* * *
A few more minutes of steady walking brought them to the treeline, and Xena led the way off the trail.
"Where's Argo?" asked Gabrielle.
"Probably out looking for something to eat. Let's see if I can whistle with my left hand," she said and stuck two fingers in her mouth. The result was a little weak--not so much because she was using the wrong hand as because she still felt so short of breath. The second attempt was better, and soon the mare emerged from among the trees further down the slope. She greeted Xena with a sloppy nuzzle on the cheek. The warrior laughed and began to stroke the velvety nose. Then, turning to Gabrielle, she said, "We stashed the gear behind those big rocks over there. Look and see if there's an apple for this nice horse we found."
Gabrielle went behind the rocks and soon returned with a shiny red apple. "Where'd all those furs come from?" she asked.
"Elkton loaned them to us. He sent quite a bit of food along, too."
"So I noticed. I'll cook you up a nice, hot meal tonight. That will make you feel better."
Xena grinned. "I'm looking forward to it," she said, watching Argo crunch the apple. "Why don't you go ahead and start setting up camp? I'll gather firewood."
"No, Xena, I think you should rest. I can take care of everything."
"No, you can't. The sun is setting and soon it will be too dark to find wood. We've got to have a lot of it because we need to keep a fire going all night to stay warm. I'm feeling fine now. Don't worry about me."
"Okay," Gabrielle said, but she sounded unconvinced.
Xena turned and headed downhill to where the trees grew bigger and closer together. She had to go some distance before she began to find much dead wood, though, and she quickly discovered that without an extra arm to hold it, she was pretty much limited to carrying what she could pick up in one hand. Stopping for a moment to think, she laid down the sticks she'd collected, took off her cloak, and spread it out on the ground. Then, working as quickly as she could, she piled it full of wood. The dizziness came again just as she was finishing, but she stopped to wait and the spell soon passed. As soon as it was gone, she bent down to gather up the corners of the cloak, hoisted the bundle onto her back and headed for the campsite.
"Where do you want the fire?" she asked, stopping to try to catch her breath.
Gabrielle, who was spreading out the furs and blankets beside a large boulder, stood up quickly. "I thought we could build it right here," she said, pointing, and sleep between the fire and the rock. That way maybe it will be warmer."
"Good plan," Xena said approvingly. She moved to the designated spot and lowered her bundle.
"Xena, why are you carrying wood in your cloak? Look how dirty you got it!"
"I'm using the cloak because it's the only way I can carry more than two sticks at a time," Xena answered somewhat irritably.
"Oh. I'm sorry. I guess I forgot about your arm." Gabrielle crouched beside the warrior and helped stack the wood.
When they finished, Xena stood up and shook the cloak out. "Okay, I'm going back for another load," she said.
Gabrielle laid a hand on her arm. "I'll go get it," she said. "You stay here and finish setting up camp, and maybe you can get the fire started, too. I'm afraid you're going to get cold, using your cloak to carry wood."
Xena looked down at her. "What if we both go this time, and then you can go alone next time. We need a lot more wood and it's getting dark fast."
They returned to the forest, piled the cloak full of wood, and then carried it back between them. Xena stumbled just as they reached the fire site, then dropped her end of the cloak and sank down on the furs.
Gabrielle put an arm around her shoulders. "Are you dizzy again?" she asked.
"Yeah, a little."
"Why don't you lie down? I can take care of the firewood."
"No, I'm better now. I'll be all right."
Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, then began stacking the new wood they had brought. When she finished, she brushed the leaves and dirt off the cloak and wrapped it around Xena. "I'm going to get some more wood," she said gently, "and I want you to just sit here and rest."
"I'll get the fire started. I can do that much, anyway."
"Okay, if you feel like it. Otherwise, I can do it when I get back."
Xena nodded. "Go on, now, or you won't be able to see to find any wood."
Gabrielle bent and kissed the warrior quickly on the top of her head, and then hurried off.
Xena sat still for several minutes, waiting for the light-headedness to pass and for her breathing to ease up. When it did, she got slowly to her feet and began collecting stones until she had enough for a fire circle. Then she took the two flintstones and the tinder out of one of the saddlebags. It was going to be tricky striking the stones together using only one hand, but surely she could figure out a way to do it. Scouting around, she found a small, flat rock, placed it in the center of the ring of stones, and laid the kindling around it. She carefully arranged the tinder and one flint on the flat rock, then struck this flint sharply with the other one. But instead of producing a spark, the action merely sent the first flint spinning off the edge of the rock.
With a frustrated sigh, Xena retrieved the flint, set it back in place with another rock to help hold it, and tried again. This time she got a spark, but before she could blow it into a flame, it died. A third try sent the flint rolling away again, and a fourth try did the same. Cursing under her breath, she grabbed the flint and set it in place once more.
Startled, the warrior looked up to see Gabrielle standing a short distance away, her arms full of firewood. The expression in the bard's eyes was one of pained sympathy.
"I can do this," Xena said quickly. "I know I can. It's just going to take a little practice is all."
Gabrielle dropped her sticks on the pile of wood and then came over to kneel beside Xena. "I know you can do it, too," she said gently, "but right now you don't feel good and we need the fire soon, so why don't you let me light it?"
Xena looked at her for a long moment and then handed over the flint. Moving to the bedding, she sat down and leaned back wearily against the rock.
Gabrielle studied the arrangement of kindling for a moment, moved a couple of sticks, and picked up the second flint. Then she looked at Xena. "How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Pretty useless, at the moment."
Gabrielle gave her a brief look of surprise, then said, "Xena, you could never be useless. Even if you had no arms or legs at all, you would still find a way to do things."
"Now there's a pleasant image," Xena said grimly.
"Oh. Well, I didn't mean it like it sounded. I meant it as a compliment."
Xena raised an eyebrow, but remained silent. She watched Gabrielle bend over the fireplace, strike a spark, and quickly blow it into a small flame which she fed with twigs and dry leaves. The warrior smiled, remembering the night the young girl from Poteidaia had crept into her campsite, shivering because she couldn't get a fire started. Who would have thought the two of them would come to share so much? With a soft sigh, Xena leaned her head back and tried to relax. It was definitely good to have her lover back again. She would always be grateful that she had been able to break Ares' spell--no matter what the ultimate price might be.
A few minutes later, when the fire was burning well, Gabrielle came and sat beside her. "Now tell me how you're feeling physically," she said, brushing the hair back from Xena's forehead and laying her hand there for a moment.
"Really tired. And I can't seem to take a deep breath."
"You're not dizzy?"
"No, not right now."
"Let's take your armor off. I think you'll be more comfortable."
"Yeah," agreed Xena and leaned forward so that Gabrielle could remove her cloak. After that, the bard unhooked the sword and chakram, and laid them at one end of the bedroll. Then she untied Xena's arm, massaging it gently in the places where the rope had rubbed the warrior's flesh.
"Still no feeling in this arm?" she asked.
Gabrielle sighed and continued the massage for a couple of minutes. Then, after helping Xena slip out of her breastplates, bracers, and shinguards, she wrapped the wool cloak around her again.
"Thanks," Xena murmured as she leaned back gratefully against the rock and closed her eyes. She felt Gabrielle lay her fingers on her throat to check her pulse. After a few moments, the fingers moved to a second spot, and then to a third. Xena opened her eyes. "What's wrong? Don't I have a pulse?" she asked with a weak grin.
"Well, actually, I am having trouble finding it." Gabrielle frowned. "Let me try your wrist. Oh, there it is," she said with relief, "but it feels really weak." She glanced at Xena, then said, "I'm going to listen to your heart." Unfastening the warrior's cloak, she folded it back, slipped the leather strap off Xena's left shoulder, and laid her ear against Xena's breast.
Moved by the intimate touch, Xena softly stroked the golden hair and then kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "I like it when you listen to my heart," she said. "I just wish I felt more like taking advantage of this situation."
Gabrielle raised her head. "I can't hear your heartbeat when you're talking, you know," she said with a smile, and then kissed Xena's mouth and ran her fingers lightly down the warrior's throat. "Now be quiet and let me listen."
Xena leaned her head back again. It seemed to be taking Gabrielle a long time. "What do you hear?" she asked finally.
"Gabrielle looked up and, in the firelight, Xena could see the deep worry that had replaced the playful smile in her eyes. "It's weak and sort of fast," she said, "and your breathing sounds so incredibly shallow." She hesitated for a moment, biting her lower lip, and then said, "Xena, I think the poison from the serpent's bite may be affecting your heart somehow, and your lungs, too. Don't you think that's a possibility?"
"Yes," Xena said softly.
Neither of them spoke for a couple of minutes. Gabrielle pulled Xena's strap back up and wrapped the cloak back around her. Then she asked, "What, exactly, did Elkton say would happen if the serpent bit you?"
"He said that if I was bitten on an arm or leg, I would lose the use of that arm or leg." She paused, trying to remember, then went on. "And he said that if the bite was elsewhere . . . I would die."
Gabrielle shuddered. "But he didn't say you would die if the bite was on your arm--just that you wouldn't be able to use the arm?"
"Right. But maybe he didn't know everything there was to know."
"How did he find out all this stuff anyway? About the serpent and all that?"
"He saw it in a vision."
"Where did the vision come from?"
"He didn't know."
Gabrielle took Xena's left hand and held it in hers, pressing it against her cheek as she rocked gently backward and forward, seemingly deep in thought. Finally, she spoke. "If Elkton had a vision that showed him how you could save me from Ares, then maybe he'll have one about how to save you from this snakebite."
"No, listen! There must be something we can do! Somebody must know how to heal this thing, and it just makes sense that it would be Elkton! Maybe we should pack up right now and go on down the mountain. You can ride Argo and--"
"Gabrielle, we can't. We can't travel that road at night. It's much too rough and dangerous, and there won't even be a moon. We'll have to wait until first light tomorrow."
"But Xena, what if--" She stopped, looking at the warrior now, fear written plainly on her face.
"What if what?" Xena asked gently.
Gabrielle turned to look at the fire, then got up and added several pieces of wood. When she came back, she seemed calmer. "Maybe this is like the thing with the poison dart," she said. "Maybe it will just make you sick for a while and then you'll fight it off and be fine."
"Maybe," Xena said cautiously, "but when I got hit with the dart, I at least had some idea how the poison would affect me. I don't really know what to expect from this venom."
"But you've treated people with snakebites before, haven't you?"
"A few, yes, but this wasn't an ordinary snake. This was a creature of Hera's making."
"Hera! You didn't tell me she was involved!"
"Oh. Well, I told the other Gabrielle. I forgot I hadn't told you." Xena paused to take a few short breaths. "The kaya plant was Hera's," she said then. "That's why she put the serpent there to guard it."
Gabrielle was silent, and after a moment, Xena put her arm around her lover's shoulders and pulled her close. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens tonight and then go on to Elkton's tomorrow," she said.
Gabrielle looked up at her and then laid her head on Xena's shoulder. "I don't want you to die," she said in a choked voice. "I can't stand the thought of losing you again. And besides," she added, raising her head to look into the warrior's eyes, "you promised you wouldn't die on me again. Don't forget that!"
"I'll do my best to keep my promise," Xena said with a smile, and then she bent and softly kissed Gabrielle's mouth. "It feels so good to hold you," she said. "I'm glad I got to do that again, anyway."
"Xena, stop talking like you're about to die. I'm not going to let that happen. Not if there's any way I can prevent it."
The warrior didn't answer. Her throat felt tight with emotion, and it was harder than ever to breathe.
"What about your herbs?" Gabrielle said suddenly. "Don't you have something that would help your heart or your breathing?"
Xena considered for a moment. "Yes, maybe I do have something that would help," she said.
"I'll get your bag," Gabrielle said quickly and jumped up. She was back almost immediately, holding the bag while Xena sorted through it one-handed.
"How does your head feel?" the warrior asked, looking up at Gabrielle.
"Oh, uh, I haven't really thought about it for a while."
"Well, now that you're thinking about it, how does it feel?"
"It hurts a little, I guess, but it's not bad."
"Do you want some willow bark?"
"No, I'm okay."
"Well, there's plenty here, if you decide you want it later." She went on looking through the packets of herbs until she came to one containing a dried white root. Pulling it out, she put the others back in the bag.
"What's that?" asked Gabrielle.
"It's something I bought in the Athens market last time we were there. It comes from the land of Chin. I haven't really had a chance to use it, but they say that it's good for the heart."
"You're going to use an herb on yourself that you've never tried before . . . on anyone?"
Xena leveled her gaze at the bard. "I don't think I have much choice right now, do you?"
"No, I guess not."
"Go put some water in the cooking pot."
Gabrielle stood up. "Where do I get water? I haven't seen any around here."
"You'll have to melt snow."
"Oh yeah. Good idea." Gabrielle picked up the pot and walked away from the fire. The night had grown dark, but the patches of snow were still faintly visible, and after pausing for a moment, she moved toward one of the larger ones.
Xena sat staring into the fire until the collapse of a burning ember snapped her out of her reverie. The fire needed more wood, she realized. Summoning the little bit of energy she had left, she stumbled to her feet and crossed the two paces to the woodpile. She laid several sticks on the flames then returned to the bedroll and sat down, exhausted. Had it really been only that morning that she had climbed a mountain and then fought a serpent? It all seemed as if it had happened to a different person many long years ago.
Gabrielle crouched beside her. "Xena, I want you to sit still from now on. You need to save your strength."
"Yeah, okay," she said, nodding vaguely.
"I filled the pot up with snow," Gabrielle said. "How much of the root should I use?"
Xena reached inside her cloak and pulled out her breast dagger. Handing it to Gabrielle, she said, "Start shaving off little bits of the root. I'll tell you when to stop."
* * *
"Is the tea helping any?" asked Gabrielle.
"Yeah, it is, I think. I'm feeling a little stronger." Xena held the mug with her hand under the handle, palm against the warm wooden surface. Raising it to her mouth, she took a long sip, letting the steam caress her face. Then she looked across the fire at Gabrielle, who sat cutting up vegetables for stew.
"I'm sorry about the pot, by the way," said Xena.
"What do you mean? What's wrong with it?"
"Haven't you noticed?"
"No, I can't see it very well in the dark," said Gabrielle, holding the pot up in the light of the fire. "Did you throw it at a warlord?"
"No, worse than that--I cooked in it. Or tried to, anyway."
"You were doing the cooking?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief.
"Well, somebody had to do it and you didn't remember how."
"I didn't remember how to cook?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Well, that made it kind of hard on you, didn't it?"
"Uh-huh, and on you, too, I think," Xena said with a grin, then took another sip of tea.
"So what did you try to cook?"
"Oh, nothing fancy. I just threw some things together like you're doing, to make kind of a stew. But then I got busy showing you how to use your staff, because you'd forgotten that, too, and--"
"You let it burn."
"Yeah. I tried to clean all the black stuff out, but--" She shrugged. "Anyway, as soon as I have some money, I'll buy you a new pot."
"You don't have any money?"
"No, I gave it away."
"All of it?"
"Well, that's okay. We can use some of mine." Gabrielle felt inside her bodice for her coin purse. "Where is my money, by the way?"
"Uh, well, after Ares drugged you, I just kind of combined all our funds . . . and then there was this family . . ."
"You gave my money away, too? All the money I earned telling stories?"
"Yes. I'm sorry, Gabrielle." Xena watched the younger woman's face and saw the expression soften into a smile.
"It's okay," she said. "I'm sure the people you gave it to really needed that money."
"They did," Xena said. "I was hoping you'd understand."
Gabrielle put the rest of the vegetables into the cooking pot along with several chunks of dried fish, then she set the pot on some stones at the edge of the fire.
"So there you were," she said, "stuck with a Gabrielle who didn't remember how to cook. I think that's pretty funny, actually."
"It was really only for one night. Then we got to Elkton's house. Gabrielle, I don't know where that man learned to cook, but the meal he made for us last night-- Well, it was almost as good as some you've made," she finished.
Gabrielle grinned. "I'm really looking forward to meeting him," she said.
"Meeting him? But you already-- Oh yeah. That was the other you. This has been so confusing," Xena said as she took another sip of tea.
Gabrielle was silent for a few moments, then said, "Xena, can I ask you something?"
"What is it, Love?"
"Well, when I was-- I mean, after Ares drugged me, did we--" She stopped.
"Did we what?" prompted Xena.
"Did we . . . make love?"
The warrior smiled softly. "No, Gabrielle. I couldn't make love to you under those circumstances. You were too different. It would have been like making love to a stranger."
"Didn't you love me anymore?"
"Of course I loved you. But I wanted you back the way you really are, like you are now. The other you was kind of hard to live with." She smiled.
"What do you mean, 'hard to live with'?"
"Well, you were just so aggressive and warlike, always wanting to kill somebody."
"And did I?" Gabrielle asked in a small voice. "Did I kill anybody?"
"No, you didn't. But you almost did. It was quite a little challenge for me to keep you from killing one of Hera's warriors this morning."
"But I didn't kill him."
"No, but you definitely wanted to--especially after I had set a bad example by killing one of the warriors myself."
"Why did you kill him? Was he attacking you?"
"He threw a dagger at us, but I didn't really need to kill him. I just caught the dagger and threw it back without thinking. It was sort of a reflex action." She stopped for a moment to catch her breath, then went on. "I know that's not a very good excuse, but that's what happened."
Gabrielle pondered this for a while, then said, "So it was seeing you kill someone that made me want to kill?"
"No," Xena said slowly. "You pretty much woke up from the drug wanting to kill. But it wasn't you, Gabrielle. It was Ares. He changed your whole personality. That's why I had to find a way to break the spell."
There was silence for a moment, then Gabrielle said softly, "Thank you, Xena. I already owed you my life several times over. Now I owe you much more."
Xena shifted uncomfortably and swallowed the last of the tea in her mug. "Hey, that's what friends are for, right?" she said. "Now can we talk about something else?"
"Sure," said Gabrielle with a grin. She walked around the fire and knelt in front of Xena. "Are you really feeling better?" she asked, taking the mug from the warrior's hand.
"But only a little?"
Xena heard the disappointment in her lover's voice and wished she could lie and say that everything was fine. For a few moments she looked into Gabrielle's green eyes without speaking, and then said quietly, "You know, it's funny--I was ready to die to save you. I've actually been thinking about death quite a bit the last couple of days. But now that I've got you back again--" She reached out to cup the younger woman's cheek with her hand. "I kind of want to stick around."
"You're not going to die, Xena," Gabrielle whispered fiercely. "I'm not going to let you. I told you that." She put her hand over the warrior's and then turned her face to kiss Xena's palm.
"Gabrielle, you may not have any control over this."
"I know, but I really think Elkton can help us. I don't know why, but I just have this strong feeling that somehow he'll know what to do. All we have to do is keep you alive until we get to his house."
Xena stared at her without speaking. There was no reason to believe that Elkton would know how to solve this crisis, but neither had there been a reason for her own belief that he could help break Ares' spell. And if Gabrielle wanted to cling to this one last hope, why not?
"The thing is, you've got to help me, Xena," Gabrielle continued. "You've got to be strong and fight this poison until we can get you to Elkton. Can you do that?"
"I can try." Xena pulled the bard close and kissed her forehead. "That's all I can promise you. Now go check and make sure the stew's not burning."
"The stew!" exclaimed Gabrielle, scrambling to her feet and hurrying back to the cooking pot. "It's all right," she reported after a moment, "but it does need to be stirred."
Xena gave a tired smile and let her head fall back against the rock. All at once she was acutely aware of the difficulty of her breathing, and she couldn't remember ever having felt such a deep and total weariness. She watched Gabrielle on the other side of the fire, moving as if through some kind of haze. And when the young woman spoke, her voice seemed to come from a great distance.
"Tell me more about what happened after Ares drugged me," she said. "What was I like? What did I do?"
Xena looked at her lover, standing there in the haze, her face so beautiful in the golden firelight. Ares had stolen her away, but Xena had defeated him. She had saved Gabrielle from Tartarus. And now she felt a sweet peace in her soul.
"Xena, did you hear me? Are you all right?" Gabrielle was crouching beside her now, looking at her with frightened eyes.
"I can't talk now," Xena murmured. "I'm just too tired."
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said quickly, touching Xena's cheek. "I told you to save your strength and now I'm tiring you out with talking." She smiled and the warrior smiled back weakly. "Are you warm enough?" the bard asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
Gabrielle put her hands on Xena's. "Your hands are a little cold," she said, reaching for one of the furs lying folded at the foot of the bedroll. "Lean forward and I'll put this around you." She draped the fur over Xena's shoulders and spread another one across her legs. "The stew will be ready in a minute," she said and moved away again.
When she brought the steaming bowl and held it out to her, Xena stared at it, wondering vaguely how she could both hold it and eat one-handed. "You'll have to set it down," she said.
"No, I'll just hold it for you," Gabrielle said, seating herself cross-legged beside the warrior.
"But you need to eat, too."
"I can eat when you're done. Here's the spoon," she said, placing it in Xena's hand.
She ate slowly, taking small bites. She had never realized before how hard it was to eat and breathe at the same time. After a while, she put the spoon back in the bowl and looked at Gabrielle. "I can't eat any more," she said.
"Are you sure? Xena, you need to keep up your strength," Gabrielle said. She tipped the bowl toward the firelight and peered into it. "You only ate half. Don't you like it?"
"It's fine, Gabrielle. I just can't eat any more."
"Okay," the bard said softly, setting the bowl aside. "Is there anything else you want? Some bread? Dried fruit? Water?"
Gabrielle went to get the waterskin and held it while Xena took a few small sips. "Do you want me to make you more tea?" she asked.
Xena shook her head.
"All right. I'll eat my dinner and get things cleaned up. Then we can go to sleep." She got to her feet and moved away into the haze.
Xena closed her eyes. The next thing she was aware of was Gabrielle's hand on her shoulder, and she raised her head, surprised. "Was I asleep?" she asked.
"Yeah," Gabrielle said with a soft smile. "I started talking and after a while I realized that the only one listening was me."
"It's okay." Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the warrior and pulled her close. "I love you so much, Xena," she said.
"I know," Xena whispered, her face against the warmth of Gabrielle's neck. "And I love you, too."
Gabrielle stroked the dark hair for a few minutes, then said, "I think you're falling asleep again. Why don't you lie down? Do you want to be on the side closer to the fire?"
"No," said Xena.
"It'll be warmer there."
"Yeah, but whoever's closer to the fire has to get up and feed it during the night."
Gabrielle grinned. "Good point. You'll just have to hope I remember to wake up and do it."
Xena stretched out on her back, her useless right arm tucked into the space between her body and the rock, and Gabrielle covered her with furs. She watched the bard move to the woodpile and lay a couple of logs on the fire, but her figure was blurred by what seemed to be an ever-thickening mist. Returning to the bedroll, Gabrielle slipped under the covers and lay close to the warrior. Her hand found Xena's and their fingers intertwined.
For a time they were silent, then Xena looked over at Gabrielle and said, "I want to hold you."
"Won't that make it harder for you to breathe?"
"Maybe, but I want to try it." They let go of hands and she put her arm around Gabrielle, who rolled closer and hesitantly laid her head on Xena's chest.
"Is that all right?" the bard asked.
"Yeah. I just want to have you close, so if I wake up in the night, I'll know that it's really you." She felt Gabrielle smile and gradually relax. "Can youhear my heart?" she asked after a few moments.
"Uh-huh, but just barely. It's very weak."
Xena closed her eyes and felt herself begin to drift. She had almost departed the realm of consciousness when Gabrielle spoke.
"I don't want you to go to sleep," she said. "I'm afraid you won't wake up again."
Xena opened her eyes. Gabrielle had propped herself up on one elbow and appeared silhouetted against the firelight, her face in the shadows. "If I cross over," Xena said quietly, "it will happen the same, whether I'm awake or asleep."
"But if you're awake, maybe you can fight better--fight to stay alive."
"If there's any way to fight this thing, I will," she said. "I told you that already." She stopped speaking and for a few moments there was only the sound of the crackling fire and her own labored breathing. "Have faith, Gabrielle," she said finally. "That's all I know to tell you."
"Have faith," the younger woman repeated softly. "The last time you told me that, you were going off to free Prometheus, and I was afraid you wouldn't come back. But you did, so I have to believe that you will come through this time, too." She smiled and brushed the hair back from Xena's face, then kissed her on the cheek. "Good night, Xena," she said, snuggling back down beside the warrior.
"Good night," Xena responded, closing her eyes again.
"If you need anything in the night, I want you to wake me up," Gabrielle said. "Will you do that?"
"I mean it, Xena. If you start feeling worse or you just want someone to talk to or whatever, I want you to wake me up, okay?"
Xena moved her mouth to answer, but no words came out. A dense fog was rolling over her, blotting out all sensation and sound. She began to feel as if she were falling, drifting slowly down through the fog, helpless to stop herself, until at last she came to rest in a place of heavy, dreamless sleep.
* * *
She woke sometime later, uncertain at first whether she really was awake. Her eyes were open, and yet she could see nothing except the thick blackness of the night. Listening, she heard only the rasp of air making its tired way in and out of her lungs. But gradually, she became aware, too, of the gentler sound of Gabrielle's steady breathing, and of the weight of the bard's head on her collarbone. She lay for some moments without moving, wondering what had awakened her. It seemed a riddle too difficult to solve initially, but then, slowly, the realization began to penetrate her sluggish mind. Her feet were cold--so very cold that they ached. Relieved to have discovered the problem at last, she set about to right it, making feeble efforts to flex her ankles and wiggle her toes inside her boots. But even this small exertion tired her and she soon gave it up, leaving her feet no warmer than before.
Gabrielle had said to wake her, but what could she do to help, Xena wondered. This coldness she felt--was it the chill of death? If so, then she had only to wait for it to creep upward through her body, until at last the icy fingers stilled the beating of her heart. How often had she heard the dying complain of feeling cold? Yes, that must be what this was. There was nothing Gabrielle could do.
But the bard had said to wake her, so maybe-- It was so hard to think. Xena closed her eyes wearily. She could probably ignore the cold and take refuge in sleep again. Surely it wouldn't be long now. She could just slip away quietly, peacefully, in her sleep. But what about Gabrielle? It would be good to hear her voice one last time, to say goodbye, at least.
She opened her eyes again and stared into the darkness. Then, summoning up the little energy that remained to her, she said, "Gabrielle." Her voice sounded weak--barely stronger than a whisper, and she thought she would have to try again, but Gabrielle woke almost at once.
"Xena, what is it? Are you feeling worse?"
"Cold?" Gabrielle sat up and looked around. "Zeus! I didn't wake up to feed the fire! I'm sorry." She scrambled out from under the covers and hurriedly laid some sticks on the dying coals, blowing on them until a column of smoke arose, followed by a tentative flame. She fanned this flame with her cloak until it grew to a respectable size, then added several more sticks. Returning to kneel at Xena's side, she laid her hand on the warrior's face.
"Are you cold all over?" she asked.
"Mostly my feet . . . and legs," said Xena, panting for breath between words. "They're so cold . . . they ache."
Gabrielle slipped her hand under the furs and felt Xena's thighs and knees. Then she folded the covers back to reveal her feet. "I'm going to take your boots off, okay? I think it will be easier to warm your feet up without them."
Untying the laces, Gabrielle worked quickly to loosen them and slide the boots off. "I'll put these by the fire to warm up," she said, then turned back to run her hands over the warrior's feet. "Oh, Xena," she said softly, "your feet are like ice. You could have gotten frostbite. It's a good thing you woke me up."
"I almost . . . didn't."
"Why not?" Gabrielle demanded, looking at Xena. "I told you to wake me if you needed anything." She lifted one of the warrior's feet onto her lap and began to rub it gently.
"I . . . thought I . . . was dying," Xena said. "I didn't think . . . you could . . . do anything."
Even through the mist that blurred her vision, Xena could see the pain these words brought to Gabrielle's face.
"Xena," the young woman said, still looking at the foot she was massaging, "even if you were dying, I would want you to wake me up. I might not be able to do very much, but at least I could be here for you. And I could hold you and tell you how much I love you." She looked up then and in the light of the fire, Xena could see the tears on her cheeks. "Do you remember a long time ago," Gabrielle continued, "right after we first met, when you were in Lyceus' tomb? I told you then that you weren't alone, and I meant it. You don't have to live alone, and you don't have to die alone either, as long as I'm around."
Xena was silent for a few moments, moved by her lover's words. "That's why . . . I woke you," she said finally. "So I could . . . hear your . . . voice."
Gabrielle brushed a hand quickly across her eyes, then returned her attention to Xena's foot. "Can you feel this? Is it helping at all?" she asked.
"Yes, it's . . . helping. Your . . . hands . . . feel so warm."
"It's hard to believe you got so cold under all these furs. I guess your heart just isn't beating hard enough to get the blood all the way to your toes."
She continued the massage for another minute or so, then opened her cloak and tucked the foot against her bare abdomen.
"Mmm," Xena murmured. "Now there's . . . a warm spot."
Gabrielle didn't answer, but smiled as she began massaging the warrior's other foot. Xena closed her eyes, enjoying her lover's ministrations and the sensation of warmth that was creeping slowly back into her limbs. Maybe it hadn't been the chill of death after all, she thought. Maybe she had just gotten cold.
"How's your arm doing?" Gabrielle asked. "Is it cold, too?"
"I can't tell," Xena said, opening her eyes and looking at the place where her right arm lay covered up.
Gabrielle tucked the furs snugly around the warrior's feet, then reached under the covers to pull out the wounded arm. "Another chunk of ice," she said, attempting to grin. "It's a good thing I checked."
Xena watched her lover's hands kneading and stroking the flesh of her arm, thinking how strange it was to see it happening and yet feel nothing. It wasn't long, though, before her eyes drifted shut and she slipped into a light doze.
"Xena." Gabrielle's voice and touch woke her. "I made you some more tea and I want you to sit up and drink it."
"No," mumbled Xena. "Sleep."
"You can go back to sleep as soon as you drink the tea. This will help get you warm. Come on now, sit up." Then, reaching down, she dragged the warrior into a sitting position. "Put your back against the rock and your feet toward the fire," she instructed. "Good. Now here's the tea."
She held out the mug and Xena took it, but it seemed amazingly heavy and her hand shook trying to hold it. "Maybe you'd better let me help you with that," Gabrielle said quickly. Then, taking the mug in her own hands, she held it to Xena's lips.
It was hard to coordinate her breathing with the drinking, and several times she choked and started coughing. Gabrielle waited patiently each time and then offered the mug again until finally Xena gasped, "No more," and leaned her head back against the rock.
"Okay," Gabrielle said quietly, setting the mug aside. "Are you feeling warmer now?"
"Good. Let's get your boots back on and then you can go to sleep."
The boots felt warm on her feet, and Xena smiled weakly as she watched her lover lace and tie them.
"Now," Gabrielle said, "why don't you lie down on your left side here, facing the fire, and I'll sleep behind you to keep your backside warm." She grinned. "And I promise to keep the fire fed this time."
Grateful to lie down again, Xena lowered herself onto the bedroll.
"Let's put this arm right here in front of you where maybe it will stay warmer," Gabrielle said, tucking Xena's arm in and spreading the furs over her. She got up to throw a few more sticks on the fire, then slipped under the covers and snuggled against Xena's back, wrapping one arm around her. "How does that feel? Are you warm enough?" she asked.
"Uh-huh," murmured Xena. "Thanks." She closed her eyes and fell asleep almost at once.
A voice was calling to her, tugging and pulling at her, a voice which would not go away.
"Xena, wake up. Come on now, it's time. Please wake up. Come on, Xena, open your eyes."
She was hearing the voice and also another sound, the sound of breathing that was ragged and labored--much like a death rattle. Someone must be very sick, she thought.
"Xena, you're scaring me. Come on, wake up. I know you can do it. Just open your eyes. You're not going to make me carry you down the mountain, are you? Please, Xena. I know you're in there. I can hear you breathing."
The voice was Gabrielle's. She recognized it now, and she could hear the fear in it. Gabrielle was afraid about something, but what? And why? In a place like this, where it was so peaceful and warm, why should anyone be afraid?
Then, gradually, she became aware of hands that touched her face and shoulder--Gabrielle's hands, she supposed. The touch felt nice. But then it went away, and the voice was gone, too. It was just as well, Xena thought. The voice had been disturbing her rest. She was just settling back into quiet nothingness, when she felt a sudden, sharp coldness on her face, and with a gasp, she opened her eyes.
"Thank the gods!" Gabrielle exclaimed softly, as she wiped the cold from Xena's cheek. "I thought maybe a little snow would get your attention."
The fog was even thicker than before, and at first Xena could see only the vague shape of her lover bending over her. Then, as reality slowly penetrated her brain, she began to remember where she was, and why. The fog lifted slightly and she became aware that she was lying curled on her side. The horrible breathing, she realized, was her own, and now she felt the full force of its discomfort.
"We have to get going soon," Gabrielle said, stroking Xena's hair. "We have to get you down the mountain to Elkton's house."
"In the . . . morning."
Gabrielle bent down to get her ear close to Xena's mouth. "What is it, Love?" she said. "Your voice is so weak that I can hardly hear you."
"We'll go . . . in the . . . morning," Xena said with great effort.
"In the morning, yes. But it's already morning. The sun's not up yet, so it's not very bright, but it's definitely morning."
"I was . . . sleeping."
Gabrielle bent close again to hear, and then kissed the warrior on the cheek. "No, Xena," she said softly. "You weren't just sleeping--you were unconscious. I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to wake you." She was silent for a few moments, her hand gently caressing Xena's face. "After I got your feet warmed up last night, I really didn't sleep much," she said. "I was too worried about you, I guess, and about keeping the fire going. I'd doze off, but then I'd wake up every few minutes and look to see if the sky was getting light yet."
Xena lay without moving, watching her lover's blurred shape, trying to make sense of the stream of words.
"I've already saddled Argo," Gabrielle continued, "and packed up as much gear as I could. Now I want you to sit up and eat breakfast and drink some more tea."
Xena understood that she needed to move, but she felt incapable of doing so. Her body was stiff and heavy and no longer like a living thing. Gabrielle reached down to her, pulling her up and then wrapping her arms around her, holding her close in a tender embrace. Xena let her head fall against the other woman's shoulder. "Gabrielle," she whispered, "I'm . . . so tired."
"I know, Sweetheart," Gabrielle said, hugging her closer, "But you can't give up now. You've got to be strong a little while longer and keep fighting the poison. You told me you'd try, remember?"
Xena nodded, but she had no idea how to be strong when she felt so very weak.
"Lean back against the rock," Gabrielle said, and Xena did so, looking around the campsite for the first time.
"There's so much . . . fog," she murmured.
Gabrielle, who had been pulling some food from one of the saddlebags, stopped and followed the other woman's gaze. "Xena, there's no fog at all," she said softly.
"No, Love. I think it must be your brain that's foggy." She bent and kissed Xena on the top of her head. "Now," she said, "I've got some bread here for you and some cheese, and there's also fruit, if you want it." She tried to put a piece of bread in the warrior's left hand, but Xena pulled her hand away.
"No," she said.
"Xena, you have to eat something. You have to keep your strength up."
"I can't . . . eat."
"Sure you can! How about some cheese?"
Xena shook her head.
"Please, Xena. Just a few bites."
"No . . . I can't."
Gabrielle was silent for several moments, studying the other woman. Finally, she said, "Okay, but you have to drink some tea, at least."
Xena started to refuse, but Gabrielle was already holding the mug to her lips, so she took a sip.
"I really think the tea helped you last night," the bard said. "I was listening to your heart while I was lying awake, and it did sound stronger, for awhile anyway. And your breathing was a little easier, too."
Xena took another sip, choked and began to cough weakly.
"It's okay," Gabrielle said soothingly, rubbing the warrior's back. "Just take your time. Little tiny sips."
She held the mug up again and Xena sipped hesitantly. This time she managed to swallow successfully.
"Xena, is that why you don't want to eat? Are you afraid of choking?"
"Just . . . not hungry." She took another drink and began to cough again. When the coughing was over and she could catch her breath, she leaned her head back against the rock. Gabrielle once more offered the mug, but Xena turned her head away.
"No," she whispered. "I don't need . . . anything."
Gabrielle lowered the mug, then said softly, "Your body's shutting down, isn't it?"
Xena looked at her, then nodded.
The bard bit her lip and looked away, then said, "Okay, we've got to get going." She rose and quickly finished packing the bedding, threw a few handfuls of snow on the fire, and led Argo over to Xena. The mare stretched her head down to nuzzle the warrior's face and, reaching up, Xena stroked the velvety nose.
"Let's see if you can stand up," Gabrielle said, and crouched down beside the warrior. "Put your arm around my neck," she said, helping to guide it into place. Then she wrapped one arm around Xena's waist and together they staggered to their feet.
Xena's knees felt like water, and it was only Gabrielle's support that kept her from falling. "I can't . . . get up there," she said, looking at the impossibly tall horse.
"Is there some way to make Argo kneel down?"
"Yes, but . . . she only kneels . . . in front."
"Oh, so the saddle would be at an angle and it would be hard for you to get on."
Gabrielle considered for a moment. "There's got to be a way to do this," she said. "How about if you climbed on that rock? It slopes down in back, so if you went around behind it, you could climb up more easily from there. I'll help you."
It seemed like one of the most arduous things she had ever done, climbing onto that rock. But with lots of pulling and pushing and encouragement from Gabrielle, Xena finally managed to drag herself up the rock and crawl into the saddle. She clutched the saddlehorn with her left hand while Gabrielle helped put her feet in the stirrups.
"Here are the reins," the young woman said, holding them up for Xena.
"You'll have to . . . lead her," Xena said. "I need . . . to hold on."
"Okay," said Gabrielle uncertainly, "but I don't know the way down the mountain."
Xena cautiously released her hold on the saddle and reached under her cloak, fumbling until she found the folded parchment in her leathers. She handed it to Gabrielle.
"Map," said Xena, taking ahold of the saddlehorn again.
Gabrielle unfolded the paper and studied it for a few minutes. "Who made this? Elkton?"
"And we're here, where it says 'treeline'?"
"Yes. The path . . . isn't hard . . . to follow."
"Okay, so we just go back to the trail and start heading down? And it will be pretty obvious where to go?"
Xena nodded again. It was already making her tired to sit on Argo with nothing to lean against. And they weren't even moving yet. How could she possibly stay on all the way down the mountain?
"How do I find Elkton's house?" Gabrielle asked.
"Before you get . . . to town," Xena said, stopping for breath. "Left side . . . big pine tree . . . barn."
"Left side of the road, with a barn, and there's a big pine tree in the yard?"
"Okay, let's get going then." She laid her hand on Xena's thigh and smiled up at the warrior. Xena tried to smile back, but wasn't sure how successful she had been. It was hard to know anything for sure at that moment, including whether or not she would still be alive by the time they reached the house with the pine tree in the yard.
Gabrielle led Argo slowly along the track, but the uneven terrain made for rough riding as the mare picked her way down over the rocks. Xena clung grimly to the saddlehorn, but her fragile strength was ebbing rapidly. It wasn't long before she felt her grip beginning to loosen, as her hold on consciousness did likewise. The fog drifted in and out of her mind and she slumped gradually forward.
"Xena! Look out! You're falling off!"
She jerked awake to find Gabrielle pushing at her, trying to keep her from sliding off the left side of the horse. With an effort, Xena pulled herself upright and sat gasping for air.
"Let's rest for a few minutes," Gabrielle said, and Xena nodded gratefully. A moment later, the bard reached up and laid her hand on Xena's arm.
The warrior looked down at her lover, at the green eyes full of fear.
"Xena, are you going to make it?" Gabrielle asked.
"I . . . don't know," she whispered. Then, after a moment, she said, "Tie me."
"Tie you? What do you mean?"
"To the . . . saddle. Tie me."
"Oh. Yeah, that's a good idea," said Gabrielle slowly. She pondered the situation for a short time and then said, "Would it help if I sat up there with you? I could try to hold you on a little better."
"Yeah, but . . . there's no . . . room."
"Let me think for a minute," Gabrielle said, studying the load of furs tied on behind the saddle. "I'm sure I can figure something out."
Xena was just beginning to drift into the fog again when she was suddenly roused by a flurry of activity. Turning slightly in the saddle, she saw Gabrielle busily untying the furs and piling them on the ground.
"I guess we could stash these somewhere out of sight and come back to get them later," she said. "Surely Elkton would understand." There was a brief silence, then, "No, wait! I've got a better idea! Sit up, Xena."
The warrior hadn't realized she had slumped forward again until Gabrielle began pushing at her.
"Let me just get this rope around your waist," the bard said, making a couple of passes with the rope and tying it to the saddlehorn. Then she unrolled some of the furs and draped them across Argo's withers, in front of and behind the saddlehorn. The remaining furs she wrapped around the projection itself and tied them in place with the rest of the rope. "There," she said when she was finished. "Now if you fall forward, it won't be quite so uncomfortable, and there's room enough for me to sit behind you."
"Very . . . clever," said Xena with a weak smile.
Gabrielle smiled back and turned to Argo, stroking the mare's neck. "Sorry about the extra load, girl," she said. "But you understand, don't you?" A soft whicker was the answer. "Good," said Gabrielle, then she led the horse to a rock, climbed on it, and mounted. Putting one arm around Xena, she picked up the reins with the other hand. "Of course, I can't see where we're going," she said, leaning out to peer around the warrior. "But I don't think Argo needs much guidance anyway." Then she kicked the mare's flanks and they started on their way.
* * *