SEASONS OF SUNSET
Disclaimer: pretty much the usual I don't own the characters and I don't expect anything from this piece of imagination. No violence, with the exception of what nature might throw at us and there is no subtext, but you can read what you like between the lines. I did take a bit of literary/imaginative/creative/outlandish license with some of the methods of cure in the piece below, trying desperately to put some contemporary techniques into antiquity. But then again this show has asked all of us to do some extreme stretching of the imagination.
Xena shivered violently and pulled the soggy fur blanket tighter around her shoulders. She rested the back of her hand against her cheek and almost laughed at the irony of the heat radiating from it, while a terrible chill ran once again through her body. She blinked snowflakes off her dark eyelashes and moved closer to the dwindling fire, coaxed from damp kindling and frozen branches. Mostly what it had created was smoke in the hastily built three sided shelter she had constructed from soft needled cedar branches. Actually she had cut the lowest branches from the thickest tree laying them close together to create a wall of protection against the howling wind and biting pellets of frozen precipitation. A deep cough wracked her body, ripping pain from her chest through her throat and into both ears. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard, willing the cough to stop. Taking deep breaths and exhaling very slowly she defeated the urge to cough even more. Another wave of chills shook her. Across the shelter a soft moan caught her attention. Slowly she brought her aching body to stand and shuffled toward the sound.
Gabrielle lay on the dryer side of the structure as far away from the frigid wind and soaking sleet as the warrior could put her. She rested on a bed of soft cedar branches covered by their remaining furs and blankets. Even Argo's saddle blanket covered the barely conscious girl. Xena knelt and placed her hand against her young friend's forehead then frowned and bent closer placing her lips there instead. Xena was warm, but Gabrielle was burning with fever. The girl opened bloodshot eyes for a moment and tried to speak. The breath she took was rattling and came back as a wicked crushing cough. There was no strength left to create words or force them from her chest, but her eyes spoke volumes to the worried warrior. The girl, too weak even to cry, made only motions of sobbing before Xena shushed her comfortingly. Her own voice was deep and ragged and brought intense pain when used. She pulled Gabrielle closer trying desperately to keep both of them warm.
If only she had not sent Argo off to fend for herself. The storm had become much worse and she feared for her strong steed. She regretted also, the fact that the large animal also could have provided much needed warmth. Gabrielle shivered in her arms and she pulled the last dry blanket tighter around them both.
If only the fire would last long enough to heat the melted snow into warm water. She could brew a strong tea, add some healing herbs and try again to get some of it into the girl.
If only the wind would die for a few hours.
If only the sun would bring some warmth.
If only this snow this biting bitter snow
"Snow!!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Look, Xena, it's snowing!" She raised her face to the millions of tiny flakes that drifted from the sky. "Isn't it beautiful?" She smiled as the tiny forms landed softly on her eyelashes and bangs.
"Yeah, just lovely." Xena drawled, wondering when the last time was that she actually looked at the stuff quite that way. "We have to hurry Gabrielle." She remarked as she reached down from Argo to pull the girl into the saddle. Sure, it was pretty, but someone had to be realistic. No sense getting themselves in serious trouble just to watch this wet white nuisance cover the ground. She shook her head as Gabrielle spread her arms and twirled out of reach. "Come on," Xena tried remained serious despite the girl's playfulness, "We need to reach the next village before this 'beauty' becomes a 'beast'. The storms in this area can be brutal."
Gabrielle danced away stretching her arms out to the snowflakes, embracing their simplicity. "Oh, Xena please. I want to walk. This is so much fun and I haven't done it since I was a very little girl. Please Xena, it isn't a storm just a little bit of snow see the sun is shining and look it makes the snow sparkle like little crystals!" She pointed toward a pinpoint of sun that did indeed make the snow appear more jewel-like than basically frozen rain. Xena stared at it for a moment recalling her own 'dances' in the snow when she had been young, carefree, innocent . The warrior brushed off the memory and turned back to her impish companion.
"Gabrielle " Xena shook her head knowing the battle was lost. The bard was already at least twenty paces ahead of her and still entranced by the change in the weather. The warrior looked at the sky noting the imbalance of blue and gray patches and sighed. She could let the young girl have her way for a bit. It was just a sprinkling of white and nothing to really worry about. They'd been through so much lately. All that nonsense with Bacchus and his minions had left the young bard with nightmares for weeks. Perhaps this was just what she needed to see there was in fact still pristine beauty in the world. Besides while Gabrielle would certainly not tire of the winter wonder, she hated to be cold and Xena knew it wouldn't be long before the girl would notice just how much that long fur covering would not keep warm.
Xena had been mistaken. The cold did nothing to deter the girl, as she seemed to be fed more energy by the falling flakes. An hour later the sprinkle of snow had become more of a shower and rapidly covered the ground with a fresh white blanket. Gabrielle delighted in making the first footprints in the soft scrunchy substance. By midday the light snow had formed a curtain of white that al but obliterated the path they had been following. The snow refused to let up and deepened under the bards continuing steps.
"I think it is time you got up here." Xena suggested strongly for the umpteenth time.
"I'm not tired and I'm not cold, Xena." Gabrielle protested through chattering teeth. "And I am keeping up with you. Argo can't walk very fast in this snow either. Even if I get up there we won't be in Enacia before dark. I'll only slow Argo down even more. Besides, Xena it is so late in the year and so odd to have snow now. It won't last long so why can't we just enjoy it for a little while? We can start looking for a place for to camp while we walk. Come on, Xena, pleeeeease." She smiled that smile the warrior could not usually resist.
Xena closed her eyes and sighed again, "Gabrielle, I am not asking you I'm telling you. If we get caught out here in this mess we won't even be able to start a fire." Xena warned. "Gabrielle Gabrielle??" The girl had somehow disappeared from the warrior's view. Xena stopped and stood in the stirrups looking from left to right trying to follow the zigzagging footprints the girl had left in the ankle-deep snow. "Gabr "
Xena drew a long deep breath and shook the snow from her cape, without preventing most of the cold wet substance from sliding down her back. She clenched her teeth and tossed her head back shaking the snow from her hair. Slowly she turned toward the muffled giggle coming from behind a row of shrubbery. Gabrielle stood and laughed at the warrior's plight.
"HA! You didn't even see it coming! Some warrior!" She cajoled.
Xena threw one leg over the saddle and slid silently to the ground never taking her eyes from the girl. Her eyes narrowed and a very unpleasant grin spread across her face. Now any other person with half a notion of self preservation would have turned tail and ran as far as possible. The wrath of the Warrior Princess was not one to reckon with, but not one small fair-haired bard. No, that young girl shivered with a bit of excitement realizing the game was afoot. (Although, Gabrielle would later swear that the snow actually turned to steam in the heat of the warrior's wrath.) Xena dropped Argo's reigns and slowly reached down taking a large amount of snow into her hands without ever taking her eyes from her target. She rolled and formed it into a large ball, then tossed it from hand to hand testing its strength. She smiled at the girl still standing behind the shrubs.
Gabrielle giggled with delight finally having drawn the stoic warrior into her play. She turned to run, then quickly reversed direction and shot a second snowy missile at the advancing warrior. This time Xena was ready and batted the snow bomb easily away. Gabrielle used this diversion to dash across the large open area behind the shrubs. But Xena's aim was true and the snowball connected with the center of the bard's back sending her headlong into the shin-deep white powder.
The girl brought herself up on both hands and shook the snow from her face, spitting out the mouthful that she had taken in. The cold bit into her cheeks and for a moment brought a strange pain to the center of her head. She rolled onto her back, propping herself up on both elbows then scanned the open field for the advancing warrior. If Xena caught her now she was defenseless. Her eyes darted quickly in all directions searching for the silent warrior who had to be close and probably had at least ten more snowballs by this time. Slowly she pulled herself up on her feet but keep down on her haunches and continued to look for her attacker. It was at least 10 feet to the tree line. Quite a run through snow that now was to the middle of her shin, but it was the best choice. She looked from side to side. Argo huffed a loud whicker as if to show just how disgusted she was with this whole spectacle. Gabrielle giggled at the steam that came from the horse's nostrils. She stood and darted for the row of pines at the edge of the field, taking only two snowy hits as she went. Xena was not far away.
Behind the thicket Gabrielle became invisible. She slid out from under the large woolen cloak Xena had insisted she wear and quickly tucked it around a crop of brush that looked amazingly like someone scrunching down on their knees. This would slow down the advancing warrior. She'd be sneaking up on "the bard" who wasn't moving while the real Gabrielle would find shelter and collect enough snowy ammunition to defend herself. The girl stepped quickly and quietly across the tinder and found herself at the top of a gentle slope. At the bottom was a copse of thick cedar where she could set up her fortress. She figured to just slide the short way down then watch as the warrior attacked her 'double'. She shivered a bit as gooseflesh rose on her arms and legs, but this small bit of discomfort would be worth the joke.
"Gabrielle!" She heard Xena's voice at the opposite edge of the tree line. "GABRIELLE!" She covered her mouth to suppress a giggle and lost her balance on the snowy hilltop. The cold wet snow turned into a smooth slide as the small bard sailed swiftly down the incline. She immediately regretted this silly notion as the frozen crystals chilled her seat all the way to the slope's bottom. She stood immediately brushing the coldness from her backside. How could something so cold, burn so much? So cold and so hot that she stomped her feet to shake off the annoyance.
Xena grabbed the dark woolen cloak from the bush and raced to the top of the slope. She had heard the girl's squeal and raced toward the sound. Now the warrior stood at the summit of the hill glared at the girl stomping her feet at its base. She laughed under her breath for a moment at the sight below and held the cloak out shaking it at the girl. "Satisfied?" She called to the girl as she began to descend the hill, immediately pulling her 'that's enough nonsense, Gabrielle' look back into place.
"Ow! Ow! Ow!" Gabrielle repeated, stomping harder and silently telling herself what a stupid idea that had been. She stomped again and froze in place when a loud crackling echoed in the wintry silence. Xena stopped in her tracks having heard the sound as well. Gabrielle took a small step, barely raising her foot from the ground. Another loud crack shattered the snow-covered stillness. The color drained from the girl's face as she realized the sound had come from beneath her feet. She turned panic stricken toward the warrior.
"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted now racing down the hill. She too had realized the source of the sound, "don't move!". She whistled for the strong war-horse and was rewarded by an answering whiny and the sound of hooves beating dully through the heavy snow cover.
Gabrielle obeyed without thinking. She slowed her breathing and focused on the warrior heading toward her. Under her feet the ground seemed to lurch forward and then back, her stomach turned just a bit as the familiar feeling of a stationary object suddenly set afloat flooded her mind. 'A boat no, a float no water, there's water ' she thought wildly. Again the ground moved and a third crackle ripped through the quiet afternoon. Gabrielle was sure the crack had also ripped into her body, as immediate stabbing pain seemed to engulf her entire being. Frozen darkness swallowed her. Rock hard liquid slammed against her and icy knifes cut off her breath. She surrendered with a brief fight, feeling her body stiffen under the weight of the frigid water. Down, down into its depth she spun almost hearing the ice particles crackling as she sank.
Xena shivered again remembering her dive into that frozen lake. Into the dark depths of it in search of the girl who had just disappeared from the surface. Three times the warrior had surfaced for air and dove again into the liquid pain that held the small bard. Her own arms and legs grew stiff almost refusing to move in the frigid water, but she had to go on. Had to reach just a bit farther just a bit. She felt a small hand, grabbed it and pulled. Pulled both of them to the surface and then to the frozen shore. Despite the cold, despite the pain she rolled the girl over and shook her hard. She slapped the girl's cheek even harder and shook her again. Gabrielle's skin was bluish with cold, her lips almost purple. Xena turned the girl face down, placing both arms over her head then pressed against Gabrielle's ribs with enough force to compress her lungs. The warrior leaned back and allowed the girl's organs to expand, then repeated the motion. Precious seconds ticked by, the warrior's mind void of any thought until a small moan halted her labor. She pushed her frozen hair from her face and pulled the girl into her arms.
Gabrielle shook then lurched forward expelling most of the water she had swallowed. She drew a deep breath and coughed out the rest. Fortunately the bitter cold of the lake had caused the girl to lose consciousness before she was able to inhale the deadly liquid. There was a gash along her hairline probably caused by the impact of the ice. It slowly dribbled blood across her face. She opened her eyes and stared blankly for a second then slumped against the warrior's grip.
Xena had carried the bard into the grove of trees. She drew her sword and hacked the branches from the cedar creating this small shelter. She tore the already frozen clothing from the unconscious bard and wrapped her in all but one of the blankets and furs they used for sleeping. The warrior knew the most important thing now was getting the girl warm, that the cold would certainly try to take what the water had been denied. She thought very little of her own needs and the fact that she was just as cold and damp as the girl she had snatched from frozen death. Only after forcing a fire to start and setting Argo free to seek shelter for herself did Xena see to her own needs.
It was then the gentle snowfall turned into a raging storm. The drifting feather-like flakes became stinging points of ice and the wind drove them like tiny spears into the warrior's exposed flesh. She had pulled the bard as close to her as she could, sharing what little heat the small fire could give. They both fell into an exhausted sleep waking this morning to more snow, more wind and more pain.
Again the girl moaned weakly and Xena desperately pulled her closer. The warrior's head nodded and her eyelids fluttered, giving into the illness that threatened her. She snapped herself back to attention. She had to stay awake. She was their only hope. She had to shake this off, had to remain alert, had to save Gabrielle. Again her vision blurred and her eyes closed. Somewhere far away she was sure she heard the sound of small chimes.
Xena awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright. Immediately her senses came alive and alert. The soft glow of candlelight cast long shadows about the small room. A large fire crackled and popped in the hearth and the smell of fresh baked bread filled the air. She looked down at the long white gown covering her form and winced at the strong smell of camphor that came from the heaviness on her chest. A sudden dizziness pulled her head back down onto the soft clean pillow on the bed. A door opened letting a quick rush of cold air into the room and the warrior closed her eyes feigning sleep. The soft padding of footsteps crossed the room, stopping once before approaching the warrior.
"So," a gravelly voice began. "You are finally awake."
For a moment Xena remained quiet and still trying to put together the events that had passed. Her mind rapidly ran through everything she remembered and drew one conclusion. She had no idea where she was or .
"Gabrielle?" Xena started to rise stopped by a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"No, no, no you are still not that strong." The unfamiliar voice warned. "Here, drink this." A mug of dark liquid was held to her lips. She turned her head in cautious defiance. "Now really dear, do you think I brought you here and watched over you for three days and nights just to poison you when you awaken?"
Xena looked up into warm gray eyes set in a round smiling face. The woman who had to be more than a few seasons older than Xena's mother again held the mug close to the warrior's lips. This time Xena took a small sip. It was warm and sweet but she could detect the taste of medicinal herbs brewed into the tea. She brought her hands up and held the cup surprised at her own weakness.
"Now, that is much better. I've got some broth warming and some nice fresh brown bread as well. That will make you feel even stronger."
"Three days?" Xena's voice was hoarse and raspy. The sound of it surprised her. She cleared her throat a few times then pushed herself up against the back of the bed and placed a hand on the poultice on her chest.
"At least." The older woman smiled, answering the next question before it was asked. "Quite a silly thing you did out there, both of you, and by rights you should be dead but you seem a stubborn sort and the little one even more so."
"Gabrielle she fell ice " Xena repeated.
"She is resting. It will be tomorrow or perhaps later before she joins us. Her fever has not yet broken, but her spirit is very strong."
"I need to see " Xena again tried to rise.
"You need to rest." The woman insisted taking the empty mug from her hands. "In the morning you can see." She seemed very strong for such a matronly sort, pushing the warrior again back down on to the bed. She gently removed the potent dressing from Xena's chest and tucked the blanket up under her chin. She rested her hand against the warrior's forehead and smiled when it was cool to her touch. "Rest now." She said simply. "I will care for your young one until you are well."
"Thank you " the warrior began not know what to call the woman.
"Donara." She finished.
"Thank you, Donara." Xena mouthed as she felt the effect of the herbs and gave in once again to exhaustion and illness.
She wasn't sure if it was the singing or the violent coughing that brought her awake but Xena sat up slowly and threw her legs over the side of the bed. She stood, a bit wobbly but none the less on her own. The old woman entered carrying a large basin of steaming water and softly humming the remnants of her wordless tune. "Thought you would want to clean up a bit." She remarked with a large smile. "I cleaned that skimpy bit of leather you were clad in, but it won't do you much good in these parts. I've got some much more practical clothing you can have till you get where you're going." She pointed toward a large chest near the fireplace. "You can take whatever suits you. Then we can have some breakfast."
"Where's Gabrielle?" Xena tried to quash the demand in her still grating voice.
Donara stopped and wiped her hands in her apron. She smiled faded for a moment. When it returned it seemed a bit forced causing Xena's senses to prickle with dread. She stepped forward.
"She is " the woman began, then stopped, seeing not the impatience in the younger woman before her, but the fear. "Come." She almost whispered motioning for the warrior to follow.
Donara opened the door and led Xena into a smaller room that seemed to be filled with a fine mist and permeated with the smell of camphor and other minty herbs. A large kettle was set in a small hearth and filled with large rocks. The woman took a ladle of water from a barrel and poured over the rocks causing more mist to seep into the room. The scent burned her eyes, but immediately Xena felt an ease in her breathing. Gabrielle lay on a large soft bed in the center of the room. Her breathing was labored, her fever still raging.
Xena took the bard's hand in her own. It was cold to the touch, a bad sign. The warrior knew too well that this was a sign of an extremely high fever. She turned toward her elderly benefactor. "Has she been like this all along?"
The woman shook her head and busied herself with several powders and tinctures. "Actually she is doing much better than when I found you. I was worried for a bit, but she surprised me."
Xena swallowed hard and placed the girl's hand beneath the heavy blanket that covered her. "Yeah, she does that a lot." The warrior agreed.
"She is a fighter," the woman smiled. She crossed the room and added a few drops of liquid to the already steaming brew in the large kettle.
"How did you find us how did you know?" Xena asked without taking her eyes from her young friend.
"The horse." Donara replied. To Xena's perplexed expression she continued. "When I found that fine mare in my barn I knew she had not traveled far. She was well cared for, cared about, so I knew someone was in a bit of trouble. It was just a matter of following the animal's tracks. But that horse is pretty smart as well, lead me right to you both and seemed pretty proud of it too!"
Xena nodded her understanding and silently reminded herself to thank Argo for her part in their rescue. She pushed the damp hair from the bard's sweaty brow. Gabrielle made a soft almost imperceptible sound as if she were acknowledging the warrior's presence. Xena swallowed hard again, knowing the girl was not yet out of the woods. The action brought on a bought of coughing and the warrior turned away from the girl clutching her own chest in pain.
"Ah, yes, well that seems to be enough visiting for now " Donara stepped forward and took Xena by the arm leading her away from the girl. "Perhaps it was not such a good idea for you to be up and about so long. It's back to bed for you young warrior."
It was only Xena's weakened state that allowed Donara such liberty. She eyed the older woman defiantly, but was powerless to stop her.
Donara did not miss the 'look' cast by the angry warrior. "Now, none of that with me, my young friend!" She warned, wagging a finger in front of the warrior's nose. "You may be one big strong warrior when you are well, of that I am sure, but for now you are no more than a mere babe. AND if you want to be any help to your young one, you will have to do as you are told! I don't intend to take any grief from you, so if you have any intention of being any more difficult than you already have been I will show YOU just how big and strong this old warrior can be! Understand?" Donara's voice rose in volume and intent as she spoke, reminding the warrior of her own mother's stern warnings so many years ago.
For a moment Xena absorbed the impact of Donara's chastisement then glanced over her shoulder at the sleeping bard. Surely Gabrielle would have a great laugh at Xena's expense if she had overheard any of this. The warrior turned back with an adolescent pout tossing her chin in the direction of her own warm bed. Donara nodded and smiled as she led the tired patient out of the room.
"Perhaps tomorrow a bit longer," she remarked as she tucked the blanket under Xena's chin. "I'll bring your meal and some more herbal tea." She stood back and turned to leave. Immediately Xena brought herself up on both elbows, refusing to give in to her sudden fatigue. Donara turned back and placed her fists on her wide hips, her eyebrows drawn into a scowl, "and you STAY PUT!" Xena rolled her eyes and dropped back onto the pillow letting a loud sigh escape as she did. The woman laughed silently as she left the room.
Donara waited until the effects of the medicinal tea took full effect on the warrior. Admittedly she did have to almost triple the dose to put the cranky patient to sleep, but sleep was what was needed to help the body to heal. If Xena hadn't covered her eyes with her arm silently mouthing a string of obscenities she would have noticed her benefactor's frown as she quietly pulled closed the door to the small room where Gabrielle rested.
The older woman had held back the truth in order to force the young warrior back to her own bed. The girl was not progressing as quickly as Donara felt she should. Her breathing had become more labored and the fever did not lessen despite the poultices and herbs the ancient healer had used to combat the illness. She walked slowly to the window above a small basin and pushed open the shutters. Across the moonlit snow-covered landscape she could just make out a small rise on the mostly flat ground. Memories flooded the old woman's mind and she quickly brushed a tear from her cheek. She could not let the past repeat itself.
The morning brought the promise of another storm as the clouds rolled in gray and heavy with moisture. A frigid wind blew the soft whiteness into spirals of crystal powder. The sight of it sliding like solid smoke across the wide fields chilled the very soul of the onlooker. Vast and empty, surely it was the personification of loneliness.
Donara tended the horses in the small barn, securing the heavy cloth coverings over the windows and checking the strength of the door. She filled feed barrels and pushed loose hay into the crevices near the floor to keep the creatures as warm as possible during the height of the approaching storm. The water in the trough had already turned to ice, but even that would serve as moisture for the animals. Carefully she moved her larger heavy haired team into the stable with the smaller war-horse. Together they would produce enough body heat to keep each other warm. The animals seemed calm under the old woman's ministrations. She patted each gently and offered all a small bit of sugar and pieces of dried apple. For now the weather was quiet in its promise of more snow, but she knew before the day was out the worst of nature's forces would turn on all of them. Satisfied that her stock would be safe, she pushed open the door and left with a promise to return before the storm struck.
She stopped once at the woodpile to gather a few more logs for the fire then stepped into the soft glowing warmth of her home. The cot that had been placed in front of the huge fireplace was empty. The warrior had risen. Donara had no doubt where the young woman had gone. She dropped the wood into the box at the side of the heath and pulled the heavy fur cape from her shoulders. The large kettle that hung over the fire bubbled as she reached for a large wooden spoon to stir it back into a simmer. She used her apron to shield her hand from the handle on a smaller kettle that held the water she would need to brew more strong herbal tea. The woman sighed heavily as she carried the pot to the table and set it on a small cloth. She glanced toward the door at the opposite side of her wide kitchen. It stood open a small crack. There was no way to delay what needed to be said; she could not hide the truth any longer.
Xena had risen for the first time in days without the heaviness on her chest or the throbbing pain behind her eyes. Once again the warrior's uncanny healing abilities had brought her from the brink of disaster. For the first time her senses were clear of the illness and the medications that fought them. She threw the cover off and stood in one fluid movement. Her benefactor had offered warm clothing and she quickly made use of that promise. Pulling on soft deerskin breeches and a heavy woolen tunic she tossed the shift that had been her only garment aside, then pulled on her own boots. Quickly she scanned the room in search of her weapons and found them carefully set on a large antler-hook. She made a brief examination and found them to her satisfaction. Apparently the old woman had some knowledge of caring for such items.
The warrior pushed open the door to the small room and entered softly. The minty smell and steamy air caused her eyes to sting until they adjusted to the sudden change. The fire still burned under the kettle of large stones and the steam rose from it in long tendrils. Some sort of wet greens lay across the stones, apparently the source of the mint scent that permeated the room and the warrior's senses. She moved to the side of the bed and reached down to touch the forehead of the small patient lying there. The warmth surprised her, but the deep labored breaths that set the young girl's abdomen in concave spasms alarmed her greatly. The sound that accompanied these attempts at taking breath could only be compared to the sound a distressed donkey might make. It was chilling. Although the girl seemed to be sweating profusely, she also shivered with chills. The blanket that covered her small form seemed soaked with the perspiration. The warrior turned in a half circle and found a stack of similar covers folded on a bench near the opposite wall. Several other covers hung from a line strung across the wall along side the fireplace.
"Look at you," the warrior's voice cracked with the emotion she struggled to contain. "How many times have I told you not to lie around in those wet things," she scolded playfully. "It's a darn good thing you have me here to make sure you don't do anything " she choked back a sob, remembering the frolicsome bard giggling in the midst of a mock snow-battle, "anything so foolish." Carefully the warrior lifted the saturated blanket from the girl.
"Her clothing will need changing as well," a strong gravelly voice came from behind her as Donara entered the room carrying a tray. She set it on the small table and unfolded the light linen gown that had been draped over her forearm. "Get the basin there," she nodded toward an earthen bowl set on the hearth, "fill it with warm water and bring a cloth to wash her as well. I don't know if it helps, but it seems to make her more comfortable. I've had to change her bedding two sometimes three times a day." Xena stared at the woman for a half second. Donara had already moved to the side of the bed and lifted the weakened girl into a sitting position. "Best move faster warrior, a chill now could mean her death." She pulled the soaking garment off the small body and dropped it to the floor while gently setting the girl back against the mattress.
Xena held the basin while Donara gently cleansed the sweat from Gabrielle's fevered body. Then stood in silent pain as the old woman patted her dry and slipped the new gown over her head. She instructed the warrior to dispose of the water outside, which Xena did reluctantly. The warrior had no desire to leave her bard's side again. She returned quickly.
Donara had finished her chore and stood holding a blanket out to the warrior. "Take this," she ordered as she forced it into Xena's hands. The round sturdy woman turned and easily lifted the thin girl from the mattress. If it hadn't been for the seriousness of the moment Xena would have been amazed at the matronly woman's strength. Donara turned and placed her patient into the warrior's arms, immediately wrapping the blanket over the shivering form. "Go sit near the steam, it's easier for her to breathe," the strange woman commanded as she began pulling sheets and coverings from the bed. "As long as youre here and have your strength back, you might as well serve a purpose. These things need changing as well."
Xena sat on the small stool next to the steaming kettle and blinked the sting that assaulted her eyes into fine tears. Donara watched as she continued her work. It was not difficult to see the turmoil the young warrior was experiencing. She hardened her heart not to feel it as well.
"It's hard to watch the ones you love suffer and know there's nothing in your power to prevent it," the older woman remarked as she struggled to push the mattress from the bed. It would be best to turn it over and give the girl a fresh new berth. She made the remark without looking at the two souls near the fireplace.
"But I could have stopped her I should have " Xena replied without taking her eyes from the girl on her lap. "I should have made her "
"Ha!" Donara laughed out loud as she plopped the bedding back into place, "somehow I doubt that you could have made that one do anything, warrior. That little one seems to have a mind of her own."
Xena smiled at the truth in the woman's statement. "But I should have tried, should have told her not to "
"Best not to go there," Donara warned as she tucked clean, dry sheets around the mattress. "You can't change what was, no sense fretting over it now. There is enough to do." She pulled a cushion from a chest at the foot of the bed and placed it where Gabrielle's head would rest, then turned back to the warrior with outstretched arms. "Now, let's get the little one back into bed, she's had enough excitement." Xena shook her head and hugged the girl a little closer, rocking her gently. Donara reached out and brushed the dark hair from the warrior's brow. "It won't help either of you to sit there like that, warrior." She stood back with her chubby arms folded over her chest, giving Xena a moment to digest what she had said and a moment to collect her emotions. "You know I'm right," she almost whispered.
Xena nodded, the woman was right and knew she was easing her own pain with this close contact, not the Gabrielle's. "I'll do it myself," she answered quietly, speaking more to her friend than to her benefactor. Donara moved aside and watched as the warrior carried her precious cargo back to the bed, gently lying her down and tenderly placing the blanket around her.
"Why didn't you tell me the truth?" The warrior asked without turning to face the woman. A hint of anger colored the tone in her voice.
"Would you have rested and gotten well, yourself, if I did?" The older woman countered, expertly mimicking the warrior's tone. Xena shook her head. Donara turned and poured a pitcher of pungent smelling liquid over the stones. Almost immediately the room filled with its horrific odor. "Come, warrior, we have much to discuss." She placed a hand on the Xena's arm and nodded toward the door. "Let my herbs do their job."
Xena brushed the damp hair from her little bard's forehead, staring for a moment in the hope that those green eyes would flutter open. She bent down and placed a soft kiss on the fevered brow. Again the intense heat startled the warrior. She turned reluctantly and followed Donara out of the room.
"Sit," Donara ordered as they entered the kitchen. She pulled out a chair as she passed the table to retrieve two mugs from the cupboard. "I'm sure you will hear her, should she need you." Again she spoke without turning to face the warrior as she poured tea into the mugs and then added a bit of 'spirits' from a leather flask she pulled from her pocket. She turned to find Xena pacing back and forth in front of Gabrielle's door. She shook her head as she placed the mugs on the table and sat in the chair opposite the one she had pulled from the table. She sipped the hot liquid slowly. "Please sit down, Xena," she asked in a more motherly tone. Xena looked at the woman for a moment then dropped into the chair.
"I know how you feel," the elderly woman began looking into the liquid in her mug, "I lost someone dear to me as well."
"I haven't lost her, " Xena barked immediately defensive.
Donara held up one hand, "forgive me, I did not mean to imply she was lost, only that " her words trailed away as she realized they were unnecessary.
"Gabrielle is a fighter, she won't give up, I know she won't," the warrior described the girl.
"Yes, she is stubborn and I had hoped her strength would be enough, but it has been four days and I have tried every method I know to break this fever, Xena. Nothing seems to work. I fear there is water in her lungs, and that warrior you know as well as I is "
"She will NOT die!" Xena almost leaped across the table as she held out a finger at the woman and slammed her fist against its surface with the opposite hand.
Donara sighed as she sat back seemingly undaunted by the warrior's wrath. "It was twenty years ago this season that I lost my own dear friend, warrior, and just as you I denied the fact that it was ever possible. But Etel did make her way to the other side on a night much like the one we will see end this day, stormy and cold. She was my mentor, my friend, and my family but all the willing in the world could not keep her with me."
Xena swallowed hard as the words struck home. Friend? Family? Wasn't that what she had called the little bard not so very long ago? Now this silly woman was sitting here trying to tell her that meant nothing. "There are ways," the warrior managed to explain, "other ways to relieve the sickness. It is not pleasant."
"You are a healer as well warrior?" Donara's eyebrows raised in question.
Xena rose from her seat and ran her hands through her hair. She paced again from one side of the room to the other while visions of battles and dying raced through her memory. Men, young and old, lay dead or dying around her. She barked orders to unseen compatriots in efforts to save those worth saving. She closed her eyes to block out the blood stained recollection. "I've had my share of opportunity to perfect those skills," she sighed as she let out a deep breath.
"Then you know what must be done?" Donara asked quietly. Xena nodded as tears she could no longer contain ran over her cheeks. "You know as well as I do, it is not certain it will help. You know it may kill her before it cures her." Xena nodded a second time. Donara nodded as well. "You are braver than I am, warrior, I could not bring myself to take that risk."
Xena shook her head. Was she willing to take it? Could she do this? Would it help? A small voice inside her head brought back the memory of a much sunnier day not so long ago. "Plant the seeds of doubt and that's what you reap." The bard's light voice quipped as she poked at the warrior's breast-plate. Xena recalled the young girl's courage as she spoke to the group of village elders who had serious reservations about the warrior helping restore order to their town after a massive fire had destroyed most of it. In the end the girl's gift of 'gab' won out and all was well when they had left. Now those words played over and over in the warrior's mind almost as if Gabrielle herself was telling Xena this was the right thing to do. She closed her eyes and willed away the doubt that attempted to cloud her mind. "There are things I'll need," she whispered as she lifted her head.
Donara nodded. She was familiar with the procedure the warrior planned to attempt. It was used only in the most extreme cases. Rarely had she heard of a patient that survived; yet something told her this young warrior was not about to be swayed.
"A reed, no bigger than my pinkie finger, hollow and clean," she began describing the tools she would require.
The older woman thought for a moment as she looked about her home. There was very little chance of finding such an item this time of year and nature was certainly not in the mood to allow her a valid outdoor search. She drummed her fingers on the table. A soft tinkling sound caught her attention. Donara rose and walked to the shutters that now thumped with the force of the gathering storm. She pushed one opened and stared at the ornament that dangled in the wind. Xena wrinkled her brow, wondering why the woman suddenly felt the need for such cold, fresh air. A swirl of snow flittered into the room and danced in the light air until the heat of the inside dissolved it. The woman stretched out and pulled the object from its place then turned and held it out to the warrior. "This will work," she smiled proudly. Xena raised an eyebrow. "Etel loved music any kind of music," she continued as she pulled the shutters closed and latched them securely. "Even this confounded thing," she laughed as she set the tangle of long tubes and wire on the table before the warrior. "The noise nearly drove me insane, it always made me think of water dripping into a kettle Ping! Ping! Ping! I always " the woman's voice caught for a moment and she lowered it considerably, "always threatened to burn the damn thing to put it out of its misery."
Xena picked up one long tube as wide as her sword hilt. It was tied with twine to dozens of other hardened tubes of various widths. She examined it curiously.
Donara snatched it away, held it up, and gave it a shake. The tubes clinked together, producing a variety of soft pings and plinks that to some might have been melodic. "She collected these reeds from the lake, set them in the sun and let them dry. Then she put them in some sort of resin that made them hard as rock." The woman taped one medium sized tube against the tabletop.
Xena immediately understood and took the object from her hostess. She spun it in one hand and carefully went through each reed. Choosing one that would suit her purpose she cut it from the others and held it up to the light peering through its hollow center. She brought the object to her lips and blew through it while holding one hand at the opposite end to feel the pressure of her breath as it expelled from that end. The warrior held the reed in front of her examining it from one end to the other for flaws and to be sure it was just the right length. Donara waited for the warrior's decision.
"It should work," Xena finally announced. "I'll need my knife to sharpen one end," she commented as she rubbed her finger against its blunt edge. "My medicine pouch," she said almost as if she were thinking out loud, "it's "
"Here," Donara finished for her as she hurried across the room and lifted the satchel from a wooden box against the wall. "I brought your things, all of your things, from where I found you."
Xena smiled a relieved smile. This woman was more helpful than she would ever know. It seemed she had remembered everything. The warrior could not imagine how to thank her for so much. She nodded as she took the bag and began searching through the pouches and vials inside. "I need the sharpest instrument you can find, small and thin, but at least this long," she stopped her rummaging just long enough to hold her thumb and index fingers apart demonstrating the size of the tool she would need. Donara nodded again, immediately knowing what the warrior needed and what she could provide.
The older woman crossed the room again and lifted a small box from the mantle of the large fireplace. She set it gently on the cot that Xena had been using and opened the lid. Inside were several pieces of jewelry, including a set of intricate bracelets and a necklace with a stunning cobalt blue stone at its center. From the very bottom of the box she pulled a palm-sized reddish leather scabbard. Its markings and the fringe that dangled from it were familiarly Amazon. Again Donara seemed touched by the object she held, as if it told some story or had some great meaning it did not care to share.
"Etel's?" Xena began before the woman could explain. She smiled a soft quiet smile as she slid the weapon from its sheath.
"Obsidian," Donara remarked as the warrior's eyes caught the deep black weapon with the razor sharp edge. "She won it in some gods awful contest with the most vicious woman I ever laid eyes on. She carried it every day after, said it was a measure of her success. I guess, by rights, I should have buried it with her, but " the old woman stopped and quickly brushed away a tear. "She'd get a great laugh out of me blubbering away like this. Etel never cried, never let emotion get the better of her."
Xena smiled an embarrassed smile as she took the fascinating weapon from the woman. She was sure its fine edge could split hair. It was almost as if the weapon were made of glass. "This Etel, must have been quite a warrior." Xena smiled again hoping her small attempt at comfort was helpful to the woman.
"Warrior?" Donara almost laughed as she handed the scabbard to the warrior and closed the small box. She thought for a moment then carried the chest back to its resting-place. "I suppose she could have been, but no Etel was no warrior, not by trade anyway. I was barely out of my teens when we met. Marauders from the west had killed her husband and children just as I had lost my family and everything I knew in some senseless raid. I was a hungry scared kid, she threw me a crust of bread and I followed her like a puppy dog out of that hovel of a town I had wandered into. She kind of just put up with me at first, most of the time didn't even speak to me, but somehow," she stopped as if remembering some pleasant experience then smiled brightly, "somehow, we stuck together and became more like family than the one I had lost."
Xena swallowed hard at the familiarity of the woman's story. With the exception of some small details she felt as though she had just heard her own story told in different words. "We'll need to boil these things, one small bit of dirt or dust can cause deadly infection. And we'll need plenty of bandages, beeswax, and a basin of some sort." Changing the subject seemed like the best option at this point.
Out side the wind moaned as it picked up strength and the first slivers of snow began floating to the ground. Donara picked up a large bucket and dumped water from it into the kettle she had drained in order to brew the tea that still set on the table. She hung the pot back over the fire and added a few logs to bring up the flame.
"Has she been coughing much, Donara?" The warrior asked as the woman returned to the table. She paused staring at the warrior. "Don't hold back woman, I need the truth if I'm going to save her!" Xena barked then immediately regretted her tone.
"It is dark, productive, painful to her. I've tried a tincture, but she refuses it." The older woman shook her head sadly.
"Oh, she is a stubborn one when it comes to taking her medicine, " Xena almost chuckled, "you can't give her a choice. I won't."
Donara smiled as she realized how much this warrior cared for the small girl that lay in such a weakened state beyond the door. She sighed as she realized how much the warrior tried to hide that fact. So many memories, so much similarity it was almost painful. Xena had set several packs of herbs on the table and sorted them into separate piles. "I have many herbs in the cupboard, warrior, there is no need "
The warrior held up a hand, "elecampane, horehound, thyme." She pointed out three of the packs then pointed to the others, "gui zhi, boneset, lian qiao, and huang qi."
"Cornflower and catnip," Donara finished as she lightly tapped the remaining packs. "I know most of these things, Xena, but gooey she and lion cow? Wanky? I've never heard of those herbs." The woman shook her head.
"Special gifts from Chin," the warrior answered quickly, "they promote sweating, cool fevers and give back the energy illness can steal. Most of these have to be brewed into a tincture and we'll need some ginger and "
"Peppermint?" Donara asked as she opened one cupboard to display the collection of herbs she had inside.
Xena smiled again, "we've got some work to " A deep croupy cough from the adjacent room stopped both women cold and each moved immediately toward the door.
Gabrielle's coughing spasms were interrupted only by her wheezy attempts to draw a breath between them. Donara rushed to the girl's side, propping her up and giving her more opportunity to catch what little breath she had left. In the short time the two women had spent in the outer room the patient was again soaked with perspiration. Her blonde hair appeared dark and lay flat against her forehead and cheeks. The constant battle for air across the girl's lips had left them dry and cracked. Her cheeks were drawn and pale, dark circles under her eyes gave her youthful appearance a starved expression. Xena tried not to see the signs she could not mistake. In her line of work she had seen many forms of death and dying, she was no stranger to its harbingers. She sat on the side of the bed and pulled the girl into her embrace leaning the fevered form against her own strong shoulder. She could feel the rattle in each labored breath the girl attempted. Donara stood back then turned to retrieve another set of dry clothes and the basin of cool water.
"You hang in there," the warrior whispered into the girl's sweaty hair, "and trust me, no matter what I have to do, please trust me." Xena rested her cheek against her patient's head and closed her eyes against the tremor that ran through her own soul at the extreme heat. She turned only when the older woman laid a cool hand on her forearm. Donara nodded slowly and the warrior allowed her ailing friend to lie back against her pillows. She took the cloth from the basin the woman held and wrung the rag of the cool water then set it against the girl's brow. Together Donara and a very worried warrior worked to once again change the girl and her bedding into dry comfortable coverings.
Xena stood back staring at the girl. Donara stepped next to the warrior and did the same. If this was going to be done, now was the time. If Gabrielle got weaker she would certainly not survive the radical method that was saved only for battlefield emergencies. Xena knew this. Donara knew as well.
"She's an awful little thing," the older woman remarked as if reading the warrior's mind.
'An awful strong little thing," Xena's mind answered in a hushed whisper. She turned quickly and walked from the room. Donara stood watching the warrior's exit then turned back to her young patient. The girl's breathing was more labored than it had been.
Xena stepped next to the table and took the obsidian knife in her hand, turning it back and forth. Its shiny black surface reflected the light of the fire and in it she saw also the reflection of her own eyes. This was no time for second guessing herself. She knew what had to be done and who had to do it. Everything she had asked Donara to provide, in addition to the herbs she had taken from her own medicine pouch lay neatly organized on the tabletop. She moved her fingers gently over the items as if taking a mental inventory. The warrior turned at the soft sound behind her, knowing even before turning that Donara was watching from the doorway. She wrapped her hand around the hilt of the small knife as if anchoring all of her hope on the cold feel of it against her palm. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard.
"We'll need the reed, the bandages and the wax for now," she commented as she walked past Donara without looking at the woman. Donara nodded, understanding that she would need to bring those things to the room. The older woman placed the things the warrior had mentioned in a small basin then laid several strips of bandaging over her arm before following. She was uncertain of the procedure Xena had in mind, but for some reason she trusted the younger woman's judgement. The woman hoped the warrior trusted herself as well. It seemed this small girl had some sort of pull on the strong dark warrior's heartstrings. Donara had known that same affection so many years before.
Etel had been much like this Xena. She was tall and dark-haired with alabaster skin and fascinating hazel eyes that seemed to change color with her many moods.. Etel rarely smiled, but she cared deeply for the passions of her life. Etel hid her feelings just as deeply, never wanting to feel them ripped apart again by loss. She had been a wife and a mother, but never again did she allow herself to love a man or bring another child into the world. Yet, she never had held Donara back from the wonders of the world around them. They had traveled from the damp, dismal climate of the islands north of Gaul to the much warmer sunny atmosphere of the Mediterranean. It occurred to Donara that this pair must have done some traveling themselves. They certainly weren't from the area. She would have remembered them, even if she were a bit of a recluse.
"You'll have to hold her very still," the warrior's voice called her from her thoughts.
Xena had already turned back the blanket and lifted the girl's gown exposing only her right side. The warrior flinched at the gaunt appearance of the girl's ribcage. With each ragged breath it seemed to ripple against the fevered skin covering. Donara moved to the opposite side of the bed and placed her hands against the girl's shoulders, holding her firmly against the mattress. She noticed Xena's pained expression as she gently brushed her palm across their patient's forehead.
"We've got to be quick, you can't let her move, not even the slightest twinge, " the warrior almost barked as she struggled to contain her emotion.
Donara nodded. She had heard that tone so many times. It was not difficult to follow the orders in rote fashion. Etel had been tough on her during those first few years when she was so young and reckless. Eventually they had fallen into such an even routine they barely needed to speak to each other in times of crisis. Donara would do exactly what needed to be done as if Etel's directions had been embedded in her essence. She would do the same for this young warrior. Xena looked at the knife in her hand again and slowly pressed her opposite palm against the girl's warm skin. The reed and several bandages lay on the edge of the mattress next to the girl. Donara gripped the girl's shoulders tighter and braced herself for what was to come. Xena drew a deep breath and quickly used the sharp tip of the knife to pierce the girl's skin, inserting the blade between two ribs. Gabrielle moaned a bit then let out a soft whimper as she made a weak attempt to escape the pain, but the older woman's strength was too much for the girl.
Donara was torn between her sympathy for the young girl and her fascination at the speed and agility the warrior worked. She removed the knife and slid the reed into the incision in one move, then quickly packed bandage on either side of the reed to hold it in place. For a second Donara feared the worst as the small body under her grasp went limp, but she quickly realized the girl had simply given in to the pain and lost what little was left of her consciousness. This freed her to be of more assistance helping to bandage the area properly.
Xena finally let out the breath she had taken as she watched the clear liquid drain from the hollow reed into the basin Donara had brought. Donara also let out the breath she hadn't even realized she held. A few seconds passed before the liquid began to run a bit red. Immediately, Xena placed the beeswax into the end of the reed, stopping the flow. She turned back to the girl and watched as she already seemed to breathe with slight ease. Donara noticed as well.
"It seems to have helped, Xena. Perhaps this was the best thing for her," the old woman smiled as she patted the warrior's arm.
Xena shook her head slowly as she reached for the knife. "We aren't done yet, Donara."
A few minutes later the two healers had repeated the procedure on the girl's opposite side. Xena had cringed at the pitiful sound the girl had made with the first incision. The fact that she had not even flinched at the second made her blood run cold. 'Was it too late? Had all this added pain been in vain?' The thoughts ran through her head as she placed the wax on the second reed. She wiped her hands on a damp cloth the older woman had given her. Donara had left to empty the basin. Outside the wind battered the shutters and doors. It howled as if possessed by some crazed frozen demon. Snow fell from the sky and caught the wind. It blew in thick white sheets that blinded the occupants of the small house to little more than the immediate perimeter of the woman's home.
Xena paced back and forth in the short distance between the hearth and Gabrielle's bed. She stopped only once to pour the cold melted snow on the hot rocks that still lay in the large kettle. The steam rose immediately filling the room with the now familiar smell of mint and herbs. Draining the liquid from Gabrielle's lungs had eased her breathing, but it seemed no herb in either woman's collection had the slightest effect on her fever. Xena's relief at the absence of the bubbling wheeze in the girl's chest was short lived. She moved to the side of the bed and sat on the small stool there. Laying her hand on top Gabrielle's she drew a deep breath.
"Storm's throwing everything it's got at us," Donara remarked as she walked back into the warm room, shaking the snow from the cape she had thrown over her head. She set a large wooden bucket filled with ice close to the hearth and poured what was left in the other bucket across the rocks. "I don't think I'll be able to get to the stable again until it is over. I made sure the horses are taken care of, water, feed, enough straw to keep them warm for the duration." She seemed to be rambling on as she worked replacing the herbs in the kettle with fresh stock from a small box on the table next to the fireplace. "Last year it was a week before I could get to my team, so I left extra for them. Made sure your animal was taken care of as well," she finished and turned toward the warrior only to see that her words had not been heard.
Again the memories of her own past flooded her mind. She had married in her late twenties. Her husband had built this house for them with the intention of this small space reserved for Etel. But the woman would have no part of that, saying that her traveling days were not quite through. She promised to visit and walked away. Donara had cried well into the night, frustrating the sweet young man who had taken her to his heart. She was positive she would never see her friend after that day, but she had been wrong. Etel kept her promise and returned each year when the days grew short and the temperature dropped. She brought with her stories of marvelous places and gifts of wondrous treasures. Donara had brought three strong sons into the world and one daughter. She blinked a few times as the sight of the young girl in the bed mixed with the memory of her own fair-haired child. Etel had somehow known and been there for each birth making sure each child found its way safely into the sun. Petros, her husband had always welcomed Etel as if she were family. Donara chuckled to herself, remembering her dear Petros' relief at the woman's sight when she arrived just in the nick of time. Etor, her eldest had come into the world on a night much like this, as did Ceallach her baby daughter. Each had come red-faced and squealing mightily as if they had been disturbed or rousted from a deep sleep. Angus and Jeriah had arrived when the snows were receding and the first greens of spring dotted the land. Memories of her dear little ones filled her with a warmth she had never really forgotten. The children had loved Etel as much as Donara had and as they grew she became their teacher as well as their friend. It was Etel who comforted Donara as each reached maturity and left to find their own way in the world. It was Etel who came that terribly stormy winter when Petros passed on and left the house empty and cold. It was Etel that held her hand again and kept the darkness away. It was Etel who sat by her bed and kept away the nightmares. It was Etel that stayed by her side until the day she sat much like this warrior at her friend's bedside. Donara blinked away that vision and moved to Xena's side, placing a reassuring hand on the younger woman's shoulder.
"I'll make some tea," she whispered, "and you need to eat something, warrior, you haven't had a thing all day. I think that little one will keep you very busy for some time, you'll need to keep up your own strength." Xena thought about refusing, but a small smile crossed her lips as she realized the bit of hope in Donara's voice. She nodded her answer without turning from her watch over the young girl. Donara patted her shoulder a few times before she turned away. Again the memories of Etel flooded her mind and the fact this young warrior so much mirrored her friend's ways made her doubt the bit of advice she had would do any good. "For what it's worth warrior, praying might not be a bad idea right now."
Xena spun quickly, her eyes flashed as the firelight reflected on the unspent tears. "I have no use for the gods, Donara. I do not serve them nor do I expect them to serve me." Her words were biting; wrought with her anger over a situation she could not control and the fear of what that might mean. The walls the warrior held in place to guard her emotions were growing thin; the armor she wore to protect her heart was growing heavy. Donara had seen it before; she was prepared for what would come. She nodded then quietly exited the room, knowing that for now Xena needed to be alone.
As she prepared a strong tea and a small meal of dried fruits, cheese and warm bread Donara brushed a few tears from her own cheeks. Tears for the young girl who battled for her life, tears for the young warrior who seemed to care so much for the youngster and tears for the loss of her own dear friend mingled together in the old woman's mind. She sniffed once and told herself how silly it was to cry over such nonsense, then laughed at the sound of Etel's voice in her own mind. Etel had, on more than one occasion, scolded her about crying over things she could not control. Etel had never shed a tear in all the years she had known her, well at least not that she knew. She had a strange feeling the warrior hovering over the young girl in the next room rarely let her emotions show as well. Etel had been tough on her all those years, but in her own way Donara had always felt loved and protected by her stoic companion. At the same time she knew Etel felt her love and protection as well. Etel had spent years protecting the young Donara physically, while the younger fairer woman had protected her friend emotionally. They were matched evenly and perfectly. Perhaps these two young woman were headed down that same path. For that reason she knew the young warrior would not leave the girl's side. She placed the teakettle and food on a wooden tray and carried it back to the room.
There had been no change since she left. The girl still seemed no better, but Donara told herself silently, she also did not seem worse. The warrior still sat next to the bed holding the girl's hand inside of both of her own. She stared at the shutter that had come open in the wind and thumped a steady rhythm against the windowsill. Donara set the tray on the table and crossed the room. She pushed the shutter closed and latched it securely. "I can't remember the last time the wind howled like this," she lied as she tried to force the memory of that day farther into her mind. It was the only time she had seen a tear on Etel's face, it was the last time as well. She refused to believe, then, that Etel could ever succumb to fate. She had always thought her strong friend would last forever, but time and age had caught up with the strong woman Donara had met on the rainy moors one lonely tragic day. Her dark hair had faded to a fine silver, but her eyes had never lost that spark. She had lain on this same bed, next to this same hearth, with that same wind howling outside. Donara remembered her own vigil on that small stool and the soft words of comfort she spoke to her friend. She had thanked Etel for everything, the good and the not so good she had let her experience, the lessons she taught her, even the ones that hurt, but mostly for the love she had always shown her. That was when she saw the lone tear escaped from the strong woman's eye and rolled slowly over her cheek. Etel had squeezed her hand once and then she was gone. Donara again wiped the tears from her own eyes and took a deep breath. She poured the tea into a mug and offered to the warrior.
Xena took the offering and after one small sip, set it on the floor next to her foot. Donara realized the warrior had only done that in order to avoid arguing with her. She shook her head. "Etel and I traveled to many lands before I settled here," she began telling a story she was sure the warrior would not hear, but surprisingly Xena turned and appeared to listen. Donara swallowed a sip of her own tea and continued, "in all of those places we saw many things that were new and exciting and I tried a bit of it all, the food, the wines, the customs." She smiled and the warrior lifted her mug from the floor to her lips again. She reached for a bit of food as well and Donara seemed pleased by this action. "The one thing I found most fascinating was that each group of people seemed to worship some sort of deity as if they all seemed to need something bigger than themselves."
Xena looked back to the girl who suddenly began coughing. She held the girl's shoulders to keep her from disturbing the reeds that were still held in place by the bandaging. When the spasm ceased, she carefully removed the beeswax from one reed and allowed the clear fluid to once again drain from the girl's lung, then repeated the procedure on the opposite side. "Do you really believe that something bigger than we are, would allow a girl like this to suffer so much?" she whispered through her teeth. "Gabrielle is the sweetest, kindest, most innocent thing I have in my life," she paused for a moment gathering her emotions back into their well armored hole. "Yet it always seems that she is the one who is punished when when " Xena's voice cracked for a second before she brought it back under control, "when I deserve it so much more," she finished in a voice that was barely audible.
"There are those who would say that is not your decision to make, Xena," Donara commented quietly.
"Hphmf!" was the only answer the warrior could muster as she fell back onto the stool and ran both hands through her hair. "There must be something else, something we haven't tried. Her breathing is much easier, but this damn fever. We have to break it."
"The fever is burning away the infection," Donara reminded the warrior half-heartedly. The old woman knew the fever had lasted much too long for that and was much too high to be advantageous. She feared that even if the girl survived she would suffer from what was commonly called 'brain fever', leaving her simple and child-like for the rest of her days. For a moment the only sounds in the room were the crackling of the fire and the raspy breathing of the girl on the bed. "I met a man when I was much younger that had lost everything, yet he still prayed to his god," she continued on the subject she had started. "I asked him why. He said that faith was the only thing that could not be taken away, that it was the only thing he had to hold on to and the only thing that comforted him. Everyone thought he was a bit crazy."
Xena laughed under her breath, "everyone was probably right."
"Maybe," Donara answered as she wet a rag and wiped Gabrielle's brow, "but if you really consider it, warrior, there is little to lose and everything to gain." Xena wrinkled her forehead. Donara explained, "this man believed there was but one true God that listened and answered his prayers. He pointed out that the answer wasn't always yes, but in the end it was what was best. If he was right then there is a great and powerful force that looks over all of mankind, protects it, just as a father loves his children. If he was wrong then you would not be any less than you are now if you asked this one true God for help." She shrugged her shoulders at her explanation. "Sometimes, warrior it is pride that is the only thing that stands in the way of truth. We all have to be strong enough to admit that."
Xena looked again at the small form in the bed. Gabrielle would like this woman. She could hear them both chattering on and on about the trails of mankind. Gabrielle would spend hours getting Donara to tell her everything about everyplace this woman had ever seen or ever thought about seeing. Gabrielle would believe every word and agree wholeheartedly with the matron. If only if only she'd be given that chance.
"I think I'll brew some boneset and yarrow into a tincture. I'll try some elderberry this time and make it a bit stronger. There is a danger of causing vomiting but when my children were small it always seemed to help bring down high fevers," she folded the damp towel across the girl's forehead and stepped toward the door. Xena nodded as she left.
The warrior took the warm hand into her own and rubbed her thumb across the back of the small fingers. "You know, Gabrielle, I should be mad at you. Right about now I should be giving you a lecture on how you really ought to listen when I tell you to get on the horse so we can get where we are going on time. Oh I know you'd have at least twenty reasons for why you shouldn't, but this time you'd have to hear me out. Right now right now I " Xena's words faded away as her tears finally broke free and she held the girl's hand against her cheek. She closed her eyes and let out a deep breath, drawing one just as deeply to replace it. "Please," she whispered hoarsely, "I don't know what else to do. Show me the way. Help me to help her. Please." It wasn't much of a prayer, if it could even be called a prayer, but it was all she could think to ask. Physically and emotionally exhausted, Xena laid her head on the girl's hand and closed her eyes in sleep.
Donara stood in the doorway for a moment reliving that night so long ago when she had said goodbye to Etel. It had been so long since she had thought about that night. So long since she had allowed that empty place in her heart to bump against reality. Yes, she missed her dear sweet Petros. The fact that her little ones had grown up so quickly and set off on their ways in the world left her feeling a strange happy sort of sad, the loss of Etel was much deeper and still ached as if it had been just yesterday. She often felt guilty over these feelings, but Etel had been so much a part of her life that it seemed as if she had lost a part of herself when the older woman lost her battle to the fates. Petros had been her one true love and the feeling she had for him still burned fresh in her heart. He was strong and loving, passionate and romantic. Even in his last years when her hair had turned silver and her skin turned to soft wrinkles he still referred to her as his young lady. She giggled recalling his pet name for her. She could not imagine another man ever taking the place of her strong silent Petros. Her sons had been strong and tall just as their father, with his same dark eyes and ringlets of auburn hair. They had his hardy laugh and wondrous sense of humor as well as his deep sense of honor.
The elderly woman moved to clean the table and counters of the vials and containers she and the young warrior had used earlier. The wind outside still howled and she fretted over the condition of the horses and other animals in the stable but it would not be wise to leave the safety of the house during the height of the storm. She would have to have faith that what she had already done for them was enough. The herbs on the stones would need to be replaced soon, their potency having been expended. She walked slowly to a small door on the opposite side of her cozy kitchen and pulled it open. She took a lantern from the wall and stepped into the dark interior of the dry dirt cellar Petros had built for her many years before. She chose the herbs carefully and for a moment remembered the fair-haired little girl had had asked far too many questions for her years. Again the memory of that little one blurred with the vision of the frail young girl that had become her patient. Ceallach had been only a few years older than Gabrielle when she became a bride and followed her young husband to the warmer climates in the south. She had sent a few letters but getting word this far north was difficult. Oh, there had been promises of visits and news of grandchildren, but the years sped quickly and just as she had left her homeland in search of the wide world and all of its wonder she was sure her children had done the same. She stepped out of the cellar quickly, hoping to leave her thoughts behind. It had been so very long since she had let any of these things into her mind or her heart and yet since these two strangers had come she could not stop the flood of memories that plagued her. 'Perhaps,' she thought to herself, 'I should put my mind to work on other things there must be some way to break that little one's fever there has to be something else and that warrior is going to have to eat something more that a few pieces of dried fruit and a slice of cheese not quite well herself I suppose I could drag that cot into the girl's room and force her to rest oh, she'll give up a good fight doesn't think I can handle a warrior humpf!" Her thoughts ran together randomly as she pulled ingredients from jugs and barrels to prepare a thick stew and warm bread for a much better supper than that lunch they had shared.
Xena slept fitfully, her cheek resting against her forearm that remained on the bed. Convoluted dreams spun through her unconscious, weaving the certainties of reality with the ramblings of imagination. Snow fell around her in swirls that quickly grew into drifts. Gabrielle's voice called from the distance, weak and desperate. A wall of fire burned at the edge of the snow banks preventing her from reaching the young bard who seemed to be calling from the other side. No matter how far she walked in either direction the firewall continued while the snow fell in a steady silent rhythm. "Why doesn't the snow stop the fire? The snow should put it out." Xena chanted over and over as Gabrielle's voice grew weaker. Donara stood in the midst of the swirling snow, her form almost obliterated by its intensity. She reached out hand and said in a calm voice, "it's right here warrior, we just can't see it " In this dream world, Xena frowned at the woman and reached out into the flame hoping to pull Gabrielle to safety. Her hand closed around the familiar feeling of the girl's Gabrielle's voice screamed, "NOOOOO!!" In the dream world Xena released her hold. In reality she sprang upright, shaking with the remnants of that dream for a moment before realizing the girl before her was sitting upright staring wild-eyed into space. Her voice, that was no more than a hoarse whisper, begging for protection from some unseen demon.
In the swirling misty fog that surrounded her, Gabrielle sensed the approach of the beasts before she heard them. Somehow she knew they were close, snarling silently with pristine white fangs exposed to their full extent. She shivered and reached behind to feel the rough bark of a large tree, not the sensation she had hoped to find. Something was missing, something that had been there only a moment ago but had disappeared as swiftly as a soft sigh. She shook her head trying to remember just what it was she had hoped to find but the danger that lurked just beyond the edge of her vision pulled her thoughts away. She moved slowly, keeping her back to the trees as the fear within her slowly rose to panic. She was alone in the dark confusion, alone with neither weapon nor means of escape. The soft growl of the yellow-eyed beasts seemed louder closer fiercer than it had been a moment ago. 'A moment ago,' she thought, 'I only blinked my eyes and now everything is changed, the world everyone, everything is gone. A moment in time makes such a difference ' She stopped suddenly, face to face with the fangs of the she-wolf, its lips curled back, its tongue flicking devilishly over its muzzle. Dots of red spotted its gray-white coat and lined the edge of its wide jaw. The fur on its seemingly long legs was crimson with sticky residue fresh kill. She stared at the beast for a second before backing slowly away, only to sense the rest of the pack lurking where the rough tree line had been only a moment ago. The fear inside her formed a hot ball and threatened to strangle her, freeze her where she stood. Something told her to run and something told her that would be futile. The large animal sat back on its haunches, relaxing its jaws and panting heavily, giving the impression that it might be laughing at the girl cowering in its presence. Behind her the pack mimicked the alpha-wolf's stance, until she could almost hear their baneful chortling choir. The large white creature cast a glance to the left almost daring the girl to follow its gaze. She didn't want to look. She knew it wasn't something she wanted to see. She knew it sealed her fate, but she could not resist the pull of this strange place. The fog lifted slowly, revealing the form that lay prone in the dirt next to the primeval hunter. The soil that should have been dark brown or even black was stained red as the form's life force drained across the earth. A shining silver and gold disk lay flat in the reddish brown puddle, slowly sinking from her view. Dark hair, matted and dirty, hid the face she tried to form from memory. A long black whip lay strung out like some slick snake that had become the fodder of the birds of prey, a chalk white hand still clung to its handle. Moments moments in time slipped past her mind, time and space swirled in and out of memory the memory of a strong warrior pushing her behind and snapping that whip at the beasts that threatened to kill anything in their path. Safety safety slipped away moments in time scattered and reassembled randomly, tossing her memories aside safety no longer existed. The girl fell to her knees as recognition and recall crashed loudly in her mind. The form before her personified and its name whispered across the silence of the dense forest. She covered her eyes with both hands covered them to block out the moment the moment of recognition the moment of her own fate the moment the pack descended the last moment "NOOOOO!"
Donara had been lost in her own dream as she stood staring into the whiteness that had become the world. It was so odd that even through the storm she could still see the stone marker she had used all of her strength to place on Etel's resting-place. Even more strange was that Petros' place was but a few meters away, the stone there much larger, and yet she could not make it out in the ever increasing wrath of the storm. She shivered a bit, watching as the cold wet substance piled up around the stark outline of trees and darker shapes that had to be large stones in the meadow. Yet Etel's marker seemed free of the onslaught. She blinked a few times and rubbed her eyes. "Guess these old eyes are playing tricks on me," she tsked, "or the snow itself is a trickster." When she looked again there was only the blinding whiteness of the snow across the landscape. 'What was it Etel had always said about the wintry weather in these parts?' Donara thought to herself as she continued to watch the snow fall. She placed a few vials back on the shelf and turned away from hole in the shutter. 'The only thing this stuff is good for is keeping food from spoiling and and ' She turned abruptly as the girl's scream shattered her thoughts.
Xena leapt to her feet, knocking the small stool that had been her seat back and across the floor. Donara narrowly missed tumbling over it as she hurried into the room. On the bed Gabrielle stared wild-eyed, seeing neither the kindly old woman nor her worried friend, but some frenzied fever-dream that tore at her very soul. The girl flailed, frantically pushing both of the healers away as quickly as they tried to restrain her. It was as though she had summoned renewed strength in order to fight them off. Donara hushed and cooed motherly as she gently reached for Gabrielle's wrists and held them tightly. The girl's thrashing would certainly cause the makeshift drains the warrior had placed in her ribcage to pull free or even worse to snap and surely kill her. Donara had worked much too hard to allow the child to succumb to such a fate. She looked into the deep green eyes that were not looking back and again tried to offer comfort and reassurance. At the same time she could still feel the heat in the girl's arms and see the flush on her cheeks. Fever dreams were the first sign of what she had feared from the beginning. 'Fever,' Etel's voice seemed to speak inside her head, 'if you could bottle this stuff it would be a great fever cure.'
Xena took only a second to recover from the shock and the relief that Gabrielle had come back from whatever dark place had held her all this time. She found herself merely staring as Donara coaxed and pleaded with the girl to calm down, to be still, to relax and let her help. She almost laughed at the portly woman's attempt to control her little spitfire companion. Enough was enough; the large warrior reached past the struggling bard, around Donara's hands and took the girl's face between her large callused palms. She turned the girl's face until their eyes met, then shook her firmly but carefully. "Gabrielle," her voice was resolute, no nonsense. The girl's eyes darted away from the sound as she forced her weakened voice to resist. She tried desperately to turn away, but the warrior held her fast. "GABRIELLE," Xena's voice boomed in the small room causing both other occupants to freeze. "Gabrielle, that's enough, stop! Stop it, now!" She commanded in a voice that told Donara she had practiced experience in giving orders that were to be followed to the letter. The older woman marveled at how the warrior's voice held its authority as tears coursed in a continuous stream over her cheeks. The girl struggled with less intensity, almost as if she were trying to get in the last word. "ENOUGH!" The warrior's voice demanded with finality and the child's body went limp in compliance. She blinked a few times as if her wild eyes were pushing away the phantoms and piercing the veil of fevered panic.
A sudden gust of wind thrust the shutters in the small room wide open. The snow held back by the tiny shield rushed into the room with fury, as if it were itself trying to escape the squall on the other side. Donara released the girl's wrists and turned quickly, using all that remained of her strength to push the small wooden doors shut against the gale. The white powdery precipitation made its way into the room falling like crystals on the dark carpet then quickly turning to sparkly droplets of water. The breeze carried some the flakes across the room. They drifted slowly through the warmer air landing on the long lashes and damped bangs of the exhausted patient.
Donara slammed the shutter tightly then turned and watched silently as the warrior brushed the bits of white from her small companion. 'Snow ' she thought in Etel's voice 'snow is the answer.' "Snow SNOW is the answer! Warrior, that's the answer. Oh why didn't I think of it earlier!?" The older woman clapped her hands in front of her and almost danced back to the bed.
Xena moved slowly and carefully, checking Gabrielle's ribs and silently thanking whatever force had kept the drains from causing damage to the girl in her convulsive state. She had looked into those soft compassionate eyes and seen that her young friend was still there, still begging for her help. She felt powerless in the wake of this illness. She had exhausted every means of cure she had known and still the girl's fever raged. Even the white powder that the mystics had made from willow bark could not defeat this monster. She gazed at the girl who now seemed lost between the panic of her dream and the safety of her hope. What was this crazed woman before her rattling on about snow? She looked up at Donara's excited grin.
"Snow?" The warrior squinted in confusion.
"SNOW!" Donara repeated. "Snow is cold and we have so much of it!" She spread her arms wide. "We'll have to wrap it in some cloth or it can cause some terrible burning, but it will work. It will work warrior! It is the answer!" She clapped her hands together bringing them prayer-like under her chin and smiled broadly.
Xena shook her head, afraid that somehow the woman had contracted the same fever (or the effects of it) that plagued Gabrielle.
"Come," she motioned with her arm, then just as suddenly held up a hand to stop the warrior, "no, no you stay with Gabrielle, just in case she seems to follow your orders so much better," Donara spoke rapidly, jumping from one subject to another. "You will have to tell me just where you learned to command like that." She narrowed her eyes at the warrior as she snatched a bucket and headed for the door. Xena grabbed her arm as she passed.
"What in Tartarus are you talking about?" She tried to hold on to what was left of her patience. There was a slight chance that Gabrielle could hear everything and when she was well there was really no sense in listening to the girl scold her about manners and respect for her elders.
"Snow!" The woman repeated again as if the warrior was simple and could not understand the word or the concept.
Xena let out a deep breath and rolled her eyes, "snow is the answer." Donara nodded quickly. The warrior closed her eyes and tried to remain calm. She shook her head, "what is the question?"
It was Donara's turn to be dumbfounded. She went slack for a second then huffed, slightly disgusted. "The fever," her eyebrows went high as her eyes opened wide. For a moment the older woman looked more like a child explaining something some adult had managed to overlook. She nodded toward Gabrielle. "To bring it down, to cool her off," she finished matter-of-factly.
Xena took a moment to let this idea rest in her mind. Her head was shaking before the concept found a comfortable spot. "No. No, Donara, the cold will make it worse."
Donara stared into the steel blue eyes of the warrior before her. She rested her hand on the younger woman's wrist and squeezed gently, "it will work, Xena," she almost whispered. "Trust me, it is the only thing we have left," she cast a quick glance over her shoulder at Gabrielle, " perhaps her only chance."
The warrior shook her head imagining the small girl buried in the cold whiteness like some spoiled princess's tossed aside doll. The vivid memory of her brother's cold white form as the mason placed the stone across his tomb sprang from some deep dark memory. The pain of that loss crashed against the warrior's heart with the same ferocity it had when she witnessed the event. The small tender spot that only her younger brother's love had touched had died in that moment and the beast that grew in its place had brought more evil to the world than a thousand demons. Only this little sprite's unconditional love had tamed that beast and found its way back to that small tender place in her heart. To loose Gabrielle would be more than the warrior could take; the beast would certainly be released with more fury than it had ever known. "You can't just bury her in it," she spoke softly in a voice the older woman barely heard.
"Bury her?" Donara took the warrior's face into her hands, just as she had seen Xena do with Gabrielle minutes before. "No, sweetheart, no." She pulled the worried head down to her lips and placed a gentle kiss there. "No, Xena there are places on a body that hold warmth, that radiate it. If we were to keep those places cool we might just break the hold this demon fever has on the child."
Xena rested her forehead against this ancient woman, who, it seemed, had seen more of the world than even the great Warrior Princess had seen. She felt the calm resolve the woman radiated, a security that comes only with the experience of age. Donara was confident in her scheme, she truly believed it would, could work. The small girl that now seemed even smaller had told her that it was important to believe in yourself, that you can do anything if you truly believe you could. How many times had that little imp told her to have faith? She had faith; its name was Gabrielle. And now it was time to put that faith in the wizened hands of this plump little woman.
The warrior closed her eyes and swallowed hard. She nodded slowly as she let out the breath she had not realized she was holding.
Using only the strands of imagination and shear willpower, Xena and Donara stuffed thick swatches of lambs' wool with hands full of the clean cold powder, forming several makeshift icepacks. The packs were easily stored since they could be placed immediately outside the door until needed. The soft wool provided a comfortable shield against the girl's skin, while at the same time allowing just enough of the cold to seep through slowly. Donara held four packs back from the outside storage area and fashioned one last smaller and flatter pack. She explained to the now responsive warrior that the larger packs should be placed in the heat centers of the patient's body. "Place one beneath each of the arms and one at the base of her skull, just in that spot at the back of the neck." The old woman spoke with certainty and the young warrior nodded in agreement, immediately understanding what to do. "The fourth should be placed," the older woman stopped and turned a deep shade of red as she searched her mind for the most delicate way to phrase her next words. 'But we are not concerned with such childish nonsense she told herself, this is to save a life. Words are not important now, action is ' Xena laid one hand on the fourth pack and held the first three in the other as she waited for her instructions. "Placed," Donara shook off her momentary embarrassment, "betwixt her legs at the " The warrior raised one hand in understanding, silently protecting her young friend's modesty yet knowing it would be necessary to help her through this nightmare disease. Donara stopped mid-sentence thankful for the warrior's quick as well as silent comprehension. "The last one, the smallest one is for her forehead." She finished as she took the last pack in her hands and turned toward the girl's room.
A few minutes later all of the packs had been put in place, the fire dampened and the shutters opened enough to let in a bit of a breeze yet to hold out most of the storm. Xena had used a heavy piece of twine to bind the handles on the small doors giving them enough play to do so. Donara poured a dipper full of water over the heated rocks and the warm steam caused a strange fog to fill the chilly room. Xena struggled to stifle a shiver as the room's temperature dropped. Silently she prayed, although she would deny the thought was in fact prayer, that this was the right thing to do.
"We must be vigilant now, warrior." Donara remarked quietly as she checked the packs and pulled a light cover over her patient. "We must keep her cool without letting her catch a chill," she warned, "and as the packs melt we cannot let the bedclothes become soaked. As warm as she is they will melt quickly, but as they do their work the process with grow slower." The older woman could not help notice the look of worry on the warrior's brow. She prayed silently to every deity that she had ever known, begging them to protect both of the young women that had become her concern. Donara moved close to Gabrielle's side and gently moved a few strands of hair that had fallen across the girl's cheek. She pulled her stool close and settled down upon it, making herself comfortable for what would certainly be a long night.
"Now," she began, speaking to the girl in the bed, "you see here, young lady." She didn't raise her eyes to the warrior at the opposite side of the bed, but she knew that in speaking to her small patient she would reach both young travelers. "You have caused quite enough ruckus for one small girl and for one damned winter. Your Xena and I have gone through a lot of trouble to bring you here and chase away this fever and I am very sure that she will be just as irritated as I am going to be if you don't start cooperating." The woman's voice took on a scolding tone but the gentle touch she placed with the back of her hand against Gabrielle's cheek betrayed her true feelings. "The three of us are going to sit right here and keep you just as cool as a spring breeze until you do just that, little one. And don't you even think of traipsing across to the other side just yet or I'll have my own warrior friend kick your little Greek butt right back across the Styx and believe me she will leave a boot-print you won't soon forget." She sat back and crossed her arms over her bosom, jerking her chin toward her chest in a final gesture of fact.
Xena slowly lowered herself onto the stool on her side of Gabrielle's bed. She pictured the expression on the girl's face if she had been lucid enough to hear the old woman's threat. "You listen to her Gabrielle, she has a lot to teach and if what she tells me about this Etel is more than just the same way you tend to exaggerate warrior prowess then she is quite a force to reckon with." The warrior slipped her hand under the smaller hand that lay against the mattress, "you just squeeze if you need a pull to make it all the way back. I'll be right here."
Donara smiled and for the first time in many years felt as if her own strong friend were standing just as close. Etel's presence in the small room was so eerie that the older woman turned, half expecting to see the tall woman leaning against the wall. She shuddered with the sense of it. This was where they too had made their last stand and although Etel had, perhaps lost the battle, Donara's faith in her had sustained the ensuing years. The packs would need to be changed very soon. She rose, slowly heading for the door and giving the warrior a bit of time to spend with the girl. She knew how important that time would be.
Minutes slipped away into hours and the hours ate away the daylight. The storm howled outside, rattling the cabin as some huge beast might do in an effort to capture elusive prey. Warrior and matron alternately replaced frozen lamb skin snow packs, checking their patient for the slightest change. Darkness swallowed time but one candle illuminated the small room. It flickered and danced in the cold whisper of air that sniffed like a hunger mongrel around the chamber. Both healers were forced eventually to don heavy cloaks to ward off the chill, but the girl's fever refused to loosen its deathly grip on its victim. Midnight came and went unnoticed in the small room and as the last of the vicious storm wound its way into little more than a frosty breeze Donara lost a battle to hold open her heavy eye lids. The woman rested against the wall near the head of the bed, still seated on the small stool. She pulled a heavy blanket around her shoulders and yowled a catlike yawn. She pulled her head back quickly and blinked away the sleep that grew more and more underhanded in its attempt to conquer her.
"Sleep, Donara." Xena's husky voice pierced the semi-darkness of the room. "You've worked hard, you deserve it. I'll keep watch." The older woman hadn't realized she had catnapped long enough for the warrior to once again change the cold packing. The warrior stood over the girl, one hand resting against her brow. Her shoulder's slumped in the same defeat that clouded her voice. Donara brushed a tear from her own eye and struggled to rise with the heavy cover hindering her progress. "Please, Donara " the young warrior's voice again called to the woman, "do as I ask. I don't think I have the strength to nurse the both of you." The woman rested back under her cover, nodding in resignation. A moment later Xena detected the soft snoring sound from the elderly healer. She pulled her own cloak around herself as she sat down on the stool and once again took Gabrielle's small hand in her own.
A day without rest and very little to eat, a night of vigilance, the combination of chill and strong herbs took its toll on the still recuperating warrior. She hadn't even realized that her eyes had closed, but the strong hand of Morpheus pulled her into his embrace. Exhaustion took her as its captive and sleep became her prison. She drifted away on a sigh in a dreamless black pit of nothingness. She could have stayed in that place for eternity, it was void of anger, of fear, of hurt and of loss, but something tugged at her. Something however faint, however weak, was pulling her away from this rest. She climbed reluctantly back to the edge of this peaceful darkness and as the faint rim of light formed on this surreal horizon she watched a small pale hand close tightly around her own. Suddenly the darkness was the reality of the room and the light a combination of a small candle and an even smaller fire in the hearth. Xena continued to watch as the hands closed around each other, afraid to turn away as the dream might end too soon.
"Xena " a small voice croaked in a cracked whisper.
The warrior turned slowly, allowing her eyes to follow the line of the arm attached to the hand until it met the shoulder and then to the chin of the small pinkish face. She closed her eyes, afraid again to not see what she thought she had heard. Part of her dream? Perhaps, but mostly part of her hope.
"Xena I " the voice was weak and forced, almost unrecognizably choked with the recent illness.
Xena swallowed hard and looked into the red rimmed, tear-filled eyes of the girl that had been lost in fever sleep for far too long. Even in this state Gabrielle managed a weak smile. The warrior's breath caught as she realized the validity of her wish come true. She squeezed the hand she still held in her own and brought it up quickly to her cheek. It was cool to the touch. She dropped it to the mattress and quickly placed both hands on the girl's cheeks and the sides of her cooled neck. She rested her lips against her friend's forehead, assuring herself that the cruel heat that threatened to claim the girl had been defeated. That final check turned to a soft kiss as she sat back allowing the tears of relief to fall freely.
Gabrielle reached out with a shaky hand to brush away a tear that ran over the warrior's cheek. "I'm sorry," she whispered, "I'm so very sorry." Each word was forced and barely audible as if the girl had to consider every syllable and how it was formed before she found the energy to push the small sound forward. Gabrielle realized she had caused the worry that crossed her friend's brow. She desperately tried to fight this cursed fatigue in order to let Xena know she was truly sorry for doing so.
"Shhh," Xena comforted her as she took the hand once again and pressed it against her cheek. "You're okay now, shhh." Her own voice was little more than a whisper as all efforts went to containing her emotions. The warrior wanted nothing more than to snatch the small form from the bed and hold her as close to her heart as possible, but for now everyone needed rest. Besides words really weren't necessary now, misty blue eyes met glistening green in perfect understanding. Each friend breathed a whispered breath of relief as they acknowledged the other was safe and close by. Gabrielle squeezed the warrior's hand with the little bit of strength she managed to find in her weakened limbs. The girl shook with a slight shiver, that caused the warrior immediate alarm. Carefully and quickly Xena removed the still cold but slightly sodden packs from the places they had done their work and dropped them into the bucket that stood next to her stool. She pulled the light blanket from the girl and replaced it with a heavier covering, tucking it under the girl's chin as a mother would tuck in her child against the chills of the night, smiling at the sleepy girl beneath it. The warrior padded silently across the room and pushed the small shutters fully closed then stopped to tuck a second blanket over the small woman that still slept slouched against the wall.
She moved back to her place at Gabrielle's side and rested her head against the mattress, close to the girl's. Gabrielle in turned rested her head against Xena's and for the first time in more nights than had been counted they slept peacefully. As the first rays of dawn peeked through the cracks of the battered shutters an elderly woman smiled softly at the sight before her.
Before the sun rose on the second day, a very hoarse Gabrielle was chattering endlessly with Donara swapping warrior friend stories and giggles at their expense. She surprised Xena with the string of obscenities she howled as the warrior and the matron simultaneously removed the reeds from her ribs. Donara chuckled as she raised her eyes to meet the girl's and remarked that she had some strong soap that had worked in curing her own brood of that syllabic malady. Xena's warning was merely the silent raising of that one eyebrow as cloud of threat crossed her eyes, it said volumes more than the older woman's jest. Gabrielle quickly clapped both hands over her mouth and remained silent throughout the quick stitching of her small wounds. Xena patted her shoulder when the procedure was over and smiled. "We'll just chalk it up to a holdover from the fever and the shock of the extraction." Gabrielle nodded quickly as the warrior bent closer and whispered in her ear, "but next time you just keep in mind what your mother might do and multiply it by warrior." Xena rose, patted the girl's shoulder gently and winked around a very strange smile. Gabrielle smiled back. The warrior's gentle teasing did wonders to speed her recovery. Donara saw it as well and as the girl grew stronger (and hungrier) she could not help reliving the best of times she and Etel had spent so very long ago.
"Tell me more about Etel, please," Gabrielle begged as the portly matron tucked her under a heavy blanket and reached for a cup of strong broth that both older women insisted would help make her feel much stronger. Gabrielle was beginning to doubt that fact since the rather bitter liquid rarely stayed down long enough to do much good. That was usually followed by a dose of that horrid tea Xena brewed for queasy tummies. The girl suggested that perhaps a bit more solid food might be more sensible. Xena shook her head, but Donara sneaked a few pieces of warm brown bread in between doses of broth and tea that the girl managed to keep down without a problem.
"Well," Donara smiled as she watched the girl nibble on the last bit of crust. She looked for all the world like a mouse trying to make the last scrap of food last as long as possible. "If Etel were here, she'd be like a wild banshee if she knew I was giving you bread instead of broth." The last of the old woman's statement fell into a low whisper, just in case the warrior was close enough to hear.
"Did Etel have any children?" Gabrielle asked, wrinkling her nose in wonder. It seemed that Xena could be a descendant, or at least a close relative. "Did she ever visit the northeastern part of Greece?"
Donara laughed in her throat and quickly brushed the dark crumbs from the girl's dressing gown and blanket. "No, love, she had no children that survived to adulthood, but I've noticed the similarities as well."
"Not even one?" Gabrielle asked, pointing to the crumbs near the side of bed. Xena didn't miss much.
The older woman shook her head, remembering the many times Etel had mumbled or moaned in restless dreams the names of the family she had lost. She remembered too the many times she had tried to get her friend to talk about that lost family, but Etel took her memories to the grave with her. Despite their closeness, she never shared her pain with Donara. "And she never spoke of those she lost," she assured the curious young girl.
Gabrielle laid back against her many pillows and pouted as Donara turned and pulled the shutters closed then turned back and tucked the blanket under her chin. Sure signs that her 'mothers' intention was to see she tool yet another nap. "You know," she began in a voice dripping with innocence, "I'm not the least bit tired today. Maybe I could take a little walk and get some exercise in these stiff joints of mine." She finished with a grimace and a quick toss of the blanket off the bed.
"Oh, no, no my little bird " Donara tsked as she gently pushed the girl back and readjusted the blanket. "Xena intends to remove those stitches this evening and you need to get as much rest as possible today. Perhaps tomorrow," she almost laughed at the crestfallen look on the girl's face, "or the next day." Gabrielle closed her eyes and let out a sound that was part frustrated whine and part defeated sob. Donara ruffled her hair then pointed a finger close to her nose. "Sleep!" She commanded, " and no arguments, I'll be right outside.
The girl let an exasperated sigh flutter across her lips and crossed her arms over her chest. These big bullies could make her stay in bed, but they couldn't make her sleep. She stifled a yawn and blinked her eyes several times before drifting off despite her efforts. Donara smiled when, a few minutes later, she peeked through the slightly open door to see her patient sound asleep. If Gabrielle had not lost her battle with Morpheus she would have noticed the woman breathe heavily and wipe a light sheen of sweat from her brow before turning back to her chores.
The storm that had been the start of all this had come late in the season and as the sun's rays grew stronger the mountains of white grew smaller. Within the week, Xena was able to exercise her steed and to find fresh venison as well as fat snowshoe rabbit to fill the larder of the woman they had to thank for their lives. As the snows melted, Gabrielle healed and grew stronger. Donara found it more and more difficult to keep the headstrong girl in bed when the warrior left on her hunting or drilling excursions, but had to stifle a laugh when she dove back under its cover as soon as she detected the sound of the large warhorse's hooves. She suspected the young warrior was not fooled by the ruse. By the time the first greens of spring peeked through the patches of white the girl's gauntness was replaced with the rosy glow of youth. Her deep croaky voice that for some reason brought great amusement to the older women, gradually dissolved into the higher pitched lilt that brought her stories to life. Donara sat many nights enraptured by the tales of adventure the youngster was able to weave, but even as she delighted in Gabrielle's swift and complete recovery she secreted regretted the fact that soon her visitors would leave and once again she would be left to her solitary existence. She pulled the shawl she had taken to wearing nightly closer around her shoulders and asked the girl to put a few more logs on the hearth before she turned in for the night. She stifled the cough in her chest turning it quickly into little more than clearing her throat.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice broke the dark silence of the night.
"Hmmm?" the warrior answered groggily from the opposite side of the room. She had gone to bed earlier, not wishing to be embarrassed again by the girl's tales of heroism.
"We're leaving soon aren't we?" She had already sensed the warrior's growing uneasiness at being in one place for much too long. She knew they had only stayed this long because Xena wanted to be sure she had thoroughly gotten past that horrid misadventure in the snow.
"Mmm, hmm " Xena affirmed the girl's thought as she wriggled into a more comfortable position and pulled her blanket closer around herself.
"Xena?" Gabrielle apparently was not as tired as her warrior friend.
"Mmmm " Xena answered again, a slight annoyance growing in her non-syllabic reply.
"Do you really think it's safe to leave an old lady like Donara out here all by herself?" She lowered her voice just in case the woman was listening.
"She'll be fine, she's used to it," Xena mumbled as if her tongue had suddenly gone numb. For a moment there was silence and the warrior half hoped the girl had exhausted her inquiry and had found sleep. But even if she did, the seed had been planted and as the girl's soft steady breathing told the warrior she had drifted to sleep, Xena knew she would not find the same pleasure. She spent the rest of the night fretting over the fact that soon they would leave the older woman alone in this solitary valley.
Xena pulled herself from the comfort of her mattress just before sunrise. She resisted the temptation to roust the bard that had made such short work of her rest the night before, but stopped when she looked upon the soft sleep of innocence. She retrieved her armor and exited the room without a sound. The warrior was surprised to find Donara still seated in the large rocking chair before the hearth and even more surprised to see that the woman had let the fire burn down to but a few blinking blue and white coals. Xena stepped past Donara noticing the odd angle at which the woman's chin rested on her chest. She placed a few logs on the embers and blew life back into the fire. A few moments later it threw a soft light on the main room of the cabin. Xena turned back to verify what she already knew to be true. Xena knelt in front of Donara and smiled a sad smile as she brushed her fingers lightly over the soft gray hair then let it rest briefly on the woman's shoulder.
In the cold light of dawn the warrior mourned the passing of the woman she had come to admire greatly. She turned at the soft sound behind her, quickly wiping a tear from her eye. Gabrielle stood still blinking the remnants of sleep from her eyes. She held the blanket from her bed tightly around her shoulders. She looked from her heavyhearted friend to the peaceful woman in front of the fire. Slowly she shook her head and raised one hand to cover her mouth. She trembled a few times before the tears broke through her sorrow. The warrior was at her side immediately, wrapping a strong arm around her shoulders. But even the strong and emotionless Xena was defenseless now. Together they wept for the loss of one strong, brave woman who had given so much to them.
They would lay her in the place between the stones that marked the resting places of her husband and of her best friend.
On a windswept plane waves of grain writhed in hues of brown and gold. A young girl stood in its center and brushed a strand of reddish brown hair behind one ear. In the distance a tall curly haired man stood with arms outstretched. She ran to him, falling into his embrace and allowing all of his warmth and affection to flow across her being. He held her at arm's length and smiled a wide infectious smile.
"I've missed you, young lady." The man remarked, running a hand through her hair, "and you are just as beautiful as I remembered you."
"Petros," she sighed.
He took her hand and began walking toward the horizon. "Come," he coaxed her in that deep gentle voice she remembered so well, "there is someone who's been waiting for you." She went willingly.
A tall woman in a flowing white gown stood before them. Her dark auburn hair fell across her shoulders in soft tresses. Her hazel eyes seemed wet with tears. "Etel," the girl breathed.
"Donara," the woman replied, "welcome home."
On that windswept plane waves of grain writhed in hues of brown and gold. A tall dark warrior stood arm in arm with a wisp of a girl whose reddish brown hair blew in the same wind, catching the same rhythm. Together they looked down from their realm on a tall dark-haired warrior whose own arm rested around the shoulders of a small blonde wisp of a girl.
"Their journey is far from over," the auburn haired warrior stated flatly, "they have many worlds to conquer."
"Together," Donara added. She rested her head on her companion's shoulder as the girl below did the same.
On a sun-filled plane fields of spring grass waved in hues of emerald and green. A tall dark warrior pulled a small, saddened girl into a short embrace against her shoulder. They stood atop a small rise staring at the ripples of blue that rolled across the lake at its base. She wrapped the reins of the large palomino around her hand a bit tighter. A breath of wind blew suddenly from the west as if gently urging the women in the opposite direction.
"Ready?" Xena asked softly.
Gabrielle took one last look at the serene waters that had only a few moons before attempted to steal her life. Slowly she turned toward the field that now held to its bosom the woman who gave it back. She took a deep breath and smiled at the warrior through misty eyes. She swallowed the urge to cry quickly and nodded twice.
Xena had mounted the tall warhorse and reached a hand down toward the girl. Gabrielle took it without argument, settling behind the warrior easily. "Xena?" She asked as the animal began a slow canter toward the rising sun.
"Hmmm," the warrior answered characteristically, as she watched the horse's steps.
"They're together now aren't they?" Gabrielle asked as she tightened her grip around Xena's waist.
Xena looked toward the horizon. "Their journey is over, Gabrielle. Their battles are done." She answered quietly.
The girl smiled at her friend's answer. "That's a yes, right?" She snickered as she rested her head against the warrior's cool armor.
Xena shook her head and laughed just a bit before gently urging Argo into a trot.
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