Chapter Eight ~~~
The next morning, Xena pulled on the linen tunic she had retrieved from the saddlebags, battling the throbbing ache radiating from the region just above her left hip. She laid one hand against her side, her fingers tracking the line of new sutures under the light fabric. She winced at the soreness present along the tender area, at the same time smiling softly in recognition of the efficient placement of the stitches by her cherished, and very courageous, little friend.
The warrior tugged at the laces in the center of the shift as she slowly returned to the fire. She carefully lowered her tall form onto the dirt floor, pulled the blanket around her shoulders, picked up a wooden stick and coaxed the low flames back to life. After a moment, her eyes left the fire to rest on the quiet, sleeping form on the bedrolls. Her own discomfort faded from her awareness as the sounds of the young blondes wracking cough filled the small cavern. The warrior swallowed around the lump in her throat.
Shes still coughing, the warrior thought worriedly. The brew didnt break up the sludge. I have to get her to town soon. Things are not improving.
Xenas blue gaze stared unseeing into the little, black kettle as she absently stirred the contents of the container. A shallow ache closed around the warriors chest, an entirely different malady pulling her attention from the sharp agony in her side. Soon, the clear, blue eyes slowly filled with shining tears. The woman firmly wiped them away.
Damn! the warrior griped. Of all the times for you to get yourself .... damaged, Xena, the tall woman chastised herself. Now, when she really needs some important attention. The warrior shook her head. Typical!, she told herself. How often has she had to do without because of you? Xenas conscience recoiled from her own scolding. Why now, of all times?? she thought painfully. Why did this have to happen now?
The warriors internal discussion was rudely interrupted by the sharp, insidious pain that sliced down her side. She pressed her hand against the injured area, her senses quickly alerted by the rising heat spreading through the site. The tall womans intuition began sending perilous warnings to her brain; her wound would require additional attention during the ensuing hours, a situation that sent even more dread through the lean warriors psyche.
Gabrielle awakened to the encouraging smell of the warriors special herb tea. She allowed her senses to enjoy the sensation for a moment, the quiet activity a welcome alternative to the tiresome fits of coughing that had thwarted her sleep during the night, leaving her exhausted, fearful and sore. The little bard opened her eyes slowly, reluctantly acknowledging the heaviness still present in her chest and the dull ache still throbbing behind her eyes. She blinked and turned her head, expecting to find the tall warrior somewhere near the stone-rimmed fire. The young face registered the girls concern at the absence of the slender form. The bard sat up, endured another vicious coughing spasm, then let her eyes scan the cave.
Her gaze found the warrior, the slender figure quietly leaning against the rocky wall of the shelter. The bards happy reaction was subtly tempered by the womans unusually still manner. The bard pulled herself to her feet, wrapping one of the blankets around herself, and slowly approached the quiet form of her friend. The closer she got to the silent warrior, the more frightened she became. By the time she was crouched beside her quiet friend, the girls heart was thumping hard within her chest. She put a tentative hand on the warriors arm, immediately noticing the tenseness under the satin skin.
Xenas face displayed its usual stoic calm, but the harried panic behind the crystal blue eyes was clearly visible to the young bard. She was always unnerved whenever she caught sight of the slightest glimmer of that look in the warriors eyes; the young woman knew her friend wasnt often challenged by many circumstances. The look in the warriors piercing stare set off warning signals in the bard. When Xena turned slowly to meet her gaze, Gabrielle saw the clear, undeniable gaze of fear. Her breath caught in her throat.
Gabrielle sat quietly next to her friend for a long moment. Eventually, the blue eyes floated to the cave floor, blinked then rose again to the bards face. The little blonde watched as a moment of regret clouded the cobalt gaze. She smiled at the smooth face and waited for her tall friend to respond. Slowly, the stoic face warmed into a gentle smile.
"Hi," the bard said softly. "Everything alright?" She rubbed the womans forearm gently.
Xena slowly raised her hand to stroke the bards face. She let her long fingers travel gently down the girls soft cheek before returning to gently cup the side of the young face with her palm.
"Sorry, I didnt hear you get up," the warrior said blankly, completely missing the bards slightly astonished reaction to her statement. "Im fine," Xena continued. "How are you?"
"Oh, yeah," the bard quipped sarcastically. "You look like youre just dandy." She watched the bronze face carefully, uneasiness adding to the heavy ache in her chest. She blinked when she saw the azure pools wince slightly. Yet, it had happened so quickly, the girl wasnt sure shed seen it at all. She focused more intently on the warriors face.
"Youre still hot," Xena said finally, her calm, even tone forming an odd counterpoint to the rigid status of her body. The blue eyes settled on the bards green gaze. "How do you feel?"
Gabrielle gathered the slender hand into hers. "About the same," the bard said absently, a troubling dread rising within her. It was then she noticed the glistening perspiration covering the smooth, sculpted cheekbones. The bard swallowed slowly to calm her senses.
"Xena, whats going on?" the bard asked. Her pulse quickened when she saw the tiny spark of panic invade the warriors stare. But again, it vanished as quickly as it had appeared. She waited, fully aware of the willful battle occurring within her tall friend.
"Hows your side?" the little blonde asked, shifting her focus to the warriors middle. She noticed the thin blanket loosely covering the womans torso. She returned her gaze to Xenas face.
"Its tender and ..." the bronze face showed a subtle grin. "It hurts, OK?" Xena admitted, her smile more embarrassed than determined. "Boars are not known for their friendly nature." The warrior shifted stiffly. "You did a great job on my stitches, by the way." The little bards face glowed at the warriors commendation. "I didnt feel a thing," Xena joked, her light tone indirect contrast to the guarded tenseness in the slender form.
"Do I need to change the band ....?" the bard began.
"No, I took care of it," the warrior said, her statement slightly defensive. "Its .. Im OK for now." Gabrielles eyes swept quickly over the warriors torso, trying to get a glimpse of the bandage in question, but the thin blanket draped over the tall womans body prevented her from doing so. Finally, the smooth face softened as the dark-haired warrior laced her fingers with the bards. Her blue gaze settled on the small hand wrapped with hers. She lifted her eyes to the girls, wincing slightly at the look of anxiety in the sea-green pools.
The bard tried to keep her voice from shaking. "Xena?" the girl said softly. "What is it? Whats wrong?"
Xena lowered her eyes to their two hands again, gently stroking the top of Gabrielles fingers with her thumb. Gabrielle kept her eyes on her friends face, her throat aching when two large tears glided over the warriors smooth cheeks. The bard drew a slow breath.
"I just want you to know," Xena began, her voice low. "Youre the best friend Ive ever had." The cobalt pools left the clasped hands and rose to meet the bards tearful gaze. "No one could ever have a better friend than you." She let her eyes travel over the young face. "All the pain Ive caused you ... all the times Ive put you in mortal danger." The tall woman shook her head sadly. "Gods, Gabrielle .... I tried to kill you myself." The little blonde took a breath, ready to respond, but her dark-haired companion continued in a clear, soft tone.
"Through it all ... no matter what ... youve been there for me. Been my friend, even when I didnt deserve one." Gabrielle watched the bronze face closely. Her senses were sounding quiet alarms in her mind; there was something ... defeated ... vanquished ... in the warriors even tone. A frightening premonition filled the little bard. She wanted to voice her feelings but a force within her seemed to quell her intentions. She returned the gentle pressure the warriors hand made on her fingers and kept her eyes on the golden face.
"I want you to know ... I will always be grateful for that. You never gave up on me ... on us." Xena swallowed quickly, a swift, barely noticeable wince narrowing the blue eyes. "Youve stayed with me ... during the dark times, the endless days of my silence, my hatred." Xena blinked slowly, sending another wash of tears over the sculpted cheeks. "You gave me your trust and your faith. And I will never forget how youve ... awakened my soul. Never."
The little bard smiled warmly at her best friend. "That goes two ways, you know?" the girl said. "Youve been there to be my friend, too, even when I know I drove you crazy." The warriors shaky grin filled the girl with even more trepidation, but she forced herself to show a calm expression. "Id say, weve both been very lucky to have found each other. Wouldnt you?"
The two friends stared at each other for a long moment. Gabrielle had clearly noticed the tense, thinly-masked control the other woman was exerting on herself; the warrior displayed the demeanor of someone who was ready to put her affairs in order. There was a deadly calm in the sleek figure, an uncharacteristic manner of surrender. Finally Xenas liquid voice sounded in the quiet chamber.
"Now," the warrior said, gulping quickly and returning her attention to the bards hand in hers. "I want you to do something for me."
Gabrielle leaned forward, her uneasiness rising within her. "Anything, you know that," the girl said. "What is it?"
Xenas blue eyes returned to the bards face. She took a slow, controlled breath and moistened her lips. "I want you to .. get yourself back to Kerkira. Theres a healer there. His name is Antenor. He can mix a poultice for your chest."
Gabrielle listened intently to the warrior. When Xena paused, the girl tilted her head. "And where will you be?"
"Ill be here ... waiting for you." The blue eyes were steady on the bards gaze. The warrior gave the girl a halting smile. "I dont think riding is a good idea for me right now." She concentrated on the bards soft face. "But, you should ... let Antenor take care of you ... until you get your strength back." Xena tried very hard to keep her voice, and her expression, as even as possible. "Will you do that ... for me? Please?"
After a moment, the bard posed a careful question. "Why?"
The warrior blinked, her tenuous control teetering dangerously close to the edge. "What do you mean, why?" She gulped quickly, resolutely summoning her control. "How about, because, your chest is filling up with fluid, youve been coughing constantly for the last four days, you still have a rather high fever .... being out here, in the cold, damp air can only make it worse ...?" The blue eyes sparkled at a level that approached their normal authority. "Do I need to go on?" Xena leveled what she hoped was a decisive glare at the bards green gaze. However, she felt her defenses wavering when she recognized the stubborn gleam slowly invading the girls expression. She decided to try another tactic.
"Look," the warrior began again, her tone apparently irritated. "This ... cut in my side is going to keep me ... off my feet for at least two more days." She released the bards hand and sat back impatiently against the cave wall again. "I cant search for the plants Id need to ..." she looked back at the bard, "tend to your ... condition." She swallowed nervously. "And I know Antenor is sure to have all that stuff right now." The warrior focused on her boots. "If you wait for me to get fit, itll just take longer for you to get better." Xena took a short breath, pulled her hand across her eyes and turned slightly toward the little bard.
"Just ... cant you just do it, Gabrielle?" The tall woman said, her voice almost plaintive. She raised her eyes to the girls. "Id feel better if I knew you were getting the ... care you need." She waited for the bard to respond. "Please?"
Gabrielles elbows rested on her knees, palms pressed together, fingers laced over her knuckles, her thumbs pressed to her lips. The soft green pools were trained on the warriors face. When the tall womans petition ended, the only sounds heard in the cave were the crackling noise made by the campfire and the muted whistle of the brisk breeze outside. The warriors gaze met the girls for a long moment, but soon fell away under the silent, yet intense challenge registering in the deep, emerald gaze. Xena gulped at the clear level of irritation flashing in the bards stare.
Gabrielles voice drew the warriors attention back to her face. "Is that it?" the bard asked evenly. Xena swallowed quickly. A silent beat passed. "Are you finished?" Gabrielles golden brows skipped under her limp bangs. The warrior squirmed at the girls superior tone.
"I guess so ...." the warrior said quietly. "Yeah."
The bard nodded, unlaced her fingers, dropped her hands to her knees and leveled a firm glare at the warriors sheepish expression. "Good," the girl said evenly. She took a deep breath and immediately had to face another violent bout of coughing. The girl stubbornly submerged the maddening impulse to expel the loathsome substance from her throat and lungs. She finally managed to quell the hacking. The green eyes flashed purposefully on the warriors worried expression.
"Thats what Im talking about," Xena said gently. The emerald pools narrowed.
"No, no. Its my turn to talk, now," the bard wheezed tenaciously, striving hard to overcome her breathlessness. "And you will listen," the girl said, gathering strength. The blue eyes widened slightly as the bard leaned forward. She met the adamant green gaze with a light trepidation.
"A few days ago, you told me that Ive kept your life interesting." The bard smiled warmly as the warrior tried not to look embarrassed. "Well, I cant even begin to tell you what you and our friendship have meant to my life," the girl said clearly, her gaze locked on her friends. She let her eyes travel over the chiseled features. "I cant even imagine ... dont want to even consider ... what my life would be like without you." The crystal eyes slowly filled with shining tears.
Gabrielles expression remained open. "Xena, in spite of everything ... and I do mean everything," the bard repeated firmly, ignoring the warriors gulp for the moment. "I wouldnt trade even a moment of those experiences for ... for any amount of dinars youd care to name." The little blonde smiled warmly as the warriors tears covered her face. "Were a set ... two halves of a whole." Gabrielle tilted her head coyly. "So, youd better just face it, Warrior," she quipped dryly. "Youre stuck with me ... come Tartarus drought or Hades high water." Xenas wet face creased in a genuine grin. The bard took the womans slender hand.
"Either we both stay or we both go." The girls eyebrows skipped beneath her limp bangs again. "Because Im not going anywhere without you," the girl finished brightly. "Do you understand?" The little bard pursed her lips in a comic pout. "Like it or not, " she quipped, jostling the warriors hand. "And thats the end of it." The girl ended her gentle declaration with a subtle nod of her head. The warriors golden face clearly portrayed her admiration for the small blonde facing her.
In the next moment, the bards attention was consumed by the buzzing in her head and the disturbing rattle in her chest. She covered her mouth and surrendered to a brief, arduous coughing fit before eventually acknowledging the encompassing fatigue still draining her body.
The warrior endured her own frustration while she watched her friends brave struggle. Xena laid a tender hand on the bards shoulder, but her own weakened state prevented her from offering further comfort or assistance. Even more disturbing, she knew she couldnt attempt anything more without betraying her own condition to Gabrielle. The warrior now faced a new dilemma ... how to cope with the seriousness of her wound and tend to her suffering friend at the same time, while keeping the true status of her injury from the bards attention. With her resources severely encumbered, the tall woman knew she faced a formidable task. She fervently wished she could manage it.
The little blondes coughing fit eventually ended, but the toll on her energy was clearly obvious. As she slowly regained her strength, she drew a trembling hand across her chest and turned a impish, albeit tired, grin at the warriors concern.
"So, do I get to taste your fancy stew, or not?" the bard asked, pulling the blanket closer. "Im sort of hungry this morning," the bard said.
"Sure. Ill warm it up for you." The tall woman unfolded her long legs and, using the cave wall to steady herself, carefully rose from her position. She clamped her teeth together to combat the moan she felt rising in her throat. Xena moved toward the campfire, the hand pressing against her fiery side hidden beneath the folds of the blanket as she knelt to revive the fire. The bard watched her friend closely.
Chapter Nine ~~~
The two women ate a quiet, subdued breakfast. Although neither was really hungry, both were determined not to portray their hesitancy to the other. The stew the warrior had created would have drawn great praise from the bard on any other day, if for no other reason than she would have welcomed it as a legitimate reason to tease her tall friend concerning the womans otherwise absent culinary talents. This morning, however, the taste of the stew hardly registered in Gabrielles senses. She was too busy considering the womans subtle efforts to disguise the torment obviously attacking her body. Finally the little bard decided emulate her best friends unflinching propensity for the direct route. She lowered her half-full platter to the cave floor and leaned forward.
"Hey?" she said cautiously. "Are you OK?"
The warriors gaze was unsteady, to say the least. She swallowed slowly to give herself time to gather her resources before forcing a casual smile across her features.
"Sure," she said quickly, then reconsidered the obvious silliness of her statement. "Well," Xena amended. "Not all that all right, I guess," the warrior said sheepishly. The stoic face grimaced slightly and she pressed her hand against the inferno raging in her side. She gulped again and met the green gaze again. "Mostly just tired." The blue eyes closed as the tall woman raised a shaky hand to her forehead. "Really tired," the gravel voice said.
The little bard focused on the flushed, glistening face and the subtle tremor to the sleek, muscled form. She put a gentle hand on the warriors sinewy forearm. "I think we could both use a nap. Whattya say?" The girls impish grin lessened the apprehension tightening the warriors chest. She covered the little hand on her arm with her own.
"I think thats the best idea Ive heard all day," Xena said, her weariness showing clearly in expression. The bronze face answered the little blondes loving concern. "Race you to the blankets," the tall woman joked, stubbornly pushing aside the panic in her throat. The little bards quiet giggle calmed the warriors feelings of dread. She uncoiled her long legs, carefully stood up and offered a hand to the bard.
"Cmon," the warrior said as the girl rose to stand beside her. Xena laid a long arm across the bards shoulders and turned toward the bedrolls, her iron will striving to submerge the rising weakness overtaking her senses. The two women started toward the blankets spread on the cave floor. However, the warriors thin mask of stability was unmistakably shattered when the little bard wrapped a loving arm around the tall womans waist ... and it inadvertently landed on the raw, sizzling area above the left hip. An instant later, Xena groaned painfully, her tall body crumpling against the bard in agony. Gabrielle braced herself to support her cringing friend.
"Xena!" the bard screamed. She lowered the warriors sagging form onto the bedrolls, then dropped to her knees next to her suffering friend. The warrior clutched at her tortured side, her breath panting and ragged. She rolled onto her back, then onto her other side, drawing her long legs toward her chest and moaned pathetically. Xena tried to focus on the little blondes panicky gaze, the azure pools dull and clouded in pain. She touched the bards shoulder.
"Guess I win, huh ?" The golden face smiled softly before the clear blue eyes closed.
The bards tears washed over her face. "Always," the girl whispered. She cupped the bronze face with her palm.
Gabrielle covered the warriors quaking body with the heaviest of the blankets before pulling at the cork on the waterskin. She splashed some water onto the piece of cloth in her shaking hands and pressed the moistened bundle against the ashen face, a clamoring panic spreading through her senses. The sight of the warriors tortured frame ... and the womans complete and utter surrender to the savage wound ... instilled a numbing dread in the young bard. She had never seen Xena so helpless, so thoroughly and unconditionally victimized by an injury ... any injury. The stillness of the warriors form frightened the young blonde beyond anything shed ever experienced.
Here was a woman who had endured a vicious gauntlet inflicted by her own men, had survived having her legs crushed and her spirit completely vanquished, who had withstood dozens of vicious battle injuries. This was a woman who had persevered on her mission to rescue her best friend, despite the fact that shed been rendered totally blind along the way. How could such a brave, stalwart soul have now been so ruthlessly defeated? Gabrielle pressed her hand against her mouth, trying desperately to calm the terrifying fear enveloping her senses. She stared at the immobile warrior, her heart pounding in her ears.
Finally, the bard gulped angrily and thrust out both hands to capture the warriors sleek shoulders. She shook the limp form briskly. "Xena! Dont you do it!" Gabrielle barked firmly. "Dont you dare let go!" The small hands grasped the warriors face, for the moment ignoring the unhealthy warmth radiating from the clammy skin.
"XENA! You promised me!" Gabrielle desperately watched the unresponsive features for even the smallest reaction. "You promised!!" the bard sobbed, lowering her head to the warriors chest. She wrapped her arms around the motionless form. "You said youd never leave me. You said ... you said." The plaintive lament echoed in the small chamber in sad syncopation with the girls mournful sobs.
The still form stirred, the dark head turning slowly toward the small, heartbroken figure.
Gabrielle felt the slender hand caress the side of her face. She bolted upright, her weeping green eyes opening wide to meet the wavering blue gaze.
"Stubborn little bobcat," the wispy voice said as a single, heavy tear glided over the pallid cheek. The bard pressed her hand over the warm palm resting against her face. She blinked away her tears, striving to focus on the warriors anguished face.
"I love you, Gabrielle," the warrior whispered. The blue eyes lingered on the bards tear-streaked face for a moment before they slowly closed. Then the sleek, muscled form went totally still in her best friends arms.
Gabrielle stared at the motionless warrior. She raised a trembling hand to the womans neck, her fingers hopefully probing for any sign of life. The girls heart skipped when she discovered the weak, thready pulse fluttering under the firm skin. She took a shaky breath, silently thanked whichever goddess was responsible and leaned forward to give the dark head a gentle kiss.
Gabrielle cradled the warriors shoulders with one arm and leaned sideways to straighten the rumpled bedrolls with the other. She carefully lowered the muscled form onto the blankets and raised the woolen material, intending to cover her unconscious friend. The bards body trembled when she noticed the dark, crimson wetness covering the entire front area of the warriors tunic. Gabrielle dropped the blanket beside the warrior and bent closer to examine the hideous mark. It was then that she became aware of the foul, spoiled odor emanating from the bloody smirch. The girl gasped in horror.
Gabrielle shook her head to clear her senses. She turned back toward the fire and quickly located the warriors knife. Using the sharp blade, she made a small tear in the material above the wound, then used both hands to rip the opening even wider. She quickly pushed the stained linen aside and carefully cut away the blood-soaked bandage underneath. The offensive smell rising from the area increased.
The bard slowly peeled away the bloody dressing, gently separating the injured skin from the soggy cloth. When she had completely exposed the wound, the image before her eyes sent a thundering devastation against her heart. The girl had seen enough gruesome, savage wounds to not be disturbed by the sight of the raw, tender flesh gathered between the dark sutures; it was the thick, ugly, yellowish fluid oozing from around the stitches that caused the bards panic. It explained the stench choking her throat.
Gabrielle dropped the bloodstained bandage. She stared at the disgusting laceration, her mind momentarily locked in the throes of her own terror. She immediately recognized what the status of the wound meant; she knew she had to act right away or her beloved friend would surely succumb to the insidious contamination. The bard made a decision.
Working quickly, the little blonde fashioned a clean bandage from the remaining cloth in the saddlebags. With the new dressing in place, she draped the blankets over the still-immobile warrior, pausing long enough to gently dab away the heavy perspiration rolling freely over the still face. She tucked the edges of the blankets around the feverish form, and after pulling the back of her hand across her own damp forehead, leaned forward and gently stroked the warriors clammy cheek.
"Hold on, my friend," the girl murmured into the womans ear. "I wont be gone long."
With that, the bard leaned across the warrior to retrieve her cape from the corner of the bedrolls. She sat back and tightened the laces on her boots, then stood up, taking a moment to battle the dizziness that made her stumble sideways a few steps. When her senses cleared, Gabrielle wrapped the cape around herself, turned and marched purposefully toward the saddle hanging on the rocky outcropping in the wall of the cave. The last thing she grabbed on her way out was her staff.
Chapter Ten ~~~
Argos hooves thundered steadily on the road leading to Kerkira as the small bard clung desperately to the golden hide. The mare had endured a short, pointed speech from the young blonde soon after the girl had emerged from the cave, wrestling heartily with the large saddle and the fur blanket. Basically, the young woman had succinctly explained the circumstances to the great steed; her mistress and the bards dear companion was in dire need of assistance and they had no time for any demonstrations of temperament or stubbornness. In order to help their mutual friend, it was necessary to reach the town as quickly and directly as possible. The mare recognized the seriousness of the situation and obediently responded to the little blondes directions.
The cold, crisp air assaulted the young bards face and neck, whipping her long cape behind her and causing her blonde hair to stream backwards from her scalp. The rude wind made it difficult for her to focus on the path so she simply clamped her eyes shut and hung on as tightly as she could.
The girl absently considered the consequences of her nighttime journey on her sick body. She cringed as she imagined the tall warriors reaction to her decision to make the nighttime trip; she knew what her friends likely response would be. But she decided she could deal with that contingency when the emergency was over.
To the young womans surprise, it was a very short trip. Argo had certainly surpassed even her own rather remarkable limits. Before Gabrielle knew it, the mare was trotting through the gates of Kerkira, slowing her pace until they had reached the row of sturdy, well-kept huts along the edge of the town square. When the animal came to a stop, Gabrielle tried to gather her wits as her eyes scanned the structures, trying to determine which housed the healer and his necessary medical wares.
"Which one is it?" the bard asked breathlessly, turning her head toward the row of buildings. She started to dismount, but had to resettle herself when Argo abruptly stepped forward to stand facing a uniquely adorned hut. Gabrielle blinked against the brisk wind to focus on the renowned symbol etched in the wooden sign affixed to the flagpole outside the hut.
"Thanks, Argo," the girl said, patting the horses neck. She swung her leg over the saddle, released the reins and jumped to the ground, pulling her staff from the saddle straps before marching to the front door of the structure. She used her wand to announce her arrival.
The door to the hut opened to reveal a stocky, fully bearded, rather disheveled middle-aged man, a sleep-fogged expression on his face. His eyes scanned the bards small frame as he pulled at the edges of the robe covering his nightshirt.
"Yes?" he asked the girl, his eyes cautious. His hands grew still when he saw the urgency in the young womans expression.
"Antenor?" Gabrielle asked. The healer nodded, his expression slightly quizzical. "I need some tormentil," the bard said, breathing heavily. "My friend has been injured."
"For Hades sake, girl," the man chided her. "Its the middle of the night." The mans eyes swept the area, obviously searching for the friend the bard had mentioned.
"My friend is .. very ... sick," the bard said, sagging forward as she was forced to deal with another heavy fit of coughing. "Shes in a cave about eight leagues from here." Gabrielle steadied herself against the door frame with one hand as she battled the painful hacking.
The man in the doorway studied the small form. His eyes rested for a moment on the blonde head before traveling quickly to the long wand the girl held in her other hand. A subtle recognition floated across the healers face. He stepped back into the doorway.
"Youre the bard who travels with Xena, arent you?" the man said evenly. "Gabrielle, isnt it?"
Gabrielle met the mans steady gaze. She pushed away from the door frame, the trim form straightening defensively. "Yes," the bard said, her chin jutting in defiance at the mans reaction to the warriors name. She casually lowered the free end of her staff into the palm of her other hand, the green eyes offering a determined challenge.
The mans expression slowly softened. "Youre not too well yourself, Id say," the healer said evenly. He stepped back and swept the door open wide. "Come in." The bard blinked slowly, somewhat confused by the sudden change in the mans attitude. "Well, I dont have the tormentil out here," Antenor told her, his tone amiable and inviting. He put a kind hand on the bards chilly wrist. "And I can give you something for that cough, too." The man smiled warmly. "Come, sit. You can rest while I prepare a pouch for you."
Gabrielle expelled a weary sigh, lowered her staff and stepped into the warm, fragrant hut. The healer closed the door behind her. He gestured toward a chair near the table and the bard settled her tired form onto the wooden seat. She propped her staff against the edge of the table and drew a shaky hand across her eyes. After a moment, she raised her gaze to meet the healers. Her focus dropped to the hand the man extended toward her.
"You should rest for the night, my dear," he told her. He gently touched the side of the bards face. "Youre not helping that fever, either." Gabrielle met the mans compassionate gaze with a flimsy smile.
"I need to get back to Xena with that tormentil," the bard countered. "She had a rather nasty fight with a very angry boar." She dismissed the mans surprised reaction. "He gored her pretty badly. I think it might be infected."
Antenor paced slowly to the other side of the table. "Shes fighting boars, now?" the man said drolly. "I heard shed changed her ways, but ....." Gabrielle was too tired to determine if the man was being sarcastic or making an effort to cheer her up. She decided she didnt really care, either way. She took a tired breath and trained a meaningful look at the mature face.
"The tormentil?" she prompted. "You do have some, right?"
"Yes, I have more than enough for what you need." The nagging headache that had returned behind the girls eyes unseated her usually good-natured attitude. She casually laid her hand on her staff.
"Well, Id like to get going, if you dont mind," the girl said, the emerald pools sharpening subtly. "I dont want Xena to wake up and find me gone." The healers eyebrows shifted slightly. "She might be worried if that happened."
Antenor let out an amused chortle. "Listen, the Xena I remember ...." the man began, smiling widely.
"Is not the Xena I know," the bard finished sternly. The healers playful smirk faded quickly. "Now," the bard said blinking slowly, trying valiantly to conquer the rampant fatigue threatening her control. "May I have some tormentil? Were really wasting time with this ... discussion," the bard said with authority. She stroked the staff again. "Will you please pack some up for me?"
The healers head moved slowly in a thoughtful shake, openly admiring the girls brave spirit. His healers instincts had quickly diagnosed the level to which the girls malady had progressed. In truth, he thought, he should be ordering her to bed for at least a week. He knew she was battling a high fever and his trained ear had detected the dangerous rattle present in her heaving chest. Yet he sensed hed have more success trying to bath an angry goat than hed have trying to convince the young woman seated in front of him to abandon her warrior friend.
"Ill get it for you right away," Antenor said, giving the girls brave heart the respect it deserved. He flipped the colorful cloth over his shoulder, poured a cup of liquid from the large jug on the hearth and handed the mixture to the bard. "Here, drink this while youre waiting," he told her. "Itll help calm the coughing and soothe your throat." He waited until she had taken a sip from the mug. The healer grinned as the little blonde made a face.
"This tastes as bad as the stuff Xena mixed for me a couple of days ago," Gabrielle said, returning the healers mischievous smirk. "Do you use tree bark, too?"
Antenors hearty laughter filled the hut. "Still using my recipe, I see," the man chortled. He laid a soft hand on the bards shoulder. "Drink it all," he prodded. "And tell Xena, she has a good memory." With that, the man turned to his collection of herbs and remedies. The bard sipped the liquid slowly, settling wearily against the back of the chair. She pulled the cape tighter as a sudden chill awakened her senses.
A few minutes later the healer handed a small leather pouch and another narrow bag to the girl. "Heres the tormentil," Antenor said, indicating the small pouch. "Ive already pulverized it into a powder." Gabrielle tied the strings on the pouch to the belt of her tunic.
"Just mix it with this oil," the healer said, handing over the smaller sack. "Make sure the poultice is thick enough ... to pull out the poison." The bard slipped the narrow thongs at the neck of the sack over her middle finger, capturing the narrow bag in the palm of her hand. She retrieved her staff and stood up, pausing only a moment to let the dizziness behind her eyes subside. She turned a grateful smile toward the healer.
"Thank you," she said to the mans bearded face. "Oh," the girl said vaguely, a blatant fact suddenly registering in her brain. "But, I dont have any money to pay you for ...." She stopped when the man touched her arm kindly.
"When youve taken care of our warrior friend," Antenor said, "you can swing by this way and well barter about it then." He patted the bards shoulder. "And, by the way, you should save some of that for yourself," he told her, his tone paternal. "Id recommend a thick poultice for your chest, as well." The bard smiled gratefully as Antenor gently guided her toward the door.
Gabrielle turned back to the man as she stepped through the open doorway. "Thank you, Antenor," the girl said, her green eyes warm. "I give you my word ... Ill be back to pay you as soon as ...."
"I trust you, Gabrielle," the healer said firmly. "Youre Xenas friend. I know youll keep your word." Antenor smiled down at the girls grateful face.
Gabrielle slipped her staff under the leather straps on the saddle and Antenor helped her climb onto Argos back. She gathered the reins, waved at the healer and turned the horses head back toward the road again. Argo responded quickly to the pressure of the girls heels. A moment later, the golden horse galloped into the night, carrying the young blonde back to their suffering friend.
Chapter Eleven ~~~
The beast had returned. She could feel his sloppy, warm breath on her neck, the foul stench assailing her face. She tried to divert the vile form, but he was too strong. She tried twisting away from the wretched figure but the blazing agony rampaging in her side defeated her efforts. She drew her body into a tight bundle, one hand protecting the throbbing, fiery area above her hip, the other thrust out in front of her to deflect the creatures maniacal attack.
The warrior moaned as the taut sutures in her side dragged at the edges of the wound. She rolled her body over raised herself up onto her hands and knees and crawled toward the scabbard leaning against the rocky wall. The wash of blood trailing over her skin became a secondary consideration. Slicing pain interrupted her progress, forcing the woman to sink to the cave floor, her trembling, sweating body heaving in desolate suffering and blinding agony.
Finally she saw her weapon, her eyes settling comfortingly on the familiar hilt. She slid the blade from its covering, flung the leather sheath aside and wrapped both hands around the swords handle. The ferocious move unseated the kneeling figures balance, forcing her wavering body to slam against the hard wall of the rocky cavern. The blue eyes stared, terrified and vulnerable, at the advancing form of the slobbering creature.
The warrior blinked madly, her vision distorted by the rivers of sweat that cascaded over her face. She quickly pulled one bare arm across her eyes and shook her head to try to regain her focus. The chiseled features contorted into an angry sneer as the hideous, ragged form slinked toward her, fangs bared and dark eyes glistening with the expected kill.
The quivering woman frantically tried to gain some leverage with her feet, her frenzied scrambling driving the gravel and invasive debris into the naked flesh on her heels. The discomfort of the malicious assault totally escaped the womans attention. Her fever-clouded mind was struggling to reinstate a semblance of clarity. The delirious figure swept the heavy sword from side to side in a frantic attempt to defend against the noxious beasts approach.
A shrill, howling shriek reverberated in the cave. The warriors expression reflected her terror as the grizzly hulks hideous features slowly transformed into a sneering face of the God of War. The ghostly, chalky countenance floated above the earthen floor and descended closer to the trembling warrior, an ugly, conniving smirk contorting the image.
"Give in, Xena," the image goaded her. "Youve challenged the gods once too often. Theyre angry with you for spoiling all their plans." The cadaverous likeness stretched and twisted. "Looks like its time for you to pay for your crimes, after all." The repulsive face gave forth a screeching laugh. "If I cant have you, you can rot in Tartarus." The image chortled wickedly.
"NO!" the warrior screamed, waving her sword. "Get away! Get AWAY! Gabrielle will be back for me. Shell help me." The shimmering image laughed, then dispersed only to reform into the likeness of a screeching, blonde goddess, the long pale hair disheveled, the dark eyes bright with madness.
"Hurts, doesnt it?" the new representation gloated, an insidious smile glowing against the darkness of the cave. "You killed your little friend, remember?" The wispy vision laughed. "She wont be back. You killed her! You killed her like youve killed everything you touch." The depraved facade cackled, floating wickedly over the warriors irrational face.
The tall quivering woman huddled against the wall, wrapping her arms over her head, trying desperately to silence the shrieking sounds. "NO!" the warrior wailed. "Shes coming back for me." The blue eyes snapped open to challenge the repulsive image. "Gabrielle is coming back!" The woman dropped the weapon and clamped her hands to the sides of her head. She closed her eyes tightly, a hoarseness choking off the sound in her throat.
A soothing, calming voice sounded in the musky cavern. "Xena?" the voice said sweetly. The warriors blue eyes snapped open and swept the interior of the chamber. They settled on the warm, glowing figure hovering near the campfire. "Dont cry, Baby," the gentle voice said. "Mamas here, Darling. Im right here." The vision smiled lovingly, extending an open hand to the astonished warrior.
"Mama?" the tall woman gasped. "How did you know where to find me?"
The lovely, shimmering form laughed softly as it floated toward the woman against the wall. "I heard you crying, sweetheart. A mother always knows when her babies are hurt." The soft image focused on the warriors glistening face. "You should know that ... youre a mother." The small images soft laugh sounded again, echoing lightly in the quiet cave. The warrior reached to touch the vision.
The moment her hand encountered the cloudy form, the laughter around her changed abruptly. The new sound transformed into dozens of chanting voices, all ringing shrill and offensive within the cave. The gentle image of the woman slowly shifted, muting in shape and reforming again. The warrior closed her eyes tightly and shook her head, the obnoxious chorus clamoring within her brain. Until one, single, steady word silenced the ranting and completely captured the womans awareness.
"Mother?" the young voice called softly.
When the warrior opened her eyes and focused on the transformed image, the pounding in her chest threatened to destroy her sensibilities forever. She stared at the shape in front of her, her throat constricting painfully. The handsome, young male face with the long, golden hair smiled lovingly at the warriors dazed expression.
"Its alright, Mother," the youthful countenance crooned. The vision pointed to the entrance of the cave. "Please come," the boy pleaded. "We can be together ... like weve always wanted." The warriors body began to shake. "Please, Mother. Come with me .. to the other side."
The dark-haired woman fell back limply against the wall. "Dont ... please dont," she moaned, one hand pressed above the treacherous ache in her chest. "Dear gods ... dont."
"Please come, Mother .... Please .... Please ... Please ...."
Gabrielle hung on tightly to the saddlehorn with one hand, the precious sack of clear oil cradled safely in her other palm. She clamped her knees tight against the sides of the saddle. Since the stirrups were positioned for the warriors long legs, the little blonde was forced to use her strong thighs and calves to anchor herself in the seat. The bard had briefly chastised herself during the trip to town, and now again on the trip back to the cave, for not taking the time to adjust the straps for her own shorter reach. Shed justified her dismissal of such an activity by telling herself ... she wasnt sure exactly how to accomplish such a feat, so shed opted to simply make do with the tack the way it was.
The night had grown colder, the temperature of the air even less accommodating than it had been on the earlier ride. As she leaned forward to flatten her trim body against the great steeds thick neck, the young blonde reluctantly acknowledged how thick her chest really felt and how unbearably ferocious her headache really was. She pushed these discomforts to the back of her mind to concentrate on staying in the saddle.
The one condition the little bard could not ignore was the raucous, torturous coughing that continued to plague her, repeatedly overpowering her and unseating her concentration. She had spent so much time responding to the bothersome tickle in her throat and the breath-robbing congestion under her sternum, that she found herself simply allowing the hacking to run its course while she tried to maintain her grip on the saddlehorn. The contingency was quickly depleting her fragile resources even more ruthlessly. The return trip to the cavern seemed to stretch out endlessly.
Suddenly, Argos powerful body swerved on the road as the mighty animal changed direction abruptly to avoid the large tree limb that slammed to the ground in front of her. Since the bards attention was shared by her efforts to keep her precarious seat in the saddle and the nervous concern she felt for the condition of her injured soulmate, there was no room in her concentration for this unpredictable move. A moment after the golden mares veering move, the young woman found herself launched into the air and landing, somewhat painfully, on her back on the dirt road. She waited for her senses to clear.
When she had regained enough awareness, the bard sat up and quickly checked herself for any new injuries, then inspected the hand which held the small sack of oil. She sighed gratefully when she noticed the bag had remained safe. The next thing she did was reach for the leather pouch shed tied to her belt. The bard gasped when her fingers failed to locate the missing article.
Gabrielle sat up, anxiously scanning the surrounding area for the small, leather pouch that held the precious herb powder. Her heart lurched as she considered the possibility of having lost the essential ingredient necessary for her soulmates treatment and recovery. The green eyes searched the path for the leather bag, a terrifying fear settling within her.
"Sweet Artemis," the girl murmured. "Please help me find it. Its Xenas only hope." The little bard blinked against the effects of the rising wind. Finally, her gaze located the leather sack ... the narrow thongs at its neck lying limp and open, a good portion of the dark, green contents being buffeted away by the swirling breeze.
"No!" the bard gasped, thrusting her tired body toward the dwindling mound of tormentil. She slammed her hand onto the small heap of powder and clutched the open pouch in her other hand. She carefully transferred the remainder of the herb particles from the ground back into the bag. The ratio of black dirt to medicinal herb didnt concern the little blonde at that moment; her thoughts were centered on retrieving as much of the powder as she could in order to create the healing poultice to treat her best friends injury. When she had refilled the little pouch, she pulled the cords at the opening tightly, retied the bag to her belt, stood up, and gathered the supple reins from the golden horses bridle. Argo whinnied her congratulations.
Gabrielle sat back on her heels, striving hard to gather enough of her shrinking energy to stand. She closed her eyes and leaned forward, drawing heavy, labored breaths. Finally, she opened her eyes, blinking hard against the hazy images clouding her vision. She dragged herself to her feet and tried to raise her foot to the metal stirrup, but the slope of the ground greatly hampered her success. Gabrielle paused in her efforts, momentarily surrendering to the fatigue depleting her resources. She leaned tiredly against the golden hide, her energy dangerously close to the lowest level. The girl fought bravely to combat what seemed her impending collapse. Tears gathered in the exhausted green eyes.
The great steed craned her head around to survey the young bards predicament. After dutifully assessing the situation, the horse gently nudged her face against the trim form, waiting patiently for the small rider to acknowledge her. The blonde head slowly turned toward the equines soulful expression. The mare whinnied quietly.
"Oh, Argo," Gabrielle whimpered. "Im so tired ... my arms feel like fence posts." The girl stroked the sinewy neck. "I cant seem to get back up."
The golden head bounced in comprehension and support. A moment later, the mares front legs bent gracefully, coming to rest on the dirt path. The move efficiently lowered the height of the saddle enough to accommodate the short legs of the bard. The girl wearily lifted her foot, stepped into the waiting stirrup and swung herself into the saddle. When she could feel the small form had resettled herself sufficiently, Argo straightened her front legs, snorted purposefully and quickly launched her strong body forward, resuming their important journey back to the warrior in the cave. The bard leaned forward, wrapping her arms around the animals strong neck, whispering a plaintive prayer that they would reach the cavern in time. The mare stretched herself out and galloped faster.
When Gabrielle opened her eyes, it took a few moments for her to realize they had arrived back at the cave. The bard shook her head briskly, leaned sideways and slid from the saddle to the ground. She raced toward the opening of the cavern, her heart pounding in her chest. Once inside, the girls steps halted abruptly; there was no welcoming fire blinking in the midst of the stone circle. There was no light at all within the cave. The bard gulped in fear.
"Xena?" the bard called softly, straining to focus in the darkened, musky interior. A muffled moan behind her caused her to turn around in search of the source of the noise. The green eyes squinted, centering attention on the misshapen heap crumpled against the cave wall. The girl advanced slowly toward the quiet form.
Gabrielles heart lurched when she recognized the tortured figure. The warrior lay, huddled and silent, against the craggy surface of the wall. Xenas eyes were closed, the torn, blood-stained tunic twisted around her body, one hand wrapped loosely around the hilt of her sword, the other lying limply beside her. When the bard carefully touched her face, the warrior stirred slightly as the blue eyes struggled to open. The azure gaze was unresponsive on the girls face. The warrior blinked once before her dark head fell to her shoulder. The bronze form became motionless again.
Gabrielles fatigue vanished at once. She smoothly moved to the bedrolls and gathered one of the blankets. She gently removed the sword from the warriors hand before covering the quiet form with the blanket. As she moved toward the circle of stones, the bard freed the little sack from around her fingers and untied the other leather pouch from the belt of her tunic. The little blonde spread some kindling in the middle of the circle, used the flint stones to ignite the twigs, then pulled two short logs onto the new flames. As the fire began to gain strength, the bard turned back to the warrior. The tall woman hadnt moved.
Gabrielle paused a moment to open her cape and exert an impatient effort toward dealing with an unexpected coughing spasm. When the hacking subsided, she drew off the woolen covering and dropped it onto the nearby bedrolls, at the same time picking up a rumpled piece of dampened cloth as she returned to the campfire. She spread the dampened cloth on the earthen floor, wiped her hands on her tunic and turned her attention to the two leather sacks.
The bard clamped her jaws together, willing her shaking hands to be still. She carefully opened the pouch containing the pulverized tormentil and poured the contents onto the cloth. Her heart plummeted as she stared at the small mound of herb powder ... it was nearly half the amount the healer had originally given her. Her tumble from Argos back had resulted in a serious depletion of the precious substance. The bard took a long, careful breath, trying to clear the dizziness and fatigue that continued to threaten her senses. She made a few quick calculations, settled on her choice and reached for the smaller sack containing the clear oil.
As she prepared the poultice, the little blondes mouth moved quietly in a fervent prayer. She prayed she had made the right decision.
Gabrielle prepared the poultice according to the healers instructions, mixing what was left of the tormentil with the clear oil from the smaller pouch. She carefully wiped away the blood and foul-smelling matter from the wounded area and spread a thick portion of the mixture over the torturous wound. As she wrapped a new bandage around the damaged site, the little blonde found herself considering a random thought; at least her friend was still unconscious and had therefore been spared from enduring the painful procedure. The young woman smiled scornfully as she tucked the edges of the blanket around the slender form.
When the procedure was finished, the bard sat back and cleaned her hands on the cloth in her lap. She wiped perspiration from her forehead, stood up and exited the cave. She found Argo waiting patiently near the tree at the entrance to the cave. She removed the saddle and blanket from the mares back, dropping the equipment near the opening before turning back to the golden steed. She stroked the horses long neck, murmuring quietly against the golden hide.
"Thanks, Argo," Gabrielle said, dropping her weary head against the animals mane. "Lets just hope we made it in time. The mare whinnied softly against the girls hair. "I know," the bard said, the dull ache in her throat distorting her words. "Im worried too." She gave the mare a final pat and returned to the cave.
Throughout the long, arduous night, the bard tenderly applied the moistened cloth to the injured warriors neck and face, trying to soothe the womans delirious ramblings and relieve her raging fever. She supported the warriors shoulders while Xena tried to drink the water she had poured into the small earthen mug. Gabrielle repeated the procedure numerous times and after each episode she found she had to expend more effort fighting her own gnawing, rampant fatigue and the disabling tightness still present within her chest. Still, she forced herself to concentrate on tending to the warriors feverish form.
Twice during the night, the little bard had unwrapped the soggy bandage and, after wiping away the thick, unsightly substance clinging to the warriors side, shed carefully swabbed the lacerated area with the damp cloth before spreading a fresh poultice mixture over the wound.
Following each new application, the girl had secured a clean bandage around the sleek body and replaced the blanket over the quiet form. Only when the last of the compound had been expertly applied did the little blonde finally allow herself to accept the sleep beckoning her.
As the thin slivers of dawn crept over the green curtain outside the cave, Gabrielle awoke, pulled her exhausted form away from the cave wall and turned to the warriors limp body. She pressed her palm to the stricken womans face, enjoying a brief sense of triumph at the slightly less feverish temperature present in the golden skin. She sat back tiredly, yielding to a short coughing spasm and pulled her hand across her eyes.
After resting against the wall for a moment, Gabrielle leaned forward, forcing her exhausted mind to center once again. She lowered her tired gaze to the inert figure of her best friend. A crippling despair swept over the young woman as the wave of tears washed over her pale, haggard face. She raised her hand and gently stroked the long, dark hair. The warrior stirred slightly under the girls tender touch, her head rolling slowing toward the bard before the lean form relaxed again, drawing a deep, peaceful breath. The bard continued the gentle caress until she fell asleep again, murmuring a silent, heartfelt prayer.
Half a candlemark later, the warriors blue eyes drifted open. They slowly surveyed the interior of the musky cave, finally settling on the low flames dancing in the stone circle, before slowly sweeping back to the area nearest her position. Her gaze fell to the blanket covering her body then became aware of the snug, clean bandage wrapped around her torso. She concentrated on realigning her jumbled senses.
Instinctively Xena lowered one hand to the tender, pulsing area on her left side. Even in her drained, debilitated state, the improved status of the wound registered in the tall womans awareness. She strained to clear the foggy cloud in her head, trying hard to determine exactly when and how she might have accomplished the healing procedure. Her thoughts were disrupted when she became aware of the quiet, regular breathing drifting from behind her. She slowly turned her head toward the sound.
The stoic, bronze face softened immediately at the sight of the little bards sleeping form. Xena let her eyes travel over the soft, pale face and the rumpled blonde hair. It was at that moment the warrior realized her own head and shoulders were settled in the girls lap, with one small hand resting gently on her shoulder. Fightly against the heavy fatigue still draining her reserves, Xena spent a short moment gazing lovingly at her best friend. She captured the slim fingers with her palm. Surrendering to the bone-wracking weariness, she laid her head back down onto the blanket and closed her eyes, a small, grateful smile warming her weary face.
Chapter Twelve ~~~
Two days later, Xena sat quietly watching Antenor drape the heavy quilt over the small, trim form on the rather wide pallet. The stoic face showed a calm expression; it hardly betrayed the heavy thumping of the heart beneath the womans leather tunic. The blue eyes swung to the healers face as he turned back to face her. Her pulse skipped when she saw the mans gentle smile.
"Shes passed the crisis now," Antenor said quietly. "Her fevers broken and the fluid in her chest is loosening nicely." The warrior let out the breath shed been holding for such a long time. The blue eyes closed, clenched tightly, then opened again to meet the healers gaze. She found his attention had returned to the young woman in his care.
"For such a little thing, shes got the heart of a lion." Antenor faced the warrior again. "But, thats no surprise to you, Id wager." The mans round face lit in a cheerful grin.
"No," Xena said softly, the blue eyes glistening with impending tears. "Thats not any kind of a surprise to me." The tall form left the chair and crossed the room to settle on the edge of the bed. One slender hand captured the small fist lying on the quilt, the other swept the moisture that had covered her face. Xena smiled as the weary green eyes fluttered open to focus unsteadily on her face. The bards shaky grin warmed the warriors chest. The girl closed her eyes again, settling into a comfortable, easy sleep. Xenas eyes remained on the cherished face for a moment before returning to the healers gaze again.
"By the way, I havent thanked you for giving her the tormentil for my side." The healer waved a hand light-heartedly. "No, I mean it, Antenor." The mans eyes settled on the warriors sincere gaze. The two exchanged a knowing look before the blue eyes settled on the trim form again. "I was a bit surprised when she told me you had given it to her even when she said it was for ... me." Xenas expression hinted at her personal chagrin.
Antenors subtle grin faded slightly before his round face brightened in a playful grin. "Xena, we all have done things wed just as soon forget." The warrior swallowed quietly. "I couldnt very well begrudge you a change of heart when, in fact, you were the one who convinced me to do the same. Now could I?" The mans smile was warm and sympathetic.
Xena tried to ignore the warm blush that traveled across her cheeks. "I really didnt have to work that hard to convince you. You were tired of the fighting and I agreed with your ... decision." The clear blue eyes were steady on the healers face "Well," Xena said after a moment. "I want to thank you anyway. And Ill pay you for the tormentil ... as soon as shes able to ...."
The healer raised his chin and sent the warrior a firm glare. "No," Antenor said evenly. "Thats not necessary. And Id appreciate you not mentioning it again." The warrior blinked, somewhat surprised. She followed the mans gaze as it settled on the little bard under the quilt.
"Besides," the healer said, the twinkle returning to his dark eyes. "I got the feeling shed have clobbered me with that staff of hers, if Id refused." The warriors smile was genuine. "Shes quite a young woman ... and, quite a friend, Ill bet."
"Youd be very right," the warrior said, releasing the little hand and drawing the quilt up to the girls chin. She stroked the blonde head tenderly before turning back to the healer.
"Youre sure shes going to be all right? I mean, her fever was really raging when we got here."
"Shell be just fine by the end of the week," Antenor said, ushering the warrior back to the chair. "In the meantime, let me treat you to a favorite recipe of mine that isnt medicinal." The tall woman chortled lightly as she lowered her tall frame onto the wooden seat again.
"You cook regular food, too?" she quipped, accepting the metal tankard from the healer.
"Well, I always said you were a man of many talents, Antenor," Xena told the man, her wide smile lighting her sculpted features. "OK, lets have some of ... whatever it is youre bragging about." One dark eyebrow climbed upward as the healer placed a steaming bowl in front of her. The mixture smelled wonderful, the dark, creamy texture was thick and full.
The healer carried his bowl to the other end of the table, sat down facing the warrior and offered another plate containing several large pieces of dark bread. Xena helped herself to one large slice. She accepted the spoon the healer handed her and sampled the hearty stew. The offering tasted even better than it smelled. The two friends settled in to enjoy a leisurely meal.
After Antenor had refilled his bowl at the hearth beside the table, he offered to do the same for the warrior. Xena refused, assuring the man that the food had indeed been tasty and welcome. She leaned back in the wooden chair, her fingers lightly clasping the tankards looped, metal handle. She raised her eyes to the healers when she sensed him studying her face.
"What?" she asked quietly. "What is it you want to know?" The bearded man swallowed the mouthful of food, took a sip from his own tankard and leveled a sincere gaze at the warriors expectant expression.
"I was just wondering ... just from a ..ah .. professional point of view, that is." The man stopped, slightly uneasy about finishing his question. The warriors blue eyes locked on his brown pools.
"You were wondering .. what?" the warrior asked, the bronze face approaching its stoic quality. "Antenor ... you know I hate riddles. Whats your question?"
The healer abandoned the lightness in his manner. He faced the woman squarely and posed his question.
"Why didnt she make a poultice for herself from the tormentil I gave her? She had more than enough in the pouch." The warriors mouth dropped open slightly and the blue eyes widened in surprise. "In fact, I told her she should before she left here that night. Surely your wound didnt require that she use all of it?"
Xena dropped her gaze from the healers face and stared numbly at the wooden tabletop. She took a very slow, calming breath before raising her eyes to the dark brown stare of the man across from her. She gulped quickly to quiet the loud pounding in her ears. She moistened her lips and tried to keep her voice even.
"How much did you give her?" Xena asked in an unsteady voice.
The healers expression registered his own consternation. "The leather bag she used?" he began, referring to the pouch hed given the bard. The warrior nodded. "What I gave her nearly filled it. I wanted to be sure she had enough for you both." The man noticed the warriors stricken look. "Didnt she tell you that?"
"No," the warrior said after a long moment. "She only said she got the tormentil from you the night she rode in on Argo." The blue eyes lingered on the small quiet form on the bed. The warriors hand tightened around the metal tankard. "She didnt mention how much was in the bag." The healer watched the wave of torment travel across the womans smooth face. He sat back in his chair, a slow realization registering in his mind. For a long moment, it was quiet in the cozy, fragrant hut. Antenor kept his eyes on the warriors mournful expression.
"Well, when she wakes up, maybe shell tell us what happened to the rest of it." The mans remark pulled the warrior out of her reverie. "Im sure she had a reason for only using half." The clear azure pools left the healers face and traveled back to the girl on the bed. The man saw the deep emotion simmering behind the womans piercing stare. He remembered that same intensity from a time long ago. He also recalled what a mistake it might be to press the issue at this precise moment. Antenor slid his chair back from the table. The warriors attention shifted absently to the source of the subtle noise.
The healer gathered up the two empty bowls and eating utensils, wiped his hands on a cloth and turned back to the pensive warrior. He leaned against the long table which held the many sources of his wares. Antenor crossed his arms over his ample middle and sent a solicitous gaze at his old friend. "I think you should get some rest, too," he told her. "It hasnt been all that long since your wound." Xena casually rested one hand on the area being discussed. "How is that coming, by the way? All healed, as usual?"
The warriors expression conveyed her complete disinterest in her own injury. "Its fine," she said woodenly, a resolute glare behind her eyes. She transferred her attention to the form on the pallet. "Shes the important patient, now." The blue gaze traveled back to the mans brown pools. "You just concentrate on her." The healer saw the vestiges of steel gray float across the steady look. He nodded agreeably.
After a moment, Antenor moved to a large chest at the foot of the bed. He opened the lid, withdrew a large, colorful quilt and held out the covering to the warrior. The man grinned as he lowered the lid of the chest. "I figured youd want to sleep in here tonight." The warriors gentle smile thanked the man. "That chair is the least uncomfortable," the healer quipped, gesturing to a large, rattan piece, its seat and back covered by bright, padded cushions. "Just call out if you need me," he said softly, laying an understanding touch on the womans sleek arm. He crossed the hut and opened a door at the other end of the room. "Good night, Xena."
"Good night, Antenor," the warrior answered. "And thanks again." The healer waved and stepped into the other room, closing the door behind him.
Xena stood up slowly and crossed the room to sit on the side of the large pallet. She gazed at the trim form, the size of the mattress making the small figure appear even more petite. The warrior gently touched the soft, young face, closing her fingers over the slim hand resting on the coverlet. The tall woman swallowed hard, fighting the thickness in her throat. She stared at the bards sweet, peaceful expression for a long time.
Finally, Xena rose from her seat on the bed and crossed to the large, padded chair. She released the hooks on her armor and removed the other leather articles, leaving only her plain, leather tunic. She picked up the large covering Antenor had supplied, wrapping the warm material around her body. Xena quietly repositioned the padded armchair closer to the side of the bed and lowered herself onto the thick, cushioned seat. Just as she leaned back and prepared to get comfortable, the bards fragile voice quickly captured her attention.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered, the verdent pools searching the room for the face of her friend. The warrior moved smoothly to the side of the bed.
"Right here, Gabrielle. What do you need?" The tall woman sat on the edge of the mattress and leaned toward the small, quiet form.
Gabrielle blinked slowly, trying to focus on the warriors blurry face. As her vision cleared, the pale face studied the golden countenance. She concentrated on the womans blue gaze.
"Nothing," the girl said, her voice thick with sleep. "Just wanted to be sure youre OK." The warriors throat tightened as she watched the soft face relax again. "Gnight," the bard murmured. The girls breathing was even and natural.
"Good night, Gabrielle," the warrior whispered. She let her eyes travel over the girls peaceful expression. Within moments, the clear, azure pools filled with tears. Xena stared at the sweet, young face, the girls features lit by the glow of the dancing flames on the hearth.
The tall woman stroked the soft skin with the back of her fingers, then gently swept the silky wheat-colored hair away from the soft, attractive features. Her heart swelled with affection for the young woman under the quilt.
Xena stood up and gathered the flowered covering around herself again. She put one knee on the mattress at the bards feet and carefully slid herself into the space between Gabrielle and the solid wall behind the bed. The warrior settled on her side, her long frame close to the bards trim figure. Gabrielle stirred slightly, as though she sensed the proximity of the warriors body. The girl drew in a deep, contented breath and her head rolled slowly toward the sleek, smooth face. Her breathing settled into a steady pattern again. Xena laid down, curling her other arm under her dark head. After another moment, the blue eyes closed and the tall warrior joined her friend in restful sleep.
A few hours later, the little bard awakened slowly, her green eyes scanning the quiet interior of the cozy hut. The girl quickly recognized her surroundings, easily reacquainting herself with the fragrant, comforting atmosphere and the soft, wide mattress. She was also relieved to note the welcome lightness in her chest and the absence of the dull ache from behind her eyes. After a moment, the girls gaze drifted down to the sleek, muscled arm draped across her waist. She slowly rotated her head until her eyes focused on the sleeping figure nestled against her side. The girl smiled in the darkness, resting her hands on the warm, bronze limb. Then she closed her eyes and returned to the land of her dreams.
The next morning, Xena helped the bard steady the steaming mug. Gabrielle sniffed the dark mixture and sent a regretful glower at the warriors quivering smirk. The green eyes dropped to consider the mug for a moment, then returned to challenge the blue gaze. One dark eyebrow crept under the dark bangs. The little blonde sighed in surrender. She accepted the mug, lifted it to her lips and slurped up a mouthful. She swallowed the liquid, grimaced and flashed a meaningful glare at the twinkle in the blue eyes. The girl sat back on the pillows.
"You and Antenor are working together, arent you?" the bard grumbled. "He told me this is his recipe but you enjoy seeing me choke on it, I can tell" The green eyes narrowed at the tall womans barely controlled grin. Gabrielle gave the mug a scornful look before raising her gaze to the warriors again.
"Well, it is the best remedy for your chest," Xena said, a small apology in the smooth voice. She tousled the bards blonde hair. "It wouldnt really be medicine if it didnt taste awful, would it?" She smiled warmly at the girls pout.
"Yeah, right," the bard scoffed. The warrior put one palm under the mug the bard held and gently lifted the vessel up toward the girls chin. Gabrielles glower intensified. The two friends engaged in a silent, steadfast argument. After a moment, the bard rolled her eyes, sighed loudly and raised the mug for another sip. The resulting shiver was slightly more melodramatic than necessary. Her tall friend tried in vain to submerge her chuckle.
Xena stood up and leaned down to retrieve the tray and cloth napkin from the bards lap. She carried the remains of the girls breakfast to the table, depositing the collection on the wooden surface. She took a quick breath and turned back to the bard. Gabrielle reacted to the subtle change in the tall womans manner.
At that moment, the door to the hut burst open and the rotund healer bustled into the room, his arms filled with various plants and herbs. The warrior stood up and took a step away from the bed, turning to face the man. Antenors expression brightened when his clinical gaze settled on the clearly improved state of the bards condition. He crossed the room and divested himself of the leafy assortment before moving cheerfully toward his young patient.
Antenor placed a gentle hand on Gabrielles forehead, then carefully laid his ear against the girs chest. The warrior watched the healers proficient actions, a slow grateful smile warming the stoic face. The man settled his large form on the side of the bed and turned a happy expression toward the tall leather-clad figure. He folded his hands in his lap.
"Well, I think our pretty little patient is well on her way back to health." He smiled widely at the little bard, whose warm smile returned his. She blushed shyly at the healers description of her, dropping her gaze to the container she still held in her hands.
"If I am," the girl said, raising her eyes to meet the healers again. "Its because of you," she told the man. The young face grinned. "Even if you do make me drink this ... junk," Gabrielle joked, indicating the dark mixture in the mug. The girls green gaze skipped to the warriors smirk. "Youre both enjoying this, arent you?" the bard joked, her eyes landing on the healers again. The three friends enjoyed a comfortable laugh.
As the joyful noise subsided easily, the healer winked at the warrior before turning again to the bard. His wide palm tapped the bottom of the mug. "It only works if you drink it, of course." The bards grin faded immediately only to reappear again at the sound of her tall friends playful chuckle.
"Its a conspiracy!" the girl squawked. She trained a comic scowl at the two innocent faces. She shook her head in comic resignation, raised the mug and bravely took another swallow, trying hard not to let her face betray her true reaction to the bitter, unsavory taste. The healer patted her arm affectionately as he left his seat on the mattress. He turned to the tall warrior.
"One more day, I think," he said in a professional tone. Antenor exchanged a guarded look with his tall, dark-haired old friend. The brown eyes shone warmly at the womans concerned look. He touched her sleek forearm, turned briefly back toward the bard and swept his large form out of the room. The bards eyes followed the gentle figures departure before returning to meet the blue eyes of her friend. She settled herself back against the pillows.
"Now, what were you going to ask me?" Gabrielle asked, her gaze steady on the warriors. Xena paused only a moment to react to the bards intuition regarding her intentions. She sat down on the side of the bed, the cobalt pools flicking to the mug in the girls hands. A tiny smile graced the golden face. The warrior gently relieved the bard of the vessel, turning to place it on the nearby table. She swallowed quickly and focused on the expectant expression of her best, and most cherished, friend. She took a shallow breath and smiled warmly at the young face.
"Its about the night you came here on Argo...?" The girl gazed intently at her friend. "The night you brought the tormentil back for my side?" The bards expression cleared as the subject of the warriors question finally registered in her mind. Gabrielle nodded.
"Oh," the bard said, nodding. "Well, what do you want to know?" A tiny, meddlesome concern had begun to nudge at the bards awareness. Gabrielle knew only too well how astute and sharp the warriors instincts were. Something in her tall friends manner suggested soon the conversation would make it necessary to explain what had happened on the night in question. The bard swallowed nervously.
Xena saw the subtle gulp that constricted the bards slender throat. She leaned toward the bard, her hands on either side of the slender form. The warrior concentrated on the soft, green gaze, and was unexpectedly faced with her own trepidaton. Her instincts concerning the lovely young blonde woman she called her best friend were strong and loyal. She almost regretted the pursuit of the upcoming discussion, but the tall woman admitted to herself ... her inner turmoil demanded a resolution, one way or the other. Xena took a quick breath and began.
"Antenor said he gave you enough tormentil that night to not only treat my side, but to make a poultice for yourself as well." The bard let out a short sigh. She dropped her eyes from Xenas and focused on her nervous fingers as they fumbled in her lap. She waited for the warrior to continue. "Why didnt you?" Xena asked gently. The blue eyes rested on the girls averted gaze. "Gabrielle?" she prodded softly. The warriors chest tightened when the bards eyes rose to meet hers. The green pools glistened with shining tears.
Gabrielle gulped nervously, gathering her thoughts before answering the warriors question. She lowered her gaze to her fingers. "On the way back to the cave, I lost part of the powder ... almost half of it, in fact. I fell off Argo and the bag ...."
"Argo threw you?" the warrior interjected. The bards eyes jumped to the blue pools.
"No, no," the girl said quickly. "She ... I guess she swerved or whatever, to get around this big tree limb on the path and since I wasnt paying close enough attention, I fell off and the bag came untied." The little blondes expression depicted her displeasure with herself. "It spilled out onto the ground and the wind .... well, about half of the powder blew away." The green eyes dropped to her lap again.
"See, I didnt get the stirrups shortened before I left, so it was kinda hard for me to ....." The bards contrite explanation ended abruptly when she turned to address the warrior. The golden face was covered with tears, the blue eyes wide and astonished on the bards face. Xena closed her open mouth and gulped against the ache in her throat.
"You used what was left ... on me, didnt you?" the warrior said, her voice tight with emotion. "You put it all on my side." The blue eyes were locked on the girls face.
The green gaze was steady on the warriors stricken expression. The young blonde faced the warrior, her trim form straightening against the pillows. "You needed it," the girl said simply. "You were hurt."
The warriors blue eyes flashed with a hint of derision. "As opposed to the raging fever youd been dealing with for days and the annoying little rattle occupying your chest," she said sarcastically, leveling a superior glare at the bards persistence. Gabrielles chin rose a degree as she sent an unflinching stare at the piercing gaze. The girl crossed her arms over her chest.
"I made the right decision for the situation," the little blonde said, her voice controlled and firm. Xena was flustered by the girls quietly willful comment. A moment later, the chiseled features darkened in a warm blush. She struggled to reinstate the superior glare, but her resolve was quickly undermined by her own embarrassment. She chose instead to silently admonish the bards impish smirk.
"And, besides, who was it who brewed up that awful tea for me ... twice?" The green eyes twinkled at the tall womans chagrin. The girl tilted her head. "Hmm?" the bard teased, taking her friends slender hand. "This time is was my turn to do for you," Gabrielle said softly, mimicing the warriors raised-eyebrow look. "Fairs fair, after all."
Xena could only stare at the bard, her clear affection warming the blue gaze. She squeezed the small hand wrapped around her fingers while her dark head traveled from side to side. "What am I going to do with you?" the liquid voice asked softly.
The green eyes swept comically across the coverlet before rising to meet the blue gaze. "Be grateful theres only one of me?" the girl quipped facetiously, her face openly playful.
Xena chuckled softly, her amusement answering the bards cheerful giggle. A moment later, the warrior sat forward to pull the trim form into her arms. "Oh, I am," Xena said, her voice earnest against the girls temple. When the women parted, Xenas palm captured the girls chin. "Im very grateful that one decided to be my friend." Gabrielle returned the warriors loving smile.
"An honorable, selfless decision, my young friend." Antenors quiet voice sounded from the doorway across the room. The healer took a short step into the area, his admiration for the bards courage obvious in his eyes. "You both took quite a chance, however you look at it."
The warriors gaze swept to the healers kind face as the bards focus followed almost the identical route. Then the womens attention returned to each other. A moment later, they both turned to address the healer.
"Shes my best friend," the women said at precisely the same moment. The two best friends turned to each other and laughed outloud, then hugged each other tightly The healer smiled with them.
The bard turned her attention from the scroll in her lap to the warriors activity at the campfire. Her verdent gaze settled on the heavy, iron frying pan the woman was tending and the two thick pieces of meat sizzling in the middle of the implement. Gabrielle had to admit the aroma wafting up from the dancing flames was very appealing. She watched as Xena turned the servings over before briskly sliding the skillet back and forth over the fire.
Finally the warrior lifted the pan away from the campfire and placed it down on the ring of stones surrounding the site. She brushed her hands together, drew her knife, and deftly carved the thick pieces into smaller, square portions. The bard leaned closer to get a better view.
When all of the meat had been sufficiently re-apportioned, the warrior brought the skillet next to the small, iron pot bubbling over the flames and transferred the meat from the frying pan into the kettle, briefly stirring the contents with her knife. Next, the leather-clad chef picked up the flat expanse of bark resting next to her and used her knife to slide the pieces of sliced mushrooms and wild tubers from the bark into the kettle. She laid the skillet aside and turned a mischievous grin to the bards curious expression.
"Suppers almost ready," the warrior announced. "Are you as hungry as you usually are?"
Gabrielle sent a look of mock irritation at her tall friends impish expression. "Ha, ha," the girl chortled in fun. Her nose drew her attention back to the steaming kettle.
"Whatever that is, it smells great." The girl trained a teasing grin at her friends smug grin. "Since when have you become such a gourmet?" the bard quipped. "Or is this another of Antenors secret recipes?" The warrior scoffed at the blondes insinuation.
"Ill have you know I taught Antenor all he knows about cooking," the warrior chided her friend. "I only let you handle the cooking because I know you enjoy the food so much." The golden face smiled widely at the the bards insulted look. Xena ducked her head to escape the twig the girl had tossed at her ear. The bard gave her tall friend a playful shove.
A short time later, the warrior announced that their meal was now ready. Gabrielle picked up the two earthen plates resting on the bedroll beside her and held them out to the warrior. Xena lifted the pot and used the wide, wooden ladle shed created early in their travels to spoon equal portions of the cooked food into the two platters. She returned the kettle to the fire, uncorked the waterskin and settled her long, sleek frame onto the large log across from the bard, accepting the plate the girl handed her. The two women began to eat.
After enjoying several mouthfuls of the thick, tasty stew, the bard turned a contented expression toward the warriors relaxed form. She swallowed some of the food in her mouth before trying to address her tall friend. Xena grinned at the girls enjoyment of the food.
"Xena!" the bard said enthusiastically. "This is the best stew weve ever had." The warrior performed a little nod in acceptance of the bards compliment. She watched the girl deliver another spoonful to her mouth, her young face lighting happily. The tall woman laughed softly at the little blondes animated activity.
"Whoa, take it easy, there," the warrior said, her eyes amused on the girls chomping jaws. "Youre going to wear out your teeth." The bard giggled softly. "We have plenty of time. You dont have to rush."
Gabrielle swallowed again, then systematically licked some of the dark, thick gravy from her fingers. She sent an adorable grin at the warriors loving smile. "But its really good!" the bard mumbled around the food. "Youve really outdone yourself this time." She used her spoon to capture a piece of sliced mushroom from the side of her plate and lifted the treat to her mouth. While she chewed, she scooped up another chuck of the tender meat. The girls spoon disappeared into her mouth again.
"Oh, by the way," the warrior said, casually drawing a small bundle from the belt of her leathers. "Here, I made something for you." She handed the parcel to the little blonde.
The girls eyes danced excitedly at the unexpected gift. She put her plate down on the bedroll, wiped her fingers on the edge of the blanket and carefully unwrapped the little package. She spread the piece of cloth in her palm and picked up the unusual item, letting the article dangle from the thin leather thong attached at one end. Gabrielle brought the object closer to examine it more easily.
"What is it?" she asked the warrior.
"Its the pointed end of a boars tusk," the tall woman said evenly. The bards eyes flew to the warriors cryptic expression. She studied the long, sharp tooth for a moment before meeting the clear, blue stare again. The golden face creased in a knowing grin.
"You didnt," the bard said quietly, her eyes on her friends raised eyebrow.
"Oh, yeah," the warrior answered, her blue eyes twinkling playfully. "You bet I did."
Gabrielles mouth dropped slightly open. The warrior picked up the small kettle, the wooden spoon poised at its rim.
"More stew?" she asked innocently. The little blondes astonished look continued for a short moment before her boisterous laughter filled the campsite. The warrior joined in the girls delight while the golden mare looked on indulgently.
~~~~ THE END ~~~~
Authors Note: Unfortunately, one rather obnoxious, bad-tempered boar was jeopardized during the completion of this tale ... but, by all accounts, he had it coming. Buon Appetite! (And thats Italian!)
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