Gods she hurt, Xena realized as she slowly swam back to consciousness. Lying with her eyes closed, she took a few moments to deal with the throbbing pain. Using her years of battlefield experience, she gradually tucked it away into that part of her mind shed found long ago; a place that let her diminish it to a manageable level, while still acknowledging it.
Then, as her thoughts began to clear, she became aware of the unmistakable smells and muted sounds of village life around her. She was lying on a straw pallet covered by something warm and soft. The absence of deep male tones taking part in the various conversations drifting past her, made her suspect she was in the Amazon village.
Feeling a stirring at her side; a small, warm hand was slipped into hers.
"Xena?" Gabrielle had been sitting vigil by Xenas bed, watching her friend intently. Shed noticed the increase in Xenas breathing that signaled returning consciousness.
Becoming aware of a fluttering beneath pale eyelids, she moved the fingers of her other hand up to brush across the strong cheekbone beneath the cool skin, and smiled as she saw color returning. Although shed seen the results of Xenas remarkable recuperative powers many more times than shed wanted to, it still never ceased to amaze her.
Xena fought to open her eyes and was met with a pair of very relieved green ones.
"Hey..." her hoarse voice croaked.
"Hey, yourself," the bard replied as tears blurred her vision. "Welcome back."
She blinked several times to clear them as she reached for a cup of water from the table next to her. Slipping her hand under the warriors neck, Gabrielle held Xenas head up as she took a few sips. Gently easing the dark hair back down on the pillow, the bard returned the cup to the table before taking up Xenas hand once more.
"How ya doing?"
Warm blue eyes met hers. "Great," the warrior replied softly.
"Yeah, right. For a pin cushion." Dropping her face to study the floor with sightless eyes, Gabrielle took a deep breath and, without looking up, continued, deep regret evident in her voice, "Xena...Im sorry." Her shoulders began to shake. "This is all my fault..."
She paused when she felt Xenas hand squeezing hers. Lifting her troubled face, she looked into pale eyes now filled with remorse, as the warrior struggled to get the words out.
"No Gabrielle...my fault...knew how theyd react...shouldve been prepared." She saw disgust enter those eyes before the warrior turned away. "My own arrogance...my fault."
Gabrielle couldnt believe Xena was trying to take responsibility for this. Her concern was quickly replaced by exasperation. "Your fault! Why of all... Xena, if I hadnt made you..."
Xena turned her face back to her friend, as both eyebrows shot up.
"Okay, okay. Nobody makes you do anything. But you know what I mean."
They cut the budding argument short as Saran bustled in, carrying a tray. The healer had heard the voices from the other room. Unable to make out anything clearly through the dividing curtain, she thought shed try her luck up closer.
Frustrated by the timing of the interruption, Gabrielle noticed the older woman didnt seem to be in any hurry to leave. Having deposited the things she was carrying on the table next to the bed, the healer began to diligently straightened up, wiping some items on the table three or four times.
Aware now of the prolonged silence and feeling Gabrielles eyes on her back, Saran turned and faced the bard, who was looking at her with a slightly annoyed expression.
Smiling, the Amazon looked back down at the table. "Thought you might like something to drink, my Queen." Getting just a nod in response, her smile slipped a little. "Well...then...umm...Im going to go do my rounds; but if you need anything, just let one of the guards know."
"Guards? What guards?"
The healer noticed a deep frown quickly replace Gabrielles surprised expression. Looking a bit smug now, she smiled sweetly at her Queen. "Why, the ones Ephiny left posted outside earlier."
The bard felt a hand tighten around hers, and heard a soft voice plead, "Gabrielle..." But Gabrielle ignored them both and pried her fingers from the weakened grip suddenly grown stronger in an effort to keep the annoyed bard from rising.
"Where are they?"
Seeing the look on her Queens face, Saran quickly backed up as Gabrielle passed her, striding silently over to the entrance and brushing aside the curtain. Two startled guards, one on either side of the doorway, began reflexively reaching for their swords as they swung around, realizing just in time who was standing between them.
"My Queen!" the taller of the two women almost squeaked, sure Gabrielle could see the pounding of her now rapidly beating heart. She deliberately lowered her voice. "My Queen, is there something wrong?"
Despite the situation, Gabrielle felt herself smile inwardly at the guards reaction and felt her bad mood begin to lift. After all, these women were probably just following Ephinys orders. She'd no right to take it out on them. Beginning to feel a little foolish, she was, none the less, there now and committed.
Looking up at both Amazons, she gave the burly guards her brightest smile. "Nice night."
Not ones for small talk, the two Amazons looked at each other and then looked back at their Queen, at an obvious loss for words.
As the silence stretched, Gabrielle decided to try a different approach. Maybe she could ease the Amazons discomfort by asking a direct question; warriors seemed to like that.
"What are you two doing here?"
Looking puzzled now, the two guards exchanged glances. It seemed pretty obvious to them.
"Protecting you, my Queen," the other guard now spoke up, thinking this might be some sort of a test.
Gabrielle was a bit surprised by that answer. "From what?" she asked, stepping past the two women and peering intently out into the compound, her curiosity tweaked.
They looked confused again. These questions were getting trickier. This time the tall one spoke up. "Why, ah...from Xena." She seemed pleased with that answer. The other one smiled and briskly nodded her head in agreement.
Gabrielle took a moment to look pointedly back over her shoulder at the curtain blocking her view of the interior of the healers hut, before facing them again. "But isnt that a little absurd. I mean, she and I are in there, and you two are out here. How, exactly, are you protecting me?"
That one stopped them. The two Amazons exchanged panicked glances again, until the taller of the two suddenly signaled her friend she'd the answer to that one.
In a tone of voice that hopefully announced the end off the conversation, she replied. "We were ordered to stand guard out here."
Gabrielle sighed, her anger now fully replaced by quiet resignation. "Would one of you get Ephiny for me, please?"
The younger one headed off at a trot. Gabrielle turned and re-entered the hut, brushing passed Saran who was just leaving.
Crossing the room, she collapsed down on the stool beside Xenas bedside and swore.
"Hey!" came an outraged chuckle from beside her.
Looking down at the amused blue eyes staring back at her, she let her frustrations show. "Well, honestly, Xena. You warrior types can be so rigid sometimes."
As Xena dropped her eyes down with a mock-hurt look, Gabrielle couldnt help but laugh back. Realizing she was letting the situation get to her, the bard decided it was time to lighten up. "Oh, cmon Xena. Dont give me that look. You know exactly what I mean."
She gave the covers over the warriors stomach a light slap before reaching over and grabbing the mug of water from the side table. Holding it up in front of her, she gave Xena her most winning smile. "How bout something to drink?" making it clear with her tone that Xena didnt really have any choice in the matter.
Still smiling, Xena started to sit up. "Thanks."
Gabrielle quickly moved to slip her free arm under Xenas shoulders, glad the warrior seemed to be a bit stronger. She was pleased when her friend emptied the mug before falling back and closing her eyes.
After returning the mug to the table, Gabrielle tucked the covers back around the warriors shoulders. She studied her friends face with obvious affection. "How are you feeling?"
Xena lay still for a moment, as if considering, before she opened her eyes and smiled up at Gabrielle. "A little sore, but Ill live. How are you doing?"
The bard, unable to sit still any longer, stood and started pacing. "Oh, just great! A bunch of my Amazons just leapt out of the forest and tried to kill my best friend. How should I be doing?"
"Gabrielle " Xena smiled at the bard's flair for the dramatic before gently motioning her back with her head. "Cmere."
Gabrielle returned to the warriors side, and let her body drop down to perch on the side of the pallet facing Xena.
"What?" the bard demanded, with a frustrated glare.
Xena slipped her hand out from under the covers and took Gabrielles small hand in hers, looking directly into the bards eyes. Gently stroking her thumb in a soothing pattern, she smiled up at her friend. "Dont worry, my bard. Im sure youll straighten it all out."
Gabrielle let out an explosive breath. "Either that, or I start whacking some sense into their thick, feathered heads with my staff."
Xena chuckled again. "And youre the peaceful one!"
Suddenly turning very serious, Gabrielle stilled the warriors hand with her own.
"I dont know, Xena. What happened today...when I saw you lying there, hurt...and those...those Amazons just standing there with their swords drawn. Its... it just seems so unfair. We were both responsible for what happened. If I could only make them see that."
Xenas voice was firm, as she locked eyes with her friend. "Gabrielle, Im not worried. I know youll convince them." Reluctantly pulling her hand away, she smiled up at the bards concerned face. "Why dont you go get some rest? This has been a pretty long day for you."
Despite the weariness in her body and mind, Gabrielle was reluctant to leave; she felt she was somehow deserting her friend. She sat for a minute, just staring back into Xenas eyes, lost in her own thoughts.
She blinked a few times and came back to the present, when she heard the gentle voice. "Gabrielle, please. We both need our sleep."
The bard finally relented. "Okay...but if you need anything..."
"Yeah...Ill send Frick n Frack to find you."
Xenas keen hearing had obviously picked up the bards conversation with her guards earlier. Grinning, Xena winked. "Dont worry, Gabrielle, Ill be fine. I just need a good nights sleep. And so do you, my friend."
Gabrielle couldnt think of an excuse to stay, so smiling, she reluctantly admitted defeat. "Okay, if youre sure. Ill see you first thing in the morning then."
Brushing an errant strand of dark hair back from the warriors face, Gabrielle let her hand continue downwards, coming to rest on the blanket just over the warriors heart. She felt her eyes sting as she looked down at her hand, before raising her eyes to Xenas face. "Im glad youre all right, Xena," her voice catching in her throat.
Lifting a large, powerful hand and enveloping Gabrielles in it, Xena gave the bards a gentle squeeze, holding it for a long moment before releasing the slight pressure. She smiled up at her friend. "Goodnight Gabrielle. Try to get some sleep."
"Night, Xena. See you in the morning."
Xena watched as Gabrielle stood, pausing by the end of the pallet for one last smile before turning and heading out the door. The exhausted warrior then closed her eyes and ignored all the aches and pains, letting Morphius take her.
Gabrielle stood for a moment after leaving the hut and took a couple of deep breaths, drawing in the cool night air, heavy with the thick fragrances of the night-blooming shrubs thriving where the village met the forests edge.
She was feeling a little better about Xena, but she decided she still wanted to talk to Ephiny. Hearing her name called, the bard was pleasantly surprised when she turned and saw the Regent crossing the compound towards her, Xenas guard in tow.
Ephiny pulled to a stop as she reached Gabrielle; the silent guard continuing past the two women, and returning to her post. Gabrielle could tell by the tired look on the Amazons face that this had been a long day for her friend as well.
"You wanted to see me?" Ephiny smiled in greeting.
Returning her smile, Gabrielle tried to keep the tone of her voice light as she asked. "Eph., why are there guards on Xena? I though we agreed she wasnt dangerous?"
Expecting the question, Ephiny nonetheless felt uncomfortable with the situation.
"Gabrielle, Xena has been sentenced to death. By all rights, she should be in a jail cell right now, not the healers hut. I had to at least post guards on her, or I would have had a mutiny on my hands."
Gabrielle could see the difficult position her friend was in, and let out a frustrated sigh. "Oh, Ephiny, this whole situation is so...so...ugh!"
Ephiny smiled. She couldnt have said it better herself.
Her expression turned serious as she laid a warm hand on the bards shoulder. "Gabrielle, why dont you go get some sleep. Youre exhausted." She added a note of encouragement she didnt feel as she gave her friends shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Everything will look better in the morning, I promise."
Gabrielle didnt look like she was buying it but at least seemed willing to play along. "I dont know Ephiny. I suppose youre right." Seeming to gather herself up, she cocked her head to one side as she smiled at the Regent. "Ill see you in the morning."
Ephiny was almost as surprised as Gabrielle was when she wrapped her friend in her arms, and gave her a big hug as she whispered in her ear. "Im really, really glad youre back with us."
Released from the Amazons warm embrace, Gabrielle had to swallow a couple of times before she could get her voice to work. "Thanks Eph. You dont know how much that means to me."
She turned and began walking towards the Queens hut, calling over her shoulder, a smile turning up the corner of her mouth. "Sleep well."
Ephiny stood and watched 'til the bard disappeared, before heading over to the healers hut. After speaking to the guards for a moment, she silently pushed aside the curtain and entered.
The room was lit by a single lamp hung on the wall by the warriors pallet. The rest of the room was in darkness. From the doorway, Ephiny could see the silhouette of the smooth form beneath the dark blankets, highlighted in its warm glow. She watched the rhythmic rising and falling for a minute, noting that the warriors breathing appeared to be deep and even.
Crossing the room silently, she stopped in the pool of light by the foot of Xenas pallet.
The warriors eyes were closed and her face was turned slightly to one side. The blanket had been tucked up close to Xenas chin: Ephiny smiled as she saw that. Lifting her gaze slightly, the Amazons eyes came to rest on the pale, drawn face framed by the dark hair. She noticed the strong arc to the eyebrows and the deep shadows of the warriors hollow cheeks where the lamplight didnt quite reach.
One moment she was staring at the long, dark lashes outlined on Xenas high cheekbones and the next she was looking into piercing blue eyes.
Startled, she felt her face grow warm, feeling a little guilty shed been caught.
"Oh...Im sorry. I...um...didnt mean to wake you."
She watched as Xena struggled to lift her body so that the warriors back was propped up against the wall behind her. Ephiny began to move instinctively to help, but caught herself and instead just stood by the foot of the pallet and watched. After what had happened that afternoon, she felt awkward about offering.
As Xena got herself settled, Ephiny grimaced in sympathy. "Are you sure you should be moving around like that?"
Xena glanced up as she tugged the blanket back around her and shrugged, showing no emotion on her face at all. "Thats okay. What do you want, Ephiny?" The warrior now focused her attention on the Amazon before her.
The Regent shook her head with a wry smile. "No small talk from you, is there Xena?"
A shrug of powerful shoulders. "Ephiny, youll never know how sorry I am for what I did to you and to the others who tried to protect Gabrielle from me that day. I dont even know where to begin to apologize. And, I suspect, even if I did, thats the last thing you want to hear from me right now. So, why dont you just say what you came to say, and then we can both get some sleep."
A bit annoyed by Xenas attitude, the Regents lips tightened. She decided instead, to ask a question; one that had been on her mind since theyd received word of the pairs return that morning.
"Xena, why did you come back? You had to know what would happen if you showed up here. Why didnt you just stay away?"
Xena motioned with her hand, indicating her wounds. "Believe me Ephiny, this was not my first choice." She let a small grin cross her face. "I got careless, thats all."
Disbelief in her voice, the Regent shot back. "You? Careless? Thatll be the day."
Staring down at the smile on the face before her, Ephiny felt a sudden rage well up and overwhelm her.
Here was this woman, whom shed trusted with her life; a woman whod shed trusted with her own son; a woman who had turned on everyone and brutally attacked and abused her best friend; whod run her down and broken her arm as shed tried to protect her Queen. And here she was, back in the village, lying here with a grin on her face.
Ephiny was never sure what happened next. One minute she was aware of standing at the end of the pallet and the next thing she knew, she was up beside its head as the palm of her hand connected solidly with Xenas cheek. It would only be later, when the Regent reflected back on that moment, that shed wonder why Xena hadnt moved to stop her. Now, she was only aware of the sting in her fingers and palm, and the echo of the slap that had sent dark hair spinning into the thatch wall.
"How could you do that to Gabrielle?!?" Ephiny snarled as her eyes burned into Xena, her fists clenched by her sides now as she fought to rein in her anger.
Xenas head lay where it had come to rest, her face concealed beneath the slightly bowed mane of dark hair. The Regent focused all of her attention on the woman in front of heralmost willing the silent figure to answer.
She was focusing so intently, in fact, that she jumped a little when a tired voice drifted up from beneath that dark curtain.
"Ephiny...I dont know."
The Amazon watched as Xenas shoulders seemed to slump against the wall, defeat now evident in her voice.
"I...I havent...I dont...I dont have the answer."
Glaring down at the bowed head before her, the Regents voice held nothing but contempt. "Well, youd better get one." Her nails now cutting bloody half moons in her palms, she spit the words at the woman before her, "What kind of a monster are you?"
Breathing heavily, Ephiny had to strain to hear the low, hollow reply.
"Gods help me; a Tartarus be damned one."
The Regent paused in her anger and stared at the woman before her. She knew, deep down inside herself, that Xena was probably more devastated by her actions than anyone else in this whole thing. She knew, in her right mind, Xena would rather spend an eternity trapped in a small cave with Callisto, than hurt Gabrielle.
But, Xena had lost control. And Gabrielle had been dreadfully hurt because of it. She didnt care what Gabrielle said; she was going to make sure that wouldnt happen again.
Spinning on her heels, the Amazon stalked off across the room before pausing and turning to face the figure in the shadows. "Xena, thats not good enough. Gabrielle may trust you but I sure as Artemis dont." Returning to the side of the pallet, she looked imploringly down at the woman before her, a pleading note entering her voice. "Prove to me that you wont hurt that girl again. Prove to me that I can trust you, Xena."
The hollow voice cut in. Ephiny noticed the slight shake as Xena raised her head, pleading eyes staring out through a forest of dark hair.
"How can I prove it, Ephiny? You tell me. Please."
Ephiny watched Xenas now trembling hands as they slowly moved up to brush away the hair covering the warriors face; it was as if getting a clearer view of Ephiny might somehow help Xena find the answer. The warrior shifted slightly forward as pleading eyes met the Regents glare; a note of desperation in her voice.
"Ive searched my brain 'til Ive thought Id go mad for a way to guarantee that it wont happen again. Ephiny, please...tell me...how do I do that?" Xena shifted her gaze to the far wall for a moment before looking back down at her lap, her voice suddenly gone dead. "Theres only one way I know how to guarantee that."
The only sounds were those that filtered through the walls of the hut as the silence extended.
Ephiny finally broke it. "Well then, maybe youd better seriously consider that option, if you cant control what you do, Xena. At least be that responsible." Ephiny knew what she was saying, and she meant every word of it.
She drew in her breath and froze as Xenas eyes slowly looked up to meet hers. She hadnt expected the bitter wretchedness of that naked soul reflected there before her, and it shocked her.
Xena no longer had the strength to keep up her defenses.
"Dont you think Ive considered that, Ephiny?" Her hoarse whisper seemed loud in the quiet of the hut.
The Regent could tell Xena was now caught in her own memories; torment evident in the womans face. The warrior had stopped speaking and seemed to be clutching her shaking hands in front of her chest, as if wrapping them around some object. She noticed a tear escape and run down a pale cheek.
"Ive put the point of my sword to my chest more times than I can count."
"So, whats stopped you?" Clearing her throat, Ephiny somehow found her voice.
She wasnt sure if Xena had heard the question until the warriors voice cut into the silence a few moments later. "Gabrielle. I cant ...I wont do that to her."
Ephiny saw the devastation reflected on Xenas face and in her voice and her heart softened. She could almost feel the warriors pain from where she stood.
She was still angry with Xena. But that anger was now mixed with sympathy and sadness for this woman who seemed so alone.
A listless voice answered. "Yeah?"
"You didnt answer my question. How are you going to make sure it doesnt happen again?"
It was a long time before Xena spoke. Finally, the warrior seemed to straighten her shoulders a little as her eyes once again met the Regents. The Amazon saw a fierceness there now. "I dont know, Eph. I havent figured that out yet. But I do know, it wont."
Somehow, Ephiny believed her.
"Let me know when you figure it out, okay?"
She turned and left the woman alone.
Xena sat for a long time with her thoughts. Eventually, she gave into the demands of her body and eased herself back down flat on the pallet. Clutching the blanket to her chest, she turned on her good side and curled into a ball, tucking her knees up tight; lost with her demons; just hugging herself until she eventually drifted off to sleep.
It was those amazing reflexes that saved her. One moment she was lying curled on the pallet, asleep; and the next, she was rolling off it and hitting the wooden floor with a grunt, as a knife imbedded itself where her head had been.
Her two guards, hearing a thump and then cursing, turned and came running. Entering the hut, they paused, surprised as they spotted Xena swearing to herself and struggling to rise from the spot where shed landed beside the pallet . Puzzled, they looked at each other for a long moment before exchanging broad grins. Then, they quietly turned, and resumed their posts.
"Thanks for nothin" the warrior snarled, as she watched them leave from the corner of her eye. Disgusted, Xena managed to ignore her bodys shaking and the pain now radiating from both her back and her thigh, long enough to get herself to her knees by clutching the side of the pallet. This, of course, set off the pain in her shoulder.
Perfect. The warrior grimaced and closed her eyes.
Taking a deep breath and steeling herself before opening them, she reached over and grabbed the knife pinning her pillow to the wood beneath. Swallowing back nausea, she had to rock it a few times before it came free. She gave it a quick glance and then tossed it away before managing to lift her body up off the floor and over the side of the pallet . She gripped the wood frame, and allowed herself to roll onto her back, sprawling across the covers.
About at the end of her reserves, the trembling was now constant, and her breaths were coming in short pants as tickles of sweat ran down her forehead and neck. She took a moment to close her eyes, and just watch the sparkling lights before fumbling for the edge of the blanket. Finding a corner and pulling it over her, she curled round into a ball to wait 'til morning; her body beginning to feel the first effects of the fever and chills, as the events of the day finally caught up with her.
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