A Day (or so) in the Strife
Between the Times
Lesson 7 - She loves me anyway.
Disclaimer: Once again I've borrowed the wonder of these two characters to bring to life a story born of pure imagination. I thank the creators for the opportunity to borrow them and return them fully intact. Just the way I will keep them forever in my heart.
Thanks to Cin for the idea for this story and for helping to break through the block that had me thinking I'd penned my last tale.
Have you ever had one of those times when absolutely nothing goes right? One of those days that doesn't do a thing to increase your love of life, where everything from dawn to twilight is one major disaster followed by one more? Well, the last two days have been just like no, worse than that.
It all started yesterday; with a certain warrior princess in a snit more foul than usual and went speeding downhill from there. All of which concluded with more than six sti ah, but I am getting ahead of myself and this story is well worth the telling.
The entire telling...
It commenced even before Helios had begun his climb to the horizon when
"Come ON, Gabrielle. I don't have time for your nonsense this morning!" Xena growled in the darkness as she poured the last of the water in the last of water skins onto the small fire. It dissolved with a defeated hiss.
After taking one look (with one slightly opened eye) at the blackness of the forest I did what I do every morning; gathered my blanket, rolled myself into a tight ball and turned away from 'Her Royal Furiousness'.
"I said UP!" She grabbed my coverings and yanked them unceremoniously away, exposing my tender self to the predawn chill. But before I could utter one speck of protest, she snatched my wrist and pulled me to my feet as well, bringing her nose less than a breath away from mine. "N O W!" She barked. Her eyes had that blue crackle to them and her voice sent spikes through my eardrums, the kind that make your teeth clench and your head buzz. At least I was smart enough, or just not awake enough to challenge her at least not then.
"Pack up!" She snapped as she shoved my blankets into my arms, almost knocking me back to the bedroll that was whispering 'come on back' as it was. "We're out of here - now." She grumbled again as she walked toward Argo, who was already saddled and completely packed.
I let out a long disgusted sigh and narrowed my eyes at her back. A string of the nastiest terms I've ever heard old bronze britches use rattled around in my head and stopped right behind my lips when Xena froze and turned back. For a second it actually felt like she was reading my mind, that one threatening eyebrow raising slowly as she glared down at me.
"Well?" She sneered as her eyes widened and the other eyebrow caught up to the first. "What are you waiting for? MOVE!"
Gods, I hate it when she orders me around. She doesn't even do it as if she was ordering a soldier or a warrior. No, she has to add insult to injury commanding me as if I was a ten-year-old! Grrrrr, how infuriating!
So, I stomped and slammed and grumbled and flung my belongings together as quickly as I could in a mood that was probably as foul as Her Own. It was just about then that I smashed my big toe against some dumb rock and sent myself reeling onto the ground, spilling my stuff in all directions and earning a mouthful of dust as well. I lifted my head and spit the dirt off my lips only to find the warrior's boots about a half inch from my nose.
"When you're done horsing around, Gabrielle," Xena droned, with her arms crossed over her chest and one toe tapping the dust into my eyes, "you can catch up. Like I said, I don't have time for your nonsense this morning."
That was it! The last straw, well the last straw up to that point anyway. I pulled myself up off the ground brushing pebbles, pine needles and dirt from my arms and clothing as I spat my earthy 'breakfast' to the side. "MORING? MORNING! Xena, the SUN isn't even awake yet!!" I pointed to the eastern horizon as I tried unsuccessfully to keep the hysterical shriek out of my voice.
Xena didn't seemed to notice how miffed I was because she simply mounted her horse and looked down at me without so much as an eyebrow of reaction. "We need to be in Kester before noon," she remarked without emotion. With that she made that soft little clicking noise in her throat and barely flicked Argo's reins, and that big overgrown pet of hers turned and cantered away.
Her lack of reaction infuriated me even more.
Ooooo, how I wanted to plop down on my now empty bag and just sit there until she realized I wasn't following just to have her come back to look for me! I watched the rear end of that horse as its tail swooshed back and forth in a silent 'ha, ha, ha' until I realized I was going to have to do some fast moving to catch up. I snatched the things I could reach, stretched for those I couldn't, whipped my bag out from the dirt and jammed them into it.
Now, Xena might think I never listen but I do know that she has, on more occasions than I care to remember, told me how unsafe it is to travel without the benefit of light. I guess the dark that immediately proceeds the dawn doesn't meet that criteria. I guess it's a different kind of dark than the one that comes right after sunset, because the warrior princess was moving and I was struggling in the 'this doesn't count' darkness to keep her in sight. This was no easy task considering I was dragging a blanket that insisted on repeatedly wrapping itself in tendrils around each of my ankles, alternately. I made a valiant effort to roll it into some semblance of neatness or at least to tame its sudden wild streak, while at the same time I was attempting to stuff everything I had gathered from the ground into my bag.
Apparently every nasty bloodthirsty little insect that makes its home in the heart of Greece feels the need to feed at that very hour. And even more apparently they thrive on frustrated, blond, warrior followers, because the number of welts on every exposed part of my body left by their famished puny fangs was matched only by those left by my attempts to swat them dead before they drained me of my life's force. Low hanging branches and outcrops of craggy rocks and thorn bushes must also have a life of their own at this hour because those that didn't manage to snag a hunk of my hair did a great job at taking a chunk of skin from my shins. My guess was that the flora and the fauna weren't any happier than I was to be disturbed at such an indecent hour.
All of this seemed to simply evade Xena's observation. I had to tell myself that over and over, because thinking that she was merely ignoring my plight made me so angry my ears started to burn. I hate it when my ears burn. I hate it even more when she ignores me. (Have I mentioned that my ears burn when she ignores me?) I couldn't imagine what was so important in Kester and the warrior grump wasn't about to give me the slightest clue. Some grubby guy ran into her in the market place three days before. He pulled her into a shadowy alley where they shared a quick exchange which consisted mostly of warrior grunts and nods and then he was gone. Gone before I got close enough to hear anything. That's when her mood changed. That's when all of this started. That's what put us on the road to Kester. That's what led to that gods' awful day.
"There's a stream up ahead." Xena finally broke the silence between us as she called back to me without turning around. "Fill up the skins. It's the last water in these parts." She dropped the water skins from her saddle, knowing 'good old Gabby' would scoop 'em up as she passed.
"XENA!" I managed to blurt between grunts and ragged attempts at catching my breath. The stitch in my right side was like a griffin's talon digging into my gut. I was so busy with packing and swatting and grumbling and knowing that she probably didn't even hear me that I walked right into Argo's backside. Of course horses are a might sturdier than small bards overburdened with bags and blankets, so while Xena's pretty palomino did little more than let out a disgusted grunt, her crabby companion once again landed flat on her keister.
I wrinkled my face into a mask of discomfort and let out a long sigh before slamming my palms against the dirt and pushing myself upright. I bent to retrieve my things while massaging my indignity, then turned to find the warrior princess staring down at me with a quizzical scowl.
"Are you finished?" She inquired with a huff.
Oh the retorts that spun around in my mind. "You know, you could take some of this stuff." I growled as I practically threw my bag and bedroll up at her. She caught them with practiced ease and in seconds had them secured on the saddle. Then she just stared at me waiting.
Waiting for what? You might ask. For me to join her on her mighty steed? Oh no, no, no, no, no she was waiting for me to read her mind, to know exactly what she wanted done and to have it done before she thought it. ARGH! I wanted to just .
Xena shook her head and almost smiled, not a happy smile but one of those patronizing smirks she loves to wear. "Stream's about five meters in that direction." She cocked her head over her right shoulder then nudged Argo into a slow canter. "I'm going to scout ahead a bit. Meet me at that rise." The horse took a few steps forward before she turned back over her shoulder and added, "and get a move on Gabrielle, time is wasting."
Before I could answer she was gone, kicking up dust that created a white cloud in the murky morning light. I let out a long overdue, aggravated, controlled scream, grabbed the waterskins from the ground and stomped off in the direction of the stream. This time I let a lot of those colorful expletives escape my lips. Yes, I was getting very good at using most of them (well at least the ones I could define) and very soon I intended to throw a few right at the ears of that big tough friend of mine. Boy! Would she be shocked! Her mouth would drop open and for once, for just once I would have the last say, the upper hand! Then I would just toss my hair over one shoulder and simply walk away. We'd see how she'd like it. Big, dumb, bossy oomph.
By this time I was getting pretty tired of tripping over the multitude of obstacles my untrained un-warrior sharpened eyes could not see in the darkness. I know it wasn't very graceful and certainly not as agile and flowing as Xena would have done, but I managed to catch my balance and keep from falling flat on my face (again).
In the first rays of dawn, that hazy pink light that wakes up the day I could just make out the rut in the path ahead of me. Even a young farm girl, like myself, could recognize the soft silt, neat pebbles and smooth rocks as the bed of a stream long since drained of its flow. I stood there scratching my head. Xena was NEVER wrong about anything, but there I was standing in a dry creek bed. I took a few steps south and tried listening for the sound of gurgling water, then went north and did the same. The sun started its slow climb into the sky and the fuzzy haze that covers the sleeping earth began to rise. I followed that empty stream for a bit, not really expecting to find any trace of liquid but simply amazed at the lack of it. There were some places so dry they were cracked and curling up from the dirt beneath it. I set the waterskins down and bent to investigate further.
There had been rain just a few days ago. We had filled our water supply in another small stream only a few miles from where we had stopped last night. This was a mystery. It was perplexing. It was something Xena needed to see. She'd know how to find the answer. I reached for the skins.
The pain in my left palm was like a hot pike driven through my hand. I dropped the flasks as if they were fiery coals and shook my hand frantically, trying to release the agony. When that didn't help I clenched it tightly and sent the pain through it with renewed vengeance. All the while I yelped and yowled as I bounced around in a weird kind of shaman's spasm induced dance. I shook my hand again and blinked away the tears that were forming in my eyes.
"Gabrielle!" Xena was off her horse and at my side before I realized she had galloped into the small clearing. "What are you doing now!?" He tone was a mixture of anger and relief. HAH! She thinks that I don't know how much she cares. I guess my screaming scared the mighty warrior and finding me unharmed probably embarrassed her as well as fueled her short temper. Whatever the reason, it didn't matter at the time she was there.
She snatched my hand and pried my fingers up with one gentle pull, while I continued to tippy toe rapidly while repeating 'ow, ow, ow' until it sounded like a mantra. A second later she held up the wasp that had burrowed into my palm. She shook it once, flipped it to the ground then stomped it into the dry soil.
My empty stomach wrenched when she pulled her small blade from her boot and spread my hand flat. I pulled slightly as she brought the razor sharp edge close to my skin, but her hold was vise-like. She looked me in the eye and slid the blade across my palm so gently I barely felt it. "Stinger." She stated calmly holding the knife out for my inspection.
I nodded and pulled my hand back to examine the damage. It was deep red, except for the two small white lumps in its center, and already beginning to swell. Xena took my wrist and practically dragged me back to Argo. She pulled some foul smelling ointment from her medicine pouch and smeared it into my hand. At first it stung as much as the bite itself and I let out a yelp of protest, yanking my hand away. But she caught it back then plopped a poultice in my palm and wrapped a bandage neatly around the injury. Inside I could feel a strange thumping throb, but a cool sensation seemed to be quelling it slowly.
"It'll be tender for a couple days, but you'll live." She remarked as she packed her medical supplies away.
I picked at the bandage a bit, trying to see under it while Xena walked to the streambed and stood with her hands on her hips looking from side to side before turning in a complete arc. She bent down and took a handful of the dry sand at her feet then let it sift out of her fist. It blew away in the soft morning breeze.
"Stream's dried up." She announced as she stood, brushing her hands together and walked past me.
I rolled my eyes. This was the woman with all the answers! I dropped my arms to my sides in frustration.
OUCH! Definitely NOT a good idea.
Xena mounted her horse again but this time held a hand down. "Come on," she motioned to me, wiggling those long fingers as encouragement for me to take her hand. "Get up here or we won't see Kester before nightfall."
"Xena if you're saying " I started, narrowing my eyes and bracing myself for the battle that had been brewing for hours.
"What I'm saying is - 'get up here'. We've got no water and it's still a long way." She thrust her hand at me again. I shrugged my shoulders, shook my head and let her pull me up behind her.
At least I got a bit more sleep.
We made it to Kester just long enough after noon to make Xena as tense as a bow that's been strung to its limit, one that's sure to snap and leave you with a stinging welt across your cheek as soon as you pull a shaft against it. I kept all my comments to myself, not wanting to be the bolt that snapped the cord, besides I was so thirsty that my voice wouldn't have cooperated anyway. Xena hadnt even broken a sweat in the midday sun and told me repeatedly that my thirst was only my imagination. She explained, in that 'matter-of-fact-how-and-could-you-not-know-anyway' tone of voice that the only reason I was craving water was because I knew there was none to be had. Well, old Argo must have missed that lesson in warrior pony school because she made a beeline for the water trough as soon as we dismounted. Xena just grinned at her steed. (That animal has such a rough life, you know.)
Now, if you ever happen to find yourself traveling the back roads of Greece, or should I say the back roads OF the back roads of Greece, consider yourself lucky if you NEVER ever stumble into the village of Kester. I'm sure you won't find it on any map. Talk about one-goat towns? Kester would have to annex another village just to have a goat. The entire hamlet consisted of a about six three-sided shacks, a small temple to some god I couldnt decipher from the smudged murals that appeared to be made by a five-year-old, and a tavern (of course) which Xena walked directly towards, dragging me close behind. Something she really needn't do since, if nothing else, the tavern held the promise of something, anything, cold and liquid. I actually got there two steps before her and pushed aside the greasy curtain that served as a door.
It was murky inside and permeated with a smell that made me believe the people of Kester did not find bathing a regular or necessary pastime. The handful of patrons that squinted into the sunlight we allowed into the dingy place as we entered gave me no reason to change my thinking. They sat in their dirt colored clothing shoving some sort of unrecognizable meat into their mouths with their just as dirty colored fingers. I wondered for a moment if perhaps this was a mining village. Miners tend to be a bit grubby with the color of the underside of the earth, but I hadnt seen a mine nor did it seem this place was thriving with any sort of enterprise.
I followed Xena toward the bar that was nothing more than a plank stretched across two old stumps - it wasn't even level! I counted the seconds it would take her to tell the tavern keeper what she wanted, vowing to drink a full cup of water in one gulp even if it was the same muddy color as everything else seemed to be. Heck, a little dirt never hurt anyone. Right? My grandma use to tell us wed eat a bushel of dirt before we died anyway. I didnt really care. I was too thirsty to care. Even if I was only imagining it, my imagination was as parched as my very dry lips.
Xena swiped the mess off a table a few steps from the bar, but close to the wall, and flipped a chair up from the floor, offering it to me before she turned and yelled to the bartender. I know my jaw dropped open and my eyes practically popped when the warrior protectress ordered two very large portions of ale. The grubby young man behind the bar produced two mugs the size of small barrels before she finished telling him what she wanted. He placed one mug before each of us. I grabbed the one in front of me and got it close enough to my lips that I could almost feel its bitter wet taste before Xena grabbed it back and plopped it down on a stool she had placed next to me. She pulled the bandage off my wasp-stung hand and plunged it into the cold liquid, sloshing its contents over the edge.
"Bring us a large cider as well." Xena told the young man who merely stared at her odd behavior. "Sorry, Gabrielle." She winked at me over the top of her mug as she took a long draught and smacked her lips in satisfaction. "Almost forgot about ya."
Right, warrior princess two years, six months and fourteen days of traveling together and she still insists I avoid the evils of the same spirits that seem to lighten her constant bad mood. (Except for the mouthful of strong wine she 'allowed' me at the wedding of Diana and Philemon.) Not that I couldn't have just taken what I wanted, but well sometimes its just easier to do as she wishes and avoid the lecture afterward. BUT - Sometimes her over protectivity makes my father's need to keep me safe from the evils of adulthood pale in her shadow. By the gods! I'm almost eighteen, for Hera's sake! The girls my age, back in my village, are married with at least two children by now. But that's a debate not worth the effort. She never calls me a kid, but I know that's how she sees me. It will take a bit of doing, but I will show her differently. Anyway, I was too tired, too dehydrated and too exasperated to argue.
"Xena," I whispered a growl through my teeth, trying not to attract any more attention than we already had. "Ive never heard of ale as a remedy for bee stings."
"Its a wasp sting." She corrected me as she wiped the foam from her lip with the back of her hand and took a quick breath after her deep swallow. "And that might be the only 'water' we have for a while." She wiggled her index finger at the mug. "It wont hurt to soak it a bit and the cold will bring down the swelling. Youll be fine by tomorrow."
The young man from the bar returned with a third mug and set it gently in front me. I smiled and thanked him, noticing immediately he had done his best to plaster down his dusty, ruffled hair. He smiled back revealing his summer teeth. (Summer teeth, you know some er here, some er there, some er nowhere.) Yep, he had that look, that puppy-dog look. It was just what I needed. For a moment I was sure I even heard a soft growl, which certainly was something new.
"Hush up, Herk!" The young man scolded a rather large dog that had poked its head around the side of the bar. The animal was just as scrawny and mangy as the rest of the clientele and its hair stuck up and out in the same style. "He aint dangerous, just protective." He explained as he shoed the animal back into the shadows of the establishment. "Ya jest let me know if ya need anythin' else." He smiled again. I nodded and smiled back, vowing not to need anything else.
"Dont." I warned my large friend as I turned back to my drink. She raised both hands in surrender and didnt make any smart remarks, although the smirk across her face said it all. I glared back at her and then finally took my sip of cider, finding it to be the coldest, sweetest, most satisfying drink Id had in as long as I could remember. It had quite a little bite and gave me a bit of a buzz from that first taste. I looked at the young man behind the counter who gave me a quick wink and a slight nod. Im sure, positively sure Xena was not paying an ounce of attention. First of all because she had absolutely no idea he had slipped me a tankard of the hardest cider this side of Thrace and second because she was staring intently at the man who had just entered the tavern. I recognized him as the same guy she had met in the market place a few days before.
"Stay put." She ordered as she rose to meet him.
I just nodded as I took another sip of that wonderful cider and waved her off.
I like to tell myself that she stays where I can see her so I feel like Im part of whatever the heck plan she is plotting at any particular time. The truth is she stays where she can see me so I dont mess up the plan too early in the plotting stages. Right then I didnt really care either way. I shrugged my shoulders and took another gulp of my honey colored beverage. I could tell that something was amiss because both Xena and her mysterious acquaintance seemed to be quite agitated. They werent making a lot of noise, but their body language was a dead give away. I watched as Xena shook her head then looked away in thought. A moment later she turned back to the man, nodded and held out her hand. He took her wrist and she his, shaking each others arm in sealing some sort of covert covenant. He made a last remark, she nodded in agreement then he slipped away out the door, once again allowing the sunlight to sneak into this den of darkness.
Xena sauntered back to our table and stood looking down at me. I knew what was coming. But, I was ready.
"Gabrielle " She started in that quiet voice.
I looked up at her with only my eyes, gritting my teeth in preparation for the argument that would ensue.
"Theres something I have to do." She continued. I pulled my hand from its frothy bath and pushed my chair back to stand, but her hand was on my shoulder holding me in my seat.
"Xena." I started to protest.
"It wont take long. Its just a little something I need to take care of. Ill be back before sunset." She explained.
"Im not staying here, Xena." I argued, shaking my head vigorously. "Whatever it is I can help."
"Not this time." Her voice took on a bit more authority and she squeezed my shoulder a little tighter. "You stay here, wait for me. Thats enough help."
I locked my jaw and narrowed my eyes to the tiniest slits that would still allow me to see, then let out a disgusted whoosh of air through my teeth. "Xena. I am NOT staying in this town overnight." I announced in a quiet roar.
"Before nightfall, I promise." She repeated. "Then we move on."
I sighed again. She patted my shoulder.
"Knew youd see it my way." She grinned as she walked toward the door, motioning for our steward to refill my almost empty mug. He nodded and reached for a large pitcher.
Xena stopped as she opened the curtained door a crack, sunlight spilling through it. "And Gabrielle?" I turned toward her, already saying the words in my mind that I knew she would say. "Stay out of trouble." I curled my lip at her, but she was gone.
"Dunixi." A voice called me back from my building fury. I turned to the young man pouring more cider into my cup. I guess the look on my face asked the question he felt the need to answer. "Im Dunixi." He grinned again, revealing the many empty spaces in his smile. With that he plunked down into the chair my warrior had vacated. I knew I was in trouble already. I almost laughed, although it was far from a funny situation.
"Yer Gabrielle, right?" He asked in an almost awe tinged voice. "Ya are. Ya have ta be. I know it." He answered his own question leaving me little to do but nod. I took a very, very big drink of the cider. My ears hummed with its twang. "Ya like it?" He asked tilting his head toward my glass as he tipped the pitcher to its edge and filled it to the top. "Its er best yet. Ya see, we got this deep tunnel unner the place. Gits real cold down there and the cider freezes solid. We lets it thaw after a time and," he chortled a bit, "after that it packs quite a kick. Dont it?"
I smacked my lips as I set the mug down on the table and had to agree. "It is better than Ive had anywhere else."
"So ya travel with Xena, huh?" He seemed to have an awful lot of questions. "Sure ya do, yer here wit er. Aint ya?" Of course he also had answers for all of them.
"You know Xena?" I decided if he had all the answers, I should be the one asking the questions.
He looked at me for a moment as if he was shocked that I would do something so unheard of, either that or he was so used to asking and answering all the questions that he couldnt seem to get his bearings. From the looks of things it didn't appear he had a lot of opportunity for casual conversation, let alone one with a member of the opposite sex. He really seemed to be a few grapes short of a vineyard. "I best git back ta work now," he started to rise, "it's the busiest time a day, ya know."
I looked around the room again at the four men who seemed to be dozing in their seats. Gods! Id hate to see this place when its slow! I took another drink and shook my head. "Too bad," I used my sweetest voice. "I was sort of hoping someone could show me around your lovely little village." I almost felt guilty for batting my eyes at the guy.
He stopped and turned back, his ears turning a deep shade of red that showed through the layers of dirt covering every inch of him. I giggled a bit at that thought, then admonished myself for evening thinking it. I took a drink to help wash it away then looked at him with my best 'wide-eyed innocent' look.
"I I ah well," he stammered. "Wit my pa gone off wit Xena, I don't think it be a good idea ta leave. I'd git an awful whuppin'."
I shook my head and took another drink. "Can't have that now can we?" I sympathized. "But it shouldn't hurt if you just sit here and tell me about the village and Xena." I sipped at my drink and merely gazed at him over the cup's edge. He seemed to be mulling over the proposition. "I mean that way if you had to serve someone you'd still be here to get the work done and keep a very close eye on the establishment."
He wrinkled his brow for a bit and I thought, perhaps I'd lost him. Then he looked around the place, took the pitcher from the table and disappeared behind the bar. 'Damn!' I told myself. 'Too strong, Gabrielle. You scared him away. Now, you'll have to go after the warrior princess to find out what in Hades is going on here.' I decided to finish the last few drops of my cider before beginning my quest, couldn't let Xena get too far ahead of me. I tipped the mug back as far as my neck would allow, catching every drop, then lowered the large flask to the table.
"Got some fresh," Dunixi announced as he filled it again. He winked as he sat in Xena's empty chair and poured a bit of the wonderful liquid in a mug of his own. The old mangy dog that had growled at me earlier was at his heel. It bared its teeth at me once then made itself comfortable at its master's feet.
"So you know Xena?" I repeated my earlier question. 'HA HA!! Warrior Princess, leave me behind again!? Now I get to learn some of your deep dark secrets. Hmph, hmph, hmph!' Inside my head my hands were clapping with glee and my feet shuffled in a satisfied little 'pooh, pooh to you!' kind of dance.
"Long as I kin r'member." Dunixi began.
I don't know how long we sat there or how many times he filled that pitcher or my cup but despite his poor grammar and horrid hygiene he told a great story. It seemed his father had once served in Xena's army. He'd been one very important lieutenant but had been gravely injured in some battle and was certain to die. She and a few other men brought him here to his family, fully believing he would not make the journey alive. Surprisingly he did, but after a long recovery he was no longer fit for battle. But, Xena found this place secluded and secure and used it for years as a place to rest and revitalize her troops. In all those years she had brought many a wounded man to this village and never lost one of them. Dunixi pointed out a few men in the room that had also ridden with the Destroyer of Nations, but chose to retire here in the lovely town of Kester. Ugh! Warriors!
Anyway to make a long story short, this guy named Petrilus got the idea that the water that ran beneath the town had some sort of charm or curse that was responsible for the healing of the men brought there. He decided it would be to his benefit to keep it all for himself.
(Big surprise, right? A greedy warlord? They aren't a very original bunch.)
So, old Petrilus started damming up the works upstream trying to keep all the magical healing water for himself. Unfortunately, magic water doesn't look a heck of a lot different from plain old drinking (and apparently bathing water) and Petrilus couldn't heal anyone with the stuff he was hoarding from the little stream into the village. So, through the years he just kept building dams at every trickle of water that ran anywhere near the town. He did find it in his heart to let the people take what water they needed to survive, actually just the bare minimum. The people had to travel miles to cart barrels of water into their village every day. (Okay, so that explains the lack of baths.) About a full moon ago, Petrilus, who had of course gotten on in years and was now not a well man, got it into his scrambled brain that the people of Kester knew some sort of secret to getting the water to work.
(Not very quick was he? Took an awful long time for him to formulate this hypothesis.)
So, after some heated debate with the town's leaders Petrilus had cut off all water rights and left the town high and dry. With the exception of their store of ale and this excellent cider they kept in the tunnel beneath their tavern, they were completely without irrigation.
Dunixi lit the candle on our table, then excused himself as he moved to the other counters to do the same. The barely lit tavern had grown dark as the sun slipped closer to the western horizon. I drummed my fingertips on the table, ignoring the minute throb of the still tender sting spots and chewed the nail on the index finger of my other hand. So that's what Xena was up to! She was off to convince old Petrilus to unplug the dam and water the Kesterlings.
"Dunixi, my friend." I patted his hand and wondered at the sudden thickness of my tongue as he sat back down at our table. "Your pop and my poop," I giggled at my reference to the warrior who had left me here to this plight. A hiccup stopped the laughter and I continued. "They've been gone an awful, awful long time and I don't see any water yet. Do you?" Dunixi shook his head.
I stood up quickly, almost upsetting the table. The whole room seemed to be swaying a little so I grabbed its edge to keep it steady. My sudden motion woke up that old dog and set it to yapping excitedly. In turn the dog's reaction startled me so that I fell back into my seat. "Shh, shh, shhh!" I coaxed as I put a finger across my lips and hushed the animal, reaching out to pat its grubby head. It snarled a bit as Dunixi pulled it back and scratched its ears until it quieted.
I leaned over the table toward Dunixi, whispering my plan. "I think you and me could take care of this guy ourselves." I patted his hand in encouragement. "He's gotta be on in years. Right?" My voice squeaked, as another hiccup pierced the last word of my statement.
Dunixi shook his head slowly. "I dunno Gabrielle. The elders have tried "
"ELDERS!" I shouted, then immediately shushed myself as if I was telling a separate being. "Shh, shh elders, schmelders," I whispered in a hoarse voice. "It's time to take some action." I pulled myself to my feet as carefully as possible, not to upset ol' Heck again. Marching toward the door I looked back to see Dunixi staring at me with an odd look. "Ffffine then!" I suddenly felt angry with him. "I'll do it myself myssssself can do it alone."
The cool fresh air outside took me by surprise and left me feeling a tad lightheaded. The sky was a brilliant shade of pink and I remember thinking that was a good sign. Xena was always saying some such something about sailors and pink skies. I never paid much attention. I hated thinking about the sea, the rocking, the rolling, the . I grabbed a skinny birch tree to steady myself as my stomach lurched in protest to my thoughts. It occurred to me about then that I hadn't eaten a thing all day and yet I wasn't a bit hungry, but the lack of proper nourishment had probably left me slightly woozy.
BUT there was work to be done! Petrilus had to be stopped! I giggled again and covered my mouth with one hand to stifle the sound. "More like UNstopped," I laughed to myself as I pushed away from the sapling and headed toward the center of the tiny village. I hadn't remembered the road being as zigzaggy on the way into town, but it sure had its twists and turns now. It also seemed to me the path had been level, but now there was one incline after another and after about fifty strides I was so tired I just sat down in the dust.
"Gabrielle!" Dunixi exclaimed as he knelt beside me, his scruffy dog snuffling along behind. "I think ya should come on back and set a bit until yer friend gits back." He took my arm and pulled me to my feet.
(Things got a bit fuzzy about then so I must interject here - to warn anyone who might deem to read this. From this point on most of what I've written is more a combination of what Dunixi told me and the dressing-down I got from Xena later. That's more than anything formed in my befuddled memory.)
I grabbed Dunixi by his lapel and shook him, hoping it would bring him to his senses. "There'ssss a job to do hhhhere, boy! Don't you sssssee that?" I let go and took a few faltering steps to the left and then to the right. "You just ssssshow me were this guy ish and I'll get that water ffflo(hic)wing for you before you can ssssay Hesphorus Hestapus hes oh whatever his name isss!" I shook a finger at Dunixi and his twin, wondering where the other one had come from so quickly and how he disappeared just as fast. Then I spun on my heel and marched off to rid the world of yet another tyrant.
The biggest problem, of course, was the fact that I had no idea where said warlord was hiding so for the next hour or so I went thrashing about in the woods surrounding the village shouting "AH HA!!" as I leapt behind large boulders and crops of brush. Needless to say there were no warriors in hiding. Dunixi and his mutt followed, continuously attempting to have me abandon my quest. But I was bound and determined to show Xena up, just this one time. She'd come back well after dark all apologetic and full of sweet talk and there I'd be, the town hero, handing out big ladles full of clear clean water. They'd probably build a city bath and name it after me! Maybe they'd rename the whole town after me.
It was in the midst of that vision that I stumbled into the dry creek bed that ran just outside of town. It occurred to me that following it would lead me to the damn dam so off I went, slipping and tripping over every rock that ever lay submerged beneath that spring. Dunixi continued along behind me, rushing to my aid every time I knelt in the gravelly bed. At least the dog had the sense to run along the more even path that ran along the old creek.
We found it just after dark - a wall of rock and rubble at least ten feet tall. There were spots here and there where moisture was seeping through.
"We're vvvvery, vvvvvery close." I whispered to Dunixi. "Gimme a boosht." I turned and grabbed a rock that jutted out just above my head and raised my left foot for him to help me get started. He just stood there like a lump. I shook my foot, thinking that maybe he just couldn't see it in the darkness. "Come on, Dixi, just put your hands like this." I turned and tried unsuccessfully to lace my fingers and form a foothold. All I managed to do was drift forward in an effort to make my hands connect. "Like this " I tried and failed again. "Like this." Dunixi caught me before I crashed into him. I let a breath out over my lips and waved a hand at him silently telling the guy to just forget it.
"Gabrielle," Dunixi began as he put a hand to my shoulder and stopped me from landing in the dirt again. "This ain't a real good idea. It's awful high and there's more'n a bit of water b'hind this here thing." He shook his head and scrunched up one side of his face.
I slapped his hand away and ignored his dog's growl. "You mean to tell me we came all this way, just for you to chicken out on me?!" My voice was so loud it even startled me. "Shhhhh!" I warned Dunixi before he answered.
"This here wall's been here long as I'm alive, Gabrielle. It ain't the problem and you ain't bringing it down." He whispered calmly as he took my hand and pulled me away from the structure.
Who did this guy think he was pulling me away from my destiny?? I was GABRIELLE, protégé of the mighty warrior princess herself. He had a lot of nerve!
I pulled, or tried to pull away from his grip, but he had my wrist and no intention of releasing it. I stumbled forward, full of protest as I dug in my heels and attempted to stand my ground. Dunixi was dense, but he was strong and my attempt was futile. Beside this little nagging ache that had been knocking on the middle of my forehead all evening was blossoming into a full-fledged headache. That had to be it. The morning without water, a day without food and now this blasted headache had left me so weak I couldn't handle myself against one grimy village boy.
I used one of Xena's tactics, one of my favorites actually. 'When faced with a situation in which oppositional force is impossible simply throw yourself into the flow!' I relaxed and let him pull me forward, then launched myself into him, throwing us both to the ground where wrapped around each other we tumbled end over end down a dark grassy incline. He hollered in surprise and protest. I just hollered. He was ruining everything. And that damn, blasted dog just barked and barked as it chased us all the way to the foot of the hill.
Luckily I ended up on top of the imbecile and began pummeling him with both fists. He didn't even fight back, just held up his hands in front of his face and repeated, "Gabrielle stop, cut it out, stop!" What a wimp!
We tussled for a few seconds before a sudden blast of pain in the meatiest part of my tender anatomy sent me flailing forward and emitting one bugger of a shrill screech. Believe me, the gluteus maximus is NO match for canine dentifrice!!
"OW! Ow, ow, ow, ow!" I just repeated my mantra of the day over and over having landed flat on Dunixi's stomach. Since he was otherwise engaged at the time, he hadn't seen or heard ol' Herk as he took a chunk out of my posterior. He took advantage of my plight and rolled both of us over, putting himself on top and pinning both my hands to the ground on either side of my head. He knelt in a straddling position as I bounced, groaned, and frantically attempted to keep my freshly acquired wound off the bumpy ground.
(I guess looking back on the moment I can now understand why Xena thought what she did when she thought what she did.)
Dunixi was just about to catch his breath when a large hand wrapped around his neck and pulled him into the air.
I don't know how she does it. I don't know how I never see it coming. I dont know where she came from, but there was Xena in all her furious glory, sword drawn, eyes glaring and holding Dunixi about six inches off the ground. She looked from his terrified eyes to my agonized plight.
"I I it " Dunixi gasped as he dangled in midair.
"Xena!" Another voice half-warned, half pleaded. "He is my only son. If he has defiled this girl in any way, let me see to his punishment."
For a moment the only sound in the clearing was my whimpering as I reached back to check the damage and then brought my hand into the moonlight, already knowing what the sticky substance that clung to my fingers would be. I let out a moan and struggled to right myself.
Meanwhile, Xena reined in her temper and calmed her rapid breathing. She flipped her sword and drove it into its scabbard in one liquid movement, then dropped her captive to the ground. He thanked her with a round of hoarse coughs as he rubbed his throat in search of his voice.
Xena was next to me in a half step and had me on my feet before I could take a second breath. The blood from my wound now ran freely down the back of my leg. She looked at it then at me. Even through my anguish I could see the hundred of questions and demands for answers swirling around in those crackling blue orbs.
"HE BIT ME!" I squeaked, in shocked surprise.
The warrior's eyes flashed as she once again drew her sword and pointed it at the young man who was staggering to his feet. "No NO," he managed between coughs, holding one shaky hand up as a pitiful shield while rubbing his throat with the other. His voice was higher, much higher, than it had been earlier. "It's not not what ya think I was I just " He broke into a fit of coughing right before his father grabbed one of his ears and yanked him out of the warrior's reach.
"Explain boy! Or I'll use the sword myself!" The older man demanded.
"It it wasn't me." Dunixi blurted out in a croaking voice, between croupy coughs. He looked in all directions, but it seemed that his bloodthirsty varmint had bit and run. The fleabag was nowhere to be seen.
"It was Her-CUE-leeees." I hiccuped the name that seemed to hang onto my voice. I slapped a hand over my mouth to stop it as I swayed away from Xena and suddenly felt very tired.
Dunixi nodded rapidly, well as well as he could with his father still gripping his left ear. Xena narrowed her eyes and looked at me for a moment before leaning close and taking a few sniffs. I wrinkled my face at her and backed away almost losing my balance. Her firm grip on my upper arm held me on my feet. I smiled and nodded at my answer, hoping she would see just what had happened instead of what she thought might have occurred.
"His dog." The older man explained as Xena's sword once again found its home.
"You're drunk." Xena growled as she tossed me over her shoulder like a sack of grain and tramped back to the path that led to town.
"I'm dead." Dunixi moaned as he and his father followed.
We didn't travel very far before the pain in my head, the weird feeling in my stomach, my topsy-turvy position and Xena's furious cadence triggered that part of me that empties my stomach of all its contents. It didn't matter that I hadn't eaten, every drop of cider and whatever had taken residence in that organ since yesterday came up, or should I say down, all over Xena's boots. I felt the growl that escaped her, but she never broke her stride. Not then, or the four other times my stomach repeated itself before we reached town.
Once we reached the village Xena marched into the largest of its huts and simply ordered the inhabitants to vacate the premises before unceremoniously depositing me, face down, on its one lumpy bed. I let out a relieved groan and turned my head into the scratchy pillow, ignoring for the most part its gamey smell. My stomach ached as if I'd been punched repeatedly. My head pounded and no matter what I did, the bed seemed to be spinning in a complete circle.
Xena cursed and bellowed as she pulled off her boots and tossed them outside the flimsy door of the hovel. She disappeared for a moment then returned with the pouch of medicine she kept on her saddle at all times.
"Can't leave you alone for a second." She grumbled as she pulled several items from the pouch and slammed them down on the small table next to the bed.
"Drunk! DRUNK! And off in the woods with some kid you don't even know!!" She flipped my traumatized body perpendicular across the bed. I let out a woozy groan as my head dangled over one side while my toes just touched the ground on the opposite. "It helps to keep at least one foot on the floor." She advised caustically, apparently from experience. The room stopped spinning. Xena's temper didn't. "How could you, of all people, be so stupid!? Don't you even think?" After plunking a bucket under my face she whipped up my skirt and tore away what was left of my shredded britches, exposing my wound to the evening chill as well as to anyone who happened to pass the open doorway. Although when I think about it, I'm sure no one in their right mind would have come within fifty feet of that portal with all her fiery temper spewing flames of wrath across the night air.
"HEY!" I protested, immediately regretting the tone of my own voice. I moaned and rested my chin against the mattress, suddenly feeling the churning gurgle return to my stomach and wondering if there was anything left to expel. Then I let out a blood-curdling squeal and vainly squirmed to escape as she poured liquid fire into the tear in my tender hide.
"You want aqua vitae, you got it!" She growled as she yanked me back into position by snatching my uninjured leg. She administered a second dose, much to my explicitly colorful objection. "Can't sew that up without givin' it a good wash now can we?" She sounded way too pleased with my agony and if I wasn't loosing more of my insides to that smelly bucket I would have given her quite a big piece of my mind.
Except my mind was just as sore as my gut and my butt.
I did managed to turn my head just enough to see her poke a piece of thin string through the eye of a long bone needle. "The bite was that bad? She was going to sew my *** ???????"
"Sena! Sena wwwait!" I protested, slurring my valiant plea and struggling to turn my exposed parts away from her.
"Get back to your bucket, Gabrielle. This isn't going to be very pretty." She smiled sarcastically, using that nasally voice she reserved for letting you know she was teasing, but totally serious at the same time.
"SeNA!" I yelped as she poked her pointy little instrument of torture through my mangled flesh, but since she'd used the force of her bent knee to secure my leg, I was pinned tight. I felt a quick slap across my thigh and for a moment was indignant thinking she had added insult to injury by giving me a quick spank as well. Turned out that she had simply (and mercifully) put the old pinch on my entire right side. I didn't even feel the six or seven neat (so she tells me) little stitches she made to close the wound that rotten animal had given me.
The lecture continued, as did my alternate groaning and yacking until all I had were dry heaves. None of which caused my warrior friend to offer an ounce of sympathy. Either she had repeated the same admonishments several times, reminding me what poor choices I had made and the evils of not thinking things through AND the consequences of reacting instead of acting AND the danger of drinking too much when I certainly proved I could not handle it AND wandering off in the dark in the woods with a boy I didn't know, who had intentions I wasn't prepared to ward off, (not to mention a deranged hound with a taste for rump roast served extremely rare!!) AND she just went on and on and on until her words were nothing more than an annoying hum inside my already throbbing head. I prayed to whatever god protected stupid bards that maybe, just maybe I had had enough of that awful cider to earn myself the reward of passing out.
No such luck.
With a second quick zap, Xena released her paralyzing pinch and the cold hard realty of her surgical repair bit just about as nastily as old Fido had in the first place. I failed to stop the tears that filled my eyes or the whimper that escaped my raw throat as my freshly mended hide beat with renewed suffering.
Xena's voice trailed away as she rose from the edge of the cot and moved away. She was still ranting but in the distance it was little more than a soft buzz. I felt the tension slowly dissolve out of my rigid body as I let the effects of my inebriation combined with my humiliation pull me into a light slumber. I didn't even care that my head and legs still drooped over either side of the bed. I was barely aware of Xena as she slid the pungent bucket from beneath me. I drew a deep breath of fresh clean air a split second before
A fountain of frozen water engulfed my head, bringing me fully awake and totally ticked! I sprang up, both hands digging into the side of the mattress.
"XENA!!" I shrieked. "ARE YOU CRAZY!?"
With one hand she forced me back down, tsk-tsking that if I didn't be more careful, if I didn't be still I might pull out those freshly sewn stitches and have to have them put right back in. Before I could answer she dowsed me with a second 'barrel' of cold water, which I now realized was catching in a small tub that she must have slipped below my face. Mostly I just gurgled as she dunked me a few times into its frigid depths.
My muddled brain began to panic. This must be the warrior punishment for drunkenness on the watch, either the commander drowns you or you contract pneumonia and die anyway! I pleaded for mercy. I begged for forgiveness. I vowed NEVER to imbibe in the evils of drink again. The repercussions just weren't worth the experimentation.
"MAYBE THAT WILL CLEAR YOUR HEAD!" Xena growled as she roughly wrapped a towel around my sodden locks and eased (? Was she finally crumbling to my appeal for a little pity?) me across the bed in a more customary position. She padded the lumpy, uneven mattress with several furs and blankets so that my injured end was upright and I was able to rest on my left side. She even stuffed a pillow under my head. Her scolding grumble continued all the while, but it was mostly under her breath and pretty much running out of stamina because I couldn't make out a thing she said.
She sat next to me then taking a cold rag and running it across my forehead and cheeks. The flustered but relieved warrior even gently pushed my still damp hair away from my face. For the first time since we had enjoyed a meager supper together the night before, I looked her in the eye, immediately feeling the blush on my cheeks. I quickly looked down at the mattress, avoiding her gaze. Somehow the calm, concerned Xena was a bit more intimidating to me than the furious, fanatical Xena.
Taking my still swollen hand in hers, she examined it carefully. Then, satisfied it was healing properly she turned back to me, putting a finger under my chin to lift my face. "You're lucky." She stated quietly, not needing to elaborate on why she felt that way. I closed my eyes and nodded. When I opened them she was holding a small vile to my lips.
"Drink it all in one gulp." She commanded. I grimaced at the odor. "Come on," she urged as she put a hand behind my head and pushed the vile closer. "It won't hurt you anymore than you've already hurt yourself. Just calm your stomach and let you get some rest." I swallowed the thick bitter oil that burned all the way down. I swear it even scalded the insides of my ears. I counted seconds, clenching my teeth and hoping the nauseating remedy would stay in my stomach long enough to do what she promised. There were a few tense moments when it seemed I'd need that rotten pail again, but Xena just continued to wipe my brow with that blessed cool rag. She almost had me convinced that she'd finally exhausted her fury and was settling into the 'okay, so you're a bit dopey, but I forgive you, Gabrielle' mode.
"Sorry but there isn't much I can do for your head. That," she bounced her fingers off the top of my skull, "you'll just have to live through." I winced and let out an exaggerated sigh. She pulled a blanket over me and winked as she stood. "Teach ya a lesson you won't soon forget, though. Won't it?" She snidely remarked with a little click of her cheek that always made her voice somewhat musical. I was sure then, that she was thoroughly enjoying my misery.
I wanted to answer. My mind was saying 'Gods, I'm sorry', but my eyelids seemed heavier and for one of the rare moments of my life they were much more convincing and a lot stronger than my lips. I didn't care if I was giving in, I WAS sorry. Sorry I'd gotten myself into to this predicament, sorry I'd ever tasted Dunixi's special cider but mostly I was sorry I'd ever walked into the cursed town of Kester. I was sick. I was injured. I was humiliated and exhausted. I didn't care if she thought it was an apology and not a regret, I was asleep before she crossed the room.
This morning seemed much brighter than most, the sun I usually adore did nothing for my plight except glare into my bloodshot eyes with the same venom Xena had used the night before. The ritual sounds of dawn were amplified to the point that my ears ached with so much as the buzz of a small insect. And my stomach?? I wasn't sure if the pain came from the desire to empty whatever might be left there or the fact that it felt as if Argo had done the dance of the Sisters of Springtime across my ribcage. Ugh! If this was a hangover I was positive the name came from some foul curse hanging over my head with a sledgehammer. My skull, of course, was the anvil. I raised myself up on one elbow and tried stilling the gavel by holding the other hand against my head. It helped block out the blazing beacon of light as well.
"GOOD MORNING!" Xena's voice boomed like a Titan using Mael's loud talking device. "How's my partied out partner this beeeee-uuuuu-tee-ful morning!?" (She never says good morning, you know.)
I groaned a sick moan and fell back into my very uncomfortable bed, immediately waking up the pain I had a forgotten was just 'behind' me. I moaned a startled groan and pushed myself off my embarrassing wound, losing all hope that the mortifying events of the previous night had been nothing more than a grog-induced dream.
"Sure is something how that all sneaks up behind ya first thing in the morning, isn't it?" Xena almost chuckled. (Only my suffering could bring out the mirth of the warrior princess first thing in the morning.)
"Xena, please " I managed to croak as I tried to find a comfortable position that might appease both north and south points of my pain.
"Oh don't you worry, Gabrielle! I've got just the thing to get you right back on your feet." She thrust a wooden mug at me, smiling as she gripped the large handle on its side.
I opened my eyes a bit more than the minuscule slits I had somehow managed to accomplish and shook my head slowly, trying to keep my scrambled brain intact. "No, no thank you. I'm never drinking OR eating again." I protested with slow calculated words as I held out a hand to stop her progression.
"Uh, ha." Xena wasn't convinced. She moved closer, pushed my hand away and put the cup to my lips. Immediately its pungent aroma struck my senses bringing my eyes fully open. Before I had even a moment to protest she was pouring the disgusting potion down my throat. "Don't worry, Gabrielle, you'll thank me for this."
I spluttered and coughed and yelped and even swore a bit as she and the taste of that concoction did exactly what she said. A second later I was standing, well on one foot and mostly resting on the other -- (amazing how far a pain in the a@@ can travel!)
"See its working already!" She laughed as she steadied me before I fell back to my berth. If she hadn't kept both hands on my shoulders I would have toppled back in seconds.
"XENA!" I coughed, ignoring the pain my own voice shot right through the top of my head. "ARE YOU TRYING TO POISON ME??"
"Naw," she replied in her 'gotcha!" voice. "It's just customary to give ya a pick me up after a long night of hard drinking. Call it a little bit of the hair of the dog that bit ya!"
I guess my pained and stunned expression was enough to break her resolve. She broke into a fit of laughter at my expense. The question I was too dumfounded to form into words splayed clearly across my wide-eyed gape.
"Just kidding, Gabrielle. It's just an expression. You don't think I'd " She shook me bit to release the stupor, which had me in full grip.
I took a deep breath with every intention of telling her exactly what I thought of her method of helping me through my agony. My stomach, however, had other plans and her hairy hangover cure was immediately deposited on her freshly polished boots. I smiled a weak little 'oops, sorry' simper and hoped, no P R A Y E D, she would not drop me on the sore reminder of my blundered bender.
It was my turn to stifle a giggle as a crooked snarl slowly contorted her face and her head tilted just a bit to one side. It wasn't an angry snarl, more of a 'gee, not again' kind of look. She patted my shoulder and eased me back to my cot then turned and half-tiptoed, half limped in a very bowlegged gait out of the hut. I would have doubled over with laughter if I weren't hanging over my old bucket pal with a second wave of vicious nausea. Ugh! I will never be that stupid again. NEVER!
The rest of the morning was pretty uneventful. Dunixi and his father came by to offer yet another apology and a full explanation of last night's events. It didn't sound any better coming from Dunixi's dad than it did coming from him. I noticed the guy looked more than penitent and wondered just what sort of castigation his parent had deemed worthy of his stupidity. I guessed I'd never know. He brought a dirty brown jug of something he claimed was a sure cure for 'the day after.' Xena popped its cork and took a whiff of it. She wriggled her eyebrows at me as she drove the cork back with her palm and tucked it into Argo's saddlebag.
I swear she will have to knock me unconscious before she gets a single drop of whatever blend of foul smelly disgusting herbs, spices and toxins she has corked in that filthy thing. First chance I get, first cliff we cross it's history.
Then they brought that confounded hound in, which bounded right into Xena's lap, covering her with slobbering dog kisses as it yipped excitedly and bounced back to the ground. "Hiya boy!" She cajoled as she rubbed its head and scratched behind both of its ears. The dog's back foot thumped rhythmically on the dirt floor. "Hi ya doin', buckaroo. I missed ya, yes I did." She fussed over the stinky animal as it languished in the attention.
I was appalled!! She should have been lopping off its head! Instead she was greeting the beast as if it were some long lost friend.
"You're a good boy, aren't ya?" She told the stupid thing over and over as she hugged it and combed her fingers through its long hair. I almost grabbed her sword and did the job myself when the creature rolled over and she vigorously scratched its underside until it relaxed into an almost hypnotic state.
"That THING almost killed me Xena!" I squeaked. "And you're treating like it just saved the village!"
"Ah, come on, Gabrielle. He wasn't trying to kill ya. Were ya old boy? No, just takin' a little taste, huh." Warrior baby talk to a mangy critter was quite nauseating. How unfortunate that I no longer felt the urge to just puke! She tussled with the dog, roughly taking either side of his head and shaking it much the same way a canine shakes the prey it captures. She even put her unprotected forearm between its jaws. The dog growled a bit and played with her, backing up and barking as it stuck its tail end in the air and rested its head between its forepaws on the ground. Its knotty tail never stopped wagging and after a few minutes of healthy, playful competition, Xena grabbed a piece of tinder and flung it out of the hut entrance ordering old Herk to 'FETCH'. He bounded out after it.
"He won't bring it back." Dunixi announced glumly.
"Never did." Xena smiled as she watched the dog disappear. She looked me right in the eye as she continued. "But he's just as healthy as he's always been. Must have mistook Gabrielle's opposition to Dunixi's decision as an attack and was merely protecting his master."
Dunixi smiled for the first time since he'd entered the shack. Apparently there had been some question about the fate of his beloved pet. My anger melted to shame as I finally realized the boy's feelings for the animal. He shuffled his feet a bit in the dust, apparently at a loss for just the right words and was saved only by his father's brisk nudge toward the door. They said their good-byes and made a quick, but clumsy, exit.
By today's noon (she actually let me sleep in?) we were on the road again. Xena atop Argo with me in tow on a very well padded litter that Dunixi and his father had provided. (The least they could do in the way of compensation for my troubles and my warrior's aid.) It was totally disgraceful to have to be carried from the hut and placed on it, but after Xena pointed out that the mere act of walking would more than likely pull out most, if not all of her careful stitching, I had no choice than to acquiesce. I could tell she was still pretty angry with me, but at the same time she was gentle and caring. That's just my Xena, but I like her that way.
We made camp a little before sunset next to a small lake surrounded by shrubs of gorgeous pink roses and what seems to be a grove of lilacs, a location that is rarely Xena's first choice. (Maybe she's starting to forgive me?) She even propped me up, on more blankets and cushioning than ever, before she set off to find us something she'd have to cook on her own this evening. I knew before she returned that it would be fish. It's the one thing the Warrior Princess can cook without causing food poisoning. Of course before she left and as soon as she returned she put her hand then her lips to my forehead for the zillionth time of the day.
"An animal bite is more deadly than a sword's piercing." She explained earlier and continued to check for fever as well as dose me with some bitter infection-preventing tincture throughout our day's travel. Luckily we now have plenty of fresh cold water to wash it down.
So, here I lay fortunate to have my southern injury confined to my right side, while up north the other of nature's warriors bruised my left hand. So I can rest and write comfortably. If it weren't for the fact that I will have to endure Xena's examination of my rather sensitive wound at least two or three times a day for the next week I'd be thrilled to have so much time to pen my tales. (Oh, gods and the removal of those stitches!) She's gone to wash off our dinner plates and see to Argo's needs before we turn in for the night before she has to check this thing one last time. I think
"Come on, Gabrielle " the warrior's soft voice proceeded her as she returned to the clearing, carrying the familiar medicinal pouch. "Put that away for the night, you'll have plenty of time for writing while you recover from this escapade." Her voice held a twinge of disappointment as well as the remnants of simmering anger. With a quick cocking of her head she motioned for the bard to prepare for what needed to be done.
Gabrielle's shoulders fell in anticipation of the discomfort as well as the embarrassment involved in checking and redressing her wound but set aside the tools of her trade and turned her back to the sullen warrior.
Xena knelt behind her contrite companion and gently lifted the small bandage that covered her unconventional injury. She winced at the damage the animal had done and realized they'd be traveling slowly for quite a while. The gash was right at the spot where the bard's leg joined the larger more sit-on-able muscle above, a place that would easily tear if the girl so much as took a few steps. Perhaps a trip to the mountains, where they could rest until Gabrielle completely recovered, was in order. She shook her head slowly and reached for the small jar of ointment that would warn off serious infection at the site. "Brace yourself." She warned the girl.
Gabrielle's body tensed as she squeezed her eyes shut and gritted her teeth. It was over quickly, but the residual pain lasted long after the warrior's work was done. Xena tossed the used bandage over her patient's shoulder and into the fire. Gabrielle watched as the flames consumed it quickly, leaping a bit higher for a moment before resuming the steady red and orange glow that warmed and lit their campsite. The warrior took her time folding a new dressing. Gabrielle looked over her shoulder trying to get a glimpse of the bruise as well as to check on her benefactor's lack of progress.
"Come on, Xena that breeze is chilly." Gabrielle appealed to the unhurried warrior. Having her posterior exposed in this manner was bad enough without Xena making it worse. The woman responded with a quick chuckle. "Glad to amuse you, Xena, but "
"Butt?" The warrior replied. "But, what? Or should it be what butt??" She laughed again as Gabrielle sighed in defeat. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Xena apologized as she placed the compress over the wound and pulled the bard's blanket over her humility. "I was just thinking "
"I can just imagine." Gabrielle grumbled.
Xena laughed again as she maternally tucked the covers around her young friend. "Yep, just thinking about how someday your husband is going to react to the fact that you've had a chunk of your butt bitten off by Hercules." She laughed heartily.
"XENA!" Gabrielle squawked as she turned on the warrior. "IF YOU EVER TELL A SOUL ABOUT THIS, I'LL I'LL " The warrior's eyebrows rose in anticipation of the girl's threat. The bard shook a finger at her, spluttering for a few moments as she realized there was very little she could use against Xena that hadn't already been done. She let out an exasperated sigh. "I'LL well, I'll think of something, Xena." The warrior smirked as she pulled in her bottom lip in a mocking pout that said, 'yeah, right'. Gabrielle's anger slowly dissolved to anguish and then to desperation. "Pllllleeeezzz, Xena? Don't, please?"
Xena sniffed a small laugh as she patted the bard's shoulder. "Don't worry, Gabrielle, you're secret's safe with me." The bard let a quick breath of relief escape her lips. "Of course if you ever do marry and he ever does ask I'll just tell him I was responsible for the blemish on your otherwise untarnished hide." The warrior easily deflected the small pillow that flew toward her face. "Relax," she smiled. "I'm teasing." The girl's eyes narrowed in disbelief. "Besides, you don't think my sewing would leave the least bit of a scar, would you?" Xena placed her fingers across her heart and raised her eyebrows as if she had been insulted. Gabrielle rolled her eyes and surrendered. For a moment only the sound of the summer breeze ruffling the foliage permeated the small encampment.
"You know, this could have been a lot worse. You could have really been hurt." Xena's voice was soft, serious, and full of 'what ifs'. The girl lowered her eyes, mournful in her abashment.
"You still mad?" She questioned timidly, wary of the warrior's answer.
"Not much." The warrior replied, continuing to make the girl squirm. Gabrielle pursed her lips and nodded. She deserved it, she knew it.
"I guess I was pretty stupid." She offered as penitence.
"Mmm, hmm." Xena agreed with a soft nod.
"I guess you don't think much of me." Gabrielle struggled to keep the quiver out of her voice.
"Not much," Xena began, ignoring the tear that ran over the girl's cheek. "At least not much of your judgment. But " she hesitated for a second, "you're young, you'll learn. Just seems it always has to be the hard way, huh?"
Gabrielle laughed through a sniffle. "I make an awful lot of mistakes. Don't I?"
Xena nodded as she rose and brushed the twigs from her knees. "You're not perfect Gabrielle." It wasn't much comfort, but the bard's heart felt a bit lighter as the burden of guilt began to lift. She smiled weakly and swiped the back of her hand under her nose. "But " Xena continued, the girl waited for the other shoe to fall as the warrior bent closer. "I love ya anyway." She whispered as if someone might hear the mighty princess's small confession.
The bard coughed a tearful laugh of relief as the penned tears finally flowed freely.
Xena smiled, knowing she'd put the girl through enough punishment and that one small bard would never forget this bit of mischief. "Get some sleep, Gabrielle. We have along way to travel tomorrow." She flipped her bedroll next to the litter and dropped her tired body into it.
Gabrielle watched as the warrior situated herself and pulled the last blanket over her shoulder. The bard retrieved her quill and parchment
So thus ends the story of the last forty-eight hours of my life, which was more strife than anything else. If I'm ever reincarnated or forced to relive this life, I am doing everything in my power to avoid these two days! UGH!
I'll be polishing Xena's boots for about six full moons and drinking NOTHING but crystal clear spring water until I'm old enough to warn my grandchildren of drinking's evil. I'm certainly not looking forward to exposing my tail end to a certain warrior on a regular basis, but I could get used to traveling this way. We don't get there as fast, but my feet don't suffer much. Anyway, as long as there's no infection, Xena says it shouldn't be more than a week. I haven't quite mastered taking care of my personal needs yet, but Xena says there are ways to adapt to any situation. We'll see
"Gabriee-L-ul." Xena's voice emanated a cross warning from beneath her blanket.
"Five minutes." The bard replied.
A long arm snaked out from beneath the coverings and snatched the quill from the girl's hand. It disappeared just as quickly, taking the instrument with it. "Go to sleep!" The warrior ordered without opening her eyes.
Gabrielle blew a quick breath over her top lip, causing her tawny bangs to flip up and back. She rapidly spun her scroll into a neat cylinder shape and tied it securely then jammed it under the pillow she viciously punched into a sleepable lump. The girl bounced herself down with enough force to jar her tender sutured backside. "Oooooo " she moaned as she absently reached back to massage the injury, finding that action made things even worse. Pulling a quick breath through her teeth she slowly relaxed her limbs then her torso until the pain drifted into a dull ache.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's quiet voice broke the silence of the night.
"Mmmm?" The warrior's sleepy reply came from beneath the blanket.
"What happened to Petrilus?" The bard asked seriously.
"Who?" Xena groaned, struggling to stay awake.
"Petrilus. You know the guy with the water." Gabrielle reminded her.
"What water?" Xena's voice was starting to get that 'leave me alone and just go to sleep, Gabrielle' sound to it.
"The magic water in Kester." Gabrielle informed her with a twinge of caution.
The mound of blankets next to the bard rolled and rumbled as the warrior shifted positions and turned to the curious girl. Gabrielle steeled herself for more of the warrior's admonishment. Xena's eyes remained closed as she tucked her hands beneath the cheek that rested on the ground.
"There's no magic water in Kester, Gabrielle." She yawned and smacked her lips several times before continuing.
"What about the damn?" Gabrielle inquired.
"Nope," the warrior yawned again. "No damn either."
"Petrilus?" The bard queried with raised brows.
"Uh, huh." Xena assured her without moving her lips or shaking her head.
Gabrielle huffed in disgust. "You mean? He lied? Made the whole thing up? Just to get me ."
"Exaggerated mostly," Xena breathed as she flipped to her back and folded her fingers across her chest. "Just a bad case of erosion that stops the flow every now and again. Petrius and I have a way of releasing it without causing major flooding." She paused for a moment as her breathing became slow and even, then took a deep breath and added. "Happens every three or four years."
"Petrius?" Gabrielle remarked.
"Dunixi's father." The warrior opened one tired eye and glared at the bard before she could ask anything else. "Go to sleep, Gabrielle." The eye closed and Xena fell silent. Conversation - over.
Gabrielle let her head drop back to her pillow and wrestled with the information Xena had reluctantly volunteered. Dunixi was quite the bard, himself, now wasn't he. She listened to the warrior's soft snore and counted stars in the clear sky, realizing that riding instead of walking left her quiet sleepless, but the crickets' chirping and the soft rustling of branches in the wind slowly lulled her into the embrace of sleep. Hours later under the light of a full moon the soft touch of warrior lips against her slightly warm brow failed to disturb her slumber.
The warrior smiled at the look of innocence that had been so recently tormented and shook her head at the dilemma the girl had gotten into this time as she tucked the blanket under the bard's chin then curled back into the hospitality of her own soft bed.
The battle was over, Petrilus was dead and the dam busted. Water once again flowed freely under the village of Kester and into the lands beyond. The man had been more than unreasonable in his argument and flatly refused to release a single drop of the precious element. Xena and her friend were left with little choice. Petrilus had been one of her most admired generals, he died as he lived. Gabrielle had had enough traumas for one day and one more bloody incident in the life of an ex-warrior had been kept from her young life. Xena slid her thumb across the two small red splotches on the girl's left hand, semi aware that she had been holding it in her own for the past few moments. Gabrielle whimpered once as her fingers slowly closed over her palm. The warrior released the small hand.
Letting go was not as easy as it used to be.
Yes, a long vacation in the mountains was just what they needed. They'd have to pass the ruins of Cirra, but it was time the warrior faced her destiny.
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