Convert this page to Pilot DOC Format
MOUNTAIN QUEST by Eva Allen
DISCLAIMER: The characters Xena and Gabrielle, along with others who have appeared in the TV series XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, are the sole property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Their use in this story does not constitute the author's intent to make a profit or otherwise infringe on the existing copyright. The interpretation of the characters in this story is purely the author's own. Copyright for this fanfiction held by Eva Allen, March 1998.
"See those footprints?" Xena asked as she pointed at the snow. "Those are the ones you made running away from me."
Gabrielle bent to study the prints for a moment.
"And see these?" Xena said, moving on. "These are the tracks I made running after you." She walked a few paces further and pointed to another spot. "Here's where I fell down."
Gabrielle came up beside her. "Did you hurt yourself?" she asked, peering down at the snow.
"No," Xena said with a grin. "I was just mad because I couldn't seem to catch up with you. That's when I decided to use the chakram. I threw it from right here."
They moved on across the field and Xena pointed to another spot. "Here's where you fell. How's your head, by the way?"
"It hurts some, but it's not too bad, really."
"I've got willow bark in my herb bag, but I left it at the campsite."
"How long will it take us to get there?"
"An hour, more or less. That's about how long it took to climb up here." She stopped and looked down the trail. "These rocks are slippery, Gabrielle, so just take your time and be careful."
"Okay," said the younger woman, smiling.
Xena smiled back, letting her eyes linger for a moment on her lover's face. Then she turned and began climbing down over the rocks.
It was slow going, but by helping each other down over the steep places, they made fairly steady progress. Xena found that having her arm tied helped her balance, but she still felt a bit awkward climbing one-handed. Oh well, she would get used to it in time, she supposed.
As they went, she told Gabrielle about the battle with the serpent. "I almost had it," she finished. "I almost had my hands around its scaly little throat, but then--" She stopped speaking and studied the trail in front of her, looking for a good way to get down over a particularly large boulder.
"But then what?" asked Gabrielle, stopping behind her.
"Let's try this," Xena said, then squatted on the top of the boulder and slid down its icy surface. Landing nimbly on her feet, she reached her hand back for Gabrielle, who decided to slide down on her seat rather than her feet.
"That was fun," she said, laughing, when she landed beside the warrior. "Except now I've got a cold butt."
"That's why I didn't use mine," Xena said with a grin. Then she turned and started down the mountainside again.
"Tell me the rest of the story," Gabrielle said.
"Oh, didn't I finish it?"
"No. You were just about to get ahold of the serpent and strangle it."
"Hmm," said Xena as she considered just how much of the story she wanted to tell. "Well, what happened was the serpent got away. It was thrashing around a lot and I guess I didn't hold the forked staff tightly enough. Anyway, I slipped and it got loose, and that's when it bit me." She stopped speaking for a moment to catch her breath, surprised to realize how heavy and tired her legs felt. "It hurt so much that I thought I was going to pass out," she went on, glancing back at Gabrielle, "but I didn't. I grabbed the serpent with my left hand and squeezed as hard as I could."
"So you strangled it with only one hand?"
"Yeah. Well, I didn't have much of a choice."
"What was I doing? Did I help you at all?"
"At that point, you seemed to be mostly thinking about running away," Xena said with half a grin.
"But why? I still don't understand why I wanted to run away."
"Let's talk about it later," Xena said. "The trail is leveling out a little, so maybe we can pick up the pace." She stopped to look back at Gabrielle. "How are you doing?" she asked. "Do you want to rest for a minute?"
"No, I'm all right. Just keep going. I know we need to get there before dark."
Xena glanced at the sun, now low in the sky, then started forward again. But a few paces further on, she suddenly felt dizzy and had to pause for a moment to let her vision clear. Glancing back to see if Gabrielle had noticed, she was glad to find that the younger woman was busy watching the trail, concentrating on her footing. Xena forced herself to take a few deep breaths, then set off once more at a fairly good pace. For some time, everything was fine, but then, without warning, the dizziness came again, and as the world began to spin around her, she clutched at a nearby boulder for support.
Instantly, Gabrielle was beside her, wrapping an arm around her waist. "Xena, what's wrong? Are you sick?"
"No, I-- I just got a little short of breath and all of a sudden I felt light-headed." She looked at her friend and was relieved to see everything coming back into focus. "I'm all right now. Let's just go on," she said.
"No, you're not all right. Come over here and sit down for a minute."
Xena let Gabrielle steer her to a low rock where the two of them sat down. The younger woman then pressed her hands against Xena's forehead and cheeks, frowning in puzzlement as she did so.
"You're a little warm, but you don't seem feverish," she said. "Is your arm bothering you? Do you think the snakebite is making you sick?"
"No, my arm is just as numb as ever. I'm probably just tired. Or maybe it's the altitude."
"Yeah. We are on a mountain, after all."
"I've never heard you complain about altitude bothering you before."
"Gabrielle, we've never climbed a mountain together before."
"Oh yeah. Good point." The bard was silent for several moments, staring thoughtfully into the distance, then she asked, "Did the altitude bother you on the way up the mountain?"
"No, not that I remember."
"And did it bother you up on top, when you were fighting the serpent?"
"Then why would it bother you now, when you're going down the mountain?"
Xena shrugged. "Maybe it just took a while to get to me."
Gabrielle looked at her and sighed. "Well, I have trouble believing that altitude is the problem."
"Okay, maybe I'm just tired."
"Maybe so," she said, smiling and putting her hand on Xena's thigh. "You've had a hard day--that's for sure."
"Yes, I have, and it's not over yet," Xena said with a grin. "Now, let's get going."
They got up and started down the trail again.
"How much farther is it?" Gabrielle asked.
"Not far. See where the trees start growing, down there along the slope? Our campsite's down there."
* * *
A few more minutes of steady walking brought them to the treeline, and Xena led the way off the trail.
"Where's Argo?" asked Gabrielle.
"Probably out looking for something to eat. Let's see if I can whistle with my left hand," she said and stuck two fingers in her mouth. The result was a little weak--not so much because she was using the wrong hand as because she still felt so short of breath. The second attempt was better, and soon the mare emerged from among the trees further down the slope. She greeted Xena with a sloppy nuzzle on the cheek. The warrior laughed and began to stroke the velvety nose. Then, turning to Gabrielle, she said, "We stashed the gear behind those big rocks over there. Look and see if there's an apple for this nice horse we found."
Gabrielle went behind the rocks and soon returned with a shiny red apple. "Where'd all those furs come from?" she asked.
"Elkton loaned them to us. He sent quite a bit of food along, too."
"So I noticed. I'll cook you up a nice, hot meal tonight. That will make you feel better."
Xena grinned. "I'm looking forward to it," she said, watching Argo crunch the apple. "Why don't you go ahead and start setting up camp? I'll gather firewood."
"No, Xena, I think you should rest. I can take care of everything."
"No, you can't. The sun is setting and soon it will be too dark to find wood. We've got to have a lot of it because we need to keep a fire going all night to stay warm. I'm feeling fine now. Don't worry about me."
"Okay," Gabrielle said, but she sounded unconvinced.
Xena turned and headed downhill to where the trees grew bigger and closer together. She had to go some distance before she began to find much dead wood, though, and she quickly discovered that without an extra arm to hold it, she was pretty much limited to carrying what she could pick up in one hand. Stopping for a moment to think, she laid down the sticks she'd collected, took off her cloak, and spread it out on the ground. Then, working as quickly as she could, she piled it full of wood. The dizziness came again just as she was finishing, but she stopped to wait and the spell soon passed. As soon as it was gone, she bent down to gather up the corners of the cloak, hoisted the bundle onto her back and headed for the campsite.
"Where do you want the fire?" she asked, stopping to try to catch her breath.
Gabrielle, who was spreading out the furs and blankets beside a large boulder, stood up quickly. "I thought we could build it right here," she said, pointing, and sleep between the fire and the rock. That way maybe it will be warmer."
"Good plan," Xena said approvingly. She moved to the designated spot and lowered her bundle.
"Xena, why are you carrying wood in your cloak? Look how dirty you got it!"
"I'm using the cloak because it's the only way I can carry more than two sticks at a time," Xena answered somewhat irritably.
"Oh. I'm sorry. I guess I forgot about your arm." Gabrielle crouched beside the warrior and helped stack the wood.
When they finished, Xena stood up and shook the cloak out. "Okay, I'm going back for another load," she said.
Gabrielle laid a hand on her arm. "I'll go get it," she said. "You stay here and finish setting up camp, and maybe you can get the fire started, too. I'm afraid you're going to get cold, using your cloak to carry wood."
Xena looked down at her. "What if we both go this time, and then you can go alone next time. We need a lot more wood and it's getting dark fast."
They returned to the forest, piled the cloak full of wood, and then carried it back between them. Xena stumbled just as they reached the fire site, then dropped her end of the cloak and sank down on the furs.
Gabrielle put an arm around her shoulders. "Are you dizzy again?" she asked.
"Yeah, a little."
"Why don't you lie down? I can take care of the firewood."
"No, I'm better now. I'll be all right."
Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, then began stacking the new wood they had brought. When she finished, she brushed the leaves and dirt off the cloak and wrapped it around Xena. "I'm going to get some more wood," she said gently, "and I want you to just sit here and rest."
"I'll get the fire started. I can do that much, anyway."
"Okay, if you feel like it. Otherwise, I can do it when I get back."
Xena nodded. "Go on, now, or you won't be able to see to find any wood."
Gabrielle bent and kissed the warrior quickly on the top of her head, and then hurried off.
Xena sat still for several minutes, waiting for the light-headedness to pass and for her breathing to ease up. When it did, she got slowly to her feet and began collecting stones until she had enough for a fire circle. Then she took the two flintstones and the tinder out of one of the saddlebags. It was going to be tricky striking the stones together using only one hand, but surely she could figure out a way to do it. Scouting around, she found a small, flat rock, placed it in the center of the ring of stones, and laid the kindling around it. She carefully arranged the tinder and one flint on the flat rock, then struck this flint sharply with the other one. But instead of producing a spark, the action merely sent the first flint spinning off the edge of the rock.
With a frustrated sigh, Xena retrieved the flint, set it back in place with another rock to help hold it, and tried again. This time she got a spark, but before she could blow it into a flame, it died. A third try sent the flint rolling away again, and a fourth try did the same. Cursing under her breath, she grabbed the flint and set it in place once more.
Startled, the warrior looked up to see Gabrielle standing a short distance away, her arms full of firewood. The expression in the bard's eyes was one of pained sympathy.
"I can do this," Xena said quickly. "I know I can. It's just going to take a little practice is all."
Gabrielle dropped her sticks on the pile of wood and then came over to kneel beside Xena. "I know you can do it, too," she said gently, "but right now you don't feel good and we need the fire soon, so why don't you let me light it?"
Xena looked at her for a long moment and then handed over the flint. Moving to the bedding, she sat down and leaned back wearily against the rock.
Gabrielle studied the arrangement of kindling for a moment, moved a couple of sticks, and picked up the second flint. Then she looked at Xena. "How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Pretty useless, at the moment."
Gabrielle gave her a brief look of surprise, then said, "Xena, you could never be useless. Even if you had no arms or legs at all, you would still find a way to do things."
"Now there's a pleasant image," Xena said grimly.
"Oh. Well, I didn't mean it like it sounded. I meant it as a compliment."
Xena raised an eyebrow, but remained silent. She watched Gabrielle bend over the fireplace, strike a spark, and quickly blow it into a small flame which she fed with twigs and dry leaves. The warrior smiled, remembering the night the young girl from Poteidaia had crept into her campsite, shivering because she couldn't get a fire started. Who would have thought the two of them would come to share so much? With a soft sigh, Xena leaned her head back and tried to relax. It was definitely good to have her lover back again. She would always be grateful that she had been able to break Ares' spell--no matter what the ultimate price might be.
A few minutes later, when the fire was burning well, Gabrielle came and sat beside her. "Now tell me how you're feeling physically," she said, brushing the hair back from Xena's forehead and laying her hand there for a moment.
"Really tired. And I can't seem to take a deep breath."
"You're not dizzy?"
"No, not right now."
"Let's take your armor off. I think you'll be more comfortable."
"Yeah," agreed Xena and leaned forward so that Gabrielle could remove her cloak. After that, the bard unhooked the sword and chakram, and laid them at one end of the bedroll. Then she untied Xena's arm, massaging it gently in the places where the rope had rubbed the warrior's flesh.
"Still no feeling in this arm?" she asked.
Gabrielle sighed and continued the massage for a couple of minutes. Then, after helping Xena slip out of her breastplates, bracers, and shinguards, she wrapped the wool cloak around her again.
"Thanks," Xena murmured as she leaned back gratefully against the rock and closed her eyes. She felt Gabrielle lay her fingers on her throat to check her pulse. After a few moments, the fingers moved to a second spot, and then to a third. Xena opened her eyes. "What's wrong? Don't I have a pulse?" she asked with a weak grin.
"Well, actually, I am having trouble finding it." Gabrielle frowned. "Let me try your wrist. Oh, there it is," she said with relief, "but it feels really weak." She glanced at Xena, then said, "I'm going to listen to your heart." Unfastening the warrior's cloak, she folded it back, slipped the leather strap off Xena's left shoulder, and laid her ear against Xena's breast.
Moved by the intimate touch, Xena softly stroked the golden hair and then kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "I like it when you listen to my heart," she said. "I just wish I felt more like taking advantage of this situation."
Gabrielle raised her head. "I can't hear your heartbeat when you're talking, you know," she said with a smile, and then kissed Xena's mouth and ran her fingers lightly down the warrior's throat. "Now be quiet and let me listen."
Xena leaned her head back again. It seemed to be taking Gabrielle a long time. "What do you hear?" she asked finally.
"Gabrielle looked up and, in the firelight, Xena could see the deep worry that had replaced the playful smile in her eyes. "It's weak and sort of fast," she said, "and your breathing sounds so incredibly shallow." She hesitated for a moment, biting her lower lip, and then said, "Xena, I think the poison from the serpent's bite may be affecting your heart somehow, and your lungs, too. Don't you think that's a possibility?"
"Yes," Xena said softly.
Neither of them spoke for a couple of minutes. Gabrielle pulled Xena's strap back up and wrapped the cloak back around her. Then she asked, "What, exactly, did Elkton say would happen if the serpent bit you?"
"He said that if I was bitten on an arm or leg, I would lose the use of that arm or leg." She paused, trying to remember, then went on. "And he said that if the bite was elsewhere . . . I would die."
Gabrielle shuddered. "But he didn't say you would die if the bite was on your arm--just that you wouldn't be able to use the arm?"
"Right. But maybe he didn't know everything there was to know."
"How did he find out all this stuff anyway? About the serpent and all that?"
"He saw it in a vision."
"Where did the vision come from?"
"He didn't know."
Gabrielle took Xena's left hand and held it in hers, pressing it against her cheek as she rocked gently backward and forward, seemingly deep in thought. Finally, she spoke. "If Elkton had a vision that showed him how you could save me from Ares, then maybe he'll have one about how to save you from this snakebite."
"No, listen! There must be something we can do! Somebody must know how to heal this thing, and it just makes sense that it would be Elkton! Maybe we should pack up right now and go on down the mountain. You can ride Argo and--"
"Gabrielle, we can't. We can't travel that road at night. It's much too rough and dangerous, and there won't even be a moon. We'll have to wait until first light tomorrow."
"But Xena, what if--" She stopped, looking at the warrior now, fear written plainly on her face.
"What if what?" Xena asked gently.
Gabrielle turned to look at the fire, then got up and added several pieces of wood. When she came back, she seemed calmer. "Maybe this is like the thing with the poison dart," she said. "Maybe it will just make you sick for a while and then you'll fight it off and be fine."
"Maybe," Xena said cautiously, "but when I got hit with the dart, I at least had some idea how the poison would affect me. I don't really know what to expect from this venom."
"But you've treated people with snakebites before, haven't you?"
"A few, yes, but this wasn't an ordinary snake. This was a creature of Hera's making."
"Hera! You didn't tell me she was involved!"
"Oh. Well, I told the other Gabrielle. I forgot I hadn't told you." Xena paused to take a few short breaths. "The kaya plant was Hera's," she said then. "That's why she put the serpent there to guard it."
Gabrielle was silent, and after a moment, Xena put her arm around her lover's shoulders and pulled her close. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens tonight and then go on to Elkton's tomorrow," she said.
Gabrielle looked up at her and then laid her head on Xena's shoulder. "I don't want you to die," she said in a choked voice. "I can't stand the thought of losing you again. And besides," she added, raising her head to look into the warrior's eyes, "you promised you wouldn't die on me again. Don't forget that!"
"I'll do my best to keep my promise," Xena said with a smile, and then she bent and softly kissed Gabrielle's mouth. "It feels so good to hold you," she said. "I'm glad I got to do that again, anyway."
"Xena, stop talking like you're about to die. I'm not going to let that happen. Not if there's any way I can prevent it."
The warrior didn't answer. Her throat felt tight with emotion, and it was harder than ever to breathe.
"What about your herbs?" Gabrielle said suddenly. "Don't you have something that would help your heart or your breathing?"
Xena considered for a moment. "Yes, maybe I do have something that would help," she said.
"I'll get your bag," Gabrielle said quickly and jumped up. She was back almost immediately, holding the bag while Xena sorted through it one-handed.
"How does your head feel?" the warrior asked, looking up at Gabrielle.
"Oh, uh, I haven't really thought about it for a while."
"Well, now that you're thinking about it, how does it feel?"
"It hurts a little, I guess, but it's not bad."
"Do you want some willow bark?"
"No, I'm okay."
"Well, there's plenty here, if you decide you want it later." She went on looking through the packets of herbs until she came to one containing a dried white root. Pulling it out, she put the others back in the bag.
"What's that?" asked Gabrielle.
"It's something I bought in the Athens market last time we were there. It comes from the land of Chin. I haven't really had a chance to use it, but they say that it's good for the heart."
"You're going to use an herb on yourself that you've never tried before . . . on anyone?"
Xena leveled her gaze at the bard. "I don't think I have much choice right now, do you?"
"No, I guess not."
"Go put some water in the cooking pot."
Gabrielle stood up. "Where do I get water? I haven't seen any around here."
"You'll have to melt snow."
"Oh yeah. Good idea." Gabrielle picked up the pot and walked away from the fire. The night had grown dark, but the patches of snow were still faintly visible, and after pausing for a moment, she moved toward one of the larger ones.
Xena sat staring into the fire until the collapse of a burning ember snapped her out of her reverie. The fire needed more wood, she realized. Summoning the little bit of energy she had left, she stumbled to her feet and crossed the two paces to the woodpile. She laid several sticks on the flames then returned to the bedroll and sat down, exhausted. Had it really been only that morning that she had climbed a mountain and then fought a serpent? It all seemed as if it had happened to a different person many long years ago.
Gabrielle crouched beside her. "Xena, I want you to sit still from now on. You need to save your strength."
"Yeah, okay," she said, nodding vaguely.
"I filled the pot up with snow," Gabrielle said. "How much of the root should I use?"
Xena reached inside her cloak and pulled out her breast dagger. Handing it to Gabrielle, she said, "Start shaving off little bits of the root. I'll tell you when to stop."
* * *
"Is the tea helping any?" asked Gabrielle.
"Yeah, it is, I think. I'm feeling a little stronger." Xena held the mug with her hand under the handle, palm against the warm wooden surface. Raising it to her mouth, she took a long sip, letting the steam caress her face. Then she looked across the fire at Gabrielle, who sat cutting up vegetables for stew.
"I'm sorry about the pot, by the way," said Xena.
"What do you mean? What's wrong with it?"
"Haven't you noticed?"
"No, I can't see it very well in the dark," said Gabrielle, holding the pot up in the light of the fire. "Did you throw it at a warlord?"
"No, worse than that--I cooked in it. Or tried to, anyway."
"You were doing the cooking?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief.
"Well, somebody had to do it and you didn't remember how."
"I didn't remember how to cook?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Well, that made it kind of hard on you, didn't it?"
"Uh-huh, and on you, too, I think," Xena said with a grin, then took another sip of tea.
"So what did you try to cook?"
"Oh, nothing fancy. I just threw some things together like you're doing, to make kind of a stew. But then I got busy showing you how to use your staff, because you'd forgotten that, too, and--"
"You let it burn."
"Yeah. I tried to clean all the black stuff out, but--" She shrugged. "Anyway, as soon as I have some money, I'll buy you a new pot."
"You don't have any money?"
"No, I gave it away."
"All of it?"
"Well, that's okay. We can use some of mine." Gabrielle felt inside her bodice for her coin purse. "Where is my money, by the way?"
"Uh, well, after Ares drugged you, I just kind of combined all our funds . . . and then there was this family . . ."
"You gave my money away, too? All the money I earned telling stories?"
"Yes. I'm sorry, Gabrielle." Xena watched the younger woman's face and saw the expression soften into a smile.
"It's okay," she said. "I'm sure the people you gave it to really needed that money."
"They did," Xena said. "I was hoping you'd understand."
Gabrielle put the rest of the vegetables into the cooking pot along with several chunks of dried fish, then she set the pot on some stones at the edge of the fire.
"So there you were," she said, "stuck with a Gabrielle who didn't remember how to cook. I think that's pretty funny, actually."
"It was really only for one night. Then we got to Elkton's house. Gabrielle, I don't know where that man learned to cook, but the meal he made for us last night-- Well, it was almost as good as some you've made," she finished.
Gabrielle grinned. "I'm really looking forward to meeting him," she said.
"Meeting him? But you already-- Oh yeah. That was the other you. This has been so confusing," Xena said as she took another sip of tea.
Gabrielle was silent for a few moments, then said, "Xena, can I ask you something?"
"What is it, Love?"
"Well, when I was-- I mean, after Ares drugged me, did we--" She stopped.
"Did we what?" prompted Xena.
"Did we . . . make love?"
The warrior smiled softly. "No, Gabrielle. I couldn't make love to you under those circumstances. You were too different. It would have been like making love to a stranger."
"Didn't you love me anymore?"
"Of course I loved you. But I wanted you back the way you really are, like you are now. The other you was kind of hard to live with." Shesmiled.
"What do you mean, 'hard to live with'?"
"Well, you were just so aggressive and warlike, always wanting to kill somebody."
"And did I?" Gabrielle asked in a small voice. "Did I kill anybody?"
"No, you didn't. But you almost did. It was quite a little challenge for me to keep you from killing one of Hera's warriors this morning."
"But I didn't kill him."
"No, but you definitely wanted to--especially after I had set a bad example by killing one of the warriors myself."
"Why did you kill him? Was he attacking you?"
"He threw a dagger at us, but I didn't really need to kill him. I just caught the dagger and threw it back without thinking. It was sort of a reflex action." She stopped for a moment to catch her breath, then went on. "I know that's not a very good excuse, but that's what happened."
Gabrielle pondered this for a while, then said, "So it was seeing you kill someone that made me want to kill?"
"No," Xena said slowly. "You pretty much woke up from the drug wanting to kill. But it wasn't you, Gabrielle. It was Ares. He changed your whole personality. That's why I had to find a way to break the spell."
There was silence for a moment, then Gabrielle said softly, "Thank you, Xena. I already owed you my life several times over. Now I owe you much more."
Xena shifted uncomfortably and swallowed the last of the tea in her mug. "Hey, that's what friends are for, right?" she said. "Now can we talk about something else?"
"Sure," said Gabrielle with a grin. She walked around the fire and knelt in front of Xena. "Are you really feeling better?" she asked, taking the mug from the warrior's hand.
"But only a little?"
Xena heard the disappointment in her lover's voice and wished she could lie and say that everything was fine. For a few moments she looked into Gabrielle's green eyes without speaking, and then said quietly, "You know, it's funny--I was ready to die to save you. I've actually been thinking about death quite a bit the last couple of days. But now that I've got you back again--" She reached out to cup the younger woman's cheek with her hand. "I kind of want to stick around."
"You're not going to die, Xena," Gabrielle whispered fiercely. "I'm not going to let you. I told you that." She put her hand over the warrior's and then turned her face to kiss Xena's palm.
"Gabrielle, you may not have any control over this."
"I know, but I really think Elkton can help us. I don't know why, but I just have this strong feeling that somehow he'll know what to do. All we have to do is keep you alive until we get to his house."
Xena stared at her without speaking. There was no reason to believe that Elkton would know how to solve this crisis, but neither had there been a reason for her own belief that he could help break Ares' spell. And if Gabrielle wanted to cling to this one last hope, why not?
"The thing is, you've got to help me, Xena," Gabrielle continued. "You've got to be strong and fight this poison until we can get you to Elkton. Can you do that?"
"I can try." Xena pulled the bard close and kissed her forehead. "That's all I can promise you. Now go check and make sure the stew's not burning."
"The stew!" exclaimed Gabrielle, scrambling to her feet and hurrying back to the cooking pot. "It's all right," she reported after a moment, "but it does need to be stirred."
Xena gave a tired smile and let her head fall back against the rock. All at once she was acutely aware of the difficulty of her breathing, and she couldn't remember ever having felt such a deep and total weariness. She watched Gabrielle on the other side of the fire, moving as if through some kind of haze. And when the young woman spoke, her voice seemed to come from a great distance.
"Tell me more about what happened after Ares drugged me," she said. "What was I like? What did I do?"
Xena looked at her lover, standing there in the haze, her face so beautiful in the golden firelight. Ares had stolen her away, but Xena had defeated him. She had saved Gabrielle from Tartarus. And now she felt a sweet peace in her soul.
"Xena, did you hear me? Are you all right?" Gabrielle was crouching beside her now, looking at her with frightened eyes.
"I can't talk now," Xena murmured. "I'm just too tired."
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said quickly, touching Xena's cheek. "I told you to save your strength and now I'm tiring you out with talking." She smiled and the warrior smiled back weakly. "Are you warm enough?" the bard asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
Gabrielle put her hands on Xena's. "Your hands are a little cold," she said, reaching for one of the furs lying folded at the foot of the bedroll. "Lean forward and I'll put this around you." She draped the fur over Xena's shoulders and spread another one across her legs. "The stew will be ready in a minute," she said and moved away again.
When she brought the steaming bowl and held it out to her, Xena stared at it, wondering vaguely how she could both hold it and eat one-handed. "You'll have to set it down," she said.
"No, I'll just hold it for you," Gabrielle said, seating herself cross-legged beside the warrior.
"But you need to eat, too."
"I can eat when you're done. Here's the spoon," she said, placing it in Xena's hand.
She ate slowly, taking small bites. She had never realized before how hard it was to eat and breathe at the same time. After a while, she put the spoon back in the bowl and looked at Gabrielle. "I can't eat any more," she said.
"Are you sure? Xena, you need to keep up your strength," Gabrielle said. She tipped the bowl toward the firelight and peered into it. "You only ate half. Don't you like it?"
"It's fine, Gabrielle. I just can't eat any more."
"Okay," the bard said softly, setting the bowl aside. "Is there anything else you want? Some bread? Dried fruit? Water?"
Gabrielle went to get the waterskin and held it while Xena took a few small sips. "Do you want me to make you more tea?" she asked.
Xena shook her head.
"All right. I'll eat my dinner and get things cleaned up. Then we can go to sleep." She got to her feet and moved away into the haze.
Xena closed her eyes. The next thing she was aware of was Gabrielle's hand on her shoulder, and she raised her head, surprised. "Was I asleep?" she asked.
"Yeah," Gabrielle said with a soft smile. "I started talking and after a while I realized that the only one listening was me."
"It's okay." Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the warrior and pulled her close. "I love you so much, Xena," she said.
"I know," Xena whispered, her face against the warmth of Gabrielle's neck. "And I love you, too."
Gabrielle stroked the dark hair for a few minutes, then said, "I think you're falling asleep again. Why don't you lie down? Do you want to be on the side closer to the fire?"
"No," said Xena.
"It'll be warmer there."
"Yeah, but whoever's closer to the fire has to get up and feed it during the night."
Gabrielle grinned. "Good point. You'll just have to hope I remember to wake up and do it."
Xena stretched out on her back, her useless right arm tucked into the space between her body and the rock, and Gabrielle covered her with furs. She watched the bard move to the woodpile and lay a couple of logs on the fire, but her figure was blurred by what seemed to be an ever-thickening mist. Returning to the bedroll, Gabrielle slipped under the covers and lay close to the warrior. Her hand found Xena's and their fingers intertwined.
For a time they were silent, then Xena looked over at Gabrielle and said, "I want to hold you."
"Won't that make it harder for you to breathe?"
"Maybe, but I want to try it." They let go of hands and she put her arm around Gabrielle, who rolled closer and hesitantly laid her head on Xena's chest.
"Is that all right?" the bard asked.
"Yeah. I just want to have you close, so if I wake up in the night, I'll know that it's reallyyou." She felt Gabrielle smile and gradually relax. "Can you hear my heart?" she asked after a few moments.
"Uh-huh, but just barely. It's very weak."
Xena closed her eyes and felt herself begin to drift. She had almost departed the realm of consciousness when Gabrielle spoke.
"I don't want you to go to sleep," she said. "I'm afraid you won't wake up again."
Xena opened her eyes. Gabrielle had propped herself up on one elbow and appeared silhouetted against the firelight, her face in the shadows. "If I cross over," Xena said quietly, "it will happen the same, whether I'm awake or asleep."
"But if you're awake, maybe you can fight better--fight to stay alive."
"If there's any way to fight this thing, I will," she said. "I told you that already." She stopped speaking and for a few moments there was only the sound of the crackling fire and her own labored breathing. "Have faith, Gabrielle," she said finally. "That's all I know to tell you."
"Have faith," the younger woman repeated softly. "The last time you told me that, you were going off to free Prometheus, and I was afraid you wouldn't come back. But you did, so I have to believe that you will come through this time, too." She smiled and brushed the hair back from Xena's face, then kissed her on the cheek. "Good night, Xena," she said, snuggling back down beside the warrior.
"Good night," Xena responded, closing her eyes again.
"If you need anything in the night, I want you to wake me up," Gabrielle said. "Will you do that?"
"I mean it, Xena. If you start feeling worse or you just want someone to talk to or whatever, I want you to wake me up, okay?"
Xena moved her mouth to answer, but no words came out. A dense fog was rolling over her, blotting out all sensation and sound. She began to feel as if she were falling, drifting slowly down through the fog, helpless to stop herself, until at last she came to rest in a place of heavy, dreamless sleep.
* * *
She woke sometime later, uncertain at first whether she really was awake. Her eyes were open, and yet she could see nothing except the thick blackness of the night. Listening, she heard only the rasp of air making its tired way in and out of her lungs. But gradually, she became aware, too, of the gentler sound of Gabrielle's steady breathing, and of the weight of the bard's head on her collarbone. She lay for some moments without moving, wondering what had awakened her. It seemed a riddle too difficult to solve initially, but then, slowly, the realization began to penetrate her sluggish mind. Her feet were cold--so very cold that they ached. Relieved to have discovered the problem at last, she set about to right it, making feeble efforts to flex her ankles and wiggle her toes inside her boots. But even this small exertion tired her and she soon gave it up, leaving her feet no warmer than before.
Gabrielle had said to wake her, but what could she do to help, Xena wondered. This coldness she felt--was it the chill of death? If so, then she had only to wait for it to creep upward through her body, until at last the icy fingers stilled the beating of her heart. How often had she heard the dying complain of feeling cold? Yes, that must be what this was. There was nothing Gabrielle could do.
But the bard had said to wake her, so maybe-- It was so hard to think. Xena closed her eyes wearily. She could probably ignore the cold and take refuge in sleep again. Surely it wouldn't be long now. She could just slip away quietly, peacefully, in her sleep. But what about Gabrielle? It would be good to hear her voice one last time, to say goodbye, at least.
She opened her eyes again and stared into the darkness. Then, summoning up the little energy that remained to her, she said, "Gabrielle." Her voice sounded weak--barely stronger than a whisper, and she thought she would have to try again, but Gabrielle woke almost at once.
"Xena, what is it? Are you feeling worse?"
"Cold?" Gabrielle sat up and looked around. "Zeus! I didn't wake up to feed the fire! I'm sorry." She scrambled out from under the covers and hurriedly laid some sticks on the dying coals, blowing on them until a column of smoke arose, followed by a tentative flame. She fanned this flame with her cloak until it grew to a respectable size, then added several more sticks. Returning to kneel at Xena's side, she laid her hand on the warrior's face.
"Are you cold all over?" she asked.
"Mostly my feet . . . and legs," said Xena, panting for breath between words. "They're so cold . . . they ache."
Gabrielle slipped her hand under the furs and felt Xena's thighs and knees. Then she folded the covers back to reveal her feet. "I'm going to take your boots off, okay? I think it will be easier to warm your feet up without them."
Untying the laces, Gabrielle worked quickly to loosen them and slide the boots off. "I'll put these by the fire to warm up," she said, then turned back to run her hands over the warrior's feet. "Oh, Xena," she said softly, "your feet are like ice. You could have gotten frostbite. It's a good thing you woke me up."
"I almost . . . didn't."
"Why not?" Gabrielle demanded, looking at Xena. "I told you to wake me if you needed anything." She lifted one of the warrior's feet onto her lap and began to rub it gently.
"I . . . thought I . . . was dying," Xena said. "I didn't think . . . you could . . . do anything."
Even through the mist that blurred her vision, Xena could see the pain these words brought to Gabrielle's face.
"Xena," the young woman said, still looking at the foot she was massaging, "even if you were dying, I would want you to wake me up. I might not be able to do very much, but at least I could be here for you. And I could hold you and tell you how much I love you." She looked up then and in the light of the fire, Xena could see the tears on her cheeks. "Do you remember a long time ago," Gabrielle continued, "right after we first met, when you were in Lyceus' tomb? I told you then that you weren't alone, and I meant it. You don't have to live alone, and you don't have to die alone either, as long as I'm around."
Xena was silent for a few moments, moved by her lover's words. "That's why . . . I woke you," she said finally. "So I could . . . hear your . . . voice."
Gabrielle brushed a hand quickly across her eyes, then returned her attention to Xena's foot. "Can you feel this? Is it helping at all?" she asked.
"Yes, it's . . . helping. Your . . . hands . . . feel so warm."
"It's hard to believe you got so cold under all these furs. I guess your heart just isn't beating hard enough to get the blood all the way to your toes."
She continued the massage for another minute or so, then opened her cloak and tucked the foot against her bare abdomen.
"Mmm," Xena murmured. "Now there's . . . a warm spot."
Gabrielle didn't answer, but smiled as she began massaging the warrior's other foot. Xena closed her eyes, enjoying her lover's ministrations and the sensation of warmth that was creeping slowly back into her limbs. Maybe it hadn't been the chill of death after all, she thought. Maybe she had just gotten cold.
"How's your arm doing?" Gabrielle asked. "Is it cold, too?"
"I can't tell," Xena said, opening her eyes and looking at the place where her right arm lay covered up.
Gabrielle tucked the furs snugly around the warrior's feet, then reached under the covers to pull out the wounded arm. "Another chunk of ice," she said, attempting to grin. "It's a good thing I checked."
Xena watched her lover's hands kneading and stroking the flesh of her arm, thinking how strange it was to see it happening and yet feel nothing. It wasn't long, though, before her eyes drifted shut and she slipped into a light doze.
"Xena." Gabrielle's voice and touch woke her. "I made you some more tea and I want you to sit up and drink it."
"No," mumbled Xena. "Sleep."
"You can go back to sleep as soon as you drink the tea. This will help get you warm. Come on now, sit up." Then, reaching down, she dragged the warrior into a sitting position. "Put your back against the rock and your feet toward the fire," she instructed. "Good. Now here's the tea."
She held out the mug and Xena took it, but it seemed amazingly heavy and her hand shook trying to hold it. "Maybe you'd better let me help you with that," Gabrielle said quickly. Then, taking the mug in her own hands, she held it to Xena's lips.
It was hard to coordinate her breathing with the drinking, and several times she choked and started coughing. Gabrielle waited patiently each time and then offered the mug again until finally Xena gasped, "No more," and leaned her head back against the rock.
"Okay," Gabrielle said quietly, setting the mug aside. "Are you feeling warmer now?"
"Good. Let's get your boots back on and then you can go to sleep."
The boots felt warm on her feet, and Xena smiled weakly as she watched her lover lace and tie them.
"Now," Gabrielle said, "why don't you lie down on your left side here, facing the fire, and I'll sleep behind you to keep your backside warm." She grinned. "And I promise to keep the fire fed this time."
Grateful to lie down again, Xena lowered herself onto the bedroll.
"Let's put this arm right here in front of you where maybe it will stay warmer," Gabrielle said, tucking Xena's arm in and spreading the furs over her. She got up to throw a few more sticks on the fire, then slipped under the covers and snuggled against Xena's back, wrapping one arm around her. "How does that feel? Are you warm enough?" she asked.
"Uh-huh," murmured Xena. "Thanks." She closed her eyes and fell asleep almost at once.
A voice was calling to her, tugging and pulling at her, a voice which would not go away.
"Xena, wake up. Come on now, it's time. Please wake up. Come on, Xena, open your eyes."
She was hearing the voice and also another sound, the sound of breathing that was ragged and labored--much like a death rattle. Someone must be very sick, she thought.
"Xena, you're scaring me. Come on, wake up. I know you can do it. Just open your eyes. You're not going to make me carry you down the mountain, are you? Please, Xena. I know you're in there. I can hear you breathing."
The voice was Gabrielle's. She recognized it now, and she could hear the fear in it. Gabrielle was afraid about something, but what? And why? In a place like this, where it was so peaceful and warm, why should anyone be afraid?
Then, gradually, she became aware of hands that touched her face and shoulder--Gabrielle's hands, she supposed. The touch felt nice. But then it went away, and the voice was gone, too. It was just as well, Xena thought. The voice had been disturbing her rest. She was just settling back into quiet nothingness, when she felt a sudden, sharp coldness on her face, and with a gasp, she opened her eyes.
"Thank the gods!" Gabrielle exclaimed softly, as she wiped the cold from Xena's cheek. "I thought maybe a little snow would get your attention."
The fog was even thicker than before, and at first Xena could see only the vague shape of her lover bending over her. Then, as reality slowly penetrated her brain, she began to remember where she was, and why. The fog lifted slightly and she became aware that she was lying curled on her side. The horrible breathing, she realized, was her own, and now she felt the full force of its discomfort.
"We have to get going soon," Gabrielle said, stroking Xena's hair. "We have to get you down the mountain to Elkton's house."
"In the . . . morning."
Gabrielle bent down to get her ear close to Xena's mouth. "What is it, Love?" she said. "Your voice is so weak that I can hardly hear you."
"We'll go . . . in the . . . morning," Xena said with great effort.
"In the morning, yes. But it's already morning. The sun's not up yet, so it's not very bright, but it's definitely morning."
"I was . . . sleeping."
Gabrielle bent close again to hear, and then kissed the warrior on the cheek. "No, Xena," she said softly. "You weren't just sleeping--you were unconscious. I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to wake you." She was silent for a few moments, her hand gently caressing Xena's face. "After I got your feet warmed up last night, I really didn't sleep much," she said. "I was too worried about you, I guess, and about keeping the fire going. I'd doze off, but then I'd wake up every few minutes and look to see if the sky was getting light yet."
Xena lay without moving, watching her lover's blurred shape, trying to make sense of the stream of words.
"I've already saddled Argo," Gabrielle continued, "and packed up as much gear as I could. Now I want you to sit up and eat breakfast and drink some more tea."
Xena understood that she needed to move, but she felt incapable of doing so. Her body was stiff and heavy and no longer like a living thing. Gabrielle reached down to her, pulling her up and then wrapping her arms around her, holding her close in a tender embrace. Xena let her head fall against the other woman's shoulder. "Gabrielle," she whispered, "I'm . . . so tired."
"I know, Sweetheart," Gabrielle said, hugging her closer, "But you can't give up now. You've got to be strong a little while longer and keep fighting the poison. You told me you'd try, remember?"
Xena nodded, but she had no idea how to be strong when she felt so very weak.
"Lean back against the rock," Gabrielle said, and Xena did so, looking around the campsite for the first time.
"There's so much . . . fog," she murmured.
Gabrielle, who had been pulling some food from one of the saddlebags, stopped and followed the other woman's gaze. "Xena, there's no fog at all," she said softly.
"No, Love. I think it must be your brain that's foggy." She bent and kissed Xena on the top of her head. "Now," she said, "I've got some bread here for you and some cheese, and there's also fruit, if you want it." She tried to put a piece of bread in the warrior's left hand, but Xena pulled her hand away.
"No," she said.
"Xena, you have to eat something. You have to keep your strength up."
"I can't . . . eat."
"Sure you can! How about some cheese?"
Xena shook her head.
"Please, Xena. Just a few bites."
"No . . . I can't."
Gabrielle was silent for several moments, studying the other woman. Finally, she said, "Okay, but you have to drink some tea, at least."
Xena started to refuse, but Gabrielle was already holding the mug to her lips, so she took a sip.
"I really think the tea helped you last night," the bard said. "I was listening to your heart while I was lying awake, and it did sound stronger, for awhile anyway. And your breathing was a little easier, too."
Xena took another sip, choked and began to cough weakly.
"It's okay," Gabrielle said soothingly, rubbing the warrior's back. "Just take your time. Little tiny sips."
She held the mug up again and Xena sipped hesitantly. This time she managed to swallow successfully.
"Xena, is that why you don't want to eat? Are you afraid of choking?"
"Just . . . not hungry." She took another drink and began to cough again. When the coughing was over and she could catch her breath, she leaned her head back against the rock. Gabrielle once more offered the mug, but Xena turned her head away.
"No," she whispered. "I don't need . . . anything."
Gabrielle lowered the mug, then said softly, "Your body's shutting down, isn't it?"
Xena looked at her, then nodded.
The bard bit her lip and looked away, then said, "Okay, we've got to get going." She rose and quickly finished packing the bedding, threw a few handfuls of snow on the fire, and led Argo over to Xena. The mare stretched her head down to nuzzle the warrior's face and, reaching up, Xena stroked the velvety nose.
"Let's see if you can stand up," Gabrielle said, and crouched down beside the warrior."Put your arm around my neck," she said, helping to guide it into place. Then she wrapped one arm around Xena's waist and together they staggered to their feet.
Xena's knees felt like water, and it was only Gabrielle's support that kept her from falling. "I can't . . . get up there," she said, looking at the impossibly tall horse.
"Is there some way to make Argo kneel down?"
"Yes, but . . . she only kneels . . . in front."
"Oh, so the saddle would be at an angle and it would be hard for you to get on."
Gabrielle considered for a moment. "There's got to be a way to do this," she said. "How about if you climbed on that rock? It slopes down in back, so if you went around behind it, you could climb up more easily from there. I'll help you."
It seemed like one of the most arduous things she had ever done, climbing onto that rock. But with lots of pulling and pushing and encouragement from Gabrielle, Xena finally managed to drag herself up the rock and crawl into the saddle. She clutched the saddlehorn with her left hand while Gabrielle helped put her feet in the stirrups.
"Here are the reins," the young woman said, holding them up for Xena.
"You'll have to . . . lead her," Xena said. "I need . . . to hold on."
"Okay," said Gabrielle uncertainly, "but I don't know the way down the mountain."
Xena cautiously released her hold on the saddle and reached under her cloak, fumbling until she found the folded parchment in her leathers. She handed it to Gabrielle.
"Map," said Xena, taking ahold of the saddlehorn again.
Gabrielle unfolded the paper and studied it for a few minutes. "Who made this? Elkton?"
"And we're here, where it says 'treeline'?"
"Yes. The path . . . isn't hard . . . to follow."
"Okay, so we just go back to the trail and start heading down? And it will be pretty obvious where to go?"
Xena nodded again. It was already making her tired to sit on Argo with nothing to lean against. And they weren't even moving yet. How could she possibly stay on all the way down the mountain?
"How do I find Elkton's house?" Gabrielle asked.
"Before you get . . . to town," Xena said, stopping for breath. "Left side . . . big pine tree . . . barn."
"Left side of the road, with a barn, and there's a big pine tree in the yard?"
"Okay, let's get going then." She laid her hand on Xena's thigh and smiled up at the warrior. Xena tried to smile back, but wasn't sure how successful she had been. It was hard to know anything for sure at that moment, including whether or not she would still be alive by the time they reached the house with the pine tree in the yard.
Gabrielle led Argo slowly along the track, but the uneven terrain made for rough riding as the mare picked her way down over the rocks. Xena clung grimly to the saddlehorn, but her fragile strength was ebbing rapidly. It wasn't long before she felt her grip beginning to loosen, as her hold on consciousness did likewise. The fog drifted in and out of her mind and she slumped gradually forward.
"Xena! Look out! You're falling off!"
She jerked awake to find Gabrielle pushing at her, trying to keep her from sliding off the left side of the horse. With an effort, Xena pulled herself upright and sat gasping for air.
"Let's rest for a few minutes," Gabrielle said, and Xena nodded gratefully. A moment later, the bard reached up and laid her hand on Xena's arm.
The warrior looked down at her lover, at the green eyes full of fear.
"Xena, are you going to make it?" Gabrielle asked.
"I . . . don't know," she whispered. Then, after a moment, she said, "Tie me."
"Tie you? What do you mean?"
"To the . . . saddle. Tie me."
"Oh. Yeah, that's a good idea," said Gabrielle slowly. She pondered the situation for a short time and then said, "Would it help if I sat up there with you? I could try to hold you on a little better."
"Yeah, but . . . there's no . . . room."
"Let me think for a minute," Gabrielle said, studying the load of furs tied on behind the saddle. "I'm sure I can figure something out."
Xena was just beginning to drift into the fog again when she was suddenly roused by a flurry of activity. Turning slightly in the saddle, she saw Gabrielle busily untying the furs and piling them on the ground.
"I guess we could stash these somewhere out of sight and come back to get them later," she said. "Surely Elkton would understand." There was a brief silence, then, "No, wait! I've got a better idea! Sit up, Xena."
The warrior hadn't realized she had slumped forward again until Gabrielle began pushing at her.
"Let me just get this rope around your waist," the bard said, making a couple of passes with the rope and tying it to the saddlehorn. Then she unrolled some of the furs and draped them across Argo's withers, in front of and behind the saddlehorn. The remaining furs she wrapped around the projection itself and tied them in place with the rest of the rope. "There," she said when she was finished. "Now if you fall forward, it won't be quite so uncomfortable, and there's room enough for me to sit behind you."
"Very . . . clever," said Xena with a weak smile.
Gabrielle smiled back and turned to Argo, stroking the mare's neck. "Sorry about the extra load, girl," she said. "But you understand, don't you?" A soft whicker was the answer. "Good," said Gabrielle, then she led the horse to a rock, climbed on it, and mounted. Putting one arm around Xena, she picked up the reins with the other hand. "Of course, I can't see where we're going," she said, leaning out to peer around the warrior. "But I don't think Argo needs much guidance anyway." Then she kicked the mare's flanks and they started on their way.
* * *
Xena was aware of very little after that. Sliding in and out of consciousness, she fell gradually forward until her head hung down over Argo's neck, her dark hair mingling with the cream of the mare's mane. The fog seemed to be drawing her a little deeper each time she entered it, drawing her onward, toward what, she did not know. But Gabrielle, meanwhile, kept up a constant stream of words which, like a lifeline, gave her something to hang onto and pulled her back into the world.
"Stay with me, Xena," Gabrielle pleaded. "Don't give up now. Be strong for just a little while longer. I know you can do it; you've always been so strong and brave. I can't let you go; I need you too much. And the world needs you, too. It's not your time to die. I can feel it, the same as I felt it before. I love you, Xena, and I don't want to lose you. Don't die. Please, don't die."
Struggling out of the fog at one point, Xena pushed herself partway up and looked back at Gabrielle. "Keep . . . talking," she panted. "I need . . . to hear . . . your voice."
The younger woman leaned forward to brush the hair back from Xena's face. "I'll keep talking just as long as you need me to," she said. "I'm not going to let you die. I told you that before and I mean it."
After that, there were only fragments--bits of light breaking through the gray curtain now and then, like mismatched pearls strung together by the sound of Gabrielle's voice. Time seemed to stand still, or at best, to repeat itself endlessly as Argo continued her slow, torturous journey down the mountain.
"Xena, can you hear me? Wake up! I need you to sit up for a minute." Gabrielle's hands were shaking her urgently, pulling her up, and reluctantly, Xena opened her eyes. "There's a man coming up the trail," Gabrielle said. "An older man, with short gray hair. Do you see him? Is it Elkton?"
Xena looked in the direction Gabrielle was pointing, but everything around seemed to be a sea of grayness. "Can't . . . see," she said. "Too much . . . fog."
"Fog? You said something about fog before. Is it getting worse?"
"Thicker . . . can't see . . . much."
Then, as if from a great distance, Xena heard a man's voice calling their names.
"He's calling to us! Can you hear him?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes. It's . . . Elkton."
Gabrielle sat up straighter and began to wave. "Elkton!" she cried. "Elkton! Help us, please!"
A few moments later, he was standing at Argo's right side, breathing heavily from the exertion of climbing. Xena could see him now, although his features appeared oddly smudged.
"What happened?" he asked, looking first at the warrior and then at Gabrielle.
"Xena was bitten by the serpent, and she's been getting sicker ever since last night. Her heartbeat is weak and she can hardly breathe."
"Where is the bite?"
"It's here, on her arm," Gabrielle said, pulling Xena's cloak back. "Right above her elbow."
Elkton took her arm in his hands for a moment and studied the fang marks. "Your arm is paralyzed?" he asked, looking up at Xena.
"We thought the bite would just affect her arm, but--" Gabrielle broke off.
"I know," said Elkton, as he gently released Xena's arm. "That's what I told her would happen. It's all that was revealed in my vision. But the venom has spread into the rest of her body. It's slowly paralyzing her heart and lungs." He shook his head. "I knew that something had gone wrong, but I wasn't sure what. That's why I came up the trail to meet you." He looked at Xena again. "Did you kill the serpent?"
"Yes," she whispered. "I got . . . the leaves . . ." She closed her eyes as the mist swirled through her mind again, and only Gabrielle's arms kept her from falling.
"She strangled the serpent and fed me the leaves, and that broke the spell," Gabrielle said, finishing Xena's story.
"So you're all right now, Gabrielle? You have your memories back?" said Elkton.
"Yes, I'm fine, but we've got to help Xena. We can't let her die! Please, Elkton! Please tell me you know some way to save her!"
The urgency in Gabrielle's voice pulled Xena back into consciousness again, but she felt very little interest in Elkton's reply.
"I had another dream vision last night," he said, looking up at Gabrielle, "and in it there were two women. One of them was very sick and the other one healed her. Now I know that I was being shown the way to drive the poison out of Xena's body." Gabrielle gasped in relief, but Elkton held up his hand to stop her from speaking. "Unfortunately, Xena has already grown very weak. I just hope--" He stopped and looked away.
"You just hope what?"
He looked at the young woman again. "I just hope it's not too late," he finished sadly.
"No!" cried Gabrielle. "Don't say that! Xena is very strong! She's managed to stay alive all night and all the way down this mountain. Don't tell me it's too late!"
"I pray with all my heart that it's not," he said. "We'll do everything we can to save her, and we both know that if anyone can survive this, it's Xena." Then he laid a hand on the warrior's leg and looked up at her. "You must be strong for a little while longer," he said. "We will do everything we can for you."
He turned to Gabrielle. "I'll go ahead to get things ready," he said. "Come as quickly as you can."
"We will," the bard said. "How much farther is it?"
"Not too far--maybe half a league," he said and then hurried away.
Gabrielle picked up the reins. "Did you hear that, Xena? You're going to be all right," she said with a smile in her voice. "You just have to hang on a little bit longer. I knew Elkton could help us. I just knew somehow that he could."
Xena tried to listen, but her own labored breathing was soon the only sound she could hear. Feeling totally exhausted in body and spirit, she slowly slumped forward once more over the fur-wrapped saddlehorn, and all sensation vanished.
* * *
She came to again when she felt hands pushing at her, shaking and lifting her.
"I'll hold her while you untie the rope," she heard Gabrielle say, then she opened her eyes to see Elkton fumbling with the knots at her waist.
"Are you awake?" Gabrielle asked softly as Xena leaned back against her.
"Uh-huh," the warrior mumbled.
"We made it. We're at Elkton's house. You're going to be all right now."
Then they were pulling her down off of Argo and, one on either side, they half carried, half dragged her into the house.
"Over there, on that pallet in front of the fire," Elkton said, and they lowered her onto it. "Keep her sitting up for a minute, if you can," he added.
"Okay," said Gabrielle. Then, quickly taking off her cloak, she knelt beside Xena and put a supporting arm around her shoulders.
Moving to the fireplace, Elkton peered into a small pot that hung over the embers. He stirred the contents for a moment, then poured the steaming red liquid into a wooden bowl, which he set on the floor beside the pallet. After that, he crouched down in front of Xena and put a hand on her shoulder. "This potion will help strengthen you," he said, "so you need to drink it all. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Xena said.
"She's been having a lot of trouble drinking things without choking," Gabrielle said.
Elkton regarded the warrior for a moment, and his nearness made it easy for her to see the lines of worry on his face, the deep compassion in his eyes. "Just do the best you can," he said, "but it would help if you could drink it all. I'm hoping it will give you enough strength to get through this."
"Through what, Elkton?" asked Gabrielle. "How are you going to get the poison out of her system?"
Elkton rose and stood looking at the bard. "I'm not going to do it," he said quietly. "You are."
"I am?" she asked in surprise, staring up at him. "But I don't know how to do anything like that!"
"You'll be able to do this . . . if anyone can," he said with a quiet smile. "I'll explain everything in a minute. For right now, have Xena drink the potion, then get all her clothes off and have her lie down. You can cover her with that sheepskin," he said, pointing to the cover that lay folded nearby. "I'll go unsaddle your horse and put her in the barn. Call me as soon as you're ready."
It seemed to Xena that it would take her forever to drink all of the potion. She took small sips, but still had to stop frequently to cough. The red liquid started to affect her almost immediately, though, creating a warm, tingly sensation that spread rapidly through her body. In a short time, the fog began to clear from her mind and it seemed easier to breathe. "This is . . . good stuff," she said to Gabrielle.
"Is it helping?"
"Yeah. I feel . . . a little stronger. Not like . . . passing out . . . all the time."
"Good," Gabrielle said. She set the bowl aside, unfastened Xena's cloak, and took it off of her. Then she gently brushed back the hair from the warrior's forehead. "You're starting to perspire. You must be warming up."
"It's . . . the potion. It feels . . . warm inside."
"There's just a little bit left," Gabrielle said, picking up the bowl again. "Can you finish it?"
Xena nodded. When she was done, Gabrielle unlaced her leathers and helped her slip out of them and her undergarment. Then the warrior stretched out on her back on the pallet and closed her eyes. It felt so very good to lie down.
"Xena," Gabrielle said as she spread the sheepskin over her, "I don't know what's going to be involved in getting you well, but whatever it is, I'll do it. I'm not going to let you die."
"I know," Xena whispered. She opened her eyes and gazed into the intense green of Gabrielle's. Reaching out, she squeezed the younger woman's hand. She really did feel better. Not good, but a little better, anyway. Maybe she would survive after all. "Go get . . . Elkton," she said.
Gabrielle went away and returned a couple of minutes later with the Mystic. Sitting down cross-legged on the floor next to Xena, the bard took the warrior's hand in both of hers. Elkton carried a small stool over and set it near Xena's feet.
"I'd sit on the floor if I thought these old bones could tolerate it," he said with asmall grin as he seated himself. "But I know for a fact that they won't." He looked at Gabrielle for a moment and then at Xena. "How are you doing?" he asked the warrior in a gentle voice.
"Yes," he said, nodding. "Your breathing sounds a little less labored and you look more alert. I mixed the potion as strong as I dared. I'm glad it's helping you."
"What do we do now?" asked Gabrielle.
"Now comes the hard part," he responded. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and fixed his gaze on Gabrielle. "There is only one way to drive the poison out of Xena's body," he said, "and that is with love. That's why this ritual--or whatever you want to call it--has to be done by someone who loves her very deeply."
"I love Xena with all my heart," Gabrielle said, squeezing the warrior's hand tightly, "and I'll do anything to save her, including giving up my own life."
"Well, I don't think it will come to that, anyway," Elkton said with a sad smile. Then he fell silent for a few moments, gazing down at his hands. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances and waited for him to continue.
"This is a little hard for me to talk about," he said finally, and shifted uncomfortably. Then he looked up again and took a deep breath. "As I told you earlier, I saw two women in my vision," he said. "One was very sick, and the other was healing her. I thought these two women must represent the two of you, but I didn't know for sure which one was sick."
"How did the one woman heal the other?" asked Gabrielle.
"Ah. That's the strange part. She did it by--" Elkton hesitated and colored slightly. "She did it by making love to the other woman."
"By making love?" Gabrielle asked in surprise, glancing first at Xena and then turning a puzzled gaze on the Mystic.
"Yes. And after I found out that Xena had been bitten, I understood what needed to be done. Gabrielle, you must make love to Xena. You must make her feel your love all the way through her body, so that the venom will be pushed out. She needs to feel--" he stopped, apparently embarrassed, and looked from Gabrielle to Xena. "She needs to feel the full . . . pleasure . . . of love," he finished, almost in a whisper. "Do you understand what I mean?"
"Yes, I think so," Gabrielle said uncertainly, "but--" She looked at Xena and the warrior could see the fear in her eyes. "She's so sick," Gabrielle said, turning back to Elkton. "I don't know if I can-- If she can--"
"That's why I said it might be too late," Elkton said gently. "But this is the only way I know of to counteract the effects of the venom." He paused for a moment, and then went on. "I'll give you the rest of the instructions and then I'll leave you two to talk about it. If you decide it's not possible to do this now, with the poison so advanced, then I will understand." He turned to look at Xena, his eyes full of compassion. "We will make you as comfortable as possible," he said, his voice edged with emotion, "and we'll be here with you . . . when you cross over."
Xena smiled softly. "You're a . . . good friend . . . Elkton," she said.
For several moments after that, the room was silent, except for the crackling of the fire and the sound of Xena's ragged breathing. Then Elkton stirred and turned to Gabrielle again. "When the venom leaves her body," he said quietly, "it will come out through the skin, like sweat. You must wipe it off with these rags and then throw the rags into the fire. All of the venom must be burned."
Gabrielle nodded. Xena felt her lover's hands trembling and saw her eyes go to the large pile of rags near the fireplace.
"Some of the venom will return to the place on Xena's arm where it first entered her body," Elkton went on. "When enough of it has collected there, you can cut her arm and let it drain out. I've put a knife here for you, and a wooden basin. Pour the venom into the fire, and when you're finished, burn the basin. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Gabrielle whispered.
"I'll be right outside the door there. If you have any questions or need my help in any way, just call me." He was silent for a moment, then added. "I will pray to the gods, and ask them to help you--both of you."
"Just make sure Ares isn't involved in any way," Gabrielle said, looking at Elkton with a cynical smile.
The Mystic smiled back. "There will be no supplications to Ares," he said. "Except that he stay well out of this!"
"Elkton," Xena said then, and waited for him to turn toward her. "Thank you for . . . helping me . . . get Gabrielle back." She stopped to catch her breath. "That was the most . . . important thing. . . no matter what else . . . happens."
Elkton pressed his lips together and looked at her sadly. "Xena, I hope this story will have a happy ending, but if not--" His voice broke and he stopped to take a deep breath. "I just want to tell you how much I admire you for your courage and strength. It's an honor to know that you consider me a friend."
She nodded and tried to smile.
He rose stiffly from his stool and stood looking down at them for a moment. "The gods be with you," he said, then laid his hand on Gabrielle's head and added, "Remember to call me if you need anything."
"Thanks, Elkton, I will," Gabrielle said.
After that, he crossed the room with a heavy step and went out the door.
* * *
Xena lay watching Gabrielle, who sat motionless, staring at nothing, still holding the warrior's hand pressed between her own. The bard's face revealed much of the uncertainty and fear she was apparently feeling, but there was a determined set to her jaw that Xena knew well. After a few moments, Gabrielle lifted Xena's hand and laid her cheek against it, then kissed it. "Well," she said, raising her eyes to meet the warrior's, "we've never made love on command before."
"No," said Xena softly. "Gabrielle, I don't know if--"
"We're going to do this, Xena," the young woman interrupted. "We have to get the venom out of your system, and if this is what it takes, then we'll do it."
"Gabrielle, if this . . . doesn't work . . . I don't want you . . . to blame yourself."
"I won't. I promise."
"I just don't feel very . . . sexual . . . right now."
Gabrielle reached out to caress Xena's cheek. "I know, Sweetheart, but we've got to try, anyway," she said. "We can't give up. I can't bear to lose you; I love you too much. Please say you'll try."
"I'll try," Xena whispered, and squeezed Gabrielle's hand.
"Good. Then we'll do it. I'm just afraid that--"
"That if we really do it, it will be too much for your heart, and you'll--" She stopped.
"If that happens," Xena said with a weak grin, "then I'll die . . . a happy woman."
Gabrielle smiled a sad smile and stretched out on her stomach beside Xena. Propping herself on her elbows, she gently brushed the hair back from Xena's face and gazed into her eyes for several long moments. "I love you so much," she whispered, then leaned down to kiss the warrior's forehead, eyelids, and cheeks.
Gabrielle's lips felt warm and tender, and Xena reached up to pull her lover closer. But when she closed her eyes and tried to savor the sweetness of the kisses, she saw only the image of Gabrielle's face, etched with fear and grief. Then the bard's mouth gently covered her own, the tongue slipping in between her teeth. It was the kind of kiss Xena usually loved, but now, suddenly, her only thought was that her source of air had been cut off. Panicking, she pulled away abruptly, turning her head to the side. "I can't breathe!" she gasped.
"Oh, Xena, I'm so sorry!" Gabrielle said quickly, laying her hand on the warrior's cheek. "I don't know what I was thinking. Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm-- I just need--" She closed her eyes in a effort to get her breathing back under control. But fear seemed to have gained a stranglehold on her throat, and for several moments it was difficult to force air in and out.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said again, and Xena felt her lover's soft caresses on her forehead and cheeks. She opened her eyes to see the bard watching her intently, and she smiled, hoping to relieve some of the worry she saw on Gabrielle's face.
"I'm . . . better now," she murmured.
"Good," said Gabrielle, lightly touching the tip of Xena's nose. "Okay, we'll start over again, and this time we'll leave out the kissing on the mouth part. But don't worry," she added with a grin, "I have many skills."
Xena smiled weakly and laid a finger on Gabrielle's lips. The younger woman put her hand over Xena's, drew the finger into her mouth and sucked it for a moment. Then, reaching down, she pulled the sheepskin back to uncover the warrior's breasts and abdomen. Xena closed her eyes again as she felt Gabrielle's hand on her breast, the fingers circling and teasing the nipple. Her flesh responded, the nipple hardening and tightening, but she felt none of the excitement that usually accompanied this act.
Gabrielle's tongue was caressing her now, warm and soft, the lips closing around her nipple, pulling and sucking it. Xena opened her eyes and stared up at the thatched roof, willing herself to feel the pleasure of arousal, but she could not. Instead, the cold hand of fear tightened inside of her. She had not been afraid to die until this minute, but now she realized that she feared dying like this, unable to respond to Gabrielle's best efforts to save her. And, more than that, she feared the heavy burden of guilt she knew her lover would place upon herself.
Xena felt Gabrielle's hand move down over her abdomen and then slide between her legs. Refocusing her thoughts, she tried to put her fears aside and think only of the pleasure she knew Gabrielle could give her. But try as she might, she could feel no pleasure. Instead, she felt only the panic as it started rising within her again. Her life depended on having an orgasm now, and yet she had never felt so far from having one. The rasp of her breathing sounded loud in her ears, and each breath now began to feel as if it might be her last. Wisps of fog reappeared, floating across her field of vision, and she could no longer feel Gabrielle touching her. With a sudden cry of frustration, she pushed the bard's hand away.
"Xena, what is it?" Gabrielle asked in a frightened voice. "Did I hurt you? You're trembling all over."
"I'm sorry," Xena managed to choke out. "I just can't . . . do this. It's not . . . working. I . . . can't feel . . . anything."
"Can't feel anything? Do you mean you feel numb?"
"No . . . not numb." She stared at Gabrielle, not knowing how to explain the terror that seemed about to strangle her.
"You just can't feel . . . pleasure? Is that it?"
Gabrielle looked away, staring at the fire, pressing the back of her hand hard against her mouth. But after a few moments, she turned to Xena again. "I think the reason this isn't working is that we're both too scared," she said. "I'm scared of losing you, and you're scared of-- Well, I'm not sure what you're scared of, but I can feel the fear and tension in your body." She leaned down and gently touched Xena's face. "What is it, Sweetheart? Are you afraid of dying?"
"No, not of . . . dying."
Xena hesitated. "I'm afraid you . . . will blame yourself . . . if I die," she said softly.
Gabrielle didn't answer, and Xena turned her eyes away for a moment, not wanting to see the anguish in her lover's eyes. Then, biting her lip, she looked back again. "Just . . . let me go, Gabrielle," she pleaded. "Please. I'm not . . . in pain. It's not . . . such a bad way . . . to die." She saw a tear slide down Gabrielle's cheek and reached out to brush it away. "It's . . . not your fault," she went on, still struggling for breath. "The venom is . . . too strong. I . . . can't fight anymore. . . . I'm too tired." Another tear fell, but still her lover didn't speak. "Just . . . stay with me," Xena finished. "Hold me. It won't be . . . very long."
With a muffled sob, Gabrielle laid her head on the warrior's chest and wrapped an arm around her. Xena gently stroked the red-gold hair, feeling the wetness of Gabrielle's tears on her skin. For a time, neither of them spoke, but then Xena said, "I love you . . . Gabrielle. I don't want to . . . leave you. You're . . . my family . . . my best friend . . . my lover . . ." She stopped as she felt her own tears starting, trickling silently out of the corners of her eyes.
Gabrielle raised her head and looked at Xena. Her face was still wet from crying, but there was a calmness in her eyes which hadn't been there before. "You're right, Xena," she said quietly. "I have to let you go." She swallowed hard. "It's just so hard to do," she ended in a whisper. Reaching out, she smoothed the hair back from the warrior's face. "You're crying, too, aren't you?" she asked.
With gentle fingers, she wiped away the tears, and then touched her lips briefly to Xena's. "There's something I want to do before you cross over," she said softly. "I want to make love to you."
"Shh," she said quickly, stopping Xena's protest. "I want to make love to you, and I don't want it to be because I have to, but because I want to. Because I want to touch you one last time. It's kind of a selfish thing, I guess. But it's also a gift I want to give you. I want you to die knowing how much I love you, and feeling it with your body. I want you to-- Well, remember how you said you'd die a happy woman if you died while we were making love?"
"I want to give you that happiness . . . if there's any way I can. Please, Xena. Let me do this for you. Let me give you this one last gift."
Xena stared at her. Was Gabrielle trying to trick her into another attempt to get rid of the venom? Or was this really what she said it was--a final gift to her dying lover? Xena knew she was past being able to respond in any way at this point, but if it comforted Gabrielle to touch her again, then what could be the harm?
"All right," Xena said quietly.
"Really? You're sure? You'll let me do this for you?"
"Thank you," Gabrielle breathed and then she smiled softly. Taking Xena's hand, she held it against her chest for a moment. "Now," she said, "I want you to close your eyes and try to relax. You don't have to fight anymore. All your battles are over." Her voice started to break, and she stopped to take a few deep breaths.
Xena lay looking at her, unwilling to close her eyes and lose what might be her last sight of the face she loved so much.
Gabrielle's eyes met hers and held for several moments. "Close your eyes, Love," she said finally. "I need you to relax. I'll be right here beside you, talking to you and touching you. You won't be alone. And my love will always be with you . . . even on the other side." She reached out and laid her hand over Xena's eyes. "Close your eyes now and let go. Stop fighting. Let your body relax."
The warrior sighed softly as she felt the tension slowly begin to drain from her muscles. Gabrielle's hand gently smoothed her brow and caressed her cheek.
"There's nothing to be afraid of now," said the bard. "I'm going to let you go so you can cross over, and I promise not to blame myself. It's not my fault or yours that this happened. We just have to accept it and let go. We'll be together again someday. I know we will."
As Gabrielle went on talking, a sense of calmness and peace crept into the warrior's soul. The fear gradually slipped away and her breathing eased up a bit. She began to feel as if she were floating, suspended in some quiet place where nothing really mattered anymore.
"I'm going to start touching you now," Gabrielle said, "and if it's uncomfortable or you want me to stop for any reason, just say so, and I will. Can you feel this?"
"Mmm-hmm," Xena murmured, as she felt Gabrielle's hand once more on her breast, followed by the warm lips that pulled and sucked at her nipple.
"Does that feel all right?" Gabrielle asked.
"Nice," whispered Xena.
"Good. Now just try to focus on that feeling. Just think about how nice it feels and about how much I love you. I'm putting all my love into every single touch. Just relax and let yourself feel it."
Once again Gabrielle's lips and tongue were on her breast, gentle, yet insistent. And, to her surprise, Xena felt the first faint stirrings of desire, felt her nipples becoming erect and hard. Then, after a few minutes, the bard's hand moved down between Xena's legs, her fingers slipping in among the sensitve folds of skin.
"Let yourself feel my love, Xena," Gabrielle whispered. "I've never loved anyone the way I love you. Just let your body feel that. Feel my love for you."
And Xena did feel it. Blocking out thoughts of how difficult it was to breathe, she managed to focus on the tenderness of her lover's touch. After a time, she found that her weakened body was responding in a way she had not thought possible. Pleasurable sensations began moving through her, radiating in gentle waves. She heard a low moan and realized that it had come from her own lips.
"Xena? Is everything all right?" Gabrielle asked softly. "Do you want me to stop?"
"No, don't . . . stop," Xena whispered.
"Okay. Just checking," Gabrielle said. She moved down and Xena felt a series of soft kisses on the inside of her thighs. Then the sweet pleasure once more, a gentle stroking which she thought must be Gabrielle's tongue. She moaned again as the sensation grew, like a bud slowly opening in the sunlight, petal by petal, until it finally filled her completely. Her body began to move in weak spasms and she cried out hoarsely. Surely, she thought, no one ever had a more beautiful death.
"Yes! Xena, we did it!" she heard Gabrielle exclaim. And then after a moment she added, "The venom is starting to come out! I can see it! It's really weird-looking! It's kind of yellowish-green! Xena, take a look at this stuff!"
But the warrior could not look, could not even move. Those were the last words she heard as the fog whirled in around her, no longer gray but greenish now, and incredibly thick. Blotting out everything, it choked off her breathing, effectively smothering her. She tried to resist but could not. Her strength was gone and the fog was much too powerful. It pulled at her, drawing her out of her body, and in the moment she finally surrendered to it, she felt suddenly and marvelously free . . . free of pain and fear, and free of a body that no longer remembered how to move and breathe.
She let the fog lift and carry her, knowing at last what her destination was to be. In the distance, a light appeared, and she felt herself borne swiftly and inevitably towards it. The light marked the bank of the River Styx. She knew this now, knew that the light would guide her across in Charon's boat.
With a feeling of peace and deep relief, she allowed the fog to sweep her onward, closer and closer to the light. She was almost there, had almost reached the river's bank, when suddenly a figure loomed in the mist ahead of her. It was a spirit figure, just as she herself now was, but she recognized it immediately. "Ares," she said, coming to a reluctant halt. "I thought I was done with you."
His laughter swirled around her like the fog. "You'll never be done with me, Xena," he said. "You ought to know that by now."
She glared at him without answering.
"You thought you could defeat me," he went on, "but you were wrong."
"I did defeat you. I got Gabrielle back, didn't I?"
"Yes, but look at the price you've paid. You're dying, Xena, or hadn't you noticed? You're on your way to Tartarus, and you will never see your little friend again." He moved closer to her, and she felt the chill of his essence.
"Since when do you decide who goes to Tartarus?" she demanded. "I thought that was Hades' job."
"Oh, it is, but I know how these things work. You think that a few good deeds will atone for a lifetime of evil, but you're wrong, Xena. The balance swings too far the other way. I'm afraid it's Tartarus for you, my dear, and isn't that a shame?"
He smiled a cynical smile, and Xena did not answer.
"But it's not too late, you know," he said then. "I can still save you, give you back your life. You have only to say the word. And since you're going to end up in Tartarus anyway, why not have a little fun before you go?" His figure remained before her, but his spirit, warm and seductive now, seemed to surround and caress her. "Come back to me, Xena, and we'll conquer the world together," he murmured. "You know you want to. This is your chance."
"No, Ares, you're wrong," she said. "Maybe I once wanted to conquer the world, but not anymore. Not now, not ever! I would much rather die than go back to you. I don't need you to save me. Gabrielle's love is all I need. And even if I spend the rest of eternity in Tartarus, I'll still feel that love. I'll carry it within me forever." She moved forward, determined to force her way past him. "Get away from me now," she said, "and let me cross over."
But in that moment, she heard a voice, faintly, as if it came from a long ways off, and she stopped to listen. It was Gabrielle's voice, calling to her, "Xena, I love you! Don't leave me! Come back! Please come back to me, Xena!"
Come back? Was it possible to come back? But even as the question flashed upon her mind, she saw Ares begin to recede and disappear into the mist. The light, likewise, grew gradually less bright, fading away as she now travelled back through the fog, back towards Gabrielle.
Faster and faster she seemed to move, pulled by her lover's voice, feeling the first gentle touches of the bard's fingers on her skin. Then, all at once, she felt the full power of Gabrielle's hands and mouth, creating pleasure where she thought all sensation had died. The feeling grew stronger, and still stronger, swelling from her center to encompass her completely, making her whole body moan and writhe. And when it was over, the fog began to lift, fading meanwhile from green to gray and finally to the peaceful white of nothingness.