by Nancy M
The characters of Xena and Gabrielle and others belong in their entirety to Universal/MCA, Renaissance Pictures, and all the other powers that be. No copyright infringement is intended. Please do not copy without express permission of the author.
This story contains some violence. While allusion is made to an adult relationship, there are no sexually explicit or suggestive scenes.
This story takes place in Season 4
The last mile was the worst. Xena had slipped from a delirium to a near death trance, and every step Gabrielle took seemed an eternity. Argo trudged on, perhaps remembering another time she had dragged her master behind her, Gabrielle beside her, urging her on.
"Just a little further," the bard encouraged, but the horse seemed to question the wisdom of continuing in the dark. "Almost there."
The lights of Potidaea glowed through the trees at last. Gabrielle pushed Argo the last few hundred paces, until they stood in the yard before her family's house. She paused there, too tired to call out.
When she had found Xena, the warrior was already beyond speaking. Apparently she had been attacked while the younger woman searched for tubers and herbs for their stew. Gabrielle only knew that when she returned Xena was unconscious from loss of blood, and there was no sign of her attacker. She had quickly bound the wounds to stop the bleeding, and only later noticed the foul stench emanating from the bandages. By then Xena was ranting in a fevered delirium.
"Who's out there?" Gabrielle heard her father's voice.
"It's me Daddy. Gabrielle."
The door flew open and out poured her mother, father and sister Lilla. For a long moment Lilla embraced her, until Gabrielle pulled away.
"We need help. Xena...needs help."
For the first time Hector looked at the travois. "You brought her here," he stated coldly.
"Daddy, she needs help. We were just north of here. I didn't know where else to go."
"No. I suppose you didn't." He made no move towards the unconscious warrior.
"Please. Let me nurse her here. She needs a healer, rest, and care, and her wounds are smelling funny and..." For the first time she allowed herself to see the seriousness of the situation. She stopped talking lest her father hear the desperation in her voice.
Lilla stepped forward just then, and put her arm around Gabrielle again. "Please Daddy. Let her stay. She can have my bed."
Hector softened at his youngest daughter's pleas. "For tonight," he said gruffly, then disappeared into the house.
Gabrielle thanked Lilla with her eyes and bent to pick up Xena. The 65 kilos caused her to grunt with the strain. Lilla moved to help, and at first Gabrielle shook her head, but after she almost dropped the warrior going up the steps, she allowed Lillaís assistance. Soon Gabrielle, Lilla, and their mother Hecuba had Xena resting in Lilla's bed. Outside the heard Hector tending Argo.
"Where's my old bed?" Gabrielle asked, glancing around her childhood bedroom.
"We sold it. Your father said you wouldn't be back." Hecuba's voice carried apology and question.
"That's okay Mom. I'll sleep on the floor next to Xena anyway," Gabrielle said, trying to keep the hurt out of her voice.
"And I can sleep next to the fire," added Lilla.
Gabrielle sensed something unspoken. Lilla and Hecuba glanced at each other.
Her mother spoke. "Gabrielle, you have to know how your father feels about Xena." The bard looked away and nodded. "He's never forgiven her for taking you away. Or you either, for that matter."
"I know Mom."
"And now your sister's met a nice young man. It just isn't a good time to have an upsetting influence in the house."
Gabrielle clenched her jaw. Her soulmate lay there, perhaps dying, and her mother referred to her as an upsetting influence.
"Fine Mom. We'll only be here as long as absolutely necessary. We'll not bother you any more than we have to."
Hecuba seemed relieved. She smiled, and then left the two sisters alone.
"I'm so sorry Gab," Lilla began.
"No. It's okay. Really." Gabrielle took a breath and began to undress the warrior. "So. What's this about a nice young man?"
"Oh Gab, he's wonderful. He's not from around here. He's been all over the world. And he tells such stories."
Gabrielle half listened as Lilla went on about her new beau.
Just then Xena moaned. "Lilla, get me some water and clean rags please," Gabrielle said.
When her sister left, Gabrielle knelt beside Xena, and carefully cradled the warrior's head on her arm. She brushed the bangs back from her forehead and gently kissed her cheek, letting her touch linger there.
After several moments Gabrielle heard Lilla's soft tread behind her.
"Here are your rags and bandages, and some warm water. And I brought a needle and thread too, in case you need to..uhm..stitch anything." It was clear the sight of the lacerations shocked the younger woman.
"Thanks Lilla. More than you know. We'll be fine now."
"Iíll see if I can find the healer." Lilla smiled weakly and left the room.
Gabrielle was not at all sure they'd be fine, and she went to work. She'd not taken time to properly dress Xena's wounds in camp. Now she unwrapped the bloody bandages and examined the damage.
Xena had taken two severe lacerations to her upper left arm, a spot Gabrielle had frequently tended. In addition there was a deep wound to her right thigh and a long ragged gash on her right forearm. A relatively minor cut to her left temple had been responsible for much of the blood loss.
Gabrielle methodically washed the cuts, flushing as much water into them as she dared without starting the bleeding again. She stitched one of the shoulder cuts and the thigh, being grateful for once for Xena's unconsciousness. The warrior was excessively critical of Gabrielle's suturing techniques, and she could not afford to be gentle now.
What worried her most was the odor emanating from the forearm cut. She was certain the attacker had used some kind of poison. She pulled the wound open to force it to bleed. Xena cried out, but Gabrielle held fast, milking the arm to force more blood out through the cut. As much as she hated to take even more blood from the depleted body, she knew that every drop of poison she flushed out improved Xena's chances. Then she stitched and bound the cut like the others. She doubted that the healer would do more.
Finished, Gabrielle sank to the floor exhausted. She felt a hand on her shoulder. Looking up she saw Xena's clear blue eyes looking into her own.
"Xena! I didn't know you were awake. I'm sorry - I must have hurt you..."
"Shh." The warrior's voice was barely a whisper. "It's okay."
Gabrielle gave the hand a squeeze. "Can you tell me what happened? Who attacked you?"
Xena sighed. "Can't remember much. He surprised me. Threw his knife at my leg, so I blocked it. Forgot I wasn't wearing my gauntlet. Sliced me." She rested a moment. "I think it was poisoned. I was really dizzy when he moved in. Couldn't fight well. Thought I wounded him, but maybe not, then I passed out." She paused again. "And Gabrielle, he looked familiar."
Gabrielle was nodding. "That makes sense. You have plenty of enemies." Gabrielle released the hand. "Do you know where you are now?"
Xena gave a small smile and nodded. "This can't be easy for you, Gabrielle."
"That's not what's important. You healing matters now."
"You did a good job," Xena whispered. "I take back most of the bad things I ever said about your healing skills."
"You still have hands like a sailor."
"That's funny. I always thought you liked my hands." Gabrielle pulled a coverlet up to Xenaís chin and tucked it around her shoulders.
When Xena's breathing had settled into a soft snore, Gabrielle slipped out of the room. She found Lilla in the main room, next to the fire. Their parents were nowhere to be seen.
"Lilla, tell me about this guy."
Lilla's eyes sparkled. "His name is Thelonius."
Xena could hear the two women talking. She had feigned sleep to ease Gabrielle's concerns. But the face of her attacker vexed her. It had been years, but she was finally convinced that he was one of the slavers who tried to kidnap the village girls when Ares had taken the form of her father. He must have recognized her as a threat and tried to eliminate her, running away when he believed the poison and blood loss would finish the job. He would have been right if it hadn't been for Gabrielle.
Xena finally drifted into fevered sleep, but was rudely awakened by a knee on her chest and a bottle thrust against her mouth. It reeked of the same smell as her wound.
She clamped her lips shut and struggled against the weight on her chest. In her weakened state the attacker was too massive for her. She tried calling out to Gabrielle, but he had pinched off her nose and she dared not open her mouth to scream.
She yanked the coverlet back from her shoulders. Lying on her back she didn't have enough range of motion for a punch so she stuck her thumb up his nostril and ripped the flesh back. His startled scream gave her the opening she sought. She knocked the bottle to the floor and parried the blow he aimed at her face. As he drew his arm back to strike again she hooked his elbow with her leg and spun him onto the floor.
The sound of the struggle brought Lilla and Gabrielle running.
Lilla took one look at the man on the floor and ran to him.
"Thelonius! My gods - what happened to your nose?" She reached to wipe the blood from his face.
The attacker took instant advantage of the situation. "Lilla! That's a crazy woman! Help me!"
Lilla moved to comply, and as she did Thelonius slid a dagger under her throat. "Anyone follows, she's dead." Lilla was too stunned to struggle, and stared wide-eyed over her shoulder at the man she thought she loved. Gabrielle and Xena watched helplessly as the slaver backed out the door with Lilla.
The scene around the table was grim and contentious.
Xena had collapsed after the slave traderís escape, and no one had dared pursue for fear of Lilla's life. The only good thing that had occurred in the past hour was that the healer had provided an antidote for the poison in the vile, and Xena, while still desperately weak, was no longer in fear for her life.
However that reassurance meant little to Hector. While Gabrielle sat in silence, he ranted in anger and frustration, Hecuba cowering beside him.
"Why did that woman ever have to come into our lives? Gods, I wish I'd never laid eyes on her." Gabrielle chose not to remind him that Xena had saved all the citizens of Potidaea from slavery all those years ago. "Every time she comes into this house, something happens." Right, thought Gabrielle, like saving you from my evil daughter and grandson. "And now this. Lilla kidnapped by a slaver to be sold for gods know what." Gabrielle shook her head. Lilla was on that path by herself, long before Xena showed up. At least Thelonius' attack had shown them all his true colors.
"She...she...Gabrielle, she took you away from us!" Hector sputtered. Now at last, the girl thought, the crux of the issue.
"Daddy, I left of my own free will."
"You were too young to know any better. She took advantage of that."
"She never asked me to follow her. She tried to stop me."
"I don't believe that."
"Are you calling me a liar?" Fire danced in Gabrielle's eyes.
"Of course he isn't dear," Hecuba entered the fray for the first time. "He just can't understand what you see in her."
Gabrielle took a breath before speaking, and when she did, her voice was soft.
"It's what she saw in me, Daddy."
No one spoke for a moment. Then Gabrielle continued. "Before her, no one saw me for who I was, who I could become. You wanted a dutiful daughter, a mother for your grandchildren. Xena saw ME. She has never asked me to be anything but who I am."
Gabrielle thought she saw a glimmer of something in her mother's eyes. But Hector remained adamant, as if he hadn't heard.
"I want her gone. Tomorrow."
"If she goes, I go."
"You left four years ago."
There was a noise from the bedroom. They all turned and saw Xena swaying in the doorway. "And she won't leave again, if that's what it takes," said the warrior in a weak but steady voice.
Gabrielle was up in an instant, reproaching her friend for being out of bed. Xena shushed her.
"This is your family Gabrielle. You can't cut yourself off. If I need to leave, I will. But you can not let me come between you."
There was silence in the room. Gabrielle took a long time to answer. Finally she said "No Xena. They are the family I was born to. You are the family I have chosen. Nothing can undo the blood that binds me to them, and I'll let nothing undo the love that binds me to you. Nothing,"
Hecuba drew her breath in sharply and her eyes misted as she looked at Hector. He returned her look, and inner conflict clouded his earlier certainty. They gazed at each other for several moments before Hecuba spoke.
"Those are the exact words I said to your father when he offered to leave me rather than come between my parents and me." She nodded, as if making a decision. "We cannot pretend to be happy with your choices, Gabrielle, but you, and Xena, are welcome in our home." Gabrielle met her motherís eyes and gave her a grateful look. Then she turned to her father. Hector exchanged a look with his wife, and gave a curt nod.
Sometime later Gabrielle and Xena were engaged in a heated argument. Xena still lay against the pillows, weakened but recovering, while Gabrielle paced.
"Xena, it just makes sense for me to be the one. First, the slavers know you. Second, you don't look like a good slave prospect even if they didn't know you. And third, you are in no condition to do this."
"Gabrielle, you don't know what slavers do to girls. I won't have you subjected to that."
"That's exactly what Lilla is going through right now. That's why I need to infiltrate that group as soon as possible. Xena, I can handle myself."
"Can you? Youíll be alone in this. Can you keep your head, think through whatever comes up? Not lose your temper?"
"Xena. Just let me do this," Gabrielle pleaded. "Lilla is my sister. She's my family. Just as you are."
"Gabrielle, I canít stand the thought of you getting hurt. And thereís a very good chance you would be."
"Xena, I promise I wonít get hurt. Iíll think through everything, I wonít lose my temper. Iíll stay in the background, not draw attention to myself. Really."
Xena closed her eyes and nodded after a moment. "Alright. But if you let anything happen to you, Iíll kill you." She gave a twisted smile.
Gabrielle nodded. "Thanks. Now lets do some planning." They talked for a while longer, plotting Gabrielleís capture, and agreeing on places for her to leave message drops.
Finally Gabrielle stopped. "Xena, you need to rest."
"I know. Thank you Gabrielle."
"Just...being you. And believing in me, back there in the kitchen."
"I could say the same. Rest now."
The next morning Gabrielle dressed in some of Lilla's clothes and went for a walk alone down a deserted road. Before long she was aware of a person following behind her, and almost immediately, another in front.
Every instinct told her to fight or run, but instead she froze, playing the part of a terrified maid. A smelly rag clamped over her mouth and nose, and she slipped into blackness.
A cloaked figure watched from a distance, then carefully followed the kidnappers trail.
On the morning of her fourth day of captivity, Gabrielle awoke in a foul mood. She and the other women, girls mostly, spent their nights loosely tied together under the watchful eyes of a guard. Gabrielle could have escaped a dozen times, but not with Lilla, and not with the rest of the information she had been gathering about the slavers' business transactions.
Lilla slept restlessly beside her, whimpering occasionally. Gabrielle's foul mood was the result of several things. First it was nearly impossible to sleep hobbled together with twenty other women, most of whom cried themselves to sleep. Second the food was horrendous. And third, her back and shoulders stung mightily from the beating she'd received the night before. And worst of all, she knew she had only herself to blame for it's severity. If only she had cried and begged it would have been over in a few moments. Apparently these slavers were not anxious to damage their goods and stopped punishment as soon as the victim showed adequate signs of submission. But not Gabrielle. No, she took it in silent fury, giving no sign of submission until the guard had quit from sheer exhaustion. Curiously, Thelonius had watched, and smiled with satisfaction at her refusal to yield.
Damn stubborn pride, Gabrielle muttered to herself as she painfully rolled over. Xena's gonna kill me for being so hard headed.
Lilla was awake now. The captivity had been especially hard on the girl. Gabrielle still caught her gazing at Thelonius, her expression a combination of love betrayed, yearning to forgive, and visceral hatred. Gabrielle knew the look, and she worried about her sister.
"Lilla, be ready. Today's the day."
Lilla sniffled. "Okay, whatever you say Gab."
Gabrielle gave her a brave smile, and they sat together, waiting for the guard to unlock the shackles.
If all went according to plan, the slavers would have a surprise waiting them at the noon meal break. Xena had allowed Gabrielle four days to gather information on the slavers' contacts, clients, and the identities of all the girls captured and already sold. Gabrielle had managed twice so far to leave notes for Xena along the trail at watering stops. Today a posse would intercept the group, free the girls, and arrest the slavers. And hopefully Gabrielle's information would lead to a much larger crackdown.
Gabrielle should have known it was going too well. Before they had traveled a mile that morning Thelonius called a halt and looked to be expecting someone. Soon two priests of the Dionysus temple came down from a side trail. Thelonius greeted them, looking smug.
"Do you have girls to meet our needs?" one asked, leering at the group.
Thelonius smiled broadly. "I have two that will be perfect for you."
"They are virgins?"
"And strong willed? The god doesn't wish a sacrifice of sheep."
"Oh yes. I tested a number of them before finding one that had the courage you require. And the other I have known for a number of weeks and can attest to her...perseverance." Thelonius motioned to a guard to bring Gabrielle and Lilla forward.
Gabrielle started to protest that she wasn't a virgin, but realized she could help Lilla more by staying with her. So instead she just struggled against the guard's grasp.
"You will accompany us to the temple to assure safe delivery?"
"Of course." Thelonius turned to his second in command. "Wait for me at the caves. I should catch up to you there by nightfall."
He signaled one of the guards. They shackled Lilla and Gabrielle, and then the two priests, two slavers, and two girls walked away, toward the Dionysus and their sacrifice.
When Xena and the sheriffs launched their ambush later that morning they made short work of the remaining slavers. Despite her still weakened state, Xena fought efficiently and soon the slavers were tied and all the girls accounted for.
All but two.
Xena's heart was in her throat as she scanned the group for the fourth time. Her initial relief at seeing the girls were not overly mistreated turned to fear.
"Where are Gabrielle and Lilla?" Xena grabbed one of the liberated girls.
"You mean the blonde and her sister?" The girl was rubbing her wrists. "They were taken as a sacrifice to Dionysus."
"When??" Xena practically screamed at the girl, holding her tightly by the shoulders.
"Maybe two hours ago. They went up that trail to the north a few miles back."
"There's still time then." Xena turned and vaulted onto Argo. She had disappeared down the road a few seconds later.
Gabrielle had done everything possible to slow the groupís progress. She bore a few more bruises and lash marks as a result of her efforts, but she hoped it would be enough. Xena should be able to catch up. Assuming the ambush had gone smoothly. Assuming someone gave her accurate directions to find the trail. And assuming Xena was sufficiently recovered to have even made the trip. She tried not to dwell on those possibilities.
Lilla trudged on in shocked silence. She hadn't responded to any of Gabrielle's whispered comments. She seemed beyond caring about anything but Thelonius. She continued to gaze at him, a spark of love or hope in her eyes. Gabrielle knew she would soon have to accept the man's true nature, or her heart would be forever broken.
Gabrielle heard the bird call. A moment later she heard another, slightly modulated, and in a different rhythm. "Lilla, when I say so, hit the ground and stay there."
The dark haired girl seemed not to hear, but Gabrielle had no chance for a second warning. The raucous call of a crow came from their right.
"Now Lilla!" Gabrielle hissed and threw herself down, just as Xena's chakram spun over her head and clipped the heads of the two priests, knocking them down.
But Lilla remained standing. She started to turn a pleading eye to Thelonius when the sound of a whip cracked through the air, and the chakram was knocked to the ground a few inches before it would have sliced into Lilla's throat. It clattered harmlessly away.
Thelonius' sword was out in an instant, as was his guard's. Gabrielle tried to scramble away, but her chain to Lilla caught her up short.
"Well, we meet again." Thelonius said to Xena, touching his nose. "You left me something to remember you by. And this time, it seems I'm holding something of value to you." He jerked Gabrielle's chain.
Xena didn't move. She could sense Thelonius' thug moving away to her left. The two priests moaned but made no attempt to rise.
"I have a business transaction to complete. You don't seem to be in any position to stop me. So I'll just be on my way now." He jerked Gabrielle to her feet, and turned away from Lilla.
"You're wrong about that," Xena said in a low, dangerous voice. In one move she pulled her breast dagger and flung it over her left shoulder, where it sliced the carotid artery of the thug as he raised his sword behind her. He dropped in a gurgling bloody heap.
Her own sword was in her hand now.
"Tsk, Xena. You still forget I am holding the final card. The one that matters most to you." His sword came up under Gabrielle's chin.
"So tell me Thelonius. If I spare you now, to save Gabrielle's life, you'll just take her away to be sacrificed later. So where's my incentive?" She started to move toward him, but the sight of his sword beginning to draw a crimson line on Gabrielle's throat stopped her.
"I think you see the incentive. I would, of course, prefer to not have to kill her here. The priests don't pay nearly as well if we deliver their sacrifices already dead."
"But be assured, you leave now, or she is dead. Now."
The two glared at each other for a moment, then a new voice was heard.
"No Thelonius. Youíre dead. Now."
Xena and Gabrielle stared as Lilla yanked Theloniusí head back with one hand and jerked his dagger out of its sheath with the other. She was laying it against his throat when Gabrielle stopped her.
"Lilla don't!" In the same moment Gabrielle pulled free from Thelonius. Lilla's eyes poured pure fury at the man she had loved.
"Gabrielle, how can you let him live after what he did to us?" She struggled to hold the dagger at his throat, but the large man easily pulled away.
Gabrielle grabbed Lilla and flung her to the ground as Xena leaped in, sword raised.
The man was skilled, and parried Xenaís opening attack easily. She backed off and circled, waiting his move. She didnít have to wait long. Thelonius feinted to the right as he moved in, his sword coming up across his body. Xena saw the move for what it was, and countered his blade with her own. The steel rang as the swords ran up, hilt to hilt.
The slaver used his brute strength to shove their bodies apart, but Xena used the momentum he gave her in a spin, bringing her blade in a broad arc aimed at his midsection. The man jumped back, and the tip of Xena's sword laid the front of his shirt open. A fine red line spread across the skin.
They circled warily, each moving in, then out, to find weaknesses. Thelonius made a quick jab, and Xena sidestepped, hooking the hilt of his sword and yanking him off balance toward her. He sprawled in the dirt.
"Give it up, Thelonius. You can't win." But the man wouldn't be deterred. He rolled to his knees, the tip of his blade never wavering from Xena.
"I have never met a warrior who could best me with a sword," he growled. "And I still haven't." He charged Xena again, but instead of ducking to the right before the blow, as she expected, he moved straight in, and the countermove she had prepared met cold steel instead of flesh. They wrestled close in for a moment, his blood smearing on her midsection. Then they pushed away.
Xena watched his chest this time, not his eyes, and saw the subtle shift in his center of gravity before the next rush. This time her guess was correct, and her blade met ribs and lung instead of steel.
As he slid to his knees his gaze never left Xena. There was more surprise than fear in his look. Xena held his look as he eased over onto his back, her sword still in his chest.
"You've met one today," Xena snarled, and yanked her sword free as the light left his eyes.
As Xena pulled her sword from his chest, Gabrielle heard Lilla whisper.
"You should have let me. You should have let me kill him."
"Lilla, shh. You don't know what it's like to kill someone. You don't know what it does to you." She held her sister close.
"I know what it's like to love someone and be betrayed," the younger girl said.
"I know. I know you do. It hurts beyond words." Gabrielle held tight until she felt Lilla begin to sob. The she kissed her gently and rocked her while the sun sank.
That night, after Lilla had gone to sleep, Xena offered to rub Gabrielle's back. They had not talked about the captivity, and Xena was surprised when Gabrielle refused her offer.
"It's just, well, I'm a little sore, is all."
"A good massage always helped that before."
"No Xena, it's not that kind of sore..."
Xena fixed Gabrielle's eyes with her own. "What happened to you?" she demanded.
Gabrielle tried to downplay it, but Xena would not be put off. She turned Gabrielle and pulled the loose blouse down off her shoulders. I'm in for it now, thought Gabrielle.
She heard Xena's sharp intake of breath. "Take off the blouse. Lie down over there. On your stomach. Now." Xena's harsh words were betrayed by the catch of emotion in her voice. "Do it," she said, and Gabrielle moved to comply.
Neither spoke for some time as Xena carefully rubbed a numbing ointment into the weals on Gabrielle's shoulders and back. After awhile, Gabrielle realized it really felt quite good. She began to relax for the first time since Xena had been attacked. The fire was warm and Xena's massage both soothed and stimulated the bard. The gentle pain brought with it a delicious endorphin rush.
After a while Xena spoke. "Since none of the other girls were beaten like this, I figure that you must have lost your temper and mouthed off to one of the guards. They decided to teach you a quick lesson and probably would have been satisfied if you had just cried a little and begged them to stop. Only you, being the stubborn, prideful, stupid thing that you are, just never gave in."
Gabrielle thought about explaining that Thelonius had used the beating to test her, but realized that would only make things worse. After all, she had promised to keep a low profile. "Yup. That's about it," she admitted. There was no point in equivocating now. She was in for it.
There was genuine anger in Xena's voice now. "After all I've taught you, this is the way you handle yourself in a situation. You promised me you wouldnít get hurt."
"Well, I canít imagine you giving in to them either." Gabrielle tried to play on Xena's own pride. It didn't work.
"I never would have lost my temper in the first place, in a tactical situation!"
"Oh right. Miss Submissive. That's you, alright Xena."
Xena started to retort, but realized there was truth in what the bard had said. "Hmph."
Gabrielle knew she had won the point, and she also knew that Xena knew she had learned a lesson.
Xenaís glare dissolved into a smile. "Well, at least no one else got hurt. And you didnít get any more than you could handle. But please, next timeÖ"
"I know, I know. Iíll use my head."
They looked at each other a moment, affection in their eyes. Then Gabrielle got up and put her blouse back on.
"Thanks for trusting me to handle this one. It means a lot."
Xena just returned the smile and arranged the bedroll.
Continue to Part 2