Disclaimer: Let's see, I should be getting used to this. Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules, Iolaus, and Argo are all characters belonging to MCA and Renaissance Pictures. No infringement is intended, so please don't get your panties in a bunch.
Gabrielle ducked as she fought off yet another attacker. Where had they all come from any way? One minute she was walking along side Xena and Argo, the next they were in a full out battle. It was not that she couldn't defend herself, far from that; it was just she was tired of always having to do so. She had been looking forward to a few uneventful days of rest and relaxation. Xena had even promised to get a room at the inn in the next town, she mentioned something about knowing the owner. They were finally going to get some rest. Those plans seemed to be out the proverbial window now. Xena would want to know who these men were and why they were attacking. Sure, she would offer Gabrielle the chance at staying at the inn without her, but she knew she would come with. Gabrielle looked over to her friend now, as she finally knocked down her attacker. Xena was fighting three men at once, and had already taken down another five. Gabrielle sighed; it made the three she just took down look pretty weak. As she blocked the blow from yet another attacker, she realized the growing distance between her and her friend. They were being pushed apart, almost deliberately. She remembered what the warrioress had told her as the battle began. "If we get separated, I want you to head for the inn, I'll meet you there. Just follow the road through the woods until you see the village, it should be pretty easy to find." The man continued to push her back, until her friend was completely out of view around the bend in the road. She could still hear the sounds of the battle though, pierced by the characteristic war cry that usually send men fleeing just from the sound. Gabrielle hit the man hard, sending him to his knees. She paused to pick up her bag, planning on heading for the inn. It shouldn't take Xena too long to finish off those few men; she would probably even meet her on the way.
As she walked back towards the road, something caught the corner of her eye. She turned around, staff ready, just in time to see the man lunge at her. She blocked his attack and hit him back down to the ground, cursing herself for not knocking him unconscious when she had the chance. He regained his footing and lunged at her again. She easily deflected the attack. Something was wrong, she told herself. It was as if She stopped herself as she realized what was happening. He was leading her somewhere, pushing her back into... She whipped around and caught the second man squarely in the stomach. That cost her, as the first man managed to land a punch squarely in her side. She turned around again, this time using full force as her staff connected with the man's head. He crumpled to the ground. She turned to face the now lone attacker. He had been able to draw his sword as she dealt with the first man. He made the first move, and she was barely able to deflect the blow, stopping it right above her head with her staff. She threw him off and took a step backwards. He swiped at her again, as she stepped back, she tripped over the unconscious form of the other man and stumbled, catching herself before she hit the ground. It was all the opening he needed. As she struggled to regain her footing, he came at her hitting her across the top of her head. She lunged at him with her staff as she fell, hearing a satisfying crunch as it connected with his head. As he fell towards her, her only escape was to roll out of the way or be crushed by the rather large man. She soon regretted her decision.
She had not realized her surroundings, as wrapped up in the fight as she was. Just a short ways from the road, there was a relatively sharp drop off that led to the stream. She had not realized just how close to that drop off she had become. As she rolled, she had hit the edge of the drop off. Once she had started, there was no way of stopping her rapid descent down the side. She brought her hands up to her face in an attempt to ward off the blows, clutching her staff tightly, not knowing what else to do. She hit the water with a great splash, the force from the fall aided in her shock by the cold water. She wasn't sure if she had lost consciousness or not when she opened her eyes again, somehow managing to almost float in the quickly moving water. The water carried her quite a ways until she was lucid enough to know she had to get out of there. The water was moving so fast, she had no idea how far it had carried her. She jabbed her staff towards the nearest rock, and after two tries, managed to stop herself from being carried any further down stream. She pulled herself towards the rock, and was surprised at how deep the stream was, even this close to shore. She pulled herself to within a couple strides from the shoreline and climbed to her feet. The water was nearly waist high, but she waded through it and collapsed safely on the shore.
Or maybe not so safely, she thought to herself. She was resting on a very thin strip of land that led to a rather steep and rocky climb back up into the woods. There was no use in staying where she was any longer than necessary, so as soon as she caught her breath, she began the climb. She used her staff for leverage when she could, but at times it became a hindrance. Despite that, she held on to it. There was no way she was going to leave it behind. The thing that confused her was why, and how, she still had her bag with her. Somehow she had managed to hold on to it through the fall and the water. She shook her head, knowing that any scrolls she had in it were completely destroyed. She thanked whatever gods watched over her that most of her writing was still safe and sound in Argo's saddlebag. She grimaced. Xena. She had a feeling her friend was not going to be pleased with her little adventure. That was if she could even find her. She had a feeling she was no longer close to the road, and probably far away from where the battle occurred. She was just going to have to get to the inn, somehow. She would probably not get there until after her friend did. She winced as she thought how much Xena would worry.
She focused back on her goal, and found herself near the top of the ridge. She hauled herself over the edge and collapsed to the ground. She lay there for a short time, knowing it was not safe and not caring. That had taken a lot out of her. First the battle, then the fall, then the climb, she needed a break. Xena wouldn't take a break, she told herself. That did it. She climbed to her feet, then nearly collapsed again. Something was wrong, something was definitely wrong. Her ankle screamed in pain, echoing her head. She leaned heavily on her staff with one hand, and brought the other to her head. She winced at the touch, and at the sticky warmth she felt cover her hand. She didn't need to look at it to know it was covered in blood. She pulled out a rag from her bag. It was still soaking wet, but she didn't bather to ring it out. She held it to her head and sighed as the coolness calmed the pain. She tried to mop up as much blood as she could, knowing it was probably just a minor wound and head wounds tended to bleed a lot, before looking back to the woods that lay before her.
She had to find shelter, someplace safer than the edge of the ridge. She slowly made her way through the woods, leaning on her staff for support. Every time she put her weight on her ankle, it screamed in pain again, she tried to put as much weight as she could on her staff. She had hoped the road was nearby, and after what seemed like forever, was rewarded with the dusty path not too far from the ridge. She looked around for an appropriate spot, and found one. It was near the road, covered by the dense foliage, and had an excellent vantage point of the path in both directions. She could see anyone who came by, but would be completely hidden from them. "Sorry, Xena," she mumbled as she sat down among the bushes and taking the weight off her sore ankle. "It doesn't look like I'm going to get to the inn anytime soon." From her previous experience, she knew it would be slow going at best unless she did something about her ankle. She hoped her friend would come look for her, and would follow the road. She knew that no one but Xena would be able to find her in her hiding place, and that she would be safe. She took off her boot carefully, and winced at how swollen her ankle was. She wrapped the last of the cool rags around her ankle and sat back against a tree to wait. A smile crept on her face as she realized just how perfect of a spot this was. It was lined with berry bushes, and she was famished.
Xena dusted off her hands as she walked back over to Argo. Her horse had waited patiently for her to finish the fight, though it was clear she wanted to get going. Those three guys took longer than she thought it would to knock them out, especially when that fourth guy came out of nowhere. She looked around to make certain that no one was left conscious before she mounted Argo and headed back to the road. She had to admit it was a good strategy, to keep one man hidden in the bushes until the others had worn their opponent down. The only flaw was that she was far from worn down. In truth, she felt invigorated, as she always did after a fight. She glanced around once again and realized that Gabrielle was not there. A wave of panic flooded her for an instant until she remembered their agreement. It was just so rare that her friend actually stuck to it. She half expected to see her come out of the bushes to meet her.
Seeing that was not about to happen, she slowly picked her way through the unconscious bodies and headed for the inn. She saw three men that she knew she had not taken out and a smile crept over her face. Gabrielle certainly was getting good with her staff. A short distance further, she found another two men lying by the roadside. She realized they had tried the same technique with her friend. She was pleased to see that it failed. Not seeing Gabrielle anywhere around here either, she brought Argo to a slow trot and made her way towards the village she knew lay just beyond the next rise. She kept her eyes on the roadside, hoping to see a sign of her friend. She didn't know why, but she had a bad feeling growing in the pit of her stomach.
The warrioress carefully tied Argo to a post outside the inn. Normally she would have taken the time to rub her down and take off her gear, but the feeling in her stomach was growing. She had to find out if her friend was okay. She walked into the inn and immediately scanned the area for signs of the honey haired woman. She saw none. She sauntered up to the bar where the bartender was eyeing her suspiciously. He was new, she realized, she had never seen him before. He locked gazes with her for a brief moment, then quickly glanced away, suddenly preoccupied with the bar in front of him.
"Excuse me," she said as softly as she could manage, yet still demanding his attention. He walked over to her cautiously, seemingly glad of the distance the bar placed between them. He looked up, but did not meet her gaze again. "I'm looking for a friend, maybe you have seen her?" she asked. She was struggling to be as polite as possible, but that fact that he would not meet her eyes was beginning to annoy her.
He looked her up and down quickly, studying the leathers and the armor and making note of the slight blood spatterings she had yet to wipe off. "No," he said, glancing away again. "I don't think I've seen anyone who would be your friend here."
"Are you sure?" she asked, noting the edge that was appearing in her voice. She was definitely annoyed now. "She's blond, green top, carries a staff You sure you have not seen her?"
"Look lady," the man began, stammering in fear. "I have not seen her. Now will you please leave? We don't lid your kind around here. We don't want any trouble." His yammerings had caught the attention of two other people in the bar. One came over to investigate.
"Is there a problem here?" the man asked the bartender.
"UmmYes sir," he answered, looking nervously to the warrior woman. "She came in here looking for a friend. I told her they weren't here, but she won't leave." The words came out rushed, and he winced as if expecting a blow from the much larger woman.
The man turned to look at the woman critically. "Is this true?"
"Yes, I'm afraid it is," she said with a smile.
"Good. I've been wondering when you would come back," he smiled. "You know you're always welcome here, Xena." The bartender barely hid a gasp. The innkeeper rolled his eyes, then looked back at the woman.
"Thank you, Linus. I don't think I can accept your invitation, at least not yet. I have to find where Gabrielle disappeared to. She was supposed to meet me here."
"Ah, the Bard of Potadia. If she is traveling with you, perhaps we can work out an arrangement for your rooms. If she'll tell her stories a few nights, you can stay free of charge. Whenever she's here, we get quite a crowd. She's well known for her talent, you know." The man couldn't help smiling again. With the bard to bring in extra patrons, and the warrior to deter any fights, it was always a profitable time.
Xena felt a small smile creeping over her face as well. Gabrielle was certainly getting a reputation for her stories. She felt a flash of pride before she returned to the task on hand. There would be no stories if there was no bard to tell them. "You haven't seen her then?" she asked hopefully. She noticed the smaller man from the corner edging closer, but made no move to stop him.
"Sorry, no. Do you want me to save a room for when you find her?" he offered.
"It would be appreciated. I know how much she's been looking forward to a soft bed," she answered, more to herself than to the kind old man. Suddenly, she spun around and caught the smaller man's arm behind his back as he edged just a bit to close.
"Hello, Xena," he said in forced breaths, yet sounded rather casual. She released his arm and he let out a breath he had not known he had been holding.
"Hello, Iolaus," she replied, turning her attention back to the bar. She hid a smile as the bartender visibly backed away from her. "You should know by now not to sneak up on me," she said casually to the small blonde man that stood behind her.
He laughed, which surprised the bartender even more. "You'd think I would have learned that by now," he chuckled. "So, did I hear right? Is Gabrielle coming?" he asked rather excitedly. He couldn't help it. So, he liked her, what was wrong with that? She was a friend. He could get excited over seeing a friend, couldn't he? Yep, a friend. Yeah, that was it.
"She's supposed to be here already," Xena answered, turning towards him. Knowing he would want an explanation, she continued. "We ran into a bit of a snag on our way here. She was supposed to come to the inn if we got separated. I was behind her, so she should have been here long ago." She sighed. At least the feeling in her stomach was explained, but not why it didn't go away yet. Her mind still told her something was wrong.
"May be you passed her," he suggested, shrugging his shoulders. As he did, his strange purple vest moved with him.
"I would have seen her," was her response. He knew not to question the tone in her voice. She turned to leave. "I'm going to go look for her."
"Wait!" he called to her, following. "Do you want some help?" he offered. Gabrielle was his friend too, he told himself. And though he doubted she was in trouble, he knew Greece was not a safe place.
"Sure," was her reply. She waited for him to catch up with her. "Mind if I ride?" she asked as she mounted Argo. All of the supplies were in the saddlebags. On the off chance that she was hurt, which she hoped to the gods she wasn't, she would have what she needed.
"Not at all," Iolaus grinned, expecting her to do just that.
"Want to check the marketplace first? Maybe she got tired of waiting," Xena suggested. She had a feeling her friend would not be there, but on the off chance that feeling was wrongIt was a good idea to check.
"Sure," the small blonde man replied, shrugging. "But I didn't see her come in to the tavern, and I've been there a while," he added. She started to give him a look that said, Are you sure you didn't miss her? but decided against it. She knew Iolaus, and they way he felt about her friend, well enough to trust him.
After they left, the bartender turned to Linus and asked, "That was Xena, Destroyer of Nations? You know her?" The awe was evident in his voice.
The old man shrugged. "Don't let her hear you call her that, but yeah, that was Xena. She's changed a lot from those days, that I know for sure." He turned to walk away from the bar. "And yes, I know her." He made it clear that subject was closed. He returned to his seat and sighed. The new bartender had been there for just over one moon, but he was really getting on his nerves. He was afraid of everything, and nosey as Tartarus. It was annoying. It would be interesting how long it took him to upset the Warrior Princess. He absently wondered how many bones she would break.
Gabrielle sat, leaning against the tree, munching on berries. The cool cloth had made her ankle feel better, but now her head really started to hurt. Maybe it was he imagination, but she didn't think it was just from her injury. It was in the wrong place, though it was starting to spread over her entire head. Stress, she told herself. Or maybe she hit her head somewhere else and didn't realize it. She reached back and felt her skull, just above the pain. No bumps that she could find, not even a scratch. Must be stress, and probably a hint of exhaustion. As tired as she was, she knew she could not let herself fall asleep. A chance remained, no matter how remote, that someone else could find her, and she did not want to be asleep for that. She checked her side to make sure her staff was still within her reach. Xena, you're rubbing off on me, she smiled, hearing her friend's voice: Always keep your weapon within reach, you never know when you will need it. She sighed quietly. She was bored. She couldn't even work on her scrolls; they were still soaking wet. She hoped she would be able to salvage at least part of them. Looking at the large ink stains across one of them, she knew it was a lost cause.
Her thoughts were interrupted as she heard footsteps on the road beside her. They were coming from behind, soft-footed, though large. They were making absolutely no effort to hide themselves. She quietly reached for her staff, not liking how the footsteps seemed to slow as they got near her. Whoever it was was now walking over to her side of the road, making a tangible effort to remain quiet themselves. When the intruder stepped a little too close, she let loose with her staff. She aimed just below the knees, and even sitting had enough force behind her blow to send the person down. But they did not go down. They seemed to trip lightly, stumble even, but they did not go down. She could feel her stomach begin to churn. She poised for another attack, knowing it was hopeless if her last one barely phased the intruder, and knowing that there was no way she could escape fast enough on her bad ankle. She had to try anyway. She gasped out loud as instead of hitting bone or anything else solid, the staff was wrestled from her grasp. With quite a bit of force too. She tried to hold on, but it was pointless, and she felt her stomach rising into her throat, waiting for the blow to strike her.
It never did. Instead, she heard a rather familiar voice call her name. "Gabrielle?" a distinctively male voice asked as the bushes around her parted. She looked up into the face of an old friend. He was a large, well built man, with sandy brown hair, and wearing leathers and a simple wrap around shirt.
"Hercules," she sighed in relief. She craned her neck to look up at the large man and managed a slight smile. "You scared me half to death!" she admonished, giving him another grin to let him know there were no hard feelings.
"Sorry about that," he half laughed, crouching down to meet her on eye level. "You swing one mean staff, you know that?" He rubbed his knee tenderly, but smiled back at her in forgiveness.
Now it was her turn to apologize. "Sorry," she grimaced. "You should be more careful when sneaking up on poor, defenseless Amazons," she chuckled, trying to straighten herself out, but not doing a good job.
"Defenseless Amazons?" he laughed. He looked around and saw no telltale signs of her traveling companion. "Where's Xena?" he asked, not liking the idea of her being alone. It was rare that the Warrior Princess let her friend out of sight, from what he'd seen, but now there was absolutely no trace of her.
"Probably waiting for me at the inn in Lathos," she sighed, shaking her head.
"Lathos? That's about half a day from here! How did you get so separated?" he asked, truly surprised.
She gave him a strange look, and shook her head again. "Half a day?" she mused. "Wow, that stream carried me farther than I thought." She tried to hide the frown that formed on her face. There was no way she could get to Xena tonight. And, she thought to herself, there was no way Xena was going to wait that long for her.
"Stream?" he asked, now completely confused.
"Yep," she sighed. "It's kind of a long story."
An idea came to his head. "I'm on my way to Lathos to meet Iolaus. Why don't you tell me on the way?" He stood, straightening the kinks out of his back. "And maybe you can explain to me what led an Amazon to be hiding in the bushes on the side of the road while you're at it." A smile quirked at the sides of his mouth.
"Sure," she said, and gave him a true smile. She liked the idea of having a traveling companion. It made her less of a target on the open road. "Just let me get my boot back on." He looked down at her with a questioning half raised eyebrow look that she was positive he stole from Xena. "I twisted my ankle in the fall," she explained, knowing he would want more, but he would just have to wait. She took the now mostly dry rags off her ankle and winced at what she saw. It was a little better, but not much. She carefully slid her still swollen ankle into her boot and tied the laces tight around it, trying to brace it somewhat. And, she managed to do all of this without letting Hercules seeing just how bad it was. No use in him worrying about her. She would get enough of that from a certain large leather clad woman with long black hair. She grabbed a couple of more bundles of the berries and stuffed them in her bag for traveling snacks. She had already eaten a large amount of them, but she reasoned that she was hungry and had every right to be. She looked up to the large man expectantly.
"Fall? Let me guess, part of the story?" he asked with an amused grin.
"Yeah. Umm Herc?" She waited for him to look down at her again. "Can I have my staff? I kind of need it if I'm going to walk."
"Oh, umm, yeah. Sorry about that," he said, realizing he still held her Amazon war staff in his hands. He handed it over to her and watched as she struggled to get up. "Are you sure you're okay? I can take a look at that ankle for you if you want," he offered. He regretted his words after he saw the look that came over her face. Gods, Herc, he told himself, she's not a kid. She can take care of her self. Besides, if it was really bad, don't you think she would tell you?
"I'm fine," she said, a touch cooler than she had wanted to. Gods, the last thing she wanted right now was for him to be fawning over her like some mother hen. Like Xena wasn't going to give her enough of that when she saw her. She stepped out on to the road, leaning a bit heavily on her staff. Her face showed no trace of the little arcs of pain that came from her ankle with every step. She looked back at him expectantly, not understanding the shock he tried to hide behind his eyes. What now? she wondered.
Her face must have shown her unasked question, as he stumbled to answer it. "Umm, it's just your head I didn't see it before. Let me guess: fall?" he asked nervously. Xena would have his hide if he brought her back looking like this.
Gabrielle had forgotten all about how awful the cut must look. She knew it didn't need stitches, but that was all she knew at this point. She could imagine the large bruise he saw there. "Nope, fight, and I'm fine," she sighed, exasperated, knowing his next question. He could tell that Xena wasn't the only one with a stubborn streak in this duo.
He decided to let the subject drop, for now. If he saw her struggling too much, he would bring it up again, and this time he would not take no for an answer. Those two were not the only ones who could be stubborn, though he had a feeling they did a better job at it. "Okay, sorry. Now, how about that story?" He hoped the change of subject would help. She was, after all, a bard.
She told him about their plans in Lathos, and about the ambush in the road. She saw the bemused grin on his face when she told him about ruining the ambush they had planned for her. She then told him about falling down the drop off and into the stream, and finished with the climb out and finding a hiding spot. He was impressed, and it showed. He also now knew that she was probably hurt more than she was letting on. However, she had managed to climb the rock face and nearly take him out at the knees. He sighed inwardly. He would let her keep up her farce, for now.
They walked along for a while longer, alternating between periods of small talk and companionable silence. That's what worried him the most. He knew her reputation for being a talker. He had heard many small remarks from Xena regarding how much her friend could talk without even seeming to pause for a breath, all said with a smile that let on her true feelings. Now, the blonde woman walking beside him was uncharacteristically silent. He would look over at her every once in a while and see her quickly trying to hide a wince of pain, or even occasionally shaking her head as if to clear it. Something was not right, that he was sure of. He tried asking her, but all he got was an, "I'm fine," and a look. She was stubborn all right. He knew he was probably getting on her nerves, but he couldn't stop caring. Then, there was the voice in the back of his head that told him Xena was going to be more than slightly upset if Gabrielle was seriously injured and her just let her walk on as if it was nothing.
"Are you sure you're okay? You don't need a rest or anything, do you?" he asked, regretting it as soon as he said it. He was going to get another one of those looks again, he was sure of it. But they had been walking without a break for quite some time now, and she managed to keep up with him the entire way. He had barely slowed his pace from normal, but she hadn't seemed to care.
She looked as if she was going to snap at him again, then her face softened and she even managed a wry smile. "Sorry," she said, pausing to push a long strand of hair out of her eyes. "I know I haven't been the ideal traveling companion. I just have this headache that won't go away. I didn't mean to snap at you so much."
She stumbled yet again. He had lost count of how many times she had done so, and every time he offered to help he would get that look. This time, she barely caught herself with her staff, and took a while to collect herself. "Whoa," she said, shaking her head again. "Didn't see that one coming," she joked, hitting the offending root with her staff. She looked up sheepishly at him and smiled, and he even smiled in response. She seemed to be more like herself again. As she took another step forward though, she couldn't stop the gasp that escaped from her lips as a new wave of pain ripped through her ankle. She had just gotten used to the dull ache, leave it to her to find a way to bring on a whole new kind of pain.
That's it, Hercules told himself. Look or no look, he wasn't putting up with this any more. "Enough with the suffering in silence. Either you let me take a look at that ankle, or I'm carrying you back to Lathos." He put his hands on his hips and gave her a look of his own. This one said he wasn't going to back down, and he meant it.
"You wouldn't," she dared, slamming her staff into the ground to let her feelings on the subject be known.
"Watch me," was his response. In one smooth move, he picked her up, bag, staff, and all, and into his arms.
"Put me down!" she screamed, thrashing against his strong hold. He had to admit, as tired as she obviously was, she could still pack a punch. He was lucky she hadn't yet decided to use her staff against him. "I said, PUT ME DOWN NOW!" she screamed right into his ear. She kicked out and actually landed a solid blow against his thigh. Unfortunately, it was with her bad ankle, and she nearly howled in pain. He gave her a reproaching look as if to say she just proved his point. He looked back up at the path, ready to make his way with his kicking and screaming burden, when he saw an unexpected and rather unfortunate sight.
Xena and Iolaus had been looking for what seemed like forever. No one in the market place had any information on Gabrielle, so they headed into the woods. They followed the road for the most part, but if anything looked astray, they searched the woods surrounding the area. She had to give the small man credit; he managed to keep up with her much hurried pace. Admit it, she told herself. You're frantic. Your best friend, a more than capable Amazon fighter, is missing and you feel like you can do nothing about it. Then again, she is rather small, and she is alone. What if she was hurt? If she wasn't so worried about her friend, she would have laughed at herself. A few short years ago and it would have been absurd to think of the great Warrior Princess searching the forest for a single lost girl, not if there wasn't substantial profit in it. My have times have changed. She looked down again at the curly haired man. They had barely talked the entire time. He kept up to her pace without a single complaint or looking like he needed a rest. He probably thinks I don't care about her, that I'm just upset for her screwing up my plans and me having to come look for her. No, my emotional masks aren't that good anymore, she's seen to that. My worry is probably written all over my face. At least he has the decency to not make any comments or jokes. No, I know him better than that. He knows how much I care for her. He knows how much I would do for her.
She was ripped out of her thoughts by a sound that tore to her very soul. It was Gabrielle; she knew it without question. From the sound of it, she was being attacked. She looked down to Iolaus who simply nodded his head in acknowledgment. She then took off at full speed on Argo, knowing he would be right behind her. As she charged toward the direction the sound came, she drew her sword. Anyone who harmed her friend was going to have to pay a very serious price.
She came around the last bend in the road and saw what her ears had already told her was true. Gabrielle was in the arms of a very large man, kicking and screaming. She had her staff in her hand, yet was not using it. Something else must be wrong, her mind told her. She couldn't see the face of the assailant as flailing arms and the large wooden staff blocked her view. "If you know what's good for you, you'll put her down," she said in her most menacing warlord voice.
Usually that voice alone was enough to scare armed men away. Instead, this large, unarmed, man barely flinched. "And if she knew what was best for her, she'd stop fighting," was the response from the man. She recognized the voice, and soon her view was clear enough to confirm her suspicions.
"Hello, Hercules," she said, stepping down from her horse, but refusing to sheath her sword.
"Hello, Xena," he replied, unfazed. "Your friend here has quite the punch."
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, as if recognizing the voice for the first time. She stopped her antics and looked over to her friend as if to make sure she wasn't hearing things. Satisfied, she folded her arms across her chest and pouted. "Make him put me down," she demanded.
"Herc" the warrior started, finally sheathing her sword. She heard Iolaus come up behind her, and imagined the startled look on his face.
The demi-god paused for a moment, then relented. It was amazing just how much the expression she had on her face right now looked just like the look the smaller woman had given him moments before. She must have been taking lessons or something. "Fine," he said to the warrior, then looked to his charge. "But don't say I didn't warn you." He set Gabrielle down just as easily as he had picked her up. She gave him an indignant huff and then turned to her waiting friend. As soon as she put weight on her bad ankle, she regretted it though. She may have been able to hide the pain from Hercules for a long time, but she knew she had no chance with Xena.
Instantly, the warrior was at her side, taking inventory of her friend's wounds. "It's nothing," Gabrielle protested, shifting her weight off her ankle and onto her staff. "I just twisted it in the fall," she explained. Oops, wrong move. She regretted saying the words before she finished saying them. Great.
Xena gave her a look that stilled all future protests. Worry, regret, and anger flooded through her mind. She only hoped her mask was good enough to stop them from showing. One look at the bard, and she knew she had failed, at least with her. "Sit down," she commanded. Gabrielle glared at her for a moment, then complied, plopping down on the side of the road with a huff. Hercules looked on in surprise. He had fought with the girl for so long, but one look from Xena and she did what she was told. Some day, he was going to have to ask her how she did that. But not today. The larger woman knelt down beside her friend and started to unlace her boot. She looked up at Iolaus for a brief moment before continuing her task. "Will you please get my healing supplies? They're in a black pouch inside the left saddlebag. Oh, and a water skin too."
Iolaus quickly returned and handed her the black bag. He glanced down as Xena removed Gabrielle's boot to reveal a very red and very swollen ankle. "Ouch," he commented, as he sat down on the road beside them.
Xena glanced up at Hercules, who had moved to lean up against a tree. "You let her walk on this?" Her tone conveyed a meaning deeper than the words.
"Let is not the best choice of words," he sighed, knowing there was no way out of this one. "I tried to get her to let me look at it, but she refused," he explained, but knew it sounded pretty weak, even if it was the truth. Yeah, the great son of Zeus let a little girl intimidate and talk her way out of letting him do what he knew was best. For now, he let his attention focus on the instant transformation from warrior to healer. The woman really did have "many skills."
Xena raised an eyebrow at him. She knew how persuasive the girl could be; she was after all a bard. She had just thought that she was the only one the bard had managed to wrap around her little finger. It appeared she was wrong. She looked back to Gabrielle and gave her the "you know better than that" look. Finally, the smaller woman spoke in her own and the demi-god's defense. "It wasn't that bad, honest. I just barely twisted it. I must have hurt it again the last time I tripped." She looked up into her friend's blue eyes with an apology, and knew instantly that it was accepted.
"You still should have let him look at it," Xena chastised her, but her heart wasn't really in it. It was a pride issue, something she knew all too well. "Or at least wrapped it in something." She carefully began to wrap the ankle, and smiled to herself. At least this time she hadn't ruined the bard's boots.
Gabrielle shrugged. "The few rags I had in my bag were soaking wet from the water, so I didn't think I should use them to wrap it. Since they were so cold though, I put them on it. It felt a lot better after that. Besides, then Hercules came along and I thought it was a perfect opportunity to get an escort back to Lathos." She suddenly remembered something and rummaged around in her bag. She proudly produced a bunch of berries. "While I was waiting, I found these. Want some?" she offered, popping another one of the sweet fruits into her mouth.
Xena just shook her head and finished tying off the bandage. "They are actually pretty good," Hercules commented from his tree. "I had some earlier." Back before Gabrielle got so moody, he added to himself. That was all the incentive Iolaus needed, and he grabbed a couple out of the offering hand.
He bit into one and smiled. "He's right," he said around another one. "You sure you don't want one?" he offered to Xena.
"Not right now, thanks," she told him. "Right now my attention is on this cut on our favorite berry-picker's head." She carefully cleaned the area and inspected it, a rather difficult task with a fidgeting patient. Satisfied that the wound had sealed itself and looked good aside from a large bruise surrounding it, she finished her task and packed her items back into the black bag. "Now," she said, leaning back onto her hands. "What was this about a fall? And water? And how in Gaia's name did you get hit on the head? Are you hurt anywhere else?"
Gabrielle smiled at Xena's attentions. Sometimes she could be such a mother hen. She sighed. "It's a long story, which I'll get to I swear. And no, I'm not hurt anywhere else. I just have this headache that won't go away." It hurt like Tartarus, but she wasn't going to tell her friend that, she was worried enough already.
Hercules' face grew concerned, and he stepped away from his tree. "It's still bugging you?"
Xena's face mirrored his. "How long have you had it?" she asked.
Thank you ever so much Hercules, Gabrielle thought to herself. She tried to smile again, but it didn't quite turn out as planned. "Not long," she lied. She tried to give the demi-god a look, but it didn't work with Xena in the way.
Xena glanced up at Hercules, her eyes asking for the truth. She loved her little bard, but she could tell the whole truth was not being told. The large man cleared his throat. "She's had it since I ran into her," he answered. He looked up at the sky through the dense trees, trying to get some estimate of time. "That was a while ago, I'm not sure how long though. I was about a half a day out of Arthos, maybe a little less."
"That long?" Xena asked, raising an eyebrow.
Gabrielle sighed out loud. "I'm fine, really," she insisted. She was telling the truth, sort of. Aside from a twisted ankle and a head that hurt like Tartarus itself, she was fine. She knew part of her problem was pride. She was surrounded by great heroes and she didn't want to seem weak. It was bad enough she probably looked like something that rolled out of a cave in right now, but she refused to be seen as a baby. She knew they would never actually think that, but she did and that's what mattered most. Time for a change of subject, she thought. "Iolaus, do you want some more berries?"
After a brief look of indecision, he shook his head. "No thanks." He had just finished a large meal at the tavern before Xena came in and he realized that the bard had probably not eaten anything other than berries since breakfast. She needed the food more, it was as simple as that. His famous appetite would just have to wait. "Why don't you have them?" he suggested. Hercules gave him a strange look, then realized what he was doing. Iolaus could be such a good friend sometimes, but no one really ever gave him credit.
Xena also realized what the smaller man was doing, and what Gabrielle had done. She had successfully changed the subject. The warrior was going to let her get away with it, this time. "Okay then," she began, standing up and brushing herself off. "We should get going. We won't get to Lathos by nightfall, but there is a better camping area up ahead." She waited for the others to nod in agreement. She leaned down to pick up her medical supplies and the waterskin and watched the blonde woman stuff a handful of berries back into her bag. "Is there anything else you need?" she asked.
"A couple of swigs from that waterskin would be nice," the bard commented with a sly smile. Xena handed it to her and watched as she nearly drained it in several long gulps, pausing only once for a breath of air. Gabrielle sighed contentedly as she handed her friend back the now almost empty skin. "I guess I was thirstier than I thought," she smiled.
Hercules shook his head. He had forgotten completely about offering her water. Not that he had any with him, but he could have found some for her. She had been injured and traveled with him on the hot road for longer than she should have without water. Even if she wasn't hurt she should have had something to drink. He didn't need any himself; he often traveled with no food or drink for a day or so and was fine. But she was not the child of a god. How could he have been so irresponsible? He opened his mouth to apologize, but Xena cut him off with a look and a smile. It was an understandable mistake. He wasn't used to carrying water, and the bard's pride stopped her from asking. That pride was going to get her in trouble someday, but it was not like Xena's or Hercules' hadn't gotten in the way sometimes, so they were not the one's to point that out to the girl.
"Ready to go?" the woman warrior asked.
"Yep," Gabrielle said cheerily. She adjusted her bag and her grip on her staff and started to stand up. Only to be swept up into the larger woman's arms. "What?" the bard asked, confused, as she felt her feet leave the ground. She then realized what was going on. "Oh no. You put me down right now. I mean it, Xena. Put me down!" she screamed into a pair of very amused blue eyes. This was too embarrassing. She tried fidgeting, kicking and swinging her arms about, but it was no use against the other woman's much greater strength.
"You're not walking on that ankle," the warrior told the pair of now pleading green eyes that looked up at her. "You're going to be carried. Whether it's me, Herc, or Argo, is up to you."
Gabrielle crossed her arms in front of her and gave the woman her best petulant look. "I choose the horse," she said coolly. Iolaus suppressed an "ouch" at the tone in her voice. This was not one pleased bard. "And will you please pick up my boot. I am not going to lose another pair, unless you want to pay for them," she added.
Xena just rolled her eyes. She started to help the bard up onto the horse when Hercules appeared at her side and lifted the girl in one smooth move. She raised an eyebrow at him and he gave her his "well I have to be good for something" look, to which she smiled. She grabbed the Amazon staff away from Gabrielle before she could protest and tucked it into its niche on the side of the saddle. She walked back over to the side of the road and picked up the red-brown boot and returned to present it to her friend as if it was some great treasure. "You're boot, m'lady," she said with a flourish and a bow that got a smile from the two men, but a glare from Gabrielle. She was clearly not amused. The bard neatly folded the boot and tucked it away. She then waited, hands resting on the saddle horn, for Xena to grab the reins and lead Argo to their destination. It was clear that she was not even going to attempt to ride by herself. It was also clear that she was going to make this as difficult as possible. Xena decided to humor the bard, this time. She did not know what had gotten in to her, but something was wrong. True, she was a bit embarrassed, but that was no explanation for her attitude. Maybe after a nice long rest she would be better. One thing was for sure, that attitude was not going to cut it for much longer. You can only stretch a warrior's temper so far.
They walked along to the clearing in relative silence. Iolaus tried some idle chitchat, but soon gave it up. No one was in the mood for it. Besides, it seemed like that headache of Gabrielle's was spreading. Maybe it was just from the tension very apparent in everyone else, but his head was beginning to get that dull ache that he just knew would take forever to go away. He shook his head, trying to clear it, though he knew there was no use. This sucker was here to stay. So he tried to turn his mind to other things. What had gotten into Gabrielle anyway? Normally she was so nice and easy going, always with a story to tell. But this ride was different. She had not said a single word since she got on that horse. Whatever it was, it seemed to be affecting Xena and Hercules as well. Maybe it was because she was hurt. Yeah, that was it. She didn't like Herc or him seeing her hurt. Herc felt guilty about not helping her, and Xena felt guilty about letting her get hurt in the first place. That might explain the general situation, but it didn't really explain Gabrielle's attitude. It was not like her to dwell on something like this for so long. Unless she was hurt worse than she was letting on
His wonderings stopped as he nearly ran into the now still Argo. They had made it to the clearing. How they had made it so fast he had no idea. He looked up through the trees to see a now darkening sky. They hadn't made it so fast. Where had his mind been? He shook his head clear once more, silently cursing the ever-present headache, and began the task of clearing the area for a camp.
Xena helped Gabrielle down off Argo and carried her over to a nearby fallen log. The bard was still upset and still unusually quiet. "Stay there," the warrior told her before moving back to the horse. She unhooked the saddlebags and carried them over to the log. She then quickly and efficiently took care of Argo, making sure the horse had enough fresh grass to eat and that clean water was within her reach. "I'm going to go look for something for dinner," she announced. Before Hercules or Iolaus could object, she disappeared into the surrounding bushes. It was clear that she wanted some time to herself, and they were not going to argue. Whatever was wrong with Gabrielle was bugging her, and she needed time to work things out.
Hercules watched her go, then turned to look at the still glaring Gabrielle. "Iolaus, why don't you start building a firepit, and I'll go look for some firewood. We're going to need to cook whatever she brings back," he suggested, albeit a little nervously. Tensions were running a bit high on the female side of the group, and he did not want to do anything to set them off. Sure he was the son of Zeus, but he wasn't stupid.
When they finished, they had a comfortably large fire going. They sat down, expecting a period of uncomfortable and awkward silence. They were saved by Xena's hunting ability. She returned with three rabbits, all ready skinned and ready for cooking. She looked visibly relaxed. Whatever she had done out there seemed to do the trick. What it was, though, the two men thought it best not to ask. She threw them down next to the fire and went to retrieve the cooking supplies. When she came back, Gabrielle was sitting next to the rabbits, separating them and preparing them for cooking. "Umm" she started, but was cut off by the bard.
"Cooking dinner is not stressing my ankle," the blonde woman told her quietly. "Besides," she said with a bit of a mischievous grin. "I don't think it would be fair to Hercules and Iolaus to have to suffer through your cooking. I mean they were trying to help. There's no reason to punish them."
The two men looked at each other in shock. They wouldn't have spoken to the great Warrior Princess like that on a good day, but on a day like this? Was the bard asking for it or what? They watched as Xena's stoic face turned into a slow smile. "True," she laughed, handing the woman the cooking supplies. If they were shocked before, they didn't know what they were now. That was the last thing they expected from either woman. Maybe we're getting to see another side of their friendship, Hercules mused. Forgiveness. He shook his head; he was not even going to try to figure those two out.
A little while later, the smell of roasting rabbit filled the campsite. Hercules was tired of just sitting back and watching someone else work. He stood up and made his way over to the other side of the fire. "Is there anything I can do to help?" he asked.
Xena smiled and was about to say no, but Gabrielle interrupted her. "You could get some more water," she suggested. "The skins are almost empty."
Xena looked confused. "They were all full when we got to camp. Besides the one you drained, I mean," she commented. She grabbed the couple of waterskins next to her and was surprised at how empty they were.
Gabrielle looked up a little guiltily. "I was kind of thirsty. Iolaus was too, so between us" she trailed off. Xena smiled, but noted how much water the two of them had drank. It wasn't that hot, was it? Then again, the two of them weren't really into the warrior thing as much as she and Hercules were. She shrugged to herself and pushed the thoughts of concern from her mind. Hercules grabbed the skins from her hands and started to head off into the woods. "Careful," the bard called after him. "It's kind of a steep drop off."
He chuckled to himself as he walked off. "I'll be right back," he called back to the campsite.
Gabrielle covered her mouth in an embarrassed laugh. She saw the raised eyebrow she got from the Warrior Princess and knew she should explain. "I just told the son of Zeus to be careful. How much more naïve can I seem?" she asked with another laugh.
Xena chuckled at that as well. "Don't worry," Iolaus laughed from across the fire. "I do that to him all the time. He's used to it by now." She smiled back in return. She was starting to feel a little bit better. Her nerves calmed a bit, but she still had that damned headache. Oh well, she thought, maybe food will help.
As Hercules walked back to the campsite with the now full waterskins, he wished he had followed Gabrielle's advice. The drop off was sharper than he thought it would be, and it was hard to keep his footing. He hoped they wouldn't notice the dirt and watermarks that went up to his knee on one side. He could just imagine the jokes. As he walked into the clearing, Gabrielle looked up from where she was removing the rabbits from the fire. "Perfect timing," she commented, then went back to her work.
Xena noticed the dirt and water marks and raised an eyebrow at the demi-god. He saw the look and mouthed "not a word" to her. She smiled and tried to hold in a laugh. She was only partially successful, and got one of her own raised eyebrow looks from Gabrielle. That did it. She and Hercules both started laughing out loud, leaving their companions looking to each other with rather confused looks. "Must be a warrior thing," Iolaus whispered to the young bard who nodded in agreement. There seemed to be a lot of those.
Soon the two warriors calmed down and it was time to eat. Each took healthy portions of rabbit and sat back to relax and maybe even have some idle conversation. Iolaus took a bite of the rabbit and decided that had been best for Gabrielle to do the cooking. "This is excellent," he mumbled around another mouthful. Hercules agreed, it was much better than if either one of them had done the cooking.
Xena saw her companion smile at the compliments and decided it was time to find out what happened. "Gabrielle," she started after taking a bite of her own dinner. She had to admit it was good. "You never quite got around to telling us what happened," she prodded carefully, hoping not to mention the reason she never got around to it was because she was pouting. That was not the way to start off an evening.
The young bard swallowed her bite and took a long swig from the waterskin. Perhaps a bit too long, Xena thought, but she let the thought go. The bard was soon into her tale of the battle, the ambush and the fall. She had everyone drawn into her story, even Hercules who had heard it all before. Xena even saw Iolaus wincing at the details of the fall. When Gabrielle described her hiding spot on the side of the road, she nodded in approval. At least the girl had been listening some of the time. When she told of hearing the approaching intruder, Xena's brow furrowed. Had her friend been in even more trouble tan she admitted? When she found out who it was, she didn't know whether to glare or laugh at the demi-god.
Hercules made the decision for her. "That friend of yours swings a mean staff," he commented, rubbing his knees. They didn't actually hurt anymore, but it got the desired effect. Xena started laughing, followed by Iolaus, and even Gabrielle smiled.
"Anyway" she continued, returning everyone's attention back to her tale. "I decided to accept his gracious offer and walk with him to Lathos. We had no problems on the road, though when walking with the son of Zeus people do tend to leave you alone. Then we met up with you." The bard finished her tale and took another long swig from the waterskin.
"And the screaming?" Xena prodded, trying to tread lightly on potentially dangerous ground. "Why was he carrying you when we found you?"
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by Hercules. "I was tired of taking no for an answer," he said as he put his now empty plate down. "As much as she wouldn't admit it, she was hurt and I knew it. I was tired of her suffering in silence. Did you know she's almost as stubborn as you?" His last comment was pointed at the Warrior Princess.
"I am not stubborn!" Gabrielle pouted, crossing her arms in front of her and glaring at him. Xena did her best not to laugh. Instead she raised an eyebrow at the large man, telling him what she thought of his comment. Though she knew it to be true, she could at least have some fun with it.
Hercules did not even flinch. "Besides, " he laughed. "I knew what you would do to me if you thought she was hurt and I let it happen." Xena forced a smile at that. The comment hit a little to close to home. She was almost ready to skin him alive when she first saw him. She stood up and stretched, then began picking up the scattered dishes. Hercules and Iolaus helped, and soon the campsite was tidied up. She rolled out her sleeping roll and laid Gabrielle's next to hers. It was clear that it was time for some much-needed sleep.
"Come on," she said, walking over to the bard. She hadn't yet decided if she was going to carry her to the bedroll or let her walk.
"I am not stubborn," the bard said, arms still crossed in front of her.
That made up her mind. In one quick swoop, she lifted the girl into her arms and headed for the bedroll. "Yes, you are," she whispered to her. She lay her friend down carefully. "And so am I." Gabrielle smiled at the admission. As she turned to make herself more comfortable, she tried to hide a wince from her friend, it didn't work. "What's wrong?" the warrior asked, concern evident on her face.
"It's nothing," the bard started to protest. She saw that wasn't going to work. "My head hurts, that's all." She saw the warrior reach for her head wound, and stopped her. "No, it's not that. I just have this headache that won't go away." She shook her head as if to clear it.
Xena knew how long she had had the headache, and was more than a little worried. "I'll make you something that should help it go away," was all she said. She placed a pot of water near the fire and waited for it to boil. While she was waiting, she retrieved her herb pouch from her medicine bag. When the water was hot enough, she poured some into a small cup and mixed in the appropriate combination. Not only should it get rid of the headache, it should put the bard to sleep. She sat behind the girl and handed her the cup.
As she drank to mixture, Gabrielle leaned up against her friend, her true tiredness showing through. Xena began to slowly massage the girl's temples. "If I had known I was going to get this kind of treatment, I would have spoke up earlier," she mumbled. Xena smiled at the comment. Gabrielle leaned back even more into her friend, and soon drifted off to sleep. The healer took the cup from her hands and carefully laid her down on the bedroll.
Hercules had been watching the whole exchange from his spot across the fire. It was amazing how much the warrior had changed in the short time he had known her. She showed such care and tenderness with the girl, something he would have never thought her capable of when he first met her. She truly cared for the smaller woman, and he had a feeling the feelings were reciprocated. Watching them together, it was so amazing. Xena could be the menacing warlord one moment, a tender healer the next, and a caring friend the next. The woman was more complex than he gave her credit for. He was shaken from his thought as he saw her walk over to his side of the fire.
"Iolaus," she said, sitting down across from the smaller man. "Drink this." She handed him a cup containing the same herbal mixture she had just given her friend.
"What's this?" he asked, sniffing the contents.
"It's for your headache," she said simply.
"But how" he started to ask, but stopped when he saw the look in her eyes. He cautiously took a sip. It wasn't bad. He took some more.
She leaned back onto her palms and watched him drink the mixture. "You've had a headache for a while now. If I'm right, from about the time we left after fining Gabrielle and Hercules." A shy nod confirmed her suspicions. "You know, you don't have to play the tough warrior all the time. All you had to do was tell one of us. You could have gotten rid of it a long time ago."
"Sorry," he said sheepishly. He tried to stifle a yawn, but failed. "You know, I think it's working," he drawled.
She smiled at him and took his now empty cup. "Go to sleep, Iolaus." She watched as he laid back down and soon fell asleep. She turned to Hercules and cocked her head. "What is it with these two?"
"They think they have to be tough to be worthy of us great warriors," he told her, shaking his head.
She snorted, letting him know what she thought of that thought. "You think they would have learned by now," she said more to herself than to him. She turned to face her sleeping friend across the fire. He realized that she really hadn't let the girl out of her sight, even when she was talking to Iolaus.
He thought about commenting on that, but then thought better. "Good night, Xena," he said as he lowered his head to the ground.
"Good night, Hercules." He watched as she walked back over to the other side of the fire. She lay down on her bedroll, facing her sleeping friend. Somehow he had a feeling that she would be watching her, even in her sleep. If the younger woman made even the slightest sound, she would be there at her side instantly. Now he knew what Gabrielle had meant when he asked why she stayed with Xena. She had said it just felt safe. He could see why she felt that way. He thought about this as he drifted off to sleep.
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