The plan theyd worked out was for Ephiny to return with one of the Amazon guards to the village to raise the troops. Eponin, along with the remaining six Amazons would accompany most of the Andorian soldiers and mount a stalling action in the pass. Ephiny had reluctantly chosen to include Jess, Philana and Amara, knowing they would need all the hands they could get.
After a heated argument between Cynara and her father, the King had finally given in and allowed the Princess to accompany them while he returned to the Andorian capital to raise his army. A small contingent of Andorian soldiers would stay behind with the seriously wounded and the captured Metzovian soldiers and wait for reinforcements to arrive.
As the late afternoon sun began to dip behind the trees, the camp was alive as most of the Amazons and Andorians packed up and prepared to move out. The tents were left standing, remaining behind with everything else that wasnt deemed necessary; the need to travel as fast as possible dictating their choices.
As Ephiny entered the Kings tent, she paused just inside the entrance, surprised to see Xena up and bending over Andrus cot. Watching the warrior as she changed the Generals bandage, she noted the slight stiffness to Xenas movements, but she was very relieved to see that whatever Gabrielle had done, seemed to have brought the woman back.
She took a moment to check the cot shed last seen her sharing with Gabrielle and smiled at the peaceful face of the sleeping bard. Picking up the low rumble of conversation as she crossed to stand beside the warrior, she watched Xena tuck in the end of the bandage that shed just finished wrapping around the Generals chest.
"You two all right?"
The General was the first to answer. She was surprised by the strength in his voice. "Ephiny, Im fine. Will you tell her to stop fussing over me?"
Stepping aside as Xena stood up, she watched the warrior step over to the next cot and pull back the blanket covering the Andorian soldier before she sat down at his side. She noted the soldier was awake but keeping very still, looking like hed rather be anywhere else than where he was right now.
Not looking up as she began to remove the bandage covering his right thigh, Xenas voice was a sarcastic growl.
"You never were very good at following my orders, were you?"
The General snorted, his voice rising. "Xena, there is no way Im sitting this one out. Ive cut myself worse shaving!"
"Keep it down, Andrus!" The warrior snapped, glancing over at the bards cot.
Looking very annoyed, the General, nonetheless, dropped his voice a level. "Im going with you and thats it," he hissed.
Xena stilled her hands and rolled her eyes, taking a deep breath before going back to examining the long row of stitches "Suit yourself, but youre a damn fool."
"Well I can see everythings fine in here." Ephiny addressed the two warriors.
They both glared at her.
"Hey! Dont take it out on me! I just came to tell you were leaving. Doraclyse and I are heading out now. The others should be ready to go in a candlemark or so." Turning her attention to Xena, she hesitated before continuing. "Hows Gabrielle?"
They were all surprised when a cool voice spoke up from the other side of the tent. "Im fine, thanks Ephiny."
Xena replaced the bandage on the soldier's leg and stood up, quickly moving to cross the floor and join the bard on the side of the cot.
"Gabrielle, are you sure you should be sitting up? Here, let me take a look at your head." As her hands began to unwrap the bandage, concerned eyes searched the bards face. "How do you feel?"
Gabrielle returned her look with an affectionate grin. "My head hurts. But other than that, Im fine, honest." The smile was replaced with her own look of worry as pale green eyes shifted to searched her partner's face. "What about you?"
You, who had me scared half out of my wits this afternoon.
Xena had turned to examining the bard's stitches, her distracted voice replying, "Hmm...what? Oh, Im great, but then I didnt take a sword on the side of the head either. Are you sure youre all right? What about your vision? Any blurring?"
The bard had learned long ago how to read the tiny lines that etched the warrior's face and she knew the warrior was far from fine. But she also knew there was nothing either of them could do about it right now so she decided to play along.
Her eyes locked with Xena's, letting her companion know that she wasn't being believed but silently agreeing to purse it later. Then she straightened and gave Xena a warm smile.
"I really am all right. Will you stop worrying, please?"
"Xena!" The bards voice held a note of frustration.
Xena held up her hands as the corner of her mouth quirked into a grin. "Okay, okay, just asking."
Gabrielles smile returned before she faced forward again, letting Xena re-bandage her head. "Where are Ephiny and the King going? What about the Metzovian army? What did I miss...besides you?"
Gabrielle felt the warrior's fingers still for a moment before resuming their task as Xena took a few minutes to fill her in on recent events.
They were just finishing as Doraclyse brushed aside the tent flap and entered.
He nodded towards the three women before crossing over to the Generals bedside. Pulling over a stool, he sat down and the two men dropped into quiet conversation.
Ephiny hesitated before moving closer to the women seated on the bed. "Gabrielle, I wonder if I could borrow Xena for a minute." She turned to the warrior. "Id like to talk to you outside."
The bards eyes narrowed. "Why?"
The Regent kept her voice neutral, meeting the bards look of suspicion. "Because I need her advice on some of the preparations, if thats all right with you?"
Xena shifted her eyes between the two women. Shed begun to stiffen at the undercurrent of hostility until she felt the bards hand gently squeeze her arm.
"Okay, Eph. But dont keep her too long."
Xenas eyes searched the bards face for some clue as to what was wrong between the two friends but felt somewhat reassured when Gabrielle smiled up at her.
The warrior stood and followed Ephiny out, sparing a backward glance at the scowl that had appeared on the bards face. They were only a few steps from the tent, when she grabbed the Regents arm, swinging her around. Her eyes were cold and hard. "Okay, Ephiny, whats going on?"
The Regent shook her hand off, closing the distance between them and matching the warriors stare. "Thats what Id like to know. Where have you been for the past four days? Do you know how worried shes been?"
Xenas anger was replaced by confusion. "Ive been where I said Id be. Whats the problem?"
Ephiny couldnt keep the sarcasm out her voice. "When you left in such a rush the other day, did you even bother to leave a note?"
Now she was really confused. "Of course I did. Didnt Gabrielle tell you?"
"Xena, she never got it."
The warrior was stunned. "What! But, thats impossible. I left it on her bed. Are you telling me she never read it?"
Ephinys eyes locked with the warriors. "Xena, there was no note in your hut." She paused to let the words sink in. "Shes been through Tartarus the past few days wondering where you were."
Xena searched Ephinys face, looking for the telltale signs of a lie, but her heart sank when she saw nothing but the accusing look. Turning away, she brought her hand to her head, rubbing at the pounding in her temple, as the full impact of what Ephiny had said began to register.
Turning back to the woman staring at her, she was heartsick. "Do you mean to tell me she thought I deserted her, again?"
Ephiny nodded as she noted the devastation in the warriors face. "She did at first. But, you know Gabrielle. She discovered a piece of her parchment missing and figured youd left one. Once she found out about the attempts on your life, she concluded someone got to it before she did."
"She knows about that?" Xenas heart was pounding and she was having trouble catching her breath as she tried to take it all in.
"Xena, what were you playing at? How long did you think you could keep something like that from her? Did you really think running away would fix things?"
Xena wasnt listening any more. Shed turned away, her eyes searching the ground in front of her, fighting the urge to get out of there; to find someplace she could hide, someplace safe. This wasnt happening. It couldnt be.
"How dare you!"
They both swung around to see Gabrielle standing at the entrance to the tent, her normally cheerful face a mask of fury.
"Gabrielle, I..." Ephiny didnt have a chance to say anything more before Gabrielles hand shot up and slapped her across the cheek.
"How dare you say that to her! You ungrateful bitch! After what shes done for you and everyone else, you have the balls of Zeus to accuse her of running away from anything. The way you and the others have treated her, youre lucky she didnt let you die. Youve sure given her no reason to save your miserable lives!"
Turning to the devastated face of her partner, her heart sank. "Xena, please, dont. She doesnt know what shes talking about. Please."
The warriors voice was a hoarse whisper. "Gabrielle, Im sorry. Im so very sorry. I didnt know. I never would have left if Id known what Id put you through. Please, please, forgive me." Xenas eyes searched the bards, pleading with her not to hate her.
Aware now of the small crowd that had gathered around them, Gabrielle ignored everything else and just concentrated on her partner. She had to fix this somehow. Damn Ephiny!
"I know, Xena, I know. C'mon, lets take a walk. Okay?" She slipped her arm around the warriors waist and guided the unresisting woman through the surrounding crowd and into the woods.
They stopped when they came to the edge of the river, Gabrielle steering them over to a fallen tree and pulling Xena down beside her.
Pausing a moment to gather shaking hands in her own, her heart broke at the desolation she saw on the warriors face. "Xena, please, I knew you didnt leave me. You have no reason to ask me to forgive you for anything."
Xena was staring down at the ground through sightless eyes, barely listening. How could she have done that to Gabrielle? What kind of a selfish monster was she. She wouldnt blame the bard if she hated her. What had she been thinking! Her voice, when she found it, was filled with self-loathing. "But I ran away. I should have stayed. If I had, none of this would have happened." She raised her eyes now and brought them into focus on the bards face, a tear falling down her cheek. "Im so sorry, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle clutched her partners hands tighter as her eyes searched the warriors face, willing the woman to hear her. "Xena, listen to me, please. This was just as much my fault for brining you back there in the first place. You told me what would happen and I didnt listen. I was my fault you were hurt; my fault they tried to kill you. Im the one who owes you the apology. Not you. Please, please forgive me." Gabrielle was crying now.
Xena wrapped her strong arms around the small figure and pulled her close, letting her chin rest on the top of the bards head as her friends sobs shook them both. She brought her hand up and stroked the soft hair, careful of the bandage wrapped around Gabrielles head.
They sat like that for a long time, each lost in the others pain. After a while, Gabrielles shaking subsided and she lifted her cheek from the tear-soaked leathers. Looking up into her partners face, her voice was almost a whisper.
"What are we going to do, Xena?"
Gentle blue eyes met hers as strong fingers brushed away a strand of pale hair that had caught in the moisture on Gabrielles cheek.
Xena gave her a tiny smile. "I dont know, my bard. I guess were just going to have to keep taking this one day at a time."
Resting her cheek back down against the warm leather, the young woman closed her eyes. "But it hurts so much sometimes."
Xena pulled her closer, the smile gone now. "I know, Gabrielle, I know."
They returned to the camp to find Ephiny and King Doraclyse gone. The others had packed up and were mounted and ready to go. There was an awkward silence as the two women approached the group of riders.
Eponin urged her horse forward, leading two others and gave them a tentative smile. "I wasnt sure if youd need one or two."
Gabrielle exchange a brief look with Xena before replying, "One."
Swinging herself onto the back of the tall chestnut mare, Xena reached down and offered her arm to Gabrielle who took it and allowed herself to be lifted into the saddle behind her.
Wrapping her arms around the warriors waist, she leaned against her partner.
Xena glanced over her shoulder. "Hows the head?"
Gabrielle smiled up at her, pulling her arms tighter. "Im fine, lets just get going, all right?"
Xena turned and faced forward again. "Okay. Let me know if it starts to hurt."
Gabrielle nodded as they began to lead the small band out of the clearing and into the woods.
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