"I won't be long," the old woman said as she grasped her cane in a gnarled hand and opened the front door.
"That's okay," a voice from the back of the house said. "I've got some reading I want to catch up on anyway."
As she shuffled out of the house and pulled the door closed behind her, the old woman looked across her garden at the gathering of local villagers, men, women and children, seated on the ground or a nearby stump or that huge log three of them had hauled up six...or was it seven?...years ago.
She hated having to do this when she had company, but...well...one has to make a living when one can.
Twice a week, for almost longer than she could remember, the villagers would start arriving at her house a mile from town in the early evening hours. Sometimes just a handful would show up; other evenings, there would be dozens, but each and every one would bring a loaf of fresh-baked bread or a wedge of cheese or a small basket of vegetables or fruit to pay for their evening's entertainment. Occasionally, if she was lucky, one of the men would have a good day hunting or fishing and bring her a haunch of venison or a few trout.
Even when times were hard, they came. Even when food was scarce, they always found some little tidbit to bring and they came. What is it about storytelling, she wondered, that makes people want it almost as much as food and water, even more so in bad times than good. The need goes beyond a mere desire for entertainment and distraction from one's troubles, she thought. It's more profound and mysterious than that.
As she struggled down the path from the front door to what she laughingly referred to as her "theater," a young man jumped to his feet and rushed up the path to give her his arm and escort her the remaining distance to her chair.
"Well, thank you, Alexander," the old woman said, smiling at the handsome, blond young man. "You've grown up to be quite a gentleman."
Alexander blushed with embarrassment as he helped her negotiate the step up onto the small platform where her chair was located.
As he hurried back to his place on the log next to his betrothed, the old woman sat down, turned and hung her cane on the back of the chair, then gazed out over the heads of her audience to the western horizon where the reddish gold, autumn sun was nearing its lowest point.
This, of course, was why she had wanted her "theater" laid out in this fashion - so, while telling her stories, she would have a perfect view of the sunsets, some of which were so breathtakingly beautiful with flares of burnt orange and warm gold and russet and deep maroon painted across the evening sky that she would interrupt her narrative so the villagers could turn around and enjoy it with her, always with many appreciative oohs and aahs.
"Is everyone here?" the old woman asked and the group murmured their opinions that all who were coming were there.
A breeze rustled the leaves in the trees and blew an errant lock of hair across the old woman's face. She usually wore her long, white hair in a tight bun, but the pain in her poor, misshapen fingers had made that impossible to accomplish today.
"Fine. What'll it be tonight?" she asked. "How about...Pandora and the Box?"
"Um...you...you told that one last Friday," a young woman said hesitantly, fearful of causing offense.
"I did? Oh...I guess I did." The old woman thought a moment. "Well, then, how about...The Rescue of Marcus from Tartarus? That one's a humdinger."
A little boy's voice piped up. "But-" He was cut short by his father's hand on his shoulder and a quick shake of the man's head. "But, Daddy," the child whined pathetically, "she told that one-" Again, he was silenced, this time merely by the stern look on his father's rugged face. The youngster pouted stubbornly for a moment, then muttered, "That's the same one she told last time I got to come."
Everyone looked from the boy to the old woman, whose gentle, rheumy eyes were crinkling at the corners and whose thin, rounded shoulders began to quiver with laughter.
"You're right, Galen," she said through her chuckles. "You're absolutely right." She patted her lap and, in a flash, the child closed the short distance between them, scrambled onto the platform and into her lap.
"You remind me so much of my grandson, Hector," she said as she enfolded the boy in a warm hug. Then, without warning, she began tickling him and was rewarded by the incomparable sound of his abandoned, childish laughter.
As the boy was catching his breath, the old woman looked thoughtfully at the gathering, then down at the child who had settled his head softly against her chest.
"It seems you folks know every story I have." She hesitated a moment and a look of pain skittered across her face. Then she appeared to come to a decision. "So, I guess I'll have to tell you one you don't know...one I've never told before...to anyone."
The crowd leaned forward as one in happy anticipation.
"Once upon a time, Xena, the warrior princess, and Gabrielle, the Amazon queen.... Did I tell you that one? How Gabrielle came to be queen of the Amazons? Oh, it's a real corker. See, after Xena died...this was the second time...a grief-stricken Gabrielle was taking her body-"
The old woman was interrupted by chuckling coming from her audience and looked up from the child in her lap to see the villagers smiling and shaking their heads.
"Oh...I did, huh?" she said, then mumbled to herself, "Oh, well, it was worth a try." Another look of distress flew across her face. "Well...okay. Let's see, where was I?"
"Once upon a time," Galen said with undisguised frustration, "Xena and Gabrielle...."
"That's right, sweetheart. Thank you," the old woman said, smiling down at her young friend. "Xena, the warrior princess, and Gabrielle, the Amazon queen, were camped on the bank of the Haliacmon River where they had spent three lovely, restful, quiet days fishing, mending their clothes, repairing Xena's armor, which had gotten rather severely damaged the week before when they'd interrupted the warlord Hephastus' slave-trading business a few miles to the south.
"It had been a stunning victory and Gabrielle was rather proud of the way she'd acquitted herself in the battle, even if she had taken a sword in the side."
The little boy in her lap gasped and clung a little tighter to the old woman.
"When it'd happened, she'd been too involved fighting three of Hephastus' men to fully grasp the seriousness of her wound, but Xena had seen the strike and, with a cry of anguish, had stopped toying with the nine warriors she'd been battling and quickly dispatched them. She'd felt not a hot rage, but cold, a mindless, reptilian savagery that startled the warrior even as she surrendered to it, vaulting through the air with that famous war cry to land neatly beside Gabrielle, whose wound was, by that time, bleeding profusely.
"Weaker than she would've ever admitted, Gabrielle's knees had begun to buckle. Xena'd thrown an arm around the younger woman, pulling her close, vaguely aware she was trying to somehow invest her friend with the strength and endurance to survive the assault. Holding the little bard tightly to her side, she'd rapidly dispatched the men Gabrielle had been fighting, saving her most ferocious lunge for the vile-looking one who'd wounded her friend.
"Even before he'd fallen, the warrior woman had dropped her sword and, with both hands, had gently lowered Gabrielle to the ground, cradling the bard in her arms.
"'I'm okay,' Gabrielle had said, then winced in pain. 'Really.'
"'Sure you are,' Xena'd said as she'd begun to examine the wound and she'd breathed a quiet sigh of relief after determining it was serious, but not life threatening.
"Carefully lowering the bard's head to the ground, the warrior had whistled for Argo, who'd come at a trot from where she'd been patiently waiting a safe distance from the fray. As the mare had pulled up to a stop a few feet away, Xena'd started to rise, then suddenly stopped with a quick intake of air and clutched her side, anguish clouding her electric blue eyes. The bard had turned to look up at her dark-haired friend and was met with a stoic expression of grim determination.
"'Is this worse than you're letting on?' Gabrielle had asked, alarm creeping into her voice.
"'No, not at all,' Xena'd said and, once again, started to rise.
Then, as she'd looked down into her friend's fear-filled eyes, she'd reached out to place a gentle, reassuring hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. 'You're going to be okay. Honest." She'd then crossed to her horse and started rummaging in one of the saddlebags.
"From it she pulled a waterskin, took a deep drink, then hung it from the saddle horn. She'd then reached back into the saddlebag and removed a beautiful piece of dark blue cloth with golden strands running through it, which had been carefully tied up with twine. After a little more searching, she'd extracted one of her small healing pouches containing some of the herbs and leaves she would need to heal her friend, but further rummaging had produced only angry mutterings from the warrior woman.
"'What's the matter?' Gabrielle had asked as she'd watched her friend move around Argo to search the other saddlebag.
"'One of these days, I'm going to get myself a bag in which I can keep all my healing materials! Won't have to be big...little would be fine...black maybe.'
"Gabrielle had started to laugh, then grimaced in pain.
"'You've been saying that for years.'
"'I know, I know,' Xena'd grumbled as she'd buried her free hand in the second saddlebag and begun to blindly feel around. 'Aha!' she'd crowed triumphantly when she'd finally pulled the second pouch free. Then she'd crossed back to her injured friend.
"'Are you in much pain?' she'd asked as she'd knelt down to examine the wound again.
"Gabrielle's forehead had creased as she'd caught a whiff of the liquor now on the warrior's breath and she'd glanced back over at Argo and the waterskin hanging from the saddle horn.
"As Xena'd begun her ministrations, Gabrielle had bitten her lip and turned her head away. She'd become almost as accomplished a healer as Xena, but never failed to get a bit woozy when she was on the receiving end of the warrior woman's healing ministrations. Not that Xena wasn't the gentlest, tenderest healer Gabrielle had ever seen, but the sight of her own blood...well, after all their years together, she'd learned it was best to just look away."
The youngster on the old woman's lap nodded his head vigorously.
"Oh, you do that, too, do you, Galen?" the old woman said.
"Uh-huh," the boy mumbled with unaccustomed shyness.
"Sometimes it's just a good idea, isn't it?" she said with mock seriousness.
Chuckling under her breath, the old woman returned to her story.
"'Not too bad,' the bard had said in response to her friend's question about her discomfort, then contorted her face in pain as the dark-haired woman had begun to sew the flaps of the wound together.
"The worst of it, as far as Gabrielle was concerned, finally over, Xena'd leaned down and bitten off the remaining thread, then had pulled back to survey her handiwork. Pleased with what she saw, she'd reached over and picked up the twine-tied, blue cloth, extracted the breast dagger and begun to slice through the twine.
"'What are you doing?'
"'I've got to bandage you up,' the warrior'd said as she'd cut through the string and shaken the cloth loose.
"'Don't...even...think...about it,' the bard had growled through teeth clenched not in pain, but in anger.
"'Gabrielle,' Xena'd said with over-emphasized patience, 'I need to dress your wound.'
"'Fine! Dress it! But use...something...else!'
"The warrior woman had narrowed her eyes in thinly disguised exasperation.
"'I don't care! I bought that back in Larisa to make a dress for my sister's birthday present! Use something else.'
"Xena'd arched her eyebrow and continued looking at the bard through constricted eyes for a moment longer, then, with open irritation, had risen, crossed to Argo, pulled another, smaller piece of cloth from the saddlebag and ruthlessly stuffed the first one back in, much to the annoyance of her companion.
"Turning back to Gabrielle, wearing a sweeter-than-sweet smile, she'd said through clenched teeth, 'This better?'
"Three days later Gabrielle was feeling just very mild and only occasional discomfort, no real pain at all, but Xena'd suddenly expressed concern over the appearance of the wound, claiming she was fearful an infection might be setting in. Gabrielle had insisted it looked fine to her, but, once the warrior had made up her mind about something, there wasn't much the gods or anyone could do to change it. So, Xena'd ridden off to a nearby village half-a-day's ride away and had returned with a large container of liquor, a small quantity of which she'd poured over the wound, much to Gabrielle's screaming dismay. But, if an infection had been starting, that stinging, agonizing therapy had certainly thwarted it, because there was no doubt now that the wound was looking pink and clean and healthy.
"As Gabrielle finished building up their evening campfire, Xena strode up carrying the four trout she had just caught for their dinner and a headless rabbit, all of which she tossed to the ground near her friend's feet.
"'Okay, go for it.'
"The bard started to reach for their dinner staples, then froze and gasped in horror.
"'OH, XENA!' she shouted in disgust as her tall companion turned away, biting the inside of her mouth in an attempt to keep from laughing.
"'Why did you do that?' Gabrielle asked, pointing an accusing finger at the decapitated rabbit.
"'What?' The warrior princess turned back around looking straight-faced and, oh, so innocent.
"'That! That! That!!' the bard shouted, rapidly pointing again and again at the mammal among the fish.
"'Gee, it's not like I meant to," Xena said, oozing innocence. 'I was just tossing my chakram around and...I guess he got in the way.'
"Gabrielle glared daggers at her as the dark-haired woman started to unhook her armor.
"'Oh, come on. You like rabbit. I don't know how many times I've seen you wolf it down when we've been staying at an inn. I figured we could have it for breakfast.'
"'Yes, I like rabbit, but we agreed we weren't going to hunt them anymore! I thought you understood. They're so cute and cuddly and it just breaks my heart-'
"As she looked over at her friend, Gabrielle suddenly caught her breath when she saw the expression of agony on the warrior's face.
"'Xena? What is it?' she asked as she rushed to her doubled-over companion.
"'It's...okay,' Xena gasped as her friend put her arms around her and lowered her to sit on a nearby stump.
"Kneeling on the ground, the bard fumbled with the armor, trying to remove it, and looked up into her friend's electric blue eyes, which were now free of the anguish that had possessed them just moments before.
"'What just happened here?' Gabrielle asked as she tossed the armor aside.
"'It was nothing. Really. I just got a stitch in my side.'
"'That was not just a stitch. Xena, what's going on?'
"'Really...it was only a stitch in my side. It just took me by surprise, that's all.'
"The little bard looked intently into the warrior's eyes. Not believing a word of what she had just said, but willing to let it pass-for the moment-she stood and said, 'Well, okay. But, if that happens again, I want to know about it!'
"Xena nodded her head and said, 'Okay, sure.'
"'Oh, no you don't, Princess. Don't you try to worm out of this. I want your promise!'"
"Xena glared at Gabrielle with an arched eyebrow, then was stunned to see her friend arch an eyebrow right back at her. The warrior burst out laughing and said, 'Where'd you learn to do that?'
"'Well,' the bard said, grinning, 'I've been working on it for a long time and then waited for the perfect moment to spring it on you. Pretty good, huh?'
"'Yeah, pretty good!'
"Gabrielle then crouched down in front of her friend and solemnly said, 'Come on. I want your promise.'
"Xena just sat there, exuding innocence.
"'Alright, we can do this the easy way or we can do it the hard way.'
"The older woman looked at her friend and couldn't help breaking out in a huge grin. 'Oh...and just what "hard way" could you possibly....'
"Gabrielle arched her eyebrow.
"After a moment, the warrior grudgingly said, 'Oh, alright! I promise.'
"'That's more like it,' the bard said smugly, then returned to the campfire, picked up the fish and poor little bunny and proceeded to prepare them for cooking.
"Xena stood, stretched out her well-honed, but tight, muscles and ambled over to where the saddlebags had been put near the base of a tree.
"'Hey, where are you going?' the bard asked as she turned and pointed the knife at the ground a few feet away. 'It's still your turn.'
"The warrior woman extracted the hide of liquor from her saddlebag and, as she meandered over to look where her friend was pointing, took a long, slow draft. In the dirt were lines and letters and a crudely drawn man...well, half a man...head, neck, one arm and body to be exact, making up the game they'd been playing before the warrior had decided it was time to catch their dinner. Xena furrowed her brow in concentration as she stared at the lines and letters drawn in the dirt."
The old woman looked down at the youngster in her lap. "Galen, darling, hop down a minute, would you?"
As the child scrambled down, the old woman reached around to the back of her chair, grasped her cane and struggled down off the platform. With the cane, she then started marking the dirt: _ _ U _ __ L _ _ _ U _
"Here," she gestured for everyone to come take a look. "This is what they were playing."
Her audience obediently rose and crowded around, each voicing opinions and suggestions as to what the solution to the puzzle might be.
As the old woman turned and started to step back up onto the platform, Alexander, the handsome young man who'd helped her earlier, rushed to her side to lend his support once again and was favored with a loving smile.
After returning to her seat and replacing the cane on the back of the chair, she noticed the folks were still milling around the puzzle in the dirt.
"Okay, okay" she said, "that's enough. Go on...sit down."
As the villagers returned to their seats, the old woman looked around for Galen. "Where'd my boyfriend go?" she asked in mock seriousness.
"Here I am!" came a gleeful shout from behind her and the little boy jumped out, giggling.
"You get back up here, you little scamp!"
As the child settled back onto her lap, she continued with her story.
"Xena took another long swig of liquor, closed her eyes in concentration, then said, 'D.'
"'No!!' Gabrielle shouted as she ran over to draw another arm in the dirt. 'Ha!! Two more and you're a dead man...warrior...whatever.'
"'Hey, wait a minute,' Xena said, then took another drink. "What about hands and feet? I get six more misses.'
"'Nuh-uh,' the bard said teasingly. "Last time, when I was trying to guess Ios, for Zeus' sake, you said I couldn't have any hands or feet. Fair is fair.'
"As Gabrielle gleefully returned to the preparation of their dinner, the warrior smiled and shook her head, acknowledging with a chuckle that her previous strategy had backfired on her. She took another drink, then returned her concentration to the puzzle at her feet.
"'Hey,' she said, looking over at the cook, 'you never did answer my question before. Animal, vegetable or mineral?'
"The younger woman sighed loudly and looked with great disdain at her companion.
"'This is not Twenty Questions or I Spy. No wonder you're so bad at this.'
"Biting back a smile, Xena drank from the flask in her hand and strolled over to the big log near the fire. She sat down, stretching her long legs out in front of her, and leaned back against the log with a contented sigh to watch her friend cook their dinner.
"Gabrielle looked over at her and, after a moment, said, 'You've been....'
"The warrior princess looked expectantly at her and, when the bard didn't continue, said, 'What?'
"Gabrielle shook her head. 'No...nothing.'
"'Come on, out with it. I've been...what?'
"The younger woman looked at her for a moment, then took a deep breath and said, 'Well...you've been drinking an awful lot lately. I mean, you finished off that flask of liquor I didn't even know we had....'
"Xena looked with surprise at her friend.
"'Yeah...I figured it out,' the little bard said quietly. 'Then you finished off the one you supposedly got to treat my wound and then, yesterday, rode all the way back to the village and got this one. I don't know how long this was going on before I suddenly woke up and realized what you were doing, but I did figure it out...finally. Now I just want to know why.'
"Xena took another swig from the hide, looked at her friend, then lowered her eyes.
"Gabrielle's brow creased with concern as she crossed to her friend.
She sat down next to her and reached out to lay a hand on her arm.
"'What is it?' she all but whispered.
"Those cool, blue eyes finally, hesitantly looked up and made contact with the green ones searching her face.
"'What? What is it?' Gabrielle's eyes began to fill with tears. 'Come on...you're scaring me.'
"Xena looked away and took another drink. After what seemed like an eternity to the bard, the warrior took another quick sip then said, 'Okay...I...I don't suppose I could keep it from you much longer anyway.'
"A sudden, stabbing fear went through Gabrielle like a shard of ice and she put a hand to her mouth, unconsciously holding her breath, waiting for her friend to continue.
"Xena took a long drink this time, then a deep breath and, making a concentrated effort to look at her friend and not drop her eyes, said, 'I'm sick, Gabrielle...very sick.'
"A sob caught in the bard's throat.
"'I've seen this sickness before a couple of times...in fact, my grandmother died of it...anyway, that's the reason for so much of this.' She raised the flask to her lips and drank deeply. 'It's the only thing I've been able to find that'll dull the pain enough.'
"Gabrielle suddenly jumped to her feet, grabbed her friend's arm and tried to pull her up.
"Well, come on! We've got to get you to a healer!'
"Xena resisted the efforts to pull her to her feet. Her eyes held Gabrielle's as she slid her arm through her friend's hand, then grasped that hand with her own.
"'It's no use. There's nothing any healer can do.'
"The little bard stood staring at her for so long, Xena began to become concerned. Then, suddenly, Gabrielle pulled her hand free and started pacing back and forth in great agitation.
"'That's nonsense!' she said. 'There's got to be someone...someone...somewhere...who can cure you!'
"'Tonight we'll make a list of all the healers...all of them...no matter how far away they are....'
"'...then we'll leave first thing in the morning....'
"'...and go to every single one of them, if we have to....'
"The bard turned frightened eyes to her friend.
"'It's no use. I told you, I've seen this sickness before. There is nothing...anyone can do.'
"A moment passed as the friends held each other's gaze. Then, suddenly, Gabrielle threw her head back and, through a cascade of tears, screamed at the evening sky.
"'NO! I WILL...NOT...ACCEPT THAT!! There's got to be something....'
"The warrior stood and crossed to grasp her friend's arm. With a ferocity Xena had rarely seen in her, Gabrielle wrenched herself free.
"'NO! There has GOT to be-'
"Xena grabbed the arm again, turned the little bard to face her and grasped her other arm.
"The younger woman struggled to free herself as Xena pulled her in, wrapped both arms around her and held her. Slowly, Gabrielle stopped struggling, then, finally, threw her arms around her friend's waist and began sobbing.
"The two women stood like that, holding each other tightly, for several minutes. Then, slowly, Gabrielle began to regain control.
"'I shouldn't have-'
"'It's okay...it's okay.'
"The little bard slowly pulled back and looked up into those electric blue eyes she had come to love so much.
"'How long do you....'
"Tear tracks marking her cheeks, Xena looked down at her friend, compassion and sorrow almost overwhelming her.
"'I don't know. Weeks, rather than months, I would think.'
"The two held each other's gaze for a few moments, then the warrior woman started to chuckle through her tears.
"'I was just thinking about all the times I've heard you called an "irritating blonde."'
"Gabrielle began to chuckle, too. 'That's nothing compared to what I've heard you called!'
"Still holding each other, the two women started laughing in earnest.
"'Warrior bitch!' Xena said, then threw her head back and roared with laughter.
"Gabrielle gasped. "I didn't know you knew about that one!' Xena looked down at her, suddenly crossed her eyes and soon the two were crying again, but, this time, they weren't tears of sorrow.
"Trying to make it easier for Gabrielle, Xena was making it easier for herself.
"After several minutes of raucous, unrestrained laughter, made even more difficult to control by the bard's unfortunate habit of snorting occasionally and Xena contracting the hiccups, their howls began to abate.
"The warrior finally disentangled herself from her friend and moved back to sit against the log, another hiccup throwing her into further gales of laughter. She reached for the flask where she'd abandoned it in the dirt and took a long draft.
"Seeing this, Gabrielle sobered instantly, rushed to her side and knelt on the ground next to her.
"'Is it bad? Are you okay?'
"Xena finished swallowing as she looked over at the bard, then realized what her friend was thinking, reached out and grasped her hand.
"'Oh...no, Gabrielle. Really. I haven't felt this good in months. For so long, I've been dreading the moment when I'd have to tell you, trying to figure a way around it, wishing I could avoid it entirely. I can't tell you how glad I am you finally know.'
The little bard squeezed her friend's hand. 'Me, too.'
"As Gabrielle's face relaxed, Xena took another swig, then offered the flask to her.
"'Have a drink, you irritating, little blonde you,' she said, then hiccuped with laughter.
"The bard laughed, too, but declined her friend's offer by pushing the flask back to her.
"'No. You need it.'
"Still laughing, the warrior said, 'Not right now, I don't. Right now, I'm just enjoying it.'
"After dinner, Gabrielle walked over to the river to wash their few utensils. Neither had eaten much, Gabrielle because she'd simply lost her legendary appetite and Xena because she was having way too much fun drinking and laughing and trying to get Gabrielle to join in the merriment.
"As she washed off the knife, she could still hear her friend chortling back at the campsite, the sound of which caused her to smile and shake her head. Then, suddenly, she heard the warrior cry out.
"'Oh, no!' Xena yelled with a hint of anguish.
"The bard turned and nearly tripped over some exposed roots in her rush to get back to the campsite. As she ran into the clearing, she saw the warrior holding up the now deflated hide and looking at it with great sorrow.
"Glancing over at her onrushing friend, Xena started shaking her finger and said, 'Ah-ah-ah! Haven't-I told you to never run with a knife in your-hand?"
"Unlike other people, when Xena got drunk, her speech didn't become slurred. Quite the contrary. It became clipped and deliberate with each word carefully enunciated. She took very brief pauses in strange places and her inflection was up when it should have been down and down when it should have been up.
"She dissolved into laughter so contagious the bard couldn't control the chuckles that kept rising to her lips.
"Gabrielle closed the distance between herself and her friend and plopped down on the ground next to her.
"'What were you hollering about? You scared the Tartarus out of me.'
"Xena abruptly stopped laughing and looked at the bard. Her eyes filled with remorse as she reached out to touch her friend's arm. "'Oh, I-am so sorry. I didn't mean to scare-you. I swear.'
"'I know. I know you didn't. But what was it all about?'
"Xena thought for a moment, then remembered and picked up the deflated hide.
"'Another dead-warrior,' the dark-haired woman said sadly and dropped the empty flask onto the ground between them.
"The little bard sat watching her friend for a moment, lost in thoughts of what life would be like without her, then quietly said, 'Gods, I hate being an adult.'
"The warrior took a deep breath, then stared with clouded eyes at the campfire, her face a mask of sorrow and helplessness.
"'Me...too,' she whispered.
"For as long as they'd been together, moments like this would occur when the bard was reminded of the deep well of sadness and isolation in which Xena lived. It made the younger woman feel utterly helpless...and useless.
"Gabrielle looked at her friend, compassion filling her eyes, and reached over to squeeze her hand. After a moment, Xena's eyes snapped away from the fire.
"'Ah-ha!' she said with a devilish grin and tried to jump up, but only succeeded in losing her balance and flopping back down in the dust.
"Gabrielle couldn't help herself and burst out laughing. The warrior princess looked at her with haughty superiority.
"'Well, how-very rude of-you.'
"'I'm sorry, but that was only slightly less funny than that cat we saw that time sleeping in the tree when it slowly, slowly slid off the branch and didn't wake up until it hit the ground. Remember?'
"The two were once again enveloped in gales of laughter, which gave Xena the hiccups again, which, in turn, started Gabrielle snorting again. After a minute or two of raucous merriment, they both began to regain control.
"As Xena started to lean back against the log, she said, 'Okay, now what was-'
"Suddenly, her eyes started darting around the campsite.
"Her laughter dwindling to chuckles, Gabrielle said, 'What?'
"'My flask. Where is my-flask? It was here just a moment-ago.' She turned and grasped her friend's shoulders. 'Gabrielle, someone broke-into our campsite and all-they stole was my-flask,' she said with clipped and careful enunciation.
"The bard bit the inside of her mouth in an attempt to avoid encouraging this type of behavior, but rapidly lost the battle and burst out laughing again. She reached down between them, picked up the empty flask and dangled it in front of her friend's nose.
"'Never mind, I found-it', Xena said as her entire head moved back and forth following the movement of the flask.
"Laughing, the bard said, 'Well, at least you're a happy drunk. I'll say that for you.'
"The warrior reached for the flask. 'Oh,' she said as she mournfully examined the empty hide. "Alas, poor fellow, I knew him-well.'
"'Too well, if you ask me,' Gabrielle said, her shoulders trembling with suppressed laughter.
"Xena tossed the flask over her shoulder then slowly and carefully, she rose to her full, six-foot height.
"'Where do you think you're going?' the little bard asked, rising to her knees.
"The warrior looked down at her friend.
"'By the-gods, you are a short one, aren't-you?'
"With great care, Xena turned and walked towards the saddlebags on the other side of the campfire, wobbling only slightly.
"'I can hear-you snickering back-there and I don't find you at all-amusing,' she said, which only served to increase her friend's chortling.
"When she reached the saddlebags, she very carefully bent down and put a hand inside one. As she pulled out another flask, this one full, she turned and showed it to Gabrielle.
"As Xena made her way back to the log, she lifted the hide to her lips and took a long drink.
"'Where did that one come from?'
"Standing before her friend, the warrior looked down at her again.
"'When I went into-town yesterday, I...CAN YOU HEAR ME OKAY DOWN THERE?'
"'Just fine,' Gabrielle said, biting her lower lip while trying to stifle her laughter.
"'Yes. Yes, I'm quite sure.'
"'WELL, OKAY, IF YOU'RE-SURE YOU'RE SURE' "Xena took another drink, then said, 'Now, where was-I?' "'Where did that second flask come from?'
"'Oh, yes, I remember-now.' She looked back down at her friend. 'You wanted to-know where this second flask came-from. I bought two of-them yesterday in case we-get snowed in.'
"'Oh, good thinking.'
"'Yes, that is what-I thought.'
"Xena raised the flask to her lips again, then sat down next to her friend and almost immediately toppled over, her head landing in the bard's lap.
"'Oh, I could tell,' the bard said with undisguised amusement. 'You okay?'
"'How soon do you need to-know?'
"The bard burst out laughing. 'Well, you let me know when you find out. Okay?'
"'Of-course. I would never-keep something like that from-you.'
"'I'm so glad,' Gabrielle said, her shoulders beginning to shake again.
"Xena looked up at her. "My-goodness.'
"'This must be what-it's been like for you all-these years. Doesn't your neck ever get-tired?'
"'Well, I would think-so.'
"Gabrielle shook her head in amusement, then looked back down, to find Xena staring up at her in wonderment.
"'I can see right up-your nose.'
"The bard's laughter echoed back through the trees.
"They traveled slowly, savoring the time they had together and frequently spent two or three days in one place to allow Xena to rest, although Gabrielle insisted it was so she could work on her sister's birthday present.
"The warrior did her best to keep her friend from gaining too much knowledge about how rapidly the sickness was advancing or how severe and frequent the pain had become.
"The bard, in turn, knew that, if Xena ever suspected just how much she did know and how it tore at her heart to see her dearest friend in such pain, it would only make it all the more difficult for the warrior to withstand the agony she experienced a dozen times a day.
"And there was no way Gabrielle could miss the dark circles under the warrior's eyes, which seemed to get darker and deeper with each passing day. And it would be many months before she would be able to force from her mind's eye the image of Xena sitting near the campfire one evening, sharpening her sword, when she'd suddenly doubled over with pain so excruciating blood had flowed from her lower lip where she'd bitten it in an attempt to stifle her screams.
"The little bard had rushed to her side, picked up the hide of liquor and held it to her friend's lips while Xena'd gulped down the numbing liquid, much of it running down her trembling chin. Then Gabrielle had quietly held her until she was breathing easy again.
"Later that same night, unable to sleep, the little bard had rolled over on her side, propped her head up with her hand and looked at the warrior sleeping a few feet away. Xena's face had been relaxed, pain-free...for the moment. A tear had trickled down the bard's cheek when the love she felt for this woman almost overwhelmed her.
"'I know you can't hear me,' Gabrielle had quietly said, 'but, if I tried to say any of this when you're awake, it would just embarrass you and you'd end up laughing it off or snapping at me...and I don't think I could take that...not now.'
"She thought a moment, then continued.
"'Remember I told you how my sister used to bring home wild animals all the time: a wounded hawk, an orphaned fawn. Father always warned her not to love them. He said they simply couldn't love her back and would, one day, leave her or...die without giving her a backward glance, leaving her with nothing but heartache.
"'Well, I watched her heart break dozens of times when we were growing up, but she never stopped bringing them home, loving them and then losing them. I swore I'd never give my heart to a wild thing as she was always doing...but then you came along.'
"She paused and wiped at the tears tickling their way down her face.
"'It's hard to believe it's been thirteen years since you suddenly appeared in Potidaea, like an avenging angel, and saved me and the other women from those slavers.'
"The little bard's sea-green eyes darkened.
"'You were so tormented by that inner tempest, battling so many demons, all of them your own creation. I don't think you've ever been able to understand how "someone like me" could care so much for "someone like you," but I am so proud of you...and even prouder to call you my friend.
"'Anyway, since then, you've tolerated me, laughed with me, fought with me, cried with me...and taught me so much. I don't know how many times you saved my life...me, the irritating, little blonde...but you never made me feel that way. Ever since I left home, you have been my home. You've given me so much and all I've been able to give you is aggravation and irritation...and an occasional good meal.
"'I know you don't have much time left...and you'll probably welcome death when it comes...after all the pain you've had to endure....'
"Gabrielle bit her lip hoping to staunch the sobs threatening to overtake her.
"'...but I will miss you...every day...for the rest of my life. I don't care what my father said, I wouldn't trade a single moment of the past thirteen years for anything. You're a part of me and I will carry you right here...forever.' The little bard touched her heart.
"When she rolled onto her back, crying and silently staring up at the star-filled sky, she didn't see the single tear that slipped from beneath the warrior's black lashes.
"When they finally arrived in Potidaea a few weeks later for Gabrielle's sister's birthday celebration, they walked into a bewildering uproar of villagers running here and there, yelling to each other in a scene of mass confusion.
"As one of the women rushed past, Xena stopped her and asked, 'What's going on?'
"The woman looked with frightened eyes at the warrior and said, 'Two days ago, Eophylos...that butcher....'
"The warrior put a hand on the woman's trembling arm to steady her.
"'That's alright,' Xena said. 'Go on.'
"'Eophylos raided a village a few days' ride from here. This morning, some of our men rode out to find out how far away he was and returned minutes later with the news that his army is encamped just the other side of that ridge.'
"She pointed to a ridge half a mile to the south, then darted terrified eyes at Xena and Gabrielle.
"'If you're smart, you'll leave the same way you came just as fast as you can.'
"As the woman rushed away, Xena turned to Gabrielle and said, 'I have to go do something about this.'
"'Xena, you can't! You don't have the strength to....' Understanding suddenly clouded the bard's face. "'Oh, Zeus...you're not coming back...are you?'
"'No,' Xena said quietly.
"She started back for Argo, but then heard her friend's voice in her mind's ear: '...they simply couldn't love her and would, one day, leave or die without giving her a backward glance.'
"The warrior turned, grasped Gabrielle's arm and swiftly pulled her into a trembling embrace, holding her tight. They stood like that, silently holding each other, for several minutes as the uproar of the village swirled around them.
"Finally, Xena took a deep breath and said, 'I want you to know...that I wouldn't change the years since I was last in this village for anything either. You're the best friend anyone could ever have and I....'
"She swallowed, trying to remove the lump that had risen in her throat.
"'...I...cherish...the time we've had together, too.'
"Gabrielle looked up with tear-filled eyes at the dearest friend she would ever know.
"'You heard...all of it?'
"'Yeah...and you've got to know that you've given me...so much more than irritation and aggravation...although there's been plenty of that, too'
"They smiled and chuckled at each other through their tears.
"'Look, I'm not the bard here. Words don't come easily to me...but you have got to know that our friendship means more to me than...more than I have the words to express. You are the part of me the gods left out and I...I am so grateful to them for bringing us together.'
"Sobs overcame the little bard and the warrior pulled her close and held her tightly.
"'Don't forget me.'
"'Carry me in your heart.'
"Gabrielle choked back her tears and murmured, 'Always.'
"They held each other a moment longer, then Xena whispered, 'I love you...you irritating blonde.'
"Fighting the sobs threatening to overtake her again, Gabrielle said, 'Oh, Xena, I love you, too.'
"The warrior released her, turned and, wiping the tears from her cheeks, strode back to her horse.
"Gabrielle stood motionless amidst the cacophony and chaos whirling around her, inconsolable in her grief, and watched as Xena mounted her horse and rode off towards the ridge...without a backward glance."
The old woman looked down at the little boy asleep in her lap, then turned her eyes back to her audience, all of whom were sitting in stunned silence, many of whom were weeping. She motioned to the boy's father, who continued staring at her for several moments, before coming to his senses. He self-consciously wiped the tears from his eyes, then got up and went to retrieve his youngest son to carry him home to bed.
The father's movements broke the spell hanging over the group and they all began to rise, some wiping at tears, others continuing to weep quietly.
As her audience silently moved off into the night, the old woman reached for her cane and struggled to her feet. Alexander once again rushed to offer his assistance and she allowed him to help her down off the platform, then patted his arm.
"I need to be alone now, sweetheart."
Nodding, he turned and slowly walked away as she looked off at the northern sky and the stars twinkling there while a soft breeze gently wafted around her.
Finally, she picked up the candle one of the men had lit and placed on a nearby stump when it had become too dark to see and slowly, painfully shuffled back up the path to her house silhouetted against the moon on the western horizon.
Entering the house, she placed the candle on a table, then turned back to close the door.
"How'd it go?" the voice from the back of the house asked.
"Okay," the old woman answered, "but it was almost more than I bargained for."
"Why? What happened?"
The old woman paused for a moment, then said, "Yes, I'm fine."
"Well, which one did you tell them? The dream passage one?"
"No," the old woman said as she went back to the candle and picked it up.
"One of the ambrosia tales?"
The old woman slowly shuffled toward her bed.
"Well, come on, you irritating, little blonde, which one?"
As the old woman moved between the two small bed's and sat on the edge of the unoccupied one, the candle flickered and sputtered, then burned brightly again and was reflected in a pair of electric blue eyes.
"Well, it seems they know all my stories by heart, so...I made one up."