Disclaimer Xena: Warrior Princess and all the major characters are copyright Universal, MCA, and Renaissance Pictures. No infringement on their rights is intended.
VIOLENCE WARNING: This story depicts scenes of rather extreme violence and their aftermath. You might even say it is downright gory in spots. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
Okay, okay, so some of the herbs mentioned in this story don't grow in Greece. Maybe they grow in New Zealand, though!
This is one of my early Xenas stories. I think I got better. <G>
Gabrielle took a seat on the hard bench in the back of the chambers. It was dark, hot, and stuffy so staying near the door seemed like a good idea. She could slip out and get fresh air whenever she needed. The same wasn't true for Xena. The tall warrior stood at the front of the room explaining battle strategy to a beleaguered council of elders, only some of whom were happy to hear it. The townsfolk had crowded in to be a part of the genesis of the plan to save Pella from the warlord Ctesius and many of them piped up with their own opinions. It would make for a long night.
Gabrielle shook her head in wonder at the warrior's verbosity. Xena spoke to the men about what to look for in the face of an enemy, what to listen for, how to read the wind. She explained in careful detail the correct string tension for their bows so an arrow could pierce leather at fifty paces, how to pick up a wounded man, how to tell if a fallen friend was already dead. So many words, such vivid detail and meticulous descriptions. Gabrielle wondered why Xena so rarely shared that skill with her. But here, in time of need, Xena could speak at length to convince a skeptical group of men that her plan was the only viable solution.
Assured that Xena had them swayed, Gabrielle ducked outside. It was a clear night, the stars filling the sky above her. Having nothing to do but wait made her nervous, she longed to go for a walk but knew better than to travel passed the walls of the city as Ctesius' army lay in wait not far from the village. Instead, she strolled along the empty streets of Pella. Trying to imagine the village at its best, she saw only vendors' shops shut tight against the impending battle and felt keenly the absence of children's voices. At least they had been safely escorted to a neighboring village.
The large edifice in the town center had been hastily re-made into a hospital. As yet, there were few men there but Gabrielle knew that soon it would be filling up. She surveyed everything once again, noting the supplies of cots and blankets, bandages, food, and water. She hoped it would be enough.
The small room off of the hospital served as their temporary lodgings. Though she wasn't sleepy, Gabrielle made herself lie down. She and Xena had labored to make preparations since arriving the night before, neither had slept much since then. There was nothing to do but wait. Wait for Xena to return, wait for the battle to start, wait for wounded to come, wait for men to die.
Xena came in as quietly as she could and was surprised to find Gabrielle still awake.
"How did it go?" the bard asked her.
"Fine, I guess." Xena removed her weapons and lay them by the bed. "I'm afraid I'll need to show them everything step-by-step. They haven't had any experience in this."
"I say that's good. The people of Pella have led a peaceful life for a long time. We shouldn't begrudge them their good fortune."
Xena sat on the edge of the bed and let Gabrielle help her with her armor. "You're right, of course. I should remember that." She flopped onto the bed, still wearing her leathers in case she was needed in a hurry.
"Xena, I know it's hard leading such inexperienced men, but you'll be fine. And so will they."
"Well, I'm not so sure, but it is still nice to hear, thanks." She glanced over her shoulder at Gabrielle who was lying on her back staring at a spot of nothingness in the ceiling. "Hey, how are you?"
"Me? Fine." Gabrielle replied with a flat voice.
"This is always the hardest part." Xena saw Gabrielle's eyebrow's curl in question. "The waiting. You know something will happen soon, something you don't want to experience. Yet you know it's important that you're here, you wouldn't choose to be anywhere else." Gabrielle smiled at that and Xena knew it was true. "When it all begins, adrenaline takes over, responsibilities distract you, and you don't think about the whole picture very much. Being in it is often easier than waiting for it." Xena let a soft deep chuckle escape. "And knowing all that doesn't make it any easier."
"Now try to get some sleep." Xena gave Gabrielle's shoulder a squeeze before turning over. She thought about how much she relied on Gabrielle to keep her head on straight. Xena thought back to the horror she turned into fighting the Horde and vowed never to let that happen again. She would always pay attention to what Gabrielle had to say, not bite off her friend's head when she said it. A sound disrupted her thoughts, "Someone's coming."
Xena ran into the street, Gabrielle on her heels as a rider made its way toward them. Several people were shouting, demanding the rider stop, chasing the horse as it made its way into the center of town. The animal was wheezing and foaming from exhaustion, Xena knew whoever it was had traveled long and hard.
"Xena?" The rider, out of breath, was a woman. "Where's Gabrielle?"
Stepping out from behind Xena, Gabrielle replied, "I'm right here."
The rider jumped down, struggling to stand on weary legs, "My Queen, thank the gods..."
"Eponin?" Gabrielle caught her. "What's wrong? Is it Ephiny?"
Xena spoke up, "Maybe we should go inside." Xena helped the amazon in, glaring at the small crowd that had appeared around them. The villagers stared at the amazon who had ridden into their village right through their defenses. Xena spotted a man she recognized and shouted to him, "See to her horse."
Once inside, Xena asked "How long has it been since you rested, Eponin?"
"Didn't stop..." Eponin collapsed into a chair and took a water skin from Xena.
"You came all this way without stopping?" Gabrielle asked, astonished.
Eponin nodded, trying to regain her breath.
"Take your time, Eponin." Xena tried to sound soothing, but anxiety clearly colored her attempt.
Gabrielle couldn't wait. "What's wrong? Is Ephiny all right?" Gabrielle couldn't think of any reason the amazons would send for her unless she needed to resume her duties as their queen. She hoped it would again be temporary.
"Ephiny's fine. It's not us."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a worried, confused glance.
"Gabrielle, there's been an accident. It's your family."
"What...is everyone?..." Gabrielle reached out for Xena, but she was already there, putting a strong arm around her.
"When I left to find you, they were still alive. But it took a day for word to reach us and another day for me to get here." Eponin had considered just how to tell her queen the news and found there was no good way to do it but to be quick about it. "The wagon they were traveling in slipped and tumbled down a ravine. Your father climbed out and somehow managed to go for help. Your mother is going to be fine but there is concern for your sister."
"Lila..." Gabrielle found herself being lowered into a chair, Xena guiding her, still holding on.
"How bad is it, Eponin?" Xena needed to be direct as well.
"It took some time for help to reach them. They fear infection had set in too long before they got her to a healer."
Gabrielle looked at Xena. "I know you need to stay here, Xena, but I have to go."
Eponin offered, "I'll see her to the Amazon border."
"You need to rest before you start back, Eponin. Come with me." Xena led the amazon to a cot in a small alcove. When they were out of ear shot, Xena pumped her for more information, "Is there anything else?"
"Not really. I told her what she needs to know. Her father's legs were broken, his journey for help was long and arduous. Her mother had a head wound but was responding well. Lila's injuries were more severe. Apparently she was riding in the back of the cart. She was thrown and the cart landed on her at the bottom of the ravine in a creek. Several bones were broken, some splintering right through the skin. That's how the infection began. She's been fighting a fever and the healer has already tried most everything in her experience."
Xena knew the dangers of prolonged fevers. "Thank you for coming so quickly, Eponin. I know that bearing such news is difficult. Try to sleep."
"I'll take care of her, Xena."
Xena smiled and reached for Eponin's hand. "I know you will. Thank you."
Gabrielle was still slumped in the chair where Xena left her. The warrior tucked her hand under Gabrielle's arm to help her up, "Come on, you need to sleep."
"Xena?" Tears tracked down the bard's face. Xena led her back to their room, lay her on the bed, and held her while she cried. The warrior knew nothing could comfort her for days, not until she reached Poteidaia and found out whatever truth awaited her.
Early the next morning, Gabrielle collected her things and readied to leave, a sense of urgency pervading her thoughts. Xena split her time between preparing to battle Ctesius' army and lending support to her friend.
"You'll come as soon as you can?" Gabrielle asked for the umpteenth time.
"Of course, you know I will. Now finish up, Eponin is waiting for you. Oh and Gabrielle," Xena smiled at her, "take Argo, you'll travel much faster. She's saddled and ready for you." Gabrielle threw her arms around Xena, holding on for dear life. "Go now, I'll see you soon."
Gabrielle managed to mumble a thank you as Xena hoisted her up on Argo. Eponin's horse looked fit considering the circumstances, but their journey back would take considerably longer than Eponin's marathon of the previous day. Her horse wouldn't be able to take that pace, neither would Gabrielle.
"When you get outside the village, hug the wall around to the forest in back," Xena instructed them. "You can take a wide turn and go around Ctesius' army before heading north." She reached up and gave Gabrielle's hand one last squeeze before instructing the villagers to open the gate.
Gabrielle rode in silence while Eponin tried her best to distract her. "We've made some changes since you last visited, Gabrielle. The kitchen has been enlarged..." It didn't even draw a smirk from Gabrielle. "You remember Daphne and Dracene, the twins? They decided to enter the Royal Guard, said they looked good in blue. They are getting quite adept with their staffs. Perhaps you could show them a few moves."
Eponin kept up the banter for awhile, but she worried about her queen's condition. Gabrielle rode a little carelessly, lolling in the saddle. "Let's stop for a while. My horse it still tired." Eponin dismounted, "There's a stream just over there, the horses should drink."
Gabrielle followed suit, resting her arm over Argo's neck as the mare dipped her mouth into the cool water.
"Come, you need to eat." Eponin laughed, "I never imagined I'd say that to you!"
Finally, Gabrielle responded with a smile, "Sorry, I guess I'm not good company."
"It's okay, Gabrielle. You don't need to be." Eponin handed her an apple. "Xena told me you didn't get any sleep last night."
"Neither did Xena."
Eponin understood, "You're worried about her, too."
"Yes. And I wish she was here with me, though I never could have asked that of her. She's needed there to help an entire village." Gabrielle chewed a bit of apple.
"Don't think the decision was easy for her, Gabrielle. She did want to come with you, I could see it in her eyes." Eponin added, "I think if you had asked her, she would have come."
"Then I'm glad I didn't ask her." She shrugged her shoulders, "At least not in so many words."
Eponin tossed her apple core to her horse. "We should go. We'll have to stop early tonight so we should get as far as we can until then."
"Why stop? I thought we'd ride straight through."
"Gabrielle, I know you're in a hurry, but my horse needs a reasonable pace." She lied to the bard knowing the real reason was that Gabrielle needed the rest. Eponin gave her a boost up onto Argo and briefly Gabrielle wondered how she would mount the horse after Eponin left her at the Amazon border.
The amazon didn't bother to make much small talk the rest of the day, watching Gabrielle closely for signs of fatigue. When it seemed her queen struggled just to stay up on Argo, she looked for a spot to camp for the night.
It was different from setting up camp with Xena. That was a routine Gabrielle felt comfortable with, a routine she missed. She missed the sound of Xena sharpening her blades, she missed the quiet talk by the fire, she missed Xena.
Eponin made a bitter tea to accompany their dinner in the hopes it would help Gabrielle sleep better, but sleep would once again prove elusive to the bard. By the next morning she was thoroughly exhausted yet determined to get to the Amazon village by nightfall. Though Eponin stopped them frequently, by early evening when they arrived Gabrielle was on the brink of collapse.
Ephiny, Queen of the Amazons in Gabrielle's absence, personally put the bard to bed. She ordered the royal guards to call her if Gabrielle awoke then trudged off to see to Eponin.
"You're exhausted, too." Ephiny scolded Eponin.
"Yes, but I'm not worrying about the lives of my family. She may not sleep well for some time to come. I, on the other hand, intend to do just that tonight." Eponin relaxed in a warm bath.
"You will, Eponin. I'll see that you're not disturbed."
"Ephiny, if Gabrielle is not ready..."
"Don't worry, I have no intention of letting her leave until I know she can make it home safely."
A commotion woke Ephiny. It was late and dark, the moon had already set, but she could tell it was a contingent from the border patrol. Concerned, she hurried to them. In the middle of the group stood an enormous black horse, frothing at the mouth, stomping in anger. It was under the tight control of a tall woman. "Xena!"
The warrior jumped down and handed the reins to one of the amazon guards. "This horse has had it. Sorry to wake you, Ephiny."
"I'm glad you're here, Xena. Gabrielle and Eponin arrived just before nightfall. I hope they are both still asleep." She dragged the warrior to the dining hall and ordered food brought to them. "Have some wine, you look terrible."
"Thanks a lot," Xena replied sarcastically. But then she smiled and gratefully took a long sip of the wine. "I needed that. Tell me, how is Gabrielle?"
"Exhausted. Eponin is concerned, she said Gabrielle spoke very little on their journey and ate even less."
"Have you had anymore news about her family since the first messenger arrived?" Xena asked.
"No, nor did we send anyone to seek information. It was Gabrielle's cousin who came to ask us to find you. She was none too pleased to have to deal with us, just rode to the border, delivered the news, and took off as fast as she could. I get the impression that Gabrielle's family is not fond of us Amazons."
"Nor of me..."
"I understand. You took her away from home."
Xena corrected her, "She followed me, damned stubborn bard."
"That she is, Xena. That she is." Ephiny waited patiently for Xena to finish eating. "I guess to a family like hers we represent many things they don't like or understand."
"I guess so."
Ephiny stood, "Xena, even you need rest. Shall I have a room prepared?" Xena glowered at her making Ephiny's eyes sparkle in the pale light. "I didn't think so." She escorted Xena to the royal hut and watched as the warrior slipped in silently.
Gabrielle was tossing about in the bed, one leg hanging over the side, covers swaddled around her waist. She was murmuring something in her sleep, though Xena couldn't make out what it was. Quietly, she placed her weapons near the bed, no doubt unnecessary in the Amazon village but an old habit she didn't care to break, and unbuckled her armor. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she thought about letting Gabrielle sleep through the nightmare but she wanted the bard to know she was there for her. Gently, she shook her. Gabrielle responded with more thrashing, waking only when her flailing arms were caught in Xena's strong grip.
"Huh? Xena?" The warrior drew her up into a hug. Gabrielle let herself be swallowed by long arms, feeling some measure of security for the first time in days. Tears that had been threatening to fall came unbidden, for in the safety of Xena's arms nothing need lay hidden or unresolved.
Xena held her tightly, one arm around the small waist, the other cradling Gabrielle's head against her chest. The warrior was content to hold her as long as Gabrielle wanted her. It was a luxury Xena didn't often allow herself.
The crying dissolved and Gabrielle was able to speak, "Xena, I'm so glad you're here." She made a point to not pull out of their embrace. "How did you get here so fast?"
"I just speeded up the plan. Once those villagers found out you were an amazon queen, they were willing to do whatever I asked of them." Xena rested a cheek on top of Gabrielle's head, glad not to lose the embrace.
"Yeah, right," the bard grunted.
"No, actually it's true. They heard Eponin call you Queen, and the next thing I knew they were ready and raring to go."
"But you got here so fast and I had Argo."
"Well, I borrowed Ctesius' horse. Stocky war horse breed, did well getting here."
"You don't really want to ask, do you?"
"Never mind. Don't tell me."
Xena reluctantly broke their hold. "I know you've been dallying in bed for while, but would you mind if I got some sleep?" Gabrielle worried for a moment that Xena would leave, however Xena stretched out beside her, tucking her long body around Gabrielle's and throwing an arm over her protectively. They were both asleep in no time.
They slept much longer than they had intended to, neither stirring until well past dawn. Gabrielle woke to find she had turned over almost on top of Xena. Not wanting to embarrass her friend, she tried gracefully to move off only to discover Xena was laughing at her. "You could have rolled me over, you know."
"Nah, you looked too comfortable."
"Thanks." Gabrielle sighed, "Thank you for coming so soon, thank you for being here. I really needed you."
"And I needed to be here." Xena brushed an errant strand of hair from the bard's face. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I need to be home and yet I don't want to go. I'm scared, Xena."
"I understand. It's hard not knowing. Well, whatever awaits you, we'll face it together. So let's get going, eh?"
As they were about to leave the hut in search of breakfast, Ephiny came in trailed by a woman carrying a tray of food. "I'm glad to see you both slept. Gabrielle let me get a look at you." Ephiny took Gabrielle by the shoulders and looked carefully into her eyes. "You're still exhausted. I should make you stay here another day..." Gabrielle, arms akimbo, was about to register a loud protest, "...but I won't. I think I can release you into Xena's custody." Ephiny watched the corners of Gabrielle's mouth curl up in a reluctant smile.
"Ephiny, I would like to take a few things with me," Xena interrupted cryptically.
"Of course, Xena, whatever you want." Ephiny understood her to mean medicinal herbs, and indeed Xena headed for the healer's hut while Gabrielle sat down to a late breakfast with Ephiny.
Xena and the amazon healer packed a pouch with an assortment of herbs: skullcap, valerian, various mints, echinacea, black cohosh, and comfrey. Xena took some herbal oils since they need two weeks of solar infusion to make from scratch and there wouldn't be time for that. The healer also offered her a generous supply of beeswax for mixing salves. Xena thanked her and went to stow them in Argo's saddlebags before going back to the hut, thankful to have accomplished that task without the watchful eyes of the bard on her. She found Eponin in the stable, saddling Argo.
"So, Xena, I hear you tried to beat my record time between here and Pella." Xena gave her a warm hug.
"I think I did and remember, I rode on a horse just dragged off the battle field," Xena gloated.
"Yes and that horse won't be the same for a long time." They both glanced over at the dull-eyed steed. "You're both riding Argo, I take it?"
"No need to break the routine." Xena lovingly examined Argo and found her in good shape, well rested and brushed by patient hands. "Thank you, Eponin, and thank you to everyone else here."
"It is a time of giving among friends and family, Xena. It's the least we can do." Eponin caught a rare wistful look in Xena's eye. She turned away before the warrior exchanged it for a glare.
They said their good-byes and Gabrielle waited for Xena to mount Argo and give her a hand up. Instead Xena boosted her up first. A confused Gabrielle asked, "You're walking?"
"Nope, you're riding in front." Xena settled in behind her and reached around her for the reins. "I want to keep my eye on you." Gabrielle didn't complain, she let herself lean back into Xena, cradled by her best friend.
Twenty Amazons accompanied them to the border, a tribute fit for a queen, but they went no further. Xena and Gabrielle were finally on the last leg of their journey to Poteidaia. The path hugged the sea, sometimes disappearing into the sand and surf, only to rise above tall white cliffs. The smell of the sea has its own palette of flavors, and Gabrielle could taste it on the wind, she was nearing home.
She didn't remember falling asleep. Xena was helping her down, her legs stiff. "Sorry," she mumbled.
"It's fine. We're about halfway there, time to take a break." Xena let her lie down in a patch of warm grass, fragrant from wild flowers and the warmth of the sun. She was soon fast asleep again.
Xena watched her slumbering friend and thought about what was waiting for her at the end of the day. From what Gabrielle had told her, her father had never been sick a day in his life. Now he was laid up with two broken legs. Her mother would be forced to wait on him for every need for several moons until his bones healed and he re-gained his strength. The unknown factor was Lila. Gabrielle loved her little sister dearly and Lila idolized her in return. It would be difficult for Gabrielle to face her sister even if the news was good. With such terrible injuries, infection, and a fever, however, it was quite possible they were too late. Five days. Anything could have happened in five days. Xena hoped for the best.
A drowsy voice broke her train of thought, "Did I sleep long?"
"No, not long. Argo is still happily munching away." Xena brought her the water bag and some fruit. "You know what they say, eat when the horse eats."
"I don't think that's how it goes, Xena."
"Well, it's close enough."
"Xena," Gabrielle's tone was serious, "I've been thinking. You know, I might need to stay for awhile."
It was a notion Xena had avoided. Once she was sure everyone was out of danger, she knew she'd feel the need to move on, but Gabrielle would want to stay until her family's lives returned to normal, if they ever returned to normal... "I know."
The usual Xena response, thought Gabrielle. She decided not to push it any further. There were other, more urgent issues to deal with. "I think Argo's had her fill."
Xena took the hint and they got on their way. Late in the afternoon they passed the cut off to Olynthus, the last village before Poteidaia. Gabrielle grew more and more restless in the saddle, her stomach grinding into a knot. Xena put an arm around her and could feel Gabrielle's muscles tensing under her hand. She gave her a little squeeze and Gabrielle rested her hand on Xena's arm.
They rode into Gabrielle's village. Knowing neighbors waved in greeting but avoided saying anything to her beyond a pleasant hello and how are you. Gabrielle turned to Xena, "I'll come with you to the stable."
"Positive. Please." Gabrielle didn't want to walk into the house alone.
"Gabrielle!" A young boy ran down the street toward them forcing Xena to stop Argo for fear of trampling the lad.
"Hello, Eetion!" called Gabrielle. "Xena, this is my cousin Eetion. Eetion, meet Xena."
Wide-eyed, mouth agape, he gazed up at the sight of the fabled warrior on her famous mount. He looked back and forth between the Warrior Princess and his cousin Gabrielle drinking in the incongruity of two such different people astride the same horse.
"Hi ya, Eetion." Xena managed to sound cheerful, though she recognized that look. It was the dangerous look of adoration, no doubt fed by countless stories a certain bard might have told.
Finally the boy uttered one word, "Xena..."
"Wanna help me with my horse?"
Eetion reached up a small, dirty hand and took the reins from Xena. He gazed down at them and when his eyes came back to hers, he was grinning from ear to ear. Xena threw her leg over Argo's rump and plopped down next to him. When he realized just how tall she was, Eetion backed away slightly, but Gabrielle came around and gave him a big hug. "You be good with Xena's horse, okay? Her name is Argo and she likes apples."
"Sure, Gabrielle. Okay! I'll take good care of her." Argo followed her new master down the road, swishing her tail a little more forcefully than usual. Xena watched them go, a smirk growing on the right side of her face.
"I hope Argo can stand to be brushed for a few hours," piped up Gabrielle.
"I hope she doesn't get used to it." Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Shall we?"
The bard nodded and took tentative steps toward her house. Xena followed at her shoulder willing her to get it over with. They reached the door and Gabrielle hesitated, not knowing whether or not to knock. Xena leaned over and spoke softly in her ear, "You're home, Gabrielle." Gabrielle opened the door.
"Gabrielle, thank the gods." Gabrielle's mother grasped her daughter in a frantic hug. Xena slunk back slightly, shutting the door.
"We got here as soon as we could, Mother."
The older woman glanced up at the warrior trying to hide in the shadows. "Hello, Xena"
"Gabrielle, you look tired. Have you eaten anything? How long did it take to get our message? We've been so worried about you."
Xena began to see where Gabrielle got her gift for gab.
"I'm fine, Mother. Please, tell me...how's..."
"You're father is cranky as all get out, good thing he's asleep now. He's a tough as an ox, you know." Korinna rubbed her hands on the front of her apron.
"Lila?" the bard managed to ask.
"Oh she's...well...some days its better and then its worse again."
Xena let out a long sigh, surprising herself. At least she was still alive.
"Where is she? I want to see her," demanded Gabrielle.
"She's at the healer's. I don't know if you should go. It's bad, Gabrielle."
"Come on, I'm sure I've seen worse." Though Gabrielle tried to lighten the mood, it only made her mother stiffen and glare at Xena.
Xena finally spoke, "Maybe I can help."
"We have a perfectly good healer, don't you go worrying about that." Korinna's words were harsh.
Gabrielle intervened, "Mother, Xena is the best healer I've ever seen. Please, let her help."
Korinna narrowed her eyes at the warrior, then nodded, acceding to her daughter's plea. "I'll take you." The healer's hut was near the stable, a short walk from their home. It was a trip Korinna had made many times over the last few days, none of them with easy steps.
The healer met them at the door. Her weathered face was drawn as if she had been fighting battles with death for too many years--and losing too many of them. She was a tired woman and the frustration of fighting Lila's battle had clearly caught up with her.
They were led into a small room at the back of the house, kept dark and as quiet as possible. When Gabrielle caught of glimpse of Lila, she jumped back into Xena's arms, horrified. Her sister lay on white sheets, immobilized by bandages and splints. Some of the bandages were colored by a yellow puss oozing from infected wounds. Her face was swollen and bruised, a deep gash cut across her brow, another marred her cheek to the corner of her lip. Pale and damp from fever, she looked one step away from Hades' outstretched hand.
The healer dipped a cloth in water and wiped Lila's forehead. "Fever's back with a vengeance. Can't keep it down."
Gabrielle knelt by the bed and took her sister's hand. "Lila? Lila, it's me, I'm here."
"She hasn't answered to her name in three days, dear." The healer's cynicism ran deep. "I'll be in the other room if you need me." Xena followed the healer out of Lila's room.
"Perhaps I can help," Xena started.
"Who are you?"
"The name's Xena."
"Ah, the Warrior Princess. I know you. I doubt there's anything you can do, child," the healer shook her head.
Xena did not like being called child but thought it best to let it go. "Can you tell me what you've tried so far?"
"Well the leg was real bad. Bone through the skin. I got it set best I could, but she'd been laying in the water for a long time before I got to her. Infection set in right away. I had to stop the bleeding, stitch it up and work against the infection. Anybody else would be dead already but that family has a stubborn streak in 'em."
"Yeah, I've seen it."
"Take that Korinna. She should have been in bed but was up the next day making sure everybody else was okay. She's gonna keel over herself if she's not careful. But you asked about Lila. I've been putting salves on the worst of her wounds. I ran out day before yesterday, haven't had a chance to do anything about that."
"I brought some with me," offered Xena.
The healer perked up, "Salves? What do you have?"
"I'll go get my bag. Maybe you can get some rest tonight. You look like you could keel over, yourself."
Xena and the healer compared notes, and decided to try the black cohosh and echinacea first. The healer gently heated some of the beeswax until it was pliable enough to work the oil into it. Xena prepared the mixture of herbal oils for the salve.
"Have you been able to get any water down her?" Xena asked.
"Almost none and it's a struggle. I'm afraid it wears her down to even try." The healer handed the softened beeswax to Xena and watched as skilled hands quickly found the right ratio of oil to wax for a potent salve.
"She needs water. We'll have to get her to drink some teas as well, I'll see what I can do."
They walked into Lila's room armed with an assortment of sweet and bitter smelling potions. Gabrielle turned up her nose at the smells. "What have you got?"
"Oh, you name it, we've got it." Xena cheerily replied.
Korinna noticed just how small the room was with five people in it, particularly since one of them was Xena, so she made her excuses about going back to see to Gabrielle's father.
Xena hoped Gabrielle would follow her mother home. When she didn't, Xena dropped some hints. "Don't you think your father wants to see you, Gabrielle?"
"I'll see him, Xena. Mother can take care of him for now."
The healer lined up all of the bottles and rags and readied Lila for another round of medications.
"Aren't you hungry or tired or something?"
A little more sternly, "No, Xena, I'm fine."
Xena asked in a soothing voice, "Gabrielle, are you sure you want to stay?"
"Yes, Xena, I do." Gabrielle glanced up at her friend and caught her eyes. Xena knew she was defeated.
Gabrielle was determined not to let the horror best her. She wanted to be able to do something for Lila, she needed to do something to assuage her fears for her sister's life. Looking down at her little sister, knowing she had spent five days in fever and pain, was one of the most excruciating sights she had ever witnessed. Gabrielle had to admit that it was repulsive to see Lila that way, and she stubbornly fought the urge to flee.
Her thoughts turned to the scene of the accident. She imagined it happening, the helplessness they must have felt tumbling down the ravine. She thought of what her parents experienced when they realized how grievously injured Lila was. Gabrielle wiped the sweat from her brow and tried to think of other things before her stomach forced her to make a hasty exit.
Xena carefully unwrapped Lila's leg, taking care to jostle it as little as possible, and was hit with the stench of rotting flesh. She heard Gabrielle gasp behind her. Xena cleaned the wound gingerly, uncovering angry, bright red skin. "We need to leave this un-bandaged. It needs air." The healer eyed Xena skeptically, but was willing to give anything a try. "Look, the stitches are falling out where it is most infected. Gabrielle, I need rags dipped in water as hot as you can stand."
Happy for something to do, something to take her mind off the fact that it was her little sister on the bed, Gabrielle complied. Xena pressed the rags into Lila's leg, bringing out as much puss as she could. Lila moaned under her breath until Gabrielle grabbed her hand and spoke softly in her ear.
"Do you have cayenne?" Xena inquired of the healer.
"Of course, but..."
"It is a coagulant. It'll help stem the bleeding before I stitch it again. I want to leave it open as long as I can." While the healer was gone, Xena checked the bone carefully. "Good, she set it well. Not an easy job."
When the healer returned with the cayenne, Xena applied some to a hot, damp cloth, and placed it over the wound. Lila moaned again until Gabrielle quieted her.
The bared noted, "I've never seen you use cayenne before, Xena."
"I know, Gabrielle, that's because it stings like all Hades. Works well, though." Xena pulled back the rag and Gabrielle noted the bleeding had slowed considerably, before Xena put the cloth back.
Next Xena wet a rag with oil of black cohosh and worked it into Lila's bruises around her face and arms. "That should help with the swelling. It should be applied at least four times a day." She took the splint off of Lila's right arm and ran nimble fingers down it making certain the bone was set and healing properly. After spreading a salve of comfrey and goldenseal on it, she wrapped the arm in warm rags and replaced the splint. She applied the salve to her ribs, noting the deep bruises on her side and reached again for the black cohosh.
"Now, let's try to get some water down her. I'll pull her up, Gabrielle you sit behind her and hold her."
Xena pried open tender lips and let a little water dribble into her mouth from a skin. Reflexes took over and Lila swallowed, though most of the water trickled down her chin. Xena repeated the process several times until she was satisfied Lila had taken in enough water. Very gently, she lay her back down on the bed, careful to put her in a slightly different position than before. "Next time we use tea."
"I'm impressed," said the healer.
Blandly, Xena replied "Unfortunately I've had a lot of experience in this." Then she smiled at her, "Why don't you rest. I'll stay with her. I'll need to keep an eye on her leg." The healer thanked her and gratefully made her way to a bed she had seen too little of lately.
Gabrielle stifled a yawn, trying to hide it from Xena, "Sorry. And don't tell me I need to go."
Xena gave her the look. "You need to go. You haven't even seen your father yet."
"Okay, I can take the subtle hint. Are you coming later?" Gabrielle asked expectantly, though already knowing the answer.
"No, I'll stay. I can sleep on the floor."
"Your favorite place. You know where to go if you want a real bed?"
"Yes, thanks. No go home and get some sleep." Xena knew the look in Gabrielle's eyes too well. Turning her complete attention to her friend, she put her hand on the familiar shoulder. "You okay?"
"I think so."
Xena could feel Gabrielle shaking slightly under her touch, "Gabrielle, you've held up well, but you need to give some consideration to your own needs. You're exhausted."
"There's nothing you can do that will help your family more than to be rested for them." Answering the next request before it was offered, Xena added, "I promise I'll come and get you if anything changes."
"Just make sure you do. Thank you, Xena." Gabrielle gave a quick hug and made her way back home in the cool night air.
Xena worked through the night, sponging off Lila's hot forehead, reapplying herbs, infusing a comfrey, valerian, and mint tea. Though she did get Lila to take some tea, Xena mused it was much easier with Gabrielle's help. Just before dawn, Xena re-stitched Lila's leg with perfectly even, small sutures. She left the bandage off for the time being to let air circulate over the wound, anything to give Lila the chance to beat the infection.
Gabrielle woke with a start. "Where?..." Coming to her senses, she realized she was in her room, her own room. Technically it was Lila's room now, but they had always shared it. She dressed quickly and tiptoed down the stairs to see if anyone was awake.
"Well, little one, it's about time you got up!" A deep baritone greeted her.
"Father!" Gabrielle embraced the older man warmly. He was propped up in a chair, another chair placed across from him held his splinted legs up. "How are you feeling?"
"Oh, not bad. I kinda like all this attention I get from your mother."
"And she says not to let yourself get too excited, Pindar," Korinna called from the kitchen.
"Stop your fussing and bring our daughter something to break her fast."
"I can get it myself, father." Gabrielle lay a soft hand on his arm and kissed him on the forehead. "Don't tease her too much, she can't take it. I know, believe me."
Gabrielle marveled at the food they had, her green eyes questioning their sudden largess. "Everyone in town has brought us a dish of some sorts. Eat your fill, daughter. We've done our best and still have more than we can use." Her mother gleefully watched Gabrielle put away two apples, copious amounts of bread and cheese, a hunk of venison, two mugs of cider, and a small piece of sweet cake. "What's the matter, don't get enough to eat these days?"
"I eat plenty, mother. I just don't often get to indulge in gluttony." Gabrielle wiped a crumb from the corner of her mouth and considered divesting them of another piece of that delicious cake. "Xena thinks I eat too much."
"You look like skin and bones to me."
"Hardly skin and bones! See?" Gabrielle squeezed a bit of her belly between her thumb and forefinger capturing a very, very tiny amount of flesh. "Not quite, at least."
"Here, take this to your father." Korinna handed Gabrielle a mug of watered-down wine. Gabrielle regarded it inquisitively. "It takes the edge off the pain, dear."
The reality of the situation slapped her back to her senses. She snatched another piece of cake then dutifully took the potion to her father. His hands closed around the mug and he winked at her, "I have your mother convinced I need this."
Gabrielle considered him for a moment, "Do you?"
"Do I what, lovely daughter?"
"Do you need it?"
"Not really. The legs feel better every day. I get a bit stiff at night and the mornings are hard, but I'm fine, really."
Gabrielle hoped he was telling the truth. "Has anyone heard from Xena yet? I wonder how Lila is." Gabrielle glanced at the door as if she expected Xena just to walk right through it.
"No word this morning." Pindar told her, adding seriously, "And I take that as good news."
"I'm going to go over there. Be back soon." Gabrielle popped up.
"Let your mother know where you're going." The bard stopped dead in her tracks. "Humor her, little one. She needs to know she's in charge."
Gabrielle wasn't quite sure she knew what he meant. Still, she went to speak with her mother. "I'm going to check on Lila and see if Xena needs anything." Gabrielle saw her mother's jaw grind at the mention of Xena's name. "Xena did a lot for her last night. I'm sure she's much better."
"We have a perfectly good healer," Korinna grunted.
Gabrielle stood with her hands on her hips, "Is there something wrong, Mother?"
"No, nothing at all. We just shouldn't depend on outsiders, that's all."
Something in Gabrielle snapped. "Xena is not an outsider. She's family!"
"Family, eh? Since when is she family? Family comes to visit, family doesn't run out on you, family is there when you need them!" The color in her cheeks stood out in stark contrast to her pale skin.
Gabrielle knew the words were directed at her as much as they were to Xena. She was so angry she couldn't reply. She just spun on her heels and headed out the door.
"Korinna?" Pindar called. "Korinna, what did you say to her?" He waited, then raised is voice. So seldom did he do that, he almost did recognize it as coming out of his own mouth. "Do you want me to come in there and get you or are you going to tell me what you said to Gabrielle?"
Korinna came to him, tears in her eyes. "I just don't want to lose her again, Pindar." She dabbed at her face with the end of her apron.
"Lose her? What do you mean by that?" He softened his voice, reminding himself that these days had already been made too difficult to bear with grace. "We haven't lost her, my dear."
"We never get to see her. She's always off on some foolish and dangerous crusade with that Xena. And she thinks Xena's family...what are we, then?"
"Come here, my dear. If there are times when these legs are maddening then it is now when I can't comfort you without you coming to me." Korinna softened under the kindness of her husband and let her tears flow. He lay his palm on her waist and kissed her gently. "Korinna, my love, if she says Xena is family, then she is. She means our family, not just hers."
Between sobs, Korinna finished explaining herself, "I know, but if Lila...and then Gabrielle leaves again...I don't...what will we do?"
"Well, that's not going to happen. Lila will be fine and we can't expect Gabrielle to stay."
"But this is her home!"
"Of course it's her home, she knows that. She just doesn't live here, Korinna."
"She doesn't live anywhere. She just travels with Xena."
"If it hadn't been Xena, it would have been someone else. She was bound to take off on her own. She's got a lot of you in her, my love. You're both strong-willed, bull-headed, and the loves of my life. So, let's just be happy it's Xena, and not some damned fool idiot, okay?"
Korinna muttered under her breath, "I don't trust her."
"That may be, but Gabrielle does." An idea occured to him, "Why don't you get to know her while she's here?"
"Xena? Get to know Xena? How? She won't talk to me."
"I wouldn't talk to you if you treated me the way you treat Xena." Though he tried to be gentle, the irony stung her.
"I'll try. You win," Korinna admitted defeat.
"That's a rare one!" The twinkle in his eye stopped her in mid-slap. Instead, she gave him a kiss and returned to the kitchen.
Gabrielle willed her anger away as she walked to the healer's. She found Xena dozing in a chair by Lila's bed. "I thought you said you'd sleep on the floor."
"I wasn't going to sleep." Xena croaked, her voice betraying the weariness she felt.
"Xena, I know you didn't sleep much last night, nor the night before at the Amazon village, nor even the night before that in Pella. I'm going to take you home and put you to bed!"
Xena ignored her and paid attention to her patient instead. She put her hand on Lila's forehead. "Better."
Gabrielle lowered herself onto the bed, "Did her fever break?"
"No, but it's down. I think she'll be coming around soon. Help me get some more tea in her before we go." Xena repeated the routine from the evening before and Gabrielle slid in behind her sister. "This is much easier with you."
Xena patiently dribbled tea into Lila's mouth, wiping away any that spilled, Gabrielle admiring Xena's gentle touch. "Xena?"
"For not spilling any on you?" Her blue eyes teased Gabrielle.
"No, Xena. For taking care of Lila."
"She's going to be fine, Gabrielle."
"I know. Thanks to you." Gabrielle smiled at her.
"Well, I don't deserve all the credit."
Gabrielle sat back and enjoyed the comfort of Xena's company. She was so much easier to be around than her parents. That thought made her laugh a bit and she looked up to see Xena's raised brow. "Nothing, just thinking..."
Xena knew she didn't need to respond. After she placed a few more sips of tea in Lila's mouth, she asked Gabrielle. "How are your parents?" Xena caught a trickle of tea running down Lila's chin with a cloth.
"My father's okay. Says he gets stiff at night and that its hard to get going in the morning."
Xena looked, up waiting for Gabrielle to continue. "And?"
"And Mother is testy."
"Ah, I see." Xena put the tea aside. "Run-in with your mother?"
Gabrielle helped Xena lay Lila back on the bed. Gabrielle plumped up a pillow before putting it under her sister's head, then ran her hand over Lila's forehead. "She looks a lot better."
"Don't want to talk about it?" Xena asked.
"Your mother doesn't much like me, does she?"
Xena's sly look told Gabrielle that the warrior's perception was too keen to ignore. "Oh Xena, I don't know what to say." Gabrielle's hand automatically reached for Xena's arm. "I just want to knock some sense into her."
"I don't think that's going to help."
"I suppose not."
Xena abruptly changed the subject, "A real bed sounds nice."
"Come on, my warrior. I'm taking you home."
Xena spoke briefly with the healer on their way out, instructing her to keep the regime the same and to call for her if she needed any assistance.
This time both Xena and Gabrielle were reluctant to enter the house. They looked at each other and shrugged, Xena opening the door and pushing Gabrielle in before her. Startled, Korinna jumped when they stumbled in. "Sorry, Mother."
"No, no. It's fine. I just didn't expect you back so soon. How's Lila?"
"Much better! Xena worked wonders!" Gabrielle enthused.
Korinna held Xena's eyes, "Thank you, Xena. Now, you look like you haven't slept, have you eaten? What would you like? Did Gabrielle tell you we have enough food to feed the Athenian Army? Come in the kitchen with me and I'll get you something before you have a nap. I seem to remember you like port..."
An astonished Xena followed Korinna into the kitchen. Gabrielle, astounded herself, went to her father, "She could have at least let her say hello to you."
"Don't question her methods, Gabrielle. She's trying."
"What did you say to her?" Gabrielle eyed the door to the kitchen, longing to know just what was going on behind it. She knew who was doing most of the talking and worried about what was being said.
Her father shook his head. "None of your business, little one."
By the time Gabrielle wandered into the kitchen, her mother had managed to make Xena eat almost as much as Gabrielle had had for breakfast. Xena was looking bloated around the edges when Gabrielle dragged her off to bed.
Xena eased her tall frame into the bed, wincing as she bent at the waist. "You mother talks more than you do," she groaned, trying to get comfortable on a full stomach.
"You didn't think I picked up the habit from traveling with you, did you?" Gabrielle teased.
Burying her head in the pillows, Xena murmured, "Hardly. Ugh, I'm never going to eat again."
"You'll sleep it off, I always do." Gabrielle made a bee-line to the kitchen, caught her mother in a hug and gave her a kiss.
"What's that for? Now get out of here, young lady, I have work to do!" Though her words were stern, the glint in Korinna's eye gave her away. Gabrielle left her mother to feel good about herself in peace.
It was well into the afternoon before Xena stirred. Though she was still tired, she forced herself to get up. A nagging worry tugged at the back of her mind, an unanswered question. She put it aside when she heard Gabrielle's sweet voice carrying into the room. The curious side of Xena coaxed her to the door, listening before opening it. Gabrielle was recounting one of their adventures, this one about slaying Gareth, "...the biggest, meanest, badest giant that ever walked the face of the Earth..."
Xena eased the door open a crack. Gabrielle was reciting for an audience of one, her mother was nowhere in sight. Relieved that the threat of being force fed again was lessened, the warrior made her way into to the room.
Gabrielle's father laughed in his deep hearty baritone. "Flying parchment? Oh Gabrielle, how do you think up such outrageous stories?"
"I didn't make it up...Xena! Tell Father it was all true," the bard begged.
Xena, as unconvincingly as possible, said "Yup."
Pindar regarded her warmly. "Xena, it is good to see you." She went to him and kissed his forehead gently. "Gabrielle has been filling me in on what you've been doing."
"I'm sure she has," with a grin to her friend. "How are you feeling, Pindar?"
"Pretty good, thanks. My daughter has been keeping me occupied with remarkable tales. You do lead an...interesting life."
Gabrielle butted in, "Mother is with Lila, can I get you anything to eat, Xena?"
Xena held up her hands to stop her, "No, no, please. No more food!" She could hear Pindar chuckling under his breath.
He recovered and said more seriously, "Xena, Gabrielle tells me you did a great deal for Lila. Thank you."
"My pleasure, Pindar. I should go see how she is. Wanna come?"
Pindar turned away. "No. I...haven't been yet."
Gabrielle was shocked. "Father, you haven't seen Lila? Why?"
He spoke slowly, forcing the words to come, "I refuse to be dragged across this village in a...a litter!"
Gabrielle couldn't believe it was her own father talking, "You can't be serious. No one will care, Father! I know you want to see her."
"Of course I do. But a man's dignity..."
Xena announced, "Pindar, I have an idea."
A short while later, Xena burst back into the house, looking quite proud of herself. She was dirty, covered in sawdust, and triumphant. She strode to Pindar and asked, "Would you be willing to go out under your own power?"
"And what does that mean?" his suspicious eyes locking on hers, ready for a tale as outrageous as one Gabrielle might spin.
"I thought about how you could get around in a cart, but size was a problem when it came to mobility. So, I figured it needed to be smaller, say the size of the chair you're sitting in." Xena went to the door and brought in her project. "See, it is a chair with a cart's wheels attached. You can sit in it and turn the wheels with the strength of your own arms." Xena sat down and rolled over to him to demonstrate. Then she held one wheel firmly and rotated the other, quickly spinning around in a circle. "Not bad, even if I say so, myself. Want to try it?"
Gabrielle thought their smiles would light the known world. The two women helped Pindar into the chair. He tested the wheels, rolling them back and forth just a little. Then with a great cry, he pushed with all his might and careened across the floor, knocking over a small table and turning just in time to avoid crashing into an armoire. "Whee! This is fun!"
"Father, perhaps you should take it easy." Running after him, Gabrielle grabbed the chair and tried to rein in her father's penchant for destruction.
"Don't take all the fun out of it, little one. Now, who would like to accompany me to the healer's hut? There's someone I need to see."
When Pindar rolled in to the healer's hut, Korinna couldn't believe her eyes. "Where did you get such a thing?"
"Xena made it for me. What do you think?" Pindar cocked his head up in a royal display and waved his hands over the chair as if to point out every magnificent detail.
"I think I've never seen anything like it!" Korinna helped him maneuver into the back room, not before tossing a sly wink Xena's way. The healer just shook her head incredulously, and scampered away. Gabrielle and Xena silently agreed to let Korinna and Pindar see Lila in private. A short while later, Korinna came out for them. "She's much better. The fever broke, thank the gods." And thank Xena, thought Gabrielle.
Xena carefully examined all of Lila's wounds. She was pleased they were on their way to healing. The leg looked better, but to Pindar who was seeing it for the first time, it was the most gruesome sight he had ever seen.
The day's exertion was catching up with him, even though he refused to regard himself in recovery mode, it was the first time he'd been out of the house since the accident. His pale face and dark eyes gave him away. Xena suggested she wheel him back, an offer he was begrudgingly willing to take her up on.
"You go on ahead, I'm staying with Lila." With the extra help, Korinna felt less torn between nursing duties, and took the opportunity to stay with her daughter. "Gabrielle?"
"I'd like to stay, too, If I may," she said meekly, hoping Xena wouldn't mind.
"Come on, Pindar." Xena grabbed the back of his chair and pushed him out the door.
As they crossed the village streets, Pindar threw his head back and laughed, "Just imagine it. Me, Pindar of Poteidaia, being wheeled around by the Warrior Princess!"
"Yeah, well don't get used to it big guy," chortled Xena.
"Maybe you could attach some of that flying parchment to the back of this thing and we could let the wind do all the work."
"Gods, you're worse than I am." Xena flung him in a wild circle until he laughed so hard he clutched his sides.
"Okay, enough, enough! If you wear me out completely, Korinna will never speak to us again."
Xena leaned over as she continued their way home, "About that, Pindar, thanks."
"Korinna is a good woman, Xena. She's just overly concerned about who spends time with her daughters. Always has been. And I can't say I've ever tried to change her mind."
"Well, it seems you did today," Xena countered.
"No, Xena. You did. I just asked her to try."
Once back home, Xena transferred him to his old chair. He was taken aback that she could lift him so easily but tried to hid his surprise. Xena caught the look anyway and chose to ignore it.
Settling back on her heels, Xena let that nagging worry surface again. "Pindar, do you mind if I ask you some questions?"
"Of course not, Xena. But bring an old man some wine, would you."
Xena brought back two mugs of wine and a decanter for refills. "I'd like to ask you about the accident. Do you mind talking about it?"
Pindar shuffled his hips back in the chair, "It's always hard to talk about such things, but I understand the value of it. No, I don't mind. What do you want to know?" He took a long sip of wine, a smile increasingly growing as he tasted full-strength wine for the first time in days.
Xena pulled up a chair and scooted a table over next to them for the wine to be easily within reach. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, "Don't worry, I'm not trying to get you drunk. I would like to know how the accident happened."
"It's a funny thing, Xena. I'm not really sure. The cart just slid down that ravine. Later, when they pulled it out, they told me the axle was damaged. That was the probable cause. I confess I don't always check the undercarriage before setting out on a journey."
"What about the horse?"
"Funny about that, too. Everything sort of fell apart and he was able to squirm free, once I let go of the reins, of course. He's fine. Down in the stable."
Xena chewed her bottom lip. "Did they bring the cart back here?"
"It's in the shed out back. Isn't that where you designed my lovely new means of transportation?" He gazed over to his new chair. "It is quite remarkable, Xena."
"Thanks, but to answer your question no, I didn't go to your shed. I went to a neighbor's to build your...ah...chair-thingy."
"Why all the questions, Xena?" Pindar regarded her curiously.
"Not sure, just a funny feeling. I'm going to have a look at the cart. Do you want anything before I go?"
"Top off this mug, would you?" He leaned toward her, mug outstretched, until she re-filled his mug. Xena took the decanter back into the kitchen and reminded him, "Just call if you need me, I'll be able to hear you," before stepping outside.
She found the cart, splintered and battered almost beyond recognition. It was a wonder they'd even survived. Xena hunted for the axle, tossing aside large sections of debris, finally locating buried beneath several floorboards from the cart. They were right, the axle had been damaged. It had broken in two, fractures running well back on both pieces. Turning the pieces around in her hands several times, she studied them, searching for something. They didn't look quite right, but she couldn't put her finger on it. Then she saw it: the axle had cracked right through a huge knot, and that part of the crack was perfectly straight. Looking closer, she could see a series of very tiny lines, marks left by the pushing and pulling of a blade. It had not been an accident. Someone had sabotaged the cart to gave it the appearance of an accident. One question answered left two new ones: who and why.
Pindar noted the concern on Xena's face, "Find anything interesting?"
"I think so." Xena wasn't sure how he would react to the news of attempted murder so she eased into the subject, "Pindar, is there anyone who is upset with you?"
"What do you mean," he asked truly not understanding the question.
"I mean, is there anyone who might want to hurt you and you family? Anyone who has a grudge against you?"
"Xena, what are you saying?"
"The axle was tampered with. It looks as if someone cut into the axle to weaken it, making sure that it would break out on the open road."
Pindar turned a few shades paler. "You mean someone did this to us?"
Xena tried to reassure him it was just a guess, "I'm, not certain. I'm just wondering if you can think of anyone who is upset with you."
Pindar took her request seriously and though for several moments. "No, Xena. I can think of no one who would do this."
"Well, perhaps it was all a mistake." She new she hadn't quite smoothed his misgivings, but she also realized no answers lay within Pindar's grasp. She made her excuses and went to see to Argo, seeking the company of her horse once again to help sort through a jumble of ideas.
The great mare was happy to see her, snorting and shoving her nose in the warrior's long neck. She stomped a front foot until Xena relented, "Fine, we'll go for a ride. Don't you get testy, too." The simple acts of throwing the saddle blanket over the tall back, heaving the saddle up and tightening the straps that held it securely always reduced the tension she carried. Today was no different. She eased her horse down the main street and broke into a full gallop as soon as the made their way to a field.
Gabrielle and her mother sat at the foot of the bed, not saying much to each other. Korinna held Lila's hand, often reaching up with her other hand to pat the girl's forearm, then winding it to Gabrielle's shoulder, sometimes rubbing it against the bard's cheek first.
"She's going to be fine, Mother."
"Yes, I guess so. Still, after all these days of not knowing..."
Gabrielle understood the unspoken criticism. "I got here as quickly as I could. You were right to go to the amazons. They found us right away."
"Amazons, warlords. Child, what are you doing with you life?" Her Mother's voice half pled for an answer, half willed away the truth, too horrified to face it.
"I'm living it, Mother. I've done some wonderful things, and with Xena's help made a difference in many people's lives. Do you know what it's like to make a difference like that?" Gabrielle kept the edge out of her defense, wanting only for her mother to understand her, to come to terms with who she was, and still to love her for it.
"I make a difference to the people I love," her mother retorted. "But you, you travel with a warlord, you're an Amazon Princess, I don't even know who you are anymore."
"Xena is a former warlord, an important distinction I might add. And I'm not an Amazon Princess, I'm...ah...Queen."
"What?" Her mother's face flashed in anger, then melted into astonishment.
"Queen. Queen Gabrielle. It's kinda funny to be called that, but it's true. Ephiny rules in my absence, which is most of the time actually. It all happened when Xena died...oh, this is going badly. It's a long story, and you know how much I would love to tell you, but I don't think this is really the time or place to do it."
"My daughter's a queen?" Suddenly, Gabrielle found herself trying to breathe, encased in an enormous hug from her proud mother.
Once released, Gabrielle hung her head, "Sorry. I guess I should have told you that. There is a lot I should have told you. But I have most of it in my scrolls. Would you like to read them?"
"I'd rather hear you read them. And I know your father would agree." Korinna got up to retrieve the water bag from the night stand.
"Me, too." A small voice barely whispered.
"Lila?" Gabrielle and Korinna said in unison.
Lila fluttered open her eyes. "Queen?" she croaked hoarsely.
"Lila, you're awake!" Korinna fell to her knees by the bed, put her warm hand on her daughter's forehead and kissed her gently. "We've been so worried." Tears coursed down Korinna's face triggering them to flow from Gabrielle's eyes as well.
"Lila, can you drink something?" Gabrielle took the water bag from her mother and put one hand behind Lila's head, slowly bringing it up to drink. Lila took several swallows. "Is the pain bad?"
"Hurts everywhere." Lila managed.
"I'll ask the healer to make some valerian tea. That will help. Be right back." Gabrielle jumped up to find the healer. She was in the kitchen, already one step ahead.
"I thought she looked much improved. I just need to heat this, infused some tea for her this afternoon." The healer brought a pan over the fire and waited for it to draw warmth from the coals. Her back to Gabrielle she admitted, "That friend of yours is a good healer."
"Xena? That she is, and a good friend, too."
"You're a lucky one, Gabrielle." When she turned to the bard, a wistful expression covered her face. She took the tea off of the fire and poured some into a mug, handing it to Gabrielle without saying more.
Gabrielle regarded the healer's mood, "Xena said you did a good job setting the bone. It was a nasty break." The healer nodded her head in thanks, then shooed her away to deliver the hot drink.
Lila drank the tea, commenting on how soothing the warmth felt against her dry throat. She was soon again asleep, and Gabrielle reminded her mother it was best she sleep through the worst of it. She sent her mother home to prepare what would now be a late dinner and to see to her father. Gabrielle intended to take the night shift, and told her mother to let Xena know her bed would be free.
Xena rode with abandon. She hadn't paid attention to how cooped up she'd been feeling, and now the freedom of Argo's long strides under her unleashed a bit of the wild Xena. The pair sloshed in the surf, kicking up water and leaving short-lived prints in the wet sand. As the sun set, Xena reluctantly turned back toward Poteidaia and realized with some guilt that it would be a long ride.
It was late in the evening when Xena brought Argo back to the stable. She started to unbuckle the saddle, preparing Argo for a well-deserved brushing mixed with some moments of pampering and maybe an apple or two. A tiny, frightened whimper distracted her. Peering around the darkened stalls, she followed the sound. A young boy was huddled in the hay, shivering and sobbing softly. "Eetion? Aren't you Gabrielle's cousin?"
The boy backed away from her, hiding his head in his hands.
Gently, Xena held out her hand toward him, "What's wrong, Eetion? You can tell me."
"Xe...Xena, I...so scared." Eetion's breathing was shallow and quick, he had difficulty speaking he trembled so.
"Everything will be fine. Come, tell me about it." She extended her hand a little farther, but didn't reach to touch him. Eetion gingerly moved toward Xena, pulling back as often as he made forward progress. Then in one fell swoop he ran into her arms, sobbing. "It's okay, just tell me what happened."
"Ga...Ga..." More sobbing. "A man ca...came in...I ran...scared."
"No one's going to hurt you, Eetion. What man? Where did he come?" Xena coaxed information out of the boy.
With that, Xena was completely alert. "Eetion, please tell me what happened. Is Lila okay?"
"The man...he had a big sword..." Xena started to get up to go to the healer's hut but Eetion grabbed her. "Gabrielle. He took Gabrielle."
Xena scooped the young boy into her arms and ran to the healer's hut, her muscled legs taking huge strides. She found the healer unconscious on the floor near the door. As she bent down to see to her, Eetion squirmed out of her arms, "Don't make me go in there!"
Xena looked over her shoulder and saw that he meant Lila's room. "It's okay, you don't have to go in there. Will you wait here for me, please. Eetion? It is very important that you wait here for me." The boy bobbed his head up and down.
Xena ran in, horrified at what she found. There was blood soaking the bed. A gash had re-opened on Lila's face, it was bleeding profusely, but there was a much bigger cut in her side and that worried Xena. Working quickly, she stitched the wound, applying a slave to stem the bleeding. That finished, she started back to the other room to talk to Eetion, remembering to wipe the blood off her hands before going to the traumatized boy.
He was curled up in a chair, rocking back and forth. Xena kneeled down by him, making no move to touch him, for fear he would recoil from her. "Eetion? Eetion, Lila will be okay. I know it looked bad, but you did well telling me and now she will be fine."
A moan from the other side of the room told Xena the healer would be regaining consciousness soon. She spoke again to the lad, "What can you tell me about that man. I know it's hard, but I really need your help now."
Eetion seemed to be encouraged. The idea of helping an idol calmed him, and he was better able to explain. "Gabrielle let me come and see Lila. She was awake but not talking very much. Then a man came in. He was big and ugly and smelled bad." His nose turned up reflexively. "Gabrielle pushed me down under the bed so I couldn't see much. Lila screamed, and I heard...a squishy sound." Xena was sickened at the innocent description of Lila being stabbed. "I think Gabrielle was hitting him, but then she was on the floor, too. There was blood. I scrunched up and he didn't see me. Then he took Gabrielle."
Xena's mind reeled. "Thank you, Eetion. You are a brave boy. What else can you tell me about the man? What was he wearing? What did he look like?"
"He looked like a warrior. He had a big sword. He had long hair, it was hard to see well. I think he looked like a skunk."
"A skunk?" Xena asked. "You mean his hair?" Eetion nodded. "Did he have a streak in his hair?" Eetion nodded. Gently, she took him by his shoulders. "Okay, this is important. Was there anything different about his sword. Show me where he wore it." Eetion touched Xena's scabbard then let his hand trail down to her waist. "No, not right," he mumbled to himself. Then he pointed to Xena's left side. "There. Kinda like a mirror."
"He was left-handed!" She drew him into her arms, "Thank you, Eetion. I think you just saved Gabrielle's life. Now, run and get Pindar and Korinna for me. Tell them to come here. Hurry!" Eetion scooted out into the night.
Xena stooped to help the healer regain her feet. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I think so. Head hurts, I'll be fine." The healer waved off Xena's attempts to support her.
"Can you see?" Xena asked her.
"Not bad, not too fuzzy." The healer grabbed Xena's arm, "Lila?"
"I patched her up, but it was a fast job. She'll need to be watched carefully. I've sent for Korinna and Pindar, they can help you here. I need to go after Gabrielle." The healer threw her a confused glance. "Eetion told me the man who stabbed Lila took Gabrielle."
The healer patted Xena's arm, "Go child, I will see to Lila."
Melanchros. It was a name Xena had not uttered in many years, a name as dark as Tartarus, tinged with old anger and guilt. She remember too well a battle fought not far from Amphipolis. Her army was young, many not yet well trained. Still they fought with the fury of their leader, one bent on revenge.
Melanchros had attacked Amphipolis carelessly, his advances were easily thwarted by the villagers. Too easily, Xena remembered. She heard of the attack a day later when a traveler passed one of her soldiers on the road. When all was said and done there were only minor injuries. And one missing person. Her young cousin, Erinna, only twelve summers at the time, had not been seen since Melanchros' raid.
Xena took her army to meet Melanchros, to find out if his reputation for raping and murdering young woman was true. To her dismay, it was, for she arrived too late. Many of her men died in that battle, Xena was wounded as well, and Melanchros slipped from her grasp but not until she delivered a deep thrust of her sword to his right arm. For months, she questioned her judgment to take inexperienced men against such a strong force, and only with time did she come to know she would do it again for the sake of saving a woman or child's life.
Instinctively, Xena rode Argo to the sight of that battle, to the ruins of Galepsus, once the home to a magnificent castle. Now it was a maze of blocked passageways, piles of loose rock, and rickety floors. It was where Xena found the battered and crumpled body of Erinna years ago, she did not desire to see the place again.
Gabrielle was surprised she was bouncing up and down. Her head throbbed, blood had trickled into her eyes stinging them tightly shut, it had pooled in her mouth leaving a metallic taste, it had left her top damp and clinging to her chest. She tried to lift her head.
"No you don't." A hand clamped on her, forcing her to remain down. "You just stay put." He looked at the little body tossed over the saddle in front of him and dug his heels into his horse. "Yah!"
Gabrielle had no sense of time or direction. The ride made her nauseous, her body ached, her hands were bound securely at her back. An eternity later, she was pulled down from the horse. When her legs gave out, she was left in a heap while the man took his horse away.
Soon he was back, throwing her over his shoulder and taking her several steps until he unceremoniously dumped her on the ground. Summoning every last ounce of energy, she got to her knees and tried to open her eyes. They stung so much she could only force herself to squint through tiny slivers. She had no idea where she was.
"Bitch," Melanchros kicked her in the back, sending her sliding through a fine layer of dust. She tasted fresh blood on her lip and knew it was staining the dirt by her cheek. She didn't dare move.
"What do you want," she managed to ask.
She was answered only by the heavy plodding of boots pacing back and forth near her head. The boots stopped by her face then rough hands hauled her up. "What do I want?" He reached back and drove his fist into her jaw, letting her go, watching her crash to the floor.
The pacing began again. "What do I want?" he muttered over and over.
Nearing dawn, Xena left Argo in the cover of trees and made the rest of her way on foot. The ruins were much as she remembered them. A bland gray band of rocks, mostly worn to pebble and sand wrapped around the ruins like a garland of death and decay. The twin towers were almost shorn to the ground but for one needle of rock stabbing up to the sky. Each step in the ruins would be a risk. Floorboards had long since rotted and the slightest vibration could bring the second floor down to the ground or to the sub-levels below.
Melanchros had the advantage. He knew the building better than she, the pitfalls and hidden hazards, and of course, he had Gabrielle. She was also aware of his penchant for deceit and trickery and was determined to watch for carefully disguised traps.
Skirting the building under the first rays of the sun, she found a pile of rocks that contained more boulders than pebbles. It would be possible to climb there to the second floor, then she'd be in a position to watch for Melanchros. Carefully testing each step and hand hold she slinked her way up. Twice her hand reached for rock and came away with dust. Once a toe-hold gave way, leaving her dangling high above the ground until she found purchase once again.
"Come on, bitch, I know you're awake." Gabrielle tried to feign unconsciousness as Xena had taught her so she could listen to her surroundings but it was to no avail. Her hands were still bound tightly, the ropes burned her wrists with every little movement. Once again, she struggled to open her eyes.
A water flask was shoved into her mouth. Gabrielle drank what she could. "I don't really need you alive, but it will be more fun," the man told her.
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked him.
"I'm not stupid!" He took up pacing again, it was beginning to get on Gabrielle's nerves.
She studied him. He had a weird streak of gray in his hair and his right arm hung useless at his side. She couldn't think of anyone she'd heard of who fit that description, as distinctive as it was.
Suddenly, he stomped his foot by Gabrielle's ear "I said I'm not stupid!"
"Nobody said you were. Look, can you tell me what's going on?" That fiery little temper was threatening to get her into trouble.
"Nope, can't do that. She'll be here soon, gotta be ready."
Under her breath, hope creeping into her voice, "Xena...Oof." A large boot struck her ribs, hard, knocking the breath out of her.
"Don't you ever say her name again, you hear me!" he screamed at her.
Gasping for air, she rolled to her side taking the weight off her ribs where he kicked her. There was no hope of focusing again for sometime, every time she opened her eyes, she saw stars.
Xena kept to the perimeter of the building. She could better gauge where Melanchros might be and it was safer with the supporting structure of the outer walls holding more securely than the inner ones. As quiet as an owl, she crawled and climbed over forgotten rooms, eroded walls. A fine dust dampened the sound of her steps and flew to assault her eyes and nose.
"Come on, get up!" Gabrielle felt herself hauled to her feet but she was too dizzy to stand on her own. An arm grabbed her and pulled her along, not caring that her feet dragged along the ground behind her. "She must be here by now, we have to get ready."
Xena heard footsteps. Turning her head from side to side, testing distance and direction with her ears, she gingerly stepped away from the outer wall and toward the sound. There was no way to tell the condition of the floors under her, but she kept to the inner walls as best she could, avoiding stepping over open areas which would be least likely to have support under them. Occasionally, there was a hole in the floor so she could peek through to the ground below.
She was over a large room, perhaps once the throne room or a great meeting hall. Debris littered the floor, untouched by anyone decades...except for the trail of footprints leading across it! She squinted and put all of her attention into studying them. The left foot print was much deeper than the right indicating a heavy weight on the left side, as if the maker of the prints was carrying something...or someone. Gotcha, she thought, and plotted her course through the upstairs to bring her over the next room downstairs.
The floor again. It was more comfortable than being dragged, her head spun less. She wished she had the strength to pull the hair out of her face, it was matted against her skin, her own blood providing the glue.
Xena could see more prints in the dust. One short trail from wall to wall had been walked many times, another area had been displaced by something much larger than a footprint, more the size of a body. A dark spot near the edge of that area alarmed Xena. She could smell the blood from her perch.
Another trail led away from that room, this one had the familiar footprints and also an uneven groove. Someone was dragged to the next room, lurching forward with each step. Boiling rage began to suffocate her better judgment, she took a moment to slow her heart beat and regain some measure of control. If that bastard has so much as laid a hand on her...the mantra repeated many times before she was able to will it away. It would not help to lose her temper now.
She picked the best route, choosing to double back and circumvent a particularly well-worn area of the ruins. One step sent a landslide of rocks down to the floor below, a booby-trap left just for her. Quickly, she reached behind her trying to gain a hold on anything, cutting her hands on sharp rocks, shards pelting her legs. As she fell, her finger tips caught the lip of an uneven surface, her toes slammed into the wall knocking a crease just big enough to break her descent. Re-balancing her weight, she shimmied along the wall and hauled herself into the next room.
The ruckus from falling rock echoed in the ruins. Surprise no longer in her favor, Xena made her presence known. "Melanchros! I know you're there!" Continuing along the upper floors, she followed the trail left below. "Come on, Melanchros, the game's up," she shouted.
An old hallway lay before her, a straight shot along the trail below. She picked her way down it as fast as she dared, poking her head into every room, looking for a hole she could spy down. When she found one, she caught her breath. Melanchros was looking up at her laughing, his eyes betraying the madness in his soul. Gabrielle was on her stomach at his feet, unmoving. What most frightened her though, was that they were poised within a step of a great cavern, an enormous hole in the floor. Melanchros was in position to flip Gabrielle over the side with a simple thrust of his foot.
"Xena, how good of you to come." He howled a wicked laugh, chilling the warrior to the bone. "You are so predictable now! I can make you answer to my every whim. I can make you go anyplace I want. I can even make you come to me."
"You sabotaged the cart."
"Such a smart one, Warrior Princess. I can make you jump at the snap of my fingers." Melanchros accompanied himself, the pop echoing off the walls.
Xena leaned down toward him, "What do you want, Melanchros."
"What do I want? What do I want? That's what she kept asking me." He nudged his boot into Gabrielle's ribs, she moaned softly at the painful contact.
Rage shaking in her voice, she asked him again, this time spitting out each word slowly and distinctly, "What do you want, Melanchros."
"First, your sword! Throw it down carefully, Xena, unless..." He howled again in evil laughter.
She drew her sword and tossed it down, letting it land blade first so it stood upright. It would be easier to fetch later.
"Next your chakram. I know what you can do with it, Xena, so let me give you some incentive." He pushed Gabrielle, moving her closer to the precipice. "I suppose you could kill me with it, but you'd be taking two lives." He nudged his boot under the bard again and lifted it, shifting Gabrielle's weight dangerously close to toppling her in.
"Okay, Melanchros. You can have it." She tossed it down, making sure it landed by her sword. Neither were in easy reach of Melanchros. If he wanted them, he'd have to leave Gabrielle's side.
"Now, come down here, Xena. I want to look in your eyes when I kill her."
Xena tried to buy some time to wait for him to make a mistake, "Why would you want to do that?"
"Don't you see the wonderful irony, Xena. And you're supposed to be such a smart woman. An intellect to rival the gods, they say. Figure it out, Xena."
Still from her perch above him she declined, "I want you to tell me, Melanchros. That way I know I'll get it right."
He started pacing again, Xena hoped it would take him far enough from Gabrielle for her to make a move. "Look at me, Xena. I am not a whole man. You did this to me." He pointed to his useless right arm, hanging by his side, following the twists and turns of his body slowly, always out of synch.
"As I recall, you left me with a reminder of my efforts." Xena rubbed an old wound, a scar long since healed and seldom seen.
"You left me half a man!"
"I'd hardly call it that..."
"For a warlord? For a warrior? I had to re-train myself to fight with my left hand, I never led an army again after you...you did this!" His pacing took him a few more steps from Gabrielle. "And now I intend to see you are no longer whole. I want you to suffer through being only half a person. Are the stories true, Xena? They say you don't go anywhere without her."
"She's my best friend, but then I suppose you've never had one to know what that really means." Xena tried to goad him a bit more, make him more nervous, more distracted.
Melanchros let out a blood curdling scream, his muscles corded up into knots, his face and neck shot through with a crimson fury. Xena answered with a battle cry of her own and vaulted toward him, flipping and sailing through the air. Not wanting to lose his last shot at revenge, he threw himself across the floor, sliding into Gabrielle, lurching her body into the hole before Xena slammed into him. She gripped his throat and squeezed until he begged her to stop, squeezed more until he convulsed, then squeezed more until he hung limply in her grasp. She threw him aside and ran to the hole, peering down into darkness.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle?" There was no answer. Frantically, she hunted for a piece of rope. She had no idea how deep the hole was, whether it dropped one floor or more. Taking a boot from Melanchros' body, she held it over the hole, dropped it and listened. It landed quickly and softly. Retrieving her sword and chakram, she sliced Melanchros' clothing into long shreds and tied them to the end of her whip. Next she pinned the whip down at the edge of the hole with the tip of her sword and let herself down into the hole.
The makeshift rope got her to within a long stretch of the floor. She dropped carefully and let her eyes adjust to the darkness until she could make out the outlines of shadows around her. Gabrielle was not far from her, she bent down to listen for breathing. It was shallow, but present.
"Gabrielle? Gods, Gabrielle, can you hear me?" A quiet moan escaped from the bard. She could almost hear her calling, "Xena..."
Needing to know how to pick her up, Xena ran her hands over the bard as gently as she could, trying to determine if there were broken bones. Gabrielle had landed on her back, her arms still tied behind her. Xena gently turned her over only to see her left wrist hideously angled back and obviously broken, but that seemed the worst of it. Xena pulled out her breast dagger and sliced through the bindings on Gabrielle's hands.
Xena reached long arms under Gabrielle and lifted her. Craning her neck back to find the end of the rope, she remembered it was a stretch to reach it. With no other choice, she maneuvered Gabrielle over her shoulder, balancing her so she could free her hands and hoping not to inflict too much more pain. Gripping the rope firmly, she slowly pulled them up, hand over hand, the muscles in her arms aching and burning until she was able to lace the rope between her legs for extra support. She let herself stop and take a few breaths before finishing the climb. When she sat on the ground again, her arms and legs were shaking from the exertion.
In the light of day, she saw the extent of Gabrielle's injuries. Her head still trickled blood, though the old dried and caked blood slowed most of it. Her face was swollen, her lip cracked. A yellow bruise warned of a broken rib or two, and the wrist was bent at an impossible angle.
"Oh Gabrielle, I'm so sorry." Xena's trembling fingers traced across the bard's forehead, drawing another low moan. "All of this was because of me, even your family..." Guilt washed over her in great waves, threatening to take her under. She fought the urge to let it best her remembering that wallowing in it would not help Gabrielle. "Gabrielle..."
Fighting back tears propelled by anger and guilt, Xena picked up her precious bundle and made her way out of the ruins. Argo answered her whistle within moments, stilling her movements until the two were safely on her back.
The bard cradled to her breast, Xena urged Argo to travel as quickly as she could without breaking into a trot. Xena couldn't risk jostling Gabrielle too much, even if it meant a much longer journey. She kept Gabrielle propped up in the saddle, both legs over one of her thighs, the bard's head resting in the crook of her neck, deflecting as much movement as possible with her own body. One arm held Gabrielle tightly, those hands on the reins, the other supported her wrist, waiting to be set when they returned.
She kept up a steady stream of soft utterances when Gabrielle grew restless. Xena hoped she wouldn't regain consciousness until they had reached the healer's hut, but she wasn't sure they'd make it. As the day wore into evening, Gabrielle's subdued vocalizations grew more insistent. Xena considered stopping, more for the needs of Argo than her, but worried that the change in their steady movement would alarm Gabrielle into consciousness. Soon though, they neared a stream and Argo snorted in thirst. Xena relented, sliding down carefully, and left Argo to drink her fill.
She lay Gabrielle under a craggy tree and returned to Argo for the water flask which she slung over her shoulder. As she reached in a saddle bag to find a bite to eat, she caught a flash of movement behind her. Gabrielle was rolling over. Xena sprinted to her, hearing her mumble her name. "Gabrielle, it's okay, I'm here." She coaxed Gabrielle down, but the bard was delirious and tried to get up again. "Gabrielle, stop! You're going to hurt yourself." Searching for some way to bring her back to her senses, she grabbed the water bag and brought it to Gabrielle's lips. Gabrielle drank and it settled her until Xena was able to lower her back into the grass.
The swelling in her wrist was of concern. Though Xena didn't want to, she decided she needed to set it now before the swelling made it impossible. Gritting her teeth against emphatic pain, she grasped Gabrielle's forearm with one hand, the other laced through her fingers, then she jerked the wrist straight with all her strength. Gabrielle bolted up with a gut wrenching scream, digging nails from her good hand into Xena's neck. The warrior captured the fingers, wrestling them from her skin, and brought them down in front of her. "I know it hurts, sorry. It'll be better now," she cooed in Gabrielle's ear.
"Xena?" Gabrielle muttered questioningly.
"Yes, I'm here." Xena rocked her gently.
"Xena." A statement of relief and she slumped once again unconscious.
It was late when they arrived back in Poteidaia. Xena carried Gabrielle to the healer's hut, letting herself in quietly. Lila was resting comfortably and the fact that no one was watching over her was good news, she must be out of danger. A second cot had been set up indicating someone had thought ahead.
Xena fashioned a splint for Gabrielle's wrist. Before wrapping it with rags, she checked the setting of the bone very carefully. Wrists were tricky, especially when one depended on them for wielding a staff, and she wanted to be absolutely sure it would heal properly. Repeating many of the same ministrations as she'd done to Lila, Xena rubbed oils and salves into the bruises on Gabrielle's face and ribs, noting that there was a cracked rib to contend with. She washed the blood from Gabrielle's hair, her hands making small stitches to close the gash.
Then reality finally came crashing home as Xena sat on the edge of the cot, nothing for her hands to do or her mind to belabor. Little did she know that Lila was watching her every move. Lila was too scared to say anything, seeing Xena at all was difficult, but being with Xena at night in a dark room reminded her too much of needing to hide from monsters as a child.
"How many times have I sat like this by a friend, regretting my past deeds and their present day consequences?" Xena whispered to the still form on the bed before her. "I lost count ages ago." The mind-numbing altercations with a former self had been replayed so many times she had lost the will to fight them.
"But none of them has been like this, Gabrielle, my best friend, my reminder of life. Now I've hurt the people you love, your family. How can I ever make up for that?" Lila heard the warrior sobbing and was taken aback. She never dreamed this woman's soul had a soft side, even though Gabrielle had told her as much many times. No, this was a dark and foreboding presence! An evil woman, she convinced herself. But evil women don't cry...
"Gabrielle, I'll stay as long as I can, but we did talk about how you would want to stay longer than I would. I guess we didn't get it worked out, did we? I knew you'd stay, you knew I wouldn't, or couldn't. I wish I could for you, my love, but not now. I'll have to look into their eyes knowing I was the cause of everything."
Lila was confused. Xena did this? How? Xena was with Gabrielle, days from here when all this happened. And what does she mean by hurting the family? It was an accident in the cart...
"Gabrielle, you know that I love you, more than I dreamed I could ever love someone. And because of that I cannot bear to hurt you. You've told me many times that my past doesn't matter to you, but you're wrong, it does. It catches up with me and you become the target. I can't let that happen anymore. No matter what it takes, no matter what it means. I just can't let it happen again. My enemies know me too well, they know too well the only thing that will make me cave in..."
Lila fell asleep again listening to Xena weeping. When she woke, Xena was gone, replaced by her mother. "Lila dear, how do you feel?" Lila saw a deep sadness in her mother.
"I'm fine, mother." Turning to look at her sister she asked, "Gabrielle?"
"I think she'll be fine, too, though I can't imagine what she's been through." Korinna brushed back a tear. "Xena brought her back last night."
Lila didn't want to tell her mother she'd been awake when that happened, nor to tell her what she'd heard Xena say. It didn't quite make sense.
"She was at the ruins of Galepsus, some...man had her. He..." Korinna lost herself in the fury of having two daughters brutalized by that man. "He's dead now."
With help from her mother, Lila sat up and had some broth. She kept her eyes on Gabrielle the whole time, wondering how she managed to make someone as menacing as Xena say she loved her. How could Gabrielle convince a woman like Xena that she was her best friend?
That afternoon, Gabrielle woke for a short time. Her mother and the healer gave her some tea and Gabrielle asked where Xena was. Lila noticed her mother flinch at the mention of Xena's name. She did not offer to fetch her.
Xena had gone back to the house to talk to Pindar and Korinna that morning. She wanted everything out in the open, having learned the value of honesty from Gabrielle. She asked them to hear her out before passing judgment and she told them the story of a long ago battle with Melanchros at the ruins of Galepsus. Then, in a faltering voice she did her best to explain that though she couldn't escape her past, perhaps Gabrielle could.
Korinna was furious, "How dare you drag my daughter into your own private cesspool, Xena. I am ashamed of you! Don't you realize the influence you have on our child?"
Pindar interrupted her putting a calming arm on Korinna's forearm. "Let's not be too hasty in our judgment. Why don't you do something about it, Xena?"
His innocence only further frustrated Xena, "I can't do anything about it!" She almost shouted. "There is no way to make it up to the people I wronged." Then with her voice trailing off, "There's nothing I can do. Nothing."
The magnitude of her crimes and their retaliatory possibilities began to sink in and Pindar had no choice but to defend his family. "I see. So, you're telling me that you're endangering everyone here, just by your very presence?"
"Yes." Xena agreed solemnly.
Korinna whirled on Xena, "Then get out! Get out of here. Haven't you done enough already? I have two daughters at the healer's and a husband who can't walk because of you!"
"Don't worry, I was planning to leave. I just thought it best you know why." Xena slipped out of her chair. "I left Gabrielle's things in her room." And with that, Xena walked out.
Xena rode Argo toward the beach again but the liberty of her last ride through the surf was achingly absent. Xena was deciding where to go and whether to tell Gabrielle she was leaving. After an altercation with parents, she paradoxically felt a desire to see her own mother, though it had been many moons since she last visited Amphipolis. Still, it wasn't far from here she convinced herself.
Then came the question of Gabrielle. If she left without saying anything, Gabrielle would never forgive her. Worse yet, she'd never forgive herself. But if she went to Gabrielle what would she say? The feisty little bard would try to talk her out of it and saying no to her was always so difficult. She didn't have much fight left in her.
Late that night, Xena sneaked into the healer's. Both Lila and Gabrielle were asleep, so she let herself down in the chair by Gabrielle and took her hand. Gabrielle stirred and Xena moved to kneel by her, shifting her hand to Gabrielle's forehead, "Shhh, go back to sleep."
"Xena?" Gabrielle threw an arm around Xena's neck and tried to sit up to hug her until the ugly reminder of a cracked rib threw a wrench in that plan.
"Careful, don't hurt yourself." Xena leaned down so the bard could hug her without bending.
"Xena, are you okay?" She whispered to keep from waking Lila.
Xena chuckled, "Hey, I'm supposed to be asking you that."
"I asked first," jabbed the bard.
Xena let her win, "I'm fine. Now, how do you feel?"
"I've felt better. My head hurts, but I'm not seeing stars anymore and my wrist aches. The ribs are fine until I do something stupid."
"Like try to hug me?" Xena teased.
"Now that wasn't stupid, I just didn't think it through all the way." Gabrielle poked her in the stomach, "I'd do it again, too." Gabrielle reached for Xena's hand, "Thanks for coming after me...again."
Xena memorized the touch, "What are friends for?"
"Xena, what's wrong?"
Xena pulled her hand back, "Nothing. Nothing's wrong."
"Don't you lie to me, Xena." The bard shot back angrily. "And I can tell when you're lying."
"Tell what's wrong, Xena. Please, I'm in no condition to fight."
Xena admitted, "Neither am I. So let's not fight about it."
"Fight about what? Fight about what? I don't even know what we're talking about!" Gabrielle fumed.
Xena sighed, "Gods you're difficult. I shouldn't have come."
That scared Gabrielle into retreat, "What, Xena? Please tell me," once again reaching for her hand, this time holding it more securely so it couldn't easily be wrenched away.
"I talked to your parents, they understand."
"Could you be a little less cryptic, please." Gabrielle kept all the anger from her tone.
"Look, I'm going to go home for awhile."
Gabrielle began to understand, "For how long?"
"I don't know. Awhile," Xena told her, trying to keep the finality of the situation from the conversation.
"Then what..." Gabrielle goaded her into admitting more.
"I haven't decided," was all Xena would say.
"I see...don't I get to make this decision with you?"
Xena knew there was no sense in sidestepping the issue, Gabrielle knew what was going on. "No, you don't."
Gabrielle lost her temper, "Why not?"
Xena's voice rose out of defense, "It's not your decision anymore."
"Of course it's my decision, I mean it's our decision, Xena. You can't just go off on your own."
"Yes, I can." She spoke with all the authority of a warlord commanding her troops.
It had little effect on Gabrielle, "Then I'll follow you, just like the last time we were here."
The memory weakened Xena's anger a little, "Gabrielle, talk to your parents. They understand."
"What did you tell them?"
"The truth. And you should hear it as well." As she struggled to find the words, Gabrielle waited patiently. "First of all, the accident in the cart was not an accident. I inspected the cart and found that someone had intentionally weakened the axle. It was meant to look like accident and it was meant to lure you home."
"Someone was after me?" Gabrielle asked, incredulous.
"No, he knew that you were the best way to get to me, Gabrielle. It was yet another mistake from my past catching up with us again. Only this time he hurt you and your family. I can't let that happen again." Xena stood to go.
"No Xena, wait!" Gabrielle frantically tried to stop Xena, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Please don't leave."
"You'll be fine, Gabrielle."
Xena heard the wailing as she walked out the healer's hut, down to the stable, and rode out of town. It was a sound that would haunt her dreams for years to come.
In the morning, Korinna came to see her daughters. There was hope they could both come home that day, and she was thrilled at the prospect of having her entire family under one roof. Her happy greeting was met with an enraged glare from her older daughter.
"What is it, Gabrielle? You're going home today!" She tried to sound cheery.
With barely controlled fury, she questioned her mother, "What did you say to Xena?"
Korinna narrowed her eyes and said, "Let's talk about that with your father."
Lila looked to Gabrielle and then to her mother and back to Gabrielle. She had heard most of Xena's conversation with Gabrielle the night before and didn't know whose side she should be on. All she knew was that she didn't want to be in the middle.
Her father helped her into her room and onto the bed. Gabrielle winced from the ache in her ribs but calmed her father before he ran back for the healer. Next, they brought in Lila who proclaimed her bed the softest in the world and sank into it with glee. It had been over a week since she'd lain in her own bed, and she kept reminding everyone how she'd missed it.
After water was brought, pillows plumped, tea drunk, hands and faces washed, and bits of cake were eaten, the two sisters were finally alone in their room. Gabrielle lay on her bed, arms crossed over her belly, staring at the ceiling. Lila tossed about, got up to fetch trinkets from her dresser, and fussed about everything.
"I can't stand it, Gabrielle, will you please tell me a story or something. I'm going crazy!"
"It's because you're feeling better."
"Come on, Gabrielle, a story, please!"
Gabrielle turned away from her, "I don't feel like it right now. You should lie down, you might tear out your stitches."
"Oh they just itch!"
"It's because you're feeling better," Gabrielle said again, slightly irritated with her sister.
"Well if you won't tell me a story, can I read one of your scrolls?"
Gabrielle jerked her head around. There, set behind the door so she didn't see it when she came in, was her pouch choked full of her scrolls, and her staff propped up in the corner. She turned back and buried her head in her pillow, crying.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn't mean to upset you." Lila came to sit on her sister's bed.
"You don't understand!" Gabrielle whined between sobs.
"Yes, I do. I heard, I know what happened. I'm sorry I didn't say anything earlier, but the first time I heard Xena talking to you, I didn't understand what she was saying."
"When she brought you back, she spoke to you before you woke up. I'm sure she didn't know I was awake. She said it was all her fault and that she didn't know how to make it up to you. Then she said she couldn't look into their eyes knowing she was the cause of everything. I didn't know what she meant until last night when I heard the two of you arguing. I'm sorry she hurt you, Gabrielle. She must be a mean woman to do that to you."
"Don't you ever call her that." Gabrielle caught Lila by the wrist and shook it, "She is not mean! She's confused. She doesn't know that I would give anything to be with her."
Lila dared ask the real question, "Even your family's lives?"
"That's not going to happen! This incident was an anomaly, a freak. The man who did this was crazy and it wouldn't have mattered if I was around or not, he would have done something heinous, something wicked." Gabrielle calmed herself, "Lila, this isn't Xena's fault, it is the fault of a madman, no one should take the blame for him."
Lila found herself agreeing, "You're right, Gabrielle."
"It is a hard logic to see. When someone you love is in danger, you tend to look for blame where it is easiest to find. Xena always looks inside first."
A restful silence lapsed between them, the comfortable kind that sisters can indulge in without worry of having to fill the hole. "So, Gabrielle?"
"Can I read your scrolls?"
Gabrielle thought about saying no, but she knew that Lila needed to learn more about Xena, about Xena the way Gabrielle portrayed her and knew her really to be. "Sure, bring them here and I'll choose some for you."
Lila spent the rest of the day reading and re-reading the scrolls. Once she got Gabrielle to read to her about Joxer, but never could she coax her to tell a story about Xena. Lila gained an insight she didn't expect, it was about her sister. She found out that gabby Gabby wasn't just a big sister, she was an amazing woman. Gabrielle had a gift that was unique and special. Not that being a bard wasn't wondrous, even being a great bard, but Gabrielle was much more than that. She had an iron will, a gentle heart, limitless perception into the human soul, and a benevolent resolve. Lila took to peeking over the parchment to remind her that this Gabrielle really was her big sister.
"Yes, Lila," she steeled herself against another barrage of questions.
"Tell me about the amazons."
Lila could see a big grin break across her sister's face. Slyly, Gabrielle began, "Oh there's not much to tell." But then Lila was on the bed with her, kneeling like a puppy dog waiting for a bone. "You want to know about the Amazons? How come?"
"I don't know. They seem to treacherous!"
Gabrielle tweaked her sister's nose playfully, "They can be!" Lila let go a little shriek and slunk back away from Gabrielle. "But only if you don't follow their rules."
"Like what?" Lila was engrossed in the mystery and Gabrielle played it for all it was worth.
"Well, you have to give the amazon sign of peace when you cross into their territories, putting your arms above your head like this." Gabrielle flinched when she stretched her rib cage, but continued on, "They have sentries out and no one can pass but those who come in peace, or else!"
Breathlessly, Lila encouraged her, "Or else what?"
"Or else they'll attack! They're all trained warriors!" When Lila turned a little white around the edges, Gabrielle worried she was scaring Lila too much so she changed her tact, "They also have huge parties with dancing and drinking and lots and lots of food!"
"Oh my!" was all Lila could squeak out.
Gabrielle grew wistful and added, "And many of them are good friends."
"Can we go see them? Gabrielle, will you take me to the Amazons?"
"Lila, you've never even been passed Olynthus. You don't really want to go that far, do you?"
"Well, maybe. With you I might. Promise me you'll take me someday." Lila pleaded.
"Perhaps, someday. I don't go very often, myself."
"Will you go...now?" Lila wasn't sure if she should have asked, but it just slipped out.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and whispered, "I need to go somewhere else first."
"Gabrielle, when will you leave?" Lila feared the response, knowing her sister would go soon. Having Gabrielle home was such fun, but the sadness etched in the bard's face almost let Lila forgive her for wanting to leave.
"Lila, you know I have to go after her, don't you?"
"Yes. I've known since Xena left." Lila got up from Gabrielle's bed and lay down on her own. "It's okay, Gabrielle. I understand. You're not just a Poteidaian anymore. Gods, you're an Amazon Queen!"
Gabrielle stated flatly, "I'm an Amazon Queen without her Warrior Princess though, and that means I'm not whole."
"Gabrielle, how far is it to Amphipolis?"
"Oh, just a nice stroll..."
That night, as Gabrielle tried to sneak out of her room, Lila called to her, "Be careful, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle came back and kissed her sister, "I will be. And Lila, I don't know how you can, but..."
Lila finished the sentence for her, "I'll try to explain it to Mother and Father."
"I love you."
She was sorry she chose the coastal route, the breeze coming off the Aegean was chilly that night and she didn't have any blankets with her. She took only her staff, a water skin, and added some food to her pouch because she'd have to carry everything with only one good arm. No Argo to pack it for her, she mused, and just when she really needed her. As the moon was about to set, she spied a small cave which could offer some protection from the breeze. Though her heart enjoyed sleeping out of doors, her body registered loud complaints. She admitted that she may have left just a little too soon, for her head hurt and her ribs ached. Carrying everything on her right side made her back sore.
The next day she trudged along the coast again and tried to remember just how far it was from Poteidaia to Amphipolis. She decided she had to ration her food, or at least look to supplement it along the way. As the day wore on, her head ached more and more, and she wished she had thought to bring something along to help that. She didn't have anything to brew into a tea, in fact she didn't have a way to make a fire. Xena always took care of those things, and Gabrielle realized forlornly that she hadn't taken the time to think this trip through very carefully. Xena would give her a stern tongue-lashing, for sure.
That night she couldn't find any sort of shelter from the wind before she was too exhausted to continue. She found a flat spot in among some rocks, high enough on the shore to stay dry at high tide and feel asleep almost immediately. In the middle of the night, she was startled out of a sound sleep by a thunderstorm. Forcing herself to continue, Gabrielle looked for some shelter from the rain she knew would be coming soon. The moon was hidden by thick clouds and the only beacon to light her path was the brief flashes of far-off lightning. Gabrielle would stare into the darkness ahead and wait for a flash of light. She'd capture a mental picture of what lay ahead and step carefully in the dark stopping before her image dissolved. Then she'd wait for another bolt of lightning and repeat the process. It was slow and tedious, and Gabrielle knew she wouldn't be able to find a good place to stop before the rains came.
Indeed, she was right. A brief but torrential downpour soaked through to her skin, and the howling winds chilled her to the bone. She knew she couldn't stop now, she was too cold to lie down. So, she kept going in the jerky pattern of walking by lightning. Once the storm passed, she lost the lighting but not the wind. Stymied by darkness, she took careful steps away from the shore, tripping once, scraping her knee and sending a shooting pain through her wrist when she landed. When she could bare it no longer, she collapsed and tried to sleep through her shivering.
She woke up, sensing something blocking the sun. Putting her hand over her eyes, she squinted up to see a figure looming over her and instinctively lunged for her staff.
"You really think you can do that with one hand?" A familiar voice toyed with her.
"Xena?" Gabrielle bounced up and threw her arms around the warrior's neck.
"Gabrielle, you're freezing! What are you doing out here, are you crazy?" Xena admonished her all the while pinning her in an embrace.
Xena let her go, "Sorry!" She ran her thumb down Gabrielle's cheek, "Are you okay?"
"Yes but for being cold, hungry, tired, and having a bit of a headache. Oh and now my ribs hurt again, thank you very much. What are you doing here anyway?"
"Coming after you, of course." Xena led her over to Argo and wrapped a blanket around her, then she offered her the wine skin and Gabrielle gulped down a few mouthfuls.
"Your parents are pretty upset," Xena informed her.
"I told Lila to explain it to them."
"Explain going out when you should still be in bed?"
"Yeah, well..." She put her hand on Xena's arm. "I had to."
"I've heard this from everyone already, but go ahead."
"Xena, you can't just walk out when things get hard," Gabrielle scolded her.
"And you have to let me have a part in big decisions," she continued.
"And you can never leave me behind," she finished.
"Yeah, I know that part, too."
"Good, I'm glad we got that straight. Now what did you mean when you said you'd heard this from everyone?"
"Let's see," began Xena, "When I told Mother what happened, she let me have it, so I went back to Poteidaia only to discover you weren't there. Then your mother lectured me and your father helped spice up that one, then Lila gave me the once over..."
"Yes, I'm convinced. And I'm sorry. Forgive me?" Gabrielle nodded. "Good, now lets get you back home." Xena leapt up on Argo and reached her hand down to help up Gabrielle.
Gabrielle was confused, though. "Ah, Xena, I usually give you my left hand for this."
"Okay, fine." Xena dismounted and helped Gabrielle into the saddle. "I don't like riding in back and you got the front last time. Your wrist had better heal quickly."
"If I had known that's all it took, I'd have broken it long ago."
"No you wouldn't."
"Yes, I would."
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