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Disclaimer: Yep, they are both owned by MCA/Universal/Renaissance, but their souls, I believe, live here in the realm of fan fiction.
This is the second story in the series called, Tales From the Bard. "Precious Gems" was the first.
No throwing hay at the fanfic writer, btw.
Two women walked at a leisurely pace towards the stable, taking their time as they enjoyed the cool evening air and their full stomachs. The sky was the deepest of purple hues, the sun having just hidden its last ray of light behind the far off hills. The moon, gloriously full in the cloudless heavens, was just beginning its journey across the blanket of sparkling gems called stars.
Gabrielle breathed in the sweet spring air and smiled, happy that the day was almost over. Two or three more days of travel and the two friends would be in Athens for the yearly performance at the Bard's Academy. Amazingly enough, it had been Xena's idea to go the festival and listen to the graduating students, which pleased the bard no end. It wasn't often that the two women could take a few days off from the seemingly never-ending task of saving the world and it was even more rare to have Xena suggest it.
After a good meal and several stories given out to an appreciative audience, Gabrielle was more than willing to end the day and spend some quiet time with Xena before sleeping. Before they went up to their room, though, the two women were making a quick trip to the stable. Xena always made it a habit to check on Argo before retiring, just to make sure she'd gotten her allotment of oats and was being well cared for.
"I hope Orion...I mean, Homer, will still be there. It'll be nice to see the others again," Gabrielle said as she got to the huge double doors first and pulled one side open for her partner.
"I'm sure they'll be glad to see you too, Gabrielle," Xena assured her, glad that she'd come up with the idea of them traveling to Athens for the festival.
The tall woman entered the shadowy confines of the stable, her eyes quickly adjusting to the low light. Immediately, she sensed something was wrong. Holding out her arm, she motioned Gabrielle to stay behind her. She wasn't sure what it was that felt out of place, but she wanted room for both of them to maneuver. She scanned the flickering shadows cast by the single hooded lantern set high on a post, searching for any signs of an ambush.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered softly, her own sharp gaze searching the corners for any lurking occupants.
Dark eyebrows drew together as Xena ignored her friend for a moment and concentrated. She knew by the sounds that there wasn't anyone else, besides the two of them and the animals, in the stable, but something just wasn't right. Stepping further into the building, she turned her attention towards Argo's stall.
The sight of her beloved mare breathing irregularly sent her running for the enclosure in a near panic, with Gabrielle right behind.
"Oh no!" Xena cried as she hurriedly opened the stall door and rushed inside. Picking up a handful of hay from the hayrack, she carefully took a sniff, grimacing at the odd, musty odor.
"What is it?" Gabrielle looked around the taller woman's shoulder in concern.
"Something...the smell..." she paused, taking another deep sniff then stiffened as she recognized the odor. Dropping the bits of hay she turned to Argo and grabbed the mare's halter. Pulling the horse's head around she looked her in the eye. "Argo? Are you all right, girl? Hmmm?" Xena leaned close and smelled the mare's breath, grimacing as she recognized the same rank odor.
"Damn!" she cursed and ran a hand through Argo's forelock, frowning at the abnormal warmth coming from the mare's forehead.
The mare began to tremble and looked at her mistress with distress. She didn't understand what was happening to her. Hanging her head low she began heaving violently, then abruptly emptied out her stomach onto the floor. Suddenly, Argo convulsed so violently that her knees buckled and she collapsed heavily onto the ground.
"Argo! No!" Xena fell to her knees as Argo attempted ,in vain, to stand up. She kept her grip on the halter, trying to keep the distressed mare down.
The golden mare lay back in now filthy straw and shivered uncontrollably. As the two women watched in concern, Argo broke out in sweat, her coat quickly becoming drenched. Her eyes, usually bright and healthy, became dull and swollen. Her pupils were so wide that the light brown irises were now completely black in color. But what scared Gabrielle the most was the bloody discharge that started to seep out from the mare's nostrils.
Xena placed a hand on the horse's thick, muscular neck, counting her heartbeats.
"Xena?" The bard's voice trembled in worry.
"Go get my saddlebags," the worried woman ordered, not taking her eyes off Argo.
Gabrielle rummaged through the debris of straw to find the requested items. Thankfully, Xena usually left their belongings in the mare's stall until they were ready to retire to their own room for the evening. Argo could always be counted on to keep a vigilant eye against would-be thieves. Quickly, she brought the items back to Xena, watching helplessly as the warrior rifled through them, looking for the right herbs.
"I don't have enough!" Xena's hand struck her thigh in annoyance.
"What do you need?" Gabrielle touched her friend's shoulder in concern. "What can I do?"
She watched as Xena took a deep breath then slowly exhaled. After several long moments Xena turned and looked up at her. Gabrielle almost cringed at the sight. It was rare that she'd ever seen Xena afraid and this was one of those times. The woman seemed like a lost little girl instead of the fierce warrior she normally was.
"Argo..." The name came out barely above a croaked whisper. Xena cleared her throat and tried again. "Argo's sick. The hay is bad...it happens sometimes. I should have checked earlier!" Her clenched fist struck her thigh again in anger. "I need to cleanse her system of it, but I don't have enough herbs."
The blonde gasped in shock and squeezed Xena's shoulder to show she understood her friend's fear. She took a quick look down at the weak and trembling horse, then back up to Xena. "Do you think there's any around here I can get? Would the village healer have any?"
Black locks flew as Xena shook her head from side to side. "No. Wrong time of year...and it doesn't grow around here. We could find it in Athens, but not in such a small village," she replied, her voice echoing her anxiousness.
Gabrielle released Xena's shoulder reluctantly and knelt down on one knee to gently caress Argo's forehead. "I'm sure there is something you can do. Isn't there?" she pleaded. The memory of her own pony, Tympani, flashed through the bard's mind. She understood Xena's pain and wanted more than anything to relieve it.
Xena moved to the other side of the mare and carefully lifted her head, setting it down gently on her crossed legs. She refused to look at Gabrielle at first, but the bard couldn't help but see the tears that splashed down on the mare's delicate nose. After a long moment of tenderly stroking Argo's pale coat she glanced up. Gabrielle was pleased to see fierce determination in the sapphire eyes and knew Xena wasn't about to give up yet. The woman who had refused to leave her to die on Asclepius' altar in Thessaly, who had jumped off a cliff to rescue her, and had given her own life to save a child in danger was still in there.
"Get me a fresh bucket of cold water and some clean rags. She's managed to rid herself of what remained in her stomach, but I don't know how much got into her blood stream. If...if we can get her to drink, get down some of the herbs I do have, and keep her temperature down, she might just have a chance," Xena explained, her words firm and her face resolved.
Gabrielle nodded and went to refill Argo's bucket as Xena prepared the herbs. She quickly ran to the inn, asking for clean towels then returned to the stable after filling the bucket. Handing the container and towels over to Xena, Gabrielle cleaned the stall, exchanging the befouled straw for clean.
They worked together for what seemed like several candle marks, carefully washing Argo with cool water, then placing blankets over her as she shivered with chills. It had been difficult to get the mare to keep drinking water, but Xena had been determined and with a calm, soothing demeanor she trickled a handful of water at a time into Argo's mouth. The hardest part came when there was nothing more to do but wait.
At first the two women sat in silence, both lost in their own thoughts and worry as they continued to pet and tried to reassure their patient.
"I keep thinking about what might happen," Xena admitted quietly, her hands shaking as she wiped the damp rag along Argo's neck.
The bard almost broke out in fresh tears at the desperation in her friend's voice. "She'll be fine. You'll see." She paused in thought, then asked, "Would you like to hear a story? It's the only thing I can think of to distract you."
Xena raised her bronzed shoulders in a small shrug, but kept silent.
"What would you like to hear?"
Bright, crystal blue eyes unhappily looked up at her. "Anything but a story about me."
Gabrielle lifted a hand to Xena's face and moved a stray lock out of the warrior's face and behind her ear. "Deal. Let me think. Hmmm...ahhh, I think I have the perfect one."
Before starting she shifted closer to Xena and Argo, so that she wouldn't have to speak as loudly. This way her tones would be softer and soothing to both the woman and the mare.
"Long, long ago when the world was young and mankind was still new to its halved form, the gods were having a quarrel.
Hera wasn't satisfied with the animals that the elder gods had created, saying that they were unimaginative. Zeus sighed, having no real choice but to listen to his wife, but agreed. 'Perhaps,' he said, 'we should create a new creature.' So it was that the gods gathered once again and discussed what should be created and what shouldn't. Hera thought it should be a bird, but Artemis thought it should be a land bound animal.
The opinions were varied and not one of the gods could agree. Finally, when the shouting had grown too loud and the tempers too hot, Zeus intervened and said that each god would make their own animal. The rest of the gods readily agreed and each left create.
Zeus traveled the earth and seeing mankind's need for clothing and food, he created a great white bull and a black heifer. It has since been one of his favorite forms that he takes when he dallies with a mortal woman," Gabrielle gave Xena a look, but the warrior gave no indication that she saw her, let alone that she was listening to the bard's story. Her attention seemed to be completely on Argo and nothing else.
"Hera, not caring about mortals and only about her own self-serving needs and conceit, created the peacock. It was a lovely bird, with shimmering, dark green feathers that covered its body and a tail, that when spread, was even more fantastic. The Queen of the Gods was so proud of her creation that from that moment on it became her symbol and whenever she drew near the harsh cries of the peacock could be heard. The rest of the gods thought it was fitting, for although the peacock was attractive, its cry was not and they viewed Hera in the same unflattering light. Those who saw her knew she was beautiful but whenever she spoke, her words were callous and cruel.
"Ares created the wolf, a hunter of great skill that worked well with others of its kind or by itself. It is said that he trained the first warriors after the way of the wolf. They were so fierce and cunning, that when they had a taste of their prey's blood, they were merciless in hunting it down." Gabrielle rearranged herself so that her head rested against Xena's shoulder. The warm silky skin under her cheek smelled faintly of soap, wood smoke, and hay. She reached out a hand and began to caress Argo's soft nose.
The mare's whiskers and warm breath tickled her palm. It reminded her of the times when Xena would be off hunting, leaving the two together. She would always try and sneak an apple or two to Argo, as a way to befriend her and ease her own fears of the horse. Gabrielle knew from experience that the mare didn't dislike her as much as she pretended sometimes. Over the course of time the two of them had made their odd relationship into a kind of game that they both enjoyed.
Don't you dare leave us, Argo. Don't you dare! the bard admonished the mare silently, praying that her thoughts would be communicated through her touch. Gabrielle cleared her throat, trying to ease the tightness that threatened to close it. After a moment of bringing herself under control she continued with her tale.
"Hephaestus wanted an animal that was like him, a creator, so he made the beaver. It was a master of building dams and the Smith God found their industriousness very intriguing. As for their unusual appearance, Hephaestus didn't care that the other gods mocked his creation. He thought they were unique and beautiful in their own right.
"The eagle, whose wings took it high enough into the sky that it could frolic and play with the sun, was Apollo's creation. The magnificent bird became his companion on his long journeys across the sky.
Aphrodite created two beautifully majestic swans. The graceful birds, one deepest black and the other pure white, mated for life. By making the birds, though, the Goddess of Love earned Hera's eternal loathing, for the Queen of the Gods knew that the swans were far more exquisite than her own peacocks, and much more pleasing to listen to.
"Poseidon watched through his giant scrying shell as the other gods molded and breathed life into these new animals. As they released their creations out into the world, he considered what was needed. He saw that Zeus' cattle were good for pulling a plow to till the soil and that some of Ares' wolves had been captured and made to be companions for mankind. The eagle ruled the sky, but was clumsy on land. As for Hera's peacocks, like the other gods he couldn't stand the cries of the birds. Aphrodite's swans were indeed pretty but useless and the beavers, created by Hephaestus, were useful but too odd looking.
"The God of the Sea wanted to create a beast that was beautiful in all ways. Useful to mankind but free as a bird. Graceful, yet strong of heart and body.
"For a long time, Poseidon thought about what he wanted to contribute, ignoring the other gods when they came to him and asked what was taking such a long time. Finally, one day he had an inkling of what he truly wanted to make and he began to create.
"First, he traveled to Hephaestus' volcano forge and reached deep into the molten rock to mold the heart of the beast. This creature would be hot-blooded and have the most courageous of spirits. Next, he went to the edge of the sea, where the waves meet the land and he gathered the foam in his hands and began to form it into shape.
"He started with a solid, well-built body with a long back that led to high arching neck. Then he sculpted four long but sturdy legs that ended in strong hooves. Poseidon created the beast's head next, giving it enough room for a large brain. With his fingers he carefully made the head longer, tapering off finally to a smooth nose and wide mouth. Wanting it to eat grass and oats, instead of meat, the god made the teeth flat." Gabrielle ran her hand along Argo's coat. Up the long sleek nose, past her eyes and through her silky mane. Green, teary eyes flickered over the mare's muscular frame and down the long legs, then back up to her head. To Xena's eyes, the bard knew, Argo was the most beautiful of all horses.
And I... agree with her. You've grown on me, you oversized apple thief, the bard thought silently as she looked Argo eye to eye.
"Then, Poseidon took two small pieces of green sea glass and placed them as eyes in the animal's head. Stepping back, the god took a good look at his creation. It was indeed a beautiful sight, he thought, yet it still lacked something. After a moment, he figured out what was missing and dipped his hand into the sea, this time bringing up long strands of seaweed. Carefully he straightened them out and placed them along the crest of the long neck of the beast and at the end of the hindquarters.
"When Poseidon was finally pleased with what he had shaped, he blew gently into the animal's face, giving it life. Then, bending his will, he gave the creature a noble bearing, a speed to match the wind's, deep seated loyalty, stamina, and grace.
Poseidon, so full of pride at what he had made, decided to keep the animal for himself. Quickly, he created another one, this one female, and called them horses. Then, after fashioning a vehicle made from a wave taken from the sea, he harnessed them to the front of it. Now, he would be the envy of all the gods as his steeds took him wherever he wished.
"Athena and Artemis, seeing what Poseidon had made and how their uncle refused to share his creation, were displeased and decided to interfere with his plan. That same evening, when Poseidon was in his underwater palace and the horses were safely stabled, the two goddesses visited the animals." Gabrielle's slim fingers continued to idly play Argo's mane as she watched Xena wring out cool water from the towel and bathe the mare's head.
"Athena took the male's head in her hands and gazed at him thoughtfully. Her hands started to glow, wrapping the horse's head in the bright light of her will and a knowing look came to the animal's eyes. Bowing low, the majestic beast thanked the goddess, using his newfound intelligence to speak out loud. When she was finished she then turned to the dainty mare and did the same for her.
"Seeing her sister finally step back, Artemis smiled and leaned close enough between both of the horses to whisper into their flickering ears. She spoke of freedom. Of the soft soil under their hooves and tall grass gently caressing their legs. Of the wind flowing through long manes and of both of them dancing friskily across wide-open plains. Artemis, the goddess of everything untamed, made the horses independent and wild.
"Just as quietly as they had come, the two goddesses were gone, leaving the horses alone. With their new found intelligence and need for freedom, it didn't take long for Poseidon's creations to escape. Night fell, along with its veil of sparkling stars, and the pale moon traveled across the sky, gazing down on the two runaways. They cantered and played like children among the waves until they finally reached the end of the sea. For the first time in their short lives, they touched the earth and ate sweet spring grass. Through that night they explored the world, over hills, mountains, and plains. They were free and wild, having no cares or worries.
"Morning came, and Poseidon went to his stables to harness his precious horses and show them off to his fellow gods, but the animals were no where to be found. Enraged, he went to his giant scrying shell and found them grazing in a far off glade. Seeing what Athena and Artemis had done to his creations, without his permission, his ire grew even more terrible to behold.
"He knew that he would not be able to change the horses back, for he couldn't reverse what another god had done. His prizes were forever ruined beyond repair. Poseidon could however, interfere, just as Athena and Artemis had. Angrily, he touched his great trident to the image of the two horses and cursed them.
"He took away all remaining vestiges of their sea-born heritage, making their water-like coats coarse and their seaweed manes and tails into hair. Their eyes, once glossy, liquid green became ordinary brown. Never again would they be able to roam the seas, the land would be their only home now. He also restricted the freedom that Artemis had bestowed upon them. If ever they consented to serve mankind, they would be doomed to that servitude until the end of time. As for Athena's gift, Poseidon couldn't take away their intelligence, but he did remove the power of speech from them."
Although, I'm not really sure I'd want to know what you really think of me, Argo, Gabrielle grinned to herself when the sick mare chose that moment to look at her. Was it her imagination or had Argo winked? The bard shook her head at her own foolishness and continued with the story. She knew she wasn't just telling this story for just Xena's benefit anymore. Argo, from the beginning of the tale, had been counted as a member of her audience and the bard didn't even think twice about it.
"The horses wept at what their beloved creator had done to them, but they accepted his terms in exchange for their freedom. Athena and Artemis, seeing the curse and the changes Poseidon had placed on the horses, give the animals one last gift. They could not undo Poseidon's curse, but they declared that if the horses ever choose to serve mankind, it would be their decision and could not be coerced. Even then, their spirit would be forever unbreakable and some of their kind would always be free and wild as the sea that had birthed them. So it was that Poseidon's creations joined the rest of the god's creatures to roam the earth...until the day they met mankind. But that's another story."
Gabrielle's words finally trailed off. Removing her hand from Argo's mane, she tried to stifle a yawn but had little success. Blinking wearily, she looked out the door, surprised to see the sky just beginning to lighten into the darkest of blues from night's black.
False dawn, she thought, bemused. I haven't been up this early in a long time.
She sighed and looked back at Argo and Xena. The warrior had been content to keep the same position the whole night, letting Argo rest her head in her lap. To the bard's eye, the mare seemed much better, but she had to admit she didn't know much about healing, let alone about healing horses. But the bloody discharge from the mare's nose had dried up and her pretty eyes were much less swollen.
Gabrielle cupped Argo's jaw, running her thumb back and forth along the cooler hide.
It was at that moment that Argo decided she'd had enough of lying down and lifted her head out of Xena's lap. Slowly, at first, then with more momentum she shifted herself onto her stomach, then onto her front hoofs. Placing her back legs under her, she heaved herself up. The two women scrambled onto their own feet and looked at the standing mare with astonishment and relief.
"She seems better," Gabrielle said hopefully.
"Yeah." Xena looked over at the bard and met her gaze, her lips pulled back in a brilliant smile. "She is. She's strong."
Gabrielle returned the grin with one of her own, knowing that a happier Xena meant Argo was truly on the mend. If the worst had happened and Argo had died, she knew that the warrior would have been devastated. The mare had been Xena's first friend after she'd left her old life, and their travels just wouldn't be the same without her.
Turning her attention back to Argo, she looked deeply into those much too intelligent eyes and gave the mare a smile all her own. "Yes, she is. I'd rather think that she just didn't want to leave you all alone. She's not all that bad."
Xena cocked her head to the side and gave her friend an slightly confused look. "Really? I thought you two didn't get along."
The bard shrugged and closed the space between her and Argo. Wrapping her arms around the mare's neck she gave her a long hug. Pulling back just far enough to whisper into the mare's ear she murmured, "Oh, I don't know. We have our moments don't we? I'm sure apples help a lot."
What? You thought I was going to kill off Argo? To quote Xena, "Are you insane?" No way in Hades do I want to get thirty emails, promising me a slow and painful death, from the "Argo Lovers" contingent. I, unlike our beloved Callisto, do NOT have a death wish. So I poisoned her instead. *G* It's not like killing off Gabrielle (which I've done several times) after all, you don't dare kill off the intelligent members of the group. *VBEG* I just know I'm gonna get some neat responses from that comment. *L* And I was being such a good grrrl. Bad, bad Silk!
Btw- the next tale will not be a creation tale. The only reason why this one was, is because the Muse made me write it first. The next story will be called, "Two Hearts, One Soul".
Have Katiepult. Will trade her for a copy of Rainbow Warrior.
"Bard? Where? Leave me alone, I'm trying to find a nice juicy apple for Argo. She's a bit angry with me right now."
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