The Dog Days
She was moving slowly through the bushes, making sure not to make a single noise too many. The moon was shining bright that night, giving away many of the secrets that would usually remain hidden in the shadows. It was a lucky coincidence. She noticed the boar’s traces in the mud about a day ago, and could smell it for a hundred feet. It has been moving alongside them, and tonight their common journey was about to end.
Xena was concentrating all of her senses, for this was starting to be a question of life and death. Gabrielle’s root stews and berry bowls were starting to make her stomach turn upside down. It’s been too many days since she’s had a proper meal, and she could feel her strength being affected by the lack of protein intake. “No more roots or I’ll cut my own head off, and yours too” were the last words she told Gabrielle before storming off into the woods, her empty stomach growling.
“Suit yourself, but don’t be gone for three days like last time,” she heard Gabrielle call out after her, and Xena only waved her off without turning around. The infamous “last time” was when she got into a very unpleasant encounter with a pack of really mean wolves. But she’ll deal with that explanation later. And that nasty bite, too.
Xena silenced her breath and lowered her stance in the knees to get more control over her steps. By now she was close enough to hear the boar's wheezing breath. She was praying for it to be asleep… But her prayers haven’t been heard. A sharp screech cut through the silence of the forest, unsettling the birds in the branches nearby, and the boar jumped out of the bush right in front of her. For a second, she could feel the heart stop in her chest. An immersive adrenaline rush shot through her core, the force making her gasp for air. The boar was escaping, but she could see it. She could taste it. Her eyes widened, and she charged after the wild animal with a speed she never thought she had. But there was no time to worry about that, she'll catch the boar first. Maybe she’s just really, really hungry.
Darting through the trees, her footsteps sounding like the gallup of a horse (or a wolf) on the soft, leaf-covered ground. She saw the boar clearly as she was closing in. The desperate animal looped through the trees, trying to shake her off, but with no luck. When she was just close enough to make the leap, she bounced off a rock and jumped right on the boar’s back. It screamed with fear and fury, but she broke its neck with one heavy tie push before it could even try to shake her off. She moaned heavily as she threw the defeated boar on her back. Her whole body was tingling with adrenaline, and her hunger was almost darkening her vision by now. It was Xena’s credo to never eat anything she couldn’t catch and kill with her bare hands… But there was something amiss here. She felt strong, stronger than after the best meal and sleep. And she was never able to catch a boar within the first moments of the chase.
The bite on her upper leg was pulsating with an intense but steady dull pain. She should’ve asked Gabrielle to put some herbs on it right away. This is what you get for the stubborn head of yours, you dumbass.
“By the divines, how on earth did you kill that THING?”
Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she watched Xena skin, gut and butcher the enormous boar.
“What, this baby?” she smirked and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, “it was nothing. I’ve taken down mammoths with one finger up my arse back in my day.”
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms on her chest. “I am sure that’s how it went down, knowing you. You talk like a lumberjack who’s a little dull in the head, it’s disgusting, Xena. Let me know what kind of herbs do you need for the chops. I’ll go see if I still have some in my stash.”
“What, you don’t like an image of a finger up my—“
“Sorry, sorry,” Xena laughed at Gabrielle’s cute angry discomfort, “juniper and mushrooms, the herbs it grew up with do venison justice, that’s what my mom always said.”
Gabrielle smiled almost unnoticeably and turned away.
“Speaking of herbs…”
Xena scratched her arm with the skinning knife nervously as Gabrielle turned back with a question in her face.
“I think I need some healing.”
“Oh divines, did you get hurt while hunting? What happened?” Gabrielle rushed to her, scanning Xena’s body for the traces of a wound. But as Xena hesitated to answer, a hint of suspicion sneaked into her eyes.
“You remember those three nights I was gone?” she started slowly.
“Yes, I remember those quite well, don’t tell me that something happened to you and you’ve been hiding it from me all those days!”
“I didn’t think much of it, it was just a bite, it usually heals okay, but this time…”
“Okay Xena, stop talking immediately and show me the wound.”
“It’s nothing really, just a bit of an itch and burn, that’s all, I am sure that some barberry root will be just fine.”
“I told you to stop talking. Will you show me the wound or do I have to strip you by force?”
Before Xena could even come up with a quirky answer, Gabrielle burned the words off her tongue with her look, so she swallowed her remark and rolled up her skirt. Even she got surprised by the foul looks of the wound, it was getting almost a black-ish shade of purple, spreading over her upper thigh.
“What on earth is that?” Gabrielle whispered as she observed the wound with wide eyes.
“It’s a wolf bite.”
Gabrielle looked up into Xena’s face. She looked unsure, and maybe a little nervous. But there was something else in her eyes. Something she’s been noticing for the past few days, but now she could almost name it.
“Why didn’t you tell me? All those days? It looks… Poisoned. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Xena sighed deeply and covered her thigh again.
“Well, you were so busy sugaring with that mercenary that I didn’t want to crash your party.”
Gabrielle’s strict look softened, and she closed her eyes defeatedly.
“Oh Xena… You can’t be serious now. You know I’m always… Whenever you… You know what, nevermind. I don’t know why would I even have to explain anything to you, anyway. Let’s put something on it and hope it clears out until morning. I should still have some aloe here somewhere.”
She got up, but Xena caught her by the arm.
“What do you mean by that?”
Gabrielle frowned at the handshake that was way too firm, and the tone of voice that was way too threatening.
“By that I mean I’m going to look for it now.”
“No. I mean the explaining. So that’s how we’re gonna be doing it now?”
“What are you talking about, Xena? Let go, it hurts.”
But instead, Xena pushed her fingers even deeper and Gabrielle hissed in pain. She moved her face closer to Gabrielle’s and sniffed softly.
“I can his smell his filth from your skin,” Xena said silently through gritted teeth, and when she finally easened her grip, Gabrielle found the word she was looking for. Feral. There was something feral in her friend’s eyes, something that didn’t belong there. She feared she knew what the meaning of all this was. But if that’s true, it may be too late for her herbal wraps.
Without a word, Gabrielle turned around left Xena standing there, breathing heavily.
After that, Gabrielle didn’t come back to her. She stayed at the fire, keeping it alive enough to light up Xena’s work, and when she was done with preparing and seasoning the meat for smoking and drying, she went to wash herself in the nearby river. The incident from earlier was replaying wildly in her head, and she was trying desperately to figure out what was it that shot through her in that moment. She never liked Gabrielle’s games with men, but first of all, she would never as much as complain about it, and secondly, who the hell was she to judge?
She took all her blood-soaked clothes off and left them lying on the bank, stepping into the ice cold running water. Maybe this will clear up her senses.
She walked further into the deep waters and let the stream carry her body as it pleased. Her mind was becoming a strange place to herself. She was seeing things she could never see, hearing things she could never hear, and having thoughts she never had. And now she even pissed Gabrielle off, which is probably the worst of it all.
She crawled out of the water, and as she got ready to wash her tunic, she noticed a swift movement in the tall grass nearby. She sniffed. A rabbit. She dropped the cloth and darted in its direction, and before even realizing what was happening. she bit its head off with her bare teeth. As the warm blood filled her mouth, her still empty stomach turned upside down and she threw up, spiting out the blood and the fur. Xena stared at the carcass with tears in her eyes, and a lurking feeling of dread taking over her. Whatever this was, it was definitely not her.
She came back to the fire only wrapped in a blanket, her hair still wet from the ice cold stream and her stomach still weak from the… Casualty. She sat down next to Gabrielle, keeping a respectable distance, and when the silence started getting too heavy, she finally spoke:
“I need your help. I think there’s something wrong with me.”
Gabrielle stayed silent for a long time, which was very unusual of her. Oh shit, Xena thought, I must have really hurt her this time.
“I shouldn’t have said that about the guy. He was actually quite nice, and I’ve really enjoyed playing Petteia with him, he was quite the opponent. And his hair was really nice. You know I support you in whatever you set your mind to, I don’t even know where this came from, I… I’m sorry, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle sighed and rested her head on her arms hugging her knees, finally looking at Xena. The worry in her look made Xena even more nervous.
“You got bitten by a lycant.”
Now it was Xena’s turn to raise eyebrows.
“I did the research, and just about a week ago we crossed the border of Ancania. The wolves in these woods are not just wolves. They’re infected lycants.”
Xena sighed deeply.
“So I guess I’ll be dead by sunrise?”
“No, unless you jump off a cliff or stab yourself with your own sword, you won’t. The infection isn’t deadly, but it has certain effects on the human body that you should know about.”
Gabrielle pulled out a fat book and started browsing through the pages. It seemed as if her hands were shaking slightly.
“It will never stop surprising me where you store all these almanacs. You’ll have to teach me your secrets someday.”
“Shh. It says here that the infection starts spreading through the body of the infected within hours upon being exposed to the lycant venom. The initial effects are mild, from sudden moodswings and anger outbusts,” Gabrielle gave Xena a long look, “but later the more serious symptoms develop, such as nausea, headaches due to overly sharpened senses and the initial muscle pain.”
Xena was poking the fire with a stick and didn’t say anything. She felt the drops of sweat rolling down her back.
“I hate to tell you this, Xena. But we’ll have to get you to a local healer.”
Gabrielle laid her hand on Xena’s elbow, and gave her a weak smile. Xena looked back at her with a desperate look on her face.
“I should have told you earlier, Gab. I am really sorry.”
“Don’t worry about that. We’ll get you fixed.”
I hope, ran through Gabrielle’s mind, but she didn’t say it out loud. Her book wasn’t very specific about the later stages of the infection, and Gabrielle could only hope that her lack of information wouldn't mean her best friend's death. Or something even worse.