Chapter 4

It was the delicious smells that slowly brought Gabrielle back from the exhausted sleep she’d fallen into. Half-awake now, she kept her eyes scrunched closed and tried to snuggle down deeper into the soft pallet, willing sleep to reclaim her. Unfortunately, she also kept trying to imagine the source of each delicate aroma as it separated itself from the acrid smoke of the breakfast cook-fires drifting in the open window, somewhere above her bed.

Giving up the battle and fully awake now, she realized how hungry she’d just made herself and decided it was time to get up anyway. She was anxious to head over to the healer’s hut to check on Xena and if everything was okay there, she’d see what she could do about locating the source of those tasty smells. Tossing back the blanket, she got up and washed quickly before throwing on her clothes and heading out to check on her friend.

Humming to herself as she entered the healer’s hut, Gabrielle stopped abruptly as she felt something wrong even before she spotted the two guards standing by Xena’s bed.

Silent now, and trying to ignore the tightening knot in her stomach, the bard started to move quickly towards the pallet. She made it halfway across the room, before a smiling Saran intercepted her, arms raised, palms facing her. Forced to a halt, the bard didn’t try to mask the concern on her face.

"What’s going on here?" Gabrielle demanded.

Ignoring the glare, Saran’s tight smile didn’t waver. Keeping her voice cheerful, she took Gabrielle’s arm and tried to steer the bard into the other room. "Now, My Queen, there’s nothing to worry about. Everything’s fine. She just has a little fever. That’s all. Why don’t we just let her get her rest while I get you something cool to drink, hmm?"

Fully alarmed now, Gabrielle yanked her arm free of the healer’s firm hold, and without a word, headed for Xena’s bedside. The two burly Amazon guards moved to block her path, until they realized, exactly, whose path it was that they were blocking. Then they quickly stepped aside.

Reaching the side of the pallet, the first thing Gabrielle noticed was how flushed Xena was. Sweat was beading on her drawn face; damp hair matted to the pillow. Pale blue eyes were open but unseeing as the dark head moved restlessly from side to side. Xena’s forehead was creased, and she seemed to be straining against something beneath the covers.

Reacting on instinct, Gabrielle reached towards the bedside table and the cloths soaking in the large bowl of water on top, knowing the first thing she'd have to do was get the warrior’s fever down. She stopped herself, suddenly conscious of the odd set to Xena’s arms and legs. Frowning, Gabrielle reached down, pulled back the covers, and just stood there.

Xena’s wrists and ankles were bound to the sides of the pallet with lengths of rope. It was against these that the delirious warrior was weakly straining.

Unable to believe what she was seeing, Gabrielle’s head whipped up to locate the nearest guard.

"What in Hades is going on here!" she demanded, her confusion replaced by flashing anger.

Not waiting for the startled guard’s answer, she turned away as her eyes searched for something with which to cut the warrior’s bonds. Her lips set in a grim line, she spotted Xena’s armor, stacked by the bedside table.

Turning and moving around the pallet, she quickly covered the short distance, not pausing as she stooped to release Xena’s breast dagger before straightening and returning to her friend’s side. Feeling hot skin beneath her gentle grip, she very carefully slipped the razor-sharp blade between the warrior’s now bruised flesh, and the loose ropes holding her. With a steady upward motion, she cut through the hemp, releasing each of Xena’s limbs, in turn. The fevered warrior had already quieted down, as if recognizing the bard’s gentle touch.

One of the guards now stepped forward as Gabrielle finished. "My Queen, she’s got a fever. And, you know how dangerous she is. Saran asked mean we couldn’t take a chance Xena might accidentally harm Saran while treating her."

Gabrielle ignored the guards and looked directly at the healer.

"And how did she develop this fever? She was fine when I left last night." Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed as she noticed the look that passed between Saran and the Amazon guards before the healer spoke up defensively.

Deciding to try to bluff it out, Saran smiled and shrugged, holding up the palms of her hands, in a helpless gesture. "It sometimes happens with these kinds of injuries. It’s a part of the healing process, My Queen."

Gabrielle lost it. She’d had enough of this woman. "Centaur crap! Even I know it’s a sign of infection. When was the last time her bandages were changed?"

Saran’s smile wavered. "You were there last night, My Queen."

Trying not to do something she'd later regret, Gabrielle just stood and stared at the woman for a long moment before she slowly turned and walked over to the bedside table. The bard scooped up one of the soft cloths out of the bowl and carefully wrung it out before sitting down on the side of the bed. She consciously gentled her touch as she began to wipe Xena’s flushed face.

Looking up, under a bit more control, she focused again on the now very nervous healer, her voice deadly calm.

"Saran, I want more cold water, and fresh bandages brought now."

The healer took a step closer, raising her arms in protest, "But, my Queen..." and stopped when she finally recognized the stiff set to the bard’s body, and the cold fury in Gabrielle’s eyes. Realizing she was on very dangerous ground, she turned, and hurried off to gather up what was asked for.

Gabrielle now focused her attention on the two guards. "From now on, no one is to touch her without my direct permission. Is that understood?"

Both Amazons had gone rigid, facing directly ahead, their eyes drilling a matched set of holes on the opposite wall. "Yes, my Queen."

Gracefully standing and moving directly into their line of sight, Gabrielle made sure both Amazons were looking at her. "That includes you."

Surprised, the taller of the two guards dropped her eyes from the spot on the top of Gabrielle’s head she’d been staring at, to meet very cold green eyes. "But my Queen...we were just trying to protect Saran. Wounded animals like her are dangerous. We thought..."

She took an involuntary step backwards, as she, too, belatedly realized what the look on Gabrielle’s face meant. She now became aware that the woman in front of her had clenched her fists. The Amazon steeled herself for her Queen’s blow, and was surprised, instead, to hear the soft voice.

"Which of my words are you having trouble understanding?"

"My Queen?" Unsure of what Gabrielle meant, the puzzled guard quickly exchanged a glance with her comrade.

"I said you are not to touch Xena without my direct permission. What part of that don’t you understand?"

"But my Queen, Ephiny said..."

"Never mind what Ephiny said. Do you understand what I just said?" Gabrielle’s voice left no room for argument.

The guard’s shoulders straightened as her eyes shifted to focus straight ahead. "Yes, my Queen."

"Good." Turning back to Xena, she returned to sit beside her friend, giving the guards one last order. "You may return to your posts."

"Yes, my Queen."

Glad to get out of there, the two Amazons both gave a relieved sigh, as they turned and almost ran out of the hut, taking up their appointed positions, on either side of the door. They both spent the next half-candlemark, mentally going over what they’d need to pack for a month of border patrol, in the loneliest, most remote region of their territory.

Saran brought over the supplies and a fresh bowl of water, and placed them on the bedside table beside Gabrielle. She started to move around to the other side of Xena’s pallet, intending to help her Queen, when she was stopped by the bard’s cold voice.

"That will be all for now, Saran. I’ll call you if I need anything."

Dismissed, Saran had no choice but to leave. Turning angry eyes back as she passed through the doorway to the other room, she saw Gabrielle very gently begin to remove the blood spotted bandage from around the warrior’s shoulder.

Gabrielle was dismayed to see the blood that had soaked through the bandages from the wounds beneath. Her anger was replaced with concern now as she tried to determine the source of her friend’s fever.

Xena, by this time, had slipped into a restless unconsciousness.

Unwrapping the bandage and lifting the soft cloth off the warrior’s shoulder, she drew in her breath as she watched several small drops of blood well up where one of the healing scars had been pulled open; the area surrounding it was now inflamed, the flesh shinny and tight.

As she unwrapped and checked Xena’s other wounds, Gabrielle found they were all in the same condition. The bandages should have been changed much earlier, that was obvious. But, what wasn’t as obvious, was how the tears had been opened up. Even in Xena’s fevered state, confined as she was, Gabrielle didn’t see how she could have done this much damage to herself.

Something had happened here last night. Gabrielle was sure of it.

Setting to work, the bard cleaned and gently smoothed a healing salve on each of Xena’s wounds before carefully re-bandaging them.

She sent one of the guards to fetch Xena’s own healer’s kit out of their bags, and asked Saran for some hot water and a mug, knowing she'd have to try to treat Xena’s fever from within. Rummaging in the kit, she let out a relieved sigh as she found the herbs she’d seen Xena use on others with similar symptoms. Carefully measuring the fragrant mixture into the cup, she poured hot water over it, leaving it to steep for a few minutes, before helping ease it down the unconscious warrior’s throat.

She spent the next several candlemarks bathing the hot skin with cold water, trying to control the fever, and keeping her friend as comfortable as she could. Running the damp linen over the fevered flesh, she watched for any sign of improvement and, eventually, the fever did seem to drop some.

Just after lunch, Gabrielle once again went through the process of changing all of Xena’s bandages, relieved the wounds didn’t seem to be getting any worse, and in fact, seemed a little less red and angry looking.

After a while, Xena seemed to slip into a restless sleep. Gabrielle tried to make herself as comfortable as she could on the stool by Xena’s pallet. Holding the warrior’s hand in hers, she watched her friend as she slept.

Outside, a lone figure stood, hidden in the lengthening shadows, silently watching the burly figures of Xena’s two guards in the far doorway. Shifting her position slightly, she smiled as she turned her head to one side and began to plan her next move. She’d underestimated Xena once. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.

No longer trusting Saran, Gabrielle ordered Xena moved into the Queen’s hut. When the news reached the Regent, she took Gabrielle aside and explained that because of the severity of Xena sentence, if the warrior wasn’t in the healer’s hut, she'd have to be kept in the stone building they normally used as a storehouse, but did double-duty as a jail when needed.

Gabrielle argued for over a candlemark, but couldn’t get Ephiny to budge. Xena would be moved to the small storehouse cum jail, but the bard was able to wring one small concession; she was free to come and go from Xena’s cell, whenever she wanted.

The storehouse was stripped down to its stone walls, and a cot set up in one corner. A rough wood table was dragged in and a chair placed beside the bed.

Xena had reluctantly agreed to the litter again when Gabrielle sweetly pointed out that her alternative was to be dragged across the compound between her two Amazons guards since neither of them were capable right now of getting her over there.

Gabrielle took the opportunity to fuss over Xena once the warrior had been transferred to the cot and the Amazons had left. She made sure her friend was comfortable and made up a fresh batch of the herbal infusion, helping Xena drink it down. Smoothing the covers over her now sleeping friend, she sat and watched for a while, before leaving to find Ephiny.

Before she left, however, she made sure the guards outside the door understood that they were directly responsible to her, if anything should happen to Xena while on their watch.

The bard found Ephiny in her hut, going over several scrolls rolled out on the large table in front of her. Looking up at Gabrielle’s soft tap at the door, the Regent’s face broke into a welcoming grin. "Gabrielle!"

The bard returned the smile, looking around tentatively. "Can I come in? I know its late."

Ephiny quickly stood and moved to clear off a spot, gathering up a pile of parchments from one of the stools beside her. "Of course. Sit down. Can I get you something to drink?"

Gabrielle moved to clear away an area on top of a small crate next to her as she noticed the Regent looking for a new home for the papers. The bard laughed at Ephiny’s grateful look. "Thanks Eph. Something hot would be great."

After depositing the pile with a thump, Ephiny moved back and brushed aside several scrolls she’d been going over on the table, setting down two mugs in their place. Bringing over an ornate box and placing it next to them, she lifted the lid and measured a small portion of its contents into each. Closing it again, she walked over to a small brazier in the corner of the hut, and shifted a pot of water until it sat directly over the hot coals. Waiting for the water to come to the boil, she moved back to sit across from her friend.

Noticing the lines of worry around Gabrielle’s eyes, she felt her heart go out to this young woman before her. "How’s Xena?"

"Pretty good, all things considered." As she met the Regent’s eyes Gabrielle suddenly felt annoyed that they were sitting here while Xena was lying in the jail cell. She couldn’t keep the slight note of bitterness out of her voice. "She should be fit to stand before the council in a couple of days, if that’s what you’re asking."

Gabrielle immediately regretted her words, seeing the look of hurt flash across the Amazon’s face.

"Gabrielle, that’s unfair. You know that’s not what I meant."

Feeling badly for taking the situation out on the Regent, Gabrielle’s head dropped as her voice lowered. "I’m sorry, Eph. I don’t know why I said that." She rubbed her temples, vaguely aware now of the headache she’d had all day, "It’s just that this whole thing is all so unfair." Gabrielle’s eyes met her friend’s once more. "Xena’s being treated so badly by everybody and I feel I’m responsible somehow. If I could just make them see how wrong they are about her."

"Gabrielle, you convinced me. I know you’ll convince the council, too."

Getting up and retrieving the now boiling water, Ephiny slowly poured it over the herbs. The Regent looked directly into Gabrielle’s face as she passed one of the fragrantly-steaming mugs over to her friend. "Gabrielle, how does Xena feel about all this?" She was curious to know if Xena had shared her fears with her partner.

Gabrielle cupped her hands around the mug, as if seeking to warm her hands from its rough surface. "It’s so hard to read her sometimes." She amended that comment as Ephiny snorted into her own drink. "Okay, so she’s hard to read most of the time," she grinned back.

Taking a moment to collect her thoughts, the smile left her face as Gabrielle returned Ephiny’s curious stare. "I’m not sure how she feels about all of this, Ephiny. Frankly, she has me a little worried. If I know her, she probably feels you guys are right."

Ephiny hid the grim smile that flashed across her face before she cleared her throat and regarded the woman across from her. "Ah...Gabrielle? Isn’t that going to present a bit of a problem for you? I mean, if you’re going to defend her to the council. It’s going to be hard to get them to change their decision, if Xena agrees with them."

The bard let out a frustrated sigh. "I know. I’m working on that."

The two women sat lost in their own thoughts for a while until Gabrielle became aware of the scrolls piled around them. Deciding to try to take both their minds off the problem at hand, Gabrielle picked one up and turned it idly around in her hands.

"Hey, what’s all this?"

Taking a moment to register the change in topic, Ephiny looked down to see what the bard was holding. "That? The Amazon Nation is just wrapping up negotiations with one of our northern neighbors over a piece of disputed land. We were in the middle of talks when I got the news about you yesterday. I suspended the negotiations for a couple of days, but I need to get back at it tomorrow."

Interested, Gabrielle began to unroll the scroll. "Border dispute? How serious is it?"

Ephiny returned her questioning look with a smile. "Right now, not very. We’ve only got a couple of things left to settle. What both of us don’t know yet is how our shared neighbor to the east is going to react. That’s where it could turn ugly if its not handled right. There’s been bad blood between those two kingdoms for years. It won’t help matters if one side is seen to be forming an alliance with us."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

Ephiny smiled across at the concerned green eyes of her friend. "I think you’ve got your hands full with Xena right now. Why don’t you concentrate on her?" Ephiny’s warm gray eyes showed she appreciated the gesture. "But thanks. I’ll keep you in mind."

Standing, Gabrielle stifled a yawn as she stretched her arms above her head. "Well, I’m beat. You want to walk with me over to the cook hut. I’m going to pick us up a bedtime snack; maybe I can get Xena to eat something."

The Regent stood and walked with Gabrielle to the door. Putting her hand on the bard’s shoulder, she gave her a friendly squeeze. "Naw, I’ve still got some stuff to do here before tomorrow."

The bard looked sympathetic. "Don’t stay up too late, okay? You look like you’re ready to drop."

Touched by her friend’s concern, Ephiny smiled warmly. "All part of the job, Gabrielle. But don’t worry. I’ll be heading to bed soon. I’ll see you in the morning."

Her face suddenly going serious, Gabrielle seemed to be searching for the right words before she locked eyes with the Regent. "Thanks, Eph."

Ephiny reached for the bard’s hand and enveloped it in both of hers, giving it a gentle squeeze. "Anytime, Gabrielle. You do know that, right?"

Gabrielle swallowed a couple of times, "Yeah...thanks," before returning her squeeze and heading off towards the cook hut.

Ephiny leaned against the doorway of her hut and watched the retreating bard with affection until she disappeared behind the cook hut curtain..

The Regent closed her eyes for a moment and just let herself relax against the rough wood of the door post, enjoying the cool night breeze gently catching at her curls. Taking a deep breath and wishing she was headed for bed too, she opened her eyes before turning and re-entering her hut. Moving over to the table to pick up her mug, she drained it before settling back with the scroll she was reading earlier

Returning to the jail with a couple of tangy apples and a hunk of sharp cheese she’d managed to liberate, Gabrielle smiled as she entered to find Xena sound asleep. After watching the steady rise and fall of the warrior’s blankets for a few minutes, she left and headed off to her own hut, absently crunching on a tart apple and planning her next step.

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