A Beast at Heart
by Xedra and Friend
Disclaimer: Any characters within that have been mentioned on the show Xena: Warrior Princess do not belong to me, but to RenPics/Universal, etc. No copyright infringment is in any way intended. This is for the enjoyment of myself, my Muse, and for the show's many fans. In no way is any profit being made, or may ever be made, from this story. Whew! There...is that enough legal-eese to bore -- I mean, satisfy everyone?
Spoilers: None for any episode I can think of... a reference or two, here and there, but nothing major. This story takes place during Season 5, except Xena is not pregnant.
Subtext/Sex: None, but please don't let that keep you from enjoying it anyway. :)
Note: This story is another that was written in collaboration with a very shy friend of mine, who has declined to be named. Comments, Praise, Criticisms, Praise, Feedback of any kind, or PRAISE is desperately needed and greatly appreciated. We can be reached at email@example.com
At the foot of Mount Crassus, Xena and Gabrielle shivered in the freezing weather. Snow fell heavily around them, sinking them up to their knees with every step. Huddled tightly in thick furred coats, they made their way slowly toward a half-hidden cave.
Once inside, Gabrielle thought it would be warmer. The cave did offer shelter from the sharp winds, but not much more. Shivering fiercely, she dug into her pack for some firewood she'd collected earlier.
"Xena, please tell me you remembered the flint rocks?" She crouched down and roughly dug a dip into the ground, the earth was so hard and frozen. Xena was too cold to reply, she just dropped the flint to the ground. Gabrielle quickly stacked the wood into the makeshift pit and began striking the flint, missing a few times from shivering so violently. "C'mon!" she spat.
Xena sat in front of the pit, eagerly awaiting the fire to start. After more than a few minutes, she couldn't wait any longer and snatched the flint away.
"Hey!" Gabrielle snapped. What, didn't Xena think she could light a fire? She glowered at Xena, but was too cold to really argue or take the flint back.
"No offense, Gabrielle..." with one strike, a small glowing spark landed right on the wood, "but I don't have all day." Xena raised an eyebrow in apology and blew gently into the fire until it glowed a bright red. Gabrielle leaned forward and helped, blowing again.
"Gabrielle, remind me to buy you some breath herbs when we get back," Xena gave her a wicked grin, hoping some humor would take her mind off the cold.
"Very funny! What I wouldn't give for a Hydra's firebreath right now." She gave one last soft blow and a small flame popped to life. Adding small bits of tinder, they huddled close as the flame grew, holding their hands up to it. They sat in silence, enjoying the heat as it spread slowly through their frozen bones. The quiet crackling of the wood never sounded so comforting.
"Xena, do we have to go to the top of Mount Crassus? Are you sure there's no other way?"
Xena rubbed her hands together, finally getting some feeling back into them. "I'm sure. All I know is that we have to meet Volicis. He didn't say anything more."
"Volicis?" Gabrielle frowned. Xena hadn't mentioned him before.
"In my past, when I followed my dark path, I encountered Volicis and his army," Xena looked down at the ground, as if ashamed. "And my army...they..." she couldn't continue, it was so hard reliving in her mind what had happened so long ago. Gabrielle scooted closer to her and leaned against her. She reached out and rested her hand on Xena's arm. "Are you all right?"
Xena looked over at her. So many times Gabrielle was there for her, who knows what path she would be on right now if not for her?
"My army...and I...destroyed everything. The men, the horses, even the messenger pigeons. Only a few soldiers managed to get away, including Volicis." Xena paused again.
"Xena, you were in battle, that's what happens. Everyone had to be prepared for that."
"But during the fighting, Volicis slew my horse from under me. I felt such a surge of rage that I vowed revenge. I gave an order to... to kill his family. His wife and children. His mother." Xena thought she would feel better to let it out, but it only felt worse.
Gabrielle didn't know what to say. She knew Xena had done terrible things during her dark past, even worse than this. The memory was obviously very painful for her to bring up. What could she say to her, how could she help her find peace over something that happened so long ago?
Xena looked up at Gabrielle, "He's asked to see me. I don't know why or what for, but I have to meet him. You can head back if you like, this is my-"
"Our problem. We do this together." Gabrielle gave her friend's arm a gentle squeeze. It made Xena smile. She wanted to tell her friend how much she meant to her, how much she had changed because of her, but looking into Gabrielle's eyes, she could see that she already knew. Xena and Gabrielle were both quite warm now, but little did they realize it wasn't from the fire, but from each other.
The winds had finally died down outside and they were getting hungry.
"See what you can dig out to eat, huh?" Xena nodded toward the saddlebags.
Gabrielle groaned at the thought of leaving the toasty fire, but her growling stomach made her move. Once out of the reach of the fire's warmth, the cold pierced her skin like needles. She was unable to move for a moment, then forced herself to pick up the food pack and bring it back to the fire. Dropping it, she huddled close to Xena again, trying to drive away the chill. After a few minutes she was warm enough to sit back and begin looking through the pack. She handed a small, deep pot out to Xena. "I'll need you to go out and gather some snow. We'll need water for soup."
Xena looked at the pot, then at the snow outside, then back at Gabrielle. "You're kidding, right? I just got warm!"
Gabrielle shrugged, "You'll be a lot warmer with some food in you, but I need water first." She wiggled the pot at her. Xena raised an eyebrow at her. Gabrielle raised her own right back. Xena sighed, but took the pot and headed slowly toward the entrance.
Gabrielle bit back a laugh and searched through the pack again. A couple potatoes, a small carrot, a few wild onions they'd found yesterday, a handful of dried meat, and some lettuce leaves left over from yesterday's lunch lay at the bottom of the pack. Not much, but if she added some herbs and spices it might be edible. As long as it was hot, she didn't care what it tasted like. As she prepared the vegetables, she wondered what was keeping Xena. All she had to do was scoop up some snow.
When five more minutes passed and she still hadn't returned, Gabrielle began to worry. She got up and went quickly to the entrance. Shivering again in the cold, she looked outside and started to call out for Xena when her foot nudged something on the ground.
Looking down, she spotted a scroll. She quickly looked around, seeing nothing. She scanned the ground for footprints, but saw only flat, white snow. Kneeling down, she picked up the scroll and went back to the fire to read it. The scroll was wet only along the edges, it hadn't been on the ground very long. She slowly unrolled it, afraid of what it would say. She mumbled the words aloud as she read the scrawled words: I have your friend Xena. Her fate is sealed. My war is with her, leave now while you still can.
Those few words frightened Gabrielle. How were they able to capture Xena? What would they do to her? What have they already done? Realizing she was wasting time sitting there wondering, she doused the fire, grabbed Xena's weapons and ran out of the cave.
Glaring at each of them, Xena assented with a single nod. She had no other choice at the moment and she didn't want Gabrielle to get hurt. Now a dozen soldiers on horseback were tromping through the snow in front of her. The back edge of her cage dragged on the ground, conveniently covering their tracks. Xena had already checked the cage for any weaknesses but found it secure and tight. All she could do was wait and enjoy the ride.
"Say, you treat all tourists this way?" Xena raised an eyebrow when no one responded. She knew Volicis had a strong army in the past, and apparently he stayed true to form.
"Aaahggg!" she moaned as it snapped back into place, sparks of pain dancing inside her knee. A warmth spread across her forehead. Feeling it, she realized she had a large bleeding bump. The rest of her hadn't fared much better. There were bruises and cuts all along her legs and arms. Getting slowly to her feet, she ignored the pain and looked around her. The shattered remains of least a dozen cages lay scattered about. Bones and other human remains were littered about as well, as if torn apart.
"At least I'm not alone," she muttered, bending her knee and rubbing the ache away.
"Quite right, you're not alone!"
She knew that voice. Looking up, she recognized Volicis along with a large number of his soldiers peering down at her. One of them spat down at her, the spittle landing at her feet. Raising an eyebrow and setting her mouth in a grim line, she glared up at them. "Is this your idea of a peep show?" she yelled. Her fingers itched to hold her chakram...and throw it.
"I see you haven't lost your sense of humor. I like that!" Volicis laughed, showing not an ounce of fear. "Guards! Open the gate!"
Xena spun around at the low grinding noise behind her. A large door, its surface made to resemble stone, lifted away from the ground and slid up into the rock above it. A dangerous grunting noise, definitely not human, came from within.
"I want you to meet my beloved pet, Xena. You'll have to forgive him, he's a bit hungry!" His laughter was echoed by the rest of the group.
Xena's eyes opened wide when she saw his "pet" was a giant boar with long, sharp tusks and beady black eyes. Its skin was dark red and covered with bristly hairs. A shock of it ran down from between its ears, along its spine, to the tip of its tail. It pawed the ground angrily, its sides heaving as it grunted, waiting for his master's signal to attack. The stone door slowly lowered down. The boar snorted loudly and puffs of steam rose into the air. The smell of decaying flesh laying about made it all the more eager to charge. The stone door slid down behind it and shut with a resounding thud.
"Like him?" Volicis laughed from above. "Raised him myself. Had to replace the pet you took from me, you know." He frowned a bit at that, but quickly covered it with a smile. "One word from me and he'll tear you to pieces, Xena. And I'm going to enjoy watching it."
"You got a problem with me, Volicis? Why don't you deal with me yourself, instead of this overgrown pig!" Xena yelled.
Volicis's eyes narrowed, his face reddened with anger, "You don't deserve that kind of courtesy, Xena!" He spit out her name like a curse. "Not after you..."
He couldn't do it. He couldn't bring himself to repeat what she'd done to his family. He didn't even want to think of it. He'd thought of it too often, for too many years, dreamed about it at night, the horrors they must have faced at the hands of her and her army. His wife, his son and tiny daughter, even his elderly mother! But now he'd avenge them. He had their murderer in his hands, her life at his feet. And he'd crush it. He'd crush her just as she'd crushed them. Gritting his teeth, he took a deep breath.
Instantly, the boar charged at her. The laughter above was drowned out by its hooves smashing the ground. She whirled around and ran for the stone door.
"Sorry Xena, but not even Hercules could lift that door!" Volicis watched her run and smiled, loving every moment. Finally he would have his revenge. Finally he would have peace.
Xena ran as fast as she could, the wind whistling past her ears, the heavy rumble of the boar getting closer. She ignored Volicis's words, since she didn't plan on opening the door at all. She wanted to use it. The boar snapped behind her, missing her foot by inches.
"Sheeeeeyyyaaaaa!!" She screamed, lunging forward as high as she could. She stretched up and grabbed a small outcropping of rock just above the door. The boar, running full speed, had no time to stop and rammed heavily into the rock. Xena's fingers burned from gripping the protruding stone and soon slipped. She fell on top of the animal and quickly rolled off, ready for another attack, but it lay motionless. Blood seeped from its crushed forehead.
"NOOOO!" Volicis's shout echoed all around her. "Guards! Kill her! Kill her NOW!"
The rock door creaked open again, and Xena looked quickly around for anything to use as a weapon. Eyeing the pile of human remains, she dug around, hoping to find something before the guards came through.
"Great," she muttered and reached down for her sais. She knew she could take out three or four guards, but all of them? There was no way, not with a half-frozen body. She looked way up. There was one window roughly fifty feet above her. She stared down at her sais and knew there was only one way she was getting inside. Tucking Xena's sword and chakram together between the straps on her back, she grasped the sais by the handles.
"Here goes nothing." She went up to the wall and stabbed her sais into the cracks between the rocks. Slowly she lifted herself, testing her weight, making sure the sai would hold. They seemed stable enough, so she searched for the next crack. Wiggling out her left sai, she took another stab into the rock.
Looking up at the window again, she sighed. Only 49 more feet to go.
"I got a bone to pick with you!" she snarled and ran toward the nearest soldier. He swiped at her with his sword, but she easily blocked his attacks. Shards of bone flew through the air as the sword collided. Xena spun around and belted him on the back of the head. Another two men came at her and she jumped up and kicked them in the face, knocking them to the ground. There were so many coming, she had to knock them out as quickly as possible. Another pair came forward, one wildly and nervously swinging his sword in the air. The second man ran around her. Xena peered behind her, knowing he was about to run her through. She flipped up in the air, timed perfectly, and his sword plunged into the nervous man. Xena landed on her feet, and through all the men, she could see Volicis had come to stand at the gate. Well, if he wanted a show, she'd give him one.
"Just a few more," she grunted through her teeth, trying to encourage herself. Over and over she stabbed at the rock and heaved her self up until she was finally at the lip of the window. She placed her wrists on the cold edge and peered inside. It was a small room, probably for an archer, and empty. Taking a deep breath, her lungs burning from the cold air, she pushed down on her wrists and lunged over the side of the window. She landed on the floor on her hands and knees, taking deep breaths. She may have been numb from the cold before, but now she was a sweaty, trembling mess from her exertions. Laying down on the cold stone floor, she rolled onto her back and rubbed her aching arms, completely out of energy.
"HEY!" a passing guard yelled from the hall. Gabrielle winced at being discovered, but remained relaxed. "Hey, what are you doing here!" he marched in, drawing his sword.
Gabrielle glanced up at him, a slow, seductive smile forming on her lips, "Oh, just waiting for you." She crooked a finger at him, "C'mere."
The guard lowered his sword, surprised and intrigued, seeing a woman as no threat. He knelt down on one knee and smiled suggestively at her, "And what can I do for you, sweetheart?"
Gabrielle sat up slowly, "Oh, you could come a little closer... closer..." and as he leaned forward, she slammed her fists on the sides of his head. He fell on top of her unconscious. Gabrielle pushed him off of her and shrugged out of her coat, placing Xena's weapons down at her feet for the moment. Quickly undressing him, she put his metal and leather armor over her own outfit. She couldn't help but giggle at his polka dot boxers. The armor was a large fit on the small warrior bard, especially the helmet, but it would have to do. Taking up Xena's weapons, she set out to find her friend.
"Eiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" she ululated her warcry. Grasping the handle, she flung herself around in a circle in the air, kicking her legs out and knocking the men around her down to the ground. A fresh batch stormed through the door and Xena grimaced. She knew she could hold her own, but for how long? Eyeing the soldiers, she noticed one was particularly shorter than the rest, his helmet slipping down over his eyes. Even in her current situation, Xena couldn't help but smile. Gabrielle wiggled the chakram in her hand, unsure if Xena knew it was her, not being able to see with the helmet over her eyes. Volicis's voice could be heard over the fighting.
"Very good, Xena. Very good. I have over a hundred men, you know. Do you really think you can stop them all?" As he walked through his men, they stopped their attacks, letting him pass. Xena's senses suddenly picked up on something and a new plan formed in her mind. All she needed was time.
"Yeah, I can stop them all, but I'm only concerned with one." She watched Volicis carefully, seeing only hate in his eyes.
"Sorry Xena, but I don't plan on joining my family just yet. Say hello to Hades for me, will you?" he turned on his heel, ready to walk out.
"Volicis!" she called out. He stopped and turned, waiting. "You, uh, forgot something."
Volicis was in no mood to play games, "What is that?"
Xena didn't need to answer. A low growl could be heard as the boar woke. It was hurt, starving, and very very angry. It got to its feet, spun around, and without warning, barreled right through the soldiers. Screams of pain and fear filled the air as they all scrambled around, trying to get away.
Volicis stood still, knowing his own pet would not harm him, having trained it too well. "Stand your ground! STAND YOUR GROUND!" he ordered his men, but to no avail. They knew how bloodthirsty the animal was.
Gabrielle ran over to Xena, her helmet falling repeatedly down to her nose.
"Another new outfit?" Xena took her sword and chakram as Gabrielle handed them to her.
"Ha. Ha." Gabrielle smirked and quickly took off the cumbersome armor and helmet. The skin left exposed tingled in the biting cold, but she knew she needed to be free of the armor's weight to fight.
The soldiers had quickly escaped back through the door, leaving only the boar and Volicis. The animal sniffed at him and a snap from Volicis had it standing still. Xena knew she and Gabrielle had to get past them and through the door, as well.
"Gabrielle, I want you to stay close to me," Xena whispered urgently. Reaching down, she rubbed her aching knees. "And keep an eye on that boar. It's mean and hungry and deadly if it gets too close. If it charges at you, don't wait, okay? Just point those sais and let 'em fly!"
Gabrielle nodded, "No problem." She suddenly grinned, "Besides, I haven't eaten pork in a while."
Xena rolled her eyes, but a commotion at the open door grabbed their attention. Soldiers came pouring back through the door, slowly at first, uneasy about being around the dangerous animal. What kept them moving was a big, burly soldier yelling and pushing them through the door.
Volicis nodded at his burly captain, and waited until more than fifty men had crowded into the pit. They all stood, silently waiting for his command. Volicis pet the boar at his side absently. He was suddenly very tired. Tired of looking at the woman, hearing her voice. Tired of seeing her face in his dreams every night. He just wanted the long nightmare to be over, and there was only one way to make sure of that. Glancing at his captain, he raised a finger and sliced it across his throat, clearly indicating what he wanted. The captain nodded. Volicis turned and walked through his soldiers and out the door.
The captain smiled and pointed at Xena and Gabrielle, "CHARGE!"
The soldiers surged forward like a huge wave. Gabrielle grabbed her sais while Xena continued to walk toward the oncoming men. "Xena?!!" she hollered, having no idea what Xena was doing.
Xena began to run toward the wall of soldiers, then suddenly crouched and sprang high into the air. "AIYAIYAIYAIYAIYAIYAI!!"
She sailed high into a long arc and landed right onto the animal's back. The boar thrashed wildly, trying to buck her off, but Xena held on tight. Furious, the boar began racing around, blindly barreling into the soldiers. Many of the men quickly backed away, leaving a wide path.
"Come on, Gabrielle! Try to stay behind me!" Xena's voice was jarred and broken by the fierce movement of the boar. Gabrielle ran up behind her, but kept a close watch on where the animal might dodge next. She didn't want to be caught in its way. Xena pulled hard on the boar's mane, guiding it toward the open door. Gabrielle raced past them through the door and looked around for a way to shut the door again.
"Close it!" Xena shouted and leapt off the animal's back, hitting the ground and rolling quickly toward the door. Gabrielle spied a large lever near the opening and wrapped her hands around it, pulling down with all her strength. The stone door began to slide quickly back down to the ground. Considering the speed which Xena was rolling toward the opening and the rate at which the door was dropping, it didn't look good.
"Aaaaahhhhhh!" Xena continued rolling, and just as she passed the entrance, the door crashed down behind her.
"Xena?" Gabrielle rushed over to her and helped her to her feet.
"I'm all right." Xena sighed and brushed the dust from her leathers. They turned toward the door as they heard the boar's furious grunts and squeals. They knew the men left behind would have a hard time tiring the angry animal out.
Putting a hand on her friend's shoulder, Xena narrowed her eyes, "C'mon. We need to find our host and repay him for his hospitality."
He waited for the peace he knew would come now that he'd avenged his family.
Frowning, he stood and began to pace in front of his throne. The woman was dead. The witch that had killed his beloved wife and small children. Murdered his dear mother. It was all over now! Over! All his hard work, his planning, his training night and day had finally come to fruition! Now was the time for him to relax, to enjoy the sweet taste of revenge. The cool feeling of peace and contentment could now wash over him.
His pace quickened and he ran his fingers frantically through his hair. NO! This isn't the way it was supposed to be! He thought all the pain and fury in his heart would simply vanish, but he felt no different. He could still close his eyes and see his family, how happy they all were together, but his heart was empty. He felt no sorrow, no blinding anger over the memories. He realized that he'd lived with his hatred for Xena for so long, he couldn't feel anything else.
His hands clenched in his hair and he growled out a curse, "Damn you, Xena. DAMN YOU!"
"Hello to you, too."
Volicis spun around toward the door of the chamber. His eyes were wide as saucers when he saw Xena and Gabrielle standing there. His hands slowly let go of his hair and pointed at her. "No...you...," he whispered. How could she have gotten away? How?! "Guards!"
Xena merely crossed her arms. Gabrielle raised an eyebrow and looked down at her boots.
"GUARDS!" he yelled louder, but there was still no response.
Xena looked over her shoulder. "Oh guards!" she called out, turned back with a sly smile on her face and shrugged her shoulders. "Guess they're a little 'boared'."
Volicis did not appreciate the joke. "Xena..." He took a menacing step toward her, "Every night I dream about what you did to my family, and every morning I think of how to kill you for it!"
Xena raised an eyebrow, "So what do you do with your afternoons?"
He couldn't take it. How dare she stand there with that smug look on her face. She should be dead. She should be in pieces at the bottom of that pit, his pet boar gnawing on her bones! Well, he wasn't going to let her stand there and mock him.
"AAAAAARRRGGH!" he charged at her, he hands reaching out for her throat. Xena and Gabrielle merely sidestepped and let him fly past. Gabrielle grabbed her sais and held them in front of her, just in case he came for her.
Xena watched him stumble to a halt and placed her hands on her hips. He may be a half-way decent leader, but a fighter he was not! Volicis jerked himself around and charged at her again. She simply spun away from him and kicked at his backside with the side of her boot.
As Volicis stumbled over to his throne, he realized he was letting his anger make a fool of him. Taking a deep breath, he sat down on his throne and combed his fingers through his hair. He looked up at the two women, his face blank, the fingers of his right hand trailing thoughtfully over the raised skulls.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other, unsure of this sudden change. They took a few hesitant steps forward, Xena making sure that Gabrielle was safely behind her. She watched his every move, watched his fingers hovering over the strange carvings, the strange glint that was beginning to gleam in his eyes. She moved her hand slightly, indicating that Gabrielle should wait.
The more steps she took toward him, the brighter the gleam in his eyes became, his lips even began to curl up. Her heightened senses were already on edge, but now they were roaring. Something was up, she could feel it.
She'd walked almost twenty feet from the door when he suddenly smiled. A chill ran down her spine at the sight. When his eyes shifted from her to where Gabrielle stood, she froze and spun around.
Volicis gave a short laugh and slammed his hand down on the first raised skull.
"Gabrielle!" Xena ran toward her friend, but it was to late.
The floor directly beneath Gabrielle fell away. "XEEEEENNNAAA!" she screamed as she fell into the darkness.
Xena slid to her knees on the floor beside the open trapdoor and peered over the edge. "GABRIELLE!" she cried out, but the only answer was her own voice echoing back.
Seeing the shock in her face and the worry in her voice brought a strange feeling to Volicis. He had been devoid of emotion for so long, he almost didn't recognize it, but Xena's tormented face caused the first seedlings of pleasure to grow inside his blackened heart. She was suffering at his hand. That thought brought the first real smile to his lips in years.
Xena stood and advanced quickly on Volicis, drawing her sword, "What did you do to her? Where is she? You war is with me, not her!" She leveled to point of her sword to his throat.
Volicis merely shrugged, "An eye for an eye, Xena. Your friend for my family." His smile widened as that delicious warmth of pleasure spread through him, causing a small chuckle to bubble forth. "Not a fair trade, but I'll take it!"
Xena's face twisted into a snarl and she pressed the sharp tip of her sword to his skin, drawing a thin line of blood.
Volicis froze and frowned at her, "Ah, ah, ah!" He laid a hand over the second raised skull on the arm of his throne, "If I push this, your friend, if she's not dead already, will meet some of my other pets." He lazily swirled his fingers over the details of the carved skull, "My very, VERY hungry pets!"
Xena's ears suddenly picked up on the sound of several heavy footsteps making their way to the chamber. She wanted so much to slice this bag of filth from nose to navel, but she needed him alive if she was going to find Gabrielle. Dozens of guards came running through the doorway, and she could tell they'd had a hell of a time getting past the blood-hungry boar. Many of them had nasty looking gashes and were rumpled and dusty from the effort it must have taken to get past the stone door.
Taking a steadying breath, she lowered her sword from Volicis's throat, "Where is she?!"
Volicis curled his lips into a snarl, "As if I'd tell you anything. Guards! Take her to her custom-made cell!" He pressed the first skull again and the trapdoor sealed back up. Xena wanted to jump through the dark hole herself, but it closed too quickly, and she was left feeling helpless and terribly worried.
Five burly soldiers came up to her and she let them force her sword and chakram away from her. She'd play along... for now.
"You should feel honored, Xena. I designed the room myself, especially for you." He casually stood and walked over to pick up her weapons.
"Can't wait," she smirked as one soldier shackled her arms together behind her and her feet together with a chain between them.
As his men dragged the woman away, Volicis admired the weapons he held. He hung the sword up alongside the many others on the walls of his chamber, but kept the chakram with him. He sat back down on his throne and turned it in his hands, watching the light reflect off its gleaming surface. It was truly exquisite. Holding the weapon close to his chest, he leaned his head back against the cold rock of his throne and smiled. He was pleased by this turn of events, and now that he could feel something, he knew peace he'd been waiting for for so long could not be far behind. He just had to make the bitch suffer the way his family had suffered. Then she would die and his long nightmare would finally be over.
She tried to slide off the cage, but stopped when a bolt of pain shot through her back and left arm. Oh, this isn't good, she thought and lay back down. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and concentrated on her injuries. Her arm didn't feel broken, just terribly sprained. Her back felt like it had been pummeled, but she couldn't feel any serious damage, but enough damage that she couldn't move.
But she had to move. She had to get away from this cage and those birds before they got too hungry and started picking at her through the bars. She could tell that's what they wanted to do.
She brought her arm slowly to her chest and held it there, wincing with pain. Taking another deep breath, she began to move her back a little at a time, stretching the muscles slowly. It hurt like Tartarus, but she could stand it. She rolled gingerly onto her right side. Oh, I shouldn't have done that! She shut her eyes tight against the pain that followed, but stayed on her side and soon the pain lessened to a bearable degree.
She looked down into the cage again. And blinked. The number of birds had suddenly doubled! It's just the pain, she told herself. It's making me see things. She looked down again. I've got to be seeing things!
Gabrielle knew she had to sit up, so she braced herself. Quickly moving her right arm, she managed to push up onto her elbow. Groaning, she steeled herself against the waves of pain and forced her body to keep moving. Pushing against the cage beneath her arm, she finally got upright. Halfway there. Her breath came in short gasps and her sight was blurred by tears. All that's left is to get down.
Fortunately, the ground was only about five feet down. Gabrielle scooted gingerly over to the edge, first one hip, then the other. Each movement sent sharp tendrils of pain up her back, but she kept going. She had to. When she'd finally reached the edge, she began to turn around so she could lay on her stomach and climb the rest of the way down.
It took her all of ten minutes and over a dozen curses to get into position. Her forehead was beaded with sweat. Her back felt like it was on fire. Her arm throbbed.
And the birds continued to stare at her with those hungry eyes.
Suddenly one of the birds flew at her from inside the cage, squawking loudly. Gabrielle cried out, startled. Losing her grip on the bars, she dropped down to the ground. her legs folded under her, and as the rest of her body slammed against the floor, everything went black.
"Oh goodie," she mumbled as they hoisted her up onto it and screwed her shackles onto the cranks at each end of the rack.
"QUIET! Volicis will be here soon." The guards gave harsh tugs on shackles then left the cell to stand outside.
Xena pulled her arms and legs hard, but there was no give to the chains. She pulled again, trying to twist her wrists inside the shackles. The slightest slip could help, but they were so tight as if glued to her skin. Footsteps echoed from the hall, so she relaxed, waiting for Volicis.
The gate creaked open and Volicis stepped into sight. He walked toward the rack, twirling her chakram between his fingers like a toy. He glanced briefly at Xena, "Comfortable?"
"Oh yeah, sure. After this is the mud bath, right?" she said in a bored voice, raising an eyebrow.
Volicis gritted his teeth, "It'll be fun finding out which part of you goes first, your body or your sense of humor." He grasped the handle of the upper crank and began turning it. Xena felt her arms being pulled tighter and tighter above her.
"I should've put your little friend in here, it's not like you need to be any taller!" he chuckled, still turning the crank. The clicking of the gears as they locked with each turn became deafening. Xena's body was soon stretched tight, and even with her body fully relaxed there was no slack.
Volicis stepped to the lower handle and began slowly turning it, watching Xena with gleaming eyes. Her breath came out in ragged gasps, the pain almost overwhelming as her body was stretched so tight she was lifted above the table. He stopped cranking and leaned over the table, glaring at her. Xena's body twitched, the muscle fibers tearing inside having been stretched beyond their range of motion. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out the pain.
"O-kay...now...y-y-our...turn!" she gasped.
"No, no, I'm happy to say you get every turn, Xena." Leaning down closer, he glided his rough hand across her cheek and over her throat, traveling slowly down.
Xena felt bile rise in her throat at his touch. "This the kind of foreplay your wife liked?"
His eye went wide and he snapped his hand away from her as if burned. In a flash the back of his fist slammed across her face. It took everything inside Xena to keep from crying out as her body shook from the impact. When she opened her eyes again Volicis had left her side, but she could hear him behind her head rummaging under the table.
His voice was low and filled with barely restrained fury behind her, "You're going to die now, Xena. Slowly and with great pain." He came around the table and face her, his eyes hard, "Enjoy your last moments. I know I will." He turned on his heel and left the room, motioning for a guard to close the gate behind him.
Xena lay there, confused as to why he didn't stay to witness this slow, painful death he promised. Sniffing the air, she quickly realized why. A searing heat bled through the table under her from the fire he'd started.
"This must be how the rabbit we ate last night felt," she mumbled.
"She's awake, sir!"
Her mind cleared immediately and her senses returned. All of them. The throbbing in her head, the searing pain in her arm, and the terrible clenching in her back made her wish for another blackout. She heard a laugh. A soft laugh, but a laugh. She couldn't imagine what was funny about any of this.
"Good!" She recognized Volicis's voice. He walked over and smiled down at her, "Hello there. I thought you'd like to know that your friend Xena will be landing in Tartarus very soon."
Her eyes narrowed, "What did you do to her? Where is she?"
He just shook his head, "I don't know who you are, but you seem to be important to Xena. That makes you useful to me. Very useful." He noticed that she still lay on the floor. "You must have had quite a nasty fall. In a lot of pain, are you? Hmm..." he looked around the room, then smiled, "Take her over there, Darus." He gestured toward a far wall.
Gabrielle barely managed to keep from crying out as she was lifted from the floor, but a few whimpers still escaped. She inhaled deeply to keep from passing out. Across the room, behind the iron cage, were five sets of manacles set into the wall. She grimaced, This doesn't look good.
Sure enough, Volicis had the guard lift her off the ground and lock her wrists into the iron cuffs. The guard then let go of her to let her hang.
She screamed as pain seared through her arm and down into her chest. Her arm felt as if it was tearing out of its socket. The muscles in her back stretched and burned. It was too much! She could barely breathe. She couldn't even feel the tears that rolled down her cheeks. Her blood thundered in her ears, but she still heard Volicis's sickeningly cheerful voice.
"Save your tears, girl! This is nothing compared to the pain you'll be experiencing next." He strolled over to the cage and reached a hand in. Stroking one of the birds, he smiled, "These birds are some of my best trained pets. Obedient, loyal, and oh-so deadly. It took me years to train them not to attack everything that moved. They only attack their food, which is attached to those lovely bracelets you're now wearing. They haven't eaten in a few days, you know." With an almost loving gaze at his birds, he turned away and headed for the door. He leaned against the entrance and crossed his arms.
Gabrielle was breathing heavily, trying to block out the pain, but every breath brought on a fresh wave. Volicis's voice cut through, "When the cage is opened, your flesh will be picked from your bones. A nasty way to die, really. Not to worry, dear girl, you won't be suffering alone. Xena is just below you, suffering a delicious torment, as well. The look on her face when she hears your screams of agony will be quite entertaining, I'm sure."
The thought of Xena suffering caught her attention. She shook her head, "Please no! Xena....changed!" was all she could get out.
Volicis snorted, "Save your breath! Your pleas will not save her. Or you." He considered her for a moment. "You're probably an innocent in all this," he shrugged, "but it must be done. Xena will pay for what she's done." With that he shoved away from the door, nodded to the guard and disappeared down the corridor.
The guard Darus climbed onto the cage and gripped a handle attached to one edge, pulling the door up. "Release them!" he shouted.
At those words the birds began to flap their wings furiously, jumping excitedly around the cage, squawking in delight at the meal hanging for them.
She paused a moment, thinking. Blinking the sweat out of her eyes, she gritted her teeth and began swinging her body. Slowly from side to side, gaining momentum. Thrusting her hips to swing faster, she groaned out loud from the pain.
Flames lashed up over the edges of the table, snapping at her. Finally she swung hard enough to flip her body over to face the table. The heat blasted in her face, making her wince. She looked up where her shackles were screwed into the crank and grinned.
"YES!" she hissed, swinging herself again. The skin not covered by her armor was starting to turn red, the smell of hot leather burned in her nostrils. Thick gray smoke filled the air, making her cough, so she took short breaths and continued to flip her body around, each turn getting easier.
Smoke billowed from under the cell door and the guard nodded, certain Volicis would be pleased. He waited several minutes, but there were no screams of pain from a burning body. It was eerily silent. He was puzzled, but figured the smoke must have gotten her first. Unlocking the cell, he covered the lower half f his face with his shirt and went in to check the body. Through the smoke he saw there was nothing on the table. The woman was gone!
"Eiyiyiyiyiyi!" Xena reached up through the curtain of smoke, grabbed his head with her shackled hands and slammed his face into the sizzling table.
"AHHHHHHHH!" he screamed, trying to twist away, burning his hands when he tried to push himself up.
"Oh yeah, I like mine golden brown!" Xena growled. Lifting him up, she gave him a vicious backfist that instantly knocked him out. Taking his keys, she freed her wrists, limped carefully out of the cell and locked it behind her.
"I have a complaint about your steam room..." she mumbled. Taking a deep steadying breath, she rubbed her burning eyes and set out to find her friend.
"Hey, wait a minute!" she called out to the guard. He paused and glared at her. "What?" he grumbled.
"Do you have to do that? I mean, couldn't you just let me starve to death or something?"
He just shook his head and continued raising the door.
"WAIT!" she yelled again.
He paused again, "What?!"
She thought quickly, "Uh... I uh, I have an itch! Yeah! Before you do that could you please scratch my nose? Think of it as a last request." She wrinkled her nose dramatically, "It really itches!"
The guard frowned. He knew he should just do as he was ordered and leave, but a last request? He sighed and climbed down. The cage door was only a few inches off the ground, but the birds tried furiously to squeeze through.
Gabrielle was hugely relieved when her diversion worked. Grabbing the chains above the manacles, she gritted her teeth against the stabbing pain in her arm.
He stood before her and reached up to scratch the bridge of her nose. With a loud grunt, Gabrielle pulled herself up on the chains. Lifting her left leg up, she hooked it over the left side of his neck and snapped her leg down. He slammed to the floor, his head hitting the stone floor with a sickening thud.
He can't let them out now. She hung limply heavily against the manacles with relief. To her surprise, her sweaty hands slipped the tiniest bit through them. Her pain quickly forgotten, she began to twist against them, trying to get her hands to slip even further. Volicis said Xena was suffering and the quicker she got out of these things, the quicker she could help her.
While she was busy trying to free herself, one of the smaller birds managed to wiggle his way through the slight opening. Behind it, the others continued to try and push themselves through. With a hungry gleam in its eyes, the bird darted toward its meal. Gabrielle heard the flapping of wings and whipped her head around, looking for the source. The bird circled her, and in a flash came up against her back, poking her with its claws. She gasped at the sharp scratch. It continued to do this over and over. She could feel her back bleeding. It was as if the bird was testing the quality of its food before the feast.
Suddenly it landed on the back of her skirt, gripping the waistband. Gabrielle wiggled and thrashed about, trying to fling the bird off, but it maintained its grip on her.
Rubbing its beak against the bloody skin of her back, it was finally ready to eat.
She silently sprinted up to that corner and peered around. Six guards were quickly approaching the corner. She could hear the footstep behind her getting closer. They would soon turn down this corridor, and she didn't want to waste time fighting any of them right now. She needed a diversion for the guards ahead so she could go down the other branching hallway and continue her search for Gabrielle. Reaching down into her leathers behind her breastplate, she pulled out the curved dagger. She had to act fast.
Cautiously, right at the edge of the corner, she whirled the dagger down the corridor. It whizzed silently above their heads, clanging against a wall behind them. The all whipped around at the sound, swords at the ready. Xena bolted past them and sprinted silently away.
"AAAAGH!" she thrashed her body even harder. Squinting through her tears at the cage, she was horrified to see another bird slip out, and then another.
"Go away!" he snapped. The knocking persisted.
"I said go away!" he yelled, gripping the chakram tightly. The sharpened edge bit into his palm, making him hiss sharply and loosen his grip. He glared at the weapon and held the blunt inside edge with his fingertips. The knocking continued.
"Stupid guards!" He tromped toward the door and reached for the heavy iron handle. The door burst open, sending him flying backward. Stepping into the light of the doorway, stunned from the impact of the door, he made out the shadowed figure that stood there.
He pointed a shaky finger, "You're dead.... You're DEAD! YOU WERE BURNED ALIVE!"
Bathed in light, eyes hard and glinting, Xena looked the very image of an avenging angel. "Consider me a non-smoker!" she growled darkly. She quickly flipped forward, tumbling in a flurry of cartwheels and flips. Volicis could do nothing but scramble to his throne, but Xena flipped high up and landed right on him, tackling him to the ground. Her chakram rolled out of his hand. Xena stepped swiftly up to the throne and slammed her hand on the first skull carved into the arm. Seeing this, he rolled out of the way just as the trap door fell open.
"AAAAAGGGGH!!" Gabrielle's screams echoed from below, chilling Xena to the bone. She snatched up her chakram and without a second thought, dropped down toward her friend.
Her legs touched down on top of the cage. Her knees bent deeply and crouched so low, her bottom slammed against the cage bars. She took a moment to collect herself, mentally check her body, and look around. The sight before her almost made her ill.
Gabrielle's torso was covered with black birds. They picked viciously at her flesh and clothing, flapping their wings as they held on with their claws. With each peck, Gabrielle cried out.
A dark rage filled Xena, almost blinding her. Her eyes narrowed and her hands began to shake. With an animal-like scream, she flew off the cage and batted the winged beasts off of her friend. They flew in all directions, many slamming into the surrounding walls and dropping dead on the floor.
Xena was in a frenzy! When the last bird was knocked off, she grabbed the chains above Gabrielle's manacled hands and with a deep growl, ripped them from the walls. Gabrielle fell heavily against her, her breath coming in gasps and sobs. Xena noticed some of the birds were ambling across the floor toward her. "BACK OFF!" she hissed. They froze, turned right around and flapped quickly to their cage, some even trying to squeeze themselves back inside.
With a raised eyebrow, Xena set Gabrielle gently on the floor. She lay whimpering, tears soaking her face, her breath hissing between her clenched teeth. The severity of the wounds immediately cleared her frenzied mind and the healer inside took over. She quickly checked her out. The front of her body wasn't hurt other than a few scratches, since they hadn't gotten past her leather top yet. It was ripped in several places. But her back...
Xena drew in a steadying breath and blinked the tears from her eyes. She couldn't get emotional right now.
Gabrielle's back had been picked almost raw. Blood still flowed freely down her back and soaked her skirt. Xena's mind raced for a way to stop the bleeding. Eyeing the fallen guard, she knelt next to him and ripped off his shirt, relieved to find it fairly clean. She folded it and pressed it firmly to Gabrielle's back, wincing as her friend moaned. She had to tie it to her somehow. Glancing back at the guard, she grinned.
A few minutes later, she had used a small dagger from her boot to cut a pair of leather pants into strips, and used those strips to bind the shirt to Gabrielle's back. The pressure would stop the bleeding and hopefully alleviate some of the pain. That was all she could do until she could get her to a hospice.
Cradling Gabrielle in her lap, she could see Gabrielle's glazed eyes begin to clear.
"Xena?" she whispered.
Xena smiled and pushed back the hair from her dear friend's face, "I'm here, Gabrielle. You're going to be all right."
Gabrielle weakly raised her hand to Xena's cheek, "You're okay? Volicis..." she swallowed hard, "he said you were suffering...I, I couldn't..." she breathed heavily. Her skin was covered with sweat and her body burned, but she hardly noticed, so relieved was she to see Xena's face.
"Shhhh," Xena shook her head. "I'm all right. A little worse for wear, but I'll be fine." Indeed the warrior didn't feel much pain at all, just a numb tingling all over that she knew was from shock and exhaustion. Not to mention pure determination to ignore any pain. She'd mastered that particular skill years ago.
Gabrielle sighed and closed her eyes, slipping into blissful unconsciousness.
Xena rocked her friend gently in her arms, cursing herself fiercely for bringing Gabrielle into this mess. How many more times will she suffer because of me? The enormous guilt she felt pressed heavily down on her heart. Leaning her head against Gabrielle, the Warrior Princess finally let her tears fall.
Stepping out into the sunlight, she was surprised to see Argo waiting in the deserted grounds at front of the castle. The mare shifted on her hooves to keep warm, snorting loudly. Xena grinned, ever grateful for the loyal steed. How Argo always seemed to know when and where she was needed, Xena didn't care to speculate, she just whispered a silent prayer of thanks to the Fates. She was truly blessed to have Argo in her life.
Mindful of the approaching soldiers, she quickly carried Gabrielle over to the horse. Looking over her shoulder, she considered the man that had done this to her friend and made up her mind. Laying Gabrielle face down across the saddle, she deftly bound her to it so she wouldn't slip off. Taking a thick pelt from the saddlebag, she made sure Gabrielle was covered. Turning Argo toward the castle gate, she whispered softly in her ear, "She's hurt. Take care of her." Argo whinnied in understanding and took off, her hooves pounding through the snow.
Xena sighed in relief, one worry falling from her shoulders. Argo would take Gabrielle to the nearest hospice and she would meet up with them later. Later, when she was finished here.
Finished with Volicis.
Stepping over to one table, she lifted the lid on one of the baskets. Inside was a handful of small snakes. Each of them were as long as her hand from wrist to fingertip, with oily black bodies and a thin red stripe down the length of their backs. They slithered and coiled around each other, hissing dangerously in the dimness.
Xena replaced the lid carefully and took a deep breath. "Black Vipers," she grimaced. A quick peek in each basket confirmed that they all held the same snakes.
She was uncomfortably familiar with this particular species of reptile. Thought they were small, their tiny fangs held a quick and deadly venom. Once it entered the bloodstream the toxin spread like fire along the nervous, burning its way toward the heart. Within moments the heart and lungs were paralyzed. It was a quick, but very painful way to die. Black Vipers lived mostly in the many wild, rocky areas of Greece and through the years she'd seen dozens of her soldiers fall victim to a stray bite. She shuddered to think what a madman like Volicis would use these creatures for.
The faint pounding of soldiers boots echoed down the corridor, making Xena hurry to the doorway and listen. The pounding got louder and closer, along with bellows from Volicis to search every room. They were headed her way. Glancing back at the baskets, she quirked an eyebrow, one side of her mouth curving into a grin.
Opening several baskets, she carefully slid the snakes into one larger basket and closed the lid. Tucking it behind her back in her left hand, she walked slowly to the door not wanting to overly disturb them. Two dozen soldiers were at one end of the corridor, loudly ransacking rooms, Volicis seething behind them. Xena stepped out into the corridor and cleared her throat. Every head turned toward her, surprised.
She smiled and waved at them, "Looking for me?"
Volicis pointed a shaking finger at her, "Kill her! Kill her now!"
As the soldiers surged forward, Xena pulled the basket from behind her back and ripped open the lid. Grasping one snake behind the jaws, she squeezed to force them open. Taking quick aim, she threw the snake at the head soldiers. It flew so fast, the snake reached the man before its jaws had time to shut. Tiny teeth sank into the flesh below his chin before he made it halfway down the corridor. A few more steps and he fell, gasping for breath and clutching at his throat.
Over and over, Xena threw the vipers like darts, zeroing in on any exposed bit of flesh. She rarely missed a target. Only a few times did a bit of armor or leather on a moving soldier manage to block the deadly fangs, but she kept throwing.
Soon the floor was piled with dying, gasping men. Volicis stood very still against the far wall, hands fisted, eyes glaring.
Xena took a deep breath and took slow step toward him. "Listen to me, Volicis. What happened to your family is unforgivable."
His eyes widened and his lips curled into a snarl, "Don't you DARE speak of them, you murdering harlot!"
Xena didn't react to the insult, just kept moving closer, her hand inching toward her chakram, her voice low. "You hate the Xena that did those horrible things. You want to make her suffer. You want to kill her."
"I will, Xena," Volicis growled.
Xena shook her head, "You can't."
Volicis harumphed, "You're not invincible, Xena. I WILL kill you!"
Xena continued to advance, her voice low, almost sad. "She's dead, Volicis. The Xena that killed your family is already dead. I am nothing like the monster I was."
"No, Xena!" He raged, "You kill--"
"But you are," she finished as if he hadn't spoken.
He stared at her, shocked, "What?"
Xena stood about five feet in front of him, nodding. "You are just like the monster I was, Volicis. Heading an army, bent on revenge, torturing your victims with machines and deadly creatures, harming innocent people." She grimaced at the image in her mind of Gabrielle bleeding. "Those are just some of the things the old Xena did. Can't you see?" she implored, "By trying to kill the monster I used to be... you've become that monster yourself!"
Her words burned on his brain. No! He would not listen to her! He was not a monster. He was avenging his family! His family.... that she killed.... that SHE killed!
A strangled cry ripped from him as he lunged for her throat. Xena's saddened eyes flashed dangerously as she flung her arms up and out, blocking his hands. Grabbing his shoulders, she slammed her forehead against his. Volicis stumbled back down the corridor that lead to the front doors, hands cradling his head.
One final kick sent him flying through the doors and tumbling down the stone steps outside. Volicis struggled to his feet, bellowing at his men to surround her. Xena stood calm, ready for action. Her skin tingled, feeling their nervous eyes focusing on her slightest movements.
Volicis stood on the castle steps, trembling with rage. "Y-you..." He pointed a shaking finger at her,"You will PAY for this! You will pay for what you've DONE!"
Xena knew there was no other way. She held out her hands and beckoned with her fingers. "You want me, Volicis? Come and get some!"
His face flushed and alarming red and he screamed for his men to attack. "Yaaaaah!" the first soldier yelled, running in at Xena. She simply pivoted on one foot and slammed her fist across his face. He tumbled over in the air and thudded to the ground. Two more men ran in quickly from behind.
"Aiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" Xena ululated, flipping backward to land behind them. The suprised men turned just in time to see her fists slamming into their faces. She sensed a movement and ducked a vicious sword swipe from a large, burly soldier. She then had to jump to avoid his sudden low swing. Unhooking her chakram, she sliced at his wrist, making him drop his sword, and sprang to her feet. A round kick to the head sent him into dreamland.
Volicis shook his head in disbelief at her lightning moves and ordered his men to attack at once. They closed in quickly with their swords. When the sharp points were within inches of touching her, she launched herself high in the air, somersaulting away from them. Momentum carried each man into the sword of another and they fell in a bloody heap.
Kicks and punches and a quick ricochet of the chakram dispatched the last of the soldiers. Volicis gaped helplessly as his men fell, his face going white. Clutching tightly at his hair, he realized how greatly he had underestimated the Warrior Princess. There was no way to beat her, and she would be after him next!
Edging past the pile of soldiers, Xena caught a glimpse of his heels as he ran back through the castle doors. With a cold smile, she rehooked her chakram and followed.
Volicis raced to his weapons chamber and straight to his throne. He ran his hands over the back of it, desperate to locate the hidden latch that opened a secret escape passage. Quiet steps behind him made him freeze.
"Leaving so soon? It was just getting fun!"
He gulped and slowly turned to meet the hard, cold eyes of a very tired, very pissed off Warrior Princess. "I...uh, I..."
Xena felt the rage seep out of her veins, replaced by a violent disgust at his cowardice. She raised her chakram and snarled as he paled even further. "This is for Gabrielle!" The gleaming weapon flew from her hand.
Volicis snapped his eyes shut, waiting for the blow, but heard only loud pings as it deflected off the walls. Xena waited, knowing exactly where the chakram would land. She watched as his eyes opened and he burst out laughing. "You missed! You actually missed!" His body shook with hysterical laughter until he sagged against the stone chair.
Xena started to make a glib reply, but noticed a small movement at his shoulder. A tiny snake poked its head out from under his body armor, slithering slowly toward his neck. Volicis continued to laugh as the deadly chakram continued to clang around the room, whizzing back and forth, up and down.
"I thought you knew how to use that thing, Xena. I th--" His tirade was cut short as a pair of tiny fangs sank into his flesh. He gasped and clutched his throat, ripping the wretched creature away. The venom was quick, dropping him to his knees over the trapdoor. A second later, the chakram hit the first carved skull on the arm of the throne. His eyes already glazing over, Volicis managed a strangled cry as the floor gave way beneath him.
Snatching the chakram out of the air above her, she returned it to her side and peered over the edge of the trapdoor. It was too dark to see to the bottom so she listened carefully. There was a sickening thud, a startled shriek of birds and their flapping wings, then nothing.
Raising an eyebrow, she got up and moved to a wall covered in weapons. Taking down her sword, she checked its condition. Satisfied, she whirled it and slipped it into the sheath on her back. Running feet took her out of the room.
The hospice was a very modest building. So modest, a person might mistake it for a rather large barn, but torches burned brightly all around, a beacon of hope for those in need of a healer. A humble statue of Aesclepious stood in front, a tribute to the god of healing. The windows were boarded to keep away cold drafts.
Xena jumped from the horse before it had a chance to stop and ran to the door, wrenching it open. She jumped to see a woman standing immediately behind it, her hand paused in the act of reaching for the handle. The woman was old, but not ancient, and had a kind, weathered face.
"Yes?" she smiled at Xena, amusement in her voice.
Xena blinked, caught off guard. "I'm here for my friend," she answered breathlessly, "My horse brought her--"
The woman cut her off with a light laugh, "Ah, yes! Come in, come in." She stepped aside to let Xena through.
Xena was immediately enveloped by the warmth inside. Fires burned in every corner, driving away the chill that had seeped into her bones. A chill she hadn't realized she felt until now. Lighted candlestands were spread around, pushing away the darkness, glowing comfortingly. Fortunately, it wasn't too crowded. Many of the patients were seated near the fires, being treated for frostbite or hypothermia or plain chills. All were being fed hot soup by sweet-faced nurses with gentle smiles. The aroma of the hearty soup wafted toward Xena, making her rub her stomach absently. The place was so warm and inviting, she felt herself relax knowing that her friend was here.
She suddenly frowned and touched the old woman's shoulder. "There's a horse outside--"
The old woman interrupted her again, "Not to worry, dear. It's being cared for. We have a warm, comfortable stable. Those who come here have many things on their mind. The last thing they need is to worry about their horses. Your mare is there also," she assured the warrior. "Come, your friend is this way."
Xena sighed in relief and nodded, following behind the woman as she led her to the very back of the room. In the corner near the fire, Gabrielle lay on her right side on a low cot. Before she could go to her, the old woman turned to Xena, a solemn look on her face.
"I am Miriam, the healer here. I've been caring for your friend. Some of her wounds are quite deep, they needed to be cleaned and stitched. I applied an herbal poultice to help it heal. She arrived unconscious and still hasn't awakened." She sighed heavily, "She must have been in such pain."
Xena gulped and nodded, "Yes, I know. How is she?"
Miriam thought for a moment. "Well, she needs plenty of rest, of course, but mercifully there hasn't been any fever or festering. She'll be mighty sore from all those bruises on her back. The tendons in her arms have been terribly stretched, so it's been wrapped tightly." She paused, glancing over at Gabrielle. "She has so much to recover from. I'd like her to stay for at least a week, make sure she heals nicely."
Xena agreed, thanked the healer for all her help and went to her friend.
Gabrielle had her left arm wrapped tightly against her chest. Her leather top had been replaced with a sturdy cloth tied at her neck and lower back, making it easier to treat her wounds and protect her modesty. A large cloth pad covered her back. Xena knew she'd need to change it regularly to keep the wounds clean and prevent infection. As long as she was here, she was determined to care for Gabrielle herself. It was the least she could do for leading her dearest friend into such danger.
Finding a small stool and sliding it next to the cot, she sat and gazed at Gabrielle. She felt her forehead for fever, but found it cool. Her breathing was slow and regular, a good sign. Brushing the backs of her fingers down one cheek, she bit her bottom lip. She took Gabrielle's free right hand in hers and squeezed it gently. "Oh, Gabrielle, I'm so sorry for all this." She raised the hand to her lips, kissed the back, and laid it tenderly against her heart. Her eyes began to mist.
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered. She blinked, moaning softly. Her eyes focused slowly, but she immediately recognized the blurry form before her. "Xena?"
Xena smiled and cupped a hand against her cheek, "Yeah, I'm here. I'm right here."
Gabrielle frowned, "How...? Where...?"
Xena shook her head, "Shhhh, it's okay. You're in a hospice and you're going to be fine."
"But... but Volicis--"
Xena stopped her again, "Don't worry, I took care of him."
Gabrielle sighed and nodded, knowing exactly what she meant by that. She looked closely at her friend, searching for signs that she'd been hurt. Xena was obviously exhausted, and the way she sat, so tense and straight, she knew Xena had suffered something. Xena would never admit how badly she was hurting. Not even to me.
A shuffling of feet got their attention. Miriam had returned with two young nurses standing behind her. One was carrying a cot and a blanket, the other held two bowls of steaming soup.
"Come over here a minute, my dear," The old nurse took Xena by the arm. "Lara, put it right there," she directed the nurse and stepped aside so Lara could set up the cot. When that was done, Miriam looked Xena in the eye, "I know you're concerned for your friend, but you'll be no good to her if you collapse form exhaustion. You're going to eat, then rest." Her tone brooked no argument.
Xena started to protest, but the look in Miriam's eyes reminded her of her mother when she meant business. There would be no arguing with this nurse. She shrugged and relented, sitting down on the cot and accepting the soup from Nell, the other young nurse. Nell then went over to gently prop up Gabrielle so she could feed her.
"And don't think I don't know you're in pain," Miriam continued. Xena waved her hand dismissively, but Miriam would have none of that. "After you've rested, Lara will tend to you."
Xena rolled her eyes, but continued eating. Now that she thought about it, she was a bit tense. Being on that rack made her ache a bit, too. A rest would do her good. Putting down the soup, she stretched out on the cot, suddenly very tired.
Gabrielle smiled through her pain, glad someone could get her friend to rest. Her own aches and pains were lessening gradually, thanks to the draught she knew had been added to the soup. The crafty old nurse must've added it to Xena's, too. She sipped the last spoonful Nell held up for her and was then helped to lay on her side again. Xena had already slipped off to sleep.
Miriam nodded, satisfied. "She'll need the rest, you know," she smiled at Gabrielle. "She's going to be quite sore when she wakes." Seeing Gabrielle's frown, she quickly reassured her, "Oh, don't worry, she'll be fine. Rest, food, a little care, you'll both be just fine." She motioned the other nurses to follow her as she went to look after another patient.
Gabrielle watched Xena sleep, saw how the lines of worry had eased from her face. Reaching out, she took Xena's hand in hers and knew they were going to be fine. Everything would be fine now.
She drifted off to sleep holding Xena's hand.
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