The masked warriors froze but kept their sword points focused on Xena as one of the attackers separated from the circle and dropped to one knee across from her. Quickly raising the feathered mask to reveal shoulder-length curly blond hair, the Amazon sheathed her sword and grabbed Gabrielle by the shoulders, a mixture of joy and relief on her face.
"Gabrielle! Thank Artemis! Are you all right?"
Gabrielle felt like she was doing everything in slow motion. Her mind was having trouble taking in what was happening. Allowing herself to be lifted up off of the still form beneath her, she found herself looking into very relieved yet concerned gray eyes searching her face.
The Amazon Regent, now fully alarmed by the bards reaction, tried to pull her friend to her feet and away from Xena. "Gabrielle, please..." Anxious eyes continued to scan her face. "Are you all right?"
As if waking from a trance, Gabrielle seemed to shudder then she jerked away from Ephinys strong hands and looked down at her fallen friend.
Sparing a quick glance up, exasperation and anxiety warring within her. "Yes! Of course Im all right! Dont I look all right!?!" Looking down, she almost lost it when she noticed the bloody point of one of the bolts protruding from the back of one of Xenas thighs.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, slowly releasing it as she tried to clear her mind. She knew she needed to focus, but all she could think of was the blood oozing around that point and all those damn Amazons just standing there.
Okay, Gabrielle, you can do this.
Opening her eyes again, she commanded her shaking fingers to move. Lifting them to a spot on the warriors neck, she pressed them against cold flesh as an anguished moan escaped her. "Oh Gods." It took a moment but she found it; Xenas pulse was slow and weak, but steady.
Not willing to take no for an answer, the Regents voice now commanded, "Come away from her, Gabrielle." Strong fingers wrapped themselves around the bards upper arms as Ephiny prepared to pull the resisting woman away.
Gabrielle, her fear now replaced by anger, shook the powerful hands off as she looked across Xenas still form, and glared at the startled Regent. Watching as deadly determination replaced the Regents surprise, Gabrielle began to realize with horror what exactly Ephiny had planned. The bards expression abruptly changed to one of pleading as she gasped out, "No! You cant! You dont understand!"
Ephiny knew when shed received the reports of the pairs presence close to the Amazon territory that morning, that this was going to be difficult. The joy theyd all felt at knowing their Queen was alive was quickly overshadowed by planning and organizing the rescue.
But, she'd never expected this reaction from Gabrielle and she knew as she looked into her friends face that this was going to be painful for both of them. "Gabrielle, Xena's been declared an enemy of the Amazon Nation. She will now pay for her crimes with her life. Come away."
Green eyes widened in panic as desperate hands moved to clutch the Regent's arms. "Please, Ephiny, wait...give me a chance to explain."
Steeling herself for what was to come, the Amazons gray eyes seemed to darken as all warmth left them. "Explain? Explain what? You dont need to explain anything. Xena knows our laws. She knew the consequences of her actions. Im sorry Gabrielle, but she dies here."
The Regent shifted her eyes, exchanging a glance with one of the masked Amazons ringing them. With that, the woman stepped forward and raised her sword over Xenas unconscious form.
Gabrielle realized she had seconds.
Her command froze Xenas executioner. The Amazon Queen pulled away from Ephiny and quickly stood up, pushing aside the sword and stepping between it and Xena. The Amazon holding the sword was forced to take a step back to make room for Ephiny, who also stood up beside them.
Gabrielle turned and locked her eyes with Ephinys.
"Ephiny, am I an Amazon Queen?"
Gray eyes narrowed. "Of course you are, but that doesnt mean..."
"Fine. Then I order you to drop this right now."
"Gabrielle, I cant do that. Xena is a vicious animal who deserves just what she gets." Ephiny briefly closed her eyes, remembering the horrific image of Gabrielle being dragged through the village behind Xenas horse. As her eyes opened, they were met with pleading green ones. The Regent seemed not to notice.
"I have no idea how you could have possibly survived after what she did to you. But, if you think for a moment that..." Ephiny was forced to stop as she fought for control; the rage just under the surface, threatening to overwhelm her.
Gabrielle knew the Regent wasnt the enemy here, but she also knew she needed to get help for Xena, quickly. Placing a shaking hand on her friends forearm, Gabrielles voice gentled as she saw the outrage and concern in Ephinys face. "Eph., listen. Please. I know you were worried about me and I really appreciate it. I do. But, youre wrong about Xena. She doesnt deserve this. Just let me take care of her and I promise Ill explain everything. Please?"
Trapped by her friends pleading look, Ephinys expression softened a bit and Gabrielle pressed her case. "Eph., there was a lot more going on than you knew then. You dont have all the facts. And, Im all right. Really." Glancing down at the still figure on the ground at her feet before looking back up, her voice caught in her throat. "Please...please...dont let her die."
Ephiny realized she was temporarily beaten as she looked into the now tear-filled eyes of her Queen. With a disgusted sigh, she spun around, giving the order for a litter to be built.
Several Amazons quickly moved off into the surrounding woods to gather the makings as the rest of the confused women lowered their swords and lifted their masks. Not knowing what else to do, they just stood there and looked at each other, still stunned by the turn of events. Their successful rescue having just turned into a...what?
Now totally focused on Xena, Gabrielle brushed away her tears as she turned and looked down at her friend.
Xena was lying on the ground, curled face down around the shaft in her shoulder. The bard knew she needed to act but shed learned enough from observing her friends considerable skills as a healer that it was best to leave the bolts in place until they got back to the village. She knew their presence was preventing major blood loss but she'd need to keep Xena warm to prevent shock.
Her eyes searching the clearing, she spotted her solution and, pushing passed startled Amazons who didn't move quickly enough to clear a path, she ran over to Argo.
"You okay, girl?"
Giving the anxious mare a reassuring pat, Gabrielle scanned the war-horse for any injuries. Pleased all those crossbolts had, by some miracle, missed her friends mount, she grabbed their blankets from the saddle and returned to Xena, dropping once again to her knees to gently spread them over the too-still form.
Knowing there was little more she could do until they got the warrior to the healers hut, Gabrielle anxiously settled back to wait for the litter.
Sitting herself down cross-legged at Xenas head, she gently cupped her hands under the warriors dark hair and lifted, scooting under and slowly allowing Xenas cold cheek to come to rest against the soft fabric of her skirt. She paused for a moment, then reached down and took her friends hand in hers.
With a gentle touch, she brushed back the silky, black tresses now half-covering the warriors face. She let her eyes drift down the smooth lines of her partners form beneath the blanket, skipping over the jarring lumps, where the blanket draped at odd angles, caught on the wood and feathers of the shafts protruding from the flesh beneath. Her eyes returned to the still face in her lap as her fingers gently stroked Xenas cheek.
Leaning down close to Xenas ear, she stilled her fingers as she whispered in a voice meant only for her partner, "Cmon, Xena, I know youre in there. Youre not going to let a couple of Amazons stop you, are you?" She paused, her eyes searching desperately for some sign the warrior had heard her. She squeezed the cold, still hand in hers. "Please, Xena...please...for me?"
Sitting back up, she watched Xenas face intently. Not willing to give into despair when she saw no change, she eased her grip on the warriors hand a little, and began gently stroking her friend's cheek, once again.
She was joined by Ephiny who, having got the rest of the Amazons organized, now moved to stand beside her. Placing a reassuring hand on the sitting bards shoulder, the Regent quietly inquired, "How is she?"
Brushing aside a strand of dark hair that had fallen back down across the warriors eyes, Gabrielles gaze never left Xenas face as she whispered, "Not good."
Ephiny was still very confused by the whole situation, but the Amazons heart went out to her worried friend. "Gabrielle, Im sorry, but we had no way of knowing what was going on."
"So you decided to shoot first and ask questions later!?!" The bards eyes flashed as she looked up at the Regent, her voice tinged with anger.
Inwardly cringing at the accusing look on her Queens face, Ephiny spoke up defensively, "Gabrielle, please. All we knew is that Xena attacked us and dragged you out of the village. We found the spot where the both of you went over that cliff. Until our scouts spotted the two of you earlier this morning, we thought you were dead."
She paused a moment, drawing a deep breath as she recalled her grief when shed called in the last of the search parties, finally giving up hope of finding her friend alive.
"Our first concern was to make sure you were safe and... well..." She trailed off, looking at a spot on the ground.
Anger was quickly replaced by regret as the bard turned back to watch Xena. "Eph., Im sorry. I didnt think. I should have sent word, but I figured wed be back before..." She stopped as the litter appeared. Balanced between two strong Amazons, it was lowered to the ground beside the unconscious warrior.
Gabrielle slipped her legs out from under Xenas head, gently resting a pale cheek back down on the hard ground, before carefully removing the blankets so the women could get a firm grip on her friend. She stood and stepped to one side as the Amazons moved into place and began to bend down, hands searching for a secure hold. Watching the proceedings, Gabrielle suddenly dropped the blankets she was holding to one side with a quiet, "Hold it."
The Amazons paused in their task as Gabrielle returned to Argo and this time grabbed their sleeping furs. Returning and spreading them out over the rough branches that made up the bottom of the litter, she gave the soft furs a brush before picking up the blankets and standing again.
"Okay, thats better."
Xena was picked up and placed none to gently on the litter by the Amazons, who made it obvious that helping her was the last thing they wanted to do.
"Careful!" Gabrielle glared at both women before she stooped down and gently tucked the blankets back over Xena. As the litter was lifted, she moved to take her place alongside the still form.
The path to the village was wider from this point on, and, as they re-entered the dim light of the forest, Gabrielle found herself surrounded by Amazons. Barely taking her eyes off Xena, she tried to ignore the angry, outraged whispers buzzing around her. The Amazon warriors confusion had been replaced by grim outward acceptance of the current situation. But words like "monster" and "butcher" drifted across her hearing, and none tried to hide the openly hostile looks they were giving the blanket-wrapped figure.
Ephiny walked silently by Gabrielles side, desperately wanting some answers, but deciding to wait until she got the young woman alone back in the village. She didnt need all those eager ears listening in.
Word of the successful rescue had obviously spread ahead, because as they entered the village, Gabrielle was startled from her thoughts by cheers, which arose around her. She looked up to see dozens of smiles on the beaming faces of the Amazons gathered around to greet their lost Queen.
In the back of her mind she felt a warmth come over her from the obvious joy the women were showing at her safe return. But that was overshadowed when she sadly realized, if looks could kill, Xena would have been dead already, a hundred times over.
Staying beside the warrior as they pushed their way through the crowd towards the healers hut, she was frustrated by the slow progress of the litter party. Fighting the urge to swing her staff and clear a path herself, she inwardly sighed as she silently acknowledged that, as their Queen, she'd have to at least keep up appearances. So, gripping the smooth wood tighter, she returned all the friendly greetings and well-wishes with quick smiles and the occasional "Thank you", trying to keep them progressing towards their goal as fast as the crowd would allow.
Almost at the end of her patience, the procession finally reached the healers hut and entered. It took a moment for everyones eyes to adjust to the darker interior as they crossed over the wooden floor and set the litter down beside a pallet . Lifting the still unconscious warrior, they laid Xena on her side a bit more gently this time, taking their cue from their Queen, who made it quite clear through her body language, what would happen if they didnt.
Saran, the Amazons chief healer, bustled in from the back room. A messenger Ephiny had sent on ahead had alerted the older woman to the partys pending arrival. As she crossed the room, she raised her voice and ordered everybody but Gabrielle and Ephiny out.
An ambitious woman, Saran had gained her position as chief healer through a mixture of professional competence and ruthless tactics. She'd risen as far as she could within the Amazon nation but still somehow felt cheated. She resented the power and respect Gabrielle held. After all, she figured, the only reason Gabrielle was Queen was that the stupid girl had been in the right place at the right time. But she was too smart a woman to let her hostility show openly.
Reaching Xenas bedside, she took a quick glance down at the unconscious warrior before looking up and smiling across at Gabrielle. "Are you all right, my Queen?"
Gabrielles face reflected her confusion. "Im fine. But Im not the one whos hurt here." Her voice trailed off as she looked down at the still form of her partner and back at the healer. "Xenas..."
The smile remained but cold eyes now stared back. "What about her? Anyone with that many Amazon crossbolts in her doesnt stand much of a chance. Even if it was worth trying to save her." The healer turned away, but not before Gabrielle heard the muttered, "...which it isnt."
Before Ephiny had a chance to say anything, Gabrielle was standing right in front of Saran, toe-to-toe, her green eyes blazing as the anxiety and frustrations of the day caught up with her.
The healers smile faltered as she saw the depth of the passion radiating from the eyes that had fixed on hers.
The bards soft voice only heightened the menace in her words.
"She *is* defiantly worth saving. You got that. So, you get to work on her, right now. And, dont you dare do anything but your best efforts. You got me?"
Saran wasnt quick enough to hold back the flash of resentment in her eyes before the smile returned to her face.
"Yes, my Queen."
Gabrielle released the breath she hadnt realized shed been holding, and turned back to the pallet , reaching for the closest armor clasp. "Now, lets get this stuff off her."
Ephiny left to try to calm the uproar brewing in the village over the circumstances of the Queens return from the dead.
Saran tried to get Gabrielle to leave as well, but the bard was just as adamant about staying. Once the Amazon realized how skilled a healer Gabrielle was in her own right, the older woman grudgingly accepted the help, although she was obviously still not happy with whom they were working on.
Gabrielle, for her part, was glad she could stay by her friends side. And, while she trusted, to a point, this obviously competent woman, she wasnt going to take any chances the healer would hold back in her treatment of Xena, in some misguided gesture of loyalty to her Queen.
Working quickly as they removed Xenas armor and leathers, Gabrielle made sure they were careful not to injure the warrior any more than she'd already been.
She winced in sympathy as the shaft of the bolt in Xenas back was broken off to allow the leathers to be slipped off. Now the two remaining shafts were pushed through before they too were snapped. As each bolt was removed, the wound was cleaned, cauterized and bandaged. The one in her back had been in a bad spot; having twisted on entering, it had hooked itself behind the warriors bottom rib. Xena lost a lot of blood as the point was dug out, but soon, that too, was treated and bandaged.
Throughout the whole ordeal, the warrior hadnt stirred. Now, as Saran retired to the other room, Gabrielle sat on a stool by the pallet and studied the still face of her friend, seeing the tense drawn lines etched in the pale skin. Easing a still hand out from under the soft wool blanket and placing it into hers, she closed her fingers gently around the cold skin as her eyes filled with tears.
"Oh, Xena. Im so sorry."
Taking a deep breath, she gently placed the limp hand back by Xenas side, smoothing the dark wool blanket back in place. Then, resting her elbows on her knees, she buried her head in her hands and softly wept.
Which is how Ephiny found her a few minutes later. Silently entering the hut, the Regent spotted the small, hunched figure beside the pallet, shoulders shaking from the quiet sobs.
"What a mess," she sighed to herself as she moved quickly across the room to Gabrielles side.
Pausing for a moment, then dropping to a crouch by the stool, she laid a gentle hand on the bards tanned thigh and inquired softly. "Gabrielle?"
Green pools of water looked up and met her eyes, as the bard struggled to regain control.
"Oh, Ephiny," she sniffled, wiping the tears off her red cheeks with shaking fingers.
Gently brushing a lock of strawberry-blond hair aside, the Regent reached up with her other hand, and grabbed a scrap of clean linen from the table behind them. Handing it to the bard, she commiserated. "Yeah, I know. Here. Blow."
Gabrielle took the cloth and blew her nose, before dropping her hands to her lap, clutching the scrap in twisting fingers. Still sniffling, she looked over at Xena. "We got her patched up but..."; her voice trailed off.
"Gabrielle. I know this isnt a good time, but we have to talk. I have a lot of angry Amazons who want Xenas blood. I need to know what happened, so I can help."
The golden light of the late afternoon sun highlighted the two friends as they sat beneath a window in the healers hut, the blanket gently rising and falling over Xenas still form beside them. The muffled sounds of the village around them filtered through the thatch walls, as savory smells of dinner cooking drifted through the still air from the cook hut.
Neither woman noticed as Gabrielle finished her tale of the past few months.
Glad to have a chance to finally unburden her soul, Gabrielle had shared everything with Ephiny, not sparing any of the detailsany of the things theyd done to each other. The Regent had sat in stunned silence through most of it, only occasionally asking a question, or making a comment.
"Through that entire time, Xena did everything she could to try to protect me...keep me safe. She never once deliberately hurt me, except at the end; when she was so alone and out of her mind with grief and rage, that the darkness had a chance to takeover."
Her voice catching as she dropped her eyes, "And we both share blame for that, Ephiny. It was my lying and my betrayal that hurt her so deeply; that helped drive her over the edge."
Ephiny tightened her arm around her friends trembling shoulders. "Gabrielle, that doesnt excuse what she did to you. After all youve done for Xena..."
The small woman gave a self-depreciating snort. "All that Ive done for her? What a joke. What have I ever really done for her except tag along and constantly get myself into messes that Xena has to get me out of? Even at the beginning... If Xena hadnt appeared out of nowhere to rescue me and my sister from those slavers..."
Xena had never really gone into details about that time at the temple of the Fates, but shed picked up enough from what little the warrior had said and the tense set of her partners body while telling it, that her life as a slave in the alternate reality had been cruel and harsh.
And that was perhaps the hardest part to live with now. It was one thing to speculate with "what ifs", but she knewshe knewif Xena hadnt stepped out into the clearing that day, what kind of a life would have been hers. She often wondered why Xena had chosen to return to this life; she wondered if she was the reason her companion had sacrificed her beloved brother and the erasing of her brutal past.
Seeing the lost look in her friends eyes, Ephiny spoke up. "Gabrielle, you underestimate yourself. You put Xena on her path to redemption, and have fought to keep her on it."
Gabrielle smiled. "Actually it was Hercules who started her on that path. Shed already changed when we first met." Seeing Ephiny about to interrupt, she raised a hand as if to still her friends protest. "Oh, dont get me wrong, Ephiny. I know that Ive been there to help. I know how important I am to Xena." Shifting slightly to look down at the pale face of her friend. "But, its really been Xena, herself, whos done most of it. Ive watched her fighting every single day weve been together to overcome her dark side. Its a constant struggle for her. But she was winning..."
Her gaze traveled to the wooden floor by her feet as she clutched her hands together in her lap. "What hurts the most now is that I realize just how arrogant Ive been. I used to think that without me, she'd have returned to that dark side long ago. If I wasnt there every minute, making sure she did the right thing, constantly acting as her conscious, that she wouldnt waste a moment reverting to her old Warlord ways. Well, it was thanks in a big part to me this time, that she almost did."
She paused and took a deep breath as she stiffened her shoulders. "So you see Eph., Im just as much to blame for what happened as Xena." Looking up from studying the cracks in the wood floor, pain-filled green eyes met the Regents. "What she did to me was no worse than what I did to her."
Ephiny gathered herself to interrupt but paused as Gabrielle continued. "But its all over now." An urgent tone had crept back into her voice. "Xenas not the enemy. And weve got to get the others to see that."
Still somewhat stunned by the bards story, the Regent shook her head a little, trying to figure out what to do next. As if looking for inspiration, the Amazon shifted her gaze to Xenas face, absently noticing the sharp contrast between the pale skin and the dark blanket covering her. Closing her eyes for a moment, she reached up to rub at her temples before returning the bards anxious look.
"Gabrielle, I think you give yourself too little credit here, my friend." She let the corner of her mouth rise in a half smile before turning serious again. "But that doesnt matter right now. Its not my decision whether Xena dies or not."
"What?" Gabrielle straightened in confusion. "Well then, whose decision is it?" Frustration was now edging her voice.
Sighing, Ephiny looked apologetic. "Its a little more complicated than that, Gabrielle. Were talking about Amazons here, remember? The council has officially declared Xena an enemy; only the full council can change that."
The bard looked bewildered. "Council? What council? I thought you...I mean, me...I mean, we, were in charge here?"
Smiling as the bard stumbled over the rather complicated arrangement theyd settled on for governing, Ephiny though for a moment about how best to explain the council.
"Gabrielle, the Queen is a ruler of the Amazon Nation. In almost all things, our commands hold the force of law. But there are times when there are decisions to be made that have a profound affect on the way we as a Nation choose to exist; decisions that affect us for generations to come; like going to war, changing our laws, that sort of thing. It doesnt happen often, but it does happen.
"So, periodically, we hold elections and choose six from among us to serve as the Queens official council in matters like these. The position is, in theory, an honorary one, but in practice, their advice is always accepted. Only those among us who are respected for their wisdom and judgement, are chosen to serve.
"The only other role the council plays is to pass judgement when one of us is accused of a capital crime. They are the ones who make the final decision, so they are the ones youll have to convince."
Recovering quickly, Gabrielle replied, "Okay okay, no problem. Ill just explain it to them." She took a moment to look down and study the face of her companion before straightening her shoulders with resolve. Her mind already beginning to shape Xenas defense, she stood and began to pace the floor. "Theyll just have to listen."
Turning back toward the bed, she looked at the Regent who was sitting back on her stool now and regarding the bard with sympathetic eyes. "Ephiny, you know what Xenas done for the Amazons. How can they think shes an enemy?"
Ephiny shrugged hopelessly. "Gabrielle, after what they saw Xena do to you..."
Gabrielle stopped, and her shoulders sagged a little, as she let out a long, frustrated breath. "Yeah, I know, I know..." Her eyes searched the floor for a minute or two before she met Ephinys gaze again with one of renewed determination. "But, if I can get them to see past that..."
With a tired smile, the Regent straightened and got to her feet. "Well, if anyone can convince them, itll be you. Im sure of that."
Looking around the hut, she gave her body a quick stretch. "Gods, Im getting too old for this." Returning her gaze to the slightly relieved face, she gave her friends shoulder a quick squeeze. "Dont worry, Gabrielle. Well get this all straightened out."
Lifting her eyes to look out the window past Gabrielle and seeing anxious knots of Amazons gathered outside, she took a deep breath. "Well, I guess I cant hide in here any longer. Id better go out and face them." Blinking several times, she looked back at warm eyes now regarding her. "Ill send somebody over with something to eat."
"No, Eph., thanks, but I couldnt." Her stomach in knots, the last thing Gabrielle wanted was food. She sighed as she shifted her attention back down to Xena.
Not moving, Ephiny waited until Gabrielle became aware of her friends stare, and glanced back up at her. And noticed the serious expression framed by the Amazons blond curls. "Please, Gabrielle."
"Ephiny..." the young woman began to plead.
And, was interrupted.
"You know, shed want you to try to eat something," sparing a glance at the unconscious warrior.
"Not fair, Eph.," the bard replied, defeated.
Ephiny shrugged and turned, grinning to herself as she left.
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