Never to Forget
Bard and Healer
For Disclaimers: See Part One
I still feel you in my heart,
That part of you that's in my soul.
But, it doesn't stop the constant ache,
Without you here, I don't feel whole.
I feel so lost and empty,
My life is barely hanging on.
I'll fight for my survival,
But why ... if you are gone.
Among the four of them, Ephiny, Jadax, Eponin and a responsible feeling Nazalon, they never left Gabrielle alone. Not that it would have made a difference, she wasn't really there anyway. She was only a shell of her former shelf, a broken, empty shell, void of all emotions and void of all life itself. She never left her room and she never left her bed. For three solid days all she did was cry and mourn the loss of her friend. She didn't talk, she didn't eat and she rarely even slept. Gabrielle just cried as she knew deep down something terrible had happened to Xena and there was nothing anyone could do. They had no idea where to even start.
The rains had poured heavily for days, wiping out any chance of tracking the lost warrior. A dark cloud hung over the village leaving an eerie silence of depression and frustration. There were no sounds of children playing, no noise of a busy community, only a respectable silence. There was little to no activity around the muddy compound. Only a few Amazons could be seen running from one hut to another or to the kitchen through the downpour of rain.
Ephiny was a mess. She didn't know what to do. She had never felt so totally helpless and isolate. Gabrielle had gone into seclusion, Jadax had become withdrawn and angry and Xena had vanished leaving only a bloody saddle and an uncontrollable horse.
Jadax's hostility was being taken out on everyone, but mainly on herself. She took to the solitude of the forest, taking long treks on and off Amazon land. Thankfully, Ephiny didn't know anything about. The regent didn't like anyone to leave the safety of their land, never mind the woman she loved. But Jadax was determined to find out what had happened, or at least find Xena's body and bring her home. The warrior princess deserved a decent burial. Jadax talked to no one, she suffered in silence, she was aware Ephiny had her own problems.
The Queen felt her heart tear every time she saw Jadax. Never mind how she felt when she tried to talk to her. It didn't seem to matter what anyone said to Jadax. She was taking full responsibility for having left an injured Xena on her own. Ephiny had tried many times to get her to talk, but the forest scout was stubborn and kept to herself.
Ephiny had been to the healer and the priestess about Gabrielle and Jadax, even though she knew there was nothing they could do. Both had said the same thing. They had to do it themselves. Gabrielle had to find the courage to want to live. Jadax had to come to terms with what had been done and realize she couldn't change it.
The regent was aware of the frustration building in her village. Everyone wanted to know what had happened to Xena. The Queen had many meetings with her council and warriors as to what to do, but the answers were always the same. Without knowing where Xena had gone and with no tracks to follow, there was nothing they could do. Like Gabrielle they wanted to believe the warrior princess could still be alive, but they were starting to lose hope.
On the fourth day since finding Argo, Ephiny knew something had to happen soon. Her morning had started with another fight with Jadax. Something they had never done in the past, but seemed to be doing all the time now. When Ephiny had found her packing a travel bag, the normal passive regent lost it. She stood screaming at her lover that enough was enough. The spirited, stubborn, forest scout had simply looked at her and said, she and only she would say when it was enough. Jadax had thrown her bag over her shoulder and had exited the palace. Leaving Ephiny standing alone, her body shaking out of anger and frustration.
Moments later Donya, the large Amazon stable hand, arrived at the palace. She was unaware of what had just transpired between Ephiny and Jadax.
"What are we supposed to do with Argo? She still won't let anyone near her." Donya went on to explain they had been feeding the wild mare by throwing her food from a distance. No one had been able to get close enough to remove the saddle and the rest of Xena and Gabrielle's things. And now the smell of blood from Argo's unwashed coat was disturbing the other horses.
The Queen had looked at the stable hand and threw her hands into the air.
I have no idea either, but Ephiny promised she would have an answer by the afternoon. When Donya had left, she dropped her head into her hands. She couldn't take anything more.
Ephiny was still sitting with her head in her hands, when Eponin and Nazalon arrived at the palace a while later.
"My Queen," Eponin didn't want to disturb her Queen and childhood friend.
"My Queen!" She said louder, not sure if she had been heard.
"Eponin, don't call me that right now. I need a friend, not a loyal warrior," Ephiny removed her hands from her face. She was startled to see Eponin was not alone. But she couldn't be bothered with any of the usual formalities.
"Oh hi, Nazalon. Don't you 'my Queen' me right now either." The tall warrior quickly closed her mouth.
"What can we help with Ephiny?" Eponin knelt down in front of Ephiny, "There has to be something we can do? You can take all this on yourself."
Ephiny looked at Eponin and she knew her friend was right.
"Argo," she said plainly.
"What!?" The two warriors were surprised at the single word she had spoken.
"I need to figure out what to do with Argo."
There was silence for a moment, they were aware of the troubles Xena's wild mare was causing down at the stables.
"Why not ask Gabrielle?" Nazalon said quietly.
They looked over at the tall, dark warrior.
"It should be her decision, right? Besides, it might give her a reason to get out of bed and out of her room."
Ephiny thought for a moment and then looked at Eponin. They both shrugged their shoulders.
"Why not," said Ephiny, "we've got nothing to lose."
Ephiny left them in the common room and headed for Gabrielle's door. She tapped lightly then walked in.
The lack of light in the bedroom darkened the regent's heart. Not even a shade of grey could be seen in the stuffy room. Ephiny had been at her side for the first two days, but she had a village to run, and had stopped in every chance she could. She had thought someone had been with Gabrielle every moment, but by the looks of it, they hadn't.
She took another step further into the room.
"Gabrielle?" There was no response.
"Gabrielle?!" It was too dark to see if there was anyone even in the room, but Ephiny knew she was there. She could hear her breathing.
"Gabrielle!" Ephiny said in a more determined voice.
"What?" Ephiny wasn't even sure if it was her, the voice had sounded so distant.
She turned to where she thought the voice had come from. The regent could sense the presence of the broken bard. There was no sense in beating around the bush.
"We are having a problem, we hope you might be able to help with."
Again, there was no response.
"Leave me alone."
"No. It's Argo." Ephiny was hoping the name would have an impact. When she heard Gabrielle's intake of air, she knew she had been right. Ephiny closed her eyes and silently thanked Nazalon.
"She won't let anyone near her."
"I can't help you . . . that horse hates me."
Ephiny took a chance, a big chance.
"Then we have no choice . . . but to destroy her."
"NO!" Gabrielle came out of the shadows and straight at Ephiny. "Don't you dare touch that horse," she said between clenched teeth.
Ephiny was horrified by Gabrielle's appearance. She looked almost crazed. Her hair was a mess, her skin was ghastly pale and her eyes were dancing on the edge on insanity.
"Gabrielle...come here, please."
"NO! Get out!" This stranger spatted out at her. Ephiny was well aware of the stages of grief, and anger was definitely one of the worst.
"No, I'm not leaving."
"Get out of here. I don't want you near me." Ephiny ignored the words and listened to the voice. She knew what Gabrielle needed. Ephiny held out her arms to her broken friend.
"Don't touch me. Don't you ever touch me again, Ephiny." The words were still laced with anger but Ephiny could hear the pain and sorrow as well. Gabrielle's tough persona was starting to crack.
"Why not Gabrielle? I love you."
"NO! Don't say that. I don't deserve your love. Don't you see? It's me. Everything I touch dies, everyone I have loved has died." The voice, which had started to soften, grew with anger.
"Love. Ha...love is for suckers ... Get out Ephiny."
Ephiny choked back the tears threatening to fall, and she left the room. Closing the door, the regent leaned back against it. She didn't think someone like Gabrielle could become as angry as the woman in there. She closed her eyes and let the tears fall. She didn't hear Eponin's silent footsteps approach, but she felt the care and concern of the hand on her arm.
"Come on Ephiny." Eponin said as she took her Queen by the hand and led her back into the common room. The quiet warrior sat them both down and then put her arms around Ephiny. After a few moments Ephiny sat back with her friend. She was not there as her guard nor as an Amazon warrior, she was just there as an old friend. It felt good just to sit with company. There were no words, no fights, and no tears.
They sat like that for over a candlemark until they both heard a noise. They looked up as Gabrielle's bedroom door opened, and out she walked. Neither commented but both noticed her sickly pale, gaunt appearance. The bard looked at them and then went out the back door. The two Amazons looked at each other and then bolted over to the window. They could see Gabrielle and she was slowly making her way down toward the stables.
"Well I'll be damned," said Ephiny almost under her breath. She smiled over at Eponin, who threw an arm around her shoulder.
"At least it shows she still cares about something," Eponin said.
"Oh no," exclaimed Ephiny. "Is there anyone down at the stables? She shouldn't be down there by herself!"
"Relax. Where do you think Nazalon went? She said she knew with the love Gabrielle and Xena shared, there was no way Gabrielle would let anything happen to Xena's horse."
"It was one hell of a gamble though. It could have backfired and blown up in our faces Eponin."
"Well, let's just hope it still doesn't."
'Argo,' The name hung in Gabrielle's mind. 'Argo ... Xena's horse.' The mere thought of the warrior princess would have sent more tears flowing, but there weren't any left. Gabrielle had felt like she had all but dried up, not just of tears, but of everything. She wanted just to will herself to die. Without Xena, she felt lost and empty. She had no direction, no purpose. She no longer felt any love, only anger and hatred. But she didn't know how to hate. Her life had been love, understanding and forgiveness, her life had been Xena.
For three days, just three little days, her life had finally felt complete. She felt whole and she felt connected. Now she only felt a hole, a big, black, empty hole where her heart had once been. She knew Ephiny was trying, so was Jadax and Eponin, and that tall dark haired warrior. 'What is her name? Nallon, no Naza ... it didn't matter. Nothing mattered.'
Then Ephiny had come into her solitude. She had disturbed peace and insanity. And Ephiny wouldn't leave her alone. 'What did she say?' Something Ephiny had said had gotten through the fog of her existence. Gabrielle tried to think, to put her finger on what it was. A name, Ephiny had said a name ... 'Argo.'
That horse had been with Xena longer than she had. She realized then, Argo had to be hurting too. With that thought, Gabrielle walked out of her room and out the back door. She was heading down to the stables. Down to Argo.
The home of the livestock and the horses was a large wooden structure, two stories tall. The large double doors of the barn entrance, opened wide enough for two riders to exit on horseback. There were twenty stalls on the main floor, though seldom were they all in use. The main supply of hay was in the loft above, but there were always a few bales below. The rear doors opened out to the collection of pastures were most of the forty or so horses now were.
To the left was a room filled with tack and supplies, as well as feed for the other farm animals. A long walkway down the center of the barn led to the back doors. Each stall was accessible from the breezeway. To the right was a scattering of tools for building and gardening, as well as the ladder leading to the hay loft.
Gabrielle stood in front of the doors of the barn for what seemed like an eternity. She steeled herself for what she knew was inside. Taking a big, deep breath, she walked through the doors.
The first thing Gabrielle noticed was the smell, the rotten, iron odor of dried blood. It was something she knew all too well. Her heart skipped a beat as she knew where the smell was coming from. The tears that wouldn't come earlier flowed freely down her face. She turned slightly and was startled for a moment when she realized she wasn't alone. It was Nazalon, who was seated quietly on a bale of hay. It was obvious to Gabrielle she was waiting for someone.
"I thought you might need a hand, my Queen." Nazalon looked up at Gabrielle from her slight attempt at a bow.
"Look. I'm no Queen all right. My name is Gabrielle." She hadn't meant to snap at the warrior, but right now she didn't care. Her face softened when Nazalon nodded and offered a caring smile.
Gabrielle walked slowly over to Argo. The horse began to toss her head as she recognized the little blond woman.
"Hey girl. It's me. How ya doing, huh? I hear you've been giving everyone a bad time." Argo looked around, and then turned back to Gabrielle with a snort.
She opened the door to Argo's stall and walked right in. The war horse side stepped a bit, but other than that, she was fine. Gabrielle tried to ignore the bloody saddle, but she couldn't take her eyes off of Xena's weapons. It was almost like they spoke to her. She dragged her eyes back to the horse. Gabrielle reached up and began to scratch the horse's forehead. She looked deep into the reflecting eyes of Xena's oldest and most sacred friend.
"You saw it all, didn't ya girl." Gabrielle swallowed hard as she said the words out loud. Nazalon, who was standing and watching from a distance, widened her eyes at the statement. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the only thing left connecting her to Xena. Argo nuzzled the bard's neck, causing Gabrielle to cry even harder. She had never felt so helpless before. Her heart ached for her warrior.
Nazalon continued to watch in amazement. It was as if the horse and the little Queen were comforting each another. 'Is it possible the horse knew something?' Nazalon shook her head as Gabrielle began to back Argo out of her stall. She walked the golden mare over and tied her to one of the hitching posts. Nazalon couldn't believe the change in the horse. Argo had been so wild and unmanageable, and now she was calm and attentive.
"Nazalon, could you please find me a big box to put all this stuff in. Then let Ephiny know I would like to see her." Nazalon only nodded and headed out the door. Clearing the barn, the warrior took off at a dead run. Her mind was spinning with everything that had just happened between Argo and Gabrielle. Nazalon knew this was the break Ephiny was looking for.
"Well it was your doing, Nazalon." Ephiny couldn't believe she was smiling after the morning she had.
"But what if Argo does know something?"
"Then we have to figure out how to find out what she knows. I'm heading down to the stable, you need to go and find a box. I don't want her throwing anything away." She said over her shoulder as she left the palace.
Hurrying down to the stables Ephiny wondered where all of this was going to go. She decided to take a quick detour before going to the barn. The regent turned quickly into the kitchen.
Ephiny opened the barn door and saw Gabrielle with her arm around Argo's neck. It looked to Ephiny like she was crying.
"Gabrielle?" The regent said softly walking toward the two.
Gabrielle and Argo brought their heads up to look at her. Argo snorted loudly, and for a moment Ephiny thought Gabrielle had too.
The red eyed blond looked at Ephiny for a heart beat, then turned back to Argo. She ran her hand over the horse's forehead.
"She knows what happened, Eph. She's the key."
Ephiny took a step closer to the bard.
"Then together, we'll find out what she knows. I promise."
Gabrielle turned again to the Queen and quietly made her request.
"Could you please remove her sword and chakram? I would like them taken to our room ... please." She had dropped her eyes to the ground unable to look at Ephiny. It didn't matter, Ephiny knew the tears were there.
"I would be honored to Gabrielle." She placed a caring hand on the bard's shoulder.
"Just put them under the bed for now. I really don't want to look at them."
Ephiny knew there was still something bothering her friend. It was more than just the appearance of Argo. She looked over at Gabrielle, who was going through a box of brushes and combs. Ephiny suddenly realized what Gabrielle was going to do.
"Are you ok doing this?" Ephiny felt her own body shudder at the thought of Gabrielle brushing off Argo.'All that blood.'
"Yes, I think so...I think I need to."
Ephiny walked over to the saddle and removed Xena's weapons. With the sword and chakram in her hand she turned to go, but stopped and looked at her friend.
"I am still here, Gabrielle. Even if you don't want to talk."
"I know Eph ... I know."
Ephiny left the barn and stood outside waiting for Nazalon to show up. She looked down at the weapons in her hands, Xena's weapons. 'Why hadn't she used them.' With everything that had been going on, she hadn't had time to think about her missing friend. Ephiny didn't want to admit she was certain her friend was gone. Ephiny was going to miss her terribly. The world just didn't feel as safe without its warrior princess. As she continued to look at Xena's weapons, it dawned on her what had felt so strange in the barn. Gabrielle had gone out of her way to avoid even looking at Xena's weapons.
She looked up when she heard Nazalon. The warrior arrived with a large box in her hands.
"How is she? Is she all right?" Nazalon asked as she looked at the warrior's weapons in Ephiny's hands.
"I'm not sure, but you were right. At least it got her out of her room. Eponin's up there right now with a cleaning crew. By the way, the cook should be down shortly with some carrots and apples for Argo. See if you can't get Gabrielle to have a few, anything. I'll even settle for her eating some of the oats."
Nazalon tilted the box she was carrying to reveal the contents inside. The load of carrots and apples rolled to the edge. She looked at Ephiny and smiled.
"Keep an eye on her Nazalon. It could get very rough in there. I don't know if I could do what she is about to do."
"I'll be watching her." Ephiny nodded and watched the warrior duck into the barn.
Nazalon put the box on the ground, and looked over at the blond woman. Gabrielle was just standing next to Argo, her eyes focused on the ground. It didn't take a genius to realize she had no intentions of touching Xena's saddle. The warrior walked over and began to undo the buckles, then lifted it off and removed the blood soaked blanket.
"What would you like me to do with these?" she asked.
Gabrielle still hadn't lifted her head. She shrugged her shoulders.
"I don't know. I don't want to see them. You keep 'em." Gabrielle gestured for them just to be taken away.
"I'll take them to my hut ... for now. Just let me know when you would like them back."
Gabrielle reached down for a brush to start working on Argo's coat. She noticed the box with the carrots and apples.
"Thank you. That was thoughtful of you. Argo loves apples."
"It was Ephiny's idea. But Argo is supposed to share, some of those apples are also for you."
"Thanks," she said quietly.
"Could I ask you to give me some privacy? Just wait outside ... and watch the doors."
Nazalon hesitated, she didn't want to leave her alone. But she nodded, hoping Gabrielle wasn't going to do something foolish. Waiting outside the closed doors, she soon realized Gabrielle had no ulterior motives. Just a girl and a horse, both in a need of cleaning, one on the outside, the other on the inside. Nazalon could hear the sounds of crying between the strokes of the brush. Every once in a while she could hear the low mummers of a one-sided conversation, mixed in with the odd horse nicker and snort.
Ephiny had shown up twice, once with Eponin. They had wanted to check on the condition of their friend. No one interrupted her and no one was allowed to bother her. Nazalon had given Gabrielle her word. But in the afternoon, when the warrior hadn't heard any more sounds coming from inside the barn, Nazalon knew she had to look.
She found Gabrielle fast asleep in the pile of hay. Her eyes went to Argo and she couldn't believe what she saw. Gabrielle must have exhausted herself cleaning the golden coat. There were no longer any signs of blood or mud. Her tail and mane were white and her body shined like a sea of honey.
Nazalon slowly approached the horse. Argo showed no signs of her earlier aggression. She let the tall Amazon woman lead her back to her stall. She gratefully accepted an apple and a bucket of oats. Nazalon ran her hand down Argo's side. 'She is a magnificent animal,' the warrior thought.
Nazalon went back to the sleeping bard and gently lifted her into her arms.
"Just hang on Gabrielle. It will be all right." The warrior whispered. She left the barn with Gabrielle in her arms and headed for the palace.
One of the Royal guards opened the door for Nazalon and their Queen. The moment they entered the common room, Ephiny was on her feet. She looked at the sleeping bard and then at the tall warrior.
"She looks exhausted Nazalon."
"I'm sure she is. I think they are both more at peace now. You should see Argo. She looks like a horse fit for a Queen."
"Princess...warrior princess." Gabrielle muttered not even opening her eyes. Nazalon and Ephiny exchanged a quick smile.
Ephiny knew Gabrielle had taken a big step forward today, her first real step out of her own private hell.
When Gabrielle woke the next morning, the sun was shining, and for a brief moment, she forgot where she was, and what had happened. She turned to look at the empty space beside her and she remembered ... she was alone. The pain of separation and the agony of the unknown tore at her chest. Gabrielle struggled to maintain her control. She sat up in bed when she also recalled she had fallen asleep in the barn. 'So how did I get back here? Nazalon.' The name brought back the memory of the barn. She closed her eyes and tried to push away the empty feeling in her soul. The bard opened her eyes and saw the box in the corner of the room. She rose from the bed and went over to it.
She sat cross-legged on the cold, wood floor and pulled out the first thing she saw. Her scrolls. Her eyes misted, but she fought back the tears as she read, 'The Journeys and Adventures of Xena, Warrior Princess'. The memories flooded back: Their first meeting, the dream scape with Morpheus, the Bacchus, Xena fighting an entire army while she watched dying from a poisoned arrow. She shuddered with the thought of Callisto. Of Xena in Callisto's body and Callisto in Xena's. She thought of Solan and Illusia. She closed her eyes and let the tears fall. An ache filled her body when she thought of their first real kiss. It was only days ago, but it felt like a lifetime. Gabrielle's body yearned for the touch of her lover. Just once more to make love to the woman who had meant the world to her.
She sat for a while holding onto the feelings she knew she would never forget. She opened her eyes and looked into the box. Her eyes drifted over what they saw, their cooking supplies, Xena's whet stone and then her eyes caught the sight of Xena's sleeping shift. The thin cotton chemise wasn't worn often by the warrior princess, but it was hers. Something of Xena's that had been close to her lean body. Gabrielle reached for it and brought it to her tear stained face, and breathed in deeply. The smell of Xena traveled through her body and tugged at her soul. The musky warm scent of the warrior was mixed with the smell of leather. Gabrielle could faintly detect the hint of pine from where they had spent their last night together.
She wasn't aware of the sound coming from her heart. She wasn't aware of the stillness she had broken with her pain. But Ephiny was. The regent sat up in her own bed as she heard the sounds of forced separation. She knew who it was as she climbed from her empty bed and headed for the sound of Gabrielle's breaking heart.
'It smells like Xena. Her leathers, her body I can even smell a touch of cinnamon and hyacinth.' Gabrielle held the shift tight to her chest. With her eyes closed and her mind drifting away, it felt like Xena was in her arms.
Ephiny opened the door to see Gabrielle sitting in the middle of the floor, rocking back and forth. She was holding a piece of cloth to her chest and sobbing uncontrollably. Ephiny sat down beside her and gathered her into her arms. She knew what the contents of the box were. She closed her eyes and let Gabrielle cry. Whatever she was holding obviously had belonged to Xena. Ephiny felt her own heart breaking.
"Oh Gabrielle. Two steps forward, and now one step back," she whispered as she kissed the top of the bard's head.
It took awhile, but Gabrielle finally started to collect herself. She lifted her head and tried to smile.
"Thanks," she croaked at Ephiny. Gabrielle looked down at the box, and then pushed it back into the corner. She wasn't ready for it yet, and they both knew it. She stood quiet for a moment, trying to steady her shaking insides. Gabrielle asked if Ephiny had a change of clothes for her.
"Just an Amazon robe Eph ... and a towel." Ephiny smiled and nodded. She left knowing Gabrielle was trying.
Ephiny decided to join Gabrielle in a bath, she gathered up a robe and some towels, then found Eponin at the front door.
"She's doing ok, then?"
"I think so. We're heading up to the private hot springs and I don't want to be disturbed."
"Sure," said Eponin.
Ephiny knew they would be alone in the regent pool. Only the Queen and her consort were allowed in the private pool. It was one of the only perks to being the Queen.
She stopped by Gabrielle's room, clothing and towels in hand.
"I thought I would join you, if you don't mind."
"I would like that. I really didn't want to be alone."
The two Queens left the palace and headed up the hill to the hot spring. It was a new day, and a new start.
The lazy slope of the hill wasn't the only reason Ephiny had chosen this area for their new village. The proximity of the hot springs had added a little incentive. There were three natural pools of warm, bubbling, water and the farther up the hill you walked, the smaller they became.
The first spring, tucked behind the temple, was mainly used for cleaning and bathing. It was large enough to fit the entire village, but had many areas separated by large boulders. The steamy spring was open to the trees and could be approached from all angles.
The second spring was about another 100 paces up the hill. It was more for relaxation and recreation. With its abundance of leafy bushes, it was far more secluded and always seemed to be occupied, mainly by active couples looking for some fun.
The third spring was the private pool reserved for the regent and her consort. It was nestled snugly in a thick overgrowth of vines and bushes. A fair distance from the palace, only a small trail led to its existence. The pool itself was not very large. A tall Amazon might have been able to reach from one side to the other. It had many different depths depending on which smooth boulder you were standing on. The rim of the pool had been lined with large, flat slabs of slate with a wide bench just off to one side. Natural sea sponges were scattered around the edge of the pool easily accessible to whomever wanted to use them.
A small pile of clothing was heaped on the bench as the sound of someone entering the pool rippled through the morning air.
'What is it with these warrior women?' Gabrielle thought as she watched a naked Ephiny climb into the hot spring. 'They never seem to be bothered with such trivial things as nudity.'
Quickly doffing her own clothes, the bards slipped under the cover of the water. Neither of them spoke right away. They relaxed and enjoyed the warmth of the water. Trying to let some of their troubles just wash away, but neither was very successful.
"What I'm I going to do now, Ephiny?" Gabrielle said suddenly, breaking the silence.
"What do you want to do?"
"Find a dark corner to crawl into and just curl up and die."
"If that is what you truly want to do my friend, then that is what will be. We will miss you though."
"Oh Ephiny, you know I don't mean it. I just feel so lost, it's like I'm spinning out of control."
"You need to find a direction Gabrielle. Something to hold on to, something that will anchor you."
"Xena anchors me."
Ephiny knew it was time to push the issue.
"And what if Xena is no longer here," she said softly. Ephiny waited for the explosion of anger and denial. There wasn't one. The bard had only dropped her head to look deeper into the swirling water.
"There is a part of me that doesn't believe she is ... I still feel her, here ... right here." The blond woman tapped her chest.
"I think you always will Gabrielle. But maybe we should be a little more realistic."
"I know ... but ... I still feel her. Xena said when she thought I was dead, she reached inside herself and she knew I was still alive. She said she could hear me ... feel me. We are true soulmates, Ephiny. I still feel her inside me. I don't believe she is dead." Gabrielle finally found the words that had been in her heart and in her head.
Ephiny looked at her with great concern, she knew this was not a good thing. Then she remembered the words of Aphrodite.'They only exist if the other exists, without one the other will die.' She looked closely at Gabrielle. Only then did she realize, Gabrielle had lived through the worst and she was still here. A small flame of hope sparked back to life inside of Ephiny's heart. A small glimmer of hope, of faith in Xena's will began to grow. If Gabrielle was alive, then that could only mean one thing ... so was Xena. By the Gods own words ... Xena must still be alive.
Gabrielle's voice brought Ephiny back, "Until we find a body, I am not giving up."
"I don't think you should either. But it still doesn't solve our problem of where to look. We've had our ears out to the far reaches of the known world and we have heard nothing."
They fell back into silence for a while, then Gabrielle quietly asked.
"Ephiny, where is Jadax?"
The lonely regent paused in her reply, not sure how, or what, to say.
"Ephiny, is there trouble between you two?"
"She still blames herself Gabrielle. She thinks she was the one who let Xena go off by herself. She says she knew Xena was injured but she let her go anyhow."
"You and I both know that if Xena wanted to go by herself, no one was going to change her mind. I was there, remember? Jadax offered to send either Nazalon or Plaiertei with Xena, but she flatly declined the offer."
"I know, but Jadax has it in her mind it's still her fault. We've had many arguments over it. She is determined to find out what happened. So, she's been traveling all over the northern region ... on and off Amazon land."
Gabrielle could hear the concern and fear in Ephiny's voice. She didn't like anyone leaving the protection of their land, especially Jadax.
"She swore to me Gabrielle, when we had our last fight. She will either find Xena for you, one way or another ... or die trying."
They let the words hang in the air, they felt their meanings, more than heard the words.
After the hot springs the two Queens returned to the palace. Ephiny was pleased Gabrielle had agreed to join her for a meal. She hadn't seen her eat in the last five days and the small bard was beginning to show the signs of it. Her skin looked ghastly pale, almost grey in color. Her blond hair has lost its shine. But it was Gabrielle's eyes that tore at Ephiny the most, they seemed to be permanently red and bloodshot. They had taken on a lifeless and sunken appearance and Ephiny wondered how long they would be like that.
The two regal women sat in silence, alone in their thoughts at the table. The rows of Amazons had grown very quiet when they spotted the pair entering the hall. The head cook herself had served them and Gabrielle had only muttered a polite 'thank you' as the plate of food was put in front of her. Ephiny watched Gabrielle picked at her morning meal. She had eaten only a few mouthfuls of eggs. It was another step, small and shaky, but it was a step.
Once they were finished their meal, Ephiny and Gabrielle parted company just outside of the kitchen. Ephiny had duties as the Queen and Gabrielle wanted to go and see Argo.
Gabrielle lead the golden war horse out of the barn and down to the northern field. She knew they both needed some sun. Argo was a little skiddish at first, Gabrielle figured she missed her owner too. With some soft gentle words the mare settled down and willingly followed the blond woman. The bard sat down next to the grazing mare, and waited. The morning sun climbed higher in the sky, she could feel the heat as summer was just around the corner.
Gabrielle picked at the green grass she was laying on. The Summer solstice was not very far away and she knew the Amazon's would be celebrating the arrival of summer. She dozed on and off though always keeping her eyes to the trees. Xena was out there somewhere and Gabrielle ached for her lost companion.
Part of her wanted to pack up and start looking, but she knew Ephiny was right. They had no clue where to look. It didn't dull the ache and sorrow in the bard's lonely heart.
She watched the sun turn to noon as it past over the tall trees at the edge of the pasture. The light breeze carrying puffs of cottonwood as they danced in the air to their final unknown destination. The shade of the trees grew long, the shadows of dark fingers reached across the grass as the sun began to descend from the afternoon sky. Gabrielle knew it was getting late when she finally saw whom she had been waiting for.
The little forest scout had spotted Gabrielle before she ever left the cover of the trees. She was happy to see her friend outside in the sun, and with Argo no less. They both looked much better than the last time she had seen them.
As the small woman grew closer, it was easy to see the mirrored looks of pain and separation on her face. The burden of guilt laid heavy on her shoulders.
They said nothing as they held each other in a comforting embrace. The words they spoke were of care and concern. They knew full well their own feelings of remorse.
"It's nice to see you out of your chamber's Gabrielle."
"It's good to see you back in the village Jadax." The bard felt the scout tense under her embrace.
"Jadax." Gabrielle pulled back to look at the little Amazon's face. As Jadax returned the gaze, she felt her heart tighten when she saw the emptiness in Gabrielle's eyes.
"It's time to stop it." The bard said softly but sternly. "I'm going to make this very clear, and very simple. You offered the help to Xena and she declined it. You offered to have either Plaiertei or Nazalon go with her and she refused. There was nothing else you could have done. I know Xena, and no means no." Jadax's eyes fell to the ground. Gabrielle lifted her chin and looked into her eyes.
"It's not your fault. Xena made the choice herself. We both know there was nothing else you could have done. I don't blame you. Ephiny doesn't blame you and when we find Xena, she won't blame you either." She saw the tears welling up in Jadax's eyes.
"Now you have a decision to make. You can head back into the forest and continue to look, but where. We have no clues, no idea where she was going. It's like looking for a needle in a very large haystack, when you don't even know which haystack to look in. If I knew where to start, I would be out there."
"Or my other option?"
"You can march right up to the palace and tell Ephiny you're sorry for putting her through this. Then hold her close and tell her you love her. That's one thing I've learned Jadax. Never put off the love you feel for someone today, because there might not be a tomorrow." Gabrielle's voice had begun to falter. Jadax reached for her and they held each other. Then Jadax whispered in her ear.
"I won't give up though. I'll still be looking every time I go out. I will bring back your warrior princess, Gabrielle...one way...or another." She placed a small kiss on Gabrielle's wet cheek and headed up the hill to the palace. Gabrielle watched her go.
"I won't give up either, Jadax." Gabrielle whispered.
The change was slow and not always steady. Every once in a while the old Gabrielle would emerge for a brief moment, then she would retreat back into herself. The smiles were rare and her laughter was absent. The pain in her heart was still very clear on her face. Gabrielle was trying, but finding any pleasure in life was something she didn't want to do without Xena. There were still many long dark nights when Ephiny had to sooth away the horrifying nightmares. She would rock and cradle the little bard back to sleep. Ephiny noticed, but never mentioned the fact Gabrielle slept with Xena's sleeping shift. She would see it in her arms or tucked under a pillow. Ephiny never knew if it made it better, or made it worse.
The Queen was very thankful to Gabrielle for the return of her consort, both in mind and in body. Her spirit was damp but hopefully that with time they both would forgive themselves. Ephiny knew Jadax still took her little treks, but they didn't seem to be as long, or as often.
Weeks had past and they still had no clues or answers to any of their questions. The summer solstice had come and gone. Gabrielle had elected to stay in her room. Most of the Amazons had felt the same way and it hadn't been much of a celebration. The lack of Xena was felt by one and all.
The usual small group was seated in the common room. They were all there, Ephiny, Jadax, Eponin, Plaiertei, Nazalon and Gabrielle. They were having a slightly heated discussion of what to do next. No one could seem to agree on a direction. Gabrielle had argued many times with all of them, even though she knew they were right. The last big fight between her and Ephiny had almost erupted into a physical confrontation. Wherever Xena had gone, she had left no trail to follow, or anybody to find.
They all stopped talking when the front doors opened with a gust of air. There stood a very pale faced priestess. Her eyes wide open with shock and surprise.
"Artemis is here!"
All six mouths dropped.
"What do you mean, here?" Ephiny asked as she moved closer to the priestess.
"I mean She is here, in the temple ... She has asked to speak to the Queen." She had been the temple keeper all her life and she had never seen, much less spoken, to the Goddess herself.
Ephiny glanced around the room, no one knew what to say. The Goddess had never appeared and made a request before.
Ephiny started for the door, when the priestess stopped her.
"She asked to speak to the Queen," all eyes turned to Gabrielle, "...both of them."
Gabrielle looked at Ephiny and they dashed out of the room.
They entered the inner chamber and there by the altar stood Artemis, Goddess of the Moon and Hunt, chosen protector of the Amazons. To her right was Aphrodite and to her left was ...
"Ares," growled Gabrielle, "... you bastard!"
Ephiny's mouth and heart dropped. Had Gabrielle just lost her mind, she just cursed out the God of War himself.
"Relax little girl. We are all here to help. This has nothing to do with the past." Artemis turned and glared at Her brother. He quickly wiped the sneer off of His face.
"Oh would You two like get along. This isn't about family feuds." Aphrodite added as She turned to Gabrielle. "No wonder it took Me so long to get you two in the sack together. These two morons kept pulling you apart."
Gabrielle looked at Artemis, Her face showing Her anger. Artemis was supposed to be her protector and She hadn't been doing Her job lately.
"Is that true?"
"It doesn't matter now Gabrielle. You two got past our bickering a long time ago. Who do you think gave you the courage to kiss Xena?" At the statement, Ares turned and glared at His sister while mumbling obscenities. Xena had been His. His until Gabrielle had come along. He didn't speak to Aphrodite for almost two full seasons when He found out She had a hand in the change that had come over His beloved warrior princess. Aphrodite had just smiled and laughed, She said it was a challenge. Besides that, it had been fun. Xena had been so dark and cold, the Goddess wanted to see if she could still love. Aphrodite had giggled uncontrollably when the dark warrior babe had fallen in love with the little blond.
Ephiny stood speechless. Obviously Gabrielle had a lot of dealings with the Gods. Ephiny on the other hand, had not.
"Artemis, I kissed Xena on my own. But if it was Your doing, why did You wait so long to give me the courage?"
"That's not why We are here Gabrielle."
"Do you know something this time?" Gabrielle's head snapped as she looked over at Ephiny. She had forgotten about the conversation Ephiny had with Aphrodite.
"No." The Goddess of Love said as She wiped away some imaginary wrinkles off Her gown. She didn't want to do this. She hated the thought of asking mortals for any kind of help.
"Gabrielle." Artemis said softly. "We have no answers for you. You keep asking Me where she is ... I can't answer that."
"I've never had a problem finding Xena." Ares tried to show some compassion. "When My sister first came to Me for help, I thought it was a joke, until I realized I couldn't find her either."
"You see Gabrielle, in order for Us to locate a mortal, We just focus on their soul. On who they are and where they are, and then 'poof', we're there."
"Are You saying Xena has lost her soul?" Gabrielle said in disbelief. Without waiting for an answer she asked the one question that shot fear in her heart.
"Has anyone talked to Hades?"
"Yes, and she's not there Gabrielle." Artemis saw the relief on her chosen's face.
The Goddess knew it was the only good thing She could tell her.
"Well, what can I do?" Gabrielle said after a pause.
"You can do what We cannot. Search inside yourself Gabrielle. Look into your heart." Aphrodite continued what Artemis was asking.
"Your love for each other is stronger than even Us. Let your heart go and it will find your true love." A normally light hearted, and light headed, Aphrodite spoke with concern and compassion.
Everyone looked at Gabrielle but she didn't see them. She had her eyes closed as she searched her heart and soul for the woman she loved.
"What do you feel Gabrielle?"
"I feel ... lost, lost and empty," she replied as she opened her eyes and looked straight at Artemis.
"But you do feel inside?" Aphrodite didn't mean to sound uncaring, she just needed to know.
"Yes ... no. I mean I yes, I feel lost and alone."
The three Gods exchanged glances.
"Thank your Gabrielle," said Artemis.
"For what, I didn't do anything ... I don't understand. Tell me what I did," Gabrielle cried out in despair.
"You just told Us all ... the warrior princess is not dead!"
Gabrielle looked at all three of them, uncertain what to believe. Aphrodite answered her, the Goddess of Love couldn't stand the painful look on the bard's face.
"The strength of your love, the love the two of you share. If Xena was dead ... you would know it. You would feel it deep inside. We just have to keep looking for her."
"But where do we look?" Ephiny swallowed as all three Gods turned to look at her.
"We do not know, my Amazon Queen. We do not know!" With a flash of light the three were gone, leaving Ephiny and Gabrielle alone and speechless.
They headed back to the palace where the other four were waiting for them. Ephiny filled them in on what had transpired. When she was finished, she walked over to Gabrielle and knelt down in front of her.
"Here's my thought. We pick a small group, four or five warriors. Single warriors," she said looking at Jadax. "We'll send them out to search the entire country side until they find something."
"They have to be volunteers Ephiny, and yes I agree they have to be single."
A voice spoke up, "I would like to lead the group." Plaiertei said as she stood in front of the Queens.
Gabrielle and Ephiny looked at each other, Ephiny turned back and said, "Yes."
The group was formed the following morning and they left by the afternoon. Ephiny and Plaiertei had worked out a plan of communication to be followed by the change of every moon. Everyone wished them luck, and Gabrielle wished she was going with them.
Gabrielle had started to grow quiet with frustration. It had been almost a month since the two had parted by the river. The lack of information was eating at her soul. Ephiny could see the physical change in Gabrielle, but she knew her mind wasn't improving. The regent noticed the bard's color was starting to return. She was holding her body up straight and true, instead of looking hunched and dejected. But her eyes, her eyes hadn't changed. They were still dark and lifeless. Gabrielle's body was alive and well but her soul was drifting aimlessly downward.
They had argued heatedly when Gabrielle had wanted to join the group of searchers. She had said she was volunteering and that she was single. None of the five women would back her though, and she had stormed out of the palace. She knew why they wouldn't let her go, but it didn't make it any easier.
One afternoon in the barn Gabrielle came up with a new idea, a venture the regent was none too keen on.
"You're not going Gabrielle!"
"Are you going to stop me Ephiny?" The two were locked into another heated battle of wills.
"No, I wouldn't do that. I'm just strongly suggesting, that you not go!"
"Well I am. I can't sit here any longer. I have to try something and this is the only thing I could come up with. I'm taking Argo and I'll be leaving at first light tomorrow. Argo was the last one to see Xena, and I want to give her a chance to find her."
"As your friend, I'm pleading with you ... don't go. By the powers of Artemis, please ... you don't know what is out there."
"I've spent the last three years living out there Ephiny. I know what is out there. Xena is out there ... somewhere. I want to go and look for myself." The green eyes were alive for the first time since she had arrived in the village. Ephiny knew that it was only out of anger.
"But it's different now Gabrielle."
"Why? Why is it different? I can handle myself," the bard shot back at the Queen, their faces were red with anger.
"But you had Xena before, now you're alone!" Ephiny's words hung in the thick air. Gabrielle's face showed the shock of what Ephiny had said.
Eponin had heard enough. She had been patiently waiting for the argument to die down, but when she heard the words Ephiny had hollered at Gabrielle, she barged into the room.
"That's enough Ephiny!" Eponin said sternly to the Queen. The warrior stood between them now, but her eyes held sternly on her Queen.
"How about if I go with Gabrielle? We'll leave at dawn and will be back before it's dark." Eponin waited for a response. She knew she had stepped out of line with her tone and words, but they had been friends since birth. She also knew she couldn't leave without Ephiny's approval. Stopping an argument was one thing, leaving Amazon land against the Queen's wishes was another.
Ephiny stared at Gabrielle. Without looking at Eponin, she nodded, then left the room. She couldn't believe what she had just said to Gabrielle. She was ashamed of herself. Gabrielle had come along way, but she still had a long way to go. Now, at the first sign of life in her eyes, Ephiny had slapped her down. The verbal strike had been physically felt by both of them. She had seen the look on Gabrielle's face when she had spoken those words. It didn't matter now, that they had been spoken out of fear and concern. All that mattered is they had been said and the pain they had caused. No one knew what had happened to Xena, so there was nothing to stop it from happening to someone else. That fear weighed heavy on the regent's mind.
It was later that night when Ephiny went to Gabrielle's room, Jadax had all but pushed her there.
"You can't let her leave with bad feelings between you two. Go tell her how you really feel, Ephiny, before it's too late.
Ephiny squared her shoulders and knocked on the door. When Gabrielle opened the door all Ephiny could say was, "I'm scared"
They talked for over a candlemark, reassuring each other it was going to be ok. Gabrielle had promised to be careful, and that at the first sign of anything they would high tail it back.
Eponin and Gabrielle left the next morning before light had even started to brighten the sky. Eponin was on horseback Gabrielle was on foot. Argo was leading the way.
'The village is quieter this morning,' thought Nazalon. 'Everyone seems to be a bit subdued.' Nazalon had headed down to the training grounds in hopes of finding someone to spar with. The grounds were empty and quiet. She was bored. Breakfast had been eaten, weapons had been sharpened, she had even lounged in the hot springs to kill some time. She found herself with nothing to do. She normally hung out with either Eponin or Plaiertei, but they were gone. Jadax was with Ephiny and Gabrielle had left with Eponin this morning.
Reluctantly, she headed back to her hut in hopes of finding something to occupy her mind. She stood in the doorway, and looked around. There had to be something. Her eyes went around her hut. It was definitely the home of a single warrior. One small cot was pushed up against the back wall. A pile of blankets and furs were heaped in the middle. Her table and chair were outside in front of her hut, making for plenty of room for her weapons. It wasn't a place to entertain, only a roof to sleep under, and a spot to store her few personal possessions.
Her eyes fell on the bloody saddle and blanket tucked into the other corner. 'Why not? They should be cleaned anyhow. Gabrielle may want them one day, and she definitely wouldn't want them looking like this.'
Her mind wandered back to Gabrielle as she went back outside, saddle and blanket in hand. She sat down with a cleaning and polishing rag, then began the ominous task of cleaning up the saddle, she knew she couldn't salvage the blanket. Working away methodically, her mind was free to roam.
She liked Gabrielle, and she had liked Xena too. Nazalon had heard so many stories about the warrior princess and her Amazon Queen she felt like she knew them before she had ever met them. She had never seemed to be in the village when they had been there. It had been exciting to finally be introduced. Nazalon could still recall the look the warrior princess had given her. Not big on showing emotions or weakness, the Amazon had hidden her delight at passing the approval of the other tall warrior.
When the disappearance of Xena had been discovered, she too had been effected. She had seen the love the two had shared. It was in their eyes. Even for the brief moment she had been with them together. Her heart had gone out to Gabrielle. They had become friends, and Nazalon enjoyed doing things for her. Just for the simple pleasure and thrill she got when Gabrielle gave away one of those few smiles. Nazalon had never had a true love, but she had her share of lovers. After all, she was one of the most sought after eligible warriors in the village. No one had yet to capture her heart.
Nazalon looked down at the saddle. One side was now cleaned and oiled and it looked good. Turning the saddle around, she began on the other side. Her mind began to drift again.
She had volunteered for the search party, but Ephiny had pulled her aside and asked her to withdraw.
'Gabrielle trusts you, and I think she would rather have you around. She talks to you.'
Nazalon had agreed and removed her name from the list. It was true Gabrielle didn't talk much to anyone anymore. When she did, she seemed to seek out Nazalon. They went to the training grounds together on many occasions, Nazalon had been surprised at Gabrielle's abilities. They had even shared the odd meal together, but Gabrielle didn't seem to eat much these days. She had grown quite thin, which with the emptiness of her eyes, made her look gaunt.
Nazalon smiled with pride as she looked down at the saddle, it looked like new again. Heavily worn, but no longer was there any traces of dirt or blood. Scanning it closely to make sure she hadn't missed anything, her mind questioned her thoughts. 'Had it been Xena's blood?' No one had openly said it was, but in turn, no one had decided it wasn't.
She inspected the fine craftsmanship of the leather. She could just make out the faint outline of a pattern on both sides of the saddle. It was the same as Xena's chakram. Never would there be a doubt as to whom it belonged to. Nazalon flipped the saddle over to clean the under side. Her finger caught on something and it fell to the ground. She realized something had been tied underneath the saddle in the hollow. She knelt to the ground to see what had fallen. Nazalon spotted something and reached to pick it up. Her heart dropped when she realized what she was holding.
Gabrielle and Eponin had long since passed the Amazon border. Now and then Argo had stopped, as if to look around, then she would soon start back up again. Eponin kept a close eye on Gabrielle when they came to the clearing where they had spent their last night together. Gabrielle had been quiet all morning, but somehow she had become even quieter. She urged the golden mare on when the pain in her chest had become unbearable. Gabrielle could still see the indent in the pine needles where Xena had laid. The familiar smells brought back all the pain.
They had continued on, Eponin knew Gabrielle was crying, but the warrior said nothing. She felt it was better just to let her cry. Tears or not, she hadn't slowed Argo's pace or her own.
Suddenly Argo made a sharp right turn almost sending Gabrielle into a tree. Both women searched for the reason for the sharp turn. The thick underbrush showed no sign of a break. All Gabrielle could see was the odd birch or poplar tree climbing to the sky.
"Do you see a trail or path Eponin?" The warrior only shook her head. Gabrielle looked at Argo.
"You want to go in there girl?" The horse turned back to look at her. Gabrielle turned to look at Eponin. The warrior shrugged and Gabrielle turned back to Argo.
"Ok, but if you bolt on me, I'm not chasing you." Argo only snorted. Gabrielle dropped the reins. Her heart was pounding madly. The palomino pushed her way through the bushes as Eponin held her hand out to Gabrielle.
"Climb up. Let's see where she takes us." Eponin watched Gabrielle closely, noting the change in skin color. The bard climbed up reluctantly behind the warrior, and they followed Argo as she smashed through the bushes. Nothing was said as the two horses made their own path. Words wouldn't have been heard over the snapping of branches anyhow. The golden mare picked her way through trees and underbrush, it was as if she really did know where she was going.
Suddenly Eponin wondered if this could have been a devastating mistake. 'Where is Argo taking us?' She felt a shiver come from Gabrielle's body. They needed to stop soon, but she knew now it would never happen. The sounds of bushwhacking ceased when they finally came to a trail, it was only an animal trail, but it was a trail. Argo's pace increased now that they were free of the thick undergrowth. The golden mare followed the path until they came to a large fork. Argo came to a stop. There was more than enough room for Eponin to slide up behind the war horse. Eponin reined in her horse as Gabrielle slid off the back. The bard looked around and then back at the horse.
"What is it girl?" Argo turned around, her eyes were wide and she began to stamp her feet. Eponin climbed down and joined Gabrielle. Argo turned again and nuzzled into the little blond's shoulder.
"There's nothing here Eponin," she tried not to show her disappointment.
"I don't think that's it. I think Argo wants you." With the mention of her name Argo, pushed against Gabrielle's shoulder again.
"I think ..." Eponin stopped when she realized she was talking about a horse. Yes, it was Xena's horse, but it still was just a horse.
"What, you were thinking what?"
"I was thinking ... it's like she's scared or nervous. I think she wants your company ... on her back." Gabrielle turned to look at Argo. She didn't like heights and she didn't like to ride, especially bareback.
"You want me on your back?" Argo's ears twitched. Gabrielle took a deep breath, and with a hand from Eponin climbed onto the Argo's back. The horse immediately turned left and was off again.
Nazalon ran as fast as her Amazon legs would carry her. She knew she had the answer to where Xena had gone. She had it in her hand. The first real clue, the only clue they had. Nazalon now knew what had taken the warrior princess away from the Amazon land. She ran straight up the stairs leading into the palace, before she realized there were no royal guards.
"Oh for the love of Artemis!" she said out loud. No guards meant no Queen. She opened the front doors and called for Jadax. There was no answer.
"Great, they're both not here." She went back down the stairs and looked around the village. She was guessing in her mind as to which direction she should head in. 'Start at the bottom, and work my way up.' she thought and headed down to the stables.
When she opened the doors to the barn, she was greeted by one of the stable hands.
"Do you know where Jadax or the Queen is?"
"No idea, they haven't been down here," said Donya.
"Thanks." She closed the barn doors and headed to the next hut, the kitchen. She asked every Amazon that she saw, but none of them had seen the Queen or her consort. She tried two more places, but still only got negative responses. Finally, out of frustration, she stopped and hollered.
"Does anyone know where Jadax and Ephiny are?"
"They're up at the royal hot springs."
Nazalon was off and running before she even knew who had answered her question. She cursed herself as she passed the palace. If she had gone up instead of going down, the royal hot springs would have been her first stop. As she came over the crest of the hill, she spotted the colors of the royal guards. She didn't even slow down as she approached still running.
"I have to see the Queen." One of the guards stepped in front of her, bringing the warrior to a halt.
"They're not to be disturbed Nazalon."
"I know that, but this is very important, believe me." The royal guard looked at the slightly flushed warrior.
"Let your presence be known, Amazon." Nazalon let loose her call, the shrill of a wounded raven. She was quickly answered by Jadax's own personal bird call. The guard moved aside and nodded for Nazalon to pass. She quickly headed up to the private hot springs. Breaking through the bushes surrounding the springs, she found Jadax and Ephiny quickly dressing.
"What is it Nazalon? What happened?" Ephiny questioned. They had climbed out of the spring when they had heard Nazalon's call. Ephiny was very concerned with both search parties off of their land. It had stressed out the normally relaxed Queen to the point that Jadax had suggested the hot springs. The afternoon of love making had been Ephiny's idea.
"What's happened?" Ephiny asked again.
"This! ," Nazalon said as she dropped the small item into Ephiny's hand.
"I know where Xena went when she left us that morning." Nazalon stopped when she saw the look come over her Queen's face. A concerned Jadax went to her side and placed a caring hand on the small of her back.
Eph.? The scout asked gently.
The regent opened up her hand to the little scout. Jadax could hear her own small intake of air. Nazalon knew by their faces, and the tears in Ephiny's eyes, that she had been right. Without a doubt they all knew what Ephiny held in her hand.
The Queen folded her fingers around the item and closed her eyes as she brought it to her chest. Ephiny felt an emptiness stir in her heart an ache of despair for her missing friend. Xena had obviously made a decision and it may have cost her ... her life. Ephiny opened her eyes and looked down at her own lover. They exchanged a knowing smile that was mixed with tears. For they knew the warrior princess and her bard, had finally found their love, but now they were afraid it was lost. It was no real surprise, but it was still a shock. Ephiny had always known how the warrior princess had felt for Gabrielle. The answer was nestled in Ephiny's tight gripped hand, and it had Xena written all over it.
It was a small, delicate gold ring, finely crafted in a wrap around shape of an " X ". Simple, but elegant, designed by a princess and fit for a Queen. They knew it was to have been ... Gabrielle's wedding ring.
They followed the trail for almost a candlemark. It was no longer an animal trail, but a well-traveled path that followed along the side of the river. The thick undergrowth was gone now as a steep mountain began to rise on the other side of the path. The rush of the fast-moving water stirred memories in Gabrielle's mind, memories of a much happier time. The little bard knew the river was the one she and Xena had been at a month ago. She pulled her eyes back onto the path, she couldn't take the emptiness her heart was feeling.
They were aware Argo knew where she was going now, there was no longer any question. Suddenly the golden mare stopped almost throwing Gabrielle off her back. The horse moved around slowly as if getting her bearings and then she stopped. Eponin dismounted then, and watched as Gabrielle slid down off of Argo's back.
The two women looked around. There wasn't much here to see. The river they had been following was on one side. They could see it far below from the path. The mountain on the other side had become a tall rock cliff. There were a few trees, a couple of small bushes, and loads of wildflowers. It appeared to be just a wide spot in the trail.
Eponin was disappointed and relieved. The quicker Argo's pace had gotten, the more nervous Eponin had become. She feared the horse was going to take them straight to Xena's body.
Gabrielle felt shaky. She didn't really want to look around. She too was afraid of what she might find. She looked over at Eponin, who immediately questioned this whole idea. Gabrielle looked as close to death as you can get and still be breathing. Eponin returned to her horse to grab a light blanket. She walked over to Gabrielle and placed it around her shoulders.
She got a polite smile and a quick thank you for her gesture, then the two began to search. They went first to the river's edge, but when Eponin saw Gabrielle gazing down at the river far below, she quickly suggested the little blond try the other side of the path. Gabrielle nodded silently, and headed over to the cliff face. Eponin scanned both sides of the river bank, praying to Artemis not to find anything. Artemis granted her request, and she saw nothing.
The warrior glanced up at the sun and noted its position. They didn't have a lot of time left. She had promised Ephiny they would be back by night fall, Argo in her stall and Gabrielle safely back in the palace. The quiet warrior had every intention of keeping her word.
Eponin glanced over at Gabrielle who was kneeling down, looking at the ground. Eponin started looking around some of the bushes next to her. She stopped and looked back at Gabrielle. Eponin realized the bard wasn't looking at the ground, she was staring at something.
Eponin felt the fear enter her body ... icy, cold, gripping fear, she took a step toward Gabrielle. The bard raised her head slowly and looked at the warrior. Her wide green eyes contrasting the ashen color of her horrified face. Eponin felt the wave of terror hit her with each slow step she was taking. The warrior's feet felt heavy like she was pushing against an unwilling force. No matter how she tried, she couldn't move any faster toward Gabrielle. She could only watch as the tears streaming down her white face. Gabrielle rocked slowly back and forth as an agonizing moan started from the very bottom of her soul. Eponin could now see she was holding something tightly to her chest. She pushed harder, but she still couldn't seem to move any faster. When the warrior finally got close to Gabrielle, the bard held out her hand. The warrior looked at the dark object. It took her a heart beat to realize it was a piece of hardened leather. She took it from Gabrielle's hand, then felt her own heart fall as she realized what it was ... Xena's medicine bag. Then she saw it was in its rigid form because of all the dried blood. Her eyes darted to Gabrielle, but she could only watch as the small woman collapsed to the ground.
The regent was pacing back and forth in front of the fire pit.
"Ok, first things first. Who knows about this Nazalon?" The Queen asked.
"Ok...No one else, agreed."
"Agreed," Jadax and Nazalon said in unison.
"Now Nazalon, how does this tell you where Xena went?"
"Look at the ring Ephiny. There is only one man who could make something like that. Ollious. And didn't Gabrielle say that's who they saw and helped that day on the road. Ollious lives in Bosswanna, north east of here. One and one makes Xena riding north ... to Bosswanna."
"Ok ... you found the ring under Argo's saddle? Which means the only person to put it there would have been Xena."
Jadax and Nazalon nodded as Ephiny began to piece part of the missing puzzle together.
"Yes, then what? After she got the ring, Argo got greedy and left Xena in Bosswanna. Where she has been the last month, drinking port and crying for her lost pony!? I don't think so. But at least we know what direction to start looking in. Gabrielle and Eponin aren't due back for a while. I want a closer look at Xena's saddle. Then we'll see if they found anything with Argo, then we'll make a decision on what to do from there."
"I want to go to Bosswanna!" Jadax stated firmly as she rose to her feet. Ephiny looked at the small forest scout. What she lacked in size, she definitely made up for in determination.
"I'm not making any decision until I have all the information. Then I want to think about it before I decide what we are going to do." The two locked eyes and Ephiny knew there wasn't anything for Jadax to think about.
"Neither of you is going anywhere tonight. So cool your heels and let's think about this for a bit."
She looked back and forth between the two of them.
"Nazalon, we'll meet you at your hut in about a ½ candlemark. I want to clean up the ring and find a good place to store it. Then we have to decide what we are going to do with it!"
Nazalon lifted the saddle again, this time showing Ephiny and Jadax where the ring had been. She showed them how her hand had caught on it. Jadax complimented Nazalon again on what a great job she had done on Xena's saddle. Ephiny concurred, but her eyes were still on the thin leather ties that had held the gold ring.
All three lifted their heads as they heard someone shouting for the Queen.
Ephiny broke into a run as she headed toward the palace where the shouts were coming from. Jadax and Nazalon were right on her heels.
"Jadafar, What is it?" The Queen called out to the young woman standing on the palace steps.
Jadafar was one of the forest messengers, not a warrior or a scout, but a deliverer of messages that were relayed across the tree tops.
"Eponin's riding in, and riding in fast, with Argo is right behind her."
"Argo? Where's Gabrielle?" Ephiny felt her heart starting to drop.
"Eponin's carrying her in her arms ... she's unconscious."
At Ephiny's request Nazalon had gone for the healer and Jadax had gone for the priestess, she didn't know which one she might need. Ephiny had begun to pace. Nazalon and Belinda, the healer, were back first, Jadax and the priestess right behind them. Within moments the sound of galloping horses could be heard coming toward the palace.
The first sight of Eponin caused a cold chill to run down Ephiny's spine. She was thankful she had Nazalon and Jadax by her side. Much to her relief, she could see no signs of obvious injuries to Gabrielle. She actually just appeared to be asleep. Eponin came to a halt, throwing a leg over her horse's head, then she slid to the ground all in one fluid motion. Gabrielle was still held securely in her arms. Ephiny got a better look, and much to her dismay, Gabrielle looked worse than she did a month ago. Her complexion had turned as white as snow.
Eponin climbed the stairs into the palace and walked through the opened doors to the common room. She didn't stop, but carried on through, right into Gabrielle's bedroom. Eponin knelt on the bed and gently laid the little bard down. She leaned over and placed a small kiss on her broken friend's forehead. She turned to the healer.
"Her pulse is not good, Belinda. She's been out for over a candlemark." Eponin said before the healer could even ask. The warrior looked down at Gabrielle placing a hand on her cheek.
"It's shock ..., The quiet warrior said and then added in a whisper, ... and a broken heart." Eponin turned and left the room, leaving Belinda and the priestess to care for Gabrielle. She motioned for the others to follow.
"What in Tartarus happened!?" Ephiny ordered. "She leaves here finally almost functional, and you bring her back closer to death than a corpse."
Eponin stood there. She knew Ephiny well enough to know, it was wiser just to let her vent her anger and frustrations until she calmed down, then tell her what had happened and wait for her to apologize.
"Please, tell me you didn't find Xena's body!?" Ephiny said as she began to calm down. Eponin just shook her head and held out her hand. All eyes turned to look at the blood harden, dried out form that once was Xena's medicine bag. Nazalon didn't know what the dried leather was but Ephiny and Jadax certainly did.
That was it, she couldn't take it anymore. Ephiny sat down in a chair, dropped her head into her hands, and began to cry. Jadax stood behind her and rubbed her back. There wasn't anything she could say.
Nazalon's eyes looked questioningly at Eponin.
"Its Xena's," was all she had to whisper. Nazalon turned and walked out of the palace. She collected Argo and Eponin's horse and took them down to the stables where no one could see her tears.
Eponin sat down with Ephiny and Jadax, she explained to them how Argo had taken them right to it
"It was at the bottom of a rock face, about three huts high, just to one side of the trail."
"What was on the other side?" Jadax questioned the quiet warrior.
"A river. A very fast, cold river."
"Anything else?" Ephiny wanted to know everything.
"There was blood, not lots, but enough to stain the rocks after the rains. That's where Gabrielle found the medicine bag. It's empty by the way."
"Where was this?" Jadax said with a frown deeply set into her forehead.
"North ... northeast. Just follow the north branch of the river that borders our land. You know where it splits." Jadax looked at Ephiny.
"So basically follow the river ... on your way to Bosswanna."
"Yeah ... How did you know that Jadax?" Ephiny nodded to Jadax and the forest scout filled in Eponin on what had been found under Xena's saddle.
"So she went to Bosswanna to get the ring from Ollious."
"That's what we're figuring," Jadax said softly.
Ephiny took a big breath, stood up and headed to Gabrielle's room.
"I feel like we've done this before." Ephiny said sadly to everyone and to no one. She touched Jadax's shoulder as she passed by, nothing else was needed to be said.
"It's almost like she's given up, my Queen," Belinda to Ephiny as the regent looked down at Gabrielle.
"Would you blame her?" Ephiny said flatly.
Ephiny felt very old and very tired. She no longer knew what to say to help her friend. She climbed into the bed next to Gabrielle and held her in her arms. She didn't know what else to do. She only knew if Xena was dead, Gabrielle wouldn't be far behind.
The decision had been made, much to the Queen's unhappiness. Jadax and Eponin were heading to Bosswanna. Nazalon had wanted to go too, but was torn between going with them and staying for Gabrielle's sake. When Ephiny said, 'She might not be here when you get back,' Nazalon knew there was no decision to be made. She no longer thought about leaving.
Ephiny didn't want to watch her lover pack, she knew Jadax would be gone for a while, so Ephiny sat out in the common room staring at the fire. She felt warm hands on her shoulders as Jadax leaned in behind her. She slowly began to run her fingers down Ephiny's arms, until they reached her fingers.
"Are you finished?" The regent asked referring to the packing.
Jadax snuggled into her neck and whispered.
"Finished, I was just getting started." She began to kiss soft warm kisses all over the back of Ephiny's neck. She could hear the Queen starting to purr. Bringing her hands back up Ephiny's arms, she lightly brushed over her breasts, causing Ephiny to sigh with a moan of desire.
"I could command you to stay. You know that." The regent said in a throaty whisper.
Jadax brought her head over Ephiny's shoulder and began to kiss and suck on her neck and chest.
"If you going to make a command, why don't you make it something I want to follow."
Ephiny opened her eyes and smiled at the woman of her dreams.
"Take me to bed, and love me forever."
"As you wish, my Queen."
Jadax adjusted the throw on her shoulders and then looked down at her Queen and lover.
"You're not making it easy to leave, Eph."
"I didn't think I was supposed to ... Don't take any unnecessary chances. Remember you can always come back and get reinforcements if you find anything."
"I know that." Jadax said as she knelt down next to the bed. She smiled as she played with one of Ephiny's curls, she loved her hair. She loved her smile, there wasn't anything she didn't love about this woman. But she knew their lives would be simpler if she wasn't the Queen.
"I love you Ephiny."
"Then come back to me, Jadax."
"I will, I promise." She leaned down and kissed her, one last long kiss. A kiss that became long and passionate and Jadax pulled back and smiled.
"I have to go. Eponin is probably already waiting."
"I love you," Ephiny whispered to her as Jadax left their bedroom.
Ephiny strolled through the common room and headed for Gabrielle's door. She turned the knob quietly and peeked in. Her heart fell with shock as she threw open the door, her mouth dropping open.
"Oh no," Ephiny cried out as she put her hand to her face. The room and the bed were empty. Ephiny raced to the backdoor as it was closer. She cursed when she saw no guard, not that there ever really was one at the back entrance. She ran through the common room and threw open the front doors.
"Did Gabrielle come through here?" she asked a startled guard.
"No, my Queen."
"Of for the love of Zeus!" She exclaimed loudly.
"There wasn't anyone on the backdoor last night or this morning, was there?"
"No, my Queen."
"Go ... find Nazalon and bring her back here. Now!" She slammed the door.
'Think, think,' she said to herself. But she knew what her fear was. She began to pace, she thought better when she paced. 'Ok. How long have you been gone? And where would you go?' Back and forth she went. 'Jadax would have checked on you before she left. Maybe two, three candlemarks. Where would you go Gabrielle? Where would you go if you had lost all hope.' Her head shot up, and she flew out the back door. Amazons everywhere looked up as their Queen ran passed them on her way to Artemis' temple. 'It makes sense.' she thought. 'The Goddess had said that Xena was alive.' As she broke through the doors of the temple, she found only one startled priestesses. Ephiny recalled more clearly. 'It hadn't been Artemis who had said Xena was alive. It had been Gabrielle.'
Nazalon spotted Ephiny coming out of the temple, What is it, what's going on?"
"Gone. I got up and went to check on her and her room was empty."
"Any idea when she left?"
"Sometime between Jadax leaving and me getting up."
"Jadax leaving ... you don't think she might have ..."
They looked at each other and said it in unison, "Argo!"
They took off running for the stables. Nazalon reached the barn just ahead of Ephiny. As she came around the corner, she turned to stop the running Queen.
"What!" Ephiny said.
"Shhh ... look," Nazalon pointed to the sleeping bard curled up in the hay next to Argo's stall.
Gabrielle must have heard them, as her eyes began to open. 'She looks so broken and lost,' thought Ephiny.
"I guess you're looking for me." Gabrielle said in a very quiet voice. Ephiny and Nazalon nodded.
"I'm sorry if I made you worry. I woke up early and was lying there trying to piece myself together. Then it came to me. She's still here Ephiny." Gabrielle put her hand to her chest. Fighting to stay strong, but she was losing to an army of tears.
"You may be right. She may always be in my heart. All I know is right now, I still feel her...strongly. I have to hang onto that. I also knew you were right about Argo. She needs me, and I need her. Whatever happened Xena sent her back to me and when she gets back..." She stopped to compose herself and then carried on."When she gets back, she will be upset if I didn't take care of Argo."
Ephiny felt Nazalon's hand on her shoulder, the Queen was swallowing down her own tears as the warrior whispered, "I think she's going to be all right, how about you?"
Ephiny said nothing as she walked over to Gabrielle and placed both of her hands onto the little blond's shoulders. Gabrielle tried to smile, but wasn't too successful. It didn't matter to the Queen, what mattered was she tried.
"How about some breakfast you two," Gabrielle questioned to both of them.
Nothing had ever sounded so good.
Gabrielle ate breakfast, not a lot, but she ate. The conversation was kept as light as Ephiny could make it. They sat and talked afterwards, then began the walk back to the palace arm in arm. Ephiny couldn't believe just last night, Gabrielle had returned from her trip unconscious. Ephiny could feel the distance though, and it didn't surprise her, Gabrielle's sanity was just a thin veil.
"Where's Jadax, Eph.?" Gabrielle asked.
Ephiny opened the door to the palace, walked into the common room and sat down. She patted the seat beside her. Once Gabrielle sat down, Ephiny answered her question.
"Jadax and Eponin have gone back to the cliff wall."
The bard sat quietly saying nothing. Ephiny reached over and took a hold of one of Gabrielle's hands.
"They're hoping to find something, anything that might tell us where Xena may have gone from there."
Gabrielle just nodded, not trusting herself enough yet to speak.
The front door of the palace opened and in walked the tall, dark warrior.
"Nazalon, you missed breakfast." Ephiny looked up at the warrior.
"I had chores to finish up down at the barn, but I'll take a rain-check my Queen."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and turned to look at Ephiny. She had obviously made some sort of decision.
"What did Eponin do with Xena's medicine bag, Ephiny?" The bard said suddenly in a clear and decisive voice.
"I believe ... yes it's over there on the table Gabrielle. Would you like it?" Ephiny asked.
"Yes ... please."
Ephiny motioned Nazalon, who reached over to the table and picked up the blood hardened, leather bag. She walked it over to Gabrielle.
Hesitating briefly, Gabrielle took the bag from Nazalon's grasp. Slowly she began to turn the bag around in her hands. Over and over it went. A look of puzzlement was on her face. The bag stopped in her hands as a slight smile began to form on her lips. Ephiny and Nazalon exchanged looks of confusion and concern.
'This is not good', thought the Queen.
Placing a light hand on the back of her friend, Ephiny quietly asked Gabrielle. "What is it? ... Are you all right?"
"I know what she used the bag for. I know." Gabrielle stood up, she had to pace. Looking back at Ephiny, she continued. "The night Xena disappeared, it was raining, right? OK... that's one option," she muttered. The small blond women motioned the dark haired Nazalon to come closer.
"Hold your hands out, please." Nazalon complied, still uncertain if Gabrielle was still mentally with them or not. Looking down at Gabrielle's hands, the warrior watched the bag slowly being turned around again. The bag stopped as Gabrielle slid the dried leather between Nazalon's thumb and forefinger. The leather form fit like a glove! The little bard beamed. Nazalon stared down at her right hand and then quickly looked up at Gabrielle, the warrior understood. Ephiny did not. Gabrielle sat down and threw her head back with a sigh, knowing she had just connected with her lost love. Putting a piece of the missing puzzle into place gave Gabrielle a sense of accomplishment. A piece of knowledge they didn't have before of what had happened to Xena.
"Hello, somebody want to clue me in here, " said the befuddled regent. She was not used to being kept in the dark.
"Xena's injured hand Ephiny. Something happened to her bandages, either they got wet in the rain storm, or whatever, it doesn't matter. Because she used the medicine bag as a bandage, see ..." Gabrielle removed the bag off of Nazalon's hand and brought it over to Ephiny.
"Xena had two very bad splits that ran down beside her thumb." Gabrielle said as she traced two lines between Ephiny's thumb and fore finger. "I had only stitched them that morning, so I don't know, maybe she split them open again or got her bandages wet in the rainstorm. I know what she did. She used the bag as some kind of splint/bandage thing, ... see,"
Gabrielle slid the bag onto Ephiny's hand. "And if I'm right, and I know I am ..."
Gabrielle headed to her room, Ephiny and Nazalon were right behind her.
She had already pulled the box into the middle of her bedroom, and had removed her scrolls. Her once precious scrolls pushed aside like the unwanted reminders they now were. Ephiny and Nazalon just stood and watched, every once in a while exchanging glances, unsure of the stability of Gabrielle's mind. She hadn't looked at the box, never mind thought to go through it, since finding Xena's sleeping shift. She hadn't wanted to. But now she wanted to, she wanted to prove to herself she was right.
Out of the box came pieces of their lives together. Everything she touched was something she and Xena had shared. Bits of memory were attached to each and every item. The plates they had used, the cups they had drank from, the bowls that held ... she looked up at Ephiny and smiled.
A real, honest, true smile of satisfaction, for there in Gabrielle's hand, was a bowl ... a bowl filled with medical supplies.
"I was right Ephiny," Gabrielle felt good, she had found another piece of the puzzle.
"Anything else in there, or rather anything else missing?" Nazalon asked. Her warrior's instincts kicked in as an idea started to form.
"I don't know. I never really looked in here." Gabrielle began to unpack the box, slowly analyzing everything that was missing.
"Both of our sleeping furs are missing as well as one water skin." She listed off out loud for Ephiny and Nazalon. "And all the food ...she made camp somewhere Eph."
"Then why not take her weapons?" Nazalon said to Ephiny. Both seasoned warriors' minds were racing in the same direction. Ephiny glared at Nazalon hoping Gabrielle had not heard the warrior's words. Showing no sign she had, Ephiny walked over as Gabrielle was putting everything back into the box.
"I think you've had enough excitement for the morning. Why don't you get some rest? It's been a rough 24 hours for you."
Gabrielle had meant to argue, but the relief of what she had discovered, not to mention last night, had made her weary. Gabrielle closed her eyes and nodded. Nazalon left the room quietly leaving the two Queens in privacy. Ephiny helped her tired friend to her feet then gently pushed her to sit on the bed. Ephiny knelt and removed the little blond's boots. The regent stood and pulled the blanket up and over a sleeping Gabrielle. The regent bent down and placed a kiss on the blond bard's head.
"Sleep peacefully little one" she whispered and left the room.
"What were you thinking, making a comment like that with her sitting there?" Ephiny asked angrily at Nazalon.
"It just came out. I'm sorry, you know I would never mean to hurt her, Ephiny. But I know you were thinking it too!"
"Thinking yes, vocalizing it ... NO!"
The women stood silently staring at each other in the common room.
"Why would Xena leave her weapons behind? ... And why did she have to make camp? Why not come back here?"
Ephiny rubbed her face with her hands, then brought her hands behind her neck pulling down while rolling her head. It had been a long day already, and it was only afternoon.
"Ok ... lets go over what we do know. Xena left you guys, collected Argo and headed to Bosswanna. She got Gabrielle's ring. She probably put the ring under the saddle before she left Ollious. Agree so far?"
"Then something happens on her way here. Xena's hand is bleeding badly enough for her to stop at some point and tend to it with the medicine bag. Then she decides to stop somewhere and make some kind of camp instead of coming here. Why?" Ephiny stopped talking and looked at one of her best warriors.
"What would make you stop and make a camp? Remove the food from your horse's saddlebags, but not your weapons. Then send your horse home, without you?"
Nazalon paused with thought, lifting her head she reluctantly answered her Queen.
"Because I couldn't." Both women fell silent as the truth to the statement was clear.
Ephiny and Nazalon discussed possibilities for hours but always seemed to come to the same conclusion. Neither warrior, nor regent felt hopeful. When they finally parted for their respective beds, they parted silently, both women lost in their own thoughts.
Ephiny spent a fitful night, without her little scout to ease her mind, her body ached with despair. She knew in her mind now her dark warrior friend had been in trouble. In trouble and all alone so close to the Amazon's land, with no one there to help her. Ephiny had nightmares about a broken Xena and a crushed Gabrielle, both friends reaching. Their opened hands reaching to Ephiny, but she couldn't help them, either of them.
When the Queen finally woke the next morning, she woke tired. When she entered the common room, she noticed Gabrielle's door was opened, the little blond had gone down to see Argo. This was quickly becoming her morning ritual. Gabrielle would spend the wee hours of the morning with Xena's horse, then Ephiny would meet her and they would go for breakfast. When Jadax's warm body laid curled up next to her, Ephiny didn't always want to met Gabrielle. But with the little scout gone, Ephiny enjoyed the company.
The morning meal over, Ephiny pondered her day. 'Nothing really pressing,' she thought. Nazalon had been scarce. Ephiny had expected that, the two warriors no longer wanted to discuss what was on their minds. She could do her Queenly things tomorrow. Today she realized what she needed was to be a friend.
Gabrielle had turned and was heading back toward the barn, having just parted company with Ephiny. The Queen turned and caught back up to the little blond.
"How about spending the day with a friend?" Ephiny asked putting an arm around Gabrielle's shoulder.
The sullen face brightened slightly as the head nodded.
"How about a hike and maybe do some fishing?"
"I think I'd like that ...," the bard paused and then continued, " ... a day off eh."
"Yeah, I commanded myself." The Queen said smiling.
The two women turned and headed back toward the palace. After summoning Nazalon, they let her know she would be in charge. Gabrielle and Ephiny left the village.
The path they took to the Amazon's fishing hole was well used by Amazons and the forest animals. The rolling hills were covered thickly with pines and poplars. The heat of the early summer had the flowers in bloom and the sounds of happy birds echoed from the trees.
The two Queens walked softly on the moss-covered path, the only sounds to be heard were their voices. They chatted like old friends do. The topic of conversation was vast and light, but eventually the topic turned to Xena. Ephiny watched Gabrielle closely. She was so pale and skinny now and those eyes. The eyes always tugged at Ephiny's heart. Gabrielle's eyes had always been so alive, so green and sparkling, with just a hint of blue. Now they were just empty sockets used for seeing.
Aphrodite had said, 'Without one, the other will die'. Looking at Gabrielle, Ephiny could physically feel the ache in her heart for her two lost friends, one in body, the other in soul. Gabrielle was dying right in front of her eyes, a slow agonizing death of a broken heart. The regent asked herself. 'Did this mean Xena is dead or dying somewhere as well? Was that what the Goddess of love had meant? They so needed each other, without one the other was not whole and therefor could not exist.' Ephiny knew what balance was. She knew everything was made up of two parts. 'Without evil there is no good, without hate there is no love, without death there is no life ... Does this mean without Xena there is to be no Gabrielle?' Ephiny had been lost in her own thoughts, she hadn't really been hearing her friend. It was only when she realized the silence that she knew Gabrielle had asked her a question.
"I'm sorry dear, what did you ask?" The regent said apologetically.
"I asked, Where do you go that the Gods can't find you? That thought hasn't ever left my mind, Eph ... Where did you go just then?"
Ephiny knew by the tone there was no sense in lying. She stopped and turned to look at Gabrielle.
"I was thinking about you."
"Why? What about me?"
"I know you're trying sometimes Gabrielle, but when I look at you I see someone who is willing themselves to death. You say you really believe Xena is still alive. No wait ..." Gabrielle had started to turn and walk away. Ephiny put a hand on her shoulder, "I think you need to hear me out." Gabrielle stopped pulling away but Ephiny left her hand where it was.
"I believe you. I believe in you. If you say Xena is alive, I believe you would be the one to know ... So do you believe in your heart and in your head Gabrielle, do you honestly believe she is still alive?"
Gabrielle turned again to face Ephiny, she took a deep breath and looked around. Her eyes drifted upwards to the clear blue sky and then slowly followed the trees to the ground at her feet. Gabrielle finally returned her eyes to her friend.
"Yes. I don't know where and I don't know why she's not here. But yes, I believe she is alive."
Ephiny took Gabrielle's face into both of her hands, and bringing her eyes within a hand's length of Gabrielle's, the regent warrior stated.
"Then don't give up!" Ephiny continued to stare into emptiness until she saw a slight nod of agreement. Ephiny pulled her little friend into a self assuring hug, rocking her gently until she felt Gabrielle begin to relax.
"Now, ready to do some fishing?"
The regent tried to lighten the mood and she knew at first Gabrielle's words were forced. By the time they reached the fishing hole the smile on the bard face was real.
The small lake was mountain fed with the crystal clear waters melting from glacier snow. Surrounded by the hills, it had only been discovered by accident. The abundant fish population had made it very popular for fishing by the Amazons. The icy waters were not inviting to the faint of heart, but that didn't stop the women from swimming here in the summer heat.
Gabrielle and Ephiny threw out a line and in no time at all they were telling ever expanding fish stories. Both knew the other was lying, but it didn't really matter. Ephiny saw Gabrielle was starting to enjoy herself. This had been a good idea. When they finally headed for home, fishless, Gabrielle was in much better spirits.
When they reached the palace, the look on Nazalon's face told Ephiny there had still been no word. The regent tried not to let the news darken her good day.
The morning ritual of breakfast over, Ephiny begrudgingly headed to the palace. The work she had put off yesterday was now piled up with today's and it had to be done. Gabrielle had left the breakfast table and said she was borrowing back her Queenly powers to enjoy an afternoon by herself in the regent hot pools. She had smiled when she muttered about long hikes and sore out of shape muscles, under her breath. Now sitting looking at the work in front of her, Ephiny pondered the idea of pushing it off until tomorrow, again. The Queen's responsibilities won out, she put the quill to parchment.
Ephiny was so engrossed with the work in front of her, she didn't hear the clamor of footsteps as they approached the palace. But she did notice the flutter of parchment when someone threw open the door. She wasn't sure what scared her more, the look on Nazalon's face ... or the presence of Jadafar.
"What?" The Queen asked fearfully, her mind racing between thoughts of Jadax and Xena.
"Where's Gabrielle?" Nazalon breathed out heavily.
"She's at the Royal hot pool. Why?" Ephiny hadn't realized she had been holding her breath.
Nazalon looked directly at her Queen. "They found Xena!"
Gabrielle relaxed, breathing deeply she closed her eyes. 'Oh this is sooo nice' she thought. 'A traveling bard ... my ass!' She chuckled. 'I haven't written a thing in ages, and one little trek to the fishing hole and my body has ached all day.' Trying to clear the thoughts creeping into her mind, she held her breath and slid under the water. That didn't work, so she busied her mind by paying close attention to her personal hygiene. But it wasn't working, the feelings were growing, the ache just wasn't going away. Washing and scrubbing until she was squeaky clean. It hadn't helped. She could still feel ...? She slid slowly back under the water, the pounding of her heart kept increasing ... she could feel? Suddenly she knew what she was feeling. Gabrielle burst through the surface of the water clutching her chest. She was feeling ...
"XENA!" Gabrielle almost screamed the name. She could feel Xena! Almost gasping at the revelation, she climbed quickly from the pool and began to dry herself off. Gabrielle's insides were shaking ... she could feel Xena, and she knew her warrior princess was close.
Ephiny stared at Nazalon, not sure what to say next, but Jadafar broke the silence.
"Jadax and Eponin are bringing her in,"
"Oh thank the Gods. She's alive then?" The Queen noticed the look of apprehension passing between Nazalon and Jadafar.
"Barely." The messenger said solemnly. "She's coming in on a travois, my Queen, and she's not very good."
Nazalon quickly added, "I had gone out on patrol and had spotted them entering Amazon land. They were not moving fast so it was easy to reach them."
"On patrol?" Ephiny questioned. The blatant disregard of her orders would be dealt with later much later. "Continue.
"They didn't go into a lot of details, but they said they found her in Visala, getting the shit kicked out of her." Nazalon added with raised eyebrows. "And by the looks of it, it wasn't the first time. Eponin said she was unconscious most of the ride, which is probably a good thing, considering.
"Considering what?" Ephiny asked. She couldn't believe what they were telling her.
"She's a mess, Eph." Nazalon said ignoring the presents of Jadafar with her lack of respect for the Queen's title.
"If it's not beaten, it's broken. If it's not burnt, it's cut, and apparently, according to Jadax ... she's even been ... whipped. It's not pretty. Eponin said some village assholes had been beating her for a couple of candlemarks, enjoying the chance to get their shots in on the great Xena. Some of the villagers had wanted to stop them and help her, but they were afraid."
"How far out are they?" Ephiny needed to get some kind of plan in motion.
"I left them a good candlemark out. Then I rode like a banshee to get here, before someone broke the news. I met up with Jadafar just outside of the village."
"Ok, so we have a little time ... Jadafar, go find the priestess and the healer, tell them to gather everything at their disposal and get to the palace ... and DON'T tell them why." The messenger was out the door.
'I don't need this news flying all over camp and running head first into Gabrielle.' Ephiny thought.
"Gabrielle ... you stay here I'll go find Gabrielle ... how in Tartarus am I..."
Nazalon cut her off and grabbed her hand, not something most warriors would do to their Queen
"There's more Ephiny,"
The Queen's eyes grew wider in horror. 'What else can you possibly add?'
"When Eponin and Jadax had finished with the men in Visala, they were frightened by the condition Xena was in, at first they thought she was dead. But when Eponin went to her side to check her pulse ... Xena had no idea who they were."
Ephiny slowly sank onto a seat, "Have they talked to her since?"
"Not really according to Jadax, when she does come to, she doesn't even who she is." Nazalon said looking down at Ephiny.
A frail voice behind them spoke out, "Where can you go that the Gods cannot find you!"
The two turned suddenly, neither of them had realized Gabrielle had returned and was standing in the hallway. Nazalon leaped over the furnishing to be by her side. Gabrielle shot out an outstretched hand and closed her eyes.
"Don't ... please?" They could visually see her body shaking, but the little bard stood tall.
"The only two things keeping me upright are my emotions and the strength I feel knowing she's near." Gabrielle opened her eyes. Ephiny was now also by her side and noted the absence of tears. Gabrielle turned and looked at Ephiny.
"Remember... Where can you go that the Gods cannot find you ... Now we know, you lose who you are ... Your soul, your being ... your memory of who you are." The little bard walked past the two warriors and slowly sat down next to the firepit.
Ephiny didn't like what she saw. Gabrielle was taking this without emotion. The bard was in shock and her emotions had all but shut down. The regent turned to the warrior.
"How much did she hear?" Ephiny whispered desperately to Nazalon.
"I don't know? I didn't realize she was there until she spoke."
They looked at each other, then turned to look at Gabrielle.
Ephiny quietly asked Nazalon to check the status of the healer and the priestess. They were obviously going to need both desperately and very soon. Nazalon exited through the back door as Ephiny made her way over to Gabrielle. The Queen began to put her hand on the blond's back, then pulled it away, suddenly remembering Gabrielle's response to Nazalon.
"Who would do such a thing, Ephiny?" Gabrielle spoke. The regent closed her eyes swallowing softly. 'She did hear.'
"I don't know Gabrielle." Ephiny didn't know what else to say.
It seemed like days before Nazalon opened the door to announce they were coming, breaking the silence hanging in the common room. As Gabrielle started to rise, Ephiny risked the contact, placing a hand on Gabrielle's arm.
"Are you sure you want to do this? Maybe you should wait?" Ephiny looked into her friends haunting eyes.
"I have to ..." Gabrielle rose to her feet, and without looking, reached around her back and she took a firm grip of Ephiny's hand.
"... I have to!" The bard repeated more to herself than to her friend.
The two stood on the steps as the trio rode silently into the compound. The stillness of the village echoed the feelings in their hearts. The warrior princess was returning, but not as she had left.
Out of habit, Ephiny's eyes sought out Jadax first and Jadax's eyes locked with the Queen's. Ephiny felt the pain and sorrow that were held there. She felt Gabrielle's hand tighten on hers and Ephiny pulled her in closer. The Queen had also noticed Nazalon slipping in behind them, the warrior was there if Gabrielle needed her. She had just wanted to be close.
Jadax was in the lead, behind her horse laid the body of the warrior princess. Eponin rode behind and off to one side, her eyes never leaving her dark warrior friend. As they went past the steps of the palace, the silence around them was deafening. Every Amazon in the village had now heard the news and had come out to see their fallen comrade.
Jadax had known it would be easier to get Xena into her room via the back door. She hadn't wanted anyone to see the warrior princess like this, but there wasn't much she could do about it. What everyone did see of Xena, tore through their bodies leaving their lungs without air. Gabrielle unwillingly let go a cry of anguish as she took a step toward the travois and saw the unrecognizable face of her warrior princess. Ephiny held her tightly and refused to let go.
Looking quickly over her shoulder at the hand that held her back, Gabrielle looked up at her friend with a pain filled face.
"Let me go Ephiny."
"No, let them get her into your room."
"Let me go! I have to go to her. I have to!" Ephiny pulled Gabrielle into her arms and held tight.
"Gabrielle ... let it go ... come on ... let it go." The arms around the little blond refused to loosen their hold. Ephiny knew she couldn't let go as Gabrielle squirmed and struggled beneath her embrace.
"Let me gooo ..." The fight was quickly dying out, Gabrielle let go of all she had been holding in. She began to cry out in anguish and despair at what they had done to her Xena. As the screams died down she began to sob uncontrollably, thankful for the arms she was held in.
Getting the tall warrior into the palace and into bed was not going to be easy. Eponin took charge of all the waiting help and many hands made light, fast work of it. Then the quiet warrior shooed everyone out of the room, and out of the palace. The healer and the priestess went to work. Jadax went to find her lover as Eponin stood over her friend.
Gabrielle, Ephiny and Nazalon were in the common room. Gabrielle was shaking violently. The shock of it all was just beginning to sink in. The face of her lover, that beautiful, dark face was battered and bruised, almost swollen beyond recognition. But it was the cut on Xena's face which had taken Gabrielle deep into Xena's horror. An ugly, savage slash from her eye, her beautiful blue left eye, right down to her chin. That was all she had seen so far.
Ephiny and Nazalon also felt shaken by what they had seen. Nazalon could feel a slow, steady boil beginning.
The little forest scout entered the common room and walked directly to Gabrielle. Jadax slowly put a hand on the bard's shoulder, slow tears had begun to fall down the scout's face.
Everyone looked at Gabrielle as she took a deep breath and stood to face Jadax.
Taking another deep breath, Gabrielle began to find the courage, the courage of an Amazon Queen, and the strength of a warrior. She looked down into Jadax's eyes.
"You promised to bring her back to me ... thank you." Gabrielle walked with conviction toward her room where her warrior was laying.
Eponin quickly crossed the bedroom to Gabrielle, blocking any view she might have of Xena. She looked concerned at the little bard.
"Let them finish with her Gabrielle. I don't think you want to see her yet."
Gabrielle stood as straight as she could get and still had to look up, way up, into Eponin's eyes.
"Eponin ... Get out of my way! We've been apart for over a month and if Hades, or you, think you're going to separate us now ... then you have never seen the power of a woman in love!" Eponin knew there would be no reason to repeat that statement, for everyone in the palace heard it clearly.
Ephiny turned to Jadax with a growing smile. "She's back."
Gabrielle steadied herself on Eponin's arm as they turned to walk closer to the bed, Eponin could feel the trembling, but didn't stop. The priestess was helping Belinda by finishing up the splint on one of Xena's legs, the right arm had already been done. The healer was busy, and had been busy, stitching. At this moment she was working delicately with the cut to Xena's face. Gabrielle's eyes began to tear as they roamed over the surface of the warrior's broken body.
When the healer finally finished, she asked the priestess to bring in the Queen. She only wanted to do this part once, and she knew it would be hard enough. The regent and her entourage arrived in the doorway, so the healer began.
"Her pulse is weak and she's running a fever, and that's the good news. Some of her injuries are new and some are quite old. We had to re-break her right arm. From what I can tell, it's been broken at least twice. The broken leg isn't too bad. It set nicely. There are cuts and burns all over her body, some aren't that bad, most of them only required a few stitches. A couple needed more ... a lot more," the healer paused to swallow and then started again.
"The whip marks on her back are bad, and infected, and so is her right hand."
Gabrielle looked to the right hand she had stitched over a moon ago. It was very red and very pussy.
The healer was still talking. "She's going to have to be turned carefully onto her stomach for the day, so we can clean her backside, then turn her in the evening to clean her front. Keep in mind please, ever time we move her, we could send her into shock, not to mention what it will do to her broken extremities. As far as head and face goes ... I can't help the broken cheek bone and that laceration is going to leave one nasty scar on her face, not to mention what it will do to her pride. As far as her mind is concerned. I understand from Eponin about the lack of recognition ... It could be the fever, I don't know. She does have a few bumps and lump on the head ... But in summary ... I've done all I can do for now, the rest is up to her. But I would suggest we pray! ... If she makes it through the next few days it could take months for her to heal, if she does at all. I wish it was better news my Queens, but she is still alive and that was better then we all thought yesterday." The healer looked to Ephiny who nodded her thanks and dismissal. The healer turned to leave.
"Thank you, Belinda." Gabrielle said as she gently sat on the bed, the healer nodded and left.
Gabrielle looked down at her broken companion, she struggled with her inner self, trying to decide whether to scream or cry. But as the little Queen stared at her warrior princess, she began to see past the bruises, burns, scraps and that cut, and she saw it was her Xena. The long dark hair was still there and Gabrielle slowly began to follow it with her fingertips. Then taking the cool rags Belinda had left, she began to gently wipe the fiery skin of her wounded friend, muttering soft declarations of her love.
Gabrielle was lost to the world around her as she wiped away the traces of blood and grime off her warrior's body.
The group of Amazons at the door had begun to discuss the best way to deal with Xena's treatment, who would do what, who would help who. Eponin and Nazalon would look after the turning of the warrior Princess, they had pretty much decided Gabrielle could look after cleaning the back and front. With the mention of Gabrielle, Eponin looked back at the bed, then nudged Ephiny while shhhing the others, they all turned to look.
"Together at last," Ephiny sighed. The Queen and her entourage slipped out the door, leaving the two friends alone.
The emotions were running high in the common room when the Queen finally raised her hands.
"Quiet down. They don't need us in here yelling at each other. Jadax, please fill us in on what happened." Ephiny had bypassed Eponin knowing how the quiet warrior disliked wordy conversations, and Ephiny wanted every detail.
"We left here heading back to where they had found Xena's medicine bag. At first we found nothing, no other sign that Xena had even been there. Then I noticed some marks and blood higher up the cliff face, neither of us had thought to look up there. So we rode back around and up to the top of the cliff. It didn't take long for us to read the signs, somehow or someway ... Xena went over that cliff, and it was one hell of a fall. Searching around the vicinity, we found ..."
"This!" Eponin deep voice startled the group, no one had noticed she had left the room, but they definitely noticed what the warrior held out in her hands ... the missing furs and Xena's rusted armor. No one said a word, no one needed to. Jadax continued,
"They were well hidden under the undergrowth. It took us a whole candlemark to find them. We also found some old bloody bandages and pieces of sinew. Eponin figured that's where Xena changed the bandage on her hand to the medicine bag. What we still don't know is why she was hiding."
"Or from whom," added Eponin.
"I'd still like to know why she had no weapons. And why send Argo back here carrying her sword and chakram?" Nazalon's questions echoed everyone's thoughts.
"All right ... enough. Carry on please Jadax." The Queen asked.
"Well we left there and carried onto Bosswanna. We found Ollious almost right away. He was reluctant at first to give us any information, denying knowing Xena or even that he knew who she was. But when told him we knew about the ring and described it to him, he spilled everything. First explaining that he didn't want anything to happen to his friend and that was why he denied everything. Apparently, he has had the ring for a while ..." Jadax let this information sink in. When Ephiny looked up at her, she knew it had. "... He said Xena had come to him on their way back from Tripolis. Xena had a design already drawn up of what she wanted, all he had to do was make the ring. Ollious hadn't met Gabrielle, but knew she must have been someone very special, to have changed the Warlord Xena into someone who could fall in love. Xena hadn't wanted to wait for the ring to be finished, stating only that she had to get back to Gabrielle and she would be back later for it. When they met up on the trail a cycle ago, Ollious had been thankful for their help and happy to finally meet the infamous Gabrielle. He said Xena had whispered that she hadn't gotten a chance to get back this way in awhile, and she would be over to see him soon. So he wasn't surprised when she showed up at his door. He said they talked for a while. He liked the fact, at the very mention of Gabrielle's name, his tough warrior friend would blush ..." This caused Ephiny and Nazalon to smile, just like it had Jadax and Eponin.
"Then he said Xena left. He mentioned her injuries, but those were from the fight with the highwaymen on the road. So we left. We had no further information to go from, another dead end. We listened around town for a while but without literally asking if anyone knew where Xena was, we were stumped.
Then we decided any information we might find would be in the tavern. It didn't take long for us to realize we were right. Two guys had just arrived out of the north country, laughing and talking about 'how the mighty had fallen'. We persuaded the gentlemen to be forth coming with any knowledge they might have."
"Can't imagine how you did that ... Eponin?" The regent said to the warrior. Eponin smiled and leaned back against the wall. She nodded at the scout to continue.
"They said all they knew was Xena had been found north of Visala by some two bit wanna be warrior. Eponin had a little discussion with this ... warrior, after we had Xena. According to him he had found her totally disoriented, defenseless and already half dead. So the sick bastard had an idea. Of course knowing who he had, having seen Xena in action before, he thought of a demented little scheme to make some money. Blood money ... so, for a dinar ..." Jadax paused for a breath and looked from Eponin to Ephiny, and closed her eyes and said, "... for a dinar you got your choice, either to hit or to kick the Mighty Xena, anywhere you wanted."
The silence in the room was painful. Everyone here knew Xena's past and knew a lot of people still disliked and distrusted her. But this was unbelievable, to think in this day and age, we can still treat any human that way, was demoralizing and appalling.
Nazalon broke the silence with a snarl.
"Please tell me this wanna be is no longer!" Her teeth were clenched together tightly. Nazalon looked to Eponin, who nodded ... He wasn't. Ephiny noticed the exchange and looked at Jadax, the look on her face let Ephiny know it hadn't been pretty.
"I've never ridden as fast as we did on the way to Visala, I think we were both afraid we might be too late. We arrived in record time to find a bunch of drunk cowards taking turns with their boots. Two swipes of Eponin's sword and they were gone. She went to Xena first, I couldn't ..." Swallowed the little forest scout, "I had never seen that kind of devastation to a body before."
No one said a word as the forest scout took a moment to collect herself.
"When Eponin realized she was still alive, she left to rig up a travois to bring Xena here. I found out later she had found the wanna be and let him know how highly she thought of him. Then we headed back. We have her body, but what all happened to it, we may never know ... She had no recollection of us, of herself ... or ... Gabrielle."
There wasn't much left to say, but no one made any moves to depart. No one wanted to be alone. The Amazons sat in their thoughts and deliberated.
Candlemarks had passed when Ephiny made a gesture that it was time to leave by a simple statement.
"We all need some sleep. I think it's going to be a long day tomorrow. I would like everyone to keep half an eye on Gabrielle. I'm not sure what will happen when she fully comes to the realization that it's only Xena's body that's here, and what was done to it. She needs her friends around, until Xena comes back or not ..." Ephiny let the statement hang in the air. Walking over to Eponin she placed a hand on the big woman's shoulder.
"I probably don't have to say it, but thank you dear friend ... for everything." Eponin knew what the Queen meant, and she knew they would talk in depth later.
Turning, Ephiny added to Nazalon. "Send a message out and let the search parties know they can come home, their job is finished."
Ephiny turned to Jadax, the two headed for their room while the others departed the palace. Everyone heard Ephiny's last words, "... the rest is up to Xena."
"Are you OK?" Ephiny asked her lover. She could see the faraway look in the little scouts eyes as she finished unpacking her bags. She knew the trip had been hard and Jadax had to be exhausted.
Jadax looked up and slowly shook her head.
"Come here." The Queen wrapped her arms around a sobbing woman for the second time in a day. Ephiny said nothing she just held and rocked her. Jadax was not a warrior, she was a forest scout, the fastest forest scout Ephiny had ever seen. It was her speed that had finally gotten Jadax noticed by her Queen. But it had been her courage that had taken the regents heart. Warriors were used to battle and were used to battle wounds, her lover was not and Ephiny knew it.
The Queen held the taut, small body against her own. She buried her nose into Jadax's hair and gently kissed the crown of her head. After a little while Jadax relaxed, safe in Ephiny's arms, she finally spoke.
"It was awful. To know what they were doing, selling ... literally selling pain. We rode so fast to Visala. My eyes watered the whole way ... Ephiny smiled at that and kissed Jadax's head.
"I know we couldn't have covered the distance any faster, but when we arrived ... we saw ... " She stopped and steadied herself, "I'll never forget that sight Eph. I thought for sure we were too late. Xena's body was lying so still ... I thought she was dead."
Jadax stopped talking and nuzzled closer into Ephiny's chest. The Queen rubbed and kissed, trying to let her lover know it was ok.
"You're home now, you're here with me and I don't ever plan on letting you go. Not for a very long time," Ephiny smoothed away the hair on Jadax's forehead placing a sweet kiss, she stated softly,
"I'm very proud of you, you know! You made a promise to Gabrielle ... remember, and you did it. Not that I ever thought you wouldn't keep it, I just didn't know if you could."
In all that had happened Jadax had forgotten her promise, at the time it had seemed important. But now she had the time to reflect and she did feel better. Ephiny was sure she saw the little forest scout's chest expand ... a little.
Gabrielle could feel the warmth of the sun on her face. She couldn't believe she had slept through the morning, but when she opened her eyes she realized she hadn't. The heat she felt on her cheek was radiating from Xena's body. Gabrielle knew she was too hot, way too hot. Throwing back the covers she immediately released some of the heat.
Gabrielle gasped as she finally saw all of Xena's beaten body. All of the evil done to her was clearly evident in her injuries. Pushing the thoughts from her mind, she began wiping down the battered body. Starting at the legs, the cloth attempted to wipe away the fever that was trying to claim the warrior's life. Gabrielle was careful not to touch any wounds, and that was a chore in of itself.
At the top of Xena's legs, Gabrielle looked down at the dark nest of curly hair. She could see no obvious injuries there, of that she was very thankful.
Most of the heat was now coming from Xena's torso. Gabrielle had yet to see her wounded lover's back, the front was bad enough. The cuts being held together with sinew and thread littered Xena's body like leaves scattered in a fall wind. Ugly bruises of different colors covered the warrior's normally bronze body. Her skin was twisted with burns in all different sizes and stages of healing.
Trying to shut out what happened to her friend, Gabrielle continued rinsing and wiping down Xena's body. As hard as she tried Gabrielle still saw every wound, every injury, every portal of pain. She tried hard to concentrate on the chore at hand, trying not to think about who had done this and why. It didn't seem to be working. Every wound had its own distinctive size and shape, causing Gabrielle to begin to wonder; 'What had made this cut? Who had made this burn? Whose boot mark made this bruise?' She wondered what kind of animal had scarred her warrior, and who was the bastard who held the whip?
Gabrielle stopped, her emotions were running rampant. She knew she had to keep them in check. Xena needed her and she was not about to let her down. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, she rinsed out the cloth and began again. Rinse ... wipe, rinse and wipe. She could do this, she had to, she had to be strong. Quietly she talked herself through each small step. First the left side; up and down the mottle, purple rib cage, rinsing and wiping across the lacerations and abrasions crisscrossing her stomach. Careful not to touch the burn marks or the stitches, Gabrielle softly wiped away the heat. She noticed a scar, an old scar, above Xena's right breast. The memories flooded back of their first morning as lovers. She choked back a sob and then swallowed hard, she wondered if they would ever make love again.
'I have to believe, I have to believe', she repeated over and over. 'I have to believe one day, all these scars will heal, like the one on Xena's chest and then this too will be only a memory.' Her thoughts pushed her to finish the job.
First the left arm, it definitely had the least amount of injuries. Traveling down the arm to the left hand, wiping and rinse the whole way. Gabrielle stopped and stared at Xena's left hand. It took a moment to realize what had caused her to stop. It was Xena's hand. Only slightly swollen and the redness really didn't show in the dim light of the room. One finger nail was missing, but it was Xena's hand. Gabrielle didn't even try to stop the tears as they finally began to flow. She had realized it was the only thing that really looked like it belonged to the warrior princess, the woman she knew and loved.
The hand, the soft touch of that beautiful, strong hand. The blue veins gently surging through the bronze skin, carrying life throughout the warrior's body. Gabrielle reached and picked up Xena's hand, slowly wiping down the fingers she cradled with her own. Finally returning the hand back onto the bed, Gabrielle continued with her doctoring.
There wasn't much she could do with the right arm or hand. There was a splint covering most of the arm and a poultice laid over the inflamed hand. This was the hand she had tried to stitch up over a moon cycle ago. In this moment it seemed like a lifetime.
Gabrielle turned to rinse the cloth out, then returned to wipe Xena's face. Her hand stopped in mid air. Her eyes followed the ugly red passage making its way down the left side of Xena's face. Gabrielle's hand started to shake violently. She quickly dropped it into her lap. Trying to gain her courage, she rinsed out the cloth and tried again. Every time she got close, her hand began to shake. She couldn't do it. She couldn't bring herself to touch it. Slowly and dejectedly, she folded the cloth and placed it over Xena's forehead. Gently leaning over she placed a soft kiss on the right side of Xena's face. It was the first kiss in a long time. Gabrielle stood and left the room.
Slipping out the back door and walking with purpose, she felt her heels digging into the soft earth of the compound. Her hands fell from her side, opening and closing in rapid succession, as the Amazon Queen walked straight into Artemis' temple.
There were no guard and no priestess at this time of the morning, so Gabrielle was alone. All alone and that is how she felt. The rage and anger she had been suppressing started to boil. She looked up at the mantle that belonged to the Goddess, her eyes seething with anger.
"I came to you ...," she said angrily, "I came to you for help. What did you offer? ... Nothing ... Memory or no memory you should have found her. 'Where can you go that the Gods cannot find you?', You said ... What kind of bullshit is that?" Gabrielle's rage was out of control. All she had been through, waiting for some kind of sign as to where Xena had gone, was now at the surface.
"Do you know what she went through while we sat and waited for answers from you ... Look at her? She will never be the same ... AND YOU DID NOTHING! ... You asked for my help and I gave it willingly ... What did you do with that? ... NOTHING ... We went through death and Tartarus for each other ... We have bled and cried in each others' arms, we have loved and laughed together and NOT YOU OR ARES WILL SPLIT US APART! ... NOT NOW, NOT EVER ... I used to come to you Artemis. You were my Goddess and I am supposed to be YOUR CHOSEN ONE ..."
Gabrielle reached for the mantle of the Goddess Artemis, and with the strength of anger, tore it down. The heavy marble slammed to the ground with a thunderous crash. Gabrielle ignored the cloud of rising dust as she started to walk away. She stopped and looked at the statue of Artemis and whispered in quiet conviction.
"You did nothing Artemis and I can never forgive You for that ..." Gabrielle left the temple and returned to where she belonged, beside her warrior princess, vowing never to leave her side again.
With a flash of light Artemis appeared in her temple, her face was sad and solemn. She quietly walked over to her mantle. With a gesture of her fingers she returned it to its proper place. She ran her hand over the cold marble, staring down at the stone. The Goddess whispered softly.
"I cannot forgive myself, ... why should you forgive me Gabrielle ... Why should you?"
Gabrielle was awake the rest of the night, her mind battling between anger and love. She continued the ritual of rinsing and wiping Xena's battered body, never once stopping, as she slowly began to follow a pattern. Right leg, left leg, left side, left arm, stomach, and the chest. Right side. She would change the poultice on the right hand, watching closely for any change in the color. Then gently, she wiped Xena's neck as she watched the steady rhythm of beating blood, then up to the right side of her warrior's face only. Then she would exchange the folded cloth on Xena's forehead and start all over again and all the while whispering her love to the woman who laid before her.
In the early wee hours of the morning the tall, dark warrior began to moan and mutter. The words were a mixture of curses and gibberish. Some of them obviously directed toward the pain tearing through her body. The others were directed to the person, or persons, who had caused all the pain. Every twitch or flex of a muscle would heighten the audible noise coming through her cracked and dried lips. The bard knew Xena was reliving her nightmare, in her nightmares.
Gabrielle went directly to Xena's ear, trying desperately to easy the pain and suffering escaping through Xena's lips. Telling her wounded lover it was going to be ok, she was going to be all right.
"Everyone here wants you better. You're safe with friends and loved ones. No one here is going to hurt you." When Gabrielle uttered the last statement, the haunting green eyes flew wide opened with shock and despair. Her once mighty warrior princess whimpered, something Gabrielle had never seen or heard from her before. Gabrielle's hand went straight to her mouth but not before the words had escaped her lips,
"By the Gods Xena, what did they do to you?!"
Gabrielle carefully caressed Xena's flushed cheek and continued her reassuring renderings of affection and protection. The raven haired woman slowly became silent. Gabrielle could feel Xena's powerful body slowly beginning to relax, and she could feel herself doing the same. Though normally loving and very forgiving, Gabrielle was still seething with anger and revenge. Slowly, through sheer exhaustion, she began to head toward Morpheus. There in her dreams she could cause all her devastation and destruction, seeking out her need for revenge.
When the healer arrived at the bedroom door, she had slowly opened it, afraid of may have been waiting. She was happy just to see Xena breathing. Belinda didn't want to wake the sleeping little Queen, so as silently as she could, she began to check on all of Xena's injuries. There was no secret to the size of the love the warrior and the bard shared. Belinda knew if Xena had passed away in the night, Gabrielle would lose what little desire to live she had.
The healer thought she had been quiet, but Gabrielle still awoke. The bard quickly relaxed the protective feeling that had jarred her awake. Blinking and staring at the healer as she waited for Belinda to make a comment on Xena's condition.
"Her fever is down, not broken, but definitely down. That's good Gabrielle, really good ... I think I might have to open the wound on her hand though, it needs to be drained." The healer looked into Gabrielle's darkening green eyes.
"She is better though, you did well. I'm sure it was a long night for both of you."
Gabrielle nodded, her mind was rejoicing. 'She is better' was all she heard as it echoed through her body straight into her heart. Reaching for one of the extra blankets in the room, Gabrielle waved it out onto the floor, and much to the amazement of the healer, went right to sleep, next to the bed where her warrior princess slept.
Belinda quietly exited the room, not wanting to disturb either patient or protector. She went to wait for Eponin and Nazalon in the common room.
Nazalon and Eponin entered the common room together, heading in the direction of Xena's room. It was to be their first attempt at turning the tall warrior. They saw the healer waiting next to the fire and the two Amazons stopped short. Belinda quickly smiled to let them know it had been a good night, a long night for Gabrielle she added, but a good one. They all turned at the sound of the regent's bedroom door opening and out walked the Queen and her consort. After discussing with Ephiny and Jadax the condition of her patient, the healer turned her attentions to Eponin and Nazalon. She explained what all had to be done in order for them to safely turn Xena onto her stomach. Ephiny excused herself and headed to Xena and Gabrielle's room.
Ephiny slowly opened the door not wanting to awaken Gabrielle. Belinda had said she was up all night caring for Xena and was now asleep on the floor beside her companion. The Queen stuck her head into the room. Gabrielle was awake at the head of Xena's bed, placing a new cloth on the warrior's forehead.
"Good Morning, I hear our patient is doing better." Ephiny said, looking down at Xena. But when she raised her eyes to Gabrielle's, she was saddened. The green eyes had almost turned to grey. 'She can't keep doing this to herself,' thought the Queen.
"So how much rest did you get last night?"
Gabrielle didn't like the tone, but realized she didn't care. "As much as was needed."
"Eponin and Nazalon are on their way in to turn Xena. Why don't you come out to the common room and have a bite to eat with me while they're doing it?"
"No." The answer was simple and firmly stated. Ephiny knew that something had to be done.
"Come on you need some rest. You're not 100% either. It won't do either of you any good if you take ill."
"No, I'm not leaving Xena!"
Ephiny stood and looked at Gabrielle. She had left no room for discussion in either of her statements. Ephiny turned and left the room, she didn't feel like a Queen lately, no one seemed to be listening to her.
Gabrielle stood off to the side of the room watching Eponin and Nazalon attempting their first turn of Xena. Jadax was close by her side. Their size would be of no help to the warriors, as they went about the task. Jadax and Ephiny kept a close eye on Gabrielle, who had not put up much of an argument against the four women when they told her just to watch. She had refused to eat, but thankfully, thought Ephiny, she was drinking her tea. Turning the tall warrior over wasn't as bad as everyone thought it was going to be ... until they saw her back.
Gabrielle stared in horror as Jadax turned away. Eponin stood in silence while Ephiny and Nazalon were both equally mortified.
The long, vicious strokes went from her buttocks to her shoulders and crisscrossed in every evil direction. Some of the lashes were older and had scabbed over, but some were fresh and still seeping blood. All of them were red and angry, swollen with infection.
"Twenty-four," Nazalon mouthed the words to Ephiny.
Eponin could taste the bile in the back of her throat as her anger and rage rose from the pit of her stomach. The quiet warrior excused herself and left the room. Her angry footsteps could be heard, pounding their way out of the palace. She spoke to no one as she made her way to the barn. Eponin spent the rest of the day alone, on horseback, out in the forest, where no one could hear her scream.
The room was still quiet as Gabrielle floated toward the bed. Ephiny turned to look at Jadax, who nodded and turned Gabrielle's tea cup upside down. Ephiny nodded back and Jadax left the room. The Queen turned her attention back to her little friend. Gabrielle never felt the touch of Ephiny's hand on her arm. She slowly picked up the cloth and rung it out, before beginning to wipe down the back of Xena's right leg. Stopping when she reached the scarred back, she put down the cloth and picked up the salve the healer had left, and slowly and methodically began applying the ointment.
Ephiny was right behind her, 'almost too close,' thought Nazalon. She had seen the interaction between Jadax and the Queen and then the little scout left. Nazalon could see something was up. Just then, she saw Ephiny's hands reach out and snatch up Gabrielle just as she was about to topple onto Xena.
"What in Tar ...?"
"Just shut up and give me a hand." Ephiny said as she struggled with Gabrielle's limp body. They gently laid the bard on the floor.
"I'll get the healer." Nazalon said as she jumped to her feet.
"Don't bother. I already talked to her."
"Oh, so that's where Jadax went."
"No, Jadax went to get a cot out of the storage building."
"Then ... what?" Ephiny raised a hand to the bewildered warrior.
"She didn't pass out Nazalon. We drugged her."
"You WHAT!" Nazalon's mouth dropped.
"Look. I talked to Belinda this morning. The stress and strain Gabrielle has been under is too much." Nazalon quickly nodded in agreement.
"Then add to it doctoring Xena. No food and no sleep ... the healer agreed, either knock her out, so her body can rest, or wait until she passed out. In which case Belinda guessed to be sometime this afternoon. Well I don't have the time to walk around behind her all day, waiting to see when and where she was going to fall. So with a little help from Belinda, a little herb, a little root and some hot tea, ... you have a sleeping bard." Ephiny looked at Nazalon and smiled.
"Remind me never to drink tea with you," muttered Nazalon. "Don't you think she'll be a little mad when she wakes up and find out what you did?"
"Only if someone disobeys 'ANOTHER' direct order, and tells her." Ephiny stared straight into Nazalon's eyes. The warrior quickly understood Ephiny's direct and indirect statement.
"Understood ... My Queen." Nazalon knew her little ride out of the Amazon village had not been forgotten.
"Besides ...," Ephiny added, Belinda said there are no side effects, just a good rest, and something tells me we may need this little maneuver again." Ephiny stopped when she heard someone at the door.
Jadax opened the door, dragging a cot behind her. "It worked?"
Nazalon gently laid a sleeping Gabrielle into her new cot, which had been moved next to the bed. Ephiny said she would take the first shift, so Jadax and Nazalon quickly left.
It was the first time Ephiny had been this close to the wounded warrior. The horror of it all still hadn't registered. Keeping an eye on the sleeping form of Gabrielle, Ephiny began applying more salve to Xena's back and it slowly started to dissolve with the help of the Queen's falling tears.
It was late afternoon before Gabrielle began to stir. The sleepy eyes blinked up at Jadax, who was sitting by the window.
"I guess we don't have to ask if you were tired," said Jadax.
Gabrielle looked outside, dusk was very near.
"How long was I a sleep?" The bard looked down at the cot she was now lying on.
"Where did this come from?"
"To your first question, about 12 or 13 candlemarks, and to the second question, the storage building. I got it for you myself."
Gabrielle sat up and looked down at her warrior princess. "I don't even remember falling asleep ... How is she?"
"Well, you slept through the entire day. She's holding her own, thanks to you." Jadax smiled, the tea had worked. Gabrielle had no idea she had been drugged and she looked a lot better for their efforts.
The little scout got off the window seat and joined the Queen at the foot of Xena's bed.
"I'll leave you two alone for now. There's some food on the desk for you. Ephiny said if you didn't eat it, she would send Eponin in to help you. So my advice, eat something. Because one way or another she will get her way, believe me. We'll be back to turn her over in a while." With that the little forest scout was gone. Gabrielle walked to the desk, picked up some bread and cheese, and sat down beside Xena to eat her meal.
Though she wasn't hungry she finished off the food they had left her. Gabrielle rinsed out a cloth and began the ritual of Xena's wipe down, still trying to break the fever holding onto the warrior's body.
Two candlemarks later, everyone returned as promised to help turn Xena onto her back. It was much easier this time, though the sounds of moaning pain coming from the battered warrior disturbed them all. They knew what they were doing and now knew what to expect. Ephiny was happy to see Gabrielle had finally eaten something. Nazalon had asked her if she had any tea, she said no. The bard didn't notice the smiles sneaking around the room.
Once Xena was settled, everyone left Gabrielle with her wounded warrior. She still felt tired, but concentrated on the task at hand. It only took two full lengths of Xena's body wipe downs and Gabrielle was fast asleep at Xena's feet.
The bard was awoken by the sounds of moaning, Xena's moaning, and it was getting louder. Gabrielle began to talk softly and the moans instantly ceased. 'Can Xena hear me? Gabrielle raced to the left side of the bed to take a hold of Xena's good hand. Gabrielle's heart skipped a beat as she stared down at the hand in her own, Xena's hand. She burst out laughing, a smile returned happily to the place it loved to be. Putting the hand down, she moved quickly to the right-hand side of the bed. Still unable to deal with the left side of Xena face, she placed a gentle kiss on both Xena's right cheek and forehead. She ran from the room.
Bursting into the bedroom of a Queen and her consort can be a dangerous, if not an embarrassing thing to do. That thought never crossed Gabrielle's mind, as she started jumping onto the sleeping regents bed, unable to contain her laughter.
Ephiny and Jadax awoke with a jerk. At first unaware as to what was going on, Ephiny stared at Jadax. "Belinda said there were no side effects. "
"This looks like a major side effect to me, Ephiny!"
Ephiny and Jadax watched in amazement as Gabrielle laughed and jumped. Her face bursting with delight as she dropped on the Queen's bed, laughing hysterically.
Ephiny couldn't stand it any longer. "Gabrielle ... Gabrielle! What are you doing?" "It's Xena," she beamed.
Ephiny's heart stopped. Xena was dead and Gabrielle had lost her mind.
"Come on ... come see." Gabrielle bounced out of the room.
"Should I get anyone?" Jadax asked, looking at Ephiny with large, round eyes.
"No ... let them sleep. They'll all know soon enough." The two left their room following the hysterical bard.
Ephiny looked down at the pale body of her dead friend. Jadax was right behind her. Ephiny looked closer, trying to see past the laughing and dancing blond. Ephiny and Jadax both looked closer ... Xena was breathing. They looked to each another and then at Gabrielle. She stopped to look at the two of them.
"Isn't it great? Her fever ... It's gone. She's gonna make it Eph. She gonna make it."
Ephiny and Jadax stood and stared and then slowly started to smile.
She was struggling through the haze. Somewhere out there, she could hear screaming. The closer she got to it, the more it hurt. All she wanted to hear was that soothing voice. But the pain was too much, so she let herself go ... and she drifted back into the haze of her existence.
Everyone was happy the warrior princess's fever had broken. But no one mentioned the moans and screams that could be heard throughout the village, day and night, and no one said a word about the screams getting worse, they didn't have to. At the first sound or sign of anything, Gabrielle would be at her lover's side, touching any part of her body that wasn't injured. She always spoke in low soft tones, reassuring the horror stricken Xena. The tall warrior would slowly grow silently, as she slipped back into the dark recesses of her mind. There in her haze there was no pain and there was no memory.
Something was pulling at her, pushing her through the fog. It may have been safer but she knew she could no longer hide in the darkness. She gathered up her strength and fought through the pain. The struggle to survive was a testament to her unstoppable will. Her will to live, her desire to fight. Her need for revenge.
Later that evening, Nazalon and Eponin had just left, having turned Xena on her back. Gabrielle was standing at the dresser mixing a new batch of salve. She had grown accustomed to the smell of the healing paste, but it didn't stop her nose from wrinkling at the odor. She turned back to her patient and suddenly stopped. She felt a rush of emotions as all the blood drained from her face. Gabrielle almost dropped the bowl she held in her hands. Xena's scarred and bruised face was turned to her and the most beautiful icy blue eyes were staring back at her.
in Part III
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