She was in an orchard. The sun was burning right through the leaves of the tree she was lying under. She knew if she could just move her arm she could reach the sweet, juicy fruit lying on the ground in front of her. She was so hot...and so thirsty...
Gabrielle gradually became aware of the early morning sunshine pouring in through her window, warming the dark blanket enveloping her. In a flurry of arms and legs she untangled herself before throwing back the offending cover. Letting one arm flop back over her face, she lay back and blocked the bright light as she listened to the sounds of village life around her.
She soon lifted the arm, however, when the smell of apples persisted. She lifted her head all the way back 'til she soon spotted the survivor from last nights raid laying just above her head, looking just as inviting as it had in her dream.
Grabbing it, she straightened before taking a bite, swiping at the juice as it ran down her chin. She finished off the apple while getting dressed before heading over to check on Xena.
Xena had been awake for some time. She was a little stiff and sore and the actual wounds themselves still sent sharp stabs of pain if she moved too quickly but, all things considered, she was doing much better than she'd a right to expect.
Lying in bed and mentally assessing the damage of the past few days, she'd begun by slowly flexing her arms and legs, getting muscles grown lazy to respond. Tossing her blanket aside, she'd decided to try a few light calisthenics to test her limits. It wasnt long before she was lying there sweating and breathing hard as she worked to loosen up her tight muscles and joints. She was disgusted at how stiff she was after just a couple of days of inactivity.
Now, hearing a noise outside the cell, a guilty look flashed across her sweating face as she reached around and grabbed the blanket, quickly swiping its rough surface across her face, arms and chest as she heard Gabrielle talking to the guards on the other side of the door.
She knew the bard would be cross if she thought she was pushing herself too hard. The problem was, they sometimes failed to agree on the definition of what "too hard" was. Tossing the blanket over her, she tried to brush out the more obvious wrinkles before collapsing back and trying to calm her breathing.
Gabrielle was smiling as she came in carrying a covered tray. "Look what I found outside."
She deposited it on the table before crossing the few paces to stand by Xenas bed. She spotted the warriors flushed face and the beads of re-formed sweat glistening on her friends forehead and immediately reacted. Dropping a cool hand on the warriors forehead, she was alarmed at the hot, clammy feel that met her gentle touch.
"Xena, your fevers come back! Why didnt you send for me!"
Instantly regretting causing her friends obvious anxiety, Xena was unable to meet the bards worried look as her sheepish voice responded. "Gabrielle, Im all right...honestly...I um...I was just loosening up a few of the kinks and I guess I over did it. Im sorry."
Visibly relaxing, Gabrielle looked annoyed as she brushed a lock of Xenas damp hair out of the warriors eyes but her voice wasnt able to hide the note of gentle affection. "What am I going to do with you?"
Xena was relieved when she recognized the look in her friends eyes. Deciding to change the subject to one she was pretty sure would get the bards attention, she grinned up at her. "Whats for breakfast?"
The council meeting was scheduled for the next day so, after having breakfast with Xena in the cell, Gabrielle headed over to see Ephiny. She realized last night how little she knew about Amazon law in general and tomorrows proceeding in particular so her first stop was the Regents hut to find out what she could.
As she knocked and entered, she was surprised to see two people who were obviously not Amazons, clustered with the Regent, intently studying something spread out on the table in the center of the hut.
She noticed the large man right off. He was dressed like a soldier in a well worn natural leather shirt and pants. A little taller than most, he had thick shoulder length hair tied at the back, which only served to emphasize his broad square jaw. His barrel chest, covered with a thick, black leather vest, tapered to a trim waist. She'd have guessed he was in his early forties by the shock of his gray hair and the lines on his face, but it was obvious from looking at him, that he kept himself in fighting trim.
The young woman who leaned over the table beside him couldnt have been any older than Gabrielle. She was slim with an athletic build and seemed right at home wearing a loose woven shirt caught up in a pair of mans britches which, the bard noticed, disappeared down into a pair of high leather boots. The attractive young girls straight brown hair was also caught at the back of her neck and Gabrielle was struck by the large clear brown eyes that now met hers with a look of curiosity mixed with annoyance.
Belatedly, Gabrielle realized shed walked in on the middle of something. She felt the tension between the people around the table and looked apologetically at the Regent, as she saw the faces now focused on her. "Im sorry. Am I interrupting? I can come back..."
Ephiny straightened and hastened to Gabrielles side, giving the bard a broad smile as she took hold of her arm and made it clear from her grip the bard wasnt going anywhere. "No! Not at all. We could use the break."
Not releasing her arm, Ephiny returned her gaze to the two others at the table.
"Queen Gabrielle, Id like to present Princess Cynara, head of the Andorian delegation. Princess Cynara, may I present Queen Gabrielle, who has just returned to us after a prolonged absence."
Gabrielle was surprised when Ephiny mentioned that this young girl before her was representing her father in the negotiations. She seemed almost too young for such responsibility but she noticed no hesitation as the girl across from her extended her hand in greeting. Gabrielle took it and let a warm smile takeover her face. "Hi. Princess Cynara? Please, call me Gabrielle."
The young woman couldnt help but return the friendly greeting. "Gabrielle it is. Please, call me Nara."
As their arms returned to their sides, Ephiny now drew Gabrielles attention to the soldier closely watching the exchange from his spot beside the Princess.
"And this is General Andrus, head of her fathers army."
Gabrielle returned his curt nod with a smile. "General."
"We were just going over a few last minute details. Nara and General Andrus were trying to convince me why it was better for me to give up an area of prime trapping in return for agricultural land wed never use."
Princess Cynara spoke up, obviously continuing an argument that had started earlier. "You Amazons dont need that useless bit of scrub; youve got lots of places to hunt that are a lot more productive and easier to reach. But we need that land. Since the slide this spring, thats the only way we have to reach our summer pastures."
Ephiny shrugged as she smiled. "And what are we going to do with plowed land? Were not farmers, Nara."
"Why don't the Andorians work the fields and give the Amazons part of the harvest?" Gabrielle piped up, wondering what she was missing.
Both women stopped and stared at each other for a moment and thought about the bards suggestion.
Princess Cynaras eyes narrowed. "Well, if we do all the work, wed be willing to offer you one-half the crops."
Ephiny snorted. "One-half, try three-quarters. And ten casks of that fine Andorian wine of yours thrown in every harvest."
"Three quarters of the harvest it is. But you buy your wine in the marketplace, like everyone else."
Ephiny laughed, "Deal!"
Gabrielle laughed with the others and quietly listened as they continued to argue over minor treaty points. She'd occasionally ask a question or make a suggestion but she found her mind kept drifting to tomorrows proceedings.
Eventually, Ephiny and the Andorians took a break so she and the Regent took a few minutes to go for a short walk; stretching their legs and enjoying a bit of the warm summers day.
Gabrielle snatched at a tall head of grass as she and Ephiny walked beside the practice field. Chewing on the stalk for a moment, she mentioned something shed been thinking as she watched the others all morning. "Nara seems very young to have so much responsibility."
"Some people say that about our Queen." Ephiny smiled at the bards startled look before returning Gabrielles sheepish grin. "But, yes, she is young. Shes an only child. Her mother died in childbirth, and her father raised her like a son, knowing someday that she'd succeed him on the throne. Hes made sure she knows as much about economics and military strategy as most girls at her age know about cooking and weaving."
Gabrielle gave the Regent a sly grin. "She sure didnt back down from you."
Ephiny shook her head and smiled. "Nope. She sure doesnt. Shes a lot like her father. I respect them both."
"And that General Andrus seems to be very protective of her."
"Yeah, I noticed that too. I hear he used to be on the other side of the law until about five years ago when he showed up in Andoria. Took him about a year to work his way up to heading the army. They say he is fiercely loyal to the family."
They walked for a few more minutes in silence before Gabrielle brought up the original reason for her visit. She began to quiz Ephiny about Amazon law, asking questions that soon had the Regent scrambling for answers.
After stumbling once again, the Regent threw up her hands in exasperation. "Gabrielle, look, Im no expert at this stuff."
Frustrated, the bard let out an explosive breath. "Well, who is?"
Ephiny thought for a moment before taking Gabrielles arm and heading back towards the center of the village, almost pulling Gabrielle along behind her.
Startled by the Regents actions, the bard let out a little yelp. "Hey, Eph. Take it easy!"
The Regent didnt slacken their pace. "Sorry Gabrielle, but I dont have much time. Ive got to get back to Nara and Andrus but I think I know something that can help."
She led Gabrielle into the temporary storage hut, the permanent one currently being occupied by Xena, and released her arm before maneuvering among the many items, which seemed to be piled in no particular order on the ground. Quickly locating what she was looking for, the Regent shifted several bolts of cloth before uncovering a small chest, which she dragged to the center of the hut.
"Have a look in there." Out of time, Ephiny headed for the door "Thats everything thats been written about our laws and traditions. You might find something useful. Ill give your regrets to Nara and Andrus."
Gabrielle called after the receding Amazon.
"Good luck." The Regent was already out the door.
Gabrielle knelt down and lifted the lid carefully. What she found inside were dozens of scrolls of all sizes and weights; some appearing to be very ancient, judging by their fragile condition. As she cleared a spot in front of the chest and carefully spread some of the scrolls out before her, she realized it would take some time to sort through the box. Sighing, she sat down cross-legged and made herself comfortable, reaching behind and pulling over a pile of furs to use as a backrest, as she unrolled the first scroll.
She spent most of the afternoon on the floor of the storage hut. After looking through the first few scrolls, she realized it would take too long to read every one, so she scanned each one and sorted them into two piles: those which might be helpful and those which definitely werent.
She returned the majority of the scrolls to the chest, and then spent the remainder of the afternoon going over the handful of scrolls that proved to be either the most interesting or the most helpful to the bards case.
Lamps were just starting to be lit in the village as she returned the last scroll to the chest and closed the lid with one hand, stretching the other one far over her head. Twisting sideways at the waist a couple of times to work the kinks out, she slowly stood and shook out her stiff legs.
As she left the dimming interior of the supply hut and rejoined the village life around her, she felt a lot better. She wasnt sure if what she planned tomorrow would work or not. But she was pretty sure she could carry it off. She knew it would take all of her skills and that kinda scared her a little. But, it was the only chance Xena had, so she'd just make it work.
Xena was feeling much better, in a tired sort of way. Shed spent the day alternating between pushing her body to its injured limits and collapsing on the pallet to recuperate. She was pleased to note that her fever was almost gone and she could feel her wounds already scabbing over; at least if the itchiness was any indication.
When Gabrielle joined her for dinner that evening, she found the warrior up and slowly limping around the cell, clutching her side and trying to hide the little grimace she made with each step.
"Xena! What are you doing?" Gabrielle, at first surprised to find Xena on her feet, was alarmed to see the warrior looking so pale.
A rather tense voice growled back. "What's it look like Im doing?"
Gabrielle let her frustration show. "It looks like youre trying to prove that youve got more stubborn than brains. Do you know how sick you were yesterday? Will you sit down before you fall down, please."
Xena, frustrated by her weakness, snapped at the bard. "Gabrielle, dont fuss. Im all right."
Which rather lost its veracity when the leg with the thigh wound chose that moment to give out. Gabrielle lunged for the collapsing warrior and managed to provide enough support to get them both over to the cot, where they collapsed together.
Anxious guards peered in the window as Gabrielle managed to extract herself from the tangle of arms and legs.
"Cool move, Xena."
Chagrined eyes apologized back.
"Here, why dont we take a break, while I check your dressings."
Xena offered a couple of token protests, but secretly welcomed the excuse to give herself over to the warm attentions of her friend. As Gabrielle helped her sit up, she seemed to draw strength from the small, supportive arm around her shoulders.
Getting Xena settled on the edge of the pallet, Gabrielle stood and retrieved their healer's kit, which shed dropped by the door when shed made her mad lunge for the falling warrior. Returning to sit beside Xena, she spread the items shed need out on the bed beside them.
"Which one do you want me to do first?"
"Doesnt matter. Pick one."
Deciding to work her way down, Gabrielle gently helped Xena slip her shift over her head. As Xena straightened, the bard took a moment to observe the strong muscles flickering beneath the smooth curves burnished by the warm glow of the single lamp of the room.
Xena, never much of a one for modesty, was seemingly unaware of the surreptitiously admiring looks being cast at her through the small window cut in her cell door as she tried to twist around and peek beneath the bandage on her back.
Small hands slapped hers away, so that the warrior shifted to face forward in the now familiar routine, as Gabrielle loosened the bandage from around her left shoulder.
Smiling to herself as she noticed Xena discreetly try to flex the sore muscles, she took a moment to lay the discarded bandage on the cot beside them. Turning back, she lifted the pad of linen covering the entrance wound, and was pleased to see that the bandage was clean. She used the tips of her fingers, gently probing the angry red skin around the re-healing scar. Gabrielle was pleased with what she saw when she removed the linen covering the exit wound as well.
She had the warrior turn and face away from her as she moved her attention to the muscular back before her. As she began to unwind the bandages from around Xenas chest, she suddenly had a flashback to that second day in the healers hut when she'd discovered her friends bloody bandages.
Xena was raising her arms out of Gabrielles way when the bards voice turned mildly suspicious.
"Xena, Ive been meaning to ask you. Did something happen in the healers hut the first night we got here? I mean, after I left?"
Xena froze, unsure of how to answer.
Gabrielle noticed the sudden tensing beneath her fingers, as she probed the well-muscled rib cage, just above the wound, for any damage she may have missed earlier. While her fingers worked, she watched the profile of her friend as she obviously struggled with an answer.
Xena decided to cover with a question.
"Why? What makes you ask?
The bard shrugged nonchalantly, carefully observing her friend. "I dunno. All though you certainly wouldnt know it to look at you right now, you were pretty banged up yesterday morning. Its hard to believe all that damage was done by lying in bed."
Xena tried to figure out why she was reluctant to tell Gabrielle about the incident the first night. The problem was, almost anyone in the village could have thrown that knife. If what shed experienced so far was any indication, there were more than one-hundred Amazons within a spears throw who would take it as an honor to avenge their Queen right now.
The way she figured it, Gabrielle was already upset enough and couldnt do much even if she knew about the incident. But, there was the danger that Gabrielle would try, and that she might inadvertently be hurt in the process. And there had already been too much of that.
Xena decided to avoid admitting there was a problem for as long as she could. After all, she'd be able to travel again in a few days. Then it wouldnt matter. Providing she made it out of the council meeting alive tomorrow, of course.
"Gabrielle, from what you say, I was pretty out of it with fever the first night. I must have been thrashing around quite a bit for them to tie me down like that."
Gabrielle paused as the image of Xena bound to the pallet came to mind. She knew Xena was avoiding answering and Xena knew she knew, but they silently agreed to drop it for now.
Finishing up with the wounds in Xenas leg, Gabrielle stood up and stepped back to survey her work. And, held her breath as the late afternoon sun coming in the cell window over her shoulder seemed to deepen the tanned skin of the beautiful woman before her to a golden glow.
Reaching for her shift, Xena was unaware of Gabrielles stare as she slipped the cloth around her arms before raising them with a wince above her head.
As the shift slid down to cover her friend, Gabrielle seemed to give herself a little shake before continuing. "Xena. We need to talk about tomorrows council meeting.
Xena straightened the fabric before raising her legs and shifting on the cot so that her back was to the wall. She deliberately kept her face neutral as she quietly regarded her friend standing beside her. While she appreciated all her efforts on her behalf, she wasnt so sure they were going to be enough. And, she didnt want to give Gabrielle false hope.
They were interrupted as the cell door was opened and one of the guards entered carrying a cloth-covered tray. Keeping a wary eye on Xena, the Amazon moved cautiously over to the table and placed the tray on its rough wood surface before quietly exiting.
Noticing that Xena made no move towards the delicious smells, Gabrielle turned and walked over.
"Well, lets see what cook has for us tonight."
Lifting away the covering linen, Gabrielle was pleased to see two large bowls of steaming stew and a loaf of obviously fresh-from-the-oven bread. A couple of mugs held cool cider with which to wash it all down.
Grabbing a bowl and a spoon, she handed both to Xena, who took them without comment. Dropping a spoon in the other steaming bowl, she grabbed it, and the bread, before returning to her spot beside Xena on the cot. Facing her friend, she placed the warm loaf between them as she balanced the wooden bowl in her lap.
She stirred the thick contents around before raising the spoon to her mouth. Blowing across it a couple of times, she finally zeroed in on a chunk of meat and picked it off the wooden implement with her teeth. Tossing the hot morsel back in her mouth, she opened her eyes wide and sucked in a couple of breaths as her hand fanned her mouth. "Oh...hot!" Dropping the spoon back into the bowl, she grabbed for one of the mugs of cider; which she took a few quick sips from with a look of relief and a quiet sigh.
Deciding to let the stew cool for a while, she reached over and tore off the heal from the loaf of bread, and dipped it into the contents of the bowl. She raised it to her mouth, but paused when she realized that her friend was still making no move to eat.
Watching Xena, she noticed the warrior seemed preoccupied. Not surprising given the circumstances, but Gabrielle suspected something more. Now, how to draw it out. Well, why not the direct approach?
Popping the gravy soaked bread in her mouth, she took a moment to chew and swallow before asking, "Xena, is something bothering you?"
Xena, staring at the bowl in her lap, answered in a distracted voice. "No. Why?" Looking up, she realized her friend was closely watching her and smiled at the concerned young woman. "What makes you ask?"
"Well...umm...havent you said before that an injured body needs to replace internal losses from external sources...or something like that. Id say you qualify on the injured side. Shouldnt you be eating something?"
The warrior seemed to shake herself before smiling at the bard. "Yeah, youre right Gabrielle. I was just thinking about tomorrow."
"What were you thinking?" Gabrielle went still as she searched her friends face for some clue.
Xena gave her a sad grin. "Just wondering if this was my last evening with you."
Gabrielle didnt return the smile as her fingers tightened around her spoon. Her voice took on an edge. "Now you stop that right now, Xena. Tomorrow, Ill make them see just how wrong they are about you. You believe that, dont you?"
Gabrielle was concerned now. Looking intently at her friend, she was desperately trying to figure out where Xena was coming from with this.
She gentled her tone. "Xena, I need your help here. I cant do this alone. We both know how wrong this is. Ignoring all the good youve done them, just because of what happened between us, is wrong. You know that."
Xena just shrugged her shoulders, a lost look taking over. "Do I, Gabrielle?"
Dropping her spoon back in the bowl, Gabrielle grabbed both their bowls and placed them on the floor by the bed. Pushing the bread aside, she moved closer and took Xenas hands in hers, looking directly into the warriors eyes.
Shed been afraid to ask the question up until now, but the stakes were just too high.
With a tentative voice that almost whispered in the dark cell, "Xena, do you think you deserve to die? I mean, for what you did to me?"
Extracting a hand from the bards and rubbing at the dull ache in her temple, Xena took a moment to answer.
Did she think the Amazons were right? She knew she'd never forgive herself for losing control like that; for doing something that she'd rather have died than have done in her right mind. In the final analysis, however, she was the one who let the darkness takeover; she was the one who was responsible for her actions. And accountable.
The question really was, did she recognize the Amazons right to judge her?
What she'd done had scared her down to the depth of her soul. To have lost control like that for the second time was terrifying, and she lived every day now with the fear it could happen again.
But, when it came right down to it, what really mattered to her was what Gabrielle thought.
If Gabrielle had asked her to leave, or submit herself up to Amazon justice, or even to fall on her sword; she would have, gladly. Anything to begin to atone to Gabrielle for what she'd done; to let her know how deeply she regretted what happened.
But, Gabrielle seemed to be saying that, although she was their Queen, the Amazons had no business judging what happened between the bard and herself. Gabrielle had forgiven her, and that should be good enough for them.
It still didnt change the fact it happened, though.
Returning her hand to her lap, Xena covered the bards hands with hers. "Gabrielle, I dont honestly know." She paused for a moment before meeting the bards eyes. "I do know, no matter how hard I try, I can never make it right. Maybe its better this way." Taking a deep breath, she slowly let it out as she lowered her gaze, the sad smile back on her face. "At least well be sure it wouldnt happen again."
The bards breath caught as she heard the defeat in her friends voice.
Reaching over to cup the strong jaw, she lifted Xenas chin until the empty eyes were looking into hers. "Xena, listen to me. Please. Dont do this to yourself. We both did things to each other well both have to live with. But, the optimum word here is live."
Moving her hands down, she stilled the warriors restless fingers and captured both of Xenas strong hands in her own again. Her gaze didnt waver as she tried to let Xena see how wrong she thought her friend was.
"I put my life in your hands almost every single day were on the road together. I wouldnt do that if I thought there was even the remotest chance you could hurt me again." Realizing Xena had reached her emotional limits and not wanting to push, she decided it was time to lighten the mood, "Besides, if you let them execute you, youll never get a chance to make it up to me, right!"
Xena seemed to pause before a genuine smile tugged at the side of her mouth. On one level, she was amused at the bards logic but on a much deeper one, she once again realized how incredibly fortunate she was to know this remarkable young woman.
Deciding to let things play out and not worry about them for now, Xena visibly relaxed and held out her arms to the bard. "Cmere."
Gabrielle climbed up beside Xena on the cot. Snuggling up beneath Xenas good shoulder, she rested her head against her friends chest as a strong arm wrapped around her and pulled her in close.
She felt safe and warm and didnt want to give that up. Not now; and not tomorrow. There was only one last thing she'd left to discuss with Xena before the council meeting. Might as well get it over with.
Reluctantly pulling away, she reached down and grabbed both forgotten bowls from the floor, handing one to Xena before snuggling back in her comfortable spot. Gabrielle chose her words carefully and tried to keep the tone of her voice casual, as they both resumed their dinner.
"Xena, if it doesnt go right. If I cant convince them and they decide to...you know..." Gabrielle seemed to be searching for the right word.
"Execute me," Xena helped gently
Gabrielle swallowed a couple of times. "Yeah. If they decide to go ahead and execute you, I want you to promise me something."
Xena had stopped eating now and looked down at the still profile of the woman next to her. "What is it Gabrielle?"
Turning her head and looking up into Xenas concerned eyes, the bards face was deadly serious. "I want you to promise me you wont let them."
The warrior was momentarily confused by the request. "What?!? Gabrielle, I dont understand?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath, her eyes never leaving Xenas.
"I know you let yourself be taken rather than risk hurting Ephiny and the others." Gabrielles eyes took on a haunted look. "But Xena, I couldnt live with myself if something happened to you, especially because of me." She couldnt maintain eye contact; the memories of Chin still haunting her nightmares. "I know now, I could never live with that."
Xena was beginning to see where this was going. "Gabrielle...I..."
The bard cut her short, anxious fingers now digging into the warriors arm. "No, Xena, please. Promise me. Promise if it comes down to a choice between them or you, that you'll choose you. You promised me once that you would never die on me again. Im going to hold you to your promise."
Xena smiled down at the serious eyes looking up at hers. "Hopefully, Gabrielle, it wont come down to that. I have faith in you, my bard."
Gabrielles expression didnt change. "But if it does, Xena. I want your promise."
A look of regret now filled the warriors face. "Im sorry Gabrielle. I cant promise that. But I will promise to do everything I can to make sure it doesnt come down to that."
With a grin and a poke in the young womans side, Xena looked over at the startled bard. "Now lets finish this, shall we." Grabbing her spoon, she dipped it in the bowl in her lap and filled it before depositing its contents in her mouth. "Hmm, good stew," she said around bites.
Despite herself, Gabrielle smiled back as she straightened from protecting her side from Xenas teasing poke. She wasnt totally satisfied but she did feel better. At least Xena hadnt given up. And, as long as Xena was fighting on her side, she knew that, somehow, someway, victory was assured...or at least, she was pretty sure it was assured.
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