"Well, how is she?"
Ephiny stepped forward as Saran emerged from the large tent, impatiently waiting as the healer paused to stretch and fill her lungs with the fresh evening air.
Glancing over at the Regent, the older woman rolled her head on her shoulders a couple of times before turning and fully meeting the Amazon's worried stare.
Half-a-dozen sarcastic remarks flashed through her mind but she settled on the truth. "Frankly, Ephiny, I don't know why she hasn't already crossed over. By all rights, she should have. But Gabrielle says that Xena promised her she wouldn't and damned if that woman isn't stubborn enough to spit right in Charon's eye."
Ephiny released the breath she'd been holding and turned away, absently raking her hand through her curls as she tried to get that sudden flicker of hope under control. From what she'd been able to piece together over the past few candlemarks, she'd expected the worst. But, she'd also made that mistake once before and taking another deep breath, she turned back to the healer, her eyebrows shooting up with her next question.
Saran held up the fingers of her right hand and started ticking them off. "Both shoulders dislocated; most of her ribs broken; left thigh bone broken; crossbolt through the shoulder; sever concussion; internal damage in her chest and abdomen. Oh, and a dislocated finger."
Having run out of her own fingers to count on, Saran threw up her hands and shrugged. "Like I said, she should be dead. But Gabrielle assures me that this is nothing and she's going to be fine in a week or two." Shaking her head, she let her eyes come to rest on a set of greatly relieved gray ones. "And who am I to argue with our Queen?"
"And how's Gabrielle?"
The healer shrugged, "Except for that slice on her arm that Amara gave her, and a half-way healed head wound, she's like the others; sore, exhausted and ready to sleep for a week, although she won't admit it."
Straightening as she spotted the cook out of the corner of her eye, the healer hadn't noticed Ephiny stiffen at the mention of Amara's name.
Saran stifled a yawn with the back of her hand as she glanced back at the Regent. "Now, if you'll excuse me, Ephiny, I'm going to go find me some food and a large mug of port. I've earned both today."
Exchanging a glance that let the healer know that she agreed with her, Ephiny nodded her thanks and the older woman gave her a brief nod in return before turning and heading off in the direction of the cook tent.
Ephiny lifted the tent flap and entered, stopping as she spotted the small woman sitting by the cot. She glanced quickly over at the other side of the tent, watching the sleeping Philana for a moment or two before focusing all of her attention back on the figure of the bard.
As Gabrielle hugged her knees closer, chilled by the sudden draft of cold air, she looked up to see who had entered and stilled as she recognized the familiar shape of the Regent silhouetted against the entrance.
Getting quickly to her feet, she broke into a broad grin.
"Ephiny! Am I ever glad to see you!"
Visibly relaxing, Ephiny quickly crossed the tent floor and gathered the woman in her arms, giving her a big hug.
"Gabrielle, are you all right? Let me look at you." She held the smiling bard away from her and gave her a thorough once-over.
"Yeah, I'm fine, Eph." Despite the bard's smile, the Amazon felt a shudder shake the small shoulders as forlorn green eyes found hers. "It's Xena who got the worst of it, as usual."
Gabrielle dipped her head, taking advantage of the curtain of pale hair as she desperately tried to blink away the sudden stinging in her eyes. Then her throat began to close up and she knew she was loosing it.
The Regent had no trouble reading the bard and her heart went out to her friend as she desperately searched for something to say to help her ease her way through this.
Blinking several times to clear the sudden blurring, Gabrielle released a shuddering breath before turning her head around, searching out her partner's face for the hundredth time since they'd transferred Xena to the cot a candlemark ago.
Each time, expecting to be met with those piercing blue eyes, and each time feeling the knot twist tighter as the warrior's eyes remained closed. But, not just closed. Xena's right eye was buried deep beneath the swollen, purple flesh that was all that was left of that side of her face.
But, never mind. Xena was here and she was alive. And, the rest was just details.
Gabrielle took a long, deep breath before turning back to look directly at the Regent, her eyebrows lifting.
"Please don't take this the wrong way, Ephiny, but what the Tartarus are you guys doing here? Youre not supposed to be here until tomorrow."
The Regent let out a little laugh, as their eyes met. "So I understand. Its a long story, Gabrielle, best left for later. Right now I'm going to get you something to eat and then you're going to get a little rest."
Ephiny shook her head. "No buts, my friend. There's a cot set up right here beside Xena for you. And I won't accept no."
Returning with a bowl of stew and a mug of strong wine a few minutes later, she crossed the tent and set the things out on the table. Gabrielle got up from the side of the cot and joined her, picking up the spoon and poking at the contents of the bowl, but she had little appetite and the silence stretched between them.
Finally, Gabrielle cleared her throat and looked up, meeting wary gray eyes watching her. "Ephiny, I want to apologize for the other day."
The Regent leaned forward slightly and extended her hand across the table as she hastily spoke up. "No, Gabrielle, I'm the one who should apologize. I may have stuck my nose in where it didn't belong." Bringing her hand back, she shrugged and locked eyes with the bard. "But Gabrielle, I hope you understand, I only did it because I care about you."
The bard though for a moment before putting down her spoon and putting both hands on the table. "I know Eph., and I appreciate it." Green eyes locked on the Regent's gray. "But, I want you to know, that you had no right to speak to Xena that way. You were way over the line."
The Amazon's gaze didn't waver. "I had every right, Gabrielle. As your Regent, your welfare is my concern. And her leaving you like that, knowing what we did then "
The bard interrupted, the chill in her voice bringing down the temperature in the tent a few degrees, "We're not going there again, are we?"
Not backing down, the Regent shifted forward in her seat. "No. But you have to understand; as long as you are an Amazon Queen, it's my duty to protect you."
Gabrielle pushed back her chair and stood up, walking over to Xena's cot before spinning on her heals and glaring at the Regent. "Oh Ares' Balls, Eph.! Why does everyone want to protect me...you...Xena. Do I look that helpless? I'm quite capable of taking care of myself, you know."
Ephiny got to her feet and stepped away from the table, taking a few steps towards the bard. "I know you are, Gabrielle; most of the time. But when it comes to Xena, well..."
She froze as the bard's cold green eyes blasted out a warning. "When it come to Xena, what?" The bard's voice was frigid.
The Regent tensed and took a deep breath, but then seemed to hold if for a long moment before letting it out slowly and meeting the bard's glare. "Gabrielle, please, I don't want to fight. I'm just so glad the both of you are okay."
Gabrielle held the look for a moment more before the Amazon noticed the bard's shoulders begin to relax and the warmth slowly return to her eyes. It was only a minute more before the bard's smile was back on her face.
"You're right, Eph. I don't want to fight either, I'm sorry." But her look let the Amazon know that the discussion was only postponed not dropped. "So, tell me, what are you doing here, anyway?"
With an embarrassed shrug of her shoulders, the Amazon glanced over at the figure on the cot, getting a sense of déjà vu.
"In a way, I'm here because of her. We ran into Solari and the rest of the tribe a day after I left you. It seems one of our scouts returned from Amphipolis after an encounter with tall, dark and dangerous there, with some wild story about you and I being assassinated and the nation under threat of invasion. After some initial skepticism, Solari decided she couldn't afford to take the chance the story was true so she rounded everybody up and came to rescue us."
"But what about Andrus' army? I thought..."
"What army?" The Amazon's eyes twinkled. "Only about a quarter of the men out there are soldiers. The rest are villagers with borrowed uniforms and farm implements we picked up on the way here. The bulk of his army won't arrive 'til tomorrow."
The bard just shook her head. "And Kirilus?"
Ephiny frowned as she sat back down at the table. "He's retreated back to the other side of the pass. Other than that, there's not much more we can do about him, so we're going to have to leave that to his subjects." At the bard's frown, she shrugged. "The council has agreed that we should close our borders to him. King Doraclyse has already closed his. That means they have no route to the outside world. No trade. No supplies. It'll be rough for a while, but they need an incentive to find themselves a new leader, quickly."
Pausing, as if remembering something, she reached inside her bracer and pulled out a scrap of parchment, tossing it on the table. "Here. I think this is yours."
Walking back over and picking it up, the bard turned the well-worn scrap over in her hands as she sat down opposite the Regent. "What is it?" Unfolding it, Gabrielle started at the familiar handwriting and broke into a broad grin as her eyes skimmed it's contents. "Xena's note!"
The Regent looked away, her eyes coming to rest on the cot across the room. "Yeah. Eponin found it among Amara's things." Shaking her head, her shoulders seemed to slump as pained gray eyes met the bard's. "I don't know how I could have been so easily fooled, Gabrielle. All these years When I look back on it now "
The bard leaned forward, taking the Amazon's hands in hers. "Ephiny, don't. She had us all fooled, even Xena. I mean, she even ate some of her own poison so we wouldn't suspect her." The bard smiled as she squeezed the Regent's hand. "She must have been really pissed when Xena stopped us from eating the porridge, knowing she was about to get really sick for no reason."
The Regent just shook her head. "Yeah, well, I feel stupid."
The bard gave the strong hand a reassuring squeeze as a wry smile took over. "Join the club, my friend. There's nothing wrong with feeling stupid, Ephiny as long as you don't make a habit of it." Releasing the Regent's hand, she turned her focus back to the still figure on the cot.
"Now, I think it's about time somebody re-joined us."
Xena moved towards the warmth and soothing sounds as she slowly came to. Her body ached and burned, and she was afraid to stir for fear of the sharp pains in her chest and leg. Lying there, she felt a cool hand press against her forehead, as she became aware of the gentle voice.
She could feel her back pressing against rough sheets and she was pretty sure she was lying on a cot. Then, the gentle voice came again, more insistent this time.
"Xena, open your eyes for me."
She knew that voice, more familiar to her than her own; so she struggled against the heavy weights holding her lids closed as she felt small fingers wrap around her hand.
"C'mon, Xena, for me. Please. I know you can do it. Let me see those baby blues, huh?"
Then a bright light and she blinked a couple of times to clear away the fog, bringing into blurry focus the relieved face of her partner.
Gabrielle couldn't hold back the quiet sob as she felt the relief wash over her. She tried to keep the shaking out of her hand as she cupped the warrior's chin.
Xena blinked several times more, taking a moment to just soak in the sight of her partner, before her hoarse voice managed to croak out, "Where?"
Reaching down and picking up a mug of water, Gabrielle gently raised the warrior's head and held up the cup, letting a few trickles ease past the cracked lips. "You're in a tent just this side of the pass. Ephiny and Doraclyse are here."
Grimacing slightly as she swallowed, Xena tried to focus on the face of the bard. "Kirilus?"
Easing the warrior back down, she pulled the covers up and tucked them under her friend's chin. "He's withdrawing. Both the Amazons and Andorians have closed their borders to him. He's got a lot of explaining to do to his people."
The blue eye fixed on her. "You?"
"I'm sore, I'm tired and I'm still a little worried about you. But, other than that, I couldn't be better."
Looking down and seeing the warrior's eye drifting closed, she leaned over and pressed a gentle kiss on the cool forehead, straightening as she brushed back the warrior's bangs
"Now, I want you to just rest, okay. We'll talk later."
Xena felt the blackness closing in around her again and she eased back into it, content to know the bard was safe and beside her.
Gabrielle let out a ragged sigh as Ephiny stepped up and put an arm around her shoulders.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle. She's going to be fine."
The bard just nodded, not taking her eyes off her partner.
"Of course she is, Ephiny. And if she ever does anything like this again, I'll kill her myself."
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