A soft breeze tugged at the two women as they silently crossed the compound to the healers hut. Gabrielle was vaguely aware that the sky had clouded over, making the bright islands of light cast from the windows of the huts stand out in sharp contrast to the darkness of the shadows of the compound.
She took several deep breaths, filling her lungs with the cool night air, as she tried to force the muscles across her shoulders to relax. Nearing Sarans hut, she made a conscious effort to keep her anger in check as she remembered Xenas treatment, or lack of it, by the healer.
Ephiny brushed aside the curtain as they entered the darkened hut. They took a quick look around before coming to a halt in the center of the empty room. Both women noticed the light spilling from around the curtain at the back as Ephiny called out.
It was a moment before a tired voice came drifting from behind the divider. "Coming."
Ephiny was about to call again, when the healer finally appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands on a scrap of cloth. Taking in both women, she took a moment to study the expressions on their faces before speaking. Turning to Ephiny, she took on an accusing tone. "I was just preparing some poultices for Karis. If she doesnt stay off that leg, shes going to lose it."
Recalling the hunter who had taken a boars tusk through the calf, Ephiny knew they were having trouble keeping the stubborn woman in bed long enough to let the wound heal.
"Ill talk to her, again." Noticing the nod of the healers head, Ephiny hesitated before proceeding. "Saran, what do you know about the knife that was thrown at Xena the first night she got here?"
The older Amazons eyes narrowed as she looked at both women for just a moment before turning around and disappearing into the back room. Gabrielle and Ephiny had time to exchange glances before Saran reappeared carrying a cloth covered object which she unwrapped as she crossed over to the two women. She held a long, slim dagger out to the Regent.
"You mean this one?"
Ephiny took it from her and turned it over several times, examining it closely before looking back up. "Whered you get this?"
Not trying to hide her smug look, Saran met her stare. "I found it over there on the floor the next morning."
Ephiny let her lips compress into a tight line. "Why didnt you tell me about this before now?"
Saran shrugged as she turned and headed for the backroom again. "I figured if you should know, the guards would tell you. Ephiny, if you dont know whats going on under your own nose, its not my concern."
The Regents firm hand on her arm stopped Gabrielle as she started to follow the retreating healer. "Let it go, Gabrielle. She isnt worth it."
Ephiny tried to keep the look of contempt off her face as she drew her eyes away from the swaying curtain. "Come on. Were not going to learn anything more here."
She wondered sometimes why she put up with that woman. If she wasnt such a good healer... the Regent sighed as she turned towards the door, and followed Gabrielle out.
Gabrielle waited for Ephiny just outside the door, falling into step beside her.
"Well? What about the knife? Does it tell you anything?" the bard looked over at the face hidden behind the blond curls.
Ephiny hesitated a moment before turning and meeting Gabrielles expectant look. "Nothing. Its standard issue. Nothing special about it." Shifting her eyes forward, she didnt try to hide her disappointment. "Were no further ahead than when we started."
"So, what do we do now?" the bard asked hopefully.
Grey eyes met green and held for a moment before Ephiny shrugged her shoulders. "Frankly Gabrielle, Im not too sure what to do next. Lets go back to my hut and regroup."
Returning to the Regents hut, the bard insisted that Ephiny send someone to check to see if any of the scouts had returned. And, while the Amazon knew it was too early yet to have heard back, she didnt have the heart right then to tell the bard, so she sent Solari to check for her.
As Gabrielle sat down, Ephiny pulled out a large leather sack from a corner and placed it on the table. The bard watched as the Regent began to move about the hut, seemingly lost in thought as she transferred various items from where she found them, into the bag. The bard watched for a few minutes before she spoke.
"What are you doing?"
Ephiny didnt look up as she absently replied. "Packing."
"Packing?" The bard looked puzzled.
The Regent now lifted her eyes to meet Gabrielles, blinking a couple of times as she broke her train of thought. "Yes. Remember? Tomorrow morning we leave for the rendezvous with King Doraclyse."
Gabrielle was stunned. "We cant leave now! What about Xena?"
Ephiny stopped moving, and turned to face her friend. "Gabrielle, if you want to stay here, youre welcome to. I dont have any choice. I have to go."
She deposited the things in her hands into the bag and then moved to take the chair beside Gabrielle. Sitting down, she let her friend see how concerned she was. "I know how worried you are about Xena. But if she has really left, and doesnt want to be found...do you honestly think you can track her, if my most experienced scouts cant."
Gabrielle got to her feet and stared down at the Regent. "Then what do I do Eph.? Something isnt right about this whole thing. Im not giving up 'til I talk to Xena and she tells me to my face were through."
Ephiny stood and moved to stand beside the bard, putting her arm around her shoulders. "Fair enough, Gabrielle. But why not give the scouts a chance to find her, first. And that could take several days. Even if shes headed straight for Amphipolis, itll take two days to get there and two days to get back. Youre going to drive yourself crazy if you dont keep busy in the meantime."
Gabrielle pulled away from Ephiny and turned to face her friend, a look of exasperation on her face. "But thats why I should leave now. I could be in Amphipolis in two days!"
Ephiny stopped the angry, frustrated words before they left her throat. Her heart took over as she saw the concern, and maybe even a little fear, in her friends eyes. She let her voice gentle as she moved closer to take the bards hands in hers. "And what if shes not there? Then what?"
Gabrielle looked down at the Amazons tanned fingers wrapped around hers, and took a deep breath. Letting it out slowly as her eyes were raised to meet the pleading gray ones, "Ephiny, I cant just sit here and do nothing!"
The Regent replied, a note of urgency mixed with the words. "Go with us to the treaty signing, Gabrielle." She felt the bard pull away from her, and she let the note of pleading follow. "Amphipolis is only a day and a half away from the meeting spot. If the scouts find Xena, you can leave from there."
Gabrielle looked up, deep uncertainty reflected in her eyes. "I dont know, Ephiny."
The Regent patted the bards hands before standing to gather up the last few items and throw them in her bag. As she drew the leather strings tight, she met the bards troubled look. "You dont have to decide until were ready to leave tomorrow, Gabrielle. Who knows, she may turn up before then."
It was the wee small hours of the morning when the first scout returned. Gabrielle had gone back to her own hut when Ephiny had been unable to hide her increasingly frequent yawns, but the bard did little more than pace when she got there. She heard the commotion in the compound as the rider returned and was out of her hut in a shot, managing to get to the Regents hut in time to follow the scout in.
Ephiny would have preferred to take the scouts report without Gabrielle being there, but she wasnt going to get the chance.
"Well, did you find her?"
The tired Amazon glanced at the anxious face of her Queen, before focusing her attention on Ephiny. "We followed her tracks half way to Amphipolis. Then we lost her."
Gabrielle spoke up. "What do you mean, lost her?"
The scout turned slightly to face the disappointed bard. "We think she turned off the road and headed into the woods, but we havent found where, and it was too dark to continue searching tonight."
Gabrielle deliberated before she looked at the two women, her voice now tinged with hope. "You said she was on the road to Amphipolis?"
The Amazon spared a glance at Gabrielle, before turning back to address the Regent. "She was. But it looks like shes either making a detour, or shes deliberately trying to mislead us."
Ephiny thought this over for a minute before shifting her eyes to meet the scouts. "How did you leave the others?"
"There are four scouts left. Two will try to pick up her trail, and two have already gone on to Amphipolis."
Ephiny nodded and began to move towards the door. "Thank you, Lyra. Good job. Now go get some rest."
The scout seemed to hesitate, and then looked directly at Gabrielle, her voice a mixture of sympathy and conviction. "Dont worry, my Queen. Well find her." Not waiting for Gabrielles response, she turned and left, without a backward glance.
Gabrielle watched her leave before turning back to Ephiny.
"See, I told you she was on her way to Amphipolis. I knew it! I knew I should have left here this afternoon. Maybe, if I get started now..."
Gabrielle began to head for the doorway when her path was blocked by the Regent. Ephiny held up her hands and planted her feet. "Now wait a minute, Gabrielle. We dont know shes headed for Amphipolis. For all we know, she just headed in that direction to throw us off her track."
Gabrielle tried to brush past the Amazon. "Dont be ridiculous, Eph. Why would she do that?"
Ephiny stood her ground. "Why did she leave in the first place without talking to you?"
Gabrielle paused in her tracks. "I dont know, Ephiny. But I do know shes hurt and I have to find her."
Ephinys voice had turned pleading. "And the quickest way to do that is to send out experienced scouts. If anybody can find her, they will. Why not give them a chance. If Xenas destination isnt Amphipolis, you may find yourself heading in the wrong direction. You dont want that, do you?"
Gabrielles eyes met the Regents. "Of course not. But I feel so helpless just sitting here."
"I know Gabrielle, but let the scouts do their jobs. Please. Go back to your hut, and try to get some rest, okay?"
"All right Eph., but if you hear anything..."
"Ill come find you, I promise."
Gabrielle returned to her hut but couldnt keep her mind from going over the events of the day. Every time her eyes wondered over to the empty cot in the corner, she felt the knot twist in her stomach. But each time she went through what had happened, she kept coming to the same conclusion; Xena would not have left like that without leaving a note, or something.
Letting her eyes search over the interior once more, she stopped this time when they came to rest on the bag that contained her writing supplies. Getting up from the bed, she padded over and grabbed her writing kit out of the bag, before returning to her bed.
Opening it up, she stared at the contents for a moment before realizing what had caught her attention. The blank scraps of parchment she kept for her stories were not in the familiar neat stack that she kept them in. The first piece was just slightly askew. Pulling the pieces of parchment out, she carefully counted them. Thinking back to the last town where she picked up supplies, and taking into account what shed written since then, she quickly did the math.
Yes! She was one piece of parchment short!
Xena didnt just leave her without an explanation. But, if she wrote a note, where was it?
Gabrielle started at the door this time, and made a careful, thorough search of everything in the hut. She knew it was going to be fruitless; Xena would have left the note where it would be easily found, using their code if shed felt the need to keep the contents secret.
Gabrielle wanted to be absolutely certain, however, that the note wasnt in the hut. Because if it wasnt there, then somebody had been in her hut and had taken it. And, she didnt like the idea of that, at all. She wanted to be very, very sure there was no other explanation.
When her search turned up nothing, she decided instead to try a different approach. What would Xena have written in the missing note?
Moving towards her bed, she paused and instead, turned back towards her bags, smiling. Digging around inside, she pulled out a cloth wrapped bundle and returned to her cot to lie down. Stretching out on her side and leaning on one elbow, she laid the bundle beside her and carefully unwrapped the cloth from around the dark, smooth wood of a hand-carved childs toy. Hugging the lamb to her chest, she let her head fall back down on the pillow as she tried to figure out what Xena would have put in that note.
Xena was standing by the mouth of the cave, a blanket wrapped around her as she stared up past the tops of the trees to the stars winking between the gently swaying branches. It was a clear night, and a gentle breeze found its way between the trees, carrying the green smell of the forest mixed with the rock dust of the towering cliffs above her.
She could hear Argo moving restlessly in the clearing to her right as the mare shifted in her sleep. She heard the sharp, piercing calls of a night-hunting bird as it soared beyond the canopy overhead.
Letting her mind wander over her abrupt departure from the Amazon village, she wondered how Gabrielle had reacted. She hoped her partner hadnt been too disappointed in her. Maybe she should have explained what was going on, but Xena wasnt too sure herself. The more she thought about it, the antsier she became. Something just wasnt sitting right about this whole thing; her instincts were trying to tell her something.
She just couldnt put her finger on what it was.
Sighing, she turned and entered the cave. She knew she should lay down and try to get some sleep, but she couldnt keep still. Going over to the pile of wood in the corner, she selected a couple of stout branches and returned to throw them on the dying campfire. Pulling a half-burned stick out of the embers and using it to rearranging the coals, she soon had the fire blazing again.
Getting up, she went over to one of her packs and pulled out her whetstone before returning to the fire with her sword. She sat down cross-legged and placed the sword across her lap as she started to stroke the stone in a familiar pattern.
Her hands soon moved unconsciously as her mind went over the events of the past few days, over and over again, trying to figure out what was bothering her.
The cool air that had hung over the village the previous day had been replaced by a warm wind that snapped the laundry hanging on the line by the wash hut. The village was already a beehive of activity as the escort party prepared to leave.
Gabrielle awoke at dawn, heading over to Ephinys first thing. Now, as she entered the hut, she found the Regent conferring with Solari as the two Amazons stood by the large table in the center of the room..
They both looked up and smiled as Gabrielle entered.
"Any news?" Gabrielle looked expectantly at the Regent.
The smiles left their faces. "Gabrielle, its just first light, we wont hear from the scouts again 'til this evening, even if they do pick up her trail again." Seeing the look of concern flash across the bards face, she quickly added, "Which Im sure they will."
Ephiny exchanged a look with Solari, and the lieutenant started for the door. "Ill go check and see when the Princess will be ready to leave."
The Regent watched her exit before turning back to Gabrielle. "Have you decided if you want to go with me or stay here and wait for word?"
Gabrielle moved to stand in front of Ephiny. "What I really want to do is go out and find her."
Ephiny started to argue but stopped when she noticed the excited look in the bards eyes. "Gabrielle, whats happened?"
The bard couldnt keep the smile off her face. "Ephiny, Xena left me a note!"
The Regent didnt try to hide her surprise. "What! What does it say?" When Gabrielle hesitated, she let a frown begin to take over. "Well, where is she?"
Gabrielle looked away, frustration showing on her face. "I dont know."
Ephinys voice reflected her confusion. "What do you mean, you dont know? What does the note say?"
"I dont know that either!" Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders.
The frustration was evident in Ephinys voice now. "Gabrielle, did Xena leave you a note or didnt she?"
Gabrielle took a moment to fill the Regent in on her discovery of the missing parchment. Ephiny had a bit of trouble sharing the bards enthusiasm.
"So, even if she did leave a note, we dont know where it is, so, we still dont know where she is? How is this an improvement?"
"Dont you see, Eph.? Xena didnt leave me. She just left." Ephiny was obviously missing the subtle distinction here. "Ephiny, Xenas not mad at me; she left for a reason. If I can just figure out what that was, then Ill know where she went."
The Amazon looked dubious. "Does that mean you want me to call in the scouts?"
"No! We still have to find her. She may think shes invincible, but I know shes not. Shes still wandering around out there, Gods knows how badly injured. She may even be expecting me to meet her somewhere, not knowing I didnt get her note. What if shes waiting for me somewhere right now, and I never show up."
Ephiny took a firm hold of the bards shoulders. "Stop that right now, Gabrielle. Dont start making up trouble." She waited 'til the bards anxious eyes returned to hers. "Do you have any idea of where she might be?"
"I still think Amphipolis is out best bet." Gabrielle raised her hand to stop her friend who was drawing a breath to argue. "But youre right, I dont know that for sure. Not yet, anyway. Eph., dont worry. Im not going anywhere. Im going to wait until I know where she is, or at least have a petty good idea, before I go looking for her."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and locked eyes with her friend. "But Im going to trust that you wont try to keep anything from me, Ephiny. I need your promise that youll tell me everything. No holding back. If you cant promise that, Ill understand. But, then, I have to go find her myself. Now."
Ephiny took a moment before answering. She knew what her friend was asking. Total honesty. The problem was, she also knew how much Gabrielle had been through the past few months. Her instincts were to try to protect her friend from any more pain. She wasnt sure, if she had bad news to tell, if she could be totally honest. Looking across at the green eyes studying her intently, her answer became clear as she thought about how she'd feel if positions were reversed.
She took a breath and straightened her shoulders. "Okay, Gabrielle. I promise. What I know, youll know."
The bard met her steady gaze. "Thank you, Ephiny." Releasing the tight muscles she didnt know shed clenched, she began to rise as her face broke into a smile. "I guess Id better go pack."
The Regent straightened in her chair, stopping the bard before she could get to her feet. "Gabrielle, before you leave, there are a couple of decisions we have to make."
Gabrielle turned back to face the Regent; settling back down in her chair, her eyebrows raised.
"What do you want to do about Jess, Philana and Amara?"
Gabrielle frowned, not sure what the best thing to do was. Meeting the Regent's questioning look, she shrugged her shoulders. "I dont know, Ephiny. Their hearts are in the right place. They just seemed to get turned around."
Ephiny smiled at the bard. "Yeah. I was thinking that too."
Gabrielle straightened as a gleam entered her eyes. "Why not bring them along with us?"
"To the treaty signing? Why?" Ephiny showed her surprise.
Eager green eyes met hers. "Because, part of their problem is, they seem to have gotten the wrong idea about Xena and me. Spending a few days with them might give me a chance to get them to see where they made their mistake. After all, their intentions were good. Id hate to think, in the future, that they would hesitate to give their help to someone who really needed it, because of all this."
Ephiny couldnt believe that despite her own problems, Gabrielle was willing to spend the time with these girls. The generosity of her friend never ceased to amaze her. But, if the bard was willing, she was glad to take her up on her offer.
"Okay, I think thats a great idea, Gabrielle. Although, I dont know if Solari is going to be too pleased with it. Ill ask her to tell the girls to get ready when she gets back." Getting up and pouring two mugs of cider, she handed one to Gabrielle as she sat back down in her chair. "Have you given any thought to what you want to do about Faline?"
Gabrielle drew in a deep breath, and slowly let it out. "I was hoping you had some idea. Frankly, Im at a loss. She needs help to get past this thing with her father, but thats way beyond anything I know how to handle."
Ephiny sighed, "Me too. I suppose Id better get some professional counseling for her. Ill talk to Saran." Ephiny noticed Gabrielle straighten her back, and the Regent shrugged. "Despite her attitude, she is the best healer we have, Gabrielle."
The bard thought for a minute before relaxing back down in the chair and continuing. "What about Xenas guards?"
Ephiny broke into a broad grin as she sat back in her own chair. "If its all right with you, Solaris taken care of that."
Gabrielle couldnt keep the smile off her own face, as Ephinys infectious grin spread. "Okay, no problem. Can I ask what shes going to do?"
"Theyre going to be coming with us, too." The Amazon grinned back.
Gabrielle lost her smile. "Wait a minute, Ephiny. I dont think..."
Ephiny held up her hand. "Gabrielle, an escort party our size, if you include the Princess honor guard, is going to need a lot of firewood cut, water drawn and quite a few latrines built. Solari has volunteered Xenas guards for the duty."
"Oh," the bard smiled back.
Just then, the curtain was brushed aside as Solari returned to join them at the table. Reaching over and pouring a mug for herself, she took a couple of deep gulps before lowering the mug back down. "The Andorians should be ready to leave within the candlemark."
Ephiny looked over. "What about us?"
The stocky Amazon grinned back. "You should be too. The horses are almost loaded."
Ephiny glanced at Gabrielle before looking back at her mug. "Solari, would you mind telling Jess, Philana and Amara to pack up and get ready. Theyre going to be joining us this trip."
Solari sat bolt upright, splashing the cider into her lap. "What! Ephiny, you cant be serious?" She kept her eyes focused on the Regent as she brushed most of the spilled liquid off her leathers and onto the floor.
"Now, Solari, Gabrielle and I both feel that its worth investing a little time in these girls. Besides, well be taking them off your hands for a few days. Youll have enough to do running things around here without having to worry about them."
Solari didnt look too sure as she got to her feet and looked at the women sitting before her. "I think you two are nuts to take them with you. But, who am I?" crossing the floor, she spared a backward glance before heading out the door. "Ill go tell them to get packed."
Gabrielle rose to follow her out. "Id better get my stuff together, too." Moving towards the door, she suddenly stopped as something Solari said finally registered with her. "Horses! Did Solari say horses?"
The Regent tried to hide her grin. "The meeting place is two days away by horse, Gabrielle. Dont worry, I picked out your mount myself."
Gabrielle looked dubious. "I suppose I cant walk there, can I?"
"Im sorry Gabrielle, it would take too long. Wed never make it in time for the rendezvous."
Gabrielle sighed as she headed out the door. "Okay, Eph. But, shed better not be too tall. I hate tall horses."
The Amazons were mounted and heading out in pairs, Gabrielle and Ephiny leading the column. As they left the gates of the village, Gabrielle clutched the saddle and looked around before turning to the Regent mounted beside her.
"Wheres the Princess and the others?"
The Amazon nodded towards the road in front of them. "Theyve been camping in a field a quarter candlemark from the village. This path branches off just ahead. Well follow it and pick them up on the way."
Gabrielle nodded and faced forward, mumbling to herself. "I wondered where the Princess and her entourage were hiding."
In a short while they broke through the trees and into an open field. The Amazons came to a halt, but stayed mounted as the Andorian troops swung into their saddles and fell into position behind the General. Princess Cynara was the last to mount and move her horse to take up her spot.
With a glance at the Princess, the General nudged his horse forward at the same time as the girl beside him and the column moved to take their place beside the mounted Amazons. Now four abreast, the Princess and the General nodded at Ephiny and Gabrielle as the small group moved out.
Xena had eventually let her eyes drift shut and was surprised when she opened them to see the morning light coming in the mouth of the cave. She looked around and found she'd fallen asleep with her sword on her lap and her back propped up against the log she'd been leaning against last night.
Shifting the weapon to the ground beside her, she moved to straighten and winced as she felt her muscles protesting. She got to her feet, stretching her tall frame out and moving towards the cave entrance, determined to find the nearest bush before she tried her luck at catching breakfast.
She returned a short while later with a brace of hares and quickly skinned and spitted them. She got the fire built up again and gave it a while to burn down to a glowing bed of coals before suspending her catch over the heat.
She then removed her shift and changed the bandage on her side. She noticed as she was digging out her herb bags that she was beginning to run short of a few of the basics. She mixed up what she needed, substituting a couple of her favorite ingredients, and applied it to the healing wounds, covering them and wrapping her waist with linen before putting her shift back on.
She gave the meat a quarter turn before grabbing a needle and thread out of her kit and beginning to repair the two long slices in her leathers. She alternated between turning the now sizzling meat and taking small, careful stitches, until both the leathers and the rabbits were done.
Putting the leatherwork aside, she took the meat off the fire and picked at it 'til her hunger was satisfied. Wrapping up the remains for later, she stretched out on her blanket and looked up at the roof of the cave.
She sat up and looked around, searching for something to do. If she was going to spend the next two days here, she'd better find something to occupy herself, or she was going to start climbing the walls.
She got up, grabbed her sword, and went outside. Beginning to swing it in a familiar pattern, she kept pulling up short as the muscles in her side tugged at her wounds. No matter what series of drills she tried, she still pulled at her stitches. Giving up in disgust, she looked around for something else to do.
Spotting Argo, she went back to the cave and dug out her brushes. Returning to her horse, she began the familiar grooming ritual. Within a half a candlemark, Argo was shining. Shed managed to dig out some pine tar from the bottom of her bag, and even the war-horses hooves were now soft and gleaming. Argo hadnt looked this fine since her Warlord days. Putting away the brushes and admiring her handiwork. Xena looked around.
She looked back at the cave entrance and sighed.
There was no way she was going to be able to spend two days in that stupid cave. Whose idea was this, anyway?
Well, she had six more days before she was supposed to meet up with Gabrielle. Maybe she should move on to Amphipolis. That would give her more time with her mother.
And why was she going to visit her mother?
It had seemed like a good idea at the time; spending time getting to know the woman while Gabrielle spent time with the Amazons. But, Xena admitted now that the only reason the idea had appealed to her was because Amphipolis was close to the Amazon lands. The gulf between she and her mother was wideperhaps too wide to cross. She didnt know how to begin bridging the gap, and she was pretty sure her mother didnt know how to either. Spending six days in that atmosphere did not appeal to her.
Maybe she should just turn around and head back to the Amazon village. That feeling that had been nagging at her since last night was still there. There was something not right going on. And, Gabrielle was still back there. But maybe she was just letting the hostility of the village get to her; letting her natural paranoia take over.
Making her decision, she swung around and headed for the cave. Entering it, she started to kick sand into the remains of the mornings fire. She'd head for Amphipolis, like she planned, but right now, not two days from now. If it got to be too much at home, she could always head back early. Feeling better, Xena hastened to gather her things and re-pack.
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