Loss of Innocence
Xena gazed up at the stars, trying to make familiar shapes out of the twinkling lights. She pondered that this game was not nearly as fun without Gabrielle there to point out all the *obvious* patterns the warriors eyes always seemed to miss. The Warrior Princess had begun the game in attempts to pass the time, knowing the last thing she wanted to do was go to sleep.
Xena had suffered from terrible nightmares for years...her warlord past filled with horrifying deeds which haunted her still. Xena sighed as she realized just how much Gabrielles presence served to calm her mind - even as she slept. Although she still had nightmares, they were less frequent, and the compassionate bard was always there to soothe her when she woke, and sometimes, she imagined, even when she slept. Of late, the nightmares were there every night - waking the warrior up in a cold sweat.
It was coming up to a full moon cycle since Xena had last seen her friend. They had both agreed to spend a bit of time apart - or more accurately - with their respective families. Xena wanted to get reacquainted with her older brother Toris, who was home helping their mother at the family inn. Most importantly, she wanted to spend some time with Cyrene, her loving mother. Too many years had been lost between mother and daughter, and Xena felt the strong need to reestablish herself in her mothers eyes. She had never stopped loving this woman, but knew that Cyrene was shamed by her warriors past. Xena still could not understand how Cyrene had finally forgiven her.
Gabrielle, on the other hand, knew she had to spend some time with her family. She missed them terribly and felt a little guilty that she had been remiss in keeping in touch with them. She also knew it was time to talk with Perdicus family. As much as both women hated to admit it, Xenas presence would probably not be welcomed there. Gabrielle never blamed Xena for the death of her husband, but much like the bards parents displeasure with Xena over their daughters way of life, there was no doubt that Perdicus family would misdirect their continuing grief and anger at the easy target the Warrior Princess made.
A smile crossed the Warrior Princess face as she knew tomorrow she would finally arrive in Poteidaia. She noted that her whole demeanor changed when she thought about being reunited with her friend. "Gods, how Ive missed her...."
Shaking her head, Xena looked back on her time with her mother and brother. She had literally snuck into Amphipolis and surprised her family with her presence. Knowing she wanted to keep a low profile, Cyrene didnt make a fuss about her daughters return, but the entire town soon became aware that the infamous Warrior Princess had returned. Much to Toris and Cyrenes displeasure, the townspeople were none to kind to Xena. While helping out around the inn, the best the warrior could hope for was a cool indifference from the patrons. She, much to Cyrenes surprise having known Xenas temper all too well, seemed almost resigned to the looks, the stares...and never once challenged the rude townspeople. When Cyrene asked Xena why she didnt confront any of the more obnoxious patrons, her daughter would just shrug her shoulders and mumble something about not causing trouble for her mother. Cyrene began to see that the abuse her daughter was taking was probably viewed as some form of penance Xena was serving and finally let the subject go.
Xenas time with her family, on the other hand, had been a different story. She and Toris had never been that close, not like she had been with Lyceus. And his actions when Cortese attacked had hardened Xenas heart towards her only living sibling. But they spent quiet, valuable time together, talking about their childhood, Lyceus, and truly tried to make up for lost time with each other. Xena could also see that Toris had made peace with himself and his past, and was making their mother very happy by being home. Her respect and love for her older brother grew daily. They became family again.
The Warrior Princess could also see that Cyrene was happy to have her wayward daughter home with her. Xena could not even count the amount of times she and her mother just sat and talked, and took happiness in each others presence. They would spend full days just walking through the meadows surrounding Amphipolis talking and basking in their newly rediscovered family bond. Xena cherished these times like no others, and truly knew that her mother had forgiven her her past. The warrior was just thankful that this woman had the patience and courage to allow her daughter back into her life.
Cyrene, on the other hand, marveled at the change in her daughter and thanked the gods daily that she had finally found her way again. But she worried about her too. Cyrene found herself running into Xenas room, almost nightly, only to find her daughter fighting demons of the past in her sleep. She would comfort her when she woke, but it still hurt her to see her daughter in such pain. And she could see the shame on Xenas face whenever confronted with any of the townspeople who had lost loved ones, thanks to the Warrior Princess actions when Cortese invaded the town so long ago.
One thing was clear to the innkeeper. Xenas conversations about her life always led to one constant - Gabrielle. Cyrene couldnt help but smile as her daughter would unknowingly ramble on and on about the young bard. The innkeeper had met Gabrielle only twice - the first time when Xena had returned to Amphipolis almost two years ago. Then, Xena showed only a detached interest at best in the very young, persistent bard. Cyrene didnt have an opportunity to talk with the young woman then, but noted that she seemed to have a serious case of hero-worship towards her newly reformed daughter.
It was less than a year ago when Cyrene had seen Gabrielle again. Then, the unstable enemy of her daughter, Callisto, had somehow invaded Xenas body, and imprisoned the town. Thanks to some quick thinking by Xena and Gabrielle, the townspeople had been saved. Once things had calmed down, Cyrene had taken the opportunity to sit and talk with her daughters friend, noting that she had grown into an amazing young woman, full of life, and very much dedicated to and protective of Xena. Although there still seemed to be some hero-worship there, Cyrene noted that it was Gabrielles presence that somehow grounded her daughter. Their dedication and love for each other was obvious.
So, on Xenas last day in Amphipolis, mother and daughter had packed a lunch basket and headed out into the fields of their hometown, with Cyrene knowing that the topic of conversation would inevitably end up on the bard from Poteidaia. As Argo grazed nearby, acting as a sentry for her loving master, the innkeeper took the opportunity to make her daughter squirm, by hugging her and insisting on "mothering" her. Xena, knowing it was useless to argue, began to enjoy herself as their conversation continued.
"Xena...Ill miss you when you leave. Your visits are just too far apart. Its been too long, and when you leave, I dont know if and when Ill see you again."
Xena lowered her head. "Mother, I cant stay. I need to...." The Warrior Princess stumbled over her words, wishing Gabrielle was there. She was *so* much better at verbalizing ideas and thoughts. "I have to try to make up for...make amends.... I cant do that here. This time, here with you and Toris, I cant tell you how much its meant to me. But I have to go."
Cyrene smiled, "And you want to get back to Gabrielle." Seeing her daughter blush, she couldnt help but tease the warrior. "Xena, shes all youve talked about since youve been here."
"Thats not true! Ive talked about a lot of things!"
The innkeeper hugged her daughter again. "Daughter, dont...please. Id like you to really tell me about her. Youve talked about your adventures and a mixture of other things, but shes important to you and I want to know about her."
Knowing she was fighting a losing battle, the warrior still tried to protest. "Mother, you know Im no good at this!"
"Try." Cyrene reached out and took her daughters hand. "Who is Gabrielle, Xena?"
"Gabrielle.... I really dont know where to start. I know that I wouldnt be here today if it werent for her. Shes been there for me...shes a warm, loving woman. Frankly, I dont know why she puts up with me."
"Maybe she sees something in you that you need to look for in yourself Xena."
Xena gave her mother an exasperated look and continued. "Gabrielles the warmest, kindest, most caring person Ive ever met. Shes...shes a part of me. I feel, I know this sounds weird, but I really feel almost incomplete when shes not around." Turning to Cyrene, Xena openly expressed her worst fears for the first time. "Mother, its becoming obvious to my enemies just how important Gabrielle is to me. Theyve already tried to use her to get to me. Im so afraid somethings going to happen to her...and I... I dont think I could live with it if anything happened to her...."
Cyrene saw a tear stream down her daughters face and shifted herself over so she could hug her child. Embraced by her mothers loving arms, Xena let out a sigh and continued, "She really doesnt know me either. I mean, she knows I was a warlord and all, but Ive never gone into a lot of detail about exactly what Ive done in my past. I...well... shes seen me very violent, thats a given with the way of life we lead, but she really has no idea what Ive done, what I have to make amends for. I guess Im afraid to tell her. I wouldnt blame her if she walked away."
"Xena," Cyrene replied as she stroked her daughters head, "I dont think you give this special woman enough credit. I can only imagine, from what youve told me, that shes seen some pretty terrible things traveling with you. Perhaps she knows more about your past than you give her credit for."
"Then whys she still with me? Mother, I was a monster!"
"Was daughter...was. You know better now. That Xena is gone forever." Hugging her tightly, Cyrene continued. "Youve come back home, found your way again. Theres nothing you can do to reverse your past daughter. But what youre trying to do is somehow make up for it. Maybe you have to stop being so hard on yourself. And give this precious friend of yours a bit more credit. She sounds like a remarkable woman. Im so glad you found someone to love and care for."
"Well, I promise the next time I come to visit, Ill bring her with me."
Hugging her daughter again, Cyrene smiled. "I insist on it daughter."
With her memories of her visit to Amphipolis fresh in her mind, Xena rolled over onto her side, let out a sigh and settled in for the night, knowing she and Argo would be on their way at first light to pick up Gabrielle in Poteidaia.
Xena pulled up on Argos reins as they finally reached the outskirts of Poteidaia. Looking down on the bustling village, Xena remembered when she had first come this way...escorting Gabrielle and some of the other women from the village back home after defeating Dracos slave traders. She couldnt help but smile as she remembered how young and perky Gabrielle had seemed that day, much to the Warrior Princess displeasure. She kept talking about...well, about everything, anything, and, Xena laughed out loud, nothing. She wouldnt shut up!
Shaking her head with a smile, Xena leaned down over Argos neck. "Come on girl, lets go and get our talkative bard!"
As Xena made her way through the crowded market place of Poteidaia, she couldnt help but notice the stares and angry glares directed her way. Stealing herself, she tried to ignore the looks and continued along her way towards Gabrielles home. Although she expected not to be liked anyplace she went, the venom she felt from these people seemed somewhat misplaced or disproportionate. Sensing a problem, Xenas whole body went on alert and she quickened her pace.
Finally arriving at Gabrielles house, Xena dismounted Argo and began walking towards the door, when Lila walked out from behind the barn. "Xena!.... Let me go get mother and father." Before Xena had a chance to say anything, Lila fled into the house. There was no doubt now that something was terribly wrong.
Shortly thereafter, the front door opened and Gabrielles parents came onto the small porch. The Warrior Princess noted that both seemed drawn and worried. Trying to keep her sense of desperation out of her voice, Xena asked, "Wheres Gabrielle?"
Herodotus gave a sharp reply. "She left here days ago Xena. She said she was heading towards Amphipolis...back to you. She thought you would be able to help her...that you were the only one who could help her."
"Help her? Whats going on?" All pretense of calmness left Xena as she walked quickly up to Hecuba and Herodotus. "What happened to Gabrielle!?"
Before anyone could answer, Lila broke down and began sobbing. Hecuba reached for her youngest daughter and cradled her as she cried. Herodotus turned back to Xena.
"She and Lila were out having a picnic. Two men came up to them...told them to turn over their dinars." Stopping for a second, Gabrielles father breathed in, then resumed his story...the anger in his voice obvious. "Warrior, it seems you taught my daughter well. Instead of giving the men what they wanted, Gabrielle chose to fight them. She hit them both with that stick she always carries. According to our healer, she must have hit the one man on the soft spot right above the ear." Herodotus pointed to his temple as he talked. "He fell to the ground and didnt move, even when his partner tried to help him up. The other man finally ran away. When Gabrielle reached down to check on the unconscious man, she realized that he was dead." Looking with stone cold eyes at Xena, Herodotus completed his story. "She killed him."
Xena stood motionless, her heart breaking apart. "....What?...."
Hecuba finally spoke. "Xena, I dont know whether to thank you for giving my daughter the skills to defend herself and her sister...or to hate you for what youve allowed my daughter to become."
Lila, barely managed to speak. "She thought they would be angry...we had no dinars...so she grabbed her staff to defend us. They came at us...." Sobbing again, Lila cried through the rest of her story. "She didnt think...she just reacted...she..." Lila totally broke down, unable to finish her sentence. Hecuba grabbed her youngest daughter and went inside the house, leaving Xena with Herodotus.
Gabrielles father glared at Xena. "This is all your fault."
The warrior looked up at Herodotus, speechless. All she could think about was Gabrielle and what she must be going through. Her thoughts were interrupted by the booming voice of the bards angry father.
"My daughter should never have gone with you in the first place. If she had stayed home where she belonged, Perdicus would still be alive, theyd be married, maybe have a child by now! None of this would have happened!" Tears streamed down Herodotus face. "Leave here! Go find my daughter warrior...but know this. All of this is on your shoulders! I will never forgive you!"
Xena knew she needed to leave. Nothing she could say or do would begin to register with Gabrielles father. Not to mention the fact that Xena believed every word he said. This was her fault...all of it. Mounting Argo, the warrior was barely able to ask Herodotus which direction Gabrielle had headed when she left. Herodotus pointed towards the northeast then walked back into the house, not giving Xena a second look...never seeing the silent tears running down her face. The Warrior Princess urged Argo on...out of Poteidaia as quickly as she could with only one focus...she had to find Gabrielle.
Xena found Gabrielles tracks once she left Poteidaia and quickly made up for lost time, pushing Argo and herself until she knew she had made up for the two days of lead time Gabrielle had on her. Occasionally stopping to confirm the trail, allowing Argo a much needed rest, she could still make out her friends normal gate in the sand of the road...short quick steps with a small staff mark over to the side. Thankful that there had been no rain to obliterate the trail, Xena continued her search. Towards daybreak, the warrior came across what appeared to be a place where someone had been dragged off the road. Following the tracks, Xena found Gabrielles staff, partially covered with leaves, laying on the side of the trail. Her heart hammering in her chest, she quickly bent down and picked up the Amazon weapon only to realize her hand and the staff were sticky with blood. Looking around in a near panic, the warrior spotted tracks, made by one person, a man from the boot size, and a horse, going further into the woods.
"Gods no...please no...." Xena grabbed Argo and quickly went further into the woods, determined to find her friend. She silently followed the tracks in the woods until she saw a clearing not far ahead. She let go of Argos reins and whispered for her to stay put. The Warrior Princess then circled around to the far side of the clearing, only to be met by a gutwrenching sight.
Gabrielle was tied to a tree near the center of the clearing, and from what Xena could make out, she had obviously been beaten and was unconscious. An arrow was imbedded in her left side, and Xena could see that a large quantity of blood had pooled on the ground where Gabrielle was tied. It took all of the warriors strength not to run to her friend. Instead, she took a deep breath, and tried to quell the boiling rage within her.
Crouching down lower, Xena heard a man approach from the far corner of the clearing. The stranger had a bucket of water, obviously from a nearby stream. As the warrior watched, he approached Gabrielle and threw the water on his unconscious prisoner. Although angered at the man, Xena was also relieved to see Gabrielle slowly regain consciousness. Knowing she could no longer wait, the Warrior Princess slowly made her way towards the two figures. The nearer she got, the more she could hear.
"...you killed him! My brother!...My only brother!" The angry man moved to grab a large knife he wore on his side. "For that, you die!!!"
Xena shot out from the trees and grabbed the angry mans wrist as it made its deadly path towards Gabrielle. Using his own momentum, the warrior thrust the man around, hearing his wrist snap in the process, and flipped him onto his back. Xena could see that the wind was knocked out of the attacker, and he was of no immediate threat. Forgetting him for the moment, Xena ran to Gabrielles side. Her friends pained and forlorned look broke Xenas heart.
"Its okay now...Im here Gabrielle. Well get you well and work through this. Hang on for me."
Gabrielle was slowly slipping back into unconsciousness. Before her world went black, she managed a few words to her best friend. "You should ve let him kill me Xena."
Xenas heart stopped. Looking down at Gabrielle, all she could think was that if anything happened to her.... And to hear her voice, so sad, so hurt, Xena could barely manage to stay focused. Shaking her head, the warrior knew she couldnt think about such things. Gabrielle had lost too much blood as it was, and from her statement, she had also lost her will to live. That was a deadly combination. Xena knew she had to get her friend to fight and at the same time, heal her physical wounds.
"NO! You listen to me Gabrielle!!!" Xena was shouting at the unconscious woman, oblivious to everything around her. "You CANNOT give up! I wont let you! Dont you even think about it!"
Quickly untying her friend, Xena laid her down on her side and inspected the arrow sticking out of her side. Looking around the makeshift campsite, she found a small metal poker near the fire and quickly put it in the flames. She then grabbed what blankets she could find and ran back to her friend, bundling her up as best she could.
"Gods, THINK Xena...you need your herbs." Standing up, she brought two bloody fingers to her mouth and whistled for Argo. "Calm down...calm down...shes going to be okay...shes GOT to be okay...." As she sat back down and cradled Gabrielles head in her lap, Xenas emotions started reasserting themselves. She knew if she let that happen, she wouldnt be able to help her friend.
"Gabrielle, Im gonna take care of this. Youll be as good as new in no time. I promise. You hang in there for me. Yeah, Im being selfish. But you cant give up. I dont think I could...I know I couldnt.... Hey, were a team right? Were in this together...so you just hang in there."
Argo finally came into the clearing and made her way to Xena. The warrior quickly removed what she needed from the saddlebags and knelt back down by her friend. Once she had everything she needed laid out, she gently placed her hand on Gabrielles cheek, lovingly stroking her soft pale skin.
Gabrielle...I have to get this arrow out and cauterize your side. Its gonna hurt like Hades, but Ill be quick about it...and I promise itll feel better in a few days. Okay?"
Taking a deep breath, Xenas Warrior Princess persona took over, vanquishing any thoughts except those needed to help her friend. With lightning speed, she broke off the arrowhead, trying her best not to see the grimace of pain on her unconscious friends face, and then pulled the arrow out of her side. She then reached into her herb pouch and sprinkled various powders into the open wound. Totally steeling herself for what she had to do next, Xena reached over and grabbed the red hot poker out of the fire. Taking another deep breath, she inserted the poker into the open wound on Gabrielles side. Xena couldnt fight the tears as Gabrielle let out a loud groan. The warrior continued her ministrations while all the time talking to the injured bard.
"Gods, Im so sorry...so, so sorry. But its over now. Ill put something on this to dull the pain some...hows that?"
As Xena stood up to get one of the numerous anesthetics from her herb pouch, she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Gabrielles attacker had regained his composure and breath and was making his way towards her. Xenas blood began to boil. All she could think was that this was the man who hurt Gabrielle. Reaching down with lightning speed, Xena grabbed the still hot poker and reeled around to face the attacking man. Not aware of who he was dealing with, he continued his attack on the woman before him, intent on taking care of her and the woman who killed his brother.
Sidestepping the attack at the last moment, Xena grabbed the upper arm of her attacker and swung his body around, over, and onto his back. The man found himself flat on his back with a foot on his neck, staring at his own fire poker, poised near his eyes.
Xena spoke in a barely controlled voice. "I should kill you right now. But I made a promise to her." Xena motioned over to her unconscious friend. "So, listen closely, cus you only get one chance here...LEAVE. Shed tell you that theres been too much bloodshed already. But know this, if I *ever* see your face again, Ill assume you mean her harm." Xenas foot came down harder on the mans throat...so much so that he could barely breathe. "By the way, youve probably heard of me. The names Xena." Whatever color was in the bandits face left, making it clear to Xena that he got her message. "Good, youve heard of me...that makes this simple. If I ever see you again, or if I hear of anyone trying to get to my friend here because of you, Ill come after you. There wont be enough left for the vultures to pick off the road. Ya got that?"
The man acknowledged Xenas statement with a slight nod of his head.
"Good. Go...get your things and get outta here. NOW!"
Releasing the pressure on the kidnappers neck, Xena stepped back and watched as the man quickly grabbed his meager belongings and his horse, and ran into the woods. The warrior watched to make sure he left, then returned her attentions to Gabrielle.
Candlemarks later, Xena had done everything medically she could for her friend. She had set up camp, gotten the fire going again and had begun heating a broth. Gabrielle had not regained consciousness yet and Xena was pretty sure she wouldnt without some prompting. She also knew that they couldnt stay in the woods. Gabrielle needed someplace where she could recover and feel safe. Xena had already made up her mind that the place for them was Amphipolis. The day long trip to the town would be hard on Gabrielle, so the warrior had decided to take the chance and sedate her friend.
Taking the broth from the fire, Xena opened one of her many herbal pouches and withdrew some white powder, stirring it into the small cup of broth she intended for her friend. Sitting down beside her, she lifted the bards head onto her lap. Gabrielle shifted slightly...a good sign.
"Gabrielle, I need for you to drink something for me. Well take this real slow, okay? But I need you to wake up just a bit...for me?"
Gabrielle shifted and groaned, her eyes barely opening. "Thats right...its okay, Im here and youre safe now...I want you to drink some of this for me...."
The bard tried to focus on the voice talking to her. "Xena?"
"Thats right...its okay...Im here. Come on, take a little sip of this for me."
Xena gently put the warm broth up to Gabrielles mouth, encouraging her to drink. Seeing a little resistance, Xena implored her friend. "Please Gabrielle, I know this is really hard right now, but please do this for me, okay?"
The bard slowly acquiesced and allowed some of the warm liquid into her mouth. Although barely conscious, she was able to finally swallow half the cup. Satisfied that this would provide enough nourishment, and keep Gabrielle asleep for quite some time, Xena put the cup down and began to gently stroke her friends pale face.
"This isnt exactly the reunion Id envisioned you know." Looking down, she saw Gabrielle beginning to slip back into darkness. "Gods, how Ive missed you. And I would do anything to take back these past few days...anything. But well work through it, you and me. I promise."
Xena, seeing that the drug had taken affect, gently kissed Gabrielles cheek and laid her back down on the ground. Making sure the bard was bundled up in blankets, Xena quickly started packing Argos saddlebags. After checking that everything was ready to go, the warrior lifted up Gabrielle and carried her over to Argo. The horse somehow knew what her master wanted and immediately knelt down, allowing Xena to easily mount her while cradling Gabrielle in her arms. Once Argo felt them securely settled in the saddle, she stood. Xena grabbed the reins wrapped around the saddlehorn and motioned the horse towards Amphipolis. Although it might have been safer to wait for daybreak, Xena knew it was best to get moving. The sooner she could get Gabrielle to Amphipolis, the sooner she could begin it heal.
Cyrene was busily working over her stove, stirring a varied combination of herbs and spices into a large kettle of her famous house stew. The inns dinner crowd would begin to show up in a candlemark or so, and her evening meal preparations were well under way.
As she walked over to check on the multiple loaves of bread baking in the hearth, Cyrenes face broke out into a smile. She found herself doing that a lot these days. Xenas visit, although too short in her view, had served to fill her heart with joy. Her daughter was alive, happy and well...and that made her happier than she could say.
It upset her that she had hated her daughter all these past years, but those feelings couldnt be denied. Xena had shamed not only her family, but the entire town. Whenever Cyrene had been told, through the word of strangers stopping off in Amphipolis, of the latest bloody exploits of the Destroyer of Nations, she had wished...wished her daughters death. As was true with most parents, Cyrene tried during those bad years to figure out what she had done wrong, how she had brought such a monster into the world.
When the newly reformed Xena had returned home two years ago, Cyrene refused to believe that the fierce Warrior Princess had changed. It hurt too much to even see her. Shaking her head, Cyrene was just happy that those days were over...and that her daughter was a good person again.
As she began to remove the loaves of bread from the hearth, Cyrene heard a commotion coming from the front of the inn. She walked out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, wondering what was going on.
Young Kalos, the blacksmiths son was standing near Toris, totally out of breath. Her son was trying to find out what the problem was.
"Come on Kalos, relax. Take some deep breaths and tell me what the problem is...."
"...Its ...its...Xena...shes back, coming...hurt...."
Cyrene immediately began to worry. "Xenas hurt? Where is she?"
"No...Xenas..." Taking a few breaths, Kalos finally had enough wind to finish his sentence. "No, Xenas not hurt. She has a woman with her whos hurt. She told me...told me to tell you she needs...needs a bed...water...."
Cyrene thanked the blacksmiths son, sending him home. Turning to Toris she started issuing orders. "Go into the kitchen and make sure nothing burns. Ill get a room ready for Xena." Turning and running upstairs, she yelled back to her son, "And make sure you put some water on the stove to boil!"
Within a quarter candlemark, Xena finally made her way into Amphipolis. She and Argo were both near their physical limits, having traveled non-stop to reach the town before nightfall. Xenas arms, as strong as they were, were shaking with exhaustion as she had cradled Gabrielle in her arms for a full day. Cyrene was outside the inn with Toris when Xena approached.
"What happened daughter?" Cyrenes concerned face looked up at her normally stoic daughter. The look of sadness on her face was heartwrenching.
"Mother, I need to get her into bed. Shes developed a fever. We can talk later." Xena swung her leg around over Argo and gently slid off her horse, still cradling Gabrielle in her arms.
"Come then, I have a room for you upstairs." Cyrene turned to her son, "Toris, make sure Argos taken care of...and then, well...see to our customers. Ill be down as soon as I can."
Toris grabbed Argos reins and led her towards the inns stables as Cyrene led Xena into the inn. They went upstairs where Cyrene led her daughter into the large guest room at the end of the hall. Once in the room, Xena laid Gabrielle down on the bed.
"Gods, what was I thinking...I need my medicine pouches."
"Go Xena...and make sure Argos okay. Ill stay here with Gabrielle." Cyrene placed her hand on her daughters shoulder, trying to soothe her worried child. "Its okay Xena, Ill be with her."
Xena hesitated, then knowing that Gabrielle was in the best of hands, bolted out from the room headed for the stables. Cyrene sat down and began to gently remove the bards clothes. "Poor child...youre burning up." Finally removing the last of the clothing, Cyrene covered her daughters friend with warming blankets. By the time she was finished, her worried daughter returned with her saddlebags.
"Mother, I need some warm water for these herbs. Can..."
"Right away...Ill be right back. By the way, theres already some nice fresh water in the urn by the bed. You should drink some...." Cyrene left knowing that her daughter would not help herself until she saw to Gabrielles needs.
The innkeeper returned shortly with some warm water and watched as Xena prepared a mixture of herbs for Gabrielle. She stood back and watched as Xena gently ministered to her young companion.
When she had finally gotten most of the medicine into Gabrielle, Xena turned towards her mother. "Thats all I can do for now. If her fever doesnt break by tomorrow, Ill have to get her into some cold water." Staring back at her friend, Xena felt her mothers arms circle her waist.
"Shell be all right daughter...shes in good hands. Why dont you wash up yourself. Ill stay with Gabrielle."
Xena turned and looked at her mother. A single tear forced its way down her cheek. "Gods, this is a mess...I never should have left her...."
"She and her sister were attacked by two men." Turning back to look at the unconscious bard, Xena continued. "Gabrielle was just protecting herself and her sister, but she...." Xena choked on the words. Cyrene grabbed onto her daughters hands, pressing them to her lips.
"Xena, what happened?"
"She...well...apparently she hit one of the men hard enough...to, um...gods.... Mother she killed him." The warrior grabbed onto her mother and let the silent tears flow. "I never wanted this to happen...not to her. If Id only been there...." Shaking her head, Xena explained how the mans brother had tried to kill Gabrielle.
Gently cradling her devastated daughter, Cyrene tried to reason with her. "Xena, this is NOT your fault. From what youve told me about Gabrielle, shed be the first to tell you that. You need to get yourself together daughter. Gabrielle is going to need more than your medical help when she wakes up."
Pulling back from her mother, Xena stared into the older womans eyes. "How can I help her? Im the LAST person who could possibly understand what shes going through."
"Really? You amaze me sometimes Xena. Do you honestly believe what you just said? The woman who has nightmares every night? Tell me you dont feel anything about the damage, the killings...all that youre responsible for. Go ahead and tell me....!"
"I..." Xena couldnt argue with her mother. But she still felt guilty about Gabrielle. "Granted, I, I am, I feel...you know...But mother, Im the one who taught her how to use that staff, she sees me fighting...Ive encouraged her. I never should have shown..."
"Xena, Gabrielle is a grown woman. Shes chosen to travel with you. You both lead dangerous lives and shes accepted that. Frankly, I think both of you were being naive to think something like this wouldnt eventually happen."
Looking over at Gabrielle, then back at Xena, Cyrene continued. "You look exhausted. I want you to go and wash up. Ill stay here until you come back. Then Ill get you something to eat. GO! Shes going to need you strong when she wakes up daughter...go..." Cyrene gave Xena another hug then practically pushed her towards the door.
Knowing her mother, Xena did not argue. Taking another quick look at Gabrielle, the Warrior Princess slowly left the room, headed towards the inns bathing room.
Gabrielles fever broke mid-day and Cyrene finally managed to convince her daughter to get some sleep. The Warrior Princess had kept a constant vigil at her companions side, and Cyrene knew shed been awake at a minimum of two straight days. Instead of going to another room to sleep, Xena insisted on staying with her friend. She propped herself up in the large bed next to the sleeping bard, knowing she would wake up if Gabrielle started moving about.
Finally, late afternoon, Gabrielle did begin to open her eyes. At first, she had no idea where she was or why she felt so weak. Slowly regaining some senses, she turned her head and saw Xena dozing next to her. Trying to clear her mind, the events of the last few days started coming back to her. Tears welled in her eyes as she remembered what shed done. Slowly moving her arm up to her face to wipe away the tears, Gabrielle twitched in pain - her bruised and battered body rebelling against the sudden activity.
Xena woke up immediately. She turned to see Gabrielle look up at her with such wounded, tearful eyes, she couldnt hold back her own tears.
"Come here..." was all Xena could get out of her mouth. Gabrielle reached for her friend and totally broke down, sobbing as Xenas warm embrace circled her body. "Its okay...youre safe now...its okay Gabrielle."
Xena held onto the bard, murmuring reassuring words into her ear while she gently rocked her friend. She let Gabrielle cry herself out, constantly offering comforting words to her wounded companion. Finally, in what seemed like candlemarks later, Gabrielle settled down. She looked up to Xena, seeing for the first time how devastated the Warrior Princess was by everything that had happened.
"Xena...I dont know what to do."
"Do?" Xena wiped the tears out of Gabrielles eyes. "You...you probably saved both yours and Lilas lives Gabrielle. As much as it hurts, try to at least remember that. Start by remembering that."
The bard was silent for a moment. Having been responsible for one death, she then posed a question to Xena she was afraid to ask. "That man...did you?"
Xena knew what she was asking. "No, I remembered a promise I made to a certain bard friend of mine." Smiling a gentle smile, Xena reached up and gently brushed Gabrielles bangs away from her forehead. "I let him go after making him understand what would happen if he *ever* tried to hurt you again."
"Really? You let him go?"
"Yeah, I let him go."
Gabrielle sniffled and continued to hold Xena tightly, as if she were some sort of lifeline. Looking around the room, the bards curiosity got the best of her. "Um...where are we?"
"At my mothers inn. I found you about midway between Amphipolis and Poteidaia. I kinda thought it best to bring you here."
Not being stupid, Gabrielle probed. "You saw my parents? And Lila?"
"Yeah, we talked and then I left to find you."
"I take it they werent very nice to you."
"Look, lets not talk about this right now. My brother sent a friend of his to Poteidaia to let them know I found you. Theyre worried sick about you...they love you very much."
"It was pretty bad huh?"
"Gabrielle, it doesnt matter. Nothing matters but you getting well. Why dont you lay back and let me change your bandages. Mother should be up shortly...shes been in and out all day checking on you. Seems shes taken a liking to you." Smiling, Xena joked. "I guess it kinda runs in the family."
"Xena, " Gabrielle retorted, not for once allowing her friend to dismiss the conversation. "Ill lay back, but remember this...it matters. It matters a lot. Thats why I left before you got there. I couldnt stand what they were saying about you. I felt badly enough without having to hear..."
"Stop it Gabrielle. Look, theyre hurting. Im an easy target. All I care about is you - OKAY? Now lay back."
As if on schedule, there was a light knock on the door. It opened and Cyrene walked in with a tray of food. Seeing that Gabrielle had woken up, she smiled and walked over to the bed. "Well young lady, you had us a bit worried there for a while. Its good to see you awake."
"Thank you Cyrene. Im sorry to be such a bother."
"Ha! Youre no bother. Now getting this one," the innkeeper pointed towards her daughter, "to take it easy and get some sleep...*thats* a different story!"
"Mother!!!" Xena protested back. Looking over at Gabrielle, she saw a small smile creep onto her face. The warrior made a mental note to thank her mother later.
Cyrene gently sat down next to Gabrielle. "Youre always welcome here. Afterall, youre practically family. You just take it easy and get well."
Gabrielle slowly reached out and grabbed Cyrenes hand. "Thanks. It means a lot to me."
Xena interjected. "Mother, I was just getting ready to clean and rebandage Gabrielles wounds. I promise well both eat after Im done, okay?"
Cyrene turned towards the injured bard. "She knows I was going to insist she eat. Now that youre awake, I can put you in charge of that. I know shell take care of you - you need to make sure she eats too - okay?"
"Ill do that. Thanks again."
As Cyrene walked towards the door, she turned and gave her daughter a smile. Thankfully, Xena returned it as the door shut.
Xena finished rebandaging her friends wounds. Although she had been gentle, she knew it had hurt Gabrielle when she cleaned around her tender side. Finally she was able to help the bard prop herself up in bed.
"Lets see what mother brought up here." Bringing the food over to the bed, Xena knew immediately it was going to be a chore to get Gabrielle to eat.
"Xena, Im really not hungry."
"Dont even try that Gabrielle. You havent eaten in at least two days - probably more like three or four. Your body needs nourishment to recover." Ladling some of her mothers soup into a cup, she handed it to her friend. "Once you take a sip, your appetitell return. Promise."
"Xena, every time I tried to eat at home after...um...I...I couldnt keep anything down."
"Sitting back on the edge of the bed, Xena gently cupped her palm on Gabrielles face. "Trust me, okay? I know your body was reacting to what happened. Its natural, really. But now, your bodys gonna know it needs food. Just take a little sip for me. Itll be okay, youll see."
Trusting her friend, Gabrielle took a sip of Cyrenes soup and waited for the queasiness to return. But Xena was right...it didnt. The bard took a few more sips of soup before Xena took the cup away from her."
"See? Now how about some bread and maybe some tea?"
"Um, sure...but youre gonna eat too - right?"
"Yeah, gods forbid that I have both you *and* my mother on my case." Xena was pleasantly surprised to hear Gabrielle let out a small chuckle.
They finished their meal in silence. Xena was happy that the bard ate everything she was given. Right when they finished, there was a knock on the door. When opened, Toris walked in cautiously.
"Mom wanted me to check and see how you guys were doing." Turning his attention towards the injured bard, Toris smiled. "Hi Gabrielle. Its good to see you up."
Gabrielle tried unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn. "Im sorry Toris. Its good to see you too. Im just getting a bit tired, thats all."
Xena took that as her cue to clear the room. "Toris, can you do me a favor and take this stuff back downstairs? Time for a certain bard to get some sleep."
Toris took the dinner tray and, although being practically pushed out of the room by his younger sister, turned to Gabrielle. "Hey, Ill talk with you tomorrow - okay?" He barely heard a yes as the door was shut behind him.
Xena turned back to Gabrielle and walked towards the bed. Her friend chastised her on her behavior. "You know that was rude Xena. Hes only trying to be friendly."
As Xena tucked the bard in, she replied. " Nah. Hes used to me pushing him around. Frankly, I think he likes it." Once assured Gabrielle was comfortable, Xena moved around to the other side of the bed and sat down next to her friend.
After a moment of quiet, Xena heard Gabrielle turn her head. "Xena, Im afraid to dream." Tears began to form in her eyes.
"Hey, I know, but I promise Ill be right here. You know Im here for you right?"
Slowly nodding her head, she grabbed onto Xenas hand as she slowly drifted off to sleep.
Xena waited until she was assured that Gabrielle was deeply sleeping before removing her hand from the bards grasp and stood up from the bed. The warrior walked over to the window and stared out at the moon. She didnt turn her head as her mother slowly came into the room and walked towards her. "Xena...."
Unable to stop herself, Xena turned and hugged her mother, allowing herself to cry safely in Cyrenes loving arms. "Shell be okay Xena. Youre going to get her through this...I know you will.
The days passed uneventfully. Gabrielle had not talked much about the attack on her and Lila, much to Xenas displeasure. Although the bard was well on the way to a physical recovery, the warrior knew that she needed to talk about the day of the picnic, or she would never begin to move on...get on with life.
On the other hand, Xena never felt so insignificant in her life. The person who meant the most to her in the world was hurting and she didnt know how to help her. The warriors frustration led to her very short temper flaring itself. Knowing she would take her anger out on Gabrielle if she didnt leave, Xena decided to get out of the inn for a while and give Argo some much needed exercise. "Maybe," the warrior thought, "I can figure out some way to get her to talk about it." Gabrielle was happy to see her go. She could sense Xenas mood, and she knew it was her fault that the warrior was so on edge.
After Xena left, Gabrielle got up and walked slowly over to her travel bag which was slung over a chair in the far corner of the room. Although she knew it was probably a lost cause, the bard wanted to try to write...something she had not done since that day. Picking up her writing quill and sitting down in the chair, Gabrielle poised it on the empty scroll, and tried to let the words flow. It didnt take long to realize that nothing was going to come to her, and her frustration came to a head. She flung the quill away from her at the same time Cyrene picked to walk in the room. The quill barely missed Xenas mother, whos reflexes saved her from being stabbed with the writing implement.
"Gods Cyrene, Im sorry. I didnt mean...."
"No harm done...this time." The innkeeper picked up the quill and walked over to Gabrielle, handing her the writing implement. "Remind me to knock next time." Seeing that the bard was distraught, Cyrene came up with a plan of sorts. "Since you cant seem to write, why dont I tell you a story. Its about a certain warrior we both know."
"Xena wont be happy you know."
"Well, Im her mother ...lets see her say something." Seeing a smile on Gabrielles face, Cyrene sat down sat down on the bed and motioned the bard to join her. The young woman put down her scroll and walked over to the bed, sitting down next to Xenas mother.
"Xenas always been the silent type you know." Seeing Gabrielle nod in agreement, Cyrene continued. "When she came back into town recently I could see that had changed a bit...maybe not a lot, but some. She was more open, and very talkative when it came to the subject of a certain bard she knows." Gabrielle stared at the innkeeper. "As a matter of fact, when she got on that subject, which I should tell you was most of the time, it was hard to shut her up!"
"No way. Really?"
"She loves you very much Gabrielle...but you know that dont you. And she kept telling me how worried she gets about you, how shes afraid..."
"Her worst fears are that something will happen to you. And when part of those fears came true, it was all she could do to keep herself together." Seeing tears form in the bards eyes, Cyrene put her arm around Gabrielle. "Let her help you dear. She *needs* to help you and you need her help. And she knows what youre going through...probably blames herself for it. But she can help you if you let her."
"Its hard Cyrene. I wish I could just stop thinking about it. Everything I believe in...its all gone."
"No dear, its not. You just need some help understanding that. And Ill be selfish here. I care for you a great deal and want you to somehow put this behind you. But then theres my daughter. Xenas devastated over this. You dont know how wonderful its been to see my daughter alive, and happy. I never thought I would see that again after Lyceus died, but somehow that miracle has happened. And youve been the major reason for it. Youve given her so much...let her return that gift. I know this is probably the wrong way thing to say, but if you cant get past this Gabrielle, I doubt Xena will either."
As Xena and Gabrielle ate dinner that evening, there was a very distinct tenseness in the air. Gabrielle didnt know what to say to her friend. She wanted so much to tell her everything that she was feeling, but something kept stopping her. On the other hand, Xena knew what she wanted to say, but words were never easy for her. Finally Xena decided to go ahead and follow through with a plan she had thought about riding Argo earlier in the day.
"Um, Gabrielle... I was wondering. You up for a hike tomorrow? It should be a nice day, and youve been stuck in the inn since weve been here. I can get mother to pack a lunch basket; whatd ya say?"
"Thatd be great. I think I have a touch of cabin fever now that you mention it. Getting out may be just what we...I mean *I* need."
"Good...great. Thats settled then."
Early the next morning, the women set out from the inn, Argo in tow, with enough food to feed an army. When pressed by Gabrielle as to where they were headed, Xena remained secretive, only stating that they would be there before mid-day. The curious bard only tried a few times to get her friend to talk, but realized quickly that she was fighting a losing battle. Instead, she concentrated on keeping pace with the taller woman. It was obvious that the warrior had something on her mind.
True to her word, the women reached a beautiful grove of trees by noon. Xena began immediately setting up their blankets and pulling the lunch baskets from Argos saddle, insisting that Gabrielle sit and rest. Once all the food had been set out, the women ate in silence. Finally, Gabrielle could no longer take the quiet and began to talk.
"This place is beautiful Xena."
"I used to think so. This is the first time Ive been here in...12 years. Funny, Lyceus and I used to ride our horses out here all the time and practice our fighting. It was far enough away from town that we knew wed be alone. Mother used to hate it when we fought. Well, when *I* fought anyway. So we came here...no one to bother us...."
"You said used to...I dont understand. Those are good memories Xena."
"Gabrielle, Lyceus died here...pretty much right where were sitting. I havent been back since."
"Oh...gods Xena, why..."
"Why did I bring you here? I dont know. Maybe I thought I could get you to talk here." Looking over to the left, Xena pointed out another grove of trees in the distance. "See that hill? I killed for the first time right over there. Corteses men were all over the place...and there I was, truly fighting for the first time...not like with Lyceus. The man in front of me laughed at such a young girl trying to defend the town. He came at me and as scared as I was, the training took over. It didnt take long... a couple of hits and I had him. At first, I just stood there, almost like I didnt know what to do next. I looked down and saw the blood, his blood all over my hands. I threw up...started crying. But then I looked over here and saw Lyceus. He was fighting two men...had them going for a while....Then he stumbled over a root or something, and..."
"Dont Xena." Gabrielle moved over and put her arms around the warrior. "He died for something he believed in. Dont torture yourself."
Shaking her head, Xena turned towards Gabrielle. "Everything changed for me then. But that doesnt have to be the same for you. I let the bloodlust get to me. After I saw Lyceus go down, I went crazy. I cant tell you how many men I killed that day, but I know what I felt, even if it was only for a moment, when I killed the first."
"Xena, how do you live with it? I have nightmares, I think about it all the time. Here I thought I was going to be the one who stopped all the hatred, and I killed that man."
Xena almost had to laugh. "Live with it? You should know Gabrielle, you see me having nightmares. The guilt will probably always be there...it is for me. But there are some things that are worth sacrifices. For me, if I had stopped the killing that day Cortese came, I honestly think I wouldve been able to accept what Id done. I still think defending Amphipolis was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, I chose another path. I think in your case, those men would have killed you and Lila if you hadnt stopped them. Itll take a while, but youll learn to live with it. Each day will come and eventually itll be easier to accept. And Ill be here for you. As much as I hate what happened...I just thank the gods that youre okay....that they didnt hurt you. At first, all I could think about was that you had killed someone...and I knew what that had to be doing to you. But then I thought about what would have happened if you hadnt defended yourself." Pausing a moment, Xena looked into Gabrielles eyes. "Ive never told you that my worst nightmares arent about the killings, my past...theyre bad enough. My worst nightmares...uh..." Tears started falling down Xenas face.
"Hey, come on...." Gabrielle was openly crying now.
"...my worst nightmares all have you being hurt, or killed, and me not being able to help. So as much as I hate whats happened, gods, Im so grateful that youre all right."
The two women hugged each other and allowed the tears to flow. Finally, when they had both stopped crying, Xena was pleasantly surprised to hear Gabrielle start talking.
"It was such a nice day...a lot like today. Lila and I knew we just had to get out of the house...." Xena hugged Gabrielle, protecting her from her own words, as she listened to the bards description of that day. Finally her friend opened up to her. Gabrielles road to recovery was just beginning.
The weeks passed, and Gabrielles wounds totally healed under the Warrior Princess excellent care. Although she was sometimes very quiet, the bards natural, open personality slowly came back to her. She had nightmares, but even they diminished over time...no longer there every night. The bard also began writing again, and much to Cyrenes pleasure, took to telling stories after the dinner crowd wandered into the inn. Xena would sit back near the bar, helping Toris and listening to her friend wrap the audiences around her fingers with tales of adventure, romance, and unfortunately of the Warrior Princess herself. Normally Xena would be angered with her friend, but just seeing her happy again was enough to keep the warrior quiet. She also reaped the benefits of Gabrielles tales. The patrons of the inn were stunned with the revelations made by the bard...seeing the outcast warrior from Amphipolis in a new light. A few of the people actually began talking with Xena again. "Leave it to Gabrielle," Xena pondered. "Shes the one who needs the help and shes figured out a way to help me."
The one thing that Gabrielle would not do is workout with her staff. Although she would still carry it whenever they hiked around the hills of Amphipolis, she refused to use the staff as a weapon. Claiming soreness at first, Xena never pressed the point, but it was soon obvious to the warrior that it was more than her physical wounds that stopped Gabrielle from using her staff. The day before they left Amphipolis, Xena tried again. Gabrielle adamantly refused.
"Gabrielle, you always liked sparing with me. Thats all this is...and we both could probably use the exercise after all mothers food. Come on...."
"Xena, Im just not in the mood, okay? Just leave it alone, please?"
"Fine." Taking a deep breath, Xena posed a question that needed to be asked. "Gabrielle, is this gonna be a problem? I need to know."
"What? No, of course not Xena, Im fine. Im just not in the mood...."
Walking over to her friend, Xena put her hands on the bards shoulders, and forced her to look into her eyes. "Are you sure? I just need to know that once were out there, youll be able to defend yourself."
"Its been a while since youve asked that one." Laughing, Gabrielle put her hands on top of Xenas arms. "Its okay...really. Im fine. Dont go all mushy on me here. I can take care of myself and you know it. Now lets get back. We need to get our stuff together if we want to get out of here before mid-day." Not stopping to let Xena reply, the bard practically ran back towards Amphipolis.
Xena followed slowly behind, wondering if the bard was telling the truth.
As they planned, the warrior and bard left Amphipolis the next day, headed towards Amazon country. They had agreed that it had been a while since Gabrielle had seen her Amazon sisters, and Xena could think of no better place for Gabrielle to be right now. She was still worried about the bards refusal to use her staff, and thought having more than one warrior around might help her overcome whatever her feelings were towards her weapon.
The days and nights on the road fell into a common routine. Up before dawn, Xena would forcibly wake the bard up, get the fire stoked, take care of Argo, hunt for food, and then wake the bard again. Eventually Gabrielle would truly wake up and begin their breakfast. They walked or rode most of the day, stopping whenever they needed, and then would set up camp at night. Following this routine, which was so familiar to both women, unfortunately was their undoing.
Nine days out of Amphipolis, their quiet journey was violently interrupted by a band of mercenaries. Having set up camp earlier that day, Xena had gone to a nearby stream to fish for dinner, leaving Gabrielle at camp setting up their bedrolls and getting their supplies of bread and cheese out to compliment the fish Xena was sure to catch. As the warrior approached the camp, her instincts told her that something was wrong. Running to the campsite, she saw Gabrielle still cutting up their food stuffs.
"Gabrielle, get your staff."
Knowing never to argue with Xena, the bard quickly discarded her knife and grabbed her staff. "Whats the..."
Seven men suddenly ran into the clearing, swords drawn, surrounding the women. "Xena, theres a price on your head, and we aim to collect it. Dead or alive...means nothing to us."
Sword in hand, Xena made sure Gabrielle was behind her watching her back before she addressed the lead man. "And just who sent you?"
"Criolis. Seems you took his army a few years ago, and hes still a bit angry with you. Heard you were in these parts and sent out word that hed offer a tidy sum to anyone who could bring you to him...dead or alive."
"Yeah, yeah, ya said that. Now why dont you boys be on your way. We dont need to do this. And frankly youve interrupted my dinner. Im never in a good mood when my meals are interrupted." Smiling a feral smile, Xena waited for the men to attack.
Which they did in short order. Xena quickly dispatched the first four men with a series of swift roundhouse kicks, and then engaged the lead man, quickly disarming him. Knowing Gabrielle was there watching her back, she paid little attention to the two men behind her and went over to the men on the ground in front of her, quickly removing their weapons from reach. As she neared the lead man, she saw his eyes widen. Xena began to turn, only to feel a searing pain in her left side. Reflexes and years of battle training took over. She turned with her sword at the ready, slicing through the remaining two men before they ever knew what hit them. Worried about Gabrielle, the warrior looked over to see her friend rolled up in a tight ball on the ground. Fearing the worst, she knelt down and saw that the bard was unharmed. Knowing she had to take care of her business with the mercenaries first, Xena stood up and walked to the lead man.
"Get outta here NOW! Go tell Criolis that if he wants me, he can come get me himself." Seeing they were being given an opportunity to live, the remaining men fled back into the woods.
Once assured that the men had left, Xena returned her attention to Gabrielle. The bard had regained some of her composure and was sitting up near the fire, crying. Xena began walking over to her friend and was pleased to see her look up from the fire. As the warrior neared the campfire, she uncharacteristically tripped over a small stump. Feeling a slight pain in her side, Xena moved her left hand to her back. When she drew it back in front of her, all she saw was blood dripping off her fingers. With the adrenaline of battle gone and knowing that Gabrielle was safe, Xenas reserves left her. She fell to her knees. Gabrielle began to run to her friend as she slumped towards the ground.
"XENA!!!" The shocked bard quickly ran to the wounded warrior, reaching her before she hit the ground. She saw the pained grimace on her friends face as she slowly lowered both herself and the warrior to the ground. "Gods Xena, this is all my fault...if I hadnt..."
Barely able to talk, Xena managed a few words. "...Need to get out...of here before they come back." She then made a valiant effort to sit up. She even surprised herself with how weak she seemed.
"Xena, youre really bleeding badly. We need to stop it before we try to move you. Hang on." Somehow Gabrielle was able to put aside her guilt and fears and got some supplies from Argos saddlebags. Quickly removing some wine, thread and a needle, the bard sat down next to Xena. "I cant see how bad it is...we need to get your leathers off. Hold still while I unfasten your top." With practiced hands, Gabrielle removed Xenas armor and her leather top. The sight of the long deep gash in Xenas side nearly made the bard sick to her stomach. Knowing that her friend had lost too much blood for her to even entertain such ideas, she steeled herself for the job ahead.
"This is gonna sting." Removing the cap from the wine flask, Gabrielle poured a generous portion of the alcohol into the sword wound. Xena gritted her teeth, proudly refusing to utter a single sound. "Okay, now for the stitching. Xena, this is really deep...Ive never done this before."
"Gabrielle...just...just do one layer at a time. Um...I think Id like some...of...the wine."
Quickly handing Xena the flask, Gabrielle could only imagine what type of pain the stoic warrior was in to request the liquid anesthetic. She threaded the needle as her friend took a few long swigs of the wine.
"Hey...if I pass out...well...just be careful. If...they come...back, run. Promise me."
"Xena, Im not leaving you. I think you scared them away anyway. Ill get you fixed up as quick as I can...then we can figure out what to do." Focusing on Xenas wound, the bard began stitching her friends side. Xena passed out before long, the pain too much for even her to withstand. Luckily, the mercenaries never returned. Gabrielle was able to finish her stitches and get Xena comfortably settled near the fire.
It was early morning when Xena finally did come around. She was weak, but alive. Slowly sitting up, she found Gabrielle looking distantly into the forest.
Gabrielle was startled and quickly turned around, allowing Xena to see her tears. Wiping her face off, the bard slowly stood up and walked over to her friend.
"Um...hi. How do you feel?"
"Been better. Think I could have something to drink?"
Gabrielle quickly got a waterskin from one of Argos saddlebags and gave it to Xena. "Ill make you some tea...hows that?"
"Sounds good. Do we have anything to eat around here?"
"Sure. Um, Ill get you some bread and cheese." Gabrielle walked over to the fire and grabbed some of their meager trail rations. Walking over to her friend, she handed her the food.
"Thanks." Xena began munching on her food and watched as Gabrielle went about getting her some tea. The air was so thick with tension, each woman could practically see it. Not one to stand still for such nonsense, Xena decided to take some action. "Nice weather huh?"
Gabrielle turned around tears streaming down her face. "STOP IT! I nearly got you killed yesterday and all you have to say is nice weather?"
"Well, someone had to start the conversation. You know, for a bard, youre not that good at this stuff. And to think youre supposed to do the sensitive chats."
"How can you even talk to me let alone make jokes? You couldve died yesterday...and it was all my fault. If anything had happened to you...."
"It didnt...Im okay. Come over here and sit down." Xena sat patiently as Gabrielle refused to move. "Look, I dont exactly feel like getting up yet, so give me a break okay? Come over here and sit down."
Gabrielle finally relented and walked back over to Xena, sitting down on her bedroll, her head hung in shame. "Oh gods Xena, Im so sorry. I thought I could...you know. Well, I hoped that it would come back to me...but when the men came at me, I couldnt move...I froze. I was too afraid to use my staff. It just dropped out of my hands and I watched when they...." The bard broke down, unable to finish her statement.
"Look Gabrielle..." Xena implored as she put her arm around her friend, "this is all my fault. Not yours. I knew that you were troubled about using the staff, and I put you in a dangerous situation that you never shouldve been in. So stop blaming yourself. *I* shouldve known better. It was unfair of me to assume, even though you told me there wasnt a problem. I knew there was and chose to ignore it. That couldve gotten you killed."
"What are we gonna do?"
"Well, Im going to finish my meal here, then were gonna get on our way. We should reach Amazon country by nightfall if we try."
"Thats not what I mean and you know it. Xena, if what happened today is the way things are with me, I cant stay with you. Theres too much of a chance that Ill get you hurt."
"Hows that? If I remember correctly, we traveled together for a long time before you began to learn how to take care of yourself. Now that I know better, well, we can just go back to the way things were before. And I think this is temporary anyway. Nothing has to change."
Gabrielle stood up, her frustration, anger, and guilt too much to take anymore. "Nothings changed? Gods Xena, I killed a man then nearly get you killed and you say nothings changed? EVERYTHINGS changed!!! Dont you see that? I *will* not put you in danger by tagging along like a..."
"Stop it! Right now. Look, lets not talk about this now. Frankly, I dont have the strength for it, and we need to get moving. I have a bad feeling that Criolis isnt going to be happy when his men return empty handed. Im not exactly up to par right now so Ill feel a lot safer once we reach the Amazons. Why dont you start packing up, and then help me get my leathers back on. No arguments."
Against all good medical judgment, Xena mounted Argo with Gabrielles help and they made their way as quickly as the warrior could take towards Amazon country. Gabrielle could tell that her friend was very weak, and getting weaker as the day went on. Looking down at the warriors back, she could also tell through the sword cut in Xenas leathers that her wound had reopened, but the Warrior Princess refused to stop, knowing that she was in no shape to defend either herself or Gabrielle. And it was now painfully obvious that Gabrielle couldnt defend herself.
By some grace of the gods, they made their way to Amazon country without incident. Once they reached the outskirts of the Amazon forest, Gabrielle dismounted Argo, insisting that Xena stay on the horse. The bard walked ahead of the mare, waiting to hear the familiar sounds of her Amazon sentries. It was getting dark, and Gabrielle was sure that Xena was near to collapsing.
Gabrielle was worried. Shed only seen the warrior this pale once before. Shivers ran down her body as she recalled her unsuccessful journey to Mount Nesta. Knowing Xenas condition was all her fault made it that much more difficult to even think about what had happened to her friend, and her medical condition. Thankfully, a sound in the woods alerted the bard to the fact that they had been spotted by Amazon sentries. Gabrielle quickly brought her arms over her head in the now familiar peace sign. Before she knew it, women warriors descended from the trees and surrounded the traveling women. The bard had never been so happy to see the masked women in her life.
Eponin raised her mask and quickly bowed to her queen. "Queen Gabrielle, were honored to have you back home."
"Eponin, Xenas hurt. We need to get her to the healer...shes bleeding pretty badly."
The Amazon turned to Xena, and really looked at the warrior for the first time. It dawned on her that the Warrior Princess had remained silently on her horse through the entire greeting process, something that Xena would normally never do. When she really looked closely at her, Eponin saw she was very pale and obviously seriously injured. "Tannis, youre the fastest. Get back and alert the village...have a stretcher meet us halfway. And let Ephiny know whats going on. Oh, and make sure that someone finds Dulcia. Her services are really going to be needed here."
As Tannis took off at a fast run, Xena managed a few words. "Look, its not that bad. Lets not exaggerate...."
Gabrielle turned to her friend. "Xena, this isnt up for discussion. Just be quiet and hang on while we get you to the village. And dont even think about not getting on that stretcher once we meet up with it. Dont force me to make it an order."
Xenas eyebrow lifted and she shook her head. "You know, I think you enjoy some of this power a bit too much for your own good." Xena smiled at her friend, trying with the joke and her grin to lift Gabrielles spirits. Instead, the distraught bard grabbed Argos reins and led the horse towards the Amazon village. Sensing the tension between the friends, Eponin followed Gabrielle, keeping her eye on the wounded warrior as they made their way home.
When the travelers finally met up with the stretcher, Xena was too weak to speak, let alone protest about being carried the rest of the way into the village. They made their way into the village, and quickly went into the healers hut where Dulcia was ready for her newest patient.
As they laid Xena down on one of the healers beds, Ephiny walked in...immediately going over to Gabrielle, hugging her friend. "Its so good to see you. I wish it were under better circumstances. What happened?"
Dulcia spoke up. "What did happen?" As she and her assistants removed the warriors leathers, they saw for the first time what damage was done to Xenas back. "Queen Gabrielle, quickly tell me what happened, and what you did to help. I see stitches...I take it you...?"
"Um...yeah, um, we were attacked by some mercenaries. Theres a...reward...um...anyway..." Gabrielle started crying but quickly pulled herself together enough to tell the healer what had happened, leaving out nothing...including her part in Xenas injury. "I tried to stitch her back up Dulcia, but the wound was so deep, and she insisted on moving too quickly." Wiping her eyes, Gabrielle asked the question everyone in the tent wanted to know. "Shes gonna be all right isnt she?"
"Shes lost a lot of blood, but I know this woman. No small scratch like this will keep her down." Walking over to the bard, Dulcia gently placed her hand on Gabrielles shoulder. "Look, this is going to take a while. I need to redo her stitches and clean out the wound. You look tired. Why dont you let Ephiny take you over to the food hut and get you something to eat." Seeing the queens reluctance to leave Xena, the healer looked at Ephiny for help.
"Gabrielle, theres nothing you can do here. I know its hard to leave, but Xena would want you to take care of yourself. Why dont you come with me and explain what this is all about. You said this was all your fault. I cant believe that."
"Its true. If anything happens to her, Ill never forgive myself."
Grabbing the queen by the arm, Ephiny gently guided her out of the healers hut and made her way towards the center of the village. Leading her into the food hut, Ephiny motioned for one of the cooks to bring over something to drink and eat. Once it was there, the two friends were left alone.
"So, hows this your fault?"
Although it took a while, Gabrielle related the story of the past few moons to her friend. After telling her how she froze in battle, allowing Xena to be hurt, the bard looked forlornly at the Amazon Regent. "Gods, how could I just STAND there and let them..."
"Stop it Gabrielle. Much more seasoned fighters and warriors have had times when theyve frozen. You told me it happened to you before. You got over it then and youll get over it this time."
"Ephiny...I watched them take a blade and run it through her back! I STOOD THERE!!!"
"I take it you and Xena talked after this happened?"
"What? Yeah, we talked some...."
"And does Xena blame you for this?"
Gabrielle let out an exasperated laugh. "No she blames herself. Typical. She says she knew that I was having problems and put me...gods, put ME into a dangerous situation. If this werent so sad itd be comical."
The two women sat in silence, neither touching the food that was in front of them. Finally Dulcia walked into the hut and went over to Gabrielle.
"Xenas sleeping now. Ive cleaned out the wound and restitched it. Thankfully, theres no sign of infection. Although shes lost quite a bit of blood, I think shell be fine. Pausing for a second, Dulcia smiled at the bard. "Shell probably sleep through the night. Now, I insist that you eat something and then get some sleep yourself. We cant have the queen getting sick, now can we?"
"Can I stay with Xena?"
"I thought youd ask that and we had her moved to the private room in the healing hut. We set up another cot for you. Ephiny, make sure she eats something before she comes back."
"I will." Ephiny reached over and grabbed Gabrielles fork, lifting it to the bard. "The sooner you eat something, the sooner you can go to Xena."
It was late the next morning before Xena regained consciousness. Unlike their normal routine, Gabrielle was awake watching as the warrior came around. The bard hadnt slept all night, still totally wracked by guilt, and too afraid to sleep while Xena was so vulnerable. When the Amazon queen saw her companion wake up, she immediately started towards the door to get the healer. It broke her heart to hear Xenas barely audible voice.
Turning towards the warrior, Gabrielle could not go near her but responded from the door. "Im just going to get Dulcia. Shell want to make sure youre okay." Again, the bard turned towards the door.
With tears streaming down her face, the bard slowly turned back towards Xena. The warrior smiled at her companion and very slowly raised her arm, motioning her back to her bed. As the bard approached, Xenas arm fell back to the mattress. Gabrielle winced at the sight of the weakened warrior. Finally the bard knelt down by Xenas bed. "Xena, I...."
"Shhh.... Its okay. I just need a few days rest, then Ill be as good as new. I just hope this doesnt ruin my reputation around here." She smiled at the devastated bard. "You okay?"
Shaking her head, Gabrielle responded. "Me? Yeah Im just fine, great, couldnt be better. Now let me go and get Dulcia. Shell kill me if I dont let her know youre awake. She left strict instructions." Gabrielle quickly got up and practically ran out the doorway, leaving the wounded warrior before she could get another word in edgewise.
Ephiny walked into the healers hut and made her way back to Xenas bed. Looking in the room, the Amazon regent saw that Xena was apparently sleeping and slowly moved backwards towards the huts entrance. Never opening an eye, Xena called out for the Amazon to return.
"I should have known youd be awake. I know youre hurt, but...well, how are you feeling?
"Been better...seem to be saying that a lot lately. And Dulcias getting on my nerves. She wont let me out of bed, even threatened to strap me down if I didnt stay put. Can you believe that?"
"Last year I had a bout with some sort of infection. I know this woman, and shell do it Xena. I strongly suggest you allow yourself to be pampered for a few days. One way or another, shell get her way. I doubt you want us to see you strapped down, so just relax and take it easy."
Changing the subject, Xena inquired about Gabrielle. She hadnt seen her since that morning.
"Shes been in council meetings all day. I told her that we would understand it if she abstained from her duties while you werent well, but she insisted. Frankly, she looks miserable and tired. She also has a very short temper - very unlike Gabrielle...and she had to be cautioned more than once on some of her rulings today. It was like she was just going through the motions. Xena, shes guilt-wracked over what happened to you. Shes blaming herself and with the killing still fresh in her mind, I think shes near the edge."
Much to Ephinys horror, Xena sat up, moving her legs off the bed. She slowly stood up and walked towards the entrance to the hut.
"Whoa...just where do you think *youre* going?"
"Stay out of the way Ephiny. I need to see Gabrielle. Im fine...."
Unfortunately, Dulcia took that moment to walk into her hut. Seeing the Warrior Princess moving towards her, she planted her feet squarely on the ground, and with her hands on her hips addressed the wounded warrior. "Get back into bed this instant!"
"Look, Im fine and I really do thank you for all your help...but I need to see Gabrielle. Im not in the mood for arguments. Just...move."
Dulcia remained fixed. "I know your reputation warrior, but I also know how much blood youve lost. Ive never seen anyone, until now that is, survive that kind of wound. I dont know what kind of constitution you have to even be standing at this point, but I do know that youre too weak to be walking around. The queen can come to you. Get back into bed or Ill put you back myself."
The Warrior Princess smiled at the healer, her eyes turning ice cold. "I dont think so."
Seeing what could become a very bad scene developing, Ephiny quickly came between the two women. "Look, Xena, I promise to bring Gabrielle here. Please, for me, get back into bed." Turning to Dulcia, the Amazon regent motioned her to back off. The strong willed healer, seeing the look in the wounded warriors eyes, complied with Ephinys wish.
"Ephiny, shes avoided me all day, what makes you think shell come now? And its not like you can force her...I mean shell pull rank or something."
"Trust me okay? And what do you have to lose? If I cant get her to come, you can leave and find her then. Deal?"
` Xena hesitated a bit, then turned and walked slowly back to her bed. Once she had sat down, the healer cautiously went over to the cot and helped settle the warrior back into bed snugly under the covers. "I apologize for my outburst Xena. But as your healer, I want you to stay put. Those stitches need time to set, and youve lost a good portion of whatever blood you used to have in your body. Im going to get you a large mug of water. I need to start getting some liquids into you before you go gallivanting all over the village."
Once the healer left the room, Ephiny sat down on the side of Xenas bed. "Xena, Ill be back with Gabrielle. In the meantime, please dont do anything to the village healer. Shes the only one we have." Smiling at her friend, she got up and left the hut.
It was only a short time later that Xena heard a ruckus outside the hut. Immediately after that, Gabrielle was unceremoniously pushed into the back room where the wounded warrior was laying. The bard was angry...more angered than she could remember ever being. Instead of acknowledging Xena, Gabrielle turned on the Amazon warrior who had forced her into the hut.
"How dare you...practically dragging me through the village! Ephiny, Im supposed to be your queen. Is this the treatment I get?"
"Yes Gabrielle, youre our queen. And I think its high time that you start acting like it. You should not be making decisions in your condition..."
"My condition! Whats that mean? Im fine. Xenas the one whos hurt." The bard refused to face her friend, which was not lost on the warrior. As Xena opened her mouth to begin talking, Gabrielle continued. "I should have you arrested...or something. At a minimum, you owe me an apology."
Xena again began to speak, only to have Ephiny retort. "I am sorry Gabrielle, but I knew that you wouldnt come here. And this is where you need to be right now, regardless of what you may think. Ill post a guard here if I have to. You need to talk with her Gabrielle."
"Errr...hrmp...ladies? This *her* youre referring to would love for you two to continue this sweet chat...but Im supposed to be resting."
Ephiny turned to Xena and smiled. "Im leaving. Gabrielles here, as promised. I assume this means that Dulcias safe for a while?"
Xena just gave the Amazon her patented raised eyebrow look as she departed.
Turning to Gabrielle, Xena saw the sad, tired look in her green eyes. "Well, so here we are."
"Here we are."
"Um, nice weather were having...." Seeing the look on her friends face, Xena apologized. "Sorry, I dont mean to make light of this. Please sit down and talk to me."
"Xena, I know you probably cant understand this, but Im really finding it hard to be around you right now. Its not you...its me. This is all my fault and Im just not very strong, not like you...I just...."
"Gabrielle, youre the strong one here, and we both know it. Please talk with me. Tell me whats going on. I dont blame you for any of this."
"No you wouldnt." Sitting down on the extra cot, Gabrielle put her head into her hands. "But then again you didnt see those men...and the sword...."
"Let me tell you a story." Seeing the amazed look on the bards face, Xena continued. "About a year or so ago, someone who means the world to me followed me into a battleground near Thessily." Seeing Gabrielle start to protest, Xena held up her hand. "Let me finish.... Knowing it was dangerous, my pride told me that we wouldnt have any problems at all. But lo and behold, that wasnt the case." Xena looked seriously at the bard. "My pride got you killed that day...you died in my arms. I thank the gods every day that you came back. And as hard as it was to face you afterwards, I had a choice to make. Somehow deal with the guilt or leave you. Leaving you wasnt an option." The warrior shifted onto the side of the bed. Sitting up, she reached out and grabbed Gabrielles hand. "Those are your choices. I made mine. Now its your turn."
"I wish I had an answer for you."
"Gabrielle, dont make any rash decisions here. Ive honestly seen this type of thing happen before. And I really do believe its temporary. A lot has happened to you over the past few moons...and its hard for you to get past it right now. And I hope whatever decision you make isnt based on the emotions youre feeling now. You really need time to think about it. Will you at least do that for me?" Seeing Gabrielle shake her head, Xena finished. "And if you honestly feel that you cant stay with me, well then, Ill see to it that you get wherever you want to go...back to Poteidaia, Athens...or you can stay here. Ill abide by your decision. Okay? But dont shut me out. Not now. At least make the effort to work through this thing with me."
"Ill try Xena. I honestly will try." Seeing the warrior wince, Gabrielle moved over to her bed and helped her friend lay back down. "Look, um, you need to rest. Im going to leave for a while, maybe track down Ephiny and apologize to her. Ill bring some dinner back with me, hows that?"
"Sounds good. Probably better than anything Dulcia wants to feed me. Dont you have any pull around this place?" Xena was happy to see Gabrielle smile.
"Ill see what I can do." Bending down, the bard kissed Xenas forehead, then turned around and left the hut. Xena lay back, at least hoping that Gabrielle held true to her word.
After a few days of soul searching, Gabrielle did begin making the effort to work through her feelings and her fears. She started practicing with Solari, her first instructor, on non-contact staff moves. Xena had suggested this as a way to become familiar, in a non-threatening way, with her weapon again. The warrior, however, never came near them when they went through their daily exercises. She knew that she would bring back the bad memories. She hoped, that in time, Gabrielle would start truly sparing with her Amazon sisters. And perhaps one day, with her too.
Xena had originally watched this workout from her room in the healers hut. However, her stay there was short lived, as the warrior insisted that she was well enough to move herself into Gabrielles hut within days of her injury. Knowing it was a lost cause to argue, Dulcia allowed her to move under the agreement that she would take it easy, putting the queen in charge of the headstrong warrior. Now that she was up and about, Xena would discreetly maneuver herself someplace she couldnt be seen to watch the bard twirl her staff around her body with practiced ease. She prayed that this first step was not the last in the bards road to recovery.
Happily, Gabrielle was at ease around Xena again. It took days to happen, but as Xena regained strength and was able to move around the village with only minor discomfort and weakness, it was easier for the bard to work through her guilt and just spend time with her wounded friend. They talked about what had happened, and although they both still accepted the guilt for the incident, it became a topic of conversation that slowly disappeared. All the Amazons also took it upon themselves to help their troubled queen, by offering reassurances, volunteering to spar with her when she was ready, and making sure she was busy with village business. Things were almost normal again.
After a little over a week, Xena began to get restless. Although she was not fully recovered from her wound, just walking around the village was not enough to work through her claustrophobic feelings. Against Dulcias orders, the warrior decided to take Argo out for a day or so, knowing that camping on the outskirts of Amazon lands was probably just what she needed to calm her restlessness. It also gave Gabrielle more time with her sister Amazons.
The bard knew that her traveling companion was ready to move on, which meant she had a choice to make...stay or leave with Xena. The guilt over Xenas injury had never gone away, and her apprehension about fighting, truly fighting with her staff, was still lingering in the back of her mind. But like Xena had related in her story, leaving the warrior was seemingly not an option. She realized this early on and had been working with her staff constantly, trying to reassure herself that she could defend not only herself, but her partner. Still unsure of herself, Gabrielle knew that one reason Xena had decided to leave for a few days was to give her the opportunity to make her decision.
Xena was exhilarated; Argo under her, riding with the wind. Although Dulcia had warned her about the fact that she was still slightly weak and that her wound could still cause problems, the warrior and Argo galloped through the fields surrounding the Amazon forests. Xena laughed as she rode Argo with abandon, loving the feelings of freedom, and releasing some of the built up tension she had been enduring the past weeks. "This was just what the doctor *should* have ordered," Xena yelled into the air.
Knowing she was still recovering and that she would soon be back on the road, Xena cut short her ride with Argo, leading her though some trees to a beautiful glen where she planned to set up camp. A small stream flowed nearby, affording the warrior a means to catch a nice dinner, and wash up. She unpacked her bedroll and stiffly went about the tasks of setting up camp. She could not believe how weak she felt, but knew that she had probably overdone it with Argo. Once her things were in place, she went over to her horse and began settling her in for the evening. After removing her saddle, Xena retrieved Argos brush and went about the loving task of grooming the mare. Xena could tell that the horse was enjoying her attentions.
"You wore me out girl. Havent been this stiff since, well, after...." Thinking about her death and how Gabrielle had fought to bring her back, she continued. "Lets talk about something else huh? Ive got some nice oats for ya. And Eponin made sure that I stuck a few treats in your bags too." Xena continued to talk with Argo as she finished grooming her. Once finished that task, it was getting near dusk, and the warrior put out Argos dinner, then began thinking of her own. "Be back girl, just going to get some dinner."
Dinner went by uneventfully. After eating her meal, Xena knew she was just too tired to do anything else but go to sleep. Removing her sword and chakram, she laid down on her bedroll and closed her eyes. Within moments, she was asleep. Unfortunately her weakened condition allowed a number of men to make their way much nearer to the warrior than would normally have happened. When one mercenary stepped on a twig, cracking it in two, Xena immediately opened her eyes and reached for her weapons. Bouncing up into a standing position, Xena saw the men surround her cautiously.
"You guys dont give up do you? Cant a woman get a decent nights sleep around here?"
Without any words, the men attacked. Immediately the Warrior Princess let out her battlecry and leaped backwards into the air, somersaulting over the men, turning to begin her defense. Initially the men were surprised by the warriors strength. They had seen her wounded badly and thought that she would go down easily. Unfortunately for them, this was not the case. Fighting two or three at a time, Xena held her own in the battle. Thrust after thrust, parrying each blow, the mercenaries began losing their advantage. Four men went down with lethal wounds in short order, another knocked unconscious by the pummel of Xenas sword. Before the next men got near her, she threw her chakram, cutting their throats before they got any closer. The advantage of battle quickly moved into Xenas favor. Had she not been injured, the remaining men would have been no challenge for her. But Xena was quickly losing whatever strength she had. The adrenaline rush of battle was all that was sustaining her as she continued to fight for her life. Her arms began to feel like lead weights, and it was more and more difficult to even hold up her sword, let alone have it parry blows from the mercenaries in front of her.
Her advantage was quickly lost when one side kick found its mark near her healing side. The Warrior Princess lost the grip on her sword as the pain from the blow doubled her over. Seeing an opening, the remaining mercenaries dove and tackled her to the ground, pummeling her into unconsciousness.
It was mid-morning and the Amazon village was full of activity. Gabrielle was in the middle of it, for the first time sparring with Solari, and very much holding her own against her Amazon instructor. Originally, the two women were just going to go through their normal exercises, but the bard, realizing that time was running out, suggested a sparring bout. Happy to comply, Solari started out slowly, trying the best she could to make the match seem like a game. The Amazon queen noted her friends tactic and mouthed a thanks as they slowly intensified their blows. Although it took a while, the match was at full pace now, and Solari found it difficult to keep up with Gabrielle. Remembering this was the novice she tried to train nearly two years ago, Solari doubled her attack. Unfortunately Gabrielle sparred with and was truly trained by the best, and Xenas unmatched fighting skills had rubbed off on the bard. Solari found herself in a totally defensive posture once the real sparring got underway. Within a short period of time, she was flat on her back, having her legs swept out from under her by her queen.
A crowd of people shouted encouragement to Gabrielle, as her next opponent, Ephiny, came into the clearing. Smiling at her friend, the bard took up a defensive position as Ephiny began her attack. Only Eponin was a better skilled fighter amongst the Amazons, and everyone thought that the queen would succumb to the regents excellent fighting skills in short order. But Gabrielle did not falter. Using many of the tricks Xena taught her, she had her regent on her back nearly as fast as she had Solari. The smug look on the queens face left her as Eponin walked into the clearing.
The best warrior of the village approached her queen and gave a slight bow before preparing to strike. Gabrielle took a deep breath and eyed her opponent. As Eponin began her attack, the bard prepared to defend herself. Unfortunately she was distracted by the sight of Argo galloping into the village riderless. Eponin, whos back was turned to the village, swept Gabrielles feet out from under her and watched as the queen fell flat on her back. Fearing that the bards emotions had somehow stopped her from defending herself, the Amazon warrior found herself running over and apologizing to the queen.
"Gods Gabrielle, Im sorry. I..." She could see that the bards attention was elsewhere and turned to see Xenas horse trot over to the clearing.
"Argo?" The mare went straight to Gabrielle, seemingly ignoring everyone else. "Argo...wheres Xena? Whats happened?" The bard knew that something was wrong and as she stood up looked to her regent. "Ephiny, we need to find her. Somethings happened."
"Maybe she fell or something. She wasnt totally well and maybe she popped open her side again. Look, Ill get Dulcia and some of our warriors and go find her. You take it easy."
"Im going with you."
"Gabrielle, I dont think you should. Its one thing if shes just hurt, but maybe something else happened. If so, well...um, you may have to, um...."
"Ephiny, I just knocked you flat on your backside if you recall."
"Sparring and fighting are two different things and you know it. I dont think this is the time to argue about this or to find out if you can defend yourself. Let us go and find her."
"This isnt open for discussion. Im going and thats final." She turned and grabbed Argos tether. "Solari, can we find another saddle for her? She wont let anyone else ride her and we can track Xena quicker if she leads us back to where they were."
Solari looked at Ephiny and when the regent shrugged her shoulders, the warrior ran towards the tac room. The quicker they got going, the quicker they could start tracking Xena. With Ephiny issuing instructions to the other gathered Amazons, a grouping of twelve women were assembled to help find the Warrior Princess. Dulcia was summoned and when everyone gathered their weapons, Gabrielle led Argo back into the forest.
Xena had woken up a short time ago, but was still feigning unconsciousness. She could feel that she was on the hard ground, and she tried slight movements to no avail. Not hearing anyone around her, she cautiously opened her eyes and saw that she was in a tent, chains wrapped around her body effectively anchoring her arms securely to her side. Her hands seemed to be cuffed in some way behind her back, leaving her fairly defenseless. "Not good...not good at all...." Shaking her head, she tried to assess the damage done by the mercenaries.
Besides having a splitting headache, probably a minor concussion, she knew some ribs were cracked and if she wasnt mistaken by the wetness her left arm was feeling, her back wound had reopened. Other than her whole body aching, that seemed to be the extent of her injuries. Not life threatening by themselves, but she doubted that this was all that Criolis had in store for her.
As if on cue, the tent opened and the warlord sauntered in. "I see youre awake. Good." Taking a few steps, Criolis stood next to the Warrior Princess. Lifting his leg backwards, he sent a kick directly into Xenas injured back. He was ecstatic to hear her grunt in pain. "So, the Destroyer of Nations isnt so invincible now is she? Ive waited a long time for this." Taking great pleasure in Xenas predicament, Criolis rained kicks down on the fallen warrior until she lost consciousness.
It was near dusk when Argo led Gabrielle and the rest of her Amazon party to Xenas campsite. The mercenaries had left their dead where they fell, and it was obvious that the forest animals had been in the area. Quickly dismounting their horses, the bard and Ephiny walked the area, trying to ignore the carnage, assessing the tracks made in the dirt. Ephiny was amazed at what she saw and what she could interpret in the tracks.
"Gods, and she did this hurt."
"How many do you think there were Ephiny?"
"Solari?" Although they were all good trackers, Ephiny knew she should confirm what she was thinking. It was important to know what they may be going up against. "Im thinking maybe a total, including those over there, at 15."
Solari nodded her head in agreement. "Thats about what I make of the tracks too."
Gabrielle stooped down near where the fighting had obviously been the fiercest. She ran her fingers through the moist dirt. "Dulcia, its blood isnt it?" The healer walked over to the queen and looked at her hand. When the healer shook her head in the affirmative, Gabrielle stood up looking around the campsite. "If she were dead, shed be here. These men obviously dont care about leaving bodies around." The bard looked at Solari. "Which wayd they take her?"
"Id say due west."
"Then lets go. She might not be dead, but shes got to be badly hurt if she was captured. We need to find her before...." Gabrielle didnt even want to think in those terms. Grabbing Argos reins, she started walking into the forest.
Xena hated the feeling of utter helplessness she was experiencing. Normally, she never allowed herself to admit that she was without resources, but in her very weakened condition, her mind could not help but think the situation was futile. Criolis had been there each time she had regained consciousness, only to beat her until she was out again. The Warrior Princess had lost track of time and of her excruciating injuries. She knew only that her entire body was bruised and battered, and that her back wound had reopened, allowing her lifes blood to slowly seep out of her body. She doubted that she would survive much more. Hearing the tent flap open, she took a breath and waited for the beatings to continue.
"Ah, awake again are ya?" Walking around so that he could speak directly to his enemy, Criolis crouched down and smiled at his still defiant captive. "I will give you credit...youve lasted longer than I thought you would. I should thank you, it makes it that much enjoyable." Standing up, the warlord went over to a table and poured himself a drink of ale. "Need to fortify myself. Sorry I cant offer you any." Swiftly drinking down his liqueur, he slammed his mug down onto the table. "Now...where were we....?"
The Amazons slowly crept through the woods near Criolis camp. Eponin had been sent ahead near daybreak and had found the campsite, returning to the main Amazon contingent with the news. Of course Gabrielles first question was about Xena. The Amazon warrior had to admit that she had not seen the Warrior Princess, but she did note that there were a number of tents where she could possibly be held. More importantly, she related that the entire camp consisted of 25 men at most, and that they had stupidly set up their encampment directly in the forest, not in any nearby clearings. This worked to the outmanned Amazons favor. A quick plan of action was laid out.
The Amazons had encircled the camp without problems. The sentries were either asleep or obliviously lazy, allowing the women to place themselves strategically throughout the treetops near their locations. All but Ephiny, Eponin, Gabrielle and Dulcia were prepared with their crossbows to take out the enemy from the trees, then descend into the campsite to finish off the rest once the correct birdcall was given. Ephiny had implored Gabrielle to stay back with Dulcia, but the bard would have no parts of that scheme. She intended to go into the camp along with her regent and Eponin to search the tents for Xena. Nothing would dissuade her. Noting this, Ephiny had pulled Eponin aside and gave her strict instructions - protect the queen. Although that limited the amount of tents they could check quickly, Ephiny didnt care. She wasnt sure how Gabrielle would react to the fighting and couldnt take the chance that she would be injured or killed because she couldnt - or wouldnt - protect herself.
When it was clear that all was ready, Ephiny gave the birdcall. At first the mercenaries had no idea what was going on. Then it was clear that they were under a silent attack. Pandemonium ensued, with the unprepared men running around trying to find their attackers. When it was obvious that the first of the men were killed, Ephiny called out for the second wave of the attack. Amazons descended from the trees, invading the encampment and forcing face to face combat with the startled men. This was the screening that Ephiny needed to begin searching for Xena. The three women ran quickly into the campsite and began going tent to tent without finding their friend. Luckily they were not interrupted in their search as most of the mercenaries were either dead or fighting for their lives.
Criolis had been as oblivious to the attack as his men. He had just returned to his tent and was sorely disappointed to see that Xena was still unconscious from his last beating. He had begun to grow tired of the game he was playing and had decided it was time to finish the job. But he wanted the Warrior Princess to see him send his sword into her heart. He needed her awake for that pleasure. Grabbing a pitcher of water, he went over to his enemy and threw the water into her face. He smiled as she slowly came around. Once it was clear that she was conscious enough to understand him, Criolis explained what was going to happen to his captive.
"Sorry to cut this fun short, but Ive got to be moving on. I wanted you to see my face when I kill you." Taking his sword out of its sheath, Criolis smiled down at Xena. "Who wouldve thought it would be me that killed the Warrior Princess. I guess Ill be famous." With a smile, Criolis raised his sword and looked down on Xena.
The beaten warrior took a breath and looked into the face of Criolis, defiant to the end. She offered a silent farewell to Gabrielle and prepared to accept death. As the warlord started to plunge the sword down towards Xenas chest, a bloodcurdling yell came from the entrance of the tent.
"NOOOOOO!!!!!" Gabrielle propelled herself into the tent, oblivious to everything around her but the sight of Xena helpless on the ground with a sword hovering over her body. Without even thinking, she swung her staff and made contact with Criolis arm, rendering it temporarily useless. Spinning around with the staff ready, she connected with his stomach, doubling him over. She then twisted her body back around, repositioning her hands on the staff, while she dipped down and swept the warlords legs out from under him. She then twirled the staff so that she could easily bring it down hard onto Criolis chin, knocking him unconscious.
Eponin had stayed at the entrance to the tent once she saw that Gabrielle was very much able to take care of matters there. Ephiny then ran up and saw that things were under control. Nodding to Eponin, they both backed out to allow Gabrielle a moment with Xena.
Once she had ensured herself that Criolis wasnt a threat, Gabrielle dropped down to the ground next to Xena, slowly cradling her in her arms and kissing her forehead. "Gods, Xena...."
Barely able to talk, the warrior was able to mumble a few words. "I...told ya you...were the...strong one." With effort, Xena smiled up at her companion.
"Well get you outta here. Hang on for me huh?" Tears were streaming down the bards face as she saw the damage done to her friend. Xena had no strength to say anything, and just stared up into Gabrielles eyes, smiling. Turning towards the entrance to the tent, Gabrielle yelled for help. Dulcia had been outside giving the women a private moment before she entered. At the queens command, Ephiny, Eponin and Dulcia ran into the tent and went over to Xenas prone body. "Eponin, find the key to these chains. Ephiny, we need a stretcher."
Dulcia interjected. "Gabrielle, let me look at her first. We might not be able to move her for a while." When Eponin returned with the key, Dulcia and Gabrielle slowly unlocked the manacles and chains that secured the wounded warrior, and gently began to minister to her wounds. Smiling down at the Warrior Princess, Dulcia couldnt help but scold her. "I guess youll listen to me this time and take it easy."
Grimacing in pain, Xena looked at Dulcia, then to Gabrielle. The bard began laughing through her tears as she saw the warriors eyebrow raise up. "I think its safe to say that Xenas going to behave herself for a while, whether she likes it or not."
It had been a rough night, but Xena, with her remarkable recuperative powers, was out of danger by the next day. Although she was in extreme pain from her injuries, Dulcia was sure that with a lot of rest, shed make a full recovery. Knowing that there was no internal bleeding, the healer decided it was safe to move the warrior back to the Amazon village. Eponin and Solari had fashioned a very sturdy stretcher that Argo could pull through the forest, and Dulcia had decided to sedate Xena for the trip. She also knew that the warrior would probably protest to the medication, and had asked Gabrielle to give it to her.
The bard walked up to Xena who was resting on Criolis bed. Sitting down, she offered the warrior a cup of broth. "Thisll make you feel better. Let me help you drink some."
As Gabrielle helped lift her head up, Xena looked into her eyes. "Whats in the broth Gabrielle?"
Knowing it was useless to lie, the bard answered. "Look, youre in a lot of pain...and were going to be moving for most of the day. Why not sleep through it? Besides, you need the rest." Seeing the stoic warriors face, the bard knew that she was going to refuse the medicine. Gabrielle tried another tactic. "Please, for me? Xena, I cant stand it when youre in pain like this, and I know its gonna get worse once we start out. I dont think I could bear watching...."
"Not fair. Not fair at all." Looking up at her friend, Xena nodded her head and allowed the bard to help her drink down the broth. "You have to promise me something though. When I get back on my feet, youll teach me those moves you made yesterday."
"I...you, well, you were right. All along. It did just come back to me. I did like you always say, I just reacted, didnt think. All I saw was that sword and you lying there helpless. The consequences didnt matter...all that mattered was you." Tears started streaming down the bards face. "Ill always be sorry for what I did, but I know that Lilas alive today because I reacted. And I almost lost you because I didnt. Ill never allow that to happen again. I couldnt bear it if I lost you."
Lifting up her hand to wipe the bards tears from her face, Xena smiled. "Im not going anywhere Gabrielle. Remember, I promised."
The two women sat together while the medication slowly took affect. Gabrielle held Xenas hand until she drifted off into a deep sleep, then allowed the Amazons to lift her friend up from the cot and take her outside, gently securing the warrior into the stretcher behind Argo. Knowing that the mare would take commands from no one else, Gabrielle reluctantly left Xenas side and grabbed Argos reins, steering her towards the Amazon village. As the bard lead the mare through the forest, she began to smile. For the first time in quiet a while, she felt whole again. Looking back to make sure Xena was all right, Gabrielle knew that she had saved the most important person in her life.
Ephiny walked up to Gabrielle and put her arm around the Amazon queen as they continued to walk. "Hey, you okay?"
"Yeah, um, I think Im fine now. Or I will be once shes back on her feet again. Its hard seeing her so vulnerable."
"Well, with someone like you watching out for her, I doubt shes got anything to worry about."
"I hope she never has a doubt about that ever again."
"Youre wrong you know." Seeing Gabrielle give her a quizzical look Ephiny explained herself. "Xena never had any doubts in you, ever. She was just waiting until you stopped doubting yourself."
Gabrielle hugged her friend and smiled as they walked towards home.