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It wasn't much past midday when the two travelers reached a point where the narrow trail split into two. Both paths showed little recent wear, grass growing across them everywhere but in the wagon ruts, made deep during the last winter's rains. One trail meandered across an open meadow, while the other disappeared into a dense wood. Xena, mounted on the golden mare Argo, paused, and Gabrielle, on foot, looked up each trail before asking, "Which way? Where does Adja Ka live?"
Before Xena could answer, a voice said, "Do you seek the wise woman?"
Turning toward the sound, Xena and Gabrielle saw a crone, stooped and ancient, all in black and standing in the center of the path that led away to the right and among the trees. "She lives with forest creatures who shun the fields and bright daylight."
"Are you talking about Adja Ka?" asked Gabrielle, but the woman turned and slowly walked around the bend so that the trees and underbrush hid her from view. Xena dismounted and, leading her horse, walked beside her friend to the same bend. When they had passed it, both women looked down the trail.
The crone was gone.
"She couldn't move that quickly," Gabrielle remarked.
"She must have gone into the woods." As she spoke these words, a woman dressed in the dark-hued peasant costume of the region stepped from the concealment of the trees and into the path before them. The streaks of gray in her hair and the manner in which she wore her shaw indicated that this was a married woman, perhaps the mother of children, still at home or grown.
The woman's attention focused on the warrior woman. "One seeking an enemy may sometimes find a friend."
"Adja Ka is no friend to me," Xena answered. The woman nodded, either in acknowledgement or agreement, and stepped off the path. Faster than seemed possible, she was hidden from view.
"I don't know about this," Gabrielle whispered. "Folks popping in and out of the forest with messages that are more like puzzles than conversation."
Xena smiled, but there seemed to be a shadow behind her eyes. She patted Argo, although it was not the horse who needed to be reassured. The friends walked only a few paces before they heard a child singing. Neither was surprised to pass the wide trunk of an ancient oak and find, sitting among its roots, a young girl of no more than eight or nine winters. She ignored the travelers as she rocked a crude ragdoll and sang, "Go to sleep, my dear. Moonlight brings no fear. Crying with the dawn. Sunlight finds you gone."
Gabrielle sat beside the child, but the girl ignored her, continuing to rock and hum. Gabrielle looked up at Xena, who gestured up the trail. The peace of the woods was suddenly disturbed by the wail of a crying baby.
The little girl looked up, as if startled, and ran toward the sound.
Gabrielle started to follow, but Xena placed a restraining hand on her shoulder. "Leave her be."
Noticing something, Gabrielle knelt. When she rose again, she held the child's crude doll. She made as if to follow the girl again, but stopped when Xena took the doll from her hand and dropped it on the ground. "She and the baby may be in trouble," she protested.
"They aren't the ones in trouble."
"If we're going to do this, let's get it over with." Xena tugged on Argo's reins and continued up the path. After hesitating a moment, Gabrielle carefully moved the doll to lie atop one of the exposed tree roots and followed her friend.
They had traveled only a short distance when they stopped. Ahead was a small clearing, only a little lighter than the surrounding woods, shaded as it was by the tall trees. On the other side of the clearing was a small cottage, looking much like any farmer's or woodsman's home, but scattered around it were cages, some with wooden bars and some with metal, each cage containing an animal meant to be free. Xena tied Argo at the edge of the woods. As she and Gabrielle walked on, they passed a cage that held a weasel, another that housed an eagle, another an owl, a third a wolf that paced in the small space allotted to him. Before they reached the cottage door, Gabrielle had counted a dozen enclosures, each confining some wild thing. One cage, closest to the cottage, was empty, and she paused before passing it.
Xena stopped, too. "Do you see any deer? Or rabbits?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"Then don't worry. She collects only predators."
Before they were aware the door had opened, a woman stood before it.
"Don't you worry, either, Xena. I collect only killers with fur and feathers."
"So you remember me, Adja Ka?"
"Who could forget you, the great Warrior Princess? I am honored that you visit my home."
Xena dipped her head, a silent acknowledge, almost, but not quite, a bow.
During this exchange, Gabrielle studied the woman her friend had called Adja Ka. She wasn't sure what she had expected, but this woman was not it.
Adja Ka was slender, almost as tall as Xena, her hair a lustrous brown, her eyes the color of a stormy sea, set deep in clear, pale skin. She wore peasant dress, but the long-sleeved blouse was bright blue, and the skirt was a rich autumn-gold. She appeared to be not much older than Gabrielle and certainly no older than Xena. Gabrielle realized that the Adja Ka was returning her scrutiny.
"Is this the friend who travels with you, Xena?" The woman's gaze swept the shorter woman from head to toe before she smiled and looked back at the warrior. "I was surprised to learn you traveled with a woman. I've only known you to travel with an army--or alone."
"This is Gabrielle," Xena stated.
"Gabrielle," Adja Ka repeated, drawing the syllables out.
"I'm happy to meet you," Gabrielle answered. "I didn't know you already knew Xena, just that she knew of you."
"Yes, Xena knows of me," Adja Ka said. She stepped aside and gestured to the open door. "Excuse my lack of manners. I so rarely get visitors that I forget how to welcome them. Please come into my home. Perhaps you'll join me for some dinner, and you can tell me why you've come."
"We won't be here long enough for dinner," Xena replied, but she stepped past Adja Ka and motioned for Gabrielle to enter also.
Adja Ka's home had one room, which served as kitchen, living space, and bedroom. There was a fireplace with a metal cooking pot, a wooden table with two benches, and a sleeping pallet in the corner. Hooks on the walls held a few items of clothing and some tools. The floor, unlike many in this region, was wood, not dirt, but otherwise, the small house spoke more of cleanliness than prosperity.
At Adja Ka's invitation, Xena and Gabrielle sat down on one of the benches, but Gabrielle's eyes continued to search the room.
"What are you looking for?" their hostess asked, and Gabrielle blushed at her own rudeness.
"I'm sorry. I don't see anything that belongs to the healer's art," she explained.
Adja Ka sat on the other bench. "Is that what you told her, Xena? That I'm a healer?"
"I didn't tell her you weren't."
Adja Ka laughed. "And people think I speak in riddles." She turned to Gabrielle. "You look healthy enough. You aren't the one who needs healing, are you?"
"No," Gabrielle said. "I'm fine." Her eyes traveled to Xena.
"Ah, it's you, my friend." She rose and came back with two mugs. At Xena's raised eyebrow, she said, "It's only water. From a nearby spring."
She placed one mug before Gabrielle and held the other out for Xena to take. Xena accepted the mug with her left hand and, after sniffing the contents, took a swallow. Then she nodded at Gabrielle, who raised her mug and drank eagerly.
"Does you right arm not work at all?" Adja Ka asked. "Or is it merely stiff?"
"Not numb," Xena said. "It. . . .aches."
Gabrielle looked at her friend in surprise. This was the first she had heard about any pain.
"Sometimes it feels as if the skin might burn away."
Adja Ka nodded, as if this was what she had suspected.
"Can you cure her?" Gabrielle asked. "She said that, if anyone could help her, you could."
"Xena, your confidence in me is touching." The young woman rose and walked to the fireplace. Gabrielle noticed for the first time that there were pouches and string sacks hanging from hooks above the fireplace and from hooks placed between the stones that formed it. Adja Ka reached into one of these small pouches and took a pinch of something from it. She did the same with three more pouches until she held a mixture of what looked like herbs in the palm of her left hand. This mixture she dropped into the pot that already hung over the fire. She then turned back toward her visitors and placed an index finger against her chin as if pondering. "Well, Xena, have you more of wolf, of eagle, or of owl? Ares, Zeus, or Athena?" She seemed to decide. "Wolf, I think. Yes, definitely wolf." With that pronouncement, Adja Ka strode to the open door. Xena and Gabrielle watched her approach the wolf's cage. The wolf, his golden eyes fixed on the woman, stopped his pacing. Adja Ka reached between the bars and seemed to stroke his fur. Then she turned to return to the cottage, and the wolf resumed his pacing.
Adja Ka revealed to her guests what she held between thumb and finger, a few hairs from the wolf's dark pelt. These hairs she added to the mixture in the pot. Gabrielle decided that what was being prepared was not dinner.
She hoped that it was the answer to Xena's affliction. Adja Ka pulled down the pouch that hung from the highest hook above the fireplace. She looked in it, then brought it with her when she returned to her seat at the table. Xena looked at her steadily.
"What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked, feeling the tension. "Aren't you going to heal Xena now?"
Adja Ka handed the pouch to Gabrielle, who loosened the drawstrings and glanced inside. "It's empty."
"Yes," the other woman agreed. "That is the last ingredient needed for my potion, and the pouch is empty."
"Potion?" Gabrielle asked. She had thought the pot held medicine.
"Adja Ka makes potions because she is a witch."
At these words, Gabrielle's eyes flew from Xena's face to Adja Ka's. "A witch?"
"Some people call me that."
"Some people call you a lot worse."
"It's you who came here asking for my help" was Adja Ka's rejoinder. "You are free to leave."
Xena rose, and Gabrielle grabbed her left arm, using all her strength to pull her back down. Xena sat, but she said, "I didn't ask you for anything. Or agreed to your price."
"Price?" Gabrielle felt she had walked into the middle of a conversation begun long ago. She spoke to Adja Ka, feeling that she might be the more reasonable of the two women. "I have a few dinars. I will pay now what I have and in the future whatever you ask."
"Gabrielle!" It was clearly a warning.
Adja Ka smiled. "It is good of you to offer so much to help your friend. Her welfare must mean a great deal to you."
"I would do anything for her," Gabrielle revealed. "Besides, it's my fault her arm didn't heal right. I did something wrong when I stitched the wound."
"That's not true." Xena took Gabrielle's hand in hers. "You saved my life. I never blamed you for what happened after."
"You have changed more than I thought, Xena," Adja Ka observed. As for your offer, Gabrielle, as generous as it is, I must decline it. It is Xena who needs my services, and it is Xena who must pay."
"Since you don't have the last ingredient for your potion, there isn't any need to set a price or decide who will pay it." Xena again rose, and this time Gabrielle's restraining hand didn't stop her. "Let's go, Gabrielle.
I've told you that we'll manage." Xena's left hand on Gabrielle's elbow, the two women crossed to the door. Adja Ka's next words stopped them.
"Where will you leave her, Xena?"
"What?" Xena seemed startled, as if Adja Ka had read her thoughts.
"I'm sure you won't let her see you do it. Or be the one to find you."
Gabrielle looked from Adja Ka to Xena, trying to read her expression. "So my question is simple; where will you take her before you fall upon your sword?"
"Xena wouldn't do that," Gabrielle protested. "You won't kill yourself over this, will you, Xena? You said you would accept it. You said this sort of thing happens to warriors. Xena?"
"Xena isn't just any warrior, Gabrielle," Adja Ka answered, when Xena didn't. "Do you think challengers will leave her alone when they know she's crippled? Do you think she can accept the humiliation of being beaten by a lesser warrior? Do you think she'll take a chance that she can't protect you?"
"She's already proven she can still take care of us. She defeated two warriors and could have taken the third if . . . ."
"Adja Ka is right," Xena interrupted. "If those three had rushed me instead of talking to me and looking at you. . . .or if the armorer hadn't helped . . . . or if there had been five or six of them, the outcome would have been different. I would have been dead, and they would have had you."
Gabrielle remembered the mercenary's words: for as long as she lasts. She shook off the memory and faced her friend. "For a brave woman, sometimes you give up on yourself too easily." Before Xena could reply, the younger woman turned to Adja Ka. "If Xena pays what you ask, can you heal her right arm?"
"I need the last ingredient, but that is easily obtained."
"What is the price?"
"Gabrielle. . . ."
"Shut up, Xena." As hurt and anger warred in her friend's eyes, Gabrielle told her. "I'm sorry, but this isn't just about you. I'm not about to live without you." She faced the woman Xena had called a witch. "Well?"
"I want Xena's pain."
"Everyone gives what they have. Xena has guilt and pain. I want the pain."
Xena dropped Gabrielle's hand and stepped through the door. Adja Ka raised her voice. "Is your pain too dear to you, Xena? I knew better than to ask for the guilt." Standing in the yard, Xena seemed to study the wolf as it made its small circuit. "Give me just a little of the pain, if you can't spare it all.
One year's worth, how would that be? There should still be enough left to punish yourself with--enough to last until you return to Tartarus."
His hackles rising, the wolf stood still. His eyes and Xena's locked, and a low growl issued from his throat.
"What is she talking about, Xena?"
"What is the ingredient you need?" Xena's voice seemed to break her connection with the wolf, who was again quiet as he paced his cell.
"Braewort," the witch answered. "It grows on a hill near here. You and the girl can fetch it and be back by nightfall."
"Gabrielle has no part in this."
"Fine. You go for the herb and leave her with me."
Xena and Gabrielle looked up the sheer rock face. "This is a hill?"
"You stay with Argo. I'll climb up, find the braewort, if it's there, and come right back down." The warrior was already removing her weapons belt as she talked. She looped the belt over the saddlehorn, the swords and chakram gleaming redly in the late day sun.
"You're going to climb that thing. . . ." She almost said "one-handed" but belatedly substituted "by yourself?"
"It's going to be dark soon. I don't have time to argue."
"Then don't. I'm going with you." The stubborn tilt of her chin matched her companion's. Xena sighed, and Gabrielle knew she had won.
"Then let's go." Xena took her whip from its place on the saddle, then handed it to Gabrielle. "Tie one end of this around your waist. Then wrap the rest of it around you. Since we don't have a rope, it may come in handy. No use my carrying it, since I can't both hold on and use it."
Gabrielle did as she was told and found that the whip went several times around her small waist before she could tuck the tapered end into the coil.
Then Xena gave Gabrielle the piece of cloth they had sometimes used to bind her right arm across her chest. "Put this around my waist and tie it so my arm is held to my side." Gabrielle followed this direction as well.
The two woman walked to the base of the rock wall and looked up. From that position, it appeared nearly vertical, and they could no longer see the top. "Do you think there's an easier way?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena shook her head. "I think this is the easy way." Gabrielle didn't ask why her friend thought this. Sometimes, Xena just knew. "I'll go first.
Put your feet exactly where I've put mine and use the same left hand hold.
You'll have to find the right hand hold yourself." She chuckled when she said this, and Gabrielle tried to follow suit. "I'll try not to make moves that you can't make." Gabrielle took no offense at this, knowing that Xena was referring to the great difference in their height and reach.
Gabrielle motioned for the tall warrior to bend down and, when she did so, she put her arms around her neck pulled her down still farther. They stood like this for a few moments, cheek against cheek, before the smaller woman released her hold, and Xena straightend. Without another word, she reached up and found a crack that would not be out of the bard's reach. Placing her fingers in that small space, she pulled herself up until she could place her right foot on an outcropping of rock. She repeated these motions, pulling herself up the rock face, seemingly with little effort. Her friend watched her until she was more than her own height above the ground, and then, wedging her left hand in the first crack and finding a small knob to grasp with her right, Gabrielle began the ascent.
When they were more than halfway up the rock face, Xena encountered a ledge that jutted out above her head. No matter how hard she tried, she could not maneuver past it. To climb under it, she would have to wedge her hand into a crack and dangle under it. And there she would be stuck. To reach over it, she would have to lean backward at the same time she reached up.
However, not having another hand to keep her in contact with the wall, she could not do this either. She considered making one desperate leap, either getting her good arm over the ledge or falling to the ground far below.
Then she heard pebbles falling and looked down into green eyes. Gabrielle looked from Xena to the ledge. "How do we get over that?" There was no answer. "Xena?"
"I'm climbing over that?" Gabrielle's voice held less fear than wonder.
Xena looked at her friend as if seeing her for the first time. This was no frail little girl. Her arm muscles bunched under smooth skin as her hands easily held much of her weight. Although she was sweating, both from nervousness and exertion, her breathing was even and unlabored.
"You can do this," Xena said. "Find a way to climb up here beside me. There are plenty of hand and foot holds. When you get here, there's a narrow outcropping for your feet and a small depression you can lean into and rest." Without hesitation, Gabrielle pulled herself up until she joined her friend right under the shelf. "See that crack?" Xena pointed with her chin, and Gabrielle nodded. "It runs almost to the edge of the ledge. Then there's another one just beyond it." Gabrielle saw this one and nodded again. "You're going to reach up with your right hand and wedge it into that first crack. Then you'll do the same with your left hand, as far as you can reach while still getting some support from your feet."
Gabrielle considered. "I can do that. Then what?"
"When you're sure your hands will hold you, let your feet drop away from the wall."
"No, I'm not. You can do this."
"I'll be dangling from that ledge, with just my fingers holding me up."
"That's right. Then you slowly work your way along that crack until it ends. Then put your right hand in the new crack and, when that hand is secure, reach over the ledge with your left hand. Don't let go with your right until you are secure. Then use both hands to pull yourself up."
Gabrielle studied the overhang, trying to picture herself putting Xena's words into action. "Then what? After I'm on the ledge, how do you get up?"
"Are you secure where you are now?"
"Let go with one hand and tie the end of the whip around my right wrist."
Gabrielle let go with her nearest hand, which was her left. Although she fumbled a couple of times, she was able to unwrap the whip and tie the tapered end around Xena's wrist. She left the other end of the whip tied around her own waist. "Now remove the cloth." Gabrielle did this, also, and the paralyzed arm swung free. "When you're on the ledge, you'll help me up."
"Wouldn't it be better to tie the whip around your waist? I'm afraid it will dislocate your arm."
"It isn't long enough to use any other way." Xena smiled. "You won't hurt this arm. It's pretty much as hurt as it can get. Now, go. Don't give yourself too much time to think."
Gabrielle immediately reached for the crack. She had to jump a little to reach it and, losing contact with her feet and the other hand, dangled by just the fingers of her left hand. Xena expelled her breath as Gabrielle brought her right hand up and managed to work it into the crack as well.
Slowly, Gabrielle worked her away along the crack and, when she had to make the transfer to the other crack, did this with no trouble. The next maneuver was the most crucial, as Gabrielle had to pull herself up with one hand while swinging slightly in order to reach over the stone outcropping.
She made two attempts at this and, before she attempt a third, Xena called out, "Stop. Come back. We'll go back down." Taking and releasing a deep breath, Gabrielle swung up and out further than she had done the first two times and, trusting that her new hold on the ledge would be secure, she let her fingers slide out of the crack. She knew triumph, as her right hand found purchase above the shelf, and her left hand reached up to join it.
Then her right hand slipped, and she knew an instant before it happened that she was falling. Before she could think what this would mean, her descent came to an abrupt stop as the whip around her waist snapped taut.
Then came a sharp pain and darkness, as her head struck rock.
"Gabrielle?" The shout came from far away. "Wake up. Gabrielle!"
"Sleep a little longer."
"Now! You have to wake up now." Insistent. And too loud. Gabrielle opened her eyes. And, as she remembered where she was, shut them again.
"Open your eyes, Gabrielle." Xena's voice turned from orders to pleading.
"Please. I need your help."
Xena? Help? The whip, which had slipped up, was painfully constricting her breathing, and Gabrielle gasped to get enough air. She forced her eyes open and looked up, following the dark line of the whip, up, up, to Xena's hand. Xena's hand, which was almost purple from the pressure the other end of the whip was putting on her wrist. Yet, Xena still held onto the rock face with her left hand, one foot still finding scant purchase on the small outcropping, the other now wedged into a vertical crack.
How had she held on, kept from being pulled from the rock face herself? Gabrielle tried to ask, but she couldn't get enough breath to speak.
"Listen," Xena said. "Try to touch the wall. Careful. If you move too fast, you'll start spinning again." Gabrielle tried, but the whip was just under her arms, and she couldn't reach very far. She felt herself start to slip, and she brought both arms back down to her sides. Xena saw what was happening and called, "Stay still. I'll have to pull you up."
Gabrielle managed to whisper, "You can't. You'll fall, too." She fumbled for the knot that she had made just above the whip's handle. She couldn't find it.
"Gabrielle, what are you doing? Stay still! I've got you." Gabrielle realized that the knot was no longer in front. It must have slipped around her when she fell. Or when Xena halted her fall. She didn't have a knife, no way to cut the tough leather. Unless. . . . taking a steadying breath, she started to raise her arms. And stopped, as she looked at the wall and realized that she was moving. Up.
She lifted her eyes and saw Xena, her back wedged in the shallow depression, feet supporting her weight, as she slowly hauled upward on the whip. Gabrielle blinked, but the vision didn't change. As she rose, the young woman came into closer contact with the wall, and she was able to find hand and foot holds that enabled her to help with her upward progress.
Finally, she was standing beside her friend, just as she had been before she had attempted the ledge.
"Xena, your arm . . . ."
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I never should have asked you to try that." In the dying light, Xena's eyes sparkled with tears, but she didn't let them fall.
"Xena, your arm. . . ."
Xena shook her head. "I selfishly risked your life. And for what? My arm."
If Gabrielle hadn't been afraid to let go of the rock that held her, she would have shaken her friend. "Don't interrupt me again." Xena stopped talking. "You pulled me back up this mountain. And to do it, you used both hands."
Having spent the night at the foot of the rock face, the two women didn't ride along the trail to Adja Ka's cottage until first light. They had occupied themselves with other things than conversation, so Gabrielle still had questions to ask. She placed her arms around her warrior's waist and leaned close as she asked them.
"Why did you climb the rest of the way up the rock face after pulling me to safety? Was it just to get the herb for Adja Ka?"
Xena touched the pouch she wore at her waist. It now held the braewort she had found in abundance on the rocky ledge that had almost ended her friend's life. She had gathered it while climbing back down from the top of the mountain, a fact she considered her own secret.
"Xena? Was it just for the braewort?"
"I finished the climb because I could. I don't know if Adja Ka even wants the plant. That could have been an excuse for the climb." She paused before continuing. "I figured I might as well gather it while we were in the neighborhood."
They rode in silence only a few moments while Gabrielle thought about that answer. "Do you think Adja Ka planned this whole thing? Did she know you would use your arm to save my life? That you COULD use you arm if you had to?"
"I have to say 'I don't know' to all three questions." Xena considered what had happened. When Gabrielle fell, she wedged one foot as deeply into a crack as it would go and held on with her good hand. She had fully expected to be pulled off the rock wall but had considered that preferable to watching Gabrielle fall to her death. But she had been able to hold on as Gabrielle hit the full length of the whip, and it was pulled suddenly taut. Xena's shoulder still ached, reminding her of the grinding pain as it was almost pulled from its socket, threatening to separate from her body. She remembered the despair she felt as she saw Gabrielle hanging unconscious at the end of the braided leather. Then Gabrielle awakened, and Xena knew she would somehow get her off that mountain alive. She recalled something else. "I have a question, too. What were you trying to do just before I started pulling you up?"
Gabrielle was silent, but Xena knew that she had her answer. They rode along for some time before Xena halted Argo. "Adja Ka's cottage is just past those big trees. Is there anything else you want to ask me before we go on?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "You're inviting me to ask questions?"
"If there's anything we need to settle, I want to do it now. We may not want to talk about any of this again." Xena's voice held a finality that her friend knew well.
"You really didn't realize that you had used both hands to pull me up until I pointed it out to you?"
"Will you still pay Adja Ka's price?" Gabrielle still didn't understand how Xena could pay for the cure with a year of her pain, but the concept disturbed her.
"I think I already have."
"It's hard to explain, but I feel as if some. . . . burden I carried is gone or, at least, lighter." Xena smiled. "I'm not the bard, so I can't explain it."
Gabrielle leaned around Xena, trying to see her face without falling off the tall horse. "You don't remember what pain you gave up?" Xena shook her head. "Why not?"
"Healers say you can't remember pain you no longer have."
"I don't understand."
"You can't remember pain because remembered pain is . . . . pain." Xena nudged Argo, and they rode past the trees and into the clearing that held the home of Adja Ka. There before them were the cages that before had held living animals, weasel, wolf, eagle, and owl . . . . Now the cages appeared empty. Xena reined Argo to the cage that had held the wolf.
Gabrielle started to slide down, but Xena put her hand on the smaller woman's leg and stopped her. They gazed at all that was left of the wolf, a pile of bones, long bereft of flesh or life. The other cages were the same. In each, a small pile of bones was all that remained to show what manner of animal had inhabited it. And the cottage? The roof fallen in, the door hanging by one hinge, it was clear that no one had lived there for many years.
"Xena, is this the right place? Where is Adja Ka?"
Keeping to her vow to answer no more questions, Xena maintained her silence. She removed the pouch from her belt and shook it, allowing its contents to scatter on the wind. Then, dropping the pouch, she turned Argo from the cottage and toward the trail, to places where reality, not magic, ruled.