The night sky was dusted with stars and the air smelled wild and cold. It mixed with the musk of smoke from the burned-out hut along with the sharp tang from the river as Xena stood on the stone bridge and stared down into the darkness below. The roar of the water as it smashed and churned within the confines of the gorge drowned out all other sounds, acting as a convenient backdrop to her thoughts.
But, it didnt mask any of her other senses, so she wasnt surprised when a soft voice came drifting up from behind her left shoulder.
She turned her head and smiled as Gabrielle slipped an arm around her waist, joining her at the rail.
Xena noticed as she lifted her arm up and laid it across the bard's shoulders, that Gabrielle now smelled of the fresh herbal soap she was so fond of and had changed back into her regular green halter top and wraparound skirt.
She watched as worried eyes gave her the once-over, a concerned furl to those pale brows. "Are you sure you're okay?"
Totally inappropriately, Xena felt a broad grin takeover as she pulled the bard closer, feeling the familiar soft scratch of the wool from the bard's top on her arm. "Yeah, Im fine. You?"
The warrior's smile was infectious and Gabrielle found herself grinning back. "I'm fine too." She paused before adding with suspicion, "Why are you in such a good mood?"
Good question. Given their circumstances, what did she have to be so happy about?
Then she looked down into those sea green eyes challenging hers and she knew.
Feeling a bit self-conscious, the warrior shrugged, "Do I have to have a reason?" and then her eyes locked with the bard's and she let her defenses drop. "I missed you, Gabrielle. I guess I'm just glad you're here with me now."
Gabrielle took a deep breath as she peered up into her partner's face and squeezed the warrior's waist a little tighter, her voice catching.
She let her eyes stay locked with Xena's for a long moment, enjoying the bond between them, before letting out a long sigh and releasing her grip. Shifting as she moved both hands to the railing, she stood on tiptoes and peered over the side of the bridge into the chasm, before straightening. Bringing her eyes back up, she met the blue ones now regarding her with amused interest.
"What cha doing?"
Xena shrugged before resuming her original position, resting her forearms against the top of the railing as she leaned against the side of the bridge, her eyes idly scanning the deep shadows of the rock walls below. She paused before turning her head to face the bard. "Not much. Just thinking."
Gabrielle rested one elbow beside Xenas, pressing her shoulder against the warriors arm, enjoying the warmth, but most of all, the contact.
Xena dipped her head to examine her fingers as they picked at a bit of loose bark, hesitating before replying. "About what just happened and about tomorrow."
The bard turned sideways, studying the face of the woman beside her, knowing that the raising of an eyebrow or the twitching of the lines at the corner of her mouth often spoke more than her partners actual words.
Then she asked the question she'd been reluctant to ask since yesterday afternoon. "Do you think we stand a chance, Xena?"
For a moment, she wasn't sure if Xena had heard the question.
Then she watched as the warrior closed her eyes and brought her hand up, scrubbing at her forehead a couple of times before returning it to the railing, her eyes now focusing on the bard's.
Gabrielle recognized the tired note in her friend's voice.
"I dont know, Gabrielle. This pass is pretty narrow and removing the bridges will delay them some." In the pale moonlight, the bard could clearly see the worry reflected on Xena's face. "I just dont know if we can hold them until Ephiny and Doraclyse get here."
Gabrielle kept her eyes fixed on Xena as the silence stretched between them. Her voice was barely a whisper when she spoke.
"What if we can't hold them?"
She noticed the muscles in her partner's jaw, now visibly moving as Xena chose her answer. It was a moment before she searched out the serious blue eyes now regarding her.
"I counted over eight hundred mercenaries waiting to come through the pass the other day, Gabrielle. That's almost twice as many trained soldiers as the Amazon and Andorian armies combined. Once they're through this pass and spread out, they'll be difficult to stop. If we don't contain them here, it means we're in for a long fight."
They stood together in silence for the next few minutes, the only sounds now coming from the rushing river beneath their feet.
Feeling the shivering start up beside her, Xena wrapped her arm around the bard's shoulders again and drew her in closer. Glancing down at the serious face of her friend, she could tell now that something else was bothering the bard.
For some reason, she felt herself tense up as Gabrielle broke the silence.
"Xena, can I ask you something?"
Knowing that conversations that started that way with Gabrielle usually meant trouble, Xena took a deep breath and tried to ignore the sudden knot in her stomach as she studied the face of the woman next to her.
"Of course, Gabrielle, anything. You know that."
Well, actually, she didn't know that. Xena was probably the most difficult person in the world to talk to, especially about stuff like this.
But Gabrielle couldn't keep quiet any longer. She had to know. Taking a deep breath, she gathered her courage and locked her green eyes with her partners blue.
"Why didnt you tell me about the attacks on you back at the village?"
And regretted it as soon as she spoke as she felt Xena stiffen and watched the open expression turn to one of confusion. As the Warrior-Princess mask dropped into place, her companion straightened and turned her eyes back to studying the walls of the gorge below.
Gabrielle wasnt sure why shed picked now to bring this up. Maybe it was the close call theyd just had; or maybe it was the memories she'd been trying to ignore since she'd told Xena about what had happened to her back at the village after the warrior left.
But whatever the reason, as the silence stretched between them, she mentally kicked herself now.
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! What were you thinking? With everything else going on, this is the last thing she needs right now.
Quickly moving her hand up and covering the now stiff fingers still draped on her shoulder, her voice was a bare whisper above the roar of the river as she shifted again to face the warrior. "No. Forget I asked that. Im sorry, Xena."
Surprised at first by the question, and then feeling the wrenching in her gut as she recognized the hurt hiding behind those green eyes staring back up at her, it took Xena a moment to get the rush of emotions under control. As she did, she straightened and removed her arm from the bard's shoulders, turning to face her partner.
"No, Gabrielle, youre right. We should talk about this." Raising a hand, she raked her fingers through her hair as she tried to buy some time, struggling to get her thoughts together.
Seeing Xena's hesitation, the bard took a deep breath and blurted it out before her courage failed her.
"Wh was it because you didn't trust me to do the right thing?" Realizing she couldn't bear to see the truth in Xena's eyes, she let her head drop and focused instead on the ground.
Caught by surprise, Xena's eyes widened and she quickly placed both hands on the bards shoulders, speaking clearly, forcefully. "Gabrielle, of course not! I trust you with my life."
The bard didn't raise her head as she let out a ragged sigh. "Thats not the same thing, Xena. I know Ive made mistakes..."
The warrior interrupted, tucking a finger under the small chin and maintaining a firm pressure until Gabrielle was forced to look directly at her. "We both have."
The bard studied the woman before her for a long moment before continuing, her voice a little stronger now. "Xena, I know Ive hurt you deeply. I dont blame you for not trusting me any more." She raised her hands to stop the protest as Xena started to interrupt again. "But I want you to know that while I dont always agree with you, Ive learned enough over the past few months to realize that sometimes I have to just put my faith in your judgement. Im not saying that I'll follow you blindly, or accept everything you do. But I will be honest when we do have a problem."
Xena stood facing the bard, desperately searching for the words as she raised her hand and cupped the bards cheek, letting her thumb gently stroke the soft skin. "Gabrielle, you know how hard it is for me to trust anyone. You're the only person since Lyceus who I've truly put my faith in."
She dropped her hand back down and shifted her eyes to a spot over the bard's shoulder as she continued. "And I realize now how unfair that was of me. I know how much pressure I put on our friendship." She paused for a moment as if considering something, before returning her eyes to the bard's. "I think thats why, this time, I didnt tell you about the knife and the wire."
She stopped as the bard interrupted.
"Wait a minute, what wire?"
"The one someone strung across the trail into the village the day before I left." She noted the surprised look on Gabrielles face.
Damn, what else had she missed?
"Oh." The bard managed to get out. "Go on."
Well, that was the next order of business.
Xena seemed unaware of Gabrielles momentary lapse of concentration.
"Anyway, I knew you were caught in the middle between the Amazons and our friendship. I just didnt think it was fair to make you take sides."
Gabrielle's eyes met her partners. "Xena, right now, you are the most important thing in my life." Her voice caught as she turned away. "I just wish you could have trusted me enough to tell me."
Xena placed her hands on the bards shoulders again, looking down into her friend's face. "Gabrielle, I know now I was wrong." She shrugged apologetically and let out a long sigh. "I guess I just wanted to protect you."
Gabrielle met the warriors gaze, a tinge of annoyance now in her voice. "I thought we were past that."
Xena dropped her arms to her sides and turned back to face the river.
"Yeah, so did I." The young woman watched as the warrior shook her head, a note of disgust entering her voice. "I guess its going to take me a while longer to get over the habit."
Reaching over and slipping her arm around the warriors waist, Gabrielle gently pulled Xena close to her. "Hey, I still like it when you take care of me, you know. I just wish you'd share more with me."
Xena turned and raised her hand to brush aside the bards bangs, regret evident in those dark eyes. "I know, Gabrielle, Im sorry." She let out a small sigh as she started to turn back to face the water.
Gabrielle stopped her with a hand on her arm and then playfully backhanded the warrior across the stomach. "Enough with the Im sorrys, okay. Just improve!"
Xena smiled as she slipped her arm back around the bards shoulders. "Im trying."
Gabrielle grinned back. "You sure are!"
As they moved away from the railing and began walking back towards the huts, Gabrielle took advantage of the warmth offered by Xena's body and tucked herself up beside the warrior, letting the strong arm wrapped around her shoulders pull her in close.
As they rounded the bend and approached the collection of huts, the bard grinned up at her partner. "I have a surprise waiting for you in the infirmary."
A dark eyebrow shot up followed by a deep growl, "Yeah? What kind of surprise?"
"A good one." The bards eyes twinkled as she faced forward, enjoying the suspicious look on Xena's face.
As they reached and opened the door to the large hut, Xena was met by a wall of warm, moist air and given just a moment to adjust to the bright light before the bard took her arm and steered her towards the back of the hut.
A look of wonder spread across the woman's face as she noticed that a spot had been cleared beside the stove and a large tub filled with steaming water. She raised an eyebrow and looked from the tub to the bard.
Gabrielle stopped and stood with her hands on her hips, smiling.
"Well, c'mon, dont look at me like that. Hop in. Eponin found it out back." As the warrior remained standing there, a dubious look beginning to spread over her face, the bard added, "Xena, youre covered with soot and you smell of fire. Trust me. You need a bath."
Looking down at herself, and inhaling deeply through her nose, Xena realized the bard was right. She smiled as her eyes met her friends "You going to join me?"
Gabrielle grinned back, giving her head a little shake. "Nope. Had mine earlier. This ones just for you."
Xena looked a bit disappointed but shrugged and closed the remaining distance to the tub.
Gabrielle turned to check that the fire in the stove was well stocked but swung back quickly when she heard the splash as the warrior stepped into the bathtub.
She just stood and looked on in amazement. "What do you think youre doing?"
Xena closed her eyes, slowly lowering herself into the hot water, her boots discarded beside the tub. "Taking a bath, what's it look like?"
"It's customary to take ones clothes off, you know," she stated as Xena slipped beneath curls of steam, leathers and all.
The warrior lay with her eyes closed for a long moment, the back of her head resting against the end of the tub and her knees just breaking the surface of the water as she let the warmth envelop her.
"Hmm but my leathers picked up the smell of the fire, too. Thought Id clean them at the same time." Reluctantly opening her eyes, she slowly straightened and looked around. "This feels wonderful, Gabrielle. Got any soap?"
The bard shook her head as she walked over to a nearby table and grabbed the piece of their soap that shed left there earlier. As she returned to the warrior, she tried to remain annoyed with Xena, but one look at the contented face of her friend and she broke into a grin.
"Here. You want me to get your back?"
Xena took the yellow scrap from Gabrielle and worked it up into a lather before handing it back to the bard, who had by now dropped to her knees on the floor at the head of the tub.
"If you dont mind?"
Gabrielle began to work up her own lather as Xena began to scrub the soapsuds into the front of her leathers.
Laying the soap on the floor beside her, the bard began to work her fingers into the wet-black skin that stretched tight across the warrior's back. She slackened her pressure, however, as she noticed the slight wincing of the shoulders when her hands pressed over several obviously tender spots. She was careful to keep her touch light as she worked on these areas.
It only took a few minutes to work the soap in before Xena was dunking beneath the surface to rinse the dark leathers clean. As she came up for air a second time, she was aware that the bard had shifted her position to the side of the tub and was now sitting back on her heels, watching her with an expectant air.
Wiping the water from her eyes, Xena leaned back against the rough sides of the tub and eased back down into the warm water, noting that look on the bard's face.
Gabrielle let out a long sigh.
She wanted to play it that way, did she? Okay, she could be just as stubborn.
"Im going to see it eventually."
Xena raised an eyebrow, knowing that the bard was on to her. "See what?" she asked innocently.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"Dont play dumb with me, warrior. I know about the sword you took in the side back at the village." She crossed her arms across her chest and let her look tell her partner she wasnt planning to move anytime soon. "Youre going to have to let me see it eventually, you know."
Xena took in a deep breath and looked at Gabrielles determined face for a moment before rising out of the water to stand dripping in the middle of the tub. She reached around for the laces and undid them before tugging the leathers over her head.
Gabrielle stood and took them from her before taking the few steps over to a chair on the other side of the stove where she carefully arranged them, knowing that the skins had to be dried slowly or they'd turn stiff and need a lot of work to make them soft and comfortable again.
She turned back just as Xena pulled her shift off and stopped at the sight before her. Besides the two new angry-looking scars at the warriors waist, Gabrielle drew in her breath at the deep purpling that seemed to run together as one large bruise across Xenas torso.
She felt her stomach tighten. "Oh, Xena!"
Looking down at what the bard was staring at, Xena became aware for the first time that her body was covered in a mixture of large bruises and numerous scrapes. She tried to remember where they'd all come from but right now, all she could think about was the relaxing warmth of the water lapping at her knees.
"Im fine, Gabrielle, really. Nothing that a long soak in a warm tub cant cure." Sinking back down beneath the waters, she let her head rest against the back of the tub before closing her eyes with a contented sigh.
Gabrielle silently regarded the peaceful look on her friends face and decided that she'd let it drop, for now. Returning to the end of the tub, she got back down on her knees, letting her hands rest on Xenas shoulders. "Here, before you go to sleep on me, you need to finish your bath. Sit up for a moment and finish getting the rest of the soot and yesterdays mud off you. And if youre a really good girl, Ill give you a massage."
Xena chuckled as she opened her eyes and reluctantly sat up, repeating the process with the soap on her bare skin; glad to finally get rid of a few bits of mud that had worked their way into some very irritating spots.
As she came up from her final rinse, she tightened her grip on the side of the tub and started to rise but stopped when she felt Gabrielles hands holding her shoulders down.
The bards voice tickled her ear. "I promised you a massage. Now you just relax and lean your head forward."
Xena tried to swivel around, her voice holding a note of protest. "Really, Gabrielle, thats not necessary..."
Gabrielle smiled as she kept up the pressure on her partners shoulders. "I know its not. But I still want to." Her voice took on a pleading note. "Please?"
Deciding she rather liked the idea after all, Xena settled back down and relaxed, letting her head drop forward as she crossed her arms and rested them on her knees. She felt the bards surprisingly strong hands lift from her shoulders and begin to work on her knotted neck muscles.
"Gods, youre tense back here. Its like trying to knead iron," the bard gently complained after a few minutes. "Here, Ive got an idea. Lay back down in the water again."
As Xena relaxed back down and let the water cover her up, the bard stood and returned to the stove. Lifting one of the metal buckets sitting on top, she returning with it to the bath. Carefully, she poured its contents around the reclining warrior, whose eyes were now closed, letting the hot water mix around her.
"Oh, yes, I like this idea," Xena purred, feeling the relaxing heat seeping into every muscle of her body.
"Good." Gabrielle knelt back down on the floor behind Xenas head. "Because I want you to relax and just soak for a little while, okay?" She moved her hands up to the warriors temples and began a gentle massage with her fingers.
"Just relax. Close your eyes. Feel your body letting go." she crooned.
As she gently stroked Xenas temples, Gabrielle listened to the warriors breathing as it become slower and more even. Soon she was pretty sure Xena was asleep. Well, it wasnt Plan A, but at least her partner was getting some rest. Rising to her feet, she grabbed a towel and laid it over the top of the tub to keep the warmth in as long as possible
Taking a moment to study the peaceful face of her friend, she noted the deep hollows of her cheeks and the little worry lines that seemed to be permanently etched in the warriors brow. She gently reached down and brushed back the dark bangs, careful not to disturb her sleeping friend before lifting her own head and taking a look around, trying to decide how she was going to fill her time until Xena awoke.
Noticing the warriors shift lying on the floor beside the tub, she picked it up and held it up in front of her. Shaking her head as she examined the mud and bloodstains on it, she decided that it could do with a good wash as well. Dropping it into the remaining bucket of water on the stove, she spent the next little while scrubbing at the linen before wringing it out, and draping it over the same chair that held the warriors leathers. She took a moment to check on them as well, shifting and rearranging them so that they would dry evenly.
Surveying the wet clothes, she knew that Xena would need something warm and dry to change into when she awoke so she crossed the room to where her bags had been left and sorted through them until she found what she was looking for. She'd just returned to the side of the tub when Andrus pushed open the door and entered, followed closely by Eponin.
"Wheres Xena?" The Generals deep voice called out from across the hut when he spotted Gabrielle.
"Shush, will you!" the bard hissed as she hastily crossed the floor and stopped them in their tracks. "Shes asleep. Cant this wait?"
They both looked over at the tub and the dark head just barley visible above the top.
"Strange place to take a nap." The Generals eyebrows raised as he nodded over towards the warrior.
The bard bit off her answer and instead just glared at them.
Eponin spoke up, "I guess this can wait for a few candlemarks. Um is she all right?" remembering yesterday afternoon.
The bard thought for a moment before answering. "For someone whos done what shes done on as little sleep as shes had for the past few days, shes doing remarkably well, thank you. But, there comes a time when even she needs to get some rest. So, if you dont mind "
"Its all right, Gabrielle." A low growl came from behind her.
They all turned to see Xena standing naked in the tub while she nonchalantly reached back to wring out her hair. She didnt seem to notice the open mouth of Eponin or the grin on Andrus face but Gabrielle did and she hastily grabbed up a dry towel and tossed it over to the warrior who caught it with one hand before casually wrapping it around her body as she stepped out of the tub.
"Sorry to wake you," the General quickly lost his smile as he took a step forward. "We both talked to our people and it seems almost everyone was where they were supposed to be earlier this evening."
"Almost everyone?" Gabrielle and Xena chorused as the warrior crossed the floor to stand beside the bard, leaving a trail of wet footprints behind her.
Eponin closed her mouth and seemed to give herself a little shake before answering. "Nobody remembers seeing Philana when the alarm was raised. She wasnt in our hut." She shifted her gaze to Gabrielle. "She turned up in the bucket brigade sometime later."
The warrior thought for a moment. "Anybody question her?"
Eponin shrugged. "Not yet."
Gabrielle turned sideways to face Xena. "Why?"
Raising her hand, Xena placed it on the bards shoulder as she met the green eyes. "Something about the attacks back in the village have been bothering me. Tonight's fire puts them in a different light."
Andrus spoke up, his eyebrows dropping in a frown as he demanded, "What attacks?"
Xena took a minute to fill him in, her arm now resting across the bards shoulders.
As the General digested the news, Eponin spoke up. "So you think somebody here is still trying to get revenge on you? That doesn't make sense."
The bard had been thinking while Xena had been talking and answered for her.
"No. She thinks the knife and the wire were attempts to stop her from interfering in the assassination attempt." Her mouth was set in a grim line as she turned her face up to her partners. "Isnt that right, Xena? They wanted you out of the way so you wouldnt get in the way of their plans." The bard searched the warriors face for confirmation.
Xena gave her a proud smile. "I think youre right, Gabrielle." She turned back to face Andrus and Eponin as the smile changed to a frown of disgust. "And I played right into their hands by leaving."
Gabrielle put a hand on the warriors arm as she quickly cut in. "And, despite that, you still managed to save me, and Ephiny, and everyone else, and delay a whole army. Not bad." Gabrielle turned to Andrus and in a stage voice, whispered. "She sometimes forgets that her mistakes still save more lives than most peoples carefully crafted plans."
The warrior paused and looked down at the bard, letting her frown dissolve into a rueful grin as the bard now quietly regarded her. "And when I do, I have my own one-woman cheering section to remind me. Thanks."
The bards face broke into her own grin. "Youre welcome. So what are we going to do about Philana?"
The warrior shrugged. "If it is her, lets not tip our hand. Well keep an eye on her and see what she does."
The General stifled a yawn as he stretched stiff shoulder muscles, wincing as he pulled at the wound in his chest. "Well, since were all up, we might as well get breakfast started. By the time were done, it should be light enough to get to work tearing up the road."
As Eponin followed him out of the hut, Gabrielle disentangled herself from the warrior and walked back over to the table where she picked up a cloth object and tossed it over to Xena.
"Whats this?" Xena grabbed it out of midair.
"One of your shifts. It was hanging on the wash line when you left so I guess you missed it." Gabrielles eyebrows dropped in a frown as she watched the warrior examine the shift. "Where's the rest of your stuff, anyway? And wheres Argo?"
Xena dropped the towel where she stood and slipped the shift over her head, her voice muffled by the cloth. "I had to leave her and everything else on the other side of the mountain yesterday morning."
Gabrielle froze. "Oh, Xena, Im sorry."
The warrior shrugged as her head emerged and she reached down to straightened the cloth. "Why? Its not your fault, Gabrielle. Well head back and pick her and the rest of my stuff up when were finished here. No big deal."
Xenas act didnt fool the bard. Gabrielle knew how much the mare meant to her friend and how concerned shed be about Argo until they re-joined the war-horse but before she could say anything more there was a knock at the door and they both turned to see Andrus standing there, a wool tunic in his hands.
"Here. Thought you could use this." He threw it over to Xena and smiled before turning and leaving.
"I guess this beats wet leathers," Xena said as she wrapped it around, the gray wool coming down just above her knees.
As she buckled her belt and straightened the folds, she faced the bard. "How bout we change your bandage then go get some of that breakfast."
A quarter candlemark later, they left the warm confines of the infirmary and stepped into the crisp pre-dawn air.
Chapter 23 next
Return the previous chapter