It was late afternoon when Xena stepped out of the infirmary and took a deep breath. She'd changed back into her now dry leathers after checking on the injured soldier, glad of the extra protection against the cool wind now blowing steadily from the north. Smelling the change in the weather, she looked up and noted the menacing blanket of dark clouds scudding across the low-hanging sky.
Standing for a moment, trying to decide when the storm would hit, she shifted her attention to Philana, who had left the others and was now walking up the road towards the huts. The Amazon didn't seem to notice Xena standing in the shadows and as the warrior watched, the young girl stopped just before the stone bridge and took a quick look around before disappearing down behind the other side of the railing.
Unable to see anything more from her vantage point, Xena strode across to the road and followed it as it crossed the bridge. As she got closer to the other side, she could see the stout form of the young girl on her hands and knees, perched precariously over the side of the chasm and peering intently under the bridge.
Her eyebrows dropping in a frown, she moved quietly to stand behind the girl.
"Find anything interesting?" her deep voice growled and then she had to lunge forward as the startled Amazon lost her balance and began to topple headfirst into the gorge. Reaching out and grabbing Philana by the back of her leathers, Xena's other hand locked around the wooden railing of the bridge as she hauled the frightened girl back from the edge.
"You all right?" the warrior asked gruffly as she straightened.
"Wha why did you do that? You almost got me killed!" The young girl accused, trying to get her rapidly beating heart under control. Her eyes widened as she struggled to her feet and spun around, realizing only then who was standing there.
Cool blue eyes locked with hers. "Mind if I ask what you're doing?"
Her throat suddenly dry, the young Amazon had to swallow a few times before she found her voice. "Um...Eponin sent me back to get a fire going for dinner."
The warrior's stare continued to bore into her.
"Under the bridge?"
She shifted her position, letting her eyes drop to the ground. "No. I um was just curious, thats all."
Surprised by the question, Philana's eyes lifted to meet the warrior's. "Why would you care?"
Xena released a long breath. "Because I do. Now, whats under the bridge?"
"Nothing," was the sullen reply.
The dark-haired girl began to squirm at the coldness of the unrelenting blue stare.
"Oh, all right. I was just curious about how wide the ledge was on the side here where the bridge meets the mountain."
The warrior's eyebrows disappeared up into her bangs. "Yeah? Why?"
The girl shrugged. "Because I noticed that the rock forming the roadbed on this side of the bridge was bent and I wondered how much that had caused it to come away from its original setting."
Xena looked at her skeptically, her voice a low growl, "Rock doesnt bend."
Philana straightened, forgetting whom she was talking to as her enthusiasm took over. "Sure it does. If you put sufficient load on it. See, here." She stepped a few paces back from the side of the bridge, pointing to the center of the gray rock.
Xena's eyebrows dropped in a frown but she moved to stand beside the girl and carefully examined the side of the bridge. Sure enough, the solid piece of stone seemed to be sagging in the middle. Xena looked at it for a minute and then turned back to the girl.
Her voice betrayed no emotion. "They must have cut it that way. So?"
The girl was excited now. "No, you dont understand. No self-respecting stonemason would quarry it that way, but almost anything will bend if you put enough weight on it for a long enough period. Even rock."
The warrior's left eyebrow went up on its own. "Yeah? Who says?"
"My father. He was the local stonemason. He used to teach me about this kind of stuff before...before they killed him."
Xena's brows now joined in thought. "And youre trying to tell me that this rock has actually bent."
"No, really. Look." The girl dropped to her knees and then down on her stomach, letting out a small grunt as she hit the ground before lifting her self up and coming to rest on her forearms. "From here, you can see exactly what I mean."
Taking a quick look around, Xena joined her down on the ground.
"See." She pointed to the center of the span and from this angle, the sag was very noticeable.
Xena was silent for a moment as she rested on her elbows and studied the bridge. "Okay, you're right."
Getting to her feet, Xena walked back to the end of the bridge and crouched down. Picking-up a convenient stick from the dirt, she began digging and was soon joined by Philana. Within a few minutes, they had uncovered the end of the limestone block where it rested on the side of the chasm. A shelf had been chiseled away to allow the thick stone to rest flush with the surrounding rock. But, because of the deformation, the end, which had been set well back into the side of the mountain was now resting just a palm-width from the very edge.
Xena stood beside the now sweating girl and smiled. "Well done, Philana. I think you just found the way to bring down this side of the bridge. What about the other side?"
The girl's face dropped. "It's bowed too, but I dont know by how much. I noticed this yesterday and went back after everyone went to bed last night to check. But it was too dark and I couldnt really see much."
Xena's frown returned. "Why didnt you mention this before?"
The young girl shrugged, embarrassed eyes not meeting the warrior's "Because...um...because I wanted to make sure. I I didnt want Eponin or Queen Gabrielle to laugh at me."
Xena's expression didn't change. "Im not laughing, Philana. They wouldn't have either."
They both crossed over the bridge and took up positions on their stomachs once more.
"I dont know. It doesnt seem as much on this side."
Xena had to agree. "Yeah. Nowhere near as much."
They both turned and looked up to see Gabrielle standing behind them with an amused look on her face.
Philana jumped to her feet while Xena slowly rolled over and stretched out her tall frame, leaning back against her elbows and crossing her ankles as she let a slow grin take over.
"Nope. Philana was just showing me how were going to take out this bridge."
The bards eyebrows shot up. "Really?"
"Really. With enough strong arms and some heavy mallets, we should be able to make it collapse. At least the other side of it."
Shifting and looking up at the silent girl, she waited until she was sure she had the Amazon's full attention before continuing, "Philana, would you go round up the others and bring them back here?"
The young Amazon began to frown as she thought of Eponin's orders. "What about the fire for dinner?"
Gabrielle spoke up, her voice warm but firm. "That can wait, Philana. This cant."
The Amazon hesitated for just a moment before nodding and heading back up the road. Gabrielle turned back to the reclining warrior, her mouth twitching into a grin.
"You want a hand up?" knowing the warrior could go from her current position to a leap taller than the bard herself, faster than it took to draw a sword.
Xena extended her arm towards her partner, smiling. "Thanks."
Reaching down and locking her hand around the warrior's wrist, she easily pulled the woman to her feet. "Do you really think this will work?"
Xena shrugged as she brushed off her leathers. "I dont see why not. And its the only thing weve come up with so far."
The others soon joined them and they set to work with everything they could find, chipping away the ends of the bridge. In less than a candlemark, they had left all but a thin wedge of rock supporting the bridge on each side.
Gabrielle returned to the huts, volunteering to start dinner while she checked on her patient and the others returned to making the road impassible to the invading army.
Taking a breather from the heavy work, Jess used the back of her hand to swipe at the sweat that was dripping off the end of her nose as she walked over to the side of the road and grabbed a waterskin. Propping the handle of her shovel against her shoulder, she pulled the stopper and raised the skin to her lips.
Deciding a break was a good idea, Amara dropped her shovel where she stood and joined her friend, examining her hands and wincing as she came up alongside, putting all her concentration into trying to straighten her fingers. "Gods, I have blisters on my blisters."
Jess wiped her mouth before handing the waterskin to Amara. "So, what do you think?"
Pausing in the process of raising the skin to her lips, the young girl's brows dropped in a frown. "About what?"
The Amazon rolled her eyes. "Xena."
Surprised, Amara slowly brought the skin up, taking a long pull before lowering it and shrugging. She laughed nervously. "Don't know. She seems all right, I guess."
Jess nodded her head in agreement. "Yeah, I think Queen Gabrielle was telling the truth. She sure doesn't seem like the monster Faline said she was."
The young girl's eyes widened and she held up her hands. "Now wait a minute, Jess, that's not what I said. It's pretty hard to tell after only a few days, isn't it? Either way. And Faline's had a lot more experience with this than we have."
Jess snorted, grabbing the skin back. "Did you see the way she reacted when the Queen was hurt? She must have taken out ten men getting to her side."
Amara shrugged as she watched her friend take another drink. "That doesn't prove anything."
Lowering the skin, Jess shook her head. "No. But it makes you think."
They paused to watch Philana and Princess Cynara, working a little further down the road, struggling to lift a large stone between them.
Jess raised the skin in front of her, intending to squirt some of the cold water over her dusty face when she happened to glance over the top, spotting a large boulder a couple of hundred meters up the side of the mountain. At that height, the soldiers working on the lower slopes had missed it. Lowering the waterskin back down, she pointed up the slope.
"Hey, what about that one?"
Amara looked up to where she was pointing.
"What about it?"
"C'mon, lets see if we can move it."
The young girl looked dubious. "Just us?"
"Stay here if you want, but Im going to see if I can loosen it. Who says the men are the only ones who can move the heavy stuff?"
She laid her shovel to one side and began to scramble up the loose scree, heading up the side of the mountain.
"Wheres she going?" Philana called as she and Cynara approached, carrying the large rock between them.
"Oh, shes spotted some big boulder or something up there. Wants to see if she can move it."
Dropping the rock in the middle of the road, the three girls watched as Jess reached the huge boulder and began to circle around it, disappearing behind it for a minute before reappearing again on the other side. They watched as she cupped her hands to her mouth and called down, "Come up here, you guys, and give me a hand."
As Cynara and Philana exchanged glances, Amara spoke up. "I dont think we should; its too big. Ill go get some of the men to help."
Philana didnt wait as she too started to scramble up the mountainside. "Oh, dont be such a baby, Amara. C'mon."
The young Amazon stood for a moment before shrugging and following up after her friends. Princess Cynara looked up after the two scrambling girls, just managing to jump out of the way of a rock knocked loose by one of them.
She took a quick glance around, a grin breaking out as she paused for just a moment before shrugging and following them up. She was out of breath when she finally joined them as they examined the boulder.
"Okay. Everybody get around the other side and push."
They all moved around to the up-slope side of the rock, scrambling around the pile of smaller rocks and stones caught behind it. Pressing their shoulders and backs to the rough stone, they all pushed.
A series of grunts followed by a hollow scrape and then the boulder shifted; but only by about a hand-span or so before it caught on something and refused to shift any more, despite all their efforts.
Panting, the girls collapsed, leaning heavily against the rock, trying to regain their breath in the thin mountain air before trying again.
Not looking up from where her forehead rested against the cool rock, Philana kept her eyes closed as she managed to gasp out, "What if we use the shovel handles as levers? We could rest them on these rocks back here. It's got to be easier than this."
Pushing herself away from where she'd come to rest beside the curly-haired Amazon, Cynara put her hand on the girl's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Good idea, Philana. Why dont you and I go back down and get them while Jess and Amara clear away some of the rocks from in front?"
Ignoring the groan from the girl beside her, the Princess noted everyone's head nod in agreement. They all emerged single-file from behind the rock; Cynara and Philana scrambling back down the side of the mountain while Jess and Amara dropped to their knees and began pulling away the rocks from beneath the base of the boulder. There weren't many, so it wasnt long before they were done.
Standing and waiting, they watched as Cynara and Philana struggled back up the side of the mountain, more difficult this time, their hands filled with the shovels and not free to help them over the treacherous stones.
Philana, never very coordinated at the best of times, was having the most difficulty and Jess had trouble stifling a laugh as the stout girl lost her footing again and dropped both shovels as she landed on her stomach with an 'oof'. Pushing herself up with her elbows from where shed fallen, she began swearing a blue streak as one of the shovels next to her began to slip back down the side of the mountain. Making a wild grab for it, she knocked the other one with her foot and sent it sliding as well.
"Miserable sons of a blue harpy!!!"
Grinning as she watched Philana scramble after the shovels, Jess called out as she started back down, "Here, let me give you a hand."
"Dont bother, I can get it," the annoyed girl growled as she finally managed to dive on top of the escaping implements, trapping them both against the side of the mountain.
Jess had almost reached her when a scream rang out from above them.
All three girls swiveled around in horror to see Amara landing on her stomach out of the path of the boulder, now rumbling down the mountain directly towards them.
No time to think, Jess just reacted and dove for the side, continuing her roll to get clear of the minor rockslide the boulder was causing in its wake. Philana, still sprawled on her stomach, didnt have enough time to do much more than roll a few meters before the boulder was on top of her. Cynara, who had been sitting laughing as she watched the struggling Amazon, was able to throw her body far enough to miss the bouncing rock itself but found herself caught up in its aftermath and both girls were tumbled head over heals, one-hundred meters down the side of the mountain.
Jess watched it all in slow motion until the final stone came to rest under the cloud of dust rising from the pile in the center of the roadway. Then reality set in as the full horror of what just happened struck her.
By the time she'd scrambled back down, her heart pounding, others began to arrive; Andrus the first on the scene.
"What the Hades happened? Is everyone all right?"
"Cynara and Philana are under there somewhere!" she yelled as she frantically began to search.
Suddenly feeling cold fingers grip his heart, the General became aware of the pounding of feet and turned to see Xena skid to a halt beside him, the others a few paces behind.
Then he filled his lungs and yelled, catching the attention of those not already on their way. "We need help over here. Now!"
He felt the reassuring hand close around his shoulder and turned to meet the look of concern in those blue eyes as the low voice demanded, "What happened?"
The General tried to keep the fear out of his eyes as he straightened and quickly surveyed the rocks, choking down a groan. "Jess says the Princess and Philana were caught in this."
Both heads twisted as Jess' excited shout interrupted. "Here! Over here! I found one!"
They all scrambled over and began frantically digging, the General carefully lifting away the last stone and uncovering Cynaras crumpled body.
"Dont move her." Xenas voice commanded as she pushed the others aside, kneeling and checking for a pulse. "The rest of you, find Philana."
It was a quarter candlemark of anxious but careful searching before a bleeding, dust covered hand was spotted wedged in the center of the pile. It took another few minutes of heavy lifting before the girl was uncovered, barely breathing.
After determining that Cynara had managed to escape with nothing more serious than a broken arm and a possible concussion, she let the General gathered her up and carry her to the bard, who had already left to prepare the infirmary.
Watching as the General disappeared around the bend, the warrior quickly shifted her attention to Philana.
She could tell at once that the girl was in a bad way. The side of her head had taken a direct hit and Xena could feel the broken pieces of skull shift beneath her fingers. Both arms were broken as well as her left pelvis, leg, and most of her ribs. She'd no idea how torn up she was inside.
She was thankful the girl was unconscious, but the wheezing coming from within, with each labored breath, had her worried.
"Were going to have to get her onto something flat to move her."
Two soldiers, dispatched back to the camp, returned carrying the top of a table, its legs hastily knocked off. Willing hands lifted the girl carefully onto the wooden surface before lifting and carrying her back to the infirmary.
Gabrielle was waiting, a table quickly cleared in anticipation.
"How bad is it?" Stepping out of the way as Philana's still form was transferred.
"Bad." The warrior replied, worried blue eyes meeting the bard's. "Im going to need your help here."
Gabrielle grabbed their healers kit and placed it on the end of the table as she moved to stand opposite the warrior.
"What about Cynara?" Andrus demanded as he looked up from the cot that held the Princess, concerned by the girl's shallow breathing.
Blue eyes searched out the bard's as Gabrielle spoke up.
"I've set her arm and she has a mild concussion. Her ribs are bruised but she should be fine."
Xena nodded and Andrus looked relieved as he pulled the blanket up tighter under the Princess' chin.
"Is there anything I can do?"
The warrior now spoke up. "Yes. Keep the others out of our way."
The General straightened as he stood, his voice now holding the note of command. "Okay, you heard her. Everybody out."
As soldiers and Amazons shuffled out, Xena began to cutaway the young girl's clothes.
"Eponin, you stay with us and put on some water to heat."
The Amazon nodded as she moved over to stoke the fire.
It was several candlemarks later when the last bone was set and the final stitch made. Xena looked up from where she was washing the blood off her arms and spotted the bard working on the other side of the hut.
"You get that last part?"
Gabrielle glanced up, frowning at the sharp note in her partner's voice as she finished putting away their supplies. "Six stitches, left leg. Yeah. All done."
Grabbing a scrap of clean linen and rubbing her arms dry, the warrior moved to stand beside Philana's cot, looking down at the sallow face of the young girl.
"That should do it, then."
She noticed for the first time that the shutters were drawn and the hut lit with the warm glow of lanterns. Wondering what time it was, but not really caring, she looked down again and tried to ignore the sudden flash of anger; wanting desperately to hit someone and knowing there was no one to hit.
She took a deep breath instead and tried to release some of the tension in her shoulders, glancing over at the bard as she exhaled slowly and brought a smile to her lips she didn't really feel. "Now the hard part."
Gabrielle moved to stand beside her as they both looked down at the still figure on the cot, the bard's head nodding in agreement. "Yeah, it's the waiting I hate the most, too. At least if I'm doing something, I don't feel quite so helpless."
Wincing as her eyes came to rest on the gray face, she turned instead and looked up at her partner's grim one. "What are Philanas chances?"
Holding nothing back, Xena suspected Gabrielle already knew the answer.
"Not good. Besides all those fractures, shes pretty torn up inside."
They both glanced up as Eponin entered, carrying two covered bowls.
"Here, I thought you two could use something to eat." She moved over and deposited them on the table, along with two spoons she'd tucked inside her bracer.
She watched as the warrior and the bard joined her, pulling up chairs and sitting down.
The bard sniffed at her fish stew a couple of times before filling her spoon and transferring its contents to her mouth, taking a moment to close her eyes and enjoy the savory taste. She took a deep breath and let go a sigh before opening her eyes again and searching out the Amazon's.
"Thanks, Ep. How are the others?"
Smiling at the bard's reactions, Eponin's face quickly dropped as she replied, "Amaras got a sprained wrist and Jess just has a couple of bruises."
She started as Xena's deep growl came from beside her. "What the Hades happened out there?"
Surprised by the intensity of the glare when she turned to face the warrior, Eponin found she had to swallow a couple of times as the blue eyes bore into hers. "It seems they were trying to loosen a boulder when it came down on top of them, bringing half the mountain with it."
The warrior's frown deepened. "I thought Andrus men were supposed to be doing the heavy stuff?"
Eponin glanced at the bard, raising an eyebrow in question before turning back to the warrior and shrugging. "They were. But you know Amazons; cant resist a challenge."
She started to say something more but stopped as Xena stood, tossing the unused spoon in her bowl and dropping both on the table with a thud.
"Yeah, well, that pig-stubborn attitude of yours almost got two girls killed today." She turned to Gabrielle, her voice an angry growl. "Im going to go check on Kirilus' progress," she turned and strode out of the hut, letting the door slam behind her.
Eponin's eyes widened as she stared after the warrior. Turning back to face the bard, she didn't try to hide the confusion in her voice. "What's with her?"
Surprised herself by Xena's reaction, Gabrielle let her eyes linger on the door for a moment, her brows knotted in a frown before turning back to face the Amazon. "I don't know. Will you excuse me, Ep.?" She didn't wait for an answer before heading after her partner. "Keep an eye on Philana 'til I get back, will you?"
Pausing as she cleared the hut, it was only a moment before she spotted the dark shape standing in the shadows a few meters away.
Stung when the warrior didn't answer, she moved to stand in front of the woman, her hands moving up to rest on the dark leathers. "Xena, what's wrong?"
"Nothing," came the tense reply, blue eyes not meeting hers.
Her voice was gentle but insistent. "Don't say that. I know there's something wrong. Is it Philana?"
The warrior shook her head as she rubbed her forehead in frustration. "Yes...no...I don't know, Gabrielle." She closed her eyes and tried to focus.
The bard was worried now.
"Please, Xena, tell me." Her soft voice pleaded as she searched the warrior's face.
Seeing the concern in her friend's eyes, she knew she had to tell the bard something. Well, Gabrielle said she wanted the truth. Unsure, Xena hesitated for just a moment more, before blue eyes locked with confused green.
"Philana's hurt pretty bad, Gabrielle. If she survives, we aren't going to be able to move her for at least a day or two. Maybe more. And even then, it'll be risky."
The bard's eyebrows knotted as she slowly exhaled, still not seeing the problem. "Sooooo?"
Cold blue eyes now met hers as all emotion drained from the warrior's voice. "So, if we can't hold this pass for at least that long..." She let her voice trail off.
It was as if she'd been hit in the gut with her staff. It took a minute before she got her breath back and then her frightened eyes met the warrior's. She straightened, determined to hide the sudden clenching in her stomach.
Xena saw the bard shudder and she pulled the young woman close, wrapping her arms protectively around her as they stood there together in the dark.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle. I'll think of something."
Chapter 25 next
Return the previous chapter