Nor the Battle to the Strong:
Part I -- All Through the Night

"As is the good, so is the sinner" (Ecclesiastes, chapter 9, verse 2)

by Rebekah

The events described in "Nor the Battle to the Strong" take place between the Xena: Warrior Princess episodes, "Is There A Doctor in the House?" and "Orphan of War."

Disclaimer: Some of the scenes in "All Through the Night" depict violence at about the level you would see on a X:WP episode and several other scenes depict the aftermath of this violence, though mostly at an emotional level. Readers sensitive to such stories should consider this warning before continuing.

Copyright Statement

Originally posted 12-21-96; post withdrawn 02-21-97

Revised and reposted 05-12-97

"Nor the Battle to the Strong" and
"Part I -- All Through the Night" and
"Warrior's Lullaby" -- all:

© Copyright 1996 and 1997 by B. A. Wright (Rebekah), Columbus, Ohio

Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and backstory used in "Nor the Battle to the Strong" are the sole property of Universal. The author intends no copyright infringement through the writing of this fan fiction.

This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permission from the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.


The sun, low and red in the sky, came up just ahead of the heat. Squinting at the dawn from her bedroll, Xena wished they could camp another day in this place. The cool water and the leafy glade made the heat easier to bear, but they had urgent business in far-away Athens. The dusty shimmer of the road would be particularly hard on Gabrielle, who insisted on walking. She would just have to consent to riding Argo this time, if only for expediency. They couldn't delay their trip for the girl's somewhat irritating timidity about riding horses.

Stretching carefully, silently, Xena prepared to rise. She'd learned the hard way to take the time to unwind her long limbs and stretch out the knots of stiffness before standing. Too much tension, too many hours in the saddle and restless nights on rocky ground, too many drop-kicks, backflips, wounds, hard blows to joints and vital organs ... they all took their toll on her still-young body. She wondered idly what old age would be like with such sustained damage, then smiled a secret smile at the new thought of even REACHING old age. She had scoffed at Gabrielle's insistence that she was developing into an optimist, but maybe her friend was right after all.

Turning her head to the still-sleeping girl, Xena wondered how she could sleep so soundly and so long. Sleep for Gabrielle was a welcome companion. For Xena, it was an elusive, haunting wraith. Often, she didn't sleep. If she did sleep, she would wake feeling as if she'd been in an endless battle.

What would it take for her to have one peaceful night?

She shook her head hard, clearing the thought. It was useless to worry about something that was lost so irretrievably. Supple once more, Xena rose in one, fluid motion.

It was a constant chore to waken Gabrielle and get her moving in the morning, thought it seldom actually irritated Xena anymore. Ever the pragmatist, she just folded the time into her morning ritual. Stretch. Build up the fire. Waken Gabrielle for the first time. Feed Argo. Rouse Gabrielle again. Pack up the bedroll. Threaten Gabrielle with bodily harm if she didn't start moving NOW. Braid her hair and put on her boots, leathers, and breastplate. Grab the slightly cross girl by the shoulders and pull her gently but firmly into an upright position. Secure her chakram, sword, and lesser weapons to her armor. Make sure Gabrielle was walking and talking. Go out and find something for their breakfast. Eat with her now-smiling friend. Saddle Argo while Gabrielle finished breaking camp and get started at about the time she had in mind to do so. It didn't really take TOO much extra effort, though if someone had told the Warrior Princess of five years ago that she would go to such lengths for another human being, she would have been sure her informant was mad beyond recall.

With the heat rising and the stresses of the previous day, Xena really wanted to let the girl sleep a little longer. Yesterday's sneak attack by road brigands was short and unsuccessful, but intense. As always, Gabrielle held her own in the fray, wielding her Amazon staff with a surprising expertise and alacrity. She surprised those bandits, anyway, Xena thought with no little amusement as she tossed a small log onto the campfire embers. That air of youthful innocence might be her best weapon ...

Afterward, though, Gabrielle didn't tell a single story for the rest of the afternoon. Xena knew the steady pounding of attacks they'd fielded in the past few weeks was beginning to bother her friend emotionally as well as physically. By some miracle, neither of them had been hurt in any of the encounters of late, which appeared to worry Gabrielle in some strange way that Xena's practical mind couldn't grasp. Clearly, the young bard was exhausted, though she hadn't complained. No help for it, though. They had to be on their way.

Squatting down beside Gabrielle, Xena absently brushed some tangled hair from the girl's face and paused. A year ago, she could neither touch nor be touched without recoiling visibly from the potential attack. Maybe ... maybe ... she actually was starting to heal into a normal human being. She allowed herself just a few seconds to savor the discovery.

"Gabrielle? Gabrielle!" Xena's low, liquid voice teased the girl. "C'mon now, it's time to get up. Don't dawdle this morning ... you know we have to get going!"

Hearing a protesting moan in reply, Xena went to quiet Argo's soft grumbling with her morning meal.

Chapter 1

"Lemme see, was it three or four of those idiots that she ..." Gabrielle unconsciously started to talk aloud as she worked out the story of Xena's ... their ... latest adventure. She automatically skipped a few times to keep up with Argo.

"Gabrielle, are you talking to me or not?" They'd been on the trail for less than an hour and already the heat was beginning to irritate Xena, who much preferred cooler weather. "And please, just get up on the horse ... it's going to be too hot for you to be running after us. You'll be exhausted by noon and THEN where will we be?!"

"Hmm? Oh, no, sorry, I ... uh ... WASN'T talking to you, actually ... but I can, if you really want!" She beamed at her scowling companion, a tactic usually worth at least a small half-smile from the no-nonsense warrior. Today, she got an extra bonus -- a real laugh!

"Oh, no, you're not going to maneuver me into ASKING you to talk! You do well enough with no encouragement." Xena stopped Argo in the middle of the road. "... and don't change the subject. Get on!" She offered her arm as a boost.

Gabrielle eyed her speculatively. Xena really was getting so much better about ordering people around, but when she was excited or tired or ... or worried, she could still be somewhat ... well, imperious. She didn't mean to be, Gabrielle was sure. Should she or shouldn't she make an issue of it THIS time? Warriors could be so high-strung!

Seeing the girl's expression, Xena realized that she'd done it again and kicked herself mentally. Damn, the kid's not your army! Big, tough Warrior Princess! Damn!

"Uh, Gabrielle, I'm sorry ... I didn't mean to make that sound like an order!" What was she thinking? Xena came out of her self-beratement at the feel of Gabrielle's hand in hers as she pulled herself up to the back of Argo's saddle.

"Of course, you didn't! Don't be ridiculous! I'm the one who should be sorry ... making you fool around here when we really need to get going. I not only SHOULD be sorry, I really am! Forgive me?" She put her arms around Xena's waist to steady herself in this uncomfortably high place, then rested her cheek against the warrior's armored back and hugged her briefly. Gabrielle realized with delight that Xena's muscles hadn't tensed up at the affection. Instead, the warrior actually squeezed her arm! This day was turning out OK after all, even if she did have to ride.

"The heat's just getting to both of us, I guess." Xena tried her best to project her gratitude toward the kind-hearted girl. You MAY be getting the hang of this stuff, Princess, she told herself sarcastically.

After many minutes of companionable silence, Xena asked, "If you weren't talking to me, what were you doing?"

"Oh, well, you know ... I was trying to get all the details from yesterday morning straight for ... well ..." Gabrielle trailed off. Her stories about the Exploits of Xena, Warrior Princess were always a bit of sore point with her friend.

"We've had so MANY 'yesterday mornings' lately, it seems as if you could just let a couple go here and there," said Xena quite seriously. "You seem tired. Maybe you should go a little easier on yourself with this story stuff."

"Uh-HUH. Straight from the mouth of the woman who knows EXACTLY how to go a little easier on herself," Gabrielle teased.

"Gabrielle!" Xena warned gruffly. "Now would be a really good time to change the subject."

"OK," the younger rider agreed. An irresistable target beckoned. "If it's too hot for me to walk, isn't it too hot for Argo to carry a double load?"


"Wrong subject?" she asked innocently. She smiled, waiting.

"We are resting Argo more frequently and making sure she gets lots of water and extra grain. Besides, she's tough. She's a war horse, after all. I would never ..." Muffled giggles seemed to come straight through Xena's armor and the warrior rolled her eyes. "Oh, funny. Very funny. I'm glad you enjoyed it."

"Yes, thank you, I'm afraid I did!" Gabrielle didn't bother to muffle the giggles. "It's SO easy to get you going about her. You're catching me at it a lot sooner, though, if that helps any."

"Great. Just great," Xena grumped as the giggles subsided, looking straight ahead and smiling ever so slightly as she patted Argo's neck. For once, Argo had no comment.

As they rode on over the next few hours, the ground began to shimmer in sunlight that was so intense it seemed to Gabrielle she actually could HEAR the swelter ... a high-pitched, whining buzz all around her. She thought briefly about asking Xena if she heard it, too, but then decided she'd pushed the woman far enough for one morning.

Gabrielle shifted to unstick herself from the saddle and tried not to look down. Why did Argo have to be so ... so TALL? She tried to get her mind off the heat and the distance to the ground.



"There really HAVE been a lot of attacks, just coming out of nowhere. It ... it doesn't f-feel right, you know?"

"That's why we've got to get to Athens as quickly as possible to join Hercules and the others," replied the warrior, wondering briefly at the tremble in Gabrielle's voice. "The pickup in violence is real ... reports coming from everywhere, according to that message he sent."

"Yeah, I can't wait to see who he's got coming to this gathering," said Gabrielle, perking up at the thought of seeing a group that Hercules considered to be friends, coming together to figure out what was going on and trying to stop whatever evil was spreading over their country. All those heroes in one spot, working toward one goal, would mean some fantastic stories! An accidental glimpse of the ground curbed her enthusiasm a little.

"It was sort of a relief just to find out that other people were noticing, too," Xena mused, half to herself. "Perhaps all of us together can figure out what's going on and what to do about it before the whole country goes up in flames. Unfortunately, we're about as far away from Athens as we can be and still be in the same country. We have to hurry if we're going to join the others." Her eyes narrowed in concentration. "I thought we'd have more time, though ... I mean, more time before we had to fight our way there."

"Um, maybe you should give me my staff, huh? I sorta feel not quite dressed, all of a sudden ..." Her stomach clutched sickenly. The heights must be making her feel queasy, as well as dizzy.

"It's right here, don't worry," Xena said carefully. Why was her friend so interested in her staff just now? "The country is flat enough here that we can see an attack coming in any direction from a long way off." She frowned.

"Anyway, you are fully dressed and completely functional without being armed, you know. We've talked about this before, haven't we? I ..."

"... don't want me to get in the habit of carrying weapons. I know. I KNOW. I at least LISTEN when YOU talk," snapped Gabrielle as she held back another wave of nausea. She felt Xena's muscles tighten at her remark and bit her lip regretfully.

"I ... always listen when you talk. Truly." Xena felt tired, suddenly a little sick somehow, and more than a little sad. Sometimes, dealing with this sensitive young woman was harder than dealing with any warlord. "I've traveled alone longer than I've traveled with you. Even when I was with my army, I was really alone ... the silence, it's a habit, not a judgment. I listen, Gabrielle."

Repentant, Gabrielle opened her mouth to apologize. Her mind said I'm sorry, but her mouth said, "Xena, I feel so strange ..."

Xena's back stiffened at the incongruous comment. When the girl failed to elaborate, Xena prompted her impatiently. "Gabrielle ... what? What is it?" Still getting no answer, Xena turned in the saddle just in time to catch the unconscious girl as she fell. Continuing her backward motion off Argo, Xena cradled her friend the rest of the way to the ground, rolling to protect her from the worst of the fall.

Catching her breath, the astounded woman stared at the young woman's pale, sweaty face. Feeling the clammy neck for a pulse, she found it beating fast and faint. "Come on, Gabrielle, where are you?" Xena shook the limp form. "Stay with me, now ... c'mon, stop fooling around and get back here!" the warrior commanded in great fright. As she tried to clear her mind of the panic welling up within her, Gabrielle sat bolt upright, knocking her back on her heels.

"Xena!? Where are you? I can't find you!" She looked right at Xena, unseeing.

"Gabrielle, I'm right here. I'm. Right. HERE." Xena gripped the girl's shoulders and shook her hard. She could see Gabrielle's eyes struggling to focus.

"Oh, where have you been? It was so dark and cold and I was running and running. I was afraid ..." She threw her arms around Xena's neck, as if seeing her for the first time after a long absence.

"Dark? Gabrielle, it's only about noon. The sun is out. Why are you afraid? Gabrielle!?"

Afraid? This one? She never backed down from anything, even when she should! Yet here she was, clinging to Xena and sobbing like a terrified child.

Chapter 2

"Gabrielle, you haven't been ANYwhere. You've been right here, on Argo, with me. Gabrielle?" Pulling the girl's hand away from her neck, Xena reached up to take a waterskin from the saddle. This didn't seem like heatstroke, but no sense in taking chances. "Here, take a drink. It will make you feel better."

Xena supported the trembling girl's head and neck with one hand and held the waterskin to her lips with the other as she drank deeply. Afterward, Gabrielle leaned back on Xena's arm and sighed. Pouring some water onto her hand, Xena lightly ran the cooling liquid across the girl's forehead.

"Is that better?" Xena's calm, soothing voice contrasted sharply with the state of her stomach, which was still on its own path. She couldn't decide if it was the nausea she felt previously, plain nervous excitement from the strange events of the last ten minutes, or the cold edge of fear for her friend's well-being. A little of everything, she surmised.

"Yeah, really, I'm ... fine." Gabrielle's voice was light and raspy as she gasped for air. "I'm really tired from all the running and I'm really, REALLY confused ... I don't feel sick anymore, though," she added as an afterthought.

"Sick? You felt sick?!" Xena's sixth sense kicked in somewhat belatedly, which irked her a great deal.

"Yeah, my stomach was really in knots right before we ... got separated."

"How LONG before?" demanded Xena, more forcefully than she had intended. "Why didn't you say anything?" Seeing a little fear in her friend's eyes, she hastily explained herself. "It's just that I was feeling sick, too, just before we ... well, just before." She trailed off lamely.

"Oh, well, I thought it was just the usual from riding Argo ...," Gabrielle said off-handedly. "It seemed a little more intense, because normally it's just the dizziness, but I kinda thought that was because of the heat and all ... you know?" She shut her eyes against the bright sun.

Xena stared at the girl. She had teased Gabrielle unmercifully about her reluctance to ride, never realizing that her friend became physically ill every time she mounted. Obviously, Gabrielle thought she knew. Why DIDN'T she know? How could she not ...

No! She couldn't let herself get distracted from the problem at hand. They both became ill, suddenly and at the same time ... and what on earth did Gabrielle mean by "all the running"?

"Listen, you need some rest and all of us need to cool off a little and have something to eat. Let's go over to those trees and take a break. There should be a stream." Giving herself a mental shake, Xena stood up and leaned over to help her friend, who stood and suddenly jerked her left leg.

"Ow! I've got a cramp ... really bad ... it really hurts, Xena!" Seeing that the girl's leg was indeed in a painful spasm, Xena leaned into her to give her a little support and began massaging the twisted muscles.

"C'mon, Gabrielle, you're going to have to walk it off. Stretch your heel down slowly ..." The young woman whimpered slightly at the pain. "Yes, I know it hurts, but it will make the cramp stop sooner. Try to remember what your leg feels like when there is no cramp ... no, don't look at me that way, it works if you can concentrate hard enough. Focus!" Just then Gabrielle cried out and nearly fell as the calf muscle in her right leg contracted into a painful knot. The two friends spent many minutes in the heat of the road trying to relieve her pain. Finally, the girl's leg muscles ceased their spasmodic twisting.

"Now we REALLY need to get over to those trees so we can BOTH rest," declared the tiring warrior.

"I ... I don't think I can walk all the way over there right now," Gabrielle said. "Really, I've been running for hours. I'm so tired. How can it still be day?" she wondered distractedly.

Xena hesitated. She could carry the girl over, which would not only offend the young woman's dignity, but drain her own suddenly small reserves as well. The only logical alternative was Argo. She gritted her teeth.

"We're going to ride over there." Xena maintained her calm expression, but cringed inwardly at the look on her friend's face. "It'll be OK, I promise." She felt like a complete jerk as she lifted the still-trembling girl bodily onto Argo's broad back. "You sit in front this time." Mounting to the rear of the saddle, she reached to grasp the reins and anchor Gabrielle securely.

"Now, just relax ... I've got you," Xena said gently. "Look straight ahead. You won't get so dizzy that way." She felt Gabrielle put one shaky hand on the saddlehorn and the other on top of her own.

"It's OK, I'll be fine," the girl said gamely. Xena headed Argo toward the cool, green mass. Five minutes later, they were in the small glade and Argo's saddle was already resting on the ground.

"You were right, I didn't get nearly so dizzy when I looked straight ahead ... thanks!" Gabrielle smiled up at her friend from the tree stump where Xena had just left her.

"Good. Glad to hear it." Xena murmured distantly, wondering how Gabrielle could even THINK of smiling at her before realizing that there was no thinking involved for the good-natured bard. She shuddered once more at the thought of how many times she'd teased her friend about riding, then shook it off.

"Just stay there and rest while I feed Argo and get us something to eat. Then I want you to tell me about your ... trip. Try to keep your leg muscles relaxed. Oh, and you should take another drink of water."

"Yes, Mother," Gabrielle said with a wicked grin. Xena glared at her briefly and then began to laugh.

Chapter 3

The fruit, cheese, and bread from their pack tasted particularly good on this hot day in the cool glen. This in itself struck Xena as odd, considering that both of them had felt so sick not that much earlier. Still, it was a relief to see her friend eating with her customary gusto.

"Go easy on that, will you? You said you were sick."

"I also said I didn't FEEL sick anymore, Xena. I'm just tired." Gabrielle finished her portion neatly, not losing a crumb. Her ability to eat like a farmhand with incredibly delicate table manners was a never-ending source of amusement to Xena, who growled nevertheless, "Yeah, well, let's hear about this trip of yours."

"Let me get something straight first. You say that I was unconscious for less than FIVE MINUTES!?" Incredulous, Gabrielle stared at her friend. "I was gone for half a day, maybe more!"

"Yes, you show all the signs of recovering from a sustained physical effort of at least four hours," admitted Xena seriously. "Have the leg cramps stopped?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Mostly." She reached to massage her calf muscles again.

"It's just too weird, though, you were touching me the entire time ... either you hanging on to me while RIDING Argo," Xena grimaced slightly at the thought, "or me hanging on to you while we were falling OFF Argo."

"Wait ... YOU fell off Argo?!" Gabrielle looked stunned.

"Well, I did it deliberately. You're the one who actually took the header." Xena smiled nonchalantly at her companion and quickly described the chain of events from her perspective. "Your turn. I presume this version will take a little longer to get through ..." Xena pretended not to notice Gabrielle's glare.

"Oh, you're turning into a regular comedian, Xena. At last, you've got a backup career!"

"Just go on with the story, already!" Xena thundered in sudden exasperation.

"Oh, OK. Let's see ... We were riding along and I had just said ... SOMEthing that upset you. What ... what was it that I said?"

"Never mind that now," Xena replied. "It's not important to your story, Gabrielle ... just focus on the story."

"Uh, OK ... whatever it was, I'm sorry, by the way. That's what I meant to say when I found myself telling you that I felt strange. Then I had this rushing sensation ... wind rushing by me as I sort of whisked away from you down a long, dark tunnel. I heard you say, 'What is it?' Then you were gone, just ... gone. I found myself standing ..."

... in an open, flat, dark place with an orange glow around the fringe of the horizon. Suddenly moving from the incredible heat of the road to this cold place made Gabrielle chill and shiver. She stood still and listened. She could hear only moaning wind. She realized that she was totally empty-handed -- no staff, no bag, no supplies, nothing. She turned in a slow circle, trying to make out landmarks.

"Xena?" Gabrielle called, trying to remain calm and not succeeding particularly well. "Xena? This ... this isn't funny. Where are you? Where am *I*?" She felt nervous, excitable. She wanted ... she wanted to smash something! Yes! What an odd sensation!

Suddenly, her slow turn rewarded her with a large glow in the distance. Lacking any other point of reference, Gabrielle began a steady trot toward the point of light. She ran and ran, steadily, not particularly fast, trying to conserve her energy since she had no food or water. After nearly an hour, she didn't appear to be any closer to her goal, but she could hear voices shouting and moaning indistinctly from that direction. She stopped running and sat down right where she was to rest, shivering in the raw wind and darkness.

"I can't describe it any better than that, Xena," said Gabrielle in some frustration. "Darkness, cold, some sort of dream-like country -- big and terrifying. Voices ... voices everywhere." She faded into her own thoughts.

"Dream-like? You were in the dream plane?" Xena prompted.

"Er, no ... at least, I don't think so. It didn't seem like it. It was a void, nearly. I was really frightened ..."

"Rightfully so."

Gabrielle looked up sharply. "You ... you would have been ..."

"Afraid? Damned straight. No resources, no point of reference, no control ... I'D be scared!" declared the warrior fervently. She moved a little, reaching out for her friend's hand and finding it cold and shaking. She held on.

"Thanks," Gabrielle whispered. "I ... I'm ... I'll be OK." Taking a deep breath, she continued.

"After I rested a bit, I tried a little while longer to make some sort of headway to this orange glow, though I didn't know what to expect once I got there. I got more and more agitated and had no outlet for it except the running. I think that's why I continued so long. Standing still just made me feel stranger and stranger ... crazy to see ANYbody, do SOMEthing. Running was the only thing I could do that would give me some ... focus." The girl grinned at her mentor. "I could hear your voice in my head, telling me to focus. You didn't even sound exasperated ..."

"I don't mean to sound ..."

"I know you don't." Gabrielle grinned again. "Anyway, it seemed as if it had been a couple of hours. I tried to keep track by counting out loud. The voices and confusion were getting fainter by then. I decided that I was getting nowhere this way and wanted OUT. So I turned around from the orange glow and, trying to keep it directly behind me, started running in the opposite direction."

"You ran directly into this ... this darkness? This void?" Admiration tinged Xena's voice. The girl's native bravery never failed to captivate her.

"Yes, I couldn't think what else to do."

"You could have stopped," suggested Xena.

"Stopped? That wouldn't be doing anything, that would be quitting!" the girl retorted irritably.

The warrior smirked. "We wouldn't want that, now, would we?"

"Anyway, I got more and more upset and just kept running until I didn't think I could move my legs another step. Finally, I heard your voice coming from a long way off, it seemed. You were shouting -- 'Stop fooling around and get back here!' I was so happy to hear you, I didn't even mind that you were trying to order me around again!" Gabrielle smiled at the woman who was still holding her hand. "I began running faster and faster and calling out to you. Finally, I sort of woke up to you shaking me in the glare and the heat. I don't know how I left or how I got back."

Both women were silent for some time as they tried to make sense of the day's events.

Chapter 4

Xena took a drink of water and looked off into the distance, trying to capture the idea that was skirting the edges of her thoughts. It was a sequence or a pattern or ... yes, a pattern! She looked at Gabrielle, who was resting against the tree stump, eyes closed.

"Gabrielle, are you awake?" Xena asked gently. The girl opened one eye.

"Yeah, I'm awake. Can't give a girl a break, huh?"

Xena started to apologize, then realized her friend was teasing her. "Not even a LITTLE one. Gabrielle, do you recall having similar bouts of nausea over the last month or so ... times OTHER than when I made you ride Argo?" Xena shuddered inwardly.

"Um ... well, come to think of it, I do recall several times ..."

"And you didn't tell me because ...?" The warrior fixed the girl in her iciest stare.

"Oh, Xena, they were so brief! They could have been anything at all ... surely even you have experienced random sick feelings that are here and gone so fast you hardly think about them!"

"You're right, I have. Particularly, now that I think DO about it, during the past month or so." Xena let Gabrielle think about this idea for a while before she continued.

"In fact, the few times I can recall, they happened about a day before we would receive one of those 'random' attacks. What do you think?"

Gabrielle became animated. "Xena, yes! I think you're onto something here. I even have a way for us to check on our memories."

"Your journal?" Xena enjoyed Gabrielle's amazed look for a moment. "What? You think I don't know how my best friend spends her evening hours when she's at the same campfire I am?"

"Best ..." Gabrielle wondered if this was the first time she'd actually heard Xena say that out loud, then shook herself. "Uh, no, that's not it at all. I ... uh ... just didn't think you took much of an interest in what I was doing!" the girl blurted in surprise, looking at Xena a little apprehensively when she realized how that must have sounded. To her relief, Xena just laughed.

"I don't usually talk much, OK? That doesn't mean that I'm not interested in what you do ... pest!" Xena declared, regarding her astonished friend fondly. "In fact, I admire what you do and how you do it. You're thorough and careful and thoughtful with your stories, and right now, I'm depending on that to help us figure out what's going on here. Let's take a look at that journal of yours."

Gabrielle struggled to get up, but Xena stopped her. "Hold on, you stay right where you are. I'll get your bag for you." She bounded to her feet and returned so fast that Gabrielle didn't have a chance to protest. "Oh, and don't worry. I know you ... you've got private stuff written down there, so just read the relevant parts to me and skip the other."

Scanning the writing on her scrolls, Gabrielle wondered if Xena would ever stop surprising her. "Uh, OK ... here's the stuff from exactly a month ago. Hmm, nothing here ... let me go back a day or two. Oh, yes! Xena! Here it is ... walking along the road, minding my own business late this morning when I got terribly sick for a few minutes. At almost the same moment, Xena yelled at me for falling too far behind Argo. If I hadn't felt so sick I would have yelled back, but the feeling passed quite quickly and we went on our way as if nothing had happened." Gabrielle glanced at the warrior, who was smiling at her, thank the gods! "Oh, and the next day, we were attacked by bandits!"

"You realize I must have been experiencing the same nausea you were," Xena pointed out mildly.

"Yes, of course, I see that now, but ... " Gabrielle got excited. "Oh, I've just checked the entries for the next couple of weeks. The pattern is holding up!"

"Now we're getting somewhere! I'm not sure where yet, but we're certainly on the way!" Xena grinned. She grabbed a stick and began scratching a horseshoe-shaped object into the dirt. "Go back and tell me exactly where we were when each of these illness attacks occurred. I'm gonna plot 'em." When they had finished at mid-afternoon, they had a trail of dots from one end of Xena's rough map of Greece to the very spot they occupied now.

"Xena, these attacks don't look quite so random anymore," Gabrielle finally stated as she leaned back against the stump, totally spent.

"No, they don't, do they? It looks like some sort of force is traveling in waves across the country, affecting people physically somehow -- maybe every five or six days. But I think you have to stay in one place, or nearly so, to be affected by whatever it is. Since we're on the move so much, we never caught more than the wave of nausea. We'd experience the effects of the ... whatever ... when we'd pass through another place the next day."

Xena clasped the tired girl's shoulder. "We might never have noticed the pattern at all without the combination of events that happened today -- the heat, your exhaustion ... don't give me that look, you've been dead on your feet for days ... and you having to ride today, which added to your stress. Everything conspired to snare you in something you normally would not have experienced, I think." She paused, thinking.

"I believe that the voices you heard were people from this part of the country, all experiencing the anxiety and fear you described, only with no outlet for their emotions. Not many people will go running in total darkness for several hours just to keep focused, Gabrielle!" She squeezed the small shoulder again. "The buildup of this anxiety could cause violent outbursts, I think."

Both women went silent for a moment.

"Now, just what might have the power to cause such a thing?" said Xena.

"Ares!" the friends exclaimed in unison.

Chapter 5

"Some god, at least," Xena said finally. "How are you feeling? Can you start writing all this down so we'll have the evidence for Hercules and the others to see when we get to Athens? We may have the best perspective on this because we're traveling so far to get there ... and I can guarantee we're the only ones with a dated journal." She laughed.

"I'm OK," said Gabrielle. "I'll get started right away." The young woman rubbed her hands in satisfaction. "This is great ... now we even know how to avoid the attacks between here and there. All we do is just lay low the day after we feel sick, right?" No answer.

"Xena, right?"

"Well, normally, yes," said Xena slowly.

Fear penetrated Gabrielle's thoughts. She'd heard that tone before. "No, Xena, whatever you're planning ... no!"

"Gabrielle, I have to test out our theory. I'll have to see if someone attacks me out on the road there tomorrow morning around the same time that you ... took your trip today."

"No, why?!" Gabrielle wailed. "And forget it, you're not going out there alone. If you go, I go." She set her jaw stubbornly.

"Now, Gabrielle, there's no sense in both of us standing in harm's way. I'll be ready, anyway."

"No, no, NO!" Gabrielle was nearly frantic. "Why EVER would you do such a thing?!"

"Damn it, I told you why, so just drop it, OK? I know what I'm doing ..." Xena's voice sounded high and tight.

"And I don't, is that it? I'm not a baby, Xena, and I have a right to some say in how we ..."

"I said drop it, by Olympus! We're doing this MY way, Gabrielle. MY way, do you understand?!" The irate warrior stalked off to brush Argo without waiting for a reply.

Gabrielle looked at her for a moment, wondering if she ever really WOULD understand, then stretched out on the ground and fell asleep almost at once. When she awoke an hour later, she began writing up their speculations about the strange occurrences they'd encountered, referring back to her journal to bolster their points with specific dates and places. Xena busied herself with camp chores and hunting dinner. The two women did not speak the rest of the afternoon.

When Xena finished roasting the rabbit she'd caught, she divided the meat into two parts, putting the pieces onto large leaves and placed a small, yellow something beside each piece. She carried the food to the other side of the campfire where Gabrielle still wrote. Hesitantly, Xena reached down to ruffle her hair. The warrior's heart dropped when there was no immediate response.

"Your dinner's ready," Xena stated uncomfortably. "You've been at that all afternoon. Take a break?"

When Gabrielle looked up and glimpsed a brief, wistful expression crossing Xena's face, she put her writing down and sighed. "You know, I'm never going to be able to civilize you completely because I can't stay mad at you long enough." Out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle saw Xena's relieved smile, but she scowled anyway, just for effect.

"What's this?" she said, looking at the yellow something beside the meat. "Oh, honeycomb! Where did you find it? Did you save yourself some? You didn't get stung, did you?" She looked up suddenly, regretting the flood of words she'd just loosed on her tight-lipped companion.

Xena just smiled. "By the stream. Yes. No ... but thanks for asking!" Gabrielle giggled and they both laughed, hard, before finally settling down quietly to eat their meal together.

"Xena ..." Gabrielle began as they later sat looking at the fire's glow.

"No, Gabrielle ... wait." Xena didn't bother hiding the pain on her face. "This time, it didn't take two. I was wrong, just plain wrong, and I am so sorry. I ... I had no right to speak to you that way. You are a grown woman, a skilled warrior, and my equal partner in this ... whatever it is we're doing," Xena said distractedly. "... and you DO have a say in what happens. I just ..." Suddenly tired from the unaccustomed display of emotion, she let a single tear trail down her cheek.

Gabrielle felt the last remnants of anger melt in that tear. "You just want to keep me safe. I know that," she said softly. "Can't you understand that I feel the same way about you? Is that so hard, really?" Xena blinked as she tried to sort out how she felt about someone wanting to protect HER.

"... and I KNOW you don't think I'm a baby. I'm sorry I said that ... really sorry. You think I'm IMPORTANT. There's a difference, and I've got to start to recognize it." Xena realized that Gabrielle was chiding herself.

"No, none of this is your fault. Why do you always let me off so easy?!" Xena snapped in frustration. "I was in the wrong here. Get mad ... something!" Anger she could handle. Gabrielle's methods for dealing with conflict still confused her.

"I WAS mad, but I'm not anymore," Gabrielle said mildly. "OK. Let's start over. You WERE wrong and I really wish you hadn't said all that stuff. Thank you for telling me you feel the same way. Is that better?"

As Xena nodded uncertainly, she felt Gabrielle grip her shoulders. "... and I don't 'let you off easy.' I'm trying my best to FORGIVE you. It's not the same thing. In fact, it's not easy at all ... at least for me. You make me so mad sometimes, I ..." Gabrielle saw a strange mixture of relief and fear cross her friend's face. "Oh, hey, you know my temper is a near-match for yours. I'm no more of an angel than YOU are ... and don't give me that LOOK, Xena." Seeing that her friend had just about reached her emotional limits, however, Gabrielle decided to switch tactics.

"You forgive ME all the time, you know. I do stuff over and over that drives you crazy and you haven't tried to behead me even one time ... that I know of!" The young bard smiled slyly.

Xena laughed in spite of herself. "Not so far." She looked into her friend's open, honest face. "How do you do that?!"

"Do what?"

"Just ... I can't explain it right now ... never mind."

Gabrielle sighed as she gave Xena's shoulders a final squeeze and settled back down in front of the fire. Xena decided to move on while she thought all of this over.

"OK, listen, you're right, it's a dumb idea to just go out there on the road by myself with no backup and invite an attack. So, I went out this afternoon and looked around. There's a place down the road about a mile that offers perfect cover for my backup." The warrior grinned.

"Oh, Xena! You're totally impossible. Totally." Gabrielle frowned. "I suppose there's no talking you out of it, though."


Gabrielle sighed, waiting to hear exactly what her friend had planned. She knew she wouldn't like it.

Chapter 6

The next morning, hiding in the small tangle of bushes by the road, Gabrielle began to get really scared. They'd been too lucky during the past few weeks. She knew Xena thought she was being silly, but everything evened out for Gabrielle, always ... good and bad. She'd rather get a constant stream of cuts, scrapes, and bruises than to get off free and clear from one of these battles.

She jumped at the noise of several riders coming up the rise, bent on overtaking Xena, who was sauntering Argo down the middle of the road. When Gabrielle saw Xena get that almost-joyful grin on her face as she readied herself to do battle, the girl sent a prayer to Athena, Artemis, and anyone else in earshot for her friend's life. Gripping her staff so hard her hands started to hurt, she began to wish fervently that she had not agreed to Xena's request that she remain hidden for at least the first few minutes of the fray.

The scruffy band of six or seven men overtook the lone woman, not realizing that their reach had just exceeded their grasp. Despite her fears, Gabrielle the bard once again became mesmerized at the sight of the warrior's impromptu battle ballet. Her movements were decisive, graceful, terrifyingly beautiful ... every time Gabrielle saw this sight, she wondered what the dark warlord Xena looked like at the same moment, going into what would certainly have been a dance of carnage and death. The young woman shook herself out of her reverie.

At Xena's command, Argo turned sharply into the group of men and horses, charging directly into the nearest horse and spreading panic to the other mounts. Xena's battle cry sliced out over the men, confusing several of them. None of her attackers seemed particularly skillful at fighting and she was able to knock several off their horses. Flipping forward off Argo, she landed in the midst of the remaining bandits, laughing loudly and beckoning them with that terrifying smile. One ran in complete fright. Another attacked her directly with his sword, while a third came up behind her with a large knife.

"No!" cried Gabrielle as she ran full-tilt out of the bushes. Terrified, she realized she wasn't going to be able to reach the knife-wielding man in time and flung her staff directly at him. Struck in the back of the head, he fell to the ground, harmless for the moment. Xena continued to thrust, parry, and block, hoping to wear her opponent down rather than harm him severely. Perhaps they could get some information from him later.

Running to reclaim her staff, Gabrielle thought perhaps things were going to be all right after all until she looked up to see that the man with the sword, badly outclassed by Xena, had his own backup ... another companion with a spear, coming up over the rise! Everything seemed to go in slow motion for Gabrielle after that.

"Xena, to the left!" she called out. Xena saw the spear thrower, but almost too late. Knocking her opponent down with the flat of her blade, she leaped to sidestep the oncoming spear but stumbled over the rising form of the man Gabrielle had knocked out, who most inconveniently and unexpectedly had regained consciousness. Horrified, Gabrielle watched as the spear struck the warrior on the left side, ripping a gaping wound directly below her armor before falling away. Xena looked at the wound in surprise for a few seconds before dropping to her knees. Rushing forward, Gabrielle struck the spear-thrower with her staff, driving him away from the final kill. Turning, she knocked the now-rising sword-fighter's legs out from under him once more.

Whistling for Argo, Gabrielle bent down, grasped Xena under her arms, and pulled the half-conscious woman upright. "Get on, Xena ... get up on Argo," she urged, wrestling Xena's sword from her hand and shoving it back into its scabbard. By some miracle of instinct, training, and sheer physical conditioning, the warrior complied. Gabrielle clambered behind, trying to hold the heavily bleeding woman, guide Argo, and look straight ahead all at the same time. She rode Argo directly away from their camp in the copse of trees, hoping to mislead the attackers if they decided to pursue.

Making a wide circle, Gabrielle rode Argo back to the camp as fast as she could manage. She stopped the faithful animal directly by the firepit, slid off sloppily, and fought her dizziness as she tried to steady Xena's dismount.

"Xena, just let me help you," the girl said soothingly to her dazed, wounded friend. Bracing the warrior against a tree, Gabrielle roughly removed Xena's sword and armor and tossed them aside before letting her sit down next to the stump by the firepit. Almost as an afterthought, she snatched the chakram from its lacing at Xena's waist.

Whistling for Argo, she tossed the chakram over the saddlehorn, stripped the saddle off quickly, and slapped the mare's rump to move her aside. Rummaging frantically in the saddlebags, she yanked out Xena's medicine pouch and all the extra rags she could find. After scooping up a waterskin, she ran back to the firepit and threw everything down by the wounded warrior's side. She jammed several of the rags directly into the wound and placed both of Xena's hands over the rags.

"Hold these, Xena," she commanded. "I have to get the fire built up." Xena looked confused but complied with the order and actually succeeded in partially stemming the bloodflow while Gabrielle tossed some wood fragments on the fire and frantically fanned the morning's embers back into a quick, hot flame. Pulling the knife and a needle from the medicine pouch, she laid them on a rock at the edge of the fire to clean them for the tasks to come.

Kneeling beside Xena, Gabrielle helped her sit up from the stump and fumbled with the laces and buckles at the back of the warrior's leather tunic, now slick with blood. "I have to get this off, Xena, I can't even see where the cut starts!" Gabrielle pulled the woman's hands away from the wound and tugged the tunic off quickly, wincing as her friend cried out in pain.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry ... I've got to do this!" In her haste, she didn't bother with the leather breeches and simply ripped the cotton undergarment wider at the wound.

At that moment, pain and loss of blood finally caught up with Xena, who passed out and slumped into Gabrielle's arms. Momentarily shocked, Gabrielle held the dark head against her shoulder, gazed at the wound, and wondered if she could ever get the bleeding to stop. Shaking herself mentally, she lowered Xena gently to the ground and began cleaning and stitching the torn, brutalized flesh. She didn't know how long she worked over her unconscious patient. She just kept working until there was no more to be done.

Chapter 7

Gabrielle was beginning to be able to breathe normally again ... as normally as possible in the oppressive heat of the day's end. She glanced at the searing sun now low in the sky, then at the form resting by the fire, marveling at how ... small ... it looked just now.

The gash in her friend's side was deep, bloody, and took lots of stitches to close. Gabrielle looked down at her hands, shuddering at the blood covering them ... Xena's blood, sticky and clotted up to her elbows, splashed in deep stains on her clothing. Blood everywhere. Everywhere except where it should be ... inside Xena. She needed to get over the to stream to clean up, but she was reluctant to let her friend out of her sight for even those few moments. She poured a little water onto a rag that was less bloody than the rest and quickly cleaned the worst from her hands and arms. Later ...

Right now, though, she had to get some water into Xena and bandage the wound. Willing herself to be calm, she got up and walked over to Xena, whom she had propped up against the stump again so that she could breathe properly and with a little less pain.

"Hey, are you in there?" she inquired quietly, touching the feverish forehead. Blue eyes drifted open, unfocused.

"Um, yeah, sure thing." The weakness in the smoky voice broke Gabrielle's heart.

"You need to drink some water right away, Xena. You ... bled a lot." Gabrielle knelt by her friend, put a protective hand to the back of her head and held the container to dry, cracked lips. Xena closed her eyes and drank obediently.

Gabrielle broke into a little grin despite herself. Xena was always a surprisingly good patient. From experience, the warrior knew that people who were injured or ill got up and about fastest when they took care of themselves and followed the directions of their healers. Ever practical, Xena just suppressed her urge to be in control and got on with the task at hand.

With the last of the water, Gabrielle cleaned the skin in and around the stitches carefully. Then from the flask Xena always kept with her medical supplies, she used a small amount of potent liquor for the final cleansing.

"I'm sorry about the sting," she said quietly to Xena, who tensed as the alcohol did its work.

Using one of the last clean rags, Gabrielle made a soft pad to lay against the stitches. She thought briefly of removing the rest of warrior's bloody clothing, but Xena seemed to be too exhausted for such an effort. She decided to wait at least a few hours until she had to change the bandage. Taking a long strip of cloth from the medical bag, she began to wind it around the warrior's body, passing it in and through the ripped undergarment.

"I'm going to have to get down to the stream pretty soon and refill the waterskins," Gabrielle said. "I ... need to clean up, too." She threw a small log onto the fire, then shoved a couple of large stones into the edge of the blaze. "I'll heat some water when I get back and you can get cleaned up, too, OK?"

She earned a grateful smile from her patient. Xena, too, was covered in a now-sticky mass of her own blood and hated the feeling.

"That's really thoughtful of you, Gabrielle. Thanks," whispered Xena. She was silent for a few seconds. "You ... you're doing fine, you know? You're really quite a healer ... thorough and gentle, even when you're frightened. I'm so prou-- ..." she broke off suddenly, coughing and grimacing at the pain in her side. Gabrielle reached across to hold the sutured injury tightly.

"Whoa, take it easy! That was more talking than you usually do at any one time on a GOOD day," Gabrielle teased gently. "Do you always get more talkative when you don't feel good?"

"You ... you need to know that you're doing OK here," said Xena through gritted teeth.

"Yes, I DID need to know that," admitted Gabrielle, half to herself. "Not that I'm worried or anything ..." She glanced at her companion to see if she might rise to the bait. Nothing.

"Thanks for telling me ... I'm sure my teacher will be grateful for the news that her most recalcitrant student actually retained some of her lessons." Xena grinned crookedly, bringing out a short, happy laugh from Gabrielle as she pulled a blanket up over her friend's shoulders. Even in the heat, Xena was shivering.

"Xena? Your fever ... it seems really high. Do I ... should I be doing something about it?"

"Don't worry too much right now. It ... it helps fight disease that might develop in the wound. Sponging off the worst of the sweat once in a while would make me a little more comfortable," Xena replied almost clinically. "Put some of the herbs ... you know which ones ... in a cup of hot water or ... do we have anything to make broth? cider or ale or wine would work, too ..."

Xena's mind started to wander a bit, until she brought it firmly back in line. "If I drink that, I should be fine by morning, really. Tonight will be a little rough, though. If it's this high by tomorrow this time, we ... we'll think what to do next." Exhausted by this latest effort, Xena closed her eyes and sighed deeply.

"I know you're tired and hurting, but ... but I want you to tell me NOW what I should do tomorrow if ... about your fever. I'm afraid ... I mean, you may not be in shape to tell me if this fever lasts that long." Gabrielle hadn't meant to sound as upset as this last sentence came out.

Xena arched an eyebrow and Gabrielle smiled. "Yes, you're right," said Xena. "Just take me ... uh, I'm afraid our difference in size is going to put you at a disadvantage here. At that point, the best thing to do would be to get me into the cool water of the stream until my fever broke, but how could you DO that ...?" A wave of dizziness and nausea overcame the injured woman and she leaned back against the stump.

"Don't worry about how. I'll figure out something if I have to." At this, Xena closed her eyes.

Gabrielle gathered the three waterskins from around the campsite and walked to Argo's saddle. She grabbed all the bloody rags and raked through the saddlebags until she found a piece of soap, her knife, and a clean shift. Pulling the chakram from its temporary home on the saddlehorn, she looked up to see the patient mare, who had gotten no more attention since Gabrielle had taken her saddle off hours before. "Oh, Argo! Poor girl! You must be dying of thirst. Here." Gabrielle dropped everything to the ground, found one waterskin with a little liquid left in it, and poured it carefully into her hand. Argo drank it greedily and took the rest as Gabrielle poured it out.

Patting her neck affectionately, Gabrielle said to the horse, "I really need to take you with me down to the stream, don't I? And I need to feed you and brush you ... you've been so good, I'm sorry!" The mare snorted gently, as if to tell her she understood the afternoon's priorities. "I kinda don't want to leave Xena completely alone, though. I'll tell you what, I'll run right back with more water for you ... we'll put it in that rock depression over there ... and I'll give you your grain before I go back to do the rest of the chores, OK?" Argo nickered agreeably. "Thanks, pal!"

Gabrielle went back to her drowsing friend, arms full. "Xena? I'm going to the stream now. I'm leaving Argo with you for company, OK?" No response. Gabrielle put the chakram on the ground next to the warrior. Gently placing Xena's limp right hand on top of the weapon, she said, "I shouldn't be long," and walked away without waiting for a reply.

At the familiar feel of the metal, Xena had opened her eyes, looked down, and smiled. "I'll be fine ... thanks for thinking of this." Seeing she was already alone, she searched with bleary eyes until she saw her friend disappearing into the trees. "Be careful," she whispered.

Chapter 8

At the stream's edge, Gabrielle dumped her burden to the ground, opened up the waterskins, and placed them into the water to fill. Once they were filled, she slung them over her shoulders and ran as fast as her tired legs would carry her back to the campsite. Leaving two containers beside the fire, she ran over to Argo and poured the cool water into the rock depression. The animal drank enthusiastically until Gabrielle pulled her back a little.

"Hey, there, take it easy on that stuff! Don't YOU get sick on me, too!" Gabrielle murmured. Argo eyed her expectantly. "Yeah, I know, I know, where's dinner, huh? I really am sorry I forgot about you ... you're OK, right?" In nervous release, it seemed, she chattered away as if the mare could talk back while she filled a cloth nosebag with grain. As she put it in place, Argo nudged her playfully.

"Yes, I'll be back soon to brush and clean you up, too!" Gabrielle looked ruefully at the blood spattered all over the mare's golden hide. She walked back toward the fire, where Xena appeared to be a little more wakeful.

"Was Argo hurt today?" the warrior asked suddenly.

"What? Oh, no, not at all! That ... that's not her blood. She's just a little ... dirty ... in spots and I have to clean up her saddle. She's hungry and thirsty, but she's just dandy otherwise."

"Good ... good." Reassured, Xena watched Gabrielle kick the hot rocks from the edge of the fire and lay one of the waterskins on top of them.

Feeling the warrior watching her, she turned and said with a smile, "By the time I get finished at the stream, the water will be nice and hot. You'll feel so much better after you get cleaned up a little, too. I think I can manage to wash your hair if you like." The usually beautiful, dark mass of hair was sticky with sweat and blood. "Decide while I'm gone, OK?"

"Gabrielle?" Xena whispered. "Slow down a little, will you? Take care of yourself first ... we'll all be in trouble if you're not healthy during the next couple of days."

"Sorry, I'm so on edge I can't keep still. I'll be better after I take a swim, hmm? " She placed a hand on top of Xena's head and rested it there briefly. "You OK, more or less?"

"More or less," Xena replied. "Go for your swim."

Running to the stream, Gabrielle anchored all the bloody rags in the stream with a rock. She removed her bloody clothing and put it in the stream with the rags to soak. Taking the soap with her, she dove into the cold stream and came up gasping at the shock.

"Can't fool around here ... but oh, the cold feels good!" Gabrielle lathered herself all over, including her hair, and allowed herself the quick luxury of cleanliness. She swam around for a minute or two, rinsing the soap and just trying to relax. The coolness felt so good in the late afternoon heat that she stayed in the stream while she cleaned her clothes and the rags.

Regretfully, she dragged herself and her laundry out of the water and laid out everything to dry. After pulling on the clean shift, she took her knife to some nearby fir trees and cut as many of the young, tender branches as she could reach. Clutching the soap and some of the newly cleaned rags, she balanced the armful of branches and went back to the campsite.

Gabrielle dropped the branches, arranging them into a large, fragrant pile near Xena, who seemed to be sleeping fitfully. After throwing a blanket over the branches, she returned to Argo, removed the empty nosebag, and let the mare drink her fill at the rock depression. From the saddlebags, she found Xena's pouch of herbal remedies and selected the ones she needed. Taking their two cups and a small wineskin, she returned to the fire, mixed the herbs into some of the wine in one cup, and set it near the fire to heat. Taking the heated waterskin from the rockpile, she turned to find blue eyes watching her every move.

"Hi, there!" Gabrielle said cheerily. "Did you sleep at all while I was gone? Would you like a drink of water?"

"Yes to both questions," said her patient. "You look like you feel better."

"I do!" Gabrielle found the other waterskin and was already helping her companion with a drink. "What do you think? Do you want me to help you clean up a little now?" Xena nodded and Gabrielle removed her armguards and gauntlets, now coated with dried blood. "I'll have to clean your armor later ... it's a mess." Xena rolled her eyes, but said nothing.

With the soap and a rag soaked in warm water, the girl gently washed the sticky mess from her friend's face, neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. Removing Xena's blood-splattered greaves and boots, Gabrielle cleaned the worst of the blood from her patient's legs.

"Thanks ... that's much better," Xena whispered.

"Can you manage with the rest of your bath or do you want me to do it?" asked Gabrielle. "I can help you get the rest of your clothes off and then ..." Seeing her friend's anguished expression, she offered a third alternative. "... or would you rather not bother until tomorrow? Your clothes ..."

"... are a wreck, I know," said the tired warrior. "Think I'll let the bath go for now, though I would like to get the leathers completely off." A few torturous minutes later, the blood-soaked breeches lay off to the side of the bed.

"Let me get your chiton ... the wrap-around won't be so binding as this shift ... or rather, what's left of it." Gabrielle eyed the torn, bloody undergarment and wondered briefly if it could be salvaged.

"No, not now, it's not really bothering me and I'm so ..." Xena stopped as she saw the worry in her friend's eyes. "Let's just wait until you change the bandage, OK?" Xena shifted against the stump to try to reduce her pain without alarming her friend.

"Did you want me to wash your hair?"

"It would feel great afterward but I don't think I can take it right now," Xena confessed.

"OK, we'll wait then." Gabrielle reached down. "You can't be comfortable against this tree stump. I've cut some fir branches and made a nice bed over there where you can rest better and still be propped up some and close to the fire. Come on, I'll help you." She smiled at her friend encouragingly.

"You did that for me?" Surprised, Xena allowed herself to be raised up by arms that were much stronger than they appeared to be. All that practice with the Amazon staff was showing.

"I'm not hurting you, am I?" questioned Gabrielle anxiously.

"No, no ... you're doing pretty well, actually." They took the few steps to the fir-branch bed slowly.

"Great!" said Gabrielle happily as she lowered her charge. "Why are you surprised? You did it for me every night for weeks after ... after Thessaly. It really does make a difference and I always enjoyed the fragrance so. How's that?"

As Gabrielle chatted, Xena wondered if she was supposed to answer any of the questions. Catching her expression, Gabrielle laughed and said, "I now grant you the opportunity to catch up with the conversation while I get your hot drink from the fire!"

Feeling a bit overwhelmed, Xena said, "You're right, it feels much better here than over there. I don't know why I was surprised. Thanks ... again."

Gabrielle tested the cup and found it too hot, so she transferred the liquid to the other container. Bringing this to her friend, she used her best imitation of Xena's "command" voice.

"Drink this all at once, and don't dawdle about it!"

Looking up sharply, Xena recognized the verbal jab and started to laugh. That, of course, made her side hurt. She grabbed it immediately and fell back onto the bed, still laughing. Gabrielle dropped to her knees and steadied the warrior with one hand while balancing the herbal concoction with the other.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean for that to happen," Gabrielle cried. "Are you OK?! You didn't tear any stitches ...?!"

Still gasping with laughter and pain, Xena looked up at the younger woman. "Oh, Gabrielle, I'm fine ... really. See for yourself!" She took her hand away from the wound, showing the bandage to be perfectly clean of new blood. "I don't think I've ever heard you DO that before!" The warrior laughed again and winced.

"Do what?" asked Gabrielle, still distracted by the thought that she'd caused her friend more pain.

"Imitate a voice like that ... MY voice. You realize, of course, that I'll have to have you executed for insolence." The fatigued warrior was relieved to see her joke bring back Gabrielle's light-hearted mood.

"Mmm-hmm, and just which member of your vast army is going to carry out your order, Princess?" Gabrielle grinned at Xena, acutely aware that her friend had actually made fun of her former self for perhaps the first time.

"Oh, I'll figure that out later." Suddenly feeling weak, Xena waved her hand dismissively. "I'll just delay the sentence until further notice."

"Gee, thanks, Your Beneficence. Would you like to drink your evening herbs now?" Gabrielle put her arm beneath her friend's neck for support and lifted her delicately into a sitting position.

"Oh, OK, if you insist." Xena began to drink and pulled back in surprise. "Hey, that's wine! I didn't know we had any left ..."

"I have many skills," said Gabrielle sweetly and Xena eyed her anew. "Please just drink it, Xena, OK? I'm hoping it will help you sleep a little better, hmm?" She held her patient until the mixture was gone, then lowered her back to the bed. "I've got to get those blankets around you before you get chilled again."

She ran to the stump, gathered the blankets, and rushed back to her friend, who was resting quietly on the fir branches. Spreading the blankets, she knelt to tuck one firmly around the woman.

"How's that?" she asked nervously.

"Gabrielle, please relax a little, will you?" The warrior smiled at her attendant. "It's fine, really. I can't imagine anyone getting better care." She closed her eyes. "Have you eaten anything yet?"

"Oh, I'll get some biscuits in a minute."

"That's not enough after the day you've had," said Xena, opening her eyes again in protest.

"The day I'VE had? Are you nuts?!" Suddenly, she was stabbed by piercing blue eyes and wriggling under the attack. "Well, maybe that was a bad word choice. Listen, are YOU hungry?"

"No, not really," admitted Xena.

"Uh, well, we still need to get some nourishment into you. I'll tell you what, then, later I'll get some of the dried meat, maybe find a few vegetables of some sort, and make us a little broth. Tomorrow morning I'll get us a couple of fish and we'll both have a big breakfast, OK?" Mollified, the blue eyes closed and Gabrielle sighed in relief. She sat quietly, hoping that Xena would drift off to sleep with no further difficulty.

"So, when are you going to eat?" asked Xena after several minutes.

"Oh, for ..." Gabrielle jumped up, got the biscuits, and returned to her perch between Xena and the campfire. "OK, I'm eating, I'm eating. Satisfied?"

"For now," came the suddenly strained whisper. "I ... I can't seem to get comfortable. Can't seem to turn off my thoughts ..."

Chapter 9

"Is there something I can do?" asked Gabrielle quietly as she munched on a biscuit. She hated to admit it, but the first biscuit tasted great and she was working on another. She really was hungry, darn Xena anyway.

"Yeah, you can brush Argo like you promised her and then you can tell me stories until I fall asleep ..." Xena kept her eyes closed against her companion's delighted expression. "... but not any of that epic nonsense. You know the ones I like."

Gabrielle smiled. "Yes, I know." A few months back, during her somewhat rocky recovery from her back-from-death experience in Thessaly, she had discovered quite by accident that Xena actually enjoyed lyric poetry -- shorter stuff, often about love lost and won, sometimes about smaller, more personal moments from the same stories she told through her epics. She'd recited a couple one evening, half in a daze and more-or-less to herself, only to open her eyes to an spellbound companion. Amazed, she rallied from her sick bed a bit and recited a few more. Xena made it quite clear that she enjoyed them, so Gabrielle started making a special effort to collect others. This evening, the young bard was grateful she had made the effort.

"OK, I'll take care of Argo. Before I go, though, let me just ..." She reached with a cloth and wiped the sweat from her patient's face. Xena opened her eyes briefly and smiled. Gabrielle ran to Argo, who snorted a bit impatiently for her turn at some attention. The girl chatted happily to the animal, who seemed to tolerate the noise for the chance to be clean and brushed once again.

Finishing this task, Gabrielle swept her staff and Xena's armor off the ground where she'd thrown them hours earlier and returned to the warrior's bed. She was disappointed to see that Xena hadn't fallen asleep in the interim.

"Still with me, I see," she commented to her charge. "I'm going to try to clean your armor while I sing. Is that OK?" Xena raised an eyebrow, then nodded.

"Any preferences?" Gabrielle looked at Xena for a moment, who gave no sign that she'd heard the question. "OK ... I'll just start somewhere then." She began reciting poem after poem as she worked on cleaning blood from all the crevices in the armor.

Slowly, slowly, as the sun set Xena did begin to drift into sleep. Putting aside the newly shining armor, Gabrielle sat down by her sleeping friend and took her hand. "We'll do one more then," she said softly, "and call it a day, yes?" The bard got a far-away look in her eyes and spoke softly.

Proud Warrior!
You stand in the sunlight, straight-limbed and clear-eyed,
In glittering armor and rigorous truth.
Your look and your bearing shout passion and justice
and glorious, fiery youth.

Proud Warrior!
You stand in the moonlight, your head bowed in sorrow.
You stare into something not there.
What battle? What village? What crime beyond telling?
You grapple with guilt and despair.

Proud Warrior!
You sleep, though you fear it.
The dead shout your name in the night.
Still dreaming, you call and I come to you, silent.
I hold you, your tears, and your fright.

Proud Warrior!
I would chase all the demons and battle the memories.
I would fight them all night through to day.
I would stand between you and your dark, tortured visions.
I would guard you to keep them away ...

... but I cannot protect you! I slip through your shadows
      and wonder ...
         and worry ...
            and pray.

You must come alone to the light, to redeeming.
All I can do is cradle your dreaming --
and whisper, "You're safe now ... Proud Warrior."

Tears streaming down her face, Gabrielle leaned over her now-peaceful friend and whispered, "You're safe now," once again as she stroked a pale cheek. Still holding Xena's hand, the exhausted young woman threw herself down on the ground with no ceremony and promptly fell asleep.

Some time later, Gabrielle suddenly felt movement. She seized her staff and leaped to her feet, still half asleep. Seeing nothing in the gloom, she looked down to find herself under the observation of some very amused blue eyes.

"Nicely done, if a little fuzzy around the edges," Xena commented dryly.

"You did that on purpose," protested the girl, sitting down hard.

"Actually, no, I didn't. I was just trying to shift my position a little and couldn't quite pull it off without waking you. I'm sorry!" Xena gave her tired friend a guilty look as she shuddered slightly from the cold feeling in her legs.

"Oh, that's OK," Gabrielle mumbled. "Do you need some help getting comfortable? Are you in pain? Want some water?"

Xena smiled at the sleepy girl and said, "Let me see, I think the answers are yes ... don't worry so much ... and please." Gabrielle blushed and got the waterskin. After helping her patient sit up and get a drink, she rearranged the blankets a little and helped Xena change positions on the bed of fir branches.

"There, is that better?"

"Much, thanks ... Gabrielle?" Xena waited until her friend turned around to look at her. "I ... I'd like you to recite that last poem again."

Gabrielle jumped a little. "Which one was that? I must have recited thirty of them ..." But Gabrielle knew Xena wouldn't go for her ruse.

"The LAST one, Gabrielle ... the one you said for me when you thought I was asleep," said Xena patiently.

"Were you cheating?" squeaked Gabrielle, hoping to deflect the request.

"No, I wasn't. I was so close to being asleep that I almost didn't catch what you were saying, but I DID catch it, Gabrielle, and I want to hear it again when I'm fully awake."

"May I ask you why first?" Gabrielle looked closely at her friend.

"I never heard you recite it before and I like it very much, what I can remember of it. I want to hear it again. Is there a problem?" Xena asked suspiciously.

"No ... no, of course not. You just took me by surprise, that's all. I could have sworn you were asleep."

Gabrielle recited the poem again. She considered trying to downplay the content and emotion, but couldn't bring herself to do it. She ended up in tears again.

"Thank you, Gabrielle. I ... I really like it. It's not like anything else you sing. It seems so ..." She stopped and looked up at her weeping friend.

"So personal?" Gabrielle finished the sentence quietly and waited.

"Yes. Personal. Does it have a name?" The warrior shivered slightly.

"Yes ... it has a name," Gabrielle sighed in defeat as she wiped the sweat from her friend's face. "It's called Warrior's Lullaby."

"And who wrote it, do you know?" Xena looked up at Gabrielle expectantly.

"Yes, and so do you, you wicked woman." Closing her eyes and smiling in spite of herself, she confessed the obvious. "I wrote it, of course. I wrote it for you ... about three months after we started traveling together."

"I see," said Xena softly. "Then, Gabrielle ..."

The pause caused Gabrielle to look directly down into her friend's eyes.

"... we have to talk."

Chapter 10

Gabrielle remained uncharacteristically silent as she held Xena's gaze and reached down to wipe the sweat from her face once again. She realized, almost as an afterthought, that she'd done this just seconds before.

"OK." Though she kept her voice steady, Gabrielle felt tears welling up. "Are you angry with me?"

"Gabrielle ... no!" Xena was startled at the girl's question. "Why would I be angry with ..." She searched her friend's face and saw in that one look how much her own inner darkness affected this sympathetic girl. She began to shiver steadily as she started again.

"Gabrielle, your poem ... it's ... it says so much ... and ... and you wrote it for me. For ME." The warrior paused, still caught in the pleasure of it. "Nobody ever did anything like that for me before. It's an incredible gift and I'll treasure it, forever. Such a thing could never make me angry. Never." Xena tried to ignore the coldness creeping up her spine.

Gabrielle sighed, realizing as she did that she'd been holding her breath. "I'm sorry, Xena, it's just that you're such a private person and I ... nobody's ever heard it, I swear, nobody but you ... and nobody ever will. When I wrote it I had in mind an audience of one ... that is, if I could ever work up the courage to perform it for her." Gabrielle smiled down at Xena and saw that her friend was struggling with a strong chill. Immediately, she pulled the blankets up over the woman's shaking shoulders.

"No, Gabrielle, don't bother about that now," Xena murmured. "I understand now why you thought I was angry with you, but I'm not. T-truly." She tried to steady her voice and failed.

"I ... I ... n-need to know ... why ... why you ... w-wrote it, though ... specifically why." Xena heard her fear spilling into her voice and knew that Gabrielle heard it, too, but didn't have the strength to control her emotions and fight the chill at the same time.

"You're afraid," Gabrielle said in flat surprise. "What could I possibly have done to make you feel afraid, Xena? What?"

Xena stared at her. "It's not what YOU did," she whispered, "it's what *I* did." She gave the girl a pleading look as she felt the chill overtaking her, confusing her.

Bewildered, Gabrielle stood up, shook her head, and began to pace. "What YOU did? You didn't do anything, Xena, I just ..."

"I didn't do anything?!" Xena rasped. "I didn't DO anything?!" The bitter sharpness of her voice brought Gabrielle up short. She whirled to see the ice blue of Xena's eyes go dangerously dark as the badly shaking warrior suddenly struggled to rise from her bed in some inexplicable fury.

"Xena!" Gabrielle ran toward her. "You're going to hurt yourself. Stop! Stop this instant!"

Without thinking, she bent and grabbed the struggling woman by her upper arms. Automatically, Xena brought her right arm up, broke Gabrielle's grip, and struck the girl full across the face, sending her careening across the ground to be stopped only by Argo's saddle. Drained and unable to fight the fevered chill any longer, Xena blacked out and collapsed onto the blankets, her body shaking violently.

Stunned, Gabrielle fought to sit up and catch her breath. Her head throbbed and she wondered if the pain in her jaw signaled a broken bone. A bard with a broken jaw -- now there's poetic justice, she thought hazily. All of her teeth ached and she could taste blood. Her vision was blurred badly and she couldn't seem to get rid of the buzzing sound in her ears. She shook her head, but it just made the pain worse. All she could do was sit in a quiet daze.

As she sat, she could hear Xena's voice floating out from somewhere in her mind. "Never, I repeat NEVER grab a trained warrior suddenly. That includes me ... perhaps most particularly me. The training will take over long before the mind will react, Gabrielle. You could be badly hurt ... or worse." Some people have to learn things the hard way, Xena, Gabrielle thought ruefully. From now on, I'm gonna have a little more sympathy for all those guys you pound. Thank the gods you aren't at full strength or I'd be ... wait, how long have I been sitting here? And Xena ... oh, no, Xena! Gods in Olympus, where is Xena?!

Gabrielle blurrily searched the campsite for the fir-branch bed and saw the warrior lying helpless on the blankets. Panic-stricken, she half-stumbled, half-crawled to her friend.

Reaching Xena's shivering, unconscious form, Gabrielle clutched at the first blanket she could reach and wrapped it tightly around the woman. She smoothed out the blanket covering the fir branches, rolled the warrior back onto the bed, and quickly checked for torn stitches. Relieved at not finding any, she put the other blanket on top of her friend. She stumbled back to the saddle, where she got more herbs and the wineskin, her own shawl from the saddlebags, and Argo's saddle blanket, too. She wrapped the saddle blanket around Xena's legs and tucked the shawl around her head and neck.

A few minutes later, as the battered girl sat next to the fire and mixed the herbs and wine, a painful moan from the pile of blankets told her that Xena was regaining some level of consciousness. She plunged a flaming brand into the cup to heat the mixture quickly, smothered the burning alcohol with a sharp breath, and moved back to Xena's side.

Gabrielle sat down close to her companion, who seemed to radiate heat into the humid night. She lifted Xena's head and helped the still-delirious woman drink the hot mixture. Not knowing what else to do, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the blankets and pulled the shivering form into her lap, as close to her own body heat as she could.

"Xena?" Getting no response, Gabrielle shifted around a little so she could see her friend's face ... eyes closed, hair and face dripping with sweat. "Xena?" She rocked the trembling woman, holding her tightly through the uncomfortable heat. She was starting to feel a little sick herself. "Xena?"

"Gabrielle ... so c-cold ... OK ... I'm gonna ... b-be ... I'm ... in a little while ... need ... t-to ... "

"Hush, Xena, hush," crooned the girl as she rocked gently. "Everything's gonna be all right. Hush now."

As Xena quieted, Gabrielle fumbled with the waterskin. When she finally succeeded in opening it with one hand, she soaked one end of her shawl and brought the cool cloth up to her aching face. Not knowing the extent or position of her wounds, she just held the soothing coolness against the places that hurt most and tried to wipe away any traces of blood from her mouth.

Then, an awful thought struck her. How bad did she look and how would she ever keep Xena from seeing? If Xena were in perfect health, the guilt she would feel about this incident would be excruciating. How would she react in her present condition?

One good sign was that Gabrielle could find no blood on her shift. She must not have bled very badly. Changing her position so that Xena would not be looking directly at her on waking, she re-soaked the end of the shawl before putting it against her aching jaw.

The night heat was nearly unbearable. Feeling as if she were embracing an armful of embers, Gabrielle hung on grimly to the wounded warrior. She looked up at the moon and the stars and realized that it would be many hours until dawn.

Xena wasn't kidding when she said that tonight would be a little rough.

Chapter 11

Eventually, Xena stopped shivering and drifted into a natural sleep. It seemed to Gabrielle as if the fever might have broken, but she couldn't be sure yet. Carefully placing the sleeping woman back on the fir-branch bed, Gabrielle scrambled away and breathed the humid night air deeply in a futile attempt to cool herself off. She felt that if she didn't get cooler quickly, she might burst into flame.

First things first, though. Her head still throbbed. She picked up Xena's sword and brought it close to the fire. Drawing it from its scabbard, she held it at an angle in the firelight so she could see her reflection in its carefully polished surface. What she saw both worried and relieved her.

An angry bruise covered most of her right cheek. Her right eye was definitely and badly blackened. There would be no way to hide this mess from Xena. Her mouth and nose seemed to be intact for the most part, not swollen, and she couldn't see or feel that any teeth were missing. The blood must have come from biting down on the inside of her cheek or something. Re-sheathing the sword, she decided she had to cool off.

Glancing first to be sure that Xena still slept, Gabrielle sprinted down to the stream, knelt by the water's edge, and splashed the cold water on her face and arms. The coolness felt wonderful! She stripped off her shift and dove headfirst into the water. Coming up for air, she stayed in the water up to her neck, trying to breath deeply and soothe her jangled nerves. Once in a while, she submerged completely, savoring the numbing effect the cold water had on her facial bruises.

Finally, she jumped out of the water and put her shift on while she ran back to the campsite, worried that Xena would waken alone. Relieved to see that her friend hadn't stirred, Gabrielle stood dripping water and thinking about how she would break this news to her. She saw herself headed for the top of that huge pile of guilt that Xena carried around with her everywhere, and she didn't like the view.

Then there was their rather rudely disrupted conversation about the poem. Why was Xena so ... so desperate about that poem? What could she possibly mean by that last outburst? "I didn't DO anything?!" Another hour passed as she paced and tried to figure everything out.

Suddenly, the answer came to her. "Oh! Oh, no, Xena. You can't think that it matters ..." At the same time, a sigh from the bundle of blankets brought her back to the present.

"Xena?" she called tentatively.

"A-awake," came the ragged reply. "S-sorry I ... gave ... you s-such a ... s-scare."

"What, me scared?" Gabrielle joked as she knelt behind her friend's head and put a hand to her forehead. "You're talking to the Warrior Bard of Poteidaia here. What's a little uncontrollable shivering and general delirium to me?" She stayed carefully behind Xena as she loosened the cocooning shawl.

"W-warrior Bard of ...?" Xena rolled her eyes and coughed weakly. "D-don't ... s-start with me ... " She tried to glance backward at the girl and couldn't quite focus. "You OK? You ... look ..."

"Oh, uh ... all the water," Gabrielle said hastily, moving back a little further. "I look as if I drowned, huh? Well, I'm so hot ... I know that's hard for you to understand right at the moment, but it's really hot and sticky tonight and, uh ... well, after you finally got warmed up and were sleeping I was so hot that I ran down to the stream and, well, jumped in and ... and ... I was in a hurry to get back to you ... to the camp, I mean ... so I didn't take the time to dry off!" She gulped at the rush of words.

Xena raised an eyebrow. "I see ... I think. Feeling ... cooler now?"

"Much ... how are YOU doing?"

"Better but ... so tired." Collecting herself, Xena tried to get a good look at the girl and found the angle impossible. "Sure ... you're ... OK?"

"You know, I think you're fever may have broken ... you feel a little cooler and you're not sweating anymore." Gabrielle reached for the waterskin. "You need a drink, though." Still behind her patient, she raised the warrior up a bit and offered her the water. She was startled to realize that her friend was too weak to hold her head up. "Xena, you needed to rest and all we've done is get into more trouble the all through the night. Is it EVER going to end?"

She moved closer to offer more physical support and said in some disgust, "I'm sorry I'm not handling this better ..."

Xena accepted the water gratefully, but her sudden helplessness scared her a little. "G-Gabrielle?"

"I'm right here," murmured the girl soothingly. "Um, we need to think about changing your bandage." Gabrielle tried to sound more confident than she felt at the moment. "And I'll get your chiton and I'll fix some broth ... you've gone so long without eating anything."

Gently, she lowered Xena back to her bed and went to the pile of bags and equipment hung in various places on the saddle. She didn't think Xena was alert enough to notice her facial bruises, but she walked in such a way that they weren't visible to the woman, just in case.

From one of the saddlebags, she pulled out the soft, white, mid-thigh chiton that Xena always carried with her but seldom wore. Rummaging further in one bag, she came up with several strips of dried meat. From the equipment pack, she pulled the small kettle and some spoons. Then she headed toward the fire, where she crumbled the meat strips into the kettle and added some water from the waterskin. Jamming a forked stick next to the fire, she hung the kettle on it down into the flames and headed over to the edge of the clearing where she'd seen some wild onions. Finding them in the dark wasn't easy, but she finally managed to pull up several and pinch some tender herb leaves that she stumbled across. Back at the fire, she cleaned and chopped the vegetables, tossing them and the herbs into the kettle. Finally, she grabbed the waterskin and headed toward the stream.

"Xena, I'm going to get some fresh water and pick up all the wash I did this afternoon. I won't be long. Are you OK?"

"Yeah ... be ... careful."

"I promise." Gabrielle continued on the path to the water. Once there, she filled the waterskin in the stream, gathered her clothing and the rags, and made a quick return to the campsite. She stopped at the fire to stir the bubbling broth and pick up the chiton before heading back to Xena's bed. She was grateful she would be able to stay on Xena's left side, which would keep her facial bruises out of Xena's line of sight, at least partially.

"Here, let me help you get your shift off." Gently, Gabrielle pulled the shredded, bloody, sweat-soaked garment away from Xena's skin, guided her arms out of the shoulder straps, and drew the nearly unrecognizable rag over her head. Tossing it aside, she quickly removed Xena's old bandage and wrapped the blankets back around the warrior to shield her from a return chill. Moving a blanket aside slightly, she carefully removed the pad from the stitches.

"Look ... OK?" Xena managed to ask.

"Well, the skin around the stitches looks pretty good ... it's a good color, and there's not too much seepage. It isn't too swollen, either." Gabrielle looked up from her clinical analysis to see Xena smiling faintly at her prize medical student.

"Still, it looks like it's pretty sore." The girl paused as she cleaned the skin around the wound. "It hurts you a lot, doesn't it?"

Xena looked up at her for a moment, as if making a decision. "Yes ... it does," she whispered finally.

Gabrielle swallowed hard at the unexpected admission. "Is there anything I can do about it?"

"Already doing ... everything anyone could ..."

"Even you?" Gabrielle tried to keep her tone light, but Xena heard her faith and her fear come through the question.

"Even ... me." Xena tried to rally a little for the young woman, but couldn't manage it. Silently, Gabrielle continued to clean and re-bandage her wound.

After several minutes, Gabrielle asked, "This is how you feel, isn't it?"

"Feel ...?"

"I've seen a look in your eyes so many times that I couldn't place. Sometimes you're looking at me, sometimes someone else, but the look is always the same. Now I know." The sadness that came suddenly to Gabrielle's voice was almost more than Xena could bear. The warrior tried to reach for the girl, but her strength failed her.

"You do everything you can, use everything you know, and in the end, you're still helpless." The girl stopped what she was doing, threw herself on the ground beside Xena, and rested her head on her friend's arm. "Like now. You're in pain and I can't fix it. I don't think I've ever felt so empty. This is how you feel, isn't it?"

Stunned at the desolation she heard in her friend's voice, Xena struggled to think of something to tell her, but there wasn't anything. "Yes, it is," the warrior said simply.

After a few minutes, Gabrielle sat up and muttered, "I really HATE being a grown-up sometimes." Her smile finally returned when she heard Xena whisper, "Me, too."

Chapter 12

After helping Xena into her wrap-around chiton and snugging the blankets back around her, Gabrielle returned to the fire to fill the two cups with rich, hot broth from the kettle. She broke a biscuit and dropped the pieces into one cup.

Returning to the bed, she sat down behind her dozing friend and let the broth's aroma float over her. Xena opened her eyes.

"Smells ... good," said the warrior.

Gabrielle helped her patient sit up a little. "Be careful, will you? It's really hot." She held the cup and Xena took a small drink.

"Not too hot," Xena said. "More? Feels so good going down." She drank deeply with her eyes closed.

"I didn't know if you'd be able to handle any biscuit with it. I've got some in the other cup if you want to try it," said Gabrielle, reaching for the cup and dipping some of the broth-soaked bread out with a spoon. Xena nodded. Several minutes later, all of the bread and most of the broth from both cups was gone.

"I'd call that a pretty good appetite for someone who can't hold her head up," teased Gabrielle as she rearranged the tangled blankets. "You drank all of yours and most of mine, too! Do you want to finish the broth?"

Feeling a little stronger, Xena smiled. "Yes ... get more for yourself."

"Yeah, I will in a little while." Gabrielle replied as she fed the last of the broth to her friend. She felt as if her legs were made of stone. The fire seemed so far away. Her face ached like fury.

The warrior closed her eyes and whispered, "Go now. I need you strong."

Gabrielle looked at the woman doubtfully, knowing she'd be better off just eating than arguing the point. The girl got up slowly and wandered to the fire, where she got more broth and biscuits and returned to her friend's side. She sighed and stared at the cup unenthusiastically.

"Try some ... cook did ... a great job," murmured Xena.

Gabrielle laughed a little and drank some of the broth. It WAS pretty good. "I think it's those expensive, wild onions. They taste better when harvested by moonlight," the girl commented archly. Xena smiled again.

Looking up at the stars, Gabrielle groaned. "It's still a long time until dawn."

"Gabrielle ... you should ... rest now."

"No, you go ahead and close your eyes," said Gabrielle. "I think I'll try to clean up your leathers before they become totally impossible. You'll have to mend them yourself, though. I never have been able to figure out how you can make those tiny stitches through this stuff, anyway."

In truth, the girl was afraid to go to sleep. She knew that with some head injuries it was dangerous, and she didn't know how severe her injuries were. Her head still ached badly and she had been getting regular stabs of pain across her right eye and cheekbone. Better to wait a few hours and be sure.

"Gabrielle, is everything OK?" The strength of Xena's voice surprised the girl out of her reverie. "You're exhausted, but you won't rest. Tell me you're OK."

"Xena, what do you mean? I'm sitting here resting. I told you ..."

"No, you didn't. You avoided it. Twice. Are you OK?" Xena persisted.

Damning the warrior's sixth sense, Gabrielle moved behind her once again. Brushing dark tangles of hair from her patient's forehead, she asked, "Xena, why did you apologize for scaring me when you woke up from that chill? Exactly what do you remember happening?"

Confused by her friend's response, Xena replied uncertainly, "Well, I remember feeling colder and colder and not being able to stop shivering." She paused momentarily. "I remember we were talking about ... about your poem ... and I remember getting pretty upset ..." Xena stopped.

"Do you remember anything else?" Gabrielle prompted, resting her hands on Xena's head.

"I ... I remember trying to stand up, trying to go somewhere ... I don't know why ... I remember you telling me to stop and grabbing ..." Gabrielle reached down and held Xena's face gently.

"Oh, no! Gabrielle, no!" Xena cried. Her voice dropped to a horrified gasp. "I HIT you. As hard as I could. Oh, gods, what have I done?" The last came out as a hopeless, grinding moan that frightened Gabrielle. She lifted Xena's head and shoulders onto her lap, clasping the trembling shoulders firmly.

"Xena, don't, oh please don't." Gabrielle tried to soothe the woman and hold her steady at the same time. "Come on, now, you couldn't have done TOO much damage ... I'm still walking and talking, aren't I? Xena?" The warrior's silence terrified the girl. "Hey, you weren't at full capacity, honest. No permanent damage done, I swear to you. Please, Xena, say something?" Xena brought her hands up to cover the smaller ones grasping her shoulders and Gabrielle sighed in relief.

"Gabrielle, I could have killed you." Xena's voice was flat. "Full capacity or not."

"Yeah, well, you didn't ... and you know darned well it was my own stupid fault, Xena. I just wasn't thinking." Gabrielle said ruefully. Xena shook her head no, but Gabrielle continued.

"You've told me again and again 'Never, I repeat NEVER grab a trained warrior suddenly.' Well, guess who did what? Not just a TRAINED warrior, oh, no ... I had to choose the BEST trained warrior ... who just happened to be out of her mind with a roaring fever at the time. Great move, huh?"

Xena tried to protest, but Gabrielle stopped her. "Xena, I'm right about this ... I'm RIGHT. Your reflexes took over. Your arm may have hit me, but YOU didn't ... did you? Well, did you?"

Xena closed her eyes and sighed heavily. "You are an incredible pest."

"Uh-uh, don't try to dodge me with compliments." In spite of herself, Xena smiled at her friend's familiar joke. "This whole mess is my fault, isn't it? ... Xena?" The girl was insistent.

" I ... suppose ..." Xena said quite unwillingly. "You make a great prosecutor ... and you are still an incredible pest." Gabrielle grinned and bent down to kiss her friend's forehead firmly.

Xena jumped slightly. "Hey, what was that for?"

"For seeing reason!" Gabrielle laughed in relief.

"Speaking of seeing, let's see your face."

"Now, Xena, it ... it doesn't LOOK all that great," Gabrielle hedged, "but it doesn't hurt ... anymore, much, really ... it's just a ... big ... bruise." Somehow, that didn't turn out as well as she'd hoped.

"C'mon, Gabrielle, I'll see it eventually ... let's get it over with, shall we?" Xena said mildly.

"Xena, please, can't you just wait until ..."


"Oh, OK," sighed the girl, "... but really ..." She scooted around to face Xena, who closed her eyes against the sight almost immediately. Startled to see tears rolling down the silent warrior's cheeks, Gabrielle began to cry, too. "Oh, Xena, please, I'm all right, honestly ... Xena?"

Opening her eyes again, Xena knew she would never forget the picture before her. The badly bruised cheek and blackened eye made Gabrielle look as though she'd been brutalized unmercifully. Thinking that she would entertain serious thoughts of killing anyone who had done such a thing to the young woman, the warrior heard a deep, wracking sob and realized belatedly that it had escaped from her own lips.

Desperate, Gabrielle tried teasing her friend out of her despair. "You don't do much for a girl's ego, y'know? One look at me and you burst into tears, for Gaia's sake! Thanks a lot!" Seeing no effect on Xena, she decided to change the subject.

"Here, you've got to be incredibly thirsty. I want you to sit up and take a drink now, OK?" She snatched the waterskin from the ground with one hand and reached with the other to help Xena sit up.

Xena felt the kind-hearted girl put a hand on her wet cheek and saw the familiar smile. The stricken warrior shook her head in disbelief through her tears.

Deliberately misunderstanding the gesture, Gabrielle said, "Don't shake your head at me, Princess, you need some water. You know you do."

"Gabrielle, I can't stand the thought that I ... that even my arm on its own ... did this to you. Even it if IS your fault for not listening to me. I can't stand it. Your face ..."

"... will heal in time. There won't be a mark on me and you know it. Am I going to have to hide from you for a month so you can function? I will NOT be a party to you heaping more guilt on yourself. I won't!" Xena could hear that stubborn tone she knew so well creep into the girl's voice. "Now sit up and take a drink, will you? My arm is about to fall off from holding up the waterskin!"

Xena gave a short, sharp laugh as she allowed the girl to raise her to a sitting position. "Before I met you, I was the one who always won the arguments," she protested. "How come I can't win any arguments with YOU?" She stopped talking when Gabrielle suddenly brought the waterskin to her lips. As the water reached her, she realized just how thirsty she was and drank deeply.

Gabrielle sighed. "You just don't know how to pick the right side of the argument." Still drinking, Xena arched an eyebrow and made Gabrielle laugh. Everything was going to be all right.

Chapter 13

Xena rested as she watched Gabrielle cleaning the blood from her boots. She sighed and gingerly shifted her position.

"Do you need help with that?" Gabrielle asked, never raising her head from her work.

"No ... no, I'm OK." Xena hesitated. "Gabrielle, I still need to know about your ..."

"I'd like to tell you a really interesting story, Xena." Gabrielle said suddenly as she continued to concentrate on cleaning Xena's left boot.

"Story? Uh, thanks, maybe later ... right now I want ..."

"Oh, I really think you might want to hear this one, Xena," Gabrielle said dryly. "It's a real-life adventure of Xena, Warrior Princess. Nobody's ever heard it before -- not even you!" She finally glanced over at Xena's perplexed face and grinned crookedly. "Are you completely sure you want to wait?"

Catching Gabrielle's odd tone of voice, Xena sighed. "Well ... OK, if you think ..."

"Good!" declared Gabrielle, going back to polishing the boot. "I never told you this one before because ... well, you'll know why soon enough, I suppose." She began her tale, using her best bard's voice.

"I sing of a young, naive girl named Gabrielle from the village of Poteidaia, who managed somehow to talk the warrior Xena, a reformed warlord, into letting her tag along on her journey of redemption ...

{Xena rolled her eyes, but said nothing.}

The girl saw sadness and pain and anger in the warrior's heart from their first day together. She wished more than anything that there was something she could do to help the woman, who (despite her stern ways and general confusion about what made Gabrielle tick) was always kind to the girl. Only five days after they started their adventure together, something happened that allowed Gabrielle to fulfill her greatest wish ...

{Xena suddenly riveted all of her attention on her friend.}

... They had stopped to make camp early. Xena felt tired and anxious. She also knew that Gabrielle was still getting used to her breakneck traveling pace. She didn't want to appear to be going soft on the girl, but she tried whenever she could get away with it to give her a rest without appearing to do so ...

{Gabrielle grinned impishly at the warrior, who actually began to blush at the realization that the young woman had read her so easily.}

... The two set up camp quickly, ate a sparse meal, and sat by the fire for a while, mostly silent, since the girl was FINALLY too tired to talk anymore and Xena never did much of it to begin with ...

{The thought of those early, silent nights by the campfire made the friends glance at each other and smile broadly.}

... Finally, Xena got up and spread her bedroll on the ground. Removing her boots and armor, she put her sword in easy reach and lay down on her blanket without a word. Gabrielle selected another spot by the fire for her bedroll and eventually sat down in preparation for sleep. Suddenly, the warrior got up and shifted her bedroll a bit so that it would face Gabrielle's chosen spot. She sat back down, repositioned her sword slightly, and -- keeping the girl in plain sight -- lay down again, facing her. From that day on, by the way, she never slept in any other position ...

{Gabrielle smiled again as Xena shifted uncomfortably at her friend's affectionate jab.}

... In sheer exhaustion, Gabrielle fell into a deep sleep almost immediately. Some time later, she awakened to the sound of Xena calling out. The girl sat up in alarm, thinking that the camp was under attack. However, when she looked around, no one was there ... except Xena, who was sound asleep, thrashing about on her bedroll, obviously in the throes of a terrible nightmare. Although Gabrielle very much wanted to comfort Xena, she hesitated to come too close to her in this obvious state of distress ... and she certainly didn't want to surprise the edgy warrior! ...

{Hearing Xena's sigh, the bard flashed her friend a rueful grin and said in a stage whisper, "Did this kid turn out to be one slow learner or what?" In spite of herself, Xena laughed out loud.}

... Waking Xena didn't seem like a prudent thing to do, either. Still, as she listened, the girl realized that the woman was suffering terribly and calling out to her friends and family for help. She edged closer as she saw that Xena was doing no more than tossing and turning. It was if she was partially paralyzed, unable to move from the site of her suffering.

At last, Gabrielle was sitting next to Xena as the nightmares continued. At the time, the girl didn't recognize most of the names being called, but she did recognize three of them -- Hercules (who had helped her turn away from her dark ways), Lyceus (the brother who had died in their battle with the warlord Cortese), and Mother. Gabrielle decided that the next time the woman called for her mother, she would answer and try to figure out a way to help her pull herself free of the torturing dream. Finally, the moment came ...

"Mother? Mother! Where are you? Mother?"

Gabrielle took a deep breath, grasped the woman's hand, and said, "I'm here, Xena." For a moment, there was only silence, and the girl wondered whether the warrior hadn't simply awakened after all. But finally, she spoke.

"Oh, Mother! I'm so tired ... and afraid! I'm all alone ..."

{Xena stared at Gabrielle as she began to realize exactly what her friend was telling her.}

"Let me help you, Xena," said Gabrielle-as-Xena's-mother, torn to the heart by the sob in the warrior's voice. The woman relaxed visibly, clasped the girl's hand to her cheek, and began to cry. Gabrielle sat quietly, drying Xena's tears now and then, stroking her cheek with her free hand, telling her that everything was going to be all right. The tears continued for nearly half an hour. Afterward, the warrior fell silent for a while, but refused to release the girl's hand, so she sat waiting to see what would happen next.

After some minutes of silence, Xena spoke again. "Mother?"

Once again, Gabrielle said, "I'm here, Xena."

"Mother, I want ... I need ... I need to tell you something." Xena's voice seemed small, almost childlike.

"You can tell me anything, Xena," said Gabrielle in her mother guise.

"But ... but this ... this is something really terrible, Mother ... something horrible that I did," Xena sobbed in her sleep, "... and I'm so sorry!"

"You can tell me anything, Xena," repeated Gabrielle.

"I ... I'm afraid," the warrior sobbed in great anguish.

"Don't be afraid, Xena. You're safe with me now. Tell me."

And so, the warrior began to stumble through the details of an event from her past that haunted her unmercifully ... the battle at Katerini ...

{Gabrielle came to herself at the sound of Xena's gasp. "No, please, Gabrielle ... I didn't," the warrior whispered painfully. "I couldn't have ... I ..." In anguish, she looked into her friend's loving eyes. "It's all right, Xena ... I'm trying to tell you what you want to know. It's all right, I promise," the girl soothed the distraught woman before she continued.}

... As the story of the battle unfolded from the perspective of the warlord who waged it, it became quite apparent to the inexperienced girl that this event was one of the lowest points in the career of that dark Xena. The battle, a four-day bloodbath filled with brutality and atrocities on both sides, eventually was won by Xena's forces. Hundreds died. Her vivid descriptions of standing in blood up to her ankles during one fight paled in comparison to her admission of personally killing 10 unarmed enemy captives in a murderous rage after the death by torture of one of her favorite lieutenants ...

{Hearing wracking sobs, Gabrielle put down the now-polished boot and hurried to Xena. She found her curled in a semi-fetal position, crying and holding her wounded side. She reached to massage the woman's tight shoulder muscles and brush the hair from her face. She rested one hand on the warrior's head, but continued the story relentlessly, almost heartlessly.}

... Xena also described her strategies and deceptions, her use of sexual favors to get men to do what she wanted, and her various evening diversions with them. Her intimate descriptions of every detail of these four days gave Gabrielle a lot to think about, to say the least. In fact, the young girl didn't really understand all of what the woman said, though she remembered it all and pieced its meaning together over the coming months.

After about an hour and a half, Xena reached the end of her gruesome recitation and went silent, still clutching the girl's hand.

"Mother?" Xena whispered anxiously, after several seconds of silence.

"I'm here, Xena."

"You ... you must hate me now." The whisper faded with loneliness and fear.

Gabrielle paused a moment, trying to find the right words ... the words a mother would say. "I don't hate you, Xena," she said finally. "I love you. What you did was wrong, and I'll never like it ... but nothing from the past can change the way I feel about YOU. Nothing."

"You ... you love me?" Xena repeated in wonder.

"Always." Gabrielle paused and looked at the weary form before her. "You're so tired, Xena. Go to sleep now. Everything is all right. Rest. Mother will be here."

Continuing to hold the young girl's hand, Xena eventually fell into a deep, natural sleep. When Gabrielle was sure it was safe, she broke the woman's hold, stood up, and covered Xena with a blanket.

Quietly, she walked to the edge of the clearing, breathing deeply and trying to sort out what had just happened. Realizing that she was in danger of making a noise that would waken the slumbering warrior, she moved as silently as she could back to her own bedroll. Suddenly exhausted, she collapsed onto her blanket and looked up at the sky, only to realize that dawn was not far away. Firmly putting all she had heard in a separate place in her mind, the girl fell asleep ...

... Almost immediately, it seemed, she felt Xena shaking her awake none too gently. The warrior was anxious to get on the road and irritable at Gabrielle's resistance to getting up. Blinking at the newly rising sun, Gabrielle noticed right away that Xena seemed tired, but more relaxed somehow. As they broke camp, she wondered if her first venture in acting had helped her new friend. Only time would tell."

Chapter 14

Finishing her tale, Gabrielle looked down at Xena and rubbed the woman's temples gently. "Xena? Can you talk to me? Are you going to be all right?" The silence suffocated her. Had she pushed the weakened warrior too far?

"Gabrielle ... by the gods, Gabrielle, I filled you with that ... that garbage, that ... filth ... FIVE DAYS after we left Poteidaia?!" Xena was horrified. "You ... you were such a ..."

"I think 'baby' actually might have been a fair description at that point, don't you?" Gabrielle commented calmly as she continued to rub the warrior's temples. Xena shuddered.

"N-no, but ... but ... I can't think of a worse choice for a bedtime story!" Xena finished somewhat incongruously. Gabrielle couldn't help laughing.

"This ... this isn't funny, Gabrielle, this is ... this is ..."

"... old news, Xena. It all happened well over a year ago, remember."

"It doesn't matter! I wouldn't have consciously chosen to tell you that story NOW ..."

"Why not?"

"Why NOT?! Because ... because ..." Xena struggled to sit up.

Gabrielle supported her and asked gently, "Because you're afraid that I'll discover something about you that's so repulsive I can't forgive you for it?"

Xena jerked to look at the girl in surprise. The silence stretched out between them, but finally, Xena spoke.

"I ... I did so many things that go against everything you believe, Gabrielle ... so many things ..." The depth of her fear was apparent as she dropped her head to her hands.

"I know that, Xena, but you don't do them anymore. You stopped. You pulled yourself out of that life. The Xena I know is the REAL you. You're trying so hard to make up for things, Xena! You try so hard!" Gabrielle paused, choosing her words carefully.

"I'm only just now realizing how incredibly difficult your life has been over the past year or so ... not many people could do what you're doing. It's too painful." She rested a hand on the warrior's arm and kept it there firmly, despite Xena's attempt to shake her off.

"You've ALWAYS worried about your friends and family the way you worry about me, haven't you?"

Xena looked up at this apparent change in direction, but said nothing.

"The Xena I know -- the one with the big heart -- IS the real you, and always has been. Always, even during those years you ... " Gabrielle got a faraway look in her eyes and her voice lowered.

"I've been thinking about this for a long time, Xena. I can see you ... so young, so vulnerable ... the day Cortese attacked... how much pain you felt as the soldiers ransacked your village, shattered your friends' lives, ... hurt ... you, and worst of all, killed your brother. You couldn't understand any of this. Your anger must have overwhelmed you. I know what it would do to me." The warrior tried to turn her eyes away from the unconscious tears the girl shed for that younger Xena, but couldn't.

"You were all alone in your pain and rage, with no strength left to resist the hatred. Your mother must have been totally devastated about Lyceus and probably just as angry as you were. There was no one there to help you or ... to ... to say NO to you. There was no one there to show you the right path, so you ... you lost your way. You were in the grip of some terrible nightmare with no one to tell you to wake up ... until Hercules did it." The girl paused.

"What you did all those years was terrible, Xena, but you didn't do it because your heart was ... or is ... evil. You've never given me any reason to think differently." Gabrielle stopped to stare into the total bleakness in Xena's eyes as the warrior tried to speak.

"No. You don't know what you're saying. There's more to it than ... Gabrielle, you ... don't ... know! I can't ..."

"Xena, stop ... right now. I've told you this many times, but never when you were awake, so please listen. Nothing from the past can change the way I feel about you now. Nothing. Ever. Even if what you did makes me angry, which it often does. Even if I don't understand it. Even if I take a long while to come to terms with it. Even if I NEVER do! Do you hear me, Warrior Princess?" Gabrielle felt exasperated and angry and desperate all at once. "More to the point, do you BELIEVE me?"

Xena dropped her head to her hands once more. "How ... how many times have you told me, Gabrielle?"

"What?" Gabrielle asked distractedly. This wasn't either of the answers she expected. "What did you say?"

"How many times has this happened, Gabrielle? How many times have you stayed up with me like this?"

"Well, it sort of varies from week to week, actually," the girl hedged.


"OK, OK ... sometimes it happens every night for weeks on end. Usually, though, it's three or four times a week."

"You're telling me that you've been up half the night with me three or four times a week ... running on a fraction of the sleep I thought you were getting, in other words, right?"

"Well, yeah, I guess you could put it that way, but what does that have to do with anything?"

"It certainly explains your reluctance to get up in the morning, doesn't it?" Xena closed her eyes.

"I suppose it does, but that's really a rather minor issue at the moment."

"Not to me," Xena sighed heavily. "It's not minor at all ... but it IS a different issue." Her mind raced. "Three or four times a week for a year. Have I ever repeated myself?"

"Uh, well, no actually," Gabrielle admitted. "You put many a bard to shame in that regard."

"Great. Just great." The warrior shuddered. "So you're telling me that you know ..."

"... a whole lot more about you than you ever thought I did. Yes. And I don't give a damn about any of it," the girl added, a trifle more vehemently than she'd intended.

Xena tried to digest this new picture of her world ... a picture that she didn't entirely control. She didn't know what, if anything, she should do about it.

Seeing the emotions playing across Xena's face, Gabrielle said earnestly, "Please don't be too hasty about all of this, Xena. When was the last time you thought about Katerini? Honestly, when?"

"I ... I don't know, maybe ... maybe a year or so," Xena finished up in some surprise. "OK, maybe I can see that it's done ME some good, but how could this possibly be anything but bad for YOU?"

"What? Filling my young, impressionable mind with ... what did you call it ... filth?" she asked sarcastically. "That's what you think of yourself?" Gabrielle shook her head.

"You're missing the point here, I think. When we first met, I was mostly a burden to you. I knew that, believe it or not, even though I also knew that I provided a little distraction for you. I pestered you so much that sometimes you forgot to brood for awhile ..."

When Xena squirmed at this comment, Gabrielle laughed softly. "All I really wanted to do, though, was make you feel like you weren't throwing your time and efforts away on me. I lived in constant fear that you would finally get so fed up with me that you'd tell me to leave and never come back."

"Gabrielle, don't ..."

The girl waved her off. "What did it do for me? It helped me understand what was driving you. It helped me understand your attitude and why you did things the way you did. Most of all, though, during those early days in particular, it helped me ... kept me going, in fact ... because I knew you NEEDED me. You really needed me, even if YOU didn't know it ... yet." Gabrielle laughed again and was delighted to see a small smile playing on the warrior's lips.

"When I wrote my poem, I began reciting it for you after you told me your dreams. It always seems to relax you somehow ..."

Xena gave up, acknowledging defeat. "OK, then TELL me about the poem ... please! You said you wrote it about three months after we started traveling together. Why THEN, exactly?" She shifted uncomfortably on the fir-branch bed.

Gabrielle reached to help her patient change positions. As she moved to rearrange the blankets, the girl smiled gently. "Because the night before I wrote it, Xena, you called MY name for the first time."

With a happy laugh, Xena pulled an astounded Gabrielle close and hugged her tightly.

Chapter 15

Finally, Gabrielle pulled back and said quietly, "It's nearly dawn. Do you think you could get in a couple of good hours of sleep now?"

The warrior nodded. "You, too?"

"Yes, me too. I'm asleep on my feet ..." She turned toward the fire. "... and, anyway, I always seem to get in my best sleeping just when I'm supposed to wake up!" she added slyly. The slightly disgruntled "Hmph" coming from Xena's bed made the girl laugh out loud as she settled gratefully to the ground and promptly fell asleep.

When she woke again, it was still early morning. The sun was not very high in the sky and the heat of the day was not on them yet. As she stirred from the hard ground where she had slept, she felt every joint and muscle protesting the event. Then the pain in her face hit full force. She couldn't muffle the surprised gasp as she reached up to feel her swollen features. She turned quietly, sure that she had wakened Xena.

What she saw surprised her again. There was Xena, sleeping deeply and peacefully ... as peacefully as she'd ever seen her. Silently, the girl went to her patient's side, rearranged the tangled blankets, and felt her dry, cool forehead. She really was getting better.

Hearing Argo's nicker, Gabrielle moved quickly to take her down to the stream for a drink and a morning meal of fresh, tender grass. Stripping off her shift once more, she dove into the water and went to a promising outcropping of rocks to look for breakfast. Her luck was good, and soon she was cleaning several fish. Pulling on her shift, she returned to the campsite, bringing filled waterskins and a large pile of fish filets with her. She put water on to boil for some herbal tea, wrapped a few filets in leaves and put them on rocks in the firepit to cook slowly, and prepared the remaining filets for smoking.

Xena continued to sleep blissfully as the girl did other camp-tending chores and picked up the area. It was nearly noon before she finished. Gabrielle had just decided to let Xena sleep through lunch and get her some fresh fish later when she heard the fir-branch bed rustling. At the sound, she kicked a few hot stones away from the firepit and tossed a waterskin on top of them.

"Good morning, sleepyhead," she teased, "Or should I say good afternoon?" She didn't turn around from the firepit.

Xena squinted at the sun's position in surprise. "Uh ... good morning ... afternoon ... whatever. I can't remember the last time I slept so long ..." She sounded embarrassed and pleased all at the same time.

"... or so peacefully," added Gabrielle gently. "How are you feeling?"

"My side still hurts a lot, but not as much as last night. Otherwise, actually, I feel pretty good ... all things considered." Slowly, she sat up by herself, to the delight of her young friend, who watched from the corner of her eye.

"Great! Are you hungry? I was just about to eat your lunch as well as mine ... just so it wouldn't go bad, you understand!" She laughed.

"Yes, I'm starved, actually. The fish smells wonderful and ... oh, you had a good morning at the stream, I see," said Xena, eyeing the abundance of fish strips smoking at the fire. "How ... how are YOU feeling? Did you get enough sleep?"

"Oh, I got in a few hours ... I'm a woman with responsibilities, remember." At that comment, Xena rolled her eyes. "I thought I'd catch a nap this afternoon, though."

"How do you feel?" Xena persisted.

"You know, in some ways I liked it better when you didn't feel good enough to badger me all the time," sighed Gabrielle in mock exasperation.

"Oh, thanks a lot!"

"Just kidding!" said the girl mildly, placing the moistly baked fish on fresh leaves. As she turned to Xena, she took a deep breath and said, "I feel pretty good, but my face really hurts and it's swollen pretty badly, I'm afraid. Don't have a headache anymore, though, so that's a good sign."

Xena cringed visibly at the sight of the girl's damaged features. "Swollen pretty badly is a gross understatement," she managed to say as she accepted her lunch from her friend. "You've got to let me take a closer look ..." She reached out, but Gabrielle shrugged her off.

"Later, OK? I'm starved and you need the nourishment right away. You're looking a little pale. Did you want a biscuit with this?"

"Gabrielle ..."

"Later, I promise. Did you want that biscuit?"

Defeated again, the warrior began to eat. "No, this is fine, thanks. Where's Argo?"

The friends chatted amiably through lunch. Afterward, Gabrielle finally allowed Xena to satisfy herself that her friend would indeed recover from her unfortunate adventure of the night before.

"Ow, take it easy, will you?" Gabrielle winced, then immediately regretted her words. "Look, I'm sorry, I know you were only trying to ..."

"No problem ... I can't figure out how you're even managing to talk through this mess, let along smile all the time. Give me my medicine pouch and I'll put some ointment on you that will help with the pain, at least." Though she felt like crying again at the evidence of just how badly she'd hurt her friend, Xena kept her voice calm.

"OK, I need to get it anyway since I've got to change your bandage. I let it go too long, but I didn't want to wake you." The girl grinned. "This place is beginning to resemble a field hospital!"

"Yes, well let's hope it ends here," growled Xena as she carefully applied the soothing ointment to Gabrielle's bruises. Somehow, the act made her feel a little better about things, especially when her friend sighed in obvious relief. "I want you to put some cold compresses on the swelling this afternoon."

"Tell you what ... I'm beat," said Gabrielle as she cleaned and re-bandaged the warrior's wound. "I'm gonna round up Argo. Then I'm gonna find a nice, SOFT spot for a little nap and just cuddle up with some of those cold compresses ... OK?" Gabrielle yawned.

"Here, I don't need all these blankets anymore," said Xena as she peeled one from the jumble around her and handed it to her friend. "Go to sleep. We'll be fine ... er, Gabrielle? Where's my ..." Xena jumped as Gabrielle silently thrust the sword and scabbard into her hands and left to find her wandering mount. The warrior smiled contentedly as she leaned back on the fir branches.

After Gabrielle brought Argo back from the creek and gave her some grain, she stopped at the saddlebags and grabbed the soap and a few rags. Making a side trip to the firepit, she took the waterskin from the stones and walked back to Xena's bed, where the warrior rested quietly.

"Hey, I thought maybe you'd like to take a bath while I'm napping," she said sleepily, dropping the hot water beside her surprised friend and handing her the soap and rags. "You'll feel a lot better. When I wake up, I'll wash your hair for you, OK?" She turned away without waiting for an answer, then suddenly whirled around. "Uh, you CAN manage by yourself, can't you?" she asked anxiously. "There's no reason I can't help ..."

Xena smiled gratefully at the exhausted girl. "I'll be fine, Gabrielle. Thanks for thinking to warm up the water for me. You go get some rest." As she watched her friend fall asleep, Xena removed her chiton gingerly and picked up the waterskin.

Over the next few days, both women rested and healed from their wounds. Gabrielle knew Xena was on the mend when she began to get jumpy about staying in one spot so long. Sometime during this quiet period, Xena asked Gabrielle to write her poem down on a small scrap of paper.

"Well, sure, OK," agreed the girl, "but I can say it for you anytime you want, y'know. Of course, I know after while the sound of my voice ..." Xena cut her off.

"That's not it, Gabrielle, and I probably will ask you to recite it for me, often. And of course, you'll be ... reciting it for me sometimes when I'm not in a position to ask." At this acknowledgment, Gabrielle flashed a delighted smile.

"I just want ... I just want to be able to keep it with me and ... and look at it once in a while," stumbled the abashed warrior.

Gabrielle didn't answer, but the next time she woke from a nap, Xena found a small piece of paper tucked into the decorative work of her sword's scabbard. It was covered in the little bard's perfect handwriting and tied with a small scrap of blue ribbon. Rummaging around in the pile of armor and weapons beside her, Xena found her left gauntlet and tucked the beribboned paper inside.

On the fourth day after Xena was wounded, she insisted she was healed well enough to move on. The next morning, they broke camp early, packed up Argo's saddle, and started once again on their journey. Gabrielle asked Xena to walk for awhile to be sure she would be all right, but finally Xena threw up her hands, mounted Argo, and rode on ahead at high speed to exercise herself and her anxious mare.

Gabrielle just stared after the receding dust cloud for a moment, shrugged, and continued to walk. She realized that she had been anxious to get back on the road, herself. Hercules and his group of heroes were meeting in Athens, and she and Xena had to get there in time to join the coming fight. She stopped momentarily, leaning on her staff, to let a wave of nausea roll over her and pass away.


Squinting at the dawn from her bedroll, Xena saw that it was going to be another hot, dusty day on the road. The warrior stretched carefully as her wounded side objected with a strong surge of pain. In the week since she received it, though, the gash had begun to heal nicely and the stitches were beginning to itch. She might be able to let Gabrielle remove them in camp this evening. It would be a great relief to her and a load off her friend's mind, she knew. She looked toward the spot where the young woman slept and smiled at the sleepy storm of red-gold hair tumbling over the blanket.

Rising silently, she went to the firepit, tossed a few sticks of kindling onto the campfire embers, and tended them until the flames roared to life once again.

Then the warrior walked over to the sleeping form, squatted down, and paused to gaze at the young bard. She traced a now-fading cheek bruise with her finger before taking Gabrielle's face in both hands and murmuring, "Thank you ... thank you for trying to keep me safe."

After a few seconds, she took a deep breath, let her hands drop away from her friend's peaceful features, and closed her eyes.

"Gabrielle? Gabrielle!" Xena's low, liquid voice teased the girl. "C'mon now, it's time to get up. Don't dawdle this morning ... you know we have to get going!"

Hearing a protesting moan in reply, Xena went to quiet Argo's soft grumbling with her morning meal.

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