Chapter 25

The archers and the darkness of night slowed the reconstruction of the wooden bridge considerably and it was well after midnight before the first log was maneuvered into place across the river.

Knowing it was only a matter of time before they completed the new bridge and the Metzovian soldiers began pouring across it, those behind the wooden barriers were ordered back. But, not before they soaked the logs with lantern oil and set them on fire, making them useless to Kirilus' army.

Once everyone cleared the stone bridge, Xena took up one of the heavy mallets and, by the light of the flickering torches dug into the dirt, began swinging in earnest; smashing at the last tenuous hold of the slab on the edge of the gorge. It only took a few minutes before those on the other side of the river heard the loud crack and then watched as one end suddenly dropped; then it all tumbled with a loud splash into the river.

Stepping back a few paces, the warrior took a running leap forward, launching herself into a forward flip over the chasm and landing on the remaining half of the bridge. The others took up their tools again and it wasn’t long before they sent that side crashing into the gorge as well. The only thing remaining now was the stone column rising from the center of the river.

Gabrielle turned to Xena, still panting from swinging the heavy mallet, and looked up into her friend's face. "What now?"

The warrior took a look around and realized that there was nothing left for them to do but wait. Meeting the bard's eyes, she shrugged, "Now we get some sleep."

Turning to the others, she raised her voice. "It’s late. Everybody get a few hours rest. We’ll meet back here at first light."

Returning to the infirmary, they checked their patients, going through the long process of changing bandages and adjusting splints. Philana's right thighbone had snapped under the impact of a rock and it was critical to keep tension on the leg or they ran the risk that the powerful muscles in the Amazon's thigh would pull the bone back out of alignment.

They'd both finally drifted off to separate cots a little while later, too tired to do more than curl up and pull the warm blankets up, letting the exhaustion finally claim them.

It was a few candlemarks later when the warrior's subconscious registered a flash of light followed by a distant rumble.

Rousing herself from the fitful sleep she'd fallen into, she realized that the air was now thick with the smell of the approaching storm. Lying there, she listened for a few minutes as insistent gusts of wind began to tug at the loose boards on the sides of the hut. Letting her senses take in the growing energy of the storm, she couldn't help but smile at the contrast with the gentle snoring coming from the cot next to hers.

Startled as the first heavy drops thudded on the thick roof overhead, it was a few minutes later when the individual thumps were replaced by a sudden steady pounding as the skies opened up. The thunder and lightening had been gaining in intensity as well, and she felt her body snap to full alert as a brilliant flash and a bone-jarring crack broke simultaneously overhead.

Spinning her head at the sudden cry, her eyes widened in surprise as Gabrielle sat bolt upright, the bard's chest heaving as she looked around in panic. Wild eyes focused on hers and then the walls seemed to glow white as another crack shook the hut and she watched the frightened girl reflexively bring her hands up over her head as she brought her knees up and ducked.

"You all right?" Xena called, pulling back the blanket and swinging her legs to the side of the cot as she sat up, watching the bard with concern.

Fully awake now, Gabrielle slowly straightened, unclenching her hands and looking a little sheepish as her eyes met the warrior's.

"Yeah," the bard replied with a bravery she didn't feel. Settling back down beneath the covers and pulling them up tight under her chin as another loud rumble shook the hut, she tried to add lightness to her voice she didn't feel. "That’s some storm, huh?"

Xena watched as the bard huddled under the blanket, knowing how much the thunder and lightening bothered her friend. Her heart went out as the intensity of the storm outside seemed to increase. "Try to ignore it, Gabrielle, and go back to sleep. We're safe in here and there are still a couple of candlemarks 'til morning."

And then they both started as another loud crack left their ears ringing.

"How can I ignore it when the whole furkin' mountain is shaking?" Gabrielle muttered to herself, turning to face the wall as she scrunched her eyes closed, wishing it was already morning.

She heard the confident voice from the other cot as the warrior settled back down. "Storms this violent don’t last long, Gabrielle. It should pass quickly."

Reflexively ducking down again as another crack shook the hut, the bard couldn't hide the doubt in her voice. "Yeah, well, not quick enough."

Xena shifted in her cot and pulled the blanket back, making a spot beside her. "Come 'ere."

Embarrassed but grateful, the bard threw back her covers and scrambled over to Xena’s bed, lying down and stretching out on the cot as the warrior pulled the blanket back up over both of them.

"Better?" She smiled down as the bard curled up at her side.

"Much." Gabrielle replied as she closed her eyes and snuggled in closer.

Xena watched for a few minutes as the bard’s breathing slowed before she too, closed her eyes again, and took in several deep breaths, ignoring the quickly passing storm as she let sleep reclaim her as well.

The thunderstorm had passed in the night, leaving a steady rain behind that had turned everything to mud. Too wet to get a fire going outside, Jess and Amara had no alternative but to cook the breakfast porridge on the large stove in the infirmary.

Now, as the soldiers and Amazons crowded into the hut and waited for the thick, gray gruel to cook, conversation was sparse as everyone tried to keep their minds off of the two still figures lying on the cots at the far end.

Replacing the blanket over Philana, Gabrielle took a moment to brush back several curls that had escaped from beneath the linen bandaged wrapped around the young girl's head. She didn't look up as Eponin joined her.

"How is she?"

"I don't know, Ep." The Amazon could tell the bard was worried. "She should have regained consciousness by now. The longer it takes, the worse her chances."

Eponin watched the pale face of the girl for a few minutes before searching out the bard's again. "What's Xena say?"

Gabrielle gave a helpless little shrug. "If she comes too in the next few candlemarks, she may stand a chance. If not, she probably never will."

Watching the bard tuck the limp hand back under the blanket, she gave her friend's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Gabrielle, I wouldn't worry. We Amazons have pretty thick heads. She'll make it."

Amara lowered the spoon she'd just used to taste the porridge, keeping her bandaged wrist clutched protectively to her chest, and glanced over at the two women now standing by Philana's cot.

She leaned over and whispered to the girl next to her, "This just sucks."

Following the young Amazon's gaze, Jess felt her jaw tighten as her eyes came to rest for the hundredth time on the steady movement of the blanket as it kept time with the sounds of labored breathing coming from beneath it.

She swallowed hard against the solid knot that was left of her stomach. "Yeah. Why did I have to be such a centaur's-ass? We should have got the men to help us."

Swinging her head around, the young girl hesitated for just a moment before tugging at her friend's bracer. "Don't say that, Jess. Please. It wasn't your fault. It was an accident, that's all."

Jess seemed to shake her head and began to straighten her shoulders. "Yeah, well, if Philana makes it..."

Wrapping a small hand around the other girl's wrist, she pulled her towards her as she pleaded, "Don't talk like that. Of course, she's going to make it. She has to!"

Jess suddenly recognized the look of fear on the young girl's face and realized that she wasn't helping any here. She straightened her shoulders and tried to smile. "You're right, Amara, she's going to be fine. I know she will."

Searching desperately for a change of topic and noticing the bubbling pot of porridge, she added. "That about ready?"

The young girl looked down and gave the spoon in the pot a half-hearted turn. "Yeah, but I don't know if anyone has much of an appetite."

Jess started filling bowls and passing them out but Amara had been right and there was little enthusiasm. Everyone just sat quietly, their breakfast ignored.

Looking around, Gabrielle realized that this would never do. They were working on very few hours sleep and faced a cold day in the rain. She had to get them to eat something so she picked up her spoon and spoke up.

"I know we're all upset about Philana and Cynara, but others are counting on us to hold this pass. If we don't keep up our strength, we'll never do it."

Dipping her spoon into her bowl, the last thing she wanted to do right now was eat, but as she saw the others watching her and taking up their own spoons, she took a deep breath and brought it to her lips.

Then the door to the hut burst open and she'd just enough time to realize it was her partner standing there before Xena released her chakram.

A high-pitched whine followed by angry shouts as porridge went flying everywhere. She watched in stunned silence as the rapidly spinning weapon knocked the spoons from every raised hand before returning to the warrior's grip.

Then she lost sight of Xena as a wall of heavily armed Amazon warriors, their weapons drawn, suddenly sprang-up in front of her.

Wiping a large glob of warm porridge from her cheek with her fingers, she stood and managed to find a break between two well-muscled shoulders, spotting Xena as she crossed the room heading for the stove.

The warrior seemed to be focused on the pot and was ignoring the angry shouts of outrage coming from all sides.

Then the bard realized, that in order for the warrior to reach the stove, Xena was going to have to go through the Amazons who had taken up a defensive position in front of her, their sword points now focused on the rapidly approaching warrior. With a little shiver of fear, she watched Xena's arm begin to instinctively reach back for her own sword, the Warrior-Princess mask set firmly in place.

Gabrielle suddenly realized that this situation could quickly escalate out of hand.

So, slowly, putting her bowl down and raising her arms, she forced her way between the Amazon warriors, ending up standing, panting, with her back to them as Xena drew to a halt in front of her.

She tried to ignore the pounding in her heart as she let an amused grin take over.

"Well, that was quite an entrance. A simple 'good morning' might have gone over better, though."

She felt the tension drain as she noticed a small smirk lift the corner of the warrior's mouth; but Eponin hadn't noticed it.

The Weapons-Master stepped right up into Xena's face, her voice an angry growl. "What the Hades do you think you're doing?"

Xena ignored the gray lump hanging off the Amazon's left eyebrow and instead locked onto and held the brown eyes for a long, agonizing moment before grinning and taking a step back, letting the few finger-lengths already showing of her blade slip back in the sheath.

"Trying to keep you from being poisoned," she shot back.

Pushing past the stunned Amazon, she strode over to the almost empty pot of porridge and dipped a finger into it before bringing it to her nose and inhaling deeply.

"Did anybody eat any of this?"

She turned to study the room, waiting patiently while the question registered with those present. It was a moment before Amara took a tentative step forward. "I...I tasted it while I was cooking it."

"Anybody else?" Piercing blue eyes continued to search the room but all that stared back now were curious faces, none showing the telltale signs of fear.

They all looked at each other before looking back at the warrior.

Andrus joined Xena at her side, finally sure that whatever had just happened was over and they could get back to more immediate matters.

"What the Hades is going on here?"

Sticking her porridge-covered finger under Andrus' nose, she wiggled it a couple of times before withdrawing it. "Can't you smell that? A kind of sharp odor along with the regular smell of the porridge?"

The General inhaled and then frowned as he shook his head. "I don't smell anything unusual."

Walking over and sticking her hand in the pot, Eponin held up two fingers covered with the thick gray slop before moving them directly under her nose and taking a few cautious sniffs herself. "Me neither."

Xena shrugged. "Well, I can."

Gabrielle finished wiping her hands and cheek, removing the remains of the porridge with a scrap of linen before searching the warrior's face. "What is it, Xena?"

She noticed a small frown form as the warrior thought for a moment. "Unless I miss my guess, a local mushroom."

Now Amara's eyes were wide, her voice barely a whisper. "But that's impossible. I ate some and I feel fine."

Xena's voice gentled as she met the frightened stare. "You won't be in about a candlemark or so."

She looked down as she felt the bard's hand close around her forearm and squeeze. "Xena?"

And then she shook her head, hastily adding when she recognized the look of concern there, "No, it's okay, Gabrielle, it's not usually fatal. But unless we get it out of her, she's going to be one very sick Amazon."

A series of thunks followed as the remaining bowls of porridge were hastily put aside. Everyone now stood and looked at each other, the Andorians finding their way to one side of the hut and the Amazons their way to the other.

Turning back to the bard, Xena lifted a hand to her partner's shoulder, apologetic eyes meeting worried green ones. "Gabrielle, would you mix up something for Amara?"

Knowing what her partner meant, the bard led the girl over to a cot and had her sit down. Trying to reassure the shaking Amazon with a few words, she then quickly moved over to where they left the healer's kit, beginning to search for the herb that would cause Amara to empty her stomach.

Facing the wall, away from the others, she set her lips in a grim line, knowing the young girl was in for a rough time of it and letting her anger surface at all the pain this unknown person was causing.

Watching the bard's back, Xena had seen her companion's shoulders tense and suspected what was going on. She watched for a moment until she saw Gabrielle draw in a deep breath and turn back to the girl, a reassuring smile back on her face as she reached for a mug and a waterskin.

The warrior focused her attention on the others in the room and turned to face the worried looks on those all around her. She let her voice take on a note of command. "The rest of you better rely on trail rations for this morning."

As the silent Amazons and Andorians grabbed their capes and shuffled out into the rain, Andrus and Eponin joined the warrior by the stove.

The tall Amazon locked eyes with Xena's and wrapped strong fingers around the woman's arm as she demanded, "Are you sure the food was poisoned?"

The warrior shrugged, looking down at the hand and then back up at the brown eyes challenging hers. "Don't have to believe me, Ep. Amara should give you all the confirmation you need in a little while."

The Weapons-Master's brows shot up. "But I thought..."

Xena interrupted as she carefully removed the fingers from her arm, her eyes never leaving the Amazon's. "She's going to be all right once we get the porridge out of her, but she's still going to be pretty sick for a while."

Andrus' angry voice interrupted. "But who? Who's doing this? It's obvious it isn't Philana."

Eponin held Xena's stare for a minute longer before turning to face the General. "You saw what it was like in here this morning, Andrus. Anyone could have slipped something into the pot."

Looking confused, Andrus shook his head. "But, I don't get it. What's the point if not to kill us?"

"If we'd eaten the porridge we'd be too sick to do much to stop them." Xena was now examining the area around the stove.

Exchanging a glance with the General to let him know he wasn't the only one who was confused, Eponin added, "But he's right, why not just kill us?"

Xena straightened and faced the two warriors. "Because they couldn't be sure they'd get everyone the first time. If they just make us sick, we might have though it was food poisoning or something else. If people started dying, they'd have tipped their hand."

Andrus nodded as the twisted logic became clear. "But, they know we're on to them now."

Xena shrugged. "Yeah. And that'll make our job both easier and harder."

"How?" Eponin spoke up.

"Easier because all of us now know about the threat so it will be harder to act against any one of us. But at the same time, it'll make the person more cautious and more difficult to spot."

Since there wasn't much left to do but wait, and the rain showed no sign of letting up, those men and women not required to be on duty at the site of the stone bridge stayed warm and dry inside their huts. Jess and one of the Amazon guards donned thick woolen capes and took up their positions behind several large rocks overlooking the demolished bridge, along with two of Andrus’ men.

And waited.

But not for long.

As soon as the first Metzovian soldier was spotted slipping among the shadows of the debris on the other side of the river, he was brought down, prompting several more shadows to detach themselves from the rocks and retreat several hundred meters back down the road.

For the rest of the day, they could hear the excited shouts of men and the sharp sounds of metal on rock as Pyrrhos' mercenaries began the task of clearing the road between the two bridges, a task made even more miserable by the cold rain that soaked them all.

Their limited view of the roadway allowed them to observe the slow progress of those on the other side of the river but thanks to their efforts, and the heavy price they'd paid, the road between the two bridges remained, for the most part, one big obstacle course of boulders, rocks and deep trenches, despite the efforts of dozens of soldiers.

It wasn't until after lunch that Pyhrros ordered up his archers to protect the first wagonload of logs, but their arrows weren't able to penetrate past the rock and those behind the barrier were able to keep the mercenaries and their wagons well back from the spot where the bridge had stood.

And the heavily falling rain continued to turn everything to mud.

"So, what's going on between you and Ephiny?"

They'd been standing by Philana's cot, watching the steady rising and falling of the blanket and listening to the drubbing of the rain falling outside. Cynara, her arm in a splint and her head bandaged, was sitting in a chair by the window quietly talking to Andrus who was perched on a chair-arm beside her. Amara was quietly tossing in another cot, exhausted from the effects of the bitter herbs Gabrielle had given her and still feeling the cold sweats and ache in her stomach that made her wish she were dead.

Surprised and a little annoyed by Xena's question, the bard looked up into the curious blue eyes regarding her. "I'm just a little ticked with her right now, that's all."

Xena noticed the bard clench her jaw and decided to try to lighten the mood. She let an amused grin lift the corner of her mouth. "A little ticked? You almost took her head off. Literally."

Green eyes flashed as the bard suddenly locked eyes with the warrior's. "Don't joke about it, Xena. I really don't find it funny right now."

Stiffening, she gave her partner a little shrug. "Sorry, Gabrielle. But if you want to talk about it, I've been told by a very reliable bard that I'm a good listener."

Letting out a long sigh, the young woman's shoulders dropped and she seemed to study the figure on the cot for a long minute, before turning and meeting the sympathetic blue eyes watching her.

Shaking her head, she took a moment to gather her thoughts. "I don't get it, Xena. Sometimes Ephiny seems so warm and caring, like she can't do enough for you. And then suddenly, she turns into this whole other person; cold and ruthless, just like yo..." The bard froze as she realized what she'd been about to say. Her eyes darted up and she felt her heart drop as she saw the quiet agony on her partner's face.

"Just like me?"

The bard's eyes widened as she began to protest, but the warrior interrupted.

"That's all right Gabrielle. I know what you meant. And those are qualities that some say are essential in a good leader." She paused and smiled that sad smile of hers, letting the bard know it was all right. "But only if you combine them with other things like compassion and honesty. You made a good choice when you picked Ephiny to be your Regent, Gabrielle. She has all those things."

Surprised by the warrior's response, it was a moment before the bard's eyebrows dropped in a frown. "Wait a minute, here. I thought the two of you weren't getting along right now."

The warrior shrugged. "That doesn't mean I don't respect her."

Shaking her head, Gabrielle felt the anger return as she thought about the Regent's recent actions. "Yeah, well, sometimes I wonder about her."

"Wonder how?"

"Like back there at the camp, when you rescued us. She'd no right to talk to you that way."

Xena let her eyes meet with the bard's, reaching out and letting her hand rest on her companion's shoulder. "Yes she did, Gabrielle. She's your friend and she's concerned about you. Frankly, I'm glad you have someone like her looking out for you."

Green eyes sparked as the bard brushed away the warrior's hand before crossing her arms firmly across her chest. "Yeah, well, I can look out after myself. I don't need her to do that. Or you, for that matter."

Putting both hands on the bard's shoulders, she gentled her voice as she drew the woman closer, locking both eyes with her partner's. "But that's what friends do; you taught me that, Gabrielle. They look out for each other."

The bard dropped her eyes but her voice still held a belligerent tone. "Okay, but she knew you were hurt. She said so herself. And she still forced you to take care of all those other people. She didn't care about you."

The warrior's eyebrows dropped in a frown. "Forced me? Gabrielle, she didn't force me to do anything. That was my choice."

The bard's eyes met hers, still flashing. "And I bet she made sure that was the only choice you could make."

Xena realized what the problem was, but how to get the bard to see it from Ephiny's perspective. Well, up-front and personal always worked best for her. She let her voice gentle as she captured the green eyes.

"Did Ephiny try to make sure that the injured had the best chance of survival after the fight? Of course she did, Gabrielle. But that's her job. In her position, I'd have done the same." Releasing the bard's shoulders, she straightened and spoke up more firmly. "The health and welfare of every Amazon in the tribe is Ephiny's responsibility. You gave her that job. And she takes it very seriously. I don't think you realize sometimes just how lonely and difficult a time she has of it."

Gabrielle's eyes melted and she let her head drop forward until her forehead rested against Xena's leathers. Letting out a long sigh, she then followed it with an annoyed growl. "Look, I'm trying really hard to stay mad at her, but you're making this very difficult, warrior. Stop it."

Xena shrugged, as she let a smile tug at the corner of her mouth. "Sorry Gabrielle, but I hate to see the two of you fighting. It would be a real tragedy for you to lose such a good friend."

Just then they heard a low groan from the cot below and looked down to see two foggy brown eyes peering out between two thin slits; both eyes almost, but not quite, swollen shut.

Dropping to her knees, Gabrielle put a reassuring hand on the young girl's shoulder, and gave it a soft squeeze. "Well, look who's decided to rejoin us. Don't move Philana, you were hurt but you're going to be okay now."

The eyes blinked several times as they stared sightlessly ahead.

Dropping down to one knee beside the bard, Xena took up the girl's unresisting hand and wrapped it around the three middle fingers of her left hand. Holding it in place, she locked her eyes on the girl's face and in a voice that left no room for hesitation, she commanded, "Philana, squeeze my hand."

They both held their breath for a moment before the fingers finally moved. They didn't do more than twitch, but that was enough to let the warrior know that the girl was aware and could respond.

Slipping the hand back beneath the covers, she gave the blanket a firm pat. "Good girl, Philana. Now just lie back and get some rest. You're going to be fine."

Eponin strode into the hut, pushing back the hood to her sodden cape as she spotted the warrior and the bard kneeling by Philana's cot. She ignored their smiling faces, cutting the bard's excited greeting short.

"Xena, I think we’ve got trouble."

The smiles quickly disappeared as the warrior stood up. "What kind of trouble?"

The Amazon's face was grim. "You’d better see this for yourself."

Andrus had left the Princess' side, seeing the look on the Amazon's face, and now joined them as they all grabbed their capes and followed the Weapons-Master down to a spot overlooking the site of the bridge now under construction.

To counter their archers, Pyrrhos had teamed each soldier working on the bridge with another one carrying a long shield made of wood. This plan wasn’t stopping all of the arrows from reaching their marks, but it allowed teams of soldiers to start dragging the heavy logs piled out of range up to their side of the river in preparation for shifting them into place.

The rain and the mud and their archers made their progress slow, but they all realized with sinking hearts that the arrows were no longer going to be able to stop them and they knew it was just a matter of time before they had this bridge rebuilt too.

Gabrielle stared up at the warrior, that little knot of fear she'd been trying to ignore beginning to grow. "What are we going to do now? At this rate, they'll have the bridge rebuilt by tonight."

Eponin let her eyes linger on the far bank, desperately searching for some way to slow them down. "And Ephiny and the others won’t get here for another two days."

They all looked at Xena.

Seeing that everyone was now focused on her and wondering why it always seemed to come down to this, she squared her shoulders and faced the others. "Then we’re going to have to come up with something else."

"What?" they all chorused.

Shrugging her shoulders, she turned and strode off back in the direction of the huts. "I don’t know yet. But I’m working on it."

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