A Grain of Salt

by M.S. Wilson


If anyone has any questions, comments, or quibbles about this story (or my previous efforts) feel free to contact me at anarchyinsk@hotmail.com  I always like to hear from fellow Xena fans :)

            Looking back, Gabrielle wasn’t sure how things had managed to go so wrong so fast. It was just another routine day, helping a wagon driver fix a broken wheel and running off some bandits harassing a farm. But the bandits had followed and attacked them in a marshy area, thinking it would limit their mobility. Naturally, the bandits had been no match for Xena, but one of them had sent an arrow flying toward Gabrielle, hiding in some reeds. Xena caught the arrow, but another bandit sliced her across the side, knocking her and Gabrielle into the stagnant water. Xena had taken out her frustration on the bandits, pounding them pretty hard. She and Gabrielle had moved on after Xena washed her wound with clean water and bound it up, but by nightfall Xena was already looking pale, alternately sweating and shaking with chills. Gabrielle finally got her to admit she’d caught a fever from the wound, but the bard could see with her own eyes how bad Xena was feeling.

            Xena’s fever got so bad she could hardly stay in the saddle and she had trouble focusing, mumbling about a cave nearby. After blundering around a bit and making frequent stops, they finally found the cave and Xena slid off Argo’s back, almost falling as her feet hit the ground. She stumbled to the back of the cave and sank down, nearly exhausted from walking only a few feet. Gabrielle was really starting to worry, but Xena was still lucid enough to tell her which herbs to use for the fever and which ones to make into a poultice for the wound.

            “First you’ll have to drain the wound,” Xena said, her voice weak. “It’s infected.”

            Gabrielle wasn’t eager to look at the injury but her concern for Xena overrode her disgust and she peeled the linen bandage off, wrinkling her nose at the ugliness of the pus-filled wound. Xena’s hands were shaking, so Gabrielle was forced to drain the infection, after heating Xena’s breast dagger in the fire. She packed the poultice on and bound the wound again, but she was much more worried about Xena’s fever. It had gotten so bad, Xena was drenched in sweat and Gabrielle knew she had to keep her drinking plenty of water. Luckily, there was a stream near the cave, so Gabrielle didn’t have far to go to fill their waterskins.

            Gabrielle tried to make Xena comfortable, but the warrior’s profuse sweating and violent shaking frightened her. Xena slipped into a fitful sleep and Gabrielle took the opportunity to remove Argo’s saddle and bridle, rubbing the mare down as she’d seen Xena do so many times.

            “I know,” Gabrielle said to the nervous horse, “Xena usually does this. But she’s sick right now, so you’re stuck with me until she gets better.” Argo snorted at her, but didn’t protest the rubdown.

            After making sure the mare was fed and watered, Gabrielle went to check on Xena and found her soaked in sweat again. Gabrielle woke her and made her drink some more water. Xena was so weak, Gabrielle had to hold her up and tip the waterskin to her lips. Gabrielle put together some soup, knowing Xena needed to regain her strength, but when she fed it to her, Xena just coughed it right back up again. Gabrielle wiped the mess off Xena’s chest and laid a damp cloth on her forehead, hoping to cool the fever raging in the warrior. She soaked some linen in cool water and sponged some of the sweat off the warrior’s body.

            All that night and through the next day Gabrielle hardly left Xena’s side. As the long hours wore on with Xena showing no sign of recovering, she became more and more frightened. Gabrielle tried to ask Xena if there was anything else she should be doing, but Xena was so delirious by that point, she could only babble incoherently. Gabrielle caught bits and pieces of Xena’s ramblings and realized she was reliving her past, seeing the horrible deeds she’d done. Gabrielle fought down her own panic and tried to think what Xena would do. She kept sponging Xena down with cold cloths, making her drink water every few hours, and holding her shaking body as the memories became more vivid. As she held Xena in her arms, Gabrielle told her stories and recited poems, hoping to distract Xena from her fevered recollections. She wasn’t sure if Xena could even understand her, but took some comfort from the fact she finally quieted down and slept peacefully.

            Gabrielle almost hated to wake the fevered warrior, but knew she needed to drink water to replace everything she’d sweated out. This time she had trouble waking Xena, who seemed to be in pain. Gabrielle checked the wound and found it looking much better, but Xena was still in distress. As Xena shivered and sweated, Gabrielle noticed her muscles spasming under her sweat-slick skin and realized she was cramping up. As Gabrielle rubbed Xena’s arms and legs to ease the cramps, Xena mumbled something so softly Gabrielle couldn’t catch it. She leaned closer and put her ear right beside Xena’s mouth.

            “Salt ... need salt ... cramps ... not enough salt ...”

            Of course ... Xena was sweating so much she’d lost all the salt in her body. Gabrielle remembered Xena lecturing her about getting enough salt after the bard had gotten light-headed on a very hot day; Xena had told her a person could even die if their body ran out of salt. Gabrielle moved toward her pack to get the salt, but stopped cold, her heart lurching in her chest. They were out of salt. Gabrielle had forgotten to buy any in the last town because she’d gotten caught up looking at scarves in the market. She’d been planning on replenishing their supply in the next town, but that was at least a day away ... maybe more, since Gabrielle wasn’t entirely sure where they were.

            She felt tears well up in her eyes as she looked at Xena, covered in sweat and still mumbling to herself. Gabrielle knew Xena could die without the salt and it would be all her fault. She was so frightened, she started to shake with anxiety, but she balled up her fists and tried to get hold of herself. She had no time for self-pity—Xena needed her help.

            Gabrielle thought about her options. The nearest town was at least a day away and she wasn’t certain of the way. She looked out of the cave, noticing night had fallen again. Trying to get to a town whose location she was unsure of, in the middle of the night ... no, not a good plan. Besides, she didn’t want to leave Xena alone for that long. But what other choice did she have? Maybe she could take Argo ... ? That choice didn’t appeal to her either, but she was low on options. She had just about made her mind up to risk it when she had a sudden flash of memory: she knew where she could find some salt only an hour or so away ... if she could find her way back to it. She looked out at the darkened landscape, thanking the gods that it was a clear night and the moon was up; that would help a little.

            She went to check on Xena and could hardly rouse the warrior, which frightened her. She knew the lack of salt in her body was getting to Xena, so she resolved to go and bring some back, no matter what. She managed to get some more water down Xena’s throat and left the waterskin cradled in Xena’s glistening arms. She bent to kiss the warrior lightly on the forehead, promising she wouldn’t be long and urging her to hang on.

            She strode out into the night, trying to do as Xena had taught her and use all of her senses. She heard the usual night sounds of animals, trees rustling in the breeze, and the murmur of the stream nearby. She knew which direction they’d come from, so she backtracked along the stream, trying to recall what Xena had told her about using landmarks to orient herself. But everything looked so different at night. And she’d never quite been able to match Xena at spotting landmarks. Gabrielle could be very observant about certain things—people for instance—but Xena had a way of noticing tiny details that Gabrielle had never been able to grasp. Xena could find her way by a bent blade of grass, a scuffed piece of bark, or a twisted branch. But Gabrielle just couldn’t keep things like that straight in her head.

            As she walked, Gabrielle kept looking from side to side, hoping to spot something familiar. Her heart leaped when she noticed a rock that looked familiar. Yes, she’d tripped over the rock on their way through because she’d been looking up to check on Xena. She knew she had to angle to her right and sped up a bit, hoping all the murderers and thieves were tucked away in their beds at this late hour. She came to a fork in the path and stopped to think. The large branch of an oak tree grew out over the path and she recalled passing under it on the way to the cave, telling Xena it would be a great place to hang a swing from. So if they’d come under that branch and turned left, she’d now have to head right to follow the trail back. She hurried on, knowing the place she was looking for was near the river, but not certain exactly how far to go. She slowed as a familiar scent caught her nose: laurel. She smiled as she remembered passing a stand of laurels on the way up from the river, plucking some and giving them to Xena in hopes the pungent aroma might revive her from the fever a bit. This was where she needed to leave the path. She hurried down to the river, looking around for her goal. Ah, there it was, a white rock gleaming in the moonlight. She knelt and scraped the rock with a hard piece of granite she’d brought from the cave, collecting the dust in her hand and transferring it to a pouch. After gathering a couple of good handfuls of the rock dust, she headed back toward the cave, much more confident of her path this time.

            When she got back to the cave, Xena was lying where she’d left her, a faint sheen of sweat still on her skin. Gabrielle took some of the rock dust and tied it in a bag, lowering it into the water boiling over the fire. After a few minutes, she tested the water and found it quite salty, so she took it off the fire. As soon as it had cooled a little, she crawled over to Xena’s limp form and cradled the warrior’s head in her lap. Xena’s fever seemed to have broken finally, but she still looked pale.

            Xena stirred at Gabrielle’s touch, her eyes fluttering open. “Gabrielle? Where ... what’s going on? My legs, my arms, they hurt ...”

            “Shhh,” Gabrielle soothed, “You just need to get some salt inside you.” She tipped the container of salty water to Xena’s lips, holding her head steady as she swallowed, doling it out slowly so she wouldn’t choke.

            Xena’s head fell back and she smiled. “Thanks, I needed that.”

            Gabrielle gave her some more water—non-salty this time—and wiped her head with a cool cloth. “Do you think you could keep some food down?”

            Xena smiled. “I’m so hungry I could eat a centaur.”

            “Well, you’ll have to settle for soup,” Gabrielle teased, laying Xena’s head down tenderly. She went to the fire and began putting the soup together, realizing that she was ravenous herself, having neglected to eat very much while worrying about Xena. After boiling another small linen cloth full of the rock salt in the soup pot, Gabrielle spooned the broth into Xena’s mouth, only stopping when the warrior insisted she eat too. “I guess you’re feeling better, since you’re acting like a mother hen toward me,” Gabrielle said with a laugh.

            Xena grinned. “Hey, you’ve been taking care of me through this whole fever thing and obviously ignoring your own health. Someone’s gotta look out for you.” Gabrielle laughed and alternated between feeding Xena and herself the hearty soup.

            By the next day, Xena was feeling better, her incredible stamina bringing her back from the fever rapidly. But Gabrielle wouldn’t let her overdo it, so they spent most of the day in the cave, taking things easy and not doing anything more strenuous than gathering water and more herbs for the soup pot. Gabrielle hovered over Xena, making sure she ate enough and got liberal doses of salt. Finally, Xena got tired of Gabrielle’s mothering and insisted she at least let her go to the stream to wash off all the sweat and get a couple of fish for supper. Gabrielle gave in, but watched Xena like a hawk the whole time, noting the toll the fever had taken on the warrior’s usually muscular physique. Gabrielle privately admitted to herself that Xena did seem to have much of her strength back, but she still worried Xena might push herself too far before she was ready, knowing how the warrior hated to admit weakness.

            Gabrielle grilled the fish and they ate in silence, enjoying the change of diet from soup. Xena sighed and leaned back on her bedroll. “That was great. I almost feel like my old self again. I think tomorrow we can head out. Maybe we can stop in the next town for a good meal at an inn. And to buy some salt,” she added with a wink. Gabrielle’s silence alerted Xena that something was wrong. “Gabrielle? What’s the matter?”

            Gabrielle looked up at her, a miserable expression on her face. “Xena, I’m sorry.”

            “Sorry? Gabrielle, if it wasn’t for you, I’d have died. You’ve got nothing to feel sorry for.”

            Tears filled Gabrielle’s eyes and she looked down at the rough cave floor. “Yes, I do. If it wasn’t for me, your life wouldn’t have been in danger in the first place. You got hurt defending me and you fell in that filthy pool and got your wound infected. And I forgot to buy salt last time we were in town, so if you had died, it would’ve been my fault.” Gabrielle’s voice broke and she buried her head in her arms, crying.

            Xena hesitated for a moment, then edged over to Gabrielle, putting her arm gingerly around the crying girl’s shoulders. She pulled Gabrielle against her chest and stroked her hair. “Gabrielle, it’s all right. I’ve been wounded plenty of times before I met you, and I’ve had wound fever before. It just comes with the territory. And the alternative was letting you get an arrow in the gut, which is no alternative at all as far as I’m concerned.”

            Gabrielle looked up at her, tears streaking her face. “You’re really not mad?”

            “Of course not. It’s not your fault I got sick and you did a great job taking care of me. You even managed to get salt for me, though I can’t figure out how you got to town and back so fast.”

            Gabrille sat up and smiled, wiping the tears from her face. “I didn’t go to town. I remembered when we stopped to rest the other day, Argo was licking a rock beside the river. I tried to ask you about it, but you were already kinda out of it. But last night it hit me ... Argo was licking the rock to get salt from it. So I went back there and got some.”

            “In the dark? You didn’t get lost?” Xena sounded faintly impressed.

            “Well, I remembered what you told me about landmarks, so I used some to figure out where I was.” She went on to explain the points she’d used to orient herself, which got a hearty chuckle out of Xena. “I know, those are pretty stupid landmarks.”

            Xena shook her head. “No, they were great landmarks. They’re not the ones I would’ve used, but they worked for you and that’s all that matters.”


            “Of course. Some things you have to learn a certain way, but others you can adapt to fit what works best for you. As long as it works for you, it’s right.”

            Gabrielle was so happy with Xena’s praise, she found herself hugging the warrior, pulling back when she realized what she’d done. But Xena didn’t look upset, giving the bard a quick smile and patting her on the shoulder.

            By the next morning, they were ready to travel again and Xena praised Gabrielle again when she noticed what good care she’d taken of Argo. After they packed up their gear, Xena prepared to mount Argo, but stopped and gave Gabrielle a serious look. “Gabrielle, I know I thanked you for looking after me, but I just want to say how proud I am of you.” Gabrielle blushed as Xena went on. “I’ve never been good at depending on people. I kinda trained myself out of that in my warlord days, just like I trained myself not to trust anyone. But I was basically helpless when that fever took me and ... well, it’s good to know I have someone I can trust to look after me.”

            Gabrielle felt tears well up but blinked them back, not wanting Xena to know how much that meant to her. “Well, I’ve been trusting you with my life since we met, so it’s nice to know it works both ways.”



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