angry queen whirled to face the cringing, dark-haired warrior princess.

"And you!" she snapped as the blue eyes dropped remorsefully. "We’re leaving! It’s time we both got some rest." She placed an authoritative hand on the woman’s arm. "Goodnight, Ephiny," the bard said to the blonde Amazon, as she began to propel the warrior away from the table. Then she turned back stiffly. "And Happy Birthday."

Ephiny put a tentative hand on the bard’s shoulder. She spoke soothingly to the sparks still visible in small blonde’s green gaze.

"The good news is Aurora will be back in the morning after all. That’s what Solari came up here to tell me."

Gabrielle’s furious expression softened only slightly.

"Thank the gods," the girl said. She gave the warrior’s back a firm push. "March!" she instructed as the tall woman moved obediently.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The young Amazon queen watched her best friend enjoy the steaming, floral-scented bath. She returned the lazy smile that beamed from the flushed, bronze face. The piercing blue eyes of the woman in the tub blinked mischievously as the lean, slender form pushed closer to the edge nearest the bard.

"This is really dreamy. Sure you don’t want to get in?"

"No, no. This one’s for you .. to help you relax."

The little bard gave in to her amusement. It was not often she saw that look of total abandonment in those cobalt blues. Even though it’s cause was not exactly reputable, it’s appearance was certainly engaging. Gabrielle’s warm laughter answered the playful giggle that emanated from the frolicsome form in the heated reservoir.

"Blrb-blrb-blrb-blrb," the happy form said, sending bubbles dancing along the surface of the warm water. "C’mon," the warrior beckoned. "It’s really a great way to get clean."

The little blonde laughed heartily at her friend’s delight. She watched the dark head disappear beneath the water, then resurface, spewing a stream of water from her mouth toward the bard’s rust-colored boots.

"Hey!" the girl shrieked. "Cut that out! I’ll have my bath later." The reproach in her tone was clearly defeated by the twinkling in her green eyes. She dropped one of the large linen pieces in her arms onto the wooden floor, covering the small puddle that had resulted from the warrior’s jaunty actions.

Xena’s hearty laugh filled the hut, her blue eyes merry on the little bard’s face. She leaned back against the side of the tub, her long, trim arms resting easily on the rim of the wooden receptacle, her dark head settled comfortably on the edge. She closed her eyes and a deep, casual, peaceful sigh escaped the languid form.

The steaming bath had been part of the prescription recommended by Aurora, the Amazon healer. Upon returning from her training mission, the tall, thin remedian had spent a short time observing the new and considerably different behavior of the usually reticent, stoic warrior princess before posing several pointed questions to her blonde traveling companion.

"What did this woman give her?" Aurora had asked abruptly, gazing deeply into the deep, blue eyes of her suddenly sedate patient. The bard had hastened to supply the name of the herb, the root and the instructions concerning the treatment.

"Oh, for the love of Artemis!" the lean, sinewy woman had barked. "Any healer worth her root patch knows not to give Star Anise to someone like this warrior. Too abrupt an invasion of the nerves. It’s no wonder she’s a trifle ... unwound. Anise stimulates the calming area, to release the mixture in the brain that engenders healing." After she had lifted warrior’s chin and studied the woman’s disconcerted stare, Aurora had let out an exasperated snort, then gently pulled Xena’s dark head against her sparse hip.

"There, there," she’d crooned to the passive form. "We’ll fix you up, never fear." She’d turned an accusatory glance at the bard. "How many doses of the leaf has she had?"

Gabrielle’s jaw had dropped momentarily before she’d regained her regal awareness. "Well, I’d say too many," she had told the healer smoothly. "Every time I’d turn to finish some chore or other, she’d have one in her mouth. She said it did help the pain, so I guess she just kept ... sucking."

The healer’s expression had combined regret and stubborn concern. "I apologize for my tone, my queen," she had said to the fire in the bard’s green gaze. "It just infuriates me to see this sort of bad judgment in another healer’s prescription."

The resentment had faded from the young queen’s glare. "That’s all right, Aurora. I know you’re just concerned about my friend," she’d consoled the healer. "You can help her, can’t you?"

"Of course I can!" the Amazon healer had responded heartily. "But we’re going to have to ease the effects of the Anise first. Then we’ll go to work on the basic problem - that nasty tooth."

Aurora had turned back to the dark head cradled against her side. She’d put one gnarled hand on Xena’s forehead and the other under the warrior’s chin, gently forcing her mouth open. She had searched the interior with a practiced eye, ‘uh-huh’-ing and ‘um-hmm’-ing as she studied the offending tooth. After several moments, she had turned back to the young bard’s curious look.

"First thing ... a nice, hot bath," the healer had announced. "Works the oil of the plant out through the pores. That’s what she needs. I’ll mix a potion to help her relax. Then we’ll proceed with the next phase."

"And that phase would be ...?" Gabrielle had ventured tentatively.

"An icy shower," Aurora had answered assuredly. "We need to excite the natural forces within the Warrior Princess ... bring her own internal regimen back into play." She’d lowered a custodial glance to her compliant charge. "That will chase the Anise out of her system."

Gabrielle’s nervous gaze had met Ephiny’s. The tall Amazon warrior had answered the questioning look with an ‘I guess, if-she-says-so’ expression. The two blondes had turned their attention to the docile warrior princess, who was now resting her head calmly against the healer’s thigh. Aurora had patted the raven-colored head benignly and gently removed herself from the woman’s side.

"I assume we must work quickly, since the other Tribal Councils are due by midday tomorrow?" she’d said, turning back to Ephiny.

Ephiny had nodded, confirming the healer’s statement. She had felt Gabrielle’s astonished glance roaming over her face, but she’d steeled herself against responding to it, just yet. Instead, she had addressed the healer.

"Yes, Aurora, Xena must be fit by the time the Tribes arrive tomorrow, or at least by the time the banquet begins. It’s imperative that we show our best image to them."

The slender healer had straightened importantly. "You can count on me, my Queen," the woman had promised, addressing first Gabrielle, then Ephiny again. She’d given Xena’s head a final pat, then turned and left the hut. Only then, had Ephiny turned to meet the wide-eyed emerald glare of her young blonde friend.

"Another long story," she had said before Gabrielle could voice her shock. "I’ll explain while we get our friend into the tub." The bard remembered her mouth snapping closed when Ephiny had stepped to the doorway of the hut, leaned outside slightly and shouted, "Solari!"

The next phase of the prescription, however, required a different kind of help from some of the young queen’s Amazon sisters. After the extraordinary behavior displayed by the tall champion at the birthday party, the queen had had her pick of ‘helpful’ volunteers; it seemed everyone was more than willing to ‘help’ the Warrior Princess return to her normal demeanor and attitude. Even Solari had offered her services, but the young queen had decided not to court disaster any further.

When Gabrielle decided that the ‘nice hot bath’ portion had produced the desired effect, that her warrior friend was totally relaxed and completely agreeable, she carefully stepped to the entrance of the hut, slid open the door and motioned to a pair of Amazon warriors waiting outside. The two athletic women followed their queen into the hut..

"Well, she’s relaxed," the little bard said quietly. "I can’t tell you what to expect, so you’d better be ready for anything." She moved out of their path and nodded toward the placid form in the tub. "Good luck," the little blonde smirked.

"You’ve got the empty bucket, Cass’," the taller of the two Amazons whispered to her partner. "Let’s make a little room first." The other woman nodded silently and moved toward the wooden reservoir. She carefully dipped the empty bucket into the tub and waited while the water surrounding the vessel collected inside. Cassandra lifted the full bucket away, crossed to the doorway of the hut and emptied the water in the bucket onto the ground outside. She returned to the tub and filled the bucket again, returning the lazy grin expended by the peaceful princess still relaxing in the tub.

"Hi, there," Xena drawled as the young Amazon withdrew the full bucket. "What’s your name?"

"Cassandra," the auburn-haired warrior answered, her smile still in place.

The warrior’s head rotated slowly toward the taller Amazon. "I’m Kieva," the sturdy woman said. "Just relax, Xena. We’re going to help you with your bath, OK?"

"OK," the warrior murmured easily. She closed her eyes again and snuggled comfortably against the side of the tub. Cassandra returned from emptying the bucket the second time. She positioned the container near the one held by Kieva and the taller Amazon poured part of the contents of her bucket into the empty one. The two women shared a knowing look.

"Let’s get it done," Kieva whispered and Gabrielle covered her grin with her hands. The two warriors stepped smoothly to the edge of the tub and quickly poured the contents of both buckets over the head of the reclining, and totally unsuspecting, figure relaxing peacefully against the rim.

Within seconds, Xena’s blue eyes snapped open as the icy contents of the buckets cascaded over her head and shoulders. Her shocked shriek filled the hut as she tried to scramble away from the freezing downpour, but the strong Amazons reacted instantly, both planting a firm hand on each of the warrior’s shoulders, thus preventing her from escaping the onslaught of the frigid liquid. When they had emptied the buckets, they dropped the containers and quickly stepped back from the side of the tub, out of reach of their very wet, and very agitated, victim.

"Aurora’s orders!" Gabrielle shouted to her friend’s livid expression. The bard moved to calm the furious warrior who had already raised herself halfway out of the tub, while leveling a murderous glare in Kieva’s direction. The sound of the young queen’s voice broke through the tall woman’s wrath and she turned a furious scowl toward the little blonde’s amused grin.

"Aurora’s orders??" the warrior growled, shaking her dark head to clear the moisture away from her face. "Aurora told them to drown me in freezing water???" Gabrielle signaled to the Amazons and the two women quickly retrieved the buckets and beat a hasty retreat out the open door of the hut. The little bard placed a soothing hand on the bronze shoulder of her trembling friend. The warrior’s seething glare began to disperse.

"She said we had to get the effects of those leaves out of your system," Gabrielle crooned smoothly, wrapping one of the soft linen cloths around Xena’s shivering form. "She said it would ‘bring your natural forces back into play’." The warrior blinked as she tried to focus on the young queen’s face, slowly responding to the girl’s gentle tone. Gabrielle supported the warrior’s arm as she helped her friend leave the wooden tub. She rubbed the woman’s back briskly and covered her dripping hair with another piece of cloth. "I’m sorry, Xena, but we were kind of in a bind, here. We don’t have time to let things run their course."

"What d-does that m-m-mean, ex-exactly?" Xena sputtered, her teeth chattering from the effects of the frigid dousing. She pulled the heavy linen cloth tightly around herself and tried hard to focus on Gabrielle’s face. The warrior finally caught the girl’s hand in her own, interrupting the bard’s busy attempts to warm her shivering body. The little blonde led her friend toward the wide pallet in the corner of the room and transferred her attention to Xena’s mass of dark hair.

"The Tribal Councils from the southern provinces are due to arrive in the village tomorrow morning," the bard explained, enthusiastically rubbing the warrior’s long tresses with the wide linen cloth. "Ephiny wants to show them the strength of our cabinet to take away any ideas they might have for trying to absorb the ruling body from this province into one of their own."

The girl’s drying efforts were so dynamic, they forced the warrior’s head to jerk back and forth, side to side.

"Gabrielle," Xena began, but the little queen’s energetic actions left little room for coherent comments. "Gabrielle!" the warrior said again, halting the brisk rubbing. The bard slowly uncovered the dark head and faced the somewhat disgruntled gaze of her best friend.

"Oh, sorry. I was just trying to dry your hair." The girl smiled weakly at the clear blue stare.

"I thought they weren’t supposed to assemble until the next quarter moon," the warrior said deliberately. She took over the drying process, gathering the long, dark locks in the folds of the linen cloth.

"So did Ephiny," Gabrielle said, sitting down next to the warrior. "But, evidently, they’re trying to rattle us by insisting on coming early. Ephiny thinks it’s a move on their part to make ...."

"A show of power," Xena said quietly. "Intimidate then defeat. It’s an old, and very effective, battle plan." She ended the drying, shook the long, damp locks briskly and handed the cloth to the bard.

"Well, it’s just lucky we were on our way here already. I think they were hoping my ‘champion’ and I might just miss the meeting altogether." The little blonde grinned widely at her lanky friend’s subtle smile.

"I’ll just bet they were. I can see why Ephiny wants to have everything in order. We’ll have to

fashion a nice little surprise for these ... ‘visiting council members.’

"How’s your tooth, by the way?" the girl ask tentatively.

"Hurts like Hades," the warrior responded succinctly. "Now, tell me. Why did Aurora find it necessary to try to ‘excite my normal forces’ in such a ... meaningful way? What in Tartarus happened? The last thing I remember clearly is standing in a stream and you telling me to rinse the dirt out of my mouth."

The bard took a long, deep breath and began a detailed explanation. While the warrior finished drying off and reclaimed her leathers, the little blonde shared the fine points of their visit to the healer in Palamas, her assigned treatment and the unusual effects of the prescription on the warrior’s behavior and perception. As the young queen reluctantly supplied the details of the episode that had transpired during the previous evening’s celebration, it caused a momentary interruption in the tall woman’s changing activities.

"Gods," Xena said, blushing darkly. "I guess I have a few apologies to make, huh?"

"S’okay," Gabrielle consoled her. "Everybody knew you weren’t quite yourself."

By the time the little bard had enlightened her friend on the remedial actions, and more importantly the reasons for those recommendations by the Amazon healer, the warrior had combed through her still-wet hair and was again dressed in her normal attire and accessories. As she positioned her armor over one shoulder and smoothly dealt with the buckles to secure it, she cast a self-conscious grin at the little blonde’s understanding expression.

"Well, that explains a lot," Xena said, her tone apologetic. She faced the young queen, her slender hands perched casually on her leather-clad hips. "I guess I should have known better. I know what Star Anise can do to your ... awareness, but I also knew it was a worthy remedy for this blasted toothache." The little bard’s smile began to reappear. She left the side of the bed to stand beside her friend. She placed a gentle hand on the warrior’s arm.

"It’s OK. At least you’re back to normal now ... except for the toothache, right?" She grimaced in sympathy at the tall woman’s obvious discomfort.

Xena raised her hand to massage her jaw. She ran her tongue over the throbbing area. "Yeah, still present and steadily driving me mad." The warrior shrugged off the annoying distress. "Well, we can deal with that later. Right now, I need to talk to ....."

"No," the bard said firmly. "We’ll take care of that tooth right now." She trained a decisive look at the warrior’s silent objection. "We’ll need your mind sharp and clear tomorrow and it won’t be, if you’re still fighting that ... ‘tingle’ in your mouth. C’mon," the little blonde said, taking the tall woman’s elbow. "Let’s go see Aurora."

As Xena reached for her scabbard and sword, Gabrielle’s gentle laughter filled the spacious hut. "I don’t think you’ll need your sword for this. Besides, Aurora might think you don’t trust her judgment if you arrive ‘armed’." The girl grinned impishly at her tall friend’s flustered smile. The warrior dropped the scabbard on the bed next to the chakram and strode through the door being held open by the bard.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Aurora adjusted the angle of the reflective circle, training the bright sunlight from the window into the warrior’s open mouth. She gently lifted her patient’s chin and focused her attention on the offending molar. "Yes, I can see why this little rascal has been causing you such trouble," the healer chuckled. She sat back from the warrior and turned her attention to the tray of instruments laid out on the small table next to the chair where Xena sat.

The healer selected a long, slender pair of rods, joined together at the widest end. The slim wands had been sculpted from bone and were perfectly balanced one to the other. The full end of both batons had been brushed smooth and clean, while the opposite end had been carved to narrow, blunted point.

After a few moments of careful planning, Aurora slowly slid the appliance into the warrior’s mouth. Xena’s blue gaze was unexpectedly drawn to the bard’s face; Gabrielle watched the procedure tensely, her expression a study in painful anticipation. For a moment, the girl’s comical grimace distracted her tall friend’s attention from the healer’s probing ... until the pointed end of one of the wands came into sharp contact with the tooth in question.

The warrior’s painful wince was mirrored by the bard’s. Xena’s piercing sapphire gaze returned at once to the healer’s face. Aurora’s bottom lip was pulled between her teeth in thorough concentration. She laid a comforting hand on her patient’s shoulder. "Almost there," she crooned as Xena’s eyes began to water. As the warrior struggled against the strong impulse to clamp her jaws together, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

"There! Got it!" Aurora piped, excitedly. She removed the long tool as the blue eyes drifted open. "No wonder you were in distress," the healer said, shaking her head. "Looks like a part of a sweet root, to me." Xena looked down at the small piece of fibrous matter captured by the narrow ends of the instrument. She ran her tongue over the once-aching area in her mouth. "Must have had it wedged in that spot pretty tight ... this is what caused your toothache, my dear," the healer said.

The warrior’s azure gaze left the healer’s tool to settle on the bard’s face. She found the girl’s green eyes fastened on hers, her lips pursed tightly, as the girl fought to control the wild amusement threatening to explode from her at any moment. Xena stroked her own jaw, the motion offering some slight relief to the still-tender area; more importantly, the gesture covered the rampant blush that slowly, and completely, covered the warrior’s face.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"You can stop laughing any time."

A loud snicker, only casually controlled, tumbled from the trembling bard. "I’m not laughing. Really, I’m not." An additional snicker squeaked forth.

"Right. You’ve almost choked twice, now."

"OK. I am laughing." A series of LOUD guffaws was followed by enthusiastic hand clapping.

"All right! Enough!"

"Oh, my ....." Next came helpless gasping with a vain attempt to regain control.

"Gabrielle, I’m warning you ...."

The gleam in the warrior’s cobalt blues was only partially for real. It was being totally undermined by the crooked grin threatening to appear at the corner of her mouth. She stood boots wide apart, slender hands on her hips, glowering at her best friend’s giggling form convulsing wildly in the middle of the large pallet in the queen’s hut. Gabrielle took a shaky breath and pulled herself upright. She gasped deeply, ran one small hand over her eyes and sat forward on the edge of the bed, leaning heavily on her hands.

"Ok, I think I’m over it now," she chirped. She trained twinkling green eyes on the deep blue gaze of her tall friend. "But ... sweet root???" the girl screeched, then fell back onto the mattress again, overcome once more by fantastic hilarity. "The multi-talented Warrior Princess felled by a wayward piece of sweet root!!" The little blonde dissolved into giggles again, grasping her stomach with one hand and thumping the mattress with the other.

Xena rolled her eyes and crossed her long arms over her chest. She chortled in spite of herself, shaking her dark head as she crossed to sit next to the hapless bard. "Yeah, who knew a little thing like that could cause such a ruckus?" The warrior’s look of chagrin finally stemmed the little blonde’s raging laughter. She sat up and put a consoling hand on her friend’s tanned arm.

"Well, at least Aurora got it out," the girl said, blinking her eyes to clear them. "It does feel better, doesn’t it?"

"Yeah," Xena said, touching the side of her jaw. "I think it’ll be fine now."

"Good," the little bard said, her green eyes again dancing with impending amusement.

As the warrior watched, the Gabrielle’s chin quivered as the girl made a valiant attempt to postpone another bout of giggles. After a long moment, Xena gave her friend a playful shove and the bard collapsed back onto the mattress again.

"Go ahead! Laugh yourself silly!" the warrior conceded as the little blonde complied willingly. "I guess I have this one coming." Soon her own laughter mingled with the bard’s.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next morning, the members of the visiting Tribal Councils were thoroughly impressed with the caliber and authority of the reigning queen’s cabinet as well as the obvious strength and character of the young blonde’s ‘second in command’. Of course, there was no question whatsoever concerning the capabilities nor the dedication of the small queen’s tall, dark-haired ‘champion’. Any question of a weakness in the young monarch’s command or in her competence to execute any duties or decisions concerning the welfare and safety of her realm were quickly dismissed by the visitors in short order.

Since there didn’t seem to be any need for discussion of the queen’s replacement or abdication, the so-called ‘social call’ ended rather abruptly. By midday, the village was again occupied by its normal, regular residents and their daily activities resumed at their ordinary level.

The queen and her stalwart ‘defender’ adjourned to the designated hut to allow the young sovereign to change back into her normal, traveling clothes in preparation for their impending departure. As Gabrielle replaced her official ‘Queen’s outfit’ with her regular Amazon skirt and top, the two friends discussed the memorable events of their recent visit.

"Your tooth still OK?"

"Yes. It’s already back to normal. Almost like nothing happened at all. Still surprises me that that small piece could make such a mess."

"We’ll have to remember NOT to ever give you Star Anise again. Right?"

"Right."

"And you’ll have to remember to lay off the sweet root for a while." The bard’s green eyes twinkled.

"Right," the warrior answered quietly as the warm, crimson flush covered her smooth face.

 

THE END

 


The Bard's Corner