Part 2

By Cat

"Come on, wake up." Gabrielle heard someone talking. She knew she should listen, but she was just too comfortable. She snuggled deeper into her bedroll. "Gabrielle" the voice warned.

"Just a little bit longer," the blonde mumbled.

"You do this every morning?" Hercules asked incredulously.

"Just about," Xena confirmed. She yanked the blankets back from her sleeping friend, exposing her to the sunlight and the cool morning breeze. "Come on, Gabrielle. Time to get up. If we don't get moving, we won't get to the inn in time for Linus's famous lunch."

A hand shot up to block the sunlight from slowly opening eyes. "Famous?" she asked, her stomach winning the battle over want of sleep.

Xena smiled, knowing she had won. When in doubt, go for the stomach. "Yep, his lamb stew is legendary. If you don't hurry up it will all be gone by the time we get there." Okay, so it was a small lie. Linus always made sure to keep extra when he knew they were coming.

It worked though. Gabrielle sat up slowly and shook her head as if to clear it. "Can you pass me that waterskin?" she asked, pointing to one near Hercules' feet. Xena tossed it to her and watched as she drained over half its contents. She would have drank more, but she started to cough from drinking so fast. Once again, the warrior took note of how much her friend was drinking. She tried to think back to before the fight in the woods. Had Gabrielle been drinking this much then? No, she was pretty sure she hadn't. So whatever caused it happen between then and now. Oh well, something to think about on the road.

She focused her thoughts back to the present. Gabrielle was now rolling up her bedroll and cleaning up the area around her. At least she seemed to be in a better mood. She watched as the bard struggled to her feet with the bedroll and her bag, wincing as she put her weight on her bad ankle. She was quickly at her side supporting her and handing her her staff. "I've got it," she said as she took the gear from her friend.

"Sorry," Gabrielle grimaced. "I forgot about that." Xena smiled at her companion, as did Hercules and the patiently waiting Iolaus. "So what's for breakfast?" That got laughs all around. The only way to get her out of bed was with the promise of food, and it was the first thing she asked for.

"Trail rations," Xena informed her. The bard made a face, but the warrior just shook her head. "You'll get better food when we get to the inn," she promised. She was about to say something else, but was interrupted.

"Ouch!" Gabrielle exclaimed, grabbing for her arm. It knocked her off balance enough that she nearly fell over, catching herself just in time with her staff.

"What is it? Is it your ankle again?" Xena asked, immediately by her side. She didn't see her even move, so how could she have hurt it again?

"No, bug," she said almost sheepishly, but it was clear that it hurt. "Little brown and yellow thing. The damn thing bit me!" She rubbed the tender area just above her elbow. She pulled her hand back to inspect it. Already there was an angry red mark. "This has just not been a good trip for me," she mumbled to herself. She hobbled over to where Hercules and Iolaus were waiting. "Let's get going. Things can only get better."

"You're riding," Xena informed her. The tone in her voice left no room for argument.

"Oh look, I was wrong," Gabrielle sighed. She moved to angle herself up into the saddle, but Hercules grabbed her from behind and lifted her in one smooth move.

"There you go," he told her. She looked down at him with a look of something less than thanks. He was not even going to ask. He grabbed Argo's reins and handed them to her owner. "Shall we?" he asked gesturing towards the road.

Xena led the way, with Hercules and Iolaus taking up positions on either side of Gabrielle. It looked almost like a procession, and Gabrielle was the royalty. A rather unamused royalty at that. Looking for something to do and not feeling much like talking, she started rummaging through her bag. It wasn't that she didn't want to talk, it was just she knew she would snap at the first person to say something at her and didn't feel like starting a fight. She didn't know what was wrong with her. Her headache was back, and now she felt like if she were to look down from her perch atop of Argo, she would fall. It was a strange, almost dizzy-like feeling. She did not want to worry Xena, not yet anyway, so she kept to herself. She finally found what she was looking for in her bag. She pulled out a handful of berries and started to munch. Maybe it would lighten her spirits.

She saw Iolaus watching her from her right side. Oops, forgot no one else had any. "Do you want some?" she asked.

He licked his lips unconsciously. "Not if you're hungry," he told her. He was attempting to be polite, but the trail rations he had earlier just weren't doing it. He was hungry, and remembering the taste of the berries made him even hungrier.

"Iolaus" she warned, but managed a small smile. She handed him a handful and looked back at her now almost empty supply. "Anyone else want any?" she offered.

As she had hoped, they declined. She couldn't help it. The berries were good and she was hungry. She finished the last of them and reached for the waterskin. She took a long draught that even Hercules noticed. She was about to take another, but was stopped by a sharp pain in her leg. She nearly dropped the skin, but recovered in time.

"Something wrong?" Hercules asked as Xena pulled Argo to a stop.

She rubbed her sore leg and saw another red mark at the site of the pain. "Not another one," she whined. This was not her day. Another brown and yellow bug flew away.

Xena took a closer look at the mark that seemed to swell slightly. "I don't know what it is about you, but they seem to like it," she smiled. As nothing looked serious, she moved to continue on. "Come on," she said, urging Argo a little faster. She wanted to comment on Gabrielle's headache and irritability, but thought better of it. No need to start a fight. She glanced over at Iolaus. His headache was back as well. At least it wasn't her head injury then. But what it was she had no idea.

They passed by the area where the fight had taken place only a day before. The evidence of it still remained. Hercules could trace out almost every move and was surprised at the number of attackers. Both Xena and Gabrielle made it sound like nothing. He began to wonder just how often the former warlord and her friend were attacked. He saw where Gabrielle was ambushed, and the indent still in the road from an obviously large man. Iolaus couldn't help himself, he wandered into the woods and looked over the edge of the drop off where he assumed she had fallen. It was steeper than he had thought, and the only sign of the accident was a single bush that looked like it had seen better days. Gabrielle didn't say a word, which was unusual for her. She simply wanted out of this place and to forget the rather embarrassing events it began.

Xena understood he feelings and urged Argo on. A short distance down the road they could see the outline of the village. They all agreed that the thin plume of smoke that rose from the inn looked inviting. Linus ran out to meet his friend and her companions.

"I see you have found your friend," he greeted her. He looked up to Gabrielle with a smile. "Though it looks like you have seen better days." She gave him a smile that told him she was less than amused, and he laughed. "I know something that will make your day better. I saved you some of my lamb stew. If I remember correctly, it was one of your favorites. Come on in and I'll serve you up a bowl."

Gabrielle smiled broadly. It was hard to stay in a bad mood around Linus. She turned to slide off Argo when another dizzy spell hit her. Xena caught her before she hit the ground and helped her regain her balance. "Sorry," she said a bit sheepishly. "Got a little dizzy there. I guess I'm not used to riding Argo by myself." She grabbed onto the horse's saddle to steady herself. The ground still seemed to be moving beneath her.

Xena smiled reassuringly at her, but wasn't convinced it was just Argo. She handed her friend her staff to use to balance herself while she walked. "I know you didn't want to ride, but I wanted you off that ankle for a little while longer," she told her. "Besides, knowing you, you'll talk your way into walking around the marketplace all afternoon."

Gabrielle laughed at the truth of that statement and Xena smiled. It was good to see her in such a good mood. Gabrielle slowly walked around Argo and towards the door to the inn. She still limped slightly, but Linus wisely made no comment. "I'll get you and your friends a table ready," was all he said.

"I'm going to take Argo to the stables and brush her down, I'll be there in a minute," Xena told Gabrielle and Iolaus who had already made their way to the door. She caught Hercules before he could join them. "Keep an eye on her, will you? It may be nothing but I have a bad feeling about this," she told him.

"I know," he replied. "The headaches, the dizziness, I think she may have something worse than a knock on the head."

"I just wish I knew what," she sighed. He could see the concern in her eyes. He also knew that it took a lot to worry the Warrior Princess. He would definitely keep an eye on her. "I'll be right back," she said as she walked off with her horse to find the stables.

Stabling Argo had taken longer than she thought. It took forever to convince the stable boy that she was not going to kill him or maim him in any way. By the end, she wanted to. She got a nice stall and the boy promised to give Argo the best oats he had. He was still intimidated, but oh well. It was times like this she missed the way Gabrielle handled people. She could always calm them down, and usually ended up making yet another friend.

Xena made her way back to the inn, thinking both about who attacked them yesterday and what was wrong with her friend. She sat down at her friend's table and noticed the empty bowls and plates. Hercules gave her a look to ask what had taken so long, but she just shook her head. One of the waitresses appeared with a large bowl of stew for her, and then disappeared before she could say thanks. She noticed Gabrielle using a bit of bread to get the last of stew from her bowl and smiled.

"You can add increased appetite to your list of symptoms," Hercules whispered to her.

"Increased? How much did she eat?" Xena asked, rather surprised. How the girl's appetite could increase was beyond her.

"She had three of the large bowls of stew, a loaf and a half of bread and about eight mugs of water."

Xena waved him off. "That's not increased, that's normal. But the amount of water still bugs me."

She watched as a look of surprise formed on the demi-god's face. "Normal?" he asked, incredulously. "She even out ate Iolaus. That's hard to do."

Xena smiled. She figured Iolaus was being polite and offering Gabrielle food he would probably eat on his own if given the chance. Anyway, the girl had a busy day yesterday and need to build her strength back up. She looked over to her young friend. She was laughing and telling Iolaus a story. At least her spirits seemed up. Maybe she had been worrying for nothing. For all she knew, all she needed was a good meal and some rest. Xena was going to do her best to make sure she got it.

She finished her bowl of stew and sat back to listen to the rest of Gabrielle's story. She recognized it as their latest exploits. She usually got a little embarrassed when she heard stories about herself, but Gabrielle was telling it to two of their best friends and in a much more casual way then she did when performing. It was less like a story and more like conversation.

"No way!" Iolaus exclaimed when she finished her tale. "Xena is that true?"

"Yep. Though you seemed to understress your own heroics," she told the bard with a smile. Gabrielle was always doing that. She always downplayed her own role and stressed Xena's. The thing is, she never even realized she was doing it. "You should have seen her. She stopped four men and a saved family of three children. It was quite impressive," she said with pride. Gabrielle blushed, but didn't say a word.

"Well," Hercules said, stretching as he stood. "Now that we are all done eating, Gabrielle was talking about hitting the marketplace. I figured we could all go with her. Iphacles's anniversary is coming up, and I need to find something for him. What do you get a king?"

"We'll find something for him," Gabrielle assured him. She stood up slowly and righted herself with her staff. She felt a little better after eating, but she still didn't feel right. She didn't know what it was; all she knew is that it wasn't going away.

Iolaus stood up and looked at the still sitting Xena. "You coming?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I'll meet you out there in a little bit," she told him. "I'm going to bring our things up to our room, then look around a bit. I want to know if anyone has any information on who attacked us yesterday." And any information on what could be wrong with Gabrielle, she added to herself silently.

Iolaus understood. "We'll look after her," he told Xena quietly. He then went to join Hercules and Gabrielle waiting for him at the door.

Xena shook her head and tried to make sense of things. As much as she wanted to be with Gabrielle, she knew her friend did not want her hovering over her like a mother hen. Gabrielle would be able to tell that she was worried, even if she said nothing. She knew she would do something or say something that would make Gabrielle snap at her, and they really did not need that right now. Both of them were tense and stressed right now, and needed some time to themselves, whether they really wanted it or not.

Knowing Gabrielle would be safe with Hercules and Iolaus made Xena's plan a little easier. First, she needed to see the local weapons maker. He would probably know of any warlords nearby, or anyone else with the need of his merchandise. Her next stop would be the apothecary. She should have an idea of what was ailing her friend, if it was anything local. Xena tried to think back to anything else that could have caused her friend's strange behavior, or could have caused symptoms similar to what she had. She couldn't think of a single thing. Everything had been fine until they got separated. Not being one to leave anything out, she also thought of Iolaus's recent attack of headaches. They started about the same time as Gabrielle's. Perhaps they were related. She would have to remember to tell the apothecary about them as well. She stood up and stretched. After bringing their belongings upstairs to their room, she left for the weapons maker. Though she tried not to, she took a quick peek at the marketplace, just to make sure her friend was safe. She laughed silently to herself. The son of a god and a renowned warrior were watching over the small woman. She couldn't get much safer if she tried.

The three companions had been to just about every shop in the marketplace, twice. The men were surprised to see yet another side of the young woman. Not only could she manipulate Xena and out eat Iolaus, she could bargain with the best of them. As he watched her in action, Hercules could not help but smile. She managed to get the merchant to cut his price to less than half of what the demi-god already thought was a fair price. Not only that, she left the merchant with a smile. Years on the road had taught her how to make the most out of very few dinars. He wondered just how often the duo was short on money. Surely the money they made from helping towns in need He stopped as he remembered Xena followed the same rule he did. Take no money for services rendered. At the very most, room and board was excepted, but no more. So Gabrielle stayed with an ex-warlord, lived a life of danger, and was usually broke. He sighed. It would take him forever to figure out these two.

He was interrupted from his thoughts as he saw Gabrielle stop in front of him. There were no merchant stalls in this particular area. He was confused as to why she would suddenly stop. She was leaning rather heavily on her staff and holding her free hand to her head. "Are you okay?" he asked. "Do you want some more water?" They had already stopped by the well three times, but he remembered how much she had been drinking over the past day. It didn't please him, but then again, neither did the rather pale complexion of the young bard. He didn't remember her looking so pale earlier. Something was definitely wrong.

"No thank you," she said politely, though rather weakly. She ran her hand through the strands of hair that had fallen into her face, then returned her hand to her damp forehead. "It's just I'm..." she paused, trying to clear her head so she could get the words out. "Suddenly I'm really dizzy. Would you mind if I went back to the inn to lay down for a while?"

Now Hercules was truly concerned. He knew the bard, she hated admitting her weaknesses, something she had picked up from a certain ex-warlord. Now she was freely admitting she was ill, and that she needed rest. "Um, sure, of course," he said, looking over to Iolaus and seeing his concern matched in his eyes. He watched as she stepped forward, then stopped and caught herself on her staff, another wave of dizziness taking its toll. He lightly took her arm to guide her back to the inn and was surprised by the heat radiating off of her. What surprised him almost as much was that she didn't object to his help. "Are you sure you're okay?" he asked, concern evident in his voice. When she just weakly nodded, her hand never leaving her forehead as if that could block the disorientation she was feeling, he was tempted to pick her up then and there and carry her back to the inn, regardless of any protests.

What stopped him was the sudden sense that they were being watched. He looked up from his charge and saw several armed men mingling in with the crowd on one side of them. He looked behind him and saw more approaching. They were circling around them, as if to prevent escape. "Iolaus..." he said quietly, trying not to be obvious.

"I see them," his friend whispered back.

The armed men were coming closer, no longer trying to hide in the crowd. It was clear who their target was. Hercules tried to see any hole for a chance of escape. It was not that he could not fight, or did not want to, far from that. These were probably the same men that attacked Xena and Gabrielle the day before, and he would love to get his hands on them. He just did not want to risk an obviously weakened Gabrielle in the process. Xena would kill him. Maybe he and Iolaus could draw the attention away from the girl. He knew she wouldn't like it, but he was willing to risk that for her safety. "Circle around, keep them away from her," he instructed. He had accepted that they were not going to get out of this without a fight.

Gabrielle knew something was wrong. Aside from the fact that the world was spinning around her, Hercules and Iolaus had now gone into full protective mode. She looked around to see the cause, but all she saw was a fog of different colors, and some of them were moving. She assumed the lighter colored fog was Hercules and the more purplish one was Iolaus, but that left a lot open for causes of trouble. The fog seemed to spin around her, or was that her spinning? She could no longer tell the difference. She tried to clear the bleariness that surrounded her and concentrate. Her headache made that difficult at best. Her two friends were now circling protectively around her. She looked past them and saw why. What looked like armed men were approaching. She saw Hercules and Iolaus engage them, and heard the sounds of people fighting. She could hear the sound of metal against leather as swords were removed from their scabbards. The clink of metal on metal filled her ears and she knew Hercules stopped an attack with his gauntlet. She could hear each near miss and those that were a little too close for comfort. She wished she could do something to help, but so far no men had gotten through the barrier put up by her friends. Even if they had, she wasn't sure how much help she could be. The world before became blurred once again. Concentrate, she told herself. She tried, and her surroundings slowly came into focus. She saw that her two friends were getting further away from her, weakening the protective barrier. She felt a presence behind her and quickly turned around. One of the men was approaching. He had gotten through the wall, and was headed straight for her. He seemed larger than the others, but that could just be her imagination. His short dark hair looked dirty and unwashed and matched perfectly with his unkempt beard.

The metal of his protective chest armor, though dulled slightly with age, still shone in bright contrast to the dark leather of the rest of his outfit. He held what looked like a large club in his hand, beating it against his other palm. She began to wonder if it had been his plan all along to go after her, only waiting at the sidelines until he could get to her. As he began to circle her, she was certain she was correct.

She followed him, turning with him so she always faced him, not letting him near her back or blindside. She slowly spun her staff in front of her, immediately on the defensive. Instinct took over and she focused on the battle ahead of her, the pain fading into the background. He moved slowly, deliberately, trying to see just what her strategy was. As he took the time to size her up, she did the same. She did not like what she saw. On a good day she would place odds on him, and this was far from a good day. He must have decided the same thing. He swung his club straight at her head. She managed to get her staff up just in time to block the blow and protect herself. She was surprised at the lack of force behind it; she expected more of him. He circled her once more, and again she followed him. It would have been much easier if the world wasn't spinning in the opposite direction. She wanted to shake her head clear again, but realized he would see that as a weakness and capitalize on it. He swung again, this time coming down at her from above and at full strength. Once again she managed to block him, but she was surprised at his strength. It was clear that he had been testing her before, and now was done with the games. This time the blow nearly sent her to her knees, and if her staff wasn't the best the Amazons had to offer, she was sure it would have broken. What surprised her even more was the force with which she retaliated. She slid out from her position and adjusted her grip on her staff. She avoided another strike and aimed for the side he inevitably left open in the process of his attack. He obviously hadn't worried about it, thinking she was not a worthy opponent.

She knew he was rethinking that position as pain ripped through his side. She followed through with a blow to his shoulder, but his armor prevented the amount of damage she wished to inflict.

Knowing he would soon recover, she quickly backed up and took a defensive position. He began to circle her again, and she decided she was really starting to dislike this guy. She forced herself to focus the way Xena had taught her to do in battle. The world seemed to steady itself, a bit, but the man in front of her still seemed to be mostly a wavy blur. A wavy blur that was preparing to attack again. He aimed for her side, but she blocked his move and countered. He let the blow glance of his armor again before returning the attack. She avoided the club, but was unable to get her staff in a position to strike. They continued like that for what seemed like hours but was actually only minutes. Between most of his attacks he would circle around, trying to disorient her. Though it did have the desired effect, he also succeeded in angering her; something one does not want to do with an Amazon trained to fight. Each of their attacks became more forceful, with neither one of them sure of who was wearing who down. That question was soon answered. The warrior aimed for her right side, and she moved to counter, only to discover a second too late that he was feinting.

The club smashed into her shoulder with a jarring force. She fell to the ground, but managed to avoid his next attack and regain her footing. The pain arched down her arm and her grip on her staff was weakened considerably. She knew she had no choice but to use it anyway. She decided that this was definitely not a good day for her. On the up side, the world had stopped spinning and she could make out her surroundings much more clearly as the pain focused her mind. She managed a blow to the head that knocked him back a few paces, but her full force was not behind it and he was able to recover. Her focus now was on avoiding his attacks while sneaking in on his weak spots.

She half wished Hercules would just come in and stop the whole thing, but she could tell from the sounds surrounding her that that was not about to happen. Both he and Iolaus were fighting far too many men to help her right now. He came at her once again, slowly and deliberately. She spun out of his way to avoid the club and get in a hit of her own across his back. Suddenly he moved with a speed she did not know he possessed and struck her full force across her back. She fell face first into the dirt road beneath her. She struggled to push herself up, ignoring the pain in her arm and her back. It was no use. He struck her across her back again and she crumpled back to the ground, a low moan escaping her lips. Her body screamed in pain, but she knew she had to do something. She grasped her staff tightly and rolled over onto her back, aiming for his knees in the process. She hit her target and continued to roll out of the way. She didn't have the strength to get up this time, and she feared the fight would soon be over.

The warrior recovered and kicked her hard in the stomach. She gasped in pain and fought the urge to roll up into a little ball. Instead she tried to strike out. He carefully avoided her staff as she rolled back over and aimed for him again. She knew it would be hopeless, but she had to try something. This time, he grabbed onto the staff and pulled it out of her grasp. He threw it aside with an evil laugh and stepped closer to her once more. He began kicking her repeatedly, laughing as she tried to ward off his blows. She tried rolling over again, but he just changed his target.

She wanted to scream, but she could not get enough air into her lungs. Whenever she would try to take a breath, all she got was a lungful of dirt and dust before another sharp pain to her stomach. She could taste the blood in her mouth and feel it trickle down to her chin. She prayed to Artemis that it would soon be over. She knew that one more blow would knock her into sweet unconsciousness and out of this pain. Through the dirt and blood she looked into his eyes and saw he also knew. She watched as he lifted his club in preparation of the strike. Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly as she tensed up into a ball and waited for the pain.

It never came.

Hercules had seen the large man attack Gabrielle, but there was nothing he could do. Every time he would clear himself of warriors and try to go to help her, more would appear. The attackers had their strategy well planned out. They had deliberately gotten himself and Iolaus away from their true target. He had just been too blind to see who the real target was, thinking it was all three of them. That was a costly mistake. He could hear her battle through his own, and knew that even though she was fighting bravely her chances of winning were slim. He saw her go down. He saw that she did not get up. He saw the abuse she was still enduring and decided that enough was enough.

He quickly disposed of the men he was fighting and made his way towards her. Several men tried to stop him, but he was on a mission and simply knocked them aside. "Iolaus!" he called out to his friend. Catching his attention between the fighting, he motioned to Gabrielle. He saw the stricken look on his friend's face and felt for him. "He's mine. Stop the others from finishing the job." He knew that his friend wanted the man for himself, but he also knew that he would be much more successful. He rarely let his anger take over, but this time he made an exception.

Seeing the man raise his club for what could be the final blow, he knew he had no choice. He took off running at top speed across the small area that separated him from his target. He leapt the final distance, tackling the large man to the ground. Looking up briefly, he saw that Iolaus had already taken position in front of their injured friend. He focused back on the job at hand. Though he had the other man temporarily pinned, the other man had landed with both leverage and a weapon, something he did not currently possess. The warrior threw him off, but looked surprised at how little Hercules had moved from such a force. The warrior began circling, something Hercules found particularly annoying, and waving his club back and forth in front of him. The demi-god primed himself for the attack, but waited for the other man to make the first move. He did not wait long. The other man lunged at him in an attempt to tackle that Hercules easily pushed away. He saw the shocked look on the man's face and smiled. "Not quite as easy when they're not half your size, huh?" he baited. The other man just growled and began circling again. Not surprisingly, words did not seem to be his strong suit. He saw the other man's attention distracted for a fraction of a second, and knew what was about to happen. A large group of the remaining men jumped on top of him from behind, their force and weight nearly bringing him to his knees. He looked through the jumble of bodies to see the man he had been fighting approach with a sinister grin on his face and softly beating his club against his hand. It was clear the other men's task was to hold him while their leader finished the job. He was going to see about that.

He straightened his body, throwing off his attackers. The few that tried to finish what they started he swung across the marketplace, with some landing at the crowd of onlookers feet. He turned back to the man that had attacked Gabrielle. "Now, where were we?" he asked, barely short of breath. The man's shock turned to anger, and he grabbed his club with both hands and aimed at the demi-god's shoulder. The blow hit its mark, but Hercules did not move. Yes, it hurt, but it clearly did not have the effect the other man was looking for. He watched as the man's anger turned to rage. Once again the man struck out, but this time Hercules raised his arm and stopped it with his gauntlet. He was tired of playing games. He grabbed the club with his other hand and ripped it out of the man's grasp, throwing it across the courtyard. He grabbed the now very surprised man by the neck and lifted him off the ground. Half of him wanted to break the man's neck, the other half wanted to throw him halfway to Olympus. He was having trouble deciding which half to follow. He paused just long enough for some of the warriors to try to save their leader.

Xena's trip to the weapons maker had been a success. She had received solid information on a warlord that made his camp nearby. It turns out she knew him by more than just reputation. She filed that information away for later and headed for the apothecary. That trip had proven less than enlightening. The apothecary was away visiting a nearby village, only her understudy was there. Though he had some good ideas on what it could be, he had no ideas about a cure. She was stepping out of the small hut when she made out the sounds of a battle coming from the marketplace. Her heart dropped, knowing that was where her friends were and knowing that at least one of them was already injured. Something inside of her told her it was now a lot worse.

She took off running through the town at full speed, scaring many of the townspeople almost as much as the crowd of warriors in the marketplace they were running away from. As she ran down the hill that led into the marketplace, she could see Hercules and Iolaus over the heads of the onlookers. What frightened her was that she could not see Gabrielle. Hercules was lifting some guy off the ground by his neck with a crowd of men sneaking up on him from behind. Iolaus was also fighting off a crowd of men on his own, but seemed to refuse to leave a certain spot. She knew the crowd would only slow her down, so she leapt into the air, flipping over them and calling out her signature battle cry.

She pulled some of the men off of Hercules before stepping back as he swept the rest of, never letting go of his prize. He smiled a grim smile at her in acknowledgment, but she barely saw it as she focused on thinning the crowd Iolaus was fighting off. She nearly stopped dead in her tracks as she saw what he was protecting. From her vantage point, she could just make out the red-blonde hair and the ragged green top of a form spread out across the road.

She felt her blood grow hot inside her and the fever of battle took over. She drew her sword and downed many of the men before they could get close enough to her to leave a mark. She cut a path to her friend, leaving a pile of unconscious bodies in her wake. She quickly looked around for more, and saw only the men left unconscious by her, the small blonde man, and the demi-god. Hercules had obviously finished the others off, but he still held on to one man. Something in her heart told her that it was the man that had attacked Gabrielle, and as much as she wanted to rip him apart limb from limb, one look at her injured friend and her mind was focused on only one thing.

She sheathed her sword and knelt down beside the woman that had grown to mean so much to her. She saw dark, angry bruises already forming along her friend's back and shoulder. Her back also seemed to have what looked like scrapes across the bruises. She reached out to touch her, her heart breaking as Gabrielle flinched away from her. Slowly, carefully, she rolled the battered woman over. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she saw the rest of the damage inflicted on her friend. The cut on her head had split open again, and blood dripped from her mouth. The entire left side of her face looked to be one large, painfully swollen bruise. Looking down across her torso and abdomen, Xena could see bruising along the edges of the short top her friend wore, most likely from bruised or cracked ribs.

Xena looked up at Iolaus, the torment evident in her eyes. He knew whatever pain he was feeling over what happened to his friend was a mere fraction of what she felt. "How could they do this to her?" she asked, her voice breaking over the words. He just shook his head, having no answer to give.

"Xena?" a voice called to her. It was small, weak, and etched with pain. She looked down to see a pair of green eyes gazing up at her through the dirt and blood. The small figure tried to take a deeper breath, her face contorting with pain from the effort.

"Shh... It's okay," the Warrior Princess whispered through her own tears. She carefully brushed strands of blood encrusted hair away from the battered face. "It's going to be okay," she repeated, more to herself than her friend. She slowly, carefully gathered the young woman into her arms, the heat radiating off her body igniting her fears even further. As she stood, she watched as Gabrielle slowly closed her eyes and felt her relax into her arms.

Iolaus watched as she turned back to the inn, the crowd of people parting for her. He ran and picked up Gabrielle's fallen staff, ignoring his own aches and pains, before following her.

As she passed Hercules he called out, "What do you want me to do with him?" She looked up at the man covered with his own blood and the blood of her friend. She watched briefly as he tried to shy away from her, restricted by Hercules' death grip. She then turned back towards the inn, never saying a word.

Hercules watched her go, then turned back to the man he held in his grasp. The man visibly sighed in relief. That relief was short lived though, as Hercules swung out and knocked him into unconsciousness. He then threw the body behind him like a piece of trash on the road.

By the time Xena reached the inn, Gabrielle had sunk into unconsciousness. The warrior was worried, but hoped that at least this way her friend felt no pain. Linus had seen Xena approaching, and seeing her carrying the limp form of the younger woman worried him. It was not until Xena had passed the threshold to the inn that he saw the full extent of the damages.

"Dear gods on Mount Olympus! What happened?" he exclaimed.

"They were attacked," Xena said quietly, stating the obvious as she walked pass him. When she reached the stairs, she turned around briefly to face the older man. "I'm going to need as much water and rags as you can spare," she instructed.

"Of course, of course," the old man said. He rushed through the door to one of the side rooms and disappeared, hurrying to get what was needed. Iolaus watched him go, then turned to see that Xena was already near the top of the stairs. He rushed up after her, hoping that there was something that he could do to help.

He opened the door cautiously, seeing Xena carefully lay Gabrielle on the large bed. The young woman moaned at the movement, still only half-conscious. He leaned the staff against the wall and walked up behind Xena, resisting the urge to look at the battered woman. He had seen many people injured before, many worse than his friend now, but it was always harder when it was someone you cared for. "What do you need?" He tried to sound composed, but his voice betrayed his true feelings.

Xena was silent for so long, he wasn't even sure she had heard him. Finally, she spoke. "My medicine pouch... It's in the saddle bags over there. Will you..." Her voice cracked, once again reminding him of the strength of her own emotions.

"I got it," he finished for her. He hurried over to the bags and began to rummage around until he found the black leather pouch. Looking at the worn leather, he wondered just how many times it had been used. He didn't like the lifestyle the young woman had chosen, but realized that it mirrored his own. He knew how much it would take for him to leave Hercules, and imagined it was at least the same if not more for Gabrielle to leave Xena. To her the price was worth it, and he knew if he were in her place he would feel the same way. He was shook out of his thoughts by a knock, or rather a kick, at the door.

He opened it carefully, just a crack, until he could see who was waiting. Hercules and Linus were standing there, arms full of buckets and rags. He opened the door the rest of the way and let them come in. Hercules set the buckets down near the bed, and the waiting Xena. Linus followed him, carrying a large basket full of clean rags and strips of cloth. "This is all I have for now. Let me know if you need more," he said. He gazed towards the bed, then quickly looked back down at the rags. "I also thought you may need this." He offered out a large skin full of some liquid.

Xena took it from him and undid the stopper. She sniffed the skin and the smell of very strong wine filled her nostrils. She recorked it and laid it down on the bed next to Gabrielle. "Thank you," she said quietly. Only then did he meet her eyes. The pain and anguish he saw hit the very core of his being. He quickly glanced away towards the other two men in the room. He saw from their eyes that she was not alone in her grief. He felt out of place in the room, and decided it was time to leave. He nodded to the trio of friends, then left, closing the door silently behind him. Xena picked up a small piece of cloth from the basket and soaked it in one of the buckets. She rung it out a bit before placing it gently against Gabrielle's forehead, her heart breaking at the small whimper that escaped the injured woman's lips. She proceeded to carefully clean the dried blood and dirt away from her friend's face. She was pleased to see that the damage was not nearly as bad as she had originally thought. The bruise on Gabrielle's forehead had spread to her left cheek, and though the cut had split open again it had not gotten much larger. If it didn't seal by itself, only a couple of stitches would be necessary. Other than that, she had only a split and swollen lip.

Hercules and Iolaus had been watching from the side. When Xena sighed in relief, they both let out a breath they did not know they had been holding. The larger man peered over the woman's dark head and saw that Gabrielle wasn't hurt nearly as bad as he thought. The dirt and blood had made the damage appear horrid, but once cleaned up, the wounds were not so bad. He smiled down at Iolaus, letting him know the truth. He watched as Xena started to undo the laces that held Gabrielle's small green top on, then stop and turn around to face the two men. She looked at them expectantly. Hercules cleared his throat nervously and looked back down at Iolaus, motioning for him to leave. Iolaus looked slightly confused, then realized what was going on. "We'll be in our room if you need us," he told her.

"Take one of the buckets and some rags and clean yourselves up," she instructed. Hercules did as told and walked across the room to the door that led to the adjoining room. Linus had given them two rooms that were attached to one another through a doorway on the side wall. Each also had a door that led to the hallway, but this way the friends would not risk being disturbed as much.

The large man closed the door behind him, then set the bucket down on the floor. He watched Iolaus pace for a few seconds before he got tired of it. "Sit down and let me take a look at that arm," he ordered.

The smaller man looked down at his arm as if seeing the wound for the first time. A sword must have scraped across his upper arm sometime during the fight. "I didn't even notice it," he said truthfully as he sat down on the edge of the bed. "With the fight, and Gabrielle and everything, I guess I didn't have time."

Hercules nodded his head in understanding. The wound wasn't serious, he could tell that from where he was, but at least it would give him something to do for a while. He grabbed a rag and wet it in the bucket. He proceeded to clean the wound and the area around it, then bandage it. He knew he was nowhere near as cautious as Xena was being with Gabrielle, but he also knew it wasn't necessary.

For his part, Iolaus remained silent. He didn't flinch even once the entire time Hercules was tending to the wound. His body was still numb from what he assumed was the aftermath of the recent battle, and his mind was racing through his head. He wanted to know who those men were and why they attacked. He wanted to get them back for what they had done. He wanted to know how Gabrielle was doing in the next room. Most of all, he wanted that none of this had happened.

When Hercules finished, the smaller man turned to his friend and said, "Okay, now it's your turn."

The larger man looked at him in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"Your arm, the splinters... That club wasn't exactly smooth you know." He lifted up the other man's massive arm and showed him what he meant. Sure enough, little pieces of wood poked through the skin. Neither one of them were worried about them, not when it was the son of a god they were talking about, but it wouldn't hurt to take care of them right away. Besides, Iolaus thought to himself, it would give him something to do. Iolaus carefully pulled out each splinter, then washed the general area around the wounds. He then took one last clean rag and wrapped it around his friend's upper arm. He shook his head inwardly. Under any other circumstances, he would have laughed at how the bandage had to stretch to fit around the massive biceps. He knew if Hercules flexed his arm just right, the bandage would burst. He remembered back to a time when he did just that... He shook his head to clear it. His mind was wandering again.

Now that the battle rush was dying down, the pain was back. It wasn't just his arm either, nor the other various bruises he received in the attack. His headache was back, and it had returned with a vengeance. He looked up at Hercules and saw concern in his eyes. He tried to wave it off with a smile, but he knew his friend didn't buy it. They had known each other for too long to hide anything from each other. They had also known each other long enough to know when to let it go, for now.

Iolaus decided to break the rather awkward silence. "I wonder how Gabrielle's doing?" he asked.

"Me too," Hercules agreed. "But I think we should wait a little longer before we check. Just in case... Well, you know..."

While Hercules and Iolaus had been tending to each other's wounds, Xena tended to Gabrielle's. After removing the top, Xena decided that the ribs were probably cracked. They probably hurt like Hades' horses had trampled over them, but they would heal with no problems. She would have to wrap them later; there was no way she could treat the back wounds if they were wrapped. She carefully rolled the younger woman over onto her stomach, positioning her head so that she would not lie on the bruises. It appeared that Gabrielle's back had taken the worse of the damage. Though it was only bruised, and rather severely at that, it was covered with small scrapes and cuts from the club. Xena also noticed many tiny splinters embedded in the skin. That was going to make her task more difficult, and add time. She painstakingly removed every splinter that she could find, knowing that there was probably more beneath the dried blood and dirt that coated her friend's back. Satisfied, she reached down to grab a bucket and some more rags to clean the skin and look for more. As she lifted the rag from the water, something caught her eye. Green eyes, staring back at her. She knew instantly that her friend had been conscious the entire time she worked. Gabrielle had never made a sound, though Xena knew how much pain she was in. The only sign of what she was feeling was the single tear that rolled down her cheek.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Xena said softly, soothingly. She brushed errant strands of hair from her friend's face. "I know this hurts, but I'm almost done. I wish I could give you something for the pain, but I don't want to risk it in your condition. You know I can't stand anything happening to you. It's going to be all right though, everything is going to be all right."

She tore her eyes away from her friend and continued her task. She washed Gabrielle's back as softly as she could, trying to get off the mess with out causing her friend any more pain. When she was done, she saw that she had been right. There were two small splinters left in her friend's back. She pulled them out as carefully as she could, instantly covering them with the soothing coolness of the wet rag. That was the other thing Xena noticed, Gabrielle was still very warm to the touch. It was too soon for that sort of infection to set in, and she had no idea what it could be. She sponged her friend down once more before pulling the cool cloth away.

"Gabrielle," she said softly, yet urgently. She watched as green eyes focused on her briefly. "Gabrielle, I have to clean the wounds. The water isn't enough; I don't want to risk them getting infected. Linus brought up some wine. I'm going to pour some on your back to clean it." She took a deep breath before she continued. "I'm not going to lie to you; this is going to hurt. But it is necessary, and you know that. You've helped with enough wounds to know that. When I'm done, it will all be over. I promise. Do you understand me, Gabrielle? I need to know you understand."

Gabrielle meekly nodded, but did not say a word. That worried Xena, but it was one in a long list of things she was worried about right now. She picked up the wineskin and uncorked it. She took a deep breath, then proceeded to slowly pour the liquid over her friend's wounds. Her eyes teared up as she watched her friend flinch away from the pain. The only sound that escaped the injured woman's lips was a sharp gasp followed by a deep breath.

Xena grabbed a clean wet rag and gently patted the excess wine away, listening as Gabrielle sighed in relief. She then took another larger piece of cloth and wet it. As she was about to place it over her friend's back, she heard a knock on the door. She didn't have to look up to know who it was. It was coming from the side door, and could only be the two concerned men.

Hercules peeked his head in the door and watched as Xena laid the cloth across a very red and bruised back. "Can... we come in?" he asked hesitantly.

A silent nod was his only reply.

Xena unfolded the blanket at the end of the bed and carefully tucked it around the injured woman. She looked into the green eyes wet with unshed tears and wished she could take all of the pain away. "Shhh, it's all right. The hard part is over now," she whispered, smoothing back the red-blonde hair from her bruised face. Over for Gabrielle perhaps, but Xena knew it was just beginning for herself. In her mind she had let her friend down, let her get hurt. She knew Gabrielle and the others would tell her it wasn't her fault, that she could have done nothing to stop it. But her heart told her otherwise. She had let her friend down, again.

"Xena?" The sound of Hercules calling her name called her back to reality. The large man looked down at the warrior woman and could only imagine what she was going through. Stress lined her face and her glazed eyes gave him a hint of the emotional torment she was going through. He knew how he would feel if it were Iolaus. Seeing your best friend hurt is never an easy thing, and he had a feeling a certain ex-warlord was taking it especially hard. "How is she?" he asked. He kept his voice low, not wanting to disturb the silence that surrounded the room.

The dark haired warrior ran the backs of her hands across her eyes, then returned her gaze to her charge, never once looking up at Hercules. "Not as bad as I originally thought," she answered honestly. She unconsciously played with a strand of Gabrielle's hair as she talked. "Her back seemed to take the most damage. She's got a few cracked ribs I still need to wrap, but the rest is mostly scrapes and bruises."

"And the rest?" he gently prodded.

She looked up at him for the first time. So, he does know. "I'm worried about the fever. It's hard to tell, but she seems unfocused. That could be the fever or it could be something else." She watched as he nodded his head, processing the information. Her eyes narrowed as she tried to keep her anger under control. When she spoke again, her voice was perfectly calm, which had a chilling effect. "How long has she had the fever?" He knew what she was really asking. "How long did you let her wander around the marketplace when she was this sick?" He knew that if he had just picked up on the signs sooner, all of this could have been avoided. They would have left the marketplace before they were attacked, and Gabrielle would not be where she was now.

"I'm honestly not sure," he told her. He ran his hands through his hair and turned to face the fireplace across the room. "She suddenly got really dizzy and asked if we could take her back here. I offered my arm for support, and that's when I noticed how warm she was. By then it was too late. We were surrounded."

"And you didn't think to protect her?" she growled. She no longer cared if they saw her anger. They knew it was there, they might as well see it.

"Hey, that's not fair!" Iolaus jumped in. He found himself faced with Xena's steely glare and almost wished he hadn't said anything. He mustered the courage he didn't know he had and continued. "We tried to protect her. We circled around, trying to keep them away, but we got drawn apart. One guy slipped in, one guy. I think that was their plan all along. By the time we got to her, the damage was done. Herc took care of the big guy and I tried to stop the others from finishing the job. We did our best."

"So did I," a weak voice spoke up. All attention turned toward the bed and the injured woman. It was the first time she had spoken since Xena had found her. It hurt like Tartarus to do it, but she wanted to remind them that she was there and that she to played a role in what happened. "I got a couple of good hits in too..." She paused and took a deep breath. Gods, it hurt. "But... too big. He was too big. Hercules stopped him though... Saved my life." She stopped as a fit of coughs racked through her body. She tried to raise her hand to her mouth, but her injured shoulder screamed in pain with the movement.

"Shhh," Xena said, trying to sooth the woman. She felt so helpless; there was nothing she could do. She couldn't even pat her on the back to help her clear the fit. Carefully, she pulled Gabrielle's arm back down into a more relaxed position, hoping to ease the pain just a little. "I know you tried, and they did too." She gazed up briefly at the two men. "I'm sorry. I had no right to yell..."

"You had every right," Hercules interrupted her. He knew the effect Gabrielle's voice had on him, and he could only imagine what it did to her best friend. "You care for her a great deal, we all do. If we could have done anything different, we would have. You know that."

"Yes, I do," the dark haired warrior sighed. "But it doesn't change what happened." No matter how hard she wanted it to, it didn't change. She looked up to the window, where she could see the sun near the end of its downward journey. It had been a long day, and she knew it was going to be an even longer night. "Why don't you two go see about getting something to eat? I'm going to finish wrapping up Gabrielle's back and take care of those ribs and find her something more comfortable to wear."

"Okay," Hercules nodded, knowing the women wanted some time alone. "Come on, Iolaus," he waved his friend to follow him. The two left the room, closing the door softy behind them.

Xena turned to the task that lay in front of her. She sighed, there was no point in putting it off, she had to do it. She cut several long strips from the remaining rags, then turned back to the bed. "I'm sorry," she said for what must have been the hundredth time. "There's no way I can do this without it hurting. It will be over soon though," she promised. She then set herself to the task at hand.

By the time she heard a soft knock at the hallway door, she had finished her job. It had been difficult, for both of them, but it was finished. Gabrielle now lay on her back on the bed, propped up by several pillows and wearing one of Xena's oversized shifts. It easily fit over the bandages, had gone on with minimal discomfort, and was comfortable to move in, though Gabrielle was doing relatively little of that. Xena had wanted her to lay on her side, felt she would be more comfortable that way. The bard had protested, saying the bruises on her back only hurt when she moved in certain ways and that this way she could see what was going on better. Xena had eventually given in. The bard's temperament was almost back to normal, and she didn't want to risk her blowing up again. In fact, Xena noted to herself, the bard was rather subdued. She talked little, other than subtle moans when she moved, and did not seem quite as focused as she usually did. Xena casually felt her skin, and was surprised to note that her fever had gone up. Whatever was wrong with her, it certainly seemed to be progressing quickly.

The knock repeated itself before she cleared her thoughts. "Come in," she called, knowing Hercules and Iolaus were waiting outside.

The door opened, and the two men entered, with Hercules balancing a large tray of food in his hands. Iolaus quietly shut the door behind him and watched as he found a spot on a table to rest the tray on. "I figured you'd be hungry," the larger man said as he began fiddling with something on the tray. "And knowing our friend, she would be too," he added with a smile. It was true, her body told her. She had not eaten anything since lunch and knew she needed more than that to get her through the night, and she suspected it was going to be a long night. But right now she didn't care, she had more important things to worry about. She wandered over to the table to look at what he brought, thinking of what Gabrielle might want. When she was sure she was out of the bard's hearing range, she whispered,

"Her fever is up." She said it quietly, but knew both men had heard it.

"Already?" Hercules whispered back, clearly surprised. He busied himself with making a sandwich, and tried to show no signs of what was going on, knowing Gabrielle was watching their every move.

"I'm worried about this... whatever it is she has," Xena admitted. "It's moving so fast... I've never seen anything like it before."

Hercules reached over and put a hand on her shoulder. "She'll be okay. We'll find a way to fix this." He put as much confidence in his voice as he could muster. Gabrielle wasn't the only one who needed help right now. Once again, he marveled at how much the former warlord had changed in such a short time. He watched the emotions play across her face. He knew how rarely she actually showed them to anyone, and now they were plain to see. He truly hoped they could find a cure for whatever it was, for both of their sakes. "Here," he said, handing her a clay pot and a spoon. Her attention changed from some obscure spot on the wall to what he was holding in his hands. "It's for Gabrielle," he answered her unasked question. "I figured she could handle soup better than anything else."

"Thanks," she said, accepting the pot. He knew she didn't just mean for the soup. He watched her walk back over to the bed and sit down on the side.

"You better eat something too, you know," he told her with just a hint of a warning tone in his voice. He was not going to let her brush him off either. He was one on a very short list of people that could do that. The only other person he knew for sure who could get away with it was currently lying on the bed on the other side of the room.

Xena mentally rolled her eyes at the man. She knew it wasn't an empty threat, exactly. She also knew that she would give in, but only after she was certain Gabrielle had gotten enough to eat. She looked at the woman who lay on the bed before her. She watched as the blonde struggled to focus her green eyes and how she fought each time they drifted shut. "Gabrielle," she said softly, but got the woman's attention. "Hercules brought some soup for you if you want it."

The bard tilted her head up a bit to look at Xena's face before answering. "Okay," was all she said, her voice sounding strained from the effort. She tried to reach for the pot, but was stopped by the sharp pain in her arm.

"How about I feed it to you?" Xena suggested, trying to keep her own voice from cracking. Every flinch from Gabrielle felt like a knife through her own chest. In her mind, she had failed her friend. She had failed to protect her, and this was the consequence. She moved closer and adjusted the rather awkward container on her lap.

"Great, just like a kid," Gabrielle moaned.

Xena interrupted her before she could continue. "No, like a talented young woman who has been hurt and knows her own limitations," she corrected. She raised her eyebrow to get her point across. Judging by Gabrielle's weak smile, it had. She spooned up a large amount and brought it to the bard's mouth, trying to be careful not to spill any on her. She had to admit this was not her strong suit, but her friend didn't seem to mind too much as she took the bite.

"Good," she mumbled, nodding her head slightly. She swallowed her bite and opened her mouth for more. Xena immediately complied. After several more bites, Gabrielle moved her good arm up slightly, in a halting gesture. She noticed Xena's worried gaze, and tried to explain. "Wa--" she started, but it didn't come out as planned. She set her face in concentration and tried again. "Water... Please," she requested.

Xena immediately reached for the waterskin she had left by the side of the bed, but it was not there. She looked up to see Iolaus pouring water from it into a small cup. She realized that she had been so focused on Gabrielle that she had all but forgotten the two men that were still in the room. He handed her the cup with the hint of a smile, knowing she hadn't been expecting him to be there. "Here you go," he said, then backed away from the bed. As much as he wanted to help, he knew Xena wanted to do everything for the young bard. Hercules and himself had made an agreement to help when possible, but to try to stay out of Xena's way and not interfere, unless it was for her own good. Hercules had added the last part, and would be the one to step in when she needed it.

"Thank you," she said before lowering her eyes back to her patient. She placed the bowl of soup on the bed and adjusted her position so that she could support Gabrielle's head while she drank.

The bard took the sips slowly, cautiously, even though her throat felt like it was on fire. Something in the back of her mind reminded her of the pain she felt during the last coughing fit, and she definitely did not want to feel that again. When she had finished, she looked at the cup expectantly. She started to open her mouth to speak, wanting to ask for more and hoping she could get the words out. It was not needed. Iolaus took the cup back and refilled it silently before returning it to Xena. She tried to give him a look of gratitude, but feared she failed with the massive bruises in the way. She took the sips a little faster this time, and when she was finished lay back on the bed and rested. She couldn't believe that simply drinking a cup of water could take so much out of her. Xena offered her more soup, but she shook her head. She wasn't up to it yet. Something was not right, and it wasn't just her injuries. They hurt, yes, but there was something else. That something else felt like fire coursing through her body. She had been hurt in an attack before, but she never felt like this. She tried to think back to when everything started to seem wrong. It was hard getting her mind to focus that much, but she had to do it. It started with those damn headaches, and then the dizziness. How it got from simple dizziness to pure pain she had no idea. She couldn't even remember how the headaches started. She was broken out of her reverie when she heard her friend's voice.

"Come on, Gabrielle," she was saying, stirring the spoon in the clay bowl. "You have got to try to eat more. You need to keep your strength up. Just a little more, that's all I ask." Xena was nearly pleading. To her, Gabrielle being able to eat was like a sign she had enough strength to fight whatever it was she was fighting.

Gabrielle shook her head; no longer able to keep the pain inside, her face showed clearly what she was going through. "Can't," she managed to get out, but her voice was weak. Her lack of strength was scaring her; she could only imagine what it was doing to her warrior friend.

"Gabrielle," Xena's voice came, insistent. She handed to bowl to Iolaus and moved closer to her injured friend. She unconsciously smoothed red-blonde hair away from the green eyes that were wet with unshed tears. "Gabrielle, what's wrong?"

"Hurts," was all the small woman could say. She closed her eyes and turned her head away, not wanting to see the worry in those blue eyes she had come to know so well. A gentle but firm hand turned her head back, and she slowly opened her eyes, but dropped them, not wanting to see her friend's face. That woman had been injured much worse than this before and made it through with hardly a tear shed. She never once needed anyone's help to do something simple like eat, though she occasionally accepted it when forced to. What she must seem like in the woman's eyes...

"Is it your back? I'm sorry I can't give you anything. I don't know how sick you are and I don't know what the herbs will do if I give them to you..." Xena's voice belied an emotional pain that rivaled the physical pain her friend was feeling. She wanted to say more, but was cut off by the bard shaking her head again.

"No," she said. "Inside." She was no longer able to keep back the tear, and they fell softly on her pale face. She knew she seemed weak, especially with the company surrounding her, but she could no longer help it.

"Where Gabrielle, where does it hurt inside?" Xena asked, trying to get some idea of her friend's condition. It angered her that she truly did not know what was wrong with her best friend. She knew the smaller woman was in intense pain, she could see her trying to hide it from her face, but yet she tried to seem strong, almost as if she was afraid of what the others would think. She could only imagine what she was going through, but she would have traded places with her in an instant if given the chance.

"Everywhere." It was more than a sigh than a statement, but she knew they would understand.

Xena was beginning to get frustrated. "Does it hurt any place more than others?" she asked, not sure if she would get an answer. Gabrielle nodded her head. "Where? Show me." Maybe it would be some clue as to what exactly this sickness was.

Gabrielle slowly untucked her good arm from the blanket. She used it to pull the blanket down to expose her other arm. Slowly, cautiously, she moved her injured arm slightly, tuning it as if to show something. Using her good arm once again, she pointed to a specific spot. It was an angry dark purple, and what looked like small tendrils snaked away from it under the skin.

Xena barely hid her gasp. Surely she would have seen that earlier when examining the wounds. All she remembered seeing was a large purple mark, darker than a bruise, just below the main injury on her friend's shoulder. She had figured that it either was a bruise, just darker than most, or some other minor injury. Now she wondered. She remembered seeing a mark there earlier, before all of this began. Only then it was red, like a bite of some kind. That was it! It was where Gabrielle had been bitten in the woods. She pulled the blanket down to expose the woman's knee. Sure enough, right above it was a similar mark of the same color. "Does this hurt too?" she asked, pointing to the strange infection. She feared she already knew the answer. Gabrielle nodded silently. Xena pulled the blanket back up around her friend and soothed back her hair once more. "It's going to be alright. We'll find some way to make you better, okay?" she told her as comfortingly as she could. Inside her mind was racing, she had never seen anything like this before. She only hoped she could find a cure for her friend's pain. She thought back to her visit with the apothecary's assistant. This was nothing like he said. If only his teacher could come back in time...


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