As she watched the lines of tension drain from the bards face, Xena felt the pressure of the last two days begin to lift from her own shoulders. She let a wave of relief wash over her as she finally acknowledged to herself that Gabrielle was safe. Feeling the bard unconsciously clutch her hand tighter, she began to relax a little and slowly became aware that there were others in the tent with her.
Reluctantly letting her eyes lift from the face of her friend, she was surprised that both Ephiny and Eponin were staring at her with what looked like a mixture of anxiety and apprehension.
And for some reason, that annoyed her.
Ephinys gray eyes met hers, concern now evident on her face. "Are you okay?"
Xena shrugged. Shed felt a lot better the time she died than she did right now, but she wasnt going to admit it to these women. The fight to survive the battering shed taken at the bottom of the waterfall had been nothing compared to the struggle of the last half-candlemark; when shed come to, she was being tossed along by the raging river, the air trapped in the watertight pack on her back somehow keeping her afloat.
"Im fine. Why?"
"You dont look fine, Xena. You look like death, warmed over."
Xena felt another wave of dizziness as she turned back to face the bard. "Ill be fine. You got anything to drink?"
Ephiny reached around behind her and picked up a waterskin, handing it to the warrior. They watched as it took Xena a couple of tries to pull the stopper from the neck before lifting it to her lips. Everyones attention was diverted to the entrance as several soldiers entered carrying cots. Two stretchers quickly followed, one carrying the General.
Xena looked up as the soldiers entered and her shoulders slumped as she realized what they were carrying. All she wanted to do now was close her eyes and surrender to the blackness. The race to get here on time had taken all she had. She'd no idea where the strength had come from when shed recognized Gabrielles still form lying on the ground, but now that the bard was safe, it was gone. She was empty. There was nothing left to give.
And still they wanted more.
The King had returned with Princess Cynara and now they were all standing silently watching her as the soldiers placed the General on one of the cots.
Looking over, Xena scrubbed at her eyes a couple of times before trying again to focus on the shapes beneath the blankets. She felt a jolt run through her as she realized who one of them was.
The Princess stepped forward, her voice catching. "They shot him in the chest."
Dammit, dammit, dammit! She couldnt just sit here and let Andrus die.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. "Clear off the table, and lay him down on it. Bring in some more lamps and put a poker in the fire."
The King strode over to the table and with a broad sweep of his arm had the surface cleared. As the soldiers moved Andrus over to it, Xenas eyes opened and searched out Ephiny, catching the Amazons attention and motioning her over. It wasnt hard. The Regent had been watching her very closely.
"Will you keep watch on Gabrielle for me?"
"Of course. Is there anything else I can do?"
"Ill let you know."
The warrior took a moment to search through her healers kit, before taking out and unfolding a small blue packet. Ephiny noticed Xena hesitate before taking a pinch of the white powder between her shaking fingers and slipping it under her tongue. As she continued to watch the warrior, she noticed a flush start on the skin of her chest, where the mud had flaked off during the fighting, and spread up her throat to her face. She also noticed Xenas breathing become more rapid.
"Xena, what was that?"
The warrior closed her eyes for a moment, her hand moving up to her neck to press two fingers against her pulse point. "Just something to give me my second wind."
Xena knew this was dangerous. The herb she'd taken acted a heart stimulant. Shed never used it this way before, but it just might give her enough of a kick to get her through another candlemark or so. Enough to see what she could do about patching these people up.
Opening her eyes, she slowly heaved herself to her feet and moved to stand beside the table. She could see that the General was in shock and had lost a lot of blood. As she began to feel the effects of the herb in her own body, she felt some strength returning.
"Somebody wanna get his shirt off for me?"
While the King and Princess Cynara started undoing the Generals vest and shirt, Xena turned to take a look at the unconscious Amazon theyd placed on the other cot. A sword had caught the woman across the stomach, splitting her open and allowing her entrails to spill out of the gaping hole in her leathers. As Xena bent close to examine the bloody mess, she noticed the sword seemed to have missed nicking the intestines themselves. It might just be possible to pack it all back in and sew her back up.
Her attention was re-focused on the unconscious Andrus and the shaft sticking out from his chest as she walked over to a large pot of water sitting close to the table and dipped her arms into it, beginning to scrub off some of the dirt.
As she worked on the wounded, she became aware of a heated discussion now taking place in the corner of the tent between Ephiny and Doraclyse.
The two were standing facing each other, as the King raised his hands in exasperation. "We dont have enough time, Ephiny. You heard Meklan. Kirilus may have failed in his assassination attempt but his army will be here tomorrow. Wed better come up with a plan fast or hes going to march right over both our kingdoms."
The Regent took a deep breath, stifling the sarcastic retort and instead trying to formulate a more constructive response.
Xenas deep rumble sidetracked them both. "Kirilus army has been delayed. You have about three days before they reach your eastern pass."
The King glanced over at the warrior with a look of mild surprise, before dismissing this obviously crazy Amazon. He turned back to the Regent, his voice rising. "Ephiny, theyll be here tomorrow and if we dont..."
But Ephiny had stopped listening to Doraclyse and instead, strode over to stand on the other side of the table where Xena was working.
"What do you mean theyve been delayed?"
Without lifting her eyes and with as few words as possible, Xena filled them in on what had happened in the pass.
"Three days doesnt leave us any time." King Doraclyse said, pacing back and forth as Ephiny sat in a chair and watched him. "I cant mobilize that quickly; it will take at least six days to get the bulk of my army to the border."
"Well, the Amazons arent going to get there any faster. I have to get word back; thatll take two days. Another to call in those closest to the village. We wont reach your border in anything less than six days ourselves."
Doraclyse spoke sharply, his frustration coming across as anger. "But your friend there said they would reach the pass in three!"
Ephiny stood and glared back. "Then well have to delay them, wont we!"
Xenas tired voice interrupted again. "Your best chance is to slow them down in the pass itself. If you can delay them there for a day or two, you might stand a chance."
King Doraclyse rolled his eyes. "And how are we going to do that?" This woman might be a good healer and a damn fine fighter, but she sure didnt seem to know much about military strategy.
Xena shrugged. "A taskforce of ten or fifteen good fighters; you could probably do it."
Gabrielle slowly became aware that the whole side of her head hurt. As she lay there, she tried to remember what had happened. Right, theyd been ambushed and there was a fight. Xena said she got hit on the head.
Her eyes shot open and she looked wildly around. Letting out a sigh of relief as she spotted the tall, dark figure standing over a table, off to one side of the tent. She let her eyes close against the pounding that had started up as she reassured herself she wasnt dreaming.
Xena was here. She hadnt imagined it.
Letting her eyes drift open again, they once again sought out the figure of her friend. Xena was standing beside a table as two soldiers took hold of either end of a stretcher and shifted the covered body over to an empty cot. Gabrielle was now aware that the tent was filled with blanket-wrapped bodies.
She watched the soldiers leave as Eponin entered and moved to exchange hushed words with Ephiny. She noted that Xena didnt move as Ephiny crossed over to stand beside her. And now her mind was telling her that something was very wrong with what she was seeing. Ephinys voice was becoming louder, more urgent, but Xena seemed to be just standing there, ignoring her.
"Xena?" Concerned now, Gabrielle struggled to sit up, ignoring the pounding in her head as she called to her partner.
Ephiny and Eponin both exchanged worried looks before Ephiny turned away from Xena, moving rapidly across the tent towards the bard.
"Gabrielle, dont move. You took a pretty hard hit on the head."
She ignored the Regent, her raised voice taking on her own note of urgency.
Staring past the approaching Amazon, she was alarmed to see the warrior still hadnt moved. "Ephiny, whats wrong with Xena?" She swung her legs to the side of the cot, ignoring the pounding and dizziness as she tried to get to her feet.
"Gabrielle, dont. Please. Stay in bed." Reaching the cot, Ephiny placed strong hands on the bards shoulders.
Knocking the Regents arms to the side, her eyes never left Xena. "Ephiny, whats going on? Tell me."
"We dont know, Gabrielle. Shes been like that for the past couple of minutes."
The bard's eyes darted to meet the Amazon's. "Help me to my feet."
"No, Gabrielle, please..."
Cold, green chips of ice now fixed on hers. "Ephiny, either you get me over to Xena now, or Ill crawl over there by myself. Do you hear me?"
"Okay, Gabrielle, hang on." Realizing she had no choice, Ephiny wrapped a strong arm around the bards waist and helped her to stand. They moved slowly across the tent as Gabrielles eyes never left the warriors face. Drawing up next to her, she noticed that Xena was staring vacantly down at her hands, her body rigid.
"Xena?" Gabrielle called softly as she moved her hand up to touch the warriors cheek. She shivered as her fingers met hard, cold flesh.
"Ephiny? Whats going on? Whats wrong with her?"
"Gabrielle, Im sorry. I...we may have pushed her too hard."
Ephinys voice gentled in apology. "I knew she was in pretty rough shape. But she is the only healer here, Gabrielle. If I hadnt pushed her, they would have died."
The bard shifted her gaze to the Regent, her face a mixture of concern and confusion. "Who would have died? What do you mean? What have you done?"
Ephiny shrugged. "General Andrus and several others were critically wounded this afternoon. She took something to keep her going."
"What?" The bard was having a hard time understanding what had caused this. "What did it look like?"
"It was some sort of white powder in a blue packet."
Then it suddenly became clear. She didnt know what Xena had taken but she knew the reason why. Now she had to try to repair the damage.
She turned back and focused on the still figure in front of her, a cold anger beginning to take over. "Get out of here, Ephiny."
The Regents voice reflected her surprise at the bards tone "What?"
"Take Eponin and get out of here. Leave us alone."
Ephiny began to argue. "Gabrielle, wait a minute. Youre hurt. Im not going to just leave..."
The bard whipped her head around, her eyes shooting daggers. "Yes, you are. I dont want you here right now, okay. Youve got what you wanted out of her. So, please, just leave us alone."
Ephiny flinched at the bards cold glare, before turning reluctantly around and stalking out, Eponin following behind.
Ignoring the pounding in her head, Gabrielle turned and began to talk in a soft voice as she tried to lift the warriors hand in hers, but Xenas arms were like iron, locked into position. She had to somehow reach inside that powerful mind and get her to release her control; she suspected that was the only thing keeping her friend on her feet right now.
"Xena, its Gabrielle. Listen to my voice. Please. I want you to concentrate on what Im saying. Okay? Just listen to me. Everythings all right. Do you hear me? Im all right. Ephiny and the rest of the Amazons are all right. So are the Andorians. Its okay to relax. There is no danger here, Xena. Its okay. Were all safe."
She kept up the words as she pushed the table away from in front of the warrior. On shaky legs, she made her way back to her cot and swallowed several times against the nausea the pounding in her head was causing as she dragged the cot over behind the warrior. Taking a moment to allow a wave of dizziness to pass, she grabbed a clean pot of warm water from one of the braziers, and placed it on the table on the other side of Xena before immersing clean cloths in it.
Carefully wringing one out, she began to clean off the mud and the blood that still caked a good part of the warriors skin. A couple of tears escaped and ran down her cheek as she gently cleaned the raw flesh, wondering how her partner had managed to get so many scrapes and bruises.
She'd have liked to get her leathers off, but that wasnt going to be possible without Xenas help.
While she worked, she kept up the steady stream of soothing words and gentle touches, finally beginning to feel a gradual easing to the stiff set of the warriors limbs.
Xenas gaze was still fixed on her hands folded in front of her, but as Gabrielle talked and concentrated on gently washing the blood off her fingers, she felt the warriors hands gradually beginning to relax as well. By the time she was finished, she was able to move Xenas arms down to her sides.
She knew she was almost there. Now for the final step.
She moved in close, and wrapped her arms around the warriors waist, tightening them in a hug. Letting her cheek rest against Xenas chest, the two of them stood there together in the tent, the only sound being the soothing tones of the bard as she reassured her partner, over and over again, that everything was all right.
Ever so slowly, she felt Xenas arms begin to move as they traveled up from the warriors sides and slipped across her back. Barely daring to breathe, she lifted her cheek and let her eyes meet the still vacant stare.
"Xena, come back to me now, okay? Its all right to let go. Please, let it go now. I want you here with me. Please. Its safe now. Let it go."
Several things happened at once.
As Xenas arms tightened around her, it was as if a lamp was lit behind those incredible blue eyes. Then, as the warrior released the control that had been keeping her together and her body finally gave into the exhaustion, Gabrielle tried to ease her friends collapse onto the cot behind.
Sinking down with her, she ended up with her arm around the warriors shoulders as Xena leaned heavily against her, both perched on the side of the cot.
"Gabrielle?" The tired voice was a hoarse whisper.
She shifted and turned to take Xenas shoulders in her hands as she stood up, gently pushing the warrior back down on the bed.
"Shush, Xena. Im right here." She felt the warrior begin to resist.
"Gabrielle, are you all right? Your head..."
She kept up her firm pressure. "Im fine, Xena. Honest. Were all fine, thanks to you. Just close your eyes and relax, okay?"
She had her down on her back now and moved to lift the warriors legs up on the cot.
"But Kirilus army... We have to get moving. If we dont reach the pass..."
Xena tried to get her elbows under her, but Gabrielle was now sitting on the edge of the cot beside her, holding her down. "I know. But not right this minute. Just stay here with me for a little while. Please?"
Xena relaxed back down, closing her eyes.
"Xena, are you hurt anywhere? I can see all the scrapes, but are you hurt anywhere else?"
A tired voice came drifting up. "No Gabrielle, Im fine. Just give me a minute to catch my breath."
She gradually began to relax as she watched the warriors breathing become slow and even.
Feeling dizzy, the pounding in her head a steady throbbing, she swallowed down the nausea as she stretched out on the cot beside Xena, resting on her side and laying her head on the warriors shoulder as she closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. Then she smiled to herself as she felt the fear shed been feeling for the past few candlemarks gradually replaced by the security of Xenas presence.
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