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 couldnt 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 didnt 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. "Thats what my mother always said to me whenever I sneezed." She heard the bards 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 wouldnt sneeze again, or was it their wish that you had sneezed again." The bards 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." Xenas gentle smile answered her companions.
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 girls pointed attempts to disguise the situation, the tall warrior had clearly noticed the slightly pallid cast to the bards 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 bards face, the warrior stopped walking and faced the young blonde directly.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, somewhat concerned. "Youve 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 girls forehead and the sides of her face. "For Artemis sake," the warrior said, "youre burning up!"
She took the soft face in her hands and gazed seriously into the glassy verdant pools. "Why ever didnt you say something?" The warrior released the clammy face and stood back, hands on her hips, to examine the young womans 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.
"Its not that bad," the girl protested weakly. She let her eyes cautiously meet the warriors blue gaze, struggling to send her best smile up into the womans worried frown. "Anyway, I think its this cape thats making me ho..." She began to pull the woolen garment away.
Xenas long fingers thwarted the bards actions. "No, you dont," she said firmly. "Leave it on." The girl wearily submitted to the warriors directive. She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead again. Xena released the edges of the woolen covering, but kept her attention on the bards flushed face. When the blondes hand moved from her head to the center of her chest, the warriors 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 warriors gaze again. Xena drew in a deep breath.
"Im just a little ... worn out, I guess," the bard said, flashing a fragile smile. "Its 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 warriors sleek forearm. "Im sorry ... I just meant ..." Gabrielle whispered.
"Its OK," the warrior said, her blue eyes understanding. "Youre right ... it hasnt 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 warriors muscular body.
Xenas 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 bards slim shoulders and took the girls 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 warriors serious blue gaze. The tall womans jaw clamped tight at the apology in the soft, green pools.
"Why didnt you tell me? Gabrielle, youre sick ... very sick. Arent 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 warriors embrace to meet the tall womans eyes. "But, maybe, if we stop for today? I just need to rest for a while, thats all." The warriors gaze was skeptical. "Please? Just ... lets find a nice, warm cave somewhere, OK?"
The golden face softened in a tiny grin. She cupped the bards 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 cant hurt, anyway." She released the bards 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 cant," Xena said firmly, settling the bards light form against her chest. "You need to save your strength." She gave the girls weak smile a supportive grin.
"You cant carry me the whole way. Thats too much." The bard blinked slowly as an unexpected wave of dizziness clouded her vision. The warriors sharp insight recognized the symptom as still another danger sign. She turned and smoothly deposited the slender form onto the mares back. "OK, then, you can ride the rest of the way." Gabrielle groaned quietly as she gave in to the warriors decision.
"Besides, Argos missed you, havent you, girl?" Xena patted the animals thick neck. Argo whinnied and tossed her head in agreement. The mare turned and playfully nibbled the bards 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 Im outnumbered." Gabrielle pulled the cape around herself.
The warrior gently tucked the edges of the wrap around the girls body. She bent down and retrieved the bards 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.
"Itll help stop the coughing and loosen up your chest," Xena answered. She cradled the bards shoulders with one arm and used the other to help the girl bring the cup to her lips. "Thats good," she said softly as the bard swallowed a mouthful. "Cmon, have some more."
They had been in the cave for two days now and Gabrielles condition, while not really worsening to any degree, hadnt 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 friends 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.
"Its 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. "Cmon, drink up," she prompted. "Itll only taste awful for a second." She tipped the cup into the girls pout. Gabrielle acquiesced, but only after some additional griping.
"Yuck!" the little blonde sputtered after shed 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 bards fist, sat back and dropped the damp cloth shed 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 bards flushed face. The girl relaxed into the welcome sensation.
Xena, however, was experiencing quite another reaction; the uneasiness shed 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 bards condition and the gravity of the young womans symptoms. She tried to maintain an outward appearance of calm, but the tall warriors 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 girls face. "Sometimes, I think thats all Ive 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 warriors gaze directly. "All the stupid situations I get myself into .. youre always having to rescue me." The warrior suspended the cooling application to return a serious expression to the green gaze.
"Gabrielle, thats 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. "Youre my best friend ... my family. No matter what ... history weve made lately. Dont forget that. Please?" The girls tired expression pulled at the tall womans heart. The two women shared a knowing smile. Finally the warriors solemn face creased in a quiet smile.
"If anything, youve kept my life ... interesting these past three summers." Gabrielles 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 bards pale face. "You taught me how to laugh again. Id 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 bards again. "No matter what has happened lately, Ill always be grateful to you for not giving up on me."
Gabrielle caught the warriors long fingers in one small hand. The green pools were soft on the smooth, golden face as a tiny grin pulled at the bards mouth. "Guess youre lucky Im stubborn, too, huh?"
The warriors gentle laugh sounded in the small cave. She squeezed the little hand holding hers. Finally, Xena took a short breath. "Cmon," 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 warriors 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 containers progress when the bards small hand covered hers.
"Im so sorry about ... Solan." The bard lowered her eyes to the cup again. The warriors throat caught as she watched the girls 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 sons name. She gulped and unlocked her teeth.
"I know," the warrior said quietly. She met the bards 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 warriors expression cleared.
"Cmon, 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, thats 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 womans 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. "Im going to go find something for breakfast. I wont 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 girls 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 bards 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 bards 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, Xenas mind performed its own maneuver. Without exactly understanding why or how, the warriors consciousness began a silent petition to whatever imposing force might be listening. It seemed to happen without her intention and she couldnt 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. Dont take her now ... not after everything weve 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 Ive never really deserved a friend like Gabrielle, the warrior thought, her throat constricting tightly. But, youve brought her to me ... please dont 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 warriors mind; Gabrielle striding briskly beside her, Gabrielles infectious giggle bouncing up to her in her seat on Argos back, Gabrielles 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 warriors 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 didnt 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. Xenas 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 warriors left hand. She checked the other snares and traps shed 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 bards view. It had seemed like a small acquiescence; after all, the girl rarely asked for much. So the warrior had conceded to the young womans 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 Gabrielles 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 shed left in place on the girls 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 girls frenzied thrashing only slightly. After a moment, the young blondes ranting resumed.
"Help her!" Gabrielle screamed, reaching toward an invisible target. "You can do it ... you can bring her into the light." The warriors chest tightened at the bards rising delirium. She put her hands on the girls heaving shoulders.
"Gabrielle," Xena crooned, pulling the shivering form onto her lap. "Its alright. Just relax." The warriors sharp attention quickly registered the alarming sweat-soaked wetness of the girls linen tunic but she dismissed the fact for the moment. Gabrielles 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 warriors 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. "Hell listen to you ... youre his mother!"
Xena stared into the bards 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. "Ill talk to him. You rest." Xena rocked the bard gently. "You just rest now. Ill take care of it." She lowered her chin and kissed the limp blonde hair. "Calm down Gabrielle," she whispered. "Its alright." Xena gulped against her own panic. "Solan and I will take care of Hope. Dont worry."
Gradually, the slender, anxious form relaxed. The bards breathing slowed from the agitated panting into short, heavy breaths. She released her grip on the warriors 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 warriors chest, her slim arms wrapping tightly around the tall womans waist. "She must turn away ... turn away from .. the darkness." The warriors 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 Xenas strong body. "Go back to sleep, Gabrielle."
Xena held the bard close until she heard the girls 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 bards perspiring forehead. When she sat back, the warriors 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 bards 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 warriors face finally drifted into focus. The bronze face softened as Xena returned the grin. She laid her hand on the bards cheek.
"Hi, there," the warrior said softly. "How are you feeling?"
"Hot," the bard said simply. She ran her tongue over her parched lips. "Im 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 campfires 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 girls 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 Gabrielles face. The warmth of the girls flesh sent a wave of concern through the lean form. She tilted her head to meet the girls 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."
Gabrielles eyes brightened minutely as she sent a tiny smile to answer the warriors gentle comment. Even in her fever-clouded state, the girl recognized the sincere petition in the tall womans 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 theyd had for each other before the terrible schism had nearly robbed them of each others loyalty. She felt her smile grow at the love she saw in the tall warriors blue eyes, as well.
"OK," the bard said, meeting the intense azure gaze. "What do you think we should do now?"
Xenas subtle grin widened as she repositioned the thin blanket over the bards 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, thats all. Its sapping your strength, not letting your body fight off the rest of whats 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 bards green eyes widened in surprise. "Theres 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 Id take you to the lake and let you ... enjoy the cool water." The bards mouth drifted closed as the warriors 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. "Itll be my pleasure."
She uncoiled her long legs and stood up, holding out both hands to the bard. "Cmon, the suns good and bright right now."
Gabrielle pulled off the blanket, tucked her feet under her and clasped the warriors 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 warriors neck. She dropped her head onto Xenas 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 bards 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 bards 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 warriors 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 bards focus, taking a moment to enjoy the sight of the lovely lake and the beautiful day as well. The warriors 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; Ill be damned in Tartarus before I let her go again, she vowed. She met the bards 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 warriors 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 womans 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 bards 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 warriors strong hold, enjoying the cooling sensation as she let her hair glide into the water. Xena kept a careful watch, making sure the water didnt cover Gabrielles face but allowed the liquid to engulf the trim figure, lapping gently at the bards loose-fitting tunic and caressing her long blonde hair.
The bard raised her head and returned the warriors watchful gaze. The girls contented grin heightened the tall womans spirits. Even in her concerned state, the sight of the young blondes 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 Gabrielles 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 warriors tender expression. The bard took a firm hold on Xenas 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 wouldnt," 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 warriors knees, her torso nearly covered by the cool water, her head in the warriors 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 didnt 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 girls 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 bards head like a turban. Gabrielle laughed softly, responding to the warriors gentle prowess. When her head was warmly ensconced in the linen, she craned her face around to gaze up at the sleek warrior.
"Havent I had enough funny hats?" the bard chirped cheerfully. The warriors smile faded quickly when the little blonde bent her head to endure a loud bout of coughing. However, the tall womans keen hearing detected a slightly less ragged quality to the hacking. She decided at least the congestion in the young womans 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 bards lap. The warrior laid her hand on the girls shoulder.
"Well, youre all clean and sos your hair. Lets 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 shed 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 Im going to tend to Argo .. make sure shes 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 girls grin approached its normal charming clarity.
"So little faith," the warrior quipped dryly. "Youll see," she joked at the girls impish grin. "Youll 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 mares 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 girls head.
Gabrielle grimaced at the sound of the warriors 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 theyd returned from their rather odd experience in the land of Illusia. She turned slowly toward her best friends face.
The bard knew exactly what the warrior was staring at. She had been preparing herself for her friends 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 bards gaze, returning quickly to the girls 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 warriors stomach turned over.
The entire quadrant surrounding the girls 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 warriors arm.
"Gods forgive me!" Xena screamed, pressing both palms to her head. "Gabrielle, Im so sorry!" The warriors 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 warriors hands, firmly pulling the fingers away from the womans 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 warriors eyes to meet hers.
"Listen to me!" the bard said firmly. "You were out of your mind with grief." She lifted the warriors chin with her fingers. Slowly, the weeping blue gaze rose to meet the girls tolerant look. "Its in the past, do you understand?" She gently wiped away the tears from the womans wet face. "Do you hear me? Weve come away from that place."
Xena took a shaky breath and stared sadly into the bards soft gaze. "We must put this behind us." Gabrielle stroked the bronze face with her fingers. "Please dont torture yourself anymore." The warrior gulped and drew in another wobbly breath. The bard took one slender hand. "Its over," she repeated softly. "You asked me to forgive you, and I have. Ive 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 shed 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 warriors anguished face. "Can you find my other shift for me, please?" the bard asked calmly. She rubbed her arms, shivering slightly. "Im getting a little cold."
The simple request broke the warriors 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 Gabrielles head. Her actions halted abruptly when her eyes again focused on the bards injured back. The warrior froze in position.
The bard swiveled her shoulders to focus on the tall womans shocked expression. She put one small hand on the warriors clenched fists. "Its alright," the girl said softly. "They dont hurt anymore." The blue eyes leaped to the green gaze. "Honestly, Xena," the bard said, a gentle smile meeting the leather-clad figures 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 warriors mortified face.
"Its OK, really it is," the bard said, her hand resting again on the warriors 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 warriors waist.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, her throat so tight she could barely breathe. "Im 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 warriors quivering mouth. "Shh," the girl said softly. "Its in the past. I have you back now and Im thanking Artemis for that ... everyday." The warrior pulled the girl close again.
"Im 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 warriors. "I already have," she whispered. She sat back to gaze into the tearful azure pools. "We have to move forward, now." She gathered the womans 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 warriors solemn face. "So," she chirped, pulling the blanket over herself. "Wheres this rabbit stew youve been bragging about?" the girl joked. She turned to inspect the campfire. "Lets see if its as good as you claim."
The warriors 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 theyd settled into the cave. It was a very good sign and the warriors 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 shed 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 womans 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 girls normally pink cheeks. She had been willing to let herself believe the discolorations were the result of the young bards 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 warriors 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 ..." Xenas throat constricted tightly. She covered her mouth with one hand.
"I know," Gabrielle said quietly, lowering her eyes to the blanket. The warriors 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 weve been together, Ive 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 Id ever see it ... coming at me." The bard shuddered and lowered her eyes for a moment. "Thats what really hurt, Xena." The girl met the blue stare with a purpose. "It wasnt the ... trip across the valley behind the horse." Gabrielle let her eyes linger on the warriors.
"I always thought wed 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 dont think Ive ever told you but," she raised her eyes on the cobalt pools again. "Sometimes, when Id get really frightened or start feeling ... very inept." The young face softened. "Id 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 Id done." The bards 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 doesnt matter how it started," the bard said sadly. "It ended with Solans 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 wouldnt even listen to me ...." For an instant, the bards 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 partners, her thoughts divided. Part of her resented the quiet accusation, but part of her accepted responsibility for the girls pain. Her eyes rose to meet the bards again. The green eyes had softened.
Gabrielle took a slow breath, a small, hesitant smile warming her weary face. "But, I didnt and Im grateful that were ... 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 bards 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 girls tears. "We can ... and well 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 its ready," she said, breathing deeply. "Cant 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 warriors happy expression faded slowly. She studied the young face, still concerned about the pale, fragile cast to the girls 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 girls forehead before she sat back, her hands resting on her sleek thighs.
Stop hating. Lao Mas quiet instruction echoed in the warriors head. Stop hurting ... stop wanting .... stop hating. Xena closed her eyes and visualized her gentle Oriental mentor. Youve been dead a long time, Xena, the vision told her. Its time for you to live. Xena opened her eyes and gazed down at the young blondes 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 didnt 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 womans 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 friends 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 warriors 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 womans 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 warriors 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 warriors 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 animals tusk sliced into her side. As her vision began to waver, she brought her sword down hard across the shank of the animals 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 warriors 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 warriors armor, laying neatly under the saddlebags. What she didnt see was the sleek, leather-clad form of the warrior. Despite her afflicted state, a growing uneasiness began to gnaw at the bards 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 womans 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 warriors sleek arm. Struggling against her own breathlessness, the bard reached across the tall womans back and pulled at the warriors 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 warriors 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 girls throat. She pulled the warriors 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 bards trembling form. "Please, Sweet Artemis, dont 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 bards voice. The dark lashes fluttered and the blue eyes drifted open.
"Gabrielle," the warrior whispered and the fragile sound immediately pulled the bards eyes to hers. "You should be in the cave ... youre sick." A very timid smile began to appear on the anguished, golden face. A moment later, the blondes shaky laugh trilled amidst the whistling wind. She gulped and smiled weakly at the warrior.
"I thought you werent going to scare me like this anymore." The warriors 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 girls 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 warriors agonized expression.
"Is it gone?" Xena asked in a thready voice. The bards 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 dont 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. "Lets 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 womans waist. Xena wrapped one arm around the bards 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 warriors 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 blondes face.
"You should ...." the warrior grimaced, holding her side. "You should be under those blankets ... youre burning up." The tall woman pushed aside the serious aspect of the warm, sticky wash of blood that quickly covered her hand.
The bards flimsy smile lit her gentle expression. "Look whos giving orders," she quipped in a fragile voice. "You arent 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. "Ill be OK, once I stitch this up." She looked up at the bard again. "But, your fever wont go away if you dont ...." The warriors stern tone was quickly dispelled by the low, agonizing groan that escaped from her twisted grimace.
Gabrielle laid her hand on the warriors sweaty face. "Xena, youre 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, Xenas blue eyes met the bards 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. Shed carefully cut away the torn, bloodied leathers and tenderly cleaned away the blood from the ragged slash in the womans side. She knew it was only a stopgap measure at best, but shed 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 warriors. "I couldnt find any." The green eyes studied the warriors reluctant gaze.
"I used it. There wasnt much left, anyway," Xena answered quietly, her eyes steady on her friends. For a moment, she was relieved when she thought the bard hadnt caught the reference to her statement. But the girls stricken look soon changed her perception.
"The tea," the bard said quietly. The blue gaze blinked slowly. "You used it for my tea, didnt you?"
Xena sent a sheepish grin at the girls guilty look. She shrugged lightly and met the concern in the green gaze. "You needed it ... youre still sick." She gently stroked the bards 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.
"Dont 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 warriors side.
Using Xenas 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 warriors wound with another long strip cut from the same material. Gabrielles 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.
"Thats 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 warriors anxious face. She drew a shaky hand over her forehead, trying hard to displace the throbbing pain between her eyes.
The warriors palm closed weakly on the little hand closest to hers. "Gabrielle, please go back to bed," Xena pleaded. "Youve 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 ... youll wake me up if you need anything." The warrior blinked slowly.
"I mean it, Xena," the bard said, her voice unexpectedly firm. "Otherwise, Im 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. Ill 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 shed 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 warriors 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 warriors 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 warriors usually sharp perception presented a blatant fact for her consideration; the waterskin was now empty and one of the primary requirements for the bards 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, whats happening?"
The warrior looked up to find the bards gaze trained on her face. The girls 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 womans sweaty arm.
"Your side?" the girl asked. "Its worse, isnt 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 bards 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, Gabrielles 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 warriors glassy stare and the droplets of perspiration traveling slowly down the side of the warriors face. The little blonde swallowed slowly.
"OK, you win," she said, a brave smile warming her gentle expression. "Youve 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 womans 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 warriors 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 warriors 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 warriors. 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 youll have to put them in." She forced a sheepish grin into her expression. "Bad angle for me."
The bards blonde head tilted slightly, the green eyes soft and compassionate on her friends brave face. She gathered one of the womans slender hands in hers, choosing to push aside the scolding statements forming in her mind. The blue eyes blinked and the young blondes 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 warriors 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. "Youll have to burn the edges first." Gabrielles stomach tightened. A tiny gasp sounded in the small cave.
"Gods, Xena," the girl whispered. "I cant. I know I cant do it."
"Yes, you can," Xena said, her voice thready but firm. "You have to. Its 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 bards hand, her slender palm warm against the girls 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 bards anxious gaze. She saw the young woman gulp. "But ... I want you to try, anyway."
"OK," Gabrielle said in a very small voice. "I wont let you down, Xena. Not this time."
The warriors bronze face softened.
"Thats my girl," Xena said. After a moment, the face cleared again. "I left my knife on the fire ring." Gabrielles eyes located the sharp weapon then turned back to the warriors. "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 warriors 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 warriors trusting gaze. The girls pulse leaped.
The tall warrior smiled wearily and swallowed, her eyes steady on the young womans 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 Xenas 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 warriors body. The girls tears clouded her vision as she instinctively began to pull the knife away from the mutilated site. Her humane intentions were stalled by the warriors strong grip on her hand. The girls eyes shot to the piercing blue gaze, a numbing astonishment stunning the young womans 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 bards 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 blondes tears falling onto the warriors 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 warriors 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 warriors dripping brow. "Always last." She stroked the shiny, raven-colored thatch.
The bard leaned against the caves 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 warriors 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 warriors side. As she tied off the last of the closures, the young face darkened at the irony of the situation. It was as the warriors 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 warriors 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 lifes function. She gently wiped the glistening, smooth skin with the dampened cloth, her tears falling onto the dirt beside the warriors 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, Xenas blue eyes drifted open. An instant later, they swept the cave in search of the small, trim form. The warriors 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 womans slender hand emerged from under the woolen material to gently caress the long, wheat-colored tresses. The clear blue eyes closed again.