Disclaimer: See Part 1
Dawn came, but the sun was totally obscured by dark storm clouds. A brisk wind whipped the trees about and threatened to uproot a few saplings. Their roots held firmly, though, even if most of the blossoms were swept away by the wind . The flowers didn't even seem inclined to open up and face the day. Most of them remained firmly closed as they did their best to keep their roots firmly planted in the ground.
A lone figure in a calf-length cloak with the hood up worked tirelessly to saddle the two geldings just outside the stable. Braving the wind, she didn't seem to mind that the storm clouds looked ominous enough to burst open and unload a deluge at any moment. She just kept right on working until both horses were ready for the journey ahead.
“Do you really think it's a good idea to leave, now? The weather seriously looks like it will take a turn for the worse at any moment.”
The lone figure turned and pushed back her hood. Her blonde bangs whipped in the wind, but the rest of her hair remained in a single French braid.
“If we leave now, we can miss the worst of the storm!” Gabrielle shouted to be heard over the wind.
Aryana looked up doubtfully. “Why don't we just wait until it passes? Maybe leave first thing tomorrow, instead?”
“I thought you were in a hurry to return home,” Gabrielle countered. “Besides, this storm won't be passing for quite some time. I've seen weather like this before. These storms tend to move slowly and last for days. And then there's the flooding to contend with.” She looked pointedly at Aryana. “The river will overflow its banks and then we'll be stuck here for a week. Is that what you want?”
“Uh,” Aryana took Star's reins into her hand. “No, I guess not.”
“You guess?” Gabrielle shook her head. She mounted Buster and took a moment to readjust a stirrup. She then waited for Aryana to mount Star, but the young woman just stood there. “Is there a problem, Aryana?” Gabrielle leaned against the saddlebow with a blonde brow raised in question.
“No,” Aryana stuck her boot into a stirrup and swung up into the saddle. She took a moment to make sure her stirrups were the correct length and then settled more comfortably. She then glanced at the building across the way and saw several faces peering at them from behind the windows. “Aren't you going to say goodbye to them? They seem pretty sad that you're leaving.”
Gabrielle glanced over at the building, too. “I'm not very good at goodbyes, I'm afraid.”
“But they're your friends,” Aryana argued. “What if you never see them again?”
“Then they'll just go on without me,” Gabrielle said with finality. “Everyone does.”
Gabrielle pressed her heels into Buster's sides and urged him forward. She glanced at the faces in the window one last time and saw the two youngest sisters waving enthusiastically at her. She gave them a small wave and then urged Buster into a trot as she steered him toward the gates she had opened earlier. Aryana nudged Star to follow.
They made it a little over a league south of Amphipolis when the storm clouds finally burst open and the deluge started in earnest. Thunder rumbled loudly every time a flash of lightning lit up the tumultuous skies above. Rain poured down on them in torrents and visibility was at a minimum.
“This is nuts,” Aryana squinted to see beyond the driving rain, as she kept pace with Gabrielle. “I'm really having second thoughts about this.”
“It's just a storm. Tell me you're not afraid of a little storm, Aryana.”
Aryana glanced up as a bolt of lightning flashed brightly and the subsequent crack of thunder made Star sidestep skittishly. She reined him in and sat lower in the saddle to get him to settle back down.
Gabrielle seemed oblivious.
“A little storm?” Aryana glanced over at her traveling companion. Gabrielle and Buster were as calm as could be. Just then, a gust of wind blew Aryana's hood off her head. Her dark hair was instantly soaked and rivelets of water ran down into her clothing beneath her cloak. “Oh, terrific! Gods be damned, that's cold!”
Gabrielle hid a small smile behind the hood of her cloak as she kept a tight rein on her chestnut gelding. The whole situation reminded her of another time, another place. A young woman eager to please her older, wiser traveling companion. She would have done anything to keep from being sent back to that little farming village on the outskirts of nowhere. She might have even risked pneumonia from being drenched to the skin in a spring storm, if such a storm had occurred during those early days. Good thing it didn't. Gabrielle hated being sick almost as much as her former traveling companion did. That thought brought a small smile to her lips.
They set up camp in a hidden clearing just off the road. The horses were hobbled near a gurgling stream and were busy munching on green shoots of wet grass. A cozy campfire sparked and crackled with two bedrolls laid out on either side. Gabrielle returned to the campsite with three plump rabbits and two partridges dangling from a rope in one hand. She approached the campfire and tossed the game down onto the ground next to her reclining companion.
“You're up,” she said as she sat down against a tree trunk on her own bedroll. “I did my job. Now it's your turn.”
Aryana looked in confusion at the carcasses. “And what, pray tell, would you like me to do with those?”
“Skin, dress and cook them for dinner,” Gabrielle replied as she pulled a cloth out and went to work cleaning her sais.
After warily eyeing the carcasses a moment longer, Aryana gave Gabrielle a distasteful glare. “I have no idea how to do any of that.”
A blonde brow shot up as Gabrielle stopped what she was doing. “You don't?”
“No,” Aryana threw her hands up in exasperation. “I've never skinned anything. I don't know how to dress…well, anything but myself. And I don't have the slightest idea how to cook. I've never had to. It's not what I do.”
“How did you make it all this way without cooking your food?” Gabrielle asked incredulously. “That's not possible.”
“It is when you purchase enough dried meat and trail rations for the trip,” Aryana replied. “Not exactly the most savory fare, but it works when you're hungry enough to eat almost anything.”
Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. She grabbed a dagger from her saddlebag, moved over to the game, and started skinning a rabbit. It didn't take her long to finish dressing all five carcasses. Once she had them dressed, she cut them up, tossed the meat into a skillet and poured a generous amount of water over it. She then got up and walked away from the campsite.
Aryana thought she was seeing things. She caught a glimpse of something on Gabrielle's back, but then the woman was gone.
“Hey! Where are you going?” Aryana sat up and waited expectantly.
Gabrielle reappeared several moments later with an armful of what looked like ordinary plants. She dumped her load into a pile next to the skillet and started chopping things up with a small knife. She then tossed in a few dried herbs from some packets in her saddlebag, as well as the other chopped ingredients, and put the skillet over some smoldering embers to cook.
“Mmm, that smells good,” Aryana moved just a little closer. “So, you know how to cook?”
“I have many skills,” Gabrielle grinned wryly. “Some of it I learned along the way. Some of it I already knew before I left home.”
“When did you leave home?”
“When I was incredibly young and naive.”
“Is that when you met…um…her?” She didn't know why, but broaching the subject of Gabrielle's association with Xena seemed very touchy to Aryana. And to Gabrielle. So she just didn't.
Gabrielle sat back to wait for their meal to cook. She really didn't want to discuss Xena, but she also felt that Aryana had a right to know a little about her. After all, the woman was trusting her to help her people and had no reason whatsoever to do so.
“Xena saved my village from slavers and then let me tag along. It took a while for her to warm up to the idea of having me around. She wasn't exactly keen on traveling with a green kid who had absolutely no sense of the real dangers beyond her village. Not to mention I had absolutely no skills with a weapon of any kind.”
“So, you really did travel with Xena, the legendary Warrior Princess?” Aryana asked doubtfully. “From what I've heard, she was a pretty big deal. Almost godlike in some of the stories that are told about her. That must have been pretty intimidating for you.”
A wry grin graced Gabrielle's lips. “Xena was no god. Legendary? Yes. She had run-ins with gods all the time. Ares, in particular. He couldn't seem to leave her alone. In his own twisted way, he was very much in love with her. She even faced off against other gods, occasionally. We both did. And maybe I should have been intimidated by her, especially when we were first traveling together, but I wasn't. I don't think I ever was. Well, maybe a time or two. Just not enough to give up and go home.”
“Not even once?”
Gabrielle thought for a moment. “Actually, there was that one time.” She was thoughtful for a moment. “I went home to be with my family. Things with Xena just got…too hard.”
“And I learned a few things about myself during those weeks without her.” She smiled fondly. “I never realized how much I actually learned during the time we spent traveling together. I think we were both a little surprised by that. I know I felt more appreciated, once we found each other again.”
Gabrielle took the skillet off the fire and dished up two helpings of the savory stew she'd made. The aroma was tantalizing. After the long day of traveling, Aryana accepted the food without question and ate her share until her bowl was empty.
Their cloaks were spread out on top of bushes to finish drying. The rain had finally let up close to evening, just in time for them to start looking for a suitable campsite. After removing their drenched cloaks, their clothing beneath didn't take long to dry out. The cloaks, on the other hand, would take all night. That was fine with both of them. They had their bedding to keep the chill away.
“So,” Gabrielle set her bowl aside and sat back against the tree trunk. “You're a warrior?”
Aryana was caught in the middle of dishing up another helping of stew. “Um, yeah.”
“Tell me about that,” Gabrielle encouraged. “But first, you have cleanup.”
“Wait, what?” Aryana stopped in mid-chew.
“Cleanup,” Gabrielle repeated with a smirk. “The one who doesn't cook gets to wash the dishes and put everything away.”
“Uh, yeah, okay,” Aryana finished off the last few bites of her second helping of stew. She then gathered up the skillet and the two bowls and spoons and took them off to the stream that was a short distance away.
Gabrielle stoked the fire and got it burning brightly. She sat back down on her bedroll and took out her sais again. Removing a sharpening stone from her saddlebag, she started applying it with steady strokes to the blade of one of her sais. The steady shing of the stone against the blade totally reminded her of all the times she and Xena had made camp in some clearing or other. So eager to please in those early days, Gabrielle had been the one to do all the cooking and cleaning up. Eventually, however, Xena started pitching in and doing her part.
She couldn't help but smile at those early memories. She could almost see Xena sitting across the fire from her in that brooding way of hers. Meticulously sharpening her sword with precise strokes. Her head bent in concentration.
Until Aryana returned with her arms full of clean dishes as she grumbled loudly enough for Gabrielle to hear her.
“I can't believe I'm relegated to doing dishes. Warriors don't do dishes. Warriors fight. And when we're not fighting, we hone our skills to prepare to fight. We don't do dishes.” She carefully set the clean dishes next to Gabrielle's saddlebags, then straightened with her hands on her hips and a sullen pout on her lips. “There. Happy?”
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. “Hungry anymore?”
“No,” she crossed her arms over her chest. Then she caught Gabrielle's none-too-pleasant expression. “Er…yeah, the food was really good. Thank you.”
“You're welcome,” said Gabrielle. “Now, sit down and tell me your story.”
Aryana plopped down on her bedroll and then stretched out on her stomach so she was staring at eye level into the fire. She propped her chin on a fist and looked, to Gabrielle, like a kid of only eighteen or so. Her dark hair was pulled back from her face and tied with a leather strap. The firelight danced in her eyes and made them sparkle.
Gabrielle was struck by the color of Aryana's eyes. She hadn't noticed before, but they didn't seem to be just one color. She could actually see at least four different colors in their depths. Blue. Green. Yellow. And a strange, almost violet ring around the outer edge of the iris.
“I come from a place far to the north and east, called Arendahl,” Aryana began. “I am sworn to protect our ruler, Queen Sharihanali Hazeraishad.”
“Quite the mouthful,” Gabrielle commented wryly.
“Her closest advisors and protectors just call her Queen Shari,” Aryana shrugged. “She doesn't exactly stand on ceremony all the time. Just when foreign dignitaries and diplomats visit. Ours is a small kingdom.”
“We have trade agreements with two neighboring kingdoms. But,” she sighed, “things haven't been going well, lately.”
“Which is why you came looking for—”
“The woman known as the Warrior Princess,” Aryana supplied. “Traveling bards have been sharing her stories with us for years. Queen Shari grew up listening to the tales of her exploits. We all did.”
“Wait. You're saying my stories…er…” Gabrielle shook her head, hoping Aryana didn't catch the slip. “The stories traveled all the way to your kingdom?”
“And beyond,” Aryana continued. “My homeland is on one of the main trade routes. And that's part of the problem. We're well known and susceptible to invasion. In the past, the army has been able to defend our borders and keep the riffraff out.”
“The riffraff came in the guise of a wolf in sheep's clothing,” Aryana rolled her eyes. “His name is Lord Jerell. A charming suitor who wooed Queen Shari with fancy poems, impeccable manners and a promise of a strong alliance. He finally asked for her hand last year. Unfortunately, Queen Shari realized too late that the rat just wanted to take over the kingdom. When she refused to marry him, he imprisoned her in her own dungeon and placed his own loyal guards inside the palace walls. The army was summarily disbanded by his order shortly after that.”
“So, how do you fit into all this?”
“Queen Shari managed to smuggle a coded message out of the castle just before Jerell imprisoned her,” Aryana continued. “It was an appeal to her most loyal warriors to find a way to lift the siege and restore the kingdom.”
“Wait. Let me get this straight. You interpreted your queen's message for a call to arms to mean that you should come all the way to Greece and seek help from some legendary warrior that you only heard about in stories?”
“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up,” Aryana propped herself up onto her elbows, so she could peer over the fire at her companion. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
Gabrielle threw up her hands in exasperation. “I am such an idiot!” She jumped to her feet and stormed away from the campsite without a backward glance, leaving Aryana there with a stunned look on her face.
Her hurried footsteps finally took her to the edge of the stream, where she stopped. Moonlight poked through the clouds that floated overhead and sparkled off the moving water. Gabrielle just stood there trying to find some clarity in her murky thoughts. She stared up at the passing clouds and tried making sense of what was happening.
“What was I thinking?” She muttered to herself. “This isn't right.” She paced a few steps, turned and paced a few more. “Gods! It was all so clear. How could I be so blind?”
She stopped pacing long enough to turn and find Aryana standing there gawking in confusion. In the soft glow of moonlight, Aryana appeared even younger than Gabrielle had previously thought. And, although the familiarity she had first sensed was still very much there, Gabrielle suddenly saw Aryana in a totally new and somewhat disturbing light. It was as if the woman standing before her was a complete stranger—which, in fact, she was.
“How could I be so stupid?” Gabrielle grabbed her head in both hands and groaned in frustration. “How could I be so stupid?”
“Why do you keep saying that? Was it something I said?”
Gabrielle turned her back on Aryana. “Because!”
“Yeah, that's not helping.”
Gabrielle gazed skyward, as if the clouds that had suddenly obscured the moon and stars held the answers she sought. Answers to questions she should have asked herself before embarking on this journey. A journey to save a kingdom.
She wasn't the Warrior Princess.
“I can't do this.”
Gabrielle rounded on Aryana. “I can't help you! Don't you understand? I'm not her!”
“Wait. Now I'm totally confused. Who said anything…”
“Xena,” Gabrielle ground out the name between clenched teeth. “She's dead. And I can't help you save your homeland. It's not…I just can't.” She grabbed her head again and groaned.
Aryana took a step forward, then stopped. “You're kinda freaking me out, here, Gabrielle. Who said anything about you helping me save Arendahl? I didn't…”
“She…um…who?” Aryana squinted at the shadowy figure several paces away. She couldn't make out more than Gabrielle's shape in the darkness, but she could still tell the woman was agitated.
“A seer,” Gabrielle started pacing again. “She said a warrior would come seeking my help…”
“For the record, I never got the chance to ask…”
“…I'll go on a long and perilous journey. I'll finally know the peace that has eluded me all these years. My destiny will be fulfilled and I will finally be reunited…” She looked up. A small break in the clouds revealed a sliver of moonlight that cast just enough light to see by. There was something in Gabrielle's eyes—some hint of madness—that made Aryana's breath catch. “Or maybe she meant…” Gabrielle moved closer to Aryana, who stood frozen to the spot. “But you're not…This is totally wrong!”
“Okay, now you are totally freaking me out, Gabrielle,” Aryana took a step backward. “What in the world are you babbling about?”
Gabrielle turned away again. The clouds parted completely so the moon was bright and cast a soft glow over everything, including Gabrielle. That's when Aryana got a really good look at the woman's back for the very first time. There was a tattoo there that was actually glowing as if the multi-colored beast were actually alive. She couldn't believe her eyes. She had never seen anything like it in her entire life.
Oblivious to what was going on behind her, Gabrielle leaped over the stream and kept on going. She was muttering to herself. Aryana was no longer able to hear what she was saying. None of it made any sense. It was like the woman had completely lost it. Or maybe she had lost it years ago. How could Aryana possibly know?
And then the clouds moved back over the moon and plunged everything into complete darkness again. Aryana could no longer see anything but vague shadows. The glow from the tattoo disappeared. And so did Gabrielle.
It suddenly occurred to Aryana that she couldn't let Gabrielle go off on her own. There was no telling what the woman might do in her current state of mind, especially armed with those daggers of hers.
Summoning her courage and pushing aside her confusion, Aryana leaped over the stream and followed. She could still hear Gabrielle, so it wasn't hard to track her. Aryana just hoped no one was out and about at that time of night.
A bloodcurdling scream tore through the darkness. Gabrielle took off at a dead run toward the sound. As her strides carried her closer, she could just make out the sounds of a fight in the distance. And then she caught the unmistakeable acrid smell of smoke just moments before she saw the flickering flames above the treeline.
As she burst through the trees into a large clearing, the sight that greeted her sent a shiver of dread racing through her. Grabbing her sais from her boots in a fluid and familiar motion, she only hesitated a moment before she bolted right for trouble. Four wagons sat in a circle around a campfire. One of the wagons was completely engulfed in flames that shot as high as the treetops that surrounded the clearing.
Gabrielle reached the first wagon and vaulted an overturned log. The sounds of fighting grew louder. A woman fled past her with a small bundle in her arms. Gabrielle barely noticed. Her focus was on a man on horseback heading right for her. He had a sword held high and his intent was clear. Gabrielle caught his blade on her crossed sais and deflected it as he passed. She was actually more than a little surprised that the move had worked, but didn't have time to revel in her small victory. He yanked the reins hard and his horse came back around for another attack.
Pure instinct kicked in for her after that.
Realizing that she was no match for a horseman with a sword, Gabrielle ducked his blade and swung a sai toward his exposed calf. Her blade found its mark. Slicing through leather and flesh, Gabrielle heard the man scream in pain as he toppled from his saddle. He fell hard, but managed to get to his feet in the next heartbeat.
Limping toward her, the man swung wildly with his sword. Gabrielle deflected the blade with one sai and sliced with the other. The tip of her sai sliced across his chest. A bright red gash appeared, but did nothing to deter him. If anything, he was enraged by the wound. He came at her with renewed fury, slashing and slicing with his sword. Gabrielle deflected each blow with precision. Her arms screamed in protest from her exertions, but she didn't falter. She blocked each strike. Countered each blow. Evaded each thrust of his deadly blade. And then she found her opening.
The blow to his calf had unbalanced him. When he tried to swing his blade on one particular occasion, Gabrielle knew he would overcompensate because of his injury. She ducked the blade at the last possible second, somersaulted forward and came around with a double-slice to his unprotected back. He didn't stand a chance and went down in a heap.
Gabrielle turned in time to catch the glow of silver coming straight for her head out of the corner of her eye a moment later. She tilted backward in time for the blade to slice through the air just above her. Her second opponent wasn't on horseback. He was a burly and somewhat scruffy behemoth with muscles bulging in arms the size of small tree trunks. He swung again and the blade just missed Gabrielle's forearm.
Ducking low, she jabbed the hilts of her sais straight into his gut with all her might. It wasn't enough. He barely registered the blows and swung one of his arms right for her. The blow connected with the side of her head and sent her airborne. She did her best to roll with the impact of the ground and shook herself as she returned to her feet. Her head was throbbing, but she pushed the pain to the back of her mind. Xena had taught her that. Ignore the pain until the fight was over. Only then did you assess the damage.
He came at her again. This time there was a feral grin on his craggy features. Gabrielle could see that several of his teeth had completely rotted away and left gaping holes. She braced for the attack and centered herself. His blade came down like a hammer, and she just managed to get a sai turned backward to stop the blade from splitting her arm in two. Her muscles bulged as she tried pushing the blade up and away. Realizing she was no match for his bulk, Gabrielle threw herself to the ground, rolled and swiped her sais for his knees. Both blades slashed precisely. He grunted in pain. But then one of those tree-trunk arms of his connected with her side.
The blow knocked the wind out of her and sent a jolt of excruciating pain down her entire side. She briefly wondered if he hadn't just broken a rib or two. But then he was coming again and his blade just missed her head. Gabrielle raised a sai and knocked the blow at the last second.
And then she caught a blur of movement out of the corner of her eye. For a moment she thought it was another attacker.
Gabrielle watched as Aryana leaped right onto the behemoth's back and wrapped her arms around his neck in a strangle hold. His eyes suddenly widened in surprise moments before he struggled to free himself. His blade swung wildly and then tumbled from his grip as he reached for his attacker with both hands.
Without hesitating, Gabrielle sprang into action. She sheathed her sais and grabbed the discarded sword in both hands. She used her forward momentum to thrust the blade with all her might up into his exposed midsection. She felt the blade slide through leather, flesh and bone as she continued to push forward until the blade was buried to the hilt in his chest.
Aryana leaped free of him as he grabbed for the hilt of his sword and tried yanking it free. He stumbled backwards several paces and pitched sideways, landing hard on the ground. His wide eyes looked right at Gabrielle as blood seeped from his lips. The life left him on a raspy sigh as his sightless eyes stared right through her.
Neither woman had time to revel in their triumph at killing the behemoth. Aryana grabbed the hilt of his sword and yanked it from the corpse, while Gabrielle unsheathed her sais and prepared for the next confrontation. Her head was clear, for the most part, but her side throbbed painfully.
The fight wasn't yet over.
Spotting a group of leather-clad men near one of the wagons, Gabrielle could just make out the desperate cries and struggles of a woman in their midst. She yelled at the top of her lungs as she charged toward them. Two of the men turned as she approached. She made quick work of dispatching the first. He barely managed to bring his sword up as she nailed him in the head with a sai. Blood sprayed her arm as she slashed with all her might. He went down.
The next man was ready for her. He deflected her swing and countered with a spin moved that almost drove his blade into her unprotected back. She dove out of reach and came back up again. His blade narrowly missed her side as she spun away from him. She then came around, deflected another swing and slashed with her other sai. The tip nicked his cheek and drew blood.
“Bitch!” He snarled and tried to body slam her to the ground.
She rolled with him and let his momentum carry him past her. As she regained her feet, she crossed her sais in front of her and blocked a downward swing. Sweat ran down her face and her muscles bulged from her exertions. He leaned in close and breathed his acrid breath right in her face.
“Ugh!” She shoved him away and took several steps back. “You really need to do something about that fetid smell. It's disgusting.”
“I'll show you disgusting, crafty wench!” He charged her again.
Gabrielle waited until he was just within reach and then she sidestepped away from him. He stumbled past her and she slammed the hilts of both sais into the back of his head with enough force to knock him out. He went sprawling face-first into the ground.
The third man yanked the woman in front of him and used her as a shield.
Gabrielle saw that the woman's blouse was torn in front. Her eyes blazed with barely-controlled fury.
“Let her go or die!” Gabrielle's tone was low and menacing, which got his attention. “You really want to join your friends?” She pointed in the direction of the dead behemoth. “I'm sure Charon won't mind the company. He's probably been lonely these days.”
The man pulled a dagger from his belt and held the blade to the woman's throat. “Stay back or I'll slit her pretty little throat.” He grinned evily and licked his lips.
Gabrielle could see that the hand that held the dagger was shaking nervously. She had also seen him glance toward the corpse of the behemoth and back at her. She twirled the sais.
“This doesn't have to end in your death, you know,” she added. “You can walk away—do something more productive with your life.”
“Yeah? Like what?” He snorted derisively. “I ain't done nothin' productive since the day I was born. Just ask my folks.”
She considered her options as he backed toward the wagon and pulled the woman with him. Gabrielle knew what he intended. He was going to drag the woman inside the wagon and rape her. But she wasn't about to let that happen. Re-sheathing her sais, Gabrielle held her hands out to her sides in surrender.
“Take me, instead,” she offered. “What do you want with her? She's only skin and bones. Besides, she'll probably just struggle the entire time. I, on the other hand, well…” She finished with a shrug and a seductive grin.
He stopped and seemed to actually consider her offer. He looked her up and down, but didn't loosen his grip on the woman.
“You're still armed,” he glanced at the hilts of her sais sticking up from her boots. “Chuck those away and I might actually take you up on your offer. You're pretty enough.”
Gabrielle slowly and deliberately bent over to remove her sais from her boots again. She could tell he was watching her closely. She could also see out of the corner of her eye that the blade of his dagger was no longer held tightly against the woman's throat. With practiced skill, she brought one sai up and launched it right at him. The long blade sank right up to both yoku in the man's forehead.
He fell to the ground dead a moment later.
“Are you all right?” Gabrielle rushed over to the woman and then she reached down and pulled her sai free from the man's forehead. She wiped the weapon off on his shirt to clean the viscera off it.
“I'm fine,” the woman looked with disgust at the corpse at her feet and spat on it. “May you rot, pig!” She spat again. Then she looked up at Gabrielle. “Thank you. I owe you my life.”
“Do you have somewhere you can hide until the rest of these guys are taken care of?” Gabrielle looked around and noticed there were only a few attackers left.
Aryana was swapping blows with a couple of them using the sword she'd taken from the behemoth, while a few men dressed in the same style clothing as the woman were doing their best to fight off four others.
“I'll go hide with our elders and the other women and children,” the woman moved past Gabrielle. “Thank you again, warrior.”
Gabrielle didn't wait around to find out if the woman made it to where the others were hiding. She bolted toward the middle of the encampment where the fighting was still the heaviest. Approaching Aryana and her two opponents, Gabrielle noticed one of the men was just about to get the drop on her. With the element of surprise on her side, Gabrielle ran right at him and stuck an arm out as she passed.
The clothesline maneuver worked perfectly. Unfortunately, Gabrielle felt as if her entire side were suddenly on fire. As the man hit the ground flat on his back, Gabrielle nearly went sprawling, too. She gasped as a wave of nausea nearly drove her to her knees.
“Gabrielle! Behind you!”
She turned in time, raised a sai and caught the blade on the downward arc. There was more force behind the blow than she anticipated. The muscles in her arm already felt like rubber from all the fighting. And her side screamed in protest. The man towering over her glared down in triumph.
“You're mine, bitch,” he hissed. His greasy blond hair hung loosely in his face and almost obscured his features, except for the stubble on his jaw. He reached out and grabbed her face in an iron grip and squeezed. “You really shouldn't stick that pretty little nose of yours where it don't belong.”
And then he suddenly stiffened and released his hold. Eyes gone wide in shock, he straightened as a sword blade protruded from his chest. Blood spilled from his mouth as the blade was yanked free and he dropped to the ground right in front of her.
“You okay, Gabrielle?” Aryana doubled over to catch her breath with her borrowed blade dripping with the man's blood. She then reached out, took Gabrielle's hand and helped her to her feet. “Sorry it took me so long to get over here. I thought you had him.”
Gabrielle did her best not to show how much she was hurting. She straightened up without wincing and held onto her side with one hand.
They both looked around them. The fight was quickly winding down. Only one attacker still remained, and he was being corralled by the men of the encampment. The wagon that was ablaze when Gabrielle arrived was now merely a smoldering ruin. Its flames hadn't spread to the other wagons, which she figured was a blessing.
The men of the encampment ushered their struggling captive over to the main campfire and shoved him to his knees in front of it. One of the men—tall, dark-haired and dark-skinned with a thin mustache—stood in front of the captive who had his head bowed.
Those who had been hiding in the treeline during the attack, now emerged to join the men near the campfire. There were quite a few of them, including a few gray-haired men and women.
Gabrielle and Aryana stood off to one side. Neither woman wanted to draw attention to themselves. They were just glad things had gone their way.
“You and your men attacked us for no reason,” the tall, dark-haired man with the thin mustache said with a heavy accent. “You burned our wagon, injured my kinsmen and tried to take our women. Why did you do this?”
The lone attacker slowly raised his head and glared up at the man towering over him. “Gypsy scum!” He spat. “You people make me sick.”
The mustached man delivered a staggering backhanded blow. There were gasps from the gathered crowd of onlookers. But the man on his knees merely turned his head and smirked up at the man.
“I should kill you now,” the mustached man said in a low tone full of menace. “You are nothing but a worthless dog.”
“And you are nothing but a thieving band of worthless gypsies,” the man spat again.
The mustached man pulled a dagger from his belt and held it high. Gabrielle saw his intent and ran over to stand between the two.
“Wait!” She held a staying hand up to stop him.
“Get out of my way, woman!” The mustached man looked right past her to the man kneeling on the ground. “This dog deserves to die for his crimes against us.”
Gabrielle glanced at the gathered crowd. “Yes, he does. But killing him in cold blood isn't the answer. He should be held accountable for all of his crimes. Take him to the nearest village and turn him over to the proper authorities. Make him stand trial and let the villagers mete out justice for what he's done. I'm sure this isn't the first time these men have attacked unsuspecting travelers. You'll send a message that this sort of thing will not be tolerated.”
“You don't know what you're asking,” the mustached man lowered his dagger as he met her steady gaze. “Dogs like this don't deserve justice. They only deserve death.”
“Husband,” the woman that Gabrielle had saved earlier came forward and put her hands on the mustached man's arm. “She's right. You should listen to her. If you do this, you are no better than any one of these pigs. Lock him in one of the wagons and we will take him to that town we passed a few leagues back. The constable there will deal with him.”
He considered her request for a moment, then shoved his dagger back into the sheath at his belt. He nodded to the three other men who were standing over their captive.
“Bind his hands and lock him in my wagon,” he ordered. “And make sure he doesn't escape during the night. We shall turn him over to the authorities in the morning.”
One of the men produced a rope, which he used to tightly bind the captive's hands together. The two others then helped him usher the captive to one of the wagons that was still standing. They shoved the man inside and then stood guard outside.
“My name is Misha,” the mustached man turned to Gabrielle and Aryana and put his arm around the woman standing next him. “And this is my wife, Jezrael. On behalf of my entire family, I thank you both for your help. You didn't have to come to our aid, but you did. We are forever in your debt.” He glanced at the body of the behemoth. “I have no idea why these men attacked us. We are simple travelers. We mean no one harm.”
“I'm Gabrielle and this is Aryana,” she said. “We are also travelers.” She then smiled wryly. “And fellow travelers have to stick together. Especially in times such as these.”
“Thank you both,” Jezrael added. “It is our custom to offer hospitality to those we consider friends. We would be honored if you would share a meal with us.”
“I'm afraid we already ate,” Aryana piped up immediately and then found Gabrielle's hand on her arm. “What?”
“Would you excuse us for a moment? I need to have a word with my friend.” Gabrielle pulled Aryana far enough away so they wouldn't be overheard. She then spoke in a hushed tone. “You don't turn down an offer of hospitality.”
“What are you talking about? I'm still full from earlier,” Aryana said quietly.
“They just want to thank us for helping them,” Gabrielle insisted. “It's their way. They don't have a lot and they want to repay us in the only way they have.”
“Repay us for what?”
“For helping them.”
“We just did what we do,” Aryana shrugged and looked pointedly at Gabrielle. “And you did some major butt-kicking, by the way. Nice moves. I wasn't sure you'd actually be able to fight. You proved me wrong.”
A blonde brow shot up into Gabrielle's hairline. “What's that supposed to mean?”
Aryana shrugged. “You know. That whole hospice thing and all. You didn't really strike me as a true warrior with kick-ass skills and all. Although, you do have a bit of a temper. And that glowing tatt on your back is more than a little weird.”
“But then you faced off against that really big guy all by yourself and nearly took him down,” Aryana continued. “He was seriously knocking you around. I thought he actually hurt you a couple times, there.”
Gabrielle took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Are you finished?” She glanced at the group still watching them curiously. “You don't have to eat anything. Just accept a drink or two and leave it at that. Okay?”
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“What are you going to do?”
“What do you mean?”
“You're not going to leave me here with a bunch of strangers, are you?”
Gabrielle frowned. “Why would I do that?”
Aryana breathed out a sigh of relief. “Good. Because I seriously thought you were pawning me off on these people so you can go back to your hospice.”
“Again, why would I do that?”
“Well, it's just that you had that little episode back by the stream and I thought…well, I'm not exactly sure what I thought. You went nuts and the monster thingy started glowing and... I kinda forgot what I was thinking about after that.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes and shook her head. “It's a dragon and it doesn't glow.”
“What's a dragon? And, yes, it did. I saw it with my own two eyes. Seriously, Gabrielle. The thing looked like it was coming to life. Kinda freaked me out.”
“Can we get back to the matter at hand?” Gabrielle was practically seething at that point. “These people are waiting to thank us properly. And we're not going to disappoint them, now, are we?”
“Fine with me,” Aryana shrugged. “Anything to keep you from going nuts again.”
Gabrielle was about to respond, but decided against it. It wasn't worth it. Besides, she wasn't quite sure if she wasn't going nuts, after all. She wasn't sure about anything, especially in light of Aryana's revelation about her tattoo. Could it be that the dragon had awakened? And, if so, what did that mean?
Then Gabrielle remembered the people standing there gawking at them. She turned with a smile and walked back over to them.
“It would be our pleasure to share a meal with you,” Gabrielle gave Misha and his wife a warm smile.
“Come,” Misha motioned them to an overturned log near the fire. He then waved to the others. “These people are all members of my family.” Most of the people dispersed and went about their normal evening activities. An older couple stepped forward and Gabrielle noted the resemblance between them and Misha. “My father and mother, Pepito and Gaya.” Another man then stepped forward. “And this is my uncle, Trevian.” The man nodded silently to them and then took a seat on the log next to theirs. He took out a stick, a dagger and started whittling. The young woman who had run past Gabrielle earlier during the fight with a baby clutched tightly to her breast sat down and another man sat next to her. Misha stepped up behind her and placed his hands possessively on her shoulders. “And this is my daughter, Leisha, her husband, Bregnan, and their baby girl, Kasha.” He smiled proudly at the tiny bundle in Leisha's arms.
Gabrielle nodded a greeting to them all.
And then a stooped old woman slowly shuffled into the firelight. Her hair was nearly white and her eyes were milky white, as well. She walked right over and stood in front of Gabrielle and Aryana, until Aryana vacated her seat.
“I think I'll just go sit over there.” Aryana eyed the old woman suspiciously and moved to a log on the other side of the fire.
The old woman then sat down on the log right next to Gabrielle.
“And this is…”
“I can speak for myself, onoka ,” she glared up at him. “I do not believe my wagon will clean itself up.” Then she turned dismissively and appeared to study Gabrielle intently. “And you may call me Baba . It means grandmother in our native tongue. Welcome to our humble encampment.” She then turned her milky white eyes to the burned wreckage. “That is a true shame. So many memories in that wagon. All gone. And poor Benito. That arm will not heal in a day.” She chuckled and waved a dismissive hand. “At least he is still alive.”
“I'm sorry we couldn't get here in time to save your wagon, Baba ,” said Gabrielle sincerely.
The woman smiled sadly. “No matter. At least we all survived. That is something.” She then narrowed her eyes at Gabrielle, as if she were studying her closely. “You have not been a warrior for quite some time and, yet, you fight as if you have done so all your life.”
“I…” Gabrielle looked away and then back again with a wry grin. “I have many skills, Baba .”
The woman cackled and several people turned to look, then returned to what they were doing. “Yes, you do. You are a healer, a storyteller and you have the heart of a warrior.” She then narrowed her eyes even more. “But there is a great sadness deep within you, child. You lost someone. Someone very dear to you.”
Gabrielle felt a stab of grief wash over her, but quickly forced it back down. “My best friend, Baba . She died many years ago.”
The woman placed a gnarled hand over Gabrielle's. “You carry your grief like a heavy shroud upon your shoulders. It is not good to grieve so deeply and for so long.” She then studied Gabrielle for a moment longer. “And there is something else I see. A wisdom beyond your years, as if you have—” She shook her white head. “That is not possible. You are as mortal as the rest of us.”
“I am quite mortal, Baba ,” Gabrielle smiled sadly. “But I have had encounters with the gods throughout my life. My soulmate and I were locked away in a cave for more than twenty years by one of them. His powers kept both of us from aging.”
“Ah, I see. And that beast on your back? Tell me about that.”
Gabrielle shrugged. “It is a decoration. Nothing more.”
“I have never seen anything like it in all my years on this earth, child,” the woman narrowed her eyes again. “But I have seen a great many talismans in my extensive travels.”
Gabrielle studied the woman, in return. “You are very wise, Baba .”
The woman chuckled. “And you have a great many stories that I wish I could live another lifetime in order to hear.”
Gabrielle nodded and looked away. “I haven't told any stories since…” She let the words trail off.
“You miss her very much.” It wasn't a question.
“Every day, Baba .”
The old woman patted Gabrielle's hand. “This world can sometimes be very cruel and unforgiving, especially when those we love are taken from us and we are left to carry on without them. But carry on we must. It is the way of things.”
Gabrielle slowly nodded. “Thank you.”
“Thank you , child. You came to the aid of my kinsmen when no one else did. We are all still here because of you and your friend.” She then looked in Aryana's direction. “So, what of that friend of yours?”
Gabrielle couldn't believe how comfortable she felt in the old woman's presence. It was strange, yet familiar. She glanced across the fire at Aryana, who accepted a mug from Gaya, Misha's mother. The two exchanged a few words and then Gaya moved off to help the other women with the meal preparations. Gabrielle caught herself staring and looked away.
“I'm not sure what you're asking me, Baba ,” she said to the woman.
The old woman shrugged. “The two of you have not traveled together for very long. I suppose I'm just a little curious as to why you would leave your home in order to travel with a complete stranger.”
Gabrielle was suddenly struck by how much the woman intuitively knew. She turned to study the old woman for several long moments. Baba merely stared straight ahead, her milky eyes not really focusing on anything in particular. That's when Gabrielle waved a hand in front of the woman's face.
“You're blind,” Gabrielle stated flatly.
The woman chuckled mirthlessly. “These old eyes have not seen a single thing in many years. But that does not mean that I don't see .” She tapped her temple with a gnarled finger. “I can see a great many things now that my eyes are no longer hindering my sight.”
“You're a seer?”
“Some call it that, yes,” the woman nodded. “Others wish to have their fortunes told. They believe I can reveal their future and paint a rosy picture for them. And still others,” she spat on the ground next to her and her tone turned as hard as stone, “fear what they do not understand. Those are the ones that usually have pain and misery in their future. It is not what they want to hear.”
“No one wants to hear about pain and misery,” Gabrielle said. “But they are as much a part of life as joy and happiness.”
“Yes, they are.”
They sat in companionable silence for a while. Neither woman spoke or felt the need to speak. They were just two women enjoying each other's company.
Gabrielle silently watched the activity of those around her. Everyone seemed to go about their tasks with focus and a sense of purpose. And then she glanced over at Misha's uncle and noticed the stick he was whittling was taking shape. It had legs and a head. He was busy carving out eyes, a nose and lips.
Then Gabrielle turned her attention to Aryana. The woman was slowly nursing the mug in her hands as she stared at the fire. She really wasn't interacting with anyone and looked a little out of her element there among the travelers.
“Would you excuse me, Baba ?” Gabrielle patted the old woman's gnarled hand.
“Go, child,” she smiled a gap-toothed smile. “Your friend seems a little out of place among us.”
“Yes, she does,” Gabrielle got up and walked around the fire. She sat down next to Aryana. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Aryana raised the mug to her lips and drank deeply. “Have a nice conversation with your new friend?”
Gabrielle glanced at her. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. The woman is pretty amazing.”
“Blind as a bat,” Aryana commented. “I noticed the milky white eyes when she sat down. Gave me the creeps.”
Gabrielle sighed. “We can go, if you're that uncomfortable, Aryana.”
“What about the meal? Won't they be offended if we don't stay and eat with them? That's what you said, isn't it?”
Gabrielle continued to study her younger companion without overtly looking at her. “I'm sure the old woman will make them understand. She's very perceptive about things like that.”
Aryana set the empty mug on the ground next to her. “And what about you?”
“What about me?”
Aryana rolled her eyes. “Not this answering a question with a question thing again. Are you going to do that during this entire trip? I mean, seriously, Gabrielle. It's really annoying.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Sorry. It's a terrible habit I picked up a long time ago. Someone used to do the same thing to me. Drove me nuts.”
“Yeah,” Aryana nodded. “I can see that it would.”
“I'm willing to chance offending our new friends so we can return to our own campsite,” Gabrielle said. “I can tell that you're not very interested in socializing.” She placed a hand on Aryana's shoulder. “So, you're off the hook. Let me just go let Misha know that we're leaving.”
“Okay,” Ayana watched Gabrielle walk away.
“Do you really understand what it is you're doing, warrior?”
Aryana jumped unconsciously as the old woman sat down next to her. “Gods!” She hissed.
The old woman chuckled. “You think I don't know.”
“What are you talking about, old woman?”
“Or maybe you don't yet know yourself,” the old woman seemed to study Aryana closely. “No, I don't think you do. But you will. You will understand when the time is right.”
A dark brow rose on Aryana's features. “I have no idea what you're talking about.”
“As it should be, for now,” the woman nodded sagely. “But in time things will become clear to you. And when they do, be warned that things are not always as they seem. What we think we know of this world is not always what actually is.”
Aryana frowned. “I haven't the slightest idea what in the world you mean, old woman.”
“True,” the woman chuckled again. “Don't be deceived by what your eyes see of this world, child. The eyes don't always see as clearly as we think they do. Sometimes our inner sight is much more reliable than our eyes.” She then stood up and shuffled away without another word.
Aryana stared after the old woman until she disappeared inside one of the wagons. Aryana then shook herself and returned her attention to the fire. She gazed so intently at the flickering flames that she lost herself in their unpredictable dance.
“Are you ready?”
Aryana jumped again. “Gods! What is wrong with you people?” She shot to her feet and strode purposefully back into the treeline.
Gabrielle followed at a respectable distance. She had already explained to Misha and his wife that she and Aryana were tired from the long day and needed to make an early start in the morning. She then apologized for not sharing a meal with the travelers and admitted that they had already eaten earlier.
Misha accepted her explanation and her apology graciously. He and his wife both wished them safe travels and thanked them again for their help. He then took an intricately carved bone necklace from around his neck and handed it to Gabrielle. She took the necklace with a small smile and fastened it around her neck.
Gabrielle kept Aryana in her line of sight as they made their way back to their own encampment. The woman was irritated, for some reason. Not surprising. It had been a very long day for both of them. The rain. Gabrielle's strange behavior near the stream. The fight.
“Gods,” Gabrielle felt exhaustion seep into her very bones as she emerged from the woods into the clearing. All she wanted to do was crawl into her bedroll and sleep.
Aryana sat on her own bedroll and poked the embers of their dying fire. She wore a somber expression and refused to look at Gabrielle.
“I'm sorry,” Gabrielle put a log on the fire.
Gabrielle sat down crosslegged on her bedroll. “Well, for starters, I'm sorry I startled you back there. I didn't mean to.”
“It's okay,” Aryana waved her off. “I guess I was just a little preoccupied. I didn't hear your approach.”
Gabrielle cocked her head and studied her young companion for a long moment, as she pondered what Aryana had just said. Although she claimed to be a seasoned warrior, it struck Gabrielle as odd that Aryana would be startled at all. Every warrior that Gabrielle had ever encountered had a kind of sixth sense when it came to people entering their personal space. Even she could sense when someone was near, despite the fact that she could sink into a deep trance-like state and shut out the world around her. She was still able to sense when someone got too close.
Shaking off the thought, Gabrielle decided to change the subject.
“So, what did the old woman say to you?”
The question was so unexpected that Aryana looked up to find Gabrielle watching her intently. Her heart actually skipped a beat at the intensity of the gaze meeting her own.
“She…” Aryana stopped to clear her throat. “I really didn't understand what she was talking about. Didn't make a lick of sense. Something about me seeing without my eyes.” She shrugged when Gabrielle just looked at her in confusion. “I told you it didn't make sense.”
Gabrielle frowned. “Huh.”
“Yeah, I don't get it, either,” Aryana stretched out on her side and propped her head up with a hand. “If you ask me, I think the old woman is a bit touched in the head.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Okay, if you say so.”
“What? You think she made any sense?”
“No,” Gabrielle poked the fire a few more times to make sure it would continue burning for a while longer. She then stretched out on her own bedroll with a wince and a heavy sigh. “Gods. I haven't been this sore in ages.”
Aryana pulled her blanket up over herself. “I kinda miss that bed you all let me sleep in. It wasn't the most comfortable, but it was a far cry from the cold, hard ground.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle finished with a yawn, as she stared up at the blanket of stars high overhead. “That's something I really never got to see much of back at the hospice.”
“What's that?” Aryana glanced up. “Oh. Yeah. Amazing how many stars there are up there. Makes me feel really tiny and inadequate when I gaze up at them all.”
Gabrielle turned her head so she could peer at her companion through hooded lashes. “You, too, huh?”
Aryana shifted to her back and brought her hands up behind her head. “Looking up at the stars always seems to puts things into perspective. I sometimes wonder if there's maybe something out there in all that space. Or maybe others—like us.”
Gabrielle's brow shot up as she studied Aryana. “That's pretty profound.”
Aryana shrugged. “What can I say? I like to ponder stuff like that.” She glanced at Gabrielle. “Something wrong with it?”
“No,” Gabrielle replied, as she returned her attention to the stars overhead and another yawn escaped her.
Her eyelids started drifting closed and she fought valiantly to stay awake for just a little while longer. But sleep eventually won out.
The familiar smell of woodsmoke and a light mist were the first things Gabrielle became aware of as she awoke from the first dreamless sleep she'd experienced in a very long time. A damp chill hung in the air as the mist covered her bare face. The heavy wool traveling blanket she had purchased in Amphipolis kept the rest of her relatively warm.
She snuggled deeper beneath the blanket and immediately regretted moving. A sharp pain shot through her side and made her gasp. She closed her eyes tightly, willing the pain away. When it subsided to a manageable ache, she finally allowed herself to breathe again. But even breathing hurt. Something wasn't right.
Gabrielle managed to peek through one eyelid at the woman standing over her with deep concern creasing her young brow.
“Yes?” Gabrielle managed through gritted teeth.
“Are you okay? You just went as pale as a…well, I don't know what could possibly be that pale. All the color just drained from your face completely.”
Gabrielle tried not to grimace. “I'm fine.”
“You don't look or sound fine. Do you need help? What's wrong?”
“I…” Gabrielle blew out a frustrated breath and then immediately regretted doing so. She gritted her teeth again and waited for the pain to subside. “I think I may have bruised or broken some ribs last night.”
Aryana was suddenly kneeling next to her. “Should I go get someone? Should I ride for help? What do you need me to do?”
“First off,” Gabrielle opened both eyes and glared at Aryana. “Stop babbling.”
“Second, we need to bind my ribs tightly, so I can at least move without feeling like I'm going to throw up.”
“Okay,” Aryana stopped. “How?”
“In my saddlebag,” Gabrielle glanced up, as if she could see the saddlebag behind her. “There should be a long enough stip of cloth in there that you can wrap around my midsection.”
“And that will help?” Aryana grabbed the saddlebag and rummaged through it. “Gods, you have a lot of stuff in here. What is all this?”
“I already told you. Supplies. Herbs. Seasonings. Mixtures for poultices, just in case. Bandages. That kind of thing.”
“Do you always travel with so much stuff?”
“I haven't traveled in years, Aryana,” Gabrielle answered flatly. “But I did, once. And, yes, I carried a lot of stuff in my saddlebags back then, too. Mostly because…” She let the words trail off. “Did you find it?”
Aryana pulled a rolled cloth from the saddlebag and held it out to Gabrielle for inspection. “Is this it?”
Gabrielle sighed in relief. “Yes, that's it.”
Aryana put the saddlebag aside and returned to Gabrielle's side. “Okay, now what?”
Gabrielle knew what had to be done. But, first, she had to convince herself that the pain she must endure for a short time would be worth it in the end. She just needed to believe it. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done.
“I really don't know what you want me to do. You gotta give me some direction here, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle peered up at Aryana, who was watching her expectantly. “Help me sit up.”
Aryana's brows shot up. “Are you sure that's such a good idea? Won't it hurt?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle gingerly pushed aside her blanket. “But you can't bind my ribs if I'm lying down.”
“Okay,” Aryana looked to Gabrielle for guidance. “Just tell me what to do.”
“Put an arm behind my shoulders and slowly help me up.”
Aryana did as she was told.
“Slower,” Gabrielle sucked in a breath and grimaced. “Wait. Just stop a second.” She was only a few inches off the ground, but that little movement hurt more than she cared to admit. Breathing slowly until the waves of pain eventually subsided to a dull ache, Gabrielle finally opened her eyes again. “Okay.” Several arduous moments later, Gabrielle was finally sitting upright. There were beads of sweat on her brow, despite the chill in the morning air. “All right. Now, take the cloth and start wrapping here,” she placed her palm against her side. “Wrap the cloth as tightly as you can all the way around as many times as it will go.”
“Okay,” Aryana did as she was directed. “How's that, so far?”
“It can go a little tighter, I think,” Gabrielle clenched her teeth so hard to keep from crying out that her jaw ached.
Aryana unwrapped the cloth and started again. This time she made sure to wrap it as tight as possible. She knew she was hurting Gabrielle. She could see the pain etched on Gabrielle's features, not to mention her ghostly pallor and the beads of sweat on her brow and upper lip.
“Okay, now what?” Aryana waited patiently for Gabrielle to recover enough to open her eyes again.
“Tuck the end into one of the folds,” Gabrielle half-groaned, half-spoke.
“Done,” Aryana held her hands up as if in surrender.
Gabrielle let out the breath she'd been holding. The binding was much tighter than she'd expected, but it seemed to be holding.
“Okay,” she nodded. “Thanks.”
“Are you sure it should be that tight? Can you even breathe?”
“It has to be tight enough to keep my ribs from moving around,” Gabrielle continued to try breathing through the waves of pain and nausea. “Aryana?”
Aryana caught her just in time and gently laid an unconscious Gabrielle back down on her bedroll. She then pulled the blanket up to her chin and looked up at the mist that was still falling.
“This just isn't going to do,” she muttered to herself as she got up and went to the treeline.
Using her sword as an ax, Aryana started whacking at the saplings she came across. She then gathered them up and tromped back to the campsite. Using some leather straps she found while rummaging through Gabrielle's saddlebag, Aryana constructed a makeshift leanto frame. She then gathered a bunch of pine boughs and covered the leanto until the mist no longer fell on Gabrielle's unconscious form.
“There,” Aryana stood there studying her handiwork proudly. “That should help.”
She then stoked the fire and set it ablaze again. Just then, her stomach growled loudly.
“Great,” she considered her options.
She studied the unconscious woman beneath the leanto for a moment. Then she made a decision. She made sure everything was in order and then went in search of Star. She found both horses grazing near the stream. Deciding against taking the time to saddle the gelding, Aryana mounted bareback and guided him on his way.***
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