Ephiny decided to hold off telling Gabrielle until after the morning session wrapped up. She knew there wasnt anything anyone could do until the scouts picked up the trail; if they picked it up. And, they were so close to concluding things with the Andorians.
Just as she'd predicted, they finished the final changes to the wording of the treaty by late morning. It was just before noon when they sanded the ink on the message that would be sent to King Doraclyse to summon him to the treaty signing. The ceremony itself was to take place in a small clearing close to the Amazon/Andorian boundary. A small Amazon delegation would leave with Princess Cynara tomorrow to be at the appointed spot within three days.
The General left the hut with the messenger, giving final instructions in a low voice as the two passed out the door. Gabrielle had arisen from her chair and joined the Princess as she finished re-rolling several scrolls. The bard couldnt keep the smile off her face as she watched Cynara return the scrolls to a leather pouch. She felt like shed been, in her own small way, an active contributor to the success of the negations. And, it felt good.
Princess Cynara looked up and noticed the smile on the young womans face. Taking up the pouch, she paused to return the grin. "I hope youll bring Xena with you to the ceremony. I know my father would like to meet her."
A frown passed over Gabrielles forehead as she remembered the look on Xena face when her partner had left the practice field earlier; it quickly cleared, however, at the thought of the warriors reaction to getting away from the village for a few days. "Ill ask her. Im sure shed love to come." The bard beamed back.
Gabrielle was just about to follow the Princess out the door when Ephiny caught up with her and laid a restraining hand on her arm. "Gabrielle, wait a minute. We have to talk."
The bard lost her smile as she tried to brush her friends hand away. "Not now, Ephiny. I have to go find Xena. Apologize about this morning." She was surprised when the Regent tightened her grip.
Ephinys face had taken on a worried look. "Thats what I want to talk to you about."
Anxious to leave, Gabrielle nevertheless stopped when she saw the Amazons expression.
Ephiny didnt know a good way to say it, so she just gentled her voice and met the bards eyes. "Gabrielle, Xenas gone."
Gabrielle felt her stomach drop as she tried to understand. "What do you mean, gone?"
Not letting go of the bards arm, Ephiny began to steer Gabrielle towards a nearby chair. "She left the village on Argo right after your fight this morning."
Gabrielle relaxed. "Oh, well I guess it can wait 'til she gets back. Shell probably be in a better mood after a ride, anyway."
Ephiny didnt return the bards smile. "Gabrielle, I dont think shes coming back."
Gabrielle pulled her arm out of the Amazons grasp and stared into worried gray eyes. She tried to ignore the growing feeling of panic. "What? Ephiny, dont be ridiculous. Of course, shes coming back. Why wouldnt she?"
The Regent shrugged. "The guards said she seemed to have all her things with her when she passed the border."
Gabrielle had already turned and was pushing past the curtain as Ephiny finished. Striding across the compound, the bard ignored the startled looks of the women she passed by. It was taking all of her control not to break into a run as she headed towards the hut she shared with Xena, the worry settling like a stone in her stomach. Finally reaching it, she threw back the curtain and entered.
The sinking feeling erupted into wild upset now, as her mind acknowledged that what Ephiny had been saying was true. Looking around the hut, she could see that all of Xenas things were gone.
Unable to believe Xena would have been so angry that she'd just leave without talking to her, or at least leaving a note, Gabrielle began to search the hut, looking for something that would explain what was going on. Turning up nothing, she finally found herself standing in the center of the hut, totally at a loss for what to do next. As she stood there, she turned and scanned the room, desperately looking for any clues she might have missed as to where her partner had gone.
She collapsed on the side of her bed, doubled over, holding her stomach. "Oh, Gods, what have I done?" She couldnt believe Xena had really left her.
She looked up as she heard a light tap at her door, to see a very sympathetic Ephiny standing there. "Gabrielle?"
The bards eyes filled with tears as she looked at her friend. "You were right, Ephiny. Shes taken her stuff." Letting her eyes drift around the hut once more, Gabrielle returned pleading eyes to the Amazon. "Are you sure she didnt leave a note or something?"
Ephiny shook her head as she crossed the floor to stand by the hunched figure on the bed. "Im sorry, Gabrielle. Do you have any idea where she might have gone?"
Gabrielle took a moment to think. "She was going to stay with her mother while I was here with you. Maybe shes headed there." Throwing up her hands, Gabrielle stood and started pacing. "Why? Why did she leave without talking to me, Ephiny? This doesnt make sense."
Ephiny watched her friend for a minute, wondering how much of what she knew she should share. Sitting down on the side of Gabrielles cot, she patted the blanket beside her. "Gabrielle, come sit down for a minute."
Gabrielle paused in her pacing and stared at the worried gray eyes beneath those blond curls. The bard returned to her cot and sat down, trying to ignore the nausea rising in her throat and concentrate instead on the Amazon beside her.
"While we were busy this morning, I asked Solari to find out what happened at the practice field." Ephinys eyes met Gabrielles as the bard fixed her full attention on the woman beside her. "According to eyewitnesses, one of the young warriors, Faline, tried to goad Xena into a fight. When that didnt work, she and her friends attacked her."
Gabrielle looked skeptical. "Ephiny, do you mean to tell me they were stupid enough to try to pick a fight with Xena?"
Ephinys expression didnt change. "Gabrielle, thats exactly what Im saying. It was the four of them that attacked her, not the other way around."
The bard had suspected as much, but couldnt keep the frustration from her voice. "But why, Eph.? Nobody in their right mind would attack Xena."
The Regents face reflected the anger shed felt since learning about the actions of the young Amazon warriors. "The best I can figure, is that the others were following Falines lead. She seems to be the ringleader."
Gabrielle looked bewildered. "Why, Ephiny? It doesnt make sense. Why would she hate Xena so much? Shes never even met her."
Ephiny took a moment to compose her thoughts as her eyes took on a distant look. "Eight years ago, our border guards rescued a badly beaten woman from a passing caravan. We took her and her young daughter in. When it turned out that it was her husband who had nearly killed her, we invited her to stay and make her home with us." Ephinys eyes returned to the bards, her mouth set in a grim line. "Two months later, her husband managed to penetrate our boundary. He beat his wife to death and had started on his daughter, when Queen Melosa killed him."
Gabrielles eyes had widened. "Oh, Ephiny, how horrible." She paused for a moment, her brows dropping in a frown. "But, whats that got to do with Xena?" the bard persisted.
"Faline was the young girl. We took her in and raised her." The Regent shrugged. "Seeing Xena has probably triggered memories of her father. She may be confusing your situation and her mothers." Drawing herself up, the Regent put a hand on Gabrielles arm. "She probably thinks the only way to protect you is to make sure Xenas in no position to harm anyone."
Gabrielle couldnt believe what she was hearing. "Thats ridiculous! Even if that were true, what could those four girls hope to do against Xena?" Warning hairs on the back of Gabrielles neck started to rise as she felt Ephiny stiffen. "What is it, Ephiny?" she demanded.
The Regent hesitated before meeting the bards worried glare. "Gabrielle, we think they hurt Xena this morning."
Gabrielle heard a dull roaring and began to feel the room spin. Ephiny had been watching her closely, and when she saw the bards face go white, she quickly leaned closer to support the young woman.
"Ephiny, I dont understand. She looked fine..." Her voice trailed off as she remembered Xenas face when she'd first come upon her friend; bent over, trying to catch her breath. No! How could she have missed it!
"Gabrielle, eyewitnesses say that Xena tried to avoid those girls this morning. It was only after Faline took advantage of her friends diversion and ran her sword through her side, that Xena really fought back. And thats where we came in."
Gabrielle thought she was going to be sick. She started to rise. "Eph., I have to go find her."
Ephiny, expecting this, tightened her grip on the bards arm. "Ive ordered Solari to send out our best scouts to see if we can pick up her trail. Why not wait 'til they report back?"
Gabrielles eyes reflected the worry she felt. "Ephiny, you dont understand. This is all my fault. If Id just stopped to listen to her this morning, she never would have left. I have to go find her."
Ephinys voice was a bit firmer this time. "Gabrielle, be practical. Where are you going to look?"
Gabrielles eyes searched the hut before returning to meet the Amazons with a hopeful one. "She was going to head for Amphipolis...I could start there."
Ephinys eyes were pleading. "Gabrielle, Ill send a couple of scouts there to check, I promise. Please, wait 'til we hear back from them."
The sunlight dappled the roadway ahead where the thick branches overhanging the winding tract thinned out and the damp, black earth beneath them was baked by the unexpected warmth to a hard, pale crust. She noted the slight change in the hollow thud of Argos hooves as they passed in and out of the shafts of light before being swallowed up by the cool damp green once again.
Xena was headed for a little cave she knew of half way between the Amazon territory and Amphipolis. She'd decided before leaving the village that it was probably better to spend a couple of days holed up there, taking care of her latest wound, before moving on to see her mother.
As she let the swaying of the horse beneath her lull her eyes closed for a minute, she took a deep breath and held it before letting it go, trying to release some of the tension in her shoulders with it.
She regretted not speaking with Gabrielle before leaving the village. She knew her partner would be angry with her about that. Shed left the note as part apology and part itinerary, writing the message in a code they used sometimes when leaving communications that might be read by others.
In it, she outlined that she'd be staying in the cave, one they were both familiar with, for a couple of days before moving on to Amphipolis. She suggested meeting Gabrielle at her mothers inn in a weeks time. That should give the bard a chance to finish the treaty negations.
Sticking to the main roads most of the way, it was now late afternoon when she pulled Argo from the dirt track and headed the mare down a game trail that cut between the thick trunks supporting the solid green canopy overhead. Leaving the trail where it crossed a shallow stream flowing across the forest floor, she followed the tributary upstream until she reached the base of a steep set of cliffs that seemed to rise straight out of the forest.
Following the base for a few more kilometers, the gray rocks towering over horse and rider, she eventually found the spot she was looking for. It was a small cave carved out the foot of the rock wall. Its mouth was sheltered by several large pieces of smooth slate that had fallen away from the cliff-face and now provided a convenient screen to the entrance.
Dismounting, she unpacked and unsaddled Argo. She approached the mouth after grabbing her saddlebags, but stopped before entering. Placing the bags on the ground, her sword was slowly unsheathed as she edged her way inside, peering cautiously as she went, making sure she wasnt about to set up in an otherwise occupied cave. It wasnt two-legged creatures the warrior was worried about as she remembered one winters evening stumbling into the cave and right over a sleeping bear.
Assuring herself that she'd be the sole occupant, Xena began transferring her gear into the interior. She knew the spot was remote enough that she was unlikely to be disturbed. Leaving Argo to crop the grasses growing outside, she moved the final load into the cave.
Looking around the dim interior, she remembered the large pile of wood stacked in the corner from the last time she and Gabrielle had used the cave. On the back wall was a small fissure through which a spring flowed, cascading down the rockface to collect in a small pool which had been etched out over the years. The pool itself was only a foot or so deep and five or six meters long before it followed down a channel cut over time in the rock to the outside of the cave.
She built a small fire and put on a pot of water to heat. Spreading out her blanket on the sandy floor, she began to remove her leathers, planning to change her bandages.
Gabrielle sat in her hut and stared at the wall. She was having a hard time believing that Xena would have left without leaving a note or something. She replayed the events on the practice field over in her mind for the hundredth time and it still didnt make sense. There was nothing said between them that would have made Xena angry enough to just walk away without a word.
Something wasnt right about this whole situation. Her suspicions fully aroused, Gabrielle began to go back over their time spent in the Amazon village. What about that first night? What had Xena been trying to keep from her?
Pushing back the anxiety that had been threatening to overwhelm her, Gabrielle got to her feet and headed out the door, determined to get answers to all the questions she'd been ignoring up until now.
She spotted Solari crossing the compound and fell into step beside her. "Hi. Can I ask you something?"
Solari, remembering her conversation with Gabrielle that morning, was a little wary. "Ah, sure Gabrielle. What is it?"
Gabrielle kept her face neutral as she observed the Amazon beside her. "Something happened to Xena in the healers hut the first night we got here. You wouldnt know what that was, would you?"
Solari looked genuinely surprised. "I dont know what youre talking about. What makes you think something happened?" The Amazons eyebrows dropped into a frown.
Gabrielles gaze never left her face. "When I found Xena tied to the pallet the next morning, she was pretty banged up. And when I asked about it, her two guards exchanged some kind of a look with Saran."
Solari thought for a minute. While she didnt like or trust Xena, she also didnt like the idea of her guards involved in plotting with Saran against the Queens Champion. That went against her personal code of honor.
Gabrielle watched as Solari seemed to come to a decision.
"I know where Xenas guards are right now. According to their report nothing happened, but if you want, why dont we ask them?" The Amazon noticed the bards green eyes widen a bit. "Gabrielle, I know what I said this morning. But my guards wouldnt let their personal feeling interfere with their duties any more than I would. I dont care what Xenas done. Those guards are seasoned warriors. If anything did happen, theyd report it."
Gabrielle wasnt too sure as she followed Solari into the nearly empty cook hut. She stood beside her as the tall Amazon came to a halt before Xenas two guards, who were just finishing up their lunch.
"Mind if I ask you a couple of questions?"
The taller Amazon continued eating while the younger one looked up, her eyes darting over to Gabrielles face before settling back on Solaris. "Sure, whats up?"
Solari thought for a moment about the best approach to take. She kept her posture relaxed, while she smiled down at the two women. "The first night we brought Xena in; did something happen at Sarans that you figured wasnt worth including in your report?"
The taller Amazon spoke up after shooting a glance at her friend. Her voice had taken on a guarded tone as her eyes met Solaris. "Like what? All the important stuff was in the report."
Solari wasnt comfortable with the way the two warriors were reacting and decided to take a long shot. She dropped her voice and leaned closer. "Well, I heard through the drums about what happened, and I just wanted to say, you two handled it right."
The younger guard visibly relaxed. "Yeah. That was close. Talk about reflexes. She had to sense that knife before..." She trailed off as she noticed Solaris gaze harden.
The taller guard interrupted, her voice now suspicious. "I thought you said you knew about it?"
Solari used her most disarming smile and held up her hands. "Only the big picture. Why dont you guys fill me in on the details?"
The younger Amazon didnt notice the warning glance from her comrade. "It was just before the watch changed. We heard a noise inside Sarans hut and when we investigated, we saw Xena on the floor and a knife sticking out of her pillow."
"Was Xena all right?" Solari unconsciously straightened as she felt Gabrielle tense beside her.
The Amazon exchanged a look with her companion. "I guess so. She didnt look like she was hurt or anything. At least not from where we stood." The guard let a note of admiration creep into her voice. "But thats what I mean. We checked on her a candlemark after Ephiny left and she was asleep. A couple of minutes later someone takes a shot at her. She had to sense that knife coming in her sleep."
Solari kept her voice even as she looked down at the Amazons before her. "Did she say if she saw who threw it?"
The taller guard had turned back to finishing her lunch, a tense set to her body. "We didnt ask."
Gabrielle couldnt keep quiet any longer. Her voice was cold as she looked at the two guards. "Well, what did you say to her?"
The Amazon shrugged and shoved another mouthful in. Pausing to chew a few bites, she examined the food in front of her and kept her voice neutral. "Nothing. We saw she was all right, so we went back to our posts."
Gabrielle couldnt believe what she was hearing. "You mean you left her laying on the floor of the healers hut?"
The guard stopped eating and addressed her response to Solari, unwilling to face her Queen. "Look, she was moving around and cursing. She didnt need our help to get back onto the pallet." Smirking, she looked over at her companion. "She managed to get back into bed all by herself."
Solari cleared her throat to get their attention. "Who did you report this to?"
The Amazon guard held up her hand in protest. "No one. Look, Solari. Nobody got hurt. It was obviously just meant as a warning. There was no harm done, so why make a big deal over it."
Solaris expression didnt change as she turned to the younger woman. "Do you have anything you want to add?"
"No, except that I agree. It was no big deal. Just one of the sisters letting off a little steam. No one got hurt."
Solari looked down at the two Amazons before her. She was disgusted with them but she was more disgusted with herself for not admitting earlier that something like this might happen. As Ephinys second-in-command, these warriors reported to her. The prisoners safety had been her responsibility and she'd let her personal feelings interfere with her duties. That was going to change, right now.
"Well now, thats where you two are wrong. It is a very big deal. I dont care a centaurs ass what you think or dont think. You two had a job to do and that included protecting the prisoner in your charge."
"Now, wait a minute Solari..."
"No. You wait. Your job was to guard Xena. You let someone get close enough to throw a knife at her, you didnt bother to check to make sure she was okay, and you failed to report the incident. Youre both relieved of your duties. Return to your huts until Ephiny sends for you."
As the two women silently stood and stalked out of the cook hut, Solari turned to Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, Im so sorry. That should never have happened."
Gabrielle couldnt believe what shed just heard. What else hadnt Xena told her, and more importantly, why?
Chapter 11 next